Read an Excerpt
Emma Mayson wrenched on the parking brake and hoped her incorrigible Honda Civic wouldn't roll down the steep driveway, into the side of the multimillion-dollar lakefront house below. It would suck equally badly if her car hit the Jaguar parked in front of the garage. She yanked harder on the parking brake, making sure her souped-up little car wasn't going anywhere. Then she popped the hatchback and got out to fetch her buckets of cleaning supplies, sponge mop, broom, and other housecleaning miscellanea.
The house below was an example of Northwest Modernism, probably built in the 1960s by Roland Terry or one of his emulators. Horizontal planes were punctuated with wide gables that reminded her of Northwest Indian lodges, and under those gables and planes were walls of plate glass. Emma felt a nudge of respect for the person who had bought this house rather than one of the new McMansions or pseudo Mediterranean villas squatting like false royalty around the lake.
Someday she, too, might design the type of building that becomes a landmark in the decades to follow, her name synonymous with a new architectural style. Someday, she might design houses and buildings as remarkable as this one -- instead of cleaning them. They hadn't mentioned in graduate school that the market was flooded with aspiring architects, and that more than a year could go by before finding an internship position with an architecture firm.
A year in which to go through what remained of a small inheritance from one's grandmother, and to begin receiving repayment statements from one's student loan services.
She sighed and propped her broom and mop against the bumper. As she hoisted her canister vacuum out of the back, the wind tossed her dark ponytail across her face and into her lip gloss, where it stuck. She tried to pull it out and, distracted, bumped into the broom, which clattered to the pavement, knocking over a bucket. The bucket started to roll down the driveway, careening drunkenly toward the Jaguar with a peculiar determination, as if its whole white plastic life of janitorial humiliation had been waiting for this chance to take a chip off an expensive car.
As Emma yelped and raced after it she saw two men appear at the front door of the house.
"Shoot, shoot, shoot!" she said under her breath as the bucket rolled toward the car with murderous pleasure. She lunged and stopped it inches from the side of the Jaguar, but thudded against the side panel herself.
The bucket sat motionless and innocent, looking up at her with its wide-open brim, daring her to challenge it.
"Are you all right?"
The voice drew her gaze, and she met the hazel eyes of a thirtysomething man. He had brown hair and stood a little under six feet tall, broad-shouldered and trim. His regular features were unremarkable except for the intensity behind them: his precisely focused look pinned her like a bug to a board, demanding an answer.
Emma pushed away from the car and stood straight. "I'm fine, thanks."
His eyes swept over her as if looking for signs of damage and then came to rest again on her face. He didn't say anything more, and Emma felt an awkward tension building.
She smiled brightly. "No harm done! And the bucket chase woke me up; I didn't have my coffee this morning."
A hint of smile breathed across his lips.
The other man scooted past them to examine the panel of the car, rubbing the spot where Emma had hit. He was about the same age as Hazel Eyes, but shorter and with a thin, wiry build, "Kevin, knock it off. Your car's fine," Hazel Eyes said.
"I can't help it! I just know something's going to happen to it."
"I told you you should buy something older, with dents already in place. You're going to make yourself crazy trying to keep that thing perfect."
"It's a beautiful car," Emma said to Kevin.
His toothy smile revealed braces that glinted with sunlight. "There!" he said triumphantly, to his friend.
"He bought it as a chick-magnet," Hazel Eyes said.
Emma chewed her upper lip as a silence descended. They seemed to be waiting for her to comment, as if, as a representative of womanhood, she could settle the dispute. "Er...I'm sure it will impress a certain sort of woman."
"Ha! Gold diggers!" Hazel Eyes declared.
"Maybe," Emma admitted, and saw the crestfallen expression on Kevin's face. "And maybe it will attract women who are looking for a stable, established sort of man who will be able to afford sending their children to private schools."
"Country club matrons." Kevin scowled at his Jaguar, some of the love clearly lost.
"I forgot your name," Hazel Eyes said abruptly to Emma. "You're the one my sister hired for me, aren't you?"
She blinked, realizing this must be Russell Carrick -- the workaholic entrepreneur who, according to his sister, Pamela, had been sleeping on the same unwashed sheets for the past year and didn't know a toilet brush from a hair brush.
"Emma Mayson," she said, smiling at Pamela's rants on his bachelor habits. "Your new housekeeper."
"Russ Carrick. Pleasure to meet you." He gripped her hand firmly and Emma's heart skipped a beat as energy zinged straight from his hand down to her loins.
He scowled for reasons unknown and released her hand, then turned to his friend. "Kevin, I have to show Emma the house. I'll see you at the office inside an hour. Make sure everyone is ready for that conference call: I don't want any screw-ups this time."
Ooh, he was bossy. Emma's native sense of mischief reasserted itself, and she wondered what he was like in private, with a girlfriend, and whether she called him pet names like pookie or snookums. She had to bite back another smile, picturing his reaction to such endearments.
"It should go better this time," Kevin said, getting into his car.
"It has to." Russ turned back to Emma. "I'm afraid this is going to be quick."
Emma imagined him saying the same thing before having sex, and grinned.
Russ's eyes narrowed.
"Lead on," she said innocently and gestured toward the house.
Russ muttered something unintelligible and led the way.
Pamela, whose house Emma also cleaned, had told her that Russ was in software. Like two-thirds of Seattle, it seemed, with the other third divided between Boeing, Starbucks, and Amazon.com.
Russ stopped at the front door to flip open a keypad mounted on the outside wall. "Pamela did a background check on you and assures me that you have rock-solid references, so I'm going to give you the code to open the front door. I usually won't be here when you come."
"Okay." She listened to his terse yet thorough explanation of the locks and alarms and then at his prompting, stepped forward to try it herself. He stood close, watching her fingers tap in the sequences.
"Well done," he said brusquely when she finished without error.
She murmured a noise that could be construed as thanks only by someone not listening closely. She hated being praised for brainless tasks, as if she were a dog who had sat on command. It was one of her personal quirks -- or flaws -- and had caused her grandmother to scold her for having too much pride.
"Is there a problem?"
"No, no problem."
Russ gave her an assessing look, then seemed to dismiss the issue.
Emma followed him through the foyer and into the main part of the house. "Holy monkeys!" she gasped.
The foyer's dark matte stone floor turned into a gallery-like hall ten feet above the living room. The room below was thirty by fifty feet, and its long wall was two stories of glass that let in a sun-filled view of lake and sky. Even on a dark rainy day, the room would feel bright. The furnishings looked professionally chosen, in neutral tones of gray, tan, and pale blue, echoing the view beyond the glass. A dining table long enough for a castle's great hall dominated one end of the room, with bronze chandeliers hanging above it.
The room was stunning. Magazine-worthy. And except for one oversize chair with a rumpled throw blanket wedged into a corner and a stack of newspapers and several coffee mugs on the floor beside it, the room looked completely unused.
"I hope you don't expect me to do windows! Jeez, I'd never want to leave the house if I lived here; I'd just sit in front of the windows watching the water all day. Do you get tempted to do that?"
"I'm rarely here during the day. The kitchen is this way." He headed off to the right, down a flight of open stone stairs and through a door into a stainless steel and polished wood kitchen.
Again only one small area showed evidence of human life: the corner of the counter where a small bag of coffee sat before a built-in espresso maker. A cutting board with a knife and hints of pink grapefruit pulp was between it and the sink, which held three days' worth of cereal bowls and spoons.
"You're okay with emptying the dishwasher, aren't you?" he asked.
"Of course. Funny how no one likes putting away clean dishes, don't you think? Just like no one likes changing the toilet paper roll."
"I don't have time for it."
Okay, so he wasn't one for idle chatter. Emma mentally shrugged her shoulders.
She followed him through the house, listening with only half an ear, her eyes taking in the details both of his ass, and of the house. She was so tempted to lay her palm over one rounded cheek and give it a squeeze. When not evaluating his butt, she evaluated the feel and flow of the rooms, guessing at where the constraints of construction had forced
the architect to make less artistic choices, and admiring the places where form and function existed in elegant symbiosis.
Neither man nor house resembled his sister, Pamela, and her home, she with her frosted blond hair and her house with its warm -- albeit faux -- Mediterranean style and the scattered detritus of three small children.
"This is my room," Russ said, entering a bedroom with French doors leading onto a small deck.
It was obviously the master suite, and Emma wondered why he hadn't called it "my bedroom" or "the master bedroom," but "my room." Like a child who only has one room to call his own, instead of the entire house.
The only pieces of furniture were a queen-size mahogany canopy bed with green velvet curtains tied back at the posts; a bench at the end of the bed, covered with discarded clothing; and a white iron bedside table that looked like it had been pirated from a set of patio furniture. The articulated metal lamp clamped to it would have fit better on a college student's desk than in a multimillion dollar house like this.
"I didn't have time for the decorator to finish this room," Russ explained, apparently realizing that the bedroom demanded an excuse for its condition. "She kept asking me to make choices. Showing me pieces of fabric and photos of chairs. Doorknobs. Area rugs. I didn't have time for it."
"Ah." Emma was beginning to get an idea of just how important time was to this man, although he didn't seem in a hurry to finish their tour. Instead, he stood frowning at the unsatisfactory space before him.
"Do you want the sheets changed once or twice a week?"
"Once, I suppose. I don't know. How often do people change them?" he asked, turning to her.
She shrugged. "Depends on your personal taste and your..."
He stared at her, and for a long moment she was afraid she'd crossed a line. Then his gaze brushed quickly down her body before he turned his attention back to the half-furnished room. "No time for that, either."
He was either one heck of a busy man, or he had some serious problems with his priorities.
Not that she was one to talk, Emma thought. It had been a year and a half since she'd had sex, and there were times she thought she'd happily tackle any passing young male and put him to the good use that evolution intended. But evolution had also made her too picky and cautious to act on the urge; her health and welfare demanded more care than one-night stands with strangers, however tempting the notion.
Still, there were many nights when she yearned for an anonymous man to take her six ways from Sunday and not stop until she was too exhausted to even sigh.
Despite her ravening urges, though, Emma had set the pursuit of serious romance aside while she hunted for a position with an architecture firm. She wanted to be actively moving forward on her career path before she got involved with a man, since she wanted that man to be someone who wanted to be involved with an ambitious professional woman -- not a man who wanted to be involved with a housekeeper. An educated housekeeper, a housekeeper with dreams, but a housekeeper nonetheless.
In her vision of herself there was Present Emma: the woman she was now; and there was Super Emma: the woman she intended to become. Super Emma had her hair professionally trimmed once a month, her makeup subtly and flawlessly applied, her clothes chosen with conservatively arty taste, and she was involved with a cultured, intelligent, sophisticated man who treated her like the precious flower she occasionally wanted to pretend to be.
"I'm sorry about the smell," Russ said, jostling Emma out of her reverie. They were in the master bath. "It's bad, I know." He was swiftly tossing soggy clothes off the top of the hamper into a laundry basket.
Emma wrinkled her nose as the odor of old sweat hit her nostrils, reminding her of high school gym. "I assume you'll want me to wash those."
"These? Hell, no." His intimidating air was replaced by embarrassment. "I don't expect you to touch these."
Emma moved closer, curious. "What happened to them?"
"Nothing. They're my Puck Skins."
"Long underwear for ice hockey. And my towels and stuff. I know they're horrible; don't touch them."
"You play hockey?"
He pulled a towel off a bar and spread it over the top of the laundry basket. "In an adult amateur league. It's a good workout."
Emma looked again at his nicely rounded ass. "I'll bet it is."
Maybe Russ Carrick's life wasn't so unbalanced after all, if he made time for sports. But she wouldn't have guessed that someone like him would play ice hockey; wasn't that for jocks?
And what was with the embarrassment over his sweaty gear?
Emma followed him through the rest of the house, growing intrigued with her new employer. She didn't see any signs of a woman, or of a male lover either, if that was where his interests lay -- although she doubted it. There was no extra toothbrush, no signs of cooking meals for someone, no photo of the happy couple, no special effort to make the home inviting for a romantic visitor. No package of condoms on the patio furniture nightstand, and only one pillow on the bed, the others thrown into a pile on the floor. That, more than anything, confirmed that Russell Carrick was alone in this romantic world.
Maybe he didn't want to add the distraction of a woman into his busy life. A few minutes in the shower every morning and his needs could be met by Mr. Hand.
Or maybe his standards were too high. From his comments to his friend Kevin, it didn't sound like he had an overwhelmingly positive view of women.
Maybe he had loved and lost. Or loved and been royally screwed over. Divorced, and still not over the pain?
"Any questions?" he asked abruptly as they returned to their starting point in the foyer.
Dozens, but none she could ask.
Maybe he was single because women found him unapproachable. If it hadn't been for his reaction to his dirty Puck Skins, Emma would have wondered if the guy was capable of emotion.
"I can also pick up groceries for you or cook meals to be reheated later, if that's a service you're interested in," she offered on the spur of the moment, inspired by his barren kitchen.
"Is that by the hour?"
"Either that, or we could work out a flat weekly rate," she improvised. She didn't shop or cook for anyone else; hadn't even suggested it. But suddenly, looking at Russ and his empty house and empty kitchen, she wanted to be there for longer than it took to scrub out a shower and vacuum.
Besides, she'd rather grocery shop and cook than clean. If he went for it, she might be able to drop one or two of her other houses.
He stared out the windows on the other side of the house, contemplating the offer. Doubtless he was doing an in-depth cost-benefits analysis.
It must be his intensity that she found attractive -- besides that skater's butt and the hazel eyes. He didn't seem angry or bad tempered so much as extremely focused. He was probably difficult to work for, demanding perfection yet unwilling to repeat or expand upon directions.
He badly needed a woman in his life. Someone to draw out his softer side, his emotional side, and nurture it.
"You're a decent cook?" he asked.
"My mother trained me from the time I was old enough to hold a spoon. Do you have any favorite foods?"
"Temperature, or spiciness?"
"Both," he said with laconic precision. "I'll think about your offer and leave you a note on the kitchen counter with my answer, the next time you come."
"Okay. No pressure, I was just offering."
"Of course there's no pressure. I never do things I don't want to."
"Well, all right, then." Emma was suddenly anxious for him to leave, her offer to cook hanging in the air like an unwelcome sexual advance. "I think I can take it from here, if you want to get going."
He flicked a look at his watch. "Not want to, but need to." He took his wallet out of his back pocket and opened it, taking out three fifties and handing them to her. "This is your rate, isn't it?"
Emma found taking the money the hardest part of the job, and fought to keep a professional smile on her face. She wanted the money. She needed the money. She didn't know what it was inside her that didn't want to take cash directly from someone's hand.
Undoubtedly it was more of that pride that her grandmother had scolded her for.
"Thanks," she said stiffly, stuffing the bills in her back pocket. "You can leave it on the kitchen counter for me in the future. Here's my contact info," she said, handing him a business card printed off her computer. "I can send you a weekly or monthly invoice if you'd prefer."
He raised a brow. "Invoices are paper trails. You report all your income to the IRS?"
"Yes." She shrugged. "My friends say I shouldn't, that it would make financial sense to cheat a little, and I'd never be caught, but..."
He cocked his head slightly, looking at her. "But you aren't going to sell your soul for a couple bucks."
She smiled. "I'd prefer it to go for a much higher price."
Like a toehold at a top architecture firm, if someone dangled such a temptation before her. "I haven't yet heard an offer that would tempt me." Her gaze unexpectedly locked with his. Silence pulled between them, and Emma felt a sudden panic thumping at her heart.
"Well, I -- " He stepped back.
"You've got -- " she said at the same time, the both of them speaking over each other, " -- to get going," Emma finished.
"Yes." He pulled a card out of his own wallet and gave it to her. "My cell number is on here. Call me if you have any questions."
"It was good to meet you," he said, holding out his hand. "I hope this works out well for us both."
"Yes, me too," Emma said, gingerly taking his hand. She felt the slight roughness of his palm slide along her own. His hand closed around hers and an image came to mind of him cupping his hand someplace much lower and more intimate. Liquid warmth ran through her thighs and her inner muscles clenched, her eyes slowly closing.
Oh, Lord. He'd better leave before she pushed down her jeans and demanded that he take her, now!
Then his hand released hers and he moved away, heading toward the kitchen and the door to the garage. Emma went back out the front door to fetch her things and to watch as the garage door rose and his black car silently pulled out, no sound of a motor detectable.
A hybrid. He drove an electric hybrid. Not just any hybrid, though: it was a Lexus GS 450h, and a pretty penny it must have cost. It was a fitting, eco-chic choice for a software millionaire in the Pacific Northwest, this most environmentally aware of regions.
Russ Carrick must want to attract women who knew which plastics could be put in the recycling bin. Or maybe he didn't give a soybean curd for what other people thought. She'd bet on the latter.
Emma waved good-bye, and a shadowy movement suggested he might be waving back. Then he was gone and she was alone with his empty, unlived-in house and her cleaning supplies.
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Cach