Read an Excerpt
Joshua Cole heard the unfamiliar sound and felt a quiver of pure feeling snake up and down his spine. So rare was that particular sensation that it took him a split second to identify it.
He was a man who prided himself on moving forward, rather than back, in any kind of stressful situation. It had turned out to be a strategy for success in the high-powered world he moved in.
Joshua hit the intercom that connected his office to his secretary's desk in the outer lair. His office underscored who he had become with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlooked the spectacular view of Vancouver, downtown skyscrapers in the foreground, majestic white-capped mountains as the backdrop.
But if his surroundings reflected his confidence, at this moment his voice did not. "Tell me that wasn't what I thought it was."
But the sound came again, through his closed, carved, solid walnut door. Now it was amplified by the intercom.
There was absolutely no mistaking it for anything but what it was: a baby crying, the initial hesitant sobs building quickly to strident shrieking.
"They say you are expecting them," said his receptionist, Amber, her own tone rising, in panic or in an effort to be heard above the baby, he couldn't quite be sure.
Of course he was expecting them. Just not today. Not here. Children, and particularly squalling babies, would be as out of place in the corporate offices of the company he had founded as a hippo at Victoria's Empress Hotel's high tea.
Joshua Cole had built his fortune and his company, Sun, around the precise lack of that sound in each of his exclusive adult-only resorts.
His office replicated the atmosphere that made the resorts so successful: tasteful, expensive, luxurious, no detail overlooked. The art was original, the antiques were authentic, the rugs came from the best bazaars in Turkey.
The skillful use of rich colors and subtle, exotic textures made Joshua Cole's office mirror the man, masculine, confident, charismatic. His desk faced a wall that showcased his career rise with beautifully framed magazine covers, Forbes, Business, Business Weekly.
But this morning, as always, his surroundings had faded as he intently studied what he hoped would become his next project. The surface of his desk was littered with photos of a rundown resort in the wilderness of the British Columbia interior.
He'd had that feeling as soon as he'd seen the photos. Moose Lake Lodge could be turned into an adventure destination for the busy young professionals who trusted his company to give them exactly what they wanted in a vacation experience. His clients demanded grown-up adventure plus five-star meals, spalike luxuries and all against the backdrop of a boutique hotel atmosphere.
The initial overture to Moose Lake Lodge had not gone particularly well. The owners were reluctant to talk to him, let alone sell to him. He had sensed they were wary of his reputation as a playboy, concerned about the effect of a Sun resort in the middle of cottage country. The Moose Lake Lodge had run as a family-oriented lakeside retreat since the 1930s, and the owners had sentimental attachments to it.
But sentiment did not pay the bills, and Joshua Cole did his homework. He knew buyers were not lining up for the place, and he was already strategizing his next move. He would up his offer tantalizingly. He'd convince the Baker family he could turn Moose Lake Lodge into a place they would always feel proud of. He'd visit them personally, win them over. Joshua Cole was very good at winning people over.
And he was passionate about this game, in all its stages: acquiring, renovating, opening, operating.
To that end Joshua had a resort in the Amazon jungle that offered rainforest canopy excursions, and one on the African savannah featuring photo safaris. And, of course, he still had his original small hotel in Italy, in the heart of Tuscany, where it had all started, offering a very grown-up winery and tasting tours.
Most recently Sun had opened a floating five-star destination for water lovers off the Kona Coast, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Water lovers and kid haters.
Well, not all kid haters. Some of his best clients were just busy parents who desperately needed a break from the demands of children.
As if that sound didn't explain it all. Even his own sister, Melanie, domestic diva that she had become, had accepted his offer to give her and her hubbie a much-needed break at the newly opened Sun in Kona.
No wonder, with a kid whose howls could register off the decibel chart.
How could his niece and nephew be here? His crammed calendar clearly said tomorrow. The plane was arriving at ten in the morning. Joshua planned, out of respect to his sister, to meet the plane, pat his niece on the head and make appropriate noises over the relatively new baby nephew, hopefully without actually touching him. Then he was planning on putting them, and the nanny they were traveling with, in a limo and waving goodbye as they were whisked off to a kid-friendly holiday experience at Whistler.
Holiday for Mom and Dad at the exclusive Kona Sun; holiday for the kids; Uncle Josh, hero-of-the-hour.
The baby screamed nonstop in the outer office, and Joshua's head began to throb. He'd given his sister and brother-in-law, Ryan, the adult-getaway package after the birth of the baby, stunned that his sister, via their Web cam conversations, always so vital in the past, could suddenly look so worn-out. Somehow, he hadn't exactly foreseen this moment, though he probably should have when Melanie had started worrying about her kids within seconds of agreeing to go to the Kona Sun for a week. Naturally, her brother, the hero, had volunteered to look after that, too.
He should have remembered that things never went quite as he planned them when his sister was involved.
"What is going on?" Joshua asked in a low voice into his intercom. His legendary confidence abandoned him around children, even ones he was related to.
"There's a, um, woman here. With a baby and another, er, small thing."
"I know who they are," Joshua said. "Why is the baby making that noise?"
"You know who they are?" Amber asked, clearly feeling betrayed that they hadn't wandered in off the street, thereby making disposing of them so much easier!
"They aren't supposed to be here. They're supposed to be
"Miss! Excuse me! You can't just go in there!"
But before Amber could protect him, his office door opened.
For all the noise that baby was making, Joshua was struck by a sudden sensation of quiet as he pressed the off button on the intercom and studied the woman who stood at the doorway to his enclave.
Despite the screaming red-faced baby at her bosom, and his four-year-old niece attached to the hem of her coat, the woman carried herself with a calm dignity, a sturdy sea vessel, innately sure of her abilities in a storm, which, Joshua felt, the screaming baby qualified as.
His niece was looking at him with dark dislike, which took him aback. Like cats, children were adept at attaching themselves to those with an aversion, and he had spent his last visit to his sister's home in Toronto trying to escape his niece's frightening affection. At that time the baby had been an enormous lump under his sister's sweater, and there had been no nanny in residence.
The distraction of the baby and his niece's withering look aside, he was aware of feeling he had not seen a woman like the one who accompanied his niece and nephew for a very long time.
No, Joshua Cole had become blissfully accustomed to perfection in the opposite sex. His world had become populated with women with thin, gym-sculpted bodies, dentist-whitened teeth, unfurrowed brows, perfect makeup, stunning hair, clothing that breathed wealth and assurance.
The woman before him was, in some ways, the epitome of what he expected a nanny to be: fresh-scrubbed; no makeup; sensible shoes; a plain black skirt showing from underneath a hideously rumpled coat. One black stocking had a run in it from knee to ankle. All that was missing was the umbrella.
She was exactly the type of woman he might dismiss without a second look: frumpalumpa, a woman who had given up on herself in favor of her tedious child-watching duties. She was younger than he would have imagined, though, and carried herself with a careful dignity that the clothes did not hide, and that did not allow for easy dismissal.
A locket, gold and fragile, entirely out of keeping with the rest of her outfit, winked at her neck, making him aware of the pure creaminess of her skin.
Then Joshua noticed her hair. Wavy and jet black, it was refreshingly uncolored, caught back with a clip it was slipping free from. The escaped tendrils of hair should have added to her generally unruly appearance, but they didn't. Instead they hinted at something he wasn't seeing. Something wilder, maybe even exotic.
Her eyes, when he met them, underscored that feeling. They were a stunning shade of turquoise, fringed with lashes that didn't need one smidgen of mascara to add to their lushness. Unfortunately, he detected his niece's disapproval mirrored in her nanny's expression.
Her face might, at first glance, be mistaken for plain.
And yet there was something in itfreshness, perhapsthat intrigued.
It was as if, somehow, she was real in the world of fantasy that he had so carefully crafted, a world that had rewarded him with riches beyond his wildest dreams, and which suddenly seemed lacking in something, and that something just as suddenly seemed essential.
He shrugged off the uncharacteristic thoughts, put their intrusion in his perfect world down to the yelps of the baby. He had only to look around himself to know he was the man who already had everything, including the admiration and attention of women a thousand times more polished than the one in front of him.
"My uncle hates us," his niece, Susie, announced just as Joshua was contemplating trying out his most charming smile on the nanny. He was pretty confident he was up to the challenge of melting the faintly contemptuous look from her eyes. Pitting his charm against someone so wholesome would be good practice for when he met with the Bakers about acquiring their beloved Moose Lake Lodge.
"Susie, that was extremely rude," the nanny said. Her voice was husky, low, as real as she was. And it hinted at something tantalizingly sensual below the frumpalumpa exterior.
"Of course I don't hate you," Joshua said, annoyed at being put on the defensive by a child who had plagued him with xoxo notes less than a year ago, explaining to him carefully each x stood for a kiss and each o stood for a hug. "I'm terrified of you. There's a difference."
He tried his smile.
The nanny's lips twitched, her free hand reached up and touched the locket. If a smile had been developing, it never materialized. In fact, Joshua wasn't quite sure if he'd amused her or annoyed her. If he'd amused her, her amusement was reluctant! He was not accustomed to ambiguous reactions when he dealt with the fairer sex.
"You hate us," Susie said firmly. "Why would Mommy and Daddy need a holiday from us?"
Then her nose crunched up, her eyes closed tight, she sniffled and buried her face in the folds of the nanny's voluminous jacket and howled. The baby seemed to regard that as a challenge to make himself heard above his sister.
"Why, indeed?" he asked dryly. The children had been in his office approximately thirty seconds, and he already needed a holiday from them.
"She's just tired," the nanny said. "Susie, shush."
He was unwillingly captivated by the hand that she rested lightly on Susie's head, by the exquisite tenderness in that faint touch, by the way her voice calmed the child, who quit howling but hiccupped sadly.
"I think there's a tiny abandonment issue," the nanny said, "that was not in the least helped by your leaving us stranded at the airport."
He found himself hoping that, when he explained there had been a misunderstanding, he would see her without the disapproving furrow in her forehead.
"There seems to have been a mix-up about the dates. If you had called, I would have had someone pick you up."
"I did call." The frown line deepened. "Apparently only very important people are preapproved to speak to you."
He could see how all those security measures intended to protect his time and his privacy were just evidence to her of an overly inflated ego. He was probably going to have to accept that the furrowed brow line would be permanent.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said, which did not soften the look on her face at all.
"Are those women naked?" Susie asked, midhiccup, having removed her head from the folds of her nanny's coat. Unfortunately.
He followed her gaze and sighed inwardly. She was staring at the Lalique bowl that adorned his coffee table. Exquisitely crafted in blue glass, and worth about forty thousand dollars, it was one of several items in the room that he didn't even want his niece to breathe on, though to say so might confirm for the nanny, who already had a low opinion of him, that he really did hate children.
He realized that the bowl, shimmering in the light from the window, was nearly the same shades of blue as the nanny's eyes.
"Susie, that's enough," the nanny said firmly.
"Well, they are naked, Miss Pringy," Susie muttered, unrepentant.
Miss Pringy. A stodgy, solid, librarian spinster kind of name that should have suited her to a T, but didn't.
"In your uncle's circles, I'm sure that bowl would be considered appropriate decor."
"And what circles are those?" Joshua asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
"I had the pleasure of reading all about you on the plane, Mr. Cole. People to Watch. You are quite the celebrity it would seem."
Her tone said it all: superficial, playboy, hedonist. Even before he'd missed her at the airport, he'd been tried and found guilty.
Joshua Cole had, unfortunately, been discovered by a world hungry for celebrity, and the fascination with his lifestyle was escalating alarmingly. It meant he was often prejudged, but so far he'd remained confident of his ability to overcome misperceptions.
Though he could already tell that Miss Pringy, of all people, looked as if she was going to be immune to his considerable charisma. He found himself feeling defensive again.
"I'm a businessman," he said shortly, "not a celebrity."
In fact, Joshua Cole disliked almost everything about his newly arising status, but the more he rejected media attention, the more the media hounded him. That article in People to Watch had been unauthorized and totally embarrassing.
World's Sexiest Bachelor was a ridiculous title. It perturbed him that the magazine had gotten so many pictures of him, when he felt he'd become quite deft at protecting his privacy.