Read an Excerpt
Carlene Daniels parked her car in the circular drive in front of the most imposing ranch house she'd ever seen.
Being from oil-rich Texas, she'd seen a few too not to mention the beautiful homes built locally by millionaire celebs looking for anonymous vacation homes.
Built in the California Mission style, this home's three-story stucco walls gleamed pristinely in the bright sunshine, the red-tiled roof and wrought-iron accents looking elegant rather than historic. She wondered who lived here. Typical for the area, the ad had given no particulars about the family she would be working for. If she would be working for them.
Sunshine Springs was not a hotbed for career opportunities, especially for an ex-schoolteacher turned cocktail waitress. But it was time to stop hiding behind spandex miniskirts and her job at the bar. Her experiences with Grant Strickland had made her realize that.
She'd left Texas in pain and determined to leave her old life behind completely. When the only opening available when she arrived in town had been working in a bar, she'd taken it because in no way would it remind her of the job and the kids she'd loved so much back home. But memories didn't go away with a change in setting and she wanted her life back.
Carlene opened her car windows a crack and put a sunshade on the dash to protect the car from turning into a portable oven before sliding out of the driver's seat and slamming the door. Swinging the wrought-iron gate open to the entryway, she slipped inside and rang the doorbell. After a couple of minutes and no answer, she rang it again.
They were advertising for a housekeeper after all. If the bell hadn't been answered by now, it probably hadn't been heard.
The door swept open. "What's the rush?"
The husky, masculine demand caught her completely off guard. Oh, wow this man was totally yummy. Black hair, cobalt-blue eyes and a tall, droolworthy muscular body.
"I uh "
The piercing blue gaze traveled from her hair to her toes and back up again. Then it made a return journey, leaving chills in its wake. Wow again.
She knew what she wanted him to see: a woman from another time in her life, before she'd taken the job as bartender at the Dry Gulch. A time when her clothes and manners matched the woman she was on the inside.
Instead of the revealing outfits she wore to work nowadays, she had donned a long straight denim skirt, a loose white scooped-neck top, and white sandals. Flats. After months of wearing nothing but spiked heels that added inches to her diminutive height, these shoes almost felt as if she were wearing bedroom slippers.
The only concession she'd made to the glitz she'd grown accustomed to was the silver and turquoise belt around her hips. Even her normally riotous brown curls had been tamed in a loose French braid and she'd left off everything but the barest of makeup. She looked exactly like what she wanted to convey: a nice girl. Non-threatening in the feminine stakes and perfect for the role of housekeeper.
She stifled a cynical snort at the thought. Even her oversized top could not disguise her generous curves. Curves that had been causing her trouble since the sixth grade. And she was pretty sure it was those curves that had caused the second once over and small tilt at the corner of the man's otherwise rather grim lips.
However, she was darned if she was going to have breast reduction surgery, as her mother had suggested in order to make herself appear more respectable. She liked her figure. She just didn't like the things it made people assume about her character. An old familiar ache tried to work its way to the surface and she forced it back down.
That part of her life was over. She wasn't going to let it dictate her present any longer and she sure as shootin' wasn't going to let it dictate her future.
"You Carlene Daniels?"
She nodded, experiencing an odd inability to speak.
"I'm Win Garrison. Expected someone older."
"So did I." The words were out before she even realized she was going to say them.
She'd set this interview up with the former housekeeper. The woman had spoken little English, adding no further details about the family she was leaving behind than the ad had given. All Carlene knew was that Rosa's last day had been yesterday and that she, Carlene, had an interview for the position of housekeeper with Rosa's former employers today.
However, Carlene had heard of Win's ranch, the Bar
G. Who hadn't? Only it had never occurred to her that the owner of a ranch that bred free-range mustangs, not to mention having the most prestigious thoroughbred horse breeding and training program this side of the Rockies, would be younger than fifty. Win Garrison was maybe thirty, but certainly not much older.
Making no effort to respond to her comment, he turned around and started walking down the hall, clearly expecting her to follow him. "I'll interview you out in the courtyard."
She walked behind him, cataloging his attributes like an inventory control clerk and powerless to focus her attention elsewhere. Despite his obvious wealth, Win's clothes were that of a working cowboy. His long legs were encased in a pair of jeans washed to a comfortable, faded softness that clung to his backside with almost indecent snugness. His ebony hair brushed the collar of the dark T-shirt that rippled with his muscles as he walked.
The man was too hot for Carlene's peace of mind. Maybe this job was not such a good idea but hand-tooled boots clicked on the tile floor ahead of her drawing her inescapably toward a future as uncertain as the past she'd left behind.
Where was his wife? Why would he conduct the interview for a housekeeper and cook?
Win led her through the entrance hall to another interior hallway that surrounded the courtyard. An intelligent concession to central Oregon's cold winters, she thought. They went outside through one set of four sliding glass doors placed in the walls of windows that faced the courtyard from the house. She followed him to a large brick patio and couldn't help but admire the beautifully kept foliage along the way. Small shrubs and patches of grass, broken by stone pathways leading to the house, surrounded a two-tiered cement fountain. "It's lovely."
He moved forward and pulled out a chair from the wrought-iron patio set. She sat down.
"Want anything to drink?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine, thanks."
He nodded and sat across from her.
When he didn't immediately begin asking questions, she decided to ask a few of her own. "Mr Garrison, I'm afraid I have almost no information regarding you and your family.When I called on the ad in the paper and spoke to your housekeeper, she told me little more than that she planned to be gone as of yesterday. Do you have children? Will Mrs Garrison wish to interview me as well?"
It made her nervous to have to go through a two-interview process for the job of housekeeper, but she would survive. It just meant that much longer before she knew whether or not she had the position. What she really wanted to ask was if there had been a lot of other applicants.
He leaned back in his chair, his boots scraping on the stone tile. "No."
No? No, what? She smiled faintly. "Would you care to expand on that a little?"
"No kids. No wife. No other interview."
She wasn't sure if she was relieved or worried by that bit of news. "Then perhaps you would like to commence with this one?"
His eyes narrowed. "You sure you wouldn't like to do it? You seem to be doing fine so far."
Crud. It was the teacher's instincts coming out again. She would have thought, after all this time out of the classroom, she'd have no problem treating adults differently than the children she used to work with. But then a lot of times patrons at the bar needed the same kind of handling.
She tried another smile. "Um okay. We can get the rest of my questions out of the way first. Is this a live-in position?"
She managed to bite back a sigh of relief. The job of live-in housekeeper to a man as good-looking as the one before her was rife with the potential for gossip. The last thing she wanted was any more gossip. "What are the hours, then?"
"Rosa worked from seven-thirty to four."
Carlene nodded. "What exactly do the duties entail?"
He frowned and shrugged.
She stared at him in shock. "You don't know?"
"Why do you think I need a housekeeper? It's the house stuff. I don't want to have to worry about it. A cleaning service comes in a few times a week. Rosa took care of setting that up."
Great. His Spanish-speaking housekeeper had set up the cleaning service which meant that the maids probably spoke Spanish as well. She could hope they were bilingual because her college French wasn't going to do her a lot of good here.
"What else did Rosa do?"
Win's frown deepened. "I told you I'm not sure. I run my ranch and the stables. She ran the house."
"And that's what you want me to do run the house?"
He nodded, almost smiling. "Yes."
"Did Rosa cook all your meals?"
"Yes. Both for me and the hands."
"Okay." Now they were getting somewhere. "Did she make your bed?" Oh, nuts why had she asked that? Not that she didn't need to know, but she really didn't need to be thinking about bed and this man in the same sentence.
But Win looked as if he was thinking. "The service only comes in maybe three times a week my bed is made every night when I climb into it, the towels and such are gone from the bathroom too. Yes guess she made my bed."
"And did the laundry." Not to mention a pile of domestic stuff that Carlene was quickly coming to realize Win never even thought about.
Must be nice to be rich enough to leave all those details to someone else.
"It sounds like you want to hire a wife," she quipped.
He didn't smile at her small joke. Instead, his brows drew together in his fiercest frown yet. "The last thing I want is a wife, hired or otherwise. If you've got any ideas in that direction, we might as well part company right now."
She experienced an odd combination of amusement and anger at his words. Amusement that anyone could be this blunt and anger that he would assume she was angling for such a thing.
Okay, so she had come to the conclusion that she wanted the husband, the white picket fence and the two point five children playing in the yard after the last decent guy she dated ended up married to someone else. And she wanted that yard well manicured, not full of rusty automobile parts. The guys she met at the Gulch had not been candidates for the "two point five kids and white picket fence" scenario. They were generally interested in one thing and, with her figure, they expected to get it.
But there was no way that Win Garrison could know about her secret dreams and she certainly hadn't implied she was auditioning him for the role of husband in them.
"I'm here to apply for the position of housekeeper, not wife. Furthermore, I'm certainly not interested in marriage to a man who thinks monosyllabic replies pass for communication and rudeness is socially acceptable behavior. Don't worry. If I were to take the job of your housekeeper, your unmarried status would remain perfectly safe."
"Good." He looked satisfied, her insults seeming to go right over his head. "Then we can finish the interview."
She stood up. "I don't think that's a good idea, Mr Garrison." That she was using his rudeness as an excuse to get away from a man she was far too attracted to was not a thought she wanted to contemplate at the moment. "Thank you for your time, but I think it's best if I leave."
There had to be another job she could get that would get her out of the Dry Gulch and maybe make her application to teach in the Sunshine Springs school district a little more appealing. Just because this was the first good prospect she'd seen in the two weeks since she started looking, didn't mean it was the only possibility. "Sit down, Carlene, and call me Win."
"No, really. I need to go." She turned to leave.
But his voice stopped her. "I said sit down." His tone made the quietly spoken command more intense than shouting could have.
She turned back to face him. He smiled and her stomach dipped and that was so not good. "If you can't follow one simple direction, we're going to have a pretty rough working relationship."
Frowning, she remained standing. "I don't think we can have a working relationship at all, Mr Garrison."
"Why? Because I sometimes talk in monosyllable?"
"No. Because you are rude and I don't work well with rude people." It was the truth. She'd gotten chewed out more than once at the Dry Gulch for taking a bad-mannered customer to task for their behavior.
"If I apologize, will you finish the interview?"
She didn't think he was the kind of man that apologized often. "It depends."
"On why you were discourteous to begin with."
"What exactly did you consider the discourtesy, if you don't mind me asking? My one-word replies or my warning?"
She felt herself blush because she'd been rude too. Insulting even and it hadn't gone over his head. He'd simply opted not to make an issue of it.
She sighed. "The warning. Most women would not find your assumption that they are looking at you as a potential mate on such short acquaintance flattering."
Even as she said the words, she felt silly. She was taking them far too personally. Really.
His cynical laugh didn't make her feel any better. "Honey, I'm a rich man with a lifestyle a lot of people covet. A fair number of women would consider marriage a nice way to ensure they share it. I learned a long time ago to make my lack of interest in marriage clear from the beginning, no matter what relationship between me and the woman." He certainly wasn't talking in single syllables right now.
"You mean you warn all your dates and hands the same way?"
"Yes. I don't have any women working the Bar G right now, but the female vet got her warning the first time she came out to check the horses."
"It's like a religion with you," she said, a little awed by his vehemence.
He sat up, planting his booted feet securely under him. "You could see it that way. You sure talk fancy for a housekeeper."
But not for a high school English teacher with a degree in French literature, she thought. "Is that a strike against me?"
"I don't know. Why don't you sit down and we'll discuss it?"
He smiled again and she decided that she preferred it when he frowned. His smile was entirely too sexy and the last thing she needed was to think of her employer, particularly this one, as sexy in any way. He wasn't interested in marriage and she wasn't interested in an affair.
That left sexy out of their equation. "What kind of experience do you have?" he asked. "Not a lot," she admitted. "Not any paid, but I can cook and I've been keeping house for myself since I went away to college."