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Cameras started snapping the moment the jet-black Bentley rolled into view, shutters popping off like rounds of machine-gun fire from the army of paparazzi that had gathered on the grounds of the Clearwater Springs Resort. Behind the Bentley, four black SUVs followed in procession, turning off the highway and onto the long drive that would bring them up the hill.
It looked like the fricking president was arriving instead of a spoiled and pampered heiress, and Marc Strauss ground his teeth as the fiasco began to unfold.
Reporters who had perched themselves near the large iron gates shot their last photos and were now rushing to reposition, charging through the meticulously manicured flower beds and bounding over the low stone walls. They ran around like savages, smashing plants and smearing mud, scaling the metal sculptures that had cost Marc a fortune. It was everything he could do to keep from pushing through the glass lobby doors and personally extricating each and every one of them from his beloved property. Instead, he clenched his fists and directed his anger to the person responsible.
"This is a damn circus," he said to his brother, Brett. "The cleanup is coming directly out of your salary."
Brett smiled and watched the scene as if this was the most exciting day of his life. "No problem, bro. I'll just take it off all the money we're gonna make from this publicity." He slapped Marc on the back and pointed to the caravan. "That guest right there is going to put Clearwater Springs on the map."
Marc opened his mouth to say they were already on the map, that they didn't need Hollywood's latest princess to drum up business, that the debacle that was Rachel Winston and her shiny new criminal record would turn away more loyal clients than it would bring new ones, but they'd gone down that road before. Marc had made his arguments and had ended up giving in to Brett's marketing scheme—mostly because the deal had been all but done before Marc had heard anything about it.
It was only now, with the tranquility of his resort obliterated and the stampede of reporters decimating the world he'd so carefully built, that he realized what a mistake that had been.
"Ease up, Brother Grim," Brett said, snapping his gum and winking off the chaos as the Bentley rolled to a stop in the circular drive. "Once she's inside, security will escort our unwanted guests off the property." He waved a hand over the scene. "We'll get Cory out here to clean up the grounds…"
The sound of Brett's voice trailed off as the chauffeur opened the back door of the Bentley and the woman who would be their ward for the next thirty days stepped onto the stone drive. Marc had seen pictures of Rachel Winston. Heck, everyone had. And they'd seen plenty of her after she'd done the spread for Hush magazine last year. In the photos she was beautiful—distractingly so—with a china-doll face, dark, silky hair and exotic blue eyes. Now Marc knew that beauty wasn't digitally added after the shoot.
She was the real deal. And as he watched her greet the crowd with a poised and tentative smile, his annoyance withered under a sudden ray of lust.
He swallowed hard as she smoothed her hands over her slacks and adjusted her shirt. Her conservative blue pants and pale pink blouse shouldn't have been sexy, but they were. Accessorized with pointy-toed heels, a pink clutch purse and wide-framed sunglasses, she oozed high-end Hollywood. And that was no wonder. Perfection had been literally bred into her DNA when her handsome studio executive father crossed genes with Hollywood's hottest starlet of the seventies. Though the marriage between Richard Winston and Abigail Moore had been brief and turbulent, it had lasted long enough to produce this striking creature, and as a member of the opposite sex, Marc had to give them a nod. Rachel Winston was the thing hot dreams were made of. Toss in a colorful history and a bad-girl image and it was no surprise that the world ate her up.
"I wonder if Hush let her keep that yellow fuzzy thing," he heard his brother say. "You know the picture I'm talking about?"
Know it? The photo had been emblazoned on Marc's brain from the moment Brett dropped the magazine on his desk two weeks ago. Sprawled across a brown velvet chaise, she'd been clad in a pale lemon bra, one strap hanging haphazardly off her shoulder as she held a finger to her lips and eyed the camera with a sinister stare. Her dark, wavy hair had been mussed, her makeup slightly smudged to give the impression she'd been busy—doing what was left for the reader to imagine. And though, at the age of thirty-four, Marc considered himself an evolved and liberated man, one look into those sapphire-blue eyes and his imagination had taken off with all the tact of a hard and horny teen.
Brett had unearthed the photo spread as one in a series of ploys to get Marc to buy into this arrangement, and Marc hated to admit it had worked. One glimpse of Rachel Winston in all that glorious flesh and a tow truck couldn't have dragged his eyes from the photo. That sexy gaze stuck a hook in him that had taken days to shake off.
And now she was standing on the steps of his resort, just as alluring and electrifying as she'd been in those photos. Except now she was here for real.
God, he was in trouble.
"I wonder if she brought it," Brett added. "That or that blue sparkly thing she was—"
"She's our charge, not a play toy," Marc snapped.
The reminder was spouted as much for his own sake as his brother's. Given the situation, he didn't need the flutter in his gut or any encouragement from the peanut gallery. Keeping his resort in one piece through the next four weeks would be hell enough. Marc couldn't afford to make pals with their celebrity guest. That position was already taken by Brett, and if one of them didn't keep his wits about him, Ms. Winston would be running this show before the week was out.
Sooner, if this grand entrance of hers was any indication.
A somewhat feminine-looking man stepped out of one of the SUVs and began barking orders to the others. Several men took aim at the paparazzi, backing the bolder ones off and creating a clear path from the Bentley to the lobby doors. Suitcases began lining up against the caravan, and while Marc wanted to go tell the woman she wouldn't need much more than a maid's uniform, he gestured instead to the bellmen to begin helping with the luggage.
The men grinned and rushed out with expediency Marc hadn't thought them capable of. And in the corner of Marc's eye, he noticed all the other lobby staff poised and fitted as if this were inspection day at an army boot camp.
Great, just great. Rachel Winston hadn't even walked in the door yet and already she was handling the reins. This would be worse than he expected. He mentally began plotting his discussions with all the parties involved, laying down the ground rules as to what was expected and who would and wouldn't be running the show for the next thirty days.
Starting with Rachel and her father.
Marc had a number of clarifications to make with them, undoing the misconceptions he knew his brother had laid down—the first one being that Rachel would most definitely be working during her stay. She'd been sentenced by a judge to work thirty days as a maid as punishment for a battery conviction she'd obtained when she'd injured a hotel employee down in San Diego. After a string of minor tussles with the law, a judge apparently decided a little empathy might be what the incorrigible rich girl needed.
And Brett had somehow arranged to have her sentence carried out here in their resort, no doubt by making a number of promises Marc had no intention of honoring.
Rachel Winston was here to work, and the sooner he made that clear, the sooner they could get this over with.
He half expected she might high-tail it out the second she discovered this wouldn't be the covert vacation Brett had promised. And if she did, that would be fine by Marc. He'd only agreed to this when Brett assured him there would be no misunderstandings between all parties, and today was the day to make sure that was true.
So when Richard Winston emerged from the Bentley and stepped to his daughter's side, Marc decided it was time to get this meeting over with. If the new guest was going to end up leaving, best it happen quickly.
Rachel perked up after getting her first glimpse of Clearwater Springs. Leave it to her father to arrange an absolutely perfect place to carry out her sentence. The resort was upscale and secluded, tucked in the desert south of Palm Springs. Close enough to attract the big-city clientele, but far enough from the usual resort spots to offer the privacy she needed.
As she stood by the car and waited for her father, she mused that he really was at his best when rescuing damsels. She wondered if this had become the definition of their relationship; she created messes and her father swept in as her caretaker, lavishing her with attention and proving, once again, that he would always be there for her no matter what she did. Maybe underneath the confident woman she portrayed was a scared, insecure child who needed to continually test the loyalties of everyone around her.
It wouldn't be a stretch. With both parents having spent their lives putting their careers ahead of her, any good therapist would understand why she was forever throwing herself in a spotlight to capture their attention.
Instead, she decided she was overanalyzing things. In reality, she'd grown up just as independent as her famous mom and dad, and she didn't need a crisis to prove that they loved her. Unfortunately, there was no convenient daddy complex that would excuse the fact that she was basically a screwup. As much as she'd like to find a golden pass, twenty-six was too old to blame anyone but herself for her problems. And even though she'd said it before, this time she really did intend to pull her life together, accept those things she couldn't control, and make a plan for what she could.
And looking around these lush grounds and to the desert mountains beyond, this resort was the perfect sanctuary in which to do just that.
"See?" her father said as he rounded the Bentley and stepped to her side. "I told you it was beautiful."
"Perfect," she admitted. "Brochures usually exaggerate things, but in this case, apparently not."
He squeezed her hand. "You've got nothing to worry about."
Rachel smiled and nodded, even though she hadn't been worried. She'd suffered worse than this. And really, how hard could it be working as a maid for four little weeks? As long as the job didn't involve numbers or heavy reading, she could handle it just fine. And when she wasn't on the job, there was plenty of quiet scenery for the reflection and meditation she hoped to take in during her stay.
As long as she didn't spend it flanked by all these reporters.
"Rachel, have you ever cleaned toilets before?" yelled a woman she recognized from one of the L.A. dailies.
Cameras flashed to catch her reaction.
"Do you expect the staff will be friendly after what you did to that poor woman at the Four Seasons?" yelled another.
Questions came at her from every direction, regur-gitations of the same thing they'd been tossing since the incident at the hotel six months ago. Further back, if she counted all the other times she'd thrown herself into the public eye.
She knew they'd go away if she only stopped feeding them material, and the older she got, the more she realized that was exactly what she wanted. Trying to find a place in the world she grew up in had been an unequivocal disaster. She hadn't her mother's talent nor her father's smarts. And though Hollywood had accepted her on looks alone, the business of capitalizing on her failures ultimately proved a more profitable arrangement.
What she wanted now was to slink away from all this. Maybe move to Paris or Milan, out of the public eye like a number of celebrities she knew, and…do what?
That was always the question.
"Hey, Rachel, pose for a picture," one reporter called out, a scrub brush in one hand and a pair of yellow rubber gloves in the other. He apparently thought she might don them and smile for the camera, and as ludicrous as that seemed, she realized she'd done more ridiculous things before.
Her father pointed a finger and one of his burly bull dogs disappeared into the crowd, taking the brazen reporter with him.
"Let's get inside," he said. But before they could take a step, they were greeted by two men.
Correction, one man and one…Adonis.
The sexy stud extended a hand to her father. "Richard Winston, I'm Marc Strauss."
His voice sang in her ears, rich as milk chocolate, as he uttered polite greetings. He was tall, taller than many of her father's entourage, and he held himself with a calm authority that seemed to dominate the space around them.
"You've been speaking with my brother, Brett," the man added, gesturing to the shorter blond at his side.
Both men were striking, blessed with similar square jaws and long, straight noses. But it was the eyes that set them apart. Brett's were friendly and blue, while Marc's…why, they were piercing. Serious and assessing. The kind that could strike a weaker man down. And when he turned that gaze on her, she literally felt it touch her skin.
"Ms. Winston, it's my pleasure," he said, holding out a hand while he waited for her to take it.
She bit her lip, unable to unlock her grip on that striking dark stare, and when she placed her hand in his, a pulse of electricity made her shiver. He must have felt it, too, because those steely eyes—blue-gray, she now realized—registered the slightest hint of shock.
Swallowing, he casually pulled the hand away and made way for his brother, who seemed more genuinely pleased and eager to meet her. But despite the charm and affection pouring from Brett, she couldn't drag her attention from Marc.
Rachel wasn't a stranger to handsome men. They were a dime a dozen in her social circle. But never had she run across one so instantaneously captivating. He wore a dark navy-blue suit, tailored well to reveal a fit body underneath, trim and long, but not lanky. A silver blue tie lay against his white shirt, polishing off an ensemble that was all business, right down to his black oxfords and tidy black hair.
Posted November 11, 2011
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Posted February 13, 2011
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Posted August 3, 2011
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Posted January 19, 2011
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