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Grimacing, Cain Nestor tossed his formerly white cotton briefs into the washing machine and slammed the door closed. Damn it! He should have stopped at the mall the night before and bought new ones, but it had been late when his private plane finally landed in Miami. Besides, back in Kansas he had done his own laundry plenty of times. He couldn't believe he'd forgotten so much in twelve years that he'd end up with pink underwear, but apparently he had.
Tightening the knot of the towel at his waist, he stormed out of the laundry room and into the kitchen just as the back door opened. From the pretty yellow ruffled apron that was the trademark of Happy Maids, he knew that his personal assistant Ava was one step ahead of him again. He'd been without a housekeeper since the beginning of February, three long weeks ago. Though Ava had interviewed, he'd found something wrong with every person she'd chosen—his maid lived in and a man couldn't be too careful about whom he let stay in his home—but the lack of clean underwear had clearly proven he'd hit a wall.
Leave it to his assistant to think of the stopgap measure. She'd hired a cleaning service.
Ready to make an apology for his appearance, Cain caught his once-a-week housekeeper's gaze and his heart froze in his chest. His breathing stopped. His thigh muscles turned to rubber.
Though her long black hair had been pulled into a severe bun at her nape and she'd lost a few pounds in the three years since he'd seen her, he'd know those catlike green eyes anywhere.
A million questions danced through his head, but they were quickly replaced by recriminations. She'd quit a very good job in Philadelphia and moved with him to Miami when she'd married him. Now, she was a maid? Not even a permanently employed housekeeper. She was a fill-in. A stopgap measure.
And it was his fault.
He swallowed. "I don't know what to say."
Liz Harper blinked a few times, making sure her eyes were not deceiving her and she really was seeing her ex-husband standing wrapped in only a towel in the kitchen of the house that was her first assignment for the day. He hadn't changed a bit in three years. His onyx eyes still had the uncanny ability to make her feel he could see the whole way to her soul. He still wore his black hair short. And he still had incredible muscles that rippled when he moved. Broad shoulders. Defined pecs. And six-pack abs. All of which were on display at the moment.
She licked her suddenly dry lips. "You could start by saying, 'Excuse my nakedness. I'll just run upstairs and get a robe.'"
Remarkably, that made him laugh, and myriad memories assaulted her….
The day they'd met on the flight from Dallas to Philadelphia…
How they'd exchanged business cards and he'd called her cell phone even before she was out of the airport…
How they'd had dinner that night, entered into a long-distance relationship, made love for the first time on the beach just beyond his beautiful Miami home, and married on the spur of the moment in Las Vegas.
And now she was his housekeeper.
Could a woman fall any farther?
Worse, she wasn't in a position where she could turn down this job.
"Okay. I'll just—"
"Do you think—"
They stopped. The scent of his soap drifted to her and she realized he hadn't changed brands. More memories danced through her head. The warmth of his touch. The seriousness of his kiss.
She cleared her throat. "You first."
He shook his head. "No. Ladies first."
"Okay." She pulled in a breath. She didn't have to tell him her secrets. Wouldn't be so foolish again as to trust him with her dreams. If everything went well, she wouldn't even have to see him while she did her job. "Are you going to have a problem with this?"
He gripped his towel a little tighter. "You working for me or chatting about you working for me while I stand here just about naked?"
Her cheeks heated. The reminder that he was naked under one thin towel caused her blood to simmer with anticipation. For another two people that might be ridiculous three years after their divorce, but she and Cain had always had chemistry. Realistically, she knew it wouldn't simply disappear. After all, it had been strong enough to coax a normally sensible Pennsylvania girl to quit her dream job and follow him to Miami, and strong enough that a typically reclusive entrepreneur had opened up and let her into his life.
"Me working here for you until you hire a new maid." She motioned around the kitchen. The bronze and tan cut-glass backsplash accented tall cherrywood cabinets and bright stainless-steel appliances. "Is that going to be a problem?"
He glanced at the ceramic tile floor then back up at her. "I've gotta be honest, Liz. It does make me feel uncomfortable."
"Why? You're not supposed to be here when I am. In fact, I was told you're usually at the office by eight. It's a fluke that we've even run into each other. And I need this job!"
"Which is exactly why I feel bad."
That changed her blood from simmering with chemistry to boiling with fury. "You feel sorry for me?"
He winced. "Not sorry, per se—"
"Then sorry, per what?" But as the words tumbled out of her mouth she realized what was going on. Three steps got her to the big center island of his kitchen. "You think I fell apart when our marriage did and now I can only get a job as a maid?"
Three more steps had her standing in front of him.
"Honey, I own this company. I am the original Happy Maid."
She was tall enough that she only had to tilt her head slightly to catch his gaze, but when she did she regretted it. His dark eyes told her their closeness had resurrected their chemistry for him, too. Heat and need tightened her insides. Her breathing stuttered out of her chest. The faint scent of soap she'd sniffed while at the door hit her full force bringing back wonderful, painful memories.
He stepped away and broke eye contact. "Nice try."
"Call your personal assistant." When her voice came out as a breathy whisper, Liz paused and gulped some air to strengthen it. "I'm the one she dealt with. I signed the contract."
"If you're the owner, why are you cleaning my house?" He stopped. His sharp black eyes narrowed. "You're spying."
"On you? Really? After three years?" She huffed out a sound of disgust and turned away, then whirled to face him again. "You have got to be the most vain man in the world! I was hired through your assistant. She didn't give me your name. She hired me to clean the house of the CEO of Cain Corporation. I never associated you with Cain Corporation. Last I heard your company name was Nestor Construction."
"Nestor Construction is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cain Corporation."
"Fantastic." She pivoted and walked back to the center island. "Here's the deal. I have six employees and enough work for seven. But I can't hire the people I need and work exclusively in the office until I get enough work for eight." She also wouldn't tell him that she was scrambling to employ every woman from A Friend Indeed, a charity that provided temporary housing for women who needed a second chance. He didn't understand charities. He most certainly didn't understand second chances.
"Then my profit margins will allow me to take a salary while I spend my days marketing the business and the expansions I have planned."
"I'm getting into gardening and pool cleaning." She combed her fingers through the loose hair that had escaped the knot at her nape. "Down the road. Right now, I'm on the cusp with the maid service. I seriously need thirty more clients."
"It's not such a stretch in a city like Miami!"
"I'm not whistling at the difficulty. I'm impressed. When did you get into this?"
She hesitated then wondered why. It shouldn't matter. "Three years ago."
"You decided to start a company after we divorced?"
She raised her chin. She would not allow him to make her feel bad for her choices. "No. I took a few cleaning jobs to support myself when I moved out and it sort of blossomed."
"I offered you alimony."
"I didn't want it." Squaring her shoulders, she caught his gaze. Mistake. She'd always imagined that if she ever saw him again, their conversation would focus on why she'd left him without a word of explanation. Instead the floodgates of their chemistry had been opened, and she'd bet her last cent neither one of them was thinking about their disagreements. The look in his dark eyes brought to mind memories of satin sheets and days spent in bed.
"In a year I had enough work for myself and another maid full-time. In six more months I had four employees. I stayed level like that until I hit a boom again and added two employees. That's when I realized I could turn this business into something great."
"I get it. I know what it's like to have a big idea and want to succeed." He turned away. "And as you said, our paths won't cross."
"So this is really okay?"
"Yeah. It's okay." He faced her again with a wince. "You wouldn't happen to be doing laundry first, would you?"
"I sort of made fifty percent of my underwear pink."
She laughed, and visions of other times, other laughter, assailed her and she felt as if she were caught in a time warp. Their marriage had ended so badly she'd forgotten the good times and now suddenly here they were all at the forefront of her mind. But that was wrong. Six years and buckets of tears had passed since the "good times" that nudged them to get married the week they'd accompanied friends to Vegas for their elopement. Only a few weeks after their hasty wedding, those good times became few and far between. By the time she left him they were nonexistent.
And now she was his maid.
"Is the other fifty percent in a basket somewhere?"
"Yes." He hooked a thumb behind him. "Laundry room."
"Do you have about an hour's worth of work you can do while you wait?"
"And you'll go to your office or study or to your bedroom to do that."
"I have an office in the back."
"Great. I'll get on the laundry."
A little over an hour later, Cain pulled his Porsche into the parking space in front of the office building he owned. He jumped out, marched into the lobby and headed for the private elevator in the back. He rode it to the top floor, where it opened onto his huge office.
He strode to his desk, dropping his briefcase on the small round conference table as he passed it. He'd managed not to think about Liz as she moved around his home, vacuuming while the washing machine ran, then the dryer. To her credit, she hadn't saunteered into his office and dumped a clean pair of tidy-whities on the document he was reviewing. She'd simply stepped into the room, announced that the laundry had been folded and now sat on his bed. But it was seeing the tidy stack on his black satin bedspread that caused unwanted emotions to tumble through him.
When they were married she'd insisted on doing laundry. She hadn't wanted a maid. She had stayed home and taken care of him.
As he'd stared at the neat pile, the years had slid away. Feelings he'd managed to bury had risen up like lava. She'd adored him and he'd worshipped her. He hadn't slept with a woman before her or one since who had made him feel what Liz could. And now she was in his house again.
Which was wrong. Absolutely, totally and completely wrong. For a woman who'd adored him and a man who'd worshipped her, they'd hurt each other beyond belief in the last year of their marriage. She hadn't even left a note when she'd gone. Her attorney had contacted him. She hadn't wanted his money, hadn't wanted to say goodbye. She simply wanted to be away from him, and he had been relieved when she left. It was wrong—wrong, wrong, wrong—for them to even be in the same room! He couldn't believe he'd agreed to this, but being nearly naked had definitely thrown him off his game.
Underwear in his possession, he had dressed quickly, thinking he'd have to sneak out, wondering if it would be prudent to have Ava call her and ask her to assign another of her employees to his house. But as she promised, she was nowhere to be seen when he left.
"Just a bit curious, Ava," he said when his short, slightly chubby, fifty-something-assistant stepped into his office. "Why'd you choose Happy Maids?"
She didn't bat an eye. "They come highly recommended and they're taking new clients." She peered at him over the rim of her black frame glasses. "Do you know how hard it is to get a good maid in Miami?"
"Apparently very hard or I'd have one right now."
"I've been handling my end. It's you who—" Her face froze. "Oh." Her eyes squeezed shut. "You were there when the maid arrived, weren't you?"
"Naked, in a towel, coming out of my laundry room."
She pressed her hand to her chest. "I'm so sorry."
He studied her face for signs that she knew Liz was his ex-wife, but her blue eyes were as innocent as a kitten's.
"I should have realized that you'd sleep late after four days of traveling." She sank to the sofa just inside the door. "I'm sorry."
"No. Seriously. I am sorry. I know how you hate dealing with people." She bounced off the sofa and scampered to the desk. "But let's not dwell on it. It's over and it will never happen again." Changing the subject, she pointed at the mail on his desk. "This stack is the mail from the week. This stack is the messages I pulled off voice mail for you. This stack is messages I took for you. People I talked to." She looked up and smiled. "And I'll call the maid and tell her not to come until after nine next week."
"She's fine." She was. Now that his emotions were under control again, logic had kicked in. The fact that she wasn't around when he left the house that morning proved she didn't want to see him any more than he wanted to see her. If there was one thing he knew about Liz, it was that she was honest. If she said he'd never see her, she'd do everything in her power to make it so. That, at least, hadn't changed. Though she was the one to leave, the disintegration of their marriage had been his fault. He didn't want to upset her over a non-problem. He'd upset her enough in one lifetime.