721 PARK AVENUE: Penthouse B
TENANT: Gage Lattimer, dark and dangerous?
SCANDAL: He'll never tell
A rich, powerful loner, Gage fit the description of the man who may have information about the mysterious demise of Jacinda Endicott's sister. Which was why Jacinda had abandoned her old life and taken a job at Gage's penthouse as his live-in maid. By day, she snooped for clues about her employer; by night, she fought her fatal attraction to the sexy, secretive billionaire. Her heart told her Gage was innocent; her head warned her otherwise. Which would she listen to?
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She couldn't believe she was continuing this charade, Jacinda thought, as she deposited her overnight bag on the bed and set down a bag full of Christmas decorations next to it.
It was the beginning of December, and she'd been maintaining her pretense for five months.
Five long, wearying months that had gotten her no closer to discovering the truth about Marie's suspicious death.
The only bright spot was that her brother, Andrew, had informed her a couple of months ago that the police had come around to her way of thinking and were now treating Marie's death as suspicious.
But she didn't trust them to ferret out the truth. So, she'd continued to work hard to remember who she was pretending to be and not let her guard down.
It had been difficult to maintain her phony American accent, but fortunately she was a good mimic. A fake IDprocured through a hole-in-the-wall news dealer with a black market business on the sidehad done much of the rest.
She glanced around the room. The maid's quarters were located on the lower level of the duplex penthouse, beyond the kitchen. They weren't opulent by any stretch of the imagination, but they were well-appointed with a full-size bed, a dresser and a night table, and an adjoining bath.
She'd gotten used to living here. On days like today, coming back after a day off, she'd cart along some clothes with her in an overnight bag, cycling through the wardrobe she kept at the small studio apartment she'd sublet on York Avenue and Eighty-second Street.
In fact, she thought, it was arguable which was biggerher entire studio apartment, or the maid's quarters in Gage's 6,000-square-foot penthouse.
Her eyes alighted on the nearby dresser. The only thing the room lacked was a good dusting by a maidexcept, she remembered, she was supposed to be the maid.
When she wasn't a sleuth.
Since she'd started working for Gage in July, she'd been stymied in her efforts to connect him to her sister's death. She'd discovered nothing going through his programmed phone numbers, rifling through desk drawers and scanning his mail.
Nothing except, she recalled, thinking back to October, she'd almost gotten caught snooping once when Gage had come home unexpectedly early and, in one of her more desperate moves, she'd been feeling along the underside of the end table next to the fireplace.
He'd taken a phone call immediately afterward that had made him frown mightily but, despite her best efforts, she hadn't been able to hear anything significant from the conversation.
Aside from that scanty bit of possibly tantalizing information, there'd been nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Instead, even with the help of a robot vacuum, she'd turned into the world's worst maid. It was hard to play amateur detective and still find time to scrub the sink.
She unzipped her bag and started putting her clothes in the dresser.
It was a miracle she'd convinced Gage's former housekeeper to quit. When she'd contacted Theresa by phone, she'd played dumb. She'd said she was looking for a unique situation because she was used to working with a moneyed and discerning clientele, which was the reason she wasn't going through a traditional employment agency to find a position.
Fortunately, her friend Penelope had been able to provide a sham reference, vouching for her as a fictitional former employer. Her closest friend from school days had married a rich and socially connected viscount and was happy to help by allowing her name to be dropped.
And as luck would have it, Theresa had been toying with the idea of moving on. In her early sixties, she was nearing retirement age and had a sick sister living north of the city for whom she wanted to provide care. She had been wavering, debating a move until an opportunity had landed in her lap with Jacinda's phone call.
Of course, Jacinda admitted to herself, she'd embellished the truth a little bit. After some deft questioning, she'd led Theresa to believe her mother had attended the same Long Island high school as the housekeeper. For Gage, she had stretched the truth even further to make Theresa and the fictitional Barbara Elliott not only former high school classmates but also close friends.
It had all worked out, Jacinda recalled. She'd placed herself close enough to Gage to do some snooping, but she'd also been able to maintain some distance, coming into the penthouse three times a week, mostly when he'd been at work.
And then in October, Gage had stunned her by offering a live-in maid position. Caught off guard, and still feeling flustered by almost being caught snooping and then eavesdropping, she'd accepted Gage's offer.
Later, she'd justified her decision by focusing on how much more time she'd have to keep tabs on Gage and get the cleaning done.
But in the weeks since, she'd lain in her bed at night, awake and restless, knowing Gage slept feet away, his long, powerful body perhaps sliding between the russet-colored sheets she herself had placed on his sumptuous king-size bed earlier that day.
She'd tried telling herself her feelings were natural, caused by tension and alarm at being alone in the same apartment as a possible killer, vulnerable in her sleep.
But the truth was her feelings were simple and undeniable attraction.
Gage was a good-looking guy. Powerful, moneyed and well-built, he'd have been arm candy for any woman, if he wasn't so remote.
He was a typical lone wolf.
And rather than sensing criminality in him, she saw a wariness in his gaze that spoke of past hurt. It spoke to her and made her want to reach out to him as a kindred spirit. Because she'd suffered a personal loss herself. Marie.
She shook her head to clear it.
Her intuition was telling her Gage couldn't be a killer. But was lust leading her astray?
Done with emptying her overnight bag, she picked up her shopping bag full of Christmas decorations and headed to the living room. There, a boxed up Christmas tree and other assorted decorations awaited her attention. She'd had the building staff haul some of it out of Gage's storage unit in the basement yesterday. The rest she'd bought in the preceding days with some of the household money.
Frankly, she'd been surprised Gage owned as much of the mistletoe-and-holly stuff as he did. He struck her as a bit of the "Bah! Humbug!" type, actually. But she supposed when your net worth was ten figures, even a smidgen of holiday spirit amounted to a lot.
She sighed, her mind circling back to her earlier thoughts.
She'd been trying to uncover clues but the wrong ones kept coming her way.
For months, she'd been dusting Gage's baseball trophiesokay, when she remembered to dust his trophieswhen what she needed to find was evidence of a more deadly hobby. Like hunting or collecting knives.
Instead, she'd compiled a dossier on Gage that would have made any would-be girlfriend weep with envy.
He housed three luxury carsa Mercedes, a Lam-borghini and a Porschein an underground garage, though he relied on a limo and driver most of the time.
He owned a getaway house in Bermuda, which was a couple of hours away from New York City on a direct flight with his private jet, which he kept parked at La Guardia and which he could fly himself with his pilot's license.
The Bermuda getaway was in addition to a house in London's fashionable Knightsbridge neighborhood, and a lodge in Vail, Colorado, where he liked to ski.
His Manhattan penthouse was a study in modern designall glass and metal and hard edges, with cathedral ceilings, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Hand-recognition technology at the front door and touch-screen lighting controls throughout completed the picture.
His artwork was Abstract Expressionism, and she recognized works by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock among those gracing his walls.
His business clothes, mostly custom-made, were from Davies and Son and Benson & Clegg, both long-established London clothiers.
He owned five Rolex watches, all housed in a glass-topped wooden case.
His toothpaste was Kiehl's, and he preferred to shave with an old-fashioned shaving brush.
The list went on and on.
She had all the detailsexcept they weren't the details she'd come here looking for.
Who had killed her sister?
Truth be told, she hadn't even gotten a hint that Gage was interested in hitting on women. On the other hand, at a cocktail party he'd hosted weeks ago, she'd seen a couple of women send speculative looks his way.
And once or twice she'd caught him looking at her with hot eyes.
She shivered, remembering, and then focused on the task at hand.
She began to unwrap a glass ornament.
Gage had asked her to buy some because he liked to vary the decor for his annual December holiday party for friends and associates, donating some of the previous year's decorations to charity.
She wished she was going to be with her family back in London as the holidays approached.
Particularly this year. Their first without Marie.
But she'd set herself a task, and if Gage wasn't the killer, then who was? And who would help her find out?
It was the music that enveloped him first. The dulcet tones of Nat King Cole singing "The Christmas Song."
Next came the aroma of baking bread, wafting around him softly and getting his taste buds working in response.
Gage let the door click shut behind him as he walked into the penthouse, his brow furrowing.
He came to a stop at the archway to the loft-like living area, arrested by the sight of a huge Christmas tree standing sentry by the fireplace.
His tree, except this one was well on its way to being decorated with pink and gold ornaments.
He never did pink.
And that's when he realized she was humming.
He glanced over to the kitchen area and caught sight of Jane beyond the waist-high granite countertop, her back to him as she bent over the range of his chef's oven, unaware he'd come home.
Unbidden, the cozy scene had him making comparisons to holidays past.
Breaks from his New England boarding school his parents, civil but distant and all too perfect the house in Greenwich, Connecticut, decorated up to the chimney but emitting no real warmth.
Unlike the scene unfolding before him.
He set his briefcase down on a glass-and-chrome console table, and shed his overcoat.
"I'm home," he called out.
He felt ridiculous even as the words came out. This wasn't a scene from some TV sitcom of domestic bliss.
On the other hand, something like Sex and the City he could deal with. A vision flashed through his mind of Jane in sky-high heels and skimpy lingerie, bracing one leg on his bed and crooking her finger at him, beckoning.
He felt himself getting aroused, and cursed under his breath.
Just then, Jane swung away from the stove, her eyes going wide, a tea towel grasped in her hands.
Abruptly, he was called back from his fantasy.
It irked him that she always looked at him wide-eyed.
He jerked his head toward the tree. "Been busy?"
"Uh yes. Yes, I have." She came around the kitchen counter, drying her hands and then setting down the towel.
"Do you " She hesitated. "Do you like it?"
Her continued wariness, and his damned unwanted attraction, made him brusque.
Her eyelids lowered, concealing the expression in her eyes. "Good."
He sized her up.
Today, she wore sensible black pants, a jade cotton top that stretched over her breasts, and what looked like ankle boots. Her hair, as usual, was caught back with a barrette.
He'd rather see her in silk, cashmere or satin. Her hair loose
He reined in his wayward thoughts.
She bit her lip as they stood facing each other, several feet apart, squaring off as they often seemed to do.
She gave a nod over her shoulder. "It's potatoes au gratin, filet mignon and fresh bread. I was waiting for you to get home to sear the filets in a cast-iron pan."
She could sear his fantasies, he wanted to tell her.
Instead, he raised his brows. "Sear them in a cast-iron pan?"
He wasn't even aware he owned a cast-iron pan.
Her lips tilted upward at the corners. "It's a cooking trick I learned. Sear and broil."
"You said filets, plural."
She blinked. "Yes. They're on the small side and the specialty market on Lex was selling them in pairs"
"Then you'll have to dine with me."
Her eyes went wide again, as if he'd suggested she strip off her clothes.
Actually, it was an enticing thought.
"That's what they did in medieval times, you know."
"Have a taster for the lord of the manor." He allowed a brief grin. "To make sure the food wasn't poisoned."
He pretended to look around. "And since there's no one else, I guess you'll have to fill in as the official food taster, as well as the cook and housekeeper."
She looked flustered. "Are you suggesting I'd poison you?"
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