Inexperienced but out of options, Libby Parkhurst accepts Patrick Kavanagh's job offereven though he's given it at his mother's request. Surely she can hide her attraction to the charming man she's trying to impress
Patrick sees Libby as a family friend and hires her as a favor. But as their work brings them closer, he discovers the sensual woman she's becomeeven before a makeover takes her from dowdy to dazzling! Suddenly his interest is no longer platonic. Long-term is off-limits, but taking her to bed? He's making that his top priority!
About the Author
Brenda Jackson is a New York Times bestselling author of more than one hundred romance titles. Brenda lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and divides her time between family, writing and traveling. Email Brenda at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her on her website at brendajackson.net.
Read an Excerpt
"I want you to push me to my limits. So I can prove to you that I can handle it."
Patrick stared across his paper-cluttered desk at the woman seated opposite him. Libby Parkhurst was not someone you would pick out of a crowd. Mousy brown hair, ordinary features and clothes at least one size too big for her slender frame added up to an unfortunate adjective. Forgettable.
Except for those eyes. Green. Moss, maybe. Not emerald. Emerald was too brilliant, too sharp. Libby's green eyes were the quiet, soothing shade of a summer forest.
Patrick cleared his throat, absolutely sure his companion hadn't intended her remark to sound provocative. Why would she? Patrick was nothing more to her than a family friend and a prospective employer. After all, Libby's mother had been his mother's best friend for decades.
"I appreciate your willingness to step outside your comfort zone, Libby," he said. "But I think we both know this job is not for you. You don't understand what it involves." Patrick's second in command, Charlise, was about to commence six months of maternity leave. Patrick needed a replacement ASAP. Because he had dawdled in filling the spot, his mother, Maeve Kavanagh, had rushed in to supply an interviewee.
Libby sat up straighter, her hands clenched in her lap, her expression earnest and maybe a tad desperate. "I do," she said firmly. "Maeve described the position in detail. All I'm asking is that you run me through the paces before I have to welcome the first group."
Patrick's business, Silver Reflections, provided a quiet, soothing setting for professionals experiencing burnout, but also offered team-building activities for high-level management executives. Ropes courses, hiking, overnight survival treks. The experience was sometimes grueling and always demanding.
The fill-in assistant would be involved in every aspect of running Silver Reflections. While Patrick applauded Libby's determination, he had serious doubts about her ability to handle the physical aspects of the job.
"Libby " He sighed, caught between his instincts about filling the position and his obligation to play nice.
His unwanted guest leaned forward, gripping the edge of his desk with both hands, her knuckles white. "I need this job, Patrick. You know I do."
Libby had him there. He'd witnessed in painful detail what the past year had been like for heras had most of the country, thanks to the tabloids. First, Libby's father had been sent to prison for tax fraud to the tune of several million. Then eight weeks ago, after months of being hounded by the press and forced to adopt a lifestyle far below her usual standards, Libby's emotionally fragile mother had committed suicide.
Quite simply, in the blink of an eye, Libby Parkhurst had gone from being a sheltered heiress to a woman with virtually no resources. Her debutante education had qualified her to host her father's dinner parties when her mother was unable or unwilling to do so. But twenty-three-year-old Libby had no practical experience, no résumé and no money.
"You won't like it." He was running out of socially acceptable ways to say he didn't want her for the job.
Libby's chin lifted. She sat back in her chair, her spine straight. The disappointment in her gaze told him she anticipated his rejection. "I know your mother made you interview me," she said.
"I'm far past the age where my mother calls the shots in my life." It was only partly a lie. Maeve Kavanagh wielded maternal guilt like a sharp-edged sword.
"I don't have anything left to lose," Libby said quietly. "No home. No family. No trust fund. It's all gone. For the first time in my life, I'm going to have to stand on my own two feet. I'm willing and able to do that. But I need someone to give me a chance."
Damn it. Her dignified bravery tugged at heartstrings he hadn't tuned in ages. Why was Libby Parkhurst his problem? What was his mother thinking?
Outside his window, the late-January trees were barren and gray. Winter still had a firm hold on this corner of western North Carolina. It would be at least eight weeks before the first high-adventure group arrived. In the meantime, Libby would surely be able to handle the hotel aspects of the job. Taking reservations. Checking in guests. Making sure that all reasonable requests were accommodated.
But even if he split Charlise's job and gave Libby the less onerous part, he'd still be stuck looking for someone who could handle the outdoor stuff. Where was he going to find a candidate with the right qualifications willing to work temporarily and part-time?
If this had been an emotional standoff, Libby would have won. She never blinked as she looked at him with all the entreaty of a puppy begging to be fed. He decided to try a different tack. "Our clients are highend," he said. "I need someone who can dress the part."
Though her cheeks flushed, Libby stood her ground. "I've planned and overseen social events in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. I think I can handle the fashion requirements."
He eyed her frumpy clothing and lifted a brow not saying a word.
For the first time, Libby lowered her gaze. "I suppose I hadn't realized how much I've come to rely on the disguise," she muttered. "I've dodged reporters for so long, my bag-lady routine has become second nature."
Now he was the one who fidgeted. His unspoken criticism had wounded her. He felt the taste of shame. And an urgent need to make her smile. "A trial period only," he said, conceding defeat. "I make no promises."
Libby's jaw dropped. "You'll hire me?"
The joy in her damp green eyes was his undoing. "Temporarily," he emphasized. "Charlise will be leaving in two weeks. In the meantime, she can show you how we run things here at the retreat center. When the weather gets a bit warmer, you and I will do a dry run with some of the outdoor activities. By the end of February, we'll see how things are going."
He had known "of" Libby for most of his life, though their paths seldom crossed. Patrick was thirty Libby seven years younger. The last time he remembered seeing her was when Maeve had taken Patrick and his brothers to New York to see a hockey game. They had stopped by the Parkhurst home to say hello.
Libby had been a shy redheaded girl with braces and a ponytail. Patrick had been too cool at the time to do more than nod in her direction.
And now here they were.
Libby smiled at him, her radiance taking him by surprise. "You won't be sorry, I swear."
How had he thought she was plain? To conceal his surprise, he bent his head and scratched a series of numbers on a slip of paper. Sliding it across the desk, he made his tone flat professional. "Here's the salary. You can start Monday."
When she saw the amount, Libby's chin wobbled.
He frowned. "It's not a lot, but I think it's fair."
She bit her lip. "Of course it's fair. I was just thinking about how much money my family used to spend."
"Is it hard?" he asked quietly. "Having to scrimp after a lifetime of luxury?"
"Yes." She tucked the paper in her pocket. "But not in the way you think. The difficult part has been finding out how little I knew about the real world. My parents sheltered me spoiled me. I barely knew how to cook or how much a gallon of milk cost. I guess you could say I was basically useless."
Feeling his neck get hot, he reached for her hand, squeezing her fingers before releasing her. Something about Libby brought out his protective instincts. "No one is useless, Libby. You've had a hell of a year. I'm very sorry about your mother."
She grimaced, her expression stark. "Thank you. I suppose I should tell you it wasn't entirely a surprise. I'd been taking her back and forth to therapy sessions for weeks. She tried the suicide thing twice after my father's trial. I don't know if it was being without him that tormented her or the fact that she was no longer welcome in her social set, but either way, her pain was stronger than her need to be with me."
"Suicide never makes sense. I'm sure your mother loved you."
"Thank you for the vote of support."
Patrick was impressed. Libby had every right to feel sorry for herself. Many women in her situation would latch onto the first available meal ticket anything to maintain appearances and hang on to the lifestyle of a wealthy, pampered young socialite.
Libby, though, was doing her best to be independent.
"My mother thinks the world of you, Libby. I think she always wanted a daughter."
"I don't know what I would have done without her."
Silence fell suddenly. Both of them knew that the only reason Patrick had agreed to interview Libby was because Maeve Kavanagh had insisted. Still, Patrick wasn't going to go back on his word. Not now.
It wouldn't take long for Libby to realize that she wasn't cut out for the rigorous physical challenges that awaited her at Silver Reflections. Where Charlise had been an athlete and outdoorswoman for most of her life, Libby was a pale, fragile flower, guaranteed to wilt under pressure.
Over the next two weeks, Patrick had cause to doubt his initial assessment. Libby dived into learning her new responsibilities with gusto. She and Charlise bonded almost immediately, despite the fact that they had little in common, or so it seemed.
Charlise raved about Libby's natural gifts for hospitality. And the fact that Libby was smart and focused and had little trouble learning the computer system and a host of other things Charlise considered vital to running Silver Reflections.
On the second Friday morning Libby was on his payroll, Patrick cornered Charlise in her office and shut the door. "Well," he said, leaning against the wall. "Is she going to be able to handle it?"
Charlise reclined in her swivel chair, her amply rounded belly a match for her almost palpable aura of contentment. "The girl's a natural. We've already had four clients who have rebooked for future dates based on their interactions with Libby. I can honestly say that I'm going to be able to walk away from here without a single qualm."
"And the outdoor component?"
Charlise's glow dimmed. "Well, maybe a tiny qualm."
"It's one thing to run this place like a hotel. But you and I both know we work like dogs when we take a group out in the woods."
"True. But Libby has enthusiasm. That goes a long way."
"Up until a year ago I imagine she was enjoying pedicures at pricey Park Avenue salons. Hobnobbing with Fortune 500 executives who worked with her dad. It's a good bet she never had anyone steal her lunch money."
Charlise gave him a loaded look. "You're a Kavanagh, Patrick. Born with a silver spoon and everything that goes with it. Silver Reflections is your baby, but you could walk away from it tomorrow and never have to work another day in your life."
"Fair enough." He scratched his chin. "There's one other problem. I told Libby that she would have to dress the part if she planned to work here. But she's still wearing her deliberately frumpy skirts and sweaters. Is that some kind of declaration of independence? Did I make a faux pas in bringing up her clothing?"
"Oh, you poor, deluded man."
"Why does no one around here treat me with respect?" Charlise ignored his question. "Your mother offered to buy Libby a suitable wardrobe, but your newest employee is independent to say the least. She's waiting to go shopping until this afternoon when she gets her first paycheck."
"Wait a minute," he said. "Why can't she wear the clothes she had when her dad went to prison? I'll bet she owned an entire couture wardrobe."
"She did," Charlise said, her expression sober. "And she sold all those designer items to pay for her mom's treatments. Apparently the sum total of what she owns can now fit into two suitcases."
Patrick seldom felt guilty about his life choices. He did his best to live by a code of honor Maeve had instilled in all her boys. Do the right thing. Be kind. Never let ambition trump human relationships.
He had hired Libby. Now it was time to let her know she had his support.
Libby was in heaven. After months of wallowing in uncertainty and despair, now having a concrete reason to get up every morning brought her something she hadn't found in a long time confidence and peace.
For whatever reason, Patrick Kavanagh had made himself scarce during Libby's first two weeks. He'd left the training and orientation entirely up to Charlise. Which meant Libby didn't constantly have to be looking over her shoulder. With Charlise, Libby felt relaxed and comfortable.
They had hit it off immediately. So much so that Libby experienced a pang of regret to know Charlise wouldn't be coming back after today. Just before five, Libby went to Charlise's office holding a small package wrapped in blue paper printed with tiny airplanes. Charlise and her accountant husband were looking forward to welcoming a fat and healthy baby boy.
Libby knocked at the open door. "I wanted to give you this before you go."
Charlise looked up from her chore of packing personal items. Her eyes were shiny with tears. "You didn't have to do that."
"I wanted to. You've been so patient with me, and I appreciate it. Are you okay? Is anything wrong?"
Charlise reached for a tissue and blew her nose. "No. I don't know why I'm so emotional. I'm very excited about the baby, and I want to stay at home with him, but I love Silver Reflections. It's hard to imagine not coming here every day."
"I'll do my best to keep things running smoothly while you're gone."
"No doubts on that score. You're a smart cookie, Libby. I feel completely confident about leaving things in your hands."
"I hope you'll bring the baby to see us when the weather is nice."
"You can count on it." She opened the gift slowly, taking care not to rip the paper. "Oh, Libby, this is beautiful. But it must have been way too expensive."
Libby grimaced. She had been very honest with Char-lise about her current financial situation. "It's an antique of sorts. A family friend gave it to my parents when I was born, engraved with the initial L. When I heard you say were going to name the baby Lander, after your father, I knew I wanted you to have it."
"But you've kept it all this time. Despite everything that's happened. It must have special meaning."
When Libby looked at the silver baby cup and bowl and spoon, her heart squeezed. "It does. It did. I think I held on to the set as a reminder of happier times. But the truth is, I don't need it anymore. I'm looking toward the future. It will make me feel good to know your little boy is using it."
Charlise hugged Libby tightly. "I'll treasure it." Libby glanced at her watch. "I need to let you get out of here, but may I ask you one more thing before you go?"
"How did you get this job working with Patrick?"
"My husband and Patrick's brother Aidan are good friends. When Patrick put out the word that he was starting Silver Reflections, Aidan hooked us up."
"And the high-adventure stuff?"
Charlise shrugged. "I've always been a tomboy. Climbing trees. Racing go-karts. Broke both arms and legs before I made it to college. At different times, thank goodness."
"Good grief." Libby thought about her own cocoonlike adolescence. "Do you really think I can handle the team building and physical challenges in the outdoors?"
The other woman paused, her hand hovering over a potted begonia. "Let me put it this way." She picked up the plant and put it in a box. "I think you'll be fine as long as you believe in yourself."
"What does that mean?"
"I've heard you talk about Patrick. He intimidates you."
"Well, I" Libby stopped short, unable to come up with a believable lie. "Yes."
"Don't let him. He may come across as tough and intense at times, but underneath it all, he's a pussycat."
A broad-shouldered masculine frame filled the doorway. "I think I've just been insulted."