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Ellie Swanson had not signed up for this.
Yes, she'd agreed to run Happy Maids while her boss, Liz Harper Nestor, took a well-deserved honeymoon after remarrying her gorgeous ex-husband, Cain. And, yes, she was perfectly capable of supervising the fourteen or so employees on Happy Maids's payroll for the four weeks Liz would be in Paris. But she wasn't authorized to make a change in the company's business plan, as the man across the desk wanted her to.
"I'm a friend of Cain's."
Of course he was. Tall and slender with perfect blue eyes and black hair cut short and businesslike, Mac Carmichael wore his tailored navy blue suit with the casual ease of a man accustomed to handmade suits, fine wines and people taking his orders. Just like Cain.
"And he told me his wife's company was the best in town."
"But we're a weekly cleaning service. We don't place maids in clients' homes."
A bead of sweat rolled down Ellie's back. The air-conditioning had broken the day Liz left. But Ellie could handle the heat and humidity of June in Miami. What she couldn't abide was failure. Her first day on the job and already she was turning away a client. An important client. A client who could not only tell Cain that Happy Maids hadn't come through for him; he could also tell all his wealthy friends—the very people Liz would be marketing to when she returned.
Ellie leaned back on the chair, tapping a pencil on the desk blotter. "Explain again what you're looking for."
"My maid quit unexpectedly. I need to hire a temporary replacement while I interview for another one."
"I can send someone to your house a few times a week to clean," she said hopefully.
He shook his head. "I have a daughter and a son. They need breakfast every morning."
"Then I'll be happy to send someone every day at seven."
"Lacy gets up at five."
"Then I'll have someone at four."
"I work some nights."
Ellie gaped at him. "You want the maid to be a nanny too?"
He caught her gaze. His sinfully blue eyes held hers and she fought the urge to swallow as pinpricks of attraction sparkled along her nerve endings.
"And live in."
She gasped. "Live in?"
"I also pay very well."
Ah, the magic words. A victim of domestic violence herself, Liz had gotten involved with A Friend Indeed, a charity that helped women transition out of their abusive homes and into new lives. It was a natural fit that Liz should begin employing the women from A Friend Indeed until they got on their feet. Ellie had actually been the first employee Liz had hired after they met at the charity. The company needed every job—especially the good paying ones—to provide work for all the women who wanted help.
Mac rose from his seat. "Look, if your firm can't handle it, I'll be on my way."
He turned to the door.
She bounced out of her chair. "Wait."
He faced her again. This time she did swallow. His eyes reminded her of the ocean in the dead of summer, calm and deep and perfect blue. His dark hair gleamed in the sunlight pouring in from the window to his right. High cheekbones angled to blissfully full lips, the kind that made most women take a second glance and wonder what it would be like to kiss him. It should have been pure pleasure to look at him. Instead, the scowl on his face caused Ellie to doubt the intuition that guided her life.
"I—" Why had her intuition told her to stop him? She didn't have anybody who could work as a maid/nanny. Most of Liz's employees had kids of their own and homes to get back to every night. They couldn't live in. And that's what he needed.
"I—um—maybe we can work something out."
His scowl grew even darker. "I don't work things out."
No kidding. She didn't need intuition to tell her that.
"I want someone today."
Don't let him go.
She groaned inwardly, wondering why her sixth sense was so insistent on this. But accustomed to listening to the intuition that had saved her life, she couldn't ignore it.
"I'll do it."
His scowl shifted into a look of confusion. "You?"
"I know I'm behind the desk today, but I'm only filling in for Cain's wife, Liz. She runs the business herself, but this month she's on her honeymoon. I'm more than capable of cooking, cleaning and caring for children."
His eyes held hers for another second or two. Then his gaze dipped from her face to her pretty red dress, and Ellie suddenly regretted her decision to wear something as exposing as the short strapless creation made more for having lunch with friends on a sunny sidewalk café than working in an office. But not having air-conditioning had made the choice for her. How was she supposed to know a client would show up?
He smiled and all the air whooshed out of Ellie's lungs. The temperature in her blood rose to an almost unbearable level. She could have melted where she stood. If this guy lived up north, snowflakes wouldn't stand a chance against that smile.
"We have air-conditioning, so you might want to change into jeans and a T-shirt." He took a business card out of his jacket pocket, scribbled on the back and handed it to her. "That's my home address. I'll meet you there in an hour." Then he turned and walked out the door.
Ellie collapsed on the office chair. Damn it! What had she gotten herself into? Now she not only had all of Liz's work, she also had a full-time job. More than full-time! She had to live in!
With a sigh of frustration at herself, she lifted the receiver of the phone on the desk and quickly dialed the number for Cain's personal assistant, Ava.
"Are you busy?"
"Hey, good morning, Magic. How's your first day going?"
"Abysmally. Don't call me Magic anymore. I think my intuition is on the fritz."
"I'm serious. Some guy came in here this morning, demanding a full-time maid and nanny—someone to live in—and I volunteered to take the job."
Angling her elbow on the desk, Ellie cradled her chin on her palm. "Yes."
"Oh, that's so not like you!"
"I know. But he's a friend of Cain's and I worried about disappointing him. My intuition got all jumbled while he was here and before I knew it I was taking the job myself." She winced. "I was thinking maybe you could find an agency that can get him a real temporary maid, then call him back and tell him I made a mistake."
"All right. I'll handle it. Give me his name."
Ellie flipped the card over. "Mac Carmichael."
"Oh, damn what?"
"Ellie, you're stuck. He is a major pain in the butt, so not even finding him a real full-time maid would fix this. He'd never change a deal he's already made. But he's also somebody Cain's been courting for years."
"His family owns hotels all over the world. Cain's been trying to get in on the construction end. This might be a test for Cain."
Ellie lowered her forehead to her palm. "Which is probably why my intuition wouldn't let me tell him no."
"I'm guessing," Ava agreed. "Okay, here's what we'll do. It doesn't matter where I work, so I'll forward my calls to the Happy Maids office and handle your phone and walk-ins during the day. Then we'll spend an hour or so together every night doing the day's paperwork."
"You'd do that for me?"
"Of course! This isn't just Happy Maids on the line. It's also Cain's business and I'm Cain's assistant. I have to do whatever needs to be done. Beside, I like you."
Ellie laughed. "Okay."
"Okay? Miss Magic, it will be more than okay. We will make it great. You'll do such a good job for Mac that you'll earn all kinds of brownie points for Liz and Happy Maids, and you might just get Cain the 'in' with Carmichael Incorporated that he's been lobbying for for years."
Ellie sat up. "Yeah. You're right. This is a good thing."
"This is potentially a very good thing," Ava agreed. "And I will do anything at all you need me to do."
"Handling the office during the day should be all the help I need."
"I'll be over in an hour."
"Bring a key because I have to leave right now. Mr. Carmichael wants me at his house in—" she glanced down at the card again "—Coral Gables in an hour, and I need to pack a bag if I'm going to be living there."
"You better get a move on."
"Okay. And Ava?"
Ellie winced. "You might want to stop on your way and buy a tank top and shorts."
Ava laughed. "How about if I just call an HVAC repairman?"
"That'll do it, too. I'll see you tonight."
Mac Carmichael raced his Bentley along the winding streets of Coral Gables and onto his driveway. He stopped at the gate, punched a code into the box on the left, opening the gate, and then roared up the stone drive to the side of his huge house. The garage door opened with another press of a button and he zipped inside. As the door closed behind him, he hopped out of his car, walked through the garage, into the butler's pantry then into the huge gourmet kitchen.
His blond-haired six-year-old daughter, Lacy, sat at the long weathered-wood table by the French doors, coloring. Nine-month-old son Henry sat in a highchair beside her. His former nanny and current next-door neighbor, Mrs. Pomeroy, wiped baby food off his mouth with a wet cloth.
"How did it go?"
He sighed. "Well, I found someone."
"I'm not sure. She's—" Tall and blond and so good-looking he damned near turned around and sought out another agency. "Well, she seems a little spacey."
Eighty-year-old Elmira Pomeroy laughed. "Spacey? Is she a drinker?"
"No, she's just—" inappropriately dressed, too pretty for words "—kind of odd."
"Are you sure you want her around your kids?"
"She's not that kind of odd. Besides, I don't have a choice. I need total and complete privacy. I can't risk hiring a big impersonal firm or someone who doesn't need me enough to keep her silence."
"You think she's made the connection yet that if she does well her boss's husband could make millions?"
He tossed his suit coat over the back of a chair. "I'm hoping. If she hasn't yet, one call to anybody in Cain's office will get her the info. That should be the carrot on the stick that keeps her here long enough for me to find someone." He leaned in over Lacy. "Hey, baby. What are you doing?"
She gave him a patient look. "Coloring."
"Why don't you put on your swimsuit and we'll take a dip while Mrs. Pomeroy is still here for Henry."
Her heart-shaped face wreathed in smiles. Her blue eyes danced with delight. "Okay!"
She raced from the room and Mac pulled Henry from his highchair. "And how are you today?"
Blond-haired, blue-eyed Henry slapped a chubby fist on his father's cheek.
"Feisty, I see."
"You better believe he's been feisty." Mrs. Pomeroy took his bottle from the warmer and tested the temperature. "I'm not sure if he tired himself out enough that he'll fall asleep immediately after he drinks this or if he's too wound up to sleep at all."
"If you have any problems, come and get me from the pool."
Mrs. Pomeroy's wrinkled face fell in sympathetic lines. "No. You take the time with Lacy. You both could use a few minutes of fun."
"I'm fine. I don't want to shirk my responsibility to the kids."
"You're a good dad."
He pulled in a breath and turned away, trying to make light of her compliment. "I only do what any father should do."
That was why it never would have even crossed his mind to desert his children the way their mother had. He couldn't believe any person would be so narcissistic that she'd abandon her kids just because a second child had been inconvenient to her career. Pamela had been so angry to be pregnant again when she'd read the results of her early pregnancy test that she'd packed a bag, left him and filed for divorce within days. She returned to Hollywood, California, where she immediately resurrected her movie career.
Nine months later, she handed Henry over to Mac. She visited once a month, saying it was difficult to fly across the country anymore than that. But on her last visit she told Mac she might not be able to visit in July. The movie she had made while pregnant with Henry was being released and she would be making the rounds of talk shows promoting it. Mac tried not to panic, but he couldn't help it. If anybody asked Pamela about her divorce or her kids, he had absolutely no idea what she'd say. But he did know that if she mentioned their names, he and the kids would become fodder for the paparazzi.
He'd lived his entire life with bodyguards, alarm systems and armor-plated limos. He'd thought he knew how it felt to live under lock and key, but that was nothing compared to living in a fishbowl. As the ex-husband of a movie star with custody of that movie star's kids, protection and visibility had risen to a whole new level. Not only were his kids targets for kidnappers and extortionists because of his money, but their mother's career could put their faces on the front page of every tabloid in the world. He'd had to go to extreme measures to protect them, and even with those measures in place he wasn't quite sure they were safe.
"You're thinking about that crappy wife of yours again aren't you?"
Mrs. P. laughed. "Right. You always scowl before a morning of fun with your daughter in the pool." Satisfied with the temperature of the milk in Henry's bottle, she took Henry from Mac's arms. "You know what you need? A good woman to replace the crappy one."
Mac laughed. "It will be a cold frosty day in hell before I trust another woman."
Mrs. P. harrumphed as she headed for the door. "Don't let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch."
Lacy skipped into the room dressed in a bright blue one-piece swimsuit. Mac lifted her into his arms. It was very easy for Mrs. P. to spout quaint sayings, quite another for Mac to heed their advice. Pamela had broken Lacy's heart when she left. Henry would know a mother who only popped in when the spirit moved her. Mac couldn't risk the hearts of his children a second time.
Ellie debated sliding into one of her Happy Maids uniforms. Nothing said hired help better than a bright yellow ruffled apron and a hairnet. But Mac had suggested she wear jeans and she wasn't taking any chances. If she had to endure being a full-time maid, then she intended for Cain to get the recommendation into Carmichael Incorporated. The best way to do that would be to follow Mac's instructions to the letter.
She slowed her car as she wound through the streets of Coral Gables, looking for the address scrawled on the back of the business card. Finally finding the property, she turned onto the driveway only to come face-to-face with an iron gate. She rolled down her car window, pressed a button marked "visitors" on a small stand just within reach of her car and watched as a camera zoomed in on her. She expected a voice to come through the little box, asking for identification. Instead, within seconds, the gate opened.
Good grief. How rich was this guy?