Read an Excerpt
Jeb Worthington watched the aging sport utility vehicle chug up the tree-lined road leading to his ranch. He pulled on his horse's reins, stopping Jezebel, and reached for his small binoculars.
Yep. Just as he suspected. His new housekeeper, Sophie Penazzi, had arrived.
Adjusting the glasses, he watched her get out of the car, taking in her straight, shoulder-length brown hair that, if he remembered correctly, was a color almost identical to the dark brown of her eyes.
She stretched, working the kinks out of her back and shoulders from the long drive. The smooth, even tan of her skin brought visions of her in a bikini, rushing into the crashing waves of the Pacific, surfboard under her arm. It didn't surprise him that he'd envision her that way. Not only did her résumé list her home as Malibu, but also there was a part of him that would pay very good money to see her perfect bottom in a bikini.
He dropped the glasses to his thigh. Those were exactly the kinds of things he could notwould not think about his new housekeeper. He'd lost the last one because she'd made a pass at him and he'd fired her. But instead of admitting she'd been let go because she'd tried to use her position as a springboard to becoming mistress of the house, Maria had promptly gone into town and trashed his reputation, claiming she'd quit because he was a grouch, too difficult to work for. The only way he'd recoup his standing with the locals would be to be nice to this new housekeeper, proving Maria had lied.
But being nice came with trouble of its own. Or maybe better said: Being nice to a live-in employee came with rules of its own. A line had to be drawn. He didn't want to be accused of sexual harassment or even flirting. And he wouldn't. He'd find a middle ground.
He nudged Jezebel, urging her to increase her pace.
Sophie bent into the rear compartment of her SUV. After setting several suitcases on the ground behind her vehicle, she lifted out an odd looking thing covered in net, at least four feet long and flat as a pancake. From the brackets on the side, he suspected that whatever it was, it was folded up. God only knew what it became when she unfolded it.
Once again, he nudged Jezebel, this time increasing her walk to a trot.
Adjusting the glasses so he could watch her as he rode, he saw Sophie slam the rear hatch, open the back door and bend inside.
There was more?
She pulled out a small seat and what looked to be a cooler and Jeb took Jezebel to a full gallop. What the hell was this woman doing? Planning to take over a wing of his house? Sure, she had to live with him, but he remembered telling her that her quarters were a bedroom, sitting room and a bathroom. She didn't get to spread out all over his home.
He galloped past the outbuildings and barn, slowing Jezebel when they neared the driveway and taking her down to a walk when they reached the pavement.
Obviously hearing the clip-clop of Jez's approach, Sophie turned around. Shading her eyes with her hand, she looked up at him and called, "Hey! Good morning."
Her bright brown eyes shone with joy, accenting her pert little nose, wide smile and nicely defined chin. He should have kept his eyes on her face, but the blue top clinging to her breasts and the jeans outlining her perfect bottom drew his gaze downward until he'd taken in every feminine inch of her.
Irritated with himself, he nearly cursed. Why had he hired someone so cute?
A glance at her mountain of gear only increased his ire. Obviously she was all wrong for this job. He reined Jez a few feet ahead of the car, and growled, "What are you"
Too late. Sophie ducked into her back seat again and Jeb stopped talking. Not only was she providing him with a jaw-dropping view of her backside, but also there was little sense talking when his conversation partner couldn't hear him.
He waited patiently, ready to ask her just how much junk she thought she could get into a small suite of rooms, but when she pulled out of the back seat, baby in her arms, the words he'd intended to say fell out of his head. He wasfor the first time everspeechless.
She smiled at him. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
He stared at her. Then the baby. The kid was small, but chubby. Healthy. With pink cheeks and a thatch of thick black hair that poked out in all directions.
The only thing that came out of his mouth was, "What are you doing?"
She frowned. "You said move in. Today. So I can start working tomorrow. Did I misread your instructions?"
"Apparently! Since I don't remember telling you to bring a baby!"
"Oh!" She laughed. "This is my son. Brady." She kissed the little boy's cheek. "Say hello, Brady."
The baby cooed and gooed and Jeb's heart stuttered in his chest. Willing back the swell of emotions that threatened to overtake him, he simply said, "You can't have a baby here."
Sophie kissed the baby's cheek again. "Why not? The agency said it wasn't a problem."
"The employment agency told you that you could bring him?"
"Yes, when they explained that this job was for a live-in housekeeper, I told them about Brady and they said it was no problem for me to bring him."
"I gave them the exact opposite instruction! I said, no kids." Somebody's head was going to roll.
"What difference does it make?" she asked cheerfully before she ran her fingers through her baby's unruly dark hair, trying to tame it. "I'm not working 24/7. Only eight or ten hours a day. And not all back-to-back hours. You said that on my interview. Since my work requires feeding you supper
which takes us past a five o'clock quitting time, especially cleaning up the dining room and kitchen after you eat, you said my days are pretty much my own. I can organize them any way I want. And that means I have plenty of time to care for Brady."
"I can't have a baby here!"
Her expression hardened. Her shiny brown eyes turned into laser beams of steely determination. The laughter was gone from her voice when she said, "Mr. Worthington, obviously there was a mess-up at the agency, but that doesn't mean we can't make the best of it."
Jezebel danced from foot to foot. A clear sign that Jeb's agitation was transmitting itself to her. He took a breath and spoke more calmly. "I don't want to make the best of it. I have clients coming"
Jezebel danced around some more. Jeb tugged lightly on the reins, knowing he had to get her to the stable before he could finish this conversation. "Don't move. I'll be back."
He rode Jezebel into the stable, slid off the saddle and tossed the reins to a hand who was mucking stalls. "Take care of her."
With the anger in his belly churning into hurricane force, he strode outside again and to the driveway. Sophie Penazzi stood beside her vehicle, her child sitting in the plastic basket thing, her arms crossed on her chest.
"I want a thousand dollars to pay for the cost of this trip."
He stopped a few feet in front of her. "A thousand dollars?"
"It should be three. I let my apartment go." Her voice wobbled, but she paused, drew in a breath and very strongly said, "I paid to put my things in storage. I also have the expenses of traveling here. It's cost me a lot to take this job, and if I'm not staying, then I want to be reimbursed." She caught his gaze. "Now."
"We have an employment agreement. You're staying," Jeb said, holding his temper in check by only a thin thread. He pointed at the baby in the basket-carrier thing. "He's not."
"And where is he supposed to go?"
"That's not my problem."
She pulled her employment agreement from her pocket. "It might be the agency's mistake that they told me it was okay to bring my son, but this is your agreement and I don't recall anywhere in here that says I can't bring a child. If you won't let me keep him, you're in breach
" She paused, smiled. "All you have to do is give me a check for a thousand dollars and I'm out of here."
Jeb was just about to remind her that since the agency made the mistake they were responsible to reimburse the money she spent, until she said the magic words
"And you can find yourself another housekeeper."
All the wind evaporated from his angry sails. He couldn't find himself another housekeeper. Thanks to Maria, the women in town wouldn't work for him and none of the other California candidates he'd interviewed had been suitable. She was the only person he considered qualified. If she left, he started at square one and it would take him months to find someone willing to work for him. He didn't have months. He had potential clients coming to see the ranch in three weeks.
He took a pace back. "Haul your gear inside. I'll send Slim out to show you to your quarters." He turned to leave, but spun to face her again.
"And keep him," he said, pointing at the happy baby, "out of my sight."
He pivoted toward the house and strode to his office, all but hyperventilating from fury. He couldn't live with a baby for the entire year of her employment agreement. And if money could get her to leave, he would happily pay it. Just as soon as his potential clients were gone, he'd give her the damned thousand dollars and she could leave.
But that meant he had only three weeks to find a replacement. He fell into the tall-backed chair, grabbed the phone receiver and punched in the number of the employment agency from memory.
"A baby!" he sputtered. His thoughts were so angry he couldn't merely think them; he spoke out loud. "What kind of woman brings a baby to a job?"
"The kind forced to live somewhere for a year."
Seeing Slim standing in the doorway of his office, Jeb slammed the receiver in the phone cradle again. A bear of a man, with shoulders as wide as the doorway, Jim Cavanaugh was one of those people whose childhood nickname no longer fit, but who couldn't seem to get rid of it.
"Don't take her side."
"I'm not taking her side. I'm just stating a fact. The agency told her it was okay for her to bring her child. And since she and the kid are here, what harm can it do to give her a chance?"
What harm? Slim, of all people, should know exactly why he didn't want a baby around. "I'm hiring somebody else."
Slimplanted his hands onhiships. "Oh, really? Where do you propose to find someone? Are you going to trust the agency that already got your instructions wrong with Sophie? Or are you going to try the girls in town again?"
"Look, Jeb. I'm not the kind to state the obvious, but you have to keep her."
Jeb picked up a pencil and tapped it on the mouse pad beside his computer keyboard. "Fine. Whatever. She's got three weeks."
"Just long enough to get the house clean for your clients? You're all heart."
"Don't push it, Slim."
Slim left the room, annoyed that the surfer girl wasn't getting much of a chance to prove herself, but Jeb didn't care. He picked up the phone again. Too much was at stake for him to deviate from his plan. Having a baby around might seem insignificant, but Jeb had seen many a little thing topple big plans. There was no way he'd risk his futurehis homewhen it had taken him so long to get one.
He'd spent his childhood hopping from one tropical paradise to another with his wealthy jet-setter parents. His first year at university he thought he should feel "settled"since he was actually staying in one place for nine consecutive monthsbut he didn't. Eventually he realized "home" was more than a house or a place to consistently lay his head. For the next two years he'd longed for the sense of direction, sense of purpose, sense of identity that the other students had.
Then he had gotten an apartment off campus, next door to two very determined brothers. Ranchers. People of substance. People with roots and identity. People whose great-great-grandparents had settled in Montana and who knew that a hundred years from now their property would still be Langford land.
With too much money and very little meaning to his life, Jeb wanted so much to be one of them that he'd married their sister Laine, and bought the ranch he now lived on, prepared to fulfill his adopted destiny of handing his ranch down from one generation of Worthingtons to the next
Until he and Laine divorced.
His dream had died a sudden, brutal death, but after only a few weeks of wallowing in misery, it dawned on him that he didn't need to have a wife or kids or even a "person" to hand down his land. He could still leave a legacy. It would simply be in the form of a foundationa trust that would keep this ranch running exactly as it was right now for a hundred years after his death.
Just as he always did, he persevered. But only because he didn't deviate from the blueprint he created to achieve his goals.
So no. Sophie Penazzi and her baby were not staying. Might as well start the ball rolling now on finding her replacement.
Two seconds after Jeb strode into his house, Sophie had realized her offer to leave if he would pay her for expenses had been a terrible lapse in judgment. Her horror at making such a stupid mistake must have shown on her face because after Slim had taken her to her room, he'd told her to give him a few minutes and he'd straighten out this mess with Jeb.
Standing in the sitting room of the three-room maid's quarters, admiring the hardwood floors, traditional sofa and chair and big screen TVquarters much nicer than any apartment she could affordshe took a long breath and said a prayer that Slim would be successful. Not only did this job pay enough to wipe out the debt she owed the hospital for Brady's birth, but also she had nowhere else to go. The thousand dollars she'd demanded as compensation for driving to the ranch wouldn't pay the first month's rent on a new apartment; forget about the additional security deposit required on most places. If she lost this job, she and her baby would be dead broke and homeless.