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"You look like a nun in that outfit!"
Audrey Graham sighed and turned around to face what might be her only friend left in the world, sixty-something, maybe even seventy-something, Marion Givens, her inspiration, best cheerleader, landlady and now unofficial job counselor.
"Thank you, I think," Audrey said.
She'd wrapped herself from head to toe in the thick, concealing fabric of what she considered a neat, maybe even stylish designer warm-up suit, if there was such a thing as a truly stylish warm-up suit.
"It wasn't a compliment," Marion said. "Although with that face, I have to say you're much too pretty to be a nun, at least. But from the back "
Audrey frowned at her own reflection in the mirror.
She'd cut her long, brown hair six weeks ago in a fit of needing to be different, she supposed, different in every way. It was curlier than it had been, now that it wasn't so heavy and long, and it bounced around her face constantly. There was just no taming it, but she didn't really spend any time on it, which was what she'd been going for.
Sometimes she thought it looked cute.
Hoped it didn't look sexy.
She hadn't worn any make-up this morning, not really, just some lip gloss and mascara, and she looked like
Audrey just didn't know.
Not like her old self, that was for sure.
Younger than she would have thought she could look, although she hadn't been going for that, either.
She'd been hoping for invisibility or something along those lines.
"I hear nuns have very peaceful lives," Audrey said, grabbing her purse and fishing for her keys. "Peace sounds good to me. Although at the moment, I'm scared to death. I haven't gone on a job interview in nearly twenty years."
She'd been nineteen and looking for a job waiting tables at a place where she was really too young to work, a place where the wait staff wore low-cut tops and little, bitty skirts and the tips were really good.
She'd gotten the job.
Now forty was fast approachingGod, how did that happen?and she was covering up as much of her skin as possible.
'Bout time, Audrey.
"I don't think the interview process has changed all that much," Marion said, trying to reassure her.
"You're sure he really needs somebody? This is not some kind of favor you called in, some make-work kind of thing?"
"I'm sure. He's desperate. He was practically babbling when I ran into him at the restaurantand this is a man who does not babble. Not ever. Plus, honey, remember the most important thinghe lives in the perfect place."
Only five blocks from Audrey's daughter.
She hated Audrey at the present, but she was still here.
Audrey hadn't dreamed of being able to be that close to Andie. She never could have afforded it on her own.
"Okay, I'm ready," Audrey said, glancing at her watch. She had to go.
"Relax," Marion told her. "Breathe. He's not an ogre, and he's not brusque. Not really. Just rushed. Always rushed. Don't waste his time. Don't chitchat. He hates it when people do that. And don't kiss up to him. He hates that, too."
"Does he like anything?" Audrey asked, even more nervous now.
"Peace. He told me he just needs some peace and quiet, and you can give him that." Marion looked like she'd surprised even herself. "Maybe the nun outfit was a good idea after all."
Audrey's hand gripped the steering wheel like a woman facing near-certain death.
Much as she desperately wanted to see her daughter, she hated coming to this part of town. In fact, she didn't come here. Dreaded facing the people here.
Well, she'd just have to get over that.
Because Audrey's ex-husband wasn't really interested in being a father anymore, even if Andie was living with him now. Andie would figure out that she really couldn't count on her father before long, and then
She'd have to turn back to her mother, wouldn't she?
Audrey was counting on it.
Honestly, time and proximity were her only hope.
Andie might not forgive her, but she'd need a mother, and Audrey intended to be as close as possible when that happened.
Which meant, she needed this job.
She took the turn onto Maple Street, gripped the steering wheel so hard she was surprised it didn't snap in two as she passed the entrance to her old neighborhood, then heard nothing but her own heart pounding in her ears.
Breathe, she reminded herself.
You're not that woman anymore, Audrey.
Not that wounded.
Not that angry.
Not that self-destructive.
The pounding eased just a bit.
Nineteen years of careful, predictable, perfectly acceptable behavior, building a good life, what she thought was a reasonably good marriage and a mostly happy family, and she'd thrown it all away in a fit of outrage and bewilderment last fall after her husband walked out on them.
It was as if the nineteen years counted for nothing, and all that she was was the woman she'd become in those raw, painful days and nights. While her husband walking away from her and Andie seemed perfectly acceptable.
Audrey closed her eyes again, breathing.
You're not that woman anymore.
At the end of the block, she turned into the older, more traditional neighborhood of Highland Park. She'd known a bit of what to expect from living nearby for so long. But as she got closer, she realized that Simon Collier lived in the really fancy, older section of the neighborhood, in which the homes were practically estates.
She was surprised he hadn't put up a wall with a gate at the entrance, as some of his neighbors had.
The house was a huge, imposing structure of weathered gray stone soaring three stories high, the grounds extensive, if a bit unkept-looking here and there.
She drove up the long, winding driveway and parked outside the two-story, four-car garage, got out of her car and looked at her watch.
Right on time.
In fact, she was all of two minutes early.
Cutting it too close for comfort, actually, but she'd nearly panicked trying to get out the door at Marion's, and it had slowed her down.
Precisely at 7:00 a.m., the first bay of the garage opened, and standing there beside a sleek, black Lexus convertible stood a man in an elegant, crisp, dark suit, white shirt, blue tie, shoes polished until they shined.
Simon Collier, she presumed.
It was a little scary how he appeared out of the darkness of the garage with the precision of a magician just as the big hand on her watch ticked onto 7:00 a.m.
Still, neat trick.
It helped her to smile just a bit, despite feeling as if she wanted to throw up. As she walked forward, she decided her best bet was pretending he was a very important client of her ex-husband's, coming to dinner at their home, and it was up to her to make sure he felt comfortable and had a good time.
She stuck out a perfectly manicured handher one beauty-vice leftand said, "Mr. Collier? I'm Audrey Graham. Nice to meet you."
He took her hand and looked as if he approved, most likely of her promptness and that she'd made no attempt to chitchat, if Marion knew him as well as she claimed to.
Audrey was still just trying to breathe normally.
Her eyes finally adjusted from the brightness of the morning sunshine to the shadows of the garage, and she realized he was a breathtaking man.
He was beautifully dressed, the suit obviously cut to hug a perfectly proportioned body, handsomely groomed, his hand strong and sure as it gripped hers for a moment, then withdrew.
He had jet-black hair, still thick and full, perfectly tamed, dark eyes with little lines at the corners and a polite smile. He managed to look elegant, pampered even, and yet most thoroughly a man.
Younger than she'd expected, too. The more her eyes became accustomed to the light, the better and younger he looked.
She'd never expected this, given the neighborhood where he lived, the way Marion talked about him with something akin to awe and getting the definite impression that the man was worth a lot of money.
Sixty and balding with a potbelly would have been just fine with her.
But not this.
"Ms. Graham. You're right on time. Good. I'm sorry, but I have very little time this morning, which is almost always the case. We should get right to this."
"Of course," she agreed.
"I have four problems in my life right now, Audrey. May I call you Audrey?"
"Please," she said.
"Good. Please call me Simon. As I was saying, four problems. I don't like problems. I make it my business to solve problems, and right now I have four. Four is very bad."
"I'm sorry," she said, not knowing how else to reply to his crisp stating of facts.
"Don't be. I'm counting on you to solve three of those four problems for me. You understand this is a live-in position?"
"Excellent. My first problem is the yard. Marion tells me you used to have the prettiest yard in the Mill Creek."
"I " What did one say to that? She settled for, "People seemed to like it."
"She gave me the address. I drove by yesterday to take a look. It was very nice. Not too fussy, not too regimented. Big, lush, greening up already, even this time of year. You could do something like that, here?"
"Of course. But you should know, I don't have any formal training in landscaping"
"I don't care," he said, extending a hand in the direction of the front yard, and Audrey took off in that direction with him following her. "I've hired three landscape architects so far. I haven't liked any plan they've shown me, and they've wasted a great deal of my time. You planned and planted the yard at your former home? And maintained it yourself?"
"Good. I want something like that. Something normal looking. Not regimented. Not odd. Normal and green. Now, I want us to work together like this. I don't want to be bothered with details. I want you to handle problems on their own as they come up. Give me a plan to look at, a budget to approve, and then do whatever it takes to make it happen. Understood?"
"Yes," she said, trying not to sound scared out of her mind at the fact that three landscape architects hadn't been able to please him and yet he expected her to do so, without any of the formal training they had.
And at the way the man issued orders.
Not in a mean way, just as if he assumed every word would be obeyed, every expectation met without question.
They made it to the front yard, and he moved quickly, almost soundlessly in front of her, grabbing her by the arms to steady her when her own momentum would have propelled her forward.
"Sorry," he said, giving her an exasperated smile, letting her go and stepping back immediately.
Up that close, she thought he definitely wasn't old.
There'd been a flash of an impression of power and the firm, muscular build that few men had once they hit middle age.
And the eyes, with those little, crinkly lines at their corners Maybe they'd led her to believe he was older than he actually was.
Was he even forty?
Audrey looked up at him, feeling every one of her thirty-nine years and wishing all the more that he was sixty and balding.
She wasn't doing this again, wasn't throwing herself at a man, thinking it was the way to forget all her problems, to solve them, to make everything right again.
He looked nearly as taken aback as she felt and went still for a second once he'd let go of her, as if he might have actually lost track of the orders he was firing off for a moment.
"Sorry," he said again, recovering before she did. "I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself."
He looked down toward her feet. There, mere inches in front of her, was a narrow, deep hole dug into his front lawn.
"This is my second problem," he said.
"A hole in the ground?" She was lost.
"A number of them, all over the place. You really have to be careful walking out here. I don't want you to break a bone. The last landscaper did. He's trying to sue me right now. One more thing I have no time for."
"Oh," Audrey said. "I'll be careful. You have some kind of animal problem?"
"A dog," he said, as if the mere word implied something vile. "It digs."
Audrey worked to keep a straight face.
A mere dog could get the best of this perfectly controlled, very powerful man?
So he was human, after all.
He looked as if he knew she was thinking of laughing in his face and didn't believe for a minute she'd actually do it, that anyone would.
Audrey wiped every trace of amusement from her face, and then watched in amazement as his own mouth started to twitch; he shook his head and swore so softly she wasn't sure she could even make out the words.
"Yes, I know, bested by a dog. I realize how ridiculous that is. Nevertheless, this is the state in which I find myself. I despise the dog. The dog despises me. We have been waging war for weeks, and the dog is winning. You have no idea how much it pains me to admit this"
"Oh, I think I do," Audrey said.
Once again, the ends of his mouth threatened to curl upward a bit. She could almost feel him battling the impulse, before tamping it down and banishing it completely.
He cleared his throat and went on. "Marion also said you had a very well-behaved dog."
"We had a wonderful dog. She died two years ago."
"She didn't dig up things in your very well-designed yard?" he asked.
"She had a small corner of it where she was allowed to bury her bones. Would that be acceptable? One small, out-of-the-way spot where such things are allowed?"
He sighed. "If it's absolutely necessary."
"I think it probably is," Audrey said.
"Fine," he said, as if he'd just agreed to millions of dollars in concessions on a contract he was negotiating. "The dog belongs to my daughter, Peyton. She loves the dog, much more than she loves me at the moment. I'm not proud of it, but I'll admit, I tried to buy her affections with the dog and to some extent it worked. She's very happy to come here now. The problem is her mother only allows her to come for a weekend here and there, and the dog is here all the time. Because Peyton's mother decreed that the dog could not go to her house with Peyton. I think just to torment me even more than my ex-wife already has, and if that's the case, she's succeeded beautifully because the dog has wreaked havoc on my entire home life."