Emmaline Rossi strolled into the huge master bedroom closet of the Malibu, California estate where she worked and thanked whatever hand of Fate that had landed her the job.
Reaching up, she hung onto a nearby hook the plastic-shrouded suits delivered by the dry cleaners. Then she adjusted the long, gray linen apron she wore over her uniform. The black morning coat remained in her own quarters, but she had on the white shirt, black tie, gray vest, and gray-striped trousers. Perhaps some would consider the pieces too formal for every day—her two best friends, employed similarly in nearby homes dressed in a more laid back style—but Emmaline enjoyed wearing the outward sign that she was a graduate of the first all-female class of the prestigious Continental Butler Academy.
It also leant her an air of much-needed dignity. At twenty-six, and gifted with unarguably attractive genes from her Italian-American father and her French-American mother, more than one potential employer—read wife—had taken a single look at her and said she wouldn’t do as their household manager.
Emmaline hadn’t blamed them any more than she took vain satisfaction in the way her face and body had been put together by the fortunate combination of her parents’ DNA. Maybe she’d have begun to resent both if this employment opportunity hadn’t presented itself. But before she’d gone flat broke, Mr. Curry had come into her life.
To prevent her mind from wandering in his direction, she turned her attention to stripping the plastic from his suits and placing them in their proper position on the closet pole—the gray finding its way beside the others of that shade, the blue suit nestled next to a second with a faint tan pinstripe, the dark olive just to the left of one that was the color of deep, bittersweet chocolate.
Then she stood back and surveyed the sectioned space as a whole, breathing in the faint scent of starch from the dress shirts, the richness of the fine wool of the suits, the tang of fresh polish on the gleaming leather shoes, the pairs arranged in precise order on slanted shelves. One of her fingertips traced the length of a silk tie draped on a custom rack, and warm pleasure as well as a distinct sense of well-being swelled inside her.
Maybe because the silent space and luxurious clothes reminded her of her early years before her mother’s death, when she’d often played in Colette’s closet with her own dolls and stuffed animals. Emmaline had created entire worlds behind silk skirts and blouses that smelled of a delicate French perfume.
She’d felt safe there, away from booming voices and the dark tension that sometimes filled their house in Palm Springs.
The thought of that place shadowed her current contentment. Was Malibu too close to those old stomping grounds? Her instincts tried telling her so. But after five years on the run, she’d just had to come back to the United States, and Malibu was where the friends she’d made at the Academy—the two women who were her only family now—had settled.
Glancing down at her own clothes, she ran her hand over the nubby fabric of her apron and reminded herself she was more than one hundred twenty-five miles from the city where she’d grown up and the dangerous men who lived there. And it had been five years. Not to mention the pretty effective disguise that was her butler’s uniform.
Because, when dressed in it, even Mr. Curry hadn’t recognized her from the first occasion they’d met—at the airport’s missing luggage desk—the night she’d arrived in LA.
She leaned against the large walnut dresser in the middle of the closet space and allowed her eyes to drift closed as she recalled that night. Jet lag had lain heavy on her shoulders like a cape, its metaphorical hem dragging along the dirty linoleum of the baggage claim floor as she’d shuffled to the end of the line where dozens of other passengers queued up to make their complaints. Each of her lashes had been an individual weight, dragging down her lids. She’d swayed on her feet, but hadn’t been able to drum up the energy to strengthen her noodly knees.
And then a man had touched her arm. “Miss?”
Startled, her muscles had jerked, and she’d glanced around.
Tired blue eyes had met her brown ones. With a lift of a stubbled jaw, the handsome but weary-looking man behind her had indicated the line was moving on without her.
Embarrassed, she’d scurried forward.
But even with her back turned to him she’d suddenly been hyper-aware of his tall, rangy body and the heat radiating off his skin. A new, electric energy had infused her.
When a disgruntled passenger ahead of them had grown irate, arms flailing, voice rising, Emmaline had shrunk into herself to avoid the commotion. Her stranger had wrapped his fingers around her upper arms and drawn her back against his bigger, hotter—God, so hot, so solid—form.
“I’ve got you,” he’d said into her ear, his breath hot, too, his lips brushing against the outer curve. “Nothing to worry about.”
Maybe it was because she’d been worrying so damn much for the previous five years that those four words in that masculine rumble had touched her straight to the core.
Everything inside her had melted.
“What’s the word?” his voice continued. “Did you hear from Marshall?”
Emmaline frowned. Wait. What? That wasn’t the way the memory went. That night he’d—
Her eyes popped open. Through the closet’s half-open door, she could see Mr. Curry striding across his bedroom’s antique rug, his coat and tie already discarded, his free hand working at the buttons on his shirt.
He wasn’t supposed to be home until tomorrow.
It pleased Emmaline—for him, because she’d heard him say he was heartily sick of business trips—that he was back early, but now she felt like a fool, skulking in his closet.
A voyeuristic fool, because she found she couldn’t move her gaze from him as he dropped his shirt to the floor and sank onto the bed to toe off his shoes.
The discussion with the unseen person on the other end of the call was decidedly business. She couldn’t just waltz out of the closet and disrupt the conversation, could she? But now he was moving his hand to his belt. She heard the buckle’s metallic clink, and then the slither of leather being pulled from loops sent a shiver down her spine.
When he plucked at the button at his waist, she jerked up her gaze.
That wasn’t better. Because now she was staring at his hard, sculpted chest. Muscled shoulders and biceps. All the masculine territory she’d been studiously avoiding since taking up residence as his live-in butler. Amazing how one could communicate with the boss by talking to a space three inches to the right of his ear.
That first call ended and he instantly made another. “Hey, Stella.”
His sister. The reason, Emmaline figured, that he’d decided to hire her. His younger sibling was getting married in a few short weeks, and with their parents gone he was the one hosting all the pre-wedding events and the big day itself. Emmaline was there to keep his personal and home life smooth as the nuptials approached.
“How are you doing, sweetheart?” he asked, his voice low. He’d spoken to Emmaline in a similar tone as they’d left the airport in a taxi.
En route to her hotel room.
En route to her first rendezvous with a stranger.
He continued talking to Stella, his voice growing fainter, and Emmaline dared to stick her head around the closet door to see him disappearing into the attached bathroom—bare back, boxer briefs-clad buttocks.
The sound of the shower flipping on broke her from the stupor brought on by that quick glimpse of his strong, muscled ass. Swooping down to gather the discarded dry cleaner’s plastic film, she ordered her pulse to settle and then made for a quick, silent getaway.
With both feet having just breached the hallway, something hot circled her neck, not a hand, but a new, sudden awareness.
Her feet stuttered.
Cold chills ran down her spine.
She didn’t even blink when he said her name.
As if she’d turn around. “Yes, Mr. Curry?” His given name was Lucas, but he’d shared neither the first nor the last that odd, airport night. In any case, she thought it added just the right note of professionalism—or another piece to her armor—to keep her mode of address as formal as her uniform. “Good to see you back, sir. I hope your trip went well.”
She took another step, hoping it appeared she’d just been passing by the open doorway. “I trust I didn’t disturb you.”
“Oh, but you do that, Emmaline,” he murmured.
What? Had she heard him right? “Um, I—”
“Stella tells me you made a last-minute alteration of a dress for her yesterday?”
“Yes.” Emmaline, still with her back to him, tried calming her jumping nerves. Would she ever get used to living with this man?
“Can you look at me?” Mr. Curry asked.
She’d been trying not to! Ever since she’d moved into his beautiful home. “Of course,” she answered, brisk and matter-of-fact.
The Continental Butler Academy would expect no less from her. Clutching the plastic in both hands, she turned, keeping her gaze trained at that favored spot, three inches from his left ear.
Damn her excellent peripheral vision. She could tell his chest remained bare. Was he covered below the waist? Oh, God, he wouldn’t just stand there without anything between her and his…his naked member, would he?
Naked member. The phrase sounded somewhat respectable. Very much unlike how she’d felt in the backseat of that cab with the hard, solid heat of the thing pressed against her hip as they’d kissed like crazy. She’d been in his lap, and he’d held her face in one large hand, positioning her mouth in just the way he wanted it for a deep, shame-free kiss.
But now her cheeks were heating up. “Is there something else you wanted, sir?”
“‘Sir,’” he echoed, and there might have been a thread of laughter in his voice.
But she couldn’t decide because his cool expression didn’t change. He was a very difficult man to read, even that night when she’d acted on impulse and thrown caution to the wind with a very un-Emmaline proposition.
“I missed hearing that the last few days.”
Okay, this was getting seriously weird. Because before he’d left on the trip, he’d treated her as impersonally as a potted plant—albeit one that could schedule the dry cleaners and pay the landscape company from the household checking account.
Mr. Curry cleared his throat. “Well, it’s about Stella.”
“Oh?” As fair as he was dark, his sister was an appealing young woman who obviously doted on her big brother.
“She’s taken a fancy to you,” her boss continued. “The upcoming wedding is making her nervous, and you seem to be a calming influence.”
“It can be a trying time for a woman.” Emmaline had been that nervous bride-to-be—well, in her case, terrified.
Still, Stella was marrying into the family of a new business partner of Mr. Curry’s. The man’s son. Emmaline understood well how that increased expectations.
“I want you to know I appreciate the extra effort.” He hesitated. “And anything you can do in the near-future for Stella…”
“Of course.” Without her permission, Emmaline’s gaze wandered to his mouth. He had lips that were full, but not too full, and white teeth. They’d gleamed in the darkness of the taxi when he’d smiled at her that night, seeming to anticipate being alone with her after the short ride to the nearby hotel.
Now it was her turn to clear her throat, and she once more forced her thoughts away from that embarrassing encounter. “I’m here to do whatever is necessary to make your life easier, sir.”
She thought she saw his lips quirk at that repeat of “sir.”
“Well,” he said, “don’t think I’m unaware that went above and beyond. We’ll have to think up some sort of…bonus.”
The way he weighted that last word made her heart slam against her ribs and her gaze jerk to his. Oh, God. Wrong move, because his eyes could be anyone’s undoing. They were blue, the hot sort of blue, the kind of blue that made a woman think of the summer sky above a Malibu beach and a tiny bikini and the man whose hands would strip it off them.
“My compensation is entirely adequate as is, Mr. Curry,” she choked out, trying to look anywhere but at him. But his eyes were not only blue, they also had some sticky quality that made it impossible for Emmaline to tear her gaze from him. “Entirely adequate.”
“You’re so…well-trained,” Mr. Curry murmured. “I’ll have to send on my compliments to the Continental Butler Academy.”
“I’m sure they’d appreciate hearing from you,” Emmaline said primly. “Now, if we’re finished…”
She held herself still and pasted a polite expression of inquiry on her face. “Yes?”
“Just know I won’t forget,” Mr. Curry said, so slowly she wanted to scream then demand he answer why he’d detained her at the open doorway of his room when he was half-dressed and wholly scrumptious.
And about ready to get naked in the shower.
If he wasn’t in that state already. Not that she dared let her gaze drop—they were still staring at each other like it was a contest.
And oh, God, she must be losing her mind because the air between them felt so…so electrified, causing her nerves to hum and the small hairs on her body to stand at attention, even though his expression seemed as inscrutable as ever.
Except for those intense, fiery eyes.
“Yes, Emmaline,” he said now. “I won’t forget that I owe you…something.” Then he smiled, and her fingers twisted in the plastic wrapping as her pulse scrambled and her stomach flipped over, shot dead by that blast of potent testosterone. “Rest assured I’m determined to find a way to settle my debt.”
Then he nodded, clearly dismissing her. She didn’t linger, instead dashing down the hall to put as much distance between them as she could. And to think she’d been thanking the hand of Fate just a short while before!
She’d completely forgotten that the bitch could be a cruel mistress and also that the master of the house might mean big trouble for his butler. I’m determined to find a way to settle my debt, he’d said.
It sounded like a threat, right? And suddenly Emmaline didn’t feel the least bit safe.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve spoken.”
Lucas blinked then turned his head to look at the sister he’d been tuning out as she chattered on about something-or-other. “Sorry,” he said to Stella. “What were you talking about?”
“You were off on another of your head-journeys,” she scolded and then shook her finger at him. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get lost in your brain someday and never make it back.”
“You’re right,” he conceded. “I’m bad.”
“You’re not bad, Lucas,” Stella corrected. “Just consumed by business.”
Except that business had been far from his mind the past few minutes. And though sprawled on the overlarge couch in his Malibu place, with the panoramic doors folded open onto the patio and the spectacular ocean view, he hadn’t been consumed by the incredible vista spread before him, either.
A figure flitted at the edge of his vision, her black, white, and gray uniform a contrast to the greens and blues of the walls and furniture.
He’d been preoccupied by thoughts of his butler. Which wasn’t smart. Before this last trip, he’d been careful to keep things between them all professional, all the time. But after a week away, his first glimpse of her had rocked him. So damn beautiful. In their first conversation in days, he’d found himself lowering his voice and sliding into a little flirtatious innuendo.
Gathering his focus, he angled his body to face his sister more fully and gave her his complete attention. “Okay. Let’s start over. Tell me what’s going on with the wedding.”
She launched into a rundown of what had been done about it while he’d been out of town, what needed to be done very soon, what she feared might never get done in the time remaining before she walked down the aisle.
He smiled, listened, and reassured her when he could get a word in edgewise. Stella had been his responsibility for ten years, since he’d been twenty-two and she a slip of thing at twelve. After their parents died in a car crash, it had been up to him to raise her as well as keep together the computer-security business his father had started.
Though he’d never resented either obligation, the fact was, Stella’s upcoming marriage would ease him in more ways than one. With her happiness secured and the business merger solidified, he could at last relax and enjoy a simplified life. A more free-and-easy future.
His butler crossed the room behind the couch, once again snagging his attention. What was it about the damn woman?
No doubt she was beautiful—there wasn’t a man on Earth that wouldn’t notice those lush curves, even camouflaged as they were by that prim and proper uniform. And her skin…so smooth, and a warm apricot color that went well with her glossy dark hair and remarkable, black-lashed brown eyes. The whole package—stunning, and even with twenty-seven straight hours of travel and the beginnings of a flu bug in his system, it had hit him right between the eyes the night they’d encountered each other at the airport.
But Lucas had met many beautiful women over the years, and not one of them had managed to dig so deep into his head and stay there, even after he’d zombie-walked out on her at that hotel room.
Maybe there was the trouble. He’d felt like shit about how the evening had ended—well, thanks to the flu, he’d been beginning to feel like shit as he followed her fine ass through the door of Room 1712—and when he’d recovered days later he’d remembered her name and had done a little digging himself.
That had led him to the Continental Butler Academy and to the fact that she was looking for a position in Southern California. On a whim he couldn’t explain, he’d secured her number, telling the school’s placement agency he could use someone with her training and skills. Then he’d asked Stella to make the initial contact and to conduct a phone interview, hoping his sister would nix the idea because…shit, he’d just hoped his sister would find Emmaline objectionable in some way and save him from his own unwise impulse.
Instead, Stella had been delighted by the other woman during their call and had badgered Lucas into meeting her in person himself.
He should have known better…he always knew better! He was a focused, in-control, no-nonsense businessman, one who had built up his father’s modest business into a new-century, new-tech success story. Pretty faces and lovely breasts—okay, gorgeous faces and an impressive rack—didn’t distract him. But Stella had insisted and insisted that a butler was just what her busy brother needed.
Still, his good sense had warned him it wasn’t the time to come face-to-face with the lush beauty again. With a wedding in the offing, a little sister to soothe through any bridezilla moments, a merger as part of that deal because Stella was marrying a VP of the other company who was also the son of its CEO, Lucas didn’t have time for a…for a…dalliance.
Because it was a distinct possibility he’d want that way more than full-time household help.
But Lucas hadn’t been able to stifle his curiosity. He’d gone to the damn interview for just that reason—to determine if she was half as incredible-looking as he’d thought in his flu-addled state. To decide if that magnetic pull he’d felt for her was anything more than an initial symptom of the ravening illness that had overtaken him hours later.
They’d met on the patio of a Malibu coffee place, and he’d been poleaxed. Momentarily rendered speechless by her beauty and his instant reaction to it, he’d somehow given Emmaline the impression he didn’t remember their airport encounter and the mutual seduction he’d abruptly cut short that night.
Much later, he’d realized the most direct cause of his sudden departure had been the three pills he’d tossed back in the missing-luggage line. Instead of pain relievers, he’d mistakenly downed over-the-counter sleeping tablets. On top of those was the mini-bar bottle of vodka he and Emmaline had shared, straight up, upon entering Room 1712. When she’d retreated to the bathroom, his head had taken three woozy spins, and he’d realized he was in sudden danger of going corpse at her feet. So, with his head and senses still reeling, he’d stumbled from the room and blearily found his way home.
Did he explain that on the patio, when he’d had a moment to collect his wits? Did he tell her why he’d made that disappearing act?
No. Because he’d recalled then too that she’d expressed concern to the airport counter clerk about how soon her luggage might be returned. She didn’t admit it would be a hardship to fork over the cash to replace even some of the missing items, but she didn’t have to confess to being hard-up for money. He’d read it in the tense set of her shoulders and the battered state of the backpack hanging from her narrow hand.
So Lucas had been damn glad he’d paid from his own wallet when they’d collected the key card for the hotel room she’d reserved .
And thinking of all that while sitting across from her, her slender fingers cupping a paper latte cup, her expression slightly anxious, he’d realized she needed a job much more than another go at a casual hook-up. Particularly with a man who wasn’t in the market for anything else.
Ten seconds later, bowing to impulse once again, he’d hired the woman…putting her, as his employee, firmly into the “Don’t Touch, Don’t Flirt” category.
“You’re still not listening,” his sister said now, poking at him with the toe of her shoe. “I’m going to talk to Emmaline instead.”
Guilt pinched him again. “Ste—”
“Hey, Emmaline,” Stella said, raising her voice. “I love that new manicurist you recommended.”
The butler appeared from the direction of the bedrooms, a cloth in hand, smiling. “Oh, I’m so glad.”
She glowed, Lucas thought. Light came from inside her when she was pleased.
“I hoped that would work out for you,” she continued, still beaming.
Light came from inside her when she pleased other people, he amended.
“I’ve set up a standing weekly appointment and a special one for the day before the wedding,” Stella said. At that last word, she began to twist her engagement ring around and around on her finger. “How did you find her?”
“The credit goes to my friend Charlie—Charlotte—who has been settled in Malibu longer than I have. She has list upon list of quality service providers of all kinds.”
“She’s one of your two friends from the butler academy who work nearby, right?”
“Right. Charlie works for Ethan Archer and his son, Wells. My pal Sara works for Joaquin Weatherford—well, worked for. They’re now engaged.”
Stella continued twisting her ring. “That’s nice…and nice that you could find work near each other.”
“It’s why I came. They’re like family.”
“You wouldn’t rather still be in Europe?”
The butler gave a slight shrug. “I traveled around there for years, working as a nanny or au pair and teaching some English.”
“All on your own?” Stella eyes widened. “That was so brave of you.”
Lucas glanced at his sister, thinking Emmaline would have been younger than Stella was right then when she’d taken off overseas on her own. Yes, brave. Stella hadn’t exercised her own independence beyond moving from this house to a town home with a girlfriend.
“Oh, I’m a free spirit,” Emmaline said in a breezy tone, with another of her smiles that this time didn’t seem near as bright. “I’ve never needed roots to bloom.”
Never needed roots to bloom? Lucas narrowed his gaze. Somehow that didn’t ring true to him. A woman who wanted to live a nomadic life would train to be a trapeze artist in a traveling troupe, not a caretaker of hearth and home.
As if Emmaline felt him studying her, she threw him a quick glance. Their gazes clashed for a moment, then held.
God. There it was all over again. The click of connection, followed by that hot current running between them. It had been the same that night at the airport. He’d turned from the luggage counter to see her lingering nearby, as if hoping her suitcases would make a miraculous appearance. Their eyes had met.
And it was the damnedest thing, but he’d walked toward her like he was hand-over-handing a line that was wrapped around her delectable body. She’d been still, as if truly bound by that imaginary rope, and clearly apprehensive. But when he came to stand a foot away, she’d tilted her chin even as a flush broke over her beautiful face.
At that little sign of challenge, he’d reached out to wrap an errant lock of her hair around his index finger. Instead of moving away or protesting or both, she’d merely swiped her puffy bottom lip with her tongue.
He’d swallowed his groan. “Can I take you somewhere, buy you a drink?” he’d asked, his voice husky.
“Um.” A small tremor had shaken her frame. “I have an idea of where we can go.”
Stella again. Once more, he’d forgotten all about her. Snapping his gaze to her face and noting the expectant expression there, he tried recalling what she’d been saying. Total blank. “Excuse me?”
She rolled her eyes, just like the teenager it seemed she’d been just a day before. “You aren’t paying attention.”
“Yeah.” He glanced at Emmaline, glanced back. “Repeat, please, Stella.”
“I reminded you about that charity event you promised to attend with me tomorrow night.”
He drew another complete blank. “Uh…”
Stella sighed extravagantly. “Posies and Ponies?”
“What?” He frowned at her. “That doesn’t sound like something I’d agree to.”
Which produced another eye roll. “It’s for an excellent program that brings together autistic kids and horses. The theme for this year’s dinner dance is Posies and Ponies.”
The program itself rang a bell. “Okay, the horses and kids thing sounds like something I’d agree to. But posies?” Lucas grumbled. “Geez, Stella. Will my balls shrivel and fall off if I attend?”
“Don’t be crude,” his sister said, scowling at him. “Just get yourself into a dinner jacket and bring a beautiful corsage for your date.”
“Wait.” He didn’t know why he flicked a glance toward Emmaline. “When did I get a date?”
“When we ended up with an extra ticket for Aaron’s cousin, Valerie. You’ll like her.”
“Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.” Now it was Lucas’s turn to scowl. “I don’t do set-ups.”
“It’s Aaron’s cousin. Since he’s my fiancé, she’s practically your family.”
Without forethought, he looked at Emmaline again, sending out an SOS. She was his butler. Wasn’t it part of her duties to get him out of shit like this?
The corners of Emmaline’s luscious lips lifted as she shifted her attention to his sister. “I can take care of ordering the necessary flowers.”
It was apparent Emmaline hadn’t received his alarm signal, damn it.
“And may I make a suggestion?” the woman continued. “Your group could start off your evening with pre-dinner drinks at Top Shelf.”
Stella sighed. “Great idea, but it’s the hottest place in town, and nobody can get seats there, even in the bar.”
“Well…,” Emmaline said, “it’s possible I can.”
With a delighted gasp, Stella clasped her hands under her chin. “Really?”
“Really.” Emmaline grinned, that high-wattage, gratified kind. “We butlers have our ways.”
She wouldn’t have any “ways” after he wrung her neck, Lucas thought, trying to ignore what the “I’m-happy-to-make-you-happy” display did to him. Because that bright smile of hers brought to life a wolf that now seemed to be living beneath his skin. He wanted to howl. Pounce. Drag her away for his private consumption. But he didn’t voice any further protest because Stella was already far into a new round of glad-chatter, and he didn’t have it in him to smother his little sister’s upbeat mood.
Not after that weird ring-spinning she’d been doing earlier.
So shit, crap, damn, he was going on a blind date.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Stella gushed at Emmaline now. “Right?”
“Of course,” Lucas’s butler said. “I’ll make sure you all have a perfect night.” This time her blinding smile included him too.
He didn’t return it, working hard to keep his growls and snarls to himself. But still, he wondered what she might do if he told her his own idea of a “perfect night” had been playing out in his fantasies since the moment they’d met.
And included a very bare and blushing Emmaline Rossi in his bed.
In the late afternoon the next day, Emmaline headed to her quarters on the first floor of Lucas’s beachfront house. It had its own entrance at the side of the residence but could be reached through the laundry room as well. Going through that door, she walked into a sitting area that opened into a generous-sized bedroom with a large bathroom attached. There was even a mini-kitchen in one corner of the main space.
The house was obviously designed for full-time, live-in help, and she smiled at her surroundings as she stripped out of her uniform and changed into a pair of comfy black yoga pants and a slouchy top in pale green. She left her feet bare, the rug covering the hardwood floors enough to keep her toes warm.
She’d had a recent pedicure—not at the elegant nail salon she’d recommended to Stella—but at a perfectly nice place that took walk-ins. Her choice of color, an opalescent pale blue-green the same shade as when the sun struck the shallow waters of a low tide.
Pulling the band from the end of her braid, she fingered out her hair so the waves fell to her shoulders. Then she poured herself an ice tea and took up her phone, calling one of her friends from the butler academy, Sara.
When the other woman picked up with a cheerful greeting, Emmaline lowered to a nearby cushioned chair and spoke in a quiet tone. “He’s back.”
“No, yesterday. I didn’t want to bother you because I knew you and Joaquin had a date night planned.”
“It wouldn’t have been any bother,” Sara said. “Is it going okay?”
“I suppose so.” He’d been away on business more than half the time of Emmaline’s employment, so they’d yet to fall into an ordinary routine. She was still learning the tasks he required of her, not to mention those she would take on under her own initiative. It was an essential part of her role as his employee, according to what she’d learned at the Continental Butler Academy. An exemplary butler—or house manager, as some were called—found ways to make their employer’s life and household run smoother, without the constant need for direct instruction.
“Any further illumination on the wife thing?”
Emmaline’s cheeks began to heat. “It’s just something his sister Stella keeps on about. She tells me her brother works too hard and he needs someone to make sure he has time for leisure too. And as a matter of fact, he’s got a date tonight to a fundraiser. Thanks to Charlie’s contacts, I managed to get his group a table at the latest hot spot for drinks before the event.”
Her instructors at the academy would fully approve—not just of obtaining the reservation, but that she’d been keeping up with local goings-on, from political and business news to society gossip to what new restaurants and entertainments were opening in the vicinity. She’d also be making and keeping her own list of convenient contacts. This time it had been Charlie’s guy—the one who headed up the valet parking at Top Shelf—that Emmaline had called. Once he received the custom brass collar stays engraved with his initials that she’d ordered—after learning he was quite the snazzy dresser—she figured he’d be her guy too.
“Hmm,” Sara said, her voice non-committal. “Night out for the boss. Any mention of your night with him that wasn’t when you landed at LAX?”
“No, no,” Emmaline said hastily, and waved her free hand even though her friend couldn’t see it. “That’s forgotten on my part and still apparently never remembered on his.”
“Hmm,” Sara said again.
“Really,” Emmaline insisted. “And anyway, the focus is the present, in which he has a social event scheduled—a date. My only interest in that is in the strictest professional sense, by the way.”
“No one said you had an interest in his dating other than professional, Emmaline,” Sara replied, her tone amused. “Are you… jealous?”
“Of course not!” Emmaline said. “I don’t care about having drinks at a trendy bar. And I’ve been to plenty of charity fundraisers. Those society affairs suffocate me.”
The quiet on the other end of the line told her she’d made a misstep. Grr. “You never said anything about attending fundraisers before,” Sara said slowly. “Not one word about ‘society affairs’ in all the time I’ve known you.”
“It’s not worth talking about,” Emmaline replied. “That’s the past too.” The deep, dark past.
A knock on her door made Emmaline interrupt her friend. “Gotta go. Someone’s at my door.” She ended the call with a quick tap, glad to get away from a potential interrogation, then rushed to the entrance to her rooms. Once she got there, she sucked in a breath.
It had to be him.
Pasting on her most neutral expression, she swung open the door. “Sir.”
She managed to get that out before noting his attire—or lack thereof. In stocking feet, Mr. Curry stood before her in black tuxedo pants and nothing else. Meaning bare chest and arms, rugged and rippled with muscles.
His expression gave away a vague irritation, then he blinked, and his gaze roamed from her freed hair to her bare toes. “You’re out of uniform.”
She glanced toward her bedroom. “I can change—”
“No,” he said, his tone definitive. “I don’t want you wearing that penguin get-up anymore.”
It wasn’t panic that spurted in her belly, she told herself. “Sir—”
“Can’t I forbid it?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “It seems like I should be able to stipulate a more casual look.”
Be without her armor? “Um, Mr. Curry—”
“What if I form it as a request?” He leaned one bare shoulder against the door jamb. “Is that easier for you? Because seeing you in those formal clothes makes me feel like the Queen will sashay around a corner any moment. It does not make my home the warm and relaxing space it should be for me.”
“Oh.” Emmaline’s shoulders slumped. “Of course, that’s my first priority, sir. I’ll leave off the uniform from now on—unless you instruct otherwise.”
He smiled. “See how simple? When you look more comfortable, I will be too.”
“Yes, sir.” Emmaline stifled her sigh.
“Now, I got your note,” Mr. Curry continued. From his pocket, he pulled out a small piece of paper. “You told me to call you when I’m ready to dress for the, uh…”
“Your date,” Emmaline said firmly. He was going out with another woman tonight, and she was happy for him. He deserved R&R and even another R, Romance, if that’s what he found. A good butler took enjoyment in her employer’s enjoyment. “But you could have used the intercom to summon me.”
“I could stir myself to walk a few steps and politely knock on your door, too.” He looked over her shoulder into the room. “Are you getting situated?” His gaze ran around the space. “I don’t see any family photos. You know you’re free to personalize, right?”
“Let’s go back to the master suite,” Emmaline said, bustling past him. No way did she want to get into a discussion about her family. She checked her watch. “We need to get you dressed if you’re going to pick up your date on time.”
He followed behind her. “Yes, ma’am.”
Ignoring his sardonic tone, she entered his room and made for the closet. The rest of the clothes she’d selected for his evening were hanging from a hook on the rack beside the long walnut dresser. First, though, she pulled open one of the drawers and drew out a pristine white undershirt.
As she went to close the drawer, he stayed her hand with a brief touch.
“Emmaline,” he said sternly.
She threw him a quick glance over her shoulder then returned her attention to the undershirt which she unfolded and smoothed. “Yes?”
“Have you been ironing my underwear again?”
“Well…” Her head ducked, and she rubbed her thumbs across the cool fabric in her hand.
“I thought I’d put a stop to that your first week on the job.”
“It’s a sickness!” she exclaimed, turning toward him and addressing that place beside his ear. “I can’t help it.”
“A sickness,” he scoffed. “You can do better than that.”
She hesitated. “Ironing is soothing,” she finally confessed. “It…calms me.”
Mr. Curry stilled, and she could feel him studying her face. “Emmaline, what do you have to be uneasy about?”
“You know.” She shrugged. “I worry whether I can find the socks that go missing in the dryer. If the spring mix in the refrigerator is still fresh. Whether there’s enough of your favorite beer stocked in the beverage cooler.”
“And if you’ll be on time for tonight’s event,” she said over him and thrust the shirt his way. “Now put this on.”
To her relief, he let the subject go and dutifully drew on the soft cotton-silk blend. She busied herself with sliding the button-up shirt with the classic spread collar off its velvet-lined hangar.
Mr. Curry eyed it suspiciously as he tucked the undershirt into his waistband. “That thing doesn’t have pleats or ruffles, does it?”
“Not at all,” she assured him. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
When he tried to take it from her, she moved back and held it open for him. “Turn around and slide your arms through the sleeves.”
“I’ve been dressing myself for years,” he grumbled, but obeyed. “Is this really necessary?”
“I’ve been trained as a body servant.”
He turned to stare at her. “A what?”
She bit her lip. “Have you ever seen episodes of Downton Abbey?”
“I may have been in the room when Stella had it on the TV. But I recall the guy who dressed the aristocrat was not the same guy as the butler.”
“Well, I’ve been trained in both sets of duties. Part of what I learned at the Continental Butler Academy was how to dress a man. What pieces to wear when and how a man should wear them.”
“I can do that myself,” he said.
“What shoes have you chosen for tonight?”
“Do you know how to fashion a bow tie?”
“Am I clipping it on?” he asked hopefully.
“No. You are going to wear your black cap-toe shoes that I polished just this morning.” She pointed them out. “And I’ll take care of your tie for you.”
He sighed. “Fine, fine.” Then he glanced down. “But sweetheart, you just had me put on a shirt without buttons.”
Sweetheart. Ignoring that, she opened another drawer in the dresser and drew out the onyx studs she’d ensured were clean and buffed. “I’ll take care of that too,” she said, and gestured him closer.
Oh, boy, she thought, as they came toes-to-toes. She could smell his soap, a new brand she’d picked out herself that smelled faintly of a coastal forest. Her fingers brushed the smoothly-shaven underside of his chin as she fastened the shirt at his neck. Holding her breath, she managed it aptly enough, but was forced to rush through the task.
“You’d better take in some air, Emmaline,” he said. “You’re turning pink.”
Which only made her blush heat up. “I’m fine,” she muttered, then fastened the last of the studs at the bottom of the shirt. She held out the tails so as not to make any accidental contact with dangerous portions of his anatomy.
Stepping back, she turned away to pull the bow tie from the dresser.
“Forget something?” he asked, and moving behind her, thrust his arms out so she was caged by his big body.
She stared at his wrists and the open cuffs of the shirt for a long moment, holding herself ramrod straight while resisting the inappropriate yearning to relax into him. God, it was like a sickness, this overwhelming physical reaction she had to him.
“Breathe,” Mr. Curry said, his own breath bathing the crown of her head and causing her scalp to prickle. “Remember you need to breathe, Emmaline.”
So she did that, and after another moment managed to do up his cuffs with only one slight fumble. Then she made him sit so she could fashion the bow tie. He complained so much about the procedure that she threatened to start ironing his socks, which instantly quieted him. When she handed him the appropriate pair of shoes, he sent her a look.
“What?” he asked, sounding testy. “You won’t kneel at my feet?”
Her cheeks heated again, and she didn’t let her imagination picture herself doing that very thing—for an entirely different purpose.
“You’re getting cranky,” she pointed out.
“I don’t want to go through with this evening,” he grumbled.
“Try to enjoy yourself,” she said briskly, gesturing him to stand, then holding up the ivory-colored dinner jacket for him to slip on.
“When did I get this?” he asked, as she came around to smooth the lapels and tug on the hems of the sleeves.
“It’s from the menswear store where Stella said she’s shopped for you before.” It turned out that the excellent state of Mr. Curry’s closet could be attributed to his sister and her appreciation of haberdashery. “They knew your measurements and were happy to provide express tailoring.”
He crossed to the free-standing full-length mirror and inspected himself. “I guess I’ll do.”
From behind him, she admired the set of his broad shoulders and the length of his legs. “You look dashing,” she said, then cleared her throat. “In my professional opinion, of course.”
Mr. Curry smiled at her in the mirror, their gazes meeting. “In your professional opinion. Of course.”
He knows, she thought, trying to conceal her embarrassment. He knew her admiration went way beyond the professional. Before she could humiliate herself any further, she said, “Meet me in the kitchen when you’re ready to go,” and took her leave.
There, she opened the refrigerator doors and stood before the shelving, letting the cold air waft over her hot face and neck. Get a hold of yourself, she scolded. Put on your butler face and wish him a happy evening.
When he arrived in the room, she quickly removed two plastic clamshell containers. One she held out to him. “For you to give your date.”
He winced. “We really have to do this?”
“It’s the…gimmick, if you will, of the event.” She tilted the box. “This is nothing like a prom date corsage, see?” It was elegant and simple, and fashioned on a silver cuff. “I had Stella ask about the color of the other woman’s dress.”
The other woman. That sounded wrong. “I mean your date’s dress,” Emmaline corrected. “Valerie.”
“Valerie,” Mr. Curry repeated, grimacing as he took the box. “If this is the night from hell, I’m blaming you.”
“Me?” Emmaline began, then shook her head. There was no more time for argument. “Let me pin on your boutonniere.”
He grumbled about that, too, but allowed her to fasten the tiny cream-colored lily with its tinier periwinkle companion.
“Look,” she said. “I had them wrap the stems with a strip of black leather. As macho as I could manage.”
Glancing down, he smiled. “Thank you.”
“I was aware you were worried about the state of your testicles.” Heat shot up her neck. Oh, why had she brought that up?
Mr. Curry only laughed. “A butler always has the master’s best interests at heart.”
“Indeed,” said Emmaline, trying to hide her fluster by looking at her watch. “Now you’d better get going.”
“Right.” He strode toward the door to the garage, and she followed in his wake.
“Have a wonderful time,” she said as his hand went to the knob. “Relax and enjoy yourself.”
He flashed her a smile over his shoulder. “Don’t wait up.” Then he paused, and turned toward her. “Hey, what do you have going on tonight?”
Don’t let him know you’ll probably spend the evening imagining him with someone else.
She fastened on another smile. “Oh, I have my own date, sir. With a very interesting Mr. Hamilton.”
Lucas let himself into the house, stumbling over the threshold on a wave of weariness. Fucking jet lag. He never survived it well, and his trip from New York to LA was just now catching up with him. All he wanted to do was fall into bed and sleep.
The sound of soft music playing took him on a detour from the most direct path to his bedroom. He stripped off his jacket along the way and tried fruitlessly to unfasten the bow tie. But his hand dropped from the damn thing when he caught sight of the figure propped in a corner of his huge couch.
Highlighted by light from the lamp on a side table, a sleeping Emmaline slouched on the cushions. Dressed in a deep pink, satiny robe, it appeared she had some white fabric on her lap. Her phone and a tapestry-covered box sat on the cushion beside her. Coming closer, he peered inside the open lid of the container. Sewing stuff.
Huh. That explained the needle and thread cupped loosely in her limp hand.
Damn, she looked relaxed, and a spurt of irritation infused his weariness. His gorgeous butler must have enjoyed her date while he’d sat at a linen-draped round table with a centerpiece of flowers and horse shoes listening to Aaron’s second-cousin Valerie who turned out to be just so, so glad to make his acquaintance. Too so glad.
He shook his head to dispel the image, then contemplated his next move—leave Emmaline sleeping on the couch to wake with a stiff neck some hours later or rouse her now without somehow scaring the bejesus out of her. The music playing through the room’s speakers changed tempo, and he recognized the song. One glance at her phone’s screen made clear that “The Schuyler Sisters” was streaming wirelessly from the device to the stereo system.
Date with Mr. Hamilton, indeed. Smiling, he reached for her phone to stop the music from playing. At the sudden silence, Emmaline shifted, eyelashes fluttering and the fabric in her lap falling to the floor.
He bent for it, straightened, and found her staring at him with a drowsy gaze. “Hey, sleepyhead.”
She blinked, her incredible face flushed, her expression confused. “Um…”
Holding up the fabric, he took a glance at it, paused. “What’s this?”
Her brows came together. “Oh.” She cleared her throat, as if to clear the sleepiness from her brain. “I’m monogramming some of your things.”
Ah. Centered on the upper edge of the pocket of one of his white shirts was an embroidered and elegantly styled letter L, a larger C, a W the same size as the first, all in a shade of the palest gray. The initials for Lucas William Curry, in precise stitches that must take talent as well as skill, since all three letters were arranged in a circle the size of a dime.
Somehow it didn’t seem the work of a self-proclaimed “free spirit.”
He glanced toward his butler who was sitting straighter now and fussing with the edges of her satin robe that ended just above her knees. “Isn’t there a…I don’t know…business that does this kind of thing?”
“I do this kind of thing.” Her gaze downcast, she continued playing with the satin. “There’s a knitting shop nearby on the Pacific Coast Highway. They carry other kinds of needlework supplies as well.”
As he continued to study her, she switched to busying herself with tidying the contents of her sewing box. Then she got to her feet, shooting him an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry, what must you think of me?” she asked, tightening the sash of her robe.
It didn’t cover the glimpse of cleavage he could see peeking from the vee neckline of the matching nightgown she wore beneath. Lucas’s weariness evaporated in a blast of lust.
“I should have asked you about your evening first thing,” Emmaline continued. She swooped to pick up an empty mug on the side table and headed with it toward the kitchen, separated from the living area by the granite-topped island.
He trailed after her, watching as she rinsed the mug and stowed it in the dishwasher. “How about you go first? How was your date?”
“Oh, lovely,” she said, not meeting his eyes by refolding a dish towel already fashioned into a neat rectangle.
“Mr. Hamilton live up to your expectations?”
She peeked at him from beneath her lashes.
Just that made him half-hard.
“Sure,” she said, with a flicker of a dimple in her cheek.
All hard now. But he couldn’t resist teasing again. “Isn’t he a little…old for you? Not to mention, well, dead?”
Eyes still downcast, he saw her quick smile. “Okay, fine. Make me admit it, then. I had a date with a playlist.”
He laughed, soft and low, which caused her gaze to lift. They stared at each other for a quick moment before she managed to turn from him and reach for the tea kettle. “I’m going to make another cup of tea. Would you like something?”
“Can you make it without caffeine? Jet lag’s fucking with me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said, filling the kettle.
He wondered if this was the opening he should take. Launch into a discussion of their night that wasn’t by explaining his exhaustion, his oncoming flu, the carousel ride his brain had been on and the fucked-up decision he’d made to leave her without saying a word.
Instead, another thought came out of his mouth. “If not Mr. Hamilton, are you dating someone—or someones—else?” To give him credit, it sounded like an idle question.
“I…well…” The kettle shrieked, and she busied herself with making two mugs of tea. She slid one to him and stayed on her side of the island, leaning her hips against the countertop as she blew on the surface to cool her beverage.
Damn it, Lucas thought. She wouldn’t do that if she knew how her pursed lips reminded him of her kisses. Her warm weight on his lap in the taxi, the night rushing by as he held her still for his marauding mouth. Not that she’d resisted. She’d been pliant―all female surrender and sweet, sweet heat.
He’d never tasted anything more delicious than Emmaline’s hot, wet mouth.
“It’s fucking roasting in here,” he muttered now, and crossed to the doors that led to the ocean-view patio. Throwing one open, he let the cool, salty breeze and the sound of the waves wash over him. He breathed deep, wondering if every minute in the presence of his butler was going to be just like this. Blistering. Frustrating.
She made him hard, she made him want.
And he’d done her the fucking favor of hiring her to be his butler. Which included acting as his body servant. He’d spent the whole damn night trying not to think of that.
A light touch brushed his elbow.
He spun, and Emmaline stepped back, concern written all over her face. “Was your evening unpleasant then?”
“I…” He forked his fingers through his hair, recalling he’d told her he’d blame her if it went to hell. What kind of asshole boss did that?
Closing his eyes, he struggled for control. “I wish you’d call me something else,” he muttered.
Oh, shit. That sweet “sir” was not any easier to hear. He should demand she call him Lucas, like she would have if they’d carried on that night they’d met. She’d have begged him to make her come, his name on her lips before, during, and after. He’d have had her head on his shoulder as they calmed, his hand sifting through the glorious waves of her hair, her breasts pressed against his side. His body taking a short break before reviving for a Round Two.
Because once wouldn’t have been enough with Emmaline.
Which, if he was being honest, was probably why he continued with this farce—pretending he’d never had his tongue in her mouth, his hand crawling up her sleek thigh even with a cabbie just a few inches away.
It gave him control over something that had seemed to be careening toward the uncontrollable.
He’d always had a thing about keeping the power in a relationship. It didn’t take a genius to understand that maintaining the upper hand ensured he’d remain invulnerable.
Letting out a sigh, he stepped around her. “I’m going to bed,” he said, and started walking.
It took him a minute to realize this time she was trailing him. He glanced back. “What are you doing?”
“I’ll help you with the bowtie and the studs,” she said.
Because she was his body servant.
Yeah, he should have sent her away then, to scurry toward her quarters on the other side of the house, even if that meant he had to cut off the damn bow tie or at least sleep in it. Instead, he enjoyed the faint whiff of her perfume as she continued at his heels and thought about having her lush curves close to him again as she ministered to his needs.
He swallowed his groan, accepting the distinct possibility he was going to hell.
At his suite, it was no surprise to find she’d left on a low lamp and had turned down his side of the bed. He stared at the smooth expanse of fancy cotton, then sighed again.
“I suppose it’s pointless to ask you to stop ironing the sheets and pillowcases.” He glanced over his shoulder to see her uncertainly chewing on her bottom lip.
She was going to kill him.
“Never mind,” he said quickly. “Go to town, lady. Iron the hell out of anything you want.” Then he stopped short. “Except the socks.”
“Okay.” Her smile was that “I’ve-made-you-happy” kind.
“Or the bath towels,” he added, just in case.
“Nobody irons bath towels,” she said with a little laugh that was nearly a giggle. “Completely misses the point, as you want them fluffy.”
“Fine.” He made his way into the closet and flipped on the lights. They dazzled his eyes after the dimmer atmosphere of the bedroom, and he closed them for a second.
They were still closed when he felt her small hands tugging at the studs of his shirt. So he kept them that way, thinking it was probably safer not to stare into those long-lashed big browns of hers.
Then she’d reached the bow tie, and she made a cute little frustrated sound in her throat as she worked at it.
“I might have tugged at it a time or two,” he said in apology, and opened his eyes to look down at her.
“Poor man,” she said, glancing up.
That face. Broad forehead, exotic eyes, full lips, small square chin. “Fuck Emmaline, you’re so damn…good at what you do.”
He’d been going to say beautiful, but stopped himself just in time. Because, yeah, that would have been the wrong kind of boss move.
She shrugged and finally managed to free the bow tie.
“You don’t know that?” he asked, still thinking of her looks. “You must know that.”
She shrugged again.
“Emmaline, you’re fucking lovely.” Oh, shit. What was wrong with him? That shouldn’t have spilled out of his mouth. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I was out of line. Much too personal.”
“No worries.” Her fingers were at the stud fastening his collar. “I don’t take that kind of comment personally because I don’t take any credit for my appearance. Fortunate genes, is all. I was lucky that way.”
Then her lashes lowered, hiding her expression. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but decided her mind might be several miles away, because then she gripped his shirt and started tugging the long tails free of his pants.
Fucking God. The fabric slid against his dick like the soft stroke of a hand. Her hand.
“You understand,” she said now, continuing to gently pull, the light pressure against his growing erection excruciating. “You’re a very handsome man.”
“Emmaline.” He grabbed her hands to still them before he embarrassed them both with a solid dick that was interested in more than a discussion of pretty faces. One more second, and it would be demanding to get inside her, and he wasn’t sure he had the will to keep the wolf inside him at bay. “You need to get out of here. Now.”
Her chin jerked up, and she blinked those incredible eyes, before they suddenly flared wide. Her pulse began thrumming in her throat, and when she took in an unsteady breath he could see her nipples hardening, poking into the satin fabric of her nightgown and robe.
She swallowed, and a pretty flush broke across her amazing cheekbones. “I…”
He could smell her, the scent of Emmaline’s skin heating, and the scent of something else, far more dangerous. Her desire. It bloomed in the air, and in that betraying blush.
Her want of him.
Emmaline’s fingers trembled in his, and Lucas squeezed them, trying to reassure her. “Sweetheart,” he whispered. “Just go.”
Her head gave a jerky nod, and then she slipped from his hold, backing away on her bare feet. At the closet doorway, she found her voice. “Have a…have a good rest,” she said, and then rushed away, the hem of her robe fluttering behind her. The sash caught on the edge of the table by the bedroom door and slid free of the loops, but she didn’t slow, leaving it to fall to the rug.
Lucas watched her receding back, then crossed the floor to pick up the errant length of satin. Brushing it against his mouth, he tried to calm his clamoring libido.
Shit. Jet lag or not, he figured there wasn’t going to be any sleeping for him tonight. Instead, it would be long hours of running numbers.
Hours spent calculating which one of them was going to crack first under the pressure of their mutual desire.
Emmaline felt like a kid let out of school for the summer as she joined the slow-moving traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu’s twenty-something miles of coastline were a popular destination any time of year, but when the sand and temperatures heated up, so did the number of visitors. She’d read that between May and August, 7.5 million found their way to the place.
Tourist bureau hype? Maybe, but judging from the vast number of bumper-to-bumper cars on all lanes of the highway, she was inclined to believe the statistic.
Still, she didn’t mind joining the crowd. Mr. Curry had been called away for another trip—an overnight to San Francisco—and the only thing on her immediate agenda was meeting her two friends, Sara Smythe and Charlie Emerson, for lunch. Taking a cue from those around her, she cranked down her window, letting in the breeze-cooled, salty summer air. Diverse music from the different radio stations came together to create a wholly new and not altogether unpleasant cacophonous melody
With plenty of time to make her lunch date, Emmaline relaxed in her seat and hummed along with the summer song coming from her car’s speakers.
It was going to be a great day.
How could it not? She took in the blue sky above, the fish-scale silvery shade of the ocean to the west, the deceptive view of the abodes butting up against the PCH. If not altogether hidden by gates, they appeared nondescript, merely showing their backsides—garages. The structures didn’t hint at the luxuries beyond, such as impressive square footage, stunning views, and beach access that was close to private. She’d learned that allowing non-residents onto the sand in front of the homes and mansions was an ongoing battle. But the law stated that all beaches were public between the mean high tide line and the water. Mr. Curry had instructed her that unless something illegal was going on, she should leave to their pleasures the people who spread their towels and opened their shade umbrellas near his house.
Someone tooted their horn in more cheer than anger, and she noted the cars around her signaled their occupants were ready for summer delights, with surfboards and kayaks strapped on top of SUVs, bright beach towels and coolers packed in the rear cargo areas of family autos. Propped on the open passenger window of the vehicle beside hers was the tanned arm of a muscled young man. His fingers beat a tattoo on the roof, and then he glanced over, his gaze catching her looking.
He grinned, and the good-natured wiggle of his eyebrows made her feel young and carefree. Without those worries she’d carried with her for the past five years, even though Palm Springs was not much farther away than she could blow a kiss. Was it the beautiful surroundings—sun, beach, and pretty surfer boys—that made her so upbeat?
Palm Springs had its beauty, too, though. The bare desert mountains and the incredible lush greenness in the middle of all that, thanks to the underground water table. It was an oasis.
But now, she felt as if she’d found her own personal refuge. Within the walls of Mr. Curry’s house was security, despite the undercurrent of sexual attraction that unfortunately didn’t seem to be ebbing. She was resigned to it now, and doing pretty well taking it in stride, if she did say so herself.
Sure, it might mean that she avoided him as much as possible, but it was a small price for that sense of safety.
I’ve got you. Mr. Curry’s voice echoed in her head now, those words he’d said that first time they’d met. Nothing to worry about.
Okay, it might not be just the house, but also the man himself who made her feel oddly secure, despite the persistent sexual fascination.
But she put the unsettling notion away. Today, she didn’t have to deal with that inherent contradiction. Today she wasn’t going to be anxious about anything.
Flipping on her turn indicator, she edged a lane over and then turned in to the parking lot of a shopping strip. It took mere seconds to find someone just pulling out of a space, and she smiled. Another good omen.
Inside the nearby bustling restaurant, with its polished oval bar dominating the middle space and indoor and outdoor seating, the hostess directed her to find her party already at a table. Stepping onto the patio. Emmaline waved as she approached her friends, then dropped into her seat.
“What a great day,” she said, beaming.
Sara and Charlie exchanged a look, then smiled back.
“You’re quite jolly,” Sara said, her slight British accent clipping her syllables.
“I feel quite jolly.” Emmaline smoothed the pale green wrap skirt she wore over her knees, then adjusted the stack of stretch bracelets on her wrist.
“Jewelry,” Charlie said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear any since we entered the butler academy except for your watch and the authorized white-gold studs.”
“Mr. Curry asked me to leave off my uniform and dress more relaxed. So…different jewelry.” Before her friends could make any further comment about that, she asked Charlie a question sure to divert the other woman. “Tell me what’s going on with Wells.”
Wells Archer was the six-year-old son of Ethan Archer, for whom Charlie worked. His latest nanny had been a flake, and for now Charlie had added taking care of Wells to her household duties. Ethan made noises about it being too much of an imposition and beyond the scope of the tasks he hired her to manage, but Wells had lost his mom to cancer in recent years, and it was impossible not to be charmed by the kid.
“Zoo camp this week,” Charlie said now. “I’ve been getting daily updates on the different shapes and smells of wild animal poop.”
Emmaline grinned. “I bet you love that.” Elegant, put-together Charlie, never with a glossy hair out of place, didn’t seem like the woman to appreciate a little boy’s scatological fascinations. But a smile brightened her eyes, and it was clear that Wells could no wrong.
“You tell him I want to have another go at cornhole,” she said, mentioning the bean bag game they’d played one night.
“He’ll love to cream you again,” Charlie said.
Emmaline pretended to grimace, but another grin broke through. “I’ll be happy to make his day.” Then she turned to blonde Sara. “I didn’t hear how your date night went with Joaquin.”
“And I didn’t hear about Mr. Curry’s date.”
Okay, she’d walked right into that one. With a quick glance at Charlie, she shrugged. “I didn’t learn too much about it, though I know the group enjoyed their time at Top Shelf.”
“Roland likes the collar stays,” Charlie answered. “Nice touch.”
Roland was the valet guy. “I can give you the order information. One-day shipping.”
Charlie slipped her hand into her purse and pulled out her notebook and pencil.
Sara groaned. “Can’t you keep your lists on your phone like everyone else, Charlie?”
Ignoring the criticism, she passed the small book to Emmaline. “What happens if you lose your phone?” Charlie asked. “Drop it in the pool at Joaquin’s?”
“Mine are all backed in the cloud,” Sara said smugly.
It was an old argument, and before it escalated further—even though it was generally without real rancor—Emmaline turned the direction of the conversation again. “Wedding plans, Sara? Anything new?”
“My dad is coming to visit.” Sara was interrupted by the server arriving to take their lunch orders. When the woman had gone, Sara clasped her hands together, clearly excited. “He’s leaving his cottage in Costa Rica and coming here to meet Joaquin in person.”
“He’ll love him,” Emmaline said. “If only because it’s obvious how much the man adores you.”
“Dad’s also promised to help me stand up to Joaquin’s mother, Renata. We don’t want a big wedding, and she has visions of cathedral-length veils and a guest list numbering in the thousands.”
“Your dad will rein her in,” Emmaline assured her. She’d met Sara’s father before he retired, and he was rock-solid and 100 percent behind his girl. He wouldn’t let his daughter get pushed around.
Emmaline’s own male parent couldn’t be counted on in that same way. It was one of the reasons she’d run away from Palm Springs, practically trailing her cathedral-length train behind her. But that didn’t mean she didn’t care about him. In fact, she’d cared enough that she’d never communicated in any way, not even a postcard, in the five years since she’d left.
“What’s that face for?” Sara said, her gaze narrowing.
Emmaline smoothed away her frown. “It’s my ‘I’m-so-happy-Sara-has-an-awesome-pop’ face,” she said in her brightest voice.
Both of her friends looked suspiciously at her now. Damn them for their keen intuitions! It was actually something the academy encouraged them to exercise. So much of what happened in a household was under the surface. A good butler could read expressions and body language and use the knowledge gained to find solutions to problems in the household or with its members.
Just then, the server showed up with their lunches, and Emmaline breathed a sigh of relief. They dug into their food, chatting about nothing, and her uneasiness vanished.
Finally stuffed, she put down her fork and leaned back in her chair.
“I’m so full.” She tilted her face to the sun and closed her eyes. “I could fall asleep right here, just like a lazy cat.”
“Not before you tell us what’s troubling you,” Charlie said.
Emmaline’s eyes popped open, and she groaned. “Really?”
“We’re best friends. You can tell us anything. You know that.” Charlie leaned forward. “What’s going on?”
Determined to avoid the conversation—no rain on her parade!—she glanced around the patio then spotted a familiar figure standing just inside the restaurant, all alone. As if she sensed Emmaline’s regard, Stella Curry half-turned. Her face lit up, and she waved.
Emmaline did too, standing up to gesture the young woman to their table. “You’re going to want to meet Mr. Curry’s sister,” she told her friends.
Emmaline threw her arms around Stella in an impulsive hug, noting a new slenderness.
“Hey,” she said, holding her away. “You need to come over for my famous lasagna dinner. We need to make sure your wedding dress will still fit in a few weeks.”
“Sure.” Stella moved back and sent a shy smile to Sara and Charlie.
Emmaline performed the introductions. “Do you want to sit down with us?”
“I’m not sure I can,” Stella said, spinning her engagement ring on her finger. “I’m supposed to meet Aaron for lunch, but he’s late.”
“We know you have nuptials coming up, and we’d love to hear all about them.” Charlie nudged the free chair away from the table. “Text him that you’re out here.”
“Oh,” Stella said, glancing down. “He’s blocked my texts. It’s not how Aaron likes to communicate.”
Emmaline met Charlie’s gaze. Hmm. “We’ll see him when he comes in,” she assured the younger woman. “I’ll keep my eye out.”
Following Sara’s added encouragement, Stella sat down, perching on the edge of the seat. “It’s nice to meet Emmaline’s friends,” she said. “I’ve been glad to put my bachelor brother into her capable hands.”
The other two women smiled at that, and then, true to their calling, drew out the younger woman, learning that she planned to seek out a job in marketing once she returned from her honeymoon. When they brought up her wedding plans, however, Stella started twisting her ring again.
Uh-oh, Emmaline thought. I need to get to the bottom of this.
A little delicate probing uncovered the fact that the designated wedding planner had foisted Stella off onto an assistant who was not only inexperienced, but not very nice, either.
Emmaline shook her head. “Honey, that’s not okay. Can you talk to your brother about it?”
“I will, if you’d like,” Emmaline said.
But before Stella could answer, her head jerked up, and they all saw a handsome man striding toward their table.
“Aaron,” she said, and jumped to her feet.
Emmaline did too. She’d yet to meet Stella’s fiancé, Aaron Owens. He was whip-lean, with brown hair and eyes, and a confident air.
“You weren’t at the entrance,” he said to Stella, almost like an accusation. “You were supposed to wait where I could see you immediately.”
Stella swallowed. “I—”
“Blame it on me,” Emmaline put in cheerfully. “I saw Stella and insisted she visit with us.”
Before she could introduce herself or her friends, Aaron grabbed Stella’s wrist. “Our table’s waiting.” With a cold nod to their group, he began tugging away his bride-to-be.
Emmaline watched after them, her heart sinking.
“He seems nice,” Sara remarked, sotto voce. “Not.”
“Maybe he’s had a busy day at work,” Charlie said.
“Right.” Emmaline hauled in a breath and re-took her seat. “We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Then they ordered coffees, and the conversation turned general and breezy again. Sara decided they just had to try the apple-pear pie, and when it was half gone, it was so good that Emmaline decided to order a slice to take home for Mr. Curry.
To save time, she ordered it to go at the bakery counter near the entrance. She was checking her phone when she felt a presence behind her. Turning, she saw Stella’s fiancé.
“Oh,” she said, placing her hand on her throat.
Aaron’s gaze dropped there, then lower, before slowly moving it back up to her face. “We didn’t get a chance to meet before.”
Because you didn’t give Stella a moment to say goodbye, let alone make introductions, Emmaline thought, but she held out her hand. “Emmaline Rossi.”
The man might have let the shake linger a little too long. “Aaron Owens.”
“A pleasure,” she said, removing herself from his hold and resisting the urge to wipe her palm on her skirt.
“Stella tells me you work for Lucas.”
“I do,” she answered, inclining her head.
Oh, he knew very well, she could tell. But somehow he thought it gave him power to make her say it.
“Butler,” she said, putting on her haughtiest expression. Her profession wasn’t a source of shame. Not at all.
“Stella said that means you take care of her brother’s every…need.”
Oh, the slimy bastard was titillated by the idea. Emmaline usually had a hold on her temper, but this guy was pushing her buttons.
“Household needs,” she said icily.
He smirked, then drew closer and lowered his voice. “So, sweet thing, where can I find live-in help who looks just like you?”
She told herself he meant it as a compliment. Men said stupid stuff all the time. But instead of answering, she reached into her purse and dug out one of the butler academy contact cards she carried. Then she slapped it against his chest and turned away.
Instead of being chastised, the jerk let out a low chuckle like it was foreplay. Even worse, he started whistling a jaunty tune that receded as he returned to his table.
And to Stella, his bride-to-be.
Emmaline wanted to cry for her. At home, in the shower, as she washed away the ugly memories that meeting the man had triggered.
So much for her great day.
He was disheveled as well, but from running frustrated fingers through his hair as he raced around putting out fires caused by the upcoming merger. He’d assured clients and soothed the concerns of his employees until he felt like one big knot of bristling tension.
Home, he thought, would ease every tight muscle and would calm every jangled nerve.
As the cars in front of his braked, he did too, and closed his eyes, imagining her, dressed in something flowing and summery, moving about his house. When he arrived there, he’d find lemonade and just-brewed iced tea in the refrigerator. His bedroom would smell like clean laundry accompanied by an enticing trace of her perfume. When he came downstairs after changing from his suit and tie, he’d head for the patio and stretch out on a chaise overlooking the ocean. In a few moments she’d set a plate of snacks at his elbow.
Maybe today he’d persuade her to take the chair beside him and sit a while. Then he could enjoy the most beautiful views he knew of—the sun starting to set over the Pacific and Emmaline’s remarkable, unforgettable face.
Since the night of the charity fundraiser, she’d been ducking him as much as possible, including keeping to her rooms at night.
But she didn’t shirk her butler duties—from her daily dusting and vacuuming to keeping the household accounts up-to-date. The landscaper had texted him the day before with boisterous praise for the oatmeal cookies she’d offered his crew mid-morning. Lucas might have been disgruntled about that if she hadn’t slipped a packet of those exact treats onto the passenger seat of his car that same morning.
She had an eye for little things, like those cookies, a slice of dessert she’d brought home from his favorite Malibu restaurant, an article clipped from the local business journal about his company’s merger. One night he’d come home after back-to-back business trips to discover she’d recorded a documentary he’d mentioned wanting to watch. A show he’d been forced to miss while out of town hosting the kind of business dinners that made him long for quiet nights in his home overlooking the ocean.
Yeah. This evening he would pour her a glass of wine and fetch his own beer, then convince her to enjoy some relaxing time on the patio. Mere conversation would satisfy him tonight—even if he had to initiate it employer to employee. Surely he could fake something to discuss in order to spend an hour or two in her company. It would settle him, he thought, giving him just enough contact to keep his unflagging craving for her under control.
Finally, he pulled into his garage, his mind on some sort of bullshit agenda he could trot out that would compel her to join him on the patio. Maybe he’d get stern with her over the sheet-ironing again. Or talk to her about stacking the glassware in a different order. Tell her he wanted more of her needle-and-thread handiwork.
Turned out he fucking loved the discreet monograms now gracing the pockets of his dress shirts. There were snowy handkerchiefs bearing his initials in his bureau, too, and he’d taken to carrying them, occasionally pulling them from his pocket to run his thumb over the letters she’d stitched. That little symbol of her time, care, and talent…warmed him.
Yes. He’d tell her he wanted his monogram on other articles of clothing.
Maybe what you really want is your mark on her, a little voice said.
But Lucas didn’t allow himself to get hung up on the uncomfortable thought as he moved through the doorway going from garage to house. He heard voices from the direction of the kitchen and started that way. Was she watching TV?
She had a thing for what she called “property porn” which he’d discovered wasn’t nearly as interesting as he’d first imagined when she’d used the term. It was programming about buying or renovating homes or about buying and renovating homes.
Just another piece of evidence suggesting his butler was so not a free spirit. Where she’d come up with that idea he didn’t know, but every one of her actions broadcasted she was all about building a nest and feathering it well.
The trill of her laugh floated toward him, and he wondered if she was on a call. Until the rumble of a man’s voice responded.
A man. Should Lucas change direction? Leave her to her…assignation without interruption?
To hell with that. It was his house after all.
He strode forward, then stopped short. Emmaline balanced on a stepladder, her arms reaching toward a vase on a cabinet’s upper shelf. But she was half-twisted to look down at a man that even Lucas could see was movie-star handsome, and she was laughing.
The stranger’s grin was wide, white, and amused.
“Emmaline?” Lucas said.
Her head jerked his way, and her whole body twitched. The abrupt movement rocked the legs of the stepladder, and Emmaline wobbled.
Shit. She was going to fall. He leaped forward to steady her—only to watch her tumble into the arms of the good-looking stranger.
With Emmaline cradled against him, the man swung toward Lucas.
“Hey,” he said, unperturbed, like a beautiful female landed in his arms every day.
Emmaline scrambled to get her feet on the floor. The stranger released her gently, his gaze still on Lucas, a half-smile on his face.
The butler smoothed her hair and then did the same with the skirt of her flowered dress. “Mr. Curry,” she said, sounding flustered. “You’re home early.”
He cocked a brow. “Should I have called first?”
She blushed. “Of course not.” Her hand waved toward the other man, who looked as if he was enjoying the proceedings immensely. “Lucas Curry, may I introduce you to Joaquin Weatherford? He happens to be a newish near-neighbor of yours.”
“I walked along the beach to get here,” this Joaquin said, stepping forward and holding out his hand.
“I see. Nice to meet you.” Lucas managed a polite shake. Then, stymied, he ordered himself to head upstairs. “I’ll leave you to your friend, Emmaline,” he said, glancing at his butler.
She bit her lip. “Mr. Curry—”
“We talked about this on the day you moved in. You’re welcome to have a social life, Emmaline. I should have added that includes using the premises to entertain your…friends.” Did he sound like he had a stick up his ass? He felt like there was a poker lodged there, and the expression on Joaquin Weatherford’s face said he thought it was funny as hell.
Emmaline frowned. “Joaquin’s not a friend—well, of course he’s a friend,” she cast the other man an apologetic look, “but he’s not here to be entertained.”
Joaquin threw a casual arm across her shoulders. “I came to beg a lasagna from her for a dinner party we’re having tomorrow night. My fiancée’s dad is coming to visit, and he loves Italian food. We’re having a group over, Emmaline included.” He smiled. “You could come too.”
“Fiancée?” Lucas repeated the operative word.
“Joaquin is engaged to my good friend Sara Smythe,” Emmaline said, then looked up at the other man. “And you don’t need to beg me to bring a lasagna. As a matter of fact, I’ll bring two, so you have leftovers as well.”
“A jewel,” Joaquin said, and kissed her on the cheek. Then he sent a sly glance at Lucas. “Don’t you think she’s a jewel?”
“Oh, stop,” Emmaline said with another blush, and pushed Joaquin away. “Now go home, so I can make out my grocery list.”
He saluted her, then turned to Lucas and held out his hand again. “Good to meet you. And the invitation to dinner was sincere.”
Emmaline frowned. “Oh, Mr. Curry doesn’t have time to—”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said, speaking over her. “I’ll make sure Emmaline gives me the time and place.”
“Bet she lets you tag along,” Joaquin said with a wink. “If only to carry the casseroles.”
They watched him stride through the opening to the patio, and then he disappeared down the steps to the beach.
Emmaline shot a quick glance at Lucas, then turned away to remount the ladder. “I’m sorry if that was awkward. You don’t have to go to the dinner party.”
She was stretching again for that vase, and Lucas didn’t hesitate to put his hands at her waist and lift her off the steps.
“Let me get that,” he said, placing her on her feet. “You almost hurt yourself last time.”
“Because you startled me.”
Ignoring that, he drew the item off the shelf and set it in her hands. “And I’m definitely going to the event. I’ve never had your lasagna, which now appears to be a serious lack on my part.”
“I’ll make you your very own pan of it,” Emmaline offered.
“I’m going to the dinner party,” he said, staring into her eyes. And…snap, that link between them clicked into place, and then that settling he’d been looking for happened too. He wanted her, yeah, but merely being around her smoothed the rough edges left by his day.
“Come sit down with me, Emmaline,” he said. “We’ll go out on the patio, have a drink, watch the sun set.”
She swallowed. “I don’t think—”
“I’ll tell you about my conversation with the wedding planner.” She’d informed him about Stella’s difficulties with the assistant. “I finally got a hold of her today. You can give me your opinion on whether or not she’ll step up and do what she was hired for now.”
It was good bait, as he’d suspected. She had a warm heart, and she cared about Lucas’s little sister.
“I suppose that would be all right,” Emmaline said.
He smiled. “Do you have any more of those cheese puff thingies around?”
“I do.” She put aside the vase she’d been clutching. “And your favorite beer is well-stocked in the beverage cooler.”
“As if I’d ever think otherwise. Sauvignon blanc for you?”
Her smile made him desperate to touch her. But he’d promised himself that companionship would do. Employer to employee.
She’d be too wary of anything else.
And he damn well knew he shouldn’t be angling for anything else, either. His plate was quite full just as it was.
A loud buzz from the vicinity of the laundry room made them both jump.
“I have a load of wash that needs transferring,” she said, turning away. “It will be just a few minutes.”
“I’ll meet you on the patio.” He watched her walk away, the hem of her silky dress swishing around her bare, slender legs, just as he’d imagined it would. Thank God he’d gotten her out of pinstripes.
The doorbell at the front entrance rang out.
“I’ll get it,” he called toward Emmaline, not sure if she’d heard either the sound or him.
He should have looked before opening the door. But he didn’t, and before he could block the entrance, Valerie Hicks, his sister’s fiancé’s relative, walked around him into his home, wearing a tiny black dress and a shark’s smile.
“Darling,” she said by way of greeting, smart enough to keep moving away from the open door so he couldn’t immediately shove her out it. “I have champagne,” she said, raising her arm overhead to brandish the bottle. “I thought we might celebrate our new relationship.”
Trailing her, Lucas grimaced. “What new relationship?”
She glanced back and fluttered her heavily made-up eyes. “We’re practically cousins, right? Maybe even kissing cousins.”
For fuck’s sake. “Look Valerie…”
But she’d made it to the kitchen and was prowling about, peeking in cupboards. “Where do you keep your champagne glasses? Surely a man like you has some.”
Meaning a man like him who had money. He’d read her avariciousness the night they’d met when she’d lavished attention on him, thrusting her fake tits in his face and hanging on his arm like she’d fall off her sky-high heels without the support.
According to his sister, she’d only just moved to Southern California to “start over” after a divorce—read find another husband to bankroll her lifestyle.
Call him cynical. He had reason to be.
She turned now, as if a sudden thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, I didn’t interrupt anything, did I? You don’t have plans for the evening?”
Christ. “As a matter of fact…” Lucas trailed off as Emmaline entered the kitchen from the direction of the laundry room. In her flower-strewn dress she looked summery and fresh and totally surprised to see the other woman.
“Um…” In one hand she carried several of his shirts on hangars. In the other, a stack of folded dish towels.
It all looked very cozy and casual, and once again he was damn glad he’d ordered her out of that butler’s uniform. Because now she was about to provide him with a different kind of service.
“Who are you?” Valerie asked.
Emmaline glanced at him. “I’m—”
“My domestic partner, Emmaline Rossi,” Lucas said, crossing to pull her close to him. “Isn’t she a jewel? And she makes me so damn happy.”
“It was all true,” Mr. Curry insisted, as he strode beside Emmaline down the beach the next night. The sun was low in the sky, casting the air a warm pink. “We have a domestic partnership—” At her sharp look, he raised his brows. “Of sorts. A domestic partnership of sorts. And you’re definitely a jewel. Your friend Joaquin said so. I’m happy too.”
“While I’m gratified to hear that,” Emmaline said, wishing she’d taken off her sandals before trekking through the sand toward the house where Joaquin and Sara lived, “you know that Valerie is going to find out you were full of baloney.”
“How so?” He switched the large insulated bag that held the lasagnas from his left hand to his right.
“Stella knows the truth. Valerie’s cousin Aaron is aware I’m your butler.” Emmaline allowed herself a mental grimace at the thought of the other man. She didn’t like the guy, but then, he wasn’t going to be her husband. “How will she feel when the facts are revealed?”
He shrugged. “Like she shouldn’t presume to show up at someone’s house she barely knows to invade his privacy.”
On a sigh, Emmaline hiked her soft cotton shopping bag higher on her shoulder. It contained two foil-wrapped loaves of garlic bread, another of her specialties.
“Let me take that for you,” he said, tugging at the straps.
“It’s fine.” Then a gull dove close and she jumped, her feet slipping on the cooling sand.
Mr. Curry’s hand grabbed her arm, steadying her. “I’ve got you.”
“Thank you.” She glared at the bird as it took a second pass.
“I understand, pal,” Mr. Curry said, waving it off as it flew by again. “I’m about to snatch up a slice of that garlicy goodness I’m smelling.”
Emmaline tucked the bag nearer her body. “No feathered fiend is getting my famous bread.”
Mr. Curry slid his arm around her, pulling her to him so their hips bumped. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll protect you.”
I’ve got you.
Nothing to worry about.
Dangerously, her mind made the leap to that night at the airport when she’d invited Mr. Curry back to her hotel room. She’d never propositioned a man in her life—never once had she made even the slightest, mildest first move. Of course, she hadn’t had much opportunity. She’d become engaged at a naïve and sheltered nineteen to Vincenzo Abelli, eight years her senior. After her escape from Enzo, she’d moved about Europe and kept strictly to herself.
Until meeting Charlie and Sara at the Continental Butler Academy and relaxing into a wonderful friendship with the other women. They didn’t know about the skeletons in her closet, but that was fine. It was enough they kept her centered and in the here-and-now.
“Tell me who’s going to be at this dinner,” Mr. Curry said.
She cleared her throat. “Joaquin and Sara. Sara’s dad used to be in service as a chauffeur and now has retired to Costa Rica. My other butler friend Charlie, who lives farther down the beach, past where we’re going.”
“I’m looking forward to the evening.”
She glanced at him curiously. “You’re not kidding?”
“Why would I joke about that? I could stand to get my head out of my own work.”
This was true, she knew. “I heard you moving about the kitchen in the early morning hours. Are you having trouble sleeping?”
His arm tightened on her shoulders as he directed her around a guy in board shorts who was squinting at the screen of his phone, oblivious to everything and everyone. “Maybe.”
“The merger keeping you awake?” He’d explained that over ten years he’d morphed his father’s just-making-it computer security business into one that employed white-hat hackers—IT people companies paid to breach their firewalls in order to learn how to prevent nefarious forces from doing the same. The demand for his company’s services had exploded in the last seven years, and the unification with another similar entity had been designed to take most of the administrative weight off his shoulders.
Mr. Curry slanted her a look. “That’s part of my insomnia, I suppose,” he said, then changed the subject. “I can’t wait to taste the food that’s torturing me with its delicious smell.”
“You’ll only find it more delicious on a fork,” Emmaline promised, and decided to be glad he was accompanying her tonight, too. A good butler looked out for her employer, and the man deserved an evening away from his usual concerns.
So did she.
And surrounded by her friends she’d be safe from wandering into any wild and dangerous “domestic partnership” fantasies.
They climbed the steps to Joaquin and Sara’s beachside terrace to find the party already underway. The host took their burdens into the kitchen then returned to hand a beer to Mr. Curry and a glass of wine to Emmaline. She took a seat next to Charlie while her employer seemed content enough shooting the breeze with Joaquin a few feet away.
Sara came out of the house, a plate of appetizers in one hand and her other tucked into her father’s elbow. Emmaline jumped to her feet to greet her friend and to hug the older man. He squeezed back, and she beamed at him as she situated a chair for him to get the best view of the oncoming sunset.
“How sweet you are,” he said, cupping her cheek in his palm for a brief moment before sitting down.
Emmaline placed her own hand in that same place and closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the paternal gesture.
“Are you okay?” Mr. Curry murmured into her ear.
Her eyes popped open, and she wondered how he’d managed to suddenly materialize at her side. “I’m fine.”
“Sure?” He gazed into her eyes. “Because I’m paying attention to you, Emmaline.” His voice was for her only. “And you look a little sad.”
I’m paying attention to you.
She wanted to savor that, too.
But instead she began moving toward the kitchen, her movements brisk. “I need to make sure the oven’s heating to the right temperature.”
In a minute or two Sara followed her in, carrying her wine and Emmaline’s, too. “Why are you hiding in here?”
“I’m not,” she said automatically, but as she took her beverage from the other woman she continued to stare out the window, watching Joaquin and Mr. Curry interacting again. “They look friendly.” She gestured with her wine glass.
“Quite,” Sara answered. “Joaquin said they got off to a stiff start, though…something about him presuming you were ‘entertaining’ when he unexpectedly came across the two of you?”
“It was nothing.”
“Joaquin thought it was something. Something very interesting.”
“Oh, him,” Emmaline said, waving it off with her free hand.
Sara placed her fingers over her mouth, but it didn’t completely stifle what sounded like a giggle. “Have you perhaps found that hunky master of the house you were hoping for not long ago?”
Had she really said something like that? God, there it was, abject proof you should be careful what you wish for. “If I did say such a thing, I was temporarily drugged by all the pheromones floating in the air between you and your man.”
“You don’t think an employer and his butler…” Sara started, but then her voice trailed off as they both noticed the newcomers to the party—Ethan Archer, Charlie’s boss, and his six-year-old son, Wells.
“I didn’t know they were coming,” Emmaline said, watching as the boy raced to Charlie.
She appeared to listen to his chatter before he raced off again. Then her gaze shifted to Ethan, now talking with the other men.
If Charlie knew anyone was looking, her face would be a perfectly smooth, perfectly elegant mask. But at this moment, she unknowingly gave away what she usually concealed…her absolute longing for the person who signed her paychecks.
“He treats her like a favored niece,” Sara said, her voice low.
“I’ve seen it,” Emmaline whispered, and as they watched, Ethan detached from the men and moved to pick up Charlie’s sweater that had slipped off the back of her chair. He tucked it around her shoulders now, and then chucked her chin, an avuncular smile on his face the entire time.
Sara and Emmaline groaned together.
Charlie might mask her misery with that practiced half-smile she was wearing now, but her friends knew better.
Thank goodness, Emmaline thought, I’m managing to keep the relationship between Mr. Curry and me formal and professional. The line between them was still distinctly drawn, even though she’d given up her uniform. Life was so much safer that way.
To that end, when it came time to eat the meal, she took a seat far from his. Though he complimented her food as effusively as the rest of the party, it was easy to be gracious yet impersonal from a table’s-length distance.
When the dinner was over, Sara’s Joaquin suggested they play horseshoes on the sand. Everyone went along with the idea eagerly enough, except Emmaline.
“We all know I’ll be terrible at this and no one will want me on their team,” she protested.
Only Wells agreed—he who had demolished her at cornhole—and she was dragged with the others onto the beach. Joaquin turned on the floodlights that illuminated the cool sand to a near-silver shade and made bright white lace out of the foam of the crashing waves.
Emmaline dutifully took her turn at a few practice tosses, then the rest of the group unanimously agreed that she could be exempt from the game. Yes, you are that bad, Mr. Curry said, the comment devoid of charity. With a roll of her eyes, she left them to it, and wandered back up to the house. Habit had her clearing the table and putting away leftovers in the kitchen, and she smiled while she did so, the taunts and teases and laughter of the horseshoes squad filtering through the open windows.
As she dried some dishes, footsteps sounded behind her, and she looked around to see Mr. Curry strolling into the room.
“The party’s winding down,” he said, and scanned the countertops. “What can I do?”
“Oh, nothing. This is my work to do, not yours.”
“I’m not your boss tonight, Emmaline,” he said, frowning. “You’re not the butler.”
“It’s not wise to think that way,” she told him, and swept out of the room to say good night to Ethan and his son Wells who were just about to start off for home.
In short minutes more, with additional goodbyes behind them, she and Mr. Curry headed northward toward his house. The meager moonlight made it hard to distinguish the hazards on the sand, and Emmaline tripped over a half-buried clump of seaweed. The bag she carried slid from her shoulder to the ground, but Mr. Curry managed to keep her upright with the warm clasp of his hand around her upper arm.
“Careful,” he cautioned, then swooped for the fallen bag. He peered at it closely. “Is this some of your needlework I see?”
“I made it from some old tea towels I found at a second-hand shop,” she said.
Then she’d embroidered around some of the faded flowers with embroidery thread. Taking the item from him, she settled it securely once more on her shoulder and began walking again.
“How did you learn how to sew?” he asked.
“My mother started teaching me when I was little. And her mother was taught by nuns at a convent school she attended as a little girl.”
“Where are they, your mother, your grandmother?”
“Both dead now,” Emmaline said. They were only faded memories, little more substantial than the lingering scents of a fragile perfume.
“I’m sorry to hear that. And your fa—”
“When I attended the butler academy, I took sewing classes,” she said, hoping to divert him from more talk of her relatives. “And I was happy to find a good machine at your house when I moved in.”
“Left by the previous resident,” he said as they climbed the steps to his house. Once inside, they both headed for the kitchen where they deposited the bags and one of the now-clean lasagna pans. The other had been left at Sara and Joaquin’s.
Then Emmaline turned to her employer. “Well, I guess it’s time to say good night to you, as well.”
He inclined his head. “I had a good time. Your friends were welcoming, Joaquin and Ethan included, even though I handed them their asses at horseshoes.”
She frowned at him. “Is that why I saw money exchange hands before we left?”
Mr. Curry rubbed his chin, and she heard the scratch of whiskers against skin.
For some reason, the sound trailed like a fingertip down her spine.
“Four bucks,” he finally said.
“Four dollars?” She laughed. “That was the bet?”
“We had a kid in the mix,” he said. “Didn’t want to role model bad habits.”
Emmaline recalled the poker games hosted by her father at their Palm Springs home. Booze and cigar smoke. Women in skimpy dresses and men with bulges under their coats. Her dad had directed her to stay away, but she’d seen things, heard things.
“You’re sad again.” Mr. Curry said.
“Oh.” She turned away, in the direction of the hall that led past the laundry room to her quarters. “Just tired.”
No warning bells sounded as he followed her toward the entrance to her rooms. It seemed fitting that he’d politely ensure she made it there safely. With her hand on the knob, she glanced over her shoulder. “Have a good rest, sir,” she said.
He sighed. “Emmaline. Don’t you think you should start calling me Lucas?”
“I…no.” She opened her door and slipped inside. When she began to swing the door shut, he was still there, a frustrated expression on his face. “Is there anything else?” she asked, all courteous butler.
His eyes bored into hers. “Call me by my first name.”
“I can’t keep up this pretense any longer,” he said.
A chill rushed over her skin. “W-what pretense?”
His gaze turned skyward, as if seeking relief. “Emmaline. For God’s sake.”
She clutched the edge of the door, staring at him in alarm.
His eyes turned back to her. “You can’t think that I’d really forgotten…or didn’t recognize you…or whatever story has been going on inside that head of yours.”
“You…” Emmaline swallowed. “You…you…”
“You and I,” Mr. Curry said sharply. “You and I were a heartbeat away from setting fire to the sheets in that hotel room. There’s no way I’ve forgotten any of that, Emmaline Rossi. Or you.”
Emmaline clutched her phone more tightly to her ear. “Then I shut the door in his face.”
“Oh, dear,” Charlie said. “What happened after that?”
“Nothing. I ran into the bathroom and wished him away.” Like a child, Emmaline thought, grimacing.
“You wished him away,” Charlie repeated.
“Yes. And he went away, I suppose. In any case, I took a shower, got ready for bed, tried sleeping. Now it’s morning, and he’s gone from the house and I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
“Emmaline.” Charlie sighed. “What were you thinking taking the job in the first place?”
“I needed a position. I needed to be near my friends.” Her family. Her support. She’d been so tired of wandering. So lonely.
“Tell me again how this all happened,” Charlie said. “And this time don’t rush through the details or skip any of the important ones.”
“Jeez,” Emmaline complained, wishing she’d called Sara instead, who’d been told the bones of the story more than a month back. “Your time playing mommy for Wells has paid off. You’re good at this. Too good.”
“Grumbling at me won’t give you any solutions.”
Which is exactly what she needed. Solutions. Plans. Some sort of strategic response to Mr. Curry who had swept her feet out from under her last night. You and I were a heartbeat away from setting fire to the sheets.
“Okay, okay! But the fact is…I don’t have words to explain why I did what I did. You know I avoid dating.”
“As well as one-night stands,” Charlie added. “We’ve seen you approached in the pubs and clubs dozens of times and you never seemed tempted.”
“I wasn’t tempted.” Probably because she knew long-term romance presented difficult problems having to do with a fake identity and forged documents. As for short-term flings, she’d always been of the attitude that there was no point to them.
Which made her a hopeless romantic, she supposed, one who didn’t find purpose in scratching itches and popping corks with temporary companions when she’d learned to do it all by herself, single-handedly.
Then there was the niggle of concern that her one-and-only lover might be right about her skills—or lack thereof—as a bed partner. She’d not wanted to set herself up for more criticism like Enzo had dispensed. Or maybe worse, put some kind man into the position of pretending she was any good in bed when she was not.
“Except then I saw Mr. Curry,” Emmaline said, shrugging, helpless to explain the impact he’d had on her—his rangy form, the tired blue eyes that had brightened when he’d looked down at her, the sensation of his hands on her arms. His low voice in her ear. I’ve got you. Nothing to worry about.
Yes, she’d been helpless against the sudden onslaught of attraction and arousal. Having never experienced the power of such feelings before, she’d been without any proper defenses.
And given the self-doubt she’d been left with thanks to Enzo, in that moment she’d decided to see if this stranger could do something about her lack of sexual confidence. Half-thrilled and half-fearful, she’d cast caution aside.
“I…” she began, trying to find the words. “I could only think about getting close to him. Closer. So when he offered me coffee, I asked him to the hotel room I’d reserved.”
Her whole body went hot remembering it. She’d been burning up then, too, her nerves jumping and her heart pounding so hard she’d hardly been able to breathe.
“He took you up on it.”
“Right.” She decided against describing the ride in the taxi, the sumptuous kissing and the near-desperate groping. But she recalled her mouth on his throat, her tongue finding the line where his whiskers turned to smooth, hot skin. It was possible she’d bitten him there.
Yes, she’d definitely bitten him there.
Emmaline’s hand went to her forehead. “We shared one of the little vodka bottles in the minibar. Then I…then I went into the bathroom to slip into the terry robe the hotel provided.” Her hands trembling, her stomach jittering with delighted anticipation. Staring in the mirror over the sink, her hair tousled by his hands, her cheeks pink and her mouth red and swollen, she’d seen…
A woman taking charge of her life. A woman no longer running. A woman who thought she might make an adequate and exciting lover after all.
“And when you came out of the bathroom?” Charlie prompted.
“He was gone,” Emmaline said. “I almost thought I’d imagined him, but there were those two glasses we’d been drinking from on the small desk by the TV. I saw the straight chair that he’d turned around to straddle as we sipped the vodka.”
“Did you think he might come back?”
“I…” Emmaline blinked. “Wow. No,” she admitted. “I believed…” That he’d had second thoughts. That she’d been too forward for his taste or that she’d kissed weird or that he’d considered her too busty. There’d been a dozen things she’d thought she’d done wrong or were wrong about her.
Self-esteem issues, a little voice whispered inside her. All those ways that Enzo found to belittle you poking up their ugly heads.
But, something had sent Lucas Curry running. And the fact was, he hadn’t come back.
“Oh, Emmaline,” Charlie said, gusting out a sigh. “And then when you encountered him you presumed it was coincidence and also managed to convince yourself he didn’t recognize you as his Near Miss?”
She grimaced again, feeling stupid. “When you put like that…”
“I can promise, Emmaline, that he did not forget you.”
What Charlie didn’t say was that Emmaline had been a fool to even believe that for a second. But the other woman didn’t know about the other man in her past that she prayed had forgotten about her. It was a matter of life and death.
Squeezing shut her eyes, she fought the little shiver that wiggled down her spine. “Please, Charlie, what should I do now?”
She held her breath, hoping her friend would recommend Emmaline spend a few days with her, during which she could play on the beach with Wells, pretending reality away by building sand castles with high turrets and deep moats.
“Of course you’re going to have to face the man and have an honest conversation,” Charlie said matter-of-factly.
“Of course,” Emmaline repeated, heart sinking. “Good advice.”
After ending the call, she stared at her reflection in the mirror across the room. Had she said “of course” to Charlie? Of course not, she decided instead, thinking of the certain humiliation of such a discussion. Then she grabbed up her purse and keys, determined to clear her head and come up with her own, more acceptable answer.
Ninety minutes of mindless driving later, she realized that her subconscious had been directing her steering wheel.
She was on the road to Palm Springs.
A lump formed in her throat, and she tried commanding herself to turn the car around. But her hands refused to obey her will, and when she saw the first windfarm, the tall turbine generators seemed to beckon her nearer.
Then scrub and sand gave way to the iconic palm trees, and she drew in a shuddering breath as she traveled toward the city center. As always, the surrounding mountains appeared oddly flat in the desert light, more movie backdrop than dirt and rock. She slid low in her seat and adjusted the frames of her oversize sunglasses. Surely no one would notice her in the driver’s seat of this nondescript sedan. It would be unthinkable to recognize her as the daughter of Bruno D’Angelo, the girl who had whizzed around these streets since sixteen years old in a custom-painted Miata. Powder blue, her favorite color.
Such a naïve, too-trusting girl she’d been.
“I’ll just take this one cruise along Palm Canyon Drive,” she whispered to herself, “then head back to LA.”
But the scant number of people on the sidewalks—it was well over a hundred degrees—gave her courage to break her promise to herself. With one eye on the pedestrians trying to escape the merciless sun by hopscotching from shade patch to shade patch, she took the turns to reach her old neighborhood. The houses of those blocks—Mediterranean style to mid-century modern—stood quiet, the only movement the heat shimmering from the black asphalt.
Nudging up the air conditioning, she drove past her childhood home, not daring to turn her head. But her peripheral vision noted that it looked just as buttoned-up as those around it, still with its distinctive mid-century flat rooflines and palm trees-and-cacti landscaping. Her father could be inside his home office with his AC on too. Or he could have traveled to Lake Arrowhead, where they had a condo used as a base for snow skiing or to escape the worst of the summer heat.
The lump in her throat grew.
Her father might be ill. Dying. Dead.
Pulling to the side of the road a block from the place, Emmaline struggled to control her riotous thoughts as she blinked back the sting of tears. After leaving the country, she hadn’t reached out to anyone through phone or email, nor had she done internet searches for the names of near and dear. Same with the names of the deadly.
Whether it was fiction or fact, she’d worried that someone could find her by monitoring such activity. And she hadn’t wanted to torment herself by coming across photos of her father at the latest trendy restaurant opening in Palm Springs Life or Desert magazine. Though she’d wondered if she might rest easier if she found a wedding announcement with Enzo’s name listed as the groom, in her heart of hearts she’d known he would still be furious about her defection even if he now had a wife and children.
His pride couldn’t stand the hit, and he’d want to punish her with a blow of his own.
But now that she’d made her way to Palm Springs, there was another source of information. One she felt convinced wouldn’t betray her.
A few minutes later, she pulled into the alley that ran behind a small stucco building which served as both the residence and tarot room of Dina Fabbri. It looked deserted here, too, but she quickly climbed from her car, wiped her damp palms on the skirt of her cotton dress, and gave a light rap to the back door.
The sun broiled the top of her head as she waited, but her patience was rewarded when Dina appeared in the opening, more wizened than before, her hair having gone from gray to silver.
At the sight of the older woman, homesickness and loneliness crashed over Emmaline, two heavy waves that nearly buckled her knees. After five years of keeping as upbeat as possible while she wandered the world on her own, now she only wanted to slide to the ground and weep. It was bad enough to glimpse the house where she’d lived and played, but to see a beloved person who’d been part of her past—joy bubbled inside her, followed by more pain that made her eyes sting.
She blinked rapidly, and then tried on a smile. “Dina, it’s—”
“Coco,” the old woman whispered, using the name Emmaline had grown up with, a diminutive of her mother’s Collette. Her hand reached out to take her wrist. “Coco, come in, come in.”
Emmaline hesitated. “You’re alone?”
“Yes, yes.” The old woman’s grip was surprisingly strong as she drew Emmaline into her tiny kitchen. The window over the sink was almost completely obscured by an air-conditioning unit that hummed, bringing welcome cool air into the space.
Dina pushed Emmaline into one of two chairs pulled up to a postage-stamp sized table, then bustled to a round-edged refrigerator that she would have thought retro if she didn’t know it was the original. A pitcher of cold tea came out of it, and then a glass of the stuff was put in front of Emmaline.
Only then did Dina sink into her own seat. “Coco.” Her nearly black eyes studied her guest’s face. “Why are you here, cara? I thought we agreed there would be no calls, no visits.”
Emmaline shrugged. “Papa…”
Maybe the elderly woman could actually read minds as well as the cards. “He’s fine.”
Relief coursed through Emmaline, and another sting of tears pricked her eyes. “Yes?”
“Just fine, topolina.”
Little mouse. Emmaline managed to smile faintly at that. “And you’re all right, Dina? No one ever suspected?”
“Pfft.” She wiped that concern away with a liver-spotted hand. “These men, they think we women aren’t worth anything.”
But they’d be wrong to underestimate Dina. Thanks to her British-born husband, she’d learned how to create new identities. While she could have made a fortune doing so under the aegis of Palm Springs’s California Mafia, she’d kept her skill a secret from them.
Instead, under the cover of her tarot-reading business, she generated escape routes for those in need, mostly women looking for a way to start over, like Emmaline. So when she’d escaped the desert five years before, after leaving a letter telling her father that she couldn’t stay, Coco D’Angelo had become Emmaline Rossi.
Emmaline after a favorite doll. Rossi from the last name of a character on a TV show that Dina favored.
Emmaline now gathered the elderly lady’s hands in hers. “How can I ever thank you for what you did for me?”
Her dark eyes glistened with her own unshed tears. “Your mother was a treasure to me, as were you, always. I don’t ask for thanks, just that you remain safe.” She hesitated. “You’re doing well?”
“I am. I—”
“No.” Dina shook her head. “Best if you don’t tell me anything.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Emmaline said. “But Papa wouldn’t blame you—”
“Your father, no.”
Bruno D’Angelo was a businessman, running a string of cash-only enterprises in the desert—laundromats, nail salons, and vending machines.
“But Enzo…” The old woman just looked at Emmaline, and of course it went without saying. It was why she’d left.
Enzo’s family was involved in high-end restaurants all over the Southland, as well as nightclubs, card clubs, and even casinos in Nevada. They weren’t used to hearing “no” or dealing with any kind of failure.
Including a fiancée who’d wanted out of the upcoming wedding.
When Emmaline—then Coco—went to Dina with her fears and her bruises, she’d learned of the older woman’s sideline. It made sense, then, how her dying mother had told her if trouble came to her from Papa’s business or anything else, that Dina could be counted upon to help.
By that time, Emmaline suspected her father’s businesses were being used to launder money coming from Enzo’s family enterprises—legitimate or not-so. It was the convenience and profitability of that arrangement that she’d believed would keep her father safe from any reprisals the younger man might want to dish out after discovering Emmaline had fled Palm Springs.
Thankfully, it appeared to be true.
“You should be going,” Dina said now, pushing to her feet. “No reason to take chances.”
“I know,” Emmaline said, but instead of moving, stared into her glass, emotions—regret, loss, love—filling her chest until she ached with them. “Though sometimes I wonder if I should have done things differently.”
“Running was not a mistake,” Dina replied, her voice firm. “It saved you.”
On her way back to Malibu, those words rolled around in Emmaline’s head in an endless loop. Running was not a mistake.
Did that mean running was the answer to the dilemma now hanging over her head?
She could do it. She could escape the situation with Mr. Curry by simply packing her bags and moving on. Under the circumstances, it might be argued that particular choice was the professional thing to do. After all, the instructors at the Continental Butler Academy expected their graduates to always make decisions based on what was right for the employer and his household. The awkwardness that now existed between her and the man who signed her checks couldn’t be considered part of a healthy environment.
Though she supposed it might also be considered cowardly to grab her things and sneak away from Mr. Curry’s house before he came home from work.
Late afternoon, a couple of hours earlier than usual, Lucas headed from his office toward Malibu. How he’d left things with Emmaline the night before had been nagging at him all day. While he didn’t regret addressing what had come to feel like an elephant in the room, he wished he hadn’t made his butler uncomfortable.
Which he had.
The pure shock on her face would have made him laugh under other circumstances. Had she really convinced herself he’d forgotten it was she he’d held in his arms? From the sidewalk outside of baggage claim, they’d ducked into the back seat of a cab that smelled strongly of the pine-shaped air freshener hanging from a suction hook on the plexi-glass between them and the driver. As the car started off, Lucas had driven his fingers into Emmaline’s wavy, unbound hair, releasing the delicious perfume of it. He’d buried his face there to drink it in, then slid his mouth through the warm strands to find the heated flesh of her face.
She’d trembled and pressed closer to him, finding his lips with her own. The kiss had nothing gentle about it, nothing tender. Just need and want and urgency. As it went on, he’d clutched at her, his hands as demanding as the kiss. When his fingertips encountered the smooth skin of her leg, he’d slid them beneath the hem of her silky skirt, palming the sleek curve of her thigh.
They might have taken it to public indecency-territory if the driver hadn’t then pulled to a stop under the hotel’s portico.
Lucas now turned into his own driveway, drawing in long breaths as he tried to gain control of his thoughts. Time to be cool, Curry. Time to assure Emmaline that honesty between them hadn’t jeopardized their working relationship.
As he let himself inside the house, the hair on the back of his neck stood up, the unnatural quiet unsettling him. When he returned home, usually the sounds of Emmaline puttering in the kitchen met him at the front door. Not to mention the scent of something delicious cooking or baking.
But today the only noise was the clattering of his own footsteps on the floor. The only smell the briny-salty aroma of ocean from beyond his back doors.
A sudden concern clutched at his belly. Something was wrong.
He glanced about the silent house as a sense of foreboding closed around him like a dark shadow.
Had she left him?
Christ, she couldn’t have left him! Because…because…
It wouldn’t do, that’s all. Not when he’d become accustomed to all those graceful touches she’d brought to his home, all those pleasant comforts she’d added to his life in her short weeks in his employ.
Confronting her with the truth was not going to cost this boss his butler.
When he didn’t glimpse her in any of the open areas of the house, he strode for her quarters, irritation kindling. He didn’t care for the worry curdling in his gut. She shouldn’t have shut the door in his face last night, and she shouldn’t have him brooding over it all day.
Damn the woman.
At her door, he lifted his hand, rapped his knuckles on the surface. A no-nonsense request for her attention. “Emmaline?” he said, his voice rough. “I need to speak with you.”
She’d better be in there, he thought, temper spiking. “Don’t make me wait.”
But she did, curse her. Just as he reached for the knob to throw it open himself, he saw it move. Relief doused his temper and soothed most of his worry. Okay. Okay.
He’d been overreacting.
Then she stood in front of him, feet bare, little floaty dress rumpled, her hair tangled around her shoulders.
Her luxurious lashes gathered in damp clusters.
Rage shot up and slammed into his heart. “What hurt you?” he demanded. “Who hurt you?” The son of a bitch was a dead man.
She stared at him, then brushed at the traces of tears on her cheeks with the heels of her hands. “Nothing. Nobody. It’s…it’s been a day.”
“What kind of day?” he bit out.
Wordlessly, she shook her head.
His fingers curled into fists. “There’s something wrong, Emmaline. You’re not like this.”
“I am like this,” she retorted, with a touch of her own temper. “I’m Italian. I’m emotional. It’s a failing I’m aware of, and I try to dial the drama down. But I can’t always be as calm and collected as Charlie or as stiff-upper-lipped as Sara.”
Despite himself, he had to fight off a smile. Was it wrong of him to enjoy this little exhibition of fire? She’d displayed her hot-blooded nature in the taxi, but since moving into his house she’d been the picture of equanimity.
“You’re usually all poise and grace,” he murmured, then grinned. “Well, except when you attempt to throw horseshoes.”
Ignoring that, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Did you need something?”
His gaze wandered past her to see suitcases open on the bed and clothes stacked in piles around them. His gut clenched again, and his gaze shot to hers. “What’s going on?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “I’m packing.”
Because he’d blown it last night. Shit.
He shoved a hand through his hair. Cool, Curry. Stay cool. He looked toward the luggage again, his gaze snagging on her sewing basket. It was a pretty thing, oval-shaped and covered in a flowered tapestry. The box was like Emmaline herself, he thought now, decorative on the outside, but with practical purpose and some sharp points on the inside.
He couldn’t see either of them leaving his house, damn it.
“There’s no need for you to go anywhere,” he said.
She bit her lip. “It’s just too weird now.”
His hands shoved into his pockets. “Emmaline, did you really think I didn’t recognize you at the interview as the same woman from the missing luggage line?”
With a shrug, her gaze drifted from his. “When we met at the coffee place, I was in my butler uniform, and I had my hair in a French braid. I looked different.”
“Not that much different.” And he guessed she’d clung to the near-absurd tall tale as a way of protecting herself from having to think too much about what he was sure was an out-of-character surrender to lust with a stranger.
But could he really blame her? He’d pretended for as long as he could, too, because those moments together had seemed too important for an encounter that was so brief. Face it, he didn’t know how the hell to handle the interlude or move forward from it himself.
So for now he just wanted to…to be with Emmaline. Have her perfume lingering in his bedroom and her nurturing touches on display throughout the house until he could get his sister married and his company merged.
After that he’d determine his next move.
Or if there should even be a next move. Because he’d been burned before and he wasn’t inclined to rush into anything now.
Later, in his own good time, he’d sort it out in his head. Sort them out.
“I’ll contact the placement office at the academy and let them know you have an opening, if you’d like,” she said now. “They might find someone for you in as short as a couple of days.”
“A couple of days?”
“You’re not going to work through your two weeks’ notice?” he persisted, pinning her with a ruthless stare. “I believe that’s in the academy-provided employment contract that we signed. I can look it up—”
“It is,” she said, her cheeks flushing darker. “I just thought—” She broke off as a series of sounds echoed throughout the house—a slamming door, rushing footsteps, the rattle of plastic.
“Emmaline!” Stella’s voice, sounding panicked. “Emmaline, I’m desperate for your help!”
Lucas turned, and his butler pushed past him. The three of them met up in the kitchen, where his sister stood, the handles of several shopping bags ringing her arms from elbows to wrists.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Emmaline,” Stella said, near-breathless.
Relief flooded through Lucas once more. The butler wasn’t about to rush away this afternoon when there was a bride-to-be in need, he felt sure of it. “What’s going on, Stel?”
“My maid-of-honor has left me holding the bags,” she said. “Literally.”
Then she let the multitude she carried slide onto the kitchen island.
Emmaline peeked inside one and pulled out a bottle of Gatorade. “Um?”
“I’m putting together thirty Hangover Survival Kits for the bachelor party coming up this weekend. I need to deliver them to Aaron tonight. I promised him.”
Lucas frowned. Since the event was a few days away—booze and boating at a huge cabin on Big Bear Lake—he didn’t see the emergency. And why couldn’t the groom pitch in and help if they needed to be completed in such a hurry? “What about Aaron—”
“I said I’d have them done,” Stella said quickly. “He expects me to keep my word.”
Emmaline shot the younger woman a quick glance as she methodically began unpacking the bags. “Surely your guy wouldn’t be angry if you needed more time. It’s such a little thing.”
“If it’s such a little thing, then surely I can get them done on time,” Stella said stubbornly, pulling out a stack of small, flattened boxes. They were black, with “I Regret Nothing” printed in white on them. As she began to fold the boxes into rectangular shapes, Emmaline was gazing curiously at a stack of note-shaped items in her hand.
“Okay, these are funny.” She held one up to show Lucas. “Temporary tattoos. They say, “‘If I’m lost call’ and include a number—”
“Mine,” Stella chirped.
Grinning, Emmaline continued, “‘Or, just buy me another drink.’”
“I saw it on Pinterest,” Stella said.
“Are you going to be sporting one of these this weekend?” Emmaline asked Lucas, wiggling the tattoo between her fingers.
“I, uh, no.” Aaron’s crowd was not Lucas’s crowd, and a weekend watching men getting loaded because another guy was about to marry his sister just didn’t sit right with him. “The brother of the bride might put a damper on the festivities.”
“Lucas and I are going to have our own night out,” Stella said. “Kind of a goodbye to the old.”
He smiled at his sister even as bittersweet emotion rolled through him, thinking of all the big moments in her life he’d managed to weather—recruiting female friends to help with bras and other feminine rites of passage, teaching her to drive, watching her skipping out of the house for dates and dances. “Just remember you’re never getting rid of me, Stel.”
Feeling eyes on him, he glanced over to see Emmaline studying him, her expression unfamiliar. “What?” he asked her, scrubbing his face. “Am I dirty?”
“Nothing like that,” she said, and her soft eyes made him feel like he did when he slid between the sheets she’d smoothed onto his bed or when she handed him his favorite beer along with a plate of crackers and cheese at the end of the work day. It was…he had no word for it.
When the two women finished unpacking all the items for the hangover kits—the Gatorade, tattoos, pain relievers, sunglasses, and more—they began to assemble them, moving buffet style down the kitchen island, boxes in hand. Lucas volunteered to help, but Stella requested his famous margaritas instead. So he mixed a batch and half-listened to their chatter.
Emmaline suggested a new restaurant as the upcoming brother-sister dinner destination. “I read about the opening, and it sounds fabulous—a farm-to-table focus. Let me book you a reservation.”
“Yes, do that,” Stella said, beaming as she straightened the stacks of kits. “Why don’t you join us that night, Emmaline?”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t intrude—”
“Lucas thinks you should come with us, right, Lucas?”
“Of course,” he said smoothly, seeing it as a way to keep her in the job at least another few days—long enough for him to allay her uneasiness. “What the bride wants, the bride gets. Don’t you agree, Emmaline?”
“Well, I…” She slid him a helpless look he pretended not to see.
Stella accepted the last black box from the other woman’s hand and then swept her up for an impulsive hug. “And I want Emmaline. She’s going to be such a help to me up to and including on my wedding day!”
Lucas smiled at his butler as he crossed to her, passing over a frosty margarita as Stella released her. “That’s it then,” he said quietly. “You don’t leave before the wedding.”
“But after…” Emmaline began.
“We’ll reassess.” With a gentle hand at her elbow, he nudged the glass toward her mouth. “Don’t look so doomed.”
Don’t look so doomed.
The next morning, Emmaline stared into her bathroom mirror and repeated Mr. Curry’s words to her reflection. “Don’t look so doomed.”
Yes, she’d tacitly agreed to stay in her almost-lover’s employ until after his sister’s wedding. And yes, to her mind the situation still felt awkward as heck. But there was nothing to do now but go about her business and not waste another minute stewing over the man and the mess of it all.
After completing her early morning chores, she headed for the grocery store. On a whim, though, she detoured to the house where Charlie lived with Ethan Archer and his son Wells. The little boy’s chatter would surely prove a welcome distraction from her discomforting thoughts, Emmaline decided.
She grinned at his enthusiastic greeting. He and Charlie had plans to set up a beach camp a few feet from their back terrace, so she happily fell in line with them. Soon she sat on a blanket with her friend, shaded by an umbrella and with a clear view of Wells who was learning to use a skim board.
His skinny arms cast it onto the shallow inches of the spreading surf, and then he jumped on the board’s deck, trying to ride the slick sand as the ocean sucked the wave back to deeper waters.
She applauded his efforts and his first success. Turning to Charlie, she took in the other butler’s pleased smile. “He’s a prodigy, Charlie, I tell you. He’s a prodigy.”
Her friend glanced at her then looked back at Wells, shaking her head. “He’s a little boy.”
“Don’t pretend with me, Charlotte Emerson. You think he’s the most talented six-year-old in the United States.”
Charlie made a face.
“Okay,” Emmaline conceded. “The universe.”
Her friend laughed. “Much better.”
They both watched Wells make another go at it, this time tumbling off but coming right back onto his feet with a grin.
“He looks so happy,” Emmaline mused. “Is he still announcing his mother’s death to perfect strangers?”
According to Charlie, ever since his mom passed from cancer, Wells found ways to bring up the fact in grocery-store lines, at the dentist, upon meeting newcomers. Prepared for just such an event, when Wells had cheerfully shared with Emmaline the information at their first encounter, she’d managed to handle it with aplomb.
“I used to think he said it to get himself accustomed to the idea,” Charlie shared now. “But I’ve come to wonder if it’s a way to remind himself of her. It would be natural if his memories are fading.”
“They do,” Emmaline agreed. She’d lost her mom at ten, and it took looking at photos to recall Colette’s features.
As Wells began some industrious digging in the wet sand with a short shovel, Charlie drew a thick notebook and pen from her beach tote.
“What’s that?” Emmaline asked, peering over her sunglasses. “Your plans to take over the world?”
“Details regarding the book fair at Wells’ school. It’s next October, and I’ve volunteered to lead the committee.”
“Of course you have,” Emmaline said. “Does this mean you and his dad have given up on engaging a new nanny?”
Their last one had been chronically late and often a no-show. Charlie seemed to have no problems handling the additional childcare responsibilities.
“I can manage Wells just fine along with everything else,” she said, defensive.
“Did I say you couldn’t?” Emmaline asked mildly. “You’re frighteningly efficient, Charlie.”
“Thank you.” She bent over the lined pages and made a few notations.
Emmaline looked out over the Pacific, the glare making her eyes sting despite her sunglasses. “You put me to shame.”
“Uh-oh.” Her friend closed the cover of her notebook and half-turned. “That sounded pensive. You don’t usually do pensive, Emmaline. Does this have something to do with that conversation you said you would have with your Mr. Curry?”
“Um…” They’d yet to talk honestly about that night in the hotel room. Though she’d hoped to avoid it altogether by running away, he’d caught her before her escape. Then Stella had arrived, and in the end Emmaline had returned her clothes to their drawers.
Still Mr. Curry’s butler.
“More of the pensive,” Charlie said, pointing at her. “What’s going on?”
Emmaline had commanded herself not to stew. But her mind refused to obey the edict, and her troubles continued bubbling up. She sighed. “It’s just…”
She shook her head and focused on the horizon. “You wouldn’t understand, Charlie. You’re too smart and too level-headed to have made past mistakes as big as mine.” Not that she regretted leaving Enzo. And Dina had confirmed that the way she’d done it—escaping in the middle of the night and cutting all ties—had been the safe choice. But she shouldn’t have agreed to marry him in the first place!
So young, so young and inexperienced and easily swept off her feet. Only to later find herself under the thumb of a man who began to hurt her in more ways than one. “I didn’t listen to my instincts when they first started buzzing at me. Maybe worse, I didn’t want to disappoint my father,” she murmured.
“I made a big mistake, too, and then compounded it by trying appease my mother’s anger.”
Emmaline swung her gaze to her friend. “You?”
“Me.” Charlie’s lips turned up in a half-smile. “Nobody gets out of life without making mistakes, Emmaline. Some bigger than others.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
A thousand questions on the tip of her tongue, she opened her mouth to launch into a full probe of Charlie. But then a sodden Wells rushed up to them, flinging cold, salty drops onto their warm skin as he shook like a dog, laughing when they shrieked in protest.
“Boys,” Emmaline said, throwing up her arms to protect her face, trying to swallow another squeal. “Can’t live with them…”
“Can’t live without them,” Charlie finished.
It sounded strangely like a vow, but when Emmaline drew down her arms to glance at her friend, the other woman’s expression gave nothing away.
Soon Emmaline had to take her leave of the pair, and she mulled over the possibilities of Charlie’s mistake as she accomplished her errands. What could the other butler have been alluding to? But no answer presented itself.
Arms encircling canvas grocery bags, Emmaline shouldered her way into the house and made for the kitchen. The sight of two women sunbathing on the terrace beyond the open doors gave her pause.
“Stella?” she called.
Mr. Curry’s sister sat up and twisted around, her expression abashed. “Oh. Emmaline. I…I thought you’d be gone longer.”
“No problem. Can I bring you and your friend something cool to drink and something to eat?” As the other figure turned, Emmaline put on a welcoming smile. “Hello—” She broke off as she recognized Valerie, the woman who’d been Mr. Curry’s set-up date.
“A cold drink and a snack sounds just great,” the other woman said, pushing her sunglasses on top of her head. “Doesn’t it, Stella?”
“I can get it,” Stella said, starting to rise.
“But why?” Valerie asked. “Your brother’s ‘domestic partner’ volunteered.”
“About that, um, domestic partnership…” Emmaline cleared her throat. “There might be a slight misunderstanding.”
“Oh, she knows,” Stella said. “I told her you’re his butler.”
“Yes, and I must admit my curiosity is piqued by the idea.” Valerie pushed back a lock of platinum hair with one long, blood-red nail. “What exactly does being a man’s ‘butler’ entail?”
The innuendo was spread thick, but Emmaline ignored it. “All manner of things in a modern household.”
“You should see her cool uniform,” Stella put in. “Very proper. A morning coat, starched shirt, and everything.”
Valerie’s gaze dropped to Emmaline’s bare legs beneath the hem of her summer skirt. “Though I’m guessing the master of the modern household likes you dressed in something more feminine while you…do what, exactly?”
Emmaline felt her temper starting to kindle, and she reined it in by taking a tighter hold of the groceries in her arms. “My training focused on everything from planning parties and serving meals, to acting as a personal assistant and valet.”
Valerie’s eyebrows, as black as her lashes and in great contrast to the blonde hair on her head, rose. “You mean you help Lucas put on and take off his clothes?”
Warmth spread across Emmaline’s face as she remembered the night of the charity event and how close she’d stood to Mr. Curry as she helped him into his shirt and jacket. He’d told her to breathe, obviously and embarrassingly aware of the tightness in her chest as physical longing welled inside her. Wanting like that was new to her, and she had no experience in handling it with poise. For sure, no instruction at the butler’s academy had covered the subject.
“Excuse me,” she said now, turning toward the kitchen to hide her blush. “I need to get these things into the refrigerator. I’ll be back in just a few moments.”
Reminding herself that taking care of guests was part of her job, upon stowing the groceries away Emmaline put together a tray and carried it out to the pair on the terrace. With a murmur, she bent to place it on a small table between the lounge chairs. As she straightened, Valerie spoke up again, her voice lazy.
“Emmaline, I find I can’t get all this fascinating master-servant stuff out of my mind.”
“Valerie!” In a rare show of spirit, Stella pointed a finger at the other woman. “Stop. If you want to poke at someone, poke at my brother who wasn’t upfront to begin with.”
Glancing down to adjust the straps on her bikini top, Valerie sighed. “He could have made it clearer on the night we met that he wasn’t interested.”
Emmaline figured Mr. Curry had been merely polite, but this woman wasn’t accustomed to a man’s lack of interest in her oh-so-obvious charms. Edging away, she began thinking of what was next on her to-do list. The herb garden at the side of the house—planted a couple of weeks before—would need some weeding. And one had to keep a watchful eye on basil, or it could quickly go to seed.
“Oh, don’t take it personally,” Stella said to the other woman. “Lucas has been steering clear of anything that might lead to attachment since his broken engagement three years ago.”
“Broken engagement?” Valerie echoed. “That sounds juicy. Give me all the details.”
Bad Emmaline did not immediately go tend the reckless basil. Instead, she moved about the terrace, adjusting furniture and then the cushions on the furniture. Mr. Curry had been altar-bound? She decided, after a moment’s reflection, that this was something a good butler should know about. Any and all information could help her do her job of taking care of him better. So she lingered within earshot, smothering any small misgivings.
“Her name was Francie. Francie DeVore. She and Lucas were engaged, with a date set and everything, when he found out from a buddy that she was seeing her old boyfriend on the sly.”
“Seeing?” Valerie asked.
“As in, without clothes on Wednesday afternoons at a nearby hotel.”
“If she had some nooner guy she wouldn’t give up, why get married in the first place?” Valerie asked.
Excellent question, Emmaline thought.
“Money,” Stella said. “When Lucas confronted her, she admitted she still wanted marriage and his money and offered to give up the side guy to keep their plans in place.”
“Obviously he declined. Did it break his heart?”
“You know, I don’t really think so. First, her betrayal seemed to instantly kill any feelings he had for her.” Stella laughed a little. “And then…well, there’s a reason I heartily approved of his idea to get a butler. Pushed him on it as a matter of fact. Because Lucas went into that engagement with Francie with the prime purpose of making his life easier.”
“And he could get the same thing by hiring out those tasks,” Valerie said.
Stella nodded. “Exactly.”
“Well, it is a much simpler relationship than a marriage,” Valerie mused. “Believe the twice-divorced me on that.”
Except nothing felt simple to Emmaline at the moment. She took the steps down to the beach to get away from the other women and their talk—though it didn’t take her away from the…the disgruntlement suddenly churning inside her, even as she knew the annoyed feelings were unjustifiable. Completely.
Making her employer’s life easier was exactly what she had hired on to do and what she actually took pleasure in—on a daily, duty-by-duty basis. But for whatever dumb reason, now she didn’t like the idea so much that she was playing Mr. Curry’s substitute wife.
A stand-in for someone he’d once been promised to marry.
And instead of not stewing over the man, she found him front-and-center in her thoughts. Again.