Christie Ridgway

The SECRET Excerpt

Chapter 1

Charlotte Emerson held her breath as the metal door popped open. Bodies came pouring out, and at first she couldn’t distinguish the person she was eager to see in the tangle of bright clothes, cartoon-emblazoned backpacks, and churning arms and legs. Tamping down her anxiety, she popped onto the toes of her sneakers and looked past the throng, into the second-grade classroom.

There, she thought, relief sweeping through her. He’s right there.

The most important person in her world.

Running a practiced eye over Wells Archer, she relaxed even more. His cheery expression proclaimed a good first day. Not that she’d expected any different, not really, because the six-year-old enjoyed school. But the beginning of a new school year could present difficulties.

He looked up from stuffing a few papers into his backpack and waved at her. More cheeriness. She waved too, playing it cool, though she’d like to claim a hug and a kiss like some of the other parents were doing.

But the fact was, she wasn’t Wells’ mother.

Still, she didn’t dim her broad smile as he skipped toward her. Nor did she stop herself from a brief caress of his silky hair. “How are you, pal?”

“Awesome, Charlie,” he answered, his grin displaying a gap in his bottom row of teeth. “Are we going home now? I’m starving!”

“Home in a bit,” she answered, pulling a granola bar from her purse. “Remember, we’re staying after for a few minutes to allow parents to sign up for the book fair.”

He snatched the treat from her hand. “Can I wait by the swings?”

“Absolutely.” Charlie snagged his backpack and slung it over her own shoulder, ready to head for the table she’d set up near the school’s exit.

“Excuse me,” an adult voice said. “May I speak with you a moment?”

Charlie froze, then turned toward the woman she recognized as Ms. Ramsey, the second grade teacher.

She swallowed. “Is everything all right?”

“Wells,” Ms. Ramsey said to her student. “Did I hear you’re going to wait by the swings?”

He nodded, mouth full of granola bar.

“Go ahead,” Charlie urged. “I’ll be out shortly.” She and Ms. Ramsey watched the boy scamper off.

Then Charlie swiveled to address the teacher. “Is there a problem?”

“I expected to see Wells’ father picking him up this afternoon. We met two weeks ago.”

“And he wanted to be here for the first day. But he got stuck overseas on a business trip.” She held out her hand. “I’m Charlie Emerson, the…well, I take care of Wells when his dad is at work.”

“You’re the nanny,” Ms. Ramsey said as they shook hands.

Technically, there was more to her duties than that, but Charlie let it be. “Did everything go all right today?”

The sober expression on the teacher’s face made Charlie’s stomach nosedive.

“There wasn’t really a problem,” the other woman said. “But Mr. Archer explained about Wells losing his mother four years ago and his tendency to announce the fact at…inopportune times.”

Charlie grimaced. She thought that quirk had been fading. She also wondered if it was so “inopportune.” Wells often made the proclamation to clerks in the bakery and to servers at the ice cream store. More than once it had reaped him a free cookie or turned a single scoop into a double. “Did he bring it up today?”

“When the students were in circle time, I asked them to say their names and tell one thing about themselves. Wells volunteered to go first and—”

“Said his mother was dead.”

“Almost.” Ms. Ramsey gave a brief smile. “I saw where it was going and interrupted him in time, clarifying that the children should tell one thing about their summers.”

“Quick thinking.”

“They keep me on my toes.” Ms. Ramsey’s smile went wider now.

Charlie considered her. “But you really like what you’re doing. The kids.”

“I do.” She nodded. “The hardest part about my job is not losing my heart to them.”

Walking toward the school’s entrance, Charlie decided she approved of Ms. Ramsey. She liked the other woman’s alertness to Wells’ issues and the warmth of her smile. The hardest part about my job is not losing my heart.

Charlie could relate to that.

As she approached the play area near the front of the school, her gaze instantly found Wells, who’d apparently polished off his granola bar and was now using a stick to draw in the dirt alongside his friend, Jake. A few feet away, Jake’s mom, Liz, manned the volunteer table, her adorable three-year-old daughter on her hip.

Narrowing her eyes, Charlie evaluated the scene. Colorful banner—BOOK FAIR! Volunteers Wanted!—in the background. Sign-up sheets, clearly marked with dates and times, on the long table. Pens available. A bowl of hard candy and a jar of licorice to entice and reward. It seemed to have done its job because parents and kids had gathered in the area, moms and dads on their phones to―Charlie hoped―check their personal calendars. Over six days she had divided the hours into sixty-minute slots during which volunteers would sell the books and tchotchkes displayed on temporary shelves in the auditorium.

An up-standing display board at the far end of the table promised that all volunteers would be eligible for a variety of prizes from local businesses. Charlie had already collected gift cards from a florist, a juice bar, and a pet-walking service. The book fair could bring in a lot of money to the school for the scholarship fund that helped kids attend various field trips and the annual outdoor camp. Not everyone in the zip code lived in beachside mansions with families swimming in money.

But everyone liked the idea of a possible reward for their generous volunteer service.

“You’re right,” Liz whispered, as Charlie came to stand beside her. “The kids come like bees to honey for the candy, the parents follow and notice what we’re advertising. Then I flash them my winning smile.” The small blonde grinned up at her.

“Excellent,” Charlie said, giving the signup sheets an upside-down examination. A smattering of names was attached to slots, but all Wednesday remained blank.

“What’s with the middle of the week?” she asked her friend.

Liz looked at her a moment, round-eyed in surprise.

“Oh,” she said, hitching her little girl higher on her hip. “I guess you wouldn’t necessarily know. Wednesdays is when that pair of drill sergeants come in from Beverly Hills for the mid-week boot camp at the park. Nobody wants to miss that.”

The blonde seemed to think for a minute. “Well, everybody wants to miss that, but no one dares admit to it, so we all show up and out-Jones each other until we crawl home, whimpering for our mothers.”

“That’s right,” Charlie said, giving herself a mental slap to the forehead. While her employer was too busy with work to attend mid-week boot camp, as a butler it was up to her to stay up-to-date on all the local activities in case there came a time or a visitor who might have use of the knowledge. “I should have remembered Harry and Mary’s Hell Wednesdays.”

Liz sidled closer and lowered her voice. “I, however, have a perfect excuse to start skipping the torture.”

“You do?”

Her friend’s eyebrows wiggled. “I’m pregnant.”

“Congratulations!”

“Keep it down,” Liz cautioned, glancing around. “I don’t want it to get out quite yet. Queen of Mean Piper Taylor will use it as an excuse to replace me as vice-room parent.”

“Who is Piper Taylor?” Charlie whispered.

“That’s right. You don’t know her because Wells was in the other first grade classroom last year. She’s Serafina’s maternal unit, and she wants to rule her kid’s world.”

“But why would she want to replace you as one of the room parents?”

She’s the room parent. I’m only the assistant, and she doesn’t like me because I let Jake play with his sister’s dolls, and I don’t keep almond milk in the house or some such nonsense.”

“That’s…that’s ridiculous.” Liz was the kindest of women and a wonderful mother.

“Oh, she won’t like you either,” the blonde said blithely.

“She doesn’t even know me.”

“It won’t matter. But you need to be careful, for Wells’ sake. She’s taught Serafina all her mean-girl tricks. Jake’s mostly oblivious, but I think Wells might be hurt if Piper and her darling daughter decide to try to socially shame him in some way.”

Charlie bristled, a surge of anger rising from the depths of her belly. At the edges, her vision turned red. “No one is going to shame Wells,” she said, her voice laced with brimstone.

Her vehemence didn’t seem to surprise or put off Liz, who only nodded, but Charlie’s nerve endings went on high alert at her own fervor. This surging spike of uncontrollable protective instinct spelled trouble. Of ties getting too tightly bound.

The hardest part about my job is not losing my heart.

 

“Look lively,” Liz murmured now, “because here she comes.”

On the surface, Piper Taylor looked like a thousand other Malibu moms. Hair highlighted just so. Body tuned by Pilates, spin, and Wednesday boot camps and dressed in the pastel tones of a little girl. She tucked a strand of straightened hair behind her ear with one finger, nail polished in a tasteful neutral.

“Hello, Liz,” she said.

“Hello, Piper.”

Piper’s gaze swept over the book fair materials, then went back to the blonde, ignoring Charlie altogether. “Since when do we let babysitters head PTA committees?”

Liz’s spine stiffened. “Charlie isn’t a ‘babysitter.’”

“I thought there was a rule,” Piper continued. “You have to be a member of the organization to chair events like Book Fair.”

“I am a member,” Charlie said evenly. “Last year too.”

In the distance, a little girl circled Jake and Wells, her look, from haughty expression to lemon meringue-and orange sherbet-shaded clothes making clear to whom she belonged. The boys mostly ignored her, though Charlie saw Wells shoot the girl a quick, wary glance over his shoulder.

Turning her attention back to the child’s mother, she held out her hand. “I’m Charlotte Emerson. Everybody calls me Charlie.”

Piper’s palm glanced off Charlie’s, as fake as a Hollywood air-kiss.

“How is Ethan?” she said, and then went on without waiting. “Please tell him I asked after him.”

“Surely,” Charlie said, inclining her head.

Then Piper addressed Liz again. “I told Ms. Ramsey that you’d clean out that supply closet for her. There are cases of poster paint and boxes of earthenware modeling clay that need to be moved down from the higher shelves.” She turned to go.

“Charlie’s a butler,” Liz piped up. “Trained at the prestigious Continental Butler Academy.”

Piper halted, turned back. “What?”

“And it’s very, very prestigious, that butler school. Ethan looked far and wide to find someone well-qualified to run his household. People all over the world clamor to have a Continental graduate.”

Charlie swallowed her smile. Liz, such a loyal friend. Nobody better, except for Sara and Emmaline, whom she’d met at the academy and who had come to Malibu as butlers too.

Looking distinctly unimpressed, Piper turned her gaze once again on Charlie. “Well, good luck with Book Fair. I’d hate this to be the year we don’t topple the previous year’s fundraising total.” Without a goodbye, she left.

“Well, that was fun,” Charlie said, watching as Piper collected her daughter and made for the exit. “Notice she didn’t volunteer to take a time slot.”

“She won’t,” Liz said.

Charlie looked down at her friend. “And you can’t do that heavy lifting.”

I won’t,” Liz said. “I’ll get the hubs to do it, but please, don’t tell Piper.”

“My lips are sealed.”

Charlie held a much bigger secret than that. Glancing at Wells, she thought of second grade and petty, pint-sized bullies.

She had a much bigger goal than Book Fair too. The continued health and happiness of six-going-on-seven Wells Archer.

 

Charlie turned off the Pacific Coast Highway, pushing the button that opened the gates leading into the Archer estate. From the street side, there was nothing to see except those wooden barriers painted a dark turquoise, but as the barriers pulled back they revealed the L-shaped drive and the rectangular fountain that ran along it. Ahead was the two-story house, with its beige brick exterior and double entry doors in a weathered red. The tall, narrow windows on the first floor provided a glimpse through the open living space and to the back walls that were mostly glass.

Beyond that, a spacious deck of weathered brick with a lap pool on one end and steps leading to the beach at the other. Surrounding glass panels acted as a railing and didn’t impede the spectacular ocean view but offered protection from chilly breezes.

Wells was out of the car the instant she braked in the four-bay garage and was running for the door into the house, his backpack bumping against his heels as he dragged it along behind him. She followed more slowly, bringing with her the box filled with the book fair materials. She stowed them in the closet in the butler’s pantry as she heard Wells rummaging in the refrigerator.

“Can I have an apple?” he called out.

“Sure.”

With one hand clutching the red fruit, he poked his head around the door to find her. “Dad’s coming tonight? That hasn’t changed?”

She smiled at his eagerness and tried to smother the rush of expectation she felt herself. “I’ve not heard about any delays.”

The boy’s face fell. “But you don’t know for sure.”

Pulling her phone from her pocket, she checked her text messages. “Nothing new. I expect your dad is winging his way toward the LA airport. His flight arrives in a few hours, and if all is well, he’ll be here not long after dinnertime.”

Wells spun around. “Then I’m gonna get my homework done right away.”

She trailed him into the den on the other side of the kitchen to the small table where he’d dumped his backpack. A sheaf of papers emerged and were handed over to her. First day of school details. Separating those that required a signature, she put them into two piles.

Because Wells’ dad traveled occasionally—and often of late—for his commercial real estate business, she had the power to sign his school documents and to give permission for Wells to get medical treatment. But today, she’d leave them for his dad.

Ethan would be home very soon.

Her heart gave another little bump at the thought, but she ignored it as she went about her late afternoon tasks—helping Wells with homework, putting together a salad for his dinner to go along with the white bean soup she’d made earlier in the day. Then, after Wells put his pencils away, they went out to the beach for a little soccer practice on the sand.

A local league was starting up soon, and Wells was looking forward to being on a team again this season.

They didn’t have the beach to themselves—and all were public between the mean high tide line and the water—but the Archer home had over a hundred feet of ocean frontage. There was plenty of room, even as the sun began its slide toward the horizon. It cast an orange-pink glow on the house as she ushered Wells inside for dinner. They decided to eat together on a table on the deck, and they idly discussed the rules in his new classroom and the other children.

He didn’t say a word about Serafina, and Charlie only mentioned in passing how it benefited to be friendly to everyone. Then he jumped up from the table and carried his dishes into the kitchen.

“I’m ready for my shower,” he declared, racing toward the stairs. “Dad will like me nice and clean.”

His dad would like him any way he could get him, she knew, and glanced over at the framed photo of Michelle Archer, Ethan’s late wife, sitting in a prominent position on a shelf in the den. Her blonde hair had been growing in following chemo treatments, but the short strands only served to accent the delicacy of her features and the brightness of her smile.

Charlie had never met her—Michelle had lost her battle with cancer three years before the butler joined the household—but Ethan remained devoted to her, and to the son they had adopted as an infant. She’d often caught sight of the man gazing at that picture, his expression pensive. Other times he’d be looking at Wells, his smile tinged with sadness, and Charlie knew he was thinking of the woman he’d referred to more than once as “the love of my life.”

In the bathroom attached to Wells’ bedroom, Charlie started the shower and adjusted the temperature. Then she set a fresh towel nearby and called to the boy that it was time to get started. He could handle the scrubbing and shampooing on his own, though she’d still follow behind later to mop up water on the floor and to rescue damp terrycloth from the corner. Backtracking down the hall, she stopped a moment to admire the photos of Wells placed on the wall. First solid food, first step, in a bath with bubbles, on the way to kindergarten.

Charlie had missed those moments in the boy’s life.

Shaking off a creeping melancholy, she returned to the kitchen to deal with the dishes and restore the pots and pans to their proper place. She liked tidiness and order in all things—emotions included. Emmaline sometimes accused her of capping off her feelings, and Charlie didn’t disagree. Or find anything wrong with it.

“In my book,” she murmured to herself now, “compartmentalizing isn’t a sin.”

“What’s not a sin?” a masculine voice questioned.

Charlie whirled around, instant heat crawling up her throat and cheeks. “Um, hi, Ethan.” Why hadn’t she taken the time to change into something other than cropped leggings and a matching T-shirt? When was the last time she’d brushed her hair?

He smiled, softening the lines of his lean and handsome face. At their first meeting, he’d claimed to be “on the dark side of thirty-five” but she’d met younger men who didn’t come close to his level of attractiveness.

“Charlotte,” he said now.

She pretended to scowl at him and told herself that she found his use of her full name—he was the only one who ever did use it—irksome. It made her feel too…feminine, and she was supposed to merely be a functional feature in his life. A Charlie.

“Must you?”

His laughter was low, almost intimate. “On occasion, I must.”

Ignoring the traitorous pleasure she felt in his presence, she busied herself with refolding a kitchen towel. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“You were lost in thought.” A heavy pause. “Something about sinning?”

At the amused and inquisitive tone, she glanced up at him. He looked back, one dark eyebrow winged up and the hint of a smile on his firm lips. A shiver tried working its way down her spine, but she ruthlessly held back the sensation.

“It was nothing,” she said.

“I’m disappointed to hear that.” He laughed again, sounding slightly chagrined. “For a moment I thought one of us was breaking out of our rut.”

Meaning…? But before she could ferret it out, the clatter of running footsteps sounded on the stairs.

With a grin, Ethan braced and managed to catch his son who launched himself into the air.

“Dad!” Wells said, hugging with exuberance.

Ethan placed his cheek against the top of his son’s damp hair and closed his eyes. When he took in a deliberate breath, it was almost as if he was breathing for the first time.

“Wells,” he said, voice full of satisfaction. Then his eyes flipped open and they met Charlie’s. “Home.”

She turned away, letting father and son have privacy for their reunion. Wells chattered away about everything that had happened in the ten days his father had been gone—the hike they’d taken in the Malibu hills, the excursion on paddleboards with Charlie’s friend Emmaline and her fiancé Lucas, the shopping for school clothes trip.

“It sounds like Charlie took good care of you,” Ethan said. “I’m glad I brought her back a present from Paris.”

Charlie froze. A present? For her? From Paris? For some insane reason, her mind instantly leaped to thoughts of chocolate. Perfume. Then silk. Lace. Designer lingerie that would cinch her waist and give her small breasts actual cleavage. She swallowed. Surely not.

“What about me?” Wells demanded. “You didn’t forget about me, did you?”

“Of course not.” Ethan laughed, then still carrying Wells crossed to his bags that were piled up by the stairs. Setting the boy on his feet, he rummaged through a canvas and leather duffel and ceremoniously handed over a large box.

Wells looked at it then spun it to face Charlie. “Look! Look! The Eee—”

“Eiffel Tower,” Charlie said. A set of interlocking plastic bricks he could use to make a model of the landmark. “It’s a famous structure in Paris.”

“I know.” Wells nodded. “Remember, Dad texted us a picture of himself standing in front of it. A selfie.”

“More like a halfsie,” Charlie corrected. “Because he cut off a big part of his face.”

Now it was Ethan’s turn to mock-scowl. “Are you disparaging the master of the house?” He prowled toward her, something folded in his hands.

“Only his ability to snap photos of himself,” she said, and didn’t dare look at what he held. What if it really was something…wicked?

“Here.” He shoved the soft item into her hands.

She looked down, rattled by even thinking the word wicked in relation to Ethan. It took a moment for the words printed on the fabric to sink in. Je t’aime.

I love you.

“What did you get?” Wells asked, coming up beside her.

Speechless, Charlie shook her head.

“She needs to unfold it,” Ethan said.

With unsteady hands, Charlie unfurled the fabric.

“It’s a sweatshirt,” Wells said, clearly unimpressed.

Je t’aime Paris,” Charlie read, now that all the words were exposed. “I love Paris.”

“You said you’d been once and enjoyed your visit,” Ethan said.

Surprised, she glanced over. “You remembered.”

He shrugged. “Try it on.”

The hoodie material was a medium blue, and the inside surfaces felt buttery soft. She pulled it over her head and then slid her arms into the sleeves. They hung over her hands, almost to the tips of her fingers, and the hem hit her at mid-thigh.

She looked down at herself. The sweatshirt could fit two or three of her.

“Perfect,” Ethan said, beaming with approval. “It keeps you all covered up.”

“I…thank you.” She folded back the right sleeve, and the left. “It’s a thoughtful gift.”

One that you could give a maiden aunt, a kid sister, or that favorite niece her friends said Ethan treated her as.

His gaze narrowed. “Charlotte…” Then, with a little shake of his head, he turned his attention to Wells. “If tomorrow’s the second day of second grade, we need to get you into bed.”

“Dad…” his son started to whine, but Ethan merely scooped him up and carried him upside down, taking the stairs two-at-a-time.

“Be careful,” Charlie couldn’t help calling after the pair. Then shook her head, knowing they’d most likely tuned her out.

Then she shook her head again as she caught sight of herself in a nearby mirror. She looked like she was wearing a tent, Je t’aime Paris or no. Yanking it over her head, she called herself all kinds of a fool for having that momentary lingerie fantasy. Ethan didn’t think of her as someone who wore lingerie, and she shouldn’t be thinking of him as a man who might buy some for her.

Ethan was a father first and a man grieving for his late wife second. In his life, Charlie was a convenience, like a can opener or a toaster oven.

Not a woman.

“Hey! Charlie!” said her boss now, from the top of the stairs.

She walked to where she could see him. “Yes?”

“Wells wants to say goodnight.”

Her heart squeezed. So, even with his father home, she’d not been entirely supplanted. With a faint smile on her face, she entered the boy’s bedroom, lit only by the glow of a small plastic soccer ball plugged into a socket.

“Goodnight, pal,” she said, perching on the edge of the mattress.

Her hand instinctively brushed back his hair from his forehead, and then she plucked his favorite stuffed animal—a soft-nosed koala—from the pile at the side of the bed and tucked it between Wells’ chin and his shoulder.

It was their little secret―that he needed the toy in order to drift into sleep.

He smiled at her. She smoothed the sheet folded over the blanket that lay across his small chest.

“Second grade,” she whispered. “Such a big guy.”

“Your big guy,” he murmured sleepily and found her hand with his small one.

Eyes stinging, Charlie squeezed his fingers and whispered soundlessly, “My big guy.”

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Ethan stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, his attention riveted on butler and child. She felt his gaze as palpably as she felt Wells hand in her own.

Charlie blinked back another burn of tears, even as emotion tried breaking free of the locks to her most private compartment.

The hardest part about my job is not losing my heart.

It was vital that Charlie win that battle too. It would be disaster to become too close to boy or man.