February 13, 2019
Contemporary Romance with BDSM elements
Money can’t buy back the parts of himself Drew Robertson left on a middle-east battlefield, but his new assistant, Judith Delaney, can show him he’s still a whole man without them—if he can help her heal from her own traumatic history.
Enormous, forbidding iron gates blocked the entrance to the estate, forcing Judith Delaney to stop the car. Their grand presence revived all her doubts about whether she should have come. Graceful scrollwork curled around on itself densely enough to prevent anyone from squeezing through, and a crown of lethal picket-spear points threatened anyone foolish enough to try to climb over it. Andrew Robertson guarded his privacy.
Drawing a deep breath, she reached out to the box nearby and entered the numeric code the agency had given her, pressing the buttons on a keypad sheltered in what looked like a miniature Japanese pagoda. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the intimidating gates swung open, quietly and with surprising speed.
A winding drive meandered through stands of trees, just beginning to show the swelling buds of early spring, and rolling hillside, until the house itself came into view. No, not a house. Mansion. It sprawled out ahead, three long stories of brick, fronted by an enormous columned front porch. She counted ten windows across each of the two upper levels. The façade’s blank, incessant symmetry struck her as unfriendly, almost brooding. All the windows appeared to have drawn shades or closed blinds shuttering them. Privet hedge clipped into rigid box shapes lined the foundation on either side, marching in a straight row to both corners of the building. Only the front porch, which held an array of white-painted wicker rockers interspersed with colorful planters, currently holding flowing green vines, softened the forbidding look.
The estate sat in a narrow valley not far from the city of Asheville, but the North Carolina hills on either side and the high, spiked fence surrounding it lent an air of greater isolation.
She parked in front of the main door and waited a moment, fighting the nervous flutters in her stomach. Finally she got out, climbed three steps to the porch, and rang the doorbell.
Moments later, the door swung open and a man stood there, his face set in grim, harsh lines. Arched, sandy eyebrows rose as he stared at her. “Yes?”
“I’m Judith Delaney,” she managed with only a slight stammer. She’d seen one grainy picture of the reclusive owner of the estate, and there was a resemblance… Surely he wouldn’t be answering his own doorbell. “I had an appointment with Mr. Robertson. The Seabolt Agency sent me.”
“Oh, yes.” The stern expression relaxed a fraction. He nodded and stepped back, letting her enter a grand, spacious hall. White painted walls, classic mahogany furniture and expensively framed paintings screamed elegance. The crystal chandelier hanging from two stories above likely cost more than her entire last year’s salary.
“I’m Andrew Robertson,” the man said, drawing her attention away from the magnificence of the surroundings and confirming her unlikely suspicion. “I hope you had a safe and pleasant trip here. Let’s go to my office.”
But first, he extended a hand.
Judith had to make herself reach out and take it. His palm was warm and a little rough. For a moment she was fine, then the feel of the strong, masculine fingers against hers sent a wave of memory crashing over her.
Hands clamped around her wrists and ankles, holding her in place despite her struggles, while someone lay atop her and forced…
No! She pushed the memory away, recovering control, hoping he hadn’t noted her momentary lapse. To cover it, she said, “You answer the door yourself?”
He shrugged. “The butler gets every other Thursday off.”
“He keeps losing his calendar.”
“I hope he doesn’t lose too many other things.”
Nothing changed in his expression when he answered, “Last time I counted, the spoons were all there. But he does sometimes forget which side of the plate they go on.”
“Isn’t that a cardinal sin for a butler?”
“Actually it’s probably the least among this butler’s sins.”
“Should that give me hope?”
“Are you applying for the butler’s job? I don’t remember advertising for one.” A sudden laugh broke up the severe expression. Mischievous lights danced in blue-gray eyes. “But in fact, keeping track of my calendar is part of the position I’m looking to fill. You don’t lose them, do you?”
“No, but I’m not perfect either, and I don’t know that anything less would do for this place.”
The man’s expression turned grim again in an instant. “Believe me, there are no perfect beings in residence here.”
“I didn’t mean it as an insult. This really is lovely.” She waved an arc in the air, indicating the room.
“It better be, for what I paid the decorator.”
Judith took a closer look at the man who’d be her boss if she got the job. He was tall, with broad shoulders, strong chest, and lean hips, probably in his mid-thirties. Straight, sandy hair framed a narrow face more interesting than handsome, with its hard, square jaw and prominent cheekbones. An intriguing groove creased his cheek when he laughed. A streak of shiny, discolored tissue started on his cheek next to his right ear, widened as it moved down his neck just below the lobe, and spread along his throat, disappearing under the collar of his shirt. It was a distraction but not overly disfiguring.
She’d never met any millionaires in person before, but he didn’t fit her preconceived notions of them. He wore khakis, a blue chambray work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just below his elbow, and well-worn leather loafers. Neither the clothes nor the neat haircut proclaimed themselves expensive.
The smile disappeared and the contrast between the current grim expression and the way he’d looked a moment before shocked her with both the radical change and the speed of it. The blue eyes that sparkled when he laughed became hard and cold when he stopped. Even so, something about him reached out and touched her in a strange, visceral way, as though a connection had been formed between them in the moment of humor. Her heartbeat changed rhythm, beating a little faster. “Come back to the office,” he said.
She followed him to the right, along a hall that appeared to run the length of the house in either direction. A slight limp made his gait uneven but didn’t slow him. He stopped at the third closed door on the right and opened it.
Judith reminded herself that he was a potential employer, nothing else. Any other reaction to him was absurd and inappropriate.
His office was a large room with three windows on the far wall that would look over the front of the house, if all the blinds hadn’t been closed. The room held an enormous desk, exquisitely neat, with a pen holder and several trays of file folders and papers on one end and a sleek laptop computer on the other. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases covered the opposite wall. A pair of deeply cushioned chairs faced the desk and a recliner sat in one corner, flanked by a small table and a floor lamp.
He nodded to one of the two chairs facing the desk and went around to sit in the large leather seat behind it. He studied her for a moment. “How old are you?” he asked.
She started to tell him it was none of his business, then realized it was. As her employer, he would have a right to her date of birth. “Twenty-eight. Last month.”
“You’re not married? No steady boyfriend?” He hesitated a moment before adding, “Or girlfriend?”
“No, no, and no.”
He dipped his head in what might be a faint apology. “I had to know. I assume the agency told you this was a live-in job. I choose to work at odd hours, and I want someone available to help when I do. But I want an assistant, not someone who’ll try to mother me, pity me, or fall in love with me.” He made a quick chopping gesture. “Don’t be shocked. I’ve had eight assistants over the last five years. All of those have happened.”
“I’m not shocked. I can imagine they have, though you don’t strike me as someone who needs either mothering or pity. As for falling in love… I can see why they might, but it’s not likely I will.”
“Why not?” It sounded like nothing more than genuine curiosity. “Because of the scars?”
“The scars?” She looked at the discolored skin on his cheek and throat and had to fight back a ridiculous urge to touch there and tell him not to worry so much about it. “No. It’s something personal to me. You don’t need to know about it except that I’m not likely to fall in love with you.”
“Actually I think it’s more my money they fall in love with than me.”
“I understand you’ve got quite a lot of it.”
“Doesn’t it interest you?” he asked.
“The money?” She considered what to say. “Of course it does. The money you’re willing to pay for my services interests me a great deal. It’s why I’m here. But I have to admit to some misgivings about…”
“Being alone out here with me? I have a couple who live on the grounds and are always around. She’s my cook and manages the house. He’s the groundskeeper and does odd jobs. Plenty of others come and go as well. You’ll be safe enough, as long as you don’t do anything foolish.”
“Even here there are dangers. It’s not safe to go wandering around the grounds alone at night. There are places you need to be careful of when you’re out walking. There are even a few places in the house that are off-limits because they could be hazardous.”
“Also…” He glanced around but she had no idea what he might be looking for.
He hesitated. “I’ve had someone try to break in a couple of times. You need to be careful any time you’re out of the house.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But possibly dangerous, whatever the motivation.”
She had a feeling there was something he wasn’t telling her. The kind of thing he would argue she didn’t need to know. But she had no way to ask about it. “If you hire me, I can assure you I’ll be cautious.”
“Good. The agency did stress that I needed someone who could follow directions?”
“I mean it. I don’t tolerate disobedience.”
Nothing changed in his expression, but the way he said the last sentence planted a sudden vision in her mind. A vision out of her deepest, darkest, most secret fantasies. With him in the starring role. Her heart skipped a beat and slammed into a faster rhythm again. She hoped he didn’t notice, or understand it if he did, but she had the uncomfortable feeling he saw and knew.
He didn’t comment on it, but continued, “I read your résumé and it looks good. The agency recommends you highly. We’ll do fine, I think. You’ll be on probation for the first three months until we have a better idea if it will work out. You’ll have time off, of course; it will just be scheduled a bit differently from a nine-to-five sort of job.” He went on to discuss details of hours, how and when she’d be paid, what he expected of her, and the office equipment and software programs he used.
He led her into an adjoining office, which would be hers as his assistant. Only slightly smaller than his, it had two windows along the front, comfortable chairs and very modern equipment.
When he touched her arm to draw her attention to the computer, she gasped and flinched away. He’d caught her unprepared. Damn it, damn it, she had to control herself! His eyebrows rose and he said, “Sorry.”
“It’s nothing. You just startled me.” She doubted the lie convinced him, but he let it go.
“I’ll show you the guest quarters. There are rooms on this level and on the second floor. You can have an upstairs room if you prefer, but I know I’d rather not have to go up and down stairs all the time. On the other hand, you’re not hobbled by war wounds.”
“Is that how you got the scar?”
“Scars. You can’t see all of them. In the Middle East, some years back now.”
He went still for a moment before he said, “Me too, but it is what it is.” He gave the words no particular inflection. No self-pity or regret. “It could have been worse. At least I’m still alive and walking around with both legs and both arms.” The bleakness of the tone nonetheless suggested he’d lost something more than skin to the explosion. “More than many can say.”
It made her think about her own scars. They were on the inside and didn’t show but were no less real for all that.
The guest suite he showed her bordered on opulent. Its three tall windows looked out over the back of the house, though closed blinds cut off the view. Velvet curtains hung over them, matching the velvet spread and pillow shams on the queen-sized bed. The dressing table had a mirror with folding panels on either side, and a bank of cabinets lined a far wall. Doors were pushed back on an armoire in the corner to reveal a large, flat-screen television with a cable box and DVD player beside it. Plush carpet cushioned her feet. When he showed her the en-suite bathroom that included a whirlpool tub as well as a glassed-in shower enclosure, she got nervous. This seemed too good to be true. What was the hitch? A glance around showed the bedroom door had a deadbolt on the inside.
“Think you can be comfortable here?” he asked. “It could get kind of lonely. I sometimes get involved in other things and you won’t see me for a while. You can go into town to go shopping or whatever you want whenever you’re free, of course, but you may not have visitors here, unless you clear it with me first.”
“I’ve got plenty of reading to catch up on.”
“Good enough.” He escorted her back to the front door but stopped in the hall. “The recommendations from the agency for you were superb. As far as I’m concerned you’ve got the job,” he said. “But I want you to give it some thought for a couple of days. It won’t be an easy situation, and I’m not an easy man to work for.” He gave a harsh laugh. “I’ve been on my best behavior for you today, but I’m not always this pleasant. I can be harsh, demanding, tyrannical, and overbearing. Two of my former assistants quit abruptly after I growled at them once too often. One tried to seduce me. Two others disobeyed a rule and were asked to leave. I don’t tolerate disobedience.”