CHAPTER TWO

There was a weight vibrating on his chest. He must have left the door open when he came upstairs. “It better be light out, Nigel,” he muttered. Freeing a hand from under the covers, he felt around until his fingers found fur. Immediately, the purring increased as Nigel leaned into the touch. A sad voice in his head noted this was the most action he’d had in his bed in way too long. “Hey, be careful with the claws, buddy,” he said when the cat began kneading the blanket. “I might need those parts someday.” You never knew. A social life might spontaneously develop. Stranger things had happened.

At work, people considered him a workaholic, but the truth was, he’d never been what peple would call popular. He discovered early that being a Duchenko heir meant being judged and misunderstood. As a kid, his awkwardness was labeled snobbery. As he got older, his social desirability was measured in terms of his bank account. He had to be constantly on guard, assessing the motives of every person that crossed his path. The one time he hadn’t…well, that had taught him two more lessons: Don’t let sex cloud your judgment and even family members will screw you over. Except for Ana, that is. Ana was the one family member who loved him for him.

Nigel’s head butted his hand, a not so subtle way of saying more petting, less thinking. Giving a half sigh, Stuart opened his eyes, then blinked when he saw Nigel in perfect focus. He’d forgotten to take out his contact lenses again. No wonder his eyes felt as if they had sand in them. What time was it anyway? Yesterday had wiped him out so badly he barely remembered falling into bed.

Not too wiped out to go toe-to-toe with the housekeeper, though. It was a bit arrogant of him showing up without warning, but he’d wanted to catch her off guard. To see how she’d react to learning she wouldn’t have the run of the brownstone.

Turned out she reacted to the blind side better than most of his legal opponents.

Most of his legal opponents didn’t have eyes that lit up like chocolate diamonds, either. Dark and sinfully rich, their spark got his adrenaline going in a way practicing law sure didn’t. A guy could make a career out of looking for ways to make those eyes light up.

What was that about not letting sex cloud his judgment? Ignoring Nigel’s protest, he rolled onto his side and reached for the phone on the nightstand. It was early, he thought, noting the time, but not so early to reach an associate. The ambitious ones practically slept at the firm. A few minutes of scrolling through his contacts found him the name he wanted.

Just as he expected, Bob Cunningham answered on the first ring. “Welcome back. I hear congratulations are in order.” He was referring to the LA case.

“Too bad the former Mrs. Wentworth didn’t come to her senses last year.” Instead, she’d put her late husband’s family through hell and sentenced Stuart to months of aggravation, not to mention opening the door for Patience Rush. “There are a couple details to iron out that I’ll talk to you about later. In the meantime, I need some background research done. A woman named Patience Rush.”

“Is that her real name?”

Good question. Strangely enough, he hoped the quirky moniker was real. “That’s for you to tell me.” He gave him what details he knew.

“You’re not giving the investigator much to work with,” Bob replied.

“He’s worked with less.”

“True. What client number should I bill?”

“SD100.” On the other end of the line, there was a soft intake of breath. Stuart seldom used his discretionary fund, but the firm’s investigator was the best around. He’d reimburse the firm later.

“Um…”

“What?” Stuart asked.

The associate paused. “This might take a while. We’ve tapped him for a couple other projects.”

And clients always came before personal. Stuart understood. “Just tell him to get to it as soon as he can.”

In the meantime, he’d just have to keep a close eye on Patience Rush. Thinking about her eyes, he couldn’t help but smile. There were worse jobs in the world.

*

A short while later, having showered and changed, he headed downstairs only to hear muffled voices coming from the kitchen. One muffled voice actually. He found Patience crouched over Nigel’s food dish, brandishing a dustpan and broom. “You’d think a cat who acts like he’s starving wouldn’t drop pieces of food all over the place,” she muttered. “One of these days, I’m going to toss the whole bowl out. Let’s see what you do then.”

A chuckle rose in his throat. Nigel had a way of making all of them talk as if he understood. He leaned a shoulder against the door frame. “Not a cat person, I take it.”

She gasped before looking up at him with a glare. “Do you always sneak up on people?”

There they were again, those chocolate-diamond eyes. He crossed his legs to keep his jeans from growing tight. “I didn’t know walking around the house was considered sneaking.”

“Then you should walk louder,” she replied. “Or wear shoes.”

He looked down at his bare feet. “I’ll keep that in mind. May I ask what the cat did to earn your wrath?”

“Nigel isn’t a cat. He’s a four-legged spoiled brat.”

As had been all of Ana’s cats. His aunt tended to overindulge the strays she adopted. Pushing herself to her feet, Patience swayed her way across the room to the trash can. Stuart found himself wondering if the seductive gait was natural or on purpose. “Sounds like the two of you have a great relationship,” he remarked.

“Mine and Nigel’s relationship is just fine. Why?” She took her foot off the receptacle latch, causing the lid to close with a loud slap. “Afraid I’ll try to push him down the stairs, too?”

“Nah. A woman as smart as you would know hurting Nigel is the quickest way to getting on Ana’s bad side.”

She gave him a long look. “Was that supposed to be a compliment?”

In a way, yes. He did think she was smart. “If you want to take it as such.”

“Gosh, thanks. I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”

Smart and quick-witted. She was dressed similarly to yesterday in jeans, a tee and a cardigan sweater, her hair pulled back with one of those plastic hair bands. For the first time he looked closely at her features. Yesterday, he’d been too distracted by her eyes, but today he noticed more intricate details like the long slope of her nose and the way her teeth met her lower lip in a slight overbite. A two-inch scar cut across her right cheekbone. Time had caused it to fade. In fact, with makeup, it’d be barely noticeable, but since she was again bare faced, he could see the jagged edges of a cut that should have had stitches. The scar bothered him, like seeing a crack on the surface of a crystal vase. It didn’t belong.

Patience cleared her throat. Realizing he’d been staring, he covered his action by adjusting his glasses. This might be one of those rare moments when he was grateful for them. He detested wearing the heavy black frames. The look might be considered stylish now, but it simply reminded him of his younger, awkward days. Then again, maybe a reminder was a good thing, given the awareness swirling around his insides this morning.

He reached for a change of topic. “Do I smell coffee?” There was a distinct aroma of French roast in the air, a unique scent in his tea-drinking aunt’s home.

Patience nodded her head toward a stainless steel coffeemaker tucked in the faraway corner. “Cream and sugar are in the dining room. Do you prefer a full breakfast or continental.”

“Neither.” Was she offering to make him breakfast? Considering the circumstances, he wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or suspicious. “Are you waiting on me?” he asked when she took a coffee mug from the cupboard. “Why?”

“Because it’s my job,” she replied. “I serve breakfast every morning. So long as someone’s here, I’ll keep on serving it.” Filling the cup, she handed it to him.

Stuart stared into the black liquid. What gives? Last night, Patience had made it quite clear that she didn’t appreciate his staying at the brownstone, yet here she was pouring him coffee and offering breakfast. Citing her job. Was she truly that dedicated or was this some kind of tactic to throw him off his game? If the latter, it was working.

“Something wrong?” she asked. “Would you feel better if I drank the cup first?”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” he said, setting the coffee cup down. “You didn’t appreciate my questioning Ana’s accident.”

“Not the accident—me. You all but accused me of pushing your aunt down the stairs.”

Yes, he had. Now that he thought about it, the accusation wasn’t his finest moment. Treating the woman like a hostile witness wouldn’t accomplish anything. A situation like this called for a more delicate touch. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I tend to be wary when it comes to strangers around my family.”

“Well, I tend to have a problem with being accused of crimes I didn’t commit,” she replied, snapping his olive branch in two. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a job to do.”

*

“Can you believe the guy? I think he actually considered that comment an apology.”

“Some people aren’t very good with apologies.” Her sister Piper’s face filled the screen of her smartphone. Thank goodness for Wi-Fi and internet chat apps. She so needed a friendly ear right now and Piper was the one person in this world she could trust. Patience called her as soon as she sat down at Ana’s desk.

“Maybe he’s one of those people,” her sister continued.

“Probably because in his mind he’s never wrong.” She sighed. “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck working for the man while Ana’s in the hospital. Talk about a nightmare.”

“Oh, come on, it won’t be that bad.”

“Are you kidding? We’re living under the same roof. How am I supposed to avoid him?”

“I doubt he’s going to be hanging around the house.”

Wanna bet? Patience caught the smirk in his eyes last night. He probably considered the arrangement the perfect opportunity to vet her. Who used words like vet anyway? Couldn’t he say check her out like a normal person.

“I don’t like him,” she said. “He’s…”

“He’s what?”

Too imposing. With his unwavering blue eyes and long lean torso. “There’s something about the way he looks at me,” she said, keeping her thoughts to herself.

“Guys are always looking at you.”

“Not like this.” Those guys were skeevy. All hands and leers. “It’s like he’s trying to read my mind.” She wasn’t used to a man looking at her as anything more than a chick with a nice rack. It was unnerving to have a man look deeper. “Plus, he keeps talking about secrets. I’m worried one of these times I’ll slip up and say something incriminating.”

“So, don’t talk to him. There’s no rule that says a housekeeper has to be chatty.”

“True.” Except she seemed unable to help herself.

“If it helps,” Piper added, “I watched a movie the other night where the woman drugged her husband’s dinner so he’d leave her alone. You could always try that.”

“Oh, sure.” It was exactly the laugh she needed. “Because my life isn’t enough like a made-for-television movie. Seriously, though, what am I going to do?”

“You could try telling the truth.”

Patience shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Why not? I bet Ana won’t care, especially once she hears the whole story. I mean, it’s not like you had other choices. Surely, Ana would understand that you did what you had to do.”

Maybe, but what about the reason Patience stayed for as long as she did? There were some secrets Piper didn’t know and was better off never knowing. That particular shame was Patience’s and Patience’s alone.

Again, she shook her head. “I’ll just have to stay on my toes is all. Hopefully, when Ana starts to feel better, he’ll lose interest. A rich, handsome lawyer? I’m sure he’s got better things to focus on than the hired help.”

“You didn’t mention he was handsome,” Piper said, giving her a smirk.

“He’s…good-looking,” Patience replied rolling her eyes. Handsome wasn’t the right word. “Not that it makes a difference. I’m more concerned about keeping my job.”

“You’re going to be fine, You’re one of the most resilient people I know.”

Patience wished she shared her sister’s confidence. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said. She was tired of whining. “How’s school?”

“Um…good. French pastries are turning out to be a challenge.”

“Bet yours taste fantastic. Any way you can mail me your homework?” She was so proud of Piper. Winning a scholarship to study cooking in Paris. Piper’s success made everything worthwhile. “And how’s work?” Her sister was earning room and board as a live-in maid. “Your boss must be psyched to have a gourmet cook on staff.”

“Frederic doesn’t eat home much.”

The grainy camera image failed to mask the shadow that crossed Piper’s face, immediately sending Patience’s maternal instincts into high alert. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Piper replied quickly. “I’m just bummed not to have someone to cook for is all. I miss you.”

Homesickness. Of course. Patience should have realized. This was the longest the two of them had ever been apart. Hard as it was on her, it had to be doubly hard on Piper, alone in a foreign country. “I miss you too Pipe. But, hey, we’ve got Wi-Fi. You can call me anytime you want.”

Piper smiled. “Back at you.” Offscreen, a noise occurred, causing her sister to look over her shoulder. “Hey, I’ve got to go,” she said. “The boss just walked in. Don’t let Ana’s nephew intimidate you, okay? You’re just as good as he is.”

“Thanks. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Patience’s smile faded as soon as she clicked off. Piper had such faith in her. It wasn’t that she was completely ashamed of everything she’d done in life, she thought, setting the phone aside. Raising Piper, for instance. She couldn’t be prouder of the woman her baby sister had become. Giving Piper a chance for a real future had always been what mattered the most. Her baby sister would never have to degrade herself to pay the bills.

A knock sounded behind her, making her start. “You can’t accuse me of sneaking up on you this time,” Stuart said. “I knocked.”

Yes, he had, and he now stood in the doorway with his arms folded like a long, lean statue. It wasn’t surprising that he managed to look as regally imposing in jeans and bare feet as he did in a suit. Patience had a feeling he could wear a bunch of rags and still look wealthy. Even the glasses that, on someone else would look geeky, looked more geek-chic on him. Actually, much as she hated to admit it, the frames looked adorable on him.

Some of her bangs had slipped free of her hair band. She brushed them aside to disguise her reaction. “Do you need something?” she asked.

“It dawned on me that I sounded—are you writing out checks?”

His gaze had dropped to the ledger that lay open on the desk. What now?

“I’m reconciling the checkbook. Ana likes a paper record in addition to the online version.” She considered adding that his aunt had asked her to take over the task because her math was getting a bit fuzzy, but that would only make her sound more defensive than she did, and she refused to feel guilty for doing her job.

“I never did understand her insistence on two records,” He replied. She’d expected a far more snide comment. Walking over to the desk, he studied the laptop screen from over her shoulder. “Seems like way too much opportunity for mistakes.”

“I’ve tried to tell Ana the same thing.” As much as she tried not to be, Patience found herself acutely aware of his chest hovering behind her ear. The scent of his body wash lingered in the air. Clean. Crisp. She couldn’t help herself; she inhaled deeply.

“You forgot to record check number 3521,” he said, pointing at the screen.

Sure enough, there was an unrecorded check. “This is the biggest problem,” she said. “Ana always forgets to mark the checks in both places.”

“I thought you wrote the checks?”

“I write out the monthly checks for the bills. That doesn’t mean your aunt doesn’t write out her own ocassionally. Especially when she want to give money to the humane society. See?” She pointed to the written ledger. “Check 3521 in her handwriting.”

She shifted in her hair, so she could better confront him. “Are you going to question everything I do while you’re living here? Because if so, it’s going to make for a very long stay.”

“I wasn’t questioning anything. All I did was point out you missed a check.”

Right. And his pointing out had nothing to do with his distrust. “Look,” she said, “I know you don’t like me—”

“I never said I didn’t like you.”

Patience blinked. “You didn’t?”

“No. I said I didn’t trust you. There’s a difference.”

Not much. “Gee, thanks. I feel so much better.”

A hint of color found its way to his cheeks. It, along with his quick, sheepish smile, dulled her annoyance. “I’m not saying this right at all,” he said. “I came in because I realized what I said back in the kitchen didn’t come out as apologetically as it should have. What I should have said was that I’m sorry for treating you like a trial witness last night. I should have let the matter drop after Ana corroborated your story.”

“Actually,” Patience replied, “what you should have said was that you’re sorry for even suggesting I’d hurt your aunt.”

Stuart grabbed the edge of the desk, trapping her between his two arms. Body wash and heat buffeted the space between them, the combination making Patience’s pulse quicken. She looked up to meet a gaze that was bright and resolute. “Ana is the only family I have,” he said. “I won’t apologize for trying to protect her.”

This was where Patience should retaliate with angry defiance. Unfortunately, she understood where Stuart was coming from. When it came to keeping your family safe, you did whatever you had to do. No matter what.

Still, she wasn’t ready to let him off the hook. “Let’s get something straight,” she said, straightening her spine. “I like Ana. She’s been good to me. Real good. I would never hurt her. I don’t care how good your reason is—you are a jerk for thinking otherwise.”

They were back to Mexican standoff territory, with their eyes challenging one another. Patience focused on keeping her breath even. She didn’t know if it was his scent, his close proximity, or the thrill of having held her ground, but she could feel the adrenaline surging through her. When Stuart broke the moment with a slow, lazy smile, her heart jumped. The thrill of victory, she decided.

“Yes, I was,” he said. “A jerk, that is.”

“Finally, we agree with something.” She sat back, only to realize the new posture placed her in the crook of his arm. Instinct screamed for her to straighten up again, but that would imply she was nervous, and since she wasn’t nervous‑not very‑ she forced herself to look relaxed. “Apology accepted.”

Stuart responded with a low chuckle before—thankfully—shifting positions and releasing her. Patience was surprised how much she missed his scent when it disappeared.

“How about we start over with a clean slate?” he said. “Hi. I’m Stuart Duchenko.”

She stared at his extended hand. For some reason, the gesture kicked off warning bells. “Why?” she asked.

“Why what?”

“Why the one-eighty?” A dozen hours ago, he was smirking with suspicion. Now he wanted to be friends?

He’d obviously expected the question, because he chuckled again. “Because you’re right, I was being a jerk. And, because Ana would have my head if she saw the way I was acting. Our bickering like a couple of twelve-year-olds won’t help her. Therefore, I’m hoping we can be civil for her sake.”

He had a point. Ana would expect better of her, as well. “Does this mean you’ve decided to trust me?”

“Let’s not go crazy. I am, however, willing to give you the chance to prove me wrong.”

“Well, isn’t that mighty big of you.” Although, in truth, they had something in common. She didn’t trust him, either.

His hand was still extended, waiting for her acceptance. Fine. She could be the bigger person, too. For Ana’s sake.

“I’m Patience Rush,” she said, wrapping her fingers around his palm.

His grip was firm and confident, more so than she expected. Patience was shocked at the power traveling up her arm.

You’re playing with fire, a tiny voice whispered in her ear. Stuart wasn’t some sour-smelling creep she could hold off with an expressionless stare. He was a man whose clout and influence could ruin her life. But, like a shining red sign blinking “Do Not Touch”, she couldn’t resist the challenge.

“Nice to meet you, Patience. I look forward to getting to know you.”

“Same here.”

She wasn’t sure what to say next and, based on the awkward silence, neither did he. The strangest energy had begun humming around them. Wrapping them together, as if the two of them were suddenly on the same page. Weird. Other than Piper, Patience had always made it a rule to keep an invisible wall between herself and the rest of the world. To feel a connection of any kind left her off balance.

Stuart’s smile mirrored her insides. Tentative and crooked. “Look at us being all civil.”

“Let’s not go crazy,” she replied, quoting him. “It’s only been a minute. Let’s see how we do at the end of the day.”

“I’m up for the challenge if you are.”

Oh, she was more than up for it. If being civil led to him dropping all his talk of “secrets,” then she’d civil him to death.

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