“Please, baby, please, just get me through these gates and up to that front door,” Maggie Montgomery pleaded with her ’77 Chevette even as her gaze took in the enormous circle drive that led its winding way up a hill to the cream mansion with the stately pillars beyond. “Oh, Lord, what am I doing here? This has got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever gotten myself into.”
Trying not to think about how her beat-up navy blue two-door looked on the grounds that were perfectly manicured right down to the yellow and red rosebushes, Maggie steered the car around the concrete that was edged with white stones the size of her dresser back in her dorm room. At the apex of the circle, she put the car in park and heaved a sigh that might well be her last.
With a push she resettled her glasses on her nose, grabbed her two-page resume and shouldered the door open. “Just breathe,” she told herself as she stood on legs wobbly from the three-hour car drive. Pine Hill, Texas and the Ayer Mansion seemed a million miles from Gold Dust Drive in Del Rio. It was still Texas, but the similarities stopped there.
Of course, she was in her best dress, a floral print that was a size too big. That was better than the heels, which were at least two sizes too big. They were the best Mrs. Malinowski could do on ten minutes notice. The grace of God alone had gotten Maggie this far, and truth be told, she wasn’t at all sure how much longer His patience with her would hold out.
“Listen, Holy Spirit, I know I’m probably over my quota by now, but please… Please, let me get this. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t.” The remaining two dollars in her purse crossed her mind, pulling her spirit down. Defiantly she squared her shoulders and pulled herself to her full five feet, seven inches.
Every step was pushed on by a prayer. The six wide steps up to the front door nearly did her in, but finally, after 17 years of struggling just to survive, she was here—one knock away from something more than a minute-by-minute existence.
She reached up and rang the doorbell. The wait was worse than the walk. Nervousness raked her hand up her purse strap. Seconds slid by, but nothing happened. What now? Should she ring it again? She looked back at her car and fought the fear and desperation rising in her.
Just before she bolted from the whole idea outright, the door clicked and then opened. On the other side stood a small, Hispanic woman dressed head-to-toe in white.
“Hello,” Maggie said, corralling her purse strap even as she held out her other hand. “I’m here about the nanny position.”
“Doesn’t anyone know how to follow a simple order anymore?” the bellowing, jowl-ridden, over-paunched, balding man at the desk fumed, shaking his head even as he continued to make notes. “I built a whole company, put in oil wells across this state—Midland, West Texas, South Texas—even three in the Gulf, and now my own son can’t get one simple solitary task carried out without messing it up.”
“Dad, it’s not that big of a deal. Q-Main and Transistor will be ready for the track in two weeks. We just need a little more time with Dragnet. He’s not where he needs to be yet.” Keith Ayers fought the urge to shift in his chair. Laid back and nonchalant was by far his best bet with his father. That much he had learned so long ago, he couldn’t clearly remember when it had happened.
One-on-one, head-to-head confrontation had never gotten them anywhere. He clasped his dirt-stained hands in front of him and set his stubble-strewn jaw. His dad was tough, but horses weren’t his specialty. They were Keith’s.
Racing a thoroughbred, especially one with as much promise as Dragnet before it was ready was the best way he knew to ruin one permanently. No amount of blustering changed the fact that Dragnet simply wasn’t ready. “I talked to Ike this morning. He’s thinking we can bring Dragnet up for a real race sometime in July.”
His father exhaled hard, clearly not pleased with the assessment. “I paid $250,000 for that animal, and I don’t like watching my investments sit around eating me out of house and home.”
The fact that house and home weren’t exactly in jeopardy crossed Keith’s mind, but he wisely chose not to say that. “Would you prefer to sink a $250,000 investment by racing him too soon? Trust me on this one, Dad, a little patience now could hold out big rewards later.”
His father scowled, his expression sinking into his jowls. “I didn’t build a billion dollar empire on patience.” Then he nodded. “You’ve got two months.”
May? That was too soon, but it was all Keith would get, and he knew it. “I’ll tell Ike.” He started to stand and felt his father stand as well. Never. Never a good sign. “Uh, I know my way out.”
“Yes, but you also know your way back in. That’s what concerns me.” The laugh that accompanied the statement tried to pass it off as a joke, but it felt more like a knife to Keith.
His father followed him right to the door and out. “So, have you heard from Dallas? How’s she doing at Yale? Law school going okay?”
In the hallway Keith replaced his beat up, loose straw cowboy hat back over the blue bandana stretched across his head. “Good,” Keith answered with the obligatory nod. “She should be back for Spring Break. Graduation’s in May. Hayden & Elliott after she passes the bar.”
“To infinity and beyond. I like that,” his father said with the first smile Keith had seen from him all afternoon. At the staircase that wound to the upper floors, his father stopped, looked up it, and smiled. “Well. Well.”
Keith’s gaze followed his father’s up the carpeted-just-so steps, and although he first noticed his stepmother next to the railing, he stopped dead when he saw the young lady descending between her and the wall.
“Of course you will get time off occasionally,” his stepmother, Vivian, said. Her suit dress was perfectly pressed all the way up to the ruffled collar that ringed her neck like a flower. That was Vivian, always impeccable lest anyone see she wasn’t perfect. “However, I need you to realize that this is basically a 24 hour, seven day a week job.”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am. That’s not a problem,” the young lady with the mesmerizing head of chestnut brown hair which was falling out of the clip she had in the back of her head said. She pulled the strap of her purse up onto her shoulder. She was coming down, trying to keep her gaze on Vivian out of respect and attention, but she clearly could’ve used the banister Vivian was using as her own. The descent was anything but graceful, more halting and awkward. In fact, she was having so much trouble keeping up with everything that it was two steps from the bottom before the young lady with the dark glasses and cascading tresses even noticed there were others watching her descent. Her glance from Vivian to the two men standing at the bottom threw her attention from the concentration she was obviously exerting to get down the stairs for one moment too long.
As Keith watched, one step from the bottom, disaster struck. He saw it as it happened, but it was like it was in slow motion. She stepped down with her left foot, but her shoe planted awkwardly in the plush carpet. Her ankle turned, and like a puppet falling to the stage, her body pitched forward with a jerk.
“Ahh!” Her scream lasted all of two seconds—the exact amount of time it took for him to realize what was happening and reach out to snag her downward motion, which would’ve pitched her unceremoniously to the hardwood floor of the entryway had he not stepped between her and certain humiliation.
“Oh, watch…!” It was all he got out before she thwacked into him. “Ugh!” The impact of her body on his didn’t so much as move him although it was significant enough to jar her glasses askew. It was only the clasp of his hands on her arms that kept her from bouncing off of him and ending her descent on the floor next to him anyway. When her unscheduled tumble came to a complete stop, she was sprawled across him from his shoulder to his arms, which supported her without effort. In fact it felt more like holding a weightless butterfly than anything.
“Oh! Oh my gosh! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Mortified, she yanked herself upright away from him although she looked as unhinged from the encounter as he felt. His insides were dancing with amusement and fascination as he watched her disentangle herself from him and wobble on the uncooperative shoe once more.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She was standing, readjusting her dress, her glasses, herself. “I don’t know why I’m so clumsy today. I…”
“Are you all right?” Keith asked, gazing at her as if he’d just fallen under an angel’s spell. His hands stayed out to catch her again if need be.
“Yeah… Yes. I’m fine.” Perturbed with herself, the young lady shook her head quickly and resumed her attempt to look like she belonged there, which she didn’t. At all. And somehow, he kind of liked that.
He smiled at her, but she was clearly doing her best not to look at him. “You sure?” But she had resumed her concentration on Vivian.
“Conrad,” Vivian said with no small amount of a frown at the ineptitude of her current interviewee, “this is the young lady I told you about. Maggie Montgomery. She’s come about the nanny position.”
“Oh, yes,” Keith’s father said. He extended his hand to her, which she shook even as she continued to fight to get herself under control. “It’s nice to meet you Ms. Montgomery.”
“I have explained to Maggie,” Vivian continued, “that she is on a six month probation period. Anything not up to our standards during that time will be cause for immediate termination.”
Maggie’s gaze fell to the stairs, but she pulled her head up and looked right at Mr. Ayer with a forced smile.
“And that’s acceptable to you?” his father asked.
“Yes, sir. It is.” She looked like a proud filly with her chin up and her hazel eyes flashing determination.
“I suppose you will need two weeks to let your current employer know you are leaving,” Vivian said with a sigh, and Keith couldn’t help but notice the dramatics. She should’ve been an actress.
“Oh,” Maggie said, and he heard the note of concern. “No, Ma’am. I can start as soon as you need me to.” She pulled her fingers up through her purse strap. “I can start now… if that works for you.”
“Wonderful,” Mr. Ayer said. “That’s what I like. Someone who can make decisions.”
“You don’t mind starting today?” Vivian couldn’t hide the pitch of excitement.
Maggie turned to her. “Right now is fine if that’s what you need.”
She was intriguing, mesmerizing, captivating. And yet just why that was, Keith couldn’t accurately tell. She was nothing like the girls he’d been out with. They with their debutant good looks and impeccable manners. No, this one, this Maggie Montgomery, looked more like a nervous, high-strung pony. Proud and strong, and determined not to be broken by anyone.
“Well, then,” Vivian said smartly. “Let’s go meet the children.”
“Good luck, Ms. Montgomery,” his father said, extending his hand to help her down the last step. “It’s nice to have you.”
All the air had gone right out of the room as Keith’s gaze followed her down the hallway and out of sight in the direction of the children’s wing of the estate.
“What’re you still doing here?” his father asked, surveying him. “I thought you had horses to train.”
“I’m on it.” With that, he exited the main house and descended the front steps. There in the driveway sat a car that Keith couldn’t even be sure still ran. It looked like it would be a better fit for a junkyard than in front of his parents’ house. As he started past it, the thought occurred to him that it belonged to her. Her. Maggie Montgomery.
“Well, it will be an interesting two weeks anyway.” With a knowing smile, he strode on. He shook his head at his own joke. They never lasted more than two weeks. Never.
In fact, he wouldn’t have lasted more than two weeks but for the simple fact that they couldn’t get rid of him. He was a member of the family—whether they liked it or not.
“This is Peter,” Mrs. Ayer said, indicating the small boy with the blond hair, sitting at the table coloring slowly. “And this is Isabella.” She picked the little girl with the bright blond curls up into her arms.
“Hello, little one.” Maggie reached a hand out to the soft little face. “You are a sweetie-pie.”
Mrs. Ayer slid the little girl back to the ground and planted her hands on her hips. “Dinner is promptly at 6 p.m. They are to be dressed and ready no later than 5:30. Inez will be able to fill you in on the rest of their schedules.”
Maggie nodded, taking in the information with the sense that even perfection wouldn’t be good enough.
“If you’d like some time to get settled, I can get Inez to watch the children for a few more minutes.”
“Oh, no. I think I’m fine.” Then she remembered. “But I do need to move my car. It’s still out front.”
Mrs. Ayer sighed with disapproval. “Very well. You may park it over at the guesthouse. It’s just through the back, down the lane, and off to the right.”
“It’ll only take me a few minutes,” Maggie said, trying to assure her new employer that she was competent enough to handle all of this.
“You may as well bring your suitcases in as well. Your room will be at the top of these stairs, right next to the children’s rooms.”
“I’m sure I can find it.”
“Inez!” Mrs. Ayer called out the door.
Maggie couldn’t clearly tell how the maid had been able to answer so quickly. It was as if she had materialized there from thin air.
“Please watch the children while Ms. Montgomery gets her things settled.”
Inez bowed slightly. “Very good, Ma’am.”
Once more Mrs. Ayer surveyed Maggie, and the fact that she didn’t believe this would ever work traced through Maggie’s consciousness. “If you need anything else, let Inez know.”
“And now you’d better get that car moved before Jeffrey has a cardiac.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Something told her she would be saying that a lot now. Pleading with her heels to cooperate long enough to get her back to the car and then back here, Maggie hurried out. The early afternoon Texas sun beat down on the outside surroundings. After having been in the comfort of the mansion’s air conditioning, the combination of humidity and heat hit Maggie like two fists.
She got in the car and took her first real breath. “Oh, thank You, Jesus.” Except for the unceremonious stumble into the hired hand, the interview had gone as well as she could’ve hoped for. “Ugh. How clumsy can you be, Maggie? That was a good one.” Forcing herself not to think about it, she pumped the accelerator and twisted the key to get the little car started. Then she carefully backed up so she could go down the back drive as Mrs. Ayer had instructed.
With a frustrated swipe, Maggie pushed the trail of loose strands of hair from her face and then blew them back up when they didn’t stay. Carefully she drove around the house, which was enormous no matter which angle it was seen from. Her heart pounded in her ears as the car slipped into the grove of hulking trees. Trees seemed to be everywhere. Somehow she had expected them to dissipate beyond the mansion, but if anything, they got more massive and thicker the farther she drove.
“Did she say right or left?” Intensely Maggie scanned the areas on either side of the driveway that had narrowed to a trail. “This is great. I get lost on my first day.”
Then just ahead, off to the right, through the knot of trees, she caught sight of the place. When she got closer, Maggie sucked in a gasp of air. If this was the guesthouse, they certainly treated their guests very, very well. Sporting orange-tan brick with blue-gray accents, the house had a bevy of inlets and cutouts. There were enormous windows, and wraparound accents at the corners, and an inlet door that looked like it alone cost the half the national debt. “Wow.”
Wide-eyed in awe but trying to keep her mind on her present mission, Maggie surveyed the small hill of a lawn, the flowerbeds, and every inlet for some clue as to where she was supposed to park. She turned her gaze up the trail. Surely there was a garage somewhere. “Oh, Jesus. Help.” The trail dovetailed with a small perpendicular drive just beyond the house, and carefully she turned there, hoping maybe this was right. In fact, there was a garage, but the moment she pulled up to it, she had second thoughts. What if someone needed in or out of that garage? If she was parked in the way, that would be a problem.
Twisting her mouth as she tried to find an answer to this dilemma, her heart jumped into her throat when her gaze caught movement in her driver’s side mirror. Fear jerked her head around just in time for her to see the hired hand with the blue bandana sticking out from under the ratty cowboy hat come striding up the side of her car. For a moment she felt better, but it was only for a moment because the reality of being out here alone with no knowledge of the terrain if trouble struck with a guy who felt like the Rock of Gibraltar did nothing to calm her nerves.
She swallowed hard. Very cautiously she reached up and locked her door, praying the others were already locked.
“Hey,” he said when he got to her window. His easy smile spread across his face as she rolled down her window just far enough not to be rude. “Fancy meeting you here.”
It was impossible not to notice his biceps, which looked like massive tree trunks streaming down from the ripped-off sleeves of his denim shirt. In a fight, she would lose without him even trying.
“Hi.” Panic smashed into her, and her lungs constricted around it. “Umm… Mrs. Ayer said I could park here, but I’m not sure where she meant.” Anxiety had never meant what it did at that moment.
“Oh, she did. Did she? Well, that figures.” He laughed, which threw her incomprehension devices into full-throttle. “Na. It’s okay. Swing around back here. We can put it in the barn.”
Maggie nodded although no real signals were getting to her brain. She rolled up the window and backed onto the driveway so she could follow him down the increasingly narrow trail. From behind, he was all denim, save for the bent, straw cowboy hat and those arms. “Oh, dear God, I don’t know about this. Please tell me if I should be doing this.” But as far as she could tell, God was not giving her any other options.
At the end of the drive, mercifully, the trees broke their hold on the surroundings, and she drove out into a clearing and down a gravel road over to the building he had called a barn, but like everything else here, ‘barn’ didn’t quite do it justice. He swung the two doors open and stepped back so she could drive in.
Crossing from outside to in, the darkness enveloped her eyes so that it took her longer than it would’ve seemed necessary to make it safely into the building. Once inside, she shoved the car into park and then had to corral her fear to gather enough courage to open the door. “Oh, God, be with me. I’m asking here.” Busying herself, lest he see just how scared she was, Maggie got out, went to the back, and unlocked the trunk. With a heave she pulled her lone suitcase out, praying it wouldn’t fall apart at her feet.
“Oh, here. Let me get that for you.” He reached out for it even as he stood at the door that stood open.
“No. I can get it.” She tried to swing it out of his reach, but with a soft smile and a wink he took it anyway.
“It’s half a mile back to the house,” he said. “In this heat you’ll be French fried by the time you carry this thing all the way back.”
Her heart was beating so loudly, her brain didn’t have a chance to put up a logical argument, so she nodded, ducked her head, and stepped past him. The bright sunshine beyond the door attacked her eyes, and she squinted as he closed the barn door behind them. Everything in her wanted to take that suitcase back and run, but barring humiliating herself against his strength again, she saw no way to do that. The gravel at her feet was playing havoc with her heels, and she fought to keep her balance and stay up with his strides as they started up the incline to the guesthouse.
He wasn’t tall exactly. Maybe a couple inches taller than her but no more than that. But the solidity of everything about him swept the air from her lungs just the same.
“So, you work here?” she asked, willing her voice to stay steady even as her shoes threatened to pitch her into the sharp white rocks at her feet just as they had pitched her into him at the mansion. The thought made her ears burn.
“Yeah. As little as possible.” There was that smile again, and if she hadn’t been so nervous, it might have had a chance to do serious work on her insides. “I run the stable operation up the way.”
“Stable?” Her brain was having trouble processing anything.
They made it back up to the trees, and uneasiness pushed into her consciousness again. She looked around, and the trees seemed thicker now, closing in on her, blocking all escape routes.
“I hear you’re gonna be on the pay roll too,” he said.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am.”
“Well, you must be downright impressive. Most of the time they won’t let anyone within shooting distance of this place that doesn’t have security clearance from the Pentagon.”
They had made it to the main road and headed back to the mansion. Crossing in front of it now, the guesthouse was even more impressive going by slowly—if that was possible. Maggie fought not to gawk at it, but it wasn’t easy. “I passed my background check, and I had a personal reference from the Dean of Early Childhood Development at A&M Kingsville.” She sounded like she was defending herself, and she hated that.
“Impressive.” And he actually sounded impressed. “So, you’re from Kingsville then?”
“Del Rio.” Her heel picked that moment to twist out from under her. “Ugh.” Thankfully, she caught her own balance this time, but it was a close save. “These stupid shoes.”
Skeptically he surveyed her feet. “They don’t make walking look all that easy or that safe.”
“Tell me about it.” She continued walking although he had slowed down in deference to her struggle.
Shaking his head, he pressed his lips together in earnest concern. “Why don’t you take them off? You’re gonna kill yourself on that last quarter up the hill.”
“Oh, yeah. Like I’m going to walk into the Ayer mansion barefoot. That should make a really great first impression.” Sarcasm dripped from her spirit. Who would even make such a dumb suggestion?
He glanced behind them. “Well, nobody comes down this road but me. They ain’t gonna see you anyway, and besides, I’ll warn you before we get too close.”
Maggie still wasn’t so sure, but her ankles were starting to protest rather loudly. “Okay, fine.” She reached down for one shoe but had to scoot her other foot around to keep her balance. She reached out for something solid and met his arm coming the other way.
Smooth skin under her palm ripped sanity away from her. How in the world had she gotten here? Sweat beaded out of her back, and she was quite sure it had nothing to do with the humidity. Quickly she removed first one shoe and then the other. When they were off and she was once again on solid footing, she had to admit it was a good idea, even if her breathing was no longer working properly.
“You got it?” he asked, eyeing her seriously.
“Yeah.” She forced a knot of a smile on her face and started walking. The pavement would’ve been burning hot had it not been shaded by the millions of leaves above them. Just then a breeze swept through the branches and right over them. “Ah.” The sigh of relief was automatic.
“So, you’re an early childhood education major?” he asked as they made their way back up the road. It didn’t take long to understand what he meant about that last quarter of a hill. If it was any steeper than this part, she was in trouble.
“Yeah. I graduated in December. This is the first permanent thing I found.”
“Well, we’re glad to have you. I’m sure Pete and Izzy will keep you on your toes.”
The question of how familiar he seemed in referring to the children traced through her, but before she could voice that thought, he looked at her, and that scattered her thoughts like the pieces of a shattering window.
“So, are you up for the 24-hour thing? Most people hear that and go running for the exits.”
She shrugged, and it took a solid breath to beat the sadness in her chest down. “I like the idea of having a roof over my head. It’s worth a little work to have that.”
He nodded, head down, concentrating on walking. When she looked over at him, she fought not to notice how rugged and tanned his face was. In fact, with that face and that body, he looked like he belonged nowhere else other than out in nature, taming some wild beast. His whiskers were more than a five o’clock shadow. They were a dark emphasis to the sheer masculinity of the rest of him. With a glance he caught her looking at him and smiled. Lines of amusement appeared on either side of his face. “What?”
“Oh. Nothing.” She ripped her gaze away from him. “I just hope I don’t do anything to mess this up.”
When he looked at her again, the smile that was already beginning to get to her was a soft and encouraging. “I think you’ll be just fine.”
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