An excerpt from Staci Stallings’ “Deep in the Heart”
“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.”