At Her Service Excerpt

A KEPT MAN
Excerpt

 

CHAPTER ONE

The house was tucked away on a winding lane in the Hollywood Hills. Shady trees hid it from the world and insulated it from the noise of the city just below. Stepping out of the Jeep, Jess could hear nothing of the congested Los Angeles traffic that had surrounded her only minutes ago. There was only the soft rustle of leaves in the afternoon breeze and the occasional chirp of an unseen bird.

“A haven,” Aunt Felicity had called it. For once in her life, Felicity hadn’t exaggerated. Jess could already feel the tension that had been gnawing at her insides for weeks seeping away.

Throwing the backpack that contained her laptop and what few clothes she had over her shoulder, Jess closed the car door—gently, so not to disturb the blessed stillness—and stared up at her home for the next month. It was an elegant structure, constructed entirely of wood and glass, with wall-to-wall windows that provided a panoramic view of the valley on three sides. A winding brick path led the way through the sheltering trees up to the front door.

Jess glanced down at her ragged khaki shorts and scuffed climbing boots. Good thing there wasn’t going to be anyone here to greet her. She’d never felt more out of place in her life—and this from someone who had made a career out of being at ease at anywhere in the world. As a foreign correspondent reporting primarily from South America for the better part of the last decade, she knew what it was like to walk into places where being a Caucasian female was asking for trouble. Yet she’d managed to thrive. Truth be told, the sweltering jungles of Central and South America still felt more like home than the States did.

They were certainly more reassuring than Aunt Felicity’s Hollywood hideaway.

Felicity wasn’t really her aunt. Technically, she was Jess’s godmother, her mother’s college roommate and best friend. But while Linda Harper had grown up and settled down, Felicity had done the exact opposite.

She’d been an actress in the seventies, though not a particularly good one, which was why her career hadn’t lasted into the eighties. Fortunately, she was beautiful, a quality she had never hesitated to fall back on. It had helped her snare the heart and hand of director Roy Talbott and, when he died a few years later, this house he’d built. Felicity had long since moved on to husbands two, three and four, though she was currently unwed and had recently hooked up with some kind of European royalty. A count? A duke? Jess had never been able to keep track. Through all her subsequent marriages, Felicity had kept this house, a telling sign, Jess thought, that Roy was the one husband she’d truly loved.

With Felicity summering in Monte Carlo with her royal—maybe he was an aging prince, though not one who was going to inherit a crown—the house was empty and available. The perfect retreat for someone suffering from writer’s block.

“You must take it, darling!” Felicity had insisted when she’d visited Jess in New York last week. “I will not take no for an answer.”

She should have at least tried giving it for one, Jess thought. For someone who’d spent the last few years living in tents, huts, cheap hotel rooms and one tiny New York apartment, the house seemed obscenely extravagant. She couldn’t see herself being comfortable here.  Maybe that was a good thing. She’d been perfectly comfortable in her apartment back in New York, and she hadn’t been able to get a damn thing done on her book, which was now due in twenty-nine days, sixteen hours and twenty odd minutes. Her deadline loomed over her like the gleaming blade of a guillotine, just waiting to swoop down at put an end to her fledgling literary career before it had even started.

Her publisher was very excited about the book, offering a hefty advance for her memoirs about being a young woman on the front lines in some of the most dangerous places on earth. She’d been excited about it too, before she actually tried to sit down and write the damn thing. She’d covered wars, political upheaval, the plight of slowly fading indigenous cultures. She’d accumulated more stories in ten years than most people would in a lifetime. She knew exactly what she wanted to say, what she thought was most interesting and what she thought people should know.

And after seven months of sitting in front of her computer, she had squat.

She was used to tapping out stories on the fly, faced with a daily deadline for the wire service she’d worked for.

Now, with all the time in the world, nothing.

She was too self-aware not to know what the problem was. She’d thought that she was far enough away from everything that had happened last year, that she had the necessary distance to begin writing about her experiences, only to find she was kidding herself. She had the physical distance, but nowhere close to the emotional one.

In all likelihood, Aunt Felicity’s hideaway was exactly what she needed. This place was a thousand miles away from South America, not only in terms of distance, but attitude. It was luxurious and decadent, and made her feel more than a little sinful. Felicity was right. She needed to relax. It could be exactly what she needed for the words to flow.

Of course, standing outside and gawking at the place wasn’t helping her get anything on paper. Shoving her misgivings aside, Jess climbed the stone path up to the front door that was tucked away almost on the side of the house. The better to discourage unwanted visitors, she supposed.

Pulling the key Felicity had given her from the pocket of her shorts, Jess began to ease it into the lock, only to have the heft of her backpack throw her off-balance. The key bounced off of the lock and out of her fingers. Pain shot through her hand as it slammed into the door.

“Damn it!” A string of curses slipped from her mouth, and when she’d exhausted her supply of English ones, she moved on to one of the other languages she knew.

In the back of her mind, she heard the key clink against the stoop. Shaking her throbbing fingers, she let the backpack drop to the ground and bent to find the key. God, she hoped it hadn’t bounced off into the grass. There was a steep dropoff from the step, and spending the next couple of hours searching for the damn thing wasn’t how she wanted to spend her first day here.

The door suddenly swung open with a whoosh. Caught off-guard, Jess jerked her head to the sound.

Her eyes landed two of the most perfectly formed male legs she’d ever seen.

Feeling awkward and embarrassed standing there with her butt in the air, Jess tried to straighten, only to find her attention lingering as her gaze rose.

The view only improved as she went up.

The legs went on forever, with long, lean calves and strong, muscular thighs, all lightly dusted with blond hair and burnished to a golden glow.

They finally ended at a pair of threadbare cutoffs, chopped indecently high, so that the bulge in his crotch was barely contained in the pouch of the fly.

The shorts hung low on lean hips that managed to hold them up against all odds and the laws of gravity.

Above them was a crisp outline of abs. One, two, three, four…times two.

Two hard pecs, bracketed by tight, compact biceps, beneath firm, golden skin.

Every trace of moisture in her mouth had evaporated, and she almost hesitated before going further. There was no way his face could live up to the rest of him. He had to be cross-eyed and bucktoothed with a receding hairline. No one could be that genetically blessed.

She was wrong.

The face matched the rest of him. Classical, chiseled features, sparkling blue eyes, and sun-kissed blond hair that was cut short, but nowhere close to receding.

He smiled down on her, his grin open and gleaming, displaying a mouthful of bright, perfectly straight, definitely not buck teeth. The man was a toothpaste commercial come to life; she could practically see the sparkle on his ivory enamels. Hell, maybe he really had been in a commercial. What did she know? He was certainly good-looking enough. Too good-looking.

It had to be a trick of the light—he had the sun at his back, after all—but he looked as if he was literally gleaming, as though the glow was emanating from his bronzed skin. A California sun god in fact as well as appearance.

She, who’d never sighed over a man before in her life, choked back the exhalation that had been ready to burst forth.

“Hi,” he said. The low rumble of his voice finally snapped her out of the astonished daze that seemed to have struck her. For a moment she’d almost managed to convince herself he was nothing more than a heat and exhaustion-induced mirage. Her imagination certainly couldn’t do much better than this.

But no. He was real. Amazingly real. There was nothing wrong with her senses, but something screwy was definitely going on.

She straightened her spine and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I must have the wrong house,” she said, even though she knew she clearly hadn’t. She’d seen pictures. The house was familiar. The man was not.

“Jess?” the golden god said, his smile welcoming.

The sound of her name in a stranger’s mouth was more unnerving than reassuring. She’d learned long ago that it was never a good sign when someone you didn’t know knew you. It meant they’d been waiting for you, and their intentions were seldom benevolent.

Of course, that was a lesson she’d learned in a war zone, far from this gleaming house and the gleaming man in it.

She suspected that truth held all the same.

She eyed him warily, debating whether or not to admit her identity. Finally deciding she was being overcautious, she admitted, “Yes.”

His warm smile only deepened at her confirmation. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he was happy to see her. “Felicity said you would be coming.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “That’s funny. She didn’t say you would be waiting.”

He shrugged. “You know Felicity. Let me take your bag.”

Yes, she did know Felicity, Jess thought grimly, which was the one reason she wasn’t walking away. Finding someone she didn’t know in her aunt’s home might be cause for alarm under normal circumstances. Jess had learned long ago never to be surprised by anything Felicity threw her way. She’d bet a hundred bucks that when she called Felicity to confirm his story—and she was going to do that ASAP—Felicity would only trill, “Surprise, darling!”

She held up a hand before he could reach for the backpack. “That’s okay. I think I can handle it. And you are…?”

“Charlie.”

She waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t, just stood there expectantly.

She tamped down a burst of impatience. “That tells me your name, not who you are.”

“I live in the guesthouse. I take care of all of Felicity’s needs when she’s here.”

Jess eyed him with some unease, hoping against every instinct that she’d misunderstood the clear innuendo. “And by ‘all,’ you mean…”

A dimple appeared in his left cheek, the mark giving his face an almost innocent quality that was sharply at odds with the suddenly salacious gleam that entered his eyes.

“All.”

Of course he did. Jess couldn’t even feign surprise that Felicity would have a gigolo on hand. Gigolo? Was that even the right word? This wasn’t exactly Jess’s area of expertise.

Whatever he was, of course Felicity would have one. It was exactly what Felicity would do.

A dark suspicion crept into her mind, and it was all Jess could do not to groan. “I don’t suppose you’re going to be staying somewhere else while I’m here?”

“Of course not. I’m here at your disposal to service you.”

“You mean ‘serve.’”

He blinked guilelessly. “If you prefer.”

Jess narrowed her eyes on his smiling face. No way in hell that was a slip of the tongue.

Her hand tightened on the strap of her pack until she thought she felt a bone snap. “I think I need to give Felicity a call.”

 

Copyright © 2012 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.