ISBN# 9780985453411

April, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once upon a time...

a long time ago,

there lived a beast of a man,

locked within a castle

with no one to love him.

 

This is not his story.

 

This is the story of another man,

locked within himself,

and the Beauty

who sets him free.

 

   

Chapter One

 There’s a naked man in my kitchen.

The thought registered just as the terse, “Who the hell are you?” had Jolie Gardener spinning around faster than a figure skater on speed.

He had the nerve to ask this? He of the broad shoulders, six-pack abs, and other, nice, um, parts...  

Really. A naked man. In her kitchen.

Well, technically, she was in a naked man’s kitchen. Even more technically, she was in a naked Todd Best’s kitchen—and there wasn’t one hint of self-consciousness or embarrassment on his part. Of course with that body, there shouldn’t be. The guy should flaunt his nudity for the world to see. Which, at present, consisted of one single, solitary person: Jolie Gardener, aspiring writer and personal chef extraordinaire.

“Well?” His hands slammed to his hips.

“You’re naked,” she squeaked, which, really, was the only way to state that kind of obvious.

“I’m what?” Mr. Six-Pack Abs glanced down.

Jolie tried not to—so unsuccessfully it was pitiful.

“Shit,” he muttered. “I am. I, uh, fell asleep last night…”

As butter sizzled in the new super-slick omelet pan on the top-of-the-line range, Jolie’s gaze alternated between some rock-hard abs and a scruffy eight a.m. shadow while her fingers danced along the speckled granite countertop in search of a napkin, placemat, oven mitt… something.

Mercifully, they scooped up a thick dishtowel that, in her world, would constitute a very plush, very luxurious hand towel from The Ritz or The Four Seasons, but which, here, apparently, was used to soak up water from designer flatware. She dangled it in the direction of Mr. Au Naturel. “Here.”

He placed an empty bottle of Jim Beam on the island countertop with a clink, then took the towel with a grunt. “So, who are you, what are you doing in my kitchen, and would you mind turning around?”

She turned. “I’m the new girl the agency sent over.”

“Hell. There better be some aspirin left,” he muttered beside her, his bare (of course) feet making no sound on the limestone floor.

She peeked over at him.

His eyebrow soared skyward.

Right.

She turned back to the sizzling butter. Which had started to burn. Sigh.

He rummaged around in one of the drawers as she carried the pan to the sink. Trying to impress the new boss on her first day with his favorite omelet ranchero and she burned the butter. Not good, but then, it wasn’t exactly her fault because nowhere in those papers she’d signed with her employment agency, Domestic Gods & Goddesses, was mention made of an optional dress code. And she didn’t care how much they were paying her, nudity did tend to throw one off. As for the alcohol-before-breakfast debacle, she wasn’t even going to address that. His rudeness said it all.

And here, she’d been worried about making a good impression on him.

A click of plastic bottle cap followed by a shake of the bottle, the fridge opening, a gulp, then Naked Guy sighing punctuated the silence before she turned on the faucet. She cleaned out the pan, all the while the Naughty Girl side of her brain screaming, “Turn around!” with the other, Jolie side, going, “You want to keep this job?”

Self-preservation being the backbone of her existence since being dumped into the foster care system, she decided to listen to the Jolie side—no matter how much groaning Naughty Girl did.

Naughty Girl, however, couldn’t resist a peek, and was rewarded with a swish of his longish golden hair, a flex of his well-defined arm, and an accompanying sizzle to her own nerve endings.

So not good. Jolie had known he was a hunk before she accepted this position. Had had quite the crush on him, too. How could she not? The guy had been plastered all over every magazine in the country for years, most especially here in his hometown.

Todd Best. The Best, as the media had dubbed him. And rightfully so. The man’s landscape paintings were hanging in every high-end hotel, public library, and courtroom in the country. Even the White House, for Pete’s sake. Not that she had an eye for art, but when a painting looked like the scene down the road and made her think she was standing there, feeling leaves rustling, smelling fresh cut grass, hearing birds singing in the trees and ducks quacking on the pond, the whole set-up, that, to her, was talent.

And, of course, there’d been his fairytale marriage. But then, sadly, his wife had died suddenly and he’d moved out of their home, turned the reins of his company over to his brother, and put down his paint brushes.

Yes, Jolie had known exactly who she’d be working for. That’d been half the incentive.

“So, new girl, do you have a name? And what are you doing here today?”

Since he was talking, she assumed it was safe to turn around.

The old adage about making an “ASS out of U and ME” proved true.

Although he was the one with the A-S-S. And what a nice one it was. As was the muscled shoulder leaning against the stainless steel of the microwave above the stove, and the ninety-degree jut of his jaw line, the sculpted cheekbones, a perfectly proportioned brow, the fall of hair over his forehead…

She tore her gaze away from the visual smorgasbord and, traitors that they were, her eyes headed south.

Thank goodness he had the dish towel spread across his nether regions like a loincloth. But a hot guy in a loincloth was just as distracting as a naked hot guy. And she’d seen him in both. Or not in both. Whatever.

She ordered her eyes back on the pan. “Um yes, I do have a name, and as to what I’m doing here, I think that’s obvious—burning the butter for your morning omelet.” She raised the pan to illustrate and managed a quick push with her hip to get him to back away from the stove so she could start cooking again, praying all the while she wasn’t hitting something vital.

Luckily, the guy had quick reflexes—or a good hunch—’cause he stepped out of the way before her hip came anywhere close to anything important, saving them the extreme embarrassment of that.

“How’d you get in?” Mr. Clothing-Optional asked.

Okay, what was the protocol here? How long did one actually have to converse with a buck-naked human being before someone said something about it? Or did a strategically placed dishtowel negate all observances of nudity?

“Look, um, Mister.” What did one call their bare boss? Todd? Sir? Big guy? “How ’bout you go freshen up a bit and I’ll make breakfast. We can have our chat when we’re both, um, well, prepared for the day. ’Kay?”

“Fine. I’ll get dressed. Then we’ll talk.”

“You do that.”

As he sauntered—okay, maybe that was her overactive imagination, because could one really saunter with a Jim Beam-sized hangover?—from the fourteen-foot-ceiling kitchen with its state-of-the-art appliances that looked as if they’d come out of their packing boxes yesterday, so stainless steel shiny she could have used them as a mirror to fix her lipstick—if she’d worn lipstick—and she inhaled enough oxygen to jump-start primordial ooze.

Which posed a whole new set of problems for this job. How was she supposed to focus if she kept getting sidetracked by the physical?

But she would.

She could.

Heck, if she could outwit social workers and manage to keep her teenaged self out of the gutter, not to mention, actually make something of her life, she could certainly keep her own libido in check.

She had to. Her job, her livelihood, and all her dreams depended on it.

***

Each step up the goddamned grandiose stairway reverberated through Todd’s skull, setting his teeth on edge and his stomach roiling. Why the hell hadn’t the builder put carpet on these stairs?

Todd grabbed his head with one hand, keeping the other one hovering above his groin with the damned kitchen towel. It’d be funny if it weren’t so ungodly pitiful.

He, a grown man, hiding his modesty behind a piece of eight-by-twelve cotton because he didn’t have enough sense to pass out in his own bed.

He kicked open the bedroom door and grimaced. Bare, tan walls, minimal furniture, and the fucking king-sized bed mocked him.

He knew exactly why he’d chosen the couch.

And he wasn’t about to dwell on it. He’d done enough dwelling last night. More than enough, apparently.

He barreled through to the bathroom, his refusal to dwell on the reason just one more part of the person he’d become in the past two years.

And the poor woman downstairs who’d had to witness the person he’d become last night… God, wasn’t it just perfect she’d shown up this morning?

Todd grabbed the shower handle and turned the water full force to hot. He’d burn the alcohol out of his system if he had to. No one deserved that greeting her first day on the job. Even if it was his house.

Todd sucked in a breath as he stepped beneath the pelting liquid fire and realized he wasn’t as tough as he pretended. He turned the spigot back to warm and leaned his forehead against the cool ivory tile, and listened to the phone ring in his bedroom. Let the machine get the fucking thing. He couldn’t deal with the calls and the goddamned hounding.

Not today.

The water ran into his eyes and he wiped it away with the heels of his hands. Why today? Why’d she have to start today?

Why’d she have to start at all?

Why wouldn’t they all just leave him alone?

 

 

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