upon a time...
long time ago,
lived a beast of a man,
within a castle
no one to love him.
is not his story.
is the story of another man,
sets him free.
a naked man in my kitchen.
thought registered just as the terse, “Who
the hell are you?” had Jolie Gardener
spinning around faster than a figure skater on
had the nerve to ask this? He of the broad
shoulders, six-pack abs, and other, nice, um,
A naked man. In her kitchen.
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.
His hands slammed to his hips.
naked,” she squeaked, which, really, was the
only way to state that kind of obvious.
what?” Mr. Six-Pack Abs glanced down.
tried not to—so unsuccessfully it was
he muttered. “I am. I, uh, fell asleep last
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…
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
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?”
turned. “I’m the new girl the agency sent
There better be some aspirin left,” he
muttered beside her, his bare (of course) feet
making no sound on the limestone floor.
peeked over at him.
eyebrow soared skyward.
turned back to the sizzling butter. Which had
started to burn. Sigh.
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.
here, she’d been worried about making
a good impression on him.
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?”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Jolie had known exactly
who she’d be working for. That’d been half
new girl, do you have a name? And what are you
doing here today?”
he was talking, she assumed it was safe to
old adage about making an “ASS out of U and
ME” proved true.
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…
tore her gaze away from the visual smorgasbord
and, traitors that they were, her eyes headed
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.
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
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.
you get in?” Mr. Clothing-Optional asked.
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?
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?”
I’ll get dressed. Then we’ll talk.”
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
posed a whole new set of problems for this
job. How was she supposed to focus if she kept
getting sidetracked by the physical?
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.
had to. Her job, her livelihood, and all her
dreams depended on it.
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
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.
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.
kicked open the bedroom door and grimaced.
Bare, tan walls, minimal furniture, and the
fucking king-sized bed mocked him.
why he’d chosen the couch.
he wasn’t about to dwell on it. He’d done
enough dwelling last night. More than enough,
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
she have to start at all?
wouldn’t they all just leave him alone?