Housekeeper to the Millionaire(6)

By: Lucy Monroe

“Aren’t you going to eat with us, ma’am?” Joe asked.

She turned around, waiting to see if Win would second the hand’s invitation to join them. When he didn’t, she replied, “I’ll eat later. I’ve got work to do.”

“Aw shucks, ma’am, we’d be pleased for your company,” a redhead said.

Lonny gave Carlene a knowing look and patted the bench next to him. “You can sit right here, Carlene.”

Normally, she would have just laughed off an invitation like that from such a young man, but there was an intensity about Lonny that made Carlene nervous. The cold ruthlessness in his eyes reminded her of the student that had torn her life in Texas to shreds. She suppressed a shiver, reminding herself that there was no disgruntled principal here to help Lonny hurt her. There was just Win and she could not see him stooping to the lengths her ex-boss had even if she rejected him.

She managed to swallow a rude comeback to Lonny’s comment, not wanting to offend Win’s other employees her first day on the job. “No, thank you. As I said, I’ve got work to do.”

She shifted her gaze to Win, wondering what he thought of the exchange.

The look he was giving the younger man was cold and deadly. He turned slightly so that he was looking directly at her, his gaze warming several degrees. “Do what’s comfortable for your schedule, but don’t skip your lunch.”

She smiled at the order. “Yes, boss.”

He nodded. “If you’re hungry now, the men’ll move so you can sit by Shorty.”

It didn’t escape her notice, or that of his men, if Lonny’s narrowed eyes were an indication, that Win’s dictate would place her next to him as well. Carlene didn’t mind. Compared to Lonny, Win was a much safer bet. She had no doubt that sitting between him and Shorty she wouldn’t have to fend off any roaming hands under the table.

She considered Win’s offer. It shouldn’t be such a big deal, but it would set a precedent for the future. If she ate with them now, human nature dictated that the hands would recognize that whenever she shared their table, her place would be between Win and Shorty.

Her stomach chose that moment to make a rumbling sound and the men laughed while she smiled, embarrassed. “I guess I’ll eat now.”

Several hours later after preparing a dinner that only required Shorty to heat things through before serving them, Carlene got ready to leave. Her feet didn’t hurt as much as after a night tending bar, but her back ached from a different kind of labor. She’d spent the day cooking, cleaning and trying to decipher the written instructions Rosa had left behind in a confusing mixture of Spanish and English.

She wondered what had caused the other woman to abandon her job so abruptly.

“You sure know your way around a ranch kitchen,” Shorty commented from behind as she pulled off her apron and hung it on the hook by the refrigerator.

She turned and smiled at him. “Thanks. I grew up in west Texas cow country.”

“Congratulations, Shorty. You got more information out of her in five minutes than I was able to do during her interview.”

Carlene’s head snapped up at the sound of Win’s amused voice from the doorway to the dining room. He leaned against the doorjamb, a lazy smile on his face and looking handsome as sin. He was dressed much as he’d been for her interview, except today his T-shirt was black instead of dark blue and a cowboy hat hung loosely from his fingers next to his thigh.

She wished he’d stop smiling at her like that. It made her forget what she was going to do next. Forcing herself to focus on his words and not his mouth, she said, “You didn’t ask.”

He came into the kitchen sniffing at the casserole in the oven with an appreciative air. “Smells good.”

“Thank you.”

He lifted the linen towel covering the two marionberry pies she’d made for dinner. She’d used the native Oregon fruit, figuring the men would appreciate the plump, tangy blackberry-style filling. “You’re wrong, you know,” he said as he put the cover back over the pies.

“Wrong about what?” she asked, feeling breathless for no apparent reason.

“I did ask.” He turned to face her. “I distinctly remember asking if you had any experience.”

“You asked about experience as a housekeeper and cook. I don’t have any formal experience, but I do know how to cook and clean house. I told you that.”

She didn’t understand his enigmatic expression. He asked, “Why’d you leave Texas? Were you looking for adventure?”

She couldn’t hold back the laughter that bubbled forth. “If I’d been looking for adventure, I wouldn’t have ended up in Sunshine Springs.” Though the small town was a lot more than what she’d thought it was when she’d first arrived.

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