One Lucky Vampire(Argeneau Series)(2)

By: Lynsay Sands
Two

Nicole was carrying an armful of dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and various other items upstairs when the phone began to ring. Cursing under her breath, she rushed up the last few steps to the open-loft living room and then hurried to the phone on the marble counter on the far side of the room. Once there, she twisted and bent slightly to see around the items she was carrying, and then groaned as she saw the number and name on the ID screen. She’d been rather hoping it would be one of those 1–800 or 1–888 numbers that she could ignore but it was Pierina. She couldn’t ignore Pierina.

Getting one hand free by using the wall and counter to help hold up the pile in her arms, Nicole quickly snatched up the phone and pressed it to her ear: “Hi Pierina.”

“Nicole?” Pierina asked uncertainly.

“Yeah. It’s me,” she said lightly, catching the receiver between ear and shoulder so that she could free her hand to stabilize the pile she was holding when it began to wobble. Sighing her relief as she got her hand there in time, she asked, “How are things?”

“Well, they’re—are you okay? You sound funny.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole assured her quickly. “I’m just—my hands are full at the moment so I’m holding the phone between neck and shoulder. Maybe it’s making my voice funny.”

“Well, for heaven’s sake, set down whatever you’re carrying. I’ll wait,” Pierina said with amused exasperation.

“Uh . . .” Nicole grimaced and then shifted her hand to better hold her pile and turned to walk into her bedroom, taking the phone with her. Thank God for wireless phones, she thought as she carried everything into her walk-in closet and to the hamper waiting there. In the next moment, she was frowning at the hamper, thinking that she really should have taken the dirty dishes to the kitchen first. They were all piled on top of the dirty clothes.

“Nicole?”

“Yeah, one sec,” she said into the phone, then moved up to the dryer and leaned forward a bit to let the dishes slide from her pile to the hard surface. She leaned a bit too much, though, and winced at the clang as a bowl sailed off the pile and nearly shattered a glass that she’d just set down.

“What was that? Did you break something?” Pierina asked with concern.

“No,” Nicole said with relief, dropping the dirty clothes and other items on to the dryer top beside the dishes. Opening the washer lid, she began to throw clothes into it as she took the phone in her other hand and said, “Okay. Hands free now.”

“What on earth are you doing?” Pierina asked on a laugh. “I heard glass clanging, and I can hear you doing something now. There’s rustling, or—”

“I’m throwing clothes in the washer,” Nicole explained.

“And the clanging?” Pierina asked.

“Dirty dishes, my makeup bag, curling iron and other stuff I brought up from the studio,” Nicole explained. “Marguerite’s found a cook/housekeeper for me and I’m tidying up a bit before they get here.”

“You’re cleaning up before your new cook/housekeeper gets there?” Pierina asked slowly. “You do realize that’s kind of like pulling your tooth before you go to the dentist, right?”

“It is not,” Nicole protested with a laugh.

“Yeah, it is . . . and it’s so you,” she teased, and then she said gently, “Sweetie, just leave the mess. You work hard. That’s why you need a cook/housekeeper. I’m sure Marguerite has explained all that to the woman.”

“Guy,” Nicole corrected, reaching for the laundry detergent and dumping some in.

“What? Guy? Guy what?” Pierina asked with confusion.

“The cook/housekeeper Marguerite’s bringing is a guy, not a woman,” Nicole explained.

“No way!” Pierina squealed. “Ooooh, you’re going to have some hot, young guy pawing through your panties.”

Nicole froze, and then slowly set the detergent back, and returned to throwing clothes in the washer.

“Nicki?”

Nicole sighed and shook her head. “I think he’s an old guy, not a hot, young guy,” she said finally, but really that didn’t make her feel any better. She didn’t want an old guy pawing through her panties either. Grimacing, she said, “I can do the laundry myself.”

“Nicole,” Pierina said, drawing her name out in complaint. “That’s ridiculous. You don’t hire someone and then do the work yourself. And I was just teasing. I mean, I’m sure he won’t really be pawing through them. If this is what the old guy does, he’s done loads of laundry for tons of people and will hardly be interested in your undies.”

“Right,” Nicole murmured, but thought she was still doing at least her whites herself. Most of her panties and bras were plain white cotton now. Pretty boring, she supposed, but then she’d dumped all the lacy naughties when she’d left Rodolfo. Sex was how he’d caught her—great sex, sweet words, and empty promises spoken in a sexy accent. She kind of had a thing against all that stuff now. The next man she hooked up with, if she ever bothered again, would be a nice, normal, down-to-earth Canadian boy. No accent, no exotic locales to aid in his romancing of her, no sexy negligees and no crazy monkey sex that blew her head off and left her a brainless twit and easy target.

Nicole emphasized that silent point by closing the washing machine door with a flourish. Unfortunately, thanks to that flourish, her elbow hit several of the dishes on the dryer next to the washer and sent them flying off onto the floor in a clattering crash of broken glass.

“Crap,” she muttered, as Pierina began squawking in her ear.

“What was that? Are you okay? What happened?”

“I’m fine,” she assured her on a sigh and then added dryly, “My glassware . . . not so much. I knocked two bowls and three glasses onto the floor. They shattered.”

“Oh, sweetie. See! If you’d left it for the housekeeper this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, but thought it also wouldn’t have happened if she’d dropped them off in the kitchen before coming in here, or if the phone hadn’t rung, or if she’d taken more care. Basically, if she’d used her head. The last point came shooting out of her mind, not in her voice, but a deep one with an Italian accent. Nice, she thought. A year of counseling and Rodolfo’s criticisms were still in her head.

Grinding her teeth, Nicole grabbed the garbage can beside the dryer, knelt in front of the mess, put the phone on speaker and set it on the floor to free her hands to clean up the mess.

“So, to what do I owe this call?” Nicole asked as she began carefully picking up the larger pieces of glass.

“I was just thinking of you . . . and Mom mentioned Marguerite went up there to sort through pictures of Christian and Carolyn to decide which one to use for the portrait and was staying overnight, so I thought I’d see how that is going.

Nicole smiled faintly. “It’s good. We picked a picture and I did a rough sketch,” she said, and then added, “Marguerite’s still trying to convince me I don’t need to stick to the timeline and do Christian and Carolyn right away, but I’d rather get it done and off my list of jobs to do.”

“She knows how busy you are, hon. She’s trying to ease your burden a little,” Pierina said gently.

“Yeah, but working keeps me from thinking too much and that’s a good thing right now. So I don’t mind the crazy schedule I have at the moment. However,” she added quickly as she sensed Pierina winding up for a lecture, “I am refusing a lot of future jobs so that I can get back to a more manageable schedule next year. I figure by then the divorce will be done, I should be over the worst of it, and socializing might come back into view as something I should do at least with female friends.”

“You should move back this way,” Pierina said solemnly. “I miss you and I could be dragging you out to movies and—”

“I might in the future, Pierina,” Nicole interrupted quietly. “But I need at least a year to get my head straight before I make any big decisions.”

“I understand,” Pierina said reluctantly.

“Besides, we should take advantage of my living here,” Nicole suggested. “You could come visit and we can . . .” She grimaced, unsure what they could do. She didn’t have a clue what there was to do in Ottawa. Her life had been pretty sheltered during her marriage. She’d worked and that was about it. “Well, I know there’s skating on the river in the winter,” she said finally, and then rushed on, “But we could do girls’ weekends. We could even have our mothers up for one. And invite Marguerite too, she’s really a sweetie.”

“Yeah, she is,” Pierina agreed. “I always liked Marguerite. She was always so nice to us when we were growing up and Mom brought us to her place.”

“She still is,” Nicole assured her. Finished with the larger pieces of glass, she started carefully on the smaller ones that she thought were still too big for the vacuum. “Marguerite was going to stay at a hotel tonight, but I said that was silly and she should stay here, and then I apologized for the mess and muttered that I need a cook/housekeeper, and—voila!—Marguerite was on the job, saying she thought she knew the perfect person, but would have to see if he was available on such short notice.”

“But he was, right?” Pierina asked.

“Yeah. She called half an hour ago and said she’d met with him, and his previous job ended today and he could start right away. He’s agreed to a two-week trial.”

“His previous job ended today?” Pierina asked with a laugh. “That makes it sound like he does short-term gigs here and there. I thought housekeepers were long term. Mom’s worked for Marguerite for . . . like . . . ever.”

“Yeah, I kind of wondered about that too,” Nicole admitted and said, “But I trust Marguerite. Maybe his last client died of old age or something and he’s been doing temp work while he waits to find a good situation. I don’t know. I’m sure Marguerite will explain.”

“Or I could.”

Nicole blinked at that deep voice and then glanced sharply over her shoulder, eyes widening as she stared at the man standing behind her. He was gorgeous, with sandy brown hair cut short, a well-trimmed and short beard and mustache, and the most amazing eyes. Perhaps it was just the lighting in the room and the angle she was seeing them from, but from where she knelt, his eyes were a beautiful teal color shot through with silver. Beautiful. He was also muscular and extremely tall . . . although the tall part might just be because he was standing and she was kneeling on the floor. It—

Dear God, she’d had her rump in the air a minute ago as she’d leaned down to pick up the glass, Nicole realized with dismay, and that had been his first view of her.

“Nicki? Who was that? Are you okay? What’s going on?”

Nicole’s gaze dropped to the phone at Pierina’s concerned squawks. It was only then that she realized she had no idea who the man was . . . or what he was doing in her home. Before she could panic, the man turned his head and called out, “I’ve found her, Marguerite. We’re in the walk-in closet.”

Nicole relaxed and answered Pierina with, “Uh, I think he might be the cook/housekeeper.”

“He doesn’t sound old,” Pierina said, interest in her voice.

“No, he’s not,” Nicole agreed, staring up at the man’s profile as he waited for Marguerite to respond or show up.

“He sounds hunky,” Pierina added.

“He is,” Nicole admitted and then realized what she’d said and flushed when he turned sharply to peer at her, eyebrows raised.

“Thanks,” he drawled with a slow grin and offered her his hand.

Nicole just blushed harder, but she accepted the offered hand and got to her feet, avoiding his eyes as she muttered an embarrassed, “Thank you.”

“Ohhhh,” Pierina chortled. “Leave it to Marguerite to find you a cook/housekeeper who’s eye candy too,” Her voice, squawking up from the floor, reminded Nicole that she’d left the phone there.

“Sorry,” Nicole said to the man on her friend’s behalf and quickly bent to snatch up the phone. Taking it off speakerphone, she chastised, “That’s sexual harassment, Pierina. The man isn’t eye candy, he’s—” She paused as her gaze slid back to him, and then Nicole turned and moved quickly to the opposite end of the seventeen-foot-long walk-in closet and whispered, “Okay, he’s eye candy, but you don’t say stuff like that so he can hear.”

A deep chuckle made her frown over her shoulder. Surely he hadn’t heard her from there, had he? She would have thought not, but the amusement on his face made her think he could. Turning back to the phone, Nicole muttered, “I’ll call you back later.”

“No, wait—” Pierina protested, but Nicole just hit the off button to end the call, took a deep breath to try to regain at least a little composure, and turned to offer a polite smile to the man. She started back to him then, her hand out, ready to shake his as she said, “Hi, I’m Nicole Phillips. You must be the cook/housekeeper Marguerite was—Ouch, ouch, ouch!”

Nicole recalled the glass on the floor just as his hand closed around hers. It was the pain radiating up from her foot that reminded her. She’d stepped in the damned glass and was now hopping around on her uninjured foot, the injured foot pulled up like a stork. His hold on her hand was the only thing keeping her from toppling over. At least it was until he suddenly scooped her up in his arms.

“Oh,” Nicole breathed, feeling her face pinken. The phone began to ring again, and she was surprised to spot it on the floor.

“You dropped it when you stepped on the glass,” the man holding her said, and then suddenly bent over with her in his arms so that she could grab it up off the floor.

“Oh my, you’re strong,” Nicole said faintly as she snatched up the phone. Glancing at the display screen as he straightened again, she murmured, “It’s Pierina. Again.”

Even as she pushed the button to answer the call, someone gasped, “What on earth!” behind them.

The man holding her swung to face Marguerite at once and Nicole wasn’t surprised to see that the woman stood in the doorway to the walk-in closet, gaping at Nicole in the cook/housekeeper’s arms. At least Nicole thought he was the cook/housekeeper. He hadn’t really verified that yet, but that was who Marguerite had claimed she was bringing back.

“What’s happened?” Pierina squawked from the phone, reminding Nicole that she’d answered it. “Is that Marguerite? Why does she sound so shocked? What’s going on?”

“Put the phone to my face,” the man holding her said.

Nicole hesitated, but then did as he requested and placed the receiver so he could take the call.

“Pierina, this is Jake Colson,” he announced in his deep sexy voice. “Marguerite has asked me to take on the job of Nicole’s cook/housekeeper and snow-shovel guy on a two-week trial basis. Marguerite and I are both here. Nicole is fine, but she stepped on some glass and I have to get it out for her now, so she’ll call you back later with all the juicy details. But I’m handing you over to Marguerite so she can add her reassurance since you don’t know me. Nice talking to you,” he added, and then pulled his head away from the phone and nodded toward Marguerite.

Nicole shifted the phone in that direction and Marguerite took it with a smile and headed out of the room, saying, “Pierina darling, how are you? I never thought of it at the time, but you should have come with me to Ottawa. I know Nicole would have loved that and the company on the flight here and back would have been nice.”

Marguerite continued talking, but that was all Nicole caught. Alone again with the man she now knew was Jake, she lifted her eyes self-consciously to his. “You can set me down now.”

“So you can hop around on one foot?” he asked with amusement and turned to carry her out of the room as if she weighed nothing, which she knew from her bathroom scales, and her soon to be ex-husband’s criticisms, wasn’t true. If she wasn’t so uncomfortable at being in a stranger’s arms, Nicole would have enjoyed the experience.

Jake didn’t pause in the bathroom that connected the walk-in closet to the bedroom as she expected, but continued out through the dining/living room and then into the kitchen. He set her on the island there, said a firm “Stay,” and walked out of the room.

Nicole stared after him wide-eyed. He was very commanding for a cook. He also smelled really good, and he was superstrong. She was not some skinny, model type chick. Nicole was full figured and always had been. Actually, she was more full figured now than she’d ever been. Apparently she didn’t take constant criticism well. She’d gained weight during her marriage, which had just led to more criticism. Nicole hadn’t yet taken the trouble to lose that weight. She had too many other things to worry about first, or so she’d been thinking. Now she was thinking she really should start a diet . . . and the gorgeous, yummy-smelling man who had just left her kitchen had nothing to do with that decision, Nicole assured herself firmly.

She almost believed that . . . right up until Gorgeous Jake walked back into the kitchen and she found herself sitting up straight and sucking in her stomach.

“Alcohol, tweezers, a needle, antiseptic, and a bandage,” Jake rattled off as he set down the items he’d collected, obviously from her bathroom. “I think that’s everything we’ll need.”

“Oh, you don’t have to—” Nicole’s words ended on a gasp as he suddenly squatted in front of her and grabbed her foot to take a look. Any further protest was prevented by her need to bite her lip to keep from squawking as he began to poke at her foot.

“Does this hurt?” he asked, pressing gently.

“No,” Nicole said, but even she didn’t think it sounded believable. Her voice was about three octaves higher than normal.

Jake gave her a reproving look. “You have to tell me if it hurts, it’s how I’ll know where the glass is. You have several pieces in your foot that I can see, and a couple I don’t think I’m seeing. So, stoic, no, and honesty, yes, okay?”

Nicole nodded silently, her lower lip caught between her teeth.

He went back to work then, starting with the glass he could see, she supposed, since he didn’t ask her if it hurt anymore. However, it did hurt when he dug out the bits of glass and Nicole was clenching her hands and trying not to cry out when he began to ask questions, distracting her.

“Marguerite says you’re an artist?”

“Yes. I paint portraits,” she answered, looking away in the hopes that not watching would make it less painful.

“You’re good,” he complimented, and the words made her smile crookedly.

“How would you know? You haven’t seen my work,” she said with amusement.

“I did,” he countered. “When we found the front door unlocked and got no answer when we called out, Marguerite and I searched the house starting on the ground floor . . . including your studio.”

“Oh,” Nicole murmured, but she was frowning. “The front door was locked. I locked it myself behind Marguerite when she left.”

Jake raised his head and peered at her, then glanced to the door. Nicole followed his gaze to see Marguerite in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, the phone in her hand at her side. Apparently she’d finished talking to Pierina. Now she was exchanging a solemn look with Jake.

“It was unlocked when we got here,” Marguerite said quietly, as if verifying that he hadn’t remembered wrong.

“Well, that’s just—” Nicole shook her head. “I know I locked it.”

“Marguerite, if you’ll finish here, I’ll check the house again,” Jake said quietly, straightening.

Nicole frowned. “I’m sure that’s not necessary.”

“You locked it, and it was unlocked when we got here,” he pointed out simply. “Better to be safe than sorry.”

“Yes, but no one has keys but me. Well, and Marguerite,” she said, and then frowned and added reluctantly, “Maybe I just thought I locked it. Or maybe I accidentally unlocked it when I went to take the key out.”

“Rodolfo doesn’t still have a key, does he?” Marguerite asked with concern.

“No. He gave it back when I bought him out of the house,” Nicole assured her.

“Did you have the locks changed after you bought your husband out of the house?” Jake asked.

Her eyes widened. Nicole was surprised he even knew there was a husband, soon to be ex-husband. Apparently, Marguerite had told him about her life . . . which was more than she’d done for Nicole. She didn’t know a thing about her new cook/housekeeper. “No, I didn’t have the locks changed. There was no need. Rodolfo gave me his key.”

Marguerite and Jake exchanged another glance and then Marguerite moved forward and took the tweezers from Jake as he straightened.

“I’ll be right back,” he murmured, and slipped from the room.

“There’s really no need to search the house,” Nicole said wearily as Marguerite moved one of the kitchen chairs over to sit in front of her and began to work on removing the glass from her foot. “I probably messed up about locking the door. Besides, Jake just said you guys searched when you got here.”

“Better safe than sorry, dear,” Marguerite said with unconcern. “Besides, it makes men feel good to do stuff like this. Let him be all manly and protect us womenfolk,” she said lightly with a grin, then added more seriously, “Now brace yourself, some of these glass slivers went pretty deep.”

Nicole braced herself, but it didn’t help much. It took all she had not to howl like a two-year-old as Marguerite set to work on removing the glass from her foot.

Jake checked the upper floor first, looking into the master bedroom, en suite bathroom, and walk-in closet again, just to be thorough. He then checked the sliding glass doors in the master bedroom to be sure they were locked before moving on to the guest bedroom next to the master and its bathroom.

Marguerite and Nicole were in the kitchen, so he didn’t need to check there, but couldn’t resist glancing that way as he passed the door on the way back through the living room/dining room, headed for the stairs. Nicole Phillips wasn’t what he’d expected. After everything Marguerite had told him this evening, he’d expected to find a rather pathetic creature on his hands. She didn’t strike him as pathetic.

Certainly, the sweet round derriere he’d come upon on entering the walk-in closet hadn’t looked pathetic, and she just didn’t have a pathetic air about her. Actually, while Jake hadn’t known her for more than minutes and hadn’t really spoken much to her, the overall impression he had so far was a light and cheery one. Nicole’s home had lots of large windows, stretching eighteen or twenty feet to the cathedral ceilings. The rooms were decorated in cream, with splashes of red and the occasional black accents. Her studio was a menagerie of color, and the clothes in her closet had been colorful as well.

Nothing he’d seen so far spoke of a depressed woman, crawling out from the wreckage of an abusive marriage. But then, Marguerite had said at the beginning of their conversation that Nicole had sought out counseling right away to deal with the damage from her marriage. It appeared to be working. But he’d have to wait and see to know for sure.

Jake went through every room on the main floor, checking closets, and ensuring doors were locked. He left the front door for last because he’d locked it himself when he and Marguerite had arrived, using the key Nicole had given Marguerite during her stay to do it. So, it was with some surprise that he found that door unlocked again. He opened it and peered out at the driveway, then along the road in both directions. There was nothing to see, but then he hadn’t expected there to be.

Expression grim, Jake closed the door and relocked it, then pulled out his cell phone and called a local locksmith he had dealt with in the past. He was having every lock in the house rekeyed tonight. It was the fastest and easiest way to handle the situation. Nicole’s husband may have given back his key, but he’d obviously had a copy made before doing so. She said she’d locked the door, and while she may claim that perhaps she had only meant to and hadn’t actually done it, he knew damned right well he’d locked it when he and Marguerite had entered. It being unlocked again suggested someone had come into the house after Nicole had locked it, and then left again after he’d locked it.

The question was, what had they come in for? His money was on it being Rodolfo who had entered. If they were lucky, Rodolfo had entered, intending to do something nefarious, but had been forced to scrap the plan when Marguerite and Jake had returned. He’d obviously slipped out while they were searching the house. But he couldn’t count on the man not having had time to do something, and since the guy liked to set up things that looked like accidents . . .

Turning on his heel, he started through the house again.