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Authors: Barbara Wallace

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With Aunt Ana incapacitated, Patience would have an awful lot of power. Or rather, she would have, if he hadn’t come home. He kicked himself for not being around the past eleven months. Now his aunt was attached to a stranger he knew nothing about. Ana might be sharp for her age, but when all was said and done, she was still an old woman living alone who had a soft spot for sob stories. Her big heart made her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a pretty young thing had tried to grab a piece of the Duchenko fortune.

Unfortunately for Miss Rush, he was no longer a lonely twenty-year-old looking for affection. Nor was he still naive enough to believe people were as guileless as they appeared. Ana was the only family he had left. He’d be damned if he’d let her be burned the way he had been.

There was the rustle of a curtain, and Ana’s gurney appeared on its way toward the elevator. As she passed by, the older woman gave him a sleepy wave. Stuart grabbed her hand and pressed the wizened knuckles to his lips. “See you soon, Tetya,” he whispered.

“The surgical waiting area is on the third floor,” the nurse told him. “If you want to stay there, we can let you know as soon as they’re finished.”

“Thank you.”

Patience’s soft voice answered before he had the chance. Immediately, his mouth drew into a tight line. “You’re planning to wait, too?”

“Of course. I’m not going to be able to sleep until I know you’re okay,” she told Ana.

Ana smiled. “But Nigel...”

“Nigel will be fine,” he said. While he wasn’t crazy about Miss Rush hanging around, he wasn’t about to start an argument over his aunt’s hospital gurney. “Don’t you worry.”

“Besides, it’ll do him good to wait,” Patience added, “seeing as how this whole accident is his fault.” She raised her eyes, daring him to say otherwise. “I promise, I’ll go home and feed him as soon as you’re out of surgery.”

The sedatives were starting to kick in. Ana’s smile was weak and sloppy. “Such a good girl,” she murmured before closing her eyes.

Oh, yeah, a real sweetheart, he thought to himself. The way she so casually referred to the brownstone as home rankled him to no end. It was like ten years ago all over again, only this time, instead of a beguiling blonde worming her way into their lives, it was a brunette with hooded eyes and curves that wouldn’t quit.

Interesting that she chose to downplay her sexuality. A tactical decision, perhaps? If so, it didn’t work. A burlap sack couldn’t mute those assets. Even he had to admit to a stir of appreciation the first time he saw her.

She was hiding more than her figure, too. Don’t think he didn’t notice how she looked away when he mentioned having secrets. There was a lot more to Patience Rush than met the eye. And he intended to find out what.

* * *

They spent the time Anna was in surgery on opposite sides of the waiting area, Stuart moving chairs together to create a makeshift work area while Patience made do with out-of-date women’s magazines. Having read up on last fall’s fashions and learned how to spot if her spouse was having an online affair, she was left with nothing to do but lean back in her chair and shoot daggers at Ana’s nephew.

Who did he think he was, suggesting she had something to do with Ana’s fall? Like she could ever. Anastasia Duchenko saved her life with this job. Every morning, she woke up grateful for the opportunity. To be able to walk down the street with her head held high. To not have to scrub herself raw to feel clean. Finally, she had a job she could be proud of. Be a
person
she could be proud of.

Even if the whole situation was built on a lie, she thought, guilt washing over her the way it always did.

She wasn’t proud of her behavior—add it to a long list of regrets—but she made amends every single day by working hard and taking care of Ana. You wouldn’t find a better housekeeper and companion on Beacon Hill. She would never—ever—jeopardize the gift Ana had given her.

Tell Stuart Duchenko that, though. If he learned she’d lied her way into the job, he’d kick her to the curb before she could say
but...
And who knows what he’d do if he learned what she used to do for a living before finding Ana? She shuddered to think.

The sound of rustling papers caught her attention. Looking over, she saw Stuart pinching the bridge of his nose. The man looked worn-out. Patience had to admit, for all his jerkiness, he appeared genuinely concerned for his great-aunt. The adoration Ana talked about seemed to run both ways.

“Mr. Duchenko?” A small African-American nurse in a bright pink smock rounded the corner, bringing them both to their feet. “Dr. Richardson just called. He’ll be down shortly to talk with you, but he wanted you to know that your aunt came through the surgery without problem and is on her way to recovery.”

“Oh, thank goodness.” The words rushed from Patience’s mouth, drawing Stuart’s attention. Their eyes met, and she saw agreement in their blue depths. In this, they were on the same page.

“Can we see her?” he asked.

“She’ll be in recovery for several hours, I’m afraid,” the nurse replied with a shake of her head. “In fact, considering the hour, they might not move her until morning. You’re better off getting some sleep and coming back tomorrow.”

Patience watched as a protest worked its way across the man’s features. She had a feeling if he insisted, he’d get his way. Better judgment must have stepped in—either that or fatigue—because he nodded. “How long before Dr. Richardson gets here?”

“He said he was on his way down, so I don’t think it’ll be more than five or ten minutes.”

It turned out to be closer to twenty. When he did arrive, Dr. Richardson gave a succinct report, without a whole lot of new information. They’d inserted a plate and some screws to stabilize the break. Ana came through the surgery without issue. They’d monitor her throughout the night for complications. No, he wasn’t sure how long she’d need to stay in the hospital.

Still, Patience left the waiting room feeling that Ana was in good hands. Another plus: Stuart was on the phone so she was spared any more accusations. From here on in, she’d do her best to avoid the man.

A pair of angry green eyes greeted her when she unlocked the door to Ana’s brownstone. Patience wasn’t intimidated. “Don’t give me attitude, mister. This whole night is your fault.”

With what Patience swore was a huff, Nigel jumped down from the entryway table and ran toward the kitchen. An urgent wail traveled back to her ears a second later. “Puleeze,” she called, “like you were ever in danger of starving.”

Arms hugging her body, Patience made her way along the corridor, thinking the slap of her sandals against her feet sounded abnormally loud. It felt weird being in the brownstone alone. While Ana went out a lot, the woman was seldom gone past eight o’clock and so her absence hung thick in the emptiness. A gleam caught Patience’s eye as she passed the dining room. The silver set she’d been polishing when Ana fell still sat on the table, the cloth on the floor where she’d dropped it upon hearing Ana’s cry. The moment replayed as she curled her fingers around the soft material, the image of her savior crumpled at the base of the stairs making her nauseous. Thank goodness, Ana was going to be all right. Tomorrow she would work on making the house perfect for her return. Starting with making sure the tea set gleamed.

Nigel had resumed his meowing. Patience tossed the cloth on the table. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, I’m coming. Five minutes will not kill you.”

She turned around only to walk into a tall, muscular wall. “What the—” Why hadn’t she brought the teapot along with her as a weapon?

Stuart Duchenko arched a dark eyebrow. Even in the partially lit hallway, his eyes shone bright. “Did I startle you?”

He knew perfectly well he had. “How did you get in?”

“Same way you did. With my key.” He held up a key ring. “Or did you think you were the only one Ana gave access to?”

“Don’t be silly. I didn’t hear the doorbell is all.” They were way too close. Close enough she could smell the breath mint he’d obviously just finished. She wasn’t used to sweet-smelling breath, not from men anyway. It caught her off guard, which had to be the reason she didn’t step back at first contact. She stepped back now, and spied a pair of suitcases at the base of the stairs.

Seeing where her gaze had gone, he gave a shrug. “I sold my condominium before leaving for LA. Until I find a new place, this is more convenient than a hotel.”

Convenient for what? Keeping an eye on her?

It was as if he read her thoughts. “Ana made the suggestion back when I first left. Of course, I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to be in the hospital at the time. My being here won’t be a problem for you, will it?” he asked. The gleam in his eye dared her to say that it was.

Patience would be damned if she’d give him the satisfaction. “Of course not. Why would your staying here be a problem for me?”

“Extra work for you. I know you’re used to it being only you and Aunt Ana.”

Another veiled comment. The man was full of them, wasn’t he? “Extra work won’t be a problem. Cleaning is cleaning. Besides, like you said, it’s temporary, right?”

“We can only hope. I figure I’ll stay until Ana gets back on her feet. Make sure there aren’t any problems.”

What kind of problems? Was he afraid Patience would take off with the silver? Why didn’t he just come out and say what was really on his mind?

“You don’t trust me, do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

Finally, the truth was out in the open. She appreciated the bluntness. Beat phony friendliness any day. Didn’t mean she wasn’t going to set him straight though.

“Your aunt trusts me. Are you saying Ana isn’t a good judge of character?”

She stepped back into his personal space, making sure to maintain eye contact and letting him know his answer didn’t intimidate her one bit. The posture brought her close enough that she could smell his skin. Like his breath, his body smelled clean and fresh, despite having been traveling all day. An antsy, fluttering sensation started in the pit of her stomach. Butterflies, but with a nervous edge. The notion that she was out of her league passed briefly through her mind.

Stuart’s eyes stayed locked with hers. A Mexican standoff, with each of them waiting for the other to blink. “My aunt has a generous heart. I, on the other hand...”

“Let me guess. You don’t.”

Patience sensed rather than saw his smile. “I prefer to lead with my head. Less chance for mistakes.”

“Except, in this case, you’re already mistaken.”

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” he said. “Since I’ll be living here, we’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted. Who knows what secrets we’ll learn about each other?”

Patience managed to wait until he disappeared upstairs before hissing. What was it with him and secrets?

You didn’t exactly help your cause, did you?
Challenging him like that. A smart person would have let his comments pass, refused to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. But,
nooo
, she had to call him out. Might as well hold a sign over her head reading I’ve Got a Secret!

So much for leaving her past behind. She should have known that a future built on a lie—even an innocent one—wouldn’t last. Ana was going to be so disappointed in her.

She bit her knuckle, forcing down her panic. No need to start packing just yet. This bluster was probably nothing more than a scare tactic to put her in her place. To make up for not having a say in hiring her, no doubt. A few days from now, after seeing how well Patience did her job, he’d back off and leave her alone.

It could happen, right?

CHAPTER TWO

T
HERE
WAS
A
weight vibrating on his chest. He must have left the door open when he came upstairs. “It better be light out, Nigel,” he muttered. Freeing a hand from under the covers, he felt around until his fingers found fur. Immediately, the purring increased as Nigel leaned into the touch. A sad voice in his head noted this was the most action he’d had in his bed in way too long. “Hey, be careful with the claws, buddy,” he said when the cat began kneading the blanket. “I might need those parts someday.” You never knew. A social life might spontaneously develop. Stranger things had happened.

At work, people considered him a workaholic, but the truth was, he’d never been what people would call popular. He discovered early that being a Duchenko heir meant being judged and misunderstood. As a kid, his awkwardness was labeled snobbery. As he got older, his social desirability was measured in terms of his bank account. He had to be constantly on guard, assessing the motives of every person that crossed his path. The one time he hadn’t...well, that had taught him two more lessons: Don’t let sex cloud your judgment and even family members will screw you over. Except for Ana, that is. Ana was the one family member who loved him for him.

Nigel’s head butted his hand, a not so subtle way of saying
more petting, less thinking
. Giving a half sigh, Stuart opened his eyes, then blinked when he saw Nigel in perfect focus. He’d forgotten to take out his contact lenses again. No wonder his eyes felt as if they had sand in them. What time was it anyway? Yesterday had wiped him out so badly he barely remembered falling into bed.

Not too wiped out to go toe-to-toe with the housekeeper, though. It was a bit arrogant of him showing up without warning, but he’d wanted to catch her off guard. To see how she’d react to learning she wouldn’t have the run of the brownstone.

Turned out she reacted to the blind side better than most of his legal opponents.

Most of his legal opponents didn’t have eyes that lit up like chocolate diamonds, either. Dark and sinfully rich, their spark got his adrenaline going in a way practicing law sure didn’t. A guy could make a career out of looking for ways to make those eyes light up.

What was that about not letting sex cloud his judgment? Ignoring Nigel’s protest, he rolled onto his side and reached for the phone on the nightstand. It was early, he thought, noting the time, but not so early to reach an associate. The ambitious ones practically slept at the firm. A few minutes of scrolling through his contacts found him the name he wanted.

Just as he expected, Bob Cunningham answered on the first ring. “Welcome back. I hear congratulations are in order.” He was referring to the LA case.

“Too bad the former Mrs. Wentworth didn’t come to her senses last year.” Instead, she’d put her late husband’s family through hell and sentenced Stuart to months of aggravation, not to mention opening the door for Patience Rush. “There are a couple details to iron out that I’ll talk to you about later. In the meantime, I need some background research done. A woman named Patience Rush.”

“Is that her real name?”

Good question. Strangely enough, he hoped the quirky moniker was real. “That’s for you to tell me.” He gave him what details he knew.

“You’re not giving the investigator much to work with,” Bob replied.

“He’s worked with less.”

“True. What client number should I bill?”

“SD100.” On the other end of the line, there was a soft intake of breath. Stuart seldom used his discretionary fund, but the firm’s investigator was the best around. He’d reimburse the firm later.

“Um...”

“What?” Stuart asked.

The associate paused. “This might take a while. We’ve tapped him for a couple other projects.”

And clients always came before personal. Stuart understood. “Just tell him to get to it as soon as he can.”

In the meantime, he’d just have to keep a close eye on Patience Rush. Thinking about her eyes, he couldn’t help but smile. There were worse jobs in the world.

* * *

A short while later, having showered and changed, he headed downstairs only to hear muffled voices coming from the kitchen. One muffled voice actually. He found Patience crouched over Nigel’s food dish, brandishing a dustpan and broom. “You’d think a cat who acts like he’s starving wouldn’t drop pieces of food all over the place,” she muttered. “One of these days, I’m going to toss the whole bowl out. Let’s see what you do then.”

A chuckle rose in his throat. Nigel had a way of making all of them talk as if he understood. He leaned a shoulder against the door frame. “Not a cat person, I take it.”

She gasped before looking up at him with a glare. “Do you always sneak up on people?”

There they were again, those chocolate-diamond eyes. He crossed his legs to keep his jeans from growing tight. “I didn’t know walking around the house was considered sneaking.”

“Then you should walk louder,” she replied. “Or wear shoes.”

He looked down at his bare feet. “I’ll keep that in mind. May I ask what the cat did to earn your wrath?”

“Nigel isn’t a cat. He’s a four-legged spoiled brat.”

As had been all of Ana’s cats. His aunt tended to overindulge the strays she adopted. Pushing herself to her feet, Patience swayed her way across the room to the trash can. Stuart found himself wondering if the seductive gait was natural or on purpose. “Sounds like the two of you have a great relationship,” he remarked.

“Mine and Nigel’s relationship is just fine. Why?” She took her foot off the receptacle latch, causing the lid to close with a loud slap. “Afraid I’ll try to push him down the stairs, too?”

“Nah. A woman as smart as you would know hurting Nigel is the quickest way to getting on Ana’s bad side.”

She gave him a long look. “Was that supposed to be a compliment?”

In a way, yes. He did think she was smart. “If you want to take it as such.”

“Gosh, thanks. I’ll try not to let it go to my head.”

Smart and quick-witted. She was dressed similarly to yesterday in jeans, a T-shirt and a cardigan sweater, her hair pulled back with one of those plastic hair bands. For the first time he looked closely at her features. Yesterday, he’d been too distracted by her eyes, but today he noticed more intricate details like the long slope of her nose and the way her teeth met her lower lip in a slight overbite. A two-inch scar cut across her right cheekbone. Time had caused it to fade. In fact, with makeup, it’d be barely noticeable, but since she was again bare faced, he could see the jagged edges of a cut that should have had stitches. The scar bothered him, like seeing a crack on the surface of a crystal vase. It didn’t belong.

Patience cleared her throat. Realizing he’d been staring, he covered his action by adjusting his glasses. This might be one of those rare moments when he was grateful for them. He detested wearing the heavy black frames. The look might be considered stylish now, but it simply reminded him of his younger, awkward days. Then again, maybe a reminder was a good thing, given the awareness swirling around his insides this morning.

He reached for a change of topic. “Do I smell coffee?” There was a distinct aroma of French roast in the air, a unique scent in his tea-drinking aunt’s home.

Patience nodded her head toward a stainless steel coffeemaker tucked in the faraway corner. “Cream and sugar are in the dining room. Do you prefer a full breakfast or continental.”

“Neither.” Was she offering to make him breakfast? Considering the circumstances, he wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or suspicious. “Are you waiting on me?” he asked when she took a coffee mug from the cupboard. “Why?”

“Because it’s my job,” she replied. “I serve breakfast every morning. So long as someone’s here, I’ll keep on serving it.” Filling the cup, she handed it to him.

Stuart stared into the black liquid. What gives? Last night, Patience had made it quite clear that she didn’t appreciate his staying at the brownstone, yet here she was pouring him coffee and offering breakfast. Citing her job. Was she truly that dedicated or was this some kind of tactic to throw him off his game? If the latter, it was working.

“Something wrong?” she asked. “Would you feel better if I drank the cup first?”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” he said, setting the coffee cup down. “You didn’t appreciate my questioning Ana’s accident.”

“Not the accident—me. You all but accused me of pushing your aunt down the stairs.”

Yes, he had. Now that he thought about it, the accusation wasn’t his finest moment. Treating the woman like a hostile witness wouldn’t accomplish anything. A situation like this called for a more delicate touch. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I tend to be wary when it comes to strangers around my family.”

“Well, I tend to have a problem with being accused of crimes I didn’t commit,” she replied, snapping his olive branch in two. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a job to do.”

* * *

“Can you believe the guy? I think he actually considered that comment an apology.”

“Some people aren’t very good with apologies.” Her sister Piper’s face filled the screen of her smartphone. Thank goodness for Wi-Fi and internet chat apps. She so needed a friendly ear right now and Piper was the one person in this world she could trust. Patience called her as soon as she sat down at Ana’s desk.

“Maybe he’s one of those people,” her sister continued.

“Probably because in his mind he’s never wrong.” She sighed. “I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck working for the man while Ana’s in the hospital. Talk about a nightmare.”

“Oh, come on, it won’t be that bad.”

“Are you kidding? We’re living under the same roof. How am I supposed to avoid him?”

“I doubt he’s going to be hanging around the house.”

Wanna bet? Patience caught the smirk in his eyes last night. He probably considered the arrangement the perfect opportunity to vet her. Who used words like
vet
anyway? Couldn’t he say
check her out
like a normal person.

“I don’t like him,” she said. “He’s...”

“He’s what?”

Too imposing. With his unwavering blue eyes and long lean torso. “There’s something about the way he looks at me,” she said, keeping her thoughts to herself.

“Guys are always looking at you.”

“Not like this.” Those guys were skeevy. All hands and leers. “It’s like he’s trying to read my mind.” She wasn’t used to a man looking at her as anything more than a chick with a nice rack. It was unnerving to have a man look deeper. “Plus, he keeps talking about secrets. I’m worried one of these times I’ll slip up and say something incriminating.”

“So, don’t talk to him. There’s no rule that says a housekeeper has to be chatty.”

“True.” Except she seemed unable to help herself.

“If it helps,” Piper added, “I watched a movie the other night where the woman drugged her husband’s dinner so he’d leave her alone. You could always try that.”

“Oh, sure.” It was exactly the laugh she needed. “Because my life isn’t enough like a made-for-television movie. Seriously, though, what am I going to do?”

“You could try telling the truth.”

Patience shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Why not? I bet Ana won’t care, especially once she hears the whole story. I mean, it’s not like you had other choices. Surely, Ana would understand that you did what you had to do.”

Maybe, but what about the reason Patience stayed for as long as she did? There were some secrets Piper didn’t know and was better off never knowing. That particular shame was Patience’s and Patience’s alone.

Again, she shook her head. “I’ll just have to stay on my toes is all. Hopefully, when Ana starts to feel better, he’ll lose interest. A rich, handsome lawyer? I’m sure he’s got better things to focus on than the hired help.”

“You didn’t mention he was handsome,” Piper said, giving her a smirk.

“He’s...good-looking,” Patience replied rolling her eyes.
Handsome
wasn’t the right word. “Not that it makes a difference. I’m more concerned about keeping my job.”

“You’re going to be fine, You’re one of the most resilient people I know.”

Patience wished she shared her sister’s confidence. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said. She was tired of whining. “How’s school?”

“Um...good. French pastries are turning out to be a challenge.”

“Bet yours taste fantastic. Any way you can mail me your homework?” She was so proud of Piper. Winning a scholarship to study cooking in Paris. Piper’s success made everything worthwhile. “And how’s work?” Her sister was earning room and board as a live-in maid. “Your boss must be psyched to have a gourmet cook on staff.”

“Frederic doesn’t eat home much.”

The grainy camera image failed to mask the shadow that crossed Piper’s face, immediately sending Patience’s maternal instincts into high alert. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Piper replied quickly. “I’m just bummed not to have someone to cook for is all. I miss you.”

Homesickness. Of course. Patience should have realized. This was the longest the two of them had ever been apart. Hard as it was on her, it had to be doubly hard on Piper, alone in a foreign country. “I miss you too Pipe. But, hey, we’ve got Wi-Fi. You can call me anytime you want.”

Piper smiled. “Back at you.” Offscreen, a noise occurred, causing her sister to look over her shoulder. “Hey, I’ve got to go,” she said. “The boss just walked in. Don’t let Ana’s nephew intimidate you, okay? You’re just as good as he is.”

“Thanks. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Patience’s smile faded as soon as she clicked off. Piper had such faith in her. It wasn’t that she was completely ashamed of everything she’d done in life, she thought, setting the phone aside. Raising Piper, for instance. She couldn’t be prouder of the woman her baby sister had become. Giving Piper a chance for a real future had always been what mattered the most. Her baby sister would never have to degrade herself to pay the bills.

A knock sounded behind her, making her start. “You can’t accuse me of sneaking up on you this time,” Stuart said. “I knocked.”

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