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Authors: Barbara Wallace

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BOOK: A Millionaire for Cinderella
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Yes, he had, and he now stood in the doorway with his arms folded like a long, lean statue. It wasn’t surprising that he managed to look as regally imposing in jeans and bare feet as he did in a suit. Patience had a feeling he could wear a bunch of rags and still look wealthy. Even the glasses that, on someone else would look geeky, looked more geek-chic on him. Actually, much as she hated to admit it, the frames looked adorable on him.

Some of her bangs had slipped free of her hair band. She brushed them aside to disguise her reaction. “Do you need something?” she asked.

“It dawned on me that I sounded—are you writing out checks?”

His gaze had dropped to the ledger that lay open on the desk. What now?

“I’m reconciling the checkbook. Ana likes a paper record in addition to the online version.” She considered adding that his aunt had asked her to take over the task because her math was getting a bit fuzzy, but that would only make her sound more defensive than she did, and she refused to feel guilty for doing her job.

“I never did understand her insistence on two records,” He replied. She’d expected a far more snide comment. Walking over to the desk, he studied the laptop screen from over her shoulder. “Seems like way too much opportunity for mistakes.”

“I’ve tried to tell Ana the same thing.” As much as she tried not to be, Patience found herself acutely aware of his chest hovering behind her ear. The scent of his body wash lingered in the air. Clean. Crisp. She couldn’t help herself; she inhaled deeply.

“You forgot to record check number 3521,” he said, pointing at the screen.

Sure enough, there was an unrecorded check. “This is the biggest problem,” she said. “Ana always forgets to mark the checks in both places.”

“I thought you wrote the checks?”

“I write out the monthly checks for the bills. That doesn’t mean your aunt doesn’t write out her own ocassionally. Especially when she want to give money to the humane society. See?” She pointed to the written ledger. “Check 3521 in her handwriting.”

She shifted in her hair, so she could better confront him. “Are you going to question everything I do while you’re living here? Because if so, it’s going to make for a very long stay.”

“I wasn’t questioning anything. All I did was point out you missed a check.”

Right. And his pointing out had nothing to do with his distrust. “Look,” she said, “I know you don’t like me—”

“I never said I didn’t like you.”

Patience blinked. “You didn’t?”

“No. I said I didn’t trust you. There’s a difference.”

Not much. “Gee, thanks. I feel so much better.”

A hint of color found its way to his cheeks. It, along with his quick, sheepish smile, dulled her annoyance. “I’m not saying this right at all,” he said. “I came in because I realized what I said back in the kitchen didn’t come out as apologetically as it should have. What I should have said was that I’m sorry for treating you like a trial witness last night. I should have let the matter drop after Ana corroborated your story.”

“Actually,” Patience replied, “what you should have said was that you’re sorry for even suggesting I’d hurt your aunt.”

Stuart grabbed the edge of the desk, trapping her between his two arms. Body wash and heat buffeted the space between them, the combination making Patience’s pulse quicken. She looked up to meet a gaze that was bright and resolute. “Ana is the only family I have,” he said. “I won’t apologize for trying to protect her.”

This was where Patience should retaliate with angry defiance. Unfortunately, she understood where Stuart was coming from. When it came to keeping your family safe, you did whatever you had to do. No matter what.

Still, she wasn’t ready to let him off the hook. “Let’s get something straight,” she said, straightening her spine. “I like Ana. She’s been good to me. Real good. I would never hurt her. I don’t care how good your reason is—you are a jerk for thinking otherwise.”

They were back to Mexican standoff territory, with their eyes challenging one another. Patience focused on keeping her breath even. She didn’t know if it was his scent, his close proximity, or the thrill of having held her ground, but she could feel the adrenaline surging through her. When Stuart broke the moment with a slow, lazy smile, her heart jumped. The thrill of victory, she decided.

“Yes, I was,” he said. “A jerk, that is.”

“Finally, we agree with something.” She sat back, only to realize the new posture placed her in the crook of his arm. Instinct screamed for her to straighten up again, but that would imply she was nervous, and since she wasn’t nervous she forced herself to look relaxed. “Apology accepted.”

Stuart responded with a low chuckle before—thankfully—shifting positions and releasing her. Patience was surprised how much she missed his scent when it disappeared.

“How about we start over with a clean slate?” he said. “Hi. I’m Stuart Duchenko.”

She stared at his extended hand. For some reason, the gesture kicked off warning bells. “Why?” she asked.

“Why what?”

“Why the one-eighty?” A dozen hours ago, he was smirking with suspicion. Now he wanted to be friends?

He’d obviously expected the question, because he chuckled again. “Because you’re right, I was being a jerk. And, because Ana would have my head if she saw the way I was acting. Our bickering like a couple of twelve-year-olds won’t help her. Therefore, I’m hoping we can be civil for her sake.”

He had a point. Ana would expect better of her, as well. “Does this mean you’ve decided to trust me?”

“Let’s not go crazy. I am, however, willing to give you the chance to prove me wrong.”

“Well, isn’t that mighty big of you.” Although, in truth, they had something in common. She didn’t trust him, either.

His hand was still extended, waiting for her acceptance. Fine. She could be the bigger person, too. For Ana’s sake.

“I’m Patience Rush,” she said, wrapping her fingers around his palm.

His grip was firm and confident, more so than she expected. Patience was shocked at the power traveling up her arm.

You’re playing with fire, a tiny voice whispered in her ear. Stuart wasn’t some sour-smelling creep she could hold off with an expressionless stare. He was a man whose clout and influence could ruin her life. But, like a shining red sign blinking “Do Not Touch,” she couldn’t resist the challenge.

“Nice to meet you, Patience. I look forward to getting to know you.”

“Same here.”

She wasn’t sure what to say next and, based on the awkward silence, neither did he. The strangest energy had begun humming around them. Wrapping them together, as if the two of them were suddenly on the same page. Weird. Other than Piper, Patience had always made it a rule to keep an invisible wall between herself and the rest of the world. To feel a connection of any kind left her off balance.

Stuart’s smile mirrored her insides. Tentative and crooked. “Look at us being all civil.”

“Let’s not go crazy,” she replied, quoting him. “It’s only been a minute. Let’s see how we do at the end of the day.”

“I’m up for the challenge if you are.”

Oh, she was more than up for it. If being civil led to him dropping all his talk of “secrets,” then she’d civil him to death.

CHAPTER THREE

T
O
HER
COMPLETE
and utter amazement, he didn’t insist on supervising her work. Instead, he left her with a friendly “Don’t forget to mark down check 3521.” Probably planning to double-check her work later, Patience decided. She took more care than usual to make sure the ledgers were perfect.

After lunch, Stuart went to the hospital to spend time with Ana while she stayed behind to wage war with the brownstone windows. She thought about visiting as well, but decided to wait until evening so Stuart would see how seriously she took her job.

And, okay, maybe part of her wanted to avoid him. Being civil would be a lot easier if they didn’t see each other. The energy shift when they shook hands still had her thrown. Ever since, there’d been this inexplicable fluttering in her stomach that no amount of window cleaning could shake. A reminder that she wasn’t dealing with an ordinary man, but rather someone a class above the creeps and losers who’d crossed her path over the years. Talk about two different worlds, she thought with an unbidden shiver. All the more reason to avoid him as much as possible.

And so, armed with cleaner and crumpled newspaper, she polished glass until the smell of vinegar clung to her nostrils and there wasn’t a streak to be found. As she stretched out the small of her back, she checked the clock on the parlor mantel. Five o’clock. Time to feed the beast. She was surprised Nigel wasn’t upstairs with her, meowing up a storm. He wasn’t in the hallway, either.

“You better not be hiding somewhere thinking about pouncing on me,” she called out as she trotted down the stairs. “I can tell you right now scaring me won’t get you on my good side.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Stuart replied. He looked impossibly at home, standing at the counter with a cat food can in his hand and Nigel weaving in and around his legs.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, only to realize how abrupt she sounded. They were supposed to be acting civil after all. “I mean, I thought you were visiting Ana.” That sounded much nicer.

“I got home a few minutes ago and Nigel met me at the door. Nearly broke my ankle demanding supper.”

“No way!” She purposely exaggerated her disbelief. “Good thing you weren’t on the stairs.” Her smirk couldn’t have faded even if she wanted it to.
Go Nigel.
Kitty earned himself extra tuna.

To his credit, Stuart had the decency to look apologetic. “Point made. I was wrong.”

“Told you so.” Since they were being civil, she kept the rest of her gloating to herself. Instead, she bent down to retrieve Nigel’s bowl, making sure she gave the cat an extra scratch under the chin when he ran over to see her. “How is Ana?” she asked.

His expression changed in a flash, growing somber. “They’ve got her on pain medicine so she mostly sleeps, and the couple times she did wake up, she was confused. The nurses told me that’s pretty common, especially at her age.” He breathed hard through his nostrils. A nonverbal
but...

Patience felt herself softening toward the man even more. Seeing Ana so weak had upset her, too, and she had been around to see how active Ana had been. Goodness only knows how shocked Stuart must have felt having missed the last eight months. “I’m sure she’ll be back to her feisty self in no time,” she said, trying to reassure him. And herself, too, maybe.

“That’s what the nurses said.”

“But...?” There was a hesitancy in his response that once again left the word hanging in the air.

“Did you know one-fourth of senior citizens who break a hip die within six months?”

“Not Ana.” No way was he going down that road. “She’d kill you if she heard you. Besides, she broke an ankle, not a hip, so your statistic doesn’t apply.”

“You’re right. It doesn’t.” A smile graced his features. Forced maybe, but it erased the sadness from his face. Patience was glad. He looked much better with his dimples showing. Not that he didn’t look good when serious, but his appeal definitely increased when his eyes sparkled.

“And Ana would kill me,” he added, and they shared another smile before Stuart looked away to finish feeding Nigel. Patience waited until he’d scraped the sides of the cat food can before placing the bowl back in its place. “I was planning to visit Ana tonight,” she told him.

“Me too. Right after dinner.”

Shoot!
She’d completely forgotten about dinner. Normally, by this point in the day, she’d have started cooking, but she’d been so engrossed in cleaning the windows—and trying not to think about Stuart—that everything else slipped her mind. “I... um...” Combing the bangs from her eyes, she caught a whiff of vinegar and winced at the odor. “I hope you don’t mind simple. I forgot to get the meat out to thaw.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll grab something on the way. I’ve been dying for an Al’s Roast Beef.”

“No way.”

“What, you don’t like Al’s?”

“No, I love it.” She was surprised he did. Al’s was a little hole-in-the-wall near the subway overpass. The kind of place you weren’t one-hundred-percent sure passed the health inspection, although it did have the most amazing burgers and roast beef sandwiches. She would have pegged Stuart as preferring something more upscale and elegant, like the wine bar up the street. “Can’t beat their barbecue special.”

“Would you like to join me?”

Join him? The hair on the back of her neck started to rise, much the way it did when he’d suggested they start over. She didn’t trust this warmer, gentler Stuart. Especially since he said he still didn’t trust her.

What was he up to?

“We both need to eat,” he replied, picking up on her hesitation. “We’re both going to the hospital. Why not go together?”

Why not? She could give a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact she should be avoiding him, not giving him an opportunity to dig for information.

“Plus, I owe you an apology for being wrong about Nigel.”

“You do owe me that,” Patience replied.

“So, is that a yes?” His expectant smile was so charming it caused her stomach to do a tiny somersault. As sure a sign as any that she should say no. Playing with fire, the voice in her head reminded her.

Except that smile was too darn hard to refuse. “Sure,” she replied. “Why not?”

* * *

She regretted her response as soon as they arrived at Al’s. Actually, she regretted it as soon as the words left her mouth and Stuart flashed a knee-buckling smile, but arriving at the restaurant sealed the deal—
restaurant
being a loose description. Beacon Hill types considered the banged-up booths and ketchup stains “atmosphere.” Patience considered it dirty. The place reminded her too much of the old days.

“We could do takeout if you’d rather,” Stuart said, correctly interpreting her expression. “Go eat by the river.”

Patience shook her head. “No. Here will be fine.” A picnic by the river sounded too nice, and, frankly, the situation was strange enough without the atmosphere feeling like a date.

This kinder, gentler Stuart made her nervous. They weren’t friends—not by a long shot—and she wasn’t really sure she bought his apology excuse. So why were they out to dinner together?

After placing their orders, they took seats in a booth toward the rear of the restaurant. One of the cleaner tables, if that was saying anything. Immediately, Patience took out a package of hand wipes and began cleaning the crumbs from the surface, earning a chuckle from Stuart.

“You do realize you’re off the clock, right?” he asked.

“You want to eat on a dirty table?” she shot back. She was beginning to dislike his laugh. Rich and thick, the sound slipped down her spine like warm chocolate syrup, making her insides quiver every time she heard it. Doubling down on her cleaning efforts, she did her best to wash both the crumbs and the sensation away. “I don’t even want to think about what the kitchen looks like,” she continued.

There was a splash of dried cola near the napkin dispenser. She went at it with vigor. “Piper would have a nutty if she saw this place.”

“Who’s Piper?”

Drat. She didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud. This really was a mistake. Not five minutes in and she’d opened the door to personal questions. Fortunately, Piper was the one personal subject she could talk about forever. “She’s my sister.”

“Let me guess, she’s into cleaning, too?”

“No, cooking.” Her chest grew full. “She’s studying to be a chef. In Paris.” She made a point of emphasizing the location.

“Is that so?”

Based on the spark in Stuart’s eye, Patience decided it was admiration and not disbelief coloring his voice, and her pride expanded some more. “She was accepted last fall. It’s always been her dream to become a famous chef.”

“You must be proud.”

“Proud doesn’t begin to cover it. I think she’s going to be the next Top Chef, she’s that talented. Ever since she was a kid, she had a knack for taking ingredients you’d never thought would go together and turning them into something delicious. Once, I came home and found her making jalapeño pancakes.”

“Were they any good?”

“Believe it or not, they were. Alhough she got flour everywhere. Took me all night to clean the film from the countertop.” A waste of time since the roaches came scrounging anyway. The thought only made her smile fade a little. As always, her pride in Piper’s talent overruled the bad.

Their conversation was interrupted by a group of college students settling into the booth behind them. Their laughter barely disguised the popping of beer cans.

“I forgot this place was BYOB,” Stuart remarked. “We could have brought a bottle of Merlot to go with our meal.”

“I’m not sure this is a Merlot kind of place,” Patience replied.

“Good point. Beer then.”

She tried and failed to stop her grimace.

“You don’t like beer?”

“I don’t like the smell.” He wouldn’t either if he’d spent years breathing sour, stale air.

Stuart was clearly curious, but thankfully he didn’t push. At least not right then. Instead, he stretched his arms along the back of the booth, the position pulling his shirt taut across his torso and emphasizing the contours beneath the cotton. Patience wondered if he realized he was the most superior-looking man in the place.

“So, your sister’s dream is to become a famous chef,” he said. “What’s yours?”

To make sure Piper’s dream came true.
Patience busied herself with pulling napkins from the dispenser. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, come on. Surely you didn’t always want to be a housekeeper?”

He was fishing. Looking for clues about this so-called agenda he thought she had regarding his aunt. What would he think if she told him her childhood hadn’t allowed for dreams or aspirations? Or that there was a time when even being a housekeeper seemed out of her reach? Would he trust her more or less? Patience could guess the answer.

“I thought we called a truce,” she said, dodging the question.

“Hey, I was just making conversation. I didn’t realize I’d asked you to reveal a state secret.”

He had a point. Maybe she was overreacting just a little. It certainly wasn’t his fault he’d stumbled too close to a bad topic. “Teacher,” she said softly. “When I was little, I wanted to be a teacher.”

“There now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Damn him for having a charming smile as he spoke. “What changed your mind?”

“I grew up,” she replied. The words came out sharper than she intended, causing a stunned expression. “And my mother died, leaving me to raise Piper.” She was probably telling him way too much, but she figured revealing some facts was smarter than acting prickly. “Hard to go to school and raise your kid sister.” Not that there was money for school to begin with, but he didn’t need to know that.

“I’m sorry. How old were you?”

“Eighteen.”

“That must have been tough.”

“We managed. How about you?” She rushed to change the subject before he could ask anything further. “Did you always want to be a lawyer?”

He laughed again. “Of course not. No little boy wants to be lawyer. I wanted to be a professional baseball player.”

“What happened?”

“I grew up,” he said, repeating her answer. In his case, instead of sounding prickly, the words came out sad, despite his clearly trying to sound otherwise. “Turns out you have to have athletic ability to be a professional athlete—or a child athlete, for that matter.”

Looking at him, she found his protest a bit hard to believe. “You look pretty athletic to me,” she said. His arched brow made her blush. “I mean, I’m sure you weren’t as bad as you make it sound.”

“I had bad eyes, allergies and childhood asthma. Trust me, no one was ever going to confuse me with Babe Ruth. Or John Ruth for that matter.”

“Who’s John Ruth?”

“Exactly.” He grinned, and she got the joke. He was worse than a guy who didn’t exist.

“So,” he continued, “with the Hall of Fame out of the picture, I found myself steered toward the family business.”

“I thought your family business was mining?” Ana was always talking about Duchenko silver.

“Not since the turn of the century. Grandpa Theodore turned it into law. Thankfully. Can you see me coughing and squinting my way through a silver mine?”

No, she thought with a laugh. He definitely belonged to suits and luxury surroundings. His choice of words did make her curious, however. “You said steered. You didn’t choose?”

“Sometimes you find yourself on a path without realizing it,” he replied with a shrug.

Patience could sure relate to that, although at its worst, his path couldn’t hold a candle to the one she’d landed on. “Do you at least like it?”

“For the most part. There are days when I’d rather be in the mine.”

“No offense,” she told him, “but I’ll take the bad day of a rich lawyer over the bad day of a poor maid anytime.”

“Don’t be so sure,” he said. “You’ve never had to draft a prenuptial agreement for your step-grandmother.”

At that moment, the girl at the counter called out their order, and he slid from the booth, leaving Patience to wonder about his answer. Writing some document hardly seemed a big ordeal.

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