Authors: Sandra Miller
Tessa knew who it was, but felt the need to make a least one passive-aggressive statement about the way she had been treated that morning.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize your voice. You sound much older on the phone.”
Clearing his throat as if a little annoyed by her teasing, he asked if she had gotten moved in okay. Deciding not to try and goad him any further, Tessa donned her professional voice and told him yes, thanking him politely for his concern.
“Good. I just wanted to let you know I’ll be there in about forty-five minutes.”
There was weariness in his voice as if he was beyond the point of exhaustion, too weary in fact to sound even the slightest bit pompous, and for that she was grateful. Glancing at the digital clock on the oven, she realized he had just put in a sixteen hour day. Why was he even bothering to make the trip home from Boston just to turn around and make the drive back in eight short hours? Not that she was complaining, in fact, she was relieved. Maybe he would be generous enough with his time to actually show her where the blasted light switches were.
“Should I gather the servants and sound the cannons then,” she said dryly, not certain as to why it felt so natural to test his patience so early in their blossoming relationship built on mutual distrust and angst.
Ignoring the barb completely, as usual, Mr. Richards replied, “When I get there we’ll go over your job description and responsibilities. I’ll also have you fill out and sign your tax forms. And after this morning, I’ve decided to have your fingerprints ran through the FBI database and have a background check performed.”
“Yes, sir,” Tessa begrudgingly agreed with some of the wind taken out of her sails. She had so hoped he would take the bait and insult her back. A mean-
spirited but playful discourse was far preferable to a cold, insincere one. Instead, he matched her attempt at humor with a dire warning that her name was about to be submitted to homeland security.
As intuitive as she fancied herself to be, she had not seen that coming.
Memo to self; never mention casing your boss’s house on the first day of employment.
The silence that followed must have clued him in on the direction of Tessa’s thoughts, because he admitted rather blandly, “That was
attempt at humor, Ms. Maguire.”
If that was truly the case, he needed to brush up on his delivery, because she was about to admit to every speeding ticket she had ever gotten, not to mention the dozens of parking tickets from the city of Charlotte she never paid, which caused her to wonder if her driver’s license was even valid.
Another memo to self; check with the DMV about status of driver’s license
“That was a little harsh,” she laughed in spite of herself.
“I guess I’m a little rusty.”
“It’s according to what you were trying to accomplish.”
“Did the dogs behave well for you? They can be a handful at times,” he asked, rudely changing the subject, ruining their first attempt at small talk.
“They were perfect. We went for a walk in the woods,” she admitted at some risk since she had not technically been given permission to meander through the wilderness during business hours. “You have a beautiful place, Mr. Richards.”
“And despite what you may think of me based on your first impression, I really appreciate you offering me the position. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.”
“I hope it’s going to work out well for both of us, Ms. Maguire,” he mumbled, not sounding very confident. After yet another moment of awkward silence he continued, “I would prefer you not to venture too far beyond the house alone. It’s not safe. If you get lost or injured, it could be hours before anyone found you. Do you understand?”
Scoffing at the suggestion that she was incapable of managing a walk through the woods without a chaperone, Tessa tried to dispel his fears. “I grew up in the backwoods with nothing but old Indian trails and tree moss to follow. So there’s very little chance I could get lost. I’ve driven on roads smaller and in
worse shape than what you have running through your property. Add a little red dog and it would be considered a rural route where I come from.”
Pausing only long enough to clear his throat, Mr. Richards replied, “Be that as it may, the matter is not open for debate.”
Shrugging her shoulders, Tessa relented. It was his land after all, and had no problem respecting his wishes, ridiculous as they were. Being from entirely different worlds, he had no idea what she was capable of. Not that she considered herself in the same league as Hiawatha or Daniel Boone, but it would take some pretty dense terrain to confuse her sense of direction. And as far as injuries, she also grew up with a very realistic and healthy respect for Mother Nature and the dangers she presented.
“I’m getting off the interstate now. Is there anything I need to stop and pick up?”
“No. Dinner is ready and waiting. I kilt us a possum today, so we’re good for now. Possum dumplings tonight, possum pie tomorrow…”
Refusing to acknowledge her, Tessa’s new employer ended the conversation abruptly, without another word, leaving her standing in the middle of the kitchen listening to a dial tone.
Watching through the window as the headlights from the SUV approached the garage, Tessa waited anxiously for Mr. Richards’ to make his way inside. Being a virtual prisoner for the past three hours had forced her into a skittish mood. The dogs, recognizing the sound of his vehicle, stood on either side of her, wagging their tails and whining in anticipation. As one of the garage doors started to rise, she hurried to the stove to put the finishing touches to the meal and tried to appear as casual as possible. Not only was she fully prepared to face his irritability, she was looking forward to getting their little talk over with so she could escape to the privacy of her apartment for a shower and bed. It had been a long day and she was feeling a bit irritable herself from not eating or having the opportunity to talk to her children.
It didn’t take long for the door to open and Mr. Richards to be met by his canine fan club that showered him with affection as he knelt down to pet them. Their welcome
home party was brief, however, causing Tessa to feel sorry for them. They were so overjoyed by his arrival; he could at least take the time to offer them the attention they deserved for being so devoted. But it was probably impossible to show anything or anyone much attention when he was always so busy patting himself on the back.
Dismissing the formalities of a greeting, he moved to the sink and washed and dried his hands before joining Tessa at the stove, where he leaned back against the marble island and crossed his arms. With his tie removed and sleeves rolled up, he looked slightly less anal retentive than he had that morning. But his more casual appearance, or their almost civil telephone conversation, did little to quiet the butterflies in her stomach.
They were complete strangers who were going to be living under the same roof together—there really was something unsettling about that. Not that she feared for her safety, although it would have been a natural response, but because this was his home, and she felt very much like an intruder.
“I noticed the door was unlocked,” he began sternly. “When I’m not here, I want the doors locked and the alarm system set.”
“Sure, no problem.” Tessa’s voice sounded far too passive, even to her own ears. How she hated the fact that it always waivered under pressure. There was never any hiding the fact that she was scared or uneasy, and it gave people the upper hand.
“Well, I neglected to tell you that this morning, so you had no way of knowing. I’ll show you where the control panel is for the alarm system after dinner.”
Nodding in response, Tessa kept her eyes focused on the task in front of her. When she finally did glance in his direction, he was staring down at her bare feet. It was only then that she noticed the front of her tee shirt was coated with flour.
“Oh dear, I’m a mess,” she tittered shyly, and then commenced to babble on incoherently, unable to stop herself, “My momma always said you can tell a good cook by the number of aprons hanging on her clothes line. As you can see, I don’t own one, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up about dinner if I were you.”
If he happened to smile—which she was sure he hadn’t, since no ethereal music began to play, or an unexplained lunar eclipse occurred, to signify a miracle—Tessa would not have noticed anyway, because she turned on her heel and headed toward the cupboard to get a place setting down. Maybe if she was lucky, he would never notice that she was embarrassed, it was evident because Tessa could feel the heat warming her cheeks.
Okay, how much more humiliating could things get? Even on her tip toes the plates were just beyond the reach of her fingertips. Now what? Climb up the front of the cupboard like a spider monkey?
“We have a step stool in the laundry room, I believe,” he advised as he came up behind her and reached over her head. When he handed the plates down to her, he added, “I can’t have you straining your back and filing a worker’s comp claim already.”
“How bourgeois of you,” Tessa quipped sardonically, continuing to avoid direct eye contact with him, hoping he would find a seat at the table so they could get this first day over with. True, the first day at any job was always the worse, but this one was insanely bad.
“It’s called ergonomics now, Ms. Maguire. Kudos, however, for working a Marxist Theory reference into idle conversation. Not too many people I’m aware of can manage that successfully without sounding the slightest bit educated. It could be the accent, I suppose.”
Oh my God, he did not just say that
Nearly choking on her pride, Tessa grinned in spite of her indignation. “Why don’t you sit down, Mr. Richards? That way you can insult me in comfort while I serve your dinner.”
Then the unexpected happened. Mr. Richards finally chuckled out loud. So, the curmudgeon had a sense of humor after all. Miracles never seemed to cease. That fact helped set her mind at ease somewhat, and prompted her to chatter on in order to keep the conversation going, in hopes some sort of truce could be forged once they grew more comfortable around on another.
“I didn’t know if you were a vegetarian or what, so I hope you’re not too disappointed. I made a roast in the pressure cooker I found.”
“It smells good,” he begrudgingly told her. It was obvious by the stiffness in his tone that he wasn’t accustomed to doling out praise, no matter how slight. “But I don’t expect you to wait on me hand and foot.”
“Yes, sir,” she smiled as she placed his dinner in front of him. “What would you like to drink?”
“A glass of sparkling water, Thank you.”
After retrieving a bottle of it from the refrigerator, Tess brought it to him, along with a glass that appeared to be Waterford.
“Nothing for you?” he asked. “Have you eaten already?”
Uhm, no. But when you’re finished with your meal, let me know and we’ll go over those things you were telling me about.”
“Did you eat at all, today?”
Caught off guard by the question, Tessa muttered her response, not knowing exactly why he was showing so much concern. “I didn’t have time to go into town.”
“Why would you need to do that? There’s enough food here to feed us both for a month.”
“I can buy my own groceries. I’ll go to the store tomorrow and pick up some things for my apartment.”
Mr. Richards eyed her suspiciously. “What are you talking about? Free room and board is part of your benefit package.”
Once again, the heat of embarrassment crept up her neck. “I’ve never been a housekeeper before, so I didn’t know.”
“Now you do. So grab a plate and have dinner with me. We can talk while we dine.”
Reluctantly, Tessa submitted to his demands and eventually sat across from him with her hands folded on her lap.
With one raised brow, he gave her a look of askance. “Is there something wrong?”
“I usually say grace before I eat, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful to your own personal belief system, whatever that may be.”
A grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “Oh, I see…I’m not going to join you of course, but you’re free to do whatever you like.”
Dutifully bowing her head in reverence, Tessa whispered her prayer of thanksgiving silently and quickly before offering a faint smile as she picked up her silverware.
“Thank you. I know how you heathens feel about public displays of worship.”
Nodding his head and returning a strained smile of his own, Mr. Richards took his first mouthful and glanced up in surprise. “Wow, this is actually very good.”
“You sound shocked,” she laughed. “But I’m glad you like it.”
”A pressure cooker? I didn’t realize we had one. In fact, I can’t even tell you what one looks like.”
“It’s the best thing ever,” Tessa gushed, excited that she finally wasn’t the one sounding like a complete moron for a change. “You can make cubed steak as tender as a rump roast.”
Leaning back casually in his chair, this arrogant man who she now cohabitated with, stared at her openly as if he was seeing her for the very first time, which was obviously an annoying knack he had; looking at someone without actually seeing them. Unfortunately, she had suddenly attracted his full attention, or curiosity, whatever the case may be, and she was forced to sit there as if his close inspection did not affect her.
“Since we’re strangers, as you so aptly pointed out this morning, would you mind telling me a little about yourself?”
“What do you want to know?” The butterflies immediately returned.
Please, God, don’t let it be anything too personal
“Oh, I don’t’ know, anything you feel is pertinent.”
“Well, let’s see…” Tessa began straight-faced. “I was released from San Quinton about three months ago as part of a plea bargain when I turned over state evidence against the head of a major crime syndicate, before that…”
“Your accent,” he interjected. “I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s sort of a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ellie May
“I lived in the North Carolina for awhile, but I grew up in southern West Virginia.”
Nodding thoughtfully, he continued his interrogation. “You have children, my mother did tell me that much. Where are they, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind at all. And I do have children.
Four of them. Three of them are in college; my son Shane attends Lee University in Tennessee, Lynn is at Virginia Tech, Ann is at WVU, and my oldest, Rene, graduated with her Master’s from Duke, and lives in DC now.”
“And you’re working toward a Doctorate here at UMass. I have to admit I’m impressed.”
“Why? I’m sure you and all your siblings have degrees.”
“I meant nothing by it. I’m simply saying that not too many single mothers can boast a hundred percent success rate, especially when they’re putting themselves through school.”
Slightly irritated by the suggestion that they had broke through some stereotype he harbored of a typical underachieving lower middle class family, Tessa shrugged her shoulders and responded with conviction. “I think I’m more proud of the fact that they are loving and compassionate human beings.”
“Ah, but love and compassion doesn’t pay the bills, Ms. Maguire.”
“You know, actually, I come from a large family of honest and hardworking people who have never stepped a foot inside a college class room, and yet they still live quite comfortably. I don’t believe a degree is a watermark for measuring success—or character.”
“Well said,” he smirked. “Although I still reserve the right to respectfully disagree.”
Shrugging her shoulders, Tessa refused to get into a meaningful philosophical debate with a man whose haircut cost more than a week’s worth of grocery for an average family of four. There was nothing meaningful or philosophical about it.
“Do you mind if I ask what you’re getting your Doctorate in?”
His only response to that was a curt nod and an insufferable grin.
“What?” she prodded.
“I’ve never understood why someone would waste a perfectly good education just to spend the rest of their lives earning a teacher’s salary. But
to each his own, I suppose.”
“How uninspiring of you,” Tessa chastised. “I find there’s nothing more satisfying than elevating my mind, or that of a young person, through literature. It makes me happy. And that’s what success is really all about isn’t it? Being inspired by the work you do, being content with
who you are? I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life wishing I was doing something else, or being someone else.”
For a brief moment, Tessa thought she witnessed an expression of sadness sweep across Mr. Richards’ dark features. But just a
s quickly it vanished, leaving her to wonder if it had only been her imagination.
“I guess I’ve intruded enough into your personal life, let’s get down to business.” Leaning forward, he rested both elbows on the table. “Let me start by saying that you’re not my handmaiden, no more of this serving me my dinner—you’re my housekeeper. You prepare the food, manage the daily chores, and I’ll take care of the rest.”