Isabel Simon almost swallowed her tongue when she pulled up the long, winding cobblestone drive. The clearing at the end opened to a grand fountain that had seen better days. Behind it loomed the closest thing to a castle she’d ever encountered. It stole her breath as she craned her head to get a full view. Three gothic towers speared up to the sky, lined with dark arched windows that showed nothing of the inside.
She got out of her car and exhaled deeply, the rush of breath sending a white puff into the frost-laced air. She inhaled through her nose, and the icy wind danced down her throat. She could do this. She could spend Christmas and the weeks leading up to it on her first assignment as a temporary assistant. It was no wonder the agency had been eager to hire her despite her lack of formal training. Who would want to work over the holidays? Most people were eager to have the time off with their families and special someones.
Not that Izzy didn’t have anyone. She had Gram, and wasn’t it enough to have one person who you could count on to care? There were days, though, when she liked to daydream about being swept off her feet by someone who adored her, who maybe had a sense of humor and a kind spirit. Happily-ever-afters certainly existed. The bookworm in her made it hard to think otherwise. But not for her, it seemed. She’d had a chance at love, but it had unfortunately been one-sided. Heat rose to her cheeks, and she shook her head to jiggle away the memory.
She glanced back at her rusted old hatchback that had sputtered and coughed into the driveway. The pile of metal reminded her that she needed the money this job would provide. If only the temp agency had given her a heads-up that she’d be arriving at a stone mansion, complete with scowling gargoyles. She tugged at the hem of her red jacket as she made her way to the door. She would have dressed up a bit if she’d been informed of the storybook setting—even if it was a bit creepy with dormant ivy snaking up the tall spires.
Izzy raised her left hand and knocked. The sound got lost in the thick wood. She tried again, rapping her knuckles against the unforgiving door. A moment passed, then another. Perhaps the owner had stepped out or had an emergency. She was about to turn and walk back to her car when she heard a low-pitched bark from inside.
She tensed as the door creaked open. The house was dark, and the shadow behind the doorframe was tall and masculine. He stepped into the light, and the reason she was standing on the doorstep was zapped from her mind. He was simply the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Slashes of black brows arched over onyx eyes. Her gaze dropped down the hard planes of his face to full lips set into a scowl. Izzy didn’t dare look lower. She could already see the blur of broad shoulders and a hard chest.
“Can I help you with something?” His voice was low, gruff, and very annoyed.
Izzy tightened her grip on the duffle bag she was holding. “I’m Isabel Simon.” No recognition flickered across his face, but his scowl deepened. “I’m to be your personal assistant for the next two weeks.” Was she at the wrong address? “Maybe they put ‘Izzy’ on the paperwork—most people call me that.”
His brows furled together. “I certainly didn’t request a temp.” He set his hands on his hips.
Great. What should she do now? She was in the middle of nowhere with an ornery homeowner who looked as if he wanted to boot her off his doorstep. Another bark sounded from inside the house, and a giant head pushed aside the man’s leg to squeeze out. A grizzly bear of a dog lumbered onto the step with her. His tail ticked back and forth as he looked at her with kind, drooping eyes. The dog nudged its nose into her hand, and Izzy crouched to scratch behind his ears. At least someone was friendly here. For a moment, she was lost in slobbery licks and soft fur.
The man cleared his throat. “Some guard dog.”
Standing quickly, Izzy brushed off her pants and tried a smile. “He’s beautiful. A St. Bernard, right?”
“Right.” This one clearly wasn’t much for words. Her cell phone said more when she asked it a question. She certainly wouldn’t have to worry about getting off task with her duties, if he ever let her inside the house.
“Atticus, back inside.” The dog slowly plodded back into the house.
“To Kill a Mockingbird.” Izzy smiled now, her librarian’s heart gratified. “One of my favorites.”
He didn’t take to the pleasantry. “I didn’t ask for a personal assistant.” He began to close the door, and something made her jump forward. Maybe it was because she desperately needed the money, or maybe she didn’t want to swallow her pride and tell the agency the client hadn’t wanted her—just another thread in the string of rejections she’d received throughout her life, starting with her own mother. Well, not today.
“I was booked for two weeks as an assistant to Derek Croft, at Five Shady Glenn. It wouldn’t be fair to cancel now, before the holidays.” The biting wind tousled her hair, and she rubbed her hands together for warmth.
“I’m Derek Croft, and it wouldn’t be canceling if I didn’t request anyone in the first place,” he grumbled, and jerked down the cuff of his shirt.
She bit her bottom lip. Convincing him would be like playing a game of tug-of-war against an entire football team. “Perhaps someone booked it for you as a gift?” Izzy must have hit the mark because his stony face flinched ever so slightly. For a moment, she thought he was going to slam the door, but he stepped back, picked up his cell phone, and punched in a number. Izzy leaned over to scratch behind Atticus’s ears and tried not to eavesdrop.
“I gave you and Sebastian the holidays off. I’m not helpless here, Marie.” He lowered his voice, but she could still hear the conversation. “Now there’s a woman standing on my doorstep looking for work. What on earth am I supposed to have her do for two weeks?”
He shook his head and clicked off the line. The knot in Izzy’s stomach untangled some. At least she was where she was supposed to be, regardless of the welcome she’d received.
“It, ah, looks like my well-intentioned house staff thought this would be a good Christmas gift. I have nothing for you to do here.” He stood with one hand in his pocket and the other on the doorknob.
Izzy’s shoulders relaxed. He couldn’t turn her away now. She took advantage of the statement and stepped inside the house.
“For starters, we could get some light in here.” She could barely make out the splendid curved rails of the staircase and the massive chandelier that hung overhead. “Do you have family coming for the holidays?”
Derek tucked both his hands into his pants pockets. “My father, his new wife, and her daughter.”
“I can help get the house ready for the holidays, and I can find my way around the kitchen. You won’t have to lift a finger.” Izzy held her breath.
His forehead creased as he studied her. “Well, you’re here now. I’ll show you around, but then I have to get back to work.” He swung the front door shut, and a deafening thud echoed off the high ceilings.
Some of the tension in the back of her neck eased. She wasn’t going to be sent away with her tail tucked between her legs. She darted after him to keep up with his long strides. “What do you do?”
“Children’s author.” He slid open a large door to reveal a sitting area with buttery leather furniture positioned around a fireplace.
Izzy choked down a laugh. A children’s author. He was such a grump, it was hard to imagine him writing a tale for a little one. “Oh, I love books, which makes sense because in my day job I’m a librarian.”
The homeowner turned and narrowed his eyes. “Aren’t you an assistant?” His tone dripped with so much distrust that Izzy bristled.
“Just part-time. You know, for some extra cash to float me through the holidays.” Her cheeks instantly heated. Of course, he didn’t know. He lived in a castle surrounded by luxury.
Derek let out low humph that sounded partially like dismissal and partially like a groan she’d expect to hear out of the dog that followed at their heels. He turned back toward the room. “This is the sitting area. You can use the fireplaces. There are eight of them in the house.”
Izzy leaned in to get a closer look, then stepped back when his scent, something fresh and entirely male, tickled her nose. Why couldn’t the client have been a sweet old man, or bald and frumpy? Instead, she had to trail a dark-featured version of Thor, who had the disposition of a porcupine, around the endless mansion while trying to avert her eyes from his backside. He stopped abruptly, and Izzy rammed into him like a clumsy ape. “Sorry,” she mumbled. Her cheeks and the tips of her ears were probably the color of a new fire engine.
Izzy had a job to do, and she had no business thinking about the rock-solid body she’d just nearly barreled over. Guys like him didn’t go for girls like her. Her mother had been blessed with rich blond hair, crystal-blue eyes, and miles of confidence, while Izzy had waves of mousy-brown hair that never stayed in place, and ordinary brown eyes. A pain ricocheted through her chest. If she’d favored her mom, been prettier, maybe her attempt at finding love in college with Brett might have gone differently.
“This is the kitchen. My staff left the fridge stocked, but if you find something missing, you can call the grocery store to deliver it.” He stopped just inside the room with his hands on his hips.
The kitchen was a dream, with a six-burner stove, a double oven, and a fridge that could hold enough food for a banquet. The stainless-steel appliances were flanked by rows of deep cherry-colored cabinets and granite countertops that were swirled with honey and chocolate colors. Every surface shone, including the center island. The children’s book business must be good, or he came from money. Either way, Izzy was far more comfortable nestled on the couch in her one-bedroom apartment with a good book and a cup of tea than she was here in such…opulence.
Derek walked back to the main hallway and strode up the stairs, as Izzy and the dog trailed behind him. Atticus would be her buddy for the week. She longed for a dog or cat, but her apartment didn’t allow it. Her gram had been allergic, so she hadn’t been able to have one growing up, either. She just admired them from afar and envied the people who were able to keep them.
Once upstairs, Derek walked her down a long hallway. “This is the west wing,” he said.
It was chillier here than on the first floor, and Izzy rubbed a hand up and down her arm.
“I keep the heat off at this end of the house, as I stay on the north side.” He paused in front of a doorway that looked like all the others. His frown deepened into a scowl. “You can explore the house, but this room is off-limits.”
“What’s in there?” She couldn’t help herself from asking, and his brows instantly knit together.
“If I wanted you to know, it wouldn’t be off-limits.” He started moving down the hall, and Izzy had to power walk like Jillian Michaels to keep up. This was going to be a very long two weeks.
“This will be your room. There are clean sheets in the closet. I have to get back to work. I’m on a deadline, and I’ve already been interrupted.” He checked his watch and huffed.
“Should I make dinner? What time do you typically eat?” she asked. Some instructions as to her duties would have been nice, but they were both flying by the seats of their pants.
“Seven.” Mr. Personality disappeared, and Izzy was left staring at a large four-poster bed in a room that was bigger than her entire apartment. A sitting area with a chaise lounge sat by the window and faced another fireplace. The dog followed her into the room and brushed up against her side.
“Home, sweet home, boy.” She ran a hand down his head. Funny how she was more at ease conversing with the dog than his owner. The adjoining room had a gorgeous claw-foot tub that she’d love to sink right into, yet another fireplace, and a vanity.
What was it like to have this kind of wealth? Growing up, Gram had made sure Izzy had everything she needed, but money had always been tight. She had worked hard, well past the age she should’ve retired, to provide for Izzy, who was born to a teenage mom with more important things to do than to raise a child. It was one of the reasons Izzy was compelled to help Gram pay for her retirement at Silver Acres. It had been three years since she’d helped Gram move into her apartment there, and for three years, she’d hobbled along financially.
Gram’s face had just lit up when they went on a tour of the sprawling community with its gardens and pergolas. The nursing staff onsite put Izzy at ease, too, and the facility provided meals. Gram was a lot of beautiful things, but a cook was not one of them. When they’d reviewed the costs with an agent, Izzy had known Gram could never afford it, so she’d given her a leg up and insisted on splitting the bill each month. Izzy was thrilled that Gram was content and happy, but she’d grossly underestimated how much it would stretch her finances to foot half the rent. She was going to have a coronary if she kept eating cheap, sodium-laden noodles every night. At least here she’d be in charge of what went on the dinner table.
It was a win-win that Silver Acres was only a half-hour drive from the castle where she was to reside for the holidays. Izzy was taking her vacation days off at Christmas this year, so her coworker could enjoy an extended honeymoon in the spring. She could earn some extra money and still see Gram. Derek would surely give her a few hours off, right? Her phone beeped, and she glanced down.
Bingo tonight with Mr. Johnson. Wish this old bird some luck.
Izzy’s grin stretched ear to ear. Gram had learned to text, had a schoolgirl crush on her neighbor, Mr. Johnson, and was so happy it made Izzy’s heart sprout tiny wings. Gram would be staying at Silver Acres, even if Izzy had to sell a kidney on the black market to keep her there. She checked the time on her phone and unzipped her duffle bag. She would unpack before trying to figure out what to prepare for dinner. How did this even work? Was she supposed to sit and eat with him, or lay out his meal and disappear into the background? Her stomach grumbled at the thought of food, and the dog shot her a concerned glance.
“Oh, don’t tell me your belly never growls.” She scratched his side and realized it probably didn’t, as he was quite plump. “I bet you like table scraps, huh?” The look in the dog’s eyes intensified, and he nudged forward. Izzy laughed. “Let’s go find you a treat.”
She got turned around in the maze of the house more than a few times before simply following Atticus, who led her straight to the kitchen. After rooting through some cabinets, she unearthed a jar of milk bones. He sat patiently as she twisted off the top and then took them gingerly from her hand. Now for the humans. She opened the fridge and looked around for a moment, before deciding on chicken and broccoli in Alfredo sauce. She lined up the necessary ingredients and put a pot of water on the stove to boil. In the pantry, she found a box of fettuccine. She wanted to do a good job, not only because she was hired to do so, but also because a trickle of guilt had curled into her stomach when Derek’s eyes had told her loud and clear she was unwanted here. At times, she liked to be alone, too. What if he’d been looking forward to this week free of staff, and she’d stomped in and stripped away his privacy? Maybe after having some time to brood, he’d be a tad more pleasant. Either way, she was in too deep at this point. There was no turning back.