After a tragedy that took his wife, his eyesight, and the ability to care for another human, all Mike wanted was to be left alone to write away his pain. Then Christy, a woman as emotionally damaged as he was, came into his life, and his hardened heart began to crack. In the end, perhaps they can save each other.
The porch slanted from age and neglect as if it might collapse any second, and the cedar shake siding was as dark and weathered as the steel gray clouds roiling overhead.
What a perfect setting for a horror movie, Christy Smythe thought as she stared through the windshield of her sister’s car at the Victorian monstrosity perched on a cliff, overlooking the craggy shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Beth gently touched her arm. “Come on, sis. You can do this. It’s time.”
Christy shivered but turned toward her big sister, her best friend, with a forced, tremulous smile. “I know it’s time. I can’t hide behind your skirts for the rest of my life.” Inside, silently, she cried out and wanted to beg to go back to L.A. with Beth. But that thought didn’t help. L.A. was where this all started. It was time she tried to move on, but it was so hard!
Beth shoved the driver’s door open. The wind grabbed it and slammed it shut before she could exit. Christy took that as a very good sign she shouldn’t move from the passenger seat, but then she shook herself, reaching deep for courage, and grabbed the door handle.
“You’ll be okay…”
Christy turned her attention back to Beth. “I’m thirty-five years old, and it’s time I…” Tears burned Christy’s eyes and made her nose itch. Her chest compressed with more pressure.
“I love you, Chris.” Beth wrapped her arms around Christy and squeezed hard. “Roger agrees with me on this. You’re ready.”
Beth’s husband had been so sweet when Christy went to live with them. He’d always been sweet, treating her like a real sister. Her breaths grew shallow, and she fought to maintain control, to not let the panic set in. “You said this guy needs a housekeeper. I need to get out of your hair.” She looked again at the towering Victorian. “It’s a step. Just one step. The doctors said my next step is to get my butt back out into the real world. I know this. I do. I just…”
She feared she’d just move from one house to another and not reenter society, but she couldn’t live with her sister’s family any longer. They needed their little unit back. She didn’t belong there. But she couldn’t live on her own in L.A. Just the thought of that made her ill, froze her mind and her limbs in terror.
Beth reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a pill bottle. “Take these.”
She opened her mouth to argue about taking the medication, but Beth cut her off.
“I know you don’t like the way they make you feel, but you have to take them if you need them.” She pressed the pill bottle into Christy’s clammy, shaking hand.
Christy shoved the bottle into her jacket pocket and forced herself to get out of the car. The clouds were low, dark, and the air smelled of rain, wet pine, and salty sea. This place was nothing like L.A. All she could hear was the soughing wind and the crashing of waves beyond the cliff. No car horns. None of the ever-present buzz of the city.
That thought calmed her a tiny bit. Moonlight Cove, population 834, had a very low crime rate. Probably no robberies. Maybe…
“You’ll like it here,” Beth said, a little reluctance in her tone as she headed up the steps to the rickety, southern-style, wraparound porch. “Roger and I had a wonderful vacation up here last summer. It’s so peaceful.”
Christy hefted her duffle bag over her shoulder and trudged across the crushed oyster shell drive to the house. It was cold and damp and… And damn it, she was terrified to be away from her sister. Why had she let her sister push her into this? Why had she wanted this job? How was she going to survive without Beth and Roger? They’d been her rock, her support, for the past eighteen months.
She was the one who suggested she take the job when Beth, a literary agent, was trying to find domestic live-in help for one of her more famous clients who lived alone on the Oregon coast. Not many maids wanted to relocate to such a rural area, and Beth was very particular about who she hired to work for this guy because of his special needs and the fact that he was not only her client but a close personal friend.
Beth pressed the doorbell then opened the door and walked right in as if she owned the place. “Come on. If he’s working, he ignores everything.”
Christy followed Beth into the darkened house. For an award-winning, bestselling author who made more with the sale of one book than she’d made in her entire career of managing restaurants, the place was rather…
“See what I mean?” Beth asked as she set the suitcase down and shut the door behind her. “He needs some help around here. Then again, I guess it doesn’t matter what your house looks like if you can’t see it.”
There were no lights on in the house, and only the faint overcast gloom from outside shone in through grimy windows. In the living room area, off to one side of the entry foyer, boxes were stacked practically to the ceiling against one wall. A thick layer of dust coated every surface except for the leather sofa. Christy set her duffle next to her suitcase.
“His books,” Beth said as she waved toward the stacked boxes. Then she grabbed Christy’s hand and pulled her deeper into the house. “He’s never unpacked them. But come on, you’ll love the kitchen.”
Christy let her sister drag her down a short hall and through a doorway into what had once been a beautiful space. Under the dirt, grime, and dust, the counters were marble and the floor Spanish tile. The appliances were all stainless steel.
“Isn’t this awesome? Aren’t you going to have fun in here?” Beth asked.
Fun. Cleaning and sanitizing this room alone would take a week. There were a few clean spots, and she assumed those were the only places this bachelor worked. The area around the coffee pot was dustless, as was the stove, though there was some burned on grime that would need some attention.
Beth pulled her to the far end of the kitchen where a table sat piled with ancient papers. “Look out there.”
Christy glanced up from a ten-year-old phone bill to look out the bay window. Her breath caught, and she stepped back in surprise. There was no ground below the window, just air. Three hundred feet below, the gray-brown waves crashed against the rocky shoreline.
“Isn’t the view amazing? Roger and I are looking for a vacation home in the area, but there’s not much available.”
To the south, walls of rock blocked the tide, the cliffs climbing even higher than where they stood. To the north, the land sloped down to a wide, weathered beach. Moonlight Cove. The tiny town sat nestled along the shoreline. She’d caught only a glimpse of the one-stop-sign hamlet as they drove through. It was quaint, in a Norman Rockwell kind of way.
“Where’s the guy?” Christy asked. She didn’t know what else to say. Yes, it was pretty. Yes, she supposed this would make a nice vacation spot—if the weather were better. But she wasn’t on vacation. She was doing her best not to let the anxiety seize her, paralyze her. She wasn’t in a public place, which always brought on the attacks, but it was new and disturbing because soon her one secure anchor would be leaving, and she’d be alone with a stranger in a strange place.
Even if Beth had been his agent for six years, he was a stranger to Christy. Her sister made a trip up here every three months to collect a manuscript from him because he was too…too something…to put it in the mail like a normal person. Too rich. Too stuck up. Too stuck on himself? Beth called him an eccentric recluse.
Beth took her hand again, tugged her out of the kitchen and back into the hall. “His office is down here. He’s probably working.”
“Isn’t it rather unsafe that a blind guy leaves his door unlocked and then ignores when someone comes in?”
Her sister shrugged. “It’s little-town life, sis. Everyone knows everyone, and his only visitors are the mailman and the delivery guys who bring his groceries and stuff. Besides, he’s not completely blind. He sees light and shadows. Too much light tends to disorient him, though. That’s why it’s so dark in here.”
Beth stopped in front of an open door. Inside was a wide desk with a computer and stacks of papers and other office-type things, an empty leather executive chair sitting in front of a window covered with thick draperies, and the walls were lined with bookshelves filled to overflowing.
“Hmm.” Beth pulled her farther down the hall. “Mike?” she called. “Hey, Mike! Where the heck are you?”
The clang of metal on metal came from somewhere upstairs, making Christy jump. Beth headed for the narrow staircase at the end of the hall, dragging Christy behind her. “He must be in the workout room. He lifts weights when he needs to work out a scene.”
They climbed up the first flight of creaky, wooden stairs and veered down another long hallway. Only dim light filtered from windows into the hall from open doorways of mostly empty rooms.
Another clank of metal. “Beth? That you?” The man’s voice was deep and rich.
“Hey,” Beth said, stopping in front of an open door at the end of the hall. “How you doin’?”
Christy peered around her sister at the man seated on a padded weight bench. Her breath lodged in her throat, nearly choking her.
He was the most gorgeous specimen of a male she’d ever seen, and she’d seen a lot, working in Los Angeles in a high-end deli frequented by movie stars. He was shirtless, with rippling abs and a light mat of dark hair over his perfectly formed pecs. This man was as perfect as they came with high cheekbones and a square jaw covered in a couple day’s growth of dark whiskers. His nose was aristocratic but had probably been broken because it had just a slight angle to the left. And his eyes were as dark green as the pines outside the covered windows. If it weren’t for the map of scars covering one side of his face…
Mike grabbed the towel from the vinyl bench and swiped it over his face and chest. “Hey, Beth. I didn’t expect you until later today.”
“Mm-hmm. I see that. You’re looking mighty fine, Mr. Horton.”
Ignoring the flirtation in his agent’s voice, he fumbled for his cane on the floor and used it to lever himself up. “Let’s head downstairs so I can get a shirt on.” As he turned toward the doorway, he caught a shadow of a second silhouette, two dark, fuzzy shapes against the dimness. “Someone with you?”
“My sister. She’s agreed to be your new housekeeper and cook. Say hello to Mike Horton, Christy.”
Mike clenched his jaw. Damn his meddling agent. He’d told her he didn’t need her to find him another housekeeper. The four he’d been through over the last two years were enough to prove it wouldn’t work out. He was perfectly able to care for himself. Frankly, he didn’t want anyone hanging around him and his house. It made him nervous.
“No offence to your sister, but I don’t need a keeper.”
“Housekeeper,” Beth said with a chuckle. “She’s an award-winning chef, and she can clean like no one’s business. And yes, you do need a housekeeper. This place is a mess.”
He heard footsteps approaching him, one of the dark shapes coming closer, and he steeled himself, focusing on the shadow. A finger poked him in the ribs, making him jump. “I think you could use a few good meals, too. Christy’s cooking can make a grown man weep—I know, I’ve witnessed it. Roger’s threatened to leave me just for her lasagna.”
Beth’s husky chuckle made him shake his head. “I don’t like people in my house, and you know that.”
Beth sighed and put her hand on his arm. “She’s not people, she’s my sister. You don’t complain about me being here.”
That was because Beth was like family to him. His one real connection to the outside world. He’d known her for years, but she hadn’t known him before the accident. He wasn’t an oddity to her. He was a client and friend. “Beth…”
“Come here, Christy,” Beth said, and he felt her shift next to him, pick up his hand, then place it in another hand. “Mike, meet my little sister, Christy Smythe.”
Christy’s hand was small, warm, and smooth. Much smaller than Beth’s.
“Why do I get the impression I have no choice in this?” he asked the dark shape in front of him. She was at least a head shorter than him, which made her a few inches shorter than her sister. A whiff of something rich and musky tantalized his nostrils. Not perfume, but maybe a spiced shampoo? Body talc? Whatever it was, it made his mouth water. He wanted to lean into her and get a better taste of the scent.
“No,” Christy said, her voice soft and sweet. “Beth’s made it pretty clear I don’t have a choice in this.”
Mike frowned. That sounded ominous. She didn’t want to work for him?
“I figure she can have the room I usually stay in on the third floor. It’s big and has a comfortable bed.”
Christy’s hand slipped from his and, for the briefest moment, he had the urge to reach out to her. He wrapped his fingers tighter around the handle of his cane and leaned on it, his thigh throbbing. “That room’s fine. Are you staying for supper?”
“Nope,” Beth said. “I’ve got to head back. Since I drove, the farther I can get by the time I need a bed, the better.”
“You drove? All the way from L.A.?”
“Long story. Christy can tell you all about it.” She nudged him toward the door. “Give me my book, and I’ll be on my way.”
Mike tried to make out where Christy had moved to, puzzling over the fact that Beth had driven up from Los Angeles. She never drove. She usually flew into Coos Bay and rented a car for the two-hour drive to Moonlight Cove. In fact, he’d never known her to drive. Hell, that was over eight hundred miles.
Christy moved silently, too silently, since he couldn’t figure out where she was. He didn’t like people sneaking around him. The lights in this old house were too dim, the ambient light from the windows usually too dark, especially now in the dreariness of fall when it rained four days out of five. The best lighting for his remaining vision was early morning on a bright summer day before the sun reached his windows. The light was just right, and he could almost see color.
He didn’t want Christy in his home at all, whether she sneaked or not. She was a small, soft woman who smelled good. A complication he didn’t need. Beth was the only woman welcome across his threshold. His agent, his friend. She’d also been happily married for over a dozen years and, though she loved to flirt, she was safe. He wasn’t allowed to entertain illicit thoughts about her. He’d been alone too long to expose himself to temptation that could never be acted upon.