Mallory Worthington wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and tied her quarter-zip pullover around her waist. Why hadn’t anyone warned her how humid Miami was in June? If she’d known, she would have at least put her hair up so it was off her neck. And traded the jeans and babyblue suede Pumas for khaki capris and a cute pair of Kate
Spade sandals, which would have had the added benefit of showing off her new pedicure, a shimmery beige-pink with the strangely prophetic name Cozu-melted in the Sun.
She hoisted her weekender tote over her shoulder and
scanned the sidewalk for the car that was supposed to be
waiting to take her the two-plus hours to Rhys Dalton’s remote estate in the Florida Keys. The guy owned his own island. How much more reclusive could you get?
Finally, she spotted a distinguished-looking man with graying dark hair standing next to a Lincoln Town Car and holding a sign that read Worthington in bold bloodred script.
“Miss Worthington?” he asked as she approached.
“Yes.” She extended her free hand, but he ignored it and reached for her bag instead.
“Is this all your luggage?”
“Yes.” Much more of this and she’d sound like a broken record. She raised herself up to her full height––an
unimpressive five-feet-even, thanks to multiple rounds of chemo and radiation that had stunted her growth. Normally she wore at least three-inch heels to compensate, but she’d left most of them at home. She might have learned to work the dining room in stilettos on the rare occasions she turned control of the kitchen over to her sous chef––it was good for morale and helped bridge the gap between front and back
of house, and she liked seeing the smiles on the customers’ faces––but they wouldn’t be much good for chasing an active toddler. “I had most of my things shipped ahead.”
She preferred to travel light. Plus, if her things were already down there, she couldn’t chicken out at the last
minute, could she?
“Right.” He popped the trunk and carefully placed her bag inside before slamming it shut. “Mrs. Flannigan has them waiting for you in your quarters.”
The recruiter had told Mallory she’d be part of a small staff, all living on site. At least she’d have someone to talk to besides her four-year-old charge. Her boss wasn’t what anyone would call the chatty type, as she’d learned from their brief phone interview. They’d talked a grand total of maybe five minutes, presumably because the agency had already grilled her to his satisfaction.
“What about you?” she asked the driver. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Collins, Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur, business manager, and general man-of-all-trades.” He held the door open. “If you don’t mind, miss. We’ve got a bit of a drive. I’d like to get moving so we’re there before dark.”
“No problem.” She stepped into the car, a blast of cold from the air conditioner hitting her in the face. “And please, call me Mallory.”
“Yes, miss.” He closed the door behind her.
Okay then. Miss it was.
Collins––apparently the man had only one name, like Beyoncé or Ludacris––slid behind the wheel and started the engine. Mallory relaxed into the leather seat, her hand landing on a manila folder beside her. “What’s this?”
“A little light reading for your trip.”
“Light reading?” She picked up the folder.
“A few things you should know before you arrive.”
“Like household rules?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
That sounded ominous. The whole interview-to-job-offer-to-acceptance process had been so fast, there was a lot about Rhys Dalton she didn’t know. He’d needed a nanny ASAP to replace someone who left him in a lurch. Not an ideal job for a Culinary Institute of America–trained chef. But she had to get out of Dodge before she got cold feet and wound up spending the rest of her life in the looming shadow of her parents and the disease she’d fought and beaten as a child. Even if that meant a temporary career change and putting hundreds of miles between her and her big sister, who’d always been her best friend and moral
Brooke had forged a new life for herself––great guy, great job, great apartment––and it was time for Mallory to do the same. That wasn’t going to happen if she stayed under her parents’ thumb. Working in the family hotel. Living in the family guesthouse. Letting them hover over her like vultures with thermometers, tissues, and Tylenol, waiting for any sign of a sniffle or sneeze.
But in her rush to escape, what had she gotten herself into? What if Rhys Dalton had turned angry and vengeful in his self-imposed seclusion, like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? Or maybe his wife was still alive, and he had her locked up in his attic, like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre?
Mallory shook her head. Clearly, she’d been indulging in too much Gothic romance. She’d have to stick to Stephen King from now on. Way less frightening.
The car pulled away from the curb, and she flipped open the folder and began to read. The first few pages were fairly innocuous. Daily schedule. Dietary requirements for Rhys and his son, Oliver. Emergency contact information in the event of a fire, flood, or alien invasion.
Then she got to the juicy part.
Okay, Rhys Dalton didn’t have a wife stashed in his attic. He was a widower, which was tragic enough on its own. Even worse, he’d lost his wife to a terrorist attack. Mowed down on a busy Manhattan street with seven other innocent victims going about their daily routine on a crisp fall morning.
She closed the file and let her head fall back against the smooth, cool leather. No wonder he’d cut himself off from the rest of the world. And no wonder Collins wanted to make sure she had a better understanding of their boss before meeting him face-to-face for the first time.
“Collins?” she asked as the chauffeur expertly merged the car onto the highway.
“How long have you worked for Mr. Dalton?”
“Almost seven years.”
“So, you knew him before…” She let her voice trail off, not sure where to go. What was the politically correct way of saying “before his wife was brutally murdered”?
Collins clearly understood what she’d left unsaid, but he didn’t elaborate, and Mallory was happy to let the subject drop. Maybe when––if––she got to know the man a little better, she’d pump him for more information.
It wasn’t that she was morbidly curious. It was more like she felt a sort of kinship with Rhys Dalton, even though she was still hours from meeting him. He’d loved and lost, and so had she. Maybe not a biological family member, but the kids she’d shared the chemo ward with were as close as family. And she’d lain in her hospital bed, helpless, as more than one had lost their battle with cancer, taking a little piece of her with them each time.
“I’ve got cold water up here if you’re thirsty,” Collins said, interrupting the depressing turn of her thoughts.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Mallory tried to suppress a yawn.
“Feel free to close your eyes and get some rest.”
“Thanks.” She didn’t want to admit it, but the stress, heat, and three hours on a plane were catching up to her. She tired more easily than the average twenty-seven-year-old, something she combated with a daily regimen of pills and potions. Yet another constant reminder of the disease that had come close to taking her life. Almost against their will, her eyelids drooped, and she yawned again. “I think I will.”
It could have been ten minutes or ten hours later when Collins’s not-so-subtle cough woke her. “Excuse me, miss. We’re at the dock.”
“Dock?” She sat up and scrambled for her purse. She had a mirror in there somewhere, didn’t she? She was afraid to see what she looked like. Probably had hair stuck to her cheek and drool dripping from her chin.
The door swung open, and Collins reached a hand into the car to help her out. “Yes, miss. It’s only a short boat ride from here to the island.”
She took the chauffeur’s hand and stepped out of the car, the crushed shells that made up the parking lot crunching under the soles of her sneakers. The heat and humidity assaulted her, making her already-sweat-stained shirt and wrinkled jeans feel like they weighed a thousand pounds. Changing into more weather-appropriate clothing would be first on the agenda once she hit land. Again.
But the view almost made up for the temporary discomfort. Puffy white clouds floated across a cerulean sky. An almost translucent blue-green ocean, nothing like the murky northern Atlantic waters she was used to, stretched as far as the eye could see. A red-and-white launch bobbed at the end of a long wooden dock, the outline of an island barely visible in the distance.
“Is that it?” she asked, hurrying after Collins across the parking lot and down the dock. “Mr. Dalton’s island?”
“Yes.” He hefted her bag into the back of the boat and jumped in after it. The man was so quietly efficient she hadn’t even noticed him retrieve it from the trunk. “That’s Flamingo Key.”
She looked from the boat to the dock and back again, gauging the distance between them. Too far for her short legs to handle. Her hesitation must have been written all over her face, because Collins put a foot on the gunnel and held a hand out to her again.
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” he reassured her. “I won’t let you fall.”
She held her breath, put her damp palm into his calloused one and stepped off the dock. True to his word,
Collins helped her into the launch without incident. Once he had her settled in the back with her bag, he started the engine and cast off, handling the boat as skillfully as he did the Town Car. He’d left “skipper” off his job description. Unless chauffeur included land and sea vehicles.
Mallory sucked the sea air into her lungs like it was authentic New Zealand manuka honey and grabbed the
rails to steady herself. Her hair whipped her cheeks, and she closed her eyes against the warm breeze and the light spray the boat kicked up as it cut through the waves. This was why she’d left New York. This sense of freedom. From her parents. From the responsibilities of running a restaurant. From her cancer.
A too-short ten minutes later, they were back on terra firma, standing in front of an enormous stucco Venetian-style mansion.
“Mr. Dalton is waiting for you in the study.”
Mallory put a hand to her hair, even more of a wreck now after the boat ride. “Can I freshen up first?”
“He has a conference call in ten minutes, and he’d like to see you before you meet Oliver.”
“Doesn’t he want to introduce me to his son?”
“Mr. Dalton is a busy man. Mrs. Flannigan will take care of the introductions.”
Too busy for his own son? This guy was sinking lower in Mallory’s esteem, any kinship she might have felt fading like a summer tan in October. Okay, he’d lost his wife. Truly tragic. But that meant his son needed him more than ever.
With an increased sense of impending doom, she followed Collins up the massive stone steps to the equally massive wood-and-glass front door. She tried her best to smother her warring emotions, ping-ponging between wanting to make a good first impression on her new boss and wanting to smack him upside the head for putting work before his motherless child.
“After you,” Collins said, holding yet another door open for her. “The study is the first door on the left.”
Her stomach flip-flopped. “Aren’t you coming with me?”
“No, miss.” He gestured for her to enter. “Mr. Dalton is expecting you. I have to check the lines on the launch and make sure your room is ready.”
Great. She was going into the lion’s den alone, with nothing but good intentions and a wardrobe that made her look like a reject from one of those Survivor-style reality TV shows. She stalled on the top step. “You’re sure I won’t be disturbing him.”
“Just knock first and announce yourself.” Collins ushered her into the cavernous marble-tiled foyer. “Mrs.
Flannigan will come get you when you’re done.”
“Thanks.” She swallowed hard and willed her reluctant feet to move. Nothing. She could see the study door across the foyer. Those few feet might as well have been a thousand miles for all the good it did her.
“Don’t worry,” Collins said, lowering his voice. “His bark is worse than his bite.”
Was it that obvious she needed a pep talk? She did a quick mental tally. Flushed cheeks. Dry mouth. Sweaty
palms. Knocking knees. Yep, it was official. She was a basket case, and it showed.
“Thanks,” she repeated, trying to sound braver than she looked.
With a nod, he left. Mallory finally got her feet moving, squeaking across the foyer in her sneakers. When she reached the study door, she hitched her pocketbook up on her shoulder, took a shaky breath, and knocked.
She had to stop herself from backing away. Collins wasn’t kidding about the barking. She hoped he was right about the bite, too.
She took another deep, unsteady breath in a futile attempt to calm her jangling nerves and cracked the door open. The room was in semidarkness, shades drawn, lit only by a lamp on the impressive mahogany desk that dominated the space. A man stood behind it with his back to her, one hand holding a cell phone to his ear, the other jammed in the pocket of his butt-hugging khakis.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, lowering the phone. Good thing, or she would have had no way of
knowing whether he was talking to her or the person on the other end of the line. It wasn’t like he bothered to do something crazy like actually look at her when he spoke.
She took the opportunity to study him unobserved while he finished his conversation. He was tall––around
six feet, she guessed, dwarfing her tiny frame. Inky black curls dusted the collar of his shirt, a shirt that molded his broad shoulders and back as well as his pants showcased his butt. He’d rolled the sleeves to his elbows, revealing tanned forearms with a smattering of fine dark hair.
Holy hotness. If he looked as good from the front as he did from the back …
Stop. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Do not think lustful thoughts about your workaholic, criminally-attractive-from-behind new boss.
“I need that report by five,” the object of her lust practically spat into the phone. “And tell Mark I want to
talk to him as soon as he’s back in the office.”
He ended the call without so much as a goodbye and tossed the phone onto his desk, turning to face her as he did. Any hope the full-frontal view would quash the dirty daydreams inspired by his backside was immediately dashed.
The grainy picture in the file Collins had shared with her didn’t come close to doing him justice. Whiskey-brown eyes, framed by almost obscenely long lashes. Patrician nose. Strong jawline. It all added up to a mouthwatering package of male physical perfection.
Why hadn’t she bothered to Google him? Then she would have been prepared for the onslaught of his sheer masculine beauty. If you could ever prepare for something as powerful as that. Or run the other way as fast as her short-girl legs would carry her.
“Miss Worthington?” His eyes, dark and appraising, skated over her less-than-impressive curves, leaving her
wondering if the final verdict was desire or derision. Not that it mattered, because she was there to take care of his son’s needs, not his own. Or hers.
“Mallory,” she corrected, her shaky voice betraying the potent cocktail of nervousness and attraction coursing through her system.
“There’s been a misunderstanding. I thought you were”—his gaze traveled the length of her body again, the
journey ending this time in a scowl—“older.”
His words were like a bucket of ice water dumped over her head, effectively dousing any flickers of awareness. Probably––no, definitely––a good thing considering their circumstances. It was practically a cliché, the world-wise billionaire and the innocent, virginal nanny.
“Is that a problem?” she asked sharply. She was twenty-seven, not seventeen. More than mature enough to handle a preschooler. Heck, she’d run a commercial kitchen, managed almost a hundred employees from sixteen to sixty, some of them no better behaved than your average four-year-old. Hadn’t he read her résumé?
“I’m afraid so.” He jabbed a button on the intercom on his desk. “Mrs. Flannigan, we’re ready for you now.”
Mallory shook her head, plastering several damp strands against her cheek and no doubt making her look
even younger. Not helping her cause one bit. She pushed the sticky strands off her face and straightened, maximizing every inch of her five-foot frame. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry you’ve come all this way for nothing.” He crossed to the door, his powerful strides eating up the short distance, and opened it. “I’ll see you get the earliest possible flight home, and you’ll be compensated for your time and trouble.”