Authors: Susan Meier
As she held the glass to his mouth, he lifted his hand to the back of her thigh and possessively slid it up to her bottom.
Shock nearly caused her to spill water all over him. She hadn't even dated since she left him, and the feeling of a man's hand on her behind was equal parts startling and wonderful.
He smiled up at her. “I'm better.”
Ignoring the enticing warmth spiraling through her, she tried to sound like an impartial nurse when she said, “You're hallucinating.”
His hand lovingly roamed her bottom as his fever-glazed eyes gazed up at her longingly. “Please. I seriously feel better. Come back to bed.”
His last words were a hoarse whisper that tiptoed into the silent room, the yearning in them like a living thing. She reminded herself that this wasn't Cain. The Cain she'd married was a cold, distant man. But a little part of her couldn't help admitting that this was the man she'd always wished he would be. Loving. Eager for her. Happy to be with her.
Which scared her more than the hand on her bottom. Wishing and hoping were what had gotten her into
trouble in the first placeâwhy she'd married him that impulsive day in Vegas. On that trip, he'd been so loving, so sweet, so happy that she'd stupidly believed that if they were married, if she didn't live a thousand miles away, they wouldn't have to spend the first day of each of their trips getting reacquainted. He'd be comfortable with her. Happy.
And for three weeks they had been. Then his brother had died, forcing him to help his dad run the family business in Kansas through e-mails and teleconference calls, as he also ran Nestor Construction. Their marriage had become one more thing in his life that he had to do. A burden to him.
what she had to remember. She'd become a burden to him.
She pulled away, straightening her shoulders. She wasn't anybody's burden. Not ever.
“Go back to sleep.”
She returned to the study and her book, but realized that in her eagerness to get out of the room she'd forgotten to give him another dose of medicine. So she returned to his room and found him sleeping peacefully. Not wanting to disturb him, she took a seat on the chair by the window. The next time he stirred, she'd be there to give him the meds. She opened her book and began to read in the pale light of the lamp behind her.
Cain awakened from what had been the worst night of his life. Spasms of shivers had overtaken him in between bouts of heat so intense his pillow was wet with sweat. He'd thrown up. All his muscles ached. But that wasn't the half of it. He'd dreamed Liz had taken his
temperature, given him medicine and walked him to and from the bathroom.
With a groan, he tossed off the covers and sat up in bed. He didn't want to remember the feeling of her palm on his forehead, the scent of her that lingered when she had hovered over him or the wave of longing that swept through him just imagining that she was back in his life. He pulled in a breath. How could he dream about a woman who'd left him without a word of explanation? A woman who was in his bed one day and gone without a word the next?
Because he'd been a fool. That's how. He'd lost her because he was always working, never had time for her, and grieving his brother. No matter how she'd left, he couldn't blame her. She was innocent of any wrongdoingâ¦and that was why he still wanted her.
As his eyes adjusted, he noticed soft light spilling toward him from across the room. He must have left the bathroom light on. He looked to the left and saw Liz watching him from his reading chair.
He licked his dry lips. She was so beautiful. Silhouetted in the pale light from the bathroom, she looked ethereal. Her long black hair floated around her, accenting her smooth, perfect alabaster skin. She wore sweatpants and a tank top, and he realized she'd turned off the air-conditioning. Probably because of his shivering.
Still, her being in his bedroom didn't make sense. They'd divorced three years ago.
“Why are you here?” he demanded. “
are you here?”
“I'm your maid, remember?”
“Your assistant hired Happy Maids to clean your house once a weekâ”
He closed his eyes and lay down again, as it all came back to him. “Yeah. I remember.”
“You were pretty sick when I got here Friday morning.”
“Friday morning?” He sat up again and then groaned when his stiff muscles protested. “What day is it?”
“Relax. It's early Saturday morning.”
He peered over. “You've been here all night?”
She inclined her head. “You were very sick. I didn't feel comfortable leaving you.”
He fell back to the pillow. “Honest Liz.”
“That's why hundreds of people let me and my company into their homes every week to clean. My reputation precedes me.”
He could hear the smile in her voice and fought a wave of nostalgia. “I guess thanks are in order.”
“And I probably owe you an apology for fondling your butt.”
“Oh, so you remember that?”
This time she laughed. The soft sound drifted to him, smoothed over him, made him long for everything he'd had and lost.
Which made him feel foolish, stupid,
. She was gone. He had lost her. He could take total blame. But he refused to let any mistake make him weak.
“You know what? I appreciate all the help you've given me, but I think I can handle things from here on out.”
“You're kicking me out?”
“I'm not kicking you out. I'm granting you a pardon. Consider this a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“Okay.” She rose from the chair. Book under her arm, she headed for the door. But she stopped and glanced back at him. “You're sure?”
He'd expect nothing less from her than absolute selflessness. Which made him feel like an absolute creep. He tried to cover that with a smile so she wouldn't even have a hint of how hard just seeing her was for him. “I'm positive. I feel terrific.”
With that she opened the door and slipped out. When the door closed behind her, he hung his head. It had been an accident of fate that he'd gotten the flu the very day she was here to clean his house. But he wasn't an idiot. His reaction to her proved that having her back in his lifeâeven as a temporary employeeâwasn't going to work. The weeks it took Ava to find a permanent maid would be filled with a barrage of memories that would overwhelm him with intense sadness one minute and yearning for what might have been the next.
He should get rid of her. That's what his common sense was telling him to do. But in his heart he knew he owed her. For more than just staying with him while he was sick. He should have never talked her into marrying him.
T WAS FIVE O'CLOCK
when Liz finally fell into bed. Ellie called her around eleven, reminding her that they were taking Amanda Gray and her children, the family who had moved into the Friend Indeed house the weekend before, to the beach.
She slogged out from under the covers and woke herself up in the shower. She pulled a pair of shorts and a navy-blue-and-white striped T-shirt over her white bikini, and drove to Amanda's temporary house. Ellie's little blue car was already in the driveway. She pushed out into the hot Miami day and walked around back to the kitchen door.
“Mrs. Harper!” Amanda's three-year-old daughter Joy bounced with happiness as Liz entered and she froze.
Liz had been part of the welcoming committee when Amanda and her children had arrived at the house, but until this very second she hadn't made the connection that Joy was about the age her child would have been.
Her heart splintered. She should have a child right now. But she didn't. She'd lost her baby. Lost her mar
riage. Lost everything in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Swallowing hard, she got rid of the lump in her throat. The barrage of self-pity that assailed her wasn't just unexpected; it was unwanted. She knew spending so much time with Cain had caused her to make the connection between her baby and Joy. But that didn't mean she had to wallow in it. Her miscarriage had been three years ago. She'd had therapy. She might long for that child with every fiber of her being, but, out of necessity, she'd moved on.
Amanda, a tall redhead with big blue eyes, corrected her daughter. “It's Ms. Harper, not Mrs.”
“That's okay,” Liz said walking into the kitchen, knowing she had to push through this. If she was going to work in the same city as her ex, she might not be able to avoid him. She most definitely couldn't avoid all children the same age her child would have been. Being in contact with both might be a new phase of her recovery.
She could handle this. She
“Smells great in here.”
“I made French toast,” Ellie said, standing at the stove. “Want some?”
“No. We're late.” She peeked into the picnic basket she'd instructed Ellie to bring. “When we get to the beach, I'll just eat some of the fruit you packed.”
“Okay.” Ellie removed her apron and hung it in the pantry. “Then we're ready to go.”
Amanda turned to the hall. “I'll get Billy.”
Billy was a sixteen-year-old who deserted them the second the two cars they drove to the beach stopped in the public parking lot. Obviously expecting his deser
tion, Amanda waved at his back as he ran to a crowd of kids his own age playing volleyball.
Amanda, Ellie and Liz spent the next hours building a sand castle with Joy who was thrilled with all the attention. Around four o'clock, Ellie and Amanda left the sand to set up a picnic under their umbrella.
Joy smiled up at Liz. “Do you like sand?”
She gazed down at the adorable cherub. The wind tossed her thin blond locks. Her blue eyes sparkled. Now that Liz was over the shock of realizing Joy and her baby would have been close to the same age, she felt normal again. Strong. Accepting of that particular sadness in her life. That was the difference between her and Cain. She'd dealt with her loss. She hadn't let it turn her into someone who couldn't connect with people.
“I love the beach. I'm happy to have someone to share it with.”
Joy nodded enthusiastically. “Me, too!”
They ate the sandwiches and fruit Ellie had packed for dinner, then Joy fell asleep under the umbrella. Obviously relaxed and happy, Amanda lay beside her daughter and closed her eyes, too.
“So what did you do yesterday?” Ellie singsonged in the voice that told Liz she knew something out of the ordinary had happened the day before.
Liz peered over at Ellie. Did the woman have a sixth sense about everything? “Not much.”
“Oh, come on. You never take a day off. I know something happened.”
Liz grabbed the bottle of sunscreen and put her attention to applying it. Knowing Ellie wouldn't let her alone unless she told her something, she said, “I was taking care of a sick friend.”
Ellie nudged her playfully. “So? Who was this friend?”
“Just a friend.”
“I said nothing about a man.”
Ellie laughed. “You didn't need to. The fact that you won't give me a name or elaborate proves I'm right.”
How could she argue with that?
Ellie squeezed her shoulder. “I'm proud of you.”
“Don't make a big deal out of it.”
Ellie laughed gaily. “Let's see. You not only took a day off, but you were with a man and I'm not supposed to make a big deal out of it?”
“No, you're not. Because I'm never going to see him again.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know.”
“Okay, then.” Ellie closed her eyes and her face scrunched comically.
“What are you doing?”
“Wishing that you'd see him again.”
“You might not want to do that.”
“Oh, I think I do.”
“The man was my ex.”
Ellie's eyes popped open. “Oh, Liz! Damn it. You should have told me that before I wished. You know how powerful my wishes can be.”
“That's why I told you now. You need to take it back.”
“Yeah, well, you'd better or you're going to break your record of wishes granted. Because I'm not going to see him again.”
Stupidly, that made her sad. She'd loved Cain with her whole heart and soul, but his brother had died and he'd gone into his shell. She'd tried to hang in there with him, to be there when he reached the point that he could work through his pain and withdrawal, but he never had. And then one day she realized she was pregnant. She knew in her heart that Cain wasn't ready for a child, so she'd waited a few weeks, hoping that if she were further along the pregnancy would seem more real to him. Maybe even be a cause for joy.
But she'd miscarried before she'd had a chance to tell him and suddenly she was the one unable to function. She knew she needed help. At the very least she needed someone to talk to. She couldn't talk to Cain. She wouldn't have been able to handle it if he had dismissed the loss of the little life so precious to her. So she'd gone. Their marriage had been in shambles anyway. The miscarriage simply pointed out what she already knew. Cain wasn't emotionally available.
Ending their marriage had been the right thing to do. She'd gotten therapy, moved on and made a wonderful life for herself.
And he'd moved on. Achieved the success he'd always wanted.
There was nothing to be sad about.
She spent most of the rest of the day in the ocean with Joy, until all thoughts of her miscarriage and her ex-husband had receded. Through the week, occasionally something would remind her of her short pregnancy or her doomed marriage, but she ruthlessly squelched the urge to feel sorry for herself until by Friday, she didn't have a second thought about going to Cain's house to clean. The past was the past. She'd moved on, into the future.
Assuming he'd already gone to work, Liz simply pulled the Happy Maids car into his driveway, bounced out and let herself into his kitchen.
But when she turned from pulling her key from the door, she saw Cain standing over a tall stack of waffles.
They weren't supposed to run into each other. That was why she thought she could keep this job. But three of her four cleaning trips to his house, he'd been home. Without even knowing it, he'd dredged up memories that she'd had to deal with. Emotions she'd thought long dead. Now here he was again.
Still, she wouldn't make an argument of it. She could say a few words of casual conversation, as she walked to the door on the other side of the kitchen and slipped out of the room to clean another section of the house.
“You must be really hungry.”
He laughed. “I am. But these are for you.” He shrugged. “A thank-you for helping me last weekend.”
She froze. She should have expected this. She
expected this. She knew he hated owing anyone.
She sucked in a quiet breath. Not only did she not want to spend time with him, but she hadn't eaten waffles since their fateful trip to Vegas. Mostly because she didn't want to remember that wonderful time.
Cain wasn't the real Cain. Neither was this guy who'd made her waffles. He didn't want to thank her as much as he felt guilty that she'd helped him the week before and wouldn't let that “debt” go unpaid.
“That's not necessary.”
“I know it's not necessary, but I
to thank you.”
“You did thank me. The words are enough.”
He sighed. “Just sit down and have a waffle.”
“No!” Because the single word came out so angrily, she smiled to soften it. “Thanks, but no.”
Their gazes held for a few seconds. She read the confusion in his dark eyes. He didn't understand why she wouldn't eat breakfast with him. They'd been so happy the one and only time they'd had waffles together. And maybe that's why he'd chosen them?
Regret rose up in her, but regret was a foolish emotion. She couldn't change who he was. She couldn't change the fact that she'd lost their child. And she refused to be pulled into believing the nice side of him was in control. That would only lead to more heartache. Neither one of them wanted that.
She turned and walked away. “I'll get started upstairs while you eat.”
Cain pretended her refusal to eat his thank-you waffles hadn't bothered him. Being incredibly busy at work, it was easy to block out the memory. But Saturday morning he took his boat out, and alone on the water with nothing to keep him company but his thoughts, he was miserable.
Liz was without a doubt the kindest woman in the world and he had hurt her. He'd hurt her enough that she couldn't even force herself to be polite and eat breakfast with him.
When she'd left him three years before, he'd experienced a bit of remorse, but mostly he was relieved. He'd quickly buried both emotions under workâas he always did. But sitting on the ocean, with the sun on his face and the truth stirring his soul, he knew he had to make it up to her. All of it. The quick marriage, the
horrible three years together, the bitter divorce and probably the pain she'd suffered afterward.
He owed her. And he hated owing anyone. But her refusal had shown him that she didn't want a grand gesture. Hell, she didn't want any gesture at all. Still, he needed to ease his own conscience by doing something for her. And he would. He simply wouldn't let her know he was doing it.
On Sunday morning, he got her phone number from Ava and tried calling her. He needed no more than a ten-minute conversation with her. He was very, very good at figuring out what people wanted or needed. That was part of what had made him so successful at negotiating. In ten minutes, he could figure out what anyone wanted or needed and then he could use that knowledge to negotiate for what
wanted. The situation with Liz was no different. He wanted to ease his conscience and could do that by simply finding a need and filling it for her. Anonymously, of course. Then his conscience would be clear. He could fall out of her life again, and they both could go back to the new lives they'd created without each other.
His call went directly to voice mail, so he tried calling her on Monday morning. That call also went to voice mail. Not wanting to make a fool of himself by leaving a hundred unanswered messages, he waited for Friday to roll around. She might not take his calls, she might not have eaten the breakfast he'd prepared the week before, but she couldn't avoid him in his own house if he really wanted to talk to her.
And he did. In only a few minutes, he could ascertain what was important to her, get it and ease his conscience. If he had to follow her around while she dusted, he would.
Realizing she might not enter if she saw he was still home, Cain stayed out of sight until he heard the bip, bip, bip of his alarm being disabled. He waited to hear the back door open and close, then he stepped into the kitchen.
The woman in the yellow maid's apron turned. “Mr. Nestor?”
“Oh, I'm sorry.”
Well, if that didn't take the cake!
Not only had she refused his thank-you waffles and ignored his calls, but now she'd sent someone else to clean his house?
He sucked in a breath to control his temper so he could apologize again to Liz's employee, then he drove to his office. He was done with pussyfooting around. Now, she'd deal with him on his terms.
He kept the five o'clock space on his calendar open assuming she and her employees met back at her office for some sort of debriefing at the end of the work week. At the very least, to get their weekly paychecks. Ava gave him the business address she'd gotten for Happy Maids and he jumped into his black Porsche.
With traffic, the drive took forty minutes, not the twenty he'd planned on. By the time he arrived at the office building housing Happy Maids, he saw a line of women in yellow aprons exiting. He quickly found a parking place for his car, but even before he could shut off his engine, Liz whizzed by him in an ugly green car.
Yanking on the Porsche's gearshift, he roared out of the parking space. He wasn't entirely sure it was a good idea to follow Liz home. She might take that as an invasion of privacy, but right at this moment, with the
memory of her refusal to eat his waffles ringing in his head, and his embarrassment when he realized she'd given the job of cleaning his house to one of her employees adding fuel to the fire, he didn't give a damn.
He wanted to get this off his conscience and all he needed were ten minutes. But she wouldn't even give him ten minutes. So he'd have to take them. He wasn't sure how he'd explain his presence at her door, but he suddenly realized he had the perfect topic of conversation. He could calmly, kindly, ask her why she'd left their marriage without a word. Three years had gone by. The subject wasn't touchy anymore. At least not for him. He knew why she'd left. He'd been a lousy husband. This should be something she'd want to discuss. To get off her chest.