Authors: Susan Meier
Surprised, Billy looked over.
“But your mom wants you here and every once in a while a man has to suck it up and do what his mom wants.” Technically, he and Billy were in the same boat. He was in this room, with this angry boy, because he hadn't been able to resist the pleading in Liz's eyes. And that troubled him. He was falling for her again. Only this time it was different. This time he had nothing to prove professionally. No reason to back away. No way to erect walls that would allow him to be in a relationship and still protect his heart. She'd broken it once. She could do it again.
“If you'd kept your mouth shut I could have gotten out of this.”
“How? By being a brat? That's a skill that'll really help you in the real world.”
“I don't care about the real world.”
Cain snorted. “No kidding.” He slid his tape measure from his tool belt and walked to the wall. Holding the end of the tape against the wall, he waved the tape measure's silver container at Billy. “Take this to the other end of the wall.”
Billy sighed, but took the tape box and did as Cain requested.
“What's the length?”
“Exactly ten feet?”
“I don't know.”
Exasperated, but not about to let Billy know that and give him leverage to be a pain all day, Cain said, “Okay. Let's try this again. You hold this end against the wall. I'll get the number.”
Without a word, Billy walked the tape back to Cain and they switched places.
He measured the length, told Billy to let go of his end and the tape snapped back into the silver container. He reached for one of the long pieces of trim he'd purchased the day before. It bowed when he lifted it and he motioned with his chin for Billy to grab the other end. “Get that, will you?”
Billy made a face, but picked up the wood.
Cain carried it to the miter box. The tools he had in his truck were from nearly ten years before. Though they weren't the latest technology they still worked. And maybe teaching this kid a little something today might be the best way to get his mind off Liz. About the fact that he didn't just want her, he was doing crazy things for her. About the fact that if he didn't watch himself, he'd be in so far that he'd be vulnerable again.
“You know, eventually you'll have to go to somebody for a job. You're not going to get through school on your good looks.”
Adjusting the wood in the box, Cain made his end cuts. He gestured for Billy to help him take the piece of trim to the wall again. He snapped it into place and secured it with a few shots from a nail gun.
“I was thinking maybe I'd try the bartending thing like you did.”
Surprised, Cain glanced over. He cautiously said, “Bartending is good when classes are in session and working nights fits into your schedule. But summers
were when I made my tuition. To earn that much money, you have to have a job that pays. Construction pays.”
Billy opened his mouth to say something, but snapped it shut. Cain unexpectedly itched to encourage him to talk, but he stopped himself. If the kid wanted to talk, he'd talk. Cain had no intention of overstepping his boundaries. He knew that Liz had set Billy up with him to be a good example, but he wasn't a therapist. Hell, he wasn't even much of a talker. He couldn't believe this kid had gotten as much out of him as he had.
“My dad wasâisâin construction.”
“Ah.” No wonder Liz thought this would be such a wonderful arrangement.
“Look, kid, you don't have to be like your dad. You can be anybody, anything, you want.” He glanced around the room. “Doing stuff like this,” he said, bringing his words down to Billy's level, “gives you a way to test what you're good at while you figure out who you are.” He paused then casually said, “You mentioned that you wanted to go to med school.”
“It's a pipe dream. No way I'll swing that.”
“Not with that attitude.”
Billy snorted. “My mom
“Hey, I made my own way. You can, too.” Motioning for Billy to pick up the next board, he casually eased them back into conversation. “Besides, it's a good life lesson. The construction jobs I took to pay for tuition pointed me in the direction of what I wanted to do with my life.”
Seeing that Billy was really listening, Cain felt edgy. It would be so easy to steer this kid wrong. He wasn't a people person. He didn't know anything about being
raised by an abusive father. There were a million different ways he could make a mistake.
“I think I want to be a doctor, but I'm not sure.”
“You'll work that out.” He motioned for Billy to grab the tape measure again. “Everything doesn't have to be figured out in one day. Take your time. Give yourself a break. Don't think you have to make all your decisions right now.”
Oddly, his advice to Billy also relaxed him about Liz. Every decision didn't have to be made in a day. That's what had screwed them up in the first place. They jumped from seat mates in a plane to dating to sleeping together in a matter of days. Melting and doing her bidding just because she turned her pretty green eyes on him was as bad as working to seduce her the first day he'd met her.
Somehow he had to get back to behaving normally around his wife.
Maybe the first step to doing that would be to remember falling victim to their sexual attraction hadn't done anything except toss them into an unhappy marriage.
Just outside the door, Liz leaned against the wall and breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Two minutes after she suggested Billy help Cain she remembered they'd be using power toolsâpotential weaponsâand she nearly panicked. But it appeared as if Billy and Cain had found a way to get along.
She and Amanda began painting the dining room but at eleven-thirty, they stopped to prepare lunch. At twelve they called Cain and Billy to the kitchen table and to her surprise they were chatting about a big proj
ect Cain's company had bid on when they walked to the sink to wash their hands.
They came to the table talking about how Cain's job is part math, part hand-holding and part diplomacy and didn't stop except to grab a bite of sandwich between sentences.
Liz smiled at Cain, working to keep their “friendship” going and determined not to worry about her secret until the time to tell him materialized, but Cain quickly glanced away, as if embarrassed.
When they'd finished eating, Billy and Cain went back to their work and Liz and Amanda cleaned the kitchen then resumed painting.
At five, Liz's muscles were pleasantly sore. She did manual labor for a living, but the muscles required for painting were different than those required for washing windows, vacuuming and dusting. Amanda planned to take her kids out to dinner so Cain and Liz had decided to leave to give them time to clean up before going out.
Still, as tired and sore as she was, she couldn't let Cain go without telling him she was proud of him. Billy needed him and he had cracked some barriers that Amanda had admitted she couldn't crack. After his wary expression when he glanced at her at lunch, she had to tell him how much he was needed, how good a job he was doing.
Leaning against the bed of his truck, waiting as he said goodbye to Amanda and Billy, she smiled as he approached.
“I'm not sure if you're embarrassed because you didn't want to help Billy or embarrassed that you did such a good job.”
He tossed a saw into the toolbox in the bed of his truck. “He's a good kid.”
“Of course he is. He just spent the first sixteen years of his life with a man who gave him a very bad impression of what a man's supposed to do. You were a good example today.”
“Don't toss my hat in the ring for sainthood.”
“I'm serious. If Billy had been a truly angry, truly rebellious teen, I would have been so far out of my league I could have done some real damage.”
She sobered. He had a very good point. “I know.”
He made a move to open his truck door and Liz stepped away. “I'm sorry.”
Climbing into the truck, he shook his head. “No need to apologize. Let's just be glad it worked out.”
She nodded. He started his truck and backed out of the driveway.
Liz stared after him. She'd expected him to either be angry that she'd set him up or to preen with pride. Instead, he'd sort of acted normally.
She folded her arms across her chest and watched his truck chug out of the neighborhood and an unexpected question tiptoed into her consciousness. Was acting normally his way of showing her they could be friendsâ¦ Or his way of easing himself back into her life?
After all, he didn't have to be here, repairing Amanda's house. He could have refused when Ayleen asked him.
He also hadn't needed to befriend Billy. Yet, he'd responded to her silent plea and then did a bang-up job.
He also didn't have to interact with her. She was only here as a chaperone of sorts. Now that the work was going smoothly, he could ignore her.
So what was he doing?
Liz Harper speaking.”
“Good morning, Ms. Harper. It's Ava from Cain Corporation. Mr. Nestor asked me to call.”
Liz's heart did a somersault in her chest. Something was wrong. There was no reason for Cain to ask Ava to call except to reprimand her or fire her. Or maybe he'd finally found a full-time maid? It wasn't that she begrudged him help, but with Rita working now, bringing her staff up to seven, she needed every assignment she had and more.
“He's having some friends for a small dinner tonightâ”
Liz's heart tumbled again and she squeezed her eyes shut. She wasn't fired. He was inviting her to a party! Oh God! He
trying to ease her back into his life.
Knowing Cain was very good at the grill, Liz wasn't surprised. But she still didn't want to go to a party at his house. Not when she was just about certain he was trying to get them back together.
“So he won't have a caterer to clean up. He's going
to need you to send someone tonight after the party to do that. He'll pay extra, of course.”
Liz fell into her office chair, her cheeks flaming. So much for being invited to his party. He wanted her to
. She was his maid. Not a friend. Not a potential lover or dateâ¦or even an ex-wife. She was an employee.
He wasn't trying to ease her into his life. He wasn't even trying to show her they could be friends. He wasn't thinking that hard about it because in his mind there was no longer a question.
He didn't want her.
She swallowed again, easing the lump in her throat so she could speak. That was, after all, what she wanted.
“We'll be happy to clean up after the party.”
“You'll only need one person.”
No longer upset about the call itself, Liz noticed the pinched, tight tone of Ava's voice.
“It's a small party. Mr. Nestor and the partners of his new venture are gathering to have dinner before they sign a contract. He believes everyone will be gone by nine. Let me suggest you arrive around a quarter after nine.”
The first time Liz had spoken with Ava, she'd been light, friendly, eager to get some housecleaning help for her boss. Today's stiff voice and formal tone puzzled Liz.
“A quarter after nine is fine.”
She hung up the phone confused. Could Cain have told his assistant that Liz was his ex-wife? But why would he? What difference would it make? He never shared personal information with employees. Why start now?
Placing her fingers on her computer keyboard to begin inputting her workers' hours on a spreadsheet, she frowned. Even if he had told Ava Liz was his ex-wife, why would that upset his assistant?
And was that why she hadn't received any referrals from Ava?
She'd expected at least one person to call and say they'd been referred. That was how it worked in Liz's business. Maids had to be trusted. A word-of-mouth recommendation worked better than cold advertising. Yet, she'd gotten no recommendation from Cain.
She shook her head, dislodging those thoughts and getting her mind back on work. She didn't want to waste this precious time she had to do her paperwork fuming and speculating. With Rita working, Liz could now spend afternoons in the office and she basked in having evenings off.
She frowned again. She wouldn't have tonight off. She couldn't ask one of her employees to work on such short notice; all of them had children. Evening work meant extra child-care expense. Besides, Cain's house was back to being her assignment. After he'd been angry that she'd sent someone else after the waffle debacle, she'd taken the job back herself.
She sighed. She'd have to go to his house tonight.
But maybe that was good?
If nothing else, she had her perspective back. They were divorced, not trying to reconcile, and she had something to tell him. Alone in his house tonight, they could be honest with each other.
A mixture of fear and relief poured through her. Though telling him about the miscarriage would be difficult, it had to be done. He deserved to know.
She finished her paperwork around five and raced home to shower and change to have dinner with Ellie. She didn't mention that she had to work that nightâ
Or the odd tone in Ava's voiceâ
Or her realization that they hadn't gotten
referral from Cainâ
Or that this might be the night she told Cain the secret she'd kept from him.
All of that would put Ellie on edge. Or cause her to make one of her powerful wishes. Instead, Liz listened to Ellie chatter about the Happy Maids employees. From the sparkle in Ellie's amber eyes it was clear she enjoyed being everyone's supervisor. Not in a lord-it-over-her-friends way. But in almost a motherly way. Which made Liz laugh and actually took her mind off Cain. Ellie was twenty-two. Most of the women she now supervised were in their thirties or forties, some even in their fifties. Yet Ellie clucked over them like a mother hen. It was endearing.
Because they talked about work most of the meal, Liz paid for dinner, calling it a business expense, and parted company with Ellie on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. When she slid behind the steering wheel of her car and saw the clock on the dashboard her mouth fell open. It was nearly nine. No time to go home and change into a Happy Maids uniform.
She glanced down at her simple tank top and jeans. This would do. No matter how messy his house, she couldn't damage a tank top and jeans.
Worry over being late blanked out all of her other concerns about this job until she pulled into Cain's empty driveway. Ava had been correct. Cain's guests hadn't lingered. But suddenly she didn't want to see him. She really wasn't ready with the “right words” to tell them about their baby. She wasn't in the mood to “play” friends, either, or to fight their attraction. Their
marriage might be over, but the attraction hadn't gone. And that's what made their situation so difficult.
If they weren't so attracted to each other there would be no question that their relationship was over and neither of them wanted to reopen it. But because of their damned unpredictable attraction, she had to worry about how
would react around him. Not that she wanted to sleep with him, but he'd seduced her before. And they were about to spend hours alone. If she was lucky, Cain would already be in the shower.
She swallowed. Best not to think about the shower.
But as she stepped out of her car into the muggy night, she realized it was much better to think of him being away from her, upstairs in his room, ignoring her as she cleaned, rather than close enough to touch, close enough to tempt, close enough to be tempted.
Cain watched her get out of her car and start up the driveway and opened the front door for her. “Come in this way.”
She stepped into the echoing foyer with a tight, professional smile.
She was wary of him. Well, good. He was wary of her, of what was happening between them. It was bad enough to be attracted to someone he couldn't have. Now he was melting around her, doing her bidding when she looked at him with her big green eyes. He'd already decided the cure for his behavior around her was to treat her like an ex-wife. But he knew so little about herâexcept what he knew from their marriageâthat he wasn't quite sure how to do that, either.
When he'd finally figured out they needed to get
to know each other as the people they were now, he'd had Ava call with the request that Liz clean up after his dinner party. Maybe a little time spent alone would give them a chance to interact and she'd tell him enough about herself that he'd see her as a new person, or at least see her in a different light so he'd stop seeing the woman he'd loved every time he looked at her.
“Most of the mess is in the kitchen,” he said, motioning for her to walk ahead of him. He didn't realize until she was already in front of him that that provided him with a terrific view of her backside and he nearly groaned, watching her jean-clad hips sway as she walked. This was why the part of him that wanted her back kept surfacing, taking control. Tonight the businessman had to wrestle control away.
“And the dining room.” He said that as they entered his formal dining room and the cluttered table greeted them.
“I thought you were eating outside?”
“My bragging might have forced me to prove myself to the partners by being the chef for the steaks, but it was a formal meeting.”
“Okay.” She still wouldn't meet his gaze. “This isn't a big deal. You go ahead to your office or wherever. I can handle it. I've been here enough that I know where to put everything.”
He shook his head. If they were going to be around each other for the next few weeks, they had to get to know each other as new people. Otherwise, they'd always relate to each other as the people they knew from their doomed marriage.
“It's late. If you do this alone, it could take hours. I'll help so you can be out of here before midnight.”
The expression on her face clearly said she wanted to argue, but in the end, she turned and walked to the far side of the table, away from him. “Suit yourself.”
She began stacking plates and gathering silverware at the head of the table. Cain did the same at the opposite end.
Though she hadn't argued with his decision to help her, she made it clear that she wasn't in the mood to talk. They worked in silence save for the clink and clatter of silverware and plates then he realized something amazing. She might be wary of him, but she wasn't afraid of his fancy silverware anymore. Wasn't afraid of chipping the china or breaking the crystal as she had been when they were married.
Funny that she had to leave him, become a maid, to grow accustomed to his things, his lifestyle.
“It seems weird to see how comfortable you are with the china.”
She peeked up at him. “Until you said that, I'd forgotten how
I had been around expensive things.” She shrugged. “I was always afraid I'd break them. Now I can twirl them in the air and catch them behind my back with one hand.”
He laughed, hoping to lighten the mood. “A demonstration's not really necessary.”
She picked up a stack of dishes and headed for the kitchen. He grabbed some of the empty wineglasses and followed her. If discussing his china was what it took to get her comfortable enough to open up, then he wasn't letting this conversation die. “I never did understand why you were so afraid.”
“I'd never been around nice things.”
“Really?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Liz, your
job took you all over the place. You yourself told me that you had to wine and dine clients.”
“In restaurants.” She slid the glasses he handed her into the dishwasher. “It's one thing to go to a restaurant where somebody serves you and quite another to be the one in charge.”
“You wouldn't hesitate now.”
“No. I wouldn't. I love crystal and china and fancy silver.”
The way he was watching her made Liz self-conscious, so embarrassed by her past that she felt the need to brag a little.
“I'm actually the person in charge of A Friend Indeed's annual fund-raiser.” Her attention on placing dishes in the dishwasher, she added, “When we were married, I couldn't plan a simple Christmas party, now I'm in charge of a huge ball.”
“There's a ball?”
Too late she realized her mistake. Though she wanted him to know about her accomplishments, she wasn't sure she wanted him at the ball, watching her, comparing her to the past. As coordinator for the event, she'd be nervous enough without him being there.
“It's no big deal,” she said, brushing it off as insignificant. “Just Ayleen's way of getting her rich friends together to thank them for the donations she'll wheedle out of them before the end of the evening.”
She straightened away from the dishwasher and headed for the dining room and the rest of the dirty dishes.
He followed her. “I know some people who could also contribute.” He stopped in front of the table she
was clearing and caught her gaze. “Can I get a couple of invitations to this ball or is it closed?”
Liz stifled a groan, as his dark eyes held hers. There was no way out of this.
“As someone working for the group, you're automatically invited. You won't get an invitation. Ayleen will simply expect you to be there.”
But he would get invitations to Joni's barbecue and Matt's Christmas party. As long as he volunteered for A Friend Indeed, he'd be connected to her. She had to get beyond her fear that he would be watching her, evaluating her, remembering how she used to be.
The room became silent except for the clang of utensils as Liz gathered them. Cain joined in the gathering again. He didn't say anything, until they returned to the kitchen.
“Are you going to be uncomfortable having me there?”
She busied herself with the dishwasher to cover the fact that she winced. “No.”
“Really? Because you seem a little standoffish. Weird. As if you're not happy that I want to go.”
Because her back was to him, she squeezed her eyes shut. Memories of similar functions they'd attended during their marriage came tumbling back. Their compatibility in bed was only equaled by how incompatible they'd been at his events. A Friend Indeed's ball would be the first time he'd see her in his world since their divorce. She'd failed miserably when she was his wife. Now he'd see her in a gown, hosting the kind of event she'd refused to host for him.
making you nervous.” He paused, probably waiting for her to deny that. When she didn't he said, “Why?”
She desperately wanted to lie. To pretend nothing was wrong. But that was what had gotten her into trouble with him the first time around. She hadn't told him the truth about herself. She let him believe she was something she wasn't.