Amanda hesitated before picking up the Emmy. But starting today, her life would be intertwined with Grady Brunswick’s, so what was the harm? Besides, if he didn’t want people touching the thing, he should lock it up. After all, her clients loved to see her grand prix jumping trophies. What did he expect with a freaking Emmy?
She held the golden lady while standing in a round room in the actor’s gargantuan log home in Aspen. The room interrupted a hallway—on a blueprint it would strongly resemble a chubby piglet being swallowed by a python. Curving blond-wood walls cradled glass shelves that held glittering trophies. Late-morning May sun blasted the room through a skylight. The air smelled vaguely of Windex.
Amanda hadn’t expected the thing to be so heavy. She ran a forefinger over letters engraved on cool metal and wondered if an Olympic medal would shine like this, if the gold would feel like this. She hoped to find out someday.
“Don’t tell me I missed the speech!”
Grady Brunswick’s familiar, sonorous, decidedly masculine voice was behind her. The mere sound of it made women across the globe collectively tingle, and she was hearing it firsthand, not in surround sound at a multiplex.
She whirled and almost dropped the figure. Eyes wide, mouth open, she was paralyzed and mute.
The in-person Grady Brunswick was both taller and better looking than the movie Grady Brunswick. And the movie Grady Brunswick was extraordinarily good-looking. He leaned his lanky six-two frame against the doorjamb—arms crossed, relaxed as anything—and looked casually elegant in a light-blue shirt and jeans. The same sunbeam that lit the trophies gleamed on his thick, dark-brown hair. Did he pay it to shine on him? There was no hint of the alcoholic, cocaine-snorting, thirty-five-year-old womanizer the tabloids loved.
He continued, looking amused. “Because usually people thank the academy and say the cast was like family. Which was true on that show”—he nodded toward the Emmy—“if by family you mean the Mansons.” And he grinned, causing a shimmer of warmth in her belly.
Just then, an eleven-year-old girl with scrambling, coltish legs, a dark ponytail, and squeaking sneakers burst into the room. She aimed an absurdly large water gun at Amanda, grinned . . . and fired.
A fat rope of icy water slammed into Amanda’s breastbone and drenched her face, hair, arms, and shirt.
With a gasp, she dropped the statuette.
On her foot.
Through a massive act of self-discipline, she kept quiet. The statuette did not. As the base struck the gleaming wood floor, the surprisingly loud thud reverberated through the room.
Amanda watched as the award bounced into a crazy triple backflip. The miniature woman released the atom she had been holding aloft for God only knew how long. The atom celebrated its freedom by rolling in slow motion across the room, clunking along the wood floor, stopping only when it met Grady Brunswick’s expensively loafered foot. He looked at it with mild interest.
Amanda felt her mouth gape open and shut, not unlike a trout’s.
She had broken Grady Brunswick’s Emmy.
The girl, who Amanda surmised must be his oldest daughter, stared at her.
“Wow,” the girl said. “You’re in deep shit.”
Amanda’s voice sprang into action. “Me? You shouldn’t have been—” Wow. She was thirty-two, but had just lowered herself to the level of a sixth grader, and in front of her new movie-star boss.
Grady said, “Solstice. Watch the language.”
“Tell Jacqueline what happened so she can have it cleaned up.”
Solstice shot her father a look, hissed dismissively, then stomped across the small round room and down the hallway opposite Grady.
“At least I didn’t bust your stupid Emmy!” she called.
Adrenaline whooshed through Amanda and made her forget that her foot felt like the business end of a tiki torch. Where was the reprimand? If she had a daughter who had soaked a total stranger and then said something rude, Amanda would’ve come down like the Old Testament. Obviously Grady Brunswick was a celebrity daddy who thought his child shouldn’t be disciplined.
Great. Three months of this. Surely she could handle the darling for three lousy months. For now, though, she’d better make amends to her new boss, and quickly.
Then the pain roared back, hip-checking those thoughts out of her head and making her eyes water, but the movie star would never know because her face was dripping wet. She winced and squared her shoulders. “I’m sorry about the Emmy. I’ll pay for it. You can take it out of my salary.”
The action hero wrinkled his brow. “Don’t worry about it—I always suspected it was defective anyway. And you work for me? Did my manager hire you to align my cufflinks? Warm my socks? Polish my M&Ms?”
Amanda was having trouble remembering he was an indulgent, chronically entitled, obnoxious rich person because his charm had stepped in.
She almost smiled, but was too surprised. “I’m your new riding instructor.”
“Ah.” He looked at her, tilted his head, and narrowed his eyes. “Why don’t I find you a towel?” His voice was low and warm. Like heated molasses.
She shook her head. Droplets of water flew from her rapidly—and probably unattractively—curling brown hair.
“No! I’m fine. It was nothing.”
“No offense, but you look like . . . well . . . a muskrat. Sorry about that. She must’ve thought you were her sister.”
“The eight-year-old? Is she an Amazon?” Probably not the best thing to say, but hadn’t he just called her a muskrat?
He smiled, and even through the pain Amanda could see why the camera loved him. His gaze traveled down her body to her sandaled foot, and his eyebrows slammed together.
“You dropped that thing on your foot?”
“It’s seven pounds! It’s like dropping a canned ham!”
“I’m fine, really.” She looked at her foot and saw that a lump the size and color of a cherry tomato had formed on her instep, along with a trickle of blood where the atom-toting woman had stabbed her. She bent to get the trophy.
“No need,” he said, and she straightened. “Here.” He took her elbow, nudging the gold atom so it rolled with a quiet rumble and clunked into the wall. “Let’s find you a seat. Besides,” he said as he looked around, “if Solstice comes back, we’re sitting ducks.”
Grady Brunswick was touching her elbow! Don’t be starstruck don’t be starstruck don’t be starstruck. She tried not to limp, but her foot was burning. Mmm, he smelled like clean laundry.
Her heel skidded on the wet floor and her upper arm pressed into his solid, warm side.
“Easy,” he said.
She could balance on two little stirrups when jumping a hot horse over a five-foot fence, but walking in a movie star’s mansion, she wobbled.
He led her to a small couch in a nearby guest bedroom.
“Put your foot up.” She did, holding her breath to ease the pain. “I’ll get Jacqueline.” He pronounced his assistant’s name in perfect French, then looked at Amanda. “I’m Grady, by the way.” He offered his hand. His grip was warm and solid. He was looking at her. Expectantly. “And you are?”
“Mortified. But my name’s Amanda Vogel.”
He smiled, tilted his head back for an instant and laughed. His eyes crinkled when he laughed. “Nice to meet you, Amanda Vogel. Be right back.” He took a second to dazzle her with a smile. Then long strides carried him out of sight.
Oh, God. He was going to fire her before she even started. She just had to pick up his Emmy and break it. This was the second-worst day of her life. “I can’t get fired,” she said to herself. “I can’t lose this job.” She wondered how much a new Emmy cost and where the hell she could find one. Then she thought of her minuscule checking-account balance and her foot seemed to throb harder. Apparently it understood economics.
Minutes later Grady returned with a bath towel, a glass of water, two ibuprofen tablets, a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a dish towel, an antiseptic pad in foil packaging, a Band-Aid, and a person Amanda remembered was Jacqueline Heinrich.
A thoroughbred of a woman, Jacqueline had an aristocratic face with a smooth forehead that was currently furrowed. Her flawless skin was the color of coffee with cream, and her lilting French accent and honey-smooth voice both commanded attention and put listeners at ease. Amanda had liked and respected her during the initial interview several weeks ago, and had been on her best behavior in Jacqueline’s company since arriving at the estate fifteen minutes earlier.
Noting the pain-relieving accoutrements, Amanda said, “That’s not necessary. Really. I’m fine.”
“We imported you from Florida,” he said. “You’re too valuable to be limping around the place. Here.” He handed her the antiseptic pad, and she swabbed her wound. He gave her the Band-Aid, which she smoothed on. She took the pills and drank the entire glass of water. He gently draped the bag of frozen peas over her instep.
“Thank you.” Amanda squeezed water from her hair with the towel. “And I’m so sorry. I don’t usually—”
“My daughter shouldn’t have power-washed you.”
“Not that water gun in the house again!” Jacqueline said.
“She’s a good shot,” Amanda said, and blotted her face and arms.
Grady raised his eyebrows and nodded slightly. “Should be. She trained at Quantico.”
Amanda couldn’t help but smile.
“You got lost on your way from the bathroom?” Jacqueline asked Amanda.
Grady turned to Amanda. “Lots of people get lost here. There are probably a few still wandering around from last summer.”
“But Grady, that Emmy was for Brennan and Blake—,” Jacqueline started.
“Jacqueline, don’t worry about it. It’s insured for damage caused by Floridian riding instructors startled by water guns.” He smiled at Amanda and a few endorphins danced in her brain.
“Very well,” Jacqueline said, in a tone that said she was, indeed, going to worry about it, and Amanda would, too, if she had any sense.
Grady glanced at a watch worth as much as first prize in a major jumping competition. “I have a call. See you later,” he said to Jacqueline. He nodded at Amanda. “Welcome to Aspen Creek. See you ’round . . . Mortified.” He grinned, winked, and left.
Amanda felt like she was in the principal’s office, even though the principal was close to her age. Jacqueline regarded her frozen-vegetable-blanketed foot. “I suppose we can talk here for a time until your foot feels better. Now then, you will report to me. You are not to bother Mr. Brunswick—he chose Aspen because there are many celebrities here and the town is accustomed to them. If you have questions, you are to ask me. Understood?”
“Your contract begins today and ends Labor Day. I will gather the tax forms and bring them here. Do not get up.” Jacqueline rose. “And, please, be careful. That Emmy was his first major award.” Amanda let out a long sigh as she watched Jacqueline leave.
Ten minutes later, paperwork completed, Jacqueline escorted Amanda through the house. Carrying her damp dishtowel and bag of peas, Amanda limped through a maze of hallways and onto a vast patio of native red stone. She took in a pool, hot tub, waterfall, fire pit, outdoor kitchen, large dining table, and sturdy, expensive wood furniture with fat cushions arranged in several conversation clusters. Impressive, yes, but nothing compared to the view of the Elk Mountains in the distance.
Jacqueline spoke. “The property encompasses approximately one thousand acres. You are free to go anywhere on the estate. The house is off limits unless you are invited or escorted. Understood?”
“Absolutely,” Amanda said, trying to sound reliable. Like someone who wouldn’t drop Emmy awards. And would get daily invitations to the mansion for the rest of the summer.
While Amanda hobbled through the grand tour, Grady took a call with his publicists about the upcoming release of his latest film, Deadly Horizon, and absently doodled “muskrat” on an envelope. What had possessed him to call her a muskrat? Wasn’t he Mr. Charm? Then he leaned back in the ergonomic chair at his large antique desk, tossing and catching a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth.
He had said he wanted to be more “hands on” this summer. He wanted to conference in on meetings. Ha! He listened as his “people”—he hated that term—debated the merits of granting an interview to Rolling Stone. He hated this. He wanted to act and only act, to make movies, but this summer was going to not only be about Deadly Horizon, but would be his Summer of Broadening Horizons. He was going to learn other aspects of the business. He was going to become well-rounded and well-versed. He was going to be more like Tom Hanks or Robert Redford.
He was also going to spend time with his daughters, even though the prospect terrified him. Why did Annie have to die and leave him with two girls? When he really thought about it—and he tried not to—he loved his daughters, but he didn’t always like them. But he was going to take care of that this summer.
And, he hoped, his lawyers would soon take care of the paternity suit he’d been fighting. He knew he was in the clear, and a DNA test would prove it, but that hadn’t stopped the woman from dragging him through expensive legal hoops. She was obviously a career celebrity trapper, since this was her third paternity suit aimed at a famous man. It was another reason he’d come to Aspen Creek, to escape both the publicity and the woman, who’d started showing up at Hollywood restaurants he frequented or at red-carpet events he had to attend.
Coming here felt like having a film green-lighted at every step. He’d always wanted a mountain home, and his real estate agent thought Aspen would be perfect for an actor from the California suburbs who didn’t want to be too far from a good restaurant, but didn’t want to fight paparazzi or starstruck locals at every turn. The house had popped up quickly, and he’d loved it the moment he’d seen it. He’d thrilled the girls when he’d told them he’d build a barn and buy horses. This Brunswick Family Summer of Love was meant to be.
In the meantime, he had this riding instructor to consider. She fascinated him. She had caught him off guard, and that’s why he had called her a muskrat. Yes, that was it, or at least what he was going to tell himself. She’d been so flustered, he’d wanted to mitigate the tension by making her laugh, but instead had insulted her. He was good at putting people at ease—what had happened?
She was pretty; that’s what had happened. Beautiful, actually. And earnest. And nervous. And his manners-averse daughter had behaved badly and drenched the poor thing. He’d had an urge to wrap the woman in a towel and hold her, which astounded him. Women came on to him, not the other way around. Even weirder, the feeling wasn’t sexual—although his hormones had certainly taken note when he’d seen her. He wanted to take care of this woman who had been injured in his home because of his poorly raised daughter.
And something about the riding instructor’s face was unusual, but what?
“Aha!” he said, and whoever was talking stopped.
“What is it, Grady?”
“Nothing.” The conversation continued.
But he had figured it out—no makeup. Unusual for women in his circle, but Amanda easily got away with it, and it went with her outdoorsy job. She had this smooth skin, and there was something about her eyes. And before she knew he was in the doorway, he’d had a chance to view her from behind. A nicely rounded bottom. Trim little waist. Tanned, toned arms. Long wavy hair that he wanted to wind his fingers through while he kissed her. Where had that come from?
He shook his head to erase the unwelcome thoughts. But if she taught riding as well as she looked, he had two lucky little girls on his hands.
And he had three months to make up for “muskrat.” Besides, if she was like the other women on Jacqueline’s staff, he’d see her again, and often. She’d make excuses to pass by his office and peer in while he was reading scripts, stroll through the kitchen while he ate breakfast, or even—as one bold au pair had done—march to the pool where he was doing laps, drop her towel, and jump in naked.
But he sensed she wasn’t at all like those women. She was another creature entirely.
Amanda and Jacqueline took the stone path to the paved driveway, a strip of colorful flowers lining both sides of the drive. The house and the scenery wowed Amanda, as did the dry air, scented with pine, soil, and green plants. Though the sun was strong, unlike Florida’s, Aspen air wasn’t chewable with humidity.
Jacqueline looked at the blossoms fondly. “These are mine.”
“They’re beautiful.” Blooms, mostly petunias, filled every inch of soil. “I don’t garden, but I know it’s a lot of work.”
“Yes, but I love it. Please see that the horses stay out of my flower beds.”
Jacqueline’s gaze shifted to a black SUV near the house. A blond pixie of seven or eight stood in front of the car and stared at the hood. “This cannot be good,” Jacqueline said, and strode toward the girl. Amanda limped after Jacqueline as fast as she could. As far as she could tell, at least this Brunswick wasn’t armed.
“Wave, what do you think you are doing?”
“Wave! You are to clean this up immediately.”
Amanda finally arrived at the SUV, a BMW that looked new except for the neon-yellow squiggles of acrylic paint sitting on the hood, baking into permanent—though terribly designed—spoilers.
“You are to clean this up immediately,” Jacqueline repeated.
“Screw you,” Wave said.
Amanda felt her mouth gape. If she didn’t have to teach these kids, she would have been fascinated by their language. Pure sewer. She wondered if they smoked cigars and drank tequila in their off-hours, when they weren’t blasting strangers with water guns or damaging expensive vehicles.
“You’re not the boss of me when my daddy’s home.”
“We shall see about that, young lady. Say hello to Miss Vogel, your new riding instructor.”
Amanda smiled and extended her hand. “Hi, Wave. Nice to meet you.”
The slight girl regarded her with her father’s blue eyes from under a thicket of blond lashes. “I hate horses! They’re stupid! And you’re ugly!”
What a charmer. “Then you don’t have to ride,” Amanda said mildly and dropped her hand to her side.
“You broke my daddy’s favorite reward.”
More charm. “I hope you’ll change your mind about riding.” She smiled sweetly. “I bet you’d be good at it. You have rider’s legs.”
Amanda saw a flicker of interest on the delicate, lightly freckled face. “I do?” Then the glower returned as she said, “If I wanted to, I’d be good.”
“You think so?” Amanda threw down a gauntlet.
“Inside,” Jacqueline said. “Now.”
Demon Seed Number Two stared at Jacqueline, squinted and slid her eyes to the side, picked up the paint tube, and squirted a yellow worm in a perfect arc that landed on the thigh of Amanda’s jeans.
“Score!” screeched the girl, then ran into the house, laughing.
Amanda scraped the glob as best she could with her fingers. Jacqueline turned to her. “They are not usually this bad. I believe they are—how do you call it?—acting out because you are new.” She sighed. “But I would not be telling the truth if I told you they were angels at other times. I will show you the barn. There are paper towels there. I will find some paint solvent for you.”
The log barn was set on a slight hill from the house, as though it had once been attached but had succumbed to gravity. Echoing the architecture of the mansion, it was easily one of the most stunning barns Amanda had ever seen. Bright and cheery, it had ten roomy box stalls, skylights, a large tack room, flower boxes brimming with red geraniums, and a weather vane shaped like a clapperboard used in film, a nod to the industry that had paid for every board and nail.
Stalls opened into runs, which opened to a small enclosure, which opened to a huge irrigated pasture. Standing in the wide aisle, Amanda listened to Jacqueline and breathed the smells she loved—horses, hay, droppings, and, in this barn, new wood.
Despite the aesthetics, Amanda spotted problems. The wrought-iron chandeliers would have been harmlessly superfluous if they weren’t so low—they would clobber a rearing horse. Elaborate, rustic sconces between the stalls waited to claim an eye. There was no grooming stall or wash stall—not dangerous, but inconvenient.
But the worst sin by far was the ice-slick varnished cement floor. It belonged in a Manhattan loft, not a working barn.
“This floor is terrible.”
Jacqueline looked at her sharply.
“I’m sorry,” Amanda said when she realized how she must sound during her first day. “I don’t mean to be a pain, but glazed concrete is slippery. I’m not comfortable letting the girls handle horses in here.”
“This barn was carefully designed.”
“And much of it is perfect. But the floor . . .”
They passed through the big sliding door at the far end of the barn and down the short path to the large rectangular riding ring. It had white fencing and expensive, high-tech footing. The place was a curious combination of the best and the worst, with no middle ground. Gorgeous footing in the ring, a horrific floor in the barn.
“Where are the horses?”
“In the pasture. The binder in the tack room has all the details and their pedigree papers.”
Jacqueline showed Amanda the one-bedroom apartment in the barn, atop a stairway about halfway down the aisle. It was small, but after two nights of sleeping in her truck on the drive from Ocala, it felt palatial. Plus, she liked falling asleep to the sounds of a barn and being close by if something went wrong.
Because with horses, something always went wrong.