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She opened her eyes to see her boss, Jefferson Ames, standing over her. He was wearing a pair of loose swim trunks and had a towel over his shoulders. Behind him was the ever-present Skylar. As always, she was smiling in that cold, I'm-gonna-get-you way that Cassie was too familiar with. And Skylar was letting Cassie know that when she and Jeff were married, Cassie would be fired. "Like I'd stay," she'd muttered to herself many times.
"Sorry," Cassie said, putting her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. "I was lost in thought."
He looked down at her with amusement. Everyone else beside the pool was in swim attire, but Cassie had on big, army green shorts, an oversize T-shirt, and sandals. She was lying on a chaise, every inch of her body covered with beach towels. It was as though she'd die if a drop of sunlight touched her skin. "You are a dermatologist's dream," he said. Secrets Jude Deveraux-PTR 2/8/08 9:24 AM Page 9
"I aim to please," she answered, looking past him and smiling at Skylar, who was narrowing her eyes at Cassie. Skylar had on a tiny bikini and her skin had been tanned to the color of walnuts.
Skylar stepped forward, all starved and honed five feet ten of her, her skin glistening with expensive oil. "I think Elsbeth has had enough sun for the day so I want you to take her home."
Cassie didn't lose her smile as she looked at Jeff for confirmation. They weren't married yet, so she refused to take orders from anyone but him.
Jeff 's face didn't change. If he was aware of the war between his daughter's nanny and his girlfriend, he didn't give it away. But when he turned to look at his daughter, his face nearly melted with love. Whatever other problems he had, Jeff 's love for his daughter was obvious to all. "She looks sleepy, and she's probably hungry. You know how she is. She'd stay in the water all day if she weren't dragged out."
Cassie looked out at Elsbeth in the kiddie pool. In her opinion, the five-year-old girl was the most beautiful child on the planet. She was sitting in the water wearing a suit of white eyelet, a matching hat, and most of a bottle of sunscreen. "Sure," Cassie said, throwing back one of the three towels covering her. "Will you be home for dinner tonight?"
She stood up and stretched. Cassie was several inches shorter than Skylar, but there was nothing on Cassie that wasn't real. Her mother spent many hours in a gym fighting against her natural curves, but Cassie loved hers. She'd once heard Jeff 's father call her "a 1950s blonde bombshell with dark hair." It was all Cassie could do not to giggle and let them know she'd heard.
Skylar clutched Jeff 's arm to her artificially enhanced breasts. "No, we're going out tonight. Just the two of us." She paused. "He'll have some real food for a change."
"Ah, right," Cassie said. "Home cooking isn't real food. I'll have to tell that to Thomas."
Jeff coughed to cover his laugh. Jeff 's father, Thomas, lived with him, and just weeks after Cassie took the job of being Elsbeth's nanny, he'd asked to have some of what Cassie was cooking for herself and the child. From there it had gone to Cassie preparing dinner for the three of them. At first she'd left Thomas a plate in the warming oven while she and Elsbeth went upstairs to the playroom to eat, but he'd asked them to eat with him in the breakfast nook. From there it had gone to Thomas moving them into the dining room and setting the big mahogany table with candles and silver. "No use letting these dishes sit in the cabinet," he'd said as he put out the best china for them to use. If Cassie could use any term to describe Thomas, it would be "Old World gentleman."
Jeff spent the weekends with his daughter. Even if he had to work, he took her with him. Elsbeth was a quiet child who had no interest in rowdy group activities. Cassie would fill a backpack full of art supplies and Elsbeth would hold her father's hand and go with him wherever he led. There were times when Cassie could hardly hold back the tears at the sight of the widower and the motherless child together, clinging to each other.
The weekdays were different though because Jeff worked long, hard hours. But one night he'd come home from work to get a file he'd left behind and seen the three of them sitting at the dining table eating by candlelight and he'd joined them. By the end of the week it had become a regular event that they'd eat together. Because of Elsbeth's age, and Thomas's weak heart, they ate at six thirty, but Jeff didn't seem to mind. He said it beat calling the Chinese place and eating at the drawing board in his office. Sometimes he'd go back to his office afterward, and sometimes Cassie would hear him in the big library off his bedroom. But even if he had to work, it was nice that he got to spend more time with his daughter and father.
As for Cassie, when it had started that she was cooking three meals a day for four people, part of her wanted to protest. It wasn't her job to be a nanny and a cook, but she'd said nothing. Instead, she began to study cookbooks as though she were taking a graduate degree in the subject.
The best part was that cooking and eating meals together changed the household. Thomas put his name in for one of the plots that the gated community, Hamilton Hundred, had set aside for gardens, and he'd begun raising heirloom vegetables. They had purple tomatoes and blue potatoes for dinner. He began replacing the landscaper-chosen shrubs around the house with gooseberry bushes and rosemary. He planted raspberries along the back fence, and there was a blackberry bush growing smack in the middle of the front lawn.
"You've changed us, my dear," Thomas said as Cassie saute;ed yellow squash and zucchini in a skillet.
Cassie just smiled. She felt that they had changed her more than she them. On the day she'd left her mother's house to go to college, she was as happy as a prisoner being released. The freedom at college had been wonderful, and she'd enjoyed every minute of it. It was after she graduated with what her mother called "a useless degree" in American history that the problems began. All during college she'd only had two boyfriends and she thought she was going to marry the last one. But when he'd proposed, she'd surprised both of them by saying no. With his pride irreparably wounded, he'd refused to so much as speak to her again. After Cassie graduated, she found herself a bit bewildered. For three years she'd thought that when she left school she was going to get married, have kids, and become a soccer mom, something that her mother hated but that Cassie thought would suit her.
Instead, after graduation, she found herself at loose ends, not sure where to go or what to do. Her mother had sold the house Cassie had grown up in, so the only home she had was Margaret's pristine, austere apartment on Fifth Avenue -- and most anything was preferable to that.
After a few weeks of stoically listening to her mother tell her what she should do with her life, Cassie's love of American history led her to Williamsburg to see if she could find a job there. Williamsburg, with its gorgeous eighteenth-century buildings, seemed to call to her.
For two years Cassie worked in various jobs about town. She answered telephones for lawyers, and for a while became a gofer for a famous photographer. Then she got a job as an assistant in a preschool. "I must say that you are wildly overqualified," the woman who ran the school said, "but we'd be glad to have you."
It was at the school that Cassie met Elsbeth and her father, and when the nanny had been fired -- for forgetting to pick up her charge for the third time -- Cassie took the job. That had been a year ago. Since then, she'd managed to form a family out of the widower, his lovely young daughter, and his ailing father, and she'd been happier than she ever had been.
But things had changed three months ago when Jeff announced that he'd "met someone." Thomas, Cassie, and Elsbeth had looked at one another over the dining table as though to say, We aren't "someone"?
The tall, very thin, magnificently self-assured Skylar Beaumont had entered their lives, and nothing had been the same since. Skylar was the friend of the husband of a woman Cassie had met at the club at Hamilton Hundred, a woman Cassie had never liked. From the first day, Skylar entered the quiet, peaceful house as though she owned it. Laughing, she'd told Jeff how she planned to redecorate every inch of the place.
Thomas and Cassie had stood there in stunned silence. Jeff 's beloved late wife, Lillian, had decorated the house, and therefore it was sacrosanct. Cassie knew better than to so much as move a flower vase because Lillian had put the vase there and that's where it would stay.
But when this woman came into their comfortable lives and began talking of changing everything, Jeff had just stood there smiling.
Cassie hated the woman. She told herself she had no right to hate her, that she probably loved Jeff, but she still hated her. On her third visit to the house, Skylar had handed Cassie her expensive silk jacket and asked her to "give it a little bit of a press, would you?" Cassie had smiled, taken the jacket to the laundry room, and set the hot iron on the back of it and burned a hole through it. Afterward, she'd apologized profusely and even offered to buy a replacement. She said she'd seen that very jacket at Marshalls just last week. That had sent Skylar into a rage, insisting that she'd bought the jacket at Saks, not at a discount store.
Cassie was sure she wouldn't have been as bad as she was if Thomas hadn't been standing in the doorway and covering his laughter with his hand. They had never spoken of it, but she was sure he disliked the woman as much as Cassie did.
As for Jeff, he was clueless. He kept saying that Cassie was usually so good at what she did, so he was sure that the ruined jacket was an honest mistake.
The result was that Skylar never again tried to establish her authority over Cassie, but war had been declared. If Skylar did marry Jeff, Cassie would be out of a job, out of a home, out of a family.
But worse, she'd be sent away from the man she'd loved since she was twelve years old.
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