Ms. Bravo and the Boss
Elise Bravo wanted a bath. A long, relaxing one. With lots of bubbles. She longed to shed every stitch and pile her hair up on her head. To grab a juicy paperback romance and sink into her slipper tub, the one she’d had specially installed in the big master bath of her two-bedroom apartment above her catering shop in the gorgeous old brick building she co-owned with her best friend, Tracy.
Unfortunately, Elise’s beautiful slipper tub was no more. Neither was her apartment. Her business? Gone, too. Three months ago, the historic building on Central Street in her hometown of Justice Creek, Colorado, had burned to the ground.
As for her lifelong best friend? Tracy had moved to Seattle to start a whole new life.
Now, Elise lived in a tiny rented studio apartment over Deeliteful Donuts on the less attractive end of Creekside Drive. The studio had a postage stamp of a bathroom—with a shower, no tub.
And sometimes lately, as she raced through the lunch rush at her sister Clara’s café, or manned the counter at her half-sister Jody’s flower shop, Elise could almost lose heart. She was deeply disappointed in herself.
Because it wasn’t the fire that had ruined her life. She’d been in trouble long before the idiot tenants who leased a shop on the ground floor had disabled the fire alarms and then left a hot plate turned on in the back room when they slipped out to run errands. By then, bad choices had already brought Elise to the brink of ruin. The fire had only slathered a thick helping of frosting on her own personal disaster cake.
Elise was one of four siblings. She had five half siblings. Of the nine children of Franklin Bravo, Elise was the only one who’d blown through her very generous inheritance. Shame dogged her for every one of her stupid choices in life, in love and in business. She was circling the drain and she didn’t really know what to do about it.
Except to hold her head high, work hard and keep moving forward.
After the lunch rush at the Library Café on that fateful day in June, Elise took off her waitress apron and transferred her tips to her purse. Her sister Clara waved at her as she went out the back door.
It was a warm, sunny day. Elise had walked to the café. Now, she set out on foot along Central Street headed for Jody’s shop, Bloom. It was good exercise, walking. Not to mention, it saved on gas. Walking fast, she could reach Bloom in six minutes and be right on time to give Jody a break at two o’clock.
She made it with a minute to spare. Jody, at the counter with a customer, glanced over at the sound of the bell. “There you are.”
“What? Am I late? I though we said—”
“You’re not late,” said a voice to Elise’s left. She whipped her head around in surprise as her other half sister popped out from behind a ficus tree and grabbed Elise’s arm. “We need to talk.”
“What the…?” Elise tried to jerk free. “Nell! let me go.”
But Nell, who worked in construction, had a grip like a sumo wrestler. “Come on in back.”
Elise sent Jody a pleading look as Nell dragged her toward the swinging café doors on the far side of the counter. “Jody, will you tell her to let go of—”
“Hear her out,” Jody interrupted. She was tucking a stunning arrangement of succulents and red anthuriums into one of Bloom’s trademark green-and-pink boxes. “This could be good for you.”
“This? What?” Elise huffed in frustration as Nell knocked the doors wide and dragged Elise into the back room. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”
“This way.” Nell pulled her into Jody’s office and shut the door. “Sit.”
Elise plunked her purse on Jody’s desk. “This is ridiculous.”
“Just sit down and listen.”
“Fine.” Elise dropped into the guest chair. “But Jody has errands to run and she needs me out front.”
“Don’t worry about Jody. She’ll manage without you.” Nell braced a hip against the desk and crossed her arms over her spectacular breasts.
Actually, Nell was spectacular all over. She had legs for days and long, thick auburn hair and lips like Angelina Jolie. A half sleeve of gorgeous ink accentuated her shapely left arm. Elise, on the other hand, possessed neither the style nor the courage to get a tattoo. She had dark brown hair, ordinary lips and a body that was heavier than it used to be due to some serious stress eating since the fire. Really, how could she and the gorgeous creature in front of her possibly share half of the same genes?
Elise and Nell had a difficult history. Recently, they’d healed the old wounds. But Elise still felt guilty about the way she’d treated Nell when Nell’s mother married their father. And lately, with all that had gone wrong in Elise’s life, the guilt was worse than ever. Now, she looked back on her earlier sense of entitlement and verging-on-mean-girl behavior and couldn’t help wondering if she deserved the hard knocks she kept taking.
Still. Nellie had no right to go dragging her all over the place.
Elise folded her own arms tight and hard to match her sister’s pose and demanded, “All right, I’m listening. What do you just have to talk to me about?”
Nell tossed her glorious hair. “A job, that’s what. A lot better job than busting your butt waiting tables for Clara and running the register for Jody.”
“What job?” Elise tried to stay pissed off, mostly in order not to get her hopes up. But still, she could feel it. A sudden pulse of optimism, a lifting sensation under her ribs. She used to love it when she got that feeling. Not anymore. Lately, hope only led to disappointment. She’d had way more than enough of that already, thank you very much.
Nell uncrossed her arms and hitched a long jean-clad leg up on the desk. “This is the deal. Jed Walsh is in need of another assistant.” Jed Walsh, so the story went, had grown up in a one-room cabin on a mountain not far from Justice Creek. He’d moved away right out of high school, eventually becoming the world-famous author of a series of bestselling adventure novels. Several months ago, he’d come back to town.
And yep. There it was. The sinking sensation that came when each new hope was dashed. “Of course Jed Walsh needs a new assistant. He always needs a new assistant. How many has he been through now?” Since his return to town Walsh’s inability to keep an assistant had become downright legendary.
“Don’t be negative,” her sister muttered.
“Nellie. They run away screaming. He’s that bad.”
“Let me finish. I was at Walsh’s house an hour ago switching out custom hardware and—”
“What are you doing switching out hardware?”
“Stop changing the subject.” Nell worked with their brother Garrett running Bravo Construction. They’d built Walsh’s new house.
“But switching out hardware is way below your pay grade.”
“If you must know, when Jed Walsh wants a tweak or an upgrade, I handle it. He can be annoying and I don’t want him giving our people any crap. And because I was just there at his house, I heard him fire the woman he hired a few days ago.” She leaned toward Elise. “I know you can type, Leesie. I remember you took keyboarding class back in high school and Mrs. Clemo kissed your ass because you were so good at it.”
“So what? I hate typing.”
“Yeah, maybe. But you can do it and do it well. And that’s what Jed Walsh needs. Someone to type his book while he dictates it. The man pays big bucks.”
“Come on. No one ever lasts. They all say he’s a slave driver. And just possibly borderline insane. I’ve heard the stories. He terrorizes them. Seriously, why would I last when no one else has?”
“Because it’s a lot of money.”
“Not if I run away screaming, it’s not.”
“You’re not running anywhere. You’ll be the one who lasts.”
“And you say that because…?”
“You’re motivated. And deep down, where it counts, you’re as tough as they come.”
“Thanks. But no thanks.” Elise reached for her purse.
Nell got to it first. She shoved it away to the center of the desk.
“Enough now, I mean it.” Elise rose. “Cut it out.”
“Please stop.” Nell looked straight in her eyes and spoke with heartfelt intensity. “Come on, Leesie. Give up the act. You need the money and you need it bad. Stop pretending you don’t.”
Elise realized her mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut. She’d been so sure that nobody knew the extent of her problem. She sank back into the chair and hung her head. “Just tell me. Please. Does everybody in the family know?” Silence from Nell. Elise made herself lift her head and pull her shoulders up straight. “Do they?”
Slowly, Nell nodded. “We love you and we are not blind. You’re working yourself into the ground. And if you had the money, you would have reopened Bravo Catering when the insurance paid out.” She would have, it was true. But half of that money had been Tracy’s and Tracy had finally admitted that the catering business wasn’t for her. Plus, Elise had had all those debts to pay. In the end, they'd split the insurance money and sold the lot to a merchant next door who wanted to expand. Once Elise had paid off what she owed, there wasn’t much left. Nell went on, “That’s why you need to go see Jed Walsh. Leesie, we are talking thousands a week if you can last.”
“Oh, come on. Thousands? For a secretary?”
“The woman he just fired said so. I asked her as she was stomping out the door.”
“She must have been exaggerating. If he pays thousands, someone would have stayed.”
“No. I think he’s actually that bad. And he’s evidently damn picky. Most of them he fires, so they can’t stick no matter how much they want the money he’s paying. But the good news is, he’s really desperate now. I heard he’s blown off his book deadline over and over. At some point he’s got to keep an assistant and get the damn book done.”
Elise sighed in defeat. “Be realistic. If none of the others can put up with him, what makes you think I can?”
“Because you’re a Bravo and a Bravo gets out there and gets it done.” Nell stood. “Jed Walsh is going to get the assistant he needs, which is you. And that means Jed Walsh is going to put you back in the black.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
Nell braced her hands on her shapely hips. “You know, Leesie… On second thought, you’re right. You should just give up now. We all love you and we’re all doing great financially. We can help and we will. No one’s going to hold it against you if you let your family rescue you from the consequences of your own stupid pride and bad decision-making.”
Elise rose again, slowly. She said in a low voice that sounded like a threatening growl, “No. Freaking. Way. I’ll rescue myself, just you watch me.”
A slow grin tipped the corners of Nell’s impossibly sexy lips. “That’s the spirit.” She grabbed a square of paper from the pad on the desk and bent to scribble on it. Then she took Elise’s hand and slapped the paper in it. “Here’s the address. Now get over there and show Mr. Number-One New York Times Bestselling Author that you’re the assistant he’s been looking for.”
Walsh’s new house was really something, Elise thought. Bravo Construction must be proud. Surrounded by giant pines and Douglas firs, the gorgeous, rustic, wood-and-stone home sprawled impressively on the crest of a hill.
I really, truly do not want to do this, Elise repeated to herself for the hundredth time as she parked her SUV in front of the slate walk that meandered upward toward the massive front door. Excuses scrolled through her mind: She really should at least have called first. Her typing was rusty. She hated to be shouted at and everyone said that Walsh was a yeller.
But then again, her family knew. She could no longer lie to herself that her abject failure to take care of herself and her future was her own little secret. They knew and they worried for her and if she didn’t pull herself out of this hole she was in, they would do it for her.
Uh-uh. No way. Not going to happen. She’d dug this hole and then fallen into it. One way or another, she would get herself out of it. If there was any possibility that Jed Walsh might provide the solution she’d so desperately been seeking, she needed to convince the madman to hire her.
Elise smoothed her hair, straightened her white button-down shirt and put one foot in front of the other all the way up the winding stone walk. The front porch was really something, made of rough-hewn rock and thick unfinished planks cut from various exotic-looking woods. The studded door had copper sculptures of leaves and vines attached to the windows on either side. No doorbell, just a giant cast-iron boar’s-head knocker.
Elise lifted the knocker and banged it three times against the door. The thing was loud. She could hear the sound echoing on the other side. She waited for a full count of twenty for someone to answer. When no one did, she lifted the ring through the boar’s snout to knock again.
Before she could lower it, the big door swung inward.
And there stood Jed Walsh, a giant of a man in jeans and a black T-shirt with muscles on his muscles, a scruff of beard on his rocklike jaw and a phone at his ear.
He shouted into the phone, “I don’t care about any of that, Holly. She didn’t work out and I need someone else now.” The person on the other end started talking. Walsh pulled the phone from his ear and looked Elise up and down with a way-too-observant pair of icy green eyes. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“I’m Elise Bravo and—”
“With the construction company?” he barked. “The hardware’s great and I’m happy with the copper sink. No problems.” He started to swing the door shut in her face.
Elise talked fast. “You need an assistant and I’m here for the job.”
He grunted, swung the door wide once more and spoke into the phone again. “Never mind for now.” Whoever Holly was, she was still talking as he disconnected the call. And Walsh was giving Elise another leisurely once-over, from the top of her head to the toes of her practical black shoes.
The look was way too assessing. Please. The last thing she needed right now was to have some man—any man, crazy or otherwise—looking her over. She was not at her best, all frazzled and tired, with the buttons down the front of her shirt on the verge of popping and her black pants clinging tighter than they ought to. She was an excellent cook, after all. Plus, there was the donut shop right downstairs from her cramped apartment. Food could offer great comfort when your world went up in flames.
And then again, so what if he ogled her? She hitched up her chin and ogled right back. Let him stare. She didn’t have to be skinny to type.
Eventually, he stepped back and gestured her into his cavernous foyer. Against her better judgment, she went.
“Elise, you said?”
Ms. Bravo to you, she fervently wished she had the nerve to reply. “Elise. That’s right.”
“Who sent you?”
“My half-sister Nell said she thought you might be looking for a new assistant today.”
“Nell Bravo, you mean?”
“That’s the one.”
He frowned, considering. “That was enterprising of Nell.”
Elise could easily lose patience with this guy. “Do you need a new assistant or not?”
Was that a smirk on his face? “Fair enough then, Elise.” The smirk vanished to be replaced by an expression of utter boredom. And then he said in a tone that commanded and dismissed her simultaneously, “Let’s see what you can do.”
He really did piss her off—not that that was a bad thing. Her irritation made her determined to show him he’d be an idiot not to hire her. Because Nellie was right. She was a damn fine typist. But more important, she was a Bravo and a Bravo didn’t let some big, grouchy butthead intimidate her.
“This way.” He turned on his heel and started walking.
She went where he led her, through a fabulous three-story great room, down a hall at the back to a two-story home office with a breathtaking view of the mountains and one entire floor-to-ceiling wall filled with books. The opposite wall was padded, covered in burlap, had a number of bull’s-eye targets hanging from it and was scarily studded with what appeared to be stab marks.
Okay, so maybe he played darts. But stab marks? Surely not…
“Sit here.” He pulled back the high-end leather desk chair in front of a computer with a screen the size of Cleveland.
Her heart pounding wildly, she sat.
He stood way too close behind her. She swallowed hard and pressed her lips together to keep from ordering him to back off. When he reached over her shoulder, she had to steel herself not to flinch as she felt the heat of his big body.
So close, she could smell him. He smelled really good—like cinnamon. She stared at the ropy tendons in his muscled forearm, at the silky brown hair that dusted his tanned skin, at the sheer size of his big hand as he tapped on the keyboard.
A document popped onto the screen.
He withdrew his hand and backed off, moving over so that he stood in her line of sight. “Start a new paragraph.” As the cursor blinked tauntingly at her, he explained, “I’ll use your name as the signal to start and stop. When you hear ‘Elise,’ you will type the next word I say and keep typing every word I utter until I speak your name again. And so on. Are we clear?”
He made a grunting sound, as though he doubted that. “Do not speak. Not one word.” He paused, as if expecting her to say something and thus prove she was incapable of following instructions. Fat chance, buddy. When she only waited, he added, “Fake the punctuation. We’ll clean it up in edits. Elise.”
Did he think she wouldn’t be ready? Ha.
He began, “It was a day for killing underlings.” She typed each word as it fell from his mouth. “A day without mercy, the sky a gray wolf, crouched on the land, hungry and unforgiving. The man in the watch cap was waiting for him at the station as agreed Elise.” He said her name so softly, without even a hint of a pause to signal it was coming.
But she was ready. She punched in a period after the word agreed and stopped typing. The room was suddenly totally silent. A strange, hot little shiver raced beneath her skin as she waited, fingers poised on the keyboard, for the sound of her name.
Finally, almost in a whisper, he said, “Not bad, Elise.” And they were off and running again. “The man thought he was safe, thought he understood his place and his function. He assumed he would come through this in one piece as long as he did his job. But no one was safe. It was the nature of the game they played. Jack didn’t want to kill the man. And maybe, if things went as planned, he wouldn’t have to. Too bad things so rarely proceeded as planned…”
Jed went on, his deep voice rising and falling.
Breathing slowly and evenly, Elise had found that calm space she’d learned to inhabit back in Mrs. Clemo’s second period keyboarding class. So few people took keyboarding, even back then. But Elise had, because you never knew when it might come in handy to actually be good at something so basic, something most people nowadays just fumbled their way through.
Elise let his words wash into her, through her, and then pushed them out her fingers as he kept on.
And on. Sometimes his voice was eerily soft—and sometimes he shouted.
She tuned out his unnerving changes in volume and tone and stayed with her task, typing the words as he spoke them, throwing in punctuation wherever his pace and phrasing seemed to indicate it, stopping when she heard her name, and then waiting—calm, ready, silent—until he said her name again.
There was something about typing that just worked for her, that was as effortless as drawing her next breath.
Not that she’d ever want to type for a living. Uh-uh. Too much sitting. For the long haul, she needed a job with variety, a job where she didn’t have to spend all day on her butt.
But Nellie had mentioned a looming deadline, hadn’t she? How long did he have? A few months at the most? Elise could be a typist for three months. If the money was good enough.
About twenty minutes after he started dictating, Jed said her name yet again—and after that, he was silent.
She cast him a quick, questioning glance.
With one big arm across his chest and the other elbow braced on it, he stroked the scruff of beard on his square jaw, a calculating gleam in his eyes. Finally, he spoke. “The typing test is over. Swivel that chair around.” She turned her chair to face him. “Can you go on like that for hours?”
She took a minute to consider the question.
It was a minute too long, apparently, because he muttered impatiently, “You may speak now.”
“Thank you,” she replied with a sarcasm he either didn’t notice or chose to ignore. “I would need a five-minute break every two hours, long enough to stand up and walk around a little.”
“I can accept that.”
“An hour for lunch.”
He scowled as he continued to stroke his rocklike jaw. Apparently, in his world, typists shouldn’t be allowed to waste precious time on food. But then he conceded, “All right. An hour. But you’ll need to be flexible as to which hour. If the story’s flowing, you might have to wait a while to eat.”
“Even with regular five-minute breaks, there have to be limits. No more than five hours at a stretch without an hour-long break.”
A grunt of disapproval escaped him. But then he agreed, “Five hours. All right. The work will be intense and you’ll need to roll with that. I have to get a book out fast and I’ll need you when I need you—which will be ten to twelve hours a day. You will have to live here and you will work six days a week, with Sundays off.”
Live here in his house? God, it sounded awful. But in the end, it was all about the money. If the money was good enough, she could bear a whole boatload of awful.
And wait. What about Mr. Wiggles? He would have to come with her. “I have a cat. My cat will be moving in with me.”
Dead silence from Walsh. He stopped stroking his jaw and moved to the windows. For several seconds, he stared out at the mountains.
It appeared that Mr. Wiggles was going to be a deal-killer. Well, so be it. She’d barely gotten the big sweetie out alive during the fire. If she had to live with this strange, grumpy man, Wigs was coming with her. Or she wouldn’t come at all.
Jed turned those intense eyes on her again. “Fine. Bring the damn cat.” She felt equal parts triumphant that she’d won her demand and let down that she was one step closer to being Jed Walsh’s typing slave for she still didn’t know how long. She was about to ask him how long the job would last when he said flatly, “Unfortunately, I find you sexually attractive. That could be a problem.” Did he actually just say that? Another of those odd shivers swept through her as he added thoughtfully, “But then there’s the cat. I hate cats. That should help.” Frowning, he kept those cold eyes steadily on her. “You’re thinking I shouldn’t have told you that I’m attracted to you. But I think it’s better if we’re on the same page.”
She probably shouldn’t ask, but she couldn’t resist. “What page is that, Jed?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “The one where you know that I’m aware of you as a woman, but we both know that work is the focus here and we will be keeping it strictly professional.”
Elise said nothing. Really, what was there to say? The less the better, clearly. She shouldn’t be flattered. But she was, a little. Apparently the extra pounds she’d put on since the fire didn’t look so bad on her, after all.
“My deadline is November first and it will not be extended.”
“Four and a half months.” She mentally calculated the money that might be hers.
“It's likely you'll be finished by mid-October, but I need you to commit till November first, just in case I run into trouble. I do most of my rewriting while composing the first draft of the manuscript. So essentially, the book is finished when I get to the last page. Then I clean it up, but that I usually can do on my own in a couple of weeks, max."
"All right. Four to four and a half months, then."
"Yes. If you last, the position will become permanent. It’s a grind when I’m on a project. But as I said, I type my own rewrites, so as soon as I’ve made it to the end of the first draft, I probably won’t need you until I start the next book. You’ll have weeks and sometimes months off at a time between books.”
Elise thought of all those thousands he supposedly would pay. She could almost let him think she might be willing to type his novels long-term to get a chance at that money.
But she wasn’t willing, no way. And it was only right to let him know up front. “I’m sorry, Jed. If we can come to terms, I’ll do this one project. But as of November first, I’ll be moving on.”
His scowl deepened. “I pay well.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“If you work out, I’ll need you to stay on.”
“Sorry, not happening. I’m done the first of November. If you can’t accept that, then—”
He cut her off with a grunting sound. “All right. Have it your way. Even if you make it through the trial period, you’re done when I finish this book. If it turns out we work well together, I’m not gonna like it, but I need someone ASAP. Let’s move on to the money. You’ll be an independent contractor. You pay your own insurance and deal with your own taxes.”
“Not a problem if the money’s right.”
“Three thousand a week.”
Amazing! When this ordeal was over, she could have enough to get Bravo Catering up and running again. Her heart raced in excitement and her palms started sweating at the prospect. But really, why stop there?
She wiped all signs of greedy glee from her face and manufactured a serene smile. “Four thousand a week.”
His cold stare went subzero. She was dead certain they were done here and she knew a moment of stark regret. No, she didn’t want to sit in a chair all day typing her fingers to the bone, but she did want that money.
And then at last, wonder of wonders, he nodded. “All right. Four.” She was just breaking into her mental happy dance when he added, “If you last. We’ll start with a three-day trial at five hundred a day.”
She opened her mouth to shout out a yes. But some contrary creature within her spoke up first. “I’ll have my own room, correct?”
He looked down his blade of a nose at her. “Of course.”
“Just to be clear, I will need my own bathroom, en suite.”
“There are six bedrooms in this house.” He was wearing his bored face again. “Each has its own bath.”
“I want to see the one where I’ll be staying, please.”
He asked wearily, “Would you prefer the ground floor or upstairs?”
Choices. She loved those. Lately, there had been so few. “Where is your room?”
Green eyes narrowed. “And that matters, why?”
“I need my space.”
He made a humphing sound. “I have half of the upper floor.”
“Ground floor, then.” She really did need a place to go where he wasn’t. “Show me, please.”
Jed’s expression asked why she insisted on wasting his precious time. But all he said was “Follow me.”
She rose and went after him, back through the great room and down another hallway. He stopped at a door and pushed it inward.
The room on the other side was larger than her apartment over the donut shop. It had a king-size bed and its own sitting area, with a big-screen TV above the modern gas fireplace. The wide windows revealed another beautiful mountain view. There was even a set of French doors leading out to a small private patio. She could hardly wait to settle in.
“Walk-in closet there.” He pointed at one of the two interior doors. “I hope this will do,” he said, heavy on the irony.
She had one more question. The most important one. “May I see the bathroom?”
“Be my guest.” He gestured at that other door.
Elise marched over and pushed it open.
Pure luxury waited on the other side. She’d never been much for the rustic look. But in this case, she could definitely make an exception.
The woodwork was dark and oversized, breathtaking. Travertine tiles in cream and bronze covered the floor and climbed halfway up the walls. The long vanity had two sinks and copper fixtures. There were separate stalls for the toilet and the open shower, which had side jets and a rain showerhead.
Very faintly, she smelled cinnamon. Jed had come to stand behind her in the doorway. “The towel racks have warmers, of course,” he said. “And the floor is heated.”
“Of course,” she said softly, transfixed by the glorious sight of the giant jetted tub tucked into its own windowed alcove. The tub windows had center-mounted cellular shades that could be raised to the top to block glare, or lowered to the bottom for privacy. She could stretch out in bubbly splendor and stare at the sky.
“Well?” Jed demanded.
She turned and met his eyes. “When do you want me to start?”
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