A single dad…a marriage of convenience…and a secret!
The Secret by Christie Ridgway is NOW LIVE!
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Being butler to a widower and single father is a dream job in more ways than one for Charlotte “Charlie” Emerson. She helps keep businessman Ethan Archer’s household running without a hitch and enjoys every minute she has with his six-year-old son, Wells. But as time passes, the situation feels alarmingly intimate and when her heart starts beating faster each time Ethan steps through the door, Charlie must exert rigid control over her feelings.
With her secret, falling in love would be all kinds of bad…
Ethan Archer values the woman who keeps his life in order and cares so much for his motherless boy. He and Charlie act in harmony with each other and it’s not hard to picture them as a little family…in fact, it’s so easy, one reckless night he proposes a marriage of convenience.
What will he do if Charlie says yes? And worse, what if she tells him no?
Ethan Archer woke up with the words of his good friend and company VP echoing in his head. You’re wallowing, E. Standing still in ankle-deep water. It’s past time you started swimming again.
That conversation during their return flight from Paris wasn’t the first time John had brought to Ethan’s attention that he needed to move on with his life. Michelle had passed four years before and John had been singing that same song fairly often in the last two years.
With the intention of taking a run on the beach after dropping Wells at school, Ethan dressed in nylon shorts, a T-shirt, and running shoes. Then he brushed his teeth and smoothed a hand over his hair, inspecting himself in the bathroom mirror. Nearly forty, he thought.
Some days, when the grief descended like a shroud, he felt closer to eighty.
Turning off the thought, he left his room, his gaze landing on the half-open door across the hall. It led to a guest suite, the space used by the butler when Ethan was away overnight. He crossed to it and glanced inside.
Not surprising, there was no physical sign of her presence now that she was back in the detached cottage that was her own quarters. The bed’s coverlet was smooth, the pillows plumped. Neither gave away whether the last occupant slept soundly at night or whether Charlie’s slim body tossed and turned. He could imagine her there, though, her shining brown hair unbound, her arms thrown overhead as she dreamed away.
As she dreamed of—
Guilt gave him a sudden pinch and he reined in his imagination. He had no business contemplating his butler’s inner life, let alone picturing her in a bed.
Instead, he walked on to his son’s room and peeked inside.
Wells slept sprawled across his mattress, one hand clutching the bear Charlie had tucked him in with the night before. Ethan smiled as love for the child filled his chest, a balm to his broken heart. Without Wells, he didn’t know where he would be after losing Michelle. Their boy had become his purpose for living.
Something else that his friend John censured. You need a life that includes adults and adult pursuits.
When Ethan had opened his mouth, John had shot a finger at him. Work doesn’t count, he’d said.
Ethan had sighed and wished they’d booked seats in separate rows. By adult pursuits, you mean…
Sex, John had affirmed. You should start with that.
On another sigh, Ethan headed downstairs. He stood by the windows a long moment, appreciating the tranquil view of the Santa Monica Bay. It resembled his life, he decided. After watching his wife lose her battle with cancer, after four years of grappling with grief, most of the time he managed to maintain a certain level of calm.
He could almost hear John’s snort. Buddy, you’re in need of a little upheaval. Or maybe you just need to get laid.
Shutting down the imaginary conversation, he moved to Wells’s homework table and shuffled through the piles of papers that needed his attention. His boy was in second grade! He glanced over at the framed photo of Michelle propped on a nearby shelf. “You should be here to see this, hon. That tiny newborn we picked up from the hospital is now a little guy who can read, write, and work all the remotes around the house.”
Michelle’s infertility had been a source of despair that had come to an end when they arranged for a private adoption. She’d had a year-and-a-half of unfettered maternal bliss until her cancer diagnosis. Even through that and the brutal treatments, she’d found joy in parenting their son.
“Wells thinks about you every day,” he added. “We both do.”
Only then did Ethan come aware that someone had entered the adjacent kitchen on silent feet. Charlie, her sleek hair held back in a ponytail, her slim, tanned legs revealed beneath the hem of a sleeveless shirtdress. It wasn’t too short, but because of her long limbs, her bare skin seemed to go on forever. And always polite, Charlie pretended not to notice that he’d been talking out loud—to an empty room.
“Don’t mind me,” he said. “We old guys mutter to ourselves on occasion.” Then he winced, vanity instantly wishing he’d not brought up age. Nearing forty sucked.
“You’re not an old guy,” she said mildly, opening the refrigerator and pulling out half a watermelon.
“Older than you,” Ethan said, and then winced again. It sounded like fishing.
And true to form, his well-mannered butler took the bait. “Not so much.”
Hah. He had a decade on her.
“I’ve dated men your age and more.”
She made a non-committal sound as she began slicing the fruit into cubes.
Ethan cleared his throat, unable to stop his next question. “Are you dating anyone now?”
One glance from her blue eyes had him backtracking. “Sorry, sorry,” he said. “None of my business.”
But because he’d put the question out there, he couldn’t get it out of his head. Their Charlie, with her unflappable manner and elegant face, dating some old fart. Or worse—a beach dude. Or much, much worse, one of those old beach dudes with a mat of graying chest hair and a belly hanging over his ratty board shorts.
Ethan frowned. Charlie shouldn’t be dating at all.
Then he came alert to his thoughts. Why was he suddenly so interested in Charlie’s social life? It must be the swing of that ponytail as she moved. The roundness of her ass that was merely hinted at beneath the dress. The small, perfect rise of her breasts that he couldn’t help noticing when she was headed to the beach in swimsuit.
Damn. He shouldn’t be thinking of her ass. Or her breasts. Definitely not about her sweet, bow-shaped lips and what they might taste like.
With a hand to his forehead, Ethan closed his eyes. This was heading south, fast, same as the blood in his veins.
“Are you all right?” Her voice and her cool hand on his arm had him flinching back.
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” She held up a mug of coffee.
He took it, and put the heated surface right over the spot where she’d touched him, trying to scald away the memory of her touch.
Her brows came together over her incredibly blue eyes. They reminded him of some kind of flower—bluebells, he thought. This close, she smelled flowery too, a light, fresh fragrance with an undertone of spice.
Like spring, or maybe summer, while he was impending winter. Okay, maybe just early fall.
Yet still fascinated by her.
He stepped back. “You should take some time off. Now that I got that deal done, I’ll be around a lot more.”
“A vacation.” In the near year she’d been with them, she’d only gone out of town once. She and another woman she knew from butler school had traveled to Hawaii. She’d come home with a golden tan and a special island blend of sunscreen that smelled of coconuts and nakedness.
He’d blessed the day he’d spotted the empty bottle in the trash.
“I don’t know,” Charlie said now, a little frown tugging down the corners of her lips. “I’ve volunteered to organize the bookfair. It’s a big job.”
“I’ll help,” he offered. “Then you can take off for a few days.”
She didn’t look convinced. But he thought it might be best to put some distance between them for a short while. Determined to find some way to banish the strange thoughts that kept popping up in his head, he offered more encouragement.
“You could visit your family,” Ethan suggested.
That had her moving back. She returned to the kitchen, the long granite island now a barrier between them. “We’re not close.”
“Oh.” What else could he say? The circumstances were not known to him. When a young woman had joined his household, he’d gone out of his way to keep their conversations on a professional basis.
The fact was, when he went seeking a domestic manager, he’d envisioned an older woman, grandmotherly and staid. But Charlie came with glowing recommendations and he’d known instantly upon meeting her that Wells would take to her levelheaded nature and genuine warmth. Then, when the nanny he employed as well started showing up late or not at all, he’d had no qualms about adding Wells’s care to Charlie’s list of duties—she’d insisted.
And he’d given a hefty increase to her salary.
But kept their own interaction impersonal.
It was best that way, he thought, just as the sound of small feet had him turning. He grinned, the sight of his sleepyhead son irresistible. Striding to the boy, he swung him up in his arms. “Cowboy!” he said, by way of greeting.
“I don’t wanna be that anymore, Dad.”
Wells shook his head.
The boy shuddered. “No way. I’m going to be a paleontologist.”
Ethan pretended befuddlement. “What is that? A guy who pals around with onts?”
“No!” Wells started laughing. “A dinosaur guy!” He wiggled to get free of his father’s hold and skipped into the kitchen to stop in front of Charlie. “Did you hear what he said?”
“I did.” She held out a bite of watermelon which she popped into the boy’s mouth, then she glanced at Ethan, her eyes that bright, bright blue which felt like a flame licking over his skin. “Your dad’s silly.”
And old, Ethan thought, though I’m reacting to you like a teenager. He turned away in order to sign those stacked-up forms. “We better get cracking, kid, or we won’t get you to school before the tardy bell.”
By the time Ethan dropped off his son, he was smiling with the enjoyment of being in his boy’s company. Despite what John said, Ethan thought he could be happy enough for the next forty years by being Wells’s dad alone.
He’d had his shot at that other kind of lifetime love.
Then he went for his beach run and returned to his house, pleasantly tired. In the shower, he leaned back against the tile and closed his eyes, letting the hot water beat against his shoulders and run down his chest. Nirvana.
After a few minutes, he filled his palm with shower gel. His hand slid over his pecs and ribs and then moved to his cock.
Stifling his groan, he let his head fall back and he rubbed the stiff shaft, then circled the head, his thumb brushing over the crest. The atmosphere didn’t need any more steam, so he used his free hand to turn off the spray while the other kept stroking. During the past four years he’d often found sexual relief on his own like this, the act perfunctory, the pleasure brief.
But now, instead of merely feeling the physical sensation of a deliciously rough tug and a long, hard pull, his mind joined in. This time, he imagined it was another’s hand on him, a woman’s hand. She gripped him, moving her fingers up and down his length, her others sneaking between his thighs to cup his balls.
His chest heaved and he squeezed his eyes tighter shut as his imagination had her mouth on him now, wetting his hard flesh with lavish strokes. Her tongue moved up to tease the slit in the head and he reached down to caress her soft hair, encouraging her to continue. She moaned, and suddenly he needed more. Wrapping his fingers in her hair, he pulled her off his cock, the audible pop as it came clear of her mouth as carnal as anything he’d ever heard. Then he directed her to stand up with another tug of her hair, and she rose to her feet, her wet and naked body against his. Eyes still closed, he palmed one of her breasts and caressed the tightening nipple.
He began to rub himself harder, though in the fantasy, her hand was back on his aching cock. She was moaning again, and he bent his head, wanting to taste the sound of it on his tongue. But before his lips could meet hers, his orgasm took over. It shot from his heels to circle his balls. They drew tight to his body and then heat and promise pulsed up his shaft. He half-bent, belly hollowing, as semen spurted from him, and his whole body shook with the power of it.
As the climax began to fade, in his fantasy he opened his eyes. Charlie’s big blues were slumberous and her elegant face flushed as she stood before him, her bare body dappled in water droplets. His cock surged with a final gush of pleasure.
Then Ethan fell back against the tile, panting. Shit. Shit.
Maybe John was right. Ethan required something new in his life. Not a naked Charlie, God no, but…
Ethan definitely needed to get laid.
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