Charlotte emerged from her car, stiff from two straight days of driving, and took a good look around. The house where she and her sisters had grown up was just as she remembered it. Twelve tall white columns braced the front of the majestic three-story plantation home. Dark green shutters adorned every window and contrasted nicely against gleaming white wood. Creamy-petaled camellias with evergreen leaves surrounded the veranda on all sides. But there, the tender loving care stopped.
Her heart sinking, Charlotte realized the grounds of the rural Mississippi plantation were in terrible shape. The once beautiful lawn of Camellia Lane was now peppered with crabgrass and dandelions and streamed wetly up past her knees. The flower beds that lined the drive stood empty. Even more disturbing, one of the shutters on a second-floor window had been knocked loose by the wind and hung crooked on one hinge.
Her younger sister, Isabella, had hired a caretaker. What on earth could he be doing with his time?
Charlotte frowned. Having seen the grounds, she wondered what kind of condition the caretaker’s cottage was in. Deciding to find out, she marched down the flagstone path to the cottage, which was some distance away, and knocked on the door. Once...twice. There was no answer.
Determining she had better check on things, Charlotte unlocked the door and stormed in. The place was a wreck. Papers and books were everywhere. A state-of-the-art laptop computer and portable LaserJet printer sat on the table. Charlotte frowned. What caretaker could afford that luxury? Furthermore, what caretaker had ever been this incredibly handsome, even when sprawled on a sofa, apparently fast asleep?
Even in repose, every inch of him was tantalizingly, ruggedly male. He had dark coffee-colored hair that fell away from his face in thick rumpled waves. A full mustache emphasized rather than hid his sensually chiseled lips. High cheekbones and the squareness of his jaw added to the rakish appeal of his straight-blade nose and rectangular face.
He had to be at least six foot four of solid male muscle and was probably in his mid-thirties. He wore faded jeans, a sparkling white T-shirt and a light gray sweatshirt bearing the Yale insignia.
Some caretaker, Charlotte thought irritably, as she ran her hands through her dark curly hair. She could be a robber, ready to steal Camellia Lane blind and he would never know.
She stepped closer, put a hand out to touch his shoulder.
The next thing she knew she was flat on her back, beneath him, one of his hands circling her waist. The other held both her hands above her head.
“You’ve got two seconds to tell me what you’re doing breaking into my cottage,” he warned mildly.
Charlotte had thought he was handsome when he was sleeping. It was nothing compared to the way he looked when he was awake. His lashes were long and thick, his eyes a vivid electric blue. His mouth was soft but firm beneath the thick mustache. True, he needed a shave. She could see the eighth-of-an-inch bristles of his beard against the suntanned hue of his skin, but he smelled of Old Spice. Charlotte had always loved that cologne.
“Unhand me this instant!” she demanded, wiggling furiously and feeling every soft, slender inch of her torso and legs brush up against every hard, unyielding inch of his. Heat started at the base of her throat and swept up into her face.
“Not,” he bargained wickedly, settling more comfortably between her thighs, “until you tell me who you are.”
The mischievous glint in his eyes indicated he knew his sensual tussling with her was completely unnecessary, if entirely pleasurable. Charlotte glared up at him, fighting the tingles of awareness with every ounce of fortitude she possessed.
At her response, he did everything to suppress a grin. He knew, of course, that he could let her go now that they’d quickly established she was no threat. But the feel of her beneath him, her silky hair spread out on the sofa cushions, the feistiness in her emerald green eyes, was hard to resist. This woman presented a challenge for any man brave enough to take her on. And he never had been able to resist a challenge. Particularly the beautiful, hot-tempered, female kind.
“Your name first,” he demanded again and was rewarded with another burning flash of her emerald eyes.
Charlotte’s breasts rose and fell with each agitated breath she took. She regarded him imperiously. “I am Charlotte Langston, you fool!”
Finally, it seemed, she had gotten through to him.
“Charlotte Langston,” he repeated, stunned. He loosened his grip on her slightly. His electric blue gaze swept the band collar of her starched white shirt and the navy-and-gold tapestry vest before returning to her face. “You’re Miss Charlotte?”
“Yes, I am Miss Charlotte,” she bit out, her face flooding with telltale heat as her formidable temper rose another notch. She couldn’t believe she was wrestling on the sofa with the new caretaker, never mind almost enjoying it. “Now let me up before I do something we’ll both regret, like punch you in the nose,” she snapped.
He grinned at that, as if he were thinking he’d like to see her try. Wordlessly, he stood and offered her a hand.
Aware her trouser legs had hiked up almost to her knees in the struggle and one of her heels had fallen off, Charlotte struggled to get herself together.
Her composure restored, she bent to rummage for her shoe.
He scooped it up first, then knelt in front of her and slipped it on for her. “I apologize for flipping you onto your back like that,” he said as he continued to kneel like an errant knight paying homage to his queen. “But you shouldn’t sneak up on people.”
Charlotte stood. Not surprisingly, after what she had just been through, her knees felt a little wobbly. “I knocked,” she defended herself sharply, irritated that their brief tussle on the sofa had left her feeling so unsettled. “You didn’t answer.”
Again, that slow, sexy grin that wreaked havoc with her insides. “That’s ‘cause I was asleep.”
Charlotte arched a brow. Her dark green eyes glinted with a deep disapproval she made no move to hide. “At two in the afternoon?” she asked.
“Give me a break.” Irritated, he pivoted away from her and began to gather up the papers he had strewn across the table. He shoved them all in a brown accordion envelope and secured them with a string. “I was up all night working,” he continued with a beleaguered frown.
“On Camellia Lane?” she asked in patent disbelief.
He shook his head and corrected her. “My dissertation. Didn’t your sister Isabella tell you? Guess not, from that scowl on your face. I’m a doctoral student. I’ve been working on my dissertation for several years now—”
“You’re a little old to be a student, aren’t you?” Charlotte interrupted suspiciously. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something about this guy just didn’t ring quite true to her.
“I’m thirty-five.” His glance skimmed her wickedly from head to toe. His lips curved in a teasing smile. “How old are you?”
Thirty-three, Charlotte thought, but she had no intention of telling him that!
“Uh-oh. That look means you’re over thirty for sure. But not to worry,” he drawled with an exaggerated Southern accent as his bold glance slid over her heart-shaped face. He was standing so close she could feel the warmth of his body, but she didn’t move away as he whispered in her ear. “You still look damn fine to me, Miss Charlotte. Damn fine!”
Irritated to find herself secretly pleased at his approval, Charlotte planted both her hands on her hips and glared at him wordlessly.
His roguish grin widened, as if he knew he had annoyed her every bit as much as he meant to. “Besides,” he continued lazily, rubbing the underside of his chiseled jaw, “no one’s too old for an education.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Charlotte shot back. She looked him up and down in the same manner he had just surveyed her, taking in his ruggedly handsome face. Ignoring the rapid pounding of her heart, she said, “By the time you’ve hit your mid-thirties, if you don’t have a real job...” She let her words trail off sarcastically.
To her frustration, he looked not the least bit offended by her tone. Eyes twinkling with unstinting humor, he said lazily, “Being a caretaker is a real job, Miss Charlotte.”
Charlotte thought of the condition of the grounds, and rolled her eyes in a demonstration of exasperation. “You’d never know it, by the way you take care of this place.” She grasped his arm above the elbow and dragged him over to the window. Promptly dropping her hand from the tantalizing sinew of his bicep, she pointed to the outside. “The grounds are a wreck. The grass hasn’t been cut, the camellias around the main house weeded or the honeysuckle around the cottage cut back.”
He pivoted toward her, legs brushing hers slightly. Towering over her by a good ten inches, he held up a palm to halt the flow of her criticism. “Isabella hired me to watch over the place during the day while she and Paige are gone,” he announced flatly. Still watching her face, he crossed his arms in front of him implacably. “To get me to do repairs and cut grass, you’d have to pay me a salary, and I’m not getting money to stay here.”
Charlotte blinked, the wind temporarily taken from her sails. “That’s all?” If what he said was true and she guessed from his expression it was, then Isabella had really dropped the ball on this one.
“That’s all,” he confirmed matter-of-factly, keeping his sober glance on Charlotte’s upturned face. “Otherwise, I never would have agreed to stay here.”
It figured, she thought. Every time she left something to her softhearted sisters, it got screwed up. Isabella, in particular, needed to learn how to drive a harder bargain. “Where’d you meet my sister, anyway?” she asked, backing away from him casually and returning to the center of the room. She didn’t know if it was the sheer size of him, but every time she was close to him her heart beat a little too fast for comfort.
“I met Isabella at the Poplar Springs Public Library. I was doing some research on farming methods in Mississippi. But enough about me and my work.” Hand on her shoulder, he propelled her into the adjacent kitchen, which to Charlotte’s surprise was extremely neat and tidy. He picked up a pot and poured coffee into a stoneware mug. Wordlessly, he offered it to her. Although she was dying for a cup after her long drive, she declined. No way was she drinking that noxious brew.
“So. What do you do for a living, Miss Charlotte?”
She wondered why he was asking. Deciding she’d better try to find out why he was so curious about her, Charlotte played along cautiously. “I’m a reporter for Personalities, the gossip magazine.”
“Gossip, huh?” He lounged against the counter. Seemingly unable to take his eyes from her face, he asked innocently enough, “What happens if you don’t find any dirt on a person? Do you make something up?”
“No, of course not,” Charlotte snapped indignantly. Beginning to feel a little too attracted to him again, she prowled the kitchen restlessly. Had it always been this small? She hadn’t noticed before. “Besides, there’s always something to find,” she continued with an airy wave of her hand.
He quaffed some of the awful coffee, grimaced as it hit his taste buds, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “So how come you aren’t working on a story now?” he asked curiously.
“I am working on a story,” Charlotte explained, wishing he didn’t look and smell quite so good. Having someone this handsome and mischievous underfoot could prove quite distracting. “As a matter of fact, I’m hunting someone down as we speak,” she finished, telling herself she could handle being temporarily cooped up in here together if he could.
His blue eyes focused on hers contemplatively. “Well, now, that sounds ominous,” he drawled.
Charlotte did not consider either her work or her conversation with the hunky new caretaker inconsequential. Her shoulders tensed as her defenses slid back into place. “It often is for my quarry,” she admitted seriously. “Remember the treasury secretary scandal and the Bel Air madam? Those were both my stories, and I broke them.” She was unable to keep the pride from her voice. There was nothing like the satisfaction she felt when she exposed corruption or deceit of any kind.
Evidently deciding he’d had enough of the poison he’d been drinking, he tossed the remains in the sink and began washing out the pot. Charlotte watched as he set about efficiently making a fresh pot, using vanilla-almond beans.
He had great hands, she thought absently. Large, square, capable ones with nimble fingers and neatly trimmed nails.
“So...who is this person you’re hunting down?” he asked conversationally.
He certainly was presumptuous. Charlotte tossed her head. Dark, silky hair flew in every direction as she narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. “Why are you asking all these questions? Are you trying to steal my story?” she prompted, only half kidding. There were a lot of gossip reporters tracking down Sterling. It was possible their handsome new caretaker was one of them.
He grinned. “Why do you ask?” he bantered back lazily as the dimples on either side of his mouth deepened sexily. “Are you afraid I will?”
Charlotte lounged against the opposite counter and folded her arms in front of her as the delicious aroma of coffee filled the room. “Not at all,” she said with a confident lift of her pretty chin. Her eyes zeroed in on his, letting him know she meant every word. “No one beats me to a story.”
“Ah, I see. And what happens when you catch up with this person you’re trying to interview?” he challenged bluntly.
Charlotte shrugged, all too aware he was watching her ever movement. “Then I find out what the person is hiding and write the story,” she said.
He regarded her tolerantly. “How do you know this person you are currently chasing is hiding anything?” he asked in a deep, faintly amused voice.
Charlotte pursed her lips together in aggravation. “Call it instinct.”
“And that’s all you have to go on?” he asked incredulously.
Charlotte had learned the hard way how to sniff out a fraud. “This person I’m hunting down is a celebrity who has worked hard to achieve his fame and yet he doesn’t want any publicity, period,” she explained. “In fact, he’s downright paranoid about it. That strikes me as odd and tells me there is a story there.”
Seeing the coffee had finished brewing, he reached for two mugs and filled them. “I see your point.”
Their hands brushed as he handed her a mug, and again, she tingled when they came in contact.
“On the other hand, if this guy wants to preserve his privacy, he ought to be able to do so, celebrity status or not, don’t you think?” he said reasonably.
Charlotte could see the sinewy imprint of his shoulders and the tautness of his chest beneath the soft cotton of his sweatshirt. “Only if he’s not involved in something fraudulent,” she stipulated firmly. And that had yet to be determined. “Have you read any of the work of Stephen Sterling?”
He rummaged around in the cupboard and brought out a tin of butter cookies. He opened it and Charlotte took two. He took one himself, set the box on the small kitchen table and motioned her to a chair. “Has he written anything on dirt farming in the western hemisphere?”
Charlotte sat down opposite him only because she was tired of standing. As their knees touched accidentally, she felt goose bumps break out. “No. And why would you ask that?”
He shrugged. “Because dirt farming is what I’m doing my dissertation on, and books on farming are about all I’ve read recently.”
Somehow, Charlotte just didn’t buy that, either. But she had no chance to pursue it, as he was already asking another question.
“Back to Sterling. What kind of books does he write?” he asked.
Charlotte helped herself to another cookie and sat stiffly in her chair. No way was she letting their knees come into contact again. “He writes adventure novels. So far he’s only published three, but all have been on the New York Times Best Sellers List.”
Noticing he’d nearly drained his cup, he got up to retrieve the coffeepot. He brought it back to the table and retopped both their mugs. “Lots of authors make the bestseller lists. What’s so special about this guy that you have to hunt him down?” he asked, his eyes lasering in on hers.
“It’s not just his readers who don’t know who he is. No one in the entire publishing world knows, either. His real identity is so hush-hush that not even his publisher knows who he is. All his manuscripts come through an attorney, Franklin Dunn, Jr., and he isn’t talking.”
She had even hired on as a temp in Dunn’s office, but didn’t have any luck finding anything. She still had hopes, though, of getting the information from Dunn’s personal secretary, Marcie Shackleford.
“So you’re getting discouraged?”
Ha! Charlotte thought. “Not on your life,” she said with a determined scowl. “There’s a mystery here and I’m determined to get to the bottom of it.”
He shook his head. “Why are you so hell-bent on doing something that clearly looks impossible?” he asked.
“Because finding Sterling and unmasking him to the world would be a real coup.”
He savored that for a moment. Then apparently discarded her motivation as unsound. “What about the poor schmuck who writes the books?” he asked argumentatively, his dark brow furrowed in concern. “Doesn’t he have a right to privacy?”
Charlotte sighed and leaned forward urgently. “Look, if Stephen Sterling wanted privacy, he shouldn’t have written three bestsellers and earned millions of dollars. He’s the one who wanted people to buy his books, and now they’re understandably curious about him.”
Charlotte could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t agree with her. His disapproval made her more determined. “Sterling’s readers have a right to know who he is,” she argued passionately. “If he’s even a him,” she finished cautiously. Noting the time, she drained her cup and got up to go. Her sisters would be home soon, and she wanted to talk to them. They had a lot to go over.
He put the lid on the cookies and walked with her back into the living room. “What makes you think Sterling’s not a guy?” he asked casually.
“Nothing.” Charlotte stepped outside and breathed in the honeysuckle- scented air. The afternoon sun shone brightly down on them. Although the grass was not cut, it was thick and beautiful and rolled out around them like a pastoral blanket of green. Just looking at the grounds filled her with the sense of coming home.
“Do the Sterling books read like they were written by a woman?” he asked.
“No, they read like they were written by a very romantic, adventurous, exciting man,” Charlotte replied. Which was, of course, why they were on the bestseller lists.
“I don’t get it.” He looked at her blankly.
Charlotte shoved her hands in the pockets of her navy blazer. She tilted her head back to better see up into his face. “It’s just that readers expect adventure novels to be written by a man,” she explained. “And that could be the reason why the author is trying so hard to keep his – or her – identity a secret. Haven’t you ever heard of the famous mystery novelist P.D. James? She was a woman, but they didn’t think men would read her books, so she went by her initials instead.”
He shook his head as if she were making no sense at all, then stroked the edges of his mustache thoughtfully. “What happens if you actually find this Sterling, and he – or she – is not all that exciting a person? Won’t that be a turnoff to people?” He leaned closer and his voice dropped to an urgent rumble. “What if you wreck this person’s career by exposing him or her? Have you thought of that?”
Charlotte’s first rule of thumb was never to allow herself to think negatively. The second was to never let anyone else’s agenda become her own. She knew what she had to do to save Camellia Lane. “First of all,” she announced confidently, aware this was none of their caretaker’s business, anyway, “I’ve read the Sterling books. You haven’t. He could be a nun in Bolivia and people would still want to read all about him. In fact, that would probably make his public persona all the more interesting.”
He shook his head in disagreement. “You’re taking an awful lot for granted. I certainly wouldn’t want to know a little old lady was really writing adventure books.”
“Writing gossip is my business. And I know what I’m talking about,” Charlotte continued stubbornly, even as she wondered why she was allowing this man to get under her skin. She faced him hotly. “I know people will be interested in finding out the truth about Sterling, whatever it is.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders in dissent. “If you say so, but I still think you ought to think twice about destroying someone else’s career."