The Caretaker’s Lady

Rita Bay

 

Prologue

“Jasmine’s gone cold. She missed her deadline and won’t answer my calls, texts, or e-mails.” Mickie Schaffer held her breath, waiting for the shit to hit the fan. She’d been Jasmine Bloom’s editor for fifteen years. Now, nothing, not even a “fuck you.” Not that her author would ever say that. Cathy Morrow, the writer behind Jasmine Bloom, was a classy lady. She was also Blaylock Publishing’s best-selling author.

The staccato rapping of Amanda Johnson’s pen on the oak table put Mickie on notice that Blaylock’s publisher was pissed, likely with her. “What have you done about it?”

She cringed, expecting the hammer to fall. “Nothing, yet. If I can’t get in touch with her today, I’ll drive down tomorrow to her home on the Jersey shore to check on her.”

Amanda frowned then shook her head. “Leave this afternoon. Jasmine must finish that manuscript. There’s a lot at stake. You know the small publishing houses like Blaylock are under pressure. We can’t afford to miss a publication date, especially the next installment of Jasmine Bloom’s Valentine’s Day series. It’s already the first week of October. We’re cutting it way too close.”

Mickie caught Amanda’s reference to pressure. Maybe the rumors about the publishing house being in trouble were true. She’d do her best, but she had to be honest with her boss. She sucked in a deep breath and blew it out. “I’m worried about Jasmine. Her last book was a struggle for her to write and for me to edit. Her current work in progress has been even more difficult for us both. She claims she has lost her muse.”

“Damn!” Amanda tossed her pen on the table. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

It wasn’t professional to involve herself in the personal lives of her authors, but she’d been with Cathy a long time. “Perhaps there are family pressures. After her divorce over twenty years ago, she raised three children alone. They’re grown, but they live with her, even the widowed daughter with two kids. She hinted that they rely on her for financial support.”

“Lost her muse, hell. She has an infestation of parasites. You’ve got to get her out of that house and away from her family.”

Having spent her entire publishing career with Blaylock, Mickie dreaded looking for another job at forty-two, but…“Are we talking kidnapping?”

“No, but I know exactly where we can send her.” Amanda strode across to her antique oak file cabinet and pulled a folder from the authors’ drawer. “Years ago, my predecessor received a standing invitation for Jasmine and a guest to visit a fan at a mountain resort in North Georgia. While you’re driving to her home, I’ll handle the arrangements and text you on the road confirming your flight and reservations. You’ll be her guest at the resort.”

“And I’m supposed to get her there how?”

“The same way you’ll encourage her to finish the book.” Amanda tossed a document on the table. “Tell her to read her contract.”

Chapter 1

Cathy Morrow dabbed an eye with a tissue and sniffed. “I can’t believe you invoked the non-performance clause of my contract, Mickie.”

Her editor patted her arm absently. “It’s not like I had a choice, dear. My publisher threatened to fire my ass if I don’t deliver your completed manuscript in ten days. You didn’t respond to my calls or e-mails. You’ve never done that before. What was I supposed to do?”

Cathy shoved her tissues into her bag. She’d get no sympathy from her editor. “How about cutting me some slack? Have I ever missed a deadline before? I’ll answer that for you. No! I promised to finish it. I’ve never experienced writer’s block before. Sixty thousand words in and my muse deserted me. I’ve tried writing through it. Nothing but garbage. I had to delete three chapters.”

“You just made my point, Cathy. That’s why Amanda insisted you leave your home. After what I saw on my visit yesterday, I’m surprised you accomplish as much as you do. A nice house with a beautiful location on the Jersey beach, not even damaged by Hurricane Sandy. But it’s a madhouse. Your kids, their kids, and constant turmoil. How could anyone write in that environment, especially the sizzling hot romances that are your trademark?”

Mickie was right about everything. The house and kids were a disaster, but they were hers, and she was responsible for them. The pressure that had been mounting for several years had finally overwhelmed her ability to cope. But cope she must. She had no choice. “I want to finish the manuscript, as much as you want me to. My annual Valentine’s Day romance novel is my biggest seller of the year. If it’s successful, my other two books for the year will sell well also.”

“We’ve worked together for fifteen years, Cathy. I’m going to be blunt with you. My take on the situation is that if you don’t have a successful year, Blaylock could go under. They’ve relied on your success way too much. Next year, I could be looking for a new job and you for a new publisher.”

Damn! A career killer. At her age, she couldn’t afford to move on to another publisher. She was at the top of the heap at Blaylock with the lion’s share of the promo dollars. Even with that kind of support, her current sales didn’t measure up to five years ago. She’d have to fight for a place in the pecking order at a new publisher. She’d be totally screwed. “All right, Mickie, I see your point. I’ll do my best. Maybe I’ve focused too much on my family.”

“When did you last take a lover?”

Cathy glared at her editor who she’d thought was her friend. “That’s none of your—”

A man’s chuckle interrupted her.

How dare he? “In the front seat. John Murdock, isn’t it?”

Their driver had met them in Atlanta at Hartsfield Airport. He introduced himself as an employee at The Mountain Ridge Resort, seated them in the back seat, loaded their luggage into the Land Rover, and hopped onto a crowded interstate for a drive he said would last well over two hours. He’d been silent until Mickie brought up her love life.

“Sorry, ma’am. I was out of place.” The driver looked in the mirror and smiled at her.

Mickie kicked the back of his seat. “Damn right you were. Eyes front and pay attention to your driving or I’ll report your ass to your boss.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

John returned his attention to the road. Apparently, their handsome driver didn’t seem overly upset about the prospect of being reported. Mickie, a redhead with a redhead’s temper, however, was a typical New Yorker who didn’t put up with shit from anyone—except Amanda, who terrified her. She spent a fortune on her clothes, accessories, and personal grooming to keep herself “looking good.” Her behavior was occasionally outrageous, which worked well for them both with edits. After all their years together, Mickie heated up her books with sizzling-hot suggestions. Her editor had never married but claimed her experience with men was vast. Given some of her editorial comments and suggestions, she wasn’t lying.

She turned on her editor. “Shame on you, Mickie. John wasn’t the one inquiring about my sex life. That’s no one’s business, including yours. Enjoy the scenery. Look at these mountains. The trees are beginning to turn for the season. Aren’t they magnificent?”

Mickie glanced out the window. “Humph! No towns. No taxis. No shopping.”

“I wouldn’t miss any of that if I had this to look at every day. I already feel more relaxed. I look forward to meeting our hostess to thank her for the invitation. What’s her name?”

Mickie shrugged. “Amanda found the invitation in your file. The envelope was missing. All she had was the unsigned invitation with a phone number. When she spoke with the resort’s manager, he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. He called back a few minutes later, apologized for being abrupt, and invited us to visit for a week as the resort’s guests. He set us up in the Governor’s Suite.”

“Nice. I hope we didn’t inconvenience anyone. John.”

Their driver glanced in the mirror. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you know the owner? Will we meet her at the resort?”

Another friendly smile and a shrug. “The resort is owned by an LLC family partnership established years ago. I don’t know who invited you, but only staff resides at the resort at the moment.”

“Pity. I would like to have thanked our hostess.”

“Perhaps Thomas, the general manager, can be of assistance. He’s in constant contact with the owner.”

Cathy looked out the window. They’d been driving into the higher elevations for over an hour. She’d like to know more about the area. John was friendly and had a pleasant voice, sexy even. “I hope so. I love the area already and look forward to visiting the resort.”

John glanced at her in the mirror and smiled again. “All of us at the resort will enjoy watching the leaves change over the next few weeks. You’re a little early for the best of the season.”

“I hope it will provide the inspiration I need to finish my novel.” To be honest, John might provide more inspiration than the scenery. His close-cut silver hair and gorgeous ice-blue eyes contrasted nicely with that deep tan. And his body? The man might be well into middle age, but he was ripped. She’d admired the play of his muscles as he easily handled their luggage. She’d been sneaking peaks at him throughout the long ride—totally out of character.

Mickie tsked. “A man would be a better—ouch! Stop poking me!”

“No more of that, Mickie. I mean it.”

Cathy glanced up. John was smiling at her again.

“That goes for you too, John.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He winked at her in the mirror before returning his attention to the road.

Time to move on. “Are you busy this time of year?”

He nodded. “Always. There are two conferences in progress, a county medical society and a community bank. Conferences are scheduled Tuesdays through Thursdays. Weddings are scheduled on the weekends. We’re a destination wedding venue. One every weekend, April through December. We close on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas to celebrate the holidays at the resort with the staff and our families. After Thanksgiving, the holiday season kicks in and runs through New Year’s Day. We shut down for three months with occasional private parties, weather permitting. We’re almost there now.”

Five minutes later, they passed a landscaped parking lot filled with expensive vehicles and a couple of minibuses. The Land Rover turned into a private drive and stopped in front of massive wrought iron gates set between stone columns. John waved to a guard who saluted and opened the gates.

The road that had been carved from the side of the mountain was intimidating. John proved an excellent driver, however, expertly navigating the sharp switchbacks and curves with steep drop-offs. Over a mile in and up, they got their first look at the resort. Mickie’s “damn” said it all.

* * * *

John slowed the vehicle to allow the ladies time to take in the vistas. Like everyone associated with The Mountain Ridge Resort, he was proud of their jewel set in the mountains of North Georgia. The resort’s lodge and conference center sprawled over several acres, overlooking a pristine blue lake and meticulously maintained gardens. The eclectic architectural design fell somewhere between traditional glass-dominated mountain chalet and medieval European castle. The overall impression was one of sophisticated elegance with an eye toward comfort.

“Oh my God!” Cathy exclaimed.

“Thank you, ma’am.” John grinned when she gasped and covered her mouth. She hadn’t realized she’d spoken her thoughts aloud. He heartily agreed with her assessment. Mickie, a bit more sophisticated, kept her opinion to herself, but her eyes darted across the picture-perfect landscape.

When he picked the two women up at the Atlanta airport, he realized they were as different as night and day. When he introduced himself, Cathy shook hands and offered him her name, a nod, and a friendly smile. Mickie handed him her baggage claim ticket, gave him her cell number, and then seated herself in the food court with a latte. Cathy, after helping him retrieve their bags, stood with the resort’s luggage cart while he brought around and loaded the Land Rover.

John checked out Cathy, whose head and shoulders were hanging out the window. She was a couple of years younger than him. Based on her appearance, he would never have pegged her as an author of hot historical romances. Her salt-and-pepper hair, the loose-fitting tunic-like blouse, and long skirt were a bit dowdy.

She was a short, petite woman with, from his current perspective, a nice ass. The top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulder, but she easily handled her luggage at the baggage claim area. Her face was lovely even without makeup, almost pixie-like. He could get lost in those huge blue eyes, but there was a hint of sadness there.

He’d offered to pick up the guests because the invitation Amanda claimed to possess piqued his interest. No one admitted to knowing anything about the invitation or who had sent it. Since he kept an eye on everything that happened at the resort, he needed to investigate.

John was glad he had. He hadn’t been as impressed with a woman since…he couldn’t remember. The long trip, often a trial with some guests, had been a pleasure. Mickie, obviously a city girl, wasn’t overly excited by the scenery. Cathy, however, oohed and aahed over the passing countryside. When they drove higher into the mountains, her reaction bordered on awe. On the drive up the mountain, he worried he might have to rescue her when she fell out of the vehicle and down the mountainside. She was so excited he didn’t have the heart to tell her to keep her head and shoulders inside the car or to close the window. Her excitement was contagious. Seeing familiar scenery through her eyes reminded him of the beauty of his home.

To give the guests the most impressive entrance, John drove under the porte cochere and parked the Land Rover at the main door. He assisted the ladies out of the vehicle and into the reception area while Adam and Alex unloaded the baggage onto the luggage cart and drove the vehicle to the parking garage.

Cathy’s appreciation of the resort continued into the interior. She stared open-mouthed at the two-story stone fireplace that separated the front desk and sitting area from one of the dining rooms.

John followed her closely intending to take the opportunity to make an impression on the famous author. “Beautiful, isn’t it? The artist set the stone in the fireplace in a swirled pattern to resemble a flowing stream. We occasionally have master and journeymen masons visiting the resort to study this masterpiece and a couple of his other creations the resort owners commissioned over sixty years ago.”

Cathy offered him a smile that warmed his heart—and elsewhere. “The grounds and this entry are magnificent, like a postcard. I look forward to visiting the rest of the resort when I’m not writing.”

Just the opening he needed. “I know the resort and its history well. I’d be happy to show you around when you have time.”

Mickie cleared her throat. “There won’t be any touring while we’re here. This is strictly a working vacation.”

He scowled at Mickie. “Then maybe we should get you checked in as quickly as possible.” He held out an arm indicating the desk area. “This way, Ms. Morrow.”

Cathy placed her hand on his arm, giving him the opportunity to edge a little closer. “That’s Cathy, John.”

He escorted her to the front desk, leaving Mickie to follow on her own. “Alice, these are our special guests Thomas spoke with us about.”

The front desk supervisor picked up her phone, entered a short text, and then turned to the guests with a smile. “Welcome, ladies. The Governor’s Suite is ready for you.” She focused her attention on Cathy. “We’re excited that you’ll be working here, Miss Bloom. Many of us are huge fans of yours. We’re looking forward to your next Valentine’s Day story.”

Cathy blushed. “Thank you, Alice. I’d hoped to stay under my own name, Cathy Morrow. Besides being shy, I need some quiet time to complete my book. Valentine’s Day isn’t that far away, and I’m running a bit late.”

Alice smiled. “Of course, ma’am. We occasionally have guests who desire anonymity. The staff will, of course, know your identity, but we are experts at respecting guests’ privacy. Not to say that we won’t brag to our families after you’re gone, Ms. Morrow.”

Cathy’s face lit up with pleasure. “That’s Cathy, Alice. I’ll send you an autographed copy of Conquering Eros when it’s released in February.”

“Thank you, ma’am—I mean, Cathy. I’ll look forward to it.”

Alice, a senior staff member who didn’t impress easily, was clearly won over by their new guest.

Alice returned to Earth when Thomas entered the reception area. “Good afternoon, Thomas. Miss Bloom—Cathy and Miss Mickie Schaffer have arrived.”

“Good afternoon, Cathy. Miss Schaffer. Welcome to Mountain Ridge. I’m Thomas Webber, the general manager.”

Mickie nodded absently, tapping her foot, likely bored with the conversation.

Cathy smiled. “You have a quite an establishment, Mr. Webber. We look forward to our visit.”

Thomas relaxed. Although only in his mid-thirties, he was proficient in handling any situation that arose. The invitation, though, was perplexing as hell. They didn’t have a clue what to expect when the publisher contacted them and arranged for their visit. Cathy was a pleasant and welcome surprise. Thomas would handle Mickie.

“Call me Thomas. Always address staff by our first names. We wear the same basic black uniform with only a first name on the nametag.” He pointed to his own nametag.

Mickie looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. “How can your guests get what they need if they don’t know who they’re talking to?”

Thomas frowned. “Every staff member is responsible for making the guest experience exceptional. We hire locally, so the staff are either friends or kin. Everyone speaks English, or at least a North Georgia version of it. Everyone carries a phone. If they can’t assist you, they will see that you get whatever you need without any inconvenience.”

Cathy had been listening attentively. “What a great idea, Thomas. I imagine you don’t have much turnover here.”

“Almost none. We sponsor a hospitality services training program with the local career technical high school. We combine training with work a couple of days every week. It’s rather involved, but the top students from the high school end up with full-time jobs or part-time jobs combined with college classes, which we subsidize.”

“I’d love to hear more about it.”

John had listened patiently throughout the conversation. He wasn’t surprised that Cathy was interested. She seemed to genuinely like people. He looked forward to getting to know her better. He cleared his throat.

Thomas looked his way and lifted his eyebrows. “John, here, manages the program. He can tell you whatever you want to know or arrange for you to tour the center.”

Mickie’s brows knitted together. “So what is your position exactly, John?”

Her game was clear. She wanted Cathy writing and didn’t give a damn if she enjoyed her visit. He would make sure Cathy’s stay was enjoyable. Might even have an enjoyable experience or two himself. “I’m the caretaker.”

Mickie sniffed, making it obvious what she thought about the position. “Just what does a caretaker do?”

Thomas laughed. “John’s our JOAT—jack-of-all-trades. He’s been here longer than anyone and knows everything there is to know about the resort. As a matter of fact, I’ll assign him as our liaison with you. He’ll be at your service whenever you need him.”

Mickie shrugged. “I’d hoped to meet with our hostess.”

Thomas nodded vacantly. “This is awkward. I’d like to see the invitation, at your convenience. We don’t know who sent it to you. There’s absolutely no doubt that it’s authentic. The number Ms. Johnson called is the resort’s most private phone line, the equivalent of the president’s mythological hotline. I happened to be in my office when it rang. Almost fell out of my chair. It’s one hell of a mystery.”

Cathy clapped her hands. “I love mysteries. I can’t wait to help solve ‘the mystery,’ especially since I’m part of it.”

“Perhaps we can solve it together, Cathy.” John offered her his arm. “Allow me to escort you to your suite.”