The breakfast nook was tucked in an alcove where a wide bow window framed the sun-spangled Pacific. The woman standing next to the table appeared neither sun-spangled, nor pacific.
Althea Crampton evoked a cross between a lady wrestler and Brünnhilde. She had the alert, beady black eyes of a hawk and a beaklike nose to match. Every iron-gray hair marched tidily up into the bun perched on her crown, and not one wrinkle marred her short-sleeved black dress. Jen wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the housekeeper starched and ruthlessly ironed her underwear each and every morning.
After painting Jen with a high-noon stare, she turned the evil eye on Brent. “Been at it again, I see.”
Color washed his cheekbones as he pulled out a chair and gestured Jen into it. “I have not. Jen is an old high school friend, down for the week.”
Althea’s shrewd gaze swung back to Jen, raked in every detail. She smirked. “Old high school friend, is it?” Jen nodded. “Full name?”
“Jennifer Casey.” The ma’am was understood.
Eyes narrowed, the housekeeper propped her hands on her hips. Tense seconds ticked by. “The e-mail.”
Oh, help. Jen darted a panicked glance at Brent, but he met her mute appeal with a boyish grin and shrug. Some protector. She forced herself to meet Crampton’s obsidian stare, nodded again.
Althea gave her own curt nod. “Good work. Now eat your breakfast,” she ordered, and marched away.
“Good work?” Brent goggled. “Did she say, ‘good work’? Whose side is she on, anyway?” He glared at Althea’s retreating figure. “I ought to fire that woman, and for two cents I would. Only ….”
“She wouldn’t let me.” He reached for his glass of orange juice when Jen laughed. “Not funny.”
“Sure it is. Brent Maddox, man of the world, adored and fawned over by women of all ages, henpecked by his own housekeeper.” Maybe there was a bit of small-town boy left in the millionaire, after all. She picked up her spoon. “I take it she’s been with you for a while?”
“Ten unbelievably long years. Mom hired her. Then what does she do? She escapes to the farm, and leaves Crampton here to torment me. I can’t prove it, but I suspect there was a bloodless coup within the first twenty-four hours after Mom moved out. I lost.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“She is on the brusque side.”
Brent narrowed his eyes. “She was brusque with you, wasn’t she? Well, what do you know? She likes you.”
“She doesn’t even know me.”
“Sure she does. Crampton Mind Probe. And the brusque was a dead giveaway. She likes you, you get brusque. All others get in-your-face rude. Daphne Carlson was afraid to set foot through the front door.”
Jen tucked her tongue in cheek. “Cramps your style, does she?”
“Gives it her best shot, anyway.”
“Only because she cares about you.” When he rolled his eyes, she waved a hand over the table. “Fruit, fresh-baked croissants, shirred eggs, hot coffee? Interrogating unexpected female guests? I’d say she takes good care of you.”
“Uh-huh.” Brent plucked a plump strawberry out of the bowl, examined it carefully. “Some days she even lets me be bos
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