Her curiosity spiked, although it was tempered with resentment. For almost six years, she’d gone out of her way to accept unusual jobs, the kind that would mess up unsuspecting women’s lives if Mel hadn’t stepped in first. Now, today, she’d suddenly had enough. With the clock ticking and a shortage of material to write her next book, she had to push on. It was getting harder, though; this job might have to be one of her last. Guilt and resignation formed a toxic cocktail in her bloodstream as she huffed out a sigh and sank onto the nearest seat. She imperceptibly activated the voice-recording app on her phone, then forced a smile to her lips.
“I’m looking for work until the end of August,” she said. “If my time frame works for you, I suggest you start with your name before giving me the specifics of the job. Fair warning, though—the moment I hear something I don’t like, I’ll walk.”
He leaned his elbows on the desk and studied her with a critical eye until she raised a brow.
“I’m representing another party,” he said slowly. “I’d like to preserve my client’s privacy for the moment, so I’d prefer to skip the introduction while we discuss the offer.”
Give me something. One detail, I dare you.
When he stayed silent, she got up to go.
“Dean,” he said. “No last name at this stage.”
She sighed. You’re wasting my time.
“I think we’re done here, Dean.”
“I apologize for the secrecy. My client is a recluse. If you were to take this position, you’d be unlikely to ever meet him because he’s…incapacitated.” His gaze flicked between her and the door. “He’s…disfigured.”
Hmm, if the smooth-talking salesman is uncomfortable marketing a “product” with an imperfection, why is he persisting?
Dean hesitated. “He’s a wealthy man who doesn’t want to be seen in his current state. After a year in the hospital, he’s almost ready to return home, but his doctors are concerned about him spending too much time alone.”
“And that’s where I come in?”
“Yes.” He leaned forward, his intensity unnerving as he searched her face. “If the set was watertight, and the price was right, would you consider a solitary version of the show you just tried out for?”
She jerked back as if he’d struck her. Was he suggesting she touch herself while someone filmed her? Find out. This could be the basis of your next book.
“I’m not sure I understand. Why don’t you spell it out for me?”
Color tinged Dean’s cheekbones. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to alarm you. The position I have available is similar in theory
to the one you auditioned for, except there’ll be no cameras and no one inside the apartment but you.” He flashed a lopsided smile. “No other houseguests, Melissa. You’ll live alone in a sealed environment. You’ll be visible from the outside.” He paused as if he sensed she was struggling with information overload. “What I’m offering is different from reality TV in the sense that it will be live, unscripted, and uncensored. You’ll be viewed rather than filmed, and your audience will be limited to one.”
One? As in one single person?
She stared at him, willing him to satisfy some of the questions exploding through her mind.
“We’ve already built the set,” he said. “I’d be happy to give you a virtual tour on my computer screen.”
She was speechless, but she managed to nod.
Dean flipped open a laptop, pressed a few keys, then turned the screen to face her. “The assignment is for three months. You’d be isolated the whole time.”
The screen showed an apartment built entirely out of glass, except for one corner, which presumably housed the bathroom. The simple design comprised a bedroom, laundry, and open-plan kitchen/living area that extended to a sunny outdoor deck with a built-in hot tub. It was modern, uncluttered, and inviting. And if she was willing to overlook a certain Peeping Tom neighbor, it could soon be hers. This could work. It has all the makings of a trap, and I certainly don’t want someone else falling into it.
“It’s nice,” she said. “Where is it?”
Dean’s eyes narrowed. “No identifying details. All you need to know is that the apartment is on the ground floor of my client’s two-story home.”
What city? Why so secretive?
“Tell me about your client. Giving him a name would help.”
Dean shook his head. “Not yet. I want to gauge your reaction to the rest of the offer first. Both the apartment and the living work of art it will contain”—he smirked—“are a welcome-home gift for my client. The apartment walls are made of multilayered glass that won’t break or shatter under any circumstances. The glass allows for unrestricted viewing from the outside but will merely reflect the interior image back at you—like a mirror. There are hefty locks on the door, and my client won’t have keys for them. Neither will you, although you’ll have an electronic alarm system to monitor your apartment and a personal panic button as well.”
“What the hell for?”
He smiled. “Peace of mind, Melissa. If there’s a fire, flood, or serious medical emergency, you can press the red side to summon a local security agency.” He swirled his hand in the air between them. “Pressing the white side will alert me to come and escort you out if you get claustrophobic or terminally lonely.”
Claustrophobic? In a spacious all-glass apartment? What are the odds?
“Dean?” She noted he seemed well accustomed to the name. That added to his credibility. “This apartment would have required a great deal of forethought, yet you appear to have left the most critical part of your plan to chance. Why haven’t you found someone to occupy the apartment before now?” Or, why did she pull out at the last minute?
Dean rubbed his chin as if her question was a difficult one to answer. “My client met with an accident around this time last year. His injuries were life-threatening. His life as he knew it was over. When I tried to project ahead for him, all I saw was a man with no family, no job, and no hope.” He spread his hands, palms up. “No future.”
“He’s been through hell, Melissa.” His quiet words silenced her. “He doesn’t know about the apartment. I had it built on a whim with the vague idea of asking one of his ex-girlfriends to—”
She laughed when he broke off. What she wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall for that
conversation. Clearly, Dean had decided against asking one of his client’s ex-partners to step up, but she still wasn’t sure why he was targeting her.
Dean grinned. “You’re right to laugh. It would have been…messy. He does need to trust somebody
, though. Anyone who has links to his former life will be a constant reminder of what he had, and what he lost.” She opened her mouth, but he shushed her by slicing his hand through the air. “A year is a long time to spend in the hospital, alone, refusing all visitors bar one.” He indicated himself. “He made it through, but now he’s days away from being released and determined to live in complete solitude. He’s even planning to avoid me!” He exhaled. “Physically he’s doing well, but there are times when he could use a friend.”
She felt the truth of his words and took a moment to process them. “So he needs continued support but won’t admit it?”
Dean nodded. “Yeah.”
“And you plan to foist me into his life against his will?” She snorted. “I hope you enjoy train wrecks.”
Dean growled, the feral sound catching her off guard. “I can’t leave him to fend for himself. Everything
has always been done for him, so he’s bound to have problems adjusting to a solitary life. He needs to see someone else going it alone, someone who’s practical and strong. Someone like you.”
How thick do you want to lay it on?
“You’re making huge assumptions based on a few minutes of observation. What if I turn out to be grumpy and antisocial?”
“You won’t.” He chuckled. “A friend who works here slipped me a copy of the audition tape you sent the station. I’ve watched it dozens of times. I already know you’re a neat freak with an optimistic outlook and a healthy body image. You cope well in solitary situations and thrive on routine.” He nodded toward the audition studio. “I’m thrilled to see you don’t tolerate idiots. You’ll make a perfect houseguest for my client because you’re practical and resourceful. He can follow your lead while he learns to fend for himself.”
“So I’ll be his role model?” Wow, Dean was good. She lived to educate others; he couldn’t have offered her a better incentive if he tried. Unwilling to admit that, she laughed it off. “Heaven help him if I’m the best you can come up with.”
Dean smiled. “I can’t imagine a better candidate. Ah, what else can I tell you? Oh yes, there’s no pressure on you to do anything outside of your normal daily routine. Just be yourself, and accept you may be under surveillance. For the record, you’ll be his only point of contact other than me in case of emergency. I built a gatehouse within the perimeter fence of his estate. He’ll place orders for additional supplies via text and e-mail. I organized an automated system at the gatehouse where deliveries can be made from the back of a truck. He doesn’t want to be seen by anyone
. I understand that, but I also know he needs a companion. He needs you
This could make a phenomenal book.
Temptation nagged at her, but experience had taught her to ask a lot of questions up front. “What’s in it for me?”
“Aside from free board and rent and a generous payout?”
Smart-ass. My audition tape couldn’t have been that much of a standout. I want to know why you chose me in particular. Do I look like his favorite ex? Just tell me.
Dean sobered when she didn’t respond. “You’d be helping someone who is down on his luck and too proud to ask for assistance. It has to be you, Melissa. You’re the quintessential girl next door with beautiful skin, amazing curves, and no idea how much power you can wield over a man. You’re the one who’ll hold his interest. Tell me what I need to offer you to make this happen.”
Don’t ask unless you want me to answer unreservedly.
“You won’t like it.”
“I want permission to write about my experiences. Confidentially, of course.”
Dean’s gaze hardened. “Are you hoping to sell your story to the press?”
“Actually, I was thinking about writing a book. It seems like a perfect opportunity since I’ll be holed up alone without much to do. Just me and my computer.”
“No technology!” He exhaled sharply, then relented. “I could source a simple word processor without Internet connectivity for you. Would that work?”
She smiled. Gotcha. You think I’m a flaky girl who’ll give up after writing a few pages.
“I could make do with a pen and paper. The point is that I’d have to be allowed to write and, I don’t know, publish whatever I came up with if it was any good.”
Dean studied her, his lips thinning. “I’m not crazy about you keeping a written record. It’s not a deal breaker. With any luck, he’ll sense you’re getting something more than money out of your time in the apartment, and he’ll feel better about hitting you up for a smile or a chat when he’s low.”
The picture he’d painted was charming, yet unlikely. This whole wounded-saint story was probably a con, but she found herself wishing it were true. “Why don’t you tell me more about your client?”
“He’ll benefit from sharing his home with a houseguest from whom he doesn’t need to hide, especially one who is young, female, and upbeat.” Dean paused, looking uncomfortable. “Not to mention sexy.”
Anxious laughter climbed her throat. She tamped it down. Dean didn’t appear to be hitting on her. He’d said she was sexy as if it was an irrefutable fact. “Dean? Don’t sell your client on the idea of a sexy houseguest. I’m not a stripper or a natural flirt. My clothes and daily habits aren’t scintillating. You haven’t asked me to do anything more than live in the apartment, yet I feel like I’m missing something vital. Why is that?”
“Perhaps because I haven’t told you what you most need to know.” He tapped one finger against his chin as he studied her. “Before we go any further, there are a few things we need to address. You’ll have to surrender your cell phone.” He held out his hand, snapping his fingers to make his point.
She slowly handed it over.
“Thank you.” He turned it off. “It’s imperative you don’t know your employer’s identity ahead of time, so the Internet is now officially off-limits.”
“How do you plan to enforce that?”
“I don’t intend to let you out of my sight.”
Not a problem. I have a second cell phone in my handbag.
“You won’t be going home first to pack. You’ll notify your family of your intended absence via text. Write down what you want to say, and I’ll send it. Do you follow any sports? Watch the news? Read gossip magazines on a regular basis?”
Unsure why he was asking, she shook her head. “No. Does that count against me?”
“Not at all. Your prospective employer is a high-profile public figure who made headlines as both a sports hero and a victim of crime.”
Her mind spun wildly but didn’t come up with a name. Man, this could be huge.
Dean handed her a copy of a newspaper article in which the photo, the names, and some of the details had been blacked out. “This is the quick version of his story. If, after reading, you’re willing to be his companion for three months, then we need to move quickly.”
She read about a man who’d held the world in the palm of his hand before his jealous lover doused him in fuel and set him alight while he slept. Her heart broke as the reporter dwelled on the tragic loss of a sporting great, as if the injuries he’d sustained had been fatal. Seeing her potential employer referred to as formerly handsome and once talented
made her ache for him. If you’re for real, then I want to tell your story far more than I want to write about living under glass. Maybe we could collaborate and market it as fiction? You could remain anonymous while gifting the public with insights into your life.
She bit her lip and looked at Dean. “Completely hands free?”
He nodded. “A wall of glass between you at all times.”
Unbreakable glass and secure locks. Don’t imagine I’ll take your word on either of those.
“Just to be clear, would I be required to do anything of a sexual nature?” She swallowed as he hiked one eyebrow skyward. “The glass, I get it, okay. I’m talking about things like masturbation and skinny-dipping. Are they expected?”
He coughed, covering his mouth as if he was also smiling. “Purely optional. You’re a healthy young woman, and you’ll be living with a man who’ll support any impulse you might choose to follow. If you should ever feel like dressing up for dinner, for example, it would make his day. He’ll worship you from afar and be grateful for whatever crumbs you decide to throw his way.”
Wow. How could she refuse a man who’d savor crumbs? I’m in, I’ll do it
hovered on her tongue. She held the words back. “I still need more information. Will I be able to communicate with him? Will I be dependent on him for food, heating, water, and power? Can he withhold necessities to force me to do what he wants?”
Dean didn’t appear to be the least surprised by her cynicism. “You’re right to ask, but you don’t need to worry. You’ll be self-sufficient with batteries, candles, firewood, an emergency power generator, and massive water tanks, and while most fresh food will come via my client, you’ll have a small vegetable garden and plenty of packaged and canned goods to make it through, if necessary.” He pointed out various safety features on the laptop in front of her. “Lack of privacy will be your primary issue. No footage will be recorded inside the apartment, and the glass will distort any images shot from outside.”
The idea of a living with a stranger who could view her through the lens of a camera without her knowledge was unsettling. Dean’s assurance let her brush it aside. “I’m sensing there’s a chance he’ll flip out at the invasion of his home and try to evict me. If that’s a possibility, can we discuss a settlement fee so I’m not stranded somewhere with a pile of new belongings and a shortage of funds?”
Dean smiled. “You’ll be paid in full on day one, Melissa. We’ll organize everything from here and leave immediately. You can settle into the apartment straightaway. It’s comfortable and furnished in basic neutrals, but your decorating budget is generous so I’d recommend you add some personal touches.” He tapped his chin as he thought ahead. “My client—” He tilted his head when she groaned. “Your host
will introduce himself in writing and correspond with you every day. There’s an expectation you’ll respond. Is that a problem?”
“No problem.” How exciting to have a mysterious male housemate who’ll write to me from the next room.
Dean withdrew several documents from his briefcase. He set them on the desk in front of her. “If you’re willing to sign this employment contract and confidentiality agreement, I’d like to hire you as an untouchable houseguest for my boss.”
She got to her feet. “I’m not signing a confidentiality agreement. If everything is as secure and transparent as you say, it shouldn’t be necessary. You’ve assured me I won’t meet my employer. I can’t simply accept your word. If something goes wrong during my stay, I have a right, a responsibility, to shout about it to anyone who’ll listen.”
He looked as if he was in awe of her outburst. “I knew you were the one.”
The solid ground she stood on seemed to shift. People rarely agreed with her when she was arguing. It made her want to offer a concession. “If my stay is uneventful, I’ll have no reason to reveal my employer’s identity, or even look for it.”
“I’ll add that clause to your employment contract, and another stating that you’ll make my office aware of any material you intend to publicize relating to your stay with my client.”
His enthusiasm made her smile. She read the documents with care, then added her signature. “I’ll need to have the structure and security measures assessed by an independent contractor before I move in. I assume you’re okay with that?”
“Absolutely. As long as the street address and my client’s identity are protected, you’re free to do whatever you need to.” Dean gestured toward the office door. “Shall we? Your new home awaits inspection in Southern California.”