Date Published: May 2022
As far as Gretchen Maribel Flaherty was concerned, it was the best word in the dictionary. The place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.
Gretchen had never had a home. She and her mama had lived in a lot of places. But never permanently. And Mama only claimed her as family when it suited her. Consequently, Gretchen had never felt like she belonged anywhere.
If anyone had told her that someday she’d be living in a fairy-tale castle, she would’ve laughed herself silly. Logical girls like Gretchen didn’t dream about living in beautiful castles. They knew castles were reserved for queens and princesses. Gretchen had never been, nor would she ever be, a queen or a princess. She was just a plain ol’ country gal who had inherited unruly red hair and freckles from her daddy and the gift of gab and a slow metabolism from her mama.
And yet, she’d somehow stumbled into a fairy tale—purely by accident—and was now living the dream. She still wasn’t a queen or princess. She was a housekeeper. But she loved her cozy little room behind the kitchen, and she loved working for the five Kingman siblings who ran the Kingman Ranch . . . well, maybe not all five. There was one who had taken a dislike to Gretchen. He was the only one standing in the way of making Kingman Ranch her permanent home.
But she refused to ruin her night stressing about the Big Bad Wolf.
Tonight she didn’t want to think about anything but enjoying her bubble bath.
The tub was huge and had a glassed in shower on one side and a tall frosted window on the other. Gretchen had lit a candle, and its flickering light danced on the shiny chrome fixtures and reflected in the bubbles clustered around her.
She sank deeper in the hot water and sighed with contentment. It just went to show you that one day you could be feeling lost and alone and the next you could be living in a castle surrounded by bubbles.
The water started to cool, and Gretchen used her toes to turn on the spigots. As she did, her heel accidentally bumped the handheld sprayer and knocked it into the tub. It turned on and a spray of water shot between Gretchen’s legs, hitting a spot that had her eyes widening.
When she reached for the nozzle, rather than turn the sprayer off and put it back in its holder, she held it right where it was and let a fantasy take shape.
The bathroom door opened and a cowboy stepped in. A broad-shouldered cowboy who wore a hat low on his forehead and a black t-shirt that molded to his mountain of muscles. He moved toward her, his dusty boots clicking on the tile floor as he grew closer and closer. He pulled off his cowboy hat, revealing the thick waves of raven black hair—
Gretchen’s eyes opened and she frowned. No, not raven hair. Blond. Ordinary blond hair. She closed her eyes and returned to her fantasy.
Tossing his hat aside, the ordinary blond cowboy knelt next to the bathtub, his smoky gray eyes—
Her eyes flashed open again. Not smoky gray eyes. Blue eyes. Plain ol’ blue eyes. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate.
The ordinary blond cowboy with the plain blue eyes dipped his hand beneath the bubbles and his lips lowered to her mouth as he growled . . .
“You want me to devour you, darlin’?”
Gretchen was about to say “yes” when someone answered for her.
“Devour me, Wolfe. Please devour me.”
Gretchen’s eyes flashed opened and she sat up so quickly she sloshed water on the floor. But she didn’t worry about the mess she’d made when the growling voice came through the door again.
“You bet, darlin’. Just give me a minute.” The doorknob started to turn.
Quickly, Gretchen blew out the candles and ducked under the water. The sprayer was still on. But she couldn’t turn it off without it coming out of the faucet and alerting the man who was walking in the door. So she held it under the water and prayed she could hold her breath long enough. After what felt like forever, she resurfaced.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Wolfe said.
Figuring the jig was up, Gretchen opened her eyes and peeked over the edge of the tub. But Wolfe wasn’t glaring at her. He stood at one of the double sinks with his hands braced on the granite counter. He hadn’t turned on the light, but there was enough moonlight coming in the skylight for Gretchen to see him. He wore his standard black t-shirt that looked like it was painted to his chest and bulging biceps, and faded jeans that hugged his fine butt and long legs.
To say Wolfe was handsome was like saying the Mona Lisa was a nice painting. His facial features were about as perfect as a man could get without looking too feminine. His cheekbones were high. His lips were wide and full. His lashes were long and dark. With his penetrating storm-gray eyes, continual five-o’clock shadow, and wealth of wavy black hair, it was no wonder women threw themselves at his boots. The woman in the other room was no doubt waiting to do the same.
So why was Wolfe in here talking to himself?
“You can do this.” He stared at his reflection. “Just relax and think about the sexy, hot woman waiting naked for you.” He closed his eyes and reached for the waistband of his jeans.
Gretchen’s eyes widened as he flicked open the button and lowered the zipper. They widened even more when he slipped his hand inside his underwear. A zing of desire zipped through her. The reality playing out in front of her was twice as hot as the fantasy she’d just conjured up. She started to adjust the sprayer when Wolfe’s hand dropped away and he hung his head.
The door opened, and Wolfe quickly straightened and zipped up his jeans as a beautiful blonde stepped in as naked as the day she was born. Wolfe hadn’t lied. The woman was the definition of hot and sexy. She had full breasts that seemed to defy gravity and a flat stomach that probably had never seen a slice of chocolate cake in its life.
The woman walked over and gave Wolfe a kiss that made Gretchen’s face feel hot. As she kissed him, she slid her hand over his fly. She drew away and smiled seductively.
“It feels like you could use a little warming up.” She lowered to her knees.
Gretchen let out a tiny gasp, then quickly covered her mouth. But it was too late. The woman and Wolfe turned to the bathtub. The woman jumped to her feet while Wolfe walked over and switched on the light.
Gretchen squinted in the bright light and started to explain, but the woman spoke before she could. “So this is why you acted so strange when I wanted to come up to your room, Wolfe. You had another woman waiting for you.”
“Oh,” Gretchen said, “I’m not one of Mr. Kingman’s—”
Wolfe cut her off. “Now, Sue Ann, you know I never double dip. I didn’t know she’d be here. Just like I didn’t know you’d follow me home from town.”
The explanation and Wolfe’s charming smile seemed to take all the anger right out of Sue Ann. She cuddled close to his chest. “That’s all right, baby.” She sent Gretchen a forced smile. “I’ll just wait in the other room while you get rid of her.”
Gretchen figured Wolfe would take Sue Ann up on the offer, but instead he completely surprised her. “Now, darlin’. That wouldn’t be fair. Not when she was here first.”
Sue Ann’s eyes widened. “Are you saying you choose that red-headed cow over me?”
Gretchen stiffened. “Red-headed cow? Now wait one—”
Wolfe held up his hands. “Ladies, ladies, there’s no need to fight. What do you say we call it a draw and I don’t sleep with either one of you tonight?”
“A draw?” Sue Ann released a loud, angry humph before she stormed out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. When she was gone, Wolfe slowly turned to Gretchen. The charming smile was gone, replaced with the same annoyed, confused look he always gave her—like she was a cold sore that had popped up out of nowhere and he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of.
Wolfe was the only Kingman who didn’t like her. In fact, he’d made no bones about wanting her fired. And she couldn’t blame him. The more she tried to make him like her, the more klutzy she became.
She had spilled coffee, sweet tea, soup, and a variety of other liquids on him. She’d walked in on him when he was showering, lost his socks in the laundry, vacuumed up his Airpods . . . and even set fire to his bed. None of it had been intentional. But he didn’t seem to believe that. If it were up to him, Gretchen would’ve been long gone by now.
She didn’t want to go.
The Kingman Ranch was her home.
“I am so sorry, sir,” she said as she sunk lower in the bubbles that seem to be popping as she spoke. “I didn’t mean to mess up your . . . evening. You see, the faucet in my bathtub sprung a leak. Your sister Adeline said I could use one of the bathrooms upstairs until the plumber can get here on Monday to fix mine. And since you were in Amarillo lookin’ at horses and your bathroom had this big ol’ tub that wasn’t being used, I thought you wouldn’t mind if—”
He cut her off. “But I do mind, Miss Flaherty. I mind a lot. I have repeatedly asked you to stay out of my room and repeatedly you have ignored me.”
“But I’m the housekeeper, Mr. Kingman. I have to supervise the maids and make sure your room is being cleaned properly. It’s my job.”
“And what does walking in while I’m showering have to do with making sure my room is clean?”
Her face flushed at the memory of seeing his naked body all soaped up. “I was just putting fresh towels in your bathroom. The door wasn’t locked. Although there must be something wrong with that latch because I locked it tonight and you walked right in.” She smiled brightly. “So I guess that makes us even.”
He spoke through gritted teeth. “Not even close. I want you to stay away from me. I don’t want you in my room. I don’t want you in my bathroom. And I don’t want you in my tub. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir!” She went to do a little salute, forgetting about the spray nozzle in her hand. As soon as it was out of the tub, water shot through the air . . . and hit Wolfe right in the face.
“Oh, no!” Gretchen gasped as she tried to find the shut off button. When she couldn’t, she pulled it back under the water and sat up to turn off the taps.
But it was too late.
By the time she looked back, Wolfe was wet from his thick raven hair to his lizard-skin boots. His jaw worked back and forth like he was a cow chewing on a nasty piece of cud. Then his gaze lowered, and his jaw stopped moving and dropped open.
When Gretchen glanced down, she understood why. Her boobs were no longer covered in bubbles. They hung there like two huge water balloons. She released a little squeal before she crossed her arms over her chest and slid back in the tub, sloshing even more water onto the floor.
For a long, embarrassing moment, Wolfe stood there staring at the water with its thin layer of bubbles before he turned on a boot heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him.
Once he was gone, Gretchen quickly got out of the tub and dried off with a towel. “You’ve done it now, Gretchen Maribel Flaherty. If this doesn’t get you fired, nothing will.” She pulled on her chenille robe and hurried out of the en suite bathroom, hoping to apologize . . . but she was struck speechless by the sight of a shirtless Wolfe stripping off his wet jeans.
Just like when she’d walked in on him taking a shower, she became paralyzed by his masculine beauty. By the artfully arranged muscles. The perfect sprinkling of dark hair. And the sexy snarling wolf tattoo. All she could do was stand there ogling him like a Magic Mike strip show. If she’d had any dollars, it would’ve been raining money.
Unfortunately, he didn’t appreciate her appreciation. When he noticed her, he jerked his jeans back up and released a growl. “Out!”
She scurried out of the room like a scared mouse and ran into Adeline coming out of her bedroom. If anyone was a princess, Adeline Kingman was. She was beautiful and kind and gracious. She never treated Gretchen like an employee. She’d always treated her like a friend.
“Gretchen, what happened? Is that Wolfe I heard yelling?”
Gretchen nodded. “He came home from Amarillo early . . . and caught me taking a bubble bath in his tub. I’m so sorry, Addie. I should’ve used one of the guest bathrooms.”
Adeline waved a hand. “You didn’t know he was going to come home early.” She laughed. “Although you certainly know how to get under my brother’s skin.”
Gretchen’s shoulders slumped. “He hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you. He just isn’t used to women being so . . .”
“Klutzy around him. Everything I do for him turns out wrong.”
Adeline smiled. “Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Wolfe has too many women wrapped around his little finger as is.”
“But I’m sure he’ll want you to fire me after this.”
“This house is my domain. No one can tell me who to hire or fire.” Adeline gave her a hug. “So stop worrying. You’re not going anywhere. You’re not only a wonderful housekeeper, you’re my friend. And I’m thankful every day that you answered that ad.”
Gretchen hadn’t intended to answer the online ad. She hadn’t come to the Kingman Ranch to be a housekeeper. She’d just wanted to see the castle her mama had talked about. When Adeline had made the wrong assumption, Gretchen had gone along with it. It was the best decision she’d ever made.
“I’m thankful every day too.” She hugged Adeline tight. But despite Adeline’s assurance, Gretchen knew that blood was thicker than water. If she couldn’t figure out a way to get Wolfe to like her, there was a possibility she might get fired.
“Everything okay, sweetheart?” The bedroom door opened and Adeline’s husband appeared. Gage Reardon was the ranch foreman and as handsome as all the other cowboys on the ranch.
“Everything is fine,” Adeline said. “Gretchen and I were just having a girl moment.” She sent Gage a loving look. “But now that you’re awake . . .”
Gretchen took her cue. “Goodnight, y’all. See you in the mornin’.”
Once downstairs, she checked to make sure all the lights were off and the doors locked before she headed to her room. On the way, she passed through the kitchen. With its eight-burner gas stove, three ovens, a commercial-sized refrigerator, and a marble-topped island perfect for rolling out piecrust, it was her dream kitchen.
Gretchen didn’t have a lot of talents. One talent she did have was making pies. But since coming to the Kingman Ranch, she had to put her love of baking aside. The Kingmans’ cook, Potts, was an old chuck wagon cowboy who didn’t like people messing in his kitchen.
She stopped by the marble island and glanced around. What would it hurt if she made one little ol’ pie?
One little ol’ pie to win over a big, bad wolf. (Charming a Big Bad Texan Excerpt by Katie Lane)