“Casa de Serenidad, House of Serenity, how may I assist you?”
“Cameron or Duncan McBride, please.” With his duffel bag all packed, Brandon had come to a decision. It wasn’t likely Cameron or Duncan had brought a woman back to a hotel room they were sharing. No man worth a nickel would do that; neither would they disrespect Faith that way. Brandon had crashed at their place on the floor when they were growing up just as they had at his. It wouldn’t hurt for a night to do so again.
“They checked out.”
Brandon’s initial surprise quickly faded. Santa Fe and Casa de Serenidad held too many bad memories for both men. But if they’d checked out that meant their room was empty until the next guest checked in “Ms. McBride.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Ms. McBride is off duty. Can the night manager assist you?”
Brandon rubbed the back of his neck. “This is Brandon Grayson, a family friend. Please connect me. It’s important.”
“Certainly, Mr. Grayson.”
Faith came on the line almost immediately. “Brandon, is everything all right?”
“No, but you can certainly help with a major problem.” He sat on the bed. “A pipe burst in my bathroom and the water is off. Since Cameron and Duncan left, I thought I could throw myself on your mercy and have their room for the night.”
“Of course, but another guest is scheduled to arrive this afternoon.”
“That’s all right. I just need a place to crash and take a shower.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding strange. “I’ll call the front desk. It’s the Conquistador Suite. One of our best.”
“Just so it has a bed and shower.”
“That and a lot more. See you in a bit.”
Standing, he picked up his bag. “You don’t have to get out of bed.”
“Brandon, have I ever tried to tell you how to run the Red Cactus?”
He smiled. “That makes twice I’ve been told off tonight. First Mr. Montgomery and now you.”
“He’s such a sweet man.”
“I hope you understand if I don’t comment.”
Laughter drifted through the receiver. “I’ll tell the front desk to expect you. It’s the room to the immediate left of mine.”
He knew her room because he had been in and out of it hundreds of times when her father was the executive manager. Since he’d retired, Brandon didn’t recall ever going there again. “Thanks, Faith. I really appreciate this.”
“You’ve come to my rescue a number of times.”
Although Faith was popular in high school, she had few prospects for school dances. Hanging around her house, he’d seen how bad she felt and stepped in. On the other hand, Sierra always had too many boys wanting to take her out in his and his brothers’ opinions. Brandon had never figured out why boys preferred a girl who kept them waiting, was picky about where they went and bossy to boot, to one who was always sweet and agreeable. “I was happy to do it.”
“I know. I’ll be waiting.”
“Bye.” Brandon hung up, unaware of the smile on his face.
As she was used to dealing with unexpected crises at the spur of the moment, it didn’t take Faith long to slip out of her nightgown into undergarments, then pull on a loose-fitting white blouse and black slacks. Bemoaning the fact that she didn’t have time to reapply makeup, she raked a comb through her curly black hair and swiped on lip gloss, grabbed her master key, and hurried out the door. Brandon’s place was only a short five-minute walk away. She wanted his room ready when he arrived.
Opening the heavy wooden gate that separated her private quarters from the hotel grounds, she hurried to the linen closet located just inside the hotel. The cart was already stocked and ready for the morning shift to begin cleaning. Rather than take time gathering the necessary items, she grabbed the metal handles and was out the door in seconds.
The two housekeepers on duty were probably in the lounge watching television or asleep in two of the recliners. Faith didn’t even think of disturbing them. The hotel billed itself as having twenty-four-hour room and maid service. She could make up a bed and replace the toiletries as well as they could. Duncan and Cameron, unlike Brandon, were relatively neat, so she didn’t expect the room to be a disaster. As for sanitizing the bath, all three had roomed together many times, so that wasn’t an issue.
Opening the door to the suite, she was pleased to see that she was right. Except for the newspaper in the trash can, the room looked as if the maids had just left. Going into the spacious bathroom, she replaced the toiletries and cleaned the mirror, smiling as she did so. Duncan still liked to brush his teeth within inches of his reflection.
In the living area, she dumped the trash and put a fresh liner in the ice bucket; then she moved to the bedroom. She had just folded the abstract coverlet onto the covered bench at the foot of the king-size bed when she heard the door open. She froze, then drew a calming breath and went to the bedroom door. Her mouth watered; her heart yearned.
Brandon in a black T-shirt and jeans was a sight that would make any woman’s pulse race. The T-shirt stretched across a muscled chest before tapering down to a hard, flat stomach. The faded denim hugged muscled thighs with wanton pleasure.
Brandon’s gaze flickered to the cart, then back to her. “Tell me there’s someone here with you.”
“You forget, Brandon, that I’ve worked in almost every capacity of this hotel since I was nine.”
“You weren’t the executive manager then,” he told her, crossing the room in a lazy gait.
No matter how impossible it was, she wished he was coming to her as a man who desired a woman, wished he was taking her to bed, where they’d rumple the sheets and drive each other crazy. She turned away before he could see the desire she kept carefully hidden from him and went back to the bed.
As she reached for the sheet, his strong fingers closed gently but firmly around her upper forearm. “Leave it and go to bed. It’s almost two.”
Her pulse skidded. He was so close. Too close. Wide-eyed, she stared at him.
His midnight black eyes narrowed for a moment. His fingers loosened. “Faith?”
“Stop being bossy and go around to the other side and help,” she said, refusing to look at him.
For a long moment he didn’t move; then mercifully he did as she’d asked. But as she tried to pull the sheet back he simply held his end. She was forced to meet his gaze.
“You’d tell me if there was something on your mind, wouldn’t you?”
“Brandon, as you pointed out earlier, I’m executive manager. There’s always a lot on my mind,” she said with a smile. “Now, let’s get this done. Unlike you, I like to start the day with a good breakfast.”
That got him rolling. “The best sleep is in the morning.”
The best sleep would be in your arms. The thought popped so suddenly into Faith’s head that for a scary moment she thought she might have voiced the words. Thankfully, Brandon had gathered the old sheets in his arms and was placing them on the easy chair.
Her face warm, Faith grabbed the fresh bottom sheet and flipped it to the other side. “The restaurant didn’t have any plumbing, did it?”
“No, thank goodness,” he told her, following her lead in making the bed. “We’re on two different water lines. We’ll be able to open as usual tomorrow for lunch.”
Expertly she encased three pillows while Brandon was trying to do one. She simply held out her hand after she finished the fifth one. He handed his over without an argument.
“Guess I wasn’t much help.”
“Your expertise lies in the kitchen, not the bedroom.” Her eyes widened at the slip. She could have bitten off her tongue.
“Not anymore,” he mumbled, then seemed to realize what he’d blurted. A dull flush climbed up his neck.
Hugging the pillow, Faith couldn’t have been happier with the news. “I’d heard you weren’t dating very much.”
“Try ‘at all.’ ” His hands rested akimbo on his narrow waist. “And it’s Mama’s fault. Her and her wild scheme to get all of us married.”
“So you’re not dating to escape the odds of falling into your mother’s plans for you to be next?” she reasoned.
A pleased smile crossed his face. “It’s great that I don’t always have to explain everything to you. I might worry about it if you weren’t my friend.”
“That’s me, friendly and safe.” Stepping around him, Faith gathered the linens.
Brandon caught the sarcasm in her voice and trailed after her. “I think I know what the problem is.”
Clutching the bedsheets, she stared up at him, her eyes wide with foreboding. “I told you there is no problem.”
His long-fingered hands clamped on her shoulders when she started to turn away. “Is some man giving you a tough time?”
Her jaw slackened.
He emphatically nodded his dark head once. “Thought so. You’re too sweet and trusting.”
Sweet. She gritted her teeth so hard they ached. She bet he’d never called any of the women after him tonight sweet.
“Forget him and move on,” he advised, and straightened, letting his hands fall to his sides. “Don’t let the McBride curse stop you.”
“That’s the least of my worries.” Finally dumping the linen in the hamper attached to the cart, she grabbed the handles. “Good night, Brandon. Sleep well.”
“I don’t suppose you’d let me walk you back to put that up.”
“As you said, we know each other too well.”
“Stubborn,” he said, but affection laced the word.
Opening the door, he yawned, then lifted muscled arms over his head, causing the thin black material to stretch and strain across his impressive chest. “Thanks again.”
Her mouth as dry as cotton, Faith hurried through the door Brandon held open. It closed behind her with a soft click. Biting her lip, she glanced over her shoulder. Elizabeth wouldn’t be out here; she’d be in bed with Brandon. But the hard truth was that where Brandon might want the other woman in his bed, he’d relegated Faith to the role of a friend.
"Copyright © 2006 Francis Ray"