Author's Note:

I've written a LOT of fanfic (as you can see at the sister site to this one), but I haven't written much recently in the straight fiction romance genre. This is gonna be a slow burn (you'll see why pretty quickly), so bear with me. I love hearing from readers, and want to hear your thoughts on my story. Please review! Thanks and enjoy!

This is a grown-up story with one of my pet themes: what happens when two damaged people find themselves keeping company? Meg has a lot of self-image issues. Cole has intimacy issues. Both have been deeply hurt. Both need to learn to love again.

Los Angeles, California

I looked at Marty a little suspiciously. I couldn't believe what he was telling me. He'd called me into the office and told me about another job offer. Currently, I was cleaning for a wealthy LA investment banker. It was a good gig. Paid well and was keeping the rent paid and the lights on. I was thankful to have it.

"Hey Meg," he'd said. "I've got a great offer for you. Come in and let's discuss it." I'd gone in and now here he was, telling me about some musician guy who wanted a paid companion!

"A what?" I nearly yelled it.

"A paid companion," Marty said.

I arched one eyebrow. "Are you serious? Really serious? I'm not servicing some guy, no matter how much he pays me."

He rolled his eyes. "I know that. You know I don't deal with those kinds of 'offers'. No, from what his personal assistant said, he's got a really bad marriage behind him, he's completely unattached, and he's looking for companionship. Nothing more. The PA said he wants someone he can watch a movie with, take to dinner, talk to… It's strictly platonic. Apparently, he's got a big house, not surprisingly, and you'd move in there, with all room, food, etcetera, covered. Even a clothing allowance. It's a sweet, sweet deal."

"What's the catch?" There was always a catch.

"As far as I can tell, there isn't one." He shrugged. "We've vetted him completely. Even the few escort services he's used have nothing but glowing recommendations. They say he was always very kind to their girls."

I shook my head. "Sounds like a real prince. So now, Marty. Why me? You know I'm the last girl most wealthy men are interested in. I am not the slender beach bunny type. No arm candy here."

Marty shook his head this time. "Look, Meg. You're exactly what his personal assistant asked for. I don't have another name I can give him. He came to us because we have a rep for only recommending good people. No weirdos, no nutjobs." He was right. Marty was known for the quality of his hires.

"I get that. Why me? What makes my qualifications so perfect?" I was still suspicious.

"All right. You're only five years younger. He was looking for someone fairly close in age. All the other ladies I could refer are under thirty. Won't work. He's 41. You're college-educated. He wants an intelligent woman, and one with some maturity. That's you, Meg. Derek - that's the PA - specifically said those were the important qualifications. Looks were secondary. And Meg, really. It's not like you're an ugly woman. You're not. So you carry some extra weight. So what? But there's no question you're intelligent and you're not some flighty kid. You're an adult woman, and that's how you conduct yourself. You don't have to accept the position, but he's willing to pay you $125,000 a year. Just for being his friend." Marty leaned across his desk, trying to emphasize the greatness of this offer. But I wasn't quite buying it - not yet.

"Generally, people don't have to pay to have friends," I pointed out.

"Generally, people don't have to worry about their friends telling the tabloids all about their private lives for money, either. Just go to the interview, willya? You can always say no." Now he was pleading, and he always looked a little pitiful when he did that, in spite of his Armani suits. He always reminded me a little of Danny DeVito, except taller.

I sighed. It was awfully good money. "O.K. I'll go to the interview. To make you happy. So who is this mysterious musician, anyway?"

Marty grinned. "I know, but I can't tell you. His PA wants to make sure you're really right for the job, and not just taking it because of who's hiring you."

"This is back to sounding really sleazy." I shook my head.

"It's not. I've talked to Derek several times, and it's as aboveboard as anything ever gets in this town, I swear."

"The things that pass for 'normal' in LA..." I said.

"Tell me about it. Keeps me in business. Driver's waiting out front."

My jaw dropped. "I'm not dressed for an interview! I just dragged on clothes and came over here!"

"That's what Derek wanted - the real you."

"Marty Bachman, I'm gonna kill you," I said.

"Wait until after the interview. You might thank me."

"No, you're toast," I muttered as I walked out of his office.

On the way to Mystery Man's house, I thought about how I got here. I was 36, from north Alabama and had two degrees: one in English secondary education and a master's in occupational therapy, which paid considerably more. I'd been offered a great OT position here in LA, but it fell through shortly after I got here, so I needed to save up some cash to either get back home or stay out here for a good while. I wasn't crazy about the idea, but I signed on with Marty Bachman's Golden Temps Company, in the hopes of picking up some decent money. I'd cleaned a lot of fancy houses the past eight months. Now, this. Well, we'd see how it went.

The home we drove to wasn't massive. It was very nice, yes, and had a fantastic view of the city, but it wasn't huge. No gates at the driveway. We drove right to the front door and the Golden Temps driver handed me a card. "Show it to whoever answers the door. If it gets weird, call me and I'll be here in ten minutes."

"Thanks, Corky. I appreciate it," I said.

At least on the drive over, I had time to get my hairbrush from my purse, fix my hair a little and put on some eyeliner and lip gloss. Black capris and a burgundy T-shirt were going to have to be OK, because that's what I had on. I went to the door and knocked. It took a couple of minutes, but finally, a young man answered the door. He looked me up and down and I handed him the appointment card.

"You must be Meg Kelley. I'm Derek Thompson. I'll be conducting your primary interview."

"I see. Nice to meet you."

"And you. Come in."

I followed him into the den.

"Please sit down," he said. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"Water would be fine, thank you," I said.

"All right," he answered, and returned shortly with a bottle of cold water.

I thanked him, opened it and took a sip.

"You're wondering about this job, I know. I don't blame you. It's a strange request, no doubt, but my employer would like a female companion he can count on to be discreet and kind. The obvious answer to me was to hire someone. Can you be both?"

"Yes. As long as he's kind to me. I don't do abuse. At. All." I was firm on that point.

"No, no. He's not that type of man. He's a musician, and he can be moody, but he would never harm you. Ever. Let me reassure you on that point."

"Verbal abuse is also off the list," I said.

Derek grinned. "Yes, he has a temper, but even if he's angry with you, he'd never be abusive. If he were, I wouldn't work for him."

"All right. What else does the job entail?"

"Be his friend. Like you'd be anyone's friend. See a movie with him. Go out to dinner. Whatever."

It was the "whatever" part that bothered me, and I sat back. "I have to ask this, Derek. Are we talking about a platonic friendship? Is he going to expect anything else?"

Derek shook his head. "I understand totally. But the answer is no. I'd suppose, if you really hit it off, and you agreed by mutual consent to take it to the next level… But that would be between you two, and completely separate from anything else."

I nodded. Something rubbed against my leg and I looked down to see a large, black, furry cat. He looked up at me and meowed. "Hey sweetie!" I said, and reached to rub his head. Immediately, he was in my lap.

"Well, that tells me something," Derek said. "You like cats?"

"Love them, but I can't have one at my place. No pets. What's his name?"

"Sailor. And he doesn't just take to everyone, but he seems to like you a lot."

I grinned. "Cats know who their friends are."

"They do," he answered, and suddenly, he looked much friendlier. He was a nice-looking guy - average height, dark blond hair, green eyes. "Well, I'm sure by now, you're very curious about my employer. And since I think you'd be an excellent person for this position, I'll be glad to recommend he talk to you and make it official."

"Are you kidding?" I answered, a little shocked. "You think from what - 20 minutes - that I'll be right for the job?"

He shrugged. "I do. That's part of my job, and I'm pretty good at it. So. Would you like to meet him?"

"Yeah - as soon as you tell me who he is. If I'm going to freak out or something, I'd rather get it over with now and not make a fool out of myself in front of him."

Derek laughed out loud at that. "Good thinking. It's Cole Taylor."

My eyes nearly popped out of my head. "From Southbound? That Cole Taylor?"

"That's the one," Derek said with a smirk.

"Oh my God," I breathed. Never, ever, ever did I even contemplate the idea it might be Cole Taylor looking for help. Southbound was my favorite band besides the Beatles, and Cole, naturally, was my favorite band member. I'd had a crush on him for years and years. Had all their CDs. Ever since their first hit, "Take The Morning," I'd been a fan. Cole's sweet tenor on that song made my toes curl. The Almighty's sense of humor was not nice today. I had on minimal makeup and the clothes I wore to clean houses. Just my luck.

"I take it you're a fan." Derek was snickering, now.

"You could say that," I answered. "I sure didn't figure he'd be the mystery musician."

"I can tell. Are you still interested in the job?"

"I am," I said, trying to sound like a mature, adult woman and not a giggly teenager.

He grinned. "Great. I'll go get him. He's been anxious to know how this has gone. He was really excited about your qualifications. Oh - can you cook, by chance?"

"Yeah. I'm a good cook, if I do say so myself."

"Terrific. I'll be right back." Derek disappeared into another room, leaving me sitting in the den to look around and think about what was "exciting" about me. I couldn't come up with a thing, so I examined the den again. It was beautifully furnished in shades of blue and cream, showing all the hallmarks of a professional interior designer. It was lovely, coordinated - and sterile. I suspected Cole (or Derek, more likely) just told the designer to decorate it. I doubted Cole had much input. Sailor was still in my lap, purring happily, and I scratched his ears and rubbed him under the chin, which was clearly a favorite spot.

"He loves that," said an achingly familiar voice, and I swallowed hard. I turned my head to see Cole Taylor, smiling at me, looking even more gorgeous in person than he did in pictures. I started to stand, but he said, "No, no. Don't bother the cat, right?"

"No way," I answered. "Hi. I'm Meg Kelley." I held out my hand, he took it, and I almost passed out right there. I was going to have to get past this stupid rock star crush if I wanted to work for this man.

"Cole Taylor. Pleasure to meet you." His pacific blue polo shirt matched his eyes. He wore his wavy, light brown hair to his shirt collar these days, and was clean-shaven. He had kind of a long face, which I'd never really noticed, a beautifully-shaped mouth and well, I have to say, kind of a big nose. But it gave his face character. He had a strong face, and I really, really liked it. I made myself let go of his hand and he sat next to me on the sofa. "So, I know this is the weirdest, but maybe Derek's idea of hiring someone isn't a bad one." His smile was winning and I returned it, involuntarily.

"It's the weirdest. I'll agree with that for sure," I replied.

He chuckled and angled himself to face me on the sofa. "So here's my idea. I'm guessing Derek gave you the basics. Let's try it for six weeks. If it doesn't work out, no hard feelings, and I'll still pay you for six months."

"Six months? Really?"

He nodded. "I mean, that's six weeks you could have spent doing something else. So yeah."

"That's very generous."

Cole shrugged. "It's worth it to me. Derek told you I'd like you to live here, too?"

"He did. I have three months left on my lease, so that's $3,000 to get out of it."

"No problem," Cole said and nodded to Derek, who made a note.

I don't know why I thought a measly three grand would be a huge sum to a guy with the kind of money Cole surely had. Southbound had sold millions of records. "All right," I answered.

"So you can move in, maybe this weekend?" he said.

"I'd think so."

"Wonderful. Derek, make sure she has someone to help her pack if she needs it. Oh. And you can look at the bedrooms and pick the one you like. Make sure she can decorate it how she wants to," he said. "Would you like to see the rest of the house? Sailor's been a lazy bum long enough."

"Sure," I answered. My head was spinning at how fast this was happening. I put the cat down and stood.

Cole gestured for me to follow him. "We'll start here." We walked to the glass doors leading outside. "Patio and pool. And of course, you swim any time you feel like it. This is your home, too, OK?"

"All right," I answered. Cole was a real sweetheart, at least initially. I got the impression he'd been deeply, deeply hurt, and just didn't want someone taking advantage of his good nature again. I understood that concept completely.

"Did Derek ask you if you can cook?"

"He did and I can."

"Awesome. Well, the kitchen is just in here," and he led me into a kitchen worthy of a cooking magazine. My mom's kitchen would have fit in here twice!

"Wow. Incredible."

"Yeah. Wish I could cook and take advantage of it. But since you can, I'd love it if you felt like cooking for me once in a while."

"Sure. If you don't mind eating Southern country cuisine." I smiled at him.

"Sounds great. Where are you from?"

"North Alabama."

He grinned at me. "I knew it was the South. I love your accent."


We walked down a short hallway to another room. "This is where I store my guitars and other instruments. I don't mind you coming in here at all, as long as you're careful with everything and put anything back where you found it." He looked at me as I surveyed the many instruments. "Do you play anything?"

"Not well," I joked. "I love music, but lessons never were very successful."

"Maybe I can teach you some guitar - if you're interested, that is."

"That sounds great." Yeah, I'd take a guitar lesson from Cole Taylor. That would be just peachy keen with me! But I was trying to act like an adult here.

He continued, "My studio is in the building out back. If I'm working on an album, you can usually find me there. And you're always welcome to sit in on a session. I like the energy from someone else being in the studio, and I always appreciate honest feedback, believe it or not."

"I'll keep that in mind," I answered. Like I'd ever be brave (or stupid) enough to give him my opinion on his music.

"So I guess we need to go upstairs and you can pick out a bedroom. All the bedrooms have a private bath."

"That's a nice thing," I said.

"Yeah. One of the reasons I bought the place." He led me to the stairs and started up them. I couldn't help but take just a moment to admire the way he filled out his faded jeans as he walked. I could feel my face flushing and I caught up with him quickly. "It has six bedrooms, counting mine," he was saying. "My room is on the end. So just take a look and see which one you like."

I looked in all the rooms. They were all painted white, and each had a king-size bed. "How about this one?" I asked. It had the walk-in closet I'd always wanted in a bedroom.

"That's fine. Sure you want to be so close to me?" He gestured to the next door - his bedroom.

I was a little taken aback. "I honestly didn't even think of that. I was thinking about that walk-in closet," I said.

His grin was a tiny bit wicked. "For some reason, I even believe you. Well, let's get this out of the way. Here's my little retreat." He opened the door and I looked inside. The place was a wreck. Clothes were strewn everywhere and take out boxes were piled in a corner. He also had a keyboard and electric guitar set up.

"Bet your cleaning lady hates you," I said.

That got a laugh. "Yeah, I'm a slob. My mom used to rake me over the coals about it. But since you'll be next door, if I need to play, I'll put my headphones on so I won't disturb you."

"I'd appreciate that."

We walked downstairs and Cole said, "So, you're going to take the job?"


His grin lit up his face and my heart skipped a beat. "Great." He looked around, but didn't see Derek. "I want to ask you something."

Here it comes, I thought. The catch.

"I know Derek told you I'm not looking for a sexual partner, and I'm not. But I have a hard time living without any touch. If I hold your hand, or put my arm around your shoulders, or hug you, would that be all right?"

Well, let me think about whether I'd mind Cole Taylor hugging me. Thought about it. Nope. "Sure. That'd be OK," I said, hoping I didn't sound like a blithering idiot.

"I'm glad," he answered. "I knew you'd be perfect when I saw Sailor in your lap. He's a great judge of character - much better than I am, in fact."

"Derek said something along the same lines about him."

"That's why I hired Derek. He knows people. I want to love everybody, and sometimes I don't listen to my better judgment as a result."

"I can think of worse faults," I answered.

"Yeah. Hey," here he took my hands. "I guess you need a ride back to the apartment, don't you?"

"That would be good." I tried to keep my voice even, but it wasn't easy, not with Cole's hands on mine.

"All right. I'll be glad to take you back."

"You don't have to. Golden Temps has a car service."

Cole smiled at me, and I could feel my heart doing a triple flip. "I want to. Do you mind?"

"Not at all." Maybe I'd get the hang of talking to him like a regular person eventually. I just hoped I wasn't making a fool out of myself in the short term.

"Great. I'll get my keys." He disappeared into another room and was back quickly. "How far a drive is it?" he asked.

"Assuming there aren't any major wrecks, about 20 minutes," I answered. L.A. weather was great. The traffic, however, sucked.

He nodded. "I think that's the story anywhere in this town. Do you have a car?"

"Yeah, and I forgot. It's at the Golden Temps office. So if you could drop me there, then I'll just drive it home."

"Oh, no reason to do that. Leave your keys here and I'll have Derek bring it to you." Must be nice having a personal assistant.

"Now that's a lot of trouble for him to go to, when I can drive it home myself. I don't expect your personal assistant to run my errands."

Cole cocked his head at me and those blue eyes were twinkling. "What if I said he's now your assistant, too?"

I shook my head. "I'd say I'm weird about who gets to drive my car."

Cole raised his hands in mock surrender. "O.K. I know when to quit." But I had the feeling this wasn't the end of the conversation.

I walked out to the garage with him. Two vehicles - an older model pickup and a brand new Camaro - sat inside. "I like cars," Cole said. "My dad worked at GM."

"That's cool. My dad was a history teacher."

"Wow. What about your mom?"

"X-ray tech. Yours?"

"She waited tables at this local diner in Detroit in the neighborhood where I grew up."

I nodded. "That's a tough job. I did some of that in college. Long shifts and hope the customers are decent tippers."

"I know that's right. Nothing used to irritate Mom more than having a big table and a skinny tip. Really pissed her off."

"Same here," I answered, having been in that situation too many times.

"Well, it's warm and the Camaro has A/C. Hop in and we'll get going."

"O.K.," I answered, and I got in and fastened my seatbelt. I looked around at the dash. This car had every bell and whistle Chevy offered. "Nice," I offered.

"Thanks," he said with that devastating grin. He fired up the big engine and backed carefully out of the garage. As we pulled out into the street, I told myself once more that I was going to have to get past the heart flutter I had when Cole grinned, or spoke - or was in the room.

We talked about ordinary things on the drive to the office. You know, stuff on the news, TV shows we liked - that sort of thing. We both liked cop shows and mysteries. We did actually seem to be getting along pretty well, but there's something about talking while you're driving or riding that seems to take the pressure off. When we pulled up to the office, Cole said, "Hey, you know, even though I'm really glad you decided to take this job, I know it's bizarre, and I know you probably want to know more about my situation. How about I pick you up for dinner tomorrow night? We can eat and I'll fill you in, and answer any questions. Does that sound all right?"

I smiled at him. "Sure. That sounds good."

There went that grin again. "Great. About six, then?"

I nodded and he took my hand, and to my absolute shock, he kissed the back. "See you tomorrow then."

"See you then," I said and got out of the car. I waved at him as he drove past, then went to my own vehicle, cranked it up and turned on the air. But I didn't go anywhere for the longest time. I just sat there, not believing anything that happened the whole day.

I got back to my apartment, still feeling a little unsettled. My cell rang. It was Marty and I answered it.

"Congratulations!" he sang out. "Derek called me to tell me you got the job. He said you were exactly what Cole was looking for!"

"I don't know how that happened, but yeah. Thanks. And thanks for the referral."

"Oh, you're welcome. You're good PR for the company. You know, me having people on staff the stars want to hire!"

I laughed at that. Marty was successful for a reason: he always kept an eye on the bottom line. "All right. I'll let you know how it goes."

"Please do. Talk soon!" and he hung up.

I went to the bathroom and when I flipped the light on, looked critically at myself. Because I wasn't a sun worshiper, I looked younger than 36, but that was about all I could say for myself. I had good skin and good teeth. So did a prize horse. I sighed. I saw the same brown eyes, the same mousy brown hair, the same round cheeks, determined chin and overall ordinary face I'd always seen. I was nothing to write home about, that's for sure, and when you threw in a figure that was more dumpy than anything, well…

I shook my head. I think I'd just figured out what the catch was to this job. I was going to start having feelings for this gorgeous man, and he'd never see me as anything but his paid companion. Wonderful. Just wonderful. But if I could do it for six weeks, I'd have six months' salary, which would get me back home. And it would go a lot farther in Alabama than in Los Angeles. That was a year's salary and then some. Maybe my heart wouldn't get too badly bruised in six weeks.

Thanks for reading!