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Juliette’s lost her passion for working in long term care, and her life’s as stale as old croutons, so when the opportunity arises to care for the disabled brother of Archer MacCaleb (a man she’s been fantasizing about for over a year), she jumps at the chance.
Archer’s everything she’s never wanted to admit she needs, and his sweet, child-like brother steals her heart the moment they meet. As Juliette learns to understand Archer’s fiercely over-protective nature and begins to embrace her deepest desires, she discovers the MacCalebs are shrouded by mysterious deaths. Could one of the mercurial men she’s taken into her heart be
With disturbing and sinister threats suddenly aimed at her, she must decide…will she flee to avoid becoming the next victim or will she trust Archer with not only her heart and body, but her life as well?
Disclaimer: A spellbinding romantic suspense, be advised that Victims of Obsession also contains consensual adult spanking scenes.
"It's 112 again, Jules." Juliette looked up and blinked at the wall monitor. If only blinking would make it go away, she thought. It was Eleanor, again.
Extremely behind on her charting, Juliette ignored both the ringing bell and the pull in her gut to answer it. If she didn't finish some of her charting now, she'd end up staying twenty minutes late. Not another extra second in this place, she thought, clicking on the icon for safety monitoring. No more!
This place had used up too much of Juliette over the last ten years. She gave and gave and it took and took. She glanced at the resident sitting across from her and ticked the box, indicating that he was indeed safe. Mr. Trent's eyes were closed, and he had a newspaper propped open on his lap. A sweet man most of the time, but he thought he was the owner and liked to walk around making sure everything was running smoothly. He'd 'checked' the grounds outside of the building on more than one occasion, which was why he needed the extra observation. He had been accidently let out by visitors and bringing him back in was nearly impossible. Worse than that, when he got agitated, he became violent. Damn early onset dementia, she thought and clicked the bathing icon. Eleanor called out a garbled squawk from her room down the hall.
"Hold on, Eleanor," Juliette mumbled. "I just need another few minutes."
She hadn't always been in a hurry to leave after work, but with the way the company ran the home the last few years, she felt lucky to get out in one piece after every shift. It was all about money. Why did compassionate care and the health and safety of staff take a back seat to profit now? Her body's aches and pains, aggravated by pushing herself to move faster and get more done, lined the owner's pockets.
"I swear it's the way I start my shift and the way I end it, but does it have to be every ten minutes in between, too?" She groaned, feeling irritated by the building pressure to leave her charting until after her shift. Eleanor was an acquired taste that no one had developed but her, but even she got fed up at times.
"'Fraid so." Michelle grinned. "She loves you," she said, flopping in the chair beside Juliette. "You know I'd get it, but she'll just ask for you anyway. Might as well save myself the trip." She slid off her slip-on shoe and massaged her foot.
"Ask?" Sara blew air through her lips making a horse-like sound. "Demand and tell you to get the hell out is more like it." She dropped her stethoscope on the desk and put her hand on Juliette's shoulder. "You almost done there? I have to chart Marg's supp or she'll get another tomorrow, and none of us will be happy—least of all her." Juliette logged off the computer swiftly and stood. There was no way she was dealing with the aftermath of a double dose of laxative.
"Um, I think I'll be the unhappiest if you double dose her!" Michelle piped up, crossing her arms over her large chest and too tight uniform. Sara rolled her eyes at the blonde.
"Want a supp so you know what both sides feel like?" Sara's lip curled behind Michelle's back, and Juliette ignored it. She tried her best to keep out of Sara and Michelle's squabbling.
"You knew that would get me off the computer quickly, didn't you?" Juliette laughed when Sara shrugged her slim shoulders and gave her a crooked smirk. Juliette sighed. "I work with master manipulators." The bell was relentless, so she headed straight to Eleanor's room. Knowing she'd have to stay late, she hustled up the pace. How late was still up to her.
"Just be a bitch like the rest of us, Jules, and she'll tell you to piss off too." Michelle's laughter faded as Juliette rounded the corner. She just didn't have it in her to be a bitch.
She stooped to pick up a tissue that had been dropped and groaned under her breath. Maybe old age was contagious, she thought with an internal chuckle. How many twenty-eight-year-olds felt closer to retirement than voting age?
"Help me quick, Juliette," Lee said in a hushed, urgent tone, poking her head out of 109. "Things are about to escalate." Juliette looked at Eleanor's bell ringing and sighed, turning to follow her co-worker.
"Harry, my friend. How are you?" Juliette smiled at the man sitting on his bed. His hair stood on end in thinning reddish tufts. His arms were crossed, and his bushy brows scrunched low over his pale blue eyes.
"No way! Not you, too!" He glared at Juliette. "I always liked you," he murmured. His grumpy look was replaced by an injured pout.
"No way what?" She put her hands up innocently. Harry could get violent, but she found that humour often worked with him. It was a gamble, though. He wasn't an overly large man, but in a temper, he could knock them both flat. He liked Juliette, though. And patience went a long way when dealing with the elderly. The approach was everything, and rushing in with your own agenda was a cause for instant sparks.
"That one there wants to give me a shower. I ain't letting her see me naked—forget it!" He jabbed a finger at the quiet Lee, almost cowering in the corner and looked away, grumbling. Juliette gave Lee a sympathetic smile. She was one of the newer personal support workers. She had a lot to learn.
"Aw, come on Harry. We'll throw a towel over the good parts." Juliette waited for it, and after a few tense seconds she was blessed with a smirk from his elastic mouth. His crooked smile set deep with lines, stretched wide for her.
"Girlie, you'll need more that a towel to cover it," Harry said with a wink. Juliette shook her head.
"They sure don't make 'em like they used to, Harry, but trust me; we've seen it all. And if we see something we haven't seen before, we'll be sure to hit it with a stick and run." Harry let out a full-bodied laugh that ended in a wheezy cough.
"How big a stick you got?" he added with a chuckle and twinkle in his small eyes. He stood, leaning heavily on his cane and grabbing for his housecoat. Juliette let out a hoot of laughter herself before letting Lee take over the conversation and slipping out of the room.
When she entered Eleanor's room, the tall, rod-thin woman was digging through her jewelry box. Her skin was folded and wrinkled enough to fit over a woman twice her size.
"Hey, Eleanor, what can I do for you?" The woman looked over her boney shoulder, smiled toothlessly at Juliette, and then looked around. As usual, she had no real reason for ringing, so now she was searching for one. She was lonely, and that was understandable, but Juliette didn't have the time to sit with her. She sat anyway. Sometimes spending a few minutes chatting kept Eleanor off the bell for a few hours. None of the other residents understood her garbled speech, especially with hearing impairments. That frustrated Eleanor so she latched onto to the few people that took the time to understand what she said.
In distorted, unformed words, she asked for her lipstick and told Juliette she'd won at bingo. Juliette smiled and opened the drawer under the open jewelry box. Eleanor was perfectly capable of getting her lipstick. She was capable of many things that she rang for, but it wasn't about that; it was about attention. It broke Juliette's heart.
"Oh yeah? Chocolate prizes again this week?" Eleanor nodded and held up a Halloween sized treat. Juliette took the lid off the tube of lipstick and dabbed Eleanor's lips. "There. Just the perfect tint. Beautiful," she said, putting the lipstick back in the drawer, she listened as Eleanor told her she won on the X and the full card but that she had eaten the other chocolate. Juliette had to focus to understand but was able to piece together the conversation quite well, even when she missed half of Eleanor's spoken words. She'd repeat the few words she picked up so Eleanor felt like she was getting through to her.
"Are you going to walk to lunch today?" Juliette asked brightly, knowing the promise of another few minute's attention later would give her some grace from the bell ringing.
"Only if it's with you," she answered clearer than usual. "I feel stronger with you." Juliette smiled at the compliment. It was funny how sometimes her words were so clear. Particularly when she was calling someone a bitch or to piss off.
"Of course with me!" Juliette stood. "You're going to be racing me down the halls soon." She patted her on the shoulder. "I'll get you at a quarter to."
"I don't trust those others."
Juliette was about to say something about the other girls being just as capable as she was when her heart fluttered to life in her chest. A deep, familiar, but often imagined, voice resounded from the hall. She tried to discount it as wishful thinking, but her name in that deep tenor set her face aflame. It couldn't be! She took a moment to be sure.
"Just a second, Archer, I'll grab her."
Archer was there. In the hall. Just a few steps away.
Archer was the man that had dominated her fantasies for the last year, even after he'd stopped coming to the home. The last time she'd seen him was at Jim's funeral, three months earlier, and now he was here, in the building, and asking for her. She put a hand to her throat and felt her heart beat beneath it. Archer.
It used to make her day, seeing him sitting in the chair by the window reading in Jim's room. The sound of his voice had been soothing, even reading the financial section of the Globe. She listened to every nuance in his speech as she turned and straightened Jim. Sometimes, he'd stop mid-sentence and ask her curiously what she was doing and why, or sometimes he'd just ask her about her day. It didn't matter what it was he asked, though, he always made her heart race. No one's attention had made her feel like that—ever. Wasn't she too old to get crushes?
She still caught herself smoothing her uniform and running her hand over her hair before entering that room. And her eyes almost always lingered on the spot by the window where he used to sit. Her cheeks heated further at the memories of the fluttering butterflies and dizziness his smile gave her. The way his praise over her remembering how he took his coffee when she brought it automatically from the snack cart made her knees weak. They weren't supposed to give coffee to visitors, but Jim was in a vegetative state and never drank his, so why not? He was paying the same as everyone else, which was too much if you asked her. Profit shouldn't be made off the elderly and disabled.
Juliette wasn't normally shy, especially at work. She was the quiet type, however—preferring to listen rather than speak. There was something about Archer, though. He made her feel shy. When he told her how much he appreciated the good care she gave to his friend, she didn't just give a standard thank you; she blushed and mentally aimed to do even better, wanting not only to earn his approval, but to exceed his expectations. She'd do anything to earn his attention—his smile—even when it put her drastically behind. She was always drastically behind, though.
High resident to caregiver ratio and unrealistic expectations were taking a toll on her body and mind. How do you give good care in an allotted seven minutes? How do you say 'I'm sorry, but I just don't have time' and not feel like a jerk when someone lonely asks you to spend a few minutes with them—to talk to them? She was growing bitter in a career that was once the biggest joy in her life. There were still times when she felt that joy, but those moments were few and far between. She was burning out. Archer made some of that bitterness bearable. At least, until he stopped coming. The excitement she felt at him being there reminded her that it wasn't just her career that was stale; her life had been on the shelf too long as well. If she were bread, she'd be croutons.
"Ohmigod!" Michelle covered her mouth when she entered the room. Eleanor grumbled something incoherent, and Juliette concentrated on breathing. In and out, she told herself. Don't faint!
"Did he say why he's here?" she asked after a second, every nerve crackling inside her.
"Nope, just that he wanted to talk to you." She scrunched her nose and poked Juliette's shoulder.
"You're a lucky little witch. He's here to ask you out!" She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. "How come I never get hot men here looking for me?" Juliette swallowed hard and tried to ignore the hope that was swelling in her chest. Could that really be the reason he was there?
"You don't get hot men looking for you because you're married," Sara blurted as she walked in the room. "Me on the other hand—very single." She fluffed her blonde hair. "You think he has a brother?"
"Shh, what does he want?" Juliette whispered, feeling rapidly rising panic.
Both girls rolled their eyes and then shoved her out the door.
"Hello, Juliette," Archer said as soon as he saw her stumble out of the room. Her face felt instantly hot. She wished she could fan it.
"Oh, hello." In her head, her statement sounded completely natural. Her ears told her otherwise.
"Could I have a word? Do you have a minute?" He gestured down the hall, away from the ringing bells and her coworkers. For a moment, she had no trouble tuning them out as she watched his lips form every word. He had a gorgeous mouth. The kind she spent a little too much time imagining molded against her own. He blinked his dark blue eyes, and she realized he was waiting for an answer. She quickly bobbed her head.
"Um, yeah. Of course." She waved her hand up aimlessly and then realizing she probably looked weird, shoved it in her scrub pocket. She grimaced. Mary Wheeler's dentures were in her there. She removed her hand quickly. She'd found them wrapped in a napkin beside her plate in the dining room and had forgotten to bring them to her room. She couldn't have a conversation with Archer with Mary's false teeth in her hand.
He turned, gestured down the hall and guided her with his hand in the small of her back. His touch sent her stomach flipping wildly like a gymnast on amphetamines.
"It's been a while," she twittered nervously, wanting to break the silence. "I actually didn't expect to see you ever again."
"It has." He paused, looking at her, his eyes scanning her face. "I hope you've been well." His expression was serious and showed genuine interest in her answer.
She only nodded, despite the fact that the man made her want to confess everything she felt. She ignored the urge and studied him. He was wearing a well-tailored navy suit with a red and blue striped tie. The way his shoulders moved beneath the material made her stomach knot. He was even more attractive than she remembered. Her head felt light. Could someone as stunning as this man be there to ask her out? Could her plain dark brown hair and hazel eyes attract a man like Archer?
When he pulled her aside to a private corner in the foyer, she was already blushing again, having convinced herself that there was just no other reason for him to be there. She was already rehearsing her surprise and her answer. After all this time, he had come back to tell her he couldn't stop thinking about her, and she would tell him the same. She wouldn't mention she was tired of eating alone standing over the kitchen sink, or that she had thought that maybe she needed a cat because she was so lonely—even though she was allergic. (God, that's probably how crazy cat ladies got started.) And she definitely wouldn't mention the incredibly graphic dreams he starred in almost every night. Nope, definitely not that. No matter how much he stared at her with that tell me everything look.
"Good help is hard to find, Juliette," he started and then smiled down at her. She hoped she didn't look as starry-eyed and smitten as she felt. She blinked, straightened her shoulders and nodded; putting on what she hoped was a very professional air. It seemed an odd way to start a conversation leading to a date, but she was too adrenalin charged to worry about how odd.
"There is plenty of good help around here," she answered. "Park Hill Homes only hires the best." She wanted to kick herself; she sounded like an animated brochure! He chuckled, and she wanted to bury her head amongst the roots of the large potted plant they stood beside, except then she wouldn't be able to see the dimple that came out on his right cheek when he smiled.
She was a sucker for dimples—ever since little Dougie Chambers in the third grade. She had since decided freckles were not as becoming as they once were, but her love for dimples never left. Now she had a serious thing for the dark shadow of budding facial hair that shaded Archer's olive-skinned square jaw. Was he a Grecian God? Did he have Greek blood, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese? No matter what his background was, he was so masculine it made her middle parts throb. She lowered her eyes a moment and swallowed away the giddiness bubbling for freedom within her. This amazing man was asking her out!
"I'm looking for a caregiver for my brother, and I'd like you to interview for the job."
Huh? Her head snapped up. A what? She couldn't have heard him right. He was giving her a strange look again, so she gave herself mental headshake. She hoped the shock and disappointment didn't show on her face. Not only did he not want to ask her out, but he didn't even specifically want her as a caregiver, he just wanted her in the running. Oh dear God, she felt like a total fool. She once had a friend in junior high that insisted the history teacher was her soul mate. The poor girl was the only one shocked and devastated later that year when he proposed to their art teacher at an assembly. Juliette suddenly knew how that girl felt now.
"I-I didn't even know you had a brother," she blurted, sounding like a twit. His brow wrinkled, and he pulled back a little.
"Of course not. How could you? Unless—" He gave her a suspicious look. "Have you been stalking me?" Her face fell flat, and she could almost feel the blood draining from it.
"What?" Her mouth popped open, and his lips slowly slid into a sly grin.
"I'm teasing, Juliette." She groaned lowering her chin. "You need to relax."
His finger found her jaw, and he tipped her face back up. His touch sent a flurry of excitement through her. When his eyes met hers, her middle burbled to life again. The reaction wasn't one she was used to, no matter how attractive a man was. After her last disaster of a relationship, she wasn't interested in dating, at least not until she thought Archer was going to ask her. She was lonely, yes, but a cat was way easier to deal with than a relationship—a cat only meant her putting up with literal shit, not the proverbial kind. That didn't mean she didn't fantasize, though. Archer made a great boyfriend in her fantasies.
"Sorry. It's been a long day." She hoped that seemed like a reasonable excuse for her peculiarity. He looked at his watch and cocked a dark brow at her.
"It's eleven-thirty in the morning." That made her chirp in laughter.
"True." She leaned against the wall. "But when you start at six am and have to get thirty two people washed, dressed and to the dining room by eight, traditional time means nothing. Trust me; I've done a full day's work already."
"Right." He nodded, flashing her a dimpled smirk. "So what do you say, will you interview for the job? One is a lot less work than thirty two."
"I'd like to know more before I commit to something as firm as an interview." She teased back, crossing her arms. Archer was a commanding presence but could put her at ease as effortlessly as he could intimidate, and with the dating prospect off the table, she easily relaxed.
"When's your lunch? I'll come back and take you out. We can talk more." He brushed a chunk of hair back from her face. The intimacy of his touch shook her confidence again. She straightened off the wall. Why did he have the power to bewilder her like that? His eyes, deep and alluring, held her in the moment; the world outside of the two of them was as imperceptible as white noise. It was as if he was reading her every thought, but she didn't feel violated, she felt relieved that she wouldn't have to speak words to make him understand her.
"Have you seen my Max, honey?"
The moment broke like a soap bubble.
Mildred, a sweet eighty-seven-year-old, with some milder dementia, touched her arm. A sad lost look molded her lined face. Juliette took her hand. Her husband, Max, had died six months ago. She occasionally forgot. Reminding her only caused agitation, so they all played along.
"Hi, Mildred. How are you doing?"
"I don't know where my Max is. Have you seen him?" She looked genuinely worried. To her, her missing husband was as real as she was.
"Not for a while, but he's probably off with one of the guys. You know how easily men can get distracted." Juliette ignored Archer's heightened brow. "I'd love it if you'd wait with me, though. We could have some juice and a cookie." The worry eased slightly, and she nodded. Mildred shuffled towards the lounge.
"But he'll be back?" she said, stopping to look at Juliette. She wondered if there was a time Max had really disappeared from their marriage for a while. It was something Mildred focused on a lot.
"I'll make sure the others girls know where we are so he can find us when he gets back," Juliette said, and Mildred brightened.
"Do you have peanut butter cookies, sweetie? They're my favourite." Mildred suddenly stared at Archer.
"I'll be sure to check. Do you remember Archer? He used to visit us all the time." She looked curiously at Archer, forgetting her worry as she assessed him.
"Is he your boyfriend?" she whispered leaning closer to Juliette. Mildred's question made her stomach flip, but she ignored it.
"He's very handsome. Maybe you should let him be your boyfriend." The dementia haze faded, and Mildred was back to her cunning old self. With a clever smile and mischievous twinkle in her pale eyes, she winked at Juliette. "My granddaughter would say he's a hottie. He reminds me of Max in his younger days. He was quite the hottie himself."
"What makes you think I want a girlfriend?" Archer asked, beaming at the white-haired woman with wonder. Juliette laughed and nudged the woman gently.
"Yeah, Mil, maybe he's married." Juliette watched Archer. He was obviously enjoying the conversation, and it only made her like him more.
"He likes you, dear. I can tell, so if he's married, he's a cad." Archer frowned, feigning insult, but Juliette saw the corners of his mouth tighten to hold back his smirk.
"I assure you, madame; I am not married, and my intentions are completely honorable." He bowed a bit.
Mildred looked satisfied and secretly thrilled at his attention.
"Don't you sell yourself short, dear." She waved a knotted finger at Juliette. "He's handsome and seems gentlemanly, but he could be a lounge lizard or a drugstore cowboy. Be good and sure before you decide. You're the complete package, sweetie." She patted Juliette's hands, which were folded at her front and then turned her attention back to Archer.
"She's not a girl out for some whoopee, and you better know it!" Mildred scolded.
"I do, I do." He didn't look at Mildred when he spoke this time. He never took his eyes from Juliette's face. The intensity of his stare was unnerving. After several long seconds, she thought her heart couldn't take another second of its hummingbird's pace, so she broke their stare and looked back at Mildred.
"It was a pleasure to meet you." He nodded to Mildred. "When should I come, Juliette?"
Juliette glanced up at all the bells ringing. The few minutes she took to talk to Archer and Mildred put her even more behind. She would need to skip her coffee break if she wanted to finish on time.
"I'm sorry, Archer. I'll have to pass on lunch. I don't get a long enough one to leave the building, anyway." She pointed up at the bells. "I'll probably need to skip it as it is." He looked at her straightforwardly.
"You shouldn't skip your breaks." His look turned firmer when she started to brush him off. "No, you need the time to recharge from the stresses of this job. If you don't, you'll burn out." He tsked. "Very unhealthy." She blushed. "When's the last time you ate?" The personal questions brought on her nervousness again.
"I had a bite at nine o'clock." She swallowed when he folded his arms. His tough guy stare was making her uneasy.
"And what constitutes 'a bite,' Juliette?" He was intimidating again.
"An apple," she answered with a hard swallow.
"And before that?" The tension he was creating in her forced her to reevaluate her reaction. She shouldn't be so easily manipulated. His challenge shouldn't be creating a humming current through her core either.
"You win," she said sighing. "Gee, are you channelling my dad?" She put her hands on her hips. "You've got his look down to a tee." Archer laughed. It was a deep and resounding sound that tickled her belly.
"I just happen to know exactly what a girl needs when she's being stubborn." She started to speak, but he cut her off.
"I'm going to have some lunch delivered for you. I want you to relax." He dipped his chin to catch her eye and slipped his business card into the pocket of her purple scrub top. She grimaced at the thought of the teeth in there with it. "Tonight, after you get home, have a hot bath, put your feet up for a bit, and then call me." He tipped her chin up. "Understand?"
"Yes, Archer." The answer appeased him, and he gave her a satisfied smile.
"Good girl." His words gave her an odd pleasure. Why on earth did she like pleasing this man so much?
The rest of her day was crazy as always, but there was something different about it. It didn't suffocate her like usual. She didn't feel as on-edge as she normally did. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and Archer was shining it.