ASHLEY STEPPED OUT OF the taxi and looked up at the rather modest Victorian-style house. She wasn't sure exactly what she expected to find in this small town in northern Virginia, but the simple and unassuming look of the place caught her a little off guard. The house's owner, Anthony Lang, had quickly risen to fame in recent years as one of the world's best-selling authors of suspense thrillers and mysteries, and it was easy to assume that he would have used the money from his book sales to buy something much more grand. Here he was, though, living in a house that looked a little run down and considerably smaller than what many people with his kind of money might own. It had a certain charm, she had to admit, and this job wasn't about the money or living in a lavishly appointed mansion; it was about working for a man whose work she'd admired since she'd found a copy of his first novel in a laundromat. Ashley had taken the book home and read it from cover to cover, taking breaks only to boil a kettle of water and make a cup of tea every hundred pages or so.
Now, standing before the door that would usher her into an opportunity she still couldn't believe she'd been offered, she smoothed down the front of her dress and breathed deeply before knocking with the large brass ring mounted in the center. She could hear footsteps approaching and did her best to stifle the nervous giggle threatening to escape from her throat as she realized she was about to meet her literary idol.
She was greeted by a kindly old woman who swung the door wide and waved her in. "You must be Miss Randall," said the woman. "I'm Helene, Mr. Lang's housekeeper. Just leave your bags and I'll help you bring them up to your room."
"Oh, thank you," said Ashley, taking one of her two bags in hand, allowing Helene to pick up the other. It was a strange feeling to have someone carry her bags, but the woman had the sort of commanding voice that seemed sweet and kind while it challenged you to dare deny its authority. It was immediately clear that Helene was the one who ran this household and made sure everything was kept in order.
"I'll show you to your room so you can have a moment to freshen up. Where is it you came in from again?" asked Helene.
"New York," Ashley responded. "I took the train down this morning. This is a lovely house. Has Mr. Lang been living here long?"
"As long as I've been with him." The housekeeper led Ashley up a staircase that deposited them in a second floor hallway. "I can't say much about how long he lived here before I came, oh, about four years ago, but I think the house came down through his family even though he didn't live here most of his life. Mr. Lang is a man of many secrets, something you'll come to realize right quick. I know him better than most, yet I feel I don't know him hardly at all.”
Here we are."Helene stopped at the end of the hallway and opened the door to let Ashley enter. It wasn't a spacious room, but it had a large south-facing window that provided the room with plenty of natural light, and there was a quaint, sturdy-looking writing desk that someone had placed directly beneath it. The bed was an older four-poster canopy, but someone had taken the time to add modern cream-colored curtains which were tied around each of the posts. The bedding was piled high and looked incredibly warm and comfortable.
"It gets cold in this house during the fall and winter," said Helene. "You'll want to invest in some comfortable slippers and bedclothes if you don't have any already. Is everything to your liking? A slightly larger guest room is also available, but it's on the other side of the house and it doesn't get the same light. Mr. Lang felt you'd prefer this one."
"It's perfect," said Ashley.
The housekeeper placed Ashley's bag on the floor next to the bed. "I'll give you a few moments' peace to get settled. The bathroom is at the end of the hall next to the stairs. The hot water takes a good three or four minutes to get flowing, so start running it early if you want a shower. I'll be downstairs if you need anything. The house isn't that big, so feel free to wander around anywhere you see an open door."
"Thank you. Oh, um, will I be meeting Mr. Lang today?" asked Ashley.
"I nearly forgot!" said Helene. "He's doing his exercises right now, so why don't you meet him in the parlor in about an hour?"
Ashley looked at the woman. She smiled and tried not to seem irritated by Helene’s assumption that she would be happy to blithely wander around the house trying to figure out where she was to meet her new boss. She opted for a questioning look instead.
"Just down the stairs; it's the double doors on your right. You can't miss it," said Helene as she exited the room.
Ashley opened the smaller of her two carryalls and removed her laptop and the neatly coiled charging cable. She hunted around for a few minutes before finally finding the only empty power outlet in the room. She was happy that the cable was long enough for her to be able to charge at her desk. A lamp that would be the one source of light in the evenings took up the other outlet, and she made a mental note to pick up a small power strip to plug in her phone charger. For now, she was happy to arrange a few of her belongings on the writing desk and bedside table. She'd unpack her clothes later as she was keen to take a few minutes to skim the work she'd done on her manuscript during the train ride.
This was the real reason she wanted to work for Anthony Lang. She'd completed two full-length novel manuscripts already, but both had been repeatedly rejected by every agent and publisher she could think of sending them to. She was doing what any self-respecting writer would do and had started working on her third book without wallowing over the first two failures. Now that she had a chance to work with a legend in the writing game, she figured she'd be able to learn a thing or two about crafting the sort of suspense tale that would finally get her noticed. It was difficult being a woman who wanted to write about political intrigue and foreign espionage, and as much as she didn't want to press Anthony to read her work and possibly share it with his agent, she did carry the small hope that he might one day take an interest in her writing.
The work she'd done that morning was rough and raw, an awkward product of the anxious state she'd been in. Her nerves had been a wreck as she'd put the last of her things from her cramped apartment into storage and boarded the train for Virginia; and that anxiety had only grown worse as the day wore on. Now, sitting and waiting for her first meeting with her new boss, she could only skim the page, her brain not wanting to settle on any particular words. What if Anthony Lang were one of those writers who turned out to be a completely arrogant jerk? It wasn't uncommon in the writing world. He'd remained largely out of the spotlight and almost never consented to interviews. His bio photo portrayed him with a kind smile, but that was just a promotional image created by a photographer and stylist who made people look nice for a living.
She wanted to believe that her boss was going to be a decent man to work for, and after the appropriate amount of time had ticked agonizingly away, she descended to the parlor to find out once and for all what the man behind her favorite books was really like.Chapter Two
THE PARLOR WAS MUCH as one might expect a parlor in an old house to be. It was tastefully decorated, if a few decades out of date, but it suited the feel of the house and the furniture was surprisingly comfortable. Ashley sat on one of the long couches facing the main entrance and waited patiently for her new boss to arrive. She crossed one leg over the other and arranged the hem of her skirt so that it wasn't revealing too much thigh. Only after it was draping just right and she was reminding herself to maintain a proper upright posture did she remember why she was here in the first place.
Anthony Lang was completely blind. She could be naked and reclining on the couch with her feet in the air and he wouldn't have a clue but for the fact that her voice would be coming from a few feet lower than where it should be. Still, she thought to herself, how people carried themselves physically influenced how they spoke and appeared in conversation. A polite and businesslike posture would ensure that she kept her mind focused on making a good impression.
In the middle of working out exactly what that impression should be, she caught sight of the man who was obviously her new boss walking casually through the parlor with no shirt on. His skin glistened with sweat, and his perfectly toned upper body was taut from whatever exercise he'd been doing. She hadn't even seen the way he'd come in, and he was half way across the room when he entered her field of vision, inducing a startled noise.
"That wouldn't happen to be my new assistant waiting for me, would it?" he asked, turning in her general direction.
"Yes, that's me," she said. "Helene said I should meet you in here? She said she'd tell you I had arrived."
"Ah, well in that case, I apologize. Helene has become very dear to me over the last few years, but the woman has her own agenda most of the time. If you'll excuse me a moment, I'll just go grab a shirt and come back to greet you properly."
He ran a hand through his sweaty hair and smiled directly at her. She was taken aback by how handsome and fit he was, and she grimaced when she realized she was sitting there staring like an idiot while he waited for an answer.
"Of course," she said. "I'll wait here."
Anthony laughed and walked out of the room. Ashley found it remarkable that he could walk through the room so smoothly and quietly without the use of his eyes or a cane of some sort. She hadn't known any blind people personally, but what she'd seen in movies and on television made her think this was more than a little extraordinary.
"Sorry about that," said Anthony upon returning. He'd slipped into a pair of khaki pants and a light blue pinstripe button-down shirt whose sleeves he was rolling up as he entered the room. Ashley saw that he was barefoot and was feeling rather thrown off guard by the awkwardness of this first meeting.
"It's perfectly alright," she said. "It's your house after all. I'm sorry if I surprised you."
"This is the fastest way to my room from the gym in the garage," he said. "If Helene had remembered to mention that you were waiting for me here, I would have taken the long way around."
"It's no trouble, really," she replied, unsure whether to stand up or stay seated.
Anthony stepped towards her and thrust out his hand for her to shake. She reached for his hand, trying to remember everything her father had taught her about making a good first impression. She pushed her hand forward until the groove between her thumb and forefinger locked into the same place on his hand, and she closed it firmly while shaking.
"Nice handshake," he said. "Women are always giving me the limp half hand. I hate that."
"My dad always said that a handshake is the best way to take the measure of a man, and he made me practice when I was young. I guess it always stuck with me," Ashley smiled.
Anthony sat in a wing back chair at a right angle to the couch she'd been sitting on. "Sounds like a smart man. I assume Helene has shown you to your room. Is everything acceptable?"
"It's a great room. The sunlight was streaming in when I arrived, and it was extraordinarily beautiful."
"I'm glad you like it. I'll have a lot of work for you each day, and although you're free to work anywhere in the house you please, you'll probably find it's best to stay out of Helene's whirlwind cleaning and cooking schedule. We spoke a little about this on the phone, but I want to reiterate that I typically work late hours. Some writers find they get their best work done early in the morning, and I guess I'm similar, although I prefer to start writing so late that its early morning by the time I finish up. I'll leave the recording files on a flash drive on the hall table outside my study. You can collect it in the morning and work on the transcriptions through the day. Does that sound reasonable?"
Ashley nodded. She was feeling a little overwhelmed by everything and was very self-conscious about saying or doing the wrong thing in front of the person she admired so much.
"I get the feeling you're nodding," he said with a hint of laughter in his voice. "You'll have to break that habit around me, I'm afraid."
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Ashley blurted. "That all sounds perfectly reasonable. I'm really sorry, Mr. Lang. I hate to admit it, but I'm terribly nervous right now. Your work has been so inspirational to me, and I want to thank you for selecting me for this position. I'm very excited to be working with you."
"There's no need to be nervous." He leaned forward propping his elbows on his knees. He looked directly into her eyes, which was unnerving since she knew he couldn't actually see. The illusion was shattered a moment later when his sightline drifted to one side. He looked as though he were speaking to someone just to the left of her. "I had an extensive list of candidates to choose from, and after several interviews, I chose you. You're clearly intelligent, analytic, and talented with words, but so was everyone who made it into final consideration. More than any of that, you're passionate about crafting good stories. That's why I hired you, Ashley."
"Thank you for saying that, Mr. Lang. It really means a lot to me." She was glad he couldn't see how much she was blushing after hearing him speak about her this way.
"Speaking of writing," he said, rising from his chair. "I've got to get to work. I like to get started right after a workout. It somehow feels as if my brain is firing faster after exercise. Enjoy your first evening here, and I'll have a fresh file ready for you in the morning."
He paused at the door and turned back to face her. "Oh, and no more of this 'Mr. Lang' business, okay? Call me Anthony or I'll fire you for excessive insubordination."
"I can do that," she replied.
She thought she should say something else, but he was gone before she had the chance. He hadn't been mean or rude in any way, but Ashley could already tell that this was going to be a strange experience. She'd committed to living and working here as his assistant for the duration of his current novel, and she couldn't help but wonder if it was always going to be this unsettling to be in the same room with him. From the way he'd described it, she wasn't sure how much time they'd even be spending together.