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A Second Helping

A Second Helping

Vorschau lesen

A Second Helping

Länge:
586 Seiten
8 Stunden
Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Oct 21, 2015
ISBN:
9781310706103
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

Following the death of her best friend, Michelle Taylor changed her life. She returned to her maiden name, sold her specialty food store and moved back home with her two boys. Egged on by her sisters, she jumps back into dating, but after a few horrible lunch dates she immediately jumps back out. She decides to focus her energy on refurbishing an old farmhouse she purchased while going through a divorce. A chance encounter at a local barbecue restaurant lands her the perfect contractor. Not only is he qualified for the job, but he's the first man in a long time to make her flustered and tingly. During the renovation, she struggles to keep their relationship strictly professional.

Damien Anthony avoided getting involved with clients. Over the years he’d had his fair share of offers from women wanting him to lay more than hardwood floors. He refused to cross that line. He had enough issues with women in his personal life, he didn’t need to bring them on the job. But when she steps into his aunt's restaurant he has to reconsider. All it took was a captivating smile and some blueberry muffins, and he was hooked. Now he has to figure out a way to maintain a working relationship with this beautiful new client and pursue her at the same time.

Eventually, Michelle gives into their mutual attraction only to have Damien insult her. When her ex-husband moves to town he brings a truckload of regret, attitude and drama. All Michelle wants is to live her life in peace, but how is she supposed to do that when she’s stuck between the man she’s afraid to trust with her heart and the man who broke it?

Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Oct 21, 2015
ISBN:
9781310706103
Format:
Buch

Über den Autor

Andria Gaskins is a graduate of Wake Forest University and Life University School of Chiropractic. After a few years as a chiropractor, she decided to leave her practice to stay home full-time with her children. She has won several national cooking competitions, including Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown, Cooking Channel’s Perfect 3, Nordic Ware’s Bundts Across America, and the National Cornbread Cook-Off. She has also competed in the World Food Championship and Beringer’s Great Steak Challenge. Her recipes have been featured on Food Network and Cooking Channel, and in Taste of Home Magazine, Family Circle Hometown Cooking, and Good Housekeeping Magazine. Andria lives in North Carolina with her husband and their two sons.


Buchvorschau

A Second Helping - Andria Gaskins

Chapter One

Michelle Taylor exited the office of R.W. Construction and smelled barbecue pork permeating the air. Her stomach recognized the sweet fragrance of hickory smoke, which reminded her that she’d skipped breakfast. The porky fumes guided her across Elizabeth Avenue to Regina’s Kitchen, where a large painted sign on the side of the rusty brick building touted The World’s Best Sweet Potato Pie—a promising reward after a meeting with the world’s worst general contractor.

It felt like home as soon as she walked through the door. The hostess escorted her to a square table located in the middle of a large floor to ceiling window, which provided a perfect view of the busy street. Michelle eased into a wooden chair, inhaled the comforting smells of slow-cooked collard greens and spicy fried chicken wafting out of the kitchen. The heavenly aroma conjured up images of Sunday dinners at her Nana’s house.

She pulled a small notepad and pen from her handbag and crossed R.W. Construction off the list. The manager of R.W. had evaded her questions and informed her that the company only accepted cash for deposits. Fifteen minutes was all she could endure with that shyster—who obviously thought she was an idiot.

Four down, three to go. So far the companies from the community information board at the library were unimpressive. Maybe she’d have better luck tomorrow with Queen City Builders, Inc. or Barnhill Development Group.

The waitress arrived, and Michelle tucked her notepad back into her bag. She already knew what she wanted. No need to recite the day’s specials, I’m here for that wonderful barbecue. Is the sauce vinegar or ketchup based?

Vinegar. It’s a little spicy too. We serve whole pig chopped barbecue, she added, removing an order pad and pen from her apron pocket.

Michelle smiled, peeked at the waitress’s nametag. Well, Melinda, I’ll take the barbecue plate minus the black-eyed peas.

I can get you a different side, Melinda offered.

No thanks, I’ll just take the barbecue, slaw and hush puppies. Michelle pointed to the dessert section on the lunch special menu. And I’ll also have a slice of your famous sweet potato pie.

Excellent choice, what can I get you to drink? Melinda positioned the pen on the pad.

Ice water’s fine. Can I also have a to-go box? Michelle liked to sample a little bit of everything at a new restaurant. She always ended up with more food than she could possibly finish in one sitting, but the leftovers were good the next day.

Yes, ma’am. Melinda scribbled Michelle’s order on a ticket. Your food will be out shortly.

Fifteen minutes later some guy brought her food to the table. He was the most beautiful server she’d ever seen in her life. Dark hair. Blue eyes. And broad, manly shoulders.

Here you go, pretty lady. Lunch is served.

Michelle’s face got hot when he smiled at her. He had nice teeth. She was a sucker for straight white teeth. He seemed mismatched for his job. A little too big and too mature for the position. He looked more like an NFL quarterback than a waiter.

He placed the barbecue plate she’d ordered in front of her. You were missing a side, so I got you a dish of fried okra. It’s good, you’ll like it.

Then he set a barbecue sandwich plate on the table opposite her. Drinks followed—a bottle of beer and a glass of iced tea too. Michelle craned her neck, scanning the restaurant for Melinda.

The pie’s good too, he said. He found a spot for the dessert in front of a small condiment rack at the edge of the table against the window.

I’ll take that for you, Damien, Melinda said and was gone with the serving tray in hand before Michelle could get any answers.

Uninvited, he parked himself in the other chair. He gulped down iced tea then unrolled the silverware from a large white napkin, which he laid across his lap.

Who was this guy?

Do I know you from somewhere? I must, since you’ve made yourself at home.

I’m Damien. And there’s nowhere else for me to sit, he said, with a smooth, subtle drawl that reminded her of the wayward drifter in one of those sultry southern movies from the ‘60s.

An easy smile slid across his face, prompting a set of dimples to pop up in his cheeks. His intense blue eyes engaged her, and she felt exposed.

She scanned the room. It was packed with corporate, medical and blue-collar types, up to their elbows in barbecue. There were no empty tables except one near the bar.

You could sit with that guy over there, Michelle said, pointing her fork in the direction of a young man in blue hospital scrubs tearing into a piece of fried chicken.

He reached for a bottle of hot sauce and she noticed the edge of a tattoo on his right arm peeking from under the sleeve of his t-shirt. She couldn’t make it out, except that it was black. She didn’t like tattoos, but for some strange reason it wouldn’t seem right if this guy didn’t have one.

He’s not as pretty as you, he said. You should eat before your food gets cold. He lifted the top bun off his sandwich, doused it with hot sauce and took a huge bite.

Michelle studied him, wondering if this was some kind of joke. I can’t tell if you’re charming or full of crap.

Let’s go with charming, he said, chewing.

Why did you bring me fried okra and beer? What if I don’t like fried okra and beer?

He wiped his mouth with the napkin. I snagged the first dish I saw and came over. It’s ninety degrees outside, and what’s better than a cold beer on a hot day?

Michelle narrowed her eyes at him as she tried to figure out the game he was running. She stabbed at the okra and slid the fork into her mouth. Not bad. This is good, too, she said, after biting into a hushpuppy.

What’s your name? he asked, holding her gaze.

Michelle. She tilted the beer bottle toward him. He twisted off the metal cap and tossed it on the table. His friendly smile invited her to relax and indulge.

She took a long swig and felt the liquid cooling the inside of her body. You’re a strange man.

Do you like strange? His mouth curved into a boyish grin that softened his rugged features.

You’ll need to do better than okra and beer to find out, she said, unbothered by his sexually-charged innuendo. She’d heard worse playing high school and college basketball. There was always some dirty remark made by one of the boys to shock and embarrass the girls. Usually some immature comment about boobs.

What would you like me to do? he asked, with a nasty grin that screamed trouble.

At least he was handsome. He added spice to her day, and Lord knows she needed it. She usually preferred clean-cut professionals, but this Damien-guy oozed sexy with his scruffy beard, thick shaggy black hair and mesmerizing eyes. They were deep-blue-sea eyes that looked right through her and made her a bit nervous.

I’d like you to recommend a general contractor who doesn’t irritate me. Can you do that? she asked as she reached for the slice of pie.

I might know a guy. You’re not going to finish your lunch?

I’ll finish it later. Right now I want to sample this lovely pie. You didn’t bring me a to-go box? She glanced at the crowded tabletop. I asked Melinda for one, and you just lost your tip.

Damien excused himself and came back with a plastic take-out container. My bad. Here you go. Can I still have my tip? He flashed that naughty boy grin.

She couldn’t resist a chuckle. I’ll think about it. Are you the guy? Anthony Construction? I read the back of your t-shirt.

Damien nodded. I’m the guy.

She retrieved her notepad from her bag. I have a one-and-a-half story farmhouse in Mint Hill that needs to be brought into the twenty-first century.

Is it your primary residence or an investment property? Damien rolled to one side and pulled a tiny notebook and a short square pencil from his back pocket.

Primary residence, but right now I’m staying with my mom and stepdad in Charlotte. Why are carpenter pencils flat?

So they don’t roll away when you put them down, he said casually.

Oh, that makes sense. Do you mind if I ask you some questions? She flipped open the notepad.

Not at all, go ahead. His demeanor grew a bit more professional, but still friendly.

Michelle ran down her list of questions and jotted notes. His answers seemed thoughtful and honest. She was about to ask another question when his phone chirped. He unclipped it from his belt and read the text.

I’m sorry...work, he said. I gotta head to the shop for a delivery. Do you have any more questions for me?

She flipped a couple of pages and settled on the last two questions. Does your company have a specific work crew, or do you use a series of subcontractors? And would you be on-site to supervise the work?

We have our own crew of carpenters and technicians and laborers. They do the majority of the work. We use subs for specialized services. I’m only on-site for demolition day, but I check in regularly throughout the project. You’ll have a site supervisor assigned to oversee the day-to-day.

Damien scribbled a phone number on the back of a business card. Call the number on the front to schedule a walk-through.

Will you be available for that?

That can be arranged. He turned the card over. Call this number if you just want to say hey. He pushed in his chair and smiled down at her. Talk to you soon, Michelle.

She blushed when he said her name—something that never happened to her. She tilted her head and watched his butt weave between the tables and disappear through a door in the back.

Melinda was suddenly at her side. How was everything?

Oh. Great. Michelle pulled her wallet from her bag. May I have my check please?

Don’t worry about it. Damien took care of it already.

He did? Why?

Melinda shrugged as she cleared the table. Maybe he just wanted to do something nice for you.

Or maybe he wanted to get on her good side so she’d hire him to renovate her house, which wasn’t necessary. She’d already decided to hire him after he explained the reason for square pencils in construction without making her feel like some dumb girl for asking.

So they don’t roll away when you put them down.

She picked up his business card and read it.

Anthony Construction

Serving the Carolinas and the Southeast since 1975

Damien C. Anthony, Principal

Chief Project Manager, Charlotte Region

Master Electrician

On the drive home, Vanessa called to check on her. How’d your meeting go with the contractor?

Better than expected. And I even scored a free lunch in the process.

Chapter Two

Damien tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel as he sang Three Little Birds along with Bob Marley and the Wailers. It was a favorite song that always took the edge off and made him happy, though this morning he needed no help with his mood. The thought of seeing Michelle again was all he needed to feel good.

He couldn’t explain why he was excited to see her, he just was. He’d noticed her the second she walked into his aunt’s restaurant. Her smile radiated as she talked to Melinda. She looked friendly—and flat-out beautiful in that orange sundress with her hair pulled back into a braided ponytail. A natural beauty. Bright eyes, high cheekbones, smooth brown skin.

He had been staring at her when Melinda showed up. Take a picture, it’ll last longer, she said, then snickered as she pushed through the swinging door.

He got an idea and followed her into the kitchen. And damn if she didn’t make him give her forty bucks before she let him have her tray. But his scheme paid off. Michelle did turn out to be cool, she didn’t have on a wedding ring, and she needed a contractor.

Sounded like divine intervention.

That same afternoon she called to schedule her initial consultation. He had already given Rose, his assistant, a heads up to expect the call. When Rose asked for more details, Damien shrugged and suggested she set up the appointment for Saturday morning.

Saturday morning he turned his pick-up onto Winchester Lane, the first left after a pasture with grazing black cows and a small horse farm. The gravel road led to a rustic bridge over a flowing stream and more open fields.

The house sat in the middle of a large clearing, surrounded by acres of wooded land. He parked next to a black Tahoe and stared at the dilapidated one-and-a-half story farmhouse. She wasn’t kidding when she said it needed a lot of work—a resurrection was more like it.

How the hell had she ended up with this place?

Michelle stepped onto the crumbling tiny brick stoop. She wore white gym shoes, black basketball shorts and a gray fitted t-shirt with a red Nike swoosh across her chest. She looked ready for a game of hoops instead of an initial walk-through.

She also wore a sunny smile. He grabbed his clipboard from the passenger seat and shut the truck door.

She descended the steps. Did you find it ok?

Yes, your directions were thorough, unlike the GPS woman’s. I would’ve been sitting in the middle of a pond a couple miles back if I’d listened to her.

I know what you mean. She’s aggravating. If you don’t pay attention, she’ll have you in a ditch or in somebody’s backyard or over a cliff. Her phone rang. Excuse me, she said. She glanced at the screen and huffed. I’m sorry. I have to take this or he won’t stop calling.

No problem. Damien towered over her, which surprised him. She’d seemed so much taller at the restaurant, then again, she was seated when they’d met. At six foot two, he typically attracted women on the tall side. Not that a woman’s height mattered much to him. Tall, short. Thin, plump. Black, white and everything in between. He just liked women.

Damien scanned her body while he waited for her to finish the call. She was in shape and had curves in all the right places. But he couldn’t really make out her butt. The shorts were too big. He rested his eyes on her boobs when she turned to face him. They were nice. He liked big boobs—what man didn’t?

...Yes...I’m already dressed...I don’t know. When we get done...I know the house isn’t that big, but we have things to discuss...I’ll be there...Twelve-thirty, got it. I’m hanging up now...

She pressed the phone off. Sorry about that.

It’s all good, he said, wondering if she was seeing someone.

My brother-in-law has on his pain-in-the-butt pants this morning. He’s all stressed out about this basketball tournament fundraiser the fire and police departments are sponsoring. My sister was supposed to play on his team today—he’s a firefighter in Charlotte—but she got called into the hospital. I’m taking her place.

You and your sister must be pretty good. I know some firefighters, and those dudes are competitive.

I haven’t played in a while, but I do ok. Noelle’s really good. She plays twice a week with a bunch of physicians in a league with other professionals. Will—that’s her husband—really wants to beat this other firehouse. And now he’s freaking out because his ace is on-call. That’s why I’m dressed like a pint-sized Lisa Leslie. She smiled, stopped his heart as she returned the phone to her pocket.

Damien glanced down at her, smiling. Well, you look good.

Thanks. You ready for that tour?

***

I made coffee. She said as she led the way through the screened door that barely hung to its hinges. I borrowed my parents’ coffeemaker this morning. She proceeded down the hall toward the back of the house. It’s regular, nothing fancy.

Regular’s perfect. In the kitchen he removed a well-worn East Carolina University baseball cap from his head and tucked the brim into the back of his jeans.

I made muffins too. Blueberry. I got the berries from my mom’s garden; she has several bushes in her backyard. They’re better than what’s available at the market, she said, babbling like a fool to keep from being flustered by how good he looked first thing in the morning in jeans and an Anthony Construction t-shirt.

Blueberry muffins sound great, he said, with a sincere smile.

Thanks for lunch the other day. It was nice.

I’m glad you had a good time.

You want to see the house now?

Damien put out his hand, gesturing for her to go first.

She showed him each room, which didn’t take long. There weren’t that many. It was a thousand-square-foot house with three small bedrooms. And only two had a window. The one bathroom in the house was a dark closet with a shower and no tub—there wasn’t enough room for one. The living room and dining room shared the same space. A fireplace designated which side was the living area.

Michelle walked in and out of the rooms, detailing her vision for the different spaces. She wanted the house open. Rooms that flowed into each other instead of boxed off. And she definitely wanted a master suite added to the floor plan. And windows. Lots of windows to let in more light and to add some life to the place. Her excitement swelled as she realized her dream house was about to become a reality. Her refuge where she’d have her freedom, raise her kids and enjoy her life in peace.

Damien scribbled notes, took pictures inside and outside the house and made suggestions along the way when necessary. He was knowledgeable and seemed to understand her plans.

They finished the walk-through in the kitchen.

He opened and closed the doors to the row of cabinets under the counter where Michelle had the coffee stationed. Then he reached for an upper cabinet door.

Oh, don’t op—

She was too late.

Damien grabbed the handle and pulled off the door, causing the door next to it to crash to the floor.

Oops, he said, holding the door by its handle in his hand. It’s safe to assume you want new cabinets, correct?

Correct, she said with a smile. Some of the doors aren’t attached.

No. Really?

"Yes, really. I wedged them together. Took me forever to get them to stay put. Every time I’d get one in, another one, two doors down, would fall out. It was like a scene from I Love Lucy or something. I’m surprised the rest of them haven’t fallen yet."

Why didn’t you just leave them off?

Michelle looked at him like he asked his question in Klingon. Because open cabinets stress me out. I fuss at my kids all the time about closing the cabinets as soon as they get whatever. Of course, they leave them open.

Damien chuckled as he clipped his pen to the clipboard. So I can scratch glass cabinets or open shelving off the list?

That would be a good idea. Michelle glanced up at the dingy open cabinets above his head.

Stop looking up there before you break out in hives.

She liked how he said hives. The word hung in the air, dripping in honey.

"I’m not going to break out in hives."

That’s good.

He flexed his eyebrows and flashed a grin. Now, how about one of those blueberry muffins?

Michelle rubbed the back of her neck, fanned herself. The man was sexy as hell, and she needed to get away from him before she went up in flames.

Have a seat. She gestured toward the small dining area. There were two cushioned folding chairs at the card table under an outdated light fixture with a missing shade.

I’ll get the coffee. Damien gripped the handle of the glass carafe along with the two mugs on the counter and carried them to the table. He poured the coffee and returned the carafe to the coffeemaker.

Michelle placed a short stack of napkins, three spoons, a carton of half-and-half and a small jar filled with sugar on the table and stuck a spoon in the sugar.

Damien pulled a chair out for her, gestured for her to sit.

Your mother should be proud, she said, smiling more than she intended.

I’ll tell her that, he said, taking a seat across from her. He stowed his cap on the chair to his right.

Help yourself. She offered him the plastic daisy plate of muffins.

Damien reached for two, placed them on a napkin. An appreciative grunt followed his first bite. You made this? It’s good. Very good. He took a second bite.

We made tons of blueberry muffins over the years at my store in Georgia. We’d get in eight to ten bushels of berries every summer from a pick-your-own farm in Henry County and freeze half for the winter. Our customers expected muffins with fresh seasonal blueberries in the middle of February. They were so spoiled, she said, smiling at the memory of her customers clapping whenever she slid a tray of warm blueberry muffins into the bakery case. She missed working in her store, but today was a new day and a new beginning. For what exactly, she didn’t know.

You owned a bakery? he asked, stirring cream and sugar into his coffee.

A specialty food store in Buckhead. But I started out as a baker, and over the years I was a cashier, stock clerk, manager, butcher and eventually the owner. Michelle pinched off a piece of muffin, popped it into her mouth. Butcher was my favorite job. I messed up a lot of meat before I got it right. We started having burger Fridays just so we didn’t have to throw out the meat and lose money. It was fun, and ribeye burgers are awesome, in case you were wondering.

A butcher, huh? That’s pretty cool. And ribeye burgers do sound awesome. He finished the muffin on the third bite and washed it down with hot coffee. Did you always want to own a store?

No, it kind of just happened, she said with a shrug. After I graduated college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had a biochemistry degree, and I was tired of school. So I got married—instead of going to medical school like my sister did—and moved to Atlanta.

Guess that took some guts. I know there’s certain expectations placed on you geniuses to—

I’m not a genius, she said, attempting to correct any misconception he had of her.

By default, majoring in biochemistry makes you a genius in my book. What was your minor, physics?

No... Art history. I needed to relax my brain from all that science. Studying art did that for me, if you must know.

Oh, I must, he said, grinning. "And if you must know, I was an art major at ECU."

"You? No way," she said.

Yes, me. And why is that so hard to believe? He folded his arms over his chest. You were a lady butcher. What woman does that?

She couldn’t help but notice how the muscles in his arms bulged when he crossed them. She looked away before she said something stupid. Being a butcher was no big deal. I sold food. Meat is food so it was a natural fit for me. But you don’t seem the artsy type. When I look at you I think construction or law enforcement—not art, but it is a refreshing surprise. Do you paint, draw? What?

Draw. I never had the patience for all that went into painting and sculpting. Sketching only required a napkin and a pen, and I could do it anywhere. I like charcoals too, but I haven’t done that in a while.

Maybe you can show me your napkin collection sometime, she said, then wished she hadn’t. She wasn’t coming on to him; he just fascinated her.

Damien’s phone vibrated on the table. He tapped the screen—which stopped the buzzing—then sat back. "I can do that, but first I want you to finish telling me about you. We can talk about me later."

She folded a corner of the napkin. I needed a job, and Peachtree Market was looking for an experienced baker. When I met Patrice—Patrice Daniels, the owner—we hit it off almost immediately. She hired me, even though I couldn’t bake my way out of an Easy-Bake Oven. She said she could teach anyone to bake, but she couldn’t teach them to be a good person, which was more important to her.

She sounds like a great boss.

Patrice was the best. She died of pancreatic cancer twelve years ago. That’s how I ended up with the store.

Really? She must’ve had a lot of faith in you to leave you her business. His voice dropped. And a lot of love for you too.

When Patrice got sick, Michelle had taken it upon herself to care for her boss and mentor since she didn’t have any family other than the other staff people and a few close friends. Patrice had looked after Michelle, helped her find her way in the world, so Michelle set out to pay her back by looking after her and the business while she was in treatment. She wanted Patrice to focus on getting well.

She helped me get a clue, Michelle said with a chuckle. She took me under her wing, and I had the time of my life at Peachtree.

How’d you end up in North Carolina? he said, starting on his second muffin.

This is where I grew up. My family moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia when I was twelve. After I sold the store, I just wanted to come home. I bought this place about four-and-a-half years ago—sight unseen. It was a foreclosure, and it was trashed. Smelled god-awful. The stink even reeked outside the house. There was even a dead mouse in the toilet.

Damien said, Foreclosure, huh? I have a couple of rental properties on Oak Island that were foreclosures. It took six of us two weeks to clean each place. We had to wear hazmat suits. That’s how bad it was.

That’s the way it was here, she said. I paid a hazardous cleaning crew to get this place right. I refused to come in again until it was clean. They threw out everything—clothing, food, furniture, appliances, carpet—everything. Two weeks later it looked like it does now.

What happened to the previous owners? he asked as he went to the counter for more coffee.

I learned from Mr. Wells—he owns the horse farm across the road—that the owners were an elderly couple that let their two adult children along with five grandchildren live here too for several years.

Michelle couldn’t imagine living in this house with all those people. She and her boys had climbed over each other in an eleven hundred square foot townhouse. She would’ve lost her mind cooped up in a dark claustrophobic box with six more people.

After the wife died, the husband died within the year. The kids didn’t keep up the payments, and the bank took the house and land back. It sat unoccupied and closed up for over two years.

You don’t seem like the farmstead type, Damien said, returning to the table.

I’m not. I have a farm out of spite. I was in a totally different place then. Michelle traced her finger around the rim of her cup.

Four-and-a-half years ago, while in the throes of an emotional breakdown on her sixteenth wedding anniversary, it seemed perfectly reasonable to cash in a few mature T-bills and purchase a farm. She wasn’t going to let some slut get all her damn money—money she worked her ass off to earn. The money rightfully belonged to Aaron’s legitimate children.

A totally different place? Damien asked, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded over his chest.

Crazytown. I was the mayor of Crazytown, and just a bit irrational...and a smidge out of control. She was surprised to hear herself making this confession.

You? I don’t believe it. You seem so laid back and together.

I am...now. I’ve mellowed out over the years, and now I try not to let things get me worked up. She shrugged. But sometimes stuff happens, and you lose it.

Been there, Damien admitted.

A lot of people have. I bought the property after a few counseling sessions with several bottles of wine. I saw it on one of those real estate channels while I was feeling sorry for myself on my mom’s sofa. It’s amazing what you can do with a computer and hurt feelings.

So you’re divorced, and you got your ex where it hurts, huh?

Actually, my sister did that. She’s an attorney and represented me. If she could’ve gotten both of his kidneys in the settlement, she would’ve. Michelle chuckled. She’s still pissed at my ex, and my divorce was final four years ago.

What about you? Are you still pissed? Damien unfolded his arms and sat up straight. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—

Michelle waved away his apology. Don’t worry about it. We’re just talking, right? It’s all good.

Well, it sounds like you’re doing ok.

I am. I pulled myself together and moved on. She picked a whole blueberry from her muffin, popped it in her mouth.

Cool. It’s good to let stuff go. You get stuck if you don’t, and life’s too short for that, he said. He grabbed another muffin. This is my last one. I promise. These things are addictive.

I can’t believe you’re not nauseous from all the garbage talk.

I was in the Marines. And I have an iron stomach. Garbage talk is nothing. I can eat anytime, anywhere.

A Marine. That explained the confidence and swagger. So he wasn’t arrogant and obnoxious. More like self-assured and engaging.

My stepdad was a Marine—twenty years. So was my dad, for eight years. The way you carry yourself reminds me of them. That’s why you got a pass.

He looked her in the eye. Is that right? What kind of pass was that?

The kind of pass that let you eat with me and prompted me to make blueberry muffins at the crack of dawn for our meeting.

Nice. You made blueberry muffins for me, he said, nodding slowly as a smug grin crept across his face.

"No, I shared blueberry muffins with you, she clarified. I was hungry when I woke up, but instead of having cereal I made muffins that—"

For me, he said, holding her gaze with those strong, hypnotic eyes.

How long were you in the Marines? she asked to change the subject.

Sixteen years.

Do you miss it?

Not as much as I used to. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a Marine. My dad served, so did his dad and my brother.

Sounds like the Marine Corps was also a family business, she said, impressed by his family’s commitment to service.

I guess it was. But I love what I do now. It’s stressful, but it’s something different everyday—good and bad, and I don’t have to stay in the same place for too long. Most of the time I’m driving from site to site, having meetings and writing up reports. But there are times when I jump in on a job to keep it on schedule or under budget. He smiled. That’s when I get to get my hands rough and dirty.

Rough and dirty had never sounded so good. But Michelle knew it was in her best interest to stay focused, not make decisions she’d later regret. But why did he have to be so damn good-looking?

How do you like working with your family? That must be interesting. She asked the question, fully aware that she was dragging out their time together so she could look at him a bit longer.

Working with my dad and brother is good—most of the time. Family and business can be a volatile combination, especially when all the personalities are strong and want to be in charge. But my brother and I work well together—always have. And since our dad is the boss, we have to work it out if we know what’s good for us.

Michelle was chuckling when her watch beeped. She said, I better get going so Will doesn’t go into labor if I’m two seconds late. I’m sorry we didn’t get much work done.

Damien shrugged. What’s to get done? Once the cabinet door fell off, I figure we’ll just knock the house down and start all over.

What? I didn’t say anything about knocking down the house!

He grinned and carried the muffin plate to the counter.

Chapter Three

With Anthony Construction on board, Michelle’s mind was now free to obsess about other things.

Like blind dates.

Tired of her sisters hassling her about getting out more, she had agreed to meet a cousin of one of Noelle’s colleagues for coffee after church. Now she was waiting in the Mint Hill Coffee Shop a few miles from the farmhouse for another blind date she wished she hadn’t accepted. She hated blind dates, yet this was her eighth one in three years.

She breathed in the soothing coffee aroma surrounding her in an attempt to calm the strange feeling brewing in her stomach. A tall fit man walked into the shop. His bald head and clean-shaven face got her attention. She hoped he was Daniel Pierce.

When he glanced around the room, his eyes fixed on her and he smiled—a perfect sparkling grin. She’d hit the jackpot. He rushed over to the small round table near a side door, where she’d stationed herself—just in case—for a quick exit.

Michelle?

That’s me, she said, rising to her feet. Daniel, right? She put out her hand to shake his.

Yeah, that’s right. He took her hands in his and opened her arms wide. Charles said you looked good, but I wasn’t expecting all of this. He scanned her body, then grunted.

Michelle felt the angst in her stomach revving up again.

Damn, you look good, he said. I’d get my vasectomy reversed just so I could stick a baby in there. How long before we get out of here, go someplace where we can be alone?

Did he think she was an early afternoon booty call?

She withdrew her hands. I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work. She lifted the strap of her bag from the back of her chair and within seconds was out the side door and in her SUV. She peeled out of the parking lot, leaving Daniel Pierce and his vasectomy to enjoy the rest of their Sunday without her.

What was it about her that attracted weirdos? She was a decent looking woman with a curvy figure she kept in shape, and thanks to good genes she looked about ten years younger than her age. And she was a nice person. So what was the problem? If she knew the answer to that, she could avoid dates with creepy men.

Michelle took the opportunity to take care of a few errands, then returned to her parents’ house. Her home away from her future home. Since age fourteen, it had been her safe place to run to when life was too much to bear.

She pulled from the back seat a couple of decorative grocery bags stuffed with goodies and lugged them into the kitchen. Hey, Thor. She hoisted the bags onto the counter, then crouched down to scrub behind the ears of her excited Maltese. I missed you too, girlfriend. Thor pranced around the kitchen on her hind legs—her favorite trick for a treat. Michelle flipped a chewy at the pooch who leaped up, swiped it out of the air and trotted back to her cage to chomp it down in private.

Michelle put away the contents of the bags, then popped open a cold Pepsi and joined her family on the patio. Where’s the rest of the gang? she asked as she closed the door behind her.

Vanessa said, Matt got called into the hospital, and Will’s in the basement watching a movie with the kids. Vanessa slid her finger across the screen of her tablet. She was probably sneaking in some work on her day off. Vanessa loved being an attorney, but a day off was simply an opportunity to work from home in shorts and a t-shirt. Or in this case, from her mother’s home.

You’re back early, Margaret said, patting the seat next to her.

Michelle smiled affectionately at her mother. Margaret Taylor-Sampson was the Krazy Glue—emphasis on crazy—that kept the family tight and on track. She was Michelle’s hero and de facto therapist—always available to listen or put Michelle in her place, whichever was needed.

Michelle sat down beside her mother on the cushioned loveseat. She sighed and said, Thanks to your youngest daughter, I wasted my time meeting another friend of a friend.

With a disappointed tone to her voice Vanessa asked, What happened?

Nothing really, he just wanted to reverse his vasectomy and stick a baby in me. That’s all. Michelle raised one shoulder, lowered it, then slurped soda from the top of the can.

He what? Wendell said from the grill, almost dropping a chicken thigh on the ground as he turned it.

Margaret shook her head. The nasty bastard. What kind of man says that to a woman?

The kind your daughter set me up with, Michelle said, glaring at her sister—though she had no one to blame but herself for listening. Michelle was only ten months older than her younger sister, so she and Noelle were practically twins. And Noelle had always, since they were kids, had a way of making the dumbest idea sound like pure genius. And despite knowing better, Michelle often went along with the idea just to see what would happen.

Where do you find these weirdos, Noelle? If we weren’t family, I’d never speak to you again.

Noelle propped her sunglasses on her head, looked at Michelle. Charles said Daniel was cool. He owns a trucking company and went to Carolina. He graduated the spring before our freshman year. I thought that would be a good ice breaker for you two.

Sure, on paper he looked good—educated, gainfully employed, nice teeth. Perfect blind date material. Michelle set the soda can on the side table and slouched back against the loveseat. But our promising date was destroyed as soon as he showed up and opened his mouth. I wish just once I could meet someone who doesn’t lead with his vasectomy or sniff my chair when I get up. Is that too much to ask?

Noelle leaned back on the chaise and kicked her feet in the air. Oh, I forgot about Jeff!

Who’s Jeff? Margaret and Vanessa asked at the same time.

Do I even want to know? Wendell added as he closed the lid to his prized thirty-inch stainless steel charcoal grill. It wouldn’t be the first time their stepdad was caught in the middle of a discussion about stupid boys. As a retired federal corrections officer, his advice to them was always the same—shoot first, ask questions later. When it came to his girls, all males were predators and needed to be put down before they got out of line.

Noelle twisted to the side of the lounger. Van, you remember him. The guy at the fundraiser. Buff J.J.?

Vanessa threw back her head and cackled. "I remember. The orthodontist, right? He came to the costume party dressed like J.J. from Good Times. He was gorgeous. I knew you went out with him, but I had no idea he sniffed your chair."

I went to the ladies room, and came back to find him face down in my seat, Michelle said and laughed as she saw her mother’s eyes widened and her mouth drop open.

Michelle tapped her mother’s chin. Close your mouth, Mommy. I asked him what the hell he was doing. He said, ‘You smell so good I wanted to see if everything smelled that good before I— Michelle cut herself off to spare her mother the graphic

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