HUSBAND UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Available May 1, 2011 on eHarlequin.com
Home-remodeling pro Noah Garrett has never had a relationship last longer than five minutes. And he’s just fine with that. Let his three brothers do the marriage and kids thing, he’s more than happy being Best Uncle, thank you. Until Roxie Ducharme returns to Tierra Rosa, and every time he sees the smart-mouthed, curly-headed beauty his brain shorts out. Good thing, then, the big city gal would rather play catch with scorpions than call the tiny New Mexico town “home” forever…
Despite a past that would fell lesser mortals, Roxie still believes in happy-ever-afters. And princes. Which Noah is definitely not, despite her ill-advised – and thankfully unrequited – crush on the dude that one year they were in high school together. But when she finds herself working alongside Noah to rehab her widowed uncle’s woefully neglected house, she quickly realizes his love-‘em-and-leave-‘em façade is just that…and that she’s powerless to resist the real Noah underneath. Even so, his allergy to white picket fences make this relationship a non-starter…until he does the one thing she’d never expected him to do…
Wrestling a dust bunny with a death grip from a particularly ornery curl, Roxie carefully set the tissue-paper-smothered Lladro figurine on her uncle’s coffee table and went to answer the front door…only to groan at the sight of the slouching, distorted silhouette on the other side of the frosted glass panel.
Thinking, Road, hell, good intentions, right, Roxie yanked open the door, getting a face full of swirling snow for her efforts. And, yep, Noah Garrett’s up-to-no-good grin, glistening around flashes of what looked like a slowly-savored chocolate Tootsie Roll pop.
Eyes nearly the same color twinkled at her when Noah, a clipboard tucked under one arm, lowered the pop, oblivious to the sparkly ice bits in his short, thick hair. His dark lashes. The here-to-forever shoulders straining the black leather of his jacket – which coordinated nicely with the black Henley shirt underneath, the black cargo pants, the black work boots, sheesh – as he leaned against the doorframe.
“Hey, Roxie,” he rumbled, grinning harder, adding creased cheeks to the mix and making Roxie wonder if dust bunnies could be trained to attack on command. “Dad said Charley needed some work done around the house?”
“Um…I expected your dad?”
A shrug preceded, “He had other obligations. So I’m your man.”
In your dreams, buddy.
Although there was no reason, really, why being within fifty feet of the man should raise every hackle she possessed. Wasn’t as if there was any history between them, save for an ill-advised – and thankfully unrequited – crush her senior year of high school when grief had clearly addled her brain and Noah had been The Boy Every Girl Wanted. And, rumor had it, got more often than not. Well, except for Roxie.
Twelve years on, not a whole lot had changed, far as she could tell. Not on Noah’s part, and – apparently – neither on hers.
Which, on all counts, was too pathetic for words.
“Kitchen first,” she muttered as she turned smartly on her slipper-socked foot, keeping barely ahead of the testosterone cloud as she led Noah through the maze of crumbling boxes, bulging black bags and mountains of ancient Good Housekeepings and Family Circles sardined into the already over-decorated living room.
“Um…cleaning?” she heard behind her.
“Aunt Mae’s…things,” she said over the pang, now understanding why it had taken her uncle more than a year to deal with her aunt’s vast collections. Even so, Roxie found the sorting and tossing and head-shaking – i.e., a box marked PIECES OF STRING TOO SMALL TO USE. Really, Aunt Mae? – hugely cathartic, a way to hang onto what little mind she had left after this latest series of implosions.
Except divesting the garage – and attic, and spare room, and shed – of forty years’ worth of accumulated…stuff also revealed the woebegone state of the house itself. Not to mention her uncle, nearly as forlorn as the threadbare, olive green damask drapes weighing down the dining room windows. So Roxie suggested he spruce up the place before, you know, it collapsed around their heads. Amazingly, he’d agreed…to think about it.
Think about it, go for it…close enough.
However, while Roxie could wield a mean paint roller, and was totally up for taking a sledgehammer to the kitchen cabinets – especially when she envisioned her ex-fiance’s face in the light-sucking varnish, thus revealing a facet to her nature she found both disturbing and exhilarating – that’s as far as her refurbishing skills went. Hence her giving Gene Garrett a jingle.
And hence, apparently, his sending the one person guaranteed to remind Roxie of her penchant for making Really Bad Decisions. Especially when she was vulnerable. And susceptible to…whatever it was Noah exuded. Which at the moment was a heady cocktail of old leather and raw wood and pine needles. And chocolate, God help her.
“Whoa,” Noah said at his first glimpse of the kaleidoscope of burnt orange and lime green and cobalt blue, all suffused with the lingering, if imagined, scents of a thousand meatloafs and tuna casseroles and roast chickens. She adored her aunt and uncle, and Mae’s absence had gouged yet another hole in her heart, but to tell the truth the house’s décor was intertwined with way too many sketchy memories, of other sad times, of other wounds. Far as Roxie was concerned, it couldn’t be banished fast enough.
“Yeah,” she said. “’Some’ work might be an understatement.”
Just as this estimate couldn’t be done fast enough, and Charley would sign off on it and Noah or Gene or whoever would send over their worker bees to make magic happen, and Roxie would get back to what passed for her life these days – and far away from all this glittery, wood-scented temptation – and all would be well.
Or at least bearable.
The Tootsie Roll Pop – and Roxie – apparently forgotten, Noah gawked at the seventies-gone-very-wrong scene in front of him, clearly focused on the job at hand. And not even remotely on her.
“And this is just for starters,” Roxie said, and he positively glowed, and she thought, Eyes on the prize, cupcake.
And Noah Garrett was definitely not it.
Despite the stern talking-to Noah’d given himself as he hiked up all those steps, about how Roxie was no different from any other female, that he’d never not been in total control of his feelings and no way in hell was he going to start now, the second she opened the door, all dusty and smudgy and glowering and hot, all he knew was if the Tootsie Roll Pop hadn’t been attached to a stick he would’ve choked on the blasted thing.
Noah’d stopped questioning a long time ago whatever it was that seemed to draw females to him like ants to sugar, it being much easier to simply accept the blessing. So if he was smart, he mused as he pretended to inspect the butt-ugly cabinets, he’d do well to consider Roxie’s apparent immunity to his charm, or whatever the hell it was, a blessing of another sort. Because if she actually gave him the time of day he’d be toast.
While he was pondering all this, she’d made herself busy sorting through a couple of battered boxes on the dining table on the other side of the open kitchen – more of her aunt’s stuff, he surmised – affording him ample opportunity to slide a glance in her direction now and then. Maybe the more he got used to seeing her, the sooner this craziness would wear off. Back off. Something.
Long shot though that might be.
So he looked, taking in a cobweb freeloading a ride in a cloud of soft, dark curls that were cute as all hell. The way her forehead pinched in concentration – and consternation, he was guessing – as she unloaded whatever was in those boxes. The curves barely visible underneath the baggy purple K-State sweatshirt. Then she turned her back to him, giving him a nice view of an even nicer butt, all round and womanly beneath a pair of raggedly jeans’ pockets—
She jerked around, like she could read his mind, her wide eyes the prettiest shade of light green he’d ever seen, her cheeks all pink, and for a second Noah thought – hoped – the world had righted itself again. As in, pretty gal, horny guy, what’s to understand? Not that he’d necessarily act on it – one-sided lust was a bummer – but at least he felt like he’d landed back in his world, where everything was sane and familiar and logical.
Except then she picked something off the table and walked back into the kitchen. “Here, I made a list of what needs doing so I wouldn’t forget,” she said, handing him a sheet of lined paper and avoiding eye contact like she’d go blind if she didn’t, and suddenly her attitude bugged like an itch you can’t reach.
As Noah scanned the list – written in a neat, Sharpie print that was somehow still girly, with lots of question marks and underlinings – bits and pieces of overhead conversations and whispered musings, previously ignored, suddenly popped into thought. Something about losing her job in Kansas City. And being dumped, although nobody seemed clear on the details. With that, Noah realized that grinding in his head was the sound of gears shifting, slowly but with decided purpose, shoving curiosity and a determination to get at the truth to the front of his brain…and shoving lust, if not to the back, at least off to one side.
“This goes way beyond the kitchen,” he said, and she curtly nodded. And stepped away. This time Noah didn’t bother hiding the sigh. She wanted to hate him? Fine. He could live with that. Heck, he’d be happy with that, given the situation. Just not without reason.
Roxie’s brows dipped. “What?”
“There some unfinished business between us I’m not remembering?”
The pink turned scarlet. Huh. “Not really. Anyway,” she said with a pained little smile, “the kitchen is the worst. But the whole house—”
If those cheeks got any redder gal was gonna spontaneously combust. “Figure of speech. Of course there’s nothing between us, unfinished or otherwise. Why—?”
“Because it’s kind of annoying being the target for somebody else.”
Dude. You had to go there.
Roxie’s jaw dropped. “Excuse me?”
Noah crossed his arms, the list dangling from his fingers, his common sense clearly hightailing it for parts unknown. “God knows there’s women with cause to give me dirty looks. If not want my head on a platter.” At her incredulous expression, he shrugged. “Misunderstandings happen, what can I say?” Then his voice softened. “And rumor has it you’ve got cause to be pissed. But not at me. So maybe I don’t appreciate being the stand-in, you know?”
After a moment, she stomped back to the dining room to dig deep into one of the boxes, muttering, “Now I remember why I left. The way everybody’s always up in everybody else’s business.”
“Yeah. I think that’s called caring,” Noah said, surprised at his own defensiveness. Even more surprised when Roxie’s gaze plowed into his, followed – eventually – by another tiny smile, and he felt like his soul had been plugged into an electrical outlet. Damn.
“No, I think that’s called being nosy,” she said, and Noah chuckled over the zzzzzt.
“Around here? Same difference.”
The smile stretched maybe a millimeter or two before she dropped onto a high-backed dining chair with a prissy pressed-wood pattern along the top. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, but…you’re right. And I apologize. For real, this time. It’s not you, it’s…”
She rammed a hand through her curls, grimacing when she snagged the cobweb. “This hasn’t been one of my better days,” she sighed out, trying to disengage the clumped web from her fingers. “Sorting through my aunt’s stuff, and getting nowhere in my job search, and thinking about…my ex – and trust me, it’s not his head I want on a platter—” A short, hard breath left her lungs. “I feel like somebody’s weed-whacked my brain. Not your fault you’re the weed-whacker.”
“I’d ask you to explain, but I’m thinking I don’t really want to know.”
“No. You don’t.” Once more on her feet, Roxie returned to the kitchen, leaning over the counter to scratch at something on the metallic, blue-and-green floral wallpaper over the backsplash. “I promise I’ll be good from now on.”
“That mean I have to be good, too?”
“Goes without saying,” Roxie said after a pause that was a hair too long, before her gaze latched onto his Tootsie Roll pop. “Got another one of those?”
Lord above. Noah had gotten tangled up with some dingbats in his time, but this one took the cake. Not even the cute butt could make up for that. Even so, this could shape up – heh – to be a pretty decent job, so he supposed he’d best be about humoring the dingbat.
“Uh…yeah. Sure.” He dug a couple extras out of his pocket. “Cherry or grape?”
“Cherry,” Roxie said, holding out her hand, not speaking again until it was unwrapped and in her mouth, her eyes fluttering closed for a moment in apparent ecstasy. Then, opening her eyes, she grinned sheepishly around the pop. Mumbling something that might have been “Cheap thrill,” she slowly removed it, her tongue lingering on the candy’s underside, her gaze unfocused as she dreamily contemplated the glistening, ruby red candy on the end of the stick, which she gently twirled back and forth between her fingers. “Can’t remember the last time I had one of these,” she sighed out, then looked at him again, her pupils gradually returning to normal. “Well. Ready to see the rest of the house?”
Lust run amok, Noah could handle. Electric jolts, he could ignore, if he really put his mind to it. But the two of them together?
This went way beyond unfamiliar territory. This, boys and girls, was an alternate universe. One he had no idea if he’d ever get out of alive.
If he even got out at all.
Copyright 2011, Karen Templeton-Berger. All rights reserved.