Pelican Pointe, California
Naomi Townsend’s childhood ended that hot and humid night the last week in August just a few hours after her family had returned home from manning their annual booth at the State Fair.
If anyone had asked, she would have told them that she’d left behind that awful memory the day she moved thirteen hundred miles away from the spot where her family had perished.
But on days like today when the November sun drilled through the puffy white clouds across Smuggler’s Bay in shafts of golden light, she knew she’d never truly be rid of it. How could she? She’d learned the hard way that years didn’t make the sadness fade any faster and distance didn’t ease the pain.
Real-life nightmares like that never truly ended. Deep down she knew that. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, it was a reminder that holidays, any holiday, were especially hard to take. As it got closer, memories of happier times would come rushing back and she’d have to face them yet again, along with what she’d lost. She knew the next two months would be tough.
For her, there was no more sharing a joke with a sibling or laughing uncontrollably at a dozen silly things that only sisters could think to say. No more squabbling over toys with her brothers, no fighting over the last piece of pumpkin pie. No more verbal battles over who got the last bit of leftover dressing.
This Thursday morning, two weeks before Thanksgiving, she breathed out a sigh knowing she had to get out of this nostalgic mood pulling her down into an abyss. She’d been there before. Plenty of times. There was just so much that expensive therapy could accomplish before you had to take responsibility for your own healing and let the anger and sadness go. Go where? She still wasn’t sure.
Even after all this time, she could only keep to the path she’d taken at the age of eight when she’d gone to live with her aunt and uncle. She kept her head down, her nose to the grindstone, and focused on school.
Once she reached her teenage years, her outward demeanor was that of a young girl who did well in every subject, over-achieving to a fault at each assignment she encountered. Nothing seemed too great for Naomi Townsend to conquer once she set her mind to it.
She’d graduated from high school at seventeen and entered the University of Nebraska that fall with an eye on finance. A whiz at math, she excelled in all her classes because she had no social life. It didn’t become an issue until sophomore year when the other girls in her dorm started to tease her about it. Using words like “bookworm” and “nerd,” they taunted Naomi for her good grades and awkward appearance. She’d come to Lincoln on an academic scholarship. But for girls who seemed to have everything—looks and money and families back home—they didn’t seem to get that Naomi still had to work in the cafeteria to support herself and take on a second job at the bookstore just to pay for the basics.
She blinked out of the past and hurled herself into the present. Looking around at her shell of a kitchen, at the fixer-upper she’d foolishly bought, she stared at the first new friend she’d made since moving to town. Today Drea Jennings, the florist, seemed as perky as Naomi was brooding.
“What’s wrong?” Drea asked with a frown and a nudge of her elbow.
“Look at this place. I’ve bitten off more than I can handle. Mr. Donnelly warned me. He tried to tell me not to take this on so soon after moving here, tried to remind me what a daunting task it would probably be this time of year. He tried to point me in the direction of a house that didn’t need quite so much work. But I wouldn’t listen. I thought I could handle all the hammering and intrusions. But I don’t even have a kitchen. Turns out…this is driving me nuts. I should be offering you a nice homemade muffin and a cup of coffee right about now. Instead, we’re standing in the middle of chaos, holding the coffee you brought with you.”
“Latte for you, cappuccino for me,” Drea said cheerily before realizing Naomi was close to a meltdown. “Look, these guys haven’t been at it for that long. If it’s any consolation, you hired the best contractors in town. Trust me, Zach Dennison, Ryder McLachlan, and Troy Dayton know what they’re doing. You just have to be a little more patient, give them time to work their magic.”
Naomi knew Logan Donnelly had assured her of the same thing. But it wasn’t any consolation. She glanced around the small house until her eyes landed on one of the guys in the work crew. She recognized him from the day before. She licked her lips and took a deep gulp of the hot brew, still steaming with heat.
While her mouth burned with the liquid, she took in the new guy, who was downright gorgeous. He wasn’t all that tall, maybe five-ten, but he had thick black hair that curled all the way to his shoulders. His tanned arms bunched out of his T-shirt whenever he moved. It seemed as though his muscles had muscles. He had broad shoulders. She stared at the way his body tapered down to a trim and fit waistline before his tool belt wrapped around a shapely rear end. His jeans were snug, which made her wonder how he could possibly build anything while wearing them. She couldn’t seem to pull her eyes away from him, even when he pivoted to say something to one of the other men.
She fumbled with the container and managed to swallow the rest of what was there. She never tasted the liquid but continued to gape at the prettiest mouth she’d ever seen on a man. He had a sculpted chin that reminded her of a Greek god. Or maybe of a Native American warrior. The pull in her belly was as much of a surprise to her as anything else. That sudden attraction reminded her that she hadn’t had sex in…she couldn’t even remember the last time.
She felt Drea jab another elbow into her ribs. “Ouch! Stop doing that!”
“You looked mesmerized. I was just trying to get you back from wherever you were just now. Maybe you should close your mouth. You’re gaping at Colton Del Rio.”
“I was not gaping.”
“Maybe you’re right. More like ogling. I hear that he’s only been in town a week, some Army buddy of Simon Bremmer’s. They were in the Rangers together. I heard Simon and Cord got him out of some trouble down in New Mexico.”
Naomi cut her eyes back to Drea’s. “Is there anything you don’t know about anyone? Don’t let anyone in town tell you that you aren’t the go-to source for the latest information on all the gossip. You should seriously think about starting a newsletter.”
“Hey, the rumor mill starts in my shop. I hear everything first. But that doesn’t explain why you’re ogling Colt Del Rio.”
“I’m just trying to determine if he knows what he’s doing.”
“I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he knows exactly what he’s doing wherever he goes or whatever he does.”
“Oh, stop it. He’s just a man.” A good-looking, hunky man who built stuff with his hands. “It’s just that I appreciate good craftsmanship.”
“Sure you do. Don’t we all? A man who looks like that and gets a reaction out of you that I haven’t ever seen before, not in the six weeks I’ve known you, is…gotta be something special. Don’t deny it.”
No, Naomi thought, she couldn’t deny it and wouldn’t. “So I had a normal female reaction to an attractive man. Happens all the time. Stop making a big deal out of it.”
Drea rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath, “Doesn’t happen to you.”
“I heard that. I don’t have time to waste standing around staring at…”
“Colton’s butt?” Drea added. “Agreed.”
Naomi ignored her friend. “I need to ask Troy about the timeframe for the cabinets. I thought they should’ve been in by now. Be right back.”
She crossed over to where Troy stood. He might’ve been the youngest of the lot, but Naomi knew he’d taken the lead on her renovation. She was sure it was because he could best handle a nervous Nellie like herself in the midst of having second thoughts. “Is there any way my kitchen will be done soon?”
Troy turned from his crew to stare at the newcomer. He felt a certain amount of sympathy for her and sent her his friendliest downhome smile. “We’re right on schedule. We only just recently knocked down the interior wall separating the living room from the kitchen. We added a support beam because we were opening this area up in a great-room design. I know you’re anxious for us to get out of your hair, but we haven’t yet walled in the pantry. That should be done by this afternoon and then we’ll start hanging the sheetrock for your brand-new utility room. In other words, we aren’t nearly done yet.”
Out of habit, Naomi chewed her lip and nervously ran a hand through strands of dark wheat-colored hair, locks that stylist Abby Bonner had convinced her to make lighter the week before. The decision had left her with bands of golden caramel streaking through the otherwise brown mop. By allowing Abby to talk her into the new ’do, Naomi thought she might fit into her new surroundings better, throw business around town, keep the locals happy. But the color only made her look like a slightly cheap hooker, a look she intended to fix in Santa Cruz first chance she got.
But at this moment, she doubted Troy cared about any of that. “Look, patience isn’t something I’m very good at, certainly not in the middle of all this. I know you’re all doing your very best and I appreciate it. But I need…” How could she explain to him that she required more order in her life…and quiet…lots of quiet? Isn’t that why she’d picked this rundown house in a section of town with nothing but weed lots on either side? After a long day at the bank, it was solitude she craved.
“I’m just a little overwhelmed right now,” she finally admitted.
“I get that. We all do. You’re in a hurry to settle in for real,” Troy began. “We’re working as quickly as we can to get this done by the first week of December. I’ve even taken on an extra carpenter to make sure we meet our deadline. Since he came onboard, Colton over there has been working late into the night, every night this week, on your cabinets.”
Naomi blushed with embarrassment. She wasn’t a brutal taskmaster who demanded people work tirelessly just for her. “Oh, but I don’t expect anyone to put in such long hours like that because of me.”
“It’s okay. Colt doesn’t mind the work. This project is keeping him hopping. All the work here is spreading us all a little thin, which is why we’re lucky to get a new man with his skills. Plus, he’s the only one of us willing to put in time on your house on the weekends. That’s huge. Ryder and I just can’t do that. Tonight, he’s even agreed to finish the stain on your cabinets so that they’ll be ready to install by Saturday.”
After a week of looking at ugly sheetrock and breathing dust, the news caused a jolt of excitement to shortwave straight to her heart. “Really? Now see, that would be wonderful.”
“The plan is for Zach and Colt to get here early and be done by noon. I’d help, but my wife’s attending a baby fair at the convention center in Santa Cruz with a group of other moms and I’m babysitting. They’re making a weekend out of it, checking into a spa Friday afternoon and staying until Sunday, treating themselves to all kinds of facials and massages. You know, the girly stuff.”
Drea had moved closer and let out an envious sigh. “That’s what happens when you run your own shop. Saturdays are my busiest days.” She lightly tapped Naomi’s arm. “We should plan to do that, though, during the week. You, me, and Hannah spend a full day at a spa. I could sweet talk Caleb into watching the store for me. How does that sound?”
It sounded like the answer to a prayer, Naomi decided. She could use a week day away from the bank and the dust and noise from renovation. She could indulge in a facial and a manicure, could almost feel the soothing hands of a masseuse ease away the knots out of her tight muscles. She let herself daydream about it before realizing Drea and Troy were staring at her. “Sorry. My mind wandered to taking a day off.”
“No problem,” Troy said, still in assurance-mode. “I know you’re anxious to get your house ready for the holidays. Got family coming in from out of town, I bet.”
At the statement, her bubble burst, and with it, her enthusiasm leveled off. “No. There’s no reason to hurry on that account.”
Troy noticed her face drop, her eagerness evaporate. He’d heard rumors that she didn’t have anyone back in Nebraska. Now he was sure that information had been accurate. “I lost my mom to cancer in my early teens so I know what it’s like to be all alone during the holidays.”
“How awful. Were you taken in by family?”
“Sort of. An uncle let me stay with him. But the guy had his own set of problems. I pretty much came and went without a lot of supervision back then.”
Drea narrowed her eyes and sent daggers toward Troy for dredging up the sadness that now hung in the air. “Naomi knows she’s welcome to spend Thanksgiving at our house. Since Tucker and I called it quits last month there’s plenty of room at the Jennings household for guests. Shelby and Landon will see to that.”
Naomi winced. She hated the dreaded sympathy invitation that always seemed to pop up around this time of year. She changed the subject. “So I should expect Zach and this other guy to show up first thing Saturday morning, right?”
Troy nodded. “Yep. It shouldn’t take them long to hang the cabinets. Afterward, they’ll install the flooring throughout the house and get rid of all this rotted wood.”
“I can’t wait,” Naomi muttered with one glance at her watch. She grabbed her purse off the floor and added, “I’ve got to get to work. I’ve gone into major debt with this little project and I need to get myself to the office.”
Drea followed her out the door still talking about the spa idea until something else hit her. “Why don’t you just stay with me until this job is finished? Here you can only use the bedroom and the bathroom. Might as well move in with me until they get this place livable.”
Naomi’s first instinct was to jump at the idea. But she’d tried living with roommates before and it didn’t work out well. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll wait it out and see how much progress they make this weekend before abandoning my house.”
“Suit yourself. But the door is always open.”
Naomi sighed. “I know that. I love that about you. You’ve been such a good friend to me since that day I pulled up in my U-Haul. Which makes me a lousy friend for not asking this sooner. How are you handling the break-up with Tucker? It hasn’t been that long since you two split up.”
The florist lifted a shoulder. “I’m okay with it. He’s so busy at the hardware store these days he barely has time to look up. And spending the night ended up being more about him finding ways to complain about his father than to see me as a girlfriend. Let me tell you, that part of our relationship got old real quick. I just don’t think we were suited for each other.”
“Better to find out now than later,” Naomi cautioned before unlocking the door to her late model Honda CR-V.
“That’s the same thing Shelby told me. I didn’t mention it, but Tucker had started getting a little too controlling.”
“Really? That’s never a good sign.”
“He just didn’t seem like he wanted to be around my family very much. Look, I don’t want to talk about it. You like working for Nick?”
“I do. I’m learning a lot. That man knows everything there is about running a bank.”
Drea turned toward her delivery van and then stopped. “Then you’ll probably be at the potluck supper tonight out at Promise Cove, right?”
The idea of spending her evening rubbing elbows with her coworkers wasn’t all that appealing, but it was expected. Naomi Townsend didn’t intend to put her job in jeopardy by shirking her duties as VP of the bank and wrapping up in a cocoon to stay home. Instead, she plastered a smile on her face and said, “Absolutely. I’ll see you there.”
Back inside the house, Colt re-adjusted his headphones and cranked up the music he’d loaded on his iPod. His tastes ran the gamut from the Tindersticks to Nick Cave to the Foo Fighters. Whatever choice he made was guaranteed to drown out the saws and hammering going on around him.
Depending on his mood he could go from brooding lyrics to upbeat rock to loud grunge with the push of a button. Mozart often kept him company, music his former Army buddy, Simon Bremmer, had forced on him from the first day they’d met.
But on a sunny autumn day like today, the E Street Band was his flavor of choice, heavy on tenor saxophone. As Clarence Clemons worked his magic, Colt remeasured the kitchen where the cabinets would go. The small, disjointed allotted space seemed way too claustrophobic to him. If it had been his house, he would’ve knocked out the wall adjacent to the sunroom to double the size of the galley. Anyone with half a brain knew that the kitchen was the heartbeat of a house. At least that was what he’d been told. Simon’s mom, Gretchen Bremmer, had convinced him of that long ago. Somewhere, somehow, the woman had adopted him as her surrogate son. Every time Simon got a package in whatever war zone the two men found themselves in, Gretchen made sure Colt received one of equal value.
Gretchen’s generosity had always warmed his heart.
So if Gretchen Bremmer believed that the kitchen was the soul of a house, he had to take her word for it. He didn’t have much else to go on. Growing up in an orphanage didn’t exactly make him an expert on how a family lived or evolved.
He stepped out to the sunroom, little more than a screened-in porch, and eyed the extra square footage.
“What are you doing?” Troy asked.
“I’m wondering why the client doesn’t let us knock down that interior wall there to make more room for the kitchen.”
Troy nodded. “I tried talking her into it when I did the walk-through. Naomi said she liked the sunroom just as it was.”
“What’s to like? A rickety old slanted floor with rotted wood? Did you explain to her that she could always add a sunroom on later to the back of the house?”
Troy removed his ballcap with the Raider logo and scratched his head. “I don’t remember if I put that idea out there or not. That’s been weeks ago. I hadn’t slept much the night before our initial meeting. The baby had kept us up all night. I might’ve brought it up…or…maybe not.”
“It just makes sense to blow out that wall and expand the kitchen. You get four people in that little space, and the flow of traffic won’t work. They’ll be bumping into one another. Cooks usually frown on that.”
Troy rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s a little late for that kind of change. Although…someone could mention it to her. I guess that would be me since I’m the lead on this project.”
An image of the woman with silky brown hair flashed through Colt’s head. “I’ll do it. Since I’m the guy working on her cabinets, and since I’m supposed to hang those suckers in two days, I think I’m the one who should bring it up. That way the pressure’s off you.”
“But you can’t just waltz into the bank and suggest that she knock that wall down before we get any further along.”
“Because she’s already signed a contract that’s simple and straightforward leaving the kitchen the same size as it was before.”
“That’s crazy. If there’s a reasonable alternative, then why not give the client the chance to correct something she probably hasn’t thought through. Like I said, I don’t want to install the cabinets and have her realize she has a kitchen that doesn’t work. She won’t even be able to turn around in it without bumping into something. Somebody needs to give her the option of an upgrade.”
“And you’d be the one to do that?”
“Sure. I have nothing to lose by suggesting she expand this dinky kitchen.”
“Okay. I’ll run the numbers and figure up the added cost and you can run it by her.”
Colt dragged a hand through his raven black hair. He should’ve kept his big mouth shut. Now he’d boxed himself into a corner. Again. “Looks like I’m making a trip to the bank,” he grumbled.
Zach shook his head. “No contractor ever wants to tell the client the job’s gonna run more than the original estimate. If you ask me, I think this Naomi is hurting for money. I think that’s why she didn’t want to enlarge the kitchen in the first place.”
Colt stopped what he was doing to stare at Zach. His coworker was a mystery. Zach could go hours without saying a word. But when he did it was to get right to the point. The man’s design skills were surpassed only by his intricate, decorative work with a saw. “Really? You think it’s a financial issue? Why do you say that?”
“Because Logan kept showing her houses that were move-in ready and she kept gravitating to the fixer-uppers in the lower price range, a lot lower, like this…dump.”
“Sounds like to me the woman just wanted to own her own place.”
“Probably. Maybe we could figure out a way to increase the size of the kitchen and put in the cabinets without it costing her an arm and a leg.”
Colt took the measuring tape and stretched it from the inside wall to the outside wall. The floor underneath his weight creaked, showing instability. “This screened-in porch isn’t all that large. But she’d be picking up an additional eight feet of much-needed elbow room. We could get rid of the rotted flooring in here and use what we’ve already slated for installation on Saturday. When we run out, we order the rest and I’ll go pick it up myself. We’re probably talking about a couple hundred bucks. Hell, if she says it’s a go, I’ll knock the wall down for free.”
Troy slapped a piece of paper with the new estimate into Colt’s chest. “You get the client to go for that and we’ll make it happen.”
Zach leaned against a framing stud. “You could always take her to lunch and use some of that old Del Rio charisma Simon says you claim to have in spades.”
Colt’s eyes brightened. “That’s not a bad idea. I’ve been told I can charm a bee out of her honey.”
Troy slapped him on the back. “Yeah. Right. You do that. I get the impression that Naomi Townsend is a tougher nut than that to crack. Any bets?”
Colt lifted a shoulder. “Why not? I haven’t taken any of you for a sawbuck since I got here.”
Troy’s eyes flashed, his mouth curved in a grin. “I’ll do you better than ten bucks. If you get her to agree, I’ll reimburse you for lunch. Not only that, if she goes for it, I’ll buy you a large pizza for supper tonight while you’re working late.”
“That sounds reasonable enough. You’re on.”
“Wait a minute. What happens if he can’t persuade her?” Zach prompted.
Colt thought about it for a few seconds. “Tell you what, if I can’t get the lovely Naomi to change her mind, then Friday’s happy hour is on me for the entire crew.”
“Now we’re talking,” Zach concluded. “But as much as I love meeting up for happy hour, I do hope you coax her into getting rid of this eyesore. It won’t go with the rest of the house at all, especially when we’re finished with this part. It’ll look downright pathetic with the new work.”
That’s what Colt liked about Zach. The man had a good heart. “You’ve just given me the best argument for ripping this out. Plus, a reason to get her to understand she’d be increasing the value of her house right up front.”
“Glad I could help. I just talked myself out of a free happy hour.”
“Not so fast,” Troy cautioned. “I’m telling you that Naomi is no pushover.”
“I agree with that statement,” Colt said. “She’s a banker, a practical businesswoman who considers the bottom line first and foremost. Which is why that’ll be my ace in the hole.”