Read an Excerpt
Shana Callahan had learned long ago not to get her hopes up, but this morning butterflies of anticipation were flitting in her stomach. She pressed a hand against her abdomen as she punched the elevator button for the third floor of the downtown Sacramento office building. The elevator seemed to climb in slow motion as her employer's words echoed in her head again and again. "The job would be long-term, Shana. And it's in Chance City."
Chance City, the place where'd she grown up, run away from at eighteen and then finally come back to after ten years away. Home.
No more hour-long commute to Sacramento for whatever temp job she'd been placed in that day or week. No more crossing her fingers that her car would survive the trip. No more worrying about rain or fog or accidents adding extra time to her commute. If it took ten minutes to get across town in Chance City, it was because someone hailed you down to talk.
She tried to imagine anyone from her small town contacting an employment agency instead of just tacking an ad to the bulletin board at the local diner, where most transactions were made, but no one came to mind.
The elevator door opened. Shana followed the hallway to the office of At Your Service, a highend clerical-anddomestic-help temp agency often nicknamed "Wives for Hire" by clients, and owned by the elegant, unflappable Julia Swanson.
"Hey, Shana," the receptionist, Missy, called out. "Julia said to send you straight back. She'll be there in a second."
Julia's office was as soothing as the woman herself, the color palette muted, the furniture classic. On the wall behind her tidy mahogany desk hung the company logo, with "When you need the personal touch " in gold lettering below it. It set the tone for every client or employee who sat opposite her.
Shana made herself sit rather than pace and appear anxious when Julia arrived, but her foot bounced and her stomach continued to churn.
"Hello, Shana," Julia said from the doorway. "How are you?"
Hopeful. Scared. Excited. "I'm good, thanks. And curious."
Julia smiled. "Are you ready for your interview?"
"Yes." Shana stood. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"I prefer to let the client do the talking."
They left her office and headed to the consultation room two doors down, which held a conference table with chairs on either side. Shana had never been interviewed in that room before, had always been sent to the office or home of the client. It rattled her a little. Plus, the client came from Chance City .
Hope scattered as a man stooda tall, lean, muscular, familiar man with laser-blue eyes and medium brown hair. Landon Kincaid. Shana had known him for about a year, disliked him for about that long, tooever since he'd tried to steal her sister away last year from the man she'd always been meant for. He didn't seem to like her much, either.
"Hello, Shana," he said, not offering his hand to shake.
"I'll leave you two to talk," Julia said, shutting the door behind her.
Shana stared at the closed door for a few moments, gathering her thoughts, tamping down her disappointment. Would she ever learn not to hope? "We don't have to go through with the interview," she said as she turned to face him.
"Well, now that you've seen it's me Julia lined up " She shrugged.
"I asked specifically for you," Kincaid said, gesturing her to a chair.
She frowned. "Why?"
"You have all the skills I require."
Her head started to pound with confusion. She rubbed her temples and sat across from him. "Why didn't you just ask me directly? I saw you four days ago at Aggie's Thanksgiving dinner."
"I knew you'd say no." He sat. "This way you know it's strictly business."
"Why would I say no to a decent job offer? You know my situation. To have the opportunity to work in town is a dream come true. You could've skipped the agency fees and paid me the whole amount. I'd be better off for it."
"You would've said no," he repeated, smiling slightly, knowingly.
"Just because we don't like each other very much doesn't mean I wouldn't want the job."
He leaned back, studying her. "I take it Julia didn't fill you in on all the details."
She frowned. "She told me it was in Chance City and long-term."
"She didn't tell you it's a live-in position?"
Shock stabbed her, almost paralyzing her. "She did not. And I have a place to live, thank you very much." He knew that, of course, since he owned the building and, therefore, her apartment on the second floor.
"Actually, you don't. Or won't. I need a place for Dylan to live. He could afford the apartment you're in."
Shana stood so fast her world tilted. "You're evicting me? I have a seventeen-month-old daughter. Where are Emma and I supposed to live?"
She couldn't believe this was happening. Just when her life had settled down. She had a routine. She'd earned people's trust again. Yes, she'd had to accept some help along the way, but as little as possible, and only for her daughter's sake.
Shana had caused enough controversy by running away years ago. She'd atoned. Now she wanted to be accepted and respected. Moving in with Kincaid, no matter how innocently, wasn't the way to accomplish that.
She headed to the door. "You wasted your time. And mine."
He beat her there, putting a hand on it to stop her.
Her heart pounded as his chest grazed her shoulder. She was hurt, angry and something else she didn't want to identify. "Don't be childish, Kincaid."
"I'm asking you to hear me out."
Shana fought tearsof frustration, of exasperation, of despair. She couldn't seem weak in front of him.
"Fine," she muttered after a minute. "But only because of Julia. I don't want to tell her I refused the job without having listened to what it actually is."
Kincaid stepped away, giving her space, keeping an eye on her in case she made a run for it, after all. He watched her raise her chin and return to the chair, where she plunked herself, crossed her arms and gave him a steady, cool, green-eyed stare. That expression wasn't unusual for her, but the way she'd tamed her long blond hair into a tidy ponytail was. She looked more professional than he'd ever seen her, especially wearing a skirt and jacket, and even high heels. He'd rarely seen her not wearing boots, jeans and a T-shirt that skimmed her slender frame.
He would've pulled up a chair next to her, but figured she wanted the distance of the table between them.
"Here's what I need," he said. "My businesses are booming. I don't have time for the personal attention I used to be able to give my clients."
"I thought that was why you hired Dylan."
"I hired Dylan because he needed a place in the world, but he's an eighteen-year-old apprentice. I spend a lot of time teaching and mentoring him. Eventually that's going to pay off. He's learning construction and contracting from the bottom up, but he's got a long way to goyears. In the meantime, details are not getting handled. That's where you come in."
"Sarah McCoy left for college in September. She'd been my housekeeper for two yearspersonally and professionally. I haven't found anyone reliable to replace her."
"I can handle that without moving in, Kincaid."
He could tell by the way her body moved that she was bouncing her foot under the table, her habit when she was annoyed. "I don't have time to take care of myself, either. I'm eating out all the time. The house gets cluttered. I don't like clutter. Laundry piles up."
"Those are basic household chores," she said. "It's not enough to keep me busy all dayand evening.
One day a week, maybe. If this is some kind of charity you're offering me"
"I need help," he said, interrupting her before she launched into a speech about how she didn't need anyone's help, when, in fact, she did. He'd learned it from a reliable source, her sister, Dixie, who happened to be a good friend of his. It didn't matter that Dixie was on the other side of the world honeymooning and working. She'd gotten a call from Aggie McCoy after Thanksgiving telling Dixie how stressed-out Shana was, how even counting every penny still left her in the hole every month and how she'd fallen into Aggie's comforting arms and cried.
Dixie, in turn, had called him, asking if he could help Shana in some way. She would never take money from him, but could he give her work to do?
"Busywork?" Kincaid had asked Dixie.
"It can't seem like it. And if you even hint that you're doing this out of charity, she'll be out of there in a flash, and we just got her home, you know? She could run like a rabbit to who knows where, just like before. Plus there's the baby to think of. You'd have to handle it carefully. And you have to swear you'll never let her know I asked you for help."
"Here's the deal, Shana," he said now, looking at her cool expression. "Renovation is my primary work, but I also own thirty-two properties in the area. Not just in Chance City, but in surrounding communities. Tenants come and go, so places need cleaning and repairs have to be coordinated. I also need office help, especially with spreadsheets for expenses and taxes. I've got a box with a year's worth of receipts that need to be entered. Is that something you can do?" "I'm good at math."
Which didn't really answer his question. "Your salary for the work you do for my business will feed through the agency. Beyond that, I'll give you room, board and a stipend for maintaining my home and, consequently, my life." He closed his hands into fists, fighting frustration. Dixie had warned him she would balk. "Frankly, I never wanted to be this busy. I've turned down more work than I've accepted through the years. But with Dylan involved now, it's different."
"He needs the experience, the variety of work, so that he'll learn enough to be valuable, and eventually independent. I don't have the time to spend on frivolous things like cooking and cleaning." He met her gaze, noted how closed she still looked. "But I haven't told you the best partat least for you, I think. I know you want to make a name for yourself in interior design. You'd be part of the package I offer to clientsdesign help. Not just for the remodeling itself, but for suggestions on how to decorate. You'd be the idea person, and I'd put your ideas into action. We'd make a strong team."
She finally looked interested. The deep furrow between her eyebrows smoothed out, at least.
"Design work for homes and businesses?" she asked.
He nodded, then he hoped to seal the deal when he said, "That part of the business is strictly yours. You keep what you earn." As the saying went, it was an offer she couldn't refuse, and he knew it. "You could probably accrue enough money in a year or two to afford a place of your own, not to mention gathering a client list, something you don't have yet since you're new to the design trade."
"Why are you doing this?"
A big reason why he'd agreed to Dixie's plea was because of his own past. He rarely thought about it anymore, and gave her only the barest details now. "When I was sixteen, I had to emancipate myself so that I could get away from a very bad situation. I didn't have a child to provide for like you do, but it was a long, hard road to success regardless. I mostly did it myself, but a few individuals helped me stay afloat, maybe even alive, those first years. I'm paying it back through Dylan, and now you, I hope." He leaned toward her. "You have pride. I get that, Shana. But don't let it stand in the way of the opportunity."
Pride had driven him for a long time, too.
"Emma's seventeen months old," she said hesitantly. "It's a busy, noisy age. Children create clutter."
Frankly, he hadn't given that aspect of the deal a lot of thought. He'd wanted to help Shana, and therefore Emma, but the day-to-day sharing of space with a toddler hadn't been part of his thinking. "I'm sure it'll be fine," he said. "My house is large, as you know."
"Actually, I don't know. I've never been there. I've never heard anyone talk about being invited there."
"I want that to change." The hermit life had suited him for years, but lately he'd been thinking it was time to embrace his town and its people, not one-on-one as he had for the nineteen years since he'd moved there, but within the entire community. It would help Dylan, too.
"If you're there to help," he said, "it will change. I've never even decorated for Christmas. Maybe that could be your first job. Emma would like that, wouldn't she?"
He hadn't intended to reel her in with a tug on her emotions, but apparently he had. He saw her expression change, softening even more. She wasn't the same angry, prideful woman as she was when she'd first come into the room. Her daughter would have a Christmas tree. Some things were worth swallowing your pride for.
"Yes," Shana said softly. "She would like that."
"She'd have her own bedroom, too. I figure you've been sharing with her. So, what do you say?"
A long pause ensued, then she said, "I need to think about it."
She'd totally caught him off guard. He'd been so sure.
"How much time do you need?" he asked. Really, what choice did she have? Finding affordable housing would be nearly impossible. Why was she stalling?
She stood. "I'll stop by your house tonight, if you're going to be home."
"Anytime after seven." He followed her to the door, opening it for her.
She didn't say goodbye but walked straight out of the office, not even stopping to talk to Julia. Bemused, he went to Julia's office.
"All settled?" she asked, welcoming him in with a gesture.
"She's thinking it over."
Julia's brows raised, then she smiled. "I've always admired her spirit."
"What you call spirit, I call stubbornness."
"I'm guessing you two tend to clash."
"We always have. I don't know why, but she took an immediate dislike to me." Because of that he hadn't warmed to her, either. Plus, she was just prickly.
"So, why hire her, especially to live in your house?"
Why, indeed? There was the favor to Dixie, which had also coincided with the fact that Dylan needed to be on his own. And he had some sympathy for Shana's situation, as well.