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The soulful strains of Irvin Mayfield's "7th Ward Blues" streaming from the iPod speakers were drowned out by the buzz saw as Jamal Johnson split a panel of Sheetrock lengthwise down the middle. He stacked the two pieces together and propped them against his truck's lowered tailgate, then placed another board on the saw table and repeated the process.
Jamal snatched the rag from his back pocket and mopped sweat from his brow. He'd lived in the small town of Gauthier, Louisiana, for over a year now, and he still wasn't used to this oppressive heat. Arizona saw its share of triple-digit highs, but the added humidity made the air here thick enough to choke on.
He hauled the drywall up the back porch steps of the 1870s Victorian he'd purchased a few months earlier, careful not to drag it. He gingerly navigated through the narrow hallway and, when he reached the dining room, fitted the board against the exposed wall stud and positioned a nail. He slid the hammer from the holder on his tool belt, but it slipped from his fingers, crashing to the floor and tearing through the protective plastic sheeting.
"Dammit," Jamal bit out when he noticed the chip left in the hardwood flooring underneath. He tried to balance the drywall with one hand while stooping for the hammer, but his hand slipped and the Sheetrock fell forward. He hopped out of the way just before it could crash on top of him.
Jamal's head slumped in frustrated defeat as a puff of powdery dust floated up from where the drywall lay in a crumbly mess at his feet.
"Damn." He kneaded the bridge of his nose, praying the headache that had instantly sprouted behind his eyes would subside. But Jamal knew his troubles were far more complicated than the throbbing in his skull.
He was in over his head. Way over his head.
"Jamal?" called a voice from just beyond the doorway.
"Oh, great," Jamal muttered as his best friend's wife, Mya Dubois-Anderson, crossed the threshold. He forced a smile, hoping the strain of this latest debacle didn't show on his face.
"How's it. " Mya stopped short, eyeing the crumbled drywall. "Going?"
"It's going great," Jamal lied. "I was just about to get another piece of drywall. This one had a crack in it."
"Just one crack?" she asked, a skeptical brow arching in inquiry.
Jamal disregarded the mess on the floor with a nonchalant wave and motioned for Mya to follow him outside. He dusted off the porch step and aided her as she took a seat, taking care not to bump her very pregnant belly.
"So, how are things going with preparations for Christmas in Gauthier?" Jamal asked.
"It is going to be amazing," Mya said with the enthusiasm of a child who'd just won a shopping spree at a toy store. "That article in Essence magazine about the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail was the best publicity we could have ever asked for. The New City of Gauthier website is averaging five hundred hits a day. When do you think you'll have the website for Belle Maison up and running?"
The website? He was more concerned with making sure the house would be up and running.
"The website should be done any day now," Jamal assured her, making a mental note to check with his web designer. "Although, not having a website hasn't stopped anyone from finding us. Belle Maison is already booked solid for the entire monthlong celebration."
Mya visibly relaxed. "That is awesome news, Jamal. This bed-and-breakfast is vital to the civic association's long-term strategy for revitalizing the town." She winked at him. "Gauthier is lucky to have a world-class architect as a resident."
"World-class, huh? I don't know about that."
"Well, I do." She gave his forearm a gentle squeeze. "Seriously, Jamal. I cannot thank you enough. The one thing Gauthier is missing is lodging for visitors. Once this B&B opens, I just know the town is going to see a spike in tourists.
"I don't want to keep you away from work any longer," she said, rising from the porch step. "Now, you're sure Belle Maison will be ready by the start of the Christmas in Gauthier celebration, right?"
Jamal held his hand over his heart. "You have my word."
"That's good enough for me," Mya said, her smile bright and airy.
Jamal walked her to her car and waited until she'd backed out of the driveway before heading back to the disaster that awaited him in the dining room.
As he eyed the crumbled mess, Jamal grudgingly acknowledged that this stately home had gotten the better of him. His forte was designing homes; he wasn't used to the hammer-and-nails side of things. During the course of the past year, he'd definitely gained new respect for the laborers who'd worked for his family's company back in Arizona.
Unfortunately, he didn't have time to linger over this rebuild as he'd done with the house on Pecan Drive that he'd bought when he moved to Gauthier last year. If the slew of reservations wasn't enough to light a fire under his ass, the hope and excitement he'd just witnessed in Mya's eyes certainly was.
"You can't do this on your own." Jamal sighed.
He needed help. Pronto.
Jamal rubbed a distracted hand along the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension quickly building there. He knew whom he had to call, but God, he didn't want to call her. Phylicia Phillips was the last person he wanted to bring in on this project. She was bossy and opinionated.
And she was so damn fine Jamal had counted at least four times that he'd nearly been caught staring at her ass when they had both stood as attendants two months ago at Corey and Mya's wedding.
He didn't know what had come over him, but after too many torturous hours of stealing glances at the way the satin bridesmaid gown had curved over her backside, his hand had taken on a mind of its own. He'd felt himself losing control, his palm inching forward to grab her behind. If the photographer hadn't called the wedding party for more pictures at the precise moment that his hand had nearly made contact, Jamal figured he'd still be sporting a black eye, courtesy of Phylicia's right hook.
If he closed his eyes, Jamal could recall every detail as she'd walked up the aisle of the churchfrom her hair, entwined with peach and white flowers, to the tips of her toes, peeking from underneath the gown's satiny hem. He'd been caught off guard, seeing her in a dress. Her usual attire was jeans and a T-shirt, often littered with wood shavings and other remnants from whatever project she was working on.
Phylicia Phillips was one of the most sought-after restoration specialists in this entire region. Earlier this year, he'd hired her to restore the banister in his house on Pecan Drive, and he still marveled at the job she'd done. She was the go-to woman when it came to finding old things and making them new, which was why he needed her for this job.
Jamal tipped his head back and expelled a strained sigh.
This would be so much easier if the woman didn't confuse the hell out of him!
He'd felt a spark from the first moment he met her, but she had never given him even an inkling that she felt the same way. Jamal thought everything had changed the night of Corey and Mya's wedding. After the reception, Phylicia had suggested they go out for coffee.
They had gone to a 24/7 doughnut shop in neighboring Maplesville and spent hours talking about every topic under the sun.
Then nothing. Absolutely nothing.
When he'd called Phylicia the next day, she'd acted as if he were a strangerone she didn't want to be bothered with. He would never understand women. And now he had to work with the most complicated one he'd ever met.
Could he survive working so closely with her?
"You don't have a choice," Jamal reminded himself. Even though he was updating the house with cutting-edge green technology, the 1870s Victorian had valuable woodwork that needed to be preserved. There was only one person who would give the amount of care and detail this project demanded.
Jamal dusted bits of drywall from his clothes as he headed for the black Ford F-150 he'd bought when he'd first moved to Gauthieryet another stark change from his old life back in Phoenix. He'd driven a Lexus since he was a teenager. Every member of his family would probably fall away in a dead faint at the sight of him behind the wheel of a pickup truck.
Jamal popped open the glove compartment and retrieved his wallet. The card for Phillips' Home Restoration was tucked behind his license. He punched the number into his cell; after a few rings the call went to voice mail. He hesitated a moment before speaking.
"Hi, Phylicia, this is Jamal Johnson." You know, the guy you talked to until the sun came up a couple of months ago, and then totally ignored? "I've got my hands full with this house I'm renovating and could really use your services. Give me a call as soon as possible. Thanks."
Okay, so that hadn't been so hard. Now, all he had to do was survive being around her without succumbing to a death brought on by mindaltering lust.
"Piece of cake," Jamal snorted.
Hunched over a scarred buffet table she'd found at an estate sale a few weeks ago, Phylicia Phillips glided the orbital sander over the wood with painstaking gentleness. She had learned from experience that sacrificing attention to detail in order to save time usually resulted in a piece of unusable material. Phil wasn't sure what she would uncover once she sanded through the layers of paint coating the buffet, but she wasn't willing to compromise the wood in order to find out.
The trill of an old-style rotary telephone wafted from the chest pocket of her denim overalls. Phil set down the sander and pulled out her cell phone. She pushed the plastic face shield up and stared at the unfamiliar number, suppressing the tremors of unease that climbed up her neck whenever she didn't recognize an area code. She'd made an art form out of dodging the bank's phone calls, having memorized their numbers. She figured it was only a matter of time before they sent her name to a collection agency.
Phil waited for voice mail to pick up the call, then sucked in a fortifying breath and dialed into the messaging system. She braced herself for a terse tirade from a collection agency representative, but was startled at the sound of Jamal Johnson's warm, unmistakable voice.
Phil listened to his short message then replayed it, wondering whether there was some twisted mythological fate having a good laugh over this. The only thing that could possibly be worse than a call from a collection agency demanding she catch up on her construction loan payments was a call from Jamal Johnson asking her to help him annihilate her great-great-grandfather's house. The house that had been her family's pride and joy
until it had fallen into her hands.
A familiar, sickening knot formed in her stomach. If she'd had any idea she would be in danger of losing the Victorian, Phil would never have used it as collateral to fund what had turned out to be the worst business venture ever.
It had been a foolproof plan. Purchase rundown houses for dirt cheap, then flip them for a killer profit. Simple. If only she'd had a crystal ball handy that could have clued her in on the implosion of the housing market.
Phil slumped onto the work stool and cradled her head in her hands.
How had she allowed her life to get to this point?
Oh, wait. Yeah, a man. It was always about a damn man, wasn't it?
Like a fool, she'd let her ex-boyfriend sweet-talk her into partnering with him in the house-flipping venture. Except she had been the one who'd taken all the financial risks.
"I hate you, Kevin Winters. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.''''
He'd been a pillar of strength when she'd received that first threatening letter from the bank, promising her they would get through the crisis together. That same night, he'd skipped town, taking half of her DVD collection with him. When he'd called from Fresno a week later, Phil had told him she would call the cops and have him arrested for theft if he ever contacted her again. She still wasn't sure if she'd meant it, and hoped to God that man didn't test her by stepping foot back in Gauthier.
She still couldn't believe she'd been so stupid. It was amazing what a normally intelligent woman could be conned into doing for good sex.
Phil massaged her temples. She'd had this argument with herself way too many times over the past year. She wasn't up for it today.
She also wasn't up to working with Jamal Johnson. Ever.
She acknowledged that her aversion to him was wholly unwarranted, and probably a bit irrational, but that didn't change the circumstances. A burst of angry resentment flared up just at the thought of Jamal and his noble contribution to Gauthier's budding tourism industry.
All he'd done was crush her dream of making up for her stupid mistakes. She had been less than five thousand dollars away from securing enough money for the down payment to buy back her family's home when Jamal had decided he wanted to buy it, with some crazy idea of turning it into a bed-and-breakfast.
A bed-and-breakfast, for God's sake!
The thought of countless strangers sleeping in the room her parents once shared made Phil sick to her stomach. For more than a century that house had belonged to the Dufresne family. Her great-greatgrandfather had built it with his own two hands. And because of her, a bunch of strange people who probably didn't even care about the home's rich history would now occupy it.
She was not going to help them get there. Jamal would just have to find someone else to work with him.
Recalling the changes he'd made to that gorgeous Georgian he'd bought on Pecan Drive, Phil cringed to think of the Victorian's wonderful interior falling prey to his so-called innovative ideas. That man shouldn't be allowed within a ten-mile radius of a historic structure.
She exhaled a weary, bone-deep sigh, giving herself a few more seconds to wallow in the mess she'd made of this entire situation. Not for the first time, Phil was actually grateful that her mother's dementia-laden brain would prevent her from ever knowing that Phil had lost their family's home.
She swiped at an errant tear and lowered the safety shield back over her face. The more work she got done, the sooner she could get the monkeys off her back. Though now that there was no chance of buying back the Victorian, the motivation to work wasn't as strong.
Phil spent the next hour removing the caked-on paint inch by inch. The rich, caramel-colored oak she unearthed was absolutely breathtaking. Who in their right mind had thought to mask such handsome wood?
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Phil's head popped up. She shut off the sander and pushed the face shield up again as she walked to the side door of her detached garage, which she'd converted into a workshop when she'd bought this house five years ago.
As she swung the door open, a balled fist came barreling forward, straight for her head. It stopped just in time.
"Oh, sorry. Hi." Jamal Johnson stood before her in a pair of khaki deck shorts and a light gray T-shirt. A swath of sweat made a V from his neck to his navel, and dark rings circled under the arms. Apparently, he'd been hard at work
ruining her house.