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Hard As Nails
By HelenKay Dimon
BRAVA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 HelenKay Dimon
All right reserved.
Chapter One Never tick off a woman holding a sledgehammer.
Cole Carruthers added that piece of wisdom to his mental checklist for dealing with the opposite sex the second he stepped into the entry of the three-story Victorian house in the pricey Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C.
One glance at the woman standing in the living room off to his right and he questioned the wisdom of being there at all. He'd come to see an elderly woman about a house. Actually, he'd come to get an elderly woman out of the house.
As his gaze wandered over his unknown companion's khaki short-shorts, down her mile-long legs, then back up to her rounded ass ... well, he knew one thing for certain: right house, wrong woman.
He expected a greeting from someone bent over a walker. The same friendly, white-haired someone who a month ago sold this historically-protected property to his partners, Adam and Whit Thomas. Looking at the peeling wallpaper and exposed floorboards, Cole wondered if his usually astute friends had jumped on the deal too fast. The place could crumble and fall on top of them before the construction permits came through.
And the smell. Reminded Cole of damp shirts left in a dryer too long. He doubted the windows had been opened during the last decade.
But that wasn't the problem of the hour. No, convincing the former owner of the house to get out held the number one spot on that list.
Two weeks ago Gilda Armstrong had nearly set the kitchen on fire making her special cheese biscuits. Now she refused to move to her reserved room at a nearby assisted-living facility.
The refusal made Gilda Cole's problem. Not that he volunteered. No, he just didn't refuse as fast as his business partners at yesterday's weekly meeting. Next time he'd take a swallow of coffee after a vote instead of during.
Despite being shanghaied an hour ago, Cole assumed the job would be simple enough. He thought he'd have no problem making his standing Thursday racquetball game with Adam. Cole glanced over at the sledgehammer-wielding mystery woman again. He had not counted on finding her.
"Looks like racquetball is out today," he mumbled under his breath.
Facing away from him, the non-grandmother stood in front of the dark, hand-carved fireplace staring at the ornate mirror towering above it. With the tool balanced in both hands, she concentrated on a spot on the wall.
He didn't see whatever she saw. Probably had something to do with focusing on the way her slim white T-shirt skimmed the top of those shorts.
On the outline of her tan arms and lean legs.
On the wavy black hair falling over her shoulders and down her back.
Yeah, this lady was no grandma. He'd guess she was somewhere in her twenties. Which meant she was not the woman he came hunting. Which was a damn shame.
"Uh, ma'am?" His voice echoed back at him, so he stepped into the cluttered room and tried again. "Hello?"
She ignored the slam of the front door and continued to ignore him now. A lecture on safety and self-protection seemed in order. He'd get to that right after he explained the concept of trespassing.
The warped wood floors creaked under his weight. "Ma'am, I need you to-"
She finally turned around. Her dark eyes widened and a tiny "o" formed on her full mouth. Then she yelped. Actually made one of those sounds heard best on dog frequencies.
"I'm here to-"
"Get out of here right now, or I'll call the police!" She managed to demand and yelp that time.
Through all the screeching, Cole saw the culprit. Earphones connected to an MP3 player. She never heard him coming. "Sorry to scare you. I didn't mean-"
"Last chance," she warned.
But she was already moving. With a fierce battle cry, she jerked the sledgehammer over her head. The move nearly wiped out the antique chandelier above her. Crystals clanged together from the hit.
On instinct, Cole put his hands up to his chest to ward off an attack. "Whoa, lady, I'm-"
The sledgehammer wobbled forward, then sideways, and then the heavy end fell behind her. Slammed right into the wall. Not against the wall. Through the wall in exactly the move Cole had tried to prevent with his approach.
Any interest in figuring out the who, what, and why of this mystery woman evaporated in an instant. "Damn it, lady. Watch what you're doing."
For the moment more concerned about protecting the house than with having a sledgehammer lodged in his forehead, Cole dodged around a high-back chair to get to her.
She moved just as fast in the opposite direction. Spinning back to face the wall, she tugged and pulled on the visible end of the hammer. Metal crunched against wood. Chunks of drywall fell to the floor. The hole increased to twice the original size before the sledgehammer popped free.
She whipped back around, her cheeks puffing in and out. "I will scream this place down before I let you hurt me."
"Hurt you? Lady, you got this all wrong."
With a bit of a grunt, she hoisted the sledgehammer high above her head. "Or rob me."
That explained the self-defense moves. She thought he had come to steal something. Never mind that his company owned the damn house. He could take the lightbulbs if he wanted to without running afoul of any laws.
"I'm not a burglar."
"Sure you aren't."
He pointed at her. "Put that thing down and listen to me."
She lowered the weapon until the heavy end aimed at the dead center of his chest. "Until I know who you are and what you want, the sledgehammer stays where it is. Talk fast, or I clock you and call the police."
For a petite woman, she sure was fast. Strong, too. That mean look behind those bottomless dark eyes didn't strike him as good either.
Pretty and furious. From his experience, not the best combination in a woman. More like the kind of thing that defined trouble. He wasn't in the mood for trouble. Wasn't much in favor of broken bones either. Not when those bones belonged to him.
"Have you calmed down?" he asked.
"Depends. Are you leaving?"
With her hands settled at one end of the handle she couldn't distribute the weight and hold on. Her stiff arms began to shake as the heavy end started dipping toward the floor.
"You already busted up the wall. I'd prefer if you didn't wreck the floor, too," he said.
"That was your fault for walking into my house."
Either the lady was confused or his hearing was going. "You're trying to tell me that you own this place?"
Nope. His hearing worked just fine. Her lying seemed to be the problem. "Do you have a deed to prove that?"
"Not on me."
Her comment sent his gaze slipping down her curvy, compact body. When he finally met her stare again, he noticed red blotches staining the olive skin of her cheeks.
Angry and swinging a sledgehammer. Yeah, this day just kept getting better. If she had PMS, Cole figured he'd be leaving the property in a body bag. Maybe more than one.
"I know why I'm here. Why are you?" she asked.
"I'm still stuck on the part where you think you own this place." And how she refused to put down the sledgehammer.
"You came here to discuss my ownership rights?"
"Something like that." Nothing like that, really, but she had finally stopped screeching, so he decided to encourage her.
"Well, then, rest assured. The property is mine." She nodded as if that somehow made her words true. "Now, get out."
A dark-haired, black-eyed beauty claiming to be the seventy-eight-year-old owner of the ramshackle house. In addition to being a one-woman wrecking crew, it looked as if the pretty lady was insane. Great. He had managed to stumble on the one thing worse than an angry female. A crazy one.
"Not to upset you or anything since, you know, you have the big weapon and I'm unarmed and all, but, lady, you don't own this house."
"Oh, really?" The sharp edge returned to her voice.
"Gilda Armstrong owned this house. Past tense. She sold it. Now it's mine. Mine and my partners'." Cole lowered his hands to his pockets. The same place he kept the cell phone in case he needed reinforcements, like an ambulance.
He smiled in what he hoped was a nonthreatening way since the woman hadn't actually dropped the sledgehammer yet. "So, one more time. Who are you?"
She hesitated before giving up the information. "Aubrey."
"Do you have a last name, Aubrey?"
He released a subtle string of profanity under his breath. "Not exactly handing out the information, are you?"
"You asked. I answered."
The pretty lady had a point. "Help me out here. Aubrey Matheson is who in relation to this house?"
"I'm Gilda's great-niece." Worse than insane. A blood relative.
Cole vowed never to lose an office vote again. "Where is Gilda right now?"
Aubrey eased up on her grip and lowered the weapon until the tip rested against the floor. "Why do you want to know?"
"You have the tendency not to answer questions. In case no one ever told you, it's annoying as hell."
The sledgehammer started moving back up.
"Stop right there," he ordered. "We're not doing the smash-through-the-wall act again. My head's off-limits, too, in case you were wondering."
He waited until her attention centered on him, then he reached down and grabbed the metal end of the sledgehammer. With both hands on one end and her on the other, he tugged.
The quick strike caught her off balance. She stumbled forward and tripped over her toolbox. Her sneaker smacked against the metal with a loud clunk. She swore but kept her grip on the wood.
With her lips clenched together and all of her attention focused on the bar between them, she leaned back and pulled. Huffed. Then puffed. With every tug, a tiny squeak escaped her closed mouth.
All that effort and he never moved. Even thought about yawning but figured his boredom would only make her more determined. Last thing he needed was for her to strain an internal organ.
If they were wrestling over sheets or a television remote, hell, he'd understand the waste of energy. Probably even keep going and enjoy the view all that exercise gave him. As it was, at six-foot-one and 180 pounds, he probably outweighed her by a solid 50 pounds. If he let go, she'd land on her ass. Tempting, but she didn't strike him as a woman who handled losing all that well.
Then there was the problem of her potential insanity.
"Let go of the deadly weapon, Aubrey."
"It's a tool, not a weapon." The muscles on her arms jumped and tightened. "And, you can just forget about my letting go."
"But I asked so nicely."
She gave one final hard yank.
"Impressive." He waited until her burst of adrenaline passed. As he expected, for a fraction of a second her hold eased. He pounced on the weakness by snatching the sledgehammer right out of her hands. "But not impressive enough."
She stood there, mouth open and hands wide to her sides. When she finally spoke, shock replaced the heat in her voice. "How did you-"
"I used my advanced powers of reasoning and physics." He dropped the sledgehammer on the floor behind him, well out of reach of his beautiful adversary. "And pulled really, really hard."
Her angry gaze moved from his face to his feet.
"Don't even think about it. You'd have to go through me first." He regretted his words as soon as he spoke. Right as that spark of hope moved into her dark eyes.
"I like a challenge."
"Let's stay focused on your aunt. Is Gilda here?"
"In the house?"
"No, in the fireplace." He shot Aubrey his best "are you kidding me" scowl. "Yes, the house."
Aubrey nibbled on her bottom lip. "Why do you want to know?"
"I need to talk with her." He figured that much was obvious, but he said it anyway.
"Aunt Gilda's not here."
He shrugged out of his blazer and threw it over a faded red chair. The black suit worked fine for the office. Not so great for a scuffle in an unair-conditioned old house in the middle of a balmy Washington, D.C., summer. Might as well get comfortable, since he appeared to be stranded with Aubrey until she said something helpful, and that was looking like a long shot.
"What are you doing?" she asked, ignoring the obvious.
"Trying to keep from sweating my ass off." He rolled up the sleeves of his light blue dress shirt. "Look, this isn't hard. I need Gilda-"
"-and I need you to leave this house."
"I'm not moving."
"You are. Once you tell me where to find your aunt, you can be on your way to wherever it is you go when you're not trespassing on other people's property."
"I'm not telling you anything."
He shook his head in mock disappointment. "Aubrey, Aubrey, Aubrey. You're not being a good hostess."
"Aunt Gilda still owns this house. As her closest relative, it is my job-no, duty-to protect her." With every word, Aubrey's nose inched higher into the air.
"Is someone after her?"
News to him. "What the hell did I do?"
"You tried to steal this house from her."
Funny how his foreman Ray forgot to mention Aubrey's accusations when he mentioned a problem on the project. That and the fact the woman refusing to leave the house was no one's grandmother. "I paid money for the house and signed some papers. Can't say I recall the stealing part."
"Wait a second." Her dark eyes narrowed. "You're not Whit Thomas."
"No, but I do plan to kill him later if that counts for anything."
"Are you the brother ... uh, what's his name? Adam?"
"Not him either." Adam was a dead man too as far as Cole was concerned. "I guess you could say I'm the forgettable business partner."
"I don't remember another Thomas brother or partner."
"This conversation is doing wonders for my ego."
Not that she cared. She was too busy narrowing her eyes to squint at him. "I met one of your workers."
"That would be our job foreman, Ray Hammond."
"So, who are you?"
"Not a brother. Frankly, two Thomas brothers are enough. Not related to Ray either, just in case you wondered. I'm a third partner in this real estate venture."
Not that being blood-related mattered in Cole's world. Except for his cousin Hannah, he couldn't think of a single relative he'd trust enough to wash his car. But he trusted Whit and Adam with his life, and Ray almost as much.
"Interesting," she mumbled.
"Aren't I just?"
"Yeah, I can barely contain myself in your presence."
Cole added sarcasm to Aubrey's list of skills. "I can tell by the dramatic eye roll."
"I have other gestures."
"You were less scary when you had the sledgehammer."
"You can go to-"
"Maybe you'll stop making faces if you know my name."
"Me too, but it's worth a shot." He extended his hand in greeting. "I'm Cole Carruthers."
She ignored the gesture and glared instead. "Don't bother with the sweet talk. I'm not going anywhere until this house issue gets settled."
If a handshake counted as sweet talk, then this woman needed to date a better class of men. "Remind me what the 'this house issue' is again."
"You guys conned my aunt." She waved a hand in his general direction. "Whatever your company is called."
"T.C. Limited," he mumbled as he tried to remember the last time someone questioned his integrity.
"I don't care about the sign over the door. The point is, the deal isn't valid."
"Actually, it is."
"Until a court says otherwise, I'm staying right here." She plopped down in the red chair. Sat right on his coat. Right next to the sledgehammer.
"Here I am being neighborly, and you're using threats."
"The house's ownership will be in litigation, and you'll be out."
"Sounds as if you've thought this through." He reached down and snagged the handle of the sledgehammer. Better to move it out of her reach than to start a new game of tug-of-war.
"That's right." She shot him a smug smile.
"That should make bathing interesting. Once we shut off the water, I mean."
"You don't scare me."
That, he believed. "And I guess you plan to gnaw on the walls to stay alive, since, you know, leaving the house to get food would result in us changing the locks to keep you out."
She did the eye-roll thing again. "Tell your foreman and your partners and everyone else in your crooked company to find another house and leave this one alone."
"Actually, alone is the one thing you won't be."
Her smile took a little tumble. "Meaning?"
"I'm not going anywhere." Cole sat down on the small sofa across from her and ignored the puff of dust that escaped the cushions under his weight.
Her smile disappeared this time. "What?"
"I have a business interest to protect. Guess that mean we're stuck with each other."
Excerpted from Hard As Nails by HelenKay Dimon Copyright © 2008 by HelenKay Dimon. Excerpted by permission.
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