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Harlan Jones set the sixth chair of the month on his front stoop, removed his cowboy hat and brushed the sweat off his brow before replacing the headgear. If he kept up like this, he'd either have to get married and have twenty kids or start giving the damned things away. Or, better yet, quit building them. If he was a smart man, he'd put the circular saw and drill away for good. Get over this stupid fantasy that he could be a woodworker.
A soft barrel-shaped body brushed against his leg. Harlan chuckled, leaned down and scratched Mortise behind the ears. The golden retriever's tail slapped happily against his rump, and he snuggled closer. Tenon, not to be left out, brought her slender golden body into the mix, and slobbered onto Harlan's hand.
"A sane man wouldn't waste time building chairs he isn't going to sell," Harlan said to the dogs. Because they never argued back.
"A sane man focuses on a job with benefits." Harlan moved away from the dogs, heading into the garage he'd converted into a woodshop, and started to put his tools away. "One that has a nice retirement package."
Mortise dropped to his haunches in the doorway and panted. Tenon bounded off after a squirrel in the yard.
Harlan exited the garage, then shut the door. Was it crazy to be talking to his dogs? Probably, but hell, it was only him and the mutts here. Had been for six weeks, ever since he'd moved from Dallas to this tiny rental house in Edgerton Shores, Florida. The small town was quiet, peaceful. And gave a man too much time to think. "If there's one thing I learned from my father, it's that hobbies don't pay," he said to Mortise.
He had a job. A job he wasn't always fond of, granted, but it was a job he was good at. A job he also needed to keep because a hell of a lot of people were depending on him. Harlan Jones was nothing if not a dependable, hard worker, one who took care of those he loved.
His gaze went to the distance, to a hospital that lay fifteen miles to the north. Out of sight, never out of his mind. "I have a job," he repeated to the dogs, to himself, and to the air linking him and the Tampa General Hospital. He best not forget that when he was sanding a leg and admiring the sheen of the wood after the finish was applied. He had seen firsthand where foolish dreams got a manpenniless and unable to support himself, never mind his family. And right now, people were depending on him not to be foolish.
Harlan was about to go back inside and find something else to do with his Saturday when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Here she came. Again. Bound and determined to mess up his life, that woman. "Be good," Harlan muttered to the dogs. "And I mean it this time."
"Mr. Jones," Sophie Watson called to him from two houses down, her blond hair back in a loose ponytail, swinging along her shoulders. From the first day he'd moved into Edgerton Shores, he'd seen Sophie Watson on his daily walk to work. They were pretty much the only two people up and about at that time in the morning, before the sun even thought about rising. She to open her downtown coffee shop, Cuppa Java Cafe, and have it ready for people wanting an early-morning java, and he to greet them when they were looking for weather forecasts or traffic reports or a quick chuckle as they got ready for their day.
In those early morning moments, Harlan hadn't done much more than say hello as he passed by. Sophie had seemed nice, friendly even, the first few times he'd encountered her. She was a beautiful woman, too, with delicate features and a penchant for skirts. That had intrigued him, made him even consider asking her out. Then he'd found out she lived across the street from him, and that was when the trouble started.
"My dogs are staying on their side of the street," Harlan said, putting up a hand to stop Sophie Watson before she started her daily rant about the twins' tendency to wander around the neighborhood. So they'd relocated a couple of Sophie's rosebushes, and, well, creatively repotted her lilacs and a rhododendron. Oh, yeah, and that incident with the muddy paws and her living room sofa.
Still, Mortise and Tenon meant no harm. They were merely being dogs. Something Sophie Watson didn't seem to appreciate, as she'd told him at least a dozen times. "The dogs are staying out of trouble, and out of your flowerbeds. No need to come over here and ruin my day."
She propped a fist on her hip. The small white bag in her hand bounced against her upper thigh. "I don't ruin your day."
He took a step closer to her. "I think you make it your personal mission to be sure I'm as miserable as a horse without a tail."
"I do not. I'm a nice neighbor."
A roar of laughter escaped him. "Nice wasn't the adjective I was thinking of."
"That's right. I'm that 'lunatic next door.'" She put a finger to her chin, feigning deep thought. "And 'that neighbor from hell.' Oh, and my personal favorite 'that animal antagonist.'"
He bit back a smirk. So she had heard his tales about their encounters. He had to admit they made good radio. Harlan had always had an ability to turn his personal stories into listener experiences. For years, he'd shared the lurid, boring or funny stories of his life, building a career out of those stories. Sometimes, yes, it nagged at him that he had been so open, but his listeners loved it. "I'm just keeping my radio audience entertained."
"At the expense of my reputation, and that's something I take very seriously," she said, her voice hard and low. For a second, he wondered if she was upset about more than a few jokes on his morning show. "I would appreciate it if you would keep your thoughts to yourself."
"I'm a radio personality, Miss Watson. Expressing opinions is in my job description."
"Find something else to opine about." She gritted her teeth, then a forced smile flitted across her features. "Please."
He tipped his hat her way, but didn't make a verbal promise. He had a job to do, and a radio station that desperately needed a boost in ratings and advertising dollars. That came first. "So what brings you to my porch today?"
Another smile curved across her face, one Harlan would classify as crafty. "I'm here to find out if you have made a decision yet on my chairs."
That again. This woman was as persistent as a gnat on a horse's ass. "They are not your chairs, Miss Watson. And they are not for sale."
She'd kept coming as she'd talked and now she stood at the end of his walkway, that one hand on a hip that was cocked a little to the side, giving her a jaunty air. Coupled with the knee-length flouncy skirt she wore and the low-heels that gave her legs a sweet curve, it made a pretty picture, he had to admit. Something within him stirred. Something that hadn't stirred in a long time. A real long time.
Damn. He'd be smart to keep that in the back with the table saw, too.
"Now, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," Sophie said. "Last time I made you an offer, you had four chairs on your porch. Now you have six. What are they doing, breeding?"
"I can assure you, ma'am, that they are not."
"Well, either way, it seems you have a problem. And I'd like to take it off your hands."
The way her green eyes were sparking at him, he could think of a hundred other things she could take off his hands besides his furniture. Once again, he added something else that needed to stay in the toolshed. The beautiful but intensely frustrating Sophie Watson pushed his buttonsand not in a good way. He could only imagine the hell a man would endure being in a relationship with her.
"I don't have a problem. Unless I count you." He paused. Added, "Ma'am."
Seemed nicer that way. And Harlan Jones's mama had raised him to be a nice man.
"The way I see it, I'm trying to take a problem off your hands." She gestured toward the chairs. "Two of them, in fact."
"Why on earth do you want my chairs?" he said. "Last I checked, you thought I was the lowest scum of the earth."
She strode up his walkway, as bold as a peacock. Mortise padded over, tongue lolling, apparently forgetting Sophie wasn't in his fan club, especially since that little debacle at her barbecue party. She didn't pay the dog the least bit of attention. Mortise should be counting his blessings. "My opinion of you hasn't changed. And believe me, if there were other chairs in this town available, I'd be buying those. But I want a local flair for my coffee shop and these" her teeth gritted a bit "are quality examples of local craftsmanship."
Even though it was clear the compliment had cost her, a swell of pride rose in his chest. All these years, he'd been making furniture in his spare time, and up until now, he'd kept everything for himself, save for a few pieces he'd given to his brother. He hadn't meant to make so many chairsit was just something about the art of creating the curves that had seemed to bring him a peace since he moved here, and before he knew it, he had more than he had room for. The compliment, coming from a near stranger, almost knocked his boots off.
"Mr. Jones," she went on, "I am offering you good money for a good product. You and I both know those chairs would have a far better life sitting outside my shop being enjoyed by people than they would sitting on your porch, wasting away."
"They're chairs, Miss Watson. They don't live."
Sophie climbed the four steps to his porch and ran a delicate hand along the arm of one of the flat-backed cypress wood chairs he'd made. The exact one he'd placed out there this afternoon, in fact. His best one yet. The way she touched it, he had the fleeting thought that she, unlike any woman he'd ever met, could appreciate the work he put in, the parts of himself that were blended with the wood, the glue, the screws. The dreams he'd once had that still stubbornly rose to the surface when he was transforming a plain piece of wood into something with beauty and use. Dreams, he reminded himself, not a reality he should entertain.
"You can't tell me that these chairs don't live for you, Mr. Jones," she said quietly. "Because they sure look like they do to me."
"You really like the chairs?" he asked, then cursed himself for letting the question slip out. He shouldn't give a damn what people thought. He wasn't in this for anything other than a little stress reduction.
She glanced up at him, and smiled. "Of course I do. If I didn't, I wouldn't keep trying so hard to buy them."
He'd had a good reason not to sell her the chairs five minutes ago. And last week, when she'd come by, and the week before that. But darned if he could remember it now. "They're just a passel of wood and glue," he said, glancing over at them and seeing the imperfectionsthe slight dent where he'd sanded too hard, the miniscule change in spacing between the slats. "Nothing more than places to seat your seat."
As he said the last word, he resisted the urge to peek a glance at her curved seat, as she walked around the chairs and examined them. He did not need to get involved with this woman, or any woman right now. He had a busy radio station over at WFFM that needed his full attention. Running WFFM and hosting his daily show consumed his days, and most of his nights. The station had been struggling for years, and when his brother called him after his boating accident a few weeks ago and asked Harlan to temporarily take over as CEO while Tobias recovered, Harlan hadn't even hesitated. Tobias needed him and he would be there, simple as that.
In recent phone calls, Tobias had mentioned that the station had been hurting lately. Tobias had underestimated.
Once Harlan got a look at the books, he realized the company wasn't just a little in the redit was drowning in a pool of debts. Tobias's own income was a pittance, and that told Harlan that his brother was scrimping to get by. Typical of Tobias, he hadn't said a word. Harlan had buckled down at the office and told his brother not to worry, that he'd have WFFM back on top in no time.
Turned out, it would have been a sight easier to wrangle a herd of cats into a horse trough. But his brother needed him both physically and fiscally, and when push came to shove, family always came first. Tobias had to focus on healing his injuries, not his radio station, and that meant Harlan would step up to the plate. Take care of your brother, that had been his mama's dying wish. And so Harlan had and would continue to, no matter what it took.
Which was why he shouldn't be getting distracted by pretty women or pretty furniture. Or anything else. Tobias was counting on him to be one hundred percent committed, and not get off on some tangent with some nails and a hammer. Not to repeat the mistakes of their father.
Harlan Jones may be a lot of things but he wasn't the kind of man who let down those he cared about. They came first. Everything else ran a distant second.
"Certainly you won't mind if I buy a pair, Mr. Jones," Sophie said. Mortise sat right beside her, either keeping an eye on her or trying to make a friend, Harlan wasn't sure. Across the yard, Tenon gave up on the squirrel and started watching the events on the porch. "I'm sure the other chairs won't even miss them. They can breed a few more next week."
She was determined. But she'd met her match in the stubborn department when it came to Harlan Jones. He wasn't starting a furniture business, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
"I'm rightly sorry to say this, again," he said, wondering why she seemed so damned determined to rid him of a bunch of chairs that he'd built solely as a hobby, "but they are not for sale. Particularly to you."