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Casey Hardy was bored, a dangerous state for a self-proclaimed workaholic. Growing up the last of six children, there had always been a sibling to challenge her. Being the youngest executive in the family business, there had always been a battle for recognition. Being a female in the male-oriented home improvement industry had always forced her to be one up on all the men in her professional life in order to win their respect. And now that the challenges, battles and oneupping had paid off in the form of the job she'd had in her sights for as long as she could remember, she was bored stiff.
Her brother had handed her a project positioned for success, and following his proven plan for the construction and opening of a home improvement supercenter was a nobrainer. It was also no fun. So, Casey had an additional goal in mind when she'd headed to Galveston, Texas. She'd take advantage of their U.K. potential investor's upcoming review of the new store's progress to prove her ability to manage an international partnership. Finally, the perfect vehicle to prove to her father once and for all that she had the stuff to be the CEO of Hearth and Home when he retired.
She stood in the bed of an old truck, her palm raised to block the midday rays of Monday's sun. Even with her thick curls caught up in a clip and a soft red bandana twisted around her forehead, sweat still prickled in her scalp and drizzled down her neck. She pulled off worn leather work gloves, stuffed them into the hip pocket of her dirty jeans and focused her attention on the arrival of a newcomer.
"Who's the suit talking with Cooper?" she asked her best friend who doubled as an assistant.
Savannahglanced up from her clipboard and looked in the direction of the foreman.
"Don't know." She squinted. "He seems familiar but I don't think it's from seeing him around here. Even as nearsighted as I am I can tell he's hot stuff and I'd remember a looker like him."
The looker was expensively dressed in a dark jacket and slacks, overdone for the Gulf Coast humidity. He'd be overdone, literally, if he didn't loosen the tie and shed that blazer. Either that or fold his tall frame back into the enormous Cadillac parked beside Cooper's Wrangler.
Casey leaned from the waist, placed a hand on the truck fender and hopped to the ground. Her steel-toed work boot slipped on the powdery shale, sending her sprawling to the seat of her pants.
"And the boss lady executes another graceful dismount." Savannah snickered, extended a hand and hauled Casey upright.
"When are you gonna get a pair of sneakers with some tread on the bottoms?"
"I'm not." She brushed the dust from her jeans, grateful at least for the thick pair of gloves that had cushioned her landing. "I just need to get used to these heavy boots. Cooper says I should wear them for safety but I think it builds credibility with our crew."
"Oh, yeah, those clunkers leave no doubt that you're a construction babe. Add an orange vest and you could infiltrate a highway chain gang."
"I'm going for safe and serious, not fashionable," she defended her grubby but functional work attire.
"Thanks for the news flash." Savannah's gaze swept Casey from top to toe. "I do have to admit it's an interesting contrast to your usual uniform." She referred to Casey's closet full of dark suits.
"Hey, I didn't import you all the way from Iowa so you could insult me. That's what my family is for."
"Just keeping you grounded in the facts like your sweet daddy suggested."
"I can arrange for you to be back in the corporate office conspiring with him in person, if you'd like."
"No thanks." Savannah ignored the threat.
"I'm not going home till I catch myself a Texas cowboy." She rubbed her hands together, a gleam of anticipation in her eyes.
"I hate to disappoint you but my guess is you're more likely to rope a surfer than a bull rider in Galveston."
"If he's as hot as that guy over there with Cooper, he can ride a bike on a paper route and I won't mind a bit." She raised her eyebrows and pretended to hold a cigar, Groucho-style. "Especially if he wears one of those cute little Tour de France outfits."
"Savannah Jean, you are incorrigible."
"And you have way too much starch in your drawers, which is why we've always been good for each other."
She's right, Casey admitted to herself. If she hadn't kept me from taking myself too seriously the past fifteen years, I'd probably be in a padded cell by now.
Some action between the men caught Casey's eye. Cooper was pointing in her direction. He waved her over, smiling in that way he did when people first found out she was managing the project instead of her brother, Guy.
"Showtime," she muttered, then headed toward her foreman. As she closed the thirty yards that separated them she began to pick up bits of conversation. The visitor had a prominent English accent.
Her pulse quickened and she slowed her pace, needing a moment to think. He had to be the U.K. investor.
Please, God, not today. Not the way I look right now, she pleaded.
It was way too early in the project. This could only mean trouble. As in the days when she and Savannah had been summoned to the principal's office in high school, she felt the hot surge of nervous sweat. She shook off the moment of trepidation and stepped up to the men's conversation.
"Mr. Cooper, see here. There must be some mistake." The Brit pointed to the papers in his hand as if that would clarify everything. "I am specifically directed to seek out Guy Hardy, not his spokesperson. There was no correction to these instructions, no mention of an alternative contact."
"Well, son, this pretty filly right here's a bona fide alternative, not a spokesperson. And I guarantee you that's no mistake. Mark my words, everything this lady does is intentional." Cooper winked at Casey and discreetly spit a dark stream into his paper cup.
"Casey Hardy, Hearth and Home." She ran her palm down the front thigh of her jeans before she extended it. "How can I help you?"
"Mrs. Hardy, please forgive me if I decline your handshake." He held both palms aloft for inspection. "I had a minor mishap over the weekend." The pads of his fingers and creases of his knuckles bore some angry gashes and purple bruises.
"Yeow, that must have stung." She winced at the sight.
"Believe me, it could have been much worse. Now, allow me to introduce myselfBarrett Westbrook of Westbrook Partners, Esquire. I apologize for the intrusion. However, I'm here to meet with your husband. This gentleman says Mr. Hardy is in " The man's brow furrowed.
"Guy's up in the hill country, near Austin," Cooper reminded the visitor.
"Yes, thank you. Tell me, madam, will your husband be down from the hills in the next day or two so we can conduct business?"
Casey risked a glance at Cooper, who was hiding his grin about as successfully as a naughty boy hid a croaking bullfrog. It was obvious he was enjoying this fellow's confusion. It was also evident Cooper had done little to clear it up and possibly even added to it. While the seasoned construction manager had been a godsend, he had way too much fun messing with her at every turn. She was enjoying the smart old codger, but this situation needed damage control. She'd start by getting the visitor out of the heat before he had a stroke.
"Would you like to walk over to the lunch trailer with me? We can get a cold drink and sit in the shade while I explain." She pointed toward the mobile unit affectionately known as the roach coach.
"Thank you for the kind offer, however I must begin conducting my investigation right away, Mrs. Hardy." He studied the papers he held as if they were critical to his very survival.
"I'm a miss."
"Excuse me, madam?" He glanced up. His brows lifted, the crease between them deepened. She'd never seen confusion look so good on a man.
"I'm a miss. A miss!"
The brows relaxed. Gray eyes the color of thick evening smoke glinted with amusement and grazed her from head to heel. "Well, I'm sure you'll clean up quite nicely after a good scrubbing."
"Yeah, she is a mess all right, but what she's trying to tell you is she's a single gal."
"Oh, quite sorry," Barrett apologized, his face a mask of poorly feigned innocence.
If this beguiling Brit was to be her potential partner, closing this deal would not only be a cinch, it would be a pleasure.
"Please do accept my apology."
She fished into her pants pockets for change.
"As long as you let me buy you a Coke." Without waiting for his response she turned toward the lunch trailer.
"Better make tracks, son. That one's not likely to slow down and give you a chance to catch up."
Cooper's advice reached her ears and she picked up the pace to drive home his point.
Barrett watched the slender young woman who, despite their joke, truly was a mess as she strode across the dusty construction lot, confidence displayed in every step. Her destination appeared to be a motor coach with its awning propped open to reveal two men selling something rolled in tinfoil. As he reached her side, an aroma unlike anything he'd ever experienced tantalized his senses. His stomach made an inappropriate rumbling sound.
"Have you eaten lunch?"
"No, I haven't had anything since breakfast on the flight this morning."
"So, you just arrived?" She deposited several bills on the counter, scooped up a sackful of the lovely smelling rolls and motioned for him to carry the cold drinks.
The chilled cans were comforting against the painful gashes on his palms and the pads of his fingers. Barrett realized he was lucky it was not his throat that was left slashed and bleeding after his insane balancing act on the edge of Traitor's Gate. His out-of-character behavior only one night earlier was proof that family pressure and fickle women could send any man to the brink of disaster.