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Jack Maguire wouldn't be needing a second look to
confirm the rumor: Charlie Keene was a woman who could give a man hell. She stood a dozen yards away, her muddy boots planted at the edge of Earl Sawyer's gravel yard, flaring up like a pint-size serpent to poke a pointy finger at his gut. And if that image wasn't enough of a giveaway, all a guy had to do was listen. She hissed and spat in a fire-and-brimstone vocabulary, providing Sawyer with an impressive preview of everlasting damnation.
The plant operator who'd pointed out Charlie and Earl climbed back on his loader. Jack waved his thanks and leaned against his rental sedan to enjoy the show. Sawyer tried to duck out of the fight with a feint to the left, but Charlie cut off his escape with some fast footwork and another round of curses.
One side of Jack's mouth twisted in a lopsided grin. He'd enjoy doing a little ducking and weaving of his own before he delivered the knockout punch.
Before he put her out of business.
Sawyer laughed at something Charlie said and shook his head. She sure was a cute little thing, an inch or two over five feet and close to ninety pounds of atomic energy bundled up in workman's coveralls. Her firecracker hair exploded out the back of her visored work cap, and her square, stubborn chin shoved up toward Sawyer's grizzled beard. Not Jack's usual taste in women, perhapstoo much spice in her attitude, not enough sugar in her shapebut kind of appealing, in a handle-at-your-own-risk kind of way.
Jack always had enjoyed the adrenaline rush of a calculated risk. His smile spread with one part anticipation and three parts pure male speculation. It looked like this business trip upthe coast from San Francisco might be more interesting than he'd figured.
Charlie tossed up her hands with a frustrated growl, shot Sawyer one final, lethal glare and stomped toward the battered Keene Concrete pickup truck parked near Jack's car. Her pretty mouth moved in a muttered litany of male-dictions as she rammed her hands into her mud-spattered coverall pockets and kicked at a loose piece of cobble in her path.
She stumbled over another when she noticed Jack grinning at her, and she faltered, just for a moment, while a charming blush flooded her cheeks. And then her eyesJack thought they might be as dark and gray as the wet gravelnarrowed to slits, and a touch of the heat she'd been directing at Sawyer snapped across the yard and sizzled right through him.
Jack rubbed a fist over his heart. God almighty, the lady could torch the countryside with that flamethrower stare of hers. Probably came in handy for keeping badass drivers and fresh-handed boyfriends in line. He worked up another grin, just to show he wasn't completely charred, while she yanked her abused pickup's door open, climbed inside and peeled out of the yard, spitting gravel in her wake.
"Maguire?" Sawyer sloshed through a gravel-lined puddle, one work-roughened hand outstretched to take Jack's. "Jackson Maguire?"
"Earl Sawyer." The wiry man had a grip like a vise on a machinist's bench. "Welcome to BayRock. Understand you represent some folks who're looking to get a piece of the Carnelian Cove ready-mix business, Mr. Maguire."
"Folks call me Jack." He paused to watch a mixer truck pull under the concrete batch plant and stop, idling for the next load. The driver climbed down from the cab and headed for the office, juggling his clipboard as he lit a cigarette. "Looks like a busy place."
"Can be, sometimes." Sawyer nodded with muted pride and satisfaction at a loader dumping a scoop of sand into the bed of a customer's pickup truck.
Jack took the opportunity to scan the yard, quickly assessing the equipment and layout at Sawyer's BayRock Enterprises. A few streaks of rust edged the seams of the batch plant, and the dozen assorted loading and delivery trucks were mostly older models, but everything appeared to be operational and in good repair. To the north, near the gunmetal-gray ripples of the Ransom River, conveyor belts dribbled freshly screened material over neat cones of sand and gravel, and a vast, misshapen mound of river run hulked beneath February's sullen, fog-dampened sky.
It was the river run Jack's employer had an interest in acquiringtens of thousands of cubic yards of rough material waiting to be sifted into gravel gold. That, and the permit to scrape still more sand and gravel from the river's bars when the water level fell in the summer.
Sawyer hitched his pants up an inch over hips as spare and angular as the rest of his build. "Got a big pour at the tribal casino today."
"Saw some pier forms going up for a bridge just south of here," said Jack. "You doing that, too?"
Jack already knew the answer. The bridge job was Keene Concrete's, just like most of the government projects in the area. Which was surprising, considering Sawyer's outfit was the only one in town with a union contract.
Jack didn't like surprises. That was one reason he'd informed his regional manager that he was making the trip north to check out the situation for himself.
"We couldn't have handled a bridge pour today," said Sawyer with a shrug. "We've got our hands full with the casino."
"How many yards?"
"Plenty." Sawyer squinted at the mixer truck spinning its drum as material fell from the batch plant's weigh hopper. "Had to rent a couple of trucks from our competitor to handle it."
"Yep." Sawyer's measuring gaze settled back on Jack's face. "It's just the two of us around here."
Jack followed Sawyer across the yard, pausing to let a loader rumble past and dump a scoop of pea gravel into the feeder bin at the base of the batch plant's conveyor belt. "Pretty wet winters here, I s'pose," said Jack. "Projects get backed up to spring?"
"A few." Sawyer shrugged away the region's long, gray rainy season. "If a fellow was interested in buying a place like this one, it might be a good time to get a deal cooking, so he could get in on the early summer rush."
"Might be," said Jack with a noncommittal smile.
Sawyer paused outside his squat concrete-block office building with his hand on the doorknob. "Just thought I should mention I've already got one offer on the table. Figured I'd take it."
Jack nodded. He already knew about the offer, too. "Smart move," he said, "since you probably figured you wouldn't get another one."
"Told the other party I'd take it, too."
"No problem." Jack shoved his hands into his pockets.
"And no harm in listening to what I've got to say."
"Just wanted to be up front about the situation here."
"Being up front is always good business."
Sawyer continued to study Jack with that squinty-eyed stare for another long moment and then twisted the knob and motioned him inside. "I'll keep that in mind."
CHARLIE CHARGED INTO THE cramped reception area of the office trailer at Keene Concrete twenty minutes later and slammed the door shut behind her. The fiberboard paneling on the walls vibrated in sympathy, and fine gray cement dust whirled in eddies around her feet. On the cork display board hanging over the scarred laminate counter, an oversize aerial photo of the Ransom River swung and settled back into place.
"Shit," she muttered. Here she was, scrambling to keep the place from coming apart at the seams while her brainless younger brother made a hash of today's schedule by renting out two of their trucks. She'd harassed the shop mechanic to get a wheezing mixer ready to roll in record time, and then had spent the morning making deliveries herself. Her back ached, her head throbbed and her stomach was begging for the take-out breakfast grown stone-cold on her desk. "Shit, shit, shit."
"Come on, Charlie," said Gus Guthrie, Keene's ancient dispatcher. He tilted back on his chair's casters and balanced his massive coffee mug on one of his spindly thighs. "Why don't you tell us how you really feel?"
She pointed a warning finger. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Fine by me." He aimed his thumb toward the phone on his massive metal desk. "Red Simpson's on line two. Doesn't think he should have to pay the standing time on the Maple Street job last month."
"Then he should've had his crew finish up the forms before we showed up with the truck."
Some of her customers kept forgetting they weren't the only ones with a clock ticking on payroll expenses. Keeping a mixer truck idling at the curb while a construction crew got ready for a concrete pour meant the driver was getting paid for sitting in his cab, listening to the radio or flipping through a magazineand that his truck was unavailable for making other deliveries and selling more product.
Argumentative customers, botched delivery schedules, increasing fuel prices, union contract negotiations Charlie rubbed her forehead and tried to remember if the king-size aspirin bottle in her lower-left desk drawer had already run to empty. "I'll take the call."
"Figured you might." He lifted the giant mug to his lips and sipped one of the half dozen coffees he drank daily.
"Figured you might be primed to deal with your good buddy Red right about now."
"Now, Gus." She spared him a nasty smile as she punched at the blinking light on the phone panel. "You know the customer's always right."
Gus humphed and slurped more coffee. "Unless he's dumber than dirt."
She took a deep breath and tamped down her anger over the morning's scene at BayRock. Dealing with Red was going to hitch her blood pressure into the danger zone as it was. "Hey, Red," she said in a neutral voice. "How's it going?"
She paced the length of the counter and back again as Red blasted her for adding her driver's extra time on the site to his bill. Red was one of those contractors who worked a little too close to the edge, shaving his costs by trying to shift some of his risks onto his subcontractors and suppliers. Better to force Charlie to pay her driver to wait on the job than to pay his own crew to wait for the truck to arrive.
She and Red had gone this round before. They'd likely go it again. Red never seemed to figure out how hard he could push his crew or how long he could push the odds. But the talk around town was his twin daughters were going to need braces to fix those twisted teeth, and Red was going to need every penny he could squeeze out of every angle if he was going to pay for them.
"I can take off thirty minutes," said Charlie. "And that's my final offer."
"Thirty minutes? Hell, just last week Buzz wasn't here any longer than ten. How come you get to charge for overtime, and I don't get a break for under?"
"Thirty, Red. Take it or leave it."
"Your old man would have listened to reason. Mitch knew how to run a fair business."
Charlie's fingers tightened on the receiver. "Yeah, that's right," she said, her voice sounding much steadier than she felt at the moment. "My father would have listened. And then he would have offered exactly the same kind of deal I've given you."
She paused for a moment to control her temper. "I listened, too, Red. I listened in on plenty of conversations just like this one when he was aliveenough to know what I'm doing."
Red growled and muttered his standard filth about women in the construction business. "Guess I'll be calling BayRock when I get that Hawthorne job."
"Guess you might."
They both knew it was a bluff. Earl Sawyer probably wouldn't let Red add any charges to his BayRock account right now, since Earl didn't have Charlie's patience with delinquent payments. "Thirty," she said again.
Red ranted a while longer before disconnecting. Charlie slowly, carefully lowered the receiver into its cradle, her fingers shaking. The comment about her father had stung. "Comparing that man to dirt does dirt a disservice."
"Well," said Gus with a sympathetic shrug, "we'll make up the difference on the Hawthorne pour."
"That job bid already?" Charlie checked her watch. Pinch-hitting as a driver had thrown her day out of whack. "Who got it?"
Gus's homely face cracked with a wide grin. "Brad-ford."
"Yes." She punched the counter with her fist, already figuring the profit in her head. Bradford Industries was efficient, cooperative, paid on time and was a rock-solid customer. If Bradford got the bid, Keene would do the pour. A big one, with plenty of deep, wide surface area and a minimum of the kind of detail work that kept trucks idling while pump operators and concrete finishers filled and smoothed every nook and cranny.
"David seems happy enough about the news," said Gus.
Charlie regretted the sarcastic remark the moment it flew from her mouth. Her younger brother meant well, most of the time. Well, some of the time, anyway, but his heart simply wasn't committed to the family business. Never had been, though their father had struggled for years to find some aspect of Keene Concrete that might engage his only son's interest. Nothing had worked.
David claimed he had a talent for metal sculpting and ambitions to make his mark in the art world, but he'd sold only two pieces and hadn't completed the application for the San Francisco art academy he hoped to attend. Instead, he'd complained his responsibilities were holding him back, and he'd launched a campaign to sell the business the day after they'd put their father in the ground, two long and difficult years ago.
Charlie sighed. "Is he in his office?"
"Yep." Gus stared at the mug in his hands. "Been on the phone most of the morning."
"Could be woman trouble." David hadn't yet figured out the math: dating more than one woman at a time didn't mean his problems would multiply, it meant they'd increase at exponential rates.
"Yep." Gus turned the mug in one circle, and then another. "Could be."
Watching Gus spin that mug knotted up Charlie's guts. She knew her dispatcher was aware of the arguments behind the scenes. David had stormed out of the office more than once lately, threatening to force the issue. To force her to sell.
Bad enough her employees had to deal with a female boss who, at twenty-nine, was younger than most of them. Bad enough they had to deal with the rigors of the job itself, with the long, grueling hours when the weather cooperated and the uncertain hours when it didn't. She didn't want them to have to worry about whether they'd keep their jobs on top of all that.