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Kristi Callahan rang the doorbell of her dream home. A sprawling 1960s rancher with two fireplaces, a breezeway separating the house from the two-car garage, and enough West Coast flair to appeal to potential buyers searching for their own dream home in one of Seattle's family-friendliest neighborhoods. And it was just her luck to be on the wrong side of the door.
This house was well beyond the reach of a single mom raising a teenage daughter on a single mom's income, but that didn't stop her imagination from playing with the idea of actually living in a house like this someday. And since she'd been hired to get this one staged for the real estate market, she would at least get to put her personal stamp on the place before returning to reality. Her modest two-bedroom town house was no dream home, but it was hers. Or it would be hers in twenty-three and a half years.
The other reality was that by the time she and her team at Ready Set Sold were finished here, this client would get top dollar, even in today's less-than-stellar market, putting this house even further out of her reach.
Speaking of clients, she had an appointment and she was only five minutes late. Okay, eight, but surely Mr. and Mrs. McTavish hadn't given up on her and gone out. There was a big silver-colored SUV and two pink plastic tricycles parked in the driveway but that didn't necessarily mean anyone was home.
She dug her phone out of the side pocket of her bag. No messages, no missed calls. Taking care not to get tripped up by a tattered teddy bear missing half its stuffing and three small yellow rubber boots strewn across the wide front step, she rang the bell again, and waited. A moment later her patience was rewarded with footsteps, lots of them. Two identical faces with earnest blue eyes and blond Cindy Brady pigtails appeared in the glass sidelight next to the door. One had her thumb in her mouth; the other's pigtails were oddly askew. No doubt these were the tricycle riders. And then they were dwarfed by a huge dog whose head appeared above theirs, a panting, drooling Saint Bernard.
"Is your mommy home?" Kristi asked, loud enough so they could hear.
Their pigtails shook from side to side.
The dog pressed its moist nose against the glass.
Hmm. The children stared at her but made no attempt to summon a grown-up. Surely they hadn't been left here on their own with only a dog to look out for them. A dog that let loose a strand of drool that now slithered down one of the blond pigtails.
Gross. Kristi quickly looked away and reached for the doorbell yet again, pulling her hand back when another set of footsteps, heavier ones, approached from the other side of the door.
The man who opened it was wearing faded blue jeans, a gray T-shirt with what appeared to be a complicated chemical equation in green lettering stretching across his chest, and the annoyed expression of someone who wasn't expecting anyone.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
Darn. Did she have the wrong day? No. She had checked her calendar and this appointment had definitely been scheduled for Wednesday. And it was Wednesday, wasn't it?
The man at the door gave her a wary look and held up his hands, both clad in dirt-caked gardening gloves. "If you're selling something, I'm not interested."
"No." She shook her head emphatically, trying to ignore his mucky gloves and struggling not to be distracted by the intensity of his eyes. Cool blue eyes that a girl could practically swim in. "I'm not selling anything."
"Who's she, Daddy?" the girl with the crooked pigtails asked before Kristi could continue.
"My name's Kristi." She smiled down at the adorable little girls, then extended her hand to their father. "Kristi Callahan. I have a two o'clock appointment to meet with the owners. The McTavishes?" Maybe she had the wrong address. "I'm the interior decorator with Ready Set Sold. You hired my company to stage your home and set up the real estate listing."
His expression went from accusatory to apologetic and he slapped a hand to his foreheadapparently forgetting about the gloves as he remembered the appointmentand applied a grimy streak to his brow.
She stared at it, contemplated the protocol with strangers who had spinach in their teeth, toilet paper stuck to a shoe, dirt on their faces, and decided there wasn't one.
He must have realized what she was looking at because he gave his forehead a hasty swipe with his forearm. The streak blurred to a smudge.
Kristi fought off a smile and lowered her gaze to the two little girls, who now flanked the man, each with an arm wound around a kneecap. The one was still sucking her thumb.
"Right. I'm Nate McTavish." He held out his hand, jerked it back and pulled off the glove. His handshake was confident, firm but not too firm. His skin was warm and, given the state of his gardening gloves, surprisingly dirt-free. "Your company was recommended by a colleague of mine. I plan to sell but the house needs some work and I wouldn't know where to start."
"I see." She noted that he said "I" rather than "we," and the little girls had already indicated their mother wasn't here. The hand that might give a clue to his marital status was still inside a gardening glove. Not that it's any of your business, she reminded herself, and tried to ease her hand out of his.
He quickly let go.
She dug a business card out of her bag and handed it to him, wishing her partner Claire had come instead. She always knew how to handle awkward situations.
"If this is a bad time"
"No, not at all. I've been working in my greenhouse this afternoon and I lost track of the time."
In a way it was good that he hadn't been expecting her. She didn't have to apologize for being late.
"As I said, I'm the company's interior decorator. I help our clients get organized prior to listing their homes, assist with any decluttering or downsizing that might be needed. We'll work together to create a design plan to suit your home and your budget. Samantha Elliott, one of my partners, is a carpenter and she'll take care of any repairs or remodeling that has to be done. My other partner, Claire DeAngelo, is a real estate agent," she added, striving to sound polished and professional. "She handles the appraisal, the listing, arranges the open house, that sort of thing."
"This sounds like exactly what I need. I don't have much time for these kinds of things."
Kristi's initial uncertainty faded, but she forced herself to take a breath and slow the flow of information. "We take care of everything. I'm here today to take a look around and get an idea of what needs to be done and we'll take it from there. Urn will your wife be joining us?"
His earlier wariness was back, and if anything it was intensified. "No. She's " He glanced down at his children and gently eased the thumb out of his daughter's mouth. "My wife passed away two years ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry. If there's anything I can" Stop. You don't offer to help a complete stranger. "I'm so sorry."
"Thank you." Except he didn't sound grateful. He sounded as though he wished people would stop asking where his wife was, and stop offering cliched condolences when they found out.
The little girl with the crooked pigtails tugged on his hand. "What's she doing here, Daddy?"
The other child had already recaptured her thumb.
"She's going to help us sell the house."
"Because we're going to move into a new one."
Kristi was reminded of her own daughter at this age, when the answer to every question generated another, especially when the answer was because. Creating a distraction had been the only way to make the questions stop.
"What are your names?" she asked.
"I'm Molly. She's Martha. We're sisters."
"Nice to meet you, Molly and Martha. How old are you?"
"Four." Molly appeared to be the pair's designated spokesperson.
Martha held up the four fingers of her free hand, apparently happy to let her sister do the talking.
They were adorable. They were also a poignant reminder of how much she loved children, how she'd never really got past the disappointment of not having more of her own. The panting dog nudged her elbow with its moist nose, making her laugh. She rubbed the top of its head in response.
"You should come in." Nate reached for the dog's collar and backed away from the door, taking the girls and the dog with him. "Sorry, I shouldn't have kept you standing out there."
"Thank you." She'd begun to wonder when that would occur to him. She stepped into the foyer and tripped over the fourth yellow rubber boot.
Stupid high-heeled shoes. She'd put them on, thinking they made her look more professional, and instead they turned her into a klutz.
Nate grabbed her elbow and held on till she'd regained her footing. She looked up and connected with his intense blue-eyed gaze, and for a second or two, or ten, she couldn't draw a breath. He was gorgeous.
When the clock started ticking again, he abruptly let her go, as though he'd read her thoughts, maybe even had similar ones of his own, and then with one foot he slid the boot out of her path. The dog snapped it up by the heel and gave it a shake, sending a spatter of drool across the floor.
"Girls, remember what we talked about? You need to put your things in the closet."
"That's Martha's," Molly said. "Mine are outside."
Martha tugged the boot out of the dog's mouth, tossed it onto the pile of things in the bottom of the closet and tried unsuccessfully to close the bifold door. She was remarkably adept at doing things with one hand.
"Sorry about the mess," Nate said. "If I had remembered you were coming, I would have tidied up."
Kristi couldn't tell if the closet door wouldn't close because the pile of clothing and footwear was in the way or if a hinge was broken, or both. She made a mental note to have Sam take a look at it, and added storage baskets to the list already forming in her head. She lived with a teenage girl and a dog so she knew a thing or two about clutter. At least the slate tile floor was clean, which, given the amount of traffic generated by two small children and one large dog, was a good sign. This man must be a decent housekeeper, or maybe he had a cleaning service. Either option scored him some points. The children looked well cared for, too, and in the grand scheme of things they were most important.
All this made Nate McTavish pretty much the opposite of the deadbeat dads in her life. That, along with his offhand charm and those heart-stopping eyes, should elevate her opinion of him. Instead the combination set off a loud clamor of mental alarm bells.
Get over yourself. Quiver-inducing blue eyes aside, she was here to do a job, not strike up an unwelcome relationship with a client.
"Not a problem. That's why I'm here." And if the rest of the house was anything like the foyer, she had her work cut out for her.
"Where would you like to start?" he asked.
"Is this the living room?" she asked, pointing to a pair of mullioned glass doors. With the frosted glass, they looked more like Japanese rice paper than traditional French doors.
He hesitated, then reluctantly pushed them open. "It is. We almost never use it so I keep the doors closed."
Kristi surveyed the interior. The curtains were closed and the room was dark and cool. The vaulted cedar-plank ceiling was draped with yellow-and-mauve crepe paper and clusters of matching balloons. Several balloons appeared to have come loose and were now on the floor, looking a little deflated.
"We had the girls' birthday party here last week and I didn't get around to taking down the decorations. I'll be sure to do that tonight."
Martha clung to her father's hand but Molly scampered into the room and attempted a balloon toss. The massive dog lumbered in behind her. The yellow blob of a balloon slithered to the floor so the child stomped on it instead. When it didn't pop, she lost interest and rejoined her father and sister. The dog nudged it with its nose, picked it up and gave it a chomp. Still no pop, so the Saint dropped the slobbery mass in the middle of the sisal area rug.
The room was furnished with comfortable-looking furniture and there was an abundance of books and newspapers, a few kids' toys and dog toys, and sofa cushions that needed straightening.
Kristi took her camera out of her bag and looped the strap around her neck. "If it's okay with you, I'd like to photograph each room. When I get back to my place my office" He didn't need to know she did most of her work out of the back of her minivan and at one end of her kitchen table. "The photographs help me create a design plan and draw up a budget."
"Fine with me. Are you okay to look around on your own? I still have some work to do outside." He pulled his gardening gloves back on.
"You go ahead," she said. "I'll look through the house and we can talk when I'm done."
"And I will tidy up in here tonight," he assured her again.
The week-old remnants of the party seemed to embarrass him. Kristi didn't see them as a problem, quite the opposite. At least there had been a party, and that was definitely to his credit. She couldn't remember the last time Jenna's dad had even called to wish their daughter a happy birthday. Gifts? Not even a consideration.
"Molly. Martha. Let's go. You can play outside while I work."
"Daddy, why is she taking pictures?"
"She needs to know what the house looks like."
He took Molly's hand and coaxed her out of the room along with her sister, who needed no urging at all. The dog seemed content to amble along after them.
"Because she just does."
To say Nate McTavish was overwhelmed by single-parenthood would be the understatement of the century, but what he lacked in technique, he made up for with patience. In spades.
As he walked away, she smiled at the green lettering on the back of his T-shirt. Go Green With Photosynthesis. At least now the equation on the front made sense, and confirmed her guess that he probably was a gardener. Her gaze dropped a little lower. There was a lot to be said for a flattering pair of jeans, but these particular jeans were simply magic. She quickly looked away. You have a job to do, and that is not it.
Since her ex, Derek the Deadbeat, had left twelve years ago, she had been on a number of casual dates, mostly with men her family and friends had set her up with, but she had guarded against anything that would distract her from becoming a self-sufficient single mom and career woman.
Everything about this man was distracting. The hair that could use a trim but suited him anyway, his being oblivious to the streak of dirt on his forehead, and oh those eyes. She never felt awkward with new clients, but if she'd had to go through every room in the house with him, knowing those eyes watched every move she made, she would not have been able to focus. Especially after the moment they'd had when she tripped over the little yellow boot. And it hadn't just been her moment. He'd felt it, too. She was sure of it.
With him out of the room if not entirely out of her mind, she pulled open the heavy drapes and imagined the clutter away. The rich wood of the floors and beamed ceiling created a warm contrast to the polished river rock of the open-hearth fireplace. She would start staging in this room, she decided. The fireplace was the focal point of the room, and it would create the perfect jumping-off point for the casual West Coast decor she would carry throughout the house. She didn't even need to see the other rooms to know she could make it work.
She raised her camera, snapped a photo of the fireplace and then systematically documented the rest of the room.