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Nick Durrance looked at the run–down two–and–a–half–story house and double–checked the address he'd scrawled on a scrap of paper. he'd been surprised—okay, astounded—when his answering service told him that Maggie Meadowcroft wanted an estimate on a remodeling job. Collingwood Station was small enough that there could only be one Miss Meadowcroft. She had been his high–school English teacher, although it had never occurred to him at the time that she had a first name. She'd been positively ancient then, and that had been ten years ago.
Hers was the only house on the block that hadn't been renovated and it definitely needed work. Paint. A new roof. Here's hoping old Miss Meadowcroft had a nice bank account, because he really needed this job.
He pushed the gate open and lunged for it after it swung askew on one hinge. The house also needed new front steps, although to his surprise they held his weight. All but the second step, which looked too risky to chance.
The doorbell had an Out of Order sign taped over it. He added new wiring to the long list forming in his head and knocked on the wooden frame of the screen door.
"Come in!" The voice that beckoned from the back of the house had a husky, musical quality that was utterly feminine and startlingly young. Nothing at all like the Miss Meadowcroft he remembered.
"Wait'll you try this," the voice said. "You'll love it!" Definitely not Miss Meadowcroft. He gave in to curiosity, pulled the screen door open and stepped inside. The hallway was filled with antiques, many of them much older than the home's owner. he'd have expected the place to be a little on the musty side but instead the air was strangely…fruit–flavored?
"Come on in!" she called again.
The scent of strawberries and that fascinating voice enticed him down the hall to the kitchen. The voice that had conjured up a sultry, mysterious woman actually belonged to a slender redhead who sat at the kitchen table, gazing into a mirror propped against a canister. She was scraping some kind of creamy pink stuff out of a blender with a spatula and smearing it all over her face.
She dumped the spatula back in the blender, spread the stuff around with her fingers and spoke without looking up. "I finally got it right. You will not believe how good this feels."
She popped the tip of one finger between a pair of very luscious–looking lips. "It even tastes—" She glanced up then. "Oh! You're not Allison."
He watched her grab for the nearest kitchen implement and smiled when she ended up arming herself with a wooden spoon.
"Who are you?" she asked. "How did you get in here?"
"Nick Durrance. Through the front door. It wasn't locked and you did say I should come in."
"I thought you were Allison."
"I think we've already established that I'm not."
She glared at him and he chided himself for being a smartass. Let's face it. Most women would be surprised to look up and find a six–foot–four construction worker standing in their kitchen.
She pointed her weapon at him. "Allison lives next door. I called her to come over and test my new rejuvenating porecleansing facial mask. She'll be here any minute."
The corners of his mouth twitched and he had to cover them with his thumb and forefinger to make them behave. He understood she was startled but she looked perfectly ridiculous. A pencil protruded from the untidy bundle of dark red hair piled on top of her head and almond–shaped brown eyes gazed suspiciously from two circles in the pink stuff she'd smeared on her face. What man in his right mind would attack a woman who looked like this?
"Listen. I didn't mean to startle you." He took a step forward, and she jumped to her feet and jabbed the wooden spoon in his direction.
"Watch it, mister. I've taken self–defense classes."
He found that difficult to believe. From the neck up, she looked like a cross between Wilma Flintstone and Lucille Ball on a bad–everything day, but from the neck down…whoa! Even faded denim shorts, a purple tie–dyed T–shirt and a string of pearls couldn't disguise a body that just wouldn't…
Wait a minute. Pearls? Who wore pearls anymore? Even his mother had abandoned hers for the kind of bling that Hollywood types wore these days. Apparently pearls were passé. Maybe too reminiscent of the dutiful wife who greeted her husband at the door at the end of the day with a sweet smile and a whiskey sour.
One thing was for sure. This woman was no June Cleaver. If the state of the kitchen was anything to go by, she'd created her rejuvenating cream from yogurt and an assortment of fruit that she'd whipped up in a blender, resulting in the fruit salad scent that had drawn him down the hallway. That, and the voice that felt like the hot–rock massage he'd once experienced at the hands of an even hotter little masseuse whose fear of commitment matched his own. Not that he'd wanted her to commit. he'd wanted her to pay for the work he'd done for her. She'd had other ideas. "I'm sure your friend is eager to have her grocery store facial but I'm here to see Miss Meadowcroft, so if you could—"
"I'm Miss Meadowcroft." She still stared at him warily but lowered the spoon a few notches.
"Are you?" This time he let the corners of his mouth have their way. "Then I have to tell you, that miracle product of yours really seems to work. You look much younger than the last time I saw you."
She laughed at that. Not the contrived halfhearted giggle that masqueraded as laughter in so many women. Hers was deep and exuberant and it flowed over him like honey on warm toast.
"I'm her niece," she said. "Her great–niece, actually. Miss Maggie Meadowcroft, makeover specialist."
"I see. Is Miss Meadowcroft—retired high–school English teacher and tormentor of teenage boys—here?"
She went serious. "You were one of Aunt Margaret's students? She did have a way of always making you want to try harder, didn't she? To do better."
That was one way to put it. "I wasn't one of her 'do better' students, but apparently she wants to renovate this place, and that's something I can do." Although Shakespeare was still way beyond him, he'd like to show Miss Margaret Meadowcroft that he was good at something.
Maggie tipped her head to one side and looked him up and down, taking her time about it. "I'll bet you're a Capricorn. Determined, distrustful, a little on the cynical side."
"So I've been told. It takes most people longer to figure it out though."
She smiled again. "I knew it. I have a kind of sixth sense about these things."
Give me a break. "Listen, is your aunt—" Some of the yogurty goop dripped off her chin and plopped onto the worn linoleum.
She laughed again. "Oops! I'm dribbling."
He grabbed a towel off the back of a kitchen chair and tossed it to her.
"Thanks. I'll go wash this stuff off." She flung the wooden spoon onto the table and dashed out, holding the towel under her chin.
She was back in less than two minutes and all Nick could do was stare. Why would anyone cover such a beautiful face with…food?
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No. No, everything's fine. I should probably talk to your aunt though."
Her eyes went moist. "Aunt Margaret died six months ago." Add clueless to his list of Capricornian flaws. "Sorry. I didn't know."
She grabbed a tissue out of a box on the table and wiped her eyes. "It was a heart attack—quick as could be, the doctor said. She didn't suffer at all. I still miss her like crazy but she's in a happy place now so I try not to feel badly for her."
A "happy place"? How was he supposed to respond to that? She talked as though she had some kind of inside information.
She brightened a little. "She left everything to me. That's pretty wonderful, don't you think?"
Wonderful for his bank balance. "So, you want to renovate this place?"
"Yes. Lucky for me she left enough money for me to fix up the house and start my business."
Lucky. So why was his conscience niggling at him? "It's going to need a lot of work. I think it should be rewired and it definitely needs a new roof. You know, you could always sell it and buy yourself a nice condo."
He might as well have suggested she cut off an arm.
"I don't think you understand," she said. "I don't just want to live here. I'm going to open a day spa and do natural makeovers. It'll be called Inner Beauty." She smiled up him. "'Making the most of what you've got, naturally."That's my advertising slogan. What do you think?"
"I thought so, too! Most spas just work on the person's external appearance but I do makeovers from the inside out. If a person feels good about themselves, then they're naturally beautiful. You know what I mean?"
He didn't have a clue. "Everyone's always said I have a way with people. Even Aunt Margaret thought so." She waved a hand around the kitchen. "This will be my workspace where I'll create all my beauty products." She ran a hand over her cheek. "Like my rejuvenating pore–cleansing facial mask. It works like a dream. Feel."
She wanted him to touch her? No way. "Go ahead." She took his hand and guided it to her face. "Amazing, huh?"
Their gazes locked and for a few seconds, maybe longer, he couldn't answer. Amazing indeed.
She leaned closer. "Would you like to try some?" She smelled like strawberries and cream.
He snatched his hand out of hers and stepped back. "No. Thanks. I think we better stick to business."
Her smile suggested she could see right through him. "I'll also need to use the kitchen for making meals because I plan to live upstairs. There are three bedrooms so I'll have lots of space. Come on, I'll show you."
He followed her down the short hallway. "The spa will be here, in the living room and dining room. I'll need a divider or something to make a change room. I want to put a massage table over there and lots of plants. Over here I'll have one of those chairs that can be raised and lowered and a big mirror. I want to keep the fireplace, of course, and these wonderful old light fixtures, and most of the antiques and…"
She paused and he thought it was to catch her breath until he saw that her eyes had filled with tears. Aw, jeez. He wasn't good with weepy women. He grabbed a box of tissues off a side table and handed it to her.
"Thanks." She dried her eyes and gave her nose a healthy blow. "I've only been here for a week and all this stuff still makes me kind of emotional." She took a deep breath. "I was going to say that I want to keep the photographs on this wall. Family is so important, don't you think?"
How to answer that? Truthfully, or tell her what she wanted to hear? But then she was talking again, so it didn't matter what he thought.
"I love looking at these old portraits. That's Aunt Margaret and my grandfather. They were brother and sister. My grandparents died ten years ago, three weeks apart. Don't you think that's romantic? Grandma went first, then poor Grandpa died of a broken heart."
Nick bet that's not what the death certificate said. "My father died in a car accident on my sixteenth birthday. Since then, it's just been me and my mother. And Aunt Margaret, of course. My mother still lives in Greenwich Village. You know, in New York."
Yes, even a small–town guy from Connecticut knew about Greenwich Village, and finding out that's where she came from was no surprise.
"I love the city but now that Aunt Margaret's gone and this house is mine, I can finally open my spa. So you see, I can't possibly sell it."
Right. And he now had way too much information. Never mind that the people of Collingwood Station would look down their aristocratic noses at someone doing natural makeovers. She could always sell the place and go back to the city after this crazy business scheme failed. "So, about the renovations. Do you just want the interior refinished? What about the roof and the wiring?"
The look she gave him was wide–eyed and innocent. "Since you're a former student of Aunt Margaret's, I'm sure I can trust you. If she thinks you're the wrong person for the job, she'll give me a sign."
A sign? From old Miss Meadowcroft? For a few seconds he had a strange feeling that a bolt of lightening was about to strike him. Dead aunts didn't have that kind of power, did they? Oh, man. He must be losing it. "Tell you what. I'll come by first thing tomorrow, do a full inspection and give you a quote for everything that needs to be done. You can look it over and decide if you'd like to hire me and what you want me to do."
Best to leave the dear old aunt out of the equation. Back in high school, he'd been a bad student with a bad attitude and an even badder GPA. The Miss Meadowcroft who'd made his highschool career a living hell wouldn't have trusted him anywhere near her home. And who could blame her? But she was now among the dearly departed and he did not believe in signs from above or beyond or wherever. Business was business.
"Tomorrow will be perfect. What time—"
The screen door squeaked open, taking them both by surprise.
"Hello–o? Sorry it took me so long to get here."
The voice was too real to belong to a spirit. It sounded more like…
No. No way.
Allison Peters. Or Allison aine, if she was using her husband's name. It hadn't occurred to him that this was the Allison that Maggie had been talking about, since it was hard to imagine two people who had less in common. "What did I tell you?" Maggie asked. "This is my friend Allison."
Go figure. Who would have guessed Allison would befriend someone who wore tie–dye?
Nick watched Maggie embrace the woman from his distant past and hoped the past didn't come back to haunt him.
"I'd like you to meet Nick Durrance," she said. "He's a contractor and we've been talking about renovating the house."
For a minute it looked as though Allison might go along with the introduction and pretend she didn't know him. Then she seemed to decide against it. Probably just as well, since it wouldn't take long for Maggie and her sixth sense—with the help of the local gossips—to figure out the truth.
"Nick and I already know each other,"Allison said, although she didn't seem to want to look at him. "Sorry I'm late. I waited until John came home from the office so he could stay with the kids."
"How do you two know each other?" Maggie asked.
Nick cleared his throat.
Allison shot him a quick glance and looked away. God, he couldn't believe she was blushing. After all these years…
Maggie grinned. "Ah, I see. Does John know about this?" "How is John?" he asked, since he was pretty sure Allison would want to avoid Maggie's question.
"Very well, thank you. The kids are fine, too. Oh, and—" she hiked up her chin "—John's just made senior partner, but I'm sure your sister told you."
"I guess she forgot to mention it." Which wasn't exactly true. She hadn't mentioned it because she never talked to him, and Allison damned well knew it. "I'm glad you managed to get your lawyer, after all."
"John is a great husband. And father."
"Congratulate him for me."
She eyed him suspiciously. "On making senior partner."
"Oh. Of course."
Maggie, he could see, was watching the exchange with a lot more interest than the situation merited. After all, he and Allison were ancient history. Prehistoric ancient history. She'd spent their senior year trying to make him into someone he wasn't. When it hadn't worked, she'd gone off to college and by Christmastime that year, she and John aine were engaged.
He took a card out of the back pocket of his jeans and handed it to Maggie. "I'll let you ladies get on with your makeovers. I'll be back in the morning to start on that estimate. Meanwhile, if you think of anything else, Miss Meadowcroft, give me a call."
He headed for the front door, uncomfortably aware of two pairs of eyes on his back.