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It's a known fact that when a woman can't find her day planner, all hell will break loose.
But as Dawn Taggart stamped the last of her paper work, she gave herself a mental pat on the back. No day planner. No problem.
Hell had been firmly contained.
"Here you go, busy bee. Have some homemade pound cake," her sister-in-law Nellie said, entering the small office off the kitchen. She placed a pretty filigree plate holding several pieces of cake on the desk.
"Nell, you really need to rest before the baby gets here." Dawn gave Nellie a firm lookthe same look she'd given her very pregnant sister-in-law over the past several days. Of course, her stomach growled, ruining the reprimand.
Nellie shrugged. "Can't seem to rest. Guess I'm nesting."
"You think?" Dawn said, recalling the cranberry muffins Nellie had made earlier, not to mention all the polishing she'd done on the silver pieces displayed around the center.
Nellie dropped into the chair next to the desk, groaning as she supported her distended belly from underneath. "I'm just worried about the center. I know you can handle everything. It's been important to me, you know?"
Dawn picked up a piece of the still-warm cake. It would go straight to her thighs but was worth it. "We're going to be fine."
And they would. The huge Victorian Tucker House had belonged to Nellie's family for generations. When Nellie had married Dawn's brother, Jack, and moved out to the ranch, she'd converted the home into a much-needed senior center, designed to help families by caring for their elderly family members during the workday. The whole concept had been wildly successful.
When Nellie had learned she was pregnant, she'd asked Dawn to serve as temporary director for Tucker House. The situation proved fortuitous because Dawn not only needed a job, she also needed a break from life in Houston. A life that had made her vulnerablea feeling she hated beyond all others.
"Ow!" Nellie said, rubbing her back.
She shifted on the chair. "Yeah, just a backache I've been fighting all afternoon. It's killing me."
She had probably overdone it today. Jack had dropped her off early this morning and she'd worked steadily around the center, only stopping to play one game of canasta with a few clients. Way too much activity this close to her due date.
A thready voice interrupted from the open doorway. "Homer's not here yet."
The last client of the day, Aggie Richards, stood there, her bent form casting a long shadow on the polished wood floor of the hallway. Late-afternoon sun somersaulted through the leaded glass window and fell onto her housedress in whimsical patterns.
"Miss Aggie, I'm sure he'll be here soon," Nellie said, rubbing her back again.
"He had to go to Longview to get a part for that truck of his that's always breakin' down." The elderly lady's voice wavered as she fiddled with the buttons at her throat.
"He's running late," Dawn said, rising from her swivel chair and patting the elderly woman's shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll give him a call. If he got tied up, Nellie and I will run you by the salon on our way home."
"Pish," said Miss Aggie, waving a blue-veined hand in her direction. "I guess I can see myself home. Did it all my life, didn't I? Don't need to hassle with Judy. She's an imbecile."
Dawn bit her lip. She had to agree with Aggie. The elderly woman's daughter-in-law was an imbecile. "Why don't you sit and have a piece of Nellie's pound cake? I'll go call Homer."
Dawn slipped into the kitchen to use the phone, leaving the other two chatting about the merits of planting shrubs in the fall. She wanted another cup of coffee though her nerves still felt raw from an afternoon of wading through a mound of applications and permits, not to mention a surprise call from Larry the Snake, her ex. He'd miscalculated on his taxes the year before and wanted her advice. As always. The man wouldn't allow her to break all the ties between them, not that she could, since they shared a son. Still, his constant intrusion really got old.
So as soon as Miss Aggie left, she had a date with a glass of chardonnay and the bathtub.
As she grabbed the cordless phone, the color-coded calendar she kept on the bulletin board next to the butler's pantry caught her eye.
And that's when she saw it.
Highlighted in orange.
Tyson Hart. Tuesday. 5:30.
Nellie must have penciled the appointment in on the backup calendar. It hadn't been in the day planner Dawn had set on the counter but couldn't find that morning.
Tyson Hart was the contractor Nellie insisted they hire to finish the upstairs of the center. She'd raved about Tyson all week. About the success of his business in Dallas. About his knowledge. His skill. His broad shoulders and whiskey-colored eyes. The last two attributes had Dawn worried. She didn't need Nellie trying to match her up with random guys no matter what color their eyes were. Presently the romantic part of her life was closed for reconstruction. C-L-O-S-E-D. As in the last thing she needed was another guy to deal with. Between her brother, son, ex-husband and the elderly men at the center, she had plenty of testosterone to juggle, thank you very much.
Still, another one was about to invade whether she wanted him to or not. And he'd do it, according to the microwave clock, in fifteen minutes.
No bath. No wine. No rest for the weary. Double damn.
She shut down her whiny thoughts as a knock sounded on the back door. Big Bubba Malone poked his head in.
"Hey, I smell somethin' good."
Though Bubba was another man to deal with, Dawn couldn't stop the smile that crept to her lips. After all, very few people could resist smiling at Bubba. "Hey, Bubba. Nellie baked a pound cake."
"So I smelled from the drive," he said, stepping into the roomy kitchen. His affable smile offset the hulking shoulders, unlaced work boots and meaty paws. He was a mountain of a redneck with a heaping side of good ol' boy.
"Well, help yourself. Coffee, too, if you want," Dawn said, tapping the schedule with one of the highlighters attached by a brightly colored ribbon, wishing the appointment would magically vanish from the box in which it had been written. "Nellie's in the office with Miss Aggie if you want to say hello."
"Actually, I come to fetch Miss Aggie. Homer called me and he's runnin' late. I'm gonna run her over to Judy, whose doin' something to Betty Monk's hair though I can't imagine whatshe ain't got as much as me," he said, cramming a piece of pound cake in his mouth. Crumbs fell onto the tiled floor. Like a typical man, Bubba didn't see them. Or he pretended he didn't see them.
"Well, she's not going to want to go to the Curlique, but I can't worry about that now. I have an appointment with a contractor." Dawn set the cordless phone in the cradle.
"Tyson Hart, huh? Knew him back in the day. He's solid." Bubba poured a cup of coffee and gulped it down like mother's milk. He drank his Budweiser the same way. Cold. Hot. Didn't seem to matter to Bubba.
"Yeah, well at least it's not Brent Hamilton."
Bubba laughed. The sound reminded her of rusty stovepipes. "Yeah, Ol' Brent's good at his job, but he's a horn dog. Tyson ain't thick-headed like that."
Horn dog was right. Brent Hamilton, the contractor who'd added safety rails and ramps to the lower floor a few months ago, figured himself to be Oak Stand's answer to stud muffin extraordinaire. Good looking enough to qualify, the man romanced everything in a skirt. Or shorts. Or jeans. And if Dawn hadn't vowed to stay away from all men, she might have been tempted. But, the past year had proven what she'd suspected all along. She was bad at picking men. And she wasn't ready to sacrifice herself upon that painful altar again. At least not until she found direction in her life.
So Tyson Hart had better not follow in Brent's footsteps.
Bubba stomped off toward the office, and even though she didn't need another cup of coffee, Dawn refilled her mug. After adding some flavored creamer and a package of pink artificial sweetener that she knew probably caused brain cancer, she took a sip and sighed. Mmm. Good. She propped one hip on the gleaming granite countertop and drank almost the whole cup.
Bubba lumbered into the kitchen with Miss Aggie on his arm. "Alrighty, I'm takin' this pretty lady home with me," he said winking at Dawn. "Don't wait up on her."
Miss Aggie beamed and punched Bubba on his beefy biceps. "You do know how to make a girl feel special."
"It's what my momma always said." Bubba's smile held firm, but his eyes flashed with pain. Bubba had lost his mother to cancer only four months before. Wilma "Willie" Malone had been the inspiration for Tucker House. The idea for a senior care center had bloomed after Nellie had cared for Miss Willie while Bubba worked. All of Oak Stand seemed to feel the absence of the courageous woman who'd made them laugh with her wry sense of humor and lightning-quick wit.
"And Willie was a smart woman," Miss Aggie said, patting Bubba's arm this time. She unclasped her purse, pulled a wadded pink tissue from the depths and wiped her eyes. "I do miss her."
"We all do," Nellie said from the doorway of the kitchen.
Nellie's eyes met Bubba's, and they both smiled. The small-town oil heiress and the backwater redneck. Go figure. There couldn't have been a more unlikely pair of friends in all of Howard County, Texas.
"Later, ladies," Bubba called, opening the door for Miss Aggie and helping her down the back steps.
"Bye, Bubba," Dawn said, finishing off the last of her coffee. She eyed the carafe, wondering if she should have a third cup or not. Something more to fortify her for a late afternoon appointment with a contractor who would want to show her blueprints and codes and whatever else contractors liked to talk about. But she didn't need more, so she dropped the mug into the empty sink.
"Ready to meet with Tyson?" Nellie said, as she sank into one of the overstuffed chairs in the sitting area of the kitchen.
"I guess." Dawn sighed, pressing a hand over the yawn that appeared from nowhere. "I still think we should put off construction. With the baby due in a couple of weeks, there's too much going on."
"The center can still function with ongoing construction. We need the room so we can meet the demand. We have a waiting list."
"I hate you're going through all this trouble. The rooms above us are perfectly functional. They need some refurbishment, that's all."
Nellie shifted in her chair. "We need a kitchen upstairs and an up-to-code bathroom. The rooms need to be gutted and converted to smaller rooms for resting. Now is the time. I know this is temporary for you, but eventually someone else will step in as the director and I want Tucker House to be fully operational."
Dawn's heart trembled at those words. She'd taken this job when she'd been forced to close the doors of her antiques redesign shop in Houston last spring. The damn economy had stomped her dream to dust, and with her son, Andrew, on partial baseball scholarship at the University of Houston, she needed money. Tucker House had opened for business a mere two months ago under her direction. She'd told Nellie she'd stay for a year, no more.
But she had no idea what she would do when the year was up. She'd leased her house in Houston to an oil and gas consultant whose rent covered her mortgage. But she had no leads on a job, no idea what she wanted to do. Didn't know if she even wanted to go back to Houston. Currently she floated with no tangible future to grab on to. And she couldn't stand not knowing what direction she should take. She needed a plan.
Nellie bit her lip. "Ouch."
Dawn dropped all thoughts of her own problems. "You're not in labor, are you?"
Nellie shook her head, causing a chunk of caramel-colored hair to fall from her hair clip. Her emerald eyes held unease. "I've still got two weeks left. Just a backache. I think."
"Maybe we'd better call Jack." Dawn reached for the cordless phone.
Her sister-in-law waved a hand. "Don't bother him. I saw my OB yesterday. He said I'm on schedule for October 23."
"I don't know, Nell. Babies set their own schedule." The doorbell rang interrupting her lecture. Dawn's gaze skittered to the clock. 5:25 p.m. Tyson Hart wasn't just prompt. He was early.
Nellie waved a hand at her. "Tyson's here. Go let him in. I'll be okay."
Dawn wasn't so sure, but the bell sounded again. "Fine. You sit and I'll handle this. We'll call Jack after I cancel the appointment with Mr. Hart."
"Don't cancel," Nellie called as Dawn left the kitchen.
She walked through the living area, which was neat except for a deck of cards left on one of the small tables and a sudoku puzzle book on the other. In the media room someone had left the Wii on. Dawn made a mental list to make sure everything was turned off and put away before they left for the evening.
The doorbell sounded once more.
Dawn released a pent-up breath and pulled open the door.
No one was there.
For a minute, she was confused. Then she looked down.
"Hey, is Nellie here? She said she bought me some of those ice cream bars with sprinkles."
"Ice cream with sprinkles?" Normally Dawn loved having the irascible six-year-old who lived next door visit, but she didn't feel like entertaining him today. "I don't know, Hunter Todd. Nellie's not feeling well, and I'm waiting on someone, so"
"That's okay. I know where she keeps 'em." Hunter Todd shoved his pudgy little body between her and the door, slipping inside quicker than a cat with a dog on its paws.
"Hunter Todd, please, honey. It's not a good day for a visit." Her plea went unanswered. She leaned her head against the door and closed her eyes.
Dawn jumped about a foot. "Oh, my God!"
She turned and met another dancing pair of eyes. These were the color of amber glass. Or sparkling brown topaz. Or aged honey. And they were attached to the most compelling man Dawn had seen in ages.
He filled the doorway and everything about him reminded her of warmth. From his ruffled sun-streaked brown hair to his lime-green-and-black running shoes. A smile curved his lips, lips that made her think of things she was supposed to have put behind her. At once it struck herthis man was dangerous in that golden retriever, scratch behind the ears sort of way. He looked affable and harmless. Like a woman could take him home. But Dawn had been bitten not once, but twice. She wasn't picking up his leash.