Bess Fitzgerald is thrilled to be overseeing the expansion of her family's B and B. Working with Daniel Forester, not so much. After one wild night, they agreed to stay out of each other's lives. The attraction still sizzles between them now, but Daniel's need to be in control and Bess's impulsive nature continually drive them apart.
Keeping their relationship professional is harder than Bess anticipated. And it's not long before they give in to temptation. Suddenly it's clear Daniel needs her in a way she never thought possible. This may be the year Bess finally gets her Christmas wish!
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"Wait!" Daniel rushed through the carriage house, his work boots thumping on the wood floor.
Quint climbed out of the trench. "What?"
Pointing at the two-by-fours in the channel, Daniel asked, "Who set the forms?"
"Me." Quint pushed back his cap. "Why?"
"The footings should be on the opposite side." Daniel unrolled the blueprints and anchored them with chunks of wood. He hated screwing up.
Taking a slug of water, Quint cursed. He joined Daniel at the makeshift table. "Sorry."
"Let's get this corrected."
He worked side by side with Quint and another crew member, trenching out the correct footings to support the carriage house's new second floor.
Pop would insist the crew fix their own mistakes, but to get the job done, Daniel preferred staying in control.
He would finish the carriage-house project ahead of schedule, because it was foreplay compared to Forester Construction's bid on the main house. Restoring Carleton House would be the biggest and sweetest project Pop had ever tackled.
Daniel swiped at the sweat trickling into his eyes and stripped off his T-shirt. It was a typical Savannah August morning. A sauna might be cooler. Even with the carriage doors open, no breeze stirred.
While the crew compacted the dirt and laid rebar, he grabbed his own water jug. Opening his phone, Daniel checked today's task list. He needed to order the lumber for this renovation, and help Pop and Mom finalize the Carleton House bid.
Coppery fire flashed in the sunlight right outside the doors. In walked Bess Fitzgerald.
He tensed, rubbing his nose. Bess was the one person who ten years ago had taken a hammer to his self-control and destroyed it.
"Look at this." Bess's golden-red hair lit up the already sunny carriage house. "Taking out the hayloft opened up the space."
"I think you should live here, too," said Bess's sister Abby. "There's plenty of room."
"I love my apartment" Bess grinned. "Hey, Quint."
"How's it going?" Quint called out.
"I'm staying busy." Bess's laugh was sweet and high. "That's always good."
Bess ignored Daniel. Nothing new there. Bending, she snapped open a folding table.
Daniel tried not to, but his gaze darted to her gaping tank top. The shadow between her breasts called to him like the satin finish on a freshly varnished floor.
"Daniel, when can I work on the gardens?" Bess still didn't look him in the eye.
When would he and Bess get over thisstiffness? After ten years they should have forgotten what had happened. One night among thousands. Why couldn't Bess forgive or at least forget?
"Give me a couple of weeks," Daniel said.
Abby set a tray of sandwiches and bars on the table. "I brought food."
Bess hefted a large thermos. The table rattled as she set it down. "And lemonade."
When Forester Construction crews worked for the Fitzgeralds, there were delicious fringe benefits.
The crew headed to the table, but Daniel shook his head. "It's not even ten thirty." To the Fitzgeralds, he said, "Thanks."
Bess crossed her arms and finally looked at him. Her changeable hazel eyes were bright green today. "I need a better answer than a couple of weeks. There are things I want to get done before it gets cold."
He knew the carriage-house construction schedule but didn't want Bess painting him into a corner. "Once the footings and floors are in, I'll give you the exact date."
"Come on." Her coppery eyebrows drew together. "You have everything scheduled to the minute."
Daniel rested his hand on his phone. "Things happen."
Her eyes narrowed. "Don't they, though."
The concrete mixer churned, the noise too much to talk around in this enclosed space. He mouthed, "I'll let you know."
Smiling, Abby waved and walked away. Bess frowned. Didn't that describe his relationship with the two oldest Fitzgerald sisters: Abby so friendly and Bess ready to take a bite out of his hide.
Once he was sure the crew was back on track, Daniel headed out. In his truck, he sampled the thick ham-and-cheese sandwich Abby had made. No wonder his dad liked working with the Fitzgeralds.
He wound his way through Savannah's historic district, slowing for tourists and pedestrians. Even in the heat, the sidewalks and cafés were packed. As he crossed Broad Street, the foot traffic eased. By the time he'd driven into his parents' neighborhood, the only thing moving was the Spanish moss waving in the oaks.
Daniel grabbed the bid file and headed up the walkway. He frowned. The grass needed cutting. His pop didn't usually let stuff like that go.
Walking into the air-conditioned house, he sniffed. The scent of lemons wafted from the kitchen. "Something smells good."
His mother moved into the hallway, drying her hands. Her bright blond hair curved around her chin. "It's lemon meringue pie."
"I could handle pie." He rubbed his belly. "Pop here yet?"
Lines formed between his mother's eyebrows. "Your father's upstairs resting."
"On a workday?"
She twisted the towel in her hands. "I think he overdid it in the heat."
Daniel tapped the file against his leg. Pop was energetic. Tireless. Smart. They'd celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday last month, and Pop had kept them up until morning. Then he'd swung a hammer with the crew the next day.
"Are you ready to talk about the Carleton House bid?" his mother asked.
He held up the file. "Got it right here."
She poured sweet tea and they sat at the heavy wood kitchen table.
"With Fitzgerald House complete, your father can't wait to start on Carleton House." His mother leaned closer. "Abby needs to stop feeding him."
"Like that will happen." He took a swig of his drink. "Abby brought sandwiches to the carriage house today." And Bess brought the lemonade and her attitude.
Pop came down the back stairs, rubbing his neck. "Who's stealing my pie?"
"Mom hasn't offered me a piece." Daniel pushed the file over to him. "I finished reviewing the Carleton House bid. That's a lot of money."
"I know." Pop nodded. "That's why I wanted your eyes on it."
Mom was on her feet. "Do you want something to drink?"
"Tea's fine." Pop gave Mom a hug. "Thanks."
Mom cut the pie and poured another glass. Then she grabbed her laptop and Pop opened the folder.
"It looked like you missed the wrought-iron bids. I added them in" Daniel took a bite of pie. The sharp lemon had his mouth watering. "You make the best pie."
"Aren't you sweet?" Mom smiled. "Did you send me a new bid file?"
"This morning before I headed out."
Pop mumbled and pulled out the subcontractors' bids. He grabbed a pen and ticked off amounts. "Gol darn it, I missed the wrought iron."
"I double-checked all the other sub bids." Daniel had triple-checked everything. Mistakes weren't acceptable. "It looks good now."
He finished his pie, pushing his plate away.
"We've got another problem," his mother said. "Carleton House will deplete our cash."
"I've run forecasts on our current projects." Mom flipped around her laptop. "Once we add in Carleton House, our credit line won't cover our operating expenses."
They looked at the graph. Pop ran his hands through his white hair, making it stand up. "I hadn't thought of that."
Mom raised an eyebrow. "I'm not just a pretty face."
"Don't I know it?" Pop kissed her on the forehead. "You're the best risk I ever took."
"I took the risk, falling in love with an upstart contractor." She linked her hands with her husband's.
Equal doses of happiness and envy shot through Daniel. His parents were a team.
"We have time to get a bigger line in place," Mom said.
Pop tipped his head. "The bank pushed back last year when we renewed the credit line."
"What about the State Street apartments?" Daniel tapped his finger against the table. "Real estate markets are coming back. We could turn the apartments into condos."
They kicked around ideas while his mother ran numbers. "If we sell three units by November, this will work."
Three months. Daniel nodded. That sounded plausible.
"I'm glad we hadn't decided on the rent increases." Mom shut her laptop. "I'll look up the renewal dates and contact the tenants."
She looked at Daniel. "Bess."
Daniel cringed. Bess had just told her sister how much she loved her apartment.
"Why don't you warn her?" Pop suggested.
Heat filled his face. There were plenty of reasons he didn't want to talk to Bess, but none he could tell his parents. He checked the schedule on his phone. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything critical that would prevent him from breaking the news. "Sure. I'll talk to her."
Daniel rubbed the bump on his nose, compliments of Bess. How she would take the news was anyone's guess.
Damn Daniel. Bess anchored the final lotus plant in the pond with more oomph than necessary. Water and mud splashed her face. He knew exactly when she'd be able to get into the gardens.
Sugar wouldn't sweeten Daniel's in control, I'll tell you when I'm ready disposition.
Something nudged her hand. She flicked her fingers and a flash of orange and yellow darted away.
"How does it look?" Bess asked her assistant.
"Fantastic," Molly said. "This is the best pond we've ever put together."
Bess slogged her way out of the middle, her feet squishing inside her waders. Halfway up the hill, she pulled them off and tipped out the water. "So much for staying dry."
"Now I know what you'd look like as a brunette." Molly laughed. "Gorgeous."
"Right." Bess pulled on her ponytail. Mud caked her hair. "How did I get so dirty?"
Bess grabbed her water and glugged down a quart. She didn't know if she was hot from the weather or from dealing with Daniel Forester. Or maybe it was seeing Daniel with his shirt off. She rubbed her temples. His body deserved to be sculpted. Better yet, frozen and put on displaythen he couldn't open his mouth and irritate her.
"I could use a short downpour to wash off the mud," Molly said.
"We'll have to make do." Bess opened the hose nozzle, pointed it at her legs, and mud streamed off. "I hope this pond wins Suzie the neighborhood landscaping wars."
Suzie and her neighbor kept trying to outdo each other. At least the war helped business.
"If the wars stop, we won't have much work." Molly picked at dried mud on her hands and held them under the hose. "We need the business. There's nothing on next week's schedule."
"It is almost Labor Day."
The work on King's Gardens had slowed. Bess had transplanting and propagation work scheduled next week, but there weren't any consults or installations on the calendar. The owner's son, fresh out of college, had some consults, but not her.
"It's slower than it's ever been," Molly said.
"I wish Cade would take the advertising suggestions I've made." Bess knew she could run a landscaping business better than her boss.
Molly sat up. "You know what I wish?"
Bess raised her eyebrows. "Peace in the Middle East?"
"No." Molly gave Bess's shoulder a shove, leaving a wet handprint. "I want to marry rich like your sister and have a house like Suzie Essex."
Bess looked at the sprawling estate home. Becoming attached to things like houses or people didn't pay off. "Not me."
"I forgot." Molly wrapped her black hair back into a ponytail. "Your family's place is better than this."
"It's not a home anymore." Her family's mansion sat in the center of Savannah's historic district. Daddy's scheming and dreaming had put them so far in debt, Mamma had to turn their home into a B and B or lose the house that had been in the family for generations.
Bess had what she wanted: her orchids, a job she loved and an awesome apartment walking distance from Fitzgerald House. As long as she stayed away from Daniel, life was perfect.
"It looks fabulous." Suzie came down the hill. Her shorts and shirt were blinding white. She handed Bess and Molly dripping bottles. "Here you go, ladies."
Bess took the lemonade. "Thanks."
"Now that the plants and koi are in, are there additional instructions for the pond?" Suzie asked.
Bess walked her through the care, then handed her the notes she'd printed out for Suzie's gardening service. "Give this to Leon. He'll know what to do."
"Wonderful." Suzie pointed to her neighbor's backyard. "What do you think Minnie will do now?"
"Not sure." Bess hadn't designed Minnie's landscaping. "Since you've added the pond, I've got another idea."
Bess pulled out her phone and scrolled to pictures of decorative gas fires. The ones she showed Suzie had lines of fire in front of rock waterfalls. "What do you think of adding a fire wall?"
"Ooh. I like." Suzie tapped her French-tipped nail against the screen. "Where would you put it?"
Bess moved to the back of the terraced yard. "The waterfall would look great here."
"I'll think about it." Suzie handed Bess the check for the pond's last installment and an envelope. "I appreciate all your work."
Bess and Molly loaded the truck. As she drove back to King's Gardens, Bess asked, "What's in the envelope?"
There was a rip and a gasp. "Two hundred dollars. Cash!"
"I know what I'll buy with my share of our tip." Bess smiled. "I've been eyeing some Pakchong blue orchids that are the perfect color for my mamma's wedding."
Mamma's wedding was next weekend. Bess needed to finalize the flower arrangements and decorating soon. She rubbed her hand in her hair, and mud flakes dropped in her lap. Yuck.
"I've got my eye on a pair of shoes." Molly tucked her tip into her pocket. "You need a love life, my friend."
Love life? Between her job and Fitzgerald House, love wasn't high on her priority list. "I don't need the hassle." Or the eventual loss.
Bess parked the truck and waved to Molly. She smiled as she dropped the check off with her boss.
"Thanks." Cade set the check in the middle of his paper-piled desk. "Do you have a minute?"
"Sure." There wasn't room for two people in his office, so Bess leaned against the doorway. She scratched at the dried mud on her elbow.
Cade stared at the desk. "I I have to let you go."
Every muscle in her body froze. "What?" she choked out.
"I can't afford to have two landscape designers on staff."
"You're you're firing me?" Her voice squeaked.
Cade sighed. "I guess I'm laying you off."
"Jimmy just graduated." She'd helped the kid get his feet on the ground. "Your son's not ready to take on all the landscaping."
Cade's lips flattened into straight lines. "This is the way it has to be."
"I can drum up more business. If you advertise, we'd attract more customers." The words shot out of her mouth like BBs from a pellet gun.
He shook his head. Cade was brilliant with retail plants and flowers but hated marketing. "Between two years of droughts and the cold, wet spring, I can't afford you."
She couldn't lose her job. "What about our arrangement on my flower-design business?" she whispered.
"I hope you'll keep getting your flowers through me." Cade pulled on his white hair. "You can still use the workroom and coolers."
She paced in the hallway, fighting back the urge to tell Cade to shove it. Being impulsive had gotten her into too much trouble in her life.
"Do you" her voice cracked "want me to clean out my stuff?"
"I can give you two weeks." Cade pushed out of his chair. It groaned as he stood. "How would that be?"
Two weeks. "I guess."
This job had been perfect for her. She'd been able to juggle her hours at the B and B with her hours at King's Gardens. Cade had also let her run her wedding-flower business from his shop. How would she find another boss so flexible?
Two more weeks of a job she loved. Her pulse pounded in her ears. "Let me help with the marketing."
He let out a big exhale. "I'm sorry."