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Eve shook her phone. "Are you sure this is the place?" she asked it.
"I don't know what you mean. Let's talk later," her phone answered.
"Grr." She might as well pull in here, where the voice in the phone suggested, and double check. She turned into the driveway — if one could call the weedy patch of gravel a driveway. It was an area with fewer weeds, anyway, which went from the road to a carport at the side of the house, so she took a chance. Putting her little blue Honda Civic in park, she looked at the address she had written in her planner. There it was, right at the top of the page under "Blue Mountain Bourbon Visitor and Tasting Center, construction contacts," and she compared it to the blue dot on her map app. She looked back up at the house in front of her.
Yep. This decrepit Victorian farmhouse with the paint-peeling scrollwork, the sagging porch, the broken steps, and one-hinged screen door, was the residence and business headquarters of her master carpenter and contractor, Raleigh Baker.
The carpenter she'd paid a hell of a lot of money to for materials, and who seemed to have forgotten to come to work. For the past three days.
Her mother's voice echoed in her mind. "I knew Raleigh Baker ... before. He's trash."
Yes, Mother. Everyone you knew ... before ... was trash. Thank God you "got out."
But Eve had done her homework before she'd hired him. She'd seen some of Mr. Baker's previous work — it was amazing — she'd gotten a recommendation from another client, and the old carpenter had been full of good ideas and enthusiasm. He'd even convinced her to change a few details — like using reclaimed lumber for the interior — which might be a little more complicated, but was going to add a tenfold increase in charm. Eve had checked and double checked his estimates for problems and determined his construction plan would come in on time and under budget, so she'd hired him not just to finish the interior, but to be her general contractor. The project would be an amazing conglomeration of local stone and lumber from old barns here in Kentucky.
The two families who owned and operated Blue Mountain Distilling were excited about the project, which would be a great addition to the facility, but Eve, her sister Allie, and her mother had more emotion invested. As the last remaining members of the McGrath family, the new building would carry their name in honor of her late father, Jamie, and her brother, David, both of them gone too soon.
So maybe she should have paid more attention when the person, Mr. Dunham, who provided a reference for her contractor, said, "Oh yeah, he's been doing really excellent work lately."
It was the "lately" part she might have questioned, and which was going to bite her in the butt. Everything had been going really well. Raleigh had started off with a bang, putting in twelve-, fourteen-hour days — he was the original Mr. Personality. Between his creative curses — "Them sonsabitches down at the big box hardware store don't have the brains God gave a catfish" — and liberal use of fish stories — "I was the best God damned pitcher Napier County High School ever had. I was bein' recruited to play for the Cincinnati Reds, but them fuckers didn't want to pay me enough, so I stuck to woodwork" — she was constantly entertained.
Then he disappeared for a few days, right at a crucial juncture. Thanks to some amazing cooperation from Blue Mountain employees when it came to pouring the building's foundation, they'd managed to get back on schedule. Raleigh had arrived the next day, totally apologetic for his absence, and had gotten right back to work, following the schedule he'd given Eve, colorfully griping every step of the way. She forgave him. Everyone messes up sometimes.
Now he'd disappeared again, and Eve didn't have the time to be patient. She was on a deadline, and she would make it. She had to.
Hopefully Mr. Baker was here.
The day was still and muggy, the sun steam-cooked everything in its path. Cicadas buzzed, the air thick with the rasp of horny bugs. There were a couple of saw horses and some furniture under the canopy of the parking area that she checked out on her way to the door. These pieces were even more astonishing than what she'd seen at the Dunham's place. A couple of newly built bookcases, a headboard, and footboard for a bed sat waiting for stain, though the color and grain told her the wood wasn't new.
Exquisite. A little more modern in shape than what Raleigh had designed for her, but that made sense. She was using reclaimed lumber, too, so there were definite similarities.
Her temper rose. If Mr. Baker was working on someone else's job and ignoring hers, she was going to have some extra words for him.
She squared her shoulders and marched toward the front porch. She'd confront him once and for all. He was either going to get his act together and show up to work on a regular basis, or he was going to repay her the money she'd given him so she could hire another carpenter. If she could find one at this late date.
But somehow Eve would pull it off, even if she had to go to the library and check out a copy of "Extreme Carpentry for Dummies." No matter what, the tasting center would be done in time for the scheduled grand opening and the Jamie and David McGrath Foundation Open Barrel Fundraiser. She really meant it this time. No more Miss Nice Girl. No more feeling sorry for the friendly, chatty, and clearly lonely old man, who frequently wore the vaguely sweet stench of hangover sweat around him like a favorite T-shirt. She'd given up dealing with drunks when her dad had driven away that night long ago, taking her family's reputation and financial standing and driven with them off a bridge, leaving Eve and her sister Allie to pick up the pieces of their mother. Pieces that were currently held together by their vigorous juggling and a liberal dose of community activities.
Raleigh Baker was. Not. Her. Problem.
The new tasting center, however, was her problem, as her mother would likely go six degrees of postal if it didn't get done in plenty of time for the fundraiser.
A grasshopper flew into the air in front of her, startling a loud "Meep!" from her lips.
The cicadas took a break, and a dog began to bark. He jumped at the door, rattling the aluminum and pushing it outward at the bottom corner. It was hard to see the animal because of the glare on the door, but every now and then a paw would hit the top half of the screen. God, the thing must be huge.
Eve froze in place and held her purse in front of her. Yeah, buddy. If that dog got out and tried to attack her, she'd just smack it with her ancient Coach bag.
The dog paused and the door seemed to be holding steady, so she carefully advanced one sneaker toward the rickety porch.
Aaaaand, there he went again. "Woof! Woof! Come closer, little lady, let me eat you," it seemed to say.
Surely Mr. Baker would hear the dog and come to the door. If he wasn't comatose from his most recent binge. Hopefully before Eve was eaten alive.
"What the hell's the problem?" Came a muffled voice from the inside. "Franklin, get down."
The dog immediately stopped barking.
"Mr. Baker?" Eve called.
"Who's asking?" The voice was closer now, but didn't have the abused cigarette and liquor tenor she'd come to know.
"Could you come outside, please? It's Eve McGrath." She'd have the confrontation out here, where the dog couldn't get to her. And where she could get in her car and escape, if necessary.
There was silence from inside, and she wondered if Mr. Baker had fallen back into the stupor she'd no doubt woken him from.
Right before she called out again, the door opened and the dog bounded out, barking and jumping from the porch to the ground without bothering to use the dangerous steps. The horrible beast with the huge scary bark probably weighed almost seven pounds, although it was kind of fuzzy, and might be closer to six. It was, however, barking and jumping up and down like it had springs in its hind legs.
The furball stopped inches from her feet, sat on its haunches and grinned, head tilted to the side.
She let out a deep breath.
And then sucked in another one when she looked up. The man who followed the little pocket puppy outside wasn't Raleigh Baker. He was at least twenty years younger than the middle-aged man and nearly six feet of rangy muscle. She could tell this because he wore barely any clothes. A pair of faded, sawdust-coated jeans, unsnapped and hanging low were all he had on. Hands on his hips, he regarded her with light brown eyes in a face with cheekbones and a jawbone that could cut glass, even through the two-day growth of beard. He ran a hand through sun-streaked hair that was about three months overdue for a cut. Or not. It totally suited him.
He stood about four feet away, head tilted in the opposite direction of the dog's, as though they were both trying to find an angle at which her presence made sense.
"You're not Mr. Baker."
His mouth quirked, and he crossed his arms, shifting his weight to the other hip. "Who says?"
She'd been so distracted by lust, she nearly forgot why she was here. It wasn't to play word games with Keith Urban's younger brother, no matter how appealing he was. Taking a deep breath, she said, "I'm here to speak with Raleigh Baker about the fact that he's in breach of his contract with my company."
"Huh." A tense stillness in all of his muscles was the only indication that he had a reaction to her statement.
"So. Can you please get Mr. Baker for me?"
"I'm afraid that he's run off to join the circus."
The cute little furrow in the woman's forehead and the way she pursed her lips was worth the tug of guilt Nick felt at giving her a hard time.
Five minutes ago, he'd been tired, sweaty, and feeling sorry for himself because there wasn't a grain of sugar anywhere in the house for his iced tea. And the cable was out — or Raleigh hadn't paid the bill, which was more likely. Now here was someone who had an issue with Raleigh. Well, she wasn't alone.
"Could you please just tell me where Mr. Baker is?"
The woman was pretty. Probably a little shorter than average height, slim, and wearing what Nick supposed was "business casual." Short, dark curls topped a sweet oval face with creamy skin. But her lips were tight, her chin was all determination, and her sky-blue eyes held a note of desperation that reached down inside Nick and poked at places he didn't like to acknowledge.
He sighed and resigned himself to explaining the situation. It wasn't her fault that the last thing he wanted to do was talk about his sperm donor. "My father's in the hospital."
Her annoyance, which she wore like a hot librarian, disappeared at his words and morphed into softer and more vulnerable concern — like sexy nurse mixed with baby bunny. She clutched her giant purse to her chest. "Is he okay? What happened? Is there anything I can do to help?"
He snorted. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to bother."
She frowned. The baby bunny had overtaken the sexy nurse, and Nick had just kicked it.
Damn. "That was dicky of me." He shook his head and stepped closer. "I'm Nick Baker, and Raleigh's my father."
"Eve McGrath." Her grip was firm when she slid her slim, cool hand into his callused and wood-stained paw, and he felt the touch all the way past his shoulder, as though the differences in their skin created some sort of magnetic field.
He found that he wanted to hold on for a minute or two, which disturbed him. He didn't usually go for the pixie type. As far as Nick was concerned, Tinkerbell was dangerous business.
"Raleigh collapsed a few days ago. The mail lady found Franklin, here" — he pointed at the dog, who lay on his back now, sunbathing his man-parts — "whining in front of the door, so she checked things out, found him, and called 911. Unfortunately, I'm next of kin, so here I am."
Her brows gathered slightly. "What happened to him?"
"Pancreatitis. But he also twisted his knee on the way down, so he's a little gimpy, too. Apparently both are fairly mild, but they're keeping him until he's stable." Pointless, because as soon as he got out of the hospital, he'd be back at the liquor store.
Eve was silent, her mouth open slightly, probably as shocked at Nick's matter-of-fact recitation of the facts as she was at the severity of the situation. She rubbed Franklin's belly with the toe of her pristine white sneaker, and the dog sighed with joy. She looked up at Nick, those bright eyes peering from beneath dark bangs sending a jolt of something unpleasantly pleasant into his own belly.
"So you're going to take care of him until he's better."
Nick jerked like he'd been peppered with 20-gauge shot. "No. I'm just here —" He thought about why he was there. Because when the social worker from the hospital called, he hadn't been able to think of a way to get out of it? "I'm not sticking around. I'm just staying until he's out of the hospital and I find someone to look after him." As soon as he figured it out, he was gone.
"I'm sorry you have to deal with this. I've been there, with my dad, and I know it's ... difficult." The sympathy and understanding in her eyes made him squirm.
Instead of inviting her in and asking her to let him lay his head on her lap while they watched movies on the Hallmark Channel, he said, "Oh no. I've got too much of my own bullshit to have time for a Mutual Desperation Society Meeting with another Adult Child of a Pain-in-the-Ass Parent."
She laughed, and that was almost worse. No, it was definitely worse. He didn't know how, but he could see that she got it.
"Okay." Her soft lips quirked. "Next topic. Did you make that stuff? It's amazing." She nodded toward the furniture he'd been working on earlier.
"Yeah." Her compliment was like a cool breeze on this ridiculously hot day.
"I just thought that maybe if you were going to be here, and" — she nodded toward the furniture he'd been working on earlier — "if you were looking for work, I could use a carpenter. I happen to have a job that desperately needs finishing. Soon." There went those big eyes again. She was working the Tinkerbell thing on him now, but he told himself he was immune. Not the time or the situation for this.
"Like I said, I'm not sticking around. I've got some responsibilities back home in Knoxville I've got to get to." At least he hoped he did. His own fault that he never carved potential job offers in stone, but took things as they came. Except whatever his mom asked for. He'd always show up for that.
Her expression didn't change, but he could tell he'd disappointed her, and didn't that bum him out. But he was going to be around for at least a couple of weeks. He was bored. And if it gave him an excuse to see her again ...
"I tell you what. I'll come out and see what needs to be done. Maybe I can help you find someone to step in. My buddy Mason's in the area, and he's pretty good." Perfect. He wasn't promising to fix anything, but he could meet her again, on his own terms. Maybe convince her to spend a little more time with him.
Tinkerbell threw a little fairy dust his way in the form of another smile. "That would be great." She pulled out her phone. "What's your number? I'll text you, then you'll have mine."
He rattled off the numbers, and she plugged them into her phone.
"I'll let you get back to your ... whatever you were doing," she said.
"I was just taking a little break," he told her, scratching his side where a mosquito had taken a hunk out of him. He noticed her eyes widen and then darken a little as they followed his hand. She liked that, huh?
She shook her head, face a little redder than what might be caused by the heat. "I'll see you later, I guess," she told him, turning to scurry to her car.
He watched while she got in, leaned toward the passenger side and apparently buckled her purse into the seat, then got herself strapped in. She adjusted the shoulder strap, started the engine, and then hesitated, reaching for something and bending her head to look at whatever it was. Then she smiled and gave him a little wave.
He waved back.
Just as she put her car into gear and drove away, Nick heard his phone vibrate on the coffee table inside.
He went back in and grabbed it.
Have a great nap. Sleep tight.
Oh, great. No nap for him, now, because all he'd be doing would be thinking about getting Miss Eve to tuck him in. What were his chances?
Excerpted from "A Taste of You"
Copyright © 2017 Tracy Mort Hopkins.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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