One night can change your life
Kyle Houseman believes he'll never find anyone he could love as much as Olivia Arnold, who's now married to his stepbrother. Not only did he lose her, he's been through one divorce and has no desire to go through another. He's determined to be extra careful about the next woman he gets involved withwhich is why he fights his attraction to the beautiful stranger who rents his farmhouse for the Christmas holiday.
Lourdes Bennett is a country music artist. She's only planning to stay in Whiskey Creek long enough to write the songs for her next albumthe album that's going to put her back on top. Her dreams don't include settling in a town even smaller than the one she escaped. But as she comes to know Kyle, she begins to wonder if she'd be making a terrible mistake to leave him behind
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"Your ex-wife is on the phone again."
Kyle Houseman squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his forehead. There were few people in the world he considered as difficult as Noelle.
Actually, he couldn't think of one.
"Did you hear me?" Morgan Thorpe, his assistant, stood at the entrance to his office wearing an impatient frown. Noelle (who still used his last name, which bothered him, since they'd been together for only a year) hadn't been able to reach him on his cell. She'd tried three times in the past fifteen minutes and he'd let it go to voice mail. So she'd called his business line, which he'd specifically asked her not to do. He didn't like the way she aired her complaints about himand everything elseto anyone who'd listen.
His employees didn't like it, either.
"I heard," he replied.
"Are you going to take her call? Because if I have to talk to her again, I'm going to tell her exactly what I think of her."
He gave Morgan a look to make sure she understood that would be a mistake. At forty-five, she wasn't old enough to be his mother, but she often took a maternal approach with him, probably because she'd been working for him since he started First Step Solar. He'd hired her the same week she came out of the closet and moved in with her partner, who was as soft-spoken as Morgan was bold. "No, you're not."
"Why?" she cried. "Noelle's a terrible person! She deserves whatever she gets!"
"We were once married. We still live in the same small town. We can figure out some way to get along."
She rolled her eyes. "If it's that easy, why are you avoiding her?"
She had a point. Dodging Noelle's calls wouldn't do him any good, anyway. She'd just track him down at his house or even a restaurant, if she had to. She did that kind of thing all the timeto plead for an advance on his spousal maintenance, a "small loan" to prevent her utilities from being turned off or money to get her car repaired. Once, she'd even asked him for five hundred bucks to go toward fixing her boob job (apparently, her body kept rejecting the implants, but instead of having them removed, she kept trying to make them work). It didn't seem to matter that none of that was his responsibility anymore.
"Put her through," he said with a sigh.
"That woman is insufferable. I don't know how you tolerate her," Morgan grumbled as she left.
He didn't, either.
He glanced at the light blinking on his desk phone. Surely Noelle would find someone else and get remarried. He wished that would happen soon. It would save him $2,500 a month, not to mention the relief of not having to deal with her anymore. But he'd been wishing that for the past five years, ever since the divorce. He was beginning to suspect that as long as she had him to pay a hefty chunk of her monthly bills, she'd be unlikely to tie the knot with someone else. She wasn't the type to part with a freebie. Besides, she saw his financial support as punishment for the fact that he'd never been able to love herand, truth be told, he saw it in the same light. That was why he'd agreed to that amount and why he helped her out as often as he did. Guilt demanded it.
"Someday," he muttered as he picked up.
"Someday what?" Noelle asked.
Someday he'd be rid of her. But he couldn't say that. "Nothing. What's going on? Why have you been blowing up my phone?"
"Why are you ignoring my calls?" she countered.
"Because I can't think of any reason you'd need to talk to me. We are divorced, remember? And with all the money I've given you over the past few yearsin the past several months aloneI'm a good six months ahead in my payments. That pretty much leaves you with no excuse."
"It's my water heater," she said.
"My water heater."
She'd found something new to complain about? "What's wrong with it?"
"It went out on me. I can't take a shower or do laundry or dishes. I don't have any hot water."
He rocked back in his chair. "Then shouldn't you be looking up a plumber instead of bothering your ex-husband?"
"Why are you being rude? I'm calling because you happen to own a solar manufacturing plant. Can't you give me a deal on a solar system? So I can get my hot water bill down?"
"I manufacture photovoltaic panels, Noelle. They run air conditioners and other electrical appliances. Anything that requires gas is a whole separate thing." They'd been married, for God's sake, and she still didn't understand what he did for a living?
"You have connections for hot water systems, too. You put one in for Brandon and Olivia's neighbor."
Why had they told her he'd done that? "Mrs. Stein is nearly eighty and she lost her husband a year ago. I saw that she got a deal. That's all."
"You bought it from the manufacturer at wholesale and let her have it at cost. And your photovoltaic installers put it in for her."
"Because she could use the break. Brandon asked me to help her out. Occasionally, I do favors like that for my brother."
"Come on. You didn't do it for Brandon's sake."
Irritation clawed deeper, causing his eye to twitch. "Of course I did. We've been getting along great," he said, and that was true. He and Brandon had once been rivals. They hadn't met until they were in high school, when Brandon's mother married Kyle's father. Two large-and-in-charge boys so close in age would understandably have a difficult period of adjustment. But the dynamic was different these days. In spite of everything that'd happened back then, and with Noelle and Olivia since, Kyle cared about Brandon. He got the impression Brandon cared, too. At least, he heard from his stepbrother quite a bit. He also saw Brandon and Olivia every Friday at Black Gold Coffee. They'd joined the close-knit group of friends Kyle had grown up with.
"Quit lying to yourself," she spat. "You'd do anything for Olivia. The way you stare after her when she leaves a roomor you avoid looking at her if you're in the same roommakes it so obvious. They'd see it themselves, except they don't want to see it."
His blood pressure shot a little higher. "Fine," he said. "You want a solar hot water system? I'll offer you the same deal I gave Brandon and Olivia's neighbor."
She seemed startled that he'd capitulated so suddenly. But there wasn't any point in refusing. She'd never be able to afford it. Besides, he didn't want to talk about Olivia. What Noelle said was true. Olivia was her sisterwhich was a big part of the reason Noelle had gone after him in the first placebut Olivia had been, and still was, the one great love of his life. She'd been with him before she'd ever been with Brandon.
"That's better," Noelle said. "So how much will it cost? I have nearly $250 in my account."
She stated that amount proudly. She wasn't good at saving money, so this did signify quite a feat. But, as usual, she was completely cluelessor, more likely, cal-culatedly clueless. "That's what I thought," he said.
"You don't have enough to buy even a traditional water heater."
"I don't?" She sounded dismayed. "How much are they?"
"A decent one will run you eight hundred or more."
"And how much is solar?"
"Nearly three grand."
"You've got to be kidding me!" she cried. "How do you expect me to pay that?"
"I don't expect you to pay it. You need to drive over to the hardware store and see what's in your price range."
"In other words, you don't give a shit whether I'm in a bind."
His head was beginning to pound "I'm sorry your water heater died, but it's not my problem."
"You can't help me?"
Morgan tapped the glass between her workstation and his office and made a face at him.
He waved her away. "What do you expect me to do?"
"A solar hot water system can't cost you that much," she replied.
"It can and it does. Check the retail price and you'll see it's around six grand. Wholesale would be about half of that."
"Then maybe you can put one in and let me make payments."
"We're divorced! And you're only renting. Call your landlord."
"Harry won't do anything. He's letting me stay here for a lot less than he'd charge someone else. Why do you think he gave me such a good deal?"
"Because he's your cousin?"
"Because in order to get that deal, I have to take care of all maintenance and repairs."
"Then it's on you."
"If you can't get me solar, can you at least help me pay for a regular water heater? From what you just told me, I only need another $550. What're a few hundred bucks to you? You make so much more than I do!"
"That doesn't mean I'm obligated to pay for it. You got extra money out of me last month. And the month before."
"Because I needed a D&C, Kyle. I've been having female trouble ever since I lost the baby. Remember?"
As usual, she'd chosen something he had to be careful not to question. That didn't stop him from wondering, however. Had she really needed a D&C? Or were the documents she'd shown him forged? It could be that he'd paid for another boob job, after all. He wasn't even sure she'd lost the baby that had supposedly created the need for a D&C. Had she even had a "miscarriage" five and a half years ago? Maybe she'd aborted it. He'd always suspected her of lying, suspected that after she got him to marry her, she'd purposely terminated the pregnancy. At that point, she wouldn't see any reason to risk damaging her figure, which she protected above all else.
"I remember," he said through gritted teeth. He didn't want to talk about that, either. It was easier to bury the doubt and the suspicion and try to forget the past.
"You don't care."
Maybe he would if he believed it was true. But with Noellewho could say? Whenever she needed money, she came up with an excuse he'd be hard-pressed to declinemedical treatment, that she'd be evicted, that she wouldn't have electricity or food.
"Look, I paid for the procedure," he said. "That's all that matters. I hope you're feeling better. Now I've got to go. I have a lot to do here"
"Wait! What about my water heater?"
"What about it?" he asked in exasperation.
"You seriously won't give me a small loan? Then will you let me stay in the farmhouse until I can get it fixed on my own?"
No way was she coming anywhere near his property. She would never live there. "Absolutely not. I've got the farmhouse cleaned up and ready to lease."
"But it's been ready to lease for two months, and it's sat empty that whole time. Why not let me move in until I'm back on my feet? You're not likely to get someone now."
What was she talking about? "Why not?"
"The holidays. People are busy with shopping and wrapping and decorating."
"Not everyone. Matter of fact, I have someone coming to see it tonight. He's ninety percent sure he wants it. He just has to see it in person to confirm. Then he'll sign."
"Who is it?" she asked.
Kyle checked the information he'd jotted on his desk calendar. "Guy by the name of Meade."
"Never heard of him "
"He's from Nashville. Only needs it for a few months, but he asked me to furnish it, so"
"Furnish it with what?" she broke in. "It's not like you have a furniture warehouse."
"There are companies that rent furniture. I called a place in Sacramento, chose some items from their website, and they brought it all out. The place is move-in ready now. Looks great."
"You went to that much trouble for someone who's only staying for a few months? I thought you wanted a year's lease. That's what you told me when I asked about it."
"He's paying a premiumfor the furniture, my time and trouble in acquiring it and the short term. Even if he decides he hates the house and I have to send the furniture back, he's covering all of that. In any case, you didn't lose out, because I wouldn't let you move in, no matter what." The past few months, she'd been trying her best to get back with him. The last thing he needed was to allow her to be that closenot to mention he'd never see a dime of rent.
"Even though I'd be willing to sign for a year?"
"Even if you'd be willing to sign for ten."
"You can be so mean," she said.
Mean? He thought he was being incredibly niceconsidering that merely talking to her made him want to punch himself in the face. "We've talked about this before. I'll take Meade's deal, if I can get it, and try to find another tenant next summer, when school's out."
"That's great for you, but what about me? Can't I use it until he moves in?"
The childlike whine that entered her voice made his eye-twitch worse. Patience, he reminded himself. Breathe deeply and speak kindly. "He hasn't said when that'll be. But since he's coming all the way from Tennessee to look at it, I'm guessing he could move in tonight."
"In the middle of the storm that's coming in?"
"Why not? He'll just carry in his luggage. How hard can that be, whether there's a storm or not?"
"So you're going to leave me in the lurchthe woman who would've been the mother of your child if that child had survived?"
Before he could respond, Morgan knocked briskly and opened the door. "Don't tell me you're still on with her."
He sent her a frown that told her to mind her own business, but she didn't leave.
"I have a call from LA," she said. "Some guy wants a special deal on a 10-megawatt order."
Which was such a big order, no one at his company could provide the pricing but him. He changed the phone to his other ear. "Noelle, I've got to go."
"I can't believe you're doing this!"
"What else am I supposed to do?"
"You have the contacts. You could get me a water heater and let me make payments, if you weren't so stingy."
"Kyle?" Morgan prompted, reminding himas if he needed her toof the far more important caller on the other line.
He almost told Noelle to go down to the hardware store and have the checker call him for his credit card information. He wanted to get rid of her, and they'd done that kind of remote purchase before, when someone threw a rock through her window (likely the girlfriend of someone she'd flirted with at Sexy Sadie's). But the more he gave her, the more she'd keep coming back to him. He had to break the cycle.
Fortunately, he thought of a solution that should've been obvious to him from the start. "I've got a water heater here," he said. "It's the one I took out of Brandon's neighbor's house. If you'll have someone pick it up and install it, I'll give it to you."
"You're sure it works?"
Morgan propped her hands on her hips and scowled at him, refusing to leave until he took that business call.
"It did when my guys removed it. No reason that should've changed. She wanted solar mainly to be responsible to the environment." He'd been planning to donate the water heater to a poor family who could use it. But Noelle fit the bill. She didn't have much money, despite juggling two jobs. Working in retail part-time, and then as a barmaid nights and weekends, she didn't make a whole lot. What she did earn, she spent on clothes and beauty aids.
"Okay. Thanks." Noelle lowered her voice. "I'm happy to oblige if you'd like something in return."
"I don't need anything," he said.
"You sure about that?"