Unlucky in love Lily Baker is ready to get back in the dating game. But her first night out ends with the guy ditching her-in the middle of a dance floor. Wonderful. Public humiliation on top of rejection. And worse, Caleb Willmett, the sexy local contractor with an unfortunate desire to remain single, witnessed the whole thing. But where Lily sees disaster, Caleb finds opportunity.
The only long-term relationship Caleb wants is a business partnership with Lily's father, but the man won't give him the time of day. If Lily can arrange a meeting for him, Caleb promises to help her find a guy worth dating. Perfect trade. And this should be easy-just look for someone completely opposite of himself, someone who's willing to settle down.
But when Lily unexpectedly captures his heart, playing matchmaker for her becomes the most difficult job he's ever done.
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|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.55(d)|
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Lily Baker gripped the steering wheel, sucked in a breath, and tried in vain to ignore the roiling in her stomach. It's no big deal, she told herself. She was just meeting a guy for a couple of hours. A guy she hadn't yet met in person. But she'd read his profile on eCherish and exchanged a few messages before arranging this date. Everyone used dating sites these days, right? Well, not Lily; she'd only signed on because Dolores, her friend and co-worker, had badgered her into it. Dolores meant well, but, happily married to her childhood sweetheart, she had no experience with how brutal dating could be.
Tucking a curl behind her ear, Lily eased her car into the crowded parking lot. A sunny Sunday had brought the crowds out to the annual Pine Falls Chili Festival. Parents with kids and baby strollers, groups of friends, and couples holding hands streamed toward the adjacent park where rows of white tents had popped up overnight. Everyone looked relaxed and ready to enjoy themselves. She was determined to have a good time, too, even if she was a tangle of nerves inside.
But first she had to find a parking spot, which was proving difficult. A little girl dashed across her path, forcing Lily to slam on the brakes. An impatient honk blared from behind her. Grimacing, she moved on and suddenly spied a gap between a fence and an oversize black pickup truck. Could she fit in there? Maybe, and besides, it would be good to get that aggressive driver off her back.
With the tip of her tongue peeking out, she began to edge her compact little Kia into the spot. Easy does it ...
Without warning, the door of the black pickup truck flew open, straight into her path.
Lily shrieked and slammed on the brakes again. Her car bumped into the truck's door and stalled. She winced and shut her eyes. Oh dear lord, just what she needed before her big date.
The door slammed shut. Then someone tapped on her window. Peeling her eyes open, she saw a guy frowning at her through the glass.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked.
She nodded and gestured to him that she was going to get out. He backed away, allowing her to open her door. As she slid out of her car, she glanced up at him and felt a jolt of recognition. That ebony hair, finely sculpted chin, and tall, broad-shouldered figure were all too familiar. Caleb Willmett.
She'd first come across him at her dad's office a couple weeks ago. Like her dad, Caleb was a contractor. The first time she'd seen him, her jaw had literally sagged. Impossibly handsome, as darkly intense as a triple-shot espresso, and so effortlessly charismatic he didn't even seem aware of the heads he was turning. When her dad's receptionist — the brisk, no-nonsense grandmother suddenly all aflutter — had introduced them, Caleb had flashed a smile at Lily that made her toes curl. In response, she'd barely been able to stutter out a hello.
Since then, she'd seen him around town a few times, across the street or in the hardware store. It was hard to miss a man of such arresting attractiveness, but after such a fleeting introduction, she wouldn't be surprised if he didn't remember her.
"Hello," she tentatively began. "It's Caleb, isn't it? Caleb Willmett? We've met before."
He had been bending down to inspect his truck, but now he straightened, and his limpid blue eyes zeroed in on her. "Hey, that's right. At Baker Construction. You're Lily, Bill Baker's daughter." His face relaxed. "Didn't think I'd run into you here. Literally."
So he did remember her. Surprised, she stared at him, taking in his deep tan and thick, slightly shaggy black hair. In distressed jeans and snug-fitting black T-shirt, he had an air of animal magnetism about him. But he carried the aura without any arrogance, his expression friendly.
"My truck's fine," he continued, "but I don't know about your car. It's hard to tell which dents are fresh."
"Oh, dear." Shuffling along the narrow gap between the two vehicles, she finally made it to the front of her car, where she bent over to inspect the damage. "Oh, it's not as bad as I thought. Just a tiny new scratch, that's all. Poor Kermit." She patted the hood of her diminutive Kia. "He's been with me since my senior year in college."
"Kermit?" Caleb raised his eyebrows. "That's the name of your car?"
"Because it's green?"
"That, and because when it rains he makes this funny little froggy sound, like ribbit-ribbit." Lily started to make croaking noises, but then stopped when she saw Caleb giving her a strange look. She was used to that. People had been thinking she was weird for as long as she could remember.
But then he tilted back his head and chuckled softly, his teeth gleaming white against his tan. "Yeah, that makes sense."
His laugh was soft and mellow, easing the kinks in her back that had been there ever since this morning. He was surprisingly easy to talk to. Much easier than the last time. Maybe she was getting the hang of talking to men.
"Hang on," he said, gesturing with one hand. "You've got some dirt on you there."
Glancing down, she spotted a thick streak of muck marring her jeans at the hips. She must've picked it up when she'd squeezed her way between the two vehicles.
"Oh no." Groaning, she frantically brushed at the bleached denim. "That's all I need."
"What's the problem? It's a chili festival. Chances are, you're going to get messy anyway."
"Maybe, but I wanted to make a good first impression. I'm meeting someone."
"Ah." His dark eyebrows slowly climbed. "So you're on a first date, huh?"
"Yeah." Lily scowled at the brown smudge on her brand new jeans. She and Dolores had spent hours choosing them. They were a lot tighter and more ripped than her usual jeans, and the white linen shirt Dolores had picked out for her wasn't something she'd normally choose for herself. But this was the first date she'd had in quite a while, and she figured an outfit that didn't stand out too much would ease her anxiety. Then, at the last minute, she'd added a few of her handmade accessories — a pink-and-yellow crocheted flower scarf and matching earrings — to make the outfit feel less generic and more "her."
Now she twisted at the waist, searching for any other streaks of dirt.
"It's cool. You're fine everywhere else." Caleb's gaze flitted lazily over her, assessing her, measuring her.
What did he see? A confident, attractive woman, or someone plagued with doubts and insecurities? Someone who had let the past weigh too heavily on her? But at least she was trying again. Even if the thought of dating made her feel as if her stomach was filled with hundreds of wriggling worms. Once more she tried to tamp down her nerves. The matchmaking site she'd signed up to, eCherish, promised to make dating "easy, fun, and effective." She had to believe it was true. This was her first date through the website, and from his profile and the messages they'd exchanged, the man she was set to meet this afternoon seemed presentable and friendly and a good match for her.
"Thanks." Lily tugged at her flower scarf and glanced in the direction of the chili festival, wondering if she was late, wondering if she was suitably dressed, wondering if this little mishap in the parking lot was an omen for the rest of the afternoon.
Caleb cleared his throat. "If you like, I can park Kermit for you. That way you won't have to dirty your nice jeans squeezing in again."
"That would be wonderful." She smiled at him, surprised and gladdened by the offer.
In a few minutes he had straightened her car and eased it perfectly into the narrow parking spot. He locked Kermit, then handed the keys to her.
"I'll walk you to the festival," he said. "Where are you meeting your date?"
"At the entrance." Falling into step alongside him, she gave him a curious look. "And you? Are you meeting anyone?"
He hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans, easing his long legs to accommodate her shorter stride. "Just family," he said easily. "No date, if that's what you're asking." He gave her a quick wink.
She found herself flushing. It was strange, this effect Caleb had on her. He was surprisingly easy to talk to once she got started, even though she had been sure she'd be tongue-tied. Maybe bumping into him was a good thing. He hadn't snapped at her or blamed her for their fender bender, as some men would have. He'd been nice to her and even parked her car for her. Yes, she'd focus on the positive side. It was a sunny afternoon, and she was going to have a great first date. She could feel it in her bones.
* * *
Caleb Willmett eased into a slow stroll as he glanced at the woman scurrying alongside him. Lily was anxious, that much was plain from the way she clutched her purse and huffed under her breath, her fingers flicking at her hair. All that nervous energy ... over a date? It wasn't something he could relate to. Maybe that was why he and dating hadn't worked out in the long run. He could never make himself believe he was meeting "the one."
As they walked across the asphalt, Lily stumbled over a pot hole, and he instinctively grabbed her by the arm. She gave him a taut little smile.
"Hey, it's just one date, you know," he felt compelled to say. "It's not like you're about to marry the guy."
"I know." She let out a breath, visibly trying to relax. "And besides, I've got my lucky barrette on." She tilted her head, showing him a gold-and-silver hairclip half-hidden in her maple brown curls.
"Ah, well, nothing can go wrong, then, not when you're wearing the lucky barrette."
She bit on her lower lip. Clearly the lucky barrette wasn't relaxing her. It looked like she'd been doing a lot of lip biting; most of her pink lipstick had worn off already. He didn't want to point that out to her; it would probably only make her more antsy. She had a nice smile and sparkly eyes. Cute. And interesting. She had no reason to be anxious about one date.
They neared the entrance to the park. People milled about in the warm sunshine. A band was playing country music inside the festival. The spicy scent of chili rose in the air, setting off his taste buds. To the left of the gates, a man stood by himself, his gaze darting through the crowd.
Lily must have spotted him at the same time, because she suddenly halted and sucked in a breath.
"That's him, I take it?" Caleb said. "The guy by the gates?"
"Yeah." She swallowed. "That's Nick."
Caleb took a closer look. Of average height and build, the guy wore a tight pink shirt and black jeans teamed with flashy cowboy boots, black leather with stitched gold uppers. His red hair was smoothed back from a face that looked preoccupied. His roving gaze passed over Lily, then, after a second, returned for a closer look. He had obviously recognized her as his date. His mouth thinned as he inspected her, and then he shrugged and walked forward.
"You must be Lily," the man said with a tepid smile.
"Yes, that's me! Hi! And you're Nick. So glad to finally meet you in the flesh!" Lily stretched out a hand, her lips curving into a wide smile.
"Yeah, same here." The man gave her a perfunctory handshake before glancing at Caleb. "And you are?" he asked coldly.
"A friend of Lily's," Caleb said before he could think better of it. He knew the man all of five seconds, but already there was something about him that he didn't like. He sensed rather than heard Lily's soft intake of breath. "Don't worry. I'm not here to be a buzzkill."
Lily's cheeks were slowly suffusing with pink. "Um, this is Caleb. He was just — just walking me here."
"Okay, well, you're here now. Want to head in?" Nick maneuvered his way to Lily's side, totally ignoring Caleb.
Glancing over her shoulder, Lily gave Caleb an uncertain smile. "Thanks for ... for parking my car."
"No worries." He raised a hand. "See you inside."
He watched them walk into the park. Nick was studying Lily with a deep frown, his stance stiff. What was that about? Was the guy disappointed with the way she looked? Sure, she wasn't conventionally good-looking or model thin. Her face, framed by those irrepressible brown curls, was round and open, her stature short and curvy. And the jazzy, homemade scarf and earrings were unusual — but not in a bad way. Just different. He didn't know much about Lily, except that she was Bill Baker's daughter — the owner of Baker Construction whom Caleb had been trying to contact for weeks — and had a tendency to blush, but five minutes in her company was enough for him to know she was nice. Nicer than Nick deserved.
"Hiya, Caleb!" a female voice said, rousing him from his thoughts.
He turned to see his sister, Hannah, approaching with her husband, Derek, and their two-year-old daughter, Amelia. Upon seeing Caleb, his niece immediately launched herself at him, wrapping her tiny arms around his legs.
He swung her up in the air, encouraging her shrieks of joy. Eventually he was able to kiss his sister and greet Derek, who also happened to be his best friend.
"Haven't seen you in ages, dude," Derek said as he clapped him on the shoulder.
"Yeah. Work, you know." Caleb's latest contracting job had kept him away from Pine Falls for months, apart from the weekends, and even those weren't always guaranteed.
"But you're back for good now, aren't you?" his sister asked hopefully.
"Depends on whether I can find work here."
Hannah pulled a face. "I wish you didn't have to travel so much."
"I know, sis. Especially now, with Dad ... "
Caleb's father had recently suffered a minor stroke. He'd responded well to the treatment, but he hadn't fully recovered — perhaps he never would. Caleb had done the best he could, but most of the care for his dad had fallen on his stepmom and his sister, and that fact weighed heavily on him. He was determined to be around for his dad, but that was predicated on his finding more permanent work around Pine Falls, a tough task in the current economic climate.
They walked into the park, stopping near the rows of tents where huge vats of chili were being carefully tended by eager cooks, all with their own secret recipes. As Derek went to collect some tasting samples for them, Hannah turned back to Caleb.
"By the way, you seemed a bit distracted when we arrived," she said, arching an eyebrow. "I was waving at you for ages before you saw us. Something on your mind?"
His thoughts instantly returned to Lily Baker. Though he hadn't really stopped thinking about her. As they'd strolled through the park, he'd been subconsciously looking out for her. The festival wasn't that big; he was bound to see her again at some point.
"Nah," he answered instinctively.
"Are you sure?"
Hannah had always worried about him. She was his big sister, and after their mom had left them and his dad in the lurch, she'd taken on a lot of responsibilities. Too much, really. She'd be perplexed if she knew he was thinking about a round- faced girl with crocheted flowers dangling from her ears and a lucky barrette in her hair.
"Yep," he assured her. "All I'm focused on is getting work around Pine Falls so I can be closer to everyone."
An hour later Caleb and Hannah were alone while Derek took their daughter to the bathroom.
"They're going to be a while," Hannah predicted. "Why don't we see what they're selling over there?" She tilted her head at the vendor tents nearby. As they strolled over the grass, she said, "I've been thinking about you getting work in the area. There's a rumor going around that Bill Baker's looking for a junior partner. It might be worth a try."
Caleb shot his sister a dry smile. "Yeah, I know all about Bill Baker."
Bill Baker was an established contractor in the Pine Falls district. Almost every new development came his way — he was known to be dedicated, hardworking, and honest. He'd built up his reputation over twenty years; everyone spoke highly of him. Recently, Baker Construction had landed the contract for the new Red Arroyo subdivision, which would mean years of steady, well-paid work. Rumor had it that Bill, always the loner, was finally looking for a partner to take some of the workload off him. As soon as Caleb had heard that, he'd polished his boots, updated his rÃ(c)sumÃ(c), and turned up at Bill's office. Only trouble was, so had tons of other contractors already. Bill, never one who enjoyed idle chitchat, had shooed everyone away and refused to take their calls. Some of the applicants had continued to badger the man, but Caleb had seen that approach wouldn't work with a straight-arrow like Bill.
"Of course you do," Hannah said. "Well? You approached him, I presume?"
"Uh-huh, but I wasn't fast enough."
"Oh, that's too bad. So he's already chosen a partner?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dating for Keeps"
Copyright © 2018 Coleen Kwan.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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