A deal made to be broken
Everything about Alex McKnight was hardhard body, hard heart and damn hard to ignore. Yet architect Ellie Hart couldn't deny her immediate attraction to the dark-haired, handsome contractor assigned to complete the Mercy Medical Center with her. Ellie traveled with her own emotional baggage and there was no way she was going to fall so fast for a man like Alex. But when she actually did fall fastby tripping and injuring her footAlex came to the rescue by offering her a place to stay while she recovered.
Then Alex suggested the unthinkable: a no-strings-attached, passion-unleashed affair at least until their project was finished and Ellie could walk again. But as restless days became tender, sleepless nights, could Ellie keep her heart safe? And more, could Alex?
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Alex McKnight needed a woman.
More specifically, he needed his architect, who just happened to be a very hot woman. The fact that he'd noticed was a problem because he didn't date coworkers, or any other ladies in Blackwater Lake, Montana, for that matter. He had a business to run in this town and couldn't afford to feed the rumor mill and tick off prospective clients with stuff from his personal life.
A bigger problem was that the very hot female architect was two hours late for work, and that didn't bode well for completing the Mercy Medical Clinic expansion on time. He had projects stacked up like planes waiting to land and if this one ran behind all the rest could crash and burn.
He looked at his watch and swore softly. It was going on noon and still no word from Miss Suellen Hart. Tomorrow the cement foundation was being poured, and last Friday, when he'd spoken with her, she'd promised to fly out of Dallas in plenty of time to be here for the event on Monday.
"They don't call. They don't write. So much for promises," he mumbled.
Maybe he was a tad critical, but in his opinion, he had an excellent reason. His wife, ex-wife, had promised to love, honor and all the rest of that baloney. But vows hadn't stopped her from running back into the arms of the man who'd fathered the baby she'd let Alex believe was his. She'd ripped out the foundation of his life, and if that wasn't cause to be bitter, he didn't know what was.
Alex walked the wood form set in the prepared ground that would hold the cement foundation of the clinic addition. He inspected every weight-bearing wall support to make sure they were in the right place. It would have been nice for the architect to be here with him to corroborate his judgment, although that was just a formality. He knew his job.
Just then he heard a car squeal into the temporary parking lot for the clinic. He turned and saw the little compact, a rental from the airport, skid to a stop by the construction trailer. The door opened, and out swung the best-looking pair of legs he'd seen east of California, and the rest of her was just as impressive. She was wearing a red skirt and snug matching jacket. The coordinating four-inch heels had come-and-get-me written all over them.
She leaned back inside, showing a pretty good view of her backside, then pulled out a purse the size of a Toyota. Much as he might like to avoid her forever, Alex knew he couldn't, so he moseyed over to meet her.
Miss Suellen Hart smiled as if being welcomed to a garden party. "So nice to see you again, Mr. McKnight."
He'd met her when she'd come to town for meetings on the project and accepted the fact that she was a looker, but it wasn't nice to see her again. She'd asked him to call her Ellie and at the time he'd thought it was cute. But not anymore. This woman pushed his buttons, none of the good ones.
"I thought you were going to call me Alex."
"I forgot." There was apology in her Texas bluebonnet-colored eyes. "Not surprisin' what with being late and all. I am so sorry, Alex. I'm normally punctual to a fault, although you have no reason to believe that. My plan was to fly in yesterday and get settled, but Mother Nature had other ideas. Y'all know how ladies have an inclination toward changin' their minds?"
"I do," he said dryly.
"Well, in Texas they say if y'all don't like the weather, just wait a minute. My flight from Dallas was canceled because of thunderstorms, and I was stuck at the airport. Cell service was sporadic to nonexistent, and I couldn't get a call through. I got here as quick as I could from that cute little Montana airport just a hop, skip and jump down the highway."
That cute little airport was close to a hundred miles from Blackwater Lake on a winding two-lane road. With mountains all around cell service was notorious for cutting in and out. "Stuff happens."
"Y'all must think I'm a flake."
Not the first word that came to his mind. Especially when she spoke in a breathless Southern drawl that was a little gravel, a little honey and all woman. "That wouldn't be fair."
"I promise that no one works harder than me. Y'all won't be disappointed." She took a breath. "I do apologize. Am I talkin' too much?"
"No." Damned if he couldn't listen to the Southern comfort in her voice all day.
"I must have had a bucket of coffee. Don't you worry. It'll wear off."
Studying her more closely, he could see that her skirt was wrinkled as if she'd slept in it, and fatigue had carved dark circles under those big, beautiful eyes. It was a look that made him want to take care of her, and that was a habit he thought he'd learned to break.
"You're here now." He almost added better late than never. He didn't, because she was pretty enough to be tempting, which made never a better alternative. "I'll show you the office."
"Okay. I'm anxious to get started." She smiled brightly. "I swear Mayor Goodson and the town council won't regret they picked me for the job."
"Your bid was the cheapest," he said. "No offense."
"None taken. I needed the work. It has to be said that I didn't expect y'all to be one of those contractors who believes the architect relationship is terminated on completion of the construction documents."
"What you're really saying is you're glad I don't think your presence on the job is both a nuisance and an unnecessary expense."
"Those words would never cross my lips."
And very fine lips they were, he thought, then ordered himself to focus. On work. "I believe an architect has a critical role to play during construction, and this addition to Mercy Medical Clinic isn't like an ordinary house."
She nodded. "If it were simply exam rooms there'd be very little challenge, but the outpatient surgery center needs more in the way of electrical and plumbing."
"One of the reasons the town council accepted your bid was the fact that you agreed to absorb the expense of being on site during the construction process."
"To keep a project on track and within budget inspections are advisable a minimum of three times a week. As remote as Blackwater Lake is, sticking around seemed like a good idea."
"You must have really wanted the job." He studied her closely and saw her smile slip for just a moment.
"It's an investment in the future. Everyone's got to start their own business somewhere."
Except Alex was pretty sure this wasn't her start. He'd read her resume, and there was a yearlong gap between college and when she'd gone to work for Hart Industries, her family's company in Dallas. He wondered what had happened during that year. Nothing good if it was left blank. But she could have fudged the dates and she hadn't. One point to her.
And none of that was his problem, since he hadn't made the decision to hire her. He just had to do his best with that decision. "Come inside."
"I just have to get some things from the car if y'all want to go on ahead."
"Can I take something?" he asked.
"No, I'm used to this." She opened the trunk, and he saw a couple suitcases inside. She grabbed a briefcase and several tubes that probably contained blueprints.
"Is that everything?" When she nodded, he closed it up and said, "Follow me."
Alex was normally a "ladies first" kind of guy, but if he walked in front, he wouldn't have to look at the way that tight little skirt wrapped her world-class butt in silk. And just like that he got an image of tangled legs and twisted sheets with all that long shiny brown hair of hers spread out on a white pillow.
Whoa. Alex couldn't believe he'd just thought about sex with this woman. Then again, he reasoned, it had been a long time. This reaction wasn't personal, just a man's normal response to a pretty lady.
He opened the trailer door and let her precede him inside. "After you."
"If y'all don't mind I'll just get to work and make up for lost time." She looked around. "Is it all right if I use that desk?"
"Help yourself," he answered.
She walked across the room and put down her expensive leather briefcase and gigantic purse, and let the unwieldy tubes fall haphazardly on the flat surface. She pulled out her laptop and opened it, all business now. But, damn it, she'd just driven in from the airport after a crappy trip, and the silence after her Southern fried soliloquy felt all wrong.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" He pointed to the corner, where a pot was set up on a small table.
"Oh, Lord, no thank you. I think my head would explode."
"I guess you're staying at Blackwater Lake Lodge?"
"Actually no. They couldn't confirm a reservation for the length of my stay."
"I'm surprised." He walked over and rested a hip on the corner of the desk, then leveled a friendly smile at her. He'd been told it could bring a woman to her knees, but that wasn't his intention. He needed this job to come in early and on budgetin other words, go smoothly. The best way to make that happen was for the two of them to get along.
"I was told that spring and summer bookings are really up this year."
"That might have something to do with the recent publicity generated by the hotel's new executive manager. Ca-mille Halliday," he added.
Ellie's brows pulled together thoughtfully. "Why does that name sound familiar?"
"She's part of the Halliday Hospitality family and apparently something of a wild child in her youth."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Right around the time I was here before there was a lot of talk about the press hounding her and a picture in the paper of her kissing your brother."
She nodded. "I met with Dr. McKnight, and he couldn't have been sweeter to me. Dr. Stone, too. We had several conversations about their expectations and suggestions for the clinic expansion before I drew up the plans."
"By the way, he's engaged now."
"My brother, Ben. To Camille Halliday."
"That's really nice." She smiled, then turned her attention to the laptop. "Now, I brought my own copy of the building plans, but I see y'all have the blueprints tacked on the wall"
"Do you have a place to stay?" The question was nothing more than curiosity, he told himself.
"You couldn't get a room at the lodge, so where are you going to live while you're here?"
"Actually, Dr. Stone helped me out with that."
Apparently Adam had succumbed to Blackwater Lake's philosophy of neighbors helping each other out. The family practice doc had relocated last summer and rented an upstairs apartment from Jill Beck, a local woman. "What did Adam do?"
"He suggested I rent his old place, since he and Jill are engaged and living together downstairs."
"Jill agreed to a short-term lease, something she doesn't normally do. But I guess she made an exception for me."
"You and Jill must have hit it off."
"We did. She even invited me to the wedding, since it's going to be right there on their property by the lake where I'll be living." A smile lit up her face like the town square at Christmas. "C.J.'s actually the one who insisted I had to come to the ceremony, because he's wearing a tuxedo. That little guy of hers is just as cute as can be."
"The kid is something else."
"Anyway," she continued, "I was relieved to find something, and the silver lining is that it's more homey than a hotel."
"It has great views of the lake and mountains." Right now Alex had no complaints about his view. Ellie Hart sure did brighten up a drab, boxy, portable construction trailer.
"A definite plus. But now " Her tone turned regretful. "Y'all have been so nice, but I need to make up for bein' late on my first day. It's not the way to make a good impression. Time for me to get to work."
She'd made an impression all right. Time would tell whether or not it was good. And as testy as he'd been about her tardiness, he couldn't believe he was going to say this. "Look, if you need time to settle and unpack, take it."
"That's really sweet, but " She shook her head. "There's a lot to do, and the foundation's being poured tomorrow. I need to check the fittings for the bearing walls and go over the next phase of the project."
"I already did that. So, unless you want changesbut I can't see whythe plans are good," he said. "Really good."
"Thank you for sayin' so." She allowed herself a small smile. "But I don't want to leave anything to chance."
"I respect that." He waited for her to respond, but she focused on her computer.
Finally she looked up. "Was there something else?"
"Just one thing." He folded his arms over his chest. The guy who'd been told he could charm the bloomers off a man-hating spinster had been sucked in by her charm, because he couldn't believe he was going to say this, either. "You were a couple of hours late through no fault of your own. It's okay to cut yourself some slack."
"All due respect, that's not how I see it." She met his gaze. "I'm a woman in a traditionally male occupation."
"If you're worried about gender bias, don't be."
"Y'all are a man, and you can't really understand why I have to earn respect." She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "It's my responsibility to plan, design and oversee the construction of the clinic to make sure it's functional, safe, economical and environmentally friendly. It has to meet the needs of the people who work there and everyone who uses it."
"In my opinion, you left nothing to chance."
Alex had studied in detail the final construction plans, and he was impressed with her attention to local and state building codes, zoning laws and fire regulations.
"It never hurts to check and double-check. If alterations need to be made, the sooner the better. Otherwise the project could go over time and over budget. And everyone will be checking and watching just a little closer because I'm a woman."
That was why he was checking her out, and it was no consolation that he hated himself for it. Obviously she wouldn't want to hear that. So, he tried to put himself in her shoes, which wasn't easy since they were four-inch heels.
"I see where you're coming from, Ellie, but I've been in the building business for twenty years. Fetching, carrying and learning the trade while I was in high school. In college they actually let me use tools," he added, gratified when his self-deprecation earned a smile. "Eventually I started my own company in Southern California."
"I thought you lived here in Blackwater Lake," she said.
"I do. About two years ago I opened a branch of the business here."
"Why?" She seemed genuinely interested.
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