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Rafe King liked a friendly wager as much as the next guy.
He just didn't like to lose.
When he lost though, he paid up. Which was why he was standing in a driveway, sipping a cup of coffee, waiting for the rest of the work crew to show up. As one of the owners of King Construction, it had been a few years since Rafe had actually done any on-site work. Usually, he was the details man, getting parts ordered, supplies delivered. He stayed on top of the million and one jobs the company had going at any one time and trusted the contractors to get the work done right.
Now though, thanks to one bet gone bad, he'd be working on this job himself for the next few weeks.
A silver pickup truck towing a small, enclosed trailer pulled in behind him and Rafe slanted his gaze at the driver. Joe Hanna. Contractor. Friend. And the man who'd instigated the bet Rafe had lost.
Joe climbed out of his truck, barely managing to hide a smile. "Hardly knew you without the suit you're usually wearing."
"Funny." Most of his life, Rafe hadn't done the suit thing. Actually, he was more comfortable dressed as he was now, in faded jeans, black work boots and a black T-shirt with King Construction stamped across the back. "You're late."
"No, I'm not. You're early." Joe sipped at his own coffee and handed over a bag. "Want a doughnut?"
"Sure." Rafe dug in, came up with a jelly-filled and polished it off in a few huge bites. "Where's everyone else?"
"We don't start work until eight a.m. They've still got a half hour."
"If they were here now, they could start setting up, so they could start working at eight." Rafe turned his gaze to the California bungalow that would be the center of his world for the next several weeks. It sat on a tree-lined street in Long Beach, behind a wide, neatly tended lawn. At least fifty years old, it looked settled, he supposed. As if the town had grown up around it.
"What's the job here, anyway?"
"A kitchen redo," Joe said, leaning against Rafe's truck to study the house. "New floor, new counter. Lots of plumbing to bring the old place up to code. New drains, pipes, replastering and painting."
"Cabinets?" Rafe asked, his mind fixing on the job at hand.
"Nope. The ones in there are solid white pine. So we're not replacing. Just stripping, sanding and varnishing."
He nodded, then straightened up and turned his gaze on Joe. "So do the guys working this job know who I am?"
Joe grinned. "Not a clue. Just like we talked about, your real identity will be a secret. For the length of the job here, your name is Rafe Cole. You're a new hire."
Better all the way around, he thought, if the guys working with him didn't know that he was their employer. If they knew the truth, they'd be antsy and wouldn't get the work done. Besides, this was an opportunity for Rafe to see exactly what his employees thought of the business and working for King Construction. Like that television show where employers went undercover at their own companies, he just might find out a few things.
Still, he shook his head. "Remind me again why I'm not firing you?"
"Because you lost the bet fair and square and you don't welsh on your bets," Joe said. "And, I warned you that my Sherry's car was going to win the race."
"True." Rafe smiled and remembered the scene at the King Construction family picnic a month ago. The children of employees spent months building cars that would then race on a track made especially for the event. In the spirit of competition, Rafe had bet against Joe's daughter's bright pink car. Sherry had left everyone else standing at the gate. That would teach him to bet against a female.
"Good thing you let your brothers do all the talking at the picnic," Joe was saying. "Otherwise, these guys would recognize you."
That's just the way Rafe liked it, he thought. He left the publicity and the more public areas of the business to two of his brothers, Sean and Lucas. Between the three of them, they had built King Construction into the biggest construction firm on the West Coast. Sean handled the corporate side of things, Lucas managed the customer base and crews, and Rafe was the go-to guy for supplies, parts and anything else needed on a site.
"Lucky me," he muttered, then looked up at the rumble of another truck pulling up to the front of the house. Right behind him, a smaller truck parked and the two men got out and walked toward them.
Joe stepped up. "Steve, Arturo, this is Rafe Cole. He'll be working the job with you guys."
Steve was tall, about fifty, with a wide grin, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming a local rock band. Arturo was older, shorter and wearing a shirt stained with various colors of paint. Well, Rafe thought, he knew which one of them was the painter.
"We ready?" Steve asked.
"As we'll ever be." Joe turned and pointed to the side of the house. "There's an RV access gate there. Want to put the trailer in her back yard? Easier to get to and it'll keep thieves out."
Joe positioned his truck and trailer through the gate and in minutes, they were busy. Rafe jumped in. It had been a few years since he'd spent time on a site, but that didn't mean he'd forgotten anything. His father, Ben King, hadn't been much of a dad, but he had run the construction arm of the King family dynasty and made sure that every one of his sonsall eight of themspent time on job sites every summer. He figured it was a good way to remind them that being a King didn't mean you had an easy ride.
They'd all grumbled about it at the time, but Rafe had come to think that was the one good thing their father had done for any of them.
"We did the walk-through last week," Joe was saying and Rafe listened up. "The customer's got everything cleaned out, so Steve and Arturo can start the demo right away. Rafe, you're going to hook up a temporary cooking station for Ms. Charles on her enclosed patio."
Rafe just looked at him. "Temporary cooking? She can't eat out during a kitchen rehab like everyone else?"
"She could," a female voice answered from the house behind them. "But she needs to be able to bake while you're fixing her kitchen."
Rafe slowly turned to face the woman behind that voice and felt a hard punch of something hot slam into him. She was tall, which he likednothing worse than having to hunch over to kiss a womanshe had curly, shoulder-length red hair and bright green eyes. She was smiling and the curve of her mouth was downright delectable.
And none of that information made him happy. He didn't need a woman. Didn't want a woman and if he did, he sure as hell wouldn't be going for one who had "white picket fences" practically stamped on her forehead.
Rafe just wasn't the home-and-hearth kind of guy.
Still, that didn't mean he couldn't enjoy the view.
"Morning, Ms. Charles," Joe said. "Got your crew here. Arturo and Steve you met the other day during the walk-through. And this is Rafe."
"Nice to meet you," she said. Her green eyes locked with his and for one long, humming second there seemed to be a hell of a lot of heat in the air. "But call me Katie, please. We're going to be spending a lot of time together, after all."
"Right. So, what's this temporary cooking station about?" Rafe asked.
"I bake cookies," she told him. "That's my business and I have to be able to fill orders while the kitchen is being redone. Joe assured me it wouldn't be a problem."
"It won't be," Joe said. "Of course, you won't be able to cook during the day. We'll have the gas turned off while we work on the pipes. But we'll set it up for you at the end of every day. Rafe'll fix you up and you'll be cooking by tonight."
"Great. Well, I'll let you get to it."
She slipped inside again and Rafe took that second to admire the view of her from the rear. She had a great behind, hugged by worn denim that defined every curve and tempted a man to see what exactly was underneath those jeans. He took a long, deep breath, hoping the crisp morning air would dissipate some of the heat pumping through him. It didn't, so he was left with a too-tight body and a long day staring him in the face. So he told himself to ignore the woman. He was only here long enough to pay off a bet. Then he'd be gone.
"Okay," Joe was saying, "you guys move Katie's stove where she wants it, then Rafe can get her set up while the demolition's going on."
Nothing Rafe would like better than to set her upfor some one-on-one time. Instead though, he followed Steve and Arturo around to the back of the house.
The noise was incredible.
After an hour, Katie's head was pounding in time with the sledge hammers being swung in her grandmother's kitchen.
It was weird, having strangers in the house. Even weirder paying them to destroy the kitchen she'd pretty much grown up in. But it would all be worth it, she knew. She just hoped she could live through the construction.
Not to mention crabby carpenters.
Desperate to get a little distance between herself and the constant battering of noise, she walked to the enclosed patio. Snugged between the garage and the house, the room was long and narrow. There were a few chairs, a picnic table that Katie had already covered with a vinyl tablecloth and stacks of cookie sheets waiting to be filled. Her mixing bowls were on a nearby counter and her temporary pantry was a card table. This was going to be a challenge for sure. But there was the added plus of having a gorgeous man stretched out behind the stove grumbling under his breath.
"How's it going?" she asked.
The man jerked up, slammed his head into the corner of the stove and muttered an oath that Katie was glad she hadn't been able to hear. Flashing her a dark look out of beautiful blue eyes, he said, "It's going as well as hooking up an ancient stove to a gas pipe can go."
"It's old, but it's reliable," Katie told him. "Of course, I've got a new one on order."
"Can't say as I blame you," Rafe answered, dipping back behind the stove again. "This thing's gotta be thirty years old."
"At least," she said, dropping into a nearby chair. "My grandmother bought it new before I was born and I'm twenty-seven."
He glanced up at her and shook his head.
Her breath caught in her chest. Really, he was not what she had expected. Someone as gorgeous as he was should have been on the cover of GQ, not working a construction site. But he seemed to know what he was doing and she had to admit that just looking at him gave her the kind of rush she hadn't felt in way too long.
And that kind of thinking was just dangerous, so she steered the conversation to something light.
"Just because something's old doesn't mean it's useless." She grinned. "That stove might be temperamental, but I know all of its tricks. It cooks a little hot, but I've learned to work around it."
"And yet," he pointed out with a half smile, "you've got a new stove coming."
She shrugged and her smile faded a little into something that felt like regret. "New kitchen, new stove. But I think I'll miss this one's occasional hiccups. Makes baking more interesting."
"Right." He looked as if he didn't believe her and couldn't have cared less. "You're really going to be cooking out here?"
The sounds of cheerful demolition rang out around them and Katie heard the two guys in the kitchen laughing about something. She wondered for a second or two what could possibly be funny about tearing out a fifty-year-old kitchen, then told herself it was probably better if she didn't know.
Instead, she glanced around at the patio/makeshift kitchen setup. Windows ringed the room, terra-cotta-colored tiles made up the floor and there was a small wetbar area in the corner that Katie would be using as a cleanup area. She sighed a little, already missing the farmhouse-style kitchen that was, at the moment, being taken down to its skeleton.
But when it was finished, she'd have the kitchen of her dreams. She smiled to herself, enjoying the mental images.
"What?" She looked at the man still sprawled on the tile floor. "No. Just thinking about how the kitchen will be when you guys are done."
"Not worried about the mess and the work?"
"Nope," she said and pushed out of the chair. She walked toward him, leaned on the stove top and looked over the back at him. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm not looking forward to it and the thought of baking out here is a little high on the ye gods scale. Still, the mess can't be avoided," she said. "As for the work that will be done, I did my research. Checked into all the different construction companies and got three estimates."
"So, why'd you choose King Construction?" he asked, dragging what looked like a silver snake from the back of the stove to a pipe jutting out from the garage wall.
"It wasn't easy," she murmured, remembering things she would just as soon put behind her permanently.
"Why's that?" He sounded almost offended. "King Construction has a great reputation."
Katie smiled and said, "It's nice that you're so protective of the company you work for."
"Yeah, well. The Kings have been good to me." He scowled a bit and refocused on the task at hand. "So if you don't like King Construction, what're we doing here?"
Sighing a little, Katie told herself she really had to be more discreet. She hadn't meant to say anything at all about the King family. After all, Rafe and the other guys worked for them. But now that she had, she wasn't going to try to lie or squirm her way out of it, either. "I'm sure the construction company is excellent. All of the referrals I checked out were more than pleased with the work done."
"But ?" He patted the wall, stood up and looked at her, waiting for her to finish.