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Paint streamed off the end of Emma Heartly's paintbrush. Thin scarlet beads trickled down the splintery boards and pooled in the long late-summer grass. She slapped another brush full of color on the barn. Speckles of paint dotted her bare feet.
She needed a new direction, only she couldn't shake off the chains of the past. Those bonds shackled her to a dead-end job which paid too well and a boss who was her ex-boyfriend. To make matters worse, her saving grace, her escape route into a new career, cost too much money.
The loud thumping of her heart replaced the happy twitter of nearby birds. Paint fumes filled her head, dulling her remaining senses. Her field of vision narrowed to the blood-colored paint staining the old barn. Dreams. What a waste of time. Heartlys always ended up with shattered dreams.
Emma swallowed the lump in her throat. She'd find a way out of this mess. She had to. She swabbed on the last of the paint from the can.
Something registered in her peripheral vision.
"Aah!" She whirled. In what seemed like slow motion, an arc of red paint flew from her brush. It splattered across the crisp white fabric of the man's shirt and his striped navy tie. Oh. God. She'd ruined his clothes. She'd have to use her grocery money to replace them. Could this Saturday possibly get any worse?
She stared at the man, her heart beating wildly. Besides the splotches of red paint on his clothing, he looked like he'd just stepped off the pages of a glossy magazine advertisement. All right, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Gorgeous, what wrong turn did you take to bring you here?
Her hand slid to her chest tocalm her racing heart. "Omigosh! You startled me. I'm so sorry about slopping paint on your clothes."
He dismissed his ruined clothing with a glance. "I'm all right. A little paint never hurt anything."
She had to do something to fix it, but what? Maybe she could blot the worst of it off. She dropped her wet brush, tugged the bandana off of her head, and started toward him. "But your shirt. That tie. I've ruined them."
His open palm blocked her momentum. "It's okay, really, it is. I shouldn't have given you such a start. I apologize."
His voice sent a ripple of sensual awareness through her. Dark brown eyes swept her from head to toe. The corners of his inviting mouth edged up. Emma's pulse skittered. She catalogued his physical features. Six feet tall. Wavy brown hair. Angular face. Broad shoulders. Trim hips. Long legs.
Her face warmed with approval. Darn. She'd always had a thing for long-legged men. Not that it mattered what she liked. She'd misjudged another handsome male recently. She wouldn't make that mistake again.
Much to her dismay, feminine instinct took over. Her back arched toward the stranger, her stomach flattened, and her halter-top chaffed against breasts. A gust of wind grazed her skin, breezing through the hole in the seat of her faded jean shorts. She'd worn sunshine-yellow undies today.
Heat flooded up her neck. Her fingers spasmed on the thin cotton bandana. She had to say something quick. "Don't apologize. I should've paid closer attention. I didn't hear you approach. I feel awful for ruining your clothes. Can I buy you a new shirt and tie?"
He shrugged. "There's no need. It's my fault. I should have said something sooner, but I didn't want to interrupt your work. I'm looking for Emma Heartly."
Her mouth dropped open. This gorgeous man came to see her? Did she win the male supermodel lottery or something? Be still my heart. She fanned herself. "You found her. How can I help you?"
"I'm Quentin Stone. Of Stone Construction." He handed her his business card. "You scheduled an estimate on a home improvement project for today."
At the casual brush of his fingers in her palm, the air around her sparkled with energy. The charged current surged into her, further scattering her wits. Emma fumbled the card into her pocket along with her bandana. She shot him a covert glance but he appeared to be unaffected by the casual touch.
Puzzling. The scientist in her wanted to repeat the experiment to verify the result. The entrepreneur in her wanted to bottle his blatant sex appeal. She could make a fortune. The Heartly in her knew she'd do neither. "So I did."
"Pleased to meet you," he said.
His deep voice rumbled through her, sending shivers down her spine. She bit her lip to clear her senses. She had no business being attracted to him. Heartlys had rotten luck with handsome men.
She straightened. "I'm sorry you've come all this way. My financing fell through. I should have cancelled the appointment."
Confusion temporarily clouded his appealing face. "Since I'm already here, you should take advantage of the free estimate. Stone Construction has sixty years of expertise in building and renovating houses."
His marketing pitch surprised her. Nevertheless, she couldn't afford him. Her cheek twitched. "No thanks."
"I might be able to suggest inexpensive solutions you haven't previously considered."
He'd wasted his time driving out here from Baltimore. She couldn't impose on him any further. "I'd be taking advantage of you."
"You're not taking advantage if I'm offering you the free service," he said. "Let's take a look-see. It'd save me a trip later should you change your mind."
The friendly glint in his brown eyes weakened her resolve.
She frowned. Everyone knew you didn't get something for nothing. She'd feel obligated to hire him if he toured her ramshackle house. She glanced at him. Eagerness brightened his magnetic features. Interesting. He really wanted to see the house.
What would it hurt to humor him?
The idea appealed to her maternal instincts. If it meant that much to him, she'd show him around.
"Okay. I'll pump you for every idea you've got. Then I'll send you on your way without the promise of any work. That will make you happy, right?"
Smile lines wreathed his eyes. "Right."
Her heart lightened. Emma gestured towards the house with her paint-speckled hand. "Follow me. I'll show you my broken dinosaur. You can tell me how to glue it back together."
Quentin matched her stride, his nearness sending warning messages to Emma's excited nerves. This handsome stranger with the inherent authority of an archangel intrigued her. Athletic men like Quentin didn't work at Orbital Scientific. He looked like he could bench press her car without breaking a sweat.
He could talk two-by-fours and I-beams all he wanted. Anything he said would sound poetic. Her senses shifted into overdrive. The sky above seemed bluer, the white clouds fluffier. Even the birds chirped louder. Beneath her bare feet, the lush grass cushioned her stride. All was well in suburban Maryland.
Heavens. She was desperate indeed if a chance encounter with a construction estimator produced such wild imaginings. She needed to get a life.
A yellow tabby cat darted ahead of Emma. A trail of mewing kittens scampered close behind.
Conversation bubbled out of her like a free-flowing fountain. "That's Zelda and her brood," she explained. "She thinks I'm going to feed her every time I go into the house. It's a regular production each time I come outside. Do you need a cat? I can't keep them all."
"No, I don't need a cat," he said.
Good Lord. Why did she mention the cats? Men shied away from women with multiple cats. If the butterflies in her stomach would settle down, she could carry on a normal conversation instead of talking a mile a minute about cats, of all things.
This wasn't a date. She shouldn't be thinking date thoughts. But she couldn't turn them off either. Ever since she'd taken his card, anticipation swirled through her. Though it made no sense, she wanted him to touch her again.
Climbing the creaking porch steps, she marshaled her thoughts into order. The worn indentations in the wooden risers reminded her of her heritage. "My great grandfather built this house eighty years ago. My idea is to turn this place into a bed and breakfast. As you can see, the exterior needs work."
She pointed to the tall, narrow windows on the weathered wood siding. "The missing shutters are in the barn. A storm damaged them a few years ago. One of the window panes needs to be replaced."
His pencil scribbled noisily on his clipboard. Emma had an overpowering urge to see what he'd written. She wished his notes were personal in nature. Something along the lines of "Great Legs" or "Nice Smile." Not that she would have a real chance with a hunk like Quentin Stone. Worldly men like him didn't shop for thirty-year-old brides.
She stopped to pet her slumbering hound sprawled on the porch. "Agnes doesn't move very fast these days."
Quentin nodded towards the dog. "I noticed."
She glanced sharply at Quentin. "Oh? Did she bark at you earlier?"
He shrugged. "Not that I could tell."
A wave of relief swept through her. If Agnes couldn't be bothered about Quentin Stone, then she wouldn't be worried either. Agnes had never been wrong about people before. The dog had growled at Joel Frazier--too bad she hadn't taken the dog-o-meter warning to heart.
She entered the house. Her nose wrinkled at the musty smell. "Watch your step. The floor boards near the window need to be replaced." Emma nodded toward the plywood-patched window. "Water damage from that storm."
The water-blackened floorboards in the front parlor looked awful. Did he think she enjoyed living in squalor? Her fingernails bit into her palms. She tamped down her anxiety. His perception of her lifestyle didn't matter.
With her eyes focused directly in front of her, Emma led him up to the second floor. Was he focused on the steps or on her behind, specifically her underwear? She wanted to sneak a peak, but his steady footfalls on the bare wooden stairs indicated his nearness.
"There are five bedrooms up here." She gestured towards the rooms in a game show hostess fashion, glad that she'd tidied up her bedroom this morning. "I'd like to add a bathroom to each bedroom. I'm just not sure if there is enough space."
Quentin examined each room in turn, his hand gliding reverently over the chipped beadboard. "Three of these rooms seem large enough to modify. These deep closets will make a good start on your new bathrooms. The smaller rooms might share the existing bathroom."
"Oh." An image flicked into her head of him caressing her arm in like manner. She banished the image in the next heartbeat. "Only put in three bathrooms? That would save some money."
He observed the vintage lighting fixtures. "You'll need an electrician to bring your wiring up to code."
An electrician? She hadn't considered the ancient wiring. "Good point."
"You'll also need a plumber to install and upgrade the bathroom fixtures. How old is the septic system?"
She swallowed thickly. Oh dear. Rehab involved more than pounding a few nails or adding a layer of paint. "I have no idea."
His level gaze held her spellbound. "My guess is that you'll need to put in a new system. Since that involves digging up the yard, I recommend doing that soon so that the grass will have time to establish a good root base before guests begin walking through the yard."
He examined the rusty radiators, his long supple fingers skimming over the pipes. "You'll want to upgrade to central heat and air. You'll save time and money upgrading during your rehab."
"Great." Emma snapped out of her fog. His suggestions meant serious money. Glumly, she directed him down the stairs. The dining room's ugly brown walls depressed her. "This room is too dark. Wallpaper would add some cheer."
Quentin's eyes warmed. "They don't make walnut paneling like this anymore. Be a shame to cover this up with wallpaper. You need a light colored wash to brighten the finish."
"Paint the paneling?"
"Not exactly. You'd have to strip off the existing finish. That gets a bit pricey because of all the labor involved."
She brightened at the magic word of labor. Any handiwork she did would save her money. "I like your idea." She envisioned her inn clientele eating a hearty breakfast in the newly whitewashed dining room. This could work out.
"So give me a ballpark figure," she said. "How much is all of this going to set me back?"
"I don't normally provide estimates without obtaining quotes from our subcontractors," Quentin hedged.
Emma needed to know a number. Talking about renovations made her bed and breakfast dream seem attainable. Having a number would help her plan out the phases of the project. "Surely you know what a job this size will cost."
"I shouldn't say without totaling each line item."
"Humor me," she insisted.
"I wouldn't want to give you the wrong impression about Stone Construction. We are a reputable company. We pride ourselves on the quality of our service."
Why was he being difficult? She needed to know a number for Heaven's sake. How difficult could that be for a renovation expert? "Come on. You must have an idea. What am I looking at here? Twenty to thirty thousand?"
He exhaled slowly. "More like eighty."
His estimate knocked the wind out of her. "Eighty," she repeated dully. By her own accounting of what she would be saving in rent money since she'd moved out here, it would take her over eight years to come up with eighty thousand dollars.
She couldn't work for Joel Frazier eight more years. It wasn't going to happen. Her best bet would be to convince her sisters to sign the paper work for a mortgage. Right. When pigs could fly.
Her shoulders slumped in defeat. She turned towards the arched doorway. "The kitchen is through here. I want to replace the appliances but--"
A hint of burning food assaulted her nostrils. "Not again!" Emma dashed into the kitchen for her brand new fire extinguisher.
She opened the ancient oven. A suffocating cloud of acrid smoke billowed toward her. "Oh, no."
Before she had time to act, Quentin's muscular forearms closed around her. He lifted her out of harm's way. He grabbed the fire extinguisher from the counter. White foam shot from the black barrel onto the smoking pan. Emma peered around his broad shoulders at the foul-smelling mess. Blood pounded in her ears.
She cursed under her breath, wishing this perfect man hadn't witnessed her failure. She'd burned up another pan. Why couldn't she cook one blasted thing without ruining it?
She hurled the pan out the kitchen window into the back yard. It landed with a metallic clang amongst her collection of burnt pans.
"You'll need a new fire extinguisher," Quentin observed.
"Believe me, I know the drill." She stomped away from the window, frustration churning in her gut.
He bent over the open oven door and prodded the heating element with his pencil. "I don't think there's any permanent damage."
She couldn't resist watching him. Emma cocked her head to one side, admiring the way his jeans stretched across his firm derriere.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Have you checked the temperature adjustment?"
Heat flooded her face. He'd caught her looking. She swallowed her mortification to focus on the real problem. Why hadn't she thought to check the oven's calibration? The reaction temperature would've been the first thing she would have verified in a laboratory experiment. Could her cooking problems be related to faulty equipment? "I'll look into it."
He set down the fire extinguisher with a loud clank. He stared out her window and frowned at her backyard. "How many times has this happened?"
"How many days have I been here?" Potent electricity stored in her bloodstream arced out of control. She didn't want to talk about her cooking problem with a handsome stranger.
He stared at her in silence.
She sighed out the truth. "Seven times."
His mouth dropped open.
Her jaw clamped shut. She'd stunned him. So much for her impossible dreams of hiring him. He would run out of here any minute now, screaming his head off. If he ever saw her again, he'd remember she was a disaster. Between the kitchen fire and his ruined clothing, she'd made a lasting bad impression. "Cooking isn't my strong suit."
His silence rattled her. She hastened to explain. "I haven't had much practice with cooking, but I have to learn how so that I can get my inn going. People cook everyday. I just need a little more experience."
His mouth finally closed. "Look, this is none of my business, but you shouldn't push your luck any farther. Don't you have someone who can teach you to cook?"
Emma's chin rose. "I am a grown up. I know how to read. I'm teaching myself to cook."
"There's more to cooking than reading."
His dismissive words re-stoked her inner fire. Smoldering embers flickered into snapping flames. She'd had it with things going wrong.
Her job sucked. Her boyfriend betrayed her. Her sisters blocked her loan. The ruined pan paled in comparison. "This is none of your business."
Anger hardened her voice. "We're done here."
He raised his hands up in surrender. "I'm not telling you anything you shouldn't already know. Don't shoot the messenger."
Emma rubbed her temples. Some of her anger abated, leaving confusion in its place. She shouldn't take out her frustration on a stranger. "I'm not blaming anyone. I have lots to do to get this place whipped into a bed and breakfast."
"Thanks for giving me the tour. This is quite a house." Quentin held the door open for her. His pleasing woodsy fragrance wafted around her, creating a flutter in her heart again. "You're going to do the renovations yourself?"
She didn't care for the note of disbelief in his voice. She knew which end of a hammer to use even if she couldn't cook. "Yes." She infused her words with an icy calm.
"Be careful. Construction is harder than cooking."
God save her from overbearing know-it-all-men. Especially the good-looking ones. With her arms folded across her chest, Emma trailed him to his black Jeep. "Thank you, Mr. Expert."
He slammed the door of his Jeep shut. "I don't like aggressive women."
"I don't like nosy contractors."
To Emma's dismay, he sat there, fingers frozen on the steering wheel. Had she stunned him with her witty repartee? Why didn't he leave? His head slowly turned to face her and his long eyelashes swept her length. A flash fire of heat followed his lingering gaze. Excitement sizzled through her veins.
His gaze returned to her face. She drew in quick, shallow breaths. Why didn't he say something? Suddenly she realized his lips had just finished moving. She had no idea what he'd said. How humiliating. "What?"
"Don't cook again until you get another fire extinguisher."
She'd hoped his parting words would be poignant or meaningful, something she could dine on for years to come. Instead, he'd told her what to do. Just like Joel.
Emma frowned. "I don't like bossy men."
His dark eyes narrowed, compacting his unsettling gaze. "Who does?"
With that, he executed a tight three-point turn. She fingered his business card in her pocket. The first thing Monday morning she'd mail his office a check for his ruined clothing. That would be the end of Quentin Stone's disturbing presence in her life.
Lucy would enjoy hearing about this little adventure. As Emma considered what to tell her best friend from work about her encounter, a small white car barreled up the narrow driveway. The large dust plume behind the car indicated its rapid speed.
Alarm raced through her. Unless someone yielded, the white sedan would crash into Quentin's Jeep.