After being falsely accused of breaking her sacred lawyer-client vow, Natalie Lofton's main priority was clearing her name and getting her life back. That didn't include taking in an irresistible mutt. Or falling for the sexy handyman who'd come to fix a leaky pipe in her secluded Tennessee cabin.
But Casey Walker wasn't your ordinary fixer-upper. The native Texan had his own reasons for retreating to the remote Smoky Mountain resort. There he found a fellow attorney with a soft spot for strays. But what about the tender feelings Natalie was awakening in him?
About the Author
Born Gina Ferris Vaughan on December 20, 1954 in Little Rock, Arkansas, daughter of Beth Vaughan, an executive secretary, and Vernon Vaughan, an electrician. In February 1972, she married John Wilkins, a wood turner, and they have three children.
She obtained a journalism degree from Arkansas State University (ASU) and worked in advertising and human resources. In 1987 she sold her first book to Harlequin and embarked on a career as a full-time writer. Since then, she has written more than eighty-five novels for various Harlequin and Silhouette category romance lines. Her early Silhouette novels were written under the pseudonyms, Gina Ferris and Gina Ferris Wilkins, which she later dropped in favor of Wilkins. Her books have been translated in twenty languages and appear in more than one hundred countries.
Wilkins was awarded a Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award in 2003 for Best Silhouette Special Edition, Make-Believe Mistletoe and has been nominated for both a Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Harlequin Temptation (1998 for Tempting Tara) and a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award. The Georgia Romance Writers have awarded her the Maggie Award for Excellence four times, and Wilkins has seen her books appear on the Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and USAToday Bestseller lists.
Wilkins is a member of Novelists, Inc. and the Romance Writers of America, and often speaks at schools to emphasize literacy, goal-setting, and motivation.
Read an Excerpt
He was quite possibly one of the worst maintenance men Natalie Lofton had ever seen. Pretty, but incompetent. Watching as he fumbled with a leaky pipe under her kitchen sink, she wondered where on earth her aunt and uncle had found this twenty-something guy, who had introduced himself only as Casey. She couldn't imagine what had made them think he was qualified to be a handyman for the vacation cabins they owned in the Smoky Mountains around Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
"Is there anything I can do to help you?" she asked the third time she heard an ominous clang followed by a muttered curse.
Her voice from the doorway must have startled him. She saw his nice backside jerk, heard what sounded like a painful thump from beneath the sink and then yet another colorful expletive, bitten off midway.
He emerged ruefully rubbing a spot on the top of his head, and she couldn' t help noticing again that he was certainly good-looking. His appearance, she decided, defied simple, one-word adjectives. His hair was just a shade more brown than blond, and his almost-crystalline-bright eyes looked blue one moment, green the next. His jawline was sharply carved, but flashing dimples softened his cheeks. She suspected his personality was just as multifaceted.
"What did you say?" he asked.
She moved closer, bending over to see what he'd been doing under there. How much time did it take to replace a leaky trap, anyway? "I asked if there's anything I can do to help."
"Thanks, but I've got it. It won't be much longer."
"Uh-huh." She hoped she didn't sound as skeptical as she felt.
His polite smile fading, he ducked back under the sink, flipping over to lie on his back this time. She couldn't help noticing that he looked just as good from waist down as he did above. Long legs, flat stomach, nice
"Could you hand me that wrench, please? The big one?"
She picked up the biggest wrench she saw in his box and leaned over to hand it to him. "This one?"
She watched as he fitted it to the pipe. "Um, don't you think you should"
"What?" he asked loudly, unable to hear from beneath the sink. Even as he spoke, he gave the wrench a big twist. She saw the wrench slip, smashing through the thin copper water pipe next to him.
Cold water sprayed in a geyser from the broken pipe, hitting her squarely in the face. Gasping, she heard Casey sputter as he lay at the bottom of a veritable waterfall. While she stumbled backward, he scrambled frantically clanging and muttering until he reduced the gushing to a dribble by turning off the water valve.
"shut off the water supply?" she finished her question in a grumble.
"I am so sorry," he said, awkwardly climbing from beneath the sink. He was even wetter than Natalie, if that was possible. His light brown hair dripped around his face, and his blue polo shirt was plastered to his well-defined chest.
Which reminded her
Glancing downward, she noted that her thin, yellow cotton shirt had molded itself to her, going almost transparent when wet. She grabbed hold of the front, pulling the fabric away from her body. "I'll go find some towels."
He raised his gaze quickly to her face. "Yeah, okay. I'm really sorry."
She nodded and darted out of the kitchen, heading straight for the cabin's only bedroom. She wasn't bringing towels to him until she had changed her shirt.
Catching a glimpse of herself in the antique oval mirror over the rustic dresser, she groaned. Water trickled from the ends of her chin-length, honey-blond, angled bob. The bare minimum of makeup she'd applied that morning was water-splotched. And her now-transparent shirt made it very clear that she'd donned a comfyand very thinnude-toned bra that morning.
She changed quickly into a dry, slightly thicker bra and a dark blue, scoop-neck T-shirt. Deciding her jeans weren't damp enough to change, she ran a brush through her wet hair. After dusting a little powder over her now-shiny face, she grabbed an armload of towels and headed back toward the kitchen where surely the world's worst handyman waited for her.
Way to go, Casey. Drench one of the tenants. The owner's niece, to make it even worse. Some handyman you are.
Of course, that was the problem. He wasn't a handyman at all. Just a twenty-six-year-old man in the middle of an identity crisis.
"Here." Reentering the room, Natalie tossed a fluffy white towel to him. "Dry yourself. I'll start on the floor."
He draped the towel over his head and rubbed his soaked hair, then dragged it over his neck and the front of his shirt. While he did so, he watched Natalie kneel to swab up the water pooled on the oak floor. She'd changed clothes, he noted. He tried to push away a lingering image of her wet, yellow shirt plastered to very nice curves.
"I'll have to install a new pipe. And the flooring of the cabinet needs to be replaced," he said. "The slow leak you found has pretty much rotted it out."
"The fast leak you created didn't help any, either," she muttered, gathering wet towels to carry into the small laundry room attached to the kitchen.
He supposed he deserved that. But it rather annoyed him, anyway. Especially since he'd broken the damn pipe because she'd distracted him and made him self-conscious by watching him and talking to him while he was trying to work. Serious control issues, this one.
As if she'd read a hint of his thoughts in his eyes, she grimaced slightly. "Sorry," she said, pushing a damp strand of hair off her cheek. "I know it was an accident."
"Yeah. But you're right. I didn't help matters much," he conceded, softened by her apology. No matter how grudgingly she'd offered it.
"How long have you worked for Uncle Mack?" she asked, glancing at the tool box beside his feet.
"Just over a week now."
"And how long have you been a handyman?"
"Maintenance facilitator," he corrected her with a grin. When she only looked at him, he shrugged and said, "Just over a week now."
"Oh." She looked as though she'd like to ask a few more questions, but either manners or lack of sufficient interest kept her from doing so. Whatever the reason, he was relieved that she kept her questions to herself.
There were a few things he would like to know about her, too. But this wasn't the time. He reached down for his tools. "I'm going to have to get a new copper pipe to replace the one I broke. Might have to get some help changing it out. I'm afraid you're going to be without water in here for a few hours, but you still have water in the bathroom."
She nodded. "Aunt Jewel told me the cabin is undergoing renovations and repair work. That's why she's letting me use it while Ifor now," she corrected herself. "I can get by without the kitchen sink for a while."
"Okay. Well then, I'll be back later," he said, moving toward the door. "Sorry again aboutyou know." He motioned toward her still damp hair, then let himself out of the cabin before he made a bigger fool of himself.
Which wouldn't be easy to do, he thought as he climbed into the black SUV parked in the gravel driveway. He hadn't exactly wowed Natalie with his maintenance skills. No wonder she had wanted to know how long he'd been doing this.
Because it was the first week in November, the fall colors had begun to fade, and the leaves were already beginning to drop. It wasn't cold yet, but a nip in the air promised that it would be soon. Driving down the winding mountain road that ran alongside one of the many rushing creeks in the area, Casey noted the signs of approaching winter, even as he wondered what Natalie would have said if he'd told her the whole truth about himself.
He'd been doing a few maintenance chores for the past week, but he was actually an associate attorney in a high-powered, Dallas law firm. One of the youngest ever hired by the firm, starting right after earning his law degree when he was only twenty-four.
The six-week leave of absence he'd taken almost two weeks ago hadn't exactly cemented his future with the firm. No one but his cousin Molly Reeves understood or approved of his need to take that time now to reevaluate his life and the future that had been laid out for him almost from birth. Molly and her husband, Kyle, partners in Mack and Jewel McDooley's vacation property management business, had given him a place to stay during the hiatus, and the space he needed to deal with his issues.
As payment for their hospitality, he'd volunteered to fill in for the regular full-time handyman, who'd been in a car accident recently and wouldn't be able to work for at least another month. Molly had been understandably skeptical about his offer. She knew he hadn't spent a lot of time working with his hands while he'd concentrated on school for most of his life. But he'd convinced her and the others that he could handle some simple repair work.
And darned if he hadn' t messed up for the first time right in front of the owner's niece, he thought with a scowl. Not only thatthe owner's very hot niece.
He didn't know what he'd been expecting when Mack mentioned that his wife's niece was staying in one of the cabins for a few weeks, but the woman he'd met that morning had taken him by surprise. Tall and classy, she was a cool blond with warm chocolate eyes. Her age was hard to guess, but he'd estimated a little older than himself. The extra couple of years looked good on her.
She'd even held on to her dignity for the most part when he'd doused her with cold water from beneath the sink. He could still see her standing there, dripping, her wet shirt clinging to her like a second skin, her expression more exasperated than angry. He doubted that she would have appreciated knowing the thoughts that had gone through his mind at that moment, though he'd tried very hard to rein them in.
He wondered what her story was. All he'd been told was that she was taking a quiet, solitary vacation while she was between jobs. He hadn't been informed, nor had he asked, what she did for a living or what she might be hiding from in her isolated mountain retreat.
He shook his head impatiently, bringing the speculation to an abrupt end. Just because he had issues that had sent him running to the mountains to brood and reevaluate his life didn't mean everyone else was in the same boat. Maybe Natalie just wanted to take advantage of a free vacation in her relatives' under-renovation cabin.
And maybe he was going to sprout wings and fly. He didn't know Natalie Lofton or the details of her current situation, but the studied calm of her demeanor hadn't completely hidden the storm in her deep brown eyes. That was one of his talentsreading other people's emotions, no matter how hard they tried to keep them hidden. The skill had served him well in his law career, giving him an edge that he had never hesitated to exploit.
So while he might not know what was eating at Natalie, he knew something was. And he suspected that she wouldn't be averse to taking her frustration out on the less-than-proficient handyman.
Casey returned just after lunch. Natalie let him back in, noting that he'd brought help this time. "Hello, Kyle," she greeted the second man.
A hard-carved ex-soldier in his mid-thirties, Kyle Reeves had been the McDooleys' business partner for almost five years. Their late son, TommyNatalie's favorite cousin in her childhoodhad been Kyle's best friend. They had served in the military together for several years, until a roadside bomb in the Middle East had ended Tommy's life and almost killed Kyle at the same time.
It had taken Kyle a long time to recover, both physically and emotionally. He still walked with a slight limp and had a few faintly visible scars, which only added to his rough appeal.
Because Kyle had no family of his own, Mack and Jewel had taken him in. They had given him encouragement and support and had found in him a reason to put aside their grief and focus on someone else who needed them. He had become a surrogate son to them, and Natalie had no question that they loved him like one. Nor did she doubt that Kyle would willingly die for either of the couple who had given him a reason to keep living when, from what she had surmised, he'd been all too close to giving up.
Kyle returned her greeting with a nod. "How's it going, Natalie? You comfortable here?"
"Very much so, thank you. It's a lovely cabin."
"It will be when we've finished the renovations." He glanced at Casey with a wry half smile. "And if I can keep my cousin-in-law, here, from flooding the place."
"Cousin-in-law?" she repeated, glancing at Casey, who stood quietly behind the man who was probably his senior by a decade. "You're Molly's cousin?"
He nodded. "On my father's side. My last name is Walker, which was Molly's maiden name."
"I didn't realize." But it explained a lot, she decided. She knew now how he'd gotten the job.
He grinned as though he had somehow read her thoughts. "Gotta love nepotism, right?"
Her lips twitched with a smile she had a hard time containing. At least he admitted he hadn't been hired for his maintenance skills.
"Molly told me to ask you to dinner," Kyle said, shifting a heavy toolbox in his left hand. "Maybe Friday night?"
Though she still wasn't feeling very social, it seemed ungracious to decline. "I'd like that. Tell her I said thank you."
He nodded again. "She'll be pleased. Since Micah was born, she hasn't been able to get out much. She spends a lot of time with the kids and with Jewel, but she'll enjoy having someone new to talk with for a change."
Because she'd been so busy with her career the past few years, Natalie hadn't been able to visit her aunt and uncle much. She had met Molly only a few times, but she liked Kyle's bubbly, redheaded wife quite a bit. The young mother of three-year-old Olivia and two-month-old Micah had an infectious smile and an inviting Texas drawl. She seemed to have a knack for putting people at ease within minutes of meeting her. She had certainly done so with Natalie.
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