No one says no to fiery but talented home designer Neve Harper—which is how she convinces her elusive neighbor, Duke Kennicot, to help out with her latest renovation job. Not only is Duke a design aficionado, he’s got the inside scoop on the cabin’s owner. And since Neve’s ulterior motive is a romance with the boss, Duke is her ideal wingman. Except from the moment they’re alone in the remote Ozark mountain location, Neve discovers Duke is just as headstrong—and a whole lot sexier—than she ever realized. Duke has always made it clear she’s not his type. Yet the simmering tension between them says otherwise….
Duke had been warned to steer clear of hot-tempered Neve, but his resolve is lessening with every heated exchange—and every smoldering touch. By the time Neve unearths a dangerous, age-old mystery buried on the property, Duke is ready to do just about anything to keep the brazen beauty safe….
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To the Studs
Bound By Design
By Roxanne Smith
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Roxanne Smith
All rights reserved.
Neve Harper eyeballed the dismal kitchen with its cheap faux pine wall panels and misshapen laminate countertops, warping and cracked from poor material and poorer maintenance. "Oh, lawd, no. This'll never do. The space is too small for such a dark grain. And paneling? In the kitchen? Who the hell designed this place, Daniel Boone? I wouldn't open a can of sardines in this hole. Why aren't there windows? At least there's an overhead light fixture. Anyone else surprised it isn't a deer antler chandelier?"
The linoleum floor didn't help the overall appearance, either. If a pattern existed on the chipped, stained tiles, the design had long ago ceased being discernible. The matted threadbare rugs were such she wouldn't let Darcy the Pit sleep on them.
Cramped, gloomy, outdated, and uninviting. No wonder she'd been hired to redo the room.
The one room. She rolled her shoulders in a feeble attempt to keep annoyance from settling in and getting comfy. No room for unproductive emotions on the job. Some other designer had renovated the rest of the house already, but he'd done it by blowing his budget and earning himself a pink slip before completing the final — and priciest — room.
A dark, disgusting kitchen with a dark, disturbing budget.
Neve liked clients big on results, not the monetary weight it took to pull them off. This is the last favor I'm ever doing for a friend of a friend.
Like any other job, favor or not, her stellar reputation sat squarely on the line, and Neve had something to prove. She always had something to prove in this business, and someone to prove it to, even if only to remind everyone else why she was the crème de la crème, the best and brightest home remodeler and interior designer in Little Rock.
She tapped her chin with one artfully self-manicured finger and imagined the room a brighter, happier place — a shining beacon of culinary dreams. A place where cooking a simple meal offered an escape, an adventure, or whatever the hell one might need at the time.
She loved kitchens. Hated to cook, but loved kitchens.
"White." She barked the word. Her team of carpenters and tradesmen were either listening raptly or preparing to take the heat when she had to repeat herself. She hated to waste time more than anything else, and tonight she had a particular reason not to dawdle — drinks with Austin, her latest boy toy, at her favorite spot downtown. This half-job wasn't worth being late over.
"White everything," she called out amid men and women jumping into action. Whether taking notes or whipping tape measurers from their tool belts, they knew better than to stand idly once she started talking. "All the cabinetry has to go, budget be damned. I want some custom stuff in here. Ruby, draw up a few design options. Tony, let's get a skylight in the ceiling for added light. No way are we getting a normal window in here without giving up every inch of storage space, which is pretty damn meager to begin with. Quartz countertops. Don't concern yourselves with the backsplash until we've established a secondary color. Frosted glass cabinets." She sighed as she settled on the big sacrifice. "White appliances. Stainless steel jumped ship when we added the skylight, but let's not embarrass ourselves. I want quality. Ben, you're on flooring. Not white unless you can get a deal on porcelain tiles. Otherwise, something linoleum but on the higher end, please. I'll want options when I arrive with a color board in the morning."
Neve scanned the room again, this time calculating for freedom of movement. In tight quarters, the smallest change had the power to create the illusion of more space. The skylight would help, but there had to be something else. "The refrigerator is sucking up all the air in the room. Matt, I want to see what you can do about a recess for it. Maybe utilize the pantry closet. We'll expand the cabinets to ceiling height to make up for lost storage. Though, it's hardly worth noting. Ruby, are you listening?"
Without glancing at her young assistant, Neve imagined her startling like a mouse and turning an unhealthy shade of white and red that probably marked some kind of underlying health condition. Her infuriating lack of confidence was an illness all on its own.
"I want drawings first thing in the morning. I'll have color palettes. Be ready to discuss color scheme and décor at seven sharp."
Her gaze didn't leave the offending kitchen until she'd completed the instructions to her team and turned heel, her long, loosely curled chestnut-brown hair swaying out behind her from the force. She snatched her black leather biker jacket off the back of a dining chair and had her arms through the sleeves before she reached the door. She checked her watch. "Damn." No time to drop by the loft and freshen up before meeting Austin.
Ah, well. Didn't get any cleaner than the first day on the job. She headed design and planning while giving demo to her team. She sported no paint spatters or new bruises. Dark jeans hid any muck or grime she'd picked up during her initial inspection of the kitchen, and a cursory survey revealed her black T-shirt free of unsightly smudges.
She snorted as she climbed onto her bike, a royal blue Honda Rebel 250. Not that Austin would notice. He wouldn't care if she showed up in a garbage bag ball gown and clown shoes. She'd probably miss him more than she had the others by the time their fling came to its inevitable end. His laid-back style and cherubic features were such a nice foible to her frantic energy and sharpness.
She paused in pulling the glittering black helmet over her head.
Tiny and timid, Ruby drew inward like a mouse hiding in a shadow when Neve glanced up at her. Her drab light brown pixie cut and big, frightened eyes made for an unflattering visage. Then again, the cap-sleeved prairie dress in a benign lavender didn't help.
The hesitance in Ruby's small, doubtful voice struck Neve's ever-exposed nerves like sandpaper on an open wound. Or, in the very least, an ages-old wound that ached like bad joints in cold weather. Neve had spent much of the beginning of her career in the backseat, handing over her best ideas to dismissive men who hardly gave her a second glance but didn't hesitate to stamp their names on her hard work and intellectual property. At some point, she'd had to learn to believe in herself. No one had come along and done it for her.
But what bothered Neve most wasn't Ruby's clothes or hair, or even the way she couldn't look Neve in the eye — it was Ruby's utter absence of one critical trait — boldness. A mandatory ingredient in the recipe of a successful designer. Bold attitude, bold ideas. Carving a space in an industry overflowing with wannabes took stones. It took gall. It took direct eye contact and a resolve to never back down, never show weakness.
Ruby's saving grace was her knack for creative space usage, which was the only reason Neve had agreed to take her on. She needed an assistant, someone useful to the team, not a kid to mentor.
Neve stuck her helmet under her arm and tried to curb her instinctive abrasiveness. The years she'd spent breaking through the mold and making a name for herself had left her with an attitude she couldn't quite seem to shake. Tolerance for weakness was just another way of showing weakness. And despite not wanting to be a mentor, she had hoped some of her confidence would rub off on Ruby during her internship. "Are you confused about my instructions?"
The girl practically withered. Shoulders slumped, eyes downcast.
Neve's jaw clenched. She inhaled deeply and refused to voice the sharp remonstration dying to fly off her tongue.
Ruby wrung her hands but finally formed a full sentence. "Yes, ma'am. I mean, no. No, I'm not confused. You were clear, totally clear. I just —"
"Spit it out. I have somewhere to be." If only Ruby utilized time as well as she did space.
"Tony wanted to know about lighting, that's all. Besides the skylight, I mean. Like, what kind of fixtures should I work into the design?"
Neve didn't count to ten. She'd stopped the practice years ago. It never accomplished anything except to waste ten precious seconds she'd never get back. She cocked her head to one side, licked her lips, and spoke with exaggerated slowness. "Your job is to give me templates. Options to choose from. Ideas to pick through, improve upon, or throw out."
The young woman squinted nervously at Neve. "Um, right. Yes?"
Points for making eye contact. "Then try that. Options, just like what you're doing with the cabinetry. C'mon, Ruby. This is beginner crap. You've done all this in design school, haven't you? I could've plucked some loser off the street and gotten as much as you've given me so far. I mean, why are you even here? Where's your passion, your drive? Your oomph?"
Ruby's mousy brown eyes, the exact shade of her hair, went wide and stayed there.
"Oh, God, no. Are you really ...?"
Big, fat tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, and Ruby stared without making any move to wipe them away, so they plopped onto the apples of her cheeks in dollops.
Neve rested her chin on her free hand, formed into a fist for optimal chin-resting, and studied the fat drops rolling unchecked down Ruby's face.
They all cried at some point. Hell, Neve had cried. The first time, she'd been sent home for the day. The second time, she'd been thrown from the project altogether. That had been the last time she'd ever cried on a job site. And the things the men on the crew had shouted after her as she ran home bawling had stuck to her flesh like shrapnel. She'd learned to use it. She'd soaked it in, let it become her armor.
"Should I call your mom to come get you or something? I bet she keeps emergency milk and cookies in her purse."
Mean, but the dry joke served its purpose. Ruby came back to herself with a hurried wipe across her cheeks and a loud gulp. She sucked in air and made a breathy apology with gossamer words.
"It's fine, Ruby. But do me a favor. Don't whisper my name like you're afraid it'll summon the devil, then proceed to stammer over a simple question. You can't be weak and do this job." She stepped close enough to finger one of the girl's bell-cap lavender sleeves, frowning at the scalloped edge. "You can't dress like someone's Cabbage Patch plaything and rule the roost. It's a shame."
Ruby's eyes went big again, this time as round as melons. "Are you f-firing me?"
Neve patted her shoulder. The girl winced, and Neve stopped abruptly. "Sorry, uh ... no, I'm not fuh-firing you."
Ruby's face went slack with relief.
"But once this job is done, we'll have to revisit the issue. I might settle on demoting you to Tony's assistant and getting myself a new one. I swear, if you cry again." Too late. Neve closed her eyes briefly, warding off her annoyance before her mouth got the better of her. "Go, Ruby. Just go. You have work to do. Cry all you want, but don't get the plans wet."
Ruby whirled away.
Neve had no clue if she continued with her blubbering or sucked it up. Didn't care so long as she could work at the same time. She pulled on her helmet, hooked the straps snug under her chin, and straddled the lightweight motorcycle. Damn if she didn't have better things to worry about than Ruby's jellied spine and her pointless light fixture concerns. The best-laid plans wouldn't matter when it came time to purchase the hardware, anyway. With the owner's lacking budget, they'd be lucky to get anything from an honest-to-goodness outlet instead of the local Jolly-Mart.
She shuddered. Please not Jolly-Mart.
Kitchens especially cried out for the good stuff. Granite countertops with inlaid flecks of golden yellow, glossy wood floors and a stylish, gleaming hood over an industrial-grade six-burner gas stove would turn that drab scene into a place of culinary wonder and enlightenment. Or just a warm, beautiful spot to sip hot tea and eat scones. Or, in Neve's case, cold beer and greasy takeout.
She settled into the leather seat of her motorcycle and ignored the wave of exhaustion that nearly compelled her to reach for the cell phone clipped to her belt and cancel her date. But weekends and average office hours weren't sacred to designers. She went weeks without seeing Austin when both their schedules filled up.
Talk about the perfect relationship. Zero demand, saucy nocturnal activity, and no expectations or compromises. As long as Austin didn't do anything stupid like the last guy she dated, who'd asked her to move in with him, she foresaw they had a long, mutually beneficial relationship ahead of them.
She shot away from the curb and arrowed her bike toward the exit of the cul-de-sac. She spared a glance in a rearview mirror and almost lost control of the handlebars.
Ruby stood on the pathway leading up to the house with her arms limp at her sides, gazing at Neve as she rode away like a possessed ragdoll.
That's goddamn creepy. Between the white picket fence ensconcing the landscaped yard beyond her and Ruby's dated attire, the image in Neve's mirror could be 1950s suburbia. She revved the motorcycle's engine and rounded the corner, glad when Ruby dropped out of view. With any luck, Austin would be waiting when she arrived at Lucy's, her favorite bar downtown, with a drink in his hand and a lustful gleam in his baby blues.
Luck proved a giving lady.
Austin waited at a table for two adjacent to the big glass window overlooking the congested sidewalks of downtown Little Rock. The best spot in the house for people watching. Or people judging, Duke, her gay dog-sitting neighbor, liked to call it.
Yeah, she judged people, but only those who left the privacy of their homes in sweatpants or hair curlers and thereby truly deserved it.
Duke brought a small smile to her lips. He certainly didn't look gay. A lean manly man with a mean glare and thick black hair hanging pin-straight down his back, like some eighties metal guitarist. A long, grizzled beard hid what she decided must be a stately jaw to fit the rest of his broad, oh-so-manly face, and deep blue bedroom eyes that made promises his body refused to keep. At least for the women of the world.
She dreamed of converting him. Except when he tried to steal Darcy the Pit. Then she dreamed of throwing him off her fifth-floor balcony.
After converting him.
Austin was a study in contrast. With tight golden-blond curls and big cornflower-blue eyes on a wide, serene face, he was as cherubic as Duke was wickedly handsome. His generous mouth set him apart from a dozen other too pretty college boys she'd considered getting involved with. She immensely enjoyed those plush lips, particularly after teaching him how to use them to properly satisfy a woman.
A real woman, that is, not the flakes he went to college with.
His smile at her approach bespoke of pleasurable things. If he were a little older or a little more masterful in bed, it might be love. "Hello, gorgeous. Missing something?" He held up a dainty glass, a cosmopolitan by the look of it, with a cocky, inviting grin.
That mouth. Those lips. Neve came awake and reached for the glass. She chugged half before sitting. The liquor spread through her belly, adding to a warmth already there. "Three more of these, and I'll feel like I had a real drink. Make sure you get me a Jack and Coke next round, will ya?"
Austin leaned back in his usual relaxed demeanor, but his smile slipped a little. A brief flicker of something undiscernible crossed his face too quickly for Neve to peg. He sipped his drink, another fruity cocktail. "Bad day, sweetheart?"
She lifted her hand to signal their waiter, ignoring Austin's annoying habit of using generic pet names. "Terrible. My new assistant is incompetent, and my client is a cheap asshole with high-dollar expectations and no qualms about mixing designers. I'm finishing what some other jerk started."
Austin's eyebrows hitched up. "That some kind of no-no in your profession?"
"Depends on if the client likes my designs better, I guess. Ruby is my real problem. I don't get some people. If I'd been born a mouse, I'd dress like a fucking hawk, you know?" She flicked her gaze over the menu. "Still no crab cakes. I don't know about this place sometimes."
That odd, totally non-sexy stillness returned to Austin's expression. "You actually expect them to add a new menu item to please a single customer? C'mon, Neve."
Excerpted from To the Studs by Roxanne Smith. Copyright © 2016 Roxanne Smith. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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