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Stone Scarborough stared at his younger sister, trying to make sense out of what she had, rather breathlessly, just told him.
Whatever it was, Virginia seemed very animated about it and he'd managed to glean that it had something to do with the business card she had just pressed into his hand. But her narrative came out so disjointed he found himself feeling the way he had back in the days when he'd walk into the middle of a movie with his late wifeEva never managed to be on time for anything no matter how hard she triedand he was forced to try to make heads or tails out of what he was subsequently watching.
In addition to Virginia's overwhelming flow of words, his daughter, Ginny, seemed to have caught the fever and was fairly bouncing up and down right in front of him. It was as if both were experiencing a massive sugar attack.
In an attempt to sort out the verbiage, Stone held his hand up to get Virginia to stop talking for a moment, regroup and begin at the beginning.
"Run this by me one more time," Stone urged his sister. "From the top," he added.
His sister Virginia shook her head, her light blond ponytail swishing from side to side. "You know, for a brilliant man, you can be so slow sometimes."
"Must be in comparison to the company I keep," he said drolly. If he practiced for a year, he'd never be able to talk as fast as his sisteror his daughter. "Humor me," he instructed, looking down at the card in his hand. "Why am I calling this woman?"
Taking a breath, Virginia recited the facts. "The number belongs to Maizie Sommers. She's a Realtor who owns her own company. She said she needs the name of a good general contractor to recommend to her clients."
He had never believed in coincidences or good fortune without there being strings of some sort, no matter how invisible, attached.
Consequently, Stone regarded the card in his hand with more than a smattering of suspicion. "And she just walked up to you and said, 'Hmm, you look like you probably know a good general contractor,' as she handed her card to you?"
Virginia closed her eyes, doing her best to get herself under control. She knew she'd gotten too excited, but the picture that Maizie Sommers had painted for her earlier today had filled her with hope. It had been a very long time since she'd seen her brother with more than an obligatory smile on his lips.
And, like her niece, she really didn't care for the woman he was currently seeing. Try as she might, she couldn't get herself to warm up to Elizabeth Wellsand she definitely didn't see the woman as being Gin-ny's stepmother. For one thing, the woman was not the patient sort.
"Okay, from the top," Virginia announced. "And this time," she told her brother, "try to pay attention, all right?"
"Yes, ma'am," Stone replied, executing a mock salute and doing his best to be patient.
Stone had just been on the receiving end of disappointing news. The owners of a house he was scheduled to begin work on had just changed their minds and canceled the project on him. That didn't exactly put him in the best of moods.
He didn't have time to waste like this. There were cages he needed to rattle in order to replace the work he'd lost. But Virginia had gotten right in his face and insisted that he listen to her.
"Well?" Stone prodded.
Virginia took a deep breath. She decided that she would stay as close to the truth as possible without coming right out and telling her brother that he was being set upnot to take a fall, but to fall in love. If he even suspected that, he would never agree to any of this. And he needed to agree because, at the very least, he would wind up earning some money doing what he did best these daysworking with his hands.
Five years ago, he'd been an aerospace engineer. But that industry was all but dead in Southern California, so he had fallen back on what he'd done while working his way through college. He'd worked in construction.
But now that was on shaky grounds. The economy had taken a bite out of everyone's livelihood and his line of work was seeing a definite downturn. Remodeling was a luxury people felt they could put off until later without any major consequences. Virginia was confident that her brother wouldn't turn down work.
She just had to sell him on how this had all come about.
"Okay, from the top," Virginia said, echoing his words, then started with her narrative. "I took Ginny out for some ice cream."
Stone looked a wee bit exasperated. "Just what she needs, more sugar." He loved his daughter more than life itself, but there were times when getting her to behave was a challengeone that wore him out. Stone slanted a glance toward his only child. Ginny had been in constant motion since she and Virginia had walked in. "Is that why she's bouncing five inches off the ground?" he asked.
"You're interrupting," Virginia accused, frowning at him.
He suppressed a sigh and waved his sister on. "Sorry, continue."
"Anyway, we went to that old-fashioned ice cream parlor at the Brubaker Mall, and I got her an ice cream cone. They had so many wonderful flavors to choose from, I couldn't resist so I decided that I'd get one, tooit's been a while since I just indulged in a treat," she explained by way of a sidebar.
"The point, Virginia, Get to the point," Stone directed. Ever since they were children, the shortest distance between two points for Virginia had never once been a straight line; it always wound up being an elaborate journeya very pronounced squiggly line if he didn't adamantly put his foot down about it.
"Okay. While I was getting myself a cone, Ginny decided to go exploring" Catching her lower lip between her teeth, Virginia slanted a side glance in her brother's direction. She was waiting to get the inevitable explosion out of the way.
Stone was looking sharply at his daughter. "Ginny, you know better than to go running off like that."
Rather than protest, Ginny surprised him by looking down contritely at her shoes and murmuring, "Yes, Daddy."
It wasn't that his only child was willful. She was just extremely exuberant and given to incredibly energetic enthusiasm. This apparent remorse, however, was a whole different side of her he'd never seen before.
Had something put the fear of consequences into his little girl?
Concerned, Stone glanced back at his sister for a further explanation.
Virginia instantly obliged. "I caught up with Ginny just next door. She'd wandered into a real estate office," she told him.
Stone could only stare at his sister. Ginny in a toy store he could understand, but what could have possibly attracted his precocious child to walk into a real estate office?
"Why?" he asked, looking from Ginny to his sister and then back again, waiting for one of them to give him a satisfactory answer.
Virginia was at a loss as to how to explain this part and was about to say she had no idea why Ginny did half the things she did when Ginny suddenly said, "I heard you say that you didn't know if you could find enough work to pay the bills, so I asked the lady if any of the houses in the pictures needed fixing'cause you could do it."
Virginia was as stunned as her brother with her niece's creative explanation. It took her a beat to pick up the lifeline that had just been thrown her way.
"As it turned out, she did," Virginia confirmed belatedly. "Your daughter charmed her," Virginia said, putting her arm around Ginny's small shoulders, "and instead ofjust ushering us out, the woman said that as a matter of fact, she was currently looking for a good general contractor for her reference file. Naturally, Ginny and I told her you were the best, so she gave me her card and said that you should call her when you had the time."
It sounded like a fairy tale, but in there somewhere Stone assumed was the truth, otherwise, why had the woman given his sister her card? And, since he suddenly found himself unexpectedly free, what did he have to lose by calling?
"Well," Stone said slowly, looking the card over again,
"I could always use another contact but.." He glanced at his daughter, concerned and reading his own interpretation into what she'd just said. "Honey, we're going to be just fine," he assured her. "I don't want you worrying about things like bills for a long time to come. I'll take care of us," he promised.
"Yes, Daddy." Ginny smiled at him. It was the same smile he'd seen on her mother's face, Stone thought with a pang. A smile he missed seeing. "I just wanted to help," she told him.
"You do, honey, just by being you, you do," Stone assured her. He regarded the card again. No time like the present, he decided. "Okay, let's see what this Maizie Sommers has to say."
Ginny crossed her index finger and middle finger on both hands and held them up for him to see as he took out his cell phone.
We've got a great little girl, Eva. God but I wish you were here to see her, Stone couldn't help thinking as he called the number on the card.
He had no way of knowing that his daughter wasn't crossing her fingers because she was hoping he'd wind up with a job. Ginny was hoping that the "nice lady at the agency" would do for her father what she'd already done for Greg's father and that was to find her father someone who would be her new mommy.
Stone returned his daughter's hopeful smile as he heard the phone ringing on the other end.
It rang a total of two times and then he could hear the other end pick up. A sunny voice was saying, "This is Maizie Sommers, how can I help you?"
Stone turned away from his daughter and his sister, focusing his attention on the person on the other end of the call.
"Ms. Sommers, this is Stone Scarborough" He got no further than that.
"Ah, yes," Maizie said warmly, "the general contractor. I've been waiting for your call."
Her admission caught him off guard. "You have?" Was business on her end bad, too? And if so, then what sort of work could she possibly have for him? Still, he'd called so he might as well see where this actually wound up leading.
"Absolutely," she replied. "Are you by any chance available tonight?"
"Tonight?" he echoed, wondering if he'd just made a big mistake.
Something didn't seem right. Maybe this woman wasn't looking for a general contractor but for something else entirely. Granted this Maizie Sommers didn't sound as eager and excited as Virginia had when she'd told him about this, but the woman was incredibly cheerful. Too cheerful to be talking strictly about work.
Several possibilities ran through his head, but he tamped them down until he had more to go on. No point in thinking the worstyet.
"Yes. Or if that's too short a notice for you, then perhaps tomorrow evening might be better for you."
She kept specifying evenings, which made it sound way too much like making arrangements for a date. "Why not in the daytime?" he asked suspiciously.
The woman took the question in stride, making it sound as if she was already prepared for it. Maybe he was being too suspicious, Stone told himself.
"I'm afraid the woman I'm giving your name to isn't available during the daytime," Maizie told him. "At least, not until the weekend. She's busy taping her program during the day," Maizie explained.
"Her program?" Stone repeated, confused.
This was a lot like talking to Virginia, he thought, wondering if vague obscurity was a gender thing or if he was just slow, the way Virginia had accused him of being. Either way, he was in need of either a further ex-planationor subtitles.
"Yes, she has a daily cooking show broadcast on a cable network and right now, her weekdays are taken up taping the program before a studio audience. When she first came out here and signed her contract," Maizie continued proudly, "I sold her this lovely house. That was about six months ago.
"I got her a really good deal on the house, but that was because the owner was in a hurry to sell. The house needed a lot of work and it was sold as is. She didn't have the time then, or, I suspect, the money, for repairs. The poor dear was just starting out. But the program's doing really well and she feels that she can finally afford to have the house fixed up the way she'd like." Mai-zie paused for a moment, letting that all sink in before she asked him, "Are you interested, Mr. Scarborough?"
It was work. He was more than interested. "Yes, of course I am." But he had a question of his own. "Don't you want to see some of my work before you refer me to someone?"
She liked the fact that he was cautious and that he wasn't trying to rush her into any sort of an agreement. For her part, she had already researched his background and had seen all she needed to. Virginia Scarborough had shown her a photograph of her brother and given her enough background information to get her started in the right direction.
She felt she had the perfect match for Ginny's father. Matches usually didn't present themselves this quickly. They ordinarily took a little time. However, this time she'd thought of Danni almost immediately.
That, to her, was a very good sign.
"Your sister and daughter speak quite highly of you, Mr. Scarborough."
"And that's enough?" he asked rather skeptically.
"Yes," Maizie told him with feeling, and then added with a slight chuckle, "of course, what I saw on your webpage didn't exactly hurt, either."
"My webpage?" Stone echoed, confused. He turned to look quizzically at his sister as he said it. This was all news to him.
"Yes, your sister very kindly gave me the URL address. I must say it was very impressive, Mr. Scarborough," Maizie said warmly. "If my house was in need of work, I would hire you in a minute."
He supposed that was good news, but he was still a little confused. "Thanks," he murmured belatedly.
Poor man was probably still trying to figure out what hit him, Maizie thought, amused.
"So, do I have your permission to pass your name on to my client?" she asked. Maizie had learned that it never paid to appear to take things for granted. People liked the illusion of being in charge of their own fateeven when they weren't.
"Yes, of course," Stone said with feeling. If this was on the leveland it was beginning to sound that wayhe definitely wanted the work. He made a point of never turning anything down.
"Wonderful," Maizie said, enthused. "I'm sure you'll be hearing from her shortly," she promised. "Just so you know, her name is Danni Everett."
"Danni Everett," he repeated.