Copyright © 2010 Vivian Arend
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The scent of cinnamon and fresh coffee rushed to greet him as Ryan Claymore yanked the door open with more force than necessary. It might be the most talked-about coffee shop in the county, but it was damn hard to find, and only minutes remained until his meeting was scheduled to begin.
“What can I get you, darling? Other than a black coffee, dark and strong?” His attention swung to the petite package of a woman hovering behind the counter.
He smiled in spite of himself. “Do I seem the plain, dark-coffee type?”
She nodded, a bright smile crossing her face. “You don’t seem the fussy double-double soy-no-foam yada-yada-yada kind, that’s for sure.” She poured him a cup the size of a small soup tureen and winked at him. “I think today’s special might be your type as well.” She bustled off before he could stop her.
Ryan surveyed the room while he waited. Cozy little tables filled all the available space, and there were few empty chairs in the crowded room. He glanced around, searching for his appointment. There was a lone male in a business suit in the far corner who looked in his direction, and Ryan nodded briefly at him.
A buxom redhead seated alone at the front of the shop caught his eye, her long legs stretched into the aisle as she sipped from a steaming cup and stared out the window. Hmm, now she was something he could go for. Something a little exotic, a little spicy. Her dark sweater hugged her full curves and he reluctantly pulled his gaze away.
Business first. Pleasure whenever the hell he found time for it, which lately seemed to be never. Since returning stateside six months ago on emergency family leave, his life had turned upside down. Retiring his commission and setting up a security installation firm seemed the best way to regain some of the control that had been wrested from him, but the constant demands were beginning to piss him off. A cup of coffee, a quick discussion of his website and advertising needs with Max Turner, and there might be time to catch up on a few tasks at his apartment before heading to the nursing home to visit his brother.
He turned back to the counter to see the waitress holding out a pair of the largest cookies he’d seen in his life. “Gingersnap? Today’s special. Sweet, crisp with just a touch of spice.” She pushed the plate at him and gave him little opportunity to refuse. “Go on, you know you want it.”
The spicy scent rose to his nose like a beacon. “Thank you. I’ll drop these off and come back to pay.”
She shook her head. “No need. You’re meeting Max Turner, aren’t you? Everything is taken care of, you go ahead and enjoy yourself.” She beamed at him for a moment before turning to greet the next customer.
Balancing his load carefully, he headed toward the empty chair by the single male. He extended a hand in greeting. “Ryan Claymore.”
The man looked around in confusion before answering. “Jim Mitchell. Do you need a place to sit?”
What the hell? Max had paid for the coffee, where the hell was the man? Ryan glanced back at the counter to see the waitress shake her head. She held up a hand and motioned in an exaggerated manner toward the front of the shop, silently mouthing “Max is there.” She pointed at the redhead, who stood to greet him, her laughing eyes showing her amusement.
Ryan hid his own grin. Bring it on. This was the best thing to happen to him in days.
Max gestured to the empty seat across from her. She wasn’t sure if she should say something to put his mind at ease. She wasn’t sure she could say something right now without laughing, and Ryan didn’t appear the type who got laughed at very often.
Instead she reached out a hand. “Maxine Turner. Glad to finally meet you.”
His dark brown eyes sparkled at her and she reconsidered her earlier assumption that he might not have a sense of humor. “Maxine Turner. I see. Assumptions have a way of kicking us when we least expect it. Good to meet you as well. Ryan Claymore, call me Ryan.”
Maxine gave his hand a firm shake, casually admiring him as he sat. He was older than her, she’d guess in his late thirties, and definitely drool worthy in the tall-dark-and-dangerous kind of way. Everything about the man was neat and trim, from his short dark hair to the cut of his suit. She knew from his business profile he had a military background. It was obvious he’d kept up his physical conditioning. The fingers encasing hers were strong and for a moment she wondered what they would feel like on her body. She retrieved her hand with reluctance, exchanging it for the presentation packet waiting on the table. “Your assumption wasn’t far off,” she said, taking pity on him. “If you turn to the first page, I think you’ll feel a bit better.”
Ryan raised a brow as he examined the document. She knew when he spotted the picture of her and her twin brother. His gaze flicked between the photo and her face, his rapid perusal of the company introduction intriguing her. It was easy to admire someone who moved so decisively, especially after too large of a dose of her wishy-washy ex, but that was a distraction to put aside for now. Concentrate, Max. You’ve got some fast-talking to do in a minute.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, the folder held casually in one hand and Maxine’s mouth watered. God, men like him should be illegal. The thickness of his thigh muscles stretched the fabric of his pant legs, and when she caught herself staring at his crotch she jerked her gaze away.
Becoming sexually distracted was not what she needed right now. This was an important contract for her and her brother’s business. She took a swallow of her coffee and silently ordered herself to behave.
“Your parents have a strange sense of humor, Ms. Turner. It must have been interesting growing up with a twin who was also called Max.”
She smiled at him. “It wasn’t too bad because Maxwell always got called Junior.” This time when he responded with a jerk of surprise, a laugh burst free. “Yup, dear old Dad is Maxwell Senior the twelfth—or something just as ridiculous. Having ‘Max’ in our names is a family tradition and there’s money tied up in it. I would have told them to forget the cash and name me whatever they wanted, but I was too young to voice a complaint when they made the decision.”
It was time to ignore the steamy sensations he caused and get down to business. Maxine folded her hands and headed into her summary of what the Turner Networking Team could provide as website and advertising options for his company. He nodded as she spoke, flipping through the pages of the file. While he listened attentively, his gaze spent more time on her than on the papers in front of him. Max paused and took another sip of coffee to moisten her suddenly dry mouth.
He was distracting. Mind-boggling, body-achingly distracting.
“We can make most of these decisions in short order. I am curious about something, Ms. Turner.” He dropped the information back on the table beside the plate of cookies. “Why did we have to meet in person to go through this? I’d think most of it was a standard contract.”
She nodded slowly. Now or never. “It’s Max, please. I…I wanted to meet you in person.” His brow went up again. Damn, the expressions this man pulled made her stomach do back flips. “I need a security system installed and I wanted to ask if you’d consider it. It’s not for an office space and I know that’s your preferred setting.”
“I’ve only started the business recently, and don’t want to overextend myself. The company is fully capable of doing other locations. I’d be willing to take a look, but I still don’t see why the personal touch was needed.” Her cheeks flushed with heat as he continued to stare, his gaze tracing her hair. “Not that I mind getting to meet you.”
“It’s for a house I recently inherited, part of the Max thing in a way. It was my Gramma’s home and now that she’s moved into a retirement community, the house passes down to the oldest grandchildren. A cousin, my twin and myself are all twenty-five this year. My cousin travels a lot and already owns condos in a couple cities. Max Junior is recently married, and he and his wife just finished building a house they designed. I’ve got temporary possession of the family homestead to myself.”
Ryan stared at her with his dark mesmerizing eyes. “And…?” She shrugged, blinking in confusion. “There must be more to the story.”
She worried at her bottom lip with her teeth. This was a step she needed to take. She needed to do it for herself and not let her brother, or father, or one of the clan take over like usual. While she loved her family, they were always in each other’s pockets. Now that she finally had a place to call her own, she needed to practice a little more independence. Taking a deep breath for encouragement, she looked Ryan in the eye and spoke firmly. “Two days after I moved in, vandals caused extensive water damage to the walls and floors. I locked up when I left for work in the morning, but someone managed to sneak in and turn on all the taps full blast. By the time I got home it was a mess. Insurance will cover most of the repairs, and fortunately I hadn’t brought over all my possessions. I don’t want it to happen again.”
He leaned forward in his chair. “Kids playing pranks?”
She shook her head. “They got in through a locked door. No broken glass, no open windows. I had changed the exterior locks so it wasn’t a loose key Gramma gave out and forgot. I’m supposed to move back in a couple of weeks but something isn’t sitting right with me. Also, I don’t want to mess up the character of the home while adding the system.”
Max watched him closely as she spoke. His face was hard to read, his expression now guarded. Her family hated the idea she would be living on her own. They hated that she would be out in the country and not sharing an apartment with one of her cousins. Heck, even her aunts and uncles had weighed in with their opinions. The universal agreement amongst the clan was to put the place up for sale.
Maxine couldn’t bear the thought. Not only was the homestead the most beautiful house she’d ever seen, it was full of memories. She needed to keep the home in the family, only there was no way she could live there if she didn’t feel safe.
The fear he would turn her down motivated the whole truth to come blurting out. “I’m nervous about being where I’m not sure I’m safe. This is the first place I’ll live that I’ve been all alone and the idea of a home invasion terrifies me.” She forced herself to speak around the knot in her throat. “I needed to see you in person to decide if I trusted you to arrange this.”
“And you’ve decided already I can be trusted?”
Oh yeah. Everything about him eased her concerns. Made her excited too, although she’d just have to ignore that part if they were going to be business associates. “There are things I… Well, can we just call it woman’s intuition and leave it at that?”
He held out his hands palm up as he winked at her. “I would never presume to argue with woman’s intuition. Let’s check our calendars and arrange a meeting. I’m booked for most of this week, and I’ll need time to drive to Frazer—”
“My house is in Thompson,” she interjected.
The confusion on his face made her smile again. “Why did we meet at the Sugar Shack if you live in Thompson?”
“I’m staying temporarily with my brother and he lives in Frazer. Whenever you’re free I’ll make sure the house is open for your inspection.”
Maxine relaxed back in her chair, her heartbeat slowing to a regular tempo. A good contract for the business and a successful start to making her new home secure. Ryan’s dark eyes stayed on her and she felt a blush rise again. She certainly wasn’t going to object about getting to spend more time in his presence, either. Her gaze caught on the cookies on the table and her stomach grumbled.
Ryan smiled at her, the twinkle in his eyes sending a shiver down her spine as he offered her one of the giant treats. He tapped the edges together in a toast.
“To new beginnings.”
As the spicy flavor filled her mouth, she wondered just exactly what they were starting, because it felt very right.
Three days later Maxine smiled in admiration as she watched his long strides eat up the distance between his car and her front door. Ryan wore beige cargo pants and a dark brown T-shirt instead of a business suit. His chest and biceps muscles stretched the shirt fabric, and she enjoyed the view as she rose from her deck chair to greet him. “Thanks for coming so soon.”
“You’re not far from where I need to be by three p.m.” Ryan’s gaze swung around and he gave a low whistle. “It’s a beautiful house, and the neighborhood is fantastic. Your grandmother must have been sad to leave.”
“Yes and no.” Maxine led him inside. “Gramma said the work was too much for her to keep up with alone. She’s got a lot of friends in the seniors home and she’ll come to visit often, especially since most of the family gatherings will still be held here.”
Max stepped back and tried to see the house through new eyes but all she saw was the damage. While the hardwood floors had been refinished, the baseboards were still missing and the carpets had yet to be replaced. The usual welcoming first impression was marred by the sight of workers’ tools and piles of rubbish in bins. A gentle touch landed on her arm and she looked up into his sympathetic gaze. “Again, it’s a beautiful home and the repairs will make it as good as new,” Ryan said kindly.
She nodded. “It’s the indignity of it. Old treasures of a house like this should be treated with respect, not deliberately damaged.” She forced a faint smile. “I’m also a tad ticked I didn’t even get to hold a proper housewarming party before having to do fall cleaning. Again.”
His laughter fell soft and smooth on her ears, and a trickle of warmth raced over her body. She had to turn away to avoid staring at him. Memorizing his features.
“May I?” he asked, and when she gestured him forward, he paced carefully through the main-floor rooms, taking notes in a small leather-bound notepad. Maxine wandered behind him, attempting to not stare at his butt, nor admire the ease with which his body moved. The strength in his arms as he cranked open one of the old casement windows, muscles stretching the fabric of his T-shirt, drew her attention.
Eventually she gave up and enjoyed the view. He couldn’t see her ogle him and it was too good an opportunity to miss. Leaning on a wall, her feet resting in a pile of carpet liner, she observed him as he worked. Damn, he was fine. She wasn’t the kind to jump someone’s bones right after meeting them, but in Ryan’s case she’d think about making an exception.
It wasn’t just his good looks. Her conniving ex-boyfriend had been easy on the eyes as well, but his lack of direction had recently made her call their relationship off. She had more trouble convincing Jamie Daultry they were through as a couple than she’d expected from someone her twin had nicknamed Twinkle Toes. Jamie never had a firm answer, always made his decisions at the eleventh hour and expected her to fall in line with his panic-stricken requests. He’d been shocked to hear she was calling it quits.
Ryan didn’t seem to have any trouble making decisions. He approached his job in a straightforward manner, with no wasted movements, as he examined her home. The contrast between the men was very attractive, in Ryan’s favor.
The sun shone through the stained glass window above the front door and hit the wall she leaned against, the heat and color lulling her eyes closed. She was in the midst of a lovely fantasy involving Ryan and her checking out the springs on her bed when a gentle cough startled her. She jolted upright, stumbled on the tangle beneath her and fell.
Ryan caught her, lifted her away from the rubble and carefully placed her feet on the floor. Every inch of her body burned where they touched. Solid chest muscles teased her palms, the beat of his heart under her hands. He felt even better in real life than in her fantasies, and she clung to him for a moment while the blood settled in her brain.
Searing heat covered her face. Daydreams were one thing, molesting the man was another. She jerked her hands back and would have stumbled again if he hadn’t continued to support her.
“You’ve been burning the candle at both ends, haven’t you?” His voice soothed her taut nerves and Maxine fought the urge to nestle closer into his embrace. “I shouldn’t have startled you like that.” Slowly, as if making sure she would remain standing, he released her, one hand accidentally stroking the side of her body. A tingle shot straight to her core. Oh my goodness, he was a dangerous man.
She straightened and shook her head like she was waking. His eyes shone at her and his smile rocked her. Think, Max, you do know how to speak. “It’s been tough between getting repairs done here and the job and there’s the new baby at my brother’s so…” She smiled ruefully. “Sorry for sleeping on the job. What do you need to look at next?”
Ryan’s gaze trickled over her and her body reacted like she’d been hit with an electric shock. She sent up a prayer of thanks for her lined bra that hid how much a simple glance from him affected her. Fortunately, he turned away to stand at the bottom of the stairs.
“Upper floor and attic. I’ll have a crew come do the detailed measurements we need, I just want to see what kind of access we’re looking at for the higher levels. Then I’d like to walk the perimeter of the building.”
She led the way up the wide, curved stairwell, pausing at the upper landing to open the doors to the side rooms. “There’s way more space in this house than one person needs. In its heyday there were twelve family members and a passel of servants under this roof.”
“There are servant quarters in the residence?”
She nodded. “The attic level has a few. There used to be a caretaker’s home on the land as well. It was rented out until someone got careless with the gas stove and burned it down a few years ago.”
He entered the first room and left her alone on the landing. Max sagged against the nearest wall and let out the breath she’d held. Holy crap, her libido was in overdrive or something because being near the man made her wet. She needed to cool off. She scooted down the hall to the bathroom to take a long drink of water and splash her face.
Lifting her gaze to the mirror, she realized it was no use. The attraction she felt and the effect on her body would be damn hard to hide from his perceptive gaze. Her pale skin was flushed red with desire.
She blew an exasperated puff of air that lifted her bangs from her forehead. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a bad thing at all. He was a grown-up. She was a grown-up. Maybe he would be interested in getting to know her a little better. That is, if he felt anything like she did.
Oh hell, she hoped so.