Three years after his marriage ended in dramatic fashion, Noah Coleman has one goal—to steer clear of romantic entanglements. In fact, he steers clear of most human interaction, studiously avoiding his large, meddling extended family, working until he’s exhausted and then repeating the pattern day after day. His strategy has worked well for him for years, keeping him sealed off from anything that can cause him pain or angst. Or it was working for him… before his company was hired to rebuild the Admiral Butler Inn after a fire reduced it to rubble, and he was forced to co-exist with the exasperatingly difficult, gorgeous architect the inn’s owner, Mrs. Hendricks, hired to oversee the project.
While nursing a badly broken heart, Brianna Esposito is determined to complete the Butler Inn construction under budget and on time—and to make partner in the Boston firm where she’s been working fourteen hours a day for five years. Nothing is going to stop her from achieving her goal, especially a cranky contractor with the people skills of a rabid cougar. Noah Coleman is the most exasperating human being she’s ever had the misfortune to tangle with. She’s never had screaming fights with anyone the way she does him, and the fact that he’s also the sexiest man she’s ever met makes it that much more difficult to hold her ground.
When Mrs. Hendricks intervenes and orders the two of them to resolve their differences, Brianna is stuck having dinner with the man she wants to stab one minute and kiss the next. And will he ever tell her why he’s so bitter and angry? Brianna suspects the answer to that question could also be the key to his well-protected heart.
Come back to Butler, Vermont to find out if these two adversaries will give in to the sparks that’ve been flying between them for months or if they’ll finally succeed in driving each other crazy.
(Butler, Vermont Series, Book 7)
“If you love large, you’ve got to hurt large.” —Sarah McLachlan
The rattle of his alarm clock woke Noah Coleman at five o’clock as it did every weekday morning without fail. Keeping his eyes closed, he reached over to silence it, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was on his way back to sleep when his backup alarm went off five minutes later. That one usually did the trick because he had to get up and cross the room to shut it off.
Shivering in the early morning cold, he went directly to the woodstove downstairs, added wood and had it putting out heat five minutes later. Then he went back upstairs to make his bed before heading to the shower, which was part two of his wake-up ritual. He kept the water on the chilly side until he felt fully awake. That’s when it was safe to add some hot water. Otherwise, he might fall back to sleep right there in the shower.
Noah was famous for his ability to sleep anywhere, any time, under any conditions. The single greatest challenge he had as a self-employed construction contractor was getting his ass out of bed every morning. Thus, the multiple alarms and the rituals. Lately, however, that wasn’t his greatest challenge. Getting up in the morning had nothing on the pain-in-the-ass architect from Boston overseeing his latest project.
But he didn’t need to think about her—or deal with her—for another hour or so. He planned to fully enjoy that hour, because the minute he got to the site, she’d send his day spiraling into multiple forms of hell that would last eight hours.
He followed the same routine every day with few exceptions. This time of year, he often skipped shaving the scruff that helped keep his face warm in the frigid Vermont winter. Dressing involved layers—lots of layers—topped with a red plaid flannel shirt that he tucked into flannel-lined jeans he bought at his family’s Green Mountain Country Store.
After grabbing the lunch he’d made the night before and the three bottles of red Gatorade that kept him hydrated from the fridge, he donned his Carhartt work coat and emerged from the house twenty minutes after the second alarm. He did a doubletake when he saw his mother standing next to his truck. Wearing boots and a heavy parka over flannel pajamas, she held a travel mug that she handed to him.
He took a sip of the coffee fixed just how he liked it, with cream and a dash of sugar. “What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion. I just hadn’t seen you in almost two weeks, so I figured I’d try to catch you before you left for work.”
“Sorry I haven’t been around. We’ve been busting ass at the inn.” Mrs. Hendricks had hired his company to rebuild the Admiral Butler Inn after it burned last year.
“I know. It looks good. Everyone is saying so.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“We missed you at Christmas.”
“Sorry. I had some stuff to take care of.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Nothing important.” He’d checked into a hotel in Stowe and had spent the holiday skiing. These days, Christmas was just another day to get through, and he found it easier to endure the day by himself than to be with his family, even if he knew that probably hurt his mother’s feelings. Eager to change the subject, he said, “So whose truck is that in your driveway?”
She looked over her shoulder to her house a few doors down. “Ray’s.”
“What’s it doing in your driveway at five thirty in the morning?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“I would. That’s why I’m asking. Seen it there a lot lately.”
“We’re, you know, spending time together.”
She gave him a withering look. “No, he leaves his truck at my house and takes a cab home.”
Her reaction amused him. He knew whose truck it was and how many nights it had spent in his mother’s driveway, not that he was keeping tabs or anything. Ray was a good guy, and if his mother had found happiness with him, who was Noah to begrudge her that? His dad had left her with eight kids to finish raising when Noah was fourteen. If anyone deserved a second chance at love, it was her.
As long as it wasn’t him. Noah was good with second chances for other people. He’d learned the hard way to steer clear of shit like what his mother was doing with Ray.
“I’d ask you not to out me to your siblings, but since you never talk to any of them, I suppose there’s no need to be worried about that.”
“I talk to them.”
“When do you talk to them?”
“Gray came by the site last week. I gave him a tour that involved talking. Izzy has been photographing the construction for a book Mrs. Hendricks wants to do about the inn’s history before and after the fire. I talked to her while I showed her around. Vanessa called me last week when her toilet wouldn’t flush, and I talked her through a repair to the ball cock. I talk to them.”
“I’m glad you do. They look up to you.”
“No, they don’t. They look up to Gray.” His brother Grayson was the eldest of the Colemans.
“They look up to both of you and Izzy. They remember how the three of you stepped up for our family when we needed you.”
She meant after their father left, but she didn’t have to spell that out. He got it.
“We did what anyone would’ve done.”
“You did way more than you should’ve had to, and I’ll never forget it.”
“Thank you, but is there a reason we’re taking this trip down unpleasant-memory lane at five thirty in the morning when it’s dark and freezing?”
“I just wanted to see you.”
“Now you’ve seen me.” He gave her a spontaneous kiss on the forehead, which took her by surprise. That made him feel guilty for neglecting her. He’d try to do better. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“You remind me of myself, you know.”
He didn’t know that. “How so?”
“When shit goes sideways, you retreat into yourself.”
Noah had no idea what to say about that.
“I don’t know what happened with Melinda, but whatever it was, you haven’t been the same since, and I miss you. I miss the Noah you were with her.”
He wanted to snap at her and tell her not to mention her name to him ever again, but because she was his mom and he loved her, he didn’t snap. But he wanted to. The Noah he’d been with her had been a blind fool. He’d never again be that guy. “As much as I’ve enjoyed our visit, Mom, I gotta go to work.”
“Have a good day, son, and don’t be a stranger.”
“You have a good day, too.”
Noah got into his truck and turned on the engine to get the heat going. He’d forgotten to use the remote starter the way he did most days while in the early-morning brain fog. He waited until his mom was safely inside her house before backing out of the driveway and heading for the diner to pick up the breakfast Megan had waiting for him every morning.
He took comfort in the routine he’d established for himself since the disastrous end of his marriage. It allowed him to bury himself in work and kept the residual pain and anger locked away where it couldn’t fuck with him every minute of every day, the way it had at first. On the weekends, he headed for the hills, either hiking or skiing until he was so exhausted, he fell into bed and slept like a dead man. Whatever it took to get through the day without the ghosts.
One mention of her name was all it took to erase all that hard work and effort to run from the past.
She’d ruined him in every way it was possible to ruin a man. Breaking his heart would’ve been more than enough, but she’d also destroyed his ability to trust just about anyone.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Noah trusted his siblings and the ten Abbott cousins who’d grown up with them. Any of them would take a bullet for him, and vice versa. He didn’t see them every day, but he knew they were always there for him, as was his mother, his grandfather, his aunt Molly and uncle Linc.
Anyone else? Forget it. He couldn’t imagine any scenario under which he’d trust another living being who wasn’t a blood relative. That was Melinda’s legacy.
He gripped the wheel tighter than usual, his entire body vibrating with the tension that filled him any time he let his mind wander in her direction. Which was why he never let that happen. Why’d his mom have to mention her and stir up shit that was better left locked away in a dark corner of his mind that he rarely visited?
She might never have existed for the time or attention he gave her these days, which was zero.
Until someone mentioned her name and brought it all back like it’d happened yesterday rather than three years ago.
Noah slammed his hand against the wheel in frustration, which only made his hand hurt. It didn’t do a damned thing to address the ache in his chest that resurfaced any time she slithered out from under the massive rock he kept over her and the memories of her. He’d give everything he had never to have to think about her again.
But alas, the brain didn’t allow you to disassociate from memories you’d rather not keep. Nope, you got to hang on to the good, the bad and the hideous. How lucky were humans to carry around a gelatinous mess in their heads that could serve up a lacerating memory any time you were feeling good about the progress you’d made in moving on from something painful?
At some point, he needed to do something about the fact that he was still legally married to her. He’d resisted anything that would put him back in contact with her, even via lawyers. Eventually, he’d get around to taking care of that but not today.
Noah pulled up to the diner and left his truck running while he ran in to pick up the coffee and breakfast sandwich that Megan had ready for him five mornings a week. His cousin Hunter’s wife was a sweet, welcoming woman who always greeted him with a cheerful smile and a friendly word. She was a bright spot in the gloom that was his life, and he looked forward to seeing her every day. Add her to the small list of people he trusted, not that he ever shared anything more with her than good morning and how’re you today.
When he stepped into the diner, he was surprised to see his uncle Linc and grandfather Elmer sitting at the counter. “You boys are out early today,” Noah said as he accepted the to-go bag and coffee from Megan. “Thank you.” She had his credit card on file, and he insisted she add a twenty percent tip to each order.
Elmer Stillman whirled around on his stool to greet Noah with a big smile. Elmer was the best man Noah had ever known, with Linc coming in a very close second. The two men had been there in every way they possibly could be for Noah and his siblings after their father left, and he loved them both.
“How’s it going, son?” Elmer asked.
“Not too bad. You?”
“We were talking about Linc’s father. He passed away the other night.” Linc had just seen the man for the first time in forty years, after a rift none of them had known about until recently when Linc’s father asked to see him.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Noah said to Linc. “Are you okay?”
“I am, but thanks for asking. We knew this was coming.”
“Still…” Noah said.
“Yeah,” Linc said, grimacing. “Still…”
“The blessing in this is that Linc is back in touch with his three siblings,” Elmer said.
“That’s true,” Noah said, aching for his uncle. Family shit could be so very painful, especially the stuff you had no control over, like a father turning his back on his children. Until Linc recently heard from his estranged father, Noah hadn’t known the Coleman siblings had so much in common with their uncle.
Mike Coleman had resurfaced a year or so ago, after more than twenty years of silence, looking for bone marrow from one of the children he’d abandoned.
Audacious, to say the least.
Gray had donated to him, albeit reluctantly, but Mike’s return on the scene was hardly welcome by any of his children. His deadbeat father was another thing Noah would prefer to never think about again. “I’ve got to get to work. I’m sorry again for your loss, Linc.”
“Thank you, son.”
Noah loved when his uncle called him that.
“I’d like to come to see the progress at the inn one of these days,” Elmer said.
“Stop by any time, Gramps.”
“Have a good day, you guys,” Noah said as he headed for the door with a smile and a wave for Megan.
And with that, he’d exchanged more words with others by six a.m. than he usually said in a full day. He got back in his truck and drove the ten seconds it took to get to the parking lot at the inn, sat in his warm truck to eat the bacon and egg sandwich on a grilled English muffin and drink the coffee fixed just the way he liked it.
There were pluses to living in a small town where everyone knew you. There were also minuses to being so well known.
Noah had thought about moving somewhere that no one knew him, so there’d be no chance of anyone mentioning her name out of the blue like his mother had done this morning. His mom didn’t know the details of what’d gone down with her. If she had, she’d never mention Melinda’s name to him. Noah didn’t blame his mother for having questions. Of course she did. One minute, he was happily married, and the next, he wasn’t.
The last thing on God’s green earth he wanted to do was relive that nightmare, even if it meant his mother would never again say her name in his presence. Since he didn’t want to talk about what’d happened, he supposed he had to put up with the occasional question even after all this time.
But he didn’t have to like it or the way he felt after he had to confront memories that put him in a foul mood.
As prepared as he could be to face another frigid day on the job, he got out of his truck and headed toward the framed outline of the inn, which was barely visible in the mist of early morning.
He stopped short at the sight of the architect, Brianna Esposito, her white project manager hard hat covering dark curly hair. She stood outside the back door, hands on her hips, glaring at him with fire in her dark eyes.
She drove him mad in more ways than one. For one thing, she micromanaged every aspect of the job—or at least she tried to. For another, any time she looked at him with daggers in her brown eyes, the way she was now, he went hard as stone. He told himself it was just because he hadn’t gotten laid in a while, but he’d started to think it was something much worse than that.
Because there was absolutely no way he could be attracted to the feisty, bossy, pain-in-his-ass, know-it-all architect from Boston.
No way at all.
“Truth is everybody is going to hurt you: You just gotta find the ones worth suffering for.” —(Author unknown, sometimes credited to Bob Marley)
Brianna wanted to take a hammer to his head ninety percent of the time. Unfortunately, the rest of the time, she wanted to kiss the nasty scowl off his too-handsome-to-be-true face. The wanting-to-kiss-him thing was super annoying since he was such a cranky jackass. Of course, after seven years in a male-dominated business, she knew how men could be toward a woman who had a working brain and wasn’t afraid to use it.
“Good morning, Brianna. How are you on this fine Vermont morning?”
Fully aware that he couldn’t care less how she was, she didn’t fall for his nonsense. “Don’t try to charm me, Coleman. What did I tell you about signing for materials?”
“I believe you told me not to sign for anything.”
“And yet you signed for the lumber delivery yesterday afternoon after I had to leave early for a work meeting.” She’d told him she had to take the meeting at home where there was a landline. Cell service was nonexistent in Butler.
“Yes, I did sign for the lumber delivery.”
“Why did you do that when I specifically asked you not to?”
“Because I assumed you’d want us to be able to finish the framing today as planned. Without that lumber, my team would’ve been twiddling their thumbs. We would’ve lost today and possibly tomorrow, too, waiting for the redelivery of lumber that was sitting right in front of me. I signed for it, and I’d do it again.”
She wanted to punch him in his smug, sanctimonious face, but sensing he’d probably enjoy that a little too much, she refrained. “I’m sure you checked the quantities against what was ordered to ensure the amount delivered was correct.”
“Nope. That’s your job. I’m just the dumb contractor who does all the work.”
“So, you signed for a delivery with no idea whatsoever of what you were signing for?”
“Not true. I signed for what we need to keep things moving. Isn’t the goal to get it buttoned up as soon as possible so we can bring in heaters for the indoor work?”
“Yes, that’s the goal, but—”
“No buts. If we didn’t get that delivery yesterday, we’d fall further behind. So again, I have zero regrets.”
Brianna let out an exasperated growl and spun around, intending to storm off before she did something stupid like hit him with a hammer, but she slipped on an icy puddle and nearly went flying.
Noah grabbed her arm and saved her from a nasty fall. “Careful,” he said, his voice full of amusement that made her furious.
She pulled her arm free of his hold. “Shut up.”
He cracked up laughing.
Just another day in paradise.
Brianna hated this job with every fiber of her being. She hated that one of her bickering-brother bosses had sent her to middle-of-nowhere Vermont to oversee the rebuilding of his third wife’s cousin’s inn, which had partially burned—although she had her own reasons for being glad to get out of Boston for a few months. She hated being so cold all the time that her teeth had gotten sore from chattering nonstop. But more than anything, she hated the contractor she had to work with every day. And on top of that, she hated that she hated him.
She’d been raised not to hate anyone.
Noah Coleman was an exception to every rule. He was rude, arrogant, noncommunicative, challenging, exasperating and every other adjective she could think of to cover the full range of jerk descriptors. It wasn’t bad enough that Noah was a grumpy ass. No, he also had to be incredibly handsome and sexy as all hell, too. If she didn’t stab him or knock him over the head with a shovel before they finished this job, it would be a miracle.
He made her crazy just by the way he looked at her with barely concealed disdain for her very existence.
Noah either didn’t like working with architects, or he didn’t like working with women. Either option made him even more unbearable than he already was.
After the first week she’d spent locking horns with him on the job, she’d done some light recon in town to get the lowdown on him—the second of eight kids, his father left the family when he was a teen. He was a first cousin to the Abbotts, who owned the magical country store next door to the inn. And, most interesting of all, three years ago, he’d split with his wife of two years under mysterious circumstances. No one knew why they’d broken up.
Although why she gave a flying you-know-what about Noah was a further source of aggravation when she had more than enough on her plate as it was. Why in the world had she even bothered to ask Mrs. Hendricks about him? God, what if the nosy, buttinsky woman who owned the inn ever got the big idea to tell Noah that Brianna had been asking about him? The very thought of that made Brianna cringe. The last thing in the world she’d want was him thinking she cared one iota about his story.
All that said, Mrs. Hendricks’s info had given her some insight into why he was the way he was. Maybe he was still bitter over his father’s desertion, and God only knew what level of hell his wife had put him through. She certainly knew what it was like to have a marriage blow up in her face. Her husband had put her through the nuclear level of hell, and she felt for anyone who’d endured the breakup of a marriage.
But having a marriage go bad didn’t give him permission to act like a jackass ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the time.
In addition to him signing for materials, which she’d expressly asked him not to do, she had to tell him the fireplace his workers had roughed out yesterday was in the wrong place. She dreaded that. She dreaded every second she had to spend on this godforsaken job in which she froze her ass off for eight hours a day and had to deal with him.
Six weeks into the project from hell, she was ready to quit her job and find a new profession. Nothing about being an architect was anywhere near as much fun as she’d thought it would be back when she was eighteen years old and under tremendous pressure to pick a college major.
If only she didn’t have so much riding on the timely completion of this project, she would quit, but that would leave her without the references she would need to find a new job. The nonstop personal drama of the previous year had her skating on thin ice with her employers even before she came to Vermont. Quitting this job before she finished it was not an option. Neither was committing contractor murder, but a girl could dream.
The Butler Inn was the only place in town for visitors to stay. Butler needed the inn, and Mrs. Hendricks needed to get her business reopened. Brianna would get that taken care of and get the hell out of Butler the second the last nail was driven.
In the meantime, she had to deal with Noah Coleman. Steeling herself for yet another confrontation—there’d been so many, she’d lost track of how many—with the contractor from hell, she went to find him. They’d been able to salvage the front half of the building and were rebuilding the back portion while bringing the front portion up to code with a sprinkler system and other required upgrades.
A sprinkler system would’ve quickly extinguished the fire, but older buildings weren’t required to have them. The new inn would be much safer than its predecessor had been, which had been one of Mrs. Hendricks’s primary goals for the project.
Brianna was always so cold, she could barely think when she was on the job. The only thing that got her blood running hot was the predictable arguments with Noah. That was the one benefit to their frequent disagreements. They warmed her up for a few blessed minutes when her heart rate soared, and the blood pumped faster through her veins.
Inside the construction warzone, the sound of hammers on the roof competed with the roar of a table saw. The noise was enough to jar her teeth loose.
She found Noah in the kitchen, which had been framed the week before. He had squatted to measure something.
“Can we please talk about the fireplace in the reception lounge?” she asked in the calmest tone she owned.
“It needs to be redone.”
He looked up at her over his shoulder, eyebrow crooked. “Why?”
“It’s off by six inches.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No. It isn’t.”
Brianna summoned the massive amount of fortitude it took to stand her ground and not blink in the glare of the sexiest gray eyes she’d ever seen. “Are we going to do this all day, or will you listen to me?”
“I’m not going to listen to you telling me that fireplace is six inches off, because it isn’t.”
“Then you’ll have to come with me so I can show you.”
He took his own sweet time standing to his full six-foot-something height. Since his back was turned, Brianna got a good look at how he filled out his Levi’s. And he filled them out well. Very, very well. Not that she was looking.
He spun around suddenly and caught her staring at his ass.
When she looked up at him, a smug smile stretched across his face. “See something you like, darlin’?”
“Yeah, the most attractive part of you.” Brianna was rather pleased with that comeback if she did say so herself. Usually, she thought of good responses hours after she’d gone ten rounds with him.
“I’ve always been told I have an exceptional ass. I’m glad you agree.”
She pretended like she hadn’t heard him. “What’s that you said? People say you’re an exceptional ass? I couldn’t agree more.”
His laughter followed her from the room as she headed for the reception area. Hopefully, he would get there eventually so they could fight about the fireplace that was six inches too far to the left. They were completely rebuilding the chimney, so that wasn’t the issue. If they left the fireplace where it was, it would interfere with the fire escape on that side of the building. It had to be moved.
They’d ventured straight into the realm of unprofessional and inappropriate, which gave her pause. Dear God, did she have to discuss that with him, too?
She found it interesting that he never raised his voice with the men who worked for him. They took their orders from him and seemed to respect him as a boss and friend. No, he argued only with her, or so it seemed.
By the time he made his way to the reception lobby, Brianna had plans rolled out on a makeshift table constructed of sawhorses and plywood and was ready to do battle.
Noah stopped in what would eventually be the doorway from the first-floor hall and eyed the work his men had done the day before.
“If you’ll come look at the plans, I’ll show you how the chimney will interfere with the fire escape. I need those six inches.”
“So much I could say to that.”
Was he flirting with her? No way. He couldn’t stand her. And she couldn’t stand him. He was not flirting. She ignored his suggestive comment and focused on the plans. A now-predictable wave of warmth overtook her when he came closer so he could see what she was pointing to. The bastard had to smell good, too. Life wasn’t fair.
“You’re right,” he said. “It’s off. We’ll redo it.”
Brianna was so shocked that she found herself momentarily speechless. And anyone who knew her well would say that was a rare, rare thing. “Would you mind repeating that? I’m afraid I didn’t hear you properly the first time.”
“I said you’re right. It’s off. And we will redo it.”
“Wow, I need a minute to enjoy this victory.”
Again, he flashed the grin that did such incredible things to his usually austere face. “Knock yourself out.”
“You ought to do that more often.”
“What’s that? Tell you you’re right?”
“Definitely—and smile. It looks good on you.”
“I didn’t smile.”
“Yes, you did. Twice so far today, actually.”
“That’s not true. Don’t be making shit up.”
It was no wonder she wanted to smack him ninety percent of the time. “Oh my God, are we really going to fight about whether or not you smiled?”
“Yes, we are, because I don’t smile as a rule.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Who makes a rule about not smiling?”
“No wonder you’re so cranky. Anyone who has a rule against smiling is a good time had by all.”
“Are you having a good time? Because you seem wound sort of tight.”
“I’m wound tight because I have to deal with you!”
“Oh Lord,” a third voice said from the doorway.
Brianna and Noah spun around to find Mrs. Hendricks standing in the future doorway, watching them with dismay. On top of the hood to her full-length parka, she’d placed the red hard hat Noah had given her so she could visit the site and see the progress.
“I can’t bear to hear the two of you fighting,” she said, looking almost tearful and resembling a giant mushroom with the hard hat teetering precariously on top of her hood.
“We’re not fighting,” Noah said. “We’re communicating.”
“Now, don’t you sass me, Noah Coleman. I know fighting when I hear it, and that was fighting.”
“We occasionally disagree about things, but we’re working it out,” he said. “Isn’t that right, Brianna?”
She knew she ought to agree with him so they could send their customer away happy, but Brianna couldn’t bring herself to lie to the woman’s sweet face. “We fight nonstop, actually.”
Noah sent her a look of complete disbelief.
“That just won’t do,” Mrs. Hendricks said. “I want the two of you to go to dinner tonight and work this out.”
Brianna was shaking her head before the woman finished her sentence. No way was she going to dinner with him.
“In fact,” Mrs. Hendricks said, rifling through her massive purse, “I just got this coupon for the Pig’s Belly Tavern in the mail.” She pressed it into Noah’s hand.
“Thank you,” he said, “but—”
As if he hadn’t spoken, she said, “Go have a nice dinner and talk it out. You young people need to learn how to communicate properly. You’re all so tied to those silly phones that you’ve forgotten how to talk to each other.”
Brianna wanted to remind her that no one was tied to a silly phone in the cellular nowhere land known as Butler, Vermont. Their motto ought to be “The place where cell phones go to die.”
“Tomorrow, I’ll be back to see how it went. I hope you two can work out all this nonsense and find some harmony. Life is too short to spend it fighting.”
“Is that why you came by?” Noah asked, his jaw tight and his teeth clenched. No doubt the idea of spending time with her outside of work was every bit as revolting to him as it was to her.
“I heard there’d been some squabbling, and I wanted to nip that in the butt.”
Brianna tried to contain the snort of laughter that erupted from inside her at the way the woman mangled the expression “nip that in the bud.”
Noah cleared his throat as if he were also trying not to laugh.
“I’ll see you two in the morning. You have a nice dinner now and put all this bickering to rest.” She turned and walked away before either of them could think of anything else to say to her.
For a full minute after she left, neither of them said a word.
Finally, Noah broke the silence. “Way to go.”
“It is when we hurt that we learn.” —Steve Maraboli
Why couldn’t she have just gone along with him when he said they were communicating, not fighting? If she’d done that, he wouldn’t be showering and shaving the scruff off his face to go back out. No, he’d be throwing logs on the woodstove and settling in for a long winter’s night of reading. Instead, he had to go another ten rounds with the architectural equivalent of Muhammad Ali. She exhausted him.
And she turned him on.
God, he hated that. He hated to be feeling anything resembling desire for the first time in three long years—long enough that he’d worried the plumbing had broken—only to have it return for someone who drove him mad.
She wasn’t even his type, for Christ’s sake. He usually went for the frosty blondes, but Brianna had curly dark hair, curves on top of her curves and sharp brown eyes that didn’t miss a trick. One of his guys had referred to her as a “smoke show.”
Noah had asked him what that meant.
“You know, smokin’ hot,” the young man had said, looking at Noah as if he were ancient.
It wasn’t possible to be more “out of it” than he was. No cell phone, no social media, a TV he rarely turned on, a computer he used only for billing and work-related activities and little to no contact with people other than the men at work. And he kept his distance from them. He’d learned the hard way not to get too buddy-buddy with his employees.
After Mrs. Hendricks had dropped her bomb—and her coupon—on them, Noah had spent the rest of the day supervising the redo of the fireplace. His foreman, Carlo, had been full of apologies for misreading the plans.
Noah had told him not to worry about it, but he couldn’t help yearning for Miguel, who’d been with him for years before everything between them went to shit in the most spectacular way possible. Before that horrible day, Miguel had been the other half of Noah’s brain. He didn’t ever have to be supervised or told what to do. He just knew.
In the end, Noah had paid a hefty price for trusting his foreman so implicitly, but he didn’t wish to think about that nightmare when he needed every ounce of fortitude he could muster to deal with the current one.
A night out with Brianna Esposito was his idea of hell. What would they talk about? Ugh. Mrs. Hendricks was a lovely lady. She’d once been his Cub Scout leader when he and her son Jud had been kids. After Noah’s father left their family, Mrs. H had started driving Noah to all the activities he and Jud did together—football, baseball, basketball and Scouts. Often, she’d drop off a meal, claiming she’d made way too much of whatever her family was having for dinner, and somehow ended up with more than enough to feed nine extra people.
Noah had been old enough to know how dire their situation had been, and the kindness of people like Mrs. H, as he’d called her then, had gone a long way. He’d never forget it. That was why, when she asked him to take Brianna to dinner at the Pig’s Belly Tavern, he would take Brianna to dinner at the Pig’s Belly Tavern.
Even if he didn’t want to.
He soooo didn’t want to.
He was dying to get back to the spy thriller that’d kept him up way too late the night before. He’d been thinking about the story all day and wanted to know what happened next. But nope, that wasn’t happening. Not until later, anyway.
He found a navy sweater his sister Izzy had given him for Christmas and pulled it on over his usual thermal Henley and the well-worn jeans that counted as “dress up” jeans because he’d never worn them to work. And they were clean. With that, he’d put more effort into his appearance than he had in years.
What did it matter what he wore or how he looked? Who cared? Not him, that was for sure. He didn’t care about much these days, except his family and his job. That was about the extent of the things that got any time, mental energy or emotion from him. They were all things that were, for the most part, incapable of hurting him in any significant way.
Noah had learned to avoid people and situations that could cause him grief. He’d had enough of that for one lifetime.
Ten minutes before leaving, he used the remote to start his truck and get the heat going. He bundled up and headed out into the frozen wilderness that was Northeastern Vermont in the winter and got into the still-freezing truck cab.
After work, he’d spent ten minutes collecting the discarded coffee cups and other trash that had accumulated on the floor of the passenger side. No one ever rode in his truck but him and occasionally one or both of his aunt and uncle’s dogs when he was taking care of them.
His life was dull and boring, and he liked it that way. He’d taken a walk on the wild side of the road and found out what can happen when the wild side goes bad, and he never wanted to experience that again. He was better off staying in his lane and not risking things he couldn’t afford to lose, such as his heart, his sanity and his ability to trust anyone other than family members.
And yes, he was self-aware enough to know that bitterness was the reason for his disconnectedness. But that was now so much a part of who he was that he wouldn’t recognize himself without it. His first experience with the emotion had come from what his father had done so many years ago, and then life had dealt him new cards that added to his stores of bitterness.
As he drove to the house Brianna was renting near his cousin Will’s place, Noah tried to think of things he might talk to her about over dinner. It would serve his digestion—and hers—if they stayed away from anything to do with the project that had put them in this predicament in the first place.
People were always interested in what it had been like to grow up as one of eight siblings and ten close first cousins who’d been like extra brothers and sisters to him. That was probably a safe topic. He could tell her about the years he lived in California when he’d attended USC on a full scholarship for mechanical engineering. While there, he’d survived an earthquake that registered a 6.9 on the Richter scale and killed people two blocks from where he’d lived at the time. That made for a good story.
Hopefully, that would be enough to get them through the appetizer part of the meal.
Noah couldn’t overstate his level of dread for this outing.
He pulled into her driveway and thought of his school friend Kent Barclay who’d lived in the house when they were kids. His dad had split the year after Noah’s dad left. They’d had that in common. Kent had once joked that Noah’s dad had given his father the idea to cut and run. Noah wondered where Kent was now and whether his family still owned the house.
A light was on over the front door. Did that mean Noah was supposed to go to the door to get her?
No, that would make this too much like a date, which it was not.
Noah didn’t date anymore. He hooked up once in a while with a friend from high school who’d been through a nasty divorce—weren’t they all bad?—and was now a struggling single mother to three kids. Glenda was a nice person, and they had fun in bed together every couple of months, but that was all it would ever be, because neither of them wanted anything more than the physical release.
Wanting more led to ruin, which they’d both learned the hard way.
He was about to beep the horn to let Brianna know he was there when the door opened, and she appeared in the doorway, framed by the glow of the outside light.
She flashed him the one-minute sign and turned away from the door.
Her sidewalk was framed by three feet of snow on each side from four different snowstorms. This time of year, the snow tended to pile up, one storm on top of the other. Noah wondered if she shoveled her walk or paid someone else to do it.
People who hadn’t grown up in Vermont tended to be overwhelmed by the amount of snow they got. His brother’s fiancée, Emma, and her sister Lucy, married to Noah’s cousin Colton, had grown up in New York City. He’d heard Emma say once that she’d had no idea it was possible to get as much snow as they got in Vermont and not be buried under it. She said she had dreams about being stuck under a ton of snow and trying to find her way out.
“I’d come looking for you,” Grayson had said with the goofy, lighthearted smile he wore all the time now that Emma and her daughter, Simone, were in his life.
Noah was glad Gray was happy. He’d shouldered far more than his share of the load after their dad left, and he deserved to find someone who made him smile all the time.
However, Noah was never going down that road again. He was happier alone, and he was okay with that.
Brianna came out of the house and turned to use her key to lock the dead bolt.
Back before their pristine state had become a hub for heroin, oxy and other drugs, no one had ever locked their door. Now, he never left home without locking up and was glad that Brianna did, too, although that had probably become a habit after living in Boston.
He didn’t like her very much, but he certainly didn’t want anything to happen to her.
She walked slowly and carefully down the sidewalk to the driveway.
Get out and get her door for her.
His grandfather’s voice was so deeply ingrained in him that Noah couldn’t help but want to heed the directive from Elmer.
I’m not getting the door for her because that’s date bullshit. This is not a date.
Because his grandfather had raised him to be somewhat of a gentleman, Noah leaned across the bench seat to open the door for her. When he realized she was almost too short to use the step to get in, he offered her a hand that she gratefully accepted.
The second his hand connected with hers, a jolt of energy traveled up his arm, and he immediately understood he’d made a significant error by touching her. He let go the second her ass connected with the seat.
It took about three seconds for the captivating scent of woman to overtake the small space.
If only it weren’t so butt-ass cold, he’d put down the window to flush out the extremely appealing scent. But since that wasn’t feasible, he had to live with it and the fucking boner that Brianna’s nearness had caused.
“Thanks for picking me up. I’m not a big fan of driving around here in the dark, with the moose that stands in the road and the various life-ending drop-offs.”
“You heard about the moose, huh?”
“Uh, yeah, like on day one. Wasn’t it your cousin’s wife who hit him?”
“Yep. Cameron met Fred about one mile into the town of Butler. Will found her knee-deep in mud with her face and car smashed up, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“I can’t believe she stayed here after that.”
“I think she stayed for my cousin, but you’d have to ask her that.”
“Nothing could keep me here after this job is finished.”
“Is it safe to assume you don’t like our little corner of the world?”
“Very safe to assume. The snow is ridiculous, there are moose in the road, every mile you drive is like a video game—and not the fun kind where you can crash into stuff and walk away unscathed—there’s nothing to do, and the people are grumpy.”
“All people or one in particular?”
“One in particular. Unfortunately, the one I’m forced to spend the most time with.”
Noah winced even as he tried not to laugh. He had to give her points for putting it right out there. “Well, other than the grumps, Butler is a great little town, especially this time of year. People come from all over to ski on Butler Mountain.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught her wrinkling her nose. “I’ve never understood the attraction of spending hours in the cold to sled down a mountain standing up.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“No, because I hate being cold.”
“If you dressed properly, you wouldn’t be cold.”
“Yes, I would. I’m always cold, which is another reason why Butler and I don’t get along.”
“What’re you wearing for underwear?”
Noah laughed at her indignant tone, and yes, he was aware that he’d laughed twice since she got in the car. He hadn’t expected to find anything about this evening funny. “I meant long underwear. What kind is yours?”
“The usual thermal stuff, not that it’s any of your business.”
“Granted, but they sell this silk stuff at the store that’s a thousand times better than the thermal stuff. I’ll get you some.” The words were out of his mouth before he could weigh the impact of offering to buy her underwear.
You don’t like her, remember?
Trust me, I remember, but that doesn’t mean I want her to suffer in the cold if she doesn’t have to.
You shut up.
There, she had him arguing with himself. He couldn’t help but think she’d enjoy knowing that. Not that he planned to tell her. He’d already said more than enough in the first ten minutes.
“I don’t need you to get it for me. I’ll get it.”
“Sure, whatever works, but you’ll be much warmer with that.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“You might want to invest in a long coat and better boots, too.”
“What’s wrong with my coat and boots?”
“Your coat is too short, and your boots are for style, not function. Winter is serious business up here. They can fix you up with everything you need at the store. Not that I’m plugging the family business or anything. Full disclosure, I have no stake in it.”
“Didn’t your grandparents start it?”
“How come you don’t have a stake in it?”
“When my uncle Lincoln became the CEO, he and my aunt Molly, who is my mother’s sister, made an offer to buy out my mom and their other siblings. Since the others didn’t have any interest in the business, they took the offer. Linc, Molly, their ten kids and my grandfather own the business in equal shares. When my grandfather dies, his portion goes to the twelve of them.”
Why was he talking so much? To her of all people? He never talked to anyone if he could avoid it.
“That’s very interesting. I love the dynamics of how family businesses work. Three brothers own my company. Two of them don’t speak to each other, which makes for a nightmare for the third one.”
“Why don’t they speak to each other?” And why do you care? Shut up. I don’t care. I’m just making conversation.
“I guess one of them slept with the other’s wife.”
“That’ll do it.”
She laughed—hard—and Noah couldn’t help but smile at the sound of her laughter. It filled the small space every bit as powerfully as her scent had.
“The husband caught her in bed with his brother, and all hell broke loose. Because they have such a successful business, they’re forced to work together still even if everyone knows why they don’t speak.”
“Awkward.” Noah’s heart ached for the brother who’d been wronged. He knew all too well what that was like. He could only thank God he hadn’t caught his wife with one of his brothers.
“Did the wife and the wrong brother end up together?”
“Nope, which makes it worse, in my opinion. If you’re going to do something like that to your brother, shouldn’t it be for true love and not just to scratch an itch?”
“First of all, I wouldn’t do that to my brother—or anyone else, for that matter.” Once it’d happened to you, you’re cured of any desire to dally with a married woman. Not that he’d ever done that. After what’d happened with his parents, it was a wonder that Noah had ever worked up the courage to get married in the first place.
Melinda had known what he’d been through with his family, and she’d still ended up in bed with the wrong man, which was why Noah trusted no one, except his own family. Hearing what’d happened with Brianna’s bosses made him wonder if even that was safe.
He stopped that thought before it could develop. His family was solid. He didn’t doubt that any of his siblings or cousins would take a bullet for him—and vice versa. There’s no way they’d ever cross lines with each other’s significant others. That was one thing in his life he was sure of.
“Where’re we going, anyway?” Brianna asked as Noah navigated the twisting, winding roads that took them into “downtown” Butler.
That’s what people called the collection of buildings that made up Elm Street, home of the Green Mountain Country Store, the diner, the inn, a bank, the post office, the requisite white-steepled church that was a staple of most New England towns, an art gallery, a pizza restaurant and a few other smaller stores. It wasn’t much, but it was home.
“A few towns over.”
“What’s this place Mrs. Hendricks is sending us to? The Pig’s Belly? Is it really called that?”
“It is, and despite the name, the food is fantastic. Some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had.”
“I assume you’ve been outside of Vermont?”
He didn’t want to be amused by her, but he was, nonetheless. “In fact, I have. I lived in Southern California for six years and traveled a lot for my job.”
“Which was what?”
“I worked for a commercial engineering firm for a couple of years after college before I came home eight years ago to start my business.”
“You’re an engineer?”
“That’s right. A licensed PE.” He assumed she knew that PE stood for professional engineer.
“That’s just surprising.”
He didn’t want to ask. Honestly, he didn’t. He was much better off when he found her annoying. “How so?”
“I just didn’t take you for a PE.”
“What did you take me for?”
“You really want me to answer that?” she asked, her tone infused with delight.
“Yeah, probably better to leave that to my imagination.” After a long pause, he said, “I’m sorry that I’ve been unwelcoming toward you. That wasn’t my intention.”
After a very long pause, she said, “And I’m sorry that I’ve come on too strong. My boss is on me constantly about getting this job done on time and under budget, and as I mentioned, I hate being cold. Butler is cold, and that hasn’t helped my disposition.”
“Maybe if we warm you up, you’ll feel better about being here.”
Noah hoped she knew he was talking about the clothing he’d recommended and nothing else. He wasn’t available for that kind of warming. Not with her, anyway. They rode the rest of the way in silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable silence, which was a vast improvement over what he’d expected of this evening.
He hated to admit it, but maybe Mrs. Hendricks had been right. Perhaps if they spent some time together away from the inn, they could begin to understand each other and get along better on the job.
But he refused to go so far as to start liking her.
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge