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.
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(Butler, Vermont Series, Book 7)
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 and took a deep breath, letting 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, anytime, 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 every minute of 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 skipped shaving the beard that helped to 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 the 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 Carhart work coat and emerged from the house twenty minutes after the second alarm. He did a double-take 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. Hendrickson had hired his company to rebuild the Admiral Butler Inn after it burned last summer.
“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 looks 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 precisely 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 he 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. He was good with second chances for other people. Noah had 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. Hendrickson 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 ballcock. 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 eight 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 when he was fourteen and Gray sixteen, 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 his ex-wife’s 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 waited until his mom was safely back inside her house before pulled out of the driveway and headed 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 all the time or talk to them that frequently, 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 his mind wander in her direction. 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 never allowed himself to visit?
She might never have existed for the amount of time or attention he gave her these days.
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 served to make 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?
Noah pulled up to the diner and left his truck running while he ran in to pick up the coffee and breakfast 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 Meghan. “Thank you.” She had his card on file, and he insisted she add a twenty percent tip to each order.
His grandfather, 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 sibling 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. “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 nearly 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, and that was another thing Noah would prefer to never think about again. “I, um, 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 egg sandwich on a grilled English muffin, and drink the coffee fixed just the way he liked it.
There were plusses to living in a small town where everyone knew you, and there were minuses to being 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 her 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 misty first morning light.
He stopped short at the sight of the architect, Brianna Esposito, her white project manager hardhat covering dark curly hair and standing 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 so long, but he’d started to think it was something much worse than that.
Because there was absolutely no way he could actually be attracted to the feisty, bossy, pain-in-his-ass, know-it-all architect from Boston.
No way at all.
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