Challenge Accepted - A Contemporary Romance

BOOK: Challenge Accepted - A Contemporary Romance
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Challenge Accepted

By

Carol Rose

 

Copyright Carol Rose 2012

 

Previously published by
Kensington as
Anything You Can Do

Rights now reverted to Carol Rose

 

Cover image courtesy of
Andres Rodriguez & Dreamstime

Cover by Joleene Naylor

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part (beyond that copying permitted by U.S. Copyright Law, Section 107, “fair use” in teaching or research. Section 108, certain library copying, or in published media by reviewers in limited excerpt), without written permission from the publisher

CHAPTER ONE

Hayley Haslett raised her hand and tapped on the door.

Mrs. Latham, president of the Victorian Oaks Preservation Society, hadn't said much about the nature of this meeting when she'd called a week ago. And Hayley hadn't even thought to ask, she'd been so overjoyed that the proposal from her tiny restoration firm had made the short list.

Even with the size of the project-nine separate houses to fully restore-she knew she could do it. She wouldn't be alone. In the projects she'd tackled so far, Hayley had found a reliable group of subcontractors that didn't mind working for an untried woman, young enough to be a daughter to some of them. What she lacked in experience, she hoped she made up for in passion for the work and an ardent commitment to historical accuracy.

But what did Mrs. Latham hope to accom
plish in meeting with both her and her only competitor together? For an instant, Hayley wished she'd bought herself a briefcase. Still, with her delicate features and flyaway straight, looking businesslike was just a dream.

The door opened, revealing an immacu
lately uniformed maid.

"Mrs. Latham is expecting you in the par
lor," the maid intoned. "The gentleman is already here."

The room Hayley was ushered into looked as if it had
been transplanted from the previous century. Cabbage roses bloomed in profusion on the wallpaper and fringe dangled from every possible surface. It roped its way around the settee, dripped from the silk lamp shades, and trailed to the floor from the shawl thrown over a nearby table. It was the perfect decor for a woman raised amidst Victorian excess.

Hayley was so caught up in the visual dis
play that it took her several seconds to notice the two other people in the room.

A distinguished lady of at least eighty smiled at Hayley as she rose from the settee, holding out a welcoming hand.

"My dear Ms. Haslett, I'm so glad you could join us."

"Thank you, ma'am." Even as she re
sponded to the elderly woman's words, Hayley felt a jolt of awareness.

Standing next to the settee, stood one of the sexiest men she'd ever seen. He seemed tall. Although she knew he was probably less than six feet, the breadth of his shoulders con
tributed to an illusion of height. His dark brown hair was conservatively short for Southern California, and it had a rumpled look, as if he'd just pulled off a baseball cap.

Even in this fussy, feminine setting, he radi
ated confidence, from the assured way he stood to the subtle appreciation in his eyes.

Her competitor?

Hayley's feet propelled her forward automatically until she stood on the rose-bedecked rug.

"Ms. Hayley Haslett, I'd like you to meet Mr. Colton Granger." Mrs. Latham beamed at them with the satisfaction of a matchmaking mama.

Hayley cleared her throat and forced a smile. "How nice to meet you, Mr. Granger."

"The pleasure is all mine," he returned with a smile.

"Well, I'm so happy you could both be here today," Mrs. Latham began a few minutes later when they were seated and tea had been served with a tray of assorted delicacies.

"I believe I knew your mother, Hayley," the older woman commented. "We were both members of the San Bernardino Ladies' Gar
den Club. I was saddened to hear that she died. "

"Thank you." A lump filled Hayley's throat at the genuine sympathy in Mrs. Latham's eyes.

Perched on the settee next to the tiny, birdlike woman, Hayley sipped her tea and avoided Colton Granger's eyes. The last thing she wanted was to get this job based on her family connections. But darn it, accepting condolences was only polite.

"You had to have been quite young. How difficult her death must have been for you," the older woman commented.

"Yes, it was." Hayley smiled sadly. "I still miss her."

Mrs. Latham patted Hayley's knee with a frail, liver-spotted hand. ''I'm sure you do, dear. And I'm afraid those kinds of losses don't get any easier as we grow older."

Mrs. Latham turned, including Colton in her smile as she changed the subject. ''I'm so thrilled to finally be able to restore Victorian Oaks. It's been my dream for some time."

"I understand you grew up there," Colt said.

"Yes, indeed. I was a Palmer before I married Mr. Latham. It pains me to see the old house going to ruin. Well," she said "with a dismissive movement of her hand, "we're not here to talk about my memories."

''I'm sure you have invaluable memories," Colton Granger said thoughtfully. "What bet
ter resource could a restoration expert have than a lady whose parents created the original?"

The elderly woman smiled delightedly. "How sweet of you."

Hayley set her teacup back in its saucer and resisted the urge to glare at her competitor.

It was bad enough having to pitch her proposal against a bigger, more experienced con
tractor. But to have to do it when her adversary was every little old lady's dream seemed too cruel.

Colton Granger was attractive, pleasant, and just irreverent enough. She had no doubt that he could charm entire armies of elderly women.

"The Preservation Society had quite a few proposals. Some, of course, were obviously unsatisfactory." Mrs. Latham shook her head. "Some people have no feel for history. Your proposals, however, stood out. Creative, and yet competitive."

Colt Granger sat comfortably in the chair facing the settee, no hint of anxiety in his face.

"Since we had such a hard time deciding between your proposals," said Mrs. Latham, "the Society decided a face-to-face meeting might be productive."

It was a mista
ke to conclude that the genteel ladies of former times had no business sense. Although her independence was on the line, Hayley could appreciate the older woman's delicate manipulation.

How often had her father said a contract was only as good as the man backing it up? Mrs. Latham would rely in part on her intui
tion to make her decision.

Buoyed by this realization Hayley jumped in. "Mrs.
Latham, I know you and the Preservation Society are more concerned with historical accuracy than you are with speed. My company is small, but I have researched the Victorian era extensively and I am prepared to devote as long as it takes to getting the details right." She finished, drawing in a silent breath as Mrs. Latham nodded approvingly.

"You're right, dear. Historical accuracy is more important than speed."

Colt let his gaze rest on Hayley's delicate, heart-shaped face. She might be beautiful, he thought, and sweetly curved enough to raise his temperature ten degrees, but there was no way he was letting Hayley Haslett walk away with this job. Even if her father did own a sizable chunk of Southern California.

As soon as he'd heard her name, all the pieces fell into place. Henry Haslett's daugh
ter could afford to indulge her whims, playing at the renovation game, but some people had to work for a living.

She obviously had a passion for Victorian houses
, but he could imagine how over-whelmed she'd be with a project this size.

"If the Society awards the contract to my firm," Colt began, "you won't have to sacrifice time in order to accurately restore the block of houses. We have quite a bit of experience restoring older homes and I can put three crews to work immediately. When it comes to construction, time is money." He smiled into Hayley's glaring countenance.

"We're talking about nine extremely individual homes, Mr. Granger," Hayley reminded him coolly. "Not prefab warehouses."

''I'm aware of that, Ms. Haslett," he re
torted, amused and touched at her determination to get herself in over her head.

"I've conducted preliminary research on three of the homes," Hayley continued her pitch. "As I noted in my proposal it's impos
sible to know what will be uncovered until I actually get in to the project. A complete restoration involves a certain amount of intuitive guessing. That’s why I suggested a flat rate based on the initial assessment with an hourly wage beyond that."

"My company feels that guessing," Colt em
phasized the word slightly, "reflects uncertainty. Our bid is based on experience and we'll stand by it."

A flush of emotion ran up under Hayley's fine-textured, faintly sun-kissed skin. Colt was shaken by a sudden urge to press his mouth against the small throb of pulse at her neck, and to find out if the rest of her body was as delicious as her shapely legs.

"My, my," Mrs. Latham murmured, her face distressed, "I just don't know which one to pick. Both intuition and experience are important and you both are clearly capable."

Colt looked at the elderly woman, his atten
tion drawn away from his lusting thoughts. The Preservation Society shouldn't have left the decision process up to a sweet but sentimental elderly lady. Colt fought the urge to soothe her, saying only, "It must be difficult to make such a large decision on your own when you have so many memories of this house."

"Yes." Mrs. Latham smiled at him, clearly grateful for his understanding.

The fact that she'd known Hayley Haslett's mother obviously carried more than a little weight, Colt reflected. Yet Hayley had admitted her company was smaller. How much experience could she have had? In an objective, side-by-side comparison, Granger Construction would win hands down.

Which was too bad, in one sense, because Colt liked the idea of getting to know Hayley a lot more intimately. Her losing this contract to him wasn't going to make that any easier.

Mrs. Latham clucked disgustedly. "I normally have no problem making decisions. Mr. Latham could attest to that, if he were still alive. But I'm just not sure which direction to take in this case."

Hayley set her cup and saucer on the deli
cate shawl-covered table, her blue eyes reflecting concern. "Perhaps it would help your decision if we both chose a house and drew up detailed restoration plans," she offered. "That way you could see more clearly the approach we each would take."

"Well...
," Mrs. Latham hesitated, "your proposals were fairly detailed. I'm not sure how much more clear you could get on paper.

Inspiration gripped Colt. He had no doubt that Mrs. Latham's dilemma stemmed from her maternal fondness for Hayley. The younger woman's headful of
curly blond hair combined with her air of delicacy left an impression of sweetness, and she had flattering attentiveness down to an art. Colt suspected it was genuine.

However, although sentimental, Mrs. Latham wasn't a ditzy woman. She was clearly torn between her heart and her head, and Colt had an idea that would both ease her decision and give him some time to lay siege to Hayley Haslett's delectable body.

"I have a suggestion," he mentioned blandly.

Both women's eyes turned toward him—one pair hopeful and the other suspicious. A tremor of amusement quivered through Colt. Hayley was right to view him with suspicion. Did she realize he had an interest in her beyond winning the contract?

"Why don't you pick one house as a test?" he suggested to the older woman. "Both Ms. Haslett and I will work on it and when that house is done, you can decide who'll work on the remaining eight houses."

"What an interesting idea." Mrs. Latham sat back, obviously impressed.

Hayley spoke quickly. "I don't see how that could possibly work. If you gave us each a different house to work on, that would make sense. "

"But two houses involves a greater risk," Colt pointed out, his anticipation of the hunt growing. "With one house, there's less damage done if one of us proves not to be equipped for the job."

Mrs. Latham straightened in her chair. "You may have come up with the answer, Colton, not that I think either of you is ill-equipped. But I think this plan might do."

"Sure," Colt agreed. "This way you can see how we both work. We'll each give you an estimate for whichever house you choose, and you'll be able to see how well we each work within our own budget."

"But the major, overriding concern is the house," Hayley protested, obviously unhappy at the idea of a joint venture with him. "Res
toration is an art. It isn't good to have differing approaches on the same project." She glanced away from Mrs. Latham, her gaze colliding with Colt's.

He smiled. ''I'm sure we'll find a way to work together."

Fuming, Hayley stepped into the retirement village elevator. She punched the button for the first floor, hoping the door would close on Colt Granger.

He stepped through at the last minute. Furious at this unexpected turn of events, she refused to look at him, staring stonily at the numbers above the elevator door, tracking their descent.

Colt leaned against the wall next to her, his relaxed body posture an annoyance that her peripheral vision reported with frustrating efficiency.
She didn't want to work with anyone else, and especially not him.

"It really won't be that bad," he said, softly, his gaze coasting over her face.

Hayley refused to answer. Winning and completing the Victorian Oaks project on her own had been her goal. She didn't want anyone else affecting the outcome. This job was as important to her self-esteem as it was to her checkbook. The last thing she needed was some cocky construction worker taking over her project.

BOOK: Challenge Accepted - A Contemporary Romance
10.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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