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Authors: Nora Roberts

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The body was great. Long, lean, lanky and on the athletic side rather than willowy and slight. Cass would be fit, he decided, but instinctively conceal her . . . attributes. Brid, well, she’d be right out there.
The hair, that deep blond like shadowed sunlight, he decided. An easy transition there, too. Cass would habitually keep hers restrained; Brid’s would fly and flow. Then the face. He wished he could see Cilla’s now, but it was blocked by the brim of the ball cap she wore as she worked. He had no problem conjuring it in his mind, the shape, the angles, the tones. It would be a face Cass played down, one made quiet and intellectual by the glasses, the lack of makeup.
Beauty restrained, just like her hair.
But Brid, for Brid, the beauty would be bold, luminous. Not simply released but wild with it.
Time to get started.
Inside, he packed up his satchel again, hung his camera around his neck by its strap. He considered another token, and shoved an apple into the bag.
The sound of her nail gun peppered the air like muffled gunshots. And made Ford think of battles. Brid would never use a gun—much too crass, too ordinary. But how would she defend herself against them? With sword and hammer, deflecting bullets like Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets? Maybe.
As he walked closer, the echoey music from one of the workers’ radio jangled out country. Why was it always country? he wondered. Was it some sort of construction law?
Country music (including selected crossover artists) must be played on portable radios on all sites.
He caught the buzz of a saw, the whine of what might’ve been a drill, and assorted bangs from inside. Adding them together, along with the decor of Dumpster, Porta Potti and pickups, he found himself grateful he’d bought his own place move-in ready.
Plus, he sincerely doubted any of the workers he might have hired otherwise would have owned an ass like the one currently snugged into dusty Levi’s and happily facing his way.
He could’ve resisted, but why? So he lifted the camera, framed her in and took the shot as he walked.
“You know why they have those calendars of scantily clad women holding power drills and such in mechanics’ shops?” he called out.
Cilla looked over her shoulder, sized Ford up through her safety goggles. “So men can imagine their dicks as a power drill?”
“No, so we can imagine women imagine it.”
“I stand corrected.” She shot in the last two nails, then swiveled around to sit. “Where’s your faithful companion?”
“Spock? He’s busy, but sends his best. Where’d you learn to shoot that gun?”
“On-the-job training. I’ve got more boards to cut and nail, if you want a turn.”
“Tragic and terrible things happen when I pick up tools. So I don’t, and save lives.” He reached in his bag. “Brought you a present.”
“You brought me an apple?”
“It’ll help keep your strength up.” He tossed it to her, cocking a brow when she caught it neatly, and one-handed. “I had a feeling.”
She studied the apple, then bit in. “About what?”
“That you’d field what comes at you. Mind if I take some pictures while you’re working? I want to start some more detailed sketches.”
“So you’re going forward with the warrior goddess idea.”
“Brid. Yeah, I am. I can wait until you take a break if the camera bothers you while you work.”
“I spent more than half my life in front of cameras.” She pushed to her feet. “They don’t bother me.”
She tossed the apple core into the Dumpster before stepping over to her lumber pile. Ford snapped away while she selected, measured, set the piece on the power saw. He watched her eyes as the blade whined, as it cut through wood. He doubted the camera could capture the focus in them.
But it captured the cut of her biceps, the ripple of toned muscle when she hefted the planks and carried them to the finished decking.
“Living in California, I expect you’re a woman who spends regular time at a gym.”
Cilla set the plank on her marks, braced the distance with spacers. “I like a good gym.”
“Let me say working out’s worked out for you.”
“I tend toward skinny otherwise. Rehab work helps the tone,” she continued, driving in the first nail. “But I miss the discipline of a good gym. Do you know any around here?”
“As it happens, I do. Tell you what, you come on over when you’re finished up for the day. I’ll take you to see the gym, then we’ll have dinner.”
“Maybe.”
“You’re not the coy type. ‘Maybe’ means . . . ?”
“It depends on when I finish up.”
“Gym’s open twenty-four/seven.”
“Seriously?” She flicked him a glance, then worked her way down the board with her nail gun. “That’s handy. I’ll adjust the maybe to probably.”
“Fair enough. On the dinner end, are you vegetarian or fruititarian or some other ’tarian that requires restrictions on the menu?”
Laughing, she sat back on her heels. “I’m an eatitarian. I’ll eat pretty much what you put in front of me.”
“Good to know. Mind if I take a look inside, see what all the banging and sawing’s about? It’ll also give me the chance to rag on Matt about whatever comes to mind.”
“Go ahead. I’d give you the tour, but my boss is a bitch about unscheduled breaks.”
“Mine’s a pushover.” He stepped up, then bent down, sniffed at her. “First time I ever realized the smell of sawdust was sexy.”
He stepped inside and said, “Holy shit.”
He’d expected a certain amount of chaos, activity and mess. He hadn’t expected what struck him as a kind of maniacal destruction. There had to be a purpose behind it all, he thought, as Cilla struck him as firmly sane, but he couldn’t see it.
Tools scattered over the floor in what hit his organized soul with dismay. How did anyone find anything? Cords snaked and coiled. Bare bulbs dangled. Sections of wall gaped where for reasons that escaped him someone had cut or hacked them out. The wide planks of the floor were patchworked with stained cloths and cardboard.
Baffled, and slightly horrified, he wandered through, observing the same sort of mad bombarding in every room.
He found Matt in one of them, curling blond hair under a red ball cap, tool belt slung, measuring tape at the ready. He gave Ford an easy smile, said, “Hey.”
“You make this mess?”
“Pieces of it. Boss lady’s got ideas. Good ones. That’s a woman who knows what she’s doing.”
“If you say so. How’s Josie?”
“Doing good. We got a picture of the Beast.”
Ford knew the Beast was the baby Josie was currently carrying. Their two-year-old son had been the Belly.
He took the sonogram shot Matt pulled out of his pocket, studied it, turned it and finally found the form. Legs, arms, body, head. “He looks like the other one did. Midget alien from Planet Womb.”
“She. We just found out. It’s a girl.”
“Yeah?” Ford glanced up at his friend’s huge grin, found his own spreading. “One of each species. Nice going.”
“She’s not dating till she’s thirty.” Matt took the picture back, looked at it with love, then slipped it back into his pocket. “So, you up for poker night at Bri’s?”
Ford thought he’d rather face a root canal than poker night. But he, Matt and Brian had been friends just about all their lives. “If there’s absolutely no escape.”
“Good. I need the money. Hold that end of the tape a minute.”
“You know better than that.”
“Right.” Matt set the tape himself. “If you touch it, it’s likely to explode in my hand. I could lose a finger. Have you been through the place yet?”
“I just started.”
“Take a look around. It’s going to be a hell of a thing.”
“It already looks like hell.”
Unable to resist, he backtracked, went upstairs. It didn’t get any better. What had been a bathroom was now a bare box with stripped walls and skeletal pipes, with raw holes in the floor and ceiling. Two bedrooms stood doorless, their windows still bearing the stickers of the manufacturer, their floors covered with ratty carpet.
But when he opened the door to the next bedroom, astonishment clicked up to temper. What the hell was she thinking? An air mattress and sleeping bag, cardboard boxes and an old card table?
“I take back the sane,” he muttered, and headed back down.
He found her standing in front of the newly planked veranda guzzling water from a bottle. The warming temperatures and the labor combined to lay a dark sweat line down the center of the white T-shirt she wore with the jeans. It only added to his annoyance that he found a sweaty, possibly unstable woman so damned appealing.
“Are you crazy or just stupid?” he demanded.
Slowly, she lowered the bottle. And slowly, she tipped her head down until those glacial blue eyes met his. “What?”
“Who lives like that?” He jerked a thumb back toward the house as he strode down to her. “The house is torn to pieces, you’re down to a hot plate in the kitchen, and you’re sleeping on the floor and living out of a cardboard box. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“I’ll take that one at a time. I live like this because I’m in the middle of a major project, which is why the house is torn up, though hardly to pieces. I’m down to a hot plate because I’m having the appliances rehabbed. I’m sleeping on an air mattress, not the floor, because I haven’t decided what kind of bed I want. And there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Go on up and get what you need. You’ll take my spare room.”
“I stopped taking orders a long time ago. From my mother, from agents, managers, directors, producers and all manner of others who decided they knew what was best for me, what I wanted, what I should do. I’m afraid you’re too late.”
“You’re living like a squatter.”
“I’m living as I choose.”
He caught the flare of heat in the icy blue, but pushed anyway. “There’s a bedroom over there with a perfectly good bed, one with sheets.”
“Oh, if it’s got actual sheets . . . no. Go away, Ford. My break’s over.”
“Your bitch of a boss’ll have to give you another couple minutes. You can see this damn place from mine, and you can walk over every morning in about ninety seconds—after you’ve had a decent night’s sleep in an actual bed, and used a bathroom that isn’t the black and blue of a psychedelic bruise, and about the size of a quarter.”
For some reason his obvious fury banked any embers of her own. Amused now, she laughed outright. “The bathroom’s hideous, I’ll give you that. But doesn’t persuade me to pull up stakes. I get the impression you’re a lot more fastidious than I am.”
“I’m not fastidious.” Temper veered sharply into insult. “Old men in cardigans are fastidious. Wanting to sleep in a bed and piss in a toilet that was manufactured sometime in the last half century doesn’t make me fastidious. And your hand’s bleeding.”
She glanced down. “Must’ve scraped it.” She wiped the shallow cut carelessly on her jeans.
He stared at her. “What the hell’s wrong with
me
?” he wondered, and grabbed her.
He jerked her up to her toes. He wanted those ice-blue eyes level with his, wanted that gorgeous, tasty mouth lined right up. He didn’t think any further than that before he swooped in and plundered.
She was sweaty, covered with sawdust and possibly had any number of screws loose. And he’d never, never wanted anyone more in his life.
He ignored her jump of shock. The bolt of lust that slammed into him blasted away any thought of niceties. He wanted, he took. It was as elemental as that.
The water bottle slipped out of her hand and bounced on the ground. For the first time in too long to remember she’d been caught completely by surprise. She hadn’t seen this move coming, and even the potency of the kiss they’d shared the evening before hadn’t prepared her for the punch of this one.
It was raw, and it was randy, and plowed straight through her to leave her muscles quivering and nerve ends quaking. She wanted, for one mad moment, to be gulped down in one greedy swallow, wanted him to throw her over his shoulder and drag her off to some dark cave.
When he jerked her away again, her head actually spun.
“Fastidious, my ass.”
As she stared at Ford, she heard Buddy the plumber call her name from behind. “Don’t mean to interrupt,” he continued, “but you might take a look at what I’m fixing to do in this bathroom. When you get a minute.”
She lifted a hand, wagged it vaguely in the air without looking around. “You’re a dangerous man, Ford.”
“Thanks.”
“I don’t know how I missed that. I’m usually good at spotting dangerous men.”
“I guess I wear it well, since I’ve missed that my entire life myself. There’s a lock on the spare bedroom. I can give you my word not to kick the door down, unless the house is on fire. Even then, since I’ve never kicked one down, you’d probably have plenty of warning.”
“If and when I sleep at your house, it won’t be in the spare room. But for now, I’m staying put. You’re a dangerous man, Ford,” she repeated before he could speak. “I’m a determined woman. I not only like living here, I need to. Otherwise, I’d be staying at the closest motel. Now, I’ve got to get inside. I’m putting in a basin-style sink with exposed pipes and wall-hung fixtures. Like you, Buddy doesn’t understand my line of thinking.”
He looked over her shoulder at the house, shook his head. “Right now, I’m not sure anyone understands your line but you.”
“I’m used to that.”
“Come on over when you’re done, we’ll check out that gym.” He picked up his satchel and camera. Then the water bottle. “Your shoes are wet,” he told her, then headed home.
Cilla looked down at her feet. Damned if they weren’t. She squished her way into the house to talk to Buddy.
SIX
C
illa spent the bulk of her afternoon looking at toilets. And choosing sinks. She debated the advantages of travertine tile and granite, limestone and ceramic. In her last incarnation of flipping houses, budget had been king. She’d learned to stick to one, to select the best value and look at the neighborhood as well as the house itself. Too much over, too much under, and profit would be sucked away like dust bunnies in a Dyson.
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