Holding a tray laden with sandwiches and a pitcher of iced lemonade, Jordan assessed her work force from just inside the front doorway as Nick, saw in hand, cut another piece of two by four replacement wood to put the railing back together. After she’d directed him to Scott’s plethora of tools kept out back in the overstuffed garage, Nick had been out here hard at work for hours as the miter saw buzzed and the busted balustrade, once again, took shape. She watched as he picked up a hammer and began to nail the wood in place, the muscles bunching in his arms with each whack of the mallet.
She sucked in a breath. It had been a long time since she’d felt attraction to a man. Not only was Pelican Pointe a small town without an overabundance of single guys, most of whom were thirty-plus years her senior, she lived pretty much out in the boonies. The closest thing to a hunk she’d seen recently was the UPS man. He gave her a three-minute-thrill once in a while when he delivered whatever she managed to order online.
But even though she hadn’t had sex in forever, Jordan appreciated watching a fit, in-shape male swing a hammer and work a saw. He’d shed his black jacket, which had hidden a set of ripped abs. Now, the thin fabric of his T-shirt clung to his sweaty body in clumps. Since the day had grown quite warm, she found herself wishing he’d simply take off the shirt. She watched, though as he seemed to delight in the work at hand as though he enjoyed being outdoors. Every so often he stopped to bask in the sunshine holding his face up to the cloudless sky while his longish black hair hung around his face in damp curls.
While he seemed to take pleasure in the ocean breeze cooling off the heat from his body, Jordan took delight in the way he packed himself into a pair of jeans.
She needed to get a grip. And fast.
The minute she stepped out onto the sagging porch, their eyes met. She didn’t imagine the pull in her lower belly because it all but yanked her out of a lust-packed daydream. “You’ve been out here for hours. How about a sandwich?”
“I could eat. Thanks.” He set down the hammer, took the tray from her, put it down between them on the steps. As soon as his butt hit the wood, he picked up a ham and cheese sandwich and dug in. “Mmmm, this isn’t the cold sandwich I expected.” The ham was warm and covered with melted mozzarella, the bread crusty and smeared with a tangy dollop of some kind of tasty spice.
A little insecure when it came to her culinary skills, Jordan couldn’t help but ask, “How’s it taste?” Tentative, she sat down on the other side of the tray on the top step, watching him eat. He must have been ravenous, she thought, as she picked up one of her own concoctions and dug in.
“Delicious. What’s that spice in the mayo?”
“Pesto. It gives it a little extra kick.”
“I got the studio clean, well, clean-er.”
After two tours in Iraq, he could sleep in a barn. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
An awkward silence descended. She’d spent such a long time here alone, it felt strange to be in a position of having conversation with someone other than Hutton. “You finally got all that peeling paint sanded off, makes it look better already.”
“After a couple of coats of stain it’ll look even better.”
“You did a good job putting the railing back together.”
“Getting there. It’ll need a couple coats of paint though.”
Nick polished off his sandwich, downed a glass of lemonade and poured another. “I’ll finish the railing after we eat.” He dusted the crumbs from his shirt and hands, zeroed in on the chunky, chocolate chip coconut macadamia nut cookies on the tray. He broke one in half, stuffed it in his mouth. “You make these?”
“I did.” Pleased he liked the food, she added, “Desserts are my specialty.”
“Best cookie I ever ate. What all needs doing around here?”
That made her laugh. “How much time do you have? And where do I start? Up to now, I’ve been concentrating on the inside, getting the guest rooms ready upstairs.” When she saw the willing look on his face, she reluctantly added the bad news, “But the bathrooms, they need a lot of work. Old plumbing. I’ve put that off too long. I know that was a mistake. Do you know anything about plumbing?”
“Some.” Another white lie. What he knew about plumbing would fill a thimble.
“If you think it would help, I have a how-to book on plumbing. And every other book on do-it-yourself projects known to man,” she said with a nervous laugh.
Nick drained his second glass of lemonade, suddenly craving a cold beer. The lies, he thought, could make a man thirsty. Knowing he should keep his mouth shut, he asked anyway, “Did you have a plan when you started all this?”
Jordan looked away, drew in a breath then calmly blew it out. “The plan was...for Scott, my husband, the plan was for us to turn this place into a B & B. But that only lasted until his unit got called up to Iraq. From that point, from the time I found out…he wasn’t coming back…things got…” She took another deep breath. “Since Scott died, I haven’t had a plan. But, if I don’t get this place up and running by May first, get paying guests in here, get a cash flow coming in to show the bank this is a real business, I’ll lose everything that meant anything to Scott. The bank has given me several extensions already. You might say I’ve hit the proverbial brick wall.”
“May one, huh? There’s still time. How about this? I’ll read your plumbing book, see what I can do to get the house ready and we’ll take it from there.” He stood up. “Why don’t you show me around, show me where to start—after the porch that is.”
She started with a walk around the grounds. To her, it was better if she showed him the hidden cove below the cliff, the beach, the grounds, hoping he’d see the potential of the place right off rather than hitting him over the head with all the work that needed doing inside the house. For some reason it became all important to get him on board with seeing the house as a legitimate B & B and all it had to offer.
Since he’d already dug around in the black-hole-filled garage firsthand and since she’d pointed out the garage apartment earlier, they bypassed that and crossed a grassy courtyard. The quad included an outdoor eating area set up with several teak tables all sporting a variety of colorful umbrellas. Flower beds filled with an assortment of moonbeam coreopsis, day lilies, lanky bromeliads, and purple peonies lined the walkways, bursting with color and fragrance. The place looked like a snapshot out of a garden magazine.
“How many acres?” Nick asked trying to take in the picturesque setting.
“Fifteen,” she advised, as she continued down a well-worn path, past blossom-laden dogwoods and magnolias, shrub vines filled with plump wild blackberries and strawberries just beginning to ripen. Jordan led the way following another trail through the grove of cypress trees before reaching the cliff where they began their descent down to the cove and the beach.
The hike down the side of the cliff was steep and intimidating but the steps built into the side of the slope made the climb down much easier.
As they started down, a little pang hit Jordan’s heart when she remembered how long it had taken Scott to build the wooden steps into the side of the rough terrain. He’d spent months on the project before adding the iron-pipe railing just weeks before his unit had been called up to leave for Iraq. Over her shoulder, she reminded Nick, “Be sure to hold onto the railing. The footing here is tougher than it looks and even the most seasoned hiker can sometimes get a little winded.” She hoped he wasn’t insulted by the reminder.
But she had no sooner gotten the words out than she glanced back and noticed he looked as if he might be having some sort of panic attack. His face had turned a clammy gray as beads of perspiration formed on his forehead. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he whooshed out.
When she reached the last step, Jordan jumped onto the loose, sandy soil and looked back at Nick, who stood on the last step a little breathless.
Like a bubbly tour guide, Jordan hit the high points, anxious to show off what the place offered. She spread her arms out and said, “Nick Harris meet The Cove, forty yards of pristine private beach hidden away from public access that no other house in the area offers. This place is ideal for surfing, whale watching, picnicking. What with six guest rooms, which is more than most B & Bs offer, and with beach access, something even some of the larger hotels in Santa Cruz don’t offer, I shouldn’t have a problem keeping this place full during the summer. At least that’s what I’m hoping.”
She stood watching him walk up and down the stretch of sand near the water. A little nervous, she went on, “That’s rosemary and sage you smell along with Monterey pine. The trail is lined with the stuff. It grows wild here along with plenty of ginger, beach grass and alfalfa. There’s a tide pool, all kinds of cool rock formations in the area.” But as Jordan went on with her pitch it appeared as though Nick wasn’t listening but trying to recover from the climb down. Relieved that he didn’t seem to be as pale as before, she went on determined to give him the full treatment. “Scott planned to offer the guests surfing lessons. He’d be the instructor, of course.” She chuckled almost to herself before adding, “I used to tell him I thought it was a sneaky way to get to go surfing. When we got things up and going, he wanted to offer scuba diving, too. There’s a shipwreck just off the coast not far from here. He thought it would be an interesting selling point to lure guests.”
“Yeah, you know, stay at the B & B, dive while you’re here and explore a shipwreck during your stay.” She pointed offshore toward the horizon. Jordan saw Nick take his time, scope out more of the cove. It was after all a spectacular spot to just sit and enjoy nature. But the guy seemed to be distracted, a little preoccupied and a whole lot winded. With that body, she wondered why. As she watched him walk to the water’s edge and back, checking out the rocks and shells along the way, she finally shut up long enough to give him time to get his breath back.
The climb down told Nick what he’d known for months, after several surgeries, he still wasn’t yet back to full strength. But even so, he had to tamp down the urge to shed his clothes and take a dive right then and there into the blue water.
Standing there at water’s edge he wondered how many times Scott had walked this same beach. His heart clutched at the thought.
To get his balance back, he took several gulps of ocean air, filling his lungs with the salty smells of the sea and reluctantly admitted to himself the place was as beautiful and peaceful as Scott had described. He’d talked about this place so much it made Nick feel like an imposter, which he was. He knew he’d have to pay for posing as a carpenter slash handyman. Maybe he needed to come clean. That idea crashed and burned when he looked over at Jordan. She was obviously off in her own world. It wasn’t until the wind whipped her hair from her face that he realized she was politely waiting for him to recover enough for the trek back up. He shook off his melancholy mood, gave her a brief nod to let her know he was ready, and turned to head back up the cliff.
Once they got back to the top, he followed her along another path that took them past a vegetable garden, where she instinctively checked on her neatly planted rows of fragrant onion, thyme and basil. “I’ve got rabbits. Trying to keep them out is like trying to keep a vampire away from blood.”
“Why would a rabbit stay away from a readymade smorgasbord like this?”
She laughed. “Exactly. But there has to be a way. I’ve tried all the natural remedies, mothballs, marigolds. I’m down to trying vinegar.” She stood up to continue the tour.
“That explains the pickle smell.”
He continued to tag behind as she led him past still more well-tended flower beds filled with pink blossomed hydrangeas, purple delphinium, and native blooming yellow and white ice plants. They passed budding magnolias, ancient pines, and another row of cypress where a couple of rope swings swayed in the breeze. To Nick the entire fifteen acres looked like something out of a travel guide, an idyllic snapshot of coastal living. It sure wasn’t smog-infested L.A.
No wonder Scott hadn’t been able to shut up about the place.
When they got to the house, they entered through a sunny mud room with banked high windows on one side, and a roomy, well-organized laundry space on the other. They made their way into a bright, airy open kitchen. A commercial six-burner stovetop and double oven took up one side of the room, while a spotless marble-topped island planted in the middle held an array of ancient, well-scrubbed pots and pans overhead. A desk took up one corner, a stone fireplace the other.
Brand-new chrome appliances complemented chestnut cabinets. The newness of everything, including a spotless Italian tile floor, told him this room had already been remodeled. “You must have started in here.”
“It needed the most work. It made sense to get the kitchen up and going before we did anything else.” She didn’t add that the remodeling had pretty much ended here in this room when Scott left for Iraq.
They moved on to the back staircase and up to the guest bedrooms. He listened as she pointed out the rooms she’d already painted, light fixtures she’d already replaced, a bathroom floor she was ripping up before putting down new tile. “The larger bedrooms are on the back side of the house with the view of the ocean.” She walked into one, stood at the double French doors looking out. “You can see the trail we walked through earlier leading down to the cove just beyond that grove of trees. And then of course there’s the ocean.”
For some reason, Nick got the impression she wanted him to see the possibilities of the place. He wasn’t sure why his opinion mattered. He wanted to tell her he understood the plan, and that what she was trying to do out here without Scott wasn’t crazy or impossible for a woman here alone.
But as she stood nervously twirling the simple gold chain dangling from around her neck, all he could do was think about Scott’s hopes and dreams for this place. After all, he knew Scott’s plans almost as well as Jordan. But he couldn’t mention that.
Instead, he wanted to know, “Jordan, where do you and the baby sleep?”
“Downstairs. There are two bedrooms off the front of the house. I’ll show you the rest of the downstairs as soon as Hutton wakes up.”
She opened one of the French doors. They both stepped out onto a long, wooden deck running the length of the back of the house. The ocean breeze instantly made an impact. The cooling, aromatic wind rustled through the colorful pots of flowers lined up along the wall where patio chairs waited for guests to sit outside and either enjoy a sunset or maybe stargaze through the telescope already pointed skyward.
“That’s some view,” Nick remarked, as once again, he filled his lungs with the smells from the ocean. It was obvious why Scott had talked so much about home. He’d had so much to come back to, any man who’d had all of this waiting would have talked about it nonstop.
Nick had nothing like this back in L.A., not even close. Not this woman, certainly not a child. Nothing in his life remotely resembled Scott’s. For whatever reason, Nick’s life had been spared that day in Iraq while Scott’s had not. It made no sense. For years, Nick had distanced himself from commitment, from serious relationships while Scott had settled down, made a life here with Jordan. And for what?
Jordan’s voice brought him back from questions with no answers.
“The smaller bedrooms across the hall don’t have this view, of course, but they’re nice size. Hopefully these larger rooms will be my bread and butter.”
Nick kept his thoughts to himself as they went back inside, down a long hallway where he noticed three of the rooms stood empty. He wondered how she intended to have guests without furniture. “Aren’t you missing something in here?”
She laughed nervously. “I wanted to paint each of the bedrooms a different color so they’d have their own special theme.” She smiled tentatively. “Now all I have to do is come up with one and finish painting before I bring up the furniture. My aunt’s been generous enough to donate some antique pieces that will go well in here. My sister and her husband are bringing the last of the stuff down first chance they get. As you saw, the rest of the furniture is stored in the garage. It’s out there gathering dust.” But looking at the bare rooms now, she should have already furnished these rooms. There was so much she should have already taken care of, seen to. How could she explain to anyone how difficult the past year had been, the grief, the depression?
He was staring at her.
She sighed. She might as well level with him and get the bad news out in the open. “The building inspector was here yesterday. He said I’ll have to bring the wiring up to code.”
“Whew! I’m no electrician. You’ll have to hire a professional for that.”
Terrific. The do-it-yourself vibe he gave off didn’t include wiring hundred-year-old houses. “Murphy gave me the name of several in Santa Cruz. I’ll start making some calls this afternoon.”
But suddenly, Nick thought of another way to help. “I could handle that part for you. I might know someone who could do the job.” He was certain, Ben Latham, and a former Guard buddy would have no qualms about helping out. And he could also arrange to pay him without Jordan ever knowing about it.
Her eyebrows rose. “Really? That’d be great. Umm, any idea how much he’d charge?”
He shook his head. “No idea.”
When they got to the first bathroom off the front landing, Nick looked in, came to a decision of his own. The room needed a new toilet, a new sink, a new faucet, and new flooring. Had to be four for four, he thought, anything less would come off as unfinished and tacky. “You weren’t kidding. What made you think you could fix this place up?”
“Scott grew up here. The house belonged to his grandparents. But they lost the house in the early ‘90s and had to move out after his grandfather made some bad investments. When his grandpa died, Scott promised his grandmother he’d get the house back for her. Of course she died before he could. But when we got married, we bought the place and moved back here to raise our own family. Six months after we moved back, his unit got called up.”
“You’ve been living out here alone,” he declared aloud, not really expecting her to comment.
“Until Hutton came along, yes.”
A pregnant woman, alone, living all the way out of town like this? No wonder Scott had worried himself sick. What if she’d gone into labor out here? When he saw the shadow of worry flutter in her eyes, he did his best to make her feel better. “There’s still time to get it done, Jordan. It can still happen.” And by God he’d make it happen for Scott, for her.
“I don’t know, there’s an awful lot left to do. I should have had the place ready to open by now, been further along with everything.”
For some reason, he desperately wanted to reassure her. “You shouldn’t be that hard on yourself. This is a huge undertaking for one person to handle. Together, we’ll pick up the pace.”
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Genre – Romance
Rating – PG13
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