Widower Dean Halvorsen is concentrating on just two things: his construction business and raising his teenage son. He doesn't really care about anything else. Not anymore.
Then Annabelle Nichols comes to Emmett's Mill, California, with her baby daughter, Honey. Before Dean quite knows how, Annabelle is working in his office and turning his world upside down. Still, the more time he spends with Annabelle and Honey, the more he realizes what's missing in his life. But Annabelle is all wrong for him.
Of course, when somethingor someone!is all wrong, that doesn't mean things won't work out just right.
About the Author
Kimberly and her three children make their home in the Central Valley of California.
Read an Excerpt
Dean Halvorsen's day soured just about the same time his breakfast burrito heartburn kicked in, and he realized as he fished around in his pocket that he'd left his antacids at home.
"Eagle came in with a lower bid. You know how it goes. Times are tough. The bottom line is tight and we had to go with the lowest bidder. You understand, right?"
Dean bit back what he wanted to say and gave a short nod to Petey Simonsini. No, he didn't understand. What he did understand was that Eagle Construction had snaked another job out from under his company by somehow coming under the Halvorsen Construction bid. Which was damn near impossible since Dean had cut the bid to the bone in an attempt to get the job.
"Aaron beat us fair and square, I suppose," Dean said, though it made his teeth grind just to say it.Aaron Eagle never did things the right way. He cut corners, hired unlicensed subcontractors and bought shoddy materials to punch holes in the budget. No. Dean didn't figure Aaron had beat him square at all, but there was no sense in whining about it. Except, as he rubbed at the spot on his chest where the acid pooled, he knew his temper was about to get the best of him.
Damn him. The man was on a personal quest to put Halvorsen Construction out of business. This was the third bid they'd lost to Eagle in six months. It seemed every time Dean put in a bid, Aaron was right behind him, even on the out-of-town jobs. The man had an agenda and it was starting to piss Dean off. Pretty soon he was going to have to start bidding on state jobs and that idea didn't appeal at allnot because he hated the unions, which wasn't entirely true, but because of all the red tape that came with those jobs.
By the time he arrived at the office, his heartburn had reached four-alarm status. As he burst through the door, intent on one thingto find his antacids he pulled up short and choked on what he saw.
His younger brother Sammy looked up and grinned broadly, daring Dean to yell, and then introduced the woman sitting behind the desk.
"Dean, meet our new office manager, Annabelle Nichols."
She stood and extended her hand, but Dean wasn't in the mood to play nice anymore. Too bad for her. And he was going to have one less brother in about two minutes.
"I don't remember hiring an office manager," Dean said stonily, and she withdrew her hand with a nervous glance at Sammy.
"Aw, c'mon now. Don't be a jerk in front of Annabelle. There's plenty of time to show her just how difficult and surly you can be. Why start with the first day?"
Sammyever the comedian. But Dean wasn't laughing. Sammy had broached the subject of hiring someone new last week, and Dean thought he'd communicated quite clearly his thoughts on the subject. They didn't need anyone new.
As he eyed the woman in front of him, Dean realized he must not have been clear enough.
Ignoring Sammy, he said to her, "Ma'am, I'm afraid there's been a miscommunication between me and my idiot brother. We're not hiring right now. I'll pay you a full day's wage for your trouble."
"Excuse us, Annabelle. This will just take a minute." Sammy lost his good-time grin and strode to Dean. "I own a stake in this company, and I say we do need someone. Beth's been gone two years and the business is slowly falling to crap because you've refused to hire a full-time office manager. The temp agencies were fine for the short haul, but the constant flow of people that have come and gone through here is killing us. We're losing too many jobs because of stupid mistakes that wouldn't have been an issue if we'd had someone like Beth in the office."
"There's no one like Beth," Dean all but growled, appalled that Sammy would even suggest such a thing. He avoided looking in the woman's direction but he could smell something fruity in the air melon, perhapsprobably coming from that long curly hair, he noted with a frown. It was making his nose itch. "Everything's fine. You're overreacting."
"Bullshit," Sammy said, his temper flaring. He gestured to the desk that was littered with Post-its, paperwork, bits and scraps of note pages and job sheets. "You couldn't find a brick on that desk much less anything important, like contracts and subcontractor bids!"
"All you need is a good file system," the woman interjected quickly, drawing Dean's attention away from the need to place his fist squarely into his brother's face. She swallowed and gestured, her hands moving like little birds as she gathered piles. "And I was just telling Sammy when you came in that I may have an idea that might work to organize your system."
"The system's fine the way it is," he answered, giving her a hard look, which shesurprisinglyreturned.
"Not from what I can see," she said. "Your system is cataloged by job number, which makes it hard to find later for reference. If the files were alphabetical, it would be much more efficient and you wouldn't have a Post-it forest growing on your desk, the surface of which, I might add, has completely disappeared. It's no wonder you're losing jobs."
Dean sent a quick look to his brother. Sammy had told her about Gilly's? That was low. Embarrassment at that incident made his heartburn feel like a mild tickle.
"Yes, I told her about Gilly's," Sammy said without a hint of apology, his gaze clear but concerned. "Beth's gone. We all loved her but we can't let the family business go down the tubes because you don't want anyone else to sit at that desk."
Dean caught the quick widening of Annabelle's eyes and he felt terribly exposed. Beth used to keep the office running smoothly. They had been a team: a well-oiled machine that had helped take his father's company to another level of business. She was not only his wife, but his best friend and business partner.
No one could replace her. Especially not a woman barely out of her teens. Dean assessed Annabelle with a quick, dismissive sweep. She wasn't a day over twenty-five, he'd wager, though there was something about herthe way her dark eyes caught everything without missing a beatthat made her seem older.
"Sorry," he said to her, as he pulled his wallet from his back pocket. "I said we don't need anyone else." Throwing a wad of cash to the desk, he turned on his heel, saying over his shoulder to his brother, "She's gone by the time I get back."
Annabelle felt the slam of the office door reverberate, and she exhaled heavily, pursing her lips against the awkward moment sitting between her and Sammy.
Sammy was married to Annabelle's best friend, Dana, but Annabelle didn't know him or his family very well, having only just moved to Emmett's Mill. Obviously, he'd offered her the job without consulting his brother.
And now she was in a strange town without a job. If that wasn't a continuation of the stream of bad luck she'd been cursed with, she didn't know what else was.
"Let me talk to him," Sammy said, his mouth grim. "He'll come around."
"It's fine. Don't push it. He seems pretty set in his mind. Besides, I've never been the type to stay when I'm wanted to go. Thanks for trying, though. I appreciate it."
Sammy shook his head resolutely. "No. I'll talk to my dad. He'll get him to see reason."
Annabelle shuddered at the thought of Sammy doing such a thing on her account. "God no. I don't even know your brother, but I wouldn't much like it if someone tattled on me like that. I'll be fine. There's gotta be something else available. Restaurants are always hiring, right?"
Sammy grimaced. "Maybe. But Emmett's Mill is a tourist town. It practically shuts down in the winter. Hell, I'm sorry, Annabelle. Dana and I pretty much talked you into moving here on the promise that you'd have a job. I never figured on Dean being such an ass about the whole thing. I mean, I knew he'd be resistant but not this bad. "
She patted Sammy on the shoulder and scooped up the cash on the desk. "My rent's paid for the month. I'll find something else. Besides, I like it here. It's a perfect town for a fresh start."
Sammy smiled but there was worry in his expression. Pocketing the cash, she grinned without showing a hint of the true panic starting to blossom, and did what she could to allay his concern. Dana had married a good man. It wasn't his fault things hadn't worked out as they'd hoped.
If anyone was well acquainted with disappointment, it was Annabelle. But she never dwelled on the past. And as she closed the office door to Halvorsen Construction she considered the unfortunate incident with Dean Halvorsen well on its way to history.
She paused briefly at her car. For some reason, she'd thought this was going to be the place where she could put down roots. Talk about being way off.
Family, roots, stability. She snorted. An illusion. All of it. God, when was she ever going to learn?
Dean heard her voice before he saw her. Returning to his double cheeseburger, he tried to ignore the flash of guilt but it had already ruined his lunch.
Annabelle was talking earnestly to Steve Gerke, the manager of The Grill, and by the look on Steve's face, whatever they were talking about didn't bode well for her. Dean pushed his plate away, ready to leave. He signaled for the waitress, but she motioned that she'd be a few minutes. Great. Annabelle drew his gaze despite his resolve to pretend he didn't see her trying to find a job.
"I learn fast," he heard her say. Her voice was husky yet melodic. A strange contradiction he hadn't noticed the other day. His ears pricked again. "Anything? Dishwasher, maybe? How about line cook? I can make a mean plate of hash browns."
"I'm sorry, Ms. "
"Nichols. Annabelle Nichols."
"Ms. Nichols. We've already hired all the staff we need at the moment. Good luck with your search. Leave your number with Maria up front and I'll let you know if anything changes."
Tough break. He tried not to see the sharp disappointment on her face but she kept forcing his attention toward her. She looked like one of those fine-boned porcelain dolls that cost so much you shouldn't touch them. He shook off the thought and motioned again to the waitress, ready to get back to the office, when Aaron walked in. Ah hell.
Dean must've racked up a serious deficit in a past life for all the karmic crap he'd been served lately.
He stiffened, determined to ignore the man, but Aaron had a knack for pissing people offa talent Dean was sure he perfected in the privacy of his own homeand right now, Aaron was doing a bang-up job of rubbing Dean the wrong way.
Aaron's expression lit with a dark zeal when he saw Dean, and it was all Dean could do to remember his manners and not deck the guy right then and there. There was no love lost between them, and both men knew why.
Dean wasn't the smooth talker in the family. That was his younger brother Sammy's forte. And he left him to it for good reason. He'd never excelled at smiling and playing nice when he wanted to do the exact opposite. This was something Aaron knew and exploited whenever possible.
"Great job landing that new plaza contract, though I don't know how you managed to talk old man Tucker into selling that slice of land. I've been trying for years and the old sucker wouldn't budge. Mind sharing any tips?" Aaron asked with feigned casual interest.