Crete followed Sage up to the front door of the colonial mansion situated at the corner of two of Seattle’s nicest downtown streets. She’d attempted to convince him on the drive over that his showing up was providential. He would be helping her, a friend of hers, and himself all at the same time. Out of politeness and sheer gratitude, he’d kept his mouth shut about her plan. Rent-a-husband, indeed, he thought. How the mighty have fallen. Only his brother’s memory could drive him to something like this.
But he was in no position to argue at this point. He would have loved to tell her that he had another plan, but it would have been a complete lie. Who would have taken him in, found him a place to stay safely hidden away, and effectively solved his problem all within the space of a few minutes?
She carried on an animated monologue about how he would stay in the house and assist the owner in fixing up the place in time for her grand opening two weeks from today. “Meanwhile no one will be the wiser. You’ll be inside most of the time. The only other people you’ll run into are two carpenters and a bookkeeper. You’ll be so busy with the renovations that it’ll take your mind off waiting.”
He only half listened as he forced himself to reserve judgment on this plan. His proposal that he simply hire himself out as her friend’s carpenter was quickly disposed of.
“She’ll never consent if she thinks I had to hire you myself. Now you just hush and let me take care of everything. I’ll do the talking.”
They did agree on one thing: the fewer people who knew why he was here, the better. He’d had to tell her everything about Barrows and his history with the Portland police department. She’d insisted on being able to tell her husband, but his secret would stop there. This woman he’d be working for would know nothing. He knew Sage and her husband would keep his secret. After he’d changed into one of the company “uniforms” -- a white tank top and jeans torn at the knees -- he’d officially become one of Sage’s RAHs. Hours ago he was the owner of a well-respected diner. Now he was a rental husband hired to perform whatever renovation duties her friend required.
The house had a regal air, standing in the middle of the historic district but still close to the main arteries into the city. He’d done some real estate searching to find the spot for his diner, and he’d discovered what the B and B’s owner apparently also knew. The old real estate adage was true: location, location, location. He could easily imagine the place as a B and B. The owner must be as shrewd a businesswoman as Sage.
Sage rang the bell. A moment later, the echo of approaching footsteps gave way to an opening door.
A short blonde smiled at Sage, then looked at him. Her eyes were indigo blue behind wire-rimmed glasses, but her mouth, full and luscious, twisted to a hard frown as she gave him the once-over, then turned on her friend.
“Oh, Sage, don’t tell me this is Sven. I thought I made it clear this morning that I didn’t need one of your guys,” she said. Her voice sounded familiar, yet he was quite sure he’d never seen such a beautiful woman look so flustered and irritated in his life.
“Tasha,” Sage said, walking forward and pulling her along, “now you listen to me --”
“No, you listen to me,” Tasha said. “Excuse us, Sven. I need to talk to my friend for one second.”
The two women moved into the house.
Sven? Oh man, could this get any worse? Bart had been the name they’d agreed on, but that might be history. Bart was bad enough; Sven was verging on ridiculous. Made him sound like some kind of Scandinavian massage therapist. He was about as far from Scandinavian as Seattle was from Sweden.
Well, Sven or not, standing outside any longer than absolutely necessary wasn’t smart. Realizing they weren’t planning to invite him in, he stepped across the threshold.
The old building’s majestic facade was no harbinger of the interior. The entryway was covered in trash. Boxes, boards, and discarded tools lay strewn across the expansive floor. And the floor was another horror. Filthy, already damaged, it was taking on further abuse from the heavy generator leaking oil all over the middle of the room. The original oak floor might have been salvageable, could have possibly been refinished at one point -- that point was past.
And he hadn’t even seen the rest of the house. This place is supposed to open in two weeks? He shook his head and muttered under his breath. “Oh hell.”
Two large men in dirty T-shirts stood next to a stack of crates and wood planks. Both drank from paper cups and eyed him. The stench of old cigarette smoke filled his nostrils, and dust burned his eyes. He nodded toward them, and both looked away.
“Sven! Come over here.” Sage’s voice echoed through the room.
Crete approached the two women, feeling the crunch of dirt under his new sneakers. The lovely, irritated visage of the owner greeted him.
“Hello,” Crete said, ignoring the unwelcome look on the woman’s face. “I guess I’m Sven. It’s nice to meet you.”
Tasha held out her hand. “Tasha Henslow. I’m sorry Sage dragged you here, but I really don’t need help. I’m sure you’ve got other jobs you need to attend to, and as you can see, I’ve got two workers already.”
“Tasha,” Sage said, her voice pleading.
Sage had dragged him here, all right, but if he wasn’t careful, the gig would be over before it even began. He couldn’t afford that. Not that he was crazy about her plan, but it was better than no plan.
Crete took another look at the two guys she’d mentioned. Neither of them had moved an inch since he’d entered. He smiled his most winning smile at her. “Yeah, I noticed they’re getting a lot done. What’s their actual job description? Coffee tasters?”
Tasha’s gaze narrowed. “Well, they’re on a break at the moment.”
“It’s two thirty. Didn’t they have lunch? How much of a break can they possibly need?”
“Sven.” Sage’s voice held a low warning.
“No, that’s okay, Sage,” Tasha said. “What’s your point, Sven?”
Crete saw the look in her eyes, and he knew it instantly. Anger mingled with doubt. Bad combination. No matter what he said, his opinions wouldn’t endear him to her. He considered keeping them to himself but nixed the idea. Maybe his coming was providence. Tasha didn’t realize it yet, but she needed him here as much as he needed to be here.
“With all the work you need done, it’ll take guys working a lot harder than those two. I would fire their asses right now if they worked for me.”
Tasha shook her head. “Well. Okay then. Fellas!” Tasha didn’t take her eyes off Crete. Tension blazed between them, and Crete experienced a strange sense of de?ja` vu. Who did she remind him of? Something about her was so familiar.
The two men sauntered over. God, did they have any speed other than “slug”? When they finally closed the distance, Tasha waved a hand toward them.
“Sven, this is Jack and John Marrell. They own their own construction company and have been doing interior renovation work for ten years. Fellas, how late did you work last night?”
“Until midnight,” one of the lunkhead brothers said. Crete didn’t know which was Jack and which was John. And he didn’t give a shit. These two had “worked” until midnight? Oh terrific. This just got better and better. He’d just bet they were “working.”
“So you’re pretty tired, huh?” Tasha continued. “You’ve been staying late every night for the past four weeks, haven’t you?” Her voice had taken on a note of condescension Crete knew was aimed at him. He was torn between feeling sorry for her and wanting to shake her.
“Yeah, we have,” the taller and fatter of the two said.
“So you see, Sven, these men need a break now and then. What are we going to get done today, gentlemen?”
John looked at Jack -- or vice versa -- and they both shrugged. “We’ve got to wait on the new drywall to get here. Then we’ll get some of that up today.”
Tasha smiled at Crete. “It’s drywall day.”
He didn’t want this job, but with zero alternatives and the look of unearned superiority on the faces of these two buffoons, he knew he had no choice. She was being rooked and didn’t even know it. He’d already stepped across the threshold. He was here for the duration. Best to get this over with.
Crete looked at the two men. “What time did you get here?”
“Twelve. What’s it to you?”
Twelve? Crete cleared his throat. “When’s the drywall supposed to arrive?”
They looked at each other again, then back to Crete. Neither spoke.
“Until it gets here, what were you planning on doing?”
“What business is it of yours anyway?” Tall and Fat asked.
Tasha’s smile faltered. “Uh, well, he’s...”
“Yeah, like John said -- who the hell are you?” the one that must be Jack asked.
“You’ve been here four weeks, huh? Delivery of drywall takes about two days. You can get most anything you’d need for this place at any normal hardware store. Even if you’d had to order it, you should have gotten it weeks ago, or didn’t you know the place needed new drywall the first time you walked in here?”
Jack looked at Tall and Fat. John then hiked his pants higher up on his hips. “What are you trying to say?”
He rubbed his tongue over his teeth. “I’m not trying to say anything. I’m speaking English, and I’m telling you that quite a few of those plates and studs are rotten, which means you should fix the water leak and replace those boards before beginning any drywall work. Also since I don’t see an actuated or pneumatic nailer anywhere among all the other tools you’ve got lying around, I’m pretty sure you weren’t going to replace the boards. Nor, judging by the water I see pooled on the floor, have you fixed the leak.”
All four of them turned toward the wall and saw the small puddle Crete referred to.
Crete turned to Tasha. “These two don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I don’t care how many years ?experience’ they’ve got. What I see is they’re milking you and doing very little work. If they ?worked’ until midnight, you’re probably paying them overtime too. I don’t know how bad this place was four weeks ago, but it couldn’t have been much worse than what I’m looking at right now. I gutted my own place and redid every piece of the interior in three weeks with my brother, and we never worked past six.”
The two men continued to stare at him, but he ignored them.
“You should tell these loafers to take a hike and take me on. I’m free, I’m here, and I’m willing to actually do the work.” Crete stared hard at her. The thought that these two were trying to pull one over on this woman burned his blood. He’d seen rip-off artists in his time, and if these guys had any construction experience at all, he was Bob Vila.
“Hey.” John pushed past Tasha. He stood nose to nose with Crete as Jack moved beside him. “I don’t like your accusations, and I don’t like you. Why don’t you take a hike?”
“Gentlemen,” Tasha said, her voice a little shaky.
“Tasha, hang on.” Sage pulled her friend beside her and out of the oncoming fray.
John pointed at Tasha. “You want to sidewalk this guy, or do you want me to do it? I’m not going to stand around here and be insulted.”
“No, you don’t have to stand around, but it appears to be what you do best,” Crete said. He pushed up his sleeves. “Take your best shot if you think you’ve got one there, Jack.”
“That’s John,” Sage said.
John drew his mammoth arm back as he clutched his hand into a fist. Crete shoved him so hard he landed on his backside and slid across the floor. Tasha gasped. When Jack stepped forward, Crete sideswiped him with a flip of his leg and knocked the man’s feet out from under him. He hit the floor with a loud thud.
Adrenaline and the low-burning fury of his situation surged through him. He didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to deal with this shit...he didn’t want his brother to be dead. “This gets uglier from here. I’ll take this shitty day out on both of your sorry asses if you don’t sidewalk them yourselves in the next five seconds.”
Jack rose, rubbing his back, then stumbled toward the door. John scooted across the wood floor, then clambered up, keeping his gaze on Crete as he joined his brother.
Jack opened the front door and pointed at Crete. “This is just getting started.”
“Well, it took you four weeks to get started here. I’m not worried,” Crete said.
Sage chuckled as the door slammed.
Crete looked from the door to Tasha’s shocked face. She must have realized her mouth was hanging open, because she snapped it shut.
“What did you just do to me?”
“I did you a big favor,” he said. “Those two were not helping. I can take one look at this place and see that you need help. Real help.”
Tasha shook her head. “You fired my guys! You had no right --”
“To do what?” he asked. “To keep you from wasting money? You’re right. I didn’t.”
“I can’t believe this. Wait just one second. You said you gutted your place of business. If you have a business, then what’re you doing working for Sage?”
He stared at her. Something in her voice, in her eyes, was so familiar. He’d noticed it before, but now --
Holy shit. It couldn’t be.
“Sven is a new employee,” Sage said.
“I know that part.” Tasha held her hand up to silence Sage. “What I don’t know is why. Install some faulty wiring in that renovation? Ceiling cave in? You’ve fired my carpenters, and you think I’ll believe you know what you’re doing? What happened to that building, Sven?”
“It’s as solid as a brick shithouse.” Crete pushed through visions of her naked body flashing in his mind. Her hair entwined in his fingers, her mouth on his belly, kissing him and moving lower. Her hair was shorter. She was a few years older now and wore glasses, but it was definitely her.
“I beg your pardon?” Tasha said.
He pulled his hat lower to hide his face. “I said it’s as solid as the day we renovated it.” Oh this was bad. He should get out, and right now. “Listen, Sage, the woman doesn’t want me here. I should leave.”
“Oh, no you’re not!” Tasha grabbed his arm.
Her touch sent an electric shock of total recall up his arm. How had she not recognized him already? And how long before she remembered who he was and what they had done? He’d dreamed for five years that he would run into her again, but not like this.
“You fired my guys, and now you’re staying. Sage, tell him he’s staying.”
Sage stepped in front of him and put both of her hands on his shoulders. She leveled her gaze and stared into his eyes. “Yes, Sven, you’re staying. This is best for everyone. Right?”
He scarcely registered Sage’s question. After all this time, he’d finally found her. When she did recognize him, what then? Maybe if they were alone, if the moment weren’t as awkward as he expected it would be, then...
“Right, Sven?” Tasha prodded.
“Yeah, I suppose it is, Tasha.” Sven. He wanted to hear Tasha say his real name. She’d said it that night, called it numerous times in low, rapturous moans. She’d refused to tell him hers, but forming the word on his lips echoed the memory of that night through him even more vividly.
“Good,” Tasha said. “First thing, stop that leak. Then get me one of those pneumatic whatchacallits and replace my rotting boards. If you get that done, I’ll think about not killing you.”
Sage smiled at him, then turned to Tasha. “Don’t worry. This guy is the man you need.”
Crete didn’t know about now, but one night he had been. That night she’d begged, she’d screamed, she’d whispered, and he’d given her anything and everything she wanted. He’d made love to her for hours then, and he could imagine stripping her naked and doing it again now.
He took a long look at Tasha. “I’m the man you need.”