STAYING AT JOE'S
Allison Kincaid can make a great sales pitch. But showing up at Joe Gallahan's motel asking for a favor is her toughest challenge yet. A year ago they were more than just colleagues at a big PR firm.
When work came between them, Joe put the blame on Allison...and his opinion hasn't changed.
She's shocked, however, when Joe agrees to help. Even though she doesn't love his terms, she accepts them because she'll get what she needs. If striking a deal with him means donning a pair of coveralls and swinging a hammer, so be it.
Working side by side with Joe again, they might be able to repair the past. They just might get a second chance, too!
Think of it as just another pitch. One more client to woo. Schmooze and booze. Deal and seal. Nothing new here, Allie.
Except they weren’t in a high-end restaurant. He wasn’t a client. She wasn’t sipping wine. And she’d never been so bone-deep desperate.
Nor so ready to rely on bondage and torture, should the whole schmooze-and-booze thing end in an epic fail.
Though the thought of duct-taping Joe Gallahan did cheer her immensely. She rolled her shoulders up and back, wiped her palms on her linen pants and stepped into the open doorway of the motel room. And blinked.
She’d never seen him in jeans. Two years of working together and three months of dating and she’d never seen him in anything with the slightest resemblance to denim. He’d never been the casual type. Not when it came to clothes, anyway. Then again, it had been nearly a year since he’d left—of course he’d changed. She had, too. Just…not as noticeably.
He stood with his back to her, in a sweat-stained tee and faded, paint-spattered jeans. A pair of scuffed boots added to the construction worker look she was having a hard time wrapping her brain around. And his hair—once kept regularly trimmed, it had now grown so long that the shaggy ends flirted with his shoulders.
She inhaled deeply and the thick, sharp smell of paint made her wish she hadn’t. She fought the urge to cough. A cough would give her away. A cough would mean she couldn’t change her mind.
As if she even had that option. Her pulse kicked up and her fingertips tingled. Easy, Allie. Too much at stake to chicken out now.
At least he seemed sober.
She straightened her spine and moved into the room, watching as Joe pushed the roller up and down the wall in the classic “W” pattern. The muscles of his back and arms alternately bunched and relaxed. Allie dragged her gaze away from his body, annoyed by flashes of erotic memories.
More than his appearance had changed. It seemed that he’d learned a little DIY somewhere along the way. Or had he always known how to do this home repair stuff? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d surprised her.
A hot flush of resentment bubbled up and prickled across her skin. If it weren’t for Joe Gallahan she’d be back in urban Virginia, less than six miles from the nation’s capital, sitting behind a gold-etched nameplate advertising her hard-earned position of “Account Executive.” And collecting the paychecks to prove it.
Instead she was still a PR rep, stuck with this ridiculous assignment in oh-so-cozy Castle Creek, Pennsylvania, hoping she wouldn’t get paint on a blouse she couldn’t afford to replace and preparing to plead with a man she’d just as soon tie up, slather with honey and roll onto a colony of fire ants.
Then again, she was lucky she still had a job. Though sending her off to meet with her ex-lover put her boss next in line for the whole fire ant thing.
Stroke by stroke, a thick coat of pale blue covered a hideous shade of green. Allison’s stomach lifted, then dropped, like a rollercoaster cresting that first big hill. He wouldn’t be happy to see her—which at least put them on equal ground.
“Hello, Joe,” she said.
He went still. The paint roller remained suspended in the air, the muscles of his forearms suddenly pronounced. He turned, slowly, his expression as inviting as his ramshackle, middle-of-nowhere motel. He stared at her and she stared back, fighting the urge to grab handfuls of his shirt and shake the stuffing out of him while screaming, Why?
He moved before she did, thank God, bending down and balancing the roller across the paint tray. When he straightened, his hands went to his hips in a familiar I’m waiting to be impressed pose.
“Allison Kincaid,” he said.
Silence, except for the low-pitched hum of the fan blowing the fumes toward the open window. Her gaze roved his face. The start of a beard darkened his jaw—yet another difference between this version of Joe and the clean-shaven, designer-suited, marketing shark she’d known a year ago. Her throat closed again. If she was having a hard time reconciling the two, Tackett would, too.
Which promised a whole new set of complications. Damn it. Her neck muscles went tight. No matter their history, she had a job to do. A job to keep.
He cocked an eyebrow. “Want to tell me why you’re here?”
Forget “woo the client.” What she really wanted to do was kick his arrogant ass all the way back to Virginia. She risked another inhale, and willed her voice to remain steady.
“Tackett sent me,” she said.
His laugh was immediate and harsh. “The answer is no.” He pulled a tool from his back pocket, squatted and pried open a can of paint.
She didn’t blame him for saying no. She didn’t want him to say yes. But she had her orders.
She ventured further into the room, heels clunking across water-stained plywood. “You don’t know the details.”
“I don’t need to.”
“You should hear this.”
“You should leave.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Sure it is.” He finished pouring paint into the tray and with his fist thumped the lid back onto the can. “Turn around. Walk out the door. Get in your car. Drive away.” He stood, his gaze narrowed. “Don’t come back.”
“Joe.” She passed her keys from one hand to the other, the jingle a taunting echo in the near-empty room. “I wouldn’t be here if my job didn’t depend on it.”
“Then maybe you need another job.” He snatched up a bottle of water, gave the cap a vicious twist. “How long did it take you to drive up here? Five hours? Six? To ask a favor of me? On behalf of Tackett? You’re out of your mind.”
“You’re not the only one here with a grievance.”
“You have a grievance? Do what I did. Quit your job. End of grievance.”
“Can we at least talk about Tackett’s offer?”
“Not interested. Go home.”
“Won’t you at least—”
“Go. Home.” He took a swig of water, the plastic crackling in his grip.
She glared at him, half hoping he’d choke. She hadn’t expected this to be easy, but she’d figured after all this time he’d feel some remorse for what he’d done to her. Instead he was still fixated on what had happened his last few weeks at the agency.
Tackett had told her to apologize. Fat chance.
“Tackett and I had good reason for what we did,” she said. “Surely after all this time you can accept that.”
“I’m not having this conversation. I don’t want to talk about the agency, or Tackett, or any lame-ass offer he sent you to make. Unless you want to pick up a paintbrush and dig in, you need to leave.”
“Just give me a chance to change your mind.”
“And how do you plan to do that? Wait. Let me guess.” He set the water bottle on the ladder and with one swift motion pulled his shirt over his head. “You and me, slick. Right here, right now. Remind me how convincing you can be.”
Heat slapped at her cheeks. Her knees felt loose. He was unbelievable. She was unbelievable. While part of her loathed his over-the-top he-man tactics, another part couldn’t help admiring the hard, sculpted plane of his bare chest.
Shame sidled in, jacking her chin high. “That wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“Once upon a time it was all you had in mind.” He balled up his shirt and tossed it aside. “Let me guess why you’re here. One of my former accounts is launching a campaign and he’s asked for me as lead. Tackett smelled big money and picked you to play fetch, said if you didn’t bring me back to Alexandria you could kiss your Christmas bonus goodbye. Am I right?”
“This isn’t about a bonus,” she said carefully. His scorn made it easy to keep her gaze from straying south of his. “This is about my job.”
He shot her a look that was pure disdain. “When Tackett decided to filch my biggest clients you backed him instead of me, at a time when work was all I had left. And you expect me to hook up with the agency again? Screw that.”
Hook up. Screw. She’d smirk, if only her lips would cooperate. “You know darned well we were trying to—”
“Give it up, slick.”
“At least now I know for sure why you did it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Her keys gave a furious rattle as she clasped her hands behind her back to keep from yanking at her own hair. “You’re actually going to pretend you don’t know?”
“Know what, exactly?”
“What you did.”
“Why don’t you remind me?” He crossed his arms over his bare chest. Another time, another place, and she’d have started to drool.
“You cost me my promotion,” she said, letting the resentment ring loud in her voice. “And you almost got me fired.”
Joe scowled. What the hell was she talking about? “Want to run that by me again?”
“Tackett found out about you and me. Want to know how?”
Judas Priest. Joe exhaled. He already knew how.
“Danielle Franks told him,” she said, her tone not quite casual enough to hide the bitterness. “And you know how he feels about fraternization. So Danielle got the promotion he’d promised me.”
“And you’re here because you think I told Danielle.”
“I’m here because Tackett sent me to bring you back to handle a client who won’t work with anyone but you. The company needs you for two months, tops. The fact that you lost me my promotion is the reason I offered to scrub every toilet in the building in exchange for Tackett picking someone else to ‘play fetch.’ Obviously, he didn’t accept my offer.”
Okay, that hurt. Which pissed him off even more. That son of a bitch Tackett was too damned clever for his own good. No doubt the old man figured Joe would jump at the chance to “reacquaint” himself with Allison Kincaid. Instead he wished she’d kept her pretty little materialistic ass back in the city.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” he ground out. “But not sorry enough to go back.”
“What a surprise. Some things never change, do they?” She shook her head, eyes dark with disgust. “No one mattered but you. Your clients, your projects, your schedule. Everything else came in second. Then something doesn’t go your way and bam! You’re gone and the rest of us are left scrambling to meet your commitments.”
“Didn’t go my way? My brother died.”
“And that’s why you’re hiding out in this hellhole? Because you’re feeling sorry for yourself?”
Joe set his jaw. Was it wrong to be so damned angry he wanted to put a fist through a wall—preferably one he hadn’t already painted—and at the same time be so incredibly turned on by the hints of nipple he could see through her blouse? He stomped over to where he’d lobbed his shirt, snatched it up and stomped back.
“If you think I told anyone about us, you don’t know me.”
“Exactly the point I tried to make a year ago.”
Another direct hit. She’d learned a lot from her boss. Still she had it right. He owed her. Hell.
“Fine. I’ll give Tackett a call.”
“And tell him what? That I can handle the client myself? You think I didn’t try that? Mahoney made it clear. He doesn’t get you, he gets another agency.”
Mahoney, huh? Joe grunted. He knew as well as she did that client should be hers.
“Maybe it’s a sign,” he said. “That it’s time for you to move on.”
“It’s a sign that it’s time for you to step up and fix the mess you made. Mr. DIY.”
“You always did put T&P first.”
“They never let me down.”
“Until Tackett decided to make an example out of you.”
“I repeat. They never let me down.”
“You really want to start comparing scars?” he asked softly.
She clenched her teeth. “I want to keep my job.”
“The agency means that much to you.”
“The paycheck means that much to me.”
“So it’s the money.” He should have known. “What, is the gold-plating wearing off your toothbrush?”
“You self-centered, egotistical son of a—”
“Children, children, please.” They swung toward the door. Longtime Castle Creek resident Audrey Tweedy marched toward them, clapping her hands as if urging a classroom of first graders to settle down after recess. The seventy-something woman had a voice like a pixie and a body like a lumberjack, and Joe couldn’t remember ever seeing her without that purple barrette holding her gray hair out of her face.
For one wild, despairing moment he considered making his escape through the window. But he’d just replaced the screen. And Audrey was faster than she looked.
She wagged a thick finger. “I could hear you kids all the way out in the parking lot. That’s not good for business, Joseph Gallahan.”
“I’m not open for business.”
“That’s not the point.” She gave him a disapproving look—he was getting a lot of those lately—then leaned toward Allison, her expression complicit. “I could tell the trouble right off. You two are having a meat crisis.”
Allison went still. “A what?”
Joe ran a hand over his face as Audrey rummaged through a bright green purse—the one with the oversized “P” on the side. She pulled out a can of Vienna sausages. “You’re grumpy. That’s what happens when you don’t get enough protein. Have a weenie.”
Joe held up his hands, palms out. “I’ll pass.” His gaze cut to Allison, who was staring at the old woman in fascinated dismay.
Audrey gave him a tsk-tsk and shrugged. She jammed the can back into her purse and turned to Allison, thrust out a hand. “I’m Audrey Tweedy, dear. Welcome to Castle Creek. Care for a weenie? No?” She patted her monster of a purse. “I could fit a whole ham in here if I wanted to. I could show you where I got it, if you’d like. The purse, not the ham. ’Course the initial on the side costs extra.”
“What does the ‘P’ stand for?”
Audrey shot Joe a where’d you find this one? look. “Protein.” She turned back to Joe. “Which you, Mr. Vegetarian, don’t get enough of.”
“I had scrambled eggs for breakfast. With cheese. And Aud? I’m a little busy right now.”
She sniffed. “The way you eat, Joseph, you’d think you didn’t have any teeth. You need something that’ll work that jaw—something besides insulting your visitors. And you’re not getting rid of me that easily. Have some jerky.”
He stared down at the bright yellow stick of processed who-the-hell-knew-what. “You never give up.”
She turned to Allison. “You eat meat, don’t you, dear?” Joe tried not to choke while Allison managed a nod. With a smile worthy of a denture commercial, Audrey swung back to face him. “Sounds like you two have some problems to work out. Why don’t you invite your friend here to stay a while?”
Oh, hell, no.
Joe gave her his best mess with me and I’ll break out my pneumatic drill look. Audrey countered with her humor me or I’ll hide a dead perch in your pickup glare.
“Sounds like Allison doesn’t have much of a job to go back to,” Audrey continued smugly. “And Joseph, you and I both know you could use a hand around here. She has two.”
Allison thrust out her hands, fingers spread. “Uh, and they both just had a manicure.”
“Go ahead, Joseph. Invite her to stay.”
He heard Audrey’s words but they didn’t register. He’d finally given in to the urge to look at Allison, really look at her, for the first time in a year. She watched him back, head tipped to the side, hazel eyes narrowed, chin indignant. She’d changed her hair. Instead of the short, sleek, behind-the-ears style he remembered, she’d let it grow so a smooth, butter-colored curtain skimmed her shoulders. Not as smooth as when she’d first walked in, though. One side looked kind of poufy, as if someone had given her a noogie.
Or she’d just rolled out of bed.
He drew in a breath and focused on Audrey, who looked mighty pleased with herself as she stood there in her pink pants, spotless white trainers and olive drab Go Army tee. A gift from his buddy Reid Macfarland, no doubt. Joe sighed.
“Don’t you have anything better to do, Aud?”
“Better than helping two conflicted souls find grace and understanding? Really, Joseph, how self-centered do you think I am?”
He wasn’t touching that with a ten-foot salami. Meanwhile Allison was looking a little wild-eyed.
Audrey gave her a sympathetic smile. “Does it bother you, dear? That he’s one of those pesky vegetarians?”
“Pesco,” Joe growled. “I’m a pesco-vegetarian.”
“You did call this place a ‘hellhole,’” Audrey continued, her voice suddenly all schoolmarm. “If you stayed you could help change that.”
Allison shook the noogie right out of her hair. “That’s not an option.”
Joe watched her back away, toward the door. He should be feeling smug. Why wasn’t he feeling smug?
“Surely, dear, you could spare a few days to help out an old friend—”
“Audrey Tweedy, you’re supposed to be holding a table for us at the diner. If we don’t head over there now, we won’t get any chocolate mousse.” Hazel Catlett appeared next to Allison, tapping her watch. Her gaze slid to Joe’s naked chest and her eyes sparked as bright as the neon-orange color on her lips.
“Goodness gracious me. I see what held you up.”
Hell. The Castle Creek paparazza had arrived. Joe shook out his shirt and scrambled to find an opening. Hazel, meanwhile, was brandishing her cell phone.
“Why didn’t you text me?” she fussed at Audrey. The moment before Joe shoved an arm inside his tee he heard a chiming sound, and Hazel shot him a wicked wink. “You’ve been holding out on us, Joe Gallahan.” Squinting at her phone’s display, she hummed her approval at the photo she’d just snapped. “We’ve got that fundraiser for the citizens’ center coming up. What do you say we have a wet T-shirt contest? You know, the man-chest kind? Honey, who are you?” Another chime as she snapped a pic of Allison.
“She’s a friend of Joe’s, visiting from Virginia. Allison Kincaid, meet Hazel Catlett. She and her sister June have the most adorable salt-and-pepper schnauzer named Baby Blue.”
Allison blinked. Joe did his best to turn a laugh into a cough and Audrey thumped him on the back. With her purse.
Hazel glanced from Joe to Allison and back again. “You really have been holding out on us.” She sidled closer to Allison, keeping her gaze on Joe. “Tell me the truth, hon. Does the bottom half look as good as the top?”
“Let’s go get that mousse,” Audrey said, and tugged on her friend’s arm.
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Hazel flapped a hand at Joe, then elbowed Allison. “Ironic, isn’t it? A piece of beefcake like that, being a vegetarian?”
“I’m standing right here,” he said.
“And God bless you for it,” Hazel beamed.
Audrey led Hazel out of the door while Hazel played with her cell phone, no doubt sending copies of that damned photo to the entire population of Castle Creek. As soon as they cleared the door, Allison rounded on him.
“I’m not staying.”
“And I’m not going back. Glad we understand each other. Goodbye.”
She let loose a strangled sound of exasperation and stalked over to the window. The fan-borne breeze huffed through her hair and his traitorous fingers itched to follow. His gaze skimmed downward. Damn. He shoved his hands in his pockets and forced himself to look away from the luscious lines of her ass. Tried to focus on the probability that the pants hugging that class-A ass had cost more than what he’d shelled out to tile ten bathrooms.
Then again, hadn’t he spent thousands on suits during his stint at T&P?
He scowled. If he’d lost her that promotion, then he damned well owed her. He hadn’t said a word to Danielle. But she’d been hovering over him as he cleaned out his desk and the instant she spotted the photo of Allison she’d figured it out. And apparently had gone running straight to Tackett.
And Allison thought he’d turned tattletale. Because she’d rejected him. Because the company had stripped him of his clients. Not a bad way to get revenge, if he’d been that kind of man.
But things had changed since then. He’d changed. And right now revenge was sounding pretty damned good.
“I’m serious.” She turned from the window, her arms wrapped around her waist so tight it was a wonder she could breathe. “I have to get back. And you have to come with me.”
Obviously she wanted to be here as much as he wanted to be back in the nation’s capital. Maybe Audrey’s idea wasn’t such a ball-buster, after all. Keeping Allison around for a while would be hell, yeah, but he could string that old bastard Tackett along and at the same time score some free menial labor. He pictured Allison trying to handle a roller while fighting to protect her manicure and smiled inwardly. At the very least, he’d get some comic relief.
And maybe, just maybe, she’d see that life in the country—life with him—wouldn’t have been so bad after all.
Scratch that. He’d keep her here because she could help, nothing more. Though he wouldn’t mind getting her naked.
His brain stuttered on the word “naked.”
“Are you even listening to me?”
The buzzing in his ears climbed an octave. As his gaze focused on Allison, he took in her furious pink face and it was all he could do to keep from grinning.
“Two weeks,” he said, then paused. Had he said that out loud? He gave a mental shrug. “You give me two weeks and I’ll give the agency four.”
He expected her to go ballistic—looked forward to it, in fact—but she didn’t give him the satisfaction.
“It’s been a year,” she said calmly. “Can you really still be holding a grudge?”
“There’s a saying. Something about a pot, a kettle and the color black?”
Her arms dropped away from her waist and she clenched her fists. “We hadn’t even been dating for three months when you suddenly asked me to dump everything and follow you up here. Expected me to walk away from my job, my apartment, my life in the city, everything I worked so hard to achieve. And for what? Cracked sidewalks and moldy floorboards? This was your dream, Joe. Not mine.” She relaxed her hands and wiggled her fingers. “But that’s in the past. In the here and now, I’m about to lose my job and you can prevent it. So will you?”
He ran his hands down the front of his tee, smoothing out the wrinkles, pretending to consider. In the past, like hell.
“Two weeks,” he repeated. He pictured her trading in her designer duds for a pair of his old coveralls and this time freed the smile. She snapped her spine straight.
“I’m glad you find this amusing.” She marched to the doorway. “And I’m glad you can afford to…to humor your inner Bob the Builder fantasies up here in Mayberry-by-the-lake.” She swiveled back to face him, as graceful as a model at the end of a runway. “By the way, T&P authorized me to offer you a bonus. Ten thousand dollars. Considering you’ve already been here a year and the sidewalk has more cracks than the St. Andreas fault, I’m thinking you could use the money.”
That did it. Fury kicked at his temples and he tried for a calming inhale, but the air had turned dense. Disappointment, he realized. His throat was thick with it.
It always came down to money.
“Tackett would be proud of you, Kincaid.”
“How about you, Gallahan? Anyone proud of you?”
It hadn’t taken her long to zero in on that soft spot. In another life he would have admired her. Praised her. Pointed her out as an example to new-hires. Now he pitied her. Almost as much as he wanted to find out if she still tasted the same.
She must have seen something in his face she didn’t like because her chin went back up in the air. “So you won’t consider coming back.”
“The moment you consider picking up a drywall taping knife.”
She stared at him for a couple of beats. “Afraid you lost your edge? That you can’t do the job?”
He grunted. “Your job security depends on two weeks of kissing up to the guy who screwed you out of a promotion. Literally. Maybe you’d better stick to worrying about yourself.”
“I had to try.” She hesitated. The already rigid line of her shoulders tensed. “You’re looking good, Joe,” she said quietly. Her gaze locked onto his. “I’m glad.” She turned and walked out, her posture suddenly soft.
He reclaimed the paint roller, dipped it and faced the wall. Struggled to find the strength to raise his arms.
She still talked a good fight, but sometime during the past year her confidence level had taken a massive hit. How much of that was his fault? He looked over his shoulder, at the empty doorway.
He needed a whiskey.
Make that a double.