A Temporary Texas Arrangement
“You’re really going to go in there. Alone. Just before dark?” The low, masculine voice came from somewhere behind her.
With the brisk January wind cutting through her clothes, Tess Gardner paused, house key in hand, and turned toward the Laramie, Texas, street. Senses tingling, she watched as the man stepped out of a charcoal-gray Expedition, now parked at the curb. He wasn’t the shearling coat-wearing cowboy she had expected to see in this rural southwestern town she was about to call home. Rather, he appeared to be an executive type, in business-casual wool slacks, dress shirt and loosened tie. An expensive down jacket covered his broad shoulders and hung open, revealing taut, muscular abs. Shiny dress boots covered his feet.
Had it been any other day, any other time in her recently upended life, she might have responded favorably to this tall, commanding man striding casually up the sidewalk in the dwindling daylight. But after the long drive from Denver, all she wanted was to get a first look at the home she had inherited from her late uncle. Then crash.
The interloper, however, had other plans. He strode closer, all indomitable male.
Tess drew a bolstering breath. She let her gaze drift over his short, dark hair and ruggedly chiseled features before returning to his midnight blue eyes. Damn, he was handsome.
Trying not to shiver in the cold, damp air, she regarded him cautiously. Drawing on the careful wariness she had learned from growing up in the city, she countered, “And who are you exactly?”
His smile was even more compelling than his voice. “Noah Lockhart.” He reached into his shirt pocket for a business card.
Disappointment swept through her. She sighed. “Let me guess. Another realtor.” A half dozen had already contacted her, eager to know if she wanted to sell.
He shook his head. “No.” He came halfway up the cement porch steps of the century-old Craftsman bungalow and handed over his card, inundating her with the brisk, woodsy fragrance of his cologne. Their fingers touched briefly and another tingle of awareness shot through her. “I own a software company,” he said.
Now she really didn’t understand why he had stopped by, offering unsolicited advice. Was he flirting with her? His cordial attitude said yes, but the warning in his low voice when he had first approached her, and had seen that she was about to enter the house, said no.
He sobered, his gaze lasering into hers. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you through the Laramie Veterinary Clinic,” he added.
So he was what? Tess wondered, feeling all the more confused. A pet owner in need of veterinary care? A potential business associate? Certainly not one of the county’s many successful, eligible men who, she had been teasingly informed by Sara, her new coworker/boss, would be lining up to date her as soon as she arrived.
Curious, she scanned his card.
In bold print on the first line, it said:
Noah Lockhart, CEO and Founder
Okay, she thought, so his name was vaguely familiar.
Below that, it said:
Lockhart Solutions. “An app for every need.”
The company logo of intertwining diamonds was beside that.
Recognition turned swiftly to admiration. She was pretty sure the weather app she used had been designed by Lockhart Solutions. The restaurant finder, too. And the CEO of the company, who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was standing right in front of her. In Laramie, Texas, of all places.
“But even though I’ve left half a dozen messages, I haven’t gotten any calls back,” he continued in frustration.
Tess imagined that wasn’t typical for someone of his importance. That was just too darn bad.
Struggling not to feel the full impact of his disarming, masculine presence, Tess returned his frown with a deliberate one of her own. She didn’t know if she was relieved or disappointed he wasn’t there to ask her out. She did know she hated being pressured into anything. Especially when the coercion came from a place of entitlement. She propped her hands on her hips, the mixture of fatigue and temper warming her from the inside out. “First of all, I haven’t even started working there yet.”
His expression remained determined. “I know.”
“There are four other veterinarians working at the animal clinic.”
“None with your expertise,” he stated.
Somehow, Tess doubted that. If her new boss and managing partner, Sara Anderson McCabe, had thought that Tess was the only one qualified to handle Noah’s problem—whatever it was—she would have called Tess to discuss the situation, and then asked Tess to consult on the case. Sara hadn’t done that. Which led Tess to believe this wasn’t the vital issue or ‘emergency’ Noah deemed it to be.
More likely, someone as successful as Noah Lockhart was simply not accustomed to waiting on anyone or anything. That wasn’t her problem. Setting professional boundaries was. She shifted the bag higher on her shoulder, then said firmly, “You can make an appointment for next week.”
After she had taken the weekend to get settled.
Judging by the downward curve of his sensual lips, her suggestion did not please, nor would, in any way, deter him. His gaze sifted over her face, and he sent another deeply persuasive look her way. “I was hoping I could talk you into making a house call, before that.” He followed his statement with a hopeful smile. The kind he apparently did not expect would be denied.
Tess let out a breath. Great. Sara had been wrong about him. Noah Lockhart was just another rich, entitled person. Just like the ridiculously demanding clients she had been trying to escape when she left her position in Denver. Not to mention the memories of the ex-fiancé who had broken her heart…
Determined not to make the same mistakes twice, however, she said coolly, “You’re still going to have to go through the clinic.”
He shoved a hand through his hair and exhaled. Unhappiness simmered between them. Broad shoulders flexing, he said, “Normally, I’d be happy to do that—”
And here they went. “Let me guess,” she scoffed. “You don’t have time for that?”
Another grimace. “Actually, no, I—we—likely don’t.”
“Well, that makes two of us,” Tess huffed, figuring this conversation had come to an end. “Now, if you will excuse me…” Hoping he’d finally get the hint, she turned back to the front door of the Craftsman bungalow, slid the key into the lock, turned it and heard it open with a satisfying click.
Aware that Noah Lockhart was still standing behind her, despite the fact he had been summarily dismissed, she pushed the door open. Head held high, she marched across the threshold. And strode face-first into the biggest, stickiest spiderweb she had ever encountered in her life!
At the same time, she felt something gross and scary drop onto the top of her head. “Aggghhh!” she screamed, dropping her bag and backing up, frantically batting away whatever it was crawling through her thick, curly hair…
This, Noah thought ruefully, was exactly what Tess Gardner’s new boss had feared. Sara Anderson McCabe had worried if Tess had seen the interior of the house she had inherited from her late uncle, before she toured the clinic and met the staff she was going to be working with, she might change her mind and head right back to Denver and the fancy veterinary practice she had come from.
Not that anyone had expected her to crash headfirst into a spiderweb worthy of a horror movie.
He covered the distance between them in two swift steps, reaching her just as she backed perilously toward the edge of the porch, still screaming and batting at her hair. With good reason. The large, gray spider was still moving across her scalp, crawling from her crown toward her face.
Noah grabbed Tess protectively by the shoulders with one hand, and used his other to flick the pest away.
It landed on the porch and scurried into the bushes while Tess continued to shudder violently.
“You’re okay,” he told her soothingly, able to feel her shaking through the thick layer of her winter jacket. She smelled good, too, her perfume a mix of citrus and patchouli. “I got it off of you.”
She sagged in relief. And reluctantly, he let her go, watching as she brushed at the soft cashmere sweater clinging to her midriff, then slid her hand down her jean-clad legs, grimacing every time she encountered more of the sticky web.
Damn, she was beautiful, with long, wildly curly blond hair and long-lashed, sage-green eyes. Around five foot eight, to his own six foot three inches, she was the perfect weight for her slender frame, with curves in all the right places, and she had the face of an angel.
Not that she seemed to realize just how incredibly beguiling she was. It was a fact that probably drove all the guys, including him, crazy.
Oblivious to the ardent nature of his thoughts, she shot him a sidelong glance. Took another deep breath. Straightened. “Was it a spider?’
Noah had never been one to push his way into anyone else’s business, but glad he had been there to help her out, he said, “Yes.”
Her pretty eyes narrowed. “A brown recluse or black widow?”
He shook his head. “A wolf spider.”
“Pregnant with about a million babies?”
He chuckled. “Aren’t they always?”
She muttered something beneath her breath that he was pretty sure wasn’t in the least bit ladylike. Then, pointing at the ceiling several feet beyond the still open front door, where much of the web was still dangling precariously, she turned back to regard him suspiciously. “Did you know it was there? Is that why you told me not to go in alone?”
He held her gaze intently. He hadn’t been this aware of a woman since he’d lost his wife, but there was something about Tess that captured—and held—his attention. A latent vulnerability, maybe. “It never would have occurred to me that was what you would have encountered when you opened the door.”
Squinting, she propped her hands on her hips. “Then why the warning about not going in alone?”
Good question. Since he had never been known to chase after damsels in distress. Or offer help indiscriminately. He had always figured if someone wanted his aid, that person would let him know, and then he would render it in a very trustworthy fashion. Otherwise, he stayed out of it. Tonight, though, he hadn’t. Which was…interesting… given how many problems of his own he had to manage.
She was still waiting for his answer.
He shrugged, focusing on the facts. “Waylon hadn’t been here for at least a year, before he passed four months ago, and he was never known for his domestic skills.” So he honestly hadn’t known what she would be walking into.
She scanned the neat front yard. Although it was only a little past five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was already setting in the wintry gray sky. “But the lawn and the exterior of the house are perfectly maintained!”
“The neighbors do that as a courtesy for him.”
“But not the interior?” she persisted.
“Waylon didn’t want to trouble folks, so he never gave anyone a key.”
Tess turned her gaze to the shadowy interior. All the window blinds were closed. Because it was turning dusk, the inside of the home was getting darker by the minute. And the mangled cobweb was still dangling in the doorway.
Noah knew it was none of his business. That she was an adult, free to do as she chose. Yet he had to offer the kind of help he knew he would want anyone in his family to receive, in a similar situation.
“Sure you want to stay here alone?” Noah asked.
Actually, now that she knew what she was facing, Tess most definitely did not want to stay here tonight. “I don’t have a choice,” she admitted with grim resignation. “I don’t have a hotel room. Everything in the vicinity is booked. I guess I waited too long to make a reservation.”
He nodded, seemingly not surprised.
“The Lake Laramie Lodge and the Laramie Inn are always booked well in advance. During the week, it’s business conferences and company retreats.”
“And the weekends?” she queried.
“On Saturdays and Sundays it tends to be filled with guests in town for a wedding or family reunion, or hobby aficionados of some sort. This weekend I think there’s a ham-radio conference… Next week, scrapbooking, maybe? You can look it up online or just read the signs posted around town, if you want to learn more.”
“Good to know. Anyway…” Tess pulled her cell phone from her pocket and punched the flashlight button. Bright light poured out. “‘I’m sure I can handle it. Especially if we turn on the lights…”
She reached for the switches just inside the door. To her surprise, neither brought any illumination.
Noah glanced at the fixture on the ceiling inside the house, then the porch light. “Maybe the bulbs are just burned out,” he said.
Stepping past the dangling web, he went on inside, to a table lamp. She watched as he tried it. Nothing.
Still wary of being attacked by another spider, she lingered just inside the portal, her hands shoved inside the pockets of her winter jacket. The air coming out of the interior of the house seemed even colder than the below-freezing temperature outside. Which meant the furnace wasn’t on, either. Although that could be fixed.
Noah went to another lamp. Again, nothing happened when he turned the switch. “You think all the bulbs could be burned out?” Tess asked hopefully, knowing that at least that would be an easy fix.
“Or…” He strode through the main room to the kitchen, which was located at the rear of the two-story brick home. She followed him, careful to avoid plowing through another web, then watched as he pushed down the lever on the toaster. Peering inside the small appliance, he frowned.
Anxiety swirled through Tess, as she wondered what she had gotten herself into. “Not working, either?”
“No.” Noah moved purposefully over to the sink and tried the faucet. When no water came out, he hunkered down and looked inside the cabinet below. Tried something else, but to no avail. As he straightened, three small mice scampered out, running past him, then disappeared behind the pantry door. Tess managed not to shriek while he grimaced, and concluded, “Both the electricity and water are turned off.”
Which meant the mice and the spiders weren’t the worst of her problems. “You’re kidding!” After rushing to join him at the sink, she tried the ancient faucet herself. Again…nothing.
Noah reached for the cords next to the window above the sink and opened the dark wooden blinds. They were covered with a thick film of dust. As was, Tess noted in discouragement, everything else in sight.
Plus, the spiders had had a field day.
There were big cobwebs in every corner, stretched across the ceiling and the tops of the window blinds, and strewn over the beat-up furniture. Worse, when she looked closely, she could see mice droppings trailing across much of the floor. Which could mean she had more than the three rodent guests she had already encountered. Ugh.
“Seen enough for right now?” Noah asked.
Tess shook her head in dismay. She’d had such dreams for this place. Hoped it would give her the kind of permanent home and sense of belonging she had always yearned for. But while she was certainly taken aback by what they had discovered here tonight, she wasn’t going to let it scare her off. Besides, in addition to the property, her late uncle had left her the proceeds of his life-insurance policy, with the expectation she would use the funds to fix up the house. “Maybe the upstairs will be better…”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The single bathroom looked as if it hadn’t had a good scrubbing in years. Two of the bedrooms were filled with piles of fishing and camping equipment. The third held a sagging bed, and heaps of clothes suitable for an oil roughneck who spent most of his time on ocean rigs.
On a whim, she checked out the light switch, and the sink in the bathroom, too. Neither worked.
Noah was gazing at her from a short distance away. “Well, that settles it, you can’t stay here,” he said.
Tess had already come to the same conclusion.
Although, after two very long days in her SUV, she wasn’t looking forward to the two-hour drive to San Antonio for an available hotel room.
He met her gaze equably. “You can come home with me.”