Hearts Under Construction

BOOK: Hearts Under Construction
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“You don’t have to rattle off my attributes, Mr. Preston. I’m not someone who has to be praised to be happy.” Ellie could sense he was smiling at her. Mocking her.
 

“Suit yourself.” He settled into the seat. “I just didn’t want you to feel threatened because I’m your boss, that’s all.”

He was gloating, pure and simple. “Why would that make me feel threatened?”

“I think you feel threatened because you don’t like change.”

She gasped. “Look, Cole, you know nothing about me, so please don’t try to analyze me!”

She pulled onto the side of the road at the job site and jumped out of the car. Instead of taking the usual care when walking at a construction site, she plunged the heels of her shoes into the muddy ground. When she lifted her left leg, her shoe stayed put. She teetered and swayed like a bobble-headed Hawaiian doll. Desperate to maintain her dignity, she jerked on her foot and fell into the waiting arms of Cole Preston.

DIANN HUNT
 

and her husband, Jim, started on a three-mile trek through Amish country in 1997, and at that moment, she had no idea she was taking her first steps toward a new career. Inspired by their walk, she wrote an article, which was published a year later. Other articles soon followed. After studying fiction writing, she celebrated her first novella sale in 2001, with CBA bestselling novellas and novels reaching the bookshelves soon afterward.

 

Wanting to be used by God in the ministry of writing, Diann left her job as a court reporter in the fall of 2003 and now devotes her time to writing. Well, writing and spoiling her four granddaughters.

 

She has been happily married forever and loves her family, chocolate, her friends, chocolate, her dog and, well, chocolate.

 

Be sure to check out her Web site at www.diannhunt.com. Sign her guestbook, and drop her an e-mail. And, hey, if you have any chocolate…

 
HEARTS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
 
DIANN HUNT
 

 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!


2 Corinthians
5:17

To my editor, Krista Stroever, for her encouragement and valuable expertise, and to my critique partner, Colleen Coble, for her prayers, writing advice and, most of all, for her friendship.

 

In memory of my husband’s grandparents, James and Zana Hunt. I will never forget you. Your Christian example lingers in my heart still, and because of you, my life is changed.

 
Chapter One
 

C
hange.

Some people liked it, even thrived on it. Eleanore Williams knew she wasn’t one of them.

With a quick glance in her car mirror, Ellie smoothed her blond hair into place and touched up her makeup. She wiped away a smudge of mascara and felt pleased with the way her new emerald-green pantsuit matched her eyes.

When she stepped from her car into the morning light, the warmth of the sun’s rays announced spring would soon slip into summer. It didn’t seem possible. Where did the time go?

She tugged on the shoulder strap of her laptop, adjusting the weight of it as she walked toward the office. Oh, some changes were okay. Like getting a job promotion. She looked forward to that one. Change of clothes, change of soap detergent, change of seasons, she could handle those. It was the life upheavals she didn’t like. The unexpected things. Okay, and diets. She hated diets. Yet, thanks to her father’s side of the family, her five-foot-two frame swelled with every piece of chocolate almost from the instant it melted in her mouth. She thought of the apple and salad in her lunch bag. Her mood darkened. A large black ant crawled in her path and Ellie resisted the urge to crunch it into oblivion.

As a talented music minister, her father was always in high demand. With those calls had come many moves and upheavals. She supposed that was why she craved stability now. A slight breeze scented the air with lilac from a nearby bush. Now that was one thing on which she could always depend. The fragrance triumphed over her stomach, chasing away her gloomy mood. She smiled at the lilac bush, feeling thankful for the little things in life.

In spite of it being a Monday morning, she pushed through the doors of Wiley’s Dream Homes with enthusiasm. The office already buzzed with activity. Jackson Wiley, owner of Wiley’s Dream Homes, stood at the end of the room talking with a man whose back was to her. Ellie scooted into her seat and clicked on the computer. While waiting for it to start up, she picked through the stack of paperwork she had left on Friday.

A quick review told her before she could cope with the documents and a brand-new workweek, she would need a big cup of coffee. Snatching her favorite mug, which read “Hand over your chocolate and no one gets hurt,” in large brown letters, she looked once more toward Jax before rising to make her way to the kitchen. This time both men were facing her. She decided the stranger beside Jax must be a new client. Then again, maybe not.

Feeling a bit curious, Ellie sat back down and eyed them further. As they stood together she could see the stark contrast between the two. Jax stretched to just about five foot eight in his thickest-heeled shoes. His brown hair was almost as long as Ellie’s, stopping just under the earlobes. Small stylish glasses framed blue eyes, making him look every inch the professor. He looked uncomfortable in his suit and tie, like a snake wanting to shed its skin. Sweaters or relaxed shirts and work pants appealed to him.

Ellie guessed the man beside Jax at six feet. His long legs stretched nicely into casual jeans and a brown T-shirt spread tightly across his broad shoulders. A light gel held his dark, wavy hair perfectly in place. Stylish sideburns ended where his firm jaw began.

They laughed and Jax slapped the other man good-naturedly on the back. Interesting. Jax didn’t usually chum around with clients or employee candidates like that. Her eyes narrowed. She concentrated hard, trying to figure out the identity of this stranger.

The men looked up in time to catch her indulging in the shameless scrutiny. Ellie felt her face burn. She swallowed a silent gulp and turned away, deciding now was a good time to visit the kitchen.

She glanced at her watch. In fifteen minutes, she would meet with Jax. She figured she had time to grab a quick cup of plain coffee with sugar—since there were no mochas available—and prepare for the good news. After all, she felt sure today he would offer her the partnership. This was one change for which she was ready. Jax had spent considerable time contemplating the matter of replacing his former partner who had retired in the early part of the year. On Friday, he had told the sales staff he would announce the new partner on Monday. He had started to talk to her about the matter last week, but a telephone call had interrupted their conversation. Had he been going to offer it to her then? A shiver ran through her.

Ellie had worked hard to prove herself in the past couple of years. In her opinion, the other salespeople didn’t seem to care as much about the company. It seemed logical for Jax to pick her for the position.

Arriving at the coffeemaker, she poured herself a cup of the hot liquid. She had always liked the smell of coffee better than the actual taste, but like the masses, she had learned to acquire a tolerable acceptance of the brew. From the counter, a cream-filled doughnut called to her, but she ignored it, deciding her nervous stomach couldn’t handle it this morning.

Turning from the doughnut, she leaned her back against the counter and took a sip from her mug. Ellie mentally reviewed her wardrobe and thought of the new clothes she might purchase. Her things were growing threadbare, after all. A slight movement in the hallway caught her attention. The stranger was walking toward her.

She straightened herself, placed her mug on the counter, and turned to the man whose woodsy scent reached her before he did.

“Good morning.” Tall and confident, he thrust his hand toward her. “I’m Cole Preston.” She liked the way he said that. Confident and…soothing. Definitely soothing. Like raindrops pattering against a rooftop on a chilly afternoon.

She pulled out her best smile. “Ellie Williams.” Eyes the color of coffee beans gazed down at her. His warm hand dwarfed her own. Something about him made her want to snuggle into a blanket by a roaring campfire and sing “Kumbayah.”

He nodded with recognition. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about you.”

His comment surprised her. She wondered why Jax would talk about her to this man. Still, strains of “Kumbayah” persisted. “Oh?”

“Um-hum. Jax says you’re a great employee.”

They stood silent a moment while Ellie tried to figure out where this whole conversation was going.

“Guess partners discuss such things.” His teeth sparkled like a toothpaste advertisement.

She stared at him, wondering if she had heard right.

He kept smiling. “I’ve just signed on as Jax’s new partner,” he announced, practically rocking on his heels. “I guess I shouldn’t have announced it until he does, but since you’re his right-hand gal, as he puts it, I thought I could tell you.”

“Kumbayah” came to a warbling halt. “P-p-p-partner?”

He shoved his hand into his pocket and nodded with an air of superiority. Before she could utter a word, Jax strolled up beside her. “Good, I see you’ve met Cole,” he said with a nod and a grin. Jax looked at Ellie, then Cole, then back to Ellie. He raised his eyebrows, his smile faded. “Everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” she managed through clenched teeth.

Cole just stood there. Smiling. “I told her the news.”

Jax gave a hesitant nod. “Oh.”

Cole kept smiling.

Ellie wanted to cry, but Cole’s gloating pushed her to anger, keeping her tears in check.

“Do we have a meeting, Ellie?” Jax asked, glancing at his watch.

“Yes,” Ellie said with as bright a tone as she could muster.

“Could we scoot that back an hour? I have a few things to attend to.”

“Sure, no problem.” No hurry to get to the meeting now. Ellie reached deep within herself for some semblance of civility and turned to the new partner. “Well, Mr. Preston, welcome aboard.”

“Please, call me Cole.”

She wanted to call him something else all right, but Cole wasn’t it. “Cole,” she said with all the warmth of an iced mocha.

Ellie made a beeline for the bathroom. Her hands trembled and her chin started to quiver. She couldn’t let anyone see her like this.

Once inside the empty bathroom, she locked herself in a stall, allowing silent tears to drop. How could Jax betray her? Why didn’t he give her a chance?
Father, I thought this was all settled.
Her heart told her she had settled the matter. God had not. It took a few moments for her to swallow that revelation. Once again, she had jumped ahead of the Lord. Still, how could this not be the best thing for her? Hadn’t she earned it?

What did her reading in I Samuel 15 say this morning? She strained to remember. Feeling puffed up with a victory in battle, King Saul decided he knew best and disobeyed the Word of the Lord.

Pride bred disobedience.

Like Saul, had Ellie taken matters into her own hands? She prayed a rote prayer for forgiveness, barely aware of the proud seed of bitterness that took root in a corner of her heart.

She yanked some toilet paper from the roll and dabbed at her face. Thankful that the room was empty, she stepped out of the stall and checked her makeup in the mirror. Tidying her hair, she looked at her reflection. “Well, it’s time to buck up.” She took a deep breath and walked through the door.

Morgan Somerville, another sales associate, approached. “Hey, Ellie, did you meet the new partner?”

Ellie nodded and kept walking as if she had an important meeting. Which, of course, she did not. Her meeting wasn’t for another hour and the partnership news was already out.

Morgan whistled. “He can be
my
boss any day of the week.”

Ellie looked at her with a forced smile, then turned and walked toward her desk. She groaned when she realized she had left her mug in the kitchen. Jax and Cole had been standing near the counter by her mug when she left. She decided to get her spare mug from the drawer so she wouldn’t have to talk to them. Pulling out the bottom drawer of her desk, she reached in and lifted out a spare. Today, she decided, she needed her coffee more than ever. Mug in hand, she headed for the kitchen.

She couldn’t understand why Jax hadn’t considered her for the position. Perhaps he had, but why then had he chosen Cole? She tried to deny her wounded pride. This would not be a simple hurdle to overcome. The more she thought about the whole thing, the angrier she got. With her mind fixed firmly on the matter, she didn’t notice someone else in the kitchen. Lost in thought, she all but plowed into the source of her distress and nearly bowled him over. Her coffee mug dropped from her hand, scattering into chunks of splintered fragments across the ceramic tile. As she teetered, Cole’s hands clamped around her upper arms. “Are you all right?”

She wanted to plant her fists on her hips and say, “No, I’m not all right. If I were all right, my coffee mug would be in my hand, not shredded across the kitchen floor.” Instead she said with more calm than she felt, “I’m fine.” She brushed the flecks of white glass from her pantsuit. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Okay, maybe she did know what she had been thinking. Confident she had picked off the last speck, she glanced up. Cole smiled. That unnerved her. “I’ll just get the broom and dustpan.”

“Here, let me help you.” He followed her toward a kitchen closet.

She hurried to the door ahead of him and said firmly, “Thank you, no.” She had lost enough dignity for one day and didn’t care to appear the helpless female.

“Oh, the independent type. Remember, we’ll have to learn to work together.”

Searching for, but not finding, a civil way to respond, she clamped her mouth shut.

“Excuse me, Mr. Preston. Jax would like to see you in his office.” Alexandra Cassle, or Alex, as she preferred to be called, pasted on her most beautiful smile. Now there was a woman who never had to diet. Alex could eat a full plate of fettuccini smothered in Alfredo sauce every day of the week, and it would never affect her slender figure in the least.

Ellie struggled to keep her thoughts Christian.

Watching Cole look Alex over with appreciation, Ellie expected him to start foaming at the mouth at any moment, just like every other male who entered the office. She watched the scenario with interest, wondering if Jax knew he might have some competition. After all, Jax and Alex had been dating for, what, six months now? This little scenario could have real humor potential.

“Thank you. I’ve been there, but would you mind showing me where it is once more?”

Alex swung her thick chestnut waves behind her shoulders, batted her lashes a couple of times and let out a feminine chuckle.

Ellie stared in awe—at a true master at work.

“I’d be glad to, Mr. Preston. Just follow me.”

“Please, call me Cole.” His voice faded down the hall as he walked away without so much as a backward glance.

Yes, real potential, indeed.

Ellie mentally shook off the thought and shrugged. Maybe she was just jealous because she didn’t know how to hook a man. Her thoughts stopped abruptly. What was she thinking? Hook a man like that! The very man who had stolen her job promotion? Her dreams? Her future?

She started to move and heard a crunch. Only then did she remember the puddle of broken crockery.

 

 

Cole settled into the cranberry leather chair across from Jax’s desk. Alex walked out the door, closing it behind her.

Cole let out a low whistle and smiled at Jax.

“Careful, that’s my woman, you know.”

Cole raised his eyebrows and hid a smile behind a drink of coffee. “You two serious?”

Jax shrugged. “Alex is a nice girl. I’m not sure that it’s serious, but I’m not ready for someone else to cut in.”

Cole held up his hands. “You’ll get no problem from me. I’ll have my hands full just learning this business and trying to keep your best employee happy.”

Jax laughed. “You mean Ellie?”

Cole whistled and rolled his eyes. “She’s got her hackles up, that’s for sure. Why didn’t you warn me? It’s obvious she wanted to be your partner.”

Elbows on the desk, Jax dropped his chin into his hands. “I know. But she just wasn’t ready for the responsibility.” He thought a moment and leaned back in his chair, plopping his feet on his desk. “Now, don’t get me wrong, Ellie works hard. But, well, I’m not sure she could handle all the aspects of the job.” He looked away a moment. “I didn’t mean to hurt her, though. She’s not only my best employee, she’s also a good friend. I should have warned her.” He turned back to Cole. “Then she wouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

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