Authors: Sandy James
New York Boston
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I cannot thank my editor, Latoya Smith, enough for patiently waiting for me to be “ready.”
I send my thanks out to my agents, Joanna MacKenzie, Danielle Egan-Miller, and Abby Saul, for all they do for me. Love you, ladies.
I’d be lost without my critique partners. Hugs to Cheryl Brooks, Nan Reinhardt, and Leanna Kay for always having my back.
I give my thanks and admiration to Pam Young, Anita Brown, Kathy Atkinson, and Susan Roberts—the inspirations for this story.
And, as always, I have to thank my husband, Jeff, for putting up with me. Love you, honey.
One more change.
After a year of unrelenting upheaval, Mallory Hamilton was ready to get her life back. She only needed one more change.
Giving her short hair another quick tweak, she set the gel aside. Rascal, her tabby cat, jumped up on the vanity counter, where he knew he didn’t belong. But Mallory had learned from experience, some silly rules were made to be broken.
She ran her hand down his back as he arched up to get more of her touch. The cat’s fur was soft and warm, and she wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and let Rascal snuggle against her side like a living heating pad.
“Did you finish your breakfast?” she asked her pet.
Rascal’s reply was more purring.
Mallory took one last look in the mirror, smiled, and walked out of the bathroom. Her cat padded beside her, twitching his tail in the air.
The summer had been hot and very dry, matching her mood quite well. Everyone patted her on the shoulder and told her they admired her strength. Truth was she wasn’t strong. She was numb. Her life had taken a one-eighty turn so fast, she hadn’t had the chance to catch her breath. There simply hadn’t been time to cry. Now that the ordeal had ended, she saw no reason to indulge herself in an emotional breakdown. Crying wouldn’t change a damned thing.
She’d lost things she couldn’t get back, and that was that.
The doorbell rang as she finished buttoning her shirt.
Rascal hopped on the bed, stretching out on the rumpled quilt and kneading his claws against the cloth. Before she headed downstairs, Mallory jerked the shade up so that the sunlight hit his striped brown fur.
“Have a nice nap. I need to talk to the contractor about fixing up this dump.”
And her home really
The doorbell rang again.
She had to push the front door with her hip to hold it tight while she flipped open the dead bolt. The squeak when she opened the door grated on her nerves. She promised herself she would go to the hardware store and get some oil after the contractor left.
Dressed in a sky-blue polo and jeans, a thirtysomething guy with short dark hair glanced up from the iPad he held in his hand. His sexy smile took her by surprise.
“Are you Mallory?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m Mallory Hamilton. You’re Ben? The contractor Robert Ashford sent?”
“Yes, ma’am. He said you wanted some work done on your place.” He fished in his shirt pocket and produced a white business card, which he handed to her. “If you show me which projects you’d like done, I can give you an estimate. Then we can talk about a timetable.”
She blinked twice when she read the name, but she didn’t laugh. She hadn’t truly felt like laughing in a very long time.
“Your last name’s Carpenter? Seriously? You’re a carpenter named Carpenter?”
named Carpenter.” His words were clipped.
She opened the door wider, sorry that she might have offended him. No doubt he’d grown tired of dealing with rude comments about his name. “Please come in. I’ll show you around.”
His brown eyes wandered the foyer. “DIY?”
Ben nodded at the coat closet with no door then at the floor. “Do-it-yourself. The laminate flooring isn’t tight enough. I assume the door’s in the garage because it was too long to close after you put the floor in.”
She nodded. “Along with the trim. The chair rail for the dining room. The sink for the half bath. And—”
He held up a hand. “How about you take me room to room and show me what you’d like done?”
The downstairs wasn’t too bad, except for the great room. The fireplace mantel was only partly stained, and the gas logs had never been installed. That’s what the contractor was for.
He followed her up the stairs into the master bedroom. “And in here?”
“Doesn’t it speak for itself?”
When he smiled, he had laugh lines that framed his eyes. “It does, but I want to know what
think needs to be done.”
She pointed at the exposed beam at the apex of the cathedral ceiling. “It’s fake, and the corners have split away from the drywall. I like the way it looks in general, so I’d like to see if you can save it.”
He nodded and entered more information on his tablet.
“The window needs…
. I can hear the wind whistle when storms blow through.”
“Any water when it rains?”
Ben pulled the drape back. “They’re newer windows. When did you have them put in?”
“Not sure. Maybe three years ago?”
“They’re in good shape, but they weren’t caulked properly. Next?”
Mallory led him into the bathroom and froze, utterly mortified. So accustomed to being alone now, she never bothered hiding anything she used on a daily basis. She swept her arm across the counter, scooping up all her stuff and dropping it into the deep vanity drawer.
Without missing a beat, Ben flipped the switch to the exhaust fan, which did nothing in response. “You’ll need a new fan. Do you want to keep these light fixtures? They’re a bit… dated.”
His calm acceptance eased her embarrassment. “They suck.”
He chuckled. “Light fixtures are easy to switch out. I’ll bet you’re tired of six big, naked bulbs staring you in the eye first thing in the morning.”
Nothing else naked stared at her, but the lightbulbs still had to go. “Yeah… you’re right. I’ll need new ones for all three baths.”
More taps on his iPad that were probably adding up to a pretty penny.
Didn’t matter. She couldn’t take her house anymore. Not the way it was.
She needed it to be
The rest of the tour took a good hour. Every disaster she showed him raised her anxiety, especially when his response was to draw his lips into a grim line and nod curtly. Dollar signs flashed in her head. She didn’t even want to know what he found in the crawl space or the attic.
They ended up right where they began, and for some reason, the foyer looked worse this time than it had when she’d invited him inside. Her stomach was tied into nervous knots, and she was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. But she was going to do this.
to do this.
“So what do you think? Can all this be fixed?” Her voice quivered.
Ben kept working on his tablet.
“I know this house is… old and a big mess, but—”
He finally glanced up. “Relax. There’s nothing really
with the place.”
Mallory snorted. “
wrong with this place. But it’s all I’ve got and I sure can’t afford to move.”
In all honesty, she probably could afford to move—she simply didn’t want to. The commute was less than ten minutes, and she was close to everything she needed. The library. The pharmacy. Her friends. A SuperTarget.
His gaze wandered the foyer. “The way I see it, this place has a few scars. That’s all. Just scars.”
“Scars?” She hated that word more than anyone would ever know.
“Yeah. Cosmetic stuff mostly, but the bones are good. Just give it time—give
His words pounded through her brain, a steady rhythm that made her insides somersault and her head ache.
A few scars.
Cosmetic stuff mostly.
Give it time.
“What’s the bottom line?” she asked, holding a tight lid on her emotions.
“Bottom line is I’ll fix things for you, Mrs. Hamilton. I promise.”
Those few simple words worked magic by easing her anxiety. Perhaps it was his sincerity. Perhaps it was his smile. Perhaps it was the funny coincidence of his name. “I believe you.”
“I need to check some prices, see if I can call in some favors, and get you a price. You realize it’s an estimate, right? That when I get to work, I might find more problems hiding underneath the skin?”
She nodded. What was below the surface always caused her the most trouble. With her luck lately, Ben Carpenter would find everything from termite infestation to dry rot.
* * *
Ben Carpenter’s temper rose to a boil the moment he saw Amber sitting on the front porch of his rented town house. Since it was the last week before she started eighth grade, she was supposed to be spending time with her mother. Then she’d come back home Sunday before classes began.
Damn you, Theresa.
His daughter’s elbows were propped on her knees, and her chin rested on her hands. She’d gathered her long dark hair into a ponytail, and she wore her usual jeans and T-shirt. A pink backpack lay at her feet.
Throwing the truck into park, he sighed. Not at having his daughter home where she belonged, but because his bitch of an ex-wife had abandoned their kid. Again.
“Hey, ladybug,” he said, resisting the urge to gather her into his arms. “Why didn’t you call me and tell me you were coming back early?”
Ever since she’d become a teenager, Amber had started keeping her distance. He just hadn’t figured out whether it was a teenage thing or if she didn’t want to hug her father anymore. She never hugged Theresa, but then again if Theresa were his mother, he’d not only be reluctant to hug her, he’d run away to join the circus.
At least Amber always knew she was safe with her father. He tried to make a stable home, even if they could only afford a rental. She’d decorated her bedroom herself and made it reflect her eclectic personality. Posters of anything from androgynous singers to muscular athletes lined the walls. Since he remembered how important his own privacy had been at that age, he didn’t hover.
Amber looked up at him with brown eyes that held enough red to show she’d been crying. “Her phone got turned off ’cause she didn’t pay for it.” Each word dripped with disdain he was accustomed to hearing whenever Amber spoke of Theresa. “She took mine. Said I was too young to have my own phone.”
Of course she took Amber’s phone—he paid for it.
“What happened this time?” Ben asked.
“Some of her stupid friends were going to Vegas.” She stood and picked up her backpack, slinging the strap over her shoulder. “She didn’t say when she was coming back. Just dropped me off, telling me she didn’t want to see you. Do you know how many of my friends’ texts I’ve missed?”
He gave her ponytail a playful tug. “Why didn’t you let yourself in?”
“I couldn’t remember the new code.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t had to change—”
“It’s not your fault, Dad. It’s hers. She was the one who let herself in and took your checkbook.”
Once she followed him into the house, Amber dropped her pack inside the door, flopped on the couch, and grabbed the remote. Then she flipped through channels.
“Well, at least you’re home now, ladybug.”
What kind of mother does something like this?
“Pizza or Chinese?” he asked, picking up the phone. “If I’d known you were coming back so soon, I could’ve shopped.”
“You never know when I’m coming home.”
Amber’s gaze shifted from the flat-screen to him. “You know, I hear people say that all the time, but I don’t know what it means.”
He found a smile. His daughter was, above all other things, the most curious creature on the face of the planet. From the time she could speak, her favorite word was “why,” usually followed by a question that revealed an intelligence beyond her years. Most kids outgrew that curiosity. Not Amber. If anything, it grew exponentially with each passing year.
“I think it’s a fencing term or something. Flip open the laptop and Google it.”
She turned back to whatever show she’d been watching. “I don’t want to know that bad. And get Chinese. Sweet-and-sour pork. I had pizza delivered last night when Theresa didn’t come home ’til ten.”
“I stopped calling her Mom.”
“ ’Cause she doesn’t act like a mom.”
She had him there.
After calling for supper delivery, Ben sat down in his recliner with his iPad and scrolled through the list of things he’d need to do to make Mallory Hamilton’s house decent.
Her house reeked of “hubby just moved out.” Half the master closet was empty, and she’d barely begun to spread her things into the vacated space. Only one toothbrush in the holder, but there was toothpaste spatter on the backsplash over the second sink. She still had a light line on the third finger of her left hand where her ring had blocked the sun.
What kind of idiot would leave such a nice woman? Pretty, too, although she wore her light brown hair awfully short. At least it suited her round face and drew attention to her best feature—her big, brown doe eyes.
The least Ben could do was fix her home. Her husband—or was it ex-husband?—obviously had no idea how to finish any of the numerous projects he’d begun. Most of what he’d done would have to be started over, but Ben hadn’t lied to her when he’d said the house had good bones.
It was a sturdy, roomy home built in the days when houses were supposed to last. No cheap vinyl siding or slab foundation. The crawl space was dry, the floor joists sturdy and well put together. The attic needed more insulation, but it was also clean and dry and the roof had plenty of life left. Once he finished working on repairs, she could stay in that house and make new memories or sell the place for a nice profit. Either option would give her a fresh start, which she surely needed.
Back to that estimate…
After fiddling with the costs, he came to a final figure when the doorbell rang.
Amber popped up and came to stand at his side, holding out her hand and grinning. “Cough it up, Dad.”
He pulled out his wallet and handed her some cash. As she went to the door, he frowned at the nearly empty wallet, which matched his nearly empty bank account.
Ever since the economy turned sour, finding jobs hadn’t been easy. Ben was grateful to friends and customers who recommended him to potentials, but work was still sketchy at best.
He hadn’t told Mallory Hamilton how much he needed this job. If she knew how desperate he was getting she might not hire him.