Ann was pulling on her sweater when the doorbell rang. Stan was running late and that meant she was now running late as well. Lateness only mattered because she was stopping by and dragging Georgia Bates along for her impending trip through purgatory which apparently required her to get a total makeover before dating Mariah’s rich clients.
Looking through the security portal in her front door, Ann saw a set of wide shoulders and a bowed head. A little farther down there was a tool belt settled around trim hips. Judging from the beginnings of silver streaks in his hair, she’d put the man’s age somewhere in his forties. The tool belt settled on his trim hips told her the most important thing. Though he wasn’t Stan, he had likely been sent by him.
“Good morning,” she said cheerfully, opening the door.
“Good morning. Your son, David, asked me to come take a look at your broken pantry shelves.”
“Sure. Sorry if I seem confused. I was expecting Stan Rogers.”
“Dad wasn’t feeling so great today. My name is Cal. I’m Stan’s son.”
“Cal?” Ann repeated, inviting him inside with a sweep of her arm. There was something about the way he was built—the way he carried himself. “Calvin—now I remember. You’re his oldest. Didn’t Stan tell me you were in the military?”
“Yes, ma’am. Command Sergeant Major in the Army until about two years ago when I retired. Mom got tired of me moping around. She suggested I come back home and help dad until I made up my mind about what to do with myself. I used to work with him every summer during high school. So here I am wearing a tool belt again. I guess it’s true what they say about life coming around full circle as you get older.”
“Thank you for your military service. Glad to see you’re still in one piece. A sniper with a bullet retired my Marine daughter early,” Ann said, leading the way down the hall to the kitchen.
“I know. I’ve been working part-time for David and helped out during the Christmas parade. Your daughter’s still a crack shot. I was one of Santa’s elves. I helped chase the sniper down. Pretty hefty workout for an old geezer like me. Give me a boring stakeout any day.”
Ann nodded, remembering that time. “Nicholas is like my own son. He and David were college roommates and are the best of friends. My daughter, Megan, loved that boy for years before they ever married. So I think you for whatever part you played in helping save him.”
Then what he’d said about himself hit her. She fisted a hand on her hip and gave him a chastising look. “Geezer? What in the world are you talking about? You’re still in great shape for someone who’s been out of the military for a couple of years.”
Cal laughed at her answer instead of really responding. Ann let her gaze roam the back of him as a grinning Cal stepped into her walk-in pantry. He eyed the broken shelf with disdain and passed that same judgment on the rest of the space.
“I’ll fix the one shelf if that’s all you want me to fix, but honestly? I’d replace all these old wooden shelves with wire racks. They’re made pretty sturdy these days. Debris falls through and you can just sweep it up from the floor. You can also vary the sizes to make the best use of your storage space.”
Ann stepped inside the tiny room with him to better look around. Her wandering gaze wanted to stay on his body every time it landed on him, especially when it found him looking back. That kind of interest certainly hadn’t happened to her in a while, but lustfully ogling the son of her long time handyman still seemed a bit sleazy this early in the morning.
When his back was turned to her again, Ann firmed her mouth. “All that shelf replacing sounds expensive,” she said.
“It could be,” Cal agreed. “But including my labor, I’m thinking we can get by with a couple hundred dollar version. That’s all you need for boxes of cereal and bottles of olive oil. Looks like you only store food in here.”
“Because the shelves could never hold any more than that,” Ann explained, tipping her head up to look at him. Now that she was standing so close, she realized Cal had to be at least six feet tall. She suddenly felt tiny and had some trouble breathing around all the male pheromones he was oozing.
Needing some fresh air, Ann slipped out into the kitchen again. “If I take your suggestion, how long will it take to replace all the shelves?”
“Not long.” Cal said, looking around again. “Especially not if you empty them for me while I’m out buying the new ones.”
Ann shook her head. “I’d normally do it in a heartbeat, but I have an appointment that’s going to last all day. I should have already left for it. Want to reschedule?”
“Not particularly. I’ve got other jobs to do that span the next couple of weeks. Dad was a bit backed up in his work when he got sick.” Cal shrugged as he came out of the pantry. “I could probably do everything in one day even if I have to do the moving. Can I have access to the house while you’re gone for your appointment?”
“Yes. You’re not planning to rob me blind, are you?”
Cal’s deep throated laughter was rough and very masculine. His obvious enjoyment of her snarky joke made her smile back at him.
“Sorry. I really didn’t mean that. If you ever did anything bad to me, I’d send my children after you. They’re both proficient shots.”
One of Cal’s eyebrows lifted at the threat. His mouth quirked at one corner. “That sort of surprises me. You look like someone who knows how to take care of herself. Will you be home for dinner?”
“I’m not sure, honey. I suggest you don’t wait up,” Ann teased back, fighting a grin. She crossed her arms trying to feel as tough as she hoped she sounded. “Are you flirting with me, Cal?”
“No. If I did that, your children wouldn’t get a chance to use their weapons. My dad would skin me alive first,” Cal said, grinning.
“Really?” Ann asked, surprised a bit because lots of women would be flirting right back with someone who looked like Cal. Wasn’t that what she’d been doing? She shook her head. “That’s too bad. You were about to make my day. Let me get you a key.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
Not sure what that meant, Ann wandered off to retrieve the spare she kept hidden in the hallway console table. Returning, she pressed it into the large palm Cal held out to her.
“Just in case I change my mind about the flirting… is it Mrs. or Miss?” he asked.
“It’s just Ann,” she answered, unsure about why she’d said it quite that way.
“That’s a very nice name,” Cal said. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ve got this covered. And I’m sure I’ll see you again today.”
“And I’m sure I’ll be back before you finish my pantry. See you later, Cal.”
“Have a good day, Ann.”
“My daughter has more money than brains. I should have known this was going to be one of those fancy places where they have to get you drunk before they work on you. The problem is that their booze is cheap and your buzz always wears off by the time you have to pay their too expensive bill.”
Chuckling over her friend’s complaining, Ann turned around on the sidewalk and grabbed the arm of the woman who’d gotten her into this craziness. “Don’t even think about trying to run, Georgia Bates. I’m a decade younger and in better shape at the moment because you keep skipping yoga class. You promised to do this stupid makeover with me if I agreed, and you are keeping your word.”
“But you know what an extremist my child is. She’s not like your two. If my daughter gets her way, I’ll have three more colors of hair when they get done. I already have three shades of silver. I don’t need total rainbow hair with an expensive dye job I have to upkeep.”
Anne grunted and held tight. “It’s called highlighting and lowlighting… and it will improve your complexion. And you really, really need that haircut of yours updated. Now don’t be such a big baby.”
Georgia tried to pull her away, but Ann Lynx had a grip of steel. “No wonder your daughter joined the Marines. She must be a hoss if she takes after you.”
“Lift weights,” Ann ordered, tugging on the arm she held.
Georgia huffed before answering. “You’re just tormenting me because you don’t want to do this.”
Not letting go because she knew better, Ann fisted her free hand on a trim hip kept that way by exercise and not being afraid of hard work. She glared for good measure.
“Gee, you think? ‘Come over for a potluck. I’m throwing a food party.’ You tricked me, you big old fibber.”
Humor kicking in finally—mostly because of the sarcasm—Georgia scrubbed a hand over her face as she laughed. “I’m sorry, Ann. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I figured it would be a lark we’d have a good laugh over. ”
“A lark sure, but one I have no choice about now because my kids are ecstatic about me doing this. But don’t worry, I fully intend to have the last good laugh,” Ann said firmly, opening the door and shoving Georgia inside the posh interior. “I’m coming back to watch when Trudy Baxter has to deal with this makeover crap. She vowed never to put on makeup again.”
Sighing because they’d been spotted immediately, Georgia plastered a smile on her face for the attendant who took their names and marshaled them into two stylist chairs. Within the hour, they were both completely foiled and sitting under dryers. Both were getting manicures and pedicures when Mariah finally came through the door and clapped her hands.
“Yay, you’re here. And I see things are moving along fast. Excellent.”
“Yay, we’re both here…” both women said dryly, making each other laugh.
Mariah rolled her eyes. “Stop whining, you two. You’re going to love the results. Manicure. Pedicure. Facial. Makeup. A new hair style. You two are getting the works. The image consultant will pick you here, then it’s back to the office for your interviews. I left Della practically vibrating at the thought of making your videos this afternoon.”
“Why do I have to make a video? I’m not a real client,” Georgia said in the flattest tone she could manage with Ann laughing from the chair beside her.
“You need to go through the whole process with Anne so Trudy won’t be able to make you do it. Ann’s going to give you a lot less grief. Right, Ann?”
Ann’s open snickering earned her the evil eye from Georgia and a grin from Georgia’s very clever daughter. She wasn’t sure why Mariah was using her to get Georgia to do this, but it was a lot of fun to see her friend squirming.
“Yes. I only wanted some company to lessen the misery. Trudy would put Georgia in stilettos and a mini-skirt to get even.”
“Like hell,” Georgia declared, rolling her eyes when the other female patrons giggled about her loud swearing.
Mariah smiled widely. “It’s okay, Mom. Della and I will make the whole process today as painless as possible. Except for the eyebrow tweezing… that always hurts.”
The entire salon went silent when a tall, silver-haired man in a suit came through the door. Ann noticed he walked directly to Mariah who smiled wider with every step he took towards her. His one dimple appeared just before he glanced at Georgia and grinned widely.
“Hey, Handsome,” Mariah said, reaching out a hand to pat his chest.
John put a hand on her arm and kissed her cheek. “Been to the bank this morning. The house will be mine in two weeks, just before I go back to work. Still got a few routine inspections that have to be done to satisfy real estate laws.”
Mariah bit her lip. “Guess you want an answer from me then, don’t you?”
John glanced around. “We can talk later. I just wanted you to know things were going well.”
Mariah smiled and rubbed a hand over his arm. “Good. That makes me happy. Need help moving out of your apartment?”
Huffing out a breath, John ran a hand through his hair. “Uh… about that place. It’s not really mine. I just have to use it occasionally.”
“I see,” Mariah said, patting his arm. “Well, that makes me happy too. That place was seriously a bachelor pad.”
“Great bed though, huh?” His grin was wicked as he waited for her reply.
Mariah laughed and nodded.
“Okay. So I’ve got to run a few more errands. Will I see you later?” John asked.
“Absolutely.” Mariah went up on her toes, meeting John’s lips as they came down to hers. It was a chaste kiss, but his possessive gaze never strayed from hers. The hungry look he gave her before leaving had all the women in the salon fanning themselves.
Grinning over the unexpected show, Ann reached over and poked a gawking Georgia’s arm. Her friend luckily turned her way in time to catch her wink. She knew Georgia was nearly wilting in relief over her daughter’s new, and promising, relationship. She would feel exactly the same if either of her adult children had gone through what Mariah just had with her cheating ex-husband.
“He has a nice butt. Bet it looks extra good in jeans,” Ann whispered, gleefully giggling when Georgia rolled her eyes. What was wrong with her today? First, she was flirting with her handyman’s son. Now she was making dirty jokes.
“Hey now, Ann Lynx. That’s my nice butt to stare at. Keep your eyeballs to yourself,” Mariah said firmly, narrowing her gaze on the two smirking older women. “I’ll find you a guy of your own to ogle soon.”
Giggling once more, Ann rubbed her face which now hurt from smiling. “I didn’t see your name tattooed on the man anywhere, Dr. Bates. Did you, Georgia?”
“I have no idea what you’re yammering about,” Georgia denied—lying for all she was worth. “But if you think John looks good, wait until you see Hollywood. The guy is your age and dates twenty year olds. Loaded too. He’s a real looker if you can get past the ‘I’m a bad little boy’ thing he’s perfected.”
Mariah turned her narrowed gaze to her mother. “Are you talking about Dr. Colombo?”
“Some Doctor,” she said sarcastically, looking directly at Ann. “Man’s dumb as a box of rocks.”
“Mother,” Mariah exclaimed. “Brent is far from dumb. He’s a brilliant plastic surgeon—top of his field actually.”
Ann felt her freshly plucked eyebrows shoot straight up when Georgia snorted and waved that impressive factoid away with a hand now sporting brightly painted red nails.
“Big deal. That just means Hollywood makes those plastic females he dates. It’s like he’s a grown man playing with dolls. Give me a break, Mariah.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” Ann observed, meaning it as she stared at her angry friend. Why was Georgia so angry over what some random client of Mariah’s did for a living? Normally, the woman wouldn’t give a good flip. “Why are being so mean?”
“Mom likes him even though she doesn’t want to,” Mariah answered for her mother. “And from what Della told me, Dr. Colombo was extremely interested in Mom.”
Georgia snorted as she looked away. “Hollywood was not interested in me. He was just being pushy and annoying. He’s as pretentious as his watch that cost more than my damn car. So no, I do not like him. He’s not my type of man at all.”
Ann saw Mariah nod vigorously when her mother wasn’t looking. She also mouthed ‘really likes him’, which had her laughing behind Georgia’s stiff back. But it also had her giving her friend a more considering look.
Georgia didn’t date either. Trudy and Jellica both had commented that the lack of a love life was changing Georgia’s personality as time went on. Her friend might benefit from having a properly interested man who wanted to soften those sharp edges. Georgia Bates was all hard shell on the outside, but inside she was a freaking marshmallow.
“Take a taxi to the office when you’re done with the image consultant. Della will meet you both downstairs with the fare,” Mariah ordered. “I have clients this afternoon, but Della will take good care of you.”
“That would be a miracle since Della’s not even thirty yet. She can barely take care of herself,” Georgia declared dryly.
Ann smiled warmly at Georgia’s now frowning daughter. It was obvious Georgia was treading on thin ice with such mean teasing. “We’ll be there,” she promised, trying to soothe the ruffled feelings of both mother and daughter.
She hoped Mariah would show her a picture of the guy Georgia was complaining about. It would be very interesting to get a look at Dr. Brentwood Colombo, the first male she’d ever seen make a dent in the emotional armor Georgia never took off.