Her Very Own Family
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“What’s wrong?” Audrey rushed toward Nelson.
“Ah, I smashed my finger with the hammer.”
“Let me see.”
Brady watched as Audrey took his dad’s hand in hers, turned it over carefully and examined it. Something shifted inside him at the gentleness and concern. He didn’t think anyone could fake with that much authenticity.
“We need to take you to the emergency room, make sure you haven’t broken anything,” Audrey said.
His dad moved his hand out of hers. “No need for that. It’s nothing.”
“It’s turning a nice shade of eggplant,” she argued, her hands on her hips.
“Honey, if I’d gone to the hospital every time I smashed my fingers, I’d have funded an entire new wing by now.”
Brady smiled, glad to see more and more of the dad he’d always known coming back to the light of day.
“At least let me get you an ice pack.”
“Okay, if it’ll make you feel better,” Nelson said with a teasing smile.
“It’s supposed to make you feel better, you stubborn old man.” She shook her head, acting exasperated with him.
Brady tried to hide a laugh but didn’t fully succeed.
“What are you laughing at?” his dad asked. “You get over there and finish up what I started. And try not to hit your finger. She’ll be hauling us both off to the E.R.”
Audrey swatted Nelson on the upper arm as she headed for the cooler in the corner. After fixing Nelson an ice pack and sitting him in a lawn chair in the corner, Audrey pulled a couple of bottles of water out of the ice. She tossed one to Brady as he moved toward the window frame his father had been constructing.
Brady turned in time to see Audrey down about half her water before coming up for air. Condensation from the bottom of the bottle dropped onto her chest and rolled downward toward the scoop of her tank top. Brady’s skin heated, and he licked his lips before he could think not to.
“Ow.” Brady winced at the sudden pain in his leg and turned around to find his dad giving him the look he always used when he’d found Brady misbehaving. So the old man hadn’t missed his gawking.
“What?” Audrey asked as she rolled her cold bottle of water to her forehead.
“Nothing,” Nelson said. “Just giving the boy a little nudge.”
Yeah, if you called a kick to the calf with a steel-toed work boot a nudge.
Staring at warm, enticing female flesh wasn’t a problem after Audrey returned to the roof. Thing was, he was hotter now than he’d been sitting on tin with the sun beating down on him.
His dad walked across the room, moving to the open doorway in Brady’s peripheral vision.
“She’s a good girl. Don’t trifle if you don’t really like her.”
Nelson stepped outside without giving Brady the chance to respond that he had no intention of trifling. Dang, all he’d done was look. He was a red-blooded male, young, healthy, single. When a beautiful woman was nearby, he tended to notice. But anything beyond that with someone his dad considered a friend had bad idea written all over it.Because Brady wasn’t a long-term kind of guy—not anymore.
An engine started outside, and it only took a moment for Brady to realize it was his truck. By the time he reached the door, his dad was heading down the lane toward the road.
First his dad told him to steer clear of Audrey then he left the two of them alone. What was the old guy up to?
Audrey sat back on her heels and watched as Brady deposited some useless bits of wood in the burning barrel.
“Where’d your dad go?”
He shrugged. “Heck if I know. He just took off.”
“That’s odd. Was he feeling bad?”
“No more than a throbbing finger. Need some help?”
She nearly declined, but honestly she was pooped and the initial tension between her and Brady had eased. At least the tension regarding his father. The other tension on her part wouldn’t fade unless Brady fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. “Sure.”
Brady climbed the ladder and made his way over to her side of the roof. “This may qualify as the fastest roofing job ever.”
“It’s only going to get hotter, and I don’t fancy roasting into a lobster up here or going broke buying sunscreen. The curse of the blond.” She gestured toward her hair.
After getting another piece of roofing in place and attached, Audrey lay back. “I am one hundred and ten percent wiped. I feel like I could lie in the grass and sleep for about two days.”
“We’re almost done. Come on.”
With a moan, she raised herself and got back to work. “This can’t be your idea of a good time on vacation.”
“It’s not really vacation. Seems like Dad’s doing okay though, so maybe I should just go back home.”
Audrey retrieved a nail and set it in place while trying to ignore the thought that she’d miss seeing his face. “Do you have something pressing at work?”
“There’s always something pressing at work.”
“Something your business partner can’t handle?”
He glanced over at her, gave her a half smile at the focus she put on the word business. “No.”
“Then maybe you should just hang out with your dad. I’m sure he enjoys being with you. And he might not say anything or act like it, but I suspect he needs the company when he goes home at night.”
“He seemed surprisingly okay last night, except for the scolding I got for being rude to you.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at him. “Scolding? At your age? How embarrassing.” She pressed her lips together to stifle a giggle at the image.
Brady snorted. “Guess I deserved it.”
“Don’t worry about it. I understand your wanting to look out for your dad.”
After all, there were people out there more than willing to bilk others out of their hard-earned money. She knew that firsthand.
THEY FINISHED attaching the roofing but left applying the sealant for another day and climbed down the ladder. Brady followed Audrey to the side of the creek, where she untied and removed her boots and socks then slipped her feet into the flowing water.
“Ah!” She flopped back into the grass, letting the water bob her feet. “I may never move again.”
“You’ll move. The ants, mosquitoes and chiggers will eventually find you and have you for lunch.”
“Oh, fine, ruin the moment,” she said in a light, teasing tone.
This was definitely better than suspicion and animosity. So she was hiding something. Who didn’t have secrets? It didn’t mean it was anything aimed at hurting him or his dad. Roasting hot himself, Brady gave in to temptation and shucked his boots and socks, too. After rolling up his pant legs to the knees, he stuck his feet in the water and lay back in the grass only a couple of feet from Audrey.
“I haven’t done this in years,” he said.
She turned her head to look at him. “What, stuck your feet in the creek?”
“Yeah. That and just lie in the grass, looking up at the trees.”
Audrey let out a slow sigh as she returned her gaze to the sky above. “Guess we forget the simple ways to enjoy life when we grow up.”
“That why you bought this place? To enjoy life?”
“It just felt right. I woke up one morning and realized I needed a change.”
“Was your job boring?”
She didn’t answer immediately. He glanced toward her, but she was still staring toward the treetops high above them.
“I was between jobs. Seemed like the right time to ask myself what I really wanted. Only, I had no idea what that might be. I went for a walk one afternoon, and I somehow ended up at a bookstore. I don’t even know why I went in, but I found myself standing in front of the magazine section. I started flipping through different magazines, and this story about a woman who refurbished an old lighthouse and made a B & B out of it caused something to click inside me. Needless to say, not a lot of lighthouses in Tennessee. But that’s when I remembered this mill. I had no interest in a B & B, but I love to cook and thought, why not a caf??”
She turned her head and met his eyes. “And that’s way more info than you asked for.”
“It’s okay. Saves me the trouble of asking more questions.”
She huffed out a laugh. “You have your dad’s sense of humor.”
“Really? I’ve been accused of having no sense of humor.”
“Everyone has one, some just deeper than others.”
He returned his gaze to the sky peeking through the trees. Something about her confession about her life unsettled him. Was it that she had indeed shared too much of herself with him? He’d turned into a surface-relationship kind of guy, much to his family’s disappointment. Nothing too serious. Not that he and Audrey had or would have a relationship beyond temporary coworkers.
“So why didn’t you hire roofers?” he asked.
“I like my arm and my leg, thanks. The cost of the electrician and the plumber is going to kill me as it is. Plus, I like to do things for myself as much as I can.”
“Hey, I bet you have contacts from being in fund-raising. Maybe you could find an investor for your business.”
“No.” She didn’t yell or snap, but he heard the strength and finality behind the single word even before Audrey suddenly rose to her feet.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No, you’re fine. Enjoy the creek. I just have a lot of work to do.”
The water sloshed as he lifted his feet out and stood, too. “Audrey, what’s wrong?” Had his bad memories caused him to say something he shouldn’t without realizing it?
“Time is money. I don’t need to be lying around surveying the past, not when I have a blue bazillion tasks with my name on them.”
He watched her retrieve her boots and socks and stalk off toward the mill. He searched back over their conversation but couldn’t figure out what had altered the mood so drastically.
Women. Their moods shifted more than a house built on clay.
BRADY PROBABLY THOUGHT she’d lost her mind, and perhaps she was a bit crazy when it came to asking for money for herself. She simply didn’t do it. She hadn’t even applied for a bank loan to finance the purchase and refurbishing of the mill. Instead, she had liquidated accounts and sold the possessions she could live without. She was doing this alone, even if she had to get another job to make her dream come true. Even if she had to make her last penny scream for mercy.
No one would ever be able to accuse her of being like her mother.
She sank onto the stairs leading to the loft and pressed against the pressure building behind her forehead. What she’d told Brady about why she’d left her life was only partially true. But she wasn’t about to tell him that she’d simply gotten tired of people always watching her, wondering if she would yet prove to be her mother’s daughter in action as well as genetics. Part of the allure of Willow Glen was that no one evidently knew who she was beyond her identity as the newest resident. And she hoped it stayed that way.
When she heard Brady step back into the mill, she rose and climbed the rest of the way up to the loft. Once there, though, she felt trapped with nothing productive to do. She’d already crunched the numbers half a dozen times, and she couldn’t really start refurbishing the living space until the plumber and electrician completed their respective tasks.
It was too blasted hot to apply sealant to the roof, and she was too antsy to spend time in the same room as Brady. She’d really like to grab her camera gear and head off into the woods to photograph some wildflowers, a hobby that never failed to bring her joy. After all, she had all those beautiful, handmade frames to fill. But with so much to do, she knew she wouldn’t fully enjoy the outing. Time was money, and she wasn’t exactly awash in either.
She walked over to the small loft door. It would eventually become a window overlooking a bend in the creek beyond the mill and the long line of weeping willows lining the bank. She envisioned a gazebo in that bend complete with a table and chairs for special, private meals for guests.
Inspired, she grabbed her notebook of ideas and started sketching the gazebo and the surroundings. She pictured it white in contrast to the greens of the trees shading it, covered in twinkling white lights, a quaint table with two chairs in its center. A romantic spot for couples on a special date. She smiled as she imagined marriage proposals being offered there by nervous grooms-to-be.
She might not be lucky in love, but she had a romantic streak several miles wide. And this gazebo idea had it humming. Even though she should be focusing all her energy on the mill and not adding even more expenses, she couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm. The desire to go buy twinkling lights, tulle for the gazebo’s ceiling and magazines with gazebo designs rushed through her, but she forced her attention back to her list of priorities. With the structural work progressing well, she needed to go buy the lumber necessary for the construction of the kitchen in the back corner next to the stairs. She estimated it was time to look at appliances, as well.
After all, she was at a standstill on the mill until the electrician came tomorrow morning. Maybe she could get some landscaping flowers for the area around the front of the mill, and a couple of hanging pots.
Okay, she had to stop her runaway brain before she imagined herself right into debt.
She grabbed her keys and purse and headed for the stairs. When she reached the bottom, she noticed Brady leaning against the railing around the mill’s machinery, wiping the sweat from his face with a paper towel. She swallowed when she saw how his damp T-shirt molded to his honest-work muscles. For a shocking moment, she pictured her and Brady in that fairy-tale gazebo before she looked away and mentally smacked herself upside the head.
“Where you off to?” he asked.
“Need some supplies. I think I’ll drive down to Elizabethton.”
“Mind if I ride along? The last piece of framing I have isn’t quite long enough. We could use it for a smaller window, but not this one. And since the old man left me without wheels…”
So much for the peace of a solo trip. She forced herself not to scream at his self-invitation. As if to spite her efforts to avoid him, now she was going to be trapped in a small, confined space with him for the twenty miles to Elizabethton and back.
“Sure. We’ll get enough to do the window upstairs, too, while we’re at it. And make sure we get the best lumber for the kitchen.”
“Do you have the measurements for the upstairs window?”
“Yeah.” She patted her purse where she kept her running to-buy list. “Right here with your dad’s specs for the kitchen.”
“She’s on the ball,” he said as he pushed away from the railing.
It was hardly a romantic compliment, but she couldn’t help how her skin warmed as she met his gaze. Seriously, she should have dunked her head in the creek instead of her feet.
“YOU DO KNOW that Christmas is seven months away, right?”
Audrey glanced up from her spot in the garden section at Lowe’s as Brady wheeled the cart with the lumber needed for the window up next to her. He looked so at home here, in the middle of a warehouse full of home-improvement ecstasy.
“They’re for the gazebo, not a Christmas tree,” she said as she placed several boxes of stringed white lights in the cart. At his confused expression, she flipped open one of the magazines she held and showed him a beautiful gazebo decorated for weddings. “Guys find these things cheesy, but women will love a romantic gazebo by the creek, a private dining area for couples.” She looked at the picture again and smiled at the magic the simple picture conveyed. “We might even have weddings there.” She was trying to cram as much happiness and positive energy into her life as possible, and what could be happier than a wedding?
She hadn’t planned to buy anything for the gazebo today. But when she’d finished ordering what she needed and found Brady busy at the contractors’ counter, she’d gravitated to the garden center, where her imagination got the best of her.
“Does your brain crank out ideas even when you’re sleeping?” Brady asked, sounding amazed and amused at the same time.
“As a matter of fact, it does.” She laughed and tossed the magazines into the cart. “I wake up in the middle of the night and have to jot them down before I forget them.”
They started down the aisle as Brady shook his head once. “Sounds like it makes for terrible sleeping.”
“I’m not a very restful sleeper anyway.”
At least not since her life had been turned upside down and inside out more than a year ago. That memory dampened her enthusiasm, so she headed for the outdoor part of the garden center, hoping that immersing herself in colorful, fragrant flowers would lift her mood again.
As they moved up and down the aisles, she selected several flats of impatiens in a variety of bright colors, a couple of gorgeous hanging baskets filled with purple petunias and a rose trellis for the bush she’d noticed at the back of the mill.
“You know, if you’re going to put that gazebo in the creek bend, you might want to make a stone path to it from the drive, for when the ground is wet.” Brady pointed out shelves filled with different-colored stepping-stones.
Another unexpected expense, the type she suspected Brady wouldn’t think twice about, but a good idea nonetheless. “So, what do you think, the gray or the red?”
Brady ran his fingers over the surface of the rock slabs in question, and an unexpected warmth flowed along Audrey’s arms at the thought of those long fingers doing the same thing to her skin.
Maybe she had stayed in the sun too long that morning and baked her brain. She felt like she was experiencing Brady overload. She’d caught herself snatching glimpses of him ever since they’d arrived at the store, glimpses she didn’t dare in the car because he would have noticed. But each time she looked at him, the more attractive he became. The archetypal sexy carpenter. She wondered if he looked as good as she imagined in nothing but a pair of jeans and a tool belt.
What was wrong with her? Hadn’t Darren’s desertion taught her anything?
But Brady wasn’t Darren.
Still, she couldn’t risk getting too involved, not when it could put everything she had and was trying to build at risk.
“Huh?” Audrey zipped back from Fantasy World and stared at Brady, wondering what he was talking about.
“The stepping-stones.” He pointed. When she didn’t react, he pecked against the stone with his fingertip. “Hello?”
“Oh, yeah. I think you’re right. They’ll go better with the surroundings. That’s way down the list of priorities though.”
“Where were you a moment ago?”
“Sorry, brief side trip to la-la land.” Trying to dispel the jittery feeling threatening to overtake her, she took a few steps away from Brady and grabbed two pairs of gardening gloves hanging from a shelf. “You finished with your business?”
“Well, hello there,” a silver-haired lady said as she guided her cart up next to theirs.
“Hi, Miss Brenda,” Brady said as he gave the woman a quick hug. “How are you?”
“If I was any better, I don’t know how I’d be able to stand it,” she said with a big smile. She looked at Audrey. “Are you a friend of Brady’s?”
“This is Audrey York,” Brady said. “Dad and I are doing some work for her. Audrey, this is Brenda Phillips. She was my sixth-grade teacher.”
“Oh, you must be the little gal who bought the old mill,” Brenda said. “I’ve got to tell you, the ladies at church are already twittering about that.”
Audrey’s breath caught. But if this woman knew who she really was, why would she be smiling and acting friendly?
“It’ll be so nice to have someplace quaint to have lunch with the girls,” Miss Brenda said, giving Audrey’s hand a gentle squeeze. “You need to come to service next Sunday, meet all the ladies. Good way to start getting to know your neighbors and potential customers.”
Audrey managed a smile. “Thank you for the invitation.” Though the idea of stepping back into a church left her cold. Of course, that was due to what had happened with her mother and not the church itself.
“Well, I best be getting home.” Miss Brenda pointed at the items in her cart. “Sam is anxious to get these plants in the ground.” With another genuine smile and a wave, Brenda headed for the checkout.
“She’s a bit of a whirlwind, isn’t she?” Brady said.
“You could say that.”
Brady laughed a little at what must be her stunned expression then pushed their shopping cart toward the front of the store, too.
Audrey eyed the items in the cart. Boy, had she gone overboard.
“Don’t worry. We’ll make it all fit,” Brady said, guessing at her thoughts.
They did, barely. The trellis stuck out of the tied-down trunk, and flowers appeared to have taken root in her backseat.
Brady looked across the top of the car at her. “You hungry?”
“Yeah, but let’s do lunch on the cheap. I’m pretty sure I just heard my credit card whimper.”
“Pal’s, it is.” He bumped his knuckles against the car’s roof.
He eyed her with disbelief. “You haven’t been there yet?”
“No, should I have?”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve had a Pal’s chipped ham and cheese sandwich and seasoned fries.”
She uttered a little laugh. “Well, I certainly want to live.”
“Get in the car and drive, then, woman.”
Brady directed her to a spot on Elk Avenue. She laughed when she caught sight of the blue concrete-block building with a giant hot dog, fries and drink cup on the roof.
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