Carlos had been right. About all of it.
Gabe shoved his hand through his hair with enough ferocity to yank out more than a few strands. God, he’d fucked this up on so many levels and had no clue how to set things right.
Keisha blinked. Finding her equilibrium around Gabe was turning into an ever constant struggle. For the past six months, she’d dreaded his calls, all the while experiencing a little thrill of excitement each time her phone rang. Now that he was here in Salvation, the draw was palpable.
She had to have the worst taste in men, ever. First the fiancé who wasn’t done playing the field, and now the man trying to ruin her father’s life. Keisha sighed. She needed an intervention.
“Baby Girl?” Her dad shuffled over, concern crinkling the corners of his eyes.
Struggling to break Gabe’s mental hold on her, she stepped back and smiled reassuringly at her father—at least she hoped it came off that way.
“I’m fine, Pops. Just being a klutz.” She glanced over her shoulder at Gabe, a shiver working its way across her skin. “He saved me before I could face plant on the floor.”
Her dad’s gaze volleyed between her and Gabe. Shrewd as a timber rattlesnake, her dad rarely missed anything. The chances of him missing whatever it was sparking between her and Gabe was about as slim as a Smartcar beating a Ferrari in a street race.
“Uh-huh.” He gnawed his bottom lip and gave Gabe his best father-with-a-shotgun eyeballed warning. “That was mighty nice of him.”
“Really, it was my fault.” Gabe poured on the practiced charm that had made him a tabloid darling in Harbor City. “I startled her when I came in.”
“Uh-huh.” Her dad sucked his teeth and laid a heavy palm on the bare workbench, no doubt to balance himself since the stubborn man had insisted on leaving his cane in the truck. “Here’s how this’ll work. You’ll have twenty-four hours, until Sunday night, to build a piece of furniture. What you make is up to you. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be functional and not a piece of shit. A real family is going to use these pieces, hopefully for a really long time. We’ll move the furniture into the Beauchamp’s new Habitat for Humanity house Monday morning. The family will vote for their favorite piece. Whoever gets the most votes wins. Questions?”
For a crazy-ass bet, he sure made it sound reasonable. Damn, did that mean she was joining the ranks of the nut job army?
“What happens if one of us backs out or doesn’t finish in time?”
Her dad shrugged. “Then you lose.”
Thanks, Pops. No pressure there.
“Questions or concerns, Baby Girl?”
She shook her head. “I’m good.”
“All right then. I’ll leave you two here.” He turned for the door, but paused before he could make the full rotation. “I expect excellence, out of both of you.”
Keisha watched her dad make his way out the door, studiously ignoring the man standing next to her and the fizzy, giddy excitement running roughshod over her body at his nearness. And the way their breaths had automatically synced. And the way her skin still tingled where he’d touched her as he’d held her close. Nope. She deserved a medal for ignoring all of it.
Or an Oscar for best self-delusional actor in a film playing only in her head.
The unmistakable sound of a diesel engine roaring to life sounded, followed by tires splashing in the storm’s leftover slush and then silence. They were alone, fighting for control of the company her dad had founded, nurtured, and loved. She had to pull her shit together, or she’d ruin everything for her parents.
Ever since the main factory on the other side of town had opened, only her dad had used the original Jacobs Fine Furnishings workshop—and that had slowed considerably since his stroke. But he still insisted it be kept in tip-top shape. Something for which Keisha was grateful, because winning this ridiculous bet wouldn’t get any easier if she had to magically get over her fear of spiderwebs or her unfortunate attraction to Gabe.
“So this is it?” Gabe’s voice sent a delicious shiver up the back of her neck…and other places.
Hoping distance would lessen the desire thrumming through her system, she strutted over the power tool cabinet. “Yep.”
His footsteps echoed in the quiet space, stopping close enough that she could feel his nearness as surely as a touch. “What’s the set up?”
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears as she fiddled with the cabinet door knob. “Lumber storage and the plywood rack are in the back. Upfront are all the basics: table saw with router table, a combination table-saw shaper, a bandsaw, edge sander, wide belt sander, miter saw, jointer, metalworking mill, drill press, and a massive cabinet filled with power tools. There’s an air-filtration system with suction throughout the barn.”
Gabe chuckled, his breath caressing her skin. “You must spend every day here to rattle all that off without even looking around.”
Enough, K. Time to find your spine, girl.
She pasted her best tough-chick expression on her face and whirled around, ready to go to battle for her family. “Nope. I’m either behind a desk or shopping for interior decorating clients. But I grew up in this barn. I was working the sander as soon as I was old enough. Before that, my Barbies had fabulous adventures in the lumber storage area.”
Seemingly unaffected by her hard tone, Gabe pointed to the open air loft above the main floor. “What’s up there?”
She glanced up, grateful for a place to look that didn’t include his wide shoulders or model-handsome face. “The hayloft was remodeled into living quarters. When my parents fist got married, they lived there.”
“Your dad a workaholic?”
“No.” The word came out too sharp, but she didn’t care. She needed to push him away or risk losing the bet, her family’s business, and her sanity. “He was determined to make a go of the company and give his children something more than a farm weighed down with debt, and you’re dead set on taking that legacy from him.”
Gabe flinched as if she’d struck him. “I take it the truce is over.”
“For such a successful guy, you catch on slow.” She enunciated each word so the sarcasm would create the wall between them she so desperately needed. “The truce ended the moment you accused my dad of murder.”
He slipped his black-framed glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I was wrong.”