Colleen Sanders watched her father Joe fritter away the family farm for twenty years. Now that she’s in charge of Split Acres operations, she plans to turn the outfit around, with or without his help. Unfortunately, with the farm finances in a mess and an unusual uptick of suspicious disasters to contend with, her savings aren’t enough to keep the business afloat.
So she marries a stranger to get it.
Colleen Sanders took a bracing breath before mashing the last few digits of the number she never expected to dial again. Slinking off her seat edge, she took sanctuary beneath her abused cherry desk, gripping the edge of her phone base as she went.
Her father had stripped the carpet from the big office two years past and had never gotten around to replacing it. The staff lingering in the hall could probably hear every blink—every whisper—even through her closed door.
She curled into the corner, drawing her knees up to her chin as her target picked up his extension.
“Greg. Hi.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and lowered her voice to a whisper. “How are you?”
“Great. That you, Colleen? Sounds like your rasp.”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Was just thinking about you—talking about you, actually—at the retreat last week. Miss you around here.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, and mentally berated herself for her lachrymose tendencies as of late. Ball-busting Colleen had never been a crier. She hadn’t even cried during that one lacrosse match freshman year when a freak collision resulted in her dislocated shoulder and broken nose, although she had introduced the Emerald Springs residents in attendance to the less refined components of her vocabulary. The official had tossed her a yellow card for that outburst. She’d framed it.
“Miss all of you, too,” she confessed.
“Hey, can you speak up? I can hardly hear you.”
“No. Listen, do you … ” She closed her eyes and willed her churning gut to calm. This was just Greg. Out of all the calls she’d had to make in recent weeks, this should have been an easy one. Another deep breath. “Listen, do you have any work for me?”
There was surprise in Greg’s voice, and Colleen couldn’t tell if it was pleasant or otherwise.
“Yes. Got any design work for me?”
A pause. Greg rustled some papers on his end of the call in Seattle, and there was a thump, followed by a loud, squealing whine.
Colleen yanked the phone back from her ear and held it away until the infernal racket ceased.
Greg came back on the line. “Sorry! Sorry.”
Colleen put the phone back against her ear and whispered, “What happened?”
“Got so excited I dropped the phone. We’re short some boot designs and have been in a frenzy trying to develop new motifs. I’m pretty sure the timing of your phone call is in direct response to the bargains I made with at least three pagan gods last night.”
Her shoulders fell with her relief, and she blew out a breath. “Can you pay me up-front?”
Another pause. “How are things at the farm? Any better?”
“No.” Why bother explaining? Greg already knew the dirt.
“Damn. Hey, I’ll walk the invoice up to accounting right now. We’ll try to get the check cut before FedEx gets here. I’ll send you specs as soon as I’m back at my desk.”
“Greg, thank you. Really. Thank you. You’re getting me out of some serious hot water.”
He laughed, and Colleen heard the sound of his heels clacking against the concrete floors at the Markson Outfitters corporate headquarters. Already on the move, Greg was. Colleen had learned a lot about efficiency working under that guy for all those years.
“Pays to have friends in high places, huh?” he asked. “Don’t worry about it. You’re doing me a massive favor. When you see the deadline, you’ll understand.”
Colleen laughed, too, and couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard that sound coming out of her mouth. Things in her life hadn’t been conducive to laughter in the past few months. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll look for your email.”
She put the phone in its base and crawled out from her hidey-hole. No sooner had she’d pulled up to her feet than the phone rang again, the display flashing an interoffice extension. She sighed and set the phone on the desktop before stabbing the speaker button. “Yes, Kate?”
“Colleen, you have some visitors here to see you,” her secretary said.
Damn it. Kate had her on speakerphone on her end, too. That meant her dependable assistant had probably already told whoever it was that Colleen was unavailable, but they had insisted on having an audience. She couldn’t bluff her way out of this visit as easily as she had with Sam Whitman earlier in the morning. Sam—marketing director at the neighboring Emerald Tea Farm—wasn’t there to pay her any money, and she sure as shit didn’t owe them any, so in her book, a meeting was unnecessary. Mercenary, true, but she couldn’t turn Split Acres Farm around if she was on her ass engaging in idle chitchat all day. As it was, she was already digging the farm out of a grave that was filling in faster than she could shovel clear.
“And who are the visitors?” she asked, rubbing the bridge of her nose again.
“The septic tank contractor has finished his work and wants to talk to you … and Alan’s here.”
Kate had said “Alan” in manner indicating Colleen should already know that. She didn’t.
“I … think you should talk to him.”
That didn’t sound good. Did she owe someone a paycheck and had forgotten?
No, that couldn’t be it. She’d been staring over the foreman’s shoulder for four weeks, approving every timecard to make sure he didn’t let any overtime slip in. She’d issued pay for every single one of those hours.
“Fine. Let me just … ” she opened and shut her desk drawer twice. “ … finish up the filing I’m doing, and I’ll be right out.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Kate clicked off.
“Damn it.” The matronly assistant never called Colleen “ma’am” unless the situation required a certain performance. It was their unofficial code word.
Colleen shoved her socked feet into the powder blue floral-print rain boots awaiting her near the door and used the small mirror hung over the file cabinets to smooth the lumps from her hair. If someone suggested she had dressed in the dark that morning, the statement wouldn’t have been so far from the truth. Being in a perpetual state of exhaustion, she rarely had her eyes open before arriving at Split Acres Farm’s operations office, and Kate had poured that first pot of coffee down her gullet. Further, her lights were on the fritz at the old house. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes she got a shock. Literally.
She looked haggard in that reflection. Until recently, she’d looked her age, maybe a little under it. She got good genes from her mother’s side, but from her father’s side, she got a major headache in the form of four hundred acres of unprofitable farmland. She was thirty-two but feeling pretty damn close to retirement age. No wonder her mother had always been so tired when Colleen and her brother, Jacob, were growing up. There was just so much to do, and she was doing it with far less staff than her parents ever had.
Oh well. She wasn’t trying to win a sash and tiara. She just needed to deal with two visitors as efficiently and painlessly as possible.
She straightened her spine, smoothed her expression into the unreadable blank she always met the public with, and pulled open the door.
She was already talking before she’d cleared the end of the long corridor of mostly empty offices, and had her hand extended for the contractor to shake. “Thanks for coming out so fast, Bart.” She caught a glimpse of a tall, dark-haired man lingering near the entryway, but she let him remain in her periphery for the time being. One thing at a time.
Bart switched his clipboard to his left hand and wrapped his big, rough, right hand around hers. “You should have called weeks ago when the plumbing started backing up. Would have been less of a problem.”
She was perfectly aware of that. Less of a problem, but no less expensive to fix.
“Everything is in working order, then? Tanks are empty?”
He nodded and handed the clipboard over to her. He crooked his thumb toward the door. “Your custodian here looked it over and said it was fine. Signed off on the work. I just need a check.”
All the words made sense. They were English, after all, but they didn’t seem to apply to her particular situation. She squared her shoulders and cocked up her favored eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
Bart took the clipboard back and pointed to something printed in the terms. “Payable upon completion. I guess you don’t have a line of credit?”
Her teeth clenched, and she sucked a sobering breath through her nose. Damn you, Daddy. She’d waited as long as she did to call them in the first place because she expected to have money to pay the bill in the thirty days it took it to come due. Now she’d have to go rob Peter to pay Paul again.
She took the clipboard back and raised her chin, hoping to garner some sense of authority in the situation, but on the inside she was crumbling. Mess after mess, it never let up. How much more could she take?
“And my custodian signed off on it, you said?” She brought the paper up to her eyes and squinted at the scrawled signature. Alan … something-or-other.
Finally, she gave the man more than just her peripheral vision. She stared at him dead-on, expecting him to flinch and blanch like all the others did, but he lifted a hand in greeting and grinned.
Her jaw fell open, and she was stunned momentarily by the blue of his eyes, his chiseled jaw, his dark hair—deliciously unkempt and tickling the top of his collar—and the strong forearms her eyes skimmed down to as he twirled a ratchet wrench between long, tanned fingers.
A stranger, and if she had to guess, her father was to blame for him being there. Why did he agree to let her come home and do the job if he wasn’t going to get out of the way to let her do it?
She closed her mouth and swallowed, turning her attention back to Bart. “Have a seat. I’ll go cut you a check.”
Bart shrugged, shuffled across the worn carpet, and plopped into one of the vinyl chairs near the door.
“Alan,” she said, spinning on her boot heel and striding toward the hall. “Why don’t you join me in my office and tell me about the work while I run this check through QuickBooks?”
“Yes, certainly, Colleen.”
She stumbled a bit over her own feet, glad that no one, beyond the corporate sheltie lounging brazenly in the middle of the hall, could see it. She stepped over the dog and concentrated on her breathing as she approached her office.
Dear lord, he had an accent.
Get a grip, woman.
By the time she plopped her butt in her desk chair and punched her computer monitor button, her supposed custodian joined her in the office, and the blush inching up her neck had receded.
“Close the door, please.”
He gave her a speculative look but put his hand on the doorknob and pushed.
She ducked her head behind her computer monitor, clicking her mouse blindly at nothing in particular. She couldn’t see straight for some reason, and she didn’t think it was low blood sugar.
Gorgeous man. Too bad she’d have to fire him.