Excerpt of Studs for Hire: Woman in Charge by Sherry James
His plane was late.
October rain dumped from the gray Nebraska sky, turning the airport runway into a temporary lake, delaying incoming and outgoing air traffic.
Casey Burrows’ hair was a mess. Her suit was damp, and her pantyhose sported a runner after she’d scraped her leg against her car door when she’d slipped on the wet asphalt. She’d pulled a muscle when she fell, and if that wasn’t enough, her purse hit the ground and sent her favorite lipstick spiraling down a storm drain.
What else could go wrong today? Her nerves were damned near close to being shot—all because one man, a man she didn’t even know, who at this very moment circled high in the sky on a delayed airplane, held her future in his hands.
Drumming her manicured fingernails on her folded arms, Casey resumed pacing the carpet of Omaha’s Eppley airport and tried to conjure up positive thoughts.
Positive thoughts? She needed more than positive thoughts to get her through the balance of this disastrous day. A Casey emergency always called for at least a pound of dark chocolate, or a pitcher of strawberry margaritas. Hell, why not both? This day from hell deserved drastic measures. Besides, everybody knew strawberries and chocolate went together.
Unfortunately, she had neither at her disposal. She was on her own. Casey inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled. Exhaled. So much rode on Alex. Her future, her friends’ futures, and the future of their company, Studs for Hire, all hinged on this one man’s answer. Two simple words, yes or no, never held more power as far as she was concerned.
Casey stopped her pacing, gazed out over the empty runway and checked her watch and the arrival board for the hundredth time. Time ticked away, mocking her.
Taking a calming breath, she shook her arms and wiggled her fingers in an effort to ease her tension. It didn’t work. She shook her arms again, this time a little harder. It was bad enough she’d let her nerves get the better of her in the first place—breaking her steadfast rule to always be cool and collected in any situation.
Today, however, proved too much and had tested every self-control skill she possessed. And now, thanks to the addition of Alex Roy’s flight delay, her nerves teetered on the edge.
Yet, every minute Casey didn’t have to face the high-dollar Denver architect, was one more minute of spared humiliation. One more minute of blessed relief.
“Heather. I ought to wring your neck for putting me in this situation,” Casey grumbled under her breath. She turned, ready to wear another round in the carpet with her Jimmy Choos when she noticed an elderly gentleman sitting to her immediate right. He stared, a huge smile lighting up his face.
“Got an imaginary friend there, sweetie?” he asked with a voice that sounded like a rusty door hinge.
Wonderful. Grandpa thought she was cracked because she was thinking out loud. She sighed, so ready for this long day to be over. But out of sheer respect for the elder man, she gave him a smile and turned away.
“Makes no difference to me if you have imaginary friends, sweetie. You’re hot.”
Casey spun around, her mouth gaping open in shock. Words failed her.
“I’d love to see what’s under that red suit of yours,” he said with a growl. Puckering his lips, he blew her a kiss.
Casey’s temper flared. Okay. This pervert was an exception to the rule when it came to respecting one’s elders. He didn’t deserve any respect, regardless of how old he was. Casey took a step back, increasing the distance between her and Mr. Love Machine sitting contentedly in one of the black vinyl seats. He grinned wider, revealing crooked and tobacco stained teeth.
Joy. Casey groaned under her breath. Just what she needed to plunge her day completely into the toilet—being the object of the plaid polyester king’s desires.
And hey, didn’t people know fashions changed each year? Didn’t they know they couldn’t keep the same suit for thirty-plus, moth-filled years and expect it to still be in style? Sure, fashion trends recycled every so many decades, but there were limits. Certain articles of clothing should never be resurrected. The polyester leisure suit topped the list.
The old man winked and patted the empty seat beside him. Skippidy-do-dah. Time to resume her pacing on the other side of the waiting area.
But what the hell. She could be ornery, too, and give the guy the thrill he was desperate for. Giving him a quick wink, she hurried off, afraid to find out if he got overly excited and suffered a heart attack or stroke.
Casey glanced up at the arrival board. Flight fourteen-ninety-two from Denver was now minutes from landing. The rain had stopped, and her life was moments away from potential ruin. The next few hours with Alex, if he gave her that long, would help determine her future. Studs for Hire was Omaha’s latest and most unique construction and handyman company. Because they were so new, they couldn’t afford the blow of a job gone wrong. One unhappy wealthy and influential client and the phones would stop ringing, the jobs would cease, and the bank account would dwindle to zero.
Casey was determined not to let that happen. Letting down her friends wasn’t an option. The three women despised the corporate scene. As far as they were concerned, the corporate world was still dominated by men who believed the only job in an office for a woman was fetching coffee and polishing desktops with their backsides. No way was Casey going to be responsible for sending them all back to that misery.
Besides, being the boss in a business where the women were in charge held a certain rush. Throw in employees who were buff and sexy construction men, and you had a girl’s dream job come true. No way would she let it all slip through her fingers just because a high-and-mighty architect refused to do the job she had to offer.
But if he did refuse… She didn’t want to think about it. No Alex Roy meant no job at the Gridmore mansion. No job at the Gridmore mansion meant no money, no publicity, and no future clients from among Omaha’s wealthiest citizens. Heather Gridmore knew practically everybody who was anybody in Omaha, and if Casey could satisfy the wealthy widow’s eclectic tastes, the whole city would know about it.
Talk about pressure personified. Casey took a deep breath. She could do this. With her business experience, charm, and a dash of sex appeal thrown in if necessary, she’d convince Alex he’d be a fool to turn down the job.
Her biggest challenge, of course, was assuring Alex that Heather’s remodeling ideas weren’t…cuckoo. If she broke the news to him with tact, and assured him he’d be well paid for his services, he shouldn’t care what he designed—even if it wasn’t exactly his forte.
“Waiting for someone, sweetie?” a cagey voice asked. Casey jumped, unaware her polyester admirer now stood only inches away to her left. What was he? A hungry vulture and she his prey? His eyes gleamed with silent suggestions and expectations, making her realize her spate of orneriness earlier had been a bad idea.
Wonderful. She couldn’t just roll her eyes and walk away again. No doubt he’d follow and try some other lewd tactic. Her best course was to stand her ground and hope the guy could take a blatant hint.
“As a matter of a fact, I am waiting for someone,” she said as politely as she could muster.
“A man? Course these days you could be waiting for a woman. It’s not like in my generation when men only lusted after women, not each other.”
“Yes, well, times change. As do fashions.” She lifted an eyebrow, hoping he was sharp enough to catch all of her hints.
“True. Women show a lot more skin these days. That’s one change I have embraced.” He assessed her form-fitting, short skirted red business suit again with appreciation.
Casey shook her head. The guy had no clue she was referring to his fashion sins. Some battles couldn’t be won, and right now she didn’t care. Alex’s plane had landed and taxied down the runway toward the gate.
“Something about those big planes,” he said excitedly. “The size, the power, the shape.” He wiggled his bushy eyebrows, suggesting more than Casey wanted to ever contemplate.
“Don’t go there, old man,” she said, a hard edge to her voice. Fudge. She didn’t know what was worse—waiting for the man that could ruin her business with one word, or putting up with a dirty old codger who had nothing better to do then harass women in the airport.
Casey returned her gaze to the plane approaching. Rough plaid polyester pushed up against her and she gasped, stumbling backward.
“That’s going too far. Back off or I’m calling security.” She searched the terminal for the presence of uniformed personnel, but saw none. What was the deal? Normally you couldn’t walk ten feet and a security guard was lurking, watching every move.
“You’ve got fire, sweetie. I like that.” He winked.
“You haven’t begun to see my fire, mister,” Casey seethed. “I suggest you leave me alone.”
The man growled in his throat and wiggled his eyebrows a second nauseating time. What was it with old men and their eyebrows, anyway? They always looked like they had untrimmed hedges on their foreheads.
Casey glanced over the man’s matching plaid fedora hat at the bank of windows overlooking the runway. The plane was now parked at the gate. Here was her chance to escape without making a scene. Right now she’d gladly take the man who could ruin her professional life over this sex-crazed old fool.
“Please excuse me, my husband is on that plane. He’ll be joining me soon,” she fibbed, and hurried away before the man could utter a word around his floppy dentures.
Casey smoothed her skirt and attempted to fluff her rain flattened hair, hoping she didn’t look as stressed as she felt. Meeting Alex Roy as a blonde bimbo wouldn’t do much for her cause.
Slowly, passengers disembarked and filtered through the long passageway leading from the plane. Many were greeted by loved ones and friends. A few, by the presence of a laptop case hooked over their suit-clad shoulders proved they were in Omaha on business.
As the number of passengers who filled the terminal increased, and there was still no sign of a man who could be Alex, Casey’s stomach clenched.
What if she had the wrong flight? What if she’d missed him? What if he’d changed his mind and decided not to take the job after all? Casey pressed her fingertips to her forehead, hoping for relief from the headache threatening to explode inside her brain.
Damn. If Alex wasn’t on that plane, Heather Gridmore would have a fit. If Studs lost the biggest potential client they’d had to date, before the job even got off the ground, they’d all be drowning their sorrows in calories and fat grams.
Where was he? The man had first class tickets. He should have been one of the first passengers off the plane.
Maybe she had missed him? She’d never met Alex, but she’d seen him and his high-dollar log homes featured in several magazines. Surely he didn’t look that different from his photo?
Turning, she scanned the seating area where only a handful of passengers still lingered. She saw no one who looked even remotely like Alex’s picture.
Glancing at her watch, she let out a frustrated sigh. Heather was expecting them in a half-hour. How was she going to explain to the wealthy widow her prize architect was nowhere to be found?
But if he was here, Casey was missing out on valuable time. She needed every single minute to prepare Alex for Heather’s plan for the mansion. With time slipping away, proving to him that he hadn’t been duped, that this really wasn’t a hokey job he’d accepted, wasn’t going to be easy. She’d have to rely on every ounce of business savvy she possessed.
To put it bluntly, she had a minuscule number of minutes to save her ass.
A thought struck Casey. If he wasn’t here, her ass was sort of saved, at least temporarily. After all, it wasn’t her fault he’d missed his flight, or had a change in plans, or a change of mind. She’d done her part by making contact with Alex, well, mostly his secretary, and made the arrangements to get him to Omaha and to Heather’s. No way could Heather find fault with Casey.
At least not yet.
Casey would simply have to find a way to pacify Heather until she could reach Alex, find out why he hadn’t showed, and make new arrangements. Stuff happened. Plans changed. Emergencies struck. Heather would have to live with it.
“Husband stand you up?”
Casey’s shoulders stiffened. Her temper sparked. Not the old man again. Elder or not, the guy had overstayed his welcome. It was time to tell him to get lost once and for all.
“I don’t see where that’s any of your business,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Well, it is if you were lying about a husband in order to get rid of me. I’m telling you, I can be a lot of fun. Give me a chance, sweetie.”
A sharp pain pierced Casey’s backside. She jumped and shrieked. The old codger had pinched her on the butt.
“Look here, buster.” She pointed a trembling finger at his nose. “I have a right mind to slug you one where it counts.” Who knew a ninety-year old man could think so indecently, let alone have the energy to act indecently? And where the hell was security when a girl needed them?
“What’s going on here?” a hard-edged male voice asked from behind her.
Casey spun around, anger pulsing through every inch of her five foot, eight inch frame. Finally someone was being noble and getting involved, even if it was after she’d been made to look like the bad guy. “Grandpa here was getting his jollies by pinching me.”
“Me? Pinch you? Sweet lady, you are sorely mistaken,” the old man said dramatically. “I was walking by and stumbled into you. I apologize if you were given the wrong impression. My old legs aren’t as steady as they used to be.”
“Stumbled? That’s a lie and you know it.” Casey leered at the old man, her hands fisted at her sides. “You’re a dirty senior citizen and should be locked away.”
“Whoa. Hold on,” the stranger said. He placed a firm hold on Casey’s shoulder, silently commanding her to take a few steps back. “The lady is right, old man. I saw you pinch her. I suggest you apologize.”
“Bullshit. I won’t do it.” The old man stomped a foot in protest. He jerked his bent body into motion and hobbled off into a new crowd of passengers gathering at another gate.
“Hey.” Casey moved to follow but the stranger didn’t relinquish his hold. “What are you doing? He’s getting away.”
“Ah, let him go.”
“Let him go?” Casey threw up her hands in frustration. “The man has been harassing me for the past twenty minutes and you’re telling me to let him go? He needs to be reported.”
“I agree. But most likely, in his mind he doesn’t know he’s in the wrong. And with his advanced age, what real harm can he do?”
Casey bit her bottom lip and considered the stranger’s words as she watched the old man sit down by himself on the other side of the terminal. He looked so alone, so lost. “True, but it still doesn’t make it right.”
“I know. What are the cops going to do? They’d probably just tell him to knock it off, give him a ride home, and that would be the end of it anyway.”
Casey planted her hands on her hips, not thoroughly convinced she should let the matter go. “Whose side are you on?”
“Well, I’m not really taking sides. I just think reporting him would be making a mountain out of a mole hill and---”
“Let me tell you something.” Casey poked her index finger into his firm chest. “The man wiggled his eyebrows, blew me kisses, and followed me around the terminal like a panting dog. I reached my breaking point when he pinched my…” She twisted and pointed to the assaulted spot on her backside.
The stranger shifted his weight onto one hip. He quirked an eyebrow and looked at the offended spot. A grin tugged at the corner of his lips. “I have to admit, he’s got great taste.”
Casey stilled. Recognition hit her like another unwelcome pinch on the posterior. She knew that voice. Their one conversation on a static-filled cell line had been brief, but she’d know that whiskey smooth voice anywhere.
And now, too late, she recognized that lazy, sexy smile from a photo she’d seen in a magazine article.
“Alex Roy,” he said, holding out his hand for her to take. “I bet you’re Casey Burrows? Right?”
Boy, oh boy. It was him. Embarrassment heated her cheeks. This was one helluva a first impression—him finding her in a tussle with an old man, and now with her butt cocked out for the world to see. Really, could this day get any worse?
Casey snapped herself into a straight position and lifted her chin, stepping into her professional mode. Sliding her hand into his, his lean fingers wrapped around hers perfectly. Alex’s grip was strong and firm, yet gentle. And Casey could feel a slight roughness to his skin, confirming he didn’t just design log homes, but had a hand in the actual building process of his creations as well.
Oh, sweet tangerine. The man was to die for. Tall, dark-haired, broad shouldered and with deep, soul-filled brown eyes, he was a delectable delight. He was better-looking up close and personal than in the picture she’d seen. Now she fully understood why Heather had been so insistent upon hiring Alex. Pure intelligent and talented hunk through and through, he was not only the perfect architect for the job, but the perfect addition to Studs for Hire. He was a master design himself.
Once word got around Omaha that Alex was working exclusively with Studs, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Maybe she’d have to figure out a way to thank Heather for being so insistent.
“Nice to finally meet you, Alex,” she said around the zings of awareness pulsing through her veins. “I was beginning to wonder if you were on this flight or not.”
“Sorry. If I’d gotten off the plane sooner I could have saved you from being harassed.” He winked.
“Yes, you could have,” she teased. “But I do want to thank you for ultimately coming to my rescue. No one else did.”
“Most people these days feel it’s safer not to get involved.”
“I guess it’s true what they say. The days of chivalry are dead.”
Casey saw a darkness cloud his eyes and got the feeling he agreed with her statement more than he wanted to let on. “So, what were you doing on the plane for so long? Napping?” she asked, hoping to ease the tension in his eyes.
“Uh, no.” He chuckled. His laugh was deep and sensual. Casey found herself liking the sound, maybe a little more than she should. “I don’t like to sleep on planes,” he continued. “At least if I’m awake, I feel like I have some semblance of control in a totally out-of-my control situation.”
Casey smiled. “I can relate. I love to travel, but flying isn’t exactly my favorite part of the trip. Knowing my safe arrival is in the hands of someone I’ve never met bothers me.”
“Yeah. If something goes wrong, I’m powerless to stop it. I know nothing about airplanes.”
Casey nodded her head in agreement. “It’s a control issue.”
“Guess so.” Alex shrugged. “I can’t help it. I’m serious about my business. I’m very hands on in both my professional and personal life.”
And so was Casey. Being that way came from practically raising four younger brothers and sisters by herself. But that didn’t stop her from worrying if she and Alex, two control freaks, could work together without locking horns and facing major challenges? For the job, they’d have to, or else end up in a disaster she didn’t even want to contemplate.
She filed away her apprehensions, forcing the butterflies in her stomach to take a hike.
“So,” she said, getting back on track. “If you weren’t sleeping, what were you doing? Wooing a flight attendant?”
“Hardly.” He laughed again and the sound soothed her nerves. “I was talking with the pilot. He’s thinking about building a log home.”
“Ah, a potential client. Your reputation precedes you. Impressive.”
He shook his head. “Not really. I guess he recognized me from an article.”
“The one in last month’s Timber Home Living?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” He shrugged as if it didn’t really matter to him in the least.
“Publicity is good for business. Get plenty of publicity and you’ll never want for clients.”
“I prefer my homes to speak for themselves.”
“Absolutely,” Casey agreed, a new round of worry and dread coating her words. Heather’s design was certainly going to speak for itself. There was no doubt the mansion was going to be one-of-a-kind. And in a class by itself.
That is, if they ever made it that far.
# # #
Casey glanced at her watch as she and Alex stood outside the front door of Heather’s colossal home. They’d arrived with two minutes to spare. Heather might be impulsive, and oftentimes deserving of the dumb blonde label, even though her hair color changed with the wind, but she was a stickler for punctuality. If you wanted to stay on Heather’s good side and continue to be invited into her circle, you were never late. For anything.
This was one time Casey thought being late might be a wise move. With Alex’s flight delay, his luggage being momentarily lost, she’d had no time to brief him on the plans for the Gridmore mansion.
Well, there was the drive from the airport to Heather’s home in the Happy Hallow area. However, telling Alex the truth while trapped in a speeding car zigzagging through Friday five o’clock traffic, with her nerves already fried, wasn’t exactly prime spill-your-guts time. Wrecking her brand new Mazda Six with in-transit stickers still stuck to the windows, would play hell on her insurance.
So, now here they stood. Casey steeled her shoulders and pushed the doorbell. Even through the heavy oak door, she heard the muted chimes tolling the moment of truth. Crawling under one of the large landscape boulders decorating the yard sounded like a good idea at the moment.
“This place is huge,” Alex said, breaking the quiet of the fall evening. The rain had stopped, but a heavy dampness clung to everything like carpenter’s glue. “I can’t believe she wants to add on.” His strong hands splayed over his hips, pulling back his waist-length bomber jacket. As he studied the exterior of the house, Casey couldn’t help noticing the broad chest hidden beneath his jacket and flannel shirt.
According to what she’d read about Alex, he was a no nonsense kind of guy, practical and down-to-earth. His basic, durable wardrobe reflected that personality. But it wouldn’t matter if he wore a space suit for his clothing of choice. Alex Roy would still look sexy as sin.
His gaze landed on Casey and her pulse picked up another notch. A strand of his coffee brown hair fell over his forehead and she fought the urge to brush it aside. Yeah. He was sexy all right—with a capital S.
“What for?” he asked.
“Why does she want to add on?” Alex stared at her, a question furrowing his brow.
Crap. Why did he have to ask that question now when she felt like a drowned rat and her confidence was in the toilet? Casey pulled up the lapels of her black trench coat, giving her hands something to do, and her mind time to figure out how to answer. Never in her life had she felt so out of sorts. Maybe she was coming down with something—like terminal idiot syndrome.
“Heather likes to entertain…a lot.” There, that wasn’t a lie, or stretching the truth. Heather loved to party, and when she did, it was a five-star event.
The brass door latch clicked. Casey sucked in a breath. At least for the moment she was saved from answering any more of Alex’s questions. In a matter of minutes the truth would come out and short-circuit her plans, her business, and her future.
Studs for Hire: Woman in Charge available November 2007.