I was good with wood—the other reason I wanted to quit my previous job to pursue this. I liked creating things. Measuring and cutting, then sanding and smoothing eased something inside of me. I was leveling my sharp edges in the process.
I was set up outside. A part of me hoped Savannah would come out here again, full of fire and steam, but she didn’t. Maybe I’d finally shocked her enough to stay away from me. A pang of disappointment shot through me.
The door squeaked open; a small head popped out. “Hey, mister.”
I looked up to find Miles struggling with the back door to his mother’s store.
I cocked my head to the side, trying to hide my amusement. “Are you supposed to be out here?”
His face screwed up. “I’m allowed to play in the yard.”
Was he? I had no idea what the parameters were for a six-year-old. “If you say so.”
His lips tugged up at the corner, and I wondered if I’d been played.
He sidled close to me. “What are ya working on?”
I ran a hand over the mostly smooth piece of wood. “The top for my counter. It’s walnut.” It was a more expensive piece of wood, but hopefully, it would serve as my countertop for years to come. “It’s a deep, rich color, and the grains of wood are minimal compared to oak.”
I wasn’t sure why I was explaining it to him as if he were a little adult.
He looked up at me, his eyes filled with curiosity. “You don’t like grain in the wood?”
It was a mature question for a little guy, so I went into explaining the different types of wood, pulling each up on my phone to point out the different colors and grains.
I chuckled. “I guess.”
“Can you help me make a chessboard?”
I moved away from the makeshift table, unscrewing the cap on my now warm water, then drinking it. Wiping the condensation from my mouth, I asked, “Why chess?”
“It’s a fun game. I used to play on the computer with my uncle when he was in New York. Now we can play together.”
He was talking about Savannah’s older brother. I didn’t know him well, other than Mom said he was a doctor or studying to be one. “That’s good he’s home.”
“Why not buy a board?” I was feeling this kid out. If he had a good reason for making one, I’d help him.
“I like the smell of the wood.”
My heart squeezed. I did, too.
“It’s more fun to make one.”
“All good reasons but making chessboards is complicated. You have to make each piece on the board a different color, then create a border.” I pulled up a picture, showing it to him. “What will you do for pieces?”
“You could. I can’t make those.” Witling small figures was beyond my abilities.
He nodded solemnly. “Okay.”
“Miles Daniel St. James, what are you doing out here?” Savannah’s hands were on her hips. It was the stern mom voice that was nothing like how she’d melted for me earlier in my store.
“Hey, you told me you were allowed back here.”
“Not when someone is using large tools,” Savannah added.
Her face was flushed. Was it from anger or our almost kiss?
“I’m just sanding.”
She glared at me, and I realized I wasn’t helping her cause.
“You can’t leave your mom without telling her where you’re going,” I told Miles.
“No more sneaking out,” she said as Miles slunk past her into the building.
I held up my hands to ward her off. “I’m sorry. I thought it was okay.”
“It’s not your fault.” Her lips twisted in irritation.
I wanted her to trust me with Miles. “He asked me to make him a chessboard.”
“I’m sorry he was bothering you. I’ll talk to him again.”
“He wasn’t—” I swallowed, my throat suddenly as dry as the piece of wood I was working on, “He wasn’t bothering me. I liked talking to him.”
I never thought I’d enjoy the company of a child that wasn’t my sibling or mine.
“Really?” She cocked her head.
“Is that so hard to believe?” I knew her perception of me was my own doing, but it still irritated me that she couldn’t fathom me getting along with a child.
“You don’t have to help him with the chessboard. He’s been asking for one. I’ll have to find one for his birthday.” She turned as if to leave.
“I don’t mind helping.” I wanted to have an excuse for Miles to hang out with me.
I’d established this wall between us on our first interaction, but it bothered me that she thought I was the bad guy. That she probably told Miles I wasn’t a good guy. I was someone to avoid. It grated, even if the assumption was well deserved.
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You didn’t. Miles did.”
She was probably thinking of a polite way to turn me down.
“It will be a good thing for him to learn. I won’t let him use any of the machinery, but he can choose the wood, sand it, and set the glue and clamp it to dry.”
“He loves building things.” She examined me.
“He said the same.”
She nodded slowly. “If you’re sure it’s okay.”
Something passed between us then, a truce maybe. “It is.”
“Let me know what I can pay you for the wood. I know it’s expensive.”
I shook my head. “There’s no need.”
Her eyes widened.
“I want to help him.” I wanted to help her, even though it went against my plan to push her away, to evict her.
“He’s going to be so excited.” Something about the way she said it made me think she would have to brace herself for the reaction.
A thrill shot through me at the idea. I liked it. “When I was a kid, my shop teacher saw something in me. He encouraged me. It was nice.”
Her lips curled into a small smile. “Mentors are great to have.”
I wasn’t insinuating that I would be a mentor for Miles because I wasn’t. “I can show him how to work to make a chessboard. If he has a knack for it, I can show him other things.”
I liked the idea of sharing my knowledge with him. He didn’t have a father in his life, and I knew how important it was to have strong male role models when you were raised by a single mom. Presumably, he had his brother and grandfather, but maybe I could give back the same way my shop teacher did with me.
“Thank you. That would be great.”
Then she was gone. I should have brought up the fact we’d almost kissed. Promised her it wouldn’t happen again, but I couldn’t. Next time I wouldn’t hesitate.
I’d carefully avoided any run-ins with Ethan the next week. Miles was at school during the day, so I didn’t have to worry about him sneaking over to his store. At first, I avoided him because he was so infuriating. Then there was that moment we’d shared. I was positive he was going to kiss me. I was worked up and confused at the desire I’d seen in his eyes and my reaction to him. I wanted him to kiss me.
I hated that I was attracted to the guy who held my future in his hands. He had the power to raise the rent on my store and home so that I’d have no choice but to move. I shouldn’t be feeling anything toward him but wariness.
I’d come up with an idea for the store, and I needed to talk to someone about it. I wanted to showcase a local artist. I needed a new light fixture. It was almost too much to hope that someone nearby made light fixtures. If so, it would be a cheap way to renovate the store and showcase local artists…if I could find someone willing to display their items in my store for free in exchange for exposure and referrals.
Unfortunately, Ethan was the one who might know if there was someone, and I needed my store to succeed badly enough to ask for his advice. So, I flipped the hanging sign on my door from Open to Be Right Back, then crossed the small porch to his store.
Pausing in the open door, I took in the progress he’d made since I was there last. And it was a lot. The shelves were assembled, stock was on the shelves, and the countertop was in place.
Seeing the space was empty of people, I moved toward the beautiful piece of wood, running a hand over the smooth surface. It was a definite conversation starter for those waiting at the counter to pay.
I hoped Ethan knew of someone who designed unique light fixtures so I could showcase something similar in my store.
A metal clanking sounded against the building. Movement caught my attention outside the window. There was a ladder propped against the side of the building, and Ethan stood next to it.
I met him outside on the sidewalk. “What are you doing?”
He gestured toward a large rectangular object covered with a tarp. “Putting up my sign.”
I should ask him what I wanted to know and leave. Unfortunately, my curiosity took over. “What did you decide to name it?”
He widened his stance, considering me, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “There were so many good options—Screw Right...”
My face slowly heated as his gaze raked over me. I could imagine him hovering over me, the muscles in his arms bulging with the effort, the smell of sawdust surrounding me, his cock hard under the zipper of his worn jeans as he pressed against my core. The thought of the friction had my nipples pebbling under my bra.
He tipped his head to the side. “You like that one?”
I cleared my suddenly dry throat. I managed to infuse bored irritation into my tone while mimicking his words back to him. “I don’t know if that will attract the right clientele.”
“Oh, I think it will.” His cocky expression had my blood pumping.
“Please tell me you’re joking.” Unfortunately, my words came out breathless.
He smirked. “My mom missed an opportunity by not naming me Andrew. Handy Andy has the perfect ring to it, don’t ya think?”
The word handy had me imagining his calloused hand fisting his cock—his grip tight. I swallowed hard.
He tapped his chin with his finger. “Then there was Hardware Happy Endings, Anything Anytime Hardware…”
Was he emphasizing the word hard in all of these options, or was it my overactive imagination? Was he thinking about that time we’d almost crossed the line? How I’d wanted him to press me against the wall? How hot the idea made me?
What would have happened had I let it continue? Would there have been a happy ending for me? It had been so long since a man had made me climax, I think I’d forgotten if it was better than a self-induced one.
“Screwfix Now.” He punctuated each word, waiting for my reaction.
“For God’s sake. Just let me see the sign.” Eliminating the distance between us, I pushed the tarp off the sign. I didn’t know why I cared or why I was letting him get to me. It was a rustic sign with black letters, The Red Toolbox.
Surprised, I took a step back.
He chuckled. “Disappointed?”
“It’s cute.” I couldn’t stop the smile that spread over my face. It was adorable. I loved it.
“Cute?” His tone filled with indignation.
I smiled as my galloping heart slowed to a steady pace. To cover how the sign made me like him a little more, I said, “Miles will love it.”
Feeling more confident that I could resist him, I straightened my spine. I just needed to be immune to this push and pull between us. The one that made me think this animosity would be dynamite once his lips touched mine again.
He winced. “That wasn’t what I was going for.”
More relaxed now that he’d lost the upper hand, I said, “I think you really missed out on an opportunity. Had you gone with any of the other names, you would have had women lining the block to buy your tools.”
He cocked his head, stepping closer. “I’m sorry, what now?”
I tipped my chin back to hold his gaze. “Women would have loved it. Loved you.”
“You know, the type who like those sorts of innuendos.” And hot men with tool belts who know how to fix things.
So, yes, all women, but especially me.
His eyes narrowed on me. “And you don’t?”
I liked it. I liked it a lot. But my heart was pounding in my ears again, making it difficult to form a complete thought. “You’re completely ridiculous, and you’re wasting my time.”
He gestured at me, his tone infused with anger. “Your time? You’re the one who came out here, interrupting the erection of my sign.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Seriously? You have got to stop using words like that.”
“What word?” He stepped closer as I edged away from him. “Erection?”
My face was so hot. There was no way he didn’t notice.
“You’re the one with the mind in the gutter.”
He was playing a game—a dangerous game—one that was sucking me in—hard.
I backed up until my heels hit the wall behind me. I was trapped.
He was standing too close yet not touching me. “Why, Savannah? Does hearing me say those words make you hot?”
The heat that had been simmering just below the surface bubbled over. I sidestepped away from him, letting the heat morph into irritation that he was flirting with me when he didn’t even like me. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but you’re my landlord. I need this store. I need to keep my home. I have a son to support. I’m not the kind of woman who’s going to fall for whatever it is you’re trying to do.”
I shouldn’t like it, even if it made me feel young and desirable. If I weren’t a single mother, and if I didn’t have a care in the world, I wouldn’t have stopped him. I’d see if he was as good with my body as he was with his tools. But that kind of fun wasn’t for me.
“Is there a reason why you came out here?” His tone was harder.
I turned, crossing my arms over my chest. “I wanted to ask you for help. But if you’re busy, I’ll come back later.”
He arched a brow at that as he brushed past me. “What do you need help with?”
I followed him inside the store, watching as he moved behind the counter. He looked good there. Regardless of the name he chose for the store, women would be coming in here, asking all kinds of questions about updating their kitchens with his help.
I pushed down the jealousy I had no right to feel. This man wasn’t for me. I needed to find one that didn’t own the building I lived and worked in.
“I’d like to change up the lighting in the store.”
“You think that’s necessary?”
“It is for my plan to increase revenue at my store. You won’t be able to get rid of me that easily.”
His expression was unreadable.
“I’d like to showcase local artists, and I was thinking I could switch up the lighting and support a local artist at the same time. It could be a conversation starter—” I gripped his counter. “Like this.”
He considered it. “You think my countertop is a conversation starter?”
“Isn’t that why you made it yourself?” I asked him, genuinely curious as to how his mind worked.
“I thought it would be a good way to showcase my abilities so customers would feel comfortable asking my advice.”
“It’s the same idea. Except I’m using other people’s work to promote it in exchange for getting it free. Do you know anyone who does lighting who might be interested in something like that?”
I swallowed down my pride, needing his help and advice.
“I’ve been doing research so that I can refer customers to local people who do custom work. Let me check my lists to see what I’ve got. I think I have someone who does unique fixtures.”
Hope soared that he knew someone who could help.
“If I don’t have someone, I can do some more research.”
I hated owing him anything, but I needed a referral. “That would be great.”
His tan hand curled around the mouse on the counter as he moved it to search his computer. I couldn’t help but notice his fingernails were cut short, but his fingers were strong and capable looking. What would they feel like on my skin?
“What kind of fixture were you looking for? Modern? Vintage?”
My eyes met his over the counter. My cheeks heated. Did he know I was thinking of that almost kiss?
“I think a combination of both. Something unique.”
He considered me. “It won’t match the design of your store.”
I bristled at his tone. “Not yet, it won’t, but I’m making some changes.”
“You think that will be enough?” His expression told me he didn’t.
I bit back a retort, not wanting to further antagonize him when I was so close to getting a lead on someone who’d supply a fixture for the store.
Turning back to the computer, he said, “I got a guy in Virginia. Not exactly local, but we aren’t going to find everything we need in town.”
Turning the screen toward me, he showed me a piece he’d zoomed in. It was exactly what I was looking for. Forgetting my irritation with him, I said, “That would be perfect. Do you think he’d be willing to work with me?”
“I don’t know. But it’s worth a shot.” He sat on the bench behind the counter. “What else are you planning?”
The way he carefully studied me made me want to share with him. “I’m repainting the store a bright white. Clearing out the space a bit, limiting our offerings. I’m narrowing our business focus while updating the overall look and feel of the store.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “What brought on this change?”
I couldn’t help but notice the motion emphasized his biceps. The same ones that were able to move those long and heavy boxes from the porch the other day. When I realized he was still waiting for my response, I said, “I’ve been wanting to do it for a while. My mom’s been resistant.”
“Change is hard when you’ve been doing the same thing for years.”
I pulled my eyes away from his biceps, trying to ignore his sympathetic words.
“Especially when what you were doing was successful.”
He nodded. “The tendency is to hang on to what’s always worked.”
“I’m going to convince her it’s necessary for the future of the business.” I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t forget it was this man who was forcing the issue.
“Is she going to retire and give you the store?”
“I’d like to buy her out, but she’s not willing to let it go. Not yet anyway.”
He considered me carefully. “Have you presented her with an offer?”
I shook my head. I didn’t have the funds to do that, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Sometimes, when presented with cold hard cash, you can change the person’s mind.”
I wish I had cold hard cash. At the same time, his use of the word hard had me imagining his chiseled body pressing me against the wall while he kissed me. I was so hot.
His gaze flicked back to the screen. “You want this, then?”
He turned the computer screen toward me. “The light fixture. You want it for your store?”
He pressed a few keys on the keyboard. “I’d already reached out to him to get a feel for the way he does business. My notes are that he seemed like a straight shooter. I told him I’d refer anyone who wants this style to him, and he agreed to make deliveries here depending on the demand.”
I was nervous yet excited to know if my plan would work. “I need to talk to him. To see if he’s willing to give it to me for free in exchange for advertising.”
“What’s your email? I’ll introduce you that way.”
I relayed my email to him while he typed.
“I’m going to fix the store.” I wanted him to know how serious I was.
His steady gaze rested on mine for a beat, then he stood. “I’d better get back to work if I want to open this place next week.”
His dismissal said more than any of his snide comments. He didn’t think I could do it, but I’d prove him wrong.
“You’re opening already?” I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t for him to open so soon.
“The plan is to do a soft launch early next week, then a hard launch on Saturday.”
“I’d better get back to my store before a customer comes by.” I pulled open the door to leave when he said my name.
Turning around, his expression was uncertain. He was usually so cocky, so confident, it struck me as odd. “Do you mind if I work with Miles on that chessboard?”
I waved a hand at him. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure I can distract him. Tell him you're busy.”
He cleared his throat. “I want to do it.”
“You really want to help a six-year-old build a chessboard?
“Why?” I wasn’t sure why I was questioning him. I wanted Miles to have more male figures in his life, but I couldn’t figure out why Ethan would want to be that guy. He seemed like someone who enjoyed the single life. What single guy would want to saddle himself with a child when he didn’t have to?
He sighed. “I see a little bit of myself in him. All I wanted at that age was for someone to show me how to fish, how to ride a bike, build something, fix anything. I wanted a man to look up to. I didn’t have a grandfather or an uncle.”
“Well, he does.” I wasn’t sure why I pointed that out because the thought of Miles working on a project with Ethan was doing weird things to my heart.
When I first started dating again after I had Miles, guys lost interest when they found out I had a son. I’d hardened my heart to finding someone who’d want more than a fling with a single mother. I didn’t want guys coming and going, I wanted something—someone—more solid.
“Let me do this for him.”
I couldn’t deny him when I wanted Miles to have opportunities that I couldn’t provide. “Okay.”
“My office number is forwarded to my cell when I’m not here. That’s how you got in touch with me when the boxes were blocking the door. But we should probably exchange cell numbers in case he wanders over here again. I can let you know if it’s a bad time.”
“You don’t mind if he hangs around?”
“Not at all. I have a feeling he might have more fun in my store than yours.”
I almost cracked a smile. “I should probably be offended.”
Our fingers brushed as I handed him my phone. Tingles erupted over my skin as he inputted his information. When his cell buzzed with an incoming text, he handed mine back to me. “Now we can communicate easier.”
“For Miles.” It was necessary that I point that out.
“We can set up a time for him to start his project. I want him to pick out the type of wood he’d like so I can make sure I have what he needs. We’ll go over the plans for the project, draw a sketch, take measurements. I’ll show him every aspect of it.”
“Miles will be so excited.”
“It’s for him, but it’s also for me.”
I nodded because my throat was suddenly too tight to speak. I smiled before turning away. Flipping the sign from Be Right Back to Open, I headed back inside my store. Tears pricked my eyes, so I headed to the back to give myself a minute to pull myself together.
No one besides my dad or Alex had taken an interest in Miles. It gave me a glimpse into how Miles’s life might be different if he had a father. Even if we weren’t together as a couple, he might still have gone fishing and camping with his father, Daniel. He might have taught him how to put air in a ball or ride a bike.
I could do my best, but I wasn’t knowledgeable about all those things. I couldn’t provide him with every experience a boy wanted. I’d told myself for years that I was a good mother, hoping that my love would be enough, even as I longed for him to have something more.
Ethan was showing me there might be a guy out there who’d take the time to engage with Miles, maybe even love him.
The bell rang above the door, signaling a customer. I wiped the wetness from my eyes and checked myself in the mirror before heading to the front.
Fighting with Ethan wasn’t nearly as dangerous as being friends with him.
He’s big-city successful. She’s small-town sweet. But thanks to one reckless night of passion, these opposites are about to become family.