DEREK JACKSON’S phone buzzed on his belt. He pulled off his work gloves, wiped his hands on the thick canvas of his cargo pants, and unclipped his cell to see a text from his boss and best friend, Thane Dalton.
New client, can’t get away. Take the initial meeting?
Derek resisted the urge to make a comment about marriage and married sex—once upon a time, Thane would have been the first in to work and the last to leave, before he had Blake to tempt him to linger in the mornings and come home early at night—but Thane would undoubtedly reply with more information than Derek really wanted to know. Blake, Thane’s husband, might have softened some of Thane’s rough edges, but not where his interactions with Derek were concerned.
Contact info? Derek texted back.
His phone buzzed again with the contact icon. He opened it and stared at the name. Hensley. Why was that name familiar? He couldn’t place it, but it would come to him or not. Either way, he had a client to contact. He hit the Call button and listened to the phone ring.
That was it. The bookstore down on Jefferson, the LGBT one Blake loved. Derek had never been in, mostly because he was too busy to have time for reading, but Blake never stopped insisting he should take a look. Now he’d have a chance.
“May I speak with Owen Hensley?” Derek asked.
“Speaking.” The man answered his own business’s number. Derek was impressed. He didn’t let himself notice what a nice voice Hensley had. That would be unprofessional.
“This is Derek Jackson with Dalton Construction, returning your call.”
“I was hoping to get an estimate. I have some work that needs to be done.”
“When are you available to meet?” Derek asked. An estimate was a routine request. Dalton Construction was the best, but not always the least expensive, and clients had to be comfortable with both quality and price.
“This afternoon after three or tomorrow before twelve. Or if that doesn’t work, I could see about getting my assistant to switch shifts with me tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there at three.” Derek was even more impressed now. Thane aside, he didn’t know many business owners who worked alongside their employees rather than supervising them. It would make it easier if he could hit it off with the client because Thane was swamped with the largest contract they’d ever received, giving a facelift to an eighty-unit apartment complex that had been bought out and was benefiting from downtown urban renewal. And that meant Derek would be the one handling whatever Hensley wanted done. He didn’t mind—he’d do anything for Dalton Construction. It might bear Thane’s name, but Derek had been right there beside him when they couldn’t afford more than minimal equipment and the time between contracts meant eating ramen noodles if they were lucky. He just hoped Hensley would play straight. The one thing Derek hated was people who jerked them around, trying to play companies against one another to get a better deal. Their initial bid was always as low as they could make it and still stay in business. They weren’t out to gouge anyone, just to make their own living.
AT PRECISELY five minutes ’til three, Derek parked in front of Hensley’s Books on Jefferson Street, just down from Blake’s favorite wine bar. He smiled at the memory of the engagement party Blake had insisted they have at Enoteca. If he were the marrying kind, he’d be downright jealous, but his cheating father and homewrecker of a stepmother had cured him of that a long time ago. He quickly checked to make sure he had a pen along with his pad for notes and his graph paper so he could sketch the layout of the shop. Assured he had everything he needed for the upcoming meeting, he locked his truck and walked up the sidewalk to the old house that had been repurposed for the shop. The eaves had been repainted recently, probably in the past five years, but the concrete steps were crumbling in places. He made a mental note to address that with Hensley if he didn’t bring it up himself.
The front door had to be the original, with the unusual curved lintel. It was painted a bright, welcoming blue. Not quite Kentucky blue, but close. Another thing to check on. Did he want it UK blue? If so, Derek knew a good source for the university’s signature blue. He pushed the door open and walked inside to the cheerful chime of a bell. The big windows all along the front wall let in plenty of natural light, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled the room to the left, especially impressive with the twelve-foot ceilings. The shelves had to be custom-made. To the right, another room was set with several overstuffed armchairs in a grouping around a big fireplace—an actual wood fireplace, not a gas substitute. These walls were lined with the same tall bookshelves. Derek smiled at the welcoming ambience. He’d have to make sure to preserve that in the renovation plan. He wondered if Hensley had hired a designer or if this was his own work. If Hensley set it up himself, he had some talent for interior space, something Derek appreciated.
“Welcome to Hensley’s,” a female voice chirped. “If I can help you, just ask.”
“Derek Jackson. I have a meeting with Mr. Hensley,” he said, turning to look at the young woman. She had a bright smile to go along with multiple piercings on her lower lip and along her eyebrows. Her Technicolor hair was cut short on one side and fell almost to her shoulder on the other.
“He’s just finishing up with another meeting. I’ll let him know you’re here.” She gave him an appreciative once-over before walking back the way she had come.
Derek stepped into the sitting room and examined it critically. He could see the effort that had been put into making it a comfortable space—the cream walls with warm burgundy as an accent, the sheer curtains giving privacy from outside while still letting in plenty of light, the fireplace—but he also saw the poorly repaired cracks on either side of the stone chimney and the discolored patch at the seam between wall and ceiling where water had leaked in.
“You’re prompt, Mr. Jackson.”
Derek turned around slowly to take in his first sight of their new client. Hensley was a slip of a man, slender and only average in height, with the pinkest hair Derek had ever seen. It should have clashed with the sunshine-yellow sweater and skinny red jeans he was wearing, but somehow he made it work. “I don’t like it when people waste my time, so I do my best not to waste theirs, Mr. Hensley.” Derek pushed down the flare of interest, already simmering because of everything he’d observed of the shop so far, stoked even more by the attractive sight in front of him. Professional, Jackson. Keep it professional.
The man shuddered. “Please, call me Owen. Mr. Hensley is my father, and we’re all better off if he isn’t here.”
“I’m Derek.” He filed away the comment about Owen’s father for future reference—no family comments. He didn’t usually get personal with clients, but occasionally something would come up, and avoiding known landmines was always a good idea. And if things went well during the meeting—and hopefully the remodel—he might ask Owen out later. “My boss didn’t give me a lot of information. What are you hoping to have done?”
“The building itself is sound, or so I’ve been told,” Owen said. “The foundation is solid, the roof is only about three years old, but everything in between needs an overhaul. I can put on a fresh coat of paint, but that doesn’t fix the cracks or the leak around the window or the steps out front. And it doesn’t give me a bar with character for the café I’d like to add someday or authentic fixtures in the restrooms.”
Derek jotted notes on his pad. “Are you thinking just repairs and a visual overhaul, or are you looking at taking out walls and opening up more space?”
“I’ll be honest with you, Derek. I’m throwing myself on your mercy here. I know one end of a paintbrush from another, but I wouldn’t know what’s even possible as far as opening up space and the rest. I’ve always been more of an artist than a builder. I need more space if I’m going to accommodate my growing business, but I don’t want to lose the charm of the old house in the process.”
Derek nodded decisively and moved back to the entryway to examine the layout with a more critical eye. “Walk through the store with me. We’ll make two lists—one for things that have to be done like the steps or the window leak, and another for your dream shop. Then we’ll work up estimates for both, and we can figure out how to move forward based on that.”
“The steps outside for sure, and there’s a ramp out back to make us wheelchair accessible, but it’s ugly and inconvenient.”
Derek flipped to a new page and divided it into two columns. “Steps necessary, and I’ll see what we can do to improve the accessibility too without losing the original feel of the building.”
“Thank you. That’s been a concern.”
“We’ll leave the ramp out back to meet the legal requirements while we figure out the rest, but I’m sure we can come up with something better than what you already have. Anything else outside?”
“There’s a wood porch that gives access to the upstairs—the house was originally a duplex. The basement and the main floor were one unit, and the second floor and attic were the second. The units were combined sometime ago, but I live upstairs and use that entrance personally. I expect it to fall down every time I step on it.”
“We can either repair or replace it,” Derek said. “Is the basement finished?”
“No, although if it could be, I could live down there and open the second floor to the shop. Or move the office space up there and have the rest of the downstairs for display space.”
Derek pursed his lips as he considered the problem. Basements in old Lexington houses weren’t always designed to be dry, intended instead to keep the house proper from flooding, but there were ways around that. Sump pumps, additional drainage around the foundation, and more, and there were ways to decorate a basement to minimize the damage from any potential flooding. He’d put in more than one false floor in old basements so any water ran under them and out through the drain.
“Let’s take a look,” Derek suggested. “I can give you a better idea of your options after I see it.”
OWEN NODDED and held the door marked Employees Only, trying not to stare at Derek’s ass cradled in well-worn jeans. He knew better than to let himself be attracted to a man like that, even though Derek was exactly Owen’s type. Men like Derek weren’t ever interested in men like him. He followed Derek into the kitchen, which did double duty for the shop and for his own needs. The second bedroom upstairs had plumbing for a kitchen, but it was all hidden behind plaster when the two units were combined into one. He’d have to ask Derek about putting in a basic kitchen in the basement if they were able to finish it. “The basement is this way.”
He went down the narrow unfinished stairs first, resisting the urge to glance back to see if Derek was checking him out in return. He wasn’t going down that road. He’d wasted enough time pining over a man he couldn’t have. He had too much respect for himself to do it again. When he reached the bottom of the stairs and turned back to look at Derek, he caught an appreciative smile. His cheeks burned, which he was sure was lovely with his pink hair. Oh well. Nothing he could do but brazen it out.
“Right now this is all storage except for the washer and dryer, the furnace, and the hot water heater.” He hoped Derek would focus on business and not on his blush, but it didn’t stop the slight stammer in his voice.
“So I see, but the ceilings are high enough we could put in a drop ceiling to hide the ducts and wires without making it too low for most people. It wouldn’t be the high ceilings you have upstairs, but this is a basement. It won’t get as hot down here. And it’s naturally divided into quadrants, so we could pretty easily section it off into a bedroom, bath, living area, and kitchen-slash-utility room if you want a private kitchen. Or if not, we could close in a utility room and make a larger living area.”
“How complicated would it be to include a kitchen?”
“Not complicated at all. That’s the advantage of starting with unfinished space. We don’t have to tear anything out to put in new wiring, plumbing, ducts, whatever. We’ll want to check the ductwork down here, make sure it’ll be warm enough in the winter. I don’t imagine it’ll be a problem in the summer. Basements tend to stay cool even on the hottest days.”
Owen considered for a moment. “Put it on the wish list. It would make health department visits easier if I had a separate kitchen, but price is a consideration.”
He owed his ex, Leroy, one final payment from when he’d put in the bookcases upstairs. He could get a small-business loan to cover the renovations, but he wasn’t sure how much they’d give him.
Derek nodded. “Mind if I take a few measurements? It’ll be easier to give an accurate estimate that way.”
“Owen, I need you upstairs for a customer,” Mel called.
Owen grimaced. “Excuse me a minute, Derek. Mel does a great job at the register, but she doesn’t know our stock the way I do.”
“Go ahead. I’ll take the measurements down here and come back up to meet you so we can look at the rest of the first floor as well as the upstairs.”
Owen climbed back up to the kitchen, trying to remember what state he’d left his bedroom in. He hadn’t planned on having anyone up there today. First, though, he had to help the customer.
He pasted on his best smile and walked into the sitting area. When he saw Brent Carpenter, his smile relaxed into something much more real. “Hey, Brent. Mel said you needed help?”
“It’s not for me. It’s for Akshat. He’s looking for a specific book, and we can’t figure out what it is. Nav says he never had time to read for pleasure, and both Mel and I are sure we’ve read it, but we can’t figure it out.”
“What’s he looking for?”
“All he can remember is it’s about a boy, maybe a bit of wizards, magic, that sort of thing, and King Arthur. Not a lot to go on, I know.”
Owen laughed. “No, it’s not. Did he come in with you?”
“No, he’s at the humane society today. He was convinced you’d know what book it was, though. Oh, he said something about signs.”
“The Dark Is Rising,” Owen said. “The main character is the Seeker, tasked with finding the six signs created to hold back the Dark until Bran can break their power for good.”
Brent laughed. “Your memory is something else. I could never keep track of books the way you do.”
“I couldn’t keep track of people or houses the way you do. I took your advice and called Dalton Construction for a bid on the remodel.”
“Oh, good. When are they coming out to take a look?”
“Actually that’s what I was doing when Mel called me to help you.”
“No, Derek Jackson.”
“I’ll have to say hello before I leave. You can’t do better than them, even if someone comes in with a lower bid. That just means they’re cutting corners, not that you’re getting a better deal.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Brent had helped Owen find the house when he’d decided to set up the bookstore, and they’d stayed in touch ever since. Owen wasn’t quite ready to call them friends, but Brent had never steered him wrong. “Let me see if we have that book for Akshat. If not, we can order it and it’ll be here in a few days. It’s part of a series, by the way. We had an omnibus edition, but it was a special promo, and I’m pretty sure we sold the last copy.”
“That’s okay. I’ll take the one you mentioned so we can make sure it’s the right series, and then we can get the rest.”
Owen walked back to the Teen Fiction section and searched the shelves until he found the book Brent was looking for. “I just have the one. If it’s what Akshat is looking for, I can order the others. Just let me know. You don’t have to come back in. Just call and tell Mel or me that you want the rest of the series.”
“Will do. Can I go through and say hi to Derek?”
“Sure, if you want to.” Owen trailed behind Brent as he walked into the kitchen. Derek reappeared from the basement and smiled when he saw Brent—not the professional smile he’d given Owen when they met or the appreciative one from downstairs, but a real one.
“Brent, what are you doing here?”
“I wouldn’t shop for books anywhere else,” Brent replied. “I hear you’re going to do a remodel for Owen.”
“We’re going to put together a bid,” Derek demurred.
Owen appreciated him not taking Owen’s business for granted, but with Brent’s endorsement ringing in his ears, he’d have to be seriously impressed with someone else to accept a different offer. Although he could deal without having the distracting Derek Jackson around all the time. He’d never be lucky enough for Derek to be gay, and even if he was, he’d never look twice at shy little Owen Hensley.