“THANK GOD it’s Friday.” Tom Halderson rose slowly, stretching muscles cramped from stooping over his portable workbench too long. The bracket feet for the black ash DVD cabinet he’d just finished carving were the final bits needed before assembling the elaborate piece of furniture. Why the client insisted on having everything handmade was beyond him, but he was glad for the work.
“Amen!” Chris Allen, a painter he’d worked with before, dropped his brush onto the newspaper spread out at his feet and stood back from the living room wall. After one last appraising glance, he turned toward Tom. “I can’t wait to hit the bar and down a cold beer.”
“Same here.” Tom grinned. A beer at the end of the workweek was one of the few luxuries he allowed himself. Staying in business and making a large enough profit to cover a minimal salary was getting tougher by the month. But he owed it to his dad to keep the company running. It had been his father’s only focus after his mother died giving birth to Tom. Even though Tom had never wanted to go into business, he’d had little choice when his dad fell from a high-rise building three years ago. He’d been dead on impact, and Halderson Construction had suddenly become Tom’s responsibility.
“The Thirsty Bear okay?” Chris picked up the used brushes and carefully wrapped them in a protective cloth before walking into the nearly finished kitchen to clean them.
“Sure.” Tom didn’t much mind where they went. Downtown Colorado Springs offered a lot of choices, and the beer was equally cold wherever they’d end up.
“I’ll see you there at seven.” Chris put the cleaned brushes into a large glass upside-down so they could dry. He disposed of the dirty newspaper in one of the large garbage bags they kept around for waste of all kinds.
“Okay.” Tom was only half paying attention to Chris leaving.
He cast a critical eye over the wooden furniture parts, now strewn across the floor waiting to be put together. They looked good, and he was tempted to finish the job, but he really wanted a shower and a change of clothes before making his way to the bar. He sighed. Assembly would have to wait until Monday.
Tom put away his tools, neatly arranging the gouges, veins, and chisels into their individual pockets within the soft cloth he used to wrap and protect them. Cleaning up and depositing the tools into his tool box was a good way to step back from the job and start relaxing. When he was done, he grabbed the box and toured the house to make sure everyone was gone and all windows and doors were properly locked. To his relief, Tom found everything in order, and he quickly got into his car and drove home to the small house in Cimarron Hills his father had also left him.
Sometimes he wished there’d be someone else who cared as much about the company as his dad had. Especially after a week like this, with plans changing, clients calling him all the time, and last-minute emergencies. At least he’d gotten to work on the cabinets. That was all he’d ever wanted: to work with wood. It was his passion, and if he’d had a choice, he would have been a woodworker. Instead, his father had made him follow the three-year union-contractor apprenticeship program so he could be a carpenter. Now he only ever managed to assign himself the odd carpentry job. Most of his time was taken up with running the company, together with his business partner, Ken.
It wasn’t fair. He sighed as he pulled up to his driveway. Then his eyes widened. A man lounged near his front door, clearly waiting for him. Tom didn’t expect anyone, so he parked the car, got out, and carefully approached, keeping a close eye on the stranger. Except, the closer he got, the more familiar the guy looked.
No, that’s not possible!
“Derek?” He hadn’t seen his older brother in over five years.
“Tom.” Derek nodded, not looking happy.
“What…. How…?” Tom didn’t even know where to start. Wanting to hug his brother, the only immediate family he had left, was his first impulse. But with so much distance and rejection in Derek’s body language, Tom didn’t dare touch him.
“You didn’t think I’d come back, did you?” Derek sneered. “Thought I wouldn’t find out Dad left everything to you. I bet you wanted to keep it all to yourself. Well, think again. I did find out, even if it took my friends some time to get around to telling me, and I’m here now, so you better pay up.”
What the hell?
“Aren’t you even going to ask me in?” Derek frowned. “You’re not going to be difficult about this, are you?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Tom’s heart was beating a mile a minute, and his hands were trembling. But he managed to open the door and enter, Derek following on his heels.
“Nothing’s wrong with me, there never was.” Derek stormed through the hallway and straight into the living room, looking around as if searching for something. Or maybe he wanted to make sure everything was still in its place?
“Look, you were the one telling Dad and me you didn’t want us to come after you.” Tom was thrilled Derek had come back, but there was something really wrong about Derek’s words. He sounded demanding and bitter, as if he’d been the one wronged. Hell, his brother had left without a trace after their father had told him not to marry Simone because she wasn’t good enough for him.
“Well, I’ve changed my mind, okay?” Derek flopped down on the sofa, managing to look as if he owned it. “I’m Dad’s son just as much as you, so I figure I’m entitled to some of the wealth now that he’s dead. I’m here to collect.”
Tom wanted to yell at his brother for being so materialistic. He didn’t even care about the money so much, he just wanted his brother back. But this stranger sitting on his sofa and demanding money that wasn’t his—the will had clearly said so—scared him. What had happened to the big brother he’d adored growing up?
“I hate to tell you this, but there are no huge amounts of money.” There never had been. “Dad left the house and the company to me, true, but that’s it.”
“And that’s a whole lot more than that bitch Simone left me with after the divorce she put me through.” Derek fisted his hands. “And I bet Dad would have left the company to both of us had I been around.”
“Maybe.” Tom couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed and disappointed. Why weren’t they celebrating their reunion? This should have been a happy moment. Instead they were talking about money? He couldn’t quite bring himself to say that though, for fear of driving Derek away again. Tom had barely gotten him back and was going to do everything in his power to keep him there. With a tough divorce behind him from the sounds of it, Derek wasn’t himself right then. He’d come around, wouldn’t he?
SIX MONTHS later, everything had only gotten worse. Tom swallowed and forced himself to focus on the here and now. He needed more contracts, and the new client he had come to impress on this beautiful September afternoon might be one of the most essential pieces in Tom’s plan to get the company back into some sort of profitable shape.
“Hello! Anybody home?” Tom knocked on the front door of the small rental log cabin in Cascade for the second time. Why was there no answer? He checked his watch. Yep, just after five, like they’d agreed over the phone. The sleek black Ferrari in the carport surely meant someone was home.
He shook his head. Who would bring a luxury car up here? Maybe his potential client wasn’t aware of what the approaching Colorado winter might do to the roads. The client—Matt Langford—had told Tom he was originally from Georgia, but he’d spent the last ten years organizing safaris in Africa. Mr. Langford probably had no experience with cold weather and ice on the roads. A reliable truck was what he’d need once the snow started falling.
But that wasn’t really Tom’s problem. As long as the guy was ready to spend the money to renovate his recently inherited house, located a few blocks farther toward the edge of town, everything would be fine. It was a nice building, from what Tom had seen when driving by earlier, but it would need a lot of work to become livable again. Tom clutched his messenger bag containing the sketches more tightly. He desperately needed this project to keep the company in the black.
The last six months since Derek’s return had been hell. Nothing Tom did seemed good enough for his brother. Tom had tried so hard to help him get settled. Without saying a word, he’d moved into a small apartment, leaving the house to Derek. Tom refused to give his brother a say in the company because that was his livelihood, but he’d thought the house would’ve been enough to appease Derek. But his brother had been adamant he get something more, so Tom had finally relented and given Derek a job in the office. The idiot had messed up so completely, they’d lost several existing and potential clients.
Tom sighed. Having to fire Derek had been hard, but he couldn’t let his brother ruin the business. He’d given Derek the required severance payment and had asked him to sign an affidavit swearing he wouldn’t sue Halderson Construction. Derek’s reaction had been totally over the top. He’d threatened to make Tom pay for betraying him.
That had been a month ago. Derek had cashed the check, but there was no hint of the signed affidavit. Tom knew he should hire an attorney to correct the situation, at least getting the affidavit completed, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. This was his brother, after all. The first nasty rumors about Halderson Construction had started two weeks after Derek left, and Tom had decided he was going to focus on his work and ensure he did the best possible job. Surely the facts would be more important than unfounded speculation.
So here he stood, determined to convince Mr. Langford that Halderson Construction was just the company to be put in charge of the renovation of his dilapidated house. Tom would win clients over one by one if necessary.
Where was the guy? Tom knocked again, a little louder this time.
“What?” The door opened, and a tall man with black tousled hair and dark blue eyes squinted at him.
Matt Langford was about two inches shorter than Tom’s own six foot two, very well built, and wore nothing but dark blue pajama bottoms. Not that Tom was looking, but geez, the man was built everywhere.
“Um…. We had an appointment?” Tom tried not to grin at the guy’s confused expression.
“Now?” The man looked up at the sky and frowned. “Oh, looks like it’s already late afternoon. Sorry. I was taking a nap. Um. You must be Tom Halderson.”
“Yes, I am. You’re Matt Langford?” Tom had a hard time not letting his eyes wander away from Mr. Langford’s face. The dark whorls of chest hair on his well-developed pecs were beyond sexy.
“Indeed I am.” Mr. Langford slid a long-fingered hand through his hair in an unsuccessful attempt to smooth it down.
“Do you want me to come back later?” Tom hoped that wouldn’t be the case. The number of unpaid bills was increasing daily, and he needed a big project on the books to make the creditors back off for a while. But the client was always right, so he would reschedule their meeting if that was what the guy wanted.
“No. No, it’s all right.” Mr. Langford stepped back and pointed at the inside of the cabin. “It’s my fault. The drive up here took longer than I thought, and apparently I slept away most of the afternoon. If you give me a minute, I’ll get dressed and we can have our meeting. Please, come in and take a seat.”
“Okay.” Tom stepped inside and looked around while he was waiting.
In keeping with the outside look, the interior walls consisted of simple rough-cut logs. There was a large overstuffed couch to his right facing a rock gas fireplace, and a little TV sat in the corner. To his left a doorway opened into a small kitchen, and a door straight ahead led to what looked like a patio. Colorful rugs on the hardwood floor made the cabin feel cozy. At the back of the room, a staircase presumably led to a bedroom, into which the delectable Matt had vanished.
Stop thinking about him that way. He’s a potential client, for heaven’s sake! Hadn’t he promised himself to stay away from anything that even remotely looked like it might lead to emotional entanglement? One catastrophic relationship was enough for his lifetime. Anything more than an anonymous encounter was dangerous. He knew better, so why was he lusting after this man?
Tom sat on the comfortable sofa and tried to relax. A few minutes later, Mr. Langford returned, now dressed in simple blue jeans and a light gray sweater that accentuated the blue of his eyes. Thick woolen socks encased his feet, and his hair was still deliciously tousled. He looked good enough to eat.
An offer of a cup of coffee was made and accepted. His host soon returned from the kitchen with two steaming mugs and placed them on the low table between the sofa and the fireplace.
“So, tell me a little more about Halderson Construction.” Mr. Langford sat on the other end of the sofa and turned toward Tom. “I’ve checked your website and have made a few calls, but there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of information about any current projects you may be working on.”
“That’s probably because the company has recently gone through some difficulties.” Tom wasn’t sure how much to reveal to his potential client, but he wasn’t going to lie. The man had probably already heard all the lies Derek had been spreading, so Tom might as well give him his side of the story. “It won’t impact your project and has nothing to do with our qualifications as a choice for a historically accurate restoration.”
“My impression was you had some financial problems?” Mr. Langford raised his eyebrows. “I’d say that might have an impact on any deal to which we might agree.”
“You’re right. Some of the problems are financial. Look, I’ll be honest with you. There have been some disagreements with a disgruntled former employee. He told me he was going to get his revenge, and apparently he’s been spreading rumors about the company, trying to scare people away. You may have heard some of them already.” Tom took a deep breath. “I know you don’t have to believe me, but if you check the older records, the ones from over six months ago, you’ll see we were doing fine and there hasn’t been a specific incident that caused the current issues. Of course, we aren’t exactly cash rich right now, but we are sound enough to keep running the business.”
“I appreciate your honesty. It sounds like this project is quite important to you.” Mr. Langford smiled. “I don’t mind. On the contrary, it reassures me.”
Tom snorted. Did that sound like his newest potential client wanted him to depend on this project—wanted to have some control over him? Just like the asshole who’d been his lover? Not to mention the control freak Derek had turned into. Or was Tom being too sensitive here? And anyway—this was a business relationship, wasn’t it? So that made it different.
“Now that we have the financial discussion out of the way and until we start negotiating a price, can you tell me a little bit more about your qualifications in the area of historical restorations?” Mr. Langford took a sip of coffee and tilted his head.
“Over the past three years Halderson Construction has remodeled four early twentieth-century buildings in and around Colorado Springs. You probably won’t be familiar with any of them, but two were mentioned in the Old House Journal as particularly well done. You could also check with the local historical society, which has developed case studies for each of the four properties.” Tom was particularly proud of those because they were far more relevant for the local community and a nice showcase for his work.
“Sounds like you really know your stuff.” Mr. Langford looked thoughtful. “I want to check out some of those references later. I’ll need this renovation to be done fast and within budget. I want to sell the house as quickly as possible so I can get back to somewhere with decent temperatures, and I need it to make a profit so I have a nest egg for when I want to settle down somewhere nice and tropical. From what you’ve told me, it sounds like Halderson Construction might be the right company to get the property ready for me to do just that.”
“May I ask why you haven’t come to an agreement with any of the other local construction companies?” Tom didn’t think any of them were more qualified, but he was interested to find out the man’s reasoning.
“Aha, you’re not afraid to ask difficult questions. Very good.” Mr. Langford grinned. It made the man look even better, younger and less serious. “Without revealing any details, let me just say several of them were too small to handle the work, and two of the larger ones didn’t strike me as particularly trustworthy.”
“Thanks for telling me. It’s always good to know what the competition is up to.” Tom grinned back. “I’m obviously familiar with the house and have taken the liberty of obtaining blueprints from the Development Review Enterprise department of the city council to come up with some initial drawings and draft ideas.”
“Very impressive, Tom. May I call you Tom?” Mr. Langford put down his empty coffee mug and stared right at him.
Tom nodded, mesmerized by the penetrating gaze. If he didn’t watch it, he could so easily get distracted by this man. And while Tom couldn’t be sure he was gay, none of the signals he’d received so far pointed at Mr. Langford being anything other than interested.
“Okay, then you must call me Matt.” Matt sat back in his chair. “So, tell me what you’ve come up with?”
After moving the empty mugs to the floor, Tom pulled his sketches from the messenger bag and laid them out on the table. They went over the simple drawings one by one. Matt turned out to have a good eye for detail and asked some pointed questions.
When they’d gone through the material, Tom sat back up and stretched. His back ached, his leg muscles were stiff, and when he looked outside, it was dark. His eyes widened. He hadn’t even noticed the time passing.
“I’m impressed.” Matt stretched as well, offering a tempting view of muscles moving under the soft fabric of his sweater. “You’ve obviously done your homework. I’m ready to move to the next stage, if you agree.”
“Thank you.” Tom’s cheeks heated. “In that case I suggest we meet at the property tomorrow during daylight hours and go over some more details.”
“I agree. We should meet around ten in the morning so we have enough time to go over everything we need.” Matt sat forward in his chair, a definite gleam in his eyes. “Now we’ve concluded the business part of our meeting, can I interest you in dinner? I don’t know about you, but I am quite hungry and would love some company.”
“I—dinner?” Tom swallowed. That sounded suspiciously like a date, and he hadn’t even thought about dating since he’d taken over the company. There were too many homophobic people in Colorado Springs, ready to ruin his reputation at the drop of a hat. Anyway, he’d been too busy working.
“Yes, you know, the meal at the end of the day?” Matt grinned, obviously enjoying Tom’s discomfort.
“Oh, that dinner.” Tom felt embarrassed but was determined not to let Matt see how confused he was. “Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t sure.” Matt snorted and shook his head. “Look, if you’d rather not, just say no. I just wanted to talk some more about the project.”
“Sure.” Tom felt dejected. He shook his head. Of course the man wanted to discuss business, what did he expect? Why was he even thinking about a date? He might miss having a family, but that was no reason to throw himself at a complete stranger. One who was only planning to be here for a few months at most from the sound of it.
“Excellent! I hope you don’t mind leftovers. I promise they’re good.” Matt got up, gathered the empty mugs, and walked toward the kitchen. “I always make casseroles in large portions because I think they taste better. They keep me supplied with a couple more good meals anyway.”
“You cook?” Tom cringed at the stupidity of his question. Why shouldn’t the man cook? Not everyone was a prick like Tom’s ex-lover Preston, who liked to be waited on hand and foot.
“Yeah, anything wrong with that?” Matt placed the mugs in the sink and turned around, a big grin on his face.
“Nope, nothing wrong with that at all.” Tom felt his lips twitch but managed to suppress his own grin. “In fact, I’m a bit of a hobby chef myself.”
“You are?” Matt opened the fridge and pulled the medium-sized glass casserole dish out before putting it in the microwave. “Do you have a specialty?”
“I’m all right for meals. But my real favorite is baking bread and cakes.” Tom missed the relaxed Sunday mornings over homemade rolls or bagels he’d shared with Preston when their relationship had been good. Not having someone to enjoy the food with just wasn’t the same.
“Sounds promising. I tend to be better at appetizers and main courses.” Matt started pulling plates, glasses, and silverware from the cupboards and drawers. He laid out placemats, and the small table in the corner of the kitchen was set by the time the microwave’s ping signaled their food being done.
“I can see some interesting joint projects coming up.” Tom sat on one of the chairs, while Matt distributed a potato chicken dish onto the two plates.
“What would you like to drink?” Matt put the used casserole dish into the sink and opened the fridge. “There’s water, milk, and orange juice. Sorry, I seem to be out of beer.”
“Not a problem about the beer, I still need to drive.” Tom didn’t particularly like alcohol other than the occasional beer during a social occasion with his coworkers. He didn’t like losing control like that. “I’d love some orange juice, please.”
They enjoyed their meal in quiet companionship, and Tom was surprised how easy he felt in Matt’s company. It was as if they’d known each other for much longer than a few hours.