1

THE MINUTE I stepped into the office, my calendar warned me of a very long, very bad day.

First stop, the accountant everyone recommended. Next up, Cousin Gary and my brother Ben, with brother Connor probably bringing up the rear. Then the abyss of paperwork—or rather, these days, computer catch-up.

But first, the damn finances.

“Where’s the money going?” I grumbled to myself as I sat and clicked through the worksheets for the last six months. Why didn’t they balance?

As the head of Behr Construction, located east of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills, I should know where every penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and, more importantly, every dollar was. If it had been spent, I should know what we got in exchange.

The sheets for the last six months, from January through June, made no sense. On paper, we seemed to be spending twice what we needed to complete our projects. Given that the rate of inflation was down from its record highs, this didn’t compute. Shouldn’t our building costs be going down also? Instead, as far as I could tell, costs were still going up. What was I missing here? With an average of four to six hours of sleep a night, I was in the dark without a firm mattress, warm blanket, fluffy pillow, or a clue.

When someone knocked at my office door, I hoped it was the help I’d recruited and not another problem. I was running out of patience, which wasn’t good for a six foot six, built-like-a-bear Behr. I tend to growl a lot when I’m overprodded. For the last few months, more often than not, I’ve been gruff with everyone.

“C’mon in. It ain’t broke!” I yelled.

What walked into my office wasn’t the nerdy pencil-pusher wearing glasses and a pocket protector I expected at all. Instead, he was tall, swimmer-thin, tanned, with striking blond hair and incredibly piercing sea-green eyes. Me? I’m all shades of brown. When I’m not working with my brothers or one of the construction crews, I tend to stand around and supervise. Everybody calls me the stoic Behr, but lately my stoicism was cracking at the seams.

“I’m Abraham Behr,” I said as he walked up to my desk.

“Ah, Mr. Behr,” the escapee from the sea said. His eyes twinkled. Twinkled. Nobody twinkles at me. “I’m Jeffrey Mason, CPA. Nice to meet you. This company built my parents’ and grandparents’ homes. It’s an honor.”

A low noise came from my throat as I tried to banish his Pollyanna charm. I had to admit, however, he was a refreshing bit of beauty and pep, even if he was every Behr’s sworn enemy.

I stood and reached across my desk to shake his hand and blinked in surprise. His grip was firm, and his eyes glinted in determination. Huh. Definitely not what I expected.

“Call me Abe. Everyone does. Have a seat.” I pointed at what my younger brothers Ben and Connor called the hot seat. “You got a résumé?”

He smiled happily, nodded, and dug into his—I don’t know what to call it—his purse? He handed me a couple of sheets of paper stapled together.

I knew his references personally since I’d called them for a recommendation. I told them I wanted someone who not only was a good accountant, but also was discreet. I couldn’t let the community know Behr Construction was in trouble.

Jimmy Patterson, owner of Penny’s Coffee Stop, said to talk to his business partner Felicity Long. Felicity hadn’t even hesitated before throwing the name Jeff Mason my way, with an e-mail address. Architect and interior designer Fredi Zimmer agreed with her. Both of them vouched for his numbers handling. Max Greene, Fredi’s husband, told me about Jeff Mason’s discretion. Before Max met the flamboyant Fredi, Jeff had somehow found out Max was gay, but he didn’t make this fact public.

We were all surprised when Max, who’d once been engaged to a local girl, married Fredi instead. Just goes to show how little we knew those we’d gone to school with for years.

I looked up from the résumé in my hand. The guy sitting across from me, for all his stunning looks and lean body, wasn’t a complete lightweight. He nearly looked me in the eye when I shook hands with him, not up like most people do, and his shoulders might even be wider than mine. He was older than I’d expected, not a recent college grad.

“Don’t remember seeing you around town. Where you been?” I wasn’t trying to insult him, but was curious. From his résumé, I knew he was five years younger than me, so maybe that was why I hadn’t known him in school. Not to mention Behrs didn’t ever hang around with Masons.

“Oh, I’ve been gone for a while. I was in Eugene to help my grandparents during high school. Went to U of Oregon so I could stay close and help,” he told me with a smile. “My mom’s dad had a stroke, and my grandma had never worked outside the house or taken care of the bills or anything. So I went. Family’s family, right?” His smile grew even bigger. I could feel a rumble building in my gut. “My father’s family has always lived around here. You know the house. Big stone one in the valley.”

Right. The one my dad loved more than his own family. The one he kept trying to buy. Dad had built the house for Mason’s father and had fallen in love with both the building and the setting. It was the house my dad was convinced would save our family. When all was said and done, however, the house was Mason’s and my dad gradually lost interest in owning it. Love of the bottle will do that for a guy.

The history of my dad and the house was legend to me and my brothers. After my mother left with a carpenter, my dad said she would have stayed if he’d owned the house. When my brother Dominic died at age ten in a skiing accident at Tahoe, my dad said Dom would have lived if we were in the house. The house gradually became heaven to my dad, and as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t worthy of angels.

So here was one of them, one of the chosen, who grew up in the house where my life would have been better if only my dad had been able to buy the place. Jeff looked like an angel too. While I was just an old bear.

Ah, well, couldn’t change our pasts now. Better to move on with the future.

I looked at my work-rough hands. Then at Jeff’s accountant hands. The scars on mine reflected the dark patches in my life. I wondered if his long fingers and almost delicate-looking wrists hid any of his.

“I don’t know how much Guy or Felicity or Fredi told you….” I paused to gather my words.

He broke in. “Not much. Just that you needed help.”

I don’t like to be interrupted. I know I speak slow and deliberate, and those who are quicker and more nimble-minded are often irritated by my unhurried pace. Could I work with someone who wouldn’t even let me finish a sentence?

“Sorry,” he said softly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I thought it was a question.”

Oh. I got it. I’d paused and he’d answered. Okay. Fair enough.

“I don’t know how much they told you,” I started again. “There’s a leak somewhere in the company, and I want to find it and stop it.”

I handed him a printout of the simplified quarterly finance report.

He quickly scanned it and tapped the paper with one of his delicate fingers.

“Yeah,” he said softly, as if speaking to himself. “You have a problem. What do you want me to do? How do you plan to find the leak?”

I’d been giving the question a lot of thought, but hadn’t come up with anything yet. I was hoping he could just look at all the numbers and figure out what was going on. I said as much.

He studied me for a few moments, long enough to make me uneasy. Nobody looked at me as if he were trying to see beyond my close-cropped dark brown hair and scruffy face, beyond my brown eyes, beyond my scarred and chapped hands, and into my heart and soul. Most people stopped at my heavy brows, at the bulging muscles that made dress shirts and suit coats look as if they’re painted on, and at my fire-hydrant neck, at the permanent scowl and large nose. Most people look down, away from me, and flee the first chance they get. When I gaze at them, they usually frown back. He didn’t bat an eyelash, but kept staring steadily, a slight smile on his lips.

“How hands-on are you?” he asked finally. “Do you work around the office most of the time? Or are you out at the various sites?”

I could understand how he might be confused. I was in a light blue button-down shirt this morning, not my usual white tee. But my hands told the true story.

I held them up to show their work-worn and deeply lined state. One finger was wrapped in a bandage, covering where I’d pulled out a splinter after moving wood from a kitchen tear-out. My hands were nearly nut brown from their exposure to the sun.

“Usually out on sites putting out fires or supervising, often working. This is the first time I’ve been in the office for any extended period since”—I couldn’t remember—“for weeks.” I usually did all the bookwork at home after hours.

“Okay. Here’s how I think we should proceed.” He gave me what I’m sure he thought was a confident, reassuring smile. Since I don’t trust beautiful smiles—or beautiful people for that matter—it wasn’t working with me. Not to mention I don’t take direction well. I’m the boss. I nodded anyway. At this point I was open to suggestions. “You give me access to the books and I study them. Then I’ll go into the field and work with you on some sites. This way I can assess who does what. I’ll know how the company works theoretically from the books and how it works practically from the field. Then we can talk about your leak and your options.”

I bristled. I hadn’t hired the man yet, so why was he telling me what I should do? On the other hand, why else would I hire him? He seemed to have a solid idea. I nodded.

“Let me think about it.” I stood and he did too. “I’ll get back to you.”

I stuck out my hand, and he gave me another firm handshake. He was still smiling the same beautiful, trust-me smile. It was a smile I’d seen countless guys give their girlfriends and wives, and knew to be as trustworthy as a flat-out lie. But damn if I didn’t want to trust him. I needed help, not more lies.