Sneak preview: Maddy’s Oasis, Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

Madeleine Winters gazed out the car window at the construction site—nothing more than steel beams and concrete to her untrained eye. Her mouth fell open with a silent curse. Beams in the vertical steel frame had been forcibly bent until the building resembled a partially bloomed flower wilting in the middle of the west Texas desert and not the gleaming hotel it was supposed to be. Her field was program management, not construction, but she doubted the structure sitting in the middle of the desert was right.

“Wow!” Eric, the car’s driver and her personal assistant, exclaimed. “That can’t be normal.”

Her gaze went to the two bright yellow bulldozers near one corner. One was still connected to a beam by a thick steel chain while the other had been tipped over. She stepped out of the car’s AC into to the desert’s sauna-like heat and shielded her eyes despite the sunglasses.

There were more signs of intentional damage: crushed tiles, colorful graffiti, and tools and construction materials scattered everywhere.

Her black suit was meant for the temperate weather back east and her slingback heels for sidewalks. A late flight left her tired, and the sight of her pitiful project worsened her headache. She felt sorry for the building, even knowing how ridiculous that was. Given the project’s bloated financials, she suspected the amount of damage done would soak up more money and time than she had.

Which was why her boss, Nigel, offered her such a pretty bonus if she could complete it on time. She’d expected a mess, but nothing like this.

“You probably should learn to fire people more politely,” Eric said. He was a wiry, small man who appeared to be no older than fifteen despite being closer to thirty than she was. In one hand was a BlackBerry; in the other, a PDA.

“I thought I was polite,” she said with a frown. “Where the hell are the security guards Alex hired before ditching this place last week?”

“Alex didn’t do a lot of things he said he did,” Eric reminded her with a glance down at the PDA. “Alex pissed off—or fired—the only four local companies capable of building this far in the west Texas desert. The last we had to bring in from … I can’t even pronounce it. I don’t even know if they’re based in the US. It’s Javier and Sons Construction.”

Anyone who knew Alex knew he couldn’t handle organizing his car let alone overseeing a mega-challenge such as The Desert Oasis. The misshapen beginnings before her were meant to be real estate tycoon Dylan Howard’s latest venture: an exclusive, uber-luxury spa and hotel stranded in the middle of the Texas desert, one so exclusive that non-millionaires would not be invited to stay.

Alex was on his way out, and this had been the final push. No one had heard from him since he ditched the project a week ago. She understood why.

“That must be them.” Eric indicated the single-wide trailer off to one side. It was nestled between stacks of sandstone and hefty wooden crates. Four large white utility trucks with extended cabs were parked a short distance from the office. Several men perched on the edges of the trucks, and the door to the office was open.

Her phone rang, and she looked at the number, recognizing it as her mother’s doctor’s office. She motioned Eric onward and answered.

“Is this Madeleine Winters?” a prim voice asked.

“Yes.”

“This is Grace from the billing department at Dr. Jordan’s.”

Madeleine grated her teeth, knowing what Grace was about to tell her.

“You missed your last two payments. I don’t want to refer your account to collections. You’ll have to find a new doctor if you’re not able to bring your account up to date.”

“I took out a loan that should’ve transferred to my account today,” Madeleine replied in the same tone. “If not, I’ll have it tomorrow. Either way, I’ll transfer the funds by noon tomorrow.”

“Very well, Ms. Winters.”

Madeleine hung up and drew a deep breath. Her mother’s cancer treatment and nursing home had already eaten through both their retirement savings and a second lien on her house. Her credit cards were maxed out, and the bank had been very, very hesitant to extend the latest lifeline. When Nigel offered her the six-figure bonus for finishing this project, she leapt at the opportunity, even though her gut warned her against it.

She needed the money too bad to say no.

She regained her resolve and made her way carefully toward the office, twisting her ankle only once on the rocky ground beneath her four-inch heels. She straightened and dusted her suit jacket before ascending the rickety metal stairs to the office.

The contrast of the building’s dark interior blinded her. She paused inside the doorway and blinked, making out several quiet forms in a small reception area sporting two worn couches in front of a cluttered desk.

She raised her sunglasses and gazed at the three silent men standing before her. One beefy, older Mexican’s white shirt labeled him as Javier. Another wore blue with the familiar logo, Smithson Contracting. The third was small and round with an oily smile.

“Good morning,” she said when no one spoke. “I’m Madeleine, assistant to Mr. Howard, and the new project manager assigned to oversee completion of the Desert Oasis.”

She offered her hand to the nearest man, Javier, whose barrel-chested frame made her feel tiny. He gave a hearty shake. His grizzled smile—as rough as his salt and pepper speckled start of a beard—widened at her direct gaze. His skin was caramel, the dominant shade in southwest Texas, his eyes bright blue.

“Javier, of Javier and Sons,” he responded in a thick, slow Spanish accent.

“Larry’s Security,” the small, oily man said, stepping forward and holding out a hand.

“Ah, Larry’s Security,” she said. “You’ve been in charge of my site for the past week.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “I received your phone call but didn’t understand. Thought I’d drop by and meet you.”

“I appreciate your visit,” she said. “However, my message was very clear. Your services are no longer needed.”

“Ma’am, I was hired by—”

“Alex. I know. And I’m releasing you. I confirmed our last payment to your company. If you would like to contest either your payment or your release, here is the number to Mr. Howard’s attorneys’ office.”

She handed him a card. Without awaiting any further objection, she turned to the man in the Smithson uniform.

“Jim Smithson,” he said, sticking out his hand.

While not impressed by any of what she had seen so far, she was the least impressed by the man before her.

“How may I help you?” she asked.

“My contract with—”

She cut him off. “Your contract has been terminated. Here, for you, is the card for Mr. Howard’s attorneys. Raise any complaint you have to them. Or you can await their call. Mr. Howard is leaving it up to me whether or not to press charges for this disaster you call a building. The local inspector already faxed us his initial inspection results indicating a great deal of negligence in your performance. Eric, escort Mr. Smithson and Mr. Larry out.”

She took a step back and folded her hands before her. Mr. Smithson’s face flushed, and he sputtered while Mr. Larry just stared. The men went without a word. Eric beamed a smile and followed them.

“Coffee, Eric!” she called after him.

She glanced at her awaiting contractor, Javier, and crossed to the cluttered desk, not sure where to start. Stacks of papers, an accounting book, trash, and office supplies were piled on top. The mess was representative of the shoddy reporting and inconsistent status updates Alex sent their boss, Nigel, throughout the months he was running the project. There was no way to know what Alex had been doing, or even how far he had gotten, and she doubted the trashed desk would be of any help. She set her briefcase on top of the nearest pile of yellowed papers and popped it open.

“These are the revised blueprints based on Mr. Howard’s directions. I need an estimate today of the extent of damage, cost to repair, schedule for repairing, and an estimate on the time, materials, and manpower needed to resume and complete construction. Do you wanna write this down?”

She turned to face him, pad of paper and pen in hand.

Javier was smiling, his amusement visible in the crinkling around his eyes. He stuck the blueprints under his arm without looking at them and tucked his thumbs into the wide belt of his jeans.

“No, ma’am,” he replied.

“Are you sure?” she pressed. “You’ll need something to write down the numbers, at least.”

“It’ll get done when it’s done.”

“What does that mean?” she pushed. “It must be done immediately.”

“I suggest you prioritize what you want done soonest.”

“I told you what I want done.”

“Won’t get done today.”

She gazed at him hard.

“I’m being honest,” he said before she could pursue. “Out west, we do things a little different, a little more slow.”

“I realize that,” she said. “But if you won’t perform as I want you to, I’ll replace you.”

“Well,” he said with a pause. “Alex drove away every other construction company between here and Houston, which is a twelve-hour drive. You’re stuck with us, unless Mr. Howard wants to pay double for someone else. It’s been my experience that rich men are stingy men. It’ll get done, Ms. Madeleine, but it’ll get done when it’s done. Good morning, ma’am.”

And he walked out. She stared at the wall before her, resisting the urge to scream and throw her shoes.

“Mr. Javier!” she called as she followed.

His long strides toward his trucks forced her to trot precariously on her toes. At her approach, Javier turned to face her. He automatically reached out to steady her with a beefy hand as she wobbled on the heels.

“I need some sort of timetable of when you intend to have my tasks done,” she insisted. “When do you intend to start, how late do you work, how many men you have at your disposal. We have much more to discuss, and I would greatly appreciate a timeline of when you plan to do what I covered on my list.”

“Where do I get coffee around here?” Eric asked, approaching from the direction of their rental car.

“This little lady doesn’t need any coffee,” Javier grumbled. “Her pretty little head’s about to spin off.”

”There’s a diner down the road, Eric. We passed it on our way here,” she told him. “Bring two cups—oh, and I’m going to need a microwave, mini-fridge, and office supplies for this little … shack. And cleaning supplies. Maybe some food and bottled water.”

Eric jotted down her list with a quick nod. She turned to find Javier had continued toward his trucks without her.

“And call around to see what other contractors are in this area,” she said in a quieter voice.

Eric smiled before snapping his PDA in place at his hip and jogging to the rental car.

Irritated by the lack of urgency or concern about the mess behind her, Madeleine quickened her pace toward Javier. He strode by one truck and motioned to the men loitering, directing them toward the building with a few quick words in Spanish she didn’t understand. He paused to stand at the lowered tailgate of one truck, where he handed the blueprints to a man seated on the edge.

“What are your men doing now?” she asked, glancing toward the half dozen men ambling toward the structure.

“Ma’am, they plan on conducting an ancient Indian ritual to cleanse the building of evil spirits,” Javier said, reaching for a thermos.

She stared at him. He twisted the top of the thermos off and poured a cup of coffee, handing it to her.

“Maybe this’ll calm you down,” he offered.

“Just … please, give me some indication you’ll work with me here,” she said. She sipped the coffee, expecting it to be as rough as the man before her and surprised at its smooth, mild flavor.

“You ever built a building?” Javier asked.

“No.”

“Know anything about building buildings?”

“No.”

“What’re you doing here?”

“I’m damage control,” she explained. “Our boss believes that program managers need to know how to manage programs, not be experts in any one field.”

“At least you’re honest.” Javier tilted his head toward the seated man. “My nephew, Jake.”

Madeleine glanced at the quiet man, noting the similar white T-shirt, cowboy hat, and jeans.

“Jake’ll be handling your project,” Javier continued.

“I expected this project to be given your company’s utmost support and expertise,” she said firmly.

“Jake went to one of your schools out east,” Javier stated. “He’s the best in Texas. Ask him for a timeline.”

Madeleine suspected she would receive nothing more concrete from a blood relative of Javier than she would the man himself. Javier, however, seemed satisfied with himself. He handed her the coffee thermos, slapped the seated man on the arm, and strode to the nearest truck.

She drew a deep breath to calm herself before turning to the man in whose hands her entire life seemed to rest.

“Jake.”

The man unfolding himself from the truck was larger than she expected. Over six feet and solid. He was wide of shoulder, as muscular as a linebacker. Jeans and T-shirt were snug in all the right places, revealing sculpted biceps and the outline of muscular thighs. He wore traditional cowboy boots and a thick belt with a bright buckle. Eyes were hidden behind reflective sunglasses and the rest of his face behind the blueprint in his hands. His hair was in a traditional military styled high and tight.

“Jake, can you provide me a timeline for estimating the damage and repairs?” she asked.

“Sure.” His Texan accent was less evident, his deep voice rich and quiet.

“I have paper in the office,” she said.

He trailed her as she hurried back to the trailer. The darkness blinded her once more, and she paused before crossing to her briefcase to retrieve the paper and pen. Jake seated himself on one of the couches. She crossed to sit near him on the same couch, holding out the pen and paper.

He was a handsome man, she noticed, unable to help her surprise at finding such a specimen so far from civilization. Sunglasses were perched on his head to reveal large, dark eyes with long eyelashes, a thick and low brow, a noble, aquiline nose, chiseled jaw, tilted cheekbones, and a thick coat of caramel-shaded skin. She found herself staring openly at him, unaware of how much time passed before he finally spoke.

“These blueprints have been altered down to the foundation,” he observed, studying the colored sheets of paper.

“Meaning what exactly?”

“Meaning the foundation must be replaced.”

“No,” she said, and shook her head. “Starting over isn’t an option.”

Jake met her gaze with a raised eyebrow. She was surprised at the bloom of heat within her caused by the direct look of the hunk next to her.

“You asked for my estimate,” he pointed out, the Texan drawl slowing his speech.

“Let’s start with the damage assessment. How long will it take to repair everything?”

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Though agitated by his directness, she said evenly, “No, I don’t. That…” She motioned toward the building beyond the office door, “…looks like a mess to me.”

“It is,” he agreed. “Beyond repair.”

“No,” she said again. “I don’t have time to rebuild.”

“Repair would take just as long.”

“You’ll have to deal with what’s there,” she said. “Something must be salvageable.”

“And the changes in the blueprints?”

“What about them?”

“I can’t repair the damage according to old blueprints. The changes in this set will be done simultaneously.”

“Fine,” she said. “Make the changes as you repair. How long?”

“When it’s done,” he said, and stood. Like his uncle, he left without another word. She watched him, her gaze falling to his perfectly shaped backside as he strode out of the office.

She started after him and tripped over the concrete block used to prop open the door. She cursed and leaned against the door. Jake was waving all the awaiting men toward the building. She rubbed her stubbed toe, aware of the blisters already forming from chasing down Javier. Convinced Javier and Sons would be the death of her, she forced herself to focus on the office.

It, too, was a complete disaster, and for the second time in half an hour, she felt overwhelmed by her circumstances. She forced her mind away from the contracting situation. In truth, she needed to determine the status of the finances before being confronted with the price tag attached to the damage and changes to blueprints.

She carefully laid her suit jacket on a couch and set out to decode Alex’s chaotic filing system. As she approached the desk, she clipped her Bluetooth earpiece in place and dialed Mr. Howard’s financial department.

* * *

Jake spent the afternoon going over the structure, his opinion of the idiots who built it growing worse. When dark fell, he remained with a flashlight to go over the outside of the building and jotted down notes. It was near midnight when he decided he’d had enough of the blooming onion of a building. He started toward his truck and saw the city-girl’s car still there. A weak light glowed from the trailer. He was annoyed rather than surprised she was still there, recalling very well the speed and urgency attached to everything back east. It was one of two reasons he left New York City and returned home. The other reason: his busted leg with its metal plates that ended his chances of an NFL career.

He didn’t regret leaving. Life was not enjoyed by those consumed in meeting after meeting, phone call after phone call, and relentless overtime. He preferred to be his own master in the wide open desert of west Texas, working with his family.

He gazed up at the structure once again, taking in its dimensions and reviewing the angles, materials, and time it would take to create the vision on the blueprints before him, assuming things weren’t as bad as he suspected.

The response made him grunt. Too long. He knew any amount of time would be viewed as too long by the city-girl still holed up in the trailer despite the hour. Only half of the floodlights were working due to three destroyed generators, but his men remained, cleaning up the area and reporting back with assessments of the building’s structure.

Most of the assessments pointed to fast, shoddy work. The foundation was already cracked in several places. The dangerously ill-constructed workmanship in general made him shake his head. He’d heard of Smithson’s work in the past; however, he’d never witnessed the brazen shoddiness of the sleazy little man.

The entire building needed to come down and be started over.

“Jake? Oh, sorry, hold on.”

He recognized the soft voice without turning and rolled his eyes at Toni, his uncle and foreman, as the city-girl took yet another phone call. Then he pivoted and took in the young woman with the phone to her ear. With the expensive suit and heels, her athletic frame was stylish and out of place in the middle of the desert.

“Bring in everyone but the Reyes crew,” he said to Toni. “We’re done for the night.”

Toni pulled free the whistle he kept around his neck and blew it twice. Jake rolled the blueprints once more and turned, knocking the ill-balanced woman back a few steps as he pushed them toward her and strode on.

“Nigel, wait … no, I’ll call you back,” she said hurriedly in irritation. She disconnected the call and trotted after him. “Jake!”

Her small hand rested on his bicep. He turned and saw her glance down at the buzzing BlackBerry.

“Do you have numbers for me?” she asked, looking up at him.

“Yeah,” he answered, watching her.

City-girl released him to drop both hands to her BlackBerry, where she began typing with her thumbs.

“Where are they?” she asked.

“In here,” he said, and tapped his temple.

“I need them on paper.”

“Give ’em to you tomorrow.”

“I need them tonight, Jake,” she insisted. “I have to do the figures.”

“They’ll be the same whether you do them tonight or tomorrow.”

“Could you please at least stop by the office and jot down a few things?”

“Sure. Be in at six,” he said.

Had her phone not rung, she would have continued to pester him. He shook his head as Toni joined him and they moved toward the trucks. The months it would take to finish this project would certainly drag if the city-girl behind him didn’t learn to back off. He didn’t leave the City to have it follow him here.

It was a shame she was such an attractive little package. Her green eyes were large, clear, and intelligent, her body toned and shapely. She was confident and smart—a combination he liked.

And annoying as hell, a trait he didn’t.

“Javier would’ve taken her over his knee by now,” Toni muttered. “You’re the right choice for this one—no one else is as laid back as you. You spent time back east, you’ll be able to relate.”

“No way, Toni. I don’t want anything to do with those types,” Jake replied.

They climbed into Jake’s truck, and he rolled down the windows. It was a warm, bright night, and he breathed deeply.

“Why you think Mr. Howard chose this place anyway?” Jake asked. “There’s nothing for miles, and bringing in water and electricity is going to cost a fortune.”

“Worse, this is in the middle of Cortez’s drug route from Mexico,” Toni said. “I can’t imagine all that money didn’t get Mr. Howard an assessment of the area. Either he’s an idiot or he’s too rich to care.”

“I was thinking that, too. Cortez is all over the newspapers anymore.”

Jake’s gaze went to the rearview mirror as he thought of the city-girl in the trailer. He’d left a few men there to continue cleaning up. If anything bad happened, they’d call him.

“Did you hear that kid Eric say the guy they had here before just disappeared?” Toni asked.

“Yeah, I heard. Not a good sign.”

Toni grunted in agreement. They rode the rest of the way into town in comfortable silence. Jake dropped off Toni then returned to the large hacienda he shared with his sisters and Javier. His uncle had tried to stay up late and was dozing in his favorite worn recliner in the living room. Jake whispered a hello, tio as he walked through the living room into the kitchen. His sister Kitty had left him dinner in the oven with a pink sticky note with a large frownie face on the oven’s handle.

Plucking the sticky free with a snort, he turned on the oven and sat down to review his notes. He started to estimate the damage then sat back.

No one in their right mind would build a luxury resort here. He rubbed his face, understanding why his uncle turned down the ludicrous contract over a year ago when it was floated to every contractor in west Texas.

“It stinks,” his uncle said in gravelly voice as he entered the kitchen rubbing his eyes. “And I don’t mean Kitty’s cooking.”

“She’s the best damn cook in Texas,” Jake said.

“And she knows it,” Javier said, sitting. “It’s worse than it looks, mi hijo.”

“You’re right about that, tio,” Jake agreed. His gaze settled on the notes on his pad. He pictured the building again then shook his head, the prospect of repairing it overwhelming.

“We can back out.”

“Whatever, tio,” Jake replied.

He looked at his uncle knowingly, well aware Javier did nothing without a great deal of thought. Many folks dismissed the large, pot-bellied Mexican, mistaking his dusty boots, thick accent, and slow speech as signs he was either uneducated or ignorant. Javier had built up the family’s construction empire from scratch over thirty years, squirreled away every extra penny he earned from it, and used the money to send his nephews and nieces to elite private schools and buy them all their first houses. The rest he saved.

Jake didn’t know how much his uncle had hidden away, but he knew it was more than enough for Javier to retire in luxury. Javier had no intention of retiring. Instead, he remained actively involved in the construction projects.

“Why the hell did you agree?” Jake asked, perplexed. He motioned to his notes. “This is a disaster. The building needs to come down and start over, there’s probably no funding, it’s in the middle of your dear cousin Carlos Cortez’s smuggling route … and the idiot they put in charge … Damn.”

“Instinct.”

For once, he wanted his uncle to explain his infamous instinct. There were many projects he’d had a lukewarm feeling about that ended up as his uncle predicted—successful. Javier’s instinct had never been wrong before, yet this project already gave Jake a headache.

“She didn’t seem like an idiot,” Javier said.

“Well, she is,” Jake responded. Irritated, he rose and withdrew his dinner from the oven. “Typical city-girl, self-absorbed, controlling, no common sense or respect, demanding this and that … I dated enough of them to know, tio.

“You didn’t have any luck dating girls from here, either.”

“Guess it’s not my forte. I don’t have my tio’s charm.”

Javier chuckled. Jake sat down to wolf down his sister’s latest creation: some sort of spicy meatloaf. Kitty’s food was always good, even if he didn’t recognize all the spices she used from the weed garden Javier built her or what kind of animal it came from.

“You’re sure you want us working on this one?” he asked.

“Pretty sure,” Javier said in his slow drawl. “Can’t be that bad.”

“All righty, then. I’ll do my best,” Jake said.

“Good kid. Life ain’t so hard.”

Jake wasn’t so sure but cleaned up and made his lunch for the next day. He wondered what city-girl would say when he told her the cost.

“Five million just to get things back on track?”

He’d heard rumors from his usual financiers and suspected funding would be a problem, but seeing the assistant to a billionaire pale at the paltry number confirmed his instinct. Her striking green eyes grew larger, amplified by the dark teal suit she wore this day. He hadn’t seen her on her feet yet, but he knew she’d be wearing inappropriate shoes.

The women from back east were predictable like that.

“How long will it take you to finish?” she asked.

He studied the heart-shaped face with its button nose and large eyes, smooth skin, and tanned complexion. Her gaze was steady and direct; even Javier had commented on it. Javier liked a man—or woman—unafraid to look him in the eye.

“Nine months to complete our portion of the work.”

At this, the city-girl looked ill.

“That’s too long.”

“With more men and money, it’ll be less,” he said with a shrug.

“More than the thirty million?”

He nodded.

“Jesus,” she murmured. “How much and how many men?”

“Another crew, maybe two, depending on when you want it done,” he responded.

“I need to—”

Her phone rang and cut her off. She looked down, muttering, “Excuse me.”

“I’ll be out there,” he said as he rose. The city-girl waved a hand in confirmation without looking up.

“Good morning, Jake.” Her assistant, Eric, beamed a smile as he opened the door.

“Mornin’,” Jake responded.

“How’s it going?”

“Fine.”

“Great, that’s great!” Eric said with fake enthusiasm.

Jake ignored his attempt to enter and pushed by him, agitated. Toni, a leathery man twenty years Jake’s senior, gave a knowing grin from his position leaning against the rickety stairs.

“They may not have to fire us,” Jake said with a shake of his head. “At this rate, I’m about two straws from walking away.”

“The money’ll be good,” Toni countered.

If there’s money,” Jake replied. They started toward the building and made it a few dozen feet away before he heard the trailer door slam open.

“Jake, I’d like a tour!” she called after him.

“Christ,” he muttered without turning. “Change shoes and bring a hard hat.”

“I didn’t bring extra—hello? Nigel?”

He tried hard to tune her out, but she trailed them, talking in low, agitated tones on the phone.

“The foundation on the east and part of the northern block are pretty solid. We should only need to pour two-thirds of it over again,” Toni said as they walked toward the small work station Jake had set up.

“Yeah, we’ll definitely need to work on the foundation. Everything else needs to come down where we’ll pour. City-girl here doesn’t understand, so keep it quiet. I’ll move her office to the opposite side, so she can’t see what we’re doing. Doubt she can tell one side of the site from the other,” Jake stated. “We’ll need to bring in about twenty laborers.”

They exchanged a look, and Toni grinned.

“I’ve needed some good tequila,” he remarked. “I’ll take a trip south tonight. Has she considered moving in some trailers to save on travel costs during the week?”

“Haven’t asked. It’ll make our job easier if our men can stay here instead of driving in every day. I’ll give Carla a call today,” Jake said.

They paused at his work area to pick up hard hats.

“I’d like to see the damaged area first, then—” the city-girl started. “What are they doing?”

Jake turned to look in the direction she indicated. Two of his workers were hanging out by the water tank.

“Taking a break,” he said.

“It’s only six-thirty. What are the union laws here?”

“Leave my men to me,” he warned.

“Do you intend to make them—hello?”

Jake picked up a third hard hat and turned, snagging the BlackBerry and plopping the hat on her head before she could object. He clicked the phone off and dropped it on the table.

The city-girl gazed up at him with a frown, her lovely face irritated.

“I need that, Jake.”

“Chin up,” he said, ignoring her words.

He adjusted the hat, surprised to notice how soft her skin was. He withdrew without meeting her challenging gaze and slapped her upside the head. City-girl gasped. Toni grinned.

“C’mon.” Jake turned and began walking toward the building. “We’ll start at the entrance.”

He led her through the beams, explaining the layout and how the new blueprints would adjust the current design.

“I don’t know how you can envision any of this,” she said when he paused. “I see nothing but beams and cement. These don’t look like spas, conference rooms, or anything. This looks like a pool might go here.”

Jake turned in time to see her stop beside a gaping circular hole beyond a set of beams. City-girl leaned forward for a better view, and he saw the beams to the left and right shudder.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said, and reached out with lightning reflexes. He wrapped one arm around her warm body and pulled her back as the beam she leaned upon dropped. Her body fit well against his, and he could feel the combination of soft curves and athletic muscle beneath.

“Wow,” she muttered. “Is that supposed to happen?”

“When Smithson heads your project, yes,” he said. “You see the support beams there and there?”

She absently leaned against him, following his hand with her eyes as he pointed above her. Vanilla-scented hair tickled his chin.

“They’re held together with a single fastener.”

“And?”

“They should be held together with about a dozen.”

“A dozen? Maybe I’ll call and fire him again,” she murmured, stepping away from him.

“Just don’t lean on anything,” Jake advised. His gaze traveled over the hourglass form rendered blocky by the masculine suit. Dark eyes settled on her impractical shoes once more. “You might want to check the insurance on this place before coming out here in those shoes again.”

City-girl gave him an irritated glance over her shoulder. Jake joined Toni and continued on the tour. It was not until she tripped for the third time that he took pity on her and took a shortcut back to the office.

“They’re still on break.”

Jake looked, already aware of whom she spoke. While he made an attempt to keep his staff as qualified and motivated as possible, occasionally a lazy one or two slipped through when he needed numbers.

City-girl took a deep breath and set off for the pair. Jake snagged the collar of her suit to stop her.

“You don’t mess with my men,” he warned her again, this time more sharply.

City-girl tugged free and faced him. He crossed his arms to expose his roped forearms and met her gaze head on.

“First, if you don’t keep your men occupied, I won’t hesitate to get rid of them,” she told him. “Second, keep your hands off me.”

“First, you don’t tell me how to deal with my men. I won’t be micromanaged by someone who knows nothing about my job. Second, you don’t talk to my men. You take any issues to me,” he said just as firmly.

She gazed up at him, assessing him, then said, “Very well. I want those two gone.”

She turned and walked away toward his work space to retrieve her BlackBerry. She flung the hard hat on the ground beside the card tables he used as desks in his work space.

“Are all the women out east like that?” Toni asked, shaking his head.

Jake watched her walk with a purely feminine sway despite the masculine business suit.

“I mean now, Jake!” she shouted back at him.

Toni looked at him, astonished. Jake’s jaw twitched.

“They breed ’em different,” Toni added.

“That they do,” Jake said, reining in his temper.

“I see why you left.”

Jake snorted, fed up with the reminder of his time back east already.

“We’ll do our best,” Toni said.

“Should know in a few days just how bad things are. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the worst of this place.”

6 thoughts on “Sneak preview: Maddy’s Oasis, Chapter One

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