Available September 1
DESIGNS ON FOREVER
Mallory Andrews hurried across the parquet floor of the main hall of Ashley Court. She hadn’t expected a visit from the owner, Eleonore Townsend, yet she waited inside the parlor. Mallory clasped and unclasped her hands as her nerves rattled. They’d spoken on the phone, but hadn’t agreed to meet in person. Was Mrs. Townsend there to check on her work, or was there something more going on?
Entering the room, she found a tall, raw-boned woman with short white hair. Wearing a classic-cut navy suit, Mrs. Townsend looked every bit the head of a famous hotel group. An air of authority surrounded her.
Mallory cleared her throat. “Hello, Mrs. Townsend.”
The older woman turned, her lips tight. She appeared to be in her mid-seventies. Her gaze coolly observed Mallory from head to foot.
“I’m sorry you had to wait. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Mallory extended a hand, then, realizing its condition, pulled it back, wishing she’d taken the time to change out of her dust-covered work clothes. “I’ve been painting. Sorry.”
“Hello, Ms. Andrews.” Mrs. Townsend offered Mallory a slight smile. “I’m glad to meet you as well. I’ve enjoyed your updates on your work here. I wanted to see it for myself.”
Mallory released the breath she’d held and forced herself to breathe normally. “I’d love to show you what I’ve accomplished so far. I’m excited about a number of the rooms. Especially the Lady’s bedroom.”
That brought a true smile to the woman’s face. “Then, please, start there.”
Over the next hour and a half, Mallory showed Mrs. Townsend around the hotel, pointing out areas where her renovations were complete, while others still needed attention. Mallory was delighted to show off her pride and joy – the Lady’s Room. Her grandest accomplishment to date. A tingle of excitement ran through her at the idea that this room alone could win her the International Historical Design Award.
The older woman asked probing questions, offering remarks and suggestions. They shared a connection through their love of the Cornishcastle.
As they reentered the parlor, Mrs. Townsend said, “You’re doing an excellent job here. I’m pleased and impressed. You’re bringing the old girl back to her original beauty. Thank you for that.”
Mallory glowed under the praise. She liked that the older woman respected Mallory’s vision. “I’m glad you’re pleased. I look forward to finishing the project.”
Mallory’s chest clenched. Something was going on. Her gaze fixed on the other woman, waiting for her next words.
“The board’s not convinced the restorations are cost-effective. They’re sending an auditor to review your work and the financials.”
“My work’s about more than money. The art and history…” Panic filled Mallory’s chest. She needed to complete this job. Had to. From what she could tell, Mrs. Townsend understood the importance of what she did, the time it took to find quality replacements. “My job’s about detail and research. No one else in my field is as comprehensive.”
Mrs. Townsend suddenly looked tired. “And I agree, but my board doesn’t.”
“Then we must prove otherwise.” Mallory squared her shoulders and gave a curt nod. “When should I expect this auditor?”
“In the next few weeks. His name is Evan Townsend.” She paused, her lips thinning. “My grandson.”
Two weeks later…
Mallory checked the position of her foot. If she could inch out…
She stretched her arm and extended her leg while maintaining her precarious balance as she moved closer to the top of the chapel ceiling. Her former yoga coach would have preened with pride. Another small twist should do it. This job must be perfect. The tiniest detail needed attention, even if it killed her.
Scooting her foot from side to side until it remained half-on, half-off the scaffolding plank, she reached toward the rosette. A very unladylike word, one her mother would’ve chastised her for, escaped.
She twirled the paintbrush out to the tip of her fingers. Her lips pursed in concentration. The bristles of the brush touched the right spot. She grinned, and blew out a breath of satisfaction.
“There,” she exhaled.
Mallory shifted her weight almost to standing when her balance failed. The paintbrush flew, landing with a thump on the distant stone floor. She grabbed the closest rail, twisting, and landed on her bottom–hard.
A gasp filled the air. She peered over the edge of the board.
An impeccably-dressed man in a suit and tie craned his neck to look at her. She met his gaze. His good looks dazzled her for a moment. She stared.
“Come down here before you kill yourself!” His tone matched that of a coach chastening his players for a poor performance. His football-player-wide shoulders made him look fully capable of catching her had she fallen. “You’ve no business mucking around up there.”
Mallory narrowed her eyes, stood, and swatted at the dust on her pants before starting down. Who was this guy with his curled lip and demanding attitude?
As she neared the floor, the man asked, “Are you Mallory Andrews?”
Jumping the last six feet, she landed nimbly and then moved to stand in front of him. “I am. How can I help you?”
“I believe you’re expecting me.” He quickly checked an expensive-looking silver watch on his wrist. “I’m Evan Townsend.”
He was finally here.
“I’m sorry.” She glanced at the ceiling. Had she missed something? “I was just touching up after the painters this morning and didn’t realize you had arrived.” She offered him her most polite, professional smile before giving her bottom a final slap, creating a cloud of plaster dust. Bending, she retrieved her favorite paintbrush.
The small hairs on her nape prickled. She felt Evan Townsend’s gaze resting where her hand had popped her jeans. Men had ogled her for years, especially when she’d strutted on the catwalk. These days she rarely gave their wandering gazes any thought. So why did Townsend’s eyeing her backside make her heart trip?
He checked his pricey timepiece again.
“Did we have an appointment I didn’t know about?” Her heart revved up another notch as his storm-gray gaze moved along her body in increments. A shiver shot down her spine. His appraisal made her blush like a schoolgirl.
The man stood well over six feet, would be her guess. But his superior manner made him seem loftier. She’d always been tall, growing well above her friends, who had called her “stork legs” in school. But next to Evan Townsend, she looked average height.
“I understood you were expecting me.”
Trying to regain her composure, she volunteered, “I met Mrs. Townsend a couple of weeks ago.” She paused. “She said you were coming, but hadn’t specified a date. I had no idea you would be here today. I needed to check the progress on the ceiling before the workers returned from their lunch break.”
“Can we talk?” His lips tightened with impatience. Irritation seemed to radiate off him. “Now?”
“Sure. Do you mind if we go by my workroom first? I should put this brush in thinner.”
Townsend probably had no idea of the location of her workroom, or he wouldn’t have agreed. Not only had she given him a fright, he seemed annoyed at her for not being right where he thought she should be. To make matters worse, he’d had to come looking for her. They weren’t getting off on the right foot.
As they walked through the arched chapel doors, he asked, “Do you climb around on the scaffolding often?”
Mallory grinned. “Only when I need to approve something. Which is pretty much all the time.”
“Then you should know better than to reach out like that. You almost fell. If you had, you would’ve been seriously injured. Or killed. What were you doing, anyway?”
“Touching up a missed spot.”
He turned his head sideways in question. “Why? No one could’ve seen it from this distance.”
“I don’t skimp. It doesn’t matter whether others can’t see it or not. I do what’s right. It’s not only my job but the foundation of my reputation that no detail, however small, is overlooked.”
“Then you should’ve had one of the workmen take care of it.”
She looked over her shoulder. “Why? I was already up there.”
He put his hand on her arm, stopping her. His eyes searched hers. “As I said, you could’ve fallen to your death.”
Something electric vibrated through her. Partly because of the physical contact, but more from knowing of his concern for her safety. She found it refreshing to have someone other than her business partners and family worried about her. Years had passed since a male had shown interest in something other than her looks. Yet, at the same time he irritated her. He’d implied recklessness on her part. Even though she’d reassured him she considered the tiniest detail of her job important and she spent a great deal of time up on scaffolding.
Mallory waved her hand, dismissing her annoyance. “It’s no big deal. I’m used to doing touch-up work. This way, Mr. Townsend.”