“I know, I know. I’m late.” Michael Zorn tore into the Handymen production offices and seized the black coffee the production assistant, Franka, held out for him. “Is Lacey on the warpath yet?”
“Lacey’s always on the warpath. Oh, and heads up—apparently our fearless director has info on some exciting changes and new directions for the show.” An exaggerated eye roll accompanied Franka’s air quotation marks.
“Crap.” Michael took a gulp of coffee, scalding the back of his throat. He winced and swallowed some more. “I should have taken my clients out for a long, drawn-out lunch after our meeting.”
“Now, now.” Franka patted his cheek and ushered him toward the meeting room door. “You’re the star of the show, big guy. Time to face the music.”
Stifling a grumble, Michael opened the door. The whole team had gathered—everyone from the cameramen to the makeup ladies. He ignored the many looks and headed to his usual seat, the one next to his brothers and co-stars, Eli and Nick. Eli had the decency to cover his smile, but Nick just chuckled. Spoiled brat.
Lacey Styles, their director, had been in the middle of a speech, but had closed her mouth when Michael entered. She waited until he was seated comfortably. Well, as comfortable as he could get in the ridiculous designer chairs she’d insisted on buying for the office. They were so delicate they barely contained his bulk and creaked as he settled in.
As he’d grown accustomed to doing, Michael waited for the zing of electricity he used to feel in Lacey’s presence. There had been a time when he couldn’t wait to see her, when a glance from her would make the hairs on his arms stand at attention, to say nothing of various other body parts. However, as he sat across from her today, it was as one co-worker facing another. He wasn’t even angry anymore. If anything, he felt sorry for her.
“Michael, how good of you to join us.” She glanced at her watch. “A whole twenty minutes late.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I just came from another meeting. It ran over.”
“Oh.” She inclined her head. “I’m thankful you could squeeze us in. Considering this has been our regular meeting time every month for the past year, I can see how it might be hard to lose track.”
“Perhaps you’d like to reprimand me later, you know, in private.”
Louie, one of the camera guys, hooted from the back of the room.
“Knock it off, Louie,” said Michael.
“I’m happy reprimanding you here,” continued Lacey. “After all, you’re the one who disrupted my meeting.”
Michael bit back the comment on his tongue. Had he expected anything less from her? The woman had a flair for drama and sought it everywhere. It was only one of the reasons he’d called an end to their relationship.
“Lacey, when I accepted this job—”
“You mean when the Inspiration Network plucked you from obscurity and made you the star of your own home renovation TV show, fulfilling all your dreams?”
My dreams or hers? Some days, he wasn’t sure.
“Hey,” Nick piped up. “Michael’s not the only star here, remember? Last I checked, the show was still called Handymen, emphasis on the men.”
“I could never forget you, Nick. Or you, Eli.” She smiled at each of them in turn, dropping the grin when she turned to Michael. “But my issue is with your big brother today. When I call a meeting, it’s not for shits and giggles. We have important things to discuss and I need you to be here, Michael.”
“I realize that and I’m here now. But as you may recall, my brothers and I still run our own contracting company. It’s because of the reputation of our company that the Inspiration Network decided to pluck us. We have our own clients outside the show.”
“You employ people to handle your contracting clients.”
“It doesn’t mean we don’t stay in the loop. If a client wants my advice, he gets it. So now that we understand each other, how about catching me up to speed, rather than lecturing me?” He offered her his brightest smile, the one that told her in no uncertain terms he couldn’t give a toss about her shits and giggles.
Lacey held his gaze for a moment, her blue eyes sparkling with frost. Lacey alternated between playing the cold Amazon queen in public and the wounded doe in private. God forbid she show some genuine vulnerability or a hint of concern for others. She might like to see others squirm, but he wasn’t about to sit and swivel for her.
She straightened her pile of notes. “As I was about to say before you arrived, Michael, the network wants us to explore some new avenues. To be frank, they don’t think we’re sexy enough.”
“Sexy?” Eli asked. “Handymen is all about helping people renovate their homes. There’s nothing sexy about it.”
Lacey’s overly bubbly laugh grated on Michael’s nerves. “Eli, in case you and your brothers have never looked in the mirror, you’re a good-looking group of men. If you stopped to read any of the demographic reports I send you, you’d know most of our viewers are women. As much as they appreciate the show for its helpful do-it-yourself renovation hints, many of them watch because they’re secretly hoping you guys might drop your tool belts. Have you seriously never checked out the social media pages? You all have groupies.”
Nick’s eyes widened with intrigue, proving Michael’s theory about him and his brothers. Michael had inherited the take-charge attitude. Eli was the calming influence in their relationship. Nick, as younger brother, had long since landed the biggest ego of the three.
“Really? I need to go online more.” Nick whipped out his cellphone and clicked the screen. “Where exactly does one find Twitter?”
Lacey clapped a hand over her mouth. “I swear you Zorns live under a pile of two-by-fours.”
Michael glared at Nick. “Could you troll for groupies on your own time?” He returned his attention to Lacey, somehow even more annoyed than he had been ten seconds ago. “Define sexy.”
“Well, for starters,” she replied, reaching into a bag at the side of her chair, “they’d like the three of you to ditch the blue jeans and modest shirts and wear these under some coveralls.” She pulled out white sleeveless tees emblazoned with the show’s logo and held them up.
Michael’s jaw dropped. Someone, in his wisdom, had also included little cartoon avatars of the brothers next to the logo. The tiny handymen each wielded a tool of the trade and had exaggerated muscles. Popeye on a spinach bender could not have looked more ridiculous.
Judging from the gasps next to him, Eli and Nick had also entered states of abject horror. The guffaws echoing around the room must have come from their burly crew members.
Michael crossed his arms. “I am not wearing a tank. Especially that one.”
“You tell her, bro.” Eli looked at the shirt the way he might look at a fresh wad of mucus on the sidewalk.
“I think they’re cute,” said Lacey. “Come on, guys. The women want close-ups of your guns. You have muscles. Most men would be happy to show them off.”
“No offense, Lacey.” Nick shook his head. “I’m all for sex appeal, but those shirts look like what fake contractors would wear in porn movies. Not that I’ve seen any.”
“Out of the question.” Michael sat up straighter. “Are we done here?”
“Not quite,” said Lacey. “Look, I’ll go back to Inspiration and let them know you’re uncomfortable with the suggested wardrobe. As a compromise, however, I need more energy, more oomph. I’d like you to play a bit more on camera. The three of you come off stiff sometimes. Flirt a little.”
“Flirt?” Michael rotated his shoulders, stretching out the tense muscles. “But most of the guests on the show are couples. I doubt the men want us flirting with their girlfriends. I sure as hell wouldn’t.”
“No one wants you to flirt with the women,” she explained. “Flirt with the camera. You know. Little asides. Winks to the audience, that sort of thing. Act as if you’re speaking directly to the female consumer. Engage her. Make that viewer feel as if she’s the only woman in your life.”
Eli put up his hand, like a kid in class. “You want us to make love to the camera?”
Louie made kissy noises at the back of the room, until Nick silenced him with a crumpled-up paper missile.
“This is insane,” said Michael. “When we agreed to host this show, we did so because it would be a reflection of our contracting business. Professional, helpful and efficient. We didn’t sign up for some weird TV version of a dating app.”
“Look, Michael.” Lacey lowered her voice, an attempt to placate him. “Just keep an open mind for now and trust I will do everything in my power to make you all look good. But in case you’ve forgotten, guys, our competition is not above a bit of gratuitous sex. We’re dealing in fantasy here, and if we can’t deliver it, someone else will. We can’t forget about ratings. If you can help me achieve those ratings in some other way, I’d love to hear it.” She paused, letting her words sink in. “Trust me. Have I steered you wrong yet?”
“No.” Lacey had protected their interests for the past year, despite their personal problems. The brothers had agreed to do Handymen because they’d thought it would promote Zorn Contracting. Truth be told, business had boomed, so much so that they’d had to take on extra help. Still, none of the brothers had embarked on this venture to become Hollywood stars, or even Canadian TV stars. They simply wanted to promote good workmanship and help homeowners recognize the pitfalls of renovation. However, since the show had launched a couple of seasons ago, it had become popular. Apparently, just not popular enough.
“I don’t want to let any cats out of the bag,” said Lacey. “But I need everyone here to up their games. Important people are starting to watch this show. In fact, someone at the Create Network has even expressed interest.”
This time, jaws dropped all around.
“The Create Network?” asked Michael.
For a moment, no one spoke. Even Michael had to admit he was impressed. If Create picked them up, the show would be broadcast almost everywhere. This was the sort of development for which the team had been hoping. A broader audience, greater resources and access to better supplies. It was a contractor’s dream come true.
He’d be an idiot to say no. As long as the show didn’t become tacky. Michael refused to lower his standards to appeal to the common denominator.
Nick was the first to pipe up. “Will Create make us wear tank tops?”
“They’re not tanks. Look, forget the shirts for now.” Lacey’s eye twitched. “I want everyone here to think about how you can bring more excitement to the show, more emotion. I promise I won’t ask anyone to do a strip tease. Now, is everyone set as far as the next taping? Our guests are Emily Daniels and Trent Andrews, the couple who want to renovate an old house in Little Italy so they can sell organic soup.” Her lip twisted. “Apparently the world is in dire need of more watered-down food. Michael, is your team set for supplies?”
“Yeah. I’ve been in touch with Ms. Daniels by email several times. She’s confirmed all her preferences. There have been no issues with sponsors. We’ve got all our appliances and hardware ready to go at the warehouse.”
“Good. Thanks, everyone.”
The crew members began to disperse.
When he stood, Lacey called him over. “Michael, do you have a minute?”
Here we go again. A dull pain flared at his temple. Stress headache. He’d been having them ever since the incident at the daycare last year. Lacey’s antics only made them worse.
Nick leaned over. “She’s totally going to ask you for a strip tease.”
“Funny, little brother. Just remember, I know about all the skeletons in your closet too.” When Michael winced, both of his brothers looked at him with concern.
“You need to go back to that doctor.”
“Eli, I’m fine.”
Nick joined in the clamor. “Why are you so stubborn?”
“Oh, because that’s not a trait we all share?”
“Seriously, dude,” said Nick. “It can’t be good to bottle all that shit up. You don’t want to drop dead of an aneurysm.”
“Thank you for the comprehensive diagnosis, Doctor Zorn.”
“Nick’s right, in spite of his tragic bedside manner.” Eli leveled a look at their younger brother. “You need to talk to someone about what happened. You sure as hell don’t talk to us.”
“I did talk to someone. It didn’t help. Besides, there’s nothing more to talk about. Don’t you guys have something to do, other than nattering in my ear?”
Once Eli and Nick finally left the room, Michael reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a bottle of acetaminophen tablets. So he got headaches here and there. Lots of people did. It didn’t mean he was on his last legs. He popped a couple of pills and chased them down with a swig of coffee.
When everyone else had exited, Lacey glided over to where Michael was standing, her stiletto heels making no sound on the carpeted floor. She nodded at the pill bottle in his hand. “You’ve been popping a lot of those lately.”
“Not you too. I have a headache, that’s all.”
“What happened to us, Michael?”
“Exactly what should have happened. We broke up.”
“We didn’t have to.”
“Lacey, how many times do we need to discuss this? You slept with your ex, Alistair. That’s sort of a deal breaker.”
It wasn’t often he allowed himself to dwell on the night he’d caught them, on the sight of their tangled legs and sweat-moistened skin. And when he did now, he barely even felt the acid sizzle in his gut as it had in the moment. Once the initial indignation had worn off, Michael had realized he was only pissed because it seemed like the appropriate reaction at finding another man’s hairy ass in his bed.
He didn’t really blame Lacey, although he questioned why she’d felt a need to go behind his back. He’d known deep down they weren’t right for each other. She might like to put up a fuss, but she knew it too. They’d grown tired of each other so quickly that he hadn’t even felt it coming on. Admittedly, the sex had been outrageous at first, but they’d been incompatible in every other way.
“I realize I made mistakes, but even before my ex dragged his carcass back on the scene, you and I had stopped sleeping together.”
He wouldn’t argue there. At the end of the day, their priorities were too different. Lacey loved gourmet restaurants, films with subtitles and boutique shopping.
Michael wasn’t opposed to the finer things. In fact, if anyone tried to take away his favorite pair of work boots, there would be hell to pay. But, when all was said and done, there were just too many differences between him and Lacey.
They occupied different worlds. Now he just needed to work with her and keep his cool, something he didn’t do too well.
After what had happened to Jane Ashton, he hadn’t felt very calm or collected. He certainly hadn’t been in the mood for romance. His failure with Lacey was just as much a case of bad timing as it was incompatibility. “We rushed into things. This whole experience just proves we were never right for each other.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“Hell, yeah. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think I’m cut out for the swinging lifestyle.”
“I’m not a swinger, Michael. I had a…lapse in judgment.”
“Among other things.” The headache made Michael’s tone gruffer.
“Look, no matter what you think of me, we still have to work together. That means you need to cut out the open animosity. You can’t arrive late to my meetings and treat me with contempt. Whether you like me or not, we are part of the same team.”
“You’re right, but I agreed to do this show because it had integrity. Little by little, I see it changing. I don’t want any part of that.”
“Michael, I have your back, but I also need to uphold network decisions. Our show is doing well right now, but it can do better. You can’t call it a day because the network vision doesn’t match yours. Think of the crew. People’s livelihoods are at stake.”
“I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but I’ve built my career providing a superior service. If the network wants this to become Handymen, Kardashian Style, they’ve got the wrong guy.” He rubbed his temple.
“Just have faith in me, okay? We’ll find a way to make it work, but surely you understand this isn’t just about hammering nails into the wall. We need to tug at the viewers’ heartstrings and share stories that will make them laugh and cry. We’re not just fixing homes, we’re changing lives.” She dropped her gaze and her long dark lashes swept over the tops of her cheeks. “And for the record, I acknowledge sleeping with Alistair was the worst decision of my life. Let me show you how sorry I am. We could be good together again. You know we could.”
“Oh, come on, Michael.” She moved closer, crowding his space. Her strong perfume made his headache flare. “Don’t tell me you’re not even a little bit tempted.”
Anyone else might be. Lacey Styles was a sought-after woman.
In truth, Lacey wasn’t a bad person, and he knew she hadn’t meant to hurt him, not really. If he went back to her, he’d only end up filling her days with frustration. Michael, at thirty-six years old, knew what he liked and knew he wasn’t about to change. If a woman couldn’t accept him and his slouchy, ‘good old boy’ ways, then she wasn’t the woman for him.
He extricated himself from her still-roving hands. “Lacey, I—”
“You haven’t forgiven me. I get it. You’re still hurting.”
“It’s not that I haven’t forgiven you. I’m just not interested anymore. I’m sorry. I need to know you understand what I’m saying. We can’t have this conversation again. It’s time to move on.”
“Thank you, Michael. I think I’ve managed to absorb the message.”
It had to be said. He moved to the door and held it open for her, but she dropped into one of the chairs. She turned her back to him and pretended to skim through her notes.
Michael hated breaking anyone’s heart, but deep down, he didn’t believe it would take Lacey long to get over him. Michael exited the room and let the door shut behind him. Hopefully he’d also closed the door on an awkward chapter in their lives.