Dust rained down as Cat tugged on the rope handle to the attic steps. She coughed in spite of the handkerchief she’d wrapped around her face. Blinking to clear the grit from her eyes, she tugged again. Nothing. She let go of the rope and stared up at the thing, trying to figure out if she’d missed a latch or something—but no, it looked like any other drop-down attic access. A door with a rope and a handle hanging down, annoyingly just out of her reach unless she rose up on her very tiptoes. Maybe she hadn’t pulled hard enough.
She propped a hand on the wall to steady herself and reached, her fingers just closing around the handle. Another stretch and she got a better grip. She braced herself and gave the rope a good tug. Something shifted, just a little. Cat tightened her grip, wrapping both hands around the handle and leaning back to give a hard yank. The rope snapped and she tumbled backwards, arms pinwheeling, dimly aware of a rhythmic pounding sound. She slammed into something hard. Large hands closed over her shoulders and pushed her upright.
“Whoa there. You okay?” The voice was deep and gravelly, tinged with a slight Southern accent that sounded like the voice on the phone when she’d talked with the local handyman the other day.
Cat whirled. A pair of concerned-looking amber eyes stared back at her from a handsome—and young—face. She’d been expecting some retiree. This man was maybe a few years older than she was. Wariness surged through her, and she tugged the handkerchief down and glared at him.
“Who are you and how did you get in?”
A hurt look crossed his features for a moment before he broke into a laugh. “I’m Nate Stewart. You left the door unlocked, and it’s two. Little after, actually. I was knocking on the door for five minutes. And you’re welcome.” He nodded at the stairs. “That would have been a nasty fall.”
Yep, same voice. That drawl is unmistakable. He was wearing a heavy jacket, and a knit cap was pushed back on his head as if it had been knocked askew. The pounding noise must have been him coming up the steps after she didn’t respond to his knock.
“Uhhh… Thank you. We haven’t properly met.” She stuck her hand out. “I’m Caitlin, but everyone calls me Cat.”
His hand engulfed hers. Warm and rough with calluses. “Good to meet you, Cat.” His eyes crinkled at the corners and the ghost of a smile crossed his lips. “We’ve all been calling you Ms. Bristol, but I don’t guess that’s your last name.”
“It’s what’s on my birth certificate. Mother never changed her name. I suppose my grandmother didn’t either.” Everyone she’d met here swore she was the spitting image of her grandmother. It wouldn’t matter what she called herself—in this town she would always be Susan Bristol’s granddaughter. The family name also came with fewer potential landmines than being the widow of Jimmy Corozzo. “The attic door is stuck.”
Nate straightened his hat, then shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on the newel. His broad shoulders filled the space as he maneuvered past her on the narrow landing. At first glance, he looked like a typical burly, muscle-bound gym rat. Once the jacket came off, revealing a tight flannel and low-slung jeans, she had to rethink that assessment. He was big, but there was nothing of the hulking meathead to him.
He reached up and caught the attic release. Fresh dust rained down, pulling Cat’s attention away from his denim-covered backside. And now the starry-eyed expression every woman in town sported at the mere mention of Nate made sense. Cat shook her head to clear those unwelcome thoughts. He was hot, and that was trouble she didn’t need.
“I think I’ve got it.” Nate gave another tug on the door then jumped back as the ladder came tumbling down, scattering bits of wood across the floor. “Huh. Dry rot. Look here. There’s why it wouldn’t open.” The hook for the rope had pulled away and wedged into the hinge.
“Guess I’ll need a ladder to get up in there and check things out.” She peered through the swirling dust into the inky depths of the attic. Who knew how many years of what lay tucked away up there. “Thank you again, but I think we should head to the kitchen. I asked you here to talk about a job.”
She headed down the stairs, shaking her head at her brusque approach, but she needed to establish some boundaries, and fast. Nate came with stellar references, and the only hint of anything inappropriate was a snide comment one of the old-timers at the general store had made about all the ladies calling on Nate. That and the gaggle of adoring fangirls. Not that she could blame them. He was definitely fine, but she didn’t need a man in her life, especially one who had his pick of all the ladies in town.
She poured two glasses of water and set one in front of him. “I want to live here while going through Susa—My grandmother’s estate.” The word grandmother still felt strange to her—until recently, Cat had believed her grandmother had died before she was born. She perched on the edge of a kitchen stool and pulled out her rough project list. Time to see what the man was made of. “I can’t be dealing with the repairs and going through all of this.”
Bristol Park, once a bustling family resort, had long ago fallen into disuse and disrepair. And now it was hers. She’d taken a quick look around and it was overwhelming. Several rooms were filled to bursting with storage boxes and furniture covered in ancient sheets. Every closet was stuffed full. And down a long, creaky hallway she’d found the laundry, plus a small commercial kitchen and a formal dining room that looked like they hadn’t been touched in over a decade.
“What’s your plan?” Nate’s voice cut into her thoughts.
“My first priority is safety—make sure there’s a functioning kitchen and bath here in the main house, and a roof that doesn’t leak. No major renovations. Just repairs. Like that attic access—I can’t deal with the stuff up there without a decent ladder.” She ignored his eye roll and continued. “After that, I’ll decide what comes next.”
His brow furrowed as he leaned forward, running his finger down the list in front of her. “This first part makes sense if you’re staying here. The rest…” He raised his eyes to hers and shook his head. “My question is, why?”
Cat drew back from his narrowed gaze. His look said suspicion. He tapped the page, flashing ink on his wrist, the heavy black lines visible against his golden tan skin. Cat swallowed hard and pulled the notebook back.
“Because there’s history here.” She breathed the words through gritted teeth. History was something she’d never had growing up. One of the few things she’d loved about the Corozzo family. And now here was an opportunity to have it without the whole mess that came with them. To see something of her own history—one she’d been denied as a child. She snatched up the list and glared at him. This man wasn’t her business partner. She didn’t need to explain herself to him.
“Because it’s what I want to do. I need a general handyman. Someone who can help me get the house in order. If that’s not of interest to you, Mr. Stewart, then I’m sure I can find someone else.”
He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. His mouth pressed down into a thin line, then crooked into a half-smile. “You’re not likely to find too many folks willing to come all the way out here, and those you do won’t be near as good. Plus, they’ll cost twice as much.”
He was right on that point. She’d already looked into available labor. If he didn’t agree to help, this was going to be even more costly.
“I’m aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that either you are willing to work with me or you are not. So, which is it?”
He rested his elbows on the table and his eyes caught hers, held her gaze. “Conditionally.” He held up his hand and ticked off items on his fingers. “I want to know what your ultimate goal is here. Are you planning to reopen or sell? It’s a safe bet you’ve either gotten an offer on the place or will soon. Holding out, fixing it up, all of that could be a ploy to raise the stakes a bit, demand a higher price.”
“I don’t know yet. But if you think that I’m doing this for the sole purpose of personal profit, you can leave right now.” Cat had no patience for that attitude, though she understood where it was coming from.
“I’ll give you a month.” He continued as if she hadn’t said anything. “Get through as much of that list as we can, then we check in. You may think differently by then. I might think differently. And we reevaluate every month after that.”
She nodded. “Seems fair enough. Anything else?” She didn’t bother to try keeping the sarcasm from her voice, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“I want to see the entire list of interior projects. There may be some things you can double up on—if you need to rent equipment, or hire a contractor, there’s no sense doing it twice.”
“You think I haven’t considered that?” She arched an eyebrow at him and gave him the look that’d had Jimmy’s men quaking in their shoes. She hadn’t taken over the operations of Corozzo Shipping for nothing—project and resource management came easily to her. Nate spread his hands wide and fixed her with a devastating smile.
“Let’s just say two heads are better than one, and you haven’t had much time to be thinking about this.”
She tossed her notebook onto the table in front of him. “Here ya go, champ. Have fun. I’m going to see if there’s a ladder around here that isn’t rotting out. Find me when you’re done playing administrative assistant.”
* * * *
The kitchen door swing shut on Cat’s retreating form, and Nate shook his head. When she hadn’t answered the door, he’d let himself in just in time to see a tiny redhead perched at the top of the stairs, yanking on the attic pull. She’d almost knocked him off the top step when she fell into him. The contact was brief, but long enough to stir thoughts he didn’t care to entertain. Like how small and fragile she felt. He shook his head again, turned back to the list she’d practically thrown at him and smiled.
It was a rough draft, but already a project manager’s wet dream. Neatly organized into columns with weekly goals. Just like she’d implied, she’d already overlapped several projects. It looked like she at least knew what she was doing. Still, she was probably in way over her head.
“The only ladder I can find is not something I’d trust to hold me, much less you.” She plopped down into the seat opposite him and smiled. “You find anything missing, or things you could improve?”
“Not yet.” He didn’t see a point in lying to her. “It could be workable.”
She smiled again and tapped a manicured nail on the counter. “You got a ladder on that truck out there?”
It was his turn to smile. If she’d taken five seconds to ask, she’d have known. “Yep. Coulda saved you the looking.”
“Maybe.” She pushed back from the island and stood, beckoning him to follow. “Let’s go see what’s in the attic.”
He tried to insist that she let him go first, citing the possibility of squirrels or even rats. She wasn’t having any of it. He blew out an exasperated breath.
“Look, you’re not dressed for crawling around in…well, whatever may be up there.” He waved a hand at her skinny jeans and sweater. “I’m not sure how far that dry rot goes. The floor may not hold.” She glared at him, grabbed his flashlight, and stepped onto the first rung. Which was how he found himself holding the ladder steady, looking up at her perfect, round ass as she levered herself into the attic space. A shuffling step or two, a sneeze, a muffled curse and some fumbling, then a click and light poured down from the doorway. Her head popped into view.
“Light works. That’s something,” she called down to him. “You coming up? Or are you worried about bats now? I promise, nothing up here to ruin your jeans.”
Damn pushy woman. He climbed the ladder into the dusty attic and stood, surprised there was enough room for him. No sign of rodents or bats, though there were a few spiderwebs and lots of boxes and things draped with sheets. He tapped his foot along the boards, listening for the tell-tale sounds that would indicate the wood was rotted.
“Looks like there was a leak in the roof at some point.” She pointed the flashlight beam at the ceiling.
Dark stains spread out from what was obviously a patch. Right over the access ladder. Well that explained the dry rot—wood got wet. Closed up, the ladder never dried out. Hello fungus. Still, he tested the floorboards before putting his weight on them. He had no desire to go crashing through the floor into a room below.
“Why are we starting in the attic?” Nate’s mind flashed back to her list. So many projects and she chose to start here, but okay, she was paying the bills.
Cat chuckled as she yanked a sheet off a large mirror in the corner. “Who said ‘we’? A lot of the furniture downstairs is in bad shape. I wanted to see what was up here. Some of it might be usable, or I can sell it. And I wanted to look for signs of roof leaks. I’d rather not have to do the roof in the middle of winter, y’know?”
She shifted a pile of boxes and brushed the dust off the side, turning it to the light. “Wanna bet these holiday lights are not LEDs?”
Nate shook his head and chuckled. Nice to see she had a sense of humor. She was going to need it for what she had planned. “No bet.”
“Besides, old house, barely maintained and with a single occupant for the past ten plus years?” She poked a toe into a sheet-covered shape, sending a cascade of dust into the air. “Who knows what sort of furry or feathered critters might have taken up residence here.”
He leaned back against a post and laughed. She had a point. A damn good one at that. He’d been trying to discourage her with exactly those worries. She stopped her explorations and glared at him, then her face cracked into a smile as well.
“Okay, Boss Lady,” he said. “Let me rephrase things. Clock’s ticking here. What do you want to accomplish today? Do you need me to help you sort through all this stuff?”
“No,” she replied. At least she was straightforward. “How about you figure out what you need to do to repair or replace the attic stairs? I can’t leave your work ladder here forever. I’m sure you can order one from somewhere, but what do I do until that arrives?”
He knelt at the access door, poking his fingers into the wood frame. “The whole thing’s in bad shape. I’ll run into town—Juan’s got some lumber left from working on his garage. He won’t mind me picking it up for this. Temporary stairs won’t fold up, but they’ll be better than a ladder until the replacement can get done. This whole frame’s gonna need rebuilt.”
He made it halfway down the main stairs before remembering his jacket hanging on the newel post at the top of the flight and nearly bumped into Cat as she came down, his jacket in her hand. “Thanks.” He tried to ignore the jolt of excitement when his fingers brushed hers as he took the coat from her. “You done up there already?”
She shook her head. “I’m starting by cleaning up the dust.” She handed him back his flashlight as well. Not like him to be that forgetful. “You aren’t going to make it to town, pick up wood, and get back here before it gets late,” she continued. “Let’s just call it a day and start all this tomorrow.”
He ignored the unexpected, and unwelcome, stab of disappointment at not seeing her again tonight and nodded. “Good call. I like to start early, but I’m guessing you don’t want to hear saws and hammers at first light. Eight okay?”
Her eyes widened, then she smiled. “Wow, a whole forty minutes past sunup. Burning daylight there, aren’t you?”
He nodded. “Good point. I’ll see you at seven thirty then.” He didn’t quite catch the words she hurled at him as he left, but he was certain they weren’t fit for polite company. Not what he expected from a prissy city girl at all.