Victoria pushed back her shoulders, grasped the X-shaped knocker and pounded the metal against the red door. Curses echoed on the other side. She pulled out a smile that would, unfortunately, bring out the dimple in her left cheek, but it couldn’t be helped. Maybe the welcoming but professional lift of her lips would soothe whatever temper that brewed on the other side of the wood.
The door swung open. A shirtless man glowered at her, but that description couldn’t quite encapsulate him. Her smile faltered while she lost a few IQ points at the full brunt of him. Shadows deepened the grooves around his mouth and eyes. Wind creeping in through the open door whipped his dark auburn hair into disarray. He was broad in the shoulders, solid in the torso and thighs. Every sinew in his tall frame inspired an itch in her palms to touch, caress, explore all of him. He fit into the scenery—stark mountains and moors.
The furrows that hinted above his brows practically promised brooding—complete with a money back guarantee. His blue eyes narrowed. “Which Baird sent you?” His thick burr rolled the “r” in a way that prickled her skin.
He definitely seemed to know Ian and Tristan. Ian was her boss. Tristan was her boss’ brother who ran the sales division. To say they were like night and day was an understatement. “I’m—”
He scoffed, cutting off her speech with the abrupt sound. “Ian,” he guessed with pinpoint accuracy. “Tristan wouldn’t have sent a lamb to slaughter.”
Her spine stiffened. A lamb would have curled up when she had mistakenly authenticated a forgery three years ago. A sheep would have willingly let the world put a hand over her eyes while it slit her throat to bleed out from shame, guilt and mortification. One simply didn’t recover from the kind of screw up she’d made, but Victoria had found employment, convinced her boss to send her to Scotland, alone, for an all expense paid commission of a castle. This was her first job oversees for the Bairds and it damn sure wouldn’t be her last.
Victoria Burke was no one’s goddamn lamb.
She kicked her smile back into gear, stepped forward to crowd his space so he’d automatically pull back for room. When he did, she fought a grin. “I have the contract for you to sign. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Respect flickered in his gaze before irritation took over. “Aye. Ian sent you. Tristan would have sent a charmer.”
Familiarity crept much closer to extremely knowledgeable of the two men. “I’m sure Ian informed you I was coming by—” she offered her hand, “—Victoria Burke.”
He scowled at her hand as though it had teeth. Of course. Of course, her first job overseas would involve someone who woke up with a bug up his ass. His scoff was much quieter this time, but then he rolled his shoulders, dragging her gaze back to his wide chest.
His nipples were a dark coppery-shade and erect from the cold. Maybe for the first time in her life she could almost understand the reverent description of alabaster skin. The only thing to mar his flesh was a tattoo that covered most of his right shoulder and pec. The design was both elegant and barbaric. Before she could really admire the view, the door slammed shut in her face.
Her mouth dropped open. Her boss had made this sound like a done deal, and maybe it had been. This wouldn’t be the first time a temperamental “artist” threw a fit about the business end of restoring antiques. This wasn’t work but art and history. How dare she bring up things like deadlines, liabilities and conditions.
The urge to put her foot into the door was strong, but she needed the “artist” complacent and happy. And to sign the goddamn contract.
Tension wrenched through her and even her earlobes felt tight. Giving herself a few seconds to compose herself, she knocked again, and waited. After three minutes, she decided sleeping in her car would make her look desperate. So…she’d have to knock until her knuckles bled, which started to seem like a distinct possibility after eight minutes.
The door whipped open again. He filled the doorway with those broad shoulders as he glared down at her. It felt as though she was trying to play chess against a master player with both hands behind her back.
She sucked at chess.
“I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot.” She kicked up her smile, now grateful for the dimple. Often times people found it hard to be mean with cute, and she would need everything in her arsenal.
His furrowed brow deepened. “You must be masochistic.”
Determined and desperate were the same thing, right? “I would like to—”
“For fuck sake.” He turned into the home without closing the door.
She took that as an invitation since a cordial one wasn’t likely to come and stepped inside. She clutched the manila folder, trying to take everything in, because she had no doubt his next chess move would be epic.
The scent of sandalwood permeated in the air. Jacob’s cottage was too masculine for anyone else to have lived there, though the comfort and warmth of it surprised her. He didn’t bother to flick on lights as he went. The fire crackling in the stone hearth and his broad back marked the way. The cottage was rustic right down to the stones that acted as a baseboard. Her heels clicked against the wooden floorboards as she followed him.
She stepped over his discarded shirt in the hallway in front of the bathroom. So…she’d interrupted him. Yes, it was only mid-day but freelancers worked odd hours. This could easily be the end of his workday. Be nice. Apologetic. Don’t call him a jackass.
Still, annoyance dried the sweat on her palms as she continued to follow him. Jacob pushed open a door. A few more steps and then she could see past him. She would have never guessed a workshop was part of the home from the front. Smaller tables and benches ate up most of the space.
She spotted a 1900s Chippendale table and her heart refused to pump for a second. He’d taken it apart. She almost choked from the need to gasp. In mint condition the table could easily run anywhere between $1,800 to $2,400. In the current condition…she felt dizzy. He gave the antique no attention as he picked up his phone from one of the work benches. That movement knocked some sense into her.
“Callan,” he corrected in a dismissive manner. “I only let my mother call me Jacob. And why Ian sent a Yank to Scotland to talk to me, I don’t know.”
There it was again—that niggle that she’d been snowed somehow. Ignoring her own unease, she softened her tone. “I think, somehow, our wires got crossed.” She paused to pick her words carefully. “You didn’t agree beforehand to do this job, did you?”
A five o’clock shadow framed his jawline. He scrubbed at the facial hair in an absent manner. “Ian offered the work, aye. I told him to go fuck himself in the arse.”
Victoria blinked in shock at the blunt words. She’d heard the way Ian and Tristan talked to each other. Well, when they thought no other employees were around. The brothers threw insults and curses at each other and made them seem like Scottish endearments. But a potential consultant saying the same thing? Even a Scottish one? Dread pooled in her stomach. The “important” thing she was missing could be her best bargaining chip.
Still, she placed the manila folder over his phone and flipped open to the contract. Her boss had given her bargaining power with a limit—one she’d push if she had to. She needed this contract signed; she needed to not just finish this job, but succeed.
Despite his initial surly rejection, he’d let her in. She’d take that inch and make it three miles. “What do you need in order to sign this?”
His brows rose at the question, probably surprised she’d bothered to ask. “More time. My time. Something both Ian and Tristan don’t give one fuck about.”
Tension strummed through his frame, giving her another excuse to let her gaze roam. Apparently working as a wood craftsman could carve a man into thick, biteable appendages. His forearms flexed gracefully and showcased the fine dark hairs and veins that traced the smooth muscles. Wide palms. Long fingers…Victoria’s mind strayed far from a solution for a moment.
He took measure of her as she did him. The intensity of his stare sparked a flush along her skin. Gooseflesh rose on her arms, and she couldn’t blame the cool temperature in the workshop. His lids lowered as something raw and untamed flashed in his eyes.
She mentally smacked herself and got back on task. Callan sounded tired, annoyed but genuine. The fastest way to get him to agree was to give him exactly what he wanted. “If I could give you more time, would you sign?”
“I need someone who can cook and clean.”
He wouldn’t sign a contract because he didn’t like housework? She kept her face blank, and stopped covertly ogling him. “I see,” her voice turned tart. “I’m sure it’s within the budget to hire a maid while you work.”
“Ian and Tristan would go for a maid. They’re not the problem.” He tilted his head, calculation clear in his demeanor. “You’d do though.”
So he thought she was gullible. Unfortunately she was desperate and walking out wasn’t an option. Trying a different angle, she said, “I’ll be as busy as you. I’m not sure taking the time to clean and cook for you would do you much good.”
“Not me.” He scoffed. “For an elderly relative. He gets lonely, eats shite and if left alone long enough, his flat could be featured on one of those hoarder shows.” His chest rose with a deep inhalation. “I can’t take on this job and still take care of him.”
She softened at the sincerity in his words. He clearly cared about this person. “I’d do but a maid wouldn’t, J-Callan?”
“Believe it or not, aye.” He met and held her gaze. “Agree and I sign right now.”
And what would she tell her boss if Callan didn’t sign? I know you flew me all the way to Scotland but I couldn’t get the consultant to sign. So I wasted another six weeks scouring both Scotland and England to find a replacement. Ian would have to pay for that consultant’s room and board, meals too. Whatever it cost to get them to do the job.
But Callan’s reason for wanting her to do the grunt work didn’t make sense. “Why me?”
“Because there are always strings attached when dealing with a Baird.”
“That doesn’t sound like my boss.”
“Did Tristan ever say how he ended up working for Ian?”
She blinked, confused by the question. “No.”
He chuckled in a poor-sweet-idiot way. “Aye, right. Leave.”
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