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.”
Winding through the light brown-colored stone passageways and down a narrow staircase, she led him through the house toward the bottom floor of Ashley Court. She walked beneath an archway and along a passage. As she went, she trailed a finger across the cool, rough rock and inhaled the musty scent of the oldest foundation of the house.
She loved everything about the old castle, from the huge square turrets of the original foundation to the steep roofs of the additions made over the years, from the stale dampness of her workshop to the slope of the gardens leading to the ocean that battered the dark cliffs.
Entering a small room, she stepped over to a makeshift table composed of long, rough wooden planks on sawhorses and plunked the paintbrush into the tin can of thinner already filled with numerous other brushes.
She turned to find him studying her small, cluttered, windowless space. His faint sneer indicated her workspace had failed to impress.
The wooden worktable, tall to accommodate her height, took up most of the area. Tools, wallpaper swatches, and the start of a valance were scattered about. Rolls and bolts of various décor materials were stacked along the walls and into the corners. Shelves held her equipment, and in one corner sat a small table she used as a desk and sewing area.
“Is this what you were given as an office?”
“No, I requested it. It’s quiet and out of the way. I often work late at night, and here I don’t disturb anyone.”
He scanned the room again. “I think we should find somewhere else to talk. Let’s go to my office.”
His office? He already had an office in the manor? How long did he plan to stay?
“What’s going on here?” Her voice rose, betraying her alarm. “Mrs. Townsend said you were coming by to review my work and look at the books. Is there something I should know about?”
“Ms. Andrews—May I call you Mallory? I’m afraid there’s more to my visit than that.” He directed his hand toward the door. “Let’s go upstairs.”
She moved some papers around on her desk, giving herself a moment to think. “If I’m going to be area I need to check with my workers first. I’ve new instructions for them based on my inspection. I’ll meet you in five minutes.”
Exhaling in impatience, he checked his watch a third time. “Very well. I’m staying in the Master’s Room, using the sitting area as an office. We can talk without interruption there.”
“I’d prefer to meet elsewhere.”
His mobile rang. “Yes. No. I…” He looked down at the phone.
“Sorry, there isn’t great service down here.”
He held up the phone. “I’ve got to return this call. I’ll expect you in my office in ten minutes. What I have to say doesn’t need to be overheard by the staff.” He stalked out.
Mallory pursed her lips, suspecting she wouldn’t like the conversation to come, then hurried to the chapel to meet with her workers.
At the tentative knock on the door, Evan called, “Enter.” He returned to his phone conversation as he studied the open laptop on the newly repositioned writing table. He’d rearranged the room to his liking. A portable wifi printer sat nearby on a side table. He found the file he needed and relayed the information. Ending the call, he glanced toward the door.
Mallory stood near the opening. She took his breath away. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—and he’d seen plenty of stunning women. To make her more intriguing, he’d found her on scaffolding doing manual labor.
Her jean-clad legs seemed to go on forever, and it was difficult not to stare. However, he’d no intention of getting involved with someone his grandma hired to redecorate her failing hotel. Refocusing his thoughts, he waved Mallory to the wing-backed chair now facing the desk. He remained in the matching chair he’d placed behind the desk.
Despite his reluctance to agree to the continuation of her work, he had to concede that Mallory had exquisitely and comfortably refurnished the entire master suite, including the adjoining bedroom. Although the exterior remained stately, Ashley Court had been horribly run-down inside the last time he’d seen it.
That had been ten years ago, right before he’d walked these halls for the final time after an argument with his grandma over converting Ashley Court into an exclusive hotel. Their heated discussion had led to them parting ways. The manor house had been one of a long list of reasons he’d exited Townsend Notable Hotels and his grandma’s life. Her vision for the family business and his had been poles apart. Evan still couldn’t fathom his grandma’s obsession to continue dumping money into this historical building with no hope of any significant return on the investment.
When the chairman of the board of Townsend Notable had contacted him about a possible hostile takeover if something wasn’t done about his grandma’s spending, Evan hadn’t been surprised. He’d seen it coming for years.
To hold that threat off, the board had voted for Evan to conduct an outside review. The chairman said his grandma had agreed. They wished for him to start with Ashley Court, the largest drain on finances. Even with the strained relationship between him and his grandma, he’d agreed, feeling an obligation to his family heritage. Evan hoped to find a way to stop the hemorrhage of money that would satisfy both the board and Grandma. He hated to see her lose what she loved the most—her business. Regardless of their estrangement, she was family, and he respected her achievements. Handling Ashley Court—and Ms. Mallory Andrews—would go a long way toward stemming the flow.
Mallory floated—the best description he could find to describe the lithe way she crossed the Oriental rug—and settled on the edge of the chair. He shook his head, clearing it enough to focus. “Did you speak to your workers?”
“Yes.” She pushed at a strand of hair that could only be its natural color, because it was such an unusual shade. Somewhere between tawny and sun-streaked blonde.
“Good. Then we’ll get started.”
Her expectant blue eyes focused on him.
“Mallory, I’m aware Grandma hired your firm to decorate, but I’m afraid she no longer needs your services.”
“It’s design.” She jumped to her feet. Her eyes turned wild. “Townsend Notable Hotels has a contract with Historical Restorations and Designs, legally obligating the company to allow me to complete the project as agreed upon. Besides, Mrs. Townsend said nothing about terminating this job when she visited. In fact, we discussed a number of new ideas during her visit.”
How like his grandma not to let on that there might be an issue. Though he was not known for his tact, Evan attempted a calming tone. “Please sit, and I’ll explain.”
He waited until Mallory perched on the edge of the chair once more, looking as if she’d spring up at any wrong word.
“Grandma’s health has been failing over the past few months.” Or so he had been told by associates.
Mallory’s look of concern assured him that she’d at least listen, although her jaw remained tight.
He chose his words with care. “I was asked to evaluate your progress and decide what needs to be completed to bring the project back under budget or to find a good stopping place. I’m aware you’ve invested a great amount of time and energy into this project. However, I’m not convinced that more of your time or my grandma’s money is necessary. You’ve done wonders with the rooms I’ve seen, but to be frank, I don’t think enough people will pay the prices needed to justify the maintenance costs. They’ll stay in less expensive hotels located nearby. With no increase in price, it’s questionable if Ashley Court can remain profitable.” He relaxed in his chair. “I tried to get my grandma to understand that modernization was what we needed to do years ago, but she refused to listen. Now she’s throwing good money after bad with this renovation, I fear.”
Mallory studied him. “I know who you are. You’re that Evan Townsend. Of Townsend Inns.”
Her tone implied that he and his inns were beneath contempt. “I am. Have you ever stayed at one of my inns?”
“Yes. Once.” Her nose didn’t turn up, but her tone remained matter-of-fact, as if delivering a news report.
“You didn’t enjoy your stay?”
“I found it a little sterile for my taste.”
He leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk. “Really?”
“The same economical-style bed in an impersonal room in every town, in every country. Spending the night away should exceed or at least equal your bedroom at home. When people stay at Ashley Court, they’ll experience a night to remember, not a feeling of having rented a section of a production line.”
Evan blinked. That was harsh. “Some people like knowing what to expect in a hotel. My rooms are affordable.”
“You’re right. Sadly, for some people, your inns are all they can afford. I’ll say you did have a nice person working the front desk.”
“Thank you for that, at least.” He let his mouth twitch for a second before he turned solemn again.
“However, others want a relaxing experience when they travel. Mrs. Townsend understands that. All her hotels are wonderfully unique overnight adventures. I’ve made it a point to stay in one whenever I travel.”
“I appreciate your passion for Townsend Notable, but that doesn’t change the fact that this location hasn’t been competitive for a while. The question is, are the renovations fiscally feasible? If they aren’t…” He let the other option dangle between them unspoken. “I’d like to see all your expense reports and invoices. And I’ll be approving any future spending in advance.”
“I have orders already placed. I’m expecting deliveries today.”
Apparently, Mallory wasn’t going to make this simple. He had no intention of arguing over the issue. “We’ll look at those orders together as soon as possible and determine whether to keep them or return them.”
“Evan.” She repeated his name as if it had a sour taste. “The suppliers and I have developed a relationship. I can’t return things willy-nilly. I’ve a reputation to uphold. HRD does as well.”
“I’m aware. Unfortunately, as of now, I’m responsible for making sound financial decisions for this hotel. My fiscal responsibilities overrule your professional pride.”
She stiffened more with each of his words, which drew his attention to her T-shirt, stamped with the HRD logo, tightening across her breasts. She had all the right assets. He brought his gaze back to hers.
After taking a deep breath, she said with a terse tone, “I need to finish the next set of rooms. May I wrap those up?”
“How many are involved?”
His elbows went to the desk as he intertwined his fingers and rested his chin on them. “With those complete, there would be twenty to let. Which rooms? All the ones I’ve inspected appear complete.”
“Three need pictures, others pillows and rugs. I’ve a special chest of drawers ordered for one. All those items should be here within the week. Another five rooms are in the process of being papered and having bath fixtures installed. A couple will need beds, chairs, etc.”
“As I’ve said, when the items arrive you should let me know. I’d like to inspect the invoices before accepting delivery.” He pursed his lips. “I do need more rooms available. The hotel must look like a viable piece of property.”
“Viable?” Her voice rose as she gripped the edge of the desk with both hands. “Are you planning on selling Ashley Court?”
“I’m considering it. In any event, costs must be cut immediately.”
She stood. “You can’t do that! It’d kill Mrs. Townsend. She loves this place.”
“I’m all too aware of that. Please sit, Mallory.” She certainly felt passionate about the hotel and her work. Did that extend to other areas of her life?
She lowered to the chair, once more sitting as if she’d a rod in her spine.
Why would selling the hotel matter so much to her? “When I agreed to do the evaluation, I made it clear to the board that selling might be necessary. This place is bleeding Townsend Notable Hotels dry, slowly killing Grandma’s company. I’ll gladly sell it to keep the board from forcing her out or into bankruptcy.”
“She said nothing about there being any problems.”
“I’m sure that’s true. You’re not the only one with pride. In spite of her success and focus, she has a soft spot for Ashley Court. She’s never understood that pouring money into a building this old isn’t a sound business practice.”
“But you do.” Her words had an accusatory bite.
Weary of the conversation, he announced, “If the manor’s sold, your company will be compensated for the breach of contract. You’ll be well paid. I’ll also see to it that you and your firm receive positive recommendations. I’ve some influence in the hotel business world, and I’ll gladly pass along your name to anyone looking to do renovations.”
He glanced around the room. “By the way, are you responsible for decorating this room?”
She nodded, her gaze fixated on him.
“Very nice. I like the hunting motif. It works well for Ashley Court. Did you know that many members of the royal family have stayed here?”
Her proud eyes pierced him, rendering him immobile. “I do my homework. I’ve lived here for almost the entire summer, over three months. I understand Ashley Court and the history surrounding it to the finest detail. You, apparently, have no idea I’m a professional, with an excellent education and the hard work and experience to back the title up.”
“If everything’s done to this quality, perhaps I’ll hire you for another project after we wrap this up.”
Her chin shifted forward, eyes snapping. “Doing what?”
“Furnishing the new Townsend Inn that I’m building in Falmouth.”
She expelled a sound of disgust. Watching her reactions could make staying at the manor enjoyable. Normally, he wasn’t a betting man, but her brand of beauty, brains, and grit made an interesting trifecta he might like to explore.
“I’ll think about it.” She stood slowly. “If we’re done here, I’ve work to do. I’ll let you know when the truck arrives.”
“Please remind your workers of safety procedures and leave your paperwork on my desk if I’m not here.”
She nodded curtly. “My workers are aware of all safety issues and requirements.”
“Good, then you understand you’re not to go up again without a harness.”
She glared at him, then turned to leave.
Her long, sleek arms swung at her sides as she glided with a regal form toward the door. Her heel to toe placement added extra flair to her tantalizing hip movement. Angering her every time they met might not be a bad idea if he got to watch her walk away. Too much of that pleasure might drive him mad with desire.
Mallory knocked on the door of the Master’s Room. If everything went her way, Evan would be busy elsewhere. All she wanted to do was drop off the invoices and get back to her workroom. Hearing no response, she rapped harder. Still no answer. He had told her to leave the invoices on the desk.
She peeked through the door. No Evan. A relieved sigh escaped her. Thank goodness she wouldn’t have to deal with him again so soon. He’d probably gone to the dining hall for dinner. She stepped to the desk.
Motion caught her attention. Evan stood beside the bed with damp hair and a bare chest.
She sucked in a breath. The two-inch-thick folder slipped from her hand, and papers fluttered to the floor like large snowflakes. A flash of heat swamped her body before the first invoice hit the floor.
Gorgeous. Mallory couldn’t pull her gaze away from his well-developed physique. Air entered and left too quickly through her gaping mouth. He must work out. Regularly. The dark suit he’d worn earlier had disguised the true breadth of his shoulders.
She’d been right. Those shoulders would’ve been capable of catching her if she’d fallen. Maybe next time. Heated moments of awareness ticked by. Her tongue slid across her parched lips.
His mouth curled into a sexy grin.
“Oh.” She had to say it twice. The first time she didn’t make a sound. “I didn’t think you were here.”
“Apparently not.” Evan turned to snatch a polo shirt off the bed.
Mallory watched in fascination as the muscles of his arms and back rippled as he pulled the fabric over his head.
He walked toward her, running his fingers through his hair. A smile of complete male confidence curved his lips. He knew exactly the effect he had on her, and he enjoyed it. To his credit, he didn’t rub her nose in it.
Her heart somersaulted. While modeling, she’d seen any number of fine-looking men in various stages of undress, but none had caused this unintelligent reaction. Where was her control? She’d spent years trying to convince people she wasn’t a brainless bimbo. Now, she’d turned into one. Move, do something, say something.
“Mallory, we need to gather these papers if you expect me to go through them.”
“Uh… yeah. I’ll do that.” She hoped she’d managed to cover the redness that crept into her face when she dropped to her knees. With careful precision, she started picking up the sheets.
Evan came to one knee beside her.
She stretched to reach for a page, and as she did, she could smell the citrus scent of the hotel soap, mixed with Evan’s own essence. She fought the temptation to move closer, inhale deeper.
They both went after a single invoice that had landed under the desk. Mallory’s fingers grazed his. She jerked away as if she’d touched a hot pot. Looking was okay, touching wasn’t.
Evan’s touch contradicted reason—less threatening, more exciting.
Scrambling to her feet, she set the papers on the desktop and tried to put them in order.
Evan rose in a smooth movement and stood beside her. “You don’t have to be quite so rough on those.” He handed her some invoices.
Taking the papers, she made sure their hands didn’t meet a second time. She added his stack to the others taking care to secure them in the folder. “I think that’s all.” She looked at him from under hooded lids. “Thanks for your help.”
“Not a problem.” He took the folder. “Let’s go over these now, if you don’t mind. I think we should review them before we play fifty-two pick up again.”
An attempt at humor? She hadn’t expected that. He hadn’t berated her for the mess. Could there be a chance she could charm him into rethinking the sale of the hotel?
He moved behind the desk. “Have you had dinner?”
“Uh…no.” She hadn’t planned on spending that kind of time with him. Still in her work clothes, she needed a bath and time to fortify herself. Yet she didn’t want him to think she’d taken special pains to look good for him. Building his ego was the last thing she wanted to do. They were meeting for business, she needed to keep it that way.
“Neither have I. Why don’t I have something brought up from the restaurant, and we’ll get started on the invoices? It looks like it might take a while to work through these.”
Mallory hadn’t imagined she’d be reviewing paperwork with him tonight. A man who strained her nerves. One who also threatened to put her out of a job, or miss her chance at an award she desperately hoped to win. Despite being out of sorts from her reaction to him, she’d no idea how she could diplomatically get out of agreeing. “No, I’ve no plans until nine.”
He glanced at her. “What happens then?”
“I’ve a weekly business meeting with my partners.” She met his look with a direct one of her own.
“Then we need to get started.” Evan moved a chair next to him on his side of the desk. He indicated with an open hand that she should take it. “Have a seat, and we’ll get started.”
Mallory gave him an uncertain look and primly took the seat.