She shook her head as if she could shake off the last vestiges of that dream. “Staying here is more important for our family.”
“You keep talking about what’s more important for everyone else, but what about what’s important for you? You want this job. Take it.”
Freedom and obligation. Want and need. Change and the status quo. Each scared the shit out of her. “Pops, I can’t—“
“Live your life for everyone else.”
“What about all this?” She waved her hands out to encompass all things Jacobs Fine Furnishings related.
He settled back into the chair, picked fuzz from the pumpkin-colored sweater that had to be almost as old as she was, and shrugged. “We’ll manage.”
“What about the bet?”
“Me and my fool mouth.” Her dad’s lips compressed into a straight line. “It’s been a while since I’ve tangled with the wood pile, but I doubt I’ve lost my touch.”
She glanced down at his gnarled hands bearing the scars of his years of woodworking experience. They shook a bit, even when he tried to mask the stroke’s afteraffects by holding his cane, even while sitting. “No. Let me.”
“You saying I can’t hold my own with the sander?” He winked like the whole thing was a joke.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
It wasn’t a joke. It was his livelihood—not to mention the twice monthly paychecks of a couple dozen of Salvation’s working class citizens. Times were tough, and their skills were specialized. Finding another job would mean relocation at the best and a low-wage, dead-end job at the worst. If Gabe won and closed the company, it wasn’t just her parents who would pay.
“I’ll do it.” Her voice came out a lot firmer than she thought possible.
Her dad eyeballed her with the clear focus of a man used to getting his way. “On one condition.”
Now this sounded more like the man who’d finagled his way into business with some of the most luxurious boutique hotels in the country. Caution tempered her excitement. “What’s that?”
“Afterward, no matter what happens, you take that job in Harbor City.”
Her heart stuttered like a cold engine. “Pops…” She reached across the desk and wrapped her fingers around his arthritic ones, rubbing her thumb across the calluses earned with decades of hard work that hadn’t softened with age.
“Baby Girl, I know you’ve waited to tell me because you thought you were protecting me, but I’m telling you now, I am a grown man and a proud father. The last thing in the world I want is for you to be miserable in Salvation when you could be happy somewhere else.”
Judging by the soft, caring look on his face, he really meant it. He was setting her free.
“I love you, Pops.” Her voice cracked from emotion and gratitude.
“The feeling’s mutual, Baby Girl.” He squeezed her hand and winked. “Now, what kind of furniture are you going to make to win this bet?”
The barn was just as Dell had described it over the phone. A huge, red behemoth at the intersection of two highways. The sun had dipped low in the western sky, its warm rays receding with each second and reminding Gabe of last night’s trek through the snow. There wasn’t a flake falling anywhere in the vicinity, but he couldn’t shake the sense of déjà vu creeping across his skin under his thick wool coat. But this time, he wasn’t on the hunt for shelter, he was looking for redemption—and forgiveness.
Maybe it was because of his cousin’s call and his father’s .14 blood alcohol content. Maybe it was because he’d had time to process the news about his biological dad. Maybe it was because standing in Keisha’s office, facing down his nemesis, he’d realized that Dell Jacobs wasn’t just a faceless bad guy who needed to be punished. He was an old man with a droopy cheek and a company circling the drain.
Or maybe it was because what had driven him to Salvation hadn’t been the need for retribution, but the sound of Keisha’s honeyed voice that had fueled way too many late-night fantasies over the past six months.
Fuck. What if Carlos was right?
Leaving his now refueled—he would not be telling Carlos about that—Aston Martin on the gravel drive next to a heavy-duty pickup truck, he trudged to the propped-open door on the side of the barn. The smell of fresh cut wood hit him as soon as he crossed the threshold. The woodsy scent of pine and the pungent smell of red oak were heaviest with a hint of walnut floating underneath. Damn, he loved it. Making something out of a few sticks was a lot like investing. He took a company that hadn’t achieved its full potential and built it up until it shined like freshly-applied varnish.
He turned the corner and almost ran smack dab into the step ladder Keisha stood on, pulling to a stop at the last moment. But it was too late. Keisha whipped her body around, shaking the ladder. She wobbled on her perch on the fifth step. The ladder went left. Keisha went right.
Acting on instinct, Gabe reached out and caught her in his arms, tucking her close as the ladder clanged against the concrete floor. His right hand curled around her luscious ass, and it took everything he had not to squeeze the succulent flesh. Her arms tangled around his neck, ensnaring him in her sensual almond scent and scattering every intelligent thought in his head.
She looked up, her wide, brown eyes unsure but hungry. “Gabe,” she whispered.
A man could get drunk off her voice. Shit, he felt like he already had. His hands glided over her voluptuous curves as he lowered her to the ground, unable to let go even when her feet touched the floor. Anticipation buzzed in the air between them, holding them in place like magnets.
Neither of them spoke.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even remember his own name as want barreled through him like a runaway train. He couldn’t deny it any longer. He hadn’t come to Salvation for revenge, not completely. When he’d pulled his Aston Martin onto the interstate, he’d come for her. This woman—his woman, his body demanded—she undid him.
“Baby Girl, are you okay?” Dell wheezed as he rounded the corner, suspicion and worry drawing crevices in his forehead.
It was the face of a concerned father, not a villain. Gabe hadn’t gotten as rich as he was by ignoring the sixth sense that weeded out the truth from the facade.
Whatever had transpired between his real dad and Dell hadn’t caused the accident. He knew it in his gut as surely as he knew the attraction between himself and Keisha was more than just about fucking a hot chick. With her sass and her savvy she’d shown him over the past six months, she challenged him and kept him coming back for more.