Excerpt: Love Me
Book 2: Reality TV Romance Series
“SOLD.” CARTER JAMES stared at the Clifton Park, New York 1970s split-level house and imagined the For Sale sign he’d place in the middle of the yard. Between what the house was currently worth and what his competitor would do to it during the renovation, he could easily calculate the numbers. The homeowners would have the additional income to move into something bigger, better and would be insane not to list their house. He had this one in the bag, no matter how great the renovation, no matter how much magic his competition weaved into her design.
And here she comes now.
Brynn Dawson pulled her late nineties Ford Bronco alongside the curb. Every time he saw that SUV anger and frustration seeped into his chest. She shouldn’t have had to sell her Audi, but thanks to her ex, she’d been forced to sell off a lot of things to help with her debt. For what that piece of shit, Trevor, had put her through, Carter would love nothing more than to slam Trevor’s smug face into the wall. He wouldn’t, though. Well, he would if he knew for a fact he could get away with it and not have assault charges brought against him. He did have a reputation to maintain.
Focused now on the Bronco, he waited for her to step out of it. Seconds later, a long leg dangled from the driver’s side door. Creamy and toned, he’d spent more time than he’d ever admit fantasizing about what it would be like to touch her, taste her, feel those long legs wrapped around his back.
His heart rate sped up when the rest of her curvy figure exited the vehicle. A hot breeze tossed her wavy, strawberry blonde hair and she sent him a big smile. The woman had no idea how crazy he was about her. He wanted to tell her, see if she felt anything for him beyond their friendship, but there’d never been a right time. They’d met three years ago when they both signed on to do the reality show, Renovate or Relocate. During the years they’d known each other, she’d been either engaged or going through a major split.
Normally he had no qualms when it came to going after what he wanted. And he wanted Brynn. In this instance, he’d forced himself to be patient and bide his time. Although her ex had broken her financially, he hadn’t broken her tenacious spirit. But Trevor and all the crap he’d put her through had left her distracted. Being preoccupied with her ex’s threats and attorney had, unfortunately, bled into her renovations. Carter didn’t want to add to her list of distractions. When he let her know his true feelings, he wanted her clear headed and free and clear of her ex. He pictured slamming Trevor into the wall again. Even though she was no longer engaged, her ex still stood in the way.
“Home sweet home,” Brynn said as she made her way toward him and looked at the split-level house. “This one is all mine.”
Her perfume, something sweet and citrusy caught on the breeze and made him want to haul her into his arms and find out if she tasted as good as she smelled. “Don’t get too cocky,” he said with a smile. “We haven’t seen the inside.”
She eyed the meticulously manicured hedges and flourishing flowerbeds. “It can’t be that bad, not with the way the yard looks.”
“Famous last words,” he said and arched a brow. Although he loved her optimism, he’d seen the house’s floor plan. She might have mad design skills, but it would take a miracle and a hell of a lot of money to turn this home into what the family needed. Which included an extra bedroom and more square footage.
“Now who’s being cocky?” She glanced over her shoulder. “Why is Derek here?”
Derek Delmont, Renovate or Relocate’s producer, stood next to his rented black Cadillac talking on his cell phone.
“Not sure. He’s been on the phone since I’ve been here.”
“Looks like he’s not anymore,” she said and waved to the producer.
Derek pocketed his cell phone and approached them. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Jim and his camera crew are on the way and should be here any minute. You know the drill. They’ll do some shots outside, then follow you into the house.” He handed Carter the keys to the split-level. “From there, it’s business as usual.” His cell phone rang, but he ignored it. “Brynn, I’d like to have a word before I go.”
Carter met Brynn’s questioning eyes before she followed Derek to his Cadillac. Instead of staring after them, Carter looked to the split-level and then glanced at the neighboring homes. While trying to act nonchalant, his mind and heart raced. Derek rarely showed up on the set. With the number of shows he produced, he didn’t have the time. Derek’s reason for being here today not only piqued his curiosity, but had him on edge. He’d been worried about Brynn, and about the way she’d allowed what had been going on in her personal life to affect her professionally.
This episode of Renovate or Relocate would mark the show’s season finale. They’d already done seven shows and of the seven, only two homeowners had loved Brynn’s designs and decided to stay in their newly renovated homes. Was that what Derek wanted to talk to her about? With that question in mind, he allowed his curiosity to get the better of him. Pretending to retrieve something from his SUV, he watched the exchange between Derek and Brynn.
The hope and excitement brightening her pretty face only moments ago had vanished. With her brow puckered and her mouth twisted in a frown, she hugged herself. Whatever Derek was saying couldn’t be good news. Tension coiled through Carter’s body and sank its claws into his shoulders. Brynn didn’t need another blow. Not to her ego and certainly not her finances. While he wasn’t privy to what she made—on the show or with her off-air clientele—she’d made it clear that her ex was forcing her to drain her bank account. Between her attorney’s fees and what she owed Trevor, Carter doubted she could afford to lose her job as the TV show’s designer.
Derek pushed off the Cadillac and approached Brynn, resting a hand on her shoulder. She gave the producer a small smile and nodded. Still hugging herself, she remained near the curb even after Derek drove away.
Anxious to hear what Derek said, Carter closed the Infiniti’s door and met her at the end of the driveway. “Everything okay?” he asked just as a van pulled along the curb. Jim jumped out of the passenger side, while one of the cameramen exited the back of the van.
“Oh, yeah.” She clenched her jaw and thinned her lips in a tight smile. “Everything’s fine. No worries.”
She’s lying. Based on her rigid posture and the way she rapidly blinked, as if trying not to cry, his gut tightened with concern and suspicion. “From where I stood it seemed like—”
“Hey, guys,” Jim called as he headed down the sidewalk to the driveway. “You ready?”
Carter leaned in, fought the urge to hold her. Whatever burden Derek had added to her shoulders, she didn’t have to handle it on her own. A born fixer, he’d find out what had transpired between her and the producer and make it go away. “We’ll discuss this later,” he said, stepped back and smiled at Jim. “As always, just waiting on you.”
When Carter pulled away, Brynn struggled to keep her knees from buckling. After the bomb Derek just dropped on her, the sudden need to lean on Carter and soak up the strength and confidence he oozed, overwhelmed her. What Derek had told her had left her stunned. And worried.
I’m going to be replaced.
Her stomach knotted. She could not lose her job. Only ten thousand dollars away from being out from under Trevor’s thumb and with no Plan B, she needed to remain part of Renovate or Relocate. But because only two families had chosen to stay in their homes after her renovation, Derek had been forced to give her an ultimatum. The sponsors of the show weren’t happy that appliances they’d either donated or discounted weren’t being featured enough or weren’t appealing enough to keep the families from leaving. As for the viewers, according to Derek, the show used to have hundreds of thousands of applicants wanting to participate on the show. That number had dwindled by the thousands each time she lost to Carter.
Now, she had to do her best to ensure the owners of this split-level stayed in their house and didn’t purchase whatever home Carter found for them. Otherwise, she was out of a job.
Her throat tightened and her eyes burned. She ground her teeth and willed herself not to cry. At least not now. Later, when she was back at the kitchenette suite she would use during the duration of the show, she’d let the tears fall. For now, she had to maintain her game face. In a few minutes, she would have to go in front of the cameras and would prefer to do so without raccoon eyes.
Jim took the house key from Carter. “Then let’s do this,” the director said. “We’ve got two weeks and no time to waste.”
She snapped to attention. No. She would not go down without a fight. Fortunately, Jim was the only member of the crew aware of her potential firing. She was thankful no one else knew, especially Carter. While he was the competition, they were also friends and she cared what happened to him. If she were to be replaced, he could be affected, too. Who’s to say Derek wouldn’t simply clean house and start fresh?
She couldn’t let that happen and needed to kick some serious butt and save her career. She’d been down before. Hell, thanks to Trevor, she was still down. But she’d never been out. Not yet, hopefully not ever.
After Jim stepped away, Carter moved next to her. The intensity in his dark eyes had that urge to lean against him returning with a fury. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, his tone quiet and skeptical.
Clearing her throat, she straightened her shoulders. “Sure, I’m sure.” She plastered on a smile and glanced at Jim, who waved them over. “Time to do this,” she said and worried Carter would read between the lies, she walked toward the director.
Jim had brought Vic and Larry with him. Vic was to film them outside of the house, while Larry had already taken the key from Jim and made his way into the home. After Vic adjusted his camera, Jim directed her and Carter. He had them do their typical opening. When she normally faced the camera and did the walk up the driveway, she had hope in her heart and a fire in her belly. Her hope had died after her discussion with Derek, but the fire in her belly remained. She had to succeed with this house. If the homeowners decided to sell it, even after what she did for them, she was in serious trouble. No ten thousand dollar bonus, no job, no source of income, major debt…big trouble.
After they finished the walk up the driveway, they stopped at the front door, turned and faced each other with their arms crossed. At this point, Carter usually wore an arrogant grin, while his eyes held a hint of playfulness. Their competition was good-natured, not serious. With her job on the line, along with the ten thousand dollar bonus that would eliminate her debt to Trevor, the competition was now serious. According to Derek, Carter didn’t know this. Yet instead of wearing his usual self-assured smile for the camera, his mouth was set in a grim line and his eyes weren’t playful, but instead, filled with what she considered anxiety and maybe suspicion.
“Cut,” Jim said and motioned to Vic. “Didn’t you two get your caffeine ration this morning?” He shook his head. “That was lame. Let’s try again.”
They went through the same routine two more times, until Jim finally gave them the okay. “Good.” He nodded. “We’re right on schedule.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay, Vic, head inside and work the opposite angles to Larry.”
Carter opened the front door and Brynn’s stomach rolled.
Please let this house be okay. Nothing major. Nothing earthshattering. Please let this house be okay. Nothing major. Nothing earthshattering.
The mantra filtered through her head as she walked over the threshold, then it came to an abrupt halt. Hope filled her empty stomach as she glanced around the foyer.
“Don’t get excited,” Carter said. “Yes, there’s a lot of space for a family of six, but I see a lot of wasted space.”
He was right about that, but it was hard not to be excited. The foyer was great. Hardwood floors led to a tiled floor in the kitchen. She’d fix that if it was on the homeowner’s list and make the transition less choppy. Regardless, the space was open and airy with high ceilings and a lovely chandelier hanging in the foyer. To her right, she found a coat closet. To her left, an enormous living room that led into a formal dining room. Both were tastefully carpeted and painted with neutral colors.
“It’s kind of hard not to get excited,” she said. “This space might be wasted now, but with a few tweaks, I’ll make it work.”
“Yeah, well, let’s check out the kitchen.”
Larry walked backward into the kitchen and kept the camera aimed on them, while she caught Vic in her peripheral vision coming along the side. When she stepped into the kitchen, her earlier excitement deflated.
“Hello?” Carter used his hand as if it were an imaginary phone. “Is this 1975? Yeah, we’ve found your kitchen. You can have it back.” He shoved his hand in his pocket. “Just saying.”
She grinned. “I’ll admit, it’s small, but with a little of this and a little of that…” Seriously. That’s all she needed to do. Blow out the wall to the dining room, add some extra cabinets on the free wall, maybe put in an island. Piece of cake. She looked out the kitchen window. “Oh, wow. Fenced in backyard, big shed, beautiful landscaping. Looks like the homeowners spent a lot of time on their yard. That’ll be hard to walk away from.”
He frowned. “So the yard is great, who cares? I’ll find them a new one. Let’s head downstairs. I’ve seen the specs on this house. It’s not pretty.”
While she hadn’t seen the home’s specs, she’d been in enough split-levels to have a general idea of what was waiting for her. The downstairs family room didn’t disappoint. Roomy, with a nice fireplace, she could see the family spending loads of time in this space, especially once she’d given it a little updating. She looked to her right, saw the large laundry room and sent Carter what she hoped was a self-assured smile. “I’d say this was very pretty.” Are you kidding me? The room was huge, with decent cabinets and a modern washer and dryer. She didn’t see one thing she’d change.
“This house has a partial basement,” Carter said and nodded to his left. “There are six people in this family. They should have a full basement they could use for storage and a nice rec area.”
She craned her neck and grew more confident. “Looks like plenty of space to me.” Although one side was cluttered with boxes, a big workbench and tools, the other side was being used as a small rec area. Furniture from the 1980s sat on top of remnant carpeting, which was littered with tons of kids’ toys. Aware of the camera and her role on the show, she grinned, then sniffed. “Is that fear I’m smelling?”
He half-smiled, while his eyes glittered with amusement. “Ah, you’re mistaken. That’s the smell of victory. You haven’t seen the half bath and downstairs bedroom. Come on.”
He led her back into the family room and down a short hallway. The half bath was typical and updated. “Okay,” he said. “So the powder room is fine. But what about this?” He opened the closed door at the end of the hallway. “Holy…yep.” He sniffed. “That’s definitely victory you were smelling.”
The homeowners were using the bedroom as an office. A very cluttered, disorganized office with ugly, outdated furniture. “Some shelving units here and there, then voila. A very useable room.” She followed him back up the stairs. “Seriously, Carter, you’re reaching. This house is in great shape.”
He stopped at the steps leading to the upstairs level where she hoped to find four bedrooms. Holding the rails, he turned to her and raised his dark brows. “This house is in great shape for a family of four. Let me show you why.”
Damn. Normally she didn’t care that he had the upper hand and could look at the home’s specs before she did. But she needed this house to be easy. She needed to make this family want to stay.
She smiled despite her wavering confidence. “Please do.”
When they reached the top landing, she looked to her left. “The master bedroom?”
“You got it,” he said and followed her inside.
Larry was already in the room filming. She didn’t have to mask her emotions for the camera because the room was large with plenty of space. It also had a good-sized, walk-in closet with built-in shelves. “Still not seeing a problem.”
Carter walked to the far corner of the room and pointed to an opened door. “Sure about that.”
She met him at the door and peeked inside. “So it’s small for a master bathroom.” Very small. Actually, the bathroom reminded her more of a closet with a shower, toilet and sink shoved inside.
Carter looked directly at the camera and sniffed. “I’m really smelling victory now.”
She brushed past him, her eyes on the camera’s lens. “Notice how he’s smelling victory near the bathroom? Kinda makes you wonder…”
Larry grinned and held the camera steady. She walked out of the room and was met by Vic, who had his camera aimed on her as he moved backward. “I see they have a full bathroom.” She looked inside, and while it wasn’t the biggest bathroom, it had been updated and worked.
“Yes, I know. This house has two full baths and a half bath. Which is great, again, for a family of four.” He stepped in front of one of the two closed doors at the end of the hallway. “Here’s why.”
When he opened the door, she did have to mask her disappointment this time. Clearly a boys room and clearly being shared by three of them, the room was small and claustrophobic. Bunk beds were along one wall and a full-sized bed flanked the other. There was barely enough space to move between beds, and the closets were shallow and offered no storage. Not good. This room wasn’t built to house three kids.
“Well?” Carter asked. “Smelling anything yet?”
“Just your overblown ego.”
He looked at the camera. “She’s making me self-conscious. I might have to change my cologne.”
Grinning, she opened the last bedroom door. While she loved the way Carter smelled, earthy, musky and very male, and even if the cameras weren’t on them, she would never tell him. Not because he had a big ego, he didn’t. But because he might end up with the wrong impression.
Or maybe the right one.
Yeah, and if she let him know she’d been thinking about him outside of the show, outside of their friendship, that could end up a total disaster. He’d never once hinted at being interested in her. If anything, since her break up with Trevor, he’d kept her at a distance. Besides, she didn’t have time to think about Carter in any way other than the competition. She had a house to design and a job to keep.
“Now do you see why this family needs to move?” he asked, his big body crowding her at the threshold of the small bedroom, undoubtedly used for a little girl. “The crib and dresser take up more than half the room. And look at the bookshelf.”
“It’s shaped like a doll house. I love it.”
“Yeah, and it takes up an entire corner of the room.”
She stepped inside and opened the closet. “Plenty of room here.”
“For a two year old,” he said. “But picture a teenage girl trying to fit all her clothes in there. Not going to happen.”
Remembering her own clothes fetish as a teenager, a fetish she’d carried into adulthood, she had to agree with him. Just not on camera. She maintained a poker face. “I think you’re wrong. I can make this house work for them.”
“Only with the right budget.”
“True. But before you become too smug for your own good, we need to meet with the homeowners and find out exactly what they need.” She turned off the bedroom light. “You haven’t seen their list of requirements for a new house or your budget.”
“Cut,” Jim said, then told Vic and Larry to take more footage of the house for the editing department to use. “The homeowners are Mario and Gina Milano.” He checked his watch. “They’re at the neighbor’s house across the street. Once Vic and Larry are finished, I’ll grab them.” He turned to her. “I told you I wanted Julia here by ten. I’ll need to get footage of you and her going through the house and coming up with your plan of attack after we’re done with the homeowners.”
Her assistant, Julia, was notoriously late for everything, which was why Brynn tended to give her the wrong time. “I told her to be here at nine thirty, so she should be right on schedule.”
Jim grinned. “Good. Take twenty, then we’ll get the Milanos in here.”
Carter took her by the elbow. “Come on. I’ve got something you’ll like.”
A ten thousand dollar check? A contract stating she wouldn’t be fired from the show? A magic wand to make Trevor disappear from her life for good? “What’s that? Plan to rub a list of homes you already found for the Milanos in my face?”
Carter cleared his throat and opened the car door, stunned she’d suggest such a ridiculous thing. “You know I wouldn’t rub anything in your face.” He reached inside and pulled out a small box. “Here.” He handed her the box, then grabbed the two coffees he’d bought on his way to the house. “I also got you one of these.”
The breeze tossed her curls across her cheeks. She stared at the contents inside the box. “Chocolate glazed donut holes?”
He gave her the cup. “And your other favorite, hazelnut coffee.”
“Thank you,” she said and gave him a smile, a smile that unfortunately didn’t reach her eyes.
He closed the car door and leaned against it. After setting the coffee on the roof of the car, she joined him and offered a donut hole. He snagged one. “So what was up with Derek?” he asked and popped the donut in his mouth.
“Nothing,” she said between bites. “I think what we did inside was good. Don’t you?”
“Jim didn’t complain, and you’re changing the subject.”
“Fine.” She reached for her coffee. “He wanted to go over my contract.”
“And what? He was just letting me know that my contract was up for renewal and there were a couple of new clauses added.” She lifted a shoulder. “No big deal.”
The worry in her eyes told him otherwise. But he wouldn’t press her now. Not before they had to go on camera again. If whatever Derek had said meant her job was on the line, she didn’t need him adding to her stress. She had one day to put a design plan together before handing it over to Grant Wallace, their lead contractor. From there, construction would begin, along with his house hunting.
“If you say so,” he said and took another donut. “But if you need to talk later, we can—”
“Look, Julia’s here.” She grabbed his wrist and looked at his watch. “It’s a Christmas miracle. She’s early.”
“Christmas in July,” he said when what he really wanted to do was toss her in the car and drive around until she told him the truth. He could be patient. Hell, he had been patient. From the moment they’d met, she’d intrigued him with her talent and quick wit, and infatuated him with her curves and sensual smile.
Julia approached them, rubbing her pregnant belly. “How bad is it?” she asked Brynn.
“Not too bad, unless the budget the homeowners give me is super small.” Brynn offered the box of donut holes to Julia. “Would baby care for a donut?”
Julia eyed the box. “I’m sure, but my belly and ass have been having a race to see which could get the biggest during the pregnancy. Unfortunately, my ass is winning. Thanks, anyway.”
Carter stole one of the donuts. “You look good.”
Julia looked to Brynn. “He’s such a liar.”
He hadn’t been lying. Julia was all belly. She was also about six weeks from giving birth. The timing of her pregnancy worked in Brynn’s favor. After this show, they would have a few months off before they started the new season, giving Julia ample time for maternity leave, while keeping Brynn from having to find a temporary replacement.
Jim stepped out of the house. “All set,” he said and marched past them. “Off to get the Milanos.”
“Tell me the truth,” Julia said to Brynn. “Is this going to be one of those renovation nightmares?”
“I hope not.” Brynn took one more donut and closed the box. “The biggest obstacle I see is finding room for all the kids.”
Julia’s blonde brows rose. “How many kids?”
“Geez. Four kids?” Julia touched her stomach. “I can’t imagine doing this three more times. I might be done at two, whether my husband likes it or—”
Shouts and laughter came from across the street. All three of them turned.
“Looks like the Milanos have invited the kids to join us.” Brynn brushed her hands together and turned to Carter. “Do I have anything on my face or in my teeth?”
He stared at her pretty face, then her full lips before examining her perfect teeth. “You look great.” Beautiful. Sexy.
She brushed a crumb off the lapel of his suit coat. “Not so bad yourself.”
“Hello? How about me?” Julia shoved her belly between them. “If anyone needs an ego boost it’s the fat, pregnant lady.”
Brynn tucked her arm through Julia’s. “You’re gorgeous, darling. When we get inside, there’s a couch in the living room. I want you to rest up. We’ve got some planning to do once we’re done talking with the family.”
Julia looked to him. “She’s ruthless.”
Three boys zipped past them. “I want to talk first,” one of them said.
“No way, I’m the oldest. Tell him, Mom. I get to—”
“Hush.” A big-haired bleached blonde narrowed her heavily mascaraed eyes and shifted a little girl in her arms. “If the three of you continue to act like a bunch of fools, you’ll stay outside until we’re finished.” She turned away from the boys and sent them a big smile. “Sorry about the boys, they’re really excited. I’m Gina and this is my husband, Mario.”
Mario towered over Carter, which was hard to do considering he was six foot three. He wondered how the man managed to do anything in the small master bathroom.
“Glad you guys are here,” Mario said and shook first his, then Brynn’s hand. “Gina thinks we need to move. Me? Not at all. Right, boys?”
All three kids shouted their agreement. Even the little girl clinging to Gina joined in, pulling her thumb from her mouth and yelling with her brothers.
Brynn nudged him. “Looks like you’re out numbered.”
“Yeah, well,” Gina began, “my vote is worth five, so we’re even.” She sized up Brynn. “There isn’t anything you can do to make me want to stay in this house.”
“Let’s save this for the cameras,” Jim said, then led the family toward their house. “So the kids will be joining us?”
“Is that a problem?” Gina asked, her husband and kids preceding her through the front door. “They have a say in where they live, too.”
“Not at all,” Jim said, looked over his shoulder at him and Brynn and rolled his eyes. “The more the merrier.”
Because the kitchen table could only seat six and the dining room table was covered in clutter, they were forced to sit in a circle on the living room carpet. Meanwhile, Julia and Jim took a seat on the couch and out of the cameras’ sight lines.
“Before we start.” Jim focused on each of the dark-haired, dark-eyed boys. “I’d like to get this done in one take. Understand?”
The boys looked to their mother, who arched a single, dark brow, and all three nodded.
“Good.” Jim waved to Vic and Larry. “Action.”
“Gina, Mario…kids.” Carter smiled. “This is a great family home, for the right family. Six people living with only three bedrooms is just too much. I’ve done an appraisal on your home and it’s valued at four hundred and thirty thousand.”
Gina looked to her husband. “That’s about what we figured.”
“Good. Now, if you could tell me your wish list for a new home and your budget, we can get started.”
Mario held up a sheet of notebook paper. “We’d like an open concept, five bedroom home with three full baths, a finished basement, big, fenced in backyard and large eat in kitchen. And we want it in Clifton Park.”
Yep. Carter could already see that For Sale sign on the Milanos’ lawn. Just yesterday he’d pulled up a bunch of listings for this quiet suburb located only thirty minutes from Albany and had found homes similar to what the family was looking for. Of course, those homes came at a cost. “And my budget?”
Mario handed him the list. “Five hundred thousand.”
“Excellent.” He turned to Brynn. “You’re up.”
“Thank you. Let me start by saying this is a great house. Mario, kids, I can see why you want to stay. But, Gina, I can also understand some of the frustrations you might have with your home. What do I need to do to get you to stay?”
Gina half-laughed. “Perform a miracle.” She looked at her list. “I’d like you to update the kitchen and make this floor plan more open by turning the living room into a usable area. Get rid of the bay window in the dining room and put in French doors out to the patio. Update the bookshelves and bar in the family room. Turn the half bath into a full bath. Finish the basement and increase the storage space. Oh, and an addition for an extra bedroom.”
Damn. Without a proper budget, Brynn was in trouble.
“And my budget?”
“While forty thousand is a lot of money, what you’re asking for might be difficult to do on that budget. An addition will wipe out the majority of that forty thousand and won’t allow me to do everything else you’ve asked for. Are you opposed to using the office as a bedroom?” Brynn asked. “Maybe for your oldest son?”
Gina glanced to the biggest of her three sons, who said, “I’m almost thirteen. I’m sick of sharing a room with these two turds.”
“Really?” Gina shook her head. “Did you have to go there?”
Brynn laughed. “I get it. My younger brothers were turds until they got out of high school. So, how about it? Can I do that?”
“Already taking things off the table, huh?” Gina gave Brynn a slight shrug. “I suppose. The people who end up buying this place can turn it back into an office once we’re out of here.”
“If we’re out of here,” Mario reminded his wife.
“Yeah, Mom,” the youngest boy said with exaggerated exasperation.
Brynn grabbed the boy’s sneaker and squeezed. “I’m going to do my best to keep you all here.”
“And I’m going to find you a house that will fit your family’s needs,” Carter said and smiled at Gina.
Jim stood. “Cut. Perfect. I can’t believe we got through that in one take. Good job, kids.” After the family stood, Jim ushered them out the door, telling them they had to film Brynn and Julia working up some sketches and that today would be their last day in residence until the renovation was complete.
Once the family left, Carter stood, too. “I’m heading back to the hotel. You two have fun trying to work with your massive budget.”
“Now who’s acting cocky?” Brynn asked and helped Julia off the couch. “My dry spell is over and I plan on winning this one.”
While he would love to earn the ten thousand dollar bonus at the end of the two week renovation and house hunt and help out his parents and brother, he actually hoped she’d win. He didn’t believe her earlier story about the reasons behind Derek taking her aside.
Something was going on, and he planned to find out what.
BRYNN CHANGED OUT of her summer suit and slipped into a pair of comfy, cotton shorts. After putting on a tank top, she threw her hair into a ponytail and padded barefoot into the kitchenette. Before Julia’s pregnancy, they’d usually go back to whatever suite Derek had rented for Brynn, crack open a bottle of wine and work on design schematics. Fortunately for Julia, the Milanos’ home wasn’t far from the one she shared with her husband. Unfortunately for Brynn, Julia pooped out early. Her pregnancy had been taking its toll lately, leaving Julia exhausted and irritable. Leaving Brynn on her own.
While she had the new layout designed for the split-level, she still needed to work on color schemes, carpet swatches, flooring and cabinetry. She rubbed her temple where a throb began to build. There was so much to do before meeting with Grant.
Rather than waste time thinking about what needed to be accomplished, she pulled out her design plans and laid them on the small couch. Deciding to start with the main level, she rummaged through her canvas tote and set the paint, flooring and carpet swatches on the coffee table. Or maybe she should start with the kitchen. She retrieved the counter top, back splash and cabinet samples.
As she sorted through the pile of samples, mixing and matching different ideas, her mind strayed. To what she’d do if she was booted from the show. To her debt. To Carter.
How would he feel if she were let go? And if she were to leave, who would be her replacement? The two of them had great chemistry and not just on camera. While they competed for a cash bonus, their competition was friendly. As much as she needed the money, she also knew Carter could use it, too. Although he had a healthy income outside of the show, he couldn’t afford to continue to help his parents pay for his autistic brother’s living expenses and treatments.
If she did lose her job, she wasn’t sure she could find another. Well, she could, but she doubted it would offer her the lucrative income she’d become accustomed to. She didn’t want to have to start over again. Working from the bottom to the top of a design firm was something she’d done before and could certainly do again.
At this point in her career, she shouldn’t be starting at the bottom, not with her resume, not with the clientele she’d designed for and definitely not after having been part of a hit television show. But after they’d broken up, Trevor had trashed her reputation just as badly as he’d trashed their relationship. Her past clientele had been his friends, his colleagues, not hers. Those people had chosen Trevor’s word over hers, and she understood. He’d been born into money and thanks to his family name, had power and influence in a number of different social and political circles. She, on the other hand, had grown up in a lower middleclass, blue-collar family. She had no power or influence, but had been proud of what she’d accomplished on her own. Even before she’d met Trevor, she’d made a small name for herself and had the portfolio and bank account to prove it. Well, she might no longer have the bank account, but she still had the portfolio. Would it be enough to help her land on her feet if she were replaced?
She stared at the four layouts she’d put together for the Milanos’ kitchen. Considering what four sets of grubby hands could do to white cabinetry, she pushed that layout aside. “What would you like, Gina?” She reached behind her and adjusted the lamp to increase the lighting. Kneeling, she rested her rear on her heels and hovered over the samples. “Cherry, dark maple or espresso?”
She jerked upright when a knock rattled the cheap hotel door. Hoping Julia ended up with a second wind and was here to help, she quickly moved to the door and checked the peephole.
Her stomach danced with butterflies, which, to her surprise, had been happening more and more over the past few months. She’d always been aware of Carter. Aware of his looks, his muscular body, how good he smelled. Lately she was thinking about him in ways that went beyond friendship. Which wasn’t good, especially with the anvil hanging over her head, ready to drop should the Milanos decide to move. Her focus needed to be on the show, not her love life or Carter.
He knocked again and she opened the door. Her mouth instantly watered. “I smell Chinese food.”
Holding up a brown paper bag, he gave her a devilish smile. “Tell me you didn’t eat.”
“Nope. But even if I did, I wouldn’t pass up Chinese.”
He brushed past her and went straight to the small kitchen. “I wasn’t sure if Julia would be here, so I bought extra. I take it she bailed on you.”
She took a seat at the island while he brought out a couple of plates. “She’s tired and grouchy. When we were at the flooring store I thought she was going to rip the sales guy a new one.”
“What’d he do?”
She grinned. “Said hello.”
He chuckled and set a plate in front of her. “That bastard. He had a lot of nerve.”
“Right. The poor guy didn’t know what to do with her. I didn’t either. Her mood swings have been off the charts.” She looked down at her full plate and remembered the bottle of wine in the fridge. “How about some wine?”
“Sounds good. Don’t get up, I’ve got it.”
Trevor would have made her take care of the wine. He also would have never brought her Chinese food or even dished up a plate for her. At one point in their relationship, he used to cater to her needs, but after her success on the show, that had all changed. He’d become cold, distant…jealous. “Thanks. I think there are some glasses in the corner cupboard.”
“Your suite is identical to mine. Got it.” He retrieved the wine, then the glasses. “Quite a mess you’ve got going over there,” he said and nodded to the samples sprawled all over the small living room. “Making any progress.”
“I see how it is. Ply me with food so you can check up on what I’m doing, huh?” She knew that wasn’t the case. Carter had made it a habit to pop into her suite during a renovation, mostly just to BS. Not necessarily about the homeowners they were working with, but about life in general.
“Damn. You’re on to me.” He poured the chardonnay into her glass, filled his own and raised his glass. “To the last episode of the season. May the best woman win.”
“You just called yourself a woman,” she said with a smile as she gently knocked his glass against hers.
He frowned, then laughed. “Let me rephrase. May the best designer I know win.”
She made sure her smile didn’t falter as she nodded and took a sip. Derek said Carter didn’t know she was in trouble, but Jim knew. Had their director already blabbed? “Ready to give up so easy?”
“Are you kidding?” He set his plate next to hers and moved around the island. “I’ve already found a dozen listings that’ll work for the Milanos. But I know what you’re capable of, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you nail this one. You’re due.”
After he sat on the stool next to hers, she dug into the General Tso’s chicken. “Speaking of due, Julia’s awfully close to having that baby.”
“I thought she wasn’t due until the end of August?”
“She isn’t, but I can’t imagine her lasting through the entire two week reno. That baby is sucking her energy and sense of humor dry. Normally I’d have her looking for furniture and fixtures, but after today, I think I’ll end up taking care of those things. She’s liable to scar the sales people.”
“You mean scare.”
She grinned. “No, I meant scar. I swear some of the things that come out of her mouth. I think she might be possessed.”
Laughing, he picked up an egg roll. “Thanks for the warning.” After wiping his hands on his napkin, he reached for his wine. “I’ll be honest, the Milanos’ split-level is in great shape. I might have a dozen listings for them to look at, but those listings don’t have what they already have in their current house.”
“History. When you and Julia were inside working magic with your designs, Mario told me that he and his wife brought all four kids straight from the hospital to their home. That’s a lot of holidays and birthdays, a lot of memories.”
“True.” She set her fork down and snagged an egg roll from the carryout container. “You’re being awfully generous this evening. What gives?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Well, then thank you. I have been in a slump lately and could use a little positive reinforcement.” She looked to the mess on the couch, coffee table and floor. “I could also use an opinion.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Interesting. Designer of the stars wants my humble opinion.”
Laughing, she gathered her utensils, plate and napkin. “One aging pop star and a C-list actor does not make me a designer of the stars.” She put the plate and utensils in the mini dishwasher. “But I have to admit, I do like that title. Finished?” she asked and pointed to his empty plate.
He nodded and after thanking her, rose and headed into the living room. “Good call on leaving out the white kitchen cabinets.”
“No kidding.” She dried her hands with a paper towel. “Once I pictured dirty handprints, I nixed the white. Which is also why I’m not going to do stainless steel appliances.”
He knelt on the floor. “People love the stainless.”
“So do I, but I need to be practical with my budget. The Milanos’ appliances are fairly new. I’m going to keep them and make them work.”
“That’s not going to make the sponsors happy.”
“Unless the sponsors are giving me brand new appliances for free, I’m sticking to my plan. I need to watch every penny.” Since her split from Trevor, she’d been battling down her debt and had become quite adept at being a tightwad and making sure every cent counted. She’d do the same for the Milanos. If she needed to repurpose their furniture or reuse their appliances to keep within her forty thousand dollar budget, she’d do it. Despite what the sponsors and Derek wanted, she needed this family to stay in their home.
“Fair enough. So, what did you want to show me?”
An hour later, she topped his glass with the remainder of the wine. “Thanks for your help.”
“I wasn’t much help. You had everything there.”
What she had all over the living room had been a hot mess in need of containing and direction. During past renovations, Julia had always kept her grounded and focused. Between Julia’s absence and Derek’s threat, Brynn had second-guessed herself multiple times this evening. She’d needed a second opinion and Carter had been inside hundreds of homes. He might not be a designer, but he knew what worked. “Yeah, but without Julia—”
“Julia isn’t the one who got you on this show. You did that by yourself.” He finished his wine and stood. “Don’t forget that, Brynn.”
“I know,” she said on a groan. “It’s just…I have a lot on my mind and I want this family to love what I do for them.”
“Trevor,” he said, disgust lacing his tone and making his dark eyes darker.
The handful of times they’d all been together at network functions, Carter had made it clear he didn’t think much of Trevor even before she’d broken things off with him. After a year of dealing with Trevor’s crap, she didn’t think much of her ex, either. “He’s been fine,” she lied. Carter was her friend, but she didn’t want to burden him with her problems. She pictured his brother, Evan. Yeah, he had enough of his own.
His lips tilted in a half-smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You don’t sound very convincing.”
She plastered on a smile. “Convincing enough? I’m good. Trevor’s been good. I should finally be able to get him out of my life.”
His eyes widened. “Find a magic lamp at a rummage sale?”
Chuckling, she shook her head. “I wish.” When she caught the concern and disbelief in his eyes, she caved. “Okay. Truth? The harassment has stopped. Sorta.”
“Meaning he isn’t hounding me every other day.” During the first six months of their break up, she had tried to make the split amicable. After Trevor threatened to sell their townhouse, she’d been forced to hire an attorney. When they’d purchased the townhouse over three years ago, she’d been investing her money into her own design business. Since she didn’t have the extra cash, Trevor had put up the eighty thousand dollar down payment on the townhouse. Once she’d called off the engagement, he wanted that money back.
Their attorneys had worked with each other and created a contract. In order for her to keep the townhouse, she needed to pay Trevor the eighty thousand dollar down payment. Between her bonuses and selling her car and jewelry, she’d been able to give him money regularly. At first. But as the bonuses declined, along with her clientele outside of the show, and with nothing else to sell off, Trevor had started to harass her. Because the contract their attorneys had drawn up gave her until September fifteenth to make good on what she owed Trevor, she contacted her attorney and ask her to file for a restraining order against him. She hadn’t heard a word from Trevor in over two weeks.
Carter’s jaw tightened and he rubbed the back of his neck. “How nice of him.”
Catching his sarcasm and not in the mood to tell him the complete truth, she opened the door. Carter was a rational person and being in the real estate industry, he would have likely told her to sell her townhouse rather than go into debt with Trevor. But she loved her home and had personally designed every detail down to the wall plates and cabinet hardware. “At least I can focus on this house without him bothering me. Speaking of focusing, I need to finish up for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. And you need to find some listings for the Milanos that I predict will in no way shape or form entice them to leave their home. Not after what I’m going to do for them.”
When he grinned, her lower belly tightened with longing. She’d always considered Carter a good looking guy, but with the way he looked at her now, his eyes teasing and challenging, coupled with his sexy smile, she couldn’t help the sudden urge to fantasize. What would it be like to feel his arms around her? She glanced at his mouth. Was he a good kisser?
“What should the bet be this time?” he asked. “If I recall, after the last homeowners relocated, you had to clean myhouse.”
They always made a bet during the first week of Renovate or Relocate. Since she’d lost the last five times, she’d had to act as his date to his cousin’s wedding, cook and freeze a week’s worth of meals, wash his car, take him clothes shopping and more recently clean his house. If she didn’t need to win this particular bet, she wouldn’t mind losing to him again. She’d had a blast at the wedding, had loved cooking for him and had had a great time taking him from store to store helping him update his wardrobe. As for washing his car and cleaning his house? She could have done without those two losses. Still, he’d worked alongside her and they’d ended up spending both evenings grilling steaks and talking over cocktails.
“Don’t remind me,” she said with an exaggerated sigh. “I’ll have to think about it. Unless you already have something in mind.”
“Not yet, but we have until Sunday to come up with something. So start thinking about what you’ll have to do for me when you lose.”
She narrowed her eyes but couldn’t keep from grinning. “Okay, now you’ve overstayed your welcome.”
He held up his hands. Big, rough looking hands. The kind she could picture touching her body in all the right places. With her mind travelling down a road she wasn’t sure she could even take, she acted as if she would shut the door on him.
“Out. This is an arrogant free zone.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “It’s a good thing I’m not arrogant.”
With a roll of her eyes, she smiled. “Keep telling yourself that. Thanks again for dinner and for helping.”
“You’re welcome.” He turned and headed out the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow? How could she have forgotten? Panicking, she grabbed his forearm. “Please don’t show up at the house tomorrow.” The start of a renovation was always difficult and hectic. Because they only had two weeks to finish, the producer supplied a large crew. Tomorrow, twenty to thirty workers would be moving throughout the house, tearing down walls and gutting rooms. If the Milanos entered their home during the chaotic demolition, they wouldn’t be able to gain a good feel for what she’d planned for their house.
“You know Jim expects me to.”
“Yeah, but that first day is always a tough one and with Julia…I can’t trust anything coming out of her mouth.”
“I’ll talk to Jim and see if we can make the stop on day two.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “No promises, but I’ll try.”
She relaxed. “I appreciate it,” she said and, after telling him good night, she shut the door. She still had a few things to do before she went to bed. But as she sat down and began writing out her detailed list for tomorrow, her thoughts kept straying to Carter, to his mouth, to how he kissed.
After saying good night to Brynn, Carter stopped at Jim’s room. When the director didn’t answer his door, he headed to the elevator. He’d been doing the show long enough to know where to find Jim. The director loved his beer and had the stomach to prove it. When the elevator stopped at the main level, he entered the hotel foyer and took a right. The restaurant attached to the hotel had only a few patrons, making it easy to spot Jim sitting at the bar with the cameraman, Larry.
As Carter approached, Larry greeted him by raising his near empty beer mug. He nodded to Larry and gave Jim a light slap on the back. “Just the man I was looking for,” Carter said.
“There’s my favorite real estate agent.” Jim grinned and waved to the bartender. “Get this guy a drink and put it on my tab.”
Even though he didn’t want one, Carter ordered a beer. Although Jim was easy to work with, the director, at times, could flip on a dime and become militant. Over the years, Carter had learned that catching Jim in a relaxed, somewhat buzzed state, usually worked in his favor.
“How ‘bout you, Larry?” Jim asked. “Sticking around for another?”
“Not tonight.” Larry smothered a yawn. “I’m beat and I still have to check in with my wife and kids. I’ll see you in the morning.”
After Larry left, Jim shook his head. “Thank God I don’t have to check in with anyone.” He eyed Carter. “Hell, you don’t either. Ain’t it great not having a babysitter to answer to?”
Carter would have no problem “checking in” with someone who actually gave a crap about him. Someone who wondered how his day had gone, if he was doing okay. While the show didn’t keep him on the road much and he usually had the opportunity to head back to his own home in between shoots, he didn’t date as much as he used to. Brynn’s smile filled his mind. Although he didn’t have to “check in” with her, even when they were between shows, they spoke often. Most times he was the one doing the calling, using one excuse or another to talk with her. Yeah, he had it bad for her and, for the past few years, had avoided the dating scene hoping, waiting for the right opportunity to let her know where he stood.
“Speaking of babysitters,” Carter said and reached for the bottle of beer. “Do you think Julia is going to make it to the end of this reno?”
Jim looked thoughtful as he stared at the bottles of booze lined up in a row against the bar wall. “Hard to say. My ex had both of our kids early.”
“I have no experience with pregnancies and babies, so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that Julia isn’t acting like herself.”
Jim’s face twisted with exasperation. “No shit. When we were filming her and Brynn doing their design ideas, Vic accidentally filmed Julia from behind. First she tore into Vic, then she went after me. So I tell her, ‘Hello? We have an editing department. Don’t worry about your ass showing up on TV.’” He took a long swallow from his beer mug. “You should have seen her at the flooring store. One second she’s all smiles, the next she’s biting the sales guy’s head off, and the next she’s on the verge of tears. My ex was just like that.” He grinned. “Take my advice. If you ever get a woman pregnant, stay on the road as much as possible until she has the baby. That’s what I did.”
Which was probably why Jim had an ex. “Then I guess you’ll understand why I want to skip bringing the family to the house tomorrow. Those people scraped together a lot of money to do the reno and I don’t want them discouraged if Julia’s having a bad day.” While he hated using Julia as the scapegoat, he also understood Brynn’s position and her valid concerns regarding her assistant.
Jim swayed in the bar stool when he crossed his arms. “The stop is on the schedule.”
“Can’t we move it to the next day?”
Shrugging, Jim nodded. “I suppose. To be honest, Brynn needs all the help she can get.”
Carter tensed, but masked his irritation and raised the bottle to his lips. Even on a limited budget Brynn could work magic on any room. In this instance, time, an extra day, was the only help she needed. “Brynn’s great at what she does.”
“I know that,” Jim said and waved to the bartender for another draft beer. “But if the Milanos don’t like what she does to their house, she’s screwed.”
Not screwed, just out the ten thousand dollar bonus. While he wouldn’t be surprised if the ten grand was her answer to being able to finally cut ties from Trevor, if she did lose, there was always the next show. Unless… “Is her job in jeopardy?”
Jim’s eyes widened and he quickly picked up his fresh beer. “I, ah…” He chugged half the beer. After setting the mug back on the bar, he wiped the back of his hand along his mouth. “Look, Derek told me something in confidence. I can’t get into the particulars right now.”
Jim had piqued his interest, especially because whatever he was hiding involved Derek. The producer could hire and fire any one of them. If Brynn was on the chopping block, he needed to know. This show meant everything to her and besides, he couldn’t imagine doing it without her.
“I understand. We all like Brynn and I don’t think any of us want to see her fired,” Carter said, hoping Jim was buzzed enough to start talking.
“Hell, no. Brynn’s like a little sister to me. She’s a good kid getting a raw deal.”
Rather than manipulate the conversation with the hope Jim would give him the details, Carter wanted to be blunt. But Jim had valuable information that could affect both he and Brynn, and he wanted that information. “It is a raw deal.” If he couldn’t be blunt, he could bluff. “I guess I get where Derek is coming from, but it seems extreme to me.”
Jim finished his beer and motioned to the bartender for another. “Of course it’s extreme. So she’s had a dry spell this season.” He hiccupped. “If I recall, she kicked your ass last season.”
He half-smiled. “I wouldn’t call beating me by one renovation an ass kicking.”
“What can I say? I root for the underdog. And right now, Brynn is definitely the underdog.”
“So Derek plans to replace her if she doesn’t get the Milanos to stay.”
“With his niece, of all people.” Jim picked up his fresh beer. “If that happens, I might find another job. I don’t want to deal with her.”
Derek’s niece? Oh, hell no. While she was a nice kid, she was just that. A kid. “Melody, right? Didn’t she just graduate from design school?”
“This past spring. Derek and the sponsors are concerned about ratings now, but if they replace Brynn with Melody, I have a feeling the show will tank.” He took a few gulps, then set the mug on the bar. “Which means we’re all out of a job.”
Derek wouldn’t let that happen. The producer was too business savvy and had a half dozen successful shows to prove it. Still. If Derek decided to replace Brynn to boost ratings, who’s to say his job wasn’t on the line? Could be Derek might want a fresh start with not only a new designer, but a new real estate agent. If that were the case, he wasn’t worried about his career or finances. Yes, being on the show had its perks. The bonuses and salary have been helping him take care of his brother and the name recognition has been helping him gain new clients for his personal business. If he were replaced, he always had James Realty. But what did Brynn have? Especially if she was fired.
“I don’t think any of us will have to worry about losing our jobs. You saw the Milanos’ house. It’s great. And with the budget they gave Brynn, I guarantee they’re going to love what she does.”
Jim rested his chin in his hand and leaned against the bar. “But you’re damn good. There’s some nice houses in this area.” His eyes drifted shut. “You’d hafta show them Milanos some real shit boxes to get the wife to stay.”
Frowning, he stared at Jim and snapped his fingers. When the director didn’t flinch, he called the bartender over, ordered a bottle of water and closed out Jim’s tab. “Let’s get out of here,” he said and gripped the other man’s shoulder.
Jim roused, then jerked awake. He looked around the bar and nodded. “Guess I had a few too many, huh?”
Carter escorted the director to his room, gave him the bottle of water, then shut the door. Heading to his own room, he glanced down the hall to Brynn’s suite. Earlier today she’d told him that Derek had discussed clauses to her contract. She hadn’t lied to him, but she had bent the truth. It frustrated the hell out of him that she hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him the whole truth.
She’d become so important to him. He loved how she put herself before others. Thoughtful, compassionate and caring, she would do just about anything to help someone in need. She was devoted to her family. Hell, she was even devoted to hisfamily. She treated his folks as if she’d known them for years, treated Evan like he was one of her younger brothers, treated him with respect and kindness.
They were friends and he wanted to be more than friends. He wanted her to confide in him and let him help shoulder some of her burdens. He wanted to hold her, touch her, show her he cared and that she wasn’t the type of woman a man discards. That he wasn’t anything like her bastard ex, Trevor.
Once in his room, Carter opened his laptop and began searching through the listings he’d already chosen to show the Milanos. These houses were all perfect matches for what the family was looking for in their next home. While a couple of them weren’t in Clifton Park, and a few were a little out of their price range, they were still good matches. He could easily see them being seduced by more square footage along with additional bedrooms and bathrooms. He could easily see himself winning this challenge.
If he won, Brynn lost. He couldn’t have that. He couldn’t picture doing the show without her. Hell, he couldn’t imagine not having her in his life. And what about Brynn? What did she envision and did it include him? If she left the show, he’d never know. Even if she was interested in exploring something, anything, with him, if she was replaced, she could resent him if he stayed with Renovate or Relocate.
He couldn’t allow that to happen.
Running a hand through his hair, he stared at the houses listed on the screen. With the answer at his fingertips, he typed and created a new search. He’d show the Milanos homes that fit their criteria, but he’d do his best to make sure those homes would not entice them into moving. If everything went according to plan, they’d stay in their renovated split-level and Brynn would keep her job.
His stomach clenched at the thought of purposefully sabotaging his reputation. In the process of helping Brynn, he’d make himself look as if he was new to the realty business, not an experienced professional. And he’d do it on national television. Was she worth it? Her image surfaced. Laughing green eyes, beautiful smile, curvy hips. She was more than a pretty picture, though. Add on confident, good-natured and intelligent, she was the total package and he was crazy about her.
So was she worth jeopardizing his reputation?