Sweet Afternoons

Chapter 1

 

Drake Jensen stood on the ladder in the foyer of the Indigo Inn in Blueberry Beach, Michigan, stretching out as far as he could and dabbing white paint on the water spot on the ceiling.

Some kind of major catastrophe had happened upstairs in the bedroom just above where he now worked, with water leaking into the floor and staining the ceiling.

The bedroom had been fixed, but there was going to be a wedding next week at the inn, and he was trying to make things look as good as he could.

Leiklyn and Ethan deserved to have the inn look its very best. They also deserved every bit of happiness they could get.

Although Drake had been to much bigger, much fancier weddings—the folks in Hollywood knew how to throw a big bash—he hadn’t seen too many couples who had the deep respect, firm commitment, and absolute love that Leiklyn and Ethan displayed.

He wanted to do everything in his power to make their special day perfect.

And that meant moving the ladder one more time.

There was a small spot just out of reach that needed some paint yet.

He climbed down the ladder, looking around at the foyer with pride.

He’d just finished installing the new stone tiles on the floor himself.

Before he’d made it big in Hollywood, doing stone tile floors had been one of his dad’s specialties in his construction business.

Drake had put more than one floor in, but there weren’t any that he was more proud of.

It was a light blue color with swirled gray highlights.

The color of Lake Michigan on a hot summer day.

The color of the Michigan sky in September.

The color of ripe blueberries just touched by the morning dew.

It was a gorgeous color, full and rich, and the old inn, built with the impeccable standards of the late 1800s, had been completely square. The tiles had lined up beautifully.

As soon as he got that last water spot painted over and polished the hanging chandelier, the foyer would be perfect.

Setting the paint bucket down, he grabbed the ladder and started sliding it, his eyes on the ceiling, judging the distance he needed to move in order to reach the last spot easily.

Even if he had been paying attention, he probably couldn’t have stopped what happened next.

The door burst open.

A woman blew in.

She kicked his paint bucket, knocking it over, and he watched in horror as pure white paint covered the stone tiles he’d just installed this past week.

To add insult to injury, as the woman shut the door, her dog walked through the paint before realizing his mistress wasn’t following him and then tracked back across the tile to sit at her feet.

“Watch what you’re doing, lady!” he said, keeping the volume down but not able to contain the anger that laced every syllable.

“Any idiot knows you don’t set a paint can in the middle of a floor!” the lady shot back at him, her hands on her hips, her eyes narrowed and shooting daggers at him.

He pulled his ball cap lower, grateful for the new beard that covered his rather famous face.

“I was moving the ladder. There wasn’t any other place to set it!” He couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice as he added, “There’s going to be a wedding here next week, and you’ve just ruined the floor!”

The woman’s mouth opened in a O, and her hands, balled into fists, pushed in on her hips in deep frustration. “I would say you ruined it just as much as I did, since you set the paint there.” If possible, her eyes narrowed even more. If he hadn’t been quite as angry as he was, he might have checked her ears to see if there was steam coming out of them. “Regardless, it’s your job to get it cleaned up and have this floor looking perfect. Leiklyn deserves the best wedding day ever.”

It was his turn to drop his jaw.

Not only did the woman kick the can of paint over, then her dog walked through it, but then she tells him that he needs to clean up?

For the first time since his self-imposed hideaway, he wished the beard and hat gone so she could recognize just who she’d demanded clean up the floor.

“You spilt it. You clean it up.” His words came out in a hiss. He gripped the ladder with both hands. There was a small fantasy in the back of his mind where the ladder legs were actually the woman’s neck.

“You’re the hired help. I own this inn. You clean it up,” the woman said, turning without giving him a chance to answer and stomping down the hall toward the kitchen.

He wasn’t sure he’d ever met a ruder woman.

The dog, almost as though he didn’t recognize the person the woman had become, tilted his head ever so slightly as he watched the woman stomp away.

Soulful brown eyes looked back at Drake like the animal was appealing to him to be reasonable and compassionate.

Normally, he considered himself quite reasonable and very compassionate. Not right now. He was still more upset…angry…than he’d been in a very long time.

As though the dog could tell that no apology would be forthcoming from his lips, he turned his head, which seemed rather regal, even if his fur made him look shaggy and woebegone, stood gingerly, and proceeded to track white dog prints the entire way across the stone tile floor and down the hall.

Drake clamped his teeth together and watched him go.

Shaking his head, trying to get his out-of-control temper back under leash, he dipped his paintbrush in the spilled paint on the floor, climbed the ladder, and dabbed the last of the water spot stain on the ceiling.

At least the ceiling looked good.

If he had known what was going to happen to the floor, he probably would have just let the ceiling go, because the water spot would have escaped the notice of ninety-five percent of the people who showed up for the wedding.

The paint on the floor? If he didn’t get that off, everyone was going to notice.

The first thing he needed to do was grab some rags from the kitchen pantry.

He got off the ladder and had started across the floor when the woman reappeared in the foyer.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

It wasn’t a perfunctory apology. She really looked like she was. Her lips were flat, her head angled down, and her posture, which had been erect to the point of arrogance, was slightly stooped.

Normally, when his slow temper finally erupted, it took him forever to calm back down, but this woman’s obvious contrition deflated his anger faster than cake disappears at a kid’s birthday party.

Cake without tofu in it, anyway.

“No.” Her contrition had made guilt squeeze his ribs together painfully. “I flew off the handle way too fast. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

“That wasn’t yelling,” the lady said with a short laugh.

She took a breath, gave the floor an ironic glance, as though looking to make sure she wasn’t going to kick any more paint cans over, and walked forward with her hand out.

“I’m Willan. And I said I own the inn, but I only own a third of it. My friends Leiklyn and Tiffany own the other two thirds.”

He nodded thoughtfully as he enfolded her hand in his. It was a soft hand, although not excessively slender. Neither was the woman. She was quite curvy and not at all like the women he normally was around.

The difference was striking and welcome as well.

“I’m DJ,” Drake said, using the initials he’d been given as a nickname back in his elementary school years.

They were what he’d been going by since he’d come to the inn. The point of him being here was to get away, and he preferred to keep a low profile.

The woman met his eyes as they shook, and hers narrowed just slightly, as though she were trying to figure out where she’d seen him before.

He’d seen that look a lot. Sometimes with the facial hair, people never figured it out, and this woman didn’t seem to as her smile stayed open and friendly and her body relaxed.

It was funny how, when people found out that instead of being a nondescript handyman, he was actually a world-famous movie star, their treatment of him changed completely.

He had to admit the people who treated him better when they found out he was an actor were people he had a hard time respecting.

He supposed he was judging them just as much as they judged him, but it said something about a person when a movie star got the royal treatment but a common laborer got disdained and brushed aside.

It certainly had made him think about how he treated people himself.

“Do you have any idea of how to clean this stuff up?” the lady said, pulling her hand back and almost seeming to shake it a little, as though she were feeling the same odd sensation he was.

Not like an electric shock exactly, but an awareness that he wasn’t sure he’d ever felt before.

“There are some rags in the kitchen pantry that I was going to go grab. I think I’ll sop up the paint first and then see what we can get done with water.” He looked back at the floor and pressed his lips together. “I just finished putting the flooring in earlier this week. I have to admit it’s kinda hard to see it looking like that.”

“I’m so sorry. Normally, I’m not quite that clumsy.” The woman’s tones were subdued but still cultured. “While you get the rags, maybe I can search the internet for how to get paint off of tile. That’s what this is?”

“That’s right. Stone tile.” He took two steps before the dog prints stopped him. “What happened to your dog?”

“Myla, Leiklyn’s daughter, was sitting on the back porch. I asked her to keep an eye on Ruffles until I get the mess cleaned up. She’s going to clean off her paws too.”

“So…the dog’s a girl?” Drake asked, not sure why it mattered. Other than the dog had looked regal. He supposed he should have known it was a girl.

“Yeah.” She lifted a shoulder. “She was a stray that showed up at a funeral I attended.”

He laughed despite himself.

She continued. “She followed me home, and I’ve never had a dog before, but she kind of adopted me. A craft store across the street from where my apartment was had the name Rags and Ruffles.” She smiled affectionately. “While she looked more like the rag part of that, I named her Ruffles.”

“She seems like a pretty nice dog. She’s loyal anyway,” he said, remembering how the dog looked at him like imploring him to apologize before following her mistress out into the hall. He didn’t really believe that dogs were almost human, the way so many people, particularly in Hollywood, did, but Ruffles was almost enough to make him change his mind.

He walked out, gathering the rags and a bucket of water, and headed back to the foyer.

It took them half an hour, but by the time they were finished, the foyer looked almost as good as new.

There was a little bit of paint that had dried on the cement between the stone tiles that they were unable to get off, but otherwise, he couldn’t tell that paint had been spilled.

Willan threw her last rag in the bucket as Drake stood and offered her his hand.

“It doesn’t look too bad. I thought for sure the floor was ruined,” she said, allowing him to help her, then standing with her hands on her hips, her eyes scanning the floor.

“I appreciate you helping.” It was on the tip of his tongue to say he admired her for being willing to get down on her hands and knees and work, but although they’d kept up a rather steady chatter about the weather and the tourist season in Blueberry Beach, he didn’t figure he knew her that well. Plus, if she figured out who he was, he didn’t want her to think that he’d been hitting on her or anything of that nature.

He’d been warned more than once that a man with his amount of wealth needed to be very careful about what he said and what he did, as there were a lot of gold diggers who would make unfounded accusations, or take anything he might say out of context, or even make up lies about him.

Willan didn’t seem like that kind of person, but he did know from the gossip that he’d overheard here and there that the inn was in some financial trouble. Sometimes when people needed money, they would stoop to doing things that they normally wouldn’t.

Part of him was sure that Willan would never do such a thing, was aghast that he would even consider it of her, and part of him, the practical part, said that a man in his position could never be too careful.

“Well, I guess I better go get my dog,” Willan said, after a somewhat uncomfortable silence where he reminded himself that he couldn’t get too close to people. Especially people he didn’t know.

“Yeah. Thanks again for coming back out,” he said, knowing everything he had just told himself to be true yet wondering why it was so hard for him to dismiss the lady and walk away.

Maybe because she seemed genuinely friendly and nice.

Or maybe, he admired someone who could apologize.

In his experience, women, or maybe people in general, usually thought they were right and weren’t afraid to let everyone around them know it.

Shaking his head, he lifted a hand, then walked out the front door with the bucket, intending to bring the rags out and come back in and get his ladder and put everything away.

The foyer looked fantastic again. Thankfully. But there was still plenty of work to do before the wedding.