The multi-toned doorbell rang again. Seven groups already and now another?
Olivia Brown shifted abruptly on the kitchen barstool in her grandfather’s stately home in Evergreen, Washington. One foot reached for the floor, but the other missed and she slipped forward, off-balance.
“Oh, no!” Her ankle twisted and she thudded to the floor just after the stool banged against the granite counter and landed next to her, a one-two exclamation point proclaiming her fall. Her emerald green pencil skirt hiked up to mid-thigh. Thank goodness no one saw me. She rolled to one side to avoid putting weight on her throbbing ankle. The doorbell!
“Are you hurt?” A slight Southern drawl of the male persuasion confirmed she was no longer alone. “Let me help.” The stranger had dark brown hair, long enough to curl seductively behind his ears. His green eyes sparked with humor as he peered at her. He reach down with long, slim fingers that reminded her of her favorite piano teacher.
Did he see me crash? Olivia bit her lip at the ache in her ankle, hoping her face wasn’t as red as it felt, and waved away his outstretched hand. Rolling off one hip, also sore, she got to her knees, stood up and brushed off the back of her skirt. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”
The man’s presence rattled her. She hoped she sounded calm—as if she fell off barstools at every open house she hosted. Not that she did. This was a first.
“Sure you’re okay?” His drawl became more pronounced. “I figured a big ol’ Victorian house like this would have someone prim and proper, sitting with ankles crossed, maybe crooking her little finger drinking tea from an old-fashioned china cup. Like that one.” The man grinned, his accent highlighting his word picture. He picked up a chocolate chip cookie, recently removed from the oven, still gooey and warm, from the plate on the counter. “Are these for me?”
He looked around the kitchen and strode briefly in the direction of the breakfast nook before turning in her direction. “Not someone like you, your hair all askew, as my Great-Aunt Annabelle would say.” He pointed to the shoe lying under the upended barstool then picked it up. “I ’spect you’ll want to fix this. It seems you knocked off the heel.” He took a step closer. His palm caressed the smooth granite island. His eyes followed the route of his fingers. “Nice counters, cabinets.”
What’s not to like? Of course, they’re nice. I helped Grandmamma pick them out, the granite, too. Olivia reached for her shoe, dyed green only last week. She frowned as she bent over to pick up the barstool. In doing so, she placed weight on her sore ankle and nearly fell again when she tried to balance on one foot. Two strong hands grasped her at the waist and brought her upright.
“Why don’t you sit down? I’ll look around by myself.” He pointed to a door. “The basement?”
He tromped quickly down the steps.
She was relieved that he didn’t expect her to follow him.
“Unfinished I see, but lots of room.” His voice carried up the stairs. “Perfect for storage lockers. I would like to speak to the, uh, to Mr. Brown. The broker? Maybe you could call him. I have questions.”
Olivia willed her voice to remain calm, dispassionate, business-like. Not another man who prefers a male realtor. “My name’s on the sign out front. I can answer your questions.” Her cheeks bloomed again when she realized she’d neglected to introduce herself. “I’m Olivia. Brown. Of Brown Family Realty,” she said, emphasizing on each word. “You are?”
But he didn’t reply.
Granddad’s house was her personal project—even though she’d never taken on a sale for a relative. Granddad’s cautions and her father’s warnings flashed in her head, like red lights at a train crossing.
“Never let emotions govern how you show a property, what you say to a prospect. Stay away from family properties. They’ll eat you alive.” Dad had never said if the property or the relatives would do the eating, but she knew what he meant. Here she was, having listed Granddad’s house and ready to explode with frustration that this man had asked to speak to her father. That crack about being prim and proper? As if she wasn’t proper, just because she’d slipped.
The man reentered the kitchen from the basement and turned in the direction of the living room. Olivia tried walking again, gingerly. Her ankle ached with each step as she limped after him. Nice buns. An attribute she shouldn’t have noticed. This was no time to be ogling a customer.
There he was, exiting the lace-covered French doors of the dining room, heading for the stairs. He wore a beautifully tailored suit and bright blue tie, darker than the pale blue of his shirt. He glanced briefly in her direction as he bounded up the stairs.
“No need to follow me, Ms. Brown. I’ll just look around on my own,” he repeated.
He’d heard her after all. But she couldn’t let him wander by himself. Granddad expects me to watch people, to read their expressions. She bit her lip against the pain in her ankle and the ache in one wrist, something she hadn’t noticed until she gripped the banister. When she reached the upper level, she caught up with the potential buyer in the master bedroom. His eyes scanned the coved ceiling.
“It’s a beautiful room, don’t you think?” she asked in her most enthusiastic realtor voice.
“Big enough to divide into two. With an extra door into the bath, it would make a nice Jack-and-Jill suite.”
“What? You’d wreck the ambience of this room? This is a family home, perfect as it is.” The words tumbled out. Oh dear. My feelings—getting in the way. Shouldn’t have said that.
One eyebrow rose as he glanced her way. “Ms. Brown? Why don’t you call Jack Brown—your father, right? My business partner said he runs the brokerage, or did he sell out—with the bad economy and all?”
She closed her mouth at his words, too offended to speak.
“Maybe he’s busy elsewhere? Left you in charge here?” He reached into an inside coat pocket and pulled out a smart phone, revealing a well-muscled chest straining against what she suspected was a silk shirt.
She pursed her lips together to avoid speaking out of turn. Not again, Dad. It’s been years. Why do people still think you’re the one in charge? This man was getting on her nerves with every word.
“Never mind. I’ll call him. What’s his number?” His voice echoed from the interior of the large walk-in closet.
Olivia’s knuckles whitened when she squeezed the door frame against which she leaned. Forget the ankle. Forget the insults. Tell him what he needs to know. Instead, she blurted, “He doesn’t answer the phone.”
“Why is that?” He walked past her into another bedroom, then out again and into the next one, seeming to mentally measure each room as he glanced around.
“He died three years ago. I’m the broker now.”
She glared into his sea-green eyes as he passed her at the top of the curving staircase, close enough to slap his face. She was dismayed by her flip-flopping stomach and racing pulse when he stopped in his tracks and took his time peering at her before his gaze seemed to soften.
“Oh,” his voice quieter. “Sorry to hear that. Please accept my sympathies.” He cleared his throat and seemed to realize he hadn’t handled that well. But he quickly recovered. “Mind if I keep looking?”
“Not at all,” she said stiffly.
He trotted down stairs, leaving Olivia on the landing.
Damn this ankle. She and limped down the stairs, careful not to put too much weight on it. Her irritation grew as she reached for the hand-carved banister, still bearing marks from when she’d slid down its length in jeans with beads on the back pockets. She must have been ten when her grandfather forbade her to repeat that stunt.
The man had disappeared when she reached the main floor. Water running in the powder room told her where he must be. He emerged, smiling.
“The faucets seem to work.”
As if they wouldn’t?
“This place will make a great B&B,” he confirmed more to himself than to her as he looked around the living room.
I must have heard wrong. “What? You’d turn this into a B&B? But … but Granddad—the seller wants a fam—fam—family here—” Why must I stutter when I’m upset? She stopped talking, realizing she’d just violated the first rule of real estate sales. Never tell a buyer what a seller wants.
“Maybe he’ll change his mind when he sees my offer,” he said coolly. “George was right. It’ll work perfectly.” He glanced at the sign-in sheet on the entry table. “I see you’ve had lots of people through already. Time to make an offer. Cash. Get me the paperwork and I’ll sign. No sense letting someone else get this place.”
Stunned at the finality of his words, she backed up at his approach. She bumped into the dining room buffet, a piece of furniture that had been in the room since she was a baby. “But, the seller—he wants a family to buy it.”
“If it’ll make him feel better, tell him I’m representing a husband and wife. They’ll run it. Treat it like home. Where’s the paperwork?” he pressed, and stepped closer.
What’s he going to do—force me to write the offer? She spied a glint of something— mischief, humor, danger maybe?—in his eyes.
“Do you always argue with clients—or was it something I said?” He grinned lopsidedly at her.
“It’s auburn.” She pressed her legs against the buffet. Her face grew warm at the implication that she wasn’t being professional, at the disconcerting way her heart was thudding in her chest. Because of his offer? Confusing, contradictory thoughts—naughty thoughts—tumbled over one another as she stared at him. Cash offers she’d received for other homes she’d listed had never generated this kind of body-throbbing reaction.
“Never mind. I’ll bet your foot is hurting. Want me to help you down to your car—so we can go to the office to write the offer?” He smiled and reached in her direction.
She slithered out of reach. “No, thank you. I need your name and number—so I can call the seller. If you’ll follow me.” She tried to minimize her limp as she headed for the front door.
“Where are your shoes?” He answered his own question by picking them up where she’d left them on a nearby ottoman. “Be sure to hang on to the railing—so you don’t slip again,” he cautioned. “My partner, George Dunston, checked out the backyard and those outbuildings. With some work they’d make a couple of nice duplexes, maybe even a triplex.”
That name was familiar. She stopped fumbling for a pen and looked at the man. “Dunston? Shorter than you, around forty?” That man had a comfortably rumpled look. He was nice, polite, respectful. She’d answered all his questions and he’d accepted everything she told him. No questioning her professionalism, her experience, no asking to speak to a man. She found her pen in the bottom of her purse and grabbed her notebook, trying to ignore what Mr. Dunston’s partner had said. Duplex, triplex? In this neighborhood? George Dunston never mentioned making Granddad’s house into a bed-and-breakfast or changing the other buildings.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Don’t believe I said.” He glanced at the sign in the front yard—“Ms. Brown.”
“Olivia—of Brown Family Realty.” Get it? Part of the family, now the broker?
“Very nice.” He looked her up and down, as if appraising her, like he would a horse or maybe a piece of steak. “Olivia. It fits you.” He seemed to be rolling the word around on his tongue, tasting it. “Lovely Olivia with the fiery hair,” he remarked. His green eyes seemed to challenge her again as he moved closer.
Her stomach changed places with her heart and both began doing a jig against her ribs. No way should I react this way. What is the matter with me? She pursed her lips again, willing her girl parts to settle down.
“Your name?” she repeated.
“James what?” She wrote it in her notebook, pressing so hard the nib of the pen almost went through the top page.
He hesitated ever so slightly and she detected heightened color on his neck and clean-shaven cheeks. Is he blushing?
“For purposes of the contract, I suppose you need my full name. Kind of long, especially for this part of the country.”
“Beauregard Elias James.”
A bubble of laughter erupted involuntarily as she wrote it down. “Beauregard,” she repeated. Like the deep South after Reconstruction. She glanced at him again, pleased that he seemed less brash.
“It’s a family name, my mother’s family.” He frowned. “My friends call me Beau.”
“I see.” Her pen was poised above the paper. “Your phone number, Mr. James? Email?”
He gave her both. Without comment.
“No sense following me back to the office. I have to talk to the seller first. He—it’s his family home. He’s lived here more than fifty years. I’m not sure … I’ll get back to you.”
The man looked admiringly at the woodwork in the living room before giving Olivia a full-bodied smile that churned her insides. “Work your considerable wiles on him, lovely Olivia. Tell him my offer is cash. Full price. A quick close. And, once he has his money, why should he care what I do with his former house?” He opened the front door, reversed direction and faced her again. Then, a challenge in his intense green eyes, he added, “You might tell him I intend to preserve the architectural detail, the building’s considerable character.” He handed her his business card.
“Isn’t this what realtors want these days? Something easy, no haggling? I’ll wait for your call.” Something about the way he seemed to swagger down the front steps suggested he was used to getting his way.
She shut the door after he left and sat down. You may have to wait till hell freezes over. Granddad is not going to be happy about this. Or maybe he would. But she wasn’t. And she was no pushover. She glanced at his card. He was an architect, not a developer, like she first thought.
But the man was rude, incredibly handsome, offensive, clever, incorrigible. His eyes were so green, he was dressed to the nines, had a funny name, an accent that added charm to his considerable sexiness. Her body, especially certain parts, couldn’t seem to stop reacting when he looked her way or opened his mouth. Not like any other client she’d encountered. If she’d been alone in a house with any other man who came on to her that way, she’d have been terrified, sure he was some kind of deviant. But something about Mr. Beauregard Elias James intrigued her and made her want to live a little dangerously.
His offer was outrageously wonderful, a dream come true for Granddad—quick close and full price—in cash, but the man was so pushy and insulting, actually implying she was someone’s assistant until she set him straight. And he wasn’t representing a family with children, what Granddad wanted. Maybe she was being overly sensitive. Not so much to Mr. James’s words. She’d heard worse from buyers. To him.
How many times had she wished for just such a transaction? But turning Granddad’s house into a B&B? Making the garden building a duplex, or the garage that used to be a carriage house into a triplex? She’d spent more time here than where she’d lived with her father, growing up. Granddad’s house didn’t deserve such callous treatment.
But what worried her most was her physical and emotional reaction to the man. She had lost all objectivity, all professionalism in his presence. She had to talk to Sally, the closest thing she had to a sister. Sally’d know what Olivia should do about the challenge that was Beauregard Elias James.
~ ~ ~
“Granddad, we have to talk—before you come home.”
“About the open house? How’d it go? How many people came?”
“We’ve had ten groups so far—sorry, eleven—and I’m still here. I’ve got a few more minutes to go. But this one guy. He wants to make an offer. Full price. Cash—”
“Well, write it up! Maybe we priced it too low.” The craggy rumble of her grandfather’s voice boomed through the phone. “It’s only been on the market two weeks. Cash, did you say? That’s the kind of offer I’d love to sign.”
“But, no … He—oh dear. More people are coming up the walk. I’ll call you back.” She opened the door. “Welcome! Come right in. When you’re done looking at everything, please come into the kitchen for some cookies, fresh out of the oven.” She smiled and watched as the woman took off her shoes, placed them next to the sign on the floor and poked the man next to her to do the same.
By four o’clock, three more groups had viewed the home. Olivia turned off the lights and closed the blinds in the rooms her grandfather preferred to be darkened against the late afternoon sun. She took down the signs and refilled the flyer box. She had nearly finished cleaning up the kitchen when her phone rang.
“Ms. Brown, have you talked to the owner?”
“Who is this, please?”
“Beau James. You said you’d call.”
She straightened her back and took a deep breath. “I haven’t had a chance to speak with the seller yet, Mr. James.” Maybe formality would make him go away. “I’ll call you after I’ve had that opportunity.” She hoped her voice sounded firm.
“I have a better idea. How ’bout I meet you at your office, so we can write it up? Most sellers won’t consider a verbal.”
“That is not necessary. I will call you back—after I’m finished with the open house.”
“But I just drove by and the signs are down. Doesn’t that mean you’re done?”
Olivia limped in the direction of the front dining room window. Was that him—in that fancy silver sports car across the street? “Is that you, Mr. James?”
He laughed and waved at her from the front seat, maybe the only seat from the size of it. That too-masculine grin. What does he think this is—fun and games?
“I’ll call you later, Mr. James. Good-bye.” She turned away from the window.