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Michelle squealed. “Oh my God! That is Wade Thomas.”

Sipping his coffee, he said, “Avery is the blonde standing next to me.”

His sister expanded the picture on the phone and glanced at him. “She’s gorgeous.”

“I noticed that.”

“Her skin is flawless. What is she, twenty-fourish?”

Liam thought about that for a second, did a little math based on the timeline of her past. “I think she’s in her early thirties.”

“Kids?”

“No.”

“Ever married?”

“Once.”

Michelle zoomed out and flipped through the pictures on the thread. “That’s good.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah. A woman previously married isn’t rushing to put a ring back on and makes a better decision the second time around.”

Liam opened his mouth to comment and Michelle cut him off.

“But thirty . . . her clock is ticking.”

Liam thought about Avery’s lifestyle. “I don’t think so.”

Michelle looked at him like he was missing a few brain cells.

He avoided the argument and stood to refill his coffee. He had a long weekend’s worth of pushed aside work to get to.

“Who is this?”

He glanced at his phone. “Shannon.”

“She looks like a movie star. Is she?”

“Ex-wife of Paul Wentworth.”

Michelle did a double take. “The governor?”

“Yup.”

“What an idiot.”

Yeah, that’s what Liam thought.

Michelle grinned and hiked a brow. “Looks like someone wants to say good morning to you.”

Liam snatched his phone from his sister and opened his messages.

It was Avery.

I hope you slept well.

He considered lying.

Tossed and turned all night. You?

He sipped his coffee and waited for her reply.

Like a baby.

He shook his head.

Liar.

Good thing I like you, Holt.

The use of his last name made him laugh.

Michelle cleared her throat.

“What?” he asked.

She crossed the kitchen and kissed his cheek. “She’s a lucky woman.”

No . . . he was the lucky one.

Chapter Seventeen

Sheldon walked alongside Avery as she described his childhood home in the way Liam had described it. Once all the walls were stripped of art and knickknacks collected over a lifetime, the lack of upkeep became strikingly clear.

“Any real estate agent worth their salt will tell you to paint all the walls and replace old and worn carpet at the bare minimum. But in the case of this house, I would seriously consider a heavy renovation. The kitchen and bathrooms will cost the most but make the biggest impact when finding a turnkey buyer who will pay top dollar.” Liam’s exact words.

“What did your contractor estimate?”

She told him Liam’s numbers and added that he should expect to spend 20 percent more. Better to come in under budget than over.

Sheldon whistled.

“Consider this. While you might not have had a lot of love for the paintings on the walls, they were done by artists that catch a decent paycheck. The floral pieces in your mother’s sitting room were painted at the turn of the century. The receipt of purchase was found in her files.”

“How much?”

“She spent half a million dollars each, forty years ago. One can only imagine what they will go for now. There is your renovation budget, which will give you a much bigger return on the house.” She paused while standing at the French doors leading to the backyard. “Of course, that means you’ll have to hold on to this place a little longer.”

“How long?”

“I don’t have that answer. My guy said four to six months isn’t unheard of on a renovation this size. But we are in California without weather mucking up construction schedules.”

“How long before your work is done?”

“I need two more weeks to clear the house of everything worth sending to auction and then arrange the estate sale.”

“So I have three weeks to decide.”

“Have you picked a real estate agent yet?”

He shook his head.

“They’re going to tell you to keep some of the furnishings in the main rooms if you’re going to sell as is. If you’re renovating, then it’s best to purge everything and bring in a professional stager to sell.”

“Is your contractor able to do the work?”

She hesitated. “I asked him a favor to give an estimate, I didn’t imply that he’d get a job.”

Sheldon rocked back on his heels and tore his gaze away from the yard. “If you recommend him, it’s good by me.”

Avery tried not to think of the ethics behind her suggesting Liam for the work. “I’d recommend you get a couple of estimates before picking a team.”

He stared at her.

“I didn’t need two when I hired you.”

She couldn’t argue that.

“Let me see if he is available. If he is, I’ll put you two together.”

“Sounds good.”

Avery followed him out of the room and down the main hall.

“I found some items in your father’s study that you might want to look at.”

For a second, Sheldon stared, stone-faced. Once again his cold eyes had her taking a slight step back.

“Nothing, Avery. I want nothing from this house.”

“I won’t ask again.”

And just like that, he was smiling again. “You know how it is . . . self-centered parents who considered you only in passing.”

“Right.”

He nodded toward the door. “Walk me out.”

What she really wanted to do was get back to work and distance herself from this man.

Outside, the Santa Ana winds were kicking up dust and blowing leaves from the trees. She closed the door behind them to avoid it crashing against the wall inside.

He took the first step and turned. “Avery.”

“Yes?”

His lips pulled into a grin. “I’d like to take you out.”

His words didn’t register at first. She thought maybe he was suggesting a work-related meal . . . but they’d never done that, and there wasn’t a need.

“On a date. Dinner,” he clarified.

“Oh, ah . . .” Think, Avery . . . hell no. “I’m flattered.” In a creeper kind of way.

His smile tilted.

“I’m seeing someone.” Oh, Liam, don’t fail me now.

“Exclusively?”

She bobbed her head like one of those dolls. “Yup.”

His eyes narrowed.

“I thought you said after your divorce you poured yourself into your work and that nothing got in the way of your getting the job done.”

This was going from bad to worse. Not to mention get a hint, dude. “It’s new. Besides, I’m working for you, and that wouldn’t feel right even if I was available.”

He smiled again. “So if things don’t work out with you and . . .”

Avery didn’t offer a name.

“You’d say yes? After the work is done, of course.”

No! She couldn’t say that.

Her skin itched. “You’re a very nice man.”

Not the right words. She could tell by the expression on his face.

“Well, then. We’ll revisit this conversation when the job is over.”

Before she could suggest he not ask again, he bounced off the stairs and ducked behind the steering wheel of his Volvo.

Avery scurried inside and leaned against the closed door.

With a shudder, she rested her head in her hand. She didn’t see that coming. How the hell was she going to handle him?

“I’m blowing off krav on Tuesday,” Avery told Liam over the phone later that night.

“Brenda’s going to make you work harder on Friday.”

“I know. But I can’t help it. I have a late appointment with an art dealer and a whole house filled with old furniture. I have no idea how long it will take. I want this job done as soon as possible.”

“Late hours and stress. You sound like me.”

Avery kicked her feet up on her coffee table and drank from her bottled water. “Who would have guessed?” She considered telling him about Sheldon but decided to hold off. She’d been keyed up about the man all day and needed time to sort out how to handle him.

“I have back-to-back inspections all week, and my second crew is starting a job in Santa Monica.”

“More work than you can handle?”

“No. I probably need to hire a couple more guys and tell my secretary to increase the payroll.”

Avery watched her feet as she spoke on the phone. “You have a secretary?”

“Yup. My sister.”

“So it’s a family business.”

“No. She’s in school for a psychology degree and helping me while she lives here. I told her she didn’t have to, but she insisted.”

“Sounds like a winning combination for everyone.”

“She wants to meet you.”

Avery froze. “Ah . . .”

“Let me rephrase that. I’d like you to come over for dinner and meet my family.”

She didn’t mean to hesitate, but the words took a while to form in her mouth. “I just got used to talking to you on the phone . . . and texting.”

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