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One Week with her Rival:Eden Manor, Book One

By:Noelle Adams

Eden Manor, Book One


Monday


Vanessa Franks stared at the rickety balustrade of the main staircase in  Eden Manor and tried to fight a familiar sense of rising panic and  helplessness. The staircase must have been a masterpiece when it was  carved a hundred and fifty years ago, but now it was dilapidated and  broken.

And Vanessa was responsible for getting it back to its former glory in only one week.

Ever since her husband had died three years ago, Vanessa had struggled  to hold his business together. She'd never wanted to be a contractor,  although she'd grown up with DIY parents and so knew more than most  about construction and renovation. But her husband, Carl, had poured his  soul into his contracting business, and she'd vowed not to let it fall  apart now, just because he'd died in a car accident. Even after three  years, with each new job she took on, she felt like she was grappling  with loose ends that would inevitably slip through her fingers.

Forcing the anxiety into a tight ball in a dark corner of her mind, she  took a deep breath and smiled at Ruth Owens, her friend and the best  woodworker in North Georgia. "I know it's kind of a rush," Vanessa said,  "but do you think you can have it done in a week?"

Ruth was in her fifties-a strong, plain-spoken, no-nonsense kind of  woman. "Don't know. That's pushing it, for this kind of work."

"I know. But the owners moved up the timetable, and they really want to get it done. Do the best you can, will you?"

"Sure thing." Ruth was shaking her head, the loose graying hair that had  escaped her braid brushing against her cheek. "What's the hurry  anyway?"

"I guess their investor is coming to visit this weekend, and they want  to show him as much progress as possible. They mentioned the staircase  particularly."

Vanessa had been thrilled when a young couple had bought Eden Manor, an  old lakeside Victorian mansion that had sat empty for years. They were  going to turn it into a bed and breakfast, and Vanessa had fought hard  for the contract to restore the house.

She'd been happy to at least get the fine craftsman jobs-the detailed  woodworking, the stained glass and ironwork, and the preservation of the  old fireplaces. She'd wanted the entire project, but obnoxious Joe  Coleman had outbid her for the grunt work. He had most of the  construction laborers in the county in his pocket, effectively shutting  her out of the bigger jobs.

It had been different when Carl was alive-since he'd grown up in the  area and had a lot of friends-but now there was nothing Vanessa could do  to get the workers away from Joe. Fortunately, she had cultivated  relationships with the fine craftspeople in the region, or she would be  out of work completely.

She hoped somewhere Carl was happy that his business still survived-that  he was pleased about how hard she was working to keep his company  afloat.

"Did I lose you somewhere?" Ruth asked, breaking into Vanessa's thoughts.

"Oh. Sorry. Just worrying, as usual."

"I'll do the best I can here. Nothing to worry about."

Vanessa smiled, gratified by Ruth's relaxed good-nature and her  loyalty-something the world was in short supply of. "There's always  something to worry about."

"You worry too much. You're doing real good. Carl would be proud of you."

A wave of emotion washed over Vanessa, momentarily burning in her eyes.  Carl had always been proud of her, even when she'd been in college and  her greatest feat had been an A on a difficult exam. "Thanks."

"Seriously. I never thought you could make a go of it after Carl died. I  thought you should just sell out to Joe like he wanted. No  offense-you're just so little and pretty and delicate, and you don't  look like you could do big jobs like this."

Vanessa was used to the sentiment. It was hard enough to be a woman in  this business. Being five-three and small-boned, with big brown eyes and  long, wavy brown hair made it even harder. She'd had to get used to men  patronizing her or coming on to her-or sometimes both at once. "I'm not  really delicate."

"I know. You just look that way. Anyway, the point is you're doing a great job and you have nothing to worry about."

"I'd worry less if Joe Coleman wasn't always lurking around, trying to nibble at the edges of my business."

Ruth laughed, rubbing the mahogany wood of the lovely old balustrade, as  if it were a special friend. "Oh, Joe, he doesn't mean any harm."

"Yes, he does." Vanessa's shoulders stiffened at the thought of the  man's arrogant, infuriating face. "You know what he did when he first  came back to town. And he still wants to buy me out. He'd love to see me  fail."         

     



 

"Nah. I'm not sure he wanted that, even then. He just has a thing for you, is all."

"He does not have a thing for me. He does all that flirting stuff on purpose, trying to manipulate me."

Ruth appeared to be privately amused. "I don't think so."

"He flirts with everyone. I see him all the time down at the hardware  store and the coffee shop. If she has an X chromosome, he'll flirt with  her."

The year after Carl had died, Vanessa had been foolish enough to take  Joe's flirting seriously. Carl had been dead for six months, and Joe had  moved back to the area from Atlanta because of his parents' failing  health. He'd started up as a contractor and hung around her a lot, being  sweet and funny and interested in everything she was doing. It had been  far too soon after being widowed for her to consider another  relationship, but she'd still been humiliated and deeply disappointed to  realize that he wasn't interested in her at all. He'd just wanted to  take over the business that her husband had left her, and he'd been  trying to woo her into selling out to him.

She'd overheard him talking to a couple of his buddies in the hardware  store about how he had her in his pocket and how she'd sell out to him  for sure. She still cringed at the memory of his smug, amused,  condescending tone and how foolish she'd been to take him seriously.

She knew better now. Joe Coleman might have the rest of the world  fooled-thinking he was good guy-but she wasn't going to be deceived by  him again.

"Right," Ruth said, still looking unconvinced. "Whatever you say."

Vanessa didn't reply. She'd realized a long time ago that responding to  comments like that only made her look weaker and less confident. Anyway,  she liked Ruth, and she didn't want to argue with her about something  so silly.

It didn't matter what anyone else thought. It only mattered what Vanessa knew to be true.

Ruth must have been watching her expression because her tone changed as  she added, "You could stop all the gossip, you know, if you'd ever  decide to go out with someone else."

Vanessa gave a huff of resigned amusement. "I don't know what you believe, but no one has been asking me out."

"But that's your fault. You send out all these back-off vibes."

"I do not."

"Sure, you do. Maybe you don't even realize it. But guys are pretty much  wimps when it comes to romance, and they're not going to ask you out if  they don't think you're going to say yes."

Vanessa frowned. "I'm not interested in going out with a wimp. Besides, there's no one around I want to go out with."

It was true. She'd met Carl when she was still in college in Augusta,  her hometown. They'd been set up by mutual friends, and they'd hit it  off and married within the year, soon moving back to northern Georgia,  where he'd been raised. She'd only been twenty-five when he died, and  since then she'd been too busy with work to have time or energy to be  interested in romance.

North Georgia didn't have a lot to choose from in terms of eligible men, anyway.

"There's always Joe," Ruth said.

Vanessa's head gave a little jerk. "You're kidding, right? There's no way in the world I'd be interested in him."

"Of course not."

Vanessa had to fight not to snap back a response, but she managed to restrain herself.

Ruth could tease all she wanted. Joe Coleman was the last man in the world she'd ever want to be paired off with.

***

Thirty minutes later, Vanessa was leaving Eden Manor, heading to her  SUV, so she could drive to the hardware store and order the supplies  Ruth needed for the staircase.

Joe's guys were working on siding. He had six of them on the job today,  in pairs on various sides of the house. At this rate, he'd have all the  wood siding replaced and painted by the end of the week.

Peter and Kelly, the new owners of Eden Manor, would be so pleased with his success.

She tried not to begrudge him. He'd lived in the area all his life,  except the few years he'd worked in Atlanta, and he'd grown up with most  of the guys on his crew. Naturally, when they were looking for work,  they'd gravitate toward him. It didn't mean all these guys thought she  was incapable of doing this job.

But she knew most of them were watching her as she made her way to her  SUV. Today, she was wearing jeans and a simple T-shirt. She never  dressed provocatively or even showed a lot of skin. But guys tended to  look at women when they passed by, no matter what they wore, so she was  used to them looking at her.         

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