One Good Reason
Jon Adamson woke with a start. Someone was in his room. A heartbeat later, he was on his feet, fists raised, every muscle tense as he squared up to the intruder.
“Mate.” His brother held up his hands, took a step backward. “It’s just me.”
Jon dropped his fists. “You should have knocked.”
“I did.” Tyler’s gaze flicked to the half-empty bottle of bourbon beside the bed. “Several times.”
The light was hazy in the room. Jon tried to guess the time. Nine in the morning? Ten? He reached for the jeans he’d dumped at the end of the bed when he’d finally crashed last night.
“I was up pretty late.”
He wasn’t about to offer explanations for the bourbon or anything else. A man could have a few drinks at the end of the day. Besides, Tyler was the younger brother - it was Jon’s job to heavy him, not the other way around.
“What are you doing up this way?” he asked as he stepped into his jeans.
Jon had been back in Australia, living in their late father’s house in the rural Victorian town of Woodend for eight months now. Tyler was based an hour and a half away in Melbourne, so the two of them didn’t cross paths very often. Not that that would have changed even if they were geographically closer. They’d never been the kind of brothers who lived in each other’s pockets - witness the ten years Jon had spent in Canada.
“I hadn’t heard from you for a while. Thought I’d better check in.”
Jon pulled his T-shirt over his head, aware of the unspoken questions behind his brother’s words.
Why didn’t you return my phone messages? What’s going on?
“I’ve been busy.”
“Yeah, I saw that. When did you knock down the wall between the kitchen and the living room?”
“Figured both rooms would benefit from the light. Anyway, it’s all about open plan these days.”
“What happened to tidying up the yard and giving the old place a lick of paint before we sold it?”
“If you’re that desperate for the money I can get a valuation done. Pay out your half.”
“It’s not about the money.”
Jon walked toward the door. “Yeah? What’s it about, then?”
Tyler follow him through to the kitchen. He’d pulled up the old lino tiles and the boards were rough beneath his feet. He side-stepped the hole where he’d removed a rotten plank and crossed to the sink. Turning on the tap, he sluiced big handfuls of cold water onto his face.
Tyler was looking around, inspecting the gaping holes in the plaster where the kitchen cabinets had once hung. The only remaining features of the original kitchen was the unit housing the sink, the freestanding cooker and the fridge. And they’d be gone any day now, too.
“I suppose you’ve gutted the bathroom, too?” Tyler asked.
“Everything except the toilet and shower recess.”
Tyler’s gaze was knowing. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just knock the place down?”
“I’m fixing it up for re-sale. We both agreed it needed some work before we put it on the market.”
“Mate, you’re demolishing it from the inside out.”
“The kitchen needed updating. The bloody thing hadn’t been touched since the fifties. And the bathroom was leaking into the subfloor. You can see the joists I had to replace if you want to.”
Tyler didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look away, either. Jon could feel his hackles rising. Tyler was trying to make a big deal out of this, reading things into Jon’s actions. Whatever Tyler thought was going on, he was wrong. Way wrong.
He crossed his arms over his chest, widened his stance.
“I’m doing you and Ally a favor. You’ll make a lot more once this place has been fixed up than you would have if we’d put it on the market as it was,” Jon said.
“Will you quit it with the money? I don’t give a damn how much we make. I’m here because of you.”
“Yeah? You looked in a mirror lately? When was the last time you shaved or had a haircut?”
Jon brushed a hand over his bristly jaw. “I’ve been busy.”
“Too busy to eat? Because you look like a sack of bones.”
“I’m fine,” he repeated.
“Which is why Ally got a call from Cathy in the middle of the night on Monday, telling her it sounded like you were holding a demolition derby in here at two in the morning.”
Cathy was the neighbor to the right. Up until this moment, Jon had thought she was alright. He’d even tried to talk her into bed a few times, but she was seeing some computer guy in the city.
“I was taking the wall out,” Jon said.
“At two in the morning?”
“If I woke her, I’ll apologise.”
“And what about all the bottles in the recycling bin?”
Jon’s eyes narrowed. His brother was quite the amateur sleuth.
“I’d say that gets filed under ‘none of your business’, same as everything else.”
“Doesn’t work that way, sorry. I’m not going to just stand by and watch you kill yourself over an old bastard who wasn’t worth it.”
Jon stilled. “This has nothing to do with him.”
But he could barely get the words past the sudden tightness in his throat.
“You think if you change enough of this place it’ll change what happened here?” Tyler asked.
“I think you’ve been living with an advice columnist for too long.”
Tyler eyed him for a long beat. Then he tilted his head to one side and nodded slowly, a gesture which Jon read as conceding defeat.
Good. He didn’t need a keeper. He was doing just fine.
As for the things Tyler had said... This was nothing to do with the old man. It was nothing to do with anything.
“I told Ally you wouldn’t listen,” Tyler said.
His brother crossed to the kitchen door and collected something from the rear hallway.
An overnight bag.
It took a moment for the penny to drop.
“No,” Jon said.
“I figure if we both pitch in, we can get this place finished in a few weeks. Get it on the market. Then you can go back to Toronto or wherever. Get away from here.”
Jon swore. “I don’t want you here.”
Heat raced up the back of Jon’s neck. “I don’t need a baby-sitter.”
“Then stop acting like you do.”
Jon breathed in slowly through his nose and out through his mouth. It didn’t make much difference - he still wanted to smash a hole in something.
He strode across the room, picked up the overnight bag. Started for the door. Maybe once he’d tossed Tyler’s gear into the street his brother would get the message that his intervention was neither welcome nor necessary.
Tyler moved, blocking his path. Jon stopped just short of barging into his brother’s shoulder. He met Tyler’s gaze. There was determination there. And something else.
It made Jon’s free hand curl into a fist.
“Get out of my way.”
“I’m not leaving unless you come with me,” Tyler said. “Come down to Melbourne, move into the spare room. Get away from this place.”
“Get out of my way.”
Tyler didn’t move. Jon reached out to push his brother out of his path. Tyler resisted, grabbing a fistful of Jon’s T-shirt as he attempted to hold him off. Years ago, Jon would have been able to shift his brother easily, but Tyler was a man now, and they’d both inherited their father’s big build.
Jon braced his legs, shoving harder. His brother shoved back. For long moments they struggled, locked together. In any other fight, it would have come to blows by now, but Jon was not going to throw a punch at his brother.
Not in this house.
“Move,” Jon ground out.
“He’s dead. And even if he wasn’t, he’s not worth it. Not in a million years.”
A surge of anger gave Jon new strength. He wrenched his brother to the side. Shoved past him and into the hall and out the rear door.
The air was cool on his face, the grass still damp from the morning dew. He dropped the bag to the ground and stood facing side-on to the house, chest heaving from the exertion, aware of his brother stopping in the open doorway, watching him.
This wasn’t about his father. Jon refused to let him hold that much power over him. He was simply making the most of the house. Fulfilling its potential. It was what he did - he was a builder. He made homes for people. Until recently he’d co-owned a construction company in Toronto. This was just business as usual.
His gaze found the recycling bin, filled to overflowing with various liquor bottles. Vodka, bourbon, whisky, the occasional bottle of red wine.
Too many bottles for one person. Way too many.
He swore. Ran a hand through his hair, fisting his hand in it and pulling so tightly that it hurt.
Why couldn’t Tyler have just left him here to rot, or whatever it was he was doing? Why couldn’t he have just left him to battle it out on his own with the ghost of a dead man?
He laughed, a short, hard bark of bitter amusement.
If this really was a battle, according to the tide of bottles spilling onto the lawn he was making a pretty poor showing. He was in full retreat, utterly routed, on his way to surrender.
Tyler’s hand landed on his shoulder.
“Let’s patch it up and sell it. And never look back.”
Jon knew his brother was right but he hated the understanding in his voice. He twisted out from under his brother’s grip. Moved away from him.
“We should focus on the kitchen, knock it off first. The bathroom won’t need too much time if we stick to the original layout.”
Carefully not looking at his brother, he strode toward the house.
“Nothing compares to youuuuu.” Gabby Wade belted out the chorus to Sinead O’Connor’s classic as she pulled into her usual parking spot out the front of T.A. Furniture Designs, her voice echoing loudly in the small space. She waited until the final notes of the song had faded before turning off the ignition with a contented sigh.
There was nothing better than a really good angst-ridden ballad to kick off a Monday morning, and no one was better at it than Sinead. She grabbed her bag then twisted to collect the jumbo box of donuts from the backseat. The smell of chocolate and strawberry wafted up to her as she made her way across the parking lot to the showroom door. It was barely eight, so the door was still locked and she balanced the donuts on her knee as she struggled to get her key in the lock. The donuts nearly hit the dust before she got the door open, but she managed to keep her grip on them. Not that it would have made much difference to the guys - they’d probably eat cardboard if it had chocolate frosting on it. A little gravel would hardly put them off.
She locked the door behind her, then passed through the showroom, making a mental note to rearrange the display some time this week. Even though she was officially only the office manager, she’d been stepping into sales a lot more lately and a static showroom wasn’t doing anyone any favors.
Heaven knew, Tyler was too distracted these days to notice those kinds of things. It was just as well she had his back.
The sharp whine of a power saw hit her as she pushed through the door to the workshop. Dino was ripping some red gum, and Paul was setting up the router to bevel the edge on a cherry wood dining table. Carl was marking up some wood, squinting like crazy because he was still refusing to admit he needed glasses.
“Morning, boys,” Gabby hollered over the noise.
Dino grunted without looking up, while Carl ignored her altogether. Paul glanced up briefly, throwing her a token wave. She waited for his brain to register the donut box in her hands. One cat-dog, two cat-dog, three -
His head whipped up again and his mouth curled into a sweet, hopeful smile.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
“Yes, my gallant prince, it is. Two dozen of Krispy Kremes finest for the fairest gentlemen in all the land.”
The saw stopped abruptly. Suddenly all eyes were on her. Nothing like refined sugars and fats to get a man’s attention.
“Gabby, you’re a gem.” Dino dusted his hands together as he started toward her.
“What he said,” Carl echoed, his eyes on the box as he followed in Dino’s footsteps.
“Try to leave some for Tyler and Kelly,” Gabby said.
Paul took the box from her hands.
“Of course. We’re not animals.” Dino had a donut in each hand.
“I’ll take your word for it,” she said.
Dino laughed sheepishly as she turned toward her office. Then, as though it had only just occurred to her, she swung back.
“I almost forgot - we really need to get that board room table out tomorrow. So anything you guys could do to squeeze it through would be really appreciated.”
Dino froze mid-bite. “So these are bribe donuts? Nice. How cheap do you think we are?”
“I got chocolate custard, your favorite.”
Dino’s aggrieved look faded a fraction. “Fine. We’ll do what we can. But I’m not making any promises.”
Gabby hid her grin as she turned toward her office. If she knew Dino - and after three years of being Tyler’s office manager, she was pretty confident she did - the table would be ready to go with the afternoon’s deliveries. And all it had cost her was a trip to Krispy Kreme.
United Nations, eat your heart out.
She pushed open her office door, still smiling - and froze.
A complete stranger - a man - sat behind her desk, his back to the door as he tapped away at her computer.
She stared at his broad shoulders, strong neck and close-cropped dark hair. What the hell was he doing in her office, using her computer? Making himself at home in her chair?
“Um, excuse me...?” she finally said when she’d gotten over her initial surprise.
He held up an imperious hand, not even bothering to glance over his shoulder to see who it was. “Sorry. Won’t be a minute.”
She stared, incredulous, as whoever-he-was continued to tap away at the keyboard.
Was he for real?
“Of course. Make yourself at home. Maybe you’d like a coffee while you’re at it?”
He glanced over his shoulder and she found herself staring into a pair of dark grey eyes.
“Tyler said I could jump on to check a few things. I’ll be out of your hair in just a second.”
His voice was low and deep, a subterranean rumble along her nerve endings. Between it and those eyes and the shape of his jaw and face, it wasn’t hard to work out who he was: Jon Adamson, Tyler’s brother.
He turned back to the computer and Gabby found herself staring at his shoulders again. He was bigger than Tyler, broader. She knew he was older by a year or so, too, but apart from that the only thing she knew about Jon Adamson was that until recently he’d been living in Canada, that he’d missed Ally and Tyler’s wedding because of some business commitment back there, and that the last few months he’d been based at Woodend while he renovated the family home prior to sale.
Correction, she knew one other thing - he was rude. Because surely even the most insensitive person could guess that invading somebody’s personal space and then virtually ignoring them when they discovered you was not exactly the way to go about winning friends.
She crossed her arms over her chest and waited. And waited.
After what felt like an age, Jon Adamson hit a key on her computer and pushed away from the desk.
“Thanks for that,” he said as he stood.
He was a little taller than Tyler, and now that he was facing her full on she noted further similarities and differences between the two brothers. His cheekbones were pronounced like Tyler’s but sharper, and the lines around his eyes and mouth were deeper. His jaw was the same strong, sure arc, his chin as determined, but his eyes were a much darker grey, the color of storm clouds instead of Tyler’s unusual quicksilver.
Her gaze swept down his body, taking in his pristine white T-shirt and his equally crisp-looking jeans. Both new, unless she missed her guess. Only his boots looked well-worn. Her gaze returned to his face, noting his clean-shaven jaw and the military neatness of his buzz cut.
He looked...newly minted somehow. But in a very raw, spare kind of way.
She was aware of him checking her out, too, and for a crazy second wished she was wearing something other than her faded green t-shirt and well-worn jeans and that she’d booked in for a proper haircut instead of trimming her fringe with the nail scissors this morning.
She shook the thought off quickly - all signs pointed to the fact that this man was an ass, and she didn’t give two hoots what an ass thought of her.
Not even one hoot.