Anything But Sweet

Read the Excerpt

During her years in design, Charli had learned that first impressions were critical. And Main Street—the heart of Sweet, Texas—was in desperate need of a better first impression. As they’d come through town, the hardware store’s sun-bleached cedar siding and rusted metal roof had caught her eye. Though the white paint on the window frame had peeled like a bad sunburn, the place had charm. It just needed a little spiffing up.

As she wobbled across the road in the ridiculous high heels the show’s wardrobe consultant had insisted she wear, a strategy sprouted in her mind. Because of a bad economy and budget cuts, shows like theirs were always on the edge of extinction. Charli had a lot to prove. She’d always been known for tackling the impossible—like trying to impress her father—or renovating a former hospital into low-cost apartments for senior citizens. In her mind, the bigger the challenge, the better the satisfaction when the project was complete.

Aside from the numerous large projects on Main Street, there was the hardware store. Which might not be big in size, but something told her a lot of heart had gone into those walls. And she planned to make them prettier.

When she opened the front door, a little bell jingled her arrival. While she waited, she looked around. Everything on the inside appeared as ancient as the outside. Like maybe the items for sale had sat on the shelves since the turn of the nineteenth century.

Finally, from a back room, Mr. Tall, Dark, and … yep, still Grumpy, emerged. To her surprise, his big hands were busy buttoning a plaid shirt over a spectacularly tan, naked chest with a light layer of hair that looked soft and inviting to fingertips that were tactile sensitive. Like hers. Below those amazing pecs came a set of rippled abs. Not the overdone variety, like the ones displayed in the gym where some men seemed to have nothing better to do than pump and preen. The abs on Mr. Grouchy looked like they’d been cut from hard, sweaty man work.

In a moment of sheer indulgence, she dropped her gaze lower to the fine dark hair that swirled his belly button, then formed a line that disappeared into a pair of jeans slung over narrow hips. What went on below that looked to be equally interesting.

Sadly, with each button he closed, the magnificent view disappeared. She forced her eyes upward with a mental reminder that she was on a man ban. Looky, but no touchy.

“How can I help …” He glanced up. “You.” While his last word dropped off on an accusation, those dark eyes sliced and diced her like a Ronco Chop-O-Matic. Something in her stomach did a funny side shuffle and a little heel kick.

Down girl.

“You stole my dog,” she said, as soon as her senses rolled back up into her brain.

Those incredible eyes narrowed just a fraction. “First of all,” he said, “that’s not a dog. Second, I didn’t steal it. You dumped it. And third, you owe me a shirt.”

“A shirt?”

“Pumpkin had a little accident.”

“Oh.” Charli covered her mouth to hide her smile. “Sorry. Good thing you sell shirts.” She glanced around again at the products available for sale. “And coffeepots. And yarn. And candles. And pet supplies. And …” She squinted her eyes. “Are those silk poppies in that apple basket?”

“You got a problem with fake flowers?”

“In a craft store? No. In a hardware and feed store? Don’t you think that’s a little … odd?”

His wide shoulders came up—making him look even larger and infinitely more intimidating. “I think what’s odd is why you want to come to this town and fix what isn’t broken.”

“No one said Sweet was broken. But don’t you think it could use a little livening up?”

“If you’ve ever been to Seven Devils on a hot summer night, you wouldn’t ask that question.”

“And Seven Devils is … ?”

“Local bar. Not someplace someone like you would frequent.”

“You know nothing about me, Mr. …”

“Wilder.” He gave a nod toward the front window. “Like the sign says.”

“So, then, where are your sons?”

“You sure ask a lot of questions.”

“And you’re pretty good at dodging them.” That almost got a smile. Or not. “Where’s my dog?”

“That pathetic excuse for a canine is in back. If Bear hasn’t eaten her for a snack.”

Bear? Images of sharp teeth and claws shot panic up Charli’s spine. She headed toward the back room. Mr. Grumpy with the fabulous physique stepped in her way and filled her senses with a delicious scent that was clean, warm, and all male.

“Can’t you read?” His voice resonated in a deep rumble that vibrated over her skin like a hot caress.

She looked up over the door. employees only. “Are you holding Pumpkin hostage until I pay for your new shirt?”

“Hadn’t thought of that.” He glanced at a rack of plaid apparel and the sign that read $19.99. “But it’s not a bad idea.”

“I left my purse in the Hummer. You’ll have to take my word that I’m good for it.”

“Now, while it might be easy to figure that a woman who owns an expensive vehicle like—”

“The expensive vehicle belongs to the production company. I drive a MINI Cooper.”

“Still presents a problem.” He folded his arms, and biceps bulged beneath those short sleeves. “Because, as you said, I don’t know you.”

“I’m not going anywhere for six weeks,” she said. “And I promise you twenty bucks is no big deal.” She brushed past him. All her fears washed away when she found Pumpkin playfully nipping at the ears of an Australian shepherd several times her size. The other dog lay there with a tilt to his russet eyebrows that said, “Please remove this pest from my personal space.”

“Pumpkin! Stop that.” Charli swooped up her little dog, then looked up at the big, tall man beside her. “Your dog is very tolerant. Probably a lot more so than his owner.”

Turning on her heel, she headed toward the front door, where her earlier idea burst into full bloom. Behind her, his bootheels came to a halt near the sales counter. She stopped and turned.

“Just so you know,” she said in her most confident voice, “at the reveal meeting tonight in the community hall, I plan to present the big plan. I want to do you first.”

That dark gaze traveled up and down her body like a singles-party cruise.

He was a big strong man. A man’s man. With a no trespassing sign embedded in those dark eyes. Probably burned into his heart as well. She knew the type. Too well. Women loved him, and he knew it. And he’d love them. Then move on.

As his eyes came back up to her face, a smile appeared from within a five o’clock shadow and flashed a deep set of dimples Charli would never have guessed existed. The combination of dark and light on him was magnificent and devastating.

“Well, now, Ms. Brooks, that’s a mighty fine offer,” he drawled. “But I hardly know you. And I’ve never considered myself a one-night-stand kind of guy.”

Of course he didn’t. He was probably more like a half-a-night-stand kind of guy.

“I meant I’d like your store to be the first makeover we do,” she rushed to clarify.

He moved out from behind the counter and came toward her. His boots thudded on the ancient wood floor and stopped mere inches away. Again, she was overwhelmed by his size and pure masculinity. One that foolishly made her want to wrap her arms around his wide shoulders and nuzzle against that strong neck.

He was not a pretty boy by any means. His face was all man—accented with a few lines at the corners of his eyes. This close, she also noticed a few silver hairs at his temples. Experience and maybe some heartbreak too were etched on that face. It all came together in a curiously gorgeous package that made her want to dig deeper.

“Never,” he said.

She blinked away the forbidden fantasy that had begun to romp through her imagination. “I beg your pardon?”

“You will never touch this place,” he said. “Not on my watch. Not in my lifetime.”

The low, deep tone in his voice stopped just short of a growl and sent a shiver up her spine. Unfortunately, the chill wasn’t of the Little Red Riding Hood vs. the Big Bad Wolf variety. And reckless girl that she could often be, it intrigued the hell out of her.

She tilted her head and studied him. The intensity in his eyes. The tension in his jaw. The stiffness in his spine. “Why on earth would you be against creating a better shopping environment for your customers?” she asked. “In the three towns our show has renovated, data indicates that afterward, business picked up, and profits increased. Who in their right mind would be opposed to enhanced customer satisfaction and a higher bottom line?”

“Satisfaction has never been an issue,” he drawled in a tone that suggested his comment had nothing to do with hardware. Then he reached behind her and opened the door. “Have a nice day.”

With a lift of her chin, she took the not-so-subtle hint, tucked Pumpkin in closer, and stepped out onto the boardwalk.

The door closed in her face.

Charli glared through the glass and watched his very fine backside disappear into the stockroom.

Never is a very long time, Pumpkin.” She looked down into her dog’s big brown eyes and ran her fingers over the fuzzy topknot tied up with a yellow bow. “And, unfortunately for him, I‘m on a tight schedule.”

About the Book


Read the Reviews