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Publisher’s Note: this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.

Edited by Grace Bradley

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Love By Design

Chapter One

Although she wouldn’t admit to being flustered, Lily Daly was definitely feeling the pressure of the clock. She glanced at it for the third time in as many minutes as she finished pulling a straightening iron through her light-brown hair.

She turned right and then left in the dim light of her little bathroom, checking for any missed spots, not realizing she’d put her hand down too close to the hot metal plates until she felt the sizzle. She hissed as the iron brushed against her skin and yanked the plug from the wall before sucking the side of her palm into her mouth.

Get it together, Lily. You’ve got plenty of time. Steady. Calm.

Looking herself over one more time, she breathed in and out slowly, trying to remember the latest technique she’d learned in yoga. It was supposed to help calm her, but she felt only the same old tug of anxiety she’d felt all morning. The first day of her very first paid job was just not the time for anything approaching a Zen state of mind.

She grabbed her mug and took a deep swig. Not that she needed any more of a buzz—she’d been awake and jittery with nervous excitement since before dawn.

Lily had started her own interior design business, Daly Designs, three months before and until her first client called last week, her only job had been her mother. As heartwarming as being paid in cookies for remodeling her parents’ master bedroom was, she could have wept tears of joy after that first real client phone call. Especially when she’d heard what Mrs. Christina Upton was willing to pay. What Lily needed more than anything was a paying job. One that she could proudly put into her portfolio. One that would pay for the extremely expensive pants she’d just bought.

The pants, a soft butter-colored linen that had made her butt look fantastic in the dressing room the day before, slid on just as easily now and she turned around in front of the closet mirror, admiring the cut as she zipped them up. She couldn’t really afford them, but Lily believed strongly in the idea that one had to dress for the role one wanted. And for Lily, that meant a much higher-quality wardrobe than the yoga pants and t-shirts she’d been living in since quitting her job at Blackwood Interiors—the only other interior design firm in Crystal Falls—to start her own gig.

This new job was a remodel of an old cabin located halfway up the mountain between Crystal Falls, where Lily had lived for the past four years, and the nearby ski resort of Breckenridge. She’d only talked to the client’s assistant, who hadn’t given her the details of the job over the phone, but Lily assumed it would be like much of the remodel work she’d done when she’d worked for Blackwood. The mountains around Crystal Falls were dotted with cabins and ski chalets of the wealthy, creating plenty of work for the architects, builders and designers who lived in Crystal Falls year-round.

Lily checked the clock again and felt her heart thud as she pulled a deep-purple shirt on, the fabric gliding smoothly over her skin. She couldn’t help but smile as she ran her hands over the silky fabric. It was the small luxuries, the details, Lily knew, that made life really enjoyable. She believed it so strongly that she made it her guiding principle in her design work as well as her personal life. It was easy to wow someone with a flashy carpet or expensive couch, but finding just the right vase for an alcove or throw for a bed made all the difference. It was this philosophy that had made her work stand out from other designers at Blackwood, and the one she hoped to capitalize on with her new business.

Her cell phone rang in the other room and she pulled a pair of cream heels from the closet quickly, stumbling into them on her way to the phone. The screen blinked “MOM” and 7:46 a.m. She let out a frustrated squeal of a breath before dropping the phone back in her purse and grabbing her coffee. Her mother would just have to wait. The only thing worse than showing up poorly dressed was showing up late. She was supposed to be up the mountain and at her client’s house in less than fifteen minutes—a feat she knew would be next to impossible.

Kicking into higher gear, Lily scrambled around her tiny apartment, grabbing her work bag with all her samples and portfolio, her keys and her purse. She fought the urge for one last look in the mirror and headed out the door as her phone rang again. She didn’t even have to look to see who it was. She knew her mother too well.

She threw everything into the passenger seat of her bright-red Mini Cooper and headed through the small main street of town toward the highway that would take her up the mountain.

With any luck she would only be a few minutes late. At least the roads heading toward the ski areas were clean and easy in July. If it were only a couple of months later, she might have to stop and put on snow tires. Just thinking about that gave her chills.

She punched a button on her console and dialed her mother. Lily knew it was best to talk to Barbara Daly when she only had a few minutes to spare—otherwise her mom could go on for ages, ignoring all attempts Lily might make to cut her off.

“Why didn’t you answer when I called?” her mother’s voice blared out of the car’s speakers. She turned the volume down. Way down.

“I was busy. I have my appointment today, remember?”

“With that rich client? The one you told me about?”

“Yep. I start work on the place today.” Lily drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as she navigated the curves of Highway 9.

“You sound flustered, dear. I hope you aren’t driving too fast.” Her mother’s nagging brought her attention back to the road. It was gorgeous on the mountain, the early-morning sun filtering through the dense line of pine trees that hugged every turn. She braked quickly when she saw two deer in the grass beside the guardrail, but they bounded off into the trees as she made another turn.

“I’m fine, Mom. I’m going the speed limit.” Close enough, at least.

“I know you’ll do great today. Just remember that you can’t control what other people think of you, only what you think of yourself.”

“Okay, thanks a lot.” She knew enough not to question the tidbit of self-help advice, one of her mother’s fortes. “Listen, I should probably go…”

“Did I tell you what your sister did last week? She got drunk and got her belly button pierced. Can you believe she’d do such a thing? At her age?”

Lily mumbled back, not wanting to continue the conversation. Especially not since she’d been the one to talk her sister Rachel into it.

“Wow, that’s crazy, Mom. Look, I really need to go,” she tried to interrupt. She’d just pulled onto the long winding drive that led to the house. She wasn’t beyond hanging up on her mother if necessary. She’d done it many times before.

“Damn it all to hell!” she cried, turning around the last curve to find not only a quaint, if dated cabin with a slick silver BMW parked outside, but a dark-blue extended-cab pickup truck. A truck that she knew too well.

“Honey, your language,” her mother replied. “What is it? Are you okay?”

“Nothing, Mom. Everything’s fine but I’ve gotta go. I’ll call you later.”

She hung up and fought the urge to ram into the big, dusty truck with its tacky “Gut Fish” bumper sticker. She would know the thing anywhere. The question was, what was her ex-boyfriend Noah doing at her very first job?

* * *

“If we could maybe take these walls out,” Mrs. Christina Upton gestured toward a long log wall that spanned the length of the cabin’s main living area, her many diamond rings catching the light, “and put in floor-to-ceiling windows instead, this room could really be fantastic. You can make that happen, right?”

Noah Caldwell frowned as he watched her walking the length of the wall in question. Christina Upton was exactly what Noah had expected when he’d agreed to take her cabin remodel job—ultra-rich and ultra-bored. She dripped money, from the floor-length ermine coat she wore to the perfect smoothness of her face and the platinum blonde of her hair. She never mentioned a Mr. Upton, although Noah was sure he existed somewhere, funding the woman’s every whim.

She leaned into him and he nearly gagged as her spicy perfume surrounded him.

“Of course,” he responded and moved quickly away from her and to the wall she’d pointed to. It was made up entirely of interlocking logs and had three small single-pane windows, each with yellowed eyelet curtains covering the dirty panes. He ran his hand along the knotted wood. What a shame it would be to have to cut into it, but he had to agree with Upton, the vast living room with vaulted log ceilings would really be spectacular with windows that looked out over the tree-lined ridges of the mountain.

He pulled his tape measure out and did some quick calculations, jotting himself notes that he could use when he settled back into his office to draw up the final plans for the remodel.

Noah had a reputation among the rich ski-buffs in the Breckenridge and Aspen areas as being the architect who could make anything happen. He knew that even if it meant tearing a house down to the studs to make the client happy, he could never use that hateful word “no.”

He had a sneaking suspicion she hadn’t hired him just for his architectural skills or his agreeable reputation either. In the five minutes they’d been together she’d already had her hands on him several times. And it wasn’t exactly a new experience for him. Ever since he’d been featured on the cover of Design Today two months before, there’d been a significant uptick in female clients who seemed to be more interested in his body than what he could do to their homes.

“Now, let me show you what I had in mind for the bedroom.” Just as she grabbed his hand to pull him down the hallway there was a knock at the door.

“Odd. I don’t think I was expecting anyone,” she said with a frown and moved to answer.

Noah leaned his elbows back against the nearest window frame and waited for his client. He hoped whoever it was wouldn’t be too much of a distraction—the walk-through was already taking longer than he’d expected and he had an important meeting about a condo development project back in town in just a couple of hours.

Christina opened the door and he straightened suddenly, his back and shoulders bunching in tight knots. His ex-girlfriend Lily, the last person in the world he expected to see, walked into the room with a dazzling smile.

Christina raised one eyebrow at her. “Can I help you?” she asked, her voice clipped, making it obvious that the interruption was anything but welcome.

“I’m Lily Daly, of Daly Design,” Lily began, but Christina waved a hand, cutting her off before she could say more.

“And I suppose my assistant Lydia told you to show up today.” Christina crossed her arms as Lily came fully into the room. “I swear that woman is deliberately trying to ruin me,” Christina murmured as Lily placed her bag on the kitchen counter.

Noah tried to calm the beat of his heart. He hadn’t seen Lily since their terrible breakup three months before and watching her walk into the room now, he couldn’t help but check her out, curious about how the months had treated her. Part of him wanted to see her beat down, affected in some way by their split, maybe a little added weight or bags under the eyes. It was childish of him, he knew, but their breakup had been rougher on him than he’d like to admit and he hoped she’d felt at least something from it too.

If anything, though, their separation had made her even more attractive than Noah remembered. Her slim legs and backside in her cream-colored pants caught his eye and her light hair glistened like silk down her back. Her high cheekbones still dared him to look straight into the gray-blue of her eyes, the eyes that had always knocked him off-kilter. Despite himself, despite their painful history, he felt drawn to her the same way he’d been drawn to her when they first met. He wanted to run his hands along every curve of her body, cup that delicate chin in his hand, feel her press close against him. He leaned back against the window and tried to steady himself by remembering how absolutely horrible their breakup had been.

Lily glanced around the room, seeming to take every bit of the cabin and its dated furniture in. Her hand brushed the old, cracked kitchen tiles as she surveyed the oak cabinets that hung in the small kitchen. She turned slowly around until her eyes finally fell on Noah where he stood by the window. His heart thudded and he felt his chest constrict with an old, aching desire, even as he saw a flash of anger come into her beautiful blues. It was a look he knew oh-so-well, one that was just as likely to make his blood boil as it was to make him feel hornier than a teenager. He scowled back at her, unsure if he was angrier at his own body’s betrayal or her presence, but she didn’t see it because she’d already turned toward Christina.

“Yes, I believe it was someone named Lydia who I spoke to about the design job.”

“I’m sorry, but she made a mistake. She’s supposed to meet you here tomorrow. She’ll be handling the decorating part of the job for me. If you’ll just come back then that would be great.” She turned her back to Lily and motioned for Noah to follow her. “Now, where were we?” she asked as she began to leave the room. Noah hesitated, glancing at Lily who stood still where she was, a look of stubborn frustration on her face.

“Excuse me!” Lily called. Christina whirled on Lily and Noah felt suddenly trapped between two angry women. Not a good feeling at all.

“If it’s all the same to you,” Lily continued, “I’d like to look around now, at least get some preliminary measurements and see the rest of the cabin so I can get to work on a few ideas today. I’ll stay out of you two’s way,” she told them both. “Believe me,” she added, just loud enough for him to hear.

The woman finally shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’ll see you in the master, Noah,” she told him and headed down the hall.

Noah bent to pick up a tape measure he’d left on the floor. He heard the clack of Lily’s heels behind him and he felt his body grow warm.

“I almost turned around when I saw your truck in the driveway,” Lily said under her breath as she brushed by him. Her scent hadn’t changed at all, just the slightest hint of vanilla and flowers, understated and enticing and completely unlike the overwhelming smell of Christina. His heart thudded wildly in his ears. Unfortunately it seemed her hatred of him hadn’t changed much either.

“Why didn’t you?” he replied. Her eyes narrowed in a look he knew too well and she left the room without another word.

When he entered the master bedroom he found Christina pacing. She let out an angry breath and he had to hold back a smile. He knew better than anyone how good Lily was at frustrating a person.

He was tempted to let her continue to seethe, just to see how far the cat-fight could go, but he knew he was losing precious time and took Christina’s elbow with a smooth smile.

“Tell me what you have in mind for this room, Mrs. Upton,” he said, bringing a grin to his client’s face. He held back a cringe as she grasped his arm.

“Christina, hon. Call me Christina,” she said.

Lily’s hands shook as she entered one of the small guest rooms down the hall. She propped herself against the wall and took deep breaths, trying to calm the rage she felt at being so rudely dismissed. It had taken all her willpower to play nice and not let her mouth make a bigger mess of the situation than it already was. The last few months had been rough for her, and she should have known that this job wasn’t going to be the sudden stroke of good luck she’d hoped for. But damn, did it have to be this hard?

She could have handled a rude client if that’s all she was dealing with. But seeing Noah again had nearly knocked her off her feet. And it seemed, in keeping with her horrible luck, that he would be working on the cabin as well. Great.

She felt sorry for herself another minute and then pushed off the wall. Might as well get something done. It was stupid that she’d have to come back tomorrow when the person who owned the house was right in the other room, ogling her ex-boyfriend. But she was used to working with rich clients who had no respect for other people’s time. She might as well forget the woman and make the best of the situation.

The cabin really was astounding. Deep-amber log walls surrounded her. The traditional design of the wood was warm and welcoming and she imagined how nice it must be to be cozy in the cabin during one of the area’s frequent snowstorms. She hoped the evil woman wouldn’t do too much damage to the original beauty of the place.

It did need a few upgrades, though.

The carpet, to start with, was a horrible shag monstrosity. Lily did a slow circle, imagining a room with plush cream carpets and deep-red bedding with accent pillows and artwork in shades of orange warming the room even more. She jotted a few notes to herself and then stuck her head into the small adjoining bathroom. Avocado tiles and an old pink toilet greeted her. She tried not to cringe at the puffy seat cover and cracked tile. She was thinking more white and grays, small, shimmering tiles. But who was she kidding? The space needed to be totally rebuilt. It felt pointless to even look at it before she knew what Noah would be doing to remodel the place.

She imagined he would have some updated plans going within a week or two, which would help her out considerably. And she would have to wait until tomorrow to meet with this Lydia person and figure out exactly what she was supposed to be working on.

It probably made more sense just to leave and come back tomorrow, but Lily had a real stubborn streak and she felt herself digging her heels in, despite knowing it was a waste of her time. She’d be damned if she was going to let the skinny and overly tanned Mrs. Uptight scare her off.

Frustration tightened in her shoulders and wasn’t sure if it was from this disaster of a first appointment or from seeing him again. Lily made her way back down the hall, looking briefly into each room she passed, wondering where Noah and her client had gone.

God only knew what those two were up to. She was no fool. She knew how women responded to Noah’s smooth good looks. And she knew how Noah worked, how eager he was to please the client at all costs, no matter what that entailed.

Her brow furrowed at the thought. His easy friendliness with other women had been a major factor in their awful breakup, and despite her absolute hatred of him she felt an old jealousy creep into her gut. Since they’d split she’d been very careful to avoid Noah and she’d successfully kept those old feelings deep inside her where they couldn’t do much damage. And now, here he was with the worst timing in the world, shoved back into her life. She couldn’t believe her horrible luck.

What was worse, he was looking better than ever. He’d always been fit, but she could tell he’d put on some muscle since they’d broken up. His brown hair was longer now too, giving him a sexy disheveled look. And those eyes. Damn, his dark-green eyes with their long, long lashes were still a knockout, even behind the new wire-rimmed glasses he was sporting. Glasses that screamed I’m sexy and intelligent. Noah was definitely not an easy man to ignore.

The sound of a faucet turning on and off caught her attention and she stepped into what seemed to be the master bedroom. The ceiling was just as high here as it was in the common area. A dirty old fireplace took up most of one corner and Lily imagined how beautiful it must be, lying in a big four-poster bed, watching the snowflakes fall, a fire crackling away. Her design senses kicked in as she imagined the type of furniture and fabrics she would use in the space. She knew she’d probably have to adjust everything once she learned more about what Mrs. Upton wanted, but this dreaming phase was her favorite part and she let her mind wander to overstuffed chairs and plush carpets.

Noah came into the room from a door leading to the master bath a few seconds later, breaking her concentration.

“So much for staying out of the way, I guess.” He stooped in front of her to measure a floorboard, a little too close for her liking. She took a step back and shrugged.

“I’m just trying to do my job. If I’m in your way I’ll leave.”

He twisted up to look at her and she felt her legs go weak. “No problem, I’m almost finished in here anyway.”

She ran a hand absently over the wood and then the stone fireplace.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Noah asked as he passed her and headed back into the attached master bathroom.

She closed her eyes for a second as his deep voice dripped like honey through her memory. He’d broken her heart, there was no doubt about that, and she could never forgive him. But damn, they’d been good together while their relationship had lasted. She remembered mornings waking up to that voice, and to those hands. She shuddered and pushed the thoughts away before turning to join him in the bathroom. She wasn’t sure what propelled her to follow him, but she couldn’t stop herself.

Christina stood gazing at Noah with a look of a huntress and Lily couldn’t help but roll her eyes. The woman’s desire was so obvious she was amazed Noah wasn’t on fire from her looks alone.

The bathroom was dirty and dated but the bones were as exceptional as the rest of the house. She would have to update the tile and the light fixtures at the very least. But the job would be exciting, watching the old cabin come to life again under her designer’s eye.

“This is a gorgeous cabin. Hardly seems to need much architectural work at all.” She glanced sideways at Noah as she fingered the blue tile countertop. What she could see of the wooden walls through the dust and cobwebs was stunning. The perfect canvas for her to work with.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Noah said with a frown. “This floor is obviously warped.”

Christina and Lily watched as he bent down and felt the space where the floorboards met the wooden walls. Try as she might, Lily couldn’t help but stare at his ass, so perfectly sculpted in the dark designer jeans he wore. He always did have a nice backside.

She blushed as he turned around and caught her staring. She turned to Mrs. Upton quickly, hoping he hadn’t seen the color rise in her cheeks.

“Did you have any colors in mind for this space? Or any particular pieces you’d like me to incorporate in my design?”

She knew she was probably pushing too far, but she couldn’t help herself.

She was dismissed with a wave of an inch-long red fingernail and a steely look. “Like I told you before,” Christina said, barely concealing her contempt at being so pointlessly bothered again, “Lydia will take care of all that. She really is the only one you need to speak to.”

Lily tried not to frown as the woman turned back to Noah, snubbing her once again. She felt a blush creep into her cheeks. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to cry or hit the woman. Noah looked at her with sympathetic eyes and she scowled at him before turning away. The last thing she wanted was him feeling sorry for her. She moved out of the room, giving her yoga breathing another shot as she pulled out her notebook and made her way back into the main living area.

* * *

Noah was finally able to pull himself away from Christina by begging off for another client meeting. The woman had flirted her way through every room of the house with him and he felt like he needed a stiff drink, despite the fact that it was barely ten o’clock in the morning. It was a delicate balance, trying to make his clients feel taken care of while avoiding their advances. It wore him out.

“You sure know how to kiss ass. I’ll give you that much,” Lily said as he came down the front steps toward his truck. She was leaning against her car, her arms folded. She watched him a minute and then turned and slung her bag into the passenger seat, but didn’t get in.

“I know how to make a client happy. It certainly hasn’t hurt my business. You should try it sometime.” He couldn’t help but take a jab at her. The constant heated arguing had always been a weakness in their relationship, but it had led to some pretty amazing sex as well. Looked like some things never changed.

“You are an asshole, Noah Caldwell. And I don’t want anything to do with you. Unfortunately it seems I don’t have a choice right now. But hear me,” she moved toward him, her eyes narrowed and a finger pointed at his chest, “you’d better keep your distance. I have nothing to say to you.” The last words were punctuated against his pecs with the tip of her finger.

He stood his ground, willing himself not to grab her. At the moment he wasn’t sure if he wanted to shake her or kiss her, and he knew neither would make much sense. The steel-gray intensity of her eyes had him all hot and bothered, something he did not like one bit.

“Fine,” he finally replied and used up the last of his resolve to back down from her and get into his truck.

She stood still a moment, looking unsure of herself. He’d always taken the bait with her, fought back. But not this time. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. He sure hoped this job was worth all the trouble.

Chapter Two

The Blonde Bear, a local bar and restaurant, was only three blocks from Lily’s new apartment. The closeness of the bar was one of the only reasons she’d settled on the aging complex she now called home. Well, that and her pocketbook. She would have otherwise considered the place far beneath her standards. She’d stored up a decent nest egg working for Blackwood, but it had dwindled fast over the last few months without a paying job. Lily and her sister Rachel had been coming to the Blonde Bear since they’d moved to Crystal Falls years before. Thankfully it was one of the few places Noah hadn’t liked coming, so she felt fairly safe continuing to go there. In fact, she’d spent many of the nights immediately after the Big Fight in this very bar, drinking cheap wine and eating too many potato skins.

Lily walked past the small hostess station in the front of the restaurant and into the bar area that was separated from the main restaurant by a brick wall. The room was dim but cozy with soft overhead lights bouncing off the long, mirrored bar. The smell of French fries and grilling steaks made her mouth water. In keeping with the ski resort vibe, a couple of deer heads decorated the walls, along with beautiful oil paintings of the mountain during every season painted by a local artist. Dark-brown leather booths took up most of the wall space and cocktail tables dotted the rest of the bar area.

It didn’t take long for her to spot her sister at one of the high cocktail tables in the corner. Not only was her sister waving a freckled arm wildly at her, but Rachel’s carrot-red hair would have caught her eye even in the most crowded room. It was one of the few ways Lily’s younger sister didn’t resemble her. Other than the hair and the freckles, Rachel had almost identical features to Lily, including the signature steel-blue eyes of the Daly brood.

The only full-time bartender and owner of the Blonde Bear, Jim Stevens, waved to her as she wound her way through mostly empty tables. She gave him a smile and nod before she reached Rachel.

“Hey, you,” Rachel said and stood to give Lily a quick hug. “How was the big appointment?”

“Hellish. Where’s the drink menu? I need something strong and irresponsible.” Lily slung her purse onto an empty stool a little more forcefully than necessary.

Rachel raised her eyebrows and pushed the menu toward her sister. “Want to talk about it?”

“Not until I’m good and liquored up.”

“Wow, that bad, huh?”

Lily’s best friend Angie appeared at their table and placed a bright-blue cocktail in front of Rachel. Angie worked as a waitress at the Blonde Bear most nights, another reason the sisters had made the place a second home.

“Hey, babe,” she said and gave Lily’s shoulders a quick squeeze. “How’s my favorite customer tonight?”

“Lousy,” Lily replied.

“Job didn’t go so well?”

“You could say that. Actually, I’m not sure it could have gone any worse.”

“So the usual then? Or do you want something a little stronger? Jim’s created something new, if you want to try it. It’s pink and foamy and has enough alcohol in it to drown even the worst of your sorrows.”

Jim liked to make up his own concoctions and brought them out as specials at least once a week. Every once in a while he would hit on something fantastic. But most of the time they were downright awful.

Lily debated having a cocktail but knew she’d probably regret it in the morning. “The usual,” Lily said and put the menu away.

“I’ll be right back with it,” Angie replied. “And then I want the details.”

“So the meeting wasn’t so good?” Rachel asked, sipping her drink carefully from a straw.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to drink a cocktail with a straw.”

“You see the color of this thing? I don’t want to dye my teeth.”

Angie came back and set a glass of chardonnay in front of Lily, then slid onto the stool next to her.

“Want a sip?” Lily asked her, scooting the glass toward Angie.

“Nah, I get off in half an hour anyway. I’ll join you guys then.”

“Well, go ahead,” Rachel prodded her. “Let’s hear it.”

Rachel and Angie had been her biggest support during the hard months of starting her business. She didn’t think she would have gotten through without them. They knew every dirty detail, from the “pro bono” work she’d done in her mom’s bathroom to the surprise call from Mrs. Upton’s assistant last week. They’d been so excited for her, so supportive, that she almost didn’t want to tell them about her morning from hell.

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