Built for Love
Part of the Carlisles Series
Contractor Jesse Baker knows all about knocking down walls—but chipping away at Tonya Bloom‘s defenses has been tougher than he expected. The gorgeous blonde has made it clear she doesn’t have room in her life for romance… so what is it about her that makes Jesse determined to prove her wrong?
Realtor Tonya is an expert on houses, but building a home—and family—for her newly orphaned nephew, Kevin, is a challenge she never expected. And while Jesse might be a shoulder to lean on, he’s also a distraction she can’t afford. But with Jesse set on winning her heart, will she realize once and for all that the perfect love doesn’t always happen at the perfect time?
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Built for Love
is Part of the Carlisles Series
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Built for Love
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Leaving his surprise on the passenger seat, Jesse got out of his truck and closed the door quietly, but still drew the boy’s attention. Through a mop of messy blond hair, Kevin squinted up at him. Jesse saw a few bruises, swollen eyes, and a lot of attitude resting on rawboned shoulders a little too wide for his frame. He was tall for a twelve year old boy, his joints prominent, especially given his slight weight.
He had yet to fill out, but when he did, he’d be a good looking kid. If he’d smile.
Jesse planned to work on that.
“Hey.” Walking closer, he wondered where Tonya might be. “Your aunt around?”
“Inside on the phone.” He watched Jesse with wary uncertainty, trying to shore up the boulder-sized chip on his shoulder while hovering on the brink of crumbling.
Heart hurting, Jesse stopped beside him. For more than a month he’d been chasing Tonya, determined to have her in his bed. Maybe more. But sex first.
Only Tonya had resisted for reasons he hadn’t understood – until it became painfully obvious. She liked him, of that Jesse had no doubt. She wanted him too, although she’d never admitted it.
But she had big responsibilities that made her reservations more than reasonable.
When Jesse didn’t walk on, Kevin scooted back and came to his feet. Though his jeans rode low on his hips, they were still too short, his shirt too worn.
Blue eyes expressed a world weariness that no kid should ever possess.
“How are you holding up?” Jesse finally asked.
Mouth firming, eyes narrowing, the kid hunched his shoulders, turned and shuffled off without answering.
Now what? Jesse wondered. How far would the boy go? He hadn’t meant to chase him off, but hell, he’d never dealt with a situation like this before.
Tonya saved him by opening the door and stepping out. “Kevin,” she said pleasantly, as if he hadn’t been leaving. “It’s time for lunch.”
Kevin stood there a minute, his lanky body stiff, his skinny shoulders rolled forward, until finally he turned back and headed across the lawn to the front door. He didn’t look at either of them and he said nothing as he went in past Tonya.
Stepping out and letting the door close behind her, she waited until Jesse had reached her. Her forced smile of welcome didn’t quite reach her beautiful blue eyes.
Feeling beyond inadequate, Jesse asked quietly, “How are you doing?” He wanted to touch her, to tell her he intended to help, but damn, she didn’t look any more receptive than Kevin had.
Last week she’d learned that her sister had died in a DWI. High, out of control, an absentee mother. The police had found Kevin at home alone. Apparently not an unusual occurrence.
Now Tonya had custody, and a whole lot of emotional complications to sort out.
Did she expect him to bail? Probably.
He had a pretty good clue that it was issues with her sister that had kept her closed off from him, the reason she’d built so many walls around her heart.
“I’m doing okay,” she lied. “There’s an incredible amount of paperwork and reorganizing and… so many things I can’t even figure out yet, especially with school right around the corner. But we’re getting there, little by little.”
She looked overwhelmed, and no wonder. Jesse glanced back at the truck, saw all was quiet, and decided to give it a few more minutes.
Leaning against the side of the house, he said, “Go over it with me. Maybe I can help.”
“Jesse,” she remonstrated. “You don’t need to do this.”
Since meeting her he’d become all too familiar with that apologetic yet dismissive tone. She liked him, enjoyed his company – unless he got too involved. Then she put on the emotional brakes, and a whole lot of physical space between them.
Now that he knew why, he’d stop making it so easy on her. Whether she admitted it or not, she needed him, and that made a big difference.
Quirking one brow, he asked, “This?”
She avoided his gaze. “Hanging around.” Keeping her voice low, she explained, “It’s not you. You’re… terrific.”
Dry, he muttered, “Gee, thanks.”
She forged on. “But I know what you want and I can’t –”
“What?” He crossed his arms over his chest, more than a little curious. “What is it you think I want?”
Long blonde hair cascaded down her back when she lifted her chin. Damn, she was a knock out, no two ways about it. Independent, smart, compassionate – and pretty clueless when it came to him.
It’d be his pleasure to straighten out her misconceptions.
She glanced inside to ensure Kevin wasn’t within hearing range, then met his stare. “Sex.”
No reason to deny it. “Sex would be great.”
Her lips softened and her blue eyes went dark. “Jesse –”
“But if that’s all I wanted,” he told her gently, “I could get that without you.”
The sensual heat cleared away, replaced with an overdose of attitude. “Then maybe you should –”
Crowding into her personal space, Jesse kissed her. Soft, slow, and so incredibly hot. Even though he kept it light, barely there, it affected him.
Because this was Tonya. Because he hadn’t yet had her.
Because he liked and admired her and, hell yes, he wanted her. Bad.
From the first moment he’d laid eyes on her, he’d been physically attracted. With every minute after that he’d grown to like her more.
He’d already realized that what they had between them was special. Now he just needed her to understand. But she’d had so much dumped on her that he had to put the revving engines on idle, go slower, ease her into things.
And even thinking that made him tense with lust.
“Fact is, I want you, Tonya, and that’s not the same thing as just wanting to get laid.”
Nervous fingers touched her mouth. It took her a second before she whispered, “All the reasons I couldn’t before –”
“Are more valid than ever, I know.” He smoothed back her silky soft hair. “You were trying to help your sister?”
“Yes.” She dropped her hand and her breath released in weariness. “And protect Kevin.”
In the end, Kevin had gotten badly hurt anyway. He’d been neglected by the only parent he knew – and now that parent was gone. But Tonya wasn’t, and she’d make a better life for him.
Jesse badly wanted to help her with that. “I’m glad he has you.”
She took his right hand in both of hers. “Then surely you understand that I can’t…can’t push him aside to get involved with you right now.”
A dozen replies came to mind; ways to convince her, to win her over.
He settled on being blunt. “I just got here. Don’t piss me off, okay?”
Frowning, she dropped her gaze. “I didn’t –”
“Number one, we’re already involved. Denying it won’t make it go away because I’m not budging.” He smoothed her hair again. “And besides, I’m not the only one feeling it.”
Lashes lifting, she stared into his eyes.
No reply was admission enough for him.
“Number two.” He cupped his hand around her nape and resisted the urge to kiss her instead of talking. Given the subject wasn’t an easy one, kissing would be a lot easier.
But ultimately, that wouldn’t get him anywhere.
“Do you honestly think I’d expect you to do anything that’d bring more grief on that kid?”
She searched his face. “No.”
He kissed her forehead. “Good. So stop shoving me away. Let me help.”
“You are so stubborn.”
“Look who’s talking.”
She covered her face, but still he heard the strained laugh.
“Number three,” he whispered, pleased that he’d lightened her mood just a little. “You don’t have to choose. Give me a chance to show you that I can help without getting in the way.”
Still hiding behind her hands, she laughed again. “You distract me.”
Far as he was concerned, she could use some distractions. Encircling her narrow wrists, he pulled down her hands and gave her another quick kiss, this one on her smiling mouth, then, securing her hand in his, led the way through her house.
As a realtor, Tonya had found the perfect property. She lived in one side of the old house that had been turned into a duplex, and rented the other half to Merrily – the woman now very involved with his best friend, Brick.
Brick, aptly named given his hard head, had introduced him to Tonya without realizing just how complicated things would become. He had Jesse’s gratitude all the same.
He could handle complications; it was Tonya cutting him out that he couldn’t handle.
With Merrily next door, so too was Brick, which gave Jesse plenty of excuses to be nearby… if Tonya didn’t see reason. But hopefully his plan would work out for all involved and Tonya would invite him to stick close.
The house had a lot of character that, as a carpenter, he especially admired. But the fact it was divided into two living spaces meant limited room to grow and add a kid. He knew she had a second bedroom, but she’d mostly used it for her office.
Now that she’d cleared everything out so Kevin would have a bedroom, where had she relocated her work space?
Thinking ahead, it was possible Merrily would be moving out once she and Brick married, something they were currently planning. At that point, it would be easy for him to turn the house back into a single dwelling – if that’s what Tonya wanted.
But maybe she needed the income from the rental, in which case he could probably convert the attic into a cozy office for her. He’d have to ask Brick about their plans. If they did move, they’d need a place with a yard for Merrily’s two dogs and three cats.
It was from Merrily and her menagerie that Jesse had gotten his inspiration for how to help. Well, from her and from fate.
When they entered the kitchen they found Kevin slouched in his seat, his knees pointing outward, big feet hooked around the chair legs, his head propped on a fist. Only one bite had been taken from his sandwich.
Tonya’s smile quickly faded. She became brisk and determined. “Jesse, would you like a sandwich?”
“Sure.” He steered her away from the cabinet and to her seat. “But you go ahead and get started. I’m a big boy. I can make it myself.”
Brows flinching with doubt, Kevin eyed him and the bread he pulled from the bag.
Jesse kept a smile on his face as he arranged a pile of meat and cheese. “I stopped by for a favor.”
As if expecting something awful, Kevin turned his gaze away and drew up his shoulders again.
How many times had he had to do that? Hunker down and prepare for the worst?
Of course Tonya noted Kevin’s skewed perception of the world where any favor asked by a man was a bad thing. On top of drugs, had her sister indulged too many men? Maybe men who’d had little patience for having an adolescent underfoot?
Jesse held his anger in check. Any sign of it from him would only discomfort Kevin more.
Apparently Tonya felt the same since she forced a smile. “Sure, Jesse. What can I do for you?”
“Well, that’s the thing. It’ll involve Kevin, too.”
Kevin’s head popped up and he stared at Jesse as if totally taken by surprise.
At least he’d gotten an honest reaction other than that awful emotional distance that usually shrouded the kid like a black cloud.
Tonya was liable to smack him, but damn it, he had to try. After setting his plate on the table, he turned to the boy, and was struck by his expression.
Had no one ever before included him?
Jesse geared himself for arguments or outright refusal, even as he considered ways to convince him. “I know it’ll be a big job, Kevin, but before you say no, let me show you, okay?”
Put on the spot, Kevin scowled, then nodded. “Okay.”
“Great. I need to run out to my truck, but I’ll be right back.” Nodding at the sandwich on Kevin’s plate, he said, “Wolf that down while you have the chance.”
Tonya tipped her head, confused. He squeezed her shoulder on his way out.
Feeling a little more optimistic now that he had something to do, a way to proceed, a plan, Jesse strode through the house and out the front door. Sunshine blinded him. It was a beautiful day, a clear sky, a slight breeze, and low humidity. His truck sat beneath a huge tree that offered plenty of shade and he’d left the windows open, but still, he was anxious as he opened the passenger door and retrieved his package.
Inside the large carrier, the lazy cat stretched awake and gave him a rumbling purr.
Poking a finger inside, he stroked the cat’s head. “How you doing in there, Love? Okay?”
She rubbed her furry little face along the sides of the carrier as if seeking more attention.
“Soon now. Let’s go.”
When he turned, both Tonya and Kevin stood at the door watching him. Gaze zeroed in on the carrier, Kevin popped the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth.
Huh. Well if nothing else, he’d gotten the boy to eat.
Tonya pushed the door open and stepped out. “What in the world?”
“Good luck,” Jesse whispered to the cat. “Be your charming best, okay?”
Big eyes, one yellow and one blue, stared up at him.
Hoping Tonya would accept his plan, he said, “She’s pregnant, due to give birth in the next few weeks according to the vet.” He paused as both Tonya and Kevin bent to peer inside.
Kevin said nothing, but Tonya started in surprise. “She has two different colored eyes.”
“She’s unique.” Jesse opened the door and went in with the other two following close behind.
For once, Kevin didn’t shuffle.
“I found her hiding under a wood pile at the shop.” As a carpenter, he had a lot of stored supplies, both inside the building and out in the yard. It was during a rainstorm that he’d found the cat. He’d opened a tarp to cover a new delivery of wood and there she was, huddled down, soaked through, and round with pregnancy.
Back in the kitchen, he set the carrier on the floor, opened it and, counting on the cat to do her part, took his seat at the table.
Kevin went to his knees in a rush, silent but more involved than Jesse had witnessed so far. Wide-eyed curiosity replaced the scowl. When the cat poked her head out, Kevin looked as if he’d never seen a pet before.
“Be extra gentle with her,” Jesse instructed quietly. “She’s not only pregnant, but deaf. She’s been through a lot lately, too. First being out in a storm, then getting used to me when I took her in, then the vet, and now here.” The cat had a lot to get used to – just as Kevin did. It’d be nice if they helped each other with that.
After giving him a knowing, very pleased and finally real smile, Tonya went to the floor with Kevin, their shoulders almost touching.
Tonya was a tall woman, nearly six feet of female perfection. But Kevin, at only twelve, was probably only three or four inches shorter. Clearly height ran in their family.
“You’re sure she’s deaf?” Tonya asked.
“I’d suspected, but the vet confirmed it.” He took two big bites of the food, satisfied with the cat’s reception so far. “I know Kevin starts school soon, but until then, do you think he could help me with the cat?”
Both Tonya and Jesse went still. So far Kevin had been mostly withdrawn and when he did speak, it wasn’t with any type of enthusiasm.
Now, though, he seemed wholly engaged.
Tonya recovered first. She tickled the cat under the chin as she spoke. “Jesse’s a carpenter with his own shop. He puts in a lot of hours. With the cat pregnant and probably a little scared, it’d be nice if she had someone looking after her. Someone she could get to know and trust.”
Sitting back on his heels, Kevin stared at the cat with rapt fascination. After what felt like an eternity, his attention went to Jesse. “You’d let me watch her?”
“I’d beg if needed,” Jesse teased.
Kevin’s attention went to Tonya. He licked his lips, his expression painfully hopeful. “You… you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course not.” With a fleeting touch to his back, Tonya said, “But are you sure? Cats are a lot of responsibility.”
Bobbing his head, Kevin glanced back at the cat. “I’m sure.”
As if on cue, Love walked out with her big belly swaying. With a raspy meow, she butted her head against Kevin’s knee.
The boy breathed fast, then carefully ran his hand down her back.
She purred loudly and poor Kevin looked like he’d collapse.
It damn near left Jesse choked up. “She likes you,” he managed to say without too much smothering sentiment.
When the cat put both front paws on his thighs and looked up into his face, Kevin went stiff.
“Aw. She does,” Tonya confirmed.
In her gaze, Jesse saw the same things he felt – relief, satisfaction…and burgeoning hope. Kevin needed a new focus, and he badly needed a friend. So far he’d shunned those people trying to get closer, so maybe the cat could do what humans couldn’t – or at least soften the way a little.
While Kevin and the cat cozied up to each other, Jesse ate the rest of his sandwich, content just to watch the bonding process.
After climbing into his lap, the cat curled herself comfortably and closed her eyes. Kevin continued to gently stroke her. “She’s going to sleep.”
Tonya blinked back tears, and carefully put her hand to Kevin’s back. “Yes she is. That’s how she tells you that she trusts you.”
Moving slowly so he wouldn’t disturb the cat, Kevin shifted to sit cross legged, his back to the wall. He swallowed hard when the cat looked up at him, gave a high pitched “meow” and settled again.
His gaze flashed to Tonya, and then to Jesse.
“Cat talk,” Jesse said. “She likes to meow every now and then but I don’t think she realizes how loud she is.” He chewed the last bite of his sandwich. “The vet told me most white cats with blue eyes are deaf. I hadn’t realized that.”
Jesse shrugged. “No idea. Just part of their DNA I guess.”
“Maybe we could go to the library one day and get some cat books, do a little research to see what causes it.”
Kevin froze again. “The library?”
“There’s one not too far from here. I have a library card but we could get you your own if you want.”
Given his expression, Jesse would bet Kevin had never been within throwing distance of a library. Which probably meant he didn’t do much reading. “I like mysteries,” Jesse said. “And I own a ton of how-to books.”
“I read a lot of romance and some biographies,” Tonya offered.
Kevin frowned. “I don’t read much.”
“Then maybe you just haven’t found the type of books you like. But we’ll look into it.”
“Cat books,” he murmured uncertainly. “I guess I could check into them.”