BRYNN CHANGED OUT of her summer suit and slipped into a pair of comfy, cotton shorts. After putting on a tank top, she threw her hair into a ponytail and padded barefoot into the kitchenette. Before Julia’s pregnancy, they’d usually go back to whatever suite Derek had rented for Brynn, crack open a bottle of wine and work on design schematics. Fortunately for Julia, the Milanos’ home wasn’t far from the one she shared with her husband. Unfortunately for Brynn, Julia pooped out early. Her pregnancy had been taking its toll lately, leaving Julia exhausted and irritable. Leaving Brynn on her own.
While she had the new layout designed for the split-level, she still needed to work on color schemes, carpet swatches, flooring and cabinetry. She rubbed her temple where a throb began to build. There was so much to do before meeting with Grant.
Rather than waste time thinking about what needed to be accomplished, she pulled out her design plans and laid them on the small couch. Deciding to start with the main level, she rummaged through her canvas tote and set the paint, flooring and carpet swatches on the coffee table. Or maybe she should start with the kitchen. She retrieved the counter top, back splash and cabinet samples.
As she sorted through the pile of samples, mixing and matching different ideas, her mind strayed. To what she’d do if she was booted from the show. To her debt. To Carter.
How would he feel if she were let go? And if she were to leave, who would be her replacement? The two of them had great chemistry and not just on camera. While they competed for a cash bonus, their competition was friendly. As much as she needed the money, she also knew Carter could use it, too. Although he had a healthy income outside of the show, he couldn’t afford to continue to help his parents pay for his autistic brother’s living expenses and treatments.
If she did lose her job, she wasn’t sure she could find another. Well, she could, but she doubted it would offer her the lucrative income she’d become accustomed to. She didn’t want to have to start over again. Working from the bottom to the top of a design firm was something she’d done before and could certainly do again.
At this point in her career, she shouldn’t be starting at the bottom, not with her resume, not with the clientele she’d designed for and definitely not after having been part of a hit television show. But after they’d broken up, Trevor had trashed her reputation just as badly as he’d trashed their relationship. Her past clientele had been his friends, his colleagues, not hers. Those people had chosen Trevor’s word over hers, and she understood. He’d been born into money and thanks to his family name, had power and influence in a number of different social and political circles. She, on the other hand, had grown up in a lower middleclass, blue-collar family. She had no power or influence, but had been proud of what she’d accomplished on her own. Even before she’d met Trevor, she’d made a small name for herself and had the portfolio and bank account to prove it. Well, she might no longer have the bank account, but she still had the portfolio. Would it be enough to help her land on her feet if she were replaced?
She stared at the four layouts she’d put together for the Milanos’ kitchen. Considering what four sets of grubby hands could do to white cabinetry, she pushed that layout aside. “What would you like, Gina?” She reached behind her and adjusted the lamp to increase the lighting. Kneeling, she rested her rear on her heels and hovered over the samples. “Cherry, dark maple or espresso?”
She jerked upright when a knock rattled the cheap hotel door. Hoping Julia ended up with a second wind and was here to help, she quickly moved to the door and checked the peephole.
Her stomach danced with butterflies, which, to her surprise, had been happening more and more over the past few months. She’d always been aware of Carter. Aware of his looks, his muscular body, how good he smelled. Lately she was thinking about him in ways that went beyond friendship. Which wasn’t good, especially with the anvil hanging over her head, ready to drop should the Milanos decide to move. Her focus needed to be on the show, not her love life or Carter.
He knocked again and she opened the door. Her mouth instantly watered. “I smell Chinese food.”
Holding up a brown paper bag, he gave her a devilish smile. “Tell me you didn’t eat.”
“Nope. But even if I did, I wouldn’t pass up Chinese.”
He brushed past her and went straight to the small kitchen. “I wasn’t sure if Julia would be here, so I bought extra. I take it she bailed on you.”
She took a seat at the island while he brought out a couple of plates. “She’s tired and grouchy. When we were at the flooring store I thought she was going to rip the sales guy a new one.”
“What’d he do?”
She grinned. “Said hello.”
He chuckled and set a plate in front of her. “That bastard. He had a lot of nerve.”
“Right. The poor guy didn’t know what to do with her. I didn’t either. Her mood swings have been off the charts.” She looked down at her full plate and remembered the bottle of wine in the fridge. “How about some wine?”
“Sounds good. Don’t get up, I’ve got it.”
Trevor would have made her take care of the wine. He also would have never brought her Chinese food or even dished up a plate for her. At one point in their relationship, he used to cater to her needs, but after her success on the show, that had all changed. He’d become cold, distant…jealous. “Thanks. I think there are some glasses in the corner cupboard.”
“Your suite is identical to mine. Got it.” He retrieved the wine, then the glasses. “Quite a mess you’ve got going over there,” he said and nodded to the samples sprawled all over the small living room. “Making any progress.”
“I see how it is. Ply me with food so you can check up on what I’m doing, huh?” She knew that wasn’t the case. Carter had made it a habit to pop into her suite during a renovation, mostly just to BS. Not necessarily about the homeowners they were working with, but about life in general.
“Damn. You’re on to me.” He poured the chardonnay into her glass, filled his own and raised his glass. “To the last episode of the season. May the best woman win.”
“You just called yourself a woman,” she said with a smile as she gently knocked his glass against hers.
He frowned, then laughed. “Let me rephrase. May the best designer I know win.”
She made sure her smile didn’t falter as she nodded and took a sip. Derek said Carter didn’t know she was in trouble, but Jim knew. Had their director already blabbed? “Ready to give up so easy?”
“Are you kidding?” He set his plate next to hers and moved around the island. “I’ve already found a dozen listings that’ll work for the Milanos. But I know what you’re capable of, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you nail this one. You’re due.”
After he sat on the stool next to hers, she dug into the General Tso’s chicken. “Speaking of due, Julia’s awfully close to having that baby.”
“I thought she wasn’t due until the end of August?”
“She isn’t, but I can’t imagine her lasting through the entire two week reno. That baby is sucking her energy and sense of humor dry. Normally I’d have her looking for furniture and fixtures, but after today, I think I’ll end up taking care of those things. She’s liable to scar the sales people.”
“You mean scare.”
She grinned. “No, I meant scar. I swear some of the things that come out of her mouth. I think she might be possessed.”
Laughing, he picked up an egg roll. “Thanks for the warning.” After wiping his hands on his napkin, he reached for his wine. “I’ll be honest, the Milanos’ split-level is in great shape. I might have a dozen listings for them to look at, but those listings don’t have what they already have in their current house.”
“History. When you and Julia were inside working magic with your designs, Mario told me that he and his wife brought all four kids straight from the hospital to their home. That’s a lot of holidays and birthdays, a lot of memories.”
“True.” She set her fork down and snagged an egg roll from the carryout container. “You’re being awfully generous this evening. What gives?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Well, then thank you. I have been in a slump lately and could use a little positive reinforcement.” She looked to the mess on the couch, coffee table and floor. “I could also use an opinion.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Interesting. Designer of the stars wants my humble opinion.”
Laughing, she gathered her utensils, plate and napkin. “One aging pop star and a C-list actor does not make me a designer of the stars.” She put the plate and utensils in the mini dishwasher. “But I have to admit, I do like that title. Finished?” she asked and pointed to his empty plate.
He nodded and after thanking her, rose and headed into the living room. “Good call on leaving out the white kitchen cabinets.”
“No kidding.” She dried her hands with a paper towel. “Once I pictured dirty handprints, I nixed the white. Which is also why I’m not going to do stainless steel appliances.”
He knelt on the floor. “People love the stainless.”
“So do I, but I need to be practical with my budget. The Milanos’ appliances are fairly new. I’m going to keep them and make them work.”
“That’s not going to make the sponsors happy.”
“Unless the sponsors are giving me brand new appliances for free, I’m sticking to my plan. I need to watch every penny.” Since her split from Trevor, she’d been battling down her debt and had become quite adept at being a tightwad and making sure every cent counted. She’d do the same for the Milanos. If she needed to repurpose their furniture or reuse their appliances to keep within her forty thousand dollar budget, she’d do it. Despite what the sponsors and Derek wanted, she needed this family to stay in their home.
“Fair enough. So, what did you want to show me?”
An hour later, she topped his glass with the remainder of the wine. “Thanks for your help.”
“I wasn’t much help. You had everything there.”
What she had all over the living room had been a hot mess in need of containing and direction. During past renovations, Julia had always kept her grounded and focused. Between Julia’s absence and Derek’s threat, Brynn had second-guessed herself multiple times this evening. She’d needed a second opinion and Carter had been inside hundreds of homes. He might not be a designer, but he knew what worked. “Yeah, but without Julia—”
“Julia isn’t the one who got you on this show. You did that by yourself.” He finished his wine and stood. “Don’t forget that, Brynn.”
“I know,” she said on a groan. “It’s just…I have a lot on my mind and I want this family to love what I do for them.”
“Trevor,” he said, disgust lacing his tone and making his dark eyes darker.
The handful of times they’d all been together at network functions, Carter had made it clear he didn’t think much of Trevor even before she’d broken things off with him. After a year of dealing with Trevor’s crap, she didn’t think much of her ex, either. “He’s been fine,” she lied. Carter was her friend, but she didn’t want to burden him with her problems. She pictured his brother, Evan. Yeah, he had enough of his own.
His lips tilted in a half-smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You don’t sound very convincing.”
She plastered on a smile. “Convincing enough? I’m good. Trevor’s been good. I should finally be able to get him out of my life.”
His eyes widened. “Find a magic lamp at a rummage sale?”
Chuckling, she shook her head. “I wish.” When she caught the concern and disbelief in his eyes, she caved. “Okay. Truth? The harassment has stopped. Sorta.”
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Genre – Contemporary Romance
Rating – PG-13
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