“Your ex-wife is on the phone again.”
Kyle Houseman squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his forehead. There were few people in the world he considered as difficult as Noelle.
Actually, he couldn’t think of one.
“Did you hear me?” Morgan Thorpe, his assistant, stood at the entrance to his office wearing an impatient frown. Noelle (who still used his last name, which bothered him since they’d only been together for a year) hadn’t been able to reach him on his cell. She’d tried three times in the past fifteen minutes and he’d let it go to voice mail. So she’d called his business line, which he’d specifically asked her not to do. He didn’t like the way she aired her complaints about him—and everything else—to anyone who’d listen.
His employees didn’t like it, either.
“I heard,” he replied.
“Are you going to take her call? Because if I have to talk to her again, I’m going to tell her exactly what I think of her.”
He gave Morgan a look to make sure she understood that would be a mistake. At forty-five, she wasn’t old enough to be his mother, but she often took a maternal approach with him, probably because she’d been working for him since he started First Step Solar. He’d hired her the same week she came out of the closet and moved in with her partner, who was as soft-spoken as Morgan was bold. “No, you’re not.”
“Why?” she cried. “Noelle’s a terrible person! She deserves whatever she gets!”
“We were once married. We still live in the same small town. We can figure out some way to get along.”
She rolled her eyes. “If it’s that easy, why are you avoiding her?”
She had a point. Dodging Noelle’s calls wouldn’t do him any good, anyway. She’d just track him down at his house or even a restaurant, if she had to. She did that kind of thing all the time—to plead for an advance on his spousal maintenance, a “small loan” to prevent her utilities from being turned off or money to get her car repaired. Once she even asked him for five hundred bucks to go toward fixing her boob job (apparently her body kept rejecting the implants, but instead of having them removed, she kept trying to make them work). It didn’t seem to matter that none of that was his responsibility anymore.
“Put her through,” he said with a sigh.
“That woman is insufferable. I don’t know how you tolerate her,” Morgan grumbled as she left.
He didn’t, either.
He glanced at the light blinking on his desk phone. Surely, Noelle would find someone else and get remarried. He wished that would happen soon. It would save him $2,500 a month, not to mention the relief of not having to deal with her anymore. But he’d been wishing that for the past four years, ever since the divorce. He was beginning to suspect that as long as she had him to pay a hefty chunk of her monthly bills, she’d be unlikely to tie the knot with someone else. She wasn’t the type to part with a freebie. Besides, she saw his financial support as punishment for the fact that he’d never been able to love her—and, truth be told, he saw it in the same light. That was why he’d agreed to that amount and why he helped her out as often as he did. Guilt demanded it.
“Someday,” he muttered as he picked up.
“Someday what?” Noelle asked.
Someday he’d be rid of her. But he couldn’t say that. “Nothing. What’s going on? Why have you been blowing up my phone?”
“Why are you ignoring my calls?” she countered.
“Because I can’t think of any reason you’d need to talk to me. We are divorced, remember? And with all the money I’ve given you over the past few years—in the last several months alone—I’m a good six months ahead in my payments. That pretty much leaves you with no excuse.”
“It’s my water heater,” she said.
“My water heater.”
She’d found something new to complain about? “What’s wrong with it?”
“It went out on me. I can’t take a shower or do laundry or dishes. I don’t have any hot water.”
He rocked back in his chair. “Then…shouldn’t you be looking up a plumber instead of bothering your ex-husband?”
“Why are you being rude? I’m calling because you happen to own a solar manufacturing plant. Can’t you give me a deal on a solar system? So I can get my hot water bill down?”
“I manufacture photovoltaic panels, Noelle. They run air-conditioners and other electrical appliances. Anything that requires gas is a whole separate thing.” They’d been married, for God’s sake, and she still didn’t understand what he did for a living?
“You have connections for hot water systems, too. You put one in for Brandon and Olivia’s neighbor.”
Why had they told her he’d done that? “Mrs. Stein is nearly eighty and she lost her husband a year ago. I saw that she got a deal. That’s all.”
“You bought it from the manufacturer at wholesale and let her have it at cost. And your photovoltaic installers put it in for her.”
“Because she could use the break. Brandon asked me to help her out. Occasionally, I do favors like that for my brother.”
“Come on. You didn’t do it for Brandon’s sake.”
Irritation clawed deeper, causing his eye to twitch. “Of course I did. We’ve been getting along great,” he said, and that was true. He and Brandon had once been rivals. They hadn’t met until they were in high school, when Brandon’s mother married Kyle’s father. Two large-and-in-charge boys so close in age would understandably have a difficult period of adjustment. But the dynamic was different these days. In spite of everything that’d happened back then, and with Noelle and Olivia since, Kyle cared about Brandon. He got the impression Brandon cared, too. At least, he heard from his stepbrother quite a bit. He also saw Brandon and Olivia every Friday at Black Gold Coffee. They’d joined the close-knit group of friends Kyle had grown up with.
“Quit lying to yourself,” she spat. “You’d do anything for Olivia. The way you stare after her when she leaves a room—or you avoid looking at her if you’re in the same room—makes it so obvious. They’d see it themselves, except they don’t want to see it.”
His blood pressure shot a little higher. “Fine,” he said. “You want a solar hot water system? I’ll offer you the same deal I gave Brandon and Olivia’s neighbor.”
She seemed startled that he’d capitulated so suddenly. But there wasn’t any point in refusing. She’d never be able to afford it. Besides, he didn’t want to talk about Olivia. What Noelle said was true. Olivia was her sister—which was a big part of the reason Noelle had gone after him in the first place—but Olivia had been, and still was, the one great love of his life. She’d been with him before she’d ever been with Brandon.
“That’s better,” Noelle said. “So…how much will it cost? I have nearly $250 in my account.”
She stated that amount proudly. She wasn’t good at saving money, so this did signify quite a feat. But, as usual, she was completely clueless—or, more likely, calculatedly clueless. “That’s what I thought,” he said.
“You don’t have enough to buy even a traditional water heater.”
“I don’t?” She sounded dismayed. “How much are they?”
“A decent one will run you eight hundred or more.”
“And how much is solar?”
“Nearly three grand.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” she cried. “How do you expect me to pay that?”
“I don’t expect you to pay it. You need to drive over to the hardware store and see what’s in your price range.”
“In other words, you don’t give a shit whether I’m in a bind.”
His head was beginning to pound… “I’m sorry your water heater died, but it’s not my problem.”
“You can’t help me?”
Morgan tapped the glass between her workstation and his office and made a face at him.
He waved her away. “What do you expect me to do?”
“A solar hot water system can’t cost you that much,” she replied.
“It can and it does. Check the retail price and you’ll see it’s around six grand. Wholesale would be about half of that.”
“Then maybe you can put one in and let me make payments.”
“We’re divorced! And you’re only renting. Call your landlord.”
“Harry won’t do anything. He’s letting me stay here for a lot less than he’d charge someone else. Why do you think he gave me such a good deal?”
“Because he’s your cousin?”
“Because in order to get that deal, I have to take care of all maintenance and repairs.”
“Then it’s on you.”
“If you can’t get me solar, can you at least help me pay for a regular water heater? From what you just told me, I only need another $550. What’re a few hundred bucks to you? You make so much more than I do!”
“That doesn’t mean I’m obligated to pay for it. You got extra money out of me last month. And the month before.”
“Because I needed a D&C, Kyle. I’ve been having female trouble ever since I lost the baby. Remember?”
As usual, she’d chosen something he had to be careful not to question. That didn’t stop him from wondering, however. Had she really needed a D&C? Or were the documents she’d shown him forged? It could be that he’d paid for another boob job, after all. He wasn’t even sure she’d lost the baby that had supposedly created the need for a D&C. Had she even had a “miscarriage” five and a half years ago? Maybe she’d aborted it. He’d always suspected her of lying, suspected that after she got him to marry her, she’d purposely terminated the pregnancy. At that point, she wouldn’t see any reason to risk damaging her figure, which she protected above all else.
“I remember,” he said through gritted teeth. He didn’t want to talk about that, either. It was easier to bury the doubt and the suspicion and try to forget the past.
“You don’t care.”
Maybe he would if he believed it was true. But with Noelle—who could say? Whenever she needed money, she came up with an excuse he’d be hard-pressed to decline—medical treatment, that she’d be evicted, that she wouldn’t have electricity or food.
“Look, I paid for the procedure,” he said. “That’s all that matters. I hope you’re feeling better. Now I’ve got to go. I have a lot to do here—”
“Wait! What about my water heater?”
“What about it?” he asked in exasperation.
“You seriously won’t give me a small loan? Then will you let me stay in the farmhouse until I can get it fixed on my own?”
No way was she coming anywhere near his property. She would never live there. “Absolutely not. I’ve got the farmhouse cleaned up and ready to lease.”
“But it’s been ready to lease for two months, and it’s sat empty that whole time. Why not let me move in until I’m back on my feet? You’re not likely to get someone now.”
What was she talking about? “Why not?”
“The holidays. People are busy with shopping and wrapping and decorating.”
“Not everyone. Matter of fact, I have someone coming to see it tonight. He’s ninety percent sure he wants it. He just has to see it in person to confirm. Then he’ll sign.”
“Who is it?” she asked.
Kyle checked the information he’d jotted on his desk calendar. “Guy by the name of Meade.”
“Never heard of him…”
“He’s from Nashville. Only needs it for a few months, but he asked me to furnish it, so—”
“Furnish it with what?” she broke in. “It’s not like you have a furniture warehouse.”
“There are companies that rent furniture. I called a place in Sacramento, chose some items from their website, and they brought it all out. The place is move-in ready now. Looks great.”
“You went to that much trouble for someone who’s only staying for a few months? I thought you wanted a year’s lease. That’s what you told me when I asked about it.”
“He’s paying a premium—for the furniture, my time and trouble in acquiring it and the short term. Even if he decides he hates the house and I have to send the furniture back, he’s covering all of that. In any case, you didn’t lose out, because I wouldn’t let you move in, no matter what.” The past few months, she’d been trying her best to get back with him. The last thing he needed was to allow her to be that close—not to mention he’d never see a dime of rent.
“Even though I’d be willing to sign for a year?”
“Even if you’d be willing to sign for ten.”
“You can be so mean,” she said.
Mean? He thought he was being incredibly nice—considering that merely talking to her made him want to punch himself in the face. “We’ve talked about this before. I’ll take Meade’s deal, if I can get it, and try to find another tenant next summer, when school’s out.”
“That’s great for you, but what about me? Can’t I use it until he moves in?”
The childlike whine that entered her voice made his eye-twitch worse. Patience, he reminded himself. Breathe deeply and speak kindly. “He hasn’t said when that’ll be. But since he’s coming all the way from Tennessee to look at it, I’m guessing he could move in tonight.”
“In the middle of the storm that’s coming in?”
“Why not? He’ll just carry in his luggage. How hard can that be, whether there’s a storm or not?”
“So you’re going to leave me in the lurch—the woman who would’ve been the mother of your child if that child had survived?”
Before he could respond, Morgan knocked briskly and opened the door. “Don’t tell me you’re still on with her.”
He sent her a frown that told her to mind her own business, but she didn’t leave.
“I have a call from LA,” she said. “Some guy wants a special deal on a 10-megawatt order.”
Which was such a big order, no one at his company could provide the pricing but him. He changed the phone to his other ear. “Noelle, I’ve got to go.”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this!”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“You have the contacts. You could get me a water heater and let me make payments, if you weren’t so stingy.”
“Kyle?” Morgan prompted, reminding him—as if he needed her to—of the far more important caller on the other line.
He almost told Noelle to go down to the hardware store and have the checker call him for his credit card information. He wanted to get rid of her, and they’d done that kind of remote purchase before, when someone threw a rock through her window (likely the girlfriend of someone she’d flirted with at Sexy Sadie’s). But the more he gave her, the more she’d keep coming back to him. He had to break the cycle…
Fortunately, he thought of a solution that should’ve been obvious to him from the start. “I’ve got a water heater here,” he said. “It’s the one I took out of Brandon’s neighbor’s house. If you’ll have someone pick it up and install it, I’ll give it to you.”
“You’re sure it works?”
Morgan propped her hands on her hips and scowled at him, refusing to leave until he took that business call.
“It did when my guys removed it. No reason that should’ve changed. She wanted solar mainly to be responsible to the environment.” He’d been planning to donate the water heater to a poor family who could use it. But Noelle fit the bill. She didn’t have much money, despite juggling two jobs. Working in retail part-time, and then as a barmaid nights and weekends, she didn’t make a whole lot. What she did earn, she spent on clothes and beauty aids.
“Okay. Thanks.” Noelle lowered her voice. “I’m happy to oblige if you’d like…something in return.”
“I don’t need anything,” he said.
“You sure about that?”
Where was she going with this? “Excuse me?”
“I remember the kinds of things you like…”
The suggestion in her voice made him uncomfortable. “I hope you’re not referring to—”
“It’s not like you’re getting laid anywhere else,” she interrupted. “A visit here and there could be our little secret, a temporary solution, so you don’t have to go without. I mean, what’s the big deal? It’s not like we haven’t slept together before.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear any of that,” he said and hung up.
Morgan, who’d changed her position to stand with her arms folded, fingers drumming her biceps, raised her eyebrows. “What’s she after now?”
“You look thoroughly disgusted,” she said and laughed at him when he growled at her to get out and shut the door.
Kyle was wrapping up his conversation with the client from Los Angeles when Morgan came in again. This time she sat in the chair across from his desk while waiting for him to finish.
“Don’t tell me Noelle’s already here,” he said when he’d disconnected.
“No. I’m hoping to be gone by then. This is good news.”
He sat up taller. After having his ex-wife, of all people, make an issue of his dismal love life, he could use some good news. “What is it?”
“I received a call from that dude who wants to rent the farmhouse.”
“I hope he’s not canceling,” Kyle said. “Noelle keeps asking if she can move in. I’ll be relieved when it’s occupied and she can’t bug me about it anymore.”
“Can’t she just move out of town instead?” Morgan responded. “No one would miss her.”
Yet another reason Kyle forced himself to be decent to her. Despite all the terrible things she’d done—especially to him—he felt sorry for her. She couldn’t seem to avoid screwing up her own life. “She’s trying to launch a modeling career. Maybe she’ll be discovered and relocate to New York or LA.”
“She’s delusional if she thinks anyone’s going to pay her to model! She—”
“What’s your news?”
She scowled in apparent frustration. She was all revved up, and he’d removed her target. “Fine,” she said, shifting gears. “Meade’s no longer coming, but—” she held up a hand so he wouldn’t react too soon “—he wasn’t looking at the house for himself, anyway.”
“Who’s it for?”
“A client he manages.” She grinned. “Are you ready for this?”
“You have my full attention,” he said drily. He liked his assistant, but she got on his nerves occasionally. After dealing with Noelle, he preferred to be left alone right now so he could get some work done. He didn’t want to stay late tonight. He didn’t live far, but he’d rather not get caught in the storm they were expecting. It was supposed to be the worst they’d had in five years.
“Lourdes Bennett,” she announced.
The way she’d said the name sounded like ta-da!
“Bennett? Is she related to our police chief?”
“No! There’s no connection. You don’t recognize the name Lourdes Bennett?”
“She’s a country-western singer!”
“Am I supposed to be familiar with every country-western singer?”
“Not necessarily, but she has several hit songs—and she was born and raised less than an hour away.”
Now that she’d jogged his memory, Kyle realized he had heard of Lourdes. He just hadn’t expected the person who might be renting his farmhouse to be someone truly famous. “In Angel’s Camp, right? This is the Lourdes Bennett who sings ‘Stone Cold Lover’?”
“That’s the one.”
“Why would she have any interest in coming here?” he asked.
“I have no clue,” Morgan replied. “But you’re about to find out. She flew into the Sacramento airport this morning and rented a car. She’s on her way, should be here any minute.”
“Is she coming by herself?”
“Sounded like it.”
Kyle scratched his head. “That seems odd.”
“What seems odd?”
“The whole thing. If she’s from Angel’s Camp, why isn’t she going there? Why would she want to spend the holidays in Whiskey Creek?”
“You’ll have to ask her,” Morgan said. “Unless you want me to show the house. I’d be happy to take over for you.”
He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Sorry, you have a couple of hours before quitting time, which you’ll spend here. I’ll take care of meeting Ms. Bennett.”
She huffed. “Great. I’ll be the one to get tortured by your ex-wife.”
“Just point her to the back corner of the warehouse, where I put that used water heater.”
“I’d like to point her somewhere, but it isn’t to the back of the warehouse.”
He chuckled. “Be careful crossing her. She can be vengeful.”
“You’re too nice to her. She doesn’t deserve a guy like you, even as an ex.” She mimed zipping her lips. “But that’s it. That’s all I’m going to say.”
She straightened the cowl of her sweater. “I hope Lourdes Bennett wants the house. Wouldn’t it be exciting to have her in town—on your property?”
He wasn’t so sure. Thanks to Noelle, he’d had about all he could take of difficult women. “Unless she’s a diva. But if she is a diva, I can’t imagine why she’d rent my house. A diva would want something fancier—in Bel Air or the Bay Area.”
“Whiskey Creek may not be as famous as San Francisco or LA, but it’s beautiful here in the foothills. And she’ll love the house. After what you’ve done to the place, who wouldn’t?”
Built in the thirties, it had once been a farmhouse, which was why they still referred to it as the farmhouse. When he’d purchased the land so he could expand his plant, he’d decided to update the house that was there and turn it into another rental. He already had a couple of places he rented out, so it made sense. “The house is only about a thousand square feet.” He’d opened up the kitchen and living room areas and expanded the office, but there were only two bedrooms and two baths. That wouldn’t be conducive to hosting a large group, so if she planned to bring her whole entourage for a Christmas party or something, it wouldn’t work.
“One person can’t need any more space than that,” Morgan said.
“If it is just one person.” Kyle was tempted to search Google for Lourdes’s name. He sometimes listened to country-western music, enough to be familiar with her song “Stone Cold Lover” as well as one other that he couldn’t remember the title of. But he didn’t know anything about her background, family, age or marital status, and now he was curious. From the pictures he’d seen, she didn’t look much older than twenty-five or twenty-six, but who knew how current those photos were? She could’ve played the bars and honky-tonks for years before getting any serious attention.
He would’ve taken a few minutes to read up on her if he hadn’t been afraid Noelle would arrive before he could leave. That made him decide to use his smartphone instead of his computer, since he could do it off the premises.
Grabbing his coat, he told Morgan he’d see her in the morning and drove over to the rental.