The Grace Series, Book Two
“And that’s a wrap! Thanks, everyone!” Jaycee Lawrence called over the crowded front lawn. Cameras, boom mics, and cords snaked in all directions, save for the direction where Derek West stood, hugging the grateful homeowners one last time.
“Thank you so much, Derek,” John Walters said, shaking her star’s hand like an old-time pump he was trying to get water from.
Derek. Smooth, cool, easy-going Derek just smiled under that thick scruff of whiskers that got all the girls’ hearts a-flutter. “It really did turn out beautifully.”
June Walters gave Derek a hug. “You are so amazing. I still can’t believe how incredible the kitchen is. I might never leave.”
“Well, I hope you leave sometimes,” Derek said with a laugh. “John here might get lonely.”
“Are you kidding? I’ll be in there with her!” John put his arm around his wife and hugged her to him. “We, really… we’re so grateful.”
Staying just slightly to the side and back out of the way, Jaycee waited. Soon enough Derek would tear himself away from the adulation and rejoin reality. She used to worry about that, jumping in to tell him they needed to go right away. Now she knew he knew that well enough, but he also understood the value of spending just a few more minutes after the cameras stopped rolling so the homeowners didn’t feel like they were just one more stop on his agenda.
“Thank you, too, Jaycee.” John came over and shook her hand though maybe not as enthusiastically.
“You’re so welcome. We hope you love it.”
“Oh, we will,” his wife said. “In fact, I already know what I’m going to make tonight.”
John looked at her. “Let’s go get started.”
They turned and waved their good-byes. With one more wave back at them, Jaycee looked up at Derek and patted him on the back. “Another miracle makeover. The ratings people are going to love it.”
He shrugged and smiled that smile that almost wasn’t as they started for the cars. The crew had already started the cleaning job that would take most of the next two hours. “Making dreams come true. That’s what we’re all about, right?”
She liked that about him. His focus. He got a job, did the job incredibly well, and was happy just to make others happy.
“So where’re we off to next?” He accepted a bottle of water from one of the assistants to an assistant and downed half of it in one chug before they even got to the car.
“Indiana.” Jaycee slid into the driver’s seat of the little white rental car they’d been using for the past six weeks and stowed the clipboard that was never far away in the backseat with the rest of her things. “Gary. It’s a cute little two-story with a dad and his daughter. The mom passed away a couple years ago. They’re still trying to recover, move on, you know?” She started the car and headed out of the little neighborhood for the last time, bound for the airport. If they were lucky, they’d be in Gary early enough to get some decent food and maybe even a good night’s sleep.
“Kitchen? Family room?” He finished the water and eased back into the seat. She couldn’t blame him for being exhausted. He’d been working night and day on this last remodel, and like most of them it had gone right down to the wire.
“Basement and maybe the master.” Glancing both directions, she turned out onto the four-lane and checked the direction on the GPS. North. Good. At least she wouldn’t get them hopelessly lost this time. Driving had been one of the most challenging parts of this job at first, that and keeping her heart in check every time Derek West walked into the room.
Nobody had to tell her why he was such a hit on the Home & Hearth Channel. Tall, with massively good looks. Just the right amount of build. Kind. Affable. Hard-working. He was the guy every woman in America wanted in her kitchen. The fact that she got to work with him nearly round the clock and up-close-and-personal had not been lost on her heart for the first several months, but eventually, they had settled into an easy rhythm and she couldn’t be upset about that. After all, she, more than anyone, knew Derek West was not the kind of guy who would ever settle down with someone. Oh, no. He had hot dates lined up from one coast to the other, and Jaycee had finally accepted that none of those dates would ever include her. As they sped out onto the freeway, she looked over at him because he hadn’t replied, and sure enough, he was already sleeping.
She wasn’t even going to count how many hours of sleep he had missed the last three nights. The job had been going so well, and then the pipe behind the sink ruptured, and after that, well, it was all kind of a blur to her as well.
Her cell phone beeped, and she dug for it in her purse on the console between them, finally coming up with it just as another motorist honked his displeasure with her driving. “Pick a lane,” she said to the car in front of her. With Derek sleeping, she didn’t want to use the speaker phone, so she swiped it on and put it to her ear. “Jaycee Lawrence.”
“Jaycee. I’m glad I caught you. Listen, we’ve decided to bump up production on the Smith house.”
“Bump it up? Brent? You can’t be serious.” With only one hand on the wheel, she maneuvered into the split lane veering off to the right. “Derek is done for. Seriously. He needs a few days.”
“Days he doesn’t have. Tell you what. It’s Thursday. If you guys can be at the Smith house in the morning to do the initial run through, he can take Saturday and Sunday off. How’s that?”
Gee, thanks for your magnanimous generosity. She wanted to say it, but she didn’t. “Can we at least make it ten tomorrow? We’re going to be lucky to get there tonight at any decent hour.”
Another horn honked, and she struggled to keep her nerves in check.
“Fine. Ten, but don’t be late.”
“When have I ever been late, Brent? Will it be Elle or Katie?”
“Elle is setting this one up. I’ve already got Katie scouting in Nevada. I thought that would be a nice change of pace. We haven’t done anything in Nevada yet.”
Jaycee couldn’t think about Nevada. Indiana was taxing her coping mechanisms. In fact, if they made it to the airport alive, she was going to celebrate. “Okay, listen, Brent, I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“All right. Have a safe flight.”
And with that, she beeped the phone off and flipped it onto her purse.
In the other seat Derek shifted and opened one eye. “Brent?”
“Yeah.” However, Jaycee shook her head as her gaze took in all the traffic. “We’ll talk about it later.” She glanced over at him. “Get some sleep.”
“Hm. Okay.” And it was clear he was already there.
The airport wasn’t much better than the traffic, and Derek was glad he had a trail guide who would chop down the Amazon to get him where he needed to be on time. It was nice not to have to worry about things like flights and schedules, tickets and when he would eat. Mostly he just worked and let her take care of the details of living.
“I figured we could grab something quick for a late lunch,” Jaycee said as they stood in the line taking off their shoes and pulling everything out of their pockets. This part had at first been awkward, but they had done it so many times, now it was just routine.
Derek flipped his wallet into the little gray plastic container and added his boots and belt too. “Okay but nothing with grease. Whatever those burgers were the guys brought in last night… wow.”
Stepping into and then through the scanner, he collected his things back on the other side.
“That was not my fault,” Jaycee said, stepping through the scanner and being cleared to continue. “I told you we should’ve ordered Chinese.”
“And you were right as usual.” He put one terracotta-colored Chukka boot on and then the other before grabbing his belt and putting the rest of himself back together.
Jaycee was on the other side doing much the same thing except with bracelets and her watch, her clipboard, purse, tablet case and boots, she didn’t get put back together quite so easily. He was ready and waiting long before she was. Finally, she strode over to him attaché in one hand, purse in the other. “Kendall said the proofs from the photo shoot came in,” she said as he turned to follow her up the concourse. “I thought maybe we could look at them on the plane.”
“Are any of them worth anything? I still think we should have postponed that one. I felt like I was going to die that day.”
“You don’t have to remind me. I was there, remember?”
At Gate 15, they stopped to check all the pertinent information on the little board. When Jaycee was satisfied that everything was on-schedule and correct, she let out a hard sigh. “So, something to eat. A sandwich? There’s bar-be-que down the way I think.”
“How about a steak?”
She appraised him with one slow nod. “How about when we get to Gary?”
Derek put his head back. “Fine. Then I guess a sandwich.”
With no more discussion, they headed back the way they had come. “You know, I really think that last stand-up with the Walters went well,” she said as they walked. “Mrs. Walters loved that pull down faucet on her sink.”
“Oh, you noticed that too, huh?” At the door to the first little restaurant they came to, he opened it and held it for her.
Once inside she ordered up the table, and they were seated in the dimly lit area over by the bar. It was 3:15 in the afternoon, so it wasn’t like the place was hopping.
Taking his menu, Derek blinked his eyes wider. “Wow. Either they don’t want you to see the menu or the prices. What is up with the lighting in this place?” He looked up and frowned. “Well, no wonder, they’ve got three lights out, and this overhead is doing nothing but creating ambiance if you want to call it that.”
Jaycee shook her head. “Do you ever stop? Seriously? Can’t you walk into a single space without figuring out how you would redo it if you got the chance?”
His smile was sheepish. “Sorry. Habit I guess.”
She perused the menu. “What sounds good?”
“I told you. Steak.”
“And I told you we’ll do steak when we get to Gary.” She reached over and snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Focus. This is lunch. Remember?”
“Well, if I had gotten more than three hours of sleep, or if there was maybe more light on the subject…”
With that, Jaycee reached down into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. She snapped it on, the light coming on with the intensity of a backlit computer. “There.” In one motion she handed it to him. “Happy now.”
Derek angled the light at his menu. “Oh, wow, look. They have steak.”
Letting her shoulders slump, Jaycee gave up. “Fine. What do you want with your steak?”
In no time they were on the plane winging northward over corn fields and the little towns that dotted the Midwest. Destination O’Hare International in Chicago which Jaycee was still trying not to think about. She pulled out her NotePad and swiped at it to bring up the photo shoot proofs marketing had sent over.
“There were a couple of these I thought were pretty good,” she said, swiping some more. “Like this one. I like the leaning back thing.”
Derek took one look at it and grimaced.
“Bad?” she asked, gauging his reaction.
He shook his head. “You know I hate this stuff.”
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry, but Brent wants your opinion. It’s your show as you keep reminding everyone within earshot.”
“I know, but I’m a contractor not a male model. This stuff is just weird.” He took the thing from her and swiped through the pictures. Most of them he couldn’t have even seen because he went too fast. “Bad. No. Hate it. Yuck.” Holding it out, he contorted his face. “Seriously? I look like I just ate a lemon.”
Reaching for it, she took it back and went back a couple. “They are not that bad. Look. This one’s good with the sledgehammer. Makes you look all macho and tough.”
“Okay. That one’s not so bad. But these others? What is this one?” He crossed his arms like he had them in the picture and put a haughty look on his face. “I look like the unhappy librarian right before closing time.”
Jaycee laughed at his theatrics. “It’s a good thing the marketing team can’t hear you. They would fold up their tents and go home. We only spent half a day on these. Now come on. We’ve got to narrow this down to like five or six they can use for the promos.”
With a sigh, Derek took the little device back and started swiping through them again.
“That one’s okay,” Jaycee said, leaning over his shoulder to see. “I like the fence with the black background.”
“It’s not too bad I guess,” he admitted without enthusiasm.
“And I like this close up.”
“Really? I look like I’m trying out for a soap opera.”
“I guess you could be the handyman,” she teased. “I could mention it to Brent.”
Instantly Derek sat up, wide-eyed. “Don’t you dare even think about doing that. You do and I will so kill you and bury your body so no one will ever find it.”
Biting her lips to keep from laughing out loud, Jaycee ducked even as she looked around. “Shhh. Other people will hear you.”
He gave her a hard, angry look. “Yeah? Well, it would serve you right.”
“Oh.” She sat up again. “By the way, I was going to mention. They called from marketing, and one of the syndicated radio talk shows called.” With a brush, she ran her hand through the air. “Totally a fishing expedition to see if you’d like to do their show. I told marketing I’d run it by you.”
“A radio show?” he asked dubiously. “What would we talk about?”
“I’m guessing your meteoric rise to the top of the remodeling world. Either that or the host’s leaky faucet and how to fix it. Could go either way.”
“Ha. Ha.” Tiring of the task of looking at himself, Derek handed her the NotePad back. A second and he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.
Surprise jumped on her. “What? Aren’t you going to help me pick something?”
“You pick. I don’t care. Just not the one with the lemon face.”
Swallowing her sigh, Jaycee sat back in her own seat. Yes, she thought sarcastically to the part of her that registered frustration, she had such a hard life. Staring at a handsome guy who could sweep any girl he wanted to off her feet. Yes, yes, she had the hardest job in America.
And with that, she pulled out her notebook and set about choosing the pictures he would have chosen if he was actually choosing them himself.
O’Hare turned out to be a madhouse. Jaycee had known it would be, but still she had hoped. “I wish we could get a cab.”
“To go to Gary?” Derek followed her from the baggage claim to the car rental counter. “What would that cost like a million bucks?”
“I said I wish. Then again, it might be worth it.” She stepped up and explained what they needed to the rental car attendant. Thankfully Derek wasn’t the hard-to-please type. Four wheels that wouldn’t break down and that was good enough for him.
While the attendant punched in the information, Jaycee dragged her purse back up to her shoulder and checked her watch. “I knew that layover was a bad idea. Traffic is going to be a nightmare.”
Standing there, with the black shoulder strapped bag dangling from his shoulder, Derek put his hands in his pockets and smiled and nodded to a few people who passed by. Instantly they ducked behind their hands as they stared.
“Here we are, Ms. Lawrence,” the attendant said. “I just need your signature. Here. Here. And here. And then, here as well.”
She fought to keep the purse strap on her shoulder as she juggled the attaché. No one would ever be able to read this signature. “Done.”
The attendant nodded. “The shuttle outside will take you to the car lot.”
“Thanks.” Jaycee reached down and retrieved the handle of her rolling suitcase. “Okay. All set.” It was interesting how normal the odd looks had become from others in airports and everywhere else they went. Outside and with him trailing her, she checked one way and then the other before heading down to the little green van. Getting in, she looked at her watch again. “It’s going to be eight o’clock even if we’re lucky. I sure hope Elle has the hotel thing all ironed out. In fact…” She scooted over for him to follow. With difficulty, she dug the cell phone out and placed the call. “Elle, hey, this is Jaycee. Yeah, we just landed. Can you give me the address for the hotel? K. Yeah. Hold on.”
The juggling continued as she fished for a paper and a pen, knowing she should have had those ready. “Yeah. Okay.”
With a screech the van pulled out into traffic, sending Jaycee careening right into Derek’s shoulder.
“Ugh. Crud. Sorry,” she said and scooted farther over. “Yeah. I’m here. Okay. What is it?”
Chicago traffic proved even more challenging than Jaycee had anticipated. The GPS system on the little car kept saying, “Turn left in 500 feet” because they had sat in the exact same spot for ten minutes.
“I know that!” Jaycee finally said to the thing. “Will you shut up already?”
With concern, Derek looked over at her. “How much coffee did you have this morning?”
She glared at him. “Clearly not enough.” Coming up, she hit the horn. “Come on, people! Move already!” Frustration stacked on top of her as around the seatbelt, she put her head onto her fist that was propped there at the top of her elbow on the windowsill. “I do not believe this. We’re never going to get there.”
“So, what’s the rush?” He stretched out his long, jean-clad legs and crossed his arms. “You late for a hot date or something?”
Corralling her frustration with life so she didn’t outright growl at him, Jaycee reached down and flipped on the air. “No. I was hoping to have some time to get out of these clothes.” She angled her nose down to her shirt. “I’m not even sure I changed this morning.”
He leaned over and took a sniff as well. “Probably not.”
With a tip of his head, he smiled at her. “Seriously. You should learn to chill a little. Look around. It’s a beautiful day. We’re in Chicago, the windy city on a day that’s not even windy. You don’t think that’s something to enjoy?”
Enjoy? That word was not a word in her life’s vocabulary at the moment. “I just want to get to the Interstate and out of this wall-to-wall nightmare. Is that really so much to ask? Come on!” She honked at the guy cutting right into her lane. “Are you kidding me? Where did you learn to drive?”
One eye on her, Derek reached over and hit the radio button. “Maybe some music would help.”
“Not likely.” Still she watched his arm, brushed with just the right amount of glistening hair. Masculine. Did every part of him have to scream that word so loudly? She re-anchored her gaze outside and forced a calming breath into her lungs as thankfully she made the final turn. “Yes. The Interstate. Finally.”
Next to her Derek bobbed his head to the beat. “I love this song.”
It would’ve been nice to have a song to love or to have heard a song in the past year. Unfortunately, songs in her world were few and far between.
“Two rooms for Starr Productions,” Jaycee said when she tumbled up to the extended stay hotel counter barely making it before she dropped everything. “I think Elle Peterson already booked them?”
“Let’s see here.”
It was then that Jaycee noticed Derek hadn’t followed her all the way to the counter. In fact, he was no longer even behind her. In concern, she scanned the lobby and found him, chatting up a cute blonde who sat on one of the comfortable-looking couches.
Fighting the annoyance, Jaycee tugged at the slightly-rounded bottom of her blouse and then resettled the strap of her purse on her shoulder. He’s a grown man, Jayc. He can do whatever he wants.
“Ah, yes. Here it is. Ms. Peterson is in 515 in the tower, and the other two rooms are adjacent to that. 517 and 519.”
“Excellent.” Three more signatures, and Jaycee was ready to call it a life and die. “Thank you very much.”
“We hope you enjoy your stay with us.”
“Oh, I’m sure we will.” She accepted the little credit-card looking key things, gathered up all of her belongings one last time and with a sigh to get herself moving again, headed over to the two now chatting away as if they had been friends forever. It wasn’t easy to smile at the woman, but Jaycee did so anyway. Then she looked up at Derek. “Here’s your key-card. We’re up in the tower.”
“Oh, great. Thanks.” He accepted the card and shoved it in his pocket. “Jaycee, this is…” He looked at the woman who Jaycee now saw had a small waist cinched with a tiny belt and jewelry dripping from every limb.
“Bree,” she said with a thick Wisconsin accent.
Derek smiled his approval. “Bree. Right.” Then he turned his attention solely on Bree. “Listen, I’ll be back down in about 30 minutes if you don’t mind waiting?”
Wanting to crawl into a hole somebody else had dug, Jaycee fought to not put her head down although she did wind her lips under her teeth to keep from screaming. Humiliation drained through every pore of her whole body, and she could not stop the sigh.
“Great,” Derek said, touching Bree’s arm, and Jaycee didn’t miss the wink he gave the woman. “It won’t take me long.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
I’ll be waiting, Jaycee wanted to mimic. Ugh, could the woman be any more transparently coquettish? Even Jaycee was embarrassed for her. “Are we going now?”
Derek looked down at her as if he’d forgotten she was standing there. “Ready when you are.”
It took less time than even he had thought it would, and Derek West, shined up and polished, headed out for his night on the town with Bree Whatever-Her-Last-Name-Was. She was hot. That’s really all that mattered.
Coming out of the hotel room, he glanced down the hallway at Jaycee’s door and thought about knocking to tell her where he was going and not to wait up. However, she had things to do, and he didn’t want to disturb her. With a check for his wallet and his room key, he headed out. Maybe Gary, Indiana wouldn’t be so bad after all.