Construction Beauty Queen

She’s on the job…and out of his league.

Chicago socialite Veronica Jamison is determined to shake off her sheltered lifestyle and overbearing parents. She heads to her grandfather’s small town of Kortville, ready to roll up her sleeves and work for the family construction business. She’ll prove her worth, even if it means answering to the company’s ruggedly handsome co-owner, Matt.

Matt Shaw just wants to run his business, spend time with the niece he’s raising on his own, and give back to the townspeople who have stood by him. Managing a spoiled-rotten princess he knows he’ll never be good enough for? Not part of his plan. But as he gets to know Veronica, he learns there’s more to her than her beautiful looks and designer clothes. She’s got a heart as rich as her background.

With the quirky townspeople rallying against Veronica inheriting her grandfather’s business, it’s up to Matt to try to drive her out of town. But how can he, when instead she’s driving her way into his heart?

 

Information:

Title: Construction Beauty Queen
Author: Sara Daniel
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 293 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62266-988-3
Release Date: September 2012
Imprint: Bliss
 
Construction Beauty Queen - Sara Daniel
 
 
 

Praise for Construction Beauty Queen:

“A delightfully engaging small-town romance whose unexpected love story defies the odds.”
– Marilyn Brant, author of A Summer in Europe

 

Excerpt:

© 2012 Sara Daniel

Chapter One

The checkered destination flag on the GPS screen waved over the entrance to the most desolate trailer park Veronica Jamison had ever seen. She’d faithfully followed the disembodied direction voice for four hours from the only home she’d ever known, with her parents on Chicago’s North Shore, to the microscopic town of Kortville in central Illinois. But instead of depositing her on her grandfather’s doorstep, the GPS mocked her with its cheerful announcement that she had arrived at her destination.

A man who owned a seven-building distribution complex and had a sizeable investment in a construction company surely didn’t live in a dilapidated trailer with duct tape covering the crack in the front window and a partially depetaled sunflower pinwheel struggling to spin in the front lawn. Right?

Then again, Veronica knew nothing about her grandfather, except that he was her only hope for building a life where she used her hard-earned business degree to launch a career that incorporated her financial and leadership skills, instead of existing for cocktail parties that demanded nothing more than empty-headed smiles.

The door creaked on her ancient tank of a car as she stepped out. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to the sound, but it was the best she could afford after she’d made her choice and sold her sporty little car in order to pay off her student loans.

Veronica picked her way through the weeds and trash to the trailer’s front door and knocked. As she suspected, there was no answer. The place was clearly uninhabitable. In fact, it appeared to be the last one standing on the abandoned lot. She looked across the street and was greeted with a sign of civilization—a convenience store in the midst of being remodeled.

The gas pump nozzles were covered with plastic bags. Half the store sported peeling paint underneath a sagging banner announcing they were open despite the mess. The other half had new beige siding, but it was rectangular, windowless, and drab.

Veronica got back in the car and turned off the useless GPS. She was a small-town girl now—she could do things the small-town way. She’d ask at the convenience store if anyone knew her grandfather or could offer directions.

She drove across the street, parked, and walked to the glass doors propped open by two cases of beer. She tugged her denim blazer around her and continued inside.

Dust swirled in the air. Behind the counter, a man held a gray-white panel against the open framework of an inside wall. His white T-shirt stretched tight across his back as he pounded nails into the panel.

Her skin tingled with excitement. Grandfather’s offer was for her to work for his construction firm for thirty days before she took over running the distribution company he owned. And already she’d spotted an opportunity to take on a construction job. This man could hire her to remodel his store so he could focus on running his business. Windows, some pretty wooden-lattice trim on the outside, and white, lacy curtains inside would create an inviting ambiance.

She watched, trancelike, as the man’s forearms flexed. If his biceps were any indication, he knew what he was doing with a hammer. Which, unfortunately, was more than she could say for herself. Luckily, she’d been studying her Do-It-Yourself Home Improvement Manual, so she wasn’t completely clueless about what she was getting into.

“Can I help you?” Apparently at some point while she’d been ogling, he’d stopped pounding and turned toward her. His cinnamon-brown eyes locked on hers, and he hooked his hammer into the side of his tool belt.

Veronica never realized she had a weakness for a man in a tool belt. But wow, she’d have to be dead not to. She gulped and dragged her eyes back up to his attractively scruffy face, which added to the proof she was plenty weak but far from dead. “I hope so. I’m lost and in need of directions.”

“To the interstate?”

“No, that I could find.” She looked away from the golden flecks in the man’s eyes and landed on his tough-guy chin just begging to be caressed. She had to focus. She was done being arm candy. “I’m looking for a man by the name of Ron Walker. I thought the address he gave me was for his house, but it led me to that trailer across the street.”

The guy’s grin was slow and lazy. “Ron definitely doesn’t live there. In a few more weeks, that trailer will be gone, and the lot will be a baseball field.”

“So you know Ron?” Veronica curled her toes inside her black, ankle-high boots, trying to ignore the awareness that fairly crackled around them and instead to concentrate on the helpful information he could provide. “This is great. I knew I was going to love small-town life.”

“You’re staying here?” He seemed surprised.

“Absolutely. I’m Veronica Jamison, Ron’s granddaughter. He invited me to live with him.” She smiled widely and held out her right hand, looking forward to the feel of his big workman’s palm engulfing it in a shake.

“Matt Shaw.” He took her hand but didn’t hold it long, as if he didn’t quite trust her. “What do you plan to do while you’re here?”

“I’ll be running his distribution warehouse eventually, but first I’m going to work for this construction company he has an investment in—Kortville Construction. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.”

“Oh…I’ve heard of it.” His voice sounded strangled.

“Are you okay?” Veronica took a step toward him.

“I’ll call Ron and let him know you’re here.” Matt grabbed his cell phone off his tool belt and stalked out of the store.

She misinterpreted my offer. Send her over, and I’ll set her straight. Those were the words Matt imagined would come from Ron’s mouth, accompanied by a big, hearty laugh.

Instead, Ron said, “No kidding! She actually came? I never thought she’d have the guts to defy her parents. I guess you’d better come over. I have some explaining to do.”

Matt certainly would come to Ron’s house. Kortville Construction only hired employees who’d proven they were capable of and willing to provide hard work. This bombshell blonde didn’t have a single callus on her soft hands and was wearing fashion boots that would blister her feet before her lunch break.

Veronica sauntered out of the building toward him. She looked from Matt to his truck with the Kortville Construction logo emblazoned on the door, and her mouth formed a tiny O of surprise. Apparently, she hadn’t made the connection until now.

He searched for her car, but only a twenty-year-old Oldsmobile and Barney’s rusted Blazer were in the lot. She must have had some driver drop her off. “If your guy already left, you can ride to Ron’s with me.”

“I’ll follow you.” She walked to the olive-colored Olds and got in.

Now Matt was surprised. His ex-girlfriend had taught him enough about expensive fashions that he could spot high class a mile away. This woman had high class—and high maintenance—written all over her. Yet, she was driving a car that was worth less than her high-heeled boots.

He made sure she stayed in his rearview mirror as he drove past his office and the diner. Then he signaled and turned left down Main Street. On one side was the bank and Laundromat with six washers and five quarter-eating dryers. The post office, hardware, and grocery stores all shared the same brick storefront on the other side of the street. Matt waved to Wilbur and Agatha Hollister, sitting on their usual bench out front, watching the cars go by. He chuckled, thinking of how they’d probably spend the rest of the afternoon debating the identity of the person driving the car behind him.

He turned again at the police and volunteer fire station, then drove past the library—which reminded him he’d forgotten to return Jenny’s book; he knew if he didn’t turn it in by tonight, Mrs. Parker would be stopping by his house to demand it in person.

When he stopped on the street in front of Ron’s house, Veronica pulled around him into the driveway. They reached the front door at the same time.

“Thank you for your help.” She smiled at him as she pushed the doorbell. “I can take it from here.”

Matt didn’t move. He wasn’t leaving until Ron assured him he’d check out the references Veronica had provided for her previous construction work.

Ron opened the door, shuffling a little as he always did with his bad leg.

“Grandfather.” Veronica glided toward him with her arms outstretched for a hug.

“Grandfather?” He looked shocked as he stood awkwardly in her embrace. “I was never a grandpa to you.”

“But now that’s all going to change.” She beamed at Ron. “Thank you for bringing me here and giving me this opportunity. I can’t wait to make up for lost time.”

He cleared his throat, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Why don’t you just call me Ron?”

“Of-of course. That makes more sense until we get to know each other better.” She dropped her arms and stepped back.

Matt wasn’t a guy prone to hugging every stranger who came his way, but even he recoiled at Ron’s cold reception. Ron had invited her here, yet his attitude clearly proclaimed he didn’t want any of the things Veronica expected from her visit. Their lack of grandfather-granddaughter relationship wasn’t Matt’s problem, though—in fact, it proved that Ron had no intention of setting this woman up to work for Matt’s company. He was home free. “If you’re just having a family reunion, I’ll leave you two alone. Nice to meet you, Veronica.”

“She came here to work for you,” Ron told him.

Matt gritted his teeth in frustration. “I’d like to check her references from her previous employer before we make a decision.”

“She wants to work construction, and I want to hire my granddaughter,” Ron said. “So she’s hired.”

This was ridiculous. The woman had probably never held a hammer in her life. Matt, for one, had better things to do than teach her how.

Veronica turned and faced him. “I might not have done hands-on construction before, but I’ve been studying what you do. I can quickly put it to practical use.”

Matt raised an eyebrow at Ron. Surely he would reconsider his foolish decision.

“Thirty days. That’s all I’m asking,” Ron said. “I’ve sat quietly by and let you run things the way you’ve seen fit. But I have a fifty percent ownership stake, and I’m exercising my voice. This is your new employee for the next month, unless she decides to return to her parents before then.”

“Which I won’t,” Veronica asserted.

Right.

“She’s proving herself to me,” Ron explained. “Then I’ll let her run my distribution warehouse out by the interstate.”

And it was okay to use Matt’s life as practice? He tried to rein in his anger. “I thought you were selling that and retiring.”

“I am retiring. I’d planned to give it to my daughter before she ran off with that fancy city man. Now I have another chance to pass it down to my family instead of selling.”

After he’s promised a share of the sale’s proceeds to every needy cause in town? Furious beyond the ability to speak rationally, Matt gritted out, “I’m going back to work.”

Ron wouldn’t renege on his promise to Kortville, because Veronica was never going to last the thirty days working for him. Matt knew her type, and he knew she wasn’t cut out for small-town living or construction work. As long as Veronica Jamison was around him, she would have both—in spades.

“So, you’ll work for him,” Ron announced as Matt stalked to his truck.

Veronica watched him slam the door and spin his tires as he sped off. For the first time, she felt a sense of trepidation about the decision she’d made. “I don’t think he’s happy about it.”

“He’ll come around. I’ll give you his number, so you can contact him to work out the details.”

If only Grandfather—Ron, she corrected—had explained to Matt ahead of time that she was coming. She’d assumed the other owner of the construction company was agreeable to the decision to hire her, and a friendly welcome would have gone a long way toward calming her nerves. She punched Matt’s number into her phone and then slipped it back in her purse. “Why don’t I unpack and get settled? I’ll talk to him after he’s had a couple hours to get used to the idea.”

“Brilliant plan.” Ron gave a nod of approval and put his hand on the door, as if he was about to close it.

“Do you want to show me around before I bring in my suitcase, or is there another door that’s closer to my room?”

“What? You’re not staying here.”

“I’m not?” He’d invited her to come for a month. She tried to remember the exact phrasing of the e-mail. Maybe he hadn’t explicitly used the words stay in my house, but they’d certainly been implied…

“Absolutely not.” He seemed extremely uncomfortable by the notion. “I’m an old man; I’ve lived alone for nearly thirty years. I have one bathroom in this house, and I don’t want any of your frivolous lotions cluttering it up.”

“I’ll be careful not to leave anything behind.” Her grandfather had appeared much more welcoming when she’d first e-mailed him for advice about leaving her parents’ home—he’d immediately offered her a job and a place to stay. Maybe he wasn’t as open when it came to face-to-face meetings, but with a little time, she knew she could get him to warm up, and then they could make up for all the years they’d never had together.

“I don’t want you in there at all. I’m seventy-eight years old. When I have to go, I have to go. If you’d followed my directions to the trailer, you’d know you already have a place. You can stay there for as long as you’re in town.”

“That trailer? You mean the address wasn’t a mistake?”

“Of course not.” He sounded offended. “My body might be falling apart, but there’s nothing wrong with my mind.”

Panic fluttered in her stomach. She’d been prepared to make sacrifices, like sharing a bathroom. But moving into the only home in a run-down, practically condemned trailer park sounded downright dangerous. “I…I’d really rather stay with you.”

“I went out of my way to provide you with this very generous offer. You can take it or leave it,” Ron told her.

Veronica squared her shoulders. She knew she couldn’t spend her entire life living with family. She was an adult, after all, and if she wanted to be treated like one, she needed to live like one. “D-do you have a key for me?”

“The door should be unlocked,” Ron said.

She didn’t know whether this detail was supposed to relax her or frighten her, so she tried to joke. “Unlocked as in ‘housekeeping is tidying up for my arrival’ or unlocked as in ‘enter the local thugs’ hangout at my own risk’?”

Ron didn’t crack a smile. “I have nothing in there worth stealing. If you’re looking for maid service, you’d better go back to your parents and all the wonderful things they’re willing to give you.”

Sure, she could have all that money could offer. All she had to do was give up her chance to build the career she’d fought so hard to begin.

No big deal.

The trailer door stuck so badly she couldn’t even turn the handle. As if that wasn’t frustrating enough, the knob was sticky. With what, Veronica didn’t want to speculate.

She suspected Matt hadn’t cooled down to the point where he’d gladly lend a hand. She decided to leave him alone, to give him time to warm up to the idea of working closely with her.

The perfect solution was right in front of her: she’d fix the doorknob. It would prove to Matt that she had skills and that she wouldn’t burden his company, and it would show her grandfather she appreciated his generosity and intended to persevere despite the obstacles.

She removed the thick hardcover Do-It-Yourself Home Improvement Manual from the trunk of her car and found the section that talked about doorknobs. She moved her finger down the page. Troubleshooting.

Cylinders could be frozen. She lifted her face to the sun. The day was nearly sixty degrees, a beautiful start to the month of May. Ice shouldn’t be a problem.

Obstructed or damaged keyway. She looked from the book back to the trailer entrance. No, the door was supposed to be unlocked already.

Many lock and doorknob problems can be solved by cleaning and lubricating the bolt mechanism. A-ha! She slapped the book closed and walked across the street for some disinfecting wipes and oil.

Veronica stepped into the store and glanced around. There were aisles of prepackaged snacks and a wall of refrigerated beverages, but she didn’t see any cleaning supplies. She headed for the counter, where Matt was no longer pounding his nails on the wall, to ask for assistance. In Matt’s place was a potbellied man, wiping dust off boxes of cigarettes with a bored expression. He didn’t look up when he said, “What’s your brand? Pack or carton?”

“Barney, she’s not here for cigarettes. She’s Veronica Jamison,” Matt said as he entered the store, carrying a huge bucket that read All-Purpose Joint Compound. She had no idea what that was, although the bucket looked heavy. She’d have to research it in her book.

The clerk’s head snapped up, and his eyes narrowed. He didn’t look bored anymore, but he didn’t exactly appear friendly, either. “So you’re moving into the trailer park? Let me get you a box of doughnuts as a welcome present.”

“Actually, I need disinfecting wipes and lubricating oil.”

“The doughnuts are a better deal.” He waddled over to a dust-covered tray, picked up an equally dusty empty box, and began filling it with what might have once been chocolate doughnuts but were now merely gray-white lumps of construction dust.

She attempted to keep her expression politely neutral. “That’s very nice of you, but I really do need some cleaning supplies…”

“Nonsense. You’re malnourished. You need doughnuts.” He dumped the entire tray into the box.

A white cloud puffed between them. Veronica tried to convince herself it was only powdered sugar, except she didn’t think any of the doughnuts had a powdered-sugar coating, at least not to start with. Matt stood behind Barney, silently laughing so hard that he was unable to work.

Veronica tried once again to gracefully extricate herself from this situation. “Actually, I’m on a budget, and I didn’t factor doughnuts into it…”

“On the house.” Barney plopped the box into her hands, slung his arm around her, and propelled her to the door.

She tried to dig her heels in and turn down an aisle, but before she could change direction, she found herself on the sidewalk outside. “Thank you, but I still need—”

“Not on that budget you don’t.” He removed his heavy arm from her shoulders and lifted the case of beer out of the open doorway. With a smirk that convinced her his actions had been calculated to shut her out, he then stepped inside with the beer, letting the door close behind him. He hadn’t exactly let it hit her on the butt on her way out, but he might as well have.

Small-town hospitality was…interesting.

A moment later, Matt came through the door and headed for his truck again.

She followed him. “Does Barney do that to everyone?”

He glanced from her to her dusty gift and smirked. “Just the gold diggers.”

The reminder of Ron’s cold reception smarted. “I’m not gold digging for anything. I’m going to work for every penny.”

“In those clothes?” Matt’s tone was derisive.

“Look, just because I have nice clothes doesn’t mean I can’t work hard.” She was wearing jeans, a denim jacket, work boots, and a cute pink bandana holding back her blond hair.

She’d dressed for construction.

Matt didn’t bother answering; he simply refilled his nail pouch. He could use every one, and it wouldn’t be enough to pound out his frustrations.

Veronica set her toxic welcome gift on the tailgate of his truck. “I can see you’re not crazy about my coming down here, not knowing you or your company and working for you. But I’ve been studying up on construction. I think you’ll be surprised by how much I already know. I won’t slow you down.”

Matt turned away from his supplies to stare at her. If she was as sincere as she sounded, then she was even more naive than he’d been when he assumed he’d have Ron’s investment paid back quickly, regardless of the financial mess his brother had left for him, a tanking economy, and an imploding housing market that had given him no other option but to take Ron’s bailout offer. “If you say so.”

“I do,” Veronica replied firmly. She reached into the bucket and pulled out a single nail. “I’m ready to prove it. Do you have an extra hammer?”

“What would you pound that nail into if I gave you one?” He walked around her and slid a panel of Sheetrock out of the back of the truck.

“Into this thing, I assume.” She reached for the other end of the drywall with the hand that wasn’t holding the nail. Her one-handed approach threw off the precarious balance of the long, wide, flat slab. One corner dipped to the ground and crumpled against the pavement.

Matt sighed, calculating it would take at least two rounds of joint compound to smooth it into shape. He needed to convince this woman to go back to her spoiled party-girl life while a small patching job was the worst problem she caused. “Around here, pounding a couple nails doesn’t count as a full day of work. Now, I have a job to do. If you’re not going to leave town, you can unpack, and I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

She cleared her throat. “That was my plan. But the door’s stuck, and I can’t get into the trailer.”

Luckily, the Sheetrock was still resting on the ground, or he would have dropped it in shock. “You’re staying in the trailer? The one across the street?”

A funny little smile softened the determination on her face. “If I can get the door open. I think the knob needs some oil, but apparently I can only get doughnuts on my welcome visit to this store.”

“I’ll help you.” Matt rubbed his chest and smiled. Veronica Jamison would be headed home today after all, as soon as she got a good look at her living quarters. He was more than happy to give her a guided tour.

Matt held the outer screen and tried to turn the knob on the front door. It didn’t budge.

She put her hand on the screen, holding it away from him. “What about that oil for the bolt mechanism?”

“It just needs a little muscle.” He turned the knob as hard as he could, shoving his body against the door. The wood trembled, but the knob didn’t even wiggle.

“Do you think Ron would have locked it?”

“It’s not locked.” He’d never known Ron to lock a door—either for his house or his car. In this case, anyone who stole from the trailer would have done Ron a favor. Matt slammed his shoulder against the wood again, and the door splintered open. He stumbled through the suddenly open space, bumping against a dusty brown chair and falling to his knees on the sticky linoleum.

“Oh my gosh. Are you okay?” Veronica stood over him, looking down with concern and something he was fairly certain was rich-girl condescension.

“Fine.” His shoulder throbbed mercilessly, and he felt like an idiot.

“Oh, good.” She started giggling and then full out laughing.

“What?” A nerve twitched behind his eye. He might not be able to control if she worked for him, but he certainly wouldn’t put up with her laughing at him.

“You’re lying on the door.” He realized her laughter was full of genuine mirth, not a drop of malice.

Still lying on the floor, Matt looked around to orient himself and realized she was right. He’d ripped the door, hinges and all, straight off the rotting frame. The only thing missing was the doorknob. When he located it still in the frame, still hanging out of the open doorway where the door had been, he started to laugh, too. This woman had to believe he was the biggest hick who ever lived, by destroying doors instead of doing the sensible thing and taking the lock apart.

Veronica reached out her hand to help him up. He accepted it, but they were both laughing too hard to manage an effective effort to get him on his feet and she dropped down next to him. He released her hand and took a deep breath. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed until he was too weak to stand.

“I can’t believe you busted the door out of its frame!” she said.

“I can’t believe you just used the word busted.” He laughed harder at hearing it come out of her high-class mouth. He looked over at her sitting next to him on the broken door and shook his head at the absolute ridiculousness of the situation, a situation he was enjoying. He pulled himself together to stand and then offered his hand to Veronica.

She accepted, still laughing as he hauled her up. As he pushed open the screen and tossed the door out of the trailer onto the lawn, Veronica stepped to the door frame and fiddled with the lock. The knob still didn’t turn, so she pulled it straight out from the wall.

Well, dang. Who would have thought she knew what a bolt mechanism was? Let alone that it was the broken piece that had kept the door from opening?

“Let’s see if anything else needs a little lubrication that you can destroy for me,” she teased, as she set the knob on the gray countertop of the kitchen.

Like any other red-blooded man, the word lubrication triggered immediate fantasies. Matt stared at the duct-taped window, mentally drawing up an estimate of labor and materials until he had his body under control. When he was settled, he glanced at Veronica to gauge if she’d been purposely pushing his buttons.

She flicked a smile at him, still seemingly focused on the innocent moment they’d shared over the broken door.

Whether she had brains under her gorgeous head of silky blond hair was debatable. But he clearly did not. He hadn’t learned from his mistakes. He was still pretty much a sucker for rich girls and their smiles.

He needed to refocus on the reason he’d offered to help her get inside the trailer in the first place. “You’ll pay as much to replace that window as the whole trailer’s worth. The counters were originally white, you know. This chair used to be tan, and so was the floor.”

“Well then, when I’m not hammering, I guess I’ll be cleaning,” Veronica said over her shoulder as she sashayed to the back of the trailer.

So, she was going to make him work for it? He was up to the challenge.

His heavy boots stuck with each step on the gray-brown floor as he followed her. But then he stopped in the doorway. A big bed filled the entire room. He didn’t dare come any closer.

“I’m not going to ask how anyone could get a mattress that size in here,” she commented.

He kept his expression neutral. “I expect rodents have turned it into a warm, cozy nest.”

She shivered, as he intended, but didn’t scream. “I’ll definitely have to do a mouse check if I’m going to sleep here. Maybe I could use those doughnuts from Barney as bait to lure them out.”

Nice comeback. His respect increased another notch. “My guess is you’d end up with mice from all the vacant lots over here, too.”

She turned away from the bed to him, and Matt found himself staring into her clear blue eyes. “If the mice start chasing me, I will knock you down to get out of here. You know that, right? Your shoulder ramming trick is a really great technique.”

He snorted. Sure it was, if one didn’t particularly care whether he regained full use of his shoulder or not. Matt rolled it against the dull ache and rotated his neck as he stepped out of the door frame, where he’d been inadvertently blocking her in.

Veronica walked by him into the bathroom and ran the water in the shower and sink. The basins wouldn’t win any awards for cleanliness, but for a building on the verge of demolition, the pipes surprisingly appeared to be in working order.

Her shoulder brushed his as she continued to the kitchen. Matt stepped back, irritated that he’d allowed himself to gravitate so close to her trim, energetic body. He was raising a kid and was intent on spending the rest of his life in this town—both deal breakers for rich city girls.

She opened the refrigerator and immediately slammed it shut. The rancid, moldy smell hit him a second later. Now there was a reminder to stay as far back as possible.

Veronica patted her hand against the refrigerator. “Would you mind throwing this outside with the front door?”

Her sense of humor about the entire trailer threw him off. She was supposed to be leaving him in a cloud of dust by now. He needed to cut the camaraderie and get tough with her before he ended up saddled with her on a job site. “You’re not seriously thinking of living here. It’s uninhabitable.”

“Are you offering me accommodations?”

He crossed his arms over his chest. He didn’t want her staying in this trailer—no one should have to live in these conditions. But even if he didn’t have an impressionable niece under his roof, he couldn’t make the mistake of pretending he had anything to offer someone like her. She must have options. Girls like her always did. She just needed to use them.

“That’s what I thought.” She pushed open the screen and walked out of the trailer.

Matt followed, wishing he could crack a joke about being careful not to run over any mice as she drove off. But he’d pushed her away just as he’d intended, and he worried his comment would come across as purposely rude.

He pulled the flimsy screen door tight behind him and shoved the front door out of the walkway into the tiny patch of overgrown weeds that passed for the trailer’s yard. He looked up, prepared to send her off with a friendly wave.

But instead of backing out of the driveway, Veronica was tugging her designer suitcase from her trunk.

He ran over and grabbed the expensive luggage with one hand, lifting it onto the gravel next to the car. “Why are you driving this piece of junk anyway?”

“It’s my car now.” She put her hand next to his on the suitcase.

Heat traveled up his arm, but he ignored it. “You had a different car—a nice one—before this.” It wasn’t a question. A girl like her shouldn’t be caught dead riding in this car, let alone driving it without roadside assistance on standby.

She moved her hand away, straightened, and looked him in the eye. “Yes, I had a nice car and a nice house. I’m very aware that I traded down quite a few notches below my comfort level. But that doesn’t make me a snob. It doesn’t mean I won’t be a good construction worker.”

“It doesn’t mean you will be a good construction worker, either,” he pointed out.

Her lips compressed into a determined line. “I’m not a fluffy airhead who runs screaming from a little refrigerator odor. I’m going to work beside you for the full thirty days. If that means making you miserable because you’re in the middle of what I have to do to make a future for myself, I’m sorry. But I can’t change my life to make you happy. I’m doing what I need to make my own life.”

Kimberly had told him the same thing when she’d left. She hadn’t cared if she broke his heart and made his life miserable. No way was she staying in this dinky town to help him pick up the pieces of his brother’s life and raise his orphaned niece. She had a life to live, and no one was getting in her way.

At least this time Matt knew exactly the type of woman he was dealing with. And his heart would be completely safe.