After divorcing her cheating husband, Ashley returns to Echo Ridge looking to start a new life with her two young sons. She has no plans to get involved with another man anytime soon–if ever. But when she starts working for her future brother-in-law’s best friend, she realizes she hasn’t locked away her heart like she thought.
Scott has all but given up on figuring out the business’s bookkeeping program, and women aren’t even on his radar–until Ashley comes into the picture. She untangles his books like magic and she and her boys seem to permeate all the empty corners of his life. Can he convince her that they are a perfect match?
SCOTT WANTED TO PICK UP his computer and shove it out the nearby window. Not an uncommon feeling in the office that had never seemed so cramped and stifling until it had become his. He had always liked wood paneling and the second-story window that overlooked several corrals and one of his family’s pastures. Now, though, it taunted him, a constant reminder that he was dealing with invoices in the temperature-controlled office of the family meat-packaging plant instead of building up a good sweat pulling fence or hauling water to the cows.
How did guys in high-rises ever manage to spend their entire lives in front of a computer? He growled and double-checked the order for Fay’s Cafe, then printed it out so Lance could pull it for delivery the next day.
“What a beautiful day.” Lance sauntered into the room looking tan and happy after finishing the morning deliveries. “Is there anything better than spring weather?”
Though it was a near thing, Scott managed not to growl again. “Don’t enjoy it too much.” He passed over the invoices he had completed for the next day’s deliveries—including the one he had just printed for Fay. “You still have work to do.”
“Speaking of, I’m going to cut out an hour early to take Janice out to visit the calves. She thinks they’re adorable.”
“How nice.” Scott wasn’t overly impressed with Lance’s current girlfriend, but she was better than some of the women he had dated.
“When was the last time you went on a date? You seriously need to lighten up, bro.”
It had been over six months, but who was counting? “What I need is to get away from this desk and out there.” He gestured toward the window with his thumb.
“Come on, I know a great girl. Shana’s a doll and she just broke up with her boyfriend, so she’s especially desperate right now.”
Scott managed not to express his distaste for that idea by more than a frown. “I’ll start dating again when I feel like it.” He was on hiatus at the moment—he never went out with anyone for more than a couple dates—at least not since Tara. He had ignored all the warning signs with his ex-girlfriend and though he had dated quite a lot after that relationship had ended—more than he normally would have, as though he were trying to make a point that she hadn’t flattened him with her rejection—he had gotten sick of it. He wanted someone special, not just someone to pass the time with.
He tapped his toe against the ugly vinyl flooring his father had picked out when Scott had still been in elementary school. His mother had suggested that they replace it when Scott had been railroaded into taking over as company president so she and his father could travel more. Scott hadn’t been able to see the point of hassling with renovating the office when they were saving for a new freezer. It wasn’t like some paint and new flooring would make the place pleasant enough for him to stop wishing he was in the fields with the animals instead, and nothing was going to cancel out the funky sweet smell of dead animals from the abattoir downstairs. He hardly noticed it after a few minutes anyway. Working in and above a slaughterhouse was probably not a life’s dream for most people.
He didn’t actually mind the meat processing portion of the business, but the paperwork was about to drive him out of his mind.
Scott needed a break. Right now. His attitude needed some serious adjusting. He stood. “I think I’m going to check on the calves, now that you mention it. I didn’t manage to get out there yesterday.” Fresh air would do him some good.
“Double date tonight?” Lance asked as they walked down the stairs to the retail area of the business. “Seriously, you have to get out of this place once in a while.”
“I’m getting out. Dinner with Damon and Haley; they’re getting down to the last month of wedding plans and apparently think it’s time we all got together to discuss things. They’re dragging her matron of honor into it too.”
“The delectable Ashley. I saw her last fall. Too bad about the kids.”
Scott rolled his eyes and pushed through the door, calling back over his shoulder, “I’ll just be twenty minutes or so, Brenda. Lance, don’t forget to pull tomorrow’s orders before you go play.”
Lance could be so clueless sometimes. Ashley’s divorce had only been final for a week or two—or so Damon had said when he and Scott met for lunch a few days earlier. Scott had seen pictures of her and knew she had moved back to town a while back after her marriage went up in flames. Damon had been very closed mouthed about the cause of the divorce and Scott hadn’t asked, but regardless of the reason, he had no intention of dating someone who had been single for only a few weeks—her kids didn’t matter one way or the other in the equation at this point.
Scott liked kids. He wanted kids. Someday. With the right person—he just wasn’t in a hurry to settle down with the wrong person.
He passed the four corrals of various sizes where farmers could unload stock they brought to be processed and pushed open the gate to the pasture and walked through. He covered the area, checking the pasture for weeds that needed to be removed, uneven wear, and spent a little time monitoring the young trees they had barricaded off from the cows while they grew enough to provide shade.
The breeze blew warm and sweet, if you discounted the occasional smell of cow manure, which wasn’t bad in the pasture anyway. It didn’t take long for his irritation to die back and his head to clear once he started clearing weeds and making notes on his phone about work that needed to be done. Maybe it was time that he started clearing part of his day to get out of the office. He just wasn’t sure how he would manage it without the paperwork getting too backed up.
ASHLEY HITCHED THE FUSSING baby higher on her hip and felt the diaper bag slip off her shoulder. Holding in the groan that threatened to escape, she slipped into the small red brick office that had been sandwiched between two other buildings in the row. It was a tiny space, perfectly adequate for the needs of the architect and advertising guru who used the space, but seemed entirely too small when she had her fussy one-year-old with her.
“Come on, Zach, it’s only two hours. Can’t you try to cooperate for two hours?” She slid the diaper bag out of sight behind the desk. She could hear Damon talking to a client in his office—he tended to work through lunch so he could leave early to spend more time with his pre-teen daughter Maggie after she got out of school for the day. Since his architectural firm was still being established in Echo Ridge, he didn’t have enough work to keep him busy full time yet. Considering some of the projects he had coming up, though, she imagined that would be changing.SHLEY HITCHED THE FUSSING baby higher on her hip and felt the diaper bag slip off her shoulder. Holding in the groan that threatened to escape, she slipped into the small red brick office that had been sandwiched between two other buildings in the row. It was a tiny space, perfectly adequate for the needs of the architect and advertising guru who used the space, but seemed entirely too small when she had her fussy one-year-old with her.
She already knew the other office was empty. Haley, who had started her advertising agency about the same time as Damon started his architectural firm, had been at home on an extended lunch break working on plans for her wedding to Damon when Ashley had left.
There were definite advantages to working for your sister and future brother-in-law. Being allowed to work only when her older son, Stockton, was in preschool, and bringing Zach along were two of them.
She just wished Zach would finish teething and play quietly again like he had the previous week. It wasn’t easy trying to act professional with baby drool… and was that spit up on her skirt?
Ashley closed her eyes and wished she could start the day over again. Or dial back the calendar to when she had nothing to worry about but getting the kids through the day.
That wish lasted less than a second before she remembered that would have meant staying with her cheating ex-husband. She had no interest in doing that. Despite the aggravation of the day so far, being a single mom was still better than being with Joshua.
The phone rang and Ashley put on her best receptionist voice. “Anderson Architecture and Advertising.” Since Haley hadn’t started her advertising business until after she and Damon became engaged, she had opted to simplify the name of the two businesses with the single last name.
Since Damon was still on the phone, Ashley sent the client to his voice mail and then dug into the diaper bag for a wipe to clean up the edge of her skirt. How had she missed that when she put it on this morning?
She had nearly finished her bachelor degree in business management when she had met Joshua, and though she hadn’t needed to work during their marriage, she had finished her degree, and taken over most of the family finances. She had thought she was dealing with all of them, until her attorney had uncovered his stash during the divorce. Joshua had been funneling twenty-percent of his income into another account she hadn’t known about and used it to fund his, apparently, numerous affairs. But she wasn’t going to think about that now.
At least managing the family income and bills had kept her accounting skills limber, and heaven knew she had spent enough time going to social engagements with her husband to develop a company face.
No longer having to go to those stuffy networking dinners had been a relief. It helped alleviate the self-doubt that had sneaked into her mind after finding out that she had never been enough for Joshua—not even when they had been newly married.
Happy that Zach had finally settled down, Ashley looked at the list of to-dos in front of her—some left from the previous day, and some new ones that either Damon or Haley had added that morning. She started with the phone calls—might as well take advantage of the silence while it lasted. When nap time finally claimed Zach, Ashley whispered a hallelujah, and turned down the ringer on the phone in the hopes that it wouldn’t disturb him.
Damon appeared at his doorway a few minutes later. “Thanks for the file. I just emailed you a few invoices that need to be paid. Can you cut checks?”
“Sure thing.” Ashley finished the email response to someone asking about Haley’s rates, and then turned to the forwarded invoices, and entered it into Damon’s QuickBooks program, printing the checks. She carried them back to his office for him to sign before she addressed and stamped envelopes to send them out in the mail the next day.
“Is Maggie looking forward to dinner tonight?” Ashley asked when Damon came back into the reception area a few minutes later.
“She always loves going to your house. Haley said the plumbing is nearly done.”
“Yes. By the time the wedding is over, the place will finally be ready to put on the market. I’ll have to find an apartment soon.” When she returned to town a few weeks earlier, she had moved into her grandmother’s old home with Haley, but the house had been under renovation since Gran had gone into the nursing home the previous fall, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to stay for long. At least staying at Gran’s old place gave her a couple of months without having to pay rent to save up to get into a place of her own. There would be a little money coming from the divorce settlement, but Joshua had been putting up road blocks.
“Okay, I’m headed out. I have a meeting with a client and then I’m picking up Maggie. We’re making our secret family recipe for baked beans. You’re gonna love them.” He pointed exaggeratedly toward her as he passed her desk.
“I can’t wait.”
“Haley should be back before you have to leave to get Stockton. If not, just lock up and go.” He waved before heading out.
Ashley was so grateful that her sister found someone everyone in the family liked so well. He was so good to Haley, an astute business man, kind, and a great father.
Half the time Ashley was just glad when Joshua actually showed up to get the kids for visits.
Why was that bothering her so much today? Everything seemed to be getting to her—from the state of her nearly empty bank account, to jealousy over her sister’s happiness—even though she was glad that Haley had found Damon. Zach started to cry, announcing the end of his afternoon nap. She rubbed her hand over her face and turned to pick him up. His fussiness wasn’t helped by her own lack of sleep.
Twenty minutes and she would head out to get Stockton from preschool. She had to make potato salad for the barbecue tonight, but maybe she could take the kids to the park to play for a little while first. They could probably all use the sun and fresh air.
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