Michaela “Mike” Marconi had never really planned on being a stalker.
It just worked out that way.
“You moved the balcony.” A statement, more than a question, and he didn’t sound happy about it. The deep male voice came from right behind her and Mike winced before she turned to face him.
“You’re back early,” she said, ignoring his accusation to throw one of her own. “Thought you were going to be gone until tomorrow.”
“I came back early,” Lucas Gallagher pointed out, biting off every single word, “because I knew you’d be here.”
“Aw,” Mike said, smiling in the face of the fury gripping the tall man looming over her. “You missed me.”
His mouth opened and closed a few times as he sputtered and steam lifted off the top of his head. But Mike was used to this kind of reaction from him. And sure enough, he found his voice again a moment later.
“You are the most infuriating woman. Every time I turn around, there you are . . .” He was off and running, listing every way she’d been driving him insane for the last couple of months. And since she’d heard it all before, she zoned out.
Instead of listening, she just watched him. And she had to admit, Lucas made quite a picture. Tall, with sharp-planed features, his face looked as though it had been carved by a hasty yet talented sculptor. He had high cheekbones, a square jaw, and chocolate-brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. His too long light brown hair was pulled into a ponytail at the back of his neck, and his starched, dark blue dress shirt was tucked into sharply creased black slacks. Tall and leanly muscled, he was practically quivering with outrage.
Except, he was way too masculine to quiver. Maybe just vibrating, she thought idly, enjoying the fact that she was getting to him.
Mike was pretty much used to Lucas being mad. The man had spent the last two months fighting her on every little thing she’d “suggested” for his house. Even when she was right.
Which she always was.
While he ranted, she let her gaze slide over the nearly completed house and felt a small sigh of envy whisper inside her. Tall trees surrounded the yard spreading out in front of the two-story structure, and behind the house, the lake’s clear blue water rippled with every sigh of wind. Shade dappled the yard and a soft breeze danced through the trees, easing back the September heat.
By all rights, this should have been her house. She’d been saving every stray dollar for years—had even continued living at the family home with her father rather than spend money on rent—all in the name of buying this one piece of land and building her dream house. In her mind, she knew every crack and corner of the place she would build. She knew where every window would go, what kind of cabinets to put in, and exactly the right front door.
It should have been perfect.
Until of course, that day earlier this summer, when she’d stopped to enjoy the peace and quiet and had, instead, found Lucas Gallagher telling her that she was on private property. Grace Van Horn, the very same woman who’d been driving the Marconi Construction firm nutso this summer, had sold the land out from under Mike. The fact that the older woman hadn’t even known she was interested in the property was Mike’s damn fault.
For which she’d been kicking her own ass all summer long.
So instead of building her dream home, she was here every week, trying to turn Lucas’s house into the place she’d always wanted.
Did she feel a little bit guilty?
But hey, being Catholic taught a person early not only how to live with guilt—but to be a master at it.
Besides, she’d been working in construction since she was old enough to hold a hammer. Who better to tell him what he was doing wrong with this house?
“—and who the hell told you that you could move the balcony?” Lucas demanded, finally pausing for breath.
“Of course I moved the balcony,” Mike said, stepping past him to point up at the framework for the deck spearing off the second-story master bedroom. “If you’d left it where you wanted it, you would have had the sun blasting into your bedroom every afternoon around fourish. Does the word ‘west’ mean anything to you?”
He grabbed her arm, turned her around to face him, and leaned down to look her square in the eye. She felt the strength in his grip, but wasn’t the least bit concerned. There was nothing violent about Lucas Gallagher. Sexy, though? Oh yeah. Despite the flash of fury in his gaze, something warm and liquid unspooled through her bloodstream. Mike ignored it—as she had been doing for the last two months. She wasn’t interested in the nerd prince. She was interested in this house.
“I wanted to be able to watch the sunset,” he said.
She laughed. For a smart man, he was really making some dumb decisions. “Hard to do when your retinas are burned out from too much sunlight. Not to mention it would have been hot enough in your bedroom come summer that you’d have been gasping for air and wishing you’d listened to me about the air-conditioning.” She pulled free of his grasp. “Besides, you can still see the sunset. All you have to do is step out onto the balcony and look to the side. The way God intended.”
He stared at her. “Are you ever wrong?”
Sarcasm colored every word, but she took the question seriously, tipped her head back, thought about it for a long minute, then said, “No . . . I don’t think so.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
Mike smiled. “Because, clearly, you’re an intelligent man.”
“Uh-huh.” He let go of her and shook his head. “Well, I don’t care if you are right. I want the balcony where it was supposed to go.”
She frowned at him. “You’re just being stubborn, now.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “I wanted that balcony where I put it, damn it.”
“You won’t like it.”
“Hell, I’ll like it just because you won’t.”
“That’s mature,” she muttered.
“And even if I don’t like it—I’ll tear it down later with my bare hands. But I’ll do it.” He pointed over at the house just behind him and said, “You know, I had plans. Good plans. Designed by the top architect in San Francisco. And every damn time I turn around, you’re changing something.”
“For the better,” she countered, just as hotly. “Your architect might be the shiznit in the city, but he doesn’t know squat about Chandler. Or this property.”
He barked out a laugh. “And you do?”
She leaned in farther, almost brushing her nose with his. “You’re damn right I do,” she snapped. “I know every inch of this property. I know the lake and where it crests during a rainy season. I know which way the land drains during the storms. I know everything there is to know about this place because it was supposed to be mine.”
He ground his back teeth together, sucked in a gulp of air, and said, “But it’s not yours, is it, Mike? It’s mine.”
Yes, damn it. It was his. All of it. Her special place. Her thinking spot. The one place in the world she’d always run to when she needed to get away from whatever was happening in her life.
And now she was a trespasser.
“You don’t have to rub it in.”
“Apparently, I do.”
“Fine. Your house. Just tell the guys to go back to the original plans if you have to. But I’m warning you, you won’t be happy.”
“Hell,” he shouted, “I just won an argument with you. I’m already happy!”
“Sure, until the solar flares in your bedroom kick in.”
“You just never give up, do you?”
“Not when I’m right.”
“Which you always are, of course,” he said wryly.
“Usually,” she agreed, then cocked a hip, tilted her head, and looked up at him. “What? Do you want me to apologize again for having an opinion?”
“An opinion?” He laughed shortly. “You have an opinion on everything.” He blew out an exasperated breath. “What’s the point? You’ve been coming out here at least once a week for the last two months. You’ve stuck your nose into every little detail of my house. You’ve ‘apologized’ before and then gone right on and done whatever the hell you wanted to anyway and something tells me you’re not going to quit no matter what I say.”
“True,” she admitted, then squinted into the sunlight to stare up at him. “But admit it. You were glad to have me here.”
She shrugged. “Okay, maybe ‘glad’ is a little strong. But I was right about the kitchen, wasn’t I? The new layout’s more efficient and the bay window overlooks the lake and you’ve got to admit the cabinets are way better now.”
His jaw worked as if he were chewing on words he couldn’t quite make himself say. In the distance, Mike heard the telltale crash and slam of hammers and the whine of a saw. She felt right at home. Of course, that was Lucas’s point.
“Yes. Fine,” he said. “You were right about the kitchen. About the window. About the cabinets. Oak was better than pine.”
“And the arched doorways . . .”
He scrubbed one hand across his jaw and blew out a breath. “Them, too.”
“And . . .”
“Never mind.” He lifted both hands in surrender. “You were right. Right about all of it—except the balcony. Happy?”
Mike grinned at him. “What woman wouldn’t be happy to hear a man say those three little words that mean so much . . . ‘you were right’?”
He scowled at her, but the fury in his eyes was already dissipating. “Do you torture everyone building a house around here?”
“Nope,” she said, “you’re special.”
“You know,” she said, “I think you’re beginning to like me.” She felt another tiny ping of guilt. She really shouldn’t enjoy these little “discussions” of theirs so much.
They both turned to look at a workman standing beneath the shell of the balcony jutting out from the second-story master bedroom.
“What is it, Charlie?”
The older man hooked a thumb beneath his tool belt and jerked a nod toward the balcony over his head. “You decide whether you wanted iron or wood railings on the balcony?”
She opened her mouth to answer, but Lucas spoke up first.
“My house,” he pointed out, but Charlie just shrugged as if he couldn’t care less who gave the order, as long as someone did. “Wood.”
“Iron,” Mike shouted right over him, “it’s already been ordered and the Donovans are bringing it around tomorrow.” Then when Lucas turned to fix her with a furious glare, she reached out and patted his arm. “Wood rots. Iron might rust, but you can paint it with a sealant and it’s good to go. It’ll last as long as the house and, seriously, salt water is death on wood.”
“Whatever you say, Mike,” Charlie shouted and headed back to work.
Lucas grabbed her again and Mike felt every one of his fingers digging into her skin right through the fabric of her MARCONI CONSTRUCTION T-shirt. He had long, narrow fingers that were, apparently, electric, since she felt the hum of singing warmth right down to her bones. He was so tall and wiry, a person wouldn’t really expect him to be this strong. But Mike had always known. See? Just something else she’d been right about. In the last two months, she’d learned enough about Lucas Gallagher to know that he was some kind of scientist and knew diddly about building a house.
But this was the first time she’d seen the caveman side of him.
She kind of liked it.
But that was beside the point. “Gonna manhandle a woman because you can’t talk your way out of something?” she taunted. “You know, they say ‘violence is the refuge of the incompetent.’ Actually, I forget who said it.”
He released her instantly. “Nobody said it.”
“I just did.”
“That doesn’t count.”
“Of course it counts,” she said. “But that’s not what you’re mad about anyway, you’re just mad because I’m right about the house.”
His dark eyes flashed behind the lenses of his glasses, and his jaw muscle twitched as if he were gritting his teeth. “Will you cut it out?”
He was still furious, but Mike could deal with fury. Anger to an Italian was like a week at a spa. Adrenaline rushed, senses cleared, and blood pumped.
“You know, I figure I’ve been a heck of a good sport about all of this.”
“Is that right?” he demanded. “How’s that?”
“You stole my land, you’re building a house here that isn’t mine, and to top it all off, you’re doing it wrong.”
“Heck, you’re lucky I’ve only been coming around once a week!”
“Yeah, lottery lucky.”
“Hey, if my sisters and I hadn’t been off dealing with Grace Van Horn’s place all summer, I’d have been here on site every damn day whether you liked it or not.”
He stared at her, stupefied. “Where do you get off thinking you can just slam into someone’s life and take over?”
“I’m not trying to take over your life.”
“Just my house?”
“I’m trying to save your house. Big difference.”
“Who asked you?”
“You didn’t have to ask me, because I’m a fabulous human being.”
He choked out a laugh.
“This whole fight started over that stupid balcony, so I can’t even understand why you’re so pissed,” Mike said, trying for a calm she wasn’t really feeling. “Because you don’t know anything about balcony railings.” She lifted one hand and pointed at him. “Oh, and off the subject for a second—just so you know—don’t grab me again unless I want you to grab me. Which, by the way, isn’t going to happen.”
Muttering darkly, he dropped his chin to his chest and sucked in a breath rattled with frustration. Then he blew the breath out again. Lifting his head, he glared at her. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to grab you.”
“ ’S’okay,” Mike said, “I don’t break that easy.”
But he wasn’t listening. Shaking his head, he grumbled, “Look what you’re doing to me. I never lose my temper. Never. Ask anyone. I’m a scientist, for God’s sake.”