The last thing Mitchell Blake needs is another hot-shot consultant to "save" his glassblowing factory, but this one is different. She is hiding something. If he can unearth Jaye's secrets, he might have good reason to fire her. There's just one problem. His business partner, the one who hired this pesky consultant, is his father. Good old Dad forgot to get a hotel room for her, so guess what? She has to stay in Mitch's extra bedroom. While she's living in his house, he'll figure out why she took the consulting job nobody else wanted. Doesn't take long to figure out that this gorgeous woman can shatter his safe, lonely life.
Before Jaye Davis joins her family's software business, she takes one last consulting job in a remote town in northern Pennsylvania. It's the perfect place to hide from the future she doesn't want and the past she can't escape. She needs a little time to be by herself, but she'll get precious little of that if she has to live with a brawny glassblower who doesn't want her around. They have little in common. She wants to build an online store for his business. He believes e-commerce will destroy Blake Glassware. Every time they fight at the factory, they have to return home to the same house. Together.
She's diamonds and high heels. He's denim and work boots. When they discover that Blake Glass ware is in dire trouble, they need each other more than ever.
Sometimes, trouble makes everything as clear as glass.
* CLEAR AS GLASS won five Romance Writers of America chapter contests and was a finalist in the 2015 Book Buyers Best contest. *
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Something—or someone—had stepped on a twig and broke it. Jaye Davis spun toward the sound and pointed her phone’s flashlight at the tangled trees near the edge of the road. The weak beam of light stretched long, pale fingers into the crowded forest and landed on something very large and very round.
It looked like a bear. A big one.
The shadowy figure disappeared into the shadows. Bare branches creaked and groaned. Dry leaves rustled. A bunny hopped into view and scurried under a thorny bush.
This wooded valley was just a few miles from the town of Shinglehouse, but there were no shingles or houses in sight. No cell phone signals, no buildings, and no people. Just trees and whatever lurked in the dark.
Headlights appeared at the top of the hill, followed by an engine’s low growl. Jaye stood near her car’s front bumper and watched the battered pickup drive by. The truck slowed down, pulled over, and parked on the road’s narrow shoulder. The engine rattled to a stop and the driver’s side door swung open.
A man stepped into the glare of her car’s headlights. He was a little older than she, perhaps in his early thirties. He wore a knit hat, a red sweatshirt, and faded jeans that clung to thighs as firm as tree trunks. His broad shoulders seemed to be as wide as Pennsylvania, and the thick muscle along his arms forced the fabric of his sleeves to stretch in order to stay in one piece. He looked strong enough to dent fenders with a careless squeeze of his hands.
“How long have you been here?” His voice contained a hoarse edge that triggered a startled shiver down the back of her neck.
“Not long. Got a flat. I’m about to put on the spare tire.” But she was having trouble loosening some of the lug nuts on the flat. If she couldn’t remove them, she’d be stuck here all night with the bear and the bunny.
The intimidating stranger reached into his truck and then walked toward her. Something dangled from his hand. It was too dark to see what he carried, but he looked like the type who’d carry a rope or a knife or a gun.
“I don’t need help,” she told him.
“This won’t take long.” He kept coming, closer and closer.
Her heart squirted in front of her lungs and banged against her ribcage. She backed away from the road and stepped into the weeds. The heels of her shoes sank into the soft earth. A cold gust of wind raced beneath the hem of her skirt and stung her bare thighs. It was a terrible reminder this man could easily get under her skirt. If he ripped open her blazer and pawed at her blouse, no one would hear her scream.
She held up one hand. “Stop!”
“Here, take this.” He stepped into the weeds and came right at her. His stride was steady and confident, as if he knew nothing could stop him.
She’d seen too many news reports about unprovoked attacks, and she wasn’t going to let this creep get too close. She backed up and bumped into a tree. The man was almost within reaching distance. God, he was big. She sucked in a shaky breath, lunged forward, and drove her knee into his groin.
“Ooof.” He dropped what he was holding and doubled over.
She scurried past him and picked up the lug wrench she’d left next to her flat tire. The wrench was the only weapon she had to protect herself, but it was heavy enough to do some damage. She’d take a swing at him if he came at her again.
He raised his head and scowled at her. “Why’d you kick me?”
Some distant part of her brain registered that this man’s voice fell an octave after he’d been clobbered in the balls. “I asked you to stop, but you didn’t.”
“I’m trying to help you,” he snarled. “What the hell did you think I was going to do?”
“I don’t know, and I wasn’t going to ask, because sex maniacs and murderers don’t tell people they’re sex maniacs and murderers until it’s too late.” Her frantic voice echoed off the trees.
Maniacs. . .iacs. . .iacs. . .murderers. . .ers. . .ers.
The man’s eyes widened. Both of his eyebrows rose so high, they disappeared under the ribbed cuff of his hat.
In the bright light of her car’s headlights, she could tell his irises were a dark, denim blue. Now that she got a good look at him, she found nothing but stunned surprise in his gaze.
He braced both hands on his thighs and blew out a remorseful sigh that trailed off into a hoarse groan.
She glanced at the fly of his jeans. “Did I, um, hurt you?”
“Yeah. Being mistaken for a sex-crazed murderer stings like hell, but that’s my fault. I should’ve asked if I could take a look at your tire. Instead, I came right at you. Never should’ve done that without asking permission.” He retrieved the item he’d dropped and offered it to her. “Take this flashlight. It’s brighter than your phone.”
“Oh. I thought you were carrying a gun.”
“This isn’t a gun. It’s a rechargeable flashlight.” His voice was gruff, but kind. “I want you to have it so you can see in the dark.”
Her phone’s flash provided a decent amount of light, but the battery level had dipped quite a bit. She didn’t want to drain all the power from her phone, so she carefully took the flashlight out of his hand and then moved out of his reach.
He slowly straightened to his considerable height and glanced at the flat tire. “Looks like you removed three of the lug nuts. I can loosen the other ones. If you let me put on the spare, I can have you back on the road in less than ten minutes. You don’t have to give me your wrench, either. I can get mine.”
His willingness to let her keep the wrench made her feel better about accepting his help. She was supposed to meet Nick Blake in a half hour, and she didn’t want to be late. “Okay. I haven’t been able to loosen some of those lug nuts. I do need some help.”
“All right. I’ll get my wrench, and then I’ll get started.” He walked to his truck with a mild limp, thanks to her well-placed knee to his nuts.
When he returned with his wrench, she pointed the bright beam of his flashlight at her car so he could see what he was doing.
He knelt by her deflated tire, gripped his wrench with hands the size of dinner plates, and loosened the stuck lug nuts with ease.
Another branch cracked, but it wasn’t as loud as the first one she’d heard. “A few minutes ago, I heard something in the forest. What lives in these woods?”
“Possums and whistle pigs.”
“What’s a whistle pig?”
“I saw something that was much bigger than a possum or a groundhog.” She glanced at the spot where she’d seen the big, dark shadow. “I think it was a bear.”
“If that bear comes back, kick him in the same spot you got me.”
She burst out laughing and covered her mouth. “Sorry about that.”
“Forget it.” He gave her an all-is-forgiven grin.
Oh, wow. That smile—and his casual attitude about what lurked in the woods—reassured her that everything
would be okay. Apparently, there was no need to worry about grizzly bears out here in Pennsylvania. Just possums or whistle pigs, which were no big deal.
“This road was completely empty until you showed up,” she said. “Where is everyone?”
“At home, watching Sunday Night Football. That’s what I’d like to be doing, but I have to meet some guy.” With a few industrious pumps of the jack, he raised the front end of her car. “Every year, my father brings in some outsider to screw up our business.”
A cold chill trickled into her blazer and gained speed beneath her blouse. “An outsider?”
“Yeah. Usually, it’s a consultant who doesn’t know the first thing about our glassblowing factory. If I have to deal with another clueless jerk, I’ll find a good reason to fire him.”
Oh, great. A few minutes ago, she’d hit him in the nuts and called him a murderous sex maniac. He had two very good reasons to fire her.
“You must be Mitch Blake. Your father hired me to work at Blake Glassware for the next four weeks.”
“Huh?” Mitch’s gaze dropped to her skirt and then zipped up to her face. “I’m supposed to meet someone named Jayson Davis.”
“That’s me, but I’d rather you call me Jaye. This isn’t the first time someone didn’t expect me to show up. My father was convinced I’d be a boy. He liked the name Jayson too much to change it.” She’d given this explanation countless times. Often, she was able to laugh about her name. Not tonight, though. There was nothing amusing about working with someone who didn’t want her help.
Mitch huffed out a dry snort that turned to mist in the chilly air. “Does my father know you’re a woman?”
“That didn’t seem to matter to him. He was more interested in what I could do for Blake Glassware.” Every phone call and email with Nick Blake had been pleasant and professional, but his son was acting like a sexist oaf who thought a woman didn’t belong in his glassblowing factory. “Is there a problem with my gender?”
“Well, I’m supposed to meet your father in a few minutes. He’s got the key to my hotel room.”
“That’s the problem. You’re not staying at a hotel.” Mitch lowered the wrench and looked right at her. “You’re living with me.”
The loud clack of her high heels against the kitchen floor punctuated the fact she didn’t belong in Mitchell Blake’s house. Determined to find an alternative, Jaye tapped her thumb on the screen of her cell phone and opened her browser. “I’ll find a room at a hotel.”
“Don’t bother. There are no hotels nearby.” Mitch closed the back door with a firm tug. “The closest hotel is in
Coudersport, and it won’t have any vacancies.”
“Really? There’s nothing but woods around here. Have possums reserved every hotel room?”
“Even if a possum wanted to book a room, he’d have no luck. It’s the middle of October, which is the peak of deer season. This place is crammed with hunters. They fill every hotel in the county during this time of year.” He stood next to the kitchen table and folded his arms across his chest. “Let me get this straight. My father found you on the internet, contacted you about doing some work for the factory, and hired you sight unseen?”
Apparently, their friendly banter about possums hadn’t eased Mitch’s reluctance to hire an outsider. So much for the warm welcome she’d hoped for. “Your father spoke to me quite a few times and saw my portfolio. Nick knows what he’s getting.”
“What did he hire you to do?”
“I’m here to update your factory’s website. I’ll also build an online store for your hand-blown drinking glasses. That’s my expertise. I do virtual marketing.” She resisted the urge to tell him she’d double-majored in programming and marketing in college. Graduating summa cum laude hadn’t compelled her own father to hire her, so it was unlikely her accomplishments would impress Mitch.
“An online store won’t work. People need to hold our products in order to see the clarity and quality of the glass.” He braced one hand against the back of a kitchen chair and shook his head. “Rather than pour our resources into virtual marketing, we need to offer new products to increase revenue.”
“An online store will definitely increase your revenue.” Jaye had to convince Mitch Blake to give her a chance. She was tired of working behind the scenes, debugging software. If she could help real people, she wouldn’t feel so invisible. “With the right photography, your glassware will sell itself.”
“So, we have to hire a photographer too?”
“No. I’ll take photographs for the website.”
He blew out a skeptical sigh. “How much is this website going to cost?”
“I negotiated the terms of my contract with your father, and he hired me to work for one month. You’re welcome to ask him for the details of our agreement.”
“I intend to.” His hand tightened on the chair. His knuckles turned white against his wind-burned skin. “Tell me, when did you sign this contract?”
“Two weeks ago. Didn’t your father tell you?”
“No. He happened to mention it an hour ago, at the end of my brother’s football game.”
No wonder Mitch didn’t welcome her with open arms. He’d had very little time to get used to the idea of working with her. Their ridiculous predicament made a spurt of laughter bubble out of her fatigue. “We’re not off to a good start, are we?”
His hard stare could have been fused from glass. “My father will think this is downright hilarious. He knows I don’t like consultants, yet he hires one year after year.”
Oh, boy. This just keeps getting better and better.
Jaye opened the contact list on her phone and searched for Nick Blake. Drat, she only had his office number. “Could you give me your father’s cell? I’ll ask him to find a different place for me to stay.”
“No, I’ll call him. If he promised to give you a place to stay, he should’ve done a lot better than sticking you in my extra bedroom. I’ll fix this.” Mitch tossed his knit hat onto the kitchen table. A thick pelt of ultra-short blond hair covered his head. The buzz cut was similar to what you might see on a ruthless drill sergeant. He reached behind his neck, pulled the red sweatshirt over his head, and tossed the fleece over a chair. Blake Glassware’s square lettering spanned the back of his red t-shirt. An entire sentence could fit between those broad shoulders.
That sentence would probably say, “Get out of my house right now.”
He pulled a phone out of the back pocket of his jeans and walked out of the kitchen to call his father.
She glanced at the clock on the paneled wall. It was seven-thirty. She’d been up since five in the morning. What she wouldn’t give to collapse onto a soft bed.
If she were a guy, she could crash in Mitch’s extra bedroom, get some much-needed rest, and figure out what to do in the morning. Then again, everything would be simpler if she’d been born the son her parents so desperately wanted.
Mitch’s home was a far cry from a fancy hotel, but it was cozy and clean. The kitchen’s oak cabinets were outdated but buffed to a nice sheen. The white Formica counters were spotless. There was an October calendar on the fridge, and many of the days had notes in them. The handwriting was boxy and precise.
From this spot in the kitchen, she could see into the living room. There was a large television and a couch and not much else. The windows were completely dark. There were no lights out there, no houses nearby. If she stayed in Mitchell Blake’s remote brick ranch, her overbearing father and philandering ex-boyfriend would never find her.
Mitch returned and placed his phone on the kitchen table. “I couldn’t reach my father. I’ll try again in five minutes.”
“Do most short-term employees stay with you?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’m the only one who has an extra bedroom.”
“Ah. You’re the default host.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll find a good place for you.” He met her gaze and held it. Not once did his gaze drop to her mouth, breasts, or hips.
Jaye knew, with surprising certainty, she’d be safe here. The only thing stopping her from staying was the same thing that always complicated her life—whether or not a man wanted her around.
“I lived in a coed dorm in college. Living with you wouldn’t be any different.” She shrugged and opened her hands.
“You were willing to give your extra bedroom to some guy you’ve never met. Why not do the same for me?”
Mitch stared at the remarkable creature standing in his kitchen, stunned by what she’d just said.
Her, here? Hell, no.
This woman had no idea how much she turned him on. Lord, the luscious curve of her bottom lip had been driving him crazy for the past half hour. It was all he could do not to drool at her mouth.
She belonged in a swanky metropolitan hotel, not a half-renovated bachelor pad full of mismatched furniture. Cripes, her skirt probably cost more than his refrigerator.
“On weekends, I’ll be visiting family in Rochester. The only time I’ll be in your house is during the week, but I promise to stay out of your way.” She swept her bangs out of her eyes and burst into an upbeat grin. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
“Impossible. I’ve been living by myself for years. I’ll know you’re here.” He couldn’t miss her. She was mind-bogglingly beautiful and had a killer smile. Worse, her short hair framed the most incredible pair of brown eyes he’d ever seen. And if she kept smiling at him, he’d be in serious trouble. “Let me make a few calls. I might be able to find a room for you.”
“Okay.” She covered her mouth and yawned. “Could I stay here tonight? I know this is a huge imposition, but I’ve been in my car all day and I’m beat.”
He would’ve held his ground if she’d screamed and yelled, but her simple honesty got to him. He turned his head toward the kitchen window and eyed the silver Audi parked next to his muddy truck. Her expensive car gleamed like a diamond in the circle of light thrown off by the garage’s floodlight. “You’ve got Virginia plates on your car. Did you drive up from there?”
“Yes, from Richmond. Took me ten hours to get here. Traffic was super thick near Washington, as usual.” She clasped her hands in front of her and looked like an adorable pixie who’d somehow ended up in his kitchen.
Any sane person would say she couldn’t hurt a bear like him, but Mitch knew better. Jaye Davis wasn’t like any other woman he’d met. From the first instant he’d spotted her, he knew she was special. She was the type of woman who knew how to take care of herself. Lord knew, she had a wicked kick. She’d also known exactly what to do to change her flat tire. She would’ve been able to finish the job if she’d had a few more minutes to loosen those last few lug nuts.
Even though she had little reason to find anything funny about being stranded in the middle of nowhere, she’d laughed when he joked about kicking the bear that might’ve been in the woods. The memory socked him in the throat, but in a good way. He liked making her smile.
“All right, you can stay tonight.”
“Thanks so much. I’ll just bring in a couple of things from the car that shouldn’t stay out in the cold, and then I’ll get out of your way.” She walked out the back door.
Mitch picked up his phone, strode into the living room, and called his father again.
Dad answered on the second ring. “Did you meet Jayson?”
“You bet. FYI, your new consultant is a woman.”
“So, we have a problem. I was willing to let a guy use my spare bedroom, but I don’t want to live with a woman I’ve just met. We need to find a different place for her to stay.”
“There might be a vacancy at one of the hotels in Olean.”
“That’s too far from here. She’ll have a helluva long drive every time she comes to work.” Dad thought for a moment and said, “Try calling some of the girls you met in high school. Most of them still live in Shinglehouse, don’t they? One of them might have space for a roommate.”
The prospect of calling some of his former classmates sounded as appealing as oral surgery. Most of the women he went to school with were married with kids. They wouldn’t have an extra room to share.
Mitch knew his extra bedroom was probably the most convenient place for Jaye to stay, but he didn’t want to deal with yet another consultant at home and at work. “Dad, it’s a waste of time and money to hire someone like Jaye. We don’t need an online store. We’ve already got hundreds of vendors who distribute our glassware. What we really need to do is offer more products for them to sell.”
“Hold on. Elise wants to tell me something.” Low murmurs produced a lusty chuckle. “Sorry, son. It’s getting late and I want to go to bed with my wife. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
The line went dead.
Damn. Every time Mitch tried to discuss business, his father found an excuse not to listen. One thing was crystal clear: Dad had hired Jaye to set up some online shop because he intended to keep selling goblets and wine glasses.
The studio at Blake Glassware was capable of producing plates and vases, pitchers and candlesticks, bowls and glass sculptures just to name a few. But no, all they did was produce drinking glasses, day after day.
Making the same thing, over and over, was boring as hell.
Mitch didn’t know what was worse, this powerlessness at work or the knowledge his empty home was being
invaded by a doe-eyed stranger who’d make his life a lot more complicated.
Every single consultant who’d walked into the factory wreaked havoc. They screwed up the inventory, offered useless advice about productivity, and butchered the shipping department. One consultant had even convinced Mom to walk away a couple of years ago. Her departure had shattered the business and the family.
The sound of Jaye’s high heels striking the linoleum floor made Mitch’s stomach shrink to a hard, tight knot. Somehow, he’d have to stop her from destroying everything he’d fixed over the past ten years. He swallowed a groan and returned to the kitchen.
She stood near the table with a suitcase at her feet, a computer briefcase in one hand, and a camera bag slung over her shoulder. The cold wind had mussed her short hair and turned the tip of her nose a bright pink. She didn’t look like someone who’d condemn him to long days of drudgery. Instead, she looked like someone who’d breathe life into his hollow existence.
“Do you need any help with your things?” he asked.
“No, thanks. My suitcase has wheels. It’s easy to push.”
“All right. Follow me.” He walked past the hallway that led to his bedroom and took her to the other side of the house—through the living room, past the empty dining room, to the wing that had three additional bedrooms. He stopped at the first room, which had his old bed and nightstand. “You can use this room. There are clean sheets on the bed and the bathroom is right here, across the hall. If you need a towel, grab one from the closet.”
“Great. Thank you.”
“I go to work at five in the morning,” he added. “I’ll come back at eight-thirty to bring you to the factory. You shouldn’t drive until you replace your spare with a standard tire.”
“Right. See you in the morning.” She carried her things into the bedroom.
Unable to resist one last look, he lowered his gaze to her legs. They were long and lean and lovely. That great pair of stems would haunt him all night.
He walked back to the kitchen, grabbed a leftover hoagie from the fridge, and entered the questionable sanctuary of his dark, lonely bedroom. For the first time since he moved into this house, he’d invited a beautiful woman inside. For the hundredth time in his adult life, he wondered what the heck his father had gotten him into now.