Mr. Imperfect(10)

By: Karina Bliss

Christian’s attention, hijacked by the sight of an ancient iron-framed bed, snapped back to Kezia. “You approved the rat?”

“I bought him.” Her brown eyes, lit with rueful humor, met his and he resisted an impulse to smile back. There would be no repeat of his weakness at the funeral.

“Why?” Making a mental note to buy rat poison at the first opportunity, Christian tested the bedsprings. The white linen coverlet was so thin it had the translucence of skimmed milk.

“John Jason was missing his dad, wetting the bed every night. I thought a pet might help. Except any pet for that boy needs a powerful survival instinct.” Her rueful grin intensified. “Hence Roland.”

Damn, he smiled before he could stop himself. Amazing that the intervening years hadn’t wearied Kezia’s philanthropy, more so that he still found it a turn-on. “Rats only leave sinking ships so I guess his presence is a good sign under the circumstances,” he conceded, reluctantly discounting the rat poison. “But the rodent stays in the kid’s room.” An experimental bounce on the mattress evoked shrieks from the springs. “How the hell does anyone have sex in this bed?”

“It’s been a while…” Kezia faltered and he watched the color heighten in her cheeks. So this unwelcome awareness was mutual “…a while since we had honeymooners staying. And the springs have only got worse because…only recently,” she finished vaguely.

“Just how much rent are your strays paying?” From the financial accounts, Christian already knew the answer but he wanted her to acknowledge some culpability for this mess. It would give him the moral high ground, a position he found useful in business and avoided like the plague in his private life.

“If you think I’m going to fall on my sword because I helped out a friend, you’re not smart enough to be useful,” she said coolly. “And I can stop fighting the impulse to tell you to go to hell.”

So the intervening years had put steel in that fragile backbone. Shame she hadn’t had it when they were eighteen.

“Keep fighting it, I just got smarter.” This time his smile was deliberate, the wattage turned high enough to melt all female resistance. “I won’t underestimate you again, I promise.”

Kezia snorted. “Christian, please remember that I knew you when you were a sixteen-year-old bagging up chicken shit at Old Man Norton’s poultry farm.”

“Kelly’s Compost Activator. You know I’ve never bettered that profit margin. Four hundred percent return.”

“Mostly spent on soap,” Kezia reminded him, and for the first time their unspoken past lay lightly between them.

He decided to trust her with honesty. “We have to get these rooms back into inventory as quickly as possible. The bank must believe we can generate more income.”

“So you expect me to evict Marion.”

“Yes,” he said dryly. “I like nothing better than to toss women and children out onto the street. If only it were snowing.”

She sat beside him, hands clenched together in her coffee-splattered lap. “Sorry, I don’t usually shoot at the cavalry.”

“More like the Lone Ranger.” Under her makeup he saw the blank weariness of grief. “We’ll work around Marion until she finds a place. I can subsidize it.” Impatiently he overrode her protest. “At least let my money solve someone’s problem.”

His frustration that it couldn’t solve this one grew as he toured the upper floor. With his buyer’s eye he could see the red-oak floors stripped of their threadbare carpet, fretwork restored by a craftsman’s careful hand and the rooms dressed in lush fabrics and colors by one of his interior designers.

Instead, he and Kez would have to give the place yet another cosmetic overhaul with cheap fabrics, cheaper paint and their own inexpert labor. He’d funded himself through college as a builder’s laborer and hated it. Thanks, Muriel.

“This is Nan—my room.” Kezia opened the door adjacent to Christian’s room. “It might work as a second honeymoon suite.”

Christian blinked. Ruby-velvet drapes coiled around the mahogany frame of a massive four-poster, the bed made plump with white faux fur cushions. A crystal chandelier winked at its reflection in an ornate gilt mirror and a candy-striped couch with the curves of a languishing woman merged into matching wallpaper. “It’s like a bordello in a spaghetti Western.”

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