Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

chapter Five

Eve was glad Matt had happened along while she was still trying to work up the nerve to enter the house. Having him downstairs made it easier to keep calm when the mess in her bedroom left her anything but that.

Tossing the bat onto the bed, she clamped her eyelids shut, then popped them open, but nothing had changed. Her panties still dangled from the lampshade.

The remainder of her clothing littered the bedroom floor, and a large, cedar-lined oak wardrobe sprawled drunkenly facedown on top of her great-grandmother’s antique hooked rug. A copy of Eve’s final divorce decree was skewered to her pillow with a finish nail.

She spun in a slow, incredulous circle and stared at the chaos around her, then curled her fingers into fists. She plucked the nail from the pillow and inspected the antique linen pillowcase. There was a small hole. Blinking back angry tears, she crumpled the divorce decree and crammed it into the back pocket of her coveralls. She stooped to grasp the front end of the wardrobe. One sharp corner screeched against the hardwood floor as she tried to lift it.

Matt’s voice drifted up from the foot of the stairs. “Is everything all right?”

Releasing her hold on the wardrobe, Eve bit her lip. She could ask him for help. She probably should. But they had to work together, and she wasn’t sure she could trust him to keep this to himself.

“Everything’s fine,” she called back, listening until she heard him move back into the living room.

Then she did a quick search of the rest of the upstairs, although she already knew Claude was gone. He wouldn’t want to be caught in the act. He wanted to send her a message, and he knew she’d never been good at his games.

The upstairs was empty, just as she’d expected. She went back to her room, dragged a brush through her snarled hair and, showering wood chips onto the floor, re-fashioned her long, curly ponytail, then changed into shorts and a T-shirt she’d grabbed off the floor. Clicking the bedroom door firmly shut behind her, she pattered down the stairs in her bare feet.

Matt lounged on the flowered sofa right where she’d left him, his massive male presence looking ridiculously comfortable amidst the damask cabbage roses. He was flipping through the pages of a scrapbook that contained clippings of past projects Eve had consulted on—none of which were likely to impress a brilliant architect of his caliber.

Uneasy prickles chased up her spine. Eve quickly was reminded that she knew enough brilliant men to last her a lifetime. Matt seemed harmless enough, but so did they all, at least at first.

“How would you like your coffee?” she asked.

He didn’t lift his head from his reading. “Black, please.”

She carried two steaming mugs back to the living room and placed them on the low pine coffee table, nudging aside a glass trifle dish piled high with more of the family photos her mother kept sending her. Eve then chose an easy chair to sit in—the one farthest away from the sofa.

Matt snapped the scrapbook shut and held it up. His thick-lashed blue eyes met hers, warm and sincere. “Your work is good.”

Eve would have to be flatlining not to appreciate a compliment of her work, especially from Matt Brison. It was the warmth of his gaze, however, that made her want to burst into tears.

Her home had just been trashed, and she’d like nothing better than to throw herself into a friendly pair of arms and let someone else deal with the mess. But Eve was stronger than that.

“Thank you,” she said, amazed by how calm she sounded.

“There’s no reason why we can’t work together on the City Hall project,” Matt continued, tapping the scrapbook thoughtfully. “Maybe even brainstorm a little. I told you, I’m always open to suggestions.”

She lifted her coffee cup to her unsteady lips and concentrated on business. She couldn’t resist poking him a little, just to see if he’d laugh. She could use one herself.

“You don’t have any ideas of your own?” she said.

He slumped deeper into the sofa and clasped his fingers behind his head, his gaze stroking her from head to toe. A lick of heat leaped into his eyes. “I’ve got plenty of ideas.”

She focused on her coffee and tried not to take his words out of context. Matt was a rich, handsome man, famous in his field, and flirting came naturally to him. It had nothing to do with her.

And no way was she finessing the budget, if that was his game.

“Why don’t you just come right out and tell Bob that this project isn’t your style and be done with it?” she suggested. “Then you wouldn’t have to worry about new ideas.”

“I don’t know,” Matt said slowly, smoothing his chin with the pad of his thumb. He had a nice chin, strong and solid—it went well with the rest of him. The navy running gear showed off a far different frame than the one she’d expected based on his business suits. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had ideas like this,” he added. “They might be well worth exploring.”

Eve took a long, flustered swig of coffee and choked on it, burning the inside of her nose. Matt jumped to his feet and thumped her on the back until she feared for a few of her ribs. Then he switched to a gentler rub between her shoulders. Bending forward, he brought his face within inches of hers and dropped his free hand to her bare knee.

“Better?” he asked.

Not really. Now she couldn’t breathe at all.

The phone rang.

“Let me grab that for you,” Matt said, reaching for the cordless handset since he was closest to it.

Eve couldn’t read the caller I.D. from where she was. Panic-stricken, she thought of who might be calling her and settled on the worst-case scenario.

“Let it ring. It’s probably my mother.” Unless, of course, it was Claude, calling to see if she’d gotten the message he’d left her. That would be the post-apocalyptic scenario.

Matt had already grabbed the phone, though. His apologetic smile as he passed her the receiver seemed to say, “Isn’t that cute? She doesn’t want to talk to her mother when there’s a man in the house.”

Which was true enough. Eve didn’t want her mother getting any of her hopes up. Eve was through with men.

She hit the green Talk button. She’d feel stupid not answering it now.

Her mother’s voice came through loud and clear. “Hello, sweetheart. I was wondering…if it rains, we can’t have the party outdoors. Do you think we should rent one of those big tents, just in case?”

What Eve thought was that the whole family should have chipped in and sent her parents on a cruise for their fortieth anniversary. But what she said was, “Renting a tent sounds like a good idea.”

“And you’re sure you’re still coming?” her mother finished anxiously, reigniting Eve’s all-too-familiar pangs of guilt. She’d blown off too many family functions in the past, and this one was important. Her mother kept calling it a party, when in fact it was more of a family reunion.

“Of course, I’ll be there.”

“Good. Because there’s someone we’d like you to meet.”

Eve’s guilt gave way to an equally familiar irritation. Her mother couldn’t seem to understand that she wasn’t interested in meeting men. Her glance drifted to Matt, and she shifted around in her chair to face away from him.

After she said good-bye, she turned to find his clear blue eyes fixed on her. She lowered her own in confusion. It would be too much to hope that he hadn’t overheard that last bit of the conversation. Her mother’s voice carried, after all.

“My mother thinks marriage is the greatest accomplishment a woman can achieve,” Eve said, heat clawing her cheeks. “She’s always trying to fix me up with men.”

“If it helps matters any, my mother has a thing about marriage, too.” Matt laughed without a whole lot of humor. “She’s tried it five times. I think she holds the record for the shortest marriages in history.” He picked at a loose thread on the arm of the sofa. “People who can’t commit shouldn’t keep trying.”

While Eve found five excessive—one had been more than enough for her—she still felt the need to defend his mother. “Maybe she wants to commit but is having difficulty finding the right man.”

Matt’s expression conveyed his opinion of that theory. “Don’t get me wrong. I love her. But she’s done enough comparison shopping to at least be able to find one she can tolerate. I think a person should know what they want and go after it. None of this ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’ Do a little research beforehand. Whatever happened to ‘marriage is forever?’ Why else would anyone bother?”

Inside, Eve winced. He had some strong opinions on the matter, but she’d heard too many similar comments from her own family to let that statement pass. Nobody ever said marriage was supposed to be easy. Couldn’t you give it more time? Couldn’t you at least try and work things out?

“Maybe she’s looking for that special someone she can respect and admire, and who respects and admires her in return,” Eve said.

Matt’s dark head tilted slightly sideways, and he stared at her for a long moment. “Is that what you look for in a relationship? Mutual respect and admiration?”

When she’d married Claude, she supposed she’d done so because he’d made her feel respected and admired. At first. And she’d certainly been impressed by him. At first.

She drained the last drops of her coffee and stifled a huge yawn. “I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m quite happy with my life the way it is.”

“Huh,” Matt said thoughtfully, giving her the distinct impression she’d just disappointed him somehow.

If so, she refused to feel sorry about it. Rebellion kicked in. She was tired of being viewed as a disappointment to others. Didn’t anyone ever care that, just maybe, she might be disappointed in them?

Matt couldn’t come up with the right word to describe the swarm of emotions Eve elicited from him.

Confusion, possibly. Irritation, undoubtedly. But it was the view of those short-shorts, tanned legs, and glittery, pink-tipped toenails that had him once more wanting to kiss her.

The silence grew so loud he could hear the ticking of his wristwatch. Until today, he hadn’t even known it made any noise.

“Why don’t you let me see some of those ideas of yours?” he suggested, changing the topic.

Her eyes widened. “You mean, right now?”

Matt shrugged. “Why not?”

She disappeared with a swish of her ponytail and a flurry of those tempting bare limbs and reappeared moments later, tottering under a stack of papers that required the weight of her chin to keep them from toppling over.

“Here’s the first of them.” She dumped the papers in his lap. Then, palming a letter opener off a small escritoire, she settled back in her chair and began sorting through a mound of mail, methodically slicing open each envelope. Matt placed a protective hand over his throat.

She paused, the letter opener poised in mid-air, sunlight glinting off its pewter blade. “Something wrong?”

Matt forced his hand away from his throat and picked up the top file. “No, of course not.”

“I’ll try not to disturb you,” she said.

Too late. She’d already disturbed him. Just not in the way she might think.

In spite of that, it wasn’t long before he became totally absorbed in the papers in front of him. She was good, he conceded, adding the file he’d just finished to the growing stack on the floor at his feet. Given the proper education and training, she could be great. He stretched the kinks out of limbs stiffened from too much time spent in one position.

Why didn’t she do more with her talent?

He started to ask her, then realized she was sound asleep, curled up in the overstuffed chair. The sun no longer shone through the front window, and his stomach told him it was getting close to lunchtime, but she looked so adorable curled up with her hands under her cheek and her tanned knees against her chest that Matt was in no hurry to leave.

She gave a soft sigh, a frown crinkling her delicate brow. The position she was in couldn’t be comfortable, yet the shadows under her eyes told him how badly she needed the rest. A tiny knot twisted in Matt’s stomach. Could he move her without waking her?

The trill of the phone shattered the quiet. Eve, however, didn’t twitch a muscle, which answered Matt’s question—he could tap dance beside her, and it wasn’t likely to wake her.

The phone persisted, and he debated whether or not he should answer it since she hadn’t seemed to want him to before. Then he decided to wait until the answering machine picked up. If it sounded like an emergency, he’d wake her. He glanced doubtfully at her sleeping form. Well, he’d try.

When the machine finally kicked in, however, the caller hung up—then the phone began to ring again almost immediately. Matt listened to this cycle twice more before deciding to answer and put an end to it.

“Hello?” he said, speaking softly even though it seemed unlikely that anything short of dynamite could accomplish disturbing Eve’s nap.

There was a brief hesitation on the other end of the line. “Who is this?” a low, male voice demanded. The hair on the back of Matt’s neck stood up at the frigid tone of the man’s simple words.

“Who is this?” he countered. His eyes darted to Eve, still asleep in her chair.

The line went dead then, and Matt stared at the receiver in his hand for a few brief seconds before replacing it in its cradle. He thought about Eve’s jumpiness, the dark circles under her eyes, and the baseball bat. He remembered the strange noises coming from her bedroom, as if she’d been rearranging furniture, and the way she hadn’t wanted him to answer her phone.

He didn’t like the conclusion he was coming to.

He ditched the remaining files on the floor and got to his feet. He couldn’t leave her here alone without making sure she’d be okay. First, though, he’d move her to the sofa and make her more comfortable. He slipped one arm beneath her knees, the other under her shoulders, and held his breath, waiting for her to open her eyes and demand to know what he was doing. Her head lolled against his forearm, and her mouth fell open. She snorted daintily, and Matt grinned, wishing he dared drop a kiss on the end of that trim little nose.

The knuckles of her limply dangling hand brushed his thigh, and he dumped her on the sofa as if she’d suddenly burst into flames. She sighed, rolled over, and mumbled something under her breath. Matt’s heart pounded hard in his chest. It was probably, “Get a life.”

The sooner he checked her house and got out, the better.

He started in the kitchen.

The patio doors leading to a small deck were latched. The screen from the open window above the kitchen table, however, rested against one wainscoted wall, and a tiny clod of dirt clung to the sill. Matt remembered Eve standing under that same window when he’d arrived, then the way she’d rushed to meet him—as if there were something she didn’t want him to see…

A quick glance outside confirmed his suspicions. There were two man-sized footprints planted squarely in the flowerbed.

Someone had broken into her house.

Matt followed a trail of dried dirt to the second floor. The first room at the head of the stairs was the bathroom, where everything seemed to be in its proper place. It smelled nice, he noted. Very feminine.

He then eased open the door across the hall and peered inside. His chin went slack. She’d sat drinking coffee with him, discussing business as calm as could be, when she’d known all along what was waiting for her upstairs. Had it even occurred to her to ask him for help? Maybe trust him a little?

At least now he knew why it had sounded like she was moving furniture. She must have tried to lift that wardrobe by herself. It was a huge, heavy piece, another antique, and one she’d never be able to move.

He needed to be doing something physical. After a few moments of grunting and swearing, he had the wardrobe upright. He checked it over for damage, rubbing a hand down one side, feeling the thick grain of the wood. Not a scratch on it.

Pausing to catch his breath, he spied the black dress she’d worn the night before lying on the floor near her discarded coveralls. Flecks of sawdust clung to its filmy fabric.

He pressed his thumbs against his eyelids. She must have had that dress on underneath her coveralls, which explained why she was so tired. He’d bet big money she’d spent the night at a construction site.

Had she called the police?

Probably not. From what he’d seen of her, she was just stubborn enough to try and deal with this herself.

Preoccupied, he hung her coveralls on a hook on the back of the bedroom door. As he did so, a crumpled wad of paper bounced off the toe of his shoe. He picked it up, smoothing it between his palms while he tried to think of what he should do. He couldn’t leave her alone without first finding out what was going on, but he wasn’t likely to find out from Eve.

He went to re-crumple the paper when bold lettering at the top of it caught his eye. He inspected the paper more closely. Then, carefully, he wadded it up again and tucked it back in the pocket of her coveralls.

He’d been right. It was personal. And now he knew why she was so touchy about failed relationships.

The lazy drone of a fly and its feather-light touch on her bare arm penetrated Eve’s state of semi-consciousness.

She pried open one eye. Streetlight streamed through the soft drapery of the long, narrow, eastward-facing living room windows. She shot upright and struggled to get her bearings, rubbing her eyes and blinking a few times. It couldn’t be night, could it?

The house was silent except for the fly, and she sent up a swift prayer of thanks. Her teeth had fur, she hadn’t had a shower yet today, and her head ached. She threw back a blanket and realized Matt must have covered her with it before he left. Mortification consumed her. She couldn’t believe she’d fallen asleep on him.

Then, she smelled the coffee. She must have forgotten to turn off the coffee maker that morning. She swung her feet to the floor and made a mad dash to the kitchen, hoping it hadn’t scorched to the bottom of the pot.

She rounded a corner and smacked into something solid standing in front of the refrigerator. Large hands grabbed her by the elbows, lifting her, and she let out a frightened squeak.

“I know I haven’t had a shave yet, but I didn’t think I looked all that bad,” Matt said, setting her back on her feet.

Eve’s heart rate slowed to a steady jackhammer pace as she tried to gather her scattered wits. She finally noticed that the kitchen lights were on, and in their white glare, he didn’t look bad at all. In fact, he looked great. His long, lean body, stubbled chin, and intense blue eyes dominated her whole kitchen.

He still wore his running gear.

“Have you been here all day?” she asked, incredulous, her sleep-fogged brain not operating at one hundred percent. God, she hoped her breath didn’t smell as bad as it tasted.

“I figured I might as well stay. You were asleep, and it was nice and quiet here.” His unwavering eyes fastened on hers. “And I had a lot of reading to do.”

Eve remembered all the files she’d dumped on him. At least he’d put his time to good use.

A box on the kitchen table caught her attention. Her voice rose an octave. “You ordered pizza?”

“It was either that or eat peanut butter on pita bread, which was all I could find in your cupboards. I saved you some,” he added.

“I haven’t had time to buy groceries lately.” Eve tried to figure out how she’d slept through a pizza delivery. She didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or annoyed. “You’re probably in a hurry to get back to your hotel,” she said.

If so, no one would ever know it. He propped one hip against the tiled countertop. “Could I have a cup of coffee first?”

He’d made fresh coffee.

Eve was at a complete loss as to how to handle this situation. It wasn’t often she had architects sit around her house and watch her sleep. The clock over the kitchen sink chimed the hour. It was ten o’clock. At night.

She began to back out of the kitchen, bumping into a wall in the process. “Of course. Have your coffee. But I need to grab a shower. I’m sure you could use one, too.” The twist of his lips made her wish she’d thought her words through. “Would you mind letting yourself out when you’re finished?”

“With the coffee or the shower?” he asked.

Eve didn’t dignify that with a response. She turned and raced for the stairs, taking them two at a time, then skidded to a stop at her open bedroom door.

Her wardrobe was back in its proper place and her clothes were all neatly folded and stacked in piles on her bed.

Including her underwear.

She felt her whole body blush, right from the soles of her feet to the roots of her hair. He’d put his time to even better use than she’d thought.

Her black dress was draped across the foot of her bed, and her breath caught. The dress had been with her coveralls, and in her coveralls was her divorce decree. She scrambled around until she found the coveralls, then searched the pockets for the document. She found it, then took it and tossed it in the trash. She had her own copy in a security box at her bank.

Maybe Matt hadn’t seen it.

Her lips trembled. The last thing she wanted was to answer questions about Claude, especially from a man who was critical of his own mother’s poor judgment in men.

She grabbed clean clothes, fled to the bathroom, locked the door, stripped, and hurled herself into the shower. Hot water streamed over her as she rested her aching forehead against the glass enclosure. Her brief marriage was a mistake she thought she’d put behind her, but circumstances were suddenly making it impossible for her to keep it there.

When she was scrubbed and freshly dressed in skinny jeans and a clean T-shirt, she pattered slowly downstairs to see if Matt had taken her not-so-subtle hint and gone back to his hotel.

He hadn’t. He was reading the newspaper at her kitchen table, his large fingers scrunching its edges into fan-like wrinkles. She steeled herself for a lot of questions she didn’t want to answer as he pushed the pizza box across the table toward her.

“Hungry?” he asked.


She eyed the box greedily, trying to remember when she’d last eaten, then took a slice of pizza and bit off a mouthful before pouring herself a cup of coffee with hands that still shook a little. Matt knew her bedroom had been trashed, that she wore multi-colored Brazilian boy-brief underwear, and there was the possibility he knew about Claude, too. She and the architect were certainly becoming well acquainted.

Matt folded the newspaper and set it aside carefully. “Did you know that my hotel room costs three hundred dollars a night?”

The ice maker on the refrigerator gurgled, and Eve frowned, confused, her train of thought interrupted. Whatever she’d expected him to say, that wasn’t it.

“If you’re worried about money, a room with your uncle would be free,” she pointed out cautiously, scarcely able to believe her good luck. If he wasn’t going to mention the mess he’d cleaned up in her bedroom, then neither was she.

“I’m not worried about the money because I’m not paying for it. You are.” Matt drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “It’s coming out of the budget for City Hall.”

“Bob is spending three hundred municipal dollars a night on a hotel room rather than put you up himself?” Eve was so outraged she forgot about everything else. “I don’t care if he is your uncle. The man’s a moron.”

“I’m still not convinced moron is the right word,” Matt mused. “Besides, a hotel room is always in my contract. I like my privacy. I need the space to work in and to be able to keep in touch with my own offices.”

She played with the crust of the partially eaten slice of pizza in front of her. “Bob’s house is huge. You could have all the privacy you wanted.”

Matt raised an eyebrow. “Would you want to stay with him if you had any alternative?”

“Good point,” she conceded, and reached for her cup.

“If you want to save budget money, maybe you’d consider renting me a room instead,” he suggested.

And Eve, already on edge, upset her coffee all over the newspaper.