Series: Shelter Sisters #3
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: March 31, 2020
Contributors: Heather Tullis
For most of her life Bennett has been on her own, rarely able to count on anyone but herself. After surviving child abuse, homelessness, and spousal abuse, she’s now connected to a group of amazing women, who support her and she’s thriving. Why would she need a new man in her life?
Nash met Bennett months earlier and was instantly smitten. He understands her reluctance to trust another man after what happened in her marriage, though the women are all stingy with the details. He has a plan, though, and after moving into her building, he helps the women set up their retail store on the first floor. If sheer proximity and kindness can’t get Bennett to look at him in another light, nothing will.
But when Bennett gives them a chance at love, the secrets in her past come back and smack her in the face. Can they find a way to love despite the truths she has been running from for a decade?
Also in this series:
Sometimes timing was everything—and Bennett’s was on the fritz.
Bennett pulled into the enormous garage right behind Nash’s car and parked her silver Camry in her space. She clicked the remote to close the door behind her and began gathering the bags of freshly cut wool she had just picked up from a farm outside of Crystal Creek.
Though she could have gotten out of the car immediately, she dawdled, hoping he would go inside without her, but when she looked up, he stood on the other side of her door. Sexy, delicious Nash with his multitude of muscles and dark hair that had started to grow out since he finished his time in the Army a couple of weeks ago. He wore a few days’ worth of dark stubble that only increased how utterly kissable he was.
He had the whole package, which was why she had been doing her best to keep him at arm’s length. Reigning in her attraction, Bennett forced an impassive expression as he opened the car door.
“Hey, do you need a hand with anything?”
She wanted to say no, thanks. But all he would have to do was take one glance into her back seat to know she was lying. Even with his help she would need to make two trips. “Sure, thanks.” She slid through the open door and turned back to grab several bags from the front passenger seat. When she turned, she caught him eying her all-too-substantial rear end as he removed bags from the back.
Instead of looking embarrassed at being caught, though, he simply shot her a smile of appreciation before turning all of his attention to the items he was retrieving for her.
Automatically, she headed for the inner door that led through the indoor pool area to the private elevator and secret entrance to the second and third floors where they both lived.
“It’s not five yet,” Nash reminded her. The secret entrance went straight through Vanna’s office, so they didn’t use it during business hours.
“Four more months. Construction sucks,” she said as she pivoted toward the door on the right that went outside. The private elevator by the pool only stopped on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. She and the other five women she considered sisters were renovating and creating large condo spaces for themselves on those floors in what used to be a run-down apartment building. In the meantime, they were all living on the second floor, and the guys—Nash and two of his Army buddies, Kaleb and Ethan—were living on the third floor.
They walked along the brick building to the new side entrance that led to the second and third floors and the matchmaking business Vanna ran. Safety had been their main concern when they had created the secret passage through Vanna’s office, with convenience a close second.
Bennett dropped a heavy bag to use her key card and a four-digit pin to open the side door and held the door long enough for Nash to catch it before stepping inside. She turned toward the stairwell—her usual method of going upstairs, but then veered toward the elevator, which only reached the second and third floors. She keyed them in and Nash joined her for the short journey.
Nash wrinkled his nose when they were shut into the confines of the elevator. “Wow, this stinks. What’s in the bags?”
“Wool—it still has to be cleaned, so yeah, it’s pretty stinky.” Of course, she could still smell the soft, earthy, musky cologne he always wore.
The elevator doors opened and Nash grinned. “Hey, hey, how are you doing?” he greeted Bobby—Andrea’s toddler who was all smiles and tight black curls as he greeted them.
“Hi!” Bobby smiled and opened and closed his fingers toward them in a wave.
“Bobby, where did you go?” Andrea stuck her head out of the central apartment the women all used as a common space for group gatherings, child care, and after-school homework. Since it was only the six of them and their various children on the floor, the kids were secure, even if they did sneak into the hall while the moms’ backs were turned. This was one of the great perks to winning the lotto the previous summer—private space and security for the women and their children.
They had shared the winning ticket and pooled the money to purchase the building and renovate it. At the end of the summer, the upper three floors would be ready for the women to move into and then the second and third floors would get their turn at renewal. The first floor was nearly done, and Bennett was excited to get all of the items priced and arranged in the retail space.
“Oh, great, you’re back. That looks like quite a haul,” Andrea said to Bennett. “Did you get it all?”
“Nope. Still another three bags in the car. Comfrey’s planning to shear next week, so there’s plenty more to come.” Bennett couldn’t be happier about that. After Comfrey had introduced her to the joys of felting wool, and eventually processing it from freshly cut, Bennett had searched far and wide for enough wool to work with. Her efforts over the past two years had paid off, though, and people were now contacting her to sell their wool.
“I’ll go back for the rest,” Nash offered as they stepped into Bennett’s fiber studio a moment later. They carried the bags of wool into the single bedroom in the apartment across from her own to stack with the other bags she had been bringing home from various farms over the past two weeks.
“Whoa, this is going to take a while to get through,” he said, looking around at the bags of wool stored on shelving around the room.
“Not that long. It has to last all year.” She couldn’t wait to get into her place upstairs with the spacious studio she had designed and tons of storage for dirty wool, cleaned wool, carded wool, dyed wool, and then wool that had been spun into yarn. The new yarn was starting to gain a lot of attention for its quality and usually sold off of Etsy almost as quickly as she could post it. Now that she had the new equipment to help her get it ready to sell more quickly, and a fresh batch of fleece to work with, she’d be able to work faster than in the past.
“Keys,” he said, holding out a hard palm.
She looked at his palm and then back at him, before lifting her brows. “I have some, yes.”
“I can get the rest of the wool from your car,” he said when she just looked at him.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I know. Keys.”
Bennett set her fists on her hips. “Why are you so bossy?”
“Why are you so stubborn and independent that you can’t let me help you out?”
She held in a huff of air. “I did let you help me out. Or do you not remember lugging those bags up here?”
He wiggled his fingers and she decided to give it up. She was exhausted from running errands all afternoon and she needed to check on her daughter, Grace. Bennett set the car key into his hand. “Thank you.”
“Wow, you almost managed to sound like you appreciated the help that time instead of wanting to strangle me for doing something nice. Progress.” He turned and headed out the door.
She let out a slow breath as she watched his entirely too-sexy form disappear into the hallway.
When Kaleb and Meena had started dating only a few days after the women had moved into the building in January, they hadn’t realized he would bring his two buddies into their lives as well. Now Meena and Kaleb were getting married in September with Sheila and Ethan hard on their heels. Somehow Nash had secured a place on the third floor with the rest of the men. Maybe because they were all the family he had now. Maybe because he was partners with Ethan in their new security firm, which had its office on the third floor as well. In any case, he was always underfoot these days, which made keeping her distance that much harder.
Bennett left her studio door ajar and headed to the common space where Grace and Chelsea, in the same third grade class at school, were working on math homework. Sheila sat with them, leaning over Chelsea’s shoulder to check her work and holding an open package of fruit snacks for her toddler son, Parker, who was one of Bobby’s partners in crime.
“How’s it going?” Bennett asked as she ran a hand down her daughter’s soft blond hair, a match to her own in color and curls.
“I hate math. School is over in three and a half days. Why do we still have to do homework?” Grace asked.
“To keep stretching your mind so hopefully you’ll remember this stuff at the end of the summer,” Bennett reminded her, yet again.
“I hate stretching my mind.” Grace let out a deep sigh and answered another question. She was far too advanced for the simple sheets they had given her, and Bennett guessed Grace was mostly annoyed that it was no more than busy work for her.
“I know, life stinks and then you become a mom and are responsible for everyone else. Good thing I get to have you as compensation for the drudgery of being an adult.” She pressed a kiss to her daughter’s head. There was nothing she wouldn’t do, and little she hadn’t done, for this little girl.
“Have you been down to see the work today?” Bennett asked Sheila regarding the construction on the main floor for Andrea’s photography studio and the retail space for the crafts the other four of them made.
“Not since this morning. I’ve been here since I pulled myself away from my shop.” Sheila did amazing metal projects, welding almost anything anyone could think of—including all of the metal railing in the building stairwells and around the roof. The woman was an artist.
“The windows were all covered so they could paint when I left, but I came in the side entrance just now. I can’t wait to see the final results.”
“It’s amazing.” Dierdre had entered the room in time to hear what they were talking about. “They’re cleaning up now. We’ll go down after dinner. By then it’ll be dry enough that the little ones won’t leave hand prints in it.”
Nash passed back through the hall with the last three bags of wool.
“I see you’ve found a pack animal,” Sheila said, looking into the hall.
“He refused to take no for an answer.”
“Seems to me that you should stop saying no so often. Seriously, not every guy is like James,” Sheila said.
Bennett would really like to stop saying no, but that always seemed to lead to heartache and badness. It had taken her over two years to fully trust the other women, her sisters. That had only happened because of dire necessity. There was no way she would let anyone else become important enough to her to fully trust them.
Nash strolled into the common room, hands in his pockets. “All set.” He fished out her car keys and set them in her waiting hand.
“Thanks, really. I appreciate it.” Bennett did her best to infuse more sincerity into her words than she had earlier.
“Anytime.” He held her gaze for a moment longer than anyone else would have, making her pulse speed and he then turned, brushing a hand over Parker’s head and greeting him as he walked back out. A moment later the door to the stairwell shut loudly as he headed up to the third floor where he lived and worked.
“Breathe,” Dierdre whispered in Bennett’s ear.
She did, and realized she had stopped when he had held her gaze.
“He’d be all yours if you just gave him a chance,” Sheila said in a low tone.
Bennett shook her head. That was not going to happen. No matter how much she sometimes wanted it to.
Nash shut the door to the stairwell behind him when he reached the third floor and leaned against it, tipping his head back. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken the job or apartment here. Being around Bennett every day when she fought her instincts against even being civil to him was utterly painful.
The first time he’d seen her he’d been dazed. It wasn’t that she was beautiful, though she was. It wasn’t that she was spunky, though she was that as well. Something about her just called to him, and as much as he tried to ignore it, the attraction just got stronger the longer he knew her.
He let out a long breath and then headed to the office where Ethan was working at a computer.
“Oh good, you’re back. I thought I saw your car come in the garage a while ago.” He gestured to the monitor that was split screen to the building’s outside cameras.
“Carried some things up for Bennett.” And that was enough of thinking about her. “I took about a thousand pictures around Stone Enterprises. I agree, their security system is totally inadequate. I can start mapping out the areas now.”
“Sounds good. Start with the front.”
Nash slid into the chair at the desk next to Ethan’s and pulled up the CAD program they used to design systems. He opened Google Earth on a second screen to get approximate measurements of the building and set to work.
After an hour, Ethan called it a night and headed downstairs to eat dinner with Sheila. Nash kept working and heard Kaleb go down for dinner with Meena. Both kept an open invitation for him to join them, but sometimes it was easier to stay upstairs where he wouldn’t have to have his heart ripped out by the sight of Bennett. Being the third wheel at their family dinners every single night made it feel even worse.
And how stupid and sappy was that? She was just a woman. He’d dated lots of women. Before meeting Bennett. Since then, only two, and both were dismal failures since he had been comparing them the whole time to the seriously prickly goddess downstairs.
Time passed as he finished drawing up the building, and started adding the cameras that were already there.
The door at the top of the stairs opened and Ethan came to the office door. “You’re still working? Please tell me you ate something, at least.”
Nash looked at the clock and realized his stomach had been complaining for a while. It was already after eight. “Nope. Just working. I should eat something. I think I have a frozen pizza.”
“Seriously, dude, you know you’re welcome to eat with us.”
“Yep. I was busy.” Nash saved the diagram and walked past Ethan toward his own apartment. “You want to go work out? I’ll just grab a protein bar first.” They had a set of weights in one of the empty apartments, but he needed something more.
A few seconds passed before Ethan answered with a resigned sigh. “Sure. I could use a run. Meet you in a few.”
And if that didn’t put this itchy feeling to rest, Nash could always go to work on their speed bag or head to the twenty-four-hour gym.
He grabbed the protein bar and downed it while he changed into clothes for the run. When he returned to the hall, Ethan was just coming out and Kaleb’s door was cracked open.
“He’s coming too. Way too many hours sitting behind a desk lately,” Ethan said as he began stretching in the hall.
Kaleb joined them and after a few minutes of stretching to loosen muscles, they all headed out.
If he glanced up to see if Bennett’s light was on in her apartment, it didn’t mean anything, did it?
Grace finished her homework early and began begging Bennett for pool time as she did every day. The girl was a fish, and would no doubt request pool time every day during the upcoming summer holidays.
“Come on, Mom. Please!” The pool on the first floor had only been functional for six weeks and Grace couldn’t get enough of it.
Bennett checked the time. “Okay, but that means an early dinner. We’re going down to check out the store after the crew clears out for the night and then we’ll swim after.”
“But,” Bennett cut her off. “That means you need to get all of your school stuff for tomorrow together before we go downstairs, and we need to eat dinner first. You go get your things ready for tomorrow and change into your suit and I’ll take care of dinner.”
Grace rushed to their apartment.
“You’re such a pushover,” Meena said.
“Tell me about it. But she asked the past two days and I’m not in the middle of anything now, so we might as well. I picked up goggles and a swim cap for her the other day.”
“Like I said, pushover.”
“Every day of the week for her.” Her biggest fear had always been of losing Grace.
“What are you doing for dinner?” Meena asked
“I don’t know, frozen pizza? Order in pizza?”
Meena shook her head. “You need more cooking lessons. Come over anytime and we’ll cover some new recipes.”
“It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’re never going to turn me into a chef,” Bennett said.
“A chef, no, but you can still make more than frozen pizza.”
“Hey, I’m the queen of mac and cheese.” As long as it came out of a box. When they had lived together Meena had tried to teach Bennett how to cook, but somehow things never went right. Either it was burned or undercooked, she used the wrong ingredients, or the stove caught on fire. Even with baking a frozen pizza it turned out under or over done more often than not. That meant that her daughter ate way more easy food from the freezer aisle or a box than either of them thought was healthy, but it was the best Bennett could manage most days.
“You just need to keep trying.” Meena would never give up on her.
“How are the wedding plans coming?” Bennett didn’t see any reason to continue a conversation that was going nowhere.
“Good. Kaleb’s mom is coming up so we can look for reception decorations. She’s totally excited about adding an Indian flare to our wedding and reception.”
“What did you decide about the ceremony?”
Meena had wanted to honor both her Hindu heritage and her husband’s Christian beliefs, which had taken a little flexibility on both sides.
“A Catholic ceremony, but I’ll be in Hindu dress. I think it’ll be beautiful.” Meena was very Americanized in many ways, having grown up here, but she never forgot her roots.
“Of course it will—you’re beautiful, so it could hardly be anything else.”
“Mom!” Grace called from their apartment door.
“I guess I better go do something about dinner.” Bennett excused herself and headed for the freezer. What did she have that she could heat up quickly?
Two frozen pot pies stared back at her. Well, that wasn’t going to work—they needed to eat sooner than that. She dug through the fridge and cupboards and found a can of refried beans, some shredded cheese, and tortillas. She heated the refried beans in a bowl in the microwave and set it all out on the table with a little salsa.
Dinner is served. Bennett set out plates as Grace came back into the dining room in her swimming suit.
“Is everything ready for tomorrow morning?”
“Hey, use that annoyed tone with me and maybe you won’t get to go swimming.” Bennett sent her a narrow-eyed look.
“Sorry.” Grace plopped on the chair. “I put my stuff in my backpack for school, put the dirty clothes in the hamper, and set out clothes for tomorrow. Done.”
“Good.” Bennett sat beside her daughter and asked her more about what she did at school that day and upcoming plans for the week as they ate their burritos. Dinner was her favorite time of day, especially when they got to eat alone without any distractions. Grace was often hurried and grouchy at breakfast and in a rush to get back to Chelsea to continue their activities when she was home for lunch. It had been just the two of them since Grace was only a few months old and even though she adored Meena and was close to the other women, Bennett had missed the quiet time with Grace that had been lost when they moved into the women’s shelter, then on to sharing an apartment with Meena and her son, Deven, and finally to this building.
She needed her shelter sisters and depended on them a lot, but she never let herself forget that if things went south, she may need to get away and start over again. They had already done so a half dozen times, and she would do it again if needed, though she really hoped this could be her forever home.
They finished dinner quickly and Bennett convinced Grace to clean up while Bennett put on her own suit and her clothes on top again. Next, they headed down to meet with the others at the front of the building to walk to the retail area on the first floor. This project had been in the works for nearly a year and they were all excited that the workmen were done with the space—and in plenty of time for the grand opening.
They walked down to the main floor and Dierdre held the door for everyone to pour out into the store.
It was great, even if it was still empty. The walls were a soft pink with lavender trim, the cement floors had been stained and sealed and the windows gleamed.
“Mom, it’s so pretty,” Grace said.
“Yes, it is. Just wait until we fill it with shelves filled with pretty things.” Bennett brushed her fingers over one of the walls, hardly believing it was true.
“I figured we could take some time to block off where everything goes,” Sheila lifted her clipboard which had three measuring tapes and three rolls of painter’s tape on it.
“Let’s get to work,” Andrea said.
They spread out, breaking into three teams, measuring the locations of every display, which Sheila had planned to the square foot. They marked off areas for each of them to display their wares and added the numbers from the display cases and shelves that were sitting unassembled in the store room so they would easily be able to place every piece.
It would take more than a week to get the shelving all put together, signage up, and the inventory loaded in while they managed their other commitments, but even if it meant long, sweaty days, Bennett was looking forward to the process.
When blue tape marked the corners of every large display, Bennett took a look around at what they’d accomplished and the two groups of kids playing in the corners out of the way—for the moment. It felt good, right, and very special. “This is going to be fun. I’ll take first shift tomorrow.”
“I’ll watch the boys,” Sheila said.
They set their plans and everyone else returned upstairs for dinner while Bennett and Grace headed to the pool. They could swim for an uninterrupted hour if they started now.
Bennett went through the doors, stripped down to her swimming suit, and did a cannonball jump into the deep end.
As the warm water enveloped her, she thought maybe they both needed the swim time.
Nash, glutton for punishment that he was, headed down to the main floor to help the ladies after finishing the site drawing for Stone Enterprises. Once the painting was done on the main floor, the women had gotten right to work to finish the retail space and Andrea’s photography studio. The space felt warm and inviting even before they had the merchandise out. He found Andrea and Bennett already working in their areas and started hauling boxes of unassembled displays to the areas where the women needed them. He also helped Bennett unbox the first set of shelves for the main store area when Andrea headed to a room on one side that housed her photography studio.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Bennett said when they were halfway through putting together the first set of shelves.
“Helping me isn’t going to get you brownie points.”
He was so tired of having her fight him every time he wanted to be a nice guy—and it didn’t seem to matter which of the women he was assisting at the time, Bennett was always so prickly. “You think I’m only helping to get on your good side?” Maybe the t-shirt she was wearing today was right. “I’m Not Always Rude and Sarcastic. Sometimes I’m Making Yarn.”
Bennett closed her eyes. “No, I know better than that. You’re a genuinely helpful person who pitches in whenever anyone needs something. I’m sorry.” She brushed away the blond curls clinging to her sweaty cheek with the back of her hand.
“Is there a reason you’re always so prickly with me? You’re perfectly nice to every single person I’ve seen you with, except for me. I know grabbing you on the steps that first time wasn’t exactly the ideal way to meet, but did it really make you think I’m a total jerk?”
“No, okay, you were doing your job—we asked you to try to get into the place, to find weaknesses. That has nothing to do with it.” She lifted the next metal slat shelf into place and he took the other side.
“Then what’s the freaking deal? Why are you determined to hate me?”
“I don’t hate you,” she said. “I just don’t want to get involved with you.”
“And the only way to do that is if you verbally beat on me every time I get in range?”
Surprised, he tipped his head to look at her more closely, noticed the slight flush on her cheeks, the way she avoided looking at him. Why would she have to be mean in order to keep him away from her, unless… “Wait, you’re as attracted to me as I am to you.”
Her pale cheeks flushed even more. “Attraction is nothing without trust.”
Seriously? “Now you can’t trust me? What have I ever done to show you I can’t be trusted? You trust everyone else who lives here.”
“To some degree or another.”
“So, in other words, you don’t completely trust anyone, not even the women you claim as your sisters. What’s happened to you that you don’t dare trust anyone completely?”
Bennett set the shelf into place and stepped back. “I’m going to go card some wool or something. I’ll be back down later.” She turned toward the stairwell at the front of the building.
Nash watched her run away from his questions, perplexed, frustrated, and sorry for her. He didn’t think he could function the way she did day in and day out.
Though part of him wanted to dance a jig at the thought that she was attracted to him, too, the other part said to forget it. There was no way to force someone to trust you or give you a chance. Especially when they were determined not to.
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