Spouse Hunting

By Lisa Scott

Chapter 1

Elizabeth Marshall parked across the street from the home with the big for-sale sign, wondering why her heart was dancing in her throat. She was buying a house, the good old American dream. Her phone rang, interrupting the niggling thoughts. Didn’t need caller ID to know it was her little sister, Julie. Again.

She answered with a chuckle. “Cake question or dress question?” Ever since Julie announced her engagement two weeks earlier, she’d been bombarding Elizabeth with menu questions and invitation samples and worst-case scenario worries.

“Are eleven bridesmaids too much? It’s just that Janey found out I asked Kim to be in the wedding and now she’s real upset I didn’t ask her, and if I ask Janey then what about Trisha?” She sighed. “This wedding stuff is so hard.”

You’re telling me, sister. Elizabeth clicked the top of her pen open and closed. “Eleven, fifteen—whatever you want will be fine. It’s your wedding; you call the shots. Listen, I’ve got an appointment with a realtor, I’ve gotta fly.”

“You’re not even married, why are you buying a house?” Julie took it quite personally that Elizabeth had quit the dating game. Not that it stopped her from playing matchmaker.

Elizabeth swallowed a sigh. “I want a house. The husband, I can do without. And spare me the man lecture.” She wasn’t waiting for her happily ever after. Not everyone got one of those.

“What about Dave? Totally gorgeous and totally hot for you…”

“And he’s totally my boss now. Forget it.”

“You’re no fun.”

“I know. Talk to you later.” She hung up and sighed. A house would also be a good distraction at Julie’s wedding, when everyone was sure to ask, “When are you getting married?” So, bonus points for that. She was still clicking the pen. Fast.

She slid it onto her clipboard, grabbed her purse and crossed the street to the cute Cape Cod flanked by two lilacs, heavy with purple blooms. She gave the house a this-might-do nod. But how would the realtor stack up? His ad said he had the experience to “Find Exactly What You Want.” Elizabeth squared her shoulders and thought, Mr. Henry Watson, you have your work cut out for you. Just like every sales clerk, waiter and hair stylist who came her way.

She walked up the wide stairs to the porch and the front door opened. A tall man with wavy dark hair and bright blue eyes came out and smiled. She tottered back a step as she took in the broad shoulders, the square jaw and chiseled cheekbones. He was, simply, the most gorgeous man she’d seen in…ever. This wasn’t good.

“Elizabeth?” His deep voice sent a hum zinging through her. “I’m Henry Watson.” He held out his hand.

The clipboard slipped from her fingertips. She stooped down to grab it, but he beat her to it. Still squatting, her eyes met his and she couldn’t look away. Neither did he. She sucked in a breath, and oh, he was lust on a rope.

“I’m sorry, I was expecting someone…older,” she stammered, pushing her hair out of her eyes. The old-fashioned name….the experience. She certainly wouldn’t have picked such a handsome realtor had she known.

She gripped the stair railing. Hotties played by different rules, and it had become survival mode not to trust a gorgeous guy with anything. With good-looking men? Things always ended ugly. She toppled back on her behind. She quickly stood up and smoothed her skirt, trying to remember the last time she’d made a total fool of herself.

He smiled and handed her the clipboard. Words escaped her.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got ten years in the business. My father taught me everything I know, and I’m working on one million in sales this month, Miss Marshall. Or is it Mrs.?” One corner of his mouth quirked up.

Perfect, he has dimples. She pressed the clipboard against her chest. “It’s Miss.” She did her best to steady herself on her heels.

He crossed his arms and widened his stance. “Well, Miss Marshall, I’m the guy you want.”

She blinked. And blinked again. “Excuse me?”

“To help you find the home of your dreams. That’s my slogan. I’ll help you find exactly what you want.” Cue the grin. Clearly, he knew how effective that smile was.            Regroup. “Right. I saw that in your ad.” She glanced down at her clipboard. Looking at the long, logical list of requirements for her first home helped quiet the emotions swirling in her chest. “I have two and a half hours per week to devote to house hunting, a budget I’m not budging from and a checklist of requirements.”

“Come inside and let’s hear it.” He held the door open for her, and she walked into the big, empty living room.

She glanced around—at everything but him—and started making notes. “No formal entryway, but it does have a fireplace. Wood-burning or gas?”

“Is that one of your must haves?”

She looked up at him—and quickly back down at the list. “It’s on my second-tier requirement list and merely adds bonus points. One for gas, two for wood-burning.”

“It’s wood-burning. Add two points to your tally. Tell me what’s on the primary list.” He leaned against the banister and smiled.

Could he quit with the grinning, already? “I want two stories and two bedrooms.”

He rubbed his chin, sprouting late day stubble. “Might be tight if you ever have a family.”

She stiffened. “There will be plenty of room for me and the fifteen cats I’m sure to have some day.”

He cocked his head and gave her a look.

“I mean I won’t be getting married and having children.” Her voice echoed in the empty room.

He raised his eyebrows. “A beautiful woman like you?”

Her lips pressed together in a frown. That was just a hot-guy line designed to flatter and disarm her so he could get what he wanted. But what did he want? A sale, and don’t you forget it. “It’s just me and two bedrooms will be fine.” She forced a smile and shrugged. “The world needs more cool aunts. I’ll be doting on my sister’s kids when she has them.”

He held up his hands. “Sorry, out of line and none of my business.”

Nice big hands, she thought.

“What else do you have on your list?” And out came his dimples again.

She walked to the front window and drew back the curtain, peering out at the street. Two kids whizzed by on bikes. “Definitely not on a busy street, not on a corner lot.”

“Understandable,” he said.

She turned back toward him and rattled off the rest of her long list: a deck, at least half an acre of land, an older build with charm. She flipped through the three pages of itemized details, reading them off and then looked up from her clipboard. “Nothing too complicated.”

“No, not at all.” He laughed and rubbed his hands together. “You know what you want. Should be easy to help you find it. This house has most of what you’re looking for. Let’s go see the kitchen.”

“Lead the way.” She followed him into the kitchen and wished she hadn’t; his rear view was perfect. “Very nice—the glass cabinets,” she quickly added, pointing to the cupboards. “Not on my list, but should be.” She got back to scribbling instead of gawking.

“One of those charming old details you want. Add a few points for that.”

“Oh, I will.” She wrote on her checklist and took a deep breath.

“Look at this convection oven, the granite counters.” He ran his hand across the gleaming countertop. “Gorgeous.”

Her eyes flicked up to his and back to the clipboard. “That’s one way to put it.” She tucked her bottom lip under her front teeth. “Let’s see the rest of the house.” She walked out of the room and realized he now had a look at her rear view.

She hurried up the stairs, wondering how she looked from behind. She smoothed her hand over her hip and felt a flush of heat creep up her neck. “Is it okay to use the bathroom up here?”

“Sure, check it out.”

She stepped inside and leaned against the closed door. She stomped her foot, totally annoyed. Her reaction to this man was stupid. Ridiculous. Usually, she could ignore good-looking guys. Hot men were like gooey desserts that left you full of regret the next morning. Elizabeth was rarely tempted by anything from the dessert tray. How had she lost control here?

She snapped her fingers. Because she hadn’t been expecting him to be so…incredible. Sketch a picture of her dream man, and it was this guy. But she’d meant what she said to Julie. She didn’t want or need a man. She splashed a bit of cool water on the back of her neck, took a deep breath and left the bathroom to check out the bedrooms. “Not a lot of closet space up here.”

“That’s a drawback with most older homes.” He opened the linen closet. “But if you’re going to be living here alone, you can use the all the closets for yourself.”

“True enough.” She rubbed her thumb along the cool metal at the top of the clipboard and followed him downstairs. They checked out the finished basement, which would be an excellent place for parties if she managed to assemble some sort of social circle outside of work anytime soon.

“Come look at the backyard.” Henry set his hand on the small of her back as he escorted her out the door. Goosebumps shot up her arms and she gritted her teeth, blaming it on the chilly spring evening.

The screen door slammed behind her and she followed him onto a patio lined with beds of bright tulips. She spotted another lilac and couldn’t help walking over for a sniff. Closing her eyes, she let the scent take her away for a moment. “This gets some extra points, too.” She broke off a few of the tiny flower heads and crushed them between her thumb and forefinger, running them under her nose to memorize the scent. She looked up and he was watching.

He snapped away his gaze. “There’s a lot to like back here.” He pointed to the back corner of the yard. “Imagine having a little picnic under that cherry tree. It’s a nice big area for a dog to run around—or fifteen cats.” He laughed. “Or to…well, what do you like to do?”

She walked away from him, trying to maneuver across the soft lawn. “I work a lot.” Once, she would have had a long list of activities to answer that question. She shrugged and shooed away a bee. “I don’t have time for much these days.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I work in the public relations department at the university.” Which had been a good, practical move when she dropped out of art school after a certain painter made a new art form of breaking her heart. It was also one hell of a knee-jerk reaction, but it worked. She got over Jason and moved on with her life.

“Sounds interesting.”

“The job keeps me busy. There’s always a function or event to attend.” These days, she didn’t really know how not to be busy. She stood up and walked back toward the cherry tree, wondering if she’d ever get the mud off her Blahniks.

Henry followed her. “This would be a nice place to unwind.” He raised one eyebrow with the suggestion.

“Unwind?” She pointed at him. “What’s that?” A sense of sadness swept through her as she ran her fingers along the dark red tree bark.

His grin softened and he lowered his voice. “This could be the place where you learn how to do that.” He grabbed the branch she was touching.

She wrapped her arms around herself to fight off another shiver. She must be coming down with something. She’d have hot tea and a few Vitamin C’s when she got home.

He stepped back. “So…” He pulled out the listing printout and tapped it with his finger. “The couple that owns this got transferred to another city. They just did a bunch of updates and they’re desperate to sell. Perfect situation.”

Words were coming out of his mouth, but she focused on the white teeth and full lips.

“What do you think? Are you interested?”

She widened her eyes in panic. “Interested?”

A smile slowly spread across his face and his eyes twinkled. “In the house. Are you interested in making an offer?”

She looked at the ground. “Oh. Right.” He must be used to women tripping all over their tongues around him. She was not going to be another giddy girl who let her heart tug her around like a badly behaved puppy. She shook off the feeling and tallied up the points on her list. The house was nearly perfect according to her requirements. It scored a ninety-eight.

She sighed. “It seems to have everything I want, but for some reason I don’t want it. It’s like…something’s missing.” He’d probably think she was a flighty bimbo and refer her to another realtor. Which might be for the best, really.

But Henry just nodded. “Don’t worry. I’ve seen this before. You think you know what you want up here.” He tapped the side of his head. “But it isn’t what you want here.” His big hand covered his chest. “What does your heart want?”

The question stunned her and her mind spun, searching for an answer. “I don’t know.” She turned up her hands and shrugged. “I guess I really don’t know what I want.” Why wasn’t this house appealing to her? When had she morphed into an indecisive twit?

Henry reached for her elbow and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, Elizabeth. Whatever it is you want, I’ll help you find it.” He must have seen how her eyes widened because he dropped his hand.

She took one step back. Then another. She should not be so easily unnerved by this man. By anyone. She turned and walked back to the patio. She crossed her arms and glared at the backyard like it had betrayed her.

Henry followed her back to the house and laced his hands behind his back, waiting for her to say something.

“Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe I’m too hard to please. Maybe this is wrong.”

He folded his arms across his chest and smiled. “Elizabeth, I sold fifteen houses last month. I once showed a woman thirty-six different properties until she found the home she fell in love with.” He pointed at her. “I won’t give up on you.”

She swallowed hard and looked into his wide blue eyes. For a moment she thought his promise was mixed with something more than his words. But then she looked away. She was just another commission; another challenge a guy like him couldn’t walk away from.

He smiled at her and dimples grooved his cheeks. “Do you trust me?”

A gorgeous man with a mischievous grin who had turned her mind to mush and left her heart pinging her chest? Trust him? Never.

But against her better judgment she nodded and said, “Yes.” He had gotten her to look at things differently, after all. Maybe he was the perfect realtor to help her find what she wanted, just like his ad said. And that’s all she wanted from Henry Watson—help finding a house. She was going to make this happen even if she had to work with the holy grail of hot men.

“Good. Then let me line up a few houses for us to look at Saturday morning. Now that I know what you think you’re looking for on paper…” He plucked a lilac bloom off the tree and handed it to her. “…maybe we can find what you really want.” His fingers grazed hers, and when their skin met again, a silly little shiver snaked its way down her spine.

She buried her nose in the blossom. “Sounds perfect,” she managed to say, before she dashed back to her car where she tried to remember how to breathe.