Toni stood at the doorway of the kitchen, watching Cole set the platter of sausage-and-pepper sandwiches on the table. Cole turned to her, offering her a drink.
"Water's fine." She shifted in her seat, looking around the simple kitchen. Blue floral curtains lined the windows; the cabinets and table were a basic, whitewashed pine. Stenciled grapevines decorated the walls. Cole rummaged through the only contemporary appliance in the kitchen--a large, stainless steel refrigerator. He set a glass pitcher of water on the table, then sat and pushed the platter of sausage toward her.
"So, how was your tour?" he asked. He chugged his beer.
"It was good. I have to thank Josh." Toni prepared her sandwich, the tangy, garlic-scented steam drifting between them. "This looks and smells outrageous."
"Yeah, we guys manage. Josh is really the better cook," he admitted.
Toni slid the platter across the table. Cole piled sausage onto two open rolls on his plate. Josh's footsteps echoed across the floor. He skirted around the table and claimed the chair on the other side of Toni. Toni noticed the glass of milk by Josh's place setting and smiled inwardly at the stereotypical farm-boy fare.
It was too quiet at the table. Toni felt her eyes gravitating over to Cole, his face expressionless, his thin lips set. He had put on a shirt. The uncomfortable silence loomed overhead, then descended, smothering her with its awkwardness.
To her surprise, his hardened tone was the first to slice through the thick air.
"How're things at the house?" He gave her a sideward glance. She met his intense stare. His face had almost more hair on it now than his head. The hollows of his cheeks were shadowed with a dark, wiry growth.
"I've got it cleaned up. If there's anything that my dad did that you think should be repaired, I'll pay for it," Toni told him.
A slight smile formed on Cole's lips.
"We wanted to paint, but your dad wouldn't let us near the place," Josh cut in. "The place really needs some work."
"Yeah, I figured it was something like that." She shook her head, smiling.
"No worries," Cole told her. "We're going to miss Bruce. Maybe we'll make it a sort of shrine. A place you can visit...you know, instead of a cemetery."
Toni was touched by this remark. Cole clearly wasn't going to stop surprising her anytime soon.
"So, Cole tells me that you're a dan--"--a thud resounded from underneath the table--"an accountant," Josh blurted out, wiping his mouth, his face breaking into a scowl.
"Yes, I am." She glanced at the two men. Cole's gaze bore into Josh, the heat of his stare rippling the air between them.
"That's great. You must be a smart girl. I sucked at math," Josh said. He took a swig of his milk.
"Some of us still do," Cole muttered.
"Excuse me?" Toni saw Cole lean his arm on the table and sink his head into his hand.
"How about some homemade ice cream, Toni?" Josh cleared the plates.
"Sure." She handed her plate to Josh, her eyes returning back to Cole. He kneaded his temple. He looked uptight. Dead silence filled the room again. Josh turned the water on at the sink. She offered to help him clean up, but he waved her off.
Toni wasn't sure if it was her curiosity or a form of determination, but she found herself preoccupied with Cole, wanting to know all that was hidden. A challenge she was ready to meet head-on.
He got up from the table and retrieved another beer out of the fridge, the glass bottles clanking on the swinging door. He stood at the counter, his long legs encased in faded, frayed denim. His jeans hung low on his hips, his bare feet crossed at the ankles. His inky eyes were locked with hers. She smiled weakly at him, trying to defrost his cool stare, wanting to show him she would not be deterred. He diverted his eyes first. A slight wave of triumph moved through her.
"Do you guys need help with something?" she asked.
Cole's head snapped up.
"Sit, Toni," Josh said over his shoulder, his voice competing with the running water.
"Well, no. I didn't mean with the dishes." She stifled her laughter. "What I'm trying to say is...do you two need help with something numerical? Do you need some accounting work done?" She raised her brows. "Some help?"
Josh tossed his head back, his laughter echoing through the quiet kitchen. "That's an understatement."
Toni watched the two men. Heated glances of frustration fired back and forth between them like bullets.
"I can help you. That is, if you want," Toni said softly. "I don't want to interfere, but I'm available if you need a hand."
Cole set his beer down on the counter. He rubbed his head with both palms as if to soothe an ache. Josh turned off the faucet and dried his hands. He neatly folded the dish towel and looked at Cole pointedly. Cole tilted his face and stared at her, then rubbed his chin.
"Yeah, actually." Cole chuckled sarcastically. "We do need some help."
"Great." Toni pushed away from the table, ready to get on with the business at hand. "You guys have an office anywhere on this farm?"
A bright smile moved across Josh's face. He seemed relieved that Toni had won Cole over without him having to do any of the pressing.
The two men stood on either side of Toni, towering over her as she sat in front of the large oak desk. She had all the farm receipts piled into categories, the open ledger to the side. Toni tapped the top of the computer monitor. She swiveled around in the chair, looking to Cole first.
"Do you use the computer to manage your accounts?"
"I don't know how to use the fucking thing." He kept rubbing his scruffy cheek, his anxiety seeping out of him like sweat.
"That's all right," Toni reassured him. "You don't have to use it, though I could teach you, but let's get these accounts organized first. We can deal with that later, so when I leave, you guys can pick up where I left off and maintain things. Do both of you work on the books?"
"Cole has always been the one to handle it," Josh said, shooting him a glance.
"Not really, because I haven't done jack shit in weeks." Cole started pacing around the office.
"Why don't you two sit down so we can go over a few things?"
"Actually, I'll go make some coffee," Josh said.
Josh left the room, his footsteps echoing down the planked hallway. Toni pointed to the small, tweed love seat that lined the wall. Cole sat and turned on the small Tiffany lamp. Vibrant stained-glass colors of blue, red, and green danced on the wall.
"I'm fucked, aren't I?" His voice lowered, wrapping around her. Cole rested his elbows on his knees, leaning toward her, his intense, insightful eyes trying to read her. She felt his battle, questioning whether he should confide in her. They were still strangers, but he was asking for her help, and that couldn't be easy.
The office was quiet for a long time, with only the sound of Josh making coffee in the kitchen down below breaking up the silence.
"No, Cole." Toni shook her head. "You're not fucked." She smiled, feeling the need to encourage him.
"I can't screw this up." He looked away, his face creased in frustration. "If I screw things up, it's not just me who's gonna go down; it's Josh too." He shook his head. His lanky body suddenly looked weighted, folding in half on the love seat.
"I was never a paper-pushing, desk type of guy. My dad wasn't either. My mom did all the books," he confessed.
Toni reached over and patted his knee. He looked down at her hand. She pulled away, worried she overstepped boundaries. "We do have to get your records in order, but you're not fucked, and you won't screw things up. We just have to get a handle on it."
Toni tried to read Cole's expression as he stared at the desk piled with papers. She couldn't deny her curiosity about his and Josh's relationship; it seemed far beyond business and maybe even friendship.
"What would you charge?" He settled against the plump cushions, his tension easing slightly.
"I'm not concerned with that right now."
"I am." His tone tightened again.
"I'm not going to charge you what my firm would. You have to remember that a cut has to go to them."
"Toni." Cole's face hardened.
"Look." She met his eyes, not wavering. Toni felt safe standing up to him, becoming more comfortable with his shift in attitudes. "I'll get you guys organized for seventy an hour, okay?" She raised her hand, halting any further rebuttal. "That's my offer. I'm not going to compare this situation with any of the other stuff I do, because every client's needs are different, plus I work in a large city. The rates are always different. Not to mention this job cuts down on my commuting costs and wardrobe," she added drily.
"Well, I had some idiot in town doing it for me, but seemed like all he was doing was moving my papers around."
"I'll start tomorrow morning."
Josh came into the office with three steamy mugs of coffee. A tiny, airline-sized bottle of Irish Cream was in the center of the tray. He set it on the makeshift coffee table--an immense electrical spool.
"How we doing?" Josh's brows lifted. "I forgot to leave the chair and whip behind."
"Screw you." Cole shook his head. "He thinks he's some kind of comedian, and I'm an animal."
"You guys like to bust each other's balls, don't you?" Toni grinned, taking the mug from the tray.
Cole scowled at them both. Toni sipped her dark concoction.
"Have you been watching us?" Cole's lips curled.
"Ah, yeah... Maybe a little." She felt her face warm, thinking she was wandering into dangerous territory.
"Hey, that's a good thing." Josh jokingly patted her upper arm. "That means you want to get to know us."
Toni sipped her coffee, her eyes darting between them. Cole's eyes flickered at Josh. Toni was unsure of what was hidden behind that knowing glance, as they probably shared many.
"You can just call him Ann Landers." Cole jutted his chin. "He's got all the answers."
"Well, if we're talking about who has the better manners... Who took you on the tour of the farm?" Josh waved his hand through the air impatiently, gesturing for Toni's input. "It was me, thank you." He grinned sarcastically at Cole.
"All right, guys," Toni cut in. She felt like the mother of twin boys who were demanding her attention.
"Enough, Mr. Tour Guide. I think we better get back to the fucking accounting." Cole downed the rest of his beer, then reached underneath the sofa and pulled out a small bottle of Yukon Jack. Josh raised his brows, setting his coffee down. Toni redirected them back, thinking it was safer to stick to the business at hand before Cole hit the whisky.
The three of them sat in the dimly lit office discussing receipts, expenses, and incoming revenue. At midnight she went home, even though Josh wanted to put in a movie.
By the time Toni slipped between the cool sheets, she couldn't sleep. Cole clouded her mind. She found herself thinking about how he had coped with the death of his parents. She had never met anyone who had experienced a loss in the same destructive manner in which she and Cole had. She had gone through her entire life never being able to know her mother. That murderer, whoever he was, had taken that privilege away from her, squeezing all the life out of her mother. Toni had missed so much. Everything she knew about men and sex she had learned from friends and by reading novels and love stories. Those authors had become her mentors.
She and Cole Harrington had a lot in common. More than he thought. She lay in the dark, gazing out her window at the main house. She wondered what it would take to unearth the many layers she'd seen hints of, then blushed at her romantic notions. Being here was temporary; helping them with their accounting was a job. That was all.