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Switch by Justine Wittich
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Newly single Abby Garrett offers Jonathan Morrow room and board as part of his pay to help rehab the fixer-upper she received as a divorce settlement. She thinks he’s safe because he’s gay, but Jonathan isn’t what he seems, and he’s determined to discover if Abby was a partner to her ex’s embezzlement. Contemporary Romantic Suspense by Justine Wittich; originally published by Belgrave House
Belgrave House; April 2011
ISBN 9781610845281
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Title: Switch
Author: Justine Wittich

Abby Garrett wrapped her arms around her knees, squeezed her eyelids shut and hunched her shoulders, waiting for a lightning bolt to strike right there on the courthouse steps. She clutched her brand new divorce papers tightly, as if someone might snatch them from her.

When no spear of heavenly fire arrived, Abby raised her eyelids. For a moment, the vision that met her eyes made her think He'd sent a representative.

"Ms. Garrett?"

Abby nodded, fully aware her mouth was hanging open.

"I'm Jonathan Morrow. Ms. Vincent said I might find you here. She told me you need someone to help you do a fast rehab job inside your house. Did she mention me to you?"

Abby stood slowly, her mind still scrambling to separate the prospective handyman from her childhood memory of her first day of Sunday School. Jonathan Morrow looked just like the full-length painting of Jesus which had hung on the wall of her classroom. He was clean-shaven, but his dark hair was brushed back from his face and fell in loose curls on his shoulders. Sooty eyelashes framed brown eyes so deep and gentle-looking that she wanted to confess to plotting every catastrophe since the Great Flood. A diamond winked at her from the lobe of his perfectly-shaped left ear. His mouth was ... Oh, God, I want to kiss that mouth ... and he's gay.

She distinctly recalled her cousin Jan telling her that fact when she'd offered to send him over. Right now, he was regarding her as if he didn't like the idea of working for her, but then, he'd probably witnessed her digital salute to Elvira. Maybe he'd even heard her tell the old bat to "Fuck off." Abby fingered the hour-old divorce papers sticking out of her purse and realized she didn't care. She felt liberated.

"If you've changed your mind, I understand," he said brusquely. He turned as if to leave.

His sexy baritone voice made goose bumps rise on her skin. They rubbed against the cotton sleeves of her oxford cloth shirt, and she shivered, even though the temperature was in the seventies. Suddenly aware that she was still open-mouthed and staring, she scrambled her thoughts together, finally managing, "Ah ..." That didn't qualify as a word. She tried again, saying, "No, don't go. It's just that I ..."

"I'm in kind of a bind. My landlord wants us out by noon tomorrow, and Mrs. Vincent said you might be willing to furnish a place for me and Delilah to live as part of my pay."

He reached down to pet the scrawny dog clamped to his leg, drawing Abby's attention to the pathetic animal for the first time. Mournful brown eyes evaded her gaze. A raw-looking scar curved across a dark-muzzled boxer face that belonged on a much larger dog. The mixture was so incongruous that she had to bite back a laugh Obviously unnerved by her attention, Delilah buried her face against Jonathan Morrow's immaculate white jean-clad leg.

"Please don't take that personally. She hasn't much reason to trust people." He reached a long, denim-clad arm down and scratched the dog's neck with gentle fingers. "I rescued her two days ago. Her owner was beating her."

Abby wondered if he'd been sent to rescue her. She closed her eyes, imagining that hand rubbing the tight muscles presently constricting her nape. And other places. Shaking off the impossible fantasy, she looked up at him and said, "I do need someone, and I don't have any

objection to Delilah. It's just that there's just a couch in the only room that doesn't need work. I have a spare bed in another room, but the paper's hanging off the walls in that one, and it doesn't have any blinds or curtains ... Maybe you should come and look the job over before you decide. There's so much to do ... we can always move the bed if you think ..." Shut up, idiot. You're babbling, she lectured herself. He was so tall and so beautiful and so polite. Why did she have this sudden and incomprehensible urge to throw herself at him and pour out her troubles? He seemed

"Maybe I should follow you home right now to look the place over?" he asked. "I can do almost anything, including a little plumbing, if that's needed."

Abby released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "The plumbing's been brought up to code, along with the wiring. It's all the rest ... replacing missing pieces of molding and making doors close, installing slate flooring, and of course lots of painting and papering. Warren, my ex-husband, wasn't very handy around the house. He left all that to me." For the first time since she'd discovered incontestible proof of Warren's philandering, she said his name without feeling an inner spurt of rage.

"Most women don't know how to hammer a nail straight," he said dismissively. "Some of your work might have to be done over." With one lithe movement, he scooped up the dog and turned toward an old van that was more rust than white paint. A sudden gust of wind scattered the dead leaves around his ankles. "I'll meet you at your place in a few minutes. Mrs. Vincent gave me the address."

Done over? Now wait just a damn minute. Resentment at his attitude made her weak knees work, propelling Abby to her feet. The gust of annoyance at his blatant chauvinism powered her to the parking lot. Unlocking her car door, she nearly collapsed into the driver's seat, still unconvinced she hadn't just spoken with a holy messenger. "Lordy, lordy. If this works out, and he keeps bashing me, I'll probably find myself apologizing every time I hit my finger with the hammer and swear." She remembered hearing in that same Sunday School classroom that Jesus would take care of her, but only if go little girl. And ever since then she'd tried, she really had.

Of course, no good little girl would have responded to Elvira Finch the way she had, but waving that middle digit and telling her where to get off had made Abby feel wonderful. She was tired of lectures from interfering old ladies. "Boys will be boys," indeed. Warren was bottom-feeding pond scum. If one of those old trouts wanted to take him on, they were welcome to him now. The divorce was final.

Twisting the key in the ignition with more force than was necessary, she reminded herself that being an frequent finalist for the Ohio "Good Girl" poster hadn't gotten her very far. What would her life be like today if she'd copied her cousin Jan's rebellious ways as a child? Maybe if that had been the case, she'd never have come to the attention of the town's pride and joy.

As she negotiated the turn onto Main Street, Abby shuddered at the memory of how dazzled she'd been when, two years after her return from Ohio State with a business degree, Warren Garrett, the secret crush of nearly every girl at Long Valley High School while he was there, had sauntered into her fledgling enterprise and asked her for a date. A chaste courtship, complete with flowers and little gifts, had followed. She felt her cheeks warm as she remembered their wedding night a year later. She had been so besotted that she'd all but attacked him.

Pausing at a stop sign, she flipped off a flashy red BMW that seized the right of way. The thing was the same model as Warren's silver one, a sign of the enemy. The action was ... freeing.

"Infatuation has a lot to answer for," she grumbled. Never again would she allow herself to be taken in by charm. The next time around, if there was one, she'd investigate what was in the

box before allowing herself to so much as admire the fancy wrapping.

Jonathan Morrow had looked at her as if he suspected her of manslaughter. And he liked men better than women. So why did the handsome handyman make her pulse race faster?

* * * *

Jonathan pulled to the curb outside Abby's house and scanned it with the eyes of a professional rehabber. The two-story brick had good lines; the October afternoon sunlight showcased the stability of the fifty-year-old design. A deep porch, freshly painted white, extended half the length of the house, and he could see where ivy had been torn away at the far end. The landscaping bordering the porch appeared to be new. The shutters and trim looked like solid replacements.

One thing had to go, however. Toward the far end of the house where a screened porch beckoned, a four-by-six stained glass window featuring interlocking primary-colored disks, overlaid with slashes of orange and lavender, assaulted his vision.

"Where in the hell did she get that thing?" he demanded. Delilah whimpered. "Sorry, babe. Not your fault." He reached a careful hand to the dog's head and smoothed the rough fur between her ears. The healing lumps on the skin beneath caused a spike in his blood pressure. "You'll be okay. I won't let anyone hurt you. And you don't have to be afraid of Ms. Garrett. In fact, I want you to suck up to her so she'll let us live in her house."

I want her to be my friend, too. I want her to be so comfortable with me that she'll tell me all her secrets. His lips tightened. Her flyaway auburn curls and unhappy green eyes camouflaged a bitch who was hiding three quarters of a million dollars that rightfully belonged to widows and retired people. Maybe that's why she'd looked so guilty when he approached her.

He was accustomed to women reacting much more favorably. For some reason, females liked him, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his carefully preserved persona as a homosexual. Did that make them feel safe?

The scene he'd witnessed, when she'd flipped off the elderly lady, fit with his expectations. Abby Garrett had kicked her crooked husband out of her house and changed the locks, hadn't she? But her soft mouth had drooped at the corners when Delilah rebuffed her overtures. When he found himself wondering what kind of figure hid beneath the shapeless denim jumper, he changed his train of thought.

"If she's guilty, she's still too damn trusting to be let loose without a keeper. Doesn't she know it's dangerous to invite a perfect stranger to live in her house?" he asked himself as Abby turned into the driveway. "As soon as I find the proof I need, I'm going put her sweet little butt behind bars."

* * * *

Her common sense had gained the upper hand by the time Abby arrived home. The guy might be gorgeous, but he was gay. He was surly, but he was her only chance. As much as she loved the house, she couldn't afford to keep it. And she couldn't afford to sell it as a "fixer-upper." She needed every penny she could get out of the sale, so she could put a healthy distance between herself and the town that looked on her as a loser because she couldn't hold on to Warren Garrett, its favorite son.

She even had a destination, a bustling boutique mall in Phoenix. All those retired people from Sun City were the perfect target for gift baskets, baskets personalized to the individual tastes of the recipient.

Keeping that goal in mind, she exited her car, summoned her best smile, and beckoned Jonathan to join her at the front door. Once inside, she disarmed the security system and called, "Come on in."

When he stopped on the threshold, she realized he was staring intently at the panel. "As soon as you move in, I'll give you the code. I got this system after someone tried to break in last spring. I don't own a single thing worth stealing, but I don't like surprises."

"Not all surprises are good," he replied before focusing his attention on the foyer.

Abby saw his gaze fall to the slate tile beneath his feet and follow its course down the hall to the kitchen.

"This place is like a movie set for a western from the thirties," she explained. "The foyer, the stairs, and the dining room are finished. That slate ends just before the kitchen. Once you get past the facade, things are pretty spotty. The closets are filled with more tile, wallpaper, and the paint Warren picked out for projects he never got around to." She injected lightness into her voice, as if she were talking about a closet full of toilet tissue. "He expected me to do most of the work, but his expectations sort of overran my capabilities."

Twenty minutes later, she realized she used the identical excuse in every room of the house. Damn Warren for being such a ... non-finisher. "I saved this for last," she said, pausing on the landing leading to the large room over the garage. She'd named the place Warren's Folly. "This room is yours if you decide to take the job." She nudged open the door.

Delilah followed Jonathan to the doorway, her nose an inch from the back of his knee. Thunder rolled in the distance, and two steps past the threshold the dog began to whimper. Jonathan picked her up. "Its's okay, Delilah. I've got you," he murmured, putting his arms around her protectively.

Even as he comforted the battered little animal, Abby noticed the way his gaze swept the room. I'll bet if I asked him to list the entire contents of the house, he wouldn't leave out a thing. His eyes might have been cameras. Throughout the house, he'd asked questions and listened to her replies with a skeptical frown creasing his forehead, but he was recording everything he saw. There had been a disturbing moment when they knelt to examine the place at the end of the hall where the molding had been chewed by the previous owner's dog. She'd nearly lost her balance, and he'd steadied her with one hand on her shoulder. The skin he'd touched still tingled.

Jonathan turned, and the sweep of his eyelashes made her want to run her fingers over them. Get a grip!

Taking a deep breath, she said, "As you can see, there's no bed in here, but if you decide to stay, we can carry in the one from the back bedroom. There'll be plenty of space if we shove that desk against the wall." The four by six mahogany monstrosity was Warren's. She'd been unable to move it out by herself, and he'd never mentioned retrieving it.

When Jonathan made no answer, Abby noticed his gaze fixed on the overstuffed leather couch Warren said he'd gotten on sale. Abby remembered peeking at his Visa bill weeks after it arrived. The charge matched the ad she'd looked up, proving that Warren had paid top dollar. Another lie to his credit.

"A bed will crowd things pretty much. I can make do with the couch, and I have an air mattress if I decide that's too uncomfortable."

Delilah whimpered to be let down. Abby waited until the dog had inspected and sniffed the furnishings, then crossed the room to open a hand-rubbed mahogany door that matched the wainscoting. "This is your private bath."

Flicking the light switch, she stepped back so he could pass. When he did, she heard his reverent, "Holy shit!"

"What a surprise! Everyone who sees this place says the same thing."

* * * *

Jonathan hadn't seen anything so blatantly opulent since he'd rehabbed a house that had once been a bordello. Mirrored walls reflected black marble fixtures. To his amazement, even the ceiling was mirrored. Gold designer faucets and accessories gleamed, while late-day sunlight spilled lovingly through the skylight over the oval spa tub. A plush black bath rug cuddled up to the base. The glass door to the enclosed shower beside it was decorated with disks of deep red alternating with black and gold. Jonathan grimaced. The guy had a real thing for circles. He wondered what a psychologist would make of that.

"I'd feel really guilty using this," he said. "I'm sure you ..."

Surprisingly, her voice was indifferent as she replied. "Warren called this the office suite." She grimaced. "I never came here when we were married, and now that he's gone, I prefer to forget the place exists." She waved her arm in an encompassing gesture. "As you can see, everything's finished here." She turned and led the way back downstairs.

Jonathan followed her. "Why would you put me in one of the few rooms in the house that don't need work?" In reality, he would have preferred the simplicity of her bedroom. The approaching storm had sent lightning flickering through the long windows and skittering across the hardwood floor she'd admitted she'd sanded and restored herself. White-painted walls and natural woodwork made the room a perfect setting for the simple maple four-poster and chest of drawers. A colorful quilt that matched the cushion on the rocking chair covered the bed.

Warren's erstwhile office over the garage was heavy and masculine, with the oak tree outside the double dormer blocking any sunlight that might attempt to venture in.

"Not to worry," she replied, digging in the top drawer of the low chest to the right of the front door. "Aha! I knew these were in here." She straightened and held out her hand, then pulled it back. "I guess we better talk money first. Your rates may still be too high."

Staring at the garage door opener and two keys in her hand, the Open Sesame to his investigation, Jonathan cut two-thirds off the hourly rates he'd been charging and grudgingly replied, "I can work for a lot less since you're furnishing room and board."

"Whether you like it or not, I intend to work right alongside you whenever I'm home. The quicker we finish, the better." She dropped the keys and remote into his hand and scribbled the security code on a piece of paper. Handing it to him, she explained, "That smaller key is for the French doors at the back and the ones in the living room. The front door key fits the garage access door, too. The locks are new, so the keys should work."

"I appreciate the place to stay. It's hard to find a landlord who'll accept pets," he said, managing to sound grateful and irritated at the same time. Then, even though he knew the answer, Jonathan asked, "Why all new locks?"

"So my husband can't get into the house."

When no further explanation was forthcoming, he switched to business. "Would it be all right if I move in tonight? Most of what I have is tools, and I can leave them in the van as long as it's in the garage. Then I can start first thing in the morning. Your cousin said your budget and your time frame were pretty tight."

She inspected the foyer, as if attempting to see the house through his eyes. "Tight isn't the word for it. I have to get top dollar out of this place." Her soft mouth tightened at the corners, but then she laughed. "Not just for me, but to punish that pond scum. He tried to get the house as part of the divorce settlement, probably because of that Seduction Pit bathroom. But this place is in my name. He gave it to me for our third anniversary, and I've been making the payments myself."

Jonathan prided himself at being able to recognize a fraud at twenty paces, and in spite of her pithy characterization of Warren Garrett, he had few doubts. The sexy package standing in front of him was a terrific actress, and she knew her role backward and forward, that of the long-suffering wife with the husband who never followed through and who'd betrayed her. If he didn't know better, he'd almost buy the act.

But he did know better. Nine times out of ten, when a husband conned big money from his clients, the wife was a partner. The difference this time was that one of the clients was Jonathan's godmother. This insult was the reason he'd volunteered his services to the investigation,in spite of the fact that he'd cut his ties with the agency two years earlier. His special skill was the ability to ingratiate himself with people he would later testify against.

This time, testifying was going to be a pleasure. His biggest problem was that he was having difficulty being nice. He needed to worm the location of the money out of Warren Garrett's ex-wife, and he was so angry it was all he could do to be civil.

He'd just have to try harder. "Don't worry, I work fast," he gritted out. No assignment had ever taken him longer than a month. He held out his hand and Abby slapped the garage door opener into his palm. Relief swept him. He didn't want to touch her again. Not after the last time. Her shoulder had fit too damn comfortably into his grip. And she smelled too good.

He noticed her nervousness and the rising color in her cheeks as he turned to leave. Arching an inquiring eyebrow, he inquired, "Something else?"

"Well, yes." Her eyes focused somewhere over her shoulder. "I ... I wanted to ask you something."

"You're the boss. Ask away."

"It's ... er ... your private life is your own affair, of course." Her next words tumbled out in a rush, as if she couldn't get them out fast enough. "I just wondered if you've always known your ... sexual preference." She blushed. "Not that it makes any difference to me personally. You are what you are. I just wondered ... "

No problem answering that, he decided. "I've known ever since I was just a little guy."

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