Because I Can (Montgomery Manor #3)

 

John “Monty” Montgomery is a workaholic. The oldest of the Montgomery children, he’s been working by his father’s side building the family hotel chain almost his entire life. His commitment to the business leaves no time for romance. But that’s about to change.

Georgia Lennox has been fantasizing about Monty ever since she started her gig as handywoman at Montgomery Manor. She figures Monty is way out of her league, so she hasn’t dared to act on her feelings—until he offers to help fill a volunteer shortage on her latest project, building houses for families in need.

Sparks fly as they spend time together, first on the job site, then off. But Georgia’s not your typical frilly and feminine society girl. Hoping to find a way to fit in with the Montgomerys, she agrees to be made over by Monty’s sister for an event. But if she lets her rough edges be smoothed away, will she be letting go of the very thing that attracted Monty in the first place?

 

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Chapter One

“Who, Monty? He’s a solid ten, no questions asked.”

Monty skidded to a halt as he prepared to round the corner. It wasn’t a customary habit of his to lurk along the hallways where the Montgomery Manor staff was hard at work, but he’d been feeling a desperate need for caffeine today. He’d also been feeling a desperate need to unchain himself from his desk for a few minutes, so heading down to the basement-level kitchen to refill his cup had seemed as good an excuse as any.

The eavesdropping was an unexpected perk.

“A ten? Are you sure we’re talking about the same man? Monotonous Montgomery? Drudgery John?”

“Absolutely. I’d let him bend me over a table or two.”

“You’re crazy. Jake is the more attractive brother by far.”

“Yeah, but you also admitted you like men with those curly mustaches. I think your taste is flawed.”

Even though Monty knew it behooved him to clear his throat or stomp his feet or otherwise put an end to the conversation currently underway behind the swinging metal doors, he leaned forward, straining to place the voices. If he wasn’t mistaken, the woman with a flair for the hirsute was Holly, the family cook. He had yet to determine who it was that considered him a ten.

And he really wanted to know. As his all-too-familiar nicknames indicated, women weren’t in the habit of looking at him and visualizing a sex object. He was too old, too boring and much too tightly wound for that—a vintage toy soldier with moving parts. And not the good moving parts either.

“Jake has that whole naughty-playboy thing going for him,” Holly said. “Or he used to, before he got married.”

“I know, but Monty is bigger. I like a man with some meat on him.”

“That’s because you’re only sexually attracted to guys who can beat you at arm wrestling, which is like twelve people overall.”

A robust laugh escaped the kitchen as the pieces fell into place. That sound could only belong to Georgia Lennox—and so could the conversation, now that he thought about it. The owner and operator of the Handywoman Express had never struck him as the type of woman to speak in maidenly euphemisms, and, truth be told, she probably was able to beat most men at arm wrestling.

His dad had been utilizing Georgia’s services for almost two decades, even though she couldn’t be more than thirty years old. He remembered her as a gangly, toothy kid a few years younger than himself, riding over on her bike with a tool belt strapped across her chest like a bandolier, asking if there was anything she could do around the place to pick up some extra cash. Despite her tender years, she’d gratefully accepted his dad’s request to build a bridge to continue the footpath that stopped at the West Creek.

And it was a good bridge too—solid oak, a few feet across, still standing to this day. It probably intended to keep standing forever, out of fear she might come at it with a hammer if it didn’t.

Georgia was scary. In fact, he wasn’t at all convinced he could win against her in an arm-wrestling match. Or that bending her over a table would result in anything but immeasurable bodily harm.

“I don’t think a few muscles is too much to ask for in a man,” Georgia said, her voice still overloud in its low, deep-throated tone. “It’s impossible to look at someone naked and feel all hot and bothered if he has spindly arms. The T-Rex look isn’t attractive on anyone.”

“Fine. You can give him his ten. I wish you both very happy.”

“Oh, no. He’s a solid ten in the looks department, but you have to knock off at least half his points for personality. As soon as I was done, ah, admiring his arms, we’d have to exchange a few words.”

Monty almost dropped his coffee cup. This was the price of hulking in doorways, listening in where he wasn’t wanted, but all the same he couldn’t prevent the sense of indignation that rose to the surface. He wasn’t that bad. Certainly not a five.

“Ha! You’re right. He’d probably stare at you for ten minutes before finally offering a few tips for improved performance next time.” Holly lowered her voice in what he assumed was an emulation of his own. “Less tongue, I think, could enhance the experience for both of us.”

“Is there a reason you kept your eyes open the whole time? I found it quite unnerving.”

“How would you rate it when I flipped you over and came in from behind? Three stars? Four? Would you consider it a bold move on my part?”

Bursts of feminine laughter had him sneaking slowly away from the door, fearful lest his footsteps sound in the tiled hallway. He only got about five feet when his back hit something soft and warm, and he spun to find himself face-to-face with Amy—yet another staff member, this one the nanny to his three-year-old half brother and half sister. At least he didn’t have to fear any sexual judgment from the tall, sunny blonde. Cousinship rendered her safe and neutral territory.

“Oh, hey, Monty.” She lifted her empty coffee cup in a show of solidarity. “Mondays, am I right?”

He blinked. “Are you right about what?”

“The daily grind? The need for liquid sustenance? No?” She examined him with pursed lips. “How about this one? I heard they’re making this new caffeinated soap so you can skip the coffee and wash the energy boost right into your skin.”

It took him a moment to register that she was making small talk, offering those bland bits of conversation that normal people—people who weren’t nicknamed Drudgery John—needed to make it through the day. He studied his cup, where a residual pool of ice-cold coffee sloshed, and decided he could go without a refill. Too much caffeine always made him feel jittery and out of control of himself anyway.

It would be a bold move on his part to have another one when it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet.

“I doubt skin absorbs chemical compounds the same way your digestive system does,” he said when it became clear some sort of response was required.

Amy, a woman he knew to be blithely unconcerned for the social comforts and discomforts of others, somehow interpreted this to mean he wanted more coffee. She grabbed the handle of his cup and brushed past him. “Come on. We’ll go sweet-talk Holly into giving up some of her wakey-wakey juice.”

Monty did a quick mental calculation and decided it would be less disastrous to follow Amy into the cavernous, glistening metal hull that was the kitchen. At least this way, the other two women would assume he’d come down with his cousin and allow him to save face. There was no reason anyone had to know he’d been shamelessly eavesdropping.

A ten, dropped to a five for my terrible personality.

He had no idea how to handle that kind of insult, but his earlier sense of indignation wasn’t abating any now that it had time to settle in. He was a man who paid his taxes on time. He didn’t use foul language in the presence of children. He didn’t even miss appointments unless there was an emergency, since he hated throwing other people’s schedules off.

Apparently, none of that mattered as much as the ability to parry with words. A man could be a charming serial killer and be more likable than Monty. That was where he ranked on the social hierarchy. Right below people who stored dismembered limbs in their freezers.

Amy made enough noise as she walked into the kitchen that the conversation came to a halt long before they became visible. From the scene that unfolded before them, it was clear the two women in the kitchen had been enjoying a comfortable chat. Holly always looked as if she belonged in a five-star restaurant—she was the consummate chef from the tips of her plastic clogs to the top of her dark brown hair, pulled back into its customary braid—but for the moment, she was lounging against the counter sipping her own cup of coffee. And Georgia defied explanation most days, so she could have been hanging from the ceiling by a pair of Spider-Man web-slingers, and it wouldn’t have taken him more than a second to adjust. The fact that she was kneeling on top of the stove with her head inside the vent hood, the clank of metal on metal signifying some kind of work taking place, wouldn’t stop her from venturing opinions on the state of his manhood.

He’d almost never seen Georgia in a state of inaction, since she was always in the middle of some kind of project around the house. He’d also never seen her in anything but the navy blue coveralls and heavy work boots that comprised her self-imposed uniform. A red bandanna knotted above one knee added a touch of adornment, but he knew from experience it would be the only decoration she’d bother with.

“Hey, Holly. Hey, Georgia. I need some coffee, stat.” Amy strode forward and shook the two empty cups until Holly took them. “So does Monty. He was skulking in the hallway right outside the door. I think he was afraid to face you on his own.”

Holly turned an alarmed look his way, but it was the echoing laugh of Georgia in the stove hood that arrested him.

“Skulking?” She poked her head out. As he expected, she wore no trace of makeup or jewelry, her tangled brown curtain of hair pulled back in its invariable ponytail. All of her was invariable. Although she’d grown out of the gangly, toothy stage from her youth, she hadn’t moved an unrecognizable distance from it. Her lips were still thin, her features still prominent, and her complexion bore a windswept ruggedness that would have better served a sea captain or lumberjack.

She wasn’t beautiful. She wasn’t even pretty. But as the hammer in her back pocket attested, she was more than capable of making do without.

She grinned, bringing life to her features and making Monty long for the kitchen tiles to devour him whole. “Then it’s good we weren’t talking about anything inappropriate. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable that would make things.”

Any chance Monty might have had of playing cool disappeared. One would think that thirty-five years of life on this planet would give a man a certain amount of panache in awkward situations, but one would be wrong. Like a prisoner trapped in solitary confinement, Monty found that the more time he spent on his own, the less panache he was capable of. The less everything he was capable of. Even the Count of Monte Cristo eventually discovered a kindred spirit on the other side of the stone wall to save him from the monotony of his own company.

Monty’s stone walls kept going forever.

“I wasn’t skulking.” He couldn’t think of anything that might serve as a reasonable excuse, so he left it there.

Holly handed his coffee cup back to him, offering it handle-side-out to prevent their fingers from touching. “You didn’t have to come all this way for a refill,” she said uneasily. “I could have sent someone up.”

“You forget that Monty and I are slaves to our duty,” Amy said. “If we didn’t break away every now and then, we’d become nothing more than drones of productivity.”

Then, as if realizing a drone of productivity was basically all Monty was, she also fell into an uncomfortable silence.

That was his cue to leave. He might not always land on the right thing to say, but he did know how to make a timely exit. In fact, one of the best moves he’d made recently as the head of the Montgomery Foundation was handing over the social obligations to his brother Jake. The division of labor worked so well that Monty had been able to sever most of his ties to the real world and hide away in the Manor with only his spreadsheets for company. He’d never been more popular now that no one had to actually interact with him. He even got fan mail sometimes.

“Thank you for the coffee.” He raised his cup in a gesture of appreciation. “I’ll let you three get back to work.”

It should have been an easy escape, an only mildly distressing break to his routine, but in this, as in all things, he missed his mark. His comment sounded less like a polite parting and more like a boss jumping on his employees’ backs for standing around talking when they should have been working.

Technically, they weren’t even his employees. He didn’t own this house, and they weren’t hired to cater to his whims. He lived here and he labored here, but he drew a paycheck with the Montgomery name on it just like everyone else. At least the three other women had the option of leaving to go work somewhere else if they wanted. The thing about having your name on the wrought-iron gate leading in was that it worked an awful lot like a cattle brand. He’d always bear the marks.

“You’re right,” Holly said with a tight smile. “I’ve got lots of deep cleaning I could be getting done this morning.”

“And if I don’t go relieve the night nurse of her duties in the next five minutes, she might refuse to come in early the next time I beg,” Amy said.

Only Georgia didn’t seem to be in a hurry to jump when he barked, but that was probably because she hadn’t stopped working the entire time he’d been present. She leaped from the stove and brushed her hands on the seat of her coveralls.

“I’ll walk you out, shall I?” she said cheerfully. “I’m about to head to the garden shed to clean the gutters. The glamorous life of a handywoman never ends.”

He couldn’t think of a polite way to demur, so he waited while she gathered up her toolbox and provided some parting advice to Holly about changing the filters before accompanying her out the doors.

“I’m glad to catch you this morning,” Georgia said, as though there was nothing odd about the two of them chatting as they moved through the maze of hallways. Just two people, one of whom apparently harbored table-rocking sexual fantasies about the other, their footsteps so long they were practically running. What could be weird about that? “I wanted to ask you again whether you’d be willing to help out with Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound?”

“Yeah.” When he didn’t say anything right away, she supplied more information. “The charity that builds houses for families in need? The one I’ve been volunteering for since I was eighteen? I got put in charge of the local chapter last year when I finally got my contractor’s license.”

The name and premise were well-known enough to strike a chord, but that was where the familiarity ended. Thousands of grant applications crossed Monty’s desk every week, and it was impossible to keep track of all the organizations that needed funding and were turned down. Once upon a time, he’d tried to keep a more accurate personal count, but he’d learned that if he wanted to preserve his sanity, it was better to focus on the people he could help, rather than the ones he couldn’t.

“What is it you want?” he asked warily.

Her face fell, cheeks heavy with the weight of her disappointment. “Oh. You don’t remember our conversation?”

“No, I…” Shoot. There was no way to pretend he had any idea what she was talking about. It seemed that unless this woman was rating his sexual prowess, he didn’t pay attention to what she had to say. How charming of him. “I’m so sorry. It’s not ringing a bell.”

“Never mind. I figured getting you to participate would be a long shot anyway.” She waved him off with an attempt at a smile. “Forget I said anything. It’s not a problem.”

But it was a problem, and he felt that fact more keenly than he might have a few hours ago. Not only was it remiss of him to forget about Georgia’s charity work in the first place—his dad would never overlook that sort of detail about anyone on his staff—but he was in the bizarre position of wanting to impress her. This woman, a woman he rarely saw and barely knew, thought his personality sucked.

Well, it did suck, but he didn’t care for people to actually know that. Or discuss it amongst themselves in the family kitchens.

“Have you applied to the Montgomery Foundation through the traditional channels?” he asked. “It’s not exactly sanctioned, but I’m sure we could expedite the proposal given your years of service to the family.”

He passed a hand over his eyes, barely stifling a groan at the familiar drone of his voice. He was doing it again, speaking as if he’d swallowed a business report and was doomed to a lifetime of churning it out piece by piece. “If it’s something you’d like, that is,” he added lamely.

“Oh, no. We’re a local chapter of a state organization, so the money’s already taken care of.” She spoke loudly—more so than usual, obviously hiding her disappointment. “It’s not a big deal. I always seem to be running short on able-bodied young men to do the heavy lifting, and you look like you know your way around the free weights. I thought you might be able to lend some muscle, that’s all.”

“You want me to help you build houses?” An oddly sweeping pleasure took over. Not only did Georgia think he was a ten in the looks department, but she also considered him a bastion of strength. His spine straightened, naturally puffing his chest out a few extra inches.

She promptly deflated it. “I’ve already hit up everyone else around here. Ryan and Alex stop by occasionally, but they’re busy most weekends.”

“I see,” he said dryly. “How gratifying.”

“I did ask you a few months ago,” she pointed out.

Again, he found himself at a loss. Chances were she was telling the truth, and her request, like so many others, had become part of the monument of missed opportunities that loomed over his day-to-day life. If only happiness could be measured in parties unattended, people unentertained, friendships untenanted. He’d be euphoric.

“I can understand why you might have blocked it out,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and I think we’ve acquired a total of eighty-seven stitches all told.”

“How…tempting?”

“Well, since all the work we do is unpaid, we try to have a good time while we’re out there. Stitches are the price we pay, but it’s fun.”

Fun?

He must have done a poor job of hiding his disbelief, because she continued with that same deep-velvet laugh from before. “But it’s also a big commitment, and I know how busy you are. Some other time, maybe.”

They reached a breakaway point in the hall, two paths laid out so clearly they might as well have been memorialized in verse. Monty would head upstairs to once again pick up the reins of industry while Georgia journeyed outside, where birds chirped and the sun shone and manual labor was considered a source of entertainment rather than a means to an end.

Unaware of how deeply he felt the differences between them, Georgia stuck her hand out and held it inches from his own. Her palm bore every appearance of being strong and callused, an extension of a woman who could only be described with the exact same terms. “I wish there was something I could do,” he said, and since there didn’t seem any way around it, he slipped his palm into hers. Predictably, her skin was rough and coarse, but it was also hotter than expected, as if proximity to her hammer gave her excess energy, rendering her a Thor in blue coveralls. “Unfortunately, my schedule doesn’t leave me much room for extracurriculars.”

“I won’t mention it again.” She didn’t let go of his hand right away, and he had to wonder at what possessed her to keep it going so long.

He found out a few seconds later.

“We were just blowing off steam in there, by the way. I don’t know how much you overheard—that ventilation hood magnifies sound like whoa, damn—but we didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, snatching his hand back.

“You didn’t pick up on any of our conversation? Maybe a little something about numbers?”

“I was only a few steps ahead of Amy the whole time.”

“Okay.” She nodded, but the smirk lifting her lips marred what would have been an otherwise perfect getaway moment. “Then it’s probably safe for me to tell you I changed my mind. Plus one for being such a good sport about it.”

Despite his determination not to admit he’d overheard anything untoward, he smiled. “Only one?”

“For now.” She winked. Like old men who smelled of licorice and sea captains everywhere, she was oddly able to pull it off. “Maybe you could swing by some time and earn a few more. We could admire your arms together.”

Admire my arms? He blinked. Surely she wasn’t suggesting what he thought she was suggesting. Despite her earlier revelations, there was nothing about this woman that belonged in the sexual portion of his thoughts. She worked for his father. She carried a hammer in her back pocket. And the most attractive thing about her was the fact that he didn’t find her the least bit attractive.

So why was he suddenly picturing her naked?

She waved and headed for the outer door, her not-naked form moving with a confident swagger, rendering him a fool. “See you around, Monty. Those gutters aren’t going to clean themselves.” She paused and winked again. “Bow-chicka-bow-wow.”