An Astonishing Match

by

Barbara Dunlop

Construction boss Hunter Vashon owes a huge debt to his grandmother Daisy for keeping his teenage secrets. When she asks for his help playing “Henry Higgins” to match-make his older brother, he can’t possibly say no.

Machinist Kalie Gray has never been one for dresses and frills. She spends her days crafting state-of-the-art robotic parts and her weekends at dusty, off-road race-tracks. So she’s confused when handsome, sexy Hunter Vashon shows an interest in her.

Kalie might be his brother’s perfect match, but Hunter can’t seem to stop himself from falling for her. She’s smart, funny and down to earth. And after her makeover, she’s drop dead gorgeous. He wants her for himself and tries desperately to reason with his grandmother. But Daisy stands her ground, and Hunter is torn between family loyalty and the woman he loves.

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The South Florida weather was unseasonably hot for September, humidity hanging thick in the still afternoon air, condensing on the iced tea glasses and bringing a sheen to exposed skin. Still, Daisy Vashon postponed her dip in the pool at the Sunny Autumn Seniors Community in Port Aidin to peer over Sam Finnegan’s shoulder at the picture of a smiling young woman.

“At least they live in the same city this time,” called Hannah Sprite from where she was perched on the pool’s edge, her feet dangling in the water.

Sam, the genius of the group and the inventor of their secret computer matchmaking program, had cooked up another match this morning. Daisy had been worrying about it ever since.

“Exactly who is this Kalie Gray?” she asked him.

“She’s Morgan’s step-cousin,” said JW Sterling, rising from his deck chair and stretching out his back.

A former Army general and Green Beret, JW had discovered he had an illegitimate daughter and a grandson named Morgan earlier in the year. Morgan was the group’s very first matchup.

“How’s that?” asked Hannah, swishing her feet through the crystal-clear water.

“Kalie is my daughter Nadia’s husband’s sister’s daughter.” JW’s tone was clipped and precise. “She’s the one Morgan entered into the computer.”

Daisy tried to picture the family tree inside her head. After a moment, she gave up. “It says here she’s a machinist. What’s a machinist?”

“Machinists make precision pieces out of metal,” said JW.

“Like jewelry?” asked Hannah. “Gold and platinum?”

“No,” said JW. “Like stainless steel. They use lathes, milling machines and complex computer-controlled equipment to cut and polish industrial machine parts to tolerances of a thousandth of an inch.”

Daisy couldn’t help bringing to mind the other side of this particular match, her fastidious, executive grandson Hammond Vashon, who wore suits from Saville Row. “Are you telling us that Kalie works in a hard hat and steel-toes?”

“I don’t know about a hard hat,” said JW. “But steel-toes, yes. And safety goggles, certainly.”

Lizbet Blythe spoke up from where she was stretched out on a lounge chair, sipping a mimosa, her wide-brimmed floppy hat keeping the sun at bay. “She probably wears a leather tool belt. I like the woman already.”

“Is something bothering you?” Sam asked Daisy, craning his neck to see her expression.

Yes, Daisy was bothered. “I know we’re supposed to have faith in the computer program.”

“It’s worked every time so far,” said Hannah.

“This is a ninety-nine percent match,” said Sam. “It’s the highest we’ve ever had.” He proved the claim by bringing up another screen on his tablet.

Daisy was well aware that each of their previous matches had seemed impossible at first. That was, until each of the couples had fallen deeply in love. But her grandson Hammond was rather uncompromising and very uptight. The photos of Kalie made her seem carefree and rather earthy.

“I’m worried they won’t make it past first impressions,” said Daisy. “Hammond is particular. He likes women who are very poised and polished.”

Kalie was likely a perfectly wonderful person. She was certainly pretty enough, with long, thick raven hair, dark blue eyes and about the most dazzling smile Daisy had ever seen. It was Hammond who worried her. He could be so closed-minded. And once that mind of his was made up, there was no changing it. A woman would have one chance with him, and then it would all be over.

Lizbet sat up straight, swinging her legs over the side of the lounger and tucking her feet into her pink flip-flops. “Maybe we could maroon them together, somewhere that he couldn’t get away.”

“Or we could get Kalie a job at Vashon Holdings,” said Hannah. “That way he’d see her over and over again, maybe get past the first impression.”

“She’s a machinist,” said JW. “Vashon Holdings manages corporate real estate. I’m not seeing an obvious job opportunity.”

“They both live in Boston,” said Sam. “Getting them together should be the easy part this time.”

“She seems to wear nothing but blue jeans and T-shirts,” said Daisy. “We’ll have to whack my grandson over the head to get him to take a second look.”

“That’s JW’s department,” Sam said with a smirk.

Lizbet grinned at Sam. “You’re the brains, and he’s the brawn?”

“Something like that,” said Sam.

“What about the My Fair Lady approach?” asked Hannah.

Four gazes swung her way.

“The movie. We give Kalie a makeover.”

Lizbet was the first to speak up. “Could we do that without her catching on?”

“Oh, I know,” said Hannah in an excited voice, obviously warming to her own idea. “Maybe we tell her she’s won a contest of some kind. We send her to a day at the spa for a facial, a haircut, some makeup. And then we send her directly to a party or some other fancy event where Hammond will be, and voilà!” She snapped her fingers.

“I love it when we go covert,” said Lizbet.

“But she’ll go back to her regular self,” said Daisy. “We need something that’ll last longer than one party.”

“What we need is a Henry Higgins,” said Lizbet.

“We could hire one,” said Sam.

“Or blackmail one,” said Daisy, the suggestion putting an idea into her head.

“We have plenty of money in the kitty,” said JW. “And I thought we agreed not to break the law anymore.”

“My grandson,” said Daisy, her excitement level rising. “Hammond’s brother Hunter could be our Mr. Higgins. He owes me. He owes me big-time. And he lives right there in Boston.”

“Would it be safe to bring him in on the scheme?” asked Sam.

“I kept dozens of secrets for him,” said Daisy. “Especially his high school senior year.”

“Do tell,” said Lizbet with a lift of her brows.

Daisy’s grandson Hunter was a rascal, there was no getting around it.

“He once stole my car,” said Daisy. “He hid beer in the pool house. And he spent what I understand was a memorable spring break in Miami and told his parents he was staying with me. I never ratted him out.”

“Daisy,” Lizbet chortled. “You surprise me. You are a very cool grandmother.”

Daisy shrugged. “It wasn’t like I could stop him, and it kept the lines of communication open. He never drank and drove, and I gave him plenty of advice on avoiding hard drugs and treating women with respect.”

“And now it’s payback time,” said Lizbet.

“He could be our ace in the hole,” said Hannah.

“I’m sold,” said Sam.

“Daisy,” JW stated with authority, “you’ll need to take a trip to Boston.”

Kalie Gray had dust in her hair, bright sunshine in her eyes and grit under her fingernails. Saturday afternoon in the Granite Valley, ninety minutes outside Boston, and the sound of hopped-up engines echoed in the distance as the leading, four-wheel-drive racing vehicles zoomed toward the start-finish line and the pit area, completing their latest twenty-mile, off-road lap.

Her best friend, Liza Merriweather, was an automotive technician and the brains behind the engine for Jarrett’s Jump, the racer driven by Liza’s boyfriend. Jarrett and his co-driver, Ritchie, had done the bodywork from the frame up.

By comparison, Kalie’s role on the race team was minor. She machined specialized parts for the engine and chassis. But she loved being part of the pit crew on race day. The adrenaline in the air was electric.

They were coming up on the final lap. Jarrett’s Jump had been leading since the mid-point in the race. Liza was on the radio with Ritchie, leaning close to the speaker to hear his transmission. “He says it’s pulling to the right,” she yelled to the pit crew. “And they’re losing power. They have to come in for a stop. Buster, check the tire pressure. Joe, splash of fuel.”

Joe nodded and went for the gas can.

“I’ll check the front end,” said Liza. “Kalie, windshield and water.”

“I’m on it.” Kalie fished two chilled water bottles from the cooler then stood in position behind a row of boulders that separated the pit from the racecourse. She had clean rags dangling from the back pocket of her blue jeans and a bottle of window cleaner in the opposite hand.

The red mud, found down near the river, was the racecourse’s unique attraction. It wreaked havoc with the racers’ traction. On low-lying sections of the course, it thickened the puddles that then rolled up in waves to cover every inch of the vehicle. The sticky mud added a level of challenge and excitement to any event.

Jarrett skidded the racer, sliding on all four wheels to a halt in the pit. Ritchie pulled down the passenger window net, and Kalie handed in the water.

Liza dropped onto her back and slid under the front end, while Kalie hauled herself up on the nearest boulder and sprayed the passenger-side windshield with cleaner, rubbing away the grime. Then she leaned across the hood to reach the driver’s side, coating her jeans and T-shirt in a new layer of mud.

She tossed a soiled rag to the ground and started fresh.

The race car named Tighty White barreled past out on the course, and Ritchie’s lips formed a terse swearword as he banged the heel of his hand against the dashboard, obviously frustrated by their delay. Kalie scrubbed as fast as she could then slid backward to the boulder divide. Another vehicle whizzed past. The black-and-orange stripe pattern told Kalie it was Tiger. Jarrett’s Jump had dropped to third place.

Liza jumped to her feet, shouting over the noise of the engine. “There’s a chunk of wood trapped in the wheel well. Everybody clear.”

Kalie hopped down on the pit side. Buster and Joe cut past the boulder barrier.

Liza held both of her arms in the air to signal to Jarrett. “Back it up,” she shouted.

Jarrett threw the racer in reverse, jerking back about ten feet. The piece of wood made a huge clang against the body as it broke free.

Liza gave Jarrett a thumbs-up. Then she looked to each of the pit crew. All signaled they were done. Liza jumped aside and waved the racer forward.

“Go, go, go!” she cried.

It zoomed off in a cloud of dust, and the noise level dropped away.

“Two spots to make up,” said Buster, as they all watched Jarrett’s Jump fly back onto the racecourse.

“Could have been a whole lot worse,” said Liza. “I thought it might be a bent differential.”

Joe began gathering up the hand tools that had become scattered around the pit during the course of the day, cleaning dirt from them before placing them in the red toolbox. Buster rolled the used tires onto the trailer.

Liza dropped into a lawn chair next to the radio, and Kalie took the chair beside her. The cooler was between them, and Kalie helped herself to a cola. It was ice cold and dripping wet. She popped the lid on the can and shook the drops of water from her hand.

“Think he can do it?” she asked.

“It’ll be tough,” said Liza. “Tighty White has more horsepower, and the Tiger team always goes nuts on the last lap. I swear those guys have a death wish.”

Kalie grinned. “This is the part he loves.”

“He does.” Liza smiled in return. “That’s why he’s the perfect guy for me.”

“I think it’s the other way around.”

“How?”

“You’re the perfect girl for him.”

Liza’s grin widened. “You should tell him that. He’d appreciate hearing it.”

“It’s not every girlfriend who can build a guy a stroker engine.”

Liza swung open the cooler lid and took a cola for herself. “It’s not every best friend who can machine connecting rods for the stroker engine.”

“We’re endlessly versatile,” said Kalie.

“Not to mention decorative.”

Kalie glanced down at her muddy jeans and scuffed, steel-toed boots. “Can a beauty pageant be far in my future?”

“Miss Massachusetts, for sure.”

The radio crackled, and they both went silent.

“Woo hoo!” Ritchie yelled into the microphone, the engine roaring in the background. “Passed Tiger.”

“Yes,” cried Buster from on top of the flat deck trailer.

Liza held up her hand, and Kalie slapped her a high five.

Another two racers zoomed past out on the course, jockeying with each other for position, their dust plumes dissipating across the pit area.

“I should show you something,” said Liza, reaching behind her chair and digging into a bag.

“What?”

“I didn’t want to wear it while I was working. And, well… I don’t know, it’s kinda…”

“Kinda what?”

Liza produced a black, square object.

At first, Kalie thought it was a new part for the racer.

“Kind of archaic,” Liza finished.

As Liza popped the object open, Kalie realized it was a leather box, a jewelry box. It held a diamond ring.

Kalie plunked her soda on top of the cooler lid. “Are you kidding me? You’re engaged?”

Liza gave a helpless shrug. “He got down on one knee and everything.” She lowered her voice. “It was really weird.”

Kalie jumped to her feet and gave Liza a hug. “That’s not weird. That’s fantastic.”

“I’m not a very romantic person.”

“You’re in love with Jarrett. That’s all that counts.”

“I don’t see two kids, a white picket fence and a fluffy dog in my future.”

Kalie laughed as she sat back down. She’d known both Liza and Jarrett since they were high school freshmen. They were going to make their own unique marriage, and it would defy convention.

“I doubt he sees that either,” she said.

The radio crackled again. “Passed Tighty White! Seven minutes out!”

Liza keyed the mike. “Bring it home, babe!”

“We’ll party tonight,” Joe shouted.

And they would.

Once the trophy presentation was made, the race organizers would crank up the barbecues, and music would blare under the big, open-sided tent at the end of the pit road. There’d be dancing and celebratory drinks into the night.

Liza and Jarrett had a ten-year-old motor home they brought to the races. It was utilitarian and worn but in great mechanical shape. It towed the racer and gave the three of them a place to sleep after the windup parties.

“You’re the one who’s got it right,” said Liza.

“Got what right?” Kalie asked.

“Independence. You don’t have to worry about anyone else. You can focus on your career, recreation, travel. I can’t not love Jarrett, so everything I do has to take him into account.”

“I do have my freedom,” Kalie agreed, though it wasn’t quite as exciting as Liza made it sound.

Kalie loved her career as a machinist. Micro Machining Incorporated had contracts statewide with colleges and research institutes. The leading-edge robotic parts she created for students and researchers were both challenging and satisfying. And it was true that she could travel whenever and wherever she wanted. Nobody else’s opinion counted.

She definitely wasn’t out there looking for a relationship. But Liza and Jarrett had been together since high school, and Kalie couldn’t help but wonder if her friend forgot that being perpetually single came with its own set of challenges.

Her weekends were her own. But then so were her nights. And she’d been out of the habit of dating for quite some time. She’d met some great guys at technical school. But she was a woman in what was still predominantly a man’s profession. Dating her classmates had seemed like a colossally bad idea.

And so she was single.

“I want you to be my bridesmaid,” said Liza. “Don’t worry,” she hastily added. “I won’t make you wear some glittery dress or anything. We’re not having a formal wedding. I’m not sure what we’ll do. Maybe have the ceremony in a park or something.”

“Will you quit apologizing for getting married? I’d love to be your bridesmaid. I don’t hate fancy dresses. I just don’t own any of them.”

“You’d love to?” Liza looked genuinely relieved.

“I’d love to,” Kalie assured her.

“There they come!” called Buster.

Both women stood as Jarrett’s Jump barreled toward the finish line. It came across with all four wheels in the air. Tighty White was hot on its heels, maybe twenty yards back.

Liza whooped and punched a fist in the air.

Kalie clapped her hands. It was going to be a great party. The ratio of men to women would be about six to one, so plenty of partners. She didn’t have to meet Mr. Right tonight in order to have fun dancing.

It was nearly nine o’clock by the time Hunter Vashon settled into his favorite Adirondack chair on his deck overlooking Quincy Bay. The waves were rolling against the breakwater at the edge of his yard, splashing up in white foam and adding a rhythm of sound to the atmosphere. The night was clear, but the wind was brisk, which suited him just fine.

It was warmer than usual for September in Boston, and he’d been out in the sun on a downtown jobsite all day. The concrete delivery had been late. A load of steel wasn’t to spec. And an electrical inspector was making his life hell.

Now, he cracked open a beer, set his two cell phones on the wooden table beside him and peeled back the lid of the meat-lover’s pizza he’d picked up at Strombo’s on the way home.

He’d spent a small fortune last year to buy one of the rare lots on the peninsula with direct ocean frontage. He’d demolished the small, aging house on the property and built himself what was a modest house by beachfront standards, a two-story Cape Cod with four bedrooms. It had an open-concept living area with a big brick fireplace, numerous windows, and plenty of deck and balcony space.

The interior was only partially finished, with a lot of work left to do on the second floor. But it was already his oasis. He relaxed into the deep, cushioned seat, helping himself to a slice of pizza, ready to enjoy that first thick, satisfying bite.

His doorbell sounded, the chimes ringing through the house.

“Damn it.” The scents of sausage and pepperoni were already teasing his taste buds.

He considered ignoring the sound. Who would drop by without calling?

But it rang again, and he considered that it could be a neighbor in trouble.

He sat up and dropped the slice of pizza back into the box. Then he rocked to his feet. Whoever it was, this had better be important.

Through the French doors, he made his way across the open living area. The blurry outline through the leaded glass panes told him it was a woman.

Clamping his jaw, he swung open the door then did an immediate double take.

“Hunter, darling,” the woman said.

“Granny Dee?” He didn’t think there was a sight that could have surprised him more.

He glanced to the curb behind his grandmother Daisy Vashon, not seeing a car. Then he looked up and down the road, trying to make sense of her appearance. “Are you alone? How did you get here?”

“On an airplane, of course.”

“By yourself?”

“I’m seventy, not seven. Are you going to let me in?”

“Of course I am.” Embarrassed, he quickly stepped backward, opening the door wide.

She crossed the threshold, glancing around. “That’s better. Wow. The place looks fabulous. You’ve worked hard.”

“What are you doing here?” He gave her slight body a quick hug and gave her a peck on the cheek.

“I came to visit my favorite grandson.”

“You’ve been to Hammond’s?”

Granny Dee rolled her eyes. “Ha ha. You always were a comic.”

Hunter hadn’t been joking, but he wasn’t about to own up to that. By any yardstick, Hunter was the black sheep of the Vashon family, with his older brother, Hammond, the golden child. Hammond was the heir apparent to Vashon Holdings. He was very much like their father in looks, interests and mannerisms.

Hunter, on the other hand, had disappointed his family by choosing trade school over college, striking out on his own and becoming a general construction contractor rather than helping manage the family’s real estate holdings. And Granny Dee knew his teenage transgressions better than anybody.

“Why didn’t you call?” he asked her.

“Is this a bad time?”

“No. I meant I could have picked you up at the airport.”

“Do you have a woman in here?” She squinted into the living area.

“No, Granny Dee, I do not have a woman in here. I have a pizza in here. Well, out on the deck.”

“What kind?”

“Meat lover’s.”

“Sounds perfect. I’m a little peckish after the flight. You know, they don’t serve you much of anything on an airplane anymore.”

She slipped a leather bag from her shoulder, and he immediately took it from her hands. It was far heavier than he’d expected.

“What do you have in here?”

“Just a toothbrush and a change of clothes.”

“You’re staying?”

She studied his expression. “Where else would I stay?”

The family estate with its seven bedrooms was the first place that came to mind. But Hunter didn’t want to sound inhospitable.

“Nowhere,” he said instead. “It’s just that—”

“Are you sure you don’t have a woman in here?” she asked.

“My upstairs bedrooms aren’t finished. But that’s fine. You can use my room. I’ll bunk in one of the others.”

“That’s very kind of you, Hunter.”

“It’s my pleasure.” It was. Though her arrival had taken him by surprise, he dearly loved Granny Dee. She was a bit zany and often unpredictable. But while he was growing up, she’d seemed to be the only member of his family who understood him.

“Which way to the pizza?” she asked.

He pointed. “The glass doors beyond the brick fireplace.”

She gazed around as she walked. “This really is a lovely house.”

“The deck is spectacular. It’s my favorite spot.” He passed her to hold open the door.

She smiled as she made her way outside. “I can see why.” She walked directly to the rail and braced her arms on the top, gazing at the foaming waves and the lights on the faraway shore.

“Are you warm enough?” he asked, taking up a spot beside her.

She was wearing black slacks and a chunky white cardigan. “I’m just fine.”

“How long are you staying?” He had to go to work early tomorrow, but perhaps he could arrange something entertaining for her during the day. He’d have his brother and his parents meet them somewhere in the city for dinner.

“Just overnight,” she said, turning around. She gestured to the table. “Have you got any more beer?”

“Absolutely. Sit down and get comfortable. I’ll get us some plates.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “No need for a plate, or a glass for that matter. I’m perfectly capable of roughing it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Old people are just like young people,” she said, bracing a hand on the wide arm of the chair to lower herself into it. “Except for the wrinkles and the creaky joints.”

As he retrieved another beer from his fridge, Hunter was reminded that he didn’t see his grandmother nearly often enough. She’d lived in Florida for several years now, and he’d never been down there, always counting on her holiday visits to Boston.

When he returned to the deck, she was already tucking into a slice of pizza.

“I’ve missed Strombo’s,” she told him. “They don’t know how to make pizza in Florida, all thin and slimy. I don’t think they use real cheese.”

“Well, enjoy,” he offered, setting the fresh beer on the table next to her and taking his own seat again.

The pizza was satisfying, and for a few minutes they both ate in silence, boat horns sounding far out on the water, a sleek yacht puttering past.

“You were working today?” she asked him, obviously taking in his thick, double-fronted cargo pants.

“I’m on a twenty-six-story office tower downtown.”

“Your company’s doing well?”

“My company’s doing very well.”

He was proud of the success of Straight Rock Construction. At twenty-eight, he’d already grown it from a one-man operation to a company of eight. It was affiliated with dozens of subcontracting firms and was successfully bidding for increasingly larger projects.

He knew he owed it in part to his father’s name and reputation and to the small start-up loan his father had provided. But he’d long since paid back the loan. And he’d grown and thrived these past eight years based on his company’s quality work.

“I have to say,” said Granny Dee, helping herself to a second slice, “you turned out better than I expected.”

Hunter couldn’t help but smile at the frank comment. He didn’t exactly know how to respond, so he took a drink of his beer instead.

“Do you remember spring break?” she asked him.

“Senior year?” The one he’d secretly spent in Florida. The one where she’d saved his ass.

“Yes, that spring break, dear.”

“I remember it well.” He’d had an absolute blast, finally getting lucky with Tawny Tevin. Of course, he’d never mentioned that part to his grandmother.

“So, you remember I helped you out that week.”

“I do.”

Something shifted in her expression. For a fleeting second, she looked calculating. But then it was gone.

“I need your help, Hunter.”

“Sure.” He’d do anything for her.

“It’s a little hard to explain. It’s for Hammond.”

Hunter felt his guard go up ever so slightly. So this trip was about Hammond. That shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Granny Dee sat forward in her chair. “My friends and I. Well, Sam, really. He’s a NASA genius. A former NASA genius. But he put the first man on the moon. So, well, he’s really, really smart.”

Hunter listened, confused at first, but then in growing astonishment as she outlined a computer matchmaking program devised by five senior citizens in the garage of a retirement complex in Florida. He didn’t know whether to be impressed or to call the authorities.

He had a little trouble following the stories of their three successes so far. They sounded farfetched and convoluted, and he wasn’t sure how much to believe. But, tragically, he understood completely what she was asking of him.

Hammond was the catch of the Vashon family, and they’d found him a nice girl.

Everything inside Hunter told him to refuse. Hammond was perfectly capable of finding his own dates. And Hunter didn’t want to change some unsuspecting young woman into a dream girl for his brother. It seemed seriously unethical.

He tried to form the words to let her down. “I don’t think I can—”

“It’s a ninety-nine percent match,” Granny Dee said earnestly. “That’s the highest we’ve ever had. I know it seems strange. But it always starts out this way—two people who don’t seem to belong together at all. But they always turn out to be perfect for each other, Hunter. And they’re all so happy now. I could give you their phone numbers. If you talk to them, I’m certain you’ll—”

“Granny Dee, really, I’m sorry, but—”

“You owe me, young man.”

She was right about that. “I know I do.”

“Have I ever asked you for anything before?”

“You haven’t,” he admitted.

She reached across the table for his hand. She looked so hopeful, so vulnerable, so completely convinced that she was doing the right thing.

She squeezed. “Hammond’s happiness, his lifetime of happiness, is all at stake here.”

Hunter tried to utter the word no. He wanted to tell her Hammond could take care of his own happiness. Hunter was far too busy to set his brother up. But the refusal stuck in his throat.

“And you can’t tell them,” said Granny Dee. “It won’t work if they know what’s going on. No matter what happens, this has to stay our secret.”

Hunter knew all about secrets with his grandmother. He felt a sharp twist in his chest. He knew he had no choice. So he nodded. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

End of Excerpt

An Astonishing Match is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

April 12, 2016