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When was a knock on an office door more than a knock? When Mariana Vasquez knew it signaled the end of the project of her heart.
Her head jerked up as her boss entered a moment later. Greg’s shaved head swiped along the bottom fringe of the green tinsel garland along the lintel.
It did not make him smile.
It did not appear to imbue him with Christmas cheer. In fact, he swatted at it as though it had bitten him.
“Bring me up to speed, Mariana,” he ordered in a bass rumble that filled the small room. “Because I’m hearing rumors I don’t like.”
“Nobody likes rumors. They’re inherently negative.” At his scowl, she realized he wasn’t in the mood for chitchat. So…straight on to crushing her dream it was. “Whatever you heard is probably true. If you heard that we’re having problems with the Brampton Mansion.”
“When you convinced me that we could pull this off—” He ran a finger under his collar, then loosened his gray tie before starting again. “That we could turn that old wreck of a mansion into a Christmas designer showcase even though we weren’t starting until November…you assured me that the tight timeline wouldn’t be a problem.” Greg planted his hands on her desk, thick fingers splayed, and loomed over her. “Because you said nothing would go wrong.”
Well, that would’ve been naïve. Not to mention a jinx waiting to happen. And downright stupid. Mariana readjusted the red crystal bangle at her wrist.
“That’s not precisely accurate. I said that little things always go wrong with a rehab, but we’ve got the best of the best lined up, so they’ll be able to take anything that happens in stride. Without affecting the timeline.”
“So why do I hear people huddled in every corner of this building whispering that we won’t meet the deadline?”
She clasped her hands on her lap. Said the words she’d been dreading sharing with him for the last twenty-four hours. “Because Anthony Scalzatti quit.”
Greg dragged a chair over and slumped into it. As director of the Maryland Historic Preservation Society, he’d spent years going toe-to-toe with the famous designer. It was well known that the two men despised each other. Albeit tempered with a healthy dose of respect for their finished projects.
“He’s a drama queen. Talk him out of it.”
That had been Mariana’s plan.
As soon as Anthony called to vent and swear and detail the innumerable reasons why the job was impossible and the other designers insufferable, she’d opened her calendar app. Started moving meetings to make time to rush over and soothe him back into the job. She’d even called in an order to Patisserie Poupon for a slice of their infamous strawberry sponge cake with raspberry syrup as a peace offering.
Then the other shoe dropped. Literally.
“He quit in a huff—right before falling through the stairs. He’s in the hospital, getting pins put in his leg.”
“Like I said. Drama queen.” The two shared a grin. “Will he be okay?”
“Yes. And he can’t sue us, either.” Because she knew that’d be Greg’s next question. “Given the ramshackle state of the mansion, all the designers and crew signed extensive waivers.”
“That was your idea?” At her nod, he wiped a hand across his brown pate. “You’re always one step ahead of the next disaster. Good thinking.”
“Thank you.” Although Mariana hoped this one was big enough to forestall Karma from dropping any more disasters their way. “But I’m still going to send him some get-well flowers.”
“More good thinking. That should keep him from running his mouth to the newspapers.”
Mariana patted her black leather portfolio, jammed with project plans and timelines for the mansion. And tried to inject calm confidence into her words. “Aside from that, everything’s proceeding well at the mansion.”
Greg clearly saw through her façade of confidence as easily as he could detect a faux marble floor from a real one. “Aside from that?” He snorted. “Scalzatti carried the heaviest load. He had two showpiece rooms—and the ones requiring the most rehab.”
“Well, yes. But we’ll find someone to replace him.” She needed Greg to believe that. For another day or two. While Mariana frantically kept calling every contact she had up and down the Delmarva Peninsula.
Greg shifted back in his seat. Clasped his hands over his stomach. “The reason I put up with Scalzatti is because, beneath his twattle and ego, the man has incredible talent and instinct. There’s nobody else who can deliver the one-two punch of historical and architectural expertise to fix things and take over as designer. I’m afraid I’m pulling the plug.”
He was being hasty.
Clearly, Greg wasn’t remembering just how dire the situation with the Brampton Mansion was.
“You can’t.” Whoops. That was perhaps a tad too firm a tone to use with her boss.
Sure enough, his dark brows shot up. “Thing is, Mariana, I can. And I have to.”
Greg was only thinking about the time and money it was costing their office. He wasn’t looking at the bigger picture. Which she understood because he oversaw all of their projects. Whereas she was all in—heart and mind and unreported overtime—on making sure this single project, which she cared about so very much, came off flawlessly.
“You know the City is ready to tear it down. There’s nothing in their budget for it because the Brampton family never told them it was in the will. They won’t reallocate budget for next year to cover its upkeep unless we can prove that it can sustain itself—and that there’s enough public interest. Our Christmas designer showcase tour is the only thing that can provide that level of interest and keep the mansion standing.”
“Mariana, this isn’t an easy decision for me. Our job is to do everything possible to preserve Maryland’s historic sites.” Greg gestured at the cramped quarters of her office in the narrow brick row house that housed the Society. “We don’t do it for the glory or the money, because there isn’t any. We do it because we all care deeply about the past.”
“Then let me find another designer.” Her voice was no longer calm. Desperation seeped through every word, like mildew seeping through old floorboards.
He ran a hand over his smooth head, all the way down to his neck. “Look, I’d like nothing better. If the tour was scheduled for the spring, there’d be leeway. But those doors open in less than a month. There’s no time. Even if we found someone, they wouldn’t drop everything at the holidays to come help us out.”
She’d hoped he would give her more time. Even though her practical side knew that Greg was right about there not being any.
That meant she couldn’t search. Couldn’t spend days cajoling and pleading.
It meant Mariana had to go with the nuclear option. And by that, she meant the one that would no doubt implode her heart and her life.
It didn’t matter. Mariana’s passion for connecting the past to the present apparently ran deeper than her wounded pride. She refused to give up on saving the mansion without trying every avenue possible.
She opened the bright red and green Russian nesting dolls on the corner of her desk. Shook each one as though another, better designer might magically appear. “Actually, I happen to know exactly the right person for the job.”
“You’re joking.” Greg had been halfway out of the chair. He froze, braced on the desk.
“Nope. Someone far better than Scalzatti.”
“Then why on earth did you saddle us with him in the first place?”
Because she didn’t at all like this option? Because she’d happily spend the rest of her life without ever interacting with Scott Ashford again? “Let’s just call them personal reasons.”
Greg’s forehead sank into deep lines. Lines that also crinkled into brackets around his brown eyes. He straightened and crossed to the doorway. “This is a business, Mariana. Personal reasons don’t come into play. Especially not when the state signs our paychecks.”
Would he still say that if he knew the whole, sad story?
Greg was all about the bottom line. He might offer to take her out for a drink to salve her wounded pride, but he’d still insist that she make the call.
And he’d be right to do so.
Mariana smoothed the lapels of her red peplum jacket. “I’ve got an old…um, friend who can deliver. Someone I went to grad school with, down at the University of Maryland.”
“Friends make for risky business partners,” he warned.
“Well, he’s the solution.”
He rested a hand on the file cabinet, next to the scale model of Penn Station. It had been her thesis project—a reimagining of the top floor of the historic Baltimore train station into a hotel. “Now there’s a safety issue, with the busted staircase. Will that scare this guy off?”
“No. There’s nothing Scott likes better than a challenge.” Which was technically true.
The part she didn’t mention to Greg? Was that she hadn’t even mentioned it to Scott yet, let alone asked him to do this enormous, last-minute favor.
Or so much as talked to him in years.
And, if anything, her presence on the project might be reason enough for him to turn it down.
“If anything else goes wrong, so much as a fuse blowing, we’ll have to give up on the mansion and let it go to the auction block. It’ll be sold and then undoubtedly knocked down to make room for another one of those godawful harbor-front high rises.”
Ah. So Greg did, indeed, see the big picture. The horrible worst-case scenario.
“That won’t happen. We won’t let it happen,” Mariana vowed.
She’d swallow her pride. Beg. Stroke Scott’s ego. Basically, she’d do whatever it took to get him down here.
Without letting him get so much as a glimpse of how difficult it would be for her to work side by side with him for three weeks…
Greg sucked in a long breath, then slapped the doorjamb twice. “All right, Mariana. If you can get this miracle worker to take us on?”
“I will.” Somehow. She just didn’t know exactly how yet. That was the next problem on her never-ending to-do list.
“And if you can promise me that—unless someone else falls through the damn stairs—the timeline is still workable?”
“It will be.” Which was probably not a promise she could or should make right now.
Mariana did have absolute faith in Scott’s abilities. And in his judgment—well, at least, where buildings were concerned. But before she assured anyone that the timeline was still doable, he’d have to sign off on it.
“Then you can keep going. But it’s all on you.” He ducked beneath the garland with a mumbled curse, then turned back around to jab a finger in her direction. “If I end up having to pull the plug later, you’re going to get all the blowback. From the mayor’s office, at the least. In the papers. It’d be one hell of a mess.”
“Sure. Of course. I understand.”
No pressure, then…
End of Excerpt