Jemma’s Alaska Dream: Succeed at Business
(and avoid her annoying neighbor)
When Jemma Harris inherits a house in Palmer, Alaska, she quits her tedious corporate job and catches the next plane out of Atlanta. She’s going to rehab furniture in her garage and sell her creations. Jemma needs everything to go perfectly during this short Alaskan summer, but her neighbor isn’t cooperating.
Marketing expert Nathaniel Montgomery lives on the outskirts of small-town Palmer and enjoys working at home. Then the new owner of the house across the street begins using noisy power tools and disrupting his life. His challenging childhood leaves him unable to love, until a stray puppy begins to thaw his heart.
Is there room in Nathaniel’s heart for Jemma too?
“Bench or bookshelf? Which do you want to be?” Jemma Harris walked around the beat-up old dresser sitting in the garage next to the house her great-aunt had recently left her in Palmer, Alaska. She removed the drawers and stepped back. Nodding once, she said, “Bench.” Jigsaw in hand, Jemma began the transformation.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Gorgeous from across the street open his front door. He wore his usual neatly pressed chinos and dress shirt, his dark, wavy hair adding the only element slightly out of control. Refocusing on the blade in her hand, Jemma cut off the dresser’s top, then started a curve on the right side.
Something poked her shoulder. When she reached out to brush it away, her hand met with warm skin. Jumping backward, Jemma stood with the jigsaw in front of her like a weapon.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Gorgeous shouted over the sound of the saw.
Gorgeous but none too bright. She pushed the off switch and removed her protective glasses. “I’m sawing wood.”
“No.” He sighed with obvious frustration. “What are you doing making so much noise?”
“Um, creating a bench?” She pointed at the half-altered dresser. Seeing it in her mind in a fresh yellow with white trim and a matching padded seat, she knew it would be beautiful. “A parent will happily buy it for their daughter’s room—at least I hope so.”
Her neighbor’s mouth dropped open. “This is a business? The noise I’ve put up with for weeks isn’t temporary?”
“Yes. No. Yes, I’m planning to open a store.”
“So you won’t continue making noise here and being a general nuisance?”
Now he had her hackles up. “A nuisance?”
His hand swept over the area. “Noise. Grime. Chaos.”
Focus on patience. He was her neighbor, so they needed to get along. Forcing a calm note to her voice, she said, “I’m Jemma Harris. It may appear chaotic to you, Mr. . . . ?”
“But I can assure you everything is under control.”
With a little too much eagerness, he asked, “Will you be gone soon?”
As soon as I can make this pay, she thought, wondering how someone so attractive on the outside could be the opposite on the inside.
Ready to ask him to leave, Jemma saw a truck come around the bend of the road and pull into her driveway, saving her from herself. Wondering who could be visiting when she’d lived in Palmer all of three weeks and hardly knew a soul, she noticed the load in the back. Travis, the man she’d met at the community yard sale and hired to deliver goods for her, was here, and his truck was filled to the brim with what she knew were great things. When she ventured a glance at her neighbor, his expression said otherwise.
Travis stepped out of his truck. “My sister had a few things left from her yard sale. I added the ones I thought you might want.” He pointed at the back of his truck toward several items she hadn’t bought.
Jemma climbed onto the side to see better. “Thank you, Travis. The bench and stool are great.” She pushed a music stand aside. “And that lamp. What’s in the box up there?” She pointed past the dresser, headboard, and coffee table she’d bought to right behind the cab of the truck.
“Some old tablecloths. Maybe some old fabric too. My mother doesn’t even remember who gave them to her. She had the box stored in a closet, and no one at the sale wanted it, so she told me to throw it away. I thought I’d see if you wanted any of it.”
How had she missed that at the sale? Jemma swallowed and tried for a nonchalant appearance so he wouldn’t know how much she loved old linens and up the amount he wanted. As she scrambled into the back of the truck and over furniture, she realized she might have spoiled her attempt. When she reached the box, she folded back the flaps—and discovered a treasure trove of tablecloths from the 1940s and 1950s. “I can take these off your hands.” She gulped. “At the right price.”
“Just take them. Mom will be happy someone wants them.”
She added extra to the amount she paid for the other goods. Jemma knew she’d gotten a good deal and from the expression on Travis’s face, it looked like he thought he’d gotten a good deal too. That was how she always hoped to do business.
By the time Travis drove off, Nathaniel was standing with his mouth hanging open. “But that’s junk! You paid for junk!”
“No, I paid for things I can revamp into products I can sell. This isn’t junk.” She picked up the lamp that had a shredded shade over a black-and-gold base from another, perhaps less appealing, era. “Well”—she shrugged—“some of it might be junk now, but everything will be beautiful when I’m done with it.”
Nathaniel leaned over her pile of goods and nudged the stool with his foot. “I know I wouldn’t want any of it. This just solidifies what I said earlier. I’ve put up with the noise for two weeks, and now we have truckloads of junk dropping by. This business,” he said in the same tone she’d use to describe smelly garbage, “must be against the law.”
They definitely were not on a first-name basis. “Mr. Montgomery, my business complies with all laws and codes. In short, it’s legal.”
His cell phone rang as Jemma inhaled, ready to impale him with her words. Speaking into the phone, he crossed the street to his house. About halfway, he gave a halfhearted wave in her general direction.
That was that, Jemma thought. It was probably best that he’d left because she didn’t like the way she had been about to act. Nathaniel Montgomery seemed to bring out the worst in her.
Her sister Holly’s silver compact came into sight about the same time he reached his front steps. Jemma’s nieces waved out the window, bringing sunshine that helped clear out the Nathaniel Montgomery storm.
“Hi, Aunt Jemma!” Abbie shouted out the window.
“Me too!” Ivy added.
When the car stopped, Jemma pulled open a door and helped unbuckle the four-year-old twins from their car seats. As they climbed out, their mother directed them to the old swing set in the backyard, the same one she and Jemma had used as children when their family visited Great-aunt Grace.
“I noticed Mr. Gorgeous going into his house,” Holly said. “Did you get to meet him? Is he as swoon-worthy up close as he is from a distance?”
“Yes. And n-o.”
Holly’s brow furrowed. “What’s yes?”
“I met Mr. High and Mighty.”
Her sister winced.
“And I’ve brought chaos into this neighborhood.”
“Great-aunt Grace sold him land to build his house, and the other thirty acres to a builder for the subdivision around the corner—but on the other side of the woods. You and he are ‘the neighborhood.’”
“And I’ve apparently ruined it with my sawing, junk deliveries, and general sense of chaos.”
“I think I’m speechless, and I didn’t know that could happen.” Holly glanced at her watch. “I’d like to hear more, but I have to get to my job interview. If I don’t find something soon, I’m going to have to get a job in another field. Wish me the best, and thanks for watching the kids.”
“You’re a great teacher, and you’ll land a job soon, Holly. You graduated less than a month ago, so don’t worry. And you know I’m always happy to watch the girls. I didn’t get to spend much time with them before I moved here, but I can make up for that now.” Just then, the furniture in her driveway caught Jemma’s eye. “Hey, Holly. If you have a minute to spare, give me a hand getting this dresser into the garage.”
Her sister grabbed one end, Jemma the other; then they hoisted the dresser off the ground and shuffled it into the open garage, setting it on the sawdust-covered, concrete floor.
Looking up, Holly reached over and pushed on one of the garage’s loose wall boards. “This building is a little rickety.”
“It’s solid. It’s just old.” Jemma brushed off her shirt front.
“Speaking of old, you seem to really be getting into your new vintage fashion look.” Holly raised one eyebrow.
“I’m thrilled to be able to wear whatever I want, to not adhere to the company’s business conservative dress code. Suit. Closed-toe shoes. Stockings.” Jemma shuddered. Glancing down at the hippie-ish peasant top she’d tucked into 1970s-era high-waisted jeans, Jemma asked, “Do you think it’s too much?”
“It’s . . . unique.” Then, shaking her head, Holly said, “I’m off.”
Jemma followed her sister back outside, then stood with Abbie and Ivy at her side as Holly climbed back into her little car and drove away. When she asked her nieces, “Would you like to sew later?” they gave an enthusiastic reply of “Yes!” Laughing, she picked up the box of linens and set them inside the front door.
When she came out, the girls were chasing each other around the garage. Jemma spoke above their happy-at-play sounds, “Stay in sight of the garage’s back door, and I’ll work for a little longer.” She heard squealing as she went back in and settled into her work.
Glancing up every couple of minutes, she kept an eye on her nieces while she finished sawing the arms of the bench. Finishing this piece of furniture kept her complying with her plan. She would make this business a success.
Before Jemma began sanding, she stepped out the door and found the girls swinging. Happy to find them having fun, she went back into the garage. Back at work, she gave an initial sanding to the arms and back edge of her bench, then switched to a finer grit to give the whole piece a once-over. After brushing on a coat of white paint—she’d re-coat it later today and add the trim—she checked her watch and knew she’d better sew with the girls, or it would be too late.
“Girls!” She waved them over. “Ready to make something fun?”
When they stepped into the entry and Abbie saw the box of fabric, she shrieked with glee. Jemma knelt beside her and went through the box with the little girl, who cared as much about it as she did, while Ivy happily played with Stitches, the cat Jemma babysat for her other sister, Bree.
Jemma hoped she’d have a little girl just like one of her nieces. Someday when she wasn’t so busy with life. Of course, she’d first want a man who loved her for who she was, not someone like Mr. Montgomery, who wanted everyone to conform to his rules.
* * *
Nathaniel set his phone on his desk and stared down at his neighbor’s property from his office window. When he’d bought land across the street from a sweet old lady with a house as old as she was, surrounded by a white picket fence, he figured this would be a quiet place to live, a change from the condo he’d owned in downtown Anchorage. The old lady was gone, Jemma Harris had inherited, and she might be cute at first glance, with her long, blonde hair, big blue eyes and slender figure, but she was chaos through and through.
He should probably try to get along with her, and he would try to be neighborly. Her apparent love of garage sale finds even made her clothing chaotic, the different eras clashing loudly. Pushing off from the window, he chuckled to himself. As a marketing consultant, he’d learned a little bit about a lot of things, including fashion and football. He’d admit to the second but never the first.
A shriek pierced the air. He started to run for the stairs, but when a second shriek sounded, he realized the sound came from a child at play. Back at the window, he saw two identical little girls running around the front lawn of his neighbor’s house. Great: sawing, hammering, and screaming. What more could one ask for during his workday?
Reaching for his phone, he scrolled down, found the number of his lawyer, and called. After a brief but odd delay, during which he heard the secretary pushing buttons on the phone, she came back and said she would try again. Moments later his lawyer came on the phone. Nathaniel asked, “Pete, do you have a minute?” The other man answered that he did, so Nathaniel outlined the situation with his neighbor.
When Pete said, “I’ll check into it,” Nathaniel asked, “That’s it? No, ‘I’ll get an injunction’ or some other legal-sounding answer?”
“I’ll give you a shout when I know more later today. I’d ask if you’d like to shoot some hoops later, but I have a brief to finish and will probably be here late.”
Nathaniel would have bowed out of it anyway. He’d given in after a string of requests last year and played basketball with some of the guys he did business with in town. Now they all assumed he’d want to do it again. He hadn’t had anyone close enough to be a friend since middle school and didn’t see that changing anytime soon. “Thanks. If anyone can help, I know you can.”
When he’d hung up, he put on one of Mozart’s flute concertos and felt the soothing music calm him. Good thing, because when he checked his e-mail, Nathaniel discovered a mess he had to sort out for a client. He loved his work. He truly did. It had a rhythm and a sense of order that suited him. He was good enough at what he did that the fires he had to extinguish were minimal.
With the mess sorted out, he spent more than an hour on Paris Expressions’ branding and marketing. So far, he’d taken them from being called “Today’s Fashions,” a women’s clothing store with a lackluster name and sales to match, to a business with respectable sales. He put his phone on speaker and punched in the store’s number. The owner answered on the second ring.
“Evelyn, I want to confirm our meeting today.”
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss a meeting with my marketing expert unless I were in the hospital. Even then I’d ask to move the meeting there.”
Nathaniel could picture the energetic, fiftysomething woman doing exactly that. He grinned. “My guess is that business is up.”
Evelyn sighed. “I was so close to losing this dream. Just giving us a new name and sign has made a huge difference.”
Jemma’s business dream popped into his mind, but he pushed it away. There was no way he’d get involved in her used furniture and assorted junk mishmash. He didn’t work for free anyway, and he doubted she could pay him.
“Evelyn, today we’ll talk about taking it to the next level.”
“Hurry.” She laughed. “I ordered some of your favorite cookies.”
“You do know the way to a man’s heart.”
“Shh. Don’t tell my husband.” She was still laughing when Nathaniel hung up.
He dialed his lawyer next.
Pete answered. “You are in a hurry. No matter. I’m happy to say I have your answer.”
“Please give me news I want to hear.”
“That I can’t do. It’s legal. Her business in the garage is totally legal.”
Pete hesitated, then said, “I could send her a letter. Nicely say that my client asks if she could operate her business in a quiet manner.”
“Thank you! That might help. She may even think a letter from a lawyer means she’s in the wrong.”
“You know”—Pete cleared his throat—“I’d be disbarred if I gave the wrong impression.”
“Sure. I know.”
“And it might be a couple of weeks.” Pete lowered his voice and added, “My secretary is new and hasn’t quite gotten the hang of things.”
“No problem.” Nathaniel started to end the call, then added, “Thank you.”
With business out of the way, and his noisy neighbor out of sight, but it never seemed out of hearing range—the sound of a saw slicing through something screeched into his office—he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes to mentally shift gears.
After a few minutes, he moved back in front of his computer and brought up his current volunteer project, the marketing plan he’d begun for an orphanage in Central America. They needed to reach out to donors. He enjoyed using his skills to make things like that happen. Helping with children’s charities gave him a break from his normal clients, and always brought a smile to his face.
After almost an hour spent on the project, Nathaniel had a concept he liked and e-mailed it to them for approval. He checked his in-box one last time, and after finding nothing he had to handle immediately, stood and stretched his arms overhead, thinking about the afternoon in front of him. When he finished his meeting at Paris Expressions in Anchorage, he’d head toward home, stop at the post office, and wrap up the day with a business dinner in Wasilla. At least he hoped it was just dinner with Alexis. She’d hinted at more, but he kept bringing it back to the graphic design work she did for him. He’d learned in the corporate world not to mix business and pleasure, and even if he’d wanted a long-term relationship—which he didn’t—Alexis’s bold sexiness didn’t say Take-me-home-to-meet-mom.
He leaned more toward girl-next-door types. But not the irritating neighbor he’d been saddled with. Rubbing a hand over his face, he sighed. If he was honest with himself, and he tried to be, he’d admit he didn’t want anyone to get that close.
A grinding noise pulled him over to the window. What else could happen today? An ancient, rusty van sat in the middle of the road, blocking his driveway. The grinding noise apparently came from its engine. Jemma Harris stepped out of the driver’s door with a more appealing outfit this time, a timeless pair of shorts and a T-shirt. She slid open the van’s side door and reached inside, and the two little girls he’d seen earlier stepped out.
When she started to walk away, he raced down the stairs and out the door. “Hey, you can’t leave this here!”
She turned around. “I’m not.” Her expression clearly told him she thought him a complete idiot. “I’m calling for a tow truck to take it into the shop.”
Looking upward for patience, he shook his head in frustration. He’d never make his meeting if he had to wait for that to happen. When she opened the gate and started up the steps to her house, he said. “If you’d like, I’ll check under the hood. I can do basic fixes.” Actually, he could probably replace the engine, but she didn’t need that much information.
Her face brightened, and he felt like he’d been smacked with a sunbeam. The lady’s smile packed a punch. “Please do!”
He reached inside the van’s open door and popped the hood. Then he checked out the vehicle’s engine. It didn’t take him long to determine what the problem might be. By the time he’d gone to his garage and returned with the tools he’d need, the two girls were sitting on one of Jemma’s concrete steps with drinks in their hands, and she was halfway back to the van. When she got closer, he noticed her T-shirt had a touristy Alaskan giant mosquito on the front.
* * *
Jemma leaned over the side of the engine while Nathaniel worked. His hands moved quickly and with purpose. While he seemed like he’d be more at home in a GQ modeling session, this guy knew his way around an engine. “I’m lost beyond putting in gas,” she said. “Where did you learn to do this?”
“My high school’s auto shop teacher took me under his wing, basically treating me like his own son. I spent more time with him than at home.”
Interesting. She wanted to ask why, but before she could, he changed subjects.
“Didn’t I see you with a red sedan a couple of days ago?”
“It’s still there, behind the garage. Even after driving it up the Alaska Highway, it’s in good shape.” She made sure she had the oil changed on schedule, every service recommendation met.
Nathaniel stared at her. “Why did you buy this thing, then?”
Rudeness seemed to be one of Nathaniel’s gifts. Standing tall, Jemma adopted her formal, I’m-in-charge voice, the one she’d perfected during years as a corporate executive assistant. “I needed something to haul furniture for my business. The man who sold it to me said it would be good for that.”
He rolled his eyes. “Ms. Harris, you were learning the alphabet the last time this rolling scrap metal was anything close to ‘good.’”
“Oh.” Jemma felt her lip tremble. This man knew which buttons to push.
Nathaniel blinked, and she thought he knew he’d gone too
far. He pointed at the driver’s seat. “Give the engine a try.” Jemma climbed in and turned the key.
When it started up, she got out, leaving the engine running and came back around to him. He’d saved her both money and time today. “Thank you very much! I’m grateful to your teacher.”
She was about to say more when he slammed the hood shut. “There you go. That will hold it—for now. But the clock is ticking on this rust bucket.”
She forced a smile even though he’d been a jerk to her. Again. But he was kind underneath, because he could have just helped push the van to the side of his driveway and been on his way. “Thank you very much for fixing my van.” To be neighborly, she added, “I’m taking the girls for ice cream, then dropping them at home. Can we get you a cup of ice cream to go?”
He shuffled his feet and wouldn’t look directly at her. Yep, he felt guilty. He cleared his throat. “No thanks. I’m going to enjoy the quiet.”
As he walked away, she muttered, “Mr. Grouch.” Just when you thought there was kindness in him, pow.
* * *
Nathaniel didn’t like hearing her words, but knew he deserved them. And what he’d said wasn’t really the truth. He needed to leave in two minutes to make his meeting, so he had about 120 seconds of quiet to enjoy.
His afternoon went well—until dinner.
As he drove home afterward, Nathaniel put on some Bach and slid into the music. Alexis’s ideas for the evening had extended beyond the offerings on the menu. He’d gotten out of there as cleanly and as quickly as he could. No one could do her job better, but he probably needed to move on and find someone else to work with. Personal relationships had never worked for him, and, he figured, they never would.
When he reached his driveway, he wondered about that awful van his neighbor had bought. Her outside lights showed it parked on the rise behind the garage, so she’d made it out and back. That surprised him, considering the condition of the engine.
As he recalled her muttered words as he walked away earlier in the day, he knew he didn’t have to worry about her wanting more than he was willing to give.
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