Absence of Mallets by Kate Carlisle

Chapter One

Coffee. The aroma was calling my name and nudging me out of a deep, dreamless sleep. Still, I lingered under the covers for a moment, wishing I could stay for another hour and savor the quiet warmth. Through the fog, though, I managed to remember that my day was going to be insanely busy. I had to get up.

Besides, there was coffee.

And there was Mac.

That did it. I threw back the covers and stumbled to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face.

After brushing my teeth and taming my wild mop of red hair back into a single braid, I dabbed on some moisturizer and lip balm, then stared at my image in the mirror. For a few wonderful seconds, I reflected on how much my life had changed over the past eight months. That was how long it had been since Mac Sullivan and I had been living together. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to wipe that happy smile off my face.

I dressed quickly and rushed downstairs to the kitchen, where I was greeted with ecstatic barking from Robbie, my West Highland terrier, and an affectionate head bop from Tiger, my orange marmalade cat.

“Good morning, creatures,” I said, and bent down to give Robbie a brisk belly rub. Mac’s silky black cat, Luke, sauntered into the room just then, looking like a tiny panther on the prowl. “I didn’t forget you,” I murmured, and gave the newcomer a light scratch under the chin.

I stood up and there was Mac. He was leaning against the counter by the coffeemaker, holding a fresh cup of coffee and grinning at me.

He seemed pretty darned happy these days, too. Setting the cup down, he walked over and pulled me into his arms. “Good morning, beautiful.”

I wrapped my arms around him and held on, breathing him in. After a long moment, I leaned back to smile at him. “Good morning yourself. And bless you for making coffee.”

He reached for the cup and handed it to me. “You’re welcome, sleepyhead.”

I took a big, life-affirming gulp of strong coffee, then checked the clock on the stove. “It’s barely six o’clock. How long have you been up?”

“About two hours.” He grabbed his own cup and took a sip. “I woke up with this crazy idea for a turning point and needed to get it written down while it was still in my head.”

Mac, also known as MacKintyre Sullivan, was the author of a hugely successful thriller series starring the dangerous and hunky former Navy SEAL, Jake Slater. That was a description I could easily ascribe to Mac as well: dangerous, hunky, and a former Navy SEAL. He had recently started his twelfth book in the series, and this one featured an elaborate plot to kidnap the woman Jake had fallen in love with and ransom her for the American nuclear codes.

Together, we gathered up the makings for a quick breakfast—granola, yogurt, and berries—while he told me his crazy idea, which included a bombing and a car chase. I thought it was brilliant and exciting and not crazy at all. We each had another cup of coffee and then talked about our plans for the day.

“You’ve got your new writers’ group arriving today, right?”

He grinned. “Yeah.”

When Mac moved in with me all those months ago, he’d made the decision to turn his own home, the historic lighthouse mansion three miles up the coast, into a writers’ retreat. The venerable Victorian mansion had been lovingly restored by me and my crew. My name is Shannon Hammer, and I’m a contractor specializing in the Victorian style that our town was famous for. Mac’s mansion was a particularly beautiful example, comfortably furnished, with six bedrooms and an idyllic location right on the beach by the old lighthouse. It had a wide front porch with a stunning view of the ocean and was perfect for a quiet getaway for serious writers.

In anticipation of groups of curious writers visiting every week, Mac had asked me to start refurbishing the famous old lighthouse next door to his home. It had been decommissioned last year by the coast guard. Since Mac owned the property, he was told that he could do whatever he wanted to do with it, but he wasn’t about to paint it pink or something. Not after all he’d been through with the town’s planning commission and the historical society. No, he was determined to keep the lighthouse looking as gleaming white and as beautifully tall and dignified as it always had been.

But the fact was, the old structure needed some serious rehab work.

My foreman Wade and I had gone through every inch of the space with Mac and had made a lengthy list of the repairs and changes we would need to make before the lighthouse could be reopened safely.

I planned to bring the lantern and lens room back to its original rustic style, and rebuild and reinforce the main gallery—otherwise known as the catwalk—that circled the very top of the structure. Mac wanted to have the interior circular stairway walls painted. The stairs themselves had to be reinforced and retreaded. The concrete exterior was pitted in spots from years of salt air and moisture. It needed to be resurfaced and repainted. The old windows, many of which were cracked or broken and permanently fogged over, needed to be replaced.

We had yellow “Caution” tape draped across the main entrance to alert people to keep out. But because the lighthouse had always been an attractive nuisance—we had already caught a few of the local kids sneaking around—I had installed a simple audio-video alarm system that would alert my cell phone if anyone ignored the warning signs and ventured inside.

Meanwhile, Mac’s writers’ retreat plan had been an instant success. As soon as he started putting feelers out on social media, the reservation requests began to pour in. He had hired Frank and Irma, a local couple, to manage the retreat operation, including scheduling, cooking, and housekeeping. They lived on the property in the gorgeous attic suite in the mansion my crew had renovated for that purpose.

Needless to say, Mac and I had a lot going on. But we liked it that way.

I gazed at him. “Did you check out this latest group?”

“You bet I did,” he said decisively.

I smiled. Mac never asked our police chief to run the names of the people in his groups through the various law enforcement systems. No, these days it was easier to simply look up their names on social media, check out their websites, and google them. Social media tended to reveal a lot about a person. And Mac didn’t like to be surprised, especially when these people would be living unfettered in his home for a week or two, sometimes longer.

So far, the visiting writers had been completely respectful of Mac and his property. They had been friendly to our townspeople, and they spent their money in our shops and restaurants, which made the entire enterprise a win-win for everyone. Every single one of the writers had seemed interested in anything Mac suggested in terms of places to eat or things to do around town.

It made sense that they would hang on Mac’s every word. After all, he was a bestselling novelist whose books had been turned into blockbuster films. He was often a guest speaker at conferences, where he would teach workshops or give seminars on writing. So it figured that any visiting writer would be smart to follow his recommendations. Besides that, Mac was simply a good guy. He was smart and funny and generally made himself available to the groups for writing advice on any subject they could come up with.

As I loaded dishes into the dishwasher, I turned to study his expression. “You don’t have to hang here with me. I can tell you’re itching to get back to the book.”

He grinned. “Am I that transparent?”

I had to laugh. “You’re the most nontransparent person I’ve ever met. But I know you.”

“Yeah, guess you do,” he murmured.

The first time I’d ever seen Mac deep in the writing zone, I had decided to put together a lovely basket of snacks and goodies and brought it over to him while he was working. It was a shock I wasn’t prepared for. His hair was sticking up in every direction. His beard had grown out. His clothes were so wrinkled, I was pretty sure he had slept in them, and he stared at me as though he’d never seen another human being before. Then suddenly, he grinned wildly, grabbed the basket, and closed the door in my face.

So that was Mac on a deadline. We could laugh about it now, but I wouldn’t make the mistake of climbing into that cage again.

He gathered up our pets’ water bowls and took them to the sink to clean and refill them. Robbie scurried over to check things out, and Mac leaned down and gave him an affectionate scratch behind his ears.

When he was done with the task, he said, “Guess I’d better get back to blowing up stuff so I can be ready when the group arrives.”

I wiped off the counter. “What time do they get here?”

“They should be here by two o’clock. They left early to drive up here from San Francisco.”

“How many are coming?”

“There’s six in this group. They’re here for two weeks.”

I raised my eyebrows. It was unusual for a group that size to stay for two weeks since most people, including writers, had day jobs.

Mac noticed my reaction. “Yeah, kind of different, right? But maybe they’re all independently wealthy.”

“Nice for them.”

He chuckled. “Anyway, I’m going to show them around town and then bring them over to Homefront this afternoon. That way, they’ll be able to navigate their way back to the writing workshop tonight.”

“Then I’ll see you there.” I leaned in close and gave him a kiss. “Can’t wait.”

He touched my cheek and kissed me back. “Likewise.”


*   *   *

I drove into the parking lot of Homefront and found an empty space in front of the community center. Looking around, I had to marvel at how all of this had come together in such a short time.

It had been a dream of Mac’s for as long as I’d known him, and probably years before that, too. He had heard about veterans’ villages in his travels and when he got together with old friends. Every time he went on a book tour, he would take time to visit a local veterans’ group.

Mac brought the best ideas home to Lighthouse Cove, and finally last year, he and a few of his local Navy SEAL buddies purchased five acres of land on the outskirts of town. This marked the beginning of the veterans’ project they had been planning for years. When our police chief and former marine, Eric Jensen, got wind of Mac’s plans, he asked to join the team.

It was always a good thing to have the chief of police on your team.

The plan was to create a village of fifty tiny homes for the benefit of veterans in the area who needed housing and other kinds of help. Mac and his pals had teamed up with a national veterans’ group who would guide them through the process and help them manage the property and the numerous services to be provided. The national group also advised our guys on legalities such as zoning issues and security.

I was thrilled when my construction company won the bid to build the tiny homes for local veterans in need. It didn’t hurt that I already had several veterans on my crew, and we had years of experience building custom tiny homes. However, we had never built more than one home at a time—until now.

After numerous meetings with the town council and the planning commission, we had brought in various experts for advice on utility placement, land grading, and water management. Once sewer lines were dug and utilities were run, we began construction on a contemporary-style, three-thousand-square-foot community center that promised to become the heart of the development. It would provide a gathering place and would house an industrial kitchen, a dining room, and a gymnasium, along with offices and meeting rooms for all the various services they planned to offer: a visiting nurse and a dentist, a legal aid advisor, a veterans’ benefits expert, mental health professionals, a vocational counselor, even a unisex barber shop. These services would also be made available to any veteran in the area, not just the residents of Homefront.

Then we started building the homes themselves. It was going to be amazing. I was so proud of Mac.

Glancing around at the brand-new blacktop parking lot in front of the center, the sidewalks, the landscaping, and the twenty-five homes that had already been completed and were now occupied, I had to admit that I was also proud of myself and my team.

I might’ve mentioned it before, but Mac and I seemed to thrive on keeping busy. He had set in motion the veterans’ village project long before he ever decided to invest in the Gables development. But then, when he found out last year that I had signed on to turn one wing of the old insane asylum—now known as the Gables—into a small, elegant hotel for my friend Jane, Mac had decided to make that investment, too.

Both the Gables job and this veterans’ project were long-term commitments that would keep us busy for the next year or so. I couldn’t complain. Not when it would keep my crew employed and happy.

I climbed out of the truck and locked the door. After pulling my tool chest out of the truck bed, I walked toward our work site.

The rapid-fire blast of a nail gun suddenly ripped through the air. Despite the constant mini explosive bursts, I had to smile. This was the sound of stuff getting built, and in my world, nothing was better than that. I moved along the sidewalk, past a dozen tiny homes that were already built. Each was unique in design and embellishments and paint color.

Rounding a corner, I spotted a ladder leaning against the frame of house number thirty-one. I climbed twelve feet up to the roof to watch Sean Brogan, my head carpenter, nailing thick layers of plywood sheathing to the rafters of the tiny house.

He finished a row and stopped nailing. The abrupt silence was almost shocking.

“Hey, boss,” he said when he noticed me.

“Didn’t want to interrupt,” I said. “Just wanted to see how it’s going.”

“It’s going great. This is the second roof of the day.”

“No kidding? What time did you start?”

“I got here about six thirty.”

I smiled. “I’m impressed.”

He glanced around the property, then shrugged. “I get a good feeling working here.”

“I know what you mean. I’ll let you get back to it.” I climbed down the ladder, and the nail gun blasts started up before I reached the ground.

“Hey, Shannon.”

I turned and saw Johnny Schmidt walking toward me, hauling a thick roll of waterproof black underlayment.

Both Sean and Johnny had been on my crew since I’d first taken over the company from my father about seven years ago. That was when Dad had a mild heart attack and decided to step back. Of course, he couldn’t quit altogether, and I expected to see him show up here one of these days.

“Hi, Johnny. You need help with that?”

“Nah. I’m good.” He leaned the thick roll against the heavy, exposed plywood wall. “These homes are so small, it doesn’t take much of this stuff to cover the roofs.”

“Good point.”

Once Sean and his nail gun were finished, Johnny would take over, carefully rolling out the water-resistant underlayment and using a staple gun to affix it to the plywood layer that Sean had just laid down. Once those two layers were completed, Billy, the third man on the roofing team, would climb up and complete the job by nailing composite shingles to the underlayment. The job also entailed installing flashing along the edges of the roof and around the kitchen and bathroom vents. “Flashing” was a thin metal strip that was necessary to redirect water and prevent leaks from occurring.

Early on, faced with the prospect of completing fifty tiny homes over a six-month period, I’d had to sit down and figure out a way to streamline the system. Together with my two foremen, Wade Chambers and Carla Harrison, we had devised an assembly line of sorts and settled on a plan to work on five houses at a time. One newly paved road—dubbed the Parkway—ran from the community center to the end of the property. Five short lanes branched off of the Parkway in opposite directions and five houses would be built on each lane. Eventually we’d have fifty homes.

Our assembly line started with a team of four working to lay down each concrete slab foundation. Wade supervised because he was a genius when it came to pouring the perfect slab.

Once five slabs were poured, another team moved in to begin framing the houses and adding the rafters. A team of three worked on the roofs. At the same time, our electrical and plumbing teams began running pipe and wiring through the frame and into the different parts of the house.

I had another team working on the interiors, first insulating the walls and hanging drywall, laying down subflooring, tiling the main rooms, bathrooms and kitchens, installing sinks and appliances, and painting. Another group was taking care of business on the exteriors, first applying the oriented strand board, or OSB, to the frame. OSB was like plywood, only stronger and cheaper, and it contained resins and wax that made it water-resistant. The outside team also installed the siding and finally the paint. And still another team of three handled the windows, doors, and vents for heating and air-conditioning.

While those five houses were being completed, the slab foundation team would start on five more. And so on. Occasionally, a team would switch a member or an assignment in order to keep from getting bored—or worse, developing a repetitive strain injury.

So far, I was thrilled that things were running like a well-oiled machine. So far.

The nail gun went abruptly silent. I looked up and saw Sean pulling off his safety glasses. He grinned down at me and Johnny. “Is this the best job in the world or what?”

“The best, for sure,” I said with a laugh, feeling lucky to have crew members who loved the work as much as I did. It helped that they also appreciated the importance of this massive project. “And you rock that nail gun.”

He smiled coyly. “I do, don’t I?”

I laughed again.

Setting down the nail gun, Sean descended down the ladder.

Billy arrived in his pickup truck and parked on the new sidewalk in front of the house where we were working. He jumped out and slammed the door shut. “Morning, guys.”

Sean joined Billy, and together, they hoisted an extension ladder from the back of his truck. This particular ladder had an electrical lift attachment that would carry heavy bags of shingles up to the roof.

For most jobs, we used a conveyor belt to move shingles from a larger truck straight onto a roof, but these houses were compact enough that the electric ladder lift was easier to manipulate in and around the village.

I glanced up and saw that Johnny was standing on the roof now. He had rolled out one panel of the waterproof underlayment and begun to attach the material to the OSB with his staple gun.

“The man’s a machine,” Sean said, following my gaze.

All of them were amazing, I thought, then said, “Let’s get going on the next roof.”

“For sure, boss,” Billy said, and the two of them walked ahead of me to the next house in line.

“Hey, girl.”

I whipped around and saw my friend Julia Barton walking toward me with another woman.

“Hi, Julia.” I smiled at the older woman.

“I don’t know if you remember Linda Rutledge,” Julia said. “She was in my class in high school.”

“I don’t think we’ve met,” I said, smiling as we shook hands. “But you look familiar.”

Linda grinned. “I remember you, Shannon. You were always so friendly and helpful.”

I was pleasantly taken aback. I’d been on the hospitality committee back in high school and figured I should be warm and welcoming to everybody. It was nice to know that some people noticed. “Thanks.”

“We were seniors when you were a freshman,” Julia said with a grin aimed at me. “So you’re forgiven if you don’t remember us.”

Linda patted Julia on the shoulder. “It’s been a long time since high school. And yet, you still look fabulous.”

“You can see why I’m friends with her,” Julia said.

At first glance, the two women couldn’t have been more different. Linda was lovely, tall and blond with a classic peaches-and-cream complexion and big blue eyes. She wore a loosely woven fuchsia sweater over a long skirt in a rainbow tie-dyed pattern with pretty sandals. When I looked at her, the first word that came to mind was serene. She came across as someone who would listen and care very much about your life and struggles.

Julia was short and curvy, with curly dark hair and a dynamic personality. Today she was in total boss mode, wearing a sharp-looking black pinstriped pantsuit with a crisp white shirt and three-inch heels. Despite the business attire, she always came across as the life of the party. She was cute, perky, and fun.

“The funny thing is,” Julia continued. “We barely even spoke to each other in high school. It wasn’t until we met up in the army that we got to be good friends.”

“In the military, you find out quickly who you can count on,” Linda explained. “I could always count on Julia.”

Julia leaned her head on Linda’s shoulder. “Back at you, sweetie.” She straightened, and with tongue in cheek, she added, “Although I have to admit, it was lowering to realize that every guy I ever liked always developed a crush on Linda.”

“That’s not true,” Linda insisted. “They all fell for you because you were so much fun.”

They smiled at each other and I could tell that their teasing was done with love.

“Anyway, Shannon,” Julia said, “I wanted to introduce you two because Linda would like to take your class.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s great.”

The class she was referring to was a construction skills class that I had volunteered to teach as part of the Homefront occupational program. Their mission was to provide courses for the residents and other local vets in the hope that the knowledge and skills they gained might lead to jobs and income. So far, the courses included cooking, writing, auto mechanics, retail skills, and construction basics. They would be adding others as time went on.

Julia ran a nonprofit organization that was partly underwriting the construction class. Her aim was to inspire more women to train for careers in construction. Her father had been a carpenter who had occasionally worked with my dad. And Julia had been trained in carpentry by her father, who always believed that women were as talented as men when it came to working with wood. Supporting this class was one way for Julia to pay it forward.

I turned to Linda. “Have you done any construction work before?”

“Not exactly,” Linda admitted. “I’m a mosaic artist, so I do a lot of work with tiles and glass. I’m hoping to be able to use my artwork in a more constructive way.”

“You should see her work,” Julia said. “She’s an artistic genius.”

Linda beamed. “And now you see why I’m friends with her.”

“I do,” I said, smiling at them both. “I’m happy to add you to the class, and I’d love to see some of your work sometime.”

“The first class is tomorrow night, right, Shannon?” Julia said.

“That’s right. Seven o’clock in the meeting room. We’ll start with a conversation about tools and rules and go from there.”

“Tools and rules.” Julia grinned. “I like it.”

“I’ll be there,” Linda said enthusiastically. “And I can bring some of my work with me, if you have any time to look at it.”

I brightened. “That would be great.”

“Okay, this is working out,” Julia said, clapping her hands together. “I promised Linda a tour of the center now, so we’ll see you later, Shannon.”

“Sounds good.”

“Nice to meet you, Shannon,” Linda said, and waved goodbye.

I watched them stroll down the new sidewalk toward the center. Then I jogged over to the next house on the schedule to see how my crew was doing.


*   *   *

A few hours later, I was up on the roof of house number thirty-two, rolling out a sheet of heavy black underlayment and quickly tacking it down with my pneumatic staple gun. I had offered to take on the job because, why should my guys have all the fun?

It was the stapler that made me want to do the work. I could take out all my deep-seated aggressions with a simple click of my finger. Not that I had all that many deep-seated aggressions, but whenever I did, I grabbed that staple gun and went to work.

I supposed a nail gun was good for that, too, but a nail gun was way too serious. And much heavier. You didn’t want to get caught daydreaming while using a nail gun—not that I ever daydreamed on the job! But seriously, you could kill someone with a nail gun. Plus, it was a lot louder. But a stapler was . . . friendlier. Don’t get me wrong; it was a serious tool and it could definitely leave a mark. But it probably wouldn’t kill you.

In between staple shots, I heard someone shout, “Hey, Irish.”

I looked up, then gazed down at Mac and smiled. “Hi, Mac.” He had called me “Irish” from the first day we met. It had something to do with all this red hair of mine.

He was surrounded by six people I’d never seen before. They had to be the new writers’ retreat group. There were four men and two women, and they looked up at me with polite interest.

“Everyone,” Mac said, glancing around the group. “This is Shannon Hammer, the contractor in charge of the Homefront construction.”

“You’re a contractor?” a tall, well-dressed guy asked, sounding incredulous.

“Yeah.”

I still got that reaction a lot, which was another reason why I had gladly signed on to teach the construction class. We could use more women in this business.

“Shannon,” Mac continued, “these are the members of the writing group that just moved into the lighthouse mansion.”

I waved. “Hi, everyone. Welcome to Lighthouse Cove.”

“Thanks,” a few of them murmured.

“It looks like a cool little town,” one of the women said.

I smiled. “We like it.”

“How’s your day going?” Mac asked.

I took a quick look at my wristwatch. It was one-thirty. “Pretty well. I have to finish the underlayment on this roof and start another. I should be done around four-thirty.”

“Good. I’m going to show these guys around the plaza and then head on home to do some work,” Mac explained. “They’ll check out the shops and the pub and then come back here to sit in on my writing workshop.”

“That should be interesting,” I said.

“Are you kidding?” one of the guys said. “It’ll be awesome.” He gazed at Mac with such reverence that I had to smile. It wasn’t every day that young writers like these could hang out with someone as famous and talented as MacKintyre Sullivan.

“Okay,” Mac said to the group. “I’ll walk you guys over to the parking lot and give you directions back to the town square. It’s just a few blocks away and the pub is right on Main Street.”

“That’s really nice of you,” one guy said. “Thanks, Mac.” He seemed to be the most outgoing of the group, as well as being the tallest and the best looking, with wavy blond hair like the classic surfers wore. He was dressed conservatively in a blue-and-white-striped shirt with a button-down collar and—wait. Were those pressed blue jeans he wore? Yes, they were.

I was being judgmental and silently smacked myself. It came from hanging out with construction workers my whole life, guys who would no more iron their jeans than dance the Lambada on top of the bar at the local pub.

“We’ll try not to get lost,” the dark-haired woman said with a smile.

“You won’t. Let’s go.” Mac glanced back at me and winked. “Be back in a while.”

“I’ll be here.”

I watched the group walk away, but then the tall blond guy turned back around. He held up his cell phone, aimed it at me, and clicked it. Then he grinned.

What the—? He was taking a picture of me? That was just weird. But then he wiggled his eyebrows and winked at me.

One of the other guys turned and saw what was going on. This guy was pale and thin with rounded shoulders and dark eyes. “Lewis,” he said as he strode back and grabbed the taller fellow’s arm. “Time to go.”

Lewis looked ready to argue, but his shorter friend simply narrowed his eyes. It took a few seconds, but then Lewis grinned at me. “See you around.”

The two of them turned and walked quickly to catch up with Mac and the others.

I was honestly flummoxed. Had the blond guy been flirting with me? Or was he mocking Mac? Whatever he was doing, he was a fool to be doing it to MacKintyre Sullivan’s girlfriend. The very same girlfriend who was currently gripping a powerful pneumatic staple gun in her hand. I could hurt him with that.

And what about his friend, the guy who had pulled him away? I assumed they were friends, but it was almost as if he had some kind of control over Lewis. That moment of confrontation between them left me wondering.

And what was with the picture taking? It was sort of like an invasion of privacy. But maybe I was being overly sensitive. Either way, I wasn’t happy with the idea that some stranger staying in Mac’s home would act like a jerk behind Mac’s back.

I sighed. I was probably overreacting. And to be honest, Mac would probably laugh it off if I told him about it. So I mentally shoved the pressed-blue-jeans bleached-blond clown out of my head, picked up my staple gun, and got back to work.