As far as I was concerned, Warren Allen Reyes was the most obnoxious, bull-headed, unreasonable, infuriating, intolerable man on the face of this entire green-and-blue Earth.
I mean, his initials spelled out WAR.
Maybe I should have known, taken it as a sign from some higher power, turned down the job to work with him renovating my brother-in-law's cousin's house.
Me, as the designer, of course.
Him, the contractor.
The world's most inflexible, uncooperative contractor.
And I'd worked with a lot of them over the years, so this was saying something since they all seemed to come with stubbornness encoded in their DNA.
We'd only been working together for two weeks, and we were at each other's throats at least once a day. Because, heaven forbid, I have a little input on the way he was doing something so it would fit the owners' taste preferences. Or inform him that he was deliberately doing the opposite of what we had agreed to do the day before. Or listen to him tell me that my plans to reclaim some old thrift store finds for the wall art in the kitchen would 'take away' from the architecture.
As if people were ever going to notice what drill bit he used to round out the edges of the crown molding under any circumstances anyway.
While they absolutely would make comments about the accent wall full of old metal artwork that I had painted in matte bronzes, golds, and wrought iron.
Don't even get me started on the floor.
Oh, good God, the floor.
But that was a pointed conversation to have with the owners. Preferably when Warren was not around.
Which was becoming more and more of a possibility.
Since I was pretty sure I was about to murder him.
Right there in the concrete-floored, wire-racked aisles of Home Depot.
Luckily, if I was going to murder someone, this was just the place for it. Lots of sharp or blunt or heavy objects to stab, flay, or knock him over the head with.
"I don't know why you are still looking at the dividers when we already agreed that we are not going to do glass-front cabinet doors."
"You decided," he countered, reaching up above his head to a shelf to drag down one of the dividers that we were most certainly not going to need.
"This is a joint effort, Warren," I reminded him. "We have to agree on these details."
I always tried that route first. Being reasonable. Calm.
It never lasted long, unfortunately.
Because Warren inevitably said something to make it impossible to keep my cool.
Like what followed.
"Why don't you stick to the wall art, curtains, and knick-knacks, and leave the real work to me."
I saw red.
Freaking clown nose red.
Every shade on the spectrum.
To be fair, I was somewhat easy to rile. Especially when someone demeaned my work, made it sound like all I did was shop for throw pillows and look at paint swatches. It was more than that. Way more.
Contractors created a house. A structure. The bones.
I created a home. The blood, the muscle, the fat, the skin, and hair.
I made it the place you wanted to unwind after work, kick up your feet, cook dinner, read a book, watch television, take long, relaxing baths, make love.
That was what I did.
It was not a small - or easy - task.
And it wasn't about just choosing things off a shelf that I thought would be appealing. It involved getting to know the clients, their likes and dislikes, reconciling the unavoidably different tastes you found in couples to make them a home they would both be happy in.
"Look," I snapped, lifting my chin a little. Not to be haughty, but because the man was a good foot taller than me, and if I didn't do so, I wouldn't be able to keep eye-contact. "We're not doing glass-front cabinets. Case closed."
"Fine, I'll entertain another rant of yours," he said, sighing out his breath as though I was the obnoxious one. "Why?"
"Because they are a family of five," I said, rolling my eyes, amazed I had to remind him of who the clients were.
"And people with a bunch of small children have a lot on their plates. They also have a lot of plates. Plastic ones. That don't match. Because they're for the small children who can't use China. And they're unsightly. So, why on Earth would they want to put them on display for everyone to see? Glass-front cabinets are for perfect people with perfect dinnerware sets that they are proud to show off. Our clients are not perfect people with perfect dinnerware. So they do not want to show it off. Therefore, we are not doing glass-fronted-freaking-cabinets."
"Asked a simple question, Brin. No need to get your panties in a bunch about it."
Oh, holy hell.
"Make another crack about my panties, Warren. I dare you," I hissed, hand curling around the handle of one of the poles you could use to reach things on a higher shelf.
I mean, I wasn't actually going to use it.
Well, I hoped I wouldn't anyway.
Getting an assault charge would probably put a crimp in my plans for my professional career. But, really, all they would have to do was put this man on the stand, and any jury would side with me. He needed a good, solid whack to the head.
"And you'll what? Bury me in throw pillows?"
Was there a shade of red deeper than the ones already mentioned? Because that was what I was seeing.
I swear, in that moment, I could not be held accountable for my actions.
"You two are fantastic," a voice broke in, seeming to sweep back my anger like a fog, making me turn to find we were not, in fact, alone as I had thought. Or else I maybe would have tried to keep my voice lower.
Standing there, I saw a woman maybe in her forties, clad in black slacks and a matching blazer, with a bright pop of yellow from her tank beneath giving the somewhat boring outfit a little personality. Her dark brown hair was gloriously streaked in shameless gray - a show of confidence that I hoped I would have when my hair would finally decide to revolt on me as well. And because she owned it, it didn't seem to age her, didn't take away from the mostly-unlined face and bright blue eyes.
"I'm sorry?" I asked after glancing around to make sure there was no one else in the aisle. You know, like two well-adjusted people who could, in any situation, be rightly called 'fantastic.'
But there was no one else.
She was speaking to us.
She thought we were fantastic?
Whatever she was on, she needed to dial back the dosage.
"Let me guess," she went on, putting one hand to her hip, the other tapping her chin. "You're the contractor," she guessed, pointing a pale pink manicured finger at Warren. "And you are the designer."
"Ah, yeah," I agreed when Warren stayed silent.
"This is great. I am eating this up. I bet others would too. What're your names?"
Again, Warren stayed silent, leaving me to handle the strange woman by myself. "I'm Brinley Spears. This is Warren."
"Do you have cards?"
"Oh, ah, well. I do," I agreed, going automatically for my purse, digging for the cute rose gold business card holder my mom had bought me when I had graduated design school. Along with a gift card for an online business card creator.
Warren, as far as I knew, did not have cards. Or social media. Or an even remotely functioning website. He'd probably call it 'old school.' I would be more inclined to call it what it was - unprofessional in this day and age.
I fished out one of my cards, cute and minimalistic, a design I found more people were attracted to after I had tried several different styles. "Here you go."
"Fantastic. You won't mind if I call you in a few days, right?"
"Of course not! I try to always answer unless I am on a job."
"Fantastic," she agreed. "Let me give you one of mine too," she said, finding her case much more efficiently, passing it to me in the slick manner you saw rich men hand off money to doormen or hotel employees. With that, she went to walk away, but turned back at the last possible second, looking both of us over once more, declaring again, "Just fantastic."
"That was weird as shit," Warren so elegantly declared when the click of her heels was far enough in the distance to do so.
Sure, I agreed with him. But, on principle, I didn't want to do that aloud.
"How can you not have business cards?" I asked instead as I tucked my case away.
"Get my work through word-of-mouth," he told me as he put the divider back on the shelf.
It was maybe a bit immature to think about business situations as a win or lose competition, but with Warren Reyes, it absolutely was.
And I had just had a small victory.
"Yes, but that is not the most efficient way to get business, y'know?" I asked, falling into step with him - which meant for every one he took, I needed to hustle to take two - as we moved out of the aisle, going instead toward the wood which was where we were supposed to be going anyway. I'd only tagged along because I needed wood for frames, and I needed to make sure he got what I wanted.
"Why do you care?" he shot back, not bothering to look my way.
Which was maybe a good thing.
His eyes unsettled me.
From the first time we were introduced.
It was odd since I had always been a sucker for light- colored eyes - blues and greens. And his were a deep, chocolate-colored brown. I found them mysterious, I guess. Maybe that had to do with the fact that he was just an enigma himself. Him and his short answers and refusal to ever share any personal details.
But on the rare occasion that he gave me full eye-contact, I felt a lot like a schoolgirl put on the spot by a teacher, unsure what to do or say, forgetting that in this case, we were actually on equal footing.
He had a good point, though. Why did I care? What did it matter to me if he didn't make the best of all opportunities for himself? Heck, it likely lessened the chance of me having to run into him again on a job.
I guess I just had a pet peeve about people who squandered their talents. And he was talented, as much as I hated to admit that even in my own head. He didn't cut corners. He didn't go for the easiest projects. If anything, he seemed to go out of his way to make sure that every tiny detail was paid attention to. He took genuine pride in his craftsmanship.
So why he wouldn't work to expand that, to get more of a clientele was beyond me.
I mean, I busted ass.
Day, night, weekends, holidays.
I took no days off. Even if I was between technical jobs, I was up-cycling things, doing DIY projects for myself or friends or family members, taking some amazing pictures, and uploading them to my site and social media, trying to stay relevant, trying to hashtag the hell out of everything on the off chance that someone was looking through the results, found my projects, and wanted to hire me.
Interior design wasn't the steadiest of jobs. If you didn't hustle, you could easily be spending your nights stocking shelves in a box store, barely making the ends meet, let alone paying off what was left of your student loan debts from school.
But, that being said, contractors - on average - made twice the salary of an interior designer. Even if they were a bit of a slacker.
So, I guess he just didn't need to put the effort in.
"I don't," I said, too late, too defensive, too everything.
"Yeah, okay," he said, this time looking down at me with that smirk of his that other women might call sexy. I mean, not me, of course. But other women.
Because, to be fair, Warren was a good-looking guy. From a purely aesthetic perspective, leaving out the personality.
He had all the markers for panty-melting. Six-five, soft-brown-haired, deep-brown-eyed with lashes that would make any woman envious, strong in the way that came from working with his body, not spending too many hours in the gym. He had one of those perfect noses that was somehow strong, yet not overpowering, a great jaw, and lips that could be called tempting when he smiled - or smoldered - your way.
So if you left off his atrocious personality, yeah, he was an attractive guy.
The smirk would have been effective had I never heard the man argue with me for an hour over countertops.
"So," he said a few minutes later, breaking the silence like he so rarely felt inclined to do, always making me feel like a babbling child for having a need to converse while working.
"So?" I asked, nodding when he pointed to the wood I had asked him to get, ignoring the eye-roll he gave me that implied I was ridiculous for not just letting him pick it up himself.
"So, are you going to work for the nutbag back there?"
"If she has a job and a paycheck, yes," I said simply.
"Don't fucking get you," he surprised me by saying. I didn't think he gave me enough of a thought to consider 'getting' me at all.
"How do you mean?" I asked as he loaded wood down onto a lumber cart. I would attempt to help, but that would open me up to comments about my inappropriate work attire. I'd heard it more than once about wearing shorts to the work site. Never mind that it was July and there was no air-conditioning hooked up yet. I was supposed to be wearing long sleeves and pants. To be fair, he and all his men did. How? I wasn't sure. I did make sure to keep a wide berth around them by the end of a workday. Let's just say that five burly men in long sleeves doing manual labor in July got ripe.
"Taking every job that comes your way," he said, easily lowering down an armful of pre-cut Brazilian walnut pieces that I knew - because I was around job sites enough to know - weighed a ton.
"I have bills to pay." A lot of bills to pay. Even having a roommate to split them wasn't easing up the burden much. DIY projects were not as cheap as one might think. Craft supplies added up. And since they were things I did to try to bring in business as opposed to projects I made for existing clients, that money came out of my pocket.
You have to spend money to make money.
I was starting to think that idiom was, well, idiotic.
"Maybe cut down on the manicures."
"For your information," I started, not sure why I felt the need to defend myself. Even if I did get manicures a few times a week like my ever-changing colors implied, I would have earned that small luxury. "I do my own nails. I really don't think cutting out a four-dollar bottle of nail polish is going to get me out of student loan debt."
To that, he said nothing.
Since he was quite clearly wrong.
But he was a guy, so he refused to admit it.
Just like he refused to admit that the floor in that kitchen was hideous.
Wooden pallet floor.
It hurt my brain even to think of it.
It didn't fit the rest of the plans for the house.
But he had taken it upon himself to do it when he knew I wouldn't be around for the day.
I mean, to be fair, it was a cool effect. For a farmhouse. For some boho loft in the city.
Not for a half-a-million-dollar house in a very nice suburb.
It was clear, though, that Warren had a soft spot for rustic. Which was fine. We all had our own personal preferences. But, again, this wasn't about us; this was about the clients.
"You gonna follow me back to the site to make sure I don't damage your precious wood?" he asked after we had the order rung up.
"While you haven't exactly proven yourself to be trustworthy thus far, I am going to head home. So I can get up bright and early to make sure you don't do anything else without consulting me first."
"Yo, Brin," he called when I moved to walk past him.
I turned back, taking a steadying breath, reminding myself that whatever he said, it was the last thing I'd have to hear from him that day. Which was a comfort of sorts, I guess.
God, how low my expectations for interactions with him had sunk.
"Don't wear the goddamned flip-flops to the site again."
Oh, the bastard.
The problem was, in this one case - just this one - he wasn't exactly wrong. I shouldn't have worn flip-flops. But I also wasn't supposed to be at the site. Except I had gotten a text from the landscaper who I had gotten close with, telling me about the floor situation. So I had rushed over from a day at the water park with my sister and her kids to confront him.
With my hot pink bathing suit peeking through my white tee, my hair a mess, and flip-flops on my feet.
It was somewhat his fault, if you thought about it. But I did know better. So it was my fault too.
With nothing else to do, I raised my chin, curled my fists, turned, and walked away.
By the next afternoon, I had completely forgotten about the woman in the aisle of Home Depot, and the card in my purse.
She hadn't, as it turned out, forgotten about me though.