Francie Tate listened to the guy talking at her from a few feet away. And that was an accurate description. Talking at her, instead of talking to her. Specifically, he was having a conversation with her boobs.
Aware that her cleavage swelled over the neck of her white tank top, she crossed her arms over her chest and took a step back.
“You’re just gonna have to take this here wall down if you want more room,” the guy was saying. He’d taken his cap off and was using it to fan himself. Sweat beaded along his minimal hairline, and his face was ruddy as a vine-ripened tomato. His gaze flickered to her chest and back up again.
Francie forced a smile, because that’s what she did. She smiled whether she wanted to or not because she was bubbly and sweet. Everyone said so. She could almost hear her mom repeating it in her ear, while leaning down to fluff her hot roller curls. Now, smile, Francie! Show ’em what a nice girl you are!
“I see,” she said, looking back at the wall. The room was cramped, that was true. She was no contractor, but she didn’t see how she would achieve more space without knocking it down, either. However, she wasn’t made of money. She loved this little house. She was so proud of the fact that she’d bought it on her own, no help from her parents, and on a teacher’s salary, too. That was no easy feat. But it needed work.
Anxiety curled in her lower belly, and she pushed the thought away that maybe she’d bitten off more than she could chew.
She extended her hand. “I’ll have to think about it, Bill. Thank you.”
He shook it, stepping into her personal space. He was the fourth guy she’d called to come out and take a look at the living room, and she vowed he’d be the last. She didn’t like how his eyes, small and set too closely together, kept taking her in like she was a slab of meat.
By now she was used to workers coming in and trying to intimidate her. They never took her seriously. To them she was the clichéd petite blonde. And she went right along with it, because she didn’t know how to be anyone else. Even though it made her sick to her stomach. Even though what she really wanted to do was plant her foot right between their legs.
“I don’t have to rush off,” he said, still grasping her hand. “We haven’t talked price yet.”
“No, we haven’t. But I have a few other people coming over. I’ll have to call you.”
“Don’t call me, I’ll call you?”
She felt sweat prickle between her breasts. June in Marietta wasn’t the most comfortable without a working window unit, which she didn’t have. Plus, the guy had passed inappropriate a few seconds ago and was now working his way into unsettling, with a hefty side of weird. Where in the world had she gotten his name? From anyone reputable? She made a mental note to remember and kill them later.
There was a sharp knock on the screen door, and Francie felt a rush of relief all the way to her toes.
Bill what’s-his-face finally let go and put his cap back on as if he’d been about to do it all along. She wiped her hand on her cutoffs and narrowed her eyes at him.
“One hundred and eight Bramble Lane? Hope I’m not too early.”
Francie turned at the sound of the low, male voice. She didn’t care who it was. Didn’t care if it was the IRS coming to audit her for eternity. She wanted to kiss his feet.
Standing outside the screen door was a tall, broad-shouldered man. Worn, dirty jeans, white T-shirt that was dirty, too. His baseball cap rode low over his eyes, and he leaned against the doorjamb with the casual confidence that only a man who was incredibly tall could pull off without looking too cocky. His dark hair was shaggy and stuck out from underneath the cap, brushing the nape of his neck. Her first thought was hot. Holy crap, this guy is hot. Her second was that he looked familiar.
He was looking right past her, though, and directly at the contractor who jingled his keys in his hand.
“I was just leaving,” Bill said, avoiding the other man’s gaze. “Let me know if you want a quote, and I’ll come back.”
“No, thanks,” she bit out. Which wasn’t like her. Wasn’t like her at all. But there was something about the guy on her front porch, and the fact that she wasn’t alone anymore that gave her the confidence to be a little bitchy. The words felt liberating on her tongue. She pushed her shoulders back and stepped aside so Bill what’s-his-face could pass in a fragrant cloud of sweat and tobacco.
He gave her a funny look, as though he didn’t know what in the world he’d done, and brushed out the door without another word.
Francie looked at the guy on her porch again and smiled. The landscape designer. Of course. That’d explain the dirty jeans. The deliciously dirty T-shirt that was a loose fit, but it did absolutely nothing to hide the defined chest underneath.
And there it was again—the sense that she knew him from somewhere, but she couldn’t figure out where. First of all, nobody she knew was that tall. She’d remember the height alone. It kind of commanded attention. But the way he held himself, that slight tilt to his shoulders, nagged at her subconscious.
She walked over to the screen door, her bare feet padding on the hardwood floor. “Quaking Aspen Landscape?” She remembered the name because it was so pretty. Aspens were her favorite.
The guy nodded, pushing off the doorjamb and putting his hands in his jean pockets. “Sorry. Hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”
“With that guy?” She laughed. “Yeah, my murder maybe. Come on in.”
She unlatched the door and pushed it open. The late afternoon sunlight slanted warm and golden into her little bungalow, making it hard to see his face.
Shielding her eyes, she breathed deeply the musky scent of man and earth as he passed. Maybe a little soap from earlier in the day. It was more heady than she would’ve liked. Definitely more heady than she felt comfortable with. She’d sworn off men for a while. She wasn’t supposed to be noticing things like tanned forearms and jeans that rode low on narrow hips. Honestly, though, she’d just sworn off assholes. She couldn’t remember anything about swearing off super-attractive landscapers who showed up at precisely the right moment, wearing precisely the right clothing to make her ovaries sit up and take notice.
He walked in, the floor creaking under his weight. With his back still turned, she wondered again where she knew him. She hadn’t been back in Marietta long enough to have crossed paths with anyone new. She must recognize him from before. Francie wasn’t an egomaniac, but she had been a self-absorbed teenager with a doting fan base. As an adult, she was used to people in town knowing her, but not being able to place them right away. And that always led to awkward moments like these that made her feel like a complete jerk.
She hooked her thumbs in her back pockets as he took his hat off and turned around. The absence of it left a sexy, athlete-style ring around his hair that she immediately pictured running her hands through.
He was tan. Really tan. There were white crinkles radiating from the corners of his brown eyes, a dark shadow of a beard along his jaw. She was positive now. She definitely knew this guy…
“I was wondering if that was you,” he said. He didn’t look at her when he said it. He held his hat in both hands, pinching the rim between his thumb and fingers. His gaze, that gaze, was averted. The one she recognized as being so shy that it had broken her heart once. In high school?
She felt her mouth go slack. She couldn’t help it. The memories came rushing back then, in a torrent so powerful, they nearly knocked her over with their vividness.
“Tanner?” she managed. “Tanner Harlow?” But it couldn’t be Tanner. Tanner was still a boy. Skinny, with a terrible stutter that made it almost impossible for him to talk at all. He was the kid who’d tugged on her heartstrings in first period English. The kid that her asshat boyfriend, Guy Davis, had picked on relentlessly, no matter how often Francie tried to intervene.
He looked at her then, just as he had all those years ago. Those deep brown eyes. How could she have forgotten them?
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s me.”
She didn’t know what to say. How long since she’d seen him last? Eight years, maybe? Nine? And he looked so different. She’d heard of boys having their growth spurts late, but she’d never really seen the result of one until now.
And the stutter was gone. That awful stutter that had tormented him and broken her heart. Tanner Harlow was all grown up and standing here in her living room. And she’d just been staring at his butt, for God’s sake.
Cheeks burning, she stepped forward to hug him. “I can’t believe it.”
He bent and hugged her back, his arm encircling her waist. His body felt just as hard as it looked, and for the first time in a long time, Francie found herself flustered. She didn’t usually get flustered. When other people laughed nervously, Francie flipped her hair and smiled. When other people struggled for the right words, Francie had a basketful of them, and then some. It was her schtick.
Stepping back, she beamed up at him. Sweat now crawled at her temples. She fanned herself with her hand and shook her head.
“You look great,” she said. “I didn’t recognize you. You’re so different than…” Shit, shit, shit.
His eyes cooled a little.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wanting to bite her tongue in half. “I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay. No more stutter, right?”
Her pulse quickened. “No. But you’ve grown up, too.”
“So have you.”
She touched her hair, pulled back into a messy bun. All of a sudden, she realized how she must look. Murphy’s Law. Put lip gloss on, and you saw nobody. Go without a shower for two days, and bump into your entire graduating class.
He put his hands in his pockets, his expression unreadable. His jaw muscles were working, though. Clenching and unclenching underneath that stubble.
“It’s been a while, Francie,” he said. “You’ve been away from Marietta for…how long now?”
“Since high school. I came back this spring. My dad isn’t doing well, so I wanted to be close.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s working out, I missed home. And I’ll be teaching third grade in the fall.”
He smiled, two long dimples cutting into his cheeks. “You were always good with kids.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “But I do love them. What about you? A landscape designer? I’m impressed.”
He shrugged, glancing out the window. “I’m lucky. Get to be outside. Get to work with my hands.”
Before she could help it, she wondered what else he could do with his hands.
“Do you ever see anyone from high school?” she asked, clearing her throat. Then realized it was a dumb question. She couldn’t think of anyone from school Tanner would want to see.
“Not a ton. Allison Sanders is still around. Billy Reeves, that group…I see Guy sometimes.”
At the sound of the name, she stiffened. There was something in his expression that suggested he might be poking her a little. Seeing what her reaction would be. Guy had been an absolute jackass as a teenager. He was still a jackass, but he had money, and money tended to make people accept the jackiest of asses. She’d seen him around, too. He kept trying to make a coffee date to “catch up,” and she kept coming up with lame excuses. Why didn’t she just tell him to take a long walk off a short pier?
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I’ve seen him a few times, too. We’re all getting so old.”
There was the coolness again. The way his eyes hardened just a fraction. She’d brushed the subject of Guy off as tidily as she could manage, just like she always had. And now there was a sizable elephant in the room.
But that was Francie. Polyanna Francie, her brother used to call her, right before rolling his eyes. She guessed if she admitted what a jerk Guy had been, she’d have to admit to dating him, too. Admit to being his girlfriend during all the awful things he’d done. Albeit while her back was turned, but still. She’d finally broken up with him, but it hadn’t been soon enough. And Tanner had grown some balls long before she ever had.
As she remembered that, remembered how surprised everyone had been the day Tanner Harlow snapped, her stomach squeezed.
She clasped her hands together and rocked forward on her bare feet. The cottage had grown quiet, with nothing but the sound of the fan whirring from the bedroom down the hall. She’d been working on the trim in there, and the sharp, tangy smell of paint tickled her nose.
“Should I show you the yard?” she asked, her voice an octave too high. He made her nervous. It wasn’t just his looks, which would’ve made any woman nervous. She felt she owed him something. An apology? An explanation? Neither seemed to fit. Maybe it was just plain guilt. She’d made mistakes as a kid. Hadn’t been the perfect girl everyone thought she was. Thinking about it now, she clenched her teeth.
“Sure,” he said. “Lead the way.”
Turning her back to him wasn’t easy. She’d kept herself up okay. Okay, not great. She went to the gym sometimes, but honestly, she’d rather be eating Oreos. She walked the country roads of Marietta in the spring and summer with her earbuds in, but skipped the walking altogether when the snow came. Which usually came early. And stayed late. And that just about summed up the current state of her derriere, which had been tight as a drum at seventeen. At twenty-six? Not as tight. Not as shapely, either.
She headed to the screen door wondering if he was looking at it, or her bare legs that were smeared with paint. She could’ve at least shaved them. At least that.
He reached around her and pushed the door open before she could touch it. She turned and smiled, appreciating the bulge of his biceps, and how his dark, olive skin contrasted with the white T-shirt. He’d really grown into a breathtakingly sexy man. And with a quiet, brooding demeanor to match. Dear Lord.
“Here we are,” she said, stepping out onto the deck. The paint out here was peeling, unashamed of its current plight. In fact, it seemed joyful, and completely determined to fall off by summer’s end. The pink roses lining the front yard were beautiful though. As was the heavy, twisting wisteria that was in desperate need of a trellis to hold it properly over the deck. The yard was wild and perfumed with flowers, most of which she didn’t know the names. She needed someone to tame it. To define it a little, but keep its original secret garden charm. She had no idea how to do it, since she killed houseplants on the regular.
She looked over at his truck parked in the shade; a big, white Toyota Tundra with the Quaking Aspen logo on the side. The windows were down, and a tween girl with glasses was hanging her long, thin arms out over the passenger door. A sleek black dog with funny eyebrows leaned out the back window. They both looked bored.
“Oh!” Francie said. “I didn’t realize you weren’t alone.”
Tanner nodded toward the truck. “That’s my little sister, Maddie.”
At the mention of her name, the girl smiled, showing a gap between two front teeth that stuck out a little. Her dark blond hair fell in a mop toward one eye, accentuating the awkwardness. Francie’s heart squeezed. She loved kids this age. They were all knobby knees and pointy elbows.
She wiggled her fingers at her, and Maddie waved back.
“Would she like to come in for some lemonade?”
“We don’t want to trouble you,” Tanner said, his voice taking on a definite tone. All business.
“It’s no trouble.”
Frowning, he glanced at the truck and back again. “Let’s see about your yard, okay?”
Maddie, seeming to have read something in his expression, retreated inside the cab and put her head back against the rest. After a second, she pushed her glasses up to rub her eyes.
Was she crying? Francie glanced at Tanner, who was now kneeling to inspect a sprinkler head, his T-shirt stretching over a well-defined back. He obviously didn’t want to address the little girl in the truck, at least not with Francie. She guessed there were plenty of reasons he could be taking his little sister around on jobs with him, but none of them made a whole lot of sense to her teacher brain at the moment. Instinctively, she wanted to butt in. Insist that Maddie come inside for a glass of lemonade, maybe watch some TV for a few minutes. But also instinctively, she kept her mouth shut. Probably wise. Tanner didn’t seem to be in any mood to deal with interference.
With one more look at the little girl and the dog, who now had its head on her shoulder, Francie turned to Tanner and tried to focus more on the sprinkler head and less on broad, muscular shoulders.
“Okay,” she said. “What’s this gonna run me?”
End of Excerpt