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“Who needs a man? I can do this just fine. Just a little more this way maybe—and…” The shriek came next as the stepladder wobbled. There was a creaking sound, and the stepladder went backward while Laurie Wilkes went forward, her hands grabbing handfuls of empty air as she tried to stop her freefall. The ivy planter she was in the process of trying to balance on the shelf above her head was launched sideways from its precarious perch.
Trey Tremayne moved quickly from his stance in the doorway of the general store. His arms shot out on reflex to break the woman’s fall, but his foot encountered the moisture from the overturned ivy at the same time. He did manage to grab the woman around the waist just before he ended up on his backside, his body effectively breaking her fall on the hard wooden flooring. The air went out of his lungs and stars shot across eyelids squeezed shut as sudden shafts of pain shot throughout his body, particularly where his head met the immovable floor. The old ticking clock on the wall counted the beats of silence that followed all the commotion.
“Oh no! I’m so very…” Laurie began her apology once the shock had worn off enough, trying not to inflict more damage than she already had on the prone male beneath her. She planted her palms on either side of the man’s head, attempting to leverage herself up a bit. Eyes widened in horror as she noted the unmistakable familiar prone figure. “Oh no, help, someone—help!” She screamed out the last words while she tried to scramble up, but two strong hands at her waist locked her in place.
“Lady, I’m not dead…yet.” The deep voice halted her movements in a heartbeat. “Although, I may have some serious damage below the belt if you don’t watch what your knee is doing right now. And no need to scream the place down.”
“Thank heavens, you’re okay.” Laurie breathed in relief just before her eyes widened with some unknown emotion. Then he saw a crimson stain put color in the fair skin of her cheeks as comprehension dawned on her at his words. She immediately stilled as if she were on a tightrope and too afraid to move in either direction. He’d laugh at the whole scenario if his head wasn’t hurting and his already injured side wasn’t in a slow burn.
“I’ll raise you up, and you can get to your knees—carefully—and then push up from there. Count of three.”
It worked and she was on her feet in a flash. “Here, let me help.” She stepped forward, her hand outstretched.
Seriously? For a moment, Trey considered ignoring it. But his ingrained manners got the best of him. His large palm swallowed hers, and she added her other hand on top and put great effort in helping him off the floor. For a petite female, she did have some power in that grip. Once on his feet, he noted she came just to his shoulder. He liked his women taller… and blond…hair long, well-endowed body. It was hard to gauge her hair as it was platted into one long braid and wound around the crown of her head and fastened. It was the color of cinnamon with maybe some streaks of lighter color visible on her forehead. The loose shirt she wore did little to attract attention from the opposite sex. Although when she had landed on him, and he could breathe again, his hands had registered some nice curves on the periphery of his pain.
Brown-eyed females were normally his favorite but her eyes were a deep blue-green color with some tiny gold flecks…most odd, but in an appealing sort of way. Trey also knew false lashes when he saw them. Hers were definitely the real thing. A dusting of light freckles lay on the bridge of her pert nose. And there was an interesting petite indentation on her chin about the perfect size for a thumb to rest.
His gaze next landed on the graceful, bow-shaped mouth with its slightly fuller bottom lip—which she seemed to have a nervous habit of nipping with her teeth, as she was doing at the moment. A sudden urge shot through him to see if it was as soft as it looked. Hold on. Had he hit his head harder than he thought? Because that sort of thinking came with a huge “Danger” sign flashing in his brain. He was on a medical sabbatical and that included from women, too.
“Are you okay? I’m sorry I fell on you. That ladder…”
“Should be thrown out,” he interjected. “It’s old and obviously unstable. What made you climb it? You should have known better.”
Those eyes blinked a couple of times and then slowly narrowed on him. Her hands returned to her sides—something which he was more aware of than he cared to admit.
“My grandfather has used it just fine for years. I didn’t see any harm in continuing its use. As I said, I am…”
“Are you serious?!” His eyes weren’t on her; they were glued to the floor.
Her gaze followed his. Hands flew to her face, and she took a quick couple of steps backward, the sudden intake of her breath loud enough for anyone to hear. The cowboy slowly bent and retrieved the cream Stetson from the floor where she had just been standing directly on its crown…damp soil from the planter being ground in quite well by her sneakers.
His ability to hold his temper was something Trey was quite proud of as he had matured over the years. However, he was hanging on the edge of maintaining that record just in the space of a handful of minutes since coming upon the female in front of him—frozen in wide-eyed horror at the battered and no longer pristine hat he held in his hands.
“I’m so very sorry…again. Can it be fixed? I’ll replace it.”
“It was brand-new. It was also a gift from my sister.”
“I would say the ‘s’ word again if it would do any good, but it seems I just keep repeating it.” Her voice trailed off. “Was there something I could help you with? You were coming into the store for some reason.”
He was? Trey had to get his mind back from the various places it had gone in just the last few minutes. Few things generally rattled him, but she had managed to go from zero to seventy in that department in nothing flat. Who was she anyway? What was there about her that seemed vaguely familiar? Dare he even want to know?
“Worms. I remember how the storekeeper here had the best and freshest. I’ll speak to him if he’s around.”
“That would be my grandfather. He’s not available. I’m running the store while he’s out for a few weeks in Florida. I can help you with those worms. They’re out back.” She moved toward the doorway in the corner, looking back expectantly for him to follow.
“I can come back later.”
She stopped and faced him, hands going to slim hips. “Either you want to catch some big fish, or you don’t. Those worms seem to do the trick.” She didn’t get to add anything else, as a little form appeared at the top of the stairs behind the counter.
“Are you going fishing, mister? My gramps told me there are some mighty big fish in the Red Sandy.”
Trey nodded at the red-headed little boy. “That’s my plan.”
The boy came down the steps two at a time. “My gramps showed me some of the best places to go after the biggest ones. Want me to show you?”
The woman’s hands landed on his little shoulders and pulled him back to stand at her side. “Hold on, T.J. Remember you were brought up with some manners.”
He glanced at her and then returned his green-eyed gaze to the tall man. He stuck out his hand. “Sorry. I’m T.J. Monroe. Pleased to meet you.”
Trey could feel a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, but he held it in check. Seriousness was called for. He took hold of the little boy’s hand and was surprised at how much firmness the boy put into it. Someone had been teaching him well. “Nice to meet you, T.J. I’m Trey Tremayne. Good grip you have there. Your dad teach you that?”
“No, sir. He died. But my mom says you can tell a lot about someone by their handshake. A strong handshake and eye contact makes a good imer…impers…”
“Impression,” she finished for the child.
Well stick my foot into my mouth. He could kick himself for assuming and then mentioning the kid’s dad. Yet, his response had been matter-of-fact…not one to seek any sympathy. The woman must be his mother? That would explain the absence of any ring on her hand…a widow. And why he had noted that earlier was another reason to kick himself. He didn’t need any female interfering with his hiatus from the arena.
“That’s very true. How old are you?”
“I’m seven, but I’ll be eight in two weeks. Wow, you’re a real live cowboy? I saw your picture on the rodeo poster my gramps has in his office. Do you ride bulls? Do you get thrown off a lot?”
“T.J.! That is not very polite.”
Trey shook his head and tried to make light of the moment. He should be used to the question. “I try my best to not get tossed off, and I ride bucking broncs…not bulls.”
The boy fell silent and a shadow crossed over the freckled face. Trey’s antennae went up a notch or two. “Broncs buck a lot higher and faster than those slow, fat bulls.”
“I was about to show Mr. Tremayne where the worms are kept,” the woman interceded. “Why don’t you lead the way?”
“Sure.” That brought the smile back. “We’ve got some really fat ones.”
A few minutes later, with T.J.’s help, a container of some of the biggest, blackest worms Trey had ever seen were on the counter. He handed over his payment with a glance at the little boy. “Thanks for the help in selecting these. They just might do the trick.”
“Anytime.” The child took a couple of steps on the stairs. “I hope you have fun fishing. Maybe you’ll catch Old Sourpuss.”
“My gramps calls him that. He says he’s the biggest old fish he ever saw, but no one ever catches him. He saw him once, and his face reminded him of someone who eats a really sour pickle. That’s why he named him that.”
Trey had to chuckle in spite of himself. “Well, that would be an interesting fish to see.” A thought came to him, and he held back for a moment. He couldn’t believe he was seriously considering it. He took another covert look at the small, freckle-faced boy still taking his time—now on the fourth step. He was a sucker for kids. And without a dad and his grandfather apparently gone for a while…he probably didn’t get to go fishing much of late.
“Say, T.J.… If it’s okay with your mom, maybe you could show me where to find Old Sourpuss?”
The boy’s face lit up like a house on fire. “Mom, can I? I’ll be careful. I’ll do whatever the cowboy says, and I’ll even eat the broccoli tonight. Please? Can I go?”
Trey looked at the woman who wore an equally surprised expression at the invitation. He shouldn’t have put her on the spot. Although, she had in fact ruined his favorite hat. And she could have maimed his manhood for life when he broke her fall. She sort of owed him. He caught her glance. He looked down at the hat lying on the countertop for a couple of moments. Then he glanced up at her. Her eyes narrowed a bit as she read the message loud and clear.
“I realize that I’m basically a stranger and all, but you can check me out with at least half of the other storekeepers in this town. They’ll tell you I am harmless and responsible. Plus, if you don’t mind sitting and watching people fish for a couple of hours, you are certainly welcome to come along.”
Something caused her gaze to darken, and perhaps he felt a slight chill in the air? Had he said something wrong? But then she looked up at him and maybe he had just imagined it?
“When is this fishing expedition to take place?”
“This afternoon, about four.”
She turned toward the boy. “Then you better get your chores done.”
“Whoopee! I’m going fishing! Thanks, Mom!” He was at the top of the stairs before he remembered something else. He turned and threw a wave at the man. “Thanks a heap, Mr. Tremayne. I’ll be ready!” Then he was gone in a flash.
“Nice job,” she said, turning back to face Trey. “That bit about your hat… Not above a little extortion?”
“Well, you see it isn’t exactly extortion. I just figured you might want to repay me for the hat you ruined and the back you almost broke, and not to mention the blow to my manhood.”
There went that soft blush to her cheeks again. For a woman who had a child and thus, had obviously been around a man before, she certainly had the aura of a female unused to male sexual flirting. What was he doing flirting with her anyway? She wasn’t his type.
“I get the point, Mr. Tremayne. Although I don’t know if you know what you just let yourself in for. T.J. has never been fishing in his life. Gramps was meaning to teach him this summer, but then he had his surgery and can’t do it. I’m afraid if you thought you were going to have a quiet time of it, you might be in for a surprise. But if you change your mind, I’m sure I can…”
“I won’t change my mind, Mrs…? In all this, I guess you and I haven’t been properly introduced. You already know my name.” He held out his hand.
She looked at it for a second or two. Then she placed her small hand in his. Nice, smooth skin. He closed his palm around it, finding the sensation not unpleasant. It was a nice fit.
“Laurie…Laurie Wilkes. I was married for less than a week, so the Mrs. just never felt right.”
The information brought more questions to mind, such as why would she have a last name different than her son? But they were really none of his business. He was off the mystery sleuth clock for the next month. And Laurie Wilkes might have assaulted him with an ivy plant and old ladder, but he was willing to let bygones be bygones.
“Nice to meet you, Laurie Wilkes. You stay away from that ladder. I might not be around to cushion your fall next time.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’m glad I didn’t cause you any long-term damage.”
“I think everything is still in working condition.”
There went those cheeks again. He picked up his hat and his sack of worms and made his getaway while he could. He had the strangest feeling that his own cheeks were flushed for some odd reason. He hoped he wasn’t coming down with something.
End of Excerpt