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HANDS TREMBLING FROM too much caffeine and not enough sleep, Bella sipped yet another mug of coffee and tried to figure out how to balance a stepladder halfway up the stairs.
It was Sunday morning, ten days, two hours and seventeen minutes since she'd first read The Letter, and when the doorbell rang, relief and anticipation replaced the anxiety that generally sat like a rock in the middle of her chest.
Niki was early, bless her heart. Desperate to unload the newest details of her life into the sympathetic ears of her best friend, Bella hurried to the door and threw it open.
"Morning, Ms. Monroe."
The man on her makeshift front steps was of medium height, of medium weight and with more than medium shoulders, and she'd seen him somewhere before. He had nice eyes, and his broken nose gave his handsome features character. He wore jeans and a denim jacket lined with sheepskin, and the fact that he wasn't dressed in a suit like the other real-estate people she'd encountered in the past week misled Bella, but only until he began to speak.
"I'm Charlie Fredricks. We met the day you came by the real-estate office?You spoke with my brother, Rick." He smiled and extended a large hand, which he obviously intended for her to shake.
Bella tried to swallow her fierce disappointment, and then gave up the attempt to control her temper, which, according to her mother, she'd inherited from her absentee father.
What was it with the men in her life? "It's Sunday. You do realize that? You people are driving me nuts. I have more work than there are hours in the day. Emotionally, I'm a wreck. I've explained to about 227 other real-estate idiots from your officewhy I can't afford your rip-off commissions, and I'm sick to death of being hounded this way."
Somehow forgetting the heavy mug in her hand, she swung an arm to slam the door. Hot coffee flew-some of it hitting her hand. She swore and the stoneware mug went flying, connecting with Charlie Fredricks's forehead with surprising force.
He groaned and staggered backward. The mug fell on the step and shattered. Bella watched in horror as blood trickled down his forehead, even as the coffee stains were spreading across his chest.
"Damn it all to hell," she muttered. Her hand stung. Would he sue? The thought of a lawsuit on top of everything else made her want to throw herself on the rug and sob. But instead, Bella drew a breath and took hold of his denim jacket.
"Get in here-you're bleeding." She led him inside and closed the door. "I didn't mean to hit you-honestly! I was just closing the door, and I forgot I had coffee in my hand!"
"Closing the door right in my face." He rubbed the sleeve of his jacket across his forehead to staunch the blood that was dripping all over her beige carpet. "I didn't think I'd need hazard insurance on this job."
"Think you could try not to bleed on the rug?" She led the way into the kitchen and pointed at a stool.
"Sit down and I'll get something to put on that." She rummaged in a kitchen drawer and came up with a clean dishcloth, which she ran under cold water and then pressed, none too gently, against his forehead.
"Now sit there while I find my first-aid stuff." For that, she had to go upstairs, since there was nothing in the downstairs lavatory except roughedin plumbing, thanks to her layabout poor excuse of a husband, Gordon. "Lazy, good-for-nothing-" she muttered, stomping up the stairs.
From behind Josh's bedroom door came the sound of his Xbox.
From behind Kelsey's came the steady, irate hum of complaining, as she no doubt filled in a friend on the subject of her awful mother. And all Bella had done to them today was ask them to help with the painting.
She grabbed antiseptic and Band-Aids and headed back down, but when she got to the kitchen, Charlie What's-his-name wasn't there. She found him in the living room, holding a family photo he'd taken from the fireplace mantel. His jacket was off, and she could see that his blue T-shirt was dotted with spots of crimson.
"Good-looking youngsters. How old are they?"
"Fifteen and thirteen. Give me that." It slipped as she set it facedown on the exposed bricks, shattering the glass, and that felt like the final straw to Bella. "Look, Charlie Fredricks, no one invited you to wander around my house and poke into my things," she said. "You're getting blood all over the house. I'll have to have the carpets cleaned and I can't afford it. Go and sit down, so I can do something about your head, and then you're leaving."
He said quietly, "As a first-aid person, you don't exactly inspire confidence, you know that, Ms.
Monroe?" But then he ambled back to the kitchen and sat on the stool she pointed at.
Bella doused a cotton ball with antiseptic and pressed it firmly against the cut.
He flinched, but didn't say anything. His hair was a dark chocolate-brown, thick, wavy and a little too long, and it fell onto his forehead and got in the way, so that she had to keep shoving it aside. His eyes were an unusual combination of gray and green, and his eyelashes were kind of nice, she thought, in spite of herself. She pressed a second helping of antiseptic onto the gash.
"Ouch. O Damn it, lady, your bedside manner could stand some work. I didn't ask you to bash me, you know."
"And I don't remember asking you to come to my door and harass me, either." She opened a Band-Aid and tried to cover the gash. "This little cut is too big for a bandage. I need tape and gauze," she muttered. "You sit right there until I get back. No nosing around my house."
"Man, you're tough," he commented as she headed back up the stairs. "And I thought my ex was difficult."
"Yeah, well, maybe she had reasons."
"Mom?" Kelsey stood in the bedroom doorway.
"Can I go to the afternoon movie with Brittany? Her dad's going to drive us and pick us up after." "I thought you were supposed to help me paint."
"Auntie Niki's coming to help you. You don't need me. Please, Mom?"
Josh's door opened. "If she gets to go, so do I." At fifteen, his voice was cracking. Most of the time, Bella found it endearing and sad-her baby was growing up. Today, she just felt exasperated.
"I keep telling you two, there's no money for the mall or movies."
"Nana gave us money."
Bella might have known. Her mother doted on her grandchildren.
"How come you didn't tell me?"
"She said it was our little secret," Kelsey said.
"She said with Dad away we needed some mad money, to do whatever we wanted. And I want to go to the matinee."
What was the point in trying to make them work? Bella was up against Mae and a united teenage front.
"So go," she said sharply. "Just get out of my sight. And make sure you're back here by suppertime." Even as she snapped at them, she knew it wasn't fair to be so short-tempered, but anger was just about the only thing that kept the tears at bay these days. And she couldn't afford to cry much more.
The kids must have been prepared, because they were both down the steps and out the door before Bella could make it to the first-aid drawer.
Downstairs, she cut gauze and tape and finally sorted out Charlie's head.
"Your kids were in a real hurry to get out of here," he noted.
She gave him a killer look. "Not that I blame them," he added. He pointed at the ladder in the hall. "Guess they don't like painting, either, huh?"
"Guess not." She rolled up the gauze and snapped the tape container back together. "That's it, you're mended. Heads always bleed a lot. It's barely a scratch. You'll be fine."
"Yeah, I've noticed that myself. About heads bleeding. I suppose you've patched up a lot of cuts in your time, huh?"
"A fair number." She picked up his jacket and handed it to him. "Sorry about the coffee mug."
"You're not a believer in western hospitality, I take it?"
The doorbell rang and Bella went to answer it. "Hey, how's it going?" Niki took off her vintage fur and draped it on the coat rack, then gave Bella a hug that almost cracked her ribs. Niki's shoulderlength blond hair had a lavender streak this week and her breasts spilled beguilingly out of the low neckline of her scarlet knit dress. "No word from the scumbag, I take it?"
Bella shook her head, frowned and jerked a thumb in the direction of her battered guest.
Niki raised her eyebrows and walked into the kitchen. "Well, hello there. I thought for a second you were Bella's soon-to-be ex, and I was about to give you a choice piece of my mind."
"No need for that-the lady of the house and I have already gone down that road. I'm Charlie, by the way. How do you do?" He extended a hand, and Niki took it in both of hers, turning it palm up and studying it closely.
"I'm Niki, seeing as how we're only doing first names. Wow, that's some long life line you've got there."
"Oh, yeah? Wish I'd known that when bad guys were shooting at me."
Bella was sure he was looking down the front of Niki's dress. She needed to get him the hell out of here.
"You a drug dealer?" Niki sounded fascinated.
"Nothing so romantic. I was a cop."
Bella was trying to give Niki the signal to lay off her questions, but of course her friend wasn't paying any attention. Niki never did, if there was an attractive man in the vicinity. Bella knew it was all just show, since Niki was devoted to her husband, Tom. But the guys her friend hit on for fun didn't know that. "I moved on. Now I'm in real estate."
"So you're going to sell Bella's house for her?"
"No, he most emphatically is not going to," Bella snapped. "I'm selling it myself. You remember-you were the one who told me to, Niki. You said your uncle Giovanni would have helped me figure out a price, except-"
"Except he's got Alzheimer's," Niki interrupted. "I know, I know. We agreed you'd sell it yourself."
"There you have it." He shrugged. "You ladies for sure know your own minds."
"Have to be on the ball when you're a woman." Niki pointed at the tape and gauze. "What happened to your head?"
"Ms. Monroe and I were having a few words and she chucked a mug at me."
"Go, Bella." Niki gave her a thumbs-up. "Repressed anger leads to illness, and you don't want that."
"It was an accident." Bella scowled at Charlie.
"You don't have a concussion, and I patched you up. So you can go now."
Niki went over to him and stroked her finger over his bandaged wound. "Did you know she got a big chunk of your hair trapped inside the tape? Here, let me fix that for you."
"Niki, for cripes sake, lay off, would you? You can't take him home-Tom won't like it."
Niki sighed dramatically. "Sometimes marriage is very limiting." She undid the tape and tenderly freed the hair. "You married, Charlie?"