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Addy Toussant studied the fading bloom of the Pauwela Cloud orchid. Such a shame to snuff out the white-ruffled beauty, but the withered edges of the petal bore the tale. The bloom was off thesnip!orchid.
Irony didn't escape her as she tucked the petals into the waste bag she wore hooked on her gardening utility belt.
Not that Addy was old. Or unhappy about having her bloom fade. She rather liked the emerging lines around her eyes. Gave her character and all that.
Besides, thirty-two wasn't "old"it was practically the new twenty-two. Or so a magazine she'd read yesterday in the optometrist waiting room had declared. Still, so many of her high school friends were married and starting families, and though Addy didn't feel empty, something about being so behind the curve made her feel, well, old.
But she shouldn't feel that way. After all, not everyone wanted to be a wife and mother. Some women liked being exactly who they were. She'd always embraced that notion, a lifestyle her aunt Flora had modeled for her.
Addy stood and ignored the cracking of her knees, stretching her back and looking up at the plastic skylight in the greenhouse she'd had built in her yard. Afternoon was giving over to evening. She could see the moon peeking out from behind the pink clouds. Another Tuesday nearing conclusion, but at least it had been filled with sunshine and a warmer breeze.
Then her peace shattered.
A blur of motion rocketed into the structure, rending the heavy plastic sheeting. A scream caught in her throat as she pitched herself to the side, away from the roar. A corner of the greenhouse collapsed under the assault as Addy rolled away. The black rubber tire missed her nose by inches and the reverberation of an engine thundered in her ear. Gasoline fumes choked her and she coughed, raising herself up on an elbow amidst broken pottery. The spinning wheel of the motorbike snagged her sleeve.
"Oh, my sweet Lord," Addy said, her voice drowned by the noise, tugging her loose-sleeved yoga shirt from the grip of the tire and trying to get her bearings. Pushing herself upward, she caught sight of a Converse sneaker and jean-clad leg draped over the seat of the still-rumbling bike.
Addy turned the switch on the handle to the off position. How she knew exactly where the switch was stymied her, but the engine died.
A groan emerged from beneath the wooden shelf that had collapsed onto whoever had driven a small motorcycle into her newly constructed greenhouse.
Addy shoved the splintered wood away to find a small boy. Orto be more specifica small boy who'd run through her daylilies on the same motorbike a month ago; a small boy who was the middle child of her irresponsible neighbors; a small boy whose name was Chris.
Or Michael. She got them mixed up.
Okay, so her neighbors weren't necessarily irresponsible, merely overwhelmed with a lot of kids and pets running amuck.
"What?" he mumbled. "Are you okay?"
The child moved, pulling his leg to him and lifting himself from the yellowed-grass floor. He blinked and his face crumbled as he realized what had occurred. "Oh, no. My bike."
Addy looked at the torn plastic, bent frame, busted shelves and pottery shards. Yeah, she was totally concerned about the stupid bike. Precious, no, valuable, orchids lay scattered on the ground, roots dangling, stems crushed, petals bruised.
Dirt smeared the boy's cheek, and if Addy hadn't been so troubled by the fact the accident-prone child had nearly decapitated himself and destroyed her orchid collection, she might have thought it endearing. But she was upset.. and mad and scared the boy had nearly broken his fool neck.
"My arm hurts," he said, cupping his shoulder. "And my handlebars are all bent."
Addy struggled to her feet, carefully lifting the bike off him and pushing aside. "Let me see."
The boy scooted back, wincing as he cradled his right arm. "O"
Addy knelt beside him and gently placed her hand on his forearm. "Can you wiggle your fingers?"
Big tears hovered on his thick lashes. He dashed them away with his other hand. "I don't know."
He looked at the arm he held tight against his torso. The grubby little fingers moved. Slowly, he uncurled his fist and wiggled his fingers.
He smiled slightly, obviously happy he'd not lost use of his fingers. Carefully, he extended his arm, moving it so his elbow resembled a hinge. "It still hurts a little."
"Well, yeah, you fell on it. Can you stand up?"
He nodded and scrabbled to his feet, wincing only slightly as he moved his shoulder.
Addy rose as the new flap in her greenhouse flew open. A huge man stood in the blinding sunlight. She stumbled back, knocking another shelf to the ground. More pottery broke as irrational fear exploded within her. Unable to gain traction, she hit the heavy metal pole supporting the greenhouse and nearly tripped over the discarded bike.
"What in the hell happened here?" the mountain asked, his voice strong as the shoulders filling the space where plastic sheeting had once stretched tight.
Fear rose in Addy's throat as her body prepared to fight. Instinctively, her mind cleared and she noted in mere nanoseconds the exits and the tools around her. She'd been preparing for this day for a long time. But even as her instinct took over, reason clawed its way into her head.
He wasn't a stranger.
She'd seen this man beforehe'd been in and out of the Finlay house the past few days, obviously minding the kids. He wasn't there for her. He was here for the boy.
She steadied her breathing, but remained aware.. just as she'd practiced.
Chris started crying. "I'm sorry. I really am, Uncle Lucas. I forgot she put this dumb house on my bike path." Tears weren't wiped away. Snot followed. He looked pathetic and was blaming her for the crash.
She was fairly certain she could build a greenhouse on her own property. Or technically Aunt Flora's property. Addy stared at the kid, wondering if she should say something, wondering how he'd managed to turn into a sobbing mess in a matter of seconds.
The large man jabbed a finger at the boy. "No excuse. I told you to stay off that bike when I wasn't around. I had to wipe your sister, and you disobeyed."
The kid ducked his head, sniffling, tears falling on his New Orleans Saints jersey. "I want my momma. I want my momma."
"Okay, stop yelling at him," Addy said, ungluing herself from the now-sagging plastic and propping her hands on her hips. Remain assertive. Protect the victim. "It's obvious the child is hurt. And scared."
The man flicked dark eyes toward the boy. "Are you hurt, Chris?"
"Mmm-hmm." The boy wiped his face on his sleeve, using the uninjured arm. "I hurt my shoulder."
The man stepped inside, crowding the area, making Addy's heart race and not in a good way. More in the way large male strangers had been doing for over fifteen years. The fear never went away. She merely had to control it.
Breathing deeply, she stretched out a hand, shifting some of the power. "I'm Addy Toussant. This is my aunt Flora's house, but I live with her."
The man the kid had called Lucas didn't tear his eyes from the boy as he placed a humongous hand on the boy's shoulder. "And I'm Chris's uncle Lucas. I'm taking care of him for a while."
"And Charlotte. And Michael," Chris said, his brown eyes meeting hers as he allowed his uncle to move his arm.
"Yeah, them, too," Lucas muttered, his eyes screwed up in concentration as he poked and prodded the boy. "Stand up so I can get a better look at your shoulder."
Chris allowed Lucas to lift him to his feet. Addy watched for signs of pain in the boy's face, but didn't see anything alarming.
Chris hobbled a little. "My ankle hurts, too."
Lucas stepped back so his shoulder brushed hers. Addy dropped the hand he hadn't shaken and scooted away, ignoring the piece of splintered shelf jabbing into her thigh. "Are you surprised? You drove your bike through this nice lady's, um, house thing."
Chris peered over at her. "Sorry, Miss Abby. Really. I forgot you put this on my trail."
Addy didn't say anything. She probably should say something inane like "It's okay" or "My name's Miss Addy," but she didn't. Mostly because the child had destroyed part of her newly built greenhouse and plenty of poor, helpless orchids.
"I'm glad you're sorry because you're going to help her rebuild it." This from the tall, dark and somewhat handsome man.
"What? No." Addy turned to the giant glowering at the boy. "It's really not necessary."
"The hell it isn't. I told him to stay off that damn bike while I went in to help his sister. He disobeyed, nearly killed himself and destroyed property in the process. He's helping fix this."
"You're cussing," Chris whined, making a god-awful face. "I don't know nothin' about fixin' stuff."
"Well, that's the way you learn." The man picked up the motorbike as if it were a small toy and rolled it toward the split in the plastic as the older boy arrived on scene.
"Holy shit, Chris, what did you do? Mom's going to freak."
"Watch your mouth," Lucas said, shooting the older boy a stern look, blatantly ignoring his own naughty word moments before.
Michael crossed his arms and gave his uncle a go-to-hell look. "Whatever. Like you don't cuss."
The man ignored him and shoved the bike toward Michael. "Take this to your house."
Michael caught the bike and glowered. "Why do I have to clean up his messes? I always have to"
"Do what I said," Lucas said, his tone brooking no further argument. "Where's your sister? I left her in the bathroom."
And that was when Charlotte showed up sans pants.
"I'm through," she trilled with a smile, thrusting a wad of toilet paper in the air toward Lucas.
For a moment, all were stunned silent.
"Where are your pants?" Lucas asked as the two older boys started laughing.
"I couldn't put them on. You hadda wipe me." She looked about three or four years old. Old enough to know better than to go outside with a bare behind. Young enough not to care.
The man lifted his eyes heavenward and took in a deep breath. Addy wasn't sure if he was praying or trying his best not to bolt toward the huge truck he'd parked in the narrow drive the day before. She didn't know why he'd gotten saddled with the Finlays' three kids, dog, cat and whatever else they sustained in the rambling shotgun house next door, but he was more of a champ than she.
Or was that chump?
"For crying out loud, Lottie. You're not supposed to leave the bathroom without clothes on. And you can wipe yourself. You know it and I know it," Chris said looking like a small parent. "Wipe yourself."
"But not when I go poop," Charlotte said, twisting cherub lips beneath bright blue eyes, corkscrew blond curls and a bow askew on her snarled ponytail. Tears filled her eyes and that bottom lip trembled.
The man's mouth moved.
"Uh, hi, Charlotte. Remember me? I'm Miss Addy," she said, darting a look toward Chris so he got the message about what her name actually was. "Why don't you go with your brother Michael to your house and let him help you find your pants."
She heard Michael's bark of protest and shot him a look that said "Shut it" before turning to the darling pantless girl. "When you're done, you can come back and I'll give you a homemade chocolate chip cookie Aunt Flora made for her bridge club."
Charlotte made a little smile adorable enough to melt the sternest of hearts.
Lucas sighed. "Please, Charlotte, go with your brother."
The little girl looked up, up, up at the big man above her and her body literally shook. "Mmm'kay."
Michael rolled his eyes, shifted the dirt bike to Chris and took his sister's handnot before carefully inspecting itand tugged her out the hole in the greenhouse. Toilet paper trailed behind the barefoot child.
Lucas gave Addy his full attention for the first time. "Thank you."
"Think I'll just go, too," Chris said, slinking past his uncle, rolling his bike toward the entrance. "Wait," Lucas said.
The boy stopped and looked at his uncle with frightened eyes. Addy watched as the man forced himself to relax. "You need to help Miss" He struggled for her name. "Toussant," Addy said.
"Toussant clean up. And then we'll arrange a time for you to help repair the damage you've done."
"A boy can't fix this." Addy's gaze roved over the rubble. "I have to replace some beams and most of the sheeting. Plus several of the shelves are broken. And pots. And several plants will need replacing.. " Her voice faded as the enormity of the task set in.
"I'm going to help, too," Lucas said, his dark eyes sweeping her from foot to crown, but not in a skeevy way. No hair raised on her neck. The look was appreciative, but not harmful. There was something elsea tingly awareness that made her swallow the misery of the situation and avert her eyes from the broad shoulders and hard jaw. Her thoughts needed to stay away from the overt maleness of Uncle Lucas.
"I'm sure you don't have the time what with taking care of the children."
"I need to help." His eyes relented in hardness, giving her a glimpse of something else within the depths. Was it desperation? "In fact, I'll get Michael to help, too. We can make short work of the cleanup."
"He's not going to like it," Chris muttered. "He doesn't like helping with anything. He's lazy."
Addy smiled. Most thirteen-year-old boys were lazy when it came to chores. Michael was not lazy, however, when it came to lacrosse. The boy tossed balls all over his yard. And Addy's and Mr. Linnert's and every house within a one-hundred-yard radius. "I don't care what he likes or doesn't," Lucas said, toeing a piece of wood hanging haphazardly from the metal framework of the shelves. "He's helping us rebuild Miss Toussant's shed."
"Greenhouse," Addy said, accepting the fact she'd have three males and a sometimes pantless toddler invading her world whether she wished it or not. Lucas didn't seem the sort to take no for an answer, which was somewhat alarming. But Addy couldn't deny it would be good for Chris to learn how to right the wrong he'd created. And something about the pleading in the man's voice had her conceding to what would likely be more trouble than aid. "And you might as well call me Addy since we're embarking upon a project together."
"And I'm Lucas."
"Lucas," she repeated, holding out her hand again.
This time he took hold of her small hand with something roughly the size of a grizzly paw. But his grasp was warm, friendly even, for a man who seemed made of hard corners.
No zaps of attraction.
No weird tingly crap like in all those movies. Just heartfelt and firm. She inhaled slowly and exhaled with a smile.