Read an Excerpt
Coming home from roundup at a local ranch in Conard County, Hank Jackson expected to unload his gear, step into the cool quiet of his house, and maybe have a shot of bourbon to ease the pain he lived with constantly.
It seemed that no matter how well the docs put smashed bones back together, the bones always remembered the insult. Then they couldn't make up their minds if they hated activity or inactivity more.
Regardless, more than a week on the range of riding, camping, roping and herding had left his body feeling a little older than its thirty-four years, and he was looking for a hot bath and a shot, not necessarily in that order.
Except as he was tugging his saddle out of the back of his pickup, he noticed the house next door. He owned that place, too, a decision made on the spur of the moment because he preferred being busy to having too much time on his hands to think, and that house would keep an entire crew of repairmen busy for quite a while.
But since he had left nine days ago, things had changed, signaled by curtains in the windows.
Crap. He froze, saddle still resting on the truck bed, and looked again. He should never have let Ben Patterson persuade him to list the place for rent a few weeks ago. There was still a ton of work that needed to be done, as he'd told Ben. Then he'd allowed himself to be talked into listing it because it would propel him to get the work done faster.
He'd never expected that anyone would take it in that condition, not even at the ridiculously low rent.
Sighing, he shifted his weight onto the hip that hurt marginally less and tried to decide if he could ignore his new tenant until tomorrow. Or was he honor-bound to get the heck over there right now and tell him all about the things that weren't working right and a few things that might not be safe?
Ben might not have remembered all the details. And what if there was a family in there?
Cussing under his breath, he left his saddle and headed next door, leaving his own grassy yard behind for the weedy patch of dirt that belonged to the other house. Yet another thing he'd been planning to take care of this week or next.
Climbing the two steps to the small, covered porch elicited another cuss word that only he could hear. The doorbell didn't work, so he rapped sharply on the front door, a solid oak door in dire need of painting. Oh, hell, why kid himself? It needed a blow-torch first, and looking at it he was quite certain some of the underlying layers of paint were lead-based. He'd better not find any kids living here, because, if he did, Ben would get more than a few choice words.
His first knock went unanswered. He rapped again, more loudly, saw one of the new curtains twitch, and finally the front door opened a crack.
He found himself looking into one blue eye through that crack.
"Yes?" said a quiet, tense voice.
"Hank Jackson," he said. "I'm your landlord."
"Oh." Then, "Oh! The agent mentioned you."
And the door didn't open even a hair wider. "Lady, I don't know if Ben bothered to tell you, but there are some things about this house that aren't safe."
"I know that."
"But do you know them all? Just tell me you don't have any kids."
"No. No kids."
This wasn't getting them very far. Part of him just wanted to turn around, walk away, find that hot bath and that shot of bourbon. But in good conscience he couldn't do that without at least making an attempt.
"I need to show you the things that are wrong. I need to tell you the work I'm going to be doing in the next week or so. Ben did tell you I'd be working on the place?"
"It can wait. I'll only be here a short while."
"Some of it can't wait." Damn, she was bringing out his stubborn streak. "Look, I don't bite, but I may have to break your rental agreement if we don't come to some kind of terms about the things I need to do here."
The door opened a little wider and he was astonished to see the kind of blond, blue-eyed beauty that should be in the movies. And she looked nervous. Why the heck should she look nervous? Nobody in Conard County looked nervous about someone knocking on the door.
He almost sighed. Instead, he fought for some courtesy. "It's important," he said. "I didn't expect the place to get rented in its current condition, and I'm not sure Ben gave you all the warnings."
At last she nodded, opened the door all the way, and let him step in. He smothered a wince as his hip reminded him that not all was well south of the border, especially after a week in the saddle.
"The place is good enough for me," she said tentatively. "I'll only be here a short time."
"Yeah, but I'd like you to leave on your feet, not on a stretcher."
At that he was relieved to see the faintest of smiles lift the corners of her perfect mouth. Beauty came in all varieties, but this woman had the kind that usually implied heaps of plastic surgery. Exactly the kind that didn't appeal a whole lot to him. Usually.
"The place isn't exactly a death trap," he said, forcing himself to pay attention to business and not to another area south of the border that was choosing a bad time to sit up and take notice. "But there's some rotten flooring I need to warn you about, and a couple of iffy electrical circuits. And the stove doesn't work right, but I have a replacement coming soon."
He held out his hand. "Hank Jackson."
"Kelly Scanlon." Her handshake was firm. Okay, so she hadn't come by that perfect figure by unnatural means. She must work out.
"Nice to meet you," he managed to say as if he meant it, although he was thinking of at least a half-dozen ways he'd like to give Ben a hard time.
"If the house is so bad, why are you renting it?" she asked.
"It wasn't my intention. Ben's been after me to list it with him. I thought I made it clear he wasn't to rent it until I'd finished the most important work."
Her smile widened a shade. "I guess he doesn't listen well?"
"Apparently not. Either that, or he's even more desperate than I thought. Even with the semiconductor plant that moved in a couple of years ago, I think beggars around here make more than real estate agents. Did he even show you the fuse box?"
"Hell." He sighed, then limped past her through the small living room to the kitchen. Like many kitchens of its era, it had more room than convenience. Space enough for a big table, but few cabinets, an old freestanding sink, and just an itty-bitty patch of counter. The stove stood all by itself near one wall, the refrigerator a few feet away.
"Someday," he remarked, "this is going to be a nice kitchen. But right now " He shook his head. "Most of it looks like an afterthought."
"I don't need much."
"Maybe not," he allowed. "One person can get by." He walked over to the mudroom door and stepped out into the unheated, glassed-in area. "Here's the fuse box."
He opened the metal casing. "There are three circuits here that I removed the fuses from. Resist any temptation to put a fuse in them until I get an electrician out here. If you get desperate to use these circuits, I have extension cords I can lend you so you can plug into safe sockets."
"Okay, I can do that."
He glanced over and found her standing right at his shoulder. And damn, she smelled good, too. Faintly like roses and honey. Or maybe after a week of smelling horses and cattle, anything else would smell like ambrosia.
He tore his gaze from herfor some reason his eyes kept wanting to stareand pointed to the floor to the right side of the back door. "Over there the joists are rotting underneath. You can go out the door safely, but I'd advise against stepping over there. I can't guarantee it will hold you."
"Okay." She sounded agreeable enough.
He looked at her again. "Did Ben tell you this?"
She bit her lip, then gave a tiny shake of her head.
He sighed. "Oh, I am going to have some words with him. All right, the windows out here are slated to be replaced. I have the new ones in my garage, but I haven't gotten to it yet. You'll notice the windows in the rest of the house are all new, but I still need to do some caulking and leveling, okay? So you'll have me outside from time to time banging around."
That seemed to be her only word. He led the way back through the kitchen to the rear of the house, where there were two bedrooms. One was completely empty, the other held an old bedstead. He just hadn't gotten around to removing it, or some of the other furniture the last owners had left behind. Not much, but a minimum for someone who had none.
But when he looked at the bedstead and mattress, he winced, and this time it wasn't from physical pain. "Are you going to sleep on that?" he asked.
"Ah, crap, lady, that thing is "
"A bed," she said firmly. "I can get a mattress pad to cover the worst of it. At least it's not the floor."
This time when he looked at her he saw past the initial impression of too beautiful to something that showed more depth and determination. Eyes that appeared older than her appearance would indicate. There was a story there, he thought. He wasn't sure he wanted to know it, either. She'd made it clear she was a transient, and he knew the kinds of stories that came with eyes like that.
"The stuff that's here," he said by way of explanation, "was left by the previous owners. I just haven't gotten around to getting rid of it. If you want it out of here."
She interrupted. "No, really. I can use the stuff that's here. I don't need or want to replace it."
"Your choice," he said after a moment. "Watch it in the empty bedroom, though. More rotten floors. I got rid of the termites, but I just haven't had time yet to replace all the wood."
"Not a problem."
He scanned the rooms again, and never had the place looked shabbier. It was an old house to begin with, and the last owners hadn't invested much, if anything, in keeping it up. They'd been getting on in years, and probably hadn't even noticed most of the deterioration. The walls everywhere were hideous, covered in dying wallpaper, water spots and paint that had probably been sagging on the walls since the Second World War. The floors well, where they weren't bare, worn wood, they were covered by old, cheap linoleum that had been tacked down in places where it had ripped.
"I was so sure nobody would rent this place in this condition."
She surprised him with a quiet laugh. "Amazing things happen."
He looked at her again and felt himself smiling in response.
"That they do."
"Sorry I can't offer you coffee or anything, but I just rented the place this morning and I haven't been out to get supplies, or even any dishes or a coffeemaker. I figured I could do that tomorrow."
"This morning? Just this morning?" That gave him pause. "You have a car, right?" She shook her head.
"Well, hell," he said. "That's not gonna work. You can't carry much on footthe store's on the other side of town. What do you need?"
She shrugged a shoulder. "That depends on how comfortable I want to be."
"Short term, right?"
"Two months at most."
He nodded. "Okay. I've got some stuff at my place you can use. Coffeemaker, pots and pans, some spare dishes and things. No reason you should buy that stuff for just a couple of months."
Her mouth opened a little in surprise. "Are you sure you can spare it?"
"Hell, yeah. That house belonged to my parents. When I moved back here, I came with a lot of stuff from my place in Denver. I wanted my own things, and I just moved a lot of theirs to the side." Feeling a little awkward, he admitted, "I just wasn't ready to get rid of it, you know?"
She nodded. "But now? Are you comfortable with somebody else using it?"
"Sure. I'm not lending you the heirloom china, though."
She laughed again, and this time it was an easier sound. That was good. If he was going to have to deal with a tenant as closely as he'd need to deal with this one, what with all the work this place needed quickly, it was far better to deal with one who wasn't uptight about everything.
And the rest of it? Well that was just being neighborly.
"Come on," he said. "I'll get you some minimum stuff to get through the night, and we can discuss what else you need in the morning."
"But," she said, "Ben said you were out working at one of the ranches. You must be tired."
"I am. But if I stop moving, I'll freeze up. So let's just get you a coffeepot, some dishes. Like I said, just enough for tonight. We can deal with anything else in the morning."
Then he turned and limped his way to the front door, aware of her light step following him.