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When Mike Gardner came walking up the path in just that way, Grace knew she was in trouble.
And when he stopped at the foot of her stepladder, hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets and squinted up at her, she gripped her paintbrush tighter so as not to drop it. Mike was all long, lazy strides and sexy smiles, and despite her best intentions, she'd never been able to remain immune to his charm. Not since she'd hit puberty, anyway.
"Mornin', Grace." The words weren't exactly drawled, but were drawn out just enough to give that impression.
Grace straightened her shoulders and did her best to look nonchalant as she swiped another stripe of white paint over the window trim. "Hello, Mike."
Great. Now why in the world did those two words come out all breathless, anyway?
She had to remember that it wasn't all that long ago that she'd made a fool of herself where Mike was concerned. It had been years since there had been anything between them. But she'd had a little too much punch, there'd been a little too much giggling and she'd blurted out one very ill-thought-out sentence. She still felt the heat of her embarrassment and every time they met now, she did everything she could to assure himto assure herself, even, that Mike Gardner was completely resistible. Lord knew he didn't need her fawning over him the way the rest of the female population seemed to. Without thinking, she tucked an errant strand of blond hair back behind her ear, leaving it streaked with paint.
"You're up with the birds," he commented, a lazy smile creeping up his cheek as she chanced a look down at him.
"And you knew I would be, or you wouldn't be here so early." Shepointedly checked her watch. "It's 7:46."
"It is?" His chin flattened ever so slightly. "I'm sorry, I thought it was later."
"You've likely been up and done chores already."
Darn him. She couldn't just stand up on the stepladder like an idiot, carrying on a conversation that was barely holding its own. Besides, she was all too aware that his height, paired with her distance up the ladder, put his line of vision right at her backside. She sighed, put her brush across the top of the paint-smeared can and took a step downand her dew-slick sneaker slipped on the metal step.
His hands were there to catch her. "Whoa, there."
She shrugged off his touch. It felt far too strong and too good. "I'm not one of your horses, Mike."
He laughed. "No, ma'am. You sure aren't."
It wasn't fair. She'd had a thing for Mike since she was fourteen, but he'd tended to treat her like a kid sister. An annoying one. For a brief time, when she'd been in high school, they'd been more. But that seemed a lifetime ago. For him to flirt now weeks after she'd made a complete idiot of herself, it was too much. That one little slip of the lip was the only time she'd ever come close to telling him how she felt, and at the time he'd only laughed at her.
She was older and far wiser now at twenty-seven. There was no room in her life for schoolgirl crushes. She planted her hands on her hips and stared him down. "Look, you obviously didn't come around for idle chitchat. Tell me what's on your mind so I can get back to work."
Mike had to turn away to hide his smile. She was good and irritated, he could tell. And besides that, she looked wonderful this morning. Her blond hair was tucked into some sort of strange clip, and little pieces tangled around her ears. Her eyes flashed at him now, icy blue with annoyance. Looking up that stepladder at her slim, tanned legs had almost made him forget why he was here. And steadying her with his arms as she'd slipped had wiped his brain clean of any other thoughts whatsoever. He liked the feel of his hands on her skin.
He stepped back, ignoring her jab, instead turning to survey the small yellow bungalow she called home.
It had seen better days, but Grace had a way of making it welcoming. A caragana hedge flanked the west side of her paved drivea driveway that was in need of some serious patchwork. He recognized the bleeding heart shrubs, next to some sort of bushes with tiny white flowers. Everything was dressed up by circles of lilies and stalks of purply blue flowers he remembered from one of his foster homes. The peeling trim on the eaves would soon be gleaming and white like the sections she'd already painted. Somehow she'd taken a plain, aging bungalow and made it home.
She kept her eyes front as if refusing to look at him. "Your powers of deduction astound me. What tipped you off?"
He ignored that bit of sarcasm, too. She had to be tired, after all. The drips down the side of her paint can were fresh; she'd obviously been at it a while before he showed up. And he knew for a fact that she'd been up late last night, because her lights had been on when he'd been on his way back from town at nearly one o'clock. He wished He wished she didn't have to work so hard for everything. But he was the last person who could make things better for her. At least for right now he was.
"How do you find time to do everything, Grace? Whenever I see you you're busy at something."
By getting up at 5:00 a.m., she thought. Instead she shoved her hands in the pockets of her shorts. "It keeps me out of trouble."
"Then I sure hate to ask what I'm about to."
Mike was serious, she realized, pushing away the urge to use sarcasm as a shield against him. Normally he said nothing at all or what he did say was disarming and funny. But Grace had known him long enough to know when he was troubled. And the tone of his voice right now told her something was definitely going on. When he merely stared at her house longer, she wrinkled her brow and went to him, gently placing a paint-splattered hand on his forearm.
"Connor took Alex to the hospital yesterday afternoon."
Grace's eyes clouded with worry, a strange twisting in her belly at the news. Mike and Connor were like brothers, so much more than business partners. When Connor had to slaughter his beef herd, he and Mike had become partners in Circle M Quarterhorses.
"Is it the baby? Are they okay?" Alex had a baby due in a few months.
Mike didn't seem to be able to look at her, but she could feel the worry emanating from him. His arm was tense beneath her fingers and his jaw clamped tight. "She went into early labor, so they're keeping her in for a while. Doc says she'll be on bed rest from here on out. That's all I know for now."
"What about Maren?" Grace looked up at his profile. Maren was the couple's toddler, a princess with raven curls and sky-blue eyes like her mother's. "Is that why you're here? Do they need someone to watch her for a while?"
"No, no." Mike turned to her then, his lips relaxing just a little. "Connor's grandmother is looking after her. But it's not fair of me to ask, but I was wondering, I mean we were wondering, if you'd consider coming back and doing the books for the farm for a while."
If it had been a less serious topic, Grace would have made a quip about that being a regular speech for Mike. Instead she just nodded. "Of course I will. I don't mind at all."
"I know you're already busy, and "
"Mike, it's fine. Alex and Connor are my friends, too. I'm happy to help."
His relief was clear. "Thank you, Grace."
It was her own fancy that made his words sound like an endearment. But Mike didn't think of her in that way anymore. He only looked on her as a friend, she knew that. He'd made it abundantly clear long ago.
She'd already let girlish fantasy rule once in her life and look where that had gotten her. A few troubled years, a whole lot of hurt and then back here in small-town Alberta with a tiny yellow bungalow and a double bed with one pillow.
"You're welcome. I'll try to stop by tomorrow and get things up to speed."
The morning sun grew warmer as they stood on her front lawn, the dew evaporating off in the heat. This was just what she needed. To torture herself further by seeing Mike day in and day out at Circle M, a reminder of wanting what she couldn't have. But the truth was, she needed to do some repairs to the house and money was scarce. What she made by doing the odd book work and cleaning jobs didn't leave her with a lot extra at the end of the month. Besides, Mike wouldn't be there all the time now, would he?
"I guess I should be going," he remarked quietly. "I have a few errands and then, well, we're a man short at the ranch. And the building crew comes at nine."
Grace's head swiveled back to him. "Building crew?" For the first time, Mike really smiled. The effect was devastating, making her heart thump ridiculously. Darn him for being able to cause such a reaction simply by smiling. His grayish-blue eyes lit up as he ran a rough hand through disobedient, coppery hair. "Yeah. We're breaking ground for my new house today."
How did I miss that bit of information? Grace wondered. Mike Gardner, with his own business and now a home. Was the eternal drifter really settling down? Wonders never ceased, it seemed.
"Anyway, if you need anything, just call Windover." Mike called the house by its rightful name, even though the now defunct beef ranch was home of Circle M Quarterhorses. "I'm staying there while the house is going up."
Not only at the ranch, but living in the house, too. So much for not seeing him, then. And for wanting what she couldn't have. Surely she could stay immune to him for the short term, though, couldn't she?