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Could this be his lucky day?
Noah Cooper drove down Maple Street and saw the Cottage For Rent sign in the front yard of the three-story Victorian house. He couldn't get any closer if he'd planned it. Now all he had to do was make sure he became the new tenant. He parked his truck at the curb under the large tree and climbed out, immediately feeling the Texas heat.
He also felt a stir of excitement as he made his way up the walk to the porch and climbed the crumbling concrete steps to the peeling porch floor and rang the bell.
It was a new job. A new challenge.
No answer. He glanced down and saw the sign on the doorknob that read, Gone Quilting.
Not to be detoured, he followed the wraparound porch to a set of stairs and a pathway that led to a large backyard. Even though the house looked a little shabby there were colorful flowers that filled the beds and the lawn had been recently cut. He guessed it paid to have family in the landscaping business.
In the back of the large lot he spotted a second structure. It was a much smaller scale, but the cottage was a single-story clapboard with decorative shutters. The same gray and burgundy colors that were faded and peeling as the main house. Even though it might be a little feminine for his tastes, the location was ideal. He started for the door, hoping to get a look inside.
Stepping up onto the small porch, he saw the door ajar and heard music. Peering inside, he found a main living area with a brick fireplace. On the other wall was a row of cabinets with compact appliances and a small table with two chairs. The place was furnished, but from what era? That was when he spotted the movement.
A woman was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor, keeping in time with the country song. Her nice shapely bottom swaying back and forth as her arms fought against the dirty tile, singing along with Carrie underwood. Rich brown hair with golden strands was pulled up in a knot on top of her head, but most had escaped. Her tank top and shorts showed off a trim but curvy body.
His body suddenly came alive. In his profession that didn't happen often, especially in the past year. But now wasn't the time to suddenly get his libido back. He had a job to do.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he called over the music.
Lilly heard her name and looked over her shoulder to find the stranger. She jumped, nearly hitting her head on the table.
She swore softly and the man started toward her. Holding up her hand, she stopped him from coming too close.
"Are you all right?"
With a nod, she managed to get to her feet and shut off the music. Then she turned around to get a look at her intruder.
Big. Tall. He had nearly black hair, thick and wavy, but his eyes were a whiskey-brown. He was dressed in faded jeans and a chambray shirt and boots much like south Texans, but she'd grown suspicious of any strangers.
"Who are you?" she said a little too harshly.
He didn't look to be intimidated at all. "I'm hoping I'll be your new tenant," the man said with a nod of his head. "I'm Noah Cooper."
"Lilly Perry, but I'm not the landlord. It's my mother, Beth Staley, who owns the place and she rents out this cottage." When her mother had decided to rent the cottage, they hadn't talked about who they'd rent to, but surely not a stranger. "You'll have to come back."
"Do you know when that will be?"
Lilly felt an odd feeling go through her as the man continued to stare at her. As if those deep-set eyes could read her thoughts. "To be honest, Mr. Cooper"
"It's Coop," he interrupted. "I go by Coop."
"Coop," she repeated. "I believe there's someone else interested in the place."
He nodded toward the door. "The sign is still up in the yard."
He'd got her there. "Well, it's not official. I'm just letting you know so you don't get too excited."
"I guess I need to come back and talk to Mrs. Staley then. When will she be back?"
Lilly shrugged. "It's hard to say, she's with her friends quilting. It could be hours."
He nodded, looking disappointed. "Okay. I guess I'll have to wait."
He turned to leave when she heard the familiar voice. "Mom! Mom! Where are you?"
"I'm in here, Robbie," she called and went to the door.
As fast as lightning, the five-year-old raced through the cottage door. "Colin and Cody are going swimming and they asked me to go, too. Can I, can I? Please."
"Robbie, slow down." She brushed back her son's blond hair that fell over his forehead. He stared back at her with blue eyes so like his father's. It still caused her chest to tighten at the memories of their previous life. A father he'd never know.
"If it's okay with Colin and Cody's mom?"
"Yeah, she said you could probably get some more work done without me underfoot."
She wanted to grin. Her son started talking at a year and hadn't slowed down since. "Maybe I should just put you to work, too."
He wrinkled his freckled nose. "Mom, I'm only five years old."
"Funny, yesterday you were counting the days to your sixth birthday."
"But I'm still a kid. I need to have some fun. It's summer vacation." Her son finally noticed Mr. Cooper. "Hi, who are you? I'm Robbie Perry."
"Robbie, this is Mr. Cooper," she said, keeping a protective hand on her child's shoulders.
"Everyone calls me Coop, Robbie."
Her son glanced at her, then back at the stranger. "What are you doing here with my mom?"
"Robbie." She hoped to send a warning by her tone. She wasn't happy with her son's attitude, even if he had cause to be suspicious.
"It's okay," Coop said. "He's looking out for his mother." He turned his attention to Robbie. "I want to rent this house. But your mother said someone else is interested in it."
Robbie's frown deepened. "There is? Who, Mom?"
Lilly felt her cheeks flame. Now her fib just got bigger. "I'm not sure." She quickly changed the subject. "Why don't you go and get your swim trunks and a towel."
His eyes widened. "I can go?"
Lilly didn't seem to have a choice. With her nod, her son did a fist pump and ran out.
"That's quite a boy you have there."
"Yes, he is. I wish I had his energy."
There was an uncomfortable silence, then Coop spoke. "Well, I should go, too," he said. "Thank you, Mrs. Perry."
"Sorry it didn't work out," she said. "Hope you find a place. Are you working in the area?" Why was she asking? "I mean the ranches might be hiring if you have some experience."
Coop could see Lilly Perry was leery of him. After everything that had happened in the past few months, of course she would be, especially of any strangers. "I have ranching experience, but that's not what I'm doing now. I'll be working on the new houses project on the west side of town."
He saw her surprise. "For AC Construction? You work for Alex Casali?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm a finish carpenter by trade." That part wasn't a lie. If he pushed her for the cottage again, he might frighten her off. "Well, I guess I better continue my search. Goodbye."
Coop walked out the door, then along the path when the boy ran out of the main house. A bundle of energy, he bounded down the steps at full speed.
"Hey, Robbie," Coop called, wondering if the boy could help him. "Hey, by chance could you tell me where your grandmother has gone?"
He nodded. "Oh, yeah, she's quilting with her friends at the Blind Stitch." He rolled his eyes. "It's boring. They cut up old shirts and things to a make quilts. My sister does it, too."
"That's good because guys have things that are just for guys."
The boy looked thoughtful. "Yeah, but I don't get to do them too much 'cause my dad died."
"I'm sorry to hear that." He didn't know what to say to the kid. A horn honked and let him off the hook. "Have fun swimming."
Coop watched the boy run off to the waiting car. He silently cursed the man for what he'd done to this family. Michael Perry had a pretty wife and a couple of kids. He lost it all so quickly.
It was Coop's job to find out who was behind Perry's death. Was he the informant that never showed that night, or was it all just a coincidence?
Now, he planned on finding the truth, and preventing any other people getting hurt in the process.
Thirty minutes later, Coop found the Blind Stitch on Main Street. Not that it was that hard. The town of Kerry Springs, Texas, had a population of only about ten thousand. But he knew from experience that not all the people were good citizens.
He opened the door and walked inside. Okay, maybe he would be more comfortable going into a seedy bar in El Paso, but he had a job to do.
The store was laid out well. He was met with rows of colorful fabric that crowded the shelves and handmade quilts adorned the high walls. A large cutting table was busy with patrons waiting patiently for their turn. On the other side was a large doorway, opening into another area that had several rows of tables with sewing machines.
Finally a young blonde woman came up to him, her stomach round from the late stage of pregnancy.
"Hello, I'm Jenny Rafferty," she said. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"I was told that I'd find Beth Staley here."
The woman smiled. "Yes, Beth is here." She nodded to a round table in the corner in the front of the windows where half dozen women sat. "'The Quilting Corner' ladies."
He nodded. "Thank you, ma'am." He released a breath. He needed to sell this to make his job easier. Hat in hand, he put on a smile as he made his way to the table. The half dozen women, all different ages, suddenly stopped their conversation and stared at him.
"Good afternoon, ladies," he said. "I apologize for interrupting, but I'm looking for Mrs. Beth Staley."
"That would be me." A tiny woman in her late fifties raised her hand. "Are you sure you got the name right?"
The other woman laughed and Coop relaxed a little. "I'm sure if you're the woman who has the cottage for rent?"
When Beth smiled, he saw the resemblance to her daughter. Same sapphire eyes and shape of the face. The woman flashed a look at her friends, then back to him.
"Why, yes, I do."
"Then I'm interested in renting it. I hope I'm not too late."
Mrs. Staley looked confused. "Why, Mr. Cooper, would that be?"
"Your daughter said there's another interested party."
Mrs. Staley sobered. "Oh, yeah, right. Well, that fell through so the cottage is still available. But, young man "
"Sorry, it's Noah Cooper. Everyone calls me Coop."
"And I'm Beth, and these are my friends, Liz, Lisa, Millie, Louisa and Caitlin."
"It's a pleasure to meet you all."
They all returned greetings.
"Excuse us, ladies." Beth stood and moved away from the table for more privacy. "Well, Mr. Cooper, if you're serious about the cottage, I'll need references and a deposit."
Coop nodded in agreement. "Not a problem. My new job is with AC Construction. But I can give previous references from San Antonio." His superiors wouldn't have any problem coming up with something.
"You're working for Alex?"
Coop nodded again. "Yes. I'm a finish carpenter by trade. I'd rather not live in a motel for the next six, or eight months." He'd had worse accommodations. "When I saw your cottage, it was a nice surprise." He needed to sweeten the deal. "And I've done a lot of home restoration work in the past, and I could help with some repairs around your beautiful home."
"I'm ashamed to say, my home has been neglected so badly. When my husband was alive he did all the repairs." She folded her arms over her chest covered by a shirt that said, I'd Rather Be Quilting. "Would you have the time to work on my place with your other job?"
"My job doesn't start for a few weeks. And I'm ready to move in right now. Of course, you need to check my references first."
She wrinkled her nose. "I figure if you work for Alex Casali, you must be top-notch. His wife, Allison, owns this shop."
"So Mrs. Casali quilts, too."
Beth grinned. "You could say that. She's one of the best." She motioned him back to the table. "Ladies, Noah Cooper is going to be my new tenant."
Everyone turned to see Lilly Perry walking toward the group. She'd cleaned up from earlier, and changed into a pair of khaki shorts and a pink T-shirt. Her brown hair was brushed and laying in soft waves against her shoulders. He'd never guess this woman was in her mid-thirties, and the mother of two.
"Mother, what's going on?"
"Good, Lilly, you're here. I want to introduce you to Mr. Cooper."
"We've already met," Lilly said, not looking happy. "He came by the house earlier." She stared at him. "How did you know to come here?"
"Your son, Robbie. He told me where to find Mrs. Staley. I didn't want to miss the opportunity. You said someone else was interested in it."
Beth looked at her daughter. "Who else?"
The older woman frowned. "She's only eighteen. Not only couldn't she afford it, but I'd spend all my time chasing off that boyfriend of hers. Good Lord, don't the women of this generation have any taste in men? The kid doesn't even have a job."
Lilly didn't like being called out in front of a stranger. "Excuse us, please." So she took her mother by the hand and pulled her away. Once across the room and out of earshot, she spoke. "Mother, you shouldn't have agreed to rent to this man before you checked him out. Besides, I thought we decided to rent to a woman."
"If I remember, you decided that. Besides, I wasn't born yesterday and I know how to size up people. Don't let your relationship with Michael cloud your judgment."
"Michael did a hell of a lot more than cloud my judgment. He kicked me and the kids to the curb and took every dime of our money. Not to mention he humiliated me."
Beth's expression softened. "I know, honey. And I wish I could change that, but I can't. Don't you think it's time to move on? Start a new life for you and the kids."
Lilly did not want to rehash her problems right here in the Blind Stitch. There had been enough gossip about her around town to last a lifetime.