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It was already late Sunday afternoon when Hank pulled his pickup truck to the side of the narrow road, turned off the engine and stared. His gaze turned not to the spectacular red-tinted sunset in the west, but east, with a sort of fascinated horror, toward the worst-designed house he'd ever seen. As an engineer with a healthy respect for architecture, that house offended his sense of style, his sense of proportion, even his sense of color.
What had once been a small and probably quite pleasant waterfront cottage now lurched improbably across a tiny spit of land that poked into the Atlantic. Additions had been tacked on willy-nilly, adjusting to whatever natural obstacle had been in the way. One wing took a left turn away from the abrupt curve in the beach. Another detoured around a banyan tree. Although it was all one story high, the rooftops were not level, as if the specifications for the additions had been dreamed up without paying the slightest attention to the original.
The color scheme He shook his head in wonder. Was it possible that there had been only one can each of the salmon-pink, dusty blue and canary-yellow paint in the local paint store? The effect was jarring when it should have been soothing. The house reminded him of the owner.
Hank had met Ann Davies during the three days of festivities surrounding his best friend's wedding. Her effect on his system had been about as soothing as rubbing sandpaper across metal. Ann was a tall, rawboned woman with short black hair that he was convinced had been sheared off by a lawn mower. Her idea of makeup was apparently limited to a slash of lipstick across a generous mouth that was always in motion. The woman talked more than any other human being he'd ever met. She had opinionsstrong opinionson everything from football to mushrooms. She thought the former too brutal, the latter unappetizing. Hank loved them both.
So why, in the name of all that was holy, was he parked at the edge of her property? More to the point, what had possessed him to listen to his friends Todd and Liz when they'd suggested he come here? They had actually managed to persuade himeven before he'd finished the six-pack of his favorite beer they had settled in front of himthat he could survive in the same house with this irritating woman for the next few months while he supervised construction of a shopping center being built in nearby Marathon. They were crazy. He was crazier.
He was also desperate, he reminded himself with stark realism. It was early January in the Florida Keys, the worst possible time to be starting a construction job. Condos, houses and hotels were filled to overflowing with tourists. Those accommodations that were still available cost an arm and a leg. The company could have written off the expense, of course, but the few places still sitting empty weren't available long-term. They'd already been booked for scattered weeks of the season.
Even so, he'd looked at every one of them, hoping to find something that would do even short-term. Most consisted of nothing more than a tiny room and a shower. They were all too cramped by far for his big frame. He would have felt claustrophobic after a single night. He'd actually stepped into the shower stall in one and come close to being wedged in.
The remaining alternative, to commute from Miami, while not impossible, would have driven him nuts inside of a week. Traffic this time of the year required the patience of a saint. Hank recognized his limitations. He was no saint. Just the prospect of being locked bumper to bumper with a bunch of sight-seeing tourists made the muscles in the back of his neck knot.
Then Ann had offered, via Liz, to let him have a room in her spacious home at no charge. She'd even volunteered to throw in meals, if he'd pick up his share of the groceries. He couldn't imagine what sort of blackmail Liz had held over her to convince her to invite him.
"Why's she doing it?" he'd asked Liz suspiciously. "I didn't exactly charm the socks off her at the wedding." He'd meant it quite literally. He'd never before known a woman who wore bright yellow socks and blue tennis shoes with a green skirt and hot-pink T-shirt. Not even to the movies, much less to a wedding rehearsal. He shuddered at the memory. He should have known right then what this house would look like.
Liz had given him one of her serene smiles and said blithely, "Oh, you know how Ann is."
He didn't know. He didn't even want to. Yet the fact remained, here he was, a couple of suitcases in the back of the truck along with three bags of groceries he'd picked up at the supermarket. Actually it was two bags of food and one of beer and sodas. After a hot day on the job, nothing was better than lying peacefully in a hammock sipping an ice-cold can of beer. The soda was for breakfast. The carbonation and caffeine got his blood circulating. The sugar content of the jelly doughnuts he ate along with it gave him energy. He could have used both right now.
With one last fortifying breath, he turned on the ignition and drove into a driveway with ruts so deep they jarred his teeth. He pulled the truck around to the side of the house. He'd climbed out and was in the process of trying to adjust all three bags of groceries in his arms when he was slammed broadside by something that hit him about knee-high. The bags went flying. Hank grabbed for the beer the way a dying man reaches for a lifeline. He knew in his gut he was going to need that beer, probably before the night was out.
When he and the bag of beer were uprightthe groceries were strewn across the lawnhe looked down and saw a child of about three staring solemnly up at him. She had a thumb poked in her mouth and a frayed blanket dangling from her other hand. He only barely resisted the urge to moan. He had forgotten about the kids. More likely, he'd conveniently blocked them right out of his mind.
Hank really hated kids. They made him nervous. They aroused all sorts of odd feelings of inadequacy. They were noisy, demanding and messy. They asked endless, unanswerable questions. They caused nothing but worry for their parents, aside from turning perfectly enjoyable lifestyles upside down and inside out. Girls were even more of a mystery to him than boys. At least he'd been a boy once himself.
Still, he had to admit there was something appealing about this little girl. With her silver-blond hair curling in a wispy halo, she looked placid and innocent, as if she'd had absolutely nothing to do with virtually upending a man six times her size.
"Hi," he said cautiously. It had been a long time since Todd's sonhis godsonhad been this age, and he'd vowed to avoid Todd's new baby until she could speak intelligently. He'd figured that was another twelve to fourteen years away. He stared at the child in front of him. Beyond hello, what else did you say to a three-year-old, especially one who still had a thumb tucked in her mouth and showed no inclination to communicate?
"Where's your mommy?" he tried finally.
To his horror, tears welled up in the wide, blue eyes and the child took off at a run, dragging her thumb from her mouth long enough to let out a wail that would have wakened the dead.
Hank was just considering getting straight back into the pickup and bolting to the most expensive, tiniest condo he could find when a screen door slammed. The woman who'd loomed in his memory rounded a corner of the house at a run, her ankle-length purple skirt flapping, a butcher knife clutched threateningly in her raised hand. She skidded to a stop at the sight of him and slowly lowered the knife. Her furious expression calmed slightly.
There was nothing at all calm about his own reaction to the sight of her. His heart lurched with an astonishing thump. He dismissed the sensation at once as delayed panic. He'd rarely been confronted at the door by knife-wielding women. Surely that explained the surge of adrenaline that had his blood pumping fast and hard through his veins.
And yet He took a good long look at her. Somehow all those uneven features he'd recalled had been rearranged into a face that was interesting, rather than plain, especially now with her color high. The tall, gaunt body, still dressed in an utterly absurd combination of colors and styles, seemed, for some peculiar reason, more appealing than he'd remembered. Her hair, still cropped short, suddenly seemed to suit her face with its feathery softness. It emphasized her eyes and those thick, sooty lashes. She looked good. Damned good. Even with a knife in her hand.
He'd obviously lost his mind.
"Well, here you are," Ann said briskly as she put down the knife and began methodically to gather up the groceries. It gave her something to do to cover the nervous, fluttery feeling that had suddenly assailed her without warning. Nabbing a box of jelly doughnuts, she regarded them disapprovingly, then stuffed them in the bag along with assorted snack foods that she absolutely refused to have within a five-mile radius of the kids except on special occasions. She would deal with Hank Riley's dietary habits later, after she'd reconciled her memory of the obnoxious, arrogant man with the disconcertingly appealing sight of him.
"Sorry about Melissa," she apologized distractedly, fingering a head of lettuce. Lettuce was good. The choke hold this bearded giant of a man seemed to have over her senses was not. She swallowed hard. "I gather she's responsible for this."
"If she's about so high and partial to her thumb, she's the one," he acknowledged with a smile that made her stomach do an unexpected flip. "Did I frighten her or something? I asked where her mommy was and she let out a war cry that would have straightened the hair on Hitler's head."
Ann struggled with the unfamiliar sensations that continued to rampage through her, decided her panic at Melissa's scream was to blame and reclaimed a bit of control.
"So that's it," she said, satisfied with the explanation for her nervousness and oblivious to Hank's confusion.
He was regarding her oddly. "That's what?"
She tried frantically to recall what he'd just said. Something about Melissa's mother and Hitler? She wasn't sure what the Nazi connection was, but she understood precisely what had happened when Hank had mentioned the child's mother.
"I wondered what brought on all the tears. She came in crying about some man."
"Which explains the butcher knife."
She glanced down at the weapon she'd grabbed on her way out the door. It was lying at her feet. "Oh, sorry."
"Don't be. In this day and age, I don't suppose a woman can be too careful," he said, reaching down to pick it up. "Since you didn't use it on me, I gather you've decided I'm harmless."
Harmless? No less than a pit of vipers. How had she forgotten that he had this strange effect on her? All she'd recalled after the wedding had been his infuriating habit of contradicting every opinion she held.
"Maybe I'd better explain about Melissa's mother," she said, clinging to a neutral topic. "The woman abandoned her a year ago, just took off without a word to anyone. A neighbor found Melissa all alone the next day. They say children adjust pretty easily, but Melissa hasn't. She still wakes up in the middle of the night crying for her mother. Any reminder tends to set her off."
Professional training kept her tone matter-of-fact, but she still seethed inside when she thought about it. "It's beyond me how a mother could leave a child all alone like that. Anything could have happened to her. What if there'd been a fire? Good God, can you imagine?" she said, shuddering visibly. "Even waking up and being all alone would be enough to terrify a baby. When the social worker told me about it, I felt like going after the woman myself. No wonder Melissa's not adjusting."
Hank muttered what sounded like an indignant curse under his breath, then said, "I'm sorry. I had no idea. I guess I was just thinking of you as her mother."
"We don't do a lot of swearing around here," she warned automatically. "The kids, well, some of them anyway, are at that impressionable age. As for Melissa, she calls me Ann. Some of the kids refer to me as Mother. It all depends on what they're comfortable with. Since you're going to be here awhile, I'll give you a rundown on each of them, so you'll understand how they ended up here. The older ones are pretty open about things, but the little ones are still a little sensitive." She fingered a package of cupcakes, regarded them distastefully and sighed. "Then there's Jason. He rarely talks at all."
Hank didn't seem to notice the fact that she couldn't shut up. In fact, he looked decidedly uneasy. "How many are there?" he asked, as if he were inquiring about enemy troops just beyond a strategic hill.
"Five. Six. It depends on whether Tracy stays with friends after her classes at the junior college in Key West. Tonight they're all here. Occasionally one of the kids who used to live here comes back for a visit."
Hank, a man who struck her as big enough and tough enough to fear nothing, seemed to take a panicky step closer to his truck. He looked as though he wanted to escape. She could relate to the feeling. She'd felt that way since the instant she'd spotted him standing in the yard in faded jeans, a body-hugging T-shirt and sneakers. He hadn't seemed nearly as devastating in the suits he'd worn the weekend of the wedding.
"I probably won't see all that much of them," he said, an edge of desperation in his voice. "I'll be working pretty long hours."
She waved aside the objection. "Nonetheless, it'll be better if you know. Come on in now and I'll show you around."