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"DON'T YOU WANT ME?" SHE ASKED IN A SMALL VOICE
Of course Wade Garrett wanted her. He'd wanted Pauline Mayfield ever since he'd convinced her to rent him a room in her boardinghouse. But he wasn't sure if he was ready to trust women again. Especially one who until recently seemed so intent on keeping their relationship platonic in order to avoid small-town gossip. Still, he couldn't deny their attraction, and if Pauline was ready to take their relationship to the next level, he...
"DON'T YOU WANT ME?" SHE ASKED IN A SMALL VOICE
Of course Wade Garrett wanted her. He'd wanted Pauline Mayfield ever since he'd convinced her to rent him a room in her boardinghouse. But he wasn't sure if he was ready to trust women again. Especially one who until recently seemed so intent on keeping their relationship platonic in order to avoid small-town gossip. Still, he couldn't deny their attraction, and if Pauline was ready to take their relationship to the next level, he wouldn't say no, even if it meant putting his heart on the line—not to mention her reputation!
Suddenly there was a loud cracking sound from outside, followed by an explosive crash. Her eyes flew open and she sat bolt-upright, afraid to breathe, but all she could hear was the wind and the rain.
Heart thudding, she hurried to the window. Her breath fogged the glass, making it impossible to see into the night. Worried that a tree might have flattened her SUV, she threw on her bathrobe. When she reached the hall, another door opened and an elderly woman poked her white head out from her bedroom.
"What was that horrible noise?" she demanded, her British accent more pronounced than usual. "For a moment I thought I was back in the blitz."
"It's okay, Dolly." Pauline barely paused to give her a reassuring smile. "I'll check outside."
"Take an umbrella so you don't get soaked," Dolly replied before she shut her door.
When Pauline reached the laundry room, she thrust her bare feet into a pair of rain boots. Muttering a quick prayer, she flipped on the outdoor light. From the back porch, she saw her undamaged SUV, but her relief was short-lived.
She grabbed the flashlight from its hook inside the door and clumped down the steps, clinging to the porch railing so the boots wouldn't trip her.
The strong wind blew open her robe, and the rain soaked the front of her thin nylon gown. The wet fabric pressed against her bare skin, chilling her as she belted her robe. Shivering, she fumbled with the latch on the backyard gate.
Her boots threatened to slip off her feet with each step she took, and the wind blew her wet hair into her eyes as she aimed her flashlight beam at the garage. A fallen limb from the towering cottonwood tree lay sprawled on the roof.
Pauline felt as though a ball of yarn had risen into her throat. Swallowing hard, she told herself that the damage to the former carriage house might not be as bad as it appeared.
Assessing the damage or tarping the roof before morning was more than she could manage. Meanwhile, she was getting soaked for nothing. Fighting back tears of frustration, she returned to the house, where she struggled with dripping hair and stubborn boots.
Dolly appeared in the kitchen doorway and handed Pauline a towel. "Could you see anything?" she asked.
Thanking her, Pauline wrapped the towel around her head. "A limb fell onto the garage roof," she said through clenched teeth. "I'll call Steve Lindstrom in the morning and see if he can check it out."
"You're soaked," Dolly exclaimed. "Go take a hot shower while I make you some tea."
Pauline doubted she could swallow anything, but she didn't want to be rude. "Good idea," she replied. "Thanks."
To Dolly, tea was a sure cure for just about anything. But Pauline just wanted to wake up and find out this was all a bad dream.
Early the next morning Pauline stood in her driveway and shielded her eyes against the May sunshine that seemed to mock her with its brightness. She watched as her contractor buddy, Steve Lindstrom, stepped down off the ladder he'd propped against her garage. He'd come right over when she'd phoned him even though he must have gotten a dozen other calls.
"I hope you're going to tell me the damage isn't as bad as I thought and that it won't cost me a big bag of money," she implored, exhausted from her sleepless night.
Steve picked up his clipboard and straightened, towering over her in his heavy boots. His solid build might have been intimating if she hadn't known him since high school, when he and her little sister had been a hot item.
Pauline had always been immune to the younger man's hunky charm. His sun-streaked hair — badly in need of a trim, as usual — poked out from under his red baseball cap. Beneath his thick mustache, his smile was sympathetic. "You know, I wouldn't be doing my job if I lowballed the cost," he replied. "Have you called your insurance agent?"
"He promised to stop by later, but he warned me a while ago that I was underinsured," she admitted.
"I don't suppose you listened," Steve guessed. Pauline shook her head. "Worse than that, I jacked up the deductible to save a few bucks on the premium."
"By how much?" he asked.
When she told him, he whistled softly. "Oh, boy, that bites. But you know I'll do the best I can to be fair."
"I know you will," she told him as she led the way through the side garage door.
He looked around carefully, muttering to himself and making notes with a pencil stub, while she trailed after him. Perhaps the damage looked worse than it really was.
"What's the bad news?" she asked as soon as they got back outside.
He studied his clipboard with an unreadable expression. "Remove the limb and haul it away, repair the roof, fix the water damage to the inside, repaint "
"I'll do the painting and whatever else I can," she said quickly. The last thing she needed right now was a huge bill eating up the money she had painstakingly scraped together.
He jotted down another note before sticking the pencil back into the pocket of his faded flannel shirt. "This is really rough, you understand. I'll have a better idea after I make some calls and run the numbers, but replacing those cedar shakes won't be cheap.You know they won't match the rest until they have a chance to weather. There are some composite shingles on the market that look authentic, if you want to put on a new roof instead."
He glanced toward the street. "No one would really notice, not with the garage sitting this far back."
"I'd notice," Pauline replied. "Just figure the cost of patching it, okay?"
"Sure thing." He scratched his chin and named a figure that unhinged her jaw and made it drop. "If I find more damage behind that soggy plasterboard, the cost will climb," he cautioned.
She groped for something positive to head off her mounting hysteria. "At least I can burn the wood." Heating oil was expensive, but the big old house was blessed with working fireplaces in nearly every room.
"Sorry, hon, but cottonwood burns too hot for an indoor fire," he replied. "It wouldn't be safe."
Muscles flexing in his arms and shoulders, he loaded the metal ladder onto the white truck that was parked in the long gravel driveway. Lindstrom Construction, it said on the door in plain black letters, followed by a local phone number.
Already the sun had dried up the puddles she'd stepped over earlier.
"Figures," she grumbled, fiddling with her chunky beaded bracelet. This setback was only temporary, but she wouldn't let it derail her plans.
He closed the tailgate and walked around to the cab. "I gotta tell you up front that I don't know when I can get to it."
When he opened the door of the truck, she noticed that the passenger seat was littered with papers. An empty coffee cup sat in the holder on the dash and a badly faded tassel from two years behind her own graduation dangled from the rearview mirror. "I'm slammed with work and I just lost my best guy to a builder in Bremerton," he added.
Anxiously Pauline scanned the horizon for signs of another storm moving in from the Strait. All she could see was an endless expanse of bright blue sky. But dark rain-swollen clouds could roll off the Olympics or blow down from Canada at any time, just as they had last night.
Steve must have noticed the direction of her gaze. "I'll send someone over to tarp the roof. Be sure to open the windows so the inside will dry out."
"I can't thank you enough," she said as he tossed the clipboard into the truck and got behind the wheel.
She wondered whether he ever thought of Lily now that he was divorced. He never asked Pauline about her — not that she would have much to tell him if he did.
"Either Brian or the new guy I hired will be over later," he said through his open window.
Brian was a gangly teenager who had mowed her lawn every summer until he'd graduated from the local high school and begun working full-time for Steve.
He started the engine, then glanced around at the garage. "Don't you worry about the money." He flicked the point of his shirt collar with his finger. "Maybe you could monogram these for me in trade."
The idea of a monogram on the faded material made her smile. "I'd be happy to." She glanced at her watch. "I've got a class in half an hour, so I'd better get going. Thanks so much for coming."
"No problem." With a wave, he pulled out his cell phone as he went back down the driveway and turned onto the street.
Pauline thrust aside her concerns and hurried across the gravel to her SUV. The last thing she needed was a group of cranky old blue-hairs clustered on the sidewalk in front of her shop, bad-mouthing her for her lack of punctuality.
Wade Garrett had just driven straight up from San Francisco to Crescent Cove. Nearly swaying from fatigue, he was in no mood for jokes as he stared down at the short man with the bad comb-over who stood fidgeting in front of him.
Wade fixed Kenton Wallingford with a look he'd been told was intimidating enough to make an enemy spy rat out his own mother. "What did you just say to me?" Wade asked softly.
Wallingford took a step back as the toothpick in his mouth bobbed from one corner to the other. "I, uh, I said I can't rent you the cabin after all." The slack muscles in his wrinkled neck quivered visibly when he swallowed. "My sister showed up a couple of days ago with her two kids and a black eye," he whined. "What was I supposed to do, send her back to that bum I warned her not to marry ten years ago, so's he can knock her around some more?"
Frustrated, Wade rubbed his temple where a headache had begun keeping time with the throbbing bass pouring out of a car stereo idling out on the street. He felt like marching over and ripping it out with his bare hands.
"How long will they be here?" he asked with a longing glance at the cabin he'd leased over the Internet and where he'd planned on sleeping tonight. A kid's tricycle was parked in the driveway next to a pair of tiny sneakers.
Jeez, maybe he could rent a motel room for a few days.
"Until my sister gets on her feet or that no-good husband of hers sweet-talks her into going back to him." Wallingford lowered his voice. "Between you and me, I'm betting on the latter. Carol's too damned lazy to support herself."
His dry chuckle made Wade want to haul him up by his greasy collar and shake him. It was probably a good thing Wade didn't have the energy left for anything that strenuous.