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He was a hot hunk in a tight white T-shirt, a pair of worn jeans and a tool belt riding low on his lean hips. He was nothing like what Brittany Grayson had expected.
When she'd called Chad Warren, one of the local carpenters in the small town of Black Rock, Kansas, to see about him building a deck on the back of her house, he'd told her he was already booked for the spring but would send an old college friend of his who had recently moved to town.
Chad was a good old boy, fifty pounds overweight, who believed beer pong should be a nationally recognized sport. It was silly, but she'd just assumed his college buddy would be like him. But the man standing on her front porch didn't look like a peer of Chad's; rather he looked as if he'd stepped off the slick pages of some hot-hunk calendar.
"Brittany?" His voice was deep and pleasant and made her realize she'd been staring at him open-mouthed through the screen door.
"Yes, I'm Brittany and you must be " Her mind suddenly went blank.
"Alex. Alex Crawford, Chad's friend. You called him about a deck?"
"Yes, I did." She hesitated before opening the screen door to allow him inside. There had been no men except for her brothers inside her home since she'd moved back in a little over a month ago.
As she unlocked the screen, she realized she wasn't quite ready yet to allow a stranger inside, especially a male stranger. Instead she stepped outside where the late April sun was warm and the air smelled of newly bloomed flowers.
"It's nice to meet you, Alex. Let's walk around back and I'll show you what I have in mind," she said. She frowned as she realized there was no car in her driveway. "Did you walk here?" she asked.
His eyes were a warm blue that stood out against his tanned face and were complemented by his slightly shaggy dark hair. "I live three doors up." He pointed up the street to the Walker home that had been on the market for a while.
"How long have you lived there?"
"I moved in about six weeks ago," he replied as they walked around the side of the house toward the back.
That explained why she didn't know the Walkers had moved out and Mr. Hardbody had moved in. Six weeks ago she'd still been living at her brother Benjamin's house trying to heal from the trauma she'd lived through.
As they reached the backyard she motioned toward the small broken brick patio that existed just outside the back door. "What I'd like is a wooden deck big enough to hold a barbecue pit and an umbrella table and maybe some plants and, of course, lots and lots of people."
He nodded and pulled a tape measure from his tool belt. "An outdoor entertainment area," he said.
"Exactly," she replied and watched as he began to walk the site. The last thing Brittany had wanted to think about over the past eight months of her life was men. But looking at Alex Crawford definitely gave her a slight flutter of pure feminine pleasure.
When she'd been held captive by a serial killer for four long months, she'd spent her time thinking about all the things she would do if she escaped, if she managed to live.
She hadn't fantasized about love or having babies. She hadn't thought about men or hot sex. Rather she'd thought about a deck where she could invite all her friends and family to share good times with her. And now she was finally going to see those fantasies come to fruition.
"I'd say what you want is about eighteen by twenty-four," Alex said as the tape measure zipped back into its metal case.
"And I'd like a railing around it with an opening to step down into the yard," she said.
He nodded and smiled. "I can do that."
The man had a smile with the capacity to stop time. A wave of warmth washed over Brittany as she tried to stay focused on the matter at hand. "How long will it take?"
He frowned, the gesture doing nothing to detract from his attractiveness. "It will take maybe a week once we get started. I work weekdays from about eight in the morning until about three-thirty and I have a couple of young men who help out, but I don't work on the weekends."
Probably he took the weekends to spend with his family, she thought. A man who looked like Alex Crawford probably had a wife who looked like a supermodel. "So, you'll call me with a bid?"
"If you give me just a few minutes I'll have a bid for you now." He pulled out a small pad and a pencil.
His dark hair shone richly in the overhead sunlight and Brittany suddenly felt the need to get some distance from him. "Why don't I go get us each a glass of lemonade?" she suggested.
He looked up and smiled again and another rivulet of warmth swept through her. "That sounds great."
She escaped back into the house and went through the living room to the kitchen. For a moment she stood at the window and watched him as he once again walked off the area where the deck would be built.
Surely her response to him was nothing more than a healthy awakening of emotions that had been dormant for far too long. She moved away from the window and poured the lemonade into two tall plastic tumblers.
She would be twenty-six in two monthsit was only natural that she might appreciate the sight of a good-looking man. She should be glad that normal feelings were finally beginning to return to her.
For the past several months she'd alternated between numbness and an irrational fear as she'd tried to reintegrate back into the life that had been stolen from her for four agonizing months. Nightmares, panic attacksshe'd had them all and had begun to believe she'd never have a normal moment again. It was nice that this normal moment was a healthy dose of lust.
She walked out the back door and motioned him to one of the four chairs at the old table that was on the broken brick patio. "Thanks," he said as he took the drink from her. "I've got some figures for you." He handed her a piece of paper that had his bid written on it. "If you agree, then I'll write up a contract for you to sign."
The figure was about what she'd expected. "Looks good to me." She leaned back in her chair and offered him a tentative smile. "Chad mentioned that the two of you went to college together."
"We did. I went on to law school and got a job in Chicago and Chad came back here."
"From lawyer to carpenter? Quite a leap," she observed. "What brings you back to Black Rock?"
"My wife's family is from here and after several years of doing the high-powered, high-stress corporate thing, I decided I was ready for a change of pace."
A small laugh escaped Brittany. "The difference in pace between Chicago and Black Rock, Kansas, is like the difference between a pit bull and a stuffed dog." She wasn't surprised that the man was married.
He laughed. "You've got that right, but Black Rock is just what I needed." He tilted his glass up and drained it and then stood. "If you agree with everything I can start work tomorrow, given I can get a lumber delivery."
She got up from her chair and took his empty glass and together they walked around the side of the house to the front.
"Is it your birthday or something?" he asked.
She looked at him in confusion. "No, why?"
He pointed to her mailbox where a bright red balloon was tied and bobbed and danced in the slight warm breeze. Shock ripped through her and the glasses slid from her hands, crashing to the grass at her feet.
It's party time. The nightmarish voice whispered in her brain as memories attacked her. The cell where she'd been kept, the promise of a party when all the cells were filled with helpless women, the final moment when red balloons had danced up to the ceiling of the old shed. It's party time.
"Brittany, are you all right?"
Alex's voice pulled her back from the dark abyss she'd nearly fallen into and she tore her gaze from the balloon and looked into his concerned eyes.
"I'm fine," she replied, aware that her voice was shaky and hoping he didn't notice.
"Are you sure?" He bent down and picked up the glasses.
She nodded, even though she wasn't at all sure that she was fine. Thank God the glasses were plastic and hadn't shattered when she'd dropped them. She took them from him, hoping he didn't notice the trembling of her hands. "Silly me. Just a touch of clumsiness. You'll call me and let me know if you're coming tomorrow?"
"I'll head home now and order the necessary lumber and other supplies. If they can deliver tomorrow then I'll give you a call." He eyed her worriedly, but she forced a cheerful smile to her lips.
"Do you need me to write you a check now for the materials?" she asked.
"That's not necessary." His eyes gleamed with a teasing light. "I know where you live."
"Thanks, Alex. Hopefully I'll see you tomorrow." She turned on wooden legs and headed for the house, an urgent need to get inside and lock the door filling her.
She didn't wait to watch him walk down the sidewalk toward his place; rather she turned on her heels and half ran toward her front door. Once inside she slammed it shut and locked it.
Leaning heavily against the solid wood door she told herself she was overreacting, that maybe there was a child's birthday party someplace on the street or a graduation celebration and somebody had just tied the balloon on her mailbox by accident.
Surely there was a logical reason for the balloon. It had nothing to do with the man who had called himself The Professional. He was dead. She'd seen his body after he'd been killed. He was no longer capable of having a "party" complete with red balloons and death.
Still, the legacy he'd left behind sickened her and even though she knew it was totally irrational, that balloon tied to her mailbox made her fear in her heart that somehow The Professional wasn't done with her yet.