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Richwoods, New York. One month later.
RHIAN STEPPED OFF the last rung of the ladder onto the roof of her house and paused to catch her breath. There was a puff in the air behind her. She turned and saw the ladder tilting slowly, majestically away from the house. She made a desperate, dangerous grab for it but missed, and then watched as it crashed into the grass below. Good Lord, she was stuck on her own roof.
Lying belly down on the edge, she realized three things: the view from the roof was amazing; the paint looked much, much worse up close; and the housepainter she was hoping to hire would have to rescue her.
Before she'd even met the man she'd be the damsel in distress. She hated that. Especially if the man playing Prince Wonderful Rescue was a repairman of any kind. In her experience, damsels, especially of the single–mother variety, were frequently overcharged.
Ten minutes later, just before she started to get bored, an exquisitely clean, midnight–blue pickup with two ladders in a rack made the turn into her driveway. She stood up and squinted, trying to get a look at the driver.
With her luck he'd be some old–timer who'd call her little lady while making bad jokes about women and ladders.
But no, the man who stepped out of the pickup was no old guy: heartthrob handsome was more like it. Rhian blinked. Maybe she was having some height–induced vision problem and he didn't really look like a younger, longer–haired Paul Newman. He whistled softly as he strode up her walk, clipboard tucked under one arm, jingling his keys with the other hand. He moved easily, his walk loose limbed, lean and graceful. Rhian smiled and shook her head in amazement. She'd spent four years learning to ignore men, not fantasizing even about the gorgeous ones. Now, when she truly was in need of a hero, or at least someone with a ladder, fate had sent this, this specimen to save her.
He was the only painter in Richwoods who'd even taken her call. Every other painter, including the college boys who strapped a stepladder to the top of their Subaru station wagon and sounded stoned on their answering machine, had been booked for months. But this one, Prince Charming from any number of schoolgirl films, was still available.
There must be something wrong with him. Maybe he was a crook. How many crooked housepainters could one medium–size town support? She knew at least three crooked painters had left town, because the Bobalo Brothers had taken the deposit she'd paid with them when they'd skipped town after ruining her house.
The painter slowed when he saw the ladder lying in the grass and then stopped dead. "Hello," Rhian called. "I got hung up." A beat of hesitation and then he stepped back and looked up to where she was.
He blinked at her and opened his mouth but didn't say anything. Maybe he wasn't a crook; he might be dumb. That would explain the lack of clients.
She put her right hand up to shade her eyes and took a better look at him. He was looking back at her, his jaw set, and if she wasn't mistaken, his face had gone pale. She hoped he wasn't ill. The house desperately needed to be painted. Repainted. Whatever. She couldn't afford to have Prince Pea Brain keel over before he gave her the estimate.
"Don't move." His voice was clipped as he turned to get the ladder. He seemed healthy enough, Rhian thought, as she watched him swing the ladder up in one easy move with a grace she envied. Her head still hurt where she'd bonked it as she wrestled the ladder out of the storage shed.
The painter jerked the ladder once to set it, then braced his legs and looked up at her. "Climb down nice and easy. I'll steady it while you come. Don't worry."
She wasn't worried. She was mad that the ladder had fallen, for starters. Mortified by the rescue, maybe. Wishing herself anywhere but on a ladder, progressing bottom first toward a housepainter, definitely.
He didn't step back or let go of the ladder even when she was almost down. He was very tall, six–three at least, and she was hideously aware of him. Passing so close to him that she could feel the warmth coming off his chest, she caught a whiff of shampoo and outdoors. Warm cotton. She jumped the last foot to get some space.
Space didn't help much. He was that attractive. His shoulders were broad and his arms deliciously cut and strong. His eyes were a deep, clear blue. A worn but neatly tucked in T–shirt didn't do much to disguise a lean, muscular body. Rich brown hair was brushed back from his face and clustered in soft curls touching his collar. Who had hair that perfect? It was absurd that this guy was standing in her yard. There had to be something wrong with him.
The Bobalos, the painters who'd made a monstrous joke out of her home and then gone on the lam with her money, hadn't looked evil, either. How on earth would she know if she could trust this guy? Rhian hated when the rules weren't clear.
His voice, low and serious, brought her back to reality. "You weren't on the ladder when it fell, were you?"
She started to make a joke but then realized he was worried. He wasn't making fun of her or trying to make her feel stupid or teach her why women shouldn't mess with tools. What she'd thought was illness on his face had been worry. No one worried about her. It felt…nice.
"It went over after I stepped off. I'm embarrassed, not hurt."
He nodded. Some of the tension left his face. "Why were you up there?"
Rhian turned sideways to gesture at the house. The bottom section was brick, old and faded, luscious peach and red tones blending into sandy browns. It was weathered and beautiful. The upper story was wooden shingles and…well, she hadn't quite come up with the right name for the shade. Pepto–Bismol was close but she thought that was actually, maybe, three shades less pink than her home.
She waved a hand at it. "I wanted to see if it looked better up close." She saw his mouth twitch. He wanted to laugh. Didn't want to insult her, but he did want to laugh, she could tell.
"What do you think?"
His deep blue eyes danced with humor but he still didn't let the smile appear. "In my professional opinion, it would be hard for it to look worse."
She laughed. Okay, he wasn't stupid. He was funny. Interesting. Rats.
"Well, I'm glad you're here, Mr. Delaney."
She stuck her hand out and he shook it. His grip was warm and dry. And then he smiled, his mouth quirking up on one side and his eyes crinkling and she wished for half a second that he would keep smiling at her forever.
"Please, it's Nathan. I save 'Mr. Delaney' for the IRS."
"I'm kidding. I just prefer Nathan."
Her laugh was halfhearted. Since the Bobalos had taken off with her money and left her with the Barbie Townhouse her appetite for crime jokes was very small.
"I'm Rhian MacGregor."
"Rhian." His mouth tilted up again in that charming smile. He shifted his weight and folded his arms across the clipboard in front of him. "I like the sound of that. Rhian. Nice."
"So what do we do? Do you look at the house? Do I answer questions?"
He shot a sly look at her. "My first question has to be the obvious one—what happened to your house?"
Rhian shook her head. She still couldn't believe it. "I hired these…these painters, these brothers, Harry, Larry and Dave Bobalo."
"Harry, Larry and Dave?"
"Half brother." Rhian said. "Anyway, they said they'd need a week to paint the house. There was lead paint underneath. I didn't want my little guy here while they were scraping so we left—went downstate to New York to play tourist. When we came back, the house looked like this and every last Bobalo brother and half brother and my deposit check for two thousand dollars were gone."
Nathan glanced from the house to her. "They skipped town?"
"Would they have been able to get another painting gig?"
"So that's the story. Now I want it painted over. Painted right."
"No kidding." He flipped open his clipboard and took out a pen. "Walk around with me for a minute, will you?" He filled her name and address in at the top of a blank quote sheet. His hand curved around the pen in the peculiar way left–handed people had. Rhian had always wished to be lefthanded. She thought it implied creativity and flair. Would a left–handed painter be more likely to be honest than a righty? She was so caught up in watching him write her name that she didn't notice the plastic Whiffle Ball hidden in the grass. Her stomach dropped as she lost her balance.
Without even seeming to look at her, Nathan shot out a hand and grabbed her above the elbow, steadying her with a firm grip until she had her feet back under her.
"Thanks." She was flustered. His hand had been strong and warm. "You move fast."
"Good reflexes. And you're welcome." He shook his pen gently at her. "That's two times I saved you. In some countries that would put you in my debt."
She'd have to do what he wanted then. What would a sexy–walking, fast–moving, left–handed housepainter want? She shivered and put her hand up to cup the spot where he'd held her arm. "Lucky thing we're here in the good, old U.S.A." "Lucky thing," he muttered. He squinted at the back of the house then put his head down to the clipboard, making another note. He kicked the Whiffle Ball gently. "You have kids?"
"One. Jem. My nephew actually." She sounded matterof–fact because she'd trained herself ruthlessly to pull that off. But she never could keep the lump out of her throat when she thought about her sister, Christine, and brotherin–law, James. God, she missed them. Eight years after their accident the pain was still raw.
He glanced at her but then went back to his sheet. She couldn't help watching the slender pen in his long, tanned fingers and the curve of his wrist. How pathetic was it that she thought penmanship was sexy? But being a sucker for lefties didn't mean she wanted to do anything about it. Benjamin Franklin was a lefty and she hadn't ever tried to date him. The dead–for–two–hundred–years thing was a factor, but still. She could control herself.
Just because a left–handed man had come to give her a painting quote, she wouldn't let go of every rule she'd made for her life. She didn't date people. She didn't fantasize about housepainters. She didn't even trust housepainters.
"So what do you think?" she asked, hoping to shift her thoughts firmly back to a professional footing. He was a professional. A professional housepainter and that made him suspect.
"Whatever you do is going to take a few coats. What color was it supposed to be?"
"Blush. Not even that." She clenched her fists when she thought about the Bobalos and how she'd trusted them. "I asked them to add a hint, a tinge, a suggestion of pink to the cream paint. It was supposed to whisper pink once it was next to the bricks."
"And instead of a whisper, Harry, Larry and Dave gave you the Hallelujah Chorus."
She sighed. Her house was so precious to her. It wasn't just a building and certainly wasn't an investment. It was home, the place she and Jem had built their family, the place she'd finally put down roots. She hated that her home had been treated so shabbily. "So what can we do now?"
Nathan shrugged. "Paint it over." "Again with the professional opinions?" "Yep." He grinned, making his answer cheerful, not dismissive. "Will you be around tomorrow, late afternoon? I can drop off an estimate."
"Sure, just yell up to the roof."
He shot her a look.
"Joke," she said. "No need to worry. I'll be here, on the ground, ladder–free."
They walked together around the side of the house, passing through the shade of the old oak trees, skirting the enormous hole Jem had excavated off and on since he was four.
"Digging to China?" He jerked a thumb at the hole.
"Maybe originally. Now it's just digging."
"Guy's gotta have a project," he agreed amiably.
She didn't let herself think about how cool it was to talk to someone with an instinctive understanding of little boys. Maybe it wasn't instinctive anyway. Maybe he was married with a half–dozen little boys of his own.
He opened the gate for her and held it while she walked through and stopped near his truck.
"Umm." She hesitated, always reluctant to ask for references because she thought it screamed I don't trust you. But she'd already been burned. She could be accused of being naive but she'd be damned if she'd be accused of being stupid. "We didn't talk about references. Maybe I can give yours a call tonight while you work on the estimate?"
For the first time he hesitated. "Local references?"
He tapped his pen on his clipboard. Nervous, she thought. Great.
"Yes, people who will vouch for your work. You know people who will say, 'Nathan never painted my house the wrong color and then left town with the deposit."" She wanted him to pick up the joke. Of course he had references.
"Actually, I don't have any references. Not locally. I'm new to Richwoods." Nathan leaned toward her, sincerity in his posture. "But I can give you my old partner's number in Boston. He'll vouch for my, um, work."
Rhian looked at her feet. One reference from somewhere else wasn't really good enough. Maybe if she called those college boys one more time they'd need some extra cash for beer.
"Listen, Rhian." He put the clipboard on the hood of his truck and put his hands in his pockets. "I know this doesn't sound good and you have no reason to trust me. But I'm being honest with you. I'm starting over here. If you give me a shot with your house, I swear you won't be disappointed."