Read an Excerpt
"Sister dearest, you look as though you need a cafe mocha with extra whipped cream."
"Boy, do I." Kirby McKaslin sagged against the coffee shop's counter. "Could you make it a double?"
"Gladly." Older sister Karen's diamond wedding ring glittered in the overhead lights as she began working the espresso machine. "Come around and help yourself to the leftover cookies. Gramma made chocolate chocolate-chip"
"Say no more." Kirby dropped her purse on the counter and swung around the corner. Gramma's soft, chewy chocolate cookies were heaven on earth. There were only two left in the display case and she grabbed both of them.
"What about the job?" Karen set the double mocha with a froth of whipped cream on the counter, her voice affectionate and understanding, as always.
Kirby couldn't hide her smile a second longer. "I got it. I'm the new nurse practitioner at the Three Forks Clinic. I start in two weeks."
"Kirby! That's fantastic!" Karen circled the edge of the counter, arms wide. "I'm so proud of my little sister."
"It's too good to be true. My very own clinic. I'm totally in charge, and I know I'm going to love it." Kirby stepped into her sister's hug. "I'm going to get my own patients. I still can't believe it."
"I can. I've had faith in you all along."
There was nothing like a big sister. Kirby gave Karen an extra-long hug, careful of the growing tummy beneath her loose T-shirt. Married and expecting, with a new house and a booming business, Karen had it all.
Kirby was glad for her, but, well, it would be great if that kind of future was ahead for her, too. Not that there were any prospects, but you never knew when a handsome stranger with a loving heart would walk into your life and complete it, right?
She felt optimistic as she sipped melting whipped cream and hot, rich mocha. Things were finally working out in her life. She felt great. As she pushed through the shop's front door and burst onto the sidewalk she couldn't remember being this happy in a long time.
She'd head home. Let her dog out for a run. Maybe treat them both to their favorite drive-through hamburgers
"Kendra!" a woman shouted out from beneath the awning across the street. "Kendra!"
Kirby didn't need to look up from the sunshine falling on the concrete in front of her to know her excellent mood was about to take a nosedive. Doom was the cheerful former cheerleader across the street, holding tight to her newborn with one hand and waving frantically with the other.
"Kendra, I'm so relieved I finally found you." Janice Bemis turned on her charm. "What luck! I've been looking for you. You just have to join the class reunion committee."
"I'm not interested, Janice. And it's Kirby, not Kendra." Someone she'd gone to school with since kindergarten ought to know that sort of thing. That was the problem with being the plainest girl in the familyand the middle girl. No one could remember which one she was.
"Goodness, I'm so sorry."
"That's all right." She was used to it. She dug her keys out of her pocket with her free hand, heading straight to her car.
"I'll give you a call and we'll talk!" Janice promised with die-hard cheerfulness.
Right, and I have caller ID. Kirby settled on the seat of her little red sedan and let the hot, sweet double mocha work its magic. As soon as enough chocolate was in her bloodstream, she started feeling better again.
The last time I volunteered on a committee with you, Janice Appleton Bemis, you stole the boy I was interested in and humiliated me in front of half the student body. Get someone else for your committee. That's what she should have said. Sure, easy to think of all those words now, when she was halfway down Railroad Street.
She wasn't going to let Janice ruin her mood. No way. This was the best day Kirby had had in agesfinally a better-paying job, which meant she got to keep the house she'd bought and couldn't quite afford.
If that wasn't good news enough, her loud and noisy next-door neighbor had been evicted yesterday.
Relief sighed through her. Another blissful night of peaceful and uninterrupted sleep was ahead of her tonight. That would make two nights in a row. It sounded like heaven.
If she ever needed confirmation that dreams came true, this was it.
Until she pulled down her street and spotted the strange pickup parked in her next-door neighbor's driveway. Her happiness began to ebb. Surely Ruth Gardner, the landlord, hadn't found a new renter already.
No, probably not. It's only a repairman, she told herself. There's no way someone else could have moved in already. And Ruth had promised she'd find a renter more suitable to the neighborhood.
That's definitely a repairman, Kirby decided as she slowed down, fighting the seat belt to twist around for a better look. It certainly wasn't someone moving in, not with the ladder and a big box of tools in the back of the pickup.
Just how many repairs would the house need? How soon before it would be rented? After six months of torment putting up with noise, she had a right to be curious.
Who was fixing the house? Was it a general contractor, meaning the job would take a long time? Or a handyman come to do minor repairs?
Ooh, there he was. The workman loped down the front steps and into sight. He was a dark-haired man, probably six feet tall with wide shoulders and lanky rather than bulky build. He wore a red baseball cap and a gray T-shirt and jeans. A tool belt hugged his lean hips. That was all she saw before she pulled into her driveway and the hedges separating the properties hid him from her sight.
Whether he was there for major repairs or minor, he was definitely handsome. Not that handsome men paid her any attention, let's face itshe'd never had that kind of luck. But it never hurt a girl to appreciate the pleasing form of a hardworking man.
Especially a girl who wanted a husband to call her own. But not just any manthe right one. That man was turning out to be harder to find than she'd ever dreamed.
Kirby killed the engine and set the parking brake. Her keys tinkled merrily as she climbed from the car, careful not to spill her steaming mocha. The tepid breezes whipped her dark blond hair into her face, and out of habit she folded the long strands behind her ear as she headed up the walk.
Who would her ideal next-door neighbor be? How about as handsome as the workman next door? And he'd be quiet and sedate, too. Polite. Hardworking. Kind.
Oh, and wonderful in every way. Someone exactly the opposite from the single, wild-haired guy who'd just moved out and who'd played his bass guitar in his garage night after night from midnight until four in the morning.
No, her ideal man would be soft-spoken and considerate and looking for his true love. Of course, he'd take one look at her and fall instantly in love
"Howdy." A bold male voice came out of nowhere.
Kirby yelped and a bubble of foam popped up through the drink hole in the plastic cover, scorching her hand. A suspicious rustling had her turning toward the hedge along the property line.
A man climbed through the foliage like James Bond on a mission.
Or like a prisoner on a jailbreak.
Evergreen needles dusted his dark, short hair. Yep, it was the workman from next door. He was more powerful looking up close. Developed muscles corded his lean, rock-solid arms. He looked intimidating as he straightened to his full height, probably a few inches over six foot, on the lawn in front of her.
Why was he coming through the shrubs instead of walking around on the sidewalk like a normal person?
"I scared you," he said, apparently not shy at all, as he dusted bits of green hedge off his gray shirt.
Say something. Kirby took a breath, trying fruitlessly to get past the shyness that always haunted her.
"I'm sorry. I guess you're not used to men bursting through your hedges."
"Most people use the sidewalk. There are fewer branches to trip over." Oh, that was brilliant, Kirby.
"I'm a unique sort of guy. I never take the easy route. My friends call me Sam."
Friends? "Then what do your enemies call you?"
"Deadly with an M-16." His rugged face was as unforgiving as stone.
Adrenaline kicked up in her blood. Okay, time to run into the house and lock the door. It wouldn't hurt to be on the other side of the dead bolt. A man who mentioned a gun had to be dangerous, right?
"I used to be in the military."
Okay, so now he tells her, after scaring her to death. Who is this guy? she wondered. Kirby took a few more deep breaths, wiped her hand off on her slacks and studied him. He didn't look dangerous at all with the sunlight spilling over him and his hands jammed harmlessly into his front pockets.
What an imagination she had. "Thanks for clarifying that. For a minute there, I thought you might be a convict on the loose."
"Nope, just a man come to fix the plumbing next door." One corner of his mouth crooked in the attempt at a grin, but it was a failed attempt. His face seemed too hard for a smile. "Sorry, I guess I scared you. Didn't mean to."
"Really? Here's a hint. Next time you introduce yourself to a woman, don't mention an assault weapon."
He winced. "I was kidding about that. My buddies call me the comedian."
Comedian? He looked dead serious. As if there wasn't one thing amusing about him. But he was a big man and in fantastic shape, and so she wasn't going to argue. If he thought he was funny, then she was happy to let him think that.
At least her heart rate was almost back to normal. "Fine, well, I'm going to go in now. Nice meeting you
" Whatever your name is.
"What?" Her pulse rocketed up a notch.
"Sam Gardner." His rock-hard brown gaze pinned hers. "Guess I should have introduced myself properly. So a woman alone and as skittish as you would feel comfortable."
She'd be offended by his tone, except that there was a glimmer of humor in his eyes. Oh, she knew about men like him. Too handsome for his own good, and he knew it, too.
Shouldn't he be next door repairing the plumbing? Why was he bugging her?
He arched his brow, and on his granite face it was more of a demand than a question. "I've told you my name. So it'd be polite if you told me yours."
"I never said I was polite."
"Darlin', you have it written all over that peaches-and-cream complexion of yours." A hint of a smile played on his mouth. "Go ahead. You can say it. My name is
"Kirby. Is there some reason you climbed through my hedge?"
"There sure is. I only crash through hedges for a good cause. I'm here because I'm in trouble."
"Oh, I see." Of course that's why he was here. Why he was laying on the charm. He wanted something. "Let me guess. You need to use my phone to make a long-distance emergency call."
"Nope, but are you offering? I could think of someone to call long distance."
What was he doing? Sam Gardner knew better than to tease a pretty young woman, especially one so seemingly good and innocent, because he'd learned from experience. No good could come from it. Hugging a nestful of rattlers would be less hazardous.
That's why he did it. He saw the way she'd looked him up and down as potential marriage material. Single women of a certain age had that common habit, and he had to make it clear. He was not a candidate for holy matrimony. The question was, did she get the hint?
Her bow-shaped mouth drew down. Oh, yeah, she was expecting the worst from him.
"You want me to fix you a sandwich? Run to the hardware store for you? Lend you money? My grandmother warned me about men like you."
"Good guys, you mean?"
Her delicate brows arched above her perfect, blue-sky eyes. He'd managed to offend her pretty well.
Good. Mission complete. "No, men who try to offend women on purpose."
Ooh...busted. He'd have to watch this one. She was smarter than she looked. "You can't blame a guy for trying to make a memorable impression."
"Memorable? You would have been better off wearing a ski mask and asking for all my money. I'd be more relaxed around you."
"I had you believing that for a few minutes. C'mon, I saw that look on your face when you dashed for the door."
"I did not dash."
"You were ready to."
"Maybe, but you do look like a man who can't be trusted." She lit up as she said that. And she may as well have plastered "single and looking" on her forehead in neon-red ink.
He hadn't been promoted as fast as he had in the armed forces without being dead-on when it came to reading people and knowing what they were capable of. And pretty blond women of a certain age without a diamond on their left ring finger wanted only one thing.
Yep, he'd be wary of her. Friendly, but wary.
"So, are you gonna help me out or not?"
"I'll take it under consideration."
While she thought about it, she took a sip of her coffeehe could smell the chocolate and caffeine from four paces away. That frilly drink probably had extra whipped cream and those chocolate candy sprinkle things, too.
She eyed him over the top of the pastel-pink straws she was daintily sipping from. Was she still trying to figure out if he was suitable marriage material? Or had he convinced her that he wasn't?
"I can't believe you conned Mrs. Gardner into hiring you. She isn't paying you to stand on my walkway talking to me."
"She's not paying me. I'm fixing her house out of the kindness of my own good heart."
"Excuse me, but you don't look the type."
"Appearances can be deceiving."
"Let me get this straight. You're fixing the plumbing next door for free?"
"Hey, don't look so surprised. I know I don't look like those GQ kind of men or the suit-and-tie-wearing office types who say please and thank you. I don't have 'feelings.' But I'm not a jerk out to profit off an old lady on a fixed income. I'm Ruth's nephew."
Kirby's rosebud mouth dropped open in surprise. "Her nephew? You?"
"That's an affirmative."
She stared at him. "Ruth Gardner is petite and blond, and you look like James Bond gone bad. Are you sure you're related to her?"
James Bond, huh? He liked that. "Yep. She married my dad's brother. He passed last year. I came for the funeral and realized how alone Ruth was. No children of her own, and so she'd always done her best to spoil me when I was growing up. I figured I might move here and keep an eye on her. She's the only family I've got."