Kyle was halfway up the front-porch stairs before they finished screaming. He raced across the porch, flung open the door. Four people turned toward him-four pairs of eyes begged for help. As he hurried toward Sandy and her kids, he instinctively went for his pistol. There was nothing at his hip except for his jeans. Damn.
“What is it?” he asked.
Everyone answered at once.
“That thing there,” Sandy said, pointing behind her. She shivered.
“Totally gross,” Lindsay agreed.
Nichole moved closer and clutched his leg.
“It’s coming toward us,” Blake cried.
The four of them shrieked and descended upon him. Sandy pressed against his left side. Lindsay huddled behind his back. Nichole kept a hold on his right leg, while Blake held on to Sandy.
Kyle almost didn’t mind. Having Sandy plaster herself against him gave him a nice warm feeling in his belly… and a few inches farther south. She stared up at him with her big green eyes. Mascara darkened her lashes, but other than that, she didn’t seem to be wearing any makeup. He liked the freckles scattered on her nose and the way her normally firm mouth quivered at the corners. She smelled nice, part floral fragrance, part something a little more sensual. He could feel her breasts, and one hipbone. Her legs brushed against his and he wished he were wearing shorts instead of jeans.
But there were children present, he reminded himself. So he turned his thoughts from the very enticing Sandy Walker to the large empty room in front of them. Aside from a few cobwebs and some dust, he couldn’t see anything to get excited about.
“What are we hiding from?” he asked.
Sandy pointed toward the corner. “That… that thing!”
He squinted, trying to see into the shadows. One of the shadows moved. “It’s a mouse.”
“Oh, God, I know. The place could be infested with them. I hate rodents. Mice, rats. Yuck.”
Yuck? Sensible Sandy had said yuck? He liked that.
Kyle tried to take a step, but they wouldn’t let him. “I want to go check it out,” he said, trying to free himself from Nichole. She just held on tighter. Her small hands clutched at his jeans as if she would never let go.
“Why?” Sandy asked. “I’ll have to call an exterminator.”
“You can’t kill it, Mom,” Lindsay said from behind him.
“Fine, then it can live in your room,” Sandy snapped.
Nichole glanced at her mother. “Mommy, don’t hurt the mouse. Please.”
“Honey, you don’t understand. We can’t live with it running around. Mice are dirty. They get in the food and they could make us all sick.”
Nichole’s eyes, so like her mother’s, darkened with tears. “You can’t kill it.”
“Ladies,” Kyle said.
They ignored him.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Sandy said.
“That means the mouse is going to die for sure,” Lindsay grumbled.
“Ladies,” he repeated.
“You don’t know everything,” Sandy said, her voice strained. “There are humane ways to get rid of mice. I don’t want to see it killed any more than you do, but it and its friends cannot live here with us.”
“The mouse has friends?” Nichole asked.
Kyle raised his right hand to his face, stuck his thumb and index finger in his mouth, then blew hard. The piercing whistle silenced them instantly.
“Now that I have your attention,” he said, “will everyone please take one step back and let go of me?”
Sandy stared up at him for a moment, blushed, then quickly moved away, brushing her hands against her shorts. “Sorry,” she mumbled, obviously flustered. “I guess we overreacted to the mouse.”
He wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to apologize. He’d liked her pressing up against him. It did him good to know she wasn’t as completely in charge as she wanted the world to think. It also evened the score a little. She’d been tying him up in knots since the first time his brother Jordan had brought her home sixteen years ago.
Something about her had set his adolescent heart on fire and he’d never forgotten her. Still, this wasn’t the time or place to review old memories.
Kyle glanced around the empty foyer, then at the small mouse that had returned to its nest in the corner by the stairs. “I want to look over the rest of the house before you get to work,” he said.
Sandy bristled. Her spine stiffened and her hands curled into fists. “I’ve already had the house inspected,” she said, staring at him. “The man told me the building was in excellent condition and that the only problem I should expect would be cleaning up after a lengthy vacancy.”
Kyle tried to remember if she’d always had this much trouble accepting help. He couldn’t say for sure. Maybe it was something she’d learned while she was gone. “Did he say anything about mice?” he asked.
She hesitated. “Well, no. He probably thought they were normal for as long as the house has been vacant.”
“You want to be by yourself when you find out what else this guy considered normal?”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.”
He grinned. “So you don’t mind if I check out the rest of the house?”
Her hands relaxed. “Um, no. Thanks. I appreciate the help.”
“I’m not staying in here with that,” Lindsay said, pointing at the mouse’s nest.
“Why don’t you kids wait outside while your mom and I check things out,” Kyle said.
The children didn’t budge.
Sandy looked from him to her kids, then sighed. “Lindsay, take your brother and sister outside and keep an eye on them, please.”
Lindsay walked to the door without looking back. Blake followed silently. Only Nichole hesitated.
“Go on, sweetie. I won’t be long. It’s warm outside. Why don’t you go and see if you can find that bluebird again?”
“Okay.” Nichole smiled.
She had dimples in each check and her mother’s eyes. Kyle felt a slight twist in his gut. Sometimes he got the crazy notion that he should have risked settling down and having kids. He knew better. It was like wishing for the moon. Something to think about when he’d had too much to drink or got lonely, but completely irrational. He wasn’t the type. Long-term relationships didn’t work out.
When the children had left, Sandy turned to him and nodded purposefully. “Let’s begin in the kitchen,” she said, and turned to the right.
“It’s this way.” He motioned to their left.
“But they sent me a floor plan.”
“Then your floor plan was reversed. The kitchen is through here.”
“How do you know?”
“I used to know Kelsey Michaelson. I’ve been in this house before.” He looked at the dust and cobwebs. “But not in a long time.”
“I see.” She started toward the kitchen.
“Hold on.” He caught up with her and took her hand. Her fingers were warm against his. She looked startled when he touched her. Good. He would deal better with Sandy if he kept her off guard. “Why don’t you let me lead the way.”
Her gaze narrowed as she pulled her hand free of his. “Why?”
“In case we run into something creepy or slimy-or yucky.”
“All right.” She stepped back to allow him to pass.
He led her through the empty dining room. The hardwood floors were dirty, but otherwise in great shape. He stopped and bent down. “These will clean up and look terrific,” he said, brushing his fingers against the wood.
She stopped next to him. Close, but not too close. He grinned. If his instincts were correct, he made Sandy nervous. The thought pleased him.
“The realtor told me all the floors are in excellent condition,” she said. “I’ve been reading up on refinishing, in case some of them need a little work.”
“You can’t do that yourself.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “Because I’m a woman?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Give me a break. I don’t need a man in my life to make things work. I can do it all by myself, thank you very much.”
He stood up slowly, moving closer as he did. “Not because you’re a woman. Because there’s probably a thousand square feet of hardwood flooring on the first floor alone. It would take you months if you did it yourself, and some of the materials you have to use can smell pretty nasty. You wouldn’t want your children breathing in that stuff for so long, would you?”
She held his gaze, searching his face as if looking for deception. “That makes sense,” she said grudgingly.
“And because you’re a woman.” He grinned, then held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Just kidding, I promise.”
A slight smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “You haven’t changed at all.”
“Not enough to matter,” he agreed. “Come on, let’s check out the house.”
He led the way to the large bright kitchen. Big windows opened onto the side yard and driveway. The curtains looked as if they’d been lunch for a hungry swarm of moths, while an army of ants trooped across the white tile counters. Sandy checked out the pantry and utility porch behind the kitchen, and Kyle opened cupboard doors.
“I don’t see any signs that your mouse has relatives living here,” he said.
She paused in the doorway to the pantry. “I won’t ask what you’re looking for.” She folded her arms over her chest. “At least there’s a lot of storage space in the pantry.”
Kyle walked over to where she was standing. He put his arm around her shoulder and tried to draw her close. She resisted. He settled on giving her a brotherly squeeze.
“You’re discouraged,” he said.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’ll help. By the time the furniture arrives, we’ll have the place clean and painted.”
Sandy made a great show of pulling free of his arm, then walking to the other side of the kitchen. “I appreciate your willingness to help,” she said. “But no thanks. The kids and I want to do this by ourselves. We don’t want, or need, a man in our lives. The children and I have everything under control.”
“I could tell by how you all reacted to the mouse.”
She looked away. “Yes, well, that was different. I wasn’t expecting to find a mouse. Now that I know there might be more, I can handle it.”
He glanced around at the dusty cupboards, the trail of ants and the limp, gnawed curtains. “You’re not planning to sleep here tonight, are you?”
“We’re staying at a motel in town.” She took a step toward him, then paused. “Look, Kyle, you’re being really nice and neighborly, but it isn’t necessary. I’m not the sort of woman who needs rescuing. I knew the house hadn’t been lived in when I bought it. It needs a little cleaning and some paint. We’ll manage.”
“The ceilings in most of the rooms are over ten feet high,” he said. “Do you have the equipment to handle that?”
“I’ll buy a ladder.” She pointed back the way they’d come. “I don’t want to keep you.”
She was throwing him out. Okay, maybe putting his arm around her
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He stared at her. She wore her wedding ring on her left hand. Was she still in love with her late husband, or did she use the ring to warn men off? From what he remembered of Sandy, it could be either. And he was willing to bet there was no other man in her life.
“Hmm? Nothing’s wrong. I was just thinking. Okay, Sandy. You win. You want to take care of this by yourself, you go ahead. If you need me, I’m just at the end of the driveway.”
She escorted him out the door and down the porch steps. Her three children were waiting for them by the station wagon.
“Any more mice?” Lindsay asked.
“None that we saw,” Sandy answered briskly. “So there’s no reason to avoid the cleaning.” She opened the back of the car and started pulling out buckets and brooms. Lindsay and Blake groaned. Nichole grabbed a feather duster and smiled.
Kyle didn’t want to leave them. The job was too big. There was no way they would finish before the furniture arrived. The downstairs had been bad enough. Who knows what it was like upstairs. There could be carpet to tear up and-
Let it alone, he told himself. Sandy had made it clear she wasn’t interested in him or his help. “See ya,” he said, and started toward the gatehouse.
“Wait,” Sandy called. He turned toward her.
“Would you mind calling an exterminator about the mice?” she asked. “The phone here won’t be hooked up until tomorrow.” She looked down at Nichole and smiled. “We need one who doesn’t kill the mice, but just traps them and takes them away.”
“No problem,” he told her. “If you need anything else-“
“I know. I’ll let you know. And thanks for calling the exterminator.” She waved, then turned back to the station wagon. The children gathered around her, Lindsay and Blake grumbling about their chores.
Kyle walked over to his motorcycle and slipped on his leather jacket. After pulling on his helmet, he settled onto the seat and started the engine, then slowly drove back to the gatehouse.
He parked the bike by the back door, next to the small garage where he kept his Camaro. Ever since he’d found out Sandy had bought the Michaelson place, he’d been eager for her to arrive. He could have walked the twenty or so yards between their two houses, but he’d taken the bike, because, dammit, he’d wanted to impress her.
Sandy had been so impressed she couldn’t wait to get rid of him. He’d come on too strong. He shouldn’t have teased her. Impatiently, Kyle grabbed his jacket and helmet and headed for the back door. When had he started second-guessing himself about his behavior with women?
He unlocked the gatehouse door, then stepped into its compact kitchen. His entire place would fit into about a third of Sandy’s downstairs, but it suited him fine. The living room was large, as was the master bedroom. There was a small study alcove off the dining room, and the bathroom had an oversize shower. He lived alone, he didn’t need any more room. He liked his house, even if it was a little quiet sometimes.
After dumping his jacket and helmet on the kitchen table, he crossed the floor to the refrigerator next to the window. He pulled out a soda and popped the top. Before he could turn away, a faint sound of laughter caught his attention. He looked out the window. Sandy and her three kids still stood by their station wagon. Blake was carrying a bucket full of cleaning supplies. Lindsay was loaded down with brooms and mops. Sandy wrestled with a ladder that was taller than she was but that would never reach the high ceilings. They were all looking at little Nichole, who held the feather duster behind her like a tail. She pranced around the yard, scratching like a chicken looking for worms. Sandy said something and they all laughed again. Then they started toward the house.
Nichole climbed the stairs and went inside last. The yard was empty, the laughter gone. He was alone. He told himself he should be used to the silence. But he wasn’t. He glanced at the phone. There were any number of people he could call. Any number of women. They would spend his afternoon off with him, and the night, if he asked. He didn’t, as a rule, bring women to his place. He preferred visiting them at theirs. That way, he could leave when he wanted to. He preferred to be in control. A little like Sandy.
Had it really been fifteen years since he’d last seen her? He remembered her leaving as though it had just happened. She’d been going off to college. In his heart, he’d known she wasn’t coming back. She’d never suspected how he felt about her. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have cared. She had been seventeen-almost eighteen and already graduated from high school. No one had known how he’d dreamed about her.
Kyle turned away from the window and walked into the living room. He grabbed the book he’d been reading and carried it over to the leather recliner in front of the small, stone fireplace. But instead of reading, he closed his eyes and pictured Sandy as she’d been all those years ago. What was it about her that appealed to him? She wasn’t all that pretty, at least not in an obvious way.
Someone had once figured out that between the four of them, the Haynes brothers had dated every cheerleader in town for ten years straight. When Kyle had been old enough, he’d carried on the family tradition. He’d dated the prettiest girls, the most popular ones. But not always. Once he’d dated the class brain, just because she always tried to look superior whenever they spoke. He’d sensed something else lurking behind her glasses and quick answers. It had taken him the better part of a semester to get her to go out with him, but it had been worth it. In fact, next to his crush on Sandy, dating Melinda had been the highlight of his high school years. She’d gone off to MIT and was now working for NASA. They still kept in touch at the holidays.
But Sandy had eluded him. He’d just been a kid of fourteen. He hadn’t known what to do with his feelings, how to tell her or what would happen if he did. And then she’d left. But he’d never forgotten. Now she was back.
He took a sip of his soda. All this time later, the two years difference in their ages didn’t seem to matter so much. But she still wasn’t for him. She’d chosen her life, had married and had three kids. She was a widow. No doubt the next man she picked would be just like her husband. Kyle had heard that Sandy’s husband had been a professor at a prestigious Los Angeles university. Kyle knew he couldn’t compete with that. He was just a deputy in some hick town. He loved his job and he didn’t want to change it. Not that anyone was asking him to. Sandy hadn’t given him a second look. He grinned. Maybe her eyes had widened a little when he’d taken off his jacket, but so what? He knew he was good-looking. All the Haynes boys were. That and fifty cents could buy a cup of coffee. A woman like Sandy wouldn’t care about that. She would be more concerned about what was inside a man. About his character. She would want guarantees and that was one thing he’d never been able to give anyone.
Three days later, he stood outside washing his car. The white finish gleamed in the bright morning sunlight. He moved slowly, his brain and body not working well together after pulling a sixteen-hour shift. His replacement had gotten food poisoning, so Kyle had volunteered to stay through the night. He fought back a yawn. It didn’t used to bother him, but since hitting thirty, he hadn’t been able to pull all-nighters with the same ease. The worst part about the double shift was relaxing enough to sleep when he got home. Usually his mind was cranking along at fifty miles an hour, while his body was so tired he could sleep standing up. He’d learned that performing an undemanding physical chore allowed him to unwind so that he could get to sleep.
He tossed the soapy sponge back in the bucket, then reached for the hose. He turned the nozzle, adjusting the spray to a light mist, when he heard voices behind him. A quick glance told him Lindsay, Blake and Nichole were walking down the driveway. Kyle continued rinsing his car.
He hadn’t seen his neighbors since they’d first arrived. He’d been working a lot and generally trying to stay away. Sandy had made her feelings clear. If she didn’t want his help, far be it from him to impose. But he’d thought about her a great deal. And when she’d left after that first day of cleaning, he’d gone by the house to make sure the doors and windows were locked.
“Hi, Kyle,” Lindsay said when the kids reached the split in the driveway that led to his garage. “That’s a cool car.”
He glanced at the Camaro. “Thanks. How’s the house-cleaning coming?”
Lindsay wrinkled her nose. “Mom’s driving us crazy.”
“Mommy’s blowing her mission,” Nichole said and smiled at him. “She said a bad word, too.”
“Children,” Lindsay said, then patted Nichole on the head. “You’ll have to forgive her. She’s very young.”
Kyle thought about pointing out that Lindsay wasn’t that old herself, but he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. “What does she mean?”
“The moving company left a message that they would be late delivering the furniture. The truck blew its transmission.” She moved closer to him and lowered her voice. “Mom called them and said she was going to blow more than a transmission if they didn’t get our stuff up here.” She glanced at him and swept her lashes up and down several times. “So we’re stuck.”
“When do they think the truck’s going to arrive?”
“In another three or four days. I don’t think it matters that much. The house is still a mess. We’re not getting a lot done.”
“I am,” Nichole said. “I’ve got three stars.” She held up the right number of fingers. “When I get five stars, I get to buy a new book.”
“Stars?” he asked, confused.
“One of Mom’s attempts to keep us as organized as she is,” Lindsay said. “She’s got a chart up on the wall. Everyone has chores listed. When you complete a certain number of chores, you get a star. After so many stars, you get a reward.”
“What’s your reward?” he asked Blake.
The boy looked up, obviously startled that he’d been noticed. Light brown eyes peered at him through thick glasses. Except for the freckles across his nose and the shape of his mouth, Blake didn’t look anything like his mother. His slight shoulders hunched forward. “I haven’t picked one yet.”
“Oh, he’ll get another game for his silly computer. He sits in front of it all the time.”
Blake glared at his older sister, but didn’t defend himself.
“What about you?” he asked Lindsay, then wished he hadn’t. She moved even closer and stared up at him intently.
“I want clothes. Something pretty.”
“Uh-huh. That sounds, uh, nice.” He cleared his throat.
If his brothers could see him now, they’d all roar with laughter. Any of them could handle a flirtatious woman with no problem. But a vamping preteen was out of his realm of expertise. He wished Sandy would show up.
“So you guys are having trouble with the house?” he asked.
Lindsay rolled her eyes. Nichole giggled, and even Blake nodded.
“It’s too big,” Nichole said. “I washed the kitchen cupboards forever and they’re still not done.”
“We haven’t even started on the upstairs,” Lindsay said. “Mom wants us to get the painting done, too. She’s crazy. This isn’t how I planned to spend my summer.”
“I know it’s hard,” Kyle said. “But your mom really needs your help. This is hard for her, too. Moving to a strange town, and all.”
“No one asked her to drag us to this dumpy place.” Lindsay’s brown eyes snapped with anger. Her posing was forgotten as she drew her eyebrows together and glared. “There’s nothing to do. There are no kids around here, no beach, nothing. I hate it. I don’t care if the house never gets finished.”
“Glenwood isn’t so bad,” he said. “There’s a mall on the other side of town.”
“Wow,” Lindsay said sarcastically. “A mall. Gee, now I love it here.”
Nichole skipped over the hose and motioned for him to bend over. “Lindsay’s being a brat,” she whispered loudly. “Mommy says it’s just a stage.”
He crouched down and smiled at the child. She had curly red hair, but her mother’s beautiful green eyes. “You’re a pretty little girl.”
Nichole dimpled. “I know. Mommy told me.”
“There you are,” a voice said. “I’d wondered where you’d run off to. I told you not to bother Mr. Haynes.” Sandy stood at the end of his driveway. Like her children she was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Unlike his noncommittal response to their clothes, he found her outfit intriguing. Her red shorts exposed long tanned legs. Her round hips drew his eye toward her waist, then up to her breasts. She wasn’t overly curvy, she was… just right.
He stood up slowly. “I’d rather they call me Kyle, and they weren’t bothering me. I heard about the truck.”
She wouldn’t-or couldn’t-meet his gaze. “Yes, well, I just got off the phone with the moving company. The truck will be here Monday for sure.”
“But it’s Friday,” he said. “What will you do until then?”
“Stay at the motel where we’ve been staying. The kids don’t mind. It has a pool.”
“By the time we get back there, we’re too tired to go swimming,” Lindsay grumbled.
Her mother shot her a warning look. “The extra time will give us a chance to finish the house.”
“How’s that coming?”
She stared at his car, then at the ground, finally her gaze landed on his knees and settled there. Kyle wanted to believe she was having trouble looking at him because he was wearing cutoffs and nothing else. He wanted to believe the sight of his bare chest and legs left her speechless. He wanted to believe he would one day win the California lottery. Right now they seemed equally likely.
“Fine,” Sandy said shortly. “Just fine. We’re cleaning and soon we’ll start painting.”
“We’re never going to finish,” Lindsay said.
“Nonsense. I’ve come up with a new plan. It will allow us to work more efficiently.”
“Mo-om.” Lindsay planted her hands on her hips. At that moment, she looked exactly like her mother. “We’re kids, not slaves.”
“And just an hour ago, you were trying to convince me you’re all grown up. You’ll have to pick one, Lindsay, you can’t have it both ways.”
Kyle opened his mouth to offer his help, then thought better of it. He didn’t want to give Sandy another chance to shoot him down.
Sandy glanced at his car, then at him. “We’d better let you get back to work. Have fun. Come along, children.”
She took Nichole’s hand and started down the driveway. Lindsay followed slowly. Only Blake hesitated. He stared at the car for a moment.
“Do you like Camaros?” Kyle asked, suddenly curious about the quietest member of the Walker family.
Blake nodded. “Does it go fast?”
“Pretty fast.” He grinned. “I’m a deputy in town, so it’s not right for me to break the law. I keep her at fifty-five.”
“Blake, come on, honey,” Sandy called.
“Maybe you and I could go for a drive someday,” Kyle offered.
Blake stared up at him, nodded, then ran off to join his mother.
As Kyle picked up the chamois, he watched Sandy and her kids enter the big house. He remembered how dirty it had been. Yesterday, the exterminator had come by to drop off his traps, so the mouse problem was being handled. Still, there was the whole upstairs that Lindsay said they hadn’t even started on. And painting. How would they get that done?
He wiped off the roof of the car. Maybe he shouldn’t offer to help. Maybe he should just take care of it. She would hate that. Of course, if he didn’t give her a chance to refuse, she would have to hate it silently.
He looked at the oversize home again, then tossed the chamois down and went inside his house. He knew exactly how to take care of Sandy’s problem. He had brothers, and they all owed him.