Chapter 4

Sixteenyears?” Sandy asked, staring at him. He couldn’t have meant what he’d said. Kyle had been waiting to kiss her? “What are you talking about?”

“It’s not important.”

Nothing in his expression gave away what he was thinking. His mouth was still impossibly tempting, his gaze steady. She must have misunderstood him. But for a brief moment, she desperately wished it had been true. That Kyle had thought of her and longed for her all this time.

Get a grip on reality, she told herself. Kyle had no more spent the last sixteen years missing her than pigs had suddenly sprouted wings and taken flight.

So why was he staring at her so intently? And why were they still standing close enough for their bodies to generate the heat required to start a bonfire?

She told herself she was a fool, but that wasn’t new information. She’d suspected it for a long time. She continued to stare at his face, then lowered her gaze to his mouth. With every bit of energy she could summon, she willed him to kiss her.

He bent forward, lowering his head until their lips nearly brushed. She could inhale the masculine scent of him, feel his sweet breath on her cheek. She could almost-

“Mommy, can we go get some ice cream?”

Nichole’s voice cut through the silence in the kitchen. Sandy stepped back at the exact moment Kyle shook his head and straightened. She glanced over her shoulder, but the doorway to the living room was empty. Nichole hadn’t seen anything.

“Ah, sure, honey,” Sandy called.

She walked around Kyle and stepped into the other room. All three children were sitting on the floor facing the television. They didn’t know what had almost happened. Relief swept through her, leaving her a little shaky. At least she told herself it was relief. The tremors in her legs couldn’t possibly be the result of her having just been so close to Kyle.

“Let’s go now,” she said.

Lindsay glanced up at her. “The movie isn’t over yet.”

“I know, but you can finish it another time. It’s getting late, and Kyle needs his rest. He was up working all last night.”

Lindsay grumbled something under her breath, then stood up. Blake joined her without saying a word. Nichole turned off the video and the television, then bounced to her feet. “I want chocolate ice cream.”

“No problem,” Sandy said. She pushed the children through the kitchen, barely stopping long enough to thank Kyle for his help that day. Once outside, she took a deep breath and sent off a brief prayer of thanks that nothing had happened. If she was this nervous and shaky after almost kissing him, imagine what she would have been like after the real thing!

Sandy was avoiding him. Kyle dipped the brush into the can of paint, then wiped off the excess. There was no denying the truth. If he walked into a room, she walked out. Aside from mumbling a greeting to him that morning, she hadn’t said a word to him. Not even to ask him how he liked his coffee. She must have asked Travis, because shortly after he’d started work, she’d silently handed him a cup, then disappeared before he could say anything. He’d taken a sip of the steaming liquid. Black, two sugars. Yup, she was avoiding him.

He glanced around the bedroom he was painting. He was about finished with the windows and the trim. Next, he would use a roller on the walls. Conversation and bits of laughter drifted up from downstairs. He knew Travis was still working down there, as were Sandy and her kids. Austin was up here with him, but in another bedroom. Kyle didn’t mind the quiet, but it gave him too much time to think. About Sandy and about last night.

He shouldn’t have tried to kiss her. He wouldn’t have except she’d been looking at him the way a woman looks at a man she’s attracted to. He was familiar with the look. He’d been getting it from women since he’d turned sixteen. It had never been anything but a convenience before. Yet last night he’d been glad Sandy was attracted to him. He’d wanted to kiss her, even knowing her kids were in the other room. Not his brightest idea. From what he remembered-and it didn’t look as if she’d changed all that much-Sandy wasn’t the type to fool around. Besides, she’d only been back a week. What did he really know about her?

Kyle pushed open the window, then painted over the smudge mark his fingers had made. A breeze blew into the room, chasing out the paint fumes. He set his brush on the newspaper that covered the floor and poured some paint into a tray. After screwing the extension into the roller, he started painting the ceiling.

The smooth back-and-forth movements relaxed him and freed his mind to wander. Last night, Sandy had filled his senses. Even after she’d left his house, he’d been able to inhale the scent of her body and feel her close to him. There was something about her that got to him. In sixteen years, that hadn’t changed. He still remembered the first time he’d seen her. Jordan had brought her home one day after school. Kyle had been sitting at the kitchen table working on his algebra homework. The door had opened and the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen had walked into his life.

It had been spring, and warmer than usual. She’d been wearing a green dress, the exact color of her eyes. Even now, he could remember every detail about that moment. The way she’d hesitated before stepping into the kitchen, the brush of her light brown hair against her shoulders, the curiosity shining from her eyes, the way the neckline of her dress had dipped slightly, exposing nothing, but making him think about her body. He had reacted to his thoughts in a painful and embarrassing way. When he’d wanted to politely stand and greet her, he’d had to stay seated.

She’d carried her books in her arm. His brother had been holding her other hand. Kyle remembered staring at their joined hands and feeling as if he’d been punched in the stomach. The most beautiful girl in the world belonged to his brother. It was hopeless. Then she’d smiled at him. A warm, wide smile that had made him forget to breathe. After that, he hadn’t cared about anything but her.

He was sure Jordan had introduced them, although he couldn’t remember the conversation. He’d recognized her name. She was known as “a brain.” Sensible Sandy. Travis had teased Jordan about dating her, asking if she organized his kisses the way she organized everything else. Kyle hadn’t paid attention to the good-natured ribbing. He’d never understood his brother’s interest in girls. Until that day.

He dipped the roller in the tray, then continued working on the ceiling. It had all happened a long time ago, yet that afternoon had been one of those significant moments that had changed his life. He’d never looked at girls the same. He’d started returning some of the teasing smiles sent his way. He’d stolen his first kiss, his first embrace, had wished for his first lover, although that hadn’t happened for a few more years. But through it all, he’d dreamed of Sandy.

All this time later, he still wasn’t sure what it was about her that got to him. To him, she was beautiful, but he knew most people didn’t share his opinion. Her strength and intelligence had scared off lots of guys. He’d wanted to tell her it didn’t scare him; he’d admired her. But she wouldn’t have cared. He was two years younger than her. Now it didn’t matter, but when she’d been sixteen and he’d been fourteen, those two years had seemed like an uncrossable barrier. When he’d finally gathered the courage to speak to her, she’d been friendly but not interested. He was just her boyfriend’s kid brother.

He drew the roller across the flat ceiling toward the corner. He’d used the brush to paint along the edges and now he blended the paint to make a smooth coat. He grinned as he recalled how happy he’d been the day Jordan had announced he’d broken up with Sandy. The woman of his dreams was now available. He’d quickly realized not only was he too young to ask her out, but now she would stop coming to the house and he wouldn’t get to see her at all. He’d spent the next few months standing outside the high school hoping for a glimpse of her.

It had been a year later that he’d walked into his kitchen and found Sandy talking with Jordan. His heart had thudded wildly in his chest, his face had flushed and his voice, which had changed two summers before, had started cracking again. For a horrible moment, he’d thought they were back together again. He quickly found out they were just friends. For reasons he could never understand, Sandy had preferred his house to her own. She’d spent much of her senior year hanging out with the Haynes brothers. By then, Kyle had been fifteen, and a high school student. By taking inconvenient routes to classes, he caught glimpses of Sandy during the day. She was nice to him, friendly but never encouraging. No matter what he did, she never really saw him as anything but Jordan’s kid brother.

One night, when his mom had gone to a parent-teacher meeting, Sandy had volunteered to cook dinner. While she’d watched over a pot roast, he’d wrestled with an essay for English. Sandy had sat next to him and helped him. She’d leaned close, pointing out the awkward construction and mismatched sentences. He’d barely been able to write, with her right next to him. The scent of her body had driven him wild. He’d wanted to kiss her, to touch her, to do anything to let her know how he felt. He could still remember the freckles on her nose and the light in her eyes as she’d smiled at him.

Their arms had brushed together. Electricity had raced through him, from his head to his toes. When the paper was finished, he’d waited for her to move away, but she hadn’t. He’d stretched his arms wide, yawning exaggeratedly, then he’d casually dropped his arm over her shoulders. He’d hugged several girls by then, but with Sandy he felt as if he were doing it for the first time. He couldn’t think of anything to say. His mouth had gone dry, his tongue twisted up. She’d turned slightly toward him, her smile soft and knowing.

“I think you’re a great guy, Kyle,” she’d said. “You’re going to make some girl very happy.”

She should have just shot him and been done with it. Not even the brief kiss on his cheek was enough to make up for the humiliation of that moment. He’d tried and he’d failed. He didn’t have a chance with her.

Kyle started on the walls of the bedroom. The hell of it was, after all this time, he still hated the way she’d dismissed him. Years later, he could still taste the defeat.

Was that what this was about? he wondered. Was he just trying to prove something to himself and maybe to Sandy? Or had those long-ago feelings simply been lying dormant, waiting for her to return?

He shook his head. That was crazy. He hadn’t been waiting for her to return. But he sure wished he’d kissed her last night. The thought of holding her in his arms had kept him awake until after midnight. Maybe what he should do is-

“You’re almost done in here.”

He turned toward the voice and saw Lindsay walking into the bedroom. The preteen gave him a winning smile, then tossed her ponytail over her shoulder.

“It’s going pretty fast,” Kyle said, dipping the roller into the tray. “Whose room is this going to be?”

Lindsay moved close to him and fluttered her eyelashes. Obviously she hadn’t gotten over her crush. “Mine.”

He was sorry he’d asked. Still, he didn’t say anything to her. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He, of all people, knew what it was like to be dismissed by the object of his affection. Yet he didn’t want to encourage her, either. The situation made him damn uncomfortable.

Lindsay crossed the room to the window. “We’re going to put up a wallpaper border.”

“That’ll look real nice.”

“You think so?”

She stared at him earnestly, as if his answer mattered more than anything. Kyle finished the wall opposite the window and nodded. “Yeah, sure it will. Did you come up to see how I was doing, or did you want something specific?”

“Oh, Mom’s ordering sandwiches for lunch. What would you like?”

“Lean roast beef with everything.”

She wrinkled her nose. At that moment, she looked just like her mother. Kyle grinned. “You don’t approve?”

“I hate onions.”

“Then I won’t make you eat any.”

Lindsay laughed. Kyle couldn’t figure out if he was making it better or worse. Before he had a chance to decide, Travis poked his head into the room.

“Lindsay, your mom’s looking for you,” he said.

“Okay.” She glanced at Kyle. “I’ve got to give her the orders. You can come downstairs if you’d like. Everyone is taking a break.”

“Thanks. I’ll do that.” He waited until she left, then grimaced at his brother. “What am I going to do about her?”

Travis came into the room and laughed. “I can’t help you, little brother. Lindsay is way out of my league.”

“Thanks for nothing.” Kyle slipped the roller into the tray, then turned toward the last unpainted wall. “When you were first dating Elizabeth, did you have any problems with her daughter, Mandy?”

“Mandy was six at the time. She only ever saw me as a substitute father. Can’t you just tell Lindsay you’re too old for her?”

“Sure. But then I’ll hurt her feelings and humiliate her.”

“I wish I had something better to tell you.”

Kyle shrugged. “Me, too.” He raised his arms and moved the roller up and down above the closet door. “I’ll think of something.”

Travis grinned. “I don’t understand why there’s a problem in the first place. You’re usually so good with kids.”

“It’s different this time.”

“Why?”

Because I think I care about Sandy. Except he didn’t want to admit to that. Not yet. Just thinking about it was enough to make him break out in a cold sweat. He knew better than to care. It was dangerous. If his brothers, father and uncles had taught him one thing, it was that Haynes men didn’t make good husbands and fathers. They’d been failing at it for several generations. He frowned. Except for Travis. His brother had been married for over two years. He and Elizabeth had had a daughter. They were happy. So Travis had escaped the Haynes family curse. That didn’t mean Kyle was also going to get lucky.

“Maybe you should think about settling down,” Travis told him.

“I’m not the type. My relationships don’t last.”

“That’s because you leave the women before they can leave you.”

“What am I supposed to do about it? Stay, and let them leave me?”

“How about trusting they might want to stay?”

Kyle put down the roller and stared at his brother. They were about the same height, with the same dark hair and eyes. Travis was four years older. His marriage had softened his hard edges and made him a happy man.

“What if they don’t stay?” Kyle asked.

Travis’s smile faded. “What if they do? It seems to me you’re already changing things.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re here.” He moved his arm out to indicate the room, then the house beyond. “You’ve never involved your family with one of your women before.”

“Sandy’s not one of my women. She’s-“

Travis waited, his eyebrows raised.

“Forget it,” Kyle mumbled and turned back to the painting. He concentrated on moving the roller down the narrow strip of wall between the closet and the corner. “Don’t you have work to do?” he asked.

“Not really. We’re taking a break until the deli delivers the sandwiches. You could come down and join us. Or you could continue to hide up here.”

Kyle grunted. “I’ll be down when I’m done.”

“Sure.” Travis started out the door.

“And I’m not hiding,” he called.

Travis laughed.

Kyle knew he hadn’t been hiding, but Sandy was still sure avoiding him. All through lunch, she sat at the far end of the living room. Sunlight streamed through the bare windows. Someone had swept the hardwood floor, then mopped it until it gleamed. With no furniture in the large house, they’d each pulled up a piece of floor when the meal had arrived. Nichole had passed out sodas, then taken a seat near Austin. The gray-eyed pirate always had a way with the ladies, Kyle thought, watching Nichole charm the quiet man. Mercifully, Lindsay had stayed near her mother. Instead, it had been Blake who’d sat near Kyle. The boy hadn’t said anything, despite Kyle’s attempt to bring him into the conversation. In the end, Kyle had given up and instead, had watched Sandy not look at him.

He studied her, trying to figure out what it was exactly that got to him. In denim shorts and a red tank shirt, she was hardly dressing to be seductive. If he took her features apart, there wasn’t anything special about her. Wide green eyes drew his gaze. He liked the way she wore mascara and no other makeup. Her nose was straight, her mouth turned up slightly at the corners, her chin was pointed, but not too pointed. Her body was well proportioned for her height, her breasts neither too large nor too small, her hips rounded, but not obvious. So why did she drive him crazy? Was it hormonal? Was it the result of too much reminiscing and not enough sleep?

Austin stood and stretched. “Back to work, everyone. We should be able to finish the painting today if we get going now.”

Sandy scrambled to her feet. “I’ll clean up,” she said.

“I’ll help.” Kyle grabbed the wrapping from his sandwich, then picked up Blake’s. The boy gave him a quick smile. The curve of the child’s lips and flash of white teeth reminded him of Sandy. For a moment, he stared at the boy, wondering what it must be like to have a child of one’s own. A fierce longing swept through him, shocking him with its intensity. He shook his head slightly, then continued to collect trash.

Everyone stood up and slowly left the room. At last, he and Sandy were alone.

“I can handle this,” she said, not looking at him.

“I don’t mind helping.”

“I don’t want to keep you from your painting.”

“Are you afraid I’m not working hard enough?” he teased.

She’d bent over to pick up Nichole’s half-eaten sandwich. Now she turned her head and looked at him. Her loose, shoulder-length hair shielded part of her face. “Not at all. I know everyone is doing a lot for me, and I really appreciate it.” She tucked her hair behind her ear as she straightened. “We all do.”

“I know.” He walked toward her. “I was just kidding. I’ll help you clean up here, then I’ll go back upstairs and paint. Fair enough?”

She nodded. He wanted to think she was staring at his mouth, but he figured it was just wishful thinking on his part. No doubt about it, the lady turned him on. Unfortunately, he doubted his feelings were returned.

She continued to stare at him, then flushed slightly and looked away as if she’d just realized what she was doing. He watched the color climb up her cheeks to her hairline. The house was quiet, despite the number of people inside. He couldn’t hear anything except his heart pounding in his chest and the faint whisper of Sandy’s rapid breathing. At least he told himself it was rapid.

She twisted her fingers together. A paper napkin drifted from the trash she held and fluttered to the ground. He bent and grabbed it, then thrust it toward her. His fingers brushed her arm. She jumped.

“Kyle, I don’t think-“

“Good,” he said, cutting her off. “I know you’re upset about last night.”

She swallowed and stared at the center of his chest. “Last night should never have happened.”

“Which part? The pizza? You and your kids eating at my house? Or what happened later?”

“What happened later.”

Her voice was soft and low. He had to lean forward to hear her. She continued to stare at his chest. He wondered if she was afraid to look him in the eye because of what she would see or because of what she would reveal? He wanted it to be the latter.

“What exactly did happen?” he asked, deliberately taunting her.

She raised her gaze. He saw something hungry flash through her eyes, then she blinked and it was gone. “Nothing. Nothing at all. And I want to make sure nothing happens again.”

Nothing except he’d almost kissed her and she’d almost let him. She wanted to make sure it happened again? Did she mean nothing or did she mean the kiss? “Are you sure?” he asked and moved closer.

“Yes.” Her voice was a mere whisper. She trembled.

He touched her bare arm, just above the elbow. She pulled back. “I mean it, Kyle. I don’t want there to be anything between us. I’m not interested.”

He’d once played football with a sprained ankle and never let on until the game was over. He’d been cut pretty bad breaking up a fight and had finished his shift before going to the hospital. He’d been dumped once, a long time ago in college, and never told a soul. So it wasn’t hard to continue to stare at her and not let her know what he was thinking. But inside, he reeled from the blow. As simple as that. She wasn’t interested. Thanks but no thanks.

“No problem,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets.

She sighed. “I don’t mean to be cruel or rude. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. Bringing Travis and Austin to help, working around here, all of that. It’s been great. But you and I have nothing in common. It would be best if we were just neighbors.”

“Sandy, I understand. You don’t have to give me a reason.”

“But I want to. I want you to know it’s not personal.”

It felt pretty damn personal to him. She was calling the game on account of rain and he hadn’t even got to bat.

She walked over to the trash bag by the entrance to the foyer and dumped the deli papers inside. “I’m not your type, and you’re not mine,” she told him.

What was her type? Someone like her late husband? Thomas, the philosophy professor. Someone intellectual. Someone who preferred opera to football, thick nonaction books with footnotes to the latest spy thriller. Someone steady and dependable. Someone not like him.

“I hate for you to feel responsible for us. You don’t have to keep coming over here and taking care of things. I’m really okay on my own.”

In other words, get lost.

“I think you’re right,” he said.

“You do?” She looked doubtful.

“Sure. We’ll be neighbors. Friends. We can look out for each other, but pretty much stay out of each other’s lives. It’s a good plan.”

“Great.” She smiled.

He thought his heart might start bleeding right then and there, but he didn’t let on. Instead, he headed for the stairs. Friends. Neighbors. He’d sure lost his touch. He’d been thinking romance and she’d been putting him in the same class as the neighborhood golden retriever. Friends. What would Sandy say if she knew he’d been thinking, as well as friends they could also be lovers?

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