Thirteen days later
OUR LITTLE COTTAGE is quiet when I get up. I pull Emmy’s door shut on my way to the bathroom. She sleeps like a rock unless she has a nightmare, but I like to keep her cocoon as peaceful as I can until she wakes.
The hardwood floors are chilly under my feet as I pad silently to the stove and grab the hot water kettle. I love our place. For whatever reason, be it the charming wraparound porch or the big oak in the front yard, or the soothing beige walls and cozy old fireplace, this feels like home. Already. And we haven’t even been here two full weeks yet.
I glance up as I pour water into the kettle. My stomach flutters when I see him. He’s there. I hoped he would be.
Every morning since we moved in thirteen days ago, the man we saw building the sandcastle has been working across the street at the cottage diagonal from mine. Rain or shine, he’s there. I don’t know who he is or why he draws me to my window each day, but he does.
I find myself peeking out at him often. More often than I should, probably. But as hokey as it sounds, something about him speaks to me. Calls to me almost. And I can’t shake it.
I mean, he’s a pleasure to watch, of course. And that’s saying a lot coming from someone like me. Physically, he’s all that a woman could ask for–tall, fit, ripped in all the right places. Most days he wears nothing but faded jeans, work boots and a tool belt. Sometimes a baseball hat. Rarely a shirt. And if ever there was a body made to go around shirtless, it’s his. But that’s not what pulls me to the window time after time, day after day. It’s not even the tattoos scrawled up his ribs–the one on the left reading “always”, the one on the right reading “never”. No, there’s something else that brings me here to watch him. Something…more.
I’ve noticed that whether he’s hammering or scraping or carrying something through the door, he has this intense solitude about him. It’s as though the world has abandoned him. Or maybe that he’s abandoned the world. I can’t put my finger on it. I only know that it’s decidedly incongruous with a man who looks like he does.
I think about him being on the beach that day. Building a sandcastle like it was the most important thing in the world. It was strangely haunting for a man who looks like he does to be so…alone.
Maybe that’s what draws me–his isolation. I can’t be sure of course, but something tells me that he doesn’t have much of a life outside his job. He arrives sometime before I get up, which is early, and stays to work late, long after I give Emmy her bath. He eats lunch on the lawn by himself and I’ve never seen him talking on a cell phone or engaging the few people who pass by. He just appears to be alone. All alone.
We’ve fallen into a strange rhythm of sorts. It’s just one small thing, but it seems significant somehow. Every day, at some point, he will catch me watching him. Every day, he has. And every day he holds my gaze, even from so far away. It gives me chills, the way he stares back at me. But then he frowns, just like he did at the beach that day, before he turns away. It’s like I make him think of something he doesn’t want to think about. And my need to know what that is increases with every day that passes. Need, not want.
I’m not sure if brokenness is discernible with nothing more than our casual contact (if you can even call what we have “contact”) or if this is all in my head, but for some reason that’s the word that comes to mind when I see him–brokenness. Someone who’s broken.
From the outside, he’s practically perfect. Well not even practically perfect. He is perfect. Flawless. Breathtaking. But he’s too quiet, too withdrawn, too…solitary for someone as handsome as he is. Maybe that’s why I think he’s broken. Surely in a town this size, every single woman within ten miles would be banging on his front door, offering to help with whatever he might need. Or want.
And yet, he doesn’t seem to have anyone. I’ve noticed that his ring finger is empty, too. As empty as his life appears to be.
Maybe he’s got dark secrets that keep the town at bay. A scary skeleton in his closet, a maniacal monster under his bed. That’s probably reason number one, the only one I should need, to stay far, far away from him. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Mostly because he stays away from me, never offering to come over or speak when we go outside. He just keeps to himself and I do the same.
But still, he pulls me.
So here I am. Watching. Waiting, it seems. On what, I don’t know. But I often get the feeling that something is about to happen. Only it never does.
A loud banging at my front door startles me and I spill coffee down the front of my shirt. I grab a napkin and wipe at it as I run, rushing to the door before whoever it is can wake up Emmy. She’s a late sleeper. Sometimes I think God made her that way to protect her.
I peek through the square of glass at the top of the plain wood door and find Jordan smiling up at me. She looks surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning, considering how she most likely spent her night.
I snap open the dead bolt and unlock the knob. “Hi, Jordan.”
“Hiya, sweetie,” she says, pushing past me and carrying a brown cardboard box into the living room. From that first morning when I met her, she’s taken to me like her long lost best friend.
She’s never come to my house before, but evidently she’s been inside it at some point prior to my arrival. She plops the box down on the coffee table and then perches on the end of the sofa like we do this every day.
“I always loved this material,” she says, rubbing her hand over the velvety cinnamon-colored upholstery.
“You’ve been here before?”
“A time or two. I dated the guy who lived here before you.”
“Dated?” Jason says from behind me as he walks in carrying another box. “You don’t date.”
“Why the hell don’t I date?”
“You’re like the town bicycle. You give rides. You don’t date.”
“Uh!” Jordan squeaks, insulted. “Are you hearing this?” She seems incensed, but then, just as quickly as she got riled, she waves him off and her smile returns, feathers no longer ruffled. I can’t decide if their mean banter is all teasing or if they have a love/hate relationship. “So, your landlord had some things ordered. Wanted us to bring them over when they arrived.”
“Landlord?” I ask in confusion. “I thought Jason was the landlord.”
“Nah, he’s just a lackey.”
“I’m a property manager, not a lackey,” Jason replies sharply. Then he turns to me. “The owner was going to replace a few things before you moved in, but there was no time. Better late than never, though, right?”
I nod, a little uncomfortable with my space being so abruptly and unexpectedly invaded. “What kinds of things are we talking about?”
“New microwave,” he says, indicating the heavier box he was carrying, “new blinds for the kitchen and a new coffee maker.”
I perk up at the mention of the coffee maker. “That’s nice. I’ve been boiling water every morning.”
“Well, not anymore,” Jason says with a smile.
Jordan gets up and wanders to the kitchen, stopping to stare out the window as I so often do. I wonder if she sees the sandcastle guy. Then I wonder if she knows him.
“Damn,” she says on a sigh. “It’s a shame to cover that view with new blinds,” she says. That’s how I know she sees him. There’s nothing spectacular about the view except him. She turns her big smile back toward me. “Unless that’s why he sent the new blinds.”
“Why who sent the new blinds?”
“The owner,” she answers emphatically. “Cole Danzer. He must’ve noticed they were missing.”
I join her in the kitchen, glancing out to where the gorgeous handyman is measuring a piece of wood.
“How would he know?”
“Well, I guess Cole’s not blind and can see from a hundred feet away,” she declares with a laugh, tipping her head toward the window.
“Wait, so he is the owner?” I ask, admiring the way the muscles in his shoulders shift as he works.
“Yep. Cole Danzer.” There’s a dreamy sigh in her voice that matches her expression.
“Crazy Cole is what we call him,” Jason says as he reaches between us to lay the blinds across the sink.
Jordan gasps. “We?”
“Yes we,” Jason confirms with a frown. “You’re the one who started it.”
“No, I call him Crazy Hot Cole. But you’ve never called him crazy at all.”
“That’s because I work for him.”
“So what, you don’t work for him today?” To this, Jason says nothing, but I can see his nostrils flare. “Ohhh, or is it because you like our lovely little miss Eden? And you don’t want her getting any ideas about the beautiful hunk o’ man across the street?”
“Jordan, just shut up. You don’t even make any sense,” her brother replies petulantly.
When Jason bends slightly to apply himself to removing the blinds from their box, Jordan points down at him and mouths behind his back “He likes you!”
“Jordan, go open the store. Come back for me in an hour,” Jason snaps.
“Fine,” she huffs. “Walk me out, Edie.”
Edie? That’s a new one, I think.
Jordan reaches for my arm and loops hers through it, practically dragging me to the front door. She pulls me out onto the small wraparound porch, but doesn’t stop there. When she keeps walking, I start to resist.
“This is far enough, Jordan. I’m a mess!”
I think about my straight black hair in a ponytail, my oval face and hazel-gray eyes devoid of makeup, my coffee-stained T-shirt and pink shorts that say “Juicy” on the butt. I feel my face heat with embarrassment.
She stops and stares at me. “You’re gorgeous. Now come with me.”
Before I can argue, she tugs me into the yard. Automatically, my eyes find their way to Cole the instant he comes into view. He’s still in the yard, but now he’s moving his ladder.
“Hi, Cole,” Jordan bellows, causing my stomach to drop to my bare toes. The grass is covered in a chilly, early fall dew that coats my feet. I catch my breath when Cole glances up at us, his brow drawing immediately into a frown. He doesn’t respond. He just holds perfectly still, his long fingers curled around the ladder, forearms straining and biceps bulging. “Have you met Eden yet?”
As Jordan drags me across the pseudo-cul-de-sac, I can feel his eyes on me, the startling blue penetrating all the way through my clothes to my skin underneath. Goosebumps break out on my legs and arms and, to my utter humiliation, my nipples pucker. The heat of his gaze and the cool of the morning is too stark a contrast for my body not to notice.
When we stop within a foot of him, I see his hooded eyes rake me from head to toe. My nipples strain against my T-shirt, catching his attention on the way back up. I cross my arms over my chest, praying for this moment to just be over.
He’s silent for a long time. Long enough to be rude, but I don’t get the impression that he is. I get the impression that he’s just thinking. His frown deepens and for a second it appears he’s going to just turn away, but he doesn’t. Instead, he props the ladder against one shoulder and sticks out his hand.
His voice. God! It makes me want to groan. It’s like a silk sheet draped over jagged gravel. It belongs in a bedroom. A dark, warm bedroom. Where pleasure and pain peacefully coexist, heightening the senses and curling the toes. It would be sexy in any circumstance, even if he were reading the encyclopedia aloud or explaining an insurance plan.
Reluctantly, I straighten my right arm and slip my hand into his. His palm is calloused, his fingers rough, just like I knew they would be. From the moment I saw them expertly crafting a sandcastle almost two weeks ago, I suspected they’d feel this way. They rasp against my sensitive skin, setting the walls of my stomach into a flurry of rippling activity.
“Eden Taylor,” I reply.
Despite his cool exterior and his less-than-friendly expression, his touch is warm and somehow reassuring, like he could fix or heal or bring back to life whatever he set these hands to.
Which is ridiculous and the first indication that I’m probably losing my mind.
I’m not this girl. I’m not the kind of woman who melts over a man. Any man. But this one does something to me. I get the feeling that, if the circumstances were right, I’d melt for him. Or with him.
He nods once and quickly releases me. I wonder if he felt something, too.
“Jordan,” he says abruptly, nodding once before adjusting his grip on the ladder and resuming his work as if we weren’t standing in the yard.
Jordan, still smiling, takes my arm again and leads me back the way we came, as if that was a perfectly normal greeting from this mysterious man. When we pass ear-shot distance, Jordan saves me the trouble of having to bring up Cole.
“Why do all the hot ones have to be so damn crazy?” she asks, sounding exasperated.
“Why do you say that? I mean that he’s crazy?”
Without looking at me, she answers. “Because he definitely is. He’s, like, talks-to-dead-people crazy. One-flew-over-the-cuckoo’s-nest crazy. Twelve-monkeys crazy.” She stops in the middle of the road and looks me in the eye. “Not that it makes him any less attractive. I mean, God, what I wouldn’t give to get that man naked. I’d do him six ways from Sunday.”
She smiles wistfully and continues walking, half-dragging me along behind her. My mind is spinning with a million questions.
“Does he really talk to dead people?”
“Yep,” she replies. “Well, supposedly. I’ve never heard him, but it’s pretty common knowledge.”
Holy shit! That’s pretty crazy!
“Who does he talk to?”
She doesn’t answer me until we are back in my yard, and even then she lowers her voice. “His daughter. At least that’s the only one I know of.”
His daughter is dead?
I close my eyes, resisting the urge to bend over and put my head between my knees. Oh sweet God! I feel like someone punched me in the chest, all the air whizzing out of my lungs in a harsh hiss.
Jordan nods. “Yep. I think she might’ve died in a car accident. Nobody seems to know much about it, though. That or they just don’t talk about it. You know, out of respect.”
I want to ask more questions, but I can’t. The words won’t come past my lips. All I can think about is my Emmy and what I would do…how I would feel if she…
No. I can’t think that way. I couldn’t live without her. I just couldn’t.
“I guess in a lot of ways, his life ended that day. Had the world in the palm of his hand. Rich, hot, successful football player, beautiful wife, adorable daughter and then bam! Gone. Everything.”
“How did it–”
My question is interrupted by Jason. “Jordan, I told you to go open the store. Strom Tuggle just called. He’s been waiting in the parking lot for fifteen minutes.”
“Oh screw Strom! He’s just there for his daily glance at my ass. He can wait.” Jordan gives me an apologetic look and twirls her keys on her finger. “Stop by the grill sometime. I’ll buy you a drink and a chicken sandwich.”
“I can’t really…not with Emmy…” I hike my thumb back toward the cottage, my heart aching as I think of my little girl, my whole world, sleeping peacefully inside. Alive and well.
“Oh, right right. Well, I’ll come to you then. I need a new girlfriend. This town’s in dire need of some not bitches,” she declares with a grin.
“Jordaaan,” Jason prompts warningly.
“I’m going, I’m going.”
As Jordan saunters to the truck, I stand staring after her, wishing she’d come back and answer my million questions.
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