Like his parents Andy and Laura Friessen, Gabriel knows what it means to face an impossible situation. What he doesn’t realize when he puts up an ad looking for a roommate he never expects to meet a down on her luck gorgeous single mom with a meddling family, a crazy ex-boyfriend, and enough chemistry between them to heat a county. The only problem is she doesn’t believe in happily ever after and sees falling in love as a mistake only fools make. But Gabriel can’t stop thinking about her, wanting her, and is determined to show her the road to love isn’t as dangerous as she believes.
“So this is what it’s come to,” Gabriel mumbled under his breath as he waited behind a beefy motorcycle dude with a leather vest, grubby jeans, and tattoos covering one arm, the kind of guy he’d never want to find himself at odds with. That was why, instead of asking him to move, he stood patiently at the back of the corner store, where the community bulletin board was, just so he could pin up his own pitiful request.
The said biker dude was busy taking in the entire board of what looked like dozens of notices, ads, and items for sale, as if reading every printout twice. Gabriel had only another ten minutes before he had to get back to the job site, to his own eye-opening job on a construction crew under a big contractor in the area, doing anything and everything the head supervisor deemed necessary.
The fact was that he was now having to get real and learn skills from the real world since deciding college wasn’t for him five years earlier. He was far happier with this hands-on way of learning than with a stuffy classroom, which was another reason he was standing there, staring at the recycled white bond paper on which he’d scribbled his information, looking to find a roommate so he could afford to pay the mortgage and every bill that was piling up for the fixer-upper he’d bought. Although he’d thankfully learned many of the skills to do the work himself, the house had turned into a money pit and had dried up Gabriel’s bank account to the red. He was now in overdraft, giving up his source of freedom and opening his house to a stranger.
That was when the biker dude glanced back at Gabriel, his unusual dark eyes pinning him where he was. “Whatcha offering?” He had a raspy voice, the kind that came from smoking too long and too many cigarettes.
Of course, he froze, not knowing what the hell the man was asking. For a second, his brain headed to some pretty lewd places, and he wanted to step back and away, to get the hell out of there, but he gestured to the paper he was holding, or rather gripping, in sweaty hands.
“Uh…” was all he got out before the biker dude reached for the paper and took it from his grip. He grunted as he read the words, his lips moving, and he nodded as if liking what he read. Then he turned and pinned it over the flyer for an upcoming auction for a pickup. Gabriel just stood there with his hands still outstretched, trying to figure out what the fuck had just happened.
“Roommate wanted, your own room and bathroom, shared kitchen…” The man was actually reading it out loud now, and Gabriel had to fight to keep from digging his fingers into his palms as the man flicked his unusual gaze his way. It wasn’t so much his face as it was his entire being, his big body, the size of him, and the long gold chain pierced into one ear and hanging to his shoulder. Everything about him screamed that he wasn’t someone Gabriel wanted to find himself face to face with in some back alley. He wanted to back out of there and say it was all a mistake.
“So everything is included in this price, heat, electric, or is anything extra?” The man was still talking to him.
He should say it was taken, ask for the paper back or something, because there was no way he was renting a room in his house to a guy like this. “All included,” he said, “but I should add that there’s no smoking, parties, or general craziness.”
The man made a face and nodded as he glanced back to him. “Yeah, you can’t be too careful. All kinds out there. So is it a house or apartment?”
Oh, good God, he was still asking about the place. Gabriel could feel the way his jaw pinched from how tightly he was grinding his teeth. This guy was seriously interested in his listing. This could not be happening. There was no way biker dude was living with him. “House, but then, it has to be the right fit. You know, personalities and all, and cleanliness. There’s an expectation that everything will be kept neat and tidy.” Good job! He crossed his arms and took in the way the guy faced him now and cocked a brow, and his heartbeat kicked up a bit as he wondered whether the guy realized he was referring to him.
“Garage, shed, what about storage options?”
For a second, Gabriel blinked, because the guy hadn’t taken the hint. This conversation really was going to a bad place.
“Street parking only, no sheds. It’s a nice area, a family area.” He really emphasized the last point, leaning in a bit, his arms crossed over his chest, hoping the guy got the message so he wouldn’t have to spell it out any clearer.
“Perfect!” The man actually reached over and slapped Gabriel on the shoulder, showing his front two teeth with metal caps. Gabriel thought the floor softened beneath his feet as the man reached out and ripped off one of the fifteen slips with his phone number and lifted it in the air. “I’ll give this to my sister,” he said. “She’s looking for a place.” He actually held the paper up between his fingers as if to emphasize its importance, and Gabriel made a mental note in that second to make sure he turned her away.
“Hey, Marty,” someone called out. “The pop truck is here. I’m going to help unload. Can you watch the front?” The neat and tidy lanky dude Gabriel had spotted behind the front counter strode past, flicking a lock of his long blond hair back. The biker dude shrugged.
Now Gabriel was really looking at the guy and the empty hallway with the sign above that read Employees only, which the other guy had just walked down. It had him doing a double take, as he was having trouble understanding. Did the biker guy actually work there?
“Of course,” Marty, the biker dude, said and stepped away from the board. Gabriel didn’t miss how big he was, at least six foot two, and he had to be close to three hundred pounds, give or take. “Anything else you need?”
He realized Marty was staring down at him. Gabriel was far from a small man, just shy of six feet, with a broad chest and arms and shoulders strong enough to carry some of the heaviest beams on the job site, and he knew well that women appreciated the way he looked. As he stood there, trying to get his brain to kick in and come up with something reasonable and coherent to say, he realized Marty was still waiting patiently for an answer, so Gabriel flicked his hand to the side. “Ah, nope, just needed to put that up. I better get back to work.”
He gestured with his thumb behind him and started backing up, then turned and put one foot in front of the other, getting the hell out that door.
His phone buzzed from his back pocket as he stood on the ladder, the support beam on his shoulder. They were one man down today on the crew.
Dwayne, one of the carpenters, sawdust scattered in his dark hair, was hammering the beam in place. “Okay, you can let go now,” he said, and Gabriel climbed down, rolling his shoulder and reaching in his pocket.
He pulled out the phone on the third ring. “Gabriel Friessen,” he answered, gesturing to Dwayne to give him a minute as the man ran his hand over the pile of two by fours before pulling one out. He turned his back when he heard nothing. “Hello, anyone there?”
“I’m calling about the room you have for rent.”
He had to shove his finger in his ear so he could hear as Dwayne started hammering. “Yeah, sorry, there’s a lot of background noise here. You’re going to have to speak up.” He stepped over by the furnace, where the heating guys had just finished.
“The room for rent? You are renting out a room, right?” It was a woman’s soft voice, and for a minute, he was about to say it had already been rented, as his first thought was that this must be biker dude’s sister. Maybe not, though, considering she didn’t sound the crazy type, and nor did he hear anything pointing him in the direction of her being related to biker dude.
“Yeah, a shared house,” he said. “It’s a bedroom that comes with your own bathroom.” He walked across the room into where the kitchen would be, stepping over the plywood floors, seeing that the room had been taken back to the studs. There was silence again. “Hello, are you still there?”
“Is the bedroom furnished?”
He wondered for a second whether she’d hang up when he told her he had a sofa only and hadn’t bothered to buy anything else.
“No, you’ll have to bring your own bed. It’s just a room. Look, if you’d like to see it, we can meet, but I’ll stress that I have others seeing it, so bring references, and…” And what? he thought. These “others” hadn’t yet called.
“So you have a lot of people coming to see it?” She had such a soft voice.
“I’ll be showing it tonight.” To hopefully more than one person.
“And everything is included in the price of four hundred?”
“Everything.” He nodded to Dwayne, who called out to him. “Come by around seven,” he said and rattled off his address, making a quick mental note to clean up the dirty dishes, laundry, and garbage he had lying around.
His hair was damp, and he was wearing his only clean pair of jeans, a faded pair with a tear in the thigh, as he tied up the black garbage bag and then ran his hand over the teal granite of his island counter in the kitchen. It was one of the best rooms in the house since he’d renovated and rebuilt it, opening it up to the living and dining room to make it open. The white cabinets with glass fronts gave it a high-end look, as did the gas stove and pot filler. The new stainless-steel appliances were the icing on the cake and one of the many reasons he needed to rent out a piece of this house. The reno had been expensive, especially given all the problems he’d discovered behind the walls on demolition.
He glanced at the clock, then down at his phone on the counter, seeing he still had no calls. Not one call for the room other than the lady coming now. What the hell? He’d expected to have his phone blowing up with messages, considering the price and the lack of places to rent. For his sake, he hoped biker dude wasn’t showing up with the lady. Even better, he hoped the lady coming now was no relation. If she was his sister, he’d show her around, take her references, and walk her the hell out of there.
He picked up the black garbage bag. It was almost seven, judging by the large centerpiece clock on the otherwise bare living room wall, and he ran his hand over his bare chest. Yeah, he still needed to find a shirt, a clean one, which he’d do right after he tucked the garbage in the can outside. He pulled open the front door and stopped, taking in the long dark hair and slim curves of a gorgeous woman. She was holding the hand of what seemed to be a little girl of three or four, maybe.
“Uh, hi,” he said, running his hand over his bare chest again and seeing that her eyes went straight there and then up. Her big bold eyes were the color of toffee, and she didn’t smile. Her gaze didn’t linger on him at all, either.
“I called about the room to rent,” she said. “My name is Elizabeth Abercrombie.” She actually held out her hand. He took in the garbage he was holding and switched it to his other hand before giving his free one a quick wipe on his jeans and checking it to make sure it was clean. He took her slender hand in his, surprised by the firm handshake.
“Gabriel Friessen,” he said, still holding her hand as he glanced down at the little girl again. She was looking up at him with the same eyes and a shoulder-length mop of out-of-control curls.
Elizabeth pulled her hand away, and he glanced over her head to the street, seeing only his faded blue pickup out front before dragging his gaze back to the attractive woman, who still wasn’t smiling.
“I didn’t hear a car,” he said as she pulled her hand away.
“We took the bus,” she said. He noticed the big purse over her shoulder, light tan and black. She had no rings on her fingers.
“I just need to dump this in the trash can,” he explained and stepped outside onto the front porch, taking in her cutoffs and loose white shirt. Gorgeous legs, too.
She pointed at the garbage bag in his hand, maybe because he was staring a few seconds too long. “You said you were going to put that in the garbage,” she said as if he needed a reminder.
“Right.” He strode barefoot down the steps, knowing he was staring and acting like…well, like a man who’d lost his reasoning. She was nothing like what he’d been expecting. She definitely couldn’t be related to the biker dude, because she was gorgeous, a sweet girl-next-door package. He felt a moment of relief as he pulled open the garbage can by the front gate and dumped the bag in.
“This is a very nice porch,” she said. “You don’t see many houses anymore with these old-fashioned columns. It’s nice, and it’s great that this house is close to the bus stop.” She was looking at the freshly painted white columns, the brand-new rail, and the finished deck, which had one red and white lawn chair, the only outdoor furnishing he could afford.
Then she was staring at him, and it took him a second before he realized he was doing it again, staring as if he’d never seen a sexy woman before. She seemed to radiate something that he didn’t want to turn away from. “Ah, yeah, the house.” He gestured to the door, taking in the little girl. He thought it was a girl, or maybe a boy? She wore a striped T-shirt and blue shorts, with white sneakers on her feet. Quiet thing.
“So you’re looking for a place to rent, just you?” he asked as he strode up the steps, still barefoot, then stopped before her and looked down. He saw her jaw firm as she glanced over to the kid beside her. When he took her in again, he didn’t miss the raised brow. She had caught his meaning.
“This is Shaunty, my daughter. The room is for us—just us,” she added. “But it’s more important that it’s clean and reasonable and quiet.” She spoke matter of factly, and she looked him square in the eye, not lingering on his chest at all. Her gaze told him she wasn’t buying anything. He didn’t know why he found it amusing.
“Right, well, come in. I’ll show you around.” He pulled open the door and gestured, so she went in first and said something to the little girl, who took off her shoes. Elizabeth then slipped off her sandals and stepped into the house, which opened into the living room. It had wood floors, bold gray walls, a flat-screen TV, and a sofa opposite. That was it. “Sorry,” he said. “I just finished renovating and haven’t had a chance to buy furniture yet.”
The truth was that he didn’t have a dime to spare to buy anything else.
“This is nice,” she said as she walked in, and he watched her taking in the open-concept kitchen before glancing over to the empty dining room with double doors that went out back to a deck. She was walking into the kitchen, running her hand over the countertop, and taking in the appliances, the double-wide fridge, the dishwasher, the gas range. He couldn’t help noticing the way she moved, and her daughter stayed right beside her, so well behaved.
“Uh, we’d share the fridge,” he said. “I’d clear you some shelves to keep your food.”
What was he doing? He didn’t know a thing about her, and then there was her kid.
She didn’t seem surprised, as she inclined her head. “So who else lives here?” At least she was asking the right questions.
She nodded. “Can I see where the bedroom is, the bathroom?”
He lifted his hand, the hand that had been crossed over his chest. “Of course, this way.” He led her across the living room and down a short hall to the first room on the right. The door was open, and he flicked on the light, taking in the small room with its cream walls and white trim.
“This is the room,” he said. “There’s a small closet with shelves, so you’d be sharing. There’s another bedroom next door, but it’s stuffed with all my junk, so I won’t be renting it out.”
He looked down at her, seeing the top of her dark hair. It was deep and rich. The color shimmered, and her hair fell in soft waves to midback. She was so tiny, maybe five two, three tops. Then he took in the little girl, who watched him in a way that made him positive she knew he was checking out her mom before she stated, “Me and Mom sleep together,” as if that was everything.
He was surprised she was still watching him. Shaunty…an unusual name. Elizabeth ruffled the little girl’s hair and tossed her an easy smile before taking her hand in a protective motherly grip. When she looked up at him, the smile disappeared. “So it doesn’t come furnished?” she asked, and for a minute he thought he saw something hopeful in her face.
“No, sorry. As I said on the phone, it doesn’t. That’s not a problem, is it?”
She just firmed her lips, pink full lips, and then shook her head. “Of course not,” she replied, and she said nothing else as she stood in the bedroom, holding her little girl’s hand, waiting for him to do what?
He stepped out of the bedroom. “Bathroom is across the hall, which would be yours. I have my own in the master suite.” His own, he thought, with a soaker tub and a steam shower, another feature he hadn’t been about to cut back on. He opened the door and flicked on the light. “Bath and shower combo, storage under the sink.”
“Oh, Mom, look, two sinks!” Shaunty said. “And two mirrors!”
“I just need to pick up a shower curtain, but this would be yours,” Gabriel said.
“Very nice, thank you,” Elizabeth said. “And there’s laundry?”
He wondered what accent he was picking up in her voice. It was soft, just a hint of something that said she was from a little further south, maybe.
“At the back door, other side of the kitchen.” He started down the hall, and she fell in beside him. The little girl, he noticed, was curious about him, from the glances she kept tossing his way.
“So are you from around here?” he said. “Tell me about yourself.” He gestured toward her as they walked through the kitchen to the laundry area at the back door, where the laundry basket was on top of the front-loading dryer. He spotted an unfolded clean white shirt and reached for it, finally pulling it on.
“Not much to say about me,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve been here in Columbia Falls for close to ten years. Other than that, I’m hardworking. It’s just me and Shaunty. I work part time now at the Moto Auto parts shop, at the front counter. My hours were just cut, though, from full time to half time, leaving me with just four three-hour shifts a week. I’m looking for a different job with more hours, but there’s not a lot available right now, which is why I need the room only. It’s all I can afford. Just so we’re being up front here, I’m single. Was in a relationship, and it didn’t end well, and I’m not looking to get into anything anytime soon. Shaunty is four, goes to preschool during the day and daycare when I’m working. We’re quiet and expect the same.”
She crossed her arms, and he couldn’t help noticing her amazing figure again. She still hadn’t smiled. Man, she appeared so serious, and he didn’t miss her demand.
“Of course, it goes both ways, mutual respect and compatibility,” he said. Now, why would he add that? “I mean, not compatible in the relationship kind of way, but yeah, it kind of is, like living together, sharing a roof…” He took in the little girl looking up at him. Maybe she was waiting for him to pull out the foot he’d jammed in his mouth.
“What else do you need to know?” she asked. “Because I’d like to take it. It’s clean, nice, reasonable.” She lifted her fingers and glanced down to her daughter as if they both agreed, and they both nodded. “And close to the bus stop.”
“And don’t forget the park, Mom,” Shaunty said. She was so cute, the way she talked.
“Right, how could I forget? The park is up the street.” She actually winked at her daughter.
Gabriel knew he needed to ask her more questions, more anything, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was “Well, great. So when do you want to move in?”
“Don’t look at him, don’t smile. Whatever you do, just get those thoughts out of your head,” Elizabeth said under her breath as she stood with a big apple box just outside the gate of her new home.
Damn, she was still rattled after meeting Gabriel Friessen, with his unmistakable sexy eyes that made her breath catch in her lungs, and that had prompted the pep talk and reminder that nothing good ever came from tall, dark, and handsome. So she juggled the box and reached around to unlatch the gate.
“Oh, let me get that for you, sugar,” her mother said, unlatching the gate for Elizabeth. Chloe had brown hair and a short cut that resembled a football. Her ginormous earrings, a mix of brass and silver, dangled to her shoulders.
“Mom, you know dressing up for moving day kind of defeats the purpose of helping me move,” Elizabeth said.
Her mom had a blue handbag that matched her ridiculous outfit looped over her arm. She wore a long, flowing loose sundress of mixed blues that stopped at mid-calf, with three-inch wedge heels and the same plastered-on makeup she wore every day. Elizabeth had seen her mom without makeup only once, and it had taken her a minute to get her brain to realize that the woman was in fact her mother.
“Nonsense,” Chloe said. “You should always put your best foot forward and look your very best every time you step out the door. I’m even opening the gate for you, since you can’t do that yourself because your hands are full… Frank, are you bringing those bags up? Come on, hurry up now,” her mom called out over her shoulder to her dad.
Frank was a big man, tall, with deep eyes, and he always shopped in the extra-large section. He lifted his hand and, she was pretty sure, grunted. At the same time, her mom was still talking, or nagging, about something as she walked away. Elizabeth, like her dad, had stopped listening after the first few words. Chloe seemed to go on and on forever.
She hoofed it up the five wide stairs to the gorgeous three-bedroom house, which had a sweet homey feel the likes of which she’d never experienced, and to boot, it was first class, the kind of home she’d dreamed of having. She still couldn’t believe she’d told Gabriel the unfurnished room wasn’t a problem, though. Well, she’d been through worse, so having to camp out on a blowup mattress and use boxes to store their clothes would be a small inconvenience, considering she now had a place for her and Shaunty.
She pulled the keys to the front door from the pocket of her faded blue jeans, the keys Gabriel had given her yesterday, but the front door opened before she could use them. There stood mister tall, dark, and handsome himself, this time appearing somewhat decent, wearing a faded pair of jeans, a red T-shirt, and a smile that only had her frowning.
“Oh, hi, I didn’t think you’d be here,” she stated. Actually, for a minute, she wondered if she’d snarled it. It was what she had hoped, even though the opposite was true, if she was being honest.
“It’s Saturday, my day off. Thought I told you I’d be around.” He stepped out the door, leaving it open, angling his head to the side and looking around her as he took in her parents. She could still hear her mom talking. Well, words were coming out of her mouth, but she wasn’t listening to any of it.
“My parents.” She gestured toward them, juggling the box, and almost dropped it.
“Let me.” His hand covered hers, and he took the box from her before she could say anything. She pulled her hand back from the touch, which shot fire through her. There was no way in hell she was going to let herself feel that, so she fisted her hand and forced a smile to her face.
“You know what? I can carry my own boxes.” She forced the words out and took in the moment he registered what she’d said. He actually handed her back the box and stepped away, lifting his hands in the air. Of course, now she felt like a first-class bitch, but boundaries were imperative, and the last thing she ever planned on happening was getting sucked into another pair of dreamy eyes, a killer smile, and a rugged body she could stare at all day. No way. Been there, done that.
“After you…” he started just as the voices behind them grew louder. Her mom was walking up the sidewalk carrying nothing other than her handbag, whereas her dad was carrying two big suitcases. Her mom went on and on about something she didn’t have a clue about.
“Mom, Dad, this is Gabriel,” she called out as she stepped into the house and glanced at the clean floors and her shoes. “Is it okay if we leave our shoes on?” she said as her dad nodded and her mom shook Gabriel’s hand.
“Oh, so nice to meet you,” Chloe said. “Gabriel, is it? Tell me, what is your family name? Who are your people, and where are you from?”
Elizabeth took in what she could only assume was a thrown expression on Gabriel’s face. Yup, that was exactly what her mom was famous for.
He darted a glance back to her and shrugged. “Ah…don’t worry about your shoes.”
She kept walking, hearing him say something to her mom, who she knew would be dogging him with questions, a lot of questions. Then she’d report back to Elizabeth and everyone else exactly what she’d learned.
She stepped into her bedroom, her and Shaunty’s, and instantly had to take a breath, a deep breath, as she felt a huge chunk of the tension she’d been carrying fall away. She rested the box of her photos and personal junk on the floor in the corner and took in the closed blinds. The room was stuffy and warm. She pulled the blinds up and took in the window, the latch, but when she flicked it open and pulled, nothing happened. She flicked the latch the other way, and again nothing budged.
“What are you doing, Lizzy?” her dad asked. She could hear him huffing as if he’d run up the street, but she knew it was all that fried food, bags of chips and everything else, that he was always eating.
“Trying to open this window, but it’s stuck or something…” She pulled again, yanked with both hands.
“Ah, let me open it. You see, you just need to put muscle into it, is all.” Her dad put down the big orange suitcases she’d had forever. The empty room had something of an echo.
She stepped away and lifted her hand. “Fine, you see if you can open it, and I’ll go get the rest of my things.” Elizabeth stepped out of the bedroom and started to the front door, hearing her dad grunting as he yanked and yanked, then started cursing at the window, something else he did with anything that wasn’t working for him.
“So you have how many brothers and sisters, and where do they live?” Her mom had Gabriel in the kitchen, where she was opening up the fridge and still peppering him with questions. For the most part, Gabriel seemed to be holding up okay.
“Hey, great, you got a second, Elizabeth?” He turned his head so fast from her mom, and his expression said everything.
“Sure.” She started over to the kitchen.
“Lizzy, have you seen in here, this fridge? There’s no food in here. He has no real food. Where are the pickles, ketchup, sour cream, Cheez Whiz? It’s just greens, and what’s this here…” Her mom was actually pulling things out of the fridge and setting them on the counter as she held up a jar. “Kim…chi? What is this stuff? Oh, look, there’s even tofu and MCT oil.” Her mom was really going to town.
“That’s kimchi. I eat a really clean diet,” he stated.
“Well, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Can’t taste any good.” Of course, she was still going on about the food.
“Mom, Mom…” Elizabeth actually stepped forward and tapped the counter with her hand to get her mom’s attention.
“What, baby?” The way she said it as she turned around, holding a bag of bean sprouts, she sounded as if she was interrupting her.
“Put the food back,” Elizabeth said and gestured with her finger, then flicked her hand again and again to the fridge. “Seriously, Mom, put it back and stop it already. That food belongs to Gabriel.”
“I don’t know how you call this food. Where are the Hungry-Man TV dinners in your freezer, the Tater Tots…” Her mom was still talking as she turned around and put the lettuce, the greens, the jars back in the fridge.
Gabriel was now walking around the island, his eyes glued to her. “Can I talk to you a second, outside?”
“Of course,” she said. She didn’t realize he was barefooted until he walked to the open front door. She could hear her dad from the bedroom.
“Come on, you motherfucker, open!” he said, followed by an oomph sound.
Gabriel turned his sharp gaze her way and then back down the hall to where her dad was still cursing and yelling.
She gestured helplessly. “Window’s stuck. Dad’s trying to open it.”
His eyes widened. “Ah!” He hurried down the hall to her bedroom. “Hey, just hold up and don’t pull—”
She heard what sounded like breaking glass. “Oh, shit, no!” she muttered and jogged to the room to find a hole where her window should be. The blinds were hanging to one side, and one of the panes of glass was shattered on the floor.
It really was on him, Gabriel thought. He should have said something about the window. It had a defective latch that opened only when he slid the lock to the center. It was one of the few things he was planning on talking to Elizabeth about, but then her dad, a big lug of a guy, had taken care of the problem in another way. Now he was staring at broken glass, a hole he’d need to fix, and the back-and-forth arguing from Frank and Chloe, Elizabeth’s odd and eccentric nosy parents.
“I am so sorry,” Elizabeth said, and he took in her hand pressed flat to her chest, the sweetheart neckline of her faded blue tank showing a hint of cleavage.
“It’s fine,” he said, though it wasn’t, really. Now he’d have to put out for a new window, and windows weren’t cheap.
“No, it’s not fine. I’ll pay for it, of course, and clean it up.” She was already kneeling down on the floor, about to pick up the glass.
“No, Elizabeth, I’ll get a broom and sweep it up—”
Chloe interrupted. “Just tell me where your broom is. Frank here will sweep it up,” she said, and he noted the hint of a southern accent as she stepped in and gestured to the mess.
“It’s in the laundry room. Just let me grab the garbage can to dump all this in.”
Gabriel stepped out of the room, taking in his bare feet, and he stopped at the open front door, hearing the voices of Elizabeth and her parents. He shoved his feet into his sneakers and went into the laundry room to grab the broom and dust pan before stopping again at the front door and spotting one of the empty plastic cans by the gate. He leaned the broom against the wall and went outside, grabbed the plastic can, and walked back in the house with it, then hoofed it down the hall and saw all three pair of eyes turn to him.
“Oh, we’ll take that from you,” Chloe said. “Frank, you can clean this mess up…” The broom was taken from his hand, the garbage can too, and Elizabeth was rolling her eyes and walking his way.
“You got a second?” she said as she stepped out of the room and into the hall. “Again, I am so sorry about the window. My dad tries to help, but…” She gestured helplessly.
“No, it’s no biggie. I’ll get another window in.” And be a few hundred more bucks in the hole, he thought. “But we should square up a few other things. I haven’t seen your little girl, Shaunty?”
She smiled as she stepped outside onto the front porch. She had an incredible smile. “She’s with my sister, Ruby. She said she’s taking her to the park, but that’s more a ruse to take her to the shopping mall, where she’s likely going to come home with a few too many useless toys, outfits she can’t wear, and things she doesn’t need.”
Ah, so there was a sister too. Her mother was intrusive, all right. No, he was still feeling as if he’d been nipped in the ass by a passing tornado. “Anyway, you have the keys, and the rent…” he started.
She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “As promised, four hundred dollars.” She handed him the cash. “It’s all there, but feel free to count it,” she added.
For a second, he wondered whether she was insinuating something, from the way she said it, but then he couldn’t tell for sure. “No, no, of course not.” He tucked the cash in his pocket. “Hey, I thought maybe we could sit down after and talk. Maybe you have questions…” He let it hang, taking in the way she stared back at him as if she wasn’t impressed. Okay, so no chitchat right now. “Or maybe I can help you bring in furniture, the bed, dresser, anything else you have.”
Why was he babbling? She opened her mouth as if to say something and instead just pulled in a breath before closing her mouth and squinting, then glancing out and down the street.
“No furniture,” she said. “Just an air mattress and some blankets to bring in, and then I’d say we’re set.” She started down the steps and out the open gate, not waiting for him to say anything. She stopped at an older-model Lincoln that had a huge open trunk. This was it, an air mattress for her and her little girl?
Then he heard a really loud motorcycle and turned with Elizabeth to see a bike coming toward them, one of those long Harleys. It pulled up in front of his truck and stopped. Ah, shit, biker dude. On the back was a kid wearing a helmet.
“Marty, what the hell are you doing putting Shaunty on your bike? I told you before I don’t want her riding on it. Come on, hop down, honey.”
He watched as Elizabeth lifted Shaunty off the bike just as the kid unfastened the too-big helmet. Marty then turned off the engine, which rumbled with an awful racket. He had to fight the urge to look over his shoulder to see if any of the neighbors had stepped out of their houses, maybe to see who it was who would be pulling into a neighborhood that was all families, middle class, an ultraconservative lot who he figured were all in bed by nine.
“Ruby got called into work,” Marty said, “and you know how she can never say no to a shift for extra cash, so she called me and I swooped on down and picked up my niece.” He lifted off his black helmet and stepped off the bike the way guys do, lifting his leg over the seat and resting the helmet on it as he winked at the little girl, who actually winked back.
“No, the problem is that Ruby spends money faster than she can make it on the slots. She’s never learned to prioritize anything or follow through on a promise.”
Gabriel picked up the edge in Elizabeth’s voice and figured it would be wise to keep his mouth shut, considering he was still stuck on the fact that biker dude was there. At the same time, he was at a loss as to how something like this could happen. How could Elizabeth in any way be related to this unnerving man, who could be affiliated with some really bad people? It was the kind of thing he didn’t want around him.
Marty turned his piercing hard gaze on Gabriel before sticking out his hand as he walked over to him. “See you met my sister, and thanks for renting her a room. She said it’s real sweet looking.”
Gabriel was used to strong grips, but the way this guy squeezed his hand and then pulled him into him, he bounced off his chest.
Marty slapped his back. “Don’t mess with my sister,” he said in a low voice in Gabriel’s ear before he could step back.
What the hell was he supposed to say to that? He took in Elizabeth squatting down before the little girl, ignoring both of them, and he couldn’t figure out how she fit with Marty and the odd couple inside his house. His house!
Marty slapped his hands together. The fat in his bare arms wobbled over the muscle he had felt from that grip. “Well, come on, show me around,” he said. “I want to see these new digs of yours.”
Gabriel just stood there and watched as Marty strode up to his house, and he was left standing with Elizabeth and her little girl.
Elizabeth made a face and shrugged. “That’s my brother, Marty. I’m wondering by your face if you’re now regretting renting a room to us.”
He didn’t know what to say as he looked down at Shaunty, who was holding her mother’s hand, quiet, polite, her hair sticking up everywhere. Elizabeth was standing there, looking gorgeous, and she still didn’t fit the mold of this crazy family that seemed to have taken over his house.
“Of course not. I’ll get this.” He lifted out the blankets before Elizabeth stepped over to the trunk and rested her hand on his arm.
“Just in case I didn’t say it, Gabriel, thank you.” She said it so humbly before pulling her hand away, looking down to Shaunty, and walking away with her, carrying a bag stuffed with clothes and talking to her daughter as if he didn’t even exist.
“Take my bed.”
That had been what he’d said to her after her family had left and she’d been sitting on the floor of her room, blowing up the double mattress that had been leaking from a tiny hole in the side. By the time he had called the glass company to order a new window, they had been closed, and they would be until Monday. With a sheet of plywood over where the window should be, she considered the offer only once before she glanced to her daughter and said yes.
Now here she was in the grocery store two blocks away, and Gabriel was where? Outside in the parking lot, because he was determined to be a gentleman and drive her to the store even though she had two feet and could walk. “So what are we buying?” her daughter asked as they walked along the back of the store.
Elizabeth was pushing a cart through the bakery and dairy aisle. “Food until next week, and we’re going to need to be really frugal.”
Shaunty walked along beside the cart and nodded as if that made sense, then looked up to her, her expression priceless. “What does frugal mean?”
She fought the urge to laugh. “It means we can’t spend much, so think cheap. We buy what’s marked down.” Next Friday she would get another check for her part-time hours, and then she could put aside enough for rent and buy more food. Great way to live, paycheck to paycheck.
“So like macaroni and cheese,” her daughter added, sounding more responsible than most adults. She had to pinch herself for being so lucky to have such a great kid. She nodded as she took in her gorgeous, beautiful, smart-as-a-whip daughter, thankful the only thing she’d gotten from her useless, idiot father was his hair.
“Exactly, so we’ll stick to everything that’s cheap and on sale, like macaroni, bread, peanut butter, and milk.” They would need to skip the eggs, buy the cheapest cuts of meat on sale, and prioritize. Her daughter had scored on the macaroni: The no-name brand was marked down. They found a bag of carrots, too, and she loaded up the cart with as much as she could, adding up in her head as she went.
Elizabeth unloaded the cart at the cash register and watched as the cashier rang it up, hoping she’d done the math correctly.
“Hey there, you’re almost done.” She jumped and turned when Gabriel appeared beside her. He pulled off his sunglasses and rested them atop his head in his short, messy dark hair. It too was sexy as all hell.
“Yeah, I’m, uh…”
“That will be $68.25,” the cashier said, and her heart sank. She’d miscounted, having only fifty-two dollars and twelve cents. She touched her head, lifting her purse on the counter, feeling her daughter beside her. The customers behind them were already unloading their groceries.
She leaned in. “Sorry, I’m short. I’ll have to put some things back…” She was flustered as she scanned the groceries, trying to quickly figure out what to take out. “Can you take off the bag of apples, and…” She took in the carrots, the milk, bread, peanut butter, tuna, mayonnaise. “The mayonnaise, too.”
The cashier gave her an annoyed glance, and she could feel her face burn in embarrassment as she heard the woman waiting behind her let out a huff of annoyance.
“Don’t put it back. Hey, how much do you need?” Gabriel stepped closer to her, and she wished he hadn’t. In fact, it would be better if he’d just turn and leave and let her deal with this as quickly and with as much dignity as she could.
“No, that’s fine, really. I just need to take out a few things I don’t really need…”
He was pulling out his wallet, and the cashier was leveling a hard glance her way that said, Stop wasting my time. She shoved her hand in her purse and pulled out her wallet. “Fine, about fourteen dollars and…” She fumbled, feeling sweat running down her back, and her hand was shaking as she pulled out the bills.
Gabriel handed his debit card to the cashier. “Just put it on here,” he said, and she lifted her hand to gesture something, but she could feel the other shoppers listening in on everything.
“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered to Gabriel and pulled out all her bills, then dumped her coins out into her hand as he punched his number into the debit machine. The cashier bagged up the groceries, and he shoved his card back in his wallet. She went to hand him the cash and her handful of coins, but he just stared at her hand, then looked up to her.
He shook his head before lifting her two bags of groceries and said, “It’s fine. We’ll square it up later.”
She was forced to shove the money back in her wallet, grab Shaunty’s hand, and hurry to follow Gabriel and his long strides out of the store. She was humiliated and furious at Gabriel at the same time.
“Seriously, you didn’t need to do that. I’ll pay you back for all of it, but you shouldn’t have done it,” she said as she followed him out to his pickup, and she didn’t miss the cut of his biceps, his strong forearms in his simple T-shirt, and the way he seemed to easily carry the bags as if they were nothing. “I’ve got fifty-two dollars and would have preferred to just put something back. I don’t like owing anyone.”
He stopped at his pickup and rested the bags in the back of the flatbed, then rested his forearms on the edge. He glanced over to her as he settled his sunglasses back on, and she didn’t miss the odd look in his face as if he couldn’t figure out what to say.
“How about a ‘Thank you, Gabriel’? Just a simple thank-you. Seriously, I have never met a woman who has so many walls up and makes things so much harder than they need to be. It’s not a big deal. It’s food, and you have a daughter to feed. You can pay me back.” Then he pulled open the driver’s door, and she looked down to her daughter, who was standing there so quietly, staring up at her as if she agreed with everything Gabriel had said.
“It’s okay, Mom. He’s nice, you can pay him back.” She sounded so reasonable, but she had no idea of the cost of becoming beholden to anyone. She just hoped her daughter never had to figure that out.
“Okay, climb in,” she said as she pulled open the passenger side, and her daughter scooted into the middle of the pickup. Gabriel was already behind the wheel and was reaching around to fasten Shaunty’s seat belt.
She heard the deep voice shout out, and she jerked her head back just as she was about to slip into the truck.
“Oh, shit,” she said as she stared at MM, a.k.a. Mac Murrin, digging into each step and coming right for her from across the parking lot. He had thick kinky dark hair, and he was a big dude with killer abs, a broad chest, and strong arms that pumped double his body weight. It was his amazing physique that she’d totally fallen for, but it had been his dimpled grin and icy blue eyes that had sunk her. He was wearing a wrinkled tank and worn blue jeans, with a chain hanging from his pocket attached to a pocket watch, and his face had a five o’clock shadow.
“Hey, everything okay?” Gabriel asked, and she glanced into the truck and saw her daughter unfasten her belt, look up, and then slide over to the edge before bolting out of the truck.
“Daddy!” she said as she raced over to MM, who lifted her with a toss before catching her and then swinging her around like an airplane in the busy mall lot.
“Are you following me?” Elizabeth said. That would be just like him. She watched as he slung Shaunty over his shoulder as if she were a sack of potatoes.
“Hell, no,” he said. “Just drove into the parking lot and couldn’t believe I saw you with some slick-looking dude and my daughter. What the hell, Lizzie? You moving on on me? I went to the Grove, and they said you moved out. I drove around all night looking for you. You get your ass back in my car and out of this truck. You ain’t going anywhere until I decide I’m done with you, you cold-hearted bitch.”
She could feel eyes on her from the supermarket. People were staring. She heard the slam of the truck door and knew that Gabriel had stepped out, and that was a problem, because MM was unpredictable.
“Well, that’s the thing, MM. I told you before, every time you show up at a place of mine, that we’re done. We’re over. No more sleeping outside the door to my place, no more following me around, no more showing up at my work, so kindly put Shaunty down, and we’re going to be on our way.” She was afraid to look over to Gabriel, because she feared what she’d see there.
“You sleeping with my girlfriend?” MM said. “Well, I ought to teach you a lesson, you fucking little pissant…” He put down Shaunty, who ran over to Elizabeth. Oh, shit, this wasn’t good.
“Get in the truck, honey,” she said. MM was digging into each step, heading right for Gabriel, his fists ready and his expression that of the idiot she’d left, whose entire reasoning centered around his fists. “MM, don’t you dare!” she called out.
He was around the truck, in Gabriel’s face, and Gabriel wore the same What the fuck? look everyone did when they first encountered MM.
“Are you crazy?” Gabriel just stood there, and Elizabeth grabbed MM’s arm before he could swing and bust Gabriel’s face.
Next she knew, she was flying into the blue car parked next to them. “Ugh!” she grunted out as she slid down the car to the ground, wondering for a second whether anything was broken. She was dizzy and thought she saw stars.
“Oh my God, Lizzie, are you okay? I’m so sorry, baby,” MM said. He was on the ground now, kneeling down.
She was on all fours, trying to catch her breath from the ache in her side and her shoulder where she’d slammed into the car. MM’s hands were on her, and she slid around on her ass and sat there, leaning against some stranger’s car. She couldn’t seem to get rid of the crazy idiot in front of her. Then there was Gabriel, who was leaning into the truck and saying something to her daughter. When he stood up, she saw he had his cell phone to his ear.
She wanted to weep as she sat there, feeling she was hitting rock bottom, all because MM wouldn’t take the hint or hear that they were done. She knew this was it, and she’d once again have to move to get away from this idiot.
Copyright 2017, Author Lorhainne Eckhart