The Sweetheart Bargain (A Sweetheart Sisters Novel) (7 page)

BOOK: The Sweetheart Bargain (A Sweetheart Sisters Novel)
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“I’m not in any condition to date anyone. What woman is going to want this?” His hand went to his face, and he cursed himself for letting that self-pity creep in again.

The air in the kitchen stilled. The coffeepot perked away, one
glub
at a time. Outside, the faint sound of sirens rose and fell. Greta crossed to Luke and put a hand on his left cheek. Her soft fingers inched up, pausing by the scar that zigzagged down from his hairline. Such a small injury, but such big implications. “Oh, Luke, this doesn’t have to stop you from having a life, you know.”

He turned away from her touch. “What kind of life do I have now?”

“What happened changed the life you
had
, Luke. Not the one that’s ahead of you.”

“I’m a pilot, Grandma. A pilot who can never fly a plane again. I’m half blind and all I can look forward to right now is more . . . nothing. Oh, I can collect my disability pay and maybe stand on the corner with a cup of pencils, but the life I had is gone.” He let out a low curse, then shook his head. So much for not wallowing.

“You don’t have to be a pilot. You can—”

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is fly. You know that.” His lifelong dream, jerked from him in a split second, one bad decision. “I’m done.”

Greta sighed. “Life is about change, Luke. And part of that is what makes every day an adventure. And when life hands you lemons, you make limoncello.”

He smiled. “Another bit of wisdom from your daddy?”

“Of course. And a useful tip. How do you think I survived that move to the retirement home?”

His gaze went to the open window, to a yard that no longer held crisp green grass and bright yellow flowers but had blurred into dark spheres and pyramids like a twisted geometry problem from God. His entire world cast in shadow.

Some days, his vision cooperated and he could see the world through a gauzy film. Those were the good days, the ones when he thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. He’d find a way around it, maybe a way back to the Coast Guard. Other days—the dark days—his eyes refused to show him anything beyond shades of gray. At first, the bright days had filled him with hope for recovery, and then he’d begun to curse them as a cruel, temporary gift.

His grandmother’s hand was on his shoulder again, but he barely felt it. Didn’t hear her words. His mind saw another darkness, one teeming and churning like an angry machine, the sea reaching up in whitecapped waves, a growling beast below him. The helo pitching and rolling in the storm, the flight controls shaking in his grip, and the white faces of the crew.

Lowering the rescue litter, hearing Joe shouting through the headset that they were burning through fuel too fast.
Hurry the hell up, it’s getting bad out there—

Then watching the cable whip in a wild arc, then catch in the mast, and like a rebounding yo-yo, jerk back up. Luke tried to shift the helo away, but the cable was faster, snarling in the transmission hub and the rotor blades, rendering the flight controls useless. After that, nothing but black. A void in his memory. A blessing and a curse.

“I’m sorry,” Luke said softly, to the breeze dancing over his skin, wishing the words could carry far enough to reach those he had left behind.

And the one he would never see again.

“I know you are,” Grandma said. “I know you are.”

The coffeepot beeped the end of the brewing cycle. Luke started toward it, but Greta stopped him. “I’ll get it. You sit. Have some cookies.”

Luke turned toward the table, crossing the kitchen in a memorized number of steps. On a good day, he could see the checkerboard pattern in the tile. On a bad day, the checkerboard became a runny puddle of color.

Outside, a bark sounded, then something scratched the back door. Luke peeled back the curtain, and for a second, the bright sun blinded him. He blinked, drew farther into the shadows of the house, then glanced down, concentrating until the blur became a shape, a form, an animal.

The dog. Back again.

“What’s that?” Grandma asked.

“A dog. I bet a hundred bucks it’s that stray the new neighbor’s been looking for.” As soon as he said the words, he knew what his grandmother was going to suggest. Damn.

“Well, then here’s your perfect opportunity to do a good deed. You know what my daddy always said. Favors done for the neighbor fine—”

“Are best accompanied by a bottle of wine.” Luke shook his head and let out a chuckle. Leave it to his grandmother’s quirky sense of humor to bring a little lightness to his day. It made him glad—some—that he had opened the door to her and her cookies. “Does most of Grandpa’s advice come attached to a bottle of liquor?”

Greta thought for a second. “Yup. You know your grandpa. He looked at the world through whiskey-colored glasses.”

Luke released the curtain and it swung into place over the window. The dog scratched again. Insistent. Needy. For a second, compassion swept over Luke.

He had no business caring for a dog. Hell, he could barely take care of himself. He stepped back. “Well, if she wants her dog, she can get it herself.”

Grandma swatted his arm. “I raised you better than that, Luke Winslow. Now go be a good person and help poor Olivia out.” Before he could stop her, his grandmother undid the lock on the door and tugged it open.

He started to argue, but the damned dog had already wriggled past his legs, into the house, and then dropped to the kitchen floor. Luke opened his mouth to order it out, then stopped.

The dog’s breath was coming in fast, shallow pants of distress. Its tail thumped a weak patter against the tile. Friendly. Grateful.

The dog needed help. Poor thing. That damned compassion returned in a stronger wave. Luke bent down and reached out a hand. The dog didn’t growl—heck, it barely moved. Then, a quick, friendly flick of the tongue against Luke’s thumb.
Help me, help me.

Luke’s hand hovered over the furry body, then descended in a tentative pat. The dog leaned closer, panted faster. “Grandma, I think you better go get the neighbor. Dog’s sick or something.”

“Oh, goodness, where does the time go? I’m supposed to be at bingo. I’m calling the B-4 . . . and after.” Greta pressed a kiss to his cheek, then spun on her heel, moving insanely fast for a woman with a hip replacement. “I’ll see you soon, Luke.”

And just like that, she walked out the door, leaving him with the dog, and a problem he didn’t want. A problem that was going to require the very thing Luke avoided.

Involvement.

Four

The drill screeched in disagreement, then sent the stripped and now useless screw spiraling away, pinging off the stepladder and rolling onto the floor. It spun off into a dark corner, then
plink-plink
ed through the floorboards.

“Okay, okay,” Olivia said to the stupid yellow hand tool. “You win. I’m
not
smarter than a ceiling fan.”

Miss Sadie watched from her perch on the worn blue-and-white-striped sofa, little nose twitching. Above Olivia, multicolored wires dangled from the ceiling fan motor. The metal cylinder hung askew and swung back and forth, secured by the single screw she’d managed to install. Another screw had also gone AWOL, joining the first two deserters she’d lost earlier. In the wall across from her sat a saw that had lodged itself into the framing. And beneath it all, a pile of building supplies she’d bought with good intentions and no instructions.

Olivia sighed. “Good thing I’m not working as a carpenter or I’d be broke.” A break was in order. Maybe a drink, too, or two, regardless of the hour. She’d been at this most of the morning and hadn’t made any kind of dent. The house looked, if possible, even worse now than when she’d walked in that first day.

Not to mention, she’d scoured the ramshackle bungalow top to bottom and found nothing besides a collection of dog curios, a lot of clothes in a size eight, financial records for the shelter, and a business card for a lawyer. No notes, no cards, no journals, nothing that told her who her mother had been. Maybe she’d missed something. Behind the peeling wallpaper or loose floorboards there could be a secret stash, but Olivia doubted it.

For the past few days, Olivia had tried a dozen times to get up the courage to ask about her mother. But every time she tried to broach the subject at Golden Years or any other place she went in Rescue Bay, the questions lodged in her throat. What if the answer hurt more?

Her mother had, after all, left her a house, an object as inanimate as a shrub. No notes. No letters. She’d never come looking for Olivia, never tried to explain. Instead, she’d dumped a money pit in her daughter’s lap, and like she had at the hospital more than thirty years ago, Bridget had left.

Tears brimmed in Olivia’s eyes. Miss Sadie hopped down, then came over and nosed at Olivia’s leg. She chuckled, then came down from the ladder and patted her intuitive dog. “You’re right. Self-pity doesn’t help anything, does it?” And self-pity wasn’t part of the kind of person Olivia was. Even if the last year or so had felt like being tossed into a hurricane, then hung out to dry, then tossed back again. She acted, she didn’t dwell. “Okay,” she said with a determined sigh, “let’s try this again, Sadie.”

Olivia started to reach for the drill when the soft creaking above gave way to a louder screech. She scooted back, just as the screw unraveled itself from the hole and the fan’s motor came down, bounced off the top of the stepladder, then dropped like a stone onto the wood floor. On impact, the motor split in two and regurgitated wire guts.

Damn.

“Great. Now what?” Olivia put a hand on her hip. Miss Sadie scrambled off the couch and danced around the motor, barking at it for scaring her and nearly taking out her mistress’s toes.

Olivia sighed. “What I need is help, Miss Sadie.”

The dog didn’t put up a paw.

“Or maybe something to help relieve this . . . stress.” Olivia stretched right, left, but it didn’t ease the tension in her shoulders, her neck. The move, the new job, the search for answers, coupled with the long days and late nights spent on the renovation had left every muscle in Olivia’s body achy and tired. “You know what my friends would say? I need a fling. One good, no-strings-attached night with a good-looking man.”

Miss Sadie barked, wagged her tail.

“Oh, you think that’s a good idea, do you? Well, I’m not going to disagree. But if I have a fling, it’s going to be with a man who knows how to use a hammer.”

A sharp banging sounded on her front door. “Hey, maybe that’s him. You think, Miss Sadie?” The dog barked. Olivia laughed, then crossed to pull open the door. Or rather, yank open the door, which had stuck like an elephant in a cow chute.

She’d expected another delivery from the hardware store, or the mailman, or a new care package from her mother. Instead, she got her neighbor. Mr. Ray-Bans.

Every time she saw the man, she had to suck in a breath and remind her heart to keep beating. A couple days’ worth of stubble dusted his chin, while those damnable sunglasses kept his eyes hidden from her view. Coupled with thigh-hugging jeans and a worn pale-blue T-shirt featuring a logo for a beer company, the whole effect was . . .

Devastating. In that sexy guy-next-door kind of way.

And she was not interested. At all. The last thing she needed to complicate an already complicated life was a man. But a part of her wouldn’t mind spending a few hours finding inventive ways to forget the growing list of DIY projects.

Oh yeah.
That would relieve her stress. And then some. Her face heated and she hoped like hell he hadn’t overheard her conversation with the dog and couldn’t see the crimson burning up her cheeks.

“Your dog is over at my house,” he said, before she uttered a word.

“My dog?” Olivia glanced down at her feet. Miss Sadie had plopped her tiny butt on the entry rug, tail swishing back and forth, an invitation for the guest to come in and play. “She’s right here.”

He arched a brow. “That? That’s not a dog. That’s a hairball.”

BOOK: The Sweetheart Bargain (A Sweetheart Sisters Novel)
6.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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