The Sweetheart Bargain (A Sweetheart Sisters Novel) (8 page)

BOOK: The Sweetheart Bargain (A Sweetheart Sisters Novel)
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“Sorry, hairball,” he said to Miss Sadie with a tender tone, then lifted his gaze to Olivia’s. “I meant that other dog. The one you keep tearing up my yard to find.”

He’d found the golden? Relief surged in Olivia’s chest. For a while there, she’d worried the dog might have died. Olivia put a hand to her heart. “Oh, thank God. I’ve been putting food out and calling him every day.”

“I know. I hear you.”

“Sorry.” She gave him a teasing grin. “Am I disturbing your beauty sleep?”

“That’s a lost cause for me.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot, then grimaced and extended his hand. “Anyway, if I don’t at least introduce myself, I’ll catch hell from my grandmother. Luke Winslow.”

“Olivia Linscott, in . . . in case you forgot.”

“I didn’t forget your name, Olivia.”

The four syllables of her name rolled off his tongue like a song. Very, very nicely. Her face heated, and she cleared her throat before she shook his hand. He had a warm, firm grip. “Greta’s grandson, right?”

“Guilt by DNA.” Something that could almost be a smile—but wasn’t—flickered on his face. “She says she knows you.”

Olivia nodded. “I work over at Golden Years, me and Miss Sadie. I love your grandmother. She’s a hoot. And a half.”

“A barrel of trouble is what she is.” He let out a snort of amusement that contradicted his words, then thumbed toward his house. “Anyway, I think you’re right about that dog being hurt. I don’t know anything about dogs or taking care of one, so you need to come get it.”

“Okay, let me grab my keys.”

Luke started down the front steps, moving slow, cautious. The second tread creaked a warning before cracking under his weight, but the step held. He turned back. “You should get that thing fixed before someone gets hurt. In fact, this whole porch sounds like it’s about to fall off.”

“It’d save me some demo work if it did.” She grabbed her keys off the table by the door. “I would fix that step if I knew how to use a power drill. Or a receptacle saw. Or—”

“Receptacle saw?” Confusion arched his brow, and then he chuckled. “Do you mean a

“Whatever it’s called, it sure isn’t reciprocating with cutting when I use it.”

“Maybe it doesn’t like you.”

“Or maybe it’s just stubborn. Like most men.” She blew her bangs out of her face as she stepped onto the porch. Miss Sadie barked disagreement about being left behind, but Olivia wasn’t going to chance spooking the golden again. Geckos scattered across the walkway, and in the distance, birds called to each other. “If I had the money, I’d hire someone to do all this. I thought it would be easier. I thought—”

As Olivia tugged the door shut behind her, the handle popped off in her hands, slipped out of her fingers, and dropped to the porch. Hardware followed in a clatter of metal on wood.

The last straw fell in an almost imperceptible whisper.

Tears blurred her vision. Tears of frustration and regret and worry and a million other emotions. It was hot, she was tired, and there was a ceiling fan in pieces on her living room floor. Her bank account was bordering on anorexic, and the list of things the house still needed ballooned more every second. Before she could stop them, the tears spilled over in a noisy snuffle.

“What the hell are you doing?” Luke said.

She sniffled and swiped at her face. Oh damn. The last thing she wanted to do in front of a near-stranger was break down. “Crying. I’m sorry. It’s been a really bad day and this house, this move . . . it’s not going how I expected.” Though she made a valiant effort to suck it up and quit crying, the tears refused to stop.

“Cut it out, will you?”

She didn’t. She couldn’t. The dam had broken, and there was no plugging it again. She tried to apologize again—the man barely knew her and here she was, a blubbering mess—but it came out as a choked sob.

“Oh, hell.” He hesitated, then took a step forward and placed a hand on her arm. The touch lasted a second, no more. A second of heat, of connection. “Do you have any duct tape?”

“Wh . . . what?” She blinked, fat teardrops blurring her vision. “Did you say

“Slap some duct tape on, and your problem’s solved. It works for everything. Electrical, plumbing, structural.”

“I . . . I don’t have any duct tape.” Apparently she hadn’t bought
in Home Depot.

“I’ll make you a deal. Get that dog out of my kitchen and I’ll give you some. I’ve got an extra roll . . . or ten.”

“Because you’re a guy, right?”

“Of course. It comes with the testosterone. In fact, they hand it out at puberty.”

She laughed, and finally the tears stopped. They started walking down the sidewalk, in the kind of odd comfortable stroll between two people who didn’t know each other but had something in common, even if it wasn’t much more than a zip code.

Luke intrigued her. This handsome, mysterious, wounded man with an attitude the size of Toledo, tempered by a soft spot for dogs and damsels in distress. There was something very, very appealing about that. Either that or her hormones had kicked into overdrive when he showed up.

“So you work at the retirement home with Miss Sadie?” he said. “Is she a therapist too?”

“Sort of. She’s my bichon frise, aka ‘the hairball,’ as you dubbed her. She and I are a registered team, doing animal-assisted therapy.”

“So she’s a useful hairball, huh?” He paused when he crossed from the concrete sidewalk to the crushed-shell driveway. “What’s animal-assisted therapy? Is the dog doing all the heavy lifting?”

“Not exactly. Sometimes, patients living in retirement homes, nursing homes, rehabs, have trouble getting excited about therapy. They’re in pain, or they’re depressed, or just plain unengaged. Animals can bridge that divide, and not just get people smiling, but encourage them to interact. There’s something about handing Miss Sadie a dog biscuit that’s so much more fun and rewarding than handing a therapist a toothbrush.”

He considered that, then nodded. “And sometimes, people who don’t want to talk will talk to a dog instead of a person.”

“Exactly. A lot of these patients had to give up their pets when they moved into Golden Years, and just seeing Miss Sadie can change their attitudes. Studies have shown that spending time with a dog can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and just increase overall well-being. It’s amazing how much a little ten-pound dog can do.”

“Too bad she can’t use duct tape.”

Olivia grinned. “For a guy who doesn’t say much, you really know how to deliver a punch line.”

He headed down the driveway, pulverizing shells along the way. “That’s me. A man of few words, and even fewer witty comments.”

“Put that in a personals ad and you’ll attract every woman in the tri-county area.”

“And don’t forget my amazing skill with duct tape. There’s a real bonus for the ladies.” A smile curved across his face, and it hit her hard, sending a shiver down her spine and a hot rush of desire through all the other parts.

What was that about a fling with a sexy stranger?

“I’ll, uh, have to put that to use,” she said, then coughed to cover the fact that she was thinking about putting something other than his duct tape to use. “If you’re offering, that is.”

Before he responded, an older dark-haired woman next door hopped to her feet and started waving. “Yoo-hoo, Luke!”

“Oh, great. Lois Blanchard. Don’t talk to her,” Luke muttered. “You’ll only encourage her.”

“But she’s your neighbor. You have to be friendly.”

“If I start being nice,” he said, leaning over and lowering his voice, his breath a quick, hot caress along her neck, sending thoughts of one-night stands and hot nights in his bed careening through her mind, “it’ll ruin my reputation as an ogre.”

Oh. My. God.

She wasn’t having a single ogre thought about him right now. Oh no, her thoughts ran more down the rip-his-clothes-off-and-use-him-for-his-body road. Then she jerked herself back to the present moment, and the woman heading toward them.

Lois darted across their lawns, wearing a floral capri set that matched the pansies sitting on her lawn. A tall, wiry woman, she wore a bright yellow visor and color-coordinated garden clogs. “You’re the new neighbor, aren’t you?” she said to Olivia.

“Yes, I am. Been here only a few weeks.” She recognized Lois now. It was the bright clothes that gave her away. “I’ve seen you walking the neighborhood in the mornings.”

“Yup, that’s me and the Constitutional Crew. My sister and brother-in-law. You’re welcome to join us, you know.”

“Oh, thank you, but I’m usually heading out to work about that time.” Not to mention, the Constitutional Crew usually sported matching neon-colored sweatsuits.

“Too bad.” Lois turned to Luke. “You’re welcome too, Luke. I’m sure Ben would love to have another guy to temper us ladies and our talk about bingo and knitting.”

“An offer I could hardly refuse,” Luke said, his tone dry as the Sahara, “but my mornings are . . . busy.”

Lois made a little face, then flashed Olivia a bright smile. “I’m so sorry Doug—that’s my husband—and I haven’t come over to say howdy yet. You’d think we’d have more time as retirees, but good golly, we’re busy as bees.” She gave Luke a light tap. “Why didn’t you introduce me earlier?”

“With your keen Welcome Wagon skills, Mrs. Blanchard, I figured you had already met the newest addition to the block.”

She waved a hand. “Oh, I’ve been so busy working in that garden, trying to get my azaleas to cooperate with my pansies. The soil here, it can be tricky. Luke, you should grow something. Your yard is starting to look . . . well . . .” She made a sour face. “I’m sure you’ve got a gardening plan all set for this season.”

“Oh, you know it. Posted it right next to my brand-new gardening spade.”

“Wonderful! If you need some tips—”

“I know where you live.” Luke gestured toward his house. “We’ll have to catch up later, Mrs. Blanchard. Olivia and I have something to take care of.”

. . . okay.” She smiled, then patted Olivia on the arm. “Nice to meet you. And let me tell you, this man here is a bona fide hero, so you’re smart to latch onto him.”

Before Olivia could protest that she wasn’t doing latching of any kind with Luke Winslow, Lois had returned to her pansies. Luke started off down the driveway again, and Olivia hurried to catch up with his long strides. “Lois seems nice.”

“She’s actually a serial killer,” Luke teased. “Why do you think she does all that gardening?” Across the way, Lois had returned to rooting in the soil. She noticed them looking and sent over another wave. “A word to the wise—don’t let your dog dig in her tomato patch.”

Olivia bit back a chuckle. “You’re terrible. I think the people in Rescue Bay are wonderful. I love that coffee shop downtown. You know, the Java Hut? Everyone there is so friendly.”

“We’re a tourist destination. Being friendly is a town law.”

She glanced over at him. “So what was that about you being a hero?”

“Nothing.” He scowled, and a shade dropped over his features. “Nothing at all.”

They had reached the front walk, but Luke kept going, heading for the back door. He lived in a typical Florida bungalow, low, squat, painted a soft gray with white trim. A few shrubs ringed the front and offset a lawn that had long since turned brown. Citrus trees lined the eastern property line, their branches laden with bright orange and yellow fruit. Ripe oranges and lemons peppered the ground.

Luke stepped onto the back porch, shaded by a simple aluminum awning, then opened the door and held it for her. She stepped into the darkened space. Before she processed the room, her gaze swept the kitchen. Over the checkered tile, under the maple table, past the oak cabinets. “Where’s the dog?”

“I left it here and unless it can open the back door, it’s got to be around somewhere.” Luke came in behind her, and she stepped to the side to make room for him.

He was a tall man, broad in the shoulders, and even though the kitchen was spacious, with Luke standing beside her the space seemed small, tight. She shifted closer to the sink. Dirty dishes sat in soapy water, waiting to be washed. A tower of pizza boxes propped up a stack of white take-out boxes and empty soda and beer cans. Budweiser paired with Coke, in a long straight line of white-and-red aluminum.

Despite the mess on the counter, the chairs and table sat square against each other, and no knickknacks cluttered the shelves or counters. A tidy and at the same time almost neglected space. There was an air of emptiness about the house that she couldn’t put a finger on. Then she thought of the disaster she lived in and decided the pot had no business calling the kettle anything at all.

“You didn’t lure me over here with the ruse of a dog, did you?” she asked, the words a tease, meant to break the tension between them. Instead, Luke turned to her, his thoughts unreadable, hidden behind those sunglasses.

“If I were going to lure you, Olivia,” he said, the syllables sliding off his tongue like a long, slow caress, “I’d use something a little more inventive than a stray dog.”

BOOK: The Sweetheart Bargain (A Sweetheart Sisters Novel)
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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