Heartstrings and Diamond Rings (6 page)

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
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As he walked toward the pool tables, Alison’s head turned to watch as if it had assumed a life of its own. The man had the most perfect ass, showcased inside a pair of jeans that looked as if they were made to fit him and him alone. And she wasn’t the only one staring. Tracy moved back down the bar to maintain a better line of sight, like a snake slithering after its prey. Alison had no doubt she would eat Brandon alive if he gave her half a chance.

“Tracy’s such a slut,” Alison muttered. “Why do you keep her around?”

“This is a bar,” Heather said. “Most of our customers are men. Do you really have to ask?” Then she looked over at Brandon, her face falling into a frown. “He’s too smooth. Something’s up.”

“Did you have to be so rude to him?”

“I wasn’t rude. Just…inquisitive.”


Inquisitive?
That’s what you call that?”

“Come on, Alison! He’s thirty-something years old, he’s never been in a committed relationship, yet he’s going to find a man for you?”

“He told you why. He traveled a lot.”

“Doesn’t matter why. He’s never had what he says he can find for you. Am I wrong to think that’s a little odd?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Look. I know how important this is to you. I just don’t want that guy taking you for a ride. Keep your eyes open, okay? And not just to look at his pretty face.”

J
ust before noon the next day, Alison parked by the curb in front of Brandon’s house and stepped out of her car, astonished at the heat that already permeated every molecule of air she breathed. As she circled the house, that heat seemed to rise up off the sidewalk like an invisible apparition from hell. Even the sun-loving petunias that lined the flower beds looked sad and droopy, as if they’d like to fold up their petals and sink back into the ground for good.

Alison decided she’d add a summer cabin in Colorado to the wish list she’d been compiling in her mind since she was twenty years old, filled with those things she’d probably never have but were nice to think about. Already on the list were a yacht in the Mediterranean, an all-you-can-eat spree at an ice cream factory, and a private Bon Jovi concert.

Oh, yeah. And a husband.

She opened the back door and stepped inside the house, surprised to feel sultry air that was nearly as hot as the air outside. And Brandon was nowhere in sight.

She called out to him, but she was greeted with silence. She went to the foot of the stairs and called out again. Still nothing. She thought about just sitting down to wait because surely he’d be along in a minute, but it was like a sauna in the house. Much more of this, and her makeup would melt right off her face.

She grabbed her phone. Dialed Brandon’s number. She heard six rings before he finally picked it up.

“Alison,” he said, a little breathlessly. “Oh, boy. Is it noon already?”

“Yeah. And it’s my lunch hour, so I’m a little tight on time.”

“Come around to the side of the house.”

“What?”

“Not the driveway side. The other side.”

And then he hung up.

Alison stared at her phone for several seconds. What was going on?

She left the house, circled back around to the front, and then crossed the lawn. As she came around the corner of the house, she finally saw Brandon. He was kneeling in front of an air-conditioning unit that looked to be about a hundred years old, a look of frustration on his face. The lid was off the unit, and tools were scattered all over the grass.

It had been oppressively hot for June in Texas, but for the first time, Alison couldn’t have cared less. The heat made Brandon sweat. The sweat soaked his T‑shirt. Which caused his T‑shirt to cling to his torso. And that clingy shirt revealed the planes of his chest, the contour of his abs, and the slope of his shoulders as he worked. She knew her attraction to a sweaty man with tools was positively prehistoric, but once again she was a walking, talking cliché of womanhood. Vaguely she wondered if he noticed her dazed, transfixed reaction. Not that she could have done much about it, but it would have been nice to know if she was coming across as dumbstruck as she felt.

Sweat beaded on his forehead. He swiped the shoulder of his shirt across it, then turned and gave Alison a smile. “Sorry. Air conditioner problems. Guess it’s a miracle this old thing has made it this far.”

His face. Quit looking at his body and focus on his face.
“Can you fix it?”

“Not sure. It’s the fan motor. I’ve got the new part, but it’s not going on like it’s supposed to. Hear that vibration?” He sighed. “It’s just hard to get the new blade balanced on the shaft. Fortunately, it only has to stay running until—” He stopped short. “Until fall. Prices will be cheaper then, and I can have a new unit installed.”

“Uh…we have a meeting?”

“Can’t go back into the house. It’s too hot in there, and I’m a mess.”

Yes. He was a mess. And if only every man on earth did messy the way Brandon did, the world would be a far, far better place.

“I guess we should reschedule,” she said.

“Did you fill out the questionnaire?”

“Yes. But you really need to put the form online. It’d be easier to fill out.”

“My grandmother wasn’t exactly operating in the twenty‑first century. Photo?”

“I e-mailed you one before I left the office.”

“Let me see the questionnaire.”

She pulled it from her purse and handed it to him. He began to read it, his brows drawing together thoughtfully. Alison tried not to look at his long, strong fingers and the way his forearm muscles flexed as they flipped the pages. This was serious business, and she wasn’t going to get distracted. She was going to stand firm and ensure she got the quality service she’d paid for. Before she left there, she wanted to be absolutely certain he knew enough about her and the man she was looking for that he could match them up with his eyes closed.

“So you’re in marketing?” he said.

“I work in the marketing department of Spangler Sweets.”

“Oh. So you’re a creative type?”

“Mostly I deal with consumer statistics and focus groups.”

He nodded, still looking at the questionnaire.

“I’m not sure that questionnaire is as comprehensive as it needs to be,” Alison said. “All it asks is—”

Suddenly the air conditioner made a horrendous squeaking noise. Brandon tossed the questionnaire aside and stuck his hand inside the unit. He flipped something, and it fell silent.

“Damn it,” Brandon muttered. “Sorry, Alison. Hold that thought for a minute.” He looked around helplessly, holding his hand on the part inside the unit. “Would you hand me that wrench?”

She leaned over to grab it from the grass and handed it to him. He stuck it inside the unit and gave it a twist, his forearm straining and his bicep flexing. It was a sight so hypnotic that Alison couldn’t have dragged her eyes away if a storm had struck. Thank God it wasn’t tornado season.

Suddenly she heard high-pitched screams, then laughter. She glanced over the chain-link fence into the backyard next door, where a couple of kids were splashing around in a wading pool.

“Those kids have the right idea,” Alison said. “That’s the way to cool off in this heat. Assuming you can’t fix your air conditioner.”

“Don’t even think that.”

“A wading pool is cheap.”

“But a new zoned air unit isn’t.”

“They sure are having a good time over there,” she said with a smile. “I remember playing in a blow-up pool just like that one with my brother when we were little.”

“Do you mind helping me out again?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Hold this ruler for me.” He set it on top of the motor next to the thingy that went up into the fan blade. “Right there. And don’t move it.”

She took hold of the ruler and held it where he asked her to. “What are you measuring?” she asked.

“The distance from the fan blade to the motor along the shaft.”

“You act as if you’ve done this before.”

“Not nearly enough to really know what I’m doing.”

She came closer to Brandon so she could hold it steady, and she could actually feel the heat emanating from his body.

“You know, my dad’s pretty handy,” she told him. “He fixes everything around his house, including his air conditioner. I could get him to come over and take a look at it if you want me to.”

“If I can’t get this thing moving, I just might take you up on—
shit
!” He yanked his hand away from the unit.

“What’s wrong?”

“Sliced my finger on the fan blade.”

“How bad is it?”

“Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s bleeding.”

“Not much.”

“Brandon. It’s
dripping
.” She grabbed his hand and turned it over to get a good look at the wound. “That’s pretty deep. Doesn’t look as if it needs stitches, but it needs to be washed off.”

“I’ll run it under the garden hose in a minute.”

“No. You need soap.”

“After I finish here.”

“When’s the last time you had a tetanus shot?”

“Haven’t got a clue. Just let me finish this, and—”

“What is with men, anyway?” she said. “What? They can sever a limb and swear it’s a paper cut. Get in the house and clean that cut before you get a horrible infection.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a few tissues. “Here. Wrap this around it so you don’t bleed all over the house.”

With a heavy sigh, Brandon came to his feet and grabbed the tissues. He wrapped them around his finger and headed inside the house. Alison followed him into the kitchen, where he went to the sink and washed out the wound. Then she handed him a couple more tissues to hold against it until the bleeding stopped.

“If it soaks through those,” she said, “I have more. Press hard so the bleeding will stop.”

Brandon rolled his eyes, but he did as she asked. As they waited, Alison looked around the kitchen. It was as inviting as his office was, with that turn‑of‑the‑century charm she loved so much. Somewhere along the line somebody had added a few cabinets to bring the house into more modern times, along with a dishwasher and an updated range and oven, but that was about it. On one wall sat a huge fireplace with an arched hearth with what looked like the original andirons. The floors were original brick, and the kitchen staircase that led to the second floor had the original curved newels and elaborate balusters. Amazingly, all the owners over the years had pretty much left the place alone to be what it was meant to be.

“This is such a great house,” she said with a smile. “It’s unusual to see one this old that hasn’t been screwed with linoleum or track lighting or—” She shuddered. “Paneling.”

“It’s a money pit. Not only does it need a new air unit, it needs new wiring throughout. The foundation needs work. The basement leaks.”

“But it’ll be worth every penny you put into it. This is a really hot area for renovation.”

“Can’t think about that now,” he said. “Right now I need to concentrate on getting that air unit fixed.”

Alison breathed deeply, then let her eyes drop closed. “I love houses like this one. You can almost smell the history.”

“That’s mold from the leaky basement.”

“But it’s so comfy and cozy,” she said. “Look at how the afternoon sun streams into the breakfast room. Isn’t it pretty?”

“All I see is my electric bill going through the roof.”

“And here I thought you had a romantic soul. I mean, you’re a matchmaker, aren’t you?”

He turned away. “I guess it’s all those houses I’ve bought and sold over the years. I’ve always had to look at the bottom line.”

Just then Alison heard a noise almost as horrendous as the squeaking of the air-conditioning unit. She turned, surprised to see a slender Siamese cat saunter into the kitchen. She leaped onto the windowsill in the breakfast room, then turned to look at Alison with her brilliant blue eyes.

“I didn’t know you had a cat,” Alison said.

“She was my grandmother’s. One of the neighbors was keeping her until I moved in. I guess she’s mine now.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jasmine.”

Then she meowed again, a noise somewhere between a screech and a yowl. Alison wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw the walls vibrate and the wallpaper come loose.

She laughed. “Big voice for such a little cat.”

“The first time I heard her I thought somebody was strangling her.”

Alison walked over to the window where the cat sat. Closer now, she could see a few gray hairs in the black mask on her face, and when she ran her hand down her back, she felt the prominent backbone of an older cat.

“How old is she?”

“Let’s see…my grandmother got her as a kitten when I was seventeen, I think. That makes her almost fifteen, so she’s getting up there.”

“Yeah, but I’ve heard of cats living to be twenty, so she’s got plenty of life in her yet.” Alison stroked all the way down to the crooked tip of her tail. “They say the crook in a Siamese’s tail developed so she could hold her mistress’s rings while she bathed.”

“So that’s a breed thing?” Brandon said. “I thought she mashed it in a door.”

“She’s such a sweet girl,” Alison said, scratching behind her ears. The cat leaned into her, twisting her head around to get the full advantage of Alison’s fingernails. When Alison finally pulled her hand away, the cat turned and patted her leg with her paw, begging for more attention.

“One of my cats does that,” Alison said with a smile.

“One of your cats?” Brandon said. “How many do you have?”

“Three.” She held up her palm. “Wait. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t even go there. Three is absolutely normal.
Four
means you’re a crazy cat lady.” She squeezed her eyes closed. “Please, God, don’t send me one more stray kitten.”

“So all yours are adopted?”

“I found them in the bushes outside my condo. They were only a few weeks old. Their mother had gotten hit by a car, so I took them in, telling myself I’d find homes for them. I bottle-fed them until they were old enough to be adopted.”

“Then you decided to keep them instead?”


One
,” she said. “That was all. But then, I thought ‘Which one?’ And I kept thinking ‘Which one?’ until they were about six months old. By then they were shredding my furniture and knocking things off my shelves and waking me up at six in the morning to be fed. At that point I’d have had to pay somebody to take them. So I thought, oh, what the hell. And I’m not even a cat person.”

Brandon smiled. “You are now.”

She nodded at Jasmine. “So are you. How’s that working out for you?”

“How would you like to adopt her? You already have three. You wouldn’t even notice another one.”

“But then I’d be a crazy cat lady, remember?”

“Would that really be so terrible?”

“Yes! The only thing people poke more fun at than an unmarried man who still lives in his mother’s basement is an unmarried woman with four cats.”

“Sorry, Jasmine,” Brandon said to the cat. “I tried, but it looks like you’re stuck with me.”

She meowed back at him. If you could call it a meow. It sounded more like the hinges squeaking on a thousand-year-old drawbridge.

Brandon pulled the tissues away from his wound. “I think the bleeding has stopped.”

“Good. Put a Band-Aid on it.”

“Uh…”

“I’m guessing you don’t have a Band-Aid.”

“Afraid not.”

“Just a minute…” Alison dug through her purse and came up with a small red plastic Band‑Aid dispenser.

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
7.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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