Authors: Dallas Schulze
Laura frowned. "But his leg was all covered with blood and you put your hands on it and you—"
"It looked a lot worse than it was." Nick cut her off, as if uncomfortable with her admiration.
Modest, too, Kate thought sourly. Good-looking, kind to children and small animals—didn't the guy have a fault?
"Leroy looks very...healthy now," Kate said, directing an uncertain smile at the large animal. "He's rather large, isn't it?"
"Just a healthy, growing boy," Nick said.
"Growing?" Kate's imagination boggled at the idea that the dog might actually get bigger.
"Sure. He's just a puppy, aren't you?" Leroy wagged a tail the size of a broom, his square face creasing in something that might have been a smile.
"He seems friendly," she said doubtfully.
"You're not worried about meeting him when you're alone, are you?" Nick asked. "He wouldn't hurt a fly."
"I'd feel good about that if I was a fly."
Nick laughed out loud, and she did her best to ignore the frisson of awareness that ran up her spine. She did not want to be reminded of how attractive he was.
"Come shake hands with him. Leroy would never bite anyone to whom he's been properly introduced. Come on," he urged when she hung back.
"Are you scared?" Laura asked, her sandy brows going up in surprise.
"No," Kate lied promptly. She forced herself to move forward. "I just don't have much experience with dogs, that's all. Actually, I don't have any real experience with them at all."
''Lean down and hold out your hand," Nick told her.
Feeling as if she might as well be holding out a T-bone steak, Kate did as she was told. Leroy eyed her for a moment, his black eyes unfathomable. She hoped he wasn't trying to decide where to bite first but, conscious of Nick and Laura watching, she held her hand steady. When Leroy lifted one massive paw and plunked it into her palm, she jumped in surprise. Kate dutifully shook his paw and then released it. She straightened, aware of a distinct feeling of accomplishment.
"Didn't you ever have a dog back when you were a little girl?" Laura asked, watching the exchange with curious blue eyes.
"We moved around a lot. It wouldn't have been fair to drag a pet away from its home all the time." She'd heard the words so often as a child that they came to her automatically now.
"Kind of hard on a kid, too," Nick commented, and Kate felt her breath catch at the base of her throat.
She remembered worrying that her parents might decide that constantly moving wasn't any better for her than it would have been for a pet. She'd been afraid they'd leave her behind the next time her father decided that a new town, a new state, would offer better opportunities. When she looked back, it struck her as interesting that it hadn't once occurred to her that they might settle in one place for her benefit— only that they'd leave her behind. Even at a young age, she'd recognized her father's wanderlust as the central, driving force in her family.
"I didn't mind moving." The lie came easily. It had been repeated so often when she was a child that it was engraved on her soul. "We saw a lot of interesting places."
"I don't think I'd like to move," Laura said thoughtfully. "I like it here and, if we moved, I couldn't take my friends with me."
Kate's smile felt as if it was pinned in place. "No, you can't take your friends but you make new friends when you move."
"They wouldn't be the same," the little girl said decisively, and Kate didn't argue. What could she say?
Looking for distraction, she reached out to pet Leroy, who had shifted position and now stood between her and Nick. His fur was softer than it looked, and she smiled as she stroked his head.
"We did have a cat once," she said, memory rushing over her. "He was all black and I named him Spooky."
"What happened to him?" Laura asked, displaying the unerring knack of the very young to ask exactly the question you least wanted to answer.
"When we were moving from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, we stopped to get gas and Spooky got out of the car. He got lost, I guess. We were heartbroken."
"We?" Nick asked. "E>o you have brothers or sisters?"
Kate froze for a moment, her hand clenching the dog's thick fur. With an effort, she forced her hand to relax, uncurling each finger individually. "I meant my mother and I. We were both heartbroken when Spooky disappeared."
"What about your father?"
"He was so focused on getting to Baton Rouge that I don't think he registered much of anything else." She gave Leroy one last pat before glancing at her watch. "I've got to get to work or Brenda will have my hide."
"Not unless she's changed a lot," Nick said. "The Brenda I remember would never expend that much energy. Not if she could be taking a nap instead."
The description was so apt that Kate grinned. "She hasn't changed much," she admitted. "I've never known anyone else who considers sleeping a hobby."
"And she's a champion at it. When we were in high school, she'd prop a tall book up on her desk and sleep through study hall."
Kate chuckled. "That sounds like Brenda."
"Nice to know some things don't change."
"Brenda will never change. It would take too much energy."
Nick laughed again and, for just a moment, Kate nearly forgot who he was and what lay between them. She felt easy with him, comfortable, the way shed felt when she first met him. They'd laughed then, too, she remembered, sobering. It was the first time she'd realized that laughter could be more seductive than wine,
Nick saw her smile fade, saw the sudden distance in her and knew what she was thinking, what she was remembering. He remembered, too. He remembered laughing for the first time since Lisa and Kyle's death months before. He remembered thinking—tentatively—that maybe he hadn't really died with his son, with his wife.
"I really do have to go," Kate said, her smile suddenly thin and without meaning. She said a quick goodbye to Laura, patted Leroy on the head and smiled vaguely in Nick's direction.
Nick turned to watch her walk away. He couldn't help but admire the soft, feminine swing of her hips, and he couldn't help but think that, under other circumstances, they might get along pretty well. It was a shame that one night lay between them.
He ruthlessly squashed the small voice that suggested the real shame was that she was engaged to his brother.
Nick booted the kickstand into place and leaned the big bike onto its support. Lifting off his helmet he swung his leg over the bike's seat and stood up. In New York, leaving the helmet with the bike was the equivalent of hanging a sign on it that flashed the words steal me in bold neon. But he wasn't in New York anymore, he reminded himself, and he left the helmet with the bike.
Following the sound of a power saw, he walked around the side of the Spanish-style home. At first glance, the backyard looked like an obstacle course. Piles of lumber, bags of cement and a couple of battered wheelbarrows were scattered across the remains of a lawn. The earsplitting scream of the saw drowned out the staccato thud of hammers, making the men using them look like mimes in some avant-garde theatrical production. The clean, sharp scent of sawdust filled the air.
Nick walked across the lawn, circling the piles of lumber as he approached the building site. The power saw stopped abruptly. In the wake of its scream, the ragged beat of the hammers sounded almost musical.
"Hey, Nick!" A middle-aged man lifted his hammer in a wave. The sound of his name was echoed from several of the other men as they saw him. Nick returned their greetings.
"Nick! I heard you were back in town." Jack Sinclair jumped off the foundation and strode toward him. "How the hell are you?''
"Not bad. How about you?" Nick took his hand, wincing as Jack slapped him on the shoulder with his free hand.
"I'm better than average. When you didn't get in touch, I figured, after spending time wheeling and dealing on Wall Street, you might be avoiding contact with the hoi- poi."
"I haven't been back all that long."
''Thirteen days," Jack said promptly, his blue eyes sparkling with laughter. "You want me to give you the hours and minutes? You rode into town on a black motorcycle at approximately seven-twenty on Friday evening, wearing a black helmet, black leather jacket and black boots and you went through a yellow light at First and Oak."
Nick gave a disbelieving laugh. "What have they done? Installed video cameras in the traffic lights? Trained a spy satellite on the town?"
Jack grinned, pleased with Nick's surprised reaction. ''Better than that. Sam and Esther Martinez were taking their dog for an evening constitutional and saw you. When they got home, Esther called Lucy Redmond, who called old Mr. Willits, who called-—"
Nick cut him off with a wave of his hand. "I can take it from there. You don't have to recite the whole list. The grapevine in this town must be the envy of the CIA."
"It's pretty good," Jack admitted with a grin. "The only fuzzy point was what kind of bike you were riding. Sam thought it was a Honda but Esther was convinced it was a Harley. I figured it had to be a Harley."
"Well, it fits better with the man-in-black image. You know, dark and dangerous, riding into town on one of the last of the great American muscle machines, silhouetted against the setting sunset, an icon to— Hey!" He ducked the mock punch Nick aimed at him. "You're spoiling my imagery."
"I'm going to spoil your teeth if you keep it up." Nick grinned ruefully and shook his head. "rd almost forgotten how fast gossip moves in this town."
"Too many years in the big city, man. You've gotten soft and out of shape."
"The last time I took this kind of abuse, it was from a New York cabdriver."
While they talked, the two of them had moved to the edge of the big yard, far enough from the construction to reduce the sound of hammering to a tolerable level.
"Looks like pretty much the same crew," Nick said, nodding to the men who were framing in the addition. Five years ago, he and Jack had been partners. When he left Eden, he'd sold his interest in the firm to his friend.
"Pretty much." Jack hooked his thumbs in his back pockets and rocked back on his heels as he looked at the crew. "Juan Padilla retired two years ago. He's got a farm the size of a handkerchief about twenty miles north of here. I didn't think he'd make a go of it but he's growing gourmet vegetables for a couple of upscale restaurants in L.A. and it looks like he may do okay.
"Bill Tumquist's wife left him last summer, said she had to find herself. Two weeks after he signed the divorce papers, he won three million bucks in the lottery. His wife came back so fast, her feet were smoking. Said she'd realized how much she really loved him. He told her to take a hike, gave her his half of the divorce settlement and moved to Montana. Last I heard, he's engaged to marry a cowgirl half his age and is happier than a pig in shit."
Nick laughed. "From what I remember of Bill's wife, he's better off without her, even without the three million."
Jack nodded. "Easy on the eyes but about as warm as a frozen chunk of steel."
"Looks like business is good," Nick said, nodding to the half-framed room.
"We're doing okay. Town's attracting a smattering of escapees from L.A. They move here looking for the "good life in an unspoiled small town setting,' to quote the chamber of commerce. They all want a solidly built home with the character that only comes with age,' to quote the real estate ads. Soon as escrow closes, they scramble to hire someone to put on an addition that doubles the square footage. Naturally, they want to retain the character of age but they don't want to pay for a good design or quality materials."
He nodded to the construction site. "These people moved here from L.A. looking for a simpler life. They're putting in a state-of-the-art kitchen, adding a bonus room the size of a football field, enlarging the garage so it will hold three cars, and they've got a satellite dish coming as soon as we're through with the work. Near as I can tell, they've both had cell phones permanently grafted to their ears so they can do business anywhere, anytime." Jack shook his head as he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket. "Obviously, they're really in tune with small town life."
Nick laughed. "Maybe this is their idea of small town life."
"I guess so." Jack used a battered steel lighter to light his cigarette. "It's good for my business anyway." Inhaling smoke, he slanted Nick a questioning glance. "I hear you're going to restore that old wreck of Harry's."
"So I'm told." Nick slid his hands in his pockets, bracing his feet a little apart as he watched the crew assembling the frame.
He felt completely relaxed for the first time since coming home to Eden. He and Jack had been friends since grade school. The three of them—Nick, Jack and Brian—had played on the same teams, gotten suspended from the same classes and, on a few occasions, dated the same girls. His friendship with Jack had survived Brian's death, college and marriage. Over the past five years, their only contact had been through Christmas cards and one phone call when Jack's second child was born. Yet they'd simply picked up where they'd left off, as if the intervening years didn't exist.
"I wouldn't mind having a partner again," Jack said, interrupting the comfortable silence between them. "Having a gen-u-ine award-winning architect design their additions would impress the yuppies no end. I could double the price and they wouldn't bat an eye."
"One award in college doesn't exactly make me Frank Lloyd Wright," Nick said, keeping his eyes on the crew.
"They wouldn't know the difference between Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Zappa," Jack said cynically.
"I think Zappa had more hair."
Nick moved his shoulders restlessly. It had been a long time since he'd given any thought to the profession that had once been his dream. It was just another of the things he'd walked away from five years ago. But now, standing here, listening to the sharp rhythm of the hammers and inhaling the mixed smells of newly cut wood and damp cement, he felt a sudden hunger inside him. He'd always loved the actual building as much as the design work and had been as comfortable with a hammer as he had been with a drafting pencil.
"The offer's open anytime," Jack said. He took one last draw on the cigarette and then dropped the butt into the dirt and ground it out with the toe of his work boot. "We were a good team."
"I'll think about it," Nick said and then was half surprised to realize that he meant it. "I don't exactly know what I'm doing yet."
"Harry twist your arm?"
"I think he's trying to save me from myself," Nick said ruefully.
Jack tapped another cigarette loose. "You can't grieve forever."
"No?" Nick's light tone was at odds with the emptiness in his eyes. Without giving Jack a chance to respond, he changed the subject, asking about a mutual friend. After a moment's hesitation. Jack followed his lead and they talked for a few minutes about people they both knew. The conversation ended when one of the men called Jack over to the building site to look at something!
"You want to come to dinner tonight?" Jack asked as he crushed out his second cigarette. "Susan would love to see you again. You haven't even met Rose, and you won't believe how much Matthew has grown. It's probably leftover spaghetti but you won't mind that."
"I already talked to Susan. She told me where to find you and invited me to dinner tomorrow night. She also said to tell you that, if you brought me home for leftovers, she was going to sue for divorce and take you for every penny she could get."
Jack looked startled for a moment and then grinned sheepishly. "I brought a client and his wife home for dinner a month ago. Like I said, there's always plenty of food, so I figured Susie wouldn't mind. Turned out she was in the middle of doing something to her hair. When the three of us walked in, she had pieces of aluminum foil sticking up all over her head. She looked like an alien visitor from some really cheesy sci-fi movie. Once everyone recovered from the shock, we got a good laugh out of it. It ended up being a pretty nice evening but, after they left, she threatened me with a fate worse than death if I ever brought anyone home again without giving her any warning."
Nick laughed, picturing the scene. "You're lucky she gave you a second chance."
"I'm lucky all around. She's pretty special. I've got to get back to work," he said, glancing over his shoulder at the building site. "ril see you tomorrow night. Good to have you home again."
Nick watched as Jack loped across the yard. Home, He turned away. Eden was home, all right. He just wasn't sure it was his home anymore.
And why was it that Jack's mention of how special Susan was had made him think of Kate?
He started his motorcycle. But his half-smile faded immediately, and he was frowning as he pulled away from the curb. He'd come back hoping to finally put the past to rest. It would be ironic if, instead, he managed to screw his life up all over again. Letting himself become attracted to his brother's fiancee definitely fell into the category of major screw-up.