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She had just one wish for the holidays—for her new neighbor to drop dead.
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most charitable, joy-holly sentiment, but the man was slowly driving her insane. Since Zack Romano moved into the other side of her duplex, her quiet existence had evaporated. The man was simply too big, too friendly and too boisterous. If he invited her over for one more of his weekly family get-togethers, she’d scream. His family, which had to include half the town, was just as loud as he. She was seriously thinking of having their common wall soundproofed.
Vanessa Baker snatched several bags of groceries off the passenger seat of her car, turned toward the sidewalk leading to the brick duplex and groaned.
Her wacko neighbor had done it again.
She rolled her eyes. Where had nutso found the room?
He’d added another blown-up decoration to his ever-growing menagerie of inflatable lawn ornaments. His half of their postage-sized front yard was a mish-mash of cheap holiday embellishments. She eyed his newest addition and gritted her teeth so hard her jaw ached. Someone please tell me what an air-filled heart held by a bear has to do with Christmas.
Weren’t the half-dozen angels singing the same chorus over and over sufficient for yard decorations? Or the three deer with their heads bobbing out of beat with said angel music? There was the eight-foot-tall snowman next to the six-foot Santa. Wasn’t that enough?
Her gaze slid to the green, blown-up, evil-looking Grinch with eyes that glowed yellow in the night, and she groaned. Beside it, Santa wore shades and rode a motorcycle. Animated elves worked at a toy bench and a gaggle of blown-up penguins marched along the sidewalk. Inflatable candy canes and round ornaments the size of basketballs hung from his half of the porch roof. Dozens of strands of lights were strung around every porch pillar, window and across his half of the roof to highlight Santa in his sleigh pulled by six reindeer.
What an ugly looking mess.
Thank goodness there were only twenty-seven days remaining in December. Their house had to be the joke of the neighborhood. Was it any wonder traffic had picked up on her once quiet street?
She carried her groceries up the wooden steps to her porch and smiled at her simple and tasteful pine wreath with its red bow decorating her front door. Evidently Mr. Decorate-Every-Inch had never heard the adage “less is more.”
After putting away her groceries and changing clothes, Vanessa hurried back outside to tackle the large box in her trunk. The salesman at the hardware store had groaned and grunted when he loaded the carton containing five-foot high wooden bookshelves. Seeing him struggle worried her. Frankly, she hadn’t given any thought to how heavy the box would be for her to drag inside her home.
In years past, her ex-husband handled the heavy work, but Dave and his dark moods moved out last Christmas Eve. With all that followed—learning he moved in with a woman he met online and taking with him all of their savings—she was more than happy to see this year limp to a close.
Twenty-twelve had nearly destroyed her.
Perhaps it had.
The giggling Vanessa her friends all loved had been replaced by a crabby, cynical, complaining woman. At the top of her New Year’s resolution list was “find the giggling Vanessa again.” Maybe by next October, she would.
She unlocked her trunk and studied the best way to remove the large carton and get it inside to her living room. How difficult could it be? She wrapped an arm around the box and pulled, hoping to hug it to her side. It barely budged.
Shoving the sleeves of her sweatshirt up to her elbows, she put every ounce of her strength into the job. By the time she’d tugged and pulled enough of the carton out of the trunk to allow gravity to upend it onto the street, she was sweating. Then she bent, putting her shoulder to it, held her breath and lifted the heavy item on an exhale and a loud grunt. Vanessa staggered under the weight across her shoulder. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. The carton weaved her back and forth. For a few seconds all she could do was stagger.
She made it up the step of the curb to the sidewalk, nearly dropping to her knees with the effort. Her thigh muscles quivered with the strain of the weight, and she gritted her teeth. “Come on, Vanessa, you can do this.” Thank goodness the walkway to her steps was only ten feet long. She tried not to think of the four steps to her porch.
A loud rumble roared down the street, and her stomach clenched. Her neighbor’s behemoth truck—big and loud just like its owner—swerved to the curb.
“Nessa! Don’t. I’ll carry that in for you.”
How many times do I have to tell him my name is Vanessa. She turned to inform him she didn’t need or want his help. Her movement threw her load off balance. Arms clasped around the box as she fell backwards. Her back slammed on the hard ground. A loud pop sounded as the box thudded across her face. Pain exploded in her nose and head.
“Nessa! My God.” Knees pushed into her side. “Here, let me get this off you.” Zack lifted the box off her as if it were no heavier than a bag of air.
Wet warmth flowed over her lips.
“Oh, Sugar, looks like your nose is broken.” Strong fingers moved from the bridge of her nose to its tip. The pain made her eyes cross. “Hold on, let me get my first-aid kit.”
His heat was gone and running footfalls sounded on the concrete. Slowly the spinning stopped, and she blinked to bring things into focus. Was her face smashed? She gingerly fingered her forehead, nose and cheeks and grimaced when she pulled back a blood-covered hand.
Zack settled on his knees next to her again. “Some people bleed more than others when their nose breaks. Don’t be alarmed.” His voice was calm and authoritative as he snapped on latex gloves. Cool alcohol wipes were gently pressed across her face.
“Ith my noth broken?” My God, was that her voice? Why was she speaking with a lisp?
He was shining a light in her eyes. “Good retina response.” Chocolate eyes lowered to within inches of hers, minty breath swept across her face and a lock of dark, wavy hair fell across his forehead. The corners of his mouth twitched as if he were trying not to smile. “And, yes, Sugar, your noth is broken. I’ll do my best to set it so it’s still pretty and straight.”
“Thet it? No!”
Zack gave a nonchalant shrug. “Set might be an extreme word. I’m just going to make sure it’s straight.”
Fingers slowly pressed into her nose. More stars exploded behind her eyes. “Don’t touch my broken noth.” She batted away his hands.
“Do you want to be called ‘witch’s beak’ the rest of your life?”
“Witheth beak? Ith it that bad?” What would her students think? She could just hear her eighth grade math students calling her names and laughing at her. Still, did this yay-hoo know what he was doing? “If my noth needth thet, I want a profethenal to thet it.”
He tore open a paper packet and removed two gauze cylinders. “I’m an EMT. Believe me, I’ve handled worse than a broken nose.”
EMT? Was that why he charged out of his house at all hours? Not that she was one to notice or watch his broad shoulders move with an easy grace when he ran.
He shoved the gauze up her nose.
More fireworks exploded in her head.
“Ow! You big thithead. You hurt me on purpoth.” Her one hand tightened in a fist. If he hurt her again, she was going to belt him.
Those brown eyes of his held humor. “Thithead? Sugar, we don’t know each other well enough for such intimacies.”
“Thop calling me ‘thugar.’”
“Can't." His fingers were more gentle now. "It's part of my plan. Maybe if I keep calling you Sugar, you'll start getting sweet on me."
"Do you have pain anywhere?”
"Do you have pain anywhere?”
“I think my back might be broken. I heard thomething pop when I fell.”
Zack’s hands stilled. “Are you in pain?” His dark eyebrows furrowed. “Move your fingers for me. Good, that’s good.” He shifted to her feet and wrapped his hands around her sneakers. “Push your toes into my hands. Excellent. Now your heels. Good, good.” His fingers slowly worked their way up her legs, probing, exploring.
“Thop feeling my legth.”
“I’m checking for broken bones.”
His hands squeezed her thighs and she shot him a dirty look. “You’re coping a feel, you thex fiend.”
“Are you enjoying this?” His gaze swept to hers.
“Thertainly not.” Well, maybe a just a teeny-tiny bit.
“Then I’m not copping a feel. When I do, you’ll enjoy it. Believe me.” His hands swept over her ribs in an expert manner.
“You pompouth jerk. You are tho full of yourthelf.”
"And your're so cute when you're miffed about something. Which I gotta admit is most of the time." Evidently satisfied she had no broken bones, he rolled her slightly and peered under her back. “I found the source of the popping noise.”
He heaved a sigh. “Yeah, you killed one of my penguins.”