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To Vanessa's surprise Zack scooped her into his arms and carried her up the steps to her half of the duplex as if she weighed no more than a gnat. “I’ll get you inside and put some ice on your face. You know you’re going to have two big shiners from the box’s impact.”
“Thiners? You mean black eyeth?” No, please, no! She had school tomorrow.
He stopped at her door and peered down at her. Those brown eyes of his fairly danced with humor. “Yes, black eyeth.” He shifted, raising his knee to help balance her as he reached to open her door.
Her pride stung. “I don’t enjoy being made fun of.”
His boots clomped on the wooden floor in her hallway. “I’m not making fun, Nessa. What I’m trying to do is lighten your mood a little. You take everything so seriously. Just once I’d like to see you smile.” He settled her on the sofa, tugged her grandma’s afghan off the back of the couch and covered her. “Be right back. I’m going for ice packs and my tool box. I can see you’re not up to putting the bookshelves together tonight.”
"You're right. I'm not. Thankth for your help." She sighed, thinking of how she'd never have gotten out from under that heavy box. "And for taking care of me, too."
"That's what neighbors do, isn't it?"
"I thuppoth. Tonight ithn't turning out like I'd planned. I wath going to make candy later, for the old people at the thivic thenter."
"Yeah, I saw your name on the sign-up sheet down at the center. Boxes of homemade chocolates and knitted scarves for the senior citizens, if I recall correctly." His dark eyes locked on hers, making her uncomfortable. "I'm playing Santa at the community party and giving out presents to the kiddies. It's nice doing things for others, isn't it?"
When she nodded, the movement of her head made her stomach lurch. "We do tho much for children at Chrithmath, we forget the older people. If only we did thingth for each other all year round." She almost smiled. That was something the old Vanessa would have said and believed with all sincerity, not the grumpy Vanessa who'd lived in her heart this past year.
Ten minutes later, she lay with a sack of frozen peas over her face, peeking out from under the Green Giant on the bag to watch the giant on her living room floor, methodically positioning every board and hardware item across the carpet. She tried not to focus on the way his jeans hugged his thighs and butt. In fact, her hands itched to cup his mighty fine behind. Surprised at her lustful thoughts, she pinched her eyes shut.
“Those aspirins taking care of the pain?”
“Uh-huh.” They weren’t taking care of the desire though. She hadn’t thought of a man in that way in a year. Why now? Why him?
“What do you like on your pizza?”
"What?" She lifted the bag of peas to look at him. He held his cell in one large hand, his gaze focused on her. Was he inviting himself for dinner? The man was putting together her shelves. The least she could do was feed him. “I could cook.”
“After what just happened to you out there? Nonsense. You need to rest.” His one dark eyebrow rose. “Pizza toppings?”
Oh my, those dark eyes of his. It was almost as if he could see right into her soul. “Ah…muthroom and extra cheeth.”
Zack dialed and joked with the person on the other end of the line. “You want my order or not, you degenerate slime ball?” His laughter, loud and booming, just like him, ricocheted off the walls. “Give me an extra-large pizza. Heap everything on one half and mushroom and extra cheese on the other.” Pause.“Yeah, I’m sharing it.” His gaze swept to hers and a slow, sexy smile spread that made her insides flutter. “That’s for me to know, buddy. It’s someone I’ve been trying to charm for a while.”
She jerked the bag of peas off her face, her eyes narrowed at his insinuation.
He winced when he saw her expression. “How’s it goin’ with her? Ah…not so good.” He picked lint off his flannel shirt in a self-conscious gesture. After he gave the person on the other end of the conversation her address, he snapped his cell shut.
She rose on her elbows, her head pounding with the effort. “Who…who were you juth talking to?”
Suddenly he was very busy. A broad shoulder lifted. “Ah, my cousin, Vinny.”
“Great, my life ith juth like a bad movie.”
“Hey, that was a great flick. Ever see it?”
She pressed the peas back over her face and laid back against the pillows. “No.”
“I’ll bring it over some night and we’ll watch it together.”
“No.” She was not letting this man into her life.
Evidently he chose to ignore her reply. “I see you haven’t decorated for Christmas yet.”
“I have, too. Thee my pointhetta on the coffee table? And my tree in the corner?”
He snorted. “That’s not a tree, it’s a plastic branch with tiny look-a-like ornaments clinging to it for dear life.”
“Ith a tree. I thupoth you’ve got a giant one in your houth, juth dripping with ornamenth.”
She peeled back the bag of peas and shot him her school teacher glare.
He cleared his throat. “Ah…yes, ma’am, I do.” He gifted her with his sexy smile again, and she slid the bag of peas over her mouth so he wouldn’t see her smile in return.
“Where do you want the shelves?”
The empty box of pizza sat on the coffee table, along with four empty beer bottles. A mellow feeling had invaded Vanessa’s cells. She sat in the corner of the sofa, the afghan over her legs while she knitted the final rows on her last red scarf for one of the senior citizens.
“Againth that thmall empty wall to the right of the doorway.”
“You got it, Sugar.”
She didn’t even tense at his calling her Sugar. As he’d assembled the shelves and they’d shared a pizza, they’d spent time talking. Somewhat rough around the edges, he had a charming way about him. He contained a special depth, which surprised her.
The muscles bunched across his back as he lifted the shelves and positioned them in the center, just like she wanted. “Perfect.” And the shelves didn't look bad either.
“Will you fill this big thing with books or family pictures?”
“Bookth. Maybe a picture of my grandma. She raithed me.”
His phone chirped. “Yeah. Whoa! Whoa, calm down. Speak slower, Maria.” Pause. “Where do you think she went?” Another pause. “Okay, I’ll go find her.” He snapped the cell shut. “My teenaged niece is driving my sister nuts. I need to go play the strict uncle.” Tossing his tools into his toolbox, he glanced her way. “You going to be okay here alone?”
“I’m alone here every night.” After all, she wasn’t helpless.
He moved beside her, bent over and ran fingertips down her cheek. “You’re welcome at my place anytime.” Then darn if he didn’t wink at her. “Take care of yourself, Penguin Killer.”
Her front door closed and her house returned to its normal, quiet size. He had a way of filling it with his essence so the walls shrank inward to envelope her. Her quiet, lonely place was warmer with him here—or was it simply her frozen heart that felt warmer?
When Zack knocked on Vanessa’s door the next morning, he wasn’t sure how he’d be received. She was a moody somebody, yet something about her appealed to him in a big way. The woman was wound so tight, he had an itch to unwind her to see what lay beneath her prickly exterior.
Someone had hurt her badly by his estimation. She had a force shield around her thicker than the Great Wall of China. Yet last night, she’d opened for him—and smiled. Lordy, but her smile was a heart stopper. Last night after he’d gotten back from taking his sullen and defiant niece home to his sister, he’d tossed and turned in his bed, wondering what it would take to make Nessa laugh.
Now he wasn’t so sure she’d even answer his knock.
Nessa’s door creaked open, and tear-filled hazel eyes greeted him. She wore baggy sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Her long brown hair, normally worn in a tight bun of some type, hung over her shoulders in soft curls. But it was her face that tore at him. It was almost completely black and blue, even her lips bore a bluish tinge.
“Morning, beautiful.” Really what else could he say? Bruised or not, the woman was gorgeous in his eyes.
She looked away and blinked. Her chin quivered.
Before he thought it through, he enveloped her in his arms. “It’ll be okay, Sugar. The bruises are only temporary.”
“I look awful.” She burrowed into him, which felt incredibly good.
He rested his chin on the top of her head. “You’re not going to work today?”
She shook her head.
“I’m off, too. I worked a couple double shifts over Thanksgiving so a co-worker could go visit family out of state. He’s taking over for me today.” Jason hadn’t been too happy when he called in the favor owed. But once Nessa didn’t leave for work at her usual time, he thought she might need him. “Get your coat and we’ll go out for breakfast.”
“Like thith?” She pulled back to look up at him. “No way. I look like I was in thome cheap barroom brawl.”
“Come on. I’ll take you to my place. I’ll make you whatever you want. Eggs. Pancakes. French toast.”
He took her hand and kissed it. “Yeah, Sugar. Frenth totht. Come on.” He waggled his eyebrows. “I’ll even show you my ornaments.”
The corners of her mouth twitched. “Let me put on thooth.”
“And cover up those pretty pink toenails? No way.” He picked her up and carried her to his side of the house and perched her on a bar stool at the counter between the kitchen and dining room. “Talk to me while I cook. Coffee? Or would cold juice feel better on your lips?”
“Juith, pleath.” She huffed out a breath. “I hate thounding like thith.”
He set a glass of juice in front of her. “It’s only temporary.”
Her gaze swept to his large tree in the corner of his dining room. “Wow, thath a big tree.”
He walked around to her side of the bar and leaned against it, folding his arms over his chest. “What can I say? I like big. I turn into a kid at Christmas. My whole family knows what a holiday nut I am, and they buy me stuff. Ornaments. Garland. Yard decorations.”
“Oh, tho that explainth it.” She sipped her juice in dainty amounts.
“What? My little outdoor display?”
Her hazel eyes swept to his. “Little?”
He laughed at her prim response. “I like big. Well, except for women, then I like prickly.”He bent and kissed the top of her head. “Prickly with beautiful hazel eyes. Guess I better make you that French toast I promised.” He turned, but stilled when fingers coiled around his arm.
“Ith that how you thee me? Prickly?”
“I see you as wounded. Emotionally dead, trying to find your way back to the land of the living.” He tucked two fingers under her chin and tilted her face toward his. “We’ve all been there, one time or another. Some can bounce back with little effort. Others need more time.”
“I feel lotht. Like Dave took a part of me when he left. I can’t theem to get beyond it.”
They’d talked about both of their failed marriages last night over pizza. He told her how his ex decided her career was more important than having children. Nessa’s restless husband found love elsewhere. Evidently the man’s promise to be faithful held no permanency.
“This part of you he took, maybe another man could replace that part with something stronger. Something that makes you happier.”
She sucked air and her eyes widened.
Whoa, man, you’re moving too fast here. Play your cards close to your vest, as grandpa says. Scare her, and she’ll probably run back to her place in her bare feet.