Book 2 The Buchanans Series
The great unwelcome truth is that there are times when a woman needs a man...or at the very least, an unnatural level of upper body strength. Unfortunately for Elissa Towers, this was one of those times.
"Something tells me you won't be impressed by my to-do list, or the fact that Zoe has a birthday part at noon. Birthday parties are very important for the five-year-old set. I don't want her to miss this one," Elissa muttered as she leaned all of her weight into the lug wrench.
She had been lamenting the extra ten pounds she carried for at least three years. One would think they would come in handy now, say for leverage. But one would be wrong.
"Move!" she yelled at the lug nut on her very flat tire. Nothing. Not even a whisper of budging.
She dropped the lug wrench onto the damp driveway and swore.
This was completely her fault. The last time she'd noticed the tire getting low, she'd driven to Randy's Brake and Tire Center where Randy himself had patched the nail hole. She'd sat in his surprisingly tidy waiting room indulging herself in gossip magazines—a rare treat in her world—not even giving a thought to the fact that he was using some stupid machine to tighten the lug nuts. She always asked him to tighten by hand, so she could take off the flat herself.
"Need some help?"
The question came from nowhere and startled her so much, she sat right in a puddle. She felt the wet seeping through her jeans and panties. Great. Now when she stood up, she would look as if she'd wet herself. Why couldn't her Saturday start with an unexpected tax refund and an anonymous chocolate delivery?
She glanced at the man now standing next to her. She hadn't heard stealth guy approach, but as she looked up and up further still, until their eyes met, she recognized her semi-recent upstairs neighbor. He was a few years older than she, tanned, good looking and at a casual glance, physically perfect. Not exactly someone who tended to rent an apartment in her slightly shabby neighborhood.
She scrambled to her feet and brushed off her butt, groaning as she felt the wet spot.
"Hi," she said, smiling as she carefully took a step back. "You're, um..."
Damn. Mrs. Ford, her other neighbor had told her the guy's name. Also that he had recently left the military, kept to himself and apparently had no job. It wasn't a combination that made Elissa comfy.
"Walker Buchanan. I live upstairs."
Alone. No visitors and he didn't go out much. Oh, yeah. Good times. Still, she'd been raised to be polite, so she smiled and said, "Hi. I'm Elissa Towers."
Under any other circumstances, she would have found another way out of her dilemma, but there was no way she could loosen the lug nuts herself and she couldn't just sit here praying to the tire gods.
She pointed. "If you could be burly for a second, that would be fabulous."
"Burly?" The corner of his mouth twitched.
"You're a guy, this is a guy thing. It's a natural fit."
He folded his impressive arms over a rather impressive chest. "What happened to women wanting to be independent and equal in the world?"
Hmm, so there was a brain behind those dark eyes and maybe the potential for humor. That was good. Neighbors of serial killers always said the guy was so nice. Elissa wasn't sure Walker qualified as nice, which was, in a twisted way, a bit of a relief.
"We should have worked on our upper body strength first. Besides, you offered."
"Yes, I did."
He picked up the wrench, squatted down and in one quick movement that left her feeling both inadequate and bitter, loosened the first nut. The other three followed just as fast.
"Thanks," she said with a smile. "I'll take it from here."
"I'm already involved," he told her. "I can put on the spare in a couple of seconds."
Or so he thought. "Yes, well, that's a funny story," she said. "I don't have a spare. It's big and bulky and really weighs down the car."
He straightened. "You need a spare."
His statement of the obvious irritated her. "Thanks for the advice, but as I don't have one, it's not very helpful."
"So what do you do now?"
"I say thank you." She glanced pointedly at the stairs leading to his apartment. When he didn't move, she added, "I don't want to keep you."
His gaze dipped from her face to the large nylon bag on wheels, lying next to her on the driveway. His mouth tightened in disapproval.
"There is no way you're going to carry that tire somewhere yourself," he said flatly.
Definitely not nice, she thought. "I don't carry, I drag. I've done it before. The tire place I go to is less than a mile from here. I walk there, Randy patches it for me and I walk back. It's easy. Good exercise, even. So thank you for your help and have a nice day."
She reached for the tire in question. He stepped between her and it.
"I'll take it," he told her.
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
He topped her by at least seven or eight inches and he had to outweigh her by a good sixty pounds...every ounce of them muscle. As he narrowed his gaze and glared at her, she had the feeling he was trying to intimidate her. He was doing a good job of it, too, but she couldn't let him know that. She was tough. She was determined. She was...
"Mommy, can I have toast?"
Why was life always about timing?
She turned to her daughter standing at the entrance to their apartment. "Sure, Zoe. But let me help. I'll be right in."
Zoe smiled. "Okay, Mommy." The screen door slammed shut.
Elissa glanced back at Walker, only to find that stealth guy had used her moment of inattention to pick up her tire and walk toward his very expensive, very out-of- place-for-this-neighborhood SUV.
"You can't take that tire," she said as she hurried after him. "It's mine."
"I'm not stealing it," he said in a bored tone. "I'm taking it to be fixed. Where do you usually go?"
"I'm not going to tell you." Ha! That should stop him.
"Fine. I'll go where I want." He tossed the tire into the SUV and slammed the back shut.
"Wait! Stop." When, exactly, had she lost control?
He turned to her. "Are you really worried I'm going to disappear with your tire?"
"No. Of course not. It's just... I don't..."
He waited patiently.
"I don't know you," she snapped. "I keep to myself. I don't want to owe you."
He surprised her by nodding. "I can respect that. Where do you want me to take the tire?"
So he wasn't giving up. "Randy's Brake and Tire Center." She gave him directions. "But you have to wait a second. I need to get a pair of earrings."
"For Randy?" He raised his eyebrows.
"For Randy's sister. It's her birthday." She drew in a breath, hating to explain. "It's how I pay for the work."
She waited for the judgment, or at the very least, a smart-ass comment. Instead Walker shrugged.
"Go get them."
The trip to Randy's Brake and Tire Center took three minutes and when Walker parked, he found a short, beer-bellied older man waiting for him.
Randy himself, Walker would guess as he opened the car door.
"You got Elissa's tire?" the man asked.
Randy eyed Walker's BMW X5. "Bet you take that to the dealer," he said.
"I haven't had to yet, but I will."
"Nice wheels." Randy walked around to the rear of the SUV and opened the back. When he saw the tire in question, he groaned. "What is it with Elissa? They're doing construction across from where she works. I swear, she finds every loose nail hanging around on the road. Always in this tire, too. There's more patch on it than rubber."
More patch than tread, Walker thought as he stared at the worn tire. "She should replace it."
Randy looked at him. "You think? Thing is, you can't get blood from a rock. Hey, times are tight with everyone, right? Got my earrings?"
Walker took the small envelope out of his shirt pocket and handed it over. Randy looked inside and whistled. "Very nice. Janice is gonna love them. Okay, give me ten minutes and I'll have this ready to go."
Walker hadn't wanted to help his neighbor in the first place. He'd taken a short-term lease on the apartment to give himself time to figure out what to do with the rest of his life in quiet and solitude. He didn't know anyone in the neighborhood and he didn't want anyone to know him.
Except for a brief but surprisingly effective interrogation from the old lady living downstairs, he'd kept to himself for nearly six weeks. Until he'd seen Elissa struggling with the lug nuts.
He'd wanted to ignore her. That had been his plan. But he couldn't—which was a character flaw he needed to work on. Now, faced with a crappy tire that was likely to blow the second she hit sixty on the 405 freeway, he found himself unable to walk away again.
"Give me a new one," he muttered.
Randy raised his bushy eyebrows. "You're buying Elissa a tire?"
Walker nodded. Best case scenario, he would replace both rear tires. But he only had the one wheel with him.
The older man puffed out his chest. "How, exactly, do you know Elissa and Zoe?"
Zoe? Walker blanked for a second, then remember the kid he'd seen around. Elissa's daughter.
He owed this guy nothing in the way of explanations. Still, he found himself saying, "I live upstairs."
Randy narrowed his gaze. "Elissa's a friend of mine. Don't you go messing with her."
Walker knew that even after an all night bender, he could take the old guy and have enough left over to run a four minute mile. Randy's posturing was almost funny—except it was sincere. He cared about Elissa.
"I'm just doing her a favor," Walker said easily. "We're neighbors, nothing more."
"Okay, then. Because Elissa's been through a lot and she doesn't deserve to be messed with."
Walker had no idea what they were talking about, but anything to move the conversation along. Randy picked up the flat and carried it toward the garage.
"I've got a couple of good tires that'll be a whole lot safer than this one. Because it's for Elissa, I'll give you a good deal."
"I appreciate it."
Randy glanced at him. "I'll even throw a little dirt on it so maybe she won't notice what you did."
Walker remembered her defensiveness about not having a spare. "Probably a good idea," he told the other man.
"You're pounding, dear," Mrs. Ford said calmly as she sipped coffee. "It's not good for the crust."
Elissa slapped the rolling pin onto the dough and knew her neighbor was right. "I can't help it. I'm annoyed. Does he really think I'm so stupid I won't notice he replaced my old tire with a new one? Is it a guy thing? Do all men think women are stupid about tires? Is it specific? Does he just think I'm stupid?"
"I'm sure he thought he was helping."
"Who is he to help me? I don't know him from a rock. He's lived here, what, a month? We've never even spoken. Now suddenly he's buying me tires? I don't like it."
"I think it's romantic."
Elissa did her best not to roll her eyes. She loved the old woman but jeez, Mrs. Ford would think grass growing was romantic.
"He took control. He made decisions without speaking to me. God knows what he's going to expect for it." Whatever he was expecting, he wasn't going to get it, Elissa told herself.
Mrs. Ford shook her head. "It's not like that, Elissa. Walker is a very nice man. An ex-marine. He saw you were in need and helped out."
That's what got Elissa most of all. The "being in need" part. Just once she'd like a little extra put by for a rainy day or a flat tire.
"I don't like owing him."
"Or anybody. You're very independent. But he's a man, dear. Men like to do things for women."
Mrs. Ford was nearly ninety, tiny and the kind of woman who still used lace-edged handkerchiefs. She'd been born in a time when men took care of life's hardships and the most important job for a woman was to cook well and look pretty while doing it. The fact that living like that drove many women to alcohol or madness was just an unhappy by-product and not anything to be discussed in polite society.
"I called Randy," Elissa said as she slid the pie crust into the pan and pressed it into place. "He told me the tire cost forty dollars, but he'd lie in a heartbeat if he thought it would protect me, so I'm thinking it had to be closer to fifty."
She had exactly sixty-two dollars in her wallet and she needed most of them for grocery shopping that afternoon. Her checking account balance hovered right around zero, but she got paid in two days, so that was something.
"If I could afford a new tire, I would have bought it myself," she muttered.
"It's more practical than flowers," Mrs. Ford offered. "Or chocolates."
Elissa smiled. "Trust me, Walker isn't courting me."
"You don't know that."
She was fairly confident. He'd helped because... Because... She frowned. Actually she didn't know why he'd come to her aid. Probably because she'd look pathetic as she'd wrestled with uncooperative lug nuts.
She rolled out the second crust. Flats of blueberries had been ridiculously cheap at the Yakima Fruit Stand. She'd pulled in after dropping Zoe off at her party. She had just enough time to make three pie crusts before she had to be back to pick up her daughter.
"I'll finish up the pies after I come back from the grocery store," Elissa said, more to herself than her neighbor. "Maybe if I take him one..."
Mrs. Ford smiled. "An excellent idea. Imagine what he'll think when he gets a taste of your cooking."
Elissa groaned. "You're matchmaking, aren't you? "
"A woman of your age all alone? It's just not natural."
"I like being a freak. It keeps me grounded."
Mrs. Ford shook her head as she finished her coffee. She set down the mug, then slowly pushed to her feet. "I need to get back. There's a Beauty by Tova hour starting on QVC. I'm nearly out of her perfume."
"You go girl," Elissa said.
Mrs. Ford walked to the door that connected their two apartments, then paused. "I left you my list, didn't I?"
Elissa nodded. "Yes. I have it in my purse. I'll bring everything by when I get back."
The older woman smiled. "You're a good girl, Elissa. I'd be lost without you."
"I feel the same way."
Mrs. Ford stepped into her own kitchen and closed the door behind her.
Elissa had been a little disconcerted to discover that her neighbor had access to her house when she'd first moved in to her apartment, but that had quickly changed. Mrs. Ford might be elderly and old-fashioned, but she was sharp and caring and adored Zoe. The three of them had quickly become friends, with Elissa and Mrs. Ford working out a system that benefited them both.
Mrs. Ford got Zoe ready for preschool in the morning and fed her breakfast. Elissa handled her neighbor's grocery shopping, got her to doctor's appointments and checked in on her regularly. Not that Mrs. Ford was home all that much. She was very active in the senior center and one of her many friends was always ready to pick her up for bridge or scrapbooking or a quick trip to an Indian casino.
"I want to be just like her when I grow up," Elissa said as she carried the three pie crusts over the oven.
But until then she had to figure out where she would find the money to pay for a new tire and what to say to her neighbor to make sure he understood that she would never, ever, under any circumstances be interested in him.
Not even on a bet. Not even if he showed up naked. Although, to be honest, if he showed up naked, she would probably look because she hadn't seen a naked man in years. And he was more spectacular than most.
"I don't need a man," Elissa murmured as she set the timer. "I'm fine. Empowered. Only thirteen more years until Zoe is grown and in college. Then I can have sex again. Until then, I will think pure thoughts and be a good mother."
And, very possibly, think about her new neighbor naked. Because if she had to be tempted, she wouldn't mind him doing the job.
Zoe was in bed by eight and sound asleep by eight-thirty. Elissa collected one of the blueberry pies and her last five dollars and headed up the stairs to Walker's apartment.
Despite the absolute silence from overhead, his SUV was parked in front, so she knew he had to be there. She hadn't seen anyone arrive to pick him up—not that she'd been watching. She hadn't. She might have been observing the comings and goings in her community as a way to stay alert for trouble and be a good citizen. The fact that she was fairly confident Walker was alone was only a side benefit of her altruistic civic activity.
Not that she cared if he was dating—she didn't. But showing up with a pie and five bucks was weird enough to explain to him, without having to deal with a significant other hovering. Not that any woman Walker dated was likely to consider her much of a threat. Elissa knew exactly what she looked like—the wholesome girl next door. She didn't mind. Her appearance meant her customers were far more likely to be protective than to come on to her, which made life a whole lot easier.
"Procrastinate much?" she asked herself as she forced her brain back to the task at hand. Namely her standing at the top of Walker's stairs, inches from his front door. If he'd heard her climbing, he could be watching her right now, wondering why she'd come this far without knocking.
So she knocked, then waited until the door opened and he stood there, right in front of her.
He looked good. His T-shirt stretched across broad shoulders and a muscular chest. No doubt those muscles were the reason he'd been able to twist those lug nuts into submission without breaking a sweat. His jeans were worn, loose and faded. His dark eyes seemed expressionless, but not in a scary axe-murderer way. More like he kept the world at bay.
"Hi," she said, when he remained silent. "I, ah, made pie." She thrust it toward him and added, "It's blueberry," in case his confusions about the type of fruit made was the reason he didn't take it from her.
"You made me a pie?" he asked, his voice low. There was a hint of a question in the rumble and more than a hint that he thought she was crazy. Which she resented. She wasn't the one breaking the rules here.
"Yes, a pie." She thrust it forward until he took it, then held out a worn five dollar bill.
"You're paying me to eat your pie?"
"Of course not. I'm paying you—" She stopped and drew in a breath. She'd gone from grateful to annoyed in two seconds flat. "You bought me a tire. Did you really think I wouldn't notice that bright, shiny bit of rubber? Is it me in particular or all women in general? Because I know this is a guy thing. You wouldn't have done this if I were a man."
"You wouldn't have needed my help if you were a man."
"Maybe." Probably. But that wasn't the point. "You slunk back here and put on the tire while I wasn't looking. You even rubbed dirt on it so it wouldn't look so new. And let me tell you, that's just strange."
He actually smiled. It was slight—no teeth, but somehow the action made him look open and approachable. "That was Randy's idea."
"It sounds like him."
He took a step back. "Want to come in a talk about this or do you prefer my porch?"
"The porch is fine. This isn't a social call."
The smile faded. "Elissa, I get it. You don't like that I bought you a tire. Yours had so many patches, it was dangerous. I should have let it go, but I couldn' t. I'm not going to apologize for what I did. I didn't mean anything by it. I don't want anything." He held up the pie. "Except this. It smells good."
She liked that he wasn't using her tire against her. Gee, how many times had she been able to say that before in her life?
"I know you thought you were doing a good thing," she said slowly. "But you don't have the right to meddle in my life. I called Randy to find out what it cost. I think he low-balled me by about ten bucks, so I'll be paying you back fifty dollars. It's going to take me some time, but the pie is to show I'm sincere about it and here's the first payment."
He looked at the tattered bill. "I don't want your money."
"I don't want to owe you." She might not have much cash on hand, but she paid her bills on time and she never used credit except in emergencies where there was a risk of death or dismemberment.
"You're stubborn," he said.
"Thank you. I've worked hard to get this way."
"What if I told you the money didn't mean anything to me?" he asked.
Meaning what? He had plenty? She sighed at the thought. In her next life she was going to be rich for sure. It was right at the top of her wish list. But in this one...
"It matters to me," she told him.
"Fine. But you don't have to pay me in cash. We could work out a trade."
White-hot anger blew up inside of her. Here it was—the truth. Behind that pretty face was a disgusting, evil, heartless bastard. Just like nearly every other guy on the planet.
Of course, she thought grimly. Why was she even surprised? She'd been momentarily attracted to Walker, and based on her stellar track record, that meant there had to be something wrong with him. She'd expected a massive flaw. But she hadn't thought it would be this.
"Not even if you were the last man alive after nuclear winter," she said between gritted teeth. "I can't believe you'd suggest that I would be willing..." She wanted to slap him. "It was a tire. It's not like you gave me a kidney."
He had the nerve to actually smile at her. "You'd sleep with me if I gave you a kidney?"
"You know what I mean. I'm done here. I'll mail the rest of the money."
She turned to leave, but suddenly he was next to her and somehow between her and the steps. How on earth had he moved so quickly?
His dark gaze claimed hers and all the humor fled from his face.
"Dinner," he said quietly. "I was talking about a few meals. You cook every night and I can smell it. I've been existing on frozen dinners and bumming meals off my sister-in-law. When I said a trade, that's what I meant. It's all I meant."
He wasn't touching her, yet she felt his nearness. He was so much bigger than her—she should have been afraid. She was nervous, but that was different.
Dinner, huh? It, ah, made sense. The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Because, honestly, who would expect sex after replacing a cheap tire?
"Sorry," she said, dropping her gaze to the center of his chest. "I thought you were..."
"I got that. I wasn't. I wouldn't."
Wouldn't what? Want sex with her? Not that she was doing that sort of thing these days, or for many days to come, but why was he so able to dismiss her? She might be wholesome, but she was kind of pretty. And smart. Smart counted, didn't it?
Maybe he had a girlfriend. Maybe he was engaged. Maybe he was gay.
That last thought made her smile. Somehow she didn't think Walker was gay.
"Let's start over," he said. "I bought the tire because I didn't think yours could take one more patch. Randy charged me forty-five dollars for it. I'll accept the pie and money. You can continue to pay me back as slowly as you'd like. Forget what I said about dinner, okay? The money is fine."
He was doing everything right. So why did she want to argue with him?
"That works for me," she said.
"Then we have a deal."
He shifted the pie to his left hand and held out his right so they could shake on it.
She pressed her palm against his and nodded. "Good."
His fingers were warm and strong. She felt a little quiver low in her belly. The unexpected reaction made her pull away and take a step back.
Danger came in all shapes and sizes. This particular form was big, powerful and far too sexy for her peace of mind. She still had thirteen years of celibacy ahead of her. Hanging around with Walker wasn't going to make it easy.
Not that they were hanging. Nope. Not a single hang here.
"I should, ah, go," she murmured as she edged around him and started down the stairs. "Enjoy the pie."
"I will. Thank you, Elissa."
She raced into her house and quickly closed the door behind her. Once there, she leaned against the wood until her heart rate returned to normal.
It was only then she noticed she was still holding the five dollars she'd tried to give him. There was no way she was going back up there tonight. She would leave it in his mail box or something.
It was painfully obvious she should avoid Walker at all costs. He might be nice on the surface, but her original premise was still true. If she was attracted to him, then there was something seriously wrong with him. Right now, she couldn't afford another male disaster in her life. She was still paying for the last one.
The Buchanan Saga, Book No. 2
July 2006/Reissued June 2012
When ex-Marine Walker Buchanan stops to help Elissa Towers change a tire, he tells himself it's just the neighborly thing to do. And when Elissa finds herself baking him a thank-you pie, she's just returning the favor…right?
Both of them have sworn off dating—Elissa's determined to protect her little girl, and that means ditching her taste for dangerous men…especially former Marines with dark secrets. Walker knows that he's not cut out for hearth and home…his own crazy family made sure of that. But the sparks won't stop flying between them.
Now the two are struggling to keep their relationship "just friends," but with every kiss, their rules fly out the window…
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SUSAN MALLERY IS A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S FICTION AND ROMANCE NOVELS.