More Than Neighbors
Harlequin Superromance #1968 (January 6, 2015)
Temptation is so close!
To protect her son, Mark, Ciara Malloy has moved to this rural area in Washington. The new beginning is off to a rocky start, however, when Mark gets too familiar with Gabe Tennert's horses. It's obvious their next-door neighbor prefers his solitude. Even so, he shows incredible patience with Mark. And when Gabe turns that intense gaze Ciara's way…how can she resist such a good, sexy man?
But crossing the line between friends and something more is riskier than Ciara expects. As Gabe pushes for a commitment, she fears revealing the secret truths that could turn him away forever.
A flash of movement over at the old Walker place caught Gabriel Tennert's eye the moment he hopped out of the box truck he'd just backed up to the open doorway to his barn workshop.
He owned thirty acres himself, and the neighboring place was of similar size. The Walker house and land had been posted for sale a good three, four years now, with no taker. An occasional looker, that's all. Gabe hadn't minded Ephraim Walker as a neighbor, given that they'd spoken only when Gabe went over to check on the old man. Not being sociable, Gabe had been happy once Ephraim was gone to have the house sitting empty.
But, now that he was looking, he couldn't miss the candy-apple-red van parked in front. Even squinting, though, he didn't see a soul to go with the vehicle. Whoever had arrived in it must have gone in the house.
Lookers, he reassured himself. Or a new real-estate agent, checking out the property. One or the other came along now and again. Far as he knew, nobody ever made an offer. This small town north of Spokane, Washington, didn't have much to draw newcomers. Once viable, farms like his and Ephraim Walker's were good these days mainly for running a few head of cattle or keeping some horses, like he did. The hour drive to Spokane was fine for delivering finished cabinetry, but would be pushing it for a daily commute, and there weren't many jobs in an almost entirely rural county. Winters were harsh in this northeast corner of the state, the landscape pretty but not spectacular enough to attract much in the way of tourism. The town of Goodwater had been deceptively named; the creek that curved around the town and along the back of his property was pretty enough, but dwindled to barely a rivulet by late summer.
Whoever those folks over at the Walker place were would go away like all the others had once they saw how run-down the old farmhouse was, he told himself.
Sure were here early in the morning, though.
Dismissing the unpleasant possibility of acquiring actual neighbors, Gabe went about loading the cabinets he would be installing in a handsome old house in Hillyard, once a town in its own right but now a neighborhood in Spokane. Gabe did a lot of work for homeowners in Hillyard and Corbin Park, both neighborhoods designated as historic. More in Corbin Park, although he'd seen an upswing in Hillyard, which was having a revival after years of deterioration. Because of the designation, homeowners of the handsome Victorianera houses in both areas had to comply with some restrictions when they remodeled. Ready-made cabinetry wasn't acceptable. His specialty was solid wood cabinetry built to 19th century quality. He could do a more modern look, but rarely chose to.
Once he was loaded and on his way, his day went smoothly. The remodeling contractor was on hand with a couple of his men to help with unloading and installation. Gabe had measured, cut and built to accommodate floors and walls subtly and not so subtly out of plumb, no surprise in an old lady that had passed her one hundred and thirtieth birthday. He approved the dark gray granite countertops. Although not historically proper, they would look fine with the richly stained cherry cabinets.
After gently running his hand along the satin surface of a tall pantry door, he left, feeling his usual mix of satisfaction and something like grief at letting go of his work. He'd started with raw wood, measurements, some ideas from the homeowner and his own conception, and then he'd put one hell of a lot of hours into those particular cabinets. Unless the house was featured in a magazine, he'd likely never see them again. He thought he was entitled to some goodbye pangs.
He stopped for a burger and fries in Mead before driving the rest of the way home. He was nodding along to Darius Rucker playing on a country station, his headlights picking out the narrow two-lane road ahead, when he came even with the Walker place and through the darkness saw something that shouldn't be there. Lights.
His foot lifted from the gas, even tapped lightly on the brake. What the hell… ?
But he knew. Somebody had moved in. New owners or renters, didn't matter, not if their presence meant vehicles coming and going all hours, the possibility of loud music, kids yelling, dogs chasing his quarter horses. Goddamn it, his doorbell ringing with a friendly new neighbor standing on his not-so-welcome mat.
He shook his head, accelerated again and turned into his own long driveway a minute later. He had to get out to open the broad doors of the outbuilding he'd converted to a garage for the box truck, a horse trailer and his pickup. Soft nickers carried on the warm spring air, in case he'd forgotten he had hungry animals waiting for their oats. The welcome was enough to have him smiling as he unloaded his tools and hung them in their places in his workshop, then measured servings of a molasses-and-grain mix into two buckets that he carried to the open lean-to, where the mangers and water trough were.
His gelding and mare might have been looking forward to their evening treat, but they took the time to say hello with nudges and whuffles before plunging their noses into the buckets and crunching with enthusiasm. The air was redolent with hay, horse and manure. In another month, the lilacs around the house would come in bloom, adding their sweetness. After telling his horses what fine animals they were, Gabe leaned back against the fence and enjoyed the quiet of the night. He pondered the reality of new neighbors, but thought the absence of any racket coming from next door was a good sign. The evening was early enough; a herd of kids would surely be making some noise, wouldn't they? Or teenagers would have cranked up their music. Maybe a young couple had rented the place and would move on when the solitude got to them. Hell, maybe Ephraim's son and his wife, who had to be in their sixties if not seventies, had decided to sell their house in Seattle and move into Dad's.
He felt his mouth curve at the unlikely thought. Ephraim's son, whose name Gabe couldn't recall, had spent years trying to persuade his father to move to assisted living on the west side of the mountains and cursed him for a stubborn old fool for refusing.
It did cross Gabe's mind as he let himself into his house to wonder when he'd gotten so set in his own ways. He was closing in on forty, sure, but late thirties wasn't middle-aged, was it? Yet here he'd become as staid in his habits as old Ephraim himself. He didn't let the thought linger, though, because he knew to the day when it had happened. When in a searing minute he'd been left alone and known he'd never try to replace what he'd lost.
If the new people tried to intrude… Well, he'd have no trouble setting them straight. He knew what signals to give to hold people at a comfortable distance. He could be pleasant and still be read just fine.
He took a beer from the refrigerator and decided he wouldn't waste any worry on problems that probably wouldn't arise. Maybe he'd trailer Hoodoo up toward Calispell for a good ride come morning. He often took a few hours off work after finishing a major job.
Sleep came easily.
"Mom, I'm bored."
Ciara had been standing on tiptoes to set the empty case that had held her sewing machine on the shelf in the closet. Nudging it as far back as it would go, she sighed and turned to face her son, who was gazing at her expectantly. Lately she'd been disconcerted every time she looked at him. She swore he'd shot up three inches this year, and was now, at twelve years old and not far from his thirteenth birthday, lanky and several inches taller than she was.
"How can you be bored?" she asked. "You can't possibly have put your own stuff away yet."
He grimaced. "No, but that's boring."
She leveled a look at him. "You know how irritated you get when something isn't where it belongs."
"But nothing belongs anywhere yet," he complained. "I don't know where things should go."
Hiding her exasperation, she escorted him to the bedroom he'd chosen and discovered that he'd barely begun to unpack. Apparently, it had been obvious to him that clothes did belong in dresser drawers, because most of what had been in his suitcase had made it that far. Otherwise, he'd opened boxes but not taken anything out. She should have realized he'd be paralyzed by so many decisions. He liked things to stay the same.
"We brought all your furniture," she pointed out. The moving truck had arrived midmorning, as promised, and the movers had unloaded with astonishing haste. Furniture had all gone into the rooms she'd designated, but not necessarily in exactly the ideal spot. Maybe that was the problem for Mark. "Do you like where the bed is?"
He was strong enough to move his own furniture around, but dithered so much over where each piece went, an hour passed before he seemed to be satisfied. Then, of course, he was hungry.
Well, okay, she was, too. And really, what was the hurry? They could take their time unpacking. This move was their new start, and she wanted it to be a happy one.
As she dumped a can of soup into a saucepan on the stove, Mark gazed wistfully out the window toward the neighboring pasture. "I want to pet that horse. She's real pretty."
"What's the rule?" Ciara pulled cold cuts out of the refrigerator. How did he know the horse was a she? Was it obvious even from a distance?
"I can't go near the horse until the owner says it's okay," he repeated by rote. "But he can't say it's okay until we go talk to him."
"Even then, I don't want you to go into the pasture," she said with a spurt of alarm. "You'll have to wait until the horse comes to the fence."
"Mo-om. Most horses are friendly."
"They bite. They kick."
He rolled his eyes, which she probably deserved. The truth was, she didn't know anything about horses. The closest she'd come was to pat the neck of whatever pony Mark had been able to ride at the zoo or fair when he was much smaller. He was the one obsessed with animals in general and horses in particular. He read about them; he drew them; he talked about them. And now, a real, live specimen grazed in the pasture a bare stone's throw away from his own house.
She eyed him suspiciously as she put together sandwiches, stirred the soup and poured it into bowls. Usually he was good at following the rules, as long as she made them specific enough. But the temptation this time.
"Sit down and eat," she said.
He did as she asked, but paused between bites to inform her that horses liked carrots. "And sugar cubes. We could buy some, couldn't we?"
She didn't know if grocery stores stocked sugar cubes. They had never made an appearance on her list before.
Somehow or other, she'd have to work horses into the lesson plan. How, she couldn't imagine. As had become her habit, she put off worrying about it to another day. Truthfully, she was apprehensive about the whole homeschooling deal. She'd graduated from high school what seemed like an awfully long time ago. Mark was particularly advanced in math, a subject she'd been weak in. Given his insistence on precision, that went with his personality.
She'd bought ready-made materials to meet state requirements for a seventh grader, though, so how hard could it be? And once the internet was hooked up, limitless resources would become available.
I can do this.
Her mantra usually calmed her. She had to do this, for Mark's sake. The whole move was about Mark, reducing the stress that had had him coming home from school in tears half the time. She was still enraged when she thought about her last meeting with the middle-school principal, who had made it plain he thought Mark, the victim, was to blame for being bullied. If he'd respond differently to the little creeps who were taunting and beating him, they'd leave him alone, the principal had explained despite her mounting outrage.
She had risen to her feet and glared at him. "My son is kind, smart and gentle. And you're saying he's the one who should change? The boys who trip him, steal his lunch, rip up his schoolwork and beat him up, they're just boys being boys?"
He'd stuttered and fumbled, but clearly the answer was yes. That was what he thought.
She had marched out, her mind made up in that instant. Not only would she homeschool, but she and Mark would move, too. Start over, where he wouldn't already be pigeonholed. As it happened, she had been considering quitting her front counter job at a medical clinic and focusing full-time on a hobby that had somehow been transforming into a business.
Now was good.
It wouldn't hurt to put more distance between Mark and his father, too. Mark's constant disappointment at the excuses and cancellations could be moderated by the fact that regular weekends with his dad were clearly no longer possible, and obviously Jeff couldn't come to sports games or any special happenings. Better than for Mark to be hammered by the knowledge that his dad didn't want to see him.
She'd intended to give Mark a few days off before they started with the schoolwork—at the very least, she had to get her sewing room/studio unpacked before she could return to work. Orders for her custom pillows wouldn't magically be filled unless she applied herself.
Reading and applying himself to worksheets and projects would keep Mark occupied so she could go back to work, though.
"We need to grocery shop," she said. "We can stop at the neighbor's going or coming, introduce ourselves and ask about the horse. Okay?"
"Yes!" her son said with satisfaction.
Once they had finished eating, she insisted he unpack at least one of his collections before they went anywhere.
If it hadn't been for that blasted horse wandering so close to the property line, she'd have expected Mark to go for his rocks and minerals. He liked all the sciences, but especially biology and geology, including paleontology. He'd been excited about doing some fossil hunting in Eastern Washington. After a session on the internet, he'd informed her that trilobites could be found in Pend Oreille County a little to the north, fossil plants in Spokane County and graptolites—whatever those were—right here in Stevens County. Something else that could be worked into his science curriculum in the form of field trips. Ciara had been trying very hard not to let him guess how unenthusiastic she was about prowling dry, rocky ground or fresh road cuts in the hot sun. As excited as he was, he probably wouldn't notice if she whined nonstop, though, or if they encountered a rattlesnake. Caught up in one of his interests, Mark tended to be oblivious to anything and everyone else.
Oh, God—were there rattlesnakes locally?