Linnea King has it all. Fabulous social life, adorable children, and her successful husband's income… until he serves her with divorce papers. Her perfect life crumbles in a storm of police reports, cranky bus drivers, and burned dinners. The single life feels as foreign as a trendy haircut. Just when Linnea fears she’ll lose everything, her new neighbor steps in to help. Not that she’s judging by appearances, but TJ Gates looks like trouble with a capital T. Tattoos, motorcycle, and sexy southern manners, TJ is the last person Linnea expects to be her hero. A demolitions expert who takes prizefighting gigs to pay the bills, TJ has pretty much screwed up everything that matters, and rebuilding his life after a violent past is harder than it looks. He thinks the polished, expensive-looking Linnea King needs the same thing he wants: a second chance.
Wednesday: Call it a cosmic mulligan; the worst moments in life have always seemed short to me. Then why do those few seconds stretch into interminable time warps?
LINNEA KING HAD one hand full of the past week’s mail and the other held a cell phone to her ear while the world’s slimiest lawyer explained the destruction of her life in legalese. When her six-year-old daughter rolled down the driveway on a scooter just as a Suburban whipped around the corner, Linnea could only stare in horror.
Too late, too fast — she screamed “Avery! Stop!” and dropped everything. A mad dash for the street was futile, but she ran anyway. No no no. Please no. Tunnel vision — blond pigtails in focus. Shrieking brakes, tires skidding. Chrome interrupted the frame, and she knew the world was well and truly shattered—
Wait, what was that blur of motion? She shoved against the fender to get past, rubbed the moisture from her eyes, then froze. Pavement. Crashed scooter. One pink Mary Jane, flattened and smudged black. Where’s Avery?
The horrid silence was worse than the noise that followed. Car horn blaring. Shouting. Barking. Why barking? She couldn’t stop shaking. Linnea dropped to the ground and made herself look under the car. Four tires. More pavement. No child. The burn from the baking asphalt seared though her stupor, and she scrambled to her feet.
“Here,” came a raspy male voice. The speaker cleared his throat. “Ma’am, over here.”
On the opposite curb, sticking out from a bundle of large male limbs and a cloud of fur: the other pink Mary Jane. On the wrong foot, as Avery always did no matter how many times Linnea switched them back.
Avery’s shocked face peeked out. She blinked and looked around.
A man caged her in his arms as he rolled from the pavement to sit on the curb, keeping an enormous, hyper dog from licking her. A sharp whistle, and the dog-beast sat.
Linnea’s brain went from DEFCON-1 to just plain panic, which she could handle. “Avery, are you okay?” A lame thing to say. She held her arms out and crouched down, wondering why her daughter only blinked instead of throwing herself into an embrace. The occupants of the Suburban slammed doors. Linnea tuned out their shrill voices. “Avery?”
“She’s all right, ma’am.” Awl-raht. Texan drawl. “No harm, I think.”
The man holding Avery finally registered. The Marlboro Man’s ringer on a bad day. A really bad day, as in, the morning after a full moon and a lycanthrope gene. Linnea resisted giving him a blatant once-over and tried not to act startled, but he had the scraggliest, longest salt-and-pepper beard she’d seen since Duck Dynasty, and huge arms. Dirty, scraped, and his gray T-shirt smeared with grease. Pebbles stuck to the fabric, embedded in his skin. Sweat and blood and asphalt — proof of the devastation that so nearly could have been.
He leaned to wipe his head on his sleeve, leaving a smudge of blood from the scrape on his forehead. He probably thought it was just sweat. “Miz Avery—”
“I said my name is Rapunzel!” Avery protested, her lisp more severe than usual.
“At least you’re not named after a ski resort. Or an Irish pub. Girls these days are all Aspen or Boston or Riley. I don’t get it.” He pried the clingy little girl from his lap and held her out as though she had a toxic dirty diaper. “Sorry. That was inappropriate. I’m freaked out right now.”
Linnea crouched and patted Avery down and turned her around, finding not a scratch. One pigtail hung low, falling out of the rubber band. Even her glasses sat perched on her face, secured by the pink lanyard. A smudge of black caught her eye: a pattern of diagonal lines down Avery’s leg. Tire tread, from the sidewall. The tire had scraped her leg. Linnea’s breath hitched, and her gut twisted in knots. Not inches away from the unthinkable, but millimeters.
She muttered a curse that had never before come from her mouth, and her knees buckled. A strong arm supported her back and righted her balance. “Baby,” Linnea muttered and crushed Avery against her chest. She was so small. Tiny. One little girl versus a thousand-pound truck… She groaned — so close. Unbelievably close to the worst. She couldn’t handle the what ifs sneaking in, playing horrible images in her head.
“Hey, lady. So, the kid’s all right, huh?” A young man shuffled his feet. His SUV made an irritating beeping noise. He stuffed shaking hands in his pockets and averted his eyes once she straightened and turned her gaze on him.
She didn’t know why, but she looked to Werewolf Man for the answer. Good grief, he had a severe sunburn everywhere but the circles around his eyes, like goggles. They traded glances. Old-soul eyes, hard eyes, but not unkind. He had the look of authority, and his calm was exactly what she needed to keep from falling apart.
He nodded. Yes, Avery was fine.
“Yes, she’s fine.” Her voice sounded hollow to herself.
“Cool. Great. I mean…” The kid shook his head and blinked back tears. “Sorry. But I—” He smacked his forehead, a gesture meant to hide wiping his eyes. “I saw it, but I couldn’t stop.”
She noticed how young he was. Baby-faced. High school age, as was the girl huddled against his side, shivering despite the hundred-fifteen-degree Las Vegas weather. She sobbed quietly, mascara tracking down her face.
“I know.” Linnea had to swallow twice before she could say, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Felt weird saying it, which made her realize she did blame him for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Easier than blaming herself for being so distracted she let her special needs daughter out of her sight. She knew better. “It’s not your fault,” she said again to convince herself.
He made a laugh-cry sound. “Incredible, man. You were boss. I can’t believe you did that. Ninja skills.” He nodded at her Harley-biker-on-steroids neighbor, who unfolded from his crouch to stand. The dog moved to flank him, scanning the strangers warily then settling on its haunches.
Her neighbor seemed big. Not tall, not bulky — he was quite rangy, really — but a big presence. She felt like she should salute or something. The kid shuffled back a step and stuttered over what he’d started to say.
Sirens had been whining, but not until two patrol cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance crowded the street did she pay attention. Someone from the crowd of neighbors huddled across the street must have called 911.
Avery chose that moment to be frightened, first whimpering then bawling, clinging to her mother’s neck. Warm damp seeped through Linnea’s shirt and down her hip. She should’ve been ready for it, because Avery wet her pants whenever she got overwhelmed.
Her two older brothers Caleb and Jacob came running out of the house, staring wide-eyed at the flashing lights and crowd of anxious people. Linnea had to threaten to ground them for a month if they didn’t go back inside while she spoke to the police officers.
No, Avery didn’t appear to be hurt.
Yes, she had Down syndrome. Of course she was current on her digoxin meds for the heart murmur.
No, Linnea hadn’t really seen what happened. Why? Because she’d taken the mail from the box, turned her back and answered the phone. Mother of the year right here.
No, she didn’t want to press charges against the driver.
It had seemed to Linnea the kid was driving way too fast, but the officers determined from the skid marks it had been about twenty-five miles per hour. Legal.
Finally, Tara Tanner, her one friendly neighbor on the street, came over. She got Avery a change of clothes then went inside to keep an eye on the boys. A female paramedic gave Avery a fluffy pink rabbit, which finally made her stop wailing. Linnea tried to ignore the musty sunbaked urine smell in her nose, but the headache starting to throb behind her left eye demanded attention.
The professionals agreed no one was hurt after lots of poking and prodding. A twenty-something blond paramedic seemed to take her job seriously as she dabbed the scrapes on Wolf-man’s arms and head. He looked annoyed. The dog never left his side.
Linnea still hadn’t heard the story of what exactly had happened; everyone was too busy asking her questions. Judging by the handshakes her neighbor got and how everyone stopped to scratch behind the dog-beast’s ears, they were the heroes. Not hard to deduce the neighbor had been repairing the motorcycle in his driveway — tools and parts lay scattered there. Apparently the dog had alerted him to the danger in time for him to grab Avery out of the way. It had been close, obviously. A miracle. She owed him a world of thanks for risking his life to save Avery’s.
It didn’t really sink in, because nothing did right then. She was numb, except for Avery’s warm hand tucked inside hers. That felt real.
“Your dog is gorgeous. Full-bred?” one paramedic asked.
“German Shepherds have incredible instincts,” said one of the loitering neighbors.
“She’s an IED dog. Afghanistan,” Werewolf Man answered the people crowded around him. “Couldn’t leave her behind.”
She shouldn’t call him that, even internally. No one else seemed to find his disreputable appearance daunting. This was Las Vegas, after all. Land of plus-size spandex. As long as a person wasn’t streaking — all one could hope for in the dress standard — one got by.
Linnea declined an ambulance ride to the ER and signed a waiver, promising not to sue the city if Avery were to die of complications from the accident. What accident? Last thing she needed was to give the lawyers more ammo to prove her incompetence.
The kid’s grandmother arrived on scene and bawled him out, complete with a wagging finger and a smack on the shoulder. Not that he’d done wrong, but he was in trouble for scaring the bejeezus out his grandma. Linnea had the presence of mind to give the kid and his girlfriend a hug before they were herded away. No need for them to feel guilty over a tragedy that didn’t happen.
LV Metro was the last to leave, and Linnea stood clutching a carbon copy of the incident report, the most recent in a tall stack of papers proving she was a failure. She tried to convince herself she was the luckiest girl alive, having Ninja Man and his Super Dog sidekick for neighbors, and most importantly, an unharmed daughter. Thank God.
Thursday: This early May heat wave killed most of my strawberries. I was clearing out the withered vines, hating my garden, Las Vegas, and even the sun, when I noticed one tiny pink berry surviving, with green leaves and stubborn roots. If that sad little strawberry can hang on, I guess I can do it too.
EVERYONE LIKED PIE, right? Flowers were out of the question, and a gift card seemed tacky.
Linnea tucked tin foil around the crust of a perfect Dutch apple pie, piping hot. If nowhere else, she was a goddess in the kitchen. A big red bow on a giant rawhide bone she’d found at Target, and all she needed now was courage. And back-up.
“Avery, Jacob, Caleb, please come downstairs,” she shouted.
Finally the video game noise paused, and a stampede of footsteps sounded on the stairs.
Time to go make up for her rudeness. One day had turned into three, and now a week had passed since her neighbor had saved Avery’s life, and she’d had to learn his name from the faint scratchings on the incident report: Terrence Jameson Gates. Not Werewolf Man.
As they crossed the street, Linnea coached her kids on appropriate things to say, which probably sounded like that school teacher on Charlie Brown to them.
“Avery, don’t drag the dog bone on the ground. And Jacob, get your finger out of your nose. Gross.” One-handed she drew a tissue from her back pocket and passed it to her seven-year-old boy. Caleb steadied the tray when it teetered, his one thoughtful deed for the day. Probably for the week. Her eldest son protested the upheaval in his life by acting like a teenager a few years early.
Both Avery and Jacob knocked on the door a dozen times before she could stop them. Inside the house, the dog-beast barked in a bass-toned volley, alerting its master that an evil clown army was breaking down the door. Abruptly the dog quit, and Linnea only had time to draw a breath before the door opened.
She almost said, “I’m looking for Mr. Gates,” to the man with a cropped haircut and craggy jawline. The same old-soul eyes stared out of a face much younger than she’d assumed before. Not young, but not Holy Roller Santa Claus. Old enough to have salt-and-pepper hair. He’d shaved, and now he looked like an assassin in a spy-thriller movie, complete with a black T-shirt snug on the biceps, cargo pants and boots, and a bad attitude. Until he smiled, which made him appear dapper in a roguish sort of way.
The shock of his transformation robbed her of her manners. Again.
“Hey, TJ! Hi, See-For!”
Jacob and Caleb rushed to greet the dog. It reared on its hind legs and gave her boys a high-five with its front paws. They scratched its neck and rubbed down the expanse of its back. The dog-beast stuck out its tongue and gave them a doggy smile, showing off inch-long fangs.
Linnea blinked, speechless. TJ: Terrence Jameson. Right. The neighbor had befriend her kids? She turned a wary eye on him, wondering if she’d get a sicko vibe from him. He didn’t look like a child predator. But then they seldom did, right?
Avery latched onto his leg and squeezed.
“Hi there, Miz Avery,” Mr. Gates said. “Or what is it today?”
He reached down and ruffled her hair, smiling like he was truly happy to be ambushed by three neighbor kids. No weird vibe. He just looked… what was the right word?
Linnea gave herself a mental slap awake and said, “Hello, Mr. Gates.”
At the same time, Avery piped, “Is Katie here? Can she play?”
He leaned over the dog blocking the doorway to shake hands. His grip was gentle, but his callused, steely hand surprised her. She didn’t drop the pie, thankfully, but Avery did whack Mr. Gates in the shin with the dog bone. He didn’t seem to care.
“Katie won’t be here until Friday evening, sorry,” he answered Avery then explained to Linnea, “Kate is my daughter. She’s nine, almost ten. And call me TJ, please.”
It clicked. The kids had mentioned him, something about TJ’s puppy and TJ’s bike. Only now did she realize TJ was not one of the neighbor kids who hung out in the cul-de-sac, his bike was not a Huffy, and his dog could only be called “puppy” by Paul Bunyan. She’d been too distracted to check it out — yet more evidence she wasn’t really holding it together very well.
Linnea resisted a sigh of relief. Men who had children, trained rescue dogs, and saved little girls from being run over probably weren’t evil. Even if they looked… she still didn’t have the right word for it. His smile crinkled lines around his eyes, which were bloodshot. His sunburn had faded, but the scrapes on the side of his face and all down his arms looked painful.
Where are your manners?
She pulled the oven mitt off her hand and kept it under the pan as she held it out in offering. “This is for you. I never had a chance to thank you, but…” There went her train of thought again. Why was she acting so awkward? He must think her a complete idiot.
He lifted it to smell, seemed surprised, then raised the pan closer to draw a deep breath. He closed his eyes and hummed. “Smells delicious, Miz King.”
Say it. She had a heartfelt speech prepared, but now it seemed trite. She rubbed her palms on her thighs, fidgety without the pie to hide behind. He met her stare and seemed to sense both her unease and her gratitude, because he stared back wearing the same apologetic expression she probably wore. Then he winked. Not flirtatious. More like, Got your back, kid.
The boys saved her from further conversation; they’d unwrapped the bone and were play-wrestling with the dog, which somehow managed to act adorable, dancing on its paws and one ear flopping down. A tame Sasquatch.
One she owed her life to.
TJ made the dog sit and drop the bone. “See-For, say thank you for the bone.”
The dog barked in two quick syllables. The kids cheered. TJ leaned against the door jamb, seeming to take up all the space in the door frame. He looked unaccountably contented, as though he didn’t mind leaking the expensive air-conditioning out the open door, as though her three-ring circus on his front stoop was the highlight of his day.
She had the impression TJ was lonely, living alone in the house with only a dog — albeit a smart one — for company. She imagined him watching TV alone, counting the days until his daughter came to stay.
He must have a sad story. Perhaps like the one currently playing out in her own life.
How had she never met him? She didn’t recall seeing him around, but then, Las Vegas neighbors tended to keep to themselves. Like Bizarro Mayberry. Over the past several weeks she’d been handling paperwork and phone calls every moment she wasn’t doing homework with the kids, speech therapy with Avery, and the bare minimum of housekeeping to keep the place from being condemned. Just the same, she should’ve been aware.
“Mom, can See-For sleep over?” Caleb held his palm up so the dog would high-five him again. It even met his fist-bump with its forehead. Impressive.
“Like she could climb on your bed.” Jacob still groused every chance he got about having the bottom bunk.
“Yuh-huh. See-For can jump high.”
Weird name for a dog. “Sorry, not this time,” she answered with a weak they-say-the-darnedest-things smile.
She was about to suggest they go back home when Jacob blurted, “But See-For could come over for dinner. And TJ.”
Her head flashed exclamation points, kicking her unease into the red. She had no choice. Before an awkward silence could take hold, Linnea made herself brighten as though it was the best idea she’d heard all day. Really, it was the least she could do. “Yes! Won’t you join us… TJ?” Saying his name made her cheeks heat. “We’d love to have you and ah, See-For over.”
His brow furrowed, he rubbed his jaw, and it seemed he was trying to think of an excuse to let her off the hook.
“We’re having beef stew with cornbread. And watermelon,” she added. Longing flashed in his eyes before he looked down, and she knew she had to persuade him. “Please say yes. Six-thirty. And do bring the dog. Really.”
“All right.” Awl raht. “Thank you, Miz King.”
His southern charm flipped her blushing switch again. Linnea prompted the kids to say goodbye and herded them back across the street with Jacob and Caleb making a commotion about looking both ways.
Anxiety clanked around her insides, warring with an odd kind of relief. Powerful men, large men, intelligent men, dominant men: one and all they made her nervous. They tended to trample women, and she sensed the danger like a bad smell. Just the same, she had an irrational desire to serve the most savory, tender beef stew TJ Gates had ever tasted. Better than his Texan mama’s. She wanted him to weep with joy. Well, if he closed his eyes and hummed the way he had over her pie, that would do.
Not until she stirred cornmeal with creamed honey did she realize he hadn’t asked about Mr. King.