King Stud by Liv Rancourt
Faced with the drafty interior of a big box store on a Sunday evening, Danielle did what any other single woman would do. She whipped out her cell phone, scrolled through her contacts, and sent up a prayer to whichever god was listening. She’d been back in Seattle exactly three days, just long enough to have figured out things at her grandmother’s house were a lot worse than she’d anticipated.
Maeve picked up on the third ring. “Why aren’t you here?”
Relief trailed out on a sigh, and Danielle eyed the rack of lumber, each six foot piece as wide as her hand. Those boards wouldn’t fit in her Mini Cooper, which might not matter since she wasn’t sure they’d fix the problem. “Because I’m here.”
“Where?” The brew-fueled babbling on Maeve’s end of the call made her location obvious: her favorite hang-out, the Pig N’ Whistle.
“You nerd,” Maeve said, then hollered ‘Home Depot’ to the crowd around her. A surge in the general hubbub gave Danielle’s location a big thumbs-down.
“Do I want to know what you’re up to?” Maeve’s voice dampened, as if she’d cupped the phone to cut out the background noise.
“Well, the kitchen floor’s kind of a problem.” It topped the list of challenges at Danielle’s late grandmother’s house, right ahead of ‘no heat’ and ‘intermittent electricity’.
“That whole house is a disaster.”
“Shut up. There’s nothing a little elbow grease can’t fix.”
“Wishful thinking,” Maeve said over a swell of crowd noise. “You don’t believe that any more than I do.”
Danielle scratched the hairline at the back of her neck, wanting nothing more than a long, hot shower. “Guess I got a couple months to prove us both wrong, then.” Maeve had been her best friend since high school, her go-to phone call when things turned to shit in L.A. In the three days Danielle had been back in Seattle, Maeve had been her rock.
She rested against one of the orange metal stepladders employees used to reach the top shelves. The whole thing shifted, zapping her with fear the top boxes would come tumbling down on her. Why not? The oversized store, the oversized project, hell, the oversized change in her life could very well squash her flat.
If Maeve had been at home, painting her toenails or paying bills, Danielle would have invited her down to the ol’ Home Depot right off. But now? No way could she interrupt Happy Hour.
To her right, a man pushed one of the store’s big dollies up the wide aisle. He wore a black knit cap pulled down almost to his brows, allowing just a fringe of dark curls and long sideburns to show.
“Just come have a pint with the rest of us,” Maeve said. “The floor will be there when you get home. Tomorrow’s Veteran’s Day and the place is packed.”
“Honey, it’s the kitchen floor.” Danielle gave Mr. Sideburns a ‘privacy please’ grimace, then almost made a fool of herself double-taking his return smile. His dimples and blue eyes had a familiar feel.
“Don’t ‘honey’ me,” Maeve said. “You can’t cook there anyway. Nothing works. Did you call my brother yet?”
“Not yet.” Danielle rubbed her forehead, pushing back the headache that wanted to take over. Focus. She was in no shape to play with Mr. Sideburns, no matter how sexy he looked in his paint-splattered UW sweatshirt. “Last time I saw Ryan O’Connor he was a ten-year-old with a dirty face and holes in the knees of his jeans.”
“Call him. He knows his stuff.” Maeve said. “And you’re family, babe. There’s nothing more important than family.”
Danielle had to smile. Maeve’s family – her rowdy brothers and generous, loving parents – had been Danielle’s ideal since she was a kid. In comparison, her own mother had relied upon a principle of benign neglect when it came to raising Danielle, her carelessness contradicted by a perverse inability to approve of any of Danielle’s life choices.
“You’re a good sport to help me out like this,” Danielle said.
“I figure if I’m nice enough, you’ll stick around.”
“Yeah, my boss’d love that.” Right now, her job was the best part of life in L.A.
Mr. Sideburns pulled a couple sticks of lumber from the rack, angling them across the top of the bags of concrete and box of tiles already in his cart. He lifted them with no more effort than if he was pulling a box of cereal off the shelf in the grocery store.
Danielle dragged her eyes down to the floor. No more ogling the other shopper. The buffed and gorgeous other shopper. Who probably had all kinds of women admiring his dimples and sideburns and whatever was hiding under his worn-out jeans.
Danielle convinced Maeve this wasn’t a good night for drinks with the gang and tucked her phone away. Like any L.A. woman worth her yoga studio membership, her usual approach to home improvement meant calling a local contractor. She could have done the same thing this time, except she’d given in to the impulse to get her hands dirty.She refused to look too deeply at that decision, because it probably meant something significant. Why else would someone with a great job, a gorgeous condo, and a busy life drop out for a three-month leave of absence?
When the project was done, she ought to take a long vacation and figure out why she’d chosen to come home to Seattle, why she wanted to do the work herself. Until then, she needed to leave off the introspection and go ask one of the orange-vested employees for some help.
“Must be bad to get you into Home Depot on a Sunday evening.” Mr. Sideburns leaned on his cart and gave her an appreciative once-over, his almost-cocky baritone mellowed by a hint of laughter.
Hitting on me? Not until I’ve had a shower, dude. Danielle jumped up from the ladder, ready to run. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Got that right,” he said, mostly to himself. “Sounds like you need a carpenter.” A wry grin tweaked the corner of his mouth, just enough to show a dimple. “Ryan O’Connor.”
“Ryan?” The wheels in her head burned rubber tracking back through the conversation with Maeve. How much did he hear? “It’s been what? Fifteen years?” She raked a strand of hair out of her face, torn between embarrassment over her woefully unwashed state and stupidity for blushing like a teenager. “Danielle Jacobsen.”
“Figured.” He smiled wide enough to show both dimples. Yep. Definitely related to Maeve. As a kid he’d had freckles and a snub nose. His nose was still rounded at the end and it looked like he’d broken it at least once, and his jeans had the kind of shredded wear at the knees that L.A. hipsters paid big dollars to copy. Her reserve melted until it warmed parts of her anatomy that had no business heating up in a Home Depot store.
“So … um … you’re Maeve’s little brother.” Danielle offered her hand, covering her momentary fluster with a glossy SoCal smile.
He wrapped her in a grip so sure and strong she didn’t want to let go. “Yep. I heard you were back from L.A.”
Danielle loosened her grasp to keep from giving him the wrong idea. Or to keep from giving herself the wrong idea. “Got here Thursday.”
“Shouldn’t you be at the Pig with Maeve?”
“Well, my grandmother’s house is kind of run down, and there’s this hole in my kitchen floor.” She gave a weak laugh, the banks of glaring fluorescent lights turning their conversation into a stage play.
Ryan stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged like he’d already seen worse than anything she could show him. “Before you spend any money, let’s go take a look.”
“Not tonight. I mean, it’s a holiday weekend.” If he was anything like Maeve, there was a bar stool with his name on it somewhere. “I’ll call you and get on your schedule.”
He gestured to his cart. “I just gotta pay for this stuff and we can go. Don’t buy anything ’til we know what you need.”
“But you must have plans.”
“Yep. I’m going to help out a pretty woman.” He lifted his eyebrows in a clear gesture of approval.
It’s like that, is it? She pinched her lips to stifle a grin, aiming for stern with a helping of skeptical. “Pretty older woman.”
“What do you expect from a kid with holes in his jeans?” He gave his cart a shove in the direction of a checkout line.
It would have been rude not to follow.
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