Even as an infant, the boisterous New Mexico thunderstorms that sent his older brothers diving into their parents' bed made him coo in delight. While other toddlers howled in fright if a dog licked their faces, Noah would howl with glee. As he got older, no tree or roof was too high to climb—or jump off of—no bug too big or ugly to examine, no basement too creepy to explore, no night too dark to sneak out into when he was supposed to be asleep. And woe betide the erstwhile playground bully who dared mess with Noah. Or any of his brothers.
So the churning gut as Noah said, "I'll do it," while staring his father down across the banged up desk in the tiny, cluttered office was highly uncharacteristic.
Not to mention unsettling. Especially as that churning gut had nothing to do with his father, who, yes, made Noah crazy on a regular basis but did not frighten him in the slightest. Behind him, on the other side of the open door, power saws ripped and hammers pounded and a half dozen employees shouted to each other in Spanish over the constant noise, more secure in their jobs than they probably had any right to be. And aside from his father, nobody was more determined to give them reason for that security than Noah.
Even if it meant sacrificing his own in the process.
Rubbing his chest, Gene Garrett lowered his big-bellied self into the rickety, rolling chair behind the desk to wrestle open the perpetually stuck top drawer and rummage inside for heaven-knew-what.
"Good of you to offer," he muttered as he searched, "but Charley's my friend. He'll expect me to do the estimate. Not you."
"Except," Noah said, "aside from the fact that Charley's not even going to be there, I'm gathering this is going to involve a lot more than new cabinets. Not to mention you're up to your eyeballs with that order you're installing in Santa Fe next week—"
"And you've got the Jensen project," Gene grunted out as he leaned sideways, the drawer swallowing up his bulky forearm.
"Finished that up two days ago. Next objection?"
His father looked up, his thick, dark brows bouncing over his gold-rimmed glasses like a pair of goosed caterpillars. "Could be a big job."
"Not any bigger than the Cochrans', I don't imagine. And I handled that just fine."
Gene again contorted himself to peer into the depths of the drawer, then reinserted his arm. "You and Eli handled it just fine. So no harm in waiting a week, until I'm free."
Despite his determination not to let the old man get to him, annoyance zinged through Noah. "And you know full well it's a miracle Roxie got Charley to even think about fixing up the place," he said, over a zing of an entirely different nature. "So she probably wants to present him with the estimate as a done deal. Strike while the iron's hot. You said yourself the house is in pretty bad shape—"
"Which is why," Gene said, finally righting himself, a half-empty bottle of Tums clutched in one scarred, beefy hand, "I can't let just anybody handle it."
This honoring your father thing? Sometimes, not so easy. "I'm not 'anybody,'" Noah said patiently. "I'm your son." Even when his father shot him a pained looked that said far more than Noah wanted to hear, he refrained from pointing out exactly whose idea it had been to begin with, to branch out from woodworking into full-scale remodeling services, anyway. Instead, he simply said, "Only trying to take the load off you."
One paw straining to pry the childproof cap off the bottle, Gene flashed a frown in Noah's direction. "Don't need you or anybody else to take the load off. You still work for me, remember?"
"Like you'd ever let me forget. Give me that," Noah said, leaning across the desk to snatch away the half-strangled bottle before his father hurt himself trying to get the damn thing open. "So let me put it another way—either let me run with this, now, or risk Charley's changing his mind and we lose the job altogether."
The bottle easily—and gratefully, Noah surmised— relinquished, Gene linked his hands over his belly. "And I don't suppose Charley's pretty niece has anything to do with you wanting this job?"
Focusing real hard on the bottle top, Noah snorted. "Roxie? Doubt she even likes me." Which, judging from her reaction to him the few times they'd run into each other since her return to Tierra Rosa a few months back, probably wasn't that far from the truth.
Never mind that the first time Noah'd clapped eyes on her he'd felt as if somebody'd clobbered him with a telephone pole. A reaction he'd never had to another female, ever. He didn't understand it, he sure as hell didn't like it, and no way was he about to admit that after a lifetime of rushing headlong into potential danger without a second thought—or, in most cases, any thought at all—the idea of working with Roxanne Ducharme made him break out in a cold sweat.
"There some reason you get up her nose?" Gene said, in the long-suffering way of a man whose sons had more than tested the concept of unconditional love.
"Not that I can recall." Which was the truth. And you'd think her completely unexplained antipathy would at least somewhat mitigate the telephone-pole-upside-the-head thing. You'd be wrong.
"Not even back in high school?" said Mr. Dog-with-a-Bone across from him, and Noah thought, And you're going down this road why? They were talking a dozen years ago, for cripes' sake.
"She was only there for that one year. And ahead of me at that."
"Never mind that you lived right across the street from each other."
"Doesn't matter." Noah handed back the open bottle, thinking that even with his crazy schedule back then, working afternoons and weekends at the shop whenever he didn't have practice or a game, he must have seen her at some point. But damned if he could remember. "I doubt we exchanged two dozen words the entire time. She's a potential client," he said, directly meeting his father's eyes. "Nothing more."
After an I-wasn't-born-yesterday look, Gene tipped the bottle into his palm, shook out a couple of antacids. "Just remember—" he popped a pill into his mouth, crunched down on it "—the past always comes back to bite us in the butt."
Meaning, Noah wearily assumed, the string of admittedly casual relationships which somehow translated in his father's mind into Noah's overall inability to commit to anything else. Like, say, the business. Noah's knowing it backward and forward—having never worked at anything else from the time he was fourteen—apparently counted for squat.
Before he could point that out, however, Gene said, "Now, if you want to get Eli in on this one, too—"
"Forget it, Eli's so sleep-deprived on account of the new baby he's liable to pass out on Charley's sofa. Dad, I can handle it. And hey—what's up with popping those things like they're candy? You okay?"
Rubbing his breastbone, Gene softly belched before palming the few valiant, light brown strands combed over an age-spotted scalp. "Other than having two weeks' worth of work left on a project due in six days? Sure, couldn't be better. That burrito I wolfed down an hour ago isn't doing me any favors, either." Then he sighed. "And your mother's about to drive me nuts. And don't you dare tell her I said that."
Aside from the fact that his parents' making each other nuts was probably the glue holding their marriage together, considering how aggravated Noah was with his father for refusing to admit he needed help, he could only imagine how his mother felt. Still, sometimes playing dumb was the smartest choice. "About what?" he asked mildly.
Gene pulled a face. "About taking some time off." Releasing another belch, he rattled the Tums. "Days like this, a guy needs his buddies. But it's not like this is the first tight deadline I've pulled off."
"And if you don't start taking better care of yourself it might be your last."
"Oh, Lord, not you, too—"
"You even remember the last time you went on vacation?"
"Sure. When we went to visit your mother's sister in Dallas. Couple years ago."
"Five. And visiting family does not count. And you called home a dozen times a day to check up on things."
"I did not—"
"Got the cell phone records to prove it. And anyway, whether you think you need down time or not, you ever stop to think maybe Mom might like to get away? With you? Alone?"
After giving Noah a "Who are you?" expression, Gene grunted. "Donna's never said one word to me about wanting to go anywhere."
"When does Mom ever ask for anything for herself?" Noah shot back, suddenly annoyed with both of them, for loving too much and asking too little and putting up with far more crap from their kids than any two parents should have to. At which point he wasn't sure who he was, either. "Frankly, I don't think she even remembers how. If she ever did." Emotion clogged Noah's throat. "Yeah, she's worried about you. With good reason, apparently," he said, nodding toward the Tums.
Father and son exchanged a long look before Gene said, "I had no idea you cared that much."
Honest to God. "Maybe if you looked past your own issues with me every once in a while," he said softly, "you would."
Leaning back in his chair again, Gene regarded Noah with thoughtful eyes, as a light November snow began to halfheartedly graze the grimy office window. Then, on a punched-out breath, he said, "I just don't understand—"
"I know you don't. And sometimes I'm sorry for that, I really am. Other times… well. It'd be nice if you'd find it in yourself to accept that I'm not like you. Or the others. Now," he slipped his hands into his front pockets, "what time's that appointment? At Charley's?"
After another long moment, his father said, "Two."
Noah checked his watch, then snatched his worn leather jacket off the rack by the office door, grabbed a clipboard from the table under it. "Then I'd better get going."
As he walked away, though, his father called behind him, "You call me if you've got any questions, any questions at all. You hear?"
Only, as he struck out for Charley's house—barely two blocks from the shop—the glow from the small victory rapidly faded, eclipsed by the reality of what he'd "won."
Lord, Roxie would probably laugh her head off— assuming she'd find humor in the situation at all, which was definitely not a given—if she knew Noah's brain shorted out every time he saw her.
That his good sense had apparently gone rogue on him.
Not that Noah had anything against family, or kids, or even marriage, when it came down to it, he thought as he rounded the corner and headed up the hill he and his brothers had sledded down a million times as kids. For other people. If his brothers and parents were besotted with wedded bliss, cool for them. As for his nieces and nephews…okay, fine, so he'd kill for the little stinkers. But since, for one thing, he'd yet to meet a gal who'd hold his interest for longer than five minutes, and for another, he was perfectly okay with that, his reaction to Roxanne Ducharme was off-the-charts bizarre.
God knows, he had examples aplenty of healthy, long-term relationships. Knew, too, the patience, unselfishness, dogged commitment it took to keep a marriage afloat. Thing was though, the older he got, the more convinced he became he simply didn't have it in him to do that.
To be that, he thought with another spurt of gut juice as he came to Charley's dingy white, 1920s-era two-story house, perched some twenty feet or so above street level at the top of a narrow, erratically terraced front yard. In the fine snow frosting the winter-bleached grass and overgrown rosebushes, it looked like a lopsided Tim Burtonesque wedding cake. Even through the snow, the house showed signs of weary neglect—flaking paint, the occasional ripped screen, cement steps that looked like something big and mean and scary had used them as a chew toy.
He could only imagine what it looked like on the inside.
Let alone what the atmosphere was likely to be.
Noah sucked in a sharp, cold breath, his cheeks puffing as he exhaled. Maybe he should've given Roxie a heads-up, he thought as he shifted the clipboard to rummage in an inside pocket, hoping he'd remembered to replenish his stash. Yes. Although he'd quit smoking more than five years ago, there were still times when the urge to light up was almost unbearable. This was definitely one of those times.
Thinking, Never let 'em see you sweat, he marched up to the front door, plastered on a grin and rang the bell.* * *
Wrestling a dust bunny with a death grip from a particularly ornery curl, Roxie carefully set the tissue paper-smothered Lladro figurine on her uncle's coffee table and went to answer the front door…only to groan at the sight of the slouching, distorted silhouette on the other side of the frosted glass panel.
Thinking, Road, hell, good intentions, right, Roxie yanked open the door, getting a face full of swirling snow for her efforts. And, yep, Noah Garrett's up-to-no-good grin, glistening around flashes of what looked like a slowly-savored chocolate Tootsie Roll pop.
Eyes nearly the same color twinkled at her when Noah, a clipboard tucked under one arm, lowered the pop, oblivious to the sparkly ice bits in his short, thick hair. His dark lashes. The here-to-forever shoulders straining the black leather of his jacket—which coordinated nicely with the black Henley shirt underneath, the black cargo pants, the black work boots, sheesh—as he leaned against the door frame.
"Hey, Roxie," he rumbled, grinning harder, adding creased cheeks to the mix and making Roxie wonder if dust bunnies could be trained to attack on command. "Dad said Charley needed some work done around the house?"
"Um…I expected your dad."
A shrug preceded, "He had other obligations. So I'm your man."
In your dreams, buddy.
Although there was no reason, really, why being within fifty feet of the man should raise every hackle she possessed. Wasn't as if there was any history between them, save for an ill-advised—and thankfully unrequited—crush in her senior year of high school, when grief had clearly addled her brain and Noah had been The Boy Every Girl Wanted. And, rumor had it, got more often than not. Well, except for Roxie.
Twelve years on, not a whole lot had changed, far as she could tell. Not on Noah's part, and—apparently—neither on hers.
Which, on all counts, was too pathetic for words.