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Brought up by an abusive father, he left his old life a long time ago. He’s
worked hard to be a decent man, to be in control, to make a good life for
himself. Then he meets his neighbour who has her own past, and suddenly
he’s very much afraid that he isn’t in as much control as he believed.
Can he promise her forever…or will his fears get in the way?
“So, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing up here on your balcony.”
The man looking up at her with his hands in his pockets didn’t shift his gaze from her face.
“I assure you there is a very simple explanation,” Izzy said.
The man’s gaze remained steady. Good-looking in a rough way, his brown hair was tousled, flopping across his brow, his long-sleeved shirt flapping loose and open to reveal the black t-shirt beneath, the sleeves carelessly rolled halfway up his forearms to show corded muscle. His khaki pants had a small rip at the knee, his heavy work boots were scuffed.
“I’m your neighbour,” Izzy explained.
Those flinty eyes never flickered. Firm lips, firm jaw, chiselled cheekbones. The man looked rough, tough, definitely someone she didn’t want to meet on a late balmy autumn afternoon when the sun was almost down and she was on his balcony. Uninvited.
His expression didn’t soften.
“Now, I can explain everything.” She pointed to the old wooden ladder lying on the ground. “Firstly, I didn’t break in, I came up the ladder.”
He didn’t look impressed.
“My cat, Arnie, was up here. He escaped the house when he jolly well knows he has to stay inside at night. I saw him up on your balcony and came over to get him. You weren’t home,” she added helpfully, throwing a smile in for good measure.
Nope, no softening of those firm lips.
“I know, he’s not here now.” Izzy brightened. “In fact, he’s now over there.”
His gaze followed her finger to where the Seal Pt miscreant was sitting near the old tree next to the fence. Arnie stood, his tail waving gently.
Little bugger. She scowled at him. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten her into trouble. “Should’ve just let you sit and stew up here until our new neighbour came home.”
That had the man’s gaze snapping back to her. There was no smile of amusement on his face. Oh boy.
“Umm…so yeah. I got the ladder and climbed up here. He wouldn’t come to me so I had to come onto your balcony, for which, by the way, I really apologise.”
Man’s face had to be made of steel, not a twitch of a muscle or shadow of a smile. Geez, he was tough.
Izzy cleared her throat. “I made a grab for him, he darted around me, jumped onto the ladder and started scurrying down it then took a flying leap and knocked it over. He fell the remainder of the way but luckily he didn’t get hurt. Nine lives and all that.” She chuckled.
The man didn’t.
“Yes, well…” Feeling more self-conscious by the minute under his scrutiny, she gestured at the ladder. “If you could just put that back up here, I’ll climb down and get out of your hair.”
The man looked down at the ladder, across to where Arnie was stalking some insect across the lawn, and back up at her. And hallelujah, he spoke. “Stay there. I’m coming up to let you in.”
Izzy blinked. “What?”
“You’re not climbing over the balcony railing and down that ladder. It’s not safe.” With that astonishing announcement, he took his hands from his pockets and strode up under the veranda, disappearing from view.
Biting her lip, Izzy straightened and turned to eye the floor to ceiling sliding glass door covered on the inside by heavy curtains. Cripes, he was a stranger to her, she’d only glimpsed him a couple of times as he’d done most of his shifting while she was out.
Truth be told, she’d been surprised anyone would want to buy the old, dilapidated, two story house. It was rumoured to be haunted and looked to be about to fall in on itself in despair any minute. At first she’d baulked at the idea of actually getting onto the balcony. A slim chick would be at risk of having a foot go through the boards. A cuddlier chick like herself was in mortal danger of crashing through the whole thing.
She might still be in mortal danger, the man coming upstairs didn’t look happy. Finding someone on his balcony obviously wasn’t on his wish list.
Izzy glanced over her shoulder to check on Arnie, to see him with his head under one of the straggly bushes in pursuit of his prey. Thank you, Arnie, you pain in my arse.
The sound of a lock unsnapping had her attention swinging back to the glass door to see it slide open. One arm held the curtains back, the rest of the man hidden behind it.
Her courage faltered but she knew there was no real choice. It was either jump over the balcony to a possible broken leg or worse, or go inside.
Into a stranger’s house.
Wait, no, it was her neighbour’s house. That sounded less freaky. And he was waiting silently for her, the glow of the light in the room beyond picking out what looked to be boxes.
Taking a deep breath, she walked through the glass door, jumping when it clicked shut behind her. The snap of the lock had her gaze going from the strong hands dropping the curtains in place to the man.
He raised one eyebrow slightly as he regarded her. It wasn’t an intimate look, a searching look, or even a lustful look. It was simply a gaze that took her all in, in a quick sweep before meeting her eyes.
Her breath caught a little. Now she was close to him, a few mere feet separating them, she found herself looking up. He was tall, lean, yet there was strength in the wide shoulders, the corded muscles of his forearms, and damned if she didn’t notice that his t-shirt was stretched across a pretty impressive pair of pecs.
Not that she was noticing.
Well, hell yeah, she was noticing, just as she was noticing the fine layer of dust on his clothes, the faint smell of sweat and wood shavings, the shadow of his chin whiskers, and the faint shadows beneath his eyes that bore testimony to his weariness.
It was that weariness that dropped her guard a little. “I’m sorry to put you to this bother.”
“No bother.” He stepped past her to head for the doorway.
Izzy followed him out into the open hallway, trotting behind him as he strode to the staircase and down it, his long legs making quick work of it. She added a little speed to her trot to keep up, not wanting him to think that she was looking at everything as she progressed. Even though she was.
Geez, this old house had been closed up for several years, bought and sold quick, owners palming it off fast. What was it that had people not wanting to stay? Ghosts? It was rumoured to be haunted. The walls were grimy, the wooden banisters rickety. It had been cleaned but there was no hiding the shabbiness or the air of abandonment. It was as though the house waited for the current owner to wise up and move out, leaving it alone once more.
Intent on her surroundings, Izzy didn’t realise the man in front of her had stopped until she ran into the back of him. They both stumbled forward, he reaching out a hand behind him to steady her.
Aw, that was sweet. He had some knightly tendencies, then.
“Sorry.” Steadying herself with one hand on his bicep, she felt the bulge of strength beneath his shirt. That arm was warm and steady, the bicep rock hard. Quickly, she released his arm.
The man threw her a brief look over his shoulder, not one expression on his face, before turning and walking through the wide hallway to the front door which he opened. Then, he waited for her.
No pleasantries, then. Okay. But that was his way, not hers. They were neighbours, for crying out loud, they could at least be friendly.
Stopping beside him, she smiled and stuck out her hand. “Izzy. Izzy Kempton, your neighbour.”
Now he had two choices – shake her hand or be a jerk and just stare at her.
The man looked down at her hand then slowly reached out, engulfed hers in a surprisingly gentle grip, and shook it slightly. More of a squeeze, really. “Jason.”
copyright Angela Verdenius 2015