When Isabelle’s bungalow smelled like Monday, all was right with the world. The rich scent of wings in the oven, whiffs of floor cleaner, earthy smells of dusk through the open kitchen window, the citrus tang of the bubbly dishwater that wet her to the elbows… .
Of course the phone would ring.
But Charlie was probably still around, and hey, answering phones was what brothers were for.
She yelled, “Charlie! Can you get that?”
From across the house, she heard, “Bathroom!”
She wiped her hand on the apron protecting her skirt and grabbed the cordless handset mid-ring, expecting one of tonight’s guests to be offering to bring something or asking to bring a friend.
“Isabelle? It’s Steven. How are you?”
She hadn’t heard that voice in months — a boon to both her blood pressure and her temper. Now, just six words from his mouth and her stomach was churning.
Great. Perfect. “What do you want, Steven?”
“I suppose dinner is out of the question?”
She said, “You suppose correctly. Can’t your little chippy cook?”
“Whoa. You’re still mad.”
“If that’s what you called to find out, then we’re done here. Good-bye.”
Isabelle hung up and threw the phone to the far end of the kitchen counter where it crashed against her pasta jars. Luckily, nothing broke. Steven had broken enough.
Damp silk clung to her ribs. She must have pressed against the edge of the sink while talking to Steven. Figured. She’d made it through all the kitchen prep, including giving the chicken wings a field promotion from marinating to baking, without mishap. But one call from the oxygen thief named Steven and she was going to have to change clothes before her friends arrived.
The phone rang again. She snarled at it. Gone was her feeling of happy fulfillment. This was not the day she was planning when she got up this morning.
Charlie glided into her kitchen on bare feet and opened her squat, antique refrigerator. His sweaty tee shirt had once had something printed on it about the athletic department at Southern Methodist University, but a couple of years’ hard wear and repeated washings had all but erased SMU’s letters and reduced the Mustangs logo to a flaking blob. The phone rang. “You gonna get that?” he asked, emerging from her refrigerator with a cold longneck. He looked toward the phone.
“Men suck,” she said.
Her brother winced, helping her throw the verbal brakes before she could snap at him about wearing that nasty tee shirt to her party. He would go home and change, she knew. It was nice of him to have sweated on her behalf, helping her load her van with the shelving and hardware she’d need for her upcoming closet installations.
The phone kept ringing. They both ignored it.
Charlie took a swig of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Toilet’s clogged again.”
“’Fraid so.” Her brother grinned, apparently thrilled as every other man she knew by the opportunity to make bathroom humor.
“I mean crap. There are going to be ten of us in…,” she looked at the kitchen clock, “less than two hours. Crap, crap, crap.”
“Chill, party mama.”
“Chill?” she said. Charlie winced again.
The phone kept ringing. Damned answering machine was taking its time.
He said, “Just call that guy. The plumber guy. Earl, or Burl, or whatever. Isn’t he on your speed dial by now?”
“Burt. And I’m not calling him again.”
Charlie said, “And…?”
Charlie grinned, shaking his head. “And…?”
It was so annoying when he did this.
“C’mon, tell me the rest of it.”
“He called me ‘little missy,’” she said. “Twice.”
Charlie hissed sympathetically. “He’s lucky you weren’t armed,” he said.
“Why are you still here?” she said, mad that she couldn’t be mad at him, not on the heels of him doing her a favor. Besides, it wasn’t really him she was mad at.
“Going.” He left the kitchen, grinning. “Later!”
Isabelle smacked the surface of the dishwater in frustration. She heard her front door close. “Thank you,” she called belatedly.
At least the phone had stopped ringing.
Time to find a new plumber. The bungalow’s plumbing needed updating, she knew, especially the one and only bathroom, which became unusable at least once every couple of months. But the thought of needing to move out of the house she loved so much — even temporarily — kept her from getting the work done. She found the little notebook in which she recorded home repairs and pulled out the business cards tucked in the pocket inside the cover. Her friend Stacey worked at a home improvement store and sometimes gave Isabelle the heads up on recommended suppliers. The first plumber in the stack was named Kim. It seemed unlikely a female plumber would flash butt crack or use patronizing language, so Isabelle phoned the number on the card. It turned out to be a pager. Crap. Now she’d have to answer the phone when it rang again, even though it might be Steven.
Why was he calling her, anyway? He couldn’t possibly imagine she’d want to hear from him. Ever.
She’d had the kitchen window open to let in the scent of damp earth and new grass — hopeful smells of springtime and new beginnings that even a big city like Dallas couldn’t smother — and he had to go and ruin it.
Isabelle turned her anger on hapless veggies, using her biggest knife to chop jicama and celery for the spinach dip Stacey always supplied for Isabelle’s Monday night gatherings.
How dare Steven? Sleeping with another woman while he was living with her. Nobody did that to Isabelle Caine. She was not a simple conquest. She would not be taken for granted.
Of course, she’d known he was trouble. She’d felt it from the start. But he’d had those dimples and that way of making her feel she was special….
At least until he’d had a place to keep his spare socks.
No, not even onions could make her shed one more tear over a waste of skin like Steven. Not a chance.
She was feeling calmer by the time the phone rang. Still, she gritted her teeth before answering.
A man’s voice said, “I’m returning a call to Kim Martin’s pager.” There was noise in the background, as if he were outdoors on a busy street or maybe in a moving car. Maybe Kim had a team of plumbers working for her.
Isabelle sketched her emergency for him — one toilet, houseful of guests due, no plumber she could trust.
The man said. “It could be forty-five minutes, maybe an hour before I can get there.”
But he sounded respectful enough on the phone, and Isabelle didn’t know whether anyone else would take the call, so she agreed. He assured her he was on his way.
A break. Still, she wondered what had happened to the lady plumber named Kim.
An hour later, her house smelled even more like Monday — scores of lit candles now adding extra hominess to the scents of warm wood and furniture polish, of oven-barbequed chicken wings nearing perfection in the kitchen. She loved the wide, squared off archway that connected the living room and dining room. She loved the built-in bookcases and the extravagant dining room buffet, all with mullioned-glass doors. She loved the long sunroom where she could enjoy sun-warmed catnaps. She even loved the cantankerous radiators and the old fixtures.
The plumbing, less so.
She headed for the bungalow’s lone bedroom. It was time to find something to replace the water-stained silk shell. Her friends would arrive soon.
The doorbell rang.
She hurried through the den and the living room and had one hand on the front doorknob before she remembered she was still wearing an apron. She pulled the string tie behind her with one hand while she swung the heavy wood door open.
The man on the porch was a stranger to her. Nikes. Khaki pants. Dark, long-sleeved pullover that clung to his whip-cord body. Maybe he was an offering sent by a well-meaning friend, a move she normally wouldn’t appreciate. Tall. Long neck. Cleft chin. Lips. Smile. Eyes. Oh, my, eyes. Pale irises, ringed with dark, the color impossible to determine in the porch light harshness. If a friend had dared send him, it was a friend with good taste. And a little taste — rather, a little flirting, of course she meant flirting — wouldn’t kill her, would it?
Presence. Charisma. Voice.
Isabelle nodded, not wanting to disturb the flutter in her entire lower body by speaking. His hair was dark and short, very short, standing up every which way as if he’d just rolled out of bed. Mmmm. A taste might be just the thing to spice tonight’s dinner.
“I’m here for your toilet?”
The flutter faltered.
“I’m Kim Martin. The plumber.” He hefted the toolbox she’d failed to notice.
It took Kim way too long to climb to his client’s face from those orange-covered breasts. Ungentlemanly, for sure. More importantly, unprofessional.
Her ear was translucent in the light, too delicate to hold back wild curls of dark bobbed hair that licked her chin. He got a glimpse of the tip of her tongue between lips brimming with sensual promise. If ever there were a climb worth making, this was surely it.
She opened the door wider and beckoned him inside. If something in the gesture seemed vaguely predatory, being devoured by this lioness sounded like an ideal way to go. He followed her into the Craftsman style home across hardwood floors. He couldn’t say how many rooms or what was in them. Her swaying hips held his undivided attention. Short white skirt, creamy pale legs, ankles that did unnerving things to his professional focus.
Ankles? He was noticing her ankles? Probably had something to do with spending the last three hours riding home from Austin in Damon’s ancient van, marinating in his own sweat. He was glad he’d returned this particular page. He was very glad he’d showered.
Kim stopped walking when she did, enjoying a closer view of those orange breasts as she turned around. She said, “Thank you for coming so quickly, Mr. Martin.” Even her voice held heat. For barely standing shoulder height to him, this woman filled the room. A bedroom, he now noticed. Mirrors all around the room reflected the light of dozens of candles. His eye was drawn to the king sized bed, furnished like something out of the Arabian nights, with swirls and tassels and richly textured surfaces that begged for bare skin.
“No trouble,” he said, though he suspected she was. Trouble, that is. The kind of trouble lesser men threw themselves at and broke themselves against. Kim would be more than willing to have a run at it.
He said, “Heck of a set-up for seduction. Is there something I should know?”
She matched his half-grin with one of her own. “I hadn’t meant it to be seductive, but then, hadn’t met you.” She leaned just a little closer, looking at him through lashes sexy as lingerie.
She was trouble, all right. He said, “And now?”
“Why don’t you show me what you’ve got, first?” she said.
Surprise kicked him back a step. Kim laughed. It had been awhile since flirting had felt dangerous enough to be any fun.
She pointed to a doorway near a floor-standing mirror. “I ask you to slay the toilet of doom,” she said. “Should you return alive, you may escort me to dinner.” She smiled.
That was how she did it, he thought. A look, a smile, a promise. What man could resist her? What man would want to try?
“I’ll do better than slay it,” he said. “I’ll tame it.”
She continued to smile. He took his toolbox into the long narrow bathroom. The pedestal sink seemed an original fixture to the bungalow. Likewise the iron tub. The toilet had been replaced, probably no more than five or so years ago. At a glance, he knew the installer had been a do-it-yourselfer. Likely not the lioness.
She was watching him from the doorway. He felt it before he even turned around, awareness that centered at the base of his spine. He wondered whether her invitation simply meant he was welcome to stay for the party that had motivated her phone call, or whether she might actually be available. Surely not. Husband, lover, someone looked out for her. A woman who oozed fertile, flaming passion like this orange-breasted creature did not live alone. The laws of nature prohibited it.
“I want it known,” she said, her hands fidgeting in contrast to her royal tone of voice, “this was not my doing.” She waved vaguely in the direction of the toilet.
She held her head high even when embarrassed. Helluva lady. A lady who, as he’d suspected, did not live alone. “It never crossed my mind,” he assured her.
“Well, Kim Martin,” she said, once again in complete control, “I’ll just get out of your way. Do you mind if I close the door a moment? I’ll be changing clothes out here.” He made himself nod, sorry to see her close the door on their banter. This job was all too often all too straightforward. One of the many reasons he was giving it the heave-ho in favor of new adventures.
While his client was changing into party clothes — something he was trying not to think about — Kim was stepping into canvas coveralls that had spent too much time rolled up and wadded into the top of his toolbox. As he zipped up the heavy protective layer, something crinkled in the breast pocket.
It was a crumpled yellow Post-it note, two words written on it with the flourish Kim could never mistake for anyone’s but that of his friend and climbing partner — Damon’s handwriting was as flamboyant as everything else about him. Two words, underlined and followed by three exclamation points. Call him.
Kim’s fist balled around the note, crumpling it a second time. He chucked it into a bell-shaped waste basket that fit right in with the vintage style of the bathroom.
He’d been tracking an elusive leak a few days earlier at Wall Werx, the indoor climbing gym Damon owned, when his friend had handed him the note. Damon hadn’t written a name on it because there was no need. It was Kerry. Damon seemed to have the idea that Kim and Kerry should be inseparable, live next door to one another, marry sisters and name their first-borns after one another.
But then, Damon didn’t have a brother, let alone a condescending prick of a half brother.
He pulled on his light duty gloves and dug through the augers in his toolbox, choosing the three foot to start, though unless the plumbing had been updated at the same time as the fixture, odds were he’d need the six foot.
Kerry had just bought a new house, Kim knew. Something gigantic, no doubt. Something appropriate for celebrating his position as the perfect heir to his late father’s business. Stable. Successful. Respected family man.
Kim looked around the bathroom for distraction. He was holding the auger too tightly and he’d learned early in his apprenticeship that trying to work when pissed off meant risking the job’s safety. On a job as simple as this one, Kim wasn’t likely to get hurt himself, but he might damage his client’s pipes or fixtures.
The bathroom had its original floor, he forced himself to notice, small white tiles in a tight herringbone pattern, larger white tiles on the walls up to chest height, little black lines that made a good-looking border. The painted upper walls were hung with framed displays of small beaded purses. The room was feminine without becoming hopelessly girly. Kim liked it. He’d been in some godawful bathrooms in his day, choked with floral wallpaper and lace-trimmed towels. The lady had class and taste.
The lady was expecting guests. Kim hefted the auger and got to work.
It took Isabelle far too long to focus on the choices in her armoire. She could no more stop smiling than she could stand to leave a dresser drawer hanging open. Something about this man made her want to flirt, want to laugh, want to forget the consequences of giving in to charisma like his. Her whole body vibrated with his nearness.
Dangerous. Very dangerous. Especially since she’d seen something devilish flicker in his gaze. It had been a long time since she’d allowed a man to look at her like that without calling him on it. She should have called the plumber on it, she knew, but she was guilty too, having been leering at him herself, thinking a glimpse of plumber’s crack wouldn’t be so awful on a plumber as fine as this one. She simply had to get a grip on her hormones.
Why couldn’t Kim have been a woman?
Isabelle was just fastening the jeweled buttons of her matte satin blouse as the doorbell rang. Her first guest had arrived.
She knocked on the bathroom door and reached for the doorknob. “Are you okay in there, Mr. Martin?” She opened the door to a view of the gaping metal toolbox on her bathroom floor, the plumber squatting next to it, pulling off a pair of work gloves. He looked up at her with eyes like a husky dog’s — arctic blue, ringed in black.
“Won’t be a minute,” he said, rising to his feet. The smile he gave her held no small measure of purely male appreciation, though her trousers and long sleeves covered far more skin than the mini skirt and shell she’d been wearing when they met. His own clothes were protected by bulky canvas coveralls. He took a breath and let it out without saying anything. It was a reaction that beat looking in the mirror any day.
She tried not to smile and failed. “Then please join the party when you’re through.”
“I will,” he said. “Thank you for the invitation.”
All this and manners, too. Not every man who looked like him would bother. Fewer still could make it work. She couldn’t help smiling as she excused herself to get the door.
Steven had made it work, she reminded herself.
Not in coveralls, she argued. Never in coveralls.
It was Mike Lemley at the door. Of course. He handed her a bouquet. Of course. She kept inviting him to bring a special friend. He kept bringing her flowers instead. She was going to have to just stop inviting him for awhile until he got the hint, friend of Charlie’s or no. Luckily, Charlie and his girlfriend Gina arrived right on his heels, and Isabelle left the problem of entertaining Mike to her brother. Then she had her hands full, greeting her remaining guests who arrived two by two, including Stacey and Stacey’s latest, who turned out to be named Bob.
In mere minutes, the house was filled with friends and food and music. Isabelle took the hopeless bouquet into the kitchen. Stacey followed her, carrying her customary spinach dip.
“What do you think of him?” Stacey said.
“Bob? I just met him.”
“He’s so hot,” her friend said, “and such a gentleman. I have such a good feeling about him.” She peeled the plastic wrap off her dip bowl as she talked, and turned to the refrigerator to find the veggies Isabelle always cut for her.
Isabelle laughed. Stacey said the same thing about every man she dated, but only on the first date.
Stacey said, “He came into the paint department and we sparked right away, talking and talking. He stuck around for the end of my shift — now, here we are!”
“I hope he’s wonderful for you,” Isabelle said, hardly one to deny the reality of lust at first sight in spite of her friend’s tendency to blaze ahead and build whole relationships in her mind. She dropped the flowers into a vase and fluffed them absently.
Stacey pointed at the flowers and squinched up her nose. “Lemley?” Isabelle nodded. Her friend said, “At least they’re not glads this time. Someone must have told the boy that only gay men buy glads.”
She would not smile. She wouldn’t. Mike was a sweet man. Maybe she should give him a try. Sweet might be nice for a change.
Stacey said, “Lemley ought to be giving you whatever kind of flowers they recommend for men who are looking to make you their mommy.”
Isabelle sputtered, Stacey snorted and to Isabelle’s horror, she found herself laughing at Lemley’s expense. Maybe she shouldn’t give him a try after all.
When they’d recovered, Stacey dug into her purse and gave Isabelle a business card. “I don’t want to forget, so I’m going to give you this now,” she said. “I know you’ve been thinking about going after commercial business, and I think this guy would be really receptive to what you can do. Last week, he spent an entire hour poking around the shelving department and didn’t buy a thing. Call him.”
Isabelle looked at the card.
Indoor Climbing Gym
“Thanks,” Isabelle said. “This means a lot to me.” Organizing closets for home owners was fine, but Isabelle wanted to test herself by taking her business into commercial spaces. She wasn’t even sure what an indoor climbing gym was, but if Stacey thought they might need some help organizing, Isabelle was all over it.
Stacey grinned. “You and me. We’re not just simpatico,” she said, “we’re symbiotic.” She laced her fingers together to demonstrate. “Besides, it’s all part of my plan. One day, you’re going to be huge and I plan to be the one who figures out how to franchise you for big bucks.”
Isabelle laughed. “I’ll call him tomorrow. I wouldn’t want you to wait a minute longer than necessary for your payout.” She backed through the swinging door to carry the vase of flowers to the dining room. Stacey followed with dip and accoutrements, which she set on the dining room table.
“Stacey,” her friend’s date called, “come over here. I want you to meet a buddy of mine.”
Isabelle looked up to see who good-feeling-about-Bob had added to her guest list without checking with her and nearly dropped the vase.
“We’re acquainted. Nice to see you, Stacey, it’s been too long.” Isabelle’s ex, Steven, took Stacey’s hand, leaned close and kissed her cheek.
“Steven,” said Stacey, her eyes seeking Isabelle’s, her face stricken. Her gaze scoured her date who had done this, then back to Isabelle, then at Steven. She swung back to Isabelle and mouthed, “Oh, God.”
Steven merely smiled. His dimples were out in force. He wore a civilized cotton sweater with khakis. He’d dressed up to come to her house, damn him. “Hi, Isabelle,” he said, “we need to talk.”
Oh, God, was right. Isabelle’s brain refused to work. It was easy to be mad on the phone. In person, in the face of that smile…. She turned around and pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen without a word.
He followed her. Of course.
He said, “You look great, Isabelle.”
Isabelle clutched the vase of flowers she’d failed to put down in the other room. “What do you want, Steven?” Her throat felt tight, her mouth dry. Why had he done that to her. She had loved him.
He said, “Are those flowers from someone special?”
She wished they were, rather that they were from a man she was vastly in love with, a man who’d filled her life and erased every trace of this big jock with the silver tongue.
“What are you doing here?” she said. All she should feel was anger. Instead, she was sickened to find she was becoming lightheaded.
He said, “It’s Monday, Izzy. I knew I’d find you home.”
At the sound of that ugly-sounding name, it became easier to breathe. No matter how many times she explained her name wasn’t Izzy, he seemed to think it cute. It was not cute. And now he was calling her predictable as well.
She said, “You mean, you figured there was less chance of me calling the police if I had guests.” That was better.
“You wouldn’t call the police,” he said in the voice that had made her forget so many arguments in the months they’d lived together. No more.
He smiled, showing those damned dimples. “I miss you, Isabelle.”
“I don’t miss you,” she said, though her voice wasn’t as strong as it had been for the police threat. She couldn’t deal with Steven in person, she was much better on the phone.
“Is it because of him?” Steven gestured at the vase of flowers Isabelle still clutched. His smile changed to the wistful one he’d used when explaining that the other woman didn’t mean anything, that Isabelle was the one he loved. Idiot. His dimples weren’t that great.
“Not exactly. Isabelle has many admirers.”
Kim Martin, looking sleek and dangerous in his silky knit pullover, gave Isabelle a smile that drained even Steven’s dimples of power. He cocked his head at her from the kitchen doorway, “Right, Isabelle?”
He was asking if she wanted rescuing. She wanted more than rescuing. She wanted to wipe the dimples right off Steven’s lying face. Being on the arm of this charismatic hunk sounded like a nice start.
“There you are,” she said, setting the vase on the kitchen work island and extending her hands to the plumber. He crossed the kitchen to take them in his, his amazing eyes telling her he had a pretty good idea what was going on. His fingers were like sandpaper. She shivered at the unexpected friction.
She said, “Kim Martin, this is Steven, the cheating son of a bitch I threw out of my life but who won’t go away. Steven, this is what a real man looks like.”
“Steven,” Kim acknowledged, his face quite serious. He put his arm around Isabelle’s waist. “You didn’t tell me he was carrying a torch for you, Isabelle. Are you trying to make me jealous?”
Kim was perfect. Isabelle could see Steven’s face getting red. He could never stand being one-upped in the charm department.
Isabelle smiled up into that gorgeous, dimple-free face and let herself feel the dangerous heat that had arrived on her doorstep with Kim Martin, knowing Steven would see it on her skin and in her eyes. Knowing it would make him crazy. “Only one torch in here,” she murmured.
Kim pulled her closer. He smelled clean and soapy, though sexy stubble showed along his jaw. His ringed eyes were just incredible — intelligent, intense and coming ever closer.
Her pulse throbbed, pushing heat throughout her body. A lusty promise hovered between them. Isabelle drew it out until she feared she’d embarrass herself by believing it was real.
Steven was never going to forget this moment. No doubt about it.
And just as she was about to ease back and offer the plumber a beer to seal the scene, Kim Martin kissed her.
©2010 Sally Felt