… A week later, Noah pulled his truck to a stop in front of his next job—a favor for his ex-wife’s cousin—when a heavyset man shoved a younger guy out of an apartment building and shouted, “I told you not to come back here! The owner ain’t giving you any more chances. You don’t pay, you don’t stay!”
The dark-haired young man sprang right back into action and tried to push past the bigger dude. “At least let me get my stuff.” His entire body strained visibly with his attempt to get back into the apartment building. “I have a right to our things!”
“Not when you’ve been evicted!”
The beefy guy shoved the smaller one away, sending the kid to the ground and skidding across the sidewalk. No fucking way. Noah growled and jumped into the fray. Pushing his way in between the pair, blocking the younger man on the sidewalk, Noah pulled up to his full height, opened his frame, and knew he presented one hell of an intimidating figure.
“I don’t know what the fuck is going on here,” Noah uttered in a lethal tone, “but you for goddamn sure don’t have any right to put your hands on this person like you just did.”
The burly guy clenched his fists and leaned into Noah’s space. “Stay out of it.”
Noah didn’t back down an inch. “You put me right in the goddamn middle of it when you assaulted this kid.”
“He’s not a kid. He hasn’t paid his rent and he’s been evicted because of it.” Movement on the ground behind Noah had the bigger guy glancing down at his victim. Quickly, the bigger man backed up to protect the apartment door again. “He has no right to be here. I’m just following the owner’s orders.”
With a grunt, the younger man got to his feet and stepped up to stand at Noah’s side. As he brushed pieces of the sidewalk off his scraped-up arm, the pings and dings of pebbles hitting the concrete filled the air like the loudest rainstorm on a tin roof. “I just want the clothes, Terrell.” A husky scratch textured the young man’s voice, making Noah think he’d shed a lot of tears recently. In immediate response, beyond his control, Noah’s gut twisted. “Let me get inside and bag up the clothes. You can keep everything else. Sell it to get the owner some of the money back—whatever you want.”
The burly guy—Terrell, the kid had called him—looked at the younger man and suddenly blanched. “I’m just doing what I was told.” The rancor seeped from Terrell’s tone, and the fight left his big frame. “I’m sorry I shoved you, Zane, I really am, but I gotta do my job.”
Taking the forcefulness out of his voice too, Noah asked Terrell, “Why don’t you give the owner a call to see if he or she will reconsider letting this guy get his clothes? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Zane’s voice cracked again. “Please, Terrell.” His eyes, the fucking purest blue Noah had ever seen, were awash with wetness. “Let me get our clothes.”
Terrell mixed a curse with a sigh and then muttered, “I’ll be right back.”
Once Terrell entered the building, Noah exhaled and scratched his hands through his hair. He turned to the young man still standing on the street with him—Zane. “I’m sure this Terrell guy will get permission for you to get your clothes; everything will work out okay.”
As if a geyser had exploded, Zane suddenly burst with animated life. “No it won’t!” Clear panic streaked through his voice. “You don’t know the owner; he’s a total asshole. We’ve been out for two days now and our stuff is probably already gone.” The guy ranted, paced, and tunneled his dark hair into total disarray. “My brother and sister won’t have any fresh clothes for school, and I’ll run out of money for the motel by tomorrow.” He swung his head to look up at Noah, and wildness ruled his gaze. “And if I don’t have an address then nobody will hire me, and then I’ll be homeless, and I won’t be able to pay for food, or a place to live, or anything.”
“Whoa. Whoa. Okay.” Noah intercepted Zane on his trek and guided the young man to his truck. “Breathe, man. Take a couple of breaths or you’re going to hyperventilate and pass out.” After opening the passenger side door, Noah eased the guy onto the edge of the seat and pushed his head down between his legs. “There you go. Breathe.” He squatted on the sidewalk in front of the kid and squeezed his shoulder in encouragement. “Give yourself a minute, and then start over.”
In silence, Noah watched as this young man’s frame lifted and fell with each breath he took, for a full minute, before things seemed to return to normal.
Zane finally lifted his gaze, and this time it was almost steady. “I’m sorry.” He scrubbed his face, and the gesture exaggerated the paleness of his lips and the dark circles under his eyes. “I know I must look like one of those nut-jobs who rant and rave out in public, who people cross the street to avoid.”
“No.” Noah looked, stared, couldn’t seem to break away. A vicious, yet somehow tender tightness clutched his chest. Shit. He took a breath himself. “You look like someone who’s scared.”
For a moment Zane’s entire body went tense. Then the fight appeared to drain out of him and he slumped against the torn seat covering. “Yeah. I am.”
“Okay.” Silently, Noah ticked back through Zane’s cacophony of rapid information and sorted out the basic information from the mania. “Correct me if didn’t process everything, but I recall that you were kicked out of your apartment two days ago, you weren’t given a chance to get any of your things, you have a brother and a sister, and that after tonight you won’t be able to afford a place to stay.” With that, Noah nodded and added, “Does that about cover it?”
Zane’s lips thinned to an even paler line. “Yeah.”
“Is there a relative you can call?”
Zane immediately went tauter than a drum. “That’s not an option.”
“All right.” There’s a story living in that response. Questions, dozens of questions that didn’t make sense and Noah had no right to ask punched at his throat to get out. Instead, he measured his tone, and continued to tread carefully. “Do you have steady work?”
“Not full time,” Zane replied. “I lost my job a few months back when the business I was working for finally went under.” The more he spoke, the more color returned to his skin. “The last two checks they gave me before that wouldn’t clear the bank. I have a part-time job now, but it doesn’t pay enough, and it doesn’t offer nearly enough hours or benefits to take care of my brother and sister.”
Noah muttered, “Shit.”
With a chuckle, something that sounded ridiculously sweet and genuine, Zane said, “Agreed.”
Grinning a bit in return, Noah pushed to his feet and let the wheels start spinning in his mind. He churned and spit out ideas, certain that a solution sat right on the tip of his brain, if only he could grab it. While tossing out a few ideas that weren’t realistic at all, or were far too presumptuous, Noah grabbed his tool kit and belt from the bed of his truck. Cans of paint—and why he had them—sent a rush of adrenaline through his system.
Yes. That could work.
“Okay,” Noah turned to Zane and crouched down next to him again, suddenly full of adrenaline, “so here’s what we’re going to do. While you wait for Terrell to let you in to get your clothes, I’m going to go in and take a look at the leaky showerhead in one of these units, because apparently maintenance doesn’t stay on top of their job in this place.”
Noah flashed another smile. “Right. So I’ll take care of that, and then I’m going to show you a cabin. It’s just outside of town, up the mountain a bit, and right now it’s empty. I live up there too, and in my spare time I’m fixing this other cabin for the owner. Once you see it, you can decide if you want to stay there with your brother and sister, at least until you can get back on your feet.” Looking up at the guy from his kneeling position, Noah raised a brow. “How does that sound for a temporary solution?”
A long stretch of silence filled the air between them. During that time, Zane kept his head down, studying the series of scrapes and scratches on his forearm. He picked at a particularly nasty piece of peeled skin, but then suddenly lifted his gaze and blurted, “Why would you do that for me?”
Swirls of too many very readable emotions—uncertainty, fear, suspicion, and good Christ, hints of what looked like desperate hope—created layers and layers of unmatched color in Zane’s stare, exposing a very human vulnerability he probably didn’t understand showed so clearly in his eyes.
“Why—” Huskiness suddenly coated Noah’s voice, a thickness of empathy he hadn’t felt build in him so quickly in years. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Furrow lines appeared between Zane’s brows. “Won’t you get in trouble for letting strangers stay at this cabin?”
An overwhelming desire to see this man laugh and feel free and full of ease washed over Noah in a powerful wave. “You let me worry about working out the details with the owner,” he shared, his tone softer now—at least, as much as someone with too much grit in his natural voice could achieve. “Seems like you have enough keeping you awake at night already.”
Zane didn’t reply, and the reality of this moment crash-landed straight into Noah’s brain. Fuck. He thinks I’m a pervert or some kind of murderer.
“If you’re not comfortable coming with me,” Noah got to his feet and gave Zane plenty of space to call his own, “you can call someone to let them know where you’re going. You can follow me up to the cabin in your own car.”
Red crept up Zane’s cheeks, turning them ruddy. “I don’t have a car.”
Noah bit back the urge to smile. “I’ll give you the address and you can use the money you were going to spend at the motel tonight to pay for a cab instead.”
Zane licked the edge of his lip and then started to worry it between his teeth. “I don’t have anything to give you as payment or rent for the cabin. At least not today. Maybe in a few weeks I could come up with something.”
Noah exhaled, and a hundred-pound weight flew off his shoulders. He’s not scared of me; it’s just that his pride won’t let him take charity. Back on steady ground, Noah explained, “The cabin needs repairs done to it. Most of them are cosmetic, or only require a minimal knowledge of home repair. Painting, resurfacing the floors, some exterior beautification … stuff like that. If you want to take a few of those tasks in hand, I think I can work out a deal with the owner for reduced rent for you. I know her. She’s a good lady.”
“Okay, it’s a deal.” Just as fast as Zane lifted his hand in offering, it fell to his side, and he slumped. “Living in town, I can walk my brother and sister to school in the morning, and they can get a ride home in the evening from someone who lives close by. If I’m halfway up a mountain, I won’t be able to get them to and from school.”
A solution flashed like a neon sign in front of Noah, but before it spilled out of him, he swallowed the offer back down inside him. Good Christ. What am I doing? I don’t know this kid. Then Noah caught the way Zane rubbed his palms repeatedly against his jeans, and once again saw the cut-up forearm. On instinct, Noah let his gut take over from his head. “I pretty much drive my work truck everywhere,” he shared. “As long as you can afford to put gas in it, you can use my car while you’re staying at the cabin.”
Zane’s pupils dilated and took over the blue. “I don’t know…”
Terrell emerged from the apartment building right then, with three overstuffed trash bags in hand. In a winded voice, he said, “Owner wouldn’t let you back inside, but he let me get the clothes. I threw in a few other things from the kids’ room I thought I could get away with.”
In a rush, Zane flew to Terrell and shook his hand. “Thank you. I appreciate everything you were able to do for me for as long as you did.”
With a nod, Terrell went back inside.
As Zane dragged the bags across the sidewalk, Noah settled his tool belt over his shoulder and lifted his kit from the ground. “I’m going to go take care of that leaky showerhead.” He walked backward and jerked his thumb toward the building. “If you want to throw your bags in the back and wait for me, I should be out within an hour. I’ll show you the cabin then. If you decide to move on, I’ll understand that too. It’s up to you.”
With that, Noah gave Zane some space to breathe and think. As Noah rang the buzzer for the appropriate apartment, he got a glimpse of Zane, standing with his bags, still as a statue, a decision clearly not yet made. The young man hadn’t moved by the time Noah went inside.
Noah knew what he wanted, though; what truth sat in his gut with a certainty he hadn’t experienced in ages. It didn’t make a damn bit of sense, but Christ, Noah really, really wanted Zane to be sitting in his truck when he came back outside.
Twenty minutes into the tour of the cabin, listening to this Noah guy—they’d finally properly introduced themselves on the ride up the mountain—explain the repairs that still needed to be done to the cabin, and Zane’s head spun. So much had changed in just a few hours, and his brain could not process it all as fact. He still felt as if he was walking in a dream, and that soon someone would blare loud music in the next room and he’d wake up to find himself back in the motel without a plan beyond the next twenty-four hours.
Except Zane had never dreamed about a tall, muscular, blond-haired man with a crazy-rough voice before, so why would he start conjuring one as his savior now? Repeatedly on their drive up to this place and while walking around the cabin, Zane had fought the urge to touch Noah, just to confirm he was real flesh and blood. Zane had shoved his hands into his pockets multiple times and instead had relied on a woodsy, natural scent Noah emanated—something Zane had picked up on from the second they’d come into contact on the sidewalk outside his old apartment. And that was strange as hell in and of itself; Zane rarely noticed how people smelled, and definitely never another man.
“So what do you think?” The sound of Noah’s deep voice yanked Zane out of his thoughts. “Will it work for you, your brother, and sister?”
At only five feet eleven, Zane had to look up to meet Noah’s gaze. God, the man had to be at least six feet three. And no one who had such rough-looking hands—Zane had noticed the calluses—and who possessed shoulders like a quarterback should have eyes that invited a person to trust him. Yet Noah did.
That brown stare held Zane, and Zane murmured, “I still don’t understand why you’re being so kind to me like this.”
With a shrug, Noah leaned his shoulder against an open door frame, but kept his focus fully on Zane. Finally, after what felt like minutes of scrutiny, Noah said, “Maybe it’s because I have a son about your age. I’d like to think if he was ever in trouble, and I couldn’t be there for him, someone else would.”
In immediate response, Zane looked Noah up and down, and then barked with laughter. “I’m sorry, but there is no way you have a twenty-four-year-old son.” The words “fit” and “healthy” filled Zane’s mind in relation to this man, and any lines around his eyes had to come from happiness and being outdoors, not age.
Noah quirked a brow. “You’re twenty-four?” As if he still couldn’t believe it, Noah then shook his head. “I pegged you as younger than that.”
Heat burned Zane’s cheeks. “Yeah, well.” He chuckled; he had to, or he would cry. “I guess I’m having a bad day.”
New lines of crimson slashed Noah’s harsh face. “Sorry. I’m sure you don’t really look as young as I thought you were.” Noah muttered a curse. “I’m bad at guessing that kind of stuff.”
Zane smiled at the guy; he couldn’t rein it in. “It’s all right. How old is your son?” The question escaped him—the desire to know so very real—before he had even consciously thought it.
“I actually have two,” Noah replied. “Older one is nineteen—that’s Seth. My younger one is Matthew, and he’s fourteen.” Noah’s eyes lit up as he shared, and it saturated the medium brown color with breathtaking depth. “They’re my pride and joy.” He looked to the heavens and shook his head. “And they pretty much hate when I say shit like that. It embarrasses them.”
A lightness in the air buoyed Zane, and this man only lifted his spirits even more. “We’ll keep your unabashed pride in them between us.” No strain or tightness choked Zane’s voice, and no tension ruled his body. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such ease. “My brother Duncan is twelve. And Hailey is nine, or as she brags, almost ten.” God, Zane couldn’t wait to tell them they would have a roof over their heads, at least for a little while. “I appreciate what you’re doing more for their sakes than even mine.”
With a shrug, Noah shoved his hands into his pockets and wandered outside. From over his shoulder, he said, “They’ll both love the lake.” He braced his arms on the porch railing. As Zane joined him, he noticed Noah fix his stare on the lake, where twinkles of sunlight made the water gleam as if its surface were covered in gems. “Matthew really loves the water,” Noah said, his voice soft. “Seth does when he’s home too. He’s at college in Raleigh a lot of the time now.”
Shifting, Zane leaned his lower back against the porch railing next to Noah and studied the beat-up cabin that to him looked like paradise. “I still can’t help feeling like the work you want me to do here isn’t enough to repay what you’ve done for me,” he murmured, sliding his focus to Noah. Noah had shared the news that he’d spoken to the owner, and she was willing to accept a reduced monthly rent for a few months. After that they would have to talk again.
With only two feet of space between them, Noah adjusted to lean his hip against the railing, and he put his full attention on Zane. “I’m pretty damn busy with my business,” strength and force rang in his tone, “and it’s difficult to fit time in to come take care of this place. I’m doing it as a favor for the owner because she gave me such a great deal on my cabin. I felt I owed her, but working on the repairs have taken up pretty much all of my free time. You picking up some of the slack is more help than you think.”
Translation in Zane’ mind: Stop badgering me about my offer. Take it or leave it.
Nobody had ever called Zane an idiot. He stuck his hand out to Noah. “Then we have a deal.”
Noah wrapped his bigger hand around Zane’s. “Excellent.” They shook on it—quickly, Zane noticed. Noah separated the hold almost immediately and jammed his hand into his pocket. “Anyway,” Noah started down the steps at a fast clip, “I’ll drive you to the other side of the lake, and you can take my car.”
Still standing on the porch, studying this man’s back, Zane murmured, “I don’t know where you came from, Noah Maitland, but I am grateful as hell you showed up when you did.”
From the bottom of the steps, Noah looked at Zane sideways, and a positively wicked half grin emerged. “I’ll remind you of that when I nitpick your paint job and sanding work.”
Sudden warmth suffused Zane’s flesh. He traipsed down the stairs, came to a stop directly in front of Noah, and found the man’s gaze. “I think I can handle your scrutiny.” Zane’s words came out thicker—sultrier—shit—than he’d meant. He abruptly veered toward the side of the cabin. “Before we leave,” he cleared his throat as silently as he could, “show me what kind of repairs you’re going to need me to do with the exterior of the cabin. I want to start getting a sense of what to tackle first.”
Noah quickly caught up and took the lead, and once again Zane fought the tingle in his hands that told him he wanted to touch this man, just to feel the solidness of his frame and know for sure he really existed. That handshake hadn’t felt like nearly enough. Zane felt as if much more intimacy had passed between them with one look than should for two people who’d met only hours ago. I’m grateful, and I don’t know what to say or do to express it, that’s all.
Zane shook himself out of his strange thoughts just in time to veer his fingers away from the thick muscles roping Noah’s shoulders. Instead he ran them along the outer wall of the cabin. Damn. …