02_The Hero Next Door

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Authors: Irene Hannon
touching his arm with her slender fingers. He could feel their warmth through the cotton of his shirt—and it radiated to his heart. As did the admiration in her eyes.
    “I have a feeling you did the best you could with limited tools, J.C. And I also suspect you’ve learned a lot through the years. So I appreciate your help.”
    As the spot where her hand had connected with his arm began to cool, he tried to regain his balance. He’d planned to offer Heather a few thoughts, then step away from her messy situation. And he could still do that.
    Couldn’t he?
    One look into her tender eyes gave him his answer.
    Resigned, he withdrew a grocery receipt and a pen from his pocket and scribbled down some numbers. “I’ll tell you what. If anything comes up with Brian and you’d like to talk about it, call my cell—anytime.” He held out the slip of paper.
    She inspected the flimsy sheet as a few heartbeats of silence passed. Then she reached out and took it. “Thank you.”
    “And keep remembering he’s only here for three weeks.”
    The whisper of a smile tugged at her lips. “Why does that feel like an eternity right now?”
    One corner of his mouth hitched up. “You’ll get through it.” He was tempted to lay his hand against the gentle sweep of her cheek in a gesture of reassurance—and caring. But there was no way he wanted to put the fragile connection they’d just established at risk. Instead, he checked his watch and eased away. “I need to get ready for work. And I’m serious about that.” He gestured to the slip of paper in her hand. “Call me if I can help.”
    Lifting a hand in farewell, he retreated to the street for the short ride back to his cottage.
    Minutes later, as he stashed his bike in Chester’s garage and headed down the flagstone path toward his front door, a light came on in Heather’s room. Tonight the shade was up, and as he caught a glimpse of her moving past the window, he was reminded of the night of the cat invasion, when she’d been only a shadowed silhouette, unreachable behind the closed shade.
    Things had changed, thanks to the arrival of a nephew who’d disrupted her neat, orderly world and pushed her to seek input from a man she’d gone out of her way to avoid. And J.C. had mixed feelings about that.
    On one hand, he was sorry for the stress it was causing her.
    But on a selfish level, he was glad it had also prompted her to dismantle a few of the barriers around her heart.
     
     
    The room was a pigsty.
    Heather had waited until she heard Brian’s door open before heading upstairs to follow J.C.’s advice from last night and demonstrate some tough love. She hadn’t wanted to risk having the teen ignore her knock. This way, he’d find her waiting in the doorway when he returned from the bathroom.
    But she hadn’t expected to find this…mess. The room was trashed. Literally. Trying to tamp down her anger, she scanned the candy wrappers, empty soda cans, dirty plates and glasses, crushed potato chips and the half-eaten piece of the chocolate cake he’d claimed he didn’t want but that had been disappearing from the kitchen in hefty chunks since his arrival.
    Her lips setting into a grim line, she folded her arms across her chest, turned her back on the room and blocked the doorway.
    One minute later, the bathroom door opened. Brian took three steps down the hall. Spotted her. Stopped.
    “What’s going on?” He gave her a wary look.
    “We need to talk.”
    “About what?”
    She jerked a finger over her shoulder. “About that disaster area, for one thing.”
    He shoved his hands into the pockets of his baggy pants and glared at her. “I like it the way it is.”
    “I don’t. And this is my house. So we’re going to talk about some ground rules. First, you’re going to clean up the room and keep it that way. Second, if you want to eat, you eat in the kitchen. Third, I don’t like freeloaders. Starting this afternoon, you’re going to help with cleanup

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