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When his job prospects fall through, Mitch, a gruff handyman with a big heart, ends up in the small town of Peach Tree. He doesn't plan to stay, and he definitely doesn't plan to fall for a guy, not after thinking all his life that he was straight. But plans change. A quick stop at the local cafÈ turns into a job offer to fix up an old house. That's a lucky break to a guy desperate for work who has a little daughter to take care of. Now he and his daughter, Sammy, have a place to live for as long as the job lasts. But one major complication comes with working there. Helping Mitch with the renovation is a hot and outgoing young guy named Rico. Rico isn't supposed to stay in town either, and he knows better than to fall for a straight guy. Too bad he isn't into following the rules. His heart yearns for what it shouldn't, and he just can't stay away from a hunk like Mitch. Even if they have nothing in common, the heat between them is undeniable, and they can't resist each other. As the two men work side by side and grow closer, a break-in disturbs their daily life. Will a secret hidden in the house bring danger to Rico, Mitch and his little girl?
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Copyright © 2018 by Trina Solet
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, locales or actual events is entirely coincidental.
All sexual activity takes place between persons eighteen years of age or older.
This novel contains material intended for mature readers.
Cover image is only for illustrative purposes. Any person depicted is a model.
Rico's lunch shift at Peach Tree Café was coming to an end when he noticed a great looking guy walk in through the door. Intense, brooding with dark hair, stunning blue eyes and nicely trimmed facial hair—he made Rico just stop and stare. The guy was searching for an empty table. Rico had his hands full with a tray of food, or he would have gone over to make sure the guy got seated in his section.
Rico was so busy admiring his dark good-looks and muscular build, that at first he didn't notice the little, blond girl at his side. She was very small. Maybe four. The guy was still hot, but Rico had to take a few points off for him having a kid. No matter how cute she was and how hot her dad, it was still a deduction.
Oh well, the dude was probably straight anyway. Magda seated the hot guy and beamed at the little girl. Rico sighed and went to deliver an order to a young couple who were looking over their photos from Peach Tree Hill. As he set down their food, Rico kept glancing in the direction of that guy. He just couldn't help it.
After taking the guy's order, Magda came over to the order window where Rico was hanging out. Right away, she let him know that she had noticed him eyeing her table.
"You want to steal him from me, don't you?" Magda accused him. Then she had a proposition for him. "That hunk seems like he's on a tight budget. I'll trade you for those tourists who just came in."
Rico took her up on her offer. He knew she needed money, and the three ladies who were waiting to be seated, seemed like they might be good tippers. Rico had no ulterior motives. After all there was a kid in the mix. It wasn't like he and this guy could sneak off somewhere to make out.
Rico went over to the hot guy's table and introduced himself to him and his little girl. "Hi, guys, I'll be your waiter. My name is Rico," he told them as he set a nice glass of chilled peach juice in front of the little girl and a glass of their special Peach Tree Café tap water in front of the gorgeous guy.
"What happened to Magda?" the little girl asked while her dad got busy talking on the phone.
"She switched with me because she liked that lady's hat," Rico told her. One of the tourists wore a big, straw hat with a pink ribbon on it, and it caught his eye.
The little girl turned in her seat to have a look. "It's a good hat," she said with understanding.
In the meantime, Rico heard her dad on the phone. Speaking in a gruff voice, he was saying, "So it went from 'You've got the job. Get ready to make the move.' To 'Hold up. There might be a snag.' Now it's, 'Sorry. No deal.' What the..." The guy stopped himself and looked at his little girl. He gave her a reassuring smile. Taking a deep breath, he continued on the phone. "Fine. Let me know if you hear of anything else."
He hung up and Rico promised to bring their order soon. When he went to the order window, he got to talk to Magda again. "You were right about the tight budget. Sounds like that guy had a job fall through," Rico told her.
"Who did?" his grandmother asked coming up behind them. She owned the café and she was always sneaking up on people.
"That guy with the kid," Rico told her.
"That's a shame," his grandmother said and looked over at the hot customer appreciatively. When Rico went to deliver their order, she tagged along so she could get nosy with that guy.
At the table, Rico set down two orders of grilled cheese and tomato soup, which came garnished with basil leaves. He pointed out the basil to the little girl. "Oh, no, some leaves fell in your soup."
"No. They're supposed to be there to make the soup look pretty," the little girl informed him, and just for a second Rico got to see her dad smile.
While Rico stood there with an empty tray and tried not to stare at him, his grandmother did proper introductions. Introducing herself as the proprietress, Dahlia Del Rio, she gave her name a seductive flourish that was so wrong. Then she decided to reintroduce Rico. Though he had already introduced himself as their waiter, Rico, she was now telling them, "And this is my grandson, Enrico."
The little girl repeated his name and peered up at him like he was an entirely new creature now. At least Rico got to learn the guy's name.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Mitch McEvers. This is my daughter, Sammy."
As she chatted him up, Grandma didn't tell Mitch what Rico overheard, just asked the guy what brought him to town. In no time she got him to spill about the job that suddenly fell through.
"And what kind of work do you do?" Grandma asked.
"I've worked construction. I've been a handyman for hire when I can't get anything else. I worked as a super too. That's what this job was, and it included a place to live," the guy said and his mouth twisted into a pained grimace.
It was clear how much it hurt to lose out on that job. As he talked, he encouraged his kid to eat, but didn't touch his own food.
"That's a real shame," Grandma said. "But if you think you might want some work right here. I'm in need of a handyman. I have a property out on the edge of town. Beautiful spot. It's a big, old house that needs fixing up. You could have a look. See what you think. Me, you and your girl can go check it out after you're done eating, if you like." Grandma was so pushy, but the guy didn't refuse.
"I could take a look," he said with a cautious expression in his blue eyes, like a guy who wasn't going to get his hopes up.
"And if you don't mind living on site, you can stay there too. It's perfectly livable," Grandma said.
"Until you start tearing the place apart," Rico threw in.
"I don't want to rip out anything. The place isn't falling down. It's just a little neglected. That house was built solid," Grandma said.
"If it's livable, that might work," Mitch said, still very guarded about the whole deal. He looked over at his daughter, who was pushing the basil leaf around in her bowl like it was a little boat. "For me I wouldn't care, but..."
Grandma could tell he needed to be reassured for his daughter's sake, so she told him, "The water and electricity are on. The appliances are in working order. The place is all furnished and everything. Move in ready, you could say."
The guy looked skeptical about that, but his kid was smiling up at Grandma and her big hair.
"But you don't have to take my word for it," Grandma told him. "We can all go over to the old Dunbar place and have a look. You too, Enrico."
That was a surprise. "Me?"
"I want you helping out. There's bound to be times Mitch here will need a hand," she said.
"OK," Rico said with a shrug and a glance at Mitch's chiseled features. No, those weren't the worst marching orders he ever got.
Grandma then turned to Mitch. "All right, I'll tell you what I have in mind when we see it, and we'll talk terms. Now I'll let you eat."
As they left Mitch and his daughter to their lunch, Rico could hear Sammy asking. "Daddy, are we gonna live in a big house?"
"We'll see. Eat your soup, honey," her dad told her, and Rico noticed how much softer his voice sounded when he spoke to her. It was still deep, but it had turned mellow like his rough exterior melted for that kid.
He even smiled sweetly. Maybe he wasn't as dour as he seemed at first. Maybe it was just the job situation that made him look so gloomy.
Away from their table, Rico asked his grandma, "How come I'm going with you?"
"Didn't I just tell you? You're supposed to pitch in. I have to keep you busy. Idle hands and all that," she said and waved her hand around vaguely so her gold bangles jingled.
"Is that what you're doing?" Rico asked, giving her the side-eye. She was always up to something. But Rico didn't mind helping out or getting to spend a little extra time with Mitch, listening to him talk about tools or whatever in that deep, sexy voice.
Peach Tree was supposed to be just a quick stop on the way to a new job and a new place to live. It was a pretty town with a hill covered with peach trees nearby and plenty of tourists milling around. Mitch had chosen to stop and have lunch here because Sammy seemed taken with the place.
Now he was unsettled by the bad news about the job, and unsure about the offer he just received from the café owner. Hungry but too wound up to eat, Mitch offered half his grilled cheese sandwich to Sammy.
"That's your sandwich, Daddy," she told him and then watched to make sure he ate it.
Mitch was still caught between disappointment and rising hope that he might get some work and a place to live. That was a strange piece of luck if it panned out. Mitch still had to take a look at the place and give Mrs. Del Rio an estimate.
For now what worried him was that Sammy was already getting her heart set on living in this house. Kicking her feet under the table, she couldn't wait to see it. She had her mom's crazy, boundless optimism, not Mitch's more gloomy outlook on things.
If it was just him, he would live in any old hovel and take the work without a second's thought, but not with Sammy to consider. Having the grandson in the mix also made him uneasy. It would be a miracle if this Enrico turned out to be of any help to him. He seemed like a college boy more at home in a coffee shop than a construction site.
Still, Mitch was pretty sure that it was thanks to him overhearing his call with Jo that he had this job offer. Now he had to wait and see if anything came of it. He couldn't afford another disappointment.
Eager to get going and see the big house, Sammy finished her lunch fast. But as soon as her lunch dishes were cleared, Sammy ended up with a peach pie piled high with whipped cream in front of her.
"That's from my grandma," Enrico said to Sammy then he turned to Mitch. "It's on her, and yes, she is trying to butter you up."
He shot Mitch a quick smile, gave Sammy a thumbs up for the big bite of pie and whipped cream she stuffed in her mouth, and then he was off.
Enrico was very good looking and had a kind of off-handed, flirty manner. Mitch wondered if he was gay. Something told him that he was, but maybe the flash of interest in his hazel eyes was meaningless. It was meaningless to Mitch, of course, since he had no interest in guys.
Sammy was done with her pie just as Mrs. Del Rio and Enrico came by their table. As Mitch wiped Sammy's face, she thanked Mrs. Del Rio sweetly for the pie. "It was yummy," she said.
"You are more than welcome, sweetheart. You ready to go?"
With that, the four of them left the café. On the way to their cranky, old GMC Yukon, Sammy held Mitch's hand and looked up at Mrs. Del Rio. "Did you make the pie?" Sammy asked her and Enrico laughed.
"Don't laugh. I'm a darned good cook," Mrs. Del Rio claimed. "I can make a pie."
"Sure. If half of it comes from a box," her grandson said.
"So what if I use a shortcut or two. That's still cooking, I'll have you know," Mrs. Del Rio said.
Sammy smiled up at them. Though they seemed to be fighting, she could tell that they weren't really cross with each other. There was a lot of warm affection between Enrico and his grandmother.
They went to their own car and Mitch secured Sammy in her car seat. Noticing that she was fidgety and her feet were kicking again, he wished he knew how to cool her enthusiasm a little without sounding negative. He couldn't come up with anything, so he just kissed the top of her head and hoped for the best.
Following Mrs. Del Rio in her classic, dark red Chrysler Imperial, they set off for the fixer upper. It took longer to get there than Mitch expected. Mrs. Del Rio was behind the wheel and apparently in no hurry to get there. While driving through town, she stuck her hand out on every block and waved at people they passed by. Mitch could just imagine what her grandson was telling her about her slow driving.
She drove faster once they got out of town. The house was outside the town limits and then down a long, private driveway. As they pulled up in front, Sammy clapped.
The house wasn't as big as Mitch expected, but it impressed her anyway. They had never lived in a house, only apartments, and they had to move any time Mitch heard about a better job.
Getting out of the car then letting Sammy out of her car seat, Mitch was already scoping out what he could see from the front. He kept his expectations low, but right away he liked the look of the old place.
With two stories and a wrap around porch, it was a nice old, brick and mortar, country house. Shrouded by greenery on every side, the house didn't look so bad from the outside, but Mitch worried about the kind of mess he would find inside.
Mitch had his clipboard and pen in hand as he and Sammy went to join Mrs. Del Rio and her grandson. As he looked up at the treetops above them, Enrico's eyes took on a golden color of sunlight, and Mitch had to tell himself not to stare. But maybe a good-looking guy like that was used to being stared at. Mitch just hoped he didn't notice.
Turning more businesslike and stepping up onto the porch, right away Mitch saw that it needed some fixing. He went all around and made notes on how much work needed to be done.
Sammy was crouching down to look under the railing at the flowers in the overgrown garden. They were plenty of them though the garden had gone wild.
"Maybe Sammy should get off this porch before she falls through," Enrico said and gestured toward a hole where a board had rotted through.
"I can't fall in there. It's too small," Sammy objected.
"Is it?" Enrico said like he wasn't sure though the hole was only big enough for one of her feet.
Mrs. Del Rio tapped her high-heeled shoe on the porch and said, "I'm thinking you could start out here in case more of these boards are ready to go. Make the place safe to approach."
"We don't want Sammy falling through," Enrico added and Sammy made a face at him.
From the back part of the porch, they could see the back garden. It had nice open area and a cobblestoned path where Sammy spotted a broken, stone bench and pointed it out.
"Too bad about that," Enrico said.
"Daddy, can you fix it?" Sammy asked that about every broken thing.
Mitch hated to disappoint her. "I think it has to be replaced."
"We'll get a real nice bench to go there," Mrs. Del Rio told Sammy consolingly.
Mitch was just about to test out the railing, when he saw that Enrico was leaning against it. "Don't lean on it until I checked it out," Mitch warned him.
Enrico fixed him with a faint smile as he pushed away from the railing. The movement drew Mitch's attention to his lithe body and the smile to the curve of his mouth and the sparkle in his eyes. Damn, why was that guy doing that to him.
They were now heading to the front. Mrs. Del Rio unlocked the front door, but then couldn't get it opened.
"I can't budge it. That's one more thing for you to fix," she said to Mitch then stepped back and instructed her grandson to deal with it. "Kick it in for me, sweetheart."
"Sure thing," her grandson said, but he only shouldered the door to get it unstuck. Watching him do it effortlessly, Mitch noticed he was slim but strong.
Sammy noticed something else. "You didn't kick it," she said.
"I'm just lazy like that," Enrico told her. "Path of least resistance and all that."
Of course Sammy didn't know what that meant, but she grinned when Enrico winked at her.
Mrs. Del Rio tapped the thick wood of the door. "This door should be fixed up and refinished. That's what I want to do with all the doors, window frames and the built-ins. They put some good quality wood into this house. I don't want to swap it out for what passes for wood these days."
"I agree, as long as it's in good shape," Mitch told her. He wasn't one to make empty promises. "I'll salvage whatever I can."
Going inside, they were faced with a fairly narrow staircase and the first thing Mitch did was test the railing. It wobbled only a little. "I can tighten that," he said then walked up to test out each step.
As he went up, he noticed that some of the old steps creaked, but they didn't give. He was already thinking that this house was well worth fixing up. He then glanced down and saw Enrico looking up at him then turning away to stare at a random picture on the wall.
"Since you're going up, I guess we'll start with that," Mrs. Del Rio said and the rest of them came up too.
At the top of the stairs, Enrico went by him and Mitch held his breath. Even as he did so, he remembered that he had already noticed he smelled a little like food from working at the café, also like soap and underneath that... Hell, why was he dwelling on what he smelled like? But the word that popped into his head was "good." Enrico smelled good.
Mitch needed to remember that he wasn't here to sniff some guy. His aim was to check over the place and get his estimate ready, and also make sure the place was livable in case he and Mrs. Del Rio ended up making a deal.
There were only three bedrooms upstairs. The biggest bedroom had its own bathroom. The room was in decent shape, but the bathroom needed work.
Mitch went in there and then everyone else went into the bathroom too. They were all milling around in the small space.
As Mitch moved over to test the small window, he found himself a little too close to Enrico. The green flecks in his eyes stood out more now, as did his eyelashes and dark eyebrows. The stubble on his jaw and on his upper lip was drawing Mitch's eyes to his mouth.
Nothing needed fixed on him, so why the hell was Mitch staring at him?
As she looked around, Mrs. Del Rio was more focused on the real work. "The wallpaper needs to come down. All of it, from the whole house," she said as she stepped out into the bedroom again.
"Wallpaper is so old lady," Enrico said then he sidestepped some imagined attack from his grandmother, but all she did was raise an eyebrow at him.
"Take down the old curtains too. I'll put in some blinds and you can slap on a fresh coat of paint," Mrs. Del Rio said.
They moved on down the hall and found that one of the smaller bedrooms needed the most work. It had a leak around the window and the wood floor had warped right underneath it.
"No one is staying in here," Enrico said while Mitch took notes on the repairs.
The last room was in good shape, and Mitch was relieved since he was already thinking of it as Sammy's room. It was too soon for that, but the place was winning him over, and Mrs. Del Rio seemed serious about giving him the job.
Going downstairs, Mrs. Del Rio was saying, "As you see, it's a little ways out of town. I hope it won't bother you not to be in the thick of things."
"In the thick of what exactly?" Enrico said and she shook her head.
"We're busting at the seams with tourists, but you'll get plenty of peace and quiet out here," she told Mitch. She did sound like she thought he and Sammy would be staying here.
In the living room, she pointed out the built-in shelves. "I want to keep that bookshelf, refinish it and take out some of these shelves in the middle so a big TV can fit there."
The rest of it was just taking down more wallpaper and curtains including in a small sitting room that Sammy liked because it was prettily decorated. Going to the other end of the hall, they reached the kitchen. The kitchen cabinets were keepers too, but the tiled countertop had to go.
Enrico and Sammy looked out the back door at the open space they had seen when they circled the porch. Sammy once again gave the bench a sad look.
Next they were going to see about the basement. "Daddy," Sammy said plaintively and stopped at the top of the basement stairs. "It's dark."
"I'll fix that," Enrico said and went ahead into the basement. After some mumbled curses, he had the light on, but Sammy still wouldn't budge.
"Oh, she doesn't want to go down there," Mrs. Del Rio said as she also hung back at the top of the stairs.
"There is a reason they say, 'Don't go down into the basement,'" Enrico joked but Sammy didn't get it. "Not a big horror movie fan?"
"Let the boys go down there. Me and you can stay up here, honey," Mrs. Del Rio said to Sammy.
"Stay there with Mrs. Del Rio. I'll be right back," Mitch said and smiled at Sammy so she wouldn't be worried. Then he followed Enrico into the basement.
Using a flashlight to see into dark corners, Mitch was looking around for potential problems with the foundation and leaks. Enrico was poking around in the huge pile of stuff that was stored there. While doing that, he found a locked door in the back of the basement. There was a key in the lock, and Enrico gave Mitch a significant look before opening it in slow motion. All they found inside were shelves with decades old canned food.
"It's just a pantry," Enrico said, disappointed. "Or a dungeon?"
Mitch pointed to the door. "This door bolts from the inside, so it's not a dungeon but it might be a bomb shelter," Mitch said noticing that the door was heavy and there was more room in there than just for storage.
Enrico perked up. "A fallout shelter? That has potential."
"By the look of it, it might be just a regular bomb shelter," Mitch told him.
"What, from WWII?"
"That's just a guess. Some people did think the bombers might reach here." Getting down, Mitch was examining a corner to make sure it wasn't damp when Enrico came over to crouch next to him.
"Any dead bodies? Satanic symbols? Nail marks from kidnap victims trying to claw their way out of this pit?" Enrico asked.
"None of the above. And I hope you won't say anything like that in front of my kid," Mitch warned him.
Enrico stood up indignantly. "What do you take me for?"
"I'm not sure," Mitch said even as he again noticed his smooth, agile movements and his lean physique. Enrico was one really attractive guy, but there was no reason for Mitch to pay so much attention to him.
"What do you see, boys?" Mrs. Del Rio called out from the top of the stairs.
"What's down there, Daddy," Sammy also wanted to know.
"Junk," Enrico told them as they came out of the room. "More junk, and lots of old junk."
Mitch gave his own answer. "The basement is dry. The supports look solid. It seems to be in good shape. It could use some more light down here," Mitch said as he made notes under the one bare light bulb that hung from the ceiling.
Sidling up next to him, Enrico whispered, "But that will ruin the lair of a serial killer vibe."
Despite his talk of serial killers, Enrico came up the stairs with something nice for Sammy. He had found a flower made of blue sea glass. "Look what I found," he said as he showed it to her.
Sammy was delighted. "It's a blue flower. It's pretty."
"It's pretty junk, and you can keep it. Right, Grandma?" Enrico said.
"Of course she can," Mrs. Del Rio said. Mitch didn't object, though neither one of them seemed to know that they should have asked him first.
"And after your dad puts in more lights, you can come down here and explore," Enrico told her.
"Maybe," Sammy said while peering down into the gloomy basement uncertainly.
"If her dad says it's OK," Mitch said to remind them that he had the final word on what his kid was allowed to do.
At that, Mrs. Del Rio gave him an indulgent smile while Enrico had on an expression of someone who wasn't used to listening or obeying. Mitch already had the strong impression that those two were a handful.
Once Mitch had looked over the whole house, he added up all the work that needed to be done. It wasn't as much of a fixer upper as he feared, but he was still worried that the price tag for the work would lose him this job.
Sammy and Enrico were exploring the closet under the stairs where they found Christmas decorations. Sammy squealed with delight. It would be really nice if she could get to stay here.
Waiting in the foyer, Mrs. Del Rio was ready to make a deal. She rubbed her hands together then eagerly took the paper from Mitch. With one quick perusal of his estimate, she accepted his prices. They exchanged some information and she told him, "If you like the look of the place, you can move right in. Shift around what you need, where you need it. I'll leave Enrico here to lend you a hand with making it livable."
"I think I can manage on my own," Mitch said, but she was already waving to them, heading to her car and leaving her grandson behind.
Enrico shrugged at Mitch then turned to Sammy with a pout. "Did you see how she ditched me?"
Sammy giggled and said, "No."
Enrico asked her. "Does that mean you like my grandma?"
"She's nice," Sammy said.
"Yes, she is. You're a good judge of people," Enrico told her then he faced Mitch. "That room with the ivy wallpaper should be Sammy's, right? I can clean that up," he volunteered.
Since it was important to him, Mitch was planning to do that himself, but then Sammy chimed in too.
"Me too. Me too," Sammy said. "I wanna do it."
"I guess we can do it together," Enrico said. Mitch was going to send him off to do something else, but Sammy looked happy, so he didn't.
"I'm going to see what cleaning supplies we have," Enrico said, jumping right into it. He went into the kitchen to look under the sink and then he poked around in a cupboard and pulled out various cleaning supplies.
"No vacuum, but here's what I found," Enrico said.
Sammy went straight for the blue feather duster. "That's your weapon of choice huh?"
Upstairs, Mitch went in first to check over the room more thoroughly now that Sammy would be sleeping there.
It seemed fine. The wood floor would be easy enough to get clean. Otherwise the room was mainly just dusty, nothing that couldn't be spruced up. The mattress was OK, and there were even sheets on the bed.
"Did the people who moved out just leave everything here?" Mitch wondered out loud.
"They..." Enrico started to say then he looked over at Sammy, who was dusting random things.
Mitch could guess what he was going to say before he stopped himself. The owners probably died.
"I bet they just got all new stuff," Enrico said and smiled at Sammy.
"The washer works, right?" Mitch said as he eyed the sheets. They looked clean, but they had been sitting there a while, no doubt.
"The washer is in the basement. I'll go check," Enrico said and he was off, clomping down the stairs. He certainly was energetic.
He was back in no time to report. "It's an old one, but it works. I have it filling up, but no luck with detergent."
"I saw a box of baking soda in the fridge. Throw some of that into the washer," Mitch said.
"Baking soda? You must be super dad to know something like that," Enrico said and went off again with an armful of sheets and a few towels too. The place certainly was stocked with a lot of what they needed.
"He said you're super dad," Sammy said looking up at him with a proud smile.
Soon Enrico was back and huffing from running up and down the stairs. "Why didn't we bring beverages?" he complained.
"We have drinks in the car," Mitch told him. Then he reached in his pocket for the keys. "There is a cooler in front if you want to get it." As he handed Enrico the keys, their hands touched briefly and Mitch felt a weird jolt.
A few minutes later, Enrico was back with drinks, still huffing. "I brought the cooler in and stuck the drinks in the fridge."
"Thanks," Mitch said as Enrico handed him a sports drink and gave Sammy an orange juice.
They got to it, cleaning the room until Mitch felt it would be OK for Sammy to stay there. With Enrico helping, the work went fast. He didn't seem serious, but he was working hard to make Sammy's room nice for her, and that earned him a ton of points from Mitch.
The sheets were still in the dryer, but otherwise the room was pretty much all set. Enrico wasn't done though. Looking around, he frowned critically at the pictures on the wall. "What about these pictures, Sammy? They aren't much fun."
To have a better look at one of the paintings hanging on the wall, Sammy stood on her tiptoes. Mitch picked her up and held her so she could get even closer.
"I see a horse," she said.
There was a horse pulling a cart down a country lane, but honestly, the painting wasn't much fun, just like Enrico said.
"We can do better," Enrico decided. "Let's find some nice pictures and switch these out."
Mitch was going to say that wasn't necessary, but he saw it made Sammy happy. And Mrs. Del Rio did say to shift things around if they wanted. As Sammy and Enrico went in search of pictures, Mitch went along so he could have another look at what needed to be done, take some more detailed notes and make a list of supplies.
As they were looking over the pictures on the walls, Mitch remembered what he had seen at the café. "I've been meaning to ask, why are there all those pictures of showgirls all over the café?"
"Grandma was a Vegas showgirl back in the day. Way back in the day. Way, way back in the day," Enrico said then he stopped in the doorway of the next room. "These are good ones."
They entered the small sitting room that looked out on a wall of green where the garden was overgrown. The decor was very feminine with rose wallpaper and rose botanical prints on the walls. Sammy liked it a lot, but she didn't want to take the pictures.
"They're nice here," she said.
Still empty-handed, they moved on to other parts of the house. Along the way, they found pictures Sammy liked. A print of a girl with a yellow hat sitting under an apple tree, a painting of a basket of wildflowers and one of a cat in a garden next to a watering can found a new home in Sammy's room. She was thrilled to see them go up on her wall.
"This is a nice room now," Mitch said. "Thanks, Enrico."
"Thank you, Enrico," Sammy echoed.
"You can call me Rico since we're buddies," Enrico told her. He didn't say it to Mitch though, but he tried not to take it personally. But then Enrico did turn to him and said. "As for you, you can call me whatever you want."
Enrico grinned at him and there was a wicked gleam in his eyes. Mitch would swear he was flirting with him. Once again Mitch felt that odd stirring inside. Did that mean that Enrico was gay? It didn't matter to Mitch if he was, but he did wonder why he had this strange feeling around him.
They did more cleaning in the bathrooms and then the kitchen. Then Mitch brought up Sammy's things from the car, and now she was arranging her toys in her own room. Standing in the doorway, Mitch watched her line up her teddy bears according to height while that quilted doll with hair made of yellow yarn sat in a place of honor on top of her pillow.
When Sammy noticed him there, Mitch smiled at her. "Good job, honey," he told her and went off to get his own room in order.
Though he was planning to just take care of it himself later, Enrico insisted on helping out with that too. Alone with him, Mitch felt strange having him in what was supposed to be his bedroom. He couldn't seem to shake it off.
Glancing at Enrico out of the corner of his eye, Mitch tried to figure it out, but it just didn't make sense. So what if he was alone with him in his bedroom? Why should it matter to him?
As Mitch was trying not to stare at him, Enrico got a text. "We have new marching orders. Grandma wants us over at her house for dinner," he said.
"Some people call that an invitation," Mitch pointed out while he made his bed with freshly washed sheets.
"Not when it comes from Grandma," Enrico said. "It's not like there's anything to eat here. Let Grandma feed you. Consider it a business dinner. Grandma will probably want to talk your ear off about what you'll be doing to this place."
"In that case, we accept. We have to give you a ride into town anyway, right?" Mitch said.
"No need. I'm staying at Grandma's for now," Enrico said. "I'm texting to let her know we're on the way."
"Do you work at your grandmother's café full time, or is it a summer job?" Mitch asked.
"Kind of a summer job," Enrico said. "Getting away from some family pressure while I figure out what I want to do with my life. I took an extended break from school this spring. I was on the wrong path, but I don't know what the right path is. For now I'm trying not to be a freeloader while I hang out at Grandma's place."
That didn't surprise Mitch. Though he worked hard when he had a task in front of him, Enrico seemed unfocused. But any time his gaze landed on Mitch, he seemed very intent, like a man who shouldn't be taken lightly. Mitch had no idea what that was about or why he kept noticing things about him.
Sammy was happy that they were visiting Mrs. Del Rio, and when they arrived at her house, she loved all the flowers in her garden.
"This is a nice place," Mitch said as they went up the path to the front porch.
"It was in grandma's family for a few generations. She probably needs some work done in here too."
Enrico let them in and called out, "We're here!"
The house was furnished with a lot of character and color, and Sammy found even more to love about it.
"Smells good in here," Mitch said.
"I bet she's in the kitchen," Enrico said and led the way through the house.
Now they heard his grandmother greet them from somewhere. "Come on out here. I was just setting the table on the veranda."
Going out through a set of French doors, they found Mrs. Del Rio busy arranging silverware and napkins. The sun was just starting to set, but there were also hanging lanterns lighting the veranda. A gazebo stood in the middle of the huge back yard with more flowers everywhere, and Sammy was delighted.
"Your plates are pretty," Sammy said seeing the plates with purple flowers on them.
"What are you going to be putting on these pretty plates?" Enrico asked.
"Lasagna and bread sticks," Mrs. Del Rio told him. "I'll have supper out here soon. So are you all settled in at the Dunbar place?"
Mitch gave her an update. "We moved in more or less. We only did clean up. The real work starts tomorrow."
"Sammy's room is all ready for her," Enrico added.
Mrs. Del Rio was happy to hear that and smiled down at Sammy. "That's good."
"We got nice pictures," Sammy told her.
"We rearranged a few things," Mitch said.
"Rearrange anything you want. You can make the place your own while you're staying there," Mrs. Del Rio told him.
Mitch and Sammy took their seats at the table, and Enrico went to help bring the food. Once they were all sitting down, Mrs. Del Rio served the lasagna. "I invited a few people over for dessert, so you and Sammy can meet them," she said. "Sam plus Wyatt Hayes and his boys. The boys' parents died not too long ago, and Wyatt is taking care of them like they are his very own. He's their uncle. They're all a nice bunch."
Mitch nodded while the sight of the lasagna on his plate made him realize just how hungry he was.
"Want a breadstick from a can?" Enrico asked as he offered the basket with the breadsticks to him and Sammy.
"You don't have to put it like that," his grandmother scolded him.
Both Mrs. Del Rio and Enrico were very relaxed. They certainly didn't act like Mitch and Sammy were practically strangers at their table. Sammy took to both of them so fast. Mitch wasn't surprised that the offbeat but grandmotherly Mrs. Del Rio could engage her, but Enrico seemed to know how to relate to Sammy as well.
Mitch couldn't feel at ease around him though. Enrico's eyes were too lively and bright. They seemed to prod Mitch like some sort of provocative question was being asked, but he refused to hear it. It wasn't anything Enrico was doing deliberately. If only Mitch could stop paying so much attention to him, there wouldn't be a problem.
Having dinner out on Grandma's veranda, trying not to get eaten alive by mosquitoes, listening to renovation talk, Rico wasn't having such a bad time. Sammy was nibbling on her salad like a bunny. Mitch was pretty quiet unless he was talking about work with Grandma, but it was still nice to have a gorgeous guy at the table.
He offered to help clear the table too, but Rico didn't let him. "Relax. You're a guest."
"But I might have a job for this little one," his grandmother said as she got up from the table. "Does this young lady want to help me make a banana cream pie?"
"Yes," Sammy said. After Mitch nodded his agreement, the two of them went off to the kitchen.
Once Rico was done clearing the dishes, he left Sammy to help Grandma make banana cream pie and went back out to Mitch. Rico found him staring out toward the gazebo and handed him a beer.
"It's hard to believe that I met your grandmother only today," Mitch said.
"Me too, don't forget. When it comes to people, Grandma trusts her gut. She has faith in you," Rico told him.
"I appreciate it, and thanks for everything you did today. I admit you're more help than I expected," Mitch said.
Rico eyed him for a minute. "And you have a way with a backhanded compliment," Rico told him in a sour tone.
"I was thanking you," Mitch claimed innocently.
"I'll try to keep surpassing your low expectations," Rico said and got a small smile out of him.
He was ready to just hang out with Mitch, when he heard the doorbell. Instead of answering it, he went around to the front. Just like he expected, it was Sam waiting on their doorstep.
"We're in the back," Rico told him. "I hear you've only been invited for dessert."
"No, we were invited for dinner too, but Wyatt was already in the middle of cooking dinner and I was still at work," Sam explained. He worked at the café so Grandma should have known he couldn't come. "Wyatt and the kids will be here soon." Wyatt was Sam's fiancé, and he had two little nephews. They were the ones Grandma wanted Sammy to meet.
As he took Sam around the corner to the back, Rico took in the sight of Mitch leaning on the railing. Throwing his arm over Sam's shoulder, Rico got close so he could whisper, "You see what I have to deal with."
"You poor thing," Sam mocked him.
As they walked up to Mitch, Rico did the introductions. "Here comes more proof that Grandma's people sense is never wrong. Mitch McEvers is the new handyman in town. This is Sam James. He works at the café and Grandma adores him."
"Don't say that," Sam said as he shook hands with Mitch. "I'm going to go say hi to Mrs. Del Rio. Don't say anything weird about me." With that Sam went inside.
"He's so easy to embarrass. It's adorable," Rico said as he looked after him.
"Is he your boyfriend?" Mitch asked, and Rico was surprised that he would be so blunt.
"No way," Rico told him.
Now Mitch had a different question. "So you aren't gay?"
"Of course I am. But Sam is practically some guy's husband," Rico informed him then watched Mitch frown.
"Husband? Really?" Mitch said, and Rico couldn't tell how he felt about it.
"Yeah, don't tell me you have a problem with that because I don't want to hear it," Rico warned him.
"I don't," Mitch stated evenly.
"I just thought he looked young," Mitch said to explain himself.
"So maybe you're jealous that someone snagged himself a hot, young husband?" Rico taunted him.
"No. I'm straight," Mitch said and Rico sighed.
"Yeah, I was afraid of that," Rico grumbled under his breath. Then he spotted Wyatt and the boys rounding the corner and tromping into the back yard. "That's Sam's husband to be and his nephews, DJ and Riley."
The boys ran ahead and stopped in front of Mitch and Rico. They were a little older that Sammy, and Riley, the younger brother, peered up at Mitch like he was going to challenge him to arm wrestle.
Rico was ready to introduce them, when he caught Wyatt giving him a significant look. It was like he already knew Rico was into Mitch and he wished him luck. Just as Rico finished introducing Mitch to Wyatt and the boys, Grandma brought out the pie. Sam had the plates and utensils and Sammy was bringing napkins.
"I invited this bunch over to meet the new daddy in town and his little girl," Grandma said then she introduced everyone to Sammy. "That's Wyatt Hayes. That's big brother DJ and little brother Riley. This is Sammy. She helped me make this pie."
"You know how to make pie too," DJ said. "I made pies with Sam. He shows us how to cook all the time."
"My dad knows how to cook," Sammy said, getting a little competitive.
"I guess you already met your cute little namesake, Sammy," Rico said to Sam. "He's Sam and you're Sammy. How am I gonna tell you apart?"
"He's bigger, see?" Sammy told him and raised her arm to show him their height difference.
"OK. I'll try to remember that," Rico told her.
"Do they call you Sammy?" she asked Sam.
"No," Sam told her.
She asked about a different nickname, "Sammy salami?"
"Did someone call you that?" DJ asked her and frowned.
"Some kids," Sammy said but she didn't seem bothered by it.
"That's mean," DJ said and looked ready to fight them even if Sammy didn't look upset.
"Maybe she likes salami," Rico said.
"I like pepperoni," Riley said to Sammy. "You can be our little friend. We won't let anybody call you any names."
His big brother jumped in to inform him, "You're little too, Ry."
"She's littler," Riley insisted.
All this went on while Sammy fumed silently. Seeing her with her little fists balled up, ready to blow her top, Rico went over and whispered in her ear.
She nodded then turned to the boys and informed them. "I'm exactly as big as I'm supposed to be!"
She mispronounced exactly but she made her point. Then banana cream pie was served and Sammy was happy when everyone said what a good job she did. Afterward the kids went off to try and find a frog that was croaking nearby. That gave Grandma a chance to tell Mitch about the previous owners of the house he was fixing up.
"The Dunbars owned that house then they both died and the place went to their son, Harry. He didn't do much with it, just came for a visit now and then. Then he died too. He owned an electronics store and someone broke in. Poor Harry was working late and... Well he was just unlucky, I guess. That was just this past spring. After that the house went to some niece who sold it to me lock stock and barrel," Grandma told him.
"That's a nice house," Sam said. "I hate to see old houses sitting abandoned like that place near the creek."
"You have a soft spot for houses too," Wyatt said and gave him a kiss. "Yesterday he rescued a bee from a spider web."
"Bees are precious. They're dying out," Sam said defensively, but he just couldn't help being a sweet and gentle guy at heart. And neither Wyatt or Rico could help teasing him about it.
While they all talked, Rico kept an eye on Mitch to see if he would be standoffish with Sam and Wyatt. He didn't seem to be. He fell into a conversation with Wyatt about building a garden shed for Sam.
"Sam is planting crops in the back yard. It would be good to have somewhere to store tools and what have you," Wyatt said.
"It's not crops. It's just a small vegetable garden," Sam said.
"There is definitely agriculture going on back there," Wyatt insisted to Mitch. "Let me know when you have time. I'm not handy enough to pull that off myself."
Sam was shaking his head at Wyatt, but his eyes were happy. The constant teasing couldn't hide how much those two adored each other. And here was Rico admiring a straight guy, a straight guy with a kid no less.
Thinking about Sammy gave him an idea, so he hijacked his grandmother for a raid on her closet. The two of them were gone for a little while. When they got back, Grandma called Sammy over.
"I have something for you," Grandma said and held out a floppy, lilac hat with a fuchsia ribbon.
"I pretty hat!" Sammy said.
"It's big," Riley said.
Rico agreed. "She could live inside that thing."
"What are you on about? You're the one who picked it out, and you went straight for the biggest one," Grandma said while Rico looked around and put on a "Who? Me?" face.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, but even Sammy didn't believe him.
"Thank you, Rico. Thank you, Mrs. Del Rio," Sammy said sweetly while Grandma put the hat on her and made her pretty much disappear from sight. The hat had a ribbon that tied under the chin and she tied it into a big bow.
"It's picture time," Rico said and elbowed Mitch lightly.
"Thanks for the reminder," Mitch told him as he snapped one shot of Sammy under the hat, almost invisible, and one with her holding up the brim so she could peer up at him adorably.
She was still wearing the giant hat proudly as Mitch loaded her into her car seat and they got ready to go. Rico waited by his giant car so he could find out when Mitch would need him at the house.
"So you got your grandmother to give Sammy a hat," Mitch told him as they stood next to the car.
"She's got a million of them," Rico said.
"Thank you. It's was nice of your grandmother to invite some kids over for Sammy to play with," Mitch said.
"And you might get some work out of it. What did you think of Sam and Wyatt? They're cute together, aren't they?" Rico needled him.
"Are you jealous of them?" Mitch needled him right back.
"No. I don't go for that shmoopy stuff," Rico told him, but Mitch kept pushing.
"So you don't want Sam for yourself? Cute young guys don't tempt you?"
"Do they tempt you?" Rico shot back.
Mitch scoffed and averted his eyes, and Rico found himself wondering why he got such a weird vibe from Mitch if he was straight like he said.
Next morning, when Rico arrived in front of the Dunbar house, Mitch was setting up tools on the porch and unrolling a hefty extension cord. Sammy was playing in the yard. As Rico rolled Grandma's car to a stop and got out, Sammy came over to greet him.
"You're here!" She then ran to her dad to announce his arrival. "Look, Daddy. Rico is here."
"Good morning. You're here bright and early," Mitch said. It looked like he was starting on the back porch.
"I came in grandma's boat and brought breakfast," Rico said and held up a takeout bag.
"A boat?" Sammy said and looked all around.
"That thing," Rico said pointing out the Chrysler Imperial.
"Rico, that's not a boat. That's a car," she informed him then she looked over at her dad like she wanted him to second that. Mitch only grinned.
"But it's big like a boat. Now let's eat some scary bear claws," Rico told her, and he growled.
Sammy's eyes were wide as Rico came closer and opened the takeout bag slowly. He growled again, and she jumped then laughed.
"They smell nice," she said.
"They taste good too and no bears were harmed in making them," Rico told her and went to sit on the porch steps behind the kitchen.
"No bears," Sammy said just to make it clear and she came over to sit next to him.
"They're just pastries," Mitch told her.
Rico looked over at him where he was still busy setting up. "Your dad will have one first to show you they're safe."
"You didn't have to bring us breakfast," Mitch said as he took a bear claw and sat down. "We have breakfast bars."
"That impresses no one. Bear claws win," Rico said then he high-fived Sammy. "And I brought you coffee, and juice for Sammy." He handed out those and had a coffee as well.
They ate sitting on the porch steps, and Rico tried not to admire how Mitch's biceps flexed every time he raised the coffee cup to his mouth. He also tried not to watch his throat work when he swallowed. OK, there was too much to that man to tempt him.
Once they were done eating, Rico needed to know what he would be doing to help out, so he asked Mitch about that.
"What are your skills?" Mitch asked.
Rico thought about it for a minute. "Hmm. I can come up with really cool band names, and I super-glued my fingers together once."
Mitch nodded. "OK. Just try to stay out of the way."
"Oh, come on. I'm more useful than that," Rico said with a laugh.
"I'll find stuff for you to do, don't worry. An extra pair of hands is always useful," Mitch told him. "For now, could you watch Sammy while I fix the porch."
At the moment, Sammy was inside washing her hands, but Rico had plans for her.
"We'll explore the yard and she can model that crazy new hat of hers." Seeing her through the kitchen door, Rico called out to her. "Hey, missy, I'm supposed to keep you out of trouble."
"OK," she called back.
"Make sure to wear your new hat," Rico told her and she ran off to get it.
While Rico waited for her, he noticed that some branches had broken off the trees in the yard and were just hanging there, dry and sad-looking. After Rico jumped up to pull them down, he figured he might as well clean up any other yard debris, make it a little nicer since Sammy would be playing there.
"I see you found a way to keep busy," Mitch said.
Rico could tell he approved. "Sammy is helping too." He pointed her out as she was modeling her oversized, floppy hat all over the yard. She did eventually pick up a twig and then danced it over to the pile of yard debris Rico had made.
"I guess she's just taking her sweet time about it," Mitch said and smiled at his kid.
A smile sure had a way of lighting up his face and making him look even more gorgeous. That's when Rico noticed what Mitch was wearing other than an orange t-shirt that stretched over his chest enticingly and a pair of old jeans. "A tool belt? Now you're just flaunting yourself," Rico told him.
"I'm working," Mitch said like he had no idea that a tool belt kicked up his hotness level right through the roof.
"What a tease," Rico grumbled and got drowned out by the hand saw Mitch turned on just then.
Finally Rico had some real work to do. He was clearing out the pieces of board Mitch cut from the porch. He was doing that and also dividing his attention between watching Sammy and ogling Mitch. Sammy was still puttering around the yard.
Then Rico noticed that she stopped and was peering under the porch. "You see something?" he asked her and went over to check it out.
"Rico, something is moving under there," Sammy said alarmingly as she pointed at the narrow space.
"Oh God, don't let it be rats," he said under his breath.
"What did you say?" Sammy asked as he crouched down next to her, but he wasn't about to tell her.
"Oh, nothing. You just stay back and I'll check it out. Or maybe go tell your dad about it, OK." Rico wanted her where she would be safe, just in case there was a dangerous critter under there.
Sammy ran off, but what Rico found under the porch wasn't anything bad. Two sets of amber eyes were peering out from tiny, cat faces.
The two orange kittens were probably scared by all the noise Mitch was making. But they came out readily enough as soon as Mitch stopped his sawing and banging.
Now Sammy had her dad by the hand, and she was bringing him over.
"Look who was hiding under there," Rico said as one of the kittens swatted at his fingers. The other kitten was scratching at his jeans as he knelt in the grass.
"Rico, you found kitties," Sammy squealed excitedly as she ran over ahead of Mitch.
"You found them," Rico pointed out as both Sammy and Mitch got down to sit in the grass with him. "Should we give them some milk? They sound hungry."
"Chocolate milk!" Sammy said. "Chocolate milk is better."
"Not for kittens, and we don't have either kind of milk anyway," Mitch said as he reached over to pet the other kitten. If Rico leaned forward just a little, he could have buried his face in the crook of his neck. But of course he couldn't do anything like that.
Shaking himself out of it, Rico realized what Mitch just said. "I can go get some milk," he volunteered.
"Chocolate milk?" Sammy said.
"I can get that too," Rico said as he turned to Mitch. "I'll go shopping, buy a few things for lunch too. How does that sound?"
"If you don't mind," Mitch said and their eyes met for too long. At close range, his eyes were such a bottomless blue. Rico had a lot of trouble turning away from them and remembering what he just said he would do.
"It's no problem," Rico said as he got up and brushed himself off. "You're in charge of the kittens, missy."
"OK, Rico," Sammy said, happy with that chore.
When Rico got back from shopping, Mitch had gone back to work while Sammy was playing with the kittens and talking to them.
"You got a lot," Mitch said seeing all the grocery bags Rico was bringing from the car.
"There was a slight change of plans. Look what I got for you guys," Rico said and held up the bag of cat food.
"What about milk?" Sammy asked.
"I got some milk but not for the kittens. Jasmine at the register set me straight. Kittens shouldn't have cow's milk," Rico told her.
"Chocolate milk?" Sammy said still convinced that it was the best choice.
"No. That's why I got them the cat food," Rico said. "I told Jasmine how big they were and she said to get them this, but they really need kitten food. Monty's Grocery doesn't have it." He also got two dishes for their food and water, and he got those out and set them up right in the grass.
Rico let Sammy help fill the dishes with water and cat food then they watched the kittens while they munched on it.
"No milk for you," Sammy said to the kittens.
"You can have some milk with your lunch if you want," Mitch told Sammy, but she wasn't very interested in her own lunch.
"Their food is stinky, but they like it. Now they're licking water," Sammy said as she lay in the grass and watched them.
"Do you want to drink like that too?" Rico asked her.
"No. I drink from a glass," she told him.
"I'll keep that in mind. You want to help me make lunch?" Rico asked. Sammy didn't look eager to leave the kittens, so he let her off the hook. "OK. Then you stay here and think of some names for those kittens."
That she was glad to do. Sammy peered at the kittens while they ate and drank like she was expecting them to tell her their names.
As he went into the kitchen, Rico thought he would be making lunch alone, but Mitch came in after him.
"Those kittens might belong to someone, you know," Mitch said.
"I doubt it. There are quite a few stray cats around here and some outdoor cats too. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. You are keeping the kittens, right?" Rico said only now realizing that he should have checked with Mitch before assuming. In his mind, they already belonged to Sammy.
"Do I have a choice?" Mitch said while he helped Rico with the groceries. "How much do I owe you for all this?"
"It's on me. You didn't ask me to buy all this stuff," Rico told him.
"I can't let you pay," Mitch said. "And I should pay you for breakfast too."
"No way. That was my treat. As for all this, I'm planning to eat when I get hungry, grab myself a drink or ten. I should pay my share." Rico then turned to eye Mitch suspiciously. "Or are you afraid to owe me?"
"I'm not. But I don't think you got chocolate milk and Goldfish crackers for yourself," Mitch said.
Rico shook his head. "You don't know me, man. I love that stuff."
When they called Sammy in for lunch, she had news for them. "I know the kitties' names. Natalie and Veronica."
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