A choice, a tragedy, and life-altering consequences...
“Hurry, Rena. We’re going to be late.” Kelsie tossed a tennis shoe across the room.
Rena caught it, but hesitated before slipping her foot in, halfheartedly tying the laces. “I-I think I’ve changed my mind.” Rena’s stomach turned over, the cereal she’d choked down for breakfast along with two cups of muddy-black coffee roiling unmercifully.
“You can’t change your mind.” Kelsie’s tone left no room for argument. “We’ve already committed to helping. We can’t let everybody down.” Another shoe careened toward her head, and Rena ducked.
She sighed as she slid an arm into her baby blue windbreaker. Kelsie was right.
She reached for the second shoe. “Remind me again why you roped me into doing this.”
Kelsie’s perky blonde curls bobbed as she paced Rena’s living room. “Because the church needs help building this house. They’re a good family, Rena. Their home burned to the ground and they didn’t have insurance. Plus, you’re good at slinging a hammer. In fact, you do it better than most guys I know.”
Burned to the ground. The words startled Rena. Her heart went out to the family. How could she just sit here and refuse to help when she had the means and the knowledge needed? Guilt nudged her as she zipped her jacket, staring into the distance before turning back to her friend. “It doesn’t hurt to have a dad who’s a builder. He’s taught me a lot. I even have my own tool belt, a birthday gift when I turned sixteen.”
“I remember. I was there.” Kelsie’s car keys jingled as she twirled them on a forefinger. “That’s one of the reasons we need you.”
“We? Who’s we?”
“Never mind.” She handed Rena a sack lunch she’d prepared and nudged her toward the door. “Go to the car.”
Kelsie plastered manicured hands over her ears. “I can’t hear you.”
Rena groaned, but opened the front door and stepped onto the porch. “OK. I’m going.”
The sun’s wispy magenta arms embraced an awakening sky as they drove toward the building site. Despite her growing reservations about getting involved in this building project, Rena enjoyed the beautiful backdrop of the Smoky Mountains at dawn. She’d always been an early riser and reveled in the solitude of daybreak while the rest of the world lay slumbering.
“Kyle and I are going to the movies tonight.” Kelsie yawned as she braked for a light. “He has a friend he’d like you to meet. I thought we could double date.”
“No!” She’d rather have a root canal without the anesthesia. No way was she going to get mixed up with another self-centered smooth-talker who thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. “I mean, thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. You know my track record, Kel. It’s hopeless. Guys are off limits—for good.”
“Nonsense, Rena. You can’t hide forever. Eventually you’ll have to plunge into the dating world again.”
Rena cringed at the thought. “Plunge? I prefer to…wade.”
“No, you prefer to sit on the beach with your nose in a book, oblivious to all the guys passing by. Just think about it, will you?”
“I already have, and I’m just not interested. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Kelsie frowned. “Rena, the world is full of nice guys.”
“Sure it is. And maybe someday I’ll win the lottery and retire a multi-millionaire.”
“But you don’t play the lottery.”
“And I don’t date—at least not anymore.”
“We’ll see about that.”
They turned into the work site and staccato hammering filled the air as Kelsie parked her Honda beside a mud-splattered black pick-up.
“Let’s go.” Kelsie unlatched her seat belt and grabbed the sack lunches. “Daylight’s burning, and there’s a lot to do.”
Rena sighed and drew in the musty-sweet scent of freshly sawn wood. She wished she shared Kelsie’s enthusiasm. As she eased from the car, flakes of sawdust settled like new-fallen snow across the damp earth. They brought back fond childhood memories of the many times she’d accompanied her dad on building projects. Those had been good times, before he’d become semi-retired and turned most of his days to leisurely games of golf with his grizzle-haired buddies.
“Where’s the party?” Rena stepped over a bag of concrete mix. “This place looks like a war zone with no survivors.” Broken cinder blocks and torn nail boxes littered the ground.
“Kyle’s over there.”
At the far side of the block foundation, Kyle lifted a two-by-four into place, but it was the guy hammering beside him that caused Rena’s breath to catch. Dark, unruly hair kissed broad shoulders. The thin fabric of his navy T-shirt strained over a terrain of muscles as he struck each nail neatly into place with a single, confident blow.
His strength caused her heart to lurch and her pulse to quicken. Rena tore her gaze away. She’d seen enough guys like him in New York City—handsome guys convinced they were a gift to every woman within a five-hundred mile radius—when all they really excelled at was breaking hearts.
She tightened the tool belt around her hips and hop-skipped through an obstacle course of construction supplies toward the two-by-four frame, ready to drive a nail. The quicker she got to work, the quicker she could get out of here.
Suddenly the thunderous crash of a stampede filled the air. As she spun to look, Rena was tackled by what felt like a runaway freight train. The breath rushed out of her as she flew airborne, and then slammed to the ground. A finale of fireworks exploded in her head. She sputtered for air.
Footsteps pounded as someone sprinted over gravel and jumped pallets of brick. A deep male voice shouted, “Sammy, no. Bad dog. Sit!”
Stunned, Rena shook her head to clear the fireworks and came face to face with a massive, drooling dog. Jowls drawn to expose spiked teeth, he loomed as if he intended to devour her for breakfast. Her heart pounded and her cries ripped the air. “Help! Kelsie!”
“It’s OK.” The male voice slid over her like warm molasses as the guy who’d been helping Kyle set down the two-by-fours and then dropped to his knees beside her. “It’s just Sammy. He’s harmless.”
“Yeah, right.” She dipped her head and attempted to shield her face with the collar of her windbreaker as the dog buried his meaty snout in her tangled hair. “Just get him away from me.”
He frowned and gave the dog’s collar a yank. “Sammy, no. Bad manners. Bad dog. Sit. Stay.”
Rena gasped and fought to bring her breathing under control. She sputtered, “T-that’s not a dog. It’s-it’s a bear.” She scooted through damp grass to put distance between them. As if to mock her, Sammy followed. He sniffed her hair and then lazily licked her face, leaving a trail of warm, sloppy saliva across one cheek.
“Yuck, I’ve been slimed.” She swiped a forearm across the gooey moisture and tilted her head to stare into the most soulful pair of doggy eyes she’d ever seen. Now that she could breathe again, he didn’t seem so menacing. “What’s your name, big boy?”
“My name’s Cody.”
A nervous giggle erupted, and she covered her mouth. “I meant the dog.”
“Oh, right. Meet Sammy.” Cody offered a hand and she sat up cross-legged, brushing slobber-matted hair from her eyes while she waited for the dizziness to pass. “He’s a Saint Bernard who thinks he’s a toy poodle. He forgets he weighs as much as a truck.”
Calluses mingled with her clammy palm and reminded her he still held her hand. She quickly let go. “Haven’t you heard of obedience school?”
“For me or the dog?”
She wiped her hand on her jeans. “Maybe you should check into a buy-one-get-one-free program.”
“Point taken.” He grazed fingertips over each of her arms, searching for cuts, and then brushed a smudge of slobber from her cheek with his knuckles. Rena shivered, and turned away. His voice gentled. “You OK?”
She shrugged and buried her hand in Sammy’s thick fur. “I’ll live. Are you sure he won’t bite?”
“He’s toddler tough, I promise. The worst he’ll do is drown you in slobber.”
“Been there, done that.” Rena scratched behind Sammy’s ears and his tail swept wildly across the ground. A cloud of sawdust erupted. Rena stroked the dog’s fur and murmured, “Hey, Sammy, you’re just a big, playful baby, aren’t you?”
“He’s a stinker. Sorry he knocked you down. He’ll get a timeout when we get home.” Cody shook a finger at the mutt. “It’s the doghouse for you, buddy.”
“You’ll do no such thing.” Rena laid a protective hand on Sammy’s massive back. “He just scared me. There’s no need to punish him. I’m OK now.”
“Are you sure?” Cody grasped Rena’s hand again and helped her to her feet. The world swirled and turned gray for a moment before coming back to life.
“Yes.” She felt a bruise forming on her hip but dismissed the pain. She’d had much worse while living in New York. The realization was sobering, and reminded her she’d sworn off men for now…most likely for good. She tugged her hand from Cody’s and brushed blades of grass from the seat of her jeans. “Besides, I like dogs...most of the time.”
“Good thing, because Sammy likes to hang around the building site. He’s become a sort of…mascot.” Deep blue eyes studied her. Rena found herself dwarfed by his broad-shouldered, six-foot-something frame. She took a step back as he continued, “I’m Cody Jamison. And you’re...?”
She hesitated, but his gaze pierced her. The rush of her pulse was irrational, she knew, yet she couldn’t seem to bring it under control.
“Rena…” she finally murmured, and turned from him to Kelsie, who had sidled up to her. “We’d better get to work. It looks like a storm might be rolling in.” The breeze had picked up, and concrete dust swirled over the ground. Beyond the foundation, a row of willows danced.
“Well, OK...for now.” Cody reached for Sammy’s collar and grimaced as he jabbed a finger at the mutt. “Come on, you mangy beast. Go lay down. You’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”
They sauntered across the yard and Rena watched as Sammy chased his tail in a trio of circles before settling beneath one of the willows with his massive head nestled on two meaty front paws. Cody turned back to grin at her, and shook his head as if to say the dog would cause no more trouble.
She nodded. The whine of a circular saw pierced the air and exhaust fumes drew her attention as other workers arrived in a variety of pick-ups and sedans. Rena shook wooziness from her head as she reached for the hammer hanging from her tool belt. She wondered if her dizziness was caused by Sammy, or if Cody’s gentleness and humor had somehow dislodged a piece of the wall she’d so painstakingly erected to guard her heart.
She sighed as her gaze was drawn to Cody once more. Of course, it was the dog.
Cody aimed for the nail and missed. He stifled an oath as the hammer grazed his thumb.
“That’s gonna leave a mark.” Kyle snorted. “Better keep your eyes on your work…instead of Rena.”
“You’re a real comedian.” He reached for another nail, held it in place and sank it with a single blow. “But she is…appealing.”
Kyle laughed. “I thought you swore off women.”
“I have…but there’s always room for adjustments to the game plan.”
“Game plan?” Kyle quirked an eyebrow as he lifted another two-by-four into place. “This isn’t football, my friend.”
“I know.” He glanced away from the lumber long enough to find Rena once more. The baby-blue windbreaker stood out among hues of brown and gray building materials, and her long blonde hair lifted in the morning breeze as she and Kelsie worked together to lay two-by-fours along the foundation. “She’s a friend of Kelsie’s?”
Kyle nodded. “Since they were kids.”
“Wow, she swings that hammer like a guy.” He whistled appreciatively. “Wonder where she learned that.”
“Why don’t you ask her?” Kyle handed him a nail. “It’s a good place to start.”
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“She volunteers at the rec center, you know, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe you could come out and help with the basketball program. Who knows, you might run into each other there, too.”
“Smooth way of roping me in to volunteer.”
Kyle grinned. “If it works…”
Cody’s gaze locked with Rena’s as she walked over to get another box of nails. She smiled slightly, and motioned to Sammy, who slept beneath a tree at the edge of the site. When she held up one hand and formed her index finger and thumb into the OK sign, he grinned and nodded back.
“The rec center…on Tuesdays, you said?” He turned to Kyle.
“And Thursdays, like clockwork.”