EXCERPT from STAND BY ME BOX SET:
I knock on Harper’s door three times. Her truck was parked outside when I returned from the store, so I know she’s home. Is she looking through the peephole at me? Have I upset her so much she’s not going to answer? I feel like a dork standing here with this basket, since I wouldn’t be taking food to a new neighbor under normal circumstances.
This feels like something my mother would’ve done when she was alive. I can hear her telling me to do exactly what Josie had.
The door finally opens. I take in Harper without knowing what to say. She appears to be harried, her ponytail lopsided with strands of hair falling at her cheeks. She’s a hot mess. It’s very cute except for one small detail— she holds a steel meat mallet.
For one uncomfortable moment, I remember seeing her watching me in all my usual haunts. Maybe Josie was deathly wrong and this is where I meet my end.
“Harper.” I take a step back out of swinging distance.
“Oh. It’s you.” She blows a strand of hair from her eyes.
“I wanted to bring you a housewarming gift.” I hold up the basket by the handle.
“Thanks.” She opens the door wider. “Come on in.”
“You look busy. I can leave this—”
“No, it’s fine,” she says. “Sorry to ask, but could you hold something while you’re here?” She takes the basket with her free hand and walks to the kitchen area.
I stand in the doorway, not really wanting to come in. But it seems a little rude to back away and run for my life. And I could probably dodge the mallet. I’m amused by my own paranoia. Josie would have a good laugh if she knew.
“So can you hold something for me?” she repeats.
“Sure,” I say and step inside. I chuckle to myself at the feeling of stepping into the lair of a dangerous creature.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing.” I hide my grin. “Am I holding a steak down or what?”
“Huh?” Her eyebrows knit and she tilts her head. “I don’t understand.”
I point to the weapon she holds.
“Oh. I don’t have a hammer, and I’m trying to put my bed together. The entire thing came in a box.”
Only a woman would move into a place without owning basic tools. “How about I go get my tools?”
“You have a hammer?” She waits a beat. “Of course you do. Yes, please. That’d be great.”
She walks around the bar and places the mallet inside a drawer. “I’ll put this food away.”
Because Josie suggested cheese and crackers, I was determined to steer clear of those items. It’s the way of brothers and sisters. You do the opposite of what they want.
Instead, I’d filled the basket with gourmet marinara sauce, whole grain pasta, fresh French bread, and a parmesan cheese. I don’t know if she cooks, but spaghetti seemed easy and safe. I figure if you can boil water, you can make pasta.
I leave and return five minutes later with a small metal toolbox. She opens the door on one knock. Her ponytail is fixed now, no stray pieces escaping the hair band.
I grin because I kind of enjoyed the other look. It was wild and uninhibited. Sexy.
“Real hammer, real screws. I assume you need screws for the bed? Unless you wanted to use paperclips or something.” My sarcasm makes her smile.
She assumes a serious expression. “I used bread bag twists. That doesn’t work?”
I follow Harper into her bedroom where planks spill from the end of a long box. The picture on the side is of a platform bed. “This, right?”
“Um hm.” She kneels on one side of the box and grabs a sheet of instructions. “When you knocked earlier, I was reading these. I realized I needed a hammer and a screwdriver.”
“Yeah. You always do.” I turn my head to nod at the mattress leaning against the wall. “You didn’t carry all this up here, did you?”
“Your sister helped me.”
I grimace. “Don’t do that again. Come and get me. Josie should’ve yelled when you needed help,” I say. Then I realize they didn’t, based on my actions the first time they asked. “Sorry about earlier. I was in the middle of something,” I lie. “Instructions.” I hold out my hand for them. It’s not too difficult to figure out what we need. I search for the pouch of screws and locate my Philips screwdriver.
Harper doesn’t say much. I spend a few seconds of silence concentrating on lining up two boards of the platform frame. “So. What brings you to Nashville? Hand me one of those washers, please.”
She drops the washer into my outstretched hand. “I don’t know. I mean, I thought I’d visit here and after I did, I loved it.”
“You travel a lot?” I grab the Philips and insert the screw.
Harper hesitates. “No. I grew up in Texas. After I got married, I moved to Washington. I haven’t been anywhere else.”
I nod, a little uncomfortable that I’ve taken the conversation to a topic that suddenly feels very personal. “I need a screw. A long screw.” I hold out my hand again and press my lips together at my words.
She stares at me. There’s a noticeable flush to her cheeks. Good God. I’m not the only one whose thoughts went straight to the gutter. The girl’s got a dirty mind, and it didn’t take a shortcut for her to travel there.
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