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The great unwelcome truth is that there are times when a woman needs a man… or at the very least, an unnatural level of upper body strength. Unfortunately for Elissa Towers, this was one of those times.
"Something tells me you won't be impressed by my to-do list, or the fact that Zoe has a birthday party at noon. Birthday parties are very important for the five-year-old set. I don't want her to miss this one," Elissa muttered as she leaned all of her weight into the lug wrench.
She'd been lamenting the extra ten pounds she carried for at least three years. One would think they'd come in handy now, say for leverage. But one would be wrong.
"Move!" she yelled at the lug nut on her very flat tire. Nothing. Not even a whisper of budging.
She dropped the lug wrench onto the damp driveway and swore.
This was completely her fault. The last time she'd noticed the tire getting low, she'd driven to Randy's Brake and Tire Center, where Randy himself had patched the nail hole. She'd sat in his surprisingly tidy waiting room indulging herself in gossip magazines—a rare treat in her world—not even giving a thought to the fact that he was using some stupid machine to tighten the lug nuts. She always asked him to tighten by hand, so she could take off the flat herself.
"Need some help?"
The question came from nowhere and startled her so much, she wobbled and sat down right in a puddle. She felt the wet seeping through her jeans and panties. Great. Now when she stood up, she would look as if she'd wet herself. Why couldn't her Saturday start with an unexpected tax refund and an anonymous chocolate delivery?
She glanced at the man now standing next to her. She hadn't heard stealth guy approach, but as she looked up and up farther still, until their eyes met, she recognized her semirecent upstairs neighbor. He was a few years older than her, tanned, good-looking and at a casual glance, physically perfect. Not exactly the type who tended to rent an apartment in her slightly shabby neighborhood.
She scrambled to her feet and brushed off her butt, groaning as she felt the wet spot.
"Hi," she said, smiling as she carefully took a step back. "You're, um…"
Damn. Mrs. Ford, her other neighbor, had told her the guy's name. Also that he had recently left the military, kept to himself and apparently had no job. It wasn't a combination that made Elissa comfy.
"Walker Buchanan. I live upstairs."
Alone. No visitors and he didn't go out much. Oh, yeah. Good times. Still, she'd been raised to be polite, so she smiled and said, "Hi. I'm Elissa Towers."
Under any other circumstances, she would have found another way out of her dilemma, but there was no way she could loosen the lug nuts herself and she couldn't just sit here praying to the tire gods.
She pointed. "If you could be burly for a second, that would be fabulous."
"Burly?" The corner of his mouth twitched.
"You're a guy, this is a guy thing. It's a natural fit."
He folded his impressive arms over a rather impressive chest. "What happened to women wanting to be independent and equal in the world?"
Hmm, so there was a brain behind those dark eyes and maybe the potential for humor. That was good. Neighbors of serial killers always said the guy was so nice. Elissa wasn't sure Walker qualified as nice, which was, in a twisted way, a bit of a relief.
"We should have worked on our upper body strength first. Besides, you offered."
"Yes, I did."
He picked up the wrench, squatted down and in one quick movement that left her feeling both inadequate and bitter, loosened the first nut. The other three followed just as fast.
"Thanks," she said with a smile. "I'll take it from here."
"I'm already involved," he told her. "I can put on the spare in a couple of seconds."
Or so he thought. "Yes, well, that's a funny story," she said. "I don't have a spare. It's big and bulky and really weighs down the car."
He straightened. "You need a spare."
His statement of the obvious irritated her. "Thanks for the advice, but as I don't have one, it's not very helpful."
"So what do you do now?"
"I say thank you." She glanced pointedly at the stairs leading to his apartment. When he didn't move, she added, "I don't want to keep you."
His gaze dipped from her face to the large nylon bag on wheels, lying next to her on the driveway. His mouth tightened in disapproval.
"There is no way you're going to carry that tire somewhere yourself," he said flatly.
Definitely not nice, she thought. "I don't carry, I drag. I've done it before. The tire place I go to is less than a mile from here. I walk there, Randy patches it for me and I walk back. It's easy. Good exercise, even. So thank you for your help and have a nice day."
She reached for the tire in question. He stepped between her and it.
"I'll take it," he told her.
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
He topped her by at least seven or eight inches and he had to outweigh her by a good sixty pounds… every ounce of them muscle. As he narrowed his gaze and glared at her, she had the feeling he was trying to intimidate her. He was doing a good job of it, too, but she couldn't let him know that. She was tough. She was determined. She was…
"Mommy, can I have toast?"
Why was life always about timing?
She turned to her daughter standing at the entrance to their apartment. "Sure, Zoe. But let me help. I'll be right in."
Zoe smiled. "Okay, Mommy." The screen door slammed shut.
Elissa glanced back at Walker, only to find that stealth guy had used her moment of inattention to pick up her tire and walk toward his very expensive, very out-of-place-for-this-neighborhood SUV.
"You can't take that tire," she said as she hurried after him. "It's mine."
"I'm not stealing it," he said in a bored tone. "I'm taking it to be fixed. Where do you usually go?"
"I'm not going to tell you." Ha! That should stop him.
"Fine. I'll go where I want." He tossed the tire into the SUV and slammed the back shut.
"Wait! Stop." When, exactly, had she lost control?
He turned to her. "Are you really worried I'm going to disappear with your tire?"
"No. Of course not. It's just… I don't…"
He waited patiently.
"I don't know you," she snapped. "I keep to myself. I don't want to owe you."
He surprised her by nodding. "I can respect that. Where do you want me to take the tire?"
So he wasn't giving up. "Randy's Brake and Tire Center." She gave him directions. "But you have to wait a second. I need to get a pair of earrings."
"For Randy?" He raised his eyebrows.
"For Randy's sister. It's her birthday." She drew in a breath, hating to explain. "It's how I pay for the work."
She waited for the judgment, or at the very least, a smart-ass comment. Instead Walker shrugged.
"Go get them."
The trip to Randy's Brake and Tire Center took three minutes and when Walker parked, he found a short, beer-bellied older man waiting for him.
Randy himself, Walker would guess as he opened the car door.
"You got Elissa's tire?" the man asked.
Randy eyed Walker's BMW X5. "Bet you take that to the dealer," he said.
"I haven't had to yet, but I will."
"Nice wheels." Randy walked around to the rear of the SUV and opened the back. When he saw the tire in question, he groaned. "What is it with Elissa? They're doing construction across from where she works. I swear, she finds every loose nail hanging around on the road. Always in this tire, too. There's more patch on it than rubber."
More patch than tread, Walker thought as he stared at the worn tire. "She should replace it."
Randy looked at him. "You think? Thing is, you can't get blood from a rock. Hey, times are tight with everyone, right? Got my earrings?"
Walker took the small envelope out of his shirt pocket and handed it over. Randy looked inside and whistled. "Very nice. Janice is gonna love them. Okay, give me ten minutes and I'll have this ready to go."
Walker hadn't wanted to help his neighbor in the first place. He'd taken a short-term lease on the apartment to give himself time to figure out what to do with the rest of his life in quiet and solitude. He didn't know anyone in the neighborhood and he didn't want anyone to know him.
Except for a brief but surprisingly effective interrogation from the old lady living downstairs, he'd kept to himself for nearly six weeks. Until he'd seen Elissa struggling with the lug nuts.
He'd wanted to ignore her. That had been his plan. But he couldn't—which was a character flaw he needed to work on. Now, faced with a crappy tire that was likely to blow the second she hit sixty on the 405, he found himself unable to walk away again.
"Give me a new one," he muttered.
Randy raised his bushy eyebrows. "You're buying Elissa a tire?"
Walker nodded. Best-case scenario, he would replace both rear tires. But he only had the one wheel with him.
The older man puffed out his chest. "How, exactly, do you know Elissa and Zoe?"
Zoe? Walker blanked for a second, then remembered the kid he'd seen around. Elissa's daughter.
He owed this guy nothing in the way of explanations. Still, he found himself saying, "I live upstairs."
Randy narrowed his gaze. "Elissa's a friend of mine. Don't you go messing with her."
Walker knew that even after an all-night bender, he could take the old guy and have enough left over to run a four-minute mile. Randy's posturing would have been almost funny—except it was sincere. He cared about Elissa.
"I'm just doing her a favor," Walker said easily. "We're neighbors, nothing more."
"Okay, then. Because Elissa's been through a lot and she doesn't deserve to be messed with."
Walker had no idea what they were talking about, but anything to move the conversation along. Randy picked up the flat and carried it toward the garage.
"I've got a couple of good tires that'll be a whole lot safer than this one. Because it's for Elissa, I'll give you a good deal."
"I appreciate it."
Randy glanced at him. "I'll even throw a little dirt on it so maybe she won't notice what you did."
Walker remembered her defensiveness about not having a spare. "Probably a good idea," he told the other man.
You' re pounding, dear, Mrs. Ford said calmly as she sipped coffee. "It's not good for the crust."
Elissa slapped the rolling pin onto the dough and knew her neighbor was right. "I can't help it. I'm annoyed. Does he really think I'm so stupid I wouldn't notice he replaced my old tire with a new one? Is it a guy thing? Do all men think women are stupid about tires? Is it specific? Does he just think I'm stupid?"
"I'm sure he thought he was helping."
"Who is he to help me? I don't know him from a rock. He's lived here, what, a month? We've never even spoken. Now suddenly he's buying me tires? I don't like it."
"I think it's romantic."
Elissa did her best not to roll her eyes. She loved the old woman but jeez, Mrs. Ford would think grass growing was romantic.
"He took control. He made decisions without speaking to me. God knows what he's going to expect for it." Whatever he was expecting, he wasn't going to get it, Elissa told herself.
Mrs. Ford shook her head. "It's not like that, Elissa. Walker is a very nice man. An ex-Marine. He saw you were in need and helped out."
That's what got Elissa most of all. The "being in need" part. Just once she'd like a little extra put by for a rainy day or a flat tire.
"I don't like owing him."
"Or anybody. You're very independent. But he's a man, dear. Men like to do things for women."
Mrs. Ford was nearly ninety, tiny and the kind of woman who still used lace-edged handkerchiefs. She'd been born in a time when men took care of life's hardships and the most important job for a woman was to cook well and look pretty while doing it. The fact that living like that drove many women to alcohol or madness was just an unhappy by-product not to be discussed in polite society.
"I called Randy," Elissa said as she slid the piecrust into the pan and pressed it into place. "He told me the tire cost forty dollars, but he'd lie in a heartbeat if he thought it would protect me, so I'm thinking it had to be closer to fifty."
She had exactly sixty-two dollars in her wallet and she needed most of them for grocery shopping that afternoon. Her checking account balance hovered right around zero, but she got paid in two days, so that was something.
"If I could afford a new tire, I would have bought it myself," she muttered.
"It's more practical than flowers," Mrs. Ford offered. "Or chocolates."
Elissa smiled. "Trust me, Walker isn't courting me."
"You don't know that."
She was fairly confident. He'd helped because… Because… She frowned. Actually, she didn't know why he'd come to her aid. Probably because she'd looked pathetic as she'd wrestled with uncooperative lug nuts.
She rolled out the second crust. Flats of blueberries had been ridiculously cheap at the Yakima Fruit Stand. She'd pulled in after dropping Zoe off at her party. She had just enough time to make three piecrusts before she had to be back to pick up her daughter.
"I'll finish up the pies after I come back from the grocery store," Elissa said, more to herself than her neighbor. "Maybe if I take him one…"
Mrs. Ford smiled. "An excellent idea. Imagine what he'll think when he gets a taste of your cooking."
Elissa groaned. "You're matchmaking, aren't you?"