She'd carried her books in her arm. His brother had been holding her other hand. Kyle remembered staring at their joined hands and feeling as if he'd been punched in the stomach. The most beautiful girl in the world belonged to his brother. It was hopeless. Then she'd smiled at him. A warm, wide smile that had made him forget to breathe. After that, he hadn't cared about anything but her.
He was sure Jordan had introduced them, although he couldn't remember the conversation. He'd recognized her name. She was known as "a brain." Sensible Sandy. Travis had teased Jordan about dating her, asking if she organized his kisses the way she organized everything else. Kyle hadn't paid attention to the good-natured ribbing. He'd never understood his brother's interest in girls. Until that day.
He dipped the roller in the tray, then continued working on the ceiling. It had all happened a long time ago, yet that afternoon had been one of those significant moments that had changed his life. He'd never looked at girls the same. He'd started returning some of the teasing smiles sent his way. He'd stolen his first kiss, his first embrace, had wished for his first lover, although that hadn't happened for a few more years. But through it all, he'd dreamed of Sandy.
All this time later, he still wasn't sure what it was about her that got to him. To him, she was beautiful, but he knew most people didn't share his opinion. Her strength and intelligence had scared off lots of guys. He'd wanted to tell her it didn't scare him; he'd admired her. But she wouldn't have cared. He was two years younger than her. Now it didn't matter, but when she'd been sixteen and he'd been fourteen, those two years had seemed like an uncrossable barrier. When he'd finally gathered the courage to speak to her, she'd been friendly but not interested. He was just her boyfriend's kid brother.
He drew the roller across the flat ceiling toward the corner. He'd used the brush to paint along the edges and now he blended the paint to make a smooth coat. He grinned as he recalled how happy he'd been the day Jordan had announced he'd broken up with Sandy. The woman of his dreams was now available. He'd quickly realized not only was he too young to ask her out, but now she would stop coming to the house and he wouldn't get to see her at all. He'd spent the next few months standing outside the high school hoping for a glimpse of her.
It had been a year later that he'd walked into his kitchen and found Sandy talking with Jordan. His heart had thudded wildly in his chest, his face had flushed and his voice, which had changed two summers before, had started cracking again. For a horrible moment, he'd thought they were back together again. He quickly found out they were just friends. For reasons he could never understand, Sandy had preferred his house to her own. She'd spent much of her senior year hanging out with the Haynes brothers. By then, Kyle had been fifteen, and a high school student. By taking inconvenient routes to classes, he caught glimpses of Sandy during the day. She was nice to him, friendly but never encouraging. No matter what he did, she never really saw him as anything but Jordan's kid brother.
One night, when his mom had gone to a parent-teacher meeting, Sandy had volunteered to cook dinner. While she'd watched over a pot roast, he'd wrestled with an essay for English. Sandy had sat next to him and helped him. She'd leaned close, pointing out the awkward construction and mismatched sentences. He'd barely been able to write, with her right next to him. The scent of her body had driven him wild. He'd wanted to kiss her, to touch her, to do anything to let her know how he felt. He could still remember the freckles on her nose and the light in her eyes as she'd smiled at him.
Their arms had brushed together. Electricity had raced through him, from his head to his toes. When the paper was finished, he'd waited for her to move away, but she hadn't. He'd stretched his arms wide, yawning exaggeratedly, then he'd casually dropped his arm over her shoulders. He'd hugged several girls by then, but with Sandy he felt as if he were doing it for the first time. He couldn't think of anything to say. His mouth had gone dry, his tongue twisted up. She'd turned slightly toward him, her smile soft and knowing.
"I think you're a great guy, Kyle," she'd said. "You're going to make some girl very happy."
She should have just shot him and been done with it. Not even the brief kiss on his cheek was enough to make up for the humiliation of that moment. He'd tried and he'd failed. He didn't have a chance with her.
Kyle started on the walls of the bedroom. The hell of it was, after all this time, he still hated the way she'd dismissed him. Years later, he could still taste the defeat.
Was that what this was about? he wondered. Was he just trying to prove something to himself and maybe to Sandy? Or had those long-ago feelings simply been lying dormant, waiting for her to return?
He shook his head. That was crazy. He hadn't been waiting for her to return. But he sure wished he'd kissed her last night. The thought of holding her in his arms had kept him awake until after midnight. Maybe what he should do is-
"You're almost done in here."
He turned toward the voice and saw Lindsay walking into the bedroom. The preteen gave him a winning smile, then tossed her ponytail over her shoulder.
"It's going pretty fast," Kyle said, dipping the roller into the tray. "Whose room is this going to be?"
Lindsay moved close to him and fluttered her eyelashes. Obviously she hadn't gotten over her crush. "Mine."
He was sorry he'd asked. Still, he didn't say anything to her. He didn't want to hurt her feelings. He, of all people, knew what it was like to be dismissed by the object of his affection. Yet he didn't want to encourage her, either. The situation made him damn uncomfortable.
Lindsay crossed the room to the window. "We're going to put up a wallpaper border."
"That'll look real nice."
"You think so?"
She stared at him earnestly, as if his answer mattered more than anything. Kyle finished the wall opposite the window and nodded. "Yeah, sure it will. Did you come up to see how I was doing, or did you want something specific?"
"Oh, Mom's ordering sandwiches for lunch. What would you like?"
"Lean roast beef with everything."
She wrinkled her nose. At that moment, she looked just like her mother. Kyle grinned. "You don't approve?"
"I hate onions."
"Then I won't make you eat any."
Lindsay laughed. Kyle couldn't figure out if he was making it better or worse. Before he had a chance to decide, Travis poked his head into the room.
"Lindsay, your mom's looking for you," he said.
"Okay." She glanced at Kyle. "I've got to give her the orders. You can come downstairs if you'd like. Everyone is taking a break."
"Thanks. I'll do that." He waited until she left, then grimaced at his brother. "What am I going to do about her?"
Travis came into the room and laughed. "I can't help you, little brother. Lindsay is way out of my league."
"Thanks for nothing." Kyle slipped the roller into the tray, then turned toward the last unpainted wall. "When you were first dating Elizabeth, did you have any problems with her daughter, Mandy?"
"Mandy was six at the time. She only ever saw me as a substitute father. Can't you just tell Lindsay you're too old for her?"
"Sure. But then I'll hurt her feelings and humiliate her."
"I wish I had something better to tell you."
Kyle shrugged. "Me, too." He raised his arms and moved the roller up and down above the closet door. "I'll think of something."
Travis grinned. "I don't understand why there's a problem in the first place. You're usually so good with kids."
"It's different this time."
Because I think I care about Sandy. Except he didn't want to admit to that. Not yet. Just thinking about it was enough to make him break out in a cold sweat. He knew better than to care. It was dangerous. If his brothers, father and uncles had taught him one thing, it was that Haynes men didn't make good husbands and fathers. They'd been failing at it for several generations. He frowned. Except for Travis. His brother had been married for over two years. He and Elizabeth had had a daughter. They were happy. So Travis had escaped the Haynes family curse. That didn't mean Kyle was also going to get lucky.
"Maybe you should think about settling down," Travis told him.
"I'm not the type. My relationships don't last."
"That's because you leave the women before they can leave you."
"What am I supposed to do about it? Stay, and let them leave me?"
"How about trusting they might want to stay?"
Kyle put down the roller and stared at his brother. They were about the same height, with the same dark hair and eyes. Travis was four years older. His marriage had softened his hard edges and made him a happy man.
"What if they don't stay?" Kyle asked.
Travis's smile faded. "What if they do? It seems to me you're already changing things."
"What does that mean?"
"We're here." He moved his arm out to indicate the room, then the house beyond. "You've never involved your family with one of your women before."
"Sandy's not one of my women. She's-"
Travis waited, his eyebrows raised.
"Forget it," Kyle mumbled and turned back to the painting. He concentrated on moving the roller down the narrow strip of wall between the closet and the corner. "Don't you have work to do?" he asked.
"Not really. We're taking a break until the deli delivers the sandwiches. You could come down and join us. Or you could continue to hide up here."
Kyle grunted. "I'll be down when I'm done."
"Sure." Travis started out the door.
"And I'm not hiding," he called.
Kyle knew he hadn't been hiding, but Sandy was still sure avoiding him. All through lunch, she sat at the far end of the living room. Sunlight streamed through the bare windows. Someone had swept the hardwood floor, then mopped it until it gleamed. With no furniture in the large house, they'd each pulled up a piece of floor when the meal had arrived. Nichole had passed out sodas, then taken a seat near Austin. The gray-eyed pirate always had a way with the ladies, Kyle thought, watching Nichole charm the quiet man. Mercifully, Lindsay had stayed near her mother. Instead, it had been Blake who'd sat near Kyle. The boy hadn't said anything, despite Kyle's attempt to bring him into the conversation. In the end, Kyle had given up and instead, had watched Sandy not look at him.
He studied her, trying to figure out what it was exactly that got to him. In denim shorts and a red tank shirt, she was hardly dressing to be seductive. If he took her features apart, there wasn't anything special about her. Wide green eyes drew his gaze. He liked the way she wore mascara and no other makeup. Her nose was straight, her mouth turned up slightly at the corners, her chin was pointed, but not too pointed. Her body was well proportioned for her height, her breasts neither too large nor too small, her hips rounded, but not obvious. So why did she drive him crazy? Was it hormonal? Was it the result of too much reminiscing and not enough sleep?
Austin stood and stretched. "Back to work, everyone. We should be able to finish the painting today if we get going now."
Sandy scrambled to her feet. "I'll clean up," she said.
"I'll help." Kyle grabbed the wrapping from his sandwich, then picked up Blake's. The boy gave him a quick smile. The curve of the child's lips and flash of white teeth reminded him of Sandy. For a moment, he stared at the boy, wondering what it must be like to have a child of one's own. A fierce longing swept through him, shocking him with its intensity. He shook his head slightly, then continued to collect trash.
Everyone stood up and slowly left the room. At last, he and Sandy were alone.
"I can handle this," she said, not looking at him.
"I don't mind helping."
"I don't want to keep you from your painting."
"Are you afraid I'm not working hard enough?" he teased.
She'd bent over to pick up Nichole's half-eaten sandwich. Now she turned her head and looked at him. Her loose, shoulder-length hair shielded part of her face. "Not at all. I know everyone is doing a lot for me, and I really appreciate it." She tucked her hair behind her ear as she straightened. "We all do."
"I know." He walked toward her. "I was just kidding. I'll help you clean up here, then I'll go back upstairs and paint. Fair enough?"
She nodded. He wanted to think she was staring at his mouth, but he figured it was just wishful thinking on his part. No doubt about it, the lady turned him on. Unfortunately, he doubted his feelings were returned.
She continued to stare at him, then flushed slightly and looked away as if she'd just realized what she was doing. He watched the color climb up her cheeks to her hairline. The house was quiet, despite the number of people inside. He couldn't hear anything except his heart pounding in his chest and the faint whisper of Sandy's rapid breathing. At least he told himself it was rapid.
She twisted her fingers together. A paper napkin drifted from the trash she held and fluttered to the ground. He bent and grabbed it, then thrust it toward her. His fingers brushed her arm. She jumped.
"Kyle, I don't think-"
"Good," he said, cutting her off. "I know you're upset about last night."
She swallowed and stared at the center of his chest. "Last night should never have happened."
"Which part? The pizza? You and your kids eating at my house? Or what happened later?"
"What happened later."
Her voice was soft and low. He had to lean forward to hear her. She continued to stare at his chest. He wondered if she was afraid to look him in the eye because of what she would see or because of what she would reveal? He wanted it to be the latter.
"What exactly did happen?" he asked, deliberately taunting her.
She raised her gaze. He saw something hungry flash through her eyes, then she blinked and it was gone. "Nothing. Nothing at all. And I want to make sure nothing happens again."
Nothing except he'd almost kissed her and she'd almost let him. She wanted to make sure it happened again? Did she mean nothing or did she mean the kiss? "Are you sure?" he asked and moved closer.
"Yes." Her voice was a mere whisper. She trembled.
He touched her bare arm, just above the elbow. She pulled back. "I mean it, Kyle. I don't want there to be anything between us. I'm not interested."
He'd once played football with a sprained ankle and never let on until the game was over. He'd been cut pretty bad breaking up a fight and had finished his shift before going to the hospital. He'd been dumped once, a long time ago in college, and never told a soul. So it wasn't hard to continue to stare at her and not let her know what he was thinking. But inside, he reeled from the blow. As simple as that. She wasn't interested. Thanks but no thanks.
"No problem," he said, shoving his hands into his pockets.
She sighed. "I don't mean to be cruel or rude. I appreciate everything you've done for me. Bringing Travis and Austin to help, working around here, all of that. It's been great. But you and I have nothing in common. It would be best if we were just neighbors."