MORE THAN SHE EXPECTED
4.5 stars, Top Pick, Romantic Times
Laurel Kent has learned the hard way that the only person she can trust – aside from her slightly crazy grandmother – is herself. So when Tyler Noble, her too-cute-for-his-own-good next door neighbor, starts hovering like a sheepdog when he finds out she’s pregnant, she doesn’t dare let herself get used to the attention. Especially since Tyler’s made it more than clear he is so not a family man. And Laurel would rather raise her son by herself than in something fake, like her parents had…even if she does see all the good in Tyler he doesn’t yet see himself…
Lightning stabbed Tyler’s eyes an instant before thunder slammed through the house, rattling windows and propelling him off the sofa and through his kitchen to wrench open the patio door. When he’d let the dog out ten minutes ago, it’d been calm and sunny, a perfect June day—
“Boomer! Come on in, buddy!”
But all he heard was the wind ripping at the trees, another skull-shattering thunderclap. Swearing, Tyler stomped out onto the worn deck overlooking his paltry back yard, the sky so black he half expected to see flying monkeys—
“Boomer!” he yelled again, blinking against the brutal wind. This was nuts – how the hell did you lose an eighty pound dog? Especially one who normally waited out thunderstorms wedged under the bed. Or, more often, against Tyler. “Dammit, mutt – where are you?”
He tromped off the deck and around to the side yard, dodging airborne leaves. From behind a wall of tangled, overgrown pyracantha and Virginia creeper the rickety wooden fence shuddered and groaned, bitching at him for not having fixed it yet. A windsurfing plastic bag plastered to his chest; Tyler snatched it off, balling it up and stuffing it into his pocket as thunder cracked again, too close, making him jump. Where the hell was the dog?
Not in the well leading out from the basement. Or behind the small shed. Or under the deck...
His heart pounding so hard it hurt, Tyler called again as a bodacious raindrop pinged his forehead, instantly followed by a billion of its cousins. Swearing, Ty shoved through the jungle and out the side gate to the front yard, even though it wasn’t like the dog could open the latch, for God’s sake—
“BOOMER!” Ty bellowed, hands cupped around his mouth, water streaming down his face, into his eyes—
Tyler jerked left, then right—
“Behind you! On the porch!”
He whipped around. And there was his damn dog, shivering to beat the band in his neighbor’s arms – Laurel, he thought she’d said her name was when she’d moved in a few months ago. His floppy ears slicked back, his stubby tail quivering, Boomer ducked his smooth, solid head when he saw Tyler, his amber eyes shining like a pair of lights in his ridiculously sweet, black face.
Soaked, but hugely relieved, Tyler unhooked the short iron gate and forded the instant river surging across the bumpy cement walk. The house was a mirror image of his, a sturdy little Craftsman one-story with a dormered attic, a decent porch. Pretty typical small town Jersey. Except Laurel’s was all doll house colors, pale yellow and blue, where Ty’s was dark and manly. Or something.
“He was scratching at my door,” Laurel said over the rain thrumming on her porch overhang as she smiled at the idiot dog. Dumbass was eating it up, too, licking her face while his butt wiggled so hard it blurred. Laughing, Laurel leaned back on her heels, only to let out an “Oh!” when Boomer knocked her flat on her can.
“Crap, I’m so sorry!” Ty grabbed the dog’s collar, tugging him off the poor woman before she drowned in dog spit. “Get over here—”
“It’s okay,” Laurel said, getting to her feet, still grinning even as she scrubbed the collar of her baggy overshirt across her jaw. Her standard get-up, usually worn with those stretchy pants or tights or whatever they were, from what little Ty’d seen of her. He only had a few inches on her, he realized, her nothing-else-but brown hair not short, but not long, either. And straight as a stick, like his was, even in the humidity. She was okay-looking, he supposed, but not what you’d call a knock-out.
Except then she met his gaze dead-on, and he nearly tripped over his own dog. While standing completely still. To say her eyes were blue was like… Okay, if angels had blue eyes? They’d be this color—
“Boomer – is that right? – is a real sweetheart. What is he?”
Tyler snapped back to attention. “Mostly boxer. With a little Rottie in there for bulk. And he’s my boy, aren’t you, you big stinker?” he said, taking the dog’s head in his hands to kiss the top of his head. The dog woofed, jowls flapping around his ridiculous underbite, and Tyler caught Laurel’s look of tolerant amusement. A lot like the one his adoptive mother used to give him when he’d screw up. Which’d been about every five minutes, there at the beginning.
“What? I love my dog.”
Laurel laughed again – a nice sound, low in her chest. “I can see that. And this is embarrassing, I know you told me your name when we met—”
“Sorry. Tyler,” he said, slicking back his wet hair. “Tyler Noble. And you’re Laurel, right? Laurel…hold on…” Grinning, he pointed at her. “Kent.”
“Yeah. Wow. Good memory.”
For women’s names? You bet. A skill Ty’d been fine-honing since those first hormones blinked their sleepy eyes when he was ten or eleven or something and whispered, You’re all ours, now. Also, he’d been far more curious about his reclusive neighbor than he should probably admit. She rarely left the house, far as he knew. Not that he was around much during the week, usually, but since his salvage shop wasn’t far he often came home for lunch, and her old Volvo wagon was always in the driveway. And the only visitor he’d seen was some old lady who drove a spiffy new Prius—
Boomer slurped his tongue across Ty’s hand, earning him a glare. “He hates thunderstorms, so why – let alone how – he got out, I have no idea.”
“Um…this isn’t the first time he’s paid a visit.”
Tyler’s eyes shot to hers. “You’re kidding?”
“Nope.” Now, despite the smile – no lipstick, fullish mouth – Ty noticed the caution shimmering in those eyes. And the crows’ feet fanning out from them. A couple years older than him, maybe. So…mid-thirties or thereabouts—? “So you don’t let him roam the neighborhood?”
“What? No!” He looked at Boomer, who’d planted his posterior on the porch floor and was noisily yawning, then back at Laurel, who was somehow getting prettier every time he looked at her. Except she wasn’t his type. He was almost sure. Nor was he hers, he was even more sure—
“The fence!” Ty said, snapping his fingers. “I’ll be there’s a hole under it somewhere.”
“Oh. Maybe so. And I don’t have a gate on my side yard. Although why he doesn’t just knock on my back door, I have no idea.”
She smiled again, and Ty’s brain checked out for a moment. “Uh…yeah. Yeah.” Dude! Really? “Soon as it stops raining, I’ll check it. Get that sucker fixed so my dog stops bothering you.”
Laurel’s gaze dipped to the dog. “Oh. Well, yes, I suppose you should fix the fence, but…” Her eyes bounced back up to his. Still blue. Still incredible. “Actually, I don’t mind the company.” A long pause preceded, “Um…would you like to come in? I could make tea or something…?”
Way in the distance, thunder softly rumbled. The storm was moving off.
As should you, buddy.
“Nah, thanks, but I’m soaked to the skin. And in case you didn’t notice, my dog stinks. Anyway, you’re probably busy…”
A smile flitted across her lips as she tugged that floppy shirt closed. It’d been a weirdly cool June anyway; now, in the wake of the storm, the damp breeze was downright frigid. “No problem. Another time, then.”
“Uh…sure.” Because that’s what you said when both parties knew “another time” was never going to happen. Especially once he found, and plugged up, somebody’s little escape hatch. He grabbed the dog’s collar and began tugging him down the porch steps, tossing, “You have a good night, okay?” over his shoulder as he made what felt weirdly like an escape.
* * *
Laurel watched as Tyler and the dog trudged back to his house, then let out a whew-that-was-close sigh that fogged around her face in the chilly, damp air. Because, really, what had she been thinking, inviting the man in for tea? If he even drank tea, which she seriously doubted.
Hormones, that’s all this was. Had to be. Only reason she could see for her insane, and totally inappropriate, attraction to her cute, sexy, built, sexy, blond, sexy neighbor.
Her cute, sexy, built, blond obviously younger neighbor who clearly had a thing for cute, sexy, blond, petite, obviously-younger-than-he-was girls. Not that they were talking dozens or anything. And Laurel supposed they’d all – well, all two, and not at the same time, to be fair – had seemed nice enough from what she could tell through her living room window. If a little overzealous in the giggling department. One of them, anyway. Who giggled enough for five girls, honestly. But the thing was, they were obviously nothing like Laurel. Nor she, them. Being neither blonde nor petite. Not to mention sexy. So she somehow doubted Tyler would ever be interested in her, in any case.
Even if she weren’t, you know. Knocked up.
Shaking her head at herself, Laurel yanked open her storm door and went back inside, where the symphony of Easter egg colors on her walls, her furnishings, made her smile. Yes, the house was a work in progress, but it was her work in progress. So, bam. Three months since she’d signed the mortgage papers, and she still couldn’t quite believe it, that she’d thrown caution to the winds and bought a house.
Her hand went to her belly, still barely pooched out underneath her roomy top. Speaking of throwing caution to the winds.
But as she walked through the still, silent space, the realization that it wouldn’t be still and silent for very long made her smile. Especially when she came to what would be the baby’s room. Where, leaning against the doorjamb, she shuddered, from a combination of giddy anticipation and sheer terror. As well as the ugliest shade of mauve known to man. Thank you, 1983, she thought, then sighed. Definitely not how she’d envisioned becoming a mother. Sure, Gran would want to help, but Marian McKinney was well into her eighties, for heaven’s sake. Mentally spry, for sure, but Laurel doubted the old girl was up to chasing a toddler – a thought that sent another shiver down Laurel’s spine.
To say this was unexpected didn’t even begin to cover it. But here she was, pregnant, and alone, and you know what? She could either moan and groan about cruel fate or whatever, or she could suck it up, count her blessings – which were many, actually – and make the best damn lemonade, ever.
She smiled. Maybe she should paint the room yellow, like lemonade. Or sunshine—
Her doorbell rang. Frowning, Laurel tromped back down the hall and peered through the peephole, her heart bumping when she saw Tyler. Honestly.
“Found the problem,” he said when she opened the door, all business with his arms crossed high on his chest. He wore his hair long enough that a breeze had shoved a hunk of streaked blond hair across his forehead, making him look about sixteen. The kind of sixteen-year-old boy that made mamas of sixteen-year-old girls chew their nails to the quick. “Wanna come see?”
“You might want to put on some heavier shoes, though,” he said, nodding at her flimsy ballet flats. “It’s pretty wet out there.”
Her feet duly shoved into already-tied sneakers, she followed her neighbor around to her back yard, which desperately needed mowing. Yeah, she’d get right on that. Tyler pointed to a spot near the back corner where the wooden fence leaned especially badly. A lot worse than when she’d moved in, which was saying something. But, hey, it helped her negotiate a lower price, so there ya go.
“Ah.” Laurel sighed. “Guess this means I need to finally fix my fence.”
“Since he’s going under the fence, that wouldn’t help.”
She frowned at her neighbor. Who actually glowed in the sunlight. Dear God. “You never noticed the hole on your side?”
“Um…” He clasped the back of his neck. “I might have a slight…bush problem there. Anyway…here’s my idea. Even if I trim back the jungle, and you fix your fence, and we fill the hole back up, dog’s probably just gonna dig a new hole, right? So what I’m thinking is, how’s about I build a cinderblock wall instead?”
Laurel made a face. “Prison chic? I’m thinking no.”
Tyler laughed. And, natch, he had a great laugh. And dimples. Right out of the devil’s toolbox, those dimples. “Doesn’t have to be gray, there’s all kinds of colors now. Since I’ve got brick, anyway, on the other two sides, maybe something that’ll kinda match? Then you can ditch that thing—” he nodded at the pathetic wood fence “—and not have to worry about another one for a long, long time. If ever.”
Man had a point. “I suppose that might work. When could you do it?”
“Next weekend, if it doesn’t rain?” Then he grinned at her. And winked. “You can help, if you want.”
Oh, hell…he was flirting? Then again, flirting was probably his default mode. Part of his genetic makeup, like the surfer blond hair. And – she couldn’t help but notice – the gold-flecked hazel eyes, twinkling in the late afternoon sunlight…
Sighing – at her own foolishness, mostly – Laurel forced her gaze away from those twinkling eyes and back to the muddy hole. A symbol of her life if ever there was one. “Not sure I’d be much good,” she muttered. Which would have been true even if she hadn’t been pregnant. Upper body strength was not her strong suit. Then, mustering her courage, she looked at him again. “You can really build a wall?”
Ty put his hand on his heart, looking stricken. “Aww…you don’t trust me?”
“Since we’re talking many hundreds of pounds that could potentially topple over on my…” She caught herself. “On me, it seems prudent to ask.”
“Fair enough. But yeah, I can. A damn good one, too. Got my start working construction, first year was doing masonry—”
“Is there something you could show me? So I could see your work for myself?”
“Wow. Tough customer. Nobody’s gonna pull one over on you, huh?”
He should only know. “Just being practical. Well?”
He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “Actually…I built one for…someone not that long ago. She doesn’t live too far away, I could take you over to see it, if you like. You could even push on it, make sure it stays put.” When she laughed, he added, “Afterwards, how’s about we go pick out the blocks together? So you get the color you want. Because I don’t care, frankly.”
“Sounds like a plan. But…since it’s a shared wall, and you’re going to be doing all the work, at least let me pay for the blocks.”
“And since we wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for my dog, I’m gonna have to say ‘no’ to that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, if I can’t physically help, the least I can do is contribute to the cost. Which I would’ve done, anyway. No, I mean it,” she said to his snort. “I won’t feel right otherwise.”
That got a long, assessing look before he finally said, “How about a home-cooked meal in exchange? Would that work?”
A laugh pushed through her nose. “Considering my extreme lack of culinary skills? Probably not.”
Ty looked so disappointed she nearly laughed again. “You don’t cook?”
“As in, taking random ingredients and turning them into something palatable? Not so much.” She paused, then said, “But since I do eat—” Every hour, on the hour, these days. Not something he needed to know. Or that the idea of Tyler Noble sitting at her kitchen table made her slightly dizzy. “—I’m sure I can come up with something. That’s why God made delis, right?”
He grinned. An endearing grin, the kind that probably turned his mother to goo when he was a kid. Since it was making Laurel more than a little gooey herself. “Absolutely.”
She smiled back, then took a deep breath – because she had a hunch whatever was going on here had precious little to do with being neighborly, and what on earth was she supposed to do with that? – and said, “So…when can we go see this wall?”
His smile dimmed slightly. But only for a moment. “I’ll give her a call, see if we can go over sometime tomorrow. If that works for you?”
“Absolutely,” Laurel said.
Because the sooner they got this little folderol over with, the better.
* * *
His butt-ugly face wedged between the bucket seats, Boomer alternated hot-breath panting with slurping in his drool as Tyler pulled his pickup into Starla’s short driveway. On the other side of the dog, Laurel sat with her giant purse on her lap, staring out the windshield. Ty didn’t think she’d said ten words in the past ten minutes, despite her having been chatty enough the day before.
Normally this wouldn’t be a problem – his teachers used to say he talked enough for ten people, anyway – but her silence was a touch unnerving. Was it him? Had he done or said something to make her clam up? Not he should care. They were neighbors, that’s all. Neighbors only going to look at a wall.
And besides, he could tell this one was classy. Not in a la-di-da, designer duds kind of way, but for real. Something Tyler had never been and never would be. Not that he was scum – although he’d skirted close enough, from time to time, to make his parents despair, he was sure – but no matter how often you prune a wildly growing bush in an attempt to tame it, its roots stay the same. Meaning, left to its own devices, it’ll always revert to its wild nature. And while that those wild roots didn’t seem to be an issue for a lot of the women he’d known over the years, he was pretty sure they would be for Laurel.
So if his ego was whining because Laurel was apparently the first woman since his adoptive mother to be impervious to his blarney….well, his ego could shut the hell up, is what.
“Cute house,” Laurel said, popping open the car door. Yesterday’s storm had left behind clear blue skies and a cool, brisk breeze, making it feel more like fall than early summer. Starla’s little white bungalow – a dream come true for her, he knew, thanks in no small part to a leg up from the state for first time home buyers – gleamed in the strong afternoon sunshine, the new windows Tyler’d installed glimmering like diamonds.
“Yeah. It is,” he said. Only he must’ve sounded funny, because Laurel gave him a weird look. But with a little shake of her head, she lowered herself from the passenger seat, the dog shoving past her and over to Starla, who’d come outside to greet them, all smiles as usual. She’d just gotten off work, still in jeans and a plain white polo shirt, her long blond hair pulled back from her still-pretty face. It was weird, how sometimes she looked far younger than her forty-eight years, while other times she seemed so much older.
The drugs’ toll, he supposed.
Now she untangled herself from the dog’s exuberant greeting to hold her hand out to Laurel. “So nice to meet you, honey! Can I get you something to drink? Iced tea? A Coke—?”
“We’re only here to look at the wall,” Tyler said quietly, reminding her.
Hazel eyes flashed to his. “What? She can’t sip on a soda while she looks?”
Laurel smiled. “Thank you, but I’m fine. Really. Except…would you mind if I used your bathroom?”
“Not at all! Come on in…”
Tyler frowned. It’d barely been ten minutes, if that, since they’d left Laurel’s house. And the plan – his plan – had been to show her the wall, let her shove on it, then get out again. Before anybody started asking questions. Questions he’d rather not answer, if he didn’t have to.
His forehead still pinched, he followed the women – and his dog – inside, where Starla steered Laurel down the hall and Boomer moseyed on over to the sofa to mess with Mrs. Slocombe, Starla’s mega-sized gray tabby. Who’d been peacefully napping until this dumb dog stuck his nose in her face—
“I take it she doesn’t know?” Starla said behind him.
Tyler turned, leaving the hissing cat and barking dog to work it out between them. “Why should she? She’s only my neighbor..”
Starla crossed her arms over her ribcage, her gaze razor-sharp. A helluva lot more than it used to be, that was for sure. But there was a sadness behind the sharpness he couldn’t deny. Especially because he’d put it there. At least partly.
“You’ve done so much for me, Ty,” she said softly. “A lot more than I ever would have expected. So why can’t you get past this? I mean, seriously – what difference does it make? It’s not like it would change anything, right?”
As often as the subject came up, you’d think by now he’d be inured to the pain. The guilt, that he couldn’t let it go. And yes, the anger, since he’d told her why, every time she’d asked. And every time, they’d come to the same impasse, where she’d ask for forgiveness and he’d restate the conditions for her exoneration, and she’d give him the same, unsatisfactory answer – sometimes tearfully, sometimes wearily, often angrily – to the same nagging question:
“Who’s my father?”
And he was hardly going to get into it again with Laurel right down the hall. In fact, he heard the door open, sensed her stop to glance at one of the few photos Starla had from before. Nothing that would mean anything to Laurel, he wouldn’t imagine. Then she was there, in her skinny black pants and another floppy top in some blah color, no makeup, no jewelry, smiling at him – a friendly little grin, no biggee – and some crazy feeling that was almost unpleasant plowed right into his gut.
“All better?” Starla said.
“Much.” Then, to Tyler: “So lead me to this wall.”
“Sure,” he said, taking her through Starla’s orange-and-aqua kitchen, the window over the sink so choked with plants the light could barely get through, and out the sliding glass door. Like his, the yard wasn’t much to speak of, the small, grassy plot balding in places. But Ty took a lot better care of Starla’s yard than he did his own – since he didn’t have time for both – and the blooming rosebushes crowded against the wall certainly seemed happy enough.
Wordlessly, Laurel tramped across the damp grass and, yes, pressed both palms against the wall. Then she sidled close between his mother’s Mr. Lincoln and Chicago Peace and looked toward the far end – to check that it was straight, he assumed.
Then she gave him a thumb’s up, and he chuckled.
He heard the patio door slide open, saw Starla come out onto the tiny patio with a tray holding a pitcher, some glasses, a plate of something. She’d changed out of her work clothes into something flowy and long, her hair hanging loose. What she called her “hippy dippy” look. An homage of sorts to her long-dead parents, he supposed.
“I know, I know,” she said, setting the tray on a small glass-topped table. “But if somebody doesn’t help me eat these cookies, I’ll end up sucking them all down myself. And that would be very bad.”
“Cookies?” Laurel said, hustling across the yard.
“Butterscotch chocolate chip,” Starla said, and Laurel looked like she might cry.
“You made these?”
“I sure did, honey.”
Almost reverently, Laurel lifted one from the plate and took her first bite. “Oh. My. God. These are incredible!”
“Thank you!” Starla beamed. “It’s my own recipe! Please – take as many as you want!”
Laurel laughed, that deep, genuine sound Ty was already coming to like way, way too much. “You might regret saying that,” she said, and picked up two more. Without even a single, “I really shouldn’t…”
“Here, let me put some in a bag for you…”
Starla scooted back inside, her dress billowing behind her, and Ty said, “You must be really hungry.”
Laurel grinned…and chomped off another bite. “These are really good. I mean, insanely good. Here—” She held one out. “Taste it—”
“Not a huge fan of butterscotch, but thanks. You, however, have made Starla’s day.”
Her forehead crimped. “The cookies are wonderful. So I told her so. No big deal.”
For her, maybe not.
Tyler thought about the girls he usually went with, with their done-up hair and made-up faces and pushed-up boobs, and how he’d always liked that, how they’d make all this effort to look good for him. How they’d have a little fun, for a little while, only then somebody would get bored, and it’d be all “No hard feelings, ‘kay?” and that would be that. Because life was just easier with built-in expiration dates.
Except here comes this chick who clearly doesn’t give a crap how she looks, she’s not trying to impress anybody, especially not him, and suddenly it’s all wham-a-bam-ding-dong inside his chest? What the hell?
Starla returned with a plastic zipper bag, filling it with most of the cookies as her instant fan kept on with the gushing. And Tyler had to admit, it wasn’t exactly breaking him up, to see how happy that made the older woman. Who he knew hadn’t had a whole lot of happy, for a very long time.
Not wanting to think about that, however, he returned his attention to Laurel. “So. Does my work meet your exacting standards?”
A breeze came up, sending a strand of hair into her mouth as she chewed. She yanked it out, making a face. “Not that I know from walls, really, but…sure. Let’s do this. You said the block yard’s not far?”
“Maybe ten, fifteen minutes. Our houses are on the way, might as well drop off the dog. We can go ahead and order everything now, if you want.”
“Sounds good.” She hesitated. “Soon as I take another potty break.” Another faint blush swept across her cheeks. “That’s what I get for drinking way too much tea earlier, sorry.”
He watched her walk back into the house, thinking, this was somebody who was cool with who she was. What she was. Who could talk about going pee without getting all coy about it…who Tyler guessed never faked anything. Which, even more than all the surface stuff, was why this wham-a-bam business was for the birds.
Because Tyler didn’t know who he was. Not entirely. His whole life…it was like one big lie, wasn’t it? Okay, maybe not a lie, exactly. A mystery, then.
He looked at Starla, snapping the top back on the cookie container, the only person in the world, as far as he knew, who held the key that would unlock that mystery. And until that happened – if it ever did – the Laurels of the world were strictly off-limits.