“It’s nobody’s fault, really. I mean, who knew the streets were so icy?”
Mari twirled her long black scarf around her neck, capturing the edges of her brunette curls in its grasp as she sat in the driver’s seat of the moving van she had driven all day from Piedmont, Oklahoma, to Colorado Springs. And even more precisely, Old Colorado City.
“And who knew there’d be a storm drain right there?”
She pulled her red wool pea coat tighter around her. She could already feel the color draining out of her fingers inside her black fuzzy mittens. She turned her head to address the howling feline in the cat carrier next to her on the seat. “And I certainly never expected to slip and throw my purse in the air.”
She pulled off a mitten and tried to see, with the help of the nearby streetlight, how white her fingers had gotten. “Darn it, this is not good.” She rubbed the cat nose poking through a hole in the side of the carrier for a moment before slipping her mitten back on.
Tucking her hands under her arms, she closed her eyes and tried to come up with a solution. Everything that could help her get into her new house was down that drain. Her house key, the van key, her phone, her money, her credit cards.
Hit by a sudden revelation, she pounded the steering wheel. “What idiots we women are! Why do we keep everything in one place? How ridiculous is that? We might know that at some point in our lives, we would lose it!” She turned back to the orange, long-haired tabby, who was now trying to scratch her way through the bottom of her plastic prison. “Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. I should have spread things out a bit–keys in my pocket, money in my boots, phone in my bra…”
She had a vision of boob dialing somebody inadvertently and decided her bra was not a good place for a phone. She pictured herself with a wide utility belt like Batman with all her accessories handy. “Of course,” she conceded, “if I carried a huge bag like my mother, it never would have fit in the storm drain.” Mari had always felt the need to make things fit together more compactly, more simplistically, and she silently cursed her love of small things.
Glancing at the little house sitting silent and dark, she shivered from cold, exhaustion, and fear. Colorado Springs had seemed like the answer to her prayers–a place to finally step firmly onto a path that was right for her. But losing all forms of money, communication, and mobility in the first minute hardly seemed like a good sign.
She gave a little moan as her toes started to go numb in her knee-high snow boots. The heater in the rental truck had quit about a half hour before reaching the city. She really didn’t want to start knocking on doors, but she also knew she was already too cold to spend much more time outside. Staring into the night, she prayed. “God, this isn’t a real good start here in this new place, but I’d appreciate it if you could show me which door to knock on. You know, one that doesn’t house a rapist or a serial killer. Please God, show me where the angels live.”
The porch light popped on in the large house that rose to three stories of Victorian splendor next to her small-enough-to-be-called-a-cottage, rental. Mari blinked. “Well, Tawny, I guess that’s the one.” She patted the caterwauling box beside her, opened the truck door, and stepped gingerly down to the icy street.
There wasn’t much snow left on the ground, and thankfully the sidewalks had been scooped, but after her near fall, she had suspected the soles of her new snow boots may be inadequate for the task. She reduced her usual springy step to a shuffle that would have rivaled her ninety-year-old grandmother for speed. The fact that she could barely feel her feet didn’t help either.
Climbing carefully up the porch steps, the front door suddenly opened. Mari got a glimpse of a young man with blond, disheveled hair atop an almost cherubic face–angels, indeed–just before his angelic countenance turned to one of horror, and Mari found herself drowning in a faceful of water. Sputtering, she stumbled back down the stairs to sit hard in a small pile of scooped snow.
“Oh my gosh!” The young man seemed frozen for a second then quickly tiptoed barefoot across the porch, setting the kettle he’d been holding on an Adirondack chair on the way. Rushing down the stairs, he reached for her hand. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
In a state of shock, Mari ignored the question and his offer of a hand up, wiping her face with her mittens.
The angel, that Mari now felt must be of the fallen variety, came behind her and slipped his hands under her arms, hefting her to her feet. She winced at the pain in her behind and tried to wipe the clinging water already turning to ice off the front of her coat with her sopping mittens as a voice boomed out of the still open door.
“Ben, were you raised in a barn? We can’t heat all of the outdoors, you know!”
Another angelic face appeared atop a taller male with short, dark hair gelled to tousled, urban male perfection. His scowl melted into confusion as he took in the scene of a wet-haired woman being helped up the stairs. He rushed forward, and Mari noted that he, too, was barefoot.
“Ben, you idiot!”
“I didn’t see her until it was too late.”
“Why were you throwing the water out the front door anyway? Do you enjoy falling down ice-covered stairs?”
“I threw it out the door because the sink is clogged again, and the back door is stuck, and no, I don’t enjoy falling down ice-covered stairs. I was going to put salt on them.”
Both men guided her into the house, and Mari wondered if this was a new tactic used by rapists and serial killers, like leaving hundred dollar bills on windshields or asking women to smell their designer fragrance–Eau de Chloroform–in parking lots. True, it seemed an unlikely way to snare a victim–having to wait by the door with a kettle of water for women to happen onto their porch–but one never knew about the killer mindset.
She finally found her voice as the dark-haired Adonis peeled the wet mittens from her hands, and the one called Ben tried to loosen the scarf from around her neck. “What are you doing?”
Her look of panic seemed to coax a smile out of the tall one. “Relax, sweetheart, I’m just trying to get you out of these wet things, you’re shivering like the devil.”
Mari thought that an interesting choice of words but couldn’t deny that her teeth were beginning to chatter.
He flung her mittens over the stair railing behind him and reached to take the scarf out of Ben’s hands. “Go get her a towel.”
He reached for the top button of her coat, and Mari tried to push his hands away. “I can do that.” She fumbled with the button while he watched with eyebrows raised and arms crossed.
Finally, he took her hands and held them up in front of her face. “No, I don’t think you can. I’ve never seen such white fingers. Let me help you, so we can get you warmed up.” She nodded, and he released her and made quick work of the buttons.
As he helped her slide out of her coat, and Ben towel-dried her hair, turning it into a thundercloud of frizz, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Oh So Handsome introduced himself. “I’m Eli Rhodes, and you’ve met my younger idiot brother Ben.”
“Hey, it was an accident!” Ben snapped the towel at Eli, but he caught it and yanked it free from his not-quite-as-muscular brother, and flung it, too, over the stair railing.
Both were in jeans and t-shirts, and Mari had mostly decided they weren’t rapists or killers–the jury was still out on devils–but since they were going to be neighbors, there was no point in concealing her name. “I’m Mari… with an ‘i’.” Eli gently maneuvered her away from the front door–the stair railing on her left, a wide doorway to a dark room on her right–toward the kitchen that lay straight ahead. “Mari Baker. I’m your new next door neighbor.” There was that devilish grin again. Can grown men have dimples?
Ben pulled a chair out for her, and Eli went around the table to the cupboard and pulled out a mug. “Well, Mari with an ‘i’, would you like some coffee? It’s decaf.”
Mari wrinkled her nose as she sat, nervously smoothing her long floral, scroll-print top over her tight leggings. She had never been a coffee fan, but she didn’t want to be rude, and she knew something hot was just what she needed–even if she only held the cup. “Sure.”
Ben sat in a chair next to her. “So are you new to town or just the neighborhood?”
She took the cup that Eli offered to her and gingerly wrapped her starkly white fingers around it. “New to town actually. I’m enrolling in the community college in their zoo keeper program.”
Eli tried but failed to stifle a laugh. “Zoo keeper? I never would have pegged you for that.”
Mari bristled and narrowed her eyes. “And just how would you peg me, Mr. Rhodes, after five minutes in my presence and a dozen or so words coming out of my mouth?”
Ben leaned in. “Yeah, Eli, what kind of idiot remark is that? Somebody has to take care of the zoo.” He turned his attention to Mari. “I like animals,” he assured, head nodding, “and we have a great zoo here in the Springs. It’s right on the side of a mountain.”
Mari slowly turned, her frozen glare directed at Eli melting into a warm smile for Ben. “I’ve heard.”
So different in coloring, and yet the similarities in the two brothers’ features were striking. The same squarish chins, with noses that could have been chiseled by the Greeks. While she was focused elsewhere, Eli sat on her other side and pried one of her hands from around the steaming cup and began rubbing her fingers. Mari tried to pull away, but he held on. “Relax. If we don’t get some blood back into these fingers soon, I’m afraid they’re going to fall off.”
“It’s a problem I have in the cold. My toes feel about the same.”
Ben practically dove under the table and started to unzip and then pull off her boots. “Ben! I’m sure you don’t want to take those off–I’ve had them on all day!”
His voice floated up from the vicinity of her feet. “Don’t worry about it. They can’t smell worse than Joe’s. He wrote the book on foot odor.”
Mari looked to Eli, resigned to the fact that he held one hand while the cherubic blond was massaging her toes. “Joe?”
Eli released the hand he’d been working on and reached for the other. “Our very responsible older brother with big, stinky feet.”
Mari arched a brow at his tone, but Eli only smirked and continued to work the blood back up to her finger tips.
“So… you never really answered my question.”
Eli met her gaze. “What question was that?”
“How do you have me pegged?”
Eli didn’t blink. “You didn’t answer my question either.”
Mari’s expression slid into puzzlement. “I don’t remember you asking a question.”
Eli wrapped both hands around hers, infusing her with his heat. “Sure I did. I asked you what brought you to our door? Did you just want to meet the neighbors, or is there something else you wanted?”
“Did you ask–” Mari suddenly pulled her toes from Ben’s ministrations and her hand from Eli’s grasp and stood. “Oh my gosh, I completely forgot.” She looked at Eli incredulously. “Somehow you made me completely forget.”
Eli rose and Ben crawled out from under the table. “What?” they asked nearly simultaneously.
“My cat’s in the truck, and my purse is down the drain.”
Ben sprang for the door, still in bare feet. “I’ll get your cat.”
Mari called after him. “It’s okay, she’s fluffy. She won’t freeze. You can put on your” –he slammed the door behind him– “shoes.” She turned back to Eli. “How can he do that?” She looked down at his bare feet. “How can you do that?”
Eli shrugged. “Just hot-blooded, I guess.”
Mari wondered what that said about her. She looked down at her fingers–mostly pink now but mottled with a few remaining white spots.
Eli took them in his hands and held them close to his chest, his voice suddenly as sultry as mid-summer in Dallas. “I think you need a bit of heat in your life.”
Mari couldn’t believe the chutzpah of her charming new neighbor, and she couldn’t resist messing with him just a bit. She leaned in. “Is that the answer to my question? Is that how you have me pegged?” She could see him deliberating an answer as he gazed into her eyes. Mari couldn’t help studying the details of those eyes. The shade of brown was so dark, they were almost black, and yet there were lighter highlights creating shimmers in the iris.
Finally he spoke, rubbing his thumbs across her knuckles. “I think I’d be a fool to try and peg you at all.”
The door opened, and Mari pulled out of Eli’s grasp as Ben appeared with the cat carrier in hand. She rushed to meet him in her stocking feet, noting that her toes felt almost back to normal. Tawny was howling pitifully. She took the carrier, set it on the floor, and sat down next to it. Sticking her fingers through the grated door, she allowed the frenzied ball of fur to rub on her until she calmed down. “Poor baby! It’s been a long day, hasn’t it? Hopefully we’ll be in our new house soon, and I can let you out of there.”
Eli squatted down beside her. “You also mentioned something about your purse down the drain?”
Mari sighed. “I slipped on the ice and threw my purse in the air. I probably couldn’t do it again in a million years, but it flew right into the storm drain. It’s got everything I need in it–keys, money, phone. I knew I couldn’t spend the night in the truck–I’d be a popsicle by morning–so I…” She paused and wondered if she should tell them the whole story. She plunged ahead. “So I prayed for God to show me which house to go to for help, and just then your porch light came on.”
That bedeviled smile spread across his face, and he rose and slapped Ben on the back. “See, Ben, I told you there’s a God.” Then he spun on his heels and made for the stairs.
Mari scrambled to her feet. “Where are you going?”
He paused half-way up. “To get a flashlight and some socks and shoes. Even a guy as hot as me can’t do twenty degrees barefoot for as long as it might take to rescue your purse.” He gave her a wink and continued up the stairs.
She looked at Ben, wide-eyed, who rolled his eyes and headed toward the stairs, as well. “You know,” he said, never slowing down, “I’m the one who’s always telling him that there’s a God.”
“So can you see it?” Mari was standing over Eli, who was stretched out on his stomach in the street, shining the flashlight down the storm drain with brother Ben beside him in similar form. They were both wearing rugged fleece-lined denim, so she supposed they probably weren’t too cold, even laying on the ice-covered street. She, however, was already starting to scrunch up her toes inside her boots and fist her hands inside her pockets.
Her mittens and scarf were still wet, so Eli had taken great care–a bit too much care in Mari’s opinion–to dress her in gloves and a stocking cap of his. The gloves were too big, and she was sure she looked a fright with her mangled curls sticking out of the tight cap, but she hoped the dark hid that fact.
She took the opportunity to look around at her new neighborhood by the light of the moon, stars, and streetlights. When she was searching for a place on-line, the older homes a bit off the beaten path had appealed to her more than a tiny apartment in the middle of Colorado Springs, and the older home rental price had fit her budget.
Now that she was here looking around, she was so glad that the “closed deal” on the little bungalow had fallen through, and she had gotten a call about its sudden availability just minutes before she was ready to say yes to another place. She liked the old-fashioned neighborhood feel with fully mature trees and the Colorado feel of pines and aspens.
She knew from pictures that her small rental was tan with caramel-colored trim. Where the porch light illuminated the Victorian next to it, she could see that it was sage green with a rose door, but trees and shadows hid any additional trim colors. She could see, however, that it was the most impressive house on the block, with a wrap around porch and a turret on the side. Her house looked drab and miniscule by comparison.
“There it is!” Ben’s voice brought her back to the reason for their winter excursion.
Mari squatted down and leaned in until she was practically on top of them. “Can you reach it?”
Before anyone could answer, a white pickup turned onto the street and slowed. Ben popped to his feet. “That’s probably Joe. If we can’t get it, I bet Joe can.”
Mari looked toward the truck that had now pulled into their driveway, cutting the engine and lights.
Eli slowly rose with a sour look on his face. “And what makes you think Joe can do this any better than you or me.”
“Joe’s got tools,” Ben threw over his shoulder as he jogged to where another denim-clad man was emerging from the parked truck.
Eli yelled back to him. “We don’t need Joe. All we need is a coat hanger to snag it with, for Pete’s sake.”
Mari watched her overconfident new friend sink into sullenness. He seemed to sense her studying him and met her gaze. “What?”
“I take it you and Joe don’t get along very well.”
He snorted. “Oh, we get along just fine as long as I don’t stray too far from the role he wants me to play.”
He had turned away from her, so Mari edged around him until she could see his face again by the street light. “And what role is that?”
He looked at her for a moment longer, his irritation evident; then he switched gears, and looking over her shoulder, broke into a smile. “Joe, I guess Ben filled you in on our new neighbor’s dilemma.”
Mari spun to see the object of Eli’s scorn approaching with a crowbar in hand. His lips turned up in a friendly smile, and Mari’s insides turned to butter. If the first two Rhodes brothers had been molded from heaven’s light, this one was surely spun from God’s glory, himself. He was sandy-headed like Ben with dimples like Eli, yet taller, broader, with eyes like blue smoke. His hair was longer than Eli’s, but well-groomed and styled with a bit of a swoop to one side, one wisp of which had parted company with the rest and pointed toward his right eye.
Joe spoke, and the deep timbre had that butter swirling. “So you lost your purse down the gutter? Must be smaller than most bags I see women carrying.”
Mari swallowed. “Yes, well, I like things small and compact.” She couldn’t keep her eyes from traveling over the wide set of his shoulders. “Usually,” she added under her breath.
Eli pivoted and headed back to the house. “Well, I’m sure you’ve got this, big brother.”
Mari pulled herself away from the heavenly vision before her to watch Eli striding determinedly across the yard. “Eli, wait!” He turned, and she jogged after him, but just as she reached him, she hit a patch of ice. She threw out her arms as her feet slid but missed catching Eli.
Luckily, Eli caught her.
Grabbing onto the front of his coat with the too large gloves, she struggled to get her feet underneath her while Eli smiled down at her with a good grip on her arms. “Relax, I’ve got you.” Mari stopped spinning her feet on the ice, and Eli lifted her up until she was standing solid again.
He slid his hands down to her elbows, and Mari released his coat to grasp his forearms. His smile warmed her more than it should.
“Is there something else I can do for you, Mari?”
With his hands gripping her elbows, his eyes burning into hers, and their breath an icy fog between them, Mari couldn’t remember what she had wanted to tell him. Her eyes migrated away from his penetrating stare. “Your ears are getting red. You should take your hat back.”
He raised a brow as his perfect lips turned into a lop-sided smile. “You rushed over here to tell me that as I’m heading back into the house?”
Mari broke out of his hold, nearly slipped again, and stepped off the sidewalk into the snow. “No, I… you have a way of making me forget things. I was going to thank you for the coffee and… and everything.”
He slid his hands into his coat pockets. “You’re welcome. It was the least I could do after Ben tried to drown you with carrot water.”
Mari couldn’t help laughing. “Carrot water? So that’s what I’ve been smelling.”
“Yep. Maybe we’ve discovered a new beauty treatment.” He paused and let his gaze skim over her face and settle on her lips. “Not that you need one.”
Mari took a step back and waved a hand toward Eli’s brothers, face down in the street. “Well, I guess I better see if they’ve gotten it yet. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.” She started moving toward the street.
She turned back.
“You are coming back to get her aren’t you, or would you like her delivered?”
Eli just grinned.
“Oh! My cat! Yes, of course. I’ll get her just as soon as I have my key.”
A shout of triumph at the curb reminded Mari of why they were all out there freezing their hineys off. Shifting her focus, she saw Ben lifting her purse high in the air.
Mari smiled. Maybe it hadn’t been such a bad start after all.
What people are saying:
I couldn’t put it down once I started reading it. I stayed up all night just to finish it. A well written story that flows well and is very descriptive. You can see it playing out in your mind easily. I love all of this author’s books.
This was the fastest book I have read since I could not put it down. I loved the characters and the romantic twists that swirled around each of them. I also enjoyed the humor as well as the strong belief in God and how he touched their lives. I highly recommend it!
Although not usually a romance novel fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this one! The characters were intriguing and well thought out. As a Christian, I really enjoyed seeing them work through their struggles and live out their faith in God from a Jewish perspective. I also loved the contrast between the brothers in their approach to relationships, with faith and without, and Mari’s growing maturity in recognizing the difference. Mari, and all three of the brothers, were endearing and likable,and you just wanted it to work out well for all of them. Thumbs up!