The evening of card play over, Eli King walked the last of his poker buddies, Maddox Kelly, toward his home’s large foyer. Six feet from the front door, they halted, staring at the obstacle directly ahead. On a floral hooked rug—handcrafted by the second
–oldest of Eli’s four younger sisters, a fine arts major—sat a jumbled mass of duffels, wheeled suitcases, toiletry kits, and shopping bags filled to the brim with who-knew-what.
Maddox slanted him a glance. “Is it like mold? I swear that
pile grew in the four hours since I walked in and managed—with my superior
smackers off you.”
“Welcome to life with a household of women,” Eli muttered, carefully skirting a sloppy heap of scarves and hats so he could reach the worn brass knob. The porch light shone through the lace covering the windowed half of the door, a curtain Sister #2 had sewn during her seamstress phase. “And I lost that final hand because I was distracted by your last girlfriend. She texted to lament your repulsive, troll-like features.”
They grinned at each other as Eli drew open the door, letting in the chill of a mid-April night in Sawyer Beach, a central California coastal town. Maddox sauntered over the threshold then paused to look back. “What are you going to do with yourself when all four of them head out on that road trip tomorrow?”
Eli barely resisted rubbing his palms together in gleeful anticipation. “Two weeks without needing to herd four females with four distinct minds of their own? I’ve been planning my time since last spring break.”
“Engaging in bachelor behaviors that any other normal, red-blooded twenty-nine-year-old man enjoys.”
“Ah.” Maddox said, nodding. “Eating Slim Jim sticks for breakfast and pawing through the pile of dirty laundry to find a pair of socks that might possibly pass the smell test?”
Eli’s lip curled. “It must suck to be you. I’m talking about some social life, Mad. Late nights. Even staying up, maybe, to greet the dawn.”
“Greet the dawn,” his friend repeated, smirking. His forefinger shot out to point at Eli, center-mass. “You’re talking about sex. It’s been a long dry spell, huh?”
As if he’d admit it. Though it was over 300 days since he’d shared sheets with a woman, not that he was counting. “Look, I’m only willing to say that I have some ideas about how to fill my after-work hours.” Getting away from the nursery business in the spring season was a no-go, he’d discovered. Last year, he’d gone on a guys’ trip for ten days and returned to a surfeit of staffing and supply snafus.
“Well, you have my number if you need bail, condoms, or advice,” Maddox said, “though I hope not in that order.”
Having a good friend employed by the local police department wasn’t something to joke about. “Yeah, thanks.”
With a final wave, Maddox headed into the night, leaving Eli to yank out his phone for a quick check of the time. Nearly eleven pm, and four sisters not yet tucked into bed. They must have added to the mountain of belongings on their way out for the evening, while he was deep in poker play with the six friends that had gathered together for a weekly game since their stint in high school Auto Shop.
In the dining room, he collected the bags of non-greasy snacks left on the sideboard and walked them into the kitchen. It was a large space, with lots of counters and cabinets, a farmhouse sink, and a built-in bench along with table and chairs for seating. His buddy Hart Sawyer, who led a construction business, told him he should knock out a couple of walls to modernize the place, but Eli was leaving that to the next owner.
As soon as the sixteen-year-old twins, Lynnie and Molly, left for college, he had the approval of the four girls to sell the family homestead. They’d all been there since their births, not moving even when their parents died in a car accident eleven years before. But his sisters claimed not to possess a sentimental attachment and the place was going to be too big for just one bachelor bent on claiming a single life. A single life put on hold since he took over for Mom and Dad as head of the King household.
The dishwasher was on its last legs, but Eli optimistically filled it with glassware and the utensils and bowls they’d used to eat his famous chili. The host of poker night provided dinner and drinks for the crowd while the crowd contributed during-play edibles that wouldn’t leave a stain on the cards. Somebody had brought gummy bears—most likely Boone, because he had a soft spot for Eli’s sisters and would have purchased their favorite—so Eli rolled down the top of the bag and secured it with a rubber band then tossed it onto the kitchen table. Tomorrow he’d tuck it into the center console of Nora’s small SUV, the car they were taking on their drive to Seattle.
The gummies slid across the surface of the table and fell to the floor, so he crossed to the bag with a grimace and swooped down for retrieval. He set the candy beside the map he’d picked up at the auto club—he’d joined when the first of the girls, Nora, got behind the wheel and there were now four King sister memberships. “God help us all,” he muttered, the same phrase he spoke aloud every time he thought of his youngest siblings driving.
For a moment he hovered over the spread-out map and traced with his finger the route they’d take up the California coast and then into Oregon and Washington. He’d starred the two places he thought would make safe and enjoyable overnights along the way, despite the rolled eyes and nonstop gripes he’d received from Nora, Allison, Lynnie, and Molly.
They could navigate themselves, they’d said. They had smartphones and cell service and a surfeit of brain matter. They didn’t need his guidance.
They didn’t say they didn’t need him. The twins had been
just shy of five, and the other two
Eli had taken over the shopping and cooking and laundry. He’d been eighteen and
already working near full-time at the family nursery. Instead of going away to
college, he’d enrolled in classes at the local community college.
But quickly lectures and readings had gone out the window for him and the only homework he’d become dedicated to was the homework assigned to his sisters. Sure, at times it had felt like a burden, but he’d never considered the girls themselves a burden.
Now they were growing up and eager to try out their wings.
Meaning it was his turn to fly.
Full flight wasn’t for another year-plus, when Lynnie and Molly moved into dorms, but he was going to take a practice run these next two weeks. Smiling at his own eagerness, he folded the map and set the gummy bears on top of it. The feeling was a little like Christmas Eve,[ME1] he realized, during those years when his folks were alive, before it was he who was staying up all night wrapping presents, assembling toys, and scarfing down the treats left out for Santa.
The squeal and bang of the front door opening and shutting snagged his attention. Footsteps sounded, some tramping up the stairs, another quick set heading for him and the kitchen.
Molly swung through the entry from the hallway, her cheeks flushed and small wisps of hair escaping the long French braid hanging over one shoulder. He’d taught himself how to achieve that style through internet how-to videos years ago. Now the girls could manage it themselves or had a sister or friend attend to the task.
He didn’t miss it, he told himself.
“Bro,” Molly said by way of greeting, heading for the refrigerator.
“Sis,” he replied, smiling at her back. He didn’t have favorites, but Mol was the one who invariably checked in with him whenever she got home.
“Did you win tonight?” his youngest sister asked, sliding out a colander of washed grapes and plucking a few of the green fruit free.
“Of course,” he lied. A big brother had a rep to maintain.
She sent him a suspicious glance over her shoulder. But he
had practice at this, too. The kid had believed in the
way beyond the ordinary use-by date.
Pulling out his phone, he tapped to his notes app. “Who came in with you?”
Molly turned, gave him an eye
–roll that he was also long familiar with. “Dude,” she said, in a censuring tone.
“Please.” She shook her head. “Tell me you’re not checking us off like you usually do.”
“What part of ‘like I usually do’ doesn’t compute?”
“That stupid list you make every time we walk out the door is annoying,” Molly declared, in the tone of aggrieved teenagers everywhere. “And then when you make a mark once we get back home…well, that’s so Captain von Trapp.”
It wasn’t like he could miss a
“Sound of Music ”
reference, since it had been his littlest sister’s favorite movie from ages
four to ten. “You know, that’s sparked a good idea,” he said. “I could assign
you each your own whistle. When you come in, you just make the sound and I’ll
hear it from wherever I am in the house, check you off that way.”
Molly sighed, as he’d expected. Then she laughed, which he’d also expected. “You’re weird.”
“The goal of all big brothers everywhere,” he said. “Add
–protective and I’ll sleep like a
“Make that really weird,” Molly replied, and returned the colander to the refrigerator. “I’m going upstairs now. And before you ask, all four of us came in together.”
“Great.” Eli didn’t bother trying to hide the fact that he registered each girl’s return on his phone. “Have a good rest,” he said, as she approached to kiss his cheek good night.
“We’re off early in the morning,” Molly reminded him. “I’d
say you d
have to get up to see us go, but why waste my breath?”
He grinned. “Yes, why?” And laughed as that got him the trifecta—rolled eyes, shaking head, and gusty sigh. As he turned off the kitchen light, he listened to her clamber up the stairs, and then began walking through the first floor to flip other switches and double-check the locks.
At last, he stood in the foyer again, frowning at the pile, which seemed to have grown another two feet in all directions. Where did all that stuff come from? The oldest two had apartments at college and surely they’d left at least some of their belongings there.
Ah, well. If they’d have a better spring break dragging everything they owned along with them, what did he care? It equaled, as a matter of fact, a better spring break for him.
Thinking of the personal freedom lying ahead, he cast aside his worries over his four younger siblings and their imminent adventure.
“Carpe diem,” he murmured, his mood as free as he was going to be in about six hours when he waved them on their way. Carpe diem was going to be his mantra. Seize the day and enjoy the hell out of each unfettered moment. The only thing that would hold him down, he decided, would be some willing lady wanting to ride him, cowgirl-style.
Smiling at the thought, he reached to turn off the porch light. But before his fingers found the switch, a knock sounded on the door. His head snapped toward the glass and through the lace he detected the shadow of a form.
He frowned. Who was out in the cold at this time of night?
Instinct clamored at him. It could mean trouble, it said. Something that might dampen all this sense of pleasure-in-the-offing. Ignore the summons.
But instead he smothered the inner voice and did what he’d been doing for the last eleven years—Eli stepped up.
The squeal of the hinges sounded like a second warning as he swung open the front door. At the bottom of the steps stood a woman, and at the look of her his body tensed, in an instant his muscles and nerves going on high, pulsing alert. Danger danger danger.
Which made no sense, because she was dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a long-sleeved T-shirt with scattered bleach stains. Even now she took a couple of steps back and the landscape lighting caught on a gleaming cap of blonde curls. She looked innocent. Innocuous.
Like an angel.
Eli suppressed an acute urge to slam the door in her face.
From her position halfway between the porch and her car, Sloane Clarke stared up at the man framed by his front door. A wash of heat prickled across her scalp and headed southward. Not good. She took a quick health assessment, concerned she might be coming down with something.
Single mothers didn’t have such a luxury.
But swallowing proved her throat felt just fine and her head wasn’t hurting. No other bodily aches and pains. So, dismissing the moment, she smiled. “Hi, I’m Sloane?”
Gah. It came out with an upward inflection, a sign of insecurity leftover from her growing-up years that she’d been determined motherhood would extinguish. And it had—not since an obstetric nurse had placed infant Paige—now almost four years old—into her arms had Sloane sounded so uncertain.
Eli King, she decided, was to blame with the way he was looking at her with such grave eyes. And maybe some of the responsibility lay with the Parade of Hotties, too, the men she’d seen through her living room window drive up to his home tonight. A throng of good-looking guys weren’t common in her world of toddlers and spreadsheets.
Now clearing her throat, she tried again, intending to project that, yes, she was quite certain of her very own name. “Sloane Clarke.”
His head tilted, his shoulder-length hair shifting with the movement. The stuff was smooth, glossy, and actually appeared almost as long as her own, because the curl factor caused hers to shrink a couple of inches when dry. “Sloane,” Eli repeated.
More feverish heat swept over her as he continued staring. She gestured vaguely behind her back, in the direction of the residence across the street. “I live over there,” she said, “across the road. The small cottage? It was a carriage house, I’ve been told, for another larger place, long since gone. But I like it. It’s enough space, really, because I don’t have a lot of stuff and I enjoy it out here, it feels almost rural but still close to town.” Realizing she was babbling, she forced her mouth to shut.
God, he must think she was an idiot. But then she was
talking again, without the permission of her more poised self. “I like my big
oak tree in front and there’s a creek running through the backyard.
But of course your landscaping is lovely
, I appreciate it every day when I
come home, the lush lawn and those hydrangea bushes are sure to be beautiful
this summer. Not to mention…”
But then her brain caught up with her mouth, and the
mentioning halted, mid
“Take a breath,” he suggested kindly, a hint of a smile around his lips, revealing a glimpse of strong, white teeth. “And then tell me why you’re here.”
“Oh.” As directed, she sucked in some air and hoped her
embarrassed blush didn’t turn her fair skin an unbecoming shade of
lobster red. Then she lifted the pair
of rubber rain boots she carried in her left hand. “One of the twins left these
at my place and I wanted to be sure to return them before the big road trip.”
“Okay,” he said, then pointed at her feet. “But why are you there there?”
He meant why had she knocked on his door then scurried off the porch like a timid rabbit. But it had nothing to do with bravery. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked on Paige, asleep in her car set, her towhead lolling. “I want to keep an eye on my daughter,” she explained. “We were at some friends earlier and were on our way home when I remembered the boots.”
Eli’s expression changed, from somewhat curious to…well, blank. “Ah,” he said, then made his way down the stairs, his long legs eating up the distance between them.
Despite an impulse to scuttle backward again, Sloane planted her sneakers on the ground and outstretched her arm. The boots dangled in the air until he took hold of them.
Her arm dropped.
“Thank you,” he said, then hesitated. “I’ll put these with the other things they’re bringing.”
“Great.” Without a real goodbye, they began to move in opposite directions. She wondered if she’d ever have a word with him again.
Her belly fluttered, peevish butterflies dodging and weaving, which she could only hope wasn’t a second sign of oncoming illness. With the weekend on the horizon and the twins unavailable to babysit—
“Wait,” Sloane said, spinning around.
Eli turned too, his foot on the lowest step. “Something else?” His expression looked wary.
“I made treats for their road trip,” she said, and jogged around the front of her car to open the passenger seat. She removed the shoebox she’d lined with foil and held it toward him with two hands, like an offering.
He lowered the boots to the step and then returned her way, accepting the container. “Treats?” he asked, raising one brow.
Sloane found the gesture fascinating. And this close she could smell him too, a lime aftershave with an added hint of chili spices. Very manly. Her daughter’s daddy had worn cologne, a too-sweet scent selected by his mother, “Rice Krispie treats. You can go ahead and have one if you’d like.”
A strange expression crossed his face, one she couldn’t interpret. Reluctance?
“Really,” she said, to encourage him. “I made a lot.” On another breath she was babbling again, a brook fed by some river of nervous reaction she had to the way he looked, the way he smelled, that amazing eyebrow. “They’re really easy. The cereal, of course, then you melt together some butter and marshmallows—”
“I know how to make Rice Krispie treats,” Eli said. “It brings back some bad memories, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh, sorry.” She felt her face blanch, which at least would neutralize the earlier redness. “Really sorry, but I—”
“Stop,” he said, holding up a hand.
Yay. She needed some sort of chatter control mechanism and that big palm seemed to do the trick.
“The memories aren’t all bad,” he said, “but I had to help Allison make what seemed to be thousands one weekend a while back. They were a donation for the drama club bake sale—drama club was her thing-of-the-moment—and we made them plain, and with chocolate chips, and with butterscotch chips, and with pieces of dried fruit, and with—well, you get the idea.”
She did, and it charmed her, to think of big brother Eli King committing himself to a weekend in the kitchen. Another rush of strange heat flashed over her skin and she made a mental note to take two pain relievers before bedtime.
“Then the dog took off with a plateful and rolled in them
instead of eating the damn things. Next he ran his sticky self out to the yard
where he took a dirt bath. Think about the clean
She grinned at him. “Probably like washing up a toddler who’s smeared herself with ice cream before vigorous play in the sandbox.”
He’d started to smile too, then it died as he glanced over her shoulder toward her car. “Sloane,” he said, his voice going quiet. “You should probably be getting your daughter to bed.”
“You’re right.” Paige needed to go down for the night and Sloane required eight hours also, to clear
Because sometime during the last bit of conversation, Eli King had drawn closer
to her and she’d noticed, besides his delicious man-smell, the sinewy,
muscled length of him. Worse, for the tiniest of seconds, she’d imagined what
it might be like to lean into his strength.
Which proved she had to be verging on unwell. When she’d become Paige’s mom she’d vowed to never depend upon anyone but herself.
“Good night, Eli,” she said, with a short nod.
“Goodbye, Sloane,” he answered. They turned away from each other.
“Wait,” a new voice called out.
Sloane’s spine snapped straight and her head turned to see Molly King running down the porch steps, wearing floppy flannel pants and an oversized T-shirt. Eli looked at his sister, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Mol?” he asked.
“Perfect,” she cried, “to catch you two together.”
Her brother frowned. “You didn’t ‘catch’ us at anything, Molly. Sloane brought over rain boots and Rice Krispies treats.” He handed his sister the box.
“Cool,” she said, tucking them under one arm. Then she tucked her other hand in her brother’s elbow and towed him toward where Sloane stood, preparing to slip into the driver’s seat. “I don’t believe you two have formally met.”
“We’ve been talking—”
“Sloane Clarke, Eli King. Eli King, Sloane Clarke,” Molly said.
Eli’s expression signaled patience stretching thin. “Okay, Mol, introductions are done and it’s late. We all need to get inside to our respective homes.”
“As soon as I tell Sloane that we’re counting on her.”
“Um, what?” Sloane asked.
“She lives right across the street,” the girl said, addressing her brother.
“I got that.”
Molly turned to Sloane. “It won’t be any inconvenience at all,” she declared. “But we’ll feel better for it, all four of us.”
Eli sucked in a long breath. “Mol, what are you talking about?”
She wagged her finger at him. “Don’t think we don’t know about your plans for the next two weeks, Elijah Henry King.”
In the light glowing from the windows and the outdoor fixtures set strategically around the King front yard, Sloane could see a flag of color splashing each of Eli’s cheekbones. Hmm.
She rocked back on her heels, allowing herself a moment to enjoy his discomfiture. Did that make her a bad person? “What are these plans of your brother’s you’re talking about, Molly?” she asked.
Eli shot her a quick glance and she barely managed to suppress her smirk. Handsome, sexy man, home alone without the constricting presence of four younger sisters, two of them teenagers? It didn’t take a leap of understanding to figure he was planning on turning the family home into a temporary den of iniquity. She smiled at him, sweetness and light. “Or maybe I should be asking you, Eli. Should I be worried about witnessing—”
“Nothing like you’re imagining,” Eli said abruptly, his brows slamming together.
He feared her speculating in front of his little sister, which made Sloane want to laugh. “I only intended to ask if you were planning on hosting poker nights past eleven,” she said innocently.
His disgruntled look made her swallow another giggle. When was the last time she’d had this much fun?
“You know about poker night?” he asked.
“It’s not poker night we sisters are worried about,” Molly said, so Sloane didn’t have to explain how she’d soaked up any and every detail the King sisters dropped about their brother. “It’s whether…” The girl sent Eli a significant look.
He tensed. “Whether what?”
“Whether you’re going to take proper care of yourself while we’re gone,” Molly answered. “It can’t be all pizza all the time, Eli. And showers. You mustn’t forget showers.”
His expression signaled outrage. “When haven’t I showered?” he demanded.
“We don’t want you to begin a bad habit,” Molly explained. She put the box of treats on the top of Sloane’s car so she could jam her fists on her hips. “Let’s talk about shaving. That you’ve been known to forget, admit it. But you have to remember to use your razor at least every other day, otherwise you scare off the customers at the nursery. Can you promise to do that?”
“No,” Eli said, clearly unwilling to take orders from his little sister.
“I thought so.” Molly sighed. “That’s why Sloane’s going to promise to keep tabs on you.”
“Huh?” Sloane looked at the girl. “What?”
“Once a day. Twice would be better, if you can manage it. Just show up at the door, give him a holler, and make sure he’s doing the right things.”
Eli was glaring at his sister, clearly murder on his mind. Sloane had to swallow more laughter. The man obviously wasn’t interested in having a comportment monitor sicced on him.
“Sure, Molly,” she said, managing to keep a straight face. “I’d be happy to keep tabs on your big brother’s behavior.” Glancing at Eli, she could see he didn’t find anything about this even remotely humorous, which only tickled her funny bone more.
“Really,” she said, addressing him now with overt enthusiasm. “It’s no problem. Happy to help.”
“Awesome sauce!” Molly crowed, clapping her hands. Then she grabbed one of Eli’s and one of Sloane’s. “Shake on it,” she said, and pressed their palms together.
Rocking Sloane’s world.
Her heart slammed against her ribs, then a flash bang of sensation sparked from the place they touched, shooting up her arm. Her fingers spasmed, closing over Eli’s, and his did the same.
Politeness on his side? She didn’t know, because she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Or breathe. After a moment she managed to yank her hand free, but she kept her eyes downcast as she rushed to slip behind the wheel. With the car started, she rolled down the window and, trying to keep up appearances, called out a faux cheery goodnight.
Eli didn’t bother replying, but Molly smiled big. “Don’t forget your promise,” she called out, grabbing the Rice Krispies from the car roof.
Sloane waved, but didn’t speak, the promise she’d made a
tiny blip on her worry radar. Looming large was the fact that she’d figured out
the cause of all her physical responses tonight
, the heat, the belly flutters, the
muddled state of mind. It wasn’t an illness in the health sense of the word.
It was something else altogether, that went a long way to explaining all the times she’d caught herself stealing glances at Eli King since she moved into her little house four months ago. All the times she’d ferreted away the nuggets of info about the man his sisters had dropped. That reaction to the simple touch of his hand on hers confirmed it.
She had a thing for him.
A ridiculous, nonsensical, inconvenient thing.
Maybe even dangerous.
With the upcoming visit from Paige’s grandparents in the offing—a visit that would take all her powers of patience and self-control—this was no time to be distracted.
Particularly not by a knee-buckling crush on the man across the street.