Taking a big, bolstering breath, Uma slipped the newspaper clipping back into her pocket and knocked.
There was a light thunk on the other side, followed by what sounded like footsteps, a scuffling, and then nothing. She waited, trying to hear more over the drone of a nearby lawn mower, and thought of all the reasons this was a horrible idea.
Abuse? Abuse? How could she possibly take this job in the shape she was in?
But as usual, the desperate reality of her situation pushed all arguments aside. Food, shelter, money. There was no arguing with necessity, even if this place felt off.
And the situation was perfect. No one could find her here. In theory. She was pretty sure her new employer wouldn’t be phoning up any references or doing a background check. The woman must be desperate, too. She’d practically hired Uma over the phone, for goodness’ sake.
Someone should have answered by now.
Uma knocked again. Hard, her hand starting to tremble.
Something moved in her peripheral vision, startling Uma into a gasp. The curtain in the front window?
The cloth twitched a second time. The woman was watching. Making Uma wait out here, overdressed in the unseasonable heat, sweat gathering along her hairline. Okay, fine. She could see how it made sense to check out a stranger before letting her in. She’d give the lady a few more minutes to finish her perusal. If only she could get some air. Just a little air in this stifling heat.
When there was no response to her third knock, Uma panicked. According to the oversize watch on her arm, three minutes had passed. Three minutes spent standing on a porch, enduring the scrutiny of a self-proclaimed abuser who represented her last chance at a job. Not the auspicious beginning she had hoped for.
It was all so familiar, too. Maybe not the exact circumstances, but the feelings she lived with on a daily basis—insecurity, worry, fear, clawing at her chest, crowding her throat so each inhale was a struggle. Before they could overwhelm her, she shoved them away and walked down the rickety porch stairs and around to the side of the house, where she could gather herself unseen beneath the first-floor windows. She needed to breathe.
Uma took a shaky breath in, one out, another in, before biting into the meaty pad of her thumb. The ritual was safe, easy to sink back into, the shape of her teeth already worn into her hand. Just a little while, she thought. Until I sort myself out, and then… Then she had no idea what. She had nowhere to go, nothing left to aspire to.
One step at a time. That was her life now. No planning, no future.
She was vaguely aware that the lawn mower drew near, no longer background noise—buzzing close and echoing the beat of her heart. She’d have to push off this wall sooner or later, but the warm clapboard was solid against her back, and along with the sharp smell of freshly clipped grass, it kept her right here, present, in her body. A few more breaths and she’d move. Time to decide whether she’d head up to the house to give it another try or cut her losses and take off, find something else.
The problem was she wouldn’t be cutting her losses by leaving—she’d be compounding them. How on earth could she go back on the road with the gas gauge on E and ten bucks to her name?
Strike that. After this morning’s breakfast, she had only $6.54.
Uma sank down onto her haunches, the ground squelching under her heels, and squeezed her eyes shut so hard that black dots floated behind the lids.
She had nothing left—no home, no job, no way of making money, no skills but one…and Joey had destroyed any chance of pursuing her true livelihood when he’d smashed her cameras. Doing that, he’d destroyed her. Six months later, she was still trapped.
If she let herself feel it, there’d be no shortage of pain, inside and out. As usual, her wrist under the watch was raw, and her skin itched everywhere. It must be psychosomatic. It couldn’t still itch after all this time, could it?
Visualizing his marks on her skin was enough to make her hyperventilate again. And the tightness was there, that constriction that had left her constantly out of breath these past several months. She’d thought the miles would clear the airways, but they hadn’t.
And now she was back. Back in Virginia. Shallow breaths succeeded one another, pinching her nostrils and rasping noisily through her throat. Joey was close. Two hours away by car. Way too close for comfort. She swore she could feel him looking for her, closing in on her.
Suddenly, something cold and wet swiped Uma’s hand, snapping her back to the present. She opened her eyes with a start, only to come face-to-face with a dog. A black one with a tan face and floppy ears, pretty brown eyes rimmed in black, like eyeliner. It smiled at her.
It was something else, that dog, with that sweet look on its face. Like it gave a crap. Weird. The expression was so basically human, it pulled back the tunnel vision and let some light seep in. The dog nudged her chest, hard, and pushed its way into her arms in a big, warm tackle-hug. Uma had no choice but to hug back.
Its cold nose against her neck shocked a giggle out of her. “Oh, alright. You got moves, dog.”
“She does,” said a deep voice from above.
Uma’s head snapped back in surprise, sounding a dull thunk against the clapboard. Oh God. Where had he come from?
“She’s a barnacle.”
Uma nodded dully, throat clogged with fear. Stop it, she berated herself. You’ve got to stop freaking out at every guy who says two words to you. She tried for a friendly smile. It felt like a grimace.
The man just stood there, a few feet away, looking at her. She waited. He waited. He looked like a big, creepy yard worker or something. Tall. Really, really tall.
“Gorilla,” he said.
“My dog, Squeak. She’s a guerrilla fighter. Thought about callin’ her Shock ’n’ Awe.”
“Squeak?” She stared up at him, craning her neck with the effort. She was wrong before. To say he was tall was an understatement. The man blocked out the sun. With the light behind him, it was hard to see much, aside from the big, black beard covering half his face and the shaggy mane around it. His voice was deep, gravelly. Burly. It went with the hair and the lumberjack shirt. You didn’t see guys like him where she came from.
“Wasn’t her name originally. She earned it.” When he talked, the words emerged as if they hurt, purling out one slow syllable at a time. As if being sociable was an effort. Yet, for some reason—for her—he was trying.
He waited, probably for her to say something in response, but she’d been running too long to be any good at repartee. She’d turned into more of a watch-and-wait kind of girl.
The man finally continued, tilting his chin toward the house she was leaning on. “You her next victim?”
Uma winced, embarrassed. “Guess so.”
He lifted his brows in semi-surprise before turning to the side and stuffing his hands deep into the pockets of jeans that had seen better days. They were stained and ratty and littered with what looked like burn holes.
Backlit by the sun, his profile was interesting, despite the bushy lower half of his face. Or maybe because of it. He looked like something you’d see stamped into an ancient coin—hard and noble. The scene came easily into focus: clad in something stained and torn, wading into the thick of battle with his men, sword in hand, face smeared with enemy blood, and teeth bared in some primal war cry. Her hands came to life, itching for a camera.
Then she blinked and emerged to see him as he was: a filthy redneck with a rug on his face. He was intimidating, to say the least. Not the kind of guy she’d choose to work in her yard—not looking all roughed up like he did.
But this new phase of life was about taking back what Joey had stolen. It was about courage, and because this guy was so intimidating, Uma decided to face him head-on. Show no fear. Another rule for this new self that she was constantly reinventing: no more letting men intimidate her.
“Help me up?” she asked.
After a brief hesitation, he complied. His grasp was rough and solid, ridged with calluses in places and polished smooth in others. For a moment, after pulling her up to stand, he didn’t let go of her hand. Instead, he turned it over and eyed the crescent her teeth had left behind.
She fought the urge to snatch it away.
He raised his brows but finally let her go without a word. Burning with the need to put some distance between them, she took a hurried step back.
“Thanks,” she said as he squatted down to scratch Squeak roughly under the chin. The dog’s eyes closed in ecstasy.
Forcing herself to steady her nerves, Uma caught his eye and held it. He was even scarier without the sun behind him, skin marred by a shiny white scar along his hairline and a dark bruise on a cheek already peppered with errant beard hairs. His nose was crooked and thick, no doubt broken in a barroom brawl or something equally disreputable. She envisioned him in a smoky basement, duking it out for some seedy underground boxing title. Carved squint lines surrounded eyes that were a cool blue.
Or…oh. No. She realized with a start that his left eye was blue and the right was dark gold. She was instantly thrown off-kilter. Which one was she supposed to focus on? She blinked and turned aside, uncomfortable with the way he so effortlessly unsettled her.
“I’ve…” he rumbled, coming up out of the squat to tower over her again. She waited for him to continue.
“You’ve…?” she finally asked after the silence had stretched too long. She wondered if she was as off-putting to him as he was to her.
“Ive. It’s my name. Short for Ivan.”
“Oh. I’m Uma.” She gave him her real name without thinking. “You mow the lawn here?”
“You could say that.” His eyes crinkled. What little she could see of his mouth turned up into a surprisingly warm smile. “Figure I might as well mow her lawn while I’m doin’ mine.”
She looked at the house behind him. “That’s your place?”
Her surprise must have been obvious, but he didn’t react, just gave a single, brief nod.
“Wow. Nice.” The house was nice. Really nice. Incongruously…civilized. He looked like the kind of guy you’d find chopping wood by his cabin in the boondocks, not maintaining the lawn of his lovely old farmhouse.
It was straight out of Southern Living, nicer than some of the places she’d photographed.
The caricature she’d formed in her head of this man melted partially away to reveal something a little softer, less defined. It didn’t jibe inside of her, but she’d been running on stereotypes and first impressions and messed-up wrong impressions for so long that her instincts clearly needed a reset. Another thing to add to the growing list of upgrades for Uma 2.0.
He nodded, face serious, but she thought she could detect pride beneath the gruff exterior.
She caught sight of a bright-red tricycle in the drive beside a clunky Ford pickup. Kids. Probably a wife. Her perception shifted yet again, and he didn’t seem half as scary as he had a moment before. Wow, she couldn’t straighten her life out at all, and this guy seemed to have his shit together. So much for first impressions.
Uma briefly wondered what he’d look like without all that fur on his face.
She took in the house, the trike, the coziness of this sweet mountain town. A town so small that elderly ladies hired you right over the phone without even asking for references.
That reminded her of why she was here: the ad. Maybe not such a sweet town after all.
“Well, I’d better get to it.” She kept her hands in her pockets, not wanting to risk another touch of his rough skin.
“Yeah. Don’t wanna piss her off.” Was that a joke?
She gave Squeak a quick pat on the head and turned away from man and dog. His voice stopped her after a couple of steps.
“Hey, Uma.” It came out rough, and he cleared his throat. “You ever need a break, come on over and see us. Have a beer.”
“Oh. Sure. Thanks.” Us, he’d said. Yep, married.
She shot a last look at the house over his shoulder, thinking she might even be willing to marry a guy like that for such a great house. Oh well. Maybe she and his wife would become friends.
A friend. That might be nice.
When she got back to the porch, something had changed. Was the gap in the curtains a little wider? Was it possible the woman had witnessed her panic attack? Strike one against Uma if she had.
The lawn mower started up again somewhere behind the house.
Uma took a deep breath in, blew it out hard, made a fist, and pounded.