Clay couldn’t help but smile as he gazed at Ella, her eyes wide, her lips parted.
“It took a little detective work,” he said, “but I found you.”
She bit down on her bottom lip and furrowed her brow.
Uh-oh. He didn’t want her to worry that he might be a stalker, so he raised his hand and unfolded his fingers, revealing her bracelet.
She glanced at the heirloom, then back at him, tears flooding her pretty green eyes. “Oh, thank goodness. You found it.”
Then she carefully took the bracelet from his outstretched palm.
“One of the links is broken,” he said, “which caused it to fall from your wrist during dinner. I noticed it on the table.”
She studied the damaged chain, then fingered the family heirloom as if it were a priceless relic. And to her it was, at least in sentiment.
When she looked at him again, her expression morphed from one of surprise to wonder. “Thank you for taking the time to return it. But how did you find me?”
“You mentioned that your aunt had recently taken the bracelet to be cleaned, so I went to every jewelry store in town until I located a jeweler who recognized it.” And once he had Agatha Stewart’s name, it hadn’t taken much effort to track down the woman and the great-niece who lived with her.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Ella said, swiping a tear from her cheek.
Just seeing her again and having an opportunity to ask her out was thanks enough. “Dinner last night was a nice trade-off.”
She paused a beat, then glanced out into the street—looking for his vehicle, he figured. But she wouldn’t find it. He’d parked his new Mercedes three blocks away, hoping to continue his “poor man” charade, at least for a while longer.
Moments before Clay had arrived at Ella’s house, he’d received a call from the attorney representing Connor’s widow. Apparently, the gold digger was hoping for another cash settlement to keep her from suing for the stock she still felt entitled to. It just went to show that money brought out the worst in some people.
“Did you walk all this way?” Ella asked him.
“Walking is good exercise. Besides, it wasn’t all that far.”
Again his conscience tweaked, but he shook it off. He wasn’t ready to tell her the truth yet. His heart and hormones might think it was possible to fall in love at first sight, but he was a man of reason and knew better than that.
Ella swung open the door and stepped aside. “Please, come in. Aggie and I are making sandwiches for lunch. Can I offer you one—either turkey or ham and cheese?”
“Either sounds good to me.”
After he entered the house and closed the door, he followed Ella into a cozy kitchen with yellow walls and old-style white appliances. An elderly woman, who had to be Ella’s aunt, stood at the counter with a loaf of bread, lunch meat and condiments.
Ella made the introductions, calling Clay “a friend” and explaining to her aunt that Clay had found the bracelet and returned it to her.
Aggie brightened, although she seemed to be more excited to see Clay than the missing heirloom. “You’re just in time for lunch, young man. Have a seat at the table.”
Clay thanked her, then complied. “But you’ll have to let me do the dishes or something in return.” Clay might be playing the role of a poor man, but he wasn’t going to continue to let Ella feed him.
“Actually,” Ella said, “there is something you can do for us. Do you have any plumbing skills?”
The question took him aback. “Well, that depends. What seems to be the problem?”
“Our garbage disposal isn’t working, and the sink has been plugged up. One of Aggie’s nephews was supposed to either come by or send someone to fix it, but… Well, it’s been several days, and he hasn’t gotten around to it yet.”
That sounded simple enough. Clay’s dad had been a handyman—one of the best in town—and he’d insisted that his sons learn a few tricks of the trade.
“I’d be glad to take a look at it,” he said.
“And after you do that,” Ella added, “we have a lot of other things that need doing around here. If you have the time, we’d be more than happy to pay you for your trouble.”
So she really was under the impression that he had no car and was out of work. He supposed the faded jeans he’d chosen to wear, along with the “lucky” shirt he’d kept since his freshmen days at college, had her further convinced.
Again, his conscience urged him to set her straight, but the whole down-on-his-luck thing was working for him. Plus, it gave him the opportunity to spend more time with her.
So after they’d eaten a pleasant lunch, Clay asked Ella if she had a wrench he could use to loosen the pipes, as well as a bucket to catch the dirty water. While she went to get the things he needed, he removed everything from the cupboard under the sink so he had access to the drain.
Minutes later, he’d cleaned out the pipe that had been plugged and prepared to put the plumbing back together again.
“I don’t suppose I can get one of you ladies to empty this bucket for me,” he said, still stretched out on his back under the sink and reaching for the wrench.
“I’ll do it,” Aggie said.
But instead of taking the bucket outside or to the laundry room, she emptied it into the kitchen sink, where the dirty, stinky water poured through the open pipes and splashed onto Clay’s face and shoulders.
“Oh, no,” Ella cried out, when she realized what had happened. “I’ll get a towel.”
“Goodness,” Aggie said. “I’m so sorry, Clay. I just… Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Clay, his face and chest sopping wet, climbed out from under the sink, glad he hadn’t blurted out an obscenity. “It’s okay, Aggie. No harm, no foul.”
“Here,” Ella said, handing him a towel to dry his face. “Why don’t you let me show you to the bathroom where you can wash up.”
Clay would have told her that it didn’t matter, but that dirty water had been nasty. So he followed her out of the kitchen, down the hall and to an open doorway.
Once inside the small room, he turned on the faucet and waited for the water to warm. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ella lean against the door frame and he turned to her, his gaze locking on hers. Something stirred between them. Sexual awareness, for sure. And a yearning to explore it.
Rather than broach the subject, he turned back to the sink and rinsed his face, using the bar of soap on the counter.
Ella came closer and handed him a fluffy blue towel. “I’m so sorry. She gets a little scattered sometimes.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Clay chuckled. “Those things happen.”
“I know, but, if it’s all the same, I’m sorry it had to happen to you.” She offered him a pretty smile, then added, “If you’ll give me your shirt, I’ll rinse it out and throw it in the dryer.”
“All right. Thanks.” Clay peeled off the wet material, but as he began to hand it over, Ella’s lips parted and her gaze sketched over his bare chest.
She swallowed, as though finding it difficult to speak, to move.
And the awareness, the yearning, returned full force. They stood frozen for a moment, caught up in a swirl of sexual attraction and…well, who knew what else.
But this time, it was impossible to ignore. It might be a risky or crazy move for him to make, but Clay couldn’t help doing what seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
He placed his hand along her jaw, brushed his thumb across her cheek, then lowered his mouth to hers.