Just as he said he would, Clay stopped by Ella’s house the next morning around eleven, and he continued to show up at the same time for the next two weeks, ready to do whatever they needed him to do.
He fixed leaky faucets, repaired broken electrical outlets, mended shutters and even mowed the yard and trimmed the big tree out front.
He took a liking to the place and began to come up with ways to renovate the old Victorian. And today, after he helped Ella take down the holiday decorations, he suggested that they paint the exterior.
“I’m afraid that would be way too costly,” Ella said.
“Who knows,” Clay said. “Maybe you’ll win the lottery.”
“Yeah, right.” She cast him a pretty smile, and it took everything he had not to wrap his arms around her and kiss her senseless. To tell her that her worries were over.
With each day he spent with her, he became further convinced that he’d fallen in love with her—and that she’d probably had his heart from that first night he’d met her at Red. After Connor died, Clay had wanted to change his life because it had felt empty, but now that he’d met Ella, he’d found a sense of purpose and more.
In fact, he’d almost told her yesterday how much she’d come to mean to him, but he’d held off.
He knew she felt something for him, too. And that those feelings were for the man he really was—and not for the lifestyle he could provide her.
But yesterday, when he’d made an offer to purchase Aggie’s house, he’d heard something that caused him to continue exercising a little caution.
His real estate agent had mentioned that Fred Stewart, the man selling the property, had said his niece, who currently lived in the house, wasn’t to be trusted. She wanted to remain living with Aggie for free, when the woman was getting senile and needed round-the-clock care.
Clay had remembered the episode with the dirty sink water. But nothing he’d seen since indicated it wasn’t safe for Aggie to live on her own.
He’d also wanted to argue in Ella’s defense, to say that he’d gotten to know her and that Fred Stewart was wrong. He was sure of it…but not quite sure enough to lay his heart on the line. So he hadn’t admitted his identity to her yet—or revealed his attempt to buy her and Aggie all the time they wanted to stay in the old Victorian.
Okay, so maybe there was another reason. He was also dragging his feet because he hadn’t quite figured out how to tell her that he hadn’t been completely honest with her.
But he would.
Ella stood at the kitchen window and looked out into the yard, where Clay had just finished cutting back a tree branch that had been weighing down on the fence. Now he was in the living room, putting lubricant on a squeaky window.
She was amazed at his strength, at his work ethic. He gave all his effort, all his focus, to each job he took on. In fact, he seemed to have a personal stake in renovating the old house, something that touched her heart.
In fact, there was a lot about the man to… Well, a lot to love.
She realized she hadn’t known him long, but he was everything she’d ever wanted in a man—kindhearted, dedicated, loyal and honest. Before meeting him, she’d been afraid to get too close to people, especially after Fred’s betrayal. But Clay listened to her and valued her opinion. So how could she not trust him?
In fact, she’d begun to think that meeting Clay at the restaurant had been fate.
They’d yet to kiss again, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t tempted to catch him alone. And so she’d asked him to stay for dinner tonight, hoping that she’d find the right time to say that she’d like to date him, even if he didn’t have any job prospects at the moment.
Okay, so there was still a lot she didn’t know about him, but she hoped to put that behind her this evening, over dinner.
She’d already asked him questions about his childhood, about his education, about his friends. Trouble was, his answers had all been pretty vague.
But maybe he hadn’t lived a very exciting life.
As she prepared a chicken and rice dish, the telephone rang. When Aggie didn’t answer, Ella rinsed her hands in the sink, dried them on a dishtowel, then grabbed the receiver from the mount on the wall. “Hello?”
“Where’s Aunt Aggie?”
Ella wasn’t sure what Fred had against her or why he’d become brutally short and to the point. Would it have hurt him to greet her?
“I’m not sure. I thought she was talking to the handyman, but she didn’t pick up the telephone, so I’m not sure.”
“A handyman? Tell her to stop wasting her money.”
Ella bit back the anger and frustration Fred never failed to incite lately. “It’s difficult when so many things aren’t working properly around here.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not going to be a problem for you any longer. We got an offer on the house this morning. And it was almost full price, so I accepted it.”
Ella’s heart sank as she realized the move was now imminent, that Aggie would have to live in a retirement home. And she would have to find a new place to live, a home that didn’t have the same loving memories.
“The details in the contract are a little unusual,” Fred added. “But I didn’t see any reason not to agree to them.”
Ella gripped the receiver as though she could squeeze the details out of Fred. “What do you mean? What did you agree to?”
“The new owner can’t move in until this summer, and he’s adamant that the house not be left vacant. He’d like you and Aggie to remain living there for the next six months. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“Of course not.” They’d been given a reprieve. The longer Aggie could stay in her home, the better.
When Fred ended the call, Ella hung up the receiver. Then she strode to the living room, where Clay was working on a squeaky window. She watched him for a moment, the way the sunlight shined on him with a heavenly glow.
He’d shown up in her life when she’d really needed a friend. Should she tell him that they didn’t require his services anymore?
Just the thought of not seeing him again turned her heart topsy-turvy. And that’s when she realized she’d fallen head-over-heart in love with Clay Baldwin.
The man might not have any money, but he had everything else that mattered. He was not only handsome, he was sweet, kind, funny—but most of all, he was honest.
What more did she need in a man?
“Clay,” she said.
He turned and shot her a boyish grin that sent her heart spinning. “Did you find something else that needed fixing?”
Her future, maybe. But was it too soon to lay her heart on the line like that?
Old habits were hard to kick, she supposed. So she offered him a smile, rather than an answer, then asked, “Have you seen Aggie?”
“She’s in the front yard, talking to a guy putting a Sold attachment on the For Sale sign.”
“Thanks.” Ella strode to the door then out to where Aggie stood talking to the Realtor.
“This man says the house is sold,” Aggie told her.
“Yes, I know. Fred just called. But don’t worry, Aggie. We won’t have to move for another six months.”
“The buyer can’t move in until then,” the Realtor said. “So he’s asking you to stay in the house so it won’t remain vacant.”
“I suppose that’s nice,” Aggie said.
“What do you know about the buyer?” Ella asked.
“Just that he’s a corporate executive who paid cash for the property.”
“The guy’s rich.”
He must be, Ella thought.
“He asked for me to keep his name out of it, but…I don’t see any problem in mentioning it to you. You’ll know it as soon as you get the papers. His name is Clay Baldwin. He’s the CEO of a successful firm in Red Rock. And he’s got the money to fix this place up, which is going to increase the value for other home owners.”
Clay? It couldn’t be.
The man who’d let her buy his dinner? The man who pretended to be jobless? The man who was inside the house right now, fixing things and checking out all the flaws?
Had he planned to purchase the house all along? Had he only been using her to get inside, to gain Aggie’s trust?
Ella shot a glance at the living room window, where Clay worked. He smiled at her—until he read her pained expression.