Two legs appeared on the deck in front of her, and she followed them with her gaze. Clad in worn blue jeans they led to a tight green T-shirt over the muscles of someone who clearly worked hard, wide hands with thumbs hooked into pockets. Further up light brown bristle surrounded lips she told herself she didn’t know. By the time she got to his pale blue eyes, she couldn’t deny it anymore. His gaze was just as intense as she remembered, sending fire tearing through her insides.
She squeaked, her cheeks burning as she clamped a hand over her mouth. “Cliff?”
His gaze held hers. “Harper. Long time no see.”
She forced a laugh. “Yeah. It’s been a while.”
“You guys know each other already?” Nick’s grin grew wider as he glanced at Harper. “Perfect.”
“You two are married then?” Cliff finally tore his gaze from Harper’s to look at Nick. “You’re a very lucky man.”
Nick laughed, his eyes crinkling in the corners as he held Harper’s gaze. “That I am.”
Cliff’s gaze met Harper’s again. “You’re all right with Nick hiring me?”
Harper fought to keep her expression neutral. “The hiring is up to Nick. Not me. He’s the one who’ll be working with you most of the time.”
Harper shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Was that a flash of disappointment that just crossed his face? It disappeared too soon for Harper to be sure.
“All right.” Cliff glanced at Nick. “Well, I’ll get my gear packed up and I’ll head out on Friday.”
“You don’t have much to pack then?” Harper’s voice was still a pitch too high, and she cringed as Cliff’s gaze fell back on her face.
He shrugged. “I’ve been travelling since high school. Doing this sort of work, mostly.” He watched her as he spoke. “Was hoping to find a place to settle down, as far away from here as possible, but I never found something I loved enough to commit to.”
“So, you’re back to stay?” Why was her stomach fluttering at that possibility?
“I don’t know.” Cliff gave another shrug. “Half hoped in coming back there’d be a reason to stay, but it seems I’ve missed out on that, too.” His gaze burned into hers, taking Harper back to those days they fumbled about behind the bike sheds at school, and in the playground when she was supposed to be watching her younger sister, and . . . She shook her head. Those memories were best left buried.
Cliff was still talking. “I’ve been living with my parents since I got back. It’s been two months now, and let me tell you, that is two months too long.”
Harper forced another chuckle. Inside her heart was pounding so loudly she was surprised neither of the men could hear it.
“Nice to see you well, Harper.”
She nodded. “You, too.”
“See you both on Friday.”
They watched as Cliff climbed into his car and disappeared down the driveway.
“You’ve got to call him and tell him we’ve found someone else.” Harper turned her gaze back to Nick.
Harper’s face flushed, and she wished she could turn it off. “He’s an ex-boyfriend. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him here.”
“An ex-boyfriend?” Nick’s eyes twinkled. “You still keen on him?”
“Of course not.” She turned away, her cheeks burning now.
“So, what’s the problem?”
Harper closed her eyes. “Please, Nick. Let’s find someone else.”
Nick’s brow furrowed. “Did he hurt you?”
Harper remembered the pain in her chest as her heart tore in two. That’s not what Nick meant, though. “Nothing like that. He’s just . . . a jerk, that’s all.” She cringed, her cheeks burning at the lie.
“He’s the best candidate we’ve had so far.” Nick shook his head. “Did you hear him? He’s been doing this sort of work for the last fifteen years. All the others are kids just out of school. We’re not going to find anyone better. Besides, fifteen years is a long time. I’m sure he’s matured since then.” He nudged her with his elbow. “You might find you get along now.”
Harper swallowed against the nerves dancing in her chest. That’s not what she was worried about.