Her Hopes and Dreams

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Three days into life with her new neighbor and Carrie Farmer wanted to shove a tailpipe up the man’s nose. Sideways.

The newcomer had no respect for the people around him. Though, technically, they were the only two houses for half a mile, so in reality, he had no respect for her. And he definitely didn’t think twice about sleeping babies if the last two nights were any indication.

Enough was enough.

“I can do this,” she muttered, stepping through her side gate to cross onto his property.

The farmhouse had sat vacant since Carrie moved in a year ago. She’d assumed the family who owned it would sell off the rest of the land one plot at a time, in sizes similar to the one she’d purchased. Thanks to a small life insurance policy on her deceased husband, Carrie had been able to put a modest single-wide trailer on her lot, and she’d enjoyed blissful peace and quiet ever since.

That peace and quiet no longer existed thanks to the jerk next door.

When she reached his porch, she fortified her resolve with several deep breaths. Confrontation made her nervous, for good reason. Seeking conflict wasn’t Carrie’s style, but this man had messed with her child, and that could not be ignored.

Plucking up the courage, she knocked on the door and then shuffled several steps backward. Nothing stirred inside. She knocked again. No response. What the heck? The red truck next to the house meant someone was home. Carrie moved down the porch to peer through a window, but the second she pinned her nose to the glass, a roaring engine shattered the silence. She nearly peed her pants as her heart threatened to beat right out of her chest. With clenched fists, she bit back the profanity dancing on the tip of her tongue. As Molly was on the cusp of talking, Carrie did her best to keep her language baby appropriate.

But dammit to hell, that thing was loud. Much louder than it had sounded through her trailer walls.

“This is ridiculous,” she murmured, charging down the steps and around the side of the house. Nearly fifty yards away stood the scene of the crime—an old barn turned garage that did nothing to buffer the sound coming from inside. By the time Carrie reached the entrance, the noise cut off, and she hustled to take advantage of the quiet.

The dimness of the garage compared to the blinding September sun made seeing anything inside nearly impossible. One motorcycle hovered on a table to her right. Though, upon closer inspection, she realized the frame was empty. Clearly not the source of the problem. Another machine occupied the center of the space, and as her eyes adjusted, Carrie recognized a figure crouched down on the other side of it.

“Excuse me?” she said. “Can I have a word with you?”

Without getting up, a baritone voice said, “If you’re looking for money, I don’t have any. If you’re recruiting for God, I’ve already punched my ticket to hell. Anything else, I’m not interested, so haul your scrawny ass back to the road and take a hike.”

Undeterred, Carrie said, “I’m here to talk about that monstrosity that you’re hiding behind.”

Rising out of the shadows, he said, “Did you just insult my bike?”

Carrie swallowed hard. Dark eyes narrowed under full brows that matched the reddish-brown whiskers covering half his face. With slow, methodical movements, he wiped his hands on a dirty rag, causing the muscles along his shoulders to flex beneath stained white cotton. Years of living with her former husband had made Carrie an expert at recognizing danger. Keeping one eye on the looming giant, she scanned the area for a weapon, aware that without one, she didn’t stand a chance against a man this size. His arms were larger than her thighs, for heaven’s sake, and the rest of him was proportioned to match.

A crowbar leaned against the table to her right. She could probably get to it before he did.

“I’m not here to insult anything,” she assured him, hoping her bravado would hold out. “But I have a baby next door who needs to be able to sleep through the night without that thing thundering to life at two in the morning.”

Surely any reasonable person would feel bad about waking a baby. Then again, this bearded behemoth didn’t look at all reasonable.

Instead of offering an apology, he stepped around the bike, his heavy boots thudding in the dirt with each step. Carrie scooted closer to the crowbar.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“Like I said. I live next door. I’m sure you’ve seen me in the last few days.”

He shook his head, releasing a long, wavy lock to hang over his right eye. “No, it’s more than that. I’ve met you before.”

As if she’d forget meeting a towering mass of muscle who bore an uncanny resemblance to a grizzly bear. “I don’t think so.”

“What’s your name?”

“Carrie Farmer.”

His eyes went wide. “As in Patch Farmer?”

Panic raced like a gas fire up her spine. “He was my husband.”

“You’re that married chick he was seeing the last time I was home.”

“Excuse me?”

“I can’t believe he married you.”

The insult stung like a slap.

“Life is full of surprises,” she said through gritted teeth. “Are you going to stop cranking this machine every night or not?”

He held up both hands in surrender, the rag dangling from callused fingers. “I get the message. I’ll work on something else at night.”

Satisfied, Carrie nodded. “Thank you. I won’t bother you again.”

“Hold up,” he said, following her out of the garage. “Is the kid Patch’s?”

This man took being a jerk to new levels. Without turning around, she replied, “Yes, she’s Patch’s baby. I was pregnant when he died last summer.”

“Slow down.” The moment his hand touched her wrist, she jerked away, spinning to protect herself.

“Don’t touch me,” she snapped.

“Whoa.” Again he held his hands palm out. “I’m not going to hurt you, lady. Patch was my friend. I just want to know about his kid.”

Reluctant to discuss Molly with this stranger, she asked, “If he was your friend, why weren’t you at the funeral?”

His stance tensed. “Because I was stuck in a desert trying not to get my head blown off.”

Recognition dawned. “Noah?” she said, trying to see the man beneath the beard. “Noah Winchester?”

“That’s right.”

She had met him before. Except he hadn’t been anywhere near this size, and he’d been clean-shaven with the typical military buzz cut. Of course, he’d been an ass back then, too. Of all the people who could have moved in next door, why did it have to be one of Patch’s friends?

Pointing out the obvious, she said, “You don’t look like a guy in the military.”

He tucked the rag in his back pocket, stretching the cotton over his broad chest. “The hair and beard were necessary to blend in for my last assignment. I got used to it, so I kept them after I got out.”

“So you’re living here permanently?” Please say no. Please say no.

“I am.” Of course he was. “This house belonged to my grandparents. No one told me a piece of the land had been sold off.”

“The trailer should have been a big clue,” she said.

The hint of a grin drew her attention to his full lips. The top one curved like a perfect bow. She felt the urge to follow that curve with her fingertip.

Blinking, Carrie gave herself a mental slap. Where the heck had that come from? There would be no lip touching. Or anything else touching, for that matter.

“You interested in selling it back?” he asked.

Dragging her brain back to reality, she said, “Sell what back?”

“The land. I’d rather be out here by myself.”

Of all the . . . She’d worked hard for this little piece of heaven, and she’d definitely earned it. Noah Winchester could blow it out his tailpipe if he thought she’d hand over her land so he could fire up his stupid toys whenever he wanted.

“This is my home. I’m not going anywhere.”

Tucking the loose hair behind his ear, he sighed. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“I have no intention of bothering you again,” she said, more than happy to give him his space, if not his land. “Keep the noise to the daylight hours and we won’t ever have to talk again.”

“Fine by me,” he said. “But I have one request.”

Carrie held the eye roll in check. She’d do just about anything to keep him out of her hair. “What’s that?”

“I want to meet Patch’s daughter.”

Anything but that.

# # #

He’d never seen anyone go pale that quickly. It wasn’t as if he’d asked to harvest the munchkin’s organs or something.

“That isn’t going to happen,” she said, braced like a warrior ready for battle.

“Come on,” he said. “He was my friend. I just want to see how his little girl turned out.”

In truth, Noah wanted to see if the baby looked like her alleged father. The facts surrounding Patch’s death had never made sense to him. The guy he knew wasn’t stupid. And picking a fight with three assholes when he had no one to back him up qualified as all kinds of stupid. Something had to have set him off. Like finding out his wife was pregnant with another man’s baby.

Still tense, Carrie said, “She isn’t here right now. Some friends of mine took her for the afternoon.”

“Doesn’t have to be today,” he answered. “I can wait.” Curious, he said, “Did Patch really pick a fight with three guys in a bar, or did the story get exaggerated in the gossip lines?”

“He did.” Ice-blue eyes stared out at the horizon. “Patch was drunk. I doubt he’d have done it otherwise.”

“He had to have a reason,” Noah pointed out. “Alcohol can make you stupid, but not that stupid.”

With little emotion, she said, “Patch didn’t need a reason to throw a punch. Especially when he was drinking.”

Her tone didn’t win her any points with Noah. “You don’t sound all that broken up about it.”

“Patch died more than a year ago. I had to move on.”

Wrong answer. “The man was your husband. Did you even shed a tear, or had you already cut another guy from the herd and Patch did you a favor by taking himself out?”

Red shot up her neck. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I was faithful to my husband until the day he died. I wept over his casket, and I’m doing the best I can to give his daughter a good life. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. I suggest we keep it that way.”

As she stomped away, Noah said, “I’ll be around later if you want to stop back by with the baby.”

Carrie froze, and he thought for sure she would march right back and tell him to go to hell. But she didn’t. Instead, she slammed the gate on her white picket fence without looking back. Patch always had liked his women spunky. And she was pretty enough. In fact, unlike most women, Carrie Farmer had improved with age. She was still a tiny little thing. He’d almost hoped she would go for that crowbar in the garage. Would have been entertaining to watch her try to lift it.

Stirring her up probably wasn’t the best idea. Noah had moved out here for peace and quiet. Something he desperately needed after how he’d spent the last few years. War zones were never quiet. And neither were his thoughts. The only time his brain ever shut down was when he worked on the bike. He needed the distraction like he needed oxygen.

Unfortunately, he also needed money. Custom Harley parts didn’t come cheap. Strolling back to the garage, he hoped like hell the job his uncle had lined up for him would pan out. Noah had been swinging a hammer since his training-wheel days, and though the sounds of a job site would be potential triggers, he was determined to muscle his way through. In truth, he didn’t have a choice. His bank account was shrinking fast, and Lowry Construction paid well for a small-town outfit.

With his late-night tinkering put on blocks, the night ahead was going to suck. He supposed it was time to check out Pop’s library. If he couldn’t lose himself in spark plugs and intake valves, maybe some old Louis L’Amour would do the trick. Meemaw used to send them in care packages when she was still alive. Trapped in some hellhole with sand stuck in places he didn’t like to think about, those books had saved Noah’s sanity more than once.

He didn’t have much sanity left to save now, but he’d never been a quitter and wasn’t about to start. Someday he’d get himself back to the land of the living. He’d definitely seen the land of the dying and wanted no part of that.

As he settled in behind the bike, Noah caught himself whistling for the first time in longer than he could remember. At the same moment, the image of flashing blue eyes filled his mind, coaxing a smile to his face. A man in search of distraction could do worse than finding a pretty girl living next door. Too bad the one across the fence had already broken Noah’s number one rule. He didn’t mess with cheaters. Period.

“A damn shame,” he said to himself, reaching for a socket wrench with a whistle on his lips.