Mark swung his leg out of the car and braced his crutch tip on the pavement. He used the crutch and the driver's door to boost himself upright, then slammed the door firmly behind him and continued around the car.
His chair was in the trunk, atop two plastic bags of groceries. It was a beauty - sleek, tubular frame, bicycle-style wheels canted inward at the tops, contoured seat and a minimal padded backrest for lumbar support. He'd paid a pretty penny for it, and it had proved worth every cent.
He unfolded the chair with the ease of long practice and set the brake before he sat. From there, it was easy to exchange his crutch for the groceries.
One of the bags caught on the trunk latch and tore. He unhooked the plastic and tried to sweep both bags into his lap, but the torn one hit his stump, bringing tears to his eyes and widening the rip. Before he could secure it, a shower of cans spilled onto his lap. Three tumbled over the edge and hit the pavement.
One of the cans settled politely on its bottom. The second rolled neatly to a stop on the grassy verge. The third, clearly a maverick, landed on its side, found the slight incline of the driveway and began to roll.
Mark debated whether to roll after it, and decided he'd probably lose the other groceries in the process.
"Come back here, you son of a bitch!"
As if it had heard him, the can picked up speed.
At the bottom of the drive, the can hit a loose pebble and spun out. Mark grabbed his wheels and started after it, only to stop in disbelief as the can wound up at right angles to its original path and bounded down the sidewalk, heading for greener pastures.
The can slammed into the upturned sole of a scruffy pink sneaker. Mark had time to notice that the foot in the sneaker was attached to a fairly shapely leg before a hand swooped into the picture and corralled the runaway.
"Hey!" Mark's rescuer turned out to be a rangy, rawboned woman, her cheerful face surrounded by a strawberry-blonde friz. She grinned and waved at him. "This runaway part of your herd, Cowboy?"
He couldn't help returning the grin. "It surely is, ma'am. Thank you for rounding it up."
"Sure thing." She tromped up the drive, legs swinging in slow, easy strides beneath the frayed edges of her cutoff jeans. "I was coming this way anyhow." She held out a hand, the arm liberally spattered with freckles. "Sheila Connolly. I live next door." She jerked a thumb toward the split-level bungalow on the right.
Mark nodded. "I've seen you coming and going. " He took her hand. "Mark Johnson." They shook, her grasp warm and firm.
Sheila swept her hand at the other loose cans. "You want me to round up them other two?"
He appreciated that she'd asked. Too many people were too ready to jump in and do things for him, whether he needed help or not. "That'd be great. I mean, I can come back for them, but-"
"But no sense making an extra trip when I'm standing right here." She bent and retreived the cans, her loosely buttoned top giving him an excellent shot of freckled cleavage.
He wrenched his eyes back to her face. "Thanks." He considered the cans. His lap was already piled high. He'd just drop them again on the way in. He reached up and grabbed the hank of rope dangling from the trunk lid, pulled it down and closed the trunk gently. "Just set them on there."
"You sure you don't want me to carry 'em in for you? Save you a trip."
He hesitated. "The place is a mess."
Sheila waved that off. "Honey, I raised two teenagers. A little mess don't scare me none."
Mark liked this woman already, and he didn't even know why she'd come. "Right this way, then, but don't say I didn't warn you."
The living room was controlled chaos. Sheets of plywood leaned against the exposed framework of one wall, next to a tidy stack of gypsum wallboard. A pair of sawhorses occupied the middle of the room, supporting a partial sheet of plywood and a circular saw. The subfloor around the horses was snowed in under drifts of sawdust interrupted by occasional larger scraps.
Sheila laughed. "Now, when you said it was messy, I pictured dirty dishes and piles of laundry.
"Naw." Mark wheeled around the sawhorses, neatly avoiding the debris. "I have a word for that kind of mess: obstacle course."
"Well, I guess so." Sheila followed him into the kitchen. She stopped short and whistled when she saw it. "You've sure got this fixed up nice."
Mark looked around, trying to take in his surroundings with a fresh eye. Walnut cabinets, cheery white appliances. Adjustable counters and a sink that could be pulled down to wheelchair level, or raised to standing height. His reacher stood ready by the pantry, incase he needed something off the higher shelves. "I better have. It's what I do for a living." She cocked her head at him, and he went on, "I buy a house, restore and remodel it, and start all over again. My niche is accessibility."
"I concentrate on mobility issues - doorways large enough for a wheelchair, even in the closets, turnarounds, step-in bathtub, adjustable-height shower. But I throw in other things when I can, like contrast doorframes for folks with low vision, smoke alarms that flash as well as beep. A lot of accommodations are pretty inexpensive, you just have to think to put them in
"So you get everything perfect, then you turn around and move out."
Mark shrugged. "I get bored."
"Nothin' wrong with that." Sheila looked around again. "What do you do about the stuff you can't reach? Like painting the ceilings?"
"What any other contractor does - bring in subcontractors. I've got a couple guys coming over this weekend to help hang that wallboard piled out there." A sudden impulse made him grin roguishly. "But you'd be amazed what I can reach with the right tools."
She caught his eye and grinned back. "And do you have the right tools?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I have excellent tools. And I keep them in good working condition."
She nodded slowly. "Bet you know how to handle 'em, too."
"You know it."
An understanding caught and held between them, a pleasennt tension neither was in a hurry to dispel.
Finally, Sheila chuckled. "Actually, it was your other tools I came over to ask about. I was hanging some shelves and broke my eighth-inch drill bit. You wouldn't happen to have a spare I could borrow until I can run out to the hardware store tomorrow, would you?"
"Probably. Let me check." Mark led the way to the living room, gliding to a halt in front of the row of plastic cases lined up behind the sawhorses. He flipped one onto the makeshift table and opened it. The case contained a collection of drill bits, each neatly stowed in its proper compartment. He selected one and held it out to her. "This should do you. If I'm not home when you bring it back, just leave it on the table outside the front door."
She tucked it into her back pocket. "Will do. Thanks much." She held out her hand, and they shook again. "Pleasure meetin' you."
Scott Petersen was a wiry man with a ready smile, his white teeth set off by skin almost as dark as the three black coffees he carried. The hair of his temples was flecked with gray, but he moved like a man half his age. He showed up promptly at eight, and he and Mark sat on the front porch to drink their coffee in the cool morning air while they waited for the other member of their crew.
By half past, Mark was getting antsy. "Brewer did know it was this weekend, right?"
Scott shrugged. "He did when I talked to him last night." He lifted his head, looking at something across the lawn. "Company coming."
"Company" turned out to be Sheila, in a slightly darker pair of cutoffs and a green t-shirt with a beer company logo. She carried an aluminum pie plate. "Howdy! Saw you sittin' over here and thought I'd bring this by while it was fresh. Sort of a 'welcome to the neighborhood' thing." She handed the pie, which turned out to be apple, to Mark and pulled his drill bit out of her pocket. "Thanks muchly for the loan."
"Thanks for the pie." Mark balanced the pastry on his lap and tucked the drill bit into his own pocket. "Sheila, this is my buddy Scott Petersen. Scott, my neighbor Sheila Connolly."The two murmurred polite greetings and shook hands. "We're just waiting on one more before we get going." As if on cue, his phone rang. He handed the pie to Scott. "Here, hold this, would you?"
He rolled off a few feet to take the call. When he came back, he was shaking his head. "Well, shit." He glanced at Sheila. "Sorry." She shook her head and waved off the apology. To Scott, he added, "That was Brewer. Fell off his bike and hurt his wrist. Could be sprained, could be broken. He's at the doctor's now. But he won't be hanging any wallboard this weekend." He thought for a moment. "Next weekend?"
Scott shook his head. "Got drill next weekend. Weekend after?"
"I'm out of town that weekend." Mark drummed his fingers on the wheel of his chair, thinking. "We could do it the weekend after that, but it puts me way behind schedule. Think we can get it done, the two of us?"
Scott rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but it'll take for-fucking-ever." He shot Sheila a guilty glance. "Sorry."
She snorted. "Believe me, I've heard worse." She tapped her foot. "Mark, I can hang wallboard."When Mark hesitated, she caught his eye, a challenge in her bright green ones. "Tell you what: If I mess it up, I'll pay for new supplies and a crew to put it up next weekend. If I get it right, you owe me dinner."
Mark grinned and nodded at Scott. "What about him?"
"You can buy him dinner too."
Mark caught Scott's eye, and his friend shrugged. "Okay, you're on."
The three of them turned out to work well together. Mark tuned his battered work radio to an 80s station and cranked it. He measured and cut while Scott and Sheila lifted the sections into place and put in screws. Nobody talked much, but it was an easy silence.
By late morning, they'd finished the living room. "Hang down the hall now, and tape and seal the joints after lunch?" Mark suggested.
Scott and Sheila nodded, and they went on.
For lunch, Mark handed Scott a couple of twenties and sent him down the street to fetch subs and iced tea. The three of them sat on the much-reduced pile of wallboard, balancing sandwiches and chips on their laps.
"So, what do you do?" Scott asked Sheila. He bent to set his cup on the floor between his feet, and his knee jostled hers. Mark couldn't tell if it was accidental or deliberate.
Sheila swallowed a bite of ham and cheese sub and licked her fingers. "I'm a substitute mail carrier. I get called in if someone's out sick or goes on vacation."
"Huh." Scott nodded slowly. "How'd you get into that?"
She shrugged. "Well, I retired from the Army after twenty years. Alf had passed - that's my late husband - and both kids were off in college. I sat on my ass for a few months and got bored. Postal Service exams came around, and a friend told me my military time would bump my score up a few points. The rest, as they say, is history. How about you?"
Scott blotted his neck and forehead with a napkin. "Information Technology and database management. Started in the Army, got out after eight, and used the G.I. Bill to go to college." He nodded toward Mark. "Guess we're all vets. Mark and I met in the Army."
Mark grinned. "Over in the sandbox, as I recall. The first time around."
Sheila cocked her head at him. "Is that where you lost your leg?"
Mark chuckled and shook his head ruefully. "Nope. Would you believe, I spent four years in combat zones and never got a scratch. Came home, and my first week stateside, some kid in a brand spankin' new Trans Am loses control and nails me to a concrete planter. Can't even blame him - pin sheared in his steering column. Poor kid laid down twenty feet of skid marks trying to stop in time."
"Well, that sucks," Sheila said around a bite of sandwich.
"Yeah it does." Mark drank some of his tea. "For the first year after, I lived with my folks. Dad was remodeling, so I jumped in and helped out where I could, mostly with cabinetry and trim and the like. When the dust cleared, I had separation pay and military disability, plus a hefty payout from the dude's insurance. I put some in the bank and used some to buy a little house. Retrofitted it for accessibility, got it all squared away, and realized I didn't have anything to do with my time. So I sold it for half again as much as I'd put into it and bought another one. I've been flipping houses ever since, say the last fifteen, sixteen years."
"Sounds like a plan." Sheila nodded toward his leg. "Army couldn't fit you out with a prosthetic? Aw, shit." She crumpled her sandwich wrapper. That's nosy of me. Forget I said it."
"I don't mind." Mark shrugged. "Never found one I could get along with. I use crutches when I need maneuverability, but I have some nerve damage in one shoulder. When I'm going to be out for a while, or I need my hands free, I use the chair."
"It don't seem to slow you down much."
Scott laughed. "Nothing slows Johnson down much. Ain't that right, Buddy?"
"I try not to let it." Mark picked up the sub shop bag and passed it down the line for the wrappers and used napkins. "Speaking of which, you guys about ready to start sealing those joints?"
Their camaraderie carried over into the afternoon. Scott cut and placed paper tape over the joints between panels, and Mark and Sheila plastered on sealing compound and scraped it even.
The room got warm as the afternoon wore on. Sheila knotted her shirt under her breasts, exposing a midriff that looked pretty damn good for a woman in her 40s with two kids. Mark tried not to glance at it too often, or at least not too obviously. He noticed Scott staring once, and his buddy gave him a shrug and a wolfish grin.
The first time Sheila bumped him, Mark assumed it was an accident. After all, they were working in close quarters. Things were bound to get cozy. But it happened again, and then a few more times, her hip brushing his shoulder or her knee pressing his arm as she went up on the stepladder to reach a high spot.
So, was it deliberate?
But she seemed just as chummy with Scott. Her forearm brushed his as she braced against the wall, or she laid a hand on his shoulder to steady herself when she stepped off the ladder.
Maybe she was just that friendly.
At one point, Sheila put one of the ladder's feet down on a power cord. It shifted when she put her weight on it, and she stepped back fast. Mark threw out his arm to steady her and somehow found himself with a handful of ass. Nice, firm ass, he had time to note, before he yanked his hand back.
Sheila laughed and patted his shoulder. "No worries, Cowboy." When Scott turned his back, she winked.
They finished just before six, sweaty and dusty and smeared with plaster. Without thinking, Mark turned to Scott. "The usual?" Immediately he wished he hadn't.
"I'm in." Scott turned to Sheila. "Usually, after a day's work, we fire up the grill and have a couple beers in the hot tub. Bathing suits very optional. You game?"
"Love to." She caught Mark's expression. "If you're sure it's all right."
Mark hesitated. Sheila had been a huge help, and he wanted to get to know her better. She seemed to like him, too. But if they got in the tub, suits or no suits, she was going to see his stump and his scars. He wasn't sure he was ready for that.
Sheila cocked her head. "What I probably ought to do is mosey home and get a start on my laundry. You guys weren't expecting me, and I don't want to impose."
"No," Mark heard himself saying, before he'd realized he was going to say anything. Hell, it wasn't like his missing leg was going to surprise her. "We'd love to have you. I've already got a third steak marinating. Be a shame to waste it."
"All right, then," Sheila said, and it was settled.
Sheila ran back to her place to grab a shower and returned half an hour later with dripping hair and a casserole dish full of skewered vegetables.
Mark was already in the water, crutches within easy reach. Scott was at the grill, a towel wrapped sarong-style around his waist, carefully arranging three meaty steaks over the flame. He took Sheila's dish and handed her an open Heineken. "Jump in. I'll be along in a sec."
Sheila skinned out of her shirt - no bra, Mark noticed - and stripped off her shorts and panties. He tried not to look as she stepped into the water, but couldn't help noticing that the carpet matched the drapes.
Moments later, Scott dropped his towel beside the tub and joined them.
Sheila took a long pull of her beer and stretched her arms along the rim of the tub. "This is nice."
"I put one in every house I work on," Mark said. "Half-sunken, to make it easy to transfer in and out."
"You think of everything."
He shrugged. "Practice."
The setting sun drew long shadows across the deck and privacy fence. Isolated crickets began to chirp. Scott got out of the water long enough to flip the steaks and add the vegetables to the grill, then slipped back in. He didn't bother with his towel.
Sheila drained her beer and grinned. "Isn't this every woman's fantasy? Alone in a hot tub with a couple of hot studs."
Mark blinked. Not only had she said it, she seemed to mean it. "Did you just call me a hot stud?"
"I don't know." Sheila turned to Scott. "Did I just call him a hot stud?"
"'s what it sounded like to me."
Sheila turned back to Mark and shrugged. "Well, there you go."
Scott chuckled. "Of course, she also called me a hot stud, for whatever that's worth."
Mark kicked his buddy lazily under the water. "No accounting for taste." He turned to Sheila, and his breath hitched a bit in his throat. It had been a long time since a woman had looked at him with desire. "I could kiss you for that."
"Well, what's stopping you?"
Before he could answer, her arm was around his neck and her lips were on his, one breast mashed hard against his side. It was a long, wet, sloppy kiss with a lot of tongue, and by the time Sheila drew back, Mark was breathless and a little dazed.
Scott chuckled, a little ruefully. "I guess this is my cue to go check on the steaks."
"Only if you want to," Sheila said, and reached for him.
Their kiss was as long and thorough as hers and Mark's had been, and Scott made the most of it, running his hands up and down her back and, once, reaching down to squeeze her ass. She murmurred approvingly.
When they broke off, Sheila slid back to her spot between the two men. They sat in silence for a long moment, each eyeing the others.
Sheila spoke first. "So, guys. What do you think?"
Scott nodded. He was breathing heavily, his pupils wide in the dusky light. "I'm in favor."
Mark swallowed hard. "Why the hell not? Count me in."
Sheila slid along the bench seat until her hip butted up against Mark's, tugging Scott's elbow to draw him after her. She put an arm around each of their necks, and kissed first one, then the other.
Scott put a hand on Sheila's breast, kneading and squeezing. The next time she turned to Mark, he kissed her shoulder and worked his way down to draw the rosy pink areola into his mouth.
Sheila groaned. "Oh, God, that's good! It's been a long time."
Mark cupped her other breast. It was weighty and full, buoyed somewhat by the water. She turned to kiss Scott, and mark dipped his head and took the puckered nipple into his mouth. He sucked hard, rolling and tonguing the sensitive flesh. Sheila twined her fingers in the hair on the back of his neck and pulled him closer.
He put a hand on her knee and slid it upward until the edge of his finger rested against the soft slit of her sex. She spread her knees further and rocked against him.
Sheila slid her hand along his shoulder, down his back and side until it came to rest on his right thigh. Reflexively, he flinched away.
"Sorry," she whispered near his ear. "Too much?"
Mark shook his head. "Just surprised me. Don't stop."
Her hand moved inward. He was only half-erect in the hot water, and she used the flat of her palm to press his cock against his belly while her fingers cupped his balls.
"Oh, God." Mark closed his eyes and let his head loll back against the rim of the tub. How long had it been since a woman had let him touch her, wanted him to touch her, wanted to touch him? He slipped his arm around Sheila's back and pulled her against him, savoring the sheer physical contact.
Sheila stroked the hair at his temple. "You all right, Johnson?"
"Yeah. Sorry." He realized his eyes were damp and blinked back the moisture. "Just having a moment. It's been a long damn time."
Scott disentangled himself from Sheila and heaved his butt up on the edge of the tub. "Well, much as I hate to interrupt the moment, those steaks are going to be crispy critters if I let 'em go too long. Think we can put things on hold long enough to eat?" He rolled to his feet, picked up his towel, and padded over to the grill.