Blue-Eyed Devil Page 39

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"A power-con is some kind of generator?"

He nodded. "The newer models are built with the handles farther apart, so two people can carry them. But the older version, the one I had to lug around, could only be carried by one guy. Hell, my muscles would get so sore . . ." He grinned and rubbed the back of his neck, as if recalling long-ago discomforts. "You should have seen the Other rig welders. They made me look puny."

"I honestly can't imagine that," I said.

His smile lingered as he approached me, coming to lean on the other side of the counter.

"Did you like being a rig welder?" I asked hesitantly. "I mean, was it what you wanted to do?"

"I wanted to do anything that would get me out of Welcome."

"That's the town you grew up in?"

He nodded. "Blew out one of my knees playing football — so no chance of a scholarship. And in Welcome, if you don't make it to college, your options are limited. I knew how to weld, from my fence work. It didn't take much to get certified. And I had a buddy who worked as a rig roustabout he told me the welders made-eighty bucks an hour."

"Did you ever think you'd go on to . . . this?" I gestured at the gleaming, pristine apartment around us.

"No," Hardy said at once. " I never imagined I — " But as he stared into my eyes, he paused. It seemed as if he were weighing the consequences of his words, wondering how I'd react if he told me the truth. "Yeah, I knew," he finally said, his voice soft. "I always knew I'd do whatever it took. Living in a trailer park, running in a pack of barefoot kids . . . my whole life was already set out for me, and I sure as hell didn't like the looks of it. So I always knew I'd take my chance when I got it. And if it didn't come, I'd make something happen."

As I began to comprehend what a tremendous drive he possessed, I was surprised by the hint of something like shame or defensiveness secreted deep in the quiet admission. "Why does it make you uncomfortable to admit you're ambitious?"

He gave me an arrested glance, as if it were a question he'd never been asked before. A wary pause, and then he said, "I learned to keep quiet about it early on. Folks make fun of you otherwise."

"Why?"

"It's like crabs in a box." Seeing my incomprehension, he explained, "You can keep a bunch of crabs in a shallow container, and none of them will escape. Because as soon as one of 'em tries to climb out, the others pull him back in."

We faced each other directly, our forearms resting on the counter between us. It felt too close, too strong, as if some incinerating current had opened between us. I pulled back and looked away, breaking the connection.

"What did you do in Dallas?" I heard him ask.

"I worked at a hotel for a little while. Then I stayed at home for about a year."

Hardy's eyes held a mocking glint. "Doing what? Being a trophy wife?"

Since I would have died before ever letting him know the truth, I said casually, "Yes. It was pretty boring."

"Is that why your marriage ended? You got bored?"

"More or less." Reading his expression, I said rather than asked, "You think I'm spoiled, don't you?"

He didn't bother to deny it. "I think you should have married someone who could have done a better job keeping you entertained."

"I should never have gotten married at all," I said. "I'm not cut out for it."

"You never know. You may want to give it another try someday." I shook my head. "No man will ever have that power over me again."

The barest trace of contempt crept into his voice. "You had all the power, sweetheart. You're a rich man's daughter."

Of course. That was how it looked from the outside. No one could know that I'd had no power at all, over anything.

"The entire subject of marriage is boring," I said. "Especially mine. And I'd rather you not call me 'sweetheart.'" I walked out from behind the counter, my arms folded across my chest. "What do you think about the apartment?"

"I like it."

"A lot of space for a single guy, isn't it?"

"I grew up in a family of five living in a single-wide. After that, I can handle a lot of space."

I tried to remember what Liberty had told me about his family. "Two brothers and a sister, right?"

" Yes. Rick, Kevin, and Hannah." A shadow crossed his face. "My sister died last year from breast cancer. Fought it real hard. Double mastectomy, four months of chemo. She went to M. D. Anderson . . . I 'd have taken her anywhere in die world, but everyone said that was the best place. Near the end they put her on Arimidex, which she said was worse than the chemo. Nothing stopped the tumor markers from going up."

"I'm sorry." I wanted to convey how much I understood, even the things he hadn't said. I found myself moving toward him, now leaning on the same side of the counter as he was. "I know what it's like to lose someone that way. My mother died of breast cancer too. Except she never went through the chemo. They caught it too late. She was at stage four with lung dissemination. Mother chose to have a shorter, better quality of life, as opposed to dragging it out and going through all the surgery and treatments, which wouldn't have worked anyway."

"How old were you?" he asked gently.

"Fifteen."

Staring at me, he reached out to stroke back my bangs, which had fallen over one eye. "Haven . . . tell me not to take the apartment, and I won't. Otherwise, I want it. It's up to you."

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