“She asked if I’d what?” Nathan LeBeau gaped at his sister.
“You heard me.”
He shook his head. “I thought I heard you offer my—” Nathan glanced at his crotch then back up to Val’s amused eyes. “Exchanging dirt work for down-and-dirty sexual favors?”
“No. Trading art lessons for your landscaping expertise.” A sneaky smile spread across Val’s face. “If you decided to throw in sexual favors, well, that’s just a bonus.”
Nathan angled the beer bottle at her in mild reproof. “Ah hell, Val. Is this another one of your hormonal pregnancy things?”
Val mumbled something suspiciously prayer-like.
“Amazing grace, my ass. Miraculous as it may seem to you, I can procure my own dates, and she will not be a friend of yours.”
He shoved aside his niggling fear that no woman would ever want him for the man he was inside, not what showed outside. Lightly, he said, “You want the reasons alphabetically or numerically?”
“Always with the smart comments. No wonder you haven’t gotten laid in months. Just hear me out—”
“Nope. Get yourself another chump, or should I say hump, and leave me out of it.”
He stood abruptly. No way was he getting sucked into another one of his sister’s crazy schemes. No matter how crazy he was about her. No matter she was eight months pregnant and apparently delusional.
Shit. This whole thing smacked of Val’s penchant for matchmaking. Except she’d stepped up her campaign to pair him off by boasting of his “stud” services to her friend. If it didn’t involve him personally, he’d be rolling on the ground busting a gut.
Yet, it bothered him that Val didn’t think he was capable of a more meaningful relationship. Maybe he shouldn’t try so hard to convince his friends and family he was the love ’em and leave ’em type.
“I’m going home,” Nathan said, irked at the dust swirls falling from his work clothes to Val’s pristine carpet. He set the empty beer bottle on the counter and marveled at the atypical quiet in his sister’s house. Without her kids interrupting, yelling, throwing toys everywhere, the place was downright eerie. Strange, that he preferred chaos to quiet. He had too much silence in his life as it was. “When will Rich be home with the monsters?”
“Not for another hour.” Val’s expression soured and she groaned, smoothing her palms over her lower abdomen.
“What?” He demanded, “Val? What’s wrong?”
She moaned again, bit her lip and closed her eyes.
Terrific capper to a bad day. He settled her on the couch, placing a SpongeBob SquarePants pillow behind the small of her back. “Are you having contractions?” Hell, for all he knew, after kid number four maybe there were no contractions and the sucker just dropped to the ground unaided.
“I don’t know.”
His gaze sharpened. Val was a pro at this pregnancy stuff. Wouldn’t she know if she was in labor? And why hadn’t she started those weird breathing exercises yet? He kneeled on his haunches in front of her and murmured, “You okay?”
“Maybe you should stick around just in case…” Val opened her eyes, only to quickly glance away from his penetrating gaze.
Too quickly. He’d seen that “Who me?” bright-eyed look on his baby sister’s face a million times when she was spinning another harebrained plot to complicate his life.
“Nice try,” he said, “but you are so transparent.”
“You know what. False labor is pretty low, even for you. Don’t bother crying, either,” he warned. “It won’t work.”
“I’m not going to bawl, you big bully. Don’t be such a jerk.”
Man, he did not need her name-calling, on top of her friend’s insulting trade-sex-for-yard-work proposal. He’d endured enough insults from his last girlfriend—for lack of a better term—to last a lifetime. “If you’re not gonna plop this one out right now, I’m leaving.”
Contrite, Val grabbed his hand, delaying his exit. “Sorry.”
He kissed her forehead. Her manipulative nature aside, he couldn’t stay mad at her for long. “Don’t worry about it.”
“But I do worry. That’s why when this came up, I thought of you.”
“Nice that I bring to mind hard-up-for-sex thoughts.”
“Hah! We both know that’s not true, since all of your past relationships have only been about sex.”
Val had a point. An emotional connection usually proved pointless. Few women looked beyond his dirt-covered clothes, his unimpressive job, his long hair and even longer hours. Kathy, the last chick he’d dated, had informed him he wouldn’t recognize romance if it bit him on the butt.
Duh. He dug ditches, for God’s sake. Romance rarely entered the world of dirt. He knew there must be a way to sweep a woman off her feet or make the earth move without the benefit of heavy equipment; he just hadn’t found the right combination yet.
How would Val react if he admitted that, for once in his life, he’d prefer a good old-fashioned romance to a frantic, meaningless tumble between the sheets? He considered it for two seconds before he realized she’d laugh her ass off…and hang that unmanly need over his head for eternity.
No wonder he was still single.
Val’s plea interrupted his thoughts. “Can you just hear me out? Give me a chance to explain the details?”
He groaned. “Are we still talking about your desperate friend?”
“She’s not desperate, at least not in the way you’re imagining.” She frowned. “I can’t believe you are giving up on all women.”
“I am not giving up on all women. I’m just not bedding one in exchange for bedding plants! Jesus, Val. This is insane. Even for you.” Nathan flicked his braid back over his shoulder, glaring at his sister, champion of the underdog. Dog. His face went stern. “This friend of yours. She’s ugly, isn’t she?”
Val’s auburn curls shook violently. Her hazel eyes stormed, and she seemed too angry to speak.
He should be so lucky. “So what? She’s stupid? Manic? Poor?”
She gave him that steely-eyed look she’d perfected at age five. “I’ll give you two reasons to consider it: A) your artistic skills suck and Tate can help you; B) Tate’s house is on the corner of Jackson and Main. Maybe you’ve passed it? Since it’s on the busiest intersection in town? If you take on this project”—she spread her arms, miming an invisible billboard—“you could put up a big sign, Landscaping Design by LeBeau, and jumpstart your business plans.”
“I thought you had funny business in mind for me.” Val’s immediate scowl made him grin. “Besides, I’ve driven by that house numerous times. This pal of yours would need to be Picasso and a nympho to pay for the sheer amount of dirt work it needs.”
“Fine. Your life. Your missed opportunity.”
One opportunity in particular nearly blindsided him. An opportunity he’d missed last year. That house would be perfect for the Maxwell Landscaping Competition. Damn. He’d given up on entering this year and consequently had put it out of his mind.
Humiliation still tightened his throat when he recalled the bold, red REJECTED stamped across his application from last year, courtesy of the City Beautification Committee. He’d believed Val’s landscaping job and his extensive construction experience had more than qualified for the prestigious contest. Wrong. Seemed he didn’t meet the city’s criteria as a professional without the “Certified Landscaping Designer” title behind his name.
Nathan had rectified that situation. He’d enrolled in an online course focused on xeriscaping, a type of landscaping that utilizes indigenous plants and trees native to a specific geographical area to conserve natural resources. After three weeks of hands-on training down south last winter, he’d graduated.
Hadn’t helped his drawing skills one whit, but as the only landscaper in town able to add xeriscaping to his resume, he figured after a profitable summer installing sewers, he’d hang out his landscaping shingle in the autumn when the utility business slowed down.
This opportunity was too good to pass up, even if he was busy as hell. Utility work paid extremely well. But pretty as his septic systems seemed to him, they did not qualify for awards or generate lucrative city contracts.
Not only would revenge be sweet if he won the competition, he’d prove his ideas about expanding his father’s business beyond sewage construction weren’t a pipe dream. And he’d land the city contact for the new fire substation, a near guarantee of additional landscaping work. It did seem like his golden chance.
“You okay?” Val murmured behind him. “You’re awful quiet.”
Nathan shook his head. Jesus. He was hard up if he was seriously considering this woman’s off-the-wall proposal. “Just thinking.” He faced her, imparting a winsome smile. “Look, I’m not sure…”
When her eyes shimmered, his heart sank to the tips of his steel-toed boots.
Shit. Val was doing that puppy-dog-eye thing—a last resort because it always worked. He scrubbed his hand over his stubbly jaw and groaned defeat. Round one: meddlesome sister.
“Nice going. Fine. You win, even though you fight dirty. Why didn’t you line up my nieces and nephews on the couch and have them cry?”
She smiled—a bit smugly in his opinion. “That was phase two if phase one didn’t work. So you’ll talk to her?”
“Yeah, I’ll talk to her.”
“Good. I’ll introduce you at our barbecue tomorrow night. Oh, by the way, it’s a western theme this year.”
He’d suffered though her themed parties before, but there was something innately wrong with an Indian dressing up like a cowboy.
When Val didn’t gleefully elaborate on what outlandish costume she planned on foisting on her poor husband, Rich, Nathan knew she’d withheld other vital information from him too. Especially with the rapt manner in which she studied the tiled floor, as if she could actually see her pink toenails beneath her extended belly.
He tipped her face up to meet his gaze. “Tell me what you’re hiding, little sis, or the deal is off.”
“Fine.” Petulant, Val raised her chin higher. “Tate’s return to South Dakota is temporary. Once the landscaping is done and the house she inherited is saleable, she’ll head back to Denver and her job as a graphic artist.” She frowned. “This ‘no-strings’ fling thing is a new kick. Tate is so sweet. For all her bold talk, I don’t think she’s had much experience with casual sex.”
Val’s admission hung in the air for several awkward seconds.
Nathan felt choked by the sudden silence. And the sudden possibilities.
Sweet? Sweet usually meant shy, right? Wouldn’t a shy woman—especially one with limited sexual escapades—eagerly welcome his ideas for exploring his romantic side and keep her legs primly crossed? Even if this Tate confirmed his incompetence in the romance department, she wasn’t sticking around. She wouldn’t be a constant reminder he wasn’t cut out for hearts and flowers shit.
How could he lose? If he kept the particulars about their intimate relationship—or lack thereof—from nosy Val, soaked up Tate’s artistic expertise to bolster his pathetic drawing skills and kept both of them from discovering his application in the Maxwell Landscaping Competition…
It put a whole different spin on the situation.
He grinned. “What time, and what should I wear?”