Morgan's third Sergeant Joe's Boys contemporary is a gently wrought story of fences, both building them and tearing them down...Most fences separate people; this one brings Misha and Amy closer, leading first to friendship and then to love. This is a real romance reader's romance with a lovely slow burn at its heart.—Publishers Weekly
LOVE, ALWAYS AND FOREVER
by Alexis Morgan
Sergeant Joe's Boys, Book 3
March 14, 2017
Sergeant Joe's Boys are back! Bestselling author Alexis Morgan delivers a tender and inspiring novel about Mikhail, a battle-scarred firefighter, and the sensitive young woman who slips inside the walls around his heart.
As a child, Mikhail Wanjek couldn't save his drug-addled mother; as a young man, he left a promising military career because he couldn't defend the innocent victims of war. When Mikhail's feeling like a failure, not even the love of his adoptive parents and loyal brothers can console him. But after he volunteers to help his beautiful brunette neighbor install a fence around her yard, Mikhail begins to heal. He wants to shield her pure, unabashed lust for life from the darkness—including his own.
Successful heart surgery has allowed Amy Short to finally set out on her own, apart from her loving but overprotective family. Now she's experiencing new thrills with the chiseled fireman next door, from riding on the back of Mikhail's Harley to late nights full of passion. Still, he refuses to open up emotionally, and with Amy's history, she's not willing to wait around for Mikhail to change. What she needs to do is show him that together they can build something that will last forever.
Mikhail Wanjek was awake. The only question was why when for damn sure he didn't want to be. After two failed attempts, he finally located his cellphone on the bedside table and pried one eye open long enough to check the time.
Ten o'clock. Really? It had been less than two hours since he'd crawled into bed after working the shift from hell. On their last call, the house had already been fully engulfed in flames by the time his crew had arrived on scene. The only positive outcome was that the family had made it out before the fire reduced their home to little more than a blackened skeleton. The stunned grief in their eyes as the hungry flames destroyed everything they owned would haunt him for days to come. Just one more nightmare in his already extensive collection.
When he'd finally dragged himself home, he'd been too tired to do more than strip naked and fall face down on the mattress. Sleep had overtaken him seconds after his head hit the pillow. No way he should be conscious yet.
After tossing the phone on the table, he burrowed back under the covers. But before he could dive deep into blessed oblivion, the same racket that had jarred him awake in the first place started up again, this time with a vengeance. Okay, he was going to kill somebody just as soon as he figured out who was responsible.
Well, not really, even if the idea was really tempting.
He rolled over to the other side of the bed and lifted the blinds just far enough to peek out the window. The small slice of sunshine stabbed his eyes like a jagged knife, which set off a throbbing pain in his head and added to his anger.
Exactly as he'd feared, someone was standing just out of sight on the far side of the porch. He couldn't see who it was, but Mikhail wanted nothing more than to ignore his uninvited guest and stay right where he was. Unfortunately, the intruder had other ideas. This time the chime of the doorbell was followed by the sound of a fist knocking on the door.
Mikhail surrendered to the inevitable and crawled out of bed. Pausing only long enough to yank on yesterday's jeans, he stumbled down the hall toward the front door. His two brothers were the only people who ever dropped by without calling first, but they both knew he'd pulled a long shift at the fire department and would be sleeping. If they had decided to bother him anyway, he would take great pleasure in kicking their inconsiderate asses for them.
Even half-dead and this damn tired, he could still lay them out flat. They knew it, too.
The doorbell chimed again just as Mikhail unfastened the dead bolt. He yanked the door open, already rehearsing the stream of curse words he planned to unleash on his favorite relatives. Except that it wasn't Jack or Tino standing on his front porch. Instead, it was a leggy brunette he knew for damn sure he'd never seen before. Despite the fatigue fogging up his head, he was sure that much was true. He wouldn't have forgotten a face like that.
At least he managed to cut off the obscenity that had been his planned greeting and substitute a mumbled, "What?"
Judging from the way the woman retreated half a step, the single word had come out a lot more unfriendly than he'd intended. Before he could fall back and regroup, the woman started talking a mile a minute.
"Hi, I'm your new neighbor, Amy Short. I hope you like brownies." She offered him a bright smile as she shoved a plate into his hands. "I've been meaning to introduce myself since I moved in early last week, but this is the first time I've caught you at home."
She paused and gave him an expectant look.
His brain finally caught up with her rapid-fire words. "I do. Like brownies, that is."
She evidently expected more in the way of a response, because she continued to stare at him. Her gaze briefly dropped down to his bare chest before her dark eyes once again locked onto his. He replayed her last words in his head. Oh, right. Introductions were in order.
"Mikhail Wanjek. I just got off work."
What else? When nothing brilliant came to mind, he added, "Welcome to my neighborhood."
He hadn't meant it to be funny, but evidently he'd come off sounding like Mr. Rogers. Amy's laughter rang out brighter than the sunshine beating down from overhead. Ordinarily he would've enjoyed listening to her slightly husky voice, but right now it was all he could do to stay vertical. He leaned against the doorjamb for support. "Was there something you needed? Otherwise, I'd really like to go back to bed."
It was testament to how tired he was that he wasn't even tempted to try to take her there with him. Her smile dimmed. "I'm sorry I woke you up. It didn't occur to me that you might work nights."
"It's okay. Thanks again for the brownies."
Mikhail started to close the door, hoping they were done. But even if he was, she clearly wasn't. Amy put her hand on the door to keep it from closing completely. "Look, I won't keep you, but I need to talk to you about our common boundary line."
As she spoke, Amy pointed toward the rickety cedar fence that separated his yard from hers. Mikhail gave it a brief glance. "What about it?"
"I'm getting a dog soon, which means I need to fence my backyard. Since the stretch between our houses is in such poor shape, I would like to replace it at the same time as I do the back and the far side of my yard. I wanted to make sure it was okay with you."
He was well aware that his fence was in poor condition, but so far it had ranked pretty low on his own to-do list. Since moving in three months back, he'd been concentrating on making the interior more livable. "Can't this discussion wait a bit? I can't think straight right now."
At least until he had a few more hours of sleep under his belt. He realized that she was talking again, and he'd missed half of what she'd said.
". . . the cost since I'd like to get it done soon. I just thought I should let you know first. Now, I'd better let you get back to sleep."
Considering the other repairs that he'd already started on his own place, he'd have to crunch some numbers before committing to the project. But before Mikhail could ask again if they could talk about it more later in the day, she'd already walked away. Damn, he had a feeling that hadn't gone well.
Holding the door open just a crack, he stared at her retreating back, enjoying the view. Those jeans fit her slim hips like a second skin, and he liked the way her ponytail bounced as she moved. He could be wrong, but he was pretty sure Amy was the most attractive woman he'd met in a long time. Certainly since he'd left the Marine Corps behind to move back home to the Pacific Northwest. It would be a damn shame if his fried brain had screwed up any chance of friendship with his pretty new neighbor.
He'd have to try to make a better impression the next time their paths crossed. Meanwhile, it was long past time to hit the rack again. He carried the brownies into the kitchen for later, but at the last second he snagged a couple to eat on his way back into bed. Mmmm, extra fudgy with big chunks of walnuts, just the way he liked them. They ranked right up there with his mother's, which was saying something.
Later, he'd return Amy's plate as an excuse to talk to her again and let her know how much he'd enjoyed her thoughtful gesture. Maybe a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers from his mother's garden would go a long way toward smoothing any ruffled feathers. Something else to think about later. For now, he followed the siren call of his bed.
He tossed his jeans back on the floor and sighed contentedly as the soft cotton sheets settled against his bare skin. For the second time that morning, he was asleep within seconds.
Amy wandered around the backyard, letting her imagination run wild about how the place would look six months or even a year from now. She'd only been living in the house for a week, so there was a lot left to do just getting settled in. But when she tired of unpacking her extensive book collection or arranging the kitchen cabinets, she came out here to enjoy both the fresh air and the possibilities.
She couldn't wait to start marking out flower beds and haunting the local nurseries for just the right plants. But all of that would have to wait until she could get the fence situation resolved. She'd gotten two estimates for the cost of installing a six-foot-high cedar fence around the entire backyard. A third contractor said he could come out next week, but he'd already told her that the two estimates she'd gotten weren't out of line with the current costs of materials and labor.
She had no reason to doubt his word, but she'd really been hoping he would come up with a bottom line that wouldn't give her sticker shock. At least all three contractors had told her that she could save a little bit if she tore down the old fence herself. With only one side of the yard fenced right now, how hard could it be? That's why she'd approached her neighbor about the matter.
She found her gaze drawn toward Mikhail Wanjek's house for about the twentieth time since leaving his front porch three hours ago. The real estate agent who'd sold her the house hadn't been able to tell her much about her new neighbors, only that the house on that side had sold a few months before to someone moving in from out of state. Amy wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but Mikhail wasn't it.
Thanks to her own family, she was used to being around tall men who made her feel petite even at five foot eight. However, she was sure Mikhail had a couple of inches on even Will, the tallest of the lot. Add in the rumpled blond hair, icy blue eyes, and a well-sculpted bare chest, and the man was sex on a stick.
Too bad he'd been a bit of a grump. To be fair, she'd obviously dragged him out of a sound sleep. Besides, after growing up with four older brothers, it would take more than a fierce frown to scare her off.
At least he'd agreed that the fence needed to come down, a job she was about to tackle. After talking to Mikhail, she'd gone grocery shopping and then made a quick stop at the neighborhood hardware store to pick up leather gloves to protect her hands from splinters and a crowbar to pry the boards apart.
These days, her energy level had vastly improved, but she didn't want to risk overdoing things. It wasn't as if she was on a specific timetable. If she did one section a day, she'd have the fence down within the week.
She spread a plastic tarp to help keep all the debris corralled in one spot. One last trip back inside to get a bottle of cold water, and she was all set. Getting started was harder than she'd expected, but she finally managed to work the end of the pry bar between the railing on her side of the fence and the first board. She threw all of her weight and strength into it and finally succeeded in opening up a gap. One more try resulted in success, even if the nails made an awful screech as they pulled free of the wood.
The second board came off with far less effort, but the third one split down the middle with a loud crack. She winced, for the first time thinking about the man next door who might still be sleeping. No one had ever told her that demolishing a fence would be such a noisy proposition. After she finished removing this one last board, she would abandon her efforts until later in the day.
Using a pair of pliers, she tried to work the nail free from the railing, but it had to be all stubborn about staying right where it was. She released her grip on the pliers long enough to flex her hand before trying again. Still no luck. Frustrated, she tossed the pliers on the ground and squeezed through the hole she'd opened up in the fence. Maybe pulling on the board from the other side might loosen it up a bit.
She got a good grip on both sides of the wood and gave it a hard yank. When it broke free, Amy went stumbling backward, fighting hard to regain her balance. To her surprise, instead of hitting the ground, she landed hard against a solid wall of irate male. She had years of experience dealing with that particular species, the only difference being that the ones she was most familiar with were all related to her.
At least Mikhail made sure she was steady on her feet before ripping into her. "Want to tell me what the hell you think you're doing?"
She would've thought the answer to that question was obvious, but maybe he was still suffering from lack of sleep. "I'm tearing down the fence."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I can see that. Let me rephrase my question. Why are you out here trying your best to hurt yourself?"
Okay, enough was enough. "I can handle tearing down a few boards."
Those piercing blue eyes made it abundantly clear that he seriously doubted that, but at least he didn't say it out loud. "Have you ever done any demolition work before?"
He bent down to pick up the board she'd dropped and handed it to her. "Then why are you doing it now?"
She tossed the broken piece of wood back through the gap in the fence with a little more effort than was really needed. "Because the contractors both said I could save a little money by tearing out the old fence myself."
Mikhail folded his arms across his broad chest and stared down at her. "I thought we'd agreed that we'd talk more about the fence later. You never said that you were going ahead without discussing the cost or a specific time frame."
"That's not how I remember it. I told you I wanted to replace this section at the same time I fenced the rest of my yard. I distinctly said I'd pick up the entire cost because I was the one getting a dog and needed the fence done soon."
When he started to shake his head, she wanted to stomp her foot in frustration. However, she'd also learned from dealing with her brothers that he'd likely see that as a sign of feminine weakness on her part. "Look, I'm sorry if you misunderstood the situation, but I really do need to get started on the fence. And as I said, I'm paying for it."
Again, the answer should be obvious. "The whole amount."
He shot her a disgusted look before bending down to stick his head through the gap in the fence to look at her backyard. When he straightened back up, he said, "That's not what I meant. I'm assuming you have written estimates from the contractors you talked to. How much are they going to charge you?"
She told him even though it wasn't really any of his business since she'd be the one writing the check. "Of course, the bill will be a little less than the original quote since I'm doing the demolition myself."
"How soon does it have to be done?"
"I can bring my puppy home in two weeks although the breeder said they'd keep him an extra week if I needed a little more time."
Mikhail nodded but didn't say anything for several seconds as he continued to stare at the damage she'd done to the fence. His lips moved as if he were doing some mental calculations. While she waited impatiently for him to finish whatever he was doing, Amy studied her new neighbor. He was certainly handsome enough with those sculpted cheekbones and silver-blond hair, but there was a definite edge to him. Something about the lines bracketing his mouth or the way he held himself as if he were hyperaware of his surroundings.
And as proof of that, she'd just been caught staring at him. The twinkle in his vivid blue eyes had her blushing. At least he was gentleman enough to not say anything.
"Here's the deal. It's obvious that my whole fence is in the same condition as this stretch and needs to be replaced. I was planning on doing it eventually, but there's no reason I can't do it now. I'd rather it all match, which it won't if it gets done piecemeal. My brother does this kind of work all the time. Let me get him over here to give us both a quote for the work. I guarantee the price will be better than what you've been given so far, especially on the labor since I'll be doing most of the work myself."
"Are you sure?"
It was obvious he was strong enough to haul lumber and set fence posts, but that didn't necessarily mean he knew how. It wouldn't make for a good long-term relationship between neighbors if his efforts turned out to be substandard. Maybe she had somehow broadcast her doubts because he suddenly grinned at her, the big smile shaving years off his apparent age. She would've guessed he was well into his thirties, but now she figured him for at least five years younger than that.
Meanwhile, Mikhail grabbed the top rail of the fence and gave it a sharp tug, maybe to see how rickety it actually was. He glanced back at her, that smile still firmly in place. "Did I forget to mention that my brothers and I used to spend summers working for our father's construction company? My older brother took over the family business when Dad died a while back, but I was building fences like this long before I graduated from high school."
She put her hands on her hips and gave him a cocky look. "Next time you offer to build a girl's fence for her, you might want to lead with that fact. I'm just saying."
"So what's our next step?"
"I call Jack and tell him to haul ass over here. If he's already out on a job, I'll find out when he can come. It won't take long for him to measure it all out and then give us some hard numbers to work with."
"Sounds like a plan." She'd removed her gloves while they were talking, because they were hot. Pulling them back on, she asked, "Can I get back to work now?"
Her new best buddy sighed heavily. "Yeah, if you insist. This will go faster with two of us working. Can I bring you a beer or something cold to drink?"
"I'm good, but thanks."
"Back in a sec."
She watched as he loped back toward his house. "Hey, Mikhail?"
He stopped just short of his porch to look back in her direction. "Yeah?"
"You might want to put on a shirt and shoes, too, while you're at it."
His laughter rang out across the yard. "Also noted."
Then he disappeared inside, leaving her counting the seconds until he returned. She suddenly realized that she was staring at his door like a teenage girl in the throes of her first crush. The analogy was an apt one. She'd spent her teen years in and out of hospitals, her health a constant source of worry for her entire family. Mikhail was the first man she'd met in a long time who knew nothing of her past. She might not have much dating experience, but she was perfectly capable of telling when a man was interested in more than her ability to rip down a half-rotted board.
Amy deliberately turned her attention to the fence and attacked the rest of the broken board to show that she wasn't some helpless female dependent on a man to do all the work. And if that gave her handsome neighbor an excellent view of her backside on his way to rejoin her, well, that was just bonus points.