“Yes, Mrs. Wilkes. Sure, I’ll be there first thing tomorrow morning,” Leo reassures his oldest tenant. “Yes, okay, bye Mrs. Wilkes.”
Leo owns most of the block he lives on in this prestigious little section of Tustin, as well as many other properties all around the County. Besides paying an obscene amount of taxes, Leo’s most pertinent tasks are fixing broken faucets, toilets, cupboards, fans, and so on. Yeah, he could hire someone else to do the maintenance, but Leo’s father taught him while he was young that a man isn’t worth a crap unless he’s working with his hands. So, yes, Leo could sit behind a desk all day and have everyone else do the work for him, but he’s not that kind of guy.
Although, with as many homes as Leo owns and the other obligations he has taken on, he keeps busy. Right now, at the end of a very long day, all he wants to do is an hour of weight lifting, take a cool shower, and veg in his lazy boy.
Leo’s home is a bachelor pad. Complete with black leather couches, a bow flex in the center of the living room, very few pictures on the walls, and a huge big screen TV in front of the recliner. Leo has never been able to make it past bachelor status, finding it hard to get serious with the women in this area. Orange County is not exactly the place to find a woman with depth and sincerity. Most the women here sincerely want to know how deep Leo’s pockets are. Considering they are deep, due to hard work and dedication, Leo never knows if she likes him for him, or for his bank account. He figures he doesn’t need a woman anyway. He’s busy enough as it is, no time for a high maintenance chick.
Leo clicks on the air conditioner; these August nights have been sweltering. He grabs a hungry man from the freezer, pops it in the microwave, and grabs a beer. While waiting for his chicken fried steak TV dinner to heat up, Leo glances out the window at the darkening sky. He notices the new neighbors are back with another load. Standing at the window, Leo takes a swig of the frosty beer and licks his lips, savoring the flavor of a day well done.
Leo observes the young man and woman work together; their graceful motions and silly banter brings a visual of dolphins swimming. He finds himself uncharacteristically curious, so he continues peering out his kitchen window, across their yards and the neglected flowerbed that joins them, at the interesting couple who have captured his interest.
“I think that’s it for the boxes,” Anna tells her brother. She sets one down on the cobblestone driveway of her new home, and wipes the back of her hand across her damp forehead. Turning her attention to the house, Anna notes that her quaint three bedroom with a picket fence could probably fit in the living room of this six-bedroom plantation style mini-mansion.
“All we have left now is the fridge,” Sam says, with poorly concealed dread. He casually leans back on the U-Haul with a knee bent and foot up, like a rockabilly guy from the movie Greece-minus the cigarette and leather jacket.
Anna adjusts the straps of her blue tank top, the humidity causing them to stick to her skin. She glances down at her dirty jeans and dusty top, and sighs. Anna reaches for her ponytail in an attempt to straighten it up a bit, then drops her hands, realizing it will not make much difference. There is no way she is going to look decent after twelve hours of moving in the Southern California sun.
Anna looks to her brother, and notices his spotless designer jeans are a stark contrast to her grime covered ones. How he can do the same work, in the same heat, for the same amount of time, and end up looking just as fabulous as he had this morning is a mystery to her. She stares at him, recognizing it is just another one of his numerous endearing quirks. Anna can’t stop the tears clouding her adoring gaze.
“I’m going to miss you, Sam.”
“Geez, Anna. You know I’ll be over all the time.” Sam throws a reassuring arm around her.
Anna punches him in the shoulder, and laughs, “That’s what I’m worried about.”
Sam rubs his arm, feigning pain, and speaks with flamboyant hand gestures. “Oh, you stop it! Like you haven’t been the one calling me everyday for the last three months, hmmm?”
Sam wiggles his eyebrows at Anna; one of the many things he does that never fails to get a smile out of her.
“Yeah, well...” Anna twirls the end of her blonde ponytail around her finger. “…Steve has been working like crazy lately. It’s like I never see him anymore.”
“That’s being married to a lawyer, sweetie.”
“We’re not married yet, Sam.” Anna rolls her eyes. “Anyway, I’m just grateful you’re helping me. God knows I can’t move that fridge by myself.”
Sam and Anna were born two minutes apart, and haven’t left each other’s side since. Their parents sold the second crib when they realized there would be no rest for them if they didn’t let Sam and Anna share one. When the twins were older, and had separate bedrooms, they wore out the old hallway carpet between them. People always said they would have been happier had they been born conjoined twins.
The two had been hard at work since dawn, packing and moving all of Anna and Steve’s possessions. Steve and Anna had lived in separate homes, on completely different sides of town, in more respects than simply distance. Anna had invited Steve to live in her home on Cherry Street; he told her it was not an appropriate place to raise their children. Anna thought the character, charm, and closeness of family would make it perfect. But why argue? She had wanted Steve to be happy, after all, they would be his kids too.
However, recently, this moving-in together and talk of marriage was not sitting well with Anna. Worse yet, it was a horrible time to be having second thoughts. It wasn’t that Anna never wanted to get married, or have a beautiful home and children, but she was no longer ready to have either of them with Steve. He had been acting... differently. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but something was not right. The thought of saying vows while feeling this way filled her with anxiety, not to mention bringing a child into the world under uncertain circumstances. The overwhelming feeling that she was already in too deep was what kept her from putting a stop to everything. Anna felt she had to have some kind of hard evidence to support her suspicions before she could abandon the commitment she made. Her mind flickered to the image of herself in the mirror, with a dusting of deep purple around her left eye. She shook her head, trying to rid it of the imposing memory.
“Hey, slow it down Sis; let me help you with that one. Don’t want you to straining yourself.” A mischievous smirk spread across Sam’s face.
Telling Anna she can’t handle something only makes her try harder. And it did. Anna gave her brother a sharp look and struggled with the box all the way to the garage, where she set it down, and pretended she had not hurt her back.
Leo knocks back the remainder of his beer, and feels like a creep for having spied on his neighbors for the duration of it. He had been in a daze, and didn’t realize it until he was taking the last swig. Leo made a half turn toward the humming of the microwave and aroma of his dinner, may not be gourmet but it made his stomach growl. Before he had completely turned his back on the view of his neighbors, Leo saw out of his peripheral vision that they had gone into the U-Haul and were struggling with something large.
Oh, just a refrigerator.
Leo jets out the front door, just as the microwave beeps, and over the weedbed that separates the two houses. They’re going to kill themselves!
“Hey, you guys look like you could use a hand,” Leo tells them, moving into position next to the woman on the pushing side of the fridge.
Anna wants to tell the stranger they don’t need his help. The mood she’s in is irrational. Of course they need help. But she wants help from Steve, not some stranger. Wondering where the hell Steve is, Anna turns to tell this good Samaritan that she is perfectly capable of moving a refrigerator; all those arm exercises at the gym weren’t good for nothing. Although, when she glances to see who their helper was, she is stunned into submission.
“Um, yeah, thanks,” is all she can push through her lips. Where did Leo Braxton come from? Leo Braxton, the guy who donated so much to the hospital, where Anna is a nurse, they were finally able to do the much-needed improvements to the pediatric unit. Leo Braxton, the guy who owns so much property in Orange County they might as well call it Braxton County. Leo Braxton, the man who lets down-and-out women with children and widows live in his homes, rent free, until they can get back on their feet. She realizes her helper really is a Good Samaritan. And a good looking Samaritan at that.
By the time their helper told Sam he was going to push on three, Anna had recovered from her shock. She had seen him in the newspaper before, but never up close, much less four inches from her face. He looked about her age, twenty-seven, even though she knew from the article he was thirty-one.
Taking a moment to look at him, or more accurately, study him, Anna notices his strong jaw has a blanket of stubble, and his skin is tan as if he spends a lot of time in the sun. His toffee colored hair is the kind that probably looks good whether he does anything with it or not, and she is extremely tempted to run her fingers through it; a thought she finds quite disturbing. His muscular physique and large hands lead her to believe he is a man who works with them. Newspaper articles describe Leo as a successful businessman, but Anna suspects he is much more.
Anna was fixed on his perfectly proportioned lips when he turned his eyes on her. She flushed pink from her throat to her cheeks, which usually embarrassed her, but she was too mesmerized by his green eyes to care. They were that rare kind of emerald; the kind that magnetically held whatever gaze they sought. She found it difficult to look away.
Leo was on two, the number three on the tip of his tongue, when he risked a glance at the woman standing next to him. The woman was looking at him as if she had seen a ghost. She seemed to be studying him, which would have been uncomfortable if he had not had the urge to do the very same thing.
Her eyes, the ones looking so intently at him, were the bluest blue he had ever seen. Her hair was like snow, and no dark roots; he couldn’t remember the last time he saw a natural blonde. She was thin but curvy in the right places, and taller than he thought from the window of his house. This woman was a natural beauty. When she glanced up, assaulting him with those deep blue pools, Leo lost count.
Instead of three, Leo said, “Hi.”
“Hey,” she said.
“I’m Leo Braxton.” Leo removed his right hand from the refrigerator, and extended it to her, leaving the weight to rely solely on his left arm.
“Anna,” she replied, removing her right hand to connect with his.
Anna and Leo stood there for a long moment with their left hands on the fridge and right hands connected, as if they were making a treaty over a holy refrigerator.
“Thank you,” she said, earnestly.
“No problem. I sure as hell wasn’t going to let you guys move this thing by yourselves while I watch out the window.”
“Hey Annie! Remember me? Sam! You and your handsome neighbor can start pushing the fridge anytime now!”
Exchanging a smile, the new acquaintances help get the refrigerator through large oak double doors, passed the grand entryway, and into the impressive kitchen. During their effort Anna confides, “I do appreciate you helping Leo, but that’s not what I was saying thank you for.”
Leo wondered what this woman could possibly be thanking him for, and was interested in finding out, but he couldn’t get past how much he liked the sound of his name on her lips. He turned to face her, the wrinkling of his forehead showing his puzzlement.
“The hospital. Your donation to the hospital has done so much.”
“Oh, well uh, you’re welcome,” Leo said.
He wasn’t used to such a personal response to his donations. Leo didn’t know exactly what to say.
Turns out, he didn’t have to say anything.
“What’s going on here?” Steve’s deep voice demands.
Goosebumps spring up on Anna’s arms.
Great, now he shows up! Anna had been wishing all day that Steve would make an appearance, but, of course, he decided to make his presence while this handsome stranger stood beside her. She knew Steve would not like it. Not like it all. The butterflies were at war in the pit of her stomach.
Anna took in the flush of his face and rigid set of his jaw. Not good.
She was pretty confident he would not hurt her again; last time was a fluke accident, she pushed him too far, and he had too much to drink. However, if she were honest with herself, Anna would have to admit that she was not completely sure what Steve was capable of.
But Anna was not being honest with herself, in fact, she was in complete denial.
The air was so thick with tension, Anna’s chest constricted. This is why she was all the more happy when Leo broke the silence, rescuing her from the task. Somehow, she was sure that was exactly his intention. And she was grateful to this curious stranger.