As the glass-fronted door to the hardware store shut behind her, Cat tried to find her bearing, her eyes flicking with reservation to the long, wide aisles which greeted her—a quick glance confirmed the fears which had morphed as she’d parked her car in the parking lot. Rows upon rows of wood, carpeting, plumbing, gardening, and holy jeez!—an entire wall of small cabinet drawers holding sundry nuts and bolts and other miscellaneous thingymabobs…
Her eyes widened as Cat paused in momentarily consternation.
“Anything I can help you with, ma’am?”
At the masculine question, Cat unfroze, her head turning naturally toward the sound—to the right were a long wood hewn cashier’s counter stood, behind which was a tall, broad-shouldered man. Most of his face was obscured by the brim of a black baseball cap, but what features Cat could make out weren’t exactly unpleasant: a square jaw with more than a shadowing of a beard, thin lips, and the finest of lines creasing the skin of what she assumed were high cheekbones.
She felt her stomach clench. Hell, he was even wearing a blue-and-black plaid flannel shirt. She felt her nose crinkle. It was almost too typical of a handyman ensemble. All he needed now was tin of chewing tobacco in his back pocket and he’d be the quintessential man’s man…
But when that manly man’s thin lips twitched in the beginnings of a telling grin Cat realized, too late, that she’d stared a little longer than was considered quite polite. Jerking her eyes down to the flooring, she cleared her throat noisly.
“Ah, no. No,” she assured him, flicking one finger nervously against her nose. “I’m just, ah, browsing.”
Which was a flat-out lie. But sometimes lying was the best option. When it was that or look like an idiot. And so, securing her purse more firmly against her shoulder, she sent him a cool smile before turning down an aisle blindly.
“Seriously,” she muttered darkly, her eyes darting almost dizzyingly from left to right and back again as she scoured the shelves, her feet tromping from one end to the other. “The door only needs a screw…at least, I think that’s what it needs. Well, whatever… I think I can handle that by myself.” Turning down the next aisle, she felt her cheeks heat up. “I’m an intelligent, independent woman..I don’t need Mountain Man Mike to help me out.”
What was that saying: How do you get God to laugh? Make a plan.
But at last she found what she was looking for—the aisle she’d spotted upon first walking into the building, the one housing the end-to-end wall of small drawers holding bolts and other fasteners; she’d have found it quicker but, well, in her haste to get away from the cashier’s quietly mocking gaze, she’d sort of forgotten about it.
For half a second, she almost swallowed her pride: there must have been twenty different screws on display. Scrunching up her nose, she tried to picture the cabinets in her kitchen. The hinge was a burnished sort of brass, smallish…but not too small (although, what that meant, she hadn’t a clue…)
She was sure it was only her imagination, but Cat thought she felt the gaze of that man from behind the counter—could practically see in her mind’s eye those thin lips jerking a little to one side in a poor attempt at hiding a smile. Her back practically tingled with an awareness of him…standing almost directly behind her. It’s not like there was anyone else in the store to occupy his attention. And really, what’s more entertaining than a obviously mechanically-disinclined blonde nodding stupidly at drawer upon drawer of screws?
Probably very little.
Gritting her teeth, Cat could feel her chest constrict. She felt like an art exhibit. As the sensation spread over her person, her hand shot out, reaching anxiously. Jerking one of the small drawers open, she grabbed the first one her fingers brushed against. Holding it up to her eyes, she studied it—honestly, it looked just like any other screw she’d seen before, though maybe a bit longer than usual. Or maybe it was shorter? Fatter….
Oh, holy hell.
“Don’t overthink it. It’s just a damn screw,” she scolded. With a determined clamp of her fingers, she pocketed it confidently in the palm of her hand. Smoothering a sense of accomplishment, she turned, marching up to the cashier.
“That it?” The cashier asked, his eyes flicking at the solitary screw she placed on the counter.
To her consternation, he didn’t appear interested in her selection. Okay. So maybe he hadn’t been watching her, after all.
“Umm, no.” Smiling tightly, for as her mother was so fond of saying, Cat had a tendency to take herself perhaps a bit too seriously, she added: “I guess I’ll probably need a um…screwdriver or a drill or something, huh?”
If the man’s eyes widened a little at this statement, he managed to keep thoughts of his incredulity silent. “Ugh. Yeah, probably.”
She nodded tightly. “Right.”
Standing this close to him, Cat was able to see that his eyes were brown—and at that particular moment, filled with mirth. The laugh lines running down either side of his nose were more pronounced now, too.
She lifted her chin just a fraction of an inch. “And where would I find one?”
“Screwdrivers are down the second aisle. If you want a drill, then you’re looking at aisle four.”
Tossing her shoulders back so hard it hurt, Cat forced herself to speak—and with it an uncomfortable, unreasonable embarrassment flooded her system. “And which would you, ah, recommend?”
He glanced down at the screw sitting on the counter. “For a screw of that size…I’d say a drill. We have two different set that we sell and both come with three of the most common bit sizes.”
That sounded rational. And helpful.
Nodding, Cat took herself off down aisle four. At least, he’d been cool about it. No doubt, he still thought she was an idiot (she was starting to have some serious reservations about this little projection, herself), but at least he’d been professional about it.
Locating the drill, Cat took her final purchase up the cashier. Within minutes, she was leaving the hardware store, her shoes beating a hasty retreat. Her experience there had been hardly ideal, and even though she knew it was silly to let it bother her, Cat felt certain her discomfort and self-doubt were an omen for what was to come.
On that score, she was absolutely correct.
Forty-three minutes later, Cat absolutely forbade herself from crying. Her eyes stung from the command, but by sheer determination she kept her rapidly expanding chest from exploding with the force of her upset.
In her hands lay her kitchen cabinet—newly splintered and split in two jagged pieces… For a moment, the moisture in her eyes gave way and Cat was temporarily blinded from the wrecked door in her hands.
She wasn’t sure what had happened. One minute she’d been happily fitting the screw into the hinge, and okay, admittedly she had noticed it was something of a snug fit, and the next thing she knew a terrible crunch had ripped over the buzzing whirl of the drill—and before she’d had time to react, a thin crack had appeared. And then, just like that, it’d spread, and the wood had snapped.
But not quite in half. That came next.
Her chest shuddering with the force of her feelings, Cat would never ever admit to a single soul what had happened next. Glaring down at the broken piece in her hand, her lips had snarled as a warlike sort of fury had broken from her mouth.
“Stupid, goddamn, mother-fuc—” with a surge of strength, Cat had taken the cupboard door she’d still held in her hands and, with a sharp motion, she’d brought it down hard against her countertop. It had made the most satisfying whack. And then she’d done it again. And again.
Breathing hard, she’d spat: “No good, rotten piece of—!”
And that’s when things had gotten perhaps out of control. With a vicious flick, she’d flung the door as hard as she could against her kitchen wall. That’s when it had fallen in two fractured pieces to the floor.
Exhausted, her knees wobbling with the force of her thrashing, trying to catch her fast-releasing breath, Cat had let herself slowly slip down to the floor, her back resting against the doors to the pantry.
As her senses returned, she’d forced herself to stare at the remains of her temper-tantrum; the vile taste of humiliation and disgust had risen in her throat. Mortified by the sight of her violent outburst, her unacceptable anger in the wake of something so, so minor, Cat had gasped heavily for air.
It was just a goddamn door. What the hell had she freaked the fuck out about?
“Thank God no one saw that,” she’d mumbled, her eyes reddening as she considered the mess on her floor.
What the hell had gotten into her? With deliberate movements, she’d carefully picked up the ravaged pieces of the door—
And that brought her back to the present. Gingerly, she tossed them inside her garbage bin. There was no point crying about it now. Done was done.
Wincing, she looked up at the now doorless cupboard—
“Grant will kill me if he finds out about this,” she moaned. Grant was her super—and he wasn’t exactly what Cat would call a friendly kind of dude. Most of their conversations to date had consisted of her asking questions and him grunting half-structured responses in return. Not exactly the makings of great good friends.
Shivering a little, she wondered what his reaction would be if he were to see the door in question—hard to imagine it had snapped itself in two. No, telling Grant was out of the question. Cat absolutely detested lying. Couldn’t abide by it usually. But she had a feeling getting kicked out of her apartment would be worse.
And so, for the second time that evening, Cat found herself walking into the hardware store.