Battered by a life determined to tear him down, this quiet ex-con’s scarred hands may be the gentlest touch she’ll ever know.
…if only life were a fairy tale where Beauty was allowed to keep her Beast
Ivan thought the world was through giving him second chances. Who’d want a rough ex-con with a savior complex and a bad habit of bringing home helpless strays? Everyone in Blackwood, Virginia knew he wasn’t good enough for the fine things in life; they knew he was too damaged to save. He just needed to keep his head down, work himself to the bone, and pretend he was content with the lot he was given.
Until she came into his life. Until she changed everything.
Until he realized he would do anything, fight anyone, tear the world apart if it meant saving her.
Backlit by the sun, his profile was interesting, despite the bushy lower half of his face. Or maybe because of it. He looked like something you’d see stamped into an ancient coin—hard and noble. The scene came easily into focus: clad in something stained and torn, wading into the thick of battle with his men, sword in hand, face smeared with enemy blood, and teeth bared in some primal war cry. Her hands came to life, itching for a camera.
Then she blinked and emerged to see him as he was: a filthy redneck with a rug on his face. He was intimidating, to say the least. Not the kind of guy she’d choose to work in her yard—not looking all roughed up like he did.
But this new phase of life was about taking back what Joey had stolen. It was about courage, and because this guy was so intimidating, Uma decided to face him head- on. Show no fear. Another rule for this new self that she was constantly reinventing: no more letting men intimidate her.
“Help me up?” she asked.
After a brief hesitation, he complied. His grasp was rough and solid, ridged with calluses in places and polished smooth in others. For a moment, after pulling her up to stand, he didn’t let go of her hand. Instead, he turned it over and eyed the crescent her teeth had left behind.
She fought the urge to snatch it away.
He raised his brows but finally let her go without a word. Burning with the need to put some distance between them, she took a hurried step back.
“Thanks,” she said as he squatted down to scratch Squeak roughly under the chin. The dog’s eyes closed in ecstasy.
Forcing herself to steady her nerves, Uma caught his gaze and held it. He was even scarier without the sun behind him, skin marred by a shiny, white scar along his hairline and a dark bruise on a cheek already peppered with errant beard hairs. His nose was crooked and thick, no doubt broken in a barroom brawl or something equally disreputable. She envisioned him in a smoky basement, duking it out for some seedy underground boxing title. Carved squint lines surrounded eyes that were a cool blue.
Or…oh. No. She realized with a start that his left eye was blue and the right was dark gold. She was instantly thrown off-kilter. Which one was she supposed to focus on? She blinked and turned aside, uncomfortable with the way he so effortlessly unsettled her.
“I’ve…” he rumbled, coming up out of the squat to tower over her again. She waited for him to continue.
“You’ve…?” she finally asked after the silence had stretched too long. She wondered if she was as off-putting to him as he was to her. 6 7
“Ive. It’s my name. Short for Ivan.”
“Oh. I’m Uma.” She gave him her real name without thinking. “You mow the lawn here?”
“You could say that.” His eyes crinkled. What little she could see of his mouth turned up into a surprisingly warm smile. “Figure I might as well mow her lawn while I’m doin’ mine.”
She looked at the house behind him. “That’s your place?”
Her surprise must have been obvious, but he didn’t react, just gave a single, brief nod.
“Wow. Nice.” The house was nice. Really nice. Incongruously…civilized. He looked like the kind of guy you’d find chopping wood by his cabin in the boondocks, not maintaining the lawn of his lovely old farmhouse.
It was straight out of Southern Living, nicer than some of the places she’d photographed.
The caricature she’d formed in her head of this man melted partially away to reveal something a little softer, less defined. It didn’t jibe inside of her, but she’d been running on stereotypes and first impressions and messed-up wrong impressions for so long that her instincts clearly needed a reset. Another thing to add to the growing list of upgrades for Uma 2.0.
He nodded, face serious, but she thought she could detect pride beneath the gruff exterior.
She caught sight of a bright-red tricycle in the drive beside a clunky Ford pickup. Kids. Probably a wife. Her perception shifted yet again, and he didn’t seem half as scary as he had a moment before. Wow, she couldn’t straighten her life out at all, and this guy seemed to have his shit together. So much for first impressions.
Uma briefly wondered what he’d look like without all that fur on his face.
She took in the house, the trike, the coziness of this sweet mountain town. A town so small that elderly ladies hired you right over the phone without even asking for references.
That reminded her of why she was here: the ad. Maybe not such a sweet town after all.
“Well, I’d better get to it.” She kept her hands in her pockets, not wanting to risk another touch of his rough skin.
“Yeah. Don’t wanna piss her off.” Was that a joke?
She gave Squeak a quick pat on the head and turned away from man and dog. His voice stopped her after a couple of steps.
“Hey, Uma.” It came out rough, and he cleared his throat. “You ever need a break, come on over and see us. Have a beer.”
“Oh. Sure. Thanks.” Us, he’d said. Yep, married.
She shot a last look at the house over his shoulder, thinking she might even be willing to marry a guy like that for such a great house. Oh well. Maybe she and his wife would become friends.
A friend. That might be nice.
When she got back to the porch, something had changed. Was the gap in the curtains a little wider? Was it possible the woman had witnessed her panic attack? Strike one against Uma if she had.
The lawn mower started up again somewhere behind the house.
Uma took a deep breath in, blew it out hard, made a fist, and pounded.
Adriana Anders has acted and sung, slung cocktails and corrected copy. She’s worked for start-ups, multinationals and small nonprofits, but it wasn’t until she returned to her first love—writing romance—that she finally felt like she’d come home. Today, she resides with her tall French husband, two small children and fat French cat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she writes the dark, gritty, steamy love stories of her heart.