WHEN HE HELD HER, HE HELD EVERYTHING HE WANTED... AND COULD NEVER HAVE.
He'd done his time, for a crime he hadn't committed, and now Zack Henderson was ready for a fresh start. With a good job, some savings and weekends with his little girl, his prospects were bright. But this rugged ex-con's plan for a new life hadn't included falling for two adorable neighborhood girls—or their beautiful mother. Diana Lynch was the kind of woman he knew he couldn't have—a good girl, a true lady. And in her arms he almost felt like some kind of hero. Problem was, he knew she was better off without a man like him... no matter what his heart-—or Diana's two little matchmakers—had to say.
Zack Henderson was used to neighbor kids gawking at him when he ran a bulldozer at local construction sites, but usually those kids were boys.
What possible interest could girls have in tractors, dirt and diesel fuel?
Along the block wall that separated the backyards of an older neighborhood from the future site of a new subdivision, two little girls perched in the summer sun, giggling, whispering to themselves and occasionally waving at him.
And for some goofy reason, he would always wave back. Maybe because it made feel a bit heroic, in spite of being anything but.
He wiped his hand across his forehead, drying the perspiration that gathered. Then he took a swig of water from the jug he kept in the cab of his dozer.
God, it was hot today. He glanced at the girls and wondered when they'd get tired or bored and go inside. Not anytime soon, he guessed. The heat and noise didn't seem to bother them at all.
They were sure cute kids. The smaller one had brown, shoulder-length curly hair and held a teddy bear in the crook of her arm.
The older girl, a blonde with long hair, looked about ten or eleven, but that was just a guess. While Zack watched, she took a drink from the red plastic glass that rested between them, then wiggled her fingers at him again. And like he'd done several times over the course of the afternoon, he smiled and waved back.
Still, their interest in him and his tractor had him stumped. But what did an ex-con like him know about kids--especially girls?
He'd only met Emily, his four-year-old daughter, for the very first time a couple of months ago, just after he'd been paroled. And he still felt way out of his league. But he had learned Emily was big on kitties and new party shoes--not tractors, dust and noise.
The warm, pungent smell of diesel and the roar of the engine hung in the cab of the D9L Caterpillar, as Zack continued to clear and grub the 37 acres that would soon be a new housing development called Mariposa Glen.
Bob Adams, the owner of Bayside Construction, had taken a chance and hired Zack right out of prison, going so far as to write letters to the parole board on his behalf and getting him into the union. Bob's faith in him had been one of the first breaks Zack had received since his conviction.
Zack swiped at his brow again. After lunch--about the time the girls had taken an interest in his work--he'd shed his shirt. But the heat of the summer sun hadn't eased up much, even though it was nearing five and he'd been on overtime for an hour or so.
As he turned the dozer, he again looked at the wall where the children sat. The blonde lifted the hand that rested near the beverage glass, but before he could nod or acknowledge her, the little brown-haired girl reached to take a drink while juggling her teddy bear. The stuffed animal slipped from her grasp, and as she tried to catch it, she lost her balance and tumbled forward.
Damn. That was a long, hard fall for a little kid. He quickly de-accelerated, threw the gear into neutral, lowered the dozer blade, then jumped from the rig and ran toward the crying child, who lay on the ground in a heap of pink and white.
His heart echoed off his chest, as he leaped over clods of dirt and twigs that had yet to be cleared.
The older girl tried to scramble off the wall, but was having a difficult time of it.
When he reached the child in the dirt, he knelt by her side. "Are you all right?"
"No," she shrieked between sobs. "I broke my leg. And my back. And my bottom. And it hurts really bad."
The crazy kid could have broken her neck. As she sat up and peered at the knee that sported a blood-tinged scrape, she let out a piercing wail.
"I'll go get Mommy's doctor book," the older girl said, as she turned and tried to figure out how to scale the 6 foot wall.
"Why don't you go get your mommy instead," Zack suggested. He could use some backup. Surely the child's mother could handle this situation a hell of a lot better than he could. For Pete's sake, he'd never felt so inept in all his life.
"Our mom is at work," the older girl said.
"And what about your dad?" he asked her.
"He's in Heaven."
Oops. What was he supposed to say to that?
Hoping to distract the crying child from her pain and get her thoughts off the loss of her father, he asked her name.
She sniffled, sucking back her tears in a ragged wheeze. "J...Jessie."
"It's Jessica Marie," the older girl supplied. "My name is Becky. I was named after my grandmother, Rebecca Ann. She's in Heaven, too."
Zack didn't want to touch the Heaven stuff with a ten-foot pole, so he clamped his mouth shut.
"What's your name?" Becky asked.
He really didn't want to get chummy with a couple of kids. But he didn't want to be rude, either. "You can call me Zack." He didn't give her a last name; he didn't see a point.
"Our mom's name is Diana," she added. "She's very pretty. And she's nice, too."
He knew for a fact that some pretty mothers left their children alone. But he didn't think nice ones would. "Who's looking after you?"
"Megan," Becky supplied. "Our babysitter. She's a teenager."
Thank goodness there was someone better qualified for this than him, even if his successor was in her teens.
The injured child--Jessie--had finally stopped crying, but the tears had left a telltale muddy path along her cheeks.
"Do you think you can stand up?" he asked her.
She shrugged. "I don't know. But I'll try."
"Good. I'll help you. Then we can go find Megan."
As he tried to pull the little girl to her feet, she cried out. "Owie. I can't. My leg is still broken."
It looked okay to him. Just a little red near the knee.
Oh what the hell. He'd just have to carry her home. The crew was spread a little thin this week, so he was the only one working on this project until Monday. He glanced at the dozer that sat idling in the field. With the blade down, it was safe to leave it for a little while.
So he picked up the teddy bear and handed it to Becky, then scooped Jessie into his arms.
"You sure are strong," Becky said, as she walked along beside him.
He shrugged. Jessie didn't weigh much more than his daughter, but he figured Becky was actually referring to his size more than anything.
At six feet six and with the bulk he'd built up in the prison gym, Zack got plenty of notice on the street. And not just from kids.
"Your muscles are really big," the smaller girl said. "Just like the 'credible Hulk. Do you get green and big when you get mad?"
A smile tugged at his lips. "I get a little red in the face and puff out my chest. But I pretty much stay this color and size."
They walked along the block wall until they reached the end, then cut through an unfenced backyard to the street.
"Which house is yours?" he asked, eager to pass the baton--or rather the child--to the sitter.
Becky pointed ahead. "Our house is the white one with the yellow sunflower on the mail box. My mom painted it. She's a good artist."
As Zack continued down the street in the direction Becky had indicated, she asked, "Are you married?"
It seemed like an odd question, but he answered truthfully. "No, I'm not."
Uh, oh. Warning bells went off in Zack's head. Surely the pre-teen didn't have a crush on him. How was a guy supposed to deal with stuff like that?
"Our mom's not married, either," Becky added.
Their mom? Oh, the widow.
He wasn't sure how that came up. But good. Maybe the childish crush thing was the wrong assumption.
"What about you?" he countered. "Are either of you married?"
They both giggled.
Jessie, who no longer appeared to be shaken by her fall, brightened and her brown eyes sparkled. "No, silly. We're just kids."
As Becky lagged behind, Zack turned and noticed she was struggling to keep up with his stride, so he slowed down. He had to do that when walking with Emily, too.
When the girl finally caught up to him, she asked, "Do tractor drivers make a lot of money?"
What kind of question was that? He was making union scale--a damn good wage, especially for a felon. And he'd be able to buy his own house someday. A place with a second bedroom he could fix up for his daughter and a backyard big enough to hold a swing set, a playhouse and all the other outdoor, childhood necessities he'd yet to learn about.
"I'm happy with my paycheck," he told the girl.
He snuck a glance at Becky's bright-eyed, freckled face and saw the wheels turning. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out the direction her thoughts were heading.
But maybe it was only his imagination. He'd never quite gotten a handle on the way women thought. So what made him think a pre-teen girl would be any less complex?
As they neared the children's house, a plump, gray-haired woman stepped onto her porch, then frowned and strode toward him, her stubby arms swinging, her chest heaving with exertion. She furrowed her brow and, as she drew near, pointed a finger at him. "What do you think you're doing? You put that child down immediately, or I'll call the police."
Just the thought of the woman calling the cops made Zack's blood run hot and cold. He'd kept his nose clean since a few months before the robbery at the Speedy Stop. But no one in the DA's office had believed his story. After all, he'd been a known juvenile delinquent who'd admitted arriving at the convenience store with the robber and gunman.
So what made him think things would be different now that the teenage troublemaker was a grown up ex-con?
"He can't put me down," Jessie told the neighbor. "I broke my leg and my back. And he's taking me home."
"She fell off the block wall and onto the construction site," Zack explained, not sure if it would diffuse the older woman's suspicion. "I don't think she's really hurt."
Jessie pooched out her bottom lip. "I am so. I'm hurt really bad."
The woman waddled down her steps and met Zack in the street. "You can bring her into my house. I'll take over from here."
That was fine with Zack. He needed to get back on that dozer, since he was working overtime this week and still had another couple of hours before dark. If Bob came out to check on him, Zack wanted the man to see him hard at work and doing a good job.
"Oh, look!" The child in his arms pointed to an old green Plymouth that rumbled down the street. "Mommy's home."
At this point, Zack didn't care who took over for him. He was completely out of his element when it came to looking after wounded kids, even if their injuries were as minor as Jessie's appeared to be.
The Plymouth stopped in the middle of the street, and a slender brunette climbed from the idling car. "What's going on? Jessie, what's the matter?"
"I broke my leg," the girl began, reciting the list of injuries she'd self-diagnosed.
"And this is Zack," her older sister said. "He was driving a tractor in the field and saved her life. Isn't he nice?"
"Yeah," Jessie said. "And Mommy, he's super strong, too. You should feel his muscles."
The pretty mother flushed and tucked a strand of honey-brown hair behind her ear. She flashed Zack an appreciative smile. "Thank you for helping Jessie. But I'm not sure what she was doing out in the field, since the girls aren't allowed out of the yard while I'm gone."
"We weren't in the field," Becky explained. "We were sitting on the wall, watching Zack work. Then Jessie fell over like Humpty Dumpty."
"And Zack put me together again." Jessie patted him on the shoulder.
A bare shoulder, he realized. But heck, he hadn't had time to think about putting on a shirt. Or cleaning up so that he could make a good impression on a woman who seemed to grow lovelier by the minute.
The mother blessed Zack with another sweet smile, and his heart skipped a beat.
"Thank you for rescuing Jessie," she told him, before addressing her oldest daughter with a furrowed brow. "Becky, where's Megan?"
"She's sick with a major headache and taking a nap on the sofa. But don't worry. I took good care of Jessie."
Zack couldn't help but arch a brow at that comment, but he supposed she had tried to look after her sister--after the fall.
"We'll talk about that later," the mother said.
"Do you want me to carry her inside for you?" Zack asked, surprised that he'd uttered the words. But as crazy as it seemed, he almost wished she'd say yes.
"Thanks, but I can manage." She lifted her arms to take her daughter from him.
As they tried to shift the girl from one pair of arms to the other, Zack feared he'd get her light blue blouse or her beige slacks dirty.
"Be careful," he told her. "I'm dusty and sweaty."
"That's all right."
Her hand brushed his several times, making his skin tingle from her touch. But they managed to transfer the child.
"I've got her," she said. "Thanks."
For a moment their gazes locked, and something sweet and gentle drew him to her, threatening to leave him tongue-tied and stammering.
Of course, he couldn't very well stand there gawking at her, especially in front of her daughters and neighbor, so he shook off the mushy feeling. "Well, I'd better go."
Her green eyes glimmered as she nodded, but her gaze never left him. He couldn't help wondering if she found him attractive.
But how stupid was that? She was probably trying to determine his character. And with his luck, her maternal instinct would probably snitch, telling her he'd spent the last five years in prison.