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🛠️ Don't you love a fixer upper?

I’d told him I wouldn’t stop by with the kids, but I was curious about his progress, and why he didn’t want me to see it. “You have to stay close to me. No running around. We’re in the middle of demo, anything could be on the floor. You could get hurt.”

“Yes, Mommy.” Laila nodded solemnly. They’d been with me at work enough to listen when I warned them.

Usually, Charlie stayed close by. Other moms said I was lucky. Sometimes I wondered if it was normal.

I unlocked the door, pushing it open, still holding on to the girls’ hands. “Nolan!”

I heard a loud noise, then swearing. Had he hurt himself?

Both girls’ eyes widened.

“Mommy,” Laila whispered.

“Sorry, he says a lot of bad words.” Then louder, I yelled, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I just—hurt my hand.”

“Can I help?” I was torn between leaving the girls here and helping him. I felt guilty for startling him.

“Stay there. I’ll come down.”

I heard his footsteps on the floor above us. His boots sounded on the stairs as he came down. “What are you doing here?”

It came out as more of an accusation. All I could process was that he was shirtless.

I swallowed hard. Holding one hand protectively against his naked chest that was glistening with sweat and sawdust, ripped jeans hung around his hips. His muscles bulging, probably from exertion.

Charlie stepped behind my leg, still clutching my hand.

“I was hoping to check on the progress.” My voice cracked.

I shut my eyes, hoping he didn’t realize it was the sight of his naked chest that had my heart racing.

When I opened my eyes, he stood in front of me, seemingly unaware of his bare chest. “I told you it was dangerous for them to be here.”

“I’ve got my hat.” Laila touched the hard hat Roger brought home from work for her at one point.

“Hard hats are great but what if you step on a nail? You don’t want to ruin your shoes.”

I appreciated he hadn’t scared her by saying what if you impale your hand or foot on a nail. Roger was always going overboard, scaring them unnecessarily. Sometimes I wondered if that was why Charlie seemed so fearful of people and new situations.

Laila nodded solemnly as if considering what he was saying. “I like my shoes.”

“I wasn’t going to let them go any farther. I just wanted to pop my head in. Are you okay?” I nodded at his hand. It was covered with his other hand, so I couldn’t see how bad it was.

He pursed his lips. “You startled me. I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

“I’m sorry. Can I see it?” I didn’t want to give him another reason to be annoyed with me. For some reason, it mattered what he thought of me.

He slowly uncovered his thumb. It was red, angry looking. There was a small cut, nothing serious. I stepped closer, bringing Charlie with me. Dropping Laila’s hand, I touched Nolan’s, turning his finger to see if there was any other damage. Still holding it, I said, “Let’s wash it in the sink.”

Sensing his concern, I added, “Charlie will stick by me. Laila, you will too.”

“Can I look at your toolbox?” Laila asked him as she followed us into the kitchen.

Laila seemed fascinated by Nolan working. Probably because Roger never worked on anything around the house. He always called one of his workers to do it.

“Let’s get his finger cleaned up, then we’ll see.”

“What about Charlie?” He nodded toward her when we stopped at the sink.

She gripped my hand harder, shrinking under his gaze.

I was impressed he remembered her name. “She’ll stay with me. She doesn’t like strangers.”

“Do you want to see my tools too?” Nolan directed his question at Charlie. I couldn’t see her expression, but she didn’t respond.

Nolan turned his attention to me as if she had. “I was using a crowbar to rip out the drywall. My hand slipped when I heard your voice. Pretty stupid, huh?”

Laila sucked in a breath, looking at me. “He said stupid.”

“That doesn’t mean you should say it,” I admonished.

I looked down as she muffled a giggle with her hand.

“Sorry, is that a bad word too?” He lowered his voice, dipping his head closer to mine.

“It is. If I don’t ban it, it’s all they would say. That and potty words.”

He smiled conspiratorially. “I thought that was only boys that did that.”

“No. It’s girls too. Sometimes I think they’re worse than boys. That’s why I instituted the reward chart if they don’t say the four banned words.”

We shared a smile. It felt comfortable. Sharing something about the girls. Lowering our voices, moving closer, my hand running warm water over his cut. I wanted to stay that way forever, his hand in mine, his hip warm against my side.

“Can you tell me what they are so I can try and avoid them?”

I looked back to see Laila ticking them off her fingers, gleeful to say them out loud, “Stupid, idiot, hate, and duh.”

Nolan raised his brow.

“And obviously all of the actual bad words. You know, curse words?” I smiled, knowing it would be difficult for a guy used to hanging out at job sites all day. Roger never swore, but he’d been working in the office for a long time.

“I’ll do my best not to say them. You might need to remind me though.” He smiled, looking boyish.

Laila nodded. “I can do that. I’m a good helper.”

The way she looked up at him, reminded me how badly I wanted my girls to have two parents who were present in their life.

“Do you have a first aid kit?”

He nodded toward the end of the cabinet where one sat. “I always have one on site, one in my truck.”

“That’s a good idea.” I reluctantly dropped his hand, moving to open the box, pulling out antiseptic and a Band-Aid. Charlie followed closely behind.

“So, what happens when you say bad words?” Nolan turned, leaning back against the counter.

Laila’s expression turned serious. She tipped her head back to see his face, the hard hat tipped, precariously close to falling off. “If you say them, you don’t get your treat.”

Nolan held his injured hand over his stomach, his bicep popping. “What’s the treat?”

“Well, we get to pick tablet or video games. You know, the fun games. Not the learning stuff.” Laila rolled her eyes.

“The good ones. Of course.” He turned his head toward me. “What do you think I could get for my treat?”

The way he said treat sent tingles down my spine. “I don’t know. What would you like?”

My tone was flirtatious, surprising me. It had been so long since I’d done this back and forth with anyone.

“I’ll have to think about it.” His eyes darkened with a promise of something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Lust, longing, desire.

I moved to his side. The scent of sawdust and man captured my senses as I wiped his cut with the antiseptic wipe, covering it carefully with a Band-Aid.

“You could play video games with us. We have two-player games.” Laila’s tone was hopeful.

I hoped Laila wasn’t setting herself up for disappointment. Roger wouldn’t have wanted to play with them, even if it was video games.

“Laila, I don’t think Nolan wants to play kids’ games.” Or spend that kind of time with us. In our prior interactions, he’d seemed annoyed with the girls’ presence, but today he was different.

Nolan rubbed his chin with his good hand as if pretending to consider his options. “I’ll have to think about it.”

I stole a glance up at him, smiling. “I don’t think we have to worry about it.”

Nolan’s mouth dropped open in mock horror. “What? You don’t think I can watch my mouth?”

Remembering him saying fuck this morning, I laughed. “No.”

Nolan held his hand over his chest. “You hear that, girls? Your mother doesn’t think I can avoid saying bad words.”

“You said a really bad word this morning.” Laila’s voice dropped to a hushed whisper like they were sharing a secret.

I had to look away from Nolan’s blond head tilted down, hers lifted, watching each other with serious blue eyes. The sight made my heart clench.

Why did the sight of Nolan with my daughters churn up so many confusing emotions?

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