Stubbed his toe coming out of the shower.
Lost his keys.
Oh, hell. Check.
Some days, once the hits started a man just couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. It was a fact that Noah was well aware of, and normally he would just roll with it. It was better to just roll with those hits, because when he let it get him mad, it only got uglier. He had a vicious temper— he’d been born with it, but over time he’d gotten a handle on it.
There were days, though, when he just didn’t want to roll with it. He wanted to reach out, grab the nearest fool causing him problems and just lay into him.
Like the fool on the phone. The irresponsible, self-centered fool.
One hand clenched into a fist as Noah fought against the urge to slam it into the hood of his truck as the voice droned on.
Instead, he stared at the clipboard and tried to breathe past the red rush of rage choking him.
Calm down. This, too, shall pass. He relied on the words his father had told him so many times.
It had worked, sometimes, coming from the old man.
“You can see where I’m coming from, right, Preach?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes. “I can’t say that I do.”
“Aw, now . . .”
As another stream of excuses started to come out, Noah bit back the ugly words rising in his throat. He couldn’t go flying off the handle. Trinity Ewing and her cute little hellion were sitting on the porch, eating muffins and drinking juice. Giving in to the temper building inside definitely wouldn’t help matters any.
Maybe some part of Noah didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of the pretty woman. So instead, he took a deep breath, squeezed the phone so hard he thought he heard plastic crack. And through it all, the bum on the phone continued to ramble on. “Teddy?” Noah said, cutting in. “Enough. You already went through all of this. Just tell me how we’re going to make this job work out.”
“Well, Preach. That’s just the thing. I don’t see how I can. Not for the next few weeks. It was a lot of money Belinda won. A hundred and twenty-five thousand. You ever seen that kind of money?”
Noah blew out a breath. “I can’t say I have.”
“Us neither. So we’re going to Vegas. Getting married.”
“Congratulations,” Noah said, forcing the word out as the dread continued to rise in his throat. He already knew where Teddy was going with this. He knew it. Please, God. Let me be wrong. “When do you leave? Maybe we can adjust the schedule—”
“Well, you see . . . we’re already at the airport in Lexington. We’re flying out just as soon as we can make it happen. I called my brother, but he don’t feel he can work that job all by himself and he got an offer to help do some flooring on the project they got up at the school, so him and the boys are going to do that instead . . . it’s an easier job, you see. None of them are used to working on a place as old as the Frampton house without me around to help.”
Curling one hand into a fist, Noah resisted the urge to slam his hand onto the hood of the trunk. “Teddy, you agreed to this project weeks ago. Since when do you back out on your word?”
“Well. Normally, I don’t. But I don’t need the work now.” There was a smug tone in his voice.
“I’ll keep that in mind when that hundred thousand is gone. I’ll be looking elsewhere from here on out when I need flooring work done. I guess Caine and his boys will be getting more work coming their way.”
Before Teddy could say anything, Noah hung up.
For a minute, he just stood there, staring at nothing. So far, the highlight of his day had been when he had lain in the bed, the echoes of the dream with Trinity fading from his mind, while he dealt with the heavy ache of the erection brought on by the dream. He’d handled it with good old-fashioned hand service as he showered.
Then he’d dressed, left the house. That was the problem.
He’d left the house.
Everything since then had gone wrong.
The worst part, though, Trinity was going to catch some of the bad luck that seemed to follow him like a cloud. Slowly, he turned and met her pretty grey eyes. He was already spinning scenarios in his head.
He had to take another look at the floors. He had to dig out the estimates.
He had to make some calls.
He had to go tell her what had happened.
This was a complete mess.
It was a crazy thing that the grim, broody look on Noah Benningfield’s face didn’t fill her with foreboding the way she knew it should.
He looked just this side of angry, and judging by the temper she could see firing in his eyes, she suspected he was angry. She suspected he kept a lid on it, probably because of Micah and maybe her.
But wow, Noah wore the grim, broody look well.
Of course, there really wasn’t anything he didn’t wear well.
He came striding her way, his long legs eating up the busted pavement in no time. She hadn’t so much as managed to wipe out any of the dirty thoughts flooding her brain as he came to a halt in front of her.
“I have some bad news,” he said, blunt and matter-of-fact.
“Well, going by the look on your face during that phone call, I didn’t think you were going to tell me that everything is moving along ahead of schedule and you will be done here in no time,” she said sourly. The banana nut muffin she’d been eating seemed to taste like sawdust now and she put it down, dusting the crumbs from her fingers. Stroking a hand down Micah’s back, she leaned over and kissed him on the temple. “Baby, why don’t you go get busy with your schoolwork?”
“No buts,” she said, giving him a warning look. He actually paid attention, heaving out a heavy little sigh like she’d all but broken his heart. As he passed through the door, she reminded him, “Remember the off-limits rooms, pal.”
Micah’s face wrinkled with a sulk, but he nodded and let the door slam shut with a bang as Noah dropped down to sit next to her.
There was a plate of muffins between them and she lifted it up, displaying it in front of Noah. “Want one?” she offered. “I don’t think I’m going to be overly hungry here in a minute.”
Noah’s mouth flattened out. “I’m sorry. I . . .” He eyed the muffins and then shook his head and stared off down the sidewalk like the answers were written there on the ground.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong so I can stop worrying and just start dealing with the problem?” she suggested.
“The guys who were handling the floor repairs were supposed to be out today.”
The word supposed made her belly twist and knot up. Supposed. Yeah, the flooring issues were one of the jobs that just couldn’t be put off, because there were some hazard issues—there was one area, in particular, that really worried her. The pantry just off the kitchen had a spot in the middle of the floor where the floor dipped.
It was the root of her nightmares about the floors, truth be told. When she’d first moved in, she’d been in there checking things out and it had seemed like the floor had tried to give way under her feet. It was one of the first things down to be repaired, but the crew Noah had found to do the work hadn’t been able to start until this week. It was one of those off-limits rooms, barred off with a bench across the door so Micah wouldn’t accidentally go in there, but the repairs needed to be done.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to tell me the floor work isn’t going to get started as planned?” she asked, her skin going tight and hot.
“Because the fool I hired to do the work was over at Belterra last night with his girlfriend. She won a lot of money. They figured they’d rather go to Vegas and get married. Never mind he had commitments.” Noah continued to sit there, his shoulders tight, lines bracketing his mouth.
Trinity groaned and dropped her head into her hands. “You’re kidding me.”
“I’m afraid not.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frustration in every line of his body. “He works with his brother and a small crew of men, but Teddy is the one with the most experience in older homes like this. His men don’t feel like they can handle it without him. So they aren’t going to do it since he won’t be here.”
Well, she’d wanted to find a way to stop thinking the dirty thoughts. Noah had done her a favor, in a roundabout way. She was still hot, but it was the kind of hot that meant she wanted to explode. Maybe she should start banging her head against the nearby post. It might do something to relieve the scream building inside her.
“Did they give us a time frame on when they think they can do the job they hired on for?” she asked, forcing herself to speak the words instead of snarl them.
“Nope. I’m not going to ask for one. I’ve got another crew I’m going to call, and the next time those bozos put in for a job with me I’m going to tell them to take a hike,” Noah said, an odd glitter in his eyes. Then he blew out a breath and looked over at her. “I’m really sorry, Trinity. Teddy hasn’t ever done anything like this. If I’d had any idea . . .”
He had his hands hanging between his knees, fingers linked.
“Hey . . .” Without thinking about it, she reached over and covered his hands with one of hers. The warmth of his skin was a jolt, almost electric in its intensity. She felt the buzz of it rush through her and her breath caught in her lungs.
There it was again . . . that odd little click. Her heart started dancing around inside her chest as their gazes locked. She found herself staring into the deep, incredible blue of his eyes. They were the color of the sky just before the sun disappeared below the horizon, a blue so dark they were almost black. Incredible. Hypnotic. For one second, those eyes dipped down, lingered on her mouth.
Her heart jumped up into her throat and then started to beat about two hundred times a minute. Jerking her gaze away from his, she pulled her hand away. Shrugging awkwardly, she said, “Look, it’s not like you planned on him winning a bunch of money and skipping town, right?”
“Well. Technically, I think it was his girlfriend,” Noah said, his voice tired. “No, I wouldn’t have pegged him for doing this kind of thing, but—”
“No buts.” She stood up and brushed the crumbs from the muffins off the denim capris she’d pulled on. With a forced, fake smile, she turned to look at him. “I think we have to look at this as an odd situation. It’s not like you can plan for it.”
“It’s my job to plan for this sort of thing.” He continued to sit there.
“Plan for it next time,” she suggested. “Let’s focus on what we need to do to get the floor fixed. I want to use that pantry.”
Seconds ticked by, and then finally he shifted his gaze to hers and he nodded. “Let’s redo the measurements. I don’t have them handy. I need to have them on hand, get some pictures. I’m going to reach out to a friend, see if I can call in a favor or two.”
A favor or two.
A full-on headache was screaming behind his eyes as he finished the measurements in the living room. It was the easier of the two jobs that would need to be done immediately. Other things, like refinishing the floors, could wait, but these two jobs, this repair work in the living room and the problem spot in the pantry, were going to be serious issues if they weren’t addressed. Actually, they were already serious issues and they needed to be taken care of now.
He’d just have to go about it in the right manner when he talked to Caine Yoder.
The good news was that Caine had seemed like he wasn’t in one of his total antisocial moods when Noah had seen him the other night.
Sometimes talking to Caine was like talking to a wall, and if you wanted to get Caine’s men working on a project— and they were some of the best—you had to deal with Caine. He worked with a group of Amish builders out of Switzerland County. Caine was basically their go-between and handled all the business dealings. He was also a certified pain in the butt, if you wanted Noah’s honest opinion, but the man did have a soft spot for kids.
Noah would just point out that there was a child living in the Frampton house, one who could get hurt at any point if the repair work wasn’t done in a timely manner.
Caine would give him a hard time. Noah would listen to it.
Then they’d go a few more rounds and Caine would set a ridiculous price that Noah would have to fight over. Eventually, they’d come to a workable solution.
He should have just gone to Caine in the first place. Noah had to be honest, though. He tried to avoid Caine, all because of episodes like last night. The man had a way of seeing right through you. That, combined with how disagreeable the man could be, made him frustrating to work with.
But he’d get the job done. At this point, that was all Noah cared about.
Hearing the creak of wood behind him, he glanced up. Trinity stood in the doorway, looking sleek and sexy in a pair of denim capris and black tank top. Noah tried not to focus on those endless legs as she lifted a hand to the doorway, looking around distractedly. Her gaze finally landed on him and she asked, “Micah didn’t come in here, did he?”
Frowning, Noah pushed back onto his heels and shook his head. “No.”
She sighed and brushed her hair back. “He’s too quiet. He’s never this quiet.”
Putting his tools down, Noah rose to his feet. “He knows to stay out of the areas that are being worked on, right?”
“Yes. Those are the off-limits spots.” She worried her lower lip, and despite himself, he felt something warm and heavy shift inside him. He wanted to be the one taking that soft, full curve in his mouth. Judging by the way she’d looked at him earlier, she probably wouldn’t even mind. It was a knowledge he really didn’t need to have, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
How would she feel? How would she taste?
Focus, Noah. Focus.
“Of course, with Micah, that just means I have to watch him twice as closely,” she said, a grimace twisting her face. “But he’s not in any of the rooms that are being worked on right now. I already checked . . . oh, no.”
She spun around.
Noah was already behind her.
“He wouldn’t go into the pantry, would he?” Noah asked, all thoughts of tasting her dying as fear started to work a cold, nasty thread through his heart. “You told him to stay out of there, right?”
“Only at least two or three times a day,” she said. “I’ve got the bench in front of it. The lock’s busted, or I’d just lock—oh, no.” She paused in the doorway to the kitchen and then lunged forward. Two seconds later, Noah saw why and he tried to grab her, but she was already halfway across the floor.
The bench had been pulled away from the pantry door and it was partially open.
Terror slammed into her as she closed her hand around the doorknob. Then her heart jumped into her throat as she saw Micah under one of the low-lying shelves, studiously coloring in one of his workbooks. The single bare bulb overhead cast a dim, urine-colored light across the room.
Darting a glance to the sagging area in the middle of the floor, Trinity gingerly edged inside. The boards groaned ominously.
“Micah, don’t you remember what I said about coming in here?” she asked when he lifted his head, staring at her wide-eyed and startled.
“Don’t um me, big guy,” she snapped. Keeping to the very edge of the floor, she knelt down by him and held out a hand. “You need to get out of here. It’s not safe until Mr. Noah gets the floor fixed. That’s why we keep the bench in front of the door.”
How had he moved it? Was he part ox?
“But I like it in here,” Micah whispered.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s not safe.” She waited until he rolled out from under the shelf and stood up, putting his smaller hand into hers.
“Stay off the middle of that floor, Trinity.”
Looking up, she saw the grim look on Noah’s face, and she darted a look toward the space, nodding. Oh, she’d definitely stay out of the middle; he didn’t have to worry about that. Not at all. “We will. Micah, walk along the wall and take Mr. Noah’s hand, okay?”
She waited there until Micah had done that, and the relief was almost painful once he was off that floor. He tugged his hand from Noah’s as he turned around, staring up at her with big, sad eyes as she started to follow his path along the wall. “Am I in trouble?”
He heaved out a sigh and looked down at the toes of his sneakers. Then, just as she reached the doorway, he jerked his head up. “My schoolwork!”
He lunged away before Noah could stop him, and out of reflex Trinity moved to block him.
The second her foot touched those boards in the middle, trepidation reached up, grabbed her. She heard the boards crack and instinctively she threw out a hand, shoving Micah back.
Every nightmare she’d had about that damn house came true. It was like the floorboards just . . . melted. Right under her feet. She fumbled, tried to move. But she was already falling.
Noah bit back something ugly as he tried to grab the boy. Micah was about as slippery as a fish. Trinity blocked Micah, and as she looked up her and Noah’s gazes locked. Everything slowed.
One second she was there, and then she was falling. Noah swiped out a hand to grab her, but it was too late. His fingers brushed against the soft material of her top and that was it. Her scream bounced off the walls and he was already moving, but he wasn’t fast enough. A cellar—there was a cellar down there, his mind noted, filing it away even as panic crashed through him.
In the back of his mind, he was thinking all sorts of thoughts that had no bearing on the situation—should have boarded the door, should have made Teddy get started in here sooner, should have used Caine’s group—
Nonsensical thoughts that made it easier for Noah’s mind to process the real problem.
That was the fact that Trinity was lying sprawled on her back in a small, dark space that had probably been used as a fruit cellar back when the house was built. Light from the exposed bulb over his head shone down on her as he stared over the edge. “Trinity!”
She groaned and reached up, touching her head. “Micah?”
Noah shot the boy a look—he was standing there, white-faced, eyes frozen wide. “Mama!”
As Micah tried to dart around him, Noah caught him by the waist. “Sorry, pal. You need to stay back until I help your mom.”
“But she fell!”
“Micah!” Trinity’s voice, tight and laced with pain, came from the hole in the floor. “You sit your butt down and listen to Mr. Noah. Now.”
“Sounds to me like she’s fine,” Noah murmured, nudging the boy out of the way. “Go sit on that bench right there and be quiet a minute, okay?”
Once Micah had parked his little tail down, Noah focused back on Trinity.
“Trinity.” His voice sounded firm and level, a fact that surprised him to no end, because he was terrified. “Are you hurt anywhere?”
She grimaced. “I don’t know. Micah’s fine?”
“He is.” Noah shot the boy another look and then glanced around, trying to figure out how in the hell to get her out of there. If he went down he could lift her up, but not if she was hurt.
She went to sit up.
“Trinity, damn it, don’t go moving yet,” he said. “We need to know if you’re hurt.”
“I’m not. Well, my head a little but . . .” She groaned again and sat up, ignoring him when he told her again not to move. She reached up, touching the back of her head. “You cussed. Preachers don’t cuss.”
Noah didn’t bother asking where she’d heard that—it was Madison; she probably knew what size shoes he wore. “I’m not a preacher anymore, Trinity. Be still for me, okay? Are you hurt?”
“No.” Her voice was grouchy and she sighed. “I’m pissed off. There’s a hole in my floor, Noah. A hole. Why in the hell is there a hole in my floor?”
She went to go to her knees.
The bottom of his stomach dropped away as she froze and went white—white as death itself.
Her voice broke.
Following her gaze, he found himself staring.
It took his mind a minute to process it—another to adjust. All the while, in the back of his mind, he heard the echo of a familiar voice . . . just a ghost by now, but one that had haunted him for a long, long time.
“Trinity. You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
“Nuh . . . no, no.”
He nodded. “Then move back, now,” he said, his voice taut. Pulling the flashlight from his belt, he peered into the dark maw, still staring at what Trinity had seen. “I’m coming down. I’ll boost you out and you can get my ladder.”
Trinity was whimpering by the time he got down there, carefully, unwilling to take his eyes off the gruesome discovery.
He touched her shoulder and she hurled herself at him, burying her face against his neck.
He didn’t blame her. He didn’t want to look, either. But he couldn’t look away.
Nothing could make him look away from the odd, almost mannequin-like display stretched out on the dirt floor. It’s not real, some part of him thought. It couldn’t be real.
Parts of it were nothing but bone. That wasn’t the worst. The worst were the almost flesh-looking parts, bits that looked a strange grayish white.
“Tell me that isn’t a person,” Trinity said, her voice low and soft. “Please tell me it isn’t.”
Noah wished, more than anything, that he could do that. Instead, he just cupped his hand over the nape of Trinity’s neck.
In the back of his mind, he heard the words: Noah, just trust me. . . .
Deeper than Need, Book 1 in the Secrets & Shadows Series, coming out from Shiloh Walker
Releasing June 3, 2014