Harper shakes out her coat as she climbs into the car, cursing the rain and everyone out in it when headlights light up the interior of her car. Glancing back, Harper groans when someone waves at her.
There’s a warming smile on his face and Harper considers letting him come up to the window to speak with her. Almost, until she realizes she is soaking wet and there’s a roast two seconds away from being considered dog food if she doesn’t get home to finish it.
“To late buddy,” she mutters, turning off the emergency lights and starting the car. He pauses to glance at the car and back in time to see Harper with her hand out the window and a middle finger in the air. “Should have been quicker.”
He backs up, nodding his head the whole time as Harper slowly pulls up to the side of the road. Other cars are speeding down the highway and she takes the time to get one last look at the one person that did stop to help before shaking her head and pushing down on the gas pedal to pull into traffic.
She’s thirty minutes late getting home from work and it’s still another fifteen-minute drive. Something tells her she’s going to hear it from her mother when she gets home and she presses on the gas pedal a little harder, wary of the police lurking about to catch the unsuspecting.
The darkened highway reveals itself one endless stretch at a time as Harper rests her head, keeping her eyes open but allowing her mind to roam.
Reminding herself of the steadily growing lists of things that need to be done: Laundry that needs to be dried and folded, bills that need to be paid, not to mention the need for a new tire. The check engine lights flash at her and Harper sighs. “Might as well have the oil changed while I’m at it.”
Pulling into the driveway, Harper sits for a moment to look at the house with all its lights on. An older woman sits in front of the window, reading one of her many books, lost in its world and happy. Harper smiles, glad that someone can find some relief in their never-ending world. With another sigh, she grabs her book bag and heads inside.
“Hey Mom,” she says as she flops into the nearest seat.
Harper nods. “I know. Got a flat on the way home and it took a bit to change it out.”
Her mother’s head pops up, eyes wide as she looks over her daughter. “Oh dear, did you have help?”
“No, Mama, but it’s fine. I managed it on my own.”
Her mother shakes her head, biting on her thumbnail. “That’s a shame, but your home.”
She looks over Harper one more time before her smile turns to a scowl. “And your sopping clothes are soaking into my furniture.”
Harper jumps up, holding her hands up to appease her mother. “Sorry, I’m going to change now and finish up that meal.”
“The meals already finished, just change your clothes and pray this spot doesn’t stain.” Her mother heads toward the bathroom to grab a towel and try to minimize the damage to her furniture.
Harper rolls her eyes, snatching up her book bag on her way out of the room to deposit it in her own and change her clothes. Feeling ten times better once the wet clothes are off and new ones in place.
She finds her mom in the kitchen serving up two plates of roast, potatoes, and some carrots to round it out.
“Noah not making it tonight?”
Evelyn shakes her head. “Said something about having other plans.”
“Probably another date,” Harper says, grabbing a couple of wine glasses from the cupboard and filling them for the meal.
“Possibly. Maybe he’ll bring this one home.”
Harper chokes on the wine she just sipped as Evelyn down at the table to enjoy their meal. Knowing full well the likely hood of Noah bringing home one of his many dates was the same as Harper actually meeting a guy she could tolerate for more than five minutes.
There are a few minutes of silence as the two of them cut into their meat, savoring the fact that neither had to really cook it. Letting it stew in the slow cooker for hours is their favorite form of cooking, unless you wanted to count Mama’s pies.
Evelyn handcrafts each of her pies, spending the whole day to get it to her level of perfectionism. Of course, that was before the leukemia hit and forced her to start taking life a little bit slower in the past couple of months.
Things have been crazy since. What with doctor’s appointments, treatments, and just plain exhaustion from the disease itself. It’s been a rough ride. One Harper never believed to find herself in. Still, she’s thankful they caught the cancer early and that the treatments work. Evelyn is doing better, with trips to treatments needed less and less.
“So, I’ve met the new landlord this afternoon,” Evelyn says as she takes a sip of tea.
Harper looks up, curious.
The need for a new landlord for the small duplex has been apparent for some time, but nothing was ever mentioned. Not since word came over that the old man that originally owned the place was transferring the papers to another family member.
“So?” Harper’s hesitant to hear about this one. The old man is sweet but forgetful, and often times never returns phone calls. Leaving the tenants to fix their own leaks and clogs; even going as far as having Harper ask Mr. Gordon to help with an electrical issue a couple of months ago. Luckily, the man worked as an electrician for a few years, and Harper used the web for any lingering questions.
Together they got the job done with just a couple of dollars below budget and working lights for the shared garage.
“So, he seems like a nice young man.”
Harper drops her fork, suddenly not hungry despite the savory food in front of her. “Figures,” she mutters, taking her plate back to the kitchen.
“What figures?” Evelyn follows her daughter. “He seems like a perfectly capable young man. Meaning you won’t need to be googling electrical work from now on.”
“No,” Harper starts, turning to face Evelyn with a finger pointing out. “It means, one, he’s probably some upstart house flip buyer that is going to be looking for a quick way to make money, meaning cheap fixes for higher rent. Two, if he’s not looking to fix this place, he’s come by it in other ways and still won’t bother with putting any money into it. Or three, he’ll be a complete ass and continue to charge us for half-ass fixes.”
“Oh, don’t be so quick to judge,” Evelyn says, waving Harper off. “You never know, he might actually be a decent landlord and all around good guy.”
“Right,” Harper mutters, turning to roll her eyes without Evelyn seeing.
There’s a heavy exhale and silence falls between them before Evelyn gives her shoulder a quick squeeze “Not all men are like your father.”
Harper hangs her head, leaning on the counter in silent agreement. She knows this. Really, she does. For years, she watched her mother toll away at double jobs and extra shifts only to come home to clean house and pick up after two kids while her father was out traveling as an entrepreneur that never produced a check to show for his sales, unless you wanted to count a number of empty glass bottles.
All that is passed them now that the old man is long from this world and a whole new set of problems now rests on their shoulders. Harper finishes up with the dishes when the front door opens and Noah stumbles through with a huge smile on his face.
“Good night?” Harper asks, wiping her hands before heading to meet him.
Harper waits for the familiar smell of bar smoke and alcohol that sometimes follows Noah home. When none is evident, she quirks an eyebrow at him. “Anybody we’re going to meet?”
Noah’s smile widens. “Don’t know yet.”
Harper shakes her head, returning his grin. “Suppers in the fridge. Goodnight.”
* * * *
Harper scoops up another handful of leaves out of the gutter, letting it fall to the ground as she reaches for more. This part of the gutter is nearly cleaned out but the other half of the house is still filled with wet leaves. Harper wipes at her forehead, looking at the work ahead. At some point, she’s going to have to reattach some parts of the gutters to the house. Her or Noah, maybe even Mr. Gordon.
It’s not something she needs to worry about at the moment though.
“Harper!” Evelyn hollers from the porch.
Harper stretches as far as she can from the roof until she sees Evelyn with a plate full of cookies.
“Mom, what have you been up to?”
Evelyn pierces her lips together. “I should be asking the same of you, Harper.”
Harper rolls her eyes, letting another clump of leaves fall to the ground before climbing off the ladder. Throwing the gloves on the stairs, she reaches for a cookie when Evelyn pulls the plate out of her reach, waiting for an answer.
Harper forces a smile. “Doing what needs to be done. Isn’t that what’s expected of me.”
“You have a brother that could help. You do recall this, right?”
“Noah works eight-hour shifts, plus takes the time for wooing girls. When is he home again?”
Evelyn sighs. “This is your only day off this week.”
“I have class tonight.”
“So, when do you get to go out yourself?”
Harper gives her mother a long look before Evelyn holds the plate of cookies out, letting her take one this time.
She finishes her second cookie when a truck pulls up into the driveway. Harper takes in a deep breath, the broad figure with shoulder length blonde hair familiar from the night before when he stood behind her car, ready to help with something that was already dealt with.
“Ahh, here’s Landon.”
Harper gaps at Evelyn, then back to the man standing in their yard. “Who?”
“Landon, the new landlord,” Evelyn says, waving at the man with an ever-growing smile on her face.
Evelyn is smitten, that much is certain. Straightening up, Harper focuses on the man that’s charmed her mother. He waves at them, though he glances at the ladder and then to Harper. Like he’s working something out as he takes in her sweaty t-shirt and clumps of leaves on the ground.
“What’s going on here?” Landon asks, resting one foot on the bottom step.
Evelyn laughs. “My daughter is cleaning out the gutters.”
She waves toward Harper, that smile growing ever bigger as she continues, “Landon, this is my daughter I was telling you about, Harper.”
Harper swallows, a sudden horrible image of her mother and Landon in the living room looking over old photos of her high school years.
A slight smile appears on Landon’s face as he holds out his hand. Harper takes a step back, debating on rather or not she should take the offered hand or go about her business. One quick look at her mother and she reaches for his hand, giving it a firm shake before withdrawing.
“Suppose you’re here to inspect the property. See what improvements can be made so that you can up the rent, sound about right?”
Landon forces a smile this time as he pulls a piece of paper from his back pocket. Harper recognizes it immediately as her bit of scrap paper that she uses to write down her lists of to-dos. The one that she remade this morning because she couldn’t find said list.
“Actually, came to work on some of these.” Landon unfolds the paper and starts reading the items off. “Gutter,” his gaze falls on the ladder and then Harper.
“Right,” he looks back at the list. “Power shortages.”
Harper shrugs. “Done.”
Landon looks up from the lists, doubt written clear on his face as he looks from Evelyn to Harper. “Really?”
“Let me see.”
Harper raises an eyebrow at the man’s tone but leads him into the hallway and toward the laundry room.
He takes a minute to pull out the panel and look over the fuses while Harper leans against the wall, half watching what he’s doing and half assessing him. There’s no denying that he’s a good looking man, but usually all that brawn means no brains.
It’s a real shame, Harper thinks.
“No,” he says, the forced smile growing bigger.
Harper crosses her arms, waiting for an explanation.
He glances back at the panel. “It’s functional, yes, but none of it would pass a building inspection. In fact, most of it is a definite fire hazard.”
Harper raises her chin up, taking a step forward to see what he’s talking about. The wires all criss-cross each other, even tangling in some areas, and there are exposed bits but she shrugs.
Landon lets out a long sigh, “it’s to be expected when you’ve gotten no experience fixing this sort of stuff.”
Harper huffs. “Mr. Gordon is a retired electrician. He knew what he was doing.”
It’s Landon’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “How long retired?”
Harper looks to her feet. “10 or so years.”
Landon grins. “Right. Well, I’ll have to take it all apart and fix it up. Mayhap hire some guys, I don’t know. I’ll look at the costs.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
Landon cocks his head to the side to study the panel. “A couple of weeks. Til then I’ll cap off these loose wires.”
Harper nods. “Great. I’ll just go finish the gutters.”
Landon rolls his eyes. “Fine, since it seems you do as you please anyway.”
Harper turns to walk back-ward down the hall while giving him her biggest smile. “Glad you figured it out so quickly.”
She misses the narrowed gaze that follows her out of the apartment building and up the ladder.
* * * *
Harper leans close to the mirror, attempting to apply some form of makeup with only the light spilling in from the outside because Landon is still here fiddling with the wires. He said he was going to cap them and go.
Quick, easy, not a three-hour job until Ms. Wilson from upstairs comes out to complain about the noise from her pipes and Mr. Gordon, bless him, attempts to help Landon fix the wiring.
Harper would feel bad for the man except she’s been dealing with this for months. So leaving him to deal isn’t hard for her as she preps for her next class. An impossible one that she has to pass to get through this semester.
There’s a loud pop and something slams against the wall followed by a string of curses. Harper makes her way to the hallway to find Landon against the wall gripping his hand.
Landon grimaces. “Live wire. Which is ridiculous, I thought I flipped them all off.”
Harper hisses, feeling his pain. “You alright.”
Landon grimaces at his hand. “It’s fine, for now. Can’t feel it.”
“Ouch.” Harper moves to grab his hand to inspect the burn marks on his fingers that are red and starting to bubble.
“I got some burn cream that might help.”
Harper disappears into her apartment to shuffle through the drawer of medicine before Landon can even reply. When she turns back, Landon is in the door-way watching her.
“What?” she asks, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Nothing. Just trying to figure out where this nice woman came from?”
Harper rolls her eyes. “Haha, let me see your hand.”
Landon chuckles. “Yes, ma’am”
Harper shakes her head as she spreads the cream across the burns and wraps them with bandages.
“They’ll probably busts before the day is out,” Landon says, examining the work. He flexes his hand a bit before shaking it off and looks toward the laundry room.
“Not if you call it a day and come back when you actually know what you’re doing.”
“I know what I’m doing?”
“Yes!” Landon gives Harper an incredulous look. “I’ve got my license. I know how this works, I just…”
“Need some help.” Harper finishes for him.
The two stare at each other as Harper swallows her own guilt.
How many times has her mother said the same thing to her?
Landon sighs as he runs his fingers through his hair and looks away, oblivious to her own inner conflict as she takes a step back.
“Call it a day for sure. Really just came out here to assess how bad everything was.”
“Pretty bad,” Harper says to find her focus again.
“Not that bad.” Landon pushes off the wall and glances at the laundry room once more before turning away.
Harper tries to hide the smirk as she heads to the kitchen to put up the burn cream, “keep telling yourself that.”
“Right, but I’ll be back tomorrow. You’ll see.”
“Nope,” Harper says, turning toward him. “I’ll be at work but I’m sure I’ll hear about it if you do.”
Landon laughs as he steps out the door, waving his arm behind in what Harper assumes to be a good-bye. She stands there smiling, wondering why the hell she feels so giddy. Why should she be excited about seeing him again when she looks to the clock and jumps.
“Shit,” she mutters rushing into the bedroom.
* * * *
Harper slides the ringer to silent once again. Curious as to what could warrant three phone calls in a row from her mother when she knows she’s at work. The next customer walks in and Harper puts her phone down to cash them out when the phone rings again. Thankfully, the customer makes a quick exit and Harper is able to snatch her phone up.
“Yes, Mama, what’s the matter?”
“Hey, it’s Landon…”
“Landon! Where’s my mom? Is she okay? What happened?” Harper’s chest tightens with each scenario getting worse as she heads to the employee room for more privacy.
“Your mom is fine, I think, we’re at the hospital…”
Harper nearly drops into the nearest chair. “Hospital! What happened?”
There’s a long sigh on the other end and Harper is ready to say a word or two about the attitude when Landon says, “she had a bit of a dizzy spell and fell down. I insisted that she head to the hospital and the doctors are checking her out now.”
“Oh god, I’m on my way.” Harper grabs her keys and purse, debating if she should call Curtis, the manager, to let him know that she’s leaving before or after she leaves.
So far he’s been a pretty understanding boss. Especially with finding coverage for Harper so she can take her mother to her doctor’s visits, so she’s dialing his number as she locks up.
“Hey, mom’s in the hospital again and I…”
“Say no more, I’ll cover it until Denise can get in,” Curtis says.
Harper breathes a sigh of relief. “Thanks, it’s locked up at the moment.”
“Alright. Tell your mom I said hi.”
In no time at all Harper taps at the window where the nurse sits and is directed to where Evelyn is waiting.
“Hey.” She rushes over to give her mother a hug. “You okay? Are you still feeling dizzy? Did you hit your head hard? What did you hit it on?” The questions pour out of her as she feels Evelyn’s head herself when her hand is gently pushed away.
“Like I told Landon, I’m fine. I passed out in the garden and hit a bunch of dirt. There’s no reason to fuss like this.”
“Mother…” Harper starts.
“Don’t ‘Mother’ me. I’m fine and as soon as the doctor gets in here we are going home because this is ridiculous.”
Harper takes a deep breath, ready to remind her mother that passing out is not a good thing at any time of day but stills when she sees the bone-deep exhaustion on the woman’s face.
So she rests her hand on her mother’s. “I’m sorry, I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“I promise, I’m fine.” Evelyn squeezes her daughter’s hand when the doctor walks in.
Harper holds her breath as he goes through a folder, waiting for the next shoe to drop when he smiles at them.
It’s the first time Harper is able to relax as he says, “tests came out fine. Nothing in the x-ray and nothing new in the blood work. I honestly think it’s like you said, you overdid yourself today.”
Evelyn smiles, nodding as she meets Harper’s gaze. “See?”
“Nothing to worry about.” Harper returns her mother’s smile.
By the time they step out of the emergency room Harper is on her phone to let Curtis know that Evelyn is fine and can be back in when someone steps in front of her.
Landon stands there with his hands in his pockets, looking from Evelyn to her. “Oh, wow, you stayed?”
“Of course,” he says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
She gaps at him. “Wow, um, thank you?”
“Is she okay?”
“I’m fine,” Evelyn says, waving at him.
Landon laughs as he pulls Evelyn into a quick side hug. “Good, cause you scared the shit out of me.”
Harper nods. “Thank you, again, I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been there.”
“Someone would have called an ambulance.” He waves her off as if him being there didn’t mean all the world to her.
“Yeah, after how long? Ten minutes, twenty?”
“I would have been fine,” Evelyn insists, squeezing Harper’s hand once again. She swears her mother’s hands shake, rather from feeling off or a fear that things might not have been as okay as she keeps saying.
Harper takes in a lung full of fresh air now that the emergency has calmed and all is right with the world. For now. She knows one day her mother isn’t going to walk out of these doors with her and each time that she does is another tick closer to that dreaded day.
So, she breathes a sigh of relief, squeezes her mother’s hand, and leads her to her car. Realizing that she parked next to Landon’s truck as he stands with the door open.
“I guess I’ll see you at the apartment, you must have been in the middle of something,” Harper says, anxious about his answer for some reason.
“Yeah, at this point I’ll just head over to pick up my tools.”
“Maybe you could stay for dinner.” She grips the door. “It might take a bit to cook because we haven’t really prepped but it’d be our way of saying thank you.”
Landon laughs. “You’ve said thank you.”
“I know, just let us do this. Unless you’ve got something else going on.”
Landon shakes his head. “No, dinner sounds nice. Just got to make a stop.”
* * * *
Harper’s hands shake as she chops the lettuce when her mother places a hand on her wrists. “It’s going to be fine.”
Harper shakes her head. “We’re serving the man who helped you, tacos. Cheap ass tacos…”
“Which he’ll love because it’s food,” Evelyn says, cutting her daughter off. “And all men love food.”
Harper runs a hand over her face to hide the eye roll when headlights flash through the living room window. “I really hope your right.”
“Always.” Evelyn’s smile is the biggest she’s seen it in a while and Harper returns it before quickly brushing the lettuce into a bowl and placing it onto the table. The knock on her door makes her jump, and she takes a minute to straighten her clothes and hopefully her nerves.
“Hey,” Harper says as she swings the door open. Landon has a bottle of wine in one hand and flowers in the other. “I don’t think I mentioned this was a date.”
Landon smiles. “These are for your mother.” He hands the bouquet of flowers over to Evelyn. “This is for you cause I thought you might need a good drink.”
Harper bites at her lip, wanting to laugh and say those two words again at the same time.
“No need to thank me again.”
This time she forces the laugh down as she takes the bottle of wine and watches her mother set the bouquet on the table in her favorite glass vase.
“They’re beautiful, thank you,” Evelyn says, waving at a seat across from Harper.
Harper looks up, confused, in time to see Evelyn bent over coughing. “You okay, mama?”
Evelyn waves her off, clutching her chest. “Fine. I think I’ve had enough excitement for today. I’m gonna head to bed. Save me some leftovers.”
“Mama?” Harper moves around the table to face Evelyn. “What are you doing?”
“Going to bed.” Evelyn pats her shoulder. “Enjoy dinner and don’t stay up too late.”
Evelyn winks at her as she walks by to say a quick goodbye to Landon. There’s silence as Evelyn heads down the hallway. When her door shuts, Harper is left confused as to what just happened.
“I could come back another night when she’s feeling better.”
Harper waves him off. “No, she’ll never let me hear the end of it.”
Harper nods, handing him a plate so they can sit down to a quiet meal.
Quiet in that it’s awkward. Harper tries to think of a conversation that doesn’t have her repeating “thank you” all over again and keep him interested.
“So, I thought I heard something about a brother around here, but I have yet to meet him,” Landon says to break the silence.
“Yeah, he works a lot, and tends to stay out late at night.” She shrugs, picking at her taco.
Landon nods. “It’s good that your family takes care of each other.”
“Yeah, I guess.” She moves to grab a drink and realizes she forgot the wine. “Um…you thirsty?”
“Yes, let me.” Landon gets up at the same time Harper does, both reaching for the bottle of wine.
“No, it’s fine.”
Landon takes the bottle from her as she searches for a bottle opener, reluctantly placing it in his outstretched hand.
“You really don’t like asking for help, do you?”
Harper looks away, half shrugging as she moves back to the table. “I’ve gotten used to taking care of everything that getting any kind of help feels awkward.”
Landon leans in close as he pours her a cup of wine. “Maybe I can change your mind on that.”
Harper chuckles. “What? You gonna prove to me that I don’t have to do it alone?”
Landon’s smile widens as he meets her gaze. “Challenge accepted.”
Their eyes meet and Harper’s skin heats up. Some part of her praying that he rises to the challenge. Lord knows she would like to be proven wrong by this man.
She raises her glass. “To trying together.”
“To trying together.” Landon raises his glass to meet hers.