When painter Manora Fredrickson left Baltimore for a fixer-upper located in her ancestral Tyner, North Carolina, she figured she’d be getting away from the distractions of the city: the noise, the crime, the event invitations…her ex-husband. Happy to be a recluse at age twenty-eight, all Nora wants to do is paint, lick her wounds, and maybe sneak across the county line for some of Hattie’s artery-clogging fried chicken.
Enter Matthew Vogel. His little piece of Tyner abuts Nora’s and from the moment the consummate bachelor stops by her barn to find her dancing around like a Jersey City showgirl, he decides the spunky firecracker is the woman for him. Nora doesn’t agree, but she can’t get the brawny fisherman off her mind or her doorstep.
As much as Nora is attracted to her charming neighbor, she thinks Matt deserves better than a curmudgeonly hermit. Her last marriage fell apart because of her commitment to her art. Matt wants to convince her it won’t happen again—not with him.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
The small woman with skin the color of light burnt sugar didn’t hear Matt Vogel calling into the barn for her attention. She was too busy cutting a rug to the tune of music Matt couldn’t hear with her eyes closed. Well, he’d tried, so he ogled the lithe stranger’s undulating form, assessing her swells and curves through her fitted work clothes without guilt. From his vantage point the woman was doing a pretty good job of partnering with that old rusty hoe she was holding, although he couldn’t tell whether she or the garden tool was the one leading. Matt leaned against the barn’s doorframe and crossed his arms over his broad chest. God, he’d never seen a woman like her before, and he was absolutely smitten at first sight.
She was agile as a cat burglar, lean with a narrow waist but bearing shapely hips that supported a firm round bottom that he watched with special interest. Matt thought he’d done pretty good in the past. He’d dated some of the most attractive women in Chowan County, but compared to his new neighbor’s remarkable beauty, they were downright plain.
Suddenly, she turned and shouted “Lipschitz!” and dropped into a deep lunge, her pose supported only by that lucky hoe. She said “Ow!” when her hip flexor gave a loud pop and opened her brown eyes to finally take note of the stranger in her outbuilding. She startled at the sight of Matt. He couldn’t blame her. There he was, this big, lumbering white guy trespassing on a rural property where a single woman lived all alone. Her hands slipped down the hoe’s handle, causing it to drop sideways on the floor. With that, she lost her balance and fell backward to the dirt floor on her bottom. The caramel skin between her high cheekbones and the v-neck of her tee shirt flushed to an unhealthy burgundy tone.
Matt walked over with one of his hands extended to help her up. “Sorry. I tried knocking at the house but …” She held up her index finger to hush him, yanked the small headphones out of her ears by their cord, and shoved them down the collar of her shirt.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked in a smooth, husky voice.
Matt opened his mouth to speak, but found himself gaping. He’d for some reason expected her to sound high-pitched and raspy judging by the way she shrieked “Lipschitz!” Instead, she sounded like the personification of sex and well-aged whiskey. He must have been staring, because she stood without the aid of his rough hand and waited in front of him with her hands on her hips and one elegant eyebrow raised. When he wasn’t forthcoming with words, or anything else for that matter, she said “Yoo hoo, ” and snapped her fingers in front of his face.
“Sorry, ma’am.” Matt dropped his hand back to his side and then quickly jammed both into the pockets of his faded blue jeans. “I knocked at the house and when no one answered, I walked back here since the door was open.”
She dusted her hands off on her yoga pants and straightened her colorful kerchief to tuck some hair escaping from the temples back up into the fabric. “Okay. You’ve found me. What can I do for you?”
Matt opened his mouth to explain, but she held up her index finger once again and said “Wait, let me guess.”
She paced around the broken tractor parts and empty steel oil drums, wringing her hands behind her back. “Well, you’re not dressed well enough to be a Jehovah’s Witness, and besides they normally do their proselytizing in pairs.”
Matt looked down at his typical autumn Saturday attire of a long-sleeved ringer tee, jeans, and much-abused brown harness boots. It wasn’t fancy, but it was typical Matt.
She continued, “You’re obviously not the mailman.” She poked her head outside the barn door just to verify her hunch. “Unless you can strap bags of mail and parcels onto that motorcycle. I’m expecting a package, by the way.”
He shook his head “No.”
“Okay.” She resumed her pacing. “You’re obviously not the guy I’ve been waiting on for two weeks to install my satellite dish so I can have Internet, huh?”
Matt shook his head once more, his hair settling into his eyes in the process. He flicked it away with annoyance. At the moment, the ends reached mid-neck. He knew his grandmother would have a fit if she ever saw it. He never had enough motivation for a haircut.
“You don’t look like you need directions.”
“Ah. Well, then you must be here to ask if you can hunt on my land.” She gave him what was obviously a disingenuous, practiced smile and propped her hoe against a rack containing various garden tools that were well past their prime.
Now it was Matt’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Well, yeah.”
She sighed. “Well, you’re not the first.” She picked up a black yard waste bag and started tossing rusted bits of scrap metal and old yellowed newspapers into it. When it was half full of detritus she added, “And so you won’t be first I tell ‘no’.”
“No?” Matt asked with disbelief, taking a few automatic steps in her direction. “Why not? I’ve been hunting in those woods since I was old enough to hold a rifle.”
She put her hands on her hips and scowled at him. If she was trying to look ugly, she was failing miserably in Matt’s opinion. “Mr. —”
“Vogel. Matt Vogel.”
“Mr. Vogel. I put that sign up at the road not because I’m being picky about who hunts here or because I want to keep all those goddamned deer for myself.” Matt cringed.
“I live in that house up there.” She pointed to the very obvious two-story farmhouse in the near distance for emphasis. “I moved here from a really shitty neighborhood in Baltimore where I had my front windows shot out not once, but twice. I wasn’t even who they were aiming at.” She stopped pointing and got up so close to Matt that their toes were nearly touching through their shoes. Matt sucked in some air. She smelled like hard work and something fruitier he couldn’t identify. She had a scent he wanted to roll around in. “I don’t want anyone on my property with a gun.”
Matt looked down into her piercing gaze and ground his teeth to fight off the smirk that was his longtime nervous tic. It wouldn’t do for her to think he was off his rocker during their first encounter. He didn’t even know her name and she’d lived on that property for several weeks.
“Mr. Vogel, did you hear anything I just said?”
Matt nodded slowly. “Yep. I heard you. No guns.”
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other.”
Oh, he understood her. “So, crossbows are okay? I’m not such a great shot with bow and arrow but my little sister has crackerjack aim.”
She just blinked those big brown eyes at him.
“Okay, so that’s ‘no,’ I’m guessin’.” He let a broad smile soften his face, hoping it’d put her at ease.
The very corners of her luscious lips twitched. That smile always worked on the ladies, but she was fighting hard.
She squinted at him and crossed her arms over her chest. “You guess right.”
“Okay, Miss … well, you have me at the disadvantage here. I don’t even know your name.”
He waited for her to offer her first name, but when she just stood there glaring up at him with her lips pressed tightly together, he gave up on it. “Miss Fredrickson —”
Matt looked down at her ring finger and found it empty. “Okay. Ms. Fredrickson, our parcel of land abuts yours on the back border. We can try to stay on our side of the property line, but sometimes when you’re stalking a buck you lose track of where are. If you could just give us permission to hunt over here, we’ll try not to abuse it.”
“You’d better do more than just try to stay off my property, Mr. Vogel,” she hissed, eyes going to narrow slits and voice dropping about half an octave.
Matt thought the woman seemed extremely uptight and that he could probably fix that little problem for her with a couple of hours and a soft bed. Hell, he could probably do without the bed. It’d been a long time. He was a big guy. They could probably do it standing with no sweat off his back. He thought she looked like a screamer and chuckled at the thought.
“Mr. Vogel?” she pressed, looking annoyed now.
“Do we have an understanding?”
“Oh. Sure thing,” he said, smiling wider so his dimples showed.
She didn’t look convinced, but unclenched her jaw and unfolded her arms all the same. “I imagine I don’t need to show you the way out, then.”
“No, ma’am. I can find my way to the road plenty by myself.”
“Have at it then.”
“All right,” Matt said in a singsong voice, crossing through the open doors into the late-day sunshine and clasping his large hands behind his back. “Just holler if you fall again and need some help getting up,” he called back, chuckling while his new quarry fumed.