With one last glance over her shoulder at the lake, Amanda reached for the doorknob and gave it a turn. The door swung open on groaning hinges and she walked inside.
Her situation could have been a lot worse. The cabin was small--just three rooms and a bath--but the furniture she'd chosen was comfortable and sturdy, if not a bit plain. The price on the place had been right, too, thanks to the little building's fixer-upper status. What she would pay here monthly for mortgage wasn't much more than what she'd been paying for the hotel room she'd rented in town her first few weeks in Ludlow, while she'd been looking around for a place of her own and then waiting impatiently to sign the papers on her new place and move in. It wasn't much more than she would have paid for any of the apartments in town, either, and none of them had the privacy the cabin had--or the stacked washer and dryer in a closet in a corner of the kitchen.
So it needed a coat of paint and a decent amount of TLC. It wasn't anything she couldn't handle, either by doing the work herself or hiring someone to come out and do it for her. The payoff would be worth it in the end. She now had a place to call her own.
A place she didn't have to share with family or the latest man in her life, and that alone made it worth so much more than the asking price.
Her cell phone chimed and she snatched it off the counter, flipping it open and sparing a quick glance at the caller ID screen. A sigh caught in her throat. She'd been avoiding this call long enough, and it was time to face her demons. With a silent prayer that the call would go smoothly--and quickly--she brought it to her ear. "Hi, Mom."
"How did you know it was me?" The disappointment in Miriam Storm's voice had Amanda biting back a laugh.
"Caller ID." And the funny feeling she got in her stomach whenever her mother called. Amanda loved the woman with all her heart, but sometimes her mother went a little overboard. I'm not sick anymore, Mom. Haven't been for years and years. No need to worry about me like you did when I was five.
"Rachel told me you moved into your new place at the beginning of the week," her mother said, referring to Amanda's younger sister. She spoke in an accusatory tone usually reserved for special occasions, like when she bombarded them all with questions as to why none of her five offspring had managed to produce grandchildren yet. "I figured you would be trying to get unpacked."
Amanda nearly sighed at the prospect. What little she'd brought with her had been unpacked on the first day. Clothes, mostly, and some personal items and mementos. The furniture had been bought new from a nearby discount store and delivered on moving day, and she'd stocked the kitchen at the same time.
"I'm finished with all that, believe it or not, but I have a feeling you called about something else. What's up, Mom?" Amanda walked into the kitchen and opened the cabinets. Everything she needed was here. Plates, glasses, flatware and pans. She would have to make a trip into town later for some groceries since she had yet to buy more than a gallon of milk, some bottles of water and various cans of ready-to-heat meals, but even that would be pretty simple. Cooking for one didn't involve a lot of effort or ingredients. For Amanda, at least, it rarely involved more than a can opener and a microwave. "Is something wrong?"
"I just wanted to make sure you were settled okay."
Amanda rolled her eyes. That, and her mother wanted to lay on the guilt since Amanda hadn't called home the day she'd moved out of the hotel and into her new place. She hadn't even mentioned buying the house to her mother until after she'd signed the papers. Miriam would have tried to talk her out of it, convinced her to rent for a while instead of taking such a big step, and before she'd seen the place Amanda would have agreed. But one look and as crazy as it sounded, she'd known it was home. Or it would be, once the work was finished.
"I'm as settled as I can be for having just moved in. I'm fine. I promise. If I wasn't, you'd be the first one to know. You can stop worrying so much about me now."
"I'm worried about you for good reason, Mandy. You packed up and moved away without giving it much thought. Now you've bought a house, for God's sake, and gotten a job. Are you sure you're all right?"
Amanda shook her head. Her mother said the word "job" like that was a bad thing. As for being all right, she wasn't sure. The only thing she knew was that she felt better than she had in a long time. If I can't take care of myself now, we have a serious problem. "I think I'm okay. Really. I feel great, and I'm going to go with that feeling."
"You really shouldn't leave the door open here," a masculine voice spoke from behind her. "You'll get bugs. Or maybe something small and furry."
Amanda jumped and spun around, the phone clutched to her ear, and found herself face-to-face with a set of the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. Blue eyes set into a handsome, sculpted face framed by thick blond hair. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart hammered against her rib cage. He had to be the sexiest man she'd laid eyes on in a long time.
He was also a stranger, and she was out in the middle of nowhere with him. Her hand tightened around the handle of a frying pan in the dry rack next to the sink. "You scared me."
"Sorry. I thought you heard me come in." His lips tilted in a sheepish smile and he raised his hands in front of him, palms up. He glanced toward the counter. "You want to let go of the pan? I'm not here to hurt you. I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself on the way into town."
She loosened her grip on the handle, but only marginally. "Who are you?"
"Joe Baker. I live next door."
The breath left her lungs in a whoosh. So he wasn't some murdering psychopath. He was just the absentee neighbor. If she'd made him a little nervous by grabbing the pan, it was his fault for walking into her house without even knocking. Okay, he hadn't walked in, exactly, since he was standing in the doorway, but he should have stayed out on the front porch and knocked on the doorframe rather than just making himself at home in someone else's house.
She gave the stranger--Joe--a quick once-over and blinked. Yeah, his manners might need some work, but he had a nice face. A body to die for, too, clad in a pair of denim shorts and a T-shirt stretching across broad shoulders. She'd always been a sucker for a killer body and a cute face, and he had both in spades.
She swallowed hard. Why now, that she'd officially sworn off men, did this guy have to show up at her front door?
It was a sign. It had to be.
"I have to go, Mom. I'll call you later." Before her mother could protest, Amanda snapped the phone closed and set it on the counter. She could only deal with one problem at a time, and the one standing a few feet away took precedence. "Can I do something for you?"
"Like I said, I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself." He stepped into the cottage, his hand extended. "If you need anything, let me know."
She took his hand and shook it, and the unsettled feeling swirling in her stomach grew by leaps and bounds. The warmth of his fingers encircling hers sent a shock through her. She'd be lucky if drool wasn't dripping down her chin. He was the kind of guy Rachel would call a hottie, all tanned skin and muscled pecs and a spark of something in his eyes that told her there was a lot more to the man than what he seemed willing to let on with his friendly smile and goading tone.
And she was still holding his hand.
She released her death grip on the poor guy and took a step back. Suddenly, a little distance seemed like a very good idea.
"Anyway," Joe said, his gaze wary but bordering on amusement. "If you need anything, feel free to call. I'll give you my numbers, home and cell."
He reached into the front pocket of his shorts and took out a small, white card, thrusting it in her direction. Amanda forced a smile and grasped the corner of the card between her forefinger and thumb. She gave it a tug, pulled it from his fingers and dropped it onto the counter.
"Thanks. I appreciate it." If she touched him again, she might not want to stop. Her new neighbor would probably take issue with that, given she'd known the guy for a total of two minutes.