Brrr. Thermal coffee cup in hand, Sam walked out of his apartment building and crossed the parking lot. He huffed out a breath, and a cloud of steam formed in front of his face. Minnesota winters were frigid, and the frigid had started early this year. They’d already had a couple of near-freezing nights, and it was just the beginning of November.
If it weren’t for hockey, snowmobiling and ice fishing, he’d consider moving south. But then he’d miss Grandpa Joe and Grandma Maggie, along with his younger brother and sister, cousins, uncles and aunts. His siblings might be willing to make the move with him, but his grandparents would never leave Saint Paul. All of their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids were here, which meant he was stuck.
Sam circled to the driver’s side of his old Ford work van and climbed in. Turning the key in the ignition produced nothing but a reluctant RrrrRrrrRrrr. “Come on, buddy. I don’t like the cold or Monday mornings either, but you don’t see me staying in bed.” He patted the dashboard, like that would somehow encourage the van to start. He tried again and got the same refusal. “I’ll let you think about it for a minute or two, and then you have to crank. We have work to do.” He waited a few moments and tried again. The engine turned over, earning another pat to the dashboard.
Content to sit while the engine warmed, Sam sipped his coffee and turned on the radio. He had plenty of time before he needed to show up for work, and his favorite morning talk show was about to begin. He tuned the radio to Loaded Question and adjusted the volume so he could hear the radio over the heater fan and grinned as the cheesy music announced the morning show was about to begin.
“Good morning, Twin Cities! You’re listening to the wake-up crew, Dianna Barstow and Russell Lund, and it’s time for . . . da, da daaaah, Loaded Question!” the male counterpart of the duo announced. “What’s our question for today, Dianna?”
“Well, Russ, I think we have a real winner this morning. Today’s question is: What’s the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done?”
This ought to be good for a few laughs. Sam adjusted the vents so they blew only on the windshield. He could get out and scrape off the ice, but why bother? The glass would just frost up again by the time he was back inside. Better to let the van warm up and defrost on its own. Grandpa Joe always said there were two kinds of people in this world: smart lazy and dumb lazy. If you’re smart lazy, you do things right the first time, so you don’t have to do them over again. Smart lazy. That’s how Sam saw himself.
“Whoa! Good one! What is the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done, Dianna?”
“Ahhh.” She laughed. “Spring break five years ago. No details.”
Their banter went on for another few minutes before the DJs announced their telephone number and turned it over to the listening audience. Since the talk show hosts often gave out some pretty sweet prizes—like hard-to-get concert tickets or cash—Sam had the number in his speed dial. He hadn’t won anything yet, but he wasn’t about to give up. For the next few minutes he listened to one outrageous story after another, choking on his coffee when laughter sent it down the wrong pipe.
A husky, feminine voice came over the air. “Hi, my name is Yvonne.”
“Hello, Yvonne,” Dianna and Russ said in unison. “What’s the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Well,” she began, hesitating slightly.
Her voice sounded familiar, and her name . . . “Nah. Couldn’t be.”
“I’m recently divorced, and I kept the house,” Yvonne finally blurted.
“Go on,” Russ prodded.
“It had been a while since I’d . . . you know . . .”
“Had sex?” Dianna chortled. “We’re listening. We’re all listening.”
“I had a few things that needed to be done around the house, and a couple of my girlfriends kept telling me I should hire this handyman named Sam. So I did.”
Sam froze, and not from the cold. “Cripes!” It was her. He’d done some work for Yvonne two weeks ago. He thunked his head against the steering wheel and groaned. “Great. I’m the sluttiest thing she’s ever done.”
“OK, Sam the handyman,” Russ teased. “Tell me. Just how handy was he?”
“My oh my. Let me tell you. He was plenty handy and incredibly hot. After he did the job, I did him.” She sighed. “He was wonderful.”
Yvonne’s happy sigh over the air brought a smile to his face. He should get an award for leaving customers completely satisfied, something like those Employee-of-the-Month plaques you see on walls sometimes. He imagined what his award might look like hanging on the wall at Haney & Sons. Polished brass mounted on an oval piece of oak, and the engraving would read: Sluttiest Carpenter Award of Excellence—for going above and beyond the call of duty.
“You were plenty hot yourself, Yvonne.” Maybe she’d have another job for him to do soon. He shook his head. Not a good idea. Women got ideas when he came around a second time—relationship ideas.
He shuddered at the thought. His life was exactly the way he wanted it. Who needed all the drama, all the demands and upheaval that came with the whole relationship package? Who needed the heartache? Not him. Strings-free, protected sex and the bachelor life suited him just fine. He had his buddies, his brother, sister, grandparents and a great extended family. He lived la dolce vita—the sweet life. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?
Listeners were weighing in about Yvonne. About him.
“It would bother me knowing my partner had probably done it with half the women in the Twin Cities,” the first listener commented.
“He’s the slut,” another caller said.
“Yvonne was just a lonely divorcée. Maybe he’s a sex addict. For all we know, she was just one of a dozen he did that day,” caller three remarked, sending Sam over the edge.
“Sex addict?” He scowled at the radio. “Wait just a doggone minute. I’ve done nothing wrong.” Before he realized what he was doing, he’d grabbed his phone from the cup holder and hit speed dial. His outrage grew with each passing second. He was a good guy, honest and upfront. He never led anyone on. Plus, his moral compass worked just fine, thank you very much. His call was answered on the fifth ring.
“This is Russ, and you’re on the air. What’s the sluttiest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Yeah. This is Sam Haney. I’m Yvonne’s handyman, and—”
“Whoa! No last names here, Sam Haney. We like to protect the innocent, Handyman Haney. Did you get that, ladies? Sam Haney, the handsiest handyman in the Twin Cities.”
“Hands-On-Haney, the handyman!” Dianna chortled with glee, and the two of them laughed. “Get his number for me, would you, Russ?” Dianna chimed. “As a matter of fact, Sam, why don’t you share your number with all of us?”
Aww, cripes. Idiot. Their jokes were stupid, and he didn’t appreciate being the punch line. “Listen, you wouldn’t believe how women throw themselves at me on the job. I can show up for work scruffy as all get-out, raggedy flannel shirt, faded torn jeans, unshaven and hair a mess, and they’re still all over me. Women love me.”
“I’m sure they do,” Russ said, and both hosts sniggered lewdly.
The word cliché popped into his brain. He shoved it aside. There was nothing clichéd about him. He just needed to find a different morning talk show, that’s all. “Look, I don’t mess with married women, or women who are involved with someone, and it’s not me who comes on to them. They come on to me. We’re consenting adults, enjoying a little safe, recreational sex. That’s all there is to it. No addiction. No taking advantage. Nobody is getting hurt. I’m unattached, clean, healthy and a decent guy. Can I help it if women want me?”
Trudy laughed out loud, delighted by the latest installment of Loaded Question. She turned the bacon frying in the skillet and headed to the fridge for eggs. She liked to send her husband off to work with a good, hot breakfast in his stomach. Returning to the kitchen counter, she set the eggs down and turned up the radio.
She gasped, hardly believing Yvonne’s handyman had the audacity to come on the air. Pulling her iPhone out of her apron pocket, she called her sister’s number. Nanci picked up right away.
“Is that you, Trudy?”
“Are you hearing this?” Trudy demanded. “Are you listening to Loaded Question?”
“I am. I already looked up Handyman Haney’s place of business on the Internet. Haney & Sons Construction and Handyman Service. No job is too big or too small, according to their website. Might have him do a few jobs for me.” They both giggled like teenagers.
Trudy sighed. “I know it’s wrong, but I wish my Haley would have an encounter like Yvonne’s. She needs something to shake her out of her slump and bolster her self-esteem since you-know-who did you-know-what to her.”
“Still can’t believe that twerp bolted like he did, and only two weeks before their wedding.” Nanci huffed. “Who does that? Who just up and suddenly decides they have to live in Indonesia—without the high school sweetheart they’ve been engaged to for two whole years?”
“I think there may have been another woman involved.” Trudy forked the bacon out of the pan and set it on a stack of paper towels to drain. Cradling the phone between her ear and shoulder, she moved the pan, replacing it with a smaller one for the eggs. “Don’t you think so?”
“Not for one single minute,” her sister snapped. “I think he had a man waiting for him over there. I can’t imagine any heterosexual male walking away from my gorgeous niece for any other reason.”
“Aww. That’s sweet—in a warped kind of way.” Trudy melted a little butter in the pan, pushed the bread down in the toaster, and cracked the eggs over the skillet. “Haley is really down in the dumps, and it’s been months. She needs something other than remodeling projects to shake her out of her slump. Have you seen what a disaster she’s made of her house?”
“I have, and it’s frightening.”
Frank Cooper, Trudy’s own high school sweetheart, walked into the kitchen and kissed her cheek before helping himself to coffee and meandering into the dining room with his newspaper tucked under his arm. Trudy transferred her phone to her hand. “Can I call you back after breakfast?”
Trudy put her phone back in her pocket and focused on flipping the eggs so they were over easy, just the way she and Frank liked them. The toast popped up, and while buttering the lightly toasted whole-grain bread, a plan began to coalesce in her mind. She loaded two plates, cut a banana in half, and carried their breakfast to the dining room. As usual, Frank had his nose buried in his newspaper.
She set his plate in front of him. “Frank, Haley’s birthday is coming up.”
He lowered the edge of his paper to send her an indulgent smile. “If I’m not mistaken, our daughter’s birthday is in May. This is November.” Setting aside the news, he put a napkin on his lap and reached for the salt.
“I know when her birthday is. I’m the one who carried her for nine months and went through seventy-two hours of labor bringing her into this world.” She lifted her chin. “Excruciating labor, I might add.”
“Seems to me the number of hours you were in labor grows with each telling.” He raised an eyebrow and cut an egg with the edge of his fork.
Trudy’s chin came up another notch. “Her birthday is coming up—”
“I can’t argue with that, sweetheart. Birthdays do come around once a year. They’re always coming up. Even for you, though to me you’re still as beautiful as you were the day we met.”
“Oh, Frank, and you’re still the sweetest man in the world.” She slid her palm over his arm, warmth for her husband of thirty years filling her with gratitude. He’d given her two amazing children and a very comfortable life. She wanted the same for her only daughter. “Well . . . I was thinking maybe we could give Haley an early birthday present this year.” She squirmed in her seat a tiny bit. “She’s had such a rough time of it, and I want to help her out. Don’t you want to help her out, honey?”
“Mmm-mm,” he agreed around a mouthful.
“Her house is a disaster area, what with all the home improvement projects she starts and never finishes. She has no idea what she’s doing, and I’m afraid she’s going to bring the place tumbling down around her ears or worse. It’s going to go up in smoke.”
Frank frowned and nodded.
“What if we pay a handyman to help her put things back together so that her house is livable again? I want my little girl to be safe. Don’t you want our little girl to be safe, Frank?”
Her husband’s eyes twinkled as he swallowed his mouthful. “Haley isn’t a little girl anymore, Trudy. She’s twenty-six, with a well-established career and a home of her own. Still, it’s an excellent idea. Take care of it, would you, sweetheart? Hire somebody, but check for references on Angie’s List first.”
“Oh, I will.” No I won’t. She crossed her fingers in her lap against the small white lie, knowing exactly whom to hire. She rose from her chair. “More coffee?” Trudy could hardly wait to run the plan by her sister before making the call to Sam the Handyman. She hurried to the kitchen and grabbed the coffeepot to fill their mugs.
The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that Haley needed a little fresh male interest to get her through her heartbreak. If a gorgeous hunk made a pass at her, she’d realize just how desirable she truly was, and she’d get past the Michael debacle. She’d be ready to get out there and date again, and then maybe, just maybe, Haley would marry and give her a few grandchildren before she got too old to enjoy them.
As her oldest, it was up to Haley to produce grandchildren first, especially since Frank Jr. hadn’t even finished college yet. Another worry, since he’d been working on his undergrad degree for six years now. He kept changing his major. Ah, well. One problem at a time, and right now Haley Helen had to come first.
Trudy finished her breakfast, kissed her husband good-bye as he left for work, and then she headed for the family room. The dirty dishes could wait. Settling into her favorite chair, she put her feet up on the ottoman and called her sister. Nanci was always good for a brainstorming session, and this plan would require some finesse.
“Trudy?” Her sister picked up. “Is that you?”
“Of course it’s me. You can see my name on your caller ID. Why do you always ask if it’s me?”
“Because I enjoy having to make you tell me it’s you.”
Trudy rolled her eyes. “I have a plan.”
“Don’t say that until you’ve heard what it is.”
“I’ve known you your entire life. I don’t need to hear your latest plan to know it’s a mistake.”
“It’s not a mistake. Don’t you want Haley to have a love life again?”
“Ha! This ought to be good. Let’s hear it.”
A little miffed, Trudy resisted the urge to bring up a few of her older sister’s less-than-stellar ideas, like the doughnut-hole she’d married—and divorced. To be honest, the divorce turned out to be one of Nanci’s better ideas. “Frank and I have decided to give Haley an early birthday present. We’re going to hire a handyman to help her bring her house back up to code. Guess who the handyman is going to be?” she chirped, hardly able to contain her excitement.
“Sam Haney, the handsiest handyman in the Twin Cities?”
“Exactly. What do you think?”
“Are you serious? You want to set your own daughter up for a one-night stand with a man who has done practically every single woman in the Twin Cities? Who are you, and what have you done with my straitlaced little sister?”
Doubt cast a shadow over what she’d thought was a wonderful idea. Mothers didn’t encourage their daughters to be promiscuous. Not good mothers, anyway. A spark of indignation ignited. She wasn’t a bad mother. She was a concerned mother. Her daughter had lost her mojo, and Trudy wanted to see that she got it back. Besides, she knew her daughter.
“Not exactly. I want the man to make a pass at her, that’s all. You know as well as I do Haley would never act on it, but having a gorgeous man want her might be all it takes to get her moving in the right direction again.”
“That’s fine, Trudy, but I can’t see Haley making a pass at Hands-On-Haney, and like Sam said on the radio, it’s the women who come on to him, not the other way around. There’s no guarantee he’ll do anything but the job if she’s not the one to make the first move.”
“Oh, crap.” Her bubble of optimism burst. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Not only that, but . . . say you set this up, he does make a pass at her and she says no? What if he’s the type of man who won’t take no for an answer. You don’t know anything about Sam Haney. You could be setting Haley up for a dangerous situation.”
“I don’t think so. You heard Yvonne on the radio. Her friends recommended the handyman to her. Surely the women he’s been with would have sensed if he were a bully or the predator type. The divorcée spoke about him in glowing terms. She said he was wonderful.”
“That’s true but—”
“Besides, he divulged his full identity on the air for everybody to hear. Criminal and predator types wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s also true.” Her sister’s voice held a thoughtful note. “You know what?”
Yay. Here comes another idea-squashing comment. “What?”
“Nobody can tell your voice apart from Haley’s over the phone, right?”
Her sister sighed, and said nothing for a few seconds.
“What am I missing here?” Trudy asked, a tad curtly.
“Haley isn’t going to proposition Sam the handyman. We know that, but what if you make the call pretending to be Haley when you set up the appointment? You could make the first move on her behalf. That way, by the time he gets to her house, he’ll already be primed and raring to go. He’ll make a pass at her thinking he’s only responding to her come-hither request.”
“You’re saying I should come right out and tell him I want him to . . . as Haley, that is . . . that I want . . .” It came to her in a flash. She knew exactly what to say. After all, Sam must know lots of women had listened to this morning’s radio show. She’d make it clear that she’d heard Loaded Question and hint that she wanted his special touch. “Oh, that’s brilliant.”
“Of course it’s brilliant, but if it ends up being another one of your calamities, I know nothing. Nothing at all. We never had this conversation.”
“Fine, and if it ends well, I get all the glory.”