Custom Made For You
By Ginger Ring
The half-naked man leaning against a mailbox was not what Ava Wellington imagined when her mother warned her to beware of any wildlife standing along the side of the road, but then, she’d never been to her mom’s hometown before.
Ava slowed her car as she drove past, hardly able to believe her eyes. The guy was so drop-dead gorgeous one couldn’t help but gawk. He looked dangerous, all right, but probably not in the way her mother meant. Who would want to “beware” a man like that? If this was normal for Coulee Bluff, Wisconsin, maybe this summer job wouldn’t be too bad after all.
By the time Ava focused back to the road, there, in the middle of the highway, sat a huge rocklike boulder. It was too big to straddle with her car and hitting it would take them both out. She slammed on the brakes, the tires slid on gravel, and her silver Honda skidded to a stop in a shallow ditch.
Hands shaking and heart pounding, Ava shifted the vehicle into park. Sliding a loose curl behind her ear, she took a deep breath and shook her head. What the heck just happened?
The sound of knuckles knocking on her window caused her jump.
“Are you okay?” The ‘roadside wildlife’, who’d partially been responsible for her current predicament, stood outside her door. Ava fidgeted in her seat as she tried to figure out which button lowered the side window. After locking and unlocking the door at least twice, she finally found the right switch. The glass lowered, bringing with it a rush of hot, humid air.
All Ava could do was stare. From a distance it had been his muscled chest catching her attention, up close, it was his face. If guys could be called beautiful, this one certainly was. His deep, blue eyes were almost teal. They were the shade of a tempting pool at a resort she’d once stayed at. She nearly drowned in the swirling water so that should be a red flag to be cautious in this situation as well. And then there was the chiseled jaw, straight nose, and five o’clock shadow he sported. Swoon. It was as if she’d ordered the perfect man delivered to that very mailbox and he’d arrived at her front door.
“Are you all right, Miss?” he asked again. The scent of pine, leather, and gasoline tickled her nose.
“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks. I guess I got distracted and didn’t see that big rock in the middle of the road.” She blushed and pointed to the slow-moving reptile making his way across the yellow line. Was that a turtle? It was huge. “What is that anyway?”
“It’s a turtle.” Mister tall, dark, and hot answered with a laugh. He rested a forearm on the roof of the car and gestured toward the beast. “Haven’t you ever seen a turtle before?”
“Yes, in aquariums. They are usually about this big.” Ava held her hands together in a small circle. “That thing is like a prehistoric monster or something.”
“That’s because it’s a snapping turtle. They’re pretty big.” His smile showed off perfect white teeth.
“I can see that. Is it dangerous?” She hated to ask but what if she ran into one again? It also gave her a chance to admire him some more. Ava wiped clear the direction her brain had drifted like an eraser to a white board. She’d come to Coulee Bluff to get away from her men problems, not find new ones.
“Yeah, they can be. I wouldn’t recommend trying to pick one of up or getting too close. They can snap at you from about a foot away. And I do mean snap.” He emphasized the fact by clamping his fingers and thumb together. “They have a jaw that will take your toe, or finger, right off.”
“I appreciate the advice, and I will be sure to stay clear of snappers.” Ava laughed. There was no way she’d get within ten feet of one of those things, at least not on purpose. She frowned as he wandered to the front of her car and stopped to take a quick look underneath. Were there more snappers? Hopefully not. Rounding the rear of the car, he came back to her side.
“Your car looks fine. You should be able to just drive out of the ditch.”
That was a relief.
“Where ya headed?” He stood with a hand resting on his hips, and she couldn’t help but admire the black hair on his pecs and his flat, tan stomach. When she couldn’t find the words, he bent closer. His face was too close for comfort, and Ava breathed in the scent of him again. The man smelled like the outdoors; earthy, and fresh with a touch of what? Something not of nature. Grease, oil, tires? His hands sported a haze of grey as if he’d been working on something dirty.
Returning her attention to those stunning, baby blue eyes, Ava was suddenly hypnotized and unable to look away. A train whistle sounded in the background. A gentle breeze drifted in the window. That rogue lock of hair blew in her eyes again, breaking their connection.
“I, ah, better get going. Thanks for your assistance with the, um, turtle and all.”
“My pleasure.” The sexy man stepped back and placed his hands on his slender hips again. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, she couldn’t help eying his six pack abs and dark chest hair one more time. Dark jeans accented his long lean legs. Scuffed black work boots completed his country boy outfit. Her mouth dry, she licked her lips. Suddenly she wasn’t in such a hurry to leave.
“Hey, do you know where 954 Shore View Drive is?” She rested her wrist on the top of the steering wheel as she smiled out the window. Did she appear as awkward as she felt? Thinking of other questions to ask so she could study the lines of various tattoos on his arm. None of the guys at her private, religious school had those. Well, that she knew of.
“You’re on Shore View Drive.” He pointed to the blacktop. “Just keep going down the road about a mile, it’s the last one on the right. It’s on stilts.”
“Stilts?” Did she hear him right? She’d never heard of a house on legs.
“Actually, they aren’t stilts, they’re cement pillars. They keep the home above the flood waters, and keep the snakes out.” He moved toward the car.
“Flood waters, snappers, snakes. The rental people said it was a nice place.” Ava felt faint. She hated snakes. Just thinking of them gave her the chills.
“Don’t worry. It’s a nice place. All the houses along the shore are built above ground. You’ll be fine. There aren’t any flood concerns right now and if there was, you’d know about it well in advance. The lock and dams protect us here.”
“What about the snakes? Is it their time of year?” Ava winced as goosebumps rose on her skin.
“Hold on a sec, I’ll be right back.” Tall, dark, and handy, jogged back toward the garage. A graceful lope, if she did say so herself. He ran back, carrying a business card in his hand. “Here, take this. If you have any snake problems, give me a call, and I’ll be right over.” He handed her the card.
When his fingers brushed hers, Ava flinched. A jolt ran up her arm sending heat to her cheeks. Did he feel it, too? Regaining her composure, she read the card. Tanner’s Custom Bikes, Kruz Tanner, Owner. It was followed by a phone number, address, and a list of some of the services he provided.
She gave Mr. Tanner the once-over. Damn, a real-life motorcycle man? Even though Kruz had his own business, her father would be appalled to see her conversing with someone that rode a motorcycle, or even worse, made a living working on them. Ava sat up straight. It was time to stop daydreaming and concentrate on finding her new home. She placed the card on top of her purse and shifted her car into drive.
“Well, thank you again. If I encounter any reptiles, I’ll be sure to give you a call.” Ava waved and hit the button to roll up the window. The cool current of air conditioning refreshed her as she drove out of the ditch. After promising herself to keep eyes on the road, Ava risked a quick peek at him in the rear-view mirror. He was still there. In the middle of the road. Watching. The handsome man unnerved her to say the least. Why? It wasn’t like they’d be hanging out or anything.
Ava had come to Coulee Bluff for the summer to relax in a country setting and to babysit the granddaughter of her mother’s childhood friend. She’d barely made the turn off to Coulee before stopping to drool over a sexy, biker dude. That wasn’t like her at all. Ava had always liked the business suit type. Well, to be honest, that was all she’d been exposed to. Proper, rich, and well-mannered young men with the John Wellington stamp of approval clearly visible on their foreheads.
Mr. Tanner looked like a man who wrestled alligators for breakfast and ate fried snakes for lunch; all while welding metal and working on Harleys. The last thing she needed was to get involved with a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks or in her case, the wrong side of the river. Shoving the man’s card deep into a side pocket of her handbag, Ava read the numbers on the mailboxes as she passed. 760, 830; there it was, 945 and yes, believe it or not, it was on stilts.
After turning into the driveway, Ava parked on the gravel next to the house. With purse in hand, she cautiously stepped out into the heat to get a better view of her new home for the summer. Despite the round concrete columns holding it up, the house was similar to your average, ranch-style home. Her heels wobbled on the crushed rock driveway until she safely reached the first step.
When she stopped at the top of the stairs, Ava turned to survey her new surroundings. Always living in the city, being this close to nature was an over-whelming experience. Taking a deep breath, she inhaled the marshy scents of the nearby river and backwaters. She tried to identify every smell but could only recognize the odors of fish and flowers. The oppressive heat reminded her of swamps and the tropics. Just the brief time outside made her skin glisten with sweat.
Ava entered the five-digit combination on the keypad lock. Getting the first glimpse of her new digs turned out to be a nice surprise. She hadn’t known what to expect especially after hearing about the stilts and snakes. So far, no snakes, and the stilts were really nothing to worry about unless there was an earthquake. After placing her handbag and car keys on the counter, she took a quick tour of her new surroundings.
The kitchen had fairly new appliances, spotless counters, and even a dishwasher. That probably wouldn’t get much use since it would be just her living there. To the side of the kitchen was a half bath and nearby laundry room. Behind the kitchen were two rooms, a large bedroom with a queen size bed and full bathroom. Next to that was a small room that could be used as an office. The furniture was all clean and appeared brand new. The décor was pretty much an outdoor, cabin theme. A few antique fishing poles and a pair a canoe paddles accented the walls. The color scheme of rusty red, hunter green, and dark brown ran throughout the place.
Ava returned to the kitchen and smiled at the open living room. A 55-inch flat screen TV was visible from any area of the room. On each side of the television where patio doors opening to a screened-in patio. Ava opened the sliding doors and stepped out. It was easy to imagine spending many hours out there reading and viewing the boats traveling up and down the Mississippi. A huge barge floated by in the distance; the crew of the tugboat working on its deck. An eagle soared overhead, and the roar of a railroad train whistle added to the Mississippi River adventure literally right outside her front door. Excitement rushed through her as she grabbed her keys again to unpack the car. There were so many amazing things in the area to capture on canvas she couldn’t wait to get started. It took several trips to gather all her painting and drawing supplies.
As she reached the top step for the final time, her ring tone sounded. Closing the door to nature’s clatter, Ava found her cellphone. The name flashed on the screen made her smile. Even though she was twenty-three years old, her mom, Lauren, still checked up on her as much as possible. After the trauma of the last few months, Ava was glad she did.
“Hi, mom. How are you?” A sense of calm settled over her knowing her mother always had her back.
“I’m fine but I’m calling to see how you are. Did you find the place all right?” She pictured her mom. Her blonde hair styled perfectly, not a hair out of place. Probably dressed in a chic suit, ready for Friday night dinner at the club. Her fingers fidgeting with the strand of pearls around her neck.
“Yes, I found it just fine. The home is nice, I like it. Dad would call it a dump, but it works for me.” Ava walked out onto the deck to watch the boats go by as she talked. “Why did we never spend summers here? It’s so pretty.”
“You know your father, he’s not one for small towns.” The man hated them.
“But you grew up here.” It’d always puzzled her why he cringed, or left the room, whenever someone even mentioned Lauren’s hometown. The fact that he’d finally relented to let her spend the summer here was nothing short of a miracle. After graduating college, her father was eager for her to start work in the family business. Unfortunately, burning the candle at both ends for the past year had left her burned out and not willing to continue employment with his marketing team.
Who was she kidding? Once the scandal hit, Ava was the last thing on her father’s mind. Still, it was odd that her mother insisted Ava avoid using her last name and not to mention who her parents were. It was probably for the best. If the local press found out she was here, they’d be all over her for a statement.
After a brief pause, her mother, interrupted her thoughts. “Have you done anything yet? Stopped anywhere? There are some wonderful wineries and historical sites nearby.”
“I know, and I plan to visit all of them, but I just got here. The first thing I need to do is find a grocery store and buy some supplies.” At the mention of food, her stomach growled.
“I know there’s a Piggly Wiggly about ten minutes away but there should also be a small convenience store in town, if you don’t feel like driving far.”
Ava couldn’t help but giggle at her high society mom saying, ‘Piggly Wiggly’. It was hard to picture her as a teenager working as a checkout girl, but Lauren had.
“I’m not sure what I need yet, so I’ll probably just grab something to eat at the first place I see then buy a few things at the gas station.”
“Well, make sure you call Claire tomorrow morning and get things set up for your job. I know it’s their busy season, so it’ll take a lot off her mind to know you’ve arrived.”
“Yes, I will.”
“And don’t worry, Claire knows everything that happened and won’t say a word.”
“Okay.” Ava answered before an uncomfortable silence set in. She bit her lip, “Mom?”
“Yes, dear?” Lauren replied.
“I know this is your hometown, and you have no family left here, but really, why have we never visited the place?” Things had been strained between her parents for quite some time, but there were just too many unanswered questions about their past.
“You know your father thinks that everyone that doesn’t live in a big city is a hillbilly. He also doesn’t like to be reminded of where I came from. If he knew I’ve remained in contact with Claire all these years, he’d be furious.”
“But that’s crazy. You two were best friends. What difference does it make?” There was definitely more to the story.
“It’s just . . .” a loud sigh followed. “Hey, I think your father’s home. I’ll call you again soon, okay?”
“I’ve got to go. We’ve reservations at the Pendleton. Talk soon.”
“All right, have a nice time tonight,” Ava tried to sound hopeful, but their relationship weighed heavy on her mind.
The call ended with no farewell. It was hard not to worry. If her own life hadn’t been such a mess, maybe she’d have figured out what was going on long before her father went astray. Her stomach growled louder, bringing her back to the present. She needed to find some food. It was already past six, and she didn’t want to be driving all over an unfamiliar place searching for something to eat. Gas station food would have to do.
Moments later, Ava put her Honda into reverse and drove toward the center of town. This time instead of looking at mailbox numbers she took a better look at her neighbors. The surrounding homes looked similar to hers. Some had garages or carports underneath. A few had cement pillars holding them up, while others were held in place by iron trusses. A lot of the vehicles parked outside had out of state plates. Boats on trailers were parked nearby. A man grilling outside waved in her direction. At least everyone was friendly so far.
She drove passed Tanner’s closed bike shop. What was the man that’d come to her rescue doing tonight? The guy was probably out for the evening with some tall, gorgeous blond. The thought disturbed her. Why should she care? It was important to guard her heart and not fall for the wrong man again. There had to be a good guy out there for her. One that cared who she was as a person, not what her last name was and what her family’s wealth might gain them.
Ava took a deep breath and crossed her fingers. She always felt like a fish out of water, hopefully coming to Coulée Bluff would help her find her place. A sign proclaiming food, gas, bait, and beer caught her attention. Well, two out four wasn’t bad. She did need some food and gas. According to the sign the Kwik Trip was just three blocks away.
As she headed down the street, Ava turned on the radio. Was it a sign that the song, ‘Don’t worry, Be Happy’ was playing? The next few months were hers to enjoy and experience life outside the city and out from under her father’s thumb. Who knew, maybe Coulee Bluff was exactly where she was meant to be. The seedlings of her mother’s early life were here. She could feel it. Whether they would transfer to her, take root and grow, were yet to be seen.