Excerpt from Mr. March
Book #3 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series
The second Gus Viggio offered his great aunt Polly a boost into his Jeep Cherokee, she shook her cane and fixed him with that stubborn I'm not a helpless old lady yet look that warned him to back off. God help him if he attempted to buckle her in.
Hands shoved into his jeans pockets, he stood by the open passenger door. Just in case. She wasn't as strong as she used to be, and those arthritic hands made even fastening the seatbelt difficult.
While he waited, he squinted against the sun, bright but not strong enough to take the chill out of the April morning. Almost overnight, spring had sprung in the Rogue Valley. Here in Guff's Lake, grass, shrubs and flowers, dormant through the winter, had made up for lost time and grown by leaps and bounds.
"My yard is mess," Aunt Polly lamented.
Once an avid gardener, she could no longer handle yard work. Gus had taken over the job, with occasional help from his father. "Dad and I will stop by and take care of it this weekend."
Maintaining the large front and back yards took a big chunk of time, but Gus didn't mind. He loved Aunt Polly dearly. When his mom had left, his great aunt had invited him and his dad to move in and had raised Gus as her own.
Years ago, they'd decided to dispense with the "great" label, respectively shortening their names to "Aunt Polly" and "nephew." Not that "aunt" cut it, either. She was more a mother and grandmother rolled into one. He would do anything for her. Anything.
Buckled in at last, Aunt Polly folded her hands in her lap. "What are we waiting for?" she said with an impish look. "Let's boogie."
He grinned at her word choice. "You're in a good mood today."
"On such a beautiful morning, how could I not be?" She slipped a pair of sunglasses over her bifocals. "Besides, it isn't every day my favorite nephew and two of his fellow firefighters take me to lunch at Ellen's."
The stuffy restaurant wasn't at the top of Gus's go-to list, but his aunt loved eating there, and his buds enjoyed her company, so they tolerated the place.
"Your only nephew," he reminded her, pulling on his Ray-Bans.
"If I had a dozen, you'd still be my favorite."
"Not favorite enough to take my advice."
Her lips thinned. "Don't you dare start in on me about my living arrangements, Augusto Frances Viggio. I'm perfectly able to take care of myself, and you know it."
The use of Gus's full name meant she was seriously irritated, but didn't change the fact he disagreed with her.
Insisting on independence, she lived alone in her big, old house. No amount of reasoning or cajoling had convinced her to downsize and move into an apartment in a retirement community.
She did allow him to chauffeur her around, thanks to a stroke ten months ago that had put an end to her driving. Gus didn't mind shuttling her where she needed to go—when he could. Between him and his dad, they managed.
"If and when I decide to leave, I promise to let you know," she added. "But don't hold your breath." Raising her chin, she changed the subject. "As I was saying, you are my favorite nephew. Who else can I rely on to take me to my weekly hair appointment with Wanda?"
Gus tabled the conversation about moving—for the moment. "No problem."
Tommie's Hair and Nails was an easy ten-minute drive from Aunt Polly's house. "I need to schedule an inspection at Tommie's. May as well set that up today."
"For the safety project?"
"That's the one."
Gus had been tasked with checking fire and smoke alarms in every commercial and multi-dwelling residential structure as well as updating computer diagrams with the safest routes into and out of each. Important information that was posted in every building for both civilians and emergency responders to use during emergencies.
Gathering and collating all that data in the town of almost twenty-thousand people was taking more time than Gus had estimated. When he'd started ten weeks earlier, he'd promised the captain a finish date of early August. As tight as the deadline now seemed, he intended to deliver, even if it meant working off the clock.
No longer cross with him, Aunt Polly tilted her lips into a fond smile. "Not just anyone is strong and smart enough to be a firefighter. I'm so proud of you."
Gus's chest expanded. Not one for big displays of emotion, he gave a modest shrug.
"I can't wait to tell Wanda about lunch today," Aunt Polly said. "She'll be all ears. She's a darling, that one."
Darling wasn't the word that came to mind when Gus thought of Wanda Lipmann, who looked to be in her late twenties. He never knew what to expect when he saw her. Short and curvy, she wore her clothes bright and tight, and she changed her hair-style and color a couple times a month. Talk about unsettling.
They hadn't spoken much, except to say hi and bye when he brought Aunt Polly in and picked her up.
His aunt cast him a sly look. "If you'd get to know Wanda, you'd realize how special she is."
Gus narrowed his eyes. "Stop right there. You are not fixing me up—now or ever."
"But it's been almost a year since your breakup with Delores."
"Denise," he corrected. "I'm way over her."
For sure. After she'd pressured him one too many times to get married, he'd decided to break up with her. Then Aunt Polly had had her stroke. "Trust me, if I had time, I'd be dating. I happen to have a lot on my plate."
Between working at the Guff's Lake Fire Department, looking after Aunt Polly, and running his one-man classic car restoration business, Gus was overbooked.
Not that he wanted to give up any of his responsibilities. His car business relaxed him and felt more like play. Currently, he was restoring a 1965 classic Lincoln. His customer had agreed to pay top dollar, with a bonus if he finished in time for the classic car show in mid-May.
Whipping off her sunglasses, Aunt Polly gave him the no-nonsense look that had always worked during her librarian days, her still-bright eyes serious behind the bifocals. "At thirty-two, you're not getting any younger."
"Don't hold back."
"Have I ever? It's time you found a wife and settled down. That should be your priority, but because it isn't, you need help. Mine."
She'd been after him to get married since the day he turned thirty, nagging him with a dogged determination that wouldn't quit.
Gus narrowed his eyes a fraction. "Stop."
"I will not." She sniffed. "Come October, I'll be eighty. I've earned the right to speak my mind."
"Like that's anything new. You know I'm not against marriage, but there's no guarantee it'll happen."
"Pish posh," Aunt Polly said. "Of course it will."
His parents had split up when he was seven, but he had good little-kid memories. Settling down and having two or three children appealed to him. But to date, every one of his serious relationships had gone south.
In matters of the heart, he'd begun to think he was just like his father. This apple hadn't fallen far from the tree.
Gus pulled onto Brewster Street, home to a dozen small businesses on the west side of town. Tommie's Hair and Nails salon was always buzzing, mostly with women, and judging by the number of cars parked in the salon lot, this morning was no different.
"This is a wash-and-trim appointment. I'll be done in about thirty minutes," his aunt said as opened the passenger door for her. "Since you need to schedule that inspection, you may as well wait inside."
Having just come off forty-eight hours—two back-to-back shifts—at the Guff's Lake Fire Department, with a couple calls in the dead of night, Gus planned to grab some quick Z's in the Jeep while Aunt Polly had her hair done. He'd deliver her to Wanda, schedule the inspection, then make a beeline for the Jeep.
Refusing his arm, she relied on her cane. In the sunlight, the sparkly Tommie's Hair and Nails sign on the door glittered. Gus ushered his aunt inside and removed his shades.
The half-dozen or so females in the process of manicures and haircuts stopped chattering and stared at him.
Every week he brought Aunt Polly here, but you'd think they'd never seen him in the salon. Maybe it was his size. Bigger than many men, he'd grown used to curious looks. Lately, more than usual, thanks to the firefighter calendar.
Feeling awkward, he nodded at Carol Sue, who had about ten years on him.
"Nice to see you, Polly. Hi there, Gus," she said, batting her lashes at him.
"Hey," he replied, courteous but not too friendly.
A flirt and a gossip, Carol Sue lived to spread rumors. Here in Guff's Lake, information spread faster than a forest fire in summer. Gus preferred to stay out of her stories.
"Who do I talk to about scheduling a salon inspection?" he asked.
"That would be either Tommie or Wanda. Tommie's out just now, but Wanda is here. I'll let her know you and Polly have arrived. Help yourselves to coffee. The one with the orange band is the decaf you want, Polly. The other is leaded. Enjoy." She sashayed off.
Gus got Aunt Polly settled on the sofa and brought her a decaf with sugar and creamer. He filled a Styrofoam cup with the leaded stuff and sat in a chair. A few sips in, the "Employees Only" door at the rear of the salon opened. Wanda and two stylists stepped inside.
Sticking close to the door, all three glanced his way and whispered. God knew what they were saying. As long as it didn't go on too long, Gus didn't care.
He took another few sips of coffee before Wanda started forward.
Polly Becker ranked among Wanda's favorite customers. She wasn't so comfortable with Polly's great nephew.
At six foot four and two hundred thirty pounds—details everyone who owned a Guff's Lake Fire Department calendar knew—Gus, aka Mr. March, was a strikingly handsome man. All solid muscle, he was built more like a super-fit linebacker than a firefighter. The piercing green eyes and short, light-brown hair with a hint of red didn't hurt, either. Looking at him, a woman would have to be dead not to have heart palpitations.
The calendar, sold to raise money for the station's benefit fund, had turned Gus and the eleven men featured into local celebrities.
Nadia, a stylist and close friend Wanda had been chatting with in back, elbowed her. "He always drops Polly off and leaves," she said in a low voice. "Carol Sue says he wants to talk to you today. I wonder why?"
"What does it matter, as long as I'm in the same room as him?" murmured Rochelle, Wanda's second closest friend. She worked from noon to closing on Wednesdays, but had come in early to accommodate a customer. She fanned herself. "He's even more gorgeous in person."
In place of his usual T-shirt, jeans and weathered leather jacket, he'd switched it up in a pressed blue shirt, dark pants and polished black oxfords. He looked good in dress clothes, but he looked equally fine in casuals.
"Maybe I'll move my schedule around and start working early on Wednesdays." Rochelle gave Wanda a sideways glance. "Unless you have dibs on him?"
Currently, both Rochelle and Nadia were single and in the market for a boyfriend. Wanda frowned. "Tommie depends on you to work late Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And don't forget, I'm taking a break from men."
Her friends shared a look. "You say that every time you go through a breakup," Nadia pointed out. "Until some cute guy asks you out. Then you're off and running again."
"After I've turned down every guy who asked me out the past six-and-a-half months? If that isn't serious, I don't know what is."
She refused to date until she figured out how to win and hold a man's love with more than good sex. She had the sex part down but not the rest, and her heart had been broken more times than she could count.
The latest split with Larry had hurt almost as much as losing Wayne ten years earlier. In hindsight, she realized much of the pain stemmed from her seriously wounded pride. She'd tried her best to keep Larry interested but had failed. Yet again. She didn't think she could survive one more breakup.
"To clarify," Rochelle said, "you're not interested in Gus Viggio."
Even if a mere glance at the man caused a spike in her pulse rate, he'd never given her more than a brief greeting and a cursory glance. A good thing, too. Otherwise, she might be tempted to forget she'd sworn off guys, proving her friends right.
"Polly's waiting for me," she said. "And apparently so is Gus."
Curious as she was about what he could possibly want, she paused and fluffed her layered, purple-streaked, blond hair—a far cry from its dull-brown natural color. She strutted forward, her teal, three-inch ankle boots clicking smartly across the tile floor. The walk had taken years to perfect.
As she drew closer, Gus pushed to his feet. His great aunt had raised him right.
"Morning, Polly," Wanda said, with a warm smile.
The older woman beamed. "I like your hair, Wanda. Those purple streaks are fun. And what a snazzy outfit."
"Thanks." Wanda smoothed her short-sleeve, lavender tee over her hips. Even with the three extra inches of the ankle boots, she was only five feet six. She tilted her head back a little to greet the firefighter. "Hello, Gus."
He nodded, his expression impossible to read, and gave her a once-over from her head to the hint of cleavage, courtesy of the low scoop neck, where his gaze lingered a beat longer than an uninterested man's should have. Then past her flared, teal skirt to her black leggings.
Pride surged through her. As with her walk, the cutting-edge hairstyles and clothing had never been natural to her. Neither was being bubbly and talkative. But wanting to be noticed and liked by men, even though she'd temporarily sworn off them, she'd adjusted. Her efforts had paid off. Getting a date when she wanted one was never a problem, and both male and female customers kept coming back.
Proving Cindy right, for once.
"I'm told you're the one to see about scheduling a safety inspection," he said, his deep, sexy voice vibrating through her.
Safety inspection—of course. A little part of her had assumed he wanted information of the personal kind. What a relief he didn't. Or so she assured herself. Yet something inside her deflated a fraction. "I'm the one, all right."
"Do you have any time Monday?"
"We're closed that day, but I guess that'd work."
"If you're closed, who'll let me in?"
"Either Tommie or me."
Likely Wanda. Tommie had just turned sixty-five and decided to retire at the end of September. Wanda wanted to buy the business and the building—provided she saved up enough for the down-payment necessary to secure a loan. Although she still needed a fair chunk of change, she'd assured Tommie that when the time came, she would have the required funds.
The past few months, Tommie had been teaching her the ins and outs of running the salon, and slowly giving Wanda more responsibility.
"Your aunt should be ready to go in about a half hour," she told Gus. "You can pick her up then."
"He's going to wait here today." Polly showered him with a fond grin. "Then he's taking me to lunch at Ellen's."
No wonder he'd dressed up. "Lucky you." Wanda sighed.
She'd always wanted to try the upscale restaurant, but not one of her boyfriends had ever taken her there. "Have a seat in the waiting area, Gus. I'll bring her to you when we finish. Come on, Polly, let's make you gorgeous."
She offered her arm, but Polly rebuffed her. Thanks to her shoes, Wanda stood some two inches over the woman. She also moved a lot quicker. She slowed way down, and they made their way to her station across the way.
Polly dug in her heels and waved her cane at Gus. "Aren't you coming with us?"
"My station is small, and there's no place for you to sit," Wanda pointed out. "You'll be more comfortable in the waiting area."
So would she. If he hovered around, she wouldn't be able to relax.
"Nonsense. He'll bring a seat with him," Polly insisted. "I want him to see what you do."
Wanda didn't understand Gus's warning look."
Lips compressed, Polly turned away from his gaze.
While he returned to the waiting area to grab a chair, Wanda helped her into the salon chair. She fastened a large plastic smock around Polly's neck, gently tipped her back to wash her hair, and wondered what her customer was up to.