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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

EXCERPT: Arms of a Stranger

Arms Of A Stranger

by Giselle Carmichael


Keithen Knight has gotten caught up in the cycle of making money and keeping track of it that he has lost sight of the important things in life.

Small Town Girl...

Simone Ladner is living an unfulfilled life in the fast paced city that never sleeps and has lost her way.

Brought together by the devastating hurricane that tore across the Gulf Coast region, these two people will unite in the rebuilding efforts, and in the process discover the meaning of life, love, and happiness in the Arms of a Stranger.


“Throw another bundle of shingles up here,” Simone Ladner yelled down from the roof she was working on. Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Biloxi neighborhood she had grown up in. Like everyone along the Coast, she was doing her part to rebuild the area, one house, one block, one neighborhood at a time. Six months after the life-altering storm, things were nearly as bad as the day the storm washed ashore, but with the influx of volunteers from all across the country, as well as internationally, progress was being made.

“Rather than throw them, how about I give you a hand here?” a deep voice replied.
Simone paused, because she didn’t recognize the voice. If she had heard it before, she was sure she would have remembered the deep sonorous sound. Footsteps vibrating the ladder alerted her that the owner of the voice was indeed bringing up the roofing shingles. She sat back on her haunches to await the delivery.

The February temperature was mild, the sky sunny and bright, just the type of day the people of the Coast needed to clean up and rebuild their lives.
A blond head appeared just over the roof’s edge. Two plastic wrapped bags of shingles rested across his broad shoulders. She was always awed by the display of physical strength in the workers. One bundle of asphalt shingles could weigh anywhere from 70 to 140 pounds. The scene was repeated from sun up to sun down all up and down the coastline. She considered herself a strong woman, had proven it to herself since returning home and getting involved in the rebuilding process. However, carrying stacks of roofing shingles on her shoulders and back the way these guys did was way beyond her capacity.

“Here, let me take one of those,” she said, scooting toward the ladder and sliding one bundle off his shoulder onto the roof. Turning again to the new arrival, who was built like the retired football player, Howie Long, she grabbed the other bundle and heaved it beside her. Then as she looked at him to offer her thanks for the help, she found herself staring into the greenest eyes the Good Lord had ever created. Something deep inside her stirred to life as her stomach clenched with desire and the heat of sexual awareness rushed from her toes to the top of her head. She slid back along the tar paper to give the big man room as he climbed from the ladder to the roof.

He was really big, Simone thought as he sat beside her. Wide, heavily muscled shoulders bunched underneath his denim shirt. His forearms were equally muscled and tan from the Mississippi sun. His hands, large and strong, effortlessly ripped away the plastic wrap around the shingles. The thought of those hands on her body nearly caused her to forget where she was. Simone shook her head to clear away the thought. The roof was not the place to be wigging out.

The stranger introduced himself, holding out his large hand in greeting. “Hi, I’m Keithen Knight.”

“Simone Ladner.” She took his hand and watched as hers was swallowed whole.
Keithen studied the small hand within his with curiosity. Although small and definitely feminine, there was strength in the grasp. There was also something magnetic about it, because it took sheer willpower to release it. As he met the warm cocoa-colored eyes and friendly smile of the beautiful woman returning his questioning gaze, he was sure she’d felt something as well.

“Nice to meet you, Simone.” He released her hand and sat back looking at her. She had delicate features set in a creamy dark chocolate face. “Where should I start?” Keithen watched, spellbound, as she removed the baseball cap she wore. A shoulder-length ponytail fell free, curling around her neck.

“You can take this end, I’ll work over there,” Simone replied, and crawled back to where she had stopped working the day before.

“So where are you from, Keithen?”

“I guess my accent gave me away.”

Simone glanced at him and laughed. “More like lack of one.”

“I’m a Native Californian. Born and raised in San Francisco.” He smiled at her with pride. “I live on Belvedere Island. Ever heard of it?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“It’s a beautiful island across the bay with hilltop views of the San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“Sounds beautiful,” she replied.

“And you?” His green eyes watched her efficient movements with admiration as she laid a course of shingles and nailed them in place. He followed her actions and got to work as well.

Laughing, Simone paused and looked over. “Don’t be deceived by the East Coast brogue. I was born and raised right here, though I lived in New York for four years.”

“The storm brought you home?” He swung the hammer.

“Yes, it did. When I arrived back in the neighborhood not one house was standing on the block. I couldn’t believe it. I grew up here and yet I got disoriented traveling around town because so much was gone. Landmarks I took for granted were nowhere to be found.”

“I had to come,” Keithen told her. “After weeks of watching the destruction, I knew I had to get involved.”

“Well, on behalf of the people of the Coast, thank you.”

Keithen nodded. He was humbled by the people he had met. In the face of all they had lost and the daily difficulties they continued to face, they were kind, giving, and so very thankful for any assistance. He and Simone concentrated on the work before them, laying shingles and nailing them down. The rhythmic pounding filled the air like music.

On hands and knees the pair worked from one end to the other, until their half of the roof was completely covered. The work was exhausting and dirty, but doing it gave Simone and Keithen a sense of pride. The team on the other side was nearing the ridge, so while they waited, Simone climbed down the ladder and quickly returned with water for everyone. She tossed each man a bottle then straddled the ridge.
Keithen unscrewed the cap to his bottle of water and took a long, thirsty drink, his eyes looking over to where Simone sat. She was just as dirty and sweaty as he and the other guys on the roof, and yet he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Long thick lashes framed almond shaped eyes.

Simone felt Keithen watching her and observed him with curiosity. “So what do you do for a living, Keithen?” She rolled the cold bottle under her neck to cool herself.

“I’m a developer,” he responded without explanation. He felt no need to tell her he was a millionaire developer of some of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in the country, from Malibu to West Palm Beach

“As in residential developments?”

“Exactly, so you see, I’m familiar with a hammer and nails.

“Your talents are definitely needed around here.” She downed the last of her water, then tossed the bottle over the side and returned to work on the ridge. Another hour went by before Simone checked her watch. She had to get over to the church. “That’s it for me today, guys,” she yelled to the crew on the roof. “I’ll see you all later.”

Keithen watched as Simone gathered her tools and headed to the ladder. As she drew along beside him, he stopped her. “Leaving so soon?”

“I’m afraid so. Hope to see you again, Keithen Knight,” Simone said continuing to the ladder.

“Likewise.” Keithen watched as she disappeared from sight. He could hear her saying her good-byes down below. He watched as she climbed into a late model black Chevy Silverado and drove off.


Simone stopped at the corner stop sign and glanced back at the Tyler house. Keithen Knight’s big form was easy to spot on the roof, looking in her direction. He was ruggedly handsome and something about the man appealed to her. Perhaps it was his easy warm smile, or those captivating green eyes that looked right at her. Or maybe it was the kindness radiating from him. She smiled, thinking how the storm had brought all types of people from different walks of life together.

She turned at the corner and drove what should have been the few blocks to the church. Instead she ran into a roadblock. Another debris removal crew was picking up the remains of someone’s home.

She placed the truck into reverse and backed to the intersection, then selected an alternate route. Driving along, she couldn’t help but notice the abundance of plastic clinging to the trees and fences that remained. She wondered for the hundredth time where it all came from. Turning at the next corner, she was astonished by the debris pushed to the edge of the street forming mountains on both sides of the road. The stench of rotting food and molding furniture permeated the air. She increased her speed, trying to outrun the encroaching depression and make up time for the detour. Her grandmother would be looking for her and she wasn’t prepared to receive a lecture about being late from Ruth Ladner.

She pulled into the winding driveway of East Biloxi Baptist Church, drove around back and parked. She grabbed her duffle bag of fresh clothing, and headed over to the large tent that had been erected on the grounds as a kitchen to feed the volunteers and people in need. She spotted her grandmother on the serving line for the noon meal and waved.

“I’m headed to the kitchen to start dinner,” she shouted to her grandmother.

“How did it go today?” Ruth asked.

“Good. We accomplished a great deal.”

“Did you get the roof on at Lorna’s place?” Standing at only five feet, the coffee-brown woman, weighing no more than one hundred and twenty pounds, possessed a powerful presence that demanded respect.

“They were almost finished with the ridge when I left.”

“Good. Then you and the crew can move inside.” Her wise eyes set in a thin face blessed by the passage of time held her granddaughter’s. A black hairnet held her gray curls in place.

“Yes ma’am,” Simone responded, knowing an order when she heard one. “We’ll have Miss Lorna back in her house just as fast as we can. I better get cleaned up and changed into fresh clothing, Grandma.”

“See you later, baby.” Ruth watched her beautiful granddaughter walk away. She was so very proud of her. A professional chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Simone had given up her dream of restaurant ownership to return home and pitch in with the rebuilding effort. She had arrived driving on old work truck, loaded down with building supplies and much needed cleaning items, never once asking for repayment. A generous expression of love like that would definitely be rewarded.
Entering the church, Simone headed directly to the small bathroom. Locking the door, she shed her clothes and stepped into the small shower. She thanked whoever had had the foresight to include it in the renovations. When she was clean and dressed in fresh clothing, she headed to the large kitchen to work her magic. Two other church members had volunteered to assist her with preparations for the Sunday evening meal. While the other women talked, Simone thought about Keithen Knight and wondered where he would be eating.

Like clockwork the workers began arriving just before dark. They were exhausted and hungry, and looking for a hot meal. The men and women who had been in the area for several weeks or months knew Simone would be cooking Sunday dinner, which equated to a feast.

The dinner hour was for more than just eating, it was a time for visiting as well. Friendships had been developed and as the volunteer workers progressed down the serving line, sociable bantering went on. Simone enjoyed talking to the men and women. It was her way of gauging the rebuilding progress in the various neighborhoods. As she dished up her special macaroni made with seven types of cheese, a thunderous voice reached her ears. Her heart fluttered as she glanced down the line of bodies and spotted Keithen Knight. He was looking right at her, and the world disappeared leaving only the two of them.

“Pulling double duty I see,” Keithen said when he stood in front of Simone. To his surprise he was excited to see her again. She was lovely, although younger than he usually liked. He held his tray out to her while admiring her blemish free complexion. It looked soft and smooth, making him want to caress a finger down the line of her high cheekbones. Her nose was slightly long and flared at the nostrils. But it was the brilliant white smile that she returned that had his blood pumping.

“Sunday is my day to volunteer in the kitchen. My grandmother works the lunch hour and I replace her at dinner,” she told him. Taking into account his size, she gave him a little extra of everything. “Did you finish the roof?”

“We sure did. Tomorrow the inside work can begin on the Tyler house.”

“I know Miss Lorna will be happy to hear the news.”

“Miss Lorna?”

“Lorna Tyler. It’s a Southern thing,” she explained with a smile.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” he asked returning the smile. He quickly took note of her height. He guessed she was about five foot seven. At six feet, he preferred a woman with a little height. He silently scolded himself for the thought. He had just met the woman. He was in Biloxi to work, not to notice beautiful women.
“Most definitely. I’m assigned to the Tyler house and I’ll be working there until it’s ready for Miss Lorna to move in.”

“Guess I’ll see you there then.” Keithen smiled as he moved away from the serving line and went in search of a table. Spotting the crew that he had worked with that day, he joined the men.

Simone watched Keithen as he walked away. His stride was powerful and sexy. Sexy, now where did that come from? She quickly pushed the thought away. . She was there to do a job, not search for a man, although if she were looking, Keithen Knight would be one heck of a find.

The line finally slowed to a trickle. She was ordered by the other women on the line to grab a plate and eat. She hadn’t stopped long enough to eat anything substantial since that morning and she was indeed starving. With her plate loaded, she turned, searching for somewhere to sit. The volunteers liked to linger after dinner, socializing, so seating was limited. She spotted one seat available at the corner table where Keithen was sitting. As though sensing her looking in his direction, he glanced up and waved her over.

Simone smiled as she made her way to the table. She greeted the other men of the crew as she sat across from Keithen. After bowing her head and saying grace, she looked up right into his mesmerizing eyes.

“The guys here tell me you’re responsible for this delicious meal.”

“It’s nothing,” she responded dismissively.

Keithen could tell she was a little embarrassed by the attention. “The guys tell me you’re a chef?”

Simone blushed. “Yes I am, although what I’ve been serving here in the tent is a far cry from my usual cuisine. The work crews aren’t interested in presentation and entrees they can’t pronounce, or that fail to cover the plate. They’re looking for delicious hearty food that fills the stomach as well as comforts the soul.”

Keithen smiled and nodded. He understood exactly what she was saying. How many expensive meals had he paid for only to return home to make a sandwich? “Well, I definitely appreciate your style of cooking.”

“Thank you. So, Keithen, how long have you been here on the Coast?” She got down to eating her own food. Hungry as she was, it took all her willpower not to shovel the cornbread topped beef stew with savory broth into her mouth. If there had been any other man sitting across from her, she probably would have, but something about Keithen made her keenly aware of being a woman and wanting to act ladylike.

“Three months, off and on. I was working with the urban developers initially.” He enjoyed watching her eat. It had been a long time since he had been around a woman who wasn’t afraid of gaining a pound, not that an additional pound or two would hurt Simone. For her height, she was slightly built.
Simone chuckled, but said nothing.

“What’s so humorous?” Keithen arched a brow and continued to stare at her until she answered.

Putting down her fork, Simone sat back in her chair and looked at him. “I’m not unappreciative of the developers’ efforts and intentions; it’s just that I believe a lot of what has been offered is useless. People who had homes before the storm want homes now. They’re not interested in grand designs of condos or lofts. We Southerners like our own piece of soil.”

Keithen listened with great interest. He had heard this said repeatedly by the locals and yet many of the planners had ignored it. “What I hear you saying is that the people want houses.”

“Yes. Affordable houses, to be specific. Not the expensive condos with all the bells and whistles, or houses priced out of this world.”

“I tend to agree with you,” Keithen replied, enjoying the conversation. “So, Simone, what was a Southern girl doing in the fast paced city of New York?” His eyes moved over her face to rest on her smiling lips.

“I attended culinary school there and ventured into the restaurant business with a friend from the Institute. I used money I inherited from my mother’s parents to join him in the partnership. It took us about two solid years of researching and planning before we opened. We served that pretty to the eye cuisine.”

“Was it a success?” He had no doubt that it was.

“Yes, business was good.”

“Will you be returning?”

“No. I sold my half of the business to my partner, Mason.” She picked up her fork and continued to eat while they talked.

“Why would you do that?” Keithen asked, dumbfounded.

Simone laughed at the expression on his face. Obviously, he thought she was crazy for giving up the restaurant. “I needed to be home, and I knew the money I made from the sale could purchase a great deal of supplies. And besides, I’m not a big city girl.”

“That’s the most selfless act that I’ve heard. You’re an amazing woman.”
Simone shrugged. “Look around you. People down here are doing far more than that, including you.” She began to clean the area around her, brushing crumbs off the table and picking up discarded napkins.

“You don’t take compliments very well, do you?” Keithen grinned.

Simone laughed as she stood and gathered her plate and utensils. She waited for Keithen to do the same. He fell in step beside her, and at the trash can they deposited their Styrofoam plates. “It’s been great talking with you tonight, Keithen, but I’ve got to get the serving pans to the kitchen and help with the cleanup.” She looked up at him. She had really enjoyed spending time with him tonight.

“How about I give you a hand with those pans?” Keithen offered. For reasons unknown, he wasn’t ready to call it a night.

Assessing eyes settled on him. “Sure, I’d appreciate the assistance, although I can’t imagine why you would want to hang around here with me.”

Keithen released a robust laugh. “Are you kidding? A woman who can cook the way you do and swing a hammer is someone I’d like to know better.”

Simone playfully punched him in the arm. Her small fist made contact with solid muscle. “Well, it’s your evening.” She returned to the serving line and began removing the stainless steel serving pans. Keithen followed her lead.

“So where are you bunking?”

“I pulled a trailer behind me this time when I came to the Coast. I learned the first time about the shortage of housing and hotel vacancies. It’s parked around back,” he answered, motioning in the direction of the volunteer trailer park on the grounds of the church. The constant rotation of volunteers pulling trailers was a scene repeated all over the Coast. Church grounds, city parks, and recreational facilities were all being used to house volunteers. “My crew and I have been moving around the city working different projects.”

“I guess that explains why our paths never crossed.”

“Well, now that they have, you’ll definitely be seeing me.”

Simone arrived home a little after nine. Entering the modest three bedroom home, she followed the path around boxes into the bedroom. More boxes lined the wall in there as well. She had purchased her home shortly after arriving in the city. In the skyrocketing and desperate housing market after Katrina, the older ranch style house had cost far more than it was worth, but she needed somewhere to lay her head and still have enough money for building supplies. Her parents had taken in her grandmother after her home had been washed from the foundation and destroyed, so space was limited there. She walked into the bathroom and turned on the water in the bathtub. Sprinkling in her favorite bubble bath, she inhaled the melon scent and felt herself start to relax. She brushed her teeth while the tub filled up. When it was sufficiently filled, she turned the water off, removed her clothes, and slid into the warm sudsy water, leaning back. A sigh of sheer pleasure escaped her lips as she stretched out. Each evening she came home exhausted from the hard physical labor, but no longer were her muscles sore and achy.

When she got out of the tub, she stood before the bathroom mirror admiring her new toned body. She suddenly wondered what Keithen would think. What the devil are you thinking? The man could be married with a family back in California. She grabbed her nightgown and slid it over her head. Turning out the bathroom light, she went to her bedroom, pausing only to set the alarm on her clock before climbing into bed. Then she switched the lamp off and lay in the dark thinking about her day.

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