The house surrounded by a white picket fence. The house sitting in the middle of a perfectly manicured lawn. The house with the inviting brick steps leading up to the front door. This is a home where every member of the family living under the roof wears a true smile. Says please. Says thank you. Says I love you. Not shut your bratty mouth before I give you something to cry about.
This is the kind of house my childlike mind envisioned when I dreamed of the place where happy people lived. This is the home every kid deserves. From the beginning. Not after six years of torment.
Now this house is mine.
Lawry and I stand side by side looking at what I repeatedly refer to as a sound financial investment. But it’s more. So much more even if I don’t admit it.
“I hope you’re not having buyer’s remorse.”
“No buyer’s remorse today. At least not until I have to fork over the payments.”
“Your first home, Ollie.” My first home. I like the idea and sound of those words a little more than I thought I would
Lawry puts her arm around my waist and leans in for a side hug with her head pressed against my shoulder. “I think you’re going to be very happy here.”
“I think so too.”
I fish the house key from my pocket and dangle it before us. “All those boxes aren’t going to move themselves.”
“Agreed. We better get started.”
“Sorry, sis. You’re not moving boxes.” Lawry’s eyes roll upward. “That’s not an attractive look for you.”
“You’re being ridiculous and really making me wish I hadn’t told you.”
Who is she kidding? No way my sister could keep something this important from me. “Well, you did tell me.”
Her balled hands come to rest on her hips. I’m amused by how much she reminds me of Mom when she stands that way. No genetic connection yet so much alike. “I’m reevaluating that decision at this point.”
Tap would side with me on this one. “I guarantee your husband wouldn’t let you haul heavy boxes either. Especially while wearing that damn long-ass hippie skirt.” I can imagine her feet tangling in it, causing her to tumble down the brick steps in a whirlwind of blonde tresses and patchwork floral print.
She attempts to climb two steps, testing her ability to move in it. And steps on the hem. “See? Total fall hazard.”
“Easily fixed.” She yanks the waist of her skirt up and rolls it down a couple of times. “You do realize I’m not pregnant yet?”
She follows me inside after I unlock the door. “You’re working on it, so you don’t know one hundred percent you’re not.”
“We just started trying. If I were, I’d be all of five minutes pregnant. So you’re being dumb.”
“Five minutes or five months. No difference to me. Pregnant is pregnant.” Lawry and Tap already know conceiving may not come easily, so I won’t have her taking unnecessary risks.
“I can see right now you’re going to be just as bad as my husband if it happens.” I’m protective of my sister. Have been since I was old enough to swing a punch, even if she’s older, but my protectiveness doesn’t match that of Lucas “Tap” Broussard. My brother-in-law is like a damn alpha wolf guarding his mate when it comes to my sister.
Damn. I was so wrong about Tap in the beginning.
“You got the husband. You’ll get the babies too.” Tap will see to it. Of that, I’m certain.
“Would cleaning the floors also be on the list of tasks you deem unsafe?” She rolls her eyes again, this time giving me the eyebrow lift, indicating her question is notabout permission. Sassy hippie. “I’d really like to do that before the furniture arrives.”
I forego telling her I’ve already had a cleaning crew come in to take care of that. With Lawry, it’s better to let her believe she’s contributing. “Sure.”
Lawry goes to work on cleaning my clean floors while I haul boxes from my truck. Stacks at least six feet high litter the floor of my dining room.
Wow. The contents of my bachelorhood are compressed into these cardboard rectangles. I have a strong feeling Lawry will try to make me trash most of it. Try. Operative word. After Lawry’s gone, I’ll put my man shit where I want it.
A box with Brewster written in big black letters across the top catches my eye. My first home-brewing beer kit. Got this bad boy before I was even old enough to drink beer . . . legally, that is.
Fuck, that first batch was nasty. Skunky. But my failure didn’t stop me. I started the next round before the first one soaked into the grass behind my apartment.
I wouldn’t part with this little beauty for a million bucks. It started it all: my love for tasty beer and the science behind what makes a great brew. This old, worn plastic barrel ignited a fire in me and played a huge part in making me who I am today.
A flattened palm raps against the door facing leading into the dining room. “Well, I’m here, motherfucker. What do you need me to do?”
Asshole is two hours late. “I just love how you show up after I’ve already unloaded everything from the truck.”
He looks away and shrugs. “I was doing shit.”
Porter has been doing shit a lot lately. It started out as him going missing for an hour here. Another hour there. Three hours for lunch. Now he disappears for whole weekends at a time. “I know what kind of shit you’re doing. Just not who you’re doing it with.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“Why so secretive? Is she fugly?”
Porter shakes his head and looks around my new place. “What do you need me to do?”
Totally avoiding the question. Not an unfamiliar play. It was Tap’s MO when messing around with Lawry behind our backs.
I’ll table it for now. “I need help getting my furniture out of my apartment.”
“Lawry’s letting you bring that junk over here?”
He forgets how much she loves pre-owned shit. “My old stuff is going to her workshop so she can refinish it. Wants to give it life again.”
“How could I forget? Turn crappy into happy.” He does a stellar impersonation of my sister. Always has.
He runs his hand over the box labeled Brewster. “Wow. I haven’t seen this in a long time.”
“Me either. Been boxed away for years.”
“You should put it on display. Maybe down at the brewery if Lawry won’t let you do it here.”
“Not a bad idea. Like a where-it-all-began plaque.” It deserves recognition. Not to be hidden away in storage.
Porter moves to the large window facing my front lawn and pulls the sheer curtain aside. “This is very you.”
“The floral shit will be the first thing to go.”
“I meant the house and quiet neighborhood. The privacy. Your own driveway. Garage. Workshop.”
“I’m hoping I can pick up my woodwork projects again.” Maybe that’s something Dad and I can do together when he and Mom visit. I’ve missed that time with him.
“The only thing you’re lacking now is the wife and kids to complete the full package.”
“I think I’ll just take the house for now.”
“Do you ever think about it? The full package?”
I did with Eden. And look where that got me. “I haven’t for a few years.”
“Right.” I don’t have to say her name for him to understand.
“There’s a house for sale two streets over if you’re considering giving up condo life.”
“Well, that all depends.” He pushes open the drape farther.
“Depends on what?”
“If all the women in this neighborhood look like the one walking up your driveway right now. If that’s the case, house sold.”
“No idea. Haven’t met any of the neighbors.” I move to the window to investigate Porter’s sighting.
Damn. He isn’t wrong. That is one smokin’ hot redhead. Just my brand. And she’s coming this way.
“Looks like I have a visitor to receive.” I stop when Porter doesn’t follow. “You comin’?”
Porter shakes his head. “Nah. You go on. I’ll wait in the truck.”
“Wait in the truck?” This may be the first time Porter hasn’t shoved me out of the way so he could get to a hot piece of ass ahead of me.
Fuck. I recognize the hesitation. The retreat from a hot woman. The pattern. “Who is she?”
Porter shakes his head, wearing a wide shit-eating grin. “Already told you, dude. Nobody.”
Porter chuckles. “She’s your type. Go meet her. I’ll be in the truck when you’re done.”
Porter has been my number-one bro since our freshman year at Alabama. Pals for almost twelve years. We’ve been through a lot together. Booze. Careers. Women. Lots of women. And never once has he handed one over willingly. Not even a fugly one if he thought he could get laid.
“This conversation isn’t over.”
“Whatever.” He catches my truck keys midair when I toss them in his direction.
“Got a Benjamin in my wallet that says I don’t see you for at least fifteen.”
Never been able to refuse one of Porter’s bets. It’s our thing. And we always pay up. “Sure. I’ll take that bet. I can always use an extra hundred bucks.”
He holds up his phone. “I’ll even give you a whole minute to get out there and initiate the conversation before I start the timer.”
“You’re on, fucker. Get ready to pay up.”
I step onto my front porch and find the flaming beauty talking with my sister. “Ollie! Come meet your neighbor.”
Damn. This good-looking woman is my neighbor. That does not suck.
“This is Adelyn Maxwell. She lives next door.”
Adelyn Maxwell. Adelyn Maxwell. Adelyn Maxwell. I repeat her name in my head. Three times guarantees I’ll never forget it. Not that I’m likely to forget her.
Her small, delicate hand nearly disappears inside my large one. “Oliver Thorn. Pleasure to meet you.”
I point to each of the neighboring homes. “Which is yours?”
She gestures over her right shoulder. “White two-story.”
Ah. The house with the pool. Many images dance through my head and all of them include Adelyn Maxwell in a bikini.
Wonder if she has a husband. Don’t see a ring but that isn’t always an indication.
Kids? Probably not with a body like hers but can’t always go by that.
I glance over at her place and see a fine black F-Type coupé parked in the drive. She ain’t hauling kids around in that.
“Are you married or do you have any children?” Thank you, Lawry, for asking the burning question.
“Nope. Just me. Do y’all have kids?” Well, hell. She thinks we’re together.
Laughter slips from my lips like one of those sneaky little farts that bolt for freedom the moment you become a little too relaxed. “Oh, no, we’re not a couple. She’s my sister.”
“My bad. I assumed you were married. But in my defense most people in this neighborhood are.”
“It feels very family oriented around here.” I think that’s one reason Lawry pushed so hard for this house.
“Definitely.” Adelyn points to a passing vehicle and then the two parked in driveways across the street. “Minivan. Minivan. Minivan. This is hardcore soccer mom territory.” Her eyes widen. “And it can be terrifying at times.”
Soccer moms aren’t terrifying. But strung-out-heroin-addict moms are.
“Then I’ll make a point to stay out of their way during carpool hours.”
“Wise decision.” My new neighbor offers the basket she’s holding. “The reason I came. This is for you. Just a little welcome-to-the-neighborhood happy from me.”
I unfold the fabric and my nose and eyes find more than one pleasant sensation. Muffins in cupcake papers. Freshly baked bread, still warm. A jar of jam. Looks like strawberry. Or maybe plum. Sausage balls. Grapes. Cheese and crackers.
I. Am. Impressed.
“This looks amazing. Thank you.”
“No problem. I remember what it was like moving in. Being without a functioning kitchen was a total nightmare.”
“A functioning kitchen makes this guy no difference. He eats trash.”
“Don’t listen to her. She’s a tree-hugging-hippie vegan. She eats grass and granola.”
“Healthy doesn’t equate to unsavory.” And here we go with the nutrition spiel.
“She lies,” I hiss. “Don’t fall for her deception, Adelyn. It’s a trap intended to lure you into her tofu world.” Adelyn giggles.
“I adore baking and it’s very likely I’ll pawn muffins and fresh bread off on you, but I promise I’ll never bring tofu.”
“Ollie loves to eat so I see this neighbor thing potentially working out well.”
“I hope so.” Is that a hint of flirtation in her grin? Or in her unusual hazel eyes, the way they linger on mine a little longer than what’s considered appropriate? Or in the flick of her wrist as she tosses her flaming locks over her shoulder?
She can’t possibly know they’re my preference. My delicacy. My fucking weakness.
And the last one was almost my undoing.
Adelyn’s eyes leave mine, and she glances at her watch. “Oh dear. I hate to pop over and run, but I have a lunch meeting with a client across town.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I own an event planning service.”
Lawry breaks into her well-how-’bout-that smile. “Hear that, Ollie? Adelyn’s an event planner.”
Adelyn’s brow lifts as she watches the exchange between my sis and me. “That’s what I do.”
“It just so happens I’m in need of an event planner. The woman we’ve been using recently relocated so I’m in a bind.”
“Business or personal?”
“Sure.” Adelyn nods as she glances at her watch a third time. “I’m short on time at the moment but how ’bout I take a look at my calendar and give you a call so we can schedule a lunch meeting to discuss the details?”
“That would be fantastic.”
“Perfect.” Adelyn plucks her sunglasses from the top of her head and slips them over her eyes when she and Lawry finish exchanging contact information. “Well, I’m off. Try not to work too hard, guys.”
I put my arm around Lawry. “Don’t worry about this one. She won’t.”
“Hey, jackhole!” She slams her hip into mine. “I can always go home to prop up my feet and dump all this on you and Porter.”
I catch the back of my sister’s neck and squeeze. “You know I’m kidding, knucklehead.”
Adelyn seems amused by our exchange. “I look forward to our meeting, Lawrence.”
I shamelessly ogle Adelyn’s ass in her tight skirt as she walks away and gets into her Jaguar coupé. “You know what? I think I’m going to like living in this neighborhood a lot.”
“I’m sure you will with that living next door. I happen to know how much you visually enjoy a lovely lady of red.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I think she’s a natural.”
“She is.” Both a natural beauty and a natural redhead.
“I guess you would know, being a connoisseur and all.”
“Yes, I would.”
“Well, she wants to feed you, so she’s already okay in my book.” I don’t think my sister’s ever going to get over her neurosis about nourishment.
It’s been twenty-three years since our bellies growled from hunger. Real hunger. Painful hunger. Not the kind people mistakenly refer to as starving when it’s only been a half day since their last meal.
“I see Porter’s truck but no Porter.”
“He’s waiting in my truck.”
“Instead of being front and center to meet your new attractive neighbor?”
I can’t be wrong if Lawry thinks it’s odd too. “I know. Weird.”
“He must not have gotten a good look at her.”
“But he did. He’s actually the one who pointed her out to me.”
Fucker is sitting in my truck staring off into space. Smiling. “He denies it but I think the bastard is in some kind of secret relationship.”
“That’s fantastic. But why would he keep it secret? And especially from you?”
“I don’t know but things have been off with him for a while.”
“Things being off automatically makes you think he’s in a relationship?”
“No, but his sudden ability to perfect the disappearing act does. Reminds me of the days when you and Tap were doing the sneaky behind my back.”
“Ah, the disappearing act. A good indication something is going on and he doesn’t want you to know what it is.”
“I know, right?”
“Cut the guy some slack. He’ll come around and tell you when he’s ready.”
“Unless I figure it out first.”
I look over at my truck and see Porter holding his arm out the window tapping on his watch. Laughing. Bastard.
A missing Benjamin from my wallet makes no difference to me. Those few extra moments with my new neighbor were worth every penny for laying the foundation for my next welcome-to-the-neighborhood happy from Adelyn Maxwell.
Yes. I believe I’m going to like this neighborhood a lot.