Then I get a look at his face.

Thank you, baby Jesus, for giving me the strength to hold out on the rest of the Oreos until now. I’m gonna need them.

Mikey looks a lot grimmer than he was an hour ago, and a bowling ball settles in my stomach even before he answers.

“Do you want the bad news or the worse news?”

Chapter Nine

   “Neither.” I lean back against my aunt’s black galaxy granite countertop and let out a go-ahead-and-break-my-heart sigh.

“Yeah.” He grimaces—no doubt as a show of support before bringing down the hammer. “That’s what I figured.”

Silence stretches between us as I wait for him to break the bad news, and he waits for…I don’t know…his own reality show on HGTV where he’s the anti–Property Brothers, giving only awful prognostications of construction hell? I shake my head and blurt, “Give me the worse news first.”

I figure that way, the bad news won’t seem so bad—or at least, that’s what I’m hoping, praying, willing to sacrifice a baker’s dozen virgins under a full moon to make come true.

He shoves his fingers through his hair and contemplates the weird stain on the granite. “Inside or outside?”

Just shank me in the eye already.

“You mean there’s worse news in both areas?” Tears of frustration start gathering like vultures over roadkill, but I blink them all back with steely determination. I won’t cry. I will not do it.

“Yeah, I get that a lot on old houses like this.” He gives me a hangdog look that comes off as totally sincere, which somehow makes it worse. Then he rips off the Band-Aid and starts reading the list of disasters he wrote down on his phone. “The supports on the front porch are almost completely destroyed by the massive tree currently squatting there. Tree roots are what’s cracking the walkway up to the porch, so I won’t be able to lay new cement until the dead tree still standing is taken care of. On the plus side, once you do that, we can also fix that nasty driveway crack before it gets any worse.”

I already feel my bank account gasping for air, and it isn’t the only one.

“Is that it?” I ask when I can finally force words out of my too-tight throat.

He gives me a pitying look. “The garage door is warped, which is why you found it tricky to open with the remote. You might be tempted to get away with just keeping it closed, but I’m betting the HOA is going to ding you on it if they haven’t already. So that really does need to be replaced sooner rather than later. On the plus side, fixing the door should take care of your problems with the opener, so we won’t have to replace that.”

Little victories. “How much is a garage door?”

“To match the ones in this neighborhood?” He winces. “About twenty-two hundred dollars.”

What in the hell is it made of? Gold?

“What if I don’t care about matching them?” Or can’t afford to?

“Gotta match them. H—”

“OA regulations.” I barely resist the urge to bang my head against the granite—at this point that might be just plain old mercy. Truthfully, though, the only thing stopping me isn’t manners—it’s fear of a concussion. I sure as hell can’t afford these repairs and an emergency room bill right now. “Yeah, I get it.”

“The fence in the backyard needs to be replaced, and I have no idea what kind of magic is keeping that chicken coop out back standing, but that’ll have to be demolished, in keeping with the HOA regs. You also need to rebuild the flower boxes out front—it should only be six or seven hundred dollars to do all of them, though. And a lot less if you do them yourself.”

I have never built anything in my life—besides Karl’s law practice, though that’s a different story. But if it means saving a few hundred dollars and also keeping the uptight jerk from across the street off my ass, then I’m all in. If there’s an app to remind people to breathe, surely there’s an app to teach them how to build stuff—hopefully a free one.

“Is that it?” I ask for what feels like the hundredth time.

“For the outside, yeah.” He nods. “Except for the shutters, obviously.”

“What’s wrong with the shutters?” My stomach pitches as visions of voracious termites dance before my eyes.

He holds up a don’t-shoot-the-messenger hand that does nothing to comfort me, even as he says, “Nothing, technically. Your aunt must have had them redone pretty recently because the paint is in good shape and so is the wood.”

“Then why would I want to do something to them?” I swear, if he’s just trying to jack up the price on me, I’m going to… I don’t know what. Something terrible that involves putting a curse on his silky, flowing locks, that’s for sure. Or, you know, about three feet south of them. “I’ve got more than enough to do already.”

“Yeah, you do,” he agrees, a little too fervently for my comfort. “But I’ve done a lot of work on houses in this area, and I’m pretty sure…”

He drifts off like he expects me to fill in the blanks for him, but honestly, I have nothing. If he wants me to repaint perfectly good shutters, he better give me one hell of a good reason why.

I guess Mikey figures out that I’m not getting it, because he smiles sympathetically before saying, “The color, Mallory. You have to repaint because of the color.”

“What’s wrong with blue?” Frustration and fear make my question louder than I meant it to be. “It’s one of the most popular colors in the world—”

“Nothing’s wrong with blue,” he interrupts. “As long as it’s navy blue or grayish blue. What you have is—”

“Periwinkle.” I narrow my eyes and clench my teeth. Of course I know I’m fudging a bit with the color, but I just need a little break right now. A tiny one. Minuscule, really.

But Mikey has obviously missed the memo, considering his eyes are brimming with amusement. “If by periwinkle you mean violet, then yes, periwinkle. Which is—”

“Against HOA regulations in this area. Yeah, yeah, I get it.” Doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. I swear there is a part of me that wants nothing more than to set up a bonfire on the front driveway and burn every copy of the HOA regulations I can get my hands on. Most of the copies likely being digital doesn’t change my fantasy in the slightest. Nor does the fact that bonfires are most probably against HOA regulations, too. Honestly, an illicit bonfire seems like exactly what this uptight neighborhood needs.

God, I miss New York. And sweet baby Jesus, do I hate the fucking suburbs.