Karl was always the one with the expensive tastes. I got his leftovers when it came to things like phones and computers, and as for the rest? I stopped shopping for myself years ago because every time I spent so much as $100, Karl would lambast me about how much money I was spending and how he had to sacrifice because I couldn’t be frugal.

Standing here, I inventory all the stuff my ex bought himself through the years, and just the idea of denying myself anything seems ridiculous. But at the time, I believed him. Every time I tried to argue about anything, he twisted my words and the facts into so many knots that I couldn’t keep my own arguments straight, let alone his.

And even though I knew I was right, it was impossible to argue with him because he would just keep hitting me with half-truths, like why did I need a new dress when I really preferred to skip social functions? I mean, it is true that I don’t enjoy parties. I like trying a new recipe and then curling up on the couch with a glass of wine and the latest show to binge on Netflix. So I would shrug and wear something from my closet instead. But now the blinders are off, and I’m seeing every interaction differently. And myself, too.

Deep down, I know he couldn’t have bullied me if I didn’t let him. There were two in that marriage, and as much as it pains me to admit, someone can only walk all over you if you let them. I traded my agency for a wedding ring the day I agreed I should drop out of law school and help him build his practice instead, agreed it would be harder to get established if one of us didn’t already have a job and less student loans. It all sounded so reasonable at the time. And if Karl was anyone other than the selfish prick he turned out to be, I’d still think it made sense.

But tonight—tonight I’m buying some damn earrings, whether it’s a smart purchase or not. They are freedom earrings, and I need them more than my next breath.

I just hope I survive the jostling mob of earring-starved women. I know exactly how they feel. This is Braveheart-level shit.

Chapter Sixteen

   One non-drunk sleep and three brand-new pairs of earrings later, I cleared out the first flight of stairs, ate a killer omelet, and am now checking myself out in the bathroom mirror as I wind my still slightly damp hair up into my usual topknot for my lunch date.

I catch sight of the fun, flirty earrings I bought last night dangling from my ears—the silver chandelier ones with multicolored stones in them—and decide to just give in to the vibe they have going and leave my hair down.

I finally managed to locate the suitcase with my makeup in it earlier that morning—if I’m going on a date with a younger guy in New Jersey, where makeup is practically a religion, I’m doing it fully armored, so I take a few minutes to do my face. It isn’t full slap, just a subtle eye, nude lip, and a little bit of shimmer on my cheeks. I have to keep that natural, it’s-just-lunch vibe, but I still feel better than I have in a long time—lighter.

I add my favorite pair of jeans, the ones that even Karl used to compliment me on, and a cute cami top in my favorite shade of blue. After a quick spritz of perfume, I’m done.

I glance out the window and realize Mr. Mows With a Sexy Perma-Scowl has pulled into his driveway. A quick peek at my phone confirms that I have fifteen minutes before I need to be ready for Mikey to pick me up, and I sadly know how I should spend that time.

While there is a part of me that doesn’t want to ask, I take a second glance out the window at Mr. Damn He Looks Good in a Suit as he opens his car door and know I have to. It would really help Mikey to know the HOA regulations regarding dumpster usage, and I don’t have time to search the 150 pages of regulations before he gets here. Plus, I know in my soul that my neighbor already has every line memorized.

I hop up and hurry out to catch him.

Thankfully, he stopped to inspect the flowers on his bushes, probably making sure they’re all uniform in petals and diameter, and I manage to get his attention by waving at him before he goes into his house. I hustle across the street.

“Hey! Um…” My brain stops working, but my feet keep moving.

Wow. This is the perfect time to realize I have no idea what his actual name is, and I can’t call him Mr. Probably Kicks Puppies for Fun. At least not to his face.

“Nick,” he says as he crosses his arms and leans one hip against his sleek silver Mercedes. “Nick Holloway.”

Nick. He looks like a Nick. Not in a Santa Baby kind of way, though—well, unless Santa is six-three and has dark hair and the North Pole permanently stuck up his ass.

“Mallory.” I stick out my hand as if this is the first time we’ve met.

He stares down at my hand and then back up at me. For a second, I figure he’s just going to leave me hanging, but then he gets this half smile—the kind that should definitely be illegal—and his long fingers envelop mine, sending a sizzle of awareness to all eleventy billion of the nerve receptors in my body. And my brain breaks.

“Mallory Martin Bach,” I start rambling, the words coming out one on top of the other. “But it’s soon to be only Mallory Martin again and—” He lets go of my hand, and my synapses come back online. “You probably already knew that.”

“I did,” he says as he flexes his fingers.

Okay, this is going about as well as that time I tried to bake a soufflé. “So, um, I need to ask you a question.”

He looks a little suspicious—and more than a little grumpy—but he nods reluctantly. “What do you need?”

I open my mouth to tell him, and a fat drop of rain lands right on my nose. Then another. And another.

Nick glances up at the sky, working his jaw back and forth as if the weather gods have personally betrayed him.

“Why don’t we do this inside?” He walks toward his open garage, obviously assuming I’ll follow. “I’ve only got a few minutes before I have to head out again for a meeting, and I don’t have time to change if I get soaking wet.”

“It’s not like you’re made of sugar, so you don’t have to worry about melting,” I grumble under my breath, but I still follow him through his absolutely spotless garage—every single tool and box is in its place. Even the floor sparkles like the Swarovski crystals in the earrings last night that I most assuredly could not afford and bought anyway. He has to pressure wash the floor to keep it this level of clean.

He pushes open the door into his house, and my breath catches as I wonder if the inside is as religiously spotless as the garage. Then I walk over the threshold into a large kitchen and just nod. Of course it is. In fact, I’d eat my shorts if you couldn’t perform surgery on those gleaming marble floors.

His cleaners have to come twice a day, because for the life of me, I cannot picture him with a mop. Then I close my eyes and force myself to. It’s not my best decision, because in my imagination, he is also shirtless as he works the mop back and forth. Imaginary Nick has really good pecs.