“Eleven years’ worth.” Working at not even close to my value. The frustration of it all has me pacing again, right back to the couch and next to Mr. Lotsa Plants.
“Give me until Thursday,” he says. “I think I have a lead on the job situation.”
Something unfamiliar and bubbly fills my chest. It’s been about a million years since I felt it, but the old-old Mallory, the teenage one who spent way too many nights staring at her canopy and dreaming of her future, recognizes it right away.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask, wariness seeping in.
He pivots, the move bringing us face-to-face. Okay, more like my face to his top button—did I mention it’s undone?
“I like to help,” he says.
“Says who?” I scoff, trying to distract myself from the shadow of chest hair I can almost see. “Your mom?”
He hooks a finger under my chin and tilts my face upward. “Are you trying to imply that my mother would lie?”
“Maybe.” Not really. I don’t know. Wow, are his eyes gorgeous and intense and pulling me right in.
“At this moment, my mom is somewhere laughing her head off and she doesn’t know why.” He pauses, his gaze searching my face as if he’s trying to figure out why he can’t look away. “She’s gonna love you.”
“What, you want to introduce me to your mom? Does she have a grass obsession, too?” Oh yeah, immature jokes in the face of uncomfortable feelings. Classic Mallory.
God, inner me is such a bitch sometimes.
His thumb traces the line of my jaw. “You do love to give me a lot of crap for following the rules, don’t you?”
“I’ve committed the rest of my life to a no-bullshit-rules mantra.” I try to make it come out all cocky and confident, but even to my own ears, it’s all soft and breathy and take-me-now. “I’m the new Aunt Maggie.”
“Funny,” he says, taking a step forward and eliminating any space between us. “You don’t look a thing like her.”
“That’s a lie; we have the same eyes and the same Martin family mouth.” One that I, all of a sudden, have no idea how to keep quiet.
“I can assure you that you do not, because I never wanted to…” His words fade away as he dips his head lower.
My breath catches.
My brain checks out.
My hormones give a loud cheer.
And then—he pulls away, dropping his hands to his sides and taking a quick step back. He rubs his palm across his neck and works his jaw back and forth. “Anyway, I gotta go.”
He leaves without another word, and what in the hell am I supposed to say after that? I have nothing besides yearning. My phone vibrates on the dining room table—a text from Mikey asking me if we’re still on for dinner. I can’t type yes fast enough. This is exactly what I need.
Being near my h-o-t contractor is perfect, because unlike with my uptight neighbor (and much to Angela’s disappointment, no doubt), I do not want anything more from him than a new porch.
There. Man situation sorted. Now, if I can just figure out the job situation, the house situation, and the tax situation, everything in my life will be perfect. And I almost believe it.
A boycott on makeup seems like a not-so-great idea, I decide a few days later as I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror—especially after another nearly sleepless night.
I didn’t get it. Early-morning wakeups notwithstanding, I’d been sleeping like a baby since I got here—despite the towering amount of crap I have to sort through, the repairs I have to get done, and the no-money situation. Something about being in this house just felt freeing and made me conk out as peacefully now as I did as a kid.
Until the last two nights, when I tossed and turned for hours.
Yeah, sexual frustration will do that to a girl.
“I was not sexually frustrated,” I say aloud and then slick a soft rose lip gloss on my lips. I mean, yeah, Nick and I almost kissed last night, but we didn’t. And when he pulled away, I didn’t care at all. Would I have done that if I were sexually frustrated?
Well, yes, if you are sexually frustrated and a chicken. What a catch.
Oh my God. I close my eyes and barely resist banging my head against the mirror. Inner voices are not supposed to have this much snark. There should be a rule.
I finish putting on my makeup, then dress in real clothes for the first time since my lunch date with Mikey. And unlike with Mikey, this time I bust out the real shoes—a pair of black heels that, when I combine them with my favorite black dress pants, make my legs look really long.
It isn’t that I’m trying to impress anyone. Law offices have a certain dress code. I can’t just show up at Nick’s place of work looking like a total slob, especially when he’s offered his firm up to do this whole thing pro bono for me—no, the squashed-up dollar and lawn I eventually have to mow anyway don’t count. I need to project the right attitude.
Half an hour later, I’m standing in the middle of the reception area at Holloway and Murphy, wondering why I even bothered. Nothing here is projecting professionalism, save the heavy desks and giant floor-to-ceiling bookcases covered with law books.
The only person I’ve seen so far is the receptionist, who has green-and-purple hair, an addiction to her AirPods, and absolutely no knowledge of how to deal with clients.
“Oh, right.” She gives me an enthusiastic nod that sets the fifty or so bells she has tied into various locks of her hair jangling. “You’re Nick’s eleven o’clock. I’ll take you right back.”
“He’s not with a client?” I ask, surprised. It’s only ten forty-five, and the whole reason I came early today is because Nick texted that he could squeeze me in around his other clients for the day at eleven; then I’d meet with his partner, Gina, who’d actually represent me. I didn’t want to keep him waiting when he was obviously doing me a favor.
Maybe his last appointment ended early. It’s possible. AirPod Girl escorts me down a long, lawyerly looking hallway with warm wood paneling, gorgeous landscape paintings of calm meadows, and bookshelves lined with more law books—and an abundance of plants, very similar to Nick’s house.
It’s not what I expect out of a law firm, but I like it. It has a warmer, more serious feel than Karl’s slick, flashy offices, and I can’t help feeling at home here. My shoulders, and the rest of me, relax amid the deliberately soothing decor.
We wind our way past a pretty impressive-looking conference room, as well as an office with what looks like a couple of paralegals in it. I grow more confident in Nick and his firm’s representation. Except for the less-than-with-it receptionist, everything else looks spot-on.