I’m so distracted by this change in my hormones that I don’t look up at the runner’s face until he stops on the sidewalk in front of my house. As soon as I do, my oh-hello hormones become come-and-get-me-tiger hormones. Yeah, I’m embarrassed for me, too.
Buttercup begins thunking the ground with her fat tail; then she gets up, moseys over to the steps, and plops herself down next to me. Of all the dogs in all the world, Buttercup has to belong to the guy I now recognize as the one mowing his lawn across the street, who I flipped off on the down low earlier.
If I could speak, I would. Instead, I just sit there with my mouth half open, because some people really are so good-looking that it’s hard to form words around them.
“Getting the place ready to sell?” he asks, his voice low and slow like warm honey in a hot toddy on Christmas Eve.
Words still beyond my abilities, I shake my head.
“I should have known this was where she was going.” He nods at the dog as he unwinds a worn leash that was wrapped around his wrist. “I can’t seem to keep her away from this wreck.”
And just like that, my libido goes back into cold storage. I grit my jaw. “Was that really necessary? My aunt wasn’t exactly herself before she got sick.”
Unless she was always a hoarder and we just miraculously missed it. I mean, sure, I haven’t been back to Sutton once in the past twenty years, but Aunt Maggie and I talked all the time. I would have noticed if she was hoarding at such dangerous levels, right?
Now I feel ashamed that my family just accepted Aunt Maggie’s constant suggestions that we meet up at our house, which is two towns and three awful highway interchanges over, or in the city, and we never saw them for what they really were—a strategy to keep us from noticing her illness.
“As if you actually knew her,” he says, echoing my own thoughts, the bastard. He gives me a slow up-and-down that manages to stay on the not-creepy side of the line. “So you’re the famed great-niece, eh?”
From his tone, it’s obvious he’s not impressed. And sure, I’m not looking my best these days, but that’s intentional. I’m choosing not to give a shit. You can’t judge a person intentionally fucking off, right?
“You have some nerve just showing up and passing judgment.”
He makes a clicking noise, and Buttercup turns her head in his direction but doesn’t move.
They always say that dogs can recognize bad people. I never really believed it, but as Buttercup doesn’t even inch toward Mr. Tall, Dark, and Dickish, I’m ready to bet it all that dogs have a sixth sense for sure.
“You’re not actually going to live here, are you?” he asks, one brow raised in challenge.
“I am.” Against everyone’s unasked-for advice.
He scans Aunt Maggie’s house, a smile playing on his lips, and then centers his attention back on me. “Good luck with that.”
I stand up, needing the extra added height to even out what feels like a weird power differential between us, then cross my arms, going for a self-confident chin raise that still manages to feel awkward as hell. “I don’t need luck.”
He smacks his palm against his thigh, drawing Buttercup to his side finally, and then snaps the leash to the dog’s collar and stands up, a know-it-all smirk on his face. “Glad to hear it. By the way, if you are naive enough to try to fix up this place, I’d suggest starting with the grass. I understand you’re on your last HOA violation warning about that.”
Wait. How does he know that? Who in the hell is he? And more importantly, do I have “be an asshole to me, please” tattooed on my forehead?
Before I can get any of that out, though, he walks away, appearing and disappearing under the fake gaslight lamps’ glow as he crosses the street and jogs up his front steps, then disappears behind a perfectly painted red door. Yeah, I watched. He is a total and complete smug dickwad, but it’s still a good view.
Not that it matters. I’m going to show that big jerk.
This is my house, and I’m a new woman.
I’m Mallory Martin, soon-to-be divorcée and already unemployed office manager. I have nowhere to go but toward the light of success—and I will not be mowing the grass until the last possible day now.
Of course, before I can do any of that, I have to find the breaker box.
Dawn shoves its way past my aunt’s minuscule curtains and bitch-slaps me right across the face the next morning.
It’s just my luck that the one thing my aunt apparently didn’t hoard was good window coverings. The drapes in here definitely subscribe to the same rules that govern most good lingerie—reveal more than you conceal. And like the sexiest lace teddy, the filmy hot-pink-and-lime-green zebra-print fabric over the east-facing windows do the revealing quite artfully. The concealing? Yeah, not even close to mastering that one.
The clock on the once white, now definitely more tea-stained cream wicker nightstand reads 6:12. Fantastic. Great. Perfect. So much for sleeping in. I could bury my head under the pillow and try to go back to sleep, but with the way my luck has been running lately, I’d end up suffocating myself while getting poked in the eye with the feather quills packed inside it…which might not sound like the worst option in the world right now, except I flat-out refuse to give Karl that satisfaction. I already made things too damn easy for him with this divorce. Death would just be overkill.
Plus, since I’ve recovered from the retina-searing brightness shining through my window—dear God, how did Aunt Maggie deal with this every morning?—my mind is racing with all the things I have to get done today.
Go through the HOA complaints and sort in order of importance.
Find a contractor who will work for magic beans.
Buy about eight million garbage bags to take care of the stacks and stacks of junk my aunt has in every single room in this house. Seriously, who still subscribes to magazines, let alone has multiple copies of the Sears Christmas catalog from the eighties?
Mow the damn grass…though maybe that doesn’t have to be today. I’m totally okay with letting my obnoxious neighbor marinate in his own stuck-upedness for a while. I mean, how far up his ass is that stick if he feels the need to whine about the length of my grass? Of course, maybe that’s how he got such a perfect ass—he has a copy of Butt Clenching Your Way to Perfect Glutes For Dummies. If I encourage him, he’ll probably be over here with a ruler to get the exact measurement of my lawn, just to make sure I mowed enough but not too much.
Renewed annoyance sweeps through me like hot fudge over a scoop of vanilla bean, and I push the covers off and all but spring out of bed—and knock over three stacks of magazines. I ignore all the little aches and pains that come with sleeping on a new mattress and mentally readjust my to-do list. Definitely need trash bags before HOA regulations.