Read an Excerpt
By L.S. Murphy, Kaleen Harding
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 L.S. Murphy
All rights reserved.
The moving van blocked my car on the street outside my building. Thanks to a freak storm knocking out the power the night before, I was already running late for an appointment halfway across the city. The meteorologists in St. Louis should just add "we think" to every forecast to save themselves the trouble. Of course, my mother would have said I was always late, no matter what the reason. It's her favorite complaint, besides pointing out her lack of grandchildren. Never mind my two older brothers with three kids between them.
"You're not getting any younger, Rena," she chided the night before as we had our weekly phone conversation. Mom loved using my name against me as added emphasis. "You'll be thirty in a few years. And it's all downhill from there."
Such a positive influence.
The cars were covered in summer leaves. The winds had sent tree limbs to the center of the streets. Despite the storm, the air had already lost its "fresh rain" scent and regained the heavy humidity of a St. Louis summer.
Soulard's neighborhood association had a policy that movers could not start until after nine o'clock in the morning. It was ten minutes until nine, which was also the time I was supposed to meet my biggest client.
I hammered my palm against the door of the moving van, leaving a wet handprint on the white paint. A guy with dark hair cut in the traditional USMC hairstyle — short on the sides with an inch on top — leaned out the window. He lowered his wraparound sunglasses and cocked an eyebrow. A smirk played above his stubbled jaw. I wanted to smile back — guys with dimples were a weak point for me — but I was running way too late to flirt. Too bad.
"Could you move? You're blocking me in." I motioned to my red hatchback, which my best friend Maddie had dubbed "The Tomato."
He stuck his arm out the window and opened the door from the outside. His dark, sleeveless t-shirt revealed a tattoo of the eagle, anchor, and globe on a tight bicep. I figured he was around my age, give or take a year or three. As he climbed down, my gaze traced each curve of his athletic frame until the prosthetic caught my attention. I felt his eyes on me as I stared too long at the fake leg.
"Are you done yet?" he snapped with a voice hardened by the Corps. It was the same voice my uncle, a retired sergeant, used on my cousins. It made you want to stand at attention and shout "Yes, sir" at the top of your lungs.
Before I could come up with a decent sounding apology for letting my eyes linger too long where they shouldn't have, he stalked past me and around the back of the truck. His elbow brushed against the bare skin of my arm. Goosebumps spread to my shoulder. It'd been too long since a guy, any guy, made that happen. Just freaking great. I don't have time for this. I spun on my heel and hurried after him, glad he didn't see the embarrassment color my cheeks. Good job, Rena. Piss off the hot Marine. It's not like you haven't seen a guy with a prosthetic before.
He glared at the Tomato as if it offended him by its presence. Without turning to look at me, he reached his hand back and barked an order. "Gimme your keys."
"Excuse me?" This man may be used to people obeying him, but I was not in the Corps.
"There's room to get her out." He thrust his hand toward me as he glanced over his shoulder. "Give me your keys."
"I'm not giving my car keys to a complete stranger." My voice was calm despite the rage that bubbled inside me. How dare this jackass think he can order me around? "Move your damned truck."
He smirked, turning to face me at last, and shoved his glasses on top of his head. With at least half a foot on me, he bent down until our noses were inches apart. If he wasn't such an arrogant ass, and if I wasn't in a massive hurry, closing those last inches would've been worth the thrill. At least I thought so until he opened his mouth again.
"Sweetheart, if I could move the damned truck, I would. Now, give me your keys or you're just gonna have to wait." He leaned back and crossed his arms, looking every bit the intimidating soldier he obviously thought he was. "I'll get your car out and you can hurry off to whatever boy-toy you've got waiting."
I've had mouth dropping moments before, but this was the most absurd and presumptuous load of crap I'd ever heard. His dark brown eyes danced as my anger uncoiled.
Before he could finish, my keys smacked him hard in his chest. I shouldn't have thrown them at him. I shouldn't have let my temper get the best of me. Being late everywhere and letting people get under my skin were my only real shortcomings. No wonder I never dated.
"Just hurry up," I ordered. This had taken far too long and my client would be left waiting. Again. At least Cecilia knew I had an issue with tardiness. That didn't stop me from tapping my shoe on the pavement as he maneuvered the car slowly from its spot, using the wipers to clear the leafy debris off the windshield. I shuttered as a small twig scratched across the surface before breaking free and falling to the damp pavement.
A small blue truck sped toward me with country music blaring. I hurried out of the way as the driver swung around the van and parked in front of it. As my car inched out at a snail's pace, a tall, thin guy strolled up eating a breakfast burrito.
"What's up?" he asked around a mouthful of processed egg. "How'd you con Riker into getting your car out?" He nodded toward the Tomato as it jerked forward then back, then forward, making little progress.
"He blocked me in and refused to move the truck." I glanced at him as a chunk of sausage-like meat fell down the front of his USMC t-shirt. "I thought Marines were neat freaks."
He laughed, almost choking on the last bite of his food. "I'm not in uniform." He offered his cleaner hand. "I'm Josh, by the way."
"Rena." I barely touched the tips of his fingers. Thank God I have wipes in my glovebox.
Riker sauntered up to us, the Tomato now idling behind the truck. "Your chariot awaits." He slapped Josh on the back. "Nice of you to show. Did you bring it?"
I shook my head and walked toward the car at the fastest pace dignity would allow. As I got in, the guys started laughing and I was certain it was at my expense.
It took four hours for Cecilia to pick out the perfect carpet for her bedroom, which in turn caused a panic attack that the duvet was all wrong. It took another twenty minutes to put out that fire. Cecilia Hood's husband signed a monstrous contract three weeks ago as the new center for the St. Louis Arches basketball team. Cecilia wasted no time in purchasing a mansion in the best part of town and hiring Rena Woods Designs to decorate it. Since I don't follow sports and had no idea who Alonzo Hood was, Cecilia took great pleasure in explaining it. I think she liked the simple fact that she could be CeCe with me instead of a basketball player's wife.
After spending another half an hour debating about the color and fabric of the chair she wanted, I headed home to get ready for an impending blind date. Jeannette, my faithful — and soon to be unemployed if the date sucked — office manager, insisted I go out with her friend. I wondered if she'd been secretly talking to my mother.
There were three things I knew about this guy: his name was Jack, he was a computer geek, and he liked blondes. All of these signaled disaster, especially since my hair was chestnut.
I squeezed the Tomato into a spot a few buildings down from mine. The moving van was gone, leaving nothing in the street but the leaves. I wondered who was moving into the neighborhood, Josh or Riker, and into which building. There were several vacant apartments along the block, including one across the hall from me.
At the top of the steps, empty boxes littered the hall, blocking the path to my door. Looked like I was the winner of the new neighbor lottery. Great. This mess pointed to sloppy Josh, but it could be both since the second floor apartments had two bedrooms.
I was about to kick my way to my apartment when an empty box came flying across the hall, missing my face by less than an inch. I grabbed the banister to keep from falling down the steps as whoever threw the box slammed the door.
This was the last thing I was going to deal with today.
I grabbed some of the smaller boxes, clearing a short path to their front door. Before I could knock, the door flew open and I was face to face with a bare-chested Riker. His eyes registered a brief flash of surprise before turning into the same scowl I'd seen this morning. I couldn't stop my gaze from shifting down toward his sculpted pecs. A long thick scar on his left shoulder caught my attention. After what happened this morning, I didn't linger before meeting his eyes.
"Yeah?" he asked, staring at me like I was the problem.
All it did was piss me off even more. "I don't know where you lived before, or how, but this is civilized territory. And I'd like to be able to walk to my apartment without stepping on boxes or getting them thrown at me."
"Sweetheart, I'd love to let you know where I was living last, but that's classified." He dropped the small box in his hand to the floor inside and took the ones I held. "But I'll try to be more civilized."
He slammed the door in my face. I was completely flabbergasted. I mean, who acts like that? Sure, guys pull that crap in the movies, but this was real life.
Still, I should've known better. Maddie dated a guy in the Army during our freshman year in college until his orders came in and he was off to Germany, leaving her behind without a second thought. Other than my uncle, most guys I'd met in any branch of the service thought progesterone was weakness. And they had no problem showing their assholery from the get go, just like Riker had. I shook my head as I turned toward my door, kicking the remaining boxes out of the way.
"You should be nice to him, you know?" said a voice from the steps. I glanced over at the blonde bimbo supermodel wannabe. She carried a casserole dish in her hands like it was a bomb. The smell of meat and tomato sauce filled the hall. There was no way she made it.
"Excuse me?" My key was poised at the lock as I glared at her.
"Riker. You shouldn't be such a bitch to him." She watched her step as she carefully maneuvered around the boxes in her platforms. When she reached Riker's door, she turned around to face me with a flip of her hair. "I mean, look at him."
"What?" Normally I'm not surprised by stupidity, but really?
Riker's door opened an inch, but the bimbo didn't notice. "He's missing a leg." She jutted her hip out with a mislead authority. "He deserves a little kindness, after all."
That doesn't mean he needs to be a dick. I kept my thoughts to myself as Riker yanked his door open. The look of complete fury on his face was enough for me to jam my key into the lock and hurry into my apartment. I leaned against the inside of my door, but that didn't stop the shouting from across the hall. I heard three words, and that was enough.
Why couldn't I get quiet neighbors?
Blind dates, never a good idea in my book. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason — a moment of insanity maybe — I agreed to go out with Jack, who Jeanette swore was a perfect match. I highly doubted it, but I had to get her off my back or the office would never be quiet again. It'd been about a month since she'd first brought him up, and I found myself working in the constant jabber of how great this guy was. In the grand plan of blind dates, I picked the time and place. McGovern's was a local bar and grill within walking distance of my apartment.
I put on my perfect blind date outfit: black wrap dress and red pumps. Not too sexy, but not too bland, either. My hair was flat-ironed into submission and I kept my makeup light. After six bad blind dates in college, not including one that had potential until he tried humping me on the dance floor, I'd learned to play the game to my advantage.
The music flowed out of McGovern's faster than beer flowed from a tap. I should've gone home when I heard the worst song on the planet. It was a sign, and omens should never be ignored. Instead, I took a deep breath and walked inside. He was supposed to be waiting at the bar, and I had a vague idea of what he looked like from a profile pic on his website. I also learned long ago that those are not always accurate. When a semi-balding man gave me the head nod-slash-half wave, I knew I was right. That picture had to have been from at least twenty years and a million follicles ago. I smiled and made my way over. If all else failed, maybe his future wife would need an interior designer. Networking never hurt anyone.
He stood and offered his hand. "I'm Jack. You must be Rena."
I avoided the perfect opportunity to lie. "Yes, nice to meet you."
"Let's go to the patio, if you don't mind." Jack tossed a twenty toward the barkeep and motioned for me to follow him.
He wasn't that bad, really. Except for the balding head and the slight overhang above his belt, his eyes were a pretty golden brown and his skin was clear. He wore pricey clothes, even though they didn't fit right. I stopped myself from laughing as my mother's voice echoed in my mind, "Rena, you're too picky. You should look at the positive in people. You're always pointing out what's wrong with them."
"How's this?" Jack pointed at a table in a dark corner with only a handful of other tables nearby. Lattice work covered in ivy framed the edges of the patio behind it.
He held the chair for me, which was nice. Then he hitched up his pants to sit down. This was going to be a nightmare. I knew it before I walked in the door. I knew it when I freaking agreed to go out. I knew it the minute he tugged his pants up to sit down. Who does that?
"Jeannette tells me that you used to play softball in college." He swirled the ice in his glass, and the faint smell of whiskey wafted to my nose. The waitress stopped by and Jack ordered another. I wondered how many he'd had as I requested white wine. "What position did you play?"
"Center field, and I only played my freshman year. I blew out my knee before the sophomore season began." The waitress came back with the drinks and offered me a sympathetic smile. Was it that obvious?
"Really? That's interesting. How did that happen?" He leaned forward, putting his chin on his hand and his elbow on the table.
Yep, now was the time to lie. "Got drunk and jumped off a cliff. Snapped my patella." I sipped my wine to keep from smiling as he sat back. The truth was, I blew it out by tripping over my mom's prize poodle. Not nearly as interesting. "By the time I recovered, there was another girl in center and she was much better than I could ever be."
He nodded. The cogs were turning inside his head. He downed his whiskey and held up the empty for a refill. "Do you need ..." He motioned to my still full glass of wine.
"No, I'm good."
Jack went into a long, boring explanation of his job. He managed an IT team at some company. Half of what he said made as much sense as Russian, and I took two semesters of that in college. But I smiled and nodded like I had an idea what the difference between RAM and processors were. All I knew about computers was how to turn it on, type, and search the web. What more did a girl need?
"Jeannette mentioned you live around here. This is a pretty hip neighborhood." He grinned like he knew I was going to invite him back to my place.
Jeannette talks too damn much. "I actually just got new neighbors today. They definitely don't qualify as 'hip' in any sense of the word."
He raised his eyebrows and I took it as a sign that he wanted to hear more. I was happy to elaborate. Even thinking about Riker made my blood boil. I shared far more than necessary until Jack's cell rang with a song that hadn't left the eighties. It felt like the world was lifted off my shoulders when he excused himself with the "I'm sorry, but it's the office" move. Whether it was or not, I didn't care. I had a break from the disaster.
Excerpted from Neighbors by L.S. Murphy, Kaleen Harding. Copyright © 2013 L.S. Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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