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By the time she was thirty, Karleen Almquist had signed three sets of divorce papers, at which point she decided to make things easier on herself and just get a hamster.
After all, hamsters didn't leave their clothes scattered all over kingdom come, watch endless football or stay out till all hours. And their itty-bitty paws were too small to mess with the remote. True, they weren't of much use in the sack, but then the same could be said of most of her husbands.
Unfortunately, also like her husbands, hamsters didn't exactly have a long shelf life. Which was why Karleen was burying yet another of the critters underneath the huge, gnarled cottonwood at the back of the large yard of the aging Corrales adobe she'd kept after her last divorce, seven years ago. Each tiny grave was marked by a miniature cast-stone marker engraved with the rodent's name, ordered from this place online that promised a twoday turnaround, if you were willing to pay extra for FedEx overnight service.
Karleen sank the marker into the soft soil, praying the neighborhood cats wouldn't disturb Mel's rest, although he was probably fairly scavenger-proof in the little metal floral can from Hobby Lobby. Then she stood, making a face as she peeled off her gardening gloves. Fond of Melvin as she'd been, it had taken the better part of an hour to glue on these nails and damned if she was going to ruin them for a dead hamster.
A cool, dry breeze shuddered through the veritable orchard of apple trees lining the far wall, sending a shower of white blossoms drifting across her dusty pool cover. The peaches, apricots and cherries would bloom in a few weeks. By mid-summer, the ground would be a holy mess with rottingfruit. But right now, her heart lifted a little at the sight of all those blossoms glowing against the brilliant New Mexico sky, the twittering of dozens of redheaded finches scouting out the assortment of brightly colored bird-houses suspended from the branches
What was that?
At the giggling, she swung around in time to see a pair of pale blond heads vanish behind the low wooden fence separating her yard from the one next door.
"Boys!" boomed an off-stage male voice. "Get over here!"
Karleen zipped as fast as her beaded slides would carry her back to the house, dumping the gloves on a tempered-glass table on her flagstone patio as she went. Once inside, she scurried across the brick floor through the house, twisting open the slightly warped verticals in her living-room window to get a better view. And indeed, through the assortment of glittery, spinning porch ornaments hanging from the eaves, she saw a great big old U-Haul van backed in the next driveway.
The house was the largest of the four on their little dead-end road, a two-story territorial/adobe mutt centered in a huge pie-shaped lot crammed with a forest's worth of treescottonwoods, willows, pines, silver maples. The property hadn't been on the market more than a few weeks (the old owners had gone to live with one of their kids in Oregon or Idaho or someplace), so the new owners must've paid cash for it, for closing to have gone through that quickly.
The little boystwins, it looked likeraced around the side of the van, roaring in slightly offsync unison (and loud enough to be heard through a closed window), " Daddy, Daddy! The house next door has a pool!"
Just shoot her now.
Karleen thought maybe they were a little older than her best friend Joanna's youngest, around four or so. Jumping up and down like that, it was hard to tell. God bless their mother, was all she had to say.
Then a Nordic god walked out from behind the truck, sunlight glinting off short golden hair, caressing massive shoulders effortlessly hefting a giant cardboard box, and her brain shorted out.
Not so much, however, that she couldn't paw for the pair of long-neglected binoculars on the bookshelf crammed with paperbacks and doodads behind her. She blew off the dust, then held them up to her eyes, fiddling with the focusing thingy for a second or two before letting out a soft yelp when The God's face suddenly filled up the lens.
Lord, it was like trying to pick a single item off the dessert cart. The jawthe cheekbonesthe heavy-lidded eyesthe mouth.
Oh, dear God, the mouth.
She licked her own, it having been a long, long time since she'd had a close encounter with one of those. Although this mouth was in a class by itself. Not too thin, but not one of those girlie mouths, either. Just right, Goldilocks, she thought with a snort.
Karleen lowered the binoculars, shaking her head and thinking, Well, doesn't this suck toads? only to brighten considerably when she remembered there was, in all likelihood, a Mrs. God. So he was somebody else's problem, praise be.
While she stood there, trying to hang on to her newfound cheer, an SUV rumbled past, parking behind the van and disgorging a pair of dark-haired hunks. Or rather one hunk and one hunk-in-progress, a teenager not yet grown into his long arms and legs. The two men did the buddy-palm-slapping thing, then got to work unloading the van while the little boys concentrated on staying underfoot as much as possible and being cute enough to get away with it.
For the next, um, twenty minutes or so, she watched as plaid Early American wing chairs and sofas and brass lamps and sections of a dark wood four-poster bed and one of those bland landscape paintings people hung over their sofas marched from van to house. Occasionally she caught snatches of flat, midwestern speech and thought, Yeah, that figures. And as the minutes passed, she wonderedso where was this wife, already? Shouldn't she be flitting about, directing the men where to put everything?
About this time Karleen noticed the mail truck shudder to a stop in front of her mailbox at the edge of her yard. The carrier got out, took stuff out of the box, slammed down the painted gecko flag, stuffed stuff into the box, then walked around to the back of the truck and retrieved a package. Which, instead of carrying up the walk to Karleen's front door, she tucked into a nest of weeds at the base of the post. Oh, for pity's sake.
Karleen yanked open her front door and headed toward her mailbox, blinking at the dozen or so jewel-toned pinwheels bordering her walk, happily spinning in the breeze. Halfway down, however, she realized that all movement had ceased next door. While she had to admit she felt a little spurt of pride that, at thirty-seven, she still had what it took to render men immobile, there was also a ping of annoyance that she couldn't go to her damn mailbox without being gawked at. However, if she didn't say anything, she would be forever branded as The Stuck-Up Bitch Who Lived Next Door.
And that would just be wrong.
So she fished her mail out of the box and the box out of the weeds, then wound her way over to the fence through her ever-growing collection of lawn ornamentation.
"Hey," she said, smiling. "I'm Karleen. You guys my new neighbors?"
She might even have pulled it off, too, if it hadn't been for the eyes. ***
The word smacked Troy between the eyes like a kamikaze bee. Followed in quick succession by blonde, stacked and oh, crap.
It wasn't just the eighties retro hair. Or the Vegas makeup. Or even that she was dressed provocatively, because she wasn't. Exactly. The stretchy pants rode low and the top rode high (and the belly button sparkled like the North Star), but the essentials were more than adequately covered. No cleavage, even. A delicate gold chain hugged her ankle, but that was pretty much it. She was just one of those women that fabric liked to snuggle up to.
Men, too, no doubt.
Beside him, Blake cleared his throat. Troy came to and extended his hand; Karleen shifted everything to one arm to reciprocate, an assortment of fake gemstone rings flashing in the sunlight. Jeez, those fingernails could gut and fillet a fish in five seconds flat, a thought that got a bit tangled up with the one where Troy realized that her breasts seemed a littlestill.
"And I'm Troy. Lindquist." Her handshake was firm and brief and he suddenly got the feeling that she wished this was happening even less than he did, which irked him for some reason he couldn't begin to explain."
"You're kidding?, She hugged her mail with both arms again, her deep blue eyes snaring him like Chinese finger traps. "My maiden name'sAlmquist."
"Swedish," they both said at once, and everybody else looked at them as though they'd totally lost it, while Troy noticed that Karleen's mouth said friendly and her eyes said pay no attention to the mouth.
"Anyway," Troy said. "These are my boys Grady and Scott, and this is Blake Carter, my business partner, and his son Shaun."
She said all her hello-nice-to-meet-yous, very polite, very carefuland then she turned that glistening smile on the boys, and Definite Interest roared onto the scene, huffing and puffing. Because people tended to have one of two reactions when confronted with his sons: They either went all squealy and stupid, or got a look on their faces like they'd stumbled across a pair of rattlesnakes. Karleen did neither. Instead, Karleen's expression said, Anything you can dish out, I can take and give back ten times over, which Troy found disturbingly attractive and scary as hell at the same time.