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"I just don't see what all the fuss is about," Lily Tanner told her older sister, Marcy, as she scrambled to hold the phone to her ear with her shoulder while making sandwiches for her two girls' school lunches.
"Fuss?" Her sister seemed disbelieving. "That's what you call it? Fuss?"
"No, I don't call it fuss," Lily said, smearing peanut butter on the bread too fast and tearing a gash in the last slice she had, save for the heels. Her girls acted like she was trying to feed them some kind of brick when she had nothing but the heels of a loaf of bread to offer.
"Who's fussing?" her youngest, Brittany, who was six, asked.
"No one's fussing," Lily assured her, as her daughter moved like a sloth through the kitchen, slowly sipping a cup of milk, like she had all the time in the world before Tuesday's designated carpool driver arrived.
"And no one's getting any fuss," Marcy told her. "Which is fine for a while and completely understandable, given what that rat Richard put you through. But after a while, a woman's just got to have a little fussing."
"Oh, for God's sake, I am not going to call it fussing," Lily said, trying to salvage the torn slice of bread. Anything but the heel. She wasn't taking lip from her daughters today about a heel of bread in a peanut butter sandwich.
"You said nobody was fussing," Brittany reminded her.
"Fussing? Who's fussing?" her oldest, Ginny, asked, looking worried, as she too often did these days. "Is it Daddy? Are you and Daddy fussing?"
"No. I told you. No one's fussing," Lily promised, rolling her eyes in exasperation. "Your aunt Marcy and I were just talking, and we weren't actually talking about fussing at all. We were talkingabout"
"Yes, please. I can't wait to hear," Marcy said, laughing. "Tell me what we were talking about."
"Fudge," Lily said, thinking it was the farthest thing from fussing she could come up with on short notice.
Marcy roared at that.
Lily shoved sandwiches into lunch boxes as Ginny looked like she didn't quite believe her own mother.
Then Brittany piped up and saved the day, announcing with absolute sincerity, an unwavering sense of optimism and six-year-old innocence, "I like fudge."
"There," Lily said, managing a smile for her girls. "Everybody likes fudge."
"Everybody certainly does," Marcy said. "So for you to tell me that you're perfectly fine without"
"Marcy!" she yelled into the phone while she shooed the girls toward the front door.
"Wait," Brittany said, stopping short and tugging on the right leg of Lily's shorts. "Do we have fudge?"
"No, baby. Not right now. But maybe tonight," Lily said.
"Here. I've got the front door. You two have to get outside. Mrs. Hamilton will be here any minute."
She hustled the girls out the door, waved to Betsy Hamilton, who was already at the curb, then closed the door and turned her attention back to the phone.
"Honestly, Marcy! Fudge?"
"Hey, it was your word, not mine. But now that you've coined the term, we're stuck with it. It's perfect. It'll be our code word forever."
"We don't need a code word. We don't need to talk about it at all. I am perfectly fine," Lily insisted.
After all, it was just fudge. Nothing to get all that excited about. Not when she had fifteen things to do every minute of the day and the girls ran her ragged and Richard was still as annoying as could be.
Who had time for fudge?
"May I remind you," Lily said, "that I have a year to get out of this house? Not even that, anymore. Just a little over ten and a half months to do everything I can to upgrade it before I have to sell it and hope I get enough out of my half to get me and the girls into another house. Which is going to take every bit of time and energy I have for the next ten and a half months."
"I know. I know."
"And where am I supposed to find a man anyway? You know what it's like in my neighborhood. Everybody's married, with kids the girls' ages, and if they do happen to get divorced, the wife ends up here in the subdivision with the kids while the cheating husband moves out to some little love nest of an apartment with his new, pretty, young thing. Until the wife has to sell out for lack of money and then some new married couple moves in. These are the suburbs, in all their glory. I could easily go a month without seeing a single, eligible man, and then even if one did show up, I don't have time to date anybody. I hardly have time to drink my coffee."
She gave a big huff at the end of her little speech, tired and spent.
Did her sister know nothing of Lily's current life? Of her world?
It was maddening and annoying and more than a little sad to feel so alone and to be living in such aggravating circumstances, just because Richard met a girl barely out of her teens on a business trip to Baltimore.
"Oh, honey. I'm sorry," Marcy said, and Lily could hear Marcy's own kids in the background now. "I wasn't trying to make things harder for you. I was just trying to warn you that it's fine to go without fudge for a while, and then well, then it's not. I mean, you're still human, and you're only thirty-four years old. We all have needs. We all get lonely."
"I am not lonely," Lily insisted, clearing the table of half-eaten bowls of cereal and bread crumbs from the peanut butter sandwiches and half-empty glasses that seemed to multiply like rabbits all over the house when Lily's back was turned. "At least not for fudge. Now, a bubble bath, I could handle. Someone to cook dinner every now and then or a good book, plus enough time to read it without interruptionsthat I could handle. But fudge is"
Lily broke off as she straightened up, having put four cups in the dishwasher and found herself looking out the window above the sink, which faced the house next door, which had been empty for weeks.
It looked like it wasn't going to be empty anymore, because in the driveway was a moving truck backed up to the garage, the big back door of the truck open, a pair of sun-bronzed, muscular arms handing a table out of the back of the truck to someone Lily couldn't quite see because of an overgrown rhododendron bush.
"What?" Marcy asked. "Where did you go?"
"Right here," Lily said, watching as the arms kept coming out, soon to be followed by a really nice, perfectly muscled shoulder.
Then the other.
Lily was afraid her mouth dropped open, and she just couldn't seem to shut it.
Legs. Long, masculine legs, encased in well-worn jeans that hung just a tad low on a taut waist, above which was what looked to be the most beautifully formed washboard abs she'd ever seen, and above that, nice, broad, extremely capable looking shoulders.
"Oh," Lily said, all the breath going out of her in a rush.
"What?" Marcy asked. "Are you okay?"
Lily felt like she'd been burned.
A wave of heat came over her, blossoming in the pit of her stomach and spreading like a flood to every cell in her body.
There was an absolutely gorgeous male creature at the house next door, muscles flexing beautifully, a little sweat on his brow, chest gloriously naked, and all of a sudden she got it. Everything her sister had been trying to explain to her about loneliness and needs and how some things were fine for a while and then, they just weren't anymore.
Suddenly, they were urgent, burning, overwhelming.
"Oh, fudge!" Lily said and dropped the phone.
She was afraid he'd seen her watching him through the kitchen window or that somehow he'd heard her phone clattering on the hard tile floor. Which seemed impossible at this distance and with the walls of her house between them.
But his head shot around and he stared right at her before she gulped and dropped to her knees, feeling guilty and confused and hot all over.
Like she'd suddenly developed a fever in mere seconds.
Maybe she was coming down with something.
Lily touched her hand to her forehead to see if it felt hot.
A mother could tell those things just by the touch of her hand, after dealing with as many feverish kids as she had.
But she couldn't tell this time. Not for sure.
Rattled, she stood back up and looked cautiously out the window once again, to see nothing but the open back of the moving truck and a few boxes.
No sign of him.
Had to be one of the movers, she told herself as she searched the cabinet above the stove, where she stored medicines to keep out of her girls' reach.
Men in her neighborhood did not look that good without their shirts on. They didn't have those kinds of muscles or those kinds of tans.
They were strictly suit-and-tie kind of guys.
A man didn't get muscles like that in corporate America.
Lily found the thermometer and put it in her mouth, just as her phone rang stridently.
She must have dropped the phone just right to disconnect the call as it landed.
Which meant this had to be her sister calling back.
And Lily didn't want to talk to Marcy.
Not that Marcy would really give her the option of refusing. She'd just keep calling until Lily answered. Either that or get in her car and drive the twenty minutes between their houses to make sure Lily was okay.
Marcy tended to be a tad overprotective since Richard had moved out.
"Oh, fine," she muttered, picking up the phone, thermometer still in her mouth. "Hewwo."
"What happened?" Marcy demanded to know.
"Sowwy. I dwopped d'phone," Lily said as best she could.
"Wait ." The thermometer beeped and she took it out. No fever. How odd. "I was just taking my temperature. I felt a little warm, and I dropped the phone."
Not necessarily in that order, but Marcy didn' t have to know every little thing.
"You think you have a fever? From just talking about fudge?"
Lily rolled her eyes. Marcy's kids must still be there. They left for school about fifteen minutes later than Lily's.
"No, not from just talking about it. I just felt warm, that's all."
"You're not telling me something," Marcy insisted.
"There's a lot I don't tell you or anyone else," Lily admitted, leaning every so slightly to the left, so she could see out the kitchen window again.
And there he was, unloading a kitchen chair.
Lily sighed heavily, unable to help herself.
"I knew it!" Marcy pounced on the sound. "What's going on? Do you have a man there?"
"No, I do not have a man here, and I don't want a man here. I just got rid of one, and he was enough trouble to last me a lifetime," she insisted.
"Honey, we just talked about this. You are not off men for a lifetime. You think you are, but I promise you, you're not. You're just in deep freeze right now."
"Yes. Where men are concerned. But you won't always be there. One day, some man will come along and bam! No more deep freeze on your fudge life."
"Aunt Lily has a fudge life?" she heard Marcy's youngest ask through the phone.
Lily started laughing.
"What's a fudge life?" Stacy asked. "Do you just eat it and eat it and eat it all day?"
"No," Marcy insisted.
"'Cause I like fudge. Could I have a fudge life?"
"No. No one spends her life eating fudge," Marcy said, then hissed at her sister, "Fudge life? I will never hear the end of this. She'll probably tell the other kids at school, and I'll be getting calls from the other moms. All their kids will want a fudge life, and the moms will want to know what I'm doing, telling kids they can just eat fudge all the time. How am I ever going to explain this?"
"Sorry. Gotta go," Lily said, hearing her sister growl at her before she hung up the phone.
A fudge life?
Lily laughed again.
At least she could do that now. Laugh at times.
She hadn't for a while. It had been too hard, too scary, too overwhelming, to think of being mostly alone in the world except for two little girls depending on her for just about everything.
But it was getting less overwhelming as time went on.
She was down, but she wasn't beaten.
Lily peeked out the window again, and he was still there, a big box perched on one shoulder, the muscles in his arm looking long and sleek and glistening with sweat.
Had to be a mover, she reassured herself.
Something looking that good would never move in next door to her.
And it was getting hot out.
They probably didn't have anything cold to drink in that house, which had been empty for three months, since the Sanders got transferred to San Diego.
It would be neighborly to drop by and offer them a little something, and maybe the owners would show up while she was there. Or she could pump the moving men for information on the new family.
Her girls were always eager to have more friends to play with. The first thing they'd ask when they walked in the door after school would be whether the new neighbors had girls their age, and a good mother should be ready to provide the answers for her children, shouldn't she?
Lily opened the refrigerator door, thinking a pitcher of iced tea?
Yes, she had one, very nearly full.
And some cookies?
She checked the cabinets. No cookie mix. Lily dug a little deeper, then sucked in a breath, feeling uneasy once again.
No, she didn't have any cookie mix.
But she had what she needed to make a batch of fudge.
Neighborly, she muttered to herself, as she marched across the yard with the pitcher of tea, four plastic glasses tucked under her arm, and a batch of still-warm fudge.
Just be neighborly.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
She made it to the back of the truck and could hear someone swearing softly from inside the enclosed space, and when she paused right behind the truck and looked in, she found him, eyes narrowed in concentration, right shoulder pressed up against a huge box that had snagged on the corner of another one and then didn't want to budge.
Up close, in his face she saw a toughness and a certain strength, eyes so dark they were almost black and flashing with irritation at the moment. He had an ultra-firm jaw, a head full of thick, dark brown hair that he wore a little too long, and what seemed like miles and miles of bare, brown skin.
It was all that skin and muscles that did it to her.
She started to feel hot all over again and thought about cooling her forehead with the tea pitcher, which was already sweating with condensation from the heat.
She'd be taking her temperature again when she got home, just to make sure. Because something wasn't right here.