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Something hit the side of her house, right outside her office. Lauren Russell jumped half out of her skin, jarring against the desk and sending hot tea sloshing over the edge of the cup and running under the stack of articles she'd printed out, as well as coming dangerously close to her optical mouse.
She leaped up and grabbed her napkinhigh quality linen, of courseand swabbed at the spill. When she'd rescued the mouse, she left the rest for a moment and hot-footed it over to the window to see what the heck had happened. She was just in time to spot a little boy pick up a baseball and hurl it to his sister in the yard next door, then race back into his own territory.
She should have known. The monsters were loose again.
Lauren immediately felt guilty, because in general she liked children. Maybe the pertinent phrase was in general, because these particular children were driving her nuts.
Going back to her desk, she finished mopping up, drying off the papers as best she could, then taking them into the bathroom and using her blow dryer to finish the job. They were crisp and wrinkly, but readable. She didn't like the fact that they were now less than perfect, but it would take too much time to go to each and every website and reprint everything. Later, maybe.
She sat at her desk again and did her best to tune out the happy screams and shrieks of what sounded like fifty children romping around a sprinkler on a hot summer day, as well as the occasional thump of a ball hitting the side of her house. Every time it hit, she jumped. How could three kids make so much noise? Weren't children supposed to spend hours indoors playing video games these days? How was she supposed to work with this going on?
She had a deadline, an article to finish and send off by noon. The first thump had alarmed her, but now that she knew what was going on she should be able to dismiss the noise and concentrate on her work. Though it was tempting, she didn't march outside to tell the kids to take it easy. Yesterday she'd had to tell them not to tramp in her flower bed, and last week she'd had a talk with them about Frisbees in her tomato garden. She didn't want to be that neighbor, the grumpy woman all the neighborhood children were afraid of, the witch who did her best to squelch the kids' fun. Might as well get herself a pointy hat and construct her house out of candy. No, thanks.
Still, a very tall privacy fence was looking more and more like a necessary investment. That would ruin the ambience of her carefully landscaped backyard, but if this continued she might have no choice. Her office was on the newly noisy side of the house, as was the spare bedroom. Unless she wanted to try to move her bedroom furniture into these rooms and convert the master suite into a large office, she was out of luck. Yeah, like she wanted to try to sleep on this side of the house.
The Garrisons had been such good, quiet neighbors! Why had they moved? Lauren was happy that the older couple now lived closer to their eldest daughter and their two grandchildren, but why couldn't the daughter have moved here? Why did being close to family mean going to Arizona, of all places? Maybe Alabama was hot in the summertime, even if Huntsville was about as far north as you could get and still be in the state, but it couldn't be any hotter than Arizona. Worse, the Garrisons had sold their house to a family with three children. At least, she'd seen three so fartwo boys and a girl. Good Lord, she hoped there weren't more.
Lauren stared at the computer screen, concentrating diligently in an effort to mentally block the noises from next door. Naturally, trying so hard only made her more aware of every sound. A piercing squeal. A shouted taunt. Laughter. She just had a couple of hours to finish this piece for the local paper, and then she needed to tackle the edits on her book. They were due back in three days, and she was hoping to make quick work of them this afternoon and evening, and then tomorrow morning overnight the changes so they'd be there a day early. It was her first book, a collection of recipes and household tipsmany of which had come from her weekly newspaper articlesand she was certainly hoping there would be other books to follow. Being late wouldn't endear her to her editor. Besides, Lauren hated to be late, almost as much as she hated it when others were late. It was a well, a thing she had. Everyone was allowed a thing or two, in her opinion.
As she was attempting to place herself in a magic bubble of silence, a loud crash jerked her back to reality. A loud crash accompanied by shards of glass that flew into her office, landing on the area rug and her grandmother's occasional table and into the vase of fresh flowers there. Lauren's heart almost jumped out of her chest. She screamedjust a littleand then, a split second later, she realized that all screams and laughter from next door had gone silent.
When she'd gathered her composure she stood carefully, stepping over the pieces of glass on the floor, glad that she wasn't working barefoot as she often did. And there, on top of her edits, sat a baseball. The offending, intruding, destructive and muddy baseball, which was now perched on top of the once-pristine top page of a once-perfectlyaligned stack.
Lauren had heard the term her blood boiled, and now she knew exactly what that felt like. She experienced an intense physical response to the sight of that baseball on her work, to the broken glass and the ruined papers. That was it. She literally couldn't take any more.
She snatched up the baseball and stalked to the back door, bursting onto her small stone patio like a woman on a mission. In her fury she notednot for the first timethe crushed flowers and the broken tomato stalk. The trampled grass and the discarded juice box. The juice box was new, tossed into her backyard as if this were the city dump. Like her office, the backyard had been in perfect condition before the new family next door had moved in and disrupted her life.
In the neighboring yardwhere the recently added trampoline and soccer net marred the landscapethe sprinkler continued to spurt a jerking stream of water this way and that, but the children were nowhere to be seen. For once, all was quiet. Lauren cut in between the two houses, glancing at her broken window as she walked by on her way to the front door. She'd never before really noticed how close the two houses were. Little more than an alleyway separated her home from the one next door.
The Garrison house, which wasn't the Garrison house any longer, was larger than her own. Some years ago, long before Lauren had bought her home, Mr. Garrison had built an addition that consisted of two bedrooms and another bath. At one time he'd had children of his own living there, and they'd needed the space. Once the children moved out, that extra space had been unnecessary. Helen Garrison had happily told Lauren all about the small condo they'd bought in Phoenix. The older woman was thrilled to have less house to clean, no yard to tend.
Ringing the doorbell would be too passive for Lauren's mood, so she knocked soundly on the front door. She knocked so hard her knuckles stung. As she waited for an answer she shook out her hand and studied the mess on the small porch. A baseball glove, Frisbees, a Barbie doll with one leg and a frighteningly original haircut, and a skateboard. It could be such a cute porch, with a couple of white wicker chairs and a pair of hanging ferns, but instead the space was messy, untended and chaotic. She imagined whatever lay beyond the door was no better.
No one immediately answered her knock, so she rang the doorbell. Twice. Inside she heard whispering. The heathens were ignoring her. Heaven above, surely those kids weren't in there alone! No, the family car, a white minivan that had seen better days, was parked in the driveway. It was the only vehicle she'd seen in front of the house since the new family had moved in, not that she spent her time watching the neighbors. She couldn't help but notice a few details, as she collected the mail or drove into her own driveway. For all she knew there was another vehicle parked in the one-car garage.
All was quiet now. She didn't even hear whispering. She rang the doorbell for the third time and then lifted her hand to knock once more. Harder this time around.
The door swung open on a very tall, broad-shouldered man who held a cell phone to his ear. Obviously distracted, and also obviously not in a good mood, he held up one finger to indicate that he needed another minute.
The heathens' father needed a lesson in manners as much as his children did. It was all she could do not to snatch the cell phone out of his hand! What she really wanted to do was grab the offending finger and bend it back. That would get his attention.
But of course, she did no such thing. The hand holding the offending baseball dropped, and some of the wind went out of her sails. She'd never been very good when it came time to confront a manespecially a good-looking one. In most situations she was confident and in command, but most situations didn't require her to look up quite so far.
He who had spawned three little devils was much too tall for her tastes, which didn't help matters at all since Lauren was barely five foot three. Her new neighbor was six feet tall, at least, which meant she was at a serious disadvantage when it came to talking to him face-to-face. A step stool would come in handy right about now. The man needed a shave; he didn't have a beard, but that face hadn't seen a razor in a day or two. He had shaggyish dark brown hair which wasn't long but wasn't freshly cut either, fabulous bone structure, a perfect noseLauren always noticed nosesand big hands with long fingers. Dressed in jeans and a plain, faded gray T-shirt, he still managed to give off an "I'm in charge" vibe.
Great. Maybe she should've tacked a scathing note to the front door.
"Look, I'll have to call you back." For the first time, the man who'd shaken his finger at Lauren really looked at her. And he smiled. "A woman in bunny slippers and her pj's is on my doorstep holding a muddy baseball and looking like someone spit in her Cheerios this morning, so she must be here about something important."
Lauren tried not to be obvious about turning her gaze downward, but yesshe was still in her pajamas. Long, soft cotton pants and a matching tank just a touch too thin for someone who wore no bra. Not for the first time, she thanked her lucky stars that she didn't have much to brag about in that department.
But still she loses her temper in the first time in forever, and this is where it gets her. Embarrassed. No, mortified.
And she was still holding the damn baseball.
Her new neighbor, the father of the heathens who were tearing Lauren's neat schedule to pieces, ended his phone call and looked at her. He really looked at her, his gaze cutting to the bone. He had blue eyes. Not just a little blue, either, but wowza blue. Cut-to-the-bone blue. His eyes were the color of a perfectly clear spring sky shot with disturbingly piercing shards of ice. Lauren shifted her own gaze down and stared at his chin, which was perfectly normal and not at all eye-catching like his nose or his eyes or any of the rest of him. It was just a stubbly chin, thank goodness, not at all out of the ordinary.
Lauren handed over the baseball, which he took, then she crossed her arms over her chest in a too-late attempt at modesty. She had quite a few things to say, and she'd played a few of them through her mind as she'd waited. But suddenly she lost her nerve. "Is your wife at home?"