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"Why couldn't you have rented the house to a crotchety old maid, one who liked nothing better than to sit on her verandah and abuse everyone in the street as they went past?" Mackenzie asked, knowing that she was being totally unreasonable.
She could see the humour starting to build on her friend's face, so she tagged on, "No, I mean it. Anything would be better than the situation your moving is going to place me in. My god, Jazz, what were you and Rob thinking when you agreed to rent your house to that horrible man?"
A mischievous smile was starting to tug at the corners of Jazz's mouth. This was the absolute last straw. She was unable to stop the flow of laughter that bubbled up from within her. The thought of Mackenzie being daunted by her new neighbour was too hilarious to contemplate. Day after day, she stood in front of various classrooms full of reluctant students whose one aim in life, according to Jazz, was to make their teacher's life miserable; yet here she was, complaining about the presence of one mere male.
"Mackenzie, you're exaggerating. I've met the man, and he seemed very nice. In fact, I thought you'd think he was kind of cute."
It suddenly hit Mackenzie that this man's presence in the house next door wasn't the random choosing she'd thought it to be but a carefully orchestrated plan on the part of her soon-to-be ex-neighbour.
"Jazz, you didn't!" Mackenzie stared at her friend in horror as realisation started to set in. Surely, she hadn't planned this awful chain of events in the hope of getting her together with that awful man. The thought didn't bear thinking about, but it was the kind of warped idea that Jazz would come up with in order to get her friend fixed up as she was fond of telling Mackenzie.
"No, I didn't!"
Mackenzie threw her friend a look which clearly stated that she wasn't about to believe a single word of the explanation which was to follow.
"Honestly, Mac," Jazz continued, "I didn't, but I didn't think you'd protest this much. I thought you'd like having a neighbour that you had something in common with." Seeing the incredulous look on Mackenzie's face, Jazz tacked on, "You know, being a teacher and all, I must admit it did cross my mind that you might go out sometimes. I certainly didn't envisage World War III breaking out between the two of you or that our fence line would become the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall or whatever. Think of the great times we've had talking over the fence since we first arrived five years ago ..." She looked across at her friend, wanting confirmation. "We'd work in our respective gardens, talking about anything and everything that came into our minds."
"Yes, but that was with you!" Mackenzie wailed. "I can't very well strike up a conversation with him, telling him that I thought the baker's buns looked extra good, can I?"
Jazz laughed. She knew she was going to miss these intimate conversations she shared with Mackenzie. She told her impishly, "Perhaps not, but you could tell him that his aren't too bad."
"I don't want a man in my life, remember?" Mackenzie told her friend as she abruptly stood up, not wanting to pursue this particular conversation any further. She was happy with her lot in life. She didn't want, or need, the hassles that would arise from having a man in her life again, although she had to admit that there were times when she missed the physical relationship she'd enjoyed with Steve. Her face clouded as she thought of her late husband. The words rang in her ears—"late husband." It was still so hard to believe. Steve had been dead for more than three years now.
"Hey, where did you go?" Jazz wanted to know as she slowly pushed herself up from the verandah step.
"What?" Mackenzie asked, looking at her friend. She was still not clearly back in the land of the living.
"Just as I thought," Jazz accused, pointing a finger towards her friend.
"Mackenzie, I know you loved Steve dearly, but it's time to let him go. You've buried yourself along with him, and that's not good. You're still young and alive. It's time you got on with your life."
"Jazz, please, let's not start this again." Mackenzie attempted a smile that barely lifted the corners of her mouth. It certainly didn't reach her lovely brown eyes.
"Okay, you win for now, but one day, a man is going to come along and knock you flying off that pedestal of yours. I just hope you're going to be ready for it when it happens." Jazz was genuinely concerned about her friend's welfare. She'd been out with the occasional man since the death of her husband, but none of them had held her interest for longer than one or two outings. It was just so wrong. It filled her with dismay to see someone as beautiful as Mackenzie throwing herself away on a memory.
Mackenzie's beauty wasn't just on the outside. She was one of those rare people who cared about everyone. Just once, Jazz would like to see someone give some of that special love back.
"The moment it happens, you'll be the first to know, alright?" Mackenzie told her as she tried to hold back the slight grin that was threatening to break the serious composure of her fair features.
Her complete lack of enthusiasm was evident because Jazz responded smugly, "You can laugh now, but you just wait until it happens. They say love can hit you like a bolt out of the blue."
Mackenzie's nonchalant gaze took in the cloudless blue sky before looking once more at her friend. "Well, not today, my friend, the horizon looks perfectly clear. Now come on, Rob will think you've forgotten about him ... or had you?" Mackenzie asked casually, knowing full well that this wasn't the case. Jazz and Rob had a wonderful marriage; as a couple, they were completely suited.
Jazz threw her friend a glance that told her their conversation was by no means over, but for now, she'd have to put it on hold. "No, I hadn't forgotten, it's wonderful to know that there's a big, sexy man waiting at home for me. Has it been so long that you've forgotten?"
"Hello ... Would you be Mrs. Phillips, by any chance? Hello." Mackenzie wasn't to know what a fetching picture she made sitting there as she was, framed in the open doorway. Strands of tawny brown hair had escaped from the brightly coloured band she wore to keep the errant strands in place. They tumbled down her back in vibrant disarray, catching shards of light from the late morning sun as it made its way slowly across a cloudless blue sky. Nothing seemed to be in a hurry on this lazy Saturday morning, least of all this attractive young woman sitting before him. She seemed to be oblivious to his presence. He was about to try again when she finally seemed to come to life. Well, to notice him anyway.
Slowly coming out of her trancelike state, Mackenzie stared uncomprehendingly up at the individual who stood before her. She'd literally been miles away, thinking once again of the couple she'd so recently been forced to say her good-byes to. As her mind cleared of the reminiscent fog that had enshrouded it, she began to focus on the man who was lounging casually against the railing on her back steps. Heavens, how long had he been standing there, waiting for her to acknowledge his presence?
He had a distinct advantage, standing over her the way he was. He was very tall, Mackenzie noticed. She'd be dwarfed even if she was standing against him. He'd have to be well over six feet tall, Mackenzie surmised from where she sat, sprawled across the doorway in her usual unladylike position.
"Um, I'm sorry. What did you say?" If she had her wits about her, she'd have been horrified by her apparent lack of concern for her immediate safety. For instance, what was a strange man doing in her back yard? Where had he come from, and more importantly, who was he? But none of these questions made their way into her befuddled brain as Mackenzie continued to stare blankly up at him.
"I asked if you were Mrs. Phillips?" his voice had a deep timbre to it, and in any other circumstances, Mackenzie felt she'd have loved to listen to him, but for now, she felt it, and he was an intrusion to her badly needed privacy. She'd slept badly last night and, after a lot of restless tossing and turning, had decided to get out of bed. As the first rays of the morning sun had touched the mountains, she'd gone for a long walk only to find that she'd taken her problems along with her. There was a special magic at this time of the morning, when everything was new and ready to start another day, but this morning had been different. She knew that today was the start of a new era.
Upon reaching home, she'd initiated a vigorous exercise routine, hoping that the strenuous workout would help her sleep; but here it was several hours later, and she was still wide awake. Usually by this time of a Saturday morning, she was up and about, doing all of the household chores that were put off during the week because of her busy work schedule; but today for some reason, her vigor had deserted her. She still wore her skimpy red and white crop top and her body-hugging black tights that she'd exercised in. She'd kicked off her shoes and peeled off one sock, the other one was still on her foot.
Oh well, she thought despondently, if people choose to visit me unannounced, they have to expect what they get. She just didn't feel like doing anything, and now this man had arrived to interrupt her reverie.
Remnants of some toast and an empty coffee mug sat forlornly on the floor beside her, evidence that she'd been sitting there for quite a while. Also, there was a trail of ants busily at work, carrying off the toast crumbs that Mackenzie had scattered on the steps for them to eat.
In spite of herself, her brain started to register that the stranger standing in front of her was no ordinary male. He'd straightened up, and Mackenzie realised her first assumption about his height had to be correct. She was starting to notice other things about him as well, but her thoughts were interrupted when he asked yet again, "Are you Mrs. Phillips or not? I was told by a neighbour that she lived here." She could tell from the tone of his voice that he was quickly losing his patience. He'd actually started to look past her into the house, probably hoping to find someone who would at least answer his questions.
How rude, Mackenzie thought to herself as she took an extra few seconds to look at him before answering. "Yes, I'm Mrs. Phillips. What do you want?" She knew her tone could have been a lot friendlier, but she didn't care. Who did he think he was anyway?
"Keys?" he said matter-of-factly, ignoring Mackenzie's unfriendly manner. "I've come for the keys."
This just wasn't Mackenzie's day. She stared up at him blankly, not having the slightest idea what he was talking about. "Keys," she repeated, stupidly, "what keys?"
"The ... keys ... to ... the ... house ... next ... door," he told her slowly, putting emphasis on every word as he indicated with a turn of his head towards the house that had been vacated only yesterday by her friends, Jazz and Rob.
Mackenzie glared up at him with an expression that was full of malice. There was no reason for him to treat her like she was a moron, but still she wasn't forthcoming with an answer to his repeated question and so just sat there continuing to stare up at him.
"Do you have the keys," he asked again, "to the house next door, or not?"
He was staring at her with something akin to anger in his cold, brown eyes. His dark brows were drawn together as he studied her intently, obviously waiting for some kind of an answer.
"Yes, I have them," Mackenzie flung at him, not caring that she was being unreasonably rude. The only thought that was whirling through her brain was that this insufferable man was to be her new neighbour. Mackenzie had told Jazz this would happen when she'd first been told about their forthcoming move. Now it looked as if her worst fears had come to pass.
"At last! Now we're getting somewhere. Could I have them, please? It would be nice if I could move in some time this year if that's at all possible." The sarcasm wasn't wasted on Mackenzie as she waspishly glared up at him, letting him know in no uncertain terms that she didn't appreciate being the beneficiary of his glib tongue.
Mackenzie was conscious of his gaze on her as he continued to look down at her. His eyes were unreadable brown slits that seemed to be looking into her very soul. "That was uncalled for," she spat back at him as she rose unceremoniously to walk inside to fetch the keys to Jazz and Rob's house. She was back in less than a minute, holding the keys out to him in a manner which was neither friendly nor welcoming.
"Here," she said, thrusting the keys at him. She wanted this man off her property and out of her sight, and the sooner, the better.
Glittering dark eyes raked her from the top of her head to the tip of her toes as she stood on the step looking down at him. She was under no illusions that he saw her as someone to be avoided at all costs. Well, that suited her just fine; she wouldn't have an ounce of trouble complying with his unspoken wishes.
They were saved from any further confrontation by the sudden appearance of a brunette woman who was making her way towards them from the direction of the other house. She smiled pleasantly at them both before asking the man, who was obviously her companion, the question that had been continuously thrust at her for the last few minutes.
"There you are. I was beginning to think you were lost. Did you get the keys?"
Mackenzie didn't know why, but she suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to burst out laughing. Somehow it sounded extremely funny to hear someone else starting to ask for the keys. She had the good sense to stifle the laugh, before it had a chance to bubble up from within her throat.
His reaction was to scowl at them both, before ungraciously grabbing the offered keys from her outstretched hand.
"Thank you," he told her through clenched teeth, and then he was turning abruptly away, much to the astonishment and confusion of his companion, who had no choice but to blindly follow him back across the short expanse of grass which led around the side of the house and eventually out of sight. Mackenzie could just imagine how their conversation was progressing. He'd be telling his companion about his zany new neighbour.
A spontaneous, mad impulse grabbed Mackenzie, and on the spur of the moment, she blurted out gaily to the retreating figures, "Bye for now, glad I could be of help. Come around anytime." She threw the retreating figures a gay little wave, safe in the knowledge that he wasn't going to see her madcap antics.
At first, she thought her taunt was to be ignored, but at the last moment, before turning the corner of her house, he glanced back, throwing her a look of pure malice, letting her know in no uncertain terms that he wasn't about to play these childish games with her. His look also conveyed another message, which left Mackenzie feeling acutely vulnerable. She didn't know why exactly, but she had the distinct feeling that he wasn't finished with her yet.
Mackenzie thought sadly about the woman who'd been with him. It was sad how some women couldn't see past a man's good looks, to see what was beneath the skin, what was in his innermost thoughts and heart.
They were probably going out, or perhaps they were even married. Jazz hadn't mentioned a wife in her constant ramblings about him, but then perhaps he hadn't told her friend everything about his personal life. She was, after all, only his landlady, not his priest or confessor.
She had to grudgingly admit to herself that this particular man was very good looking. When she'd finally become aware of his presence, her mind must have unconsciously gathered the physical information about him because she found she now had not the slightest bit of trouble in conjuring up a perfect mental picture of him, one that she could bring forth to investigate at her leisure.
Excerpted from Vendetta of Love by Carolyn J. Pollack. Copyright © 2013 Carolyn J. Pollack. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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