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Mike Conroy pulled down the tailgate of his white pickup. Brilliant May sunshine gleamed on the revolting heap of supplies in the back. He started unloadingfirst, the gray plastic bins. Then came the burlap, the shredded newspaper and the bags of soil.
Last, of course, came the worms.
He wasted a few seconds, rolling his stiff shoulders, mourning how his life had come to this. Even when he was a teenager, he'd had precise, clear dreams of what he wanted from life. He'd always wanted to be a successful lawyerand he'd done that. He'd always wanted to live in a big cityand he'd done that. He'd always dreamed of living with a sexy, beautiful womanand God knew, he'd done that, too.
He'd not only done all those things; he'd thrown that entire life away. But even at his lowest, he'd never anticipated wanting to start a worm farm. Ever. Even remotely.
"Hey, Dad. Isn't this great? Isn't this the best thing ever? Where are the worms? Can I see the worms?"
"Not yet, Teddy. We need to get them out of the sun, into the basement. You can help me set everything up."
"How soon do you think we'll have worm poop, Dad? You think soon?"
Mike knew well that when his four-year-old said soon, he was hoping the event would happen within the next three seconds. "The plan is to get all the supplies into the basement. Then to come upstairs, wash our hands, chill out with a glass of orange juice. And after that, the two of us can get our hands down and dirty creating our worm farm."
"Hey, Dad." Teddy, whose thatch of brown hair never looked brushed, who could put a hole in a new pair of jeans faster than lightning, who had a Tough Guy T-shirt with four separate food stains on it, looked up at him with adoration. "Worms are my favorite thing in the whole world. This is the best thing that happened to me in my whole life. I'm not kidding. I mean it. I'm not telling a story this time. It's true, Dad."
"I believe you, sport. In fact, that's exactly why we're doing this."
"And we're gonna make a pond. And have frogs and stuff."
"Mom would never let me do this."
Mike yanked the T-shirt over his head, tossed it on the truck seat.
Chicago springs were usually perfect, but this May had been a furnace. All afternoon, it'd been hot enough to choke. Sweat prickled the back of his neck. And no, he didn't respond to Teddy's comment about his mother. He was getting goodnot perfect, but goodat refraining from criticizing Nancy in front of their son. He'd sworn never to make Teddy prey to those kinds of divorce battles.
Thankfully he was saved another set of questions by the arrival of a white SUV zipping into the drive next to theirs.
He looked up. Teddy looked up. Even Sluggerthe bassett hound snoozing upside down on the front porchwas curious enough to open one droopy eye.
He and Teddy had moved from downtown Chicago just two weeks before. Living anywhere near suburbia was another thing Mike had never planned to do, but that was another life-compromise emanating from the divorce. At least this neighborhood didn't look like Clone City. Silver Hills was a new suburb on the far west side, with all kinds of architecture and at least a half acre between most homes. His place was a modified A-frame, primarily redwood and glass, and richened up by a two-story stone chimney. The best part was being at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a serious deck and woodsy ravine in the back.
The closest house to the east had a Sold sign in the yard when they first moved in, but Mike hadn't seen any sign of life there until a few days before, when a moving van had pulled up and unloaded. Still, there'd been no sign of the owners until now.
The neighbor's house was fancier, built of field-stone, with two dormer windows upstairs and huge casement windows framing the center door. To Mike, it was a little pretentious, had kind of a fake country-estate looknot that it made any difference to him.
He missed a glimpse of the driver, because his attention was drawn by a child skipping around the back of the car. It was a girl. An ultra girlie-girl, about the same age as his Teddy. She was dressed to the gills in pinka pink top with sequins and shiny beads and more shiny stuff attached somehow to her wildly curly red hair. The white pants had pink edges, and she had shoes that lit up with pink lights when she skipped around.
Teddy looked thunderstruckbut not necessarily by the girl. The problem was that Sluggerwho never moved fast unless a steak bone was in sightspotted the girl and started baying nonstop. The little girl happened to have a dog next to her. At least, Mike was pretty sure it was a dog. It was white, possibly a cross between a miniature poodle and schnauzer, and just like the girl, it was gussied up beyond belief with a pink rhinestone collar and other jewelry items he'd never imagined on a canine before.
Slugger flew off the porch step and trundled over to greet the poodle with a cascade of more baying and howling. The poodle promptly squatted down and peed. Then Slugger peed. Then the dogs started chasing each other. All that might have gone fine, except that Teddyhis ever-friendly songalloped over to the girl and began telling her all about their brand-new worm farm.
Teddy only had to say the four-letter worm word once for the girl to launch into a long, versatile scream that could haveshould havewakened the dead. For a kid who couldn't be three feet tall, she had the vocal range of an American Idol winner.
Abruptly, a woman charged out of the house, leaving the front door flapping open, making it pretty clear she feared her daughter was in imminent danger. Mike, of course, didn't know it was the kid's mother. But it seemed fairly obvious.
She had the same curly red hair. On her, it was a rich, dark auburn, dancing around her shoulders.
Unlike her daughter, she was wearing mostly green, but she had the same put-together thing going on. Her shirt was green and white, her jeans white, sandals green. Everything matched. The woman just had a few fewer sequins and rhinestones.
Mike took one quick look, but then had to do a double take.
That fast, he told himself it was a damned good thing he'd given up sex for the rest of his life. Redheads were trouble, every guy knew that. And undoubtedly she was married. Still, he'd have to be dead not to recognize she was beyond attractive. She was built lithe and long, lean like a runner, yet still had an upstairs rack compelling enough to glue his gaze there. The green eyes were gorgeous, the long face fine-boned and arresting. The mouth man, that mouth, was not just luscious in shape but darned near riveting.
The whole package moved way past beautiful and into the stunning range.
Thankfully there was no time to dwell on itboth of them were distracted by all hell breaking loose. An elegant, long-haired pure-white kitten stepped out of the lady's open front door and promptly sat in the sun to delicately wash a paw.
Catthe scarred-up old tomcat who'd shown up in a rainstorm a year ago and refused to leave himsuddenly shot out of the cat door and beelined for the kitten.
The mom promptly let out a shriek that verified forever where the daughter had inherited her vocal cords.
The kitten disappeared inside the open front door, followed by Cat. Both dogs, now that felines were in the picture, chased right in behind them. Teddy and the little girl pushed elbows, both trying to barrel after their respective pets.
Which left himat least for a secondwith the stranger.
She seemed to do a quick size up, which made Mike ultra conscious that he was shirtless, dirty and sweaty. But he couldn't tell from her expression what she thought of him. What she thought of the situation was more clear.
She was still gasping for breath. "I'm afraid we'll have to exchange names another time. I mean, I'd hoped to meet my neighbors under a little less chaotic condition"
"Same here, believe me."
"Even though I'm tempted to cry right now, I have a feeling by tonight I'll be laughing about all this."
"Me, too." He liked it. That she wasn't turning hystericalat least, once she'd realized her daughter wasn't hurt or in danger.
"Unfortunately " Finally she caught her breath. "My cat hasn't been spayed yet. Neither has our dog. We hope to breed them."
"Uh-oh," Mike said, and that had to be the end of the conversation. He hadn't run track since college, but in a crisis, he could always pour on the coals.
This definitely qualified as a pour-on-the-coals moment.
Amanda Scott sprinted right behind her new neighbor, calling for the kids, dogs and cats as loudly as he did. She'd had a moving company deliver the heavy boxes and furniture days before, but she hadn't planned on seriously moving in until today. Naturally, the house had a post-cyclone decor. Packing boxes and cartons and furniture were strewn every which way, creating obstacles that impeded their progress but that wasn't the only reason she couldn't catch her breath.
It was him.
She'd known the transition from city life to the suburbs would be challenging, but she wasn't expecting this kind of challenging.
For five years, she'd lived her dream of a lifea gorgeous condo in downtown Chicago, an advertising job she thrived on and marriage to a perfect guy, Thom. Then came their precious baby. Then came the divorce.
The first thing she'd donebecause it was the most critical issuewas give up sex for the rest of her life. Her inability to judge character in men was the reason, and Amanda was never one to duck from the truth. Although she'd moved to the suburbs solely for her daughter's sake, Amanda figured it'd work like a charm on the celibacy thing. After all, what males was she likely to run into but married men, dads and guys heavily into their families?
Her new neighbor was undoubtedly one of the married herd. She couldn't imagine any sane woman letting him run around loose and single. It was just he was an unexpected jolt to her senses. Nothing unusual about the dark brown hair, but his chin had several days of disreputable unshaven whiskers. His brown eyes looked her over like a sip of warm Southern whiskey. The naked chest was smooth and sculpted; the jeans low-slung, his skin had a gleam of sun and sweat The whole package wasn't just a prize male specimen. He was a whole bucket of testosterone.
He hollered again for his son, his dog, his cat. Even his voice had that guy-tenor thing going on.
It wasn't as if she was going to do anything about it. She'd just really hoped to have a little old lady for a neighbor. Or a family with a half dozen kids and a harried-looking father with a paunch.
Beyond the living area was the kitchen with its fresh birch cabinets and wonderful bay windowpartly why she'd fallen in love with the house. Right now, boxes were stacked there every which way. The kitten was on top of one. Amanda saw her neighbor swoop up Princesswho immediately curled up on his shoulder as if she'd finally found her Prince Charming. Of course, she should be happy. He'd saved her from the tomcat prowling around the boxes for her.
"I'll take her," Amanda told him. He promptly handed her over in a cloud of white cat hair, and she quickly carted Princess to the nearest bathroom and closed the door.
One cat safe, now just two dogs and two kids to catch.
The dogs had quit barkingwhich struck Amanda as an ominous sign. The sound of crying was another bad signshe wasn't sure which of their kids was unhappy, but the noise came from the second floor, where there were two bedrooms and a bath.
Amanda reacted to the crying first, took the stairs three at a time, and found her sweet, delicate daughter sitting on top of the neighbor boy, pretty much pounding on him. She was half his weight, but as Amanda knew, when her darling lost her temper, she seemed to gain the strength of Goliath. She pulled Molly off the boy, scolding her for hitting.
"Never hit," Amanda said firmly. "You know better. No one hits in our house. Ever. If you have an argument you can't solve, you come to me. But we don't hit. Apologize right now."
There followed a noisy dialogue of "But he " and "She said it first " and "No, it was him. I couldn't help it " and "You were the one who was mean, mean and mean." Et cetera.