Main The Friend Zone
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Loved it because it's sooo good. Hated it because it made me cry so hard.
03 November 2020 (23:54)
I really loved this one, it has so much going on, you'll need tissues to read this, but it also makes you laugh and get eager to read each chapter. I totally recommend this book!
07 January 2021 (21:47)
really good read <3
18 January 2021 (14:06)
RECOMMENDED AF. This book caught me off guard. My hearts ache :) Welcome to my Comfort Book!
29 July 2021 (13:23)
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Copyright © 2019 by Abby Jimenez Cover design and illustration by Elizabeth Turner Stokes Cover copyright © 2019 by Hachette Book Group, Inc. Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact email@example.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. Forever Hachette Book Group 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104 read-forever.com twitter.com/readforeverpub First Edition: June 2019 Forever is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The Forever name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher. The Hachette Speakers Bureau provides a wide range of authors for speaking events. To find out more, go to www.hachettespeakersbureau.com or call (866) 376-6591. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Jimenez, Abby, author. Title: The friend zone / Abby Jimenez. Description: First edition. | New York : Forever, 2019. Identifiers: LCCN 2018052066| ISBN 9781538715604 (trade pbk.) | ISBN 9781549149795 (audio download) | ISBN 9781538715628 (ebook) Classification: LCC PS3610.I47 F75 2019 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018052066 ISBN: 978-1-5387-1560-4 (trade paperback), 978-1-5387-1562-8 (ebook) Printed in the United States of America E3-20190503-DA-NF-ORI E3-20190419-DA-NF-ORI Contents Cover Title Page; Copyright Dedication ONE: Josh TWO: Kristen THREE: Josh FOUR: Kristen FIVE: Josh SIX: Kristen SEVEN: Josh EIGHT: Kristen NINE: Josh TEN: Kristen ELEVEN: Josh TWELVE: Kristen THIRTEEN: Josh FOURTEEN: Kristen FIFTEEN: Josh SIXTEEN: Kristen SEVENTEEN: Josh EIGHTEEN: Kristen NINETEEN: Josh TWENTY: Kristen TWENTY-ONE: Josh TWENTY-TWO: Kristen TWENTY-THREE: Josh TWENTY-FOUR: Kristen TWENTY-FIVE: Josh TWENTY-SIX: Kristen TWENTY-SEVEN: Josh TWENTY-EIGHT: Kristen TWENTY-NINE: Josh THIRTY: Kristen THIRTY-ONE: Josh THIRTY-TWO: Kristen THIRTY-THREE: Josh THIRTY-FOUR: Kristen THIRTY-FIVE: Josh THIRTY-SIX: Kristen THIRTY-SEVEN: Josh THIRTY-EIGHT: Kristen THIRTY-NINE: Josh FORTY: Kristen FORTY-ONE: Kristen Epilogue: Josh A Note from the Author Acknowledgments Discover More Abby Jimenez Don't miss Abby's second novel About the Author This book is dedicated to all the people who lifted me up while I was writing it. And Stuntman Mike. Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more. Tap here to learn more. ONE Josh I glanced down at the text while the light was red. Celeste: I’m not giving you a dime, Josh. Go screw yourself. “Goddamn it,” I muttered, tossing the phone on the passenger seat. I knew she was gonna do this. Leave me with my finger in the dam. Shit. I’d left her the contents of the whole house, and all I asked was for her to pay half of the Lowe’s bill. Half of three thousand dollars’ worth of appliances I’d generously given her instead of selling them, despite the card and payments being in my name. And of course, I was somehow the asshole in all this for leaving the state for a new job three months after we’d broken up. I had it on the highest authority she was now hooking up with some guy named Brad. I hoped Brad enjoyed my Samsung stainless gas range with the double oven. Asphalt-scented heat drifted in through my open windows as I sat in Burbank’s slow-moving morning gridlock. Even on a Sunday, there was traffic. I needed to get my AC fixed if I was going to survive in California—another expense I couldn’t afford. I should have walked to the grocery store. Probably would have gotten there faster at this rate, and I wouldn’t have wasted gas—another thing that cost twice as much as it did in South Dakota. Maybe this move was a bad idea. This place would bankrupt me. I had to host my best friend’s bachelor party, there were moving expenses, the higher cost of living…and now this bullshit. The light turned green and I pulled forward. Then the truck in front of me slammed on the brakes and I hit its bumper with a lurch. Fuck. You’ve gotta be kidding me. My day had been officially ruined twice in less than thirty seconds. It wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. yet. The other driver turned into a Vons parking lot, waving out the window for me to follow. A woman—bracelet on her wrist. The wave somehow managed to be sarcastic. Nice truck though. A Ford F-150. It still had dealer plates. Kind of a shame I’d hit it. She parked and I pulled up behind her, turned off the engine, and rummaged in my glove box for my insurance information as the woman jumped from her vehicle and ran to look at her bumper. “Hey,” I said, getting out. “Sorry about that.” She turned from her inspection and glared up at me. “Yeah, you know you have one job, right? Not to hit the car in front of you?” She cocked her head. She was small. Maybe five foot two. Petite. A dark wet spot cascaded down the front of her shirt. Shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes. Cute. Impressive scowl. I scratched my cheek. Irritated women were a particular specialty of mine. Six sisters—I was well trained. “Let’s just have a look,” I said passively, putting on my calm-in-a-crisis voice. “See what we’re dealing with.” I crouched between the back of her truck and the front of mine and surveyed the damage as she stood over me, her arms crossed. I looked up at her. “I tapped your trailer hitch. Your truck is fine.” Mine had a small dent, but it wasn’t anything major. “I don’t think we need to get our insurance companies involved.” I couldn’t afford to have an accident on my driving record. It wasn’t good for my job. I pushed up on my knees and turned to her. She leaned over and tugged on the hitch. It didn’t wiggle. “Fine,” she said, obviously satisfied with my assessment. “So, are we done here?” “I think we can be done.” She whirled, darting around to the passenger side of her truck as I started for the grocery store. She dove into the cab, her legs dangling from the seat as she leaned in on her stomach. Her flip-flop fell off into the parking lot with a plop. She had a nice ass. “Hey,” she said, twisting to look at me as I walked past. “How about instead of staring at my ass, you make yourself useful and get me some napkins.” Busted. I put a thumb over my shoulder. “Uh, I don’t have any napkins in my truck.” “Think outside of the box,” she said impatiently. Feeling a little guilty for openly admiring her assets—or rather for getting caught doing it—I decided to be helpful. I went back to my truck, opened my gym bag, and grabbed a tee. When I handed her the shirt, she snatched it and dove back into the cab. I stood there, mostly because she had my favorite shirt, but also because the view wasn’t anything to complain about. “Everything okay?” I tried to peer past her into the front seat, but she blocked my line of sight. A small, light brown dog with a white chin growled at me from the window of the back seat. One of those little purse dogs. I scoffed. It wore actual clothing. “I spilled coffee in my friend’s new truck,” she said from inside. She lost her other flip-flop to the sweltering parking lot and was now barefoot, her red-painted toes on the running board. “It’s everywhere. So no, it’s not okay.” “Is your friend a dick or something? It was an accident.” She pivoted to glare at me like I kicked her dog. “No, he’s not a dick. You’re the dick. You were probably texting.” She was feisty. A little too cute to scare me though. I had to work hard to keep my lips from turning up at the corners. I cleared my throat. “I wasn’t texting. And in all fairness, you did slam on the brakes for no reason.” “The reason was I needed to stop.” She turned back to the mess. I suspected the reason was she spilled coffee on herself and hit the brakes reflexively. But I wasn’t going to poke the bear. Well trained. I slipped my hands into my pockets and rocked back on my heels, squinting up at the Vons sign in the parking lot to my left. “Okay. Well, good chatting with you. Leave my shirt on the windshield when you’re done.” She climbed into the passenger side of the truck and slammed the door shut. I shook my head and chuckled all the way into the store. When I came back out, she was gone and my shirt was nowhere to be seen. TWO Kristen Shawn planted a chair smack in the middle of the fire station living room and straddled it backward, facing me. He did this so he could harass me as close as humanly possible. I sat in one of the six brown leather recliners parked in front of the TV. My Yorkie, Stuntman Mike, stood in my lap, growling. Shawn bounced his eyebrows at me under his stupid pompadour hair. “’Sup, girl. You think about what I said?” He grinned. “No, Shawn, I don’t have any Mexican in me, and no, I don’t want any.” The fire station captain, Javier, came down the hallway into the kitchen as I leaned forward with a hand on my dog’s head. “Shawn, I want you to know that if I needed mouth to mouth, and you were the last paramedic on Earth, I prefer donations made to the ASPCA in lieu of flowers at my funeral.” Javier laughed as he poured himself a coffee, and Brandon chuckled over his book from the recliner next to me. “Shawn, get lost.” Shawn got up and grabbed his chair, mumbling as he dragged it back to the table. Sloan breezed back in from the bathroom. She had on that white linen skirt she got when we were in Mexico last summer and sandals that laced up her calf. She looked like Helen of Troy. My best friend was gorgeous. Blond, waist-length hair, colorful tattoos down her left arm, a glistening rock on her ring finger. Brandon was her firefighter and equally hot fiancé. It was Sunday. Family day at the station when the four guys on shift got to bring their friends and family to have breakfast with them if they wanted to. Sloan and I were the only takers this morning. Javier’s wife was at church with his daughters, and Shawn didn’t have a girlfriend. Imagine that. Technically I was here for Josh, the fourth member of the crew, though I’d never met him before. Brandon’s best friend, Josh, just transferred from South Dakota to be the station’s new engineer. He was Brandon’s best man, and I was Sloan’s maid of honor for their April 16th wedding in two months. Josh had missed the engagement party, so it was some all-important thing that we meet each other immediately. I checked my phone for the time. I was starving and getting irritable. Breakfast was on Josh today. He hadn’t shown up yet though, so nobody was actually making anything and all I’d had was coffee. He was already pissing me off, and I hadn’t even met him yet. “So,” Sloan said, sitting in the recliner next to Brandon. “Are you going to tell me where you got the shirt?” I looked down at the black, men’s Wooden Legs Brewing Company T-shirt I’d knotted at the waist. “Nope.” She eyed me. “You left for tampons, and you came back wearing some random shirt. Is there some particular reason you’re hiding this from me?” Brandon glanced up from his page. He was a pretty level-headed guy. He didn’t usually let things work him up. But explaining that I’d christened his new truck with my black Sumatra drip would probably earn me a stern disapproving look that would somehow be worse than if he cussed me out. I opted against it. I’d cleaned it up. I’d managed not to damage the bumper in the fender bender I’d caused slamming on the brakes when I spilled it everywhere. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Since my top was already ruined, I’d used it to clean up the mess and changed into Parking Lot Guy’s shirt instead. “It’s Tyler’s,” I lied. “It smells like him. I just missed him.” I put my nose to the top of the collar and made a show of breathing in. Damn, it smelled good. That guy had been kind of sexy. A nice body under those clothes, I could tell. Good-looking too. That clean-shaven boyish face I always gravitate to. I needed to get laid. I was starting to fantasize over strangers. It had been too long. Tyler hadn’t been home in seven months. Sloan’s face went soft. “Awwww. That’s so sweet. It’s sad you can’t be with him on Valentine’s Day tomorrow. But just three more weeks and you’ll have him for good.” “Yup. His deployment will be done and we’ll officially be living together.” A twinge of nerves twisted in my gut, but I kept my face neutral. Sloan smiled and put a hand to her heart. She didn’t much like Tyler, but she was still a romantic. My cramps surged and I clutched my stomach with a grimace. I was in the throes of another epic period. This, coupled with hunger, the events from earlier, and the 3:00 a.m. police drama at my house that I wasn’t telling Sloan about, had me in a fine mood. I was so tired I’d just tried to plug my charger into my coffee cup instead of my phone. Sloan checked her watch and then wordlessly rummaged in her purse and shook two Aleve into her hand. She handed me her glass of water and gave me the pills in a well-rehearsed routine we’d perfected during our five years as roommates. I swallowed the pills and turned to Brandon. “That book any good?” “It’s not bad,” he said, looking at the cover. “Want to borrow it when I’m done?” Then he peered past me and his eyes lit up. “Oh, hey, buddy.” I followed his look to the door and my jaw dropped. The handsome jerk from Vons stood there with bags of groceries. Our gazes met from across the room, and we stared at each other in surprise. Then his eyes dropped down to my—his—shirt, and the corner of his mouth turned up into a smirk. I stood, putting Stuntman on the chair as the guy set down his groceries and walked toward me. I held my breath, waiting to see how he was going to play this. Brandon laid his book over the arm of the recliner and got up. “Josh, this is Kristen Peterson, Sloan’s best friend. Kristen, Josh Copeland.” “Well, hello—it’s so nice to meet you,” he said, gripping my hand just a little too tightly. I narrowed my eyes. “Nice to meet you too.” Josh didn’t let go of my hand. “Hey, Brandon, didn’t you get a new truck this weekend?” he asked, talking to his friend but staring at me. I glared at him, and his brown eyes twinkled. “Yeah. Want to see it?” Brandon asked. “After breakfast. I love that new-car smell. Mine just smells like coffee.” I gave him crazy eyes and his smirk got bigger. Brandon didn’t seem to notice. “Got any more bags? Want help?” Brandon asked. Sloan had already dived in and was in the kitchen unbagging produce. “Just one more trip. I got it,” Josh said, his eyes giving me a wordless invitation to come outside. “I’ll walk out with you,” I announced. “Forgot something in the truck.” He held the door for me, and as soon as it was closed, I whirled on him. “You’d better not say shit.” I poked a finger at his chest. At this point it was less about the coffee spill and more about not wanting to reveal my brazen attempt at covering up my crime. I didn’t lie as a rule, and of course the one time I’d made an exception, I was immediately in a position to be blackmailed. Damn. Josh arched an eyebrow and leaned in. “You stole my shirt, shirt thief.” I crossed my arms. “If you ever want to see it again, you’ll keep your mouth shut. Remember, you rear-ended me. This won’t go over well for you either.” His lips curled back into a smile that was annoyingly attractive. He had dimples. Motherfucking dimples. “Did I rear-end you? Are you sure? Because there’s no evidence of that ever happening. No damage to his truck. No police report. In fact, my version of the event is I saw a hysterical woman in distress in the Vons parking lot and I gave her my shirt to help her out. Then she took off with it.” “Well, there’s your first mistake,” I said. “Nobody would ever believe I was hysterical. I don’t do hysterics.” “Good info.” He leaned forward. “I’ll adjust my story accordingly. A calm but rude woman asked for my help and then stole my favorite shirt. Better?” He was smiling so big he was almost laughing. Jerk. I pursed my lips and took another step closer to him. He looked amused as I encroached on his personal space. He didn’t back up and I glowered up at him. “You want the shirt. I want your silence. This isn’t a hard situation to work out.” He grinned at me. “Maybe I’ll let you keep the shirt. It doesn’t look half-bad on you.” Then he turned for his truck, laughing. THREE Josh In honor of the new-guy-cooks rule, I made breakfast for the crew on C shift. A Mexican egg skillet, my specialty. I was on probation—the probie. Even though I was five years into the job, I was only five shifts into this station. That meant I was the last one to sit down to eat and the first one to get up and do dishes. I was practically a servant. They had me cleaning toilets and changing sheets. All the grunt work. Sloan and Kristen opted to help me, and Brandon took pity on me, so they all stood in the kitchen wiping counters and scraping food off plates while I washed the dishes and Shawn and Javier played cribbage at the table. Kristen had glared all through the meal, but only when she didn’t think anyone was watching. It was kind of funny, actually. I kept ribbing her. From what I gathered through my prodding, she’d told everyone the shirt was her boyfriend’s. I wasn’t going to say anything. Brandon didn’t need to have the thunder stolen from his new truck by learning it had already been defiled, but I was drawing untold amounts of enjoyment from giving Kristen shit. And she didn’t take any of it lying down either. She matched me tit for tat. “So, Josh, you drive the fire truck, huh?” Kristen asked casually, wiping down the stove. “I do.” I smiled. “Are you any good at it? No problems stopping that thing when you need to?” She cocked her head. “Nope. As long as someone doesn’t slam on the brakes in front of me, I’m good.” Glare. Smirk. Repeat. And Sloan and Brandon were oblivious. It was the most fun I’d had in weeks. Sloan handed me the cutting board to wash. “You’ll be walking Kristen down the aisle at the wedding.” She smiled at her friend. “She’s my maid of honor.” “I hope you walk better than you drive,” Kristen mumbled under her breath. I grinned and changed the subject before Sloan or Brandon asked questions. “What’s your dog’s name, Kristen?” The little thing had sat on her lap all through breakfast. Occasionally his head popped up over the table to look at her plate, the tip of his tongue out. He looked like a fluffy Ewok. “His name is Stuntman Mike.” I raised an eyebrow over my sink of dishes. “Tarantino?” She raised hers. “You’ve seen Death Proof?” “Of course. One of my favorite movies. Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike. And your dog has issues?” I asked. The little Yorkie wore a shirt that read I HAVE ISSUES on it. “Yes, they’re mostly with Shawn.” I chuckled. Sloan swept cilantro stems into her hand and tossed them in the trash, and Brandon pulled out the bag and tied the top. “Kristen has an online business called Doglet Nation,” Brandon said. “She sells merchandise for small dogs.” “Oh yeah? Like what?” I asked, setting a casserole dish into the rack to dry. Kristen pulled out the coffee grounds and dumped them into the compost bag. “Clothes, bags, gourmet dog treats. Sloan bakes those. Our big-ticket item is our staircases though.” “Stairs?” “Yeah. Little dogs usually can’t jump up on a high bed. So we make custom staircases that match your bedroom set. Stain, carpet, style.” “And people buy that?” I set the last bowl to dry in the rack and peeled off my rubber gloves. “Uh, yeah they buy that. Why would you drop a couple grand on a nice Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware bed, only to have some hideous foam staircase next to it from PetSmart?” I nodded. “I get that, I guess.” “Which reminds me—I’m out a carpenter,” she said to Sloan. Sloan’s brow furrowed. “What? Since when?” “Since Miguel quit on me last week. He got a union job at Universal doing set work. Dropped me like I was radioactive. I have three stairs on order.” Sloan shook her head. “What are you going to do?” Kristen shrugged. “Put an ad on Craigslist. Hope the guy doesn’t end up being some kind of pervert out to kill me to sell my organs on the black market.” I snorted. Brandon nodded at me as he put a new bag into the trash can. “Josh is a carpenter. He’s pretty good at it too.” Sloan looked at me. “Really?” Brandon was already fishing out his cell phone. I knew what he was pulling up. The tiki bar I’d built in my backyard. Celeste’s tiki bar. Brad’s tiki bar. “Look,” he said, handing around the phone. “He built this.” Sloan nodded in approval. Then the phone went to Kristen, and she glanced at it before her eyes shot up to mine. “Not bad,” she said begrudgingly. “Thanks. But I’m not looking for any side work,” I said, waving them off. I didn’t need to build dog stairs for pennies on my day off. The living room of my new apartment was still full of boxes. “Yeah, who needs an extra two hundred dollars for three hours of work?” Kristen said, flipping a hand dismissively. “Not Miguel apparently.” I froze. “Two hundred dollars?” Sloan sprayed the counter with lemon-scented all-purpose cleaner. “Sometimes it’s more—right, Kristen? It depends on the style?” Kristen stared at her best friend like she was telling her to shut up. Then she dragged her eyes back to me. “The stairs run four to five hundred dollars apiece, plus shipping. I split the profits fifty-fifty, minus the materials, with my carpenter. So yeah. Sometimes it’s more.” “Do you have a picture of the stairs?” I asked. Kristen unenthusiastically handed me her phone and I scrolled through a website gallery of ridiculous tiny steps with Stuntman Mike posed on them in different outfits. These were easy. Well within my ability. “You know, I think I do have time for this. I’ll do it if you don’t have anyone else.” A few of these and I could pay off my Lowe’s card. This was real money. Kristen shook her head. “I think I’d rather take my chances with the organ thieves.” Sloan gasped, and Brandon froze and looked at Kristen and me. “Is that right?” I said, eyeballing her. “How about we talk about this over coffee.” Kristen narrowed her eyes and I arched an eyebrow. “Fine,” she said like it was physically painful. “You can build the damn stairs. But only until I find a different guy. And I will be looking for a different guy.” Sloan looked back and forth between us. “Is there something you guys want to tell us?” “I caught him staring at my ass,” Kristen said without skipping a beat. I shrugged. “She did. I have no excuse. It’s a great ass.” Brandon chuckled and Sloan eyed her best friend. Kristen tried to look mad, but I could tell she took the compliment. Kristen let out a breath. “Give me your email address. I’ll shoot you the orders. When you’re done with them, let me know and I’ll generate and send you the shipping labels. And I’ll be inspecting every piece before you take them to FedEx, so don’t try and half-ass anything.” “Wait, you don’t have a shop?” I asked. “Where am I supposed to build these?” “Don’t you have a garage or something?” “I live in an apartment.” “Shoot. Well, it looks like this won’t work out.” She smirked. Sloan stared at her. “Kristen, you have an empty three-car garage. You don’t even park in it half the time. Can’t he work there?” Kristen gave Sloan side-eye. I grinned. “He can.” A loud beeping came over the speakers throughout the station followed by the red lights. We had a call. Kristen held my stare as the dispatcher rattled off the details. Too bad. I could have hung out with my cranky maid of honor a little longer. No luck. Brandon leaned in and kissed Sloan goodbye. The girls would probably be gone by the time we got back. “We’ll finish cleaning up,” she said. “Get my number from Brandon,” Kristen said to me, crossing her arms over her chest in a way that I think was meant to keep me from offering her a hand to shake. Since the call was medical, we didn’t have to put on our fire gear. So Brandon and I headed straight for the apparatus bay where the engine was parked. I could feel Kristen’s eyes on my back and I grinned. She hated me. An ongoing theme with the women in my life at the moment. Besides Celeste, all six of my sisters and my mom were pissed that I’d moved. Even my little nieces were giving me the cold shoulder when I called. Seven and eight years old and they’d already mastered the little-girl passive-aggressive equivalent of “I’m fine.” “What’d you think of Kristen?” Brandon asked through a grin as we climbed into the engine. “She seems cool.” I shrugged, putting on my headset. Brandon and I had spent a year together in Iraq. He knew me well. Under normal circumstances, Kristen was my kind of woman. I liked petite brunettes—and women who tell me to go fuck myself apparently. “Just cool?” he said, putting on his headset. “Is that why you were checking out her ass?” Javier took his seat, chuckling to himself at Brandon’s comment and Shawn hopped in, catching the tail end. “Kristen’s hot as fuck. I check out her ass every time she’s here.” He put his headset on. “That dog bit me once though.” We all laughed and I fired the engine to life. “She’s not into me. She’s got a boyfriend. And I’m not looking right now anyway.” I hit the switch to open the garage door. “I’m not done paying for the last one.” Literally. FOUR Kristen The interrogation began on the drive home. “What the hell was going on between you and Josh?” Sloan asked as soon as we pulled out of the fire station parking lot in her crappy Corolla. “Since when do you get offended because a guy looked at your ass?” I didn’t. Nothing offended me except for cauliflower and stupidity. I just didn’t want this particular ass-man anywhere near me because if he looked, I was going to have a very hard time not looking back. Josh was the human version of ice cream in the freezer when you’re on a diet. He was my type, and I was sex deprived and not a particular glutton for punishment. Few men could spar with me when I was at my saltiest, and running that gauntlet was practically foreplay for me. I didn’t feel the need to torture myself unnecessarily by subjecting myself to it on a daily basis. “If I tell you the truth, will you tell Brandon? Where do your loyalties lie now that you’re engaged?” She laughed. “Tell me.” I came clean about the spilled coffee and the shirt. “Oh my God,” she said, turning on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. “Brandon can never know. Like, ever.” I scoffed. “Yeah, no kidding. He loaned me his truck for five minutes for an emergency tampon run and I manage to spill coffee in it and get into a minor accident with his best friend.” I’d have taken Sloan’s car, but it was impossible to start. It came with a volley of instructions. Jiggle the key while pumping the gas, put your shoulder into the door to get it open, don’t let the screeching belts startle you. I hadn’t wanted to find myself bleeding to death in a grocery store parking lot because I couldn’t get the engine to turn over. I could have spilled coffee and gotten into an accident in her car and nobody would have been the wiser. I could have totaled it and it would have probably been an improvement. “Why does Brandon get a new truck and a motorcycle and you have to drive this piece of crap?” “I like my car.” Sloan twisted her lips up on one side. “Josh’s cute, huh?” “If I didn’t have a boyfriend, I’d get under him.” She gasped and looked over at me, wide-eyed. Sloan was a lot more sexually conservative than I was. Shocking her was one of my favorite hobbies. I never missed an opportunity. I shrugged. “What? I haven’t gotten laid since last year. And this shirt smells incredible.” I dipped my nose back inside the neckline. “Like testosterone and cedar. And did you see him washing those dishes? He looked like Mr. February in a sexy firemen calendar. Guys like that are the exact reason why my grandmother always told me to wear clean underwear in case you get into a car accident.” She shook her head. “I swear to God you’re a man.” “I wish I were a man. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with all this faulty plumbing.” I cramped again and winced, rubbing a hand on my stomach. She looked over at me as she stopped for a red light. “Is it getting worse?” It was getting worse. “No, same as always.” Sloan didn’t need to know the truth. She was the kind of person who carried other people’s problems on her shoulders—especially the problems of those she loved. I had no intention of telling her what the doctor said until she was back from her honeymoon. Let her be ignorant and happy. It didn’t need to ruin both our lives. * * * Tyler called while I was going through my emails, an hour after Sloan dropped me off at home. I was still cramping and feeling generally like shit. I stared at the chiming phone for four rings before I picked it up. “Hi, babe.” I put more enthusiasm into my tone than I felt. That was the thing about military relationships—you didn’t get a lot of calls. Maybe one a week. You had to take them when they came, whether you felt like taking them or not. And today was a not. “Hey, Kris,” he said in that sexy accent of his. A little French, a little Spanish maybe? All his own. “I got the care package. You’re a lifesaver.” I set my laptop on the coffee table and went to the kitchen with Stuntman trotting behind me. “Good—I worried it wouldn’t come in time.” “Got here Friday. I can’t wait until I can get chocolate-covered espresso beans whenever I feel like it.” “Yeah.” I grabbed a bottle of Clorox and a rag and opened the fridge. Usually I paced when I was on the phone. But I cleaned when I was stressed. Stress won out. I started pulling out Tupperware and juice cartons and setting them on the floor, holding my phone with my shoulder. “I’ll buy some so you’ll have them in the pantry when you get here.” The pantry. It would be our pantry. I don’t know why this weirded me out so much. I dragged the trash can next to the fridge and began tossing old take-out boxes. “It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow,” he sang, poking me. I made a dismissive grunting noise into the fridge. I hated Valentine’s Day. He knew that. Total waste of money. “I hope you’re not planning on sending me flowers,” I said dryly. He smiled through the phone. “What would you like me to send you then?” “Something practical that I’ll get use out of, like a dick pic.” He laughed. “So what’s going on at home?” he asked. I reached to the far end of the top shelf to pull down a two-liter bottle of flat Sprite. “Not much. Hey, do you know anything about working with wood?” I opened the bottle with a pith and turned it upside down in the sink and waited for it to drain. “No. Why?” “Oh, it’s just Miguel quit,” I mumbled. “What? Why?” “He got another job. I need a new carpenter. I have this one guy, but he’s not the best option.” I muscled the rack filled with condiments from the door. “He doesn’t have a workshop like Miguel so he has to do it out of my garage.” “I don’t know the first thing about woodworking, Kris. Hey, if you put an ad out, wait for me to get home before you do interviews. There are a lot of perverts out there and you’re home alone.” My mind went to my 911 call this morning. I wouldn’t tell Tyler about that. It would just worry him, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. I carefully unloaded the mustard and ketchup bottles and started washing the empty rack in the sink. “So what’s the game plan when you get out? How long until you get hired, you think?” It wasn’t like he had to worry too much about finances. Tyler came from money. But if he didn’t have a job to go to every day, I didn’t know how I’d handle all the togetherness. We’d been dating for two years, but he’d been deployed the whole time. I’d met him at a bar when he was on leave. Long-distance was all we’d ever known. Two weeks of leave every year, full of sex and eating out, was one thing. Having a live-in boyfriend who was going to sit around and hang out with me for an indeterminate amount of time was something else entirely. The whole damn thing triggered me. I was going from having a man who was almost invisible to having one that would be here 24-7. And this was my idea. He’d wanted to reenlist and I’d told him if he did, I was out. I couldn’t do another deployment. But lately I was afraid I couldn’t do this either. It’s not that I didn’t love him. It was just a huge change. “I’ve got an interview with the State Department as soon as I get back,” he said. “Might take a while before I get in. And I’ll get to spend lots of time with you until I’m out of background checks.” My lips pursed. I put the shelf upside down to dry. “Yeah. Maybe we can rent a cabin up in Big Bear or something while we wait. Catalina Island. Make it fun.” “Think bigger. Why stay in Cali when we can go somewhere we’ve never been?” He loved to travel. I smiled, weakly, and went in for the next rack. Stuntman barked. He got excited when the fridge was open. I never fed him human food, but I think Sloan had been sneaking him pieces of turkey whenever she was here. “Is that my little arch nemesis?” he asked. “That dog better not bite me again.” I pulled on the shelf. It was stuck. “Or what?” “Or he’s going to the pound.” He laughed. He was kidding. But it annoyed me just the same. “How do you deal with armed insurgents when you can’t handle one four-pound Yorkie?” I gave the shelf a hard yank and it came away from the door with a clatter of condiment jars. “If that fat ass is four pounds, I’ll eat my helmet.” He chuckled. I laughed and felt myself soften a little. “He’s just fluffy.” “I know. I’m just playing with you. You know I love your dog.” He paused for a moment. “Mi amor?” Our game. My lips twitched into a smile and I stayed silent. I set the condiment rack down on the kitchen table and closed the fridge door. “Amore mio?” he said in Italian. Still, I waited. I wanted one more. Maybe two. “Meine Geliebte?” German maybe? “Mon amour?” Ugh. That did it. The French always got me. Tyler had been a military brat. His parents were diplomats and had been stationed all over the world. He knew four languages by the time he was old enough to talk. Now he knew nine. He was an interpreter. He was also one of the most intelligent men I’d ever met. He specialized in simultaneous interpretation, a skill set all its own. He knew Arabic and Farsi too, which made him a particular asset in the Middle East. They’d lobbied hard to keep him in service. It said a lot about his feelings for me that he was willing to leave all that. I put my back to the fridge door and slid down to the floor, a grin on my face. “Yes?” “I know you’re nervous about me coming home. I can hear you cleaning.” He knew me too well. “And you’re not? I mean, let’s be honest here—this is a little crazy, right? We’ve never spent more than fourteen days together at a time and now we’re moving in together. What if I drive you insane? What if on day fifteen you want to kill me in my sleep?” What if I want to kill you in yours? On paper it made perfect sense. He didn’t have a place of his own. Why get one? He’d be over here all the time anyway. And if he was going to be over here, shouldn’t he pay rent? This move-in thing had been in the works for six months. Tyler and I had decided on it back when Sloan and I moved out and I got my own place. It was hardly a new development. It just felt like it was barreling toward me all of a sudden. “Kris, the only thing insane would be me spending another two years half a world away from you. It wasn’t just you who couldn’t handle it anymore. It’s going to be great. And if it’s not, you’ll tell me to go fuck myself and make me move out.” I snorted and put my forehead into my hand. God, what the hell was wrong with me? “Tyler, do you ever see yourself acting crazy, but you can’t stop because you’re not a quitter?” “You’re the least crazy woman I know. It’s my favorite thing about you. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s a big step.” He changed the subject. “How are you feeling? Do you have a surgery date?” “Two and a half months from now. The week after Sloan’s wedding. I’m not anemic anymore,” I added. “Good. I wish I were already there to take care of you.” “Oh yeah? Are you going to buy me pads when I need them?” I asked wryly, knowing this errand was an affront to his very manhood. Men were so dramatic about buying feminine products. I never understood what the big deal was. “Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” I rolled my eyes with a smile. “Lucky for you, there’s only one need I want you to take care of. I’m climbing the walls.” He laughed. “As long as you’re not climbing anybody else.” My mind flickered traitorously to Josh. Tyler didn’t have anything to worry about. I didn’t cheat. Never had, never would. Cheating was a completely avoidable scenario as long as you operated with the barest amount of common sense. Like not putting yourself into vulnerable situations, such as hiring a hot fireman-carpenter to spend hours working in your garage. Josh would be an endurance test of my willpower. “Look, Kris, I gotta go. I’ll try to call you again in a few days. No more stressing. I can’t wait to see you. And I’m gonna tear you up when I get there,” he added. Now he had me in a better mood. Of course, how much he could tear me up depended entirely on where my wacky cycle was at the moment. But I liked the offer. “I can’t wait.” I grinned. “I love you.” “I love you too.” We hung up and I surveyed the chaos I’d pulled from the fridge. Stuntman sat in the middle of it, looking up at me. His little white chin looked like the beard on a nutcracker. This is fine. It’s all going to be fine. But I spent the next three hours scrubbing the kitchen just the same. FIVE Josh Two days after our fender bender, I knocked on Kristen’s door. Yapping started on the other side. I’d just gotten off my shift, and I had a heaping pile of building materials in the bed of my truck. Brandon let me raid his garage for power tools. Thank God. This job was temporary—I didn’t need to be buying shit. Kristen opened the door, wearing a pink robe and a green mud mask. “Hey. Come in.” Stuntman Mike bounced off my shins. I reached down to pet him, and she stopped me. “Don’t. He bites.” “We’ve already met. He let me hold him at the station,” I reminded her. “He’s got a misplaced sense of ownership over me and his memory is stored in a brain the size of a peanut,” she mumbled. “Wait a few minutes until he calms down. Then it’ll be safer.” I looked down at the little fluff ball. He growled and wagged his nub of a tail at the same time. I followed her into the house and leaned down and gave Stuntman Mike a pat while she wasn’t looking. A teetering stack of FedEx boxes sat piled by the front door. The coffee table was covered in carefully organized piles of paper. A laptop sat in the middle of it with a beer next to it, still cold. The glass bottle was perspiring. “Already drinking, huh? It’s breakfast time.” “I had a Pop-Tart with it,” she grumbled. I snorted. Her house was clean. Sparse, but clean. Smelled a little like bleach. There was a huge vase of flowers on her credenza. From the boyfriend for Valentine’s Day, I guessed. I hated that holiday. Just an excuse to spend money on overpriced shit. I was glad I was single for it this year. “Here’s the garage.” She opened a door off the laundry room. A tiny lacy black thong hung from a hanger over the dryer at eye level. I looked at it longer than was probably appropriate. I hadn’t been with anyone since Celeste. I’d been too busy and worn out from the new job and the move. And to be honest, I’d been enjoying not having to deal with a woman. It was a reprieve. It had been my experience that all women, even the ones you’re only having sex with, are on some level exhausting. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get back to it. I came up behind Kristen and peered into the garage over her shoulder. It was cavernous and mostly empty except for a few containers stacked against the far end and a newer black Honda parked in the last bay. She hit a button on the wall and sunlight shafted under the opening garage door. She turned to me, the green mask starting to crack around the edges. “Bathroom is down the hall. Sodas are in the fridge. Holler if you need something. I’ll get you a fan. It’s a hundred and fucks degrees out here.” She left me standing there. Well, the reception was chilly, but at least she’d let me in. I backed my truck up and started to unload, and she came down the stairs and set a fan in the middle of the floor. Then she walked out into the driveway, green mask and all, and put my folded shirt into my hands. “Here. I washed it.” “Thank you.” A car rolled by and the driver stared at her. I looked back at her with an arched eyebrow. “Don’t you care what people think?” “Do I look like I care?” “No.” “There you go.” She turned and went back into the house and I smiled after her. Kristen had crossed my mind a few times over the last two days. I’d actually found myself somewhat looking forward to coming over and getting further abused. I’d asked Brandon about her boyfriend. Not straight out—I’d asked him why she didn’t have him build the stairs. Just an excuse to find out more about her. Brandon only met him once, almost a year ago. Didn’t have much to say about it, other than the guy seemed all right. But he did say Sloan didn’t seem to like him for some reason. I’d pressed for more, but he just shrugged and said she wasn’t a fan. Two hours later I poked my head into the living room. “Where’d you say the bathroom is?” She’d changed into sweats and a T-shirt and she lay on the couch with a heating pad on her stomach. Her mud mask was gone. She answered with her eyes closed. “Down the hall, second door. Put the seat back down.” She winced. “You okay?” “Fine.” She didn’t look fine. She looked like she was having the period from hell. “Have you taken anything yet?” I asked. “I took two aspirin at four a.m.” Even her words sounded painful. I looked at my watch. “You can alternate with Motrin. I have some in my gym bag.” I went out to the truck and got two pills and brought them back with a water bottle from the fridge and handed it to her. She took them gratefully. “You get a lot of calls for period cramps?” she asked, lying back against the cushions, closing her eyes. “No. But I grew up with enough women to know the drill. Also, I’m a paramedic. You shouldn’t be taking aspirin for cramps. Aleve or Motrin is better.” “Yeah, I know. I ran out,” she muttered. “I’m going to get some lunch. Want something?” I figured if I was going to eat, might as well ask her too. She opened an eye and looked at me. “No.” Then she sat up with a grimace. “I need to go to the store.” “What do you need? I’ll get it. I’m going out anyway.” She clutched the heating pad to her belly and eyed me. “You don’t want to buy what I need. Trust me.” I scoffed. “What? Pads? Tampons? I have six sisters. This isn’t my first rodeo. Text me what you want.” I turned for the garage before she could object. I couldn’t care less about buying the stuff, and she didn’t strike me as the kind of woman to be embarrassed by feminine products—or anything, for that matter. She wasn’t. She sent me a long list. It was all heavy-duty. Ultra this and overnight that. I grabbed her some Motrin too. I stopped at McDonald’s and got her food, figuring she was probably too sick to make something for herself. When I got back, I dropped the bag of tampons at the foot of the couch. “Thanks,” she said, sitting up to peer into the top of the bag. “I’ll write you a check. I’ve never met a guy who was willing to buy that stuff.” “What, your boyfriend gets worried the cashier will think he’s got his period?” I said, plopping onto the couch next to her with the McDonald’s bag in my lap. She gave me a little smile. She already seemed to be feeling better. The Motrin must have been working. I started pulling food from the bag. “Fries,” I said, putting the red container in her hand. “And a hot fudge sundae.” I put that in the other hand. She looked from her hands back to me in confusion. “My sisters always wanted something salty and sweet when they were on their periods,” I explained, digging out the rest of the food. “Fries and hot fudge sundaes. They’d send me out to McDonald’s. I bought it on autopilot. There’s a Big Mac and two cheeseburgers too. I didn’t know what you wanted.” Her face softened, and for the first time since I’d met her, it looked unguarded, like she just now decided to like me. I must have finally tamponed my way into her good graces. “Six sisters, huh? Younger? Older?” she asked. “All older. My parents stopped when they finally got their boy.” Dad said he’d cried from happiness. “Wow. No wonder you ply menstruating women with ice cream. I bet when their periods synced they sat around glaring at you and making prison shivs.” I snorted. “Big Mac or cheeseburger?” “Cheeseburger. So, how’d you meet Brandon?” she asked, setting the sundae down on the coffee table and eating one of the fries. I handed her a yellow paper-wrapped cheeseburger. “The Marines.” She arched an eyebrow. “You were a Marine?” “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” I said, taking the Big Mac and opening the box. She looked me up and down. “How old are you?” “Twenty-nine. Same as Brandon.” Stuntman Mike jumped up suddenly from the couch and started barking frantically at nothing. He startled the shit out of me, but she didn’t even flinch, like this was a daily occurrence. He stared at nothing, seemed satisfied that whatever it was was gone, and then he spun a few times and lay back down. His shirt today read I MISS MY BALLS. “How old are you?” I asked. “Twenty-four. Like Sloan.” She was mature for her age. But then I always thought Sloan was too. “Hmm.” I took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “You seem older.” A sideways smile told me she liked that I thought that. “How are you liking the new fire station?” she asked. She must have seen the answer on my face. “Really? It’s shitty?” She seemed surprised. I shook my head. “I don’t know. It’s all right.” “What? Tell me.” I twisted my lips. “It’s just at my old station, we didn’t get shit medical calls. I mean, we only got, like, three a day—” “How many do you get here?” “Twelve? Fifteen? It’s a busy station. But the calls are bullshit. Drunk homeless guys. Crap that should be a trip to a walk-in clinic. I went on a call yesterday for a stubbed toe.” “Well, most people are pretty fucking stupid.” She ate a fry. “My granddad used to always say, ‘Even duct tape can’t fix stupid,’” I said, putting my straw in my mouth. “Hmm. No. But it can muffle the sound.” I burst into laughter and almost choked on my soda. I liked her wit so much more when I wasn’t the brunt of it. “You know, I never thought about firefighting being like that,” she said after I’d gotten hold of myself. “It’s so romanticized. Every little boy’s dream,” she said sarcastically. I looked into my fry box. “It is not what everyone thinks it is—that’s for sure.” I’d questioned all my life choices in the last week. So far there wasn’t much that I liked about any of it. Reduced to a probie, paying through the nose for everything, running calls to put Band-Aids on idiots. Except this was turning out to be interesting… “Why did you move?” she asked. I shrugged. “I had a breakup. My girlfriend of three years, Celeste. Figured a change of scenery was due. Thought I might like the busier station. And it was getting a little too much living so close to my sisters. I realized that I liked them better when I was deployed,” I said dryly. “The breakup her idea or yours?” She unwrapped the cheeseburger and took out the pickle and ate it first. Then she dragged the bun on the paper to scrape off the onions. “Mine,” I said. “And why?” She took a bite. “A lot of reasons. The biggest one being that she didn’t want to have kids. I did. It wasn’t negotiable.” She nodded again. “That’s a big one,” she mumbled. There were a lot of big ones at the end. I also didn’t much enjoy supporting her shopping habit or her inability to actually work in any of the many career paths she’d chosen. She was a perpetual student, jumping from one pursuit to another and never graduating. Paralegal, vet tech, dental assistant, nursing assistant, EMT—she was the most partially educated waitress in South Dakota. “How about you? Boyfriend, right?” I asked, looking around her living room for a photo. When I’d gone to Sloan and Brandon’s to pick up tools, Sloan had photos and art and shadow boxes all over the place. Kristen didn’t have anything on her walls. Maybe Sloan took it all in the move. “Yeah, Tyler. He’s coming home in three weeks. Moving in. He’s a Marine too.” I took a swallow of my Coke. “First time living with someone?” “I lived with Sloan. But yeah, first time living with a boyfriend. Any tips?” I pretended to think about it. “Feed him and give him lots of sex.” “Good advice. Though I’m hoping that’s what he does for me,” she said, laughing. Her laugh transformed her face so instantly I was immediately taken by how beautiful she was. Natural. Long thick lashes, smooth flawless skin, warm eyes. I’d thought she was pretty the other day too, but a scowl is an unflattering filter. I cleared my throat, forcing myself to look away from her. “So doglets, huh?” I nodded at Stuntman Mike. He had his head on her lap. The tip of his tongue was out. He didn’t even look real. Like a stuffed animal. “You know, he doesn’t seem like the kind of dog you’d own.” She looked at me curiously. “What kind of dog do I look like I’d own?” “I don’t know. I guess I just had a preconceived notion about what kind of people own dogs like this. Paris Hiltons and little old ladies. Is he the reason why you started the business?” I took a bite of my Big Mac. “Yeah. There were things I wanted to buy for him that I couldn’t find online. So I started making them. People go nuts for their little dogs. The business does well.” That I could believe. Just with the amount of orders she’d already given me, I could tell she made a decent living. It was pretty impressive. I tilted my head. “They’re kind of useless though, aren’t they? Little dogs don’t really do anything.” She scoffed. “Okay, first of all, he can hear you. Second of all, he’s a working dog.” “What, a personal support animal?” Everyone seemed to have one these days. “Doesn’t count. A dog that hangs out with you isn’t a working dog. That’s not a job.” “And what exactly would count?” she asked. “A police dog. A search-and-rescue or service animal. A protection dog. A hunting dog.” She looked at me, dead serious, and put a hand on Stuntman Mike’s head. “He’s a hunting dog.” “I’m pretty sure that’s an insult to hunting dogs everywhere.” I dug for my cell and pulled up a picture of my buddy’s Lab with a duck in his mouth. “This is a hunting dog.” She looked unimpressed. “Yeah, that’s a dog that hunts ducks. Stuntman hunts women.” I snorted. “What? I’m serious. He’s lady bait.” I glanced at him. He was pretty cute. She put her cheeseburger on the coffee table and pulled her dog into her lap like a floppy teddy bear, cradling him like a baby. His tongue rolled out and hung from the side of his mouth. “How about this? The next time you go to the store, take him with you.” I shook my head. “I can’t take him to the store.” “Why?” “Uh, because he’s not a service animal?” She laughed. “Stuntman can go anywhere. He’s wearing clothes. He’s not a dog—he’s an accessory.” I chewed a fry thoughtfully. “So I just walk him in on a leash?” “No, you put him in a bag.” I shook my head with a laugh. “I’m cool buying tampons, but I’m not walking a tiny dog into a store in a purse.” “It’s not a purse—it’s a satchel. And if this were entirely dignified, don’t you think all the guys would be doing it? It’s a core part of the strategy. Men don’t own dogs like this. They own dogs like that.” She pointed to my phone. “It’s adorable. Trust me. You’ll be a chick magnet.” I didn’t care about being a chick magnet, but I liked the idea of having an inside joke with her for some reason. “Okay. You’ve piqued my interest. I’ll test your theory.” “And if I’m right?” “Then I’ll tell you that you were right.” She twisted her lips to one side. “No. Not good enough. If I’m right, you pose in some website pictures with my dog satchels. I need a male model.” Oh God, what have I gotten myself into? “Somehow this whole deal feels like I’m the loser.” I chuckled. Whatever. I was a good sport. “How are you the loser? I’m giving you the opportunity to use my highly trained hunting dog to lure scores of women into your bed.” I smirked. “You know, without sounding like an asshole, I don’t really have a hard time getting women.” She tilted her head. “Yeah, I can see that. You have the whole sexy fireman thing going for you.” She waved a hand over my body. I took a drink of my soda and grinned at her. “So you think I’m sexy, huh?” She pivoted to face me full on. “There’s something you should know about me, Josh. I say what I think. I don’t have a coy bone in my body. Yes, you’re sexy. Enjoy the compliment because you won’t always like what I say to you, and I won’t care one way or the other if you do or don’t.” * * * Two days later I was back at the station. I’d just sat down in the living room after cleaning up the kitchen by myself for half an hour. The rest of the crew liked to hit the gym after dinner. There weren’t enough weight benches for everyone. As the probie, I had last right to anything, let alone the limited workout equipment, so TV it was. Brandon came into the living room with a water bottle and dropped into a recliner. “Shawn lost the book I loaned him.” “What book?” I asked, flipping the channels. “Devil in the White City. I swear to God, every time I loan that guy something, he either loses it or damages it.” “Did you check the bathroom?” “It’s the first place I looked. Keep an eye out for it, yeah? I bet he set it down in the apparatus bay or something. I’m probably going to have to buy a new copy,” he grumbled. “Why’d you let him have it?” He waved a hand. “Eh, I don’t know. Shame on me, right?” He shook his head. “Hey, how’s the side job?” I smiled, thinking about Kristen. “She’s cool as hell. She hung out with me in the garage a few times both days, just bullshitting. She’s hilarious.” No offense to Brandon, but Kristen was turning into my favorite co-worker. And if I had to get bossed around, I’d rather it be by her any day. He laughed. “Uh, I was asking about the job. But I can see where your mind’s at.” He grinned like he’d just won some bet. “I knew you’d like her.” I gave him a sideways smile. “What do you know about her?” Brandon was probably the one guy friend I could talk to about this. He wouldn’t give me shit. And God knows I’d sat through enough talks about Sloan. He shrugged. “What do you want to know?” Everything. “I don’t know. Just tell me what you’ve seen. You’ve known her as long as you’ve known Sloan.” He thought about it for a second. “Well, let’s see. She’s smart.” I could see that about her. Good with math. I’d watched her figure out the totals on a few phone orders in her head, tax and all. “She’s competitive. Doesn’t like to lose. The couple of times Sloan and I hosted poker, Kristen played and she made it to the final table both times. And those guys are pretty good. She’s driven.” “How solid do you think her and her boyfriend are?” I asked. “They’re moving in together, so it’s serious, right?” This was what I really wanted to know. He gave me a raised eyebrow. “I know she’s faithful to him, buddy.” I wasn’t implying that I hoped she would cheat. But now I was curious. “How do you know?” “I mean, I’ve never seen anything to lead me to believe she’s ever messed around on him. And she doesn’t seem like the type. She’s too principled.” I liked that she was loyal. A lot of women cheated when their men were deployed. I saw it often enough when I was on tour. The long separations took their toll. It said something about her character that she stayed the course, but at the same time, I didn’t like that it meant they were probably pretty serious. “You think she’ll marry him?” He grinned, shaking his head. “All right.” He picked up the remote from the arm of my chair and put the TV on mute. “You want to know what I think?” He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands, going into squad leader mode. He was about to level with me. “I think she’s not as into this guy as she could be.” Now here was something. I sat up. “What makes you say that?” “I don’t know. A hunch. Body language. Sloan. Any relationship that doesn’t have the best friend behind it is going to have challenges. And I didn’t get the impression Kristen was super in love with him. It seemed one-sided between them. That’s just what I got when I saw them together. But that was almost a year ago. Things might be different now.” I tapped my finger on the armrest and stared at the Marine Corps tattoo on Brandon’s forearm. Mine was on my chest. We’d gotten them at the same time. “She doesn’t have any pictures of him in the house. Not one.” Girls like to put up pictures. It had to mean something that there weren’t any. “Eh, there’s plenty on her Instagram.” I deflated again. He gave me an amused smile. “Look, buddy, you know how it goes. You come off tour and you don’t have a place of your own so you move in with your girl. It could just be that. Convenience. Or it could be they’re really in love. You want my advice?” I waited, looking at him. “Stick around. One of two things is going to happen when this guy comes home. They’ll either break up or they’ll get married. And if they break up, you’ll be the first to know. There’s no deadline. You like hanging out with her.” He shrugged. “So hang out with her. Be her friend.” Her friend. I could do that. That was easy enough. Anyway, what choice did I have? SIX Kristen I stood in the door of my garage, holding a plate, looking at a shirtless muscular back bent over a half-constructed staircase. This was why I hadn’t wanted him here. I knew it was going to be a problem. I had a boyfriend and I was attracted to this guy and now Josh was going to be out here, half-naked and sweaty every time I needed something from the garage. This was a pleasant upgrade from Miguel, for sure. Josh had been working for me for a week. He’d already done five orders and he’d done them well. He was a fairly decent carpenter. I got four more orders last night, just enough to keep him busy and shirtless in my garage until he went back to his real job for a forty-eight-hour shift the day after tomorrow. He turned and gave me one of his million-dollar smiles. Straight white teeth, crooked upturned lips on one side. His hair had that messy thing going on, like a grown-man version of a cowlick. Then he saw what I was holding, and he deflated like a popped balloon. I made my way down the steps and shoved the plate in front of him. “I made lasagna.” He looked at it suspiciously. I couldn’t cook. I didn’t pretend I could. He was well aware of this. This was a Stouffer’s lasagna that I’d heated up, so technically I did make it. I’d made a few things I’d shared with him over the last week. Some very soggy mac and cheese, a sad-looking sandwich, and a hot dog I’d boiled in water. I mean, if I was cooking for myself, I wasn’t going to not offer him some. That would be rude. After all, he’d fed me once and he was in my home. Or maybe the rude thing was making him eat my cooking. I couldn’t tell which was worse. “Thanks.” He took the plate. “It smells good,” he said almost hopefully. He always ate what I gave him, but he’d also brought a lunch today and announced it loudly when he got here. “Want to come inside and eat at the table?” I asked. He checked his watch and wiped his head with the back of his hand. I’d set up the fan, but it was still easily eighty-five out here, even with the garage door open. “Sure.” He handed me back the plate and turned to put on a shirt while I watched the contoured muscles of his broad back disappear under the gray fabric. I averted my eyes when he turned back to me so it didn’t look like I had been staring the whole time. On the way inside, Stuntman jumped at his feet. Josh scooped him up and held him for a minute, letting him lick his face. The little thing was a roller-coaster ride of emotions. He seemed to take to Josh though. He hated Tyler. In fact, I was worried how it would play out once Tyler moved in. Stuntman wouldn’t even let him sit on the bed. Even thinking about how that was going to go launched me into a manic cleaning spree. I wondered if Stuntman would let Josh sit on the bed. I bet he would. That thought made me want to clean too. Josh washed his hands in the kitchen sink, grabbed a Coke from the fridge, and pulled up a chair at the table. He took a bite and made a face. “What?” “It’s still a little frozen.” He gulped hard, wincing. I got up, collected his plate and stuck it in the microwave. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and swallowed some soda, looking like he was trying to get the ice crystals from his teeth. “Why don’t we make a deal? While I’m here, I’ll do all the cooking.” I shrugged, leaning on the counter. “I’d be offended if I wasn’t so fucking practical.” He laughed and his dimples creased. God, he was a good-looking man. I, on the other hand, looked like a bum. My guilt response to the attractive male in the house was to make as little effort at looking presentable as humanly possible. I had no way of controlling what thoughts about Josh ran through my head. That runaway train had already left the station. But I could control what I projected. My clothes were my outward way of saying, “Nope, not interested,” while internally my imagination was naked and disrespecting my relationship with Tyler in every way possible. My hair was in a sloppy pile on my head and I had dressed like I was about to play a mean game of volleyball. I picked the shirt with the hole in the armpit on purpose. “Hey, I wanted to ask you for a favor,” Josh said. “Can I use your guest bathroom to take a shower later?” Josh, naked in my shower. “Sure.” “I’ve got a date, and I don’t want to have to drive home and back.” “And do we have Stuntman to thank for this date?” I asked, hoping I sounded adequately unaffected by this news. As I should be. The microwave beeped and I handed him back his plate. “You were right. He’s a hunting dog,” he mumbled. “What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” I grinned. He gave me a sideways smile. “He’s a hunting dog. Are you happy?” He’d taken Stuntman to the Home Depot on my challenge and he’d come back saying only, “Let me know when you want to do the photo shoot.” He put an exploratory finger into the center of the lasagna, testing the temperature, and seemed satisfied. He put his finger in his mouth to suck the sauce off it and started eating. I put my own plate in the microwave and leaned back on the counter to wait. My cell phone pinged. Sloan: Are you behaving yourself with your cute carpenter? I grinned mischievously. Kristen: Nope. He just put a finger in my lasagna. Sloan: WTH?! I snorted. Sloan: Okay, now my eyelid is twitching. Thanks. Triggering Sloan’s nervous eye twitch was like hitting the bell on a strongman game. I loved it. You’d think after twelve years she’d be desensitized to my sense of humor, but she never failed to get flustered. Sloan: Remember, you can look but you can’t touch. Unless you break up with Tyler I narrowed my eyes. She’d love that. Kristen: Not a chance. Sloan’s prejudices against my boyfriend boiled down to, “I just don’t see it.” It wasn’t him and me she couldn’t see. It was him and us. I guess I kind of got why. I mean, Tyler didn’t ride a motorcycle. He didn’t hunt. Didn’t care for poker. Preferred an expensive glass of wine to whiskey or beer. Liked theater over movies. Brandon and he had very little to discuss the one time they met except for the Marine Corps, and Tyler’s job was so specialized they couldn’t even really connect on that front. Tyler didn’t fit into Sloan’s vision of our future, full of pool parties and barbecues. He was more of a cocktail-party and charcuterie-plate kind of guy. I didn’t like charcuterie plates. They always had weird stuff on them. I took my lasagna from the microwave and sat down across from Josh. “That party is coming up soon,” he said. “Do you mind if I got ready here then too? It’s thirty minutes in the wrong direction if I go home.” Sloan had a dinner party planned for stuffing wedding invitations into envelopes and putting together the wedding favors. It was a mandatory bridal party activity and in typical Sloan fashion, she wanted everyone dressed to the nines to take pictures for Instagram. “Sure. Wanna share an Uber? I want to drink.” “Yeah, sounds good.” I smiled. I liked that we were going together. Aside from being fodder for my fantasies, Josh bore the distinction of being one of the few people who didn’t annoy me. I liked spending time with him. A dangerous circumstance to be sure. My cell phone rang and I answered it, leaning over in my chair to grab my order clipboard off the counter. I wrote the order down and hung up. Josh gave me an amused smile. “Wow, you’re so different on the phone. So professional.” “I only cuss on business calls when I’m upselling my Son of a Bitch and Crazy Little Fucker shirts.” Josh chuckled and cut another bite of lasagna with the side of his fork. “What did they order? Any stairs?” A part of me hoped he asked because he liked coming over and wanted a reason. That same part of me purposely dropped lasagna on my shirt as penance. If I had one more inappropriate thought about Josh, I was going to have to see if I had some old curlers to put in my hair. “He has my stairs in every room of his mansion already,” I said, wiping the red sauce stain with a napkin. “Dale’s my best customer. He’s got six Maltese and millions. He owns a strip club in downtown LA. Spent two years in prison for tax evasion. I love the guy. Every month he orders twenty-four shirts for his dogs. He likes me to deliver them in person.” His handsome brow furrowed. “You deliver goods to a felon by yourself?” I gave him a cocked eyebrow. “He’s eighty-three. He’s lonely. And how dangerous can an arthritic old man with a ponytail and a dog named Sergeant Fluff McStuffs actually be?” He chuckled. “Fluff McStuffs? Do all little dogs have stupid names?” He took a drink of his soda. I balled up the saucy napkin and picked up my fork. “You should name any dog according to how it will sound while yelling his name and chasing him down the street in a bathrobe.” He laughed so suddenly Coke dribbled down his chin. He choked a moment and I handed him a napkin. “So have you planned the bachelor party yet?” I asked once he’d recovered. “I’m working on it. It’s not for another month and a half, so I have time. How about you?” He was still smiling and shaking his head. “We’re going to a day spa first. Then Hollywood in a limo to go barhopping. And I’m making her a suck-for-a-buck shirt,” I said. His forehead wrinkled. “A what?” “Hold on—I’ll get it.” I went to my room and grabbed the shirt I’d been working on. When I came back out and held it up, he stared. “Are those Life Savers?” I’d sewn the candies onto the shirt every inch or so apart. “Yeah. Random guys pay a dollar per candy and they have to bite it off her. The ones on her nipples are five dollars. She’s going to hate it.” He started laughing again. “Where are you taking Brandon?” I draped the shirt carefully over the back of a chair and sat back down. He chewed thoughtfully. “I’m thinking Vegas. No strip clubs. Maybe a nice resort, a round of golf. A steak house. This job is definitely helping me with the budget.” You’d never find Brandon in a strip club. It spoke to their friendship that Josh knew that. I could see Brandon going to be a good sport, but that wasn’t his scene. He was kind of introverted. He didn’t like dancing, wouldn’t go near a karaoke bar. “He’d probably like a straight-razor shave. Maybe a bourbon tasting.” He gave me an approving nod. “I like that. Anything else?” “Can you get a motorcycle? He loves his bike. He’d want to ride there.” That earned me a dimpled smile. “You’re good at this.” “I’m full of ideas. Too bad they’d never let us do something fun for the walk down the aisle. Sloan wants it all dignified.” I rolled my eyes. “What did you have in mind?” “I don’t know. Something viral video–worthy. Maybe the lift from Dirty Dancing or something.” “We still could. It could be a surprise. You know they’d love it once they saw it.” I eyed him. “Do you have those kinds of dance moves?” “Hell yeah, I’ve got those moves. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. Let me know when you want to start practicing.” God, those dimples. The corners of my lips turned up. “You and I might just be the perfect best man–maid of honor match ever.” He smiled at me a flicker of a second too long and something fluttered in my stomach. I couldn’t help but think we were well matched in more ways than one. And mismatched in the worst way possible. SEVEN Josh Why I’d decided to go on this date was beyond me. There was nothing wrong with Amanda. She was beautiful and nice, but my heart wasn’t in it. Kristen had been right: Stuntman Mike was a hunting dog. He was like a decoy, a call, and a retriever all in one. I had stopped at a sandwich place before the Home Depot. It was by a yoga studio where a class had just gotten out, and I’d been approached by almost every woman within a fifty-foot radius. For being such a crazy shit, Stuntman Mike sure was in his element with the ladies. The little dog was all swagger and charm, letting them hold him while he licked their faces. Kristen had dressed him in a shirt that read I LOVE MY DADDY, and it had tipped the scales. Amanda and I sat at a bar about ten minutes from Kristen’s house. I’d asked her to drinks instead of dinner so I could bail if we didn’t hit it off. She wore a pink, fitted dress and she smelled like peaches. Long brown hair, killer legs, nice eyes. Too much makeup. Ordered some fruity, skinny martini with an umbrella in it. Doesn’t eat cheeseburgers. She put the tips of her fingers on my knee. “I’m going to run to the ladies’ room.” She bit her lip, her hair falling in a cascade over her shoulder. “They have really great salads here. Want to get a table?” She winked at me and slid off the stool. The ice cubes clinked in my tumbler as I took a swallow of my old-fashioned and watched her walk to the bathroom. I wondered what Kristen was doing. I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled to her number. She picked up on the second ring. “Hey. What’s up?” she asked. I could hear her fingers tapping on her laptop. “What’re you doing?” I leaned on the bar. “Invoicing. Same thing I was doing when you left half an hour ago. That was quick. Unless you’re calling me to see if you and your date can use my guest room…” I smirked. “Can I?” “If you change the sheets,” she said without skipping a beat. “So what’s our story, then? I’m your sister? I’ll need details if I’m going to wingman you properly. And if she ends up being some crazy bitch who keeps showing up over here looking for you, I’m taking a hundred dollars off your paycheck per infraction.” My laugh made the bartender turn around. “I don’t need your guest room. But thanks for the offer. I’ll keep that in mind. She’s in the bathroom.” “You’re calling me while she’s in the bathroom? Oh my God, you’re bored as fuck.” I chuckled. “I just spent twenty minutes listening to the benefits of an organic, vegan diet. I haven’t eaten dinner yet, and I’m craving pepperoni now. I’m, like, ten minutes from you. Want to share a pizza in a half an hour?” “I could eat.” I grinned. The color pink approached from my peripheral vision. “Text me what you want on your pizza,” I whispered. “Gotta go.” I hung up and swiveled back to my date. “I just got called in.” I pulled out my wallet and put a few bills on the bar. “I’m sorry to have to take off on you.” She looked disappointed, but she seemed to believe me, which at the very least lessened my guilt at running out on her. I should have never asked her out in the first place. I just wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I picked up a pizza and some Stone Brewing dark ale and headed to Kristen’s, actually looking forward to going back over. It occurred to me that this was what I should have been doing tonight from the very beginning. I didn’t have to work at hanging out with her. When Kristen opened the door holding Stuntman Mike, she was in curlers. If I ever had any question whether she was remotely into me, her complete and utter lack of an attempt to impress me was the answer. She did not give a fuck. I actually liked that she was herself in front of me. But the implication didn’t thrill me. It meant her feelings toward me were totally platonic. For all intents and purposes, I might as well have been the gay friend, or a brother or something. I was friend zoned, hard, and this was the proof. The more I got to know her, the more this bothered me. She must really be serious about Tyler. She plopped down onto the couch and put her laptop on her lap. “Wanna watch something?” After moving her neat invoice pile, I set the pizza down on the coffee table. “Sure.” I sat down next to her and opened a beer for her. There was something intimate about being in her house at night. The energy was different. The light was dimmer, and things seemed quieter. And I wasn’t there to work, which was a definite change in dynamic. She took the beer I opened for her. “Thanks.” She gave me the remote. “I’ve gotta finish this billing though.” “How about Death Proof ?” I asked, opening the lid on the pizza box. “You’ve already seen it, so you won’t miss anything.” “Perfect.” I scrolled through Netflix and found it. We sat there with Stuntman Mike between us wearing his BITCHES LOVE ME shirt, drinking beer and eating pizza through the first half hour of it. Then she did a final tap on her laptop and shut the lid. “So what was wrong with her?” she asked, propping her feet up on the coffee table. “Who?” “Your date.” I shrugged. “Nothing in common. And I’m just not ready to date, I think.” “Then why’d you ask her?” She looked at me, balancing her beer on her thigh. “She was a yoga instructor. Yoga pants.” I bounced my eyebrows. “Well, you are an ass-man.” “Plus, I was being mobbed. I panicked.” She snorted. “Do you realize how bendy she probably was?” She took a swallow of her beer. “You messed up, dude.” I smiled, putting my beer to my lips. “Eh, I’ll be all right. Besides, women like that are too much work. The better looking they are, the crazier they are.” I’d had far too much experience with this. “That’s not a universal rule. Sloan is hardly crazy at all and look at her.” I shook my head. “I don’t know. She seems like she could go off the deep end if the right guy pushed her. Brandon’s just too mellow to unleash the fury, I think.” She laughed. I loved it when she laughed. Like a little reward. “Well, your yoga instructor was a vegan, so at least you know she wouldn’t have boiled your rabbit. You smell good, by the way,” she said, like an afterthought. “Thanks.” She smelled good too. When she’d given me back my shirt, some of her perfume still clung to it, even though she’d washed it. Tart apples. I didn’t want to admit how many times I’d put that shirt to my nose. I didn’t want to admit that I’d wished a few times I could put my nose to her neck to see if it smelled different on her skin. I reminded myself that she was taken. The good ones always were. What I had sitting next to me was the “cool girl.” That rare woman who was gorgeous without being nuts. The girl in high school who hung out with all the guys, but she never dated any of them because none of them was mature enough for her. That girl who had a boyfriend who went to college and picked her up in his car after school. She could beat you at beer pong and had a football team who would kick your ass for saying one wrong word to her, but she’d never let them because she could handle herself. “What?” she asked. “You’ve never seen a woman in curlers before?” I was staring. Just sitting there, staring at the side of her face like a fucking creep. “I was just wondering what you were like in high school.” “Less sarcastic. Skinnier.” I smirked. “Drama club? Sports?” “Orchestra.” “I pictured you as head of the debate team for some reason.” She nudged me. “What about you?” “I wasn’t into sports. I just kind of got through it. Not very memorable.” I drank my beer. “What kind of guys did you date?” She looked back at the TV. “College guys, mostly.” I knew it. A cell phone rang from the end table to my right and Kristen bolted up straight. She put her beer on the coffee table and dove across my lap for her phone, sprawling over me. My eyes flew wide. I’d never been that close to her before. I’d only ever touched her hand. If I pushed her down across my knees, I could spank her ass. She grabbed her phone and whirled off my lap. “It’s Sloan. I’ve been waiting for this call all day.” She put a finger to her lips for me to be quiet, hit the Talk button, and put her on speaker. “Hey, Sloan, what’s up?” “Did you send me a potato?” Kristen covered her mouth with her hand and I had to stifle a snort. “Why? Did you get an anonymous potato in the mail?” “Something is seriously wrong with you,” Sloan said. “Congratulations, he put a ring on it. PotatoParcel.com.” She seemed to be reading a message. “You found a company that mails potatoes with messages on them? Where do you find this stuff?” Kristen’s eyes danced. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Do you have the other thing though?” “Yeeeess. The note says to call you before I open it. Why am I afraid?” Kristen giggled. “Open it now. Is Brandon with you?” “Yes, he’s with me. He’s shaking his head.” I could picture his face, that easy smile on his lips. “Okay, I’m opening it. It looks like a paper towel tube. There’s tape on the—AHHHHHH! Are you kidding me, Kristen?! What the hell!” Kristen rolled forward, putting her forehead to my shoulder in laughter. “I’m covered in glitter! You sent me a glitter bomb? Brandon has it all over him! It’s all over the sofa!” Now I was dying. I covered my mouth, trying to keep quiet, and I leaned into Kristen, who was howling, our bodies shaking with laughter. I must not have been quiet enough though. “Wait, who’s with you?” Sloan asked. Kristen wiped at her eyes. “Josh is here.” “Didn’t he have a date tonight? Brandon told me he had a date.” “He did, but he came back over after.” “He came back over?” Her voice changed instantly. “And what are you two doing? Remember what we talked about, Kristen…” Her tone was taunting. Kristen glanced at me. Sloan didn’t seem to realize she was on speaker. Kristen hit the Talk button and pressed the phone to her ear. “I’ll call you tomorrow. I love you!” She hung up on her and set her phone down on the coffee table, still tittering. “And what did you two talk about?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. I liked that she’d talked about me. Liked it a lot. “Just sexually objectifying you. The usual,” she said, shrugging. “Nothing a hot fireman like you can’t handle.” A hot fireman like you. I did my best to hide my smirk. “So do you do this to Sloan a lot?” I asked. “All the time. I love messing with her. She’s so easily worked up.” She reached for her beer. I chuckled. “How do you sleep at night knowing she’ll be finding glitter in her couch for the next month?” She took a swig of her beer. “With the fan on medium.” My laugh came so hard Stuntman Mike looked up and cocked his head at me. She changed the channel and stopped on HBO. Some show. There was a scene with rose petals down a hallway into a bedroom full of candles. She shook her head at the TV. “See, I just don’t get why that’s romantic. You want flower petals stuck to your ass? And who’s gonna clean all that shit up? Me? Like, thanks for the flower sex, let’s spend the next half an hour sweeping?” “Those candles are a huge fire hazard.” I tipped my beer toward the screen. “Right? And try getting wax out of the carpet. Good luck with that.” I looked at the side of her face. “So what do you think is romantic?” “Common sense,” she answered without thinking about it. “My wedding wouldn’t be romantic. It would be entertaining. You know what I want at my wedding?” she said, looking at me. “I want the priest from The Princess Bride. The mawage guy.” I took a swallow of beer. “I’d put my wife in a chair when I’m supposed to pull off her garter, and I’d dance around her to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ like in Reservoir Dogs.” “Yes! And I’d want my husband to show up at the last minute all red like in The Hangover. The pictures would be awesome.” I turned back to the show with a smile. This is the date I should have been on tonight. This was a date I would have gone home with. “Hey,” she said, leaning her head back on the couch and looking at me. “I’m sorry I was rude to you when we first met.” I chuckled. “So you’re going to stop giving me shit about my driving?” “No. You’re a horrible driver. I meant that stuff.” I laughed. “I had a bad week. You caught me on a really rough morning.” “Why?” I took a drink of my beer. She paused for a moment like she was debating whether or not to elaborate. “Well, you know Miguel quit on me. And my period was pretty crappy. I haven’t really been sleeping, and that morning I met you, someone tried breaking into my house—” “Wait, what?” My mood changed in an instant. I sat up and set my beer on the coffee table. “Someone tried breaking in here? Who?” My reaction seemed to surprise her. “Look, you can’t tell Brandon about this. Sloan doesn’t know. She’s all into these crime shows and her imagination would just run wild. I don’t need her freaking out on me.” “Did you call the cops?” “Of course.” “Did they catch him?” She shook her head. “They found a couple of cigarettes in the backyard and a beer can. It was three in the morning. Stuntman started barking. I walked the house and came around to the back door just in time to see the doorknob jiggle. The door was locked and they took off when I turned on the porch light. What?” The look on my face must have been as pissed off as I felt. This was not fucking okay. She was here by herself, all 110 pounds of her, and somebody tried coming in here to do God knows what to her. “Do you have an alarm system? A gun?” Why was she so fucking blasé about this? “No. But soon I’ll have a Tyler. Nothing better than an armed Marine, right?” I frowned. “You shouldn’t be here alone.” “I’ll be fine.” She waved a hand at me. “I didn’t tell you to get you all worried. I just wanted you to know why I lost it on you. It was kind of the final straw in a week from hell. There was that and then Miguel quitting, and I was just exhausted and annoyed and you’re such a bad driver, hitting people at intersections—” “Have the police followed up with you? Has anyone else reported break-ins?” “No. But last night—” She stopped like she caught herself. I waited. “Last night what?” “I found another can and two cigarette butts out there this morning.” My jaw clenched. That was it. “I’m staying the night here until Tyler comes back.” I was dead serious. And no wasn’t an option. Her face went soft. “While I appreciate the gallantry, you’re at the station half the time anyway.” “And on those days, you go to Sloan’s. If you don’t, I’m telling Brandon what’s going on.” She blinked at me. “Look, if this were one of my sisters, I would hope that someone would do the same thing for her. You shouldn’t be here by yourself with nothing but the dog equivalent of a rape whistle to protect you. This fucker obviously knows you’re here alone. What if he would have gotten inside? Or grabbed you while you were walking the dog?” I got up. “Where are you going?” “We’re going. I’m not leaving you here while I run home.” “Run home for what?” “To get my gun.” EIGHT Kristen Josh put a hand out to me, his face stern. I didn’t take it. “This isn’t open for negotiation. Let’s go,” he said, unblinking. I didn’t budge. “Tyler is not going to be okay with this.” “The next time he calls, hand me your phone.” “What?” Was he serious? “Any man who would allow his girl to be unprotected in this situation is either uninformed or an asshole. Which one is it?” Damn, he was good. I pressed my mouth into a line. “He’s seven thousand miles away. He doesn’t need to worry about something he can’t do anything about.” That’s how you managed military relationships—you kept the bad things from each other. He didn’t tell me when an IED went off under a Humvee or when a suicide bomb detonated at a checkpoint, and I didn’t tell him when a creeper was coming into my yard at night to have a beer and a smoke. We kept our conversations light and fun, and that was the rule. Otherwise you lost your mind. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “I’m not leaving you alone here. So you have a few choices. Call Sloan, tell her what’s going on, and stay over there until Tyler comes home. Get a hotel. Or let me sleep here, in the guest room.” He looked at me, stone-cold serious. “This is no different than having a roommate. There’s nothing inappropriate about it. You can’t be here by yourself with this shit going on.” I let out a resigned sigh. Of course he was right. And honestly, I was pretty scared. The first time I was moderately bothered but just figured it was a onetime deal. But this morning really freaked me out. I’d been super jumpy when Josh left on his date and I was alone in the house again. I’d been stress cleaning all day. I couldn’t go to Sloan’s. A pipe had burst in her guest room last week and the bed was still dismantled. I wasn’t sleeping on a sofa and I wasn’t paying for a hotel. Fuck that. “Let’s go,” he said. “Do I have to put on a bra? Because if I have to put on a bra, I’m not going.” I blinked at him matter-of-factly. I also wasn’t taking the curlers out, for reasons already covered. My comment earned me a break in the serious expression. I let him pull me from the sofa and I made him wait while I popped two more Motrin for the road. I was on day eleven of my period and there was no sign of it letting up, but at least it had finally downgraded from ultras to regulars. I tried to see the silver panty liner whenever I could. * * * Josh’s apartment was a studio full of boxes. He had a mattress on the floor with a sleeping bag for a blanket and a single lamp next to it that constituted all the furniture in the room. It smelled faintly like him: clean cedar. He was opening boxes labeled “bedroom” while I waited, leaning against the kitchen counter. “You still haven’t done much unpacking,” I said, looking around. I peeked into a cabinet by the microwave and found it empty. He closed the lid to the box he was in and ripped open the next one. “I work forty-eight-hour shifts and then I go to your place and build stairs for tiny dogs. I haven’t exactly had time.” He pulled out a black metal box and unlocked it. He reached in and came out with a small hand cannon. “Wow. That’s a big gun.” “You know, you’re not the first woman to tell me that.” He smirked, shaking out a few bullets from a box and loading it while I watched. Goddamn it was sexy. My phone pinged. Sloan: Is Josh still there? I thumbed in a reply. Kristen: Sloan, some serious alpha male shit is going on right now. I need to focus. Sloan: What are you talking about? Kristen: He’s pulled out his gun and he’s showing it to me. It’s HUGE. I’ll call you tomorrow. I turned off my ringer, imagining the horrified look on Sloan’s face and grinning to myself. I looked back at Josh. “Brandon should come help you unpack.” He put the gun back into the box. “It’s fine. It’s just clothes. I’ll get to it eventually. Celeste took everything in the house.” He stood up. “You let her?” I asked, sliding open a drawer by the sink. A single plastic fork and two ketchup packets sat inside. “This place is depressing.” No wonder he hung out after he was done working in the garage. “I didn’t feel right leaving her with an empty house. She stuck me with some bills that I would have liked to leave her too,” he said, looking around the room like he only now realized how the place must look. “She’s dating a guy named Brad.” I scoffed. “Brad? I bet he wears pink cargo shorts and smells like Axe body spray.” He laughed and leaned against the counter across from me, crossing his legs at the ankles. I cleared my throat. “My futon really sucks. Are you sure you want to do this?” Not that I wasn’t appreciative of the gesture. I would feel better having him there. If Tyler wasn’t moving in, someone like Josh would be the perfect roommate. He had a stable job. He was gone half the week, so I’d still have alone time, and he was really cool to hang out with. The attraction I had to him was a major issue. I couldn’t live long-term with a guy I’d want to hook up with—because I probably would. It would just be way too convenient. But I’d always liked the idea of a male roommate. I’d never had the option because I’d lived with Sloan right out of high school, which was great. But in another universe, I would totally have lived with a man. He crossed his arms over his magnificent chest. “Yes, I want to do this. If something happened to you because I didn’t, I couldn’t live with it.” I cocked my head, my curlers shifting. “When did you stop drawing penises on stuff?” He snorted. “What?” “Like, how old were you when you stopped drawing penises on stuff? I was just thinking how great a guy roommate would be and I realized the only downside would be finding penises drawn in the steam on the bathroom mirror.” His dimpled smile made me grin. “I just drew a penis on Brandon’s truck the other day.” I laughed. “So men never outgrow it. Nice.” He smiled at me. “Is this really what you’re standing there thinking about?” “Welcome to my brain. Strap in and keep your arms inside the ride at all times,” I said, peering into a drawer I’d pulled open with my finger. Inside sat a photo next to a spare set of car keys and a pen. I picked up the picture. It was framed by four sloppily painted Popsicle sticks, like a kid made it. The magnet had broken off the back and sat in the drawer. It was Josh, on his hands and knees with a boy on his back riding him like a pony. I laughed and he cleared the space between us and leaned against the counter next to me. “My nephew, Michael. Two years ago. He gave me that for my birthday.” My smile fell the tiniest bit. “You like kids, huh?” “Love ’em.” He was standing just a little too close. He crossed his arms and it made his muscles push out and press into my shoulder. God, he smelled good. That yoga instructor messed up running him off. If she would have just shut up about tofu, he might be over there instead of here. Her loss. “Do you want a big family?” I asked, already guessing the answer. “Oh yeah. I loved growing up in a big family. I want at least five myself. I kind of thought I’d have kids by now, actually.” “Why don’t you?” He shrugged. “Didn’t get out of the military until I was twenty-two. I wasn’t ready yet. And then I was with Celeste. She never wanted kids, but she was a lot younger than me. I thought maybe she’d change her mind as she got older, you know?” “And she didn’t.” He shook his head. “Nope. She was fucking pissed at me for breaking things off too. That’s why I gave her everything. It wasn’t her fault. I was the one who changed the rules. I just couldn’t stay in a relationship that was a dead end like that.” “I see.” A dead end. “And are you going to make your wife give you all these kids you want, or are you going to adopt some of them?” “Nah, I want them the old-fashioned way.” A disappointment I had no right feeling dropped into my stomach. He looked at me with those deep-brown eyes. “How about you? Big family?” I shook my head, looking away from him. “I’m an only child.” “But do you like kids? Wanna have them?” I handed him back his photo, hoping he couldn’t see the crack in my heart through my eyes. “Yeah. I do.” It wasn’t a lie. It also wasn’t ever going to happen. NINE Josh She hadn’t been kidding—her futon really did suck. Hard as a rock. When we got back to Kristen’s, I changed into pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. I was standing over the brick of a bed, debating whether the couch was a better option, when she knocked on the door. She stood in the hall in her curlers, wringing her hands, with Stuntman Mike at her feet looking up at me. I thought for a second she’d seen someone in the yard and had come to tell me. “Josh? Can you come to my room?” My wolfish grin broke some of the tension on her face. “Oh, stop. There’s a spider. I need you to kill it. Please. Before it disappears and I have to burn my whole house down.” I laughed. “Should I get my gun or…?” She bounced nervously. “Josh, I’m serious. I hate them. Please help me.” I pulled a few tissues from the box on my nightstand. “You know, you seem too fearless to be afraid of spiders.” “A black widow killed my schnauzer when I was a kid. Embracing a lifelong debilitating fear of spiders is cheaper than therapy.” She stopped in the doorway of her room like there was an invisible force field, and I almost bumped into her back. “Well? Where is it?” She pointed to the wall on the other side of her bed. It was a decent-size spider. I could see why she was distressed. Her room was surprisingly girly. I don’t know what I was expecting. She had tons of throw pillows and a soft-looking blanket draped off the footboard. It smelled like the perfume she’d had on the day she wore my shirt—green apples. Stuntman Mike climbed a mahogany staircase that matched her bed frame and plopped down on the pink floral bedspread with his tongue out. The brown spider scurried a few inches and Kristen spun and did a little jumpy thing, burying her face in my chest. I’d never liked spiders more in my life. I put my hands on her shoulders and delicately moved her out of my way. “What would you have done if I wasn’t here?” I asked, as I pressed the tissues to the wall firmly, ending the siege. “I would have gone to Sloan and Brandon’s.” She squeezed herself against the door frame as far as she could go while I walked the dead spider to the toilet in her guest bathroom. I flushed the tissues and turned to her. “Let me get this straight. You’ll pack up and leave for a spider, but you have a prowler in the backyard and that you just ride out?” “My priorities feel straight.” She looked around me at the toilet like she wanted to make sure it actually went down. “That spider looked pregnant, by the way. Thank God you called me when you did.” She flapped her hands and squeaked a little and I laughed at her. I crossed my arms and leaned in the bathroom doorway. “We got a call for a spider last week. Believe it or not, it was one of the least stupid calls we went on.” “I actually get that. I was close to calling 911 myself.” I chuckled at her. “Well, thank you,” she said. “If I can ever return the favor, let me know. Like, if you ever need a porch plant killed, I’m your girl.” I smiled and we both just stood there. Neither one of us made a move to go, even though it was late. A mischievous grin crept across her face. “Are you tired?” I liked the glint in her eye and I had no intention of ending this night if she didn’t want to, no matter how tired I was. “No.” “Do you want to go TP Sloan and Brandon’s house?” My laugh made her eyes dance. “I know it’s a little tenth-grade retro,” she said. “But I’ve always wanted to do it. And you can’t TP a house alone—it’s a rule.” “We’ll have to show up there tomorrow and help them clean it up. Pretend it’s just a lucky coincidence,” I said. “Can you borrow a tool from Brandon? I can text Sloan in the morning to tell her we’re going to pick it up. She’ll cook if she knows we’re coming. Then we’ll get breakfast and atone for our sins.” She grinned. A half an hour later I was crouched behind my truck two houses down from Brandon’s, game-planning with Kristen. She still hadn’t taken out her curlers. “If they wake up,” she whispered, “we scatter and reconvene at the donut place on Vanowen.” “Got it. If you’re captured, no matter what they do to you, don’t break under interrogation.” She scoffed quietly. “As if. I can’t be broken.” She snatched her roll and darted from behind the truck. We made short work of it. Operation TP Sloan and Brandon’s was completed in less than five minutes. No casualties. We got back into the truck laughing so hard it took me three tries to get the key in the ignition. Then I noticed she’d lost a curler. I got unbuckled. “No curlers left behind. It’s Marine Corps policy.” We got out for a recon mission on Brandon’s lawn. I located the fallen curler under a pile of TP by the mailbox. “Hey,” I whispered, holding it up. “Found it.” She beamed and jogged across the toilet-papered grass, but when she reached for the curler, I palmed it. “You’re injured,” I whispered. “You’ve lost a curler. The medics can reattach it, but I’ll need to carry you out. Get on my back.” I was only about 50 percent sure she would go for this. I banked on her not wanting to break character. She didn’t skip a beat. “You’re right,” she whispered. “Man down. Good call.” She jumped up and I piggybacked her to the truck, laughing the whole way. Those thirty seconds of her arms around my neck made my entire night. Once we officially made our getaway and were driving from the neighborhood, she turned to me. “Hey, you wanna see something cool?” I wanted to do anything that meant I got to spend more time with her. “Yeah, sure.” “Okay, turn left here,” she said. “It’s a surprise.” We drove a few miles and then she directed me into a vacant parking lot in a strip mall on Roscoe Boulevard near her house. “Park there. This is it.” I pulled into the empty lot and put the truck in park. “Well? What’s the surprise?” None of the businesses were open. It was almost 1:00 in the morning. She unbuckled herself and sat facing me, her legs tucked under her on the seat. Her eyes sparkled. “Look.” She pointed out the windshield to a run-down pawnshop in front of the truck. “What?” “You don’t know what that is?” She grinned. I looked back at the storefront. Just a tired shop. “Nope. What?” She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’ma get medieval on your ass.” My eyes flew wide. “No fucking way.” I jumped out of the truck and stood in front of the pawnshop, examining the windows and sign. She climbed out after me. “Is this…?” I asked in awe. “Yup. The pawnshop from the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction.” I grinned up at the yellow sign. “Wow.” “I know.” I knew the movie had been filmed in California, but it never occurred to me to look for the landmarks. “Are there more?” I asked. “Yeah. There’s the street where Butch runs over Marsellus. And the outside of Jack Rabbit Slim’s is actually a vacant bowling alley in Glendale. We could drive by that sometime if you want. Most of the landmarks are gone though. The restaurant from the Honey Bunny scene, the apartment where Vincent gets killed—all torn down.” I furrowed my brow, but not because of the demolished landmarks. This was the best date I’d ever been on. And it wasn’t even a date. I looked at her, balancing on the balls of her feet off a concrete parking lot divider. She had no makeup on. Sweats. Hair in fucking curlers. Hell, she didn’t even change out of the shirt with the enormous lasagna stain on the front before we left the house. And she was a thousand times better than the drop-dead gorgeous yoga instructor from a few hours earlier. Fun. Witty. Smart. Beautiful. The cool girl. And nothing that I could have. TEN Kristen My cohabitation situation with Josh was on day five. I stayed in Mom’s empty beach house the two days he went to work. It wasn’t ideal. My inventory was at my house and I had to be there to get any work done. The commute was two hours. But he was right—I couldn’t be in my house alone at night. It just wasn’t safe. Josh and I had developed a sort of routine. We ate almost every meal together, watched marathons of shows, took turns walking Stuntman, and did late-night food runs. I had planned to stay away from him as much as possible, but there was only the one TV in the living room and the coffee table was my unofficial office. And if we both needed to eat, it didn’t make any sense to do it separately. So we just kind of fell in together. Every morning he’d patrol the yard for evidence of my creeper. It was seriously fucking hot. Then he’d make us eggs and we’d sit at the kitchen table talking until he had to g