Aunt Maggie was a hell of a woman. Hoarding, no hoarding, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of her life. She was the type of woman who wore thigh-high go-go boots for fun.
The type of woman who dyed her hair bright red just because it was August.
The type of woman who glued sparkly glitter all over her face to prove to a little girl that magic existed.
The type of woman who lived her life with complete abandon.
As I lead Nick into her bedroom, I can’t help dwelling on how much I want to be that kind of woman. The no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, do-and-say-and-wear-what-I-want kind of woman.
Somewhere along the way, I lost that dream. I lost all my dreams, actually. Whether I had them stolen by Karl or gave them away myself because it was the easier path, it doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that I’m beginning to reclaim them, one small step at a time.
And if those steps happen to be in thigh-high go-go boots, who the hell is anyone else to judge me anyway? Besides, life is always more interesting in stilettos.
An hour later, the bedroom that seemed plenty big earlier feels like a shoebox. There’s room for a king-size bed, a six-drawer dresser, and piles upon piles of books and bric-a-brac. But after spending sixty minutes, 3,600 very long, very slow seconds with Nick in a room dominated by a giant bed, it’s become teeny tiny.
Every time I pick up a pile of Sherlock Holmes mysteries and turn so I can put them in the box on the bed, I have to slide by Nick.
My arm brushes against his firm chest as we pass each other in the skinny path between the window and the door. Over and over.
My ass grazes his hard thighs as I carry a tower of adult coloring books that go up to my chin over to a donation box.
My gaze snags on his at least forty-five times a minute as we work in companionable silence—except of course I’m not feeling very companionable about Nick. No, the more matchbooks for lighting candles that I pick up, the more naughty thoughts I deposit in my spank bank.
Seriously, a woman can only see a T-shirt stretch across that man’s broad shoulders or see the way his jeans cling to his ass when he squats down, lowering a heavy box of books to the ground, so many times before having thoughts. Does that make me a bad person for ogling my neighbor who is just helping me out? Yes. Does that fact stop me? Nope.
New Mallory has gotten her hormones back. My stomach growls. I’ve also seen the return of my appetite.
I take out my phone and pull up a food delivery app. “How do you feel about Thai? Or are you more of an Indian guy?”
He takes a trash bag filled with two decades of holiday cards and ties it off. “I like it all.”
Yeah, we both know that isn’t the case. “Mr. Easy? You? No way. You, sir, are a stickler.”
“Then Indian,” he says. “How about some pav bhaji from Chowpatty in Iselin?”
Honestly, I’ve kind of been craving Thai all night, but my mouth starts watering immediately for all the Indian-prepared mixed vegetables simmered in spices. “Naan or rotli?”
He grins at me. “Both, definitely both.”
Finally, something we can agree on without a fight first. A few thumb clicks later and our order is in. We finish up the last corner of spiderwebs and old Christmas cards by the time the food arrives.
I randomly grab an ABBA album and have it queued up on Aunt Maggie’s record player by the time Nick has dinner spread out on the coffee table in the living room.
I can barely hear “Waterloo” over the sound of our mmmmmms and yummmms as we eat. Afterward, we both lay down on the floor, our stomachs way too full to do anything else. We’re almost cheek to cheek, staring up at the ceiling, happy, satisfied, relaxed.
“I have no regrets,” I say, my palm on my belly.
“In general, or when it comes to all the pav bhaji we inhaled?”
I chuckle. “All of the above.”
Nick rolls onto his side, facing me, and props his head up in his hand. “So do you want me to mow the grass tomorrow after work?”
Friday. Why does that sound familiar, like there’s something—oh yeah. “Nah, I have a date tomorrow.”
His jaw tightens as he notices a few crumbs on his shirt and swats them away. “The contractor?”
I nod. “What is it with you and things that are green? I mean, tell me about all your house plants.”
He rolls back so we’re both staring at the ceiling again. “That would be because of my mom.”
“You guys are close?” I try to picture what Nick’s parents would be like and get nothing. Every time I think I’ve figured him out, he does something like sing along to every word of “Fernando,” so no, I can’t imagine who raised this mysterious guy, but I strangely want to meet them.
“Yeah,” he says, a smile obvious in his tone. “She’s pretty awesome.”
“And she gives you plants?”
“For every birthday and Christmas.”
Now it’s my turn to roll onto my side so I can see his face when he answers my next question. “Why?”
He chuckles. “She seems to be under the impression that I need to take care of things to feel personally fulfilled.”
“Okay, in all fairness, I can see your mom’s point.” And I can. “Look at how you’ve been with me, how you were with Aunt Maggie, and even your grumpy client today. You excel at all the white-knight stuff, you just like to pretend you’re a big grouch.”
“Is that how you see me, as a big softy?” he asks as he rolls onto his side again.
Now we’re practically nose to nose, and it’s suddenly getting very hot in here. “‘Soft’ is not a word I associate with you.”
His eyes darken. “What is?”
I swallow. “Does ‘friend’ work?”
Wow, Mallory. You have Mr. Hot in a Suit and a T-Shirt flirting with you, and that’s what you come up with?
He drops his gaze for a second, and when he brings it back up, there’s an intensity shining in his eyes that takes my breath away.
“It will for now,” he says and then gets up and reaches down to help me stand. “I gotta get back home. The house plants are calling.”
I nod and walk him to the sliding glass patio door. We stand there, him on the outside of the open door and me on the inside, both leaning against the doorframe. Neither of us moves. The hint of chlorine from a nearby pool floats on the air, and somewhere a neighbor is barbecuing, sending the scent of mesquite into the atmosphere. All of it mixes with the feeling of promise and more than a little buzz of attraction, giving me thoughts I should not be having about my temporary boss and permanent neighbor.