Coming home after a long week of getting nothing done to a party isn’t my idea of a great Friday night. Additionally, I’ve completely forgotten about whatever we’re celebrating tonight, and I don’t even want to know.
Grumpy, I know. Maybe I just need a bag of potato chips and then I’ll be fine. They usually do the trick, and if they’re the salt and vinegar kind, my whole mood can do an about-face.
The thing is, I don’t have anything to celebrate—unless complete silence from the woman I’m desperate to interview counts.
I don’t think it does, and I don’t think potato chips will make someone agree to talk to me.
“Come on, Hillary,” I say to myself as I inch past the house, with its bright lights spilling out of the windows and cars filling the driveway and both sides of the lane.
I live with five of my college roommates, though I graduated six years ago. I still don’t have the documentary credits I want, but I push that aside as my phone rings.
After easing off the road so I can answer the call from my boss, I chirp, “Hey, Michelle.”
“Are you sitting down?” she asks.
“I’m in my car,” I say. “Not even home yet.” And not in a party mood. Thankfully, my room is on the third floor, and hopefully I can make a quick escape.
“Kevin called, and Cat has agreed to meet with you next week.”
My heart pounds into my throat, making it impossible for me to respond.
“Hillary?” Michelle asks. “Are you still there?”
I clear my throat, but my words have failed me. So much for that degree in film with a minor in journalism. Shouldn’t I always have the exact right thing to say?
“Anyway,” Michelle forges on. “I told him you’d clear your schedule, and he’s going to email when you can see her.”
“Great,” I manage to say, my eyes only taking in the darkness in front of me. We do have a neighbor here, but the farmhouse sits back on the five-acre plot of land, surrounded by an orchard and a beautiful lawn that’s well-taken care of.
“Great,” Michelle parrots back to me, and she says, “See you Monday. I want to go over your questions and topics.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. I’ve been organizing and fine-tuning my questions and topics for Catarina Morgan, the only woman willing to speak about a controversial merger that happened in the eighties.
She’s seventy-seven now, and she lives in an elderly care facility that has some serious security. She, of course, has a lot of money, and no one talks to her without the approval of her manager and son, Kevin.
The call ends, and a smile finally touches my face. I still don’t want to party, but I don’t want to sit in my car either. The house has parking on the other side, which only those of us who live there know about. Hopefully.
I have to drive back down the lane and around the big block of five-acre estates to get to it, but there is a parking space there. Tahlia Tomlinson owns this house after inheriting it from her aunt, and she was my roommate the year I was freshman and she a senior.
Inside the house, I find several people hanging out in the kitchen, and I keep my purse shouldered as I open the fridge and grab my container of potato salad and a cup of olives. Maybe not the best dinner, but I don’t think a meal is a meal without potatoes.
“Hillary,” Claudia says, and I turn toward her and toe the fridge door closed.
“Hey.” I lean in and hug her. She lives on the third floor too, and we share the bathroom up there. Tahlia has the master suite on this floor, and three other women live on the second level.
“What’s going on tonight?” I ask, glancing over to five people I don’t know.
“Oh, one of Tahlia’s former students got into Yale. So Tahlia threw her a party.”
No wonder I don’t know any of the people here, and no wonder most of them look a decade younger than me. They are.
“Amazing,” I say, smiling. “I’ll be sure to congratulate her.”
“You just gonna head upstairs?”
I nod and turn back to the fridge, praying there will be ice for my water bottle. “I have some French lessons to do.” I have news too—I got my interview!—but I can save it for another time, when there’s actually people I know and love surrounding me.
I fill my water bottle and escape upstairs. My room is a safe haven for me, and I sigh as I close the door behind me, all evidence of the party raging below suddenly gone. Good. If I can contain it inside my own room, then our neighbors won’t be calling the cops.
I start my self-guided French lessons and pull the notebook I take everywhere with me from my purse. As I stand at the desk and leaf through it, a smile comes to my face.
“You got the interview,” I tell myself as if I don’t know. And I get to sleep in tomorrow, and suddenly life is all potatoey goodness.
What’s not potatoey goodness is the sound of a lawn mower pulling me from my dreams the next morning. Yes, light pours in through my closed blinds, but it can’t be very late in the day.
“Stupid Liam,” I mutter. Yes, he takes good care of his properly—and Tahlia even hires him to come help over here sometimes too.
He’s got all the tools required, and plenty of toys, like bikes and motorcycles and cars, though he claims those are broken down and he’s learning how to fix them.
I press my eyes closed as my irritation rises, hoping he’ll finish up so I can go back to sleep. If anything, the growling sound of the lawn mower intensifies, and it feels like he’s cutting grass in my very bedroom.
Frustrated, I throw my blanket off and stomp over to the window. I yank the blinds up, and sure enough, there’s my next-door neighbor mowing his lawn right along the edge of our property.
He sometimes uses a riding mower, but today, he’s pushing the machine, and I stare as he walks right by my window and continues along the lines of grass that’s already done. He’s wearing a pair of tan shorts that only go halfway down his muscular thighs, a pair of work boots, and a baseball hat that shades his face.
His bare shoulders span a magnificent width and taper down a trim back to his waist—and that’s when I yank my gaze away.
My first thought is to text the other women, because while Liam has an acidic tongue and a surly personality, he’s a pretty sight to see.
He reaches the top of the line and turns back, giving me a clear sight line to his chest. Oh, mashed potatoes and gravy. I have to do something besides stare, and my default is irritation.
I pull open the window and lean out of it. “Hey!” I wave my hand, remembering why I got up before seven-thirty a.m.—and it wasn’t by choice. “Hey! Up here!”
Liam looks over, and he lifts one hand in a wave too, albeit hesitantly. I’ll admit, we’re not the best of friends. Or even friends. Or even acquaintances.
“No!” I yell. “Stop mowing! It’s too early!” I make a slashing motion across my throat, hoping he gets that that means to cut the blasted mower already.
He does, his step slowing to a stop. He reaches up and pulls something out of his ears, maybe earbuds or maybe earplugs.
“Hey,” he calls. “Good morning.”
“No,” I yell back. “It’s not a good morning. Do you know what time it is?”
His dark hair and dark eyes only seem to get darker as he frowns. “Time to mow the lawn,” he says, starting up the mower again.
“Liam!” I yell, but he shoves his earbuds back in and starts strutting in front of me again.
“Unbelievable,” I say, spinning from the window. “This is so not happening. Not today.” I slide my feet into a pair of flip flops, and I leave my bedroom, ready to give Liam Graff a piece of my mind for his Saturday morning wake-up mows once and for all.
A Very Terrible Text Chapter Two:
It’s hot in Cider Cove already this morning, and my task list today is out of control. So I really don’t need the angry redheaded storm coming toward me, though Hillary Mays is my definition of gorgeous.
I’ve known her for a couple of years, since she moved into the Big House next door with Tahlia and their other roommates. Known is also a relative term, as Hillary has always been on the aloof side. Cordial, sure. Maybe even nice a time or two in passing. But I don’t really know her.
As she marches across the long grass that Tahlia’s asked me to tame, I find I’d really like to tick all of Hillary’s boxes and see what comes out the other side.
Don’t be ridiculous, I tell myself as she gets closer and closer. She’s wearing a tiny pair of pajamas—a tank top and a slip of shorts in pale pink.
They almost blend into her skin, and dearie me, my momma would be horrified at the thoughts running through my head.
Why am I smiling?
She’s here to yell at me, and I take my hands off the bar that keeps the engine running. It cuts out, and I remove the earplugs from my ears as Hillary says, “This is the one day I have to sleep in, Liam, and you always ruin it.”
She crowds right into my personal space and swats my chest. “Why can’t you wait until nine to mow?”
I flinch away from her, though she can’t hurt me. At least not physically. I’m afraid this woman could tear my heart out and leave it flop-pounding on the ground. I’ve had that happen before, and the stack of unrealized dreams I have could fill a whole cupboard.
“It gets too hot,” I say. “And I have a lot of acreage to do today.”
She glares, those hazel-green eyes as mesmerizing as they are piercing. “You work all day in the heat. One hour won’t make a difference.”
“It does in how much I can get done,” I say.
“Start somewhere else,” she says.
“Then I waste time in travel.” Two can play her game, and I can see I’m pushing those buttons. Oh, boy, she’d even prettier with that flush climbing into her cheeks.
“You’re a princess,” I shoot back. “I’m here doing your lawn. Do you want to do this?” I give the mower a little push, but it doesn’t go very far.
She folds her arms, and her lips barely move as she growls, “I am not a princess. I’ve had a long week at work, and I wanted to sleep in. It’s not a crime.”
“Neither is doing a job I was hired to do.”
“Liam,” she says with such disappointment.
“I didn’t complain about your party last night.”
“It was not my party.”
“It was here at your house. I was up half the night, listening to laughter and music.”
“All the more reason for us to both be sleeping.” She throws her hands up into the air. “Just one day.” She shouts those words into the sky. Hey, at least it wasn’t at me. “Do I need to get a hotel so I can sleep in?” She strides away from me, her legs a distraction I’m going to be thinking about all dang day.
I watch her flip-flop her way across the lawn and up the steps to the porch of the house. She throws me a glare, and I salute her. Probably cheeky and rude, but she’s the one who yelled at me from a third-story window and then took the time to come all the way down here to chew me out for doing something literally millions of people across the country are doing right now. In her pj’s.
I keep mowing the lawn, and no one else comes out to yell at me, which means I’m free to think about Hillary the whole time.
By the time I finish with the lawns and landscaping jobs, I’m beat. I just want to shower, put on my cowboy garb, and hit the sports bar where they’ll be showing reruns of rodeos. Once upon a time, I thought I might be a cowboy. Like a legit cowboy, who worked a farm or a ranch—my own, of course.
Then, I’d finished high school, and the cowboy scene really only appealed to me in terms of wearing the hat and boots.
I love hats with my whole soul. I own at least a hundred of them, and every time I think about my financial situation, I consider selling some of them.
I never do, though, and somehow another job or another contract comes my way. Enough for me to keep this house that I bought when it was condemned and boarded up. I lived in a trailer on the property for a year while I fixed it all, rebuilding from the foundation sometimes, and the studs others.
Then, I got to wear my hardhat. I wear that one the most, as I own my own company, Blue Ladder Builders, and I have a general contractor’s license.
Now, though, I don my deepest, darkest cowboy hat, straighten the buckle at my waist, and head for the door. I need to get Hillary Mays out of my head, and my hormonal attraction to her this morning told me perhaps I’m ready to get back into the dating pool.
“Nothing too serious,” I say as I pick up my keys and get behind the wheel of my truck. Maybe a kiddie pool, where there isn’t a deep end, and I can’t drown too easily.
As I rumbled past the Big House, I first admire their lawn. I do good work, if I do say so myself. Then, I see the women on the front porch. Tahlia, a blonde woman with a warm personality, waves, and I lift my hand in acknowledgement. I am Southern, after all.
A couple of the others smile and wave too, but not Hillary. She sits with her lips pursed and her eyes tracking me and my truck for every inch it takes for me to go past her, the house, and the rest of the property.
Even when I get to the sports bar, I feel her eyes on me.
I manage to shake them when I see Aaron Stansfield, my best friend. He laughs and says, “There he is. What took you so long? You missed the bronc riding.”
“Yeah?” I pound him on the back in a healthy man-hug, glad he’s got his cowboy hat on too. “Who won? Byers? Or was this the one with McCaw?”
“McCaw,” he says, motioning for someone to bring me a menu and a drink. A pretty brunette appears and hands me a menu.
“What’ll you be drinkin’, cowboy?” she asks, her T-shirt really tight across her chest. She smiles, her lips pink and her teeth white.
I can’t help wondering what Hillary would look like on a date. What would she wear? Would she smear something red or pink or mauve all over her mouth?
“Diet Coke with raspberry,” I say. I’ve never had too much of a problem getting a date, but I haven’t asked anyone out in a while either. I glance over to Aaron, sure I can’t just blurt out a request for this waitress’s number. Or to know if she has a boyfriend.
You’re not dating a waitress in a place you come all the time, I tell myself as she walks away.
So I pick up the menu as if I need to look at it, then put it down and meet Aaron’s eye. “Does she have a boyfriend?”
Aaron’s blue eyes widen. He never just blurts out random questions he already knows the answer to. So when he asks, “For whom? You? You want to go out with Suzie?” it sounds like an attack.
“Sure,” I say, glancing away. “I’m—I want to go out with someone.”
“Not Suzie,” Aaron says, and I catch him shaking his head out of the corner of my eye.
I pick up the glass of water she brought with the menu. “Why not?”
“She’s high maintenance,” he says. “Don’t you remember when Josh took her to a concert? She called him four times before ten a.m. the next day.”
I smile, because I do remember that now. “She liked him is all.”
Aaron shakes his head, a smile twitching against his lips. “She’s too eager for your first foray back into dating.”
“Foray?” I laughed and look over to the TV mounted to the wall.
“What’s prompting this?” he asks. “Or rather, who? Who did you meet?”
“No one,” I say instantly, which is a dead giveaway that there’s definitely someone. But that’s why cowboy hats are the best, because I duck my head and bam. I can hide behind the brim while my face burns, only looking up when Suzie returns with my drink and the question, “What’ll you be eatin’ tonight, cowboy?”
She cocks her hip and grins, and if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, she can get one easily.
But Aaron is right. It’s not going to be me.
When I get home, I sigh. “Great Saturday,” I tell myself, and while Hillary still plagues me, most women I’ve thought about in the past few years disappear pretty quickly. She won’t be any different.
Still, as I fall asleep, it sure is nice to be thinking of a woman instead of where my next paycheck is coming from.