Holidays were the worst.
A mild headache lurked in her temples as Fiona Perkins drove out of the lot of the school where she taught eighth grade. Rush hour had already reared its ugly head, and she hoped to reach home before the worst of it turned the roads into parking lots.
Technically, there were four more school days until the official start of winter break. But the kids had mentally checked out days ago, anticipation building for that two-week vacation at the end of the calendar year. At this point, trying to teach them anything was an exercise in futility, and the rest of the week would be packed with educational films, worksheets, and anything else that required minimal concentration yet kept them from climbing the walls.
A few car lengths ahead, horns blared when some jerk in a Camry cut across three lanes of traffic to turn in to the Publix. The driver ahead of her slammed on the brakes, and her heart leaped into her throat when she barely avoided smacking his rear bumper with the front end of her old Nissan Sentra.
To be fair, she was looking forward to the time off as well. Teaching could be a rewarding profession, but it was also exhausting. It was no easy task to keep a classroom full of hormonal eighth graders interested in science and engaged in each day’s lesson.
Fiona’s phone chimed as she merged into traffic, and she frowned at the sound of the chime she’d assigned to her ex. Long story there, one she had no interest in revisiting, and she ignored his message just as she had with all of the others he’d sent over the past few weeks. Sooner or later—God, she hoped it was sooner—he’d get it through his thick skull that she wasn’t ever going back to him and leave her the hell alone.
At the next light, she turned left, and a few miles later, she nearly sighed as her apartment complex came into view. Unfortunately, as with most teachers, her school day didn’t end at the ring of the final bell. She had her own homework to complete tonight. There were papers to grade, lesson plans to update, and emails from parents and administrators that required her attention. With luck, she’d get it all done by nine and have enough time to watch an episode or two of her favorite murder mystery series. The latest season just dropped the other day, and she couldn’t wait to experience the twists and turns of the latest whodunit.
There weren’t any open parking spots in front of her building, but she managed to snag one not too far from the mailboxes. She gathered her things, shoved the door closed with her hip, and, after a slight detour to pick up the junk mail clogging her box, headed for the stairs. The second-story studio apartment wasn’t much—she couldn’t afford anything larger—but it wasn’t like she needed more space anyway. Most important, cats were allowed, because she wasn’t about to live anyplace where Wanda wasn’t welcome.
The apartment also had a balcony with an unobstructed view of the nearby nature trail, which explained why Liz, her friend who lived two buildings over, was waiting at the door with a bottle of red and an impatient look on her face.
“About time you got here.” Dressed in jeans and a fitted gray tee, Liz held up the bottle. “They didn’t have the one you like, but the guy at the liquor store said this one’s just as good.”
Fiona looked longingly at the bottle. Sometimes it sucked being responsible. “I can’t tonight; I’ve got too much work.”
Liz stared at her over the tops of her glasses. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I wish I was.” To emphasize her point, she raised her briefcase full of worksheets that needed to be graded.
True to form, Liz made a dismissive sound. “Oh, come on, live a little. It can wait until after the show’s over.”
Realizing the futility of arguing, Fiona shoved her key in the lock and pushed the door open. As usual, Wanda was curled up on the recliner like a queen on her royal throne. She let out a soft meow as Fiona walked past and set her purse and briefcase on the floor beside the coffee table. One of these days, she’d get around to buying a desk, but it wasn’t all that high on her mile-long list of priorities.
Liz made a beeline for the kitchen, where she got two glasses from the cabinet and a corkscrew from the drawer by the stove.
“What do you think he’ll be wearing, blue or black?” she asked as she wrestled the cork from the bottle.
“Does it matter?” Fiona smoothed a hand along Wanda’s back, the most affection the cat was willing to tolerate before dinnertime.
The cork came out of the bottle with a pop, and Liz poured the wine into the glasses. She handed one to Fiona. “I suppose not. But it’s been a long, crappy day and I need a fix. Maybe he’ll shake things up and wear red this time.”
Trying hard not to laugh when Liz waggled her eyebrows—it would only encourage her—Fiona opened the sliding glass door leading out to her balcony. There wasn’t much on it—just a tiny green plastic table, two mismatched chairs she’d picked up at a garage sale, and a potted plant she needed to water—but it was her little oasis. She took one chair, Liz sank onto the other, and they clinked their glasses together.
“What made your day crappy?” Fiona stretched her legs out in front of her. In a perfect world, she would have changed from her conservative work clothes to something more comfortable, but there wasn’t enough time for that. As a consolation, she pulled the elastic band from her hair, letting the blonde strands uncoil from the tight bun it had been in since this morning.
“Eh, the usual.” Liz propped one booted foot on the metal rail. She and her two older brothers ran a microbrewery a few miles down the road. One brother brewed the beer, the other kept the books, while Liz was in charge of the employees and customer entertainment. “The band that I booked for Friday canceled—their singer got busted for possession—so I spent half the day scrambling for another act to fill the slot.”
“Who did you end up with?”
“No one, which really sucks. Jeremy’s going to do another Trivia Night.” She shrugged. “Better than nothing, I guess. How was your day?”
“Same old, same old.” Fiona sipped her wine as the stress of the day began to ebb from her system. The guy at the liquor store was right. This red was fantastic, and just as good as the one she normally bought.
“Is that kid still being a jerk?” Liz asked.
“Yep. I’m pretty sure it’s his default setting.” For the most part, her students were great, eager to learn, and seeing the spark of light in their eyes when a concept crystallized in their mind was what kept her in the profession. A few misbehaved from time to time, but overall, they paid attention in class and kept up with their assignments. But every year there were one or two who gave her a run for the money. This year’s problem child was a thirteen-year-old boy who craved attention, and it didn’t matter to him whether it was good or bad.
“What did he do this time?”
Fiona swallowed another sip of wine before she answered. “Coach Abernathy caught him pooping in the boy’s room urinal. Apparently, it’s some new challenge that’s circulating online.” She wasn’t sure whether it was more disgusting than the last big thing that went around on social media, and she honestly didn’t care. If anything, she was more curious about who on earth came up with these things.
The disgusted expression on Liz’s face matched Fiona’s opinion of the matter. “What kind of punishment did the little demon get for that?”
“One week of in-school suspension, plus his mother insisted that he clean all of the urinals in that bathroom for each of those days.” The last part was rather surprising. Most of the time, this particular parent refused to believe her son could possibly do anything wrong. Perhaps being caught with his pants down—literally—had something to do with the change of attitude.
“That’s rather fitting. Way to go, Mom.” Liz checked the time on her phone and frowned. “He’s late.”
“I saw his car in the lot when I came in. Maybe he’s too busy today.”
Liz scoffed. “That man is never too busy. He lives for this shit.”
As if on cue, a door closed somewhere downstairs. Less than a minute later, her neighbor appeared on the sidewalk, looking drool-worthy in dark-blue running shorts and athletic shoes that had seen better days. No shirt, which she supposed made sense, considering how unseasonably warm the week had been. He had a swimmer’s build, powerful and lean, with tanned skin, chiseled muscles, and a tattoo on one arm, though she couldn’t quite tell what it was. His face was masculine perfection—strong jaw, full lips, straight nose, carved cheekbones, and eyes that reminded her of molten chocolate, warm and rich. His hair was a few weeks past the time for a cut, the dark strands curled against the nape of his neck, while a row of piercings in his left ear glinted under the late-afternoon sun.
“Damn.” Liz fanned herself. “That man is delicious.”
Though she totally agreed, Fiona shushed her friend. “He’s going to hear you.”
“No, he won’t. He’s wearing earbuds.” Still, she lowered her voice and leaned toward Fiona. “You should take him out for a test drive.”
Fiona sipped her wine. She should probably feel bad about lusting after the guy like a sorority girl on spring break. She didn’t even know his name. They’d exchanged pleasantries a time or two when their paths crossed on the sidewalk in front of the building, but that was as far as she was willing to act on her attraction. “The last thing I need is to get involved with my neighbor.”
There were so many ways for that to go wrong. She didn’t need more drama in her life. And with him living in the apartment directly beneath hers, it could get pretty awkward if things went south between them. It would be like taking the walk of shame every day for the rest of her lease.
“Are you high? A guy like that is exactly what you need to get your groove back.” Liz gestured to her neighbor as he broke into a brisk jog. “Look at the way those muscles move. I bet he can go for miles without breaking a sweat.”
Fiona shook her head. Guys like that were magic and fire. More likely than not, he’d rock her world but, in the end, she’d get burned. Again. As it was, she still hadn’t fully healed from the wounds her ex had inflicted. She wasn’t broken, but the cracks were still visible, and the last thing she needed was another bad experience on her relationship resume. “I need to find a nice, safe guy, like a tax attorney or a computer programmer.”
Her friend blew out a noise that said exactly what she thought of the idea. “Once upon a time, you thought the cop was safe, and look where that got you. Besides, it’s not like you have to shackle yourself to the guy for the rest of your natural-born life. Just take him around the block a few times.”
“No, thank you. I’m perfectly content with admiring the merchandise from afar.”
“I’m not chicken. I’m just not ready. Besides, who wants to start a relationship this close to Christmas? The holidays are stressful enough as it is. There’s the parties, and gift exchanges, and do I include him in my normal holiday activities or come up with new stuff that’s only for us?” She huffed out a breath. “See what I mean? I’m getting stressed out just thinking about the hypotheticals, and I don’t even know the guy’s name.”
Liz made clucking noises, and Fiona rolled her eyes.
“Cluck all you want, it’s not happening.”
A pout pursed Liz’s lips. “Fine, have it your way. For now. But don’t think for one minute that I’m going to stand idly by and watch you turn into a cat lady.” She finished the last of her wine and stood.
“Where are you going? Hot Guy should be back any minute.” The end of the run, when he came back all sweaty and disheveled, was Liz’s favorite part of the show. Okay, it was her favorite part too. It might end up being the highlight of her evening, and how freaking pitiful was that?
“I’d love to stay, but I’ve got to go. Jeremy wants me to try his new porter before we open tonight. Why don’t you stop by after you’re done grading? It’s always quiet on weeknights; we can talk.”
Tempting, so damn tempting. It had been weeks since she’d gone to the bar. “I wish I could, but it’s going to be late by the time I finish.”
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me.”
After a quick hug, Liz let herself out, and Fiona sat on the balcony for another five minutes or so, long enough for her downstairs neighbor to return from his run. Breathing heavy, he bent at the waist, his hands resting on his knees, completely unaware of her presence. That was probably for the best. She’d die of embarrassment if he ever glanced up and caught her watching him like the crazy cat lady she was clearly turning into.
Best to leave before that happened. Empty glass in hand, she slipped inside and locked the sliding glass door behind her. The time she’d wasted meant she wouldn’t be able to go to the bar or watch her show, but she decided it was worth it. She and Liz hadn’t had much time for talk lately, and watching her neighbor run in those short little shorts let her know that her libido still existed.
Crossing to the kitchen, she placed a container of leftover takeout into the microwave and filled the cat’s bowl. Maybe Liz was right, and it was time for her to dip her toe back into the dating pool. But taking that kind of leap was hard when you didn’t trust your instincts anymore. Nothing about Dennis had raised red flags. She’d thought he was a good guy, safe. And look where that had gotten her. It was better to be alone than be with a man who didn’t love and respect her.
A knock at the door broke her train of thought. Liz must have forgotten something—she did it all the time. Or perhaps she wanted to take one more shot at talking Fiona into joining her at the bar tonight.
She went to the foyer and opened the door, and a chill slid down her spine at the sight of her ex in the hall.
That’s what she got for not checking the peephole.
Tall and muscular, with well-defined features and warm brown eyes, Dennis had the appearance of a man you could trust, a plus in his chosen field. He wore tan slacks and a black polo shirt tucked in at the waist, while a light jacket likely concealed the Glock he carried for his job. At the sight of her, a smile curved his lips, and for a fleeting moment he reminded her of the man she’d once considered marriage material.
Now she knew what lurked behind that mask of civility. Every muscle in her body went rigid, while her grip on the doorknob tightened. “Why are you here?”
“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, but you haven’t responded to any of my messages. We need to talk. Can I come in?”
“No. You can say what you want outside.”
The smile slipped a notch or two, but the rest of his mask remained in place. “I’d rather not have a private discussion in the hallway where everyone can hear.”
Boundaries, she reminded herself for what had to be the thousandth time. She didn’t want him in her life, and she certainly didn’t want him setting foot inside her apartment. “I’m sorry, but you’re not coming in. Now what. Do. You want?”
The muscles along his jaw flexed, but he kept his temper in check. That level of restraint was a rarity for him. When they’d been a couple, any pushback she gave had been met with an immediate barrage of verbal abuse and gaslighting that left her questioning her own sanity.
“I’ve been thinking about us, about the good times we had.” His features softened as he met her gaze. “I’ve missed you, babe. We never should have broken up.”
For a moment or two, she simply stared at him as a torrent of memories flooded her brain and jacked up her heart rate. She’d walked on eggshells for three long years before she mustered the courage to leave the jerk. No way was she going back to that. “You’re joking, right?”
“I’d never joke about something like this. We were made for each other, Fiona.” His smile returned, brighter than before.
At one time, she would have found it charming. Now, it grated on her nerves because she knew it was nothing more than a tool he used to get whatever he wanted.
“Think of all the good times we had, like that weekend we drove to—”
“No.” She cut him off, because for every good time, there were two or three bad ones that she really didn’t want to think about. “We are never getting back together.”
He had the nerve to act disappointed. “But I love you, babe.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because I don’t love you. I’ve moved on, and you should too.” Normally, she didn’t speak so bluntly, but she didn’t want to give him any hope for reconciliation. She wanted him to go away, to leave her alone, and forget she ever existed.
She didn’t wait for his response, and the shock on his face when she closed the door was satisfying as hell.
Of course, he didn’t go away. That would have been too easy.
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