I don't ask for much. I'd like a job where my boss isn't a total douche bag. I'd like to sleep in past 8 am on my day off. Mostly, I would love my new next-door neighbor to keep his sexy dimples and cocky smiles to himself. He may look like pure southern temptation, but he seems determined to irritate me as often as possible.
Letting him in might feel like I'm carving out my heart and handing it to a stranger, but it's quickly becoming apparent that someone else is watching me and Ben may be the only person who can help me uncover the truth.
Lilah Donovan is pure walking sin. The more time I spend with her, the harder I fall. She's an adorable, feisty, half-pint of everything I never knew I wanted. She may have built the Great Wall of China around her heart, but I'm not averse to climbing if that's what it takes to find a way in.
Getting through to her is an exercise in patience, but it's not the only thing testing my abilities. Between the phone calls from unknown numbers, the car problems that are looking like sabotage, and the shadowy figure in her yard, it's obvious that someone is stalking my girl. But he's messing with the wrong person because I am uniquely qualified to end this, and there are no lengths I wouldn't go to when it comes to protecting Lilah.
Release date: August 28, 2020
Print pages: 200
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There's a rumble outside and I look over my steaming cup of coffee to peer out the kitchen window. I watch as a short, curvy woman wearing big sunglasses and two big dudes climb out of a rented moving truck. Looks like the new neighbor is finally moving in. The house was only on the market for a few days before someone snapped it up. Gossip around the neighborhood is that a single woman bought it, no kids.
Despite the size differences between the moving trio, I'm sure those guys are Short Stack's brothers. They've all got the same inky hair and tan skin. Plus, it looks like one of them is giving her a hard time and she just shoved him in the chest with all her might. He didn't move an inch, just looked at her like she was a tiny, exasperating puppy. The sight makes me laugh and I accidentally snort my scorching hot coffee, scalding my sinuses.
An alert pings on my watch. As entertaining as snooping on the new neighbor is, it's time to get to work. I plop down in my desk chair and crack my knuckles as my computer wakes up. I double check my security feeds and my yard sensors. They've never been set off by anything more threatening than a family of raccoons and that asshole, Mr. Miller, who likes to let his dog poop in my yard. Still, better safe than sorry.
I lose myself in work for a couple hours and I'm just making sure I didn't leave any digital breadcrumbs when my phone buzzes on my desk. My best friend's name shows on the screen. I hate talking on the phone, so I ignore him, but Jack's never been good at taking a hint and the phone buzzes again. Muttering to myself, I answer it. Only because I know he won't stop until I do. My best, and only, friend is stubborn as a motherfucker.
"Why can't you text like a normal person?" I ask.
I can hear the wind rushing by in the background and I'd bet money he's driving his beloved convertible with the top down. "We're going out tonight. No excuses." At least he cuts straight to the chase.
"Hard no. I'd rather stay home and have a beer."
"You need to get out of that house. I swear, you've become a hermit. What's the point of living in Sonoma if you never go out? I'm half afraid I'll find you holed up with bottles of piss everywhere. You need a night out before you do a full Howard Hughes."
"A, that's disgusting, and I would never. B, you'd never get in my house if I didn't want you to."
"Ben, you aren't helping your case with that shit. Dude, I don't use this word often, but please. I've got a couple investors visiting from New York and they want to go to Blue Ruin for cocktails. I can't take a night out with these guys without moral support. They always want to go to someone else's bar when they're in town. I mean, what's the fucking point of owning a winery if I have to pay someone else to pour my drink? Whatever. Just come with us. Drinks and food are on me."
I laugh at that. "Like I need you to be my sugar daddy."
"Come on, man. I promise it won't be that bad. I'll owe you one."
Sighing inwardly, I already know I'm going to regret this. "Fuck. Fine. Fine, I'll come. But I'm getting a Lyft, I'm not bar hopping with those douchebags, and I'm not drinking anything with garnishes."
"Deal. Only the best whiskey for you, ya grumpy bastard. I promise to keep you in the lifestyle to which you've become accustomed," Jack says before hanging up on me.
Blue Ruin is, well, strange. We live in Sonoma, California. It's wine country at its best. Comfortable, casual, quietly sophisticated, and homey. Blue Ruin is a speakeasy-style bar that looks like somebody copied and pasted it from Brooklyn. It's packed with the Bro-iest of Bros and tourists with more money than taste, all pounding back $14 cocktails with ridiculous specialty ice cubes.
The club is dark with oversized leather booths, velvet armchairs and quirky light fixtures fitted with Edison bulbs. I can't decide if the decor would be better suited for a steampunk clubhouse or a BDSM club (if you swap out the velvet for more leather, because I can only imagine how hard it would be to get cum out of velvet.) This is decidedly not my kind of place. I'm a computer nerd from Texas. I'd be a lot more comfortable somewhere with less... this. But I can make do as long as I can get a whiskey without egg white foam on top.
I find Jack and three of his visiting investors at a booth in the back. A server with a bow tie and a curled-up mustache is dropping off some overly complicated cocktails and, according to his spiel, the "locally sourced pickle tray." It's hard not to roll your eyes at locally sourced pickles, but I manage.
Jack and his investors talk wine for a bit. They're all laughing and having a good time. Cabernet is having a great year, I guess. Jack has been working non-stop since his father passed away a couple months ago, trying to turn his family winery around. It looks like things are finally starting to fall into place for him.
I zone out, swirling my second whisky around in its glass, lost in thought until a flash of red catches my eye.
A womanly hip bumps the kitchen door open and heads toward the bar, looking like something out of a dirty dream. She's juggling three big jars of those damn pickles, her body swaying with every step, causing her short, black skirt to ride up her tan thighs. She's wearing a sleeveless cherry red silk blouse that shows off her neck, long, slim and delicate. Her silky dark ponytail swings over her shoulder, just begging to be pulled.
Maybe she can feel me staring because she looks up and meets my eyes. My heart stutters and my breath catches in my chest. Her eyes are a startling bottle green and fuck me running if she isn't the prettiest woman I've ever seen. With her high cheekbones and cupid's bow mouth, there's something vaguely familiar about her, but I can't quite place it.
Her eyes dart away, but I didn't miss the way she looked me up and down, an edge of appreciation in her arched eyebrow. A split second later she trips on a floor mat, stumbling and dropping all three jars of pickles. Glass skitters everywhere as they smash on the tiled floor and a tiny tsunami of pickle juice floods her shoes.
I'm on my feet to help her before my brain catches up with my body. Her face is beet red as she squats down, carefully, in her short skirt and cleans up the glass. She waves me off as I approach, avoiding all eye contact. I stoop down to help scoop up the pickles anyway, making sure I angle my body so no one can see up her skirt. Her eyes skate over mine for just a split second, flashing with embarrassment. "You don't need to do that. I can clean this up."
"I know," I tell her with a grin. "But I'm happy to help." She meets my eyes again and gives me a brief smile. I swear to god, it's like someone flipped a switch and sucked all the air out of the room. I can barely breathe when she looks at me.
"Thank y- ouch!" A piece of glass falls from her hand. Her finger looks fine for a second, but then a bright red streak of blood spreads across the tip. Taking her elbow, I help her stand before snagging a bar napkin and wrapping it around her finger. I'm a terrible person, because she needs a proper bandage, but I don't want to let her go. I apply pressure, loving the way her little hand feels in mine. I open my mouth. Whether I want to ask her where the first aid kit is or if I can take her out to dinner, I'm not entirely sure.
"You okay, Lilah?"
She cocks her head to the side, like a curious puppy. Fuck, she’s cute. "How’d you-"
I tap my chest and grin at her. "Name tag. I’m Ben," I tell her. She looks down at her chest, and laughs. Her hand feels so soft and warm in mine. I have to remind myself that I’m trying to stop the flow of blood.
"Right. Nice to meet you, Ben. I swear I’m not usually that ditsy. The pickle fumes are getting to me and-" I don’t get to hear the rest of her theory on pickle fumes though, because we're interrupted by another employee.
"How did you drop all those pickles?" He asks Lilah, stepping into her space while ignoring me completely. She visibly cringes as he gets close and it sets me on edge. Somebody doesn’t understand boundaries. I eye the interloper; he’s wearing suspenders over a striped shirt, and a fedora. Bold move, Cotton.
"Sorry, Terry," she says as she takes a step away from him. "The edge of the mat was rolled over again. I tripped. Maybe you can finally get that mat replaced now that it smells like a pickle." She smiles with false sweetness and I stifle a grin.
He eyes me like this is all my fault. "You can have a seat, sir," dismissing me and stepping between me and Lilah in one swift movement. He puts a hand on her back. "Let's get you bandaged up."
I immediately hate this guy. I have the insane urge to rip his hands off her, but Lilah brushes his arm away. "I can take care of this myself," she tells him with a stony expression. Jesus, she's awesome. I'm liking her more and more by the second.
The guy holds up his hands and walks away muttering, "Just trying to be nice."
Lilah holds her hand up to keep the bleeding under control. "Sorry about the manager. He is the actual worst. Thanks again for the help. I'm going to go... take care of this."
"Be careful," I tell her with a grin before watching her walk away, hips swinging as she leaves pickle juice footprints in her wake. I make my way back to the table and groan inwardly when I see Jack's expression. He's got an eyebrow raised, and he's smirking.
"Friend of yours?" he asks.
"Nah." I don't make eye contact with him as I down the rest of my whiskey and flag our waiter for another.
One of Jack's investor friends, Rod (I think?) brays in an obnoxious New Jersey accent. "You got dibs, man?" I give him the most disdainful look I can muster.
"Are you five? Did you seriously just ask if I have dibs on a human being? What the fuck, Ron?"
"It's Rod, jackass," he snaps back at me. "Lighten up, bro." He runs his hands through the front of his hair, making sure it’s still sticking up in front. He looks like he’s got a hair horn and I hate it. God, he has a punchable face. I give Jack my best you-fucking-owe-me face. Rod is just lucky I'm not a physically violent person.
Well, hell. That was embarrassing. I've been telling Terry for weeks that stupid mat keeps rolling up on one corner. We've all tripped on it at least once, but he's too cheap to deal with it. I'd be pleased about destroying it with pickle juice, but he'll probably just force one of us to hose it down out back.
What really ticks me off is that I wouldn't have even tripped if it wasn't for the hot-as-hell man sitting in the corner. I could practically feel his eyes on me when I came out of the kitchen. He looked at me like he could eat me whole.
Even now, back at his table with the winery douchebags, I can still feel him watching me through his dark-rimmed glasses. God, I love a man in glasses. He's sipping his whiskey, trying not to be obvious about it but failing catastrophically. Some of the other guys at his table are less subtle. Boy-Band Hair literally wiggled his eyebrows at me. Barf. That guy has a seriously punchable face.
I wonder why Ben is even here with those assholes. The guys in suits have cringe-worthy Jersey accents, but Ben sounds Southern and he couldn't look more different if he tried. He's wearing worn jeans and a tight gray t-shirt. His hair is sandy brown and though it's short on the sides, it's longer on top, tousled and curly. He looks so damn touchable. He holds the old-fashioned glass in his enormous hand, swirling it with the single oversized ice cube before bringing it to his full lips. I imagine what those lips would feel like on my body and I'm wracked by a full body shiver.
He seemed into me but obviously, my imagination is running wild because nothing says sexy like a clumsy woman with a bloody hand, covered in pickle juice. I'll probably never get the smell out of my shoes; I realize with a sigh. On the bright side, I bet I could market it as man repellent. Just bottle up tiny jars of cardamom sweet pickles with a label that reads "smash in case of unwanted male attention."
"How's the finger, Lilah?"
Speaking of... a voice from right behind me sends chills crawling up my spine, nearly making me drop the glass I've been wiping down. Here we fucking go again. My boss is looking me up and down, leaning back against the bar. I'd bet a hundred bucks he thinks he looks cool. Spoiler alert, it just makes him look shorter and more weaselly.
"It's fine, thanks," I say shortly, trying to make it clear I don't want to keep talking. He doesn't take the hint. Shocker.
"Listen," he says, pressing his thin lips together, "those pickles were really expensive--"
"Take them out of my paycheck," I tell him as I aggressively shake a gin fizz. The ice in the cocktail shaker is deafening, but that doesn't stop him. He crosses his arms and slides in closer to me.
"Oh, don’t worry about it. I can cover it. I just thought maybe you would want to go out for dinner sometime."
I glare at him. "Then why would you bring up the cost of the pickles at all? Sorry, but it sounds like you, as my manager, are trying to blackmail me into a date with you because I dropped three jars of awful pickles. But that can't be right, because surely you know that would give me grounds to sue for sexual harassment."
He looks at me, mouth gaping like a dying fish. I don't know why he thought that would work. Sidestepping a still-silent Terry, I get back to work.
I don't need this shit. Literally, I don't need any of it. If the thought of using my trust fund didn’t make me so insanely uncomfortable, I would walk out of here and go live on a tropical island all by myself. I could lay on the beach all damn day without a care in the world. Despite my desire to support myself without using Grandpa’s money, I don’t think I can take this job much longer.
Making a mental note to send the owner of the bar an email citing hostile work environments, I hand the gin fizz off to a woman wearing at least five pounds of jewelry. She clings to the man she's with as he slides me a $20 and tells me to keep the change. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ben following the group of winery guys outside. He doesn't even look back as he steps through the door, and I shouldn't be disappointed. It's not like he owes me anything.
I take another drink order but before I can finish making it; I see a hand tap-tap-tap on the counter and I look up into the most beautiful chocolate brown eyes. The breath whooshes out of me as Ben grins at me, leaning one elbow on the bar between two women who do not seem to mind the way he's encroaching on their personal space. I think I just caught one of them yanking her top a little lower.
"What are you doing tomorrow?" he drawls.
"Sleeping in," I answer blissfully. "I have one day off a week and I like to use it wisely by sleeping until noon."
"Could I take you to brunch after you wake up?"
I freeze, mouth open, hanging on the precipice of something scary, because a part of me really wants to say yes. He seems sweet, but what do I really know about him? Nothing! He could be a super charming serial killer for all I know. He could be setting the trap with his devastating good looks and raw sex appeal.
I mean, that's not likely, is it? But my mom thought my father was a sweetheart and all it got her was a gold-digging scumbag of a husband.
"Ah... thanks for the offer, but I don't think I can," I squeak. Before my brain can catch up with my dumbass mouth, I blurt out, "but maybe another time."
Ben grins at me, unfazed, and for a second I wonder if he even heard me turn him down. "I'd like that. See you around, Lilah."
I try to ignore the way the women watch him as he taps his fingers on the bar and grins at me as he leaves. My brain is patting itself on the back for getting out of a date with Ben, but the land down under is planning a mutiny in my skirt. Tamping down my irritation, I offer the two women a free drink. Anything to distract them from watching Ben's tight rear end walk out the front door.
I'm still thinking about Ben and his glorious ass when I walk into my new home at 2am. This has been the longest damn day of my life. You'd think I would have had the foresight to request the entire day off, but I didn't realize how exhausting moving would be. It's not like I had to move a bunch of furniture. Most of the big stuff in the apartment was my roommate’s, and my brothers moved the heavy stuff for me. All I had to worry about were my clothes, some bathroom stuff, and my tortoise, Frankie.
The move still took hours longer than I thought it would, and I barely made it in for my shift this evening. And then the pickles and Ben... I showered, but I can still smell the pickles on me. I wish I smelled like Ben instead. Just the thought of him makes me wish all kinds of dirty things.
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