“Why is there chocolate on the couch?”
At least, I hope it’s chocolate.
Leaning in close for a sniff test, it’s thankfully candy and not anything more sinister.
There’s no answer to my question, and I turn around, discovering my two little hellions have conveniently disappeared. It’s for the best, anyway. Trying to get them to help clean is like herding cats.
I wet a washcloth and scrub at the microfiber material, silently thanking past Kristen for springing for the Scotchgard protection, then pull my phone out of my back pocket when it rings. It’s probably—yep, it’s Mom.
“For the last time, I’m not moving in with you,” I say into the speaker, not bothering with polite introductions.
“Honey, you haven’t even seriously considered it. And think how much the kids would love it.”
Well, of course they would. It’s a free-for-all at Grandma’s house.
Doritos for dinner? Sure, why not?
Don’t want to brush your teeth? As long as you make up for it next time.
Staying up until ten at night? They’re only kids once, Kristen.
“We’re staying here,” I tell her as firmly as I can without verging into rudeness.
“But you have to take in a renter. Isn’t there some other way you can make ends meet? Can’t you look for a new job?”
I keep my sigh to myself. How many times will we argue about this?
“Mom, I’m a copy editor. I like what I do and I’m good at it. But there are no jobs like that around here other than at Kirkwood’s newspaper. Trust me, I’ve looked.”
Kirkwood is an actual city compared to tiny Crescent Pass, but it’s small potatoes next to somewhere like Portland—which we’re not moving to. And with daily readership falling at the newspaper, they were forced to resort to stricter cost-cutting measures, as they called it. I was reduced to part-time with no health benefits, but I guess I should be lucky they didn’t outright lay me off like they did a few other people over the last couple of months.
“Isn’t there something else online?”
What, she thinks I haven’t looked there, too? Thinks my first choice to bring in extra money was to invite someone to live with us?
“I’m working on getting some freelance gigs. But this will tide us over until then.”
“Why does it have to be Sheila? You know how I feel about her.”
“I know.” I’m not crazy about her, either. No one else responded to my ad, though. And in a town as small as ours, it’s not as if I have a large pool of renters to choose from. Most people move out, not in.
“She super-glued me to my chair.”
I press my lips together, willing myself not to laugh. Sheila’s fifth-grade prank had made her a legend at Crescent Pass Elementary. “That was twenty years ago. You have to let it go.”
“I certainly will not. She was a brat back then and she’s a brat now.”
She’s not wrong, but it doesn’t change anything. “Well, she’ll be living here for the next six months, so please at least try to be cordial when you’re around.”
“It’s no wonder Kevin dumped her,” she mutters. “He probably can’t wait to get her out of his house.”
As unfortunate as Sheila and Kevin’s break-up is, it means I get enough money to keep paying the mortgage since she needs somewhere to live. We agreed on a six-month lease to start out with, and then she can decide if she wants to continue to stay with us or get her own place.
“Listen, I can’t talk much longer. She’s supposed to be here in half an hour to sign the rental agreement I drew up, and I still need to finish cleaning.”
“What if I sold my house and moved in instead?” she asks as a last-ditch effort.
Sure. When Hell freezes over.
“I think we do better when we live apart,” I tell her as diplomatically as I can. I shudder to imagine the level of nitpicking I’d endure.
“You’d rather live with Sheila than me?”
There’s a note of hurt in her voice, and I wince, hating the guilt that twists through me. If only she wasn’t so damn pushy all the time.
“I really have to go now. Love you, bye.”
I hang up and stuff my phone back in my pocket, silently berating my mother for guilting me, yet again, for this choice I’ve made. What else can I do, though? I’ll exhaust all possibilities before I’m forced to move back in with her.
I manage to clear the living room of junk and get halfway through the dishes in the kitchen when the phone rings again. If Mom suggests some other harebrained scheme…
Oh, it’s Sheila.
“Hey,” I answer. “I have your room all cleaned up and ready.” She’s supposed to sign the paperwork today and move in tomorrow. It had taken all of this week to get Jenny moved into Jamie’s room, and then to lug all the stuff I need out of my bedroom and bathroom and into Jenny’s old room. At least I’d convinced the twins it’ll be a fun adventure to have someone new live with us.
“That’s great,” Sheila says in that bubblegum-sweet voice of hers. Maybe I’ll get used to it with time. “But there’s actually been a minor change in plans.”
My stomach drops, a wave of foreboding washing over me. “How minor?”
“Well, you see… Kevin and I got back together this morning.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose, hard enough that it aches, but I don’t let go. If I focus on the pain, maybe I won’t release the string of obscenities itching to escape. “So you’re not moving in?”
Is she for real right now?
“But don’t be mad,” she rushes to say. Too late. “I found you another renter.”
I let go of my nose, taken aback. “Who?” I haven’t heard of anyone else in town looking to move. And I swear I asked everyone.
“An old college friend. They’ll be in Crescent Pass for about a month and need somewhere to stay.”
Questions swirl around in my head, nearly too fast to catch. Why would someone come here for that long? For work? To visit? How well does Sheila know this person? Where were they planning to stay before my place suddenly became available?
“I don’t know what to say,” I admit after a moment.
She laughs a high-pitched trill that has me cringing.
“Say thank you, silly. Who else are you going to get to live with you and two six-year-olds?”
I grit my teeth. You know, maybe someone other than her is a blessing in disguise.
“Tell me about them, then.”
She paints me a picture of the perfect tenant, a quiet and unassuming geotechnical engineer here to work on a land assessment outside of town. Originally supposed to stay at the Crescent Pass Inn, they just found out that a burst pipe has made it uninhabitable until the damage is cleared.
They stay in every night, clean up after themselves, and are the biggest nerd you’ll ever meet, according to Sheila.
More than anything, the most surprising thing is that she’s friends with this person. Something doesn’t add up.
“So you said you were friends in college? Have you kept in touch with her this whole time?”
There’s a rustle over the line. “Um, not exactly. And they were more friends with Kevin than me.”
My lips purse. That’s weird. She’s pretty territorial about girls getting friendly with her long-term boyfriend.
“What’d you say her name was again?” Maybe I can look her up online before I agree to meet with her.
She clears her throat. “Is that important?”
“Her name? Yeah, kinda is.”
There’s a pause, long enough to have unease trickling through me. What curveball is she going to throw me next?
“What are you not telling me?” I demand.
“Nothing,” she swears. “Their name is Eli.”
I blink, suddenly aware she’s been referring to this person as they this whole time. “As in, a guy?”
A sputtering noise escapes me. “Sheila, I’m not having a strange man live here.”
“What are you talking about? You were fine with the idea a minute ago.”
“I assumed you were referring to a woman.” I clearly stated that in the ad I put out.
“I don’t care. I have two young, impressionable, fatherless children. I’m not bringing guys around them, especially ones I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell him yourself. He’s headed to your house now.”
“What?” I grip the edge of the counter with my free hand as my knees go wobbly. “Why would you send him here without making sure I’m okay with it?”
“I thought you’d be happy. You wanted a renter and I gave you one.”
Yeah, right. She knew exactly what she was doing. “Sheila—”
“Give him a chance. He was Kevin’s college roommate, and Kevin already feels awful that the inn’s unavailable now. Eli has nowhere else to go.”
“Why doesn’t he stay with you?”
That seems like the most obvious solution to me.
“He… didn’t want to.”
Okay, there’s info she’s definitely leaving out, but I don’t have time to ask her why because the doorbell goes off, like a death knell in my ears. He’s here already?
“I’ll get it,” Jenny yells as she races from her room to the front door.
It’s too late to stop her as the door swings open. From this angle, I can’t see the doorstep, only my daughter’s profile as her neck cranes up.
Her forehead scrunches as she says, “You’re not Sheila.”
“And I’m guessing you’re not Kristen,” a deep voice replies.
“I have to go,” I mutter into the phone before hanging up. Brushing my palms down the front of my shirt to smooth it out, I join Jenny in the doorway and look up, up, up into bright blue eyes that have me pausing. Paired with how dark his hair is, the effect is striking.
I mentally shake my head to clear it, only to get stuck next on the sexy stubble dotting his jaw.
Wait, sexy? Where’d that come from?
Didn’t Sheila say this guy was a major nerd? Was she talking about the same man?
“Kristen?” he asks when it’s apparent I’m not going to do anything other than stare at him.
“Yes, sorry.” I clear my throat, hating the breathy way that came out. “It seems there’s been a misunderstanding.”
He chuckles, though there’s no humor in it. “Let me guess. Sheila didn’t tell you I was coming.”
He doesn’t seem mad, so much as resigned.
“I was on the phone with her just now. But I never agreed to you living here.”
His jaw sets. “And she assured me she had everything handled. That woman hasn’t changed at all since college.”
Looks like there’s no love lost between him and Sheila.
“It’s nothing personal,” I say, not sure what else to do. “But I don’t know you, and it’s only me and my two kids here.”
I’m suddenly aware of the size difference between us, that his jacket does little to hide the breadth of his shoulders or thickness of his upper arms. If he wanted, he could easily push me and Jenny to the side and come in.
“How about you go in your room with Jamie?” I whisper in Jenny’s ear, thankful that she listens to me without arguing for once.
The man scrubs a hand down his face, weariness radiating off of him. “Listen, I’m tired. I didn’t sleep last night, I’ve been on the road for five hours, and it’s been one shitty situation after another all morning. I’m halfway here and the inn calls and tells me the place is flooded from a burst water pipe and I can’t stay there. So I get in touch with Kevin and he offers me his spare room. Then he calls me back an hour later and says Sheila’s not leaving. There’s no way in hell I’m living with her for a month, so she says she’s got a place lined up for me. Fine, whatever. But doesn’t mention anything about you not agreeing to it or that you have kids.” He pauses for a moment. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I murmur, surprised by his rant. It’s funny, though. I don’t get the sense any of his irritation is directed at me. More like he needs to get it off his chest.
He lets out a heavy sigh. “I just want to take a nap.”
The urge to laugh strikes me, but I don’t give in. There’s something so… personal about telling a stranger you want to nap.
“Kevin said Sheila was supposed to move in here tomorrow, right?”
“How much was she going to pay you for rent?”
I tell him, not sure what that has to do with anything.
“I’ll double it,” he says easily, no hesitation.
I blink at him. He can drop that kind of money?
“No?” he asks, his brows raising when I take too long to reply. “Fine. I’ll triple it if you give me a bed to sleep in right now for a few hours. Do a background check, call Kevin for a reference, interview me later—whatever you want. But for the love of God, I want to sleep.”
I do laugh then, unable to keep it inside, and he thankfully doesn’t seem to take offense as a sheepish grin crosses his face.
“Sorry, I—” He rubs the back of his neck. “I’m not thinking straight.”
“No, I understand.”
How many sleepless nights worrying about my job and keeping a roof over our heads have made me lose my tongue, too? Something like camaraderie springs to mind before I push the feeling away.
And triple what Sheila and I agreed on… Can I pass up that kind of money? Especially now that she backed out?
“You’re in town for a month?” I ask, chewing on my bottom lip.
“Give or take. The project’s finished when it’s finished.”
I could use that time to find a more permanent renter. Maybe even secure a freelance gig online, like I told Mom.
Am I actually considering this? I don’t know this man.
But if Kevin vouches for him… I’ve always found Kevin to be a reasonable person, except for his choice of girlfriend.
No, no. This is ridiculous. I can’t… I shouldn’t…
I exhale heavily. What options do I have? My bank account is dry. It’s either this guy or Mom.
“How about we give it a trial run for a few days and see how it goes?” That’s a good compromise, right? “And no hard feelings if it turns out not to be a good fit?”
He shrugs. “Yeah, sure.”
He reaches a hand out for me to shake and I take it, his big palm swallowing mine, his fingers warm and rough. Something goes loose in my lower belly and I snatch my hand back, stuffing it in my pocket. That was weird.
“Do you have any questions for me?” I ask, needing to focus on something else.
“After I sleep. My brain’s not firing on all cylinders.”
“Okay, um, let me show you to your room.”
He picks up an oversized duffel bag at his feet and slings it over his shoulder, as if it weighs nothing. Could he pick me up that easily?
Heat licks my cheeks and I turn away, unable to believe myself. What the hell is wrong with me?
I lead him past the dining nook and kitchen to the far side of the house where my former bedroom is. “The biggest suite is yours. I left my furniture since Sheila wasn’t bringing anything of her own.”
“This is your bedroom?”
I glance behind me, struck again by how tall he is. It’s usually only my brothers I have to crane my neck up to see. “It was. I put the twins together and took one of their rooms.”
“The one at the door was Jenny. Jamie might take a bit to warm up to you.”
He nods and shifts his attention to the room, bypassing me to set his luggage down.
My hands wring themselves together. What am I supposed to say to a stranger in my home? “The sheets are fresh. I changed them this morning.”
He nods again, silent, and I’m reminded of how tired he said he was.
“I’ll leave you to it, then.”
I shut the door behind me and slump against the wall, hardly able to wrap my head around the one-eighty Sheila sprung on me.
There’s a guy living in my home for the next month.
A cute guy, a voice in my head whispers.
My brows narrow as I settle a hand over my stomach, my insides making an unusual flip-flopping motion.
Is that what I was feeling earlier? Attraction? It’s been so long…
No, best to ignore that. I’ve got bigger things to worry about.
Namely, what the hell am I going to do?
What the hell was I thinking?
The thought pops into my head as I open my eyes, my surroundings blurry for a moment before I blink. Through the blinds, the sun is at an angle that has me wincing, and I turn over on my other side, greeted by the sight of an unfamiliar lamp and bedside clock.
What the… Oh, right. That’s why that thought was running through my unconscious brain. In my sleep-deprived state, I somehow found myself living with a random woman and her two kids for the next month. Damn Sheila and her crazy scheme. I don’t know what the hell Kevin ever saw in her.
Pushing off the covers, I sit up, still groggy despite my five-hour nap. I usually sleep like shit when traveling, but the fresh drool stain on the pillow says I passed out pretty hard. I splash water on my face in the en suite bathroom, willing myself to fully wake. If I don’t, I’ll never fall asleep tonight.
Before exiting the bedroom, I press my ear to the door, but there’s no sound from the other side. I don’t exactly tip-toe out, but don’t make my presence known, either. I have no idea what I’m walking into.
Near the entrance to the kitchen, there’s the quiet murmur of voices from the living room.
“I asked you guys to keep it down,” Kristen whispers, loud enough that she might as well be speaking at a normal volume. “He’s still sleeping.”
“How much longer?” a child’s high-pitched voice whines. It sounds like the girl that answered the door. What was her name? Jenny?
“Until he wakes.”
“What’s his name? You keep saying he.”
“I… don’t remember.”
Wait. Did I ever actually introduce myself? Or assumed she would know?
“I’ll ask him for you,” a different voice says. Must be the other twin.
“That’s sweet of you, but you don’t have to.”
“I want to help—hey, Mom, no. Don’t kiss me.”
There’s laughter, and I wish I could see them. They sound… happy.
“You’re just so sweet,” Kristen says, warmth in her voice. “But seriously, you don’t have to do anything other than be respectful, don’t make a mess in the common areas, and keep the noise level down. That goes for both of you.”
“Oh, is that all?” Jenny asks wryly.
“Attitude, missy,” Kristen replies without heat.
I move forward, already having lurked in the hallway long enough, and spot the three of them in the living room, the two kids on the floor in front of the coffee table playing with a set of Legos.
I make eye contact with the boy, his eyes widening as he spots me. He opens his mouth, then shuts it and turns away. Guess he lost his nerve.
Kristen’s profile is to me, and she frowns as she looks at her son, then in my direction, her eyes widening the same as her son’s.
She stands from her spot on the couch and walks toward me.
“Sorry if we woke you. I tried to keep them out of the house as much as I could, but it was getting late.”
“You’re fine. You don’t have to change your schedule for me.”
I finally get a good look at her, the memory of our first meeting hazy from the sleep deprivation. Her brunette hair is pulled back in a short ponytail, her brows straight over dark blue eyes. Her face is free of makeup, no jewelry on her, and she’s dressed casually in a fleece pullover and leggings. She gives off a no-nonsense vibe, one that will serve well for this strange arrangement we’ve found ourselves in.
What’ll it be like living with two kids? I don’t know the first thing about children.
“I drafted a new version of the rental agreement. For when we’re ready to sign in a few days.”
My brows raise. “Already?”
She shrugs. “I’m used to getting things done right away.”
“Mom’s favorite thing to say is you could have been done by now,” Jenny announces. “She always tells me I complain about doing something for longer than it would take to actually do it.”
Kristen gives a tight-lipped smile in response.
“Wise words,” I say. And yep, totally jives with my initial assessment of her.
“Anyway…” She gestures for me to join her in the kitchen, and lowers her voice. “I was thinking we could do half the month’s rent at signing and half at the end of the month?” She says it more as a question than a statement. “Normally, I wouldn’t ask for money upfront, but I figured it doesn’t make sense to do a security deposit for such a short amount of time…”
She trails off, an air of nervousness about her now that the topic of money is afoot. Is that a sore subject? There’s something about her sudden unsurety that makes me want to, I don’t know… help.
“Why don’t I Venmo you the first half now?”
Her shoulders drop. “Really? Are you sure?”
After her directness before, this questioning is surprising.
“A gesture of good faith,” I tell her.
My offer to pay her triple what Sheila was may have seemed like a lot to her, but my company’s paying me a per diem based on the nightly rate at the inn. I’ll actually be making money by living with her.
“Thanks, I…” She exhales heavily. “That takes a weight off my shoulders.”
She gives me her info and I transfer the money, conscious of the way she keeps an eye on my screen, almost as if she doesn’t fully believe I’ll do it. What kind of situation is she in that money’s that important to her?
“I’m guessing you haven’t had a renter before?” Not if she mentioned just moving out of the bedroom and making her kids bunk together.
It would probably be tacky to outright ask her why she’s taking one in. Maybe a change in marital status? There’s no ring on her finger.
Not that I was looking…
“Any regular visitors I should be aware of?” I lower my voice more. “The kids’ dad or something?”
Her mouth tightens. “No. Mostly just my mom.”
So her ex is a sore subject. Duly noted.
“She likes to pop over unannounced sometimes,” she continues. “But I’ll tell her to quit now that you’re here. You need a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
“You don’t have to—”
“No, trust me. It’s the perfect excuse to make her stop.”
“Glad I could be your scapegoat, then.” I tack on a smile so she knows I’m kidding.
She gives me an answering reluctant smile. “Mothers, you know?”
We go over a few other logistics, like groceries and chores, even though I haven’t officially signed anything, until we’re interrupted by her daughter.
“When are we having dinner? I’m starving.”
Kristen sighs. “If you and Jamie agree on something, I’ll make it.”
As Jenny returns to the living room, what ensues is a passionate argument on the young girl’s side espousing all the benefits of Kraft macaroni and cheese, but her pleas fall on deaf ears as her brother refuses to entertain any idea other than dinosaur chicken nuggets.
“Is it like this every night?” I whisper, more interested than I should be in the sibling dynamics. That’s what happens when you grow up alone, though.
“I’ll tell them to knock it off.”
“No, it’s fine.” It’s their house. I’m not going to waltz in here and demand kids can’t be kids. “But if I may?”
I clear my throat as I step out of the kitchen and into the living room, getting their attention. “Why don’t you cut up the nuggets and put them in the mac and cheese?”
The two young faces take on an eerily similar expression of consideration.
“Interesting,” Jenny says. “I like the way you think.”
Her brother shrugs. “I’ll try it.”
Next to me, Kristen mutters under her breath about how if she had suggested it, they would have laughed in her face, then returns to the kitchen.
I keep my smile to myself and linger for a moment looking at the two kids, working together on building some kind of tower with their Legos. Off to my left, Kristen fills a pot with water and places it on the stove before turning on the burner.
Everyone is going about their normal activities, and it strikes me how I’ve landed smack dab in the middle of an actual family. They all have their role, their place within this defined structure. The unwavering knowledge that they belong.
And then there’s me. The interloper intruding on their time together. These kids didn’t sign up for a strange man to live with them.
“I’m going to head out,” I tell Kristen, suddenly itching to leave the house. “Need to get a sense of the town before I start work on Monday.”
She glances over her shoulder. “Sure. Let me give you my number in case you need directions. The Maps app doesn’t always work if you’re using data. The mountains can mess up the signal.”
I stare at her for a moment, caught up for a second thinking she’s giving me her number. It’s not like that, though. She’s being friendly.
Besides, I haven’t dated since Tiffany.
And… not thinking about that right now. Where the hell is my head today? Maybe I didn’t get as much sleep as I needed.
I make a new contact in my phone for her and leave, barely remembering to grab my jacket before heading out into the cold. Sure, I seem to be cautiously getting along with Kristen, but I can’t forget that I don’t belong here. Family life… That’s never been in the cards for me.
Quiet giggles wake me, the sound incredibly out of place in the dream I’d been having about a brunette with dark blue eyes, her gaze trained on me as she’d slowly approached, wrapping her arms over my shoulders, tugging my head down…
My lids snap open, shaking off the dream as four eyes the exact shade of blue I was dreaming of meet mine.
“What are you doing?” Jenny asks, her hair wild about her head, clearly not brushed for the day.
I blink, unsure if this is another dream or not. “Sleeping,” I finally say, going for the obvious.
“You were making this loud sound.”
I scrub a hand down my face, pushing the blanket and sheet down. “Guess I was snoring.”
Jenny nods. “What’s that on your chest?” She points to where a couple of buttons are undone on my henley.
“Uh, hair.” Where is their mom? I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be happy about them being in here.
The little girl lifts her nightgown away from her body to look down the neck hole. “I don’t have hair there.”
“Only guys do.”
Jamie checks his chest next, his face sad as he rubs at the front of his pajamas. “Does that mean I’m not a guy?”
Seriously, where the hell is Kristen? I’m not equipped for questions like this. “Uh, you’ll get hair when you’re big like me.”
“How do I get bigger?”
I push the bedsheets off all the way and slip out of bed, sidestepping the two of them. “You, um, gotta eat your vegetables.”
“Ew,” they say in unison.
Out in the hallway, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee greets me. I poke my head into the kitchen, my train of thought diverted by a pan full of scrambled eggs and sizzling sausage links on the stovetop. Damn, that looks good. Smells amazing, too.
I clear my throat, getting Kristen’s attention. Her hair is down today, short enough that it doesn’t even touch the tops of her shoulders, and I recall another part of that dream, where I slid a hand through her thick hair, discovering just how soft it is…
“Good morning,” she says when I take too long to say anything.
I nod, tongue-tied for some reason. “Your kids…”
“Shit,” she murmurs, taking the pan off the burner. “I thought they were in their room.”
She moves past me, swift and silent, and a moment later, there’s a quiet murmuring I can’t make out the words to, but the tone says it all.
Jenny and Jamie have contrite expressions as they join me in the hallway.
“Sorry for waking you,” Jenny says.
“Sorry,” Jamie mumbles.
Aw, I didn’t want to get them in trouble. “It’s not a big deal,” I tell Kristen.
Her lips compress for a moment. “It won’t happen again. Will it, kids?”
They both shake their heads and she drops a kiss on each of their cheeks.
“Let’s get breakfast, then.” She turns to me. “You’re welcome to have some, too. As an apology for waking you early.”
“I…” The food smells good, but that same sense from last night of encroaching on their family territory pervades me. “Maybe another time. I still have to shower.”
I’m easily forgotten as the twins argue over who gets the blue plate, but that’s not what’s on my mind as I strip my clothes in the bathroom and step under the hot spray. It’s on Kristen inviting me to eat with them, of making sure the kids respect my new space in a way that still showed she loved them, of that dream I was having before I was prematurely woken.
Imagining what would have happened next, her mouth opening under mine, lithe body pressing closer until it’s flush against me, my dick lengthening…
I let go of myself, not realizing where my hand had drifted. What the hell am I doing? This is the wrong woman to be attracted to. She’s a single mother with two young kids. I’m only in town for a month. She’s my landlord, for Christ’s sake.
My dick apparently didn’t get the message, though.
I ignore it for the rest of the shower, speeding through my normal routine, unable to appreciate how much I like this walk-in shower compared to the cramped tub I have back at my apartment.
I have to get my head on straight. No more thoughts of her like that. I’m sure once I live here a little longer, once I get to know her better, it’ll fade.
Because nothing’s happening, regardless.