Briley leaned against the wall as she looked out the window with her arms crossed. With keen interest, she watched as Leah, her next-door neighbor, moved around in her front yard. The tight khaki pants Leah wore made her ass look fantastic. Briley groaned but couldn’t take her eyes off Leah’s slim frame.
From a distance, Leah looked larger than life, but in reality, Briley thought she was around five-feet-two, a good three to four inches shorter than her. All she had to go on was that one time she’d passed Leah on the sidewalk. When Leah had smiled at her, Briley became so flustered that she’d quickly walked past her without saying a word. Briley hadn’t made a move to introduce herself. It was not one of her finer moments.
Today, Leah wore her ever-present oversized sunglasses and had her curly blond hair in a ponytail sticking out from the back of a ball cap. Briley would never admit it, but watching Leah was her favorite pastime. Just not in a stalker or creeper way. At least she hoped not.
Leah and her son, Evan, had moved into the house next door ten months ago. Briley knew Leah was fifty and her son was sixteen because Mrs. Hanlin had told her the day after they’d moved in; she’d also mentioned Leah had an ex-wife, another daughter, and two grandkids.
Briley pushed her black framed glasses up the bridge of her nose as her eyes moved from Leah’s tight ass, up a toned body, only to lock eyes with the woman who had taken her sunglasses off and now nibbled on the earpiece. With a squeak, Briley jumped back from her window, lost her footing, and fell backward to land on the floor. “Oh.”
Kat, Briley’s older sister by two years, jumped up from the couch. “You okay?” She popped the rest of her cheese Danish in her mouth, then looked out the window to see what held her sister’s attention. “Does this have anything to do with that woman staring at your house and laughing?”
“What?” Briley scrambled up, leaned back against the wall, then crept toward the window, where she glanced out. Leah was turned away from her and talking to Ms. Hanlin, their busybody with a heart of gold neighbor, and gesturing to Briley’s house.
“Do you have a thing for your neighbor? You sure do stare at her a lot.” Kat was tall and imposing at almost six feet and all lean muscle, as opposed to Briley’s five-foot-six frame. They both took after their mom with chestnut hair, but Kat had their dad’s blue eyes and Briley their mom’s green.
Kat had arrived the previous day after quitting her job the month before, packing up, and driving halfway across the country to move in with Briley. They’d talked about Kat needing a change for months and Briley had offered her spare room, as long as Kat paid part of the expenses, got a job, and figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. The sale of Kat’s condo, which netted her a tidy sum, also helped her make up her mind. Briley understood being stagnant, but she also knew Kat would go crazy if she sat around doing nothing for too long, hence the requirement of her looking for work.
Briley grimaced and flicked her hand in the air, hoping Kat would let it drop. “I don’t even know her.” Luck was not on her side.
Kat looked skeptical. “You don’t? That doesn’t sound like you at all. You know all your neighbors.” Kat pointed out the window and scrunched her nose up. “She lives right next door.”
“Your point?” Briley lifted her eyebrows.
“Is her house the one you and Brandon wanted to flip, but the owners wouldn’t sell to you?”
Eight years ago, she and Brandon, one of Briley’s best friends, had decided to pair up and try their hand at flipping houses. They’d researched for months before they felt ready to take the plunge. The first year they’d only flipped two houses, and although they’d made a good profit, they’d also made countless mistakes. Every year since, they’d improved, and last year they flipped ten houses and banked a tidy profit. Jacob Anderson, LLC was flourishing and a dream come true.
“The owner’s reason was that she wanted the house to keep its integrity.” Briley shrugged. “Who knows? I still don’t think that was the reason, but I guess we’ll never know.” She peeked out the window again.
“You haven’t introduced yourself yet?”
Ignoring Kat, Briley walked into the kitchen, where she topped off her glass of milk and downed half of it before setting it on the counter. She scratched her nose. “Well…” She ran her hands through her long hair and slumped against the black granite counter top.
“I see,” Kat said, slowly. “How long has she lived here?”
“Ten months,” Briley mumbled.
“You have to speak up if you want me to hear you.”
Before speaking, Briley drained her glass. “I said ten months. Okay.” She threw her hands in the air. “Ten months and no, I don’t know her.” She avoided her sister’s penetrating gaze. “I have yet to introduce myself to her, at least properly, but I have spoken to her son quite a few times.”
That made Kat sit up straighter in her chair. “Seriously? You’ve spoken to her son, but not her?” Kat pointed to the table and Briley pulled out a chair and flopped down in it.
“I…I.” Briley clamped her mouth shut and decided not to mention the sidewalk incident. “I…I attempted to, but when I was walking up to her house, with a basket of baked goods, I became flustered and came back here and never attempted to again. I doubt if she even saw me.” Leah stood on her porch at the time. Of course she saw her.
Kat laughed. “You ran back home? Good grief.” She quickly sobered. “But, don’t you give baked goods to all of your neighbors weekly? Surely, with her having a kid, you would make sure and deliver a basket to their house?”
“Yes, I do give baskets out weekly and her son has caught on and comes out to get theirs.” Briley suddenly found something interesting on the ceiling. When the stress of her flipping houses got the best of her, she would bake. Some people used drugs, alcohol, or sex to take the edge off. She used baking.
“Wait a minute.” Kat snapped her fingers in front of her face to draw her attention away from the ceiling. “You talk to her son and give him their basket and yet you are able to avoid her. You live in the same neighborhood. She lives right next door. You know you’re being an asshole, right?” Kat paused and wrinkled her brow. “Do you have a crush on her?”
Briley shook her head and laughed. “I do not have a crush on her.” At Kat’s, ‘you’re lying’ face, she quickly added, “Okay. I have a crush on her.”
Kat shot her right hand, palm out, to stop Briley from saying more. “She’s straight, isn’t she?”
“No. Mrs. Hanlin said her ex is a woman. I’ve never met her but I am attracted to her and everyone that mentions her, particularly Mrs. Hanlin, always says how nice she is. I see her and Evan laughing outside when they grill out every week. I like her from a distance. I haven’t worked up the nerve to actually talk to her yet.” She sighed, stood up, walked into the living room, and fell onto the couch.
After settling in the recliner, Kat motioned for her to go on.
“It started out as me not giving her my cupcakes when they first moved in, then Halloween happened and what I’m calling the First Incident.”
“Wait, let me get comfortable.” Kat wiggled against the recliner cushion. “This is going to be good.”
Briley rolled her eyes. “You know I always put decorations out. Well, I put mine up, then she put some out. When she saw me looking at her yard, she winked at me. She winked. So, I did what any reasonable person would do. I bought and put out more decorations. Then Mrs. Hanlin told me that Leah was going to give out full size candy bars.” She slapped her hands on the couch cushions.
Kat laughed and pulled a knee to her chest and wrapped an arm around it. “You went out and bought full sized candy bars, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did.” A small smile graced her lips. “The kids loved it.”
“I bet they did. Didn’t you dress up as Supergirl?”
She nodded. “It was a big hit with everybody.”
“What did Leah dress up as?”
“She dressed up as Captain Marvel. Her son dressed up as Spiderman. Her daughter and son-in-law were in town with their two kids. Before you ask, no, I did not talk to them either, but the kids were super cute.” She had a silly smile on her face, thinking about the kids in their Superman and Harry Potter costumes.
“Actually, that’s awesome. I would love to have seen Leah’s costume.”
Without missing a beat, Briley picked up her phone, scrolled through the pictures, then handed the phone over to her sister.
“Briley, she looks wickedly cool.” Kat scrolled through a few photos. “Her grandkids are adorable.” She handed the phone back. “She must have put a lot of work into her costume and you just happened to get a picture of her wearing it. It’s like she’s posing for you.”
Briley ignored Kat’s remark about Leah being a grandmother and tossed the phone to the end of the couch. “Mrs. Hanlin said she spent months working on it. Her son enjoys cosplaying, so she thought it would be a good bonding experience for them both.”
“You do, too.” Briley waved her off. “Okay. Is that the end of your feud?”
“You know how much I love Christmas.” Briley placed her arm over her eyes.
“Briley, what happened?”
“The Third Incident. I decorated, then she decorated. Then I decorated some more, then she did. For a solid week, we would one-up each other. I ended up spending half of my Christmas money on decorations. Mr. Balkin would sit bundled up in his lawn chair across the street and watch us to see what the other one would come up with. You know how competitive I am. She just wouldn’t stop.” Briley sat up and lifted her legs onto the coffee table. “I won the Christmas decorating competition and was mentioned in the paper.” She had the paper displayed in a frame on her bedroom wall. It had taken her years to place first.
“I know. You sent Mom and me both a copy of the paper. Framed.” She paused for a moment. “It seems to me that you both have a part in this. She obviously was trying to get your attention. Maybe this was the only way since you’ve been ignoring her. Which doesn’t sound like you at all.”
“You know I bake every Christmas and I went all out this year. Spent weeks baking and making candy, then packing everything up. I made everyone a small basket of goodies and passed them out.”
“You didn’t give her one?” Kat picked up a throw pillow and hit Briley in the head. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Briley glared at her, straightened her glasses, then hugged the pillow to her chest. “Evan, Leah’s son, had told me they were going to his sister’s for Christmas. I thought about giving them one for a hot second, but decided not to since they were leaving. Then Mrs. Hanlin, because it’s always her, said that Leah saw her basket and asked her about it the day before they left. Mrs. Hanlin told her that it was from me. Leah then proceeded to tell her that she didn’t get one, and Mrs. Hanlin said for a second, she and her son looked sad.”
Kat shook her head. “Wow. That’s…I don’t know what to say. Wow.”
“Stop looking at me like that.”
“Like you’re disappointed in me. I’m disappointed enough in myself for the both of us. I should have given her a huge basket to take with her for everyone to share.” Briley waved her hands in the air. “She makes me nervous. Kat, you don’t even know.”
Kat’s gaze bored into Briley. “It doesn’t bother you that she’s a grandma?”
“She may be a grandma but she’s only fifty. You know age doesn’t matter to me. She’s gorgeous, right?” Briley had thought about the age difference, but the sixteen years between the two of them didn’t matter to her. There had been a twenty-year difference between their parents and they were married almost forty years before their dad had died in a motorcycle accident a few years back.
“She is and I just wanted to make sure about the age difference.” Kat stood up, walked around the coffee table, sat down on the couch, and drew Briley against her side. “I don’t care how big of a crush you have on her; you need to do something to make up for your shitty ways. Maybe bake her some cupcakes.” She frowned when Briley stiffened in her arms. “Is there more?”
“Incident Four.” Briley glanced away sheepishly. “Look. You know I don’t have a green thumb, but did you get a look at her flowers? They are amazing. So, when I saw her planting them, I went out, bought a few pallets of flowers for myself, and planted them. I thought that if I impressed her with my mad gardening skills it would be easier to strike up a conversation. One day while I was watering said flowers, I caught her staring at me. She shook her head, winked at me, then walked into her house.”
“Briley, what flowers? I didn’t see any when I got here yesterday.”
“They all died.” Briley buried her head in Kat’s neck. “I couldn’t even keep some stupid flowers alive. What kind of loser am I?”
Kat laughed and kissed her on the head. “Don’t be dramatic. So your mad gardening skills are nonexistent. Just the fact that you tried tells me that you like her.” Kat laughed and squeezed her once more, before standing up. “I think it’s time we settled this.”
“Wait.” It took a moment for Kat’s words to register but when they did, Briley jumped up from the couch, misjudged her momentum, and tripped over the coffee table. Kat barely caught her in time to stop a minor catastrophe.
Briley threw her arm off, and stood up straight, heart pounding in her chest. “Where are you going?” She ran in front of Kat and plastered herself against the front door. “You are not going over there.” She didn’t know why she told Kat anything.
The glare Kat threw her way should have stopped Briley in her tracks, but she wasn’t thinking straight.
“Don’t tell me what I’m not going to do.” Kat crossed her arms. “It never worked when we were growing up and it’s not going to work now. I am going to do what you haven’t worked up the nerve to do yet. I am going to introduce myself to Leah.” She grasped Briley by the shoulders and shoved her aside. “You should find a way to make this right. Besides, I could have gone through the backdoor. Oh, and,” she said. “Don’t think I didn’t catch that you skipped over the second incident.”
Briley slid to the floor when the door shut behind Kat, then quickly scrambled to the window, peeked out it, and couldn’t believe her eyes when Kat marched next door and joined Leah, who was walking away from her mailbox.
They shook hands, exchanged words, then Leah pointed to her house. Kat nodded, followed her down the walkway, up the steps, and disappeared behind Leah’s bright red front door. Briley flung the curtain back and dropped down on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
She had really stepped in it this time. Whatever it was. How would she climb out of a hole she was still digging? She didn’t know how, but she had a feeling she was about to find out. Briley knew Kat wouldn’t let this go, and in a way, she didn’t want her to. Maybe a push is exactly what she needed.
After flinging the curtain back in place, Briley ran to the couch, flopped down on it, and had just opened the book she swiped from the coffee table when the front door opened and Kat walked in. There was no way she would ever admit to Kat that she had divided her time for the last hour between pacing the living room floor and looking out the window. Briley peeked at her from over the top of the book.
The blank look stayed plastered to Kat’s face, even as she shut the front door, walked to the couch, picked up Briley’s feet, sat down, then laid them in her lap. She grabbed the remote from where it lay beside Briley and turned the television on before resting her arm on the back of the couch.
Briley pretended to read, but the words blurred together. Her eyes widened in surprise when she realized the book was upside down. If she flipped it, would Kat notice? Probably. She noticed everything. Since Kat seemed content to stay quiet, Briley decided to bite the bullet. “Did you have a good time?” Briley lowered the book to gauge Kat’s reaction.
Kat kept her eyes on the T.V. “I did. Have you enjoyed reading your book?” After a beat. “Upside down.”
Briley flung the offending book on the floor. “She invited you in?”
“Since you were watching us, you would know this.”
Busted. “I hope she served you refreshments.”
“She was a perfect hostess.”
As Briley knew she would be. When nothing else was forthcoming, Briley sat up, swung her feet to the floor, and snatched the remote from Kat’s hands. “That’s it?”
“Yes.” Kat turned slowly toward her.
Briley moved closer to her and sweetly smiled. “Oh, come on. What did you talk about? Did she mention me?”
“She did mention you.”
“Well, what did she say?” Briley wiggled to get comfortable on the couch.
“Look.” Kat took Briley’s hand and sighed. “I wasn’t sure if your crush was for real or not and I hope you don’t get mad at me, but…”
Briley jerked her hand back and covered her mouth. “You told her I had a crush on her? How could you, Kat. Really?” Why didn’t the earth open and swallow her whole?
“No.” Kat ran her hand through her hair. “I didn’t tell her you had a crush on her. Please understand. She was charming.”
Oh, God. What did she do? “Go on.”
“I asked her out,” she said, in a rush.
Briley smacked her on the arm. “You what?”
“I asked her out. You were right. She is attractive, and I can see why you are gone on her. Besides that, she’s funny, and sweet. I like her and I wasn’t going to pass this opportunity up. You snooze, you lose.” She stood, tapped Briley on the tip of her nose, and skipped out of the living room and down the hall to her room.
Briley dropped her head in her hands. She couldn’t believe this. How could Kat ask her out after finding out Briley liked her? She knew she had no reason to be jealous, but this sucked. On the other hand, what did she think would happen? Shit. Kat asking her out wouldn’t be at the top of her list and the list wasn’t even that long.
Why was she getting worked up? Briley stood up, shook her hands out, and bounced on her feet. It was only a crush. She’d had plenty of those in her thirty-four years. She walked to the window and looked out it, watching Leah getting in her Escalade and back out of her driveway. This called for drastic measures.
Three hours later and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kat walk into the kitchen, stop, then lean back against the wall. “Briley, what are you doing?” Kat eyed the table and the counter that was covered in cookies, turnovers, and several different types of pastries.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Briley smiled and turned from the stove. “I had the urge to bake.” She spread her arms wide. When she noticed the extent of her impromptu baking marathon, her smile faltered. “I guess I got a bit carried away.”
“Are you all right?” Kat picked up a chocolate chip cookie and took a bite of it.
“Of course. You know I love to bake. This way I’ll have lots of treats to hand out.” With the side of her hand, she wiped the hair out of her eyes, leaving a smidge of flour in its wake.
“Bri, you’re not mad at me, are you?”
Briley forced a laugh and quickly turned her back to her sister. “Of course not. What would I have to be jealous about?”
“I didn’t say jealous. I said mad.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Whatever.” She picked the dough up and flung it back on the counter. “I’m not mad.”
“You seem a bit…”
Briley whirled around. “I’m not mad. Do what you want. Have dinner with Leah. I don’t care. Get married. Have babies,” she muttered. She knew she was being a bitch, but she and Kat had never been interested in the same woman before. Even when they both came out in their teens, the type of woman that drew each of them had always been opposites. All this was a new experience and she didn’t like it. Not one iota. The dread swirling in the pit of her stomach only added to her overall turmoil to dampen her mood.
“Okay.” Kat lifted her hands up in defeat.
Briley ignored her, wrapped the dough up, and put it in the fridge to rest. She walked past her sister and picked up the caramel sauce.
“Apple turnovers with caramel sauce. That will be good for us to take to Leah’s for dinner tonight.”
Once she poured the caramel over the top of the pastries, set the pot in the sink, and wiped her hands, she turned to Kat. “Say what?”
“Leah. Dinner. We’ll have something to take for dessert now.” Kat pointed to the pastries.
Briley narrowed her eyes and gripped the edge of the counter top. “I think I missed something. You mean you’ll have something to take to dinner?”
Kat grinned like the Cheshire Cat, which gave Briley a really bad feeling. “No. Leah invited both of us over for dinner tonight.” She picked up a glazed donut hole and popped it in her mouth.
“You said you asked her out!” Briley accused.
“I lied.” She shrugged. “I wanted to see how worked up you would get and by the number of baked goods, I would say you were worked up thinking about us dating.” She chuckled and poured a glass of milk.
Damn Kat and her meddling ways. “What the…Kat, and you called me an asshole.”
“This will give you a chance to turn around your asshole standing. Dinner is in an hour. You need to shower and change.” Kat pointed to her head and face. “You have flour on your face and in your hair.”
Briley planted her hands on her hips but the insult died on her lips. Kat was right; she did need to change. After everything that had happened between her and Leah, could all it really take was her sister to narrow the divide? It seemed too good to be true. Briley gnawed at her bottom lip. “Why did she invite me?”
Kat hesitated with the donut hole halfway to her mouth. “Contrary to what you might think, she doesn’t hate you. In fact, she said she’s been enjoying your competitions. She did add she doesn’t know why you dislike her.” Kat eyed her over her glass of milk. “I didn’t tell her that you had a ginormous crush on her or who she reminds you of.” Briley looked appalled. “Come on, you didn’t think I wouldn’t notice.”
“Whatever. She really said all of that?” Maybe the time had arrived to try and work this out. She was an adult. She could do this.
“Yes, Briley. If only you would give her a chance. I know you’ve had some bad luck in the relationship department, but maybe it’s time to put your heart on the line.”
“That’s hard to do.” Her last relationship ended two years ago, and she hadn’t had the heart to start something serious again. Not after the way that one ended. Briley didn’t know if she could do it again.
Kat eyed the clock. “You need to get ready.”
“Yes.” After her shower, she searched through her closet for fifteen minutes, then had to talk herself down from a panic attack. This wasn’t a date. It was dinner with her neighbor and her sister, but she still wanted to make a good impression.
She settled on a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts, and a cream colored, V-neck sleeveless top, with a yellow cardigan. Simple, but practical. She couldn’t believe she was doing this. She’d been such an asshole to her neighbor, but since her sister was involved, she knew there was no getting out of this. She arranged her hair up with a clip, then slipped on a pair of sandals. She walked down the hall to the kitchen, pulled a basket from her stash in the pantry, and loaded it with treats.
“Ready?” Kat asked when she stepped into the kitchen. She looked Briley up and down. “You look nice.”
“Thanks. Are you sure this is a good idea?” The basket in her arms felt like it was filled with lead.
Kat patted her arm. “What are you afraid of? If the evening falls apart, just come home and continue ignoring her like you have been, and if all goes well, maybe you’ve made a new friend or something more.”
“It’s the something more that scares me.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose.
Like a prisoner being dragged to the gallows, Briley followed behind Kat. The walk to Leah’s house felt like the longest of her life. She paused at the steps and admired the flowers that lined the path and surrounded the porch. Leah really did have a knack for growing them. She should ask her for pointers.
When the door opened, Briley turned slowly and watched as Leah stepped out dressed in a pair of black tailored trousers, a short sleeve pink polo, and a pair of black Wonder Woman socks. Briley’s heart skipped a beat. Could this woman be any more perfect?
“It’s a beautiful evening.” Leah leaned against the railing and looked from one to the other.
All Briley could do was gape, as all words had fled. Leah looked tiny up close. Why did Leah have to look effortlessly amazing? Even if Briley could regain the use of speech, she knew what ever came out of her mouth would be utter gibberish. How, after only a few words from Leah, could she get tongue-tied? “I…” Panic seized her chest and Kat rescued her.
“It is.” Kat climbed the steps.
Briley didn’t know where the bout of courage had come from, but she shot up the steps, and thrust the basket into Leah’s arms. “Look.” She reached up and fiddled with her glasses. Kat nodded at her encouragingly. “I am sorry; I’ve been such an asshole to you. I think, maybe, I’ve let my competitive nature get the best of me and I have never given you a chance. It’s not like me at all.” She then pinched at her cardigan. “Please accept this basket with my apologies.”
“Apology accepted.” Leah looked down at the contents of the basket before raising her head and arching her brow, a small teasing smile appearing. “Everything looks and smells wonderful.”
“Ladies, I hate to do this, but I’m not going to be able to stay for dinner. I hope you both enjoy your evening,” Kat said.
Briley jerked her head around and grabbed onto Kat’s arm. Kat pried off the death grip, and scampered down the stairs, Briley right behind her. Kat whirled around and stopped Briley with a hand to her chest.
“You didn’t mention that at my house.” Briley swiped the hand away and leaned in close to whisper in Kat’s ear. “Don’t do this to me. She made dinner for both of us.” She stiffened when she caught the mischief in her sister’s eyes. Then it dawned on her. Kat had set her up.
“Have a good time. Both of you.” Kat patted Briley on the hand then lowered her voice. “You can thank me later.” She winked.
As Kat walked down the pathway, Briley’s eyes stayed glued to her until she entered through the back door of her house. Briley took a deep breath. I can do this. I want to do this. After a count of ten, she turned around, walked back up the steps, and plastered a smile on her face. “So?”
“Dinner should be ready now.” Leah walked to the door and held it open for her. Her smile should have helped to put Briley at ease, but it had the complete opposite effect on her.
Leah didn’t seem fazed by Kat’s declaration at all. Briley’s steps faltered when it dawned on her that Leah was also in on it. They had both played her. Surely, that was a good sign. “Dinner?”
With a quick look from Leah’s house to her house, Briley finally made up her mind. This was her chance and she wasn’t going to throw it away. “After you.”