How did my life get so screwed up?
I tapped a finger against the porch railing. It was in dire need of stain, and the picket fence surrounding the small front lawn needed some white paint. The flower beds were dry and dead. The grass was dead in the front and the backyard. The inside of the house fared no better either. The carpets needed to be ripped out, the hardwood floors restored, and every room needed to be swept and scrubbed down.
This was what my life had become over the past few months— run-down and in desperate need of fixing. My heart ached just thinking of the past year. Gone. Wasted. It tasted bitter at the back of my throat.
The small neighborhood was quiet against the backdrop of a buzzing Denver. I gazed along the shaded street while waiting for my mom’s esteemed realtor to arrive and hand over the keys. My dad’s small inheritance he had left behind for me in case of an emergency had paid for this house and a few small repairs that needed to be done. Everything else would somehow be up to me to figure out.
A job would be the next thing to look for. The shelter back in California had given me a basic flip phone to contact my mom with. My books, computer, iPhone, and clothes were all locked up in Luke’s apartment still. I paid for it, so it’s mine, not yours. That had been his response when I’d asked him to send my things through the mail. I had even offered to wire over a small bit of money for him to do it, but he’d only take the money. If he couldn’t hold me hostage, he’d hold my possessions hostage.
I sighed inwardly. How I ended up with someone like Luke was beyond me. A wolf dressed like a sheep was how I had described it to the shelter. Nothing about him screamed danger. He had charmed the hell out of me my freshman year of college. He had been the man on campus then. I had been the quiet book nerd looking to enjoy a few California sunrays. Colossal disaster. I still had the bruises on my arms and legs to prove it.
Those dark and horrible memories tickled the back of my head. I swiped at them in annoyance, tugging the long curls of my hair out of my hair clip. Don’t think about it. Just ignore it. Keep going forward like they said.
I blinked to find a middle-aged woman in a knee-length floral dress standing on the other side of the fence. She smiled kindly at me with her dark hair pulled back in a bun. A little girl clung to her hand, impatiently tugging at her mother’s arm.
“Hello,” I said, forcing a smile.
The woman put a hand on the gate to open it. That was when I caught sight of the casserole dish in the palm of her hand. I stepped down from the porch to open the gate for her.
“Very kind of you,” she said, beaming. “I’m Erika Smith. I live four doors down. This is my daughter, Julie.” She ran a hand down Julie’s dark locks fondly. “She’s one of the youngsters you’ll see running around here.”
“Hi,” Julie said.
“Hi,” I parroted back.
“We wanted to bring you this,” Erika continued, holding out the casserole dish. “We heard from the realtor that you would be moving in today but had no working appliances just yet. I do hope you have something to sleep on besides that nasty carpet in there.”
I took a hold of the casserole dish. The smell of chicken and rice filled my nose. My stomach gave an appreciative rumble.
“Thank you,” I said, holding the fine ceramic carefully in my arms. “I have an air mattress in my car that I’ll sleep on tonight. The rest of my furniture will be here tomorrow hopefully.”
“Oh, good. I’m so glad someone bought this house. The last occupants didn’t take care of it at all, as you probably know.” Erika’s eyes raked me up and down then. They settled on the bruises on my forearms, and I couldn’t tuck them away with the casserole dish in my arms. Thankfully, she looked away a second later. “You look so young to be buying a house. How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-three,” I said, uncomfortable with that knowing look in her eyes. “Thank you again for the casserole, Ms. Smith. It smells good.”
“Call me Erika,” she said airily. “It makes me feel old when you say my name that way.”
“Right. Erika —”
The roar of a diesel truck interrupted us. I glanced over my shoulder to see a tall and strong man hop out from the driver’s side. My heart gave a start when he swept an icy gaze across me and Erika. His blond hair was tousled back sexily. Muscles strained against the cuffs of his gray shirt. I glimpsed a cross tattoo on his right forearm before he turned on his heel to walk around the truck to the passenger side.
“That’s Jake Mason,” Erika whispered to me, leaning over the fence slightly. The passenger door opened, and a little boy jumped out a second later. He pretended to crash roll on the driveway before scrambling to his feet. “That’s his boy, Darren. He goes to school with Julie.”
Julie gave an impatient whine then. “M-m-m-mommy. Can I ask Darren to play before dinner?”
“Maybe, honey,” Erika said placidly. “That depends on Darren’s dad.”
“Why are you whispering?” I asked.
Erika blinked. “Am I?” She laughed lightly. “I supposed it’s habit, dear. Jake over there is a bit of a grump over noise, so I suggest you keep it down.”
“I’m not loud.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Erika took a step back from the gate to call out in exasperation. “Jake! Does Darren have time to play before dinner?”
The little boy immediately stopped at the question. He turned to look up at Jake with a hopeful expression.
Jake shook his head, placing a hand on Darren’s shoulder. His gaze skimmed over us indifferently.
“Not tonight, Erika,” he said, his husky timbre filling the summer air. “Darren has homework he needs to finish. Have a good night.”
The curtness threw me a little. I looked over at Erika, who didn’t seem too surprised or bothered by it. She caught sight of my expression.
“You’ll get used to him,” she said. “He’s a bit rough around the edges, but he’s quite helpful when you need him. He’s just an ass at times.” Her nose crinkled. “Don’t expect him to be around at night though.”
I couldn’t help it. Curiosity got the better of me. “Where does he go at night?”
“Beats me,” Erika said, shrugging her shoulders. “A job I assume. He doesn’t talk about himself much. All I know is that JoAnne’s daughter, Hayley, is the trusted person for watching Darren at night.”
I didn’t care about any of this information. Men were at the bottom of my list now. He is sexy though. I ignored that thought. He was a bit of a prick from what I had gathered. The last thing I needed was another man like that in my life. That had been the reason I had gotten into trouble in the first place.
I spotted my mother’s realtor driving down the street in our direction. I closed the gate as politely as possible.
“Thank you again,” I said, taking a step back. “I better go. That’s the realtor with my house keys.”
Erika flashed a dazzling smile. “Of course, dear. Anytime.” She reached over to pat me on the shoulder. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to come get me. Remember to keep the noise down.”
She walked down the sidewalk with Julie hopping along. They disappeared behind a large oak tree a minute later.
This was a new beginning with new people around. Everything would be okay again. Things would be better once the dust settled. I repeated those things to myself firmly.
I looked over my shoulder to see Jake grabbing the mail from his box on the front door. He looked at me with a blank expression before stepping through the front door, slamming it shut behind him.
“So much for making friends with the neighbors,” I muttered, and started in the direction of the realtor when she stepped out to jiggle the keys at me.
“Ready to see your new home?” she asked kindly.
“Yes,” I said emphatically. Even if it was a complete mess inside, it was my place. It was my fresh start.