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Wicked White (Wicked White Series Book 1) by Michelle A. Valentine (5)

IRIS

I pull back the curtain just enough so that I can stare outside at my astonishingly sexy new neighbor as he washes his motorcycle. His bronze hair reflects a lot of the subtle undertones that snake through it as he stands in the sunlight with his red flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows. His dark-washed jeans hug his tight backside while he inspects every inch of the machine in front of him, and it causes me to bite my lip. It’s been a week since he moved in, and I still don’t know a single thing about him other than the fact he’s absurdly handsome and kind of an asshole. I can’t figure him out—why a guy like him is not only single but such a recluse.

“He’s going to catch you stalking him,” Birdie says as she pours a cup of coffee.

Immediately, I let the white curtain fall back into place and fire back, “I’m not stalking him.”

She raises one eyebrow at me and smirks as she fills another cup. “Um, have you forgotten who you’re talking to here? I can always tell when you’re lying. Your nose twitch gives you away every time.”

I stop midtwitch and huff as I walk over and pick up the cup she’s set out for me and throw a scoop of sugar in with a dash of French vanilla creamer. “I’m not stalking him, exactly. It’s more like a nagging curiosity about him that just won’t go away. He’s not from around here, and I can’t figure out why a guy that looks like him would ever want to move into that run-down place next door.”

Birdie shakes her head as she leans against the counter. “You saying this place isn’t good enough for him? It’s good enough for us, why not him?”

I swallow a sip of the piping-hot liquid from my cup. “Did you see the bike he rode in on? And how about those clothes? I’ve seen flannel shirts and detailed stitched jeans like the ones he wears—they aren’t cheap. It seems like he can afford more than a four-hundred-dollar-a-month trailer in the middle of nowhere.”

She sighs. “You don’t know him, Iris. He could be a total creeper running from the law or something. Just because he’s hot doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a fucked-up past. If you’re smart, you’d give him the privacy he’s obviously after. Getting mixed up with a guy like him is bad news.”

“You’re probably right, but I can’t help being curious,” I admit.

Birdie stares at me over her coffee cup. “That curiosity might lead you to trouble. You need to nip that shit in the butt.”

I laugh. “You mean bud.”

She waves me off dismissively. “Bud—butt. You know what I meant.”

A short time later, Birdie heads out for work. When I walk her to the door, I notice my reclusive next-door neighbor still outside, waxing his bike. I lean against the door frame and wave good-bye as my best friend hops in her car and pulls away while honking the horn.

The commotion catches Ace’s attention and he glances back to where I’m standing. When his gaze locks with mine, my breath actually catches, and I wonder if he and I should start over since we aren’t exactly on neighborly terms.

I lift my hand in greeting, but quickly jerk it down when his expression turns into a blatant scowl pointed in my direction.

I huff, completely put off by his utter rudeness, and slam the door.

What’s his freaking problem?

I’ve never in my life had someone be such an ass to me.

The angry roar of his motorcycle coming to life rumbles the thin walls of my trailer as he mashes the gas and heads down the road.

Maybe Birdie is right. Ace Johnson could very well be hiding something, and I think it’s my duty as the new owner of Willow Acres to find out just what that could be, whether he likes me or not. Looks like I’m going to have to kill him with kindness. That’s the way Gran always taught me to treat people who were mean to me. Let’s hope it works on Ace.

All afternoon I wait on Ace’s return so I can march over and fire some questions off at him, but as the time passes I find myself absolutely out of my mind with boredom with no Internet or cable service here. New York has certainly spoiled me with its conveniences.

As I sit on the small wooden porch outside my front door, I notice how unruly the grass has become around the property. Our lawn service quit two weeks ago when I explained that I didn’t have enough money to pay them. They didn’t trust that I would be good for it after the first of the month when all of the rents start coming in. It didn’t matter to them that Gran had just passed away and that I’m still struggling to figure things out, all that mattered to them was that they get paid, which I understand. It just sucks for me, making this overgrown lawn one more thing I have to deal with.

I push myself up and walk through the yard, the grass tickling my ankles from its height as I make my way to the shed at the back of the trailer. Inside I find an old push mower that Gran bought when I was just a kid. She quit using it herself a few years back when she hit her midfifties, saying she was too old to push the damn thing around and upping the lot rent to hire the lawn service.

I drag the mower out onto the grass and try to remember exactly how to start this thing. I clutch the lever attached to the handle and grab the pulley and yank with all my might, yet nothing happens. I know this is how to start it. I used to mow all this grass as a teenager, helping Gran out around the place, so I’m not sure what the problem is here. After doing the same thing over and over about ten times, I shove my hands on my hips and curse at the stupid machine, fighting back the urge to kick it.

The sound of an approaching motorcycle causes me to roll my eyes.

Great. He would come back just when I decide to find something to keep me busy, getting grease and dirt all over my hands in the process. My interrogation of him will have to wait until some other time now.

I do my best to ignore the fact that Ace has returned and refocus on starting the lawn mower. I yank one more time, and when nothing happens, I curse loudly, out of pure frustration, “Fucking piece of shit!”

“Problems?”

I turn to see Ace standing before me with his arms crossed over his broad chest, looking more godlike than ever, staring at me expectantly with those brown eyes of his.

My shoulders sag, as I hate admitting defeat to this man. He’s such a crass know-it-all. “I can’t get it to start.”

He nods but doesn’t say anything else as he walks over beside me. The smell of soap and spice fills my nose, and I’m tempted to lean in closer to him and take a long whiff. His scent makes me want to lick him, but I fight hard to restrain myself, because that wouldn’t go over well.

The thick cords in his arms move after he stoops down and turns a small silver cap on the engine of the machine. “Did you check the gas?”

My cheeks redden as embarrassment floods through me. “I forgot about that.”

He closes one eye and peers down into the hole before shaking his head. “It’s bone dry.” He stares up at me. “How long have you owned this place?”

“I just inherited from my gran two weeks ago when she passed. Truthfully, I’m a little lost at how I’m supposed to keep the place running. I don’t know how she managed it all these years.”

It’s almost as if something resonates with him, because his normal scowl is replaced with a frown. “I’m sorry to hear about your gran. Were you all close?”

I nod. “She raised me and was the closest thing to a mom I ever had.”

Ace sighs as he rubs the back of his neck. “I’ll tell you what. If you knock fifty bucks a month off the rent, I’ll do all the lawn work around here. That’ll make one less burden you have to worry about.”

“Deal!” I say a little too enthusiastically, and Ace’s eyebrows draw in like he’s aggravated by my excitement, but I go ahead and attempt to start our relationship over. “I really think we got started off on the wrong foot.”

Ace holds up a hand, cutting me off. “This in no way means we’re friends. I’m just looking for ways to save myself some money. Got it?”

I flinch as the short tone he takes with me returns, and it pisses me off that he feels like he has the right to treat me like this. Maybe Gran’s idea to be nice isn’t meant for this situation, because he obviously has no interest in making amends. “Whatever.”

I turn and walk inside the trailer to finish going through some of Gran’s things to distract myself from the beautiful asshole who lives next door.

When Ace returns from the gas station, the constant sound of the mower working at chopping down the grass echoes through Willow Acres. At least the tidiness around the park that Gran prided herself on so much is getting back to normal. “We might be poor, but that’s no excuse to live like animals” is what Gran would always say.

I make myself some lemonade in the kitchen and then sit outside on the steps as I wait for Birdie to return home from her job as a daytime bartender at a small club in Cambridge. She’s been working so hard to worm her way into her boss’s good graces. Her goal of obtaining an evening shift position is pretty close to being attained. She’s been at Angel’s for only three months, and she’s already next on the list for a shift that’s known for the best tips. I’m proud of how hard she works. My friend has a great work ethic.

The loud rumble of Jeremy’s beat-up 1990s-model Trans Am catches my attention just in time for me to see him come to a skidding halt in front of my place. His T-tops are open, and he doesn’t even bother using his door as he hoists himself out of the car. He tucks his long, sandy-blond hair behind his ears as he approaches me. The T-shirt covering his slim body has the sleeves cut off, and the jeans he has on are filthy, like he’s been rolling around in mud.

I hope he’s bringing the rent he’s two weeks late paying.

I give him a polite smile, hoping he’s not coming to me to ask for another week to pay his rent. “Hey, Jeremy.”

Jeremy takes that as an invitation and walks up to the porch where I’m sitting and props one leg up beside me on the step. His green eyes bore into me as he leers down at me in a way that makes me wish I had about fifteen layers of clothes covering my body.

“Iris, I’ve got your rent.” He leans back and pulls a wad of cash from his back pocket and hands it to me. “My dick boss was late paying me.”

The worn money slides through my fingers as I count it in front of him. When I count out only four hundred dollars, I ask, “Where’s the late fee?”

He makes a sour face. “Why the fuck are you going to charge me a late fee? I told you last week that I would be late. It wasn’t my fault that my boss didn’t pay me until today.”

If he had been nice about the situation, I probably would have let the twenty-five-dollar fee go, but because he’s being a complete jackass about it, I’m pressing the issue. I set the money down on the step beside me and pick up my glass of lemonade. “I never said that you wouldn’t have to pay that. You signed a contract—”

“Fuck your contract, bitch!” Jeremy knocks the glass of lemonade out of my hand, causing me to gasp and flinch because I’m not sure if he’s going to swing at my face next. The liquid spills as the glass crashes down on the concrete and shatters into a hundred pieces. “You got your money. Be grateful for that.”

“That’s enough!” Ace’s deep voice cuts between me and Jeremy.

Jeremy’s back tenses and he straightens and twists his head from side to side like he’s readying himself for a fight. He pushes himself away from the step and turns to face Ace, who is standing a few feet away. “I think you need to mind your own business, pretty boy. You don’t want me to mess up that face of yours, so go back to wherever you fucking came from. This here, it’s between me and Iris.”

Ace balls his fists at his sides. “I’m only going to tell you one time, back the fuck away from her.”

Jeremy laughs as he grabs a knife from his pocket and flips it open. “Or you’ll what?” Ace takes a step back and raises his hands, causing Jeremy to smirk. “That’s what I thought, tough guy. If you know what’s good for ya, you’ll get the hell out of here.”

Ace narrows his eyes at Jeremy. “I’m not leaving her with you.”

My heart leaps into my throat as Jeremy begins circling Ace with his drawn knife. Fear paralyzes me, as I struggle to sort through my brain for what’s the right thing to do in this situation. Do I jump between them, risking my own life, or let Ace handle it?

I clutch my chest as the realization hits that I have to do something. This guy barely knows me. I can’t allow him to get hurt.

I jump up from my seat and take a hesitant step toward Jeremy before placing my hand on his arm. “That’s enough. This is crazy. Stop!”

Jeremy seizes the opportunity and shoves me with his free hand so hard into the trailer behind me that the wind whooshes from my lungs.

A growl rips from Ace’s throat as he hits Jeremy’s arm, knocking the knife from his hand before blasting him with a fist in the face. The moment Ace’s knuckles make contact with Jeremy’s nose, an audible crunch sounds and blood pours down Jeremy’s face.

“Oh, God,” Jeremy cries as he covers his face with both hands and doubles over in pain. “You broke my nose.”

Ace stands there, fists drawn and chest heaving while keeping his eyes trained on Jeremy. “I’ll break a lot more if you don’t leave. Now.”

Those words do not need to be spoken twice, as Jeremy turns tail and stumbles to his car. “This isn’t over, asshole.”

“Yes it is. Touch her again and I will annihilate you.” Ace’s menacing words are a dark warning to Jeremy—one I pray he takes seriously, because I don’t want the poor guy’s blood on my hands. I obviously don’t know what Ace is capable of.

This time Jeremy opens the driver’s door of his car, flings himself inside, and fires up the roaring engine. A thick cloud of dust wafts around as the tires of the Trans Am spin before he speeds away.

It’s then I notice I’m still leaning against the trailer, frozen, in the same position I was just knocked into.

Ace turns to me once the Trans Am is out of sight, concern etched into his features. “You okay?”

I shove my hair back from my face and inspect the rest of me to confirm there’s no damage. “Yes. I think so.”

He gives me a curt nod and turns his back to me, not offering me a bit of explanation on why he intervened on my behalf the way he did. “Ace, wait.”

Midstride, he pauses but doesn’t face me. He turns his head to the side so that I can see his beautiful profile. “For what?”

I rush to him and allow my eyes to flit over his body, frantically searching for any injuries. When they finally land on his bloody knuckles, I reach down without permission and pull his hand up for inspection. “You’re hurt.”

As I run my fingers gently over his skin, he closes his eyes like my touch is painful. “I’m fine.”

“Are you going to tell me why you did that?” I ask quietly.

“I need a reason to save a woman from being bullied from some jerkoff who was determined to hurt her?” he says as he opens his eyes to gaze upon me. His eyes serious, and expression unreadable.

“Yes, if the woman you save is obviously one you hate,” I reply.

“I don’t hate you.” He hesitates for a beat and then shakes his head. “I just need to stay away from you.”

The answer he gives me still isn’t enough to satisfy my curious brain. “That makes no sense. Tell me why you feel that way.”

He lets out an exasperated sigh. “Just let it go, Iris. Pushing this issue will only be dangerous for us both.”

I open my mouth to argue with him once again, but he doesn’t give me the opportunity before he stalks off, putting as much distance between us as he can.

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