“You’re the fucking worst father ever!” Callum grabbed his skateboard and strode down the porch steps. He tried to slam the garden gate closed, but it popped back open.
“Language!” I called after him.
Sighing, I sat on the steps and shredded my hands through my hair. I’d thought raising an infant would be hard. I’d thought toddler phase would kill me. Turned out nothing was as bad as the teenage years.
We’d just moved to Eden, Michigan, the house not even ready because one of the moving trucks was running late. Naturally, Callum hated everything about it. His new room was too big, the living room too small, and the kitchen too far away from his bedroom.
I blew out a breath. Jesus, I’m exhausted.
Startled, I looked up, a tiny blonde standing at the garden gate. Her tight black leggings hugged her legs and a black tank followed every curve of her body. It was almost distracting, the way her clothes hid hardly anything.
I forced out a smile. “Peachy.” Wincing, realizing how horrible that sounded, I sighed. “I’m sorry.” I stood and strode over to her. “My day hasn’t been exactly easy.”
She nodded. As I got closer, I noticed her eyes were dark brown, a stark contrast to her fair hair and light skin. “I’m Sarah Burke. I live down the road. I wanted to go for a run, but, well… A screaming match won’t exactly go unnoticed around here. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
She held out a hand, her eyes roaming over my face and down my body. I was certain it lingered on my hand a little longer than it should as I grasped hers.
“Knox Dyer. Nice to meet you.” And that wasn’t a lie. She was beautiful, a kind acceptance in her eyes making my heart flutter.
Her brows shot up. “Knox?” she echoed, and I winced.
“Yes. I know. It sounds like a street name. My parents thought Knoxley would be a great name, and since Knoxley is even worse than Knox…” I spread my arms wide, “here I am.” I hated my name, had since I was little.
“I like it,” she eventually decided, her smile warm and sincere as she crossed her arms in front of her chest, enhancing her cleavage. “How old is he?” She nodded down the street to where my son was doing skateboard stunts in a dead end.
I blew out a breath. “Sixteen. I was nineteen when Callum was born. I figured it couldn’t be so hard. After all, I thought I owned the world.”
Her expression looked thoughtful, a blonde strand blowing into her face as a wistful smile crossed her lips. “I bet life taught you, huh? You were young. Very much so. Where’s his mother?”
I arched a brow, caught off-guard. People usually didn’t ask me that question out of fear of being insensitive. “I, uh…”
Sarah blinked up at me, surprised. “What? Don’t know?”
I shook my head. “Of course I do, but I have be honest here. People don’t normally ask me that.”
She shrugged, the athletic tank drawing my eyes down to her cleavage again. “Well, I figure it can be one of three things. She’s dead, you have joint custody, or she took off and left you with the child. There’s nothing pretty about any of those things, but me skirting around the topic won’t make it better, will it?”
I cocked my head. “I guess not. She was seventeen, fearing she’d waste her life if she raised him. We’d agreed to put him up for adoption. When we went to her last check-up before he was born, I realized I couldn’t do that, couldn’t have my child raised by someone else, so I opted to be a single dad.”
“Got a new girlfriend to go with it?”
I arched a brow, smirking. “Why? Are you offering?” Only after I’d said the words did I realize I’d been thinking she’d be nice to get to know.
She laughed briefly, the sound clear and sweet. “Just curious. It’s a big house you’re living in. I figured it was more of a family thing.”
I shrugged, wondering what it was about her I immediately liked. I was charming, so I got along great with women, but just because I hit it off with the ladies didn’t mean I liked a majority of them.
Sarah was different. She was a little shorter than me, her body athletic, yet showed she didn’t say no to a good burger. I liked her curves much more than I was ready to admit, and the fact she wore no make-up to speak of added extra appeal in my eyes.
“I’ve dated a few women, yes, but most were… I don’t know. Soon after meeting Callum, they walked out. It didn’t matter how cute he was, they always left. You know, he wasn’t always this much trouble.”
It seemed puberty, the move, and whatever else had hit him hard. I couldn’t remember when we’d last sat down and finished dinner in peace.
“You know, it’s a single dad’s mistake to think women will be okay with a child who’s not their own. I assume you told them right away?”
The way she phrased her question proved that she knew better.
“You know, it’s a relationship killer. Or a date killer. Or really just a killer topic. Do you have kids?”
Or a husband? Boyfriend? Girlfriend?
Her expression darkened as she straightened her shoulders, brushing a blonde strand of hair behind her ear. “Listen…” She placed her small hand on the fence between us and gave me a strained smile. “This has been nice. We should talk some other time, but I really gotta go. I need to finish this run, then get to work. You take care. Again, welcome to the neighborhood. Watch out for the crows.” She winked, running off before I could form a response.
It seemed okay for her to talk about me, but the moment the topic changed to her, she shut down. Deciding that the last thing on my mind should be dating, I turned and made my way up the porch steps and into the house.
Every room was filled with boxes. I contemplated where to start, deciding the kitchen would be as good a place as any. Besides, a tidy kitchen always made me feel as if I had my life under control.
Ha, what an illusion.
I stepped into the kitchen and looked around. The cupboards were high, making me think whoever lived here before had been as tall as I was, about six-three, then I paused. Why in the world did it matter how high the cabinets hung? My son was almost as tall as I was, although much lankier. No matter what he ate, he didn’t gain weight, and people always asked me if I wasn’t feeding him.
Hearing the doorbell, I walked to the front and opened the door, freezing at the two women standing there. Easily forty, wearing too much make-up and not enough material to cover their bodies, they looked foreboding, like those scary witches you saw in movies.
“Hey, handsome. Welcome to the neighborhood.” Their eyes raked down my body, making me shiver. When Sarah had done that in appreciation, it had been sexy. With them, it was just…weird.
“Ladies.” I didn’t feel like giving them my name, even if we were neighbors.
“I made you a tuna casserole, handsome,” the first one with dark, short hair and a shorter than short green sundress announced, brushing past me and walking right into the kitchen, as if she owned the place.
“Ignore her, son,” the second one ordered, her hair bright red and just as short as her friend’s. It looked like someone had shrunk her pink capris and white blouse, her rather round body hugged by the material. “She has no manners. I’m Elena, sweetheart.” She walked into the house, making sure her chest brushed against mine, although there was plenty of space for her to pass without touching me at all.
“Elena, leave the poor man alone. He hasn’t even unpacked yet and you’re already trying to pick apart his sexy body. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Where is your second half? Has she dug her claws into him yet?”
At the voice, Elena turned toward the door. I looked out and saw Sarah striding up my porch steps. Did she forget something?
Or had she come back to save me from these two?
“Just because your libido died when your child did doesn’t mean we can’t be interested,” Elena snapped
My eyes widened. Holy fucking shit. What an incredibly low blow. Surprisingly, Sarah took it in a stride.
“Well, I’ll make sure to tell Mr. Dan, your husband, you said that. Have a nice day.” She looked at me as she backed away. “Oh, and Knox? My place is six houses down, should you not see any other way to escape the crows,” Sarah called, then she was gone again.
I stared at the red-haired monster next to me, realizing I needed to tread carefully. “Listen, I appreciate you and your friend dropping by, but I need to get the kitchen and living room unpacked before my son comes back and throws another teenage fit. How about we catch up some other time?”
Elena crossed her arms in front of her sagging cleavage and gave me a sugary smile. “Dana and I are always here if you need anything, son.”
It creeped me out how she switched between calling me that and calling me sweetheart.
I gave her a strained smile I was sure looked more like a grimace than anything else. Her friend, Dana, leaned against the staircase banister, watching us.
“Sarah Burke is a tease, Knox,” she announced, then walked closer and ran her red fingernails across my chest.
Why did these two feel it was okay to touch me without permission? And, damn, they clearly could hear a lot better than I’d have guessed.
“Yes, she is flirty, but she won’t let you come close. She’ll make you all hot and bothered until your blue balls nearly burst out of those sexy jeans, then she’ll walk away. She’s not what you’re looking for,” her friend added.
I felt my balls shriveling up just because these two talked about them.
“A relationship is not what I’m looking for. If it ever is, I’ll make sure to come ask you if my choice is a good one. Goodbye, ladies, and thank you for the casserole.” That I definitely won’t be eating.
Once they walked out—after trying to kiss my cheeks, unsuccessfully—I leaned against the door. This definitely was a weird neighborhood, but then again, what had I expected? I’d wanted a nice, safe home for my son, and you didn’t find those in the big city.
However, in the big city, at least I would’ve been safe from those two. That suddenly sounded much more appealing than the yard and the freedom of owning my own house.
* * *
I wished there was something I could do against the likes of Elena and Dana. Even hours later, I was still upset about the way Elena had spoken to me…and the fact Knox had been right there. The jab had been low and she knew it, but I also couldn’t deny that for the last five years, my body had felt dead.
Men tried to charm me, and I’d even attempted to go along a few times. After all, maybe I just needed to open the faucet to get the water running.
Yeah, that doesn’t work with sex.
Still, I could very much appreciate Knox with his raven hair and dark blue eyes, tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of his shirt.
I bet he would be lick-alicious.
My phone rang in my pocket. Pulling it out, I saw my boss’ name. I checked my watch. I wasn’t late for work yet.
“Officer, I’m just calling to let you know you’ll be hosting this year’s police ball. I know it’s somewhat short notice, but we know you can easily handle that. After all, your charm precedes you.”
I wanted to make a comment about that not being how the saying went, but I was too stunned. I hated speaking in front of people, and especially the police ball because at least five hundred people usually attended.
It was this Saturday.
As in, four days from now.
I hadn’t even planned on going because I was the only one without a date every single year. As host, it would be even worse. Unless…
There was now a hot guy living down the street. I was sure I could offer him something in return, maybe cleaning his house or making the garden pretty.
Hell, I was desperate enough to do it. And he just moved in, so how bad could it be?
I’d find something. I had to. If I could show up on his arm, maybe people would finally leave me alone.
“Officer Burke, are you still there? You could always say no, but remember, evaluations are coming up. This will look very nice on your sheet.”
“Of course, Sergeant. I’d be honored to host this event.”
The fake excitement in my superior’s voice was audible, even through the fog in my head. “Great. I’ll put you at a table with—”
“I’m bringing my boyfriend.”
I had no idea why I said that before talking to Knox, but I sure as hell couldn’t stand the assumption of coming alone.
There was a long pause. “You are?” Sergeant Denton asked.
I took a deep breath. “Yes. I hope that’s not gonna be a problem.” At least not for him, I thought. I’d have to make sure Knox rented a tux, and I’d probably have to pay for it.
Oh god, did I really want to ask a stranger to be my pretend boyfriend? At least no one would know him and my lie would stay undetected.
“No, just…unexpected. Anyway, thank you for agreeing to host. Because you probably need to prepare, I also decided to give you the day off. Get a dress and write down some notes. You know, just say hi, welcome, and so on. You’ve seen how it’s done. And, if I’m not overstepping my bounds, maybe you should also get your hair done.”
Oh fucking god, because I’m such a girly girl most of the time? Besides, it was late afternoon. What in the world was I supposed to do with those few hours? “Yes, sir,” I replied politely, going over what needed to be done. I definitely needed to talk to Knox as soon as possible, even if I doubted he’d already have plans for Saturday.
At least I hoped he didn’t.
I finished on the phone, then hung up and rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead. For a second, I considered going upstairs to change and put on make-up, but figured I’d showered after my run earlier. That had to be enough. I didn’t want to charm Knox. All I wanted was to not be the only single person at the police ball for once.
Deciding I needed a bribe, I ordered pizza. I knew the neighborhood, knew how the women always brought peach cobbler and tuna casseroles, so I figured Knox and his son would appreciate something different.
It was four now, so maybe I’d have enough time to actually solve my problem before I went to bed. Tapping my fingertips on the kitchen table as I waited for the delivery guy, I realized I felt as nervous as if I were going over to ask Knox on a real date.
Only this wasn’t. This was just a favor I’d eventually pay back.
As long as I kept telling myself that, maybe my voice wouldn’t crack when I finally stood in front of him.