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Then Again (The Juniper Court Series Book 3) by Sylvie Stewart (1)

~ Chapter One ~

Holy mother of … abs.

I bit my lip hard and let the blinds fall back in place.

“Stop being such a pussy and get your ass out there!” Jill hip-checked me, almost sending me to the floor.

“Just give me a minute. Geez.” I took a cleansing breath and let it out slowly.

She rolled her eyes. “They’re just men.” She parted the blinds again to have another look while I attempted to gather myself. “Dayum. One of them took his shirt off—did you see that? If you can’t close the deal I might have to break up with Hank and get me a bite of that one.”

“Wow, you’re so classy, Jill. Please, teach me your ways.” I let my flat tone communicate my insincerity.

She dropped the blind again and gave me a scowl. “Enough stalling. If Mom’s lemonade doesn’t work on the hottie neighbor or his friend, then nothing will.” She looked me up and down. “Unless you’re willing to reconsider the bikini top.”

I gave a half-laugh. If one of us was going to wear a bikini it would have to be Jill. Although we share the same dark, wavy hair, that’s where the resemblance ends. She’s willowy while I lean a bit more toward curvy. But she somehow lucked out and got the same size boobs as me. “Yeah, that would be more likely to trigger a rapid retreat. Nobody wants to see my stretch marks.” I flattened a hand over my stomach where a few stubborn extra pounds liked to rest.

“Badges of honor, sis. You carried two watermelons in there for nine months! Fuck anybody who cares about a few scars.” She had her hands on her hips at this point, posturing in mama-bear mode—regardless of the fact she’s six years younger than I am.

My lips twitched and I pulled her into a hug. “You know I’m only giving you a pass on the cussing jar because the girls are gone, right?”

“Yeah, yeah.” She pretended to be aloof, but hugged me back anyway. Then I felt the sharp sting of her hand on my ass. “Now grab that tray and get on out there! Hot men are waiting to be seduced.”

I pulled back and looked down at my outfit. I’d gone with a snug pink tank that showed off my assets, and a denim skirt that was probably a bit too short for a thirty-four-year-old, but I tried not to think about that. I smoothed my shirt down and went to the counter to retrieve the tray of sweet lemonade our mother was known for. Condensation already beaded on the pitcher, and I wasn’t even out in the heat yet.

Jill opened the door for me, and I swear, if I hadn’t been balancing a laden tray, she would have physically pushed me outside—probably with a foot to my ass. “Tits out,” she commanded before closing the door and leaving me on my own. I sighed.

You see, a new neighbor moved in this week. A very hot and apparently very single new neighbor. I’d spotted him coming and going as contractors worked on his house over the last week. He was tall and muscular, with dark hair that was a touch too long to be conservative and an ass that was a touch too nice to be ignored. I had yet to introduce myself, feeling a bit stalkery if I ambushed him on one of the days he met with contractors. But today was clearly move-in day. He’d arrived this morning with a full truck and a friend to help him unload it. The same friend whose abs I’d just seen through the window and was about to get a closer look at—whether I was ready or not.

Unfortunately, I’d made the colossal mistake of telling my sister about the new neighbor, and it had taken her less than thirty minutes to shove her tiny little ass into my day and my business. Thus, my current errand to deliver lemonade—and myself—on a platter for the taking.

I could say I didn’t know how I’d gotten myself into this situation, but I knew exactly how it had happened. And I chose to blame it all on Mike, my asshole ex-husband. Of course, Mike hadn’t always been an asshole. In fact, he’d been the love of my life. It just so happened that I, apparently, had not been the love of his. That realization was a blow I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

But back to the tasty lemonade and the even tastier new neighbor and his friend. Come on, Jenna, you can do this. I took another deep breath, straightened my shoulders, and pushed the girls out as far as they would go. God, I hoped I didn’t look like some puffed up tropical bird. The ice clinked against the sides of the pitcher with each step down my driveway. I kept my eyes firmly planted on the tray until I worked up the nerve to raise them.

There he was—tall, dark, and sweaty. And living right next door to me. It couldn’t be mere coincidence that had landed this man in my path the very same week I’d vowed to get back my love life—sex life—love life? Hell, I didn’t know. But I knew it involved a hot man who shared absolutely nothing in common with my ex. I swallowed thickly and plastered what I hoped was a casual yet flirty smile on my face.

“Well, welcome, neighbor!” I called out as I approached.

Both men turned simultaneously to face me and it was a wonder I didn’t drop the tray. I was caught in a laser beam of hotness as two sets of eyes took me in. Holy crap! Jill and I had been watching them play basketball through the blinds like two total creepers, but this close up it became a bit overwhelming. White smiles, bright eyes, glistening sweat. Why didn’t women carry those little fans around with them anymore? I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks.

I forced more words from my throat. “Pretty hot out here. I brought you some lemonade. Didn’t know if you’d had a chance to unpack dishes and whatnot yet.” They both looked at the pitcher appreciatively.

“Haven’t unpacked a single box,” hottie neighbor responded in a friendly tone. “Thank you. Very kind of you.” His blue eyes practically sparkled as he continued, “I’m Erik.”

He extended a hand, but soon realized I didn’t have one to spare so he gave me a little wave instead before gesturing to his shirtless friend. “And this is my friend who helped me unload everything—Kyle.”

I took in all that was Kyle and considered changing my mission to focus on him instead. I’d never seen an eight-pack in real life before. I kind of assumed they were a myth along the lines of unicorns and abdominal—ahem, I mean abominable—snowmen. Oh, shut up, Jenna! And stop staring at his stomach, for God’s sake!

I forced my gaze up to a more respectable level. “So nice to meet the both of you.” I smiled again, but was pretty sure my nervousness was announcing itself loud and clear. These guys were out of my league. If I didn’t know for a fact that Jill was staring daggers into my back at that very moment, I would have turned tail and run. Grrr.

“Jenna Watson,” I said. I needed to switch the focus back to them. “I’m just next door to you. Are you new to the area? Or just the street?”

“Just the street,” Erik’s sweaty hair fell over his forehead as he answered. “I used to live in a condo downtown. Time for more space.” Ah, but space for what?

Kyle took a step forward. “Can I help you with that?” He gestured to the tray with a curve of his lips.

Damn—hot and a gentleman. Who was I to refuse? “Thanks. That’s so kind. It’s heavier than I imagined.” Jesus, I was practically cooing.

Kyle took the tray and I immediately set to the task of pouring lemonade into the two glasses resting alongside the pitcher. I cursed my hands as they shook. “So, it’s homemade. The lemonade,” I clarified and handed the first glass over to Erik. And then I freaking giggled like some pandering idiot and practically batted my eyelashes at him. I wanted to punch myself the face. I was supposed to be putting out the strong and sexy vibe, not some ditzy teenager act. But, damn if he didn’t smile right back at me. Huh, maybe I was better at this than I’d thought. I went ahead and offered Kyle his glass, trading him for the tray. “I hope it’s not too sweet.”

They both took a deep swallow and I had the urge to look around to see if anybody else was benefitting from this particular view. I was thinking about grabbing Jill and pulling up a couple lawn chairs so we could have a long afternoon of ogling.

“It’s perfect,” Kyle finally said. Jill had been right—Mom’s lemonade worked wonders.

“So, is it only you? Or did your girlfriend take the day off? Or wife,” I added hastily. Real smooth, Jenna.

He smiled. “Nope. No wife or girlfriend.” Then he downed the rest of the lemonade as Kyle followed suit. “This really hit the spot, Jenna.” They both returned their glasses to my tray, and I felt a shift in the air. I got the sense that I was being given my dismissal—a kind one, but a dismissal nonetheless. Maybe I’d been too forward? Or too much of a spaz? Either way, it was time to retreat.

“Well, I should get back.” Thank God I had the tray to occupy my hands or I probably would have embarrassed myself further by giving them the double guns or something. I turned to go.

“Terrific meeting you,” Erik called after me.

I gave him a backward glance and maintained the painful smile. “The pleasure was all mine. Welcome to Juniper Court.” Where psycho single moms throw themselves at you because they haven’t had sex in over two years!

“Thanks.” I heard one of them say, but I was too intent on getting back inside my own damn house to look back again. My front door opened just as I approached it, and I didn’t even stop to see the look on Jill’s face. I marched straight to the kitchen, slammed the tray down on the counter, and stuck my head under the kitchen faucet.

* * *

“It couldn’t have been that bad.” Jill was being kind to me. That meant it was even worse than I’d thought.

I stared at her dolefully. “I giggled!”

Her encouraging expression dropped. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” I dried my hair with a dishtowel after my arctic plunge in the sink.

She bit her lip, trying to come up with a response. “Well, some guys like girls who giggle.”

The towel hit the counter. “Yes, Jill. Girls. Not women.”

She shrugged. “Well, in retrospect, it was probably a shitty plan to seduce your neighbor into a summer fling. I mean, you’d still have to live next door to him when it was over.”

I tilted my head and paused before giving a short nod. “You know what? You’re absolutely right. I don’t know what I was thinking.” I resumed the drying, feeling a bit better.

“I know exactly what you were thinking.” Her lips curved into a wicked smile. “Cuz it’s the exact same thing I’m still thinking.”

I punched her in the arm, the towel forgotten. “You are the worst!”

She punched me in the boob. “Hey! I don’t live next door.”

I held my poor injured boob. “Well, I didn’t get the vibe that either of them was open for business. And, by the way, OW!”

“You hit me first,” she fired back.

“And to think I assumed having the girls away for a month would mean a break from juvenile behavior in the house.”

“You want me to hit the other one to make it a matching set?” She cocked her fists and assumed a fighter’s pose.

“No thanks. One mangled breast is enough.”

She grinned at me and helped herself to a glass of lemonade. I picked the towel up again and noticed a few red streaks on the plain blue linen. “Shit.” My hand went to my hair. “I thought you said the hair dye was permanent?”

Jill looked at my hair and then the towel. “It may have said semi-permanent. Maybe you have to wash it a couple times to get rid of the excess?” Her mouth formed a strained smile.

Earlier that morning, I’d gotten the bright idea of dying a streak of red into my hair. I’d seen it on other people and always dismissed it as something I would never do. But that was then—before my mission to open a new chapter in my life. So, when Jill came over to scope out the neighborhood man candy, I’d asked her to bring some dye so she could help me. Now I wasn’t so sure about that impulse, and seeing the streaks on the ruined towel made me feel a bit ridiculous.

I was too old for this shit. But I was only getting older, and I had pretty much wasted the past two years of my life.

Two very long years I’d spent fighting to regain my confidence and sense of self, not to mention building a newly defined family where my girls could feel secure—even though their parents were living under two different roofs. I’d made a promise to get back in the game after two years—only, this go-round, I would take more risks, have more fun, push more boundaries. The hair dye was supposed to be just the beginning. But did I have the guts to go through with my plans? I didn’t know anymore.

Kate and Eileen had left yesterday to stay with Mike and his new wife, Kristen. I’d be alone in this house for almost a month, so it was the perfect time to shake things up. It was now or never. The girls were away, I was off work for the summer, I’d just had a pedicure, and I was going to get laid. Especially if my sister had anything to say about it.

Truth is, I have trouble keeping things from Jill. She was my lifeline during the divorce and I owed her more than I’d ever let her know. But she’s always been a nosy bitch, so it wasn’t as if I could keep her out of my business even if I wanted to. We’d come up with the two-year plan over a couple bottles of wine and a stack of signed divorce papers. At the time, it had technically already been six months since Mike had moved out, so I was given eighteen months to wallow and heal. And now, my time was up.

Back in the saddle! Yee-freaking-ha.

My eyes were still glued to the dish towel. I was so not ready for this.

“Hey,” Jill said, bringing me out of my head. “It’s just a towel.” She set her glass down and enveloped me in a hug, completely ignoring the likelihood of staining her clothes red. Damn, it’s good to have a sister.

I hugged her back and let out the breath I’d been holding. “Thanks, Jilly.”

She gave me one last squeeze before pulling back. “So the first day didn’t go our way. We’ve still got time.”

“Yeah,” I responded, and even mustered up a smile. “Mike picked these towels out anyway.”

Jill let out a small laugh. “Ha! I should have guessed. They’re boring—just like him.”

That brought a genuine smile to my face. I looked at my sister and then around the spacious kitchen where several matching towels adorned hooks and handles. “You know what? You’re right. They are boring as hell.” I made a path slowly around the kitchen, snatching the towels from their resting places as I went. Then I pushed the foot lever on the trash can and tossed every last one in. My eyes found Jill, and I stifled a laugh.

She was nodding her head and grinning ear to ear. “Nice,” she declared in a tone that suggested I was some badass, not a woman who’d simply tossed away some scraps of fabric her dickhead ex-husband had purchased.

Then we both laughed at the ridiculousness of it all and ordered a pizza. But we made sure to get it with extra cheese like the badasses we were.