Sera Allen narrowed her eyes at the bottom half of the man under her kitchen sink and raised her bat a little higher. Probably a man, anyway. The legs sticking out from the cabinet wore jeans and work boots that seemed masculine enough, but when the cursing started, she knew for sure. His voice was low, rough, and vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t quite place it. She awarded him extra points for creativity, but didn’t relax her grip. A girl had to protect herself.
“Excuse me,” she said.
The cursing stopped abruptly as his head thunked on the underside of the counter. He twisted and started to slide out. Sera bit her lip. There was a whole lot more of him than she’d expected. Run back out to the car and slam the door, or stand still and wait to be murdered? Her lizard brain urged her to panic, but she’d had plenty of practice convincing her brain that panicking was a terrible idea.
His head cleared the cabinet, and he stood, turned to survey her, then leaned back against the counter, arms crossed over an impressive naked chest. Sera sucked in a breath. He wasn’t bulky, more lanky with corded muscle, but he took up a lot of the space in the little kitchen. Still, Sera was ready to clear the bases using his face if he made any moves toward her. It would be a shame too because his face was all lean angles and pretty brown eyes. He raised a brow as she stared at him for several more seconds.
“Not that I don’t mind a little break, but maybe you could lower the bat and we could use our big girl words?” His voice matched his stance, deceptively mellow.
Sera didn’t move. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
He shrugged. “Thought I’d see how much I could get for the sink on the black market.”
She raised a brow. “I’m calling the police.”
“Looks like you got your hands full from where I’m standing.” He grinned, utterly unconcerned.
Sera wondered if hitting him would be considered self-defense if all he’d done was stand there. Probably not, though he was trespassing. He didn’t seem inclined to injure her, and Sera wasn’t naïve enough to think that the bat was keeping him at bay. Sure, he probably didn’t want any bruises, but he had a good half a foot on her and he looked like he was all muscle. If he wanted the bat, he could probably take it from her.
She shifted the bat into one hand and reached into her back pocket for her phone.
He put his hands up in surrender. “C’mon, Sera. I was kidding. You seriously don’t remember me? You’ve seen me naked.”
Sera lowered the bat and took a closer look at his face until an old memory slammed into her. “Jake?” As a teenager, he’d been lanky and a little awkward. She’d found it adorable until he’d let her leave without a single phone call. He’d grown up a lot in seven years. Too bad. “You seem to be in the wrong house.”
He ran a hand through his unruly hair and muttered, “You got that right.” He glanced at the mess behind him. “Look, I came by earlier to make sure the water and electricity and whatever was turned on. Evie gave me a key years ago. When I checked the water, something funky was happening with the sink. Thought I’d be nice and fix it up for you before you got here.” He glared at the sink. “But I can’t find anything wrong with it.”
His explanation rang true, but she got stuck on one point. “Evie gave you a key?”
“Yeah. I did odds and ends for her.” He met her eyes, sadness swimming in his. “I’m sorry about her passing.”
Sera swallowed hard and nodded. She hadn’t seen her grandmother since the summer she’d turned seventeen. At the time, her grandma insisted that everyone call her Evie. Grandma makes me feel so old. She’d smiled as she said it and pulled Sera in for a hug. Her lonely teenage heart had soaked it up.
After Sera’d left, they’d talked on the occasional holiday, but it had never been enough. A need deep inside her wanted Evie to ask her to return, and a fear just as deep ensured that she’d never broach the subject herself. It stung that Evie’d maintained a relationship with grown-up Jake instead of her own granddaughter.
The boy she’d known had been wild. He’d pushed the limits every chance he got, and somehow, it never came back to bite him in the ass. Sera frowned. This Jake, half-naked in Evie’s house—her house now—looked different, but acted like the teenager she’d pushed to the deepest recesses of her mind. Maybe he hadn’t grown up so much as gotten bigger. His brown eyes were the same. Vibrant and mischievous. It surprised her that she hadn’t recognized him before, but to be fair, she had been distracted staring at his chest.
Sera set the bat on the kitchen table and glared at him. “I distinctly remember you refusing to learn how to fix things around the house despite your dad’s best efforts. You said that was his thing, and you were destined for something more. I’m pretty sure that’s an exact quote.”
Jake winced. “Well, it turns out teenage me didn’t actually know everything. It wasn’t long after you went back home that I started working for my dad’s company.”
Sera raised a brow. “He let you near his tools?”
Jake chuckled. “After a while, yeah. Clems left, so Dad ended up with more work than he could handle. I started picking up the slack a little, helping him out.”
Sera nodded. “Always the hero. So, now you claim you know how to fix a sink?”
“Yes. I can fix a sink.” He rolled his eyes.
“What’s wrong with this one that necessitated an after hours shirtless visit?”
Jake crossed his arms in response. “I always fix sinks shirtless if I can. They get drippy, and I believe I already mentioned that I can’t find anything wrong with this one. It’s the damnedest thing. Nothing is blocked, but it’s draining slow, then fast, then slow again.” He frowned at the sink again.
Sera joined him and reached for the faucet. She really wanted the sink to be fixed so she could send him on his way. Her brain was tired and even more mixed up with grief after all the traveling, making it hard for her to remember why she wasn’t supposed to touch his chest. The metal was cold, but heat rushed across her hand and down her fingers. For a second, golden light spilled over the sink from the window, but then Sera blinked and it was gone. Water rushed into the basin and down the drain in a steady flow. They both watched it for a few more seconds, then Sera turned it off again.
She looked up at him. “Good job. You fixed it.”
He huffed out a breath. “Awesome. If you have any more problems, please call someone else.”
Jake reached past her for the toolbox on the counter, and Sera almost leaned into him. A habit from long ago that she’d thought buried. She took a stumbling step back instead. He quickly steadied her, his hands gentle on her upper arms, and searched her face.
A few deep breaths calmed her racing pulse, but it took off again when she met his eyes. How inconvenient. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just tired.”
The half-lie rolled off her tongue easily, and Sera hated that it came so naturally. She backed away and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans.
Jake held her eyes for a moment, and Sera wondered a lot of things. Were his parents still next door? Was he in a relationship? Was he married? Did he have kids? Did he still slide his hands into a girl’s hair when he kissed her? Warmth crept up her cheeks, and Jake chose that moment to drop his gaze. There was no way he didn’t notice her blushing.
He busied himself with his tools. “It shouldn’t take long for you to pack up Evie’s stuff, and the house is in good shape, so it won’t be too hard to sell,” Jake rambled.
Something glimmered in the dark cabinet, distracting her, so it took a second for Sera to process his words. She glanced up in surprise. “I’m not selling the house.”
Jake stopped mid-clean up. “Renting it out then?”
“No, I’m moving in. Tomorrow, actually. Isn’t that why you came by to check on the utilities?”
He shrugged. “Rumor mill said you were coming to stay tomorrow, but I assumed it was temporary.”
“It’s not. This is my home now.”
Jake took a long look at her and nodded. “Okay.”
Sera got the feeling he didn’t believe her, but she didn’t give a crap. Evie had wanted Sera to have the house, and Sera was going to take good care of it. The house was more than a means to an end; it was a new beginning in a place she’d been happy. She’d loved her grandma, despite the distance.
Jake’s easy smile vanished, and a sudden pang of regret surprised Sera. She’d made it a habit to be closed off and unwelcoming, easier to convince people to leave her alone that way, but maybe her therapist was right. She could put some effort into building—or rebuilding—friendships. Even if she’d been the one to torch them in the first place.
Sera smoothed the bad attitude from her face and tried again. “Thanks for your help, Jake.”
He snapped his toolbox closed. “De nada.” He turned to go, and Sera accepted that she sucked at making friends. It hadn’t been hard before with him and Maddie. His sister liked everyone.
Words popped out of her mouth, surprising both of them. “Does Maddie still live at your parents’ house?”
Sera cringed. Why couldn’t you just let him leave?
Jake looked over his shoulder to answer her. “Nah, she moved to the other side of town a while ago, and my parents are gone.”
Sera’s brow furrowed as a pang of sadness hit her. “Oh, Jake, I’m so sorry.”
He winced. “Not like that. Mom made a bunch of money investing, and they retired early. They gave me the house so they could travel around Europe. They’re in Norway right now, terrorizing the local wildlife.”
Sera let out a relieved breath. “Well, that’s something, but Maddie’s still around?”
Jake turned fully to her, but his voice was still hesitant. “She is, but I don’t know what she’s into lately. We don’t really hang out other than when she invades the house to steal my food.”
“Too bad. I could use some friends.” Sera mumbled quietly.
Jake ran his hand through his hair again. “Maybe you’d still have some if you hadn’t run away without looking back. Besides, town is barely a five-minute walk from here. She’s hardly living across the country.”
He wasn’t wrong—about the distance or her actions. That summer had been the first time she’d spent more than a few days in a row with Evie. The months had been full of surprises, and she’d let events beyond her control scare her away. Initially, she’d tried to contact them, but not very hard. And it’s not like any of them had tried either. Eventually, it had been easy to let her mom break those connections.
Bitterness threatened to throw her back into her unhealthy habits, but Sera forced herself to meet his eyes. “I’m hoping for a fresh start. It’s…one of the reasons I’m moving back.”
Jake studied her intently for a long moment. The grin that bloomed across his face did funny things to her insides. “Okay, but you asked for it.”
Her tense shoulders relaxed. They’d turned a corner, and Sera told herself not to screw it up this time. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”
He pushed away from the counter and invaded her space again. This time she held her ground. “Probably, but it might be fun.”
The heat in his eyes excited her and made her nervous at the same time. They’d been friends first, once upon a time, and Sera hoped they could be again. No matter how distracting she found this grown-up Jake to be, she definitely wasn’t looking for anything more. She was still dealing with the fall-out from her ex-husband, and she needed to figure out who she was on her own. There was no need to pile on more complications, especially not with their history and with this town being her new home.
Jake ripped a piece of paper off the pad on the fridge and scribbled two numbers down. “The first is my private cell. If you have any non-sink related problems, give me a call. I’m across the yard. The second number is Maddie’s. I can’t speak for her taste in friends, but she’ll probably be happy to hear from you.” He traded the paper for his toolbox and opened the back door.
Sera put her hand on Jake’s arm before he could head out. “Thanks, Jake. For real.”
“See you tomorrow, Sera.” There was a challenge in his voice, but she refused to rise to the bait. He would see her tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
She nodded, and the kitchen door closed with a soft click behind him. Sera couldn’t help but watch out the kitchen window as he walked across the yard and disappeared into the shadows at the property line. Sera shook herself. If she couldn’t get a handle on her body’s reactions to him, living next-door to Jake was going to get very awkward in the near future.
Sera crouched down to close the cabinet door under the sink and remembered the glimmer. Something shiny had caught her eye during their conversation, but when she stuck her head under the counter, there were only pipes. Huh.
She sighed. The original plan had included going into town to hit the diner, but it was late and dealing with Jake had drained her. Her overnight bag lay by the front door where she’d traded it for Evie’s baseball bat after finding the house unlocked. She’d felt it prudent to not be encumbered while defending herself.
She latched the back door and killed all the lights except the one over the stove. An archway opened into the living room, and the big front windows let in the glow from the streetlights. The darkness didn’t bother her. Evie’s house hadn’t changed much in seven years, and Sera could navigate it with her eyes closed.
She rubbed her face, torn between facing the rooms upstairs or crashing on the couch. The living room was tempting, but she really needed to stretch out on a bed and sleep for a week. Sighing, she snagged her bag and caught another glimmer on the console by the stairs. When Sera turned to face it, the glow winked out. Something had definitely been there this time. Fireflies? In the house?
A hallucination wasn’t out of the question. She’d driven twenty-three hours straight from Orange County, California to Mulligan, Texas. Somewhere around El Paso, she’d thought about stopping for some sleep, but it’d been mid-afternoon at that point and she’d craved the comfort of Evie’s home. The console didn’t hold anything that looked like it would reflect golden light, and the cabinet definitely hadn’t. Neither had her hand.
A green ceramic gourd lamp, some art books, and a collection of pictures in plain white frames sat on the console. Nothing shiny—even the pulls were simple matte black against the wood. Sera picked up one of the frames and took a closer look at the picture of her teenage self hugging Evie. Sera appeared in some of the other pictures as well. Photos she didn’t remember sending. Mostly major life events—her high school graduation, her wedding portrait, and one of her with Will, her ex, at a black-tie event. She turned that picture face down and looked around the room more carefully.
Evie had pictures on all the walls and every flat surface. Sera walked past them, trailing her fingers over the glass. Some were of Evie in town with people she didn’t recognize, some of forest-y landscapes, and at least half of them were pictures of Sera herself. Evie had filled the room with Sera—her achievements and her life.
She rubbed her chest as a sharp pang spread through it and down to her stomach. She’d wasted so much time trying to make the wrong people love her, and apparently, she’d missed her chance to have it right here. The room overflowed with her grandmother’s love for her. Tears blurred Sera’s vision as she turned her back on the photos. Evie’d had her own way, pragmatic and patient, but Sera hadn’t appreciated the love that encompassed all of it. And now it’s too late.
Tomorrow. She’d deal with her poor decisions tomorrow.
Sera wiped her face and climbed the stairs, stopping at the first room on the right. Her old room. She held her breath and opened the door. The switch turned on the nightstand lamp, and in the soft glow, Sera was glad to see the big bed was still made up with sheets and a blanket. There wasn’t even any dust.
The color scheme consisted of pretty blues and whites, but the abstract patterns could have been picked out by anyone. How long ago had Evie converted it to a generic guest room? The disappointment threatened to bring the tears back, but Sera straightened her spine and tightened her grip on her emotions. What were you expecting? A shrine? Time to get your head out of your ass.
Her window overlooked the backyard, and in front of it sat her old campaign desk and chair. An antique dresser and mirror faced it against the opposite wall, and across from the bed was the closet. No TVs in the bedrooms for Evie. Bedrooms were for resting.
Sera smiled. Tomorrow, she’d have to brave Evie’s room and see if her grandma had followed her own rules, but for tonight, Sera needed to let her overwhelmed brain and body rest.
She turned to shut off the hall light, but didn’t see the switch and didn’t feel like looking so Sera just closed the bedroom door. I’ll remember where it is tomorrow. She dropped her bag at the foot of the bed and undressed, leaving her clothes in a jumble on the floor. Evie would have sassed her about it, but Sera struggled to keep her eyes open. She didn’t even bother with pajamas, just crawled under the blue quilt into cool sheets and let her body go limp with a deep breath. There was so much to deal with tomorrow.
Sera remembered the lamp and cracked an eye open. The glimmer was back, next to the light this time. Suddenly, the room dropped into darkness. As she watched, the glimmer faded out a few seconds later. With a last sigh, she reminded herself to check the wiring on the lamp in the morning. Maybe Jake would have an idea…
Jake pulled Sera’s door closed softly behind him, even though he wanted to slam it. She wasn’t supposed to be there until tomorrow. He knew Evie had left the house to her, he even knew Sera would have to show up at some point to pack it up and sell it off, but this had been too soon. Jake strode across the lawn as fast as he could without actually running from his far too sexy neighbor.
It was warm out for October, and he’d forgotten to crank the AC when he’d left that afternoon, but whatever, what was a little more sweat. When he’d turned and seen Sera standing over him with that bat, he’d nearly tumbled back into the cabinet in surprise. He told himself if he’d been a little more prepared, the sight of her wouldn’t have affected him so intensely, but it didn’t sound convincing, even to himself. How could the sight of her after so many years still do that?
Jake dropped his toolbox inside the back door and sighed at the mess that greeted him. Milk out on the counter, crumbs and bits of food everywhere, dirty dishes caked in who knew what next to the sink. Not even in the sink. Maddie was such a slob.
He sniffed the milk before putting it away and noticed that his leftover lasagna was gone. Dammit, that was supposed to be dinner.
“Maddie? You still here?” he hollered.
His little sister appeared in the archway between the kitchen and living room and gave him a big smile. “What? Oooh, you’re back. Get the sink fixed?”
Jake brushed past her and sank onto the couch, trying not to let his annoyance show in his voice. “Yeah, but I don’t think I did much. It went from not working one minute to working the next. I told Sera to call someone else if it acts up again.”
Maddie looked up from picking at her dark blue nails. “Sera was there? She’s early.”
“No shit. She found me under the sink cursing at the damn pipes and threatened to—nevermind, it’s not important.” Jake stretched his arms along the back of the couch and beckoned her closer. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you ate all my lasagna.”
She walked past him and ruffled his hair on the way to the front door. “I regret nothing. It was delicious.”
“That was my dinner, Mad.”
“Well, label it next time. Or hide it better.”
“Why would I hide food in my own house? Oh right, because I have a mooch sister who doesn’t understand personal boundaries.”
She shrugged. “What’s yours is mine.”
That was the problem with Maddie. He’d give her the Earth and all the stars if she asked, but she never asked. It was partly his fault for spoiling her, but his parents had been way worse. After they’d moved to Europe and given him the house, Maddie had taken to coming and going like she still lived there, even though she’d moved out before they had.
She stopped in the middle of tying her Converse and looked up. “What?”
“Sera says she’s staying. Planning to live in Evie’s house. Her house now, I guess.”
Maddie’s face shifted from mockery to pity. He hated the pity, but she’d been there when Sera had left the last time. “Could be she’s different? A lot of time has passed.”
Jake scrubbed his face with his hands. “Yeah, everyone changes.”
Maddie’s arms came around his head for a quick squeeze, then she was back to her normal self, prancing to the door. “Well, maybe don’t sleep with her again and she’ll stick around this time.”
He threw a couch pillow at her, but she ducked out the door before it could make contact. That was the thing about Maddie. She loved with her whole heart and tried to make the people around her happy, even if her mouth got in the way sometimes.
Jake heaved himself off the couch and went to the kitchen for a beer. He didn’t feel like cleaning up Maddie’s mess, so he turned the light out and left it for the morning. Beer for dinner wasn’t the best life choice, but seeing Sera then losing his lasagna made it good enough for tonight.
It was dark in the living room without the kitchen light, so Jake turned on the tv in search of the Texans game. They were having a shit season, but it was better than thinking about shoving his hands into long dark hair and wondering whether her skin still tasted faintly of peaches.
Ten minutes later, he was up one touchdown, down one beer, and wishing he’d tried to convince Maddie to stay a little while. He couldn’t concentrate, at least not on the game. His eyes kept wandering to the window that overlooked her property. Her lights were still on.
What was she doing? Was she thinking about him? He couldn’t get his mind off of her. She was supposed to arrive tomorrow, go through Evie’s stuff, then leave again. He’d planned to avoid being home for a couple of days and then go back to his life, sadly with one less awesome old lady in it.
Evie’d respected his wishes not to talk about Sera, even though she’d obviously kept tabs on her granddaughter. He’d noticed the new pictures that appeared in Evie’s house. The sight of Sera in a wedding gown on some other guy’s arm had knocked the wind from him the first time he’d seen it, but he’d learned to avoid certain places on Evie’s walls. They’d had plenty else to talk about, and Sera’s move to town and abrupt move away became old news.
He’d known Sera since they were kids when she’d come to visit her grandma, but she’d never stayed very long. The summer before his senior year, before he went to work for his dad’s construction company, she’d moved in with Evie and changed everything. They were inseparable for three fantastic months. But by the time fall rolled around, she’d been gone, and he’d been neck-deep in building Mr. Anderson’s new deck while trying not to fail out of school. He threw himself into the job because when he wasn’t working, his chest ached with missing her.
He didn’t pine for her anymore or anything like that, but at the time, he’d been so sure that she loved him back, right up until the day she left. Sera was his first. First love. First heartbreak. Not his first sexual encounter, that honor went to Vanessa McIntyre in junior year, but his first time making love. Underneath it all, she was his. He’d felt it all the way through him. She’d belonged with him. Or at least that’s what he’d thought.
Clearly, she hadn’t agreed. Over the years, he explained those feelings away as hormones or fanciful thinking, though he’d only admitted that last one to Ryan one night after too many drinks. But seeing her tonight was a gut-punch. All the way through him.
Jake switched the game off. He didn’t care that the Texans were finally winning one. They sucked at distracting him. As a last resort, Jake pulled out his phone and dialed Ryan.
“Hey Jake, what’s up?”
“Want to sit in my dark living room and get drunk?”
“Uhh…as fun as that sounds, no. What’s going on?”
Jake could hear video game noises in the background indicating that Ryan had stopped playing, but he didn’t seem to care that his avatar was being murdered. “Sera’s back.”
Ryan whistled low. “The infamous Sera. Think I’ll get to meet her this time before she takes off?”
“That’s the problem. It looks like she’s staying.”
“How is that a problem? You’ve been pining for her for like seven years.”
“I don’t pine, dumbass. It’s perfectly normal to miss someone you cared about.”
“Sure. Then why aren’t you out searching for a new lady instead of calling me on raid night?”
Jake shut his eyes and dropped his head back on the couch. “Because I ran into her tonight, and I’m trying to stop myself from heading back over there.”
A dry laugh burst out of Ryan. “I don’t understand how you can still have feelings for this girl. You told her you loved her, she left, then refused to see you or talk to you.”
“That’s not—ugh, nevermind. I’m regretting ever telling you about this.”
“Okay, fine. Seriously though, you don’t know anything about her. The current her. I get you had real feelings for her before and got hurt, but there’s nothing stopping you from talking to her and seeing what’s up now.”
“I don’t want to see what’s up. It was a long time ago, and I have no intention of going through all that again.”
“Uh, huh. And two seconds ago you said, and I quote, ‘I’m trying to stop myself from heading back over there’. So now you’re saying you don’t want to get in her pants?”
“I want her more than just about anything at the moment, but it’s not like she’s the only option around.”
“Right, because you’re a strong, independent man, and you don’t need no woman?”
“I super hate you right now.”
Ryan laughed again, and Jake heard a familiar chime in the background. “Look, I gotta go, man, but if you really don’t want to go over there, booty call Chelle or head to bed. Either way, you need to make up your mind. Oh, and if you have any other pressing emotional needs to work through, call Maddie.”
The call cut off on Ryan’s hyena laughter, and Jake wondered why he’d ever befriended Ryan in the first place. Nah, Jake knew why. Ryan was a good guy—his version of help just skewed towards computer references and snarky comments. Not that Jake had expected any help. He’d just needed…something.
Either way, he knew what that chime meant. Zee needed Ryan, and that was a mess Jake didn’t want to get involved in. Dealing with the Fae almost always resulted in Zee fiddling with his head.
He had no idea if Ryan had similar experiences, but the few times they’d talked about it, Ryan had been clear that he disliked the Fae. And Zee in particular. Jake and Ryan shared some pretty hefty secrets, but Ryan was almost fanatically silent about his history with Zee. Not Jake’s problem currently. Thank goodness.Magic wouldn’t help him deal with Sera or his traitorous body.
Jake opened his eyes and glared at the specks of golden light floating around the window facing Sera’s. He didn’t need or want their help.
“Go away.” One by one, they blinked out, and Jake went upstairs to try to get some sleep.