Authors: Christie Ridgway
Tags: #contemporary romance
Break on Through
Published by Christie Ridgway
© Christie Ridgway 2015
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
In the Rocky Royalty series
Table of Contents
Reed Hopkins shoved away from his desk. It was impossible to write about blood and fear, monsters and mayhem, with the scents of cinnamon and baking bread in the air.
There was also the woman.
He couldn’t smell her, but of course she was awake as well, in the bungalow just on the other side of the nine-foot, ivy-covered fence directly behind the separate structure that functioned as his office. The two-room stucco building included a full bath and a kitchenette, but he only used it during his writing hours: from nine at night until four in the morning.
It used to be a peaceful, productive sanctuary until a couple of months before. Then the guest house that was part of the estate on the other side of his property line had become occupied and
had begun her dabbling in the dark arts—er, baking in the very early morning hours. Her insomnia was wreaking havoc with his latest deadline.
His mouth watered at the smell of yeast and spicy sweetness and he jumped to his feet. Maybe a view of a crescent moon and creeping vines would put him back in a horror frame of mind.
But when he stepped onto the back porch, he knew he wasn’t alone out in the fresh air. Oh, they were still separated, but
was out there too. He could sense her presence as surely as Jesse, the fourteen-year-old hero in his series of books, The School, could sense the evil goings-on at his cold and militaristic educational institution.
Every night Reed told himself he was going to keep his ass planted in his desk chair. Every night, he failed in that promise.
It could all be blamed on his imagination.
Leaning against one of the posts that held up the overhang, he stared at the star-strewn sky. A lot of the time it would be overcast in the early morning hours, the fog rolling in from the Pacific to this Southern California enclave, but it was October, time of heated days and clear nights. This was the month when the Santa Ana winds blowing off the desert could whip up raging fires from the smallest spark.
A dangerous season.
A creak came from the other side of the dense foliage covering the grape-stake fence rails. He fancied it came from an aluminum, turquoise-colored mid-century modern patio chair. He had no way of knowing, of course, as he’d never had reason to visit the place behind his—for all he knew the estate was styled like the Taj Mahal. But in his mind’s eye he saw her settling onto that metal seat, her ample curves covered in an apron. There was a streak of flour on her cheek, he decided.
He strained his ears for further sounds. Surely she knit.
“How are you tonight?” she called in her quiet voice. It wasn’t clear whether she was a contralto or if it just sounded that way when she spoke in hushed tones.
“I’m good.” Sometime ago he’d imagined the one she didn’t want to awaken. Her husband would be Len, a solid sort who slept the sleep of the righteous. Just as Reed was hitting the sack, Len would be off to his day job of delivering clean linens to local restaurants. Napkins, tablecloths, and those starched jackets that chefs wore.
During the day, Len’s wife would bustle around the guest house, tidying the rooms. She’d told him the owners of the main house were on an extended vacation and she was keeping an eye on the place.
The source of her insomnia remained a mystery.
“What’s the latest on your shows?” he asked now.
“You wouldn’t believe it. Just so happens that in both episodes I watched today the characters were on road trips. I kept expecting the motorcycle club to meet up with the minivan.”
He bit back a grin, thinking of that himself. She was binge-watching a couple of popular TV series, one about an outlaw biker gang and the other centered on a large, extended family, both set in Northern California. “It could be quite a picnic,” he said.
The silence that fell between them next wasn’t unusual. They didn’t talk about anything personal—not even their names. He’d never intended to speak to her at all, but then she’d left tightly wrapped baked goods at his front gate. No note or anything, but who else would drop off food that he’d smelled in the oven hours before?
So one dark-before-dawn he’d ventured to his porch, heard her rustling on the other side of the fence, and thanked her for the cookies. At first, he’d resented her for that. Why the hell should he be forced to engage with a stranger? But then…then something changed.
He became oddly, yet wildly curious about her.
Being a very private man himself, he didn’t feel it was his place to pry, however. Instead, he allowed himself this little game. Every night he’d wander out to set up an opportunity for her to drop a nugget or two about her life.
More pieces to the picture he was concocting of her being some cross between Betty Crocker and Mrs. Claus.
It was a writer-thing. He figured as soon as he had his mental portrait of her completely filled-in, he could return to the sinister and shadowy world of his stories and neither her sleeplessness nor her presence would bother him anymore.
“Cold slaw,” she suddenly said. “Heard it just today.”
“I like it.” Once they’d talked about “eggcorns,” the use of a word or phrase that sounds similar to another word or phrase and worked as well for it as the original. “Youthemism.”
He could almost hear her cocking her—never glimpsed—head.
“Youthemism,” he repeated. “Like when the gardener told us kids our pet rabbit ‘went to the ranch’ instead of confessing he’d accidentally run it over.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, long enough for him to replay his words in his head. Everyone knew he had a macabre turn of mind. “Sorry,” he muttered. Way to turn the woman off—not that he wanted to turn her on, of course. “That was a gruesome example.”
“True,” she said. “But worse, you’ve been saving that. Youthemism.”
His lips twitched, his mood lifting. “Caught me.” He was still nearly smiling when she spoke again.
“Do you come from a large family? You said ‘us kids.’”
He stilled. “Um, well…” He raked his fingers through his straight hair. On the one hand, it was a good question because there was a reciprocity to it—she’d likely offer him some information about herself in return. On the other hand, his domestic situation was decidedly…fucked-up came to mind. “I have two brothers, Beck and Walsh,” he said. For all he knew there were half-siblings out there because his father, the drummer for the Velvet Lemons, the most famous rock ’n’ roll band in the world, had never been one to keep his dick in his pants.
“I sort of have those, too.” He stared up at the sky. A year ago, he would have overlooked mentioning them, but the nine collective children of the band had been regularly socializing again after years of near-complete separation. “Cilla and Cami. We were raised together as well as with Ren, Payne, Bing, and Brody.”
He gave her a moment to absorb the strangeness of that. When she remained quiet, he allowed himself a question. “How about you? Siblings?”
“None of those for me,” she said, sadness in her voice. “No parents, either. At least not anymore.”
Something twisted in his chest and he told himself to ignore his reaction to that forlorn note. She wasn’t alone—there was Len! Len, who probably had a snoring problem that kept her awake at night, but no other sins to speak of.
He cleared his throat. “I should—”
“What did you think of the carrot muffins?” she asked, a faux-brightness to her voice.
He could tell she was embarrassed by what she’d divulged about herself. “They were very good. Great, actually.” Maybe she couldn’t sleep because she worried so much about her husband, whose heart condition and middle-aged weight gain meant she had to give away every delicious thing that came out of her ovens. “Were they made from a personal recipe?”
“A friend of mine gave me a cookbook to fatten me up,” she said, “when I started losing weight on the divorce diet.”
Losing weight? He wanted her pleasingly plump, like Mrs. Santa, with silver hair and apple-red cheeks. How else would she fill out that ruffled apron—
“Len left you?” he asked, incredulous.
Oh, hell. His writer brain was tripping him up again. Len was his made-up man for her, the chubby, aging baker next-door. “Never mind, never mind. You’re divorced?”
“Mmm.” Another long beat of silence. “For a while now.”
He rubbed a hand over his mouth. Shifted his feet. Ordered himself to go back to his desk. He’d left Jesse walking down a gloomy hallway, following a malevolent shadow. But how could he concoct a tale of dread and darkness when his image of the woman over the fence had just been shattered like a mirror? Everyone knew that was bad luck.
It was time to get the real picture, stat. Then he could return to his story world, never to be bothered by the mystery of her again, because she would no longer be a mystery.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He imagined her saying it, and realized the last syllable would leave her lips in the shape of an open-mouthed kiss.
, he scolded himself.
You shouldn’t be thinking of Betty Crocker and French kisses in the same breath.
Learning she collected Social Security should shut that down. He cleared his throat. “How old are you, Cleo?”
“Hmm?” She sounded distracted, like maybe she was mentally counting the doilies in her living room. “Oh, I’m twenty-eight.”
Reed froze. Twenty-eight. Twenty-eight-year-old, my-name’s-like-a-carnal-kiss Cleo was a stone’s throw from him. A distracting distance for any single man who thought about sex thirty-seven times a day and every seven seconds when the writing wasn’t going well.
She wasn’t his type, he decided on an instant. Thinking back, it was unclear he had a type, but surely she wasn’t it. Certainly not. “What do you…what do you look like?” he ventured asking.
“Me?” Her chair squeaked as if she was preparing to get up.
He needed to know before she went back into her bungalow. “Yeah. You know,” he said, keeping his voice casual. “Hair. Eye color. That sort of thing.”
. He loved blondes.
Maybe he made a noise, because there was a sudden alertness from the other side of the fence. But brown eyes were his favorite. He pictured them now, a warm, beautiful shade. “And the rest?” That came out less than casual, he knew it right off. Instead, it sounded strangled, just like he felt when thinking about the distracting blonde, brown-eyed, single woman just a few steps away from his sanctuary.
“Oh. Well.” There was a beat of silence and then she laughed a little. Breathily. “I’m…tallish…and you can see a lot of my long, long legs because I’m wearing very, very short-short shorts. You know, the tight kind? My top is tight too, real clingy over my big, double, um, D’s.”
? His eyes popped open and then they cinched low as he caught her snickers from the other side of the fence. “Very funny,” he groused.
“G’night, neighbor,” she said, still laughing. “Until next time.”
There wasn’t going to be a next time, Reed thought. And not because of her gotcha self-description. But because of that contralto. Cold slaw. Biker gang binge-watching.
There was too much to like and all of it was too diverting.
Staring up at the moon, he came to an unpleasant decision. No more middle-of-the-night-writing. No more crawling into his work-coffin at 9 p.m. and sitting at his desk until dawn was still just a promise. To avoid her—
—he was going to have to give up his vampire hours.
Reed tossed a cold beer at Payne Colson and settled on the lounge chair adjacent to his. Though they were hanging in the sunny front yard of his corner lot, there was plenty of privacy, as a thick, eight-foot hedge separated the space from the sidewalk. Sipping at his tall glass of tomato juice, Reed watched the other man settle more deeply into the cushions, one arm beneath his head.