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The downpour stopped just as I did, soaked in rain and sweat. Rolling my neck, I took in my house. It was cute. Too cute for a single dude, but it was all fixed up, and I wasn’t in the mood for a renovation project.
I bent over to stretch, touching my toes, and before I could stand up, Smitty was at my feet, tail wagging, tongue lolling, begging to be petted.
“Smitty!” Claire came running out her front door, dark hair tied up in a messy bun, wearing tight black pants and a fitted green blouse. No shoes. She stopped in front of me, and I noticed her pink toes and tanned feet.
“Smitty, bad boy! You can’t leave the house.” She grabbed his collar and tugged him to her side.
“S’okay.” Wetness seeped into my eyes, and I swatted it away, making the burn worse. Squinting and blinking, I remained focused on the woman in front of me, and all woman she was. There wasn’t one girlish thing about my neighbor, and no—before you think it—I didn’t have mommy issues.
I had lean-muscular-legs and pouty-lips issues, both of which Claire had in earnest. Not to mention, I had a separate thing for independence after growing up around all these farming wives, who basically did all the heavy lifting for none of the credit. Then there was my dad, unable to move on, the epitome of lost.
“Don’t say that. He can’t be running out of the house.” Her breath was short at this point; she was almost panting. “He’s all I have.” It was a whisper of a sentence, but I heard it. Fuck it, I felt it. I got pain. Hated anyone else having to experience it.
She was eaten up with pain, but kept her head up—I could tell. I wanted to crack her veneers, let the pain ooze out, and see her smile in earnest.
Deep shit for a young guy, but I’d grown up fast. Like in the last forty-eight hours.
“I put my hand out to feel if it was still raining, and he bolted as soon as he saw you,” she continued to explain.
“Like I said, I’m cool with Smitty, but I get it. He can’t be escaping.”
“Thanks for understanding.” She stood, prim and proper, her gaze heavy on the concrete, clearly avoiding any direct eye contact.
“You okay, Claire? I’m sorry about last night.”
“I’m fine.” She turned back toward her house.
“Claire, listen, we got off to a bad start. Can we start over? Aiken Fordham, nice to meet you.” I held my hand out, flexing my bicep, waiting for her to return the favor.
“Claire Richards.” She took my hand, her smaller, dainty, and way smoother hand slipping into mine.
“Ugh. What do you want, Aiken? Look at you, shirtless, dripping from running in the rain.” Her hand whipped out of mine and began whisking up and down in the air, motioning at my very naked torso. “What could you possibly want from me? If you need an egg or a stick of butter, pop next door. Otherwise, let me be. I need to get out of here and beg Mary to give me a class full of students, probably not much older than you.” She alternated between eyeing me and her disobedient dog.
“You’re a beautiful woman, Claire,” I called, running up behind her. “And I’m a warm-blooded man, who’ll probably never have a need for a stick of butter. I’m a big boy. I know how to find a grocery store. All by myself too.”
She flung open her door and motioned Smitty inside. He stood at the screen door, staring us down with sad doggie eyes.
“Is there something wrong with getting to know my neighbor? I don’t know anyone here. Maybe you could be neighborly? Or are you so closed off you can’t do that? Because if so, that’s a damn shame,” I said through gritted teeth. Admittedly, I was more frustrated than I should have been. I was a man who desperately wanted the broken woman in front of me.