A sexy new grumpy/sunshine standalone romance is coming on January 15 from Vi Keeland, and you can read the whole first chapter right here.
Meet Paul Bunyan
I shifted my rental car into park and got out to walk around to the back of the Ford Explorer. Frowning at the small dent on the bumper, I was at least glad the pushy agent had talked me into getting the extra insurance. Why was there a random pole sticking up here anyway? I sighed.
Whatever. I’d deal with it all tomorrow. It had been a long-enough day already. What should’ve been an eleven-hour drive here from New York City had taken fifteen because of a flat tire and standstill traffic in a few states, all while managing constant texts and calls from my ex, Noah. I turned to get back in the car, but stopped when I noticed something red sticking out from under the rear tire.
Was that…a mailbox?
Shoot. Guess this wasn’t a random pole after all. I looked up at the house it belonged to and debated not knocking until tomorrow. But I was going to be here a while and didn’t want to start out on the wrong foot with the neighbor. So I pulled the crushed metal box out from under the car, carried it up the driveway, and knocked on the front door.
When the door opened, I momentarily forgot why I was standing there.
Wow. Hot wasn’t a strong-enough word. Green eyes with a hint of gray, square jaw with just the right amount of scruff, and a perfectly straight blade of a nose. Not to mention, he was super tall. Six three? Six four? His broad shoulders filled the entire doorway. He might’ve been the largest man I’d ever been this close to. I briefly wondered if he could buy shirts in a regular store. Noah wore an extra-large, and this man looked like he could squash my ex like a bug. That thought made me smile.
It did not, however, make Paul Bunyan smile. He folded his arms across his chest and looked down at the pummeled mailbox in my hands. “Something you want to tell me?” He lifted one brow.
“Ummm…” I held the box up. Why? I have no damn idea. But I felt the need to do something with my arms. “I think I hit your mailbox.”
“No, no…” I nodded. “I definitely hit it. I meant I wasn’t positive if it was yours.”
“Where was the mailbox when you hit it?”
I turned and pointed to the grassy area at the end of the driveway, the same driveway I’d just walked up in order to get to the door. The lonely pole remained. “It was over there.”
“And yet you’re confused which house it belonged to?”
“I, uh…” Oh, this guy was a jerk. He didn’t have to mock me. Things happen. Like car accidents. It wasn’t like it was that big of a deal. I’d replace it. “Yes, I hit your mailbox. I apologize. It’s been a long day, and I’m not such a great driver, and it’s dark out. I was trying to back into my driveway, and well…driving backward isn’t as easy as forward.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Your driveway?”
I pointed to the house to the right. “That one.”
He stole a glance. “You’re staying in that run-down shack?”
“Run-down?” I looked next door, but unlike this house, the porch light wasn’t on, so I couldn’t see too well. “The real estate agent said it needs some sprucing up.”
The guy’s lip curled. “Whatever you say…”
Great. Can’t wait to see what the place looks like now. I shook my head. “Anyway, I’ll replace your mailbox. Did you get it around here?”
He lifted his chin. “At Clifton’s, the lumberyard down the road.”
“I’ll get a replacement first thing in the morning. Do you mind if I keep it until then, so I can make sure I get the right one?”
Paul Bunyan shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat.”
“Alright, well…” I lifted a hand and waved awkwardly. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
I walked down the driveway, feeling his eyes on me, but I refused to turn back. Though once I got to my car, which still needed to be backed into the driveway next door, I had to face the house again, so I peeked up at the door. Sure enough, the grumpy giant remained standing there, watching. I waved awkwardly a second time, then slipped into the car and set the mangled mailbox on the passenger seat.
I glanced up at the house yet again after starting the engine. Yup. Still watching.
Great. He was probably waiting to be amused as I attempted to back into the driveway, since I’d confessed I wasn’t the greatest driver. I didn’t need that kind of pressure, so I decided to pull forward, turn around, and park head first. I’d just have to carry my bags a little farther. Except…now I was flustered. Between hitting the mailbox and this guy watching me, I accidentally put the car in reverse instead of drive and promptly hit the mailbox pole again. This time, I knocked it over.
Slamming on the brakes, I shut my eyes. Fuck my life. This trusting-my-instinct thing I’d started doing recently wasn’t exactly working out as planned.
My throat tightened and my fingertips started to tingle—telltale signs of a full-blown anxiety attack coming on. That was the absolute last thing I needed, so I did what my new therapist had taught me to do. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted to ten while I focused on my breathing. I felt no better when my eyes flickered open, especially once I saw Mr. Bunyan still standing there. But I did feel compelled to say something. So I pressed the button to roll down the passenger window and waved.
“Sorry! I’ll replace that, too!”
My new, not-so-friendly neighbor said nothing. I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be besties, so no point in trying to smooth things over. I shifted the car into drive, double-checked that I was actually in drive before taking my foot off the brake, and managed to turn around and pull into the driveway next door without any other catastrophes.
Though when the headlights gave me my first good look at my new home away from home, I wondered if I had another catastrophe on my hands.
Two windows were boarded up with plywood, the garage door hung crooked, and half the shutters were missing from the house while the other half dangled. No amount of deep breaths were going to make this better. If the outside looked like this, I was terrified what I might find inside. There was a broken porch light hanging over the front door, so I left the headlights on when I got out so I could see.
The rusty lock I stuck the key into matched the condition of the rest of the house, so I’m not sure why I was so shocked when the key didn’t turn. I jiggled the handle back and forth a few times. The lock felt like it wanted to turn, but needed a little convincing. So I put some weight behind it and…it moved. Oh, did it move alright.
I closed my eyes. Please, please, don’t let it be broken.
But of course, it was.
What the heck was I going to do now?
I looked around at the house. Maybe the windows weren’t locked on the first floor? Or I could pry off the wood covering what I assumed was a broken one. I spent the next ten minutes walking around the perimeter of the property, trying every window I could reach. Needless to say, the only luck I was having today was shit luck, so none were open. Back at the car, I flicked on the high beams to survey the rest of the house. The third window from the left on the second floor looked like it might be open a few inches. I considered driving the car onto the lawn so I could stand on the roof, but it looked like I still wouldn’t be able to reach. Maybe I should call a locksmith? Though the last time I did that, it took more than three hours for the guy to come, and that was in bustling New York City, not this small town. I was dying to go to sleep.
I peered over at Paul Bunyan’s house and nibbled on my lip. He wasn’t the friendliest, but I only needed a ladder. My gut told me that was the easiest solution, and since my gut had gotten me into this mess, I figured it was its job to get me out. So I swallowed whatever pride I had left, traipsed back over to the neighbor’s, and took a deep breath before knocking.
The tree-man opened again, and not surprisingly, he didn’t bother to say hello.
“Hi again!” I chirped a bit too cheerily. “Could I possibly bother you for a ladder?”
His brows furrowed. “What for?”
I pointed next door. “I seem to have gotten myself into a little pickle. The key broke off in the lock.” I held up the snapped-in-half proof from my keyring. “See? And I only have the one. None of the windows are open on the first floor, but it looks like there’s one open on the second. If you have a ladder, I’m sure it won’t take more than five minutes for me to bring it back.”
The guy stared at me for a solid ten seconds. Then he brushed past me without saying a word. I had no idea if that meant I should follow, but that’s what I did. Paul punched a code into the wall on the side of his garage and the door began to roll up. He ducked inside and grabbed a ladder.
“Front or back?” he grunted.
He hoisted the ladder onto his shoulder and marched across the lawn toward my place. I followed. “You don’t have to carry it. I can do it.”
The man of few words glanced at me and kept walking.
“Oh…kay then. I guess you’ll carry it,” I mumbled.
Next door, he surveyed the front of the house. Spotting the open window, he leaned the ladder up against the wooden shingles and started to climb.
Apparently he’s also doing this for me…
I watched from below, silently appreciating the view of denim hugging a fine derriere. Maybe I was delirious after the long trip, but I couldn’t help thinking a quarter would bounce off that firm thing, and I had a sudden hankering for a juicy, ripe peach.
I shook the ridiculous thoughts from my head as Paul “the Peach” Bunyan slid open the second-floor window and climbed inside. Two minutes later, he opened the front door.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much.”
The towering man folded his arms across his chest while standing in the doorway—apparently a favorite stance of his—and looked down his nose at me. “How do I know you’re really allowed to stay here?” he asked.
“Well, I own the house, so…”
He squinted. “When did you buy it? I didn’t see any for sale sign.”
“I didn’t buy it. I inherited it. Fifteen years ago. From my father when he passed away.”
“Who was the old lady that lived here then?”
“She was a tenant. My mom rented it to her after my dad died. I was only thirteen at the time.”
“What happened to her?”
“Mrs. Wollman? She moved into an assisted-living facility last month. It became too much for her to live alone and take care of a house.”
“I’ll say…” He looked over his shoulder. “When was the last time you saw the place?”
“That would be never. This is my first time visiting Laurel Lake.”
Paul glanced over his shoulder again and back at me. “Who’s your contractor?”
I frowned. “Contractor? No one. I figured I’d fix the place up myself while I stay here.”
His lip twitched. “This should be interesting.”
I might’ve demolished his mailbox, and he might’ve carried a ladder over and climbed into my house so I could get in, but I wasn’t going to let the sexy jerk ridicule me. I gripped my hips, and my eyes narrowed. “What’s so interesting about me doing the work on the house myself?”
His bemused smile deepened. “It needs a little more than paint and throw pillows.”
Now he was pissing me off. “I’ll have you know, I’m very handy. I have a degree in engineering.” I left off the fact that it was pharmaceutical science engineering.
“Whatever you say…”
“How about if I say thank you for the assistance this evening and you let me into my house?”
The jerk turned his body to make room for me to pass, though he didn’t actually step out of the doorway. Mustering as much self-assuredness as possible, I straightened my back, raised my chin, and tried to ignore the tingles in my body as I shimmied past him and into the house.
Paul Bunyan flicked on the lights. I’d already decided that no matter what the inside of the house looked like, I wasn’t going to give this man the satisfaction of seeing me react. But all the gumption in the world couldn’t have masked what hit me when I got a look at the place. I gasped out loud.
I blinked a few times, hoping I was imagining things. Maybe this was a bad dream? It had been a long day and I was tired, so perhaps I went inside the cute little house with the sparkling interior and took a nap… But nope, I wasn’t dreaming. Newspapers were piled from floor to ceiling in one half of the kitchen. And the kitchen was not small. The stacks were a half-dozen rows deep, running probably fifteen feet in length and eight feet high. I was so shocked by the disturbing collection that it took me a moment to notice the other half of the kitchen. Cabinet doors—painted seafoam green—dangled from hinges. The tiled backsplash was missing half the tiles, and the sink was missing the faucet. And that was just what I could take in at first glance.
My mouth hung open. A little sprucing up? That’s what the real estate agent had said. An arched doorway led to the living room. I made the mistake of peeking through, and the house started to spin a little. It looked just as bad in there, if not worse than the kitchen. There was no ceiling or walls! No damn sheetrock! Only planks of wood framing with wires hanging all over. Worse, stuff was piled high in that part of the house, too. At first I thought it was more newspapers, but when I leaned in for a closer look, I realized I was wrong.
“Are those VHS tapes?”
I guess I hadn’t expected anyone to actually answer. In my stupefied state I’d forgotten all about Paul Bunyan, so I jumped when his voice boomed.
One word. One damn syllable. Yet I heard the amusement. That did it. The entirety of the day came to a boil. And the top was about to pop off this pot as I marched toward my jerk of a neighbor.
I stood toe to toe with him and jabbed my pointer into his chest. “You think this is funny? Do you?” It pissed me off that in the middle of my rage, I noticed how hard said chest was underneath my finger. The damn thing felt like a brick wall. But no…just no. I forced myself to ignore it and continue. “I drove fifteen hours in traffic, with my cell phone buzzing like an insistent mosquito at my ear, got a flat tire, the air conditioning in my rental broke, I hit your stupid mailbox, and then the key breaks off in the door. I had to slither over to the grumpy neighbor to borrow a ladder just so I can get in. And when I finally make it inside, the house is a shambles and clearly has been occupied by someone with a hoarding issue. And as if all of that’s not enough, not enough of a shitty day to kill a person’s spirit, then you enjoying this moment has pushed me over the edge.” I pulled my finger from the human oak tree and jabbed it back in with each staccato word.
At least I’d managed to wipe the smirk from the guy’s face. Though he didn’t say a word. He just stood there staring at me. After a solid minute, he finally spoke.
“You staying here tonight?”
My eyes widened. “Of course I’m staying here!” I screamed like a lunatic. “Where the hell else would I go?”
He looked at me for a few heartbeats, then turned and walked out. I thought that was the end of things until I heard a car door opening. Ten seconds later, Paul Bunyan appeared in my doorway again with my suitcases.
I was rendered as speechless as when I’d walked into the house. The man set the bags down in the kitchen and disappeared again. A minute later he returned, this time with the blow-up bed I’d packed and a box. He added those to my suitcase pile and disappeared yet again. After two more trips, he caught my eyes and gave a curt nod. “You have a good night.”
Then he was gone, door pulled shut behind him and all.
I shook my head as I looked around the house. What the heck had happened in the last fifteen minutes?