Two Doors Down

Lisa Marie

 

Chapter One

“Come on, kiddo. This stuff isn’t going to move by itself.” With a grunt, Melanie Taylor yanked the first of the big suitcases out of the back of her car. Her son, Billy, was still in the backseat, presumably cleaning up his Nintendo games from all over the back seat. She wasn’t holding her breath.

“I’m coming, Mom,” Billy called back, his voice a muffled echo from the car.

“Sure you are. After I get all this upstairs.” Her muscles bunched unhappily as she pulled another case free. How is it possible for two people to have so much stuff? Especially since she’d left most of it behind in their old house for her ex-husband to deal with. He’d wanted the house and gave her more than what her share was worth. And all she took was her clothes and a few sentimental items. Her wedding albums weren’t one of those things.

“Jeez, mom.” Billy emerged from the back seat, his ten-year-old self decked out in Pokémon and Nintendo gear. His dark hair was hidden beneath a Bowie Bay Sox baseball cap and she eyed a smear of bubblegum on his cheek. A bubble gone awry she supposed. “Why didn’t you let the movers take this stuff?”

A question she had been asking herself for the better part of an hour. From the time she’d had to stuff it all into what she once thought was the plentiful trunk of her Oldsmobile. One of the last ever made. She loved this car. The Eighty Eight could go from zero to sixty in nothing flat and it had more bells and whistles than a space shuttle. She dreaded the day when all those bells and whistles decided to go kerplewie on her. All at once. Because then she’d have to say goodbye to her beloved car and get something more practical for a newly single mom and her precocious ten year old.

“Because,” was all she could come with as a box emerged this time.

“Hey, can I give you some help?” To her credit, Mel managed not to bang her head on the trunk lid when the voice startled her. She turned around with a smile and thanks. Her breath caught for an instant when she saw the owner of the voice. Standing there, with a big smile, a backpack and a motorcycle helmet was probably one of the best looking men—boy, really—she’d ever seen in her thirty-one years of life.

He was taller than her, with long legs and a lean build encased in a pair of faded jeans, white t-shirt and a leather jacket. His hair was thick and black and wet, swept back from his face like he’d just gotten out of the shower. Some of the damp strands had fallen across his forehead. Her fingers itched to brush them back.

His eyes were dark blue and stared out at her from under thick, black eyebrows. His skin was olive, his cheekbones sharp and his mouth wide and full. He had that just-gotten-out-of-bed look to him, rumpled and sexy. And she really shouldn’t be thinking that about a boy a good decade younger than herself.

“You look like you’re in a hurry. Thanks anyway.”

“No, I got a minute. You must be the new tenants. I’m Zack Conrad.” He walked over with a thud of his book bag hitting the ground next to his helmet. She took the hand he offered and ignored the zing that sped up her arm. She noticed he had nice hands, long fingered and wide palmed. She could feel the hint of calluses and wondered what he did to put them there.

He smiled again, a slow easy smile that probably had all the girls he knew panting after him. It wasn’t doing much for Mel’s blood pressure either. This guy was good, she decided. Casual sexiness wrapped up in a young, blue-eyed package. Oh to be ten years younger again.

“Hi, I’m Melanie Taylor. You can call me Mel. And this is my son, Billy.” She reached over and draped a hand on Billy’s shoulder and gave him a little shake. The boy smiled immediately and held out his hand.

“Hey, Billy. Welcome to the neighborhood.” Zack shook the boy’s hand. “What do you say we get these upstairs for your mom?”

“I guess,” Billy replied with a shrug and absolutely no enthusiasm. Mel rolled her eyes and chuckled.

“Way to help there, champ,” she said with a grin. Billy was a good boy. He’d handled the divorce better than she’d expected. But one night he’d let her know that she and Todd hadn’t exactly been good at hiding their unhappiness. It had almost been a relief for all of them when Todd finally asked for a divorce. The fact that the reason behind that was a nineteen-year-old intern at his office only bruised Mel’s pride, not her heart.

“Here, I’ll take these and you can show me where they go.” Zack reached down and in a show of strength that impressed even Mel, he hefted two of the overstuffed cases and a box. How he balanced it all, Mel wasn’t sure. He handled the weight easily as he followed Billy around the pool to the stairs on the opposite side and up.

“Welcome home, Mel. It’s certainly a step down.” Mel looked around the complex, the open layout with the doors facing a railing over the pool like a hotel. There were palm trees in the parking lot and a sign that proudly declared the name of the apartments, Harbor Pines, and a playground. Mel decided she liked it a hell of a lot better than the five-bedroom, three-bath monstrosity that she’d been living in for the past eight years. And now it was Todd’s problem. And Mitzy, or Trixie, or whatever the hell her name was.

Mel closed all the doors of the car, picked up the final two cases herself and hauled them around the pool with a lot less grace than Zack had. By the time she’d gotten them upstairs she was huffing and sweat had broken out on her skin.

“I would have brought those up.” Zack emerged from her apartment; not looking like he’d just hauled half her wardrobe up in one go.

“It’s okay,” she gasped, but she thankfully let the suitcases go when he walked over to take them. She leaned against the rail to catch her breath and watched him walk back down the terrace. Nice butt, her highly inappropriate inner voice said. Of course, Mel was inclined to agree.

“Mom, there’s no room to move in here.” Billy came out and looked at her.

“What do you mean? We don’t have that much stuff.” Mel pushed away from the rail and walked into the apartment, her eyes going wide and her mouth dropping open at the sight that greeted her. Shit.

“You, ah, certainly have a lot of stuff,” Zack observed, looking around the room.

Mel couldn’t even nod. The movers were only supposed to bring Billy’s bedroom furniture, some boxes from the kitchen and one of the bathrooms and the new bed she’d bought and had kept in the garage until moving day. She was planning on buying new furniture for the living and dining room when they got settled. It seemed, however, that much more had come. She saw the ugly couch she never wanted in the first place shoved up against a wall by the kitchen. The dining room table that sat six, plus the matching buffet and china cabinet were crowded in the tiny dining room. Coffee tables, end tables and that damn bedroom set she’d shared with Todd for twelve years were crammed in there as well. Other odds and ends and things she’d purposely left behind were all transplanted to her new home. All kinds of reminders that she had been a failure at her past life. Now they were here to remind her of that every day.

“Damn him.”

Zack turned puzzled eyes on her but wisely didn’t comment.

“My ex-husband. He must have had the movers bring all this stuff.” He’d dealt with it all right. He’d sent it with her to clean up. Typical. “Billy, go make sure all your stuff made it here safe.” As he disappeared down the hall, Mel pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and stabbed her ex-husband’s number. “Todd, what the hell is all this stuff doing here?”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Zack standing in the middle of the mess, looking around in an interested way. “You don’t have to stay,” Mel hissed over Todd’s lame answer. “I don’t care if whatserface doesn’t want it in the house. I don’t want it either. That’s why I told the movers only what was in the garage. What do you mean you moved it all to the garage?”

Zack didn’t leave. He settled himself against a stack of boxes and crossed his arms over his chest. Great. Now she was going to have an audience for telling Todd to fuck off.

“I don’t care if you think I needed furniture. None of this shit is practical for a two bedroom apartment.” Todd’s drone in her ear had her rubbing her temples in aggravation. “Fine. I’ll deal with it. I always do.” With a snap, the phone closed and Mel had to count to ten … twenty … fifty before the urge to scream went away.

“I don’t mean to be nosy, but are you okay?”

If you didn’t mean to be nosy, you would have left, Mel thought nastily. Then she sighed. Taking her bad mood out on her new neighbor wasn’t fair. “Yes. I am. Thanks for your help, but you looked to be in a hurry a few minutes ago.”

“I can help you with this stuff. I mean, I don’t see you and your son getting much of it moved.” He fixed her with those ridiculously blue eyes and Mel felt a strange pull somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach.

“No, thanks. Really. You’re probably already late for school.”

“I was late when I got up. I’ve only missed one lit class this semester. I think my grade can take the hit.” He smiled, a casual lifting of one side of his mouth that held Mel’s gaze for a moment. Then, mentally slapping herself, she shook her head.

“Thanks, but—”

“Look, you can keep saying no thanks. But I really don’t see how you’re going to get any of this stuff out to the dumpster by yourself. I can leave, and you can spend the rest of the night just trying to get that couch across the room.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” Mel had felt pretty good out in the parking lot. Now, looking at all the rejects from her former life, she felt very, very tired. Zack snickered and pushed away from his stack of boxes.

“I’ll just go get my stuff off the pavement before the trash men come and run it over. I’ll drop it off in my apartment and be right back. I’m in the unit two doors down.”

“Okay. Thanks.” She attempted a smile.

“Sure.” When he disappeared through her still open door, Mel dropped her face into her hands and fought the urge to cry. There was so much work to do now. Instead of just being able to come in, unpack the few things she and Billy had brought with them then assess what they would need; now she’d have to get rid of the junk Todd had sent. Then she could get the stuff she really needed. Not to mention she was going to have to find some time to go to work in there.

“Mom, I’ve got all my stuff.” Billy came out, sans his Game Boy and looked around. “Sheesh.”

“You can say that again. Zack is going to come back and help us get some of this stuff out of here.”

“What are we going to do with it?”

“Put it down by the dumpster,” Mel answered him with a shrug. “Maybe someone else will need a toile couch.” In general, she liked toile. In small, throw pillow-like doses. Not all over a whole couch. Just looking at the couch was making her eyes hurt.

“Twall?”

“That’s the name of the pattern, dear. Your father loved it.” Billy looked at the couch like he was wondering when Todd had bumped his head so hard.

“So why didn’t he keep it?”

“Ask Trixie.”

“Carly,” Billy corrected automatically. Mel resisted rolling her eyes. What was it about men and midlife crises? It seemed they always picked girls with stripper names.

Mel rubbed her hands on her jeans then clapped them together. “All right. Let’s get started.”

* * * *

Billy was out cold on his sheetless bed and Zack was draped across the only chair Mel wanted to keep. It wasn’t very late, thank god, but late enough that Mel’s forgotten stomach was screaming at her.

“Hey, want some pizza? It’s the least I can do for you helping out today.”

“Sure. Don’t suppose you have a beer to go with that?”

“Are you old enough?” Mel asked dubiously. She was standing in the door of the kitchen, a warm bottle of Coke in her hand. Zack had been lounging with his eyes closed, his handsome face appearing even younger in relaxation. She had a hard time believing he was any older than eighteen.

“I’m twenty two,” he answered, opening his eyes to look at her. She wondered if he practiced that look in a mirror. The way his eyes settled on her made her feel twitchy, like he was imagining her with her clothes off or something. And the problem was, she was learning quickly, that idea didn’t bother her as much as it should have.

“You’re kidding.”

“Do you want to see my license?” She almost said yes. She figured he’d guessed that since he started to reach for his wallet.

“No. No. That’s all right.” She turned and went into the tiny kitchen, taking two beers out of the fridge. She ordered the pizza then picked the beers up and walked back into the living room. “Thanks for your help. And I’m sorry you missed your class.”

Zack took the beer and shrugged. “My grades will survive. It’s not like I’m going into literature after I graduate anyway.”

“What will you do? Or what are you studying?” Mel sank to the floor and leaned up against a box. They’d gotten all the furniture out that she didn’t want. She’d wait to do the boxes herself over the next few days.

“Theater. Music.” Zack took a long pull from the beer and Mel found herself fascinated by the way his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.

Get a grip on yourself, girl.

“Looking to be on Broadway?”

Zack chuckled and shook his head. “Not really. I can’t decide if I want to be a rock star or an actor.”

“Oh. That is a tough choice.” Mel laughed with him for a minute, savoring the taste of her beer and the company of another person that wasn’t obsessed with Pokémon. “Do you live with your parents?”

“Uh uh. All by myself.” He sang that last part, and Mel was surprised that he was a good singer. His voice was melodious, not rough or shrieky like some men’s voices could be. It sent a chill down her spine. “I get some help from the school for housing and I work to cover the rest.”

“Sounds like a busy life.”

“Yeah. I find time for myself.”

“Unless of course, you’re coming to the aid of a woman and her kid that are suddenly swamped with furniture. I feel bad. You probably don’t have a lot of down time. Skipping class to haul a bunch of junk around doesn’t seem right.”

“I don’t do what I don’t want to.” Those damn eyes were on her again and it seemed to Mel that the temperature in the apartment suddenly jumped.

“Well, as a token of my appreciation, whenever you find yourself free around six o’clock, you’re welcome for dinner.”

“This starving college student gives thanks.” Zack had placed a hand over his heart and inclined his head in thanks, his smile wide and doing strange, trippy things to Mel’s heart rate. God, she must really be tired.

“You’re welcome. I better go get Billy up. Poor guy.”

“Was it rough on him? The divorce?” His question surprised her more than annoyed her at its forwardness and Mel considered him for a moment before answering.

“I think on some level it was. Moving out of the only home he remembers to a place that’s much smaller. Not having his dad around all the time. That kind of stuff can be hard on a kid. But I think he knew that our marriage was over. Adults have a tendency not to realize just how much kid’s notice. He wasn’t even surprised when I told him. I think his father’s new girlfriend kind of bothered him. But in all, he did really well. He’s a good kid.”

“I can tell.”

“Of course, he hasn’t hit puberty yet.”

Zack snickered. “Yeah. My mom tells me she’d rather get bit by a rabid squirrel than deal with that again.”

Now Mel smiled. She really liked him. He was funny, easy going and strong. That last was very much appreciated when they hauled the furniture down the steps. Mel was sure she’d wake up the next day feeling all sorts of pains in places she didn’t know she had.

“I’ll be right back.”

“Sure.”

A few minutes later, Mel led a sleepy Billy out into the living room just as the pizza guy showed up. She dug in her purse as Zack answered the door. The smell of pizza made her mouth water and the three dropped down to the floor and dug in. No plates, although Mel did get up and get some napkins.

When the pizza was nothing more than a few discarded crusts in the bottom of the box, Zack stood and stretched. Again, Mel found her gaze drawn to him. She caught a hint of a well-defined stomach beneath the t-shirt he wore and she had to jerk her eyes away.

You are a perverted old woman and you are going to hell.

Old? She was only thirty-one. And it wasn’t like he was a child, she reminded herself. Still, there was an age difference there and it was much too soon to be thinking about any man in that way, much less a younger one.

“Thanks for the pizza. And I’ll take you up on that dinner offer.”

“Please do. Thanks for your help. I’ll write a note for your professor if you need me too.” He let out a bark of laughter and nodded.

“Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need it. Night, Billy. I’ll come over and whoop your butt at Grand Turismo sometime soon.”

“Yeah, right. Night.” Billy yawned as the door closed.

“Come on, kiddo. It’s a school night for you too.” Mel got up and made sure the door was locked. Then she reached down and pulled her son to his feet. “Come on.”

“Ah, mom. Do I have to go to school tomorrow? I don’t even get a day off for moving? I mean, this was a very traumatic experience for me.”

“Yeah, right.” Mel echoed his words to Zack. “You didn’t even have to switch schools. Get your butt to bed. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Billy said grudgingly. He tromped down the hall to brush his teeth while Mel finished closing up.

She looked around the room in the light of the lone lamp. She hoped that she hadn’t made a mistake, choosing an apartment in the same school district instead of finding a house in another. But Billy had had enough upheavals; she hadn’t wanted to add another.

The money Todd had given her would last a while. But she was going back to work to make sure it lasted even longer than that.

Things would be okay, she decided. They had to be.

 

 

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