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Authors: Jo Richardson

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BOOK: Cookie Cutter
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“We…” I huff. My lids blink so fast, the two of them look as though they’re moving in slow motion, now. “He showed up out of nowhere and--”

“I thought you were playing cards with the bitch squad last night.” Meg’s perfectly shaped eyebrows pull together and she waits for me to explain the unexplainable.

“Right, wait, no, Meg, they’re not bitches, but yes, cards, that’s all. We just,” I breathe. “Played cards.”

“That’s what I said.” Carter taps his lips gently with his index finger before pointing at Meg. “What did you
think I meant?”

She shrugs and doesn’t think twice about eying the full length of Carter’s body, head to toe and back again, before turning her attention to me once more.

“Why are you blushing?”

“I’m not, I--”

She ignores me. “You know we could really use you to help out with some other things for the carnival Carter. Interested?”

I grab his arm and make a play at Meg’s own game. Playful.

“Oh, he’s . . . busy, Meg. Aren’t you Carter? Don’t bother the man, he’s probably got ten thousand things to do with that house he’s flipping. I’m sure he’s not interested in our silly carnival.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” he interrupts. “Why am I not interested, exactly?”

“Well,” I give a small laugh. “you’ve got . . .”

I glance over toward Meg for help but she’s got nothing.  And look ways too entertained by this conversation to think of anything either.

“Actually,” Carter begins.

I hadn’t expected him to disagree with me and quite frankly, it makes me twitchy.  I mean, doesn’t he have a freaking house to flip here? Or not? I look up at him. His eyes are dark and full of something other than playful right now. He rubs at the stubble around his jaw. I like it. And liking it makes me uncomfortable, so I take a step backwards, instinctively, as though I’m standing too close to the fire. Which I totally am.

“I’d love to help you with your carnival,” he says with a sultry voice I might pay for on some other plane of existence. His eyebrow lifts, challenging me to call him a liar.

I can’t even if I want to. All I have is a tiny, squeaky, barely audible, “What?”

“But first you have ask – nicely.” And there’s that easy smile again. Only this time, he looks like he’s going to whisk
me
off to his bedroom – where I am totally, one hundred percent
not
interested in visiting.

“I . . .” I pause to correct myself. “
We
don’t need any help with the carnival,” I try. “Meg was just being nice.” I turn to her. “Meg, tell him. We don’t need help.”  

There, I came up with something. Cracked voice and all. But before my “friend” can agree with me, not that she was going to, Carter steps in again.

“I beg to differ, Iris.” He crosses his arms. “I think you need major help with your carnival.”

He won’t stop staring at me and I can’t
stop staring at him.

Are we still talking about carnivals here? “I . . .”

Why. Can’t. I. Speak?

“You can help me with
my
carnival.” Meg breaks the incredibly loud silence that’s fallen between us.

Carter’s eyes are fixed on mine for another moment before he lets out a short laugh through his nose. Then he bends down to start working again. Just like that.

“Well, you know where I live.”

It’s like I’m not even standing there anymore. Like I’m one of his boards, leaning up against the part of the fence that isn’t
damaged, waiting for him to need me. Why does that bother me? I refuse to let it bother me, or at least I refuse to let him know it bothers me. I turn and stalk off to go take care of something else that needs my attention today. Something
must need my attention, today.

“Iris.”

I dart from one path to another, looking for someone who looks as lost, and frustrated, and angry as I am right now.

“Iris,” Meg calls out, louder this time.

I stop and wait for her to catch up. I fix my hair and bite my lip. I know what she’s going to say.

“What the hell was that
all about?”

“What?” I shake my head and shrug my shoulders like it’s no big deal that Carter Blackwood basically informed me he’d love to “fix” my “carnival” and all I have to do is ask.

“What?” she says. “Seriously?”

“Meg, I don’t know, I just,” I close my eyes and fist my hands. “He makes me crazy.”

“He makes you horny, you mean.”

My eyes fly open and I glare at my neighbor. “I swear
to God.”

She holds her hands up, innocently. “Hey, none of my business, I’m just saying, you haven’t um, you know, in quite a while and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you, you knowing with the hunky handy man.”

I can’t believe she’s just said this. My divorce is a little over a year old and she wants me to what?  Bang my neighbor? My very temporary neighbor? No. I’ve had enough temporary for one lifetime, thank you very much.

“I’m not listening to this.” I try to storm off but Meg being Meg, she’s not about to let that happen.

“Hey.”

She pulls at my arm to stop me and I let her. But I can’t look at her. I’m still too flustered. Or maybe embarrassed.

“Seriously,” her voice softens, “there’s nothing wrong with a little banter, Iris. No harm, no foul. Just enjoy it.”

I nod and avoid eye contact. Before she lets me go, she hugs me tight.

“Maybe he’s a present from the gods,” she tries to joke.

I’m not in the mood. “I’ll be over at the concession area, measuring it out.” I walk away.

“I’ll meet ya there later,” she calls out after me.  

I’m glad she’s not coming with me. I need to be away from innuendo and friends who encourage it for a while.

 

* * *

 

“I think this is going to be perfect for the cotton candy stand, but two dollars is too much to charge kids, can you do a dollar?”

The older gentleman who runs the stand rubs at the back of his neck. “That’ll mean less profit for you all.”

“I understand,” I say with a smile.

“Then sure. No problem.”

“Great.” We shake hands and he goes back to packing his things up.  

I mark one more thing off of my to-do list and am about to pat myself on the back when a gruff voice sneaks up from behind me.

“I’m um . . . done for today,” Carter says.

When I face him, the same knots build in my stomach that I’ve gotten since the first day I met him. I ignore it. Or try to at least.

“Great.” I smile tightly.

“I tried to find your friend-”

“Meg.”

“Right. Meg.” He looks around.

“The one who actually
wants
you to fix her carnival.” I bite my tongue as soon as I say it.

Whyyyyyy did I say that?

“Jealous?” Carter’s eyes twinkle. They actually twinkle.

I sputter and roll mine. “No.” And sputter again for good measure.

His smile is causing a rage inside me that I don’t know what to do with. I’ve never wanted to smack a man as often as I want to smack Carter Blackwood.

“Anyway,” he pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket. “She uh, doesn’t appear to be here, so . . .”

“It’s fine, Carter.” I take the paper out of his hands and read it over so I have something to do, other than stare back into his insinuating eyes. “How much do we owe you?”

I choke when I see the number at the bottom of the page.

“That’s standard for per hour work,” he says. “Plus supplies.”

“No, I, yeah, this is . . .” I stutter because I have no idea where we’re going to come up with this kind of extra money to pay him. I curse every freelance worker who overcharges communities like Spangler just to ensure they have a better car than most or a nicer home to flip
.

“I cut the price, I mean, since we’re neighbors and all.”

“I’m sure you did.” I slip the bill into my clipboard with the other invoices I need to take care of. Maybe I can sell some blood.

“I did.” His easy smile falters a bit. His brow dips and his tone becomes defensively.

I’m not sure I believe him.

“No, right, that’s great. Thanks.” I don’t have the energy to challenge him right now, to be honest. Plus, it’s difficult to argue with him when we’re the ones who asked him to help.

“There you are.” Meg struts over to us.  When she notices something is amiss, she stops short. “Am I interrupting something?”

She’s not being facetious this time, she’s being honest. Concerned. I open my mouth to tell her she’s not but Carter beats me to the punch.

“Nope, just leaving.” He eyes me when he says it.

He pulls his stare away from me to give Meg a polite nod, eventually, then he goes to leave.

Meg and I swap notes on our progress for the day when Carter stops, roughly five feet from us, like he forgot something. “Oh, and Iris?”

I step away from my friend to see what he needs, half expecting him to inform me he forgot to charge us for something else. He meets me halfway. His eyes are intense when he looks down into mine.

“For the record,” he says, then he leans down so he can say something into my ear. I turn my head slightly to hear what it is he has to say. “I happen to love carnivals.”

His voice is rough. Strained. And it makes every hair on my body stand on end. My head jerks back and he gives me a wink but no smile this time. He’s dead serious. My blood is rushing to my cheeks and my head feels a bit lightheaded all of a sudden.

As Carter struts away, I swallow as I watch him, surprised at how completely turned on I am right now. Surprised and a little frightened, maybe. I back away, retreating from the tension created by his words, and I trip over something.

“Whoa, girlie.” Meg grabs my arm and stops me from tumbling to the ground and making an idiot of myself. Not that I’m not grateful for the gesture, but somehow, I find myself wishing it was Carter’s arms wrapped around me again, instead of hers.

“What the hell did he say?” I’m used to her curiosity but this time, it feels intrusive. I don’t want to share whatever it was that just happened fifteen feet away.

“Nothing.” I push the hair away from my face and try to get back to business.

“Doesn’t seem like nothing,” Meg teases but she lets it go.

While she engages a nearby volunteer about the way they’re folding invitations, I find myself watching Carter as he walks home with is tools in tow. I pride myself in the fact that I’m a focused, driven, put together, recently divorced, single mother who doesn’t tend to lose her tempter much in day to day stressful situations. So why is it that lately, I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams when I’m around this man?  And what is it about him that makes me want to slap his face and kiss that smug attitude right out of him at the same time?

A question, I find, that I’m petrified to answer.

Chapter 6. Carter

 

“Finally.”

After the last board falls away from the last wall I need gone, I drop the sledge hammer I’ve been swinging for the past six hours. I slide to the floor of what will one day be the master bedroom in this house and close my eyes.

“Mmmmmmm.”

My muscles ache. My eyes burn. My back’s been killing me for about a half a day. At least I’m sitting now. Sitting is good. Sitting is real good. Sleeping is even better than sitting, but before I do that, I want to relish. I open up my eyes and take a look around, stealing a moment to appreciate the demo I’ve gotten through today. I’m satisfied but exhausted. This one man show can only go on for so long before I need to start pulling in some contractors, I’m sure, but at least I’ve gotten the ugly work out of the way.

Not only is it already feeling more open in here, but all of the craptastic carpeting throughout the house is pulled up now, too. Not to mention the wallpaper that reminded me of those cheesy eighties sitcoms I used to sit through hours on end watching while getting some homework done. Painting is going to be a breeze because, as an added bonus, no vaulted ceilings. The biggest mistake of my life was grabbing a house with vaulted ceilings for my first flip.

Second biggest mistake.

I’m unexpectedly jolted back to my first day of law school, when I think about past mistakes. The next thing I know, I’m on the front steps of Stanford University, questioning my own motives for being there.

It should have been the most exciting day of my life at that point, but even then, I knew. I didn’t want to be there. Not really. But I went, because that’s what we Blackwood men did. We studied law, we passed the BAR exam, we defended the innocent. After my mom died, law was pretty much the only thing keeping my brother, my dad and me together. So I went with it.

Not the worst thing you can do in life, just not my first choice.

It wasn’t a total loss though, once I spotted the black haired beauty sitting two seats down in front of me in my criminal defense 101 class. I didn’t waste a single second stepping in front of her so she couldn’t leave without telling me who she was.

“Carter Blackwood,” I said, holding out a welcoming hand.

“I know who you are.” She gave me a secretive smile, as she took it.

Her hand was soft, warm, and she had this air about her. She was confident, self-sustaining.

“Yeah?”

“Well who doesn’t?  Your father’s law firm is legendary around here ever since the Silkensen case.”

Roy Silkensen was the son of a big time investment tycoon from Northern California that made the news a couple years before I graduated high school. He’d been pulled over for speeding and as it turned out, he was also drunk. When they asked him to step out of the car for his Breathalyzer test, they noticed a girl passed out in the back seat and as that
turned out, she was a minor.

Long story short, they’d had sex. Rough sex. She claimed she had no memory of it or giving her permission to have it and Roy was suddenly facing rape charges. People speculated on both sides, but in the end, my father got him off by making a case that the girl only said she didn’t remember because she didn’t want her parents finding out she was sleeping around with older guys. He listed names. She was humiliated. And Roy ended up only having to plead guilty to the reckless driving charges because the Breathalyzer test had been compromised by the time the test results came back. That one is still a mystery and the incompetence of certain investigators continues to amaze me.

By the time we were done chatting about the flawless defensive skills of my father, my mystery girl was almost out the door of the lecture room and I still hadn’t gotten her name.

“Hey!” I called out after her.

She turned with an impatient glance toward me, like I was keeping her from the most important appointment in the life at that time.

“I didn’t get your name,” I said, expecting her to give it to me right then and there, only she didn’t.

“Come to the social tonight, maybe you’ll get it then,” she promised. She pulled out this pink sheet of paper, crumpled it up and threw it at me like she didn’t have time to come back down the stairs to hand it to me herself.

When I opened it up, I was given the name of her sorority and consequently, the address that I’d be spending a huge chunk of the next four years of my life visiting.

Cheryl Bedford.

I haven’t thought about the woman I assumed I was going to marry, once upon a time, for a while now. There’s still a small sting inside my chest when I do, but not much. Just enough to remind me how gullible I once was.

I let out a long yawn and check the time. Just after six AM.

“Holy shit.”

It’s been twenty-three hours since the last time I slept
.
Seventeen since I ran into and simultaneously met Don Meeks, who informed me he’d heard of my skill set before begging me to help him out with an emergency repair over at the field down the street. Fifteen since my run in with Iris Alden.

I’m losing track of the number of times I get sucked into a battle of wills with her. If I’m being honest, she’s the reason my mind has been racing for the past half a day. I picture the look on her face as I left the carnival grounds yesterday afternoon. And I laugh because I can practically see the frustration in her eyes. And I can definitely feel it. She’s such a damn contradiction to herself. Together one minute, only to let a little flirtatious banter get the best of her the next. I wonder if she’s like this with everyone or just me. I kind of want it to be just me. Why, I don’t know. It’s not like it would be smart to follow up on that idea.

I need a shower. Badly. So for now, I push the curiosity I have about my neighbor aside and get myself cleaned up before passing out on the futon.

 

* * *

 

I wake up and stretch the kinks out of my neck and back. When the faint rumble of trash trucks outside gets louder and louder, I stop short and realize, I slept an entire. Day.

”Shhhhit.”

I roll off of my couch bed and run out to the garage, half unconscious of my actions but somehow, completely aware of the fact that Iris leaves for work around this time. She’s like clockwork, this woman. The next thing I know, I’m pulling a hand through my hair and tugging at the bottom of my t-shirt to get the wrinkles out. Then I stop myself, because,

“What the fuck am I doing?”

I grab the handle of the trash can and pull it to the front of the garage. And as I tug the garage door open, despite my efforts not to, I give a glance over toward her house. Sure enough, timely as ever, there she is, heading out the front door. She leaves it open behind her and I imagine her daughter, somewhere inside, taking her time, like the first day I met them. I push the trash can out to the curb and grin as I continue to watch Iris. She’s wearing what looks to be a power suit, but that’s not what stands out. Her hair is up, exposing her neck. It looks nice on her and I wonder if she’s got something important going on today. The click of her heels echo through the air as she hurries to the car. The street is pretty much a ghost town this time of day except for her. And me, apparently.

I wait patiently for the opportunity to catch her spying on me but there’s something off about her this morning. She doesn’t attempt to look as though she’s not looking this way.  In fact, she’s making a determined effort to not look this way at all as she gets into the car and waits for her daughter.
What is her name?
Abby? Angie?
Ally. Right.

Regardless, I feel ripped off.  This is my early morning merriment. My entire day is going to be thrown off now. I blame Iris. It’s not her fault, I know that. It’s just that I look forward to our daily meet and greets.  As maladjusted as they are, they somehow make this flip project a little more interesting. That I don’t get the opportunity today, leaves me agitated. The front door slams and Ally stands there, glaring at me.

Busted.

With a wave of my hand, I try to act nonchalant about her catching me gawking at her mother, but she’s no dummy. She shakes her head in disgust and walks to the car. I turn and head back toward the garage, trying to erase that awkward moment out of my mind as Iris pulls out and leaves. Then I’m stopped in my tracks.

“Carter! Carter!”

I look around and see Iris’s friend, Meg, signaling to me from her front door step, which confirms once and for all, she’s the chick with the mid-day mystery visitor every so often. I suspected it was her the other day, when we met, but I wasn’t positive since I hadn’t gotten a good look at her but now . . . Oh yeah, it’s her. I throw a hand up at her and give a half nod. She tiptoe-jogs my way in her pink fluffy robe and matching slippers. I’m not ready for a gossipy conversation about neighborhood politics.

“Listen,” she says in a low voice, once she’s in ear shot. “I know Iris can be a pill but she means well.”

Okay maybe I am ready. “Huh?”

“Oh, I’m sure she’s told you by now, she’s contacted other handymen and wants bid proposals.”

She .
. .
“She what?”

Meg’s brow lifts and she swats at my arm, playfully. If this was Iris I was talking to, she’d have punched my arm with no mercy.

“I know, I know,” she gives me a sympathetic roll of her eyes. “But trust
me when I say, it’s simply a formality. You just make sure you show up at the neighborhood events committee meeting later, and –“

“Meeting?”

“Like I said, Carter, just a formality.” Her voice raises an octave or two. I don’t know if she’s trying to convince me or herself at this point. “I guarantee you, the job is yours, Iris likes all her ducks in a row, that’s all.”

This explains a lot. Specifically, why Iris couldn’t bring herself to look my way just now. She never planned on telling me she wanted a bid. That underhanded, sneaky, little control freak.

Honestly, it’s not like I have time for extra work on top of everything else I have on my plate right now.  Hell, I might have even told her, had she given me the time of day, that she didn’t need to worry about me taking the damn job, but now? You best believe I’m making time.

“I’ll be there,” I say. I fake a smile as Meg claps and flutters away, toward her house.

“See you there, Carter!”

I’m already gone, into the garage, closing the door.

Back inside my place, I’m ready to get a jump on renovations so I can get ahead of the game before this meeting later on. When I pick up a jigsaw for some detail work, I hear the familiar buzzing of my cell phone as it glides across the kitchen counter.

I check. It’s a text, from Tony.

Sorry about yesterday.

It just came through. I figure it can’t hurt to mend some of what I’ve no doubt caused more than he has between us.

Me too, bro. Love you. You know that.

It takes him a minute to reply to that one.

Saw Cheryl last night. She says hi.

Oh.

How’s she doing?

I don’t know why I even ask. It’s not like I want to hear the answer.

Getting married.

Ouch. See?

That didn’t take long. Not that I’m surprised. Cheryl has an agenda. You either work to make that agenda successful, or you’re out. Part of me is tempted to ask who the lucky guy is but I’m sure it’s some junior partner on his way up the ladder. I don’t know if Tony’s just making conversation with me, or if he’s planning on reporting back to Cheryl when he finds out what my reaction is. So I keep it short, but sweet. Kind of.

Gotta run.

I set the phone down and head back into the garage to work on carving out some light switch holes in the wainscoting I’m planning on putting up. Maybe I should spend some more time communicating better with Tony – yeah, but honestly, I’m too wound up to do anything but work. I need to clear out the mess I’ve already made before I can do much else so I call get have a portable dumpster delivered.  While I wait for that to arrive, I put together a kick ass bid for Iris’s super secret carnival meeting. One that even she will have a difficult time rejecting.

 

* * *

 

Taking out the trashed guts of this house is ten times more difficult than trashing it to begin with.  Mostly because my muscles ache and exhaustion is kicking in. And I’m hungry. I might be able to work through pain and fatigue, but there’s no ignoring hungry. So around five-thirty or so, I find myself at stopping point. I brush the dirt off of me and head to the grocery store down the street. Of course, grocery shopping tends to consist of complicated decision making on my part, like which frozen meal to purchase for dinner tonight. I can’t make up my mind if I’d rather have the Hungry Man chicken and biscuits or if I need the family sized lasagna from Stouffers.

“Screw it.” Chinese take-out it is.

I’m on my way out the door and I spy with my little eye, an uptight single mother who looks like she’s having a very deep conversation with . . . potatoes, over in the produce section.

I should probably leave. Avoid getting one or both of us wound up. But leaving will most definitely lead to more work on the house, a quiet meal alone and then ultimately, more work on the house.

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