Authors: Nicole Stewart
“This is my house,” she breathed at last when the tour was done. They had made their way downstairs to the kitchen. Becky flashed her a smile and nodded.
“I can see you here.”
“And how long has it been on the market?” Cee-Cee asked.
“Hmm, at this point, I’d say about three hundred nineteen days, which is a long time.”
“So, do you think it will be available a little longer for me to explore other financing options?” Cee-Cee scrunched up her nose, fingers crossed, but Becky shook her head regretfully.
“I can’t make any promises. Between you and me, the owners are looking to slash their asking price to make it more appealing to buyers, which may work in your favor. Do you want me to put in a bid for you?”
Cee-Cee smiled hopefully at the news, but she couldn’t make any bids, knowing she’d have to put her money where her mouth was if she did. As she paused by her car and looked back to say goodbye to the big yellow house, she decided it was past time for her to stop pining for it, because the worst mistake she could make was living beyond her means.
Ashley agreeing to use NowIn was a godsend, and if he could make her app a success before this place sold, then she would definitely buy. In the meantime, it was time to start looking at other, more reasonable housing options. “Back to the drawing board,” she muttered, cranking up her car and leaving.
ll during that
first week after meeting Phoenix Briton and Ashley Terrence, Cee-Cee had spent so much time talking to them at work and over the Internet, respectively, that she felt like they were longtime besties. When the weekend came and they were finally able to hang out, she was psyched. It had taken a fair amount of cajoling and wheedling to get Phoenix to agree to her favor request of the three of them having Saturday brunch together.
“Is this the place?” Phoenix frowned at the place Ashley had convinced his manager, Tegan, to book for him and his crew. They were holed up just outside of town in this inexpensive, but well-kept boutique hotel.
“Mm-hmm,” Cee-Cee hummed. She whipped the wheel of her six-speed and drove around to the back of the hotel where Ashley’s two tour buses took up much of the empty lot. “Don’t worry. He’s meeting us out here. I figured you wouldn’t want to be seen in the hotel.”
Phoenix smiled nervously and peered out the window. She parked on side of the tour bus and killed the engine. Cee-Cee flashed an encouraging grin at him. “Ready to go?” He reluctantly pushed open the passenger door and climbed out. She walked around to his side of the car, but Phoenix touched her wrist to halt her.
“I want you to go in first,” he said. “Make sure there are no cameras, recording devices, et cetera.”
“What do you think I am? The police?” Cee-Cee scoffed. Phoenix crossed his arms and didn’t budge from his position outside the tour bus, and Cee-Cee rolled her eyes with an exasperated sigh. “Fine, whatever.” She marched over to the bus while Phoenix hung back.
The sun beamed down on the nearly empty parking lot at the isolated hotel. It was just after eleven in the morning, and it was a clear, beautiful day, although Phoenix was being a bit of a dark cloud. He had grumbled the whole ride over, constantly peering at the side mirrors to make sure they weren’t being followed.
He had insisted they take her car since it wasn’t flashy or government issued. He was dressed like she’d never seen him before. Tan boat shoes covered his feet. He wore khaki shorts that ended just below the knee and a collared short sleeved button-down. A baseball cap covered his dark hair, and he wore shades. He was antsy, restless. Cee-Cee wished he would calm down. They were supposed to be having a good time.
She knocked on the glass door of the bus, and Ashley quickly skipped down the steps to throw it open for her. “Hey, you!” he greeted her brightly, his eyes roaming her face and body quickly. He peeked over her shoulder and saw Phoenix waiting. Ashley whispered, “What’s he doing?”
She pushed past him and pulled him back into the tour bus. Eyeing Phoenix through the window, she explained, “He wants me to make sure you’re not secretly recording him. He wants me to do a sweep for cameras and voice recorders. Got any of those in here?”
Ashley almost doubled over laughing. “Is he serious?” Cee-Cee nodded. Ashley pulled his phone out of his pocket and held it up for Phoenix to see. He made a show of handing it to Cee-Cee, and she powered it off and stuck it in her purse. “Does that help?” Ashley asked.
Cee-Cee ducked and looked under the tables and up into the corners of the bus. She flashed the all-clear sign to Phoenix, and he finally came aboard. When the two men stood face to face, time slowed. She could feel it. The connection caught and held, and they stared at each other wordlessly.
A half-smile touched Ashley’s lips. Phoenix blinked, a lazy brush of eyelashes that parted and revealed his dark brown eyes. He looked down. “Hi,” he murmured. Ashley circled him, and Phoenix tried to follow him with his gaze. He spun around when he couldn’t. Ashley chuckled.
“I have to admit that I’m not comfortable being here. The windows aren’t darkly tinted enough. Any reporter could snap a picture.”
“And we’re not doing anything wrong,” Cee-Cee pointed out. “All they’d get a picture of is three friends sitting around, drinking coffee. I work in PR. That’s not bad press, Phoenix the Paranoid.” Phoenix smirked. The RV was oversized, modernized and probably a comfortable place to kick it—just as she remembered it—but he was still worried about who might peep at them.
“I don’t want any witnesses or surprise knocks at the door. You never know how they might interpret this rendezvous.”
“And I, unfortunately, don’t even think I can offer you guys coffee,” said Ashley. “The fucking machine is broken, or I don’t know how to work it. So, what do you say we go out for brunch?”
“No.” Phoenix’s reply was clipped. “I prefer we take this get-together somewhere more intimate. Call me paranoid if you want, but Buddy is looking for something, anything, to use to smear my name. I’m not giving it to him. You said you wanted the three of us to socialize. I can only do that if I can relax.”
“I don’t object to that idea, but where to?” asked Ashley.
Cee-Cee wracked her brain for a suitable location. There was no going to Phoenix’s place. She knew he’d pitch a fit if she even suggested it. Since she lived with her folks, there was no going to hers either. “I got nothing. Unless you guys want to get a hotel room out of town?” She blushed at the idea, which felt a lot like an invitation to a hookup. Let’s get a room.
“I have a boat,” Phoenix suggested.
Cee-Cee pumped a fist in the air. “Yes! Perfect! All in favor of seeing Phoenix’s boat, say aye!” She was surprised that he’d offer, but he had told her when he initially asked her out that he knew a place. Going out on his boat had probably been the idea all along. Smiling, she cut her eyes at him as she led them to her car. “Now, just what are we supposed to do to entertain ourselves on this boat of yours?”
“The sky’s the limit,” Phoenix replied. She watched him inhale as he buckled his seat belt. A peek in the rear view mirror showed Ashley’s smiling face, and she smiled back. They would see how this would go.
bout forty minutes
later the three of them unloaded out of Cee-Cee’s cramped car at the marina two towns away. Boat was an understatement. He had a 40-foot yacht named the Lucy Pearl. It had belonged to his father and was named after his mother. Usually Phoenix only went out on the lake by himself. Today he would make an exception.
Cee-Cee nodded in appreciation at the sun making a scatter of silver dazzles on the blue water as Phoenix checked with Ashley to see if he could help cast off. She disappeared off on the main deck and leaned against the safety rail, staring at the deep blue water of the enormous lake. “Now, this I could get used to.” She called out, “Alright, you guys go do whatever it is you’re here to do. I’m going to sunbathe. I don’t suppose you need a lookout if we’re floating out in the middle of the lake.”
“Nope,” Phoenix responded. “This is about the three of us, right? That means we’re all in this together.” She wasn’t averse to the notion, and in fact it was refreshing to see the mayor smiling and looking relaxed as the breeze ruffled his brown hair and sunlight glinted off his dark brown eyes.
The engine of the yacht purred unobtrusively as Phoenix sailed them out to the middle of the lake, and the further from the shore they got, the more comfortable he became. There were a few other boats out, but none close to them; this was the less-populated end of the lake. He smiled at Ashley entertaining Cee-Cee on the main deck beyond the control room. The singer had found the remote to the sound system and cued up something with a funky beat and nice lyrics. He was dancing around her while she giggled at something he was saying.
Phoenix, bobbing his head to the music as he scanned the horizon, couldn’t wait to join them. The shoreline had become a thin black line. As far as the naked eye could see there was nothing but rippling blue lake and deep blue sky. Ashley ran over and pressed his face to the glass window of the control room. “Get your arse out here,” he yelled. Phoenix chuckled.
He killed the engine to let them float. They were about mid-lake. No one could spy on them here. He could finally let his guard down and get to know this man who had plagued his thoughts for days.
Phoenix stepped from the control room and descended the ladder to the main deck where the kitchenette and a seating area were enclosed by three walls. “Enough kidding around. Time to get adult about things. So, come pick your poison. I’ll mix you a drink,” Phoenix murmured, moving over to the L-shaped countertop that formed a bar. Ashley leaned against the marble and smiled at him in a way that made Phoenix’s heart skip a beat. He wasn’t used to things being so open.
Ashley responded with a flirtatious gambit. “Do you shake or do you stir?”
“Lame!” Cee-Cee joked. She nudged Ashley out of the way to take a barstool and hopped up on the seat. “What’cha got, bartender?”
“How about a cosmopolitan?” Phoenix grabbed the heavy glass tumblers, dug ice out of the mini fridge and reached for his tools to mix up some sharp zingers. He fixed Cee-Cee a cosmo. Ashley asked for a whiskey, and he obliged. He made himself one as well and rested his hip against the kitchen sink across from the bar. “You guys having fun yet?”
“This is nice. I’ve always wanted a yacht so I could cruise above the plebes. You’re like a silver spoon kid, right, Phoenix? Help me remember,” said Cee-Cee. She giggled and Phoenix snorted in disbelief. Ashley tossed back the whiskey and asked for another.
Phoenix began to the pour the drink, taking a pause before answering. “I wouldn’t say I grew up with a silver spoon. My mom owned a lumberyard when I was growing up. We were comfortable but not wealthy. As for the yacht, my dad bought this thing for a steal back when I was a kid. Thanks to him being a regular sack of shit in the end, when my parents split, Mom got everything, including this bad boy, and she gave it to me. It’s ancient as hell, but I keep up with the upkeep, and it hasn’t failed me yet. Knock on wood.” He rapped the countertop.
“Nice bit of Americana,” said Ashley. “I’m starting to realize it’s not so different here. My dad used to take me out sailing, too. Taught me how to surf. Being on the water is giving me a bout of homesickness, but this is a good break from tour buses and hotel rooms. So, cheers for bringing us out here, mate.”
“Cheers! You lucky bastards.” Cee-Cee dug a toothpick out of the dispenser and came around to Phoenix’s side of the bar. “Got any cherries?” He reached into the mini fridge and brought out a jar of maraschinos. “Perfect,” she said, spearing two. “Well, my dad is a professor, and my mom is a seamstress. There were no summers on the lake for me unless you count that one year they had the terrible idea to send my sister and me off to summer camp. What a joke.”
“Hmm, you’ve got a sister. I didn’t know that. Is she as sexy as you?” asked Phoenix with a grin. She threw a cherry at him, and he caught it, laughing. “What?” Phoenix popped it into his mouth and chewed.
“Yeah, she’s two years younger than me. We were close growing up, and then we grew apart. It was my fault, I know. I was too hard on her, but now I’m trying to turn that around.”
“Sibling rivalry?” Phoenix asked.
“Nope. We just didn’t see eye to eye on some of the fundamentals. She’s…a romantic. She met the so-called love of her life at seventeen, and it was all so sweet until shit got real. Josh got her pregnant and dumped her. Even though being ditched by a loser wasn’t Josey’s fault, I felt like she had thrown her life away, and I vowed I’d never do anything like that. I guess that’s why I’m so career-focused. I learned my lesson by proxy.”
“Wowzer,” Phoenix muttered.
Ashley shrugged. “Shit happens. I think Baby Joe more than makes up for his father’s failings. He’s a wonderful addition to the family. I’m an only child, myself, although I had a mate who was like a brother to me. His name’s Tam. We keep in touch, but we sort of grew apart with age, too. Just different lifestyles. He’s a little rough around the edges, and I’m straight-laced. What about you, Phoenix? You have any siblings?”
Phoenix looked down at his boat shoes, thinking of Sally, his father’s mistake. “Younger half-sister,” he muttered. “We weren’t raised together. She’s an outside kid.” Ashley’s brow furrowed. “Dad cheated on my mom.”
“Ah,” Ashley shook his head regrettably. “Well, aren’t you two just a barrel of joy and positivity! What happened to coming out here to chill? Fuck the past. Let’s talk about the future.”
They moved the soiree out to the deck where Cee-Cee lounged in a chair and sunned and the men chatted amiably about successful male shit. The boat rocked gently on the swell of the water and the fresh breeze was both enlivening and soothing. She chimed in with her dreams. “I’m going to buy a house soon,” she said.
“I plan to stay in office another few years. After that, maybe travel the world for a while. Then settle down in a house,” Phoenix announced. “Right now, my condo is fine.”
“That’s great news. Now I know I’ll always have a place to stay when I come to America for my sold-out concert tours. Second thought, why don’t you two get a house together so I don’t have to choose? I’m terrible at choosing.”
“Eh, no. I’m much better alone,” Cee-Cee replied.
“Awww, you introvert. We got you out with us this time, and I bet we could do it again. You can’t resist the both of us,” Ashley opined.
Phoenix shook his head with a grin. He could very much picture living with the commitment- phobic social media guru. Cee-Cee would give him the space he wanted, but he had a hunch she’d also be there when he needed someone to lean on. Best idea ever, spontaneously inviting her out on that dinner date. She also looked great on his boat.
“Don’t get cocky, buster.”
“You two better remember me when I’m famous,” Ashley snickered. Cee-Cee giggled and flipped him off.
“There’s a higher likelihood of you forgetting us. We’re just ordinary people.”
“How could I ever forget you? You’re my first American friends.”
The conversation drifted off to other topics, mundane and philosophical. It was as if they were old college buddies, reconnecting after years apart. It occurred to Phoenix he had never had those sorts of friends. Was it possible to know very little about a person and still feel like you had known them all your life?