Authors: Helen Hoang
Four, five, six ...
If he tried, he’d probably be able to do a ridiculous number of them before his body gave, especially if he didn’t have the twenty-five-pound weight strapped to his waist.
Seven, eight, nine
Movement outside the window caught his eye, and he froze with his feet dangling over the ground. Esme was in his backyard, hair in a ponytail, wearing baggy floral-print pants— were those
?— and a white T-shirt with no goddamned bra underneath. Her breasts swayed seductively as she hacked a tree down with ... one of his Japanese kitchen knives.
His feet hit the carpet with a hard thud, and he was vaguely conscious of how lucky he was that he hadn’t injured himself with the weight hanging between his legs. Still, he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the window.
Oh hell, it was the meat cleaver. She was cutting down a tree with a meat cleaver. He doubted lumber work was one of the knife’s intended uses, but in the manner of most Japanese engineering, the knife exceeded expectations. And he could see her dark nipples through her sheer shirt.
He couldn’t be the only person who would find this utterly baffling. It was arousing and fascinating but scary, as she was weaponized, and also a little frustrating because she’d so grievously repurposed his fine cutlery.
He marched to the window, cranked it open, and asked, “Why are you cutting that tree down?” With a meat cleaver.
She pulled the cleaver out of the tree’s narrow trunk and smiled at him like all of this was perfectly normal. “I’m cleaning up a little.”
His lips worked without making a sound for a bit before he finally said, “You don’t have to.”
“I’m making the yard nicer. You’ll see.”
But he didn’t care what it looked like. No, that wasn’t right. He cared a little. Just enough so he derived perverse pleasure from irritating his neighbors with his dilapidated home exterior and lawn. He’d been about to start fixing things up, but the pint-sized old lady across the street, Ruthie, had sent him this letter, threatening to take him to civil court if he didn’t attempt to make his house fit in better with the neighborhood.
He’d do almost anything if someone asked nicely— case in point being his current predicament, in which a knife-wielding woman was cohabitating with him— but if they threatened him ... He and Ruthie were waging a silent battle, and he was going to demolish her. It didn’t matter that she was a hundred years old.
Esme gave the sapling one more solid whack, and the trunk split in two. The leafy top of the tree crashed to the ground, and she held the cleaver up proudly, saying, “I’m good with knives.”
He backed away from the window slowly.
What number had he been on? He had no idea, so he started back at the beginning.
One, two, three
Esme set the knife down and bent over to haul the fallen tree away, and her pants stretched over her ass in the most beguiling manner. It shouldn’t be sexy. He was absolutely certain those were Hammer pants now. But his cock didn’t care. It stiffened and pressed against his workout shorts.
He shook his head and pushed himself to focus. Mind over penis. Mind over penis. He could do it. Rule Number Six, dammit.
Four, five, six—
The tree must have snagged on something because she began tugging on it, and her perfect Hammer-pants-clad ass shook like in a Beyoncé music video. Khai stared at her, caught helplessly in the most confusing arousal of his life.
When the tree came free, she stumbled backward a few steps and then dragged it to the far side of the yard. She found a shovel from somewhere— he didn’t know where; he hadn’t known he owned a shovel— and returned to drive it into the earth at the base of the newly severed trunk. Her tits bounced, and sweat glistened on her reddened face before she swiped it away with the back of her arm.
It occurred to him that maybe he should be helping instead of watching her like landscaper pornography. You weren’t supposed to let women do any kind of manual labor. He might as well add that to the Rules. But he’d already told her she didn’t have to do this. If her hands longed to till the Silicon Valley soil, what right did he have to steal her joy? Besides, he was philosophically opposed, what with his feud with Ruthie and all.
He tore his eyes away and got back to his pull-ups. Focus. Mind over penis.
One, two, three—
She leaned over, making her pants stretch across her ass again, and a groan rumbled from his chest. After digging out a rock from the dirt and tossing it aside, she got back to shoveling.
One, two, three ...
ith every stab of shovel into dry earth, Esme’s determination grew. She’d woken up this morning with her new phone glued to her face and a blanket over her. He’d covered her in her sleep. It was a small thing to do, but the room had been cold. What if she’d gotten sick? It was a sign. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was perfect
. And Jade. She was going to do her best to marry him.
His name, Khải, meant
, but the way he said it, flat like that without the accent, it meant
. That was exactly what she needed to do. He was closed, and she had to open him. In her experience, when you wanted to open something, you cleaned it up first so you could see what you were dealing with, and then you worked on it really hard. Esme wasn’t great at a lot of things, but she was good at cleaning and working hard. She could do this. Maybe she’d been made for this.
She’d start by straightening Khải’s yard. Then she’d move on to his house. Last, his life. He’d said he wasn’t unhappy with anything, but that was a lie if she’d ever heard one. For whatever reason, he’d built a thick wall around himself. She was going to knock it down, just like she’d taken down that tree, and work her way into his heart.
With that in mind, she cleared the yard until the sun was high in the sky. Then she went inside to have lunch with him and seduce him subtly, or not so subtly.
But he was gone.
He’d abandoned her alone in this house without a word.
hen Khai’s alarm rang the next morning, he smacked it off, sat up, and stared blearily at his room. He’d spent his Sunday in the office to escape her, but then she’d invaded his dreams. He was lucky if he’d gotten three hours of sleep. Fantasies had plagued him all night. Sexual ones. Featuring a certain pair of Hammer pants.
He was officially losing his mind, and look at that monster wood. His dick was so hard it was lifting his heavy down comforter all on its own. He needed to take care of this, but how did you do that with another person on the other side of the door? What if she barged in halfway through? None of the locks worked in this house. It hadn’t mattered before now.
Walking with his dick pointing ahead like the needle on a compass, he went to the bathroom, turned on the light, and opened the drawer by the sink where he kept his toothbrush and toothpaste. They weren’t there. He yanked the drawer out all the way, but they didn’t roll out from the back. He knew he’d put them back last night. He always put them back.
Was he hallucinating? Was he in the middle of a nightmare? Or had some really weird person
his oral hygiene products? Why would anyone—
His toothbrush and toothpaste were laid out on the counter by the faucet next to a glass from the kitchen. What the hell?
Esme must have done this.
He picked up his toothbrush, squeezed toothpaste onto it, and crammed it in his mouth. As he brushed, he gazed at the bathroom. She must have gotten up at dawn, because there were new details everywhere. It hadn’t been like this last night. His Kleenex box had been rotated so the sides were no longer parallel to the walls, and the tissue sticking out of the box was folded into a neat triangle. The towels hanging on the racks had been rearranged so they were folded in thirds with a hand towel and washcloth on top. It looked okay, but how was that practical? Barely refraining from growling, he turned the Kleenex box back to the way it’d been before, sides parallel to the walls.
In the shower, he accidentally conditioned his hair before shampooing it because she’d switched the locations of the bottles, and he had to condition his hair a second time, which was thoroughly obnoxious. On the way out, he grabbed his bath towel and sent the smaller ones scattering to the ground. He leaned down to grab them and banged his head on the towel rack on his way up.
By the time he’d dressed and left his bedroom, he was out of sorts, harried for time, and possibly nursing a concussion. He strode into the kitchen, and the smell immediately enveloped him. Pungent. Seafoody. So strong it startled a cough out of him. Esme stood at the stove, splashing fish sauce into a boiling pot of soup as she distractedly wiped at a spill by the flames with a wet towel.
For a stunned moment, he forgot all about the burnt-fish-sauce fumes. She was wearing a T-shirt— and nothing else. Wow, those legs of hers ...
She beamed at him over her shoulder. “Hi, Anh Khải.”
Her chipperness jolted him out of his dazed state, and the heavy fish-sauce scent descended upon him all over again. So potent. Yeah, it made things taste good, but who wanted to smell this all day? And his name, she kept saying it that way.
She sent him a puzzled look as he opened all the windows and the sliding glass door to the backyard and turned on the exhaust hood over the stove as well.
“Airing out the smell,” he explained.
He blinked once, twice. She didn’t notice? It was everywhere. He imagined it was soaking into the paint on the walls at this very moment. “The fish sauce?” He pointed to the tall bottle in her hand with a squid on the label.
“Oh!” She set it down on the counter and awkwardly wiped her hands on the wet dish towel. After a tense moment, she whirled past him to open the cupboard next to him. “I made coffee already.” She stretched onto her tiptoes to grab the mug from the middle shelf, and the hem of her shirt snuck upward, revealing the perfectly alluring cheeks of her ass and her white underwear.
His dick dug at his fly, reminding him he’d skipped an important part of his morning routine two days in a row now. After the landscaping incident yesterday, it made a strange sort of sense that Esme could cause him to have a concussion, an overwhelmed sense of smell, and blue balls at the same time. The wide neckline of her shirt slipped to the side and revealed one of her graceful shoulders, and he drew in a slow, fish-sauce-laden breath. Blue and getting bluer.
She snatched a mug down, poured coffee in, and held it out, smiling at him over the rim, green eyes sparkling. Sexy sleep-tousled dark brown hair with a widow’s peak crowned a heart-shaped face. “For you.”
He accepted the mug and took a sip.
“Good?” she asked.
He nodded, but he actually had no idea what it tasted like. His senses were overloaded. By the burning fish sauce. And her. Seafoam, he decided. Not the flavor of the coffee, but the shade of her eyes. Seafoam green.
Her smile widened, but after a moment she grew flustered and tucked the hair behind her ear. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“So long like that,” she said.
“Oh.” He made himself look away and took another drink of coffee to give himself something to do. He still didn’t taste it. “I forget it makes people uncomfortable sometimes.” He didn’t have whatever sense it was most people possessed that told them when the eye contact was enough, so if he wasn’t paying attention he easily looked too long— or not at all. He cleared his throat. “I’ll try to do better.”
She looked like she was going to say something, but she spun around and busied herself ladling soup into a bowl of thick rice noodles, which his mom had made by hand—
— with scallions, dry fried onions, shrimp, and thin strips of pork. Once she finished, she carried the bowl to the kitchen table and set it down next to a plate of sliced mango and other assorted fruits. Pulling out a chair, she said, “For you.”
He approached the table and stared down at the food. “I don’t eat fruit.” And it was a workday. The routine was: inhale protein bar, drink a cup of water, run to work, shower in the work locker room, change, and be in his office in less than an hour. But today he had to drive Esme to the restaurant first, and now there was all this food someone had to eat. To top it all off, he really loathed being waited upon.
He had to deal with this for three more months. Three whole months of her in his life, folding his Kleenex and causing blue balls, confusion, concussions, and ... fruit.
“Fruit is good for you,” she insisted.
“I take a multivitamin.”
“Fruit is better than a vitamin.”
He shook his head and sat down when all he wanted to do was run out the door and get his day started. He should win an award for demonstrating this amount of self-control. A sainthood. Even better, a
Sir Khai, CPA.
She took the chair across from him and put a cup of water on the table even though there was another one sitting on the counter, but instead of sitting in a regular fashion, she curled one leg underneath herself and hugged the other to her chest, waiting.