How to Not Fall for the Guy Next Door
Addison turned into the parking lot of Gateway Groceries in Quicksand, Oregon and pulled into a parking spot. Then she called her sister. As soon as she heard her sister’s concerned voice on the other end, Addison said, “I didn’t die.”
Chloe squealed. “So you’re home, then?”
Home. It felt weird to call Quicksand “home.” She had spent her summers from ages ten to thirteen here, but that hadn’t made it “home” any more than playing Barbie Dreamhouse meant she was married to Ken. Amarillo was home. Quicksand had always been temporary. An exciting game of dress-up. She wondered how long it would take before calling this place home wouldn’t seem weird.
“I’m in Quicksand, but not at the inn. The moving truck is forty-five minutes behind me, so I’m stopping at the grocery store.” Her stomach had been growling almost as loudly as the radio was playing, so getting food was essential.
“Oh, I’m so glad you made it safely.”
“I told you I could make it seventeen hundred miles across seven states on my own. See? You should leave the worrying to the older sister. I’m better at it anyway.”
She grabbed her purse and stepped out of her car as her sister laughed. The air was fresh here, like she could smell the trees and the soil. Both of which were wet from a recent rainstorm. The air itself felt wet from a recent rainstorm, actually. She wasn’t sure which was more plentiful—the trees with the moss-covered trunks or the blackberry bushes.
“Speaking of worrying, I still feel awful that I left a week before you move out of the freaking country. Do you need me to fly back to make sure you get off okay?” She shook out her legs before walking toward the building. Spending twenty-seven hours in the car, six of them this morning, was really doing a number on her muscles.
“Nope. Dustin and I have everything under control. You stay there.” Each word was a punch. A hammer on a nail to hold her tether firmly in Quicksand. “I didn’t make your website and ads for you to miss your first clients.”
“You’re so bossy.”
She could hear Chloe’s grin through the phone. “I learned from the best. Now, go grab that fresh start by the horns and show it who’s boss!”
“And then call me after the movers leave.”
Addison pushed the phone into her purse, took a deep breath, and walked through the automatic front doors of Gateway Grocery. Leaving the city she’d lived in her entire life, packing up everything she owned, and moving halfway across the country to a city where she knew exactly zero people was fine. She was fine. Everything would be fine.
Piece of cake.
As she wandered up and down the aisles, she realized she probably should’ve spent less time on the drive jamming out to the radio, playing the license plate game with herself, and trying to distract herself from thoughts of Matthew and her old job and her hometown and everything she was leaving behind, and more time coming up with a grocery list. She had no idea what kind of food was at the inn, if there was anything at all. For the past four years, her Aunt Helen hadn’t used the property as an inn—she lived there with her nurse like it was just a big house. And for the past three months since she passed away, no one had lived there at all.
So there could be things like spices, flour, sugar, coffee, and maybe even some food in the freezer. Or there could be nothing—she had no idea if anyone packed anything up at all. It was a mystery. And mysteries were fun, right? At least, that was what she was always trying to convince Matthew of. It would probably drive him nuts, all the not knowing. But things between them were over, so she was going to relish every mystery he would’ve hated.
It was probably best to forget shopping for staples and just get some fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe some soup she could easily warm up. With only a few things in her cart from her meandering trip through the store, she turned toward the produce aisle.
The deli faced the produce section, and as the older man behind the counter finished up with a customer, he turned his attention to her, studying her. Against his darker skin, his white eyebrows stood out, looking rather judgy as they came together over his curious eyes. At a population of ten thousand, Quicksand wasn’t exactly small-town-ish enough for everyone to know everyone. So she must have that I’m new here look about her, and he was trying to figure out if she was visiting or staying.
He had pretty keen eyes, though. Maybe he was seeing deeply enough to notice that under the surface, she had a panicked my life was recently planned out, perfect, and organized and is now a big mess of uncertainty and chaos look about her.
She just gave him a smile and shifted her eyes to the case, hoping he would do the same. Her stomach rumbled again. It had been too many hours since she’d grabbed that muffin and orange juice from her hotel back in Spokane. Maybe she should forget the microwaveable soup and go up to the man and get some fried chicken or a burrito or some potato wedges. It wasn’t really what her body was begging for, but she could at least eat it in the car on her way to the inn.
After she got produce. She turned away from the warm, fried foods and turned to the apples.
Before long, she had a cart full of enough fruits and vegetables of different colors that her Aunt Helen would’ve been proud. They said you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you were hungry. But maybe going when you were hungry after having just spent two and a half days in a car, eating nothing but junk food, was the absolute best time if you wanted a cart full of healthy stuff.
The fruit aisle had a few other shoppers in it, so she left her cart at the end of the aisle and started making her way down it. Blueberries! That’s what her body needed. She picked up a few of the plastic cases, inspecting them closely to find the ones that were the freshest. Two containers looked perfect enough that her mouth was already watering. Anxious to finish her shopping trip soon so she could ravenously eat at least one of the containers, she spun around toward her cart, and both containers of blueberries smacked right into a man’s firm chest.
Addison yelped and several nearby customers leapt back as the flimsy plastic containers burst open and blueberries flew out of them like soda from a shaken can, hitting the laminate floor with the softest pings, followed by the only slightly louder sound of the two containers following them to the floor.
“Oh no. I am so sorry.” She quickly brushed at the bluish-purple spots that a few of the more aggressive blueberries left on the man’s light blue t-shirt, as if a few swipes of her fingers would make the stains disappear.
“It’s okay.” The man gently moved her frantic hands away from his shirt. Probably because he was a little uncomfortable with her hands all over his chest. “It’s not a big deal. Really. I never even liked this shirt.”
The man’s voice was deep and rumbly, like summer thunder on the beach. Face burning, she finally looked up to meet his eyes and blushed at seeing that his face was even nicer than his considerably nice chest. And his incredibly beautiful blue eyes, which were definitely looking like his shirt should get a medal for what they did for them, weren’t angry or irritated or frustrated—they seemed amused.
Amused was good. It wasn’t good good, but on a scale of one to thoroughly embarrassed at the grocery store, she’d take being the source of someone’s amusement over being the source of someone’s anger.
“Cleanup in produce,” sounded over the intercom and Addison looked over at the very unimpressed man in the deli, who now had one white eyebrow raised in an I knew you’d be trouble arc.
She forced herself to breathe. Then she cleared her throat and crouched down to pick up one of the fallen plastic containers, and then started putting blueberries back into it. The man crouched down, too, which put them in very close proximity, since they couldn’t exactly take a single step without squashing blueberries. It was several fast heartbeats before she stole another glance at him. She had been so distracted by the eyes before that she hadn’t noticed that beautifully strong jawline, or the way that, when relaxed and showing their natural state, the muscles of his face showed that they spent good portion of their time being happy.
And something about him looked familiar. She was about to ask him if they had met before, but then a gangly teenage boy came over to them with a broom and a dustpan and said that he’d finish cleaning up the mess. As she carefully tiptoed away from ground zero and to safety, she decided against asking him. She didn’t want to do anything else that might make her more memorable to anyone right now. And besides, she knew absolutely no one in this town, so she didn’t know him.
The man stepped to the edge of the fallen blueberries and reached across the strawberries and blackberries to grab her two more containers of blueberries. As he handed them to her, he said, “It looks like we both survived the great blueberry explosion. Congratulations.”
“You, too.” She put them into her cart. “But I am sorry that we didn’t all make it. If you would like me to say any words at the funeral of your shirt, let me know.”
He chuckled. “Are you just visiting?”
“Just moving in.” In a panic, she glanced at her watch. She had completely forgotten that she didn’t have all the time in the world. “I’ve got to run. I’m supposed to meet the moving truck at the inn in ten minutes.”
This time, when he gave his amused expression, she noticed the smile that went with it. A smile that could melt the snow on Mount Hood. “I’ll see you around, then.”
“And next time,” she called out as she hurried toward the checkouts, “I promise not to be armed with blueberries.”
It wasn’t until she was back in her car and trying to somehow magically get to the inn more quickly—without speeding—that the embarrassment hit her again. She hadn’t even been in her new city for more than thirty minutes before making a fool of herself. It wasn’t exactly the stellar start she’d been hoping for.
But embarrassing or not, she smiled when she thought back on that last minute or two. Those last few comments she made could probably be considered flirting. She had actually flirted with a very cute man, and she was pretty proud of herself. She and Matthew had been together for more than two years, and they had been long past their days of flirting with each other. And since their breakup, she had been mourning the loss of the future she thought she’d have with him, and hadn’t exactly felt like flirting. She wasn’t even sure she had remembered how to flirt.
Today felt like progress. She kind of wished Matthew had witnessed it.
Not that she was likely to see the man she inadvertently attacked with blueberries again. She thought back to her neighborhood grocery store in Amarillo. She went there for years, and rarely bumped into people she knew. It was good that she probably wouldn’t see him again. It was a nice bit of practice, just to know that one day she’d eventually want a relationship again even if she didn’t want one now, but she was glad he’d stay a stranger. She’d prefer a first interaction to not involve ruining a man’s shirt and then accidentally putting her hands on his chest.
Her face flushed again at the memory, so she forced herself to only pay attention to the road. She hadn’t stayed the summer at the inn with her aunt since she was eleven, but she’d been back for short visits enough times that she made the drive on autopilot while scarfing down a protein bar she’d grabbed at the checkout stand. Amarillo didn’t have the same tree-lined streets that Quicksand had, and there was something nice about driving in an area where the trees weren’t just along the streets, but seemed to crowd in everywhere, only willing to pull back a bit for the homes and businesses around.
Coming to this place as a kid seemed like a lifetime ago. So much so that during the two years they dated, she hadn’t told Matthew about it once. It felt weird to be in a place he knew nothing about. She wondered how he was doing back in his scheduled, predictable life, when hers was in such new territory.
Amazingly, she arrived at the inn before the moving truck. She pulled into one of the eight spots in the small parking lot on the side, leaving the curving driveway in front of the inn open for the moving truck. After unlocking the door, she walked back out to the edge of the road and stood next to the Hidden Inn sign so she could flag down the truck. The sign that had caused her stomach to leap in excitement as a girl now made her heart palpitate and her muscles twitch. She hadn’t been at the reading of Aunt Helen’s will, and she’d been unable to even form words when she first found out her aunt wanted her to have Hidden Inn. She added the inability to stand on her own two feet to the speechlessness once she found out her aunt said it was because “Addison will know what to do with it.”
Some of her favorite memories of childhood were of staying at the Inn, with her aunt treating her like she was an adult living in her own place, dreaming of the time when she’d be a strong, independent businesswoman in a power suit, living on her own.
She had never dreamed of one day running the inn. Not even for a teeny tiny second. Why her aunt thought she would know what to do with it was beyond her. Her parents were always absent when she was a kid, and they had moved to Florida when she and Chloe became adults. With their absence most of her life, Addison craved family. And running an inn where she always spent time with strangers didn’t sound appealing in the least. It wasn’t until Chloe had suggested that she run it as an apartment instead of as an inn that moving here had felt right.
But was it right? Could the girl who hadn’t ever lived more than five miles from the home where she grew up—and never more than two miles from her sister—make it in a new city by herself?
As she stood at the edge of the road, looking at the inn that she was now responsible for, she wasn’t so sure. Yes, the building was paid for, but she’d done the math, and for utilities, property taxes, taking care of the grounds, repairs, and a million other little costs that came to her one night at three a.m., she would need roommates in at least three of the five other rooms in the inn. Where was she going to find three roommates in a city where she knew zero people?
The speed of her heart rate multiplied as she saw the moving truck in the distance, lumbering its way toward her.
Then she remembered reading in a book once that the only difference between nervousness and excitement was breathing. If you held your breath, your body assumed you were nervous. If you breathed through it, it assumed excitement.
So she breathed. And as the truck neared and she waved and it turned into the curved drive of the inn, the excitement built.
And then the truck ran over one of the shrubs lining the driveway, squashing it completely flat. The driver rolled down the window and called toward her, “Sorry ‘bout that!”
Addison breathed. Only excitement here. Nothing else to see.
She directed the movers to the three rooms her furniture and boxes needed to go in—the kitchen that was filled with one big dining table and half a dozen breakfast tables, the gathering room that would be used as her family room, and her bedroom. The one Aunt Helen had saved for her every summer for four summers in a row, the one that still made her giddy as an adult every time she thought of it. Then she headed back outside to help bring in the boxes. She had made it exactly one step onto the wraparound porch before she froze, mid-step.
The man stood near the back of the moving truck wearing a dark gray shirt now, which was probably a smart choice if he was going to take a chance of being around her and a moving truck. And, surprisingly, his eyes looked even bluer than they had when he was wearing the blue shirt. Maybe it was just the Oregon sun working in his favor.
But what was he doing here? And how did he know that she was going to be here? The memory of smacking into him with the blueberries and sending them flying was admittedly a stronger memory than every little thing she might have said in her flustered state, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t given him an address or anything.
Her shock at seeing him must’ve lasted a fraction of a second too long, because that amused smile played on his face again. He walked up to the stairs and held out his hand, and she made herself remember how to use her legs again. She walked across the porch and down two steps, holding out her hand. He shook it and said, “Hi again. Neighbor.”
Neighbor? Her eyes flashed to the left—at the fancy wrought iron gate in the middle of a hedgerow that led to a neighbor’s house. And suddenly she realized why the guy had looked familiar.
No, no, no. She couldn’t be next door neighbors with a guy she had just embarrassed herself in front of at the grocery store. To a guy she had instantly been so attracted to when she was still getting over her ex. Not to Ian Kendrick, a guy who she’d had her very first crush on as an eleven-year-old.
“You’re looking good, Addi.”
“What’s it been? A dozen years?” He walked up the ramp of the moving truck, pausing to look back at what was surely a bewildered expression on her face.
“Thirteen. Did you recognize me at the grocery store?”
“Not until you said you had to meet the moving truck at the inn. Then I started piecing it together.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Ian stepped into the truck and emerged a moment later carrying one of her boxes, and shrugged. “I thought this would be more fun.”
She glanced at the box he was holding. In the upper left hand corner, nicely printed on a label, were the words “Label collection.” Maybe he hadn’t looked at her label. She really didn’t need the world to know that she collected labels. Or that half of the stuff filling the moving truck was empty organization containers of every size. She should just offer to take it from him before he noticed. She rushed down the stairs and toward the truck as he walked down the ramp with the box. Her foot caught on the rock border at the edge of the driveway and she lunged forward just as Ian stepped off the side of the ramp, knocking them into each other.
Which, honestly, wouldn’t have been awful if he hadn’t been holding the box. The pressure of both of them crushing into the cardboard box changed its shape just enough to pry the bottom flaps away from the packing tape, and the bottom opened, dumping all of her labels of every size and shape, along with half a dozen different types of label makers, all over the driveway, just as the movers stepped out of the house.
The moment seemed to freeze as both Addison and Ian looked down at the contents of the box. Then he looked up and met her eyes. “Do you always crush random containers between you and nearby men, or is it just me?”
Maybe she should just get into her trusty Camry and head back to Amarillo right now.