Copyright 2011 Nina Cordoba

This is a copyrighted work:

With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the author at www.ninacordoba.com.

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

This book is a work of fiction and the resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.


 

Don’t Make Me Make You Brownies

By Nina Cordoba


 

 

To women and their choices.


 

CHAPTER ONE

Getting Sucked

Strangely enough, it all started with Stew and the strippers. Abbie should have known something had to give when she came back from taping a segment and found herself tiptoeing by his office, shoes in hand.

Abbie Greenwood, global crusader—though some might call her an L.A. news reporter—was not known for tiptoeing. She was more the barnstormer type. But every time the ratings came in, Stew wanted to have one of those talks, which meant she was in even more danger than usual of “losing it” and quitting her job on the spot.

She made it to the editing room without incident, pushed the tape in and turned on the monitor. Mrs. Sherman’s hands shook as she told the story of the men, claiming to be contractors, who’d cheated her out of her life savings. Tears crept down her pale, crinkled cheeks and dripped onto the Sunday clothes she’d insisted on changing into for the interview. A picture of her late husband in his military uniform was clearly visible on the antique table behind the couch.

Abbie felt for the half-used tissue in her pocket and dabbed at her eyes.

The camera zoomed in on a tight close-up—the first thing Zack had done right in four days—as Mrs. Sherman cried, “Why would they do something like this? It was all the money I had in the world. I can’t start over. I’m too old to start over!”

Abbie sobbed, then checked over her shoulder to make sure she was still alone. Those conned-senior-citizen interviews always broke her heart, but her jaded co-workers found this little chink in her armor hilarious.

When she finished editing, she walked back to her office, still teary-eyed, but pretty satisfied with the job she’d done.

“Abbie?”

Damn! Stew was waiting for her.

“Have you been crying again? What is it this time? Did another poor family get turned away at the hospital?” He was mocking her, as usual. “Pet stores selling sick puppies to unsuspecting dog lovers? No? Then it’s gotta be old people. Bingo! I know you so well.”

Abbie sniffled and looked around for a box of tissues. Stew always showed up at the most inopportune times, but she decided she might as well get it over with.

She morphed back into her tough-girl façade. “Why are you here, Stew?”

He whipped a piece of paper out of his pocket like he was performing a magic trick. “I have the ratings for May sweeps.”

“And?”

“They’re great, but the guys upstairs think they can be better.”

She sat down at her desk and took in a deep breath, trying to muster some patience. “And, I guess they have some ‘notes’ for me.” I won’t let him get to me this time. I won’t let him get to me this time. I won’t let—

“Well, next sweeps, they want you to do something a little jazzier.”

“Keeping in mind I’m a consumer advocate, what is it they want?"

Stew picked up the “Reporter of the Year Award” she’d gotten from the Good Samaritan Club. Although he had that tall, dark-ish and handsome-ish thing going on, even those expensive Italian suits couldn’t keep him from wearing on her last nerve, lately. Armani was no match for Stew. His smarminess could soak through a hazmat suit.

I won’t let him get to me this time.

“Well, you’ve been doing all this stuff about senior citizens recently,” he said. “And that’s great. You know, heart wrenching.”

“If you had a heart, you mean.”

“Yeah, if I did. Anyway, it’s not sexy enough.” He was tossing her ceramic egg from the Asian-American Association back and forth in his hands, apparently off his meds again.

“I take the stories as they come up, Stew—and put my egg down.”

“Sure, but um…they asked if, next time during sweeps, you could maybe do something involving strip clubs.”

“Strip clubs? Like, stripper strip clubs?”

“Yeah.”

She couldn’t believe she was hearing this, even from Stew. “Who cares if some guy is upset because he paid twenty bucks for a lap dance and didn’t get his rocks off?”

“See, you’re coming up with angles already. Besides, nobody does care, but they’ll watch.”

This was going too far. Time to draw a line in the sand. “No way. I won’t prostitute myself for your damn ratings.”

“The ratings pay your exorbitant salary. And the guys upstairs said, if you want to keep doing your touchy-feely thing, you need to sprinkle in a little of the nasty.”

The nasty?

That famous Abbie Greenwood temper rose up in her gut. She sat forward in her leather desk chair and pointed her Sharpie menacingly at Stew. “I told you when you hired me I didn’t take this job to be on television.”

“You wanted to make a difference, yada, yada, yada…” Stew’s head wobbled side-to-side like a bobble head. “I figured you’d assimilate like everybody else.”

A sick feeling swept over her. She hadn’t, and wouldn’t tell Stew, but a couple of times lately she’d found herself worrying about ratings, and what the guys upstairs were thinking. Plus, she’d started going to day spas and buying coffee from Starbucks—like everyone else did at the station—but the money could have gone to much worthier causes.

Was she really doing what she’d set out to do in this job? Certainly, she was helping people. Sometimes they got back what was rightfully theirs, or the public was warned about scams and unscrupulous businesses. She’d even gotten local hospitals to perform operations on needy kids. But everything in the news business was so quick and dirty. You’re in. You’re out. “Wham bam thank you ma’am,” as Aunt GiGi used to say.

Sometimes she felt like she was preying on the misfortunes of others. It wasn’t as if she hung around long to make sure their lives got better, and she wasn’t working on the kinds of global issues that had always been important to her. She’d started to feel as though she was scrambling around after stories, like the other reporters she worked with, who seemed more interested in how their faces looked on television than the death and destruction behind them. It was easy to become cynical, especially if you were required to work strippers into your stories.

She suddenly wondered if she’d begun sacrificing her principals in order to keep her TV job. And, if so, what would she find herself doing in six months?

Local prostitutes taking money from elderly Johns and fleeing before their Bermuda shorts hit the floor. Film at 11:00.

That’s when it became clear. If she didn’t take a break and get some perspective, the television news business would suck out her soul, just like the Chupacabra. Okay, the Chupacabra was supposed to suck blood from goats, but the principle was the same.

She glanced over at her screen saver—an artist’s rendering of the Chupacabra her friend Kristin had sent her the last time Abbie had compared her job to the Chupa.

She looked back at Stew. Why hadn’t she noticed the resemblance before? Something in his heartless black stare…

Yes, she had to get away and she needed a quiet place far from L.A. to think things through. She had a ton of vacation time coming. She’d go see her parents. No, bad idea. Last time she went for the weekend, she’d ended up pulling weeds from between their organic vegetables and canning fruit.

Then she remembered the voicemail message that morning from her sister Joanie. Something about dog-sitting for her so she could go to Brazil with Bryan for his job.

Yes! Joanie’s quiet house in the suburbs was the ideal place to get away from it all. It made perfect sense. Abbie’s only sibling needed her help, and she needed to contemplate her mission in life. Plus, if ratings went down, it might be a good lesson for Stew and the guys upstairs.

“Stew, I’m going on vacation,” she said. “I want all the time I’ve saved up.”

Stew looked like she’d smacked him. Then, he turned all sweet and mushy. “Come on, Abbie. We can work something out. You don’t have to go AWOL.”

“It’s an ideal time for me to take off. Sweeps are over and Mindy’s been working on that series about counterfeit pharmaceuticals. You can slide her into my spot while I’m gone.”

“You can’t go.”

“You’re denying me my hard-earned time off, promised to me in my contract?” She picked up the phone and started pretend-dialing.

“Who are you calling?”

“My lawyer.”

“You don’t have your lawyer’s number memorized,” Stew said. “You hate him. You hate all lawyers.”

“Not all, just the bloodsuckers. Anyway, my sister needs me in Houston. I’m taking six weeks.”

“At one time?”

“I haven’t taken a day in three years.” She slammed the phone down for effect. “It’s cumulative. Two weeks times three years equals six weeks. You guys shouldn’t have signed off on the contract if you didn’t want me to have it.”

“We were using it as a bargaining chip. We thought you were too big a workaholic to actually take it.”

“I’m not a workaholic, I’m actually a—”

Stew waved his hands around in front of him. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it. I’m just saying, six weeks is a long time in the news business. It’s not smart to let everyone know you’re not indispensable. Why don’t we make it a working vacation? I’ve heard rumors of a corporate scandal in Houston.”

Abbie rolled her eyes. Stew had been obsessed with Houston ever since he’d lost twenty thousand on Enron. “That wouldn’t be a vacation, Stew, and if I turn out to be ‘dispensible’ here, I’ll go to KUBV and become indispensable over there. It’s not like I haven’t had offers. Besides, I’m not addicted to this business like the rest of you guys. I’m in it to help people. Oh, and I don’t want Zack when I come back.”

“Now you have a problem with the cameraman?”

“He’s fallen asleep three times in the week he’s worked here.”

“Well, sometimes it’s a little boring around the off—”

“While operating the camera.”

“Oh.”

Abbie felt better already. Alone time with Joanie’s sweet mutts would give her the perspective she needed, clear her head of Stew’s voice, and unscrew the screwed-up priorities she’d been immersed in for three years. Not to mention give Stew time to pawn the station manager’s sleepy nephew-slash-cameraman off on some other reporter.

For a second, she thought she’d won, but a wicked gleam appeared in Stew’s eyes. “You know, they’re gonna’ luhv you in suburban Houston. A liberal vegetarian from L.A. Isn’t Texas, like, the capital punishment capital of the world?”

“I’ll try not to kill anyone while I’m down there,” Abbie said, not wanting him to see she was already doubting her decision.

“And, a few years ago, Houston was named the fattest city in America. How do you think it got that way?” He threw out his hands like he was singing the final line of a show tune. “They barbecue every weekend!”

She propped her shoeless feet on her desk and leaned back in her chair as if unimpressed. “You’re not going to talk me out of this.”

“Okay, but whatever you do, don’t let them see your ACLU card. You won’t be able to control yourself. I know you.”

She grabbed the phone and swiveled away from him before he could change her mind. Her sister answered on the second ring.

“Joanie? I’ve decided to do it.” From of the corner of her eye, Abbie watched Stew slither out of her office.

“Nooo. Seriously? You’re taking six weeks off from work? I can’t believe it.”

“You know, I’m not some corporate workaholic, Joanie. I’m a free spirit at heart. A rolling stone, go with the flow—” Abbie could hear her sister snickering on the other end of the phone. So annoying. “What?”

“I didn’t say anything. Call me back with your flight plans, and I’ll pick you up at the airport. And thanks, Ab. You’re the best. I’m going to call Bryan right now and tell him.”

~

By Thursday evening, Abbie was sooo ready to get out of town. The more she’d thought about it, the more convinced she was that she was doing the right thing. She would tie up a few loose ends the next day, and it would be hasta la vista to suck-up Stew and the guys upstairs.

Everything was packed, except for a few items she needed in the morning. She zipped up her suitcases and rolled them to the living room.

The doorbell startled her out of her thoughts. She walked to the door and peered through the peephole. Stew? Why was he here? After giving it a second thought, she opened the door.

“Gee, you look hot,” Stew said sarcastically, eyeing her oversized Sierra Club T-shirt and faded pajama pants. Of course, he looked like he’d stepped off the catwalk in his silky green shirt and cream pleated ‘trousers,’ as he called them.

“I wasn’t expecting company.”

“Well, I thought I’d give you a little going away party. May I come in?”

She opened her mouth to say, “no,” but he jumped in and added, “I brought your favorite champagne.” He drew a bottle from behind his back.

“I don’t have a favorite champagne.”

“Oh, then, I guess I brought my favorite champagne.” He went straight to the kitchen, found the corkscrew and had it in the bottle by the time Abbie shuffled in. How’d he do that? She didn’t even know where her corkscrew was.

“Stew, this isn’t a good idea.”

“But I already have it open,” he pouted. “No sense in wasting it.”

~

Several glasses of champagne later, Stew didn’t look so bad. Abbie sat with him on the couch and remembered how hunky he’d seemed when she’d first met him, but that was before she’d slept with him.

Hmmm… What had bugged her so much the night they were together?

Stew interrupted her fuzzy thoughts by leaning over and putting his lips on her neck. Her body reacted, reminding her that it had been a long time since it had experienced any pleasurable sensations whatsoever. When Stew moved up and started kissing her on the mouth, she opened her eyes and stared at his extreme close-up.

She really didn’t want to do this with Stew, did she? But his hand moved up under her big shirt, his thumb circling around on a nipple.

Ohhhh… Maybe she could close her eyes and pretend he was someone else.

She remembered his shoulders looked a little like Orlando Bloom’s when he was naked. She could focus on them and just do it. Because it had been a really long time. She opened her eyes again.

Still Stew.

Her pajama pants slid off as he worked his way down her stomach, and a little further down near her bikinis…

Yes! That alone would be worth the humiliation of having to tell her friend Kristin she’d done it with Stew again. But, he kept going lower. Maybe he would start with the thighs. A little tease. Thighs were nice.

Her fuzzy slipper socks came off. She looked down in time to see Stew running his tongue up the sole of her foot.

Ew. Her mind cleared, and she had a sickening brain-flash of the toe-sucking and foot-licking that went on last time. She was so not into that.

Stew suddenly seemed to be trying to swallow her entire foot, toes first.

“No, Stew!” She yanked it away and jumped up off the couch, searching around for her pants.

“Why not?” He said, grabbing her pants from the arm of the couch.

“I’m a lesbian.”

“Since when?”

She snatched her pajama bottoms from his hand. “Since about two minutes ago. Get out.” She pointed at the front door.

Luckily, Stew’s clothes were still on. He shrugged and made for the exit. Abbie locked up and limped to the shower on her wet foot, where she washed away the Stew ick and swore off alcohol, forever.

When she got out of the shower, her phone was ringing. It was her best friend Kristin. “Hey, Abbie, how’s it hangin’?”

“Not great. It would be a lot better if you were still here.”

“I know,” Kristin said sadly. “I miss you, too.”

“How’s Chicago?”

“Okay, I guess, for not being in California. What’s going on over there?”

Since she hadn’t actually done it with Stew, she didn’t feel required to mention his visit. “Stew’s still driving me crazy, I haven’t been seeing anyone, and my two best friends left me the same week, but other than that—”

“Abbie, Charlie died, and I got fired. Nobody left you on purpose.”

Abbie’s chest squeezed at the mention of Charlie. She’d gotten him at the pound when she was sixteen and he’d been her loyal companion for ten years. “I know, but without you here, going to that job every day sucks.” And coming home to an empty apartment sucked even worse.

“You need to make more friends, and get a boyfriend,” Kristin said. “You have a great sense of humor and a nice body, not to mention that hair everyone’s always talking about.”

“You want me, don’t you?”

Kristin laughed. “See, that’s what I mean. People would want to hang out with you, if you’d only—”

“Lighten up, and quit arguing with everyone, and get out more,” Abbie finished for her, as she adjusted the towel she had wrapped around her head.

“You’d have a lot more friends.”

“I never wanted a lot of friends. Only one loyal friend who wouldn’t take off on me just to save herself from starvation. Anyway, I’m getting away for a few weeks. Do you still have my sister Joanie’s number?”

“Yeah, that’s great you’re finally taking the time off you’re always talking about.” Kristin said. “Why don’t you see if you can manage to date a little while you’re down there? You know, get your feet wet again. It’s weird how you’ve hardly gone out with anyone since Stew. I don’t see how he could make such a difference one way or the other.”

“It wasn’t him,” Abbie replied. “He was more like the final straw. My love life started out mediocre at sixteen and went downhill from there. The night with Stew was the all-time low.” And I almost repeated it a few minutes ago. Jeez, I’m hard-up.

“And that’s when you threw yourself into your work like a virgin sacrificing herself into a volcano.”

Abbie laughed. “When did you become so dramatic?”

“Without you around I have to create my own drama.”

“I’d rather you pine for me.”

“You don’t need me pining for you. What you need is a fling with one of those big Texas cowboys. Why don’t you see if you can manage to do a little bull riding while you’re down there in Houston,” Kristin replied.

“Yeah, don’t hold your breath.”


 

CHAPTER TWO

Escaping the Chupacabra

“Thanks for doing this, Ab,” Joanie said, as she slowed through the EZ-Tag lane of the tollway. “It’s such a great opportunity. Bryan’s company is actually sending him to Rio for business. I’ve always wanted to go to Rio, and they’re even paying for my plane ticket. And the company has a great apartment for us to stay in.”

Abbie couldn’t remember Joanie ever mentioning wanting to go to Rio, but then, who didn’t want to go to Rio? Besides, Joanie and Bryan were practically inseparable. Joanie wouldn’t want to be apart from her husband for that long, wherever he went.

At the airport, Abbie had noticed Joanie’s honey-blonde hair was cut shorter than usual, above her shoulders. At twenty-eight, she was only two years older than Abbie, but the hair seemed to add another five. Abbie thought she was starting to look like a soccer mom. The idea of it scratched the surface of her baby phobia, so she glanced around outside, looking for a distraction.

“What’s with all the trucks?” she asked, as they neared Joanie’s neighborhood.

“That’s the same thing you said at Christmas,” Joanie replied.

“But, I mean, everybody here has one. There’s at least one truck or SUV parked at every house and, like, two-thirds of them have two.” She thrust her hand in front of Joanie’s face, pointing out the driver’s side window. “Look, those people have four! Jeez, what do they get? Five miles to the gallon? What a waste of natural resources.”

“They have trucks and SUVs in California, too, Abbie. Besides, this is Texas. It’s a tradition here. The truck replaced the horse.”

“What a crock!” Abbie pointed at her sister accusingly. “They’ve gotten to you, haven’t they? Oh, my God! Bryan got that truck he wanted! Tell me it isn’t true.”

“I’ll tell you, but…”

Et tu Joanie? Abbie put her forehead in her hand and shook her head into it. “If you can’t even convert your own husband—what’s happened to you?”

“There’s more than one way to think about things, Abbie. Life isn’t as black and white as you always make it out to be. I really think you should try not to be so extreme about everything and not judge people so quickly.”

“Are you saying I’m a judgmental extremist?”

Joanie winced and gave a little shrug. Ouch. From anyone else Abbie could have blown the comment off, but from Joanie? Abbie was speechless.

“It’s not your fault, Abbie. You know how it was on the commune.”

“The commune” was what they called their parents’ farm, since there were always old hippie-activist-intellectual types there visiting, or “crashing” as they called it.

“But you really think I’m judgmental? How come you’re just telling me this now?”

“Because Abbie, for your job, it’s kind of a good thing. You’re a crusader. You help people.”

“But?”

“But, I’m afraid it’s not such a good thing for your personal life. I’m afraid the right guy will come along and say one wrong thing and be nixed before you even get a chance to know him. I don’t like to think of you so alone.”

Abbie couldn’t breathe for a moment. She was alone. Not in the world, really. She had her parents and Joanie and Kristin. But in her daily life, she was alone. She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Work. She still had her work, if she wanted it, and it was important work, even if it wasn’t exactly what she’d planned when she took the job. And certainly she wasn’t judgmental. Her sister hadn’t really spent that much time around her in years or she would know that.

Joanie must have decided it was time to drop the subject. “Oh, did I tell you? Bryan and I are trying.”

“Trying what?”

“To have a baby.” Joanie said it like it should be obvious.

A chill leapfrogged down Abbie’s spine. She glanced over at Joanie, who had always been the greatest big sister in the world. She didn’t care much what other people thought of her, but she never wanted to be a disappointment to Joanie.

She composed herself by looking out the car window at the tall pine trees which grew all over the northwest suburbs of Houston. Too many shockers in one car trip.

“A buh—wow, that’s…uh, great, Jo.” She couldn’t get the word out, but she’d almost managed to sound enthusiastic. The whole pregnancy process had always seemed bizarre to her, and she never got that “ooh, ahhh” feeling other women seemed to experience when they saw a baby. She was convinced she had no maternal instincts, whatsoever. But Joanie did. “You’ll be a great mom,” Abbie said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be happy about it.”

“I’m happy if you’re happy. You’re my favorite sister.”

“For lack of any other choices. But, you’re my favorite sister, too.”

Abbie suddenly realized how much she missed Joanie. She wondered why she didn’t come see her more often. Even though they “talked” on the Internet all the time, she wished she wasn’t leaving tomorrow.

“Oh, I’ve been so busy thinking about this trip, something slipped my mind,” Joanie said. “I promised the homeowner’s association I’d take over writing this monthly column for the neighborhood newsletter, but with everything happening so fast, I haven’t had time to do it. Can you write two of them for me?” One thing the Greenwood sisters had in common was their excellent language arts aptitude.

“Sure. What about?”

“There’s a stack of the ones other people have written in the file on the desk, so you can get an idea,” Joanie said. “It’s no big deal. You’re creative. You’ll think of something—oh, and I know how hyper you get, so if you’re bored, they always need volunteers at Cypress Assistance League. In fact, my English as a Second Language class could use a teacher while I’m gone. The phone number is in the Rolodex.”

“That sounds great. I’m really not that hyper, though. Just busy.”

“Yeah, whatever you say, Ab.”

~

The next morning, Abbie was enjoying a leisurely walk with Buffy and Max, the adorable rescued mutts her sister and brother-in-law had adopted.

Joanie had managed to find the perfect neighborhood to fit her personality—a small, homey subdivision with one and two-story houses made mostly from dark earthy colored brick, and pine trees everywhere. With the exception of the two roads that led out to a main road, the streets circled around so you always ended up in the same place you started. It was cozy, like her sister.

Joanie and Bryan hadn’t let her drive them to the airport at six o’clock that morning, since the company was paying for covered parking. Abbie wondered if Bryan was afraid to leave his truck alone with her. Regardless, she was relieved to have the monstrosity out of the garage.

Sweet Bryan was the kind of guy anyone would want in the family, so easy-going, even Abbie couldn’t get into an argument with him. She knew they didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but with Bryan it didn’t seem to matter. Regardless of how extreme her comments were, he would nod and act as if he was considering changing his views on the subject.

Maybe she needed a guy like that. He’d certainly been great for her sister, since Joanie was a worrier and a pleaser at heart.

“Abbie?”

The voice jarred her out of her daydreams. Who could be calling her name here? She turned and saw two thirty-something women, one brunette, and one Anna-Nicole blonde, coming from behind her.

“You’re Joanie’s sister, Abbie, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Terry,” the dark-haired one said. We met when you were here at Christmas, and this is Kim.” She gestured toward her companion, who had her hair pulled back in a high ponytail.

“I remember,” Abbie said. “And I hear about you guys all the time. Joanie mentions you in her e-mails.”

Kim put her hand to her chest and feigned an innocent expression. “All good, I hope.” They laughed.

“The three of us walk the neighborhood every day at 9:00, except Sunday, so if you want to go with us…” Terry pointed a few houses away, across the street. “We live right there. I’m in that house with the black Range Rover.”

“And I’m in the one next door to it with the Blue Cherokee.”

They actually identified their homes by the trucks out front? Had they no shame?

But the two of them seemed so nice. For once, Abbie tried to remember to use the “catch more flies with honey” philosophy Joanie lived by.

They were rounding the corner near her temporary home. “Do you go around again?” she asked.

“We usually make the loop at least three times because the neighborhood is small, but Joanie puts the dogs in after the first lap since they start panting for water.”

Abbie looked down and saw good ol’ Max peering up at her expectantly while his tongue practically dragged the ground. “I see what you mean. Max is getting on up there in years.” Tears tried to push their way through as she thought of Charlie. “I’ll run them in and be right back.”

When Abbie came out of the house a few moments later, the two women were chatting in the driveway. She started to walk toward them until—

Bam! There was a movement across the street and her eyes were transfixed on what could only be described as…a man.

Not just any man. A man’s man, manly, man—complete with broad shoulders and muscles glistening in the sun as his hot Houston sweat trickled over them. She stopped and watched him push a quiet lawnmower onto the driveway. He reached down to pick up a pair of hedge clippers, and she was treated to the sight of his tight round butt attached to thighs of steel.

And when she thought she couldn’t get any luckier, he turned back in her direction, took off his baseball cap and pulled his shirt up to wipe the sweat from his forehead. She felt like Max had looked a few minutes before.

Everything went into slow motion. Across-the-Street Guy was nothing but rippling, smooth muscle all the way up to his chest. Abbie thought she caught sight of a nipple and imagined rubbing her tongue over it.

 MmmmWho’s your mama?

Out of the corner of her eye, Abbie noticed her two companions looking at her. They turned to see what she was staring at. “Hey, Rick!” They called as they waved casually to him. He smiled and waved back.

Could he be any more perfect? He had just enough of everything in the right places without too much extra to make him silly-looking like those body builders at her gym. And what happened to that “Fattest City in America” thing?

Abbie’s mind raced, which was nothing new, except that all the questions roving through it were on one subject. What was the story on this Rick guy? Where’d he get such a nice bod? The gym? Genetics? Could yard work really do that for you?

Maybe it was his job. A manly-man job to be sure. A fire-man or police-man? But since when had she found those kinds of guys hot, anyway? The cops were an extension of the oppressive government—at least that’s what her dad always said.

Oppress me, Across-the-Street Rick.

“Are you ready, Abbie?”

She had a hard time focusing on Terry with her eyes super-glued to the yummy hunk of man-morsel behind her. Abbie wondered if he’d be insulted if she went over and tucked some dollar bills into his shorts. But like a bucket of cold water, the thought hit her that she’d probably been ogling a married man. Everybody in a neighborhood like this was married, weren’t they?

 She blinked him away, sighed and looked over at Kim. “Yeah, sorry about the hold up.” She hurried to catch up.

“That’s Rick.” Kim said, her ponytail flopping in time with her steps. “He lives there. And he’s a good friend of your brother-in-law, but I think they didn’t want to bother him with the dogs and everything after what he’s been through.”

“I know!” Terry jumped in. “It’s such a shame. I couldn’t believe Jacque!”

Abbie couldn’t keep the interested expression off her face. Kim took pity on her. She lowered her voice, even though Rick was now a block behind them. “About a year ago, Rick’s crazy wife, Jacque, up and ran off one day with the pizza delivery guy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Abbie exclaimed, glancing back to get another look at poor jilted Rick. “She must have been crazy.”

“Well, she’d acted mostly normal before then,” Terry said. “But that’s not even the worst of it. She left their little girl Brooke with him. She was five years old at the time. It was the most bizarre thing. From what we’ve heard, she’d never even met the guy before he came with the pizza in the middle of the day.”

Kim jumped in. “Kathy, their next door neighbor, said Jacque called her and asked her to get Brooke off the bus because she had an important errand to run. When she didn’t come back, Rick was calling hospitals and everything until she finally called him and said she wasn’t coming home at all.”

“It’s a real shame. A little girl without a mother.” Terry got choked up, which triggered Abbie’s over-sensitive tear ducts. As un-maternal as she thought she was, she couldn’t imagine having a child then abandoning it. Why would this guy Rick marry a woman like that in the first place?

She heard a motor and turned to see a shockingly large pick-up truck ease up next to them—silvery gray with four doors, a long bed, and it even seemed taller than the average truck. Only someone with a total disregard for the environment would drive a truck like that. The window slid down.

“Walkin’ off some of that barbecue in advance?” Rick asked.

Kim and Terry stepped up to the truck. “Yeah, we’ve got to keep those school-girl figures,” Kim said.

“You girls don’t have a thing to worry about.” His warm voice seemed to ooze of out the truck window like his sweat had oozed over his hot body. He’d be irresistible if he wasn’t driving a monstrosity and talking about barbecue.

“Rick? Have you met Joanie’s sister Abbie?”

He directed his answer to Abbie, and the blue eyes he focused on her made her lungs shut down. “No, I was out of town when you came for Christmas. It’s nice to meet you. Joanie talks about you all the time.”

So, why didn’t she tell me about you? Not that I would want to know, anyway, Mr. Gas Hog. “Nice meeting you, too,” she lied, sort of.

“Well,” Rick said. “I’ve gotta go get some gas…”

Just as I suspected. Oink, oink.

“For my weed-eater.”

Oh, maybe that’s okay.

“See y’all tonight.”

He thought he was so cute with his “y’all,” like that made up for everything. The window went up as the truck drove away.

“That reminds me, Abbie,” Terry said. “We’re having a barbecue at my house tonight, and we’re expecting you to be there.”

And hunky Rick would be there, too. Not that it would make any difference. Abbie was a vegetarian. She wasn’t going to a barbecue.

“Well, I might be worn out with the time change and everything.”

“California time is two hours earlier,” Terry said. “You’ll be in better shape than the rest of us. We’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer. Any sister of Joanie’s is a sister of ours. Come over around six.”

They were really nice. And Rick would be there, but that wasn’t why she was going. She accepted the invitation, said good-bye to her new friends and went inside.

Buffy and Max were eagerly awaiting her. After she’d petted them and let them give her kisses—Max lucked out and managed to land one in her mouth—she filled their water and food bowls and gave Max his medicine.

She looked at the microwave. It was only ten o’clock in the morning. But it didn’t matter that she had a long day, followed by about forty-two more with virtually nothing to do. After all, she was an easy-going, go-with-the-flow type of person, right?

Glancing at the computer, she thought about the articles. The first one wasn’t due until Tuesday, and she was always more creative when pushing a deadline. She decided to wait on those.

And Joanie’s house was lovely, with antique furniture and a soft brown couch, warm and relaxing. The perfect place to veg-out and catch up on her reading.

She picked up a magazine from the coffee table. When did Joanie start subscribing to Better Homes and Gardens? What happened to Cosmo? She thumbed through it and set it back down. After wandering around the house for a while, she checked the wall clock in the dining room. Five after. Wow, did time actually move slower in Texas?

Eureka! She remembered seeing a newspaper in the front yard. World events, editorials, controversy. That would do the trick! She practically ran out to the driveway and picked up the paper.

It felt lighter than the Houston Chronicle had ever been before. She unfolded it. The Spring-Cypress Gazette. It turned out to be a weekly community newspaper for the northwest suburbs.

Glancing through, she noted that some high school seniors had gotten scholarships, and the school district planned to build another school. Nothing to get fired up about from what she could tell.

Something tickled her ankles and she looked down, noticing the grass was a little high. Joanie hadn’t left any instructions about the lawn.

She heard Rick’s weed-eater humming in his backyard. The smell of freshly cut grass was in the air. Mowing. A good way to get a little sun, work off some excess energy, and if Rick was any indication, great exercise.

She went inside and changed into the red bikini she’d brought with her in case she used the neighborhood pool. If she was going to be in the sun, she might as well even out her tan.

A few minutes later, she was out in the front yard with the mower pulling that handle thingy with the long string attached. She tried over and over, but all she heard was the ripping sound the cord made.

Turning the mower on its side, she looked at the bottom for no particular reason. There were blades—which made sense, since it cut grass—and not much else. It was a stupid thing to do. This was like the time her car died and she opened the hood and said, “Yeah, there’s an engine in there.”

She righted the mower and rolled it back and forth a few times. Maybe it needed some warming up. When she glanced across the street, she saw Rick watching.

Jeez, take a break, Tarzan. Doesn’t he ever go inside?

Now self-conscious, she pulled the thingy a dozen more times, but nothing happened. Perspiration popped out across her forehead.

It was only the beginning of June, for God’s sake, how did these people live here? Did anyone even live in Texas before air conditioning was invented? She thought of all those John Wayne movies on cable. Of course people lived in Texas. It had to be heatstroke. She wasn’t this stupid in L.A.

She was ready to go in, but didn’t want to give up while Rick was watching. Maybe she hadn’t pulled hard enough. She gathered all her strength, grasped the thingy in both hands, and pulled like she’d never pulled before.

It slipped through her damp fingers, causing her to stagger backwards. In fact, she would have fallen down completely if not for the brick house behind her that was kind enough to break her fall. Ouch! Followed by extreme embarrassment.

She glanced up to see if Rick had caught her comedy routine. Oh, no. He was coming across the street, not even trying to keep the grin off his face. She hated him.

“You look like you could use some help.” He said with a cocky smile.

Not from a truck-driving, barbecue-eating Neanderthal like you. “I’m a college graduate. I think I can figure out how to work a lawn mower.”

He laughed out loud at her. “I don’t know what college you went to, but mine didn’t offer any classes in lawn-mowing. It’s something you have to pick up off the streets.”

“Look, home boy. I’m sure you’re full of street smarts, among other things, but—”

 “Abbie, just shut up for a minute and listen.”

Did he really tell her to shut up? And he said her name like they knew each other. Like they had the kind of relationship where he could say that to her and get away with it. But, she couldn’t think of any reply to “shut up and listen,” so she shut up and listened.

“You have to prime it before you start mowing. See this?” He pointed to a squishy red button. “You push it four or five times, and you have to hold this bar back when you’re starting the mower and while you’re cutting the grass, or it’ll die on you.” He twisted off a yellow cap on top of the mower. “And mowers run on gasoline. This one is bone dry.”

Mowers run on gasoline, she mimicked in the most childish voice she could conjure up in her head. How embarrassing. She had the urge to tell him she was great at her real job and had awards on her office shelves and offers from other TV stations to prove it. But it would sound immature, and why would she bother when she couldn’t care less what Rick thought anyway?

He went across the street for the gas can, filled up her tank and made sure she got the mower started.

“Thanks,” she yelled over the sound of the mower.

Okay, you can go away now.

Instead of heading back home, though, the jerk stood there watching her, periodically pointing out that she’d “already mowed that part of the yard,” offering tips on using the square formation versus back and forth, and other horticultural pearls of wisdom.

After a few laps, she started thinking about how other people looked like they were simply walking behind their lawnmowers, but she felt like she was pushing a wheelbarrow up Mount Everest. Maybe she wasn’t as strong as she thought. It was miserable work, and she wanted to quit, but he was still there staring at her, so she willed herself to mow on.

She looked down and noticed her breasts bobbing up and down as she walked. The bikini she had on didn’t seem nearly as small at her apartment swimming pool as it did in Joanie’s front yard with Rick watching her every move.

She glanced at him again in his T-shirt and skimpy running shorts. Seeing his hard body made her start obsessing about hers. Had she been going to the gym enough to look good to a guy like him? Two times a week, sometimes three. Surely, he wouldn’t stare for this long if he found her disgusting. Unless it was morbid curiosity, like watching a train wreck or something. Why did she care what he thought, anyway?

The next time she came around to where he stood, Rick said, “It looks like you’ve had enough of a workout. Why don’t you hit the self-propelled switch?”

“The what?” She yelled over the motor. He reached out and pushed up on a lever she hadn’t noticed, causing her to be dragged behind the mower for the next few feet since she hadn’t expected it to take off on its own.