"Every You Every Me"
Everything happened in slow motion. The paramedics wheeling Lola Lamont out of the theater on a gurney, an EMT tending to the wound on the back of the bodyguard’s head, and camera flashes from a swarm of paparazzi.
Jordan Rydell stood, tears staining his eyes as he watched them load his mother into the back of an ambulance. Everything seemed so surreal to him.
“Death is all around us,” Victor Distefano said to him from behind. “The grim reaper beckons. I feel his icy grip ‘round my throat. The breath of his hounds at my heels. The unrelenting rat tat tat of his scythe on my chamber door.”
Jordan shook his head in agony, terrified of what was to become of his mother….of all of them. “It isn’t fair, damnit! Why?”
“And I,” Victor continued. “I only hasten his inevitable triumph. Is that what he desires? This beast who stalks us? Is it?”
Jordan turned to him as the background music began to swell. “We cannot predict the precise moment when our time has come,” he said. “Would we dare try?”
Victor turned back to the ambulance. “No. Fate is in the hands of the reaper…”
Courtney Miller pressed the fast-forward button on the remote, disinterested in the wooden acting on the television ten feet in front of her, particularly the actors representing real life people that she knew all too well. She stopped when the movie came to the next unbearably melodramatic scene—this one involving Roxanne Collier playing the part of Alex Reynolds.
With unfocused eyes, the actress portraying former studio archivist Denise Syzwicki gazed across the room. “You don’t know how it hurts,” she said. “Tossed into the basement, constantly told you aren’t good enough, made to feel like you don’t belong.”
“What are you talking about?” Roxanne asked, doing her best Alex Reynolds impersonation—which was not all that far off from the real thing. She discreetly lifted the phone and dialed 911.
“I could have been an actress!” Denise cried. “She moved forward which prompted Alex to retreat. “If only he’d let me.”
“Who are you talking about? Damnit, can’t you see I’m just a woman!” Roxanne’s Alex shouted.
Disgusted, Courtney switched off the television and threw the remote onto the cushion of her off-white leather sofa. Stretching languorously, she thought about the perks of having a famous film producer as an Uncle. Xander Dalton had given his favorite niece and advanced copy of the recently completed The Studio Murders to screen before it hit the streaming services. It was just unfortunate that after all the drama over its production that it hadn’t gotten a theatrical release. After watching a few scenes, she now knew why.
Reaching for her phone, she checked her Twitter, Instagram and Periscope feeds while kicking her legs over the back of the sofa. Courtney was a disarmingly beautiful woman with clouds of blond curls falling just below her shoulders. A former model herself, she was the Director of Talent for Vaughan Novak Modeling—a modeling agency offshoot of the enormously successful Hollywood talent agency. She loved working around beautiful people. She always had. Ever since she could remember, she had a sixth sense about what was hot and what was not. Upcoming fashion trends, body styles, looks that designers and magazines were coveting that season—it was all second nature to her. And at twenty-nine, she had earned the title. She’d started her own agency a year earlier, but corrupt partners forced her to close the doors on Barbizon Modeling. Some would say taking a job working for someone else was a step down, but Courtney didn’t see it that way. She planned on absorbing every bit of knowledge she could, and then strike out on her own again someday. It was all part of her master plan.
Also part of her master plan was having the right man on her arm, which suddenly made her wonder where Brian was. Her husband had been gone for over an hour. Looking at her watch, she twisted off the sofa and walked through the small living room to the window that overlooked a courtyard with a sparking swimming pool. Her apartment in Marina Del Rey had been home for over two years. Modest in appearance, the small four-building complex, Villa Marina, was built in the nineteen sixties and for the most part looked it. The owners hadn’t done much in the way of modernizing the twelve units, but they were clean, affordable, had a beautiful swimming pool, and were only two blocks from the ocean. Her unit was a one-bedroom, which was big enough for her and Brian. She didn’t plan on living there forever. Once she made it big in the modeling world, she would have a house facing the water on Venice Beach, or maybe Malibu. Anywhere really as long as it had an ocean view. Since she was a little girl growing up in Riverside, all she dreamed about was being able to walk out her back door and see the Ocean. Her modest apartment in Marina Del Rey was the first step in getting there. Besides, she had fantastic taste and had decorated the space so that it appeared to be one of the high-priced residences in the neighborhood. The dark walnut cabinets and doors she’d had painted soft cream, a red tile backsplash in the kitchen provided a pop of color, and an assortment of tropical plants, throw pillows, and area rugs on the old wooden floors tied everything together perfectly. Who cared if she didn’t get her deposit back? By that time she’d be a name to be reckoned with in the L.A. modeling world and it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Peering through the blinds and scanning the courtyard for any sign of her husband, she spotted an attractive dark-haired woman hauling boxes into Unit 2C across the way. A new tenant, she realized, as she’d seen movers hauling in furniture earlier that morning. She decided she’d have to wait to get a closer look before she determined if she was a threat or not. After all, in L.A., every woman was a threat—always after something or someone that belonged to someone else.
Flopping back onto the sofa, she thought about Brian and how much she loved him. It hadn’t always been easy. They’d both done things to each other that they couldn’t take back, had come close to divorcing, but were given another chance to make it work—and she hoped that it did. Brian was both a strong, protective presence in her life, and a wounded soul that she enjoyed nurturing. That and some of the best, most amazing sex she’d had in her entire life.
“Thanks for helping me move my stuff, you guys,” Brian Miller said, his biceps bulging as he hoisted two boxes from the back of the SUV and made his way around the other side of the apartment building. “I know it’s been a lot of back and forth lately, but I think this time Courtney and I are in it for the long haul.”
“Good, because I don’t think my refrigerator’s ever been as empty as when you were living with me,” said Brett Armstrong with a good-natured nudge. He followed his brother down the sidewalk and around to the courtyard, an armload of heavy boxes barely causing him to break a sweat.
Brian laughed. “I don’t eat that much. Heather—tell my brother he’s exaggerating.”
“Actually, Brian, I’ve seen you eat and I don’t think he’s exaggerating,” Heather Rydell said with a laugh as she glanced back to make sure her seven-year-old daughter was still tagging along. “You coming, princess?”
“I’m coming,” Violet Armstrong said, lugging a small suitcase behind her. She stopped and wiped an arm dramatically over her forehead. “Whew. Moving is hard work!”
They all laughed as they neared the door to apartment 1A. No sooner had they arrived did the door open and Courtney appear, a surprised expression on her perfectly made-up face.
“I was expecting you an hour ago!” she exclaimed and stood clear of the door. After surveying the inventory of boxes, she harrumphed, a hand on her hip. “Wow, did you have all this stuff when you lived here before?”
“Yeah,” Brian said as they hauled everything inside. “The rest is still out in Brett’s car.”
“Hi Courtney,” Brett said though gnashed teeth. “Brian, where do you want this stuff?”
“Uh, in the bedroom I guess,” he said and pointed to the back of the apartment.
“There’s more?” Courtney asked with a slight laugh. “Oh, great.”
“Mommy, I’m putting this down!” Violet pronounced loudly, dropping the suitcase and letting it fall to the floor.
“And you brought a child too,” Courtney remarked, her eyes going to the sticky substance coating the little girls’ hands. “Greeaaatt. I think this may be the first time there’s ever been a child in my apartment. Or in the complex, for that matter.”
“Really?” Heather asked with surprise.
“It’s pretty much a singles community,” Brian said while stopping to kiss Courtney. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“Ready?” Courtney asked, swallowing hard. She looked around at the smattering of boxes overflowing with Brian’s belongings. “I’m more than ready.” She appeared to struggle with her next thought, but then pulled him into an embrace. “I’m just glad we’re trying to make this work. This time it’s going to be for the right reasons.”
“Yes, it is,” Brian said with a smile. He looked into her eyes, more content than he’d been in some time. He was thirty-years old and for the first time in his life, felt like he belonged somewhere. Like he was working toward having a real life. Courtney had a lot to do with that.
“You’re pretty!” Violet chirped from across the room, pointing a candy-coated finger at Courtney.
Suddenly warming up to the little girl, Courtney grinned. “Why, thank you,” she said. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“I like your makeup,” Violet said. “Will you do mine?”
Brimming with uncertainty, Courtney looked up and met Heather’s gaze, who smiled and nodded permissively. “Okay, but just this once,” she said.
Courtney took the little girls’ hand. “Come with me. I’ll show you the one thing that women constantly overlook—the need for a good moisturizing foundation. Without it, you’re just a clown.”
“I like clowns,” Violet said, skipping along next to Courtney as they made their way to the bedroom.
“Okay, but you don’t want to ever look like one,” Courtney told her as they disappeared from sight. “Trust me. You should meet my neighbor Andrea. Clown city.”
“Wow,” Heather said after they were gone from the room. “That’s a bond I did not see coming.”
Brian laughed. “You’re telling me. I think this might be the first time I’ve ever seen Courtney not burst into flames when a child gets within ten feet of her.”
“I’m gonna go get the rest of the stuff out of the car,” Brett announced.
“I’m coming,” Brian said and followed him to the door.
“I’ll stay here and organize,” Heather said.
As they made their way back outside, Brett stopped and turned to his brother. “Listen, are you sure about this? I mean, I just want to make sure this is what you want. I was only kidding before. You can stay with me for as long as you want. I was kind of getting used to having my little brother around.”
Brian smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “I’m still going to be your little brother,” he said. “I’m only moving a few blocks away. I just really want to make things work with Courtney.”
“Are you sure this isn’t just a rebound after what happened with Chris?”
Brian sighed. “I understand why you’d think that, but it’s not. The thing with Chris and I was so non-existent that it makes what Courtney and I have seem like a lifetime. Seriously. I’m over all of that. I want to build a life with my wife. “
Brett put a hand on his shoulder. “Then I wish you nothing but happiness,” he said.
Smiling, Brian pulled him into an embrace. He knew he was doing the right thing. What he and Courtney had was real. They wouldn’t have found their way back to each other otherwise.
With a box of records tucked under one arm, a stack of mail clamped between her teeth, and her keys in her one free hand, Justine Harris struggled to unlock the door to apartment 2C. For an instant everything seemed to be cooperating. She even had time to glance next door where a very attractive man dressed only in a pair of athletic shorts was stepping outside his apartment to grab the morning paper. A firm, chiseled body and glowing suntan, and a row of perfect white teeth when he smiled confirmed every stereotype she’d ever heard about west coast men.
Suddenly, the box of records began to slip from her arms. Disaster was imminent. A shriek tore loose from her throat but was cut short when her half-dressed neighbor came running to her aide.
“Here, let me grab that for you,” he said and saved the box from crashing to the ground.
“Thanks,” Justine said with relief when she pulled the envelopes from her teeth and pushed open the door to her two-bedroom apartment. She walked into the chill of the air conditioner and threw the mail on a small round dining table before turning around and attempting to take the box from him. “Here, let me.”
“I’ve got it,” he said, dark brooding eyes staring into hers. “Where should I put it?”
“Right here’s fine,” Justine told him and tapped the table. She smiled, certain he was flexing his muscles for her benefit.
“You must be the new neighbor,” he said after setting the box of records down. “I’m Steve. Mancuso. I live next door.”
“Justine Harris,” she said, her long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She had dark eyes accentuated with heavy black mascara. Some said her eyes hid the real her. Then again, there was no one who really knew her. Definitely not in L.A. since she’d lived there all of twenty-four hours.
“You have a roommate, Justine?”
“This is a two bedroom,” Steve pointed out.
“It was the only one available.”
“Where are you from?” Steve asked as he thumbed through the records and pulled a few out to peruse.
“D.C.,” she told him with a raised eyebrow. She decided he was attractive. Too attractive for his own good, probably. She had him figured out in a matter of seconds. Spoiled, privileged, womanizing. His dark Italian features, his ripped body that he probably worked tirelessly at, his affected smile—it seemed like a well-rehearsed bit that he’d perfected over time. And by her estimation, he was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, which meant he’d had plenty of time to get it right.
“What brings you to L.A.?” Steve asked.
“Work,” she said. “Non-profit. The market’s gotten pretty tough back east so I thought I’d give L.A. a try.” When he made no move to the door, she attempted to drop a thinly veiled hint. “I really do have a lot to do, so if you don’t mind—“
But Steve didn’t seem to pay her request any mind. “Joy Division,” he noted when he pulled a record from the box and raised an eyebrow. “Pretty dark. I wouldn’t have taken you for a fan.”
She regarded him with an amused grin. “Oh, and what would you have taken me as a fan of?”
He surveyed her up and down. “Katy Perry. One Direction maybe.”
Cringing, Justine grabbed the record from him. “Ugh. Get serious. Okay, what about you? What are you into?”
“What am I into?” Steve asked, all dimples and sex appeal.
“Yeah. Let me guess.” She stood back and studied him in deep concentration. “I’d guess Kanye.” When he didn’t correct her, she nodded with a chuckle. “I knew it. God, is everyone in L.A. like sheep?”
“Don’t start on the east coast versus west coast thing,” Steve said with a good-natured smile. “My family happens to come from the east coast. New York City. The Bronx. That’s where I grew up. Only been in L.A. a few years.”
“My mistake,” Justine said and attempted to steer him to the door.
“Maybe we can talk over our east coast upbringing sometime. Grab a beer or whatever.”
“Maybe,” Justine said, her hand on the door. “See you around.”
Steve looked into her eyes as if trying to figure her out. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“You’re letting all the cold air out,” she said and gestured out to the courtyard.
“You do keep it very cold in here,” Steve said.
“Well, maybe if you had a shirt on…”
He grinned. “I think you like me better without one.”
Justine had finally hit her limit. She was all too familiar with guys like Steve Mancuso. Whether in D.C. or L.A., they were all the same. “Okay, see you around.” And just like that, she started to close the door on him.
Outside, a pretty blond woman came running up to the door dressed in a short gray skirt and matching blazer. “Excuse me—Justine?”
“Yeah,” she said and opened the door again, slightly annoyed that Steve was still hovering.
“I’m Sueann Turner. I live over there.” She pointed to the next building, then handed her a thin envelope. “I got a piece of your mail yesterday. I was about to throw it out and then I saw the moving truck.”
“Oh, thanks,” Justine said.
“It happens a lot. The mailman can’t seem to get things into the right slot.” Sueann turned to Steve and smiled politely. “Morning Steve.”
“Sueann,” he said, stifling laughter, then looked at Justine. “Sueann is the building Pollyanna. Good girl from the Valley moves to the swinging singles apartment complex at the marina and still acts like a good girl. Believe me.”
“Just because we’re not all jaded…” Sueann said with a scowl. She turned back to the new tenant. “It’s nice to meet you, Justine. Let me know if you need any help getting settled.”
“Thanks,” Justine said, deciding Sueann was everything Steve described—a nice good girl through and through. She wondered how long it would take her to become something else. “Valerie said she would come by later and make sure I had everything I needed.”
“Valerie?” Sueann asked.
“The new owner of the building,” she told her. “You haven’t met her?”
Sueann looked at Steve and shrugged. “No. I didn’t know we had a new owner.”
“Great, we’ll probably all be out on our ears,” Steve said. “The whole neighborhood is going condo.”
“She seemed very nice on the phone,” Justine told them with a shrug. “I wouldn’t worry.”
Next door, a successful married couple scurried about their one-bedroom apartment getting ready for their day. Josh Ridgemont, a twenty-eight year-old up-and-coming financial advisor, poured a glass of orange juice and emptied the carton. Before he took a drink, he moved away from the refrigerator and toward the bathroom where his wife was slipping into a silk blouse.
“Want some orange juice?” he asked, always up for being the hero.
“I thought we were almost out,” Andrea Davenport said, smiling when he handed her the glass. “Thanks.” She took a gulp and handed it back to him before tucking her blouse into her skirt. “Did you answer me about this weekend yet?”
“This weekend?” Josh asked, making his way back to the kitchen. He adjusted the knot on his striped tie while inspecting himself in his reflection in the toaster.
“Yeah, my father’s party at the house in Palos Verdes. Did you forget?”
Josh grimaced. “Uh, no. I didn’t forget. Listen, I kind of just wanted to chill here this weekend. We’ve had something to do for the last three weeks. Can’t we just hang out at home for a change?”
“We could, but that wouldn’t impress my father, especially for someone who wants to be promoted to senior advisor,” Andrea said. She was a beautiful woman of twenty-nine. Long, golden blond hair and beautiful blue eyes, along with a figure that rivaled many starlets in a town full of wannabes. She’d had other interests, though. Business interests. For the past four years she’d been working her way up at the west coast’s largest publishing house, Empirical Press. After being hired as a marketing assistant, she quickly advanced to Junior Editor and was on the fast track to becoming Senior Editor. Leave the casting calls and photo shoots to the Courtney Miller’s of the world. She intended to make her mark through her brains—not her body, as magnificent as it was.
“I already put in sixty hours a week at the office for your father,” Josh said with a groan as he cleaned up the breakfast dishes. “Can’t my weekends be for me? For us? Or does being Logan Davenport’s daughter outweigh your obligations as Josh Ridgemont’s husband?”
“Why are you being like that?” Andrea asked as she came out of the bedroom fully dressed and ready for the day. “And why do you always make things a competition between you and my father? Can I help if it I want you to be successful?”
“No, but if it’s just so I can be deemed worthy of being married to his daughter, then that’s a different story.”
“That’s not it and you know it. You’re a brilliant advisor. I just want my father to see your potential, and this party will go a long way in doing that.”
Josh threw the empty carton of orange juice into the recycling bin. “I wish I had your confidence,” he said. “I don’t even know if this is what I want to be doing with my life.”
“What?” Andrea asked. “Josh, my dad put himself on the line getting this job for you and this is how you repay him? Is this still about your failed startup?”
“I’m a computer programmer—not a financial guru.”
“Yeah, well that’s apparent since you lost all of our money in the startup.”
Her biting words cut deep, prompting him to grab his briefcase and start toward the door. Andrea stopped him, however, as she always did when her temper got the better of her. And as usual, he caved.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she said, placing a hand on his chest. “I don’t want to fight. Not about my dad or your career again. Look, can’t you at least think about this weekend?”
Not wanting to argue, he nodded. “Sure. See you tonight.”
“Love you,” Andrea said and kissed him on the cheek.
“Love you too,” Josh said, making his way out into the courtyard.
He did love Andrea, after all. He had been in love with her since he met her at a bar five years ago. He loved her before he knew she was financial wizard Logan Davenport’s daughter. He loved her before he knew how amazing she was at giving head, or how sweet and tender she could be on a rainy morning while nuzzling against him in bed. When it came to their careers and her family though, it was never easy.
On his way to the parking lot, he passed by 3A where Ryder Williams lived. Ryder, the son of fashion mogul Victoria Delacorte, kept to himself most of the time. He’d been forced out of his mother’s Bel Air mansion a year earlier with strict instructions to grow up and get a life of his own. Apparently that meant moving into an apartment at the marina that your mother paid for, and doing nothing but sitting around all day playing video games and watching porn and horror flicks over and over again.
“Knock knock,” Josh said as he approached the open window of Ryder’s apartment and tapped the back of his hand against the door.
“Oh, hey, buddy,” Ryder said, jumping off the coach and pulling open the door while still twiddling the game controller with his free hand. “What’s up?”
“Just on my way to work and thought I’d stop by and see if that hack worked out,” Josh said and then looked at the television. “Look like it did.”
“Yeah, thanks for your help, man,” Ryder said, finally pausing the game. He was average height and build with close cropped hair, often wearing heavy metal t-shirts like the Alice Cooper one he had on today. “If I’d had known you could jailbreak the system and get access to all those free games I’d have asked a long time ago. You can hack into just about anything, can’t you?”
Josh grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, just about. Have you been at it all night?”
“Yeah,” Ryder said and looked at his watch. “I guess I have. Wow, I should get to bed.”
Josh laughed and looked around at his friend’s apartment. It was minimally decorated and looked like something you’d find in a college student’s apartment, not a grown man of twenty-eight years old. On the walls were posters of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. The bookshelf next to the television was cluttered with every sequel to Friday the 13th that had ever been made, and resting on a display shelf across the room were Jason bobble heads, masks from the Halloween films, and the tree from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
“Yeah,” Josh said with an amused shake of his head. “Anyway, have a good one man. I’ll see you later.”
Ryder followed him to the door. “Hey, did you see Courtney’s man moved back in?”
“Brian?” Josh asked with surprise. “No.”
“Yeah, apparently they’re giving the marriage another shot. Just when I thought he was gone for good.”
“Don’t tell me you’re still carrying a torch for Courtney,” Josh said, patting his friend on the shoulder. “I just don’t think it’s gonna happen, buddy. No offense, but Courtney Miller is out of your league. Hell, she’s out of my league.”
“I can get Courtney if I wanted her,” Ryder said as he watched Josh leave. “Don’t believe me?”
“Prove me wrong,” Josh said with a shrug as he made his way around the pool. “Can’t wait to hear how this goes!”
No sooner had he rounded the corner to the parking lot did Steve come racing after him. “Hey Josh, wait up a second.”
“I’m late for work, Mancuso. Can this wait till tonight?”
“Look, it’s important,” Steve said, pulling a tank top over his head and walking to Josh’s car with him. “Did you hear the complex has a new owner?”
“Yeah, I think Andrea told me. Why?”
“It’s just that the last owner was pretty lax about some things and I’m afraid the new one might be more thorough, if you know what I mean.”
Opening the door to his blue Impala, Josh tossed his briefcase over to the passenger’s seat. “What are you talking about, Mancuso?”
“I’ve got a…blemish on my record,” Steve said with a shrug as he ran his fingers through his short dark hair.
“You?” Josh asked, his tone thick with sarcasm. “I’m shocked.”
“Look, I made a few bad calls and I’m paying for it. This girl back in the Bronx—she said was seventeen. Anyway, the damage is already done but if the new owner does a background check, she could toss me out.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“I just thought you could tap into the system and—I don’t know—get rid of anything that makes me look like a pervert.”
Josh grinned. “That would be hard considering I do have a day job,” he said sarcastically.
“Look, I know you can do it. You do that kind of stuff all the time. I know you helped Luke get that job with the congressman or whatever. You do stuff for Ryder all the time.”
“I helped Luke get that job by giving a character reference,” Josh said, setting him straight. “And getting someone free cable and free video games is not the same as hacking into a criminal database. That’s a felony.”
Steve threw his hands up in resignation. “Great. So what am I supposed to do?”
Josh shrugged and climbed into the car. “Accept responsibility for once.”
Glaring, Steve leaned in to the car as the engine started. “You know what I think? I think you want me out of the building. You can’t handle a better looking guy than you living two doors down, so why not get rid of him, right?”
“Fuck off, Steve,” Josh said dismissively as he backed up and tore off through the parking lot.
“I really appreciate your help,” Brian said as he stepped outside with Brett, Heather and Violet. “With everything.”
“Will you stop thanking me?” Brett asked and pulled his brother into an embrace. “You’re my brother. What else would I be doing?”
Suddenly, a voice came from across the courtyard. “Brian, you’re back?” asked a young attractive woman, shopping bags in hand as she and her male roommate approached.
“Yeah, I am. Hi Morgan,” Brian said with a smile, then regarded the man she was with. “I’m sorry—I don’t remember your name.”
“That’s okay,” said the young blond man. “Luke. I had just moved in when you lived here before so I’ll let you off the hook this time.”
Brian smiled and gestured to Brett and Heather. “This is my brother, Brett Armstrong, and this is Heather Rydell, and their daughter Violet.”
“Nice to meet you,” the woman, Morgan Gallo said with a genuine smile as she nodded politely. She was twenty-six with a mane of blond hair and doe eyes. A model since moving to L.A. a year before, she was the object of desire of every man in the complex.
Luke went to shake Brett’s hand, then Heather’s. “Luke Yeager. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Brett said, then turned toward Brian. “Well, we should get going.”
“I’ll walk out with you,” Brian said, following them to the parking lot. He glanced back at Morgan and Luke. “I’m sure I’ll see you guys around.”
“Looking forward to it,” Luke said, then turned and stifled a laugh as he and Morgan walked into their apartment in the next building.
“What was that?” Morgan asked with a giggle, setting her shopping bags on the sofa, then rearranging her voice to match his. “Looking forward to it. Not subtle at all, Luke.”
“I can’t help it,” he said, stripping off his shirt and diving into one of his bags for a new sleeveless he’d picked up at a Gotta Have It in Venice. He was twenty-six with a gymnast’s body—short and compact, yet strong and muscular. “I thought Brian couldn’t get any hotter, but now to find out he has an equally as hot brother? Jeez, I’m gonna be imagining myself and them in a three-way for the next week.” He slipped into his vintage shirt and walked toward her. “What do you think?”
“Cute,” Morgan said, biting into an apple as she stood in the kitchen that opened up into the living room. “And excuse me, but I thought you were currently into women.”
Luke kicked off his shorts and sprawled out onto the sofa in his Diesel underwear. “Let me explain again how bisexuality works,” he said and turned on the television. “It is possible to be attracted to men and women at the same time. It doesn’t change with the seasons.”
“I just thought you really liked that girl you were seeing,” Morgan said. “Susie? Sarah? Anyway, what happened to her?”
“Rachel,” he corrected her. “She was fine. She was great, actually. I really liked her. And she liked me. What she didn’t like was when I told her that I sometimes swing the other way.”
“Again?” Morgan asked and sat down on the edge of the plush sectional that took up most of their small living room. “I’m sorry. I know this keeps happening and it’s frustrating to you.”
“Hey, I knew what I was signing up for when I decided to come out,” Luke said, absently scrolling through the new releases on Hulu. “I can be monogamous with one person—no problem. But every time I’m honest with someone about my sexuality, they get freaked out and take off.”
“You’ll find the right person,” Morgan said, placing a hand on his and squeezing it hard.
“Thanks,” Luke said and smiled at her. “Have I told you how glad I am that we’re friends? And roommates?”
“Yes, but it’s nice to hear,” Morgan said. “But listen, can you not sit around the apartment in your underwear? I mean, haven’t we talked about this?” A second later, a smile crept over her face.
“What’s wrong? Does this get you too excited?” Luke asked, jokingly pulling himself on top of her and tickling her relentlessly.
“No, I just prefer my best friend keeps his pants on!” Morgan said amidst a fit of laughter as she pushed him off of her and went back to her shopping bags. “Perv!”
“Bitch,” Luke said, smirking as he watched her out of the corner of his eye.
That night, Steve took a swim in the pool beneath the glow of the moonlight. Taking broad strokes with his strong, muscular arms, he did a dozen laps in just over a minute, stopping only when he heard the tap of a woman’s heels on the cement. Coming up for air, he blinked the water out of his eyes and saw Sueann making her way to her apartment.
“Did anyone ever tell you you work too much?” he called over to her.
Sueann stopped and walked toward him. “Did anyone ever tell you you don’t work enough?” she asked. “I mean, what do you do all day, Mancuso? Besides loiter around and wait to pounce on every female that crosses your path.”
He smiled his youthful, cocky smile. “Just cause I don’t go punch a clock somewhere every day doesn’t mean I don’t work. I have…investments.”
Sueann knelt down, careful to keep her knees off the rough pavement. “I can only imagine what investments you have,” she said with a grin. “Your father is Vince Mancuso, who from what I’ve read, is sort of famous for making offers that people can’t refuse, if you know what I mean.”
“Don’t loop me into the same racket that my father’s been in and out of trouble for,” Steve said, gazing up at her in hopes of seeing up her skirt. “I’m no goodfella. Everything I do is on the level. I’m my own man and I make my own way. Without his help. Now why don’t you slip out of that stuffy business suit and come in here and join me?”
She shook her head. “You’ve really got something to prove to the world, don’t you?”
“I don’t know about the world, but I’ll prove anything to you you want me to if you finally give me what I’ve been asking you for for months now.” He looked seductively at her as he started to lift himself out of the pool.
“Steve,” Sueann began with a roll of her eyes, “not a chance.” With that, she pushed him back down into the water with her foot and then turned and went inside.
Amused, Steve climbed out of the pool and went to grab his towel resting on a nearby lounger. He began drying off just as Luke arrived home and made his way to his and Morgan’s apartment.
“Hey, Steve,” Luke said, crisply dressed in dark jeans, a blue oxford, and a navy blazer.
“Hey, Yeager,” Steve said. “Where you been? Off at one of your political shindigs?”
He stopped and nodded with amusement. “Something like that. What are you up to tonight?”
Running the towel over his wet skin, Steve shrugged. He noticed Luke looking at him, the way his gaze paused at his sculpted body and washboard stomach. “Actually,” he began, his voice deep. “I’m kind of glad you’re home.”
“Why’s that?” Luke asked, fumbling with his keys.
Steve’s gaze lingered for a few moments. “I’ve kinda been in a mood today and nothing’s really helped satisfy it, if you know what I mean.”
Luke let out a nervous laugh. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah,” Steve said and ran a finger beneath the waistband of his swim trunks. “If it stays between us, think you could help me out?”
Immediately, Luke was nodding his head in agreement. “Yeah—of course.”
“Cool,” Steve said and led him into his apartment. He closed the door and turned toward him, his gaze smoldering. “Now promise me that you won’t tell anyone. Not even your roommate.”
Luke gazed at the other man’s body, sinking to his knees. He’d long waited for this opportunity. Since moving in to Villa Marina, he’d fantasized about it. “I promise,” he said and reached for Steve’s trunks.
Suddenly, Steve took a step back. “Dude, I’m totally joking with you,” he said, then burst into a fit of laughter.
“What?” Luke asked, standing up and shaking his head in confusion.
“Like I’d let another guy blow me?” Steve asked and threw his wet towel at him. “As much as you’d like it if I was, I’m not gay, man. Or bi, or whatever you’re calling yourself.”
“No, you’re an ass,” Luke said, fuming as he turned toward the door.
“Come on, Luke, it was a joke,” Steve protested. “It was mean, I know, but oh my God, it was so worth it. The look on your face when you thought I was going to let you suck my—”
“Just leave me alone,” Luke said, glancing back before he left. “You know what alone means, don’t you? You should—it’s how you’re going to end up for the rest of your life if you keep acting like this.”
With that, he left the apartment and slammed the door. Steve snorted, doing his best to let his neighbor’s last telling remark slide off his back.
Across the courtyard, Brian climbed onto the bed and lowered himself on top of Courtney. Letting his hands explore the delicate features of her toned body, he buried his face in her cleavage and attempted to untie her sexy nightgown. His concentration was broken, however, and he rolled over next to her in frustration.
“What is it?” Courtney asked, running a hand over his chest. “Is something wrong?”
Brian sighed. “All day long I’ve just been thinking about you, me, our marriage…”
“What about it?” she asked, suddenly feeling vulnerable. She closed the nightgown over her body and sat up against the headboard. “Are you having second thoughts?”
“No,” Brian said, looking at her with pleading eyes. “Don’t ever think that. I know this is what I want. I have no doubts about that.”
“Then what is it?”
Brian ran his fingers through his hair. “I just want a normal life. I came from such a screwed up family. My dad died and my mom married Brett’s father. For a while it seemed like we were going to have a real family, but then she started drinking again and eventually it drove Brett away. The only times she paid me any attention was when things weren’t going well between her and my step-father. I grew up thinking that was how all families were. Marriage to me was a struggle. That’s what I saw, anyway. I just don’t want it to be that way between us.”
“It won’t be,” Courtney assured him. “Brian, don’t let your family mold who you are. Look at me. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Riverside with ordinary parents who never taught me to dream or to hope for anything better than what I had. I even had a famous uncle and they still taught me that I’d never amount to anything big. But am I letting that shape my future? No. And you shouldn’t either.”
He knew she was right. He’d worked hard to overcome his past. Things were different now. He was close to Brett again, he had a beautiful wife whom he adored. He should be focusing on making love to her, not on his troubled past.
“God, I love you,” Brian said, rolling over and picking up where he’d left off. His fingers worked expertly at freeing her of her skimpy nightgown. Within moments, she was writhing naked beneath him, pulling him on top of her as her fingernails dug into his back.
“Make love to me all night,” Courtney whispered in his ear.
More than willing to oblige, he kissed her lips, then slowly made his way down to her neck, then her breasts and finally to the inside of her thighs. When she finally couldn’t take it anymore, he plunged his mammoth erection deep inside of her and worked her into a fit of feverish ecstasy. When they were both at the point of no return, he emptied inside of her as she shrieked with delight. She barely had time to catch their breath before he started again. Hours later, when the first rays of sunlight began to filter through the bedroom blinds, they finally collapsed and fell asleep in each other’s arms.
The next morning, Justine stood in her kitchen with a cup of coffee while looking at the boxes of dishes she had yet to unpack. A knock at the door proved to be a welcome distraction from the task at hand. When she pulled the door open, she found a woman standing outside whom she didn’t recognize.
“Can I help you?” Justine asked.
“You must be Justine,” the woman said. “I’m Valerie Lamont. The building owner. We spoke on the phone a few times.”
“Oh, Valerie, hi,” Justine said. “Sorry, I’m not really awake yet. Would you like to come in for some coffee?”
“Thank you, but no,” the woman said and handed her piece of paper. “I just wanted to drop by and give you this. And to welcome you to the building, of course. Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes,” Justine said and glanced at the paper. Her eyes widened. “A rent increase? But I signed a lease.”
“That was before I had a chance to have the complex properly appraised,” Valerie said. She was a feisty, beautiful woman of forty-three with Italian features and shoulder-length brown hair. A long, summery dress and gold sandals delicately placed between perfectly pedicured toes gave her a youthful glow. “Now that I have, I’m well within my rights to authorize rent increases. My lawyer checked into it, so if you have any questions—“
“No, that’s fine,” Justine said through pursed lips. She suddenly didn’t think her new landlord was as friendly as she’d originally thought. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Have a nice day,” Valerie said. As she turned to leave, she saw Andrea and Sueann approaching. “Oh, hello again, ladies.”
They stood outside of Justine’s door as Valerie made her way from apartment to apartment with her stack of rent increase notices. Shaking her head, Andrea turned toward Justine.
“I see she got you too,” she said, holding up her own notice. “Welcome to the building, right?”
Justine just laughed with a shrug as she dropped the paper to her side. “Yeah.”
“Anyway, I’m Andrea Davenport. I live next door.”
“Justine Harris,” the new tenant replied politely.
“I never got a chance to ask what you do, Justine,” Sueann said. “Did you move to L.A. for work?”
“I’m actually looking for a job,” Justine told her.
“What kind of work do you do?” Andrea asked. “I’m a Junior Editor at Empirical Press. Sueann works there too. If you want, we can put a word in for you. You might have to start at the bottom and work your way up, but—“
“Actually, I have an interview today, but thank you for the offer.”
“Where’s the interview?” Sueann wanted to know.
“The Fletcher Foundation,” Justine replied. “I have experience in fundraising so I feel good about it. Though the world of publishing does sound pretty exciting. I’d love to hear more about it sometime.”
“Are you interested in literature?” Andrea asked.
Justine shrugged. “I love a good novel.”
Andrea scoffed. “Well, we work mostly with non-fiction writers. Don’t suppose you have a deep dark secret in your past that you want to write a book about, do you?”
Justine stared off into a daze. “Nothing that I’d want published,” she said. “But yeah, don’t we all?”
Steve answered the door wearing nothing but a towel around his waist, his bare skin dripping wet from the shower. When he saw a beautiful, older woman standing on the other side of the door flashing a document bearing his name and apartment number, he became immediately distracted.
“Hi,” he said, standing in the doorway with one arm on the towel and one on the top of the door.
“Steve? Hi, I’m Valerie Lamont, the new building owner. This is for you.”
He took the piece of paper from her and rolled his eyes. “A rent increase? Great.”
Shifting on her feet, she smiled coquettishly. “It’s a standard increase. You really shouldn’t see another one for at least a year. I’m also updating all the tenant files. How long have you lived in the building?”
“Almost a year,” he said, immediately detecting the way she was looking at him and decided to use it to his advantage. “So you’re the new owner, huh? Listen, I wanted to talk to you about a little thing from my past. The previous owner didn’t seem to have a problem with it, and I was kind of hoping that you wouldn’t either. I’m a decent guy. I sometimes come on a little strong, but I’m harmless. Ask anybody in the building. Well, maybe not anybody…”
Valerie smiled, enjoying the show he was putting on. The towel was just low enough for her to see traces of a treasure trail leading from his washboard stomach to what she assumed—judging from the placement of the towel—was a very large penis.
“Just how little is this thing from your past?” she asked, with a flirtatious edge to her voice. “Are you a murderer? A rapist?”
“I would never hurt a woman,” he insisted.
“Are you on the run from the law?” she pressed.
He smiled. “Me and the law are good right now.”
Valerie shrugged. “Well, I think everyone’s entitled to a second chance, so consider yourself on probation for the time being. I’ll let you know my final decision.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Say, did you say your name was Lamont? As in Jonas Lamont, the old movie producer? Are you related?”
She looked him up and down once more and avoided his question. “Just keep your nose out of trouble, Mancuso. I’ll be watching you.”
As she turned to walk away, he grinned, wondering if that was such a bad thing. As it turned out, their new landlord was a bit of a vixen—and extremely sexy.
Across the courtyard, Courtney watched Steve’s apartment through the blinds. Lifting her cup of coffee to her lips, she watched the interaction with him and the new landlord with great interest.
“Somebody’s about to get free rent,” she mused.
“What?” Brian asked as he flipped through channels on the television.
“Steve and the new landlord, Valerie,” Courtney observed. “They’ve spent the last five minutes eye fucking each other. No doubt he’ll use this to his advantage like he does everything. I mean, she’s a little old for him, but that never stopped him before.”
Brian sighed and dropped the remote onto the sofa. “I see not much has changed around here. Neighbors still spying on each other through the blinds. Leave Steve alone. That guy’s bad news anyway.”
“You barely know him,” Courtney said while walking across the room to the kitchen counter in her short bathrobe and opening the newspaper. “These people are my friends, remember? They all accepted you. You’d think you could do the same.”
Ruffling his tousled hair, Brian glowered at his wife. “Does that go for you and Brett too?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It means every time he’s around you have some comment to make about him. It’s important to me that he’s in my life, Courtney. I mean, he’s accepted our marriage and that we want to make this work.”
“Has he?” she asked. “Accepted our marriage, I mean. Because it seems to me like he still thinks I’m just one of his baby brother’s bad decisions.”
“He doesn’t think that,” Brian said. “He just wants me to be happy. And I just want the two of you to get along. Do you think you can do that?”
Courtney sighed. “Fine. It’s not worth arguing about anyway. This is Brett Armstrong we’re talking about.”
Brian grinned as he watched her walk back into the bedroom to change for work. He did want nothing more than for his wife and his family to get along. If they could do that, then he would have no problem getting along with the fellow residents at Villa Marina. How bad could they be, anyway?
“Did you get your rent increase?” Luke asked as he stared out the window of Josh’s office downtown at Davenport Financial.
“Andrea texted me about it this morning,” Josh replied as he sorted through papers on his desk. “Mancuso’s already worried about the new owner. He stopped me yesterday and asked if I’d erase something off his police record. Can you believe that? I mean, what is it with this guy, anyway?”
Luke rolled his eyes while thinking about the night before in Steve’s apartment. He was still beating himself up over the way he’d fallen for the guy’s cruel game. “Yeah, when it comes to Steve, I can believe anything.”
“He’ll probably convince her to let him stay in the building,” Josh went on, fussing with the knot in his tie. He hated getting so dressed up every day. This was L.A.—nobody wore a suit and tie. But Andrea’s father insisted everyone at his firm always look immaculate. Another reason to hate working as a financial advisor for his father-in-law.
“Steve will use his looks to get as far as he can in the world, and by the time that stops working, he’ll be too far along in the game to care.”
Josh chuckled. “You really think he’s that good looking?”
Luke said nothing about the incident from the night before. Even he had his pride. “Are you kidding? He’s gorgeous.”
Shrugging, Josh stood up and grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. “I don’t see it.”
“Well then you’re the only one,” Luke told him. “Everyone in the building knows how hot Steve Mancuso is. Including Andrea, I bet.”
“Andrea does not think that,” Josh protested.
“Andrea doesn’t think what?” Andrea asked when she suddenly appeared, pushing the office door open and barreling inside.
Smiling at his wife’s radiant appearance, Josh walked over and kissed her on the cheek. “Nothing. What are you doing here?”
“No really,” Andrea said, glancing between him and Luke. “What were you guys saying about me?”
“We were talking about Steve and how everyone in the building thinks he’s drop dead gorgeous,” Luke said. “Including you.”
“Me?” Andrea asked, then shook her head. “Oh no. Steve’s okay but I prefer my gorgeous husband.” She punctuated the proclamation by slipping her arms around Josh’s waist and pulling him into a kiss.
“Are you sure?” Josh asked, grinning between kisses.
“Absolutely.” She looked at Luke at winked, then offered a good-natured smile. “So I thought I’d stop by and see if you wanted to go to lunch.”
“Oh, Luke and I were going to go to lunch,” Josh told her.
“That’s okay,” Luke said and turned away from the window. “I should get back to the campaign headquarters anyway. Anytime I’m gone for too long all hell breaks loose. We’ll do it next time. “
“You sure?” Josh asked.
“Yep,” he said, patting him on the back and sliding past Andrea on the way out. “Later gorgeous.”
“Bye Luke,” Andrea said.
He stopped before leaving. “I was talking to your husband,” he said with a wink.
After he’d gone, Josh laughed and checked his pocket for his keys. “Ready?”
“Hold on,” Andrea said and pulled him closer. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t mad about this morning. I didn’t like how we left things.”
“I’m not mad,” he said with a shake of his head. “It’s just hard being so not in control of my life. I appreciate what your father has done for me, but—“
“But you miss working for yourself and doing what you love doing—I get it. I’m sorry that I don’t always see it.”
“I love you,” Josh said and kissed her. “You’re the best wife in the world. Especially for protecting my ego about Steve.”
“I wasn’t protecting your ego,” Andrea said. “I think you’re way better looking than Steve.” She traced a finger down his chest, pausing at the waistband of his pants. “As a matter of fact, why don’t we put off lunch and I’ll show you how much you turn me on?”
Grinning from ear to ear, Josh began unbuttoning his shirt, leaving his tie dangling loosely around his neck while Andrea went to lock the door. She raced to the desk and pulled him toward her, throwing her head back in ecstasy as he kissed the nape of her neck. When he dropped his pants, he lifted her onto the edge of the desk and pulled her skirt up to her waist. He took her fast and furiously, drilling his erection into her, making sure to hit all the right spots with expert precision.
Having a corner office at his father-in-law’s firm did have its advantages, Josh thought with a grin as he brought Andrea to an explosive orgasm.
Justine’s interview was at a beautiful brick home in Brentwood surrounded by a black iron gate and lush green lawns. She was surprised when Charlene Fletcher herself conducted the interview, and then led her through a massive tour of the home, which doubled as the headquarters for the Fletcher Foundation.
“You have a beautiful home, Mrs. Fletcher,” Justine said, walking across the marble tiled foyer that emptied into a large comfortable sitting room. She observed everything from the prints that hung on the walls to the curve of the staircase banister. “Have you lived here long?”
“Just a couple of years,” the woman replied. She was more beautiful than Justine had imagined. Charlene Fletcher was fifty years-old, had blond hair, kind eyes, and a calming voice that made Justine feel strangely welcome and comforted. “My husband and I love the area.”
“You’re married?” Justine asked in surprise.
“Yes, we’ve been married for about three years. He dabbles in real estate. He doesn’t get involved much in foundation business. You said you were new in L.A.? Where are you living?”
“I just moved into an apartment in Marina Del Rey,” Justine replied distantly.
Charlene appeared to be impressed. “Nice neighborhood.”
“Oh,” Justine said with a chortle. “No, it’s nothing fancy. It’s a couple of blocks inland so there’s no ocean views to speak of. But it’s comfortable and the rent is actually very affordable.”
“I always said if I didn’t have a family I would move to the Marina and live in a high rise,” Charlene told her. “That kind of life has always appealed to me.”
“Family?” Justine’s eyes diverted to a table across the room where two framed photos of small children sat. She walked closer and lifted one of the pictures. “Are these your children?”
“They’re my husband’s from his first marriage,” Charlene told her. “Ariel is nine and Dalton is seven. They live with their mother most of the time, but they share custody, so every other weekend I get to play step-mother. They’re really great kids.”
Justine stared at the pictures and then lowered her eyes. “You don’t have any children of your own?”
Her question went unanswered as the maid interrupted. “Your next appointment is here, Mrs. Fletcher.”
“Thank you, Louise,” Charlene said. She turned to Justine and extended her hand. “Well, it was very nice meeting you, Justine. Your qualifications are impeccable. I have a few more interviews to get through, but I should have an answer in a few days.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Fletcher,” Justine said and shook her hand. She took a final look around the picture-perfect house. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
Charlene walked her to the front door. “Have I answered all of your questions about the position?”
“Yes,” Justine said, pausing for effect before leaving. “It’s been a very eye-opening experience.”
Two blocks from the apartment complex was the marina itself, a gigantic harbor surrounded by high-rise condos, hotels, apartments, restaurant and shopping. Morgan Gallo sunbathed on the deck of Steve’s eighty foot Lazzara yacht as it sat docked beneath the mellow afternoon sun. The stereo blasted as Steve polished the chrome toe rails, his bare torso glossy with sweat. As he worked, he kept a watchful eye on Morgan as she lay oblivious to his stares several feet away. Her long legs outstretched, her toes pointed, suntan oil dripping from her perfectly flat stomach, and the way her tiny pink string bikini covered just what was necessary for public viewing. He yearned to be head first between her legs, savoring every ounce of her juices, letting his hands work their way around her perfectly taut body.
He imagined what it would be like to free her of her bikini, her large brown nipples working their way into his mouth, the plush sensation of his rock hard dick sinking into her wet vagina. Morgan was a flower he’d longed to pluck. She’d moved into the building only shortly after he did, and he was treading very carefully. She was a model and like most models, extremely wary of being taken advantage of. One wrong move and he could scare her off for good. He’d been around long enough to know how it worked: gain their trust, make them feel like you’re their best friend, and then make your move—as long as she was into it too. A few more invitations to spend an afternoon sunbathing on The Blue Canary—his father’s pride and joy that sat unused most of the year—and Morgan would be begging for him to ease her out of her swimsuit. He was sure of it.
“How does it look?” Morgan asked, staring upwards, eyes squinting through the sun.
“Incredible,” he said, practically salivating, unable to take his eyes off of her.
Finally, Morgan sat up. “It should. You’ve been polishing the same spot for half an hour.”
It took a second for Steve to realize what she was talking about. “Oh, yeah,” he said with a laugh, then stood up, sweat dripping from his ripped abs. “I think it’s good.”
“You sure do spend a lot of time taking care of this thing,” Morgan said.
He shrugged and took a swig from a nearby bottle of beer. “It’s kind of an arrangement with my dad. He lets me use it if I keep it cleaned up for him. Eventually I’d like to buy it from him. You know, have something of my own.”
“Don’t you think you should buy a house or a condo first? You can’t live at Villa Marina forever.”
“Why not?” Steve asked with a grin, again eyeing her up and down. “The neighbors are friendly enough.”
She laughed as well, not at all missing what was really going on. She knew Steve only invited her to spend time on the yacht so he could put the moves on her. She may be blond, and what some would call a dumb model, but she wasn’t born yesterday. The truth was, she saw through a lot of his B.S. and knew that there was a nice guy deep down inside. She doubted that he even knew that part of him existed. But over the past few months she’d come to enjoy hanging out with him. Did she want to sleep with him? Yes, of course. He was gorgeous. But her mother, a former model herself, always cautioned her about men. If you want a man to eat out of the palm of your hand, it’s best to put away the sugar. Morgan wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but she got the basic point. Keep ‘em wanting more. Besides, they were neighbors, and sleeping together would complicate everything.
“Except when it comes to Luke,” Morgan said. “What was that crap you pulled on him the other night? What’s he ever done to you?”
“Luke knows I was just joking around with him,” Steve said. “That’s kind of our thing. I joke around about him being bi, he pouts and acts all hurt for a few days, and then he gets over it because he knows I’m just such a charming, handsome guy.”
Morgan couldn’t help but smile. Officially, she was annoyed by his attitude, but it was hard to stay mad at him.
They were interrupted when a voice down on the dock caught Steve’s attention. He turned and saw Valerie Lamont standing below, dressed casually in mega short shorts, a practically see-through halter top, and her hair tucked into a neon baseball cap.
“She’s back,” Steve said with a grin. “How’d you find me?”
“Someone at the building told me you’d probably be here,” Valerie called up to him. “Listen, I need your help. My movers showed up with a truck load of my stuff and then took off. Something about labor laws. They can’t come back until tomorrow. I’ve got all my stuff sitting in a hot truck and I just want to get it into my apartment.”
“You didn’t say you were moving into the building,” Steve said.
She shrugged. “Well now you know. Look, will you help me? I can’t get another crew here on short notice.”
“You want me to move your stuff in for you?” Steve asked, a grin spread across his face. “I don’t know. I kinda got my hands full here.”
Valerie watched Morgan come up behind him. “Yeah, I can see that,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “You gonna make me beg? Come on.”
Steve knelt down to the wooden deck. “Does this mean you’ll do me that favor we talked about earlier?”
“Forget it,” Steve said, knowing she was playing games. “If you don’t remember our conversation, then—“
“All right, all right,” she said. “Fine. We have a deal. I’ll forget about…whatever skeletons you have buried in your past if you come move my stuff for me now.”
Steve nodded. “Just give me a couple of minutes,” he said and turned to Morgan. “Sorry, babe, I’ve got work to do.”
Morgan regarded him curiously. “What was she talking about? What secret from your past?”
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?” Steve asked, grabbing his shirt from the guardrail and dashing off to the steps.
After lunch, Josh drove Andrea back downtown to Empirical Press and accompanied her up to the twenty-third floor. As they stepped off the elevator, the receptionist handed Andrea a fistful of messages.
“Am I late for the marketing meeting?” she asked.
“You have five minutes,” the receptionist said.
Andrea turned back to Josh and smiled. “So am I forgiven?”
He pretended to think about it. “Let’s see—amazing sex in my office which you know has always been my fantasy, followed by lunch at Grand Central Market? Yeah, I’d say you’re forgiven.”
“See you tonight?”
He nodded and squeezed her hand as she flew back to the bullpen where her desk was located. Just as he turned to get back on the elevator, the doors slid open and Sueann Turner walked off, immediately bumping into him.
“Are you okay?” Josh asked. “Oh, Sueann, hi.”
“Hi,” she said, flustered. “Yeah, no, I’m fine. I do need to watch where I’m going though. Are you here to see Andrea?”
“No, we just got back from having lunch. Have you eaten? We should have brought you something.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Sueann said. “I barely have time to eat lately with my workload.”
“Well, don’t work too hard.” He slid past her, placed a hand on her shoulder as he did, and disappeared into the elevator.
After he’d gone, Sueann became flushed. Why was it that anytime she got near Josh Ridgemont, she felt like a babbling schoolgirl? Probably because she’d had a major crush on him since she moved into the building and started working with his wife. So not only did she have to see how happy they were back at the apartment building, but she had to see it and hear about it at work too.
That night, Courtney paced back and forth across the living room of her apartment, stopping to peer out the window every time she heard footsteps in the courtyard. Frazzled, she balled her fists at her waist and silently cursed to herself. When the door opened and Brian entered a few minutes later, she turned and threw her hands up in frustration.
“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded. “You were off work two hours ago.”
“Huh?” Brian asked with a frown.
“Your schedule is right here on the refrigerator,” she said, stomping into the kitchen and pointing to the scrap of paper attached to the door with a banana magnet. “What have you been doing for the past two hours since you got off from your shift at the Yacht Club?”
Sighing with aggravation, Brian went to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer from the top shelf. “I didn’t know I had a curfew,” he mused. “I stuck around and had a drink with the owner.”
“We’re supposed to be married,” Courtney reminded him. “Not to mention the fact that you just moved back in. I can’t believe you would rather drink beer with your boss than come home to your wife. What’s going on here? Are we making a mistake?”
Brian took a swig from the bottle and dropped his hands to his sides in resentment. “It’s so typical of you to jump to that conclusion,” he said. “It just so happens that we were talking about my future with the company. I don’t plan on being a bartender for the rest of my life, you know.”
The accusatory tone in Courtney’s voice quickly diminished. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“No, because you always think the worst of me.”
“I do not. Look, I’m just as new to all of this as you are. Give me a break, Brian, we got married so we didn’t have to testify against each other. It’s not like we had this big romance.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said. “I was crazy about you from the moment I laid eyes on you. I wanted to marry you. Not for the reasons we did, but I wanted to. Now I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re making a mistake.”
“Brian—“ she called after him, but it was too late. He slammed his beer on the breakfast bar and stormed back out of the apartment.
Across the courtyard, Justine busied herself with unpacking boxes in her living room. She lifted a stack of books from inside one box and placed them on the built-in shelf in the nook behind the sofa. From another box she found the Aztec-print blanket that she threw over the back of the armchair. Beneath the blanket, buried at the bottom of the box, was a picture of a ten-year-old girl kissing a man on the cheek, both with happy, goofy expressions on their faces. A tear welled up in Justine’s eyes as she looked at how happy they seemed. Rising to her feet, she walked across the room and tucked the picture inside the front cover of a book. Moments later, her cell phone rang.
“Hello?” she asked after grabbing the device from between the sofa cushions.
“Justine, it’s Charlene Fletcher,” said the woman on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry for calling so late, but I was so excited to tell you the news that I didn’t want to wait until morning.”
“That’s okay,” Justine said, peering outside when she heard doors slamming. She spotted Brian, her married neighbor from across the courtyard, tearing off around the building to the parking lot. “I was actually just unpacking.”
“Well, I finished the interviews for the position and I’m happy to say that you were my top choice,” Charlene reported. “As a matter of fact, no one even came close to matching your enthusiasm and experience.”
“Wow, really?” Justine asked.
“Yes,” Charlene said, obviously pleased. “I’d like to officially offer you the position. Assuming you’re still interested, that is. And I really hope that you are.”
“Of course I’m still interested,” Justine replied with a smile. “That’s great. Thank you so much, Mrs. Fletcher.”
“My pleasure,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to working with you, Justine. Do you think you could come in tomorrow to fill out some paperwork? Then we can talk about an official start date.”
“Absolutely. I’ll be there.”
“Great. I look forward to working with you.”
“You too,” Justine said and slowly hung up the phone. She walked back to the bookshelf and removed the picture of the man and the young girl. Staring at it closely, she took a deep breath, relieved that things were coming together so quickly.
After storming out, Brian wandered around aimlessly until he came to a crowded bowling alley a couple of blocks from the apartment. He’d passed it a hundred times and had always meant to stop and check it out. Bowling alleys reminded him of his childhood. The good part.
“Do you remember that bowling alley back home in Henderson?” he asked Brett after calling him and asking him to meet him there. “My mom and your dad used to take us there sometimes on Saturday nights. We’d scarf greasy hamburgers and French fries and we’d bowl all night.” Seated at the bar, he stared out at the busy lanes packed with people. The thunder of the balls hitting the pins reminded him of a simpler time—a time that he strangely sometimes cherished despite their upbringing.
“Until I got old enough and started sneaking off to the supply closet with Devon,” Brett said with a laugh while tipping back a bottle of beer.
Brian laughed. “I forgot that’s where you met her. What were you doing back there anyway?”
Brett gave his brother a wry grin. “What do you think? Sneaking beer, having sex. But I know what you mean, those were some of the only happy times we ever had as a family. Sad.”
“Yeah,” Brian said distantly.
When a cute waitress with a short haircut, glasses, and a choker came up to clear their empty bottles, she let her hand rest tentatively on Brian’s shoulder. “Let me get these out of the way for your guys,” she said. “Can I get you another round?”
Brian nodded and slapped a twenty on the bar. “I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon,” he said.
“With a face like that?” the waitress said with a wink. “I don’t believe it, sweetie.”
After she departed, Brett nudged his brother with a slight grin. “She was so hitting on you,” he said. “And she’s cute.”
“What?” Brett asked. “I’m just saying.”
“No, you’re not. You’re trying to push me to flirt with that waitress because you don’t like Courtney.”
“All right, no, I don’t like Courtney,” Brett said. “And can you blame me when she makes you feel like this? It’s not two days after you moved back in with her and you’re already storming out calling me to commiserate with.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up,” he told him. “We had a fight. I needed my big brother to talk to. Can’t you just do that for me and not pass judgement against my wife?”
Brett sighed and held up a hand in resignation. “Yes,” he said. “Of course I can. Can you blame me if I just want the best for you? You’ve come so far since Henderson and I just want you to be happy, but it doesn’t seem like you are.”
“I’m happy,” Brian said. “From time to time I just need someone to listen and not pass judgement.”
“So what do you want to do? You can’t storm out every time you and Courtney have a fight. Married couples try to work things out, even when they don’t see eye to eye. I could never do it, which is why neither of my marriages lasted. But can you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’d better figure it out,” Brett cautioned him. “Is this marriage really what you want?”
Brian took a deep breath, staring at the waitress as she walked toward them with two beers on a tray.
Steve finished hanging the flat screen over the fireplace in Valerie’s apartment while she stood back making sure it was even.
“I think that looks good,” she said, taking a step to the left, and then to the right. “Yeah, I like it.”
“Good, because I’ve already rehung it three times and if you said it wasn’t even once more I was going to let you do it yourself,” he said with exasperation.
Valerie glowered at him. “You could be a little more grateful, you know. I was willing to overlook your past indiscretions and—“ Suddenly, she stopped short, leaning down and rubbing her leg in pain. “Damnit!”
Steve could see she was about to fall, so he swept in and stopped her before she hit the floor. “Are you okay?”
“Damn cramp,” she muttered, wincing in pain as he carried her to the overstuffed coral sofa across the room. “I get them when I’ve been on my feet a lot.”
Carefully, he lay her down on the sofa and massaged her leg and foot. “Better?”
She took a few deep breaths. “Yeah, thank you.” She attempted to sit up, but realized he wasn’t about to give up playing doctor. His hands massaged her thigh and worked their way down to her calves and then to the balls of her feet. She couldn’t remember being so relaxed in a long time, or as turned on.
“You have great legs,” Steve said, eyeing her seductively as he dug his thick fingers into her milky flesh. “And what is that intoxicating scent?” He took in a deep breath, inhaling her aroma.
“Just me,” she said, then shook her head dismissively. “Look, my cramp’s gone. You can stop now.”
His eyes locked onto hers. “Do you want me to stop?”
Raising an eyebrow, she suddenly became all-too aware that he was seducing her. She could easily see herself sleeping with him. Steve Mancuso was like so many younger guys in L.A.—horny and eager to please. While she could easily take advantage of that and use him for her own needs, she wasn’t sure that it was a good idea.
Closing her eyes, she threw her head back when he closed his perfect lips around her toe and swirled his tongue expertly around it. From there, he moved up her calf and kissed her inner thigh all the way to the wetness between her legs. Sighing heavily, she nearly had an orgasm on the spot.
Yes, she could definitely get used to living so close to Steve. He could do things to her that no man had in a very long time.
Outside by the pool, Justine sat in a lounge chair beneath the moonlight reading a recent newspaper write-up on Charlene Fletcher. She studied up on everything the woman had ever done, from starting the Fletcher Foundation to marrying her slightly younger trophy husband and becoming a mother to his two children. She’d done so much fantasizing about this day that she couldn’t believe she was actually going to be working for her.
“You look like you could use a drink,” a voice said from above.
Justine looked up and saw her neighbor, Sueann holding a bottle of beer out to her while sipping from one herself.
“Thanks,” Justine said and graciously accepted the beverage. “I’ve been so busy since I moved in I haven’t had the chance to go to the store.”
Smiling, Sueann lowered herself into the lounger beside her. “Totally understandable. Well listen, if there’s anything you need, let me know. I keep pretty stocked up. I have one of those shoppers’ warehouse cards.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Justine said. She liked Sueann. She got a good vibe from her. She was sweet, wholesome, and obviously very interested in their neighbor, Josh Ridgemont, because she continuously stared into his and Andrea’s apartment. “Everything okay?”
“Huh?” Sueann asked, turning away from the silouettes in the window that had caught her attention. “Oh, yeah. So how did that job interview go?”
“Good. I got it.”
“That’s great,” Sueann said with genuine excitement. “In L.A. for two days and already landed a job. It took me at least three months to find something.”
“Do you like working at Empirical?” Justine asked.
“I do,” she replied, pushing her long blond hair from her ears as she brought her knees up to her chest. “I’ve always loved books and literature. It’s my life, really. In high school and college I wasn’t what you’d call popular, so books were kind of my social life. Sad, isn’t it?”
Justine smiled warmly. “Not at all.” She grew into a daze as she looked up at the night sky.
“What’s the last book you read?” Sueann asked curiously.
Taking a deep breath, Justine continued staring up at the moonlit sky. “Oh, it was a real tear-jerker,” she began. “It was a story of a young girl—ten years old—who thought she had the most perfect life of anyone in the world. She thought she had everything. A mother, a father, a house with a picket fence. They called themselves the Three Musketeers.”
Sueann listened fondly, always one to enjoy hearing about a book she hadn’t been exposed to before.
“Then one day the little girls’ whole world went crashing around her,” Justine continued. “Her mother left them. Just packed up her things one day and took off never to be heard from again. The girls’ father tried his best to make a life for him and his daughter, but he grew into a deep depression. He lost his job, his money, the house with the picket fence. The girl was shuffled into the foster system while he got help in a mental institution. Until he got a day pass and put a shotgun in his mouth, that is.”
“Wow,” Sueann said, entranced by the story. “What ever happened to the mother?”
Justine smiled bitterly. “The daughter tracked her down years later. She found out that her mother had abandoned her and her father because she was about to inherit her father’s estate. Her father didn’t approve of her husband, and therefore didn’t approve of her daughter, so he withheld the inheritance unless she left them. And that’s exactly what she did. “
“Did the daughter ever confront her?”
Justine felt her eyes glaze over with tears. She stifled them back, nodding along with a smile. “I’ll let you know when I get to that part.”
Before Sueann could pry her for more information, they saw Brian bounding from the back of the building and flying into his and Courtney’s apartment.
“Wow, he’s in a hurry,” Sueann said. “Wonder what’s going on with him and Courtney. They’ve only been back together for two days. Couldn’t be trouble in paradise already.”
When Brian walked through the door, he found two suitcases and a few boxes of his belongings sitting in the living room. Courtney came out of the bedroom carrying his surfboard and thrust it at him angrily.
“I’ll ask Ryder to drop off anything I forgot to Brett’s condo,” she said. “I’m assuming that’s where you’ll be staying.”
“Court—“ he began with regret. He knew he shouldn’t have stormed out earlier. Already things were going so wrong with their marriage.
“Save it,” she interrupted. “Look, if you don’t want to make this marriage work, then I’m not going to put myself out there. I don’t want to get hurt again, least of all by you. Now take your shit and—“
Before she could finish her threat, Brian rushed forward and pulled her into a deep, passionate kiss. She struggled for a moment or two, but then succumbed to his animalistic desires.
“Brian!” she protested with little effort.
“I love you,” he said. “And I do want this to work.”
“Are you sure? Because—“
He kissed her again. “Let me prove to you how much—“
Suddenly, red and blue flashing lights from outside the back of the building filled the apartment.
“What the—“ Courtney began, blinded by the strobe effect.
Brian peered out the kitchen window and saw two police cars and a third unmarked car. “Something’s going down,” he said, then walked across the living room and through the door to the courtyard. Courtney followed fast on his heels.
Outside, Sueann and Justine were standing at attention, immediately curious when two men in black suits and a handful of uniformed police officers made their way into the courtyard. They exchanged uncertain glances with Brian and Courtney across the way.
Meanwhile, the door to Valerie’s apartment opened and she walked outside with Steve stumbling behind, pulling his shirt over his head and buttoning his jeans. A few wary glances from neighbors in the courtyard confirmed he wasn’t hiding anything from them. The sight of the police force marching through the courtyard sent his heart racing out of habit.
The men in suits went directly to apartment 3B and knocked firmly. Moments later, the door opened and Josh answered.
“Josh Ridgemont?” one of the men asked.
Josh nodded nervously while neighbors whispered amongst each other. “Yeah.”
“I’m Agent Pembleton. This is Agent Machado. We’re with the FBI.” He produced a folded piece of paper and handed it to him. “We have a warrant for your arrest.”
“What?” Josh exclaimed, bewildered as the police officers handcuffed him. Behind, Andrea appeared in a short bathrobe, pulling the thin fabric tautly around her body. “There’s got to be some mistake.”
“I’m afraid not,” Agent Pembleton said. “You’re being charged on three counts of using a computer to commit a felony. Your hacker days are over, buddy.”
“Josh, what are they talking?” Andrea exclaimed, watching as they led her husband through the courtyard. She ran her fingers through her long blond hair and then dropped her hands to her sides in frustration. “Look, I’ll find a lawyer. Just hold on till I can get there.”
Alarmed by the developments, Sueann went to her and offered a shoulder to lean on. Ryder strolled from his apartment as Brian and Courtney watched in shock. Valerie raised a curious eyebrow, pulling Steve back inside while Andrea sobbed on Sueann’s shoulder.
“Never gets old around here, does it?” Brian asked Courtney.
“Keeps it interesting,” she said before going back inside with him and closing the door.
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