Seven years later
Leave it to a female to think the rules did not apply to her.
The little heathen from next door was crawling under the split-rail fence that separated the cottages again. Dax, who already had been feeling pretty damn grumpy going on a year now, wondered why she didn’t just go over the fence. She was big enough. It was almost as if she wanted the mud on her dress and her knees, to drag the ends of her dark red ponytails through the muck.
She crawled under, stood up, and knocked the caked mud off her knees. She stomped her pink, sparkly cowboy boots—never had he seen a more impractical shoe—to make them light up, as she liked to do, hopping around her porch several times a day.
Then she started for cottage Number Two, arms swinging, stride long.
Dax watched her from inside his kitchen, annoyed. It had started a week ago, when she’d climbed on the bottom railing of the fence, leaned over it, and shouted, “I like your dog!”
He’d ignored her.
Two days ago he’d asked her, fairly politely, not to give any more cheese to his dog, Otto. That little stunt of hers had resulted in a very long and malodorous night between man and beast.
Yesterday he’d commanded her to stay on her side of the fence.
But here the little monster came, apparently neither impressed with him nor intimidated by his warnings.
Well, Dax had had enough with that family, or whatever the situation was next door. And the enormous pickup truck that showed up at seven a.m. and idled in the drive just outside his bedroom window. Those people were exactly what was wrong with America—people doing whatever they wanted without regard for anyone else, letting their kids run wild, coming and going at all hours of the day.
He walked to the back screen door and opened it. He’d installed a dog door, but Otto refused to use it. No, Otto was a precious buttercup of a dog that liked to have his doors opened for him, and he assumed that anytime his master neared the door, Dax was opening it for him. He assumed so now, stepping in front of Dax—pausing to stretch after his snoring nap—before sauntering out and down the back porch steps to sniff something at the bottom.
Dax walked out onto the porch and stood with his hands on his hips as the girl brazenly advanced.
“Hi!” she said.
She was about to learn that she couldn’t make a little girl’s social call whenever she wanted. There were rules in this world, and Dax had no compunction about teaching them to her. Clearly someone needed to. He responded to her greeting with a glower.
“Hi!” she said again, shouting this time, as if he hadn’t heard her from the tremendous distance of about six feet.
“What’d I tell you yesterday?” he asked.
“To stay on the other side of the fence.”
“Then why are you over here?”
“I forgot.” She rocked back on her heels and balanced on them, toes up. “Do you live there?”
“No, I just stand on the porch and guard the fence. Yes, I live here. And I work here. And I don’t want visitors. Now go home.”
“My name is Ruby Kokinos. What’s yours?”
What was wrong with this kid? “Where is your mother?”
“Then is your dad home?”
“My daddy is in Africa. He teaches cats to do tricks,” she said, pausing to twirl around on one heel. “Big cats, not little cats. They have really big cats in Africa.”
“Whatever,” he said impatiently. “Who is home with you right now?”
“Mrs. Miller. She’s watching TV. She said I could go outside.”
Great. A babysitter. “Go home,” he said, pointing to Number Three as Otto wandered over to examine Ruby Coconuts, or whatever her name was. “Go home and tell Mrs. Miller that you’re not allowed to come over or under that fence. Do you understand me?”
“What’s your dog’s name?” she asked, petting that lazy, useless mutt.
“Did you hear me?” Dax asked.
“Yes.” She giggled as Otto began to lick her hand, and went down on her knees to hug him. “I always always wanted a dog, but Mommy says I can’t have one now. Maybe when I’m big.” She stroked Otto’s nose, and the dog sat, settling in for some attention.
“Don’t pet the dog,” Dax said. “I just told you to go home. What else did I tell you to do?”
“To, um, to tell Mrs. Miller to stay over there,” she said, as she continued to pet the dog. “What’s her name?”
“It’s a he, and his name is Otto. And I told you to tell Mrs. Miller that you are supposed to stay over there. Now go on.”
She stopped petting the dog, and Otto, not ready for the gravy train of attention to end, began to lick her face. Ruby giggled with delight. Otto licked harder, like she’d been handling red meat. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise Dax if she had—the kid seemed like the type to be into everything. She was laughing uncontrollably now and fell onto her back. Otto straddled her, his tail wagging as hard as her feet were kicking, trying to lick her while she tried to hold him off.
Nope, this was not going to happen. Those two useless beings were not making friends. Dax marched down off the porch and grabbed Otto’s collar, shoving him out of the way. “Go,” he said to the dog, pointing to his cottage. Otto obediently lumbered away.
Dax turned his attention to the girl with the fantastically dark red hair in two uneven pigtails and, now that he was close to her, he could see her clear blue eyes through the round lenses of her blue plastic eyeglasses, which were strapped to her face with a headband. She looked like a very young little old lady. “Listen to me, kid. I don’t want you over here. I work here. Serious work. I can’t be entertaining little girls.”
She hopped to her feet. “What’s your name?”
Dax sighed. “If I tell you my name, will you go home?”
She nodded, her, long pigtails bouncing around her.
She stared at him.
“That’s my name,” he said with a shrug.
Ruby giggled and began to sway side to side. “That’s not a real name!”
“It’s as real as Ruby Coconuts.”
“Not Coconuts!” She squealed with delight. “It’s Ruby Kokinos.”
“Yeah, okay, but I’m pretty sure you said Coconuts. Now go home.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m a lot older than you,” he said and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her around.
“I’m going to be seven on my birthday. I want a Barbie for my birthday. I already have four. I want the one that has the car. The pink car with flowers on it. There’s a blue car, but I don’t want that one, I want the pink one, because it has flowers on it. Oh, and guess what, I don’t want a Jasmine anymore. That’s my favorite princess, but I don’t want her anymore, I want a Barbie like Taleesha has.”
“Great. Good luck with that,” he said as he moved her toward the fence.
“My shoes light up,” she informed him, stomping her feet as they moved. “My mom says they’re fancy. They’re my favorites. I have some sneakers, too, but they don’t light up.”
They had reached the fence, thank God, before the girl could give him a rundown of her entire shoe collection. Ruby dipped down, apparently thinking she’d go under again, but Dax caught her under her arms and swung her over the fence, depositing her on the other side.
Ruby laughed with delight. “Do that again!”
“No. This is where our acquaintance comes to an end, kid. I don’t have time to babysit you, get it?”
“Yes,” she said.
She didn’t get it. She wasn’t even listening. She had already climbed onto the bottom rail, as if she meant to come back over.
“I mean it,” he said, pointing at her. “If I find you on my side of the fence, I’m going to call the police.” He figured that ought to put the fear of God into her.
“The policemans are our friends,” she said sunnily. “A policeman and a police woman came to my kindergarten. But they never shot any peoples.”
Dax had a brief but potent urge to correct her understanding of how plurals worked, but he didn’t. He turned around and marched back to his cottage.
He didn’t even want to look out the kitchen window when he went inside, because if she’d come back over the fence, he would lose it.
He’d known that family was going to be trouble the moment they’d arrived a few days ago. They’d cost him a table leg he’d been working on, because they’d slammed a door so loudly and unexpectedly that Dax had started, and the permanent marker he was using to outline a very intricate pattern on said table leg had gone dashing off in a thick, black, indelible line down the leg. He’d had to sand the leg down and start again.
Naturally, he’d gone to investigate the source of the banging, and he’d seen a woman with a backpack strapped to her leaning into the open hatch area of a banged-up Subaru. She’d pulled out a box, hoisted it into her arms with the help of her knee, then had lugged it up the path and porch steps to Number Three. She’d been wearing short shorts, a T-shirt, and a ball cap. Dax hadn’t seen her face, but he’d seen her legs, which were nice and long and shapely, and a mess of dark hair about the same color as wrought iron, tangled up in the back of the cap. She’d managed to open the door, and then had gone in, letting the door bang behind her.
Neighbors. Dax was not a fan.
The door of Number Three had continued to bang away most of the afternoon, and Dax had been unable to work. He’d stood at the kitchen sink, eating from a can of peanuts, watching the woman jog down the front porch steps, then lug something else inside. He’d noticed other things about her. Like how her ass was bouncy and her figure had curves in all the right places, and how her T-shirt hugged her. He’d noticed that she looked really pretty from a distance, with wide eyes and dark brows and full lips.
Of course he’d also noticed the little monster, who’d spent most of the afternoon doing a clomp clomp clomp around the wooden porch in those damn pink cowboy boots.
Kids. If anything could make Dax grumpier, it was a cute kid.
He’d turned away from the window in a bit of a snit. Of course he was used to people renting any one of six East Beach Lake Cottages around him for a week or two, and usually they had kids. He much preferred the olds who took up weekly residence from time to time, couples with puffs of white hair, sensible shoes, and early bedtimes. Families on vacation were loud, their arguments drifting in through the windows Dax liked to keep open.
The cottages were at the wrong end of Lake Haven, which made them affordable. But they were at the right end of beauty—each of them faced the lake, and a private, sandy beach was only a hundred feet or so from their front porches. He’d been lucky to find this place, with its unused shed out back, which he’d negotiated to use. He had to remind himself that his setup was perfect when new people showed up and banged their doors open and shut all damn day.
Dax had realized that afternoon, as the banging had undone him, that the woman and kid were moving in—no one hauled that much crap into a cottage for a vacation. He’d peered out the kitchen window, trying to assess exactly how much stuff was going into that cottage. But by the time he did, the Subaru was closed up, and he didn’t see any signs of the woman and the kid.
He’d wandered outside for a surreptitious inspection of what the hell was happening next door when the door suddenly banged open and the mom came hurrying outside. She’d paused on the bottom step of the porch when she saw him. Her dark hair had spilled around her shoulders and her legs had taunted him, all smooth and shapely and long in those short shorts. Don’t look, those legs shouted at him. Don’t look, you pervert, don’t look! Dax hadn’t looked. He’d studied the keys in her hand.
“Hi,” she’d said uncertainly.
She kept smiling. Dax kept standing there like an imbecile. She leaned a little and looked around him, to Number Two. “Are you my neighbor?”
“What? Oh, ah . . . yeah. I’m Dax.”
“Hi, Dax. I’m Kyra,” she’d said. That smile of hers, all sparkly and bright, had made him feel funny inside. Like he’d eaten one of those powdered candies that crackled when it hit your mouth.
“I wondered about my neighbors. It’s pretty quiet around here. I saw a car in front of one the cottages down there,” she said, pointing.
“Five,” he said.
He’d suddenly felt weirdly conspicuous, seeing as how he was standing around with nothing to do. “That’s Five,” he said, to clarify.
“You’re in Three. I’m in Two.”
He’d been instantly alarmed by what he was doing, explaining the numbering system on a series of six cottages. She’d looked as if she’d expected him to say more. When he hadn’t said anything, but sort of nodded like a mute, she’d said, “Okay, well . . . nice to meet you,” and had hurried on to her car much like a woman would hurry down a dark street with some stranger walking briskly behind her. She opened the door, leaned in . . . nice view . . . then emerged holding a book. She locked the door, then ran past him with a weird wave before disappearing inside.
Dax had told himself to get a grip. There was nothing to panic over.
He hadn’t panicked until much later that afternoon, when he’d happened to glance outside and had seen a respectable pile of empty moving boxes on the front porch and the little monster trying to build a house out of them.
That was definitely a long-term stay. And he didn’t like that, not one bit.
He’d managed to keep busy and avoid his new neighbors for a few days, but then, yesterday, the truck had shown up, treating him to the sound of a large HEMI engine idling near his bedroom window.
He’d let it pass, would have figured it was someone visiting.
But it happened again. Just now.
Dax was in the middle of a good dream when that damn truck pulled in and groggily opened his eyes, noticed the time. It was a good hour before he liked to get up. Was this going to be a regular thing, then? He groaned and looked to his right; Otto was sitting next to the bed, staring at Dax, his tail thumping. “Use the damn dog door, Otto,” he tried, but that had only excited the dog. He jumped up and put his big mutt paws on Dax.
With a grunt, Dax had pushed the dog aside, then staggered into the kitchen. He heaped some dog food into a metal bowl and put it on the ground. In the time it took him to fire up the coffeepot, Otto had eaten his food and was standing at the back door, patiently waiting.
Dax opened the door. He glanced over to Three. The Subaru was gone, and he couldn’t help wonder who was driving that massive red truck. A husband? A dad? Jesus, he hoped the guy wasn’t the chatty type. Hey neighbor, whatcha working on over there?
Yeah, no, Dax was in no mood for more neighbors or barbecue invitations or neighborly favors. But it was becoming clear to him that little Miss Ruby Coconuts was going to make his policy of isolationism really difficult.
Dax got dressed and went out to the shed to work. A few hours later he walked into the kitchen to grab some rags he’d washed in the sink and happened to look out his kitchen window.
The redheaded devil was hanging upside down off the porch railing of her house, her arms reaching for the ground. She was about three inches short, however, and for a minute Dax was certain she would crash headlong into that flowerbed and hurt herself. But she didn’t. She managed to haul herself up and hopped off the railing. And then she looked across the neat little lawn to Dax’s cottage.
“Don’t even think about it,” he muttered.
Ruby hesitated. She slid her foot off the porch and onto the next step down. Then the other foot. She leapt to the ground from there, looking down, admiring the lights in her shoes. Then she looked up at his cottage again.
“Don’t do it, you little monster. Don’t you dare do it.”
Ruby was off like a shot, headed for the fence.