Cheap Tricks

Excerpt

THE KIDS HAVE BEEN quiet during the film, and Colton has made no attempts to be like a dragon. Colt goes into a trance the moment Hiccup and Toothless meet. I’ve got to admit, it’s a cute movie. It even made Amy hush, and she hasn’t asked me any more awkward questions.

When they are in bed, I collapse on the couch, exhausted from the day. How can kids have so much energy? I drag my phone out of my pocket, and it’s ten at night. I waited to make the spaghetti I brought.

Now I need to get my ass moving so I can make my dinner.

“You want me to make more food so you can have the meatballs, don’t you, girl?” I say, scratching Belle’s ears.

Belle turns her head to the side, her ears perked up, and her tail stub wags in approval of my dinner choice.

I get out everything I need for dinner and Belle follows me to the kitchen. Usually I like to make the bread from scratch the way I learned in Italy, but I suspected after an hour of babysitting the kids, that wouldn’t be an option. Frozen garlic bread from a bag, it is; I bought it just in case. That goes onto the counter along with a bag of meatballs. Elise and Brandon aren’t meticulous about keeping their pots and pans organized, so I spend a few minutes rifling around in the kitchen cabinets until I find a pan big enough to boil the water for spaghetti.

I’ve always found a sense of calm in cooking. There’s something about waiting for the water to boil as I put the meat balls in the oven that makes me forget how tired I am from playing all day. It soothes my fear and worries over staying in the States because Stan doesn’t think it’s safe to go back to Peru.

I’ve got to admit it to myself when I finish everything and place my dish on the table. Everything looks perfect, with a placemat and a light pink candle next to my glass of wine. I haven’t done this in a long while. Most nights, I would drink a glass of wine while I lived in Italy. It’s my reward for surviving a day of babysitting with a hangover.

Belle, who watched me the entire time I cooked, sits next to me. She reaches out with her paw and sets it on my knee and gives a soft whine.

“You’re such a good girl! Want a treat?” I ask, laughing.

She yips and stands, entire body wagging side to side with gusto. I roll my eyes and laugh, picking up a fat meat ball.

“You want this that bad, girl?”

Another yip, louder this time.

I toss it to her and she grabs it up, swallowing it in one go. I realize I haven’t asked if Belle can have human food, but how can you ignore such an enthusiastic request for a meatball from such a bouncy dog? She tries to beg for more, reaching for my leg again.

“Sorry, girl. That’s it for now. I don’t know if you can have human food.”

She stares at me. As we stare at each other, I’m tempted to give her more. Her big, brown eyes are hard to ignore.

“No,” I say. “Stop trying.”

Belle huffs indignantly and walks to the back door. She scratches it and looks back with wide eyes. 

My eyebrow raises into my hairline as we engage in another staring contest.

"Alright." I drop the fork. "You win." I make my way to the door to open it. An excited bark rings into the room before she propels between my legs with a happy bounce. 

I follow her, conditioned to follow dogs while they’re out to make sure they don’t get into any trouble. Besides, Brandon asked me not to let her outside without a leash.

“Come on, Belle!” I say after a few minutes. “Make this fast. Maybe if you do, I’ll give you your own plate.”

I spend ten minutes following Belle around outside because she won’t come back inside.

“Are you done yet?” My teeth clacking together from shivers. I forgot to grab a jacket before I came outside with her. It’s freezing, but at least more snow isn’t falling. On top of that, my flats will be soaked when we’re back inside. I kept them on all day, but now I’ll have to take them off. “Shew, I hope it doesn’t start snowing.”

Belle’s ears perk up, and she wags her entire butt, looking right at the back door.

“Hey! Slow down!”

Belle makes a beeline to the door, dragging me along with her, even after I dig my heels into the ground, and slips the leash. She heads straight for the house. The loud barking unnerves me, but I tell myself that at least maybe Brandon and Elise have decided to come early.

A loud crash echoes from the house, every muscle in my body suspends while the hairs on my arms rise in alert. I left the door open. The kids, my mind whispers before my heart vaults and catapults my body towards the house. 

A hairy man sits at the kitchen table, shoveling his mouth full of my spaghetti. He downs my wine in two huge gulps, and my mouth drops open. In a flash, my phone is in my head, ready to dial 9-1-1.

“Who the hell are you?” I demand. My eyes skim the kitchen, I’m not sure if I can skirt around him to get up to the kid’s bedrooms or not.

He shovels more of my spaghetti into his mouth like he owns the place. Muddy boots sit next to one of the kitchen chairs. Belle drools while she stares at him, with a furious butt wag when he tosses a meatball into her mouth.

“This is good shit,” he says. His voice sounds familiar, but the hair on the back of my neck stand straight. I press myself against the wall to pass him. “Thanks for making dinner.”

“I don’t know who you are. I’m calling the cops.” I don’t care much for my shrill voice.

“Now, there’s no reason to do that, Sophie,” he says.

Him knowing my name freaks me out. My phone opens but goes dead the moment I try to dial the emergency line.

Fuck.

“I don’t know you. I’m babysitting and—”

He laughs and rips off a chunk of garlic bread, putting it into his mouth. Garlic butter clings to his auburn whiskers. Heat coils around me when his eyes fasten on me. Pressure builds between my legs. A small gasp escapes my lips as I realize I’m turned on. Shaking my head to clear the fog, I wish I had my gun.

Double fuck.

“All right,” he says, “I get it. I’m taking a shower.”

He puts the plate of my once perfect dinner on the ground for Belle.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I follow him, not wanting him near the kids. I don’t know him. “You can’t take a shower! You... You can’t act like you own this place when you break and enter!”

“It’s not breaking and entering when I have a key,” he says, chuckling at me, heading up the stairs.

“I’m getting my gun,” I say, pointing my dead phone at him. “You’re breaking and entering and—”

“Good luck explaining that to the cops when I have a key to my brother’s house?” he says with the mass of metal and key chains hanging from his fingers. “Brandon told me you might appreciate the early time off.”

I blink once. Then a second time. Then a third.

“Neal?”

We stop outside of the bathroom upstairs.

“Yeah,” he says.

I want to slap the stupid amused look off his face.

“Why didn’t you tell me who you are to begin with?”

“I enjoy pissing you off.”

“I can still get my gun.”

He smirks. The way I’m glaring at him doesn’t seem to faze him, and he pulls off his shirt.

“Are you going to watch or...?”

My face flushes.

“No!”

“Alright,” he chuckles. “You can go home. I’ve got this handled.”

He steps into the bathroom and shuts the door.

“Well, nice to see you, too! I think I’ll stay the rest of the night, to make sure the children are safe!” I step closer, shouting.

He reopens the door and I’m confronted with his bare chest. Seriously? When did this guy get so sexy? I remember a nerd who refused to go out drinking with friends back in college.

“Simmer down.” He digs his wallet out of his pocket, opens it, and points to his driver’s license. “Look, if you don’t believe me.”

I had no idea his full name is Nealson Joseph Justice.

I cross my arms.

“Fine.”

My face is on fire. Six packs like this should be illegal.

Triple fuck.

“I’m staying!” I yell, stomping my way down to the living room. Snatching my purse off the floor, I dig for my charger, then plug in my phone.

Belle sniffs at my leg, and I glare at her.

“You’re supposed to be a guard dog, you know.”

My phone turns on. I hear the shower running and an appalling rendition of I’m Sexy and I Know It. I pick up my phone, groaning.

Brandon, Neal is in the shower. What the fuck?

 

I text, squeezing legs together to find some release.

I collapse on the couch and throw my right arm over my eyes.

“This is going to be a long night.”

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© 2019 Copyright Mara A. Miller