Nettie stomped down the porch and tapped him hard on his shoulder. “Hey, guy, I’m talking to you.”
“What the—” Joshua jumped up, turning around to look at her in surprise, pulling tiny wireless earbuds out of his ears. “Why the hell are you sneaking up on me?”
“I wasn’t sneaking up on you. I’ve been calling out to you since you jogged onto the lawn. I’m sorry. I didn’t notice you were wearing headphones.”
“Yeah, well maybe you should be more observant.”
His cutting tone took her aback. “You think I should be more observant? I’ve been sitting on your porch this entire time. You were so obsessed with your running time or whatever that you barely noticed the world around you.”
He had sat back down on the grass, continuing to stretch, not looking at her.
“That’s the point of running, to focus on yourself and to become self-aware. That’s why I do it.”
“Well, neighbor, I offer advice from someone who’s lived here a few years.” He still wasn’t looking at her, and she was pissed now. Nettie snapped in his face to get his attention. He glared up at her. “This community is close, we support and help one another, and we’re nosy. We’re involved.”
He stood in a huff, towering over her. “So what, does that mean I’m not allowed to go for a run?”
“By all means, go for a run. But get your head out of your ass and stop to smell the roses.”
“That would defeat the purpose of the run.” His tone implied Nettie was idiotic. She wasn’t idiotic. He
was the idiot.
“I just mean, open your eyes and pay attention to what’s going on around you. Maybe there’s a neighbor standing on your porch and waving at you like an imbecile.” This was exhausting. Nettie had never felt this disappointed by meeting someone new until now. “You know what? I don’t know why I’m here, this is clearly pointless, so I’m gonna go. Good night.”
“Wait, why are you here?” he called after her as she began to walk back toward her house across their connected lawns.
“I made you stupid welcome-to-the-neighborhood cookies,” Nettie called over her shoulder without looking back. “They’re on your swing.”
“I don’t really eat cookies.”
“Of course you don’t.” He was an abomination of a human being.
“What were you doing on my swing?” the bastard called after her, not getting the message that she wanted him to leave her alone now.
When she got to her door, she flipped him the bird and yelled back, “It was my swing first, butthead!” She opened her door, stomped in, then slammed it shut.
Nettie nodded to herself. “I have a neighbor enemy. Awesome.” She shed her light coat and walked toward her kitchen. Without thinking, she picked up her cell and dialed her brother, putting him on speakerphone.
“I have a neighbor enemy.”
“What are you talking about, Nettie?” She could hear the exasperation in his voice already.
“I brought my neighbor cookies, and he didn’t want them. Who wouldn’t want my cookies? Everybody likes my cookies.”
“If this is a euphemism for sex, I want to remind you that you’re my baby sister, and I will have to kill anyone who wants anything to do with your cookies.”
“Ugh, real cookies. Cookies I baked to welcome my neighbor to the neighborhood. I was being fucking neighborly. I waited for him on his porch in the cold to give him cookies.”
“That’s a little stalkerish.”
“Don’t you dare take his side!” Nettie opened each of her cabinets, not knowing what she wanted, but feeling she needed something at that very moment.
“Sorry, sorry. What happened then?”
“He said he doesn’t like cookies. What kind of devil worshipper doesn’t like cookies?”
“The devil-worshipping kind. What are you doing over there, playing the drums on pots and pans?”
“I’m gonna make hot chocolate.” She had unconsciously taken out the unsweetened cocoa, milk, and sugar…but something was missing. She reached into her fridge and pulled out a white bottle. “And spike it with coconut rum.”
“That sounds really good.”
“Wanna come over?”
“Sure, I’ll call a cab and be right there.”
She hung up and slammed the pot onto her stove. “Who doesn’t like cookies?” she muttered to herself. “I live next to a communist.” She unscrewed the bottle cap and took a swig of the sweet alcohol. The liquid burned down her throat and she coughed hard. “Needs chocolate.”
* * * *
Joshua Dellinger put the pretty plate of cookies on his counter. They smelled like brown sugar and chocolate, with something else…almonds maybe. He’d sworn off sugar the past few months and didn’t want to break the streak, but damn, these cookies smelled amazing. And his new neighbor…Nettie Croft. She had looked stunning storming off in a rage, her long brown hair flailing after her tall and fit frame, yelling at him for not liking cookies. Her green eyes had a ring of yellow around her irises, the color flaring as her eyes had widened in anger, giving her a tempestuous edge. Her plush, pink lips had opened in a permanent state of annoyed surprise, and her front teeth—long for her small face—had brushed against her bottom lip whenever she swallowed before speaking. But she was incapable of appearing truly angry, due to the innocent-looking bangs covering her large forehead and the button nose that scrunched.
And had she given him the finger? He was about 99 percent sure she had. She was hilarious and beautiful, and she was dangerous to him.
Nettie was unexpected and troublesome. When he moved to the quaint Connecticut neighborhood, he’d committed himself to the bachelor life. Not the type of bachelor that roamed the streets, looking for hot ass and getting wasted every evening. No, he wanted to settle into his life as the perpetual loner. He hadn’t meant to be rude to her the previous day with those kids, but she’d caught him off guard. He’d just gotten off the phone with his ex, demanding more than he had to give, as usual, and he was too frustrated to placate the small children. He felt bad afterward, had wanted to apologize. But they were gone by the time he’d come around, and he was too much of a coward to go over to Nettie’s house and apologize.
His doorbell rang—or screeched as it had yet to be fixed, and he ran to get the door.
“Hi,” he said, opening it and expecting Nettie, still mad, possibly come back to reclaim her cookies. Instead, he found the kind but nosy woman from across the street. He could have sworn her curtains parted every time a car drove by or a door opened and closed.
“Well hello, Joshua. How are you this evening? What is that delightful smell?”
“Cookies. Um, would you like some?” He stepped back and gestured for her to come in.
“Yes, thank you.” She waltzed in as if she’d been in the house a million times before, steering straight for the kitchen.
“Know your way around?”
She picked up a cookie and sniffed it before taking a bite. “Yes, I knew the previous owner. He and I were hot and heavy once upon a time. After my dear husband passed, of course.”
Joshua could imagine it. Mrs. Berkin was a small, skinny old woman. Her dark, curled hair was definitely a wig, and she had a crazy amount of makeup on. But there was a graceful and old-fashioned diva air about her, something that made him want to keep her here and listen to her stories, of which he was sure she had many.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Mrs. Berkin pointed to the cookie with open eyes. “Nettie made these!”
“I’d know these cookies anywhere. You must have done something special to get Nettie to make her secret recipe cookies. She only makes them for people she thinks very highly of.”
Now he felt like the biggest asshole in the world. “I don’t really know her.”
“She must have wanted you to feel welcome to the neighborhood. We’re close here, Joshua. We look out for one another.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Yes, then I’m sure this won’t come as a shock to hear.” Mrs. Berkin put the cookie down and leveled him with a forbidding glare. “If I ever see or hear you talk to our Nettie like that again, I will complain to the housing board every day about you until you are kicked out of this state. Do you understand? There will be no street left in Connecticut that will welcome you, let alone give you cookies. Capiche?”
Joshua was speechless. A seventy-five-year-old woman just threatened him over a plate of cookies. What alternate universe had he landed himself in? He’d moved to Connecticut. It was supposed to be normal here. Quiet. With no beautiful and spritely neighbors baking him cookies.
“I need some sign that you understand me, boy.”
This couldn’t be the first time she threatened someone.
“Wonderful.” And just like that, she was the happy neighbor once more. “This has been a wonderful chat, but I should be going. Mind if I take one more cookie? Nettie sure knows how to bake.”
“Be my guest.”