“It’s me—you know what to do at the beep.”
At the sound of the familiar greeting, Ford grumbled under his breath. Per the promise he’d made to his mother, this was the second time in three days that he’d called to check up on his sister and Zoe. Both times, his call had gone straight to voice mail.
“Hey, Nic. Just checking in to see how everything’s going. I thought I might swing by sometime this weekend—maybe take you and Zoe out to lunch. Call me.” After hanging up, he looked at the phone for a moment, and then turned back to his computer.
A week had passed since his father’s funeral and at times, it felt a little surreal how most things just went back to normal. He’d taken a couple of days off from work to help his mother go through his father’s things, a process that had hit him harder than he’d expected. But he’d buried his emotions down deep and had stayed focused on the tasks at hand—both for his mother’s sake and, admittedly, his own. He felt betterwhen he stayed busy. Doing something, anything, felt good and productive.
Especially when the alternative—sitting around his loft and ruminating—resulted in an eight-inch hole in his bedroom wall.
Not his finest moment.
Fortunately, right then, he had work to distract him. It was a typical Friday afternoon in the Chicago Tribune newsroom, mostly quiet except for the sound of clicking keyboards and occasional conversation as people got up to get coffee. The newsroom was large and open, with no walls separating the desks, and the air pulsed with a feverish beat as everyone raced against the clock to make their deadlines.
Today, he was finishing up a piece that was part of a series in which he’d exposed a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving a city transportation official and the company that had won a contract to supply Chicago with its red-light cameras. He’d worked for over a year on this particular series, and the corruption scandal was now the subject of an FBI investigation. He took particular pride in that—like many investigative journalists, he enjoyed seeing that his work had actual impact, and contributed to rectifying a wrongdoing or injustice.
After wrapping up the red-light piece and e-mailing it off, he met with his managing editor, Marty, to discuss an idea for a new story he’d been developing over the last couple of weeks.
“The April Johnson murder? You’re a little late to the party, Dixon. We covered that three weeks ago.”
“Not from this angle,” Ford said. Last month, April Johnson, a seventeen-year-old honors student and artist, had been shot and killed by a gang member a block away from her high school grounds. Because the girl had recently visited the White House and met the First Lady as part of her school’s successful participation in the Department of Education’s “Turnaround Arts” program, her killing had been widely covered in all the Chicago media.
Mostly, the press coverage had focused on the victim— rightfully so, given the tragic circumstances. But Ford had done a little digging, and wanted to explore another aspect of the crime. “Everyone’s focused on how Johnson’s death is a symbol of this city’s problem with gang violence, or using it as a platform to discuss gun control. But I’ve been looking into the nineteen-year-old shooter, Darryl Moore. Apparently, a year ago, he’d been arrested and sentenced to two years probation for illegally carrying a firearm. And get this—a criminal records check shows that the guy got arrested three more times after that. Did the probation department even know about the arrests? Did they know, but fail to take any action? I’m thinking somebody dropped the ball there.”
Marty considered this. “Might be worth checking out what’s in the probation department’s records on Moore.”
“Glad you think so.” Ford grinned. “Especially since I requested the file yesterday.”
Marty shook his head. “Of course you did. All right, run with it.”
Ford worked on the new story for the rest of the afternoon, getting lost in his research. He called it quits for the day at five thirty, and then took a cab from the Tribune building to Home Depot, where he picked up the remaining supplies he needed for his weekend project. He planned to patch the hole in his bedroom wall, and also had decided to mount some bookshelves. Working with his hands would hopefully burn off some of the restless energy he’d been feeling since the funeral.
He checked his phone during the cab ride home. His friends clearly were in Check-On-Ford mode—a coordinated effort, he suspected, seeing how Charlie and Tucker wanted to get together tonight, and Brooke for dinner on Saturday. He texted them all back with a yes, appreciating the gesture and the not-so-subtle attempts to keep him company.
When the taxi pulled up in front of Ford’s building, he spotted a large moving truck.
Ah, right. He remembered now that today was the day his temporary next-door neighbor, Victoria the Divorce Lawyer or Something, was moving in. Seeing that she’d reserved the elevator for the movers, he lugged the two bags of supplies he’d bought at Home Depot, along with his messenger bag, up the four flights of stairs.
When he spotted her open front door, he figured he should do the neighborly thing and introduce himself.
“Hello?” Not getting an answer, he stepped inside and found two movers in the dining area of the loft, carefully lowering a round, expensive-looking table to the floor. “Sorry, I was walking by and thought I’d pop in. I live next door.” Still holding the bags of supplies, he gestured awkwardly in the direction of his place. “Is Victoria around?”
One of the movers shook his head, brushing off his hands after setting down the table. “She just left to make a run back to her old place.”
“I’ll catch her later, then. Thanks.” On his way out, Ford stole a glance around the loft and saw that the rest of his new neighbor’s furniture looked as expensive as the dining table. Judging from the elegant cream sofa with its many accent pillows, her taste was sophisticated and decidedly feminine. And he also immediately concluded that she was single.
No man could ever get comfortable watching Monday Night Football with all those damn throw pillows.
* * *
“So, I’m thinking I’ll go with a barn theme for this new project. Instead of chairs, everyone will sit on bales of hay, and we’ll bring in actual livestock—cows, pigs, maybe a few chickens—that can roam free in the restaurant while people eat. You know, really emphasize the farm-to-table aspect of the menu.”
Victoria jerked her eyes open, having just caught what Audrey was saying. “Wait. You want to have chickens walking around the restaurant?”
When both Audrey and Rachel smiled, she caught on. “All right, all right, you got me.” So she’d closed her eyes for just a second. In her defense, she hadn’t slept for more than four hours a night in over a month. Not to mention, the bar they were in was filled with cozy, ambient candlelight that practically invited a girl to curl up in one of these big leather chairs and catch a few quick winks . . .
She sat up straight and gave herself a mental face-slap.
“You’re exhausted, Vic. Maybe we should call it a night,” Rachel suggested.
“Nope, I’m good. I promised you guys drinks in exchange for helping me unpack, so drinks we will have.” Victoria grabbed her cocktail—an old-fashioned, the specialty of the house—and tipped it in gratitude. “And by the way, thank you again for that.”
Her friends had been amazing today, coming over to help unpack her stuff. Audrey and Rachel had tackled the living and dining area, the movers had handled the kitchen, and she had taken on her bedroom and bathroom. Between the team of people in her condo, they’d had everything unpacked by eight o’clock with the exception of a few boxes of odds and ends that would probably just go into storage for the summer.
To show her appreciation, she’d insisted on taking her friends out for drinks. They’d chosen The Violet Hour, the place to be on a Friday night in Wicker Park—at least according to Will, who, naturally, already had done the research for her. Located just a couple of blocks from her loft and described as a modern- day speakeasy, the bar had a fun, Alice in Wonderland–like feel, with handmade cocktails poured by bartenders dressed in bow ties and suspenders, dramatic floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains, and high-backed blue leather chairs grouped around cocktail tables.
Determined not to be sidelined by a little drowsiness on her first night out in her new neighborhood, Victoria chatted with her friends for a while about work. Audrey, an interior designer, told them about the pitch she was planning for a new restaurant scheduled to open next spring, and Rachel, who owned a boutique clothing store, had just found out that her shop was going to be featured in Chicago magazine.
Rachel was momentarily distracted by something to Victoria’s left, and then she leaned in conspiratorially. “Okay, I found a good one for you tonight,” she said to Victoria, with a challenging gleam in her eye. “The hottie at your nine o’clock. Dark hair, navy shirt. He was checking you out, by the way. Let’s say his name is . . . Carter.”
It was a game they’d been playing for the last few years, ever since Victoria had told Rachel and Audrey during a mutual friend’s bachelorette party that she didn’t see herself ever getting married. Rachel, a staunch believer in happily- ever-after, would find some guy at a bar and make up an elaborate backstory about him, trying to convince Victoria that her Mr. Right might be out there.
“All right. Let’s hear about Carter,” Victoria said.
Rachel thought for a moment. “He’s a firefighter.”
“Rescues people. Love it.”
“He grew up with three sisters, and he calls each of them once a week just to see how they’re doing. He gets along with his parents, particularly his mother, who he adores,” Rachel continued. “Has a dog that he rescued from a shelter—”
“—named after some poet. Like . . . Emerson,” Rachel said.
Victoria raised an eyebrow. Somebody was laying it on a little thick tonight.
“His last serious relationship was three years ago, which ended amicably when he and his ex realized they were better off as friends. And he has no commitment issues,” Rachel added, with a flourish.
Audrey laughed. “That’s cheating.”
Rachel looked at Victoria daringly. “So. Husband material or not? But before you answer, you really should look at the man in question.”
“Which guy are we talking about?” Audrey asked.
“Dark hair, blue shirt,” Rachel said.
Audrey angled in her chair, then her eyes widened. “Holy smokes, that is one good-looking man. Vic, you have to check him out.”
Victoria shook her head. “Nope. Don’t need to.”
“I don’t care how cynical you are,” Rachel said, with a satisfied smile. “We’re talking about a hot firefighter with no commitment issues who loves his mom.”
“And he sounds very lovely to date. Probably too lovely for a jaded person like myself, but I’d give it a shot, anyway. But as for marriage . . . nope. Not for me.”
“You don’t know that,” Rachel said in exasperation.
“Oh, but I do. Because in my line of work, I’ve seen all the ways your wonderful scenario here can go wrong.”
Victoria paused, debating whether to go down this route. Then she rested her arms on the table. “All right. Here’s how I see this potentially shaking out.”
“Here we go,” Audrey said.
“Let’s say this Carter the Hot Firefighter and I get married. It’s good in the beginning, all new and exciting, and we decide to buy a house together so we can have more space. This is where we hit the first bump in the road. See, up until now, he’s been saying that he’s okay with the fact that I make more money than him. But when I want to look at houses that would be outside his budget, because I can cover the mortgage, suddenly the money becomes an issue. At first, he makes jokes about it, referring to me as his ‘sugar mommy.’ But then we start fighting about how much to spend on vacations. And birthdays. And how much my shoes cost. And he begins making snide comments about feeling emasculated, and before you know it, all we do is fight about money. The hot sex we used to have five times a week? Gone. We haven’t slept together in months. Which leads to the second bump in the road.” She paused dramatically, getting into her story now. “The ex-girlfriend he’s stayed so friendly with. See, he’s been telling her about our marriage problems, and suddenly they’re meeting for coffee, and then drinks, and then he remembers how much she used to understand him, more than I ever have, and how easy it is to talk to her, until one day I leave work early to surprise him on his day off and find the two of them going at it like jackrabbits on our dining room table—the expensive antique table he’s always hated because we bought it with ‘my’ money,” she added for extra embellishment. “As for the three sisters and the mom, yes, he does adore them. And in our divorce settlement conference, he’ll spitefully tell me how they secretly always hated me, because I work too much and didn’t put family first, and because they never thought I was good enough for him in the first place.”
Victoria finished her speech with a flourish—And that is that, my friends—and then noticed that Audrey and Rachel looked a little . . . surprised.
That may have sounded a touch too cynical, even for her. She sometimes forgot that not everyone had a front row seat, day in and day out, as marriages died their slow, painful deaths.
“Or . . . maybe we’ll have two kids, a summer home in Michigan, and be happily married for fifty years,” she said, quickly covering with a joke. “Heck, where is this future husband of mine?”
She glanced over her shoulder to look at the man who’d inspired their whole debate, this dark-haired guy in a navy shirt who undoubtedly was not a fireman, or named Carter, or even—
Ho-ly crap, he was gorgeous.
Slightly unruly dark brown hair, a strong, chiseled jaw that even Superman would envy, and piercing eyes—Victoria couldn’t make out the color from where she sat, but it didn’t matter. He wore a short-sleeved shirt that showed off the toned muscles in his arms and broad chest, and she’d bet that every inch of his body not currently on display—boo—was just as delicious.
She blinked, and turned back to her friends. “Wow.”
“I know.” Rachel leaned in. “And he’s been checking you out this whole time.”
“Maybe he and his two friends will come over.” Audrey sized them up with a scrutinizing air. “The one with the hat has a cute hipster thing going on. I could work with that.”
Unable to resist, Victoria sneaked in one more peek.
When his eyes met hers across the bar, boldly holding her gaze, she felt a thrill of attraction zip through her body.
The corners of his lips curved in a smile, as if to say, Yeah, I felt that, too.
Victoria was just thinking about her next move, or how she might respond to his next move, when an attractive woman with short blond hair sat down in the seat next to him and whispered something in his ear.
Ah. Well. So much for that.
Victoria turned back to her friends.
Audrey rolled her eyes. “What a jerk. Totally checking you out while he’s here with another woman.”
Rachel, ever the optimist, was quick to jump in. “Now, now, we don’t know what the situation is. Maybe that’s his . . . sister.”
“Ah, yes, one of the three sisters he adores and calls every week.” Victoria cocked her head. “You know what? Let’s go with that. If we never talk to him, then we’ll never find out that he isn’t perfect. He’ll always remain as lovely in our fantasies as Rachel says he is.”
Audrey grinned and raised her glass. “I’ll drink to that.”
“Me, too,” Rachel seconded.
They clinked their glasses together in cheers.
* * *
Charlie and Tucker would probably skin him alive if he didn’t say yes.
At a table near the back of The Violet Hour, the blond woman who’d just taken the seat next to Ford had a question for them. She was at the bar with her girlfriends as part of a bachelorette party, and they wanted to invite Ford and his friends to join them for a round of drinks. The blonde had pointed out the table where her girlfriends sat, and the group had waved back enthusiastically—ten or so women, all dressed up and each one looking cuter than the next in their Friday-night outfits.
Needless to say, Charlie and Tucker were in.
Ford, however, had his eye elsewhere. A short while ago, he’d caught sight of the brunette sitting across the bar, the one who had her long, chestnut hair pulled back into one of those sexy high ponytails. She wore dark jeans, killer red heels, and a loose-fitting red top that dipped down on one of her shoulders, exposing bare skin.
A few minutes ago she’d launched into a speech, speaking passionately about something to her two girlfriends. The investigative journalist in him had been intrigued, wondering what it was that had her so fired up.
And he was also intrigued by that bare shoulder. Where was the bra strap? Was there even a bra?
Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Then she’d glanced his way and held his gaze when she’d caught him watching her. A few moments later, she’d looked again.
He’d been contemplating his next move when the blonde from the bachelorette party unexpectedly sat down next to him, and the brunette in the red heels hadn’t looked at him since.
“We’d love to join you for a drink,” Charlie said enthusiastically, answering the blonde on behalf of the three of them.
“Hell yes, we would,” Tucker concurred wholeheartedly.
“Great! I’ll let everyone know you’re coming,” said the blonde, before rejoining her friends.
Tucker watched as she walked back to the table of women, and then spun around in his chair to face Ford and Charlie. “Bachelorette party—sweet.” He did a fist pump.
“Very subtle, Tuck,” Ford said.
“I can’t believe you hesitated,” Charlie said to Ford. “Dude. If someone asks if you want to join a bachelorette party, you say yes.”
Tucker leaned in. “I bet they dared the blonde to come over and talk to us. They do things like that at bachelorette parties, you know. Games. Dares. Like . . . someone has to buy a guy a drink, or convince him to give her his underwear.”
“Trying to remember what underwear you put on this morning?” Ford asked.
“Trying to remember if I put on underwear this morning.” Tucker grinned slyly. “I guess one of you boys will have to field that one.”
“And . . . that just shot to the top of the list of things I did not need to know tonight.” Charlie polished off his drink and set it down. Then he turned to Ford. “You ready?”
Ford’s eyes flickered back to the brunette in the red heels. “Why don’t you guys go ahead? I’ll settle up the check and join you in a bit.”
Charlie stared at him, flabbergasted. “What has gotten into you? There are ten women over there whose collective goal tonight is to get wild and crazy as they celebrate the beauty and power of being female.”
“Ooh . . . the redhead in the black dress just licked a lollipop shaped like a penis. Seriously, why are we still sitting here?” Tucker followed Ford’s gaze, spotted the brunette in the red heels, and grinned. “Ah, another hen in the henhouse.”
Ford watched as the brunette laughed and shook her head at something one of her friends said. Then his eyes roamed lower, liking the way those skinny jeans fit her curves.
“So . . . you appear to be set here,” Charlie said teasingly. “I guess Tuck and I will see you later, then.”
Just then, the brunette and her two friends stood up from the table and made their way to the front door.
Sitting in the back of the bar, Ford felt a flicker of disappointment as he watched her leave.
Tucker commiserated with a shrug. “Well, you win some, you lose some.”
“Or in Tuck’s case, you lose some, and then you lose some more,” Charlie said.
Tucker shot Charlie a glare, and then pointed to the table of women who’d invited them over. “On the bright side: bachelorette party.”
Ford considered this. Having been friends with Charlie and Tucker since their freshman year of college, he suspected this fascination with the bachelorette party was, in some part, their attempt to distract him and have fun after everything that had happened with his father last week. And, seeing how he was more than happy to be distracted, he settled up their tab and followed his friends over to the table of women, who cheered at their arrival.
There definitely were worse ways to spend a Friday night.
Victoria got back to her loft shortly after ten o’clock that night. Deliberately ignoring the remaining unpacked boxes—she would deal with them later—she headed straight to her bedroom. After stripping out of her bar clothes, she changed into shorts and a T-shirt and practically rubbed her hands with glee as she eyed her bed.
She couldn’t wait to crawl in.
She made quick work of brushing her teeth and scrubbing off her makeup. Out of habit, she grabbed her e-reader as she climbed into bed. In her old place, to deal with her insomnia, she’d often distracted herself from listening for strange noises by reading. But tonight, she felt safer in the smaller space of her loft, protected not only by the alarm system for her unit, but also by the security of the building in general. There was an upside to being surrounded by neighbors—with all the people in the building awake on a Friday night, it made an extremely unappealing target for anyone on the outside.
With that in mind, she set the e-reader on her nightstand, next to her trusty phone. She turned off the lamp and pulled up the covers, feeling more relaxed and comfortable in bed than she had in a month. As exhausted as she was, she could probably sleep right through to Sunday.
She drifted off with a smile, thinking that would be just fine.
* * *
A door slammed shut.
Victoria shot up in bed when she heard footsteps on hardwood floors. Disoriented by the relatively unfamiliar surroundings, it took her a moment to remember that she was in her new place, the loft. She heard muffled voices, several of them, and instinctively reached for her phone.
Then she realized the sound wasn’t coming from inside her place, but rather through her bedroom wall, the wall she shared with the unit next to hers.
She flopped back down onto the bed and exhaled in relief.
The footsteps on the hardwood floors sounded like high heels, several pairs of them, and she could hear both men and women talking and laughing. She hadn’t met her next-door neighbor yet— someone named “F. Dixon” according to the mailbox next to hers in the lobby—but from the sound of things, he or she was having a late-night get-together.
As if on cue, the acoustic guitar intro of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” began to play, and a woman—who sounded more than a little tipsy—yelled out, “I LOVE this song!”
Victoria covered her head with a pillow and tried not to weep.
It wasn’t that the music was overly loud. And, admittedly, the voices were muted; presumably F. Dixon and Co. were hanging out in the living area of his/her loft—which, yes, they were perfectly entitled to do. But it was two a.m., and Victoria had just been in the middle of the longest stretch of sleep she’d had in a month.
“Who wants a penis pop?” someone shouted.
And . . . that was her cue to take her leave.
She had no clue what a “penis pop” was—although it sounded kinky and quite possibly a little painful for all parties involved—but these were not things she needed to be musing over at two a. m. With a huge sigh of annoyance (not that the people next door could hear her given all their damn racket), she grabbed her pillow (yes, she was fussy and couldn’t sleep without her special pillow) and dragged herself out to the living room. She flopped onto the couch and tried to get comfortable.
Then tried some more.
Granted, when she’d bought the couch, she’d been going for style. Silly her, to not have presumed that one night she’d need the Edwardian-era sofa with its low-rolled arms and arched back for a campout in her living room because her neighbor would be throwing a raucous late-night sex soiree complete with penis pops.
She tossed the sofa’s too many damn throw pillows to the floor in frustration.
Then she got up and grabbed her iPad to Google “penis pop” because, seriously, what was that?
Ah . . . lollipops. Got it.
After tossing and turning for nearly an hour on the couch, she heard a door shut, and then several voices out in the hallway. When the voices faded, she got up to check on the situation in her bedroom.
Thank God. With a spring in her step, she quickly grabbed her pillow from the living area and crawled back into bed. She snuggled in under the covers and had just begun to doze off when she heard a woman laugh.
Victoria’s eyes opened.
Next she heard a man’s deep voice—his words muffled— followed by the sound of something bumping against the other side of the wall. A headboard.
The woman moaned.
Oh . . . that was just great.
Not needing to hear any more, with an angry huff, Victoria carted her special pillow back into the living room, flopped onto the couch, and hunkered down for a long night.
* * *
Early the following morning, grumpy and bleary-eyed after a less-than-ideal night spent sleeping on her sofa, she went on a quest in her new neighborhood for some much-needed coffee.
Fortunately, she didn’t need to walk far. Just around the corner from her place she found a café called The Wormhole that looked promising enough. She opened the door and blinked in surprise when she saw all the 1980s movie posters on the walls, as well as an actual DeLorean—yes, the car from Back to the Future—parked on the loft upstairs.
Wow. It was safe to say they took their ’80s seriously in these parts.
Charmed by the kitsch of the place, she ordered a large coffee and grabbed a seat at the table underneath the Raiders of the Lost Ark poster. She checked the morning news and her e-mail on her phone, in no rush to get back to her place.
So, her first night in her new loft hadn’t gone exactly as planned. Granted, she’d probably cobbled together around six hours of sleep, which was more than any other night this past month. But she hoped that last night had been an aberration, and not a sign of what she could expect from her neighbor in unit 4F during the course of this summer.
If not, she and this “F. Dixon” person were going to have some serious words.
Fueled by caffeine, she left The Wormhole and headed back to her place. After riding the elevator up to the fourth floor, she got halfway down the hallway when the door to the condo next to hers opened.
Ooh . . . the mysterious F. Dixon, she presumed.
A thirtysomething woman with shoulder-length brown hair stepped out, wearing a black skirt, sleeveless aqua top, and black strappy heels.
Fiona Dixon? Faith Dixon? Victoria silently mused over the possibilities. Eager to establish a good rapport with the person with whom she would be sharing a bedroom wall for the next three months, she smiled as she approached.
“Hi there. I’m Victoria—your new neighbor.” She gestured to her own front door. “I just moved in yesterday.”
“Um, hi.” Looking flustered, the woman in the aqua shirt blushed. “Actually, I don’t live here. But hey—congrats on moving in.”
Victoria chuckled as they passed each other in the hallway. “Thanks.” Feeling a little awkward—Note to self: don’t ambush innocent bystanders in the hallway—she grabbed her keys out of her purse. When she got to her front door, she looked up and caught the woman glancing over her shoulder, at F. Dixon’s place.
The woman smiled, looking decidedly pleased.
Ah, understood. Victoria had the feeling, from the looks of that smile, that someone had just spent a very enjoyable night with the owner of unit 4F, presumably the man with the deep voice.
After the woman in the aqua shirt got on the elevator, Victoria contemplated knocking on F. Dixon’s door to introduce herself. But then she decided it would be a little strange to drop by right after his overnight guest had left. So instead, she unlocked the door to her own loft and put her caffeine-fueled energy to good use by tackling the remaining unpacked boxes.
That took her all the way until lunchtime, when she broke to grab a quick sandwich at a deli down the block. When she got back to her loft, she took a look around for any unpacked boxes that she’d missed, and then happened to notice how quiet the place was right then.
A slow smile crept across her face.
Kicking off her sandals, she armed the security system for her unit and headed into the bedroom. She drew the shades and climbed into bed, feeling rather decadent to be napping on a Saturday afternoon. Undoubtedly, she had plenty of work she should be focused on—her firm would hardly run itself— but after the night, and month, she’d had, she figured she’d earned a little siesta.
She fell asleep almost the instant her head hit the pillow. A wonderful, deep sleep.
That is, until she was woken by the sound of someone sawing through her bedroom wall.
What. The. Hell?
Victoria opened her eyes, expecting to find dust and drywall falling all around her. She rolled over in bed and stared at her wall. On the upside, no one was actually coming through it. But from the sound of things, for some inexplicable reason, the owner of unit 4F had chosen this moment—during her much-needed nap—to saw a hole into his side of the wall.
Of course he had.
Things went silent for a few moments, and then Victoria heard the whirring of an electric drill and someone whistling. She sighed and muttered a few curse words—not that he could hear her, again, over all the noise.
So far, F. Dixon was turning out to be a real pain in the ass.