Fans of bestsellers like In Five Years will fall for this unexpected love story about a woman and her contractor who discover a divorce decree with their names on it … dated ten years in the future.
When Susie inherits a charming fixer-upper from her aunt, she’s excited to start living her best HGTV-life. But when she opens the door to find that her contractor is none other than her ex’s (very good looking) best friend Lars—the same man who witnessed their humiliating public break-up 6 months ago—she isn’t exactly eager to have him around. But, beggars can’t be choosers and the sooner the repairs are done, the sooner she can get back to grudgingly accepting the single life.
Things go from awkward to unbelievable when Lars knocks down a bedroom wall and finds a divorce certificate dated ten years from now…with both their names on it. It couldn’t possibly be real…could it? As Susie and Lars try to unravel the document’s origins, the impossibility of a spark between them suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched. But is any kind of relationship between them doomed before it’s ever begun?
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“This is awkward.”
The big blond man standing on my doorstep blinked.
“How are you, Lars?” I gave him my very best fake smile. “Nice to see you.”
“Susie. It’s been what…five, six months?” Setting down his toolbox, he gave me an uneasy smile. It was more of a wince, really. Because the last time we saw each other was not a good night. Not for me, at least.
“Something like that,” I said.
“This your new place?” He nodded at the battered arts and crafts cottage. “The office said you had some water damage you wanted to start with?”
“Yeah, about that. I was told Mateo would be doing the work.”
He gazed down at me with dismay. The man was your basic urban Viking marauder, as his name suggested. Longish blonde hair, white skin, blue eyes, short beard, tall and built. I was average height and he managed to loom over me just fine. In his mid-thirties and more than a little rough around the edges. Nothing like his sleek and slick bestie. An asshole whose continued existence I’d prefer to be reminded of never. But we don’t always get what we want.
I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. “Why don’t you come in and I’ll show you…”
“Don’t worry about taking your boots off. The shag carpet isn’t staying.”
Heavy footsteps followed me through the living room and into the dining room where we turned left to enter the small hallway. From this point we had two options, the bathroom or the back bedroom. We headed for the latter.
“The water was getting in through a crack in the window for who knows how long,” I explained. “I only inherited the place recently. There were all these boxes piled up in here. No one could even see it was an issue.”
“I spent the first month just sorting through things and clearing the place out.”
Beneath the window frame, a large stain spread across the golden-flecked wallpaper. As if it weren’t ugly enough to begin with. That was the thing about my aunt Susan; she wasn’t a big fan of change. The two-bedroom cottage had belonged to her parents and everything had pretty much been left untouched after they passed. Apart from the addition of Susan’s junk. Which meant that while the wallpaper and carpet were from the 1970’s, the bathroom was from the 1940’s, and the kitchen cabinets from the 1930’s. At least, that’s what I’d been told. The place was like an ode to 20th century interior design. The good, and the bad.
He got down on one knee, inspecting the damage. “The bottom of this window frame is warped and needs replacing.”
“Can you do that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I need to have a look behind here. You attached to the wallpaper?”
He almost smiled.
“The sooner I can repaint and get new flooring down, the better.”
Nothing from him. A knife appeared from the tool box, sharp-pointed with jagged teeth. He punched the blade through the drywall with ease and started cutting into the wall.
“How is he?” I asked the dreaded question. Curiosity was the worst. “Enjoying London?”
“Yeah,” was all he said.
“And how’s Jane?”
“We’re not together anymore.”
Not a surprise. Lars went through various girlfriends during the year I’d been with what’s-his-face. Neither he nor his friend were down with commitment. Which was fine if you just wanted to have fun. But Jane was a keeper, smart with a wicked sense of humor. Lars definitely had a type. All of his girlfriends were petite, perfect dolls who behaved in a ladylike manner. The opposite of buxom, loudmouthed me.
He pried a square of drywall loose. “You thinking of living here permanently or flipping and selling the place, or what?”
“Great location. A bit of work and it’d probably be worth a lot of money,” he said, keeping the conversation on the business at hand. As was good and right.
Using the flashlight on his phone, he inspected the cavity. The man was all handyman chic. Big ass boots, jeans, and a faded black tee. All of it well-worn. And the way his blue jeans conformed to his thick thighs and the curves of his ass was something. Something I hadn’t meant to notice, but oh well, these things happened. Maybe it was the way his tool belt framed that particular part of his anatomy. For a moment, I couldn’t look away. I was butt struck. Which was both wrong and bad. It would not be smart for me to notice this man in the sexual sense. Though it was nice to know my thirst meter wasn’t broken.
I don’t know if Lars and I were ever really friends. We had, however, been friendly. Though that was romantic relationships for you. One moment you had all of these awesome extra people in your life and the next moment they’re gone.
I tugged on the end of my dark ponytail. An old nervous habit.
“At this stage, it looks like the damage is only superficial,” Lars said. “These two sections of drywall have to go. Once I’ve done that, I’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“But it wouldn’t surprise me if some or all of that one needs replacing too.” He pointed to the wall the bedroom shared with the bathroom. “See how there’s bubbling along the joins of the wallpaper there?”
“Do I have your approval to get started?”
None of this was exactly unexpected. Old buildings might have soul, but they could also have heavy upkeep. Renovations cost big bucks. While my savings were meagre, lucky for this hundred year old house, my aunt left me some money. Which was a point of contention for a few of my family members. Like any of them had time for Aunt Susan when she was alive. Besides being my namesake, she was also the black sheep of the family. A little too weird for some, I guess. But weird has always been a trait that I admired.
“I’m going to make myself coffee,” I said. “Would you like some?”
“How do you take it?”
“White. No sugar.”
“You’re sweet enough, huh?” And the moment those words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a mistake. Talk about awkward.
He snorted, then said, “Something like that.”
Lars didn’t mess around. By the time I returned, he’d removed the first two panels of drywall. Hands on hips, he stood staring at the interior of the wall with the problematic window. Mostly it looked like a lot of dust and a couple of cobwebs. But then, I’m not a builder. When I handed over his mug, he gave me a brief smile before taking a sip.
“How is it looking?” I asked.
“Your house has good bones.”
“As long as the damage on that wall is due to the moisture spreading from the window and not a leaky bathroom pipe, this should be pretty straightforward,” he said.
I’d taken over the main bedroom, but this room still held a lot of sentimental value for me. Whenever Mom and Dad were busy or needed a break from us kids, my brother would stay at a friend’s house and I’d be packed off to Aunt Susan’s—to this bedroom in particular. Which was fine with me. Andrew was an outgoing jock while I’d been kind of awkward. In this house, I was accepted for who I was. A nice change. With my parents divorced, growing up between three households and living mostly out of a school bag sucked. But Aunt Susan gave me the security that was lacking elsewhere.
“Is the floor okay?”
“Let’s pull up some carpet and see.” He set his coffee on the windowsill. Then, knife back in hand, he got busy with the shag. It was impressive how the tool became a part of him. An extension of his body. “You’ve got good solid hardwood under here.”
“Ooh, let me see.”
He tugged the tattered underlay back further. “Oak, by the look of it.”
“Wow. Imagine covering that beauty up with butt ugly brown carpet.”
“No sign of water damage. You were lucky.”
I smiled. “That is excellent news.”
“Now let’s see what’s behind this.”
I took a step back so he could start removing the next section of drywall. He had such big capable hands. Watching him work was pure competence porn. . As a mature and well-adjusted thirty year old woman, I definitely knew better than to have sexy times thoughts again. The best friend of my ex is not my friend. Confucius probably said that.
“Looks like there’s something back here,” he said, setting a panel of drywall aside.
“Something good or something bad?” I winced as a big hairy spider scurried out of the cavity. “Ew.”
“It’s just a wolf spider. Nothing dangerous.”
“But there might be more.”
Without further comment, he reached down and picked up a piece of paper. It looked old. Which made sense. Lord only knew how long it had been in the wall. It was kind of like opening a time capsule.
“What is it?” I asked, more than a little curious.
His gaze narrowed as he read, his forehead furrowing. Next his brows rose and his lips thinned. His expression quickly changed from disbelief to fury as he shoved the piece of paper at me. The open hostility in his eyes was a lot coming from a man of his size. “Susie, what the fuck?”
“Is this your idea of a joke?”
“No. I…” The paper was soft with age and the writing was faded but legible. Mostly. Superior Court of Washington, County of King was written at the top. There was also a date stamp. This was followed by a bunch of numbers and the words Final Divorce Order. “Wait. Is this a divorce certificate?”
“Yeah,” he said. “For you and me. Dated a decade from now.”
I scrunched up my nose and ever so slightly shrieked, “What? Hold on. You think I put this in there?”
“No,” he said, getting all up in my face. “I know you put it in there, Susie.”
“Take a step back, please,” I said, pushing a hand against his hard chest.
He did as I asked, some of the anger leaching from his face. Then he grumbled, “Sorry.”
“Why would you do that? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Find someone else for the job,” he said, gathering up his tools. “I’m out of here.”
“Can you just wait a second?”
Apparently the answer was no. Because the man started moving even faster. “I don’t know what game you’re playing. But I’m not interested in finding out.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I did not put this in the wall, Lars. Think about it. You’re a builder. Had any of the wallpaper or drywall been disturbed in the last forty or fifty years?”
“You could have accessed it from the other side. I don’t know.”
“I didn’t even know you were coming here today.”
He grunted. “Only got your word for that.”
“And I’ve only got your word that you didn’t put this in in the wall for some stupid reason,” I said, thinking it over. How did that not occur to me? “Of course you put it there. I wasn’t the first one to have access to that space. You were. A quick sleight of hand is all it would have taken. This is so unprofessional.”
“Very nice. I’m sure you prepared that speech at the same time you planted it, knowing I’d inevitably be the one who first touched it.”
“And I’m sure you prepared that speech at the same time you planted it, knowing I’d suspect you.”
He glared at me. “Why the hell would I, Susie?”
“Why the hell would I, Lars?” I bellowed. “This is ridiculous. I just want my house fixed. That’s all. And I specifically asked who would be doing the job because I didn’t feel the need to see you again.”
With his back to me, he paused.
“No offense. But I knew it would be wildly uncomfortable.”
“Why’d you use the company I work for then?”
“Because I know they’re reputable and do good work. You yourself said that’s one of the main reasons why you’ve stuck with them. Because they don’t encourage you to cut corners or use shoddy materials and they treat their staff well. Also, they pretty much do everything. These things matter.” I raised a finger. (No. Not that one.) “Take car repairs for instance. Because I know little to nothing about cars, I get ripped off by repair shops—I’m sure of it. I didn’t want that to happen here.”
Another grunt. What an animal.
“I wish neither to marry nor divorce you, Lars. And I’m pretty sure the feeling’s mutual. So this piece of paper I’m holding in no way benefits me. Look at me. Am I laughing? No, I’m not. Nor am I enjoying all this drama. Confrontation stresses me the fuck out,” I said, my shoulders slumped. “I don’t know what else to say. This is ridiculous.”
“You already said that.”
“It’s worth repeating.”
He gave me a look over his shoulder. “If you’re messing with me…”
“I’m not. Are you messing with me?”
“Then what the hell is going on?” I asked the universe.
Without another word, he got to his feet and strode out of the room, heading straight into the bathroom next door. There he made quick work of checking everything. The tiling and paintwork, around the white pedestal basin, inside the mirrored cabinet set into the wall, and the end of the claw foot bath tub. Then he turned around, face set to cranky. “Access point for the attic?”
In no time flat, he had the ceiling hatch open and the ladder down. Then up into the darkness he went. His cell phone doubled as a flash light again.
“Lot of stuff up here,” he commented.
“That does not surprise me. My aunt was kind of a hoarder. Not as bad as the people on those TV shows, but…yeah.”
He sneezed. “A lot of dust, too.”
“Bless you. I haven’t even been up there yet,” I said. “Cleaning and clearing space out down here has taken all of my time.”
His big boots disappeared up the last rungs of the ladder while I waited below. After all, I’d only be in the way. It had absolutely nothing to do with my fear of creepy crawlies. Someone had to wait below with the weird ass document. The sounds of him stomping about and things being shifted came next. Something heavy was pushed aside. Something else fell and glass broke.
“Sorry,” Lars called.
“I’m sure it was nothing valuable. Hopefully.”
Then his face appeared in the dark hole overhead. “Looks like they built the attic to use as another bedroom or office at some stage. The floorboards and everything are tight. No real access into the walls below.”
“Plus there’s about an inch of dust on the ground and no sign of any footprints other than mine.”
“Good work, Nancy Drew,” I said. “Is the basement next?”
He gave me a flat, unfriendly look. “Yes.”
Maybe I’d be better off finding another builder. In fact, I knew I would be. Though it would only be trading one peace of mind for another. While Lars would no longer be in my face, I wouldn’t be able to trust the new builder’s work to the same degree. Which would be anxiety-inducing and possibly costly. Talk about a no-win situation.
Back into the dining room then through to the kitchen at the back of the house, we went on our not-so-merry adventure. I opened the door to the dingy staircase. “I like to call this the murder room. Dark, dank, dangerous. It’s got it all.”
No response from him as we made our way down. Tough crowd. It was just a basic concrete room with a boiler, laundry area, and more assorted crap. But the old boiler, the one before this one, used to make creepy noises. Hence my childhood fears of the basement. Helping with the laundry was always an ordeal. I usually avoided it by offering to do the dishes instead.
Lars began examining the ceiling.
“When did you find out you had this job?”
“Around eight this morning. The office called,” he said. “Mateo’s boyfriend got hit by a car riding to work.”
“Is he okay?”
“A few bumps and bruises and a sprained wrist.”
“Yeah,” he said. “The job I was on was close to finishing and they could spare me, so they asked me to come here.”
“What gets me is that the paper looks old. I mean, the way the text is faded and everything.” I carefully turned the certificate over in my hands. “I wonder if we could get it tested, somehow.”
He scoffed. “You don’t actually think it’s real?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “What I do know is, if you didn’t put the certificate there to mess with me—and I guess I believe you when you say you didn’t—then I can think of no rational explanation for how it got there.”
He frowned harder and kept right on inspecting the ceiling. Even he had to admit that it was highly unlikely I’d put the decree of dissolution in the wall. Surely.
“Does your middle name start with A?”
“So the details are right, at least. No money judgement ordered. No real property judgement ordered. This marriage is dissolved. The petitioner and respondent are divorced. Not much information there to go on.” I chose my next words with care. “You know, my aunt, she was kind of eccentric. She was always burning candles and buying crystals.”
Looking back over his shoulder at me, he raised a questioning brow.
“The thing is, she used to talk to the house sometimes,” I finally said. “Like it was an actual living breathing entity. And yes, maybe she was lonely or a little strange. Please don’t say anything mean or dismissive about her.”
“I’m not going to say anything about your aunt.”
He didn’t even blink. “But it’s not supernatural, Susie. This was no ghost or spirit or whatever you’re suggesting.”
“Okay. Fine. I just thought I’d put that out there,” I said. “Did you find anything down here?”
“So now what?”
Face set, he walked over, staring into my eyes as if he could read my soul.
“I want to believe you when you say you had nothing to do with it. You always seemed like a pretty honest person to me,” he said. “A bit too honest, sometimes.”
“How so?” I asked, only mildly annoyed—although I was exercising great restraint.
“Some of the stuff you come out with sometimes is…unnecessary.”
“Let’s agree to disagree,” I said.
He shook his head.
“I would point out, however, that I’m not brutal. Ever notice how people who say they’re just being honest usually are?”
His nostrils flared on a deep breath. How that was in any way attractive I had no idea. Something must be wrong with me. Guess my vibrator was getting a little boring. Maybe it was time for me to get out there and meet some men. Then again, not dating for the rest of my life would also be great.
“For the last time,” he said, speaking nice and slow, “did you put that piece of paper in the wall?”
“No. I swear.”
“Fuck,” he muttered.
“Fuck,” I agreed.
He sighed. “Someone’s messing with us.”
Kylie Scott is the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and international bestselling author of 19 novels including the Stage Dive series, the Dive Bar series, the Larsen Brothers series, and West Hollywood series. Her most recent release, Pause, debuted on the USA Today bestseller list. Her books have been translated into fourteen languages, and she has sold over 2 million copies worldwide.
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