His eyes brightened.
“Is that a challenge?” he asked. “You sure you’re up to it?”
“You’re too funny,” I said, shaking my head.
“Funny enough to get a date with you tomorrow?” he said, offering a sly smile. “I’d go for the brooding, manly thing and try to be all mysterious, but I’ve never really been able to pull it off.”
I sobered, thinking of Ruger. The two men couldn’t have been more different, that was for sure.
“Um, I’m not really looking for a boyfriend,” I said slowly. “And I’ll be honest—you bring a seven-year-old on a date, you’re probably not gonna get some at the end.”
“It’s just an evening,” he said. “No big deal. Besides that, I’ve got a deep, dark secret to share with you.”
He leaned toward me, waving me in close. I shifted, balancing Ava as he spoke in my ear.
“I really do have an amazing skee-ball theory,” he said, his voice grave and serious. “It needs experimentation. You’d be doing me a huge favor.”
I started laughing again, pulling away.
“Does that line actually work for you?” I asked. He smiled at me.
“I don’t know, does it?”
I thought about Ruger, how he made me feel and compared it to this man. Josh didn’t give me chills when I felt his breath against my ear, but he was nice to look at and seemed fun and friendly. And how much trouble could we get into on a date at a kiddie pizza place, anyway?
“Okay,” I said, feeling proud of myself. I’d move past Ruger—this was the perfect first step. “That would be fun. But just friendly. I’m really not looking to get serious with anyone.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied, grinning at me. “We’ll just go and have some fun—and Ryan can vouch for me. I’m not an undercover supervillian, no dark secrets, nothing. What you see is what you get.”
I started to reply, but a thick stream of water suddenly hit the side of my head, drenching me as Ava shrieked. I look up to see Noah running away with a small pack of boys, screeching in triumph. Little shit …
“I need to go dry off,” I told Josh.
“Want me to go defend your honor?” he asked, holding up his Soaker.
“Yeah, you do that.”
He stood and saluted me, eyes dancing with laughter, then tore off after the mob of children shooting each other and running around the grass.
I found Ryan by the grill. He held a beer in one hand and a pair of tongs in the other, and as he shifted them to take Ava, he smiled at me.
“You know, Josh’s a real good guy,” he said. “I’ve known him a couple of years.”
“Um, he seems nice,” I replied awkwardly. Ryan laughed.
“Don’t worry—no pressure,” he said. “Just wanted to let you know he’s not a serial killer.”
“Good to know,” I said. “Thanks for having me over. Thanks for everything, actually.”
“No problem,” he said. “Kimber thinks you’re the shit. You know, it’s not that easy for her to find friends, despite what you’d think. You’re special to her.”
That startled me.
“Kimber’s always had more friends than anyone,” I said, laughing.
His face sobered and he shook his head. “No, she’s always got more people at her parties than anyone. There’s a big difference.”
I didn’t know what to say. Ryan shrugged, and smiled again.
“Go get dried off,” he added. “We’ve got sparklers for the kids once it’s totally dark. I’ll need help, and Kimber’s useless after three margaritas.”
I smiled hesitantly and walked inside. Off to the left was a family room, with the kitchen and a breakfast bar off to the right. My sandal caught on the doorway, pulling the strap loose, so I dropped down to fix it just inside the entry.
“Jesus, did you see what Ryan’s wearing?” I heard a woman say in the kitchen.
“I know,” said another. “And Kimber’s not much better. Could that bikini be smaller? You know she’s a giant slut, right? She used to be a stripper. I just hope they leave before Ava hits school. I don’t want Kaitlyn in her class.”
“No kidding. That’s why I moved to this neighborhood—I wanted all our neighbors to be normal, not trashy. And her friend … God, she must’ve been, what, ten years old when she had her kid?”
“I saw her skanking all over Josh. Disgusting.”
My phone buzzed, and I pulled it out of my pocket to find a text from Marie.
Hey. I know things are weird, but I really hope you’ll come to my bachelorette party next weekend. We’re all hanging out tonight and thinking about how much more fun it would be with you here! xoxo
“So, my pedicure girl moved to a new salon. All Vietnamese, and I hate how they talk to each other without speaking in English. So rude!” said the woman in the kitchen.
“You’re sooo right. I never leave a tip when they do that. They should be speaking English if they’re going to live here …”
I stood up and walked through the kitchen, piercing each of the women in turn with a sweet smile. Bitches. How dare they gossip about Kimber, in her own house? I couldn’t believe they’d get drunk on her booze while ripping her apart like that.
At least nobody was whipping out knives.
Not metal ones, anyway.
I wanted to go home.
“You got it, bud,” Josh said, watching intensely as Noah lined up his shot at the skee-ball machine. I had to laugh. Josh had been joking about his theory … mostly. The man really did love the game. It turned out Noah loved it, too, so things had worked out pretty well.
We’d been at Chuck E. Cheese’s for nearly three hours, and I’d had a blast. Josh was easy to be around. He didn’t stress me out and he didn’t scare me. We’d eaten dinner, and to give him credit, he ate the nasty pizza they served without a single snide comment (not even I could pull that off). Then he bought Noah more tokens than he’d ever seen before and we’d hit the games.
Now it was almost nine and I knew we needed to get Noah out soon or things could get ugly. I touched Josh’s arm, catching his attention. He turned and grinned at me, looking like a big, happy puppy.
“We need to head home,” I said, nodding toward my son. “He’s tired. Don’t want to push him too hard.”