ANDREW watched the new couple with a cynical eye. Mr. and Mrs. Newlyweds, matching rings glinting in the sunlight, his arm around her shoulders, keeping her close. He could only see their backs as they were introduced to the neighborhood vultures, but Jesus, he was tall. Built like a brick shit house. His wife was tiny compared to Mr. Newlywed, barely coming up to his shoulders, yet from Andrew’s perspective she had him on a tight leash, her fingers hooked firmly though his belt loops. She wasn’t letting him go anytime soon. Andrew couldn’t hear them, but he could see the guy laughing at some wisecrack Allison had made.
He knew how this would pan out. An introduction at the cookout, polite smiles exchanged, then they would vanish behind the front door, only emerging for work and grocery shopping. No one was really friends here, not unless they had kids, and then it was play dates, carpools, and sneaky gins at two in the afternoon. Still, they had to pretend for the newbies—Allison’s orders.
If there was one thought in Andrew’s head at any of these neighborhood parties, it was how soon he could escape. No matter how much he drank, or how much he tried to fit in, every party was long and tedious, even with the agreement with Stephanie that, after showing willingness, he could retreat to his dark room. He was so tired of pretending to be something he wasn’t. Andrew Matthews, model husband, father, and town photographer. Andrew looked at his watch. Half an hour, then he could leave the neighbors to their amusements and disappear back to the darkroom. Twenty-nine minutes and thirty seconds. He took a swig of his beer. Idly, he wondered how long they had been married. A month? Six weeks tops. He predicted that in nine months time there would be a little Newlywed in a stroller, or… hello! Maybe next week, judging by the size of that stomach! Andrew found himself transfixed by Mrs. Newlywed’s belly as she turned around. Either they had been practicing before the wedding or Andrew’s intuition was way off.
Hidden in the corner, Andrew was able to stare freely at the woman, noting her slightly swollen ankles in their strappy high-heeled sandals. He was surprised she could get them on. Despite her advanced pregnancy, she was a slender woman with delicate bone-structure. Andrew could see how attractive she was. Then for the first time he got a proper look at the man. Shit, he was young. Too young to be married and expecting a kid. He looked like a college jock on his first date, all shaggy hair and rippling muscles, with broad shoulders and narrow hips.
“Don’t they look cute? All hearts and flowers. Sooooo in lurve.”
Andrew looked down at his wife. Stephanie was staring at them with something approaching dislike, her long fingers wrapped so tightly round a wineglass they showed white round the knuckles. He sighed quietly. They had never been like that. He watched the man, so young and in love, a big grin on his face as he hugged his wife close to his side. Andrew felt an emotion he hadn’t experienced for a very long time. He was jealous, envious of the love they were showing each other, and the smiles, the goddamned fucking affection. He and Stephanie had never looked at each other like that—ever.
Taking another pull on the beer, he said, “Wait ’til the sleepless nights kick in. The hearts and flowers won’t count for a lot then.” Andrew looked at Stephanie’s glass. It was empty, as usual. He wondered how many glasses she had consumed. “Want another one?” He waggled his bottle at her.
She nodded. “Yeah, why not. The booze is the only thing that makes this day bearable. I’m going to find out where Colin is. Be back in a moment.”
Andrew took her glass, then wandered off towards the kitchen. Allison and Jim’s house was the same as his, all gleaming white appliances in exactly the same place. He opened the large fridge to find it stocked top to bottom with wine. Allison was well known for taking these cookouts very seriously. Taking an open bottle of white wine, he topped up Stephanie’s glass right to the brim—otherwise she’d only complain—and closed the fridge door to look for the beer bucket.
“Is there one in there for me?” Andrew looked up as he reached into the icy water to get a bottle. Mr. Newlywed was grinning at him, a hopeful expression in his eyes.
“Sure.” Andrew passed over the one he had been rooting for, then acquired a second one for himself.
“Thanks.” The guy cracked it open and took a long pull, his moan of pleasure as the cool liquid hit the back of his throat almost obscene. Andrew tried hard not to stare. “God, I needed that.” He suddenly seemed to remember his manners, and wiping his hand on his jeans, he held it out. “Nathan Peterson. Just moved into number twenty-four.”
Andrew refrained from his desire to laugh at him, merely shaking his hand and saying, “Andrew Matthews. My wife Stephanie and I live at number twelve.” Andrew stood over six feet, but this man dwarfed him both in height and physique; his handshake was firm but not bone crushing. Idly he wondered what he would look like in black and white, shirt off and wet. Maybe washing the car. Andrew preferred to take his photos where people were actually doing something. He realized he was holding onto his hand for too long when he caught Nathan’s amused expression.
Laughing nervously, Andrew tried to make small talk. “So, have you met everyone yet? Remembered all their names?”
“Not a single one. You’re Justin, right?” He grinned at Andrew’s appreciative snort. “To tell you the truth, it’s kinda overwhelming. We’ve only been here forty-eight hours.”
“I’ll bet. Still, you’ll soon get to know us all, and you’ll be dragged to these events often enough. Allison and Jim love their ‘aren’t we all such good neighbors’ shindigs.”
Nathan frowned, trying to remember who they were. “Small skinny blonde and older grizzled dude?”
Andrew nodded. “Yeah. They run the neighborhood watch program. The rest of us just fall in line.”
“Huh. Okay, I get the picture.” Nathan looked at his bottle. It was empty. He waved it hopefully at Andrew. “Any chance of another one?”
Andrew waved his hand at the bucket. “Just help yourself. You never go home sober from one of these gigs. Not if you wanna stay sane.” He watched as Nathan dug around eagerly in the bucket for another bottle. “So, expecting your first child soon?”
“You noticed?” Nathan seemed to be almost bouncing in excitement at the prospect. “Gummi bear?” He pulled out a half-empty bag of candy from his pocket. Bemused, Andrew nodded and dug into the bag. Pulling out a red one, he tipped his head back and tossed it into his mouth.
Nathan continued, “Alex looks like she’s going explode any moment. I hope she doesn’t. Explode, I mean,” he added hastily at Andrew’s bemused look.
“I guess this is your first then?” Andrew laughed outright. The dude was like a small kid himself.
Nathan laughed with him, not taking the slightest offense. “Certainly is. He’s due in four weeks’ time.” He proffered the gummi bears again.
Picking a green one, Andrew bit the limbs off it before decapitating it and swallowing the body.
“Jesus, what did that bear ever do to you?” Nathan had been watching the whole process in fascination.
“Didn’t get the chance. I got him first,” Andrew said smugly, taking a drink although the bitter taste of the beer didn’t really mix well with the candy.
“Remind me not to get on your bad side,” Nathan drawled.
They grinned at each other, then Andrew asked, “A Texas boy?”
Nathan tipped an imaginary Stetson and said, “Yes boss. San Antone born and bred.”
Andrew pretended to groan. “Oh no. A Spurs fan? I think I may never speak to you again.” He spoke in a slow deep drawl, allowing the accent he normally suppressed to become more noticeable.
“Wait a moment!” Nathan’s hazel eyes positively sparkled. “Do I hear me another escapee? Only, one from the wrong side of the tracks?”
“Born in Dallas, moved to Santa Fe when I was ten,” Andrew confirmed.
“Ah, a Mavs then?” At Andrew’s nod, the younger man hummed. “Not sure we should be talkin’, but as we’re both momma’s boys, shall we put aside our differences, at least until I whup your ass at Madden?”
Andrew winced at the reference to his mother—Momma’s black sheep perhaps—but kept his smile glued to his face. For once, he liked this new addition to the area. He hoped Nathan wasn’t a hiding behind the front door type. “In your dreams, boy,” he drawled.
Nathan whooped. “You are so on.” A challenging light entered his eyes. “How ’bout we escape from here and you pretend you can try and beat me?” He lunged forward to engulf a startled Andrew in a bear hug. Arms flailing, Andrew found himself smushed up against a cotton shirt. He inhaled the scent of laundry detergent, and beneath it sweat, and something he couldn’t define. His hands, trying to get a purchase on something solid, landed on Nathan’s back. Fuck, this guy was packing muscle. He made Andrew look like a stick insect.
“Don’t you dare run away, Nathan Peterson.” A light, warm, female voice, trying to sound amused but with a clear thread of irritation, interrupted them.
Andrew tried to disentangle himself and retain some dignity. He felt rather than heard Nathan chuckling, his chest vibrating under his cheek; then an arm slipped across his shoulders and he was turned to meet Alex. Strangely enough Nathan didn’t let him go, just tucking him under one arm as he said, “Hey darlin’, meet our new neighbor, Andrew. He’s a Mav, but don’t let that put you off.”
Alex rolled her eyes. “Sorry for my husband, Andrew. He’s an overgrown puppy with the manners to match. Put him down, Nathan,” she commanded, much as she would talk to a young dog.
“Drew doesn’t mind, do you?” And Andrew was squeezed for a second, before Nathan obediently dropped his arm and moved over to his wife, bending down to kiss her on the cheek.
Andrew was torn between pointing out that if Nathan called him Drew again his balls would be in danger, and asking him to put his arm back. Then another arm went around his waist, sharp nails digging into his skin.
“So, I was waiting for you to come back with my drink, and instead I find you groping the new neighbor. Quick work, Drew.” Stephanie had followed Alex into the kitchen and witnessed the whole display.
Andrew was determined not to give his wife the satisfaction of seeing him blush. “You’re just jealous,” he answered, “because I got a hug and you didn’t.”
Alex laughed, not noticing the undercurrents of tension between their new neighbors. “He mauls everybody.” She elbowed Nathan in the ribs. “Believe me. He doesn’t understand the concept of personal space.”
Nathan held out his hands as if in surrender. “I’m just overly friendly. Anyway, Drew and I have a date for me to take him down.”
Stephanie gave a thin laugh. “Much as I know he would love for you to manhandle him, Andrew’s promised to take his son to the park this afternoon.”
A broad grin split Nathan’s face. Did this guy ever stop laughing? “You have a son as well?”
“Yeah, Colin, he’s nine,” Andrew muttered. “Going into the fourth grade come September.”
“Hey, Nathan is a fourth-grade teacher. He’s going to be teaching at Castleton Elementary.” Alex looked at her husband with such pride.
To Andrew’s surprise, Nathan went bright red. “I’m newly qualified. This is my first job,” he admitted.
“That’s Colin’s school. You’ll be teaching his class.” Stephanie surprised everyone by going to the kitchen door and yelling for her son. After a minute a thin, lanky boy came to the door. He was wearing shorts, no shirt, and was as usual, filthy dirty. Even his hated freckles, which he complained about at every opportunity, were virtually unnoticeable in the grime that covered his body.
His mother steered him in the direction of Nathan. “Colin, meet your new teacher, Mr. Peterson.”
“Jesus, he’s enormous.” Colin’s jaw dropped as he looked at Nathan.
Andrew was amused to notice both teacher and pupil looked highly embarrassed as everybody laughed. Stephanie nudged Colin. “What do you say?”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Peterson,” he said politely.
His new teacher came to his rescue. “Nate, ’til September at least.” Nathan held out his hand and Colin shook it as he had been taught. “We’ll go back to Mister P the first day of school, okay?”
Colin nodded. “Can I go now, Mom, pleeeease?” he whined, desperate to get away from his parents and, even worse, his new teacher. It was still vacation. Way, way too early to be thinking about school.
“Ten minutes, then Dad is taking you to the park to play soccer.” Stephanie was firm.
Andrew snuck a look at his watch, sighing inwardly. So no chance of the darkroom first. He had been so close to escaping.
Colin was out of the kitchen door the second he got permission, almost knocking down Jim and Allison, who had come in search of the new neighbors. They rocked back as he sped past, then entered the kitchen, pleased to see Andrew and Stephanie making an effort with Nathan and Alex.
“Hey there. How are you all doing? Has everyone got a drink? Jim, we need some more beer. Nathan is almost out.” As usual, Allison took charge as soon as she entered the kitchen. She was considerably younger than her husband, but there was no doubt who was the driving force in their relationship. Jim seemed content to let her steam ahead, and in return she gave him a well organized home and affectionate, if bossy, attention.
Nathan gave them all his widest smile. Andrew was nearly blinded by the way the kitchen suddenly lit up. “I’m fine, thank you, Allison. I won’t have another one. I gotta walk the dogs this afternoon, and Drew here has invited me to play soccer with him and his boy.”
Andrew choked on the last of his beer. As he spluttered out his apologies, gasping for breath, an enormous hand patted him on the back.
“All right there, Drew? Trying to wuss out of our game? Give me ten to get changed and pick up the dogs and we’ll be on our way.”
Andrew looked up to see Nathan giving him a barely perceptible wink. Beside him, Alex looked thunderous. Allison beamed at them all. This was just what she enjoyed most, all her neighbors getting on so well.
He grinned back at Nathan. An afternoon in the darkroom hiding from the world, or an afternoon in the sunshine whupping the ass—extremely nice ass—of his new friend, at soccer? No contest. “Think you can beat me and my boy? Bring it on.”