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Love Thy Neighbor: A Vacation Fake Boyfriend Romance

The Kingsbrier Legacy Book 1

A Small Town Boss's Son Romance

—PEPPER—

My boss’s son is less than thrilled with the workout I'm giving the smoke detector. But if Mateo Sanchez wasn’t willing to lease me the other side of his duplex, I'd be living in a cardboard box. The latest trouble to root me out of hiding in this small-town paradise? Finding a date to my sister’s destination wedding—to my ex. I knew lying that my hot landlord was my boyfriend would bite me in the you-know-where, but sometimes a girl gets tired of playing the underdog.

 

—MATEO—

Pepper Corbin is as coordinated as a foal on an icy lake. And while everyone at Kingsbrier has taken a shine to her, the burning smells coming from her kitchen grate on my last nerve. I certainly don’t appreciate Pepper telling her family we’re dating. Except, getting roped into spending a week on the high-seas? That’s my own fault. So I agree to fake our relationship. Maybe even too well, since now that I’ve kissed Pepper she’s driving me crazy in a different way.


 

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I set my teeth square, locking my jaw with a diabolical upturn of my cheeks. Opening the glass door to my mother’s veterinary clinic as slowly as possible, the faint brush of the black bristles catching the outside step are only audible to my ears. Making sure the sound of the door closing is as muted, I pinch my fat hand in the process.

Not good since I make a living with my hands. I stifle the guttural instinct to grunt and shake off the pain.

There’s a woman waiting in the reception area with her back to me. Her dark hair curls down her back, ending above the waist of her blue jeans. To the untrained eye, she’s one of two people. And given where we are, if anyone ventured to guess they’d probably mistake my cousin for the poised and sophisticated Daveigh Sanchez, DVM.

But I know better.

Gracyn is shorter, and she packs a whole lotta attitude into those fewer inches than my mother has.

I haven’t seen my cousin in weeks and happened to spy her as I reached for the handle. Along with Corey, our other cousin, we are the eldest among the generation of grandkids here at Kingsbrier. I came along first. Gracyn’s a year younger than Corey, but that didn’t stop her from becoming our ringleader.

Our parents are siblings. Quintuplets, if you can imagine that. I suppose my grandparents were so used to having five kids terrorizing the ranch the trouble the three of us got into wasn’t intimidating in the least.

Now, we’re all fucking grown up. But hell, if it’s any fun to act it.

I stalk low, keeping my shadow from sight. The squeak of my worn work boot gives me away at the last second.

Gracyn turns her head.

I lunge, grabbing her at the middle, and pinning her hands at her sides. I’ve wrestled with this girl enough times to know not to leave myself vulnerable. She kicks her feet forward and I stumble back with adequate time to stop the soles of her feet from hitting the reception desk. She’d use the leverage to land me on my ass.

My cousin fights dirty. Mainly, because I taught her to. Guys were all over Gracyn in high school, and Corey and I weren’t going to be around to defend her forever. I’m sure in a match of wits, Gracyn would prevail. But guys are assholes and high school boys after a pretty girl are even bigger shitheads.

Gracyn may not have inherited the refined elegance my grandmother passed onto my mother, but they are dead ringers. I don’t think I could have lived with my conscience if anyone hurt Gracyn. I look at her and I see my mom. I’d probably see my little sister, too. If I had one. However, my mom got saddled with three boys. So, lucky Gracyn got the focus of my brotherly love.

“You suck, Mateo!” she shrieks.

She proceeds to call me every name under the sun, a few of which she translates into Spanish; a skill I taught her. It was important to my dad that I was bilingual. Not sure he saw it as something that would come back to bite him. The volume of her scolding lowers a notch as she runs out of cuss words. Both of us know we’re not too grown up that my mom won’t chew us up and spit us out for misbehaving in a place of business.

“Put me down,” Gracyn seethes.

The waiting room is empty other than a stack of cat crates. Each has one or two feisty felines inside, meowing their displeasure at being cooped up and that my cousin and I get to have all the fun.

“Nope.” I drag her toward the door. “I told you I’d get you in my chair somehow—”

“No needles!” She panics, squirming against my tight grip.

I’ve got a decent impression of a serial killer’s maniacal laugh going on until my shoulder hits the door. Then I drop my cousin like a sack of potatoes.

She lands in a lump on the commercial carpeting. “Ow! My butt.” She rubs her tailbone.

I kick my leg over her head and offer Gracyn a hand up. 

“Are you this rough with your clients, or have you gotten so used to spending your time with masochists and forget there are normal people who don’t find pleasure in your brand of pain?” Gracyn gives me the stink eye.

I shrug and my lips twist. I’m a tattoo artist and some of my clients bliss out at the hum of the needle and the sensation of it etching their skin.  

There were any number of jobs waiting here at the ranch when I got out of art school. I had the pick of the litter if I’d wanted one. Mom runs a clinic specializing in large breed animals, and Dad is co-owner of Kingsbrier Vineyards, which he and Grandad started twenty-plus years ago. I already had ink of my own when my trypanophobic cousin persuaded me to apprentice tattooing.

Gracyn’s an anomaly and I’ve learned what parts of her personality to take seriously. She’ll caterwaul about me teasing her about her pristine canvas and, by the same token, has drummed up business and handed out my card more often than she’ll admit.

Cousin. Best friend. Little Sister. I love the girl. But man, my condolences to the poor sap who she sinks her claws into.

I tap my finger on her forehead. “The next time you’re passed out drunk and I’m inking ‘Daddy’s Girl’ right here. And it’s going to be daddy’s with a Z.”

She smacks my hand away and laughs because there’s no sense denying it’s true. “You will do no such thing.”

Gracyn hugs me and playtime is over. 

“It’s injection day I see.” I toss a chin at the tower of barn cats waiting their turn in line to see the vet.

They’re a feral bunch, but each fall Mom insists, where she has the ability to keep them healthy, we round them up and do exactly that. 

“Yep. I drew the short straw. They’re all accounted for, and this is the last of them. Bonus, the girls and I are headed to The Grille for dinner afterward. Aunt Daveigh is treating. What are you doing here?”

I take a key out of my pocket and twirl the ring around my index finger. “Dropping off.” I sigh.

“Pepper’s moving in! That’s so nice of you.” Gracyn snags the key, teasing, “Momma’s boy. With a capital Z.”

She’s not far off.

Although my parents weren’t married until I was in elementary school, Daveigh is the only mother I’ve ever known. When I was five, I blew out my birthday candles, wishing she was my mom. I thought if she were, maybe it meant she loved me enough that she wouldn’t go back to college. Hell, I didn’t even care if my dad was too old for his then boss’s daughter. I just wanted a family like everyone else had. 

My wish was granted a few years later. Since then I’ve pretty much done whatever my mother wants. This includes letting her strong-arm me into renting the other side of the duplex I own to the vet clinic’s office manager. It’s been unoccupied since I moved in. I’d been using the living room as a studio and one of those bedrooms to stockpile empty pizza boxes. I’d been too lazy to toss them and decided they’d make a great sculpture. The smell proved me wrong.

It’s taken me a week to air out the space and to store my art supplies on the side I live in. Mostly, I dragged my feet because I didn’t want a neighbor. My house is closer to town. I intend on opening my own shop once I have the experience and a decent book of clients. Even though that’s not in the near term, derailing the plan makes me edgy.

“What’s she like?” Never having met the woman, it’s not the only thing making me cautious. “Did she really burn down her apartment building?”

“A grease fire can happen to anyone.” Gracyn blows off my concern, using the you’re-so-stupid tone.

“It can happen to anyone, but don’t forget, I’ve lost all my shit in a fire once. I don’t want it to happen again because somebody made an oopsie.”

I’ve made sure every smoke detector has new batteries and installed a few extra in both units. Better safe than sorry. My entire portfolio is in that house. It’s my life’s work so far, and a few years’ worth of images of my sketches transferred onto other people’s skin, showing the progression of what I’ve learned in my chosen trade. All of these things are what I aim to build a career on. And no, photographs stored on a cloud server aren’t the same as seeing a piece of art in real life. The last thing I want is anyone who is accident-prone taking what I’m working toward away from me.

“Drama llama. Your mom trusts Pepper. So should you… And Aunt D raised you better than to be mean to anyone just because you didn’t get your spoiled way.”

“That’s rich coming from a Kingsbrier princess,” I mutter.

Gracyn smacks the back of my head.

“Ow!”

“You need an attitude adjustment… or to get laid. Whatever happened to the girl you met last month through work?”

“Didn’t go anywhere.” I don’t confess to my cousin the blonde in question came back to show her assets off to all of the other artists who’d look.

I may be a tit guy, but it doesn’t get me hot anymore when a woman pulls her breasts out of her shirt to be inked. And I’ve witnessed the aftermath of enough clit piercings—where the lady has jumped up and spread her legs just to leave the studio sobbing and walking like she’s spent two days riding bareback on a horse—that the whole thing has lost its appeal. It isn’t sexy anymore. It’s work. The only guys in the shop sporting wood are new on the job.

Thank fuck I’m not a gynecologist. If I’m this cynical about women’s bodies before my thirtieth birthday, then I’m not holding out hope that a decent relationship is in the cards.

The swinging door leading to the exam rooms flies open and all hell breaks loose. A petite woman is wrestling with a surly tortoiseshell barn cat. At some point, the cat was wrapped in a blanket, but it managed to wiggle and claw its way out of a swaddle-hold. Its front paw pushes against her conservative button-down and the fabric bunches to the side, revealing a camisole underneath. The cat’s got no affection for either layer. The more it attempts to get the woman to release her grasp, the further down the fabric gets pushed. Its claws get stuck in the lace underneath her top and, all of a sudden, I’m on the receiving end of an eyeful of boob.

They’re nice boobs. Or rather, the boob I saw was nice for the pair. Lush and firm. I decide they’re definitely not fake. But still, not the bird’s-eye view I want in my mom’s veterinary hospital when I’m avoiding it at my workplace.

“Are you okay, Pepper?” Gracyn rushes up, grabbing the cat from behind. “Let me help!”

There’s a flurry of fur as the blanket drops to the floor. Plain Jane in her office wear starts sneezing. The cat’s got all four limbs going in four different directions along with its head and neck in a fifth as it tries to bite my cousin.

There are plenty of times I’m involved in whatever is happening at the ranch. Family comes first but, “I do not miss this.” I stand back, taking in the scene.

Between sneezing, picking cat fur off her tongue, and grabbing the blanket which has landed at her feet, the tenpenny lady and Gracyn exchange information about the cat. It’s been vaccinated and has a clean bill of health. Gracyn slams her hip into the glass and tosses the unamused kitty out the front entrance with a “shoo.”

I also pick up on my cousin using the woman’s name again and stifle a second groan.

This uncoordinated mess is the pyro moving in next door.

©2021 Jody Kaye, All Rights Reserved

 

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