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One Small Thing [MultiFormat]
eBook by Piper Vaughn & M. J. O'Shea

eBook Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: "Daddy" is not a title Rue Murray wanted, but he never thought he'd have sex with a woman either. Now he's the unwitting father of a newborn named Alice. Between bartending and cosmetology school, Rue doesn't have time for babies, but he can't give her up. What Rue needs is a babysitter, and he's running out of options. He's on the verge of quitting school to watch Alice himself when he remembers his reclusive new neighbor, Erik. Erik Van Nuys is a sci-fi novelist with anxiety issues to spare. He doesn't like people in general, and he likes babies even less. Still, with his royalties dwindling, he could use the extra cash. Reluctantly, he takes on the role of manny--and even more reluctantly, he finds himself falling for Alice and her flamboyant father. Rue and Erik are as different as two people can be, and Alice is the unlikeliest of babies, but Rue has never been happier than when Alice and Erik are by his side. At least, not until he receives an offer that puts all his dreams within reach and he's forced to choose: the future he's always wanted, or the family he thought he never did.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2012


26 Reader Ratings:
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Prologue

Rue

I was having a pretty fabulous night, if I do say so myself. My eyeliner was on just right, my hair spiked and swooping to perfection in all the right places, and I'd managed to walk that flirty fashion line between slightly slutty and downright whorish that somehow ended up with the boys drooling and me getting amazing tips. Like I said, a pretty fabulous night indeed.

"Rue, when are you gonna let me fuck you?"

I chuckled. Oh, Devon. "You know the answer is never." I laughed again but made sure he could tell I meant it. "Oh, the irony, huh?" Two tops did not a happy bed make. Plus, guys always seemed to want more after the first time. Another night in the sack, a movie, dinner, a relationship....

Relationships and me were bad luck all around, and Devon was my friend. Yes. Better to keep things that way.

"Get back to work, Dev, or I'm going to end up stealing all your tips. You know my ass looks better in these hot pants than your skinny little nothin' much."

Devon grabbed his crotch and made a rude gesture with his other hand. I had to laugh. Working with him was always a good time.

I was on the second level of the Tom Tom Club, tending bar next to the dance floor where the boys' shirts seemed to disappear like bad dreams as the night wore on--nothing I'd ever complain about, mind you. I'd see pairs of them walking out to the balcony for smokes and then some and smile... a bit enviously. I'd fucked more than a few of those boys in my day. Ah, memories. Sometimes I really wished I wasn't working. And then another of those nice tips would come in and I'd wink and remember why I was really there. To save enough cash to finish school and get the hell out of Dodge... er, Delaware. The California sunshine was calling my name.

Wait for me, WeHo, I'm on my way! It was the thought that got me through most days.

* * * *

"Rue?"

I froze.

Damn. Double damn.

I felt the presence of a person before I turned around. Britney was playing, and I'd been shaking my butt and taking a gulp of my water, relieved to have a moment's break in the middle of a long, sweaty night, when I felt her.

Natalie.

How did I know it would be her before I turned around? I guess 'cause my mistakes always seem to come back to haunt me in some fashion. If only I'd had a clue, I might have hidden before she saw me. I think that would've been my worst mistake yet.

"Rue?" Her voice was the same the second time she said my name. Oh, sigh. I hadn't been hallucinating after all. Please tell me she hasn't somehow missed the glaringly obvious fact that I'm, like, super gay, and, while alcohol may have changed that for one god-awful half hour of my life, it sure as hell isn't going to happen again!

I turned, ready to cringe.

"Hi, Natalie." I tried to smile. It kinda failed. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut and pretend she was George Cloon--ewww, was her eye makeup really that bad when I decided she'd be my girl-periment? You'd think even a super-sloshed me would have better taste than that!

"Rue, we've gotta talk."

Great. When does that sentence ever end with something you wanna hear? Answer--uh, never.

"What is it? It's been like--"

"Three months. Almost to the day."

I chuckled, all of a sudden nervous. When women started counting days.... Ooch, aye. Obsession City.

"So, what's up?" I took a hopefully casual swig of my water.

"I'm pregnant." And promptly spit it all over the bar. Say what?

"That's nice, sweetie. Are you still with the papa?" Please, please, please say yes.

"Standing with him right now, in fact."

Not what I meant by yes

I gripped the edge of the counter. Black spots exploded in my eyes. I waved to get Devon's attention.

"Devon, I gotta take a break." It came out sounding, if possible, even worse than I was feeling. I could taste the bile in the back of my throat.

"Are you okay, honey?" Devon raised one manicured hot pink eyebrow until it nearly touched the edge of his equally hot pink hairline. He rubbed my back with a cool, slender hand. I flinched, then felt bad for doing it. Devon was just trying to help.

"I'm not sure. I'll be back."

"Take your time, baby cakes. I'll be here." He reached over and squeezed my shoulder. I gave him a weak smile before I ducked under the side gate of the bar and gestured for my (no effing way could it be really happening)... baby mama?

Oh, whoever's up there in the stars, save me now!

* * * *

"That's. Not. Possible," I hissed when I'd managed to get Natalie to a remote corner of the fuck-ony--I mean balcony. I heard a moan nearby and the faint slapping of skin. Sounded like guys fucking (as usual), but maybe it was something else... like the sound of my whole world exploding into little pieces all around me.

"It is possible. It happened. The baby is yours."

"You're sure?"

Her eyebrows snapped together. "What the fuck, Rue?"

"Just checkin'."

"No, I'm not a big whore, and yes, I know it's yours. It's not like I had a lineup that month. You wanna test?"

"Okay, okay. You don't have to get all hissy. What do you want me to do?"

She shrugged. "I'm just telling you in case you do want to do something. I don't wanna abort it, but I'm sure as fuck not keeping it. I am not mommy material."

Do something? What did she want me to d--

Oh. My. God. Does she think I'm mommy material?

"I can't have a child, Nat! I'm... well... I'm...."

"The most maternal person I've ever met. You take care of that clueless friend of yours all the time."

"Dusty?" He was kinda clueless, but at least he had opposable thumbs. Did babies have opposable thumbs yet? I could feel myself spinning out into that freak-out mode where I thought about every stupid little thing other than the fact that.... Oh my God, I'm a father. Or would be in six short months.

The music pounded along from inside the club, thumping happily over the newest Latin dance craze, but I felt like I was imploding, exploding, spiraling out of any sort of control. Usually my grip on control was pretty slippery anyway. Seemed like I had finally lost it completely.

I tried to smile again, but it fell flat. "So what are you going to do if you don't want to keep it?"

Natalie shrugged again. I wanted to scream at her. How can you be so calm?

"Guess if you don't want it, then I'll give it up for adoption."

The idea shot me right in the gut. Another unwanted child in the world. I'd been unwanted--my parents kept me, but I'd been unwanted all the same. I'd always thought they used my gayness as an excuse to do something they'd wanted to do my whole life. I hadn't talked to them since I was sixteen. I didn't want that for my baby. My baby living stuck in the system with someone else, not knowing his or her father. Me. I was its father. Her father. His father. Me. Oh my God.

"I'll take it." Did I just say that out loud? My ugly childhood and newly emerged need to care for my own had come charging from somewhere unknown. Too damn bad if I wasn't ready.

"You want the baby?" Natalie looked more shocked than I was.

"Um...," was all I could say. Did I really mean it? I did. Oh my God, I meant it. I knew what being abandoned felt like, and I would never do that to a child of mine, no matter how unexpected it was. "I want the baby." My mouth went completely dry.

Sweet Jesus, what did I just do?

* * * *

I was walking home that night--fast since it was late, and I didn't really want to run into a herd of drunken frat boys spilling out of Scratch's or Hooligans. Straight boys weren't usually my friends (unless they wanted me to fuck them hard and then pretend it never happened), and that super flirtatious outfit, ever so perfect for earning tips at the Tom Tom? Yeah, it would also be perfect for attracting a frat-boy ass kicking. Random fairy bashing was the last thing I needed on a night like I'd just had.

I knew exactly what I did need. I pried my cell out of my pocket and hit speed dial two-D for Dusty. My best friend and the only real family I'd had for years. He answered groggily after a few rings.

"Hey, Underoo. You know, I was asleep. What's up?"

"I thought I told you to stop calling me that."

There was a long silence on the line. I was afraid Dusty had gone back to sleep. "You going to stop calling me Dustpan?"

I chuckled under my breath. It was still funny after about a million years. "No."

"Then neither am I. What do you need, hon? I don't want to wake up Gary."

"You're still with him? I thought we discussed that already." I held back a groan. Closeted beefcake asshole. "Listen, Dust, I might have done something really impulsive tonight."

Dusty yawned, long and loud. "Stop the presses."

"No, really. Well, two things actually. One was a while ago."

"Can you please just tell me? I'm too sleepy to play guess the Rue shenanigan." There was a muffled noise on the other side. "Sorry, babe," Dusty whispered. "Just a second, okay?"

"Listen, you remember that Natalie chick?"

"Bad makeup, weird stripe job Natalie?"

Wow, he had a good memory. Maybe the makeup was hard to forget.

"That's the one. So, don't yak, but a few months ago I decided to test the waters, yeah? Make sure I'm really, really gay."

"Uh, Underoo, you were doing the girls' makeup in fifth grade. What was the big question?"

I sighed. "Okay, so maybe it just sounded like a good idea at the time, and I'm trying to rationalize it after the fact."

Dusty snorted. "You really slept with a girl? Like full on sex?"

"Um, yeah," I muttered. This conversation was getting worse as the seconds ticked on.

"Eww, gross. How exactly is that a good idea?" I could feel Dusty's shock and resounding disgust through the earpiece.

"I was drunk?"

Dusty chuckled. "She seems kinda butch too. Did she want to strap one on and make you take it?"

I was sure Dusty could hear my eye roll over the phone. "As if! I don't even bottom for guys. Why would I let some chick stick it to me?"

"So you...?" There was another moment of silence. "Aw, shit. Please don't tell me this is going where I think it's going."

"It is." Oh, it definitely was....

"Rue! Are you kidding? Now what?" His voice was muffled like he had his hand over his mouth.

"I'm taking it."

"You're taking what?"

"The baby, Dust. I'm keeping the baby. Natalie's pregnant, it's mine, and she doesn't want it."

There, I said it out loud to my best friend. He can tell me I'm crazy, I'll change my mind, and the whole thing will be chalked up to another one of my impulsive decisions. I can change my mind, right?

Dusty squealed quietly into the phone. "You're gonna be a papa?"

Guess not.

"That's all you have to say?" I'd been expecting the lecture of the century--kinda hoping for it actually.

"One more small thing."

"What?"

"I am not going to be Uncle Dustpan."

* * * *

Erik

NOTICE TO VACATE

The words were written in a thick, bold font, all caps, ten times larger than the rest of the text underneath. They seemed to scream at me, stark black against the innocuous butter-yellow of the paper they were printed on, getting louder and louder, bigger and bigger, until I couldn't help but reach out and flip the notice over so I didn't have to look at it anymore. Looking wouldn't change anything. I knew that. And reading that notice for the twenty-first time in the past hour wasn't going to help anything, either.

The house was quiet, and I was in my favorite chair, my fingertips nervously skimming over the smooth leather armrests. The texture was soothing, the habit as familiar as breathing. It was probably the only thing keeping me calm. I'd thought for a second, when I first saw the notice taped to the door, that I would shake apart and bits and pieces of me would float off into the atmosphere. It didn't happen. But part of me kind of wished it would have.

What am I gonna do? I can't leave this house. It's mine I'd been living there since I graduated from college. The very idea of leaving made my entire body tremble. Who would take care of the flowerbeds I'd planted in the backyard? Who would water them and pull up weeds and replant them every spring?

Oh, I couldn't think about it. Thinking about it made my stomach hurt and my chest feel tight, made my breaths come faster and shallower until my head started spinning. No, no, thinking about it would be bad. But I couldn't not think about it, either. Or the fact that my landlord of six years had left me an impersonal notice instead of coming to talk to me himself.

I had thirty days to vacate the property or make an offer of purchase. I couldn't afford to buy it. I'd never be able to make the down payment, not with my meager royalty checks, and the publisher had just rejected my book proposal. I'd have to come up with something else while my agent shopped it around. And what if no one took it? What if I was never published again? Writing was the only thing I'd ever been good at. I didn't know what I would do if I couldn't earn a living from it anymore.

Oh God. I bent down and put my head between my knees before the wheezing started. No. No, no. Don't. Don't think about it.

I wasn't made for a more normal type of job. I couldn't deal with sales or customer service. Or anything that involved strangers. School had been bad enough. I'd never liked crowds much. Those massive, jam-packed lecture halls had seemed so intimidating. There were times I made it all the way to school, only to turn around and walk out before I could even set foot inside a classroom.

Sometimes being there was too much for me to handle, sensory overload, and a part of me shut down like a server too many people were trying to access at once. My brain sent out an error message, and my body responded by getting back to familiar surroundings as quickly as possible. At that time it'd been my bedroom at my parents' house. These days it was my tiny Cape Cod with its polished oak floors and the old brick fireplace I liked to sit near during the winter months while I wrote and drank cocoa from my Darth Vader mug.

It was home. Had been for over half a decade. But in a month I would to be forced to abandon it, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea. Where will I go

I'd never been very good with change. Scratch that--I was downright terrible with it. And my parents knew that too. They'd helped me find this place before they moved up to Boston a few weeks after my graduation, when the idea of leaving the house where I'd grown up had sent me into nine different levels of panic. Now it was my personal sanctuary, calm and peaceful and oh-so-silent when I needed it to be. I could set out all of my model spaceships and Star Wars action figures without worrying about them being touched or broken, leave my laptop open on my desk without worrying about prying eyes, and I never, ever had to let anyone else inside if I didn't want to.

It was perfect.

A moan worked its way from my throat. "How can he j-just toss me out?"

There was no call for it. I'd always been a good tenant. I took care of the house and the property, kept the lawn mowed and the bushes trimmed in the summer, the sidewalks shoveled and salted in the winter. None of the neighbors had ever complained to the landlord about me, as far as I knew. They'd never had a reason. I'd done everything right, everything the way I was supposed to. Everything.

"Oh... oh G-God...." I snatched the paper up again, searching the words for some kind of loophole, some sort of miracle solution. There was none. Either I could buy the house or I could get out. Those were my only two options. And there was no way I could buy it. Absolutely none. No bank would ever approve me with inconsistent book sales as my only source of income. So, really, there was only one thing I could do: find somewhere else.

The notice crumpled as my fists clenched. When I realized what I was doing, I hastily put it back on the table, smoothed out the wrinkles, and patted it once or twice for good measure. It held no answers, only doom, misery of the acutest kind. A little devil in me wanted to rip it to shreds. But then I'd have to clean up the mess, and more than anything I did not like messes.

I settled back into my chair, eyeing the paper as my fingers resumed their habitual stroking of the armrests. I had to do something, come up with some type of plan so I wouldn't snap under the strain of uncertainty. That was what bothered me the most--the feeling of helplessness that came from not knowing what might come next.

Mom. She would know what to do. Together we'd be able to think of a solution.

I dug my cell phone out of my pocket and dialed her number with shaky fingers. She answered as cheerfully as ever, but all it took was a few words from me for her tone to change from happy to alarmed.

"Erik, honey, what is it?"

"I n-need your help. I have t-to find somewhere else to l-live...."

* * * *

Chapter One

Six months later

Rue

"Dusty, I don't know what I'm gonna do."

I looked down at the tiny bundle in the car seat beside me, sleeping, mouth open, surrounded by fuzzy pink blankets and the tiny stuffed toy one of the nurses had given her. She was gorgeous already. I was biased, of course, but she had a fluffy shock of my black hair, pale, petal-soft skin, and her cheeks were rosy with sleep. Perfect and gorgeous. But just because she was beautiful didn't mean I wasn't more than a little bit scared of her. A baby. It was hard to believe she was actually mine. For real.

Yeah, terrified would probably be closer to the truth. No books, none of those classes at Planned Parenthood, nothing had been enough to prepare me for what was to come. At least I was smart enough to know I'd completely changed my life. The question was, was it for better or for worse? I supposed only time would tell.

Dusty was driving us home from the hospital for our first night together out in the real world--me and Alice. My daughter. My chest got all fluttery at the thought of it.

"Don't you think it's a little too late to be saying you don't know what to do? Whatever 'what' is, you're going to have to do it now."

I rolled my eyes. That was helpful. "Thanks for the support, Uncle Dustpan."

"I thought we talked about that." Dusty chuckled. "Listen. Those ladies at the hospital talked your ear off about childcare and nutrition and blahdy blah blah. We'll find someone to watch the tater tot during the day, and you'll be fine taking care of her on the weekends, right?"

"What about when I'm at the bar?" I hadn't exactly taken my job and full-time school schedule into account when I decided my baby needed a dad, and that dad had to be me. I was so unprepared, and I had only one very short week to get prepared.

"I'm only at The Bean three nights a week, and I'm guessing Rhonda won't mind if Alice comes with me. The other nights I'll be at your place before you need to go."

"The Bean" was actually Temple of the Bean, the offbeat art house coffee shop where Dusty worked. The place was usually filled with blue- and black-haired kids who invested way too much money on eyeliner and dark lipstick. The look was hot if done right, in my opinion at least, but I shuddered at the idea of my daughter spending three nights a week in that environment. Didn't have much choice. I was desperate. Temple of the Bean it was. Guess anything was better than one of the back rooms of the Tom Tom Club. Didn't want my baby to learn those types of skills too early in life... especially not from boys who didn't know what they were doing half the time anyway.

"Are you sure you don't mind taking her?"

"I don't mind. What are best friends and gay uncles for, right? It's only until we're rich, famous stylists anyway, and we can hire an army of the best and most fabulous nannies for our girl."

"Only the most fabulous." I smiled. "Love ya, Dust. You know I'll repay you somehow."

"If the payment says Gucci and comes from the fall collection, I'll be a happy boy."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"I like the camel with the green and red signature stripe--oh, and gold hardware."

I laughed outright at that. Dream big, Dust.

He pulled to a thankfully grandma-ish stop at the curb in front of my building. That fourth-story apartment with tall ceilings and so much personality I'd loved, loved, loved only a year before was beginning to sound really sucky with a baby and all of her heavy shit. I gathered everything up with Dusty's help, hooked the handle of Alice's car seat over my elbow, and started the long trek up the stairs with Dusty in tow. How anyone did this baby stuff without a full-time nurse and valet was beyond me. Luckily I had a part-time one at my disposal. At least until his boyfriend got annoyed with him being gone all the time, and decided to pitch a fit about it.

Everything had seemed easy when I was in the car with Dusty, and my best friend was reassuring me it was all going to be okay. It was still easy when he was puttering around my place, setting the baby's stuff in her little nursery (bye-bye walk-in closet), making us tea and toast, and squealing quietly over how adorable and perfect she was.

It wasn't quite so easy when I was all alone in my lovely old fourth-freaking-floor apartment with lots of hard floors and sharp corners, in charge of a tiny little bundle of pink blankets and downy skin who relied on me to keep her safe and happy. Alice's safety. Add that to the list of things that kind of scared the hell out of me.

I sat on my black leather couch and gingerly set the car seat down on the cushion next to me. I was careful as I undid the tiny straps that kept Alice secure, not wanting to disturb her sleep. It felt strange... and strangely good to lift her out of it and cradle her in my arms.

"Hi, baby girl. I'm your papa," I murmured, brushing my fingertip down her nose. "I've been waiting for you for a long time."

It had felt like forever, the past six months--anticipation, horrible fear, those moments when I couldn't wait to meet my girl, the others when I thought time and again, "What the hell did I get myself into?" It was too late for any of that now. She was alive, right there in my arms, and sleeping peacefully.

Her skin really was the most beautiful shade. Almost like a pale pink rose petal, I thought, before I groaned at how cheesy fatherhood had already made me.

"What am I going to do with you, love?"

I'd done a few half-assed searches for nannies on the Internet, and had been horrified at the prices. Not exactly what a bartender/beauty school attendee could afford. Part of me had hoped that by the time Alice was there, I'd have miraculously become wealthy. Clearly that didn't happen. At least I'd have Dusty for the nights. It was a good thing too, because the cost of daytime care was nearly enough to send the baby to college. I planned on looking into some group daycare facilities in the morning, but sending her to one of those loud, germ-ridden scream-fests was nearly as terrifying as having her adopted out to strangers. No, I didn't like the idea of daycares, but since I wasn't exactly Brangelina, one of them might have to do.

In the morning....

I was exhausted and not what you'd call optimistic about the prospect of Alice sleeping through the night. It was time to try to get at least a little bit of rest. I stood carefully, making sure not to jostle my daughter in her sleep. I wasn't quite sure what I'd do if she started bawling because I'd woken her up. Panic, maybe. Probably. Oh, what the hell have I gotten myself into?

She didn't wake, though, rather lay contentedly in my arms, quiet and warm and sweet-smelling. I placed her in her new little crib, with its pink and spring green cushions, and ran my fingertip down her tiny little nose.

"Goodnight, my darling. Welcome to the world."

* * * *

Erik

Three inches to the left. Two inches forward. There. Perfect.

I stepped back and gave my geraniums a critical once-over. Under my care, the scarlet flowers were blooming nicely. The pot was sitting on my kitchen counter, right in the spot that got the most sunlight every day. It had taken me over a week of experimenting to figure that out. I'd brought the geraniums with me from my old garden when I moved, and I had to admit having them around was nice. But it just wasn't the same. I missed the neat rows of flowerbeds I'd had in my yard back home.

Home. When would I stop thinking that word? It wasn't my home anymore. Hadn't been for going on six months. No matter how much I missed it, I couldn't go back. This was home now. This high-ceilinged apartment with cherry hardwood floors and bright white walls. It wasn't bad. In fact, it had its own special kind of charm. And I'd seen plenty worse places in my search, before my mom had come down from Boston to help me. She'd even stayed until I was packed up and moved. But it still wasn't home, no matter how long I'd been living there. I wasn't sure if it ever would be.

For one, the rent was a couple hundred dollars more than what I'd been paying for my house, which added to the strain on my already threadbare budget. Two, the neighbors were way too close for comfort. Only a few feet separated my front door from the one across the hall. But, on the plus side, the plaster walls were thick, and the landlord hadn't lied about the building being quiet. There were strict rules in place for noise control, and he'd assured me my next-door neighbor, the one I shared a common wall with, was rarely home. I hadn't seen much of the occupants from the two other units on my floor either. So far I'd been able to write undisturbed, and since my apartment was on the top level, I didn't have to worry about anyone stomping around above me.

But sometimes there were weird smells in the hallway from what other people were cooking that seemed to linger in the air for hours. Then there was the microscopic laundry room in the basement, which was dank and dirty and made my skin feel itchy. It could have been worse, though. So much worse. I held onto that thought with an iron grip.

The first few months hadn't been easy. Sleep had been almost impossible. There were plenty of nights when I'd rocked in my favorite chair until exhaustion finally put me under. These days, I managed to mostly stay in my bed at night, and I wasn't spending as much time in my chair anymore, either. It was down to three or four hours a day, which was a vast improvement considering I'd spent almost the entire first week huddled against the dark leather, obsessively stroking the armrests as if I could figure out the mysteries of the universe so long as I never stopped moving.

Unpacking was another challenge. I'd agonized over the placement of every piece of furniture and every last one of my possessions, from my coffee mugs to my hundreds of books, to the cans and boxes of food in my pantry. Everything had to have its place, and I couldn't rest until I'd found the perfect spot for each item.

The process had lasted over a month, intermixed with bouts of writing and Star Wars marathons whenever the stress got to be too much. Only the original trilogy, mind you, not the newer ones. I owned them, but generally I liked to pretend they didn't exist, much like I did with the Terminator movies that came after T2. Back in the days of VHS, I'd worn out more than one copy of Return of the Jedi, my favorite of the three. Now I kept two brand-new backup copies of each film in storage. Just in case.

Thinking about the movies reminded me I hadn't watched the trilogy in a few days. I wasn't in the mood to write--hadn't been for the last couple of weeks, actually. Not since I'd finished editing my last novel and shipped it off to my agent. Of course, the fact that I still hadn't heard anything about the one I'd sent him a few months back didn't help either, but it seemed like my brain always needed a little adjustment period between big projects anyway. I'd never been able to just jump into something new. But there were other reasons I couldn't write this time around too. Constant worry didn't make for a very good writing companion, and it was hard not to worry. If these books didn't get accepted somewhere or my sales didn't pick up, and soon, I'd probably have to start dipping into my pitiful savings account to cover the rent.

Star Wars might be just the thing to distract me, and maybe kick-start the old noggin. It wasn't like I had much else to do anyway.

I fired up my flat screen and slipped A New Hope into the DVD player, then went into the kitchen to microwave a bag of popcorn while it loaded up. A Gatorade and a bag of Twizzlers completed my snack--and, incidentally, my dinner. I took my stash into the living room, settled into my chair, and pressed "play" on the remote.

The intro had just started rolling when there was a knock on my door. I froze with a piece of popcorn halfway to my mouth. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that it was, in fact, only Wednesday. My grocery order wasn't due until Monday morning. So there was no reason for anyone to be knocking at my door....

Unless it's the landlord. Unless he's come to tell me that something's wrong with my lease and I'll have to be out by the end of the month. Find somewhere new. Pack everything up. Start all over again.

I dropped the popcorn back into the bag as whoever was in the hallway knocked again, with a little more impatience. My stomach churned, the handful of pieces I'd already eaten threatening to make an untimely reappearance. For a moment, I was tempted to just stay there in my chair and ignore the sound. But the knocking continued, and if it was my landlord, I'd have no choice but to face him eventually anyway.

I wiped my greasy fingers on one of the napkins I'd brought from the kitchen and got to my feet. My hands were ice cold, my knees watery.

"C-c-coming," I forced out as I approached the door, so that whoever was on the opposite side would stop with all the knocking already. My stomach was twisted into knots and my breaths came hard and fast.

I paused in front of the door, gripping the knob in a white-knuckled fist as I fought to get myself under some kind of control.

It's going to be okay. No matter what, it's going to be okay.

I could talk the landlord into letting me stay. I could explain that I couldn't leave now, see, since I'd only just gotten settled. It wouldn't be fair to force me to go. It wouldn't be fair.

Closing my eyes briefly, I twisted the knob and pulled open the door.

"Hi there," a voice said cheerfully. But not the one I was expecting.

My eyes snapped open, and it took me a few moments to really register what I was seeing. Once I did, I could only blink in surprise. A boy stood in the hall... or, well, a man, really, but he looked young. Maybe early twenties, if I had to guess. His sleek black hair was combed to the side, partially covering one of his eyes. From what I could see of it, and the other, they were green. But it wasn't the color that had me staring. It was the fact that they were lined carefully in black... and his skin was creamy pale, like porcelain... and his lower lip was double pierced, with two of those rings with the little balls about an inch apart from the center.

I took it all in, so confused I still couldn't bring myself to say anything. And that was before I got to his clothes. He was wearing a tight black T-shirt and those girl pants that stop midway up the calf. They hung low on his hips and were cinched with a studded, bright pink belt... which matched the pink flip-flops he wore on his perfect little feet. I stared down at his toes--the nails were painted black with hot pink accents--until the sound of him clearing his throat brought my gaze back up to his face.

"Hi," he said again, holding out a hand. It was only then I noticed what looked to be a smiling pink car dangling from his other arm. "I'm Rue Murray. I live next door."

I blinked at him and reached out to shake his hand without thinking. "Rue as in remorse? As in 'he said ruefully'? As in 'you will rue the--'"

"Rue as in Rufus," he interrupted, sounding exasperated. "But nobody calls me that," he added dangerously. "Nobody."


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