Third Time's the Charm
If you’re new to the Blue Moon series, Lucy highly recommends you give the hippie, dippy, nosy town a read! (Very intense author note: DO NOT READ THE PREQUEL FIRST. OR SECOND. OR THIRD. PROBABLY NOT EVEN FOURTH.)
In Deputy Layla Gunnarson’s experience, pounding on her front door after midnight was never a good thing. Blue Moon was a small, sleepy sort of town. Well, mostly.
There was the occasional astrological apocalypse or stink-bombing gone wrong. Not to mention a global pandemic.
Levar Burton’s soothing sleep story voice disappeared from her ears as she shoved the Bluetooth eye mask up her forehead. She squinted at her phone screen. 2:33 a.m.
“Seriously?” she rasped. She’d just gotten off an extra-long shift at midnight and dragged her ass straight to bed with the intent to sleep as long as the dogs’ bladders would allow.
The next round of thumping triggered a tentative boof from the foot of her bed, followed by a mournful howl originating in the hallway.
“Shit,” she groaned. Layla blindly stumbled out of bed, sending a cascade of four-legged friends to the floor. She slapped on lights as she made her way downstairs. Cleo the cat tried her damnedest to act as a furry tripwire on the creaky staircase but was chased off by Brutus the bulldog and ChiChi the chihuahua mix. Sinatra the beagle was already howling at the front door.
“Everybody sit down and be quiet,” she ordered. Three dog butts hit the floor. Cleo and her arch-nemesis, Meow Meow II, ignored both commands and hissed at each other.
Still half asleep, Layla dragged on the face mask she kept on a hook just inside the front door.
She didn’t know exactly what she expected on the other side, but it certainly wasn’t all 6-feet 2-inches of Huckleberry Cullen. The man she made a point to avoid. The man who lived next door. The man she secretly spied on when he cut his lawn without a shirt on.
He was wearing a pair of low-slung sweatpants, a wrinkled t-shirt, and a smiley heart-patterned face mask. His thick blond hair stood up in every direction. She instinctively squashed the immediate desire to shove her hands into it and kiss the crap out of him.
She did a lot of repressing of desires around him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she yawned.
“Pandemic booty call?” He dropped the gym bag on the porch floorboards.
“You already know the answer to that one. Try again,” Layla said, leaning down to tug Sinatra backwards as he butt-wiggled his way toward the visitor.
“Landlord’s orders,” Huck said, nudging the bag toward the threshold with a flip-flopped foot.
“Am I having a nightmare?” she demanded.
“Don’t tell me that me knocking on your door in the middle of the night is anything but a dream come true,” he said, shooting her a sleepy-eyed wink. His eyes were so green they reminded her of spring fields after a good rain. She’d seen them up close on two memorable occasions.
Scratch that. One occasion. The first never happened.
Layla put on her best bad-cop voice. “What are you doing on my doorstep at 2:30 in the morning, and what does Bruce Oakleigh have to do with it?”
“My carbon monoxide detector is overwrought. It won’t stop going off, and Bruce said I might go to sleep and not wake up before he could get someone out to look at it.”
“Okay. Fine. But why are you standing on my porch?”
She couldn’t see his mouth through the mask but Layla had no doubt that he was grinning at her. “Bruce volunteered your guest bedroom.”
Bruce Oakleigh, real estate agent and powdered wig aficionado, also happened to own and rent side-by-side identical clapboard cottages on Bluebell Avenue. At least, when he wasn’t scheming with the Beautification Committee into pairing off the entire town’s population.
Layla lunged for ChiChi as the dog made a break for the door. “Does this have something to do with the Beautification Committee?” she asked.
“The BC isn’t going to sneak into my house in the middle of a pandemic and make me think I’m about to succumb to a poisonous gas,” he said dryly.
Huck had only lived in Blue Moon for a few years, so Layla forgave his ridiculous innocence.
“You’re not staying here,” she said, blocking Meow Meow’s sprint for the door with her foot.
“Bruce is inclined to disagree,” he said amiably.
“You can’t be seri— BACK AWAY FROM THE DOOR, BRUTUS!” The bulldog shot her a dirty look and slunk away.
“Listen, deputy. The inn is closed. The Felderhoffs next-door have asthma and a lumpy ass couch. Everyone else I know in town is in bed. You and I can distantly coexist under the same roof for one night. I brought a container of antibacterial wipes and I’m perfectly happy to quarantine in your guest room.”
She wasn’t concerned about coexisting. Her concerns related more to the fact that whenever she and Huck were alone things happened. Stupid, sexy things. She was an officer of the law in the midst of a global crisis. She couldn’t afford to lose her head.
It was the latest in a very long line of excuses.
“Layla, I just want to go to sleep and wake up alive. I’m not going to tie you to your bed and prove to you how brilliant my command of my tongue is.”
She blinked at him. “You talk pretty dirty for a goody-two-shoes high school guidance counselor,” she observed.
Reasons Not to Show Up at Huck’s Front Door Wearing Only a Trench Coat
#5 Too much good guy. Not enough bad boy.
“First of all,” he began, his slight drawl always more noticeable when he was annoyed…or excited. “If you bothered to have an actual conversation with me, you’d know that while I may project a sterling image in my professional life, I am much, much more tarnished in real life.”
She felt her breath catch in her throat.
He pressed on. “Secondly, deputy, I feel it’s my civic duty to point out that both your lease and mine contain good neighbor clauses.”
“Oh, really? Were you being a good neighbor when you took me to arbitration?” Layla snapped.
“Thirdly,” he continued, ignoring her. “Speaking of leases, I know for a fact that Bruce Oakleigh’s tenants are limited to three pets—which most people would find quite generous unless they’re starting an illegal petting zoo.”
Layla’s gasp was muffled by her mask. “Are you blackmailing me?”
“I’m clarifying the multitudinous reasons why letting me crash in your spare room is in both our best interests.”
She was too tired to put up with his expansive vocabulary.
“One night,” she said. “No nudity.”
Shooing animals as she went, she stepped back to give him the required six feet of social distance.
“What’s the matter, deputy? Afraid you can’t control yourself around me?”
“It was a one-time stupid mistake that we agreed to never, ever mention again, Cullen.”
“Two times,” he shot back, heading toward the stairs.
“The apocalypse doesn’t count,” she called after him, but he was already disappearing to the second floor.
Reasons Not to Show Up at Huck’s Front Door Wearing Only a Trench Coat
#4 Huckleberry Cullen’s tractor beam of sexiness made her clothes fall off.
Layla’s cottage was the exact twin of his, Huck noted. Same rectangular living room that led into a small but serviceable kitchen. A dining room tucked away in the back that he used as a home office and Layla used as for actual eating. Upstairs were two shoebox-sized bedrooms with a bathroom that’s shower head was six inches too short for him to comfortably wash his hair.
Exhausted, he flung himself down on the brass bed in the second bedroom without turning on the light. Unlike his spare room that he’d decked out as a home gym, Layla’s was ready for guests. The linens on the bed smelled fresh, and he made a mental note to appreciate them in the morning when he wasn’t so damn tired.
Something made an unpleasant squeaky noise. He hoped to god it wasn’t another carbon monoxide detector.
He snapped on the bedside lamp with the fussy stained-glass shade and jumped back a good foot. His back hit the closet door and popped it off its track.
“That’s Master Splinter. He’s a rescued lab rat,” Layla called through the wall separating the bedrooms. An antique metal grate on the wall served as a low-tech intercom. “He’s friendly.”
“How haven’t you been evicted yet?” he yelled back, eyeing the white-furred rodent. Beady red eyes blinked at him.
“If you breathe a word of this, I’ll find a way to abuse my power and start fining you for every outdated infraction in the town’s bylaws,” his hostess sang.
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard the threat.
Astrological Apocalypse Flashback: October 31, 2018
“Little Red Riding Hood, a rubber chicken, and a vampire are in a Mini Cooper,” Huck muttered from the backseat of Sheriff Cardona’s girlfriend’s Mini Cooper as Eva sped into the high school parking lot. He had to work harder to form the words around his new, extra-long fangs.
“I know we sound—and look—like a rolling joke, but if we don’t get all the temporary crazies in a safe place, there may not be a Blue Moon standing tomorrow morning,” Eva insisted, yanking the parking brake.
Willa, owner of Blue Moon Boots and proud Beautification Committee member, maneuvered herself out of the passenger seat, her rubber chicken head getting stuck on the sun visor. Huck unfolded his long legs and climbed out of the car. He paused to straighten his cape.
“Oh, I get it. Cullen. Vampire,” Eva said, pointing at his fake teeth.
“When you work with middle and high schoolers, there’s a lot of Twilight references. And when your last name is the same as these beloved vampires, you get a lot of attention, especially when they find out that it annoys you. Word of advice, never make a bet with a class of eighth-graders. It’s not going to work out in your favor.” He tapped a finger to the Team Edward badge he wore on his vest.
He led them to a side door near the parking lot and fished the keys out of his pants pocket. “This is probably your best bet space-wise,” he said, letting Eva and Willa into the gymnasium. “But I don’t know how you’re going to keep all your inmates separated.”
It was a typical high school gym in the shiny floor and bleachers kind of way, but the walls were decked out in a psychedelic rainbow mural. Under the digital scoreboard was a mural depicting the meeting of the Blue Moon farming community and the wandering hippies that arrived in 1969 after getting lost leaving Woodstock.
Eva chewed on her lip for a beat. “Okay. I think we can make this work. Edward—I mean, Huck—can you get us some tape? And Willa, do you know where the art studio is?”
“Of course, I do. I spent many a happy day molding vegan clay and painting unicorn figurines there,” Willa announced, looking just a little crazy-eyed.
Huck had initially thought the whole astrological apocalypse thing was a joke. And then he’d had a front-row seat to watch the entire town unhinge. His neighbors weren’t what he’d call “normal,” but they’d taken abnormal to new heights. Customers were brawling in the used bookstore. The elderly were streaking through One Love Park. The hippies who normally did the streaking were wearing prom gowns to the grocery store. Joey Pierce got bangs.
To add insult to injury, Uranus’s retrograde or whatever the hell it was was peaking tonight on Halloween, which just so happened to occur during a full moon.
“Uh, great?” Eva said to Willa. “Can you go make some signs? Something that will enhance the prison experience?”
“I’d love to!” Willa skipped away, her hair flowing out behind her as her costume made rubber squeaking noises.
“Signs to enhance the prison experience?” Huck asked.
“Anything to keep her out of trouble and out of the hair salon,” Eva sighed.
“Right, the free perms. I was thinking maybe I should try a new look,” Huck joked, shoving his hand through his shellacked vampire hair.
“Kidding. Sorry. It’s been a long month. Hard not to just give up and join the insanity.”
“I know the feeling. Now, go find some colored tape. A lot of it.”
Huck gave his cape a dramatic swirl. “Your vish is my command, muahahahahah.”
“The next time Uranus, Halloween, and a full moon line up, remind me to get my ass out of town,” Deputy Layla Gunnarson said as she tossed an industrial-sized package of goat cheese at him.
It wasn’t just that he was a sucker for a girl in uniform. Layla was a bombshell blonde on the outside and a snarky, dry-witted ball-buster inside. Exactly the type of woman he’d be happy settling down and having lots of sex with.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t had any luck getting her to give him the time of day since he’d laid eyes on her at his first town meeting.
But he didn’t mind being patient.
It was just after 4 a.m. on November 1 and fifty-seven Mooners were incarcerated within taped off “cells” on the gymnasium floor. The now mohawked Sheriff Cardona had to leave on urgent business and left Layla and Huck in charge of the prisoners.
The apocalypse had “allegedly” ended at midnight according to Blue Moon’s resident astrologist. But sunrise seemed to be the “official” finish line. All they had to do was get through the next two hours or so without doing anything crazy.
“Do you see any bread around here?” Layla asked him as she surveyed the contents of the refrigerator’s bottom shelf.
They were foraging in the school’s cafeteria while Phoebe and Franklin Merill watched over the snoring captives.
“I know where we can find some,” Huck said, trying to not stare too hard at just how well those uniform pants fit over the curves of her ass. Something odd was happening to him. Something tingly and tempting.
“Are you staring at my ass, Mr. Guidance Counselor?” Layla demanded.
“Uh. No,” he lied.
She straightened and flashed him the “yeah right” eyebrow quirk. “Show me where this bread is. And if there’s coffee near it, I’ll let you drink some out of my belly button.”
He dropped the log of goat cheese on the floor. “Uh. Huh?” Huck prided himself on his verbosity. His skills were known far and wide. He could de-escalate shoving matches between hormonal teenage boys. He’d been known to charm grumpy grannies into offering him homemade cookies. And if he weren’t such a gentleman, he’d have fessed up to the number of pairs of pants he’d flirted off of women.
The words “uh” and “huh” had never once been part of his romantic dialogue. He blamed exhaustion.
Still worrying that the apocalypse had somehow robbed him of his charm and wondering if Layla was serious about the whole belly button thing, Huck led the way to the faculty lounge. Every once in a while, it still struck him as sublimely funny that Huckleberry Cullen, the after-school detention record holder in his senior class, was an actual authority figure to the next generation of high school delinquents.
“There’s some pantry staples in that cabinet over there,” he said. “And the coffeemaker’s—” He turned around and nearly ran her down.
She was standing way too close to him. Not that he was complaining. She was tall and long-legged. And curvy like a goddess.
“Wait. Hang on, Layla,” he said, holding up his hands. She walked into him, lining up her gentlemanly concern-suppressing breasts with his palms.
“I. Uh. Um.” Breasts. Two soft, perfect, large breasts. Yippy!
Still pressing her chest into his hands, Layla unclipped her uniform tie and threw it over her shoulder.
He’d had no idea how sexy clip-on ties could be.
“You were saying?” Her voice was husky, like she was sharing a salacious secret.
“I— I— I… Um. Uranus!”
She blinked. “I didn’t think guidance counselors were into that.”
“Not ‘your anus.’ Uranus. As in the apocalypse,” Huck blurted out.
Layla reached up and tugged a hairpin free and then another one. When she shook out her glossy blond locks, Huck’s vision tunneled.
He clamped his hands on her arms. “Layla, I don’t think we should doooooo—”
She cupped a hand to his crotch. His unmistakably aroused crotch.
It felt like the rightest thing that had ever happened to him. “Uhhhhh.”
“Do you want to have sex with me, Huck?” she asked, her lips a whisper away from his mouth.
“Yes. Very much so.”
She cleverly opened his belt.
“Are you sure you’re not going to have regrets? That this isn’t some side effect of the apocaLYPSE!” He yelped the last syllable because the deputy’s dexterous fingers wrapped around his throbbing shaft.
“I’ve had my eye on you for a long time,” she said, running her tongue over her lower lip. “Maybe I’m tired of keeping my distance.”
“Oh, thank god,” he breathed, shoving his hands into her hair.
“Keep the cape on,” she ordered.
Dawn was just breaking outside the lone window of the faculty room. Despite the fact that he hadn’t had a grilled goat cheese sandwich or a gallon of coffee, Huck felt sated and wide-awake underneath the room’s table.
Layla stirred in his arms and began to trace her fingers over his bare chest.
“Good morning,” he said, nuzzling into her hair.
“Mmm,” she grunted.
“Happy Day After the Apocalypse,” he said.
“About that,” she said, lifting up on an elbow to study him.
“We should go to dinner tonight,” he said. “How do you feel about Italian?” He could probably scrounge up a bottle of decent wine. Maybe he could get takeout, and they could eat at home. Homes usually had beds.
“Listen, Huck. This never happened. Okay? Let’s call this our perm. We both succumbed—succame?—to the apocalypse. As far as I’m concerned, we never need to speak of this again.”
His fantasies of bed sex came to a record-scratching halt.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Look. No offense. It was fun. But it was a huge mistake.” She wriggled out from under the table and started pulling on articles of clothing.
“Sex with me was a huge mistake?” he repeated. His ego required immediate repair.
She leaned down and patted his cheek. “A fun, huge mistake. One we’ll never make again. And if you breathe a word of this, if the Beautification Committee catches wind that we hooked up, I swear to you I’ll pull you over for speeding while you walk down the street.”
The next morning, as Layla took her menagerie out for its first pee and play break of the day, she congratulated herself on not tearing off her pajamas and climbing into her own guest bed with Huck.
See? She could be in the man’s vicinity and not start the orgasm countdown clock. Layla was not her mother. Sure. She’d had sex with Huck. But that didn’t mean she needed to hurl herself headfirst into a sweaty, ill-advised affair.
She picked up the soggy tennis ball Brutus spit out at her feet and gave it another toss. He trotted after it and then gave lazy chase when Sinatra grabbed it first.
It was moments like this, when the morning sun filtered gently through new leaves, when the azalea along the fence was heavy with buds that promised spring color, that she could momentarily forget. COVID-19 was such an innocuous name for something that had managed to change the entire world.
She thought about the grandparents who had yet to meet their brand-new grandbabies. The high school seniors who missed out on their last year of spring sports, their proms, their graduations. Rites of passages earned and then derailed. She thought of the families who not only lost loved ones but couldn’t be there in the end to say their good-byes. The health care workers who stepped in to be a surrogate family for scared, lonely patients while missing out on key moments with their own families.
Blonde, fussy ChiChi pranced by, a pink chew toy clutched proudly in her tiny mouth.
There were other side effects, too. Silver linings of a world united in one cause. People showed their true selves in times of strife. As a cop, Layla knew that better than anyone. And while there were assholes—there would always be assholes—there were far more everyday heroes than shitheads.
Because for every faded spray-tanned Ruth Kelkner who spent her days demanding the state rise up against the “tyranny” of the government after her second boob job got rescheduled, there was a Pete McDougall who cracked open his savings account and drove his Karma Kustard truck around Blue Moon every Tuesday to give out free custard.
There was a teenage Evan Decker who organized a crew of his classmates to mow the lawns of Blue Moon’s elderly and essential workers.
There was a Lavender Fullmer of the Take Two Movie Theater who created a drive-in theater in the high school parking lot every Saturday night.
There were the Moodys who had started a new kind of ding-dong ditch by leaving sanitized care packages at the doors of neighbors who needed a little pick-me-up.
There was an Aurora Decker who enlisted her entire class to hand draw cards for nursing home patients who could no longer have visitors.
The consistency of the good vibes never wavered in Blue Moon.
It was what had made her stay in this little town. After a childhood of moving from house to house to house while her mother fell in love with a new man every few months, she couldn’t imagine leaving the consistency, the dependable goodness behind. At twelve, she’d put her tennis-shoed foot down. She’d informed her mother that no, they would not be moving again. That she was going to graduate from Blue Moon High School and that her mother was just going to have to plant some shallow roots for the next six years.
To her credit, Velma Gunnarson had done it. And she hadn’t complained…much. They’d rooted together and fumbled their way through the next six years. The day after Layla’s high school graduation, Velma had packed herself and a few boxes and suitcases into her ancient station wagon and driven off in search of her next adventure, her next love affair, her duty fulfilled.
As for Layla? Well, with her appreciation of order, she decided to dedicate her life to ensuring it for others and went off to college to major in criminal justice.
Her badge still hadn’t lost its shine.
Sinatra the beagle drew Layla’s attention with a mournful, half-assed howl from the back porch. His sad brown eyes informed her he was wasting away without his breakfast.
“Okay. Fine. Come on, gang,” Layla said to the rest of the dogs and cat. “Pouncer, you can stay out for a while,” she told the fluffy gray rabbit that was trying to hide its bulk behind the scraggly crop of tulips.
She opened the door and waited for the stampede of pets to enter first.
When she stepped into her sunny little kitchen, the screen door hit her in the ass. Her overnight guest was blindly rummaging in the mug cabinet.
She stayed where she was, making sure to maintain a safe distance for both viral and hormonal reasons.
“Morning,” she said, trying not to stare at the tattoo on his ribs. He’d gotten it sometime after their apocalypse sex, and she’d had a low-key obsession with figuring out what the design was since she first spotted it last summer while she had most definitely not been spying on him mowing shirtless.
Good-guy guidance counselors weren’t supposed to have ink.
“Mmm,” he grunted.
“Not a morning person?” she asked. His sweatpants were so low on his hips it would be easy to just give them one little tug—
“Mmm,” he said again, stumbling over a cat on his way to the coffee pot.
“I thought all you guidance counselor people were supposed to be perky morning people?”
Reasons Not to Show Up at Huck’s Front Door Wearing Only a Trench Coat
#3 He had to be a chipper morning person. Guidance counselors were required a certain level of perkiness.
He held up a finger in her direction and proceeded to fill the Dog Mom mug to the brim before drinking deeply.
She watched his Adam’s apple work as he swallowed and tried not to think about how warm her kitchen suddenly felt.
Huck reached for the coffee pot again, poured again.
“Okay,” he rasped. “Awake now.”
Grumpy, shirtless, coffee-swigging Huck was more irresistible than Apocalypse Vampire and Argumentative Next-door Neighbor Huck combined.
Social distancing, girl. Just stay six feet from him and you probably won’t rip your pants off for him again, Layla warned herself.
When she made no move toward the small pantry that housed all of her pet food, she was met with several pairs of beggy eyes and a few pathetic whimpers.
“Rotate?” Huck offered, circling his finger around the kitchen.
“Uh. Yeah. Thanks,” she said.
Carefully, they maneuvered around the perimeter of the room. Huck dragged a chair out and sat while Layla tackled breakfast for the pathetic, four-legged beggars.
“Working today?” Huck asked.
She glanced over her shoulder at him and accidentally poured four pounds of kibble onto the floor. “Day off. But I’ve got some volunteer stuff to do. It’s produce box day.”
“Nice,” he said with a yawn. “Need a hand? I’m in your hair until I get the all-clear from Bruce.”
As if on cue, his phone rang, and Layla decided not to watch him wrestle it out of the pocket of his sweat pants. Instead, she smacked her head on the open pantry door.
“Hey, Bruce. Have good news for me?”
Layla disentangled her hair that had gotten wrapped around the knob.
“Oh, really? Is that dangerous?” Huck asked, shoving a hand into his thick, messy hair. “Well, how long will that take?”
She finished filling the food bowls and turned to face her quivering audience. “Go ahead,” she said. There was a stampede of toenails as dogs and cats raced for their bowls.
“That long?” Huck said. His eyes met hers and flicked down her body then back up. “Yeah. No. Did you talk to her about it?”
From under the sink, Layla produced a jar of homemade antibacterial wipes she’d purchased from the Blue Moon Socially Distant Online Store. Offering an online shopping cart and same-day delivery, it was keeping several small businesses afloat without the usual town foot traffic.
She wiped down the coffee pot, cabinet door, and counter top then washed her hands, all while pretending not to eavesdrop.
“I see,” he said, sounding nonplussed. “No, I can’t imagine why it would be a problem. Okay. Thanks, Bruce. Bye.”
He hung up and dropped his phone on the table, looking all sexy pouty.
“Bad news?” she asked, pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Your only limitation is your imagination,” a chirpy voice announced.
“What the hell?” Huck whirled around.
Layla rolled her eyes at the lime green cockatiel in the cage in front of the sunny window. “That’s Rupert. His deceased owner was a life coach,” Layla explained.
“Why are you living in a zoo?” Huck asked.
“They’re not all mine,” she said, feeling defensive. “Some of them are fosters.”
“Still,” he said, eyeing Meow-Meow as she batted at the bunny’s face on the other side of the screen door.
Layla leaned back against the counter and took her first sip of gorgeous caffeine. “I don’t know. Overcorrecting, I guess. I moved around a lot when I was a kid. We couldn’t have pets.”
She watched as he leaned down and picked up sassy ChiChi and settled her in his lap. “I thought you hated animals,” she said with suspicion.
He looked up from the chihuahua. “Where did you get that asinine idea?”
“Rooster Cogburn.” She was not talking about the movie.
He shot her a sexy, sleepy, snarky look. “If we’re gonna be casting stones, why don’t we examine the fact that you’ve been hiding from me since we had sex.”
“Which time?” she asked.
“Aha! So you admit there was more than one time,” he said triumphantly.
“I admit nothing. And I certainly didn’t hide. But you most definitely took me to arbitration because you hate animals.”
Reasons Not to Show Up at Huck’s Front Door Wearing Only a Trench Coat
#2 Huck hates animals.
“Just because I don’t enjoy being awakened at the asscrack of dawn by a demented fowl doesn’t mean I punt beagles over backyard fences.”
“Those chickens were rescued from a hoarding situation and they were only here for forty-eight hours until Carter Pierce could build a damn coop,” she reminded him. “There was no need to go to the landlord, who then sent us to a three-hour bullshit Kum Ba Yah session led by a bunch of high schoolers.”
Some schools had a debate team. Blue Moon had a mediation club.
“A fact that you could have explained to me if you hadn’t been so busy cowering behind your door when I knocked on it to discuss the situation.” Gently, he placed the little dog on the floor and stroked a hand over Cleo the cat as she ran past his mug on the table.
“Excuse me,” Layla snapped. “I don’t cower.”
She may have concealed herself in shadow to avoid opening the door to the man her body really wanted to introduce itself to again. But that didn’t qualify as cowering.
“Hey, look. I get it. Your feelings for me overwhelmed you.”
She wished socially distancing allowed for slapping. “I don’t have feelings for you. A one-night stand is just that.”
“Then what do you call the second one-night stand?” Huck asked.
“The second time was the last time. And since the first time doesn’t count because of the apocalypse, the second time was the first and last. So technically it was one one-night stand.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Huck said, addressing the assembled pets. “The math of Blue Moon’s finest.” He turned back to her and flashed her that sexy grin. “Maybe the third time’s the charm?”
“There will be no third time because there was no first time, making the second time the first—”
Her phone rang on the counter.
“Hey, Bruce,” she said, pointing at the screen door. “What’s up?”
Huck got up and let the rabbit inside. He was very distinctly smirking.
“Deputy Gunnarson, I’m afraid I gave your next-door neighbor bad news,” Bruce said, not sounding the least bit broken up about it.
“Uh-huh?” She did not have a good feeling about this.
“You see, while we got squared away with the carbon monoxide detector, the inspector’s report noted a high airborne mold spore count.”
“Mold spores. Uh-huh.” She enjoyed Bruce Oakleigh as much as any other Mooner but she didn’t trust the man any farther than she could throw him.
Huck was watching her with amusement over the rim of his mug.
“I’m afraid your house guest is going to need to stay put for another day until we can get more conclusive test results,” her landlord announced cheerfully.
She whirled around, putting her back to Huck’s smirk. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. Another 24 hours with Huckleberry Cullen and his awesome—was that a medallion or an orb in the center?—tattoo under her roof. She had concerns that her DNA wouldn’t hold out against the sexiness proximity.
“I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that the entire town is at Care Level Chartreuse,” Bruce chided.
Layla closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the upper cabinet. Care Level Chartreuse was the second-highest alert for how much kindness the citizens of Blue Moon should be afforded. The only level higher was Purple, and that was reserved for events like the entire town getting leveled by a Sharknado or murder hornets.
“I’m aware of the chartreuse,” she said evenly.
“Good! Then I’m sure you won’t mind sheltering a homeless Mooner for 24 measly hours,” Bruce said.
“I can’t be his only choice,” Layla tried again, ignoring Huck’s conversation with beagle and bunny.
“Oh, I almost forgot. I was going to leave a few organic baked treats on your porch for your two dogs and one cat. But I needed their names for the pet-friendly icing. I could only remember one of them.”
Layla smelled a trap and a set-up. “Which one do you remember?” she asked, scouring her memory for which dogs she might have possibly mentioned to the man who could evict her.
Bruce chuckled. “Why don’t you just tell me both names?”
“Oops. Gotta go. My police radio is blasting a Code 333. Bye, Bruce!” She disconnected and threw her phone on the stove top.
“What’s a Code 333?” Huck asked.
“Get Bruce off the phone,” she said. “The sheriff’s department takes a lot of calls from him.”
Huck stood up and winked. “I’ll go change and grab my mask. We can volunteer together, roomie.”
“Great things never come from comfort zones,” Rupert squawked.
“Shut your little bird face, Rupert,” Layla complained.
Half an hour later, Layla still wasn’t sure how Huck had talked his way into accompanying her to Pierce Acres. He’d said something about a strong back and hands that didn’t mind getting dirty, and her brain had jumped straight into the gutter with a few filthy fantasies.
To make matters worse, he’d offered to drive, which had set off a highlight reel of the one and only time they’d been in a car together.
Eager hands stripping away pants. Windows steaming. Creating a pocket of heat and lust in the cold winter night.
Thank god for face masks. From the eyeballs up, no one would be able to tell if she was sunburnt or sexually frustrated.
“So, what’s the plan, deputy?” Huck asked, sliding his seat back to accommodate his long, denim-clad legs.
“We’re heading to Pierce Acres to load up the produce boxes they packed for this week’s families then we’re going to unload them at the park, where the volunteers will add the rest of the food donations, make sure everything is sanitized, and then put them in trunks as the families drive up.”
“Man, I love this town,” he said.
She couldn’t see his mouth, but she could tell he was grinning when he said it.
It made her think of the moment he’d caught her on the sidewalk outside the library after their interminable mediation on that dark, winter evening.
How that grinning mouth had pressed itself to hers. All those hours of arguing and tiptoeing around veiled references to apocalypse insanity built and built into an inferno begging to be released.
And release it they had.
“Don’t you want that turn?” Huck asked, pointing at the driveway for the farm.
“Damnit.” She slammed on the brakes and checked her mirrors before throwing her SUV into reverse.
Pierce Acres was a picture-perfect farm on the outskirts of town with a quintessential white farmhouse, red barn, and everything else you’d hope to find on a farm, right on down to shiny tractors, plenty of farm animals, and a very attractive farmer. The Pierce brothers were all good-looking and all taken.
And not here apparently. Layla eased to a stop in the dirt lane flanked by glossy white fences. Joey and Summer, both Pierce brother wives, waved from the open door of the little red barn.
Layla and Huck got out.
“Pick-up service,” Layla called, hooking her thumbs in the belt loops of her pants.
“Just in time,” Summer said, waving a gloved hand at the stack of boxes behind them.
“Last one’s done!” Phoebe Pierce-Merrill tottered out of the barn under the weight of another box before heaving it on top of the nearest stack. “Got some nice greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers for everyone and some gorgeous heads of lettuce fresh out of the dirt.”
Joey Pierce, equestrian extraordinaire, clapped her gloved hands. “Let’s get this loaded. I’ve got a date with my husband and a couple of horses.”
She’d kept the apocalypse bangs, Layla noted. Maybe not all decisions made in the midst of Uranus wreaking havoc were regrettable.
“Ah, pandemic romance.” Summer batted her eyelashes over her paisley mask.
“Speaking of,” Phoebe said with a pointed nod at Huck. “What are you two doing together?”
Phoebe might have looked innocent, but the woman was a founding member of the Beautification Committee and two of her step-daughters were proud members of the matchmaking mischief-makers.
“Just a little maintenance issue at my place,” Huck said, catching the pair of gloves Layla tossed him. “The deputy here was kind enough to loan me her guest room.”
“Isn’t that n—”
Summer’s reply was cut off by the noisy horn announcing the arrival of a pickup truck slowly approaching from the direction of the Pierce family’s brewery and restaurant.
“Hold up,” said Carter Pierce, whose beard was quarantine length now and showing more than a couple flecks of gray, climbing out from behind the wheel. “We’ve got something to add to the boxes.”
His youngest brother, Jax, jumped out from the passenger seat. Jax and Joey’s kids hopped out of the bed of the truck while Carter helped his young twins down from the backseat.
“Visitors, guys. Mask up,” Jax ordered.
Obediently the new arrivals pulled up the bandanas around their necks to cover their noses and mouths.
“Check this out, Mom!” Caleb said to Joey, presenting her with what looked like a beer bottle.
“Jax, are you furnishing minors with alcohol?” Layla asked in official capacity.
Jax’s eyes crinkled. “No, ma’am. Well, only if hand sanitizer counts as alcohol.”
“Hand sanitizer in a beer bottle? That’s awesome,” Huck observed.
“We partnered with a distillery in Cleary. They made the sanitizer, and we bottled it,” Carter said.
“We found these pumps that screw right to the bottle top,” pretty college freshman Reva said. The girl flushed the same red as her bandana when she noticed Huck was looking at her.
Layla knew how Reva felt.
He was just so stupidly good-looking. And those big, capable hands of his.
They’d made it as far as his car. Huck had practically tackled her in the backseat. While those glorious hands of his slid under her sweater, she used her own to wrestle his coat off and reach for the fly on his jeans.
“Phoebe, your sons are geniuses,” Summer said.
“They tell me that every day,” Phoebe said with a feigned sigh.
Carter dropped a masked kiss to his wife’s forehead. “Need help loading up?”
They were just dropping the last bottle into the last box when Franklin Merrill’s spiffy little convertible, a pre-pandemic purchase he’d surprised Phoebe with for the spring of road trips they’d planned, zipped down the lane from behind the farmhouse.
He tooted the horn and came to a stop next to Carter’s truck.
“Got any room in the boxes?” he asked.
Layla and the womenfolk stepped back and let the guys carefully deposit one dozen homemade Italian sprinkle cookies into each box.
“Do the guys miss Beckett?” Layla asked. The Pierce Acres Pierces had been isolating on the farm since early-March.
“It’s the cutest thing,” Summer said. “They play poker twice a week through video chat and insult each other’s facial hair.”
Joey snorted through her mask. “They gossip more than we do.”
“Yeah, the sisters-in-law only do one weekly happy hour,” Summer said.
“So, you and Huck?” Joey said, tilting her head in the direction of where Layla’s unintentional roommate was petting two friendly pigs with Meadow through the pasture fence.
“What are we? A bunch of poker-playing dudes?” Layla shot back.
“Uh-oh,” Summer sang under her breath.
Joey snickered, and Layla watched as a brown goat tiptoed out of the barn, a wisp of straw hanging from her mouth. Clementine was generally a polite goat that also happened to hate Jax with a passion. She surveyed the action with a detached interest until her yellow eyes locked on Jax, bending over to wedge another box in Layla’s vehicle.
With a flick of her goat ears, she took off at a jog.
“Should we warn him?” Layla asked.
“What’s the fun in that?” Phoebe said.
They watched in anticipation as Jax’s ass innocently went about its business.
“Whole family’s getting in on the fun,” Layla observed as two little goats trotted after their mother, tails twitching and dainty hooves prancing.
“Son of a—”
Summer and Carter’s twins covered their ears and giggled as their Uncle Jax reacted to the goat bite by straightening too fast and smacking his head on the SUV’s hatch.
As Clementine jumped back with a mouthful of denim, the two younger goats scampered up to Jax. They looked more playful and less bloodthirsty.
“The babies still crushing on Jax?” Layla asked.
“They think he’s their daddy,” Joey said.
“Clem, if it weren’t for your babies, I would be hog-tying you on the side of the road and putting a Free to a Shitty Home sign on your ass!” Jax shouted.
Huck and Jonathan shooed Clementine away with her denim snack while the little goats clamored at Jax’s legs.
“Uncle Jax, we can see your underwear,” Jonathan giggled.
Carter sighed, his beard poking out under the bandana. “At least he was wearing some today.”
“Question,” Huck said when they headed back to town. “Did you enjoy having sex with me?”
Layla almost swerved off the road and into a ten-foot tall inflatable peace sign in a yard.
She’d enjoyed it so much her lady parts clenched every time she looked in the direction of the man’s house. “Where did that come from? You don’t have a goat fetish, do you?”
“If I had to dabble in fetishes, it would be a next-door neighbor in uniform fetish.”
“Stop flirting with me!” She felt something close to panic tickle at her unflappable cop intestines.
“Why would I want to do that?” He sounded genuinely perplexed.
“There are a million reasons why,” she said in exasperation.
She paused. She’d been wrong about the morning person thing. And wrong again about the animal hating. There was still the possibility that he was too good guy-y for her. But the tattoo and the really dirty things he’d whispered in her ear the two times—er, one time—they’d had sex had hinted at the opposite. She spent her days upholding the law with Sheriff Donovan Cardona, the big-hearted golden boy of Blue Moon. And while his wife, Eva, was a very lucky woman, Cardona was most definitely not Layla’s type.
Reasons Not to Show Up at Huck’s Front Door Wearing Only a Trench Coat #1 was all she had left. “Look. I don’t want to have a torrid affair that ends badly with the guy I have to see taking the recycling to the curb every Tuesday night.”
“Who says our torrid affair has to end badly?” Huck asked. “I mean, according to Bruce’s inspection, I’m about to die of lung fungus.”
“You are not dying of lung fungus,” she scoffed. “And all torrid affairs end badly.” She’d had a witnessed one implosion after another with her mother’s many unhappily ever afters.
“Sheesh. Who murdered the romance in your heart?”
“Romance gets people in trouble. It carries them away until the cold light of day arrives and reminds them that it was all hormones and lucky timing.” Sometimes it wasn’t the cold light of day. Sometimes it was the flash of red and blue lights on naked skin and a knock at the backseat window.
“I never pegged you to be a cynic,” Huck mused.
“I’m not cynical. I’m practical. Most people don’t get happily ever afters.”
“Deputy, I’m calling bullshit. I’d also like to know exactly when you got that beautiful head of yours shoved so far up that lovely ass.”
“I should arrest you for verbally assaulting an officer,” she said, turning onto Main Street. On a normal spring day, it would have been filled with Mooners chasing the sun, sprawled out on the grass reading and picnicking. Games of tag and at least one wandering musician.
There were still people enjoying the sunshine, but it was a different configuration.
She tapped her horn and waved at Cardona, who was looking all Stern Sheriff Daddy at the head of a long line of vehicles—including at least a dozen VW Buses and a handful of tractors—decked out with signs and balloons.
The sheriff waved back, and Layla felt her cheeks flush at the memory of the most embarrassing moment of her entire existence.
“What seems to be the trouble, sheriff?”
“Trouble looks like you trying to drive home from the backseat with no pants on.”
For the first and only time in her life, Layla had panicked. She’d gotten stuck inside her shirt trying to put it on.
“Who’s your friend?” Her boss had asked the man she’d just had sex with. She vowed on the spot never to have sex in public again. She knew better and she was going to lose her job for it.
But Huck had gone from aggressive, dirty-talking lover to chivalrous hero. He’d covered Layla up with his coat and said, “I feel like this situation can be handled between you and me, sheriff. My friend here doesn’t need to pay the price for me being an idiot and losing my head.”
Layla had held her breath until she’d almost passed out. Or maybe she was actually smothering in her turtleneck. They were both going to lose their jobs because they’d given in to horniness. Shame was bitter in her throat.
“Why don’t you and your friend take this off the streets?” Cardona had said finally. “I really don’t want to do any more paperwork tonight.”
“I appreciate it, sheriff.”
Cardona left them, and Huck had helped her find the head hole in her sweater. She’d given him one last hard kiss before vaulting out of the car and vowing never to take a chance on a naked Huckleberry Cullen again.
“Tell me that’s a park-in instead of a sit-in,” Huck said, amused.
“Har har. That’s the socially distanced love parade. Every Tuesday and Thursday, they drive through a different section of town to cheer people up,” Layla explained.
She cruised slowly past the parade line-up.
Huck leaned over to take a closer look at a parked pickup truck with freezer baggies taped to signs that said FREE and TAKE OUT.
“What are those?” he asked.
“That’s Donna June Macomber and her husband, Biff. It started with Donna making face masks for the grocery store staff. Biff got laid off from his job and decided sewing didn’t look so hard. Together they’ve made over two hundred masks,” she explained. Donna and Biff waved cheerily.
Layla’s eyes felt a little watery as she waved back. The signs on the other cars started to blur around the edges.
You’re Not Alone
We Love You
Your Hair Looks Great Today
Huck cleared his throat. “Blue Moon is nothing if not benevolent.” He sounded like he was choking on the words.
Too busy blinking rapidly to dry the moisture that threatened to explode out of her eyeballs, Layla didn’t stop to wonder if bad boys got choked up by shows of unity and support.
“Yep,” she said, her own throat tight as she pulled over at the curb.
They parked next to a long row of folding tables organized along the edge of the park and got out.
Famed photographer Nikolai and the redheaded brewery manager, Emma Vulkov, jumped back from their married and pregnant canoodle, readjusting their masks.
“Sorry we’re late. There were a few last-minute additions to the boxes,” Layla reported, hitting the button on her remote to open the hatch.
“Dad said he was baking,” Emma said, rubbing a hand over her rounded stomach.
“Did he send along any extras?” Emma’s sister, Gia, asked hopefully. She was Mayor Beckett Pierce’s other half and the town’s favorite yoga instructor.
“Franklin packed an extra dozen cookies for each of you,” Huck promised them.
Niko whooped and grabbed the first two boxes out of the back of the vehicle.
“Well, Huckleberry Cullen! I didn’t recognize you in the mask,” Eva, Sheriff Cardona’s pregnant wife, and the third of the Merrill redheads, greeted him chipperly. “Sorry to hear about your mold problem.”
“Yeah, about that,” Layla said, shooting the woman a suspicious look. “Something smells funny to me about Bruce Oakleigh, head of the Beautification Committee, telling Huck here that he has to move in with me during a pandemic.”
“Well, mold generally does have a strange odor,” Emma said innocently.
Huck laughed. He was certain that the town’s mythology surrounding the Beautification Committee’s powers was greatly exaggerated. “What’s with all the toilet paper?” he asked, pointed at a mountain of neatly stacked bathroom tissue.
“Fitz donated his toilet paper stockpile from the apocalypse,” Niko explained. “Guy had enough in the stockroom of the bookstore to keep the whole town in clean butts for a year.”
The non-pregnant volunteers unloaded the boxes, while Emma and Eva organized the rest of the donations and repacked everything. The parade pulled out right on time behind the sheriff’s SUV with its lights flashing.
Huck tried not to remember the last time those lights had been meant for him. Because if he thought of that time he almost got arrested for acting like a teenager in the backseat of a car, he’d also start thinking about how good a mostly naked Layla Gunnarson felt under him. Volunteerism during a pandemic didn’t mix well with inconvenient hard-ons. So he tried focusing on anything other than Layla.
A second line of cars was already organizing near the tables, and Huck thought long and hard about the fact that while he might be temporarily homeless, he was still gainfully employed. He still had a healthy savings account. His parents in Colorado were safe, healthy, and financially sound. He could be on this side of the tables, packing boxes instead of needing them. Gratitude was swift.
He reached for his wallet and peeled off his emergency bills. Then, spotting a pigtailed little girl in a car seat hugging a stuffed animal and eyeing the boxes that would feed her family, he grabbed the rest of the cash.
“Uh, here,” he said, shoving the money at Eva across the table.
She looked at the money. “What’s this for?”
“Put it toward next week’s boxes,” he said, taking a step back and feeling embarrassed.
“Oh, Huck. That’s really generous of you,” Eva said. Her lower lip trembled, and her green eyes went glassy.
He held up his hands as if that would ward off tears. “Don’t do that,” he insisted. “If you start crying, I’ll take the money back and I won’t give you your cookies.”
“What’s wrong?” Emma asked, joining them.
“This!” Eva wailed, holding up the wad of cash in her purple-gloved hand. “Huck made a donation.”
Emma sighed. “Don’t mind her. She does this every time someone shoves a dollar in the donation jar,” she said, pointing at the giant jar labeled cheeseballs.
“Everyone is so generous here. People really care, you know?” Eva said, her tears dampening the mask that matched her gloves.
“Oh, boy,” Emma muttered. “Where’s Donovan when you need him?”
“He’s leading a parade of beautiful Mooners who are spending their morning cheering up lonely neighbors,” Eva howled. “He’s the most generous man in the world, and I love him so much!”
“Hang in there, Eva,” Gia said to her sister as she hefted another donation box. “The hormones go away eventually.”
“Okaaaaaay. Gooooood,” Eva sobbed.
Gia shook her head at Huck and mouthed, “No, they don’t.”
“Hey, Huck. Got a second?” Layla called to him.
Relieved, he all but sprinted in her direction. “Yeah?”
Hands in her pockets, her eyes crinkled above her mask. “They’ve got the loading covered, and you looked like you needed rescuing. Figured we could take a lap before heading back.”
Fresh air with a pretty girl he’d like to get naked again? It sounded like a good plan to Huck.
“I’m game,” he said, falling in to step with her.
“Word to the wise,” she said. “Next time, give the money to Gia or Emma.”
He shuddered, thinking about the tearful explosion. “Lesson learned.”
They began to walk the circuitous sidewalk that looped the small park. To their right was a large tent with tables manned by nurses on opposite ends. One was marked COVID-19 Testing, the other Antibody Testing. The town had won a grant from a private laboratory in Miami owned by billionaire Emily Stanton and her husband, Derek Price, to perform population testing on every resident.
Riding wheeled office chairs, Mayor Beckett Pierce and his paralegal, Ellery Cozumopolaus, each took a side and scooted down the line of socially distanced folding chairs, handling patient registration on iPads.
Huck noticed that the park’s gazebo had a sign and a table, too. At one end of the ten-foot table above a “Pandemic Tax Advice” sign, he recognized Wrong Ryan, Blue Moon’s newest grumpy accountant and half of the Beautification Committee’s Christmas success story.
Layla sent Ryan a wave. “Tell Sammy I’m good for our virtual dinner Saturday,” she yelled to him.
Wrong Ryan gave her a stern-faced nod. “Will do. She’s doing her free home vaccination rounds today,” he reported, face softening just a little.
On the other end of the gazebo table was bank president Rainbow Berkowicz, who was cheerily handling digital paperwork and questions about small business and personal loans.
The Mooners waited in line within six-foot squares drawn with sidewalk chalk. They all seemed to be enjoying the entertainment while waiting.
“What is he doing?” Huck asked, watching as Bill Fitzsimmons, a skinny hippie with round glasses and a rat tail braid, flailed about in the grass on the other side of the sidewalk.
Layla shook her head. “Yeah. Fitz got a permit to perform an interpretive dance.”
“What’s he interpreting?”
“His application said ‘Socially Distanced: A Two-Hour Exploration of the Expected Heartbreak and Unexpected Joys of Isolation in an Overconnected World.’”
Huck watched as Fitz dramatically hurled his body to the grass and began to thrash his fists into the ground. “This must the be Expected Heartbreak part,” he observed.
“Keep your pants on, Fitz,” Layla called out.
They moved on. At the opposite end of the park, they spotted Layla’s best friend, Eden Moody, and Eden’s fiancé, Davis Gates, cleaning bottles of wine with wipes. They were a mismatched looking couple. Eden with her edgy hair cut and her punk rock style next to Davis’s clean cut wardrobe.
“Miss your face,” Eden called out to Layla.
“Miss yours! Still on for virtual dinner Saturday?” Layla asked.
Eden sent her a thumb’s up. “Yep!”
“Come get your bottle of wine,” Davis said, wiggling a bottle of red. “Then we can eat the same meal and drink the same wine.”
“Hey, Huck,” Eden greeted him. “Want to join our virtual dinner party?” she asked him.
“I’m sure Huck has plenty of things he’d rather do,” Layla said, taking one of the sanitized bottles.
“That’s a bald-faced fallacy,” Huck corrected her.
“Great!” Eden said. “We’re all cooking or ordering chicken Parmesan and drinking Quarantine wine.” She pointed to a bottle.
“The label is blank,” Huck noted.
“That’s on purpose,” Davis said with what looked like a smile under his mask. “This way people can write their own notes on them.”
“Last week, Julia and Rob from the juice shop bought a case and left one that said Do You Wanna Drink on FaceTime at every neighbor’s front door.”
“We’ll take two,” Huck decided and reached for his wallet.
“I got this since you turned on Eva’s waterworks,” Layla said, digging into her own pocket.
“Uh-oh. Did you compliment her glow or make a cash donation?” Eden asked.
“Both probably,” Layla joked. “Speaking of happy news, what’s going on with the wedding plans?”
Eden and Davis shared a dreamy look.
“Well, we talked about it,” Davis said, giving Eden’s shoulder a squeeze.
“And we’re going to keep the date,” Eden finished for him. “We’re going to have Beckett marry us at the Inn. Just a quick, no-frills, no guests ceremony.”
“What about your dress? The cake? The reception?” Layla asked.
Eden shook her head. “We realized none of that actually matters. This whole thing has made us look long and hard about what’s really important. We can throw a party anytime. Well, not now. But you know what I mean.”
Davis dropped a masked kiss on the top of Eden’s dark hair. “All we really want is to officially start our lives together,” he said.
“And that’s what we’ll do two weeks from Saturday,” Eden announced, looking dreamy-eyed.
Layla, on the other hand, looked troubled. She kicked at a rock. “Fine. But you tell me what time and I will be here. I don’t care if I have to stay in my car. I’m not missing my best friend’s wedding.”
“I would love that,” Eden said.
“Sammy and Ryan, too,” Layla insisted.
“I’ll ask them Saturday,” Eden said, looking a little teary-eyed.
Were uncontrollable tears part of the body’s immune response, Huck wondered.
“We’ll celebrate after all of this is behind us,” Davis promised them both.
“Deal,” Eden and Layla said together.
“You’re planning to mob their wedding, aren’t you?” Huck asked when they got back in her SUV.
“Damn right I am,” she said, steering toward home. “I think we could arrange for all their friends and family to park in their cars and watch from the street. I just need to check with Cardona and then get the word out.”
“What about all their talk about ‘no frills’ and what’s really important?”
“What’s more important than the people you love seeing you marry the person you love?” she asked, turning onto their street.
“So you’re a closet romantic for other people, who doesn’t believe in love for herself?”
“What are you talking about?” She turned down the alley and pulled into the spot at the back of her lot.
“I’m just going to say it. Your theory is counterfactual,” Huck announced as she shut the car door and headed for the gate in her backyard fence.
“What theory and, by the way, what’s with the big-ass words?” she asked, popping the latch.
“How else do you convince a bunch of teenagers to avoid overusing our favorite four-letter words? ‘Fuck’ is for emphasis, not a replacement for every adjective, noun, and verb in a sentence.” he said mildly, following her across the grass toward the back porch. “And I’m referring to your theory that all relationships end badly.”
“Technically, I didn’t say relationships. I said affairs. I’ve been friends with Eden and Sammy for centuries,” she pointed out.
The deputy was a stickler for technicalities, and he liked that about her. “I’d invite you to re-examine what we saw today,” he insisted.
“What? A goat attack and a hysterical pregnant woman?”
“Stop being intentionally obtuse. We saw approximately 900 couples who started as torrid affairs and now look at them.”
“I don’t feel comfortable calling Phoebe and Franklin a torrid affair,” she argued.
“Oh really? How exactly did he meet Phoebe’s sons?” Huck asked, knowing full well how they’d met.
Her sigh as she produced the house keys told him she’d gotten his point. “Climbing out of Phoebe’s bedroom window onto the porch roof,” she said.
“You don’t climb out of a second-story window for a bingo pal or a dinner companion,” he said.
“Point taken. Fine. So they started off hot and heavy and they’re all happy now. But who’s to say if it’ll last? What if we decide ‘Hey, third time’s the charm. Let’s get naked.’ And then what if we decide being naked is great, we start dating. And then what happens if one of us stops wanting to get naked and dating? What if it ends, Huck?”
“What if it never begins?” he countered. “What if you spend your whole life never starting anything because you’re afraid of the ending? What will you have missed out on by the time you contract lung fungus of your own?”
“Stop it. You don’t have lung fungus,” she said in exasperation as she unlocked the back door.
“Why else wouldn’t you want to have sex with me and date me?” he teased.
She turned around. “I don’t trust my attraction to you.”
“So you don’t find me disgusting and hideous,” he clarified.
She gave him a bland law enforcement look. “I don’t like how physically attracted I am to you.”
“That sounds like a made-up problem,” he said.
“That sounds like something a guy who wants to get back in my pants would say.”
“You may have a point there, deputy. But it’s not just your pants that I want. You’re sarcastic and smart and level-headed. You have a body that would make an eighteenth-century sculptor weep. You’re very limber in the backseat of a car. And you care deeply about every single person under your jurisdiction. I want to get closer to you. I want to spend time with you, getting to know you and your perfect body.”
“Damn. You’re good.” He saw a familiar spark in her eyes and dared to hope. “When did you test negative?” she asked.
“Sunday. I haven’t left my house since then. You?”
“Monday. I’ve been careful. In fact, I usually strip right here and shower when I come home,” she said.
Huck shrugged and stripped his shirt over his head. “I love the environment. Let’s conserve water.”
“You’re ridiculous, Cullen,” she laughed.
“Am I?” he asked, moving his hands to the waistband of his jeans.
“What’s that in the middle of your tattoo?” she asked. Her fingers reached out as if she were going to touch it, but they stopped short.
He rubbed a hand over his ribs and looked her dead in the eye. “It’s Uranus. The planet,” he added quickly. “Not like your—”
She made a grab for him, and for one delicious moment, Huck thought Uranus had worked its magic once again.
And then her goddamn cell phone rang.
“Throw it in the recycling bin and let’s take our pants off,” Huck suggested.
“You never know until you try,” Rupert the bird tweeted from inside.
“It’s a video call from Bruce,” Layla groaned.
She waited until Huck had his shirt back on before answering the call.
“So we have good news and not terrible news,” Bruce announced. He was wearing his official powdered wig and sharing the screen with several members of the Beautification Committee.
“Let’s start with the not terrible news,” Layla suggested, feeling like the shit was about to hit the fan. She and Huck sat down on opposite ends of the top step.
Bruce flashed a guilty smile. “Let’s start with an apology instead. Huckleberry, I feel terrible. I got your home inspection results mixed up with the little yurt over on Patchouli Street. Silly me! It seems the bitchen has a bit of a mold problem.”
“What’s a bitchen?” Huck asked.
“Oh, it’s a revolutionary space saving design that combines your bathroom with your kitchen.”
“Very sorry I asked. Wait, so my place is mold-free?” he asked. There was a bark from behind him, and Huck reached back to open the door. Sinatra and Brutus jogged out of the house and into the yard. Cleo slunk out behind them.
Bruce nodded enthusiastically. “It is! Oh, hi dogs! It’s your landlord Bruce here.”
“What about the carbon monoxide?” Huck asked.
“Just a faulty sensor in the detector,” Bruce informed him. “It’s been replaced, and we added two more as backups.”
“Well, great. I guess I can move back home,” he said, shooting an uncertain look at Layla.
“Unfortunately, that’s where the not terrible but also not great news comes in,” said Willa from the top right of the screen. She was sitting in front of a shelf of cowboy boots.
“Here it comes,” Layla said under her breath.
“As you know, the Beautification Committee temporarily suspended our matchmaking initiative and volunteered to handle contact tracing in town,” Gordon Berkowicz announced from the bottom left of the screen. He appeared to be in a bubble bath.
“You do realize we can see you, Gordon, right?” Layla asked.
“That’s what the bubbles are for.”
“If those bubbles disappear at any point during this call, I will have to fine you for indecent exposure,” she warned him.
“Let’s focus on the reason for this call rather than Gordon’s underwater genitalia,” Bruce said. “Poor Maizie from Peace of Pizza just tested positive for COVID-19.”
“Is she okay?” Layla asked with concern.
The screen door bumped behind Huck, and he leaned off-screen to let the rabbit out into the yard.
“Thankfully, it looks like it’s going to be nothing more than a bad cold for her,” Ellery said. Her square of the screen showed she was still at the park.
“But…” Eva, who was no longer crying, looked guilty and let the word hang in the air.
“But what?” Huck asked.
“It seems Huck ordered a pizza, and it was delivered by Maizie Monday night,” Willa said.
“And yesterday afternoon, Layla, you stopped by the restaurant to pick up the pizzas Bobby donated to the sheriff’s office.”
“Oh, shit,” Layla sighed. Maizie had packed everything up, and Layla had handed her the tip. She’d washed her hands afterward. But there was always a chance. And that chance was enough of a concern for measures to be taken.
“We were careful,” Huck began. “We’re all being careful.”
“Be that as it may,” Eva said, “You both were exposed to her, and then you exposed yourselves to each other.”
“I didn’t expose myself to Huck,” Layla argued. She would have, but this call had interrupted her.
“We just can’t afford to take any chances and let you two wander the streets of Blue Moon like fleshy bags of germs,” Gordon said, ignoring her outburst.
“Gross, Gordon,” Willa said.
“So you’re saying we’re quarantined?” Huck asked. The look he shot Layla was purely lecherous, and she felt a quivering happening deep in her core.
“In addition to contact tracing, we’ve also appointed ourselves as Mitigation Council. We’ve decided that it’s in the town’s best interest to have you two quarantine together in Layla’s house. That way food and supply deliveries can be made to one house instead of two, and we can disinfect Huck’s place while you’re in quarantine. After your quarantine and negative tests, we’ll disinfect Layla’s place,” Eva explained.
“But I’m a first responder. An essential worker,” Layla argued.
Bruce adjusted his wig. “I’ve already spoken to Sheriff Cardona and Mayor Pierce. Sheriff Cardona’s mother, Hazel, and Minnie Murkle both agreed to be re-deputized just like during the apocalypse if you’ll handle the dispatch end of things from home.”
“You want me to stay home. For two weeks. With Huck,” Layla clarified.
“Yep,” Ellery said.
“We’ll test you in a few days, but as you know, a negative test now doesn’t mean you won’t test positive a few days later,” Willa warned.
“Is this some elaborate BC scheme to play contagious matchmaker?” Layla asked.
The Beautification Committee members burst out laughing.
“Oh, you’re too funny,” Bruce said long minutes later, finally wiping a tear from his eye. “No. This is just a happy accident.”
“You two were on our match calendar for this fall,” Gordon added helpfully.
“This just sped things along,” Willa said with a sunny smile.
“Are you saying mixing up the mold results really was an accident?” Huck asked. Brutus and Sinatra entered the frame in the midst of an intense, growly game of tug of war.
“Oh, no. That part was definitely on purpose,” Bruce announced cheerily. “When an opportunity falls in my lap like that, I can’t possibly ignore it.”
“Wait. So we’re supposed to just what? Maintain social distance and wear face masks 24-7?” Layla asked. There was no way in hell she could live under the same roof with Huckleberry Cullen and maintain social distance for two entire weeks.
“We took it upon ourselves to discuss the situation with Wrong Ryan’s doctor cousin in Cleveland and Elvira Eustace’s great-niece who works in an emergency department in Pennsylvania. Since you were both exposed to the same source at almost the same time and neither of you have any underlying health issues, as long as you quarantine together and stay away from everyone else you don’t need to avoid each other.”
“You’d be just like any other quarantined family,” Eva piped up.
ChiChi poked her head out of the screen door and sniffed the air. Layla made shooing motions with her hand. If Bruce saw three dogs here, she’d be in violation of her lease and she really didn’t want to start looking for a new place to live while in quarantine.
“Of course, the choice is ultimately yours. You could quarantine separately at your own residences. Alone. Without any company or anyone to take care of you,” Gordon said dramatically from the tub.
Layla and Huck shared a long look on the porch step.
“Is that a different dog?” Bruce asked, cocking his head as ChiChi pranced between them.
“Nope,” Huck lied, scooping her up and holding the dog just off-camera. “That was the other side of Brutus. He’s half bulldog, half chihuahua.”
Layla bit back a laugh.
“Fascinating,” Bruce said. “And that stuffed rabbit on the couch behind you looks almost lifelike,” he noted.
When had Pouncer gotten out?
“Well, you’ve given us a lot to think about,” Layla said quickly, pointing the phone at the sky. “Thanks for letting us know. Bye!”
She disconnected the call and stood up to pace in the grass in front of Huck. “So what do we do?” she asked.
“I know what I want to do,” he said, his voice husky behind the cotton of his mask.
“It’s not one night, Huck. It’s two weeks.”
He stood but didn’t approach her. Part of her wished he’d take the decision away from her and just tackle her to the ground right here, right now.
“Third time’s the charm, deputy,” he said. “What better way to find out if this thing is going to burn out and end terribly than accelerating the intimacy?”
“What? You’re saying if we survive two weeks…”
“If we can survive 336 hours straight together during a global pandemic, then I think we’ve got a real shot at this boyfriend-girlfriend thing. The question is, are you up for the challenge?”
Three hundred and thirty-six hours with nothing to do but remote work and have sex with the man who managed to bring her to a toe-curling orgasm in the backseat of a car in less than five minutes?
Oh, the orgasms they could have.
“What if it ends horribly? What if we can’t stand each other by day four?”
He was prowling toward her now. Slowly, purposefully closing the distance.
“Layla, it can’t end or continue if it never starts. I promise you no matter what the quantity of time we have together—which I predict will be a lot—it’s going to be quality. It’ll be worth it. You don’t want to miss out on me any more than I want to miss out on you. We’ve already got sparks and heat. Let’s see what else we’ve got.”
“A lot of time like what? Days? Weeks?” She backed up a step and then another as he advanced on her until her back was against the fence.
“Years. Decades,” he said, stopping inches from her. He planted a hand on either side of her face. “What do you want? Do you want me to stay or go?”
STAY! STAY! STAY!, her lady parts chanted.
She thought about tomorrow morning and waking up in her bed if he weren’t there. And the answer was simple. Clear. Easy.
Without another justification, she threw her arms around his neck and pressed her mouth to his. Well, her mask to his mask.
Huck laughed quietly, but there was fire in his eyes.
“Take off your mask,” he ordered.
“Take off your pants.”
“Sometimes later becomes never. Do it now,” Rupert tweeted from inside the house.
Thank you for reading Third Time’s the Charm: A Trapped Together Blue Moon Short by Lucy Freaking Score.
If you’re new to the Blue Moon series, Lucy highly recommends you give the hippie, dippy, nosy town a read! (Very intense author note: DO NOT READ THE PREQUEL FIRST. OR SECOND. OR THIRD. PROBABLY NOT EVEN FOURTH.)