- Jessie Hunt, exhausted and sweaty, dropped the last of the packing boxes on the dining room carpet. She could already feel her muscles starting to cramp up and knew she was going to be in serious pain tomorrow. But as she looked over at Kyle, she couldn’t help but smile. They were officially moved in. The wide grin on his face told her he was thinking the same thing. His shirt was drenched but she didn’t care as he came over and wrapped her in a bear hug. “We live here now,” he whispered in her ear, before gently kissing her neck. “I think we’re entitled to a celebratory drink, don’t you?” “Definitely,” she agreed. “Champagne? Beer?” “Maybe a beer,” Jessie suggested, “and a Gatorade chaser. I feel like my whole body might seize up at any second.” “I’ll be right back,” Kyle said and headed for the kitchen. Jessie moved from the dining room to the den and plopped down on the couch, feeling her perspiration-soaked shirt press against the sheet covering the furniture. It was late August and even in the coastal Orange County community of Westport Beach, the weather was hot and sticky. The temperature was easily in the low nineties. Of course, that was nothing compared to what it was like back in downtown Los Angeles, where they’d lived until this morning.
Surrounded by the asphalt and concrete and shiny skyscrapers, Jessie would often walk out of their condo into the late summer heat to face temperatures above one hundred. In comparison, this felt like a respite. She reminded herself that this was exactly the sort of perk that would justify moving away from the familiar life she’d grown to love in the city. She’d be trading in the excitement of the busy LA streets for cool ocean breezes. Instead of hip, new restaurants, they’d visit seaside cafes. Instead of taking the metro or an Uber to a gallery opening, they’d check out a yacht race in the harbor. And of course, there was all the extra money. It would take some getting used to. But she’d promised her husband she would embrace their new life and she intended to keep her word. Kyle walked into the room, holding beers and Gatorades.
He had peeled off his wet shirt. Jessie pretended to be oblivious to her husband’s impressive abs and chest. How he managed to maintain that physique while working those crazy hours at the firm was beyond her. But she wasn’t complaining. He came over, handed her the drinks, and sat down beside her. “Did you know there was a wine fridge in the pantry?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, laughing incredulously. “Didn’t you notice that when we looked at the house the last two times?” “I just assumed it was another cabinet so I never actually opened it until just now. Pretty cool, huh?” “Yes, pretty cool, pretty boy,” she agreed, marveling at how his short blond locks stayed perfectly coiffed, no matter how disheveled the rest of him got. “You’re the pretty one,” he said, brushing Jessie’s shoulder-length light brown hair out of her green eyes and staring at her with his own penetrating blue ones.
“It’s a good thing I got you out of LA. I was tired of all those fedora-wearing hipsters hitting on you.” “The fedoras weren’t a great call, I have to say. I could barely see any of their faces to decide if they were my type.” “That’s because you’re an Amazon woman,” he said, pretending not to get jealous at her gentle teasing. “Any guy under six feet tall has to crane his neck to look up at a tall drink of water like you.” “Not you, though,” Jessie murmured softly, suddenly forgetting her aches and pains as she pulled him close toward her. “I’m always looking up at you, hot stuff.” Her lips were just brushing against his when the doorbell rang. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she groaned.
“Why don’t you answer it?” Kyle suggested. “I’ll find a fresh shirt to throw on.” Jessie walked to the front door, beer in hand. It was her little rebellion against being interrupted mid-seduction. When she opened the door, she was greeted by a perky redhead who looked to be about her age. She was cute, with a little button nose, gleaming white teeth, and a sundress that was just tight enough to prove she never missed a Pilates class. In her hands was a tray of what looked to be homemade brownies. Jessie couldn’t help but notice the massive wedding ring on her finger. It gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Almost without thinking, Jessie found herself profiling the woman: early thirties; got married young; two, maybe three children; stay-at-home-mom but had lots of help; nosy but not in a malicious way.
“Hi,” the woman said in a chipper voice. “I’m Kimberly Miner from across the street. I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. I hope I’m not disturbing you.” “Hi, Kimberly,” Jessie replied in her friendliest, new neighbor voice. “I’m Jessie Hunt. We actually just finished moving our last box in a couple of minutes ago so this is great timing. And this is so sweet of you, literally! Brownies?” “Yep,” Kimberly said, handing over the tray. Jessie saw her pointedly pretend not to eye the beer in her hand. “They’re kind of my specialty.
” “Well, come on in and have one,” Jessie offered, even though it was the last thing she wanted right now. “I’m sorry the place is such a mess, as are Kyle and I. We’ve been sweating all day. He’s actually looking for a new shirt right now. Can I offer you something to drink? Water? Gatorade. A beer?” “No thanks. I don’t want to impose. You probably don’t even know which box has your glasses yet. I remember the move-in process. It took us months.
Where are you coming from?” “Oh, we just lived up in DTLA,” Jessie said and seeing the confused look on Kimberly’s face, added, “Downtown Los Angeles. We had a condo in the South Park district.” “Oh wow, city folk,” Kimberly said, giggling a little at her own joke. “What brought you to Orange County and our little community?” “Kyle works for a wealth management firm,” Jessie explained. “They opened a satellite office down here earlier in the year and it recently expanded. It’s a big thing for them because PFG is a pretty conservative operation. Anyway, they asked him if he’d help run it. We figured it was a good time to make a change since we’re thinking about starting a family.” “Oh, with the size of this house, I assumed you already had kids,” Kimberly said. “Nope—just being optimistic,” Jessie answered, trying to hide the sudden embarrassment she was surprised she felt.
“Do you have any children?” “Two. Our daughter is four and our son is two. I’m actually going over to daycare to pick them up in a few.” Kyle arrived and wrapped one arm around Jessie’s waist as he extended the other to shake Kimberly’s. “Hello,” he said warmly. “Hi, welcome,” she replied. “My goodness, between the two of you, your future children are going to be giants. I feel like a munchkin next to you both.” There was a brief awkward silence as both Jessie and Kyle wondered how to respond. “Thank you?” he finally said.
“I’m sorry. That was rude of me. I’m Kimberly, your neighbor from that house,” she said, pointing across the street. “Nice to meet you, Kimberly. I’m Kyle Voss, Jessie’s husband.” “Voss? I thought it was Hunt.” “He’s Voss,” Jessie explained. “I’m Hunt, at least for now. I’ve been procrastinating on doing the paperwork to change it.” “I see,” Kimberly said.
“How long have you been married?” “Almost two years,” Jessie said sheepishly. “I have real problems with procrastination. That might explain why I’m still in school.” “Oh,” Kimberly said, clearly relieved to move away from the delicate last name topic. “What are you studying?” “Forensic psychology.” “Wow—that sounds exciting. How long before you’re officially a psychologist?” “Well, I got a little delayed,” Jessie said, sharing the obligatory story from every cocktail party they’d attended for the last two years. “I started out in child psychology when we were undergrads at USC—that’s where we met. I was even doing an internship for my master’s when I realized I couldn’t handle it. Dealing with children’s emotional problems was too much for me.
So I switched.” She pointedly neglected to include some of the other details of why she’d dropped out of the internship. Hardly anyone knew about them and she certainly wasn’t going to share them with a neighbor she’d just met. “So you find dealing with the psychology of criminals less disturbing than children?” Kimberly asked, dumbfounded. “Weird, huh?” Jessie conceded. “You’d be amazed,” Kyle piped in. “She has this knack for getting in the heads of bad guys. She’s going to be a great profiler eventually. Any potential Hannibal Lecters out there better look out.” “Really,” Kimberly said, sounding properly impressed.
“Have you had to deal with serial killers and stuff?” “Not yet,” Jessie admitted. “Most of my training has been academic. And with the move, I had to change schools. So I’m going to do my practicum at UC-Irvine starting this semester. This is my last one so I’ll graduate in December.” “Practicum?” Kimberly asked. “It’s a little like an internship, only less involved. I’ll be assigned to a prison or a psychiatric hospital, where I’ll observe and interact with inmates and patients. It’s what I’ve been waiting for.” “The chance to stare the evildoers in the eye and see into their souls,” Kyle added.
“That might be overstating it just a bit,” Jessie said, giving him a playful punch in the shoulder. “But eventually, yes.” “That is very exciting,” Kimberly said, sounding genuinely intrigued. “I’m sure you’ll have some great stories to tell. Speaking of, you said you two met at school?” “Freshman year dorm,” Kyle said. “Oh,” Kimberly pressed. “Bonded while doing laundry, that sort of thing?” Kyle glanced over at Jessie and before he even said a word, she knew he was going to dive into their go-to cocktail party story. “Here’s the abridged version,” he began. “We were friends but started dating midway through the first semester after she got stood up by some jerk. He got kicked out of school, not for bailing on the date I assume.
Still, she dodged a bullet in my opinion. We broke up junior year, got back together as seniors. We dated for a year after that before moving in together. We did that for a year before getting engaged. Then we tied the knot ten months after that. It’ll be two years of wedded bliss in October.” “So you’re college sweethearts. That’s so romantic.” “Yeah, it sounds that way,” Kyle said. “But it took a while to win her over.
And the whole time I was beating the competition off with a stick. As you can imagine, pretty much every guy who saw her was immediately smitten with Ms. Jessica Hunt. And that’s just looking at her. Once you get to know her, you’re even more besotted.” “Kyle,” Jessie said, her face turning red. “You’re embarrassing me. Save some of it for October.” “You know,” Kimberly said with a smile, “I just remembered I need to get my kids now. And I suddenly feel like I’m interrupting a happy couple’s plan to christen their new house.
So I’m going to go. But I promise to introduce you around. We have a really friendly neighborhood. Everyone knows each other. We have weekly street barbecues. Kids have sleepovers all the time. Everybody belongs to the local yacht club, even if they don’t have a boat. Once you’re settled in, you’re going to find this is a great place to live.” “Thanks, Kimberly,” Kyle said, walking her to the door. “We look forward to meeting everyone.
And thanks so much for the brownies.” After she left, he closed the door and made a big display of locking it. “She seemed nice,” he said. “Hopefully everyone’s like that.” “Yeah, I liked her,” Jessie agreed. “She was a little nosy, but I guess that’s just how people are down here. I suppose I should get used to not having any anonymity anymore.” “It is going to be an adjustment,” Kyle agreed. “But I think that long term, we’ll prefer knowing our neighbors’ names and being able to leave our doors unlocked.” “I noticed you locked it just now though,” Jessie pointed out.
“That’s because I was thinking about what Kimberly said about christening the new house,” he said as he approached her, pulling off his second shirt in ten minutes. “And I don’t like any interruptions when I’m christening.” * Jessie lay in bed later that night, looking up at the ceiling, a smile on her face. “At this pace, we’ll have those extra bedrooms filled up in no time,” Kyle said, seemingly reading her thoughts. “I doubt we’ll be able to keep up that pace once you start up at the office and my new semester begins.” “I’m game to try if you are,” he said, sighing deeply. She could feel his whole body relax beside her. “Aren’t you nervous at all?” she asked. “About what?” “All of this—bigger salary, new town, new house, new lifestyle, new people, new everything.” “It’s not all new,” he reminded her.
“You already know Teddy and Melanie.” “I’ve met Teddy three times and Melanie once. I barely know him. And I can only vaguely remember her. Just because your best friend from high school lives a few blocks over doesn’t mean I’m suddenly at ease with our new life.” She knew she was picking a fight but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. Kyle didn’t take the bait. Instead, he rolled over onto his side and ran a finger lightly along her right shoulder, next to the long, pinkish moon-shaped scar that ran five inches from her upper arm to the base of her neck. “I know you’re apprehensive,” he said tenderly. “And you have every reason to be.
Everything is new. And I know that can be scary. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the sacrifice you’re making.” “I know it’ll be good in the end,” she said, softening. “But it’s just a lot to handle all at once.” “That’s why seeing Teddy and Mel tomorrow will help. We’ll reestablish that connection and then we’ll have folks in the neighborhood to reach out to as we find our bearings. Even knowing two people will make the transition easier.” He yawned deeply and Jessie could tell he was about to crash. That big yawn usually meant he’d be fast asleep in sixty seconds or less.
“I know you’re right,” she said, determined to end the night on a good note. “I’m sure it will be great.” “It will,” Kyle agreed lazily. “I love you.” “I love you too,” Jessie said, unsure if he’d heard her before he drifted off. She listened to his deep breaths and tried to use them to help her fall asleep. The silence was unsettling. She was used to the comforting sounds of downtown as she slipped into sleep. She missed the honks from the cars below, the shouts of finance guys drunkenly leaving bars echoing among the high-rises, the beeping sound of trucks backing up. They’d served as her white noise for years.
Now all she had to replace them was the soft whir of the air filter in the corner of the bedroom. Every now and then she thought she heard a distant creaking sound. The house was more than thirty years old so some occasional settling was to be expected. She tried taking a series of deep relaxing breaths, both to drown out other sounds and to relax herself. But one thought kept nagging at her. Are you really sure it will be great here? She spent the next hour turning over her doubt and pushing it guiltily away before she finally gave in to her fatigue and settled into a fitful slumber. CHAPTER TWO Despite the endless shouting, Jessie tried to fight off the headache nibbling at the edges of her skull. Daughton, the sweet-natured but shockingly loud three-year-old son of Edward and Melanie Carlisle, had spent the last twenty minutes playing a game called Explosion which largely consisted of him yelling “boom!” Neither Melanie (“call me Mel”) nor Edward (“Teddy” to his friends) seemed at all bothered by the intermittent screams so Jessie and Kyle acted like it was normal too. They were sitting in the Carlisle living room, catching up before a planned walk down to the harbor for brunch. The Carlisles lived only three blocks away from there.
Kyle and Teddy had been chatting outside for the last half hour while Jessie reacquainted herself with Mel in the kitchen. She only vaguely remembered her from their one previous meeting but after only a few minutes, they settled into a comfortable vibe. “I’d ask Teddy to grill but I don’t want you guys to get sick your first week down here,” Mel said snarkily. “We’re much safer going to the waterfront to eat.” “Not the best cook ever?” Jessie asked with a little grin. “Let’s just put it this way. If he ever offers to cook, pretend you have an emergency to attend to. Because if you eat anything he’s made, you really will have an emergency on your hands.” “What’s that, hon?” Teddy asked as he and Kyle came inside. He was a paunchy, doughy-looking guy with receding blond hair and pale skin that looked like it would burn after five minutes in the sun.
Jessie also sensed that his personality was much the same—doughy and malleable. Some deep instinct she couldn’t describe but had learned to trust over the years told her that Teddy Carlisle was a weak man. “Nothing, sweetie,” she said casually as she winked at Jessie. “Just giving Jessie here some essential Westport Beach survival info.” “Right,” he said. “Make sure to warn her about the traffic over by Jamboree Road and the Pacific Coast Highway. It can be a bear.” “That was next on my list,” Mel said innocently as she got up from the kitchen barstool. As she went into the living room to collect Daughton’s toys from the floor, Jessie couldn’t help but notice that in her tennis skirt and polo top, her petite frame was all sinewy muscle. Her calves bulged and her wiry biceps flexed impressively as she swept up about a dozen Matchbox cars in one swift motion.
Everything about her, including her short black hair, her boundless energy, and her take-noprisoners bark of a voice projected tough, no-nonsense New York chick, which was exactly what she’d been before moving west. Jessie liked her immediately, though she couldn’t understand what drew her to a schlub like Teddy. It ate at her slightly. Jessie prided herself on reading people. And this hole in her informal profile of Mel was mildly unsettling. “We ready to go?” Teddy asked. He too was dressed smartly in a loose button-up shirt and white slacks. “Just collect your son and we’ll be all set,” Mel said sharply. Teddy, apparently used to her tone, went off to find the “Explosion” machine without a word. A few seconds later, they heard screeching as he came back holding Daughton, who was struggling mightily, upside down by his ankles.
“Daddy, stop!” the boy screamed. “Put him down, Edward,” Mel hissed. “He talked back,” Teddy said as he lowered his son to the floor. “I just needed to remind him that sort of thing isn’t okay.” “But what if he slipped free and cracked his head?” Mel demanded. “Then he’d have learned a valuable lesson,” Teddy replied casually, apparently in no way troubled by the prospect. Kyle chuckled appreciatively and only stopped when Jessie shot daggers at him with her eyes. He tried to turn the laugh into a cough but it was too late and he shrugged at her apologetically. As they headed off to the harbor, down the well-maintained trail that ran parallel to the main road, Jessie looked at how she and Kyle were dressed compared to their counterparts. Even Daughton, who had his father’s pale skin but his mother’s dark hair, had on ironed shorts and a collared shirt.
Kyle was in board shorts and a T-shirt and Jessie had thrown on a breezy peasant dress at the last minute. “Are you sure we’re dressed properly to have brunch at your club?” she asked Mel apprehensively. “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re our guests. The dress code policies don’t apply to you. Only members get lashes for inappropriate attire. And since Daughton’s little, he’d only get a grazing from a hot poker.” Mel must have seen the look in Jessie’s eyes because she immediately put her hand on her wrist and added, “I’m kidding.” Jessie smiled tightly at her inability to loosen up. Just then, Daughton ran past her with an impressive “boom” that made her jump.
“He’s got a lot of energy,” she said, trying to sound admiring. “I’d like to bottle it.” “Yeah,” Mel agreed. “He’s a piece of work. But I love him. It’s weird how stuff that annoys other people is charming when it’s your kid. You’ll see what I mean when it happens to you. Assuming that’s what you want, I mean.” “It is,” Jessie said. “We’ve talked about it for a while.
There have just been some…hiccups along the way. But we’re hoping the change of scenery will help.” “Well, I should warn you. The topic is likely to come up often among the women you’ll be meeting today. They love to talk about kids and everything kid-related. You’ll probably get asked about your plans. But don’t sweat it. That’s kind of the default, go-to conversation around here.” “Thanks for heads-up,” Jessie said as they reached the end of the path. She stopped for a moment to take in the view.
They were at the edge of a cliff overlooking Balboa Island and Promontory Bay. Beyond that was the Balboa Peninsula, the last chunk of land before the Pacific Ocean. The deep blue water extended as far as she could see, eventually merging with the lighter cerulean sky, dotted with a few puffy white clouds. It was breathtaking. Closer in, she saw the busy marina, with boats moving in and out in some unspoken system that was far more organized and beautiful than the freeway. People, small as ants from up here, were wandering around the pier complex and its many shops and restaurants. It looked like there might be a farmer’s market taking place. The trail had given way to a huge rock staircase that led down to the complex. Despite the wooden railings on either side, it was mildly daunting. “The trail picks up again about fifty yards ahead and winds down to the harbor,” Mel said, sensing Jessie’s reticence.
“We could go that way instead of the steps but it takes another twenty minutes and the view isn’t as nice.” “No, this is fine,” Jessie assured her. “I just haven’t been keeping up with my Stairmaster routine and suddenly I’m regretting it.” “Your legs only ouch at first,” Daughton said as he leapt in front of her and took the lead. “Nothing like being shamed into action by a toddler,” Jessie said, trying to chuckle. They started down the long flight of steps, Daughton first, followed by Mel, Jessie, and Kyle, with Teddy bringing up the rear. After a minute Daughton had gotten well ahead of them and Mel rushed down to catch up to him. Jessie could hear the guys talking behind her but couldn’t really catch what they were saying. And with the tricky steps, she was hesitant to turn around to find out. About halfway down, she saw a college-age girl walking up the stairs, wearing only a bikini and flip-flops, with a beach bag flung over her shoulder.
Her hair was still wet from the water and beads of sweat were trickling down her exposed, tan skin. Her curves were impressive and the swimsuit barely contained them. She looked like she might burst out at various places any second. Jessie tried not to stare as they passed and wondered if Kyle was doing the same. “Damn fine ass on that one,” she heard Teddy say a few seconds later. Jessie stiffened involuntarily, not just at the crudeness but because the girl would have almost certainly been close enough to hear it. She was tempted to turn around and give him a scowl when she heard Kyle’s voice. “Right?” he added, snickering like a schoolboy. She stopped in her tracks. As Kyle reached her, she grabbed his forearm.
Teddy stopped too, a surprised look on his face. “Go ahead, Teddy,” she said, putting a plastic smile on her face. “I just need my man for a sec.” Teddy gave Kyle a knowing expression before moving on without comment. When she was sure he was out of earshot, she turned to her husband. “I know he’s your friend from high school,” she whispered. “But do you think you could not act like you’re still there?” “What?” he asked defensively. “That girl probably heard Teddy and his leering tone. Then you go egging him on? Not cool.” “It’s not that big a deal, Jess,” he insisted.
“He was just making a little crack. Maybe she was flattered.” “And maybe she was creeped out. Either way, I’d rather my husband not reinforce the ‘woman as sex object’ meme. Is that a reasonable request?” “Jeez. Is this how you’re going to react every time a girl in a bathing suit walks by?” “I don’t know, Kyle. Is that how you’re going to react?” “You guys coming?” Teddy shouted up at them. The Carlisles were a good fifty steps farther down the stairs. “Coming,” Kyle yelled back before lowering his voice. “That is, if you’re still cool with it.
” He moved on before she could reply, taking the steps two at a time. Jessie forced herself to take a long, slow breath before following him, hoping she could exhale her frustration along with the air in her lungs. We’re not even fully moved in and he’s starting to turn into the kind of asshole I’ve tried to avoid my whole life. Jessie tried to remind herself that one lame comment while under the influence of a high school friend didn’t mean her husband was suddenly becoming a Philistine. But she couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that this was only the beginning