Dueling neighbors, baby fever, fake boyfriends, and pizza... Life in Bliss has never been better!
Pepper Blue wants a baby. Forget the husband. She’s better at training men to be good husbands for other women than she is at getting one herself, so she’s doing this on her own.
But she hasn’t exactly shared the news with her family, and they’re determined to find her a date to the next family wedding. A date that won’t ditch her for one of her sisters or cousins. This time.
Which means Pepper Blue needs a fake boyfriend. A fake boyfriend that she has no chance of actually falling in love with. A fake boyfriend like her obnoxious neighbor.
Tony Cross is a pizza god with a sausage problem. He’s putting on a good show—a different woman at his house every night, flirting with all the right customers, flexing his muscles when called upon—but since his divorce, his meat has been more on the undercooked side. If you know what he means.
Except, unfortunately, when it comes to his annoyingly perfect, always put together, too good for him neighbor. Pepper Blue. Who is not a viable candidate for fixing his “little problem.”
So he’s not sure why he’s coming to her rescue, pretending to be her boyfriend to save her from a bad date at his pizza joint. He just knows it’s fun. And it irritates her. And it turns out, she might be able to help his flagging pizza sales as much as she’s helping his flagging… you know.
So long as this is just business, he’s happy to keep pushing her buttons.
All night long, if he has to.
Tony Cross had smiled through dog drool, a flat tire, and accidentally discovering Bliss’s elderly nudist colony tonight, all for the sake of drumming up business. But he wasn’t sure he could smile through this last stop of the night.
“Stripper’s here!” a girly voice shrieked.
He’d known this day would come—he did live in the bridal capital of the Midwest—but until tonight, he’d managed to avoid the bachelorette parties. Not that he objected to bachelorette parties. He simply objected to a bachelorette party at this house.
The brown oak door on the turn-of-the-century two-story foursquare next door to his own house swung open. Two redheads, a brunette, and that floppy black species-confused dog grinned at him from inside the screen door. All of them but the dog were in pajamas, party tiaras, and boas in all colors of the rainbow. And all of them—even the pint-sized dog—were eyeballing his package.
And by package, he didn’t mean the four pizzas rapidly cooling in the winter night.
At least it wasn’t her. “Pizza delivery.”
“Oh, he’s going to role-play! I wonder how many of those are sausage.” The leader of the pack—a petite green-eyed redhead in blue leggings and with Captain America’s logo on her T-shirt—flashed him a come-hither grin that did nothing for the blood flow south of the border.
Not that he’d expected it to. Blood hadn’t flowed there in…he didn’t want to talk about it.
“One supreme, two pepperoni, and one vegetarian,” he said. “As ordered.”
She popped the latch on the screen door and snagged his pizza insulator box while the brunette grabbed the mutant dog. “Come on in, pizza man.”
“Just need a signature and that box, ladies.” He hit them with the famous Cross smile.
The first redhead crooked a finger at him. “The box for your shirt.” It was rapidly getting passed deeper into the room. He’d lost three other insulators this week, and he couldn’t afford to be any shorter with Super Bowl Sunday coming up.
Three more women lingered in the back of the room. A brunette with glasses lifted his insulator. “Weird box for props, but I like the theme.”
“Check out the way his jeans fit. Those aren’t going to be easy to rip off. Think they have snaps on the side?”
“Just need a signature from Ginger Johnson,” he repeated to the redhead in charge.
Yes, he’d just said Ginger Johnson, and every one of the ladies within hearing distance was snickering now.
He would’ve snickered too, but he wanted to get out of here before she realized who was on her front porch.
“Take it off, pizza man!” A birdlike woman in polyester pink pants up to her saggy parts and a sparkly tiara atop her tight white curls pushed into the doorway and shoved the door wider. She jiggled her bosom, shimmied over to him, and twirled her pink feather boa like a lasso. “Where’s my purse? I got me some twenties, but only if you let me see that six-pack.”
“Just delivering pizza, ma’am.” He gave a subtle sniff. Margaritas? How many had Betty White’s cousin here had tonight? “If one of you can sign this—”
Her talons reached out, and there went his receipt clipboard. “Ma’am—” he started, cutting himself off when she shoved it under her shirt.
“You want it? Come get it, big boy. Wouldn’t mind if you wanted to give me a peek at your sausage, if you know what I mean.”
“You guys. Seriously. I didn’t need a stripper.” A brunette in a veil decorated with miniature penises approached, towering over Granny. “Although, he is pretty cute.”
Cute enough to be mistaken for a thirty-five-year-old stripper. Life goal achieved.
Not. “Ginger Johnson?” he asked.
“She’s in the bathroom,” a redhead in unicorn pajamas called from the couch, where she was holding up her phone.
What was it they said? No publicity was bad publicity?
He should’ve moved closer to Chicago. Or downstate. Or to Minnesota. “Ma’am, I’m going to need that receipt signed.”
The old lady angled away, moving her lower jaw in a weird way that made her teeth clack.
“If she’d listened to us, she would’ve been Ginger Blue-Johnson,” piped up an unfortunately familiar redhead in coffee-themed pajamas. Cinna Blue and her perpetually mischievous smile would’ve been his type if she looked any older than seventeen. And if she wasn’t Pepper Blue’s sister.
“Ginger won’t mind if you get started,” one of the older women said.
“Yeah, she hates strippers. I guess I would too if I’d had to watch Mom get a lap dance at my bachelorette party, but—wait. Ginger hired you?”
“Whoa, hey, he really did bring pizza,” another voice called from deep inside.
Seven sets of eyeballs latched onto him.
Ten years ago, this would’ve been a wet dream come true. All these women in pajamas wanting him to take his clothes off. Minus Granny, of course.
Ten years ago, though, his equipment still worked.
But that was before Tabitha. And not even the twin redheads were inspiring any movement in his happy parts tonight.
“What in the world?” One more brunette stalked into the room.
His jaw clenched, his pulse rattled, and—oh, hell.
Not a flipping chance.
Pepper Blue herself, the neighbor of his nightmares, the woman who owned a dog that thought it was a rabbit, who never had a hair out of place, and who was practically second-in-command in the bridal world of Bliss these days, was not causing a stirring in his, ahem, stir stick.
She was in a green feather boa, thick chestnut ponytail, and fitted red plaid pajamas as she stepped down the stairs. She planted her hands on her curvy hips and turned a schoolmarm frown on the other women.
It had to be the pajamas.
“Who ordered a stripper?” she demanded.
“Ginger,” the old lady said.
“Ginger ordered pizza,” Tony said.
She blinked at him then, really looking for the first time since she’d taken charge of the room.
“Are you a stripper?” the apparent bride asked.
“Not since college.”
“I bet you still got it, sonny.” A hand smacked his ass, and Granny winked a wrinkly wink at him. “C’mon in. Show us some sugar.”
“Gran, hands off the pizza man.” Pepper wove through the other women, frowned at her grandmother, and held out a hand. “What’s up your shirt?”
Granny flashed a grin that made her eyes look twenty years younger and added another pound of wrinkles to her cheeks. “You wanna see?”
“No one wants to see your tassels, Gran,” said the bespeckled redhead in black and white pajamas with Einstein heads printed all over them.
“Spoilsport,” the redheaded unicorn twin muttered.
“Hand it over, Gran.” Pepper snapped her fingers. Her lush lips were set in a line, her bare feet planted wide, toes painted a delicate pink.
But over it all, she had brilliant green eyes that betrayed more than a hint of amusement. “You’re keeping Tony from his job.”
“I’d give him a hundred to drop his pants and let us see the goods.”
“Sexual harassment can get you five to ten in the slammer. Think of all the great-grandchildren you’ll miss. And who’ll lead the conga line at weddings? Plus, I hear if you die in there, all you get is a state-issue coffin.”
Granny finally quit moving her jaw, and her teeth—dentures—clacked together. “Hush your tongue.”
“And Poppy got it all on tape. She’s still mad about that fake snake you gave her for her birthday when she was thirteen.”
“Yep. Holding on to this for blackmail,” the unicorn-pajama-ed redhead confirmed.
They were all nuts, and something about seeing Pepper smiling and natural and relaxed was doing more bad things to his lower hemisphere. He eased back on the porch. “Just drop it by tomorrow,” he said to Pepper.
Not because this wasn’t entertaining.
But because he could no longer deny what that stirring in his pants was. That hadn’t happened in so long, he’d thought he was permanently broken. And he didn’t know how he felt about it happening now. For her. Nor did he want this audience if he went full mast.
Or if he didn’t.
“Gran…” That warning note in her strict librarian tone sent a whole flood of interest pooling in his groin so fast an unexpected pain shot through his testicles. His pulse fired up to heart-attack levels, and his heart jackhammered against a boulder growing in his throat.
“Tomorrow’s fine,” he said gruffly. He lifted a hand, a wave goodbye, a brush-off, and retreated as fast as he could.
He’d lived in darkness for more than a year now.
And despite the everything’s fine here smile he gave to the world, he wasn’t ready to come out.