Bonus story for
A Reluctant Roommate (spoilers!)
"No illegal activities of any kind in this house,” I tell Leonard, lifting my brows. I decide not to expand on that, because I’d prefer not to feed his imagination.
He looks slightly amused, which has been his expression throughout our tour of Mrs. Ruiz’s little purple house. I consider it promising that he’s actually asked relevant questions about the house and what needs to be updated.
“Or on the property,” Andy says, putting a hand on her hip. “No loopholes for you.”
We’ve just finished the tour, which didn’t take long, obviously. He’ll be living here while Andy, Mrs. Ruiz, and are in Puerto Rico.
It's probably a terrible decision. For all we know, he’ll figure out some way to sell it out from under us, or carve a hole in the wall on a whim. At the same time…he’s my friend. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if it ends up punching me in the balls with as much precision aim as Andy did that one time. Surprisingly, Mrs. Ruiz is on board with the plan, although Andy and I don’t care for her reasoning. When we asked her to explain her surprisingly chill attitude, she said it didn’t matter one way or another to her, because she’ll be ash blowing in the wind by the time we come back, and if the house is wrecked, it’ll be our problem. She didn’t say it dramatically, but with a flat certainty that Andy found infuriating.
They argued for about ten minutes, until I suggested we all go out for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and our flight is the day after tomorrow. I’d expected I’d feel uneasy about that, but I don’t. Other than the obvious stress of two moves within the space of weeks, I feel…content. I feel like I'm leading the life I was meant to lead all along, after spending years skirting along the edges of it.
“Roger that.” Leonard waves to the kitchen table, which has a cheerful red tablecloth. There's food set out on a couple of metal trays—cookies on one, some sort of hand pies on the other—and a few plates in a stack. “Can we eat that stuff, or is it just there to look good?”
Mrs. Ruiz left snacks for us, as if we were little kids, before going to a neighborhood watch meeting that sounds frankly terrifying, like some sort of citizen-run paramilitary group. I didn’t bother arguing there’s no point in attending a concerned citizens group if she’s not planning on making a return voyage. It’s never smart to antagonize Mrs. Ruiz. She brought cookies for them too, of course. They smell fantastic, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve spent the whole tour thinking about them. Well, the part of the tour when I wasn’t watching Andy’s ass.
“You can eat,” Andy says Leonard. “But if you have any fear of God, you’ll do it over a plate.”
“Forget fear of God,” I say, gesturing for him to sit. He lowers into a chair on one side, and Andy and I sit on the other. “Fear Mrs. Ruiz.”
Leonard laughs, but Andy shakes her head. “He’s dead serious, dude. Use a plate.”
He does, and so do we.
He bites into the cookie and then makes an exaggerated sound of appreciation. “That’s the best fucking cookie I’ve ever had in my life, and you can tell your grandmother I said so.”
"You got a death wish, man?” I ask, laughing.
Andy rolls her eyes. “You’ve essentially been on the run for eight years. I’ll bet you didn’t have too many homemade cookies.”
"You forget that I was rich at first,” he says. There’s a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, of trouble, and it occurs to me that Leonard’s almost certainly going to get into some shit while we’re gone. I have a flicker of misgiving about leaving him here, under Burke’s care. Burke’s emotionally fragile right now, even though he’d probably punch me for putting it like that. The last thing he needs is for Leonard to get arrested or for him to disappear.
“That money didn’t last you long,” Andy points out.
“Having it doesn't come naturally to me,” he says, unoffended.
She laughs. “How’d you spend it? We’ve all been taking bets. Shane thinks you went to a casino one night and blew it all in one go.”
“I burned through some of it on stupid shit,” he admits, shrugging. “Some of it went toward changing my identity. That’s expensive, even if you know the right people.”
Which he clearly does. I think about what Nicole and Damien said—about how his original last name wasn’t Ashford. I haven’t asked him about it yet, but I will. Presuming he doesn’t burn Mrs. Ruiz’s house down and peace out of town.
"And the rest?” I ask.
"Poor business decisions. I made some investments that didn’t pan out.”
He smirks. “Mostly.”
"I honestly don’t know why any of us like you,” Andy tells him.
"No one does. It’s maybe my only talent.”
She reaches across the table to give him a fist bump, and I shift my chair closer so I can slide my arm around her as she sits back. That glorious hair of hers is soft against my arm, and she leans into me without hesitation.
I find myself smiling in spite of myself. A couple of months ago, I could never have imagined this. Me and Andy, together, hanging out with Leonard. I feel pretty damn lucky, even if he is a disaster waiting to happen.
“Hey, man,” I say on impulse. “I want you to promise me something.”
He lifts his eyebrows.
“Call it payback for all the emotional trauma you caused me.”
He grunts, but I know he’s listening.
“Don’t fuck Burke over. He needs someone to look out for him right now.”
Leonard tilts his head, studying me. There’s something I can’t totally read in his expression. “You’re going to trust me to look out for him?” Then he makes an amused sound. “I’m pretty damn sure Burke thinks he’s the one babysitting me.”
“So maybe you can babysit each other,” Andy says. “You can form a babysitter’s club.”
“That’s not the way it worked in the Babysitter’s Club,” Leonard says, then laughs at the shocked look on Andy’s face. “Isn’t it sexist to presume a man wouldn’t read them?”
“Maybe,” she says, “but I sure as shit hope you read them as a kid and not last week.”
“Promise me,” I tell him, because as amusing as their banter is, I need to hear him say it.
The laughter drops from his face. “Why do you think I came back here?” he asks. “I’m going to make it right. To you, to Danny and Shane, and especially to Burke. I know what he’s giving up. Hell, I agreed to be an extra in that movie with him. I didn’t do that because I have some burning desire to be a movie star. I might have made a bunch of stupid decisions, but even I know it's not a great idea to show my face on the screen.”
Maybe I’m foolish for believing him, but everything about him reads sincere. I can tell how much it means to him to be back here, to be home, after running for so long.
He pauses, and for a moment, I don’t think he’s going to do it, but then he nods. “I promise you, man. I’ll look out for him.”
Andy turns to glance at me, her eyes smiling. “You’re pretty sexy when you go all hardline.”
“Don’t you forget it, Ruiz.” I lean in and kiss her, just briefly. Whenever possible, I like to remind myself that's something I can do now.
“Get a room,” Leonard says without heat. “Nah, I’m happy for you crazy kids. It reminds me of when Stacey gets herself a boyfriend in the Babysitter’s—”
“You are so full of shit,” I say, grinning. Andy’s already laughing, and I’m grateful to him for that. I know she’s stressed out about the move, although she’d never admit it to herself, let alone me. It doesn’t help that Mrs. Ruiz keeps making morose comments, but asking her to stop would be like telling a metalhead to listen to pop.
The doorbell rings, and I glance at Andy. “You expecting someone?”
Her laughter dries up, but she doesn’t look surprised, just self-satisfied in a way that usually promises good things.
“What’d you do?” I ask, tipping my forehead to hers.
“Something brilliant. Let's go answer the door.”
I glance at Leonard to see if he knows what this is about, and he has a smug expression that’s so nearly identical to hers, I can’t help but be amused.
“You’re in on this together," I accuse. "I don’t know whether to be amused or terrified.”
“How about both?” Andy says. She gets up and takes my hand, tugging me toward the door like a kid who thinks Santa Claus has come, leaving Leonard behind with the cookies, which is probably exactly where he wants to be.
“Did you hire people to pack the rest of our shit?” I ask her, squeezing her hand as I follow her. “Because that would be a truly fantastic surprise.”
“Damn it.” She bumps me with her hip. “You’re right. That would have been way better.”
Except we’ve reached the door, and as she throws it open like it’s Door #3 and I'm a Showcase Showdown winner, I know instantly that she’s wrong, and maybe she wouldn’t even hate to hear it this time. Her surprise is better than that one would have been, because Burke, Danny, and Shane are behind the door.
“What are you assholes doing here?” I ask, delighted.
“Dungeons and Dragons,” Burke says, pulling a bag full of dice out of his pocket.
My throat catches a little, because it was awesome of Andy to arrange this…
I'm going to miss our Wednesday night games. We’ve talked about continuing the tradition over Zoom or Facetime, but all of us agreed that it would be better to take a hiatus, even if it’s our first in years. It sucks that it’s happening now, when Leonard’s back—because Leonard is good at this game—but I’ve told myself that I’ve won big, and the universe demands some small losses too.
“And I made dragon dip,” Andy says excitedly.
I turn to glance at her. “Seriously?”
She sighs. “It’s not as good as yours, but I tried. It’s at least C+ effort.”
“I fucking love you,” I say, pulling her to me and kissing her. I meant for it to be quick, but before I know it the guys are walking around us to get set up. Someone closes the door, leaving us on the front porch. My focus is so totally on Andy, it's hard to notice or care. I bury my hand in her hair as I bring her closer, and she sucks on my bottom lip. My other hand glides over the curve of her waist, her ass, like I don’t know how to stop touching her. Honestly, it’s a skill I haven’t learned yet and don’t particularly want to pick up.
Maybe I don’t want to play D&D with the guys. Maybe—
“This is why we need the neighborhood watch,” I hear someone saying from the sidewalk. “Whole damn neighborhood has gone to seed.”
I let Andy go and wave at the elderly couple walking by. The man gives me the finger.
“I love this neighborhood,” I tell Andy.
“One thing’s for sure. Leonard will fit right in.”
I huff a laugh, because she’s right about that. “Thank you,” I say, playing with a piece of her hair.
“For letting Leonard potentially destroy my grandmother’s house?” she asks wryly.
“Yes, but you can absolutely still change your mind about that. I meant for arranging this…with the guys. You knew how much it would mean to me.”
“Yes,” she says, looking at me with a slight smirk, her eyes warm. Goddamn, I love when she looks at me like that. I hope she always looks at me like that, even when we’re the curmudgeonly old couple walking off to some neighborhood meeting and bitching about kids these days. She reaches for the end of my belt and starts messing with it in a way that’s going to drive me batshit crazy in approximately five seconds. “Does this mean you’re going to give me an enthusiastic thank you tonight?”
“As if you have to ask.”
“And can I play in the game?”
I tuck the hair I’ve been playing with behind her ear, pressing my fingers lightly there, because it’s a spot I know she likes. “You seriously want to?”
“Can I be a dragon?”
“Not how it works.”
“Can I talk about dragons incessantly and generally make a nuisance of myself?” she asks, her eyes sparkling with mirth.
I grin at her, because I can’t not grin at her. I defy anyone to look into the face of Andrea Ruiz and do anything but grin—or be afraid for their life, because there can be no in-between. “Welcome to the Last Dungeon on the Right, Andrea Ruiz. I hereby declare you my wench.”
“That is not a character.”
“Nope, but I think I can make an exception just for you.”
Because Andy is the exception to all of the rules I made for myself. She pushes me—usually in good ways—and I’m a better man because of it. I don’t know what the future’s going to look like anymore, and that’s more exhilarating than terrifying, because we’ll be facing it together.
Preorder You're so Extra, about Lucas and Leonard working as extras!
Releases from June 12-14 on Apple (link TK), Nook, Kobo, and Google Play
Releases to Amazon and joins KU on June 15 - Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Amazon AU