Was it possible to be castrated by a playlist?
Beau Montgomery held his tongue while Alanis Morissette growled her way through “You Oughta Know.” He basted turkey and tuned out Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” but he refused to silently endure Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” That, ladies and gentlemen, constituted disco, and he sure as hell would not survive. He was stressed enough about hosting his mom and dad for Thanksgiving dinner without the marathon set of breakup anthems coming from his neighbor’s apartment.
A glance at the clock on the stove made him wince. The ’rents had left Magnolia Grove at noon. Assuming reasonable holiday traffic coming through Atlanta, they’d be on his doorstep anytime. The sexy little blonde across the hall needed to take the volume down several notches, or better yet, conclude her Men Suck Festival altogether.
Since it had been going on all day, he doubted either option would come to pass without a word from him. She probably assumed he wasn’t home. He usually worked the holidays to give the other paramedics on the crew—the ones with wives and kids—a chance to spend time with their families. Even when he was home, he preferred to keep to himself. If his parents weren’t part of today’s equation, he’d just focus on the football games and ignore the music.
Beau cursed. Confronting her with a noise complaint on Thanksgiving felt like an asshole move, given they’d barely said hello to each other since she’d moved into the complex six months ago. She wasn’t around a lot—thankfully—because when she spent time at home, she managed to disturb his peace just by existing.
She liked to sing in the shower, seemingly unconcerned if her low, Southern-bluesy voice carried, inviting him to picture her wet and naked. She liked to bake, and the hobby sent distracting scents of cinnamon and vanilla into his apartment like unwanted guests. She liked sex—thin walls held no secrets—though by his count the guy she had it with only brought her all the way home once in every three times at bat. Sheer laziness in his opinion, and why she settled for less than a grand slam every single time he really couldn’t fathom. Maybe silk ties and snappy suits compensated for a lack of bedroom skills?
Or not. Today’s music selections suggested she and One-for-Three had parted ways. She’d stormed into her apartment last night and proceeded to bang around as if she were rearranging furniture and digging through closets. The back-and-forth of footsteps in the hall indicated she’d made several trips to the garbage chute. He didn’t need a degree in psychology to know there was a purge going on next door, both tangible and emotional.
Not that it was any of his business.
Her wild tumble of honey-blonde waves was none of his business either, but it always caught his eye, as did the playful bounce of her full, round breasts when she descended the stairs or the sway of her hips when she climbed them. Nature had stacked some truly awe-inspiring curves onto her slender five-foot-nothing frame.
Her smile usually made an appearance when they passed. She probably aimed for friendly, but something about the way those lips tilted upward in an inherently flirtatious greeting teased his cock, even on those occasions when she had One-for-Three on her arm.
Beau shook his head and went back to straightening up his kitchen. At a different point in his life, her distracting smile—or her equally distracting ass—might have tempted him to find out if she liked his smile, his ass, or anything in between, but that point had come and gone several years ago. He wasn’t looking to get involved, no matter how strong and persistent a pull he felt toward his sexy little neighbor.
His eyes strayed to the pile of yesterday’s mail he’d tossed on the counter. The mail carrier had accidentally included an item for number 202 in his box. He fanned the pile out until he spotted the embossed envelope from the Solomon Foundation for Art, which he’d never heard of. Not surprising, considering he knew fuck-all about art, but he knew a good strategy when he saw one. He’d wander over, knock on her door, and she’d have to lower the music to answer. While he delivered what probably amounted to fancy junk mail, he’d casually mention he expected his folks to arrive at any moment, and he looked forward to having a nice, quiet visit with them.
Satisfied with the plan, he folded the envelope, slid it into the back pocket of his jeans, and walked out his door.
The music gained volume as soon as he stepped into the hall, and he immediately understood why it seemed especially loud today. Her front door hung open, with a Post-it note on the outside reading, “Come in.”
Not smart. They lived in a secure building, with nice, normal neighbors, but still. Why court trouble?
“Hello?” He barely heard himself over the sound of Carrie Underwood and her Louisville Slugger. After pushing the door all the way open, he tried again, louder. “Hey?”
Still nothing, although judging by the scents of cooking turkey and cooling pie filling the apartment, the chef hovered nearby. Her living room and kitchen, which were mirror images of his in terms of layout, but universes apart in terms of color and texture and…stuff, were empty. Empty of people, at any rate. Her floors sported the same neutral wood laminate as his, but the rest of the room looked like a combination of Buckhead estate sale and third-world bazaar. Yet it worked. A slipcovered white sofa and a couple of matching armchairs provided a blank canvas for red throw pillows, a wrought iron coffee table straight off a French Quarter patio, and a blue-and-white ceramic garden stool stacked with old books. Atop the coffee table sat a huge glass bowl full of fist-sized marbles swirled with every hue imaginable. The arrangement made him think of exotic planets suspended in a crystalline galaxy.
An eclectic collection of art covered the walls. Large abstract oil paintings surrounded by black-and-white photographs, a few pastel watercolors, and even some framed architectural renderings.
The envelope in his back pocket started to feel less like junk mail.
The music blasted from a digital speaker dock on a long mirrored table against the wall opposite the sofa. He let that be for now and made his way down the hallway.
The bedroom door stood ajar, and he could hear her singing on the other side. He might have hesitated, but a woman with a welcome note stuck to her open front door on Thanksgiving Day clearly expected company.
He pushed the door open. It slammed into something and swung back at him. His shoulder took the blow, and instinct had him shoving through. Whatever was on the other side gave way under the force of his momentum. He heard a scream over the last ominous lines of “Before He Cheats” and stepped into the room in time to realize he’d banged into a ladder—one on which his neighbor perched, now struggling for balance. Time slipped into a frustrating slow motion as he reached out to grab the rungs and stabilize her. Another scream assaulted his eardrums and the ladder lurched out of his reach. His neighbor fell hard on the white tarp covering the floor. She looked up at him with wide blue eyes and opened those fantasy-worthy lips to speak just as yellow droplets showered down on him.