Convincing Cami – Chapter One

“Come on, Cami, this is totally perfect, right?”Cami Alexander wrinkled her nose at the tidy, but old fixer-upper that had her twin sister Mikki in a tizzy.

Mikki rattled on breathlessly, her brown eyes shining. “I mean, this is meant to be. We wanted to stay in Point Pleasant, and what are the odds that the only mother-daughter house on our street comes on the market the same day you hear you need to find a new apartment?

“We’ll see. Let’s go on inside, get you out of the heat, and take a look.” Cami caught Mikki’s elbow and nudged her along the walk to the front porch. Her very pregnant sister didn’t need to be standing in the sun on this hot August day.

Sighing dreamily, Mikki nodded. “I’ve coveted this property for five years now, ever since we first rented our little cottage. This is totally my dream house. Say you’ll go in on this with us, please.”

“It’s a cute place, but . . .”

Cami’s resolve was already cracking. She needed a new apartment, she’d rather pay rent to Mikki than a stranger, she was tired of fighting traffic to and from school, and she wanted to live closer to Mikki. Most importantly, Mikki adored this sprawling two-story house.

“You haven’t even been inside yet. How can you be so sure?”

Mikki glowed with anticipation. “I know, I just know.” She swept an arm around the porch. “Ray already said if you agree, he’ll make the offer today. Jack knew the owners, the Palmers. He’s friends with their son Wayne and has been looking after the place since Wayne moved to Austin. Jack says it’s in good shape inside—and Ray trusts Jack when it comes to houses. We’ve been looking around town for ages, and this is the perfect one for us. Emily would keep her friends, and I love this neighborhood and all my neighbors. Jack would be our next-door neighbor, which is simply terrific for Ray.”

Mikki patted her belly, round with her growing twin girls. “Best of all, we’ll finally have room for all the girls. Since it’s an estate sale, it’s possible we could be closed, moved, and settled in two months or less—just in time for Christie and Kaylie’s arrival. You’d be near me, you’ll save money on rent, and you could even walk to school if you want. Say yes, pretty please?”

Someone had to be sensible about this. Mikki was too in love with the house. Only . . . the house being about a mile from the elementary school where she taught was a huge temptation.

Cami steeled herself. “I’m not promising anything until we’ve walked through the whole property. And even if Jack knows the house, you still need a home inspection. There could be foundation issues, electrical problems, or termites. What if it needs a new roof?”

“Don’t worry! Thank you! I know you’ll love it too.”

Two hours later, after strolling around and peering into practically every square inch of house and yard, Mikki gave her those wide brown puppy eyes. “Well? What do you think? Tell me you love the house as much as I do.”

The spacious main house was perfect for her sister’s growing family. Shady oaks and maples sheltered the property. The huge yard, deck, and patio held plenty of room for children to play in and to hold the parties Mikki and Ray loved to throw, and a sunny grassy stretch and a small raised-bed vegetable garden set off by an old wire fence lay behind the two-car garage.

As for the space that would be Cami’s, the two-bedroom, bath-and-a-half apartment was nearly as big as Mikki’s rental down the street and enormous compared to her current apartment, with a full-sized kitchen and living room. A wide breezeway with louvered windows connected the two buildings and would make a nice sun porch.

Cami caved. “I’m in. I think it’s perfect too.”

With a joyful squeal, Mikki crushed Cami in an exuberant hug. “Thank you, thank you! This will be the most perfect thing. Just you wait and see. I’m going to call Ray now.”

“Sit down, drink your water, and rest your feet while you do.” She pressed Mikki toward the nearest front porch chair.

“Good idea.” Mikki lowered herself with a groan, and swept back her blonde bangs. “Oh, what was I thinking? Pregnant through the summer? I’m going to be a whale by the time October arrives.”

“If Mom could do it, you can too.”

“So she tells me every day.” Mikki gave a wincing smile.

“Okay, while you talk to Ray, I’m going to wander through the apartment again.”

“Have fun. And start thinking how you want to decorate and begin a shopping list of things you’ll want and need. We’re going to have so much fun!”

And a lot of work, but Cami kept that thought to herself as she followed the slate walk to the apartment’s front door.

She glanced beyond the low, neatly trimmed privet hedge running along the property line to the sage green ranch house belonging to Ray’s best friend, Jack O’Malley. She’d been to countless barbecues and parties at his house over the years, and she liked his more modern and upgraded home.

However, as for living next door to Jack O’Malley . . .

That should prove interesting. She’d always had the tiniest crush on Jack from day one of meeting him, but she’d never had an opportunity to act on the attraction. If she wasn’t in a relationship, Jack was, and vice versa. On top of life’s poor timing over the last six years, he’d never shown any interest in her that way, treating her as he treated Mikki: simple good friends, as if she were Ray’s off-limits sister rather than available sister-in-law.

And speak of the devil.

Jack’s red SUV with kayak strapped on the rack pulled into the driveway. He jumped out of the truck and waved, kicking off that usual, useless, hot thrill.

“Hi, Cami. Did Mikki like the house?” He strolled over to the hedge. Well, no complaints about the view next door when it came to Jack and his dark good looks, wide smile, and piercing, pale blue eyes. A day-old beard shadowed his jaw today, and thanks to his kayak outing, he only wore swim trunks and sandals on his appealing, fit body.

“Mikki’s head over heels in love. She’s talking to Ray right now.” Oh, living next door to Jack was going to be more awkward than interesting if her pulse kept rushing every time he smiled.

“Awesome. When Wayne gave me the heads up, I had to tell Ray the place was available.”

“If home ownership could happen by sheer force of will, this place is hers already.”

“I’m sure Wayne and Ray can work out a deal. Wayne liked the idea of selling without needing a real estate agent. I hope Ray and Mikki can find a good tenant for the apartment.”

Cami grinned. “Already solved. Me.” She was feeling better and better about the decision.

His gorgeous eyes widened. “Hey, that’s great! Mikki must be in seventh heaven. But I thought you were happy in your place.”

“I love my apartment, but my landlady is selling, and I just found out I have to move. Toms River isn’t all that far away, but I really want to live close to Mikki again, especially now with the twins coming. She’ll need me.”

“Solves the commuting problem.”

“Definitely. I’ll miss my bay view, but I’m looking forward to walking to work on nice days.”

“Fingers crossed for you all on the deal working out.” He flashed that smile again.

She ignored the warm, but useless flutter in her middle. “Thanks.”

Her phone rang, and a peek at the caller ID showed Brent was calling from work when he should be on the road south already. Her heart sank. This would not be a ‘Do you want me to pick up wine’ call.

“I’ll let you answer that. See you later.” Jack waved and headed back to his truck.

After a frustrated groan aimed at both men and herself, she answered the call. “Hi, Brent.”

“Hi, Cami. I have to cancel our plans for the weekend. Sorry, I know I swore nothing would get in the way this time, but Giselle flew in, and now I’ll be stuck in the office with the team all weekend getting ready to head back to Anaheim. I already cancelled all our reservations.”

“Okay.” She sighed. One more promise broken in a string of broken promises.

“Sorry again. Got to run. I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Sure, but just one thing before you go—” She spoke to a disconnected call. He’d hung up without giving her a chance to share her house and apartment news.

Déjà vu all over again, as Dad liked to quote. Brent was so distant lately, blaming work, but she could see the writing on the wall. They barely saw each other anymore. What was wrong with her that she couldn’t make a relationship work?

She slipped her phone into her purse. On the bright side, now she was free to spend the rest of the day with Mikki and Emily.

“Cami!” Mikki called out jubilantly. “Ray’s calling Wayne now. Fingers crossed.”

Tucking her heartache away, Cami grinned and crossed her fingers.

~*~

“Jack, we got the keys! The closing’s over. The house is ours!” Ray’s elated voice boomed through Jack’s cell phone.

Jack groaned under his breath. Heaven help him, Cami Alexander was officially his neighbor. For two months now, he’d been anticipating and dreading this day.

“Congratulations.”

“Come on over. We’re having takeout there tonight out on the deck. We just pulled into the driveway.”

“I’ll bring the beer.” He gritted his teeth. Slim chance of Cami having other plans. With Mikki’s due date rapidly approaching, she’d been glued to Mikki’s side.

Please, please, don’t let the boyfriend be there.

Keeping his cool distance on the frequent social gatherings and meals together was hard enough, but now he’d likely be seeing her every day—and see her welcome her boyfriend through her door.

“Great. See you in a few.” Ray hung up.

Jack banged his head against the fridge door. Once more into the breach.

He grabbed the beer, champagne, and sparkling cider he had ready in the fridge along with the plastic glasses, and headed for the door.

They had a beautiful, warm October evening, and the forecast for the next several days was for clear skies and Indian summer heat after the last few days of early autumn chill.

Mikki was already sitting in one of the patio chairs on the deck, looking hugely uncomfortable with the coming twins, but her smile was beaming. Ray said all was great with the pregnancy, and they were cautiously optimistic about reaching their November 10th due date, or least clearing Halloween.

He grinned at three-year-old Emily, who was bouncing in circles around the table with a new doll, and definitely dancing to her own drummer in her fairy princess outfit and red cowboy boots.

“Hi, Mikki. You look happy.”

“I’m bouncing like Emily on the inside. Thank you so much for your perfect housewarming gift! The cleaning company you hired did a great job. The place practically sparkles.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Unca Jack!” Emily scampered over to him and hugged his leg. “We gotta new house.”

“Hey, neighbor.” Ray stepped out the kitchen door, followed by Cami, both laden with take-out bags.

Jack set down the bottles. “Hey, neighbor yourself. Congratulations again, all of you.”

As his excited friends bubbled over with the story of their day, he poured champagne for Ray, Cami, and himself and the cider for Mikki and Emily.

He raised his glass. “Here’s to you all, my good friends, and may you have many wonderful years in your new home.”

“Hear, hear!”

As Jack drank, he studied Cami and Mikki. The sisters were pretty damned close in looks. Both had long, pale blonde hair, soft rosy lips, and big, brown bedroom eyes. Cami was slightly taller and Mikki, when not pregnant, was a hair curvier. Cami was more reserved and Mikki more bubbly. Strange how, when he first met Mikki six years ago when she began dating Ray, he’d thought her nice, but the moment he met Cami, an electrifying charge of desire had smacked him flat.

Unfortunately, Cami and he’d both been in relationships at the time, or he might have investigated that attraction then and there. Their timing had stayed messed up ever since. Like now, he was unattached, but she was dating Brent. Six years later, that undying attraction remained an uncomfortable companion, however firmly repressed.

On top of bad timing issues, he’d always worried if they did date and things went sour, that chanced ruining his friendship with them all. They’d slipped into a family-type relationship and good friends were far harder to find than a fun date for the weekend.

“So, Jack, still good for tomorrow?”

Ray’s question knocked Jack out of his mulling. “Huh?”

“Are you still good for helping with the move tomorrow?”

“Yes. Schedule’s totally clear through the weekend.”

Emily clambered onto the picnic bench beside Jack. “Unca Jack, you gonna build my big girl princess bed?”

He ruffled Emily’s blond fluff of curls. “Sure will. Anything for my favorite princess.”

“Aunt Cami gotta new bed too, so you gotta build hers too. Aunt Cami says Daddy’s got too many plates.”

Ray and Mikki laughed.

Cami blushed. “I can certainly put my own bed together.”

More likely Brent would be the one helping. He was a nice enough guy for a workaholic, with a decent sense of humor. Strange that he wasn’t here to join in the celebration.

Might as well put the question head on. “Is Brent coming by tonight?”

“Nuh uh,” Emily piped up, a hurt pout on her face. “No more Mr. Brent. He got transfurtered to Angel Land. Mr. Brent likes angels better’n us.”

What?

Cami winced and rolled her eyes. “Translation is Brent got a great promotion and was transferred permanently to his firm’s headquarters in Los Angeles. We agreed to break up.” She sipped at her champagne.

“Ah, gee, I’m sorry.” He managed to sound sympathetic, considering his heart and libido were jumping in excited shock.

Holy shit! Cami was unattached. He was finally free and clear to discover if there could be more between them than friends.

“All I have to say is Brent better not show his face around here again,” Ray growled.

“Really, Ray, it’s okay. I’m totally fine.” Cami’s gaze slipped aside and she shrugged. “Brent and I simply fizzled out, you know? His traveling so much made staying connected difficult. Honestly, I was relieved. I want someone who’s always around, like Mikki has with you.”

Mikki threw her arms around Cami. “Aw, sis, you’ll find the perfect guy for you. Just you wait.”

Cami smiled thinly. “So, who’s hungry?”

“Meee!” Emily bounced in her seat.

Ray and Jack unpacked the fried chicken, fries, and coleslaw, while Cami handed around paper plates and forks.

Jack refilled glasses and tried to stay intelligently involved in the conversation despite his mind spinning from the news. He could be that perfect guy for Cami. All he needed was a chance.

Mikki arranged Emily’s chicken fingers and fries on the plate. “I wish we could sleep here tonight. I know you can hardly wait to get off our couch and sleep in your own bed again, Cami.”

“Very true, but at least your couch is comfortable. I bet Jack will be happy to have our stuff out of his garage.”

Cami had vacated her apartment back in September and had been staying with Ray and Mikki in their tiny place. Everything she owned filled Jack’s garage, along with all the new nursery furniture and other deliveries for Ray and Mikki’s house.

“Hey, I’m just glad I had the space and could help out.” He selected a chicken leg and passed the bucket to Ray. “I have an idea. It’s early enough, how about Ray and I start bringing things over from my garage? Mikki can relax and supervise.”

“I can set up the bed frames,” Cami offered.

Mikki sighed. “I want to do something. I’m feeling great. I’m too excited to be tired. I’d love to get started.”

“Hon, how about I cart over some of the kitchen boxes? You can unwrap, and I’ll put the stuff on the shelves and in the drawers. You and your mom can reorganize them tomorrow.” Ray grinned.

Mikki brightened. “Oh, that would be great. Unpacking is easy to do while sitting, and Emily can have fun helping. And if I do feel tired, there’s a very comfy sofa to put my feet up.”

Once they’d demolished the fried chicken, Ray and he drove over to Ray’s rental and loaded up four boxes from the kitchen.

“Hey, Ray? Cami and Brent, they’re really split?”

Ray stopped and narrowed his eyes at Jack. “Yeah, why?”

Okay, not playing things cool enough. “Just worried about Cami. I hate to see her hurt, you know?”

“Yeah, Cami’s great.” Ray sighed. “Brent seemed nice enough in the beginning, but Mikki said she always knew it wasn’t going to work. I know Cami said she was fine when Brent broke the transfer news to her, but she was really hurt. Mikki’s pretty sure the jerk was also screwing around with that new boss of his too. He didn’t even have the balls to break the news face-to-face. He emailed her from California after he’d relocated.”

“Damn. What a shitass move.” Jack clenched his fist behind his back, his heart aching for Cami.

“Yeah. I want to beat the crap out of him.” He slammed the truck hatch closed. “I’m really sick of these guys playing around with Cami’s feelings, raising her hopes, and then dropping her. I want her to meet someone who really gets her, who’s really into her, and wants to have a family. Brent also never really understood the whole twin closeness thing between Cami and Mikki. He always acted like Mikki took too much of Cami’s time. Which is bullshit, considering he never had time for Cami. A guy should put effort into making his girl or wife first in his life, right? Cami deserves a guy who won’t screw around or slither out of her life when things get serious or difficult.”

Jack mulled all that over. He got the whole closeness thing between the sisters. As an only child, he thought their tight friendship was great, actually. He wanted a family. He was definitely into Cami.

Now, the hard part: discovering if Cami could feel the same for him.

~*~

While she waited for Ray and Jack to deliver the bed parts, Cami unloaded the cleaning and painting supplies and tools from her car, along with all the new curtain rods, curtains, bed linens, and down pillows.

Done with that, she checked on Mikki and found her happily settled in the living room unwrapping packing paper with Emily setting the objects on the coffee table and hearth, while the soundtrack from The Little Mermaid blared from the DVD player.

Emily held up salad tongs. “Aunt Cami! Look! I’m a helper!”

“Yes, you are. Can I get anything for you, Mikki, while I’m here?”

“Emily and I are good. I’m sorry again, about Brent.”

“I’m really okay. We hardly saw each other over the past months. It’s almost like we broke up back in July rather than September.”

“If you need to talk, I’m here for you, sis. Any time.”

“Thanks.” She hugged Mikki. “So, how does it feel to be a homeowner?”

“Absolutely wonderful.” Mikki glanced joyfully around the living room. “And I’m so happy the house came with all this furniture. We never could have afforded to furnish the place on our own all at once like this. It’s perfect!”

“It’s all kind of old.” Perfect, maybe, decades ago when the mostly Fifties and Sixties era furniture was new.

“True, but most of the pieces are in great shape and were high quality when new. You know how I love the old-fashioned, retro look. I’ve seen pieces like these in the antique stores around town and online, and they’re worth something. Even better, it’s real wood. I can refinish and reupholster the shabbier pieces little by little.” Mikki beamed. “My own house. I can paint and make it all perfectly ours. Can you see that mantle all decorated for Christmas over a crackling fire, ready for sitting with hot cocoa and warming up after playing outside on a snowy day?”

Cami easily pictured Mikki’s dream. The big fireplace had a wide mantel and a lovely tiled hearth, perfect for displaying Mikki’s antique decorations. “The room will be beautiful.”

“I can’t wait for Gerry and Claire and the kids to see the place. And we have room for them to stay with us! I miss them so much. A two-week visit with them for Thanksgiving won’t be nearly long enough.”

“I know what you mean.”

Their older brother Gerry and his family had relocated to Alaska for his job four years ago and between his work schedule and the long distance, seeing them as often as they wanted was tough.

The doorbell chimed crazily, and then the guys carried in the mattress for Emily’s new bed, laughing and joking.

The look of love for Ray in Mikki’s face drove a lonely ache through Cami’s chest.

Mikki turned back to Cami. “When you’re ready to date again, you should look for someone different than Brent. Really. You should make a list of traits you want in a man.”

“Hmm, you think?” Struck with a flush of warmth, Cami paused, appreciating how appealing Jack looked in those snug, old jeans and how his shoulders flexed as he hoisted the bottom end of the mattress.

“I did. And I stuck to my list and found Ray. Fun, kind, smart, handy with tools, and oh, so easy on the eyes.” Mikki grinned at the two men guiding the mattress up the staircase.

And her sister was also eyeing Jack’s jean-clad rear.

“Mikki!”

“Hey, I’m allowed to appreciate the view.”

“It is a very nice view.”

When the men came downstairs, Cami and Mikki glanced from them to each other and burst into a fit of giggles.

Jack gave a puzzled smile.

Ray just stared and shook his head. “Cami, we’re doing your bed next. Want to show us which room?”

After delivering her mattress and frame parts, Ray left to load the truck.

Jack paused and ran a hand over headboard’s curving iron rail. “Real nice bed frame. Want help putting this together?”

When she’d moved out of her apartment, she’d decided the time had come to stop making do and buy the bed she wanted, so she’d chosen a gorgeous wrought iron and oak bedframe and a lusciously soft queen mattress set.

“No, but thanks, I really appreciate you bringing everything upstairs. I have this under control. You can go ahead and work on Emily’s bed.”

“Okay, just give a shout if you need anything.”

Her bedframe proved easy to assemble, and she soon had the box spring and mattress stacked in place. She pulled the new sheet set from the bag. She’d already washed them, and the silky cotton smelled fresh and cozy.

After fitting the mattress cover and the bottom sheet, the urge to check out the mattress was irresistible. She threw herself laughing onto the cushy bed. Her new home was going to work out wonderfully.

Cami stretched out on her back, feet hanging over the edge. She couldn’t wait to sleep here in her own peaceful, private space. Technically, she could tonight, but Mikki might feel left out, so she’d wait until tomorrow. Anyhow, Mom and Dad were coming at the crack of dawn tomorrow to help with the move, and Mikki and she had plans for a big family breakfast to start the day. Happily, Mikki’s couch was very comfortable.

A light bulb blew in the ceiling fan high overhead, leaving only one functioning bulb out of three, but she had enough light to finish making the bed. Time to get back to work. She pushed to her feet and shook out the top sheet.

The last bulb blinked out, dousing her in dim twilight.

Rats. Time for new bulbs and she’d need a ladder to reach the fixture.
After fetching fresh bulbs from her kitchen, she lugged in the ladder from the breezeway.

The old wooden ladder creaked and rocked with loose joints as Cami climbed. The thing must be as old as the house. She stretched, screwing in the first bulb. The step under her feet creaked, cracked—

And gave way. She shrieked, dropping the light bulb, but grabbed only air. Oh, this was going to hurt—

“Cami!” Jack shouted. Strong arms clamped around her. “I got you.”

Shaken from the close call, she melted into him. “Thanks. That was too close.”

“I knew I should’ve brought my ladders over. You okay?”

“Yes. Just a scare.”

He let her slide to the floor, but held her snug against his body. He would release her, any second now. She should step away. Instead, she wrapped her arms around his waist. She shivered, this time less from the scare and more from realizing just how close he held her. How he’d never actually touched her before beyond a social hug or handshake.

Her quiet little crush speared into a hot rush of want. How warm and sturdy he was. How perfectly they fit together.

She caught her breath and looked up to find Jack studying her with a puzzled, serious expression that she’d never seen on his face before. The twilight added a deceptive privacy to the dim room and made Jack’s eyes appear dark and deep with—

Desire?

“This is a really bad idea,” Jack muttered. Tightening his arms, he crushed his mouth down on hers.

She gasped, and he seized full advantage of her mouth opening under his in the hungry, demanding kiss.

Oh, Jack was right, this was a really bad idea, but the surprising kiss was far too amazing to rally any effort to break away. With the curiosity of six years pressing her, Cami recklessly surrendered to the pleasure, not caring he had a girlfriend, not caring they’d just careened over the friendship line . . . and his warm body was hard against hers.

What a kiss! Far from a perfect kiss—too hot and rushed—but wonderful, wonderful, fierce, and toe-curling.

Curiosity killed the cat, remember.

Well, she wasn’t a cat, and this was just a kiss.

Right?

~* ~

Thank you for reading.

All rights reserved. No part of this webpage may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever w/o written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

2016 Rone Award Nominee

Convincing Cami, a contemporary romance by Babette James

His Girl Next Door – Book 2

Come fall in love at the shore

~ Buy at ~

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