Shortcake by Lucy Watson

Title: Shortcake
Author: Lucy Watson
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Release Date: September 12, 2019
Things Emelia Anderson would rather do than share a house with Benjamin Crawford: 
1) Get strapped to a chair in a restaurant full of loud-chewers.
2) Parachute into the Australian Outback armed with only a blowdart.
3) Live her best life as an ice road trucker in the Alaskan Tundra. 
Benjamin Crawford thinks Emelia conned his dying grandmother into leaving her half of an estate worth millions, so let’s just say he’s not her biggest fan either. Not even close. 
Now they have to live together for the next thirty days while renovating the family home. Or the estate will transfer to the one person Ben hates more than Emelia, and she’ll have to move back to the one place she wants to forget more than Ben. 
Did I mention Ben look likes man-candy and smells like testosterone? Not that Emelia notices. She spends a lot of time not noticing things about Ben. 
If you ever happen to see a vertically-challenged brunette wandering aimlessly in a mall parking lot while yelling at herself, don’t call the cops. It’s just me trying to find my car. Or, more accurately, me trying to find my cousin Derek’s huge-ass F-250—that you would think would stand out amongst the sea of shiny Teslas and Priuses. Well, you would be wrong. Derek’s truck is apparently the David Copperfield of freaking automobiles. Taking in calming breaths, and casual sips of my now-cold tea, I adjust my sweaty grip on the new dress slung over my shoulder. A dress I can’t afford, sold to me by a totally nice but very chatty Charlize Theron lookalike and her hovering 80s-beauty-queen boss who gushed at how my bloodshot blue eyes are just to die for. My pasty skin to die for. My boring brown rat’s nest of curls to die for. Like I don’t own a mirror. My first real smile in days came when I told Beauty Queen Boss the dress was for a funeral. I coolly scan my surroundings, despite the panic attack crawling along my spine like newly hatched spiders, trying to appear at ease amongst the chipper people who can find their cars. Look away, people. Nothing to see here.
I force an awkward baring of teeth to a bouncy Lululemon-wearing mom walking past with her Gerber baby in one of those sling thingies.
She smiles back.
See, I’m totally normal. Totally.
Fake it till you make it, Em. I knew today was going to be a rough day. Like yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that. Which is why I wasn’t planning on leaving my magic bed. Until Mrs. Baker called to rant about how the dry cleaner had ruined her “good funeral dress.” I hung up on her mid-rant and rushed to Rose’s bedroom, praying she had a dark dress I could borrow, hoping I could buy one more day in the confines of my selective reality. I never made it to her closet. The sight of her rumpled sheets kept my feet rooted at the bedroom door. In the seven months, I worked as Rose’s caretaker, I never once saw her bed unmade. Not once. Now it sat as a sobering reminder that she was gone. We might’ve had over fifty years separating our births, but she was my friend. My only friend since moving here. My only friend since The Night That Shan’t Be Named turned me into this anxiety-ridden hot mess who can’t handle a simple trip to the mall. I clench my teeth and decide to give the parking lot one last scan before I press the emergency button on the key fob, alerting the world that I am, in fact, an idiot. My breath catches, the clouds part and angels sing hallelujah from the heavens as rays of gold shine down on… Derek’s Houdini-freaking-truck.  Right where I left it.
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The first time I pulled up to Morris Ranch, I was awestruck by its majestic Old West beauty. With rainbows of wildflowers set against dark weathered wood, I could see why it was named Bride Magazine’s most romantic venue in California. Now, as I drive past, I barely notice it. Funny how that works. The truck jostles as smooth pavement gives way to dirt and gravel, and luxury cars give way to dusty pick-up trucks. Back home, if you ask someone if they ride, it means motorcycles. Here, in the multi-million-dollar-world of California’s Woodside Hills, it means horses, usually with names like Star and Duke. And if you’re a member of the elite top one-percent of the top one-percent, you board your horses at Morris Ranch. And my step-cousin, Derek, is your vet. I continue past the converted Dutch barn he calls home, past the stables, and park under his favorite redwood, then grab my phone from the charger to shoot Derek a text. Me: Truck’s back. Thanks! Slipping his keys back under the seat, I reach for my stuff and hop out into the familiar horse-and-hay air, which at 5’1” feels more like a freefall than a hop, careful not to snag my new dress. Aka: my Savings Account. My steps slow as I pass the exercise pen, my gaze fixed on two riders who look like Prince William and Kate in their fancy English gear. I scrunch my nose as they lean over to kiss each other from atop their noble steeds, laughing adorably at the bumpy, missed connections. I love you. I love you, too. Giggle. Giggle. Nose-bump. Kiss. Nose-bump. Kiss.
Newlyweds.
Ugh.
Once upon a time, I was the biggest nose-bump-kisser of them all.  Straightening my deflated shoulders, I shove the world’s tiniest pity-party violin back into my pocket and catch eyes with Shiloh, a white Arabian showing off his high trot, thanks to Derek’s taping skills—tape that I handed him, by the way.
I give Shiloh an enthusiastic wave, not caring that I look like a total loon waving at a horse. Or that the rider gives me a tentative wave back, clearly thinking I’m waving at her. What can I say, I do weird shit. Turning down the main road, I run my hand along Mrs. Baker’s iron gate out of habit and give her a sealed smile through the security cameras perched on top, also out of habit. I know she’s watching. The FBI has nothing on Mrs. Baker. She knows everything that happens in this town. Everything. My smile drops and my heart sinks, thinking this is one of the last times I’ll be taking this walk home. I push down the empty feeling growing in my gut and focus on the towering oak trees that give way to a delicate waterfall of white wisteria Rose’s late husband planted on their wedding day. They had the Allie and Noah Notebook sort of love. I always thought that kind of love only existed in Nicolas Sparks movies. Nope. It’s a real thing. And my beautiful friend had it. I brush the soft clusters of hanging white flowers with my fingertips and breathe in the sweet honey scent, trying to override the bitterness I’m filled with today. I hate feeling this way. Hate the black inkiness clouding my soul. My steps freeze and my hand drops to my side as I watch a black Town Car with tinted windows turn between the towering stone pillars, down the driveway to the Crawford house.
They’re here.
A day early.
Shit. My pulse races as my hesitant feet carry me down the long gravel driveway, in no way excited about meeting Rose’s family a day early, especially wearing the same leggings and wrinkled T-shirt I’ve spent the last few days in. I’m not proud of the fact that when life gets tough, I curl into a ball and binge-watch movies, but it is what it is. After combing through my tangled mop of hair with clumsy fingers, I grab some clear lip gloss from my purse and slather it on, while my mind races through every inch of Rose’s house. Week-old dishes from our last dinner still sit in the sink, half-folded laundry covers the couch in the den, but it’s Rose’s unmade bed and bottles of medication littering the nightstand that causes my stomach to twist. She wouldn’t have wanted them to see that.
My hand itches to text Derek, but I know he can’t fix this. I continue past the overgrown azaleas, to see the red door of the white farmhouse peeking through the blooming magnolia trees. When she comes fully into view with her wraparound porch and black plantation shutters, looking like a vintage postcard from a simpler time, I realize how much I’m going to miss this house too. My lungs seize as I spot the familiar dark blue Tesla parked opposite the Town Car. I’ve only met Rose’s son Dale once in all the months I’ve been here, which is pretty sad, considering he lives just a few towns over in Palo Alto. He stayed for less than an hour. An hour spent talking about himself and his new Tesla while slowly stripping me with his eyes. It’s funny how someone can go from heart-stopping-silver-fox to a creeper with just a look. Muffled voices fill the air around me as I step onto the wide porch. Stalling, I walk to the door and pretend to look for something in my purse, not sure if I should just walk in or knock. I mean, it’s kind of weird to knock since I live here, but just walking in feels rude… The sound of a car door slamming jolts me from my thoughts. I turn to see a lanky gray-haired driver in uniform light a cigarette as he leans against the Town Car, his gaze fixed on me.
I force a smile.
He exhales a trail of smoke and gives me a casual chin lift.
No smile. Retreating past this smoking, non-smiling stranger feels like a walk of shame, not that I would personally know what a walk of shame feels like. Especially, not one taken from a supply closet with my nurse’s scrubs on inside out. Pulling in a steady breath, I decide to walk in and say a quick hello, give my condolences, grab a change of clothes, and head back to the ranch as fast as my size sevens will take me.
Just as I’m about to make good on my plan, the air vibrates my chest with a ground-shaking roar. I swing around to see a motorcycle heading down the driveway, kicking up gravel and dust as it goes. The rider looks like one of the Four Horsemen here to ring in the Apocalypse, with a black protective mask and reflective shades covering his demon face. His bike doesn’t have the polished chrome and custom paint of most of the weekend warriors I see around here. His chrome is dull with paint covered in dust and grime. The smoking stranger flicks his still-lit cigarette and slinks back into his car—smart guy. Before I can join him, the motorcycle roars past the cars and stops haphazardly in the walkway, blocking my escape. A normal person would rush inside the house. What do I do? Stand here. Cutting the engine, he swings his jeans-clad leg from the bike, giving me a view of his broad back. Thick corded muscles move under his threadbare T-shirt as he takes off his helmet, showing dark hair just long enough to curl in places. He sets the helmet on the seat along with his shades. I can tell he’s tall even from this vantage point. Over six feet for sure. My stomach flutters watching him pull the face mask over his head, giving me a strong profile with a close beard, not long enough to be considered hipster-worthy, more like Jamie Dornan’s sexy beard-of-perfection in The Fall. Jamie’s character in the series was a serial killer who strangled his victims while wearing lingerie, which makes the fact I still thought he was yummy sort of freak me out. The rider turns to me, and I realize I should have taken the opportunity to run. His low brows are pulled tight over menacing eyes, almost black in color. He looks pissed, or maybe he just suffers from the male equivalent of resting bitch face. Whatever it is, it causes the hair on my neck to stand tall. At first, I don’t recognize him with the beard, but there’s no mistaking those piercing dark eyes from the family photos scattered throughout the house.
Sweet Benny. Except this Sweet Benny looks more like a hitman. A hitman who enjoys his job a little too much. If I hadn’t spent months printing out the emails he sent to his “Grammy Rose,” reading most of them to her aloud, it’d be hard to imagine this biker dude could be described by anyone as sweet. But after reading his letters, I knew why Rose gave him that tender nickname. Nervous to finally meet her Sweet Benny, I try to run through the list of things Rose told me about him, but the only thing that comes to mind is that he’s allergic to penicillin. You know, the important stuff My eyes are glued to Ben as he takes the stairs, his movements look stiff, almost painful, and I wonder if it’s from the ride or from his injuries. When Rose got the call that he was wounded in combat, her entire body trembled with fear. She reminded Mark that Benny was allergic to penicillin. She repeated it a dozen times on a frantic loop. And a dozen more after they hung up. And a dozen more times in the middle of the night while I held her. As he clears the last step, I move from the door and extend my clammy hand, hoping to find the words to tell him how sorry I am for his loss. I only had Rose in my life for a handful of months, and her loss has left a giant hole in my heart, so I can only imagine how he must feel, losing her after a lifetime. “Hi, Ben, I’m—” “Move,” he says, his voice rough and unapologetic, his simmering black eyes glaring down at me. My heart sputters, and my hand falls. Umm. Okay. I scoot to the side, though apparently not fast enough for devil boy because he pushes past me, knocking into my shoulder before he throws open the front door and storms inside.
I will not call Rose’s grandson a dick. I will not call Rose’s grandson a dick.
Lucy Watson is the pen name for an award-winning screenwriter living in San Francisco with her husband, son, and narcoleptic cat. When not writing, or mom-stalking her son at school, she can be found reading steamy novels and binge-watching cheesy ’80s movies. 
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