by Amy Knupp
Asia Knowles’ life has been on a downhill slide for as long as she can remember, but with her promotion at work and her new apartment on charming Hale Street, things are finally starting to look up. When a polished and persistent CEO barges into her world, Asia does what she can to keep her less-than-polished background to herself. The more she says no to a date, the more determined he becomes to change her mind.
Jackson Lowell has worked hard for everything he has—perhaps, as his best friend points out, a little too single-mindedly. When his friend challenges him to go on a “real” date, not a business function with a blind date, Asia Knowles seems like the perfect choice. Everything from her sunshine-bright outfits to her don’t-get-too-close vibe draws him in. And her penchant for saying no, well…it might just be the biggest challenge he’s encountered yet. Luckily he’s learned that the bigger the challenge, the bigger the payoff.
Asia Knowles was rattled.
Not because a batshit crazy woman had tried to run down her younger sister, Vegas, with a Dodge Stratus earlier today.
Not because she'd busted her mom six hundred milliliters into a seven-hundred-fifty-milliliter bottle of Smirnoff and had to pour the rest down the drain. Again.
Not even because she, Vegas, and four dozen highly anticipated homemade jalapeño poppers were nearly late to the Hale Street block party.
No, she and her twenty-four-hour super-powered deodorant had been handling all that just fine, thank you.
What finally had done her in was was catching a glimpse of Jackson Lowell.
Picture-perfect, so-rich-he-probably-wiped-his-butt-with-twenties Jackson Lowell. At the party she was heading to.READ MORE
Asia skimmed up against the big front window of Walk On By Boots as the tall, delicious man hurried past on the wide sidewalk in the opposite direction.
"Chastity, wait. Please," Jackson called, not noticing Asia or her sister.
Asia couldn't help it — she turned and craned her neck to see what kind of person was named Chastity and who could be crazy enough to make a man like that chase after her.
The flawless, gorgeous, thin-as-a-rail, reeking-of-privilege kind. Before Asia could turn back around and feign apathy, an eco-friendly hybrid cab pulled over at the corner of Hale Street and Peach Boulevard, right in front of Clayborne's on the Corner, and the creature called Chastity opened the back door and got in, saying something to Jackson that Asia couldn't hear from here. Which was okay. It wasn't her business, and she shouldn't be gawking anyway.
"Drama already," Vegas said, still gawking as she held on to one of the vintage lamp posts that lined the street on both sides. "It's not even seven thirty."
"Enjoy it while it lasts," Asia told her, ignoring the fact that her heart had picked up speed just from seeing him. "Not a high-drama bunch. Thank god." She personally had had enough for one day.
"Low drama, maybe, but the eye-candy factor's high."
"Not your type," Asia said, probably too quickly. "Not my type, either, but fun to look at."
"Look at and maybe touch," Vegas muttered, glancing behind them one more time as they made their way toward the cluster of people ahead.
Asia had entertained that very fantasy from time to time when Jackson came into Clayborne's for dinner or a drink.
They stepped off the curb, into the one-block-long stretch of Hale Street, which had been barricaded at both ends for the inaugural Hale Street neighborhood block party. It'd been organized by the Hale Street Association and headed up by the bakery girls, who seemed to be the unofficial social chairs of the neighborhood. Violet Calloway, the association president and bakery girl number one, was particularly driven to bring everyone — residents and business owners and employees alike — together into a social group. It was ambitious, but Asia didn't mind it. There were some crackpots on the block, like Lurlene, who lived with her albino ferret in one of the apartments above the boot store, and Frank, the crotchety diner owner, but even they seemed harmless enough.
Two long tables stretched along the sides of the street and were covered with dishes of food. Random, mismatching dining tables had been brought in and were scattered along the pavement as well. A stage was set up across the way, and it looked like a sound crew was testing things, prepping for a band. Three dozen or so people already milled about, filling plates, standing around a keg, laughing, and calling out wisecracks. She knew most of them, at least by name, as the majority spent quality time at Clayborne's, where she was a server and had recently been promoted to assistant manager.
She spotted Kennedy Lowell, Jackson's sister and bakery girl number two, near one of the food tables. That table was filled with sweets undoubtedly baked by Ivy Gibson, bakery girl number three. Kennedy's auburn hair caught the late-July evening sun just so, making her appear to glow. Or maybe that was just how a girl head-over-heels in love looked. Foreign concept for Asia.
"There's Kennedy," she said to her sister, who had a good four inches on her even without the two-inch boot heels. "Let's go say hi."
Vegas waved at Kennedy from where they stood, blowing a strand of her copper-blond hair out of her face, and took the covered container of poppers from Asia. "I'm starving. I'll find a place for these and then check out the chow."
Asia noticed — accidentally — Jackson was making his way back toward the crowd. Alone. His height almost made him appear lanky from a distance, but she knew those shoulders were broad and his chest sculpted enough to show a hint of his pecs through his usual dress shirt. This evening he was oddly more formal than normal in a custom-tailored suit. It might stick out like a whore in church, but the man wore it well.
When he was a few yards away, Jackson's head turned, his longer-on-top brown-sugar-colored hair looking like he'd run his fingers through it more than once, and his gaze met Asia's, as if he'd felt her staring. In an attempt to hide her mortification, she tossed out a nonchalant "hey" and then headed toward Kennedy.
With a self-effacing grin, Kennedy picked up a paper plate and a plastic spoon and held them out to Asia. "I convinced Ivy to bring a bowl of caramel-cloud frosting. I swear I've eaten a quarter of it already. Save me from myself and take some?"
"If I must," Asia forced out, her mouth having gone bone dry. "Tough job…" She put a dollop of the lightest, fluffiest golden cream on her plate, swiped her finger through it, and stuck it in her mouth. Closing her eyes, she savored, because with food like this, who needed to be head-over-heels in love?
"I didn't know you were bringing your sister," Kennedy said, serving herself a slice of rainbow cake with glittery lavender frosting.
"I wasn't planning to," Asia admitted. "She had a hellacious day. The couple whose house she lives upstairs in? Bruno and Sylvia? Sylvia apparently went off her meds. She came home when Vegas was cooking lunch — she shares the kitchen with them — and Bruno was sitting at the table talking to her. Innocently, of course, but Sylvia decided they must be having an affair—as if Vegas has ever gone for anyone as stable as Bruno the law student—and she went batshit. Ranting, raving, accusing, throwing things… It ended up that Vegas decided to leave the house for a while to let Sylvia cool down, but before she could get away, Sylvia jumped in her car and tried to run Vegas over."
"What?" Kennedy's cake-filled fork stopped midway to her mouth, and her eyes widened.
"Right? If Vegas hadn't jumped up on the neighbors' concrete porch…" Asia shook her head and closed her eyes briefly to chase away the what-ifs. "Needless to say, we're moving Vegas out of there tomorrow. In with me, at least for now. I'm hoping to convince her to stay."
"Sisters as roommates. I've heard it works for some," Kennedy said, grinning.
"She's had a lot of uproar in her life the past couple of years. Moved a lot. At least with me, she'd be able to settle a little."
"Settling is definitely good. Need any help moving? The bakery'll be closed, and Hunter is usually flexible on Sundays."
"You don't have to do that. Days off are precious."
Kennedy finally stuck the bite of cake in her mouth and shrugged. After swallowing, she said, "Moving help is precious. Everyone pitched in when I moved in with the girls here" — she gestured toward the apartment over the bakery — "and it was a godsend. My turn to pay it forward. What time and where?"
Asia was off her game, worn out from the day, and she admitted Kennedy was right. Vegas had a lot of furniture, and a couple pieces were killer heavy. Her address was not something she gave out lightly, because she didn't live in a nice neighborhood like Hale Street yet—not even remotely close—but they could use the help. So she rattled it off, took a deep breath, and decided to push the crazy day out of her mind and enjoy the party.COLLAPSE