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#Chapter One

Not for the first time, Becca Harris considered herself in the bathroom mirror and wondered what the hell was wrong with her.

Her hazel eyes, set a little too far apart, reminded her of the color of swamp water. The bridge of her nose looked a tad too wide for her thin face. Her lips appeared thin and pale, and her cheekbones did not jut out and make it look like she was in constant pucker mode. Her ears stuck out, and one had a weird indent near the top. The simple, shoulder length blonde hair lay flat against the sides of her head.

Okay, so she was no Miss America, but she did not consider herself totally unappealing. So why was a twenty-six year old woman, living in a city as big as Memphis, stuck at home on her only night off during the week?

Obsessing over her looks never sat well with her, and she stuck her tongue out at the image in the mirror before turning away. Her recent discontent with chronic singledom irked her. When had she started thinking about her love life? Or, more accurately, her lack of one.

Probably after the last "When are you going to get to work and give me a grandbaby?" session with her mother. It had prompted her to think about the last time she had gone on a real date. Realizing her dry spell was no less than a year long romantic black hole bothered her more than she had wanted to admit at the time. Despite her best efforts to fool herself into believing otherwise, the self evaluation turned into a daily ritual over the next several months.

At first she blamed it on her new work schedule. Taking the night shift at the diner meant better tips, but it also put her at home during the midday soap opera barrage. She never could make herself change the channel once she got stuck on one of those shows. Obviously the music carried some kind of subliminal message, or the actresses used their perpetually dewy eyes to hypnotize unsuspecting channel surfers.

Raucous cries erupted from the living room and interrupted her musings. She stuck her jaw out and blew a stream of air over her face.

Maybe her stagnant social life had something to do with the company she kept. It could not be good for any single woman to cohabit with a guy who personified the Man-Child principal.

Becca rebelled against the reflection by tying her hair back, flattening it against her head even more. With a resigned sigh she retreated from the bathroom and wandered down the hall, spying the pandemonium ensuing beyond the entryway. Four heads bobbed over the back of the sofa, while two more men shoved each other back and forth on the love seat. Three more mismatched chairs completed the semicircle around the newly christened item.

Matt the Man-Child had bought a fifty-two inch flat screen television in preparation for the coming football season. Naturally he called everyone he knew over to break in his newest toy before the delivery crew had even gotten it out of the box.

And everyone meant everyone. Including Matt's father, her own father, and her oldest brother. They helped Matt monopolize the big couch. The rest of the guests were friends of his. Two of his coworkers sat across from three guys Matt and she had known since high school.

Still, she had to admit the new TV was nice. At the moment Matt was showing off the picture-in-picture feature. She paused to watch along with everyone else. One overly dramatized wrestling match dominated the main screen, while the top left corner showcased a similar show. The corner picture on Matt's new tube looked as big as the whole screen of the thirteen inch pipsqueak she had in her bedroom.

After watching several minutes of choreographed brutality, Becca chimed in with the roaring men as they slung insults at those who lost matches. While announcers spoke and the victors blustered, she remembered wanting something to drink from the kitchen before getting sidetracked.

As she walked by, she asked if anyone else needed one. The seasoned waitress in her easily made out the numerous replies and each person's preference as she opened the refrigerator. Not that it was difficult. All but one specified beer. The lone dissident, her father, had not said what he wanted.

Just as she began gathering the bottles, someone yanked her ponytail. Only practice kept her from dropping everything.

She did not have to look behind her to know the culprit. "Damn it, Matt, don't do that."

"Don't you get tired of serving people?" He grinned as he took several bottles from her, his emerald eyes wide with excitement. "So what do you think? Not bad, huh?"

She shrugged. "I guess it's okay."

"Okay?"

"What do you want me to say? It's just a TV."

His expression became solemn. "It's not "just a TV." That's a top-of-the-line plasma paragon, and it set me back a month's salary."

"It better not have been this month's salary," she said over her shoulder. "You know I can barely pay my own expenses. I can't cover both of us."

"Come on, Bec, you know I wouldn't do that. And you don't have to say it." He waggled his eyebrows. "I heard you yelling back there. You like the TV."

She shook her head as he jogged back into the living room. She could not disagree with the truth. Despite his immature tendencies within the walls of their apartment, he worked steadily and made plenty of money. Enough, in fact, to let her slide anytime her wage plus weak tips could not cover an equal share of the bills.

She needed a roommate to survive; Matt did not. Still he stayed and did more than his fair share, although the arrangement benefited him in a different way. She got a helping hand while retaining an acceptable degree of independence, particularly from her parents. In return she put up with his teasing and spontaneous fiascos, understanding one thing about him had not changed since the day she met him fifteen years earlier.

* * *

"Hey, don't you have any friends?"

Becca had been eleven then, jumping rope on the sidewalk in front of her parents' house. Hearing a strange kid's voice in her neighborhood nook made her lose her rhythm, and the nylon rope slapped her shins. Matt, then a lanky boy with bright red hair and a face full of matching freckles, stood across the street. He cocked his head to the side as she threw the rope down and stomped over, stopping her advance toward him when the tips of her shoes touched the edge of the curb.

Without preamble she accused him of interrupting her, then added she liked playing by herself, thank you very much.

His nose had wrinkled, as though her answer made no sense to him. "Why? Being by yourself sucks."

Becca had gasped and glanced around to make sure the street was empty. Had her father caught her saying anything like that, he would have turned her over his knee right there in front of God and the Neighborhood Watch. At the same time she felt a jolt of excitement, hearing a boy her own age speak the forbidden language.

Her annoyance phased into fascination, so she inquired where his friends were if hated being by himself so much. He explained he did not have any, yet, because he had just moved in. He jabbed his thumb toward the small apartment building on the corner. Then he invited her to come over.

She shook her head. "I'm not allowed to cross the street."

"Says who?"

"My dad."

Matt had leveled another I-don't-get-it look at her. "Is he there?"

"No," she said. "Both my parents are at work."

"Then you're not really breaking any rules if you cross the street, because nobody's there to tell you not to."

The words had been swift, his tone casual. Even then Matt had been a smooth talker. To her adolescent sensibilities, it did not matter they had not introduced themselves, nor had she learned anything else of merit about him except he disliked solitude. His logic fell in line with her curiosity. What he said made perfect sense to her.

By the end of the afternoon Becca had learned his name. After three days in row of similar visits, usually spent haunting the alley behind his building, she discovered a great deal more. He had come from California, was now enrolled in a private school in Germantown, and did not have a mom or any siblings.

Their meeting went on for weeks, and it only occurred to her after so much time had passed he had not come over to her side of the street yet. When she asked him why, his answer was simple.

He was not allowed to cross it either.

Becca had gotten angry then, knowing if her parents found out she had been sneaking off, she would have lost her right to see daylight for weeks. So she told him she would not go over there anymore. If he wanted someone to keep him company, he could find someone else. On his side of the street.

By the time she turned on her heel and took one step, he had sprinted across the asphalt to her sidewalk. When he tugged on her ponytail, it sealed their friendship.

* * *

Since Matt had to work the next day, even the majesty of the "plasma paragon" did not keep him from ending the festivities before midnight. Once their friends filed out, the relatives chitchatted for a few more minutes.

Becca went through the regular routine with her father. Yes, she was fine. Yes, her money held out okay. No, she did not need any extra cash from him. No, her car ran fine. Yes, work was good. Sure, she would think about taking a class at community college since she had some free time in the mornings.

Matt's father praised his son's new purchase and reminded him not to work so much he forgot about Alicia. Matt smiled in acknowledgment. Then he escorted his father out. Becca's dad gave her a hug and went on his way as well.

Becca closed the door, then smirked at Matt's guilty face. "I can't believe you lied to your dad about you and Alicia breaking up."

"I didn't lie," he said. "He's the one who assumes I'm still going out with her. I just didn't correct him."

Still the King of Technicalities. "That's the same as lying. You really should tell him, you know."

"What for?" Matt plopped down on the love seat. "He didn't even like her that much. Remember how he acted at Christmas?"

Becca pressed her knuckles against her lips to stifle a snicker. How could she forget? The gathering had been at her parents' house, and Matt's dad had fumed over Matt's decision to invite her. It did not matter they had been going out for almost a year. His father blasted him for bringing his girlfriend, especially since they were at Becca's house.

She shook her head. "I still don't get why your dad was so pissed about that."

"He didn't think I should be parading another woman around your family," he said. Then he grinned. "He's still holding out for us, so he doesn't want me to blow my chance."

She smirked even though her throat tightened just a little. Same old Matt.

Once she retreated to her bedroom, she flopped onto her bed, her mind wandering once again. Back to a time when she still nursed a secret crush on her best friend. Matt never suspected, and she never said anything. In the end, it had worked out for the best. After graduation, he went to UC at Berkley while she decided to test out freedom and skip college for a year. Unfortunately she had taken it for granted, how hard it would be to actually get back to college once she got tied down with low wage jobs and more bills than money.

One year became two, two turned into four. Before she knew it, she had given up on higher education and resigned herself to depending on crappy roommates and credit cards to keep her afloat. Matt had become little more than a bittersweet childhood memory.

Then he showed up at the diner, sporting a freshly pressed suit and the same crooked smile she remembered. He'd taken an IT job with a contracting company in town and had gotten his own apartment in the old neighborhood. When he'd mentioned needing a roommate, her parents had told him where to find her.

Since her own roommate had cut out, she agreed to stay with him temporarily. Just long enough to give him time to find a guy to share a bachelor pad with while she saved enough money to get her own place.

Matt never looked for another person to take her place, and she never had a spare dime to her name.

Becca sighed as she stared at the ceiling. It had been a long time since she thought about the past, and about her feeling for Matt back then. Just another sign that she desperately needed to get out more. Preferably not with someone who just saw her as one of the boys, but with a new person. Maybe even go out on a real date for a change.