The stairs creaked as I walked down to the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee. I needed to get that fixed, but then, it didn’t really bother me. Living in this house, the house that I’d grown up in, I’d gotten used to it over the years. Even though my parents weren’t living here anymore and I’d completely redecorated, this house was filled with so many memories that I would take the squeaks and creaks as long as I kept having amazing neighbors and these fantastic views of the quaint neighborhood.
In the kitchen, I grabbed my favorite morning blend pod and set a mug under the dispenser. I’d showered and gotten dressed in a daze. I knew I needed to stop staying up so damn late, but lately, I’d been having trouble sleeping.
The fact that tonight was the annual neighborhood barbeque probably had something to do with that. Sure, it would be nice to see the whole gang. Even the people who had moved away from Swanson Ridge usually came back for the event we’d been attending since we were kids. More than that, I knew one person in particular was bound to be there—Liberty Johnson.
Letting out a sigh, I took my cup of coffee and poured some creamer in, then put the bottle back in the fridge before I disposed of the spent cartridge and determined whether or not I was in the mood for breakfast. My stomach growled, so I decided to fix a couple of pieces of toast. Anything more than that probably wouldn’t work right on an unsettled tummy.
Normally, I would be working today, even though it was the weekend, because that was part of what being the owner of a major sports complex entailed. Not only did I have several locations to keep track of, but we also had other considerations as well. Like the camps we put on every summer. Now that the kids were out of school, it was that time of year again, and while I was excited, I was also a bit anxious about that. I had so much going on in the next few months, I wasn’t sure how I’d get it all done.
My phone chirped in my pocket, and I pulled it out to see a text from my best friend, Landon Johnson. Liberty’s older brother. He was asking what I was up to. I hadn’t spoken to him in person in quite some time, so I texted him back that I would just head over there to speak to him. I’d be lying if I didn’t secretly hope that Liberty would be there. She was living with Landon at the moment. But I also thought it would be nicer to have the conversation with him in person. Otherwise, what was the point of being neighbors?
I finished off my toast and headed out the door. The sun shone brightly, and a slight breeze blew the flower petals from the shrubs my mom had planted around the front of the house years ago. It was going to be a lovely day. The sweltering heat of a Nashville summer was still a few weeks off, though the temperature would probably climb to the mid-eighties today. I could handle that. Growing up an athlete, I was used to being outside most of the summer.
It only took a couple of minutes for me to walk over to Landon’s house. He had purchased his childhood home from his parents when they relocated to Hawaii a couple of years ago. Like me, he never wanted to leave Swanson Ridge. Thinking of one of the reasons why, I glanced across the street at the Briar house and chuckled. Looked like Johnny and Laila needed to trim back their shrubbery again. I remembered Landon’s father throwing a fit about living across the street from the hippies, but Landon had been in love with Poppy since we were kids. When she’d admitted she loved him, too, he’d never been happier.
Sighing, I tried to push the thought out of my head because of the pangs of jealousy it always sent circulating through me. I wanted that. Not with just anyone, but with Poppy’s best friend. Liberty—my best friend’s little sister.
“She’s forbidden,” I reminded myself in a whisper before I walked into Landon’s kitchen. “Hello?” I called out. He was walking in from the adjoining dining room, an empty plate in his hands. “No eggs and bacon for me?” I joked.
“Well, if you would’ve gotten here a little earlier, I would’ve made you some,” he said with a laugh. “How’s it going?”
“Good.” I watched him rinse his plate off and stick it in the dishwasher before he grabbed himself a refill of coffee, and the two of us headed into the living room. “Just thinking about all of the shit I’ve got to get done this summer.”
“You’re telling me.” Landon sipped his coffee and sank down into a chair. I took a spot on the couch. “The wedding will be here before I know it.”
A smile slipped into place as I watched happiness glow from his face. I’d never seen the man as happy as he was now that he was officially together with Poppy. “How are you feeling about all that?” I asked. “Anything the best man can do to help?”
“I can’t wait,” he admitted. “We’re taking that trip to Bali with the Robertsons a few days before the wedding, which makes me a little nervous, but we’ve got plenty of time to make sure everything is ready before then, right? I’ll definitely be calling on my best man if I need something.”
“I was a little surprised when you and Poppy decided to go on that trip,” I admitted. “Going on a vacation right before the wedding is a little different than the way most people do it. But I’m sure it’ll all work out. You guys have huge families who are willing to help out, and all of your friends will rally around you.”
“Yeah, except you guys will be on the trip with us, so I’ll have to rely on the people staying behind to handle anything that needs attention back here—like my parents. No thanks,” he said, shaking his head.
“Your mom is fully capable of doing anything you need to be done,” I reminded him. His father hadn’t approved of Poppy for the longest time, but since he found out his mother knew Poppy and thought she was amazing, and Poppy had proven to him that she was incredible, he’d become much more accepting of her. I wasn’t personally worried about either of his parents trying to sabotage the wedding, but I could see why it would weigh on his mind.
“That’s true. Mom did offer to come to town a bit before the wedding. I’m sure we’ll work it all out. What about you? Are you ready for camp?”
Immediately, my smile widened. “Yeah, I’m always ready for it,” I told him. “I can’t wait to work with the kids. A lot of the athletes that came last year are scheduled to be back. It’s always so great to see how they’ve grown over the course of a year. So many of them have improved their techniques. They’re bigger and stronger than the year before, and their passion for their sport of choice has increased. It’s amazing to see those kinds of transformations.”
Landon nodded and took another sip of his coffee. “That’s got to be so rewarding for you and the other staff members.”
“It really is,” I told him, setting my cup down on the coffee table as it was almost empty now. “And then there are all the new kids who are attending for the first time. We love seeing all the new faces.”
“Is it tough on those kids, being away from their parents for the first time?” Landon asked.
“Yeah, sometimes. That’s why it’s so important for us to have the best camp counselors and coaches there with us. The right people make the transition so much easier.” I thought over the staff that would be working with me this summer, picturing their faces in my mind. Most of them were great people who always did an amazing job. Only one stuck out as a potential problem, but I knew the rest of us would make sure everything went smoothly.
“I wish I could still go to camp,” Landon said with a chuckle. “I loved playing sports with you when we were growing up.”
I thought back to one particular day in the park when Landon was giving me a hard time about my throwing ability—just to show off in front of Poppy—and I laughed. “Yep. I do miss getting to play ball with you, but at least we get to go to the gym together every once in a while.”
We shared a laugh, but the moment I heard the creak of the stairs behind me, I caught my breath. I turned around to see Liberty bouncing down the steps wearing a T-shirt and cut-off shorts. Her hair was back in a ponytail, making her look even younger and spunkier than usual.
Inhaling deeply, I did my best to hide my reaction from Landon. If he had any idea how attracted I was to his younger sister, he’d flip his lid. Ever since that asshole college friend of his had gone after Liberty and broken her heart, Landon had made it abundantly clear that his sister was off limits. It didn’t matter to Landon that I’d had feelings for Liberty ever since we were in middle school. Nor did it matter that I was the guy she’d called when she’d gotten wasted at a party when she was in college and needed someone she trusted to get her home safely with no judgment.
Pulling myself away from her that night had been nearly impossible. She’d been drunk and going on about how amazing I was. I’d wanted so badly to kiss her, to stay with her, but it wouldn’t have been right for any of us.
Now, I found myself avoiding her gaze as she greeted me. “I didn’t know you were here, Joshua,” she said with a bright smile. “How are you?”
“Good. Good. I’m doing good,” I stammered, turning back around to face the door and wishing I could barrel through it. I had no trouble speaking to Liberty when it was just the two of us together, but with Landon there, things quickly became complicated.
“Cool.” She came in and wrapped her arms loosely around me before she sat down a few feet from me on the couch. The hug had my body electrified, and it took every ounce of willpower I had to keep my eyes off her thighs. “Are you going to the barbecue tonight at the Robertsons’ house?”
“Yeah, sure. Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I told her. “Are you going to be there?” It was a stupid question. Of course, she was going.
“You know it,” Liberty said. “I can’t wait to catch up with everyone. This summer is going to be amazing.”
“Do you have a lot planned?” I tried to take a leisurely tone with her since I was aware Landon thought I just considered her to be a kid sister myself, though my true feelings were far from it.
“Not really.” She grimaced and folded her arms. “Just work.”
“And our trip,” Landon piped in. We both knew that Liberty didn’t really like working for her family company because what she was doing for Landon wasn’t her passion. Liberty had studied photography in college and then had gone to California to try to make a living with it, but that hadn’t worked out, so she’d moved back here. While I wished that she was able to do what she loved, I was glad she’d come home to her family.
Home to me.
“Well,” I said, slapping my hand down on my leg. “I’m sure it’ll be a great time. As long as we’re all there.”
Liberty smiled. “I’m sure we will.”