Rey’s penchant for fall decorations all came about because of a challenge, as these things often do, especially when they involve someone as competitive and stubborn as she had always been. And when it came to being willing to dig in her heels and play dirty to win, Rey had no shame.
So when the first October that she’d lived in her apartment rolled around, and she’d seen the flyer for the contest, she knew what she had to do.
She had to win. Obviously.
The prize for the balcony-decorating contest was a month of free rent, so Rey was naturally invested for a reason more lofty than her obsession with winning. Money was never something she took for granted, and this was an easy way to save quite a bit of it.
So she beseeched her friends to help her come up with creative ideas for her decor, and amongst their small group, once their families’ storage sheds had been raided and glue guns put to good use, Rey’s balcony was a veritable fall feast for anyone who happened by.
Rose’s sister Paige had loaned her an inflatable ghost, nearly ten feet tall, which Rey leaned drunkenly over the third-floor railing. His presence was surrounded by orange twinkle lights, black sparkly garland, and pumpkins in every color of the rainbow. Her friends had hosted a pumpkin-decorating night, and between Finn’s jack-o-lantern carvings, Poe’s colorful Pride flags painted on gourds, and Kaydel’s funny memes re-created by pumpkins, Rey could barely find a spot to sit on her balcony.
But she still managed to wedge an old lawn chair out there, upon which she built the most spectacular scarecrow her mind could conjure: a large man in flannel plaid, huge legs made out of actual tree trunks, and a giant werewolf mask for a head. She’d topped it all with a large cowboy hat.
As Halloween crept closer, Rey managed to add a ghoul she’d crafted from clear plastic tape, a ghostly witch she made “hover” using string and wire hangers, and a headless horseman she’d crafted out of a child’s toy pony and some kids’ clothes she’d stuffed like her scarecrow.
The crowded balcony was festive in the extreme, and still she added the finishing touch: spooky sounds and tunes with the help of a large boombox.
Rey won the contest with ease, and after the hard-fought victory had forged a stronger bond between her friends, plus a sense of warmth that came from the enjoyment of the whole process, she couldn’t bear to part with her beloved decorations.
So she kept them in her unit’s meagre storage space, repurposing and rearranging them each year until she’d scrimped and saved enough for a down payment on her very own house.
As she loaded her meager possessions into a small van she’d rented for the quick move across town, Rey smiled sentimentally down at her Halloween decor. She’d be able to afford new things now, but she could never part with these silly decorations that reminded her of her friends’ collaborative efforts.
So she moved them into her airy, spacious house, and they were the only things in her spare bedroom for months. All summer, she’d been focusing on the rest of her new home: her spartan kitchen, the master bedroom with its floor-bound mattress, and the couchless living room.
Now it was time to have some fun.
So, with fall finally having arrived, Rey stood in her kitchen one crisp morning, enjoying a cup of coffee from her very own coffee maker, and stared out the window at the “for sale” sign that was finally being removed from the house across the street. The tired-looking realtor looked up at Rey and gave her a wave. Rey returned the gesture with a smile through the large picture window, turning away when she saw a large moving van pull up. She’d investigate the new neighbors another time, once they’d moved in and had some time to settle.
As Rey wandered through her house—through the furnished living room, which now boasted not one, but two couches—and past her bedroom with its big IKEA bed frame, she pushed open the door to the spare room and grinned.
With glee, she let out a whoop: it was finally the day she got to decorate her very own house.
Rey had spent most of the morning getting ready for her friends’ annual decoration party, baking pumpkin bread and stocking up on pumpkin beer. She’d tidied the kitchen and had gotten out all of her indoor decor, setting up the witches and bats wherever empty spaces beckoned. Cobwebs of her own creation hung from the hearth, flames crackling warmly. She adjusted a heavy cauldron that perched on the edge of the fireplace when she heard the doorbell chime, wandering over to answer it, curious as to which of her habitually-late friends was early for a change.
She opened the door in her leggings and bare feet, a loose orange shirt drooping haphazardly off one shoulder, her hair thrown up in a sloppy bun with a few loose curls spilling out around her makeup-free face.
And wasn’t it just her luck that the hottest man she’d ever seen stood on the other side of that door.
Rey’s first thought was that her years-old scarecrow had come to life. This man, in his maroon flannel shirt, his thick thighs straining the fabric of his worn black jeans, with hair so glorious it could very well have been a wig, might have passed for the giant scarecrow she’d created all those years ago. His legs gave her tree trunks a run for their money, lifting him to tower over her, even from a few inches below her on her porch. His wide chest was certainly made of muscle and not the straw she’d stuffed haphazardly into the secondhand plaid she’d found at a thrift store.
And his gorgeous face was certainly not the unkempt werewolf mask of her own haphazard creation. He was clean shaven, though his long black hair framed thick brows and plush, kissable lips.
Was she drooling? Rey was pretty sure drooling.
“Um,” she began. “Hello.”
The stranger shifted on her doormat, as if to remind her he was in fact alive, and not a scarecrow, thank you very much, and cleared his throat. This action had the unfortunate effect of drawing her attention to his smooth neck and then higher, to those perfect lips, strong cheekbones, and heavy brows that were drawn together in the beginnings of impatience.
Rey clamped her jaw shut and tried to stop ogling him. “Can I help you?”
“I think I have a delivery for you,” he said, extending a hand toward her, and Rey finally saw that he was holding out a large mailing envelope.
“Oh, thank you,” she stammered, taking it from him. Rey Niima, it read in large print, and she glanced at the return address. “Oh, yay!” she exclaimed. She lifted her sparkling eyes to the man’s warm, dark ones. “It’s the replacement part for my fog machine! I’ve been waiting for it to arrive.”
His handsome features twisted fully into a grimace. “You’re not one of those people who obnoxiously decorates for holidays, are you?”
Rey scowled right back at him. “What do you mean, obnoxiously ? Getting into the holiday spirit is hardly ostentatious. It’s fun,” she said, planting a hand on her hip and leaning toward him with every word she spoke.
He snorted. “Yes, if you’re a child.”
Rey blinked at him in disbelief. “Well, your opinion is idiotic,” she said heatedly, “but who cares. It’s not like you’ll get to see my handiwork, anyway. Thank you for the delivery.” She gave him one last scowl and made to close the door in his damnably sexy face.
“Oh, unfortunately, I will,” he said with a sneer, lifting a large hand to stop the door.
Rey glared at him. “What, am I on your regular delivery route, or something?”
Now he smirked down at her, and she cursed the fact that he was still taller than she was. “Oh, no, Rey,” he said, his voice finally warming with a hint of enjoyment. “I’m your new neighbor.” Then, with a grin, he grabbed her door knocker—festively bedecked with a witch’s broom, of course—toward him, closing her own door in her face.
Rey let out a squeal of frustration. Damn, but he was rude. And damn, but he was sexy! She spun on her heel, tossing down her package on the kitchen table and grabbing a beer from her fridge.
The nerve of that man, Mister No-Name Neighbor, to walk over here and insult her taste upon their first meeting! What was his problem, anyway?
She took a swig of the pumpkin-flavored beverage, scowling when she realized he’d even ruined her enjoyment of the seasonal brew.
Well, she’d give him a problem, all right. If she could outdo every one of her old neighbors from her apartment complex, she could certainly do the same thing here in her new neighborhood. Based on those she’d met, her neighbors would be good-natured about it, and might even up their own decorative antes as a result.
But that guy—the rude, nameless tree of a man whose new kitchen overlooked her yard—boy, he was going to get an eyeful every time he looked out his window.
Rey finished her beer and slammed the bottle down on her counter with grim determination. She’d show him.
The next morning dawned clear and cold, and Rey stumbled down the stairs toward her coveted coffeemaker. She pressed the button to brew, then rubbed her eyes as she looked tiredly out the wildly-decorated window she and her friends had completed the night before.
Sharp teeth, five feet tall apiece, created a gaping mouth out of her front porch. Manic eyeballs shone from her upstairs windows, ring lights backed by black paper behind the glass inside, while giant, scowling eyebrows bedecked the outside shutters. Rey grinned in malice as she recalled the face of the man who’d inspired that last-minute creative decision.
The fog machine was repaired and fully functional, and she’d strewn purple lights across her front yard hedges, which glowed eerily through the fog when she plugged them both in. From the street, her house was a giant monster, its gaping maw welcoming Halloween trick-or-treaters to try their luck approaching her door.
Rey poured pumpkin spice creamer into her coffee and smirked in satisfaction. Take that, hot neighbor guy, she mentally muttered, and took a sip of her delicious morning beverage.
And that was when she saw the first delivery truck pull up.
Rey’s satisfaction and sense of victory waned as the day progressed, any hopes of Sunday productivity falling away as she watched box after box being delivered to her new neighbor’s home. Each time he opened the door to sign for a package, he waved sarcastically to her, and she returned his gesture with nothing more than a scowl.
By mid-afternoon, perched on a kitchen stool with her laptop before her in an attempt to do some work, Rey had talked herself into the idea that she’d let go of her curiosity about the neighbor’s plans. Then, when she saw him hauling an extension ladder out of his garage, she admitted she’d been lying to herself.
As he clambered nimbly up the ladder to affix something to the front of his new house, Rey tried not to stare. She really did. But the flex of his excellent ass under those dark jeans was quite tempting, and besides, she was curious.
When he retrieved something large from the ground and climbed the ladder again, her jaw dropped. A spider—a gigantic, ostentatious spider—that was larger than the mystery man himself, was being hauled up with his large hands. He quickly secured it to the house, where it appeared to be attempting to crawl into an upstairs window, and he returned to the ground, spinning quickly to gauge her reaction.
Rey tried to hide the outraged expression on her face, but it was too late. He smirked at her, retrieving another large spider before placing it just above the eaves of his porch. Rey gaped in disbelief as he quickly scattered gigantic arachnids all over his new home, then stood back, hands on his hips, to survey the overall effect with what appeared to be satisfaction.
That asshole, Rey fumed. He didn’t even like decorating! He was just doing this to spite her. And she knew those spiders didn’t come cheap—he hadn’t even employed an ounce of creativity; he’d obviously just whipped out a shopping app and ordered those yesterday to spite her.
She caught herself growling in frustration and stomped her foot, giving in and slamming out the front door of her house. Rey marched between her porch monster's teeth and across the street, not realizing she was only wearing her house slippers with her comfortable weekend clothes until she’d fully crossed the road.
She swallowed her embarrassment in favor of indignation, stopping on his lawn to absorb the sight of his house. The spiders were even more impressive close up, and she swallowed any admiration she may have felt for them.
“What do you think? Looks good, huh?” he said, turning to face her and crossing his large arms over his chest.
“I thought decorating for the holidays was obnoxious?” Rey shot back.
“Well, I’m just trying to fit in with the neighborhood,” he said, smirking at her. Rey scowled at how sexy he looked in his navy blue sweatshirt, a faint sheen of perspiration glowing on his smooth skin.
“Look, it’s not a neighborhood thing,” she spluttered. “Decorating is kind of my thing.”
He arched a brow at her. “Oh, really?” He glanced at her house dismissively. “Yes, I guess I can see now that it’s more of an...amateur pursuit.”
Rey gasped at his rudeness. “You ass, you know it looks awesome.” She scowled at his spiders. “And it’s even better because I put some thought and effort into it, instead of just my wallet, you lazy, thoughtless—”
Her outburst stopped when she heard his soft chuckle, and she huffed out a sound of outrage at his sheer rudeness, as well as her own, which was quite out of character.
“Look,” she attempted. “I’m not normally...so ill-mannered. I think we got off on the wrong foot.” She thrust out a hand impatiently. “I’m Rey.”
He smirked at her again and stepped closer, and Rey had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze. His large, warm hand grasped hers, and Rey gasped at the feel of calluses scraping against her palm, his long fingers entwining round hers with ease. Her skin tingled and she had to fight to breathe normally.
“I’m Ben.” He grinned at her now. “And I’m not normally...petty , but I do often bring out the worst in people.”
Rey yanked her hand back with a scoff. “As if you could be... important enough to bring out the worst in me. I just met you!” she cried, outrage evident in the tone of her voice, the set of her hips.
Ben grinned. “It’s a gift.” He was so smug, so cocky...so sexy. Rey scowled at him again.
“Well, Ben...your decorations suck.” With that mature and highly intelligent remark, Rey fled back across the street to her house.