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It was hard to justify buying the lake house even if I had no reason to feel guilty about it. That's the joy of coming up poor. You analyze every purchase, big or small, and even if, say, a late spring snowfall caved in half your damn rental, it's hard to justify buying anything that isn't strictly necessary.
Still, I needed a new home, and the books were doing astonishing numbers. Four years of peddling paperbacks at craft fairs and vendor shows on my days off finally netted me a conversation with the right person, a bigwig editor taking a break from visiting her father in a local hospital. I didn't even try to sell her on the books. That was the amazing thing. We talked about the hospital, and my own experiences with my grandparents there. She picked up one of my books mostly as an idle gesture. The covers were crap, designed by yours truly to save me a few hundred bucks I couldn't afford. I screamed "desperate indie author" and I knew it, so my expectations were nil and none.
But when she started reading the blurb on the back, she cracked the book open. That was a good sign. People usually bought and liked one of my books if I could get them to read a few paragraphs. That was always the tricky part though. I was not a salesman. I was a writer. In this day and age, you have to be both to be successful.
She liked what she read, and bought all five of the books in the series, along with my standalones. Her name was Clarice Portman, and meeting her that day changed my life forever.
Now I was a bona fide bestseller just two years after her company published one of my new novels. Two more since then kept me in good toilet paper and lunchmeat from the deli, not from a plastic sleeve. The real serious money, the lake house money, came from my back catalog. I used my first check from the publishing company to buy the old books new covers and sales skyrocketed and never came down. I was still amazed by that, and to be honest, I always thought the axe was going to fall. Someone at the publishing house was going to realize they made a mistake, or the lawyers were going to charge my house en masse and tell me I had to surrender half the zeroes in my bank account. But no, this was real, and when Mother Nature decided to take a wet cold number two on my rental and collapse the roof, I realized I didn't have a landlord at all anymore.
Living near Overlark Lake had always been a dream of mine since I was a kid. A cousin of a cousin of a cousin owned a small cabin-style home up there and we used to go out sometimes on the weekend and fish from his dock. I loved it, even if the distant relative fifty times removed didn't really like all us kids much and only tolerated us because my mom, though unlicensed at the time, helped him with his taxes.
In any case, I loved that lake. It's about twenty or thirty miles long, with a half-dozen smaller lakes dotting the pine-laden landscape all around it along with streams chock full of brookies. It's only started to become popular, a blessing in this day and age when real estate developers hear "water" and snap up the land, which I guess I contributed to, but I was something of a native in that I only lived half an hour away to start with, so I didn't feel too guilty about it.
The real estate agent who showed me around told me I was making a "great investment," and that I could flip any house I bought in just a few years for huge profits. I didn't care about that. I cared about an office with a view of the woods or the water -- or both, preferably -- and a modern kitchen with plenty of counterspace. If you've never had counterpace, it's orgasmic. I cared about walking paths and birds and squirrels and deer. I cared about quiet and solitude, and growing old somewhere my soul could rest easy.
There were three move-in ready houses. The first I dismissed out of hand because it was so big. Four bedrooms? I didn't need that many. But it did have a killer view of the lake from one of them, and it was the house I kept thinking about when I was shown the others. The price tag was at the severe high end of my budget, and if there were other buyers interested who offered above the asking price, I was sunk. But in a few weeks, while I was talking to my agent, I got another call. The house was mine, if I was still interested.
I definitely was.
* * *
Move-in weekend was something else. I walked through that house a dozen times, a big stupid grin on my face. It would take time to fill it up with furniture but I didn't mind that. I had a bed, a desk, a computer, and some odds and ends I picked up during my temporary stay in a one-bedroom apartment. It was enough for now.
That was about the end of May. Although I bought the place to get more work done in the peace and quiet of Overlark, I don't think I wrote more than a hundred words a day that first month. I was too busy getting in touch with something I needed on a primal level, nature and woods and, yes, even the clouds of mosquitos and horseflies the lake attracted.
I walked everywhere, and I mean everywhere. There was an actual small town called Overlark too, a couple miles from my place. I walked there often for lunch at one of the few restaurants or for groceries. In the evening, when it cooled some, I would take a nice long walk down random dirt roads, getting to know my neighbors and the area. One evening, I walked way too far and my flashlight died, so I cheerily stumped down the highway back home until a deputy picked me up. After a chiding about being prepared and the dangers of wildlife even at that hour, we ended up cruising the back roads most of his shift so he could show me some prize walking paths I never would have known about.
A house relatively close to me stood empty until mid-to-late June. Then it filled with lively young women who, judging from their youthful looks and well-developed curves, must have been college-aged or so. When I say they were partiers, I don't mean they had a bunch of people there at night. But the lights were frequently on there well past midnight, and music spilled from their place constantly.
You might think that annoyed me, but it didn't. The houses were spread out far enough I could barely hear the noise over the lake, and to be honest, I didn't exactly mind the thought of a bunch of young hot women living that close. I didn't creep on them or anything, but seeing them on occasion through the trees made for nice idle fantasies and fuel for my books. It would have stayed that way had I not been out for a walk one day and one of them called my name.
Or a nickname, anyways, one I hadn't heard for a long time.
* * *
I was back at the writing grindstone, chewing my way through the latest in a steamy suspense series. As always, I knew where I wanted the characters to go and a few critical scenes, but I was struggling with a too-perfect villain and a too-perfect scene where he trapped the leading couple in an abandoned toy store. The easy solution would be to knock down the number of bad guys in the scene, but it didn't make a lot of sense given the build-up involved a big car chase scene. Half those numbers suddenly disappearing didn't work. At worst, I could whittle down the car chase but every instinct in me told me that was the wrong move. I read and reread that scene a dozen times and I liked it the way it was. But the toy store... now that was the issue.
It was a problem I was chewing on as I went for one of my countless nature walks, the air pregnant with the threat of rain but me ignorant to it, lost in my thoughts and the notepad and pen I held loosely in one hand. This time, I was on a path that led all around the lake, one of the best maintained of the bunch. It was a favorite for joggers and bikers, and when I heard the unmistakable pounding of dirt behind me, I moved to one side.
"You'd better get out of the way, old man. Don't want to knock you over."
Old man? "Who the hell...?" I asked, and turned.
The young woman jogging stunned me into trailing off. Much as I'd love to say I noticed her face first, she was dressed to show off her curves in tight, ridiculously skimpy running shorts and a sports bra with straps crisscrossing her bouncy chest. She carried a comfortable amount of thickness that I loved in women, not fat, but with full hips and a soft stomach I would have loved to use as a pillow.
I couldn't help staring, and then finally my eyes traveled up to her equally stunning face. Her long nose was its defining feature. It gave her character, a lovely flaw in a lovely face. It hit me. I knew that nose, and those dark eyes but I couldn't put a name to the face, nor could I remember the context in which I'd seen her before. At one of the diners, maybe? I was friendly with a lot of people there but no one would have called me "old man" with such teasing familiarity.
Her sly smile widened at what must have been the most flustered expression of my entire life. That smile brought about a memory. Two, actually. A teenager five or six years who used to jog on my street, trying to lose weight at the same time I was trying to do the same. She used to babysit for friends of mine, and had glasses then, and braces, and her nose had been far too big for her face, but now she'd grown into it. God, how she'd grown into it.
"My God, Eva?" I asked.
"You got it!" she said and stopped just shy of me. Her hand went to her long, dark hair reflexively. I liked the stylish threads of dishwater blonde streaking one side but badly wanted to see it freed from her ponytail. What was I thinking? Eva was still at least ten or twelve years younger than me. "I thought maybe you didn't remember."
"Not at first."
I was dumbstruck into silence again. Jesus, had so much time passed? I thought at first it was five years, but now that I thought about it, it had to be seven or so. She must be... twenty-one or twenty-two now. Far too young for my thirty-three, but my body was going to respond to her good looks whether she was taboo or not.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't be staring but... wow. I can't believe I'm looking at the same person."
That sly grin was going to give me all sorts of inspiration, her white teeth gleaming behind the soft pink lips I wanted to explore.
Jesus, get ahold of yourself, I thought.
"It's all right," she said. "Last time you saw me I was still fighting to get in shape."
"I'd say you won." I shook my head. "What am I saying? What am I doing? How are you? What the heck are you doing here?"
"Oh! I'm your neighbor! For at least a few weeks."
"You're with the college girls," I said.
"That's right. It's Cheyenne's place. Her parents, really, but you know."
"I don't. I haven't introduced myself to them yet. But don't tell me you've been living here this whole time and I didn't notice."
"No, no, it's-"
About then, the rain started to fall. We both glanced up, and she groaned. I said hastily, "I'm closer, if you want to get out of this rain."
"Please!" she said.
We ran for it. I wondered if she was uncomfortable coming to a relative stranger's house dressed like that, a single man no less, but she didn't seem to mind, especially not in that rain. It was like God was dropping water balloons on us, fat drops that smacked our bare skin even through the pines.
I kept my lakeside door unlocked when I was walking and we charged inside, Eva laughing, me trying not to stare at her spectacularly curvy ass in those shorts. I turned and shut the door just as the thunder started. It was just a dull rumble but it would intensify fast. I don't know why but thunderstorms always sounded so much louder out there in the middle of nowhere.
"I love the storms here," she said breathlessly, tugging her hair free of her ponytail. The way the frizzled locks spilled down her back and across her shoulder drew my eyes, and I was in some serious need of cooling down or else I was going to embarrass myself in front of her.
"Uh, let me get you a towel," I said. "Do you want to call your friends and let them know where you are?"
"Why? Wait, are you the Jason Vorhees of Overlark?"
"No, uh, beautiful young woman, weirdo older man in his thirties..."
"Weirdo," she mimicked me as we removed our shoes. "Mr. Bartlett, I saw you roll around on the Iverson's lawn with their puppies. I think I'm pretty safe."
I laughed. "I forgot about the Iversons."
"Did you know she's a pastor now?"
"I did. In, what, Arizona now, right?"
That entrance led into the ground-floor basement, which sounds like an oxymoron, but the house sat on a severe slope. "Wow," Eva said, looking around down there. I loved a good workout as a break from writing and kept my free weights and a rowing machine in a corner down there. That was about it for the moment. "If you are a serial killer, this is the perfect murder room."
"I was thinking I'd turn it into a library, but buying the place pretty much cleaned me out so it has to wait. Not a lot of furniture upstairs either."
"I like the idea of filling it up slowly," she said, running her hand over an exposed beam. "Make a home out of it, and give all the stuff meaning."
"Hang on, I need to write that down if you don't mind me stealing it for a book someday."
"Oh yeah! Congratulations on the books! Holy crap, that's awesome."
"Thanks," I said, and threw down what she said about filling the house slowly. "Your parents were one of the first ones to buy one of my paperbacks back when I was just getting started in the indie world. That always meant something to me. How are they doing?"
I headed towards the stairs and she followed me. "They're good. Living in LaBelle now."
We made small talk like that. Upstairs on the first floor, she took a seat on my couch, and I brought her both a towel and a throw. She thanked me and rubbed her hair and shoulders down with the towel while I grabbed some water for her and started the electric kettle for tea. When I returned to her, she was texting someone and finished it up quick.
"Letting Cheyenne and the others know I'm not out in this weather," she said, and slid her phone back into an armband holster. "I love, love, love this house. Is it just you here? I heard about Hayley."
"Oh jeez, that's been a while," I said. Hayley was my girlfriend before Eva and her family moved out of the neighborhood and Pike Bridge in general. "And yeah, it's just me."
"I can't believe she'd cheat on you. She seemed so much nicer than that."
"Yeah, it took me by surprise too," I said, and shrugged. "The truth is though we'd been heading towards a breakup. I think walking in on her like that, it was kind of a relief."
"You two were together a long time."
"Yeah, three years."
"Well, I still think she's a bitch."
I laughed. "Kind of hard to reconcile the girl who apologized for saying 'damn' to me once and you."
"Oh, I swore a ton. I still do, under the right circumstances."
Wait, was that... was Eva flirting with me? Nah. No way. Of course not.
"How about you?" I asked. "Got a guy in your life?"
"No, not for a while now. I had a steady boyfriend my sophomore and junior year, but we wanted different things. How about you?"
"No one for a while," I said, and that was true. I had some fun dates and a few flash-in the-pan relationships but no one had really snagged me in a while and the last couple years had me focused on my publishing deal and writing, "But you. You were saying you're staying here the next few weeks?"
"Oh right! Yeah. Cheyenne's parents own that place. She's working this summer at a horse ranch about ten miles north of here, so they're letting her stay there. It's a pretty good-sized place too so Cheyenne invited a few of us to come stay. We all go to college together." She shook her head and gave me a sheepish grin. "Or we did, anyways. I graduated."
"Oh hey, congratulations. And here I was thinking to myself if you were a freshman or a sophomore."
She laughed. "No, bit older than that. Twenty-two. Anyways, I'm going to be starting at CovetCo in a few weeks. I'm living it up here and trying to find a place to stay long-term."
"Oh wow, CovetCo?" I asked. CovetCo was one of the biggest up-and-coming big retailers, notable because unlike other competitors they didn't allow third-party sellers and kept a rein on the price of everyday goods. They weren't saints, but they also weren't selling six rolls of paper towels for twenty dollars like their competitors
The electric kettle flicked off and I stood. "What are you going to be doing for them?"
"Translation work. Spanish, French, and Portuguese. That was my major, Portuguese. I planned on getting a business degree but my advisor found out I was fluent in Spanish and trying to learn French. She told me how much translators can make, at least until technology makes us irrelevant." She shrugged. "Same as everyone, I suppose."
"Amazing," I said. "I always knew you were bright, but that's incredible."
I poured oolong tea for both of us and offered her lunch. She confessed she was starving. I started to pull the stuff out to make some Philly cheesesteaks, which was what I'd been planning for lunch anyways, then paused when my hand landed on the hoagie rolls.
"You okay to have carbs? I don't want to wreck your diet or anything."
By that point she was leaning against the countertop, and when I looked back at her, I had the strongest urge to lift her up onto it, spread her legs, and take her. I fought it down.
"I appreciate that. I went through a whole no-carbs thing my last couple years of high school and I was miserable with it. I found out I do better in moderation. All I had this morning was some yogurt and fruit, so I'm all yours." She hastily added, "I mean, I'm all good. I'm... I can have... you know what I mean."
"Glad I'm not the only one stammering here."
She laughed nervously. "Yeah, I'm all over the place today. Were you working on something on your walk? A new book?"
"Yeah, notes for a scene I'm trying to hammer my way through. It's not going so great. I wrote the heroes into a corner they can't escape from."
To ease her nerves -- and yeah, okay, my own too because holy hell Eva was an incredibly sexy young woman -- I rambled on about the scene I was writing and the buildup. By the time I finished, I had the roast beef finely chopped and frying in a pan along with some onions and we'd both finished our tea. Eva flicked on the kettle again for more, then looked at me, shy and nervous again.
"Um, is that all right, Mr. Bartlett?"
"Alex, please. And make yourself at home." Thunder boomed and I winced. "As long as we have power, anyways."
I put the hoagies in the toaster oven to crisp up a little. Eva watched, and said, "You know... that toy store, are you basing that on Gilbert's?"
"I am! Good catch." Gilbert's was a big toy store in New Bainbridge, an hour's drive from Pike Bridge, the small community where Eva and I were both from. It closed its doors around twenty years ago and had never been bought or demolished, leaving it the source of a lot of gossip and ghost stories. It was a really cool building, with Roman-esque columns built halfway into its walls and topped with a gigantic metal structure festooned with a cartoon cowboy and a dinosaur. It wasn't as scary as it sounds, but I planned on fictionalizing it a great deal to make it seem almost apocalyptic.
"If that's the case, and you wanted your people to have an escape route, what putting a small building on the back end, towards the employee parking lot? Then you could have the heroes climb up to the second floor and jump out on top of that. Then they'd only have to deal with a few bad guys, maybe take one of their cars, and they're gone."
The solution was simple and elegant. I gaped at her and muttered, "Gordian Knot" before darting for my notepad and scribbling that down. She laughed throatily and pulled the buns from the toaster oven before they could burn.