“Ty.” Zoe banged on the bathroom door. “How much longer are you going to be in there?” More banging. “Ty?”
Ty Sutherland pulled on a clean T-shirt and opened the door. “You know there’s another bathroom in this house.”
“I don’t have to use the bathroom.” Zoe smiled. “Hi. How was your shower?”
“Fine.” Ty cocked their head. “Why do I feel like you’re about to ask me to do something I don’t want to do?”
“You’re going to want to do this. It involves cookies. And a hot realtor.” Zoe waggled her eyebrows.
“No thanks.” Ty picked up the scrubs, socks, and boxers they’d stripped out of earlier. The stench of the sick horse they’d worked on all morning rose up again. “All I want to do is start a load of laundry and put my feet up.”
“You haven’t even heard what type of cookies.”
Ty tried to step out of the bathroom, but Zoe blocked the doorway.
“Double chocolate chunk. The realtor bakes them in little batches so they’re warm and fresh out of the oven all day.”
“How do you know this?” Ty shook their head a moment later. “Actually, I don’t need to know.”
“I met the realtor this morning. She was putting up the open house sign when I was getting our mail—which no one’s checked all week.”
“It’s your job to get the mail.”
“Not the point. The point is double chocolate chunk cookies, and all we have to do is walk through an open house. Also, I’m pretty sure she’s queer.”
“The realtor.” Zoe gave them a frustrated look. “Who else?”
“I thought this was about a cookie.”
“Well, yeah, but I figured the hot lesbian part would get you to say yes.”
Usually hot and lesbian in the same sentence would convince Ty to leave the house but it wasn’t enough today. “I just got home from work. Can’t you go by yourself?”
“No one would believe that I’d have enough money to buy a house.”
“But they’d believe I do?”
“You’re older at least.” Zoe pursed her lips. “If you put on nice clothes for once it would help.” She reached up and patted down their tousled hair. “And you could do something with your hair.”
“I’m broke, Zoe. I don’t need to pretend I can afford a house.” Ty mussed their hair. “I haven’t eaten all day—or sat down once—and I still have to go to the barn tonight to take Polaris out on a run. Plus muck the stalls.”
Zoe dropped her shoulders and stepped out of the way. “It’s killing me not to be riding Polaris myself.”
“It’s not worth screwing up your knee. That doc said one full week off riding.”
“I know,” Zoe grumbled. “How was she yesterday?”
“A little hellion. Like usual.” Polaris was fun to ride even if she spent half the time yanking the reins out of Ty’s hands. She loved to let loose and fly down the trail—as much as Zoe did—which was what had gotten Zoe injured. They’d been racing around a narrow turn when a mountain biker appeared. Zoe had made a split-second decision that squeezed Polaris to the side of the trail and smashed her knee into a scrub oak.
“I’m going with you to the barn tonight even if I can’t ride.” Zoe followed Ty down the hall, snagging her notebook as they passed through the kitchen. “I spent the morning working on my Tevis checklist and mapping the sections I want to ride before the race.”
“As long as you don’t push it like last time. It’s too close to take dumb chances now.”
Zoe stopped at the doorway to the laundry room. “Weren’t you supposed to have today off? You were gone before the dogs even woke me up.”
Said dogs were in the backyard happily barking at the squirrels now. Ty made a mental note to bring them back inside before a neighbor complained. “I got called in to help with a colic surgery.” At five in the morning. “A little Arab mare with a twelve-centimeter enterolith.”
“Ouch.” Zoe scrunched up her nose. “Bet you could use a cookie after working all morning.”
Ty chuckled. “You’re desperate.”
“I’m PMSing and we have no chocolate in the house. And I’m stressed about Tevis and not being able to ride my horse. Or run.”
“You can handle a few days off.” Ty opened the washing machine. Someone had started a load of laundry and hadn’t moved the wash to the dryer. “I bought Oreos last week. They’re on the top shelf in the pantry.”
“Jenna found them.” Which meant they were now gone. “Holly was pissed because she didn’t share.”
Jenna was the third housemate and Holly was the fourth. Four students living in one house meant the junk food disappeared as fast as the beer.
“Oreos aren’t the same as a homemade cookie anyway. Think about it—warm, chocolatey, chocolate cookies. Mm. And the open house is right next door. It’ll take ten minutes. Tops. We look around, grab a cookie, and leave. Did I mention the realtor was hot?”
“You did.” Ty smiled. “I’m impressed you talked to her.”
Zoe shrugged. “We talked about cookies. Who wouldn’t have that conversation?”
Six months ago Zoe would have avoided any conversation with a random stranger. It was progress at least. “You promise it will only take ten minutes?”
Ty sighed. “Fine.”
“Yes!” Zoe’s face lit up as she cheered. After a beat, she added, “Can I pick out a different shirt for you to wear?”
“So the realtor thinks you’re legit.”
“Legit what? I’m not going to tell her I have money to buy a house.” Ty tipped the laundry detergent to get out the last drop. One more thing to buy. They looked over the container at Zoe. “I’m a broke vet student. I’m not gonna lie.”
“And you shouldn’t lie.”
Was touring an open house when you only wanted a cookie ethically wrong? Ty turned over the question. “The realtor invited you to come get a cookie, but you didn’t tell her you were really interested in buying, right?”
“No.” Zoe bit the edge of her lip.
“I may have said that my cousin wanted to buy a house.” At least she had the decency to look guilty.
“Zoe, why would you do that?”
“She seemed so eager. And she was so friendly. I wanted to help her out.”
“It’s not lying if I convince you to buy a house from her.” Zoe batted her eyelashes. “Someday you’ll have money.”
Ty stopped in front of the open house sign and tugged at the buttoned collar of their shirt. “You know, I could loan you five bucks and you could buy a dozen cookies.”
“Not a dozen homemade cookies. Besides, you’ll need a realtor eventually and this one’s pretty. Think of it as an interview.” Zoe tugged them toward the house. “Would it make you feel better if I told you all the reasons why you should be in the market to buy?”
“Zoe, I’m worse than broke. My student loans are—”
“Only going to get bigger by the time you graduate. Which is why you should buy a house and add the mortgage payment to your loan.”
“I’d have to have a down payment to buy a house.”
“Details.” Zoe made it to the front door and rang the bell, then motioned for Ty to stand next to her.
Ty grabbed one of the open house flyers and scanned for a price. “Holy shit. Do you know much they’re asking for this place?”
Zoe glanced at the price and shrugged.
“I bet our landlord is gonna raise our rent.”
“Another reason why you should buy a home. Also, we could have as many pets as we wanted.” As the door opened Zoe whispered, “I can smell the cookies already.”
The realtor’s smile didn’t falter as she glanced from Zoe to Ty. Ty was used to long looks from people trying to fit them into a gender box, so it wasn’t a surprise to feel the realtor sizing them up. They straightened, pulling back their shoulders on reflex. Go ahead and judge. People always did.
“Come on in.” She opened the door wider. “It’s hot out there and lovely and cool in here.” As soon as Zoe and Ty were inside, she closed the door and said, “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s nice to have some Family show up. I’ve had nothing but straight couples touring this house.”
Ty instantly regretted their initial assessment. They were the one who’d judged and the realtor confirming she was queer made it even harder to think about lying to her.
“You must be the cousin Zoe told me about,” the realtor said. “I hear you worked your way through college training horses and now you’re in vet school. With a scholarship for this next year. Congrats. That’s impressive.”
Ty felt their cheeks get hot. What was true on paper wasn’t nearly as impressive in reality. “Uh, yeah.”
“And you’re hoping to stay in the area after you graduate which is why you’re thinking of buying now? It’s a great idea if you can swing it. And as you already know, this is a wonderful location.”
Instead of glaring at Zoe for putting them in an impossible spot, Ty found themself nodding. The realtor’s smile widened, making her even more attractive. Tan complexion, wavy brown hair, petite frame but generous curves in all the right places. All that with a strong femme vibe meant there was no chance of resisting her charm. And from the confident way she held Ty’s gaze, she knew all about her charm.
It was true, at least, that staying in Davis after graduation was the plan. Maybe they could buy a home. Could student loan money be used as a down payment? If that was possible, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?
No, there was no way. The mentioned scholarship only funded a portion of next year’s tuition and the student loans would continue stacking up. As much as Ty hated to say it, the truth had to come out. “I don’t think I’m financially ready to buy.”
“But it’s important to know the market, right?” Zoe nodded at Ty, reminding them to play along. “Those cookies smell amazing. I want to stand right here and just take a deep breath.”
“That’s my goal.” The realtor laughed. “I hope they taste as good as they smell.” She turned back to Ty. “I’ve got a financial planner I can put you in touch with. Sometimes things that seem impossible are actually doable with the right planning.” She paused, then added, “I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Leslie Brandt.”
Ty felt the room tip. Leslie Brandt. They’d promised to forget the name but of course it was embedded in their brain.
Leslie extended her hand and Ty had no choice but to clasp it. Her skin was smooth as silk and her palm cool against Ty’s. Her fingers settled into place in a perfect fit. The rush that followed was overwhelming. Hormones mixing with adrenaline. How was it possible they were meeting now? After everything?
“It’s nice to meet you,” Leslie said. “I don’t get to meet nearly enough cool people.”
Ty searched for a response. Me neither? We know each other? After a moment, they managed, “Nice to meet you too.”
Leslie’s grip loosened and Ty had to let go. When Leslie smiled, Ty’s heart floated up in their chest. Had Leslie held on longer than necessary, or was it only their imagination?
Zoe cleared her throat. “This entryway is nice. I love the raised ceilings and how open the space feels. Ty, what do you think about the living room?”
“It’s nice. Yeah.” Belatedly, Ty realized they ought to at least look in the direction of the living room. Subdued gray walls, a gray sectional, and a modern-looking darker gray coffee table. “It’s…a lot of gray.”
Zoe tilted her head, clearly expecting them to say something more. Unfortunately, the only thought in their head was how unbelievable it was that Girl-Monday was standing in front of them.
“I’m sorry, Leslie. I dragged Ty out of the house without giving them time to eat lunch.” Zoe gave Ty a what’s-wrong-with-you look and added, “They got called into work early this morning for a colic surgery.”
“I have no idea what that is, but it sounds serious,” Leslie said. “I hope things went well?”
“I’m sure you’re exhausted after doing surgery.”
“Oh, I didn’t do the surgery. They don’t let first-year vet students touch anything that isn’t already dead.”
Zoe’s expression made it clear Ty had said the wrong thing. She covered with, “Ty’s also a vet tech.” Then, turning to Ty, added, “But in a few years you’ll be the one doing the surgeries and you’ll want a nice place to come home to.”
“Why don’t you two take a look around? If you like open floor plans, I think you’ll really appreciate this one.” Leslie glanced at her watch as an alarm beeped. “I’ve got to get the next batch out of the oven. I’ll have warm cookies waiting for you when you come check out the kitchen.”
“Nice.” Ty smiled and Leslie’s return smile warmed them through. She headed to the kitchen and Ty followed her with their eyes till she rounded the corner.
Zoe swatted Ty’s shoulder and whispered, “What’s wrong with you? I thought I was the one with anxiety. Is this how you always act around hot queer women?”
“No. Well, sometimes.”
Anyone with a pulse would think Leslie Brandt was hot, but this went much deeper. Before Ty could figure out how to explain, Zoe said, “Just try and act cool, okay?”
That wasn’t going to be easy. Ty followed Zoe through the living room and into the first bedroom, their thoughts spinning. When Zoe poked her head in the closet, Ty said, “I know her.”
Zoe pulled back, brow furrowed. “You sure? She didn’t seem to recognize you.”
“We met online.”
Zoe made an O shape with her mouth. “On that dating app?”
“No. It’s…complicated.” The dating app and all the women they’d met on it had come after. The site where they’d met Leslie was specifically not a dating site. No one was supposed to disclose their real identity. Everyone used a code name and avatars.
“She doesn’t know my name, but I found out hers.” Ty shifted so they could see through the bedroom door into the hallway. No sign of Leslie. Now that she wasn’t standing in front of them smiling and going on about financial planning, the gravity of the situation settled in.
Ty kept their voice lowered as they continued, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t like lying. Even to a stranger. But lying to someone I know is worse.”
“She really doesn’t act like she knows you.”
“Yeah, well, she knows me.” Ty glanced again down the hallway. “Maybe we could slip out the front door?”
“No way. That would be rude.”
Zoe was right, of course, but Ty’s stomach clenched in a knot.
“It doesn’t matter if she knows you online—she doesn’t recognize you in real life.”
It mattered. The only woman from the TryItOnce group who they’d connected with, the only one they’d imagined a real-life relationship with, and the only one who didn’t want anything to do with them, happened to be in the kitchen, baking cookies.
Zoe half dragged Ty through the two rooms on the main story and then upstairs. At the first landing, Ty caught sight of Leslie in the kitchen. She was lifting cookies off the pan onto a platter and managed to look entirely sexy doing so.
“You’re ogling,” Zoe said.
Ty didn’t even bother with a response. They knew Girl-Monday lived locally—or was from the area—because of the phone number she’d called from, but that she was in the same town, in the same house, now? It didn’t seem possible.
“Ty.” Zoe glared down from the second landing. “Snap out of it.”
Ty headed up the rest of the stairs. “You sure we can’t leave when she’s not looking?”
“I’m sure. Quit asking. You’re making me stressed when I finally think I’ve gotten my meds right.” Zoe walked into one of the rooms and then turned to Ty. “Okay, what’s the deal? Did you ask her out and she turned you down?”
“Then what happened?”
“I can’t talk about it.” Ty knew from Zoe’s crossed arms that they’d have to explain more or the questions wouldn’t stop. “We were in an online group that was supposed to be anonymous, but I found out Leslie’s name and she freaked. That’s all I can say.”
“You weren’t stalking her, were you?”
“Hell no. It was an accident. Her accident.”
Zoe rubbed her face. “Okay, so, you two were on a dating site—”
“Not a dating site. More like a meet-up group.”
“Meet-up groups are dating sites.” When Ty started to argue, Zoe held up her hand. “This is why you need a real girlfriend. An in-person live girlfriend. Things get too messy online.”
Ty dropped their gaze to the hardwood floor. Things hadn’t been messy with Leslie. It’d simply been fun and easy. Until they’d suggested phone sex one night instead of their usual online banter. It was late and they were maybe a little drunk when they’d messaged Leslie with their number. When Leslie called, her number appeared on Ty’s phone with her full name listed. Ty had told her—knowing that keeping things anonymous had been important to her. Everything had imploded from there.
“How old is she?” Zoe asked.
“I don’t know. Thirty-something?”
“You don’t know?”
“We didn’t talk about personal stuff.” That wasn’t entirely true. At first they hadn’t talked about anything personal beyond what they liked in bed. But after a few weeks, they’d both started sharing more and more. Still, they hadn’t exchanged details like age. Or what they did for a living.
“I bet she’s older than you. She seems way more mature.”
“Most people my age are more mature. The problem is who I hang out with.” Ty looked pointedly at Zoe. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter how old she is.”
“Well, it matters if you’re going to ask her out.”
“Who said anything about asking her out?”
“You two definitely had a connection downstairs. You could be brave and—”
“There’s no way I’m asking her out. I’d have to tell her how I know her.” Considering how fast Girl-Monday had dropped them, she’d certainly already moved on. Still, Ty knew the conversation wouldn’t go well. Even the idea of it made their armpits sweat. “And now she thinks I want to buy a house.”
A phone rang downstairs and Leslie’s muffled answer came a moment later. Ty fought the impulse to move closer to the stairwell to hear her voice better while at the same time wanting to make a break for the front door.
“I guess it would be awkward if she finds out who you are,” Zoe said.
“Okay, fine. We’ll get a cookie and leave. I won’t make you talk to her.” Zoe walked past Ty into the hallway, then glanced back at them. “But this could be fate.”
“Randomly running into someone who never wanted to talk to me again? Yeah, that sounds like my kind of fate.”
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