ONLY THREE HOURS later, the doorbell rings as Ansel reaches for his keys.

“Expecting company?” he says, and looks in the direction of the door before turning back to me. He’s stopped by to borrow my Wet-Vac for the new house, and stayed for about an hour, waxing on about the place, wanting to get Mia knocked up, all sorts of utopian Ansel dreams. Lola’s silhouette is clearly visible through the window, and this is exactly the reason I’ve been trying to get him out of here before she showed up.

“Just dinner with Lola,” I tell him.

“ ‘Just dinner with Lola,’ ” he repeats with a smug tilt of his mouth.

“I’m going,” he says, and laughs to himself the entire way down the hall.

I open the door and my heart jumps at the sight of her standing there, dressed like she’s just come from some sort of media interview or event.

“Is he?” she says. “I was going to suggest we play some poker but now I’m not sure this competitive maniac could handle it.”

“Get him drunk and take all his money. It’s the least he deserves.”

She turns her smile on me, obviously pleased with this idea. “I was planning on it.”

“As much as I would love to stay and watch what I’m certain will be a bloodbath, I’m taking Mia to dinner. Goodbye friends,” Ansel says, and bends to kiss her quickly on the cheek. I’m almost certain I hear the words, “Finish him,” before Ansel is bounding down the front porch, and it’s just the two of us. Again.

Lola walks into the house past me, and there’s something new in the way she moves. Something more feminine, more aware.

Near the kitchen she turns and looks at me.

“All good.” She slides her thick hair behind her ears. It immediately falls forward again and she grins up at me, looking even younger than she is. “Did you have a nice visit with Ansel?”

I give her a confused smile. “Yes? It was a nice visit.”

Her smile stays put, eyes glued to me. “I’m glad you guys got to see each other today.”

“What’s going on with you? You’re as terrible at small talk as my aunt Rita from Brisbane.”

With a laugh, she turns into the kitchen, and I hear the refrigerator open, bottles clinking, and the door closing again. “Maybe I’m nervous,” she calls.

My pulse is rolling thunder in my neck. “Nervous about what?”

There’s more rustling in the kitchen, more glass, and the sound of liquid being poured before she returns.

In a few of those long, hip-swinging strides, Lola hands me a beer and a shot of tequila, and looks up at my face.

“We have a lot to talk about tonight,” she says.

I swallow, wanting to melt into her. Smiling reflexively with her this close, I say, “We do?”

She nods, using her free pinky to free a strand of hair from where it’s caught on her lip. “You said a lot of interesting things up in L.A.”

“Surely nothing you didn’t already suspect?” I say quietly.

“I may not have suspected it,” she says, mimicking the low volume of my words and looking at my mouth for a lingering moment before blinking back up to my eyes. “But I’d wanted to hear it for a long time.”

I open my mouth to respond, but she cuts in, brighter now. “But rule number one tonight: no making out.” She takes the shot and winces, chasing it with a swig of her beer.

I choke on my own shot, coughing. “Pardon?”

I take a long pull of my beer, and swallow through a grimace. “No making out when?”

“Once we’re drunk,” she explains. “I want to talk.”

My chest feels too full for everything inside it; lungs, heart, the expanding emotions inside don’t leave enough room to breathe. Is this it? Is it happening now?

I reach for a strand of her hair and ask, “Is there a rule number two in case rule number one gets broken?”

Her smile is a slow-growing work of magic. “Don’t be cute.”

Smiling back, I whisper, “I’ll try.” Every single drop of blood in me is rioting. Fucking finally. “What’s happening here, Lola Love?”

She gives me an innocent shrug. “We’re playing poker.”

“I’ll clean the floor with you,” I warn, before tilting my bottle to my lips and sipping my beer again.

She watches me swallow. “You can clean the floor with all of your clothes while I watch.” I raise an eyebrow at her and she adds, “We’re playing strip poker.”

With a surprised laugh, I say, “We really do have a lot to discuss tonight if we’re playing strip poker but we can’t make out.”

Lola turns and retrieves a deck of cards from the drawer in the kitchen, and then gestures for me to join her at the dining room table.

This all feels so sudden . . . but at the same time it seems I’ve waited an eternity for this. I want the friendship barrier to dissolve. I want the next step, and the one after that. Lola has entered my house like a bulldozer, and although I’ve never seen her like this, not in a million years would I try to slow her down.