Okay, yes, I know I said that before, but hear me out. Boobs—and the effort to save them—have brought me more than just my business and my livelihood. Thanks to boobs, I met my two best friends. Also, I got a second chance with the man who got away once upon a time—the same one who came back into my life and made everything wrong somehow right again.
But I digress.
Let’s get back to my friends. I met Sabrina and Coral on my first day of junior year at college. The weekend before I’d come back to school, I’d had sex for the first time—and it just happened to have been with my older brother’s best friend, the guy I’d crushed hard on all through my teen years. I was feeling all kinds of emotions, everything from guilt that I’d done the deed with someone who’d made it clear it was a one-night-only deal to hurt that he’d been able to walk away from me so easily.
So even though my family wasn’t really religious, I’d somehow wandered into a Catholic church. A priest was taking confession, and when I slipped into a booth and blurted out my sins, the kindly older man had offered advice along with absolution.
“You need to get outside yourself,” he’d suggested. “You know, help others. Volunteer with a charity. Work with the needy.”
I’d thanked him profusely and hightailed it out of there in case he planned to recruit me as a nun. But when I’d stepped out into the sunshine, I’d been smack in the middle of a big volunteer rally—how’s that for timing and coincidence, huh?—hosted by Young Survival Coalition.
Sabrina and Coral each had had their own reasons for being at the rally, but somehow, we’d found each other and formed a friendship that had never wavered over the ten years since.
But today, I was about to do something that was either going to strengthen that bond or threaten it. And I really wasn’t sure which way it was going to go.
“Babe, are you sure about this?” Ty’s skepticism wasn’t exactly helping me. “I mean, I know you have all the right intentions, but . . . it kind of feels like you’re interfering in your friends’ lives. In a big way.”
“No. Well, yes.” I frowned and shook my head. “But it’s for their own good. And really, it’s just a Christmas Eve party. An intimate little get-together for my friends.”
“And the guys who they’ve recently stopped seeing,” Ty added. “Don’t forget that little detail.”
“Hey, who’s side are you on, anyway?” My forehead wrinkled as I glared at him. “If the answer isn’t mine, then I think Santa just might not bring you the very special treat you were going to get tonight. After everyone leaves.”
“I’m always on your side, darlin’.” Ty’s haste to reassure me was sweet, but I wasn’t sure if it was genuine or encouraged by what he wanted to see on me—or off me—tonight in bed. “I always will be. But I’m also just a little worried that you might be in for a big disappointment—and your best friends could end up furious with you.”
“No . . .” To be honest, I wasn’t as settled on that point as I might have been. Sabrina was a dead-set against romance woman, and I knew that she’d been rattled by her renewed acquaintance with Wesley, the guy she’d thought had abandoned her after their first kiss back in high school. Coral, on the other hand, was all about romance—as long as it didn’t involve her own love life. Still, she’d spilled her guts to Sabrina and me about Dax, her temporary fake boyfriend, and in the course of doing that, she’d admitted that maybe she did have feelings for him.
“You don’t sound sure about that,” Ty observed, smirking. “It’s not too late to call this off, you know.”
“I’m not doing that.” Crossing my arms over my chest, I shook my head. “I want my best friends to be as happy together as you and I are. Wesley and Sabrina deserve a second chance to find out if they’re meant to be, now that they’re grown up. And Coral has to realize that she can’t live the rest of her life being faithful to a boy who died over ten years ago. She didn’t die with him.”
“Maybe that’s the trouble,” Ty put in. “Maybe she has survivor guilt.”
“I’m sure that’s part of it,” I agreed. “But I don’t want her to waste any more time with that guilt. I want her to find her happy ending. Or her new happy beginning.”
He studied me, his expression inscrutable. “You really are a good friend, you know that, babe? Sabrina and Coral are lucky to have you.”
“We’re lucky to have each other,” I corrected him, smiling. “And that’s why I need to do everything I can to help them out.”
“Well, then.” Ty stood up, stretching, and my lady parts sang as I drank in the sight of his toned, muscular torso pressed against his T-shirt. “I guess we’ve got some party prep to do.”
“Hey! I brought the rum!” Sabrina came through the front door wearing skin-tight burgundy velvet jeans and a creamy cashmere sweater with a deep V neck. She was gorgeous as always, even if I could see the hints of sadness beneath her holiday merry mask.
“Welcome! Merry Christmas.” I hugged her and stepped back, pretending to examine her outfit from head to toe. “Wow. Hot mama. Do you have plans after, or is all this sexiness just for Coral and me?”
“Hey, don’t I count?” Ty came up behind me, slipping his arms around my waist as he grinned at Sabrina.
“No, you don’t count, because you only have eyes for my girl here.” She gave his bicep a light punch. “As it should be. And to answer your question, Celeste . . . no, no plans. Just happy that I’m actually off duty for Christmas Eve.”
“That’s something to celebrate.” Ty reached over my shoulder and snagged the bottle of rum from Sabrina’s hand. “Let me add this to the bar I’ve set up. Can I make you a drink? Celeste and I came up with a twist on a coquito that’s pretty damn amazing.”
“Sure, I’ll take one of those.” Sabrina wagged her eyebrows at me as Ty headed toward the kitchen. “How adorable are you two! It’s like he can’t stop touching you, and every time you look at him, there are sweet little red candy hearts in your eyes.”
“Shut up.” I swatted at her, but she wasn’t wrong—the smile that wouldn’t wipe off my face was proof of that.
“Where’s Coral?” Sabrina tossed her purse onto the entry table and dropped down to sit on the sofa.
“She’ll be here soon.” I shrugged. “She said she needed to drive into Savannah to finish some Christmas shopping today. I think she’s trying to give Ty and me alone time, even though I told her that this is her house, too, and we both respect that.”
“Do you think you’ll end up moving out?” Sabrina cocked her head. “You know, so you can shack up with loverboy guilt-free?”
“It’s much too soon to think about that,” I answered loftily, even though I’d already been sneaking peeks at the real estate ads, just in case Ty and I decided to make Burton our joint home base. “Besides, he lives in Nashville.”
“Oh, with the way his star is rising, pretty soon our boy will be able to live wherever he wants.” Sabrina shrugged. “Besides, now that you’ve found each other again, why would you want to even think about being apart?”
“Funny that you’d say that,” I began, thinking that Sabrina had given me the perfect opening.
“Yeah, I’d kind of like to hear the answer, too.”
We both turned toward the door to see a tall guy who looked like he could’ve been Chris Evans’ stunt double. My mouth dropped open. Damn. Sabrina had told us that her old high school sweetheart was sexy, but I hadn’t realized just how hot he was.
“Wesley?” Sabrina stood up. “What are you doing here? I thought you left town. Linc told me . . . he said you’d moved on to a new job.”
“I told you that day in the basement that I wasn’t going to leave town again, wasn’t going to leave you.” He shut the door behind him and took another step toward us. “I had to go up to North Carolina for a few weeks to help with another project. But I always knew I’d be back.”
“I . . . I . . .” Sabrina stammered, and in all the years we’d been friends, I’d never heard her do such a thing. “That day in the basement, Wesley. What I said to Linc on the way out—and how I ran away—I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it to sound the way it did.”
“Brina girl, have you been beating yourself all this time, thinking I didn’t know that?” Wesley closed the distance between them. “I knew what you meant. You were freaked out about the storm, and then Linc showed up, and that threw you for a loop.”
Sabrina sank back to the sofa. “But I left you there without saying anything, and then I didn’t try to call you or see you. . . I figured you’d given up on me this time.”
“Nope.” Wesley dropped to one knee next to my friend. “I had to leave the next day, and I figured you needed some space after—” He glanced my way, and one side of his mouth curled slightly. “After everything we, uh, talked about the day of the storm. I only got back to Burton yesterday. Celeste had texted me last week, though, to invite me tonight.”
Sabrina looked up at me, her brow knit together. “How did you even know how to get in touch with him?”
I shrugged. “I have my ways.”
Realization dawned in her eyes. “Jenna Turner.”
“She might have played a part,” I allowed. “I just really wanted you to have another chance to talk to Wesley. To figure things out.”
“Listen, Brina.” Wesley reached for her hand. “I’m not asking you to swear undying love to me. Not tonight, anyway.” He winked at her. “All I want is for us to take a chance—together. Let’s take the time to find out, once and for all, if that spark is still there. And at the end of the day, if it isn’t . . .” He lifted one shoulder. “Then we’re still two good friends who’ve been able to reconnect, right?”
Sabrina was silent for a moment, and then she nodded. “Right. But Wesley . . .” She threaded her fingers through his. “If that day in my basement is any indication, I don’t think a lack of spark is going to be any problem.”
Grinning broadly, Wesley straightened up and pulled Sabrina to her feet, too. Drawing her close to him, he said, “Maybe we should start testing that theory right now.”
The kiss he gave her just about blistered the paint on the wall of my living room. I looked away discreetly, wondering if I should step out, maybe see if Ty needed help in the kitchen—
“Well, hey. Looks like a win for little Miss Matchmaker.” My boyfriend came in bearing a tray of drinks along with crackers and cheese. “Not bad, babe. One couple down, one to go.”
“Wait a minute.” Sabrina came up for air just long enough to stare at me. “One down, one to go . . . does that mean that Coral—”
“Oh, my God!” My roommate and other best friend burst through the door at that moment. Dropping her bags, she covered her mouth with both hands, trying to stifle a shriek. “Is this Wesley? Sabrina, is this him?”
Snuggling a little closer, Sabrina nodded. “Wesley, you already met Celeste, but this is the third member of our little trio, Coral Jennings. Coral, Celeste surprised me tonight and invited Wesley to join us—and it turns out that we’re both in the market for second chances.”
“I can’t believe it! This is so amazing and wonderful and romantic.” Coral did a little dance. “I’m so happy for you, sweetie.”
“Well, uh—” Sabrina looked at me, her eyebrow arched meaningfully. “I’m glad you’re in favor of pop-up matchmaking, Cor. Because Celeste just might have interfered in your love life, too.”
Coral tilted her head. “Oh, really? So was it meant to be a surprise that you invited Dax tonight, Celeste?”
My eyes went wide. “You knew?”
She giggled. “As it happens, when the text came in, we were together. At his apartment in Savannah.” She paused for dramatic effect. “In bed.”
“How could you not tell me?” I wailed. “I was so worried about you.”
“Didn’t you wonder where I’ve been disappearing to for the last few weeks?” Mirth danced in her eyes. “Or have you been too busy shacking up with your own loverboy?”
Ty chuckled, and I elbowed him in the ribs. “Watch it, buddy. Remember my threat about that special treat tonight.”
“Hey, I’m just saying that the lady has a point.” Ty slung an arm around my neck and tugged me close. “So Coral, is Dax gonna make it here tonight?”
“He’s parking the car. We were going to walk in together, but we didn’t want to ruin your plans, Celeste.” Coral hugged me. “I really do appreciate you butting in, even though it was unnecessary in this case.”
“But what happened?” I asked. “The last I heard, Dax had turned down your friends-with-benefits proposal, and that was the end.”
“Well, it might have been, if I hadn’t been on the set of Diego’s movie,” Coral admitted. “Diego and I formed a mutual encouragement society—I pushed him to take a chance with Zander McCord, and he goaded me into admitting that maybe it was all right to take a chance on something real with Dax.” Her expression softened. “All this time, I’ve been telling myself that I could never really love again after Jason. But the truth was that I was terrified to go through that kind of pain again—the kind that comes when you really love someone and then lose him.”
“But we agreed that you’re never going to lose me.” Dax joined Coral in the doorway, looking all sorts of sinful in his leather bomber jacket and smoldering good looks. He drew Coral to his side. “And even if the unthinkable happened, we’d rather have this time together than miss out on what could be pretty damn spectacular.”
“What he said,” Coral sighed, snuggling closer. “I’m risking my heart on Dax because he’s worth it.”
“Well, come in and shut the door,” I said, waving them into the living room. “Ty’s brought drinks for everyone, and I, for one, think that this calls for a toast.”
“You mean Dax and me?” Coral inquired. “Or Sabrina and Wesley?”
“How about all of us finding love this year?” I suggested. “How about us celebrating this beautiful season with someone special by our sides?”
“I’ll drink to that,” Sabrina chimed in, lifting the glass that Ty had given to her.
“No, wait a minute.” Coral, our resident wordsmith, raised her glass and took a moment to look at first Sabrina and then me, her eyes shining.
“To friendship. To love. To being there for each other. To bonds that last. To sticking by each other, thick or thin.
“And most of all . . . to the Bosom Buddies.”
Thank you for reading Bosom Buddies!
Writing this serial has been so much fun–
and has let me spend just a little more time in Burton this year.
I wish you and your families–those you choose and those you were given–
the best of the holiday season.
And no matter how or when or if you celebrate,
I invite you to choose love every single day of the year.
“So you never did tell me. How did the big date go? You know, that night I covered your shift and you were all dressed up in the monkey suit?”
One side of my mouth curled up as I regarded Marc. “Fine. It was fine. Now listen up, because I want you to be familiar with this new list of cocktails. The holidays are just around the corner, and you know we’re going to have a shit ton of tourists in the city, staying at our hotel, hitting up this bar. That’s not even counting all of the corporate parties, weddings, and other social events.” I tapped the paper on the bar. “Read it. Learn it. Live it.”
“Uh-huh.” Marc picked up the menu and let his eyes wander down the list. “Don’t worry, boss. I’ll have time to study tonight. Looks like it’ll be pretty quiet.”
“Probably,” I conceded, tossing a used bar towel into the bin under the counter. “I’ll leave you to get down to business. I’ve got a date at home with a cold beer and Sunday Night Football.”
“Doesn’t sound like as much fun as your last date, but whatever, dude. You do you.” Marc grinned. And then, as an older couple wandered over to sit down at a nearby table, he winked at me. “Time to get to work.”
I’d just clocked out and was about to head out when Sherri, one of the restaurant servers, nearly ran into me.
“Oh, Dax! You’re exactly the man I need.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Not the first time I’ve heard that, but I have a feeling you mean it in a different way.”
She shot me a look of mock reprimand. “And you’d be right. Listen, we’re in the weeds tonight. We’re down two servers and a sous chef, and we’ve got two big parties coming in.” She lifted a small slip of white paper. “Then this guest up on the twentieth floor ordered champagne and strawberries to be delivered to her suite. Since you’re going to have to prep the bubbly anyway, would you mind taking it up along with the berries?”
I hesitated. Normally, I’d have been happy to help out my co-workers. One of the things I loved about this job at the hotel was that we all pulled together when the place got busy. I didn’t mind coming in early or hanging around to make sure the job got done. But I’d been feeling mopey and grumpy lately, and I honestly just wanted to be at home right now where I could be miserable on my own.
It was stupid, and I knew it. I didn’t even really know Coral Jennings, and we’d just shared that one kiss. Why was this bothering me so much? Why had I made an ass of myself by showing up at her signing? She’d snidely accused me stalking her, of wanting a piece of her fame pie—which was an asinine thing to say, by the way—but maybe I’d had it coming by pushing when she’d made her position clear.
Sherri was still waiting for my answer, her toes tapping impatiently. I bit back my initial inclination and nodded my head.
“Sure. Did the guest ask for a specific kind of champagne?”
Sherri lifted one eyebrow. “As a matter, they requested Cristal. 2005. Two flutes, strawberries and cream.” She rolled her eyes toward the kitchen. “Come see me when you’ve got the wine ready, and I’ll have everything else set to go.”
“Okay. Will do.” I turned to go back to the special cooler where we kept our high-end liquor.
“Appreciate you, Dax!”
I sighed and focused on the job at hand.
I didn’t make many room service deliveries. Most people came down to the bar when they wanted a drink, and when they ordered booze with a meal, the kitchen servers popped over to the bar to retrieve what was necessary and then added it to the cart.
Consequently, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken the service elevator upstairs. I was heading up to the penthouse suite now—swanky, weren’t we—with a wheeled cart beautifully set for two lucky someones to enjoy pricey bubbles and luscious red strawberries grown in a year-round garden within a biodome outside the city.
There were times when I felt as though I was doing okay in my life, paying my rent on time, owning my car outright, and even putting away a little something for the future. But when I came face-to-face with the luxuries we offered here at the Gwynne, I realized that I was still just a good ol’ boy from North Carolina, and I was never going to understand people who lived the high life.
The elevator dinged softly, announcing my arrival on the twentieth floor. I waited until the doors slid open and then wheeled my cart over the plush carpet to the suite’s door, where I knocked.
The door swooshed open as though the occupant had been waiting for me, and when I saw who was on the other side, I understood why.
She stood with one hand on the doorknob, fidgeting a little as she gazed up at me. My mouth dropped when I took in the full picture.
Her small and curvy body was covered in sheer white cloth, some kind of nightgown deal, I thought. It was the kind of thing I’d seen on television or in the movies, but none of the women I’d ever dated wore stuff like this.
But damn, Coral wore it well. The neckline plunged between her full breasts, revealing her creamy skin, and through the thin material, I could make out the dark circles of her nipples. Her short hair was tousled the same way it had been the night of the premiere, but this time, her face was bare, no makeup in sight. She didn’t need it; her gray eyes were luminous as she watched my gaze consume her luscious body.
“Hello, Dax.” Coral’s voice was husky.
“I—I didn’t know it was you. I mean, who ordered the—the room service.” I eased the cart further into the room.
“No, I specifically asked the woman downstairs to send you up without letting you know it was me. She told me you were about to go off-shift, and so I thought . . .” She shrugged, the movement causing the nightgown to ripple over her skin. “Maybe this was a good way to tell you that I’m sorry.”
“Well.” I cleared my throat. “It’s, um, the most unique and promising apology I’ve ever gotten.”
Her lips twitched, and she lifted her chin. “Dax, I’m sorry about what happened at the bookstore. I don’t . . . I shouldn’t have said that to you. I never really thought you were trying to—you know. Cash in on my fame. That was stupid. And hurtful. I think I was just reacting to—um, you pushing me. Not that you were—I mean, I know you didn’t mean to. You couldn’t know—you can’t understand. But anyway, I really am so sorry.”
“All right.” My voice sounded hollow. “Apology accepted.” I swallowed, not sure what to do next. I felt as though I’d fallen into some bizarre dream.
Coral sighed and clasped her hands behind her back, unintentionally—I thought—thrusting forward her chest. “Okay. Phew.” She smiled up at me. “I’m so glad we straightened that out.” She reached for the bottle of champagne. “Let’s celebrate by pouring some of this fine champagne and sitting down over here. Can you close the door, please? I know this is the penthouse, but I’d still like some privacy.”
“Coral.” I couldn’t believe I was doing this, but I shook my head. “What is this?”
Her hand holding the champagne flute shook a little. “What do you mean? I thought that since we cleared the air, we could . . . well.” She took a deep breath. “Like I told you, I don’t do dating or anything like that, but I like you, Dax. And I’m thinking that we could have some fun.”
“So you came up here, booked this suite, ordered room service, and met me with this—” I swept my hand in her direction. “This get-up. And you think that by saying you’re sorry, I’m going to be okay with jumping into bed with you, no strings attached.”
Coral crossed her arms over her breasts, her cheeks going pink. “I thought we could talk—I thought you were interested in me.”
“I am interested in you,” I almost bellowed, then lowered my voice as I remembered that we were in the fucking penthouse. “But for more than just a casual fuck. God, Coral, I’ve lived most of my life going from woman to woman, from bed to bed. It’s fine. It’s been fine. And then the first time I meet a woman I think could be more—a woman I want to be more to me—you won’t even think about it. You won’t even give us a try.”
“I explained all of this. I told you why.” Coral’s lip jutted out stubbornly.
“And I told you that I didn’t accept that. You threw some ugly words at me, and then you came here to, uh, apologize—” I gave the word air quotes. “—which was really just an excuse to try to seduce me.”
“Dax—” Coral began, but I cut her off, shaking my head.
“You said you could never love anyone else. You said you had your one shot at love when you were a teenager, and now you won’t even consider that maybe you’d get a second chance. You won’t think about it. I think you’re a damn coward, Coral Jennings.”
Her eyes flared. “The fuck I am.”
“You heard me. A damn coward who’s too chickenshit to take a chance on love.”
“How can you say that?” Tears filled her beautiful eyes, and I almost lost it right then, fighting the desire to sweep her into my arms and kiss her, make her feel better, take back the words I knew had stung. But if I touched her, I’d be a goner, and I wasn’t going to give in. Not when I knew we had the potential for so much more.
“I’m sorry, Coral,” I said, gentling my tone. “I really am. I didn’t mean to hurt you. But you have to know my truth, too. I’m tired of meaningless fucking. I’m tired of not having someone special in my life. Sure, I want the hot sex, but I also want long talks over meals. I want walks in the woods where we find out more about each other. When it comes to you, Coral, I want the whole package.” I took one step backward. “And because for the first time in my life, I know I want more, I’m not going to settle for anything less.”
Before I could look at her again and lose my resolve, I pivoted and walked out the door, shutting it behind me.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Eighteen is coming next Friday, December 24th!
“Thank you all for being here.” Dana, the bookstore owner, clasped her hands and smiled broadly at the packed room. “We’re so excited—and honored—to have bestselling—and local to Burton!—author Coral Jennings with us tonight. She’s going to tell us a little about the process of seeing her beautiful words turned into breathtaking films—and if we’re really nice to her, she might tell us about her new book, too.”
The audience chuckled appreciatively, and I forced my own smile to stay in place. God, I hated these things. I didn’t have a problem interacting with my fans on a one-on-one basis. I could sit for hours talking about my characters and listening to readers tell me how different stories had made them feel, what they hoped for the future of those characters . . . but standing up in front of a group of people, with the weight of their collective expectation falling heavy on my shoulders, I had to really focus to keep from panicking and running away. Fast.
But Dana, who’d opened her business in Farleyville, the next town over from Burton, had been such a cheerleader to me from my very first book that I felt an obligation to show up whenever she threw one of these events. Small, independently owned bookstores struggled these days, I knew. They were competing against the few remaining chain book sellers as well as the on-line giants. Dana was a savvy businesswoman who paid close attention to what her customers bought, and she’d begun working with local authors as a way of differentiating herself from other booksellers. Attendance at these monthly salons, as she called them, had swelled over the past year.
The applause jolted me from my reverie, and I glanced over to see Dana taking a step back from the podium, gesturing to me. Great. Showtime.
I took my place behind the microphone, placing my cards carefully on the stand in front of me, and lifted my eyes to the people in the seats, taking a moment to scan the crowd and remind myself that I was speaking to individual readers, not to a nameless, faceless entity. Sitting in the front row was Mrs. Elishman, who’d been one of my very first readers. She never missed one of my appearances if she could help it. A few seats behind her was Kevin Shewell. He’d started up a book club after getting hooked on my stories, and I’d made a few surprise video visits to the meetings.
My gaze stuttered when it swept over the other side of the room. Sitting on the end of a middle row was an all-too-familiar face, and when our eyes met, it felt as though everyone else disappeared.
What the hell was Dax Turner doing here?
I went hot all over, and for a long moment, I forgot where I was and what I was doing. It had been two weeks since the movie premiere, two weeks since our picnic on Sam and Meghan Reynolds’ farm. Two weeks since I’d admitted my sad history for Sexy Bartender Dude, letting him know that while I might be down for a hook-up, I wasn’t ever going to be interested in anything else.
When we’d left that day, we’d both been silent. Since my YouRideIt from Savannah had dropped me here at the farm, Dax had offered to drive me home, and I’d taken him up on it, thinking maybe I’d invite him in . . . and then we’d see what came next.
I couldn’t deny that I was attracted to him, and if he wanted to get down and dirty with me now that he understood I wasn’t going to get all mushy and insist that we were in love or any crap like that, I’d be open to it.
But Dax hadn’t said anything during our drive. I’d been mute, too, aside from giving him directions, telling him where to turn. And when he pulled up in front of the house I shared with Celeste, he hadn’t turned off the car or moved to unbuckle his seatbelt. Hell, he hadn’t even put the car in park.
So I’d stumbled over a goodbye and thank you for the ride, and then I’d grabbed my stuff and hightailed it into the house, refusing to look backward.
Since that day, Dax had texted me a few times, asking me to meet him for coffee or a drink . . . he’d even offered to drive to Burton to take me to dinner. But I’d declined each time. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but something about the guy felt dangerous to me. Not in a stranger-danger kind of way—no, I trusted him completely. Maybe it was myself I didn’t trust. Maybe I was a little afraid that Dax might be a threat to the promise I’d made ten years ago, the one I’d kept faithfully since Jason had left me.
Dax had gone radio-silent over the past couple of days. I’d assumed that he’d finally given up on me. But now here he was, his face alert and serious as he and the rest of the audience waited for me to speak.
I pushed him from my mind. If I was going to get through this next twenty minutes, I’d have to pretend Dax Turner didn’t exist, or I’d end up stammering and babbling.
Drawing in a deep breath, I pulled up my big girl I’m-an-author panties and began to speak.
“I just loved the movie.” The woman in front of me hugged copies of three of my books as she gushed over the just-released film. “You did such a great job picking actors to play all those characters. I can’t imagine how you do it!”
I refrained from rolling my eyes, but barely. No matter how often I explained—as I just had at length during my speech—that as the author, I actually had very little or nothing to do with the casting and producing of movies made from my books, some readers still didn’t get it. Trying to correct her assumption now was a losing proposition, so I just nodded and smiled.
“Wait until you see the next one,” I replied. “You know, they’ve cast Diego Ramos as Thomas. And some of the filming is going to happen right here in Burton. I’m hoping to be on set for a few days.”
The woman wrinkled her nose. “I heard that. Do you really think Diego Ramos is right for that role, though? I mean . . .” She shrugged. “I guess he’s a good actor, but Thomas isn’t, um, you know.” She flipped her hand over. “What do they say now? Latino?”
Inwardly I bristled, but I managed to control my expression. At least I hoped I did. “I don’t think that really matters, do you? Thomas is a sexy guy with dark hair and tanned skin. I even mentioned in the book that he had some Spanish blood from a few generations back. I think Diego will be fabulous.”
“Maybe. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to see him as Thomas. After all, he’s not only Puerto Rican, he’s also—”
Dana interceded at that point, perhaps sensing that I was about to lose it. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said, guiding the reader kindly but firmly away from the table. “Have you seen our special movie display over here? We even have a couple of autographed scripts that are up for auction—all for charity, of course.”
I blew out a breath, slumping back into my chair. It had been a long evening, and I was pitifully grateful that the line in front of my table had finally petered out. I’d lost track of Dax after my talk had ended, and I assumed that he’d slipped away. He wouldn’t have any interest in getting books signed, so there wouldn’t have been a reason for him to stay. Although come to think of it, I wasn’t entirely sure why he’d shown up at all.
“You look like you could use this.” As if my thoughts had summoned him, Dax was suddenly at my side, setting down a steaming cup of coffee in front of me.
I tilted my head back to look up at him. “So you didn’t leave.”
He frowned. “No. Why would I leave? I came here to see you.”
“Oh.” I picked up the coffee and sniffed it, humming a little in appreciation. “You disappeared after I finished speaking.”
“I was waiting for your fans to leave.” He lifted one shoulder. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Hmm. Thanks.” I pried the lid from the paper cup and blew on the coffee. I hated getting a burned tongue. “Why are you here, anyway? And how did you know I’d be speaking tonight?”
“I followed you on social media, and there was an announcement,” Dax replied, answering the second question first. “And like I just said, I’m here to see you. Since you turned down all my invitations, I decided to give it one last shot and just—show up.” He spread his hands. “That makes me sound like a stalker. But I honestly just wanted to see you again, Coral. I was hoping maybe we could go somewhere and talk.”
I squared my shoulders. “Haven’t we said everything that needs to be said? I told you that I’m not looking for a relationship. If by talk you mean we should go somewhere and get naked, I would definitely take that under consideration.”
“Since I was thinking about taking you to the little restaurant around the corner, getting naked doesn’t seem like the best plan,” Dax shot back. “God, Coral. When did I become the girl in this scenario? Here I am, telling you I don’t want to have no-strings-attached sex, and you’re acting like I’m the unreasonable one.”
“Because you are!” I raised my voice, and several customers still lingering turned their heads, reminding me that we were in a very public setting. I took a calming breath and went on. “I made myself very clear when we were on the picnic. I’m not looking for anything other than . . . friends with benefits. I’m not capable of more. Trust me. That part of me died with Jason.”
“And I told you that day that I call bullshit,” he growled. “If you’re so sure that you’re never going to feel that way again, why not give us a chance and prove it to me? If we start seeing each other and you can still honestly say that it won’t work, then fine. I’ll accept that. But I think you’re afraid of me. Of this.” He pointed to himself and then to me. “You’re scared shitless that you’ll fall for me, and that will somehow make what you felt for Jason . . . less.”
A mix of panic and fury, laced with something I else I didn’t care to name, rose within me. Struggling to keep my voice low, I stood up and stepped closer to Dax, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything I had to say.
“You don’t know me. You don’t know how much Jason meant—means to me. And I have to wonder why you’re going to all this trouble to chase after a woman who’s made herself very clear from the word go.” Anger made me impulsive and unreasonable—and careless with my words.
“As a matter of fact,” I went on. “What I think is that you liked the little taste of fame you got when we were at the movie premiere. You saw what it was like to have people cheering, reporters asking you questions, photographers taking your picture. And now that you got that taste, you want more, and you see me as the ticket. That’s why you keep asking me out. That’s why you stalked me here tonight.”
Dax’s eyes flashed with hurt and irritation. “If that’s what you really think of me—if you can believe that of me—maybe we don’t have anything more to say to each other.”
I swallowed a whole heap of regret and tossed my head. “Why the hell else would you be interested in me, Dax? That’s the question I’m asking myself right now. When you could have any woman in the world, why are you pursuing me?”
He took one step backward. “Did you ever stop and think that it’s because I really like you, Coral? Or that I can’t get the memory of the one kiss we shared out of my head? Did you consider that maybe I can’t stop thinking about spending more time with you—and that it has nothing to do with your job or your fame—” He spit out the word as though it tasted bad. “—but only because I really fucking liked you? Because I do. Or I did before you just made me feel like nothing more than a—a guy you hired to pretend to be your boyfriend.”
Before I could even take another breath, Dax turned and stomped out of the bookshop, vanishing into the darkness and leaving me with nothing but my own remorse and shame.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Seventeen is coming next Friday, December 17th!
I never considered myself a gambling man, but today, I was doing just that. I’d woken up this morning with Coral on my mind, the memory of that kiss—hot damn! That kiss!—still on my lips and the scent of her clinging to my tux jacket as I rolled it up to send it to the cleaners. I’d considered my options and decided I had nothing to lose by seeing if she was still in town and up for a late breakfast.
When Coral had responded that she was already on her way home to Burton, I hadn’t let that slow me down. I wasn’t the type of guy who was used to being told no by women—not that I was jerk about it when it did happen, and not that I ever pushed the issue. I’d been raised right.
Still, I’d gotten the sense the night before that Coral had been teetering on the verge of . . . something like saying yes to me. In her eyes, even as she’d told me that this was goodbye, I’d seen a tinge of regret, as if she was making that decision against what she really wanted. She was following the lead of her head instead of her . . . well, not her heart, necessarily, but maybe of her body.
So I’d pushed a little on the idea of a picnic. It had popped into my mind, and I’d run with it, thinking about the little mom-and-pop sandwich shop on the edge of town. When Coral had finally said yes, I grabbed my keys and headed out.
Now I was bouncing along a dirt road that was a dotted line on my navigation program, hoping I was going in the right direction and not about to run into an angry farmer with shotgun. Just as I rounded a corner, I saw a small figure standing beneath a tree, her back resting against the trunk as she bent her head over a book. Pulling onto the grass, I turned off the engine, slid the keys out of the ignition and climbed out of the driver’s seat.
Coral lifted her head to look at me, and I felt a jolt when her eyes met mine. She looked completely different today; she wasn’t all dolled up for a date as she’d been the first time we’d met, or for a fancy premiere as she’d been last night. Today, she was dressed down in an oversized T-shirt and faded jeans with scuffed Chuck Taylors. Her face was clean without a hint of makeup and her short hair was tousled.
But to me, she’d never been so beautiful.
“Hi.” She pushed off the tree and took a few steps toward me, her hands still clutching the worn paperback. “You found me.”
It felt like those words meant more than what she’d said. You found me. Like she’d been lost, just waiting for the right guy to see who she was, to recognize her beauty, her worth . . . to sweep her into his arms the way I was longing to do.
I swallowed hard. “Yep. It was touch and go there for a minute. I was a little worried you’d sent me out in the middle of nowhere just to get me off your back.”
Coral smiled a little. “Nah. Trust me, if I was planning to get rid of you, I know all of the best ways. After all, I’m an author.”
“I’ll have to remember that. Might be a good incentive to behave.”
She laughed. “I’m not sure it would work with you. I have a feeling you’re kind of incorrigible.”
“I might be,” I admitted. And then, before I gave in to the desire to sweep this woman into my arms once again, I opened the trunk of my car. “Okay. I’ve got a blanket in here, and I picked up sandwiches, a couple of sodas, some chips . . . and oh, yeah, some napkins.” I scooped up everything we needed and slammed the lid of the trunk. “Sorry it isn’t fancier.”
“I don’t need fancy. Just food. I’m actually starving.” She patted her stomach. “What did you get me?”
“Well, I didn’t know what you wanted, so I just picked up their specialty. It’s an Italian sub with oil and vinegar. I hope you like it.”
“It sounds perfect.” She helped me spread the blanket, and we both sat down. “I’m not that picky when it comes to sandwiches. I love them all.”
“Good to know.” I handed her the paper-wrapped sub and a can of soda, and ripped open the bag of chips. “I like a girl who isn’t fussy.”
“Hey.” She shot me a mock-stern glance. “Don’t be sexist.”
I spread my hands. “I’m not. I don’t like guys who are fussy, either. I’m an equal opportunity disliker of high maintenance people.”
She grinned. “Okay, as long as we’ve got that straight.” Taking a bite of her sandwich, she groaned a little. “Oh, my God, this is so good.”
My body reacted to the sound as though she’d taken off a key piece of clothing. I watched in fascination as she chewed and swallowed, as her tongue darted out to swipe over her pretty pink lips. In my dark and dirty mind, I saw those lips wrapped around my—
“What did you get?”
“Huh?” I blinked, taking a deep breath. “Um, I got ham and cheese. I’m not a big fan of salami.”
Coral smirked. “Good to know.”
“Okay, listen.” I laid my sandwich on the open paper. “Let’s talk about something that doesn’t feel—you know, like, sex talk in disguise. Unless you want to forget this food and roll around on the blanket with me instead.”
She stared at me in silence for a long moment. “I didn’t realize we were, um, sex talking in disguise. Okay. Ah . . .” She inhaled, and I did my damnedest not to look at her tits. “So. Tell me about you. Are you originally from Savannah? Did you grow up there? Is your family still in the area?”
I struggled to keep up as we switched gears. “No, not from Georgia. I was born and raised in a small town in North Carolina. Family . . . I don’t have any left. None that I want to know, anyway. I have no idea who my father was, and my mother took off when I was a kid. Left me with my grandpa, and he brought me up.” I shrugged. “He owned a bar. We lived upstairs, and I started working there when I was still in grade school. You know, like, bussing tables and shit.” I reached for a chip. “My grandfather had a heart attack when I was twenty. He decided he wanted to retire, to live in town with his sister . . . and he didn’t want me to be tied to the bar for the rest of my life. So he sold it to his son, my uncle, and I headed south. Ended up in Savannah . . . because I met a girl.”
“Ohhhhh.” Coral wagged her eyebrows. “A girl, huh?”
“Yeah, and I was still young and stupid, so I thought I’d found my happy ending, you know? Got a gig at a local bar, worked a lot to get us a decent place to live, but before I could save up for the security deposit, I came home one night and found that while I was working, she was fucking another guy in our bed.” I shrugged. “So I took my shit and moved into the decent place by myself. I kept working, got better jobs when I could, and finally, I landed at the Gwynn. It’s a good spot for me. I like what I do.”
“And after getting your heart broken, you lived like a monk?” she teased. “All work and no play?”
“Hell, no.” I winked at her. “I’m not a dull boy, baby. There’s been a lot of play over the years. I don’t know that the girl who kept me in Savannah broke my heart, though. More like my pride. And maybe she hurt my trust in people.”
“Hmmm.” She took a long drink of her soda. “I get that. And it was her loss.”
“Thanks.” I finished my sandwich.
“What about your grandpa? Do you ever go see him?”
I shook my head. “I did, but he died two years ago. My uncle sold the bar to a company that tore it down and built some chain restaurant. So no reason for me to go back there.”
“I’m sorry.” She reached one hand to cover mine and then seemed to think better and withdrew her touch. “That sucks.”
“Nah. It’s fine. Gramps was ready to go—he’d gotten pretty sick at the end. And my uncle wasn’t running the bar the way it deserved, so that needed to stop, too. I don’t have any regrets. It’s not my thing.” I stretched my legs out and leaned back on my elbows. “That’s me. Now tell me about you.”
“You know about me. Author. Klutz. Unrepentant babbler.” She lifted one shoulder. “That’s me.”
“No, it’s not,” I corrected. “You’re a talented and successful author who gets her books made into movies. You have two very loyal best friends who think you’re the shit. And they told me that you’re glad to play matchmaker for them, but that you never date.”
“That’s not exactly true,” she countered. “I just don’t have relationships. I have my fair share of dates.” Her cheeks went slightly pink. “I don’t object to one-night stands.”
“Oh, really?” I cocked my head. “But no relationships. Why is that? I’d think the romance author would be all over finding her own happily ever after.”
“Maybe I already did find it, and I know I’m not going to get it again.” She dipped her gaze to the blanket between us, her teeth sinking into her full bottom lip.
“Now that needs some explanation. Sounds like there’s a story.” I nudged her hip with my foot. “Spill it, writer woman. I need to know.”
Coral flickered her eyes to me. “It’s not a pretty story, Dax. No happy ending in this one.”
“I figured. If it did, you wouldn’t be sitting here with me.”
“True,” she admitted and then took another deep breath. This time, I did let myself ogle her chest. Just a little.
“Okay. Um, when I was seventeen, I found a lump in my breast.”
“What?” I frowned, bringing my attention back to her face.
“A lump,” Coral repeated patiently. “I was young, and everyone figured it was just, you know, a gland or something. Maybe a cyst. But my mom was always super vigilant, so she took me to her doctor, and they did a mammogram, an ultrasound, then a biopsy. And it was cancer.”
“Fuck, Coral.” I sat up straight. “Holy fuck. You had fucking breast cancer?”
“I did.” She nodded. “And so I was in and out of the hospital for over a year. In the end, I responded well to the chemo and radiation—it was grueling, brutal, and nothing I ever want to live through again—and I went into remission.” She tapped her head with a crooked smile. “And knock on wood, twelve years later, I’m still okay. At least, I’m still cancer-free.”
“Crap, Coral. I didn’t have any idea.” I raked my hand through my hair.
“No, because I don’t make a big deal out of it. But that’s not my point.” She leaned back on her hands, staring over my shoulder. “While I was in the hospital undergoing treatment, I met Jason. We fell in love. I found my soulmate when we were both in the fight for our lives.”
I didn’t like where this was going. “Jason, huh?”
“Yeah.” Her lips curved slightly. “He was sweet and earnest and he had a very aggressive form of brain cancer. But still, he was doing incredibly well. The doctors were optimistic, and we . . . we were wildly in love. We spent every minute together that we could. We had sex for the first time the day after the doctor told me I was in remission.”
“Oh.” I pictured a younger Coral, and my heart ached for the girl she had been.
“A couple of months later, Jason told me he had to go for an overnight procedure to have a shunt repositioned. He joked that it was such a small thing, the prep was going to take longer than the procedure. And it did—it was successful. I went over to see him when he was back home, and for the first time ever, we made real plans. We talked about where we wanted to go to college, when we wanted to get married, what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives . . . then before I left, I kissed him goodbye and said I’d see him in the morning.” She paused. “But I didn’t. He never woke up. There was—an aneurism. No one knew, no one could’ve known. He died in his sleep . . . painlessly, the doctors told us. They said he never would’ve known.”
“God.” My voice was raw. “Fuck, Coral, I’m so sorry. You were just a kid.”
“I was, in a way. And in another way, cancer makes you grow up fast. So does death. I wasn’t a kid anymore.” She squared her shoulders. “And I knew then, just as I know now, that I’d had my one chance at real love. Jason was my soulmate. He was who I was meant to be with, and when he died, part of me did, too.”
I understood now why she’d been so resistant to my overtures last night. “You don’t know that. You were so young. Wouldn’t Jason want you—”
“Don’t do that.” She held up a hand. “Don’t you think everyone has said this to me? My parents, my friends? But they don’t know what I feel. What I know.” She shook her head. “And I know that Jason was it for me. I might have . . . like, hook-ups, friends-with-benefits, sex dates, but I’m not going to fall in love. Not again. Not ever.”
I should have been ecstatic by this news. After all, hook-ups and one-night stands were my jam, right? I should’ve been relieved that I had a shot to get naked with this woman who turned me on in a big way without having to worry about catching feelings.
But instead, as we slowly began cleaning up from our picnic, all I felt was a hollow sense of despair.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Sixteen is coming next Friday, December 10th!
I always feel like Cinderella on the day after big events like the movie premiere. Sure, I put on the dress and the glass slippers and rode to the ball in the carriage, but after midnight struck, I’m just a girl in rags with a pumpkin and a long list of chores.
On the morning after my evening with Dax, the feeling was even worse. I’d spent the night in my lonely bed at the hotel tossing and turning, restless with frustration and regret. I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if I’d let Dax come back to my room with me, if I’d allowed myself to believe what he’d been saying—that the red-carpet kiss had been for real. Would my bed have been less lonely? Would he have stayed with me all night? And instead of being bleary-eyed and numb the next morning as I prepared to check out, mindlessly tossing my finery and cosmetics into my suitcase, would I have been blissfully relaxed, enjoying a sexy breakfast in bed with my super-hot lover?
Well, I reasoned with myself, we’d never know. I’d sent Dax away last night not because I wasn’t attracted to him but because I was. And, come on now, let’s get real—it wasn’t just the physical draw, although that was there in spades. It was that I honestly and genuinely liked him, and that was a dangerous proposition.
I wasn’t a prude about one-night stands. Hell, hook-ups without any strings attached were my jam, though I didn’t go around proclaiming that. Even Celeste and Sabrina were largely unaware of my assignations. Hey, I didn’t love how these things happened, but a woman has needs, after all. And since I knew that love wasn’t in the cards for me, tumbling in the sheets with random dudes was the way to go.
But I had standards. I didn’t sleep with men who I didn’t like—that was one reason Dr. Dopey hadn’t made the cut—and I also didn’t sleep with men who I liked too much. If there was even a whiff of a possibility that the situation could morph into romance, that was a deal-breaker.
I didn’t do romance. And I sure as hell wasn’t showing up for love. Been there, done that, had the ugly scars to show for it. I’d handed over my ability to love when I was eighteen years old, and I never planned to take it back. Thanks very much.
And that was why I was alone today, skulking out of the Hyatt in dark sunglasses as my rolling suitcase bumped along behind me. I smirked to myself as I waited for the YouRideIt that was going to carry me back home. I’d arrived here yesterday with so much excitement, all shiny and glowy, ready to be a temporary star. How quickly the mighty fall. If I’d done something crazy and impulsive like indulged in wild, sweaty sex with Dax the smoldering bartender, would that glow have lingered a little longer? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. It was possible that I’d feel grimy and uncomfortable.
Probably not, but it was better to think that way.
The car pulled up to the curb, and I climbed inside, smiling briefly at the driver who asked me if I was all right for him to listen to the radio on the ride to Burton.
“Oh, sure.” It was actually a relief that I wouldn’t feel pressured to make small town with a stranger when all I wanted to do was close my eyes and think about absolutely nothing for forty-five minutes.
I was doing just that when I felt a buzzing in my ass. It took me a minute to realize that my butt hadn’t fallen asleep; I’d tucked my phone in the back pocket of my jeans.
With a sigh, I tugged it out, yawning as I blinked at the screen.
TEXT FROM HOT BARTENDER DUDE
I bit back a smile. I really needed to change that entry . . . or crap, maybe I should just delete it. I’d made the decision that Dax wasn’t safe for me to be around. That meant I should take his number off my phone, and I definitely, positively shouldn’t answer this text. Hell, I shouldn’t even read this text. I should hit delete and move on.
And yet my finger hovered over the notification, and before I could second-guess myself—or should that be third-guess myself?—I’d touched it, making the message pop up.
Hot Bartender Dude: Hey, Coral. Thanks again for last night. I wanted to say I’m sorry if I was pushy at the end. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable and ruin what had been an incredible time.
Three dots appeared, indicating that he was typing. Then they vanished . . . and then reappeared. I waited to see if anything else showed up, but the dots stopped again.
After a moment, I blew out a long breath. I shouldn’t answer. Right? I should ignore it.
Coral: You didn’t make me uncomfortable. And I’m the one who should be thanking you. Again. Because you did me a huge favor, and I appreciate it. And you weren’t pushy. You were actually kind of sweet.
Hot Bartender Dude: Sweet. Yeah, that’s the vibe I’m going for.
Coral: I meant it in a very strong, masculine way.
Hot Bartender Dude: Sure you did. If you’d seen how many times I wrote and rewrote that message, you’d be thinking again.
Coral: Awww, that’s even sweeter.
Hot Bartender Dude: Awesome. Let’s start again. Hey, beautiful, what’re you doing? Are you still at the Hyatt?
Coral: No, I’m on my way home. The ball is over. Cinderella has left the building.
Hot Bartender Dude: I always thought old Cindy was a much more interesting girl when she was at home than when she was in that overgrown pumpkin. Anybody can put on fancy clothes and be someone they’re not. Singing while you clean a floor takes real balls. And you’re so much more than the person those reporters saw last night.
Coral: Oh, yeah? How do you know that? From one hour of me moping at your bar and a single movie date?
Hot Bartender Dude: I’m a good judge of character. It comes from years of bartending.
Coral: Better training than psychotherapy, huh?
Hot Bartender Dude: You know it. So when will you be home? And what are your plans for the rest of the day?
Coral: About half an hour, I think. Plans for the day include crawling into bed with a cup of tea and reading until Celeste brings me barbecue for dinner. These events always wear me out.
Hot Bartender Dude: So does that mean you’re too tired for a picnic?
I paused, my thumb over the keyboard. A picnic? What was he talking about?
Coral: I didn’t see a picnic on my schedule for today. Might be tough to do that from my bed.
Hot Bartender Dude: If you haven’t had a bed picnic, darlin’, you’re missing out. But I was talking about eating lunch outside. It’s a pretty day for October. The sun is warm, and I have the day off.
Coral: But you’re in Savannah.
Hot Bartender Dude: So were you a few minutes ago. See, there’s this thing called driving, and turns out I can be in your neck of the woods with lunch in hand by one.
Coral: But why? Last night was wonderful, so much fun. Maybe we should just leave it at that.
Hot Bartender Dude: Or we could go for a picnic and see what happens next.
I let my head fall back against the seat, closing my eyes. I was so tempted. So very tempted. Dax made me wanted to believe that unreachable dreams were possible. And a picnic . . . it was a beautiful day. I’d been inside for too many weeks, working hard to meet my last deadline, and the idea of sitting in the sunshine with a man like Dax . . .
Hot Bartender Dude: Are you still there? What do you say, gorgeous? There’s this sandwich shop right on the way outside of town, and I promise, my picnic won’t disappoint. Tell me where to meet you, and I’ll be there.
I bit the side of my lip. This was dangerous. Dax himself was a huge threat to my fenced-off heart, and if I let myself relax, I might be in danger.
Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself sternly. There’s no risk because you’ve already gone through the worst day in your life. This is a damn picnic. What’re you afraid of?
Picking up my phone again, I typed out a response.
Coral: There’s a place I know. It’s by a lake on a farm—I know the owners. Sending you the directions now. See you there at one.
Tucking my cell away again, I exhaled a long breath and gripped the edge of the vinyl seat, hoping I wasn’t making a horrible mistake.
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Fourteen is coming next Friday, December 3rd!