First Chapter Friday: Zone of Action

These are the men of the 94th ID. They fight with honor, they defend their nation and their brothers fiercely, and when they love, they do it with single-minded passion.

Jake Robinson is the most easy-going soldier in his battalion. For the last few months, he’s been watching his friends find love, commitment and even babies . . . but he knows that path isn’t for him. Been there, done that and got the scars to prove it.

Harper Drummond lives and breathes stress. A chef at an up-and-coming restaurant, she works long, demanding hours, and she doesn’t want or need a relationship. But every now and then, she likes to let off some steam under the covers with a willing partner.

The night Jake and Harper hook up is only meant to be a one-time deal. But when they realize they have connections they hadn’t expected–not to mention chemistry that is downright explosive–they decide that being friends with hot benefits makes perfect sense.

After all, it’s only sex, right?

********************

Read the first chapter here!

Jake

“Man, you look like shit.” I dropped a hand onto my buddy Kade’s shoulder as I overtook him in the hall of the building where we worked. “Isn’t that kid sleeping yet?”

Kade shot me a narrow-eyed glare. “Yeah, Jake. She’s been sleeping solid for two weeks, but you know, Leah and I just party so much that we’re still staying up all night.” Sarcasm dripped from his exhausted words. “No, asshole, she’s still getting up three times a night.”

“Hey, hey.” I lifted my hands. “Don’t jump on me. I’m not the one who thought having a wife and baby would be a good idea.”

“Jake, you know what? Sometimes you can be a real douche.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t change one fucking thing. Leah and Emma are the best two things that ever happened to me. I might not have planned for either of them, but, God, I can’t imagine living without them. They are my life now.”

A twinge of something uneasy slithered through my chest, but I ignored it. I was happy for Kade—even when I teased him, I knew he was on the level, and Leah and the baby really did make him deliriously content—but I also knew firsthand that shit like that could go bad fast, turning on a dime. I wasn’t going to share that with him, though. Between the sleep deprivation and his knee-jerk defensiveness about his new ready-made family, the dude just might drop me here and now.

Instead, I smiled at him. “Glad to hear it. Not every guy who goes on TDY and comes back with a wife and kiddo on the way ends up like you.”

“Don’t think I don’t know it,” he returned. “As a matter of fact, I was just getting ready to leave, so I can go home and relieve Leah. She needs a little break by this time of the afternoon.”

“You’re a good daddy.” I glanced at my watch. “I was about to head out, too. And I don’t even have the excuse of helping out the wife.”

“Yeah.” Kade smirked. “Friday night, huh? You and the guys hitting the bar? Or are you driving up to Richmond?”

I shrugged. “I think we’re staying local. And as far as the guys, it’s just me and Owen, unless I can talk Mac into coming along, too. The rest of you losers all hooked up with girlfriends or wives, and now there’s just a few of us left standing.”

Kade frowned. “I was just going to ask you about Derek. Shaw’s really worried about him.”

Our friend and fellow company commander, Derek McTavis, had been critically injured in an accident at air assault school several months back. He was home again, but he hadn’t recovered completely yet.

“I was planning to go check on him right now and see if I can persuade him to come out tonight. I’m not optimistic, though. He’s been a homebody ever since he got back here from Campbell, and he doesn’t even have the hot girlfriend excuse the rest of you do.”

“Yeah. From what I hear, they won’t clear him to come back to work yet, but he’s not doing much to change that. I invited him to come over for dinner, and he refused.  Shaw said he skipped some appointments and blew off his meeting with the therapist the Army is requiring him to see.” Kade sighed. “If he doesn’t pull his shit together, he’s going to fuck up his whole career.”

“I’m not going to let that happen. None of us are.” I spoke with more assurance than I felt. “I’ll rattle his cage today, and then maybe we could all try to go over there this weekend and cheer him up. You know, we could watch the game, have some beers, just hang out.”

“Sounds like a good idea. I’ll see if I can work it out. I might have to bring Emma with me, though. I don’t like to leave Leah alone with her on the weekends if I can help it, since she shoulders so much during the week.”

“Eh, the baby’s too young for us to corrupt her yet, so you’re probably safe to bring her along.” I winked at him. “Okay, family man, I’ll let you get home to the little women.”

“Let me know how it goes with Derek.” He paused. “Have fun tonight, but not so much that I have to deal with anything on Monday, got it?”

I grinned. “You know me. I’m the soul of sound decisions and good choices.”

Kade rolled his eyes. “That’s what scares me.”

***

Among our group of captains who commanded companies in the 94th ID, about half of us lived in the barracks on post, and the others lived in homes off-post. I was in the first group; I didn’t have a need for my own space, and I liked the idea of banking the extra money the Army allotted us. Derek, though, had a townhouse about ten minutes from post in the city of Petersburg. I pulled up in front of his place a little while after I’d left Kade.

I frowned as I jogged up the walk that led to his door. We all teased Derek—or Mac, as we sometimes called him—about his beautiful landscaping. Keeping his grass trimmed and green, his flower beds weed-free and his mulch devoid of leaves or pine needles was almost an obsession with the guy, and more than once, he’d won the title of Best Maintained Yard from the homeowners’ association.

But today, the lawn was patchy, with brown spots creeping into the areas of overgrown grass. The bushes were overgrown, and the flowers’ heads were drooping and dead. Piles of crunchy leaves covered the beds and even scattered onto his small front porch. It was damn sad-looking, that was what it was.

I leaned on the doorbell and then followed that up with a quick pounding of my fist. “Yo, McTavis! Get your ass out here.”

For a solid three minutes, I didn’t hear a sound. I wondered if I’d somehow managed to stop during one of his appointments or if he’d actually left the house for another reason. And then there was a loud bang from within, followed by a dragging sound. I winced, picturing him pulling his leg across the hallway. Derek had been so active and vibrant not so long ago, and it killed me to see him defeated.

The door swung open, and Derek stared out at me. His eyes were dull and bleary, and his hair was longer than I’d ever seen it. The shirt that was hanging on his shoulders had several stains on it, and there might have been a smell.

“Dude.” I wagged my head. “Did you just get off a bender or what? You look like hell.”

He scowled and turned his back on me, moving away down the hallway into the house. “Yeah, fuck you very much, Robinson. Did you just come here on a mission of mercy to cheer up the invalid, or do you have a real reason for stopping by?”

I followed him and closed the door behind me. “I’m here because it’s Friday night, and we’re heading to the bar. Owen and I are, I mean. But I need my best wingman with me, so I’m really here to tell you to get your ass in gear and come with us.”

Derek lowered himself into a chair on the edge of his living room. I leaned against the arched doorway, watching him. Pain etched his face, and his jaw clenched. His eyes flickered up to meet mine.

“Some fucking wingman I’d be. I can’t even walk five steps to the door without needing a nap. Are you blind, Jake? Look at me.” He slumped, dropping his forehead into his hand. “I’m no good to anyone, and if you want to help me, just leave me the fuck alone.”

I perched on the bench across from Derek. “Not going to happen, buddy. I know you’re feeling rough right now, but—”

Rough?” He sounded incredulous. “I’m not feeling rough. I’m in agony most of the time, and I can barely get around my house. I’m a soldier, and I can’t climb my own steps without someone around to make sure I don’t fall and break my neck—or my back again. So yeah, I’m feeling a little more than rough.”

“I get it.” I leaned forward. “I mean, I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through. But Max and Shaw told Kade that you’re skipping therapy appointments. And if you don’t start to get with the program, you’ll end up getting drummed out of the Army. I know that’s not what you want.”

He lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know what I want anymore. Maybe I’m not meant to be in the military after all. Maybe this is a sign that it’s time for me to leave. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know anything right now.”

“Which is the perfect state of mind for you to be in when we go out and get hammered.” I smacked one hand on the seat of the bench for emphasis. “Come on. Get a shower, put on some clothes that have been through the washer recently, and let’s go. I’ll sit down here and channel surf while you’re getting ready.”

Derek scowled at me and ran a hand through his hair. “Not going to happen, Jake. I’m not interested. If I want to get wasted, I can do it right here in the comfort of my own home without having to worry about making a fool of myself by falling on my face in a crowded bar.”

I nodded. “Well, yeah, that you could do here on your own, but the chances of you picking up a hot piece of tail in your living room seem pretty damn slim. And I know that would cheer you up.”

“I don’t need to be cheered up, dickhead.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m not interested in that, either. In the hot pieces of tail, I mean.”

“Now I really am worried.” I leaned forward, resting my hands on my knees. “Since when is the Scottish stud not ready and willing to charm the ladies?” I paused as a new thought occurred to me. “Oh, fuck. Is it . . . are you having a systems failure down there, dude? Like, did the accident knock out something in central command?”

“No!” If it was possible, Derek looked even more pissed off at me. “No. Everything is just fine with my dick, thank you very much for your concern, asshole.” He glanced away, shaking his head. “Systems failure. Geez, man.”

“Okay, okay, sorry.” I held up my hands. I seemed to be making everyone annoyed with me today, and I really had no clue why. All my friends were way too sensitive. Like they were chicks or something. “I just don’t get why you don’t want to pick up girls. It’s a perfect way to boost your mood, any time of day or night.”

“Jake, look at me.” He spread his arms. “I’m a fucking mess. I can barely move. What woman in her right mind is going to be interested in someone like me, especially when there’re guys like you and Owen standing next to me? Last thing I need is a pity fuck, thank you very much.”

I was silent for a few minutes, digesting. “Okay. So don’t worry about the girls. Just come hang with us. I promise Owen and I are a lot more entertaining than anything you’ve got in this house. It’ll be good for you. Take your mind off your troubles and all that shit.”

“Jake, for the last fucking time, I’m not going. I want to be left alone. And if you could, be kind enough to pass that on to the rest of the crowd? I know you’ve all been taking turns checking on the pathetic guy, and it’s got to stop. I don’t need you. I just need—time. And space.”

“Sorry, Mac, no can do.” I rose and fisted my hands on my hips. “You’re one of us. We don’t leave our own alone.” I stopped, hearing what I’d just said. “Hey, that’s like a motto or something. We don’t leave our own alone.

He shook his head, but I thought I saw his lip twitch. “Lame, Robinson. Fucking lame.”

“Well, I think it’s kind of inspired, but whatever. Anyway, we’re coming over Sunday to watch the game. You have beer in the fridge, or should we bring our own?”

“Don’t bring anything. Just stay away. For a while, at least.”

“We’ll be here around one or so. Oh, and don’t freak, but Kade’s probably bringing the rug rat. He likes to give Leah a break on weekends. Still, as much as he complains about her keeping them up, she’s always sound asleep whenever I see her, so she probably won’t bother us.”

“Jake—listen—”

“Okay, well, if you’re sure you don’t want to join us tonight, I guess I better get going.” I was a past master at ignoring what I didn’t want to hear, and this wasn’t any different. “If you change your mind, text me, and I’ll swing around. I’m heading back to post to get changed, and then I guess Owen and I will grab a RideIt over to the bar. You know, that new place just opened right outside town. I’ve heard the music is decent, and the booze is plentiful. In case you decide to join us later.”

“Not going to happen. And about Sunday—”

“Hey, no worries. We’ll bring the beer and some munchies, too. You just have the TV fired up, and it’s all good.” I stepped quickly to the hallway as Derek braced his hands on the arms of his chair. “Don’t get up, dude. I’m cool, I’ll see myself out. Catch you later.”

Before he could yell after me any threats about what might happen if we all turned up on Sunday, I bolted out the door and down the steps to my car, frowning all the way.

Shaw had been right about our friend. He was in a bad way, spiraling even lower. We had to do something before things got totally beyond our ability to help.

But that was something to think about on Sunday. Tonight was Friday, and the mission was all about the women and the alcohol.

Probably in that order. But maybe not.

***

The new place was only a few miles outside the city limits of Petersburg. As the RideIt driver—who’d been a chatty older man, a retired NCO eager to talk shop with two guys still in the service—pulled away, I surveyed the outside of the bar. It was neat and clean, a white-painted building with a single neon sign over the door. I could hear the music even from the parking lot.

Owen grinned at me. He was a little shorter than I was, with hair a few shades darker than my own, but over the ten years we’d been best friends, people had been confusing us for brothers on a regular basis. It had become a running joke between us because neither of us saw the resemblance.

“Sounds like our kind of place, brother.” He knocked his shoulder against mine. “How’re we going to divide them up tonight?”

“I’ll take the blondes and the red-heads, and you can have the brunettes.” I winked at him.

“Shit, man. That kind of logic presupposes that all the women in this bar have their natural hair color.” He shook his head in mock dismay.

“I think in this case we might have to trust them until we can prove otherwise.” I opened the door. “After you. And may the best man get the luckiest . . . at getting a chance to prove otherwise.”

It was dark inside, of course, but my eyes adjusted quickly. Owen and I threaded our way through the crowd and approached the bar, where we both ordered beers. I leaned my back against an empty stool, scanning the tables and dance floor.

It was a good mix of people, with a large percentage of the guys clearly from Fort Lee. The fact that we were outside of Petersburg meant fewer local men, and that was probably a good thing; sometimes the tensions between those who lived in town and those here temporarily with the Army made things a little difficult. But tonight, everything felt laid-back and relaxed.

And the range of women who were in the place was truly a sight to behold. There were tables full of girls who seemed to be just above drinking age, all of them dressed up and made up, casting furtive glances at the groups of men gawking at them. There were also several tables of older women who didn’t seem to care whether or not any of the guys even noticed them. I had a hunch most of those were married ladies, out to enjoy a rare night of freedom.

But the ones who caught my eye were the ones in between, who congregated around the bar and shimmied on the dance floor. They weren’t the shining-eyed girls looking for happily-ever-after or the been-there, done-that jaded ladies. They were young, independent women who were looking for the same thing I was—a night of fun, passion and no strings attached.

Owen finished his first beer, snagged a second, and lifted it to me, leaning closer as he nodded to our right. “I’m on brunettes, right? Check out the party girl at six o’clock.”

I glanced over, trying to keep it light and surreptitious, raising my eyebrows when I saw who he’d been eyeballing. Damn, he’d called dibs on a live one. She was all curves and softness, with long, fat black curls that hung down her back. Owen had a thing for long hair, and this chick definitely fit the bill.

“Nice.” I cocked my head. “But none of her friends are my type. You go ahead, and I’ll keep my eyes open.”

“Wish me luck.” He held up his bottle and clinked it against the neck of my beer.

“Not that you’ll need it.” I laughed, finishing our normal schtick. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

I stood there a little longer, watching my friend’s progress without being too creepy about it. I’d noticed the girl’s eyes light up when she’d seen Owen heading her way, and now they were deep in flirtation. She had one of her curls wrapped around her finger, and her head was tilted as she blinked up at him. He had an arm braced on the bar behind her as he leaned in to say something in her ear that made her cheeks go bright red.

“And we have achieved lift-off, folks,” I murmured to myself. With a sigh, I shifted a little, sitting down on the stool I’d been leaning against and checking out the other side of the bar. I enjoyed watching people interact, letting my eyes wander over the lithesome female bodies. Even if not all of them appealed to me—or at least, not enough to make me get up and walk over there to make my interest known—I could appreciate the way they moved, the way their hair swished . . . yeah. I guessed it was the same as the way some people could enjoy a Picasso or a Rembrandt, even if they weren’t about to go up and plant a big old wet kiss on a painting.

And then I saw her.

She was standing on the edge of the dance floor next to another girl, but I didn’t pay any attention to her friend. All I could see was the woman in the short black dress; her shoulder-length hair was medium blonde, with streaks of red in it, which meant she was fair pickings for me. Her body was . . . well, fuck, it was perfection. Her ass was round, accented by the silky material of the dress, although I had a feeling that if she bent over, it might not cover all of that tempting bottom. She’d turned to the side, and her tits were amazing, too—by the way they moved under the low-cut neckline, I was fairly sure she wasn’t wearing a bra, which meant that jiggle was all her, with no help from any padding or push-up.

But honestly, it was the eyes that got me. They were huge, taking up most of her face, and bright green as I could see when she leaned over to speak to her friend. She was alive and sparkling, and fuck me if I didn’t spring a boner right there. I fidgeted on the barstool, trying to adjust myself without looking like that was what I was doing.

I was just about to get to my feet and make my way over toward her when the music changed, and all of the women in the room ooohed in unison. Yeah, I got it. It was P!nk, which meant epic chick song. Woman power and all that. But it also meant that the woman I was currently watching joined the rest of them thronging onto the dance floor. In a split second, I lost her.

Dancing—well, this kind of dancing—wasn’t really my thing, but when it was in the support of a good cause—for example, getting laid—I could get jiggy with the best of them. So I polished off the rest of my beer, set the empty on the bar, and began to meander toward the center of the room, where most of the females had congregated to shake, rattle, and roll.

I got sucked into the rhythm of the gyrating bodies, and more than one set of hands reached out to try to slow me down and draw me in. But I was searching for just one enticing ass, and I wasn’t willing to settle for what was convenient. Not when I knew that perfection was somewhere in here . . .

Aha! I spotted her head a few feet away and gently pushed my way in that direction. She had her arms in the air as she danced, singing along and making goofy faces at her girlfriend, who was doing the same thing across from her. Just before I reached them, a long-haired hipster came up behind the friend, and I slowed, watching the interchange as he made his move on her. The other girl appeared to be open to whatever he was suggesting, which I realized must have been leaving the floor to grab a drink when she gave the universal gesture for drinking.

As the two melted away, I took my chance, coming up behind the blonde until I was close enough that her very fine ass was nearly rubbing my dick. Nearly, but not quite. Not wanting to touch her before I asked permission—this time, anyway—I bent my head to murmur into her ear.

“Hey.”

She startled, but not as much as I might have thought. Her face turned toward me, taking me in and checking me out, and I made a point of keeping my gaze steady on her eyes, not looking any lower, even though the temptation was pretty damn huge. I could tell when she’d decided to give me a chance.

“Want to dance?” I spoke low, near the side of her face.

She smiled, lifting her head to look up at me. “I thought I was dancing.”

A half-smile curved my lips. She was feisty, and I liked that. “I mean, do you want to dance with me?”

She didn’t answer right away. Instead, she took a step backward, and her eyes traveled down me, very blatantly taking my measure without any trepidation. I stood still, letting her check me out, the heat of her gaze raking over me as though her fingertips were doing the work. Damn, this woman was something else. I was willing to bet there wasn’t a shy bone in her body.

When she’d finished, she eased closer to me, almost pressing against my body, her unfettered tits grazing my chest as she reached up to circle her arms around my neck.

“Is it really just a dance you’re asking me for?”

For a solid minute, I forgot the answer to that question. Hell, I forgot my own fucking name. All I could remember was the way her eyes held mine and the allure of the parts of her touching the parts of me. I wanted her, and I wanted her now. I pictured myself lifting her dress and settling her over my throbbing cock. I felt her boobs in my palms, even though right now, my hands were securely around her back, not even grasping her ass.

Steeling myself not to give away too much too fast, I dropped my mouth to her ear again.

“I’m not limiting any of our options, sugar. But let’s start with a dance and see where that leads.”

You can read the rest of Zone of Action here:

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First Chapter Friday: Temporary Duty

These are the men of the 94th ID. They fight with honor, they defend their nation and their brothers fiercely, and when they love, they do it with single-minded passion.

Kade Braggs grew up wild and free, surfing on a California beach without much ambition until an impulsive decision led him into joining the Army. What started out as a joke turned into a career, and now he’s a company commander, leading several platoons of soldiers. Still, Kade does it all on his own terms; he plays as hard as he works, and having a good time is non-negotiable.

Until he meets Leah Samson.

Leah doesn’t have time to play. On her own for as long as she can remember, she’s driven, focused, and intent on finishing law school at the top of her class. Nothing could distract her from that goal until an unexpected night of passion with a visiting soldier leads to life-changing complications.

But while neither Kade nor Leah planned this bump in the road, the unplanned parenthood that threw these two together may be the best thing that ever happened to either of them. That is, if the heat they both feel doesn’t sizzle out of control first.

Read the first chapter now!

Kade

“Dude, you are so fucked. So totally and completely fucked.”

Jake Robinson, one of the other company commanders in my battalion, slapped me on the back as I was on my way into the bachelor officers’ quarters. I’d just arrived here at Fort Davis, and the first order of business was to get settled in my temporary home-away-from-home . . . which would basically be a sterile bedroom in a drab building full of other sterile bedrooms. Welcome to the Army.

“Fine by me if it’s Scarlett Johansson doing the fucking. She’s on my list of undeniables.” I punched his arm and then hesitated. “Wait. Why am I fucked? What’re you talking about?”

“Guess who you’re stuck rooming with for the duration of this class?”

Dread began to creep under my skin. “Don’t even. Not the mule? Say it’s not so.”

Jake chuckled. “Sorry, bro. I saw the list. You’re with Eric Mueller, which means you get the pleasure of his company for the next six weeks. Congratulations.”

I closed my eyes and groaned. “Fuck. How the hell did I draw the short straw on this one?”

“Hey, everyone has to take a turn riding the mule.” He winked at me. “That’s only a figure of speech. He’s so damn full of himself, he’d never think any guy was good enough to screw.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Even if I were attracted to dudes, the mule would be at the bottom of the list.” I hefted my duffle bag more securely on my shoulder and began to head for the door of the BOQ before I turned back again. “Robinson, you’ve been on TDY here before, right? What’s around? If I have to share space with Eric Muller for over a month, I already know I’m going to need someplace else to be, or he’ll drive me out of my fucking mind.”

Jake squinted. “Not too much hereabouts. Couple of bars off post, a few restaurants . . . oh, hey, there’s a mall a few miles away. I went there to get a tat when I was here last time.”

I cocked my head. “You got a tattoo in a mall, Jake? I thought only chicks went to places like that.”

He shot me the finger. “Couple of the local guys recommended it, asshole. And don’t be a sexist pig. Try to learn from my example: I’d never assume a woman only got her ink at a mall. You should be all enlightened and shit, like me.”

“Yeah, whatever. I don’t see all your enlightenment getting you laid on the regular.”

Jake pretended to be affronted. “Just because I don’t screw a girl and then blab to all you guys about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I get plenty of action, thanks.”

Laughing as I walked backward, I nodded. “Sure you do, Jakester. Surrrrre you do.”

My humor lasted until I rounded the landing on the first flight of stairs, at which point I remembered the roommate situation. Fuck. I hated Eric Muller. I’d known him since we were both in officer basic together, over ten years before. Jake had been in our class, too, which was why he was all too well acquainted with the mule.

We’d given him that nickname privately after two weeks of OBC. Eric was the kind of guy who was just about impossible to like, no matter how hard we all tried. He couldn’t take criticism or a joke, although he was quick to point it out whenever the rest of us did anything wrong. He showed off in front of instructors, and worse, he was underhanded: although none of us had solid evidence, we were all sure he’d done things to make the rest of us look bad.

And living with him was apparently a real treat. He’d had three roommates during OBC, which was incredible because the Army really wasn’t that concerned with how we soldiers felt about our living situations. But the complaints had been ongoing: Eric threw a fit if a light was left on when he’d decided to go to sleep, no matter how early in the evening that was. He was fastidious to the point of obsession about the cleanliness of the room. He himself complained about all of us all the time, sneering about our lack of discipline.

The truth was that if any of the rest of us had behaved in such a way, we’d have found ourselves shaping up or being tossed out. But Eric Muller was the son of General Ronald Muller, and consequently, the rest of the world had to put up with his shit. We’d had to keep our mouths shut and ignore him until we all finished OBC and moved on. Mercifully, our paths hadn’t crossed often over the course of our careers. But since the Army is much smaller than most people realize, I’d heard things, and I knew that the mule hadn’t made many friends over the course of his tenure.

Rounding the corner of the staircase on the third floor, I trudged down the hallway to my assigned room. The door was closed, but I knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t inside, waiting for me.

Turning the knob, I stepped inside, as cautious as if I expected a snake on the other side instead of a mule. And there he was, sitting at the desk, back straight, hair about a half an inch shorter than regulation . . . his Army-issued T-shirt stretched over his narrow chest without a single wrinkle.

“Braggs.” Muller’s voice was bland and expressionless. “I was surprised to see you were still in. I’d figured you’d quit after your first six years were up.”

That was absolute bullshit because he’d have known if I resigned, and we both realized it. Asshole.

“Why the hell would you think I left?” I tried to keep my voice mild. Eric Muller might aggravate the living crap out of me, but he was still a general’s son, and that general was now part of the joint chiefs of staff.

Eric shrugged. “You always seemed more like a good time surfer boy than a soldier.”

I dropped my bag on the bed that seemed to be mine. “Yeah, it’s good to see you, too, Eric. It’s been too long. How’s life been treating you?”

He watched me, his eyes calculating. “Can’t complain. I’m on the shortlist for promotion. And when that happens, I expect to be assigned to Washington.”

Of course, he did.

“Awesome. Good to hear.” I unzipped the duffel and began unpacking my clothes. “So, you married? Got kids?”

“No,” he snorted. “That’s not part of the plan until I make major.”

“Aha.” I nodded as if that made sense. “Well, if you’re on the shortlist, do you have any potential candidates? For the wife, I mean.”

Something flickered in his eyes. “No. I don’t have time for that yet. Once I’m ready, the right woman will be around. These things work out.”

“Uh-huh.” I opened up a drawer and dropped T-shirts into it. “That’s great, Eric. I’m happy for you.”

I could almost feel his skepticism. “Yeah, I’m sure you.” He frowned as I closed one drawer and opened the other, dumping in socks and boxers. “Aren’t you going to fold those before you put them away?”

“Nah.” I shrugged, getting a little secret amusement at the idea that my unfolded clothes would drive him crazy. “I’m just going to put them on under my BDUs, right? Who cares?”

I wasn’t certain, but I thought he growled.

After that, Eric ignored me for a while. A couple of the other guys who were taking the strategic mobility course with us stopped by to say hello, all of us catching up from the last time we’d seen each other, comparing our current jobs and different assignments. I watched my roommate out of the corner of my eye; I could tell that each time another person opened the door and yelled hello, he tensed up more.

Finally, when our room was crowded, with everyone talking at once, Eric stood up.

“That’s it. Get out, all of you. It’s late, and I need peace and quiet.” He glared my way. “If you want to socialize, go do it somewhere else.”

Jake, who was sitting on the end of my bed, shot me a meaningful look as he stood up. “Okay, then. Hey, why don’t we go down to my room? I’ve got a six-pack, and we can turn on the game.”

Everyone filtered out, the voices echoing in the hall. I sat down on my bed and reached for my laptop.

“Hey, Braggs, you coming with?” Jake lingered in the doorway.

I shook my head. “Nah. I’m just going to kick back and catch up on iZombie eps. You all have a good time.”

He rolled his eyes toward Eric’s stiff back, which was facing us. “Yeah, you, too. See you at PT tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there.” I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t quite seven yet, and here I was on my bed like an old man. I stifled a groan.

“I hope you have headphones for the computer.” Eric’s words were clipped, and he didn’t look my way. “I’m turning off the light in an hour. I had a long trip today to get here from Texas, and I don’t feel like being up half the night.”

I gritted my teeth. “Yeah, I have headphones.”

“And you’ll need to turn it so that the light from the screen can’t be seen from my bed. I like to sleep on my right side, and the room must be completely dark.” He sounded so prim that I wanted to slug him in the face.

“You know what?” I slammed the computer shut, tossing it to the other side of my mattress. “You can have the whole fucking room pitch black. I’m going out so I don’t interfere with your beauty sleep.”

Grabbing a jacket, I shoved my feet back into my sneakers, yanking the laces tight. Across the room, Eric sniffed.

“Make sure you have your key, because I’m not getting up to let you in once I’m asleep. And just what do you think you’re going to do, anyway?  It’s Sunday night. Everything’s closed.”

I picked up my keys, wallet, and cell phone. “I’ll find something. But thanks for your concern. I really appreciate it.” When the spirit moved me, I could speak fluent sarcasm.

I managed to make it down the steps and out into the parking lot without running into anyone, which was a good thing since I was now in a pissy mood. Climbing into the driver’s seat of my truck, I headed for the post exit, not really sure about where I was going.

At the guard hut, where I had to slow down anyway, I leaned out my window and called to the corporal on duty. “Hey, is there a mall somewhere around here?”

He nodded. “Yes, sir. If you make a right here, follow this highway for a couple of miles, and then take a left at the first traffic light. The mall is on that same road, about five miles on the right.”

I nodded with a brief smile. “Thanks.”

“Have a good night, sir.”

The roads were dark, and I took them slow. I had nothing but time to kill. Rubbing the back of my neck, I let out a long breath. I’d been looking forward to this course for a while. Fort Davis was only about two hours northeast of Fort Lee, but it was closer to the ocean . . . and thus closer to the beach. It was true what people said: you could take the boy out of the ocean, but you couldn’t take the ocean out of the boy. After growing up on the sands of California beaches, I still had that need to at least see the water every once in a while.

I’d driven up this afternoon, anticipating a little unofficial vacation. I knew I could handle the work involved with the strategic mobility training course, and during the off-hours, I’d have nothing but free, unstructured time. It was why most of us enjoyed TDY: a temporary duty station meant a break from the routine and the stress that came from commanding a company.

Having Eric Muller as a roommate was going to put a crimp in that plan, but I was damned if I would let him ruin my time away, even if it meant I had to stay out of our room as much as possible. I had options, after all. There was this mall that I was turning the truck into now. True, it was on the small side, and the parking lot was pretty barren. The stores I could see weren’t familiar to me. But it probably had to have a food court, didn’t it? And of course, there was the tattoo place Jake had mentioned. Not that I wanted ink, but I could check it out to waste some time.

The mall, like its parking lot, was almost empty, with only a few shoppers wandering past stores, window shopping or munching on crap from the food court. None of it looked good to me until I spotted a kid with a foot-long hot dog, and then that hot dog was all I could think about.

Following my nose, I made my way past the card store, the sunglass cart, and the lingerie shop—though I’ll admit my eyes did sneak a few peeks at the stuff on the mannequins in that window. The shit that chicks wore to be sexy was an endless source of fascination for me. Bras, for instance. They were a mystery I hadn’t yet solved. Racerback, push-up, strapless, T-shirt, enhanced, full-figure support—what did it all mean? Sometimes—scratch that; all of the time—I was grateful to be a guy. All I had to worry about was stepping into my boxer briefs each morning and kicking them off every night.

Two teenagers were working at the Weiner Hut when I stopped to order my food. The one manning the register looked bored to death, and who could blame him? The place was dead. He barely acknowledged my existence beyond mumbling the total I owed for my dog, fries, and drink. The other employee was a girl with a high ponytail and a quick smile. I caught her staring at me with open admiration, and I shot her a little wink before I strolled away with my food. She was jail bait, for sure, and I didn’t want any part of that, but it never hurt to be friendly.

Once at the small table, I made short work of the hotdog and fries. Usually, I’d have sat back and people-watched for a little while, but there just weren’t enough folks to do that tonight. So, after I piled all the trash on my tray and deposited it in the bin, I began to head back toward the exit, retracing my steps. The evening was a bust. There wasn’t anything for me to do but to drive my bored ass back to post and maybe watch something on my laptop, under the blanket, while wearing my earphones, if that didn’t bother his majesty, my roommate.

And then I realized that I was walking by a bookstore. Score! Somehow, I’d missed it on the way in, but there it was: a little piece of nirvana, just waiting for me to wander in and find something to read. I knew at least two of my favorite authors had new releases this month, and I hadn’t had time to pick them up yet. This was the perfect opportunity to catch up on those books and amuse myself since I didn’t always have a lot of time to read.

Like the rest of the mall, the place was deserted. I strolled down the aisle until I hit the mystery area, where I got lost in checking out a bunch of different possibilities for tonight. Looking for the right book was kind of like searching for the perfect chick, I mused. Sometimes the covers were all pretty and promising, but then you opened it up and realized it was a dud.

I was chuckling at my own humor when I caught movement from the corner of my eye. A woman was standing with her back to me, facing the personal growth section. She was tall and thin, with blonde hair that reached nearly to her very fine ass. As I watched, she reached back to lift the strands away from her neck, and a very clear memory screamed across my mind. I saw that same hand brushing that same hair over that same shoulder as she straddled me. Her small, perfect tits bounced slightly and her neck arched, her mouth forming an O as she ground her pussy against me, and my cock was buried deep into her sweet heat—

Holy shit. For a minute I couldn’t breathe, and I wasn’t sure if it was the arousal from that memory flash—‘cause yeah, there was arousal in spades, baby—or surprise as I realized that I knew this girl. I’d met her a while back when I’d driven up from Fort Lee to Richmond to see my friend Cassie. Cassie had been in town visiting from California, and the woman who now tilted her head as she continued to peruse the shelves had been her . . . roommate from college. That was it, wasn’t it? We’d all met up in a bar, but after I’d dragged my ass the whole way up to see my old friend, Cassie had blown me off to hang out with her sorority sisters from college. So instead of talking old times with Cass, I’d gone home with her former roommate, whose name was . . . God. What was it?  I should’ve remembered it because I sure as hell remembered what had happened once we’d gotten to where she lived.

We’d gone back to her tiny apartment, and she’d made me dinner . . . we talked non-stop, sharing stories and experiences, and then I’d fucked her so many times, we’d both lost count. Against her bedroom door the minute it was closed behind us. In her bed. Next to her bed. I’d gone down on her while she had writhed on her kitchen counter when we’d paused for a snack. She’d ridden me until I’d gone hoarse, calling out her name. Which was . . .

“Leah.”

I didn’t realize I’d spoken it out loud until she turned her head. Those bewitching green eyes I remembered so well went round, and I wasn’t sure if she was more startled that someone was standing behind her at all, or that the someone was me, in particular. Shit, maybe she didn’t recognize me. Maybe I was just one of her many conquests, which would explain why she was looking at me with such a weird expression on her face just now. She probably didn’t remember my name at all—

“Kade.”

The relief that flooded through me was only because I was glad that I didn’t look like a loser for remembering someone who’d long forgotten me. Nothing else. Only that.

“Yeah.” I took a step toward her, stopping when her face filled with panic. “Uh, good to see you again. I can’t believe I ran into you here. How’ve you been?”

She still didn’t turn around, which I thought was kind of odd. And when she spoke, her voice was guarded. “What are you doing here?”

I slid my free hand into the front pocket of my jeans. “I’m here at Fort Davis on TDY—uh, temporary duty. I’m taking a six-week-long class. And I’m here in this mall because I was bored, and my roommate in the barracks is a little bit of an asshole. And I’m here in this bookstore because I needed something to read before I have to go back and deal with the asshole.” I spread out my hands. “So that’s my story.”

Leah nodded, and her shoulders seemed to slump a little. “Okay, well . . . sorry about your roommate. I hope it works out. Good to see you.” She faced the shelves again, her back stiff. I got the sense that she was willing me to walk away.

“Hey, do you want to grab some coffee or something with me? I’ve got nothing but time right now, and if you have, say, half an hour free, we could catch up.” I shifted the three books I was holding to my other arm. “There’s got to be someplace around here that’s open, right? It’s not that late. I just have to pay for my books.”

She glanced back at me over her shoulder again, checking out the paperbacks I held. “You’re buying those?”

I nodded. “Yup. I was planning on it. The Army frowns on me just taking stuff out of stores, you know. Paying for it seems like the best option.”

Leah mumbled something under her breath that sounded like either a prayer or a curse. “Okay. Well, I’ll meet you at the register. I’m the only one working tonight, so I’ll ring you up.”

“You work here?” Surprise tinged my voice. “You didn’t use to work in a bookstore, did you? I thought you were in law school and had a job at some big firm. What happened?”

She dropped her head, sighing. “A lot has happened since I met you, Kade. A lot has changed.” Squaring her shoulders, she pivoted around to face me.

Shock rendered me speechless and frozen because I realized now why she’d kept her back to me. While Leah’s frame was still slender, the small tits I’d enjoyed that night had grown much larger. But I couldn’t even look at them, because something else had my attention.

And that would be the high, round baby bump swelling the belly of this woman I’d slept with six months before.

 

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First Chapter Friday: Maximum Force

These are the men of the 94th ID. They fight with honor, they defend their nation and their brothers fiercely, and when they love, they do it with single-minded passion.

Max Remington has never been anything but a soldier. The oldest son in a family that served our nation for generations, he’d never considered any other path. The army is his life, his home, and his one true love.

Until he meets Samantha Crewe.

Part millennial flower child, part spunky free spirit, Sam was raised by parents who encouraged her to express her feelings and embrace peace. She’s quick to love and open to just about any new adventure . . . but Max might be her biggest challenge yet.

When these two clash, expect immediate combustion . . . of the very hottest kind.

Read the first chapter now!

Max

“Hey! Remington. Hold up a minute.”

I paused just outside my office door and waited for my buddy Shaw to catch up. We’d just come out of a battalion meeting, and the colonel had not been happy. While she wasn’t angry at me—or at any of the other company commanders, per se—I was still glad to be out of the tension-filled room. I figured Shaw felt the same way.

“That was fun, wasn’t it?” One side of his mouth curled up. “I’ve never seen Colonel Debbings so pissed.”

“She’s getting heat from above. Nobody likes bad PR, and this deal with Reardon’s a fucking mess. I get that most of these morons aren’t gifted with much common sense when they get to us, but God almighty, Shaw—this kid’s just trouble and has been from day one.” I rubbed my forehead. “I’m having Lake bring him in after lunch so I can talk to them both.”

“It’s a pretty clear-cut cause for an Article Fifteen, right? Or maybe even court-martial.”  Shaw leaned one hand against the door jamb. “I mean, he went into town, provoked a fight in a bar, and fucked up the other guy but good.” He lowered his voice. “This Billy Johnson, the victim? Colonel didn’t say it, but what I hear is that they’re talking traumatic brain injury on the dude he beat.”

“Yeah, I heard that, too. And it would be bad enough if that were the extent of it, but now with the victim’s sister going to the press and raising a fuss, it’s only going to get worse.”

Shaw rolled his eyes. “I saw her on all the local morning news today, and it’s already been picked up by one of the national programs. This shit storm’s going viral.”

I nodded. “And I’m the lucky son of a bitch who gets to deal with it.”

“Sorry, buddy.” He grimaced. “If there’s anything you need my help with, let me know.” He began to walk away and then turned, taking a few steps backward. “Oh, and just in case you didn’t hear this—now there are protesters outside post. My first sergeant’s wife came in to go to the commissary and said they were there with signs and chanting about us training killers and turning them loose on the civilian population.”

“That’s just peachy.” I shook my head. “When there are terrorists blowing up shit, though, who’re they going to scream for? Us trained killers, that’s who.”

“You’re not wrong.” Shaw sketched a wave. “Good luck, Max. See you later.”

I heaved a sigh as I went into my office and pulled out the chair from under my desk. I didn’t understand people who picketed or protested. From where I stood, all that yelling and waving signs didn’t accomplish a damn thing, and who the hell had time for it, anyway? Bunch of whining, would-be hippies who were just looking for a cause they could complain about, I thought. My granddad used to talk about the peace protesters from the sixties, as well as the anti-war folks who’d been waiting in the airport when he’d landed in San Francisco fresh from his second tour in Vietnam. They’d been quick to sneer and spit at him . . . at my granddad, a soldier who’d just risked his life to keep the world safe from the spread of communism.

Fucking idiots. After we’d pulled out of Southeast Asia, all the protestors had eventually cut their hair, put on suits, and gone to work, making big money, while so many of the soldiers ended up sick, mentally and physically, as well as often broke and homeless. There was a lot of injustice in this life, and that particular one never failed to make my blood boil.

I spent the rest of the morning doing the endless paperwork that made up most of my job as a company commander. I loved the Army. That went without saying. I’d been born into it, raised on posts both in the US and around the world, and when the time had come for college, I’d gone ROTC, choosing active duty upon graduation. Being with my guys out in the field, going on deployments, marches, short-term camps—I thrived on that shit. But the sad reality was that the higher up I got, the more rank I gained, the less I got to do that kind of stuff.

Noontime rolled around, and my stomach began to growl. Some days I ate lunch at my desk, but today, I ran over to the grill across the post and picked up a burger, eating it on my way back to work. Fort Lee was busy as usual, and I heard more than one person talking about the protesters who were marching just outside the gate. It took everything in me not to roll my eyes. Instead, I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore any mention of those bleeding hearts.

When I got back to the company headquarters and swung into my office, Lieutenant Lake, one of my platoon leaders, was sitting in a chair just outside the door. Next to him, slumped slightly, was the object of the post’s chatter, Private Reardon. Medical tape crisscrossed over an ugly cut on his forehead, and he was sporting both a split lip and a beauty of a black eye. Considering what I’d heard about the other guy, it must’ve been a hell of a fight.

Both men got to their feet as I approached. Lake looked weary; as the platoon leader, he’d been the one to get up in the middle of the night on Saturday when the call had come in about the fight. He’d gone into Petersburg with his first sergeant to post bail for the troublemaker, and more than likely, if I knew Lake, he’d reamed the kid inside out from the minute he had custody of him.

“Sir.” The lieutenant met my eyes.

“Hey, Lake.” I spared the other man a brief glance. “Reardon, you look like shit.”

The private stared over my shoulder at the wall opposite us. “Feel like shit, sir.”

“Glad to hear it. You’ve fucked up big this time. It’s gone up the chain of command, and there are a lot of unhappy people on post this afternoon.” I paused to let that sink in. “A lot of unhappy officers. Doesn’t look good for you.”

“Yeah.” He muttered the single syllable. Next to him, Lake growled in warning. Reardon clenched his jaw. “I mean, yes, sir.”

“Come on in, both of you. Let’s get started.” I walked ahead of them into the office and sat down behind my desk. Both of the other men took their seats across from me. Reardon’s gaze never left his hands, but Lake leaned forward in his chair, waiting for me to speak.

“I need to know what happened Saturday night, Reardon. Tell me everything from the time you left post until Lieutenant Lake bailed you out of jail. Don’t leave out anything, and for the love of God, Reardon, don’t you dare fucking lie to me.”

His mouth twisted. “Yes, sir.” He took a deep breath and began speaking. “I left here about six with Deen and Petrowski.” At my questioning frown, he added, “From the platoon. We hang around together. So we called for RideIt and headed into town. We started at this one bar, but it was pretty dead. No girls, the music was lame, so we went on to another one. And then another. We hit the Crater around nine-thirty, I think.”

I stifled a groan of dismay. The Crater was one of the most townie bars in Petersburg. Named for the infamous crater that had come about on the Petersburg battlefield during the Civil War, it drew a crowd of women who were eager to catch themselves a soldier who might take them away from their hometown. It also was frequented by men who harbored deep resentment toward the military presence outside of town, even though they knew all too well that Fort Lee provided jobs to the community. It was the perpetual catch-22 cycle; they hated us, but they needed us . . . and they hated that they needed us. As a result, brawls between enlisted men and locals were all too common an occurrence.

Still, these scuffles rarely got out of hand or went too far. When they did, though, it was a big fucking deal, as demonstrated by my friend Reardon.

“At first, it was okay. We just sat in a booth and had some beers. Deen was all gloomy because he’d had a fight with his girl back home, and he wanted to go back to the barracks and video chat with her.” Reardon breathed a phrase under his breath that sounded suspiciously like pussy whipped.

I cleared my throat, and the private’s eyes flashed to me, full of sardonic humor, before he continued.

“So he left the bar about . . . oh, I guess eleven or thereabouts. Petrowski and I went up to the bar after he took off, and we started talking to a couple of girls.” Reardon flushed, the pink staining his neck. “Petrowski . . . he, uh, went outside with one of them. I don’t know what they were doing.”

I tried not to smirk. I had a fairly good idea of what Private Petrowski and his townie hook-up had been busy doing outside. It probably wasn’t a Bible study.

“The other girl, the one who was still in there with me, she was kind of drunk by then. She kept trying to talk me into going outside, too, or even going home with her, but I could tell she didn’t really know what she was saying. She’d had a lot to drink.” His mouth worked. “It wouldn’t have been right to take advantage of her.”

“And you’re nothing if you’re not a gentleman, huh, Reardon?” I couldn’t hide the sarcasm in my voice.

This time, his eyes flashed with anger that took me aback. “Yes, sir, I am. I may be a fuck up here, and I might get into trouble a lot, but I respect women. I was raised by a single mother, and she’d beat me within an inch of my life if she ever heard of me showing anything less than courtesy and kindness to a girl. To any woman.” His words rang with both conviction and sincerity, and I noted absently that even Lieutenant Lake appeared to be surprised.

I steepled my fingers in front of my face. “I apologize, Reardon. I shouldn’t have made that assumption. So, you were there in the bar with this girl, and you were fending off her advances. And your buddy was outside getting laid. What happened next?”

He shifted in his chair. “The girl, she just plastered herself up against me. And like I said, I wasn’t going to go outside with her or anything, but at the same time, I figured, there wasn’t any harm in a little, um . . .”

“Flirtation?” I suggested.

“Uh, yeah, I guess. We might have been, like, kissing a little, but nothing else. And then this guy comes up to us. He grabs the girl by the arm and rips her away from me, and she falls down on the floor.” Fury infused his words. “He threw her down so hard, she knocked into someone else, another girl, and that one fell on top of the first one. I was afraid one of them, or even both, was really hurt.”

I was beginning to see where this was going. “Is that when you started to fight?”

Reardon shook his head. “No, sir. I honestly was too surprised at that point to do much more than try to help the girl. I pulled her up, and I was trying to see if she was all right, and the guy comes at us again. He starts screaming at the girl, calling her names—” He broke off. “It was clear pretty fast that they used to be together. He was saying that she was a cheating, uh, bitch, and she was yelling right back that she didn’t belong to him because there was no way she’d stick with a guy who smacked her around.”

I closed my eyes, sighing. “Okay.”

“I’ll be honest, sir, at that point, I was pissed. This guy was getting in my face, and I knew I should just get out of there, but then he, uh . . .” Reardon swallowed. “He backhanded the girl. Like, hard. She would’ve hit the floor again if I hadn’t been there behind her.”

“Shit.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Fucking asshole.”

“Yeah, that was my thought exactly, sir. And maybe I should’ve told the bartender to call the cops, or maybe I should’ve just dragged the girl out of there—I thought of both of those things after—but I didn’t. I reacted. I hauled off and hit the guy, and then . . . well, it all got pretty fucked up after that.”

The room fell silent. This situation wasn’t exactly the way I’d assumed it was. Reardon was a screw-up, sure; he’d admitted to that. But if even most of what he was telling me was true, there wasn’t much I could do to fault him. That was the man in me speaking, though. The company commander still had to dole out consequences.

“So you threw the first punch.” I tilted my head in question, and Reardon nodded.

“Yes, sir. I did hit him first, but I was sure he was about to go after the girl again.”

“Right, but it wasn’t self-defense. You were acting to protect another civilian.”

He nodded again. “Yes, sir.”

I glanced at Lake. “Do you know who called the police?”

“Yes, sir. The bartender did. By the time they responded, though, the, uh, victim was already unconscious.”

“Jesus Christ, Reardon. I get that you were standing up for this girl. I get that you were trying to do the right thing. But did you have to take it so far? This man, the one you hit, he’s still out of it. He might have a brain injury, the type that has serious repercussions. You gave the motherfucker a fucking concussion.” I picked up a pen to make a few notes on the paper in front of me and then tossed it down in disgust.

“Sir, I didn’t hit him that hard, and I only hit him twice, both times to the jaw. He went down the second time, landed on a table, and one of the men at that table shoved him away. That’s when he knocked his head into the bar and passed out.”

This was better, but only slightly. I addressed the lieutenant again. “Were there any witnesses to this? Is there anyone who will corroborate his story?”

Lake looked even wearier than he had before. “According to the police report, no, sir. All the people at the bar either claimed that they hadn’t seen anything or that Reardon provoked the victim.”

“What about the girl? Did anyone get her statement? Seems like she might be our best bet here, seeing that she didn’t have any reason to want to defend the victim.”

“There wasn’t any mention of her in the report, sir, and I didn’t ask about her at the station, because I hadn’t talked to Reardon at that point. I can go back and find out, though.”

“Do that,” I directed, and then paused. “On second thought, no. Send Sergeant Tulley. He might have more luck than you would.” Tulley, the platoon sergeant, wasn’t exactly a local boy, but he was from Richmond, about an hour north of us. He had a better chance than Lake did of getting information from the Petersburg PD.

“Will do, sir.” Lake nodded.

“Reardon, until we can get this straightened out, you’re confined to the barracks. This is for your own good as much as for anything else. This story hit the news, and now we’ve got locals picketing outside post because they’ve heard you started the fight and nearly killed the man.”

For the first time all afternoon, Reardon straightened his spine. “Sir, that isn’t true. None of it is.”

“From a certain point of view, it is, and that’s all that matters to these people. They’re responding to a sound bite they heard over their breakfast cereal, and some of them are operating off years of resentment against the Army, against Fort Lee, and against any of us who go into their town and mess with their people.” I tapped on the edge of my desk. “Lake, what about Petrowski? He didn’t see anything of this, I take it? He was still too busy getting his rocks off outside the bar?”

Lake looked pained. “No, sir, he didn’t see it. But when the cops showed up, he went back inside and figured out what was going on. He was the one who called first sergeant and filled him in.”

“Maybe he can at least give a statement about what happened before he went outside. He might be able to speak to the actions of the girl and how Reardon was handling her.”

“I’ll talk to him, sir. He said he offered his statement to the local police, but they said they weren’t interested since he hadn’t actually been present during the altercation.”

“Of course not,” I muttered. We tried to keep a cordial relationship with the nearby police departments, but it wasn’t always possible. “Well, find out what he has to say, and if we need to do it, we’ll drag him back down there and convince them to put him on record. If he can even speak to Reardon’s state of mind prior to the fight, that might be helpful.”

“Got it, sir.”

“All right.” I waved my hand. “That’s all for now. Once we get all the details straight and find out what the police intend to do, we’ll see what’s going to happen on this end.”

Both of the men stood, but Reardon lingered when Lake made to leave. “Sir, I just want to say—I know this was my fault. I know I didn’t do everything exactly like I should have. I should’ve walked away, or I should’ve taken the girl out of there if I felt she was in danger. And I’m sorry I put you in a bad position.”

“Yeah.” I pressed my lips together. “I appreciate that, Reardon. If you’re being straight with me, if everything you just told is true, I understand that you were in a tough position. You did the right thing to defend the girl, but you went about it the wrong way, and that’s probably going to fuck up your life for a while. But I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure you get justice. You have my word on that.”

Reardon looked as though he wanted to say something else, but finally, he simply nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

Lake closed the door behind the two of them, and I leaned back in my chair, stretching my back.

“Fuck.” I closed my eyes. A nasty headache was beginning to brew inside my brain, and I had a feeling that it was only going to get worse before it got better.

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First Chapter Friday: Just Roll With It

It was only supposed to be a one-night thing.

Amanda
When I showed up at my friends’ engagement party, the last thing I planned for was a wild one-night stand with the bride’s older brother. On the other hand, Vincent DiMartino is smart, sexy—and safe. He doesn’t want more than a quick hook-up–and neither do I. Or so I thought.

When life tosses us together again, the same intense spark is still there. There’s nothing wrong with a casual relationship . . . unless someone’s heart is at risk.

Vincent

I’m not interested in long-term anything, and I have no desire for a serious relationship. My job as a pastry chef in my family’s restaurant demands all of my time and attention. The night I spent with Amanda Simmons was supposed to be just that—one night. But I didn’t bargain for how much I’d enjoy her sense of humor, her intelligence and her sass . . . not to mention her unrepentant sensuality.

Now that I realize I want more than just her body, can I persuade Amanda to take a chance on me? Will she risk her heart on the man who was only supposed to be a fling?

Sometimes plans go awry. And sometimes, you just have to roll with it.

Read the first chapter now!

Amanda

The city sidewalk felt like a wind tunnel as I hustled toward the entrance of my apartment building and yanked open the door, fighting the blast of hot air that tried to thwart me. A man in an understated uniform standing behind the desk smirked at me.

“Little breezy today, Ms. Simmons?” Rocky cocked his head.

“Just a tad.” I ran my fingers through my dark hair, giving my head a little shake just so that I could see between the thick strands. For the hundredth time, I congratulated myself for getting my hair cut last week; taking five inches off the length made me feel lighter, somehow. It was also easier on a day like today when the gusts would’ve tangled my curls into snarls.

?“Are you glad to be finished for the week? Ready for a relaxing weekend?” The doorman and I had an easy, teasing acquaintance. Rocky prided himself on his familiarity with the schedules and rhythms of the people who lived in this building, and so he knew that I’d just finished my first week back at law school. He also knew how happy I was that this was my last year. I was beyond ready to be done with classes, papers, and exams . . . even if I wasn’t sure that diving into the world of civil law was going to be that much better.

?“Normally, I’d say hell, yeah, but tonight isn’t going to be my typical ordering in and vegging. I have to go out.”

?Rocky chuckled. “Most people your age love to go out on a Friday night. You sound so glum about the idea.”

“I am,” I sighed. “I’m tired, and I’m grumpy and—” A trilling sound came from the bag on my shoulder. “And that’s my mom calling for our weekly catch-up. I better answer it. See you later, Rocky.”

“Stay cool, Ms. Simmons.”

?I waved and pushed the button for the elevator at the same time that I answered the phone. “Hey, Ma. How’s it hanging?”

The long sigh on the other end of the line made me grin. “Amanda, my mother and her mother are rolling in their respective graves in horror at the way you answer your telephone. And the good instructors at St. Ursula’s Academy aren’t thanking you, either.”

“Fine.” Stepping onto the elevator, I affected a genteel tone, imitating the cooing voices I’d grown up hearing from all the so-called ladies. “Good afternoon, Mother. I hope you are quite well.”

She groaned. “That’s even worse. Isn’t there some kind of happy medium with you?”

?“Nope. I’m all or nothing, from one extreme to the other. And you know it because that’s how you raised me.”

“And I have no one to blame but myself. Oh, well.” My mother laughed. “How did the first week of classes go?”

“Fine. Nothing unexpected.” I unlocked the door to my apartment and stepped inside, throwing the deadbolt out of habit. “Dr. Arlington asked me to send you her best.”

?“Lois Arlington? Good Lord, is she still teaching? She was ancient when I was there. I’m surprised she’s still alive.”

“I’m not positive she is. She never stands up the entire class period—she teaches from her chair. For all I know, she could be an animated corpse. But she remembers you, so there’s that.”

“It’s something. Are you just getting home now? Sounds like you had a long day.”

?I kicked off my shoes and padded through the living room, past the kitchen, and into my bedroom, where I eyed my king-sized bed longingly. I wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and sleep the weekend away.

“Yeah, I’m home, and yeah, it was a long day. But it’s not over yet. I have Liam and Ava’s engagement party tonight, remember?”

“Ah, that’s right. I forgot that the party’s this weekend.” A little bit of regret tinged Mom’s voice. “I have that fundraiser in Newark. I’d much rather be celebrating with all of you. Be sure to give Liam and Ava my love. And Laura, too, of course.”

“Will do. Think the senator will show up?” I unbuttoned my jeans and wriggled them down my legs, kicking them off.

“I have no idea what that man might do anymore, except that it’ll probably be the wrong thing, and he’ll end up making an ass of himself. I won’t be sorry to miss that.” Mom sniffed. “I can tell you that the governor is not at all happy with Liam’s father. It’s only a matter of time before the party kicks him out of his seat. You can’t talk about family values for decades and then screw around on your wife. At least, you can’t do that if you’re going to remain wholly unrepentant.”

“Which he is.” I switched the phone over to speaker and set it on the dresser so that I could peel off my shirt. “I feel so sorry for Liam’s mom. She must be mortified.”

“Well . . .” My mother chuckled. “I wouldn’t feel too bad for Laura. I ran into her a few weeks back, and she was, um, very cozy with her companion. I think he’s got to be at least ten years younger than she is. And he is . . .” Mom paused, as though she was searching for the right word to use. “Uh, quite the looker.”

“Liam’s mom has a hot new boy toy? Go, Mrs. Bailey.” Reaching behind me, I unhooked my bra and leaned forward until it fell down my arms and landed on the floor. “I never knew she had it in her.”

“I doubt the Senator did, either,” Mom responded drily. “But I will say that Laura seemed to be very happy.”

?“I just bet she is.” I picked up the phone again and turned the speaker off as I brought it to my ear. “Hey, I’d be happy, too, if I were getting laid on the regular by a smokin’ hot dude.”

“Amanda, really.” I could practically feel my mother’s shudder. “I don’t want to think about my friend getting laid, and I certainly don’t want to hear my daughter talking about her sex life.”

“Or lack thereof,” I muttered, nudging open the bathroom door with my shoulder.

“Well, I should probably let you get ready for tonight,” Mom said loudly enough that I knew she was making a point of ignoring my words. “Have a good time. I’ll think about you while I’m dying a slow death of boredom.”

“You do that. See you Sunday?” I rummaged in the bathroom cabinet until I found my curling iron. “We’re still on for O’Doulies?”

?“Brunch at eleven,” my mother confirmed. “You can tell me all about the engagement party, and your father can show you pictures of the site he’s flying off to next week.”

“It’s a date. Love you, Mom.”

“Love you, too, sweetheart.”?I set my phone down on the bathroom counter, plugged in the curling iron, and reached into the shower to turn on the water. Wriggling out of my panties, I tossed them in the vague direction of the laundry basket and stepped into the stall, giving a happy little sigh as the hot water hit my skin.

It felt weird to be getting ready to leave my apartment again. In the past three months, I’d been living and breathing law, up to my neck in interrogatories and depositions between my part-time job in a law firm and my classes. I’d intentionally stepped away from any kind of social life after Cam and I had called it quits last spring. ?I wasn’t nursing a broken heart by any means. Cam and I had started out as friends with benefits, and when we’d morphed into more, it had been out of convenience rather than passion. Exclusivity wasn’t hard for either of us, because we were both too busy to go looking for other distractions. Our relationship perks had included having an automatic plus-one for any social occasion and the promise of sex-on-request whenever either of us needed it. We’d always gotten along well, and if I were being honest, I’d have to admit that I’d enjoyed our sparring about law and politics even more than I’d loved our sex life.

When Cam had graduated in May and accepted a position with a firm in Seattle, a couple of our friends had asked if I planned to follow him to the West Coast after I’d finished school. We’d both laughed because the idea had never crossed our minds. After his graduation celebration—which had been dinner with his parents in a lovely, trendy restaurant—we’d said goodbye. Cam had kissed me on the cheek and promised to keep in touch. So far, we’d texted now and then, but I knew he was moving on—as he should have.

As for me, I’d jumped into my job with both feet. Aside from seeing my friends Giff and Liam and their respective partners, and the weekly brunch with my parents, I didn’t go out. I ate, I slept, and I worked. Giff had taken to calling me his hermit friend.

“Hey,” I’d retorted. “You’ll be glad I’m working so hard now after I graduate and become your friend who can represent your ass in a court of law.”

“Sweetie, the only thing I can be accused of is killing it in party planning. And so far, that’s not a crime.”

?Giff and Liam had known me long enough that I didn’t worry about offending them when we went weeks without talking or months without actually seeing each other. But apparently, I’d tried Giff’s patience enough that he’d texted me one Sunday last month, announcing that he and Jeff, his long-time boyfriend, were coming over to take me out to dinner.

“Pick a good restaurant, cookie. Jeff and I want to spoil you a little.”

?I’d smiled at his use of the affectionate name. Choosing obscure nicknames was one of Giff’s specialties. As long as I could remember, he’d called our friend Liam Bailey ‘beetle’, a reference to the old comic strip Beetle Bailey. Liam’s fiancée Ava was ‘peaches’, thanks to her gorgeous skin. And I’d always been ‘cookie’ except for a brief period midway through high school when he’d taken to referring to me as Evita. I’d assumed it was because I’d played that title role in one of our high school productions.

When I’d asked Giff, he’d smiled at me. “That’s part of it. You killed it as Eva Peron, for sure. But it made me think that you’re a whole lot more like her than what I’d realized. You’re a tough cookie on the outside, but inside, you’re mushy, and even though you try to hide it, you want people to like you.”

“Bullshit.” I’d rolled my eyes. “I don’t care what people think of me. That’s a lesson I learned early in life.”

“That’s what you want us to think. But I see more than you know. And I stick by what I say.”

That night, when the three of us were out to dinner, Giff had told me about Liam and Ava’s engagement, as well as about the shit-show that had taken place earlier in the day when the two families had met to talk wedding details. ?“

It was ugly.” He’d shuddered. “The Senator showed up late, guns blazing.”

?“He means that in a figurative sense,” Jeff had put in. “It’s probably important to say that, given Senator Bailey’s position on the Second Amendment.”

“True. Anyway, he wants them to get married next year in DC, and he wants to make it a huge show. I had to get tough with all of the parents.”

?I could just picture it, and I’d smirked. “Did they behave after that?”

“For the most part. The wedding itself is going to be small and intimate, and it’s happening around Christmas time. But they’re letting Mrs. B throw an engagement party next month, so make sure you put it on your calendar as soon as you get your invite.”

And that was why I was now showering and musing over what to wear when most of me wanted to pull on my jammies and curl up on the sofa with a bag of chips, a bowl of onion dip, and Marvel’s The Defenders on TV.

“It’s fine.” I spoke to myself out loud as I turned off the shower and wrapped a fluffy towel around me. “It’s one night. I can show up, smile, do the friend thing, and then come home and veg. I don’t have to stay long.”

Even as I said it, I knew I was delusional. Liam and Ava were among my best friends. I’d never risk hurting their feelings by cutting out early, even if the last thing I wanted to do tonight was to be sociable.

Padding out of the bathroom, I opened my closet door and began flipping through the hangers at the far end, where I kept the clothes I didn’t wear very much. This was the only part of the walk-in that was still organized and fairly neat, thanks to the gift my mom had given me for my last birthday.

Maybe some daughters would’ve been offended if their mother had sent a professional organizer as a gift, but I’d been thrilled. Mavis had shown up and whipped my closet, my drawers, and my desk into shape. She’d been fast and efficient, and she hadn’t shamed me about my lack of neatness. Still, even though we’d agreed to make her visits an annual event, I had to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to letting her see that I’d slid back into bad habits. ?I wasn’t a slob. Not really. I just always had more important things on my mind than doing things like hanging up clothes or folding them neatly. I meant to go back and do it, but somehow, there never seemed to be enough time. Consequently, while my apartment wasn’t dirty, it wasn’t exactly well-ordered, either.

But here in the fancy-dress section of my closet, everything was still hanging by color and length. Granted, the color differentiations weren’t great; most of the dresses were black because I’d long ago discovered that black was the easiest option when it came to evening events. I frowned as I flipped through them; black might be easy, but it was also boring. While I didn’t expect the engagement party tonight to be a wild affair, out of my love for Liam and Ava, I wanted to look my best.

?I was just thinking that I should’ve taken the time to shop for something new and pretty when a flash of red caught my eye. Frowning, I lifted the dress from the rod, trying to remember where it had come from. Was it an impulse purchase when I’d been out shopping with friends? Or had my mother sent it to me? That seemed unlikely, the more I examined the dress; it was short and silky, cut low in front and back, with two thin straps to hold the top up. While my mom was fairly progressive when it came to me and her acceptance of my choices, she never would’ve given me anything this out-and-out sexy.?Still, here it was, and there wasn’t any harm in at least trying it on. If it didn’t fit or if I didn’t like it, I could always go back to one of the black ones.

But once I’d wriggled into it, I knew there was no way I could wear anything else. It didn’t look as though it should fit me, but hot damn, it really did. With boobs the size of mine, there were few times I could go without a bra, but this dress had enough support that the girls were showcased nicely, without making me look ridiculous and trashy. The material clung enough to accentuate my hips and ass, and it was short enough that my legs looked amazing.

?Digging through my shoes, I found a pair of silver strappy heels that worked perfectly. As I scrutinized myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help grinning—all I needed was hair and makeup, and tonight, I was going to be a total babe.

Thirty minutes later, my hair was blown dry, curling slightly around my shoulders, my makeup was flawless, and I’d added some sparkly silver jewelry to compliment the shoes. I transferred my license, my debit card, a twenty-dollar bill, tissues, lipstick, and my phone into a small clutch and hustled my fabulous self downstairs to wait for my ride. ?I wasn’t too precious to take public transportation most of the time. I didn’t mind trains or buses, since owning a car in the city felt like a waste of money and energy. But I also had enough money to afford a car service, thanks to a generous allowance from my parents and my own small salary at the law firm, and tonight, it made sense to splurge. I didn’t want to risk getting wind-blown or overheated when I’d made the effort to look good.

?The RideIt driver pulled up in front of my building right on time. She greeted me with a smile, and then we were on our way.

?* * *

“Amanda! I haven’t seen you in months.”

Ava DiMartino greeted me with a hug and kiss on my cheek. “I’ve missed you.”

?“Apparently, not that much,” I teased, reaching for her left hand. “Look at this sparkler. It’s gorgeous, girl! Liam did good.”

Ava beamed. “Didn’t he? The main diamond came from his grandmother’s ring, and the smaller ones were from one that belonged to my great-grandmother. He designed it himself.”

?“Overachiever.” I winked as the man himself strolled over and wrapped his arms around his fiancée’s waist, pulling her tight against him. “Hey, buddy, congrats on getting the girl. It’s about time. I was starting to worry that I was going to have to nudge you into proposing.”

“Never.” Liam nuzzled Ava’s neck. She shivered, and a pang of stark loneliness quivered through me. “I know a good thing when I have it. I was just waiting for the perfect time.”

?“And this is it.” I lifted my glass of prosecco in a small toast. “I can’t wait to watch you two get married. Giff filled me in on some of the details . . . are you really sticking with the small wedding at Christmas idea?”

“Yup.” Ava nodded. “Giff’s all over the planning, but we’re keeping it small and intimate. In spite of what our mothers want.”

“Good luck with that.” I glanced around the room, taking in the mix of friends and family, some of whom I recognized and some of whom I didn’t. “Your dad isn’t here yet, Liam?”

Ava sighed, and Liam winced. “I don’t think he’s going to show. We had a pretty serious argument last time I saw him, and my mom says he hasn’t been answering her calls or texts. He’s sulking because we won’t do things his way.”

“I’m sorry.” I laid a hand on his arm. “That must suck for you.”

?Liam shrugged. “Honestly, it’s easier that he isn’t here. It’s the guilt over feeling that way that’s the worst part, I think. I should want my dad to be part of my life, right? But I’m always happier when he stays away.”

“It’s going to work out.” Ava turned in his arms and kissed the side of his jaw. “He’ll come around eventually. Your father loves you, babe. It’s just . . . he has to learn what’s really important.”

“You’re too nice.” Liam brushed a thumb over Ava’s lips. “My dad doesn’t deserve the grace you give him.”

“Maybe not, but for you, I’d do anything.” Ava rested her cheek on her fiancé’s chest.

“And on that note, I’m going to find Giff and Jeff before I go into a diabetic coma from all the sugar between you two.” I pretended to gag a little, and they both laughed.

“Enjoy yourself tonight, Amanda.” Ava tilted her head. “Giff tells me you’ve been working too hard lately. So have a good time here, and then let’s make sure to get together for lunch soon. We need to catch up.”

“It’s a date.” I winked at her as I began to move across the room. ?Mrs. Bailey definitely knew how to throw a party. Jazz played softly in the background, and uniformed servers circulated a variety of foods and specialty cocktails. A bar in the corner offered beer, wine, and other mixed drinks. I drained the glass of prosecco that I’d been handed soon after coming in and made my way toward the bar for something more my style.

“It’s probably not exactly PC to say this, but you are the hottest thing on two legs in this whole room.”

?Pausing, I answered without looking back. “Then take me away and do me hard, baby. I’ve been waiting all my life to hear those exact words from you.”

“Hey, now. Are you both forgetting about me?” Jeff made a good show of sounding affronted as I turned around to face both men who were grinning at me.

“Sorry, Jeff. I had him first.” Grabbing Giff’s face, I nailed him with a fast, passionate kiss. “The truth is, I ruined him for all women, and that’s why he had to turn to the male population.”

“Your loss was definitely my gain.” Jeff’s hand wandered lower to rest on Gifford’s ass, and my friend actually blushed a little. These two made my heart melt.

“Seriously, cookie, you cleaned up good tonight. I love the hair a little shorter. And that dress—you put the VA into va-va-VOOM!” Giff held my hand, looking me over.

“Thanks. You both look pretty good yourselves. I was about to get a drink. Care to join me?”

“Don’t mind if we do.” Jeff linked his fingers with Giff’s, and together we approached the bar. Giff ordered a white wine, while Jeff stuck with water. I asked for my regular, sniffing the liquor in appreciation as we wandered back toward the center of the room.

?“It’s a nice party.” I let my eyes roam over the crowd. “Did you help?”

“I gave Mama Bailey a few tips and pointers, and I suggested the caterer, but otherwise, I left everything in her capable hands. The woman’s been throwing parties and hosting political events since I was in diapers. She knows what she’s doing. She could teach me a thing or two.”

“I doubt that.” I sipped my scotch. “You’re making quite a name for yourself. When I tell people that I actually knew the famous Gifford Mackay way back when, I’m practically a minor celebrity myself. Your parties are becoming legendary, my friend. I’m proud of you.”

Jeff nudged him with an elbow. “See that? You’re the talk of the movers and the shakers now, baby.” He met my eyes. “I keep telling him that he’s headed for the big time. But he worries more than you’d think.” ?“

I didn’t ever see myself doing this. Planning events,” Giff admitted. “So sometimes it makes me nervous that everything seems to be coming so easily.”

“You work damn hard. Just because you enjoy what you do doesn’t make the work any less meaningful.” Jeff took a long chug of his water bottle. “You’ve got a gift.”

?“He’s right.” I poked Giff in the ribs. “And speaking of Jeff being right about everything . . . when are you two going to make this official? Weddings come in threes, don’t they? You just planned Ava’s friend Julia’s wedding, and now Liam’s . . . maybe it’s time to tie the knot yourselves.”

?Jeff hooked an arm around Giff’s neck. “We’re going to do it, sooner rather than later. But no big planned event for us. When we get married, I’m whisking him off to the islands, where we can do everything our way, and he doesn’t have to worry about the napkins matching the matchbooks or any shit like that. Just the two of us . . . in a tropical setting . . . lots of rum drinks . . .”

?Giff moaned. “Let’s leave tonight. I’m all over that.”

“If I thought you were serious, I’d have you out the door already,” Jeff retorted. “But soon enough.”

“Can a close, personal friend get in on the destination wedding deal?” I sighed. “I could use a vacation, and you need a witness. I promise, I’d pay my own way, and I’d book a room on the other side of the resort.” I wrinkled my nose. “I don’t need to be in the next room for the wedding night shenanigans.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal.” Jeff touched his water bottle to my glass, and we both laughed. As I tossed back my head to finish my drink, my gaze caught on Liam, who was chatting with a man who looked vaguely familiar. ?But I was pretty sure I’d have remembered meeting a guy like this one. He was tall, with the kind of build I just knew was solid muscle. He was in black dress pants that fit him well in all the right places and a crisp, white cotton button-down shirt that strained over his chest and shoulders. Even as my eyes traveled down his body, he glanced at me, returning the favor as he checked me out, too.

“Giff,” I murmured, never looking away. “Who’s the man candy talking to Liam right now?”

Giff followed the direction of my eyes. “Oooooooh. That’s Ava’s big brother, Vincent. He’s kind of pretty, isn’t he?” He patted Jeff’s back. “No offense, honey.”

“None taken. I’ve always thought it was a shame Vince is straight.” Jeff gave a rueful shake of his head.

“Wait a second. Vincent is the single one, right?” I tried to remember Ava’s family lineup. “He’s not the one who got married a couple of years back?”

?“Nah, that’s the oldest, Carl. Over there with the wife and teeny tiny baby. As far as I know, Vince is unattached. I can’t believe you haven’t met him before now.”

I gave a rueful laugh. “I did, actually. Remember Liam and Ava’s house-warming party a couple of years ago? I had a brief but hostile conversation with one of Ava’s brothers, and if Vince is the pastry chef, he’s the one. He was kind of rude.”

“Vince is the type who doesn’t pull any punches. He says what’s on his mind, no matter what, so I can see him being a little prickly if you two got off on the wrong foot back then. But he’s usually a pretty decent guy.” Giff wiggled his eyebrows at me. “Are you thinking he’s the horse you’re about to get back on?”

?“What?” I tore my gaze away from Vincent and Liam. “What horse?”

“Jeff and I were saying it’s time for you to get back in the saddle after Cam moved west. Now seems as good a time as any to do that.”

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to saddle up Ava’s brother and take him for a ride?” I nibbled the side of my lip. “Don’t you think she might . . . object?”

“Nah.” Giff shook his head. “Ava’s the least judgmental person I know. Plus, there’s that whole deal where her best friend was Liam’s girlfriend before she had him, you know. So she’s not the kind to throw stones.”

“Still—” I was about to say something, to share yet another reason why I might not want to tangle with Vincent DiMartino, when suddenly Giff gripped my arm. ?“Look at that. He’s heading this way!” His whisper was excited. “Oh, my God, Jeff, the look on his face tells me it’s time to exit, stage left.” Giff kissed my cheek. “I have things to do and people to chat up. You have a good time with that one, sweetie pie, and then fill me in on all the details tomorrow. I’ll call you. Later in the day.”

“Giff.” I half-laughed as the two men moved away from me, but when I felt a large, strong hand on my back, between my shoulder blades, all humor died. ?With a deep breath, I turned to face Vincent DiMartino.

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First Chapter Friday: I Choose You

Wedding bells are ringing for us. I hope.

The path of true love has sometimes been bumpy for Ava and me. I mean, I was her best friend’s ex-boyfriend, the son of a disgraced politician, and a former campus playboy. Ava was the hard-working, single-minded scholarship student with no time for romance. We were the couple least likely to succeed.

But almost two years later, love for us is better than ever. I’m pursuing my dream of being a college professor, and my girl Ava’s the rising star at a local ad agency. But I still have one more goal: I want to marry the girl who changed my life.

Neither of us realizes that making it to the big day might be our greatest challenge yet. Between my parents’ acrimonious divorce and Ava’s family’s ideas of how to plan the perfect wedding, it’ll take the strength of our love—and a little help from our friends–to see us through to happily-ever-after.

Read the first chapter now!

Ava

Good morning, fabulous followers! So glad you stopped by to visit the most happening event planning blog in the cybersphere. And do I have some goodies for you today. . .
For those of you who read Time of Your Life regularly, the Sebastian anniversary shindig went off like a dream. It was a privilege and honor to be part of this couple’s celebration of fifty happy years together. We put together a menu that was built around old family recipes and served it on china that Evelyn and Harry had received as a wedding present fifty years ago. Go check out the pictures on our Events page. Seeing their expressions will make you believe in long-term love again.
So what’s next? So glad you asked. This weekend, I’ll be large and in charge at the wedding of the year. You heard it here first, folks. My good friends Julia and Jesse are finally tying the knot, making it official. Let me tell you a little bit of their love story.
I met Julia during our sophomore year in college when she began dating my roommate—yes, you remember him, the very popular ladies’ man, Liam Bailey. After their—ahem—tumultuous breakup, Julia and her best friend (also her roommate) the lovely Ava, hatched a plan for revenge. I was involved too, but at the time, I didn’t realize what the endgame was. I probably would’ve been caught in the crossfire if Julia hadn’t met a certain good-looking guy—with dimples, no less! Hubba, hubba.
Jesse was a grad student in the SLP program at Birch and the son of Dr. Danny Fleming, our favorite science prof. The two met while Jules was working as a part-time nanny for Dr. Fleming’s younger son, Desmond. And while sparks flew from the get-go, Julia hadn’t abandoned her plot to get back at Liam. . .the implementation of which nearly derailed the budding romance of this weekend’s bride and groom.
In the end, our heroine decided true love was more important than getting her own back. All together, now, everyone say, “Awwww. . .”
These two love birds moved in together at the beginning of senior year, and our boy Jesse popped the question the Christmas before Julia’s graduation. They had the world’s longest engagement because Julia wanted a June wedding, and Jesse was in the middle of his clinicals last year. But now. . .let the good times roll!
The whole affair is taking place in Julia’s hometown. Cliveboro is a sweet little burg nestled in the heart of South Jersey. If I had to choose the setting for a picturesque early summer wedding, this would be it. The ceremony will be held at the bride’s home church, St. Philip’s Anglican. We’re keeping the sanctuary classic and simple, with an abundance of tea roses and baby’s breath. After the I-do’s are exchanged, everyone will decamp to Haverty House, a local landmark and historical home, where we’ll first indulge in the chicest of cocktails before the evening gives way to dinner, dancing, and dalliance.
Fabulous followers, I’m just crossing my fingers that yours truly can hold back the tears of joy. Because everyone gets a happy ending here. Remember my friend Liam, who played the villain in the Julia/Jesse love story? As it happens, he’s knee-deep in the mush with Julia’s best friend, Ava. This Italian princess made the man work for her, no doubt, but when I’m around them now, I need flame retardant clothes, because these two are H O T. Will they be the next couple to stroll down the aisle? Both of them are mum on the topic, but I can’t imagine Liam’s dumb enough to let this precious gem slip through his fingers.
For now, I’m working hard to make sure Julia and Jesse have the wedding day of their dreams. Stay tuned, my friends. Next week every pic you want to see will be splashed all over this site. . .
Until then, stay fabulous. And have the Time of Your Life.

I grinned, shaking my head as I finished reading Giff’s blog post. He never failed to amaze me. He’d stumbled into event planning during our last year of college when he’d put together a few small weddings for friends and acquaintances, but Liam and I were both stunned when he’d announced that he was opening his own business after graduation. He was perfect for the role: he had an eye for detail and some innate knowledge of what would work and what wouldn’t when it came to social affairs.
“Ava, we’re ready to leave.” Julia buzzed into the room, coming to a sudden halt when she spotted me at the desk with my laptop open. “Oh, sorry. Were you Skyping with Liam?”
“No.” I turned from the computer, unreasonably annoyed at my friend’s tone. If I wanted to video chat with my boyfriend, I was damned well not going to feel guilty about doing it. I hadn’t seen him in a week, thanks to all the pre-wedding festivities that apparently required my presence in Julia’s hometown. “I was reading Giff’s post. He just updated the site about your wedding.”
Julia squealed as she came to my side, and I tried not to wince. My friend had never been a squealer until the last six months. I was beginning to think that being a bride brought out the worst in people.
“Let me see!” She bent to look over my shoulder, her lips moving as she scanned the screen. “Oh my God, Giff is such a sweetheart. Wedding of the year. Jesse’s mom’ll love that.” Her voice held more than a touch of resentment.
“Aw, come on, Jules. She hasn’t been that bad.” I closed the computer as Julia straightened. “I think she’s really starting to like you.”
“Yeah.” She rolled her eyes. “I could tell when she called to remind me for the fiftieth time that she doesn’t want ‘that woman’ sitting in the front row at the church. Just how am I supposed to tell Sarah that she can’t sit with her husband at his son’s wedding?”
“I’m sorry.” I rubbed her arm. It was easy to forget how much pressure Julia was under when she was in full bridezilla mode, but I had to admit she’d had her hands full, navigating the delicate balance between Jesse’s mother and his father’s new family. Since Julia had worked for Danny and Sarah before she even knew Jesse, naturally she was closer to them than she was to his mom, who lived in New York and was uber-sensitive about anything involving her son.
She lifted one shoulder. “Whatever. Jesse said he’d deal with it. He gets pissed when she goes around him to get to me because she thinks I’ll give in.”
“And lucky us, we get to go spend two hours with her at the nail salon.”
“That’s the beauty of having a huge wedding party. There are so many of us that we can make sure she’s at one end of the pedicure row while I’m at the other. Plus, Alison promised she’d run interference today.”
Jesse’s sister had been slow to accept that Julia was in her brother’s life for good, but once she had, the two had become good friends. She was a bridesmaid, and according to Jules, Alison was sometimes the only voice of reason between Jesse and their mom.
“It’ll be fine. We’re all going to make sure nothing happens to upset you before the wedding. That’s our job as bridesmaids, right?” I slid my feet into my black flip-flops. “So. . .we’re off for mani-pedis. Let me grab my handbag from your room.” The Coles’ house was full to bursting with family in town for the wedding and the bridal party, but I’d somehow scored a prime spot, sleeping in Julia’s room. Not camping out in the living room meant I got a little peace and quiet at night. It was probably the only thing keeping me sane.
“You’re riding with Courtney. She’ll meet you outside. Mom and I are heading over now so we can make sure everything’s set up.” Julia headed toward the front door as I turned the other way to make a stop in her bedroom. My purse was on top of a pile of clothes and make-up bags in the corner of the room. I dug it out and made a quick stop in front of the full-length mirror on the closet door. My hair was up in a ponytail, with loose tendrils curling around my face. I’d been make-up-free all week, mostly because getting mirror time in the bathroom or even here was like fighting the pack for a bite of meat. I pulled my baggy T-shirt tight against my stomach, frowning.
I’d always fought the battle of the bulge. It was genetics; I was the short Italian girl with big boobs and ample ass, built just like my mom and both my grandmothers. I’d kept things under control by watching what I ate. When Liam and I started dating, he’d sweet-talked me into trying out running. While I still didn’t love it like he did, I appreciated what it did for my body. And okay, I liked the sweaty make-out sessions that almost always followed our runs.
Over the past few months, we’d been so busy with jobs, school, and everything leading up to our friends’ wedding, I couldn’t remember the last time we’d run together. Liam sometimes fit one in between classes, but my schedule was tight. I missed it, and my body did, too, apparently, judging by the extra little jiggle I saw in the mirror. I stuck out my tongue at my reflection and turned off the light as I left the room.
Julia’s cousin Courtney was waiting for me in the driveway, leaning against her car. I saw two other girls in the backseat, their mouths moving a mile a minute. Courtney caught my eye and made a face.
“I couldn’t take it another second. They’re driving me nuts.”
Laughing, I walked around to the passenger side. Out of all of Julia’s family and friends I’d been in close quarters with this week, Courtney was the one I liked the most. She was older than us, and though she had a wicked sense of humor and dry wit, I could tell her patience was wearing thin.
“At least you get to go home at night. Think of me, being with them round the clock. They never shut up.”
Courtney shuddered. “Thank God for small blessings. Let me tell you, my house of chaos, even including the six-month-old twins, feels like a day spa after hanging out here. Jules owes us so big.”
We both sighed as we climbed into the car. I fought the urge to cover my ears at the sound of Sandra’s high-pitched voice. She and Ellen were Julia’s best friends from high school, and even though their parents lived here in town, they’d insisted on staying at the Coles’ house this week.
“We’re bridesmaids! You might need us for something.” Ellen stood firm, and Sandra backed her up. “Besides, it’ll be fun. Like a week-long sleepover!”
“They’re just afraid they’ll miss something,” Julia had told me when I’d gotten to town last Saturday. “But what can I do? I’m trying to keep the drama to a minimum. Anyway, they aren’t that bad.”
I had a feeling Courtney would’ve disagreed with her just now as she backed out of the driveway, her mouth set in a firm line. Ellen finished telling a story that set them both off into peals of laughter, and I hunched lower in my seat.
There was a nanosecond of silence, and then Sandra leaned forward, putting one hand on my shoulder. “So Ava, Julia says you’re in advertising. That must be fun.”
Courtney cut her eyes to me, and I bit back laughter at her expression. “Uh, yeah. It’s good. You know, it’s a job.”
“Do you, like, make TV commercials? Or write them? What kind of stuff do you work on?”
“Actually, I handle the social media part of our business. So I deal with putting up posts, maintaining the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of our clients. I find bloggers who’re willing to promote products we represent.”
“Oh, so you don’t get to meet the cute guys on the ads? You know, like, the models?” Ellen was losing interest.
“No, I don’t have anything to do with that process.”
Courtney turned the car into a parking lot and pulled into a spot, turning off the engine. “We better get in there before Aunt Heather blows a gasket. We’re already running late for our appointments.”
I lagged behind just enough to let Ellen and Sandra go in ahead of me, hoping we’d end up in pedicure chairs far apart from each other. But of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, the young woman who met us just inside pointed Courtney to an empty manicure station before she directed the other three of us to the last empty massage seats in the row of pedi bowls.
Julia waved to me from the table where a guy was working on her fingers. He grunted something, and she turned back around, shooting me a quick apologetic glance as she spotted her friends sitting next to me.
I climbed into the first seat, which put me between Julia’s mom and Sandra. The pedicure whirlpool bath was already filled with water, and I tested the temperature, smiling at the tech to show it was perfect.
Once we were all settled with our feet in tubs of swirling scented water, Sandra turned to me. I guessed our conversation wasn’t over after all, since she spoke as though we’d never been interrupted.
“Of course, you don’t need to work with hunky models, do you? You’re dating Liam Bailey, right?”
Her words carried, high and clear, and I wanted to crawl under my chair. Next to me, Mrs. Cole shifted, and I didn’t need to see her face to guess at the expression. To say that she was not Liam’s biggest fan would be a gross understatement.
Dating my best friend’s ex was a tricky business. I hadn’t set out to fall in love with Liam, and I’d fought those feelings for as long as I could. Hurting Julia was the last thing I’d wanted to do. But she’d been long over Liam by the time he and I’d gotten involved. We’d both made our peace with the situation. In the past two years, we’d had moments of awkward, sure, but Julia was so obviously in love with Jesse that I hardly thought about the past anymore.
At least, until the wedding crap had kicked into high gear. At Julia’s shower a few months ago, I’d overheard the whispers among her family. Julia laughed it off, but there was no denying that even if she’d moved beyond what’d gone down with Liam, her mother had not. Mrs. Cole got a pinched look on her face any time we mentioned his name. I had the feeling she hadn’t wanted to invite him to the wedding at all, but she really couldn’t get around it, with me being a bridesmaid. She’d put her foot down at allowing him to sit with me at the head table, though, and I was a little nervous about what would happen tonight at the rehearsal dinner when they would be in the same room for the first time since Liam had staged his public breakup with her daughter.
I swallowed hard and tried a smile as I answered Sandra. “Yes, Liam and I are a couple.”
“That’s got to be weird, right? I mean. . .didn’t you meet him through Julia? I can’t imagine going out with a guy who used to be my friend’s boyfriend.”
“It was after. A long time after they broke up. And it was. . .complicated.” Why was I trying to justify myself to this girl? I kicked myself mentally. “Julia was already with Jesse by the time Liam and I started dating.” I glanced across to where Julia’s nails were being buffed with such intensity she was gritting her teeth. “And isn’t Jesse wonderful? He and Julia are so perfect together.”
Sandra sighed. “They are. I just want to cry when I see them. The way he looks at her is what I want someday.” She shook her head. “But all the good ones are taken, I think.”
“Nonsense.” Mrs. Cole reached around me to pat Sandra’s knee. “You’re young. The right one’s out there. Look at how many frogs Julia had to kiss before she found her prince.”
My face burned. The arch tone of her voice left no doubt that Julia’s mom included Liam in the frog category. I bit my lip and schooled my expression to remain as neutral as possible. Two more days. I only had to make it through the rehearsal dinner tonight, the wedding tomorrow. . .and I’d be done. I could go home and put this behind me.
My phone buzzed in my handbag, and I slid it out of the pocket. My lips curved into a smile when I saw Liam’s name.
Just leaving now. Going directly to the hotel, right?
I tried to keep from squirming as the nail tech used the callous file on my heel. When she paused to rinse off my foot, I took advantage of the break to reply to Liam’s text.
Sounds good. Drive safe. I miss you. See you at the church at 6. Do you have the address I emailed you?
He must’ve been holding the phone, waiting for my answer, because his came swiftly.
Got it, and I will. Miss you too babe. See you tonight.
I put the phone away and lay my head back, closing my eyes as the tech massaged lotion into my feet and calves. Her fingers were magic, and I felt the stress of the week falling away. I missed being touched. Liam gave me amazing foot and back rubs. Of course, his massages usually led to other kinds of touching. . .and I missed that, too. I’d never seen myself as a sensual girl. I’d gone a long time between my first sexual experience, a one-night stand in high school, and the next—which was Liam. But being with him had awakened something deeper inside me, and as it turned out, I liked sex. I loved Liam touching me. And right now, I missed it—and him—with an ache.
Just thinking about it made me want to squirm in a whole new way now. I pulled out my phone again and glanced at the time.
Three more hours until I’d get to see Liam. I couldn’t wait.

***

“No, Desmond, you need to walk slower. Don’t sprint down the aisle. This isn’t a race.” Mrs. Krupp, the church’s wedding coordinator, held the blond little boy by the shoulder as she attempted to impress upon him the weight of his duties. Des shook off her hand and pushed out his bottom lip. I choked back a laugh.
I stood at the front of the church, already in position. We’d done the up-the-aisle walk once already, and now they were trying to teach Desmond how to do it. He was the last one to walk before Julia and her father made their appearance.
Scanning the church once again, I frowned. It was six-thirty, and there was no sign of Liam yet. I was beginning to worry.
“Is it just me, or does Desmond look like he might take a swing at this lady?” Courtney leaned over to whisper in my ear. Between us, her six-year-old daughter Nala, tomorrow’s flower girl, wriggled in impatience.
“I wouldn’t blame him. She’s annoying as hell.” I glanced guiltily up at the altar. “I mean, heck. Sorry.”
“At this point, I’m thinking even the big guy’s getting ticked off at her.”
“Now try it again. Remember, step, together, step, together. And—”
The door at the back of the church banged open, and all eyes turned to see the latecomer. Liam stopped to ease the door closed, and even from this distance, I could almost feel the tension in his shoulders. In the front pew, Mrs. Cole’s mouth tightened.
Julia’s voice floated from the side of the vestibule, where I couldn’t see her standing with her father, waiting for their cue to practice the aisle walk. “Hey, Liam! You’re late. Ave’s been worried. Go on in and sit down. We’re nearly done.”
I smiled, mentally blessing my friend for her grace. It took a special person to be comfortable with having her ex-boyfriend at her wedding, even three years after the fact. Across the altar, Jesse caught my eye and winked. I wondered if he was thinking the same thing about his fiancée. He and Liam had finally come to the point where they were comfortable around each other, and we actually had fun together on our frequent double dates.
Liam came into the sanctuary and slid into the wooden pew farthest back. He scanned the room, and I knew when he’d spotted me. His face relaxed into a grin, and I swore felt the heat of his body all the way in the front. As his eyes scanned me up and down, clearly appreciating my green sundress and the way it clung to my curves, it took every bit of restraint in my possession not to run back and throw myself into his arms.
Instead, I focused on the priest, who was motioning to Mrs. Krupp. “Let’s get moving, shall we? Send the boy up here. I don’t care if he runs, hops, or crawls backward.”
Mrs. Krupp sighed in long-suffering patience. Desmond’s mother, Sarah, sat near the aisle, and she beckoned to her son. He didn’t look happy about it, but he made it to the front with a slow, solemn walk. Jesse held out his hand, smiling, and Des scampered the last few feet, swinging on his brother’s arm.
The pianist sounded the opening notes of the Trumpet Voluntary, just enough to start Julia and her dad on their walk. I bit my lip as I watched my friend, clutching her father’s elbow with one hand and holding a paper plate covered with the ribbons from her wedding shower gifts in the other. Tomorrow she’d be doing this for real, dressed in the gorgeous cream gown, with the antique lace veil. Tomorrow, I’d be standing up here in front of tons of people, and I’d have to hold it together. Tonight, I could afford to indulge in teary eyes.
As she approached us, Julia glanced my way. She stopped and pointed one pink-tipped finger at me.
“Don’t you dare start! None of that.”
Behind me, I heard Courtney’s breath hitch. Julia shook her head. “You two. Honestly.” She plunked her paper bow bouquet into her dad’s hand and stepped closer to us, pulling both her cousin and me into a fierce hug. “You know I love you both. But you’re crazy. No one cries at the rehearsal. This is when you’re supposed to be laughing and making fun of the whole thing.”
“It’s her fault. She started it.” Courtney stabbed a finger into my arm. “But then I looked at you, and I can’t believe my baby cousin’s getting married. . .” She trailed off into another hiccupped sob.
Julia squeezed us both one more time and then stood back. “Okay, enough now. We need to wrap this up so we can go eat.”
The priest sighed and began instructing Jesse, Julia, and Mr. Cole on the giving away of the bride. The three mimed the lifting of the veil, the daddy-daughter kiss, and the passing of Julia’s hand to Jesse. He ran through the entire ceremony, and we all rehearsed filing into the front row to sit down during the homily and Eucharist. Julia and her family were Anglican, close enough to my own Catholic roots to feel familiar, though it still seemed weird to me that their priest was married.
Finally, Julia and Jesse got to the kiss-the-bride part. Jesse pressed his lips to her forehead, and we all giggled: Julia’d told us that they were saving the real kiss for the big day. Father Allan nodded his head, and Julia raised her faux bouquet and let out a whoop.
“All right, people! Time to eat. Anyone who needs directions to the country club, let me know.”
Courtney caught my arm. “I take it you don’t need a ride to dinner?” She turned her head to look significantly at Liam, who’d stood up and was leaning against the end of the pew. Out of all of Julia’s family, Courtney was closest to Julia, and she knew the whole story of the Liam break-up. She didn’t hold anything against me, and I was grateful for that.
I grinned at her. “I think I got a better offer. But thanks. Oh. . .” I leaned closer. “And if we don’t get there right away, don’t send out a search party.”
She laughed. “I got you covered, girlfriend. Go get your man.”
I managed to maintain a sedate walk across the church, even though I wanted to sprint like Desmond had. I threaded my way around small groups of people chatting, ignoring the tension between the different factions. Sarah and Danny, who stood with Des and Jesse, were trying to pretend Jesse’s mom Beth wasn’t staring daggers at them. I saw the look of strain on Alison’s face as she tried to reason with her mother.
But they all disappeared the second I reached Liam. He slid his arms around my waist and bent to meet my lips as I rose on tip-toe to kiss him. I concentrated on keeping it simple and discreet, trying to remember we were in church. But the minute I felt his body against mine, discretion went out the window, followed closely by focus. All I wanted was more.
I snaked my arms around his neck, trying to pull him even closer. Liam broke his mouth from mine and whispered into my ear. “We should probably take this outside. The priest looks like he’s afraid we’re going to be struck by lightning, and Mrs. Cole looks like she’s hoping it’ll happen.”
Giggling, I buried my face in his neck. “Let’s go. Jules would kill me if I got struck down and messed up the balance in her pictures tomorrow.”
He laced his fingers through mine and tugged. I paused just long enough to scoop up my handbag and hook it over my shoulder. Liam held the door for me, and we stepped into the humid warmth of the June evening. He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders.
“That was hard on you, wasn’t it?” I rubbed my hand up and down his arm. “I’m sorry. I could’ve just met you at the dinner, I guess.”
“Yeah, we could’ve done that, but I didn’t want to put off seeing you for any longer than I had to. Sorry I was late. I checked in at the hotel, laid down to channel surf, and the next thing I knew, it was six-thirty. Guess I was more tired than I thought.”
He unlocked the passenger side door of his BMW, and I got in. Liam’s parents had offered to buy him a new car for graduation, but given the tension between them, he didn’t feel comfortable accepting it. The BMW was his, free and clear, and it was in good shape. Plus, it held a bunch of good memories for us.
I was ready to make some more tonight.
Liam climbed in next to me, and I reached for his hand again. “You didn’t miss anything at the rehearsal except for the glaring war between Jesse’s mom and Sarah. Well, to be honest, most of the glaring was coming from Mrs. Fleming. The first Mrs. Fleming, that is. Poor Sarah just looked horribly uncomfortable. Oh, and then there was Courtney and me, holding each other back from strangling the giggle twins.”
“The giggle twins?” He raised one eyebrow.
“Don’t ask. I have a feeling you’ll understand after tonight and tomorrow. Just remember, you’ve been warned.”
Liam started up the car. “Duly noted. Do you have the directions to the country club?”
“I do, but do you really want to go there?” I trailed one teasing finger down his thigh, my lips curving up when I felt the muscles tense. He turned, draping his arm over the back of my seat.
“Don’t we kind of have to go? I mean. . .isn’t it part of the bridesmaid deal?”
I laid my head against his arm, closing my eyes as I breathed in his one-of-a-kind Liam scent. “Yeah, it is, but I don’t have to be there right away. There’s an hour of cocktails, people just mingling around. Jesse’s mom insisted on it. So as long as we’re there by the time they start the toasts, we’re fine.”
“Hmmm.” Liam leaned in to nuzzle his lips on my neck. “So not enough time to make a stop back at the hotel.”
“Afraid not. I wish I could, but I’d end up needing to redo my hair and makeup after. We wouldn’t make it there on time.”
He skimmed his hands up my ribs, his thumbs brushing the sides of my breasts. “I could be careful. Not mess you up.”
“Ha!” I moved to give him more access. “Maybe you could, but I can’t promise anything. We’ve been apart for a week. I might just devour you.”
Liam growled against my skin. “Oh, babe. You’re killing me here.”
“I know. Believe me, I feel the same way.” I brushed back his hair from his face as headlights from another car illuminated us briefly. “Let’s drive over to the rehearsal dinner. Maybe there’s a dark corner where we can park. Making out in the church parking lot seems a little tacky to me.”
“At this point, I don’t care.” Liam shot me the smolder, but he turned the key in the ignition and backed out.
I gave him directions to the country club on the edge of town, where Mrs. Fleming was holding the rehearsal dinner. Technically, both of Jesse’s parents were the hosts, but I knew from Julia that Danny’d had very little say in the details. His ex-wife was determined to put together an evening that might rival the wedding itself, and it irked Jesse to no end. I told Liam all about it as we drove.
“She’s been a piece of work all week. At the bridesmaids’ luncheon, she sniped at poor Sarah the whole time. Julia drank almost a whole bottle of wine that night, and from what I heard, Jesse exploded at his mom. I feel bad for him. For both of them, actually. They just want everyone to be happy and get along on their wedding day.”
Liam’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Yeah, I feel for them, too. It’s tough when your parents can’t be in the same room with each other without fighting.”
I reached over and rubbed his thigh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up. . .well, you know.” Tracing one finger up to his arm, I ventured a question. “Speaking of that, though, did you call your mom today on your way up here?”
Scowling, he shook his head. “No. I haven’t talked to her all week.” I felt the tension under my touch and knew with a pang that this time it had nothing to do with being turned on.
“Yeah, I know. She texted me and asked that I remind you it’s been over a week since you talked. She’s very subtle, that one.”
“Shit.” Liam’s jaw tightened. “Sorry about that. I wish she wouldn’t drag you into this mess.”
“Hey.” I leaned across and brushed my lips over his cheek. “I’m not dragged into anything. If it affects you, it affects me. We’re a package deal, right?”
A smile tugged up the corners of his mouth. “Right. I’m sorry the package isn’t a little better. More what you deserve, instead of this. . .” He made a rolling gesture. “This fucked up crap. You didn’t sign up to deal with my parents’ divorce.”
I slid my hand down to thread my fingers through his. “I signed up for everything. And from where I sit, the package looks pretty fine.” I favored him with a suggestive glance that only made his smile bigger. “Anyway, your mom just wants to hear from you. I don’t take sides, but at least she seems to like me, which is more than I can say for the Senator.”
“How could she not?” Liam lifted our linked hands and kissed my knuckles. “I know this isn’t her fault. My dad’s the idiot. But can you blame me for not wanting to listen to my mother go on and on to me about her new life? The guy she’s dating from yoga class?” He made a face and shook his head. “There’s a limit to my understanding, and hearing about my mom’s sex life is way, way beyond that line.”
“Here’s the turn.” I pointed to the driveway, and Liam slowed, easing the car over the lip of the driveway that led to a large brick house. The sun hadn’t quite gone down yet, but tiny white lights already twinkled on the wide porch. We followed the road around to a paved lot, and Liam parked beneath a row of trees, as far from the canopied door as possible.
“Think we’re safe from prying eyes here?” He turned off the car and unbuckled his seat belt.
“I hope so. The last thing I need is for Mrs. Cole to catch us making out in the car. She’s already not my biggest fan.”
Liam sighed and laid his head back, eyes closed. “Sorry. That’s on me, too. I’m just a ray of sunshine, aren’t I? Maybe I shouldn’t have come this weekend.”
“No. You absolutely had to come. I wouldn’t have made it another night without you. Besides, Julia and Jesse are our friends, and they invited you. They’ve both moved on. Julia’s mom is just. . .” I shrugged. “You know. A mom.”
“Yeah.” Liam tugged at my hand. “So here we are sitting in my car, secluded from the rest of the world—well, mostly—after being apart for almost a week. Remind me why we’re talking about parents? Anyone’s parents?”
“I have no idea.” I undid my safety belt and shimmied my dress up my legs as I crawled onto his lap, slinging one leg over both of his. Liam gripped my waist, and I lowered myself over him so that the hardness straining against his zipper met the pulsing need between my legs. He moved his hands under the bunched material to palm my breasts, brushing his fingers over my nipples. I moaned and ground myself against him.
“God, Ava, you feel amazing. Are you sure you can’t come back to the hotel with me tonight?”
I bent to match my lips to his, sweeping my tongue in a tantalizing circle around his mouth when he opened to me. Dropping light kisses along his chin, I hummed. “I wish I could. You have no idea how much I wish I could.” I spoke against his skin. “But Julia wants all of us at the house for her last night as a single lady. And then we have to get to the hair salon first thing in the morning, and there are the pictures and everything. . .” I sighed, raking my fingers over his hair. “But tomorrow night, as soon as the reception is over, I’ll be going back with you. So you better be ready for me.”
“I’m ready for you now. More than ready.” He lifted his hips up, stroking against me.
“You are.” I leaned forward, pushing my breasts into his hands. “Oh, God, Liam. . .couldn’t we. . .” I glanced around. No one was parked near us, and it was just about dark now. I could make the silhouettes of people on the porch, but here, beneath the shadows of the trees, I was fairly certain we were hidden. And honestly, at this point, I didn’t care if we weren’t. Dropping my hand between us, I unbuttoned Liam’s pants and pulled down the zipper as far as I could. It was enough that his cock was freed, and I grinned into his eyes as wrapped my fingers around him, making him groan.
“Ava. Oh, God, what’re you. . .yeah. Oh, yeah. Babe, that is so good.” He was lying as far back in the seat as he could, his hips bucking. “But should we. . .I don’t want to make a mess before we have to go inside.”
“Don’t worry, I already thought of that.” I circled the head of his erection with my thumb and kept my tone light, conversational. I knew it drove him crazy when I talked while I touched him, when I narrated what I was doing. “At first, I thought I’d go down on you. Keep it neat that way. But then I was afraid I might mess up my hair. So it just seemed this was a better way to make sure both of us stay presentable enough to make it through this dinner.”
I rose up on my knees. Putting one hand between my legs, I moved the thin strip of lace panty out of the way. With the other hand, I positioned the head of his cock at my entrance and sank down.
Liam moaned so loud that a very distracted part of me wondered if they could hear him up on the porch. It didn’t matter. I moved over him, riding the waves of pleasure and the feel of him within me.
He untangled his hands from under my dress and yanked down both the neckline and the cup of my bra, exposing one breast and nipple. His mouth closed over the pink tip, sucking it hard until I cried out, holding his head in place. Liam freed the other breast without lifting his head, using his fingers to tease and rub.
“Babe, I’m so close.” His lips moved against me, the vibration of his voice making me shiver. “I’m going to come.”
“Touch me.” I almost growled at him, my head thrown back. “Here—” I caught his hand and thrust it between my legs.
“I know.” Liam’s fingers fumbled to reach my slick core. “I know. I got you, babe. Come for me now. Come apart around me so I can feel you. Let me feel you.”
I cried out his name as every sensation in the world swirled to center at the movement of his hands. Nothing else existed to me but the point where his thumb met my clit and just below where his thick, hard cock slid into me, joining us, connecting us. And then it all exploded, and there was nothing beyond the bursts of light behind my eyes, the sound of Liam’s voice, low and hoarse as he said my name over and over, like a litany. He arched up one more time, pumping into me as my body clenched around him.
When I fell down against his body, Liam wrapped his arms around me, pulling me as tight as he could, as much of our skin touching as we could manage. Both of us were breathing hard, our exhales mingling as he kissed every part of me within reach of his lips.
“Do you know how much I love you?” He caught my ear lobe between his teeth, worrying it lightly as he murmured into my ear. “I’m a lost cause, Ave. With you gone this week, I was a mess. I just worked, came home, and walked around the house. And every night, I thought about how damned lucky I am that you took a chance on me, and how even more damned lucky I am that you stick around. I don’t deserve you, but I don’t care. I’m keeping you anyway.”
My lips curved into a smile against the rapid pulse in his throat. It was our mantra to each other, something Liam said to me or I said to him at least once week, borne out of our early days together.
“I love you, too, and I’m keeping you right back.”
He sighed then, long and heavy into my hair. “I guess we should probably go inside.”
I giggled. “I thought you already did.”
“Funny.” He straightened both my bra and my dress, covering me, and then smoothed the skirt down as I lifted myself off him. Liam hitched his hip up and pulled out a handkerchief. “Here you go. Want me to help you clean up?”
“No, I got it.” I pivoted over into the passenger seat and managed to use the hankie as discreetly as possible while Liam zipped up and tucked his shirt back into the waistband of his pants.
“Ready to do this?” I opened my door and smiled back at him.
“Yeah, I guess. I think I know what the martyrs felt like before they went to the flames.” He slammed the driver’s side door and met me by the back of the car. “Pretty sure Mrs. Cole wouldn’t mind seeing me roast.”
“She’ll be too busy dealing with Jesse’s mom to even think about us. And if she says anything to you, just smile and nod. Don’t let her get under your skin.”
We followed another couple into the country club. Just beyond the foyer, the main room was filled with people standing with drinks and small plates while wait staff circulated trays.
“Look at that. It’s utter chaos, and she’s serving skewered meatballs. Meatballs. Kill me now.”
I turned toward the lowered voice at my shoulder, grinning. “Giff! I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Well, peaches, that makes one of us.” He scooped me into a massive hug. “But look at you. Goooorgeous.” He held up my hand over my head, checking me out with narrowed eyes. “But maybe. . .” Giff tugged the side of the dress down. “There you go.” He shot Liam a glance, one eyebrow raised. “Do you happen to know anything about why Miss DiMartino’s dress was rucked up on one side, beetle?”
Liam grinned. “I’m pleading the Fifth here, buddy. And claiming immunity since I’m in a hostile environment right now. Oh, and we’ll pull in extraordinary circumstances, too, since I was forced to be away from my girlfriend for an entire week. How does that work for you?”
“Hey, man, I’m on your side. If I were you, I wouldn’t even be here right now. You got guts, my friend.” Giff let his eyes wander back toward the other room. “And you might need them tonight.”
“Aren’t you on duty?” Liam slung his arm around my shoulders, pulling me against him. I slid my hand over his back and laid my head on his chest.
Giff looked pained. “No. I’m here strictly on a guest basis. Jesse’s mother didn’t want to use me for her shindig, because she wants it to be completely different from the wedding itself. Read: she wants it to be better than the wedding’ll be.”
“Which, of course, is impossible since tomorrow is going to be the best wedding ever.” I squeezed Giff’s arm.
“At least the best wedding to date.” He glanced from Liam to me. “Until the couple of the decade decides to make it official, and I get to plan their amazing day.”
I shifted under Liam’s embrace and changed the subject as subtly as I could. “Julia’s so grateful for everything you’re doing, Giff. She knows it hasn’t been easy, dealing with her mom and putting up with Jesse’s mother, too. You’ve got the patience of a saint.”
Giff shook his head just a little, and I knew it was because I’d dodged his last comment. Planning my own wedding was a slightly sensitive topic these days. When Liam and I’d first started dating, he’d talked about our eventual marriage easily. We both had, comfortable with the fact that it was out there in the future, something we’d get to sooner or later. But ever since his parents’ marriage had imploded, he’d stopped mentioning it.
Oh, he still talked about the future—our shared future. I didn’t have any doubts about his feelings toward me or his commitment to us as a couple. But I had a hunch that the idea of marriage scared him now. For the first twenty-something years of his life, he’d thought his parents had a picture-perfect union. He’d believed it right up until the day he walked in on his father in bed with another woman. . .and found out that it wasn’t just a one-time indiscretion. Turned out the Senator’s attitude toward marriage was a lot more liberal than his political stance on anything else.
Liam pulled me a little tighter into him now. “Ava’s right, buddy. You’re rocking this event-planning gig. So you’re sure this is what you want? I mean, you were a poli-sci major. Have you thought about politics? Public service?”
Giff straightened his tie. “I choose to think that planning perfect weddings and other parties is a public service. Imagine if everyone had to put up with this all the time.” He circled one finger in the air.
“It’s not that bad.” I waved to Courtney, who was helping her daughter with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
“Honey, she’s serving mini hotdogs in puff pastry. Better known as pigs in blankets. That’s what you give ten-year-olds at a campout, not guests at a rehearsal dinner.” He sniffed.
“You’re getting dangerously close to sounding stuffy, pal.” Liam punched his friend in the arm. “Keep it up and you can start catering parties for my dad.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I prefer not to work for the stiff upper crust. I’m sticking to the fun stuff.” He was about to say more, but we were interrupted by Mrs. Fleming’s high-pitched voice, calling us all to move into the dining room.
“Dang, guess no pigs in blankets for me.” Liam winked and took my hand. “Come on, Giff. You’ve got to be my bodyguard tonight. Make sure no one stabs me in the back or anything.”
“Hey, what about me? I’ll be with you all night.”
“You’re a distraction. If Mrs. Cole comes at me with verbal barbs, it’s your job to parry those.”
I rolled my eyes. “Glad to know I’m useful for something.”
Liam leaned over to whisper into my ear. “Babe, you’re useful for a lot more than that. Just wait until tomorrow night, and I’ll remind you.”
I shivered, and he laughed as we took our seats and prepared to get through the evening.

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