First Chapter Friday: Best Served Cold

Meet Julia and Jesse . . .
I’m smart enough to choose love over revenge . . . aren’t I?
Liam Bailey is the golden boy of Birch College—he’s hot, rich, a track star and the only son of a popular senator. For nearly a year, I was the lucky girl on his arm.
That is, until he dumped me in the most spectacularly humiliating way.
I’m over him now. I mean, do I want some payback? Sure. When the opportunity to plot my revenge comes along, I’m not going to pass up the chance.
But I hadn’t planned on meeting Jesse. He’s cute, intelligent and the way he looks at me takes my breath away. Jesse is everything I ever dreamed of, and even better, he feels the same about me.
When I realize that my revenge scheme might get in the way of my new love, my choice should be easy. Only . . . I really want to see Liam squirm. I need him to feel as bad as I did. But do I want that so much that I’m willing to risk Jesse?

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           “I didn’t even like him.”

            I threw down the shirt I had just pulled from my suitcase and sank onto the edge of my bed. “I didn’t like him that way. I thought he was a jerk. I didn’t want to go out with him. Remember? I said that. I had a crush on Mason Thomas. I wanted him to ask me out. Not Liam-freaking-Bailey.”

            Across the room, sitting at her desk, Ava lay down her pen. She was surrounded by piles of glossy textbooks we had just picked up from the campus bookstore, and her laptop was open to the syllabus for abnormal psych. Classes didn’t start until Monday morning, but we always came back to campus a few days early to get settled.

            As she turned in her chair, I had the sense that Ava was smothering a sigh.

            “Yes. You told me that. You didn’t like him. You told me then, you told me right after the birthday party, you told me during finals. You told me the night you got so drunk, I was afraid I wouldn’t get you home. You told me the days you couldn’t get out of bed because you’d been crying all night.”

            “I’m driving you nuts, aren’t I?”

            She finally gave in to the deep sigh and regarded me with that ever-patient Ava stare I’d come to know and love in the three years we’d been roommates.

            “Of course not. I kind of hoped that maybe over winter break, you’d have time to process this a little, maybe start to move past it. But here we are, and you’re telling me the same things you did a month ago.”

            I groaned and dropped back onto the bed. “I’m a loser. I’m a loser who can’t keep a boyfriend, even one I didn’t want in the first place.”

            “Sweetie.” Ava sat next to me on the bed and took my hand. “Seriously. I know you have to go through all the stages of grieving this relationship, and you have the added issues of humiliation. But it’s been six weeks. Maybe it’s time to move on.”

            Having a roommate who was a psych major had its own particular charm. Not that I didn’t appreciate her support, but getting analyzed all the time could be irritating.  I bit my tongue and just barely kept from rolling my eyes.

            “If I knew how to move on, don’t you think I would? I’m telling you, Ave, my heart isn’t broken.” She smiled a little and shook her head at my use of her nickname. She always said I was the only person who could further shorten a three-letter name.

            “I’m not really grieving.” I went on, ignoring the interruption. “I mean, I miss having a date on weekends and someone to meet me between classes for coffee and I definitely miss-” I patted the bed. “You know, this. But I don’t think I miss him.”

            “Then why are you still talking about him? Not to be mean, but if you don’t care about Liam, why can’t you let it go?”

            “I think it’s what you said before. Humiliation. I thought people would stop talking about it by now, but I still hear whispers. ‘There’s the girl who was dating Liam Bailey and didn’t know he had broken up with her.’” I mimed a look of shocked glee.

            Ava nodded. “He hurt your pride. I get that.”

            “And why did he dump me? What did I do? What did I not do? I wasn’t clingy. I gave him space. But I was supportive, too. I showed up at his track meets. I tried to be the perfect girlfriend. I went to dinner with his parents when they came to visit. My God, Ave, I slept with him. I didn’t plan to, but I let him talk me into it.” I rolled over and burrowed my face into the blankets.

            “Jules.” Ava lay down next to me and put her arm over my back. “Don’t. You didn’t do anything wrong. He’s a prick. Maybe he hid it for a little while, but prick will always come out.”

            I peeked up over one arm. “Prick will always come out? Is that a new Ava-ism?”

            “Maybe. Ava-isms are always accurate.”

            Pulling over a pillow, I flipped around to lie on my back again. “Jamie says I need something to take my mind off the whole thing.” I grimaced, thinking about my visit home for Christmas and the advice my sisters had given me. “Pretty sure I was driving her, Jen, and our parents crazy. They were glad to see me come back here.”

            Ava bit her lip and tilted her head. I recognized that expression, too. “Your sister might be on the right track. You need to change up your routine, try something new.”

            I shook my head. “I’m not ready to date yet. A new guy is the last thing I want.”

            “I’m not talking a guy. I’m talking, like, a hobby. Volunteering somewhere. The best way to take your mind off your problems is to do something for someone else. Or, I don’t know, play an instrument, or take dance lessons.”

            “Dance lessons? I don’t think so.” I paused and turned my head to look at Ava. “I did have an idea, though. It’s not exactly volunteering or being selfless.”

            “That’s okay.” She turned so she was sitting on her knees, looking down at me, her eyes bright. “That was just one option. What’s your idea?”

            I smiled. “Revenge.”

                                 ***

            “Are you sure this is what you want to do, Jules?”

            We were huddled in the corner booth of Beans So Good, the shabby little coffee shop just off campus. It was quiet for a Thursday night, but then again, the spring semester was just barely underway. Taking into account the sudden cold snap that had hit Birch College as well as all of southern New Jersey, it wasn’t surprising that most people wanted to stay at home.

            But Beans was our home-away-from-dorm, as Ava said, the place we went when we couldn’t stand looking at the same four walls anymore.  She swore their espresso had saved her grades second semester freshman year when she was carrying an eighteen-credit load. She held one in her hand now, a serious expression on her face as she looked over the rim at me.

            I stabbed my straw into the iced mocha on the table. “I don’t necessarily want to do it, but I think I need to.”

            “You know what they say about holding a grudge. Free rent in your head and all that.”

            “I’m not holding a grudge. I’m righting a wrong. Sort of.”

            “So doing this—whatever this is—will change Liam? Make him realize he’s a jerk?” Ava set her drink down, centering it carefully in the middle of the cardboard coaster. “You’re not trying to get him back, are you?”

            “Definitely not.” I shook my head. “I don’t want him back. I want to move on. But at the same time, I want Liam to know how bad it feels like to be treated like that. I need him to know that he was wrong. ”

            She nodded. “Okay. I get it. But how do you see this playing out? ”

            “I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I haven’t gotten that far yet. If I thought showing up at party with another guy would do it, I would. But that would mean finding someone who’d be willing to go out with me. I wasn’t exactly turning them away before Liam asked me out.”

            “Julia, don’t be ridiculous. If you wanted a guy, you could have one. The only thing that keeps boys away from you is that don’t-touch-me attitude you have. That’s why Liam saw you as a challenge. He wanted you because. . .” Her voice trailed off, and she frowned.

            “What’s wrong?” I pushed back my cup.

            “Nothing. I was just thinking. I might have an idea.” Ava straightened up, shifting her legs out from beneath her on the bench seat. “We need a plan. I want to give it some thought. I mean, you’re talking about more than just slashing his tires and keying his car, right?”

            “Defile the Beemer?” I clutched my heart in mock horror. “As tempting as that sounds, yeah, it wouldn’t do the job. Not the way I need it to.”

            Ava smiled. “Then don’t make any plans for this weekend. You and I are going to have a down-and-dirty get-even planning session. I’ll buy the ice cream.”

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First Chapter Friday: Just Desserts

Liam Bailey is my sexiest dream and my worst nightmare, all rolled into one delicious, forbidden package.

I‘m the girl with an ironclad plan. Everything in my world is about succeeding, excelling, and making my large Italian family proud of me. That means graduating college with honors, landing the perfect job, and not letting anything–or anyone–get in my way.

But Liam is the guy who makes me want to break all my rules.

He’s the embodiment of all my naughtiest fantasies, with his incredible body, his brooding eyes, and his tempting smile.

Liam’s also the sweet-talking, complicated son of a well-known politician, the big man on campus, the athlete, the rich guy who’s never had to work for anything in his life.

When I don’t fall into his lap like the other women do, I fully expect him to walk away. After all, why would a girl like me matter to someone like him?

But it turns out that Liam doesn’t give up easily. He’s not going to let our friends’ opinions, his parents’ disapproval or my own walls get in the way of what he wants . . . which, apparently, is my heart.

Well, after all, rules were made to be broken.

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            “Well? What do you think?”

            I dragged my eyes from the Behavior Disorders text I’d been reading and glanced up at my roommate. She’d been changing her clothes since I got back from my last class, trying on one outfit after another.

            “Ava, are you even looking?” I knew the hint of exasperation in Julia’s voice covered up her nerves. I swallowed my impatience and studied her as she shifted from one foot to the other.

            “Yes, of course, I’m looking.” I narrowed my eyes, taking in the jeans and gray sweater. “That looks nice.”

            Julia turned back toward the mirror. “I don’t know. It’s just not what I wanted. And the sweater itches.”

            “Then try something else. You don’t want him to think you’ve got fleas or some weird body rash on your first date.”

            “Thanks.” She disappeared into her closet again and came out with another hanger, this one bearing a pretty green scoop neck shirt. “Does the green look too much?”

            I tilted my head, considering. “Too much what?”

            “You know, too much. . .like, too dressy for the movies.”

            I kept from rolling my eyes, but just barely. “It’s a date, Jules. You want to look pretty. And that color really brings out your eyes. Besides, he’s going to like you, whatever you wear. Go for it.”

            She didn’t look convinced, but she did stop talking as she stripped off the sweater and pulled the shirt over her head. It really was her color, and I smiled a little before I went back to my book. This date was a big deal: it was Julia’s first time out with Jesse Fleming, the handsome son of her boss. They’d met while she was babysitting his little brother, and she was more excited than I’d seen her in a long time.

            I managed to ignore Julia’s mumbled debate with herself over shoes and actually got through two more pages before she planted herself in front of me again.

            “Okay, I’m ready. How do I look?”

            I marked my place again with my finger. “Breathtaking.” I couldn’t help grinning at the sparkle in her eyes. “Seriously, you look awesome. Is Jesse coming up here?”

            “He’s coming to the dorm, but I think I’ll go down to meet him.”

            I arched an eyebrow. “Really? What, are you ashamed of me?” Ack, that was my mother’s voice, coming right out of my mouth.

            Julia laughed. “Of course not, silly. You can come down with me if you want. I just don’t think he should have to brave the Friday night freshmen.” She gave a mock shudder.

            I sighed. Being a resident advisor to a floor full of emotional first-year college girls wasn’t for the faint of heart. “Yeah, I get that. I think I’ll pass on going down. If I go out there, someone who’s having a crisis will find me and need nurturing. If I stay in here, there’s a better chance the crisis will pass before she can track me down.”

            Julia snagged her coat off the back of her desk chair and shrugged into it. “Hope springs eternal.” She took a deep breath and heaved it out. “Wish me luck.”

            I hopped off the bed and hugged her, the top of my head just about reaching her shoulders. “You don’t need luck. Just relax and enjoy yourself.” I stepped back, tamping down the unexpected flare of wistful envy that put a lump in my throat. “And text me at some point, so I know he hasn’t taken you off into the woods to be his love slave.”

            Jules made a face at me as she turned the doorknob. “Please!” Whatever else she might have added was lost in her gasp of surprise when she swung the door open, revealing a tall familiar figure in the hallway.

            Liam’s hand was raised as though he had been about to knock. He looked as taken aback as Julia was.

            “We need a peephole in this door so we don’t open it to just anyone.” She glanced at me over her shoulder, her eyes wide and pleading. I bit the corner of my lip, not sure what I could do to help. I didn’t have experience with ex-boyfriends. Hell, I didn’t have experience with boyfriends at all.

            “Excuse me, I need to leave.” Jules made to step around him. Liam didn’t move.

            “Where are you going?” He sounded more skeptical than curious, and I saw Julia’s shoulders stiffen. Now he was just making her mad.

            “Out.” If he knew her at all, he would have just stood aside at that tone. But apparently, nearly a year of dating hadn’t given him a clue.

            “Where?”

            “None of your business.” Julia craned her neck to look down the hall, and I knew what she was thinking. The last thing she needed was for Jesse to come up and run into Liam. Talk about awkward.

            “She has a date.” I didn’t mean to say it, but the words flew out of my mouth anyway. I stood with my arms folded over my chest as they both stared at me. After a minute, Jules took advantage of Liam’s distraction and slipped past him.

            “That’s right. And I don’t want to keep him waiting.”

            “Which one of your new men are you seeing tonight? Do you know what everyone is saying about you? Or don’t you care?”

            She stopped a few paces away but didn’t turn around when she answered him.

            “I thought I made it pretty clear this afternoon. I’m not your business any more, Liam. If I want to bang the whole football team, I will. So, good night, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”

            “But I wanted to talk with you. This afternoon—”

            “Should have told you everything you wanted to know. Leave me alone, Liam. Please.”

            I couldn’t take it anymore. I moved forward to hold onto the door, leaning out so I could catch Julia’s eye.

            “How about this, Liam. You tell me what you have to say to Jules, and I’ll decide if it’s worth her time. If it is, you can talk to her later, when she’s ready.”

            Julia smiled at me in gratitude, and I mouthed one word to her.

            “Go.”

            She didn’t need me to say it twice. Before Liam could speak again, Julia was down the hall, to the steps. I breathed a silent prayer that Jesse was waiting for her in the lobby.

            “So who is he?” Liam stretched one arm to lean against the door jam, his eyes fastened on me now. “Who’s she seeing tonight?”

            “No one you know. Really, Liam. Why are you here?”

            He shifted his gaze away. “I told you. I’m worried about her. About what people are saying. Everyone’s talking about Julia screwing around, sleeping with any guy who looks her way.”

            “You’re going to want to shut the hell up. That’s my best friend you’re talking about. And you might remember she was also your girlfriend for ten months. What does that say about you?”

            “Exactly. Do you know how my fraternity brothers are talking? It’s sick. It makes me look bad, too.”

            “Oh, yeah? You mean like someone who dumps his girlfriend in front of all of their friends at the surprise birthday party she threw him?”

            He had the grace to look away from me.  “So it wasn’t my finest hour. But like I told Julia, it was for the best. Even if she doesn’t get that now, she will.”

            “Breaking up is one thing. Humiliation is another. She might get over it, but she’ll never forgive you. And neither will I.”

            “I don’t expect forgiveness from either of you. I just think she should rein it in, to stop slutting around campus. She needs to have a little self-respect.”

            Tomorrow morning, I was going to think of a killer comeback, but at the moment, anger closed my throat. I reached for the edge of the door to slam it in his face, but before I could do it, a group of freshmen girls appeared around the corner, giggling and talking in the high-pitched voices that went right up my spine.

            Liam’s face froze, and he stepped forward. “Ava, please. Let me come in. Just for a minute.”

            I frowned. “Are you crazy? No, you can’t come in.”

            “Ava. Please.” His eyes darted back down the hallway, and I followed his gaze to one of the girls. Aha. Suddenly everything was clear.

            I hesitated just long enough for Liam to sense weakness. He slid between the door and the wall, brushing against my body. Instinct made me shy back away from him. He pushed the door shut and leaned on it.

            He was entirely too close to me, and I struggled to say something to get my balance back.

            “Too many pissed-off girls, Liam? What’s the matter? Your little freshman fuck-buddy giving you problems, too?”

            He ran a hand through his light brown hair, scowling. “She wasn’t my fuck-buddy. She was just. . .convenient. And now she’s a major pain in my ass.”

            His obvious discomfort made me feel better. I’d never seen the cool and aloof Liam Bailey in anything less than total control.

            “What’s she doing?”

            Liam closed his eyes and shook his head. “Typical freshman shit. She just happens to show up outside my classes.  Drunk texts me late at night. Has her friends talk to me in the dining hall.” He pulled out Julia’s chair and sat down.

            “Make yourself at home, why don’t you.” I rolled my eyes, sinking onto my bed across from him and tucking my feet up beneath me.

            “Sorry, but I’m not going back out there until the coast is clear. If she saw me come in here, she’s probably walking back and forth down the hall, hoping to catch me leaving.”

            “Are you claiming sanctuary?” I couldn’t help a little smile.

            “Something like that.” Liam’s mouth tightened a little. “I didn’t sleep with her, you know. With Rachel, the freshman. Not that night, not since. Not ever.”

            I raised one eyebrow, my skepticism clear.

            “I didn’t. The night of my birthday party, Giff walked her home after everyone left. And I haven’t talked to her since. I mean, not to say more than, ‘Go home, you’re drunk. I’m not interested.’”

            “If you weren’t interested, why did you show up at your party—the party my best friend, your girlfriend worked long and hard planning, by the way—with your hand down the shirt of another woman?”

            He shrugged. “The guys had a little pre-party for me at the Alpha Delt house. They’d invited some girls, and she was one of them. She was wasted before I even showed up. And she wouldn’t leave me alone, kept saying she’d been watching me around campus and had a big crush on me. I don’t know, one thing led to another and it seemed like it would be a way to make sure Julia knew I was moving on.”

            “Because just telling her, privately, and maybe with a little bit of sensitivity just wouldn’t get the job done.”

            He sighed and sprawled back in the chair. “I never said it was the smart thing to do. If I could do it over, yeah, I probably would have made better choices. But there was more going on than you know. The whole thing is complicated.”

            I dropped to lie down on my side, bunching a pillow under my head. It didn’t seem like Liam was planning to leave any time soon, so I decided to get comfortable. My textbook mocked me from the foot of the bed, and I ignored it.

            “Complicated, huh? Care to elaborate?”

            “Not really, no. Just take my word for it. But don’t worry, I’ve felt like a dick since the morning after. And even if I hadn’t, Giff would’ve made sure I did. He was really pissed at me.”

            “Can you blame him? If you felt so bad, why didn’t you apologize? Make it right with Julia?”

            He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I told you, complicated. Plus, I figured it was done. Better let her just move on.”

            “And now that she has, in fact, moved on, suddenly you feel compelled to come back into her life?”

            “Thanks, Dr. DiMartino. I didn’t realize I was here for a session.”

            I grinned, unfazed. “You’re stuck in a room with a psych major. You have two choices: leave and risk assault by freshman, or stay and answer my questions.”

            “I could stay and ignore you.” Liam hooked one foot over the rung at the bottom of the chair.

            “You could try.”

            He frowned, rubbed one hand over his forehead, and blew out a breath. “Look, I don’t want to talk about Julia. I know I screwed up with her. What’s the point of rehashing the whole thing?”

            I held his eye. “You tell me. You’re the one who showed up here tonight, insisting on talking to her. You still haven’t said why.”

            “No, I told you. The guys are talking about her. Everyone is calling her a slut.”

            “And you care. . .why?”

            “Because I feel responsible.” The words came out as though he hadn’t meant to say them. “Okay, is that what you wanted to hear? You know what Julia was like when we started going out. She was shy. Quiet. I was the first person she. . .” His voice trailed off.

            “I know.” The flash of vulnerability on his face took away some of my mad.

            “So if she’s doing all of this, fucking around, because of what I did to her. . .yeah, I feel like I have to say something.”

            I hesitated. I was right smack in the middle here: my best friend was looking for revenge on the guy who had screwed her over and humiliated her in a very public way. She wasn’t actually sleeping with any of the guys Liam saw with her. It was all a giant con, a big set-up engineered by Julia, Liam’s friend Giff and me, designed to make Liam want her back so she could shoot him down.

            But there was no way I could tell Liam this, even if I wanted to. I wasn’t going to break the sacred girlfriend code. Maybe he wasn’t quite the jerk we thought—though I wasn’t sure I bought it—but still, I couldn’t forget who he was, and what he’d done.

            “You may have been Julia’s first serious boyfriend, Liam, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel responsible. And. . .” I licked my lips, trying to decide how to say what I wanted without giving away anything. “Come on. You know Jules. Does it seem like she’d start sleeping around, even if you did break her heart?”

            He shook his head. “Yeah, I do know her. Or I thought I did. But what if she’s, like, gone off the deep end?  Some girls can’t handle break-ups. They go nuts.”

            I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing. “Wait a minute. So you’re saying you think Julia’s lost her mind because of what you did? Good God, Liam. Talk about arrogance.”

            I half-expected him to get defensive and maybe a little mad, but instead, he surprised me again by laughing, too.

            “Yeah, I guess when I hear myself say it out loud, it sounds that way. Okay, so I didn’t drive Julia to the edge of sanity by breaking up with her. So then why is she acting like this?”

            “Maybe she’s just enjoying her freedom.” It wasn’t even close to being true, but it sounded good. I decided a change of subject was in order. With one last longing glance at my book, I stood up. “Since it looks like you’re going to be here for a little while, do you want a drink? I’m going to break out some wine coolers. I think we have some beer in the fridge, too.”

            “Sure, I’ll have whatever you’re drinking.”

            I dug out two of our high-class plastic cups, took two wine coolers from the fridge and poured us each a healthy portion.

            “I can drink from the bottle,” Liam offered.

            “Better to hide it in a cup, in case Rachel the freshman or one of her buddies decides to come in.” I tucked the empty and the extra behind my wastepaper basket.

            “Gotcha.” Liam held up his cup. “To. . .friends, I guess.”

            I raised my eyebrows but touched my wine to his anyway. “Okay. If you say so.”

            He sipped and nodded. “Not bad. The wine cooler, I mean.” He set it down on Julia’s desk, carefully avoiding the mess of papers she’d left there. There was a moment of silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.

            “You know, I always enjoyed spending time with you.” Liam traced a drop of moisture on the side of the cup. “Sometimes I felt like I could talk to you more than I could to Julia.”

            It felt disloyal to agree with him, but I nodded anyway. “I know what you mean. Jules said the same thing about Giff, actually. She misses him.”

            “Yeah. Too bad she isn’t his type. They always got along better than Julia and me. If it weren’t for Giff, we probably wouldn’t have stayed together as long as we did.”

            This wasn’t news to me. I’d seen the tension between my roommate and her boyfriend for months before the break-up had become official, but neither of them seemed to recognize it. If I’d said anything to Jules, she would have accused me of trying to psychoanalyze everything.

            “Why did you? Stay together, I mean.” I took another drink.

            Liam lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know. Why not? Julia is a nice person. She’s pretty, she’s smart. . .my parents liked her. My dad kept saying she would make a good politician’s wife.”

            “Julia? A political wife? That’s crazy.” I laughed and tilted my cup to catch the last drops. “I mean, seriously? You weren’t thinking that far ahead, were you?”

            Liam stared at me, an odd look on his face. “You should laugh more often. It makes your eyes sparkle.”

            I didn’t know what to do with that. Liam paying me a compliment felt somehow wrong. “Don’t change the subject. Were you seriously considering marrying Jules?”

            He looked away from me. “I’m going to graduate next year. My future is pretty well mapped out, at least as far as my parents are concerned.  And a girlfriend, who becomes a wife who can make me look good, is definitely on the list of things I need. According to the congressman, anyway.”

            I reached for one of the bottles and poured myself a refill, holding it to Liam in question. He hesitated a minute and then took it from me, adding to what was still in his cup.

            “I’m sorry, is this 1954? And is your last name Kennedy? Who thinks that way anymore?” The booze warmed me and loosened my tongue.

            “Yeah, I know. But it’s my dad’s dream. His father only got to county politics, but Dad made it to Congress. And maybe he’ll go further. But he’s counting on me to take it all the way to the big time.”

            “Do you want to do it?” I finished my second glass and curled on my side again, looking up at Liam.

            He met my eyes, and something flashed there. Defiance or pain, I couldn’t tell which. He didn’t answer me at first. Instead he tossed back the last of his cooler and took another refill.

            “Here, why don’t you kill it?” Without waiting for me to answer, he poured the rest into my cup. I rarely had more than two drinks, even if we were just staying in the room, but I couldn’t think of a good reason not to right now.

            “Nice dodge and re-direct, but you didn’t answer me. Do you even want to go into politics?”

            “I don’t know.” He spoke low, his eyes on the floor. “I thought I did. I mean, I’m good at it. My parents have been training me as long as I can remember. I never thought about doing anything else.”

            “So what changed?” I maneuvered the cup to my lips and managed to sip without shifting.

            “Nothing. Or maybe everything. Maybe me.”

            This Liam Bailey was not the same smooth, confident guy I’d known for the last year. He seemed troubled, almost sad. Or maybe that was just the three cups of wine talking.

            “Well, guess what? The good news for you is that you’re only a junior in college. You have time. You’re a history and poli sci major, and that can translate into something other than running for office. Or you could change your major, though it’s a little late in the game for that. Or you could—”

            “Or I could do this.”  Before I could move or react, Liam slid off the chair onto his knees and leaned over me, covering my lips with his.

            At first, I was stunned into complete paralysis. Liam Bailey was kissing me. Me, Ava DiMartino, the dumpy little Italian girl. The one who didn’t do dates, who had a plan and goals and no time for boys.

            And then he moved his hand to the side of my face, and his tongue traced the seam of my mouth. A moan caught in my throat, and I opened my lips, kissing him back for a wild minute of insanity. Liam slid his free arm under my back. The wall of his chest teased against the tips of my breasts, and he lifted his head to trail kisses across my face and murmur into my ear.

            “My God, Ava, you feel amazing. And you smell like. . .” Nose buried in my neck, he inhaled deeply. “Lilacs. Like my grandmother’s garden in spring.” His hand covered my breast.

            Something within me snapped, jerking me back to reality, cutting through the wine-haze.  I pushed against his shoulders.

            “Liam, stop. Move. We can’t do this. What’s wrong with you?”

            He leaned up, frowning down into my face. “Why? What?”

            “Holy—you need to get up. God, what was I thinking?” I kicked at his leg. “Get the hell off me.” I squirmed, trying to get away from the heat of his body. “Clearly I wasn’t thinking at all. It’s the alcohol. Wine is bad. Wine coolers, I mean. So, so bad.”

            “I hope you were thinking that you liked me kissing you.” He lowered his face toward me again, and without thinking about it, I hauled off and smacked him.

            “What the hell—” He jumped to his feet, holding his jaw. “What did you do that for?”

            I scooted up to sit near my pillows. “Be happy that was all I did. I’m Italian. You’re lucky I didn’t rip your balls off.”

            Liam climbed onto the foot of the bed, avoiding me with care, and leaned against the wall. His face was flushed, especially where I’d hit him, and his light brown hair, usually in such artful disarray, was looking decidedly rumpled. He dropped his head back, and it thumped against the wall.

            “I don’t get why it’s so bad.” He spoke with his eyes closed.

            I eyed his long, lean body, trying to ignore the evidence of desire that stretched the zipper of his jeans.  Swallowing hard, I focused on his feet. Black Converse. Totally unsexy. Except they weren’t. Okay, so no focusing on any of his body parts. What in the hell was wrong with me?

            “How can you not get it?” I gritted my teeth and curled my legs up, wrapping my arms around them until I was huddled in a ball. I let my hair drop around my face, giving the illusion of protection. “Whatever else might have been screwed up with you, I always thought you had a logical brain. Point A: Julia is my best friend and my roommate. Point B: She was your girlfriend for nearly a year—”

            “Ten months.” Liam didn’t move as he mumbled.

            I pushed my hair back and peeked out at him. “See, that is such a guy thing. Ten months is nearly a year. What I’m saying is, it’s not like you just went out once or twice. You were together. Like, together, together. So it is not cool at all for you to kiss me. It violates every rule in the girl code.”

            “Maybe I’m out of practice, but it sure felt like you were kissing me back.” He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at me, the smolder in his gaze making it hard for me to sit still. Even though most of me was flooded with guilt, another part was telling me to leap down the bed and climb into his lap. The image made me groan.

            “Stop looking at me like that. Okay, yes, I was kissing you back. But I was wrong. I’m a terrible person. I’m probably going to hell now. At the very least, I’m looking at extra time in purgatory. My mother is going to have to light so many candles for me.”

            A slow smile spread across Liam’s face as he dropped to his hands and knees and began crawling toward me. He reminded me of a mountain lion, and the look in his eyes was definitely predatory.

            “Well, if you’re already damned, you might as well have some fun, right?” He grabbed one of my feet and yanked down, pulling me flat again.  I kicked at him, missing his shoulder as he dodged.  He planted one hand on either side of my hips and dropped to kiss my neck, running his lips down to my collarbone.

            “Liam.” I pushed at his head. “Stop.” My words were weak, probably because him stopping was really not what I wanted. It was what I should want. But he complied anyway, rising up again so he could look at me.

            “I know what you’re saying. Yeah, it’s kind of weird, I guess. But not really. I always liked you. What I said before was true. I thought we got along pretty well, and God, Ava, if Julia is moving on, why shouldn’t we?”

            “Oh, so if you walked in on Giff and Julia in bed together, you’d be okay with that?”

            He smirked. “I’d be shocked. Ava, I hate to break it to you, but Giff is gay.”

            I swatted his arm. “It’s the principle of it, and you know what I mean. And not only that, but I’m not looking to get tangled up with you or with anyone. I don’t have time for this.”

            “Can you tell me honestly you don’t feel this spark?” He moved to lie alongside me and skimmed a hand down my side, from my hip to the side of my breast. “You weren’t pushing me away a few minutes ago.”

            I heaved out a breath. “Just because I feel something doesn’t mean I have to act on it. I don’t have any interest in being your fuck buddy tonight, Liam. Spark or no spark.”

            “I’m not looking for that either. Didn’t you hear what I said? I like you, Ava. I always have. Kissing you might not have been what I planned to do tonight, but this isn’t the first time I’ve thought of doing it.”

            I squirmed as he ran a finger up my bare arm. “Oh, really? So you’re saying you thought about this when you were going out with my best friend? Because that doesn’t make you look any better.”

            He fell back on the bed, hard. I could still feel his warmth all along one side of me.

            “Remember I said that my reasons for breaking up with Julia were complicated?”

            “Yeah. . .” I frowned as the meaning of his words dawned on me. “You’re saying I was the reason you did it? Oh, come on, Liam. What kind of idiot do you think I am?”

            “I don’t think you’re an idiot at all, and what the hell does that mean?”

            I held up one hand and began counting on my fingers. “One, you’re trying to say that you broke up with Julia because you had feelings for me? If you expect me to believe that, you really must think I’m stupid. Or desperate. I’m neither. Two, if I were to believe that, you feel it should be enough to make me want to fall into your arms here and now? If that’s the case, you must think I’m not only dumb but really shallow, too.”

            “I didn’t. And I don’t. The complications are a lot more—uh, complicated than just me liking you. But it played into it. You can believe me or not, but by last fall, I started to realize that the only time I really enjoyed hanging out with Julia was when you were there, too. So I knew it was time to end things before I did something really stupid like get drunk and try to make out with you while I was still dating your friend.”

            I snorted. “Like that would have ever happened.”

            Liam shook his head. “Yeah, I know, but I wanted to. And that was enough. So no, it wasn’t the only reason, but it was a factor. I didn’t come here tonight to tell you that, or to do. . .this. . .” He turned over again so he was looking down at me, and he touched the side of my face with the tip of his finger. “But I’m not sorry it happened, and I’m not sorry it’s out there. And I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

            I held still, hardly breathing. I was afraid if I moved, I might not be able to control my hands. Or my lips. Good God, when did this happen? When did I stop hating Liam Bailey? Or maybe I still did, but maybe hating him didn’t necessarily preclude wanting to rub my body all over his. . .

            I rolled away from him. “That’s the difference between us, isn’t it? I know what we did was wrong because it’s not something I’d be comfortable telling Jules.  Plus, I think you’re just saying what you did to make yourself feel better. I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but I’m not going to be part of it. Just go away.”

            Liam sighed, and for a minute, he didn’t move. Then he threw one leg over me, and for one dizzying breath, I thought he was going to kiss me again. But instead, he perched on the edge of the bed and dropped his head into his hands.

            “I can’t blame you for not trusting me, Ava. I know I haven’t given you any reason to believe me. But I’m going to. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make you see that I’m not that guy. I want a chance with you.”

            I kept my eyes trained on the wall across the room. “Don’t bother, because I’m not interested. I don’t have time for games, and I’m not looking for a booty call.”

            He stood. “I’m not, either. No offense, but if that’s what I wanted, there are plenty of willing girls.” He pointed at the door. “I could just call Rachel the freshman, right? But I don’t. I didn’t mean to act on this yet, but I’m not sorry you know.”

            Liam snagged his coat from the chair, picked up his empty plastic cup, and chucked it into the trash.

            “Thanks for the wine. And the sanctuary. I’ll talk to you soon.”

            He opened the door and disappeared into the now-quiet hallway. I heard the click of the lock as the door shut.

            I should have been mad. Pissed and outraged and full of righteous indignation. But instead, a tiny seed of something unexpected and unfamiliar took root within me. I hugged my pillow to my chest for a few minutes, staring up at the ceiling.

            When I reached to the end of the bed for my psych text, it no longer held the same appeal as it had a few hours before. I closed the book, slid it onto my desk, and climbed under the covers. It was the first time I’d gone to bed without finishing my reading in a very long time.

            That lasted about five minutes before I jumped up, turned the light back on, and grabbed my book.

 

First Chapter Friday: The Love Song One

Meet Tori and Hunter . . .

Tori

Who doesn’t love a love song? Especially a love song that’s crooned by Hunter Jaymes, the hottest new star in country music?

I don’t have time for love songs. Now that I’m finally moved off my parents’ farm and ditched my cheating, lying boyfriend, I’m ready to start life on her own terms. Those terms definitely do not include falling in love with the sexy and irresistible Hunter. Yes, he’s the kind of guy who makes me laugh, takes my breath away with a single touch and tempts me to imagine what could be . . . but he’s also not planning to stick around Burton. 

Hunter

When I look at Tori, I see the possibility of forever. The road is my life, but she feels like my home. Unfortunately, convincing this woman to give love a chance will take more than a song. But I’m not giving up on her. Not when I know she sings the song of my heart.

Read the first chapter now!

Tori

“C’mon, Tori. Please. I’ll owe you forever.” 

Narrowing my eyes, I stared down my baby brother. “You have got to be out of your mind, Matt. No way.”

Matt heaved a huge sigh and flopped back onto my couch. I winced a little; my furniture was second-hand, and it hadn’t necessarily been top-of-the-line even when it was new, but still, it was mine, and I wanted to take care of it. My brother was a good kid, but he was also a fifteen-year-old, and he didn’t care about things like that. 

“Tore, you’ve got to take me. If you don’t do it, I can’t go. I’ll miss meeting Hunter Jaymes. You don’t want to deny me my dream, do you?” He sat up and leaned forward. “If I don’t meet him, I’ll probably be so depressed that I’ll give up music. Then I’ll end up having to get some dead-end job to pay the bills, marrying the first girl I date, and we’ll be stuck here in this Podunk town for the rest of our miserable lives. You’ll have to live every day with the knowledge that you’re the one responsible for ruining my life.”

I rolled my eyes. “Drama much, Matty? I think you’ll get over it. Besides, Mason has bands playing at the Road Block almost every weekend. In a few years, you’ll be able to get in on your own and meet them. You don’t have to, uh, give up your dream.” I made air quotes with my fingers. “God forbid.”

“Tori, Hunter Jaymes isn’t just any musician. I’ve been following him forever. Since I first started paying attention to music and what I like to listen to. I know every one of his songs. I can play most of them. I just want to see him in person.” 

I exhaled long and heavily through my nose, but I didn’t answer him. Taking that as a sign of encouragement, Matt went on.

“The minute I saw Hunter was coming, I asked Mason if I could work the night of his show. He laughed and said no way in hell was he getting in trouble for having a minor working the bar at night. But then I told him how much I love Hunter’s music, and finally, today he said that if you came with me to the first set, he’d let me in. As long as we leave after and I don’t try something stupid, like getting a beer or whatever.” He frowned, shaking his head. “As if I’d even want to do that. I want to be there for the music, not for the booze.” 

“Why did Mason suggest I take you?” I was suspicious about the bar owner’s motives. I’d known Mason Wallace for a long time, and I was friends with his wife, Rilla. He knew how I felt about country music. I never made any secret about it, even though I knew that Mason’s former life had been all about that industry. 

“Well, he didn’t say it had to be you, exactly,” Matt admitted. “He said an adult member of my family. So technically, Mom or Dad could take me.”

“Hmmm.” I regarded my brother. “Did you ask them?” 

“No.” Matt shrugged. “The thing is, if I asked Mom or Dad, I know one of them would do it, no questions asked. But they’re so tired all the time as it is. Asking them to do something extra like this . . . it would make me feel horrible.”

“Ah, but it’s okay to ask me, huh?” I loved that Matt was the kind of kid who was considerate enough that he realized our parents worked themselves practically to death on our family farm. He was right, too; they were such wonderful parents, it would never occur to them to tell Matt no about something they could do. They’d just get by with a little less sleep the next day. 

They were the same way with me, and that’s why I realized that I really didn’t have a choice here. I had to take Matt to the Road Block, if not out of love for him, then out of compassion and gratitude toward my mom and dad. And seriously, I reasoned with myself, was it that big a deal? Sure, I detested country music, but I could grit my teeth and get through one show. 

The truth of the matter was that there was a bigger and more compelling reason for me to avoid doing this favor for my brother. I hadn’t been back to the Road Block in over six months, not since the night that I wanted to forget had ever happened. Maybe I was making too big a deal over it, and maybe no one else would even remember, but I did. I gave a little shudder and opened my mouth to tell Matt no way, no how. 

But I made the mistake of looking at him before I spoke, and the earnest, pleading expression on that sweet face took my voice away. This kid . . . he’d been wrapping me around his little finger since the day he was born when I was nine years old. I’d never been able to deny him anything that I could give, and I realized now that today wasn’t going to break that streak. It might be hard, and it might be unpleasant, but dammit, I was going to end up taking the kid to see his idol this weekend. 

“What time should I pick you up on Friday?” 

“Tori!” He yelled so loud, I was pretty sure the glasses in my cabinet reverberated with the sound. “Oh, my God, you’re the best sister in the entire world. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Yeah, and don’t you forget it.” I pushed my finger against his adorable nose, the same way I used to when he was a toddler. “I’m going to make sure you won’t.” 

He rolled his eyes, but I could see his excitement there anyway. “Whatever. I don’t even care, as long as I get to see Hunter Jaymes. I can’t believe I’m going to actually meet him.”

“Well, I don’t know about that.” I frowned a little, concerned. “Buddy, you know, you might not get the chance to meet him or talk to him. I know the Road Block is a pretty small venue and all, but still—Mason might not want you stalking the talent. He’s kind of protective of the acts he books.”

Matt shook his head, impatient. “Tori, Mason told me I could meet Hunter. He said if I get there early enough for the first set, I could help with soundcheck. And he promised he’d, like, actually introduce me to him.” He grabbed my hands. “We’re going to hang out with Hunter Jaymes.”

“Whoa, there.” I disengaged my fingers. “I’m not hanging out with him. I’ll sit in the car until Mason says I have to be inside with you. I don’t need anyone thinking I’m a fangirl.”

“No one would ever think that about you.” His voice was dry. “But you can’t sit outside. That would be weird.”

“I’m okay with weird.” I sent him a sunny smile. “Cut your losses here, bud. I said I’m willing to drive you to the bar, and I’ll go inside during the show so that Mason doesn’t have to worry about you. But that’s it. Once he’s off the stage, you and I are out of there. Got it?”

“Yeah, okay.” Matt reached down for his backpack, which was on the floor next to his feet. “Whatever you say.”

“And now, I suppose, you’d like me to drive you home.” I folded my arms over my chest. “I assume that you missed your bus and walked over here to my house.” My tiny cottage was only about five blocks from the high school, and it wasn’t unusual for my brother to drop in if I happened to be home. 

“It was more the other way around.” He cast me a winsome smile. “I walked over here so I could talk to you, and so the bus left without me. I didn’t really miss it so much as it missed me.” 

I gritted my back teeth. Lord, save me from teenage boys. “Semantics, Matty. You need a ride home. Get your bag, and let’s go. I have work to do.” 

He frowned as he stood up and hefted the backpack over his shoulder. “But today’s your day off.”

I scooped my keys from the small primitive antique bowl that sat on the table by my front door. “It’s my day off from the boutique, but I have blog work to do.”

“You’re always working.” Matt’s tone verged on whining, but I pretended I didn’t hear that. 

“Yeah, I am.” I swatted his arm. “That’s how I got this sweet crib and all my killer threads. Not to mention my bitchin’ ride, yo.”

“Tori.” He looked pained. “Please don’t try to sound . . . you know. Like you’re cool. You’re using all the wrong words.”

“I know. I did it on purpose to annoy you.” I grinned widely. “Now let’s get moving, bud.”

We both climbed into my ancient truck, and I patted the dash before I started her up, mentally whispering a prayer of gratitude when she turned over without issue. Matt buckled his seat belt and leaned back.

“Since you’re raking in all the dough now, pretty soon you’ll be getting a new car, right?” He patted the worn molding on the door of the truck. “When you do, I get the old hussy, right?” 

I smiled. My grandfather had bought this truck new when I was a baby, and he’d taken good care of it, the way he had everything in his life. He’d been proud to hand me the keys when I was sixteen, telling me that it was mine for as long as I needed it, but that when I was ready to move on, the old hussy, as he called his truck affectionately, had to come back to the family. 

“We’ll have to see, Matty.” I swiveled in my seat to look out the window as I backed out. “It’s fine with me, but really, it’s up to Mom and Dad.” Shifting into first gear, I shot him a look. “And you know, you have to keep your grades up and be able to cover your car insurance on your own. Just like I did.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “I can do that. Well, the grades, I mean. But I don’t know what kind of job I could get to afford to own a truck. I don’t make much at Mason’s.”

“You’ve got time to think about it. Another two years, anyway.” I turned onto the main street of our town. Burton wasn’t a bustling metropolis by any means, but still, all the shops along here were pretty busy this afternoon. It was spring, and people were thrilled to be outside again. More than a few of those strolling along the sidewalk waved to me. The old hussy was familiar to just about everyone in Burton. 

Matt and I didn’t talk much on the fifteen-minute ride out to the farm. I could make the drive on automatic pilot as I’d been taking this route since I’d been seventeen. Once we were out of Burton proper and on the rural highway that meandered through the surrounding farms, we rolled down the windows, and I turned up the radio, blaring Ed Sheeran as we sang along. 

“You’re so weird, you know that?” Matt shouted to be heard over the wind and the music. “We’re in a pickup truck on a country road in Georgia. This scene is just begging for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or Miranda Lambert!” 

“Nooooo!” I yelled back. “No country music!” 

He laughed at me. “You were totally adopted.”

It was an old joke in our family, a ridiculous poke at the fact that my coloring was identical to my father’s while Matt looked just like my mom. But my brother wasn’t wrong about me being the anomaly, in that I was the only one of us who wasn’t a huge country music fan. Growing up, I’d been dragged to festivals and forced to endure hours of twanging songs about heartbreak, Mama, apple pie, dogs, and pickup trucks. The minute I’d been deemed old enough to stay home by myself, I’d seized the opportunity. 

Happily, by that time, Matt had been old enough to go—and he’d enthusiastically embraced all things twangy. Not only did he love our parents’ favorite tunes, he actually had a gift for playing just about any instrument he picked up—and he possessed an incredible singing voice. 

When I still lived at home, he used to harass me about being the oddball when it came to music, and I’d taunted him for being a stereotypical good ol’ boy, a camo-wearing redneck. There was very little we agreed on. But then I’d found Ed Sheeran, and even though he couldn’t be classified as even remotely country, Matt had decided that he respected the man for his amazing musical abilities—and that he enjoyed his songs, too. That’s why we always played Ed when we were together. He was our demilitarized zone. 

Slowing as the truck approached the driveway that led to our farm, I felt the familiar sense of pride in the weathered wooden sign that my great-grandmother had originally hand-painted over a century before. 

Westin Family Farm

Est. 1846

Over the years, the lettering had been touched up by various family members—most recently by me—but none of us ever changed the design. In the dining room of the big old farmhouse where I’d grown up, there was a framed photo of Great-Grammy next to the sign, and I’d always thought that her wide smile was a little like my own.

“You coming in?” Matt glanced at me as we bumped up the drive. “Mom’s probably getting ready to make dinner. She might even make fried chicken if you stay.”

“That’s mighty tempting, honey, but I need to get home so I can—”

“Work,” he finished for me. “Right.”

I held my foot on the brake and reached over to tousle his sandy brown hair. “Hey, I need to make sure I’m caught up, because it turns out I have this hot date on Friday night, and I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.”

He grinned. “Okay. Can you pick me up by six on Friday?”

“You got it, buddy.” I watched him maneuver the handle to open the door, which often stuck. As he swung his legs out and hefted the backpack from the seat, I added, “Give Mom a hug from me and tell her I’ll be home Sunday for dinner. Oh, and tell Dad I’ll be here early enough to watch the Braves play.”

“Sure.” He slammed the door—which he had to do so that it wouldn’t fly open on the road as I drove back to town—and gave me a quick wave over his shoulder. I watched him jog up the steps of the wide porch that wrapped around our family home and then round the corner, heading for the kitchen door. We never used the front entrance except for company, weddings, or funerals. 

As I drove away, I pictured the scene that probably greeted him once he’d gone into the kitchen. Mom would be there because it was a point of pride that she never missed greeting us after school. Even during the busiest planting or harvest season, my mother was waiting for us, always with some kind of snack and a drink. No matter what else was going on in her life, she paid careful attention to our chatter and looked over our homework and other school papers. 

I didn’t know if I would ever have kids, but if I did, she was the kind of mother I wanted to be. 

Thinking about kids and family and parents made me a little lonely and wistful. I loved my new independent life here in town; at twenty-four, it was time for me to be on my own, and I’d worked hard to make it happen. Still, I missed the easy camaraderie of my family, the meals around the table, the steady dependability of my parents, and the fun of being with my brother. My little cottage was adorable, but it was also quiet. 

Growing up on the farm, I’d come into Burton for school, and of course, I’d made friends. But most of those people had either moved away or were occupied with their own busy lives. In the six years since graduation, we’d all changed, and I wasn’t in touch with anyone from high school. 

But that didn’t mean I was a big old lonesome loser now. With that in mind, I took a left instead of the right turn that would’ve taken me back to my house and pulled up in front of a small shop with lighted windows. 

The sign on the door read Phoenix: Beauty from Ashley. That door opened as I hopped out of my truck, and two women, one about my mother’s age and the other a few years younger than me, stepped outside. Both smiled when they saw me. 

“Hey, Tori. How’re you doing?” The older woman called over. “You going in here, honey? Ashley’s with a client, but she’s about done, I think.”

“Hey, Mrs. Hyles. Hey, Donna.” I leaned against my truck for a moment. “Yeah, I was just stopping in to chat a little. Thanks. I’ll wait for her in reception.” Taking the door Mrs. Hyles held for me, I added, “Y’all have a good evening.” 

I slipped inside the salon, inhaling deep. I loved the scent of this place. Phoenix didn’t smell like most beauty parlors. There was no lingering sulfuric odor from old permanents or the overwhelming cloying hairspray. Somehow, Ashley’s place was all relaxing and pleasant scents. She swore it was a matter of excellent ventilation, but I wasn’t sure about that. I was pretty sure she had some kind of magic voodoo that made the difference. 

“. . . but I told her she was out of her mind.” Ashley’s voice floated out to me, and I heard the click of her heels on the tiles. “I mean, who does that? It was—” She appeared in the doorway that connected the main salon with the reception area and spotted me. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. How long have you been out here, sugar?” 

I shrugged. “Not long. Mrs. Hyles just let me in as she was leaving.”

“Oh, good.” Ashley turned to face the tall, good-looking man who’d followed her out. He had a square jaw and dark hair that clearly had just been cut. He stood a good head above my friend, and the eyes he turned to me were light blue and friendly. 

“Zane, this is my friend Tori. Tori, this is Zane, my favorite client.” 

He reached over Ashley’s shoulder to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you, but I’m pretty sure she tells all her clients the same thing.”

Ashley gave us both wide eyes. “No way! Some of them I can barely tolerate. Ask Tori. She hears all my horror stories.”

I nodded. “It’s true. Some of the people she takes care of are crazy demanding and downright mean.”

“Not like you at all.” She beamed at him and then pointed toward me. “Tori is the most creative person I know. See what she’s wearing? She makes almost all of her own clothes or repurposes things in new ways.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Tell me what you’ve got on today.”

Nice way to put me on the spot. I glanced down at my body, as though I’d forgotten what was on it. “Uh, the overalls came from a thrift shop in Savannah. I cinched the middle and added the sash in this floral cotton from another dress I’d bought, and then I turned up the cuffs and covered them in the same material.” Plucking my shirt away from my chest, I added, “And I bought this shirt at the boutique where I work.” 

“She works at a shop in Farleyville,” Ashely told Zane. “Where her talents are totally wasted.”

“Ashley.” I rolled my eyes. “Please. I like my job at Niche.” 

She turned to face her client. “You could give Tori an old burlap sack and a yard of ribbon, and five minutes later, she’d have a beautiful dress. She’s that good. And she’s working at a store that sells frumpy suits to old women.”

Zane glanced at me and then back at Ashley, uncertainty in his eyes. “Uh, okay. I guess that’s bad?”

“Of course, it’s bad. She has this fashion blog that has a ton of followers, because she’s so awesome, and she needs to stop wasting her time dressing the elderly and pay attention to growing her own career.” She tilted her head and drilled me with steely, narrowed eyes, daring me to tell her that she was wrong. 

The annoying thing was, Ashley wasn’t wrong. I’d been working at Niche since I was sixteen, and the truth was that my original plan had been to quit four months ago. But that had been back when the plan had included Andy the asshole, my ex-boyfriend. I’d assumed we’d be marrying . . . or at least moving in together. Since that was never going to happen now, I’d had to make the decision to stick with my day job for a little longer.

Ashley knew the practicalities of my plan, but she was more impatient than I was. That was the sign of a good friend, I decided, which was why her nagging wasn’t quite pissing me off. Yet. 

So I ignored her pointed words and cast a brilliant smile at Zane, who seemed more than a little uncomfortable caught between two strong-minded women discussing a topic he didn’t quite understand. 

“Are you new in Burton, Zane? I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”

He grinned ruefully. “If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that . . . yeah, I’m from Charlotte. Just moved here about three months ago.”

“He took over Clark Morgan’s law practice,” Ashley added. 

“Well, welcome to Burton.” Hooking my thumbs into the belt loops of my baggy overalls, I leaned into the wall. “Everyone here is nosy, and they’ll give you advice even when you don’t ask . . .” I slid my friend the side-eye. “But they’re also the kindest, most loving folks you’ll ever meet.”

“So far, I’d have to agree.” I didn’t miss the way his gaze lingered on my friend, and instantly, my attraction alert went off. He liked Ashley. Did she know this? She hadn’t even mentioned this guy to me. 

If Ashley noticed Zane’s attention, she didn’t show it. “Tori, let me cash out Zane so he can get going, and then I’ll be right with you.” She began leading him toward the desk in the corner. “I hope you want to go eat because I’m famished.”

I stayed quiet, watching her go through the process of ringing up the charge, accepting Zane’s money, and being sweetly surprised when he insisted that she keep the change. When he said good-night to us both, he added that it had been nice to meet me. With one more glance at Ashley, he left, the bell over the door jangling as he did.

“Well, he’s adorable.” I quirked an eyebrow. “Hmmm, funny that I don’t remember you telling me about him.”

“Didn’t I?” Ashley busied herself with something on her computer, running the end-of-day sales report. “Huh. Well, I don’t tell you about every client who comes in here.”

“Sure, but one who’s hot as hell and clearly wants you to take off more than just his hair? I just think it’s, uh, very interesting that you’ve been so close-mouthed about it. I assume he’s single.”

“Yes, he’s single, but he’s not looking for anything with me, I promise.” She sighed and slid the cash drawer closed, turning the key in the lock. “He’s in love with his receptionist.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Why do you think that? And who is she?”

Ashley waved her hand. “I don’t know, some girl just out of the community college. Younger than you and me. This is her first job. And I think that because it’s true. You should see him when he talks about her.” 

“I think you might be wrong about that, Ash.” I dropped into one of the overstuffed chairs that served as waiting room seating. “I think he likes you.” When she opened her mouth to contradict me, I only shook my head. “I’m not going to argue with you about it. Time will tell. So what were you thinking for dinner? Kenny’s or barbecue? Or Franco’s?”

She came out from behind the desk and leaned against it. “I guess it wouldn’t do any good for me to suggest the Road Block, would it? It’s only Tuesday, and it’s early. It wouldn’t be crowded. We’d bring down the average patron age tonight, eating with the early bird special crowd.”

“Ha, ha, ha.” I stuck out my tongue. “And no, I don’t want to go to the Road Block. I need someplace cheap. I’m broke, remember?”

“Broke has nothing to do with why you won’t go eat at Mason’s place,” Ashley retorted. “You’re still afraid people are talking about what went down there with you and Andy. Get over it, girlfriend. The rest of the town has. They’ve all got better things to talk about.” 

“I hope they do because it turns out I’m going to be there on Friday night.” I dropped that little bombshell and waited for her to react. I didn’t have to wait long. 

“No way!” Her mouth dropped open, and she pretended to stagger backward. “No way in hell. You’re not only going to the bar, but you’re going on a Friday night?” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you have a date? Who asked you out?”

“No one, and you should know that. The Road Block is the last place I’d take someone if I was interested in making it something important. As for who asked me out, that would be Matt.”

“Awwww . . .” Ashley shoved out her lower lip. “That’s so sweet. He’s taking big sister out?”

“No, big sister is going along as his chaperone, so he can see his musical idol. Mason made my being there a condition of him getting in. And I’m such a sucker for that kid that I said yes, against my better judgment.”

“Oh, you’ll have a great night.” She began making the rounds, closing the blinds on all of the windows in the reception area. “It’s about time for you to go back there, honeybunch. Your boycott has been seriously impacting our social life.” 

“Sure, it has,” I laughed. “That’s a nice thing to say, Ashley, but I know you haven’t been staying away from the bar.” 

She lifted one shoulder. “Well, I haven’t been able to enjoy it as much without you. You’re my favorite dancing buddy. So a big thank-you to Matty. Tell him his next trim’s on me.” 

“I’ll pass on the message.” I wriggled to sit up on the edge of the chair. “Are you almost ready? I’m starved.”

“Yep. Just let me go turn off the lights.” 

I watched my friend make her usual end-of-the-day rounds, checking that curling irons, flat irons, and hair dryers were all unplugged, that all the faucets were turned completely off, and that the lights were out. This salon was Ashley’s baby, and she was passionate about both nurturing it and making sure it grew. She was one of the savviest businesswomen I knew, and I understood that her own passion for entrepreneurship was one reason that she pushed me to make my move forward. She was afraid that I’d get stuck in the relative safety of being a paid employee at Niche, where things were safe and secure, if somewhat limited in opportunity. 

But I wasn’t going to rush anything. I had a plan, and even if I’d had to tweak it here and there, I knew it was a good one. I just had to be patient for a little longer. 

“All set,” Ashley announced as she sailed back into the waiting room. “And I’ve decided I’m craving fried chicken, so let’s go to Kenny’s.”

“Sounds good to me.” I stood up, stretching my back a little. Ashley had the most comfortable chairs in any salon waiting area I’d seen—she said that the pampering should begin the minute a person walked in—but they wreaked havoc on my posture. 

“And Tori . . .” She paused next to me, laying a hand on my forearm. “I was teasing before, about you avoiding the Road Block, but it really is time for you to go back. It’s crazy that you’ve let Andy keep you away so long. It’s going to be fine, you know.”

“Sure.” I mustered up a smile. “Of course, it is.”

And maybe if I said those words enough between now and Friday, I’d even start to believe it.

First Chapter Friday: The Forever One

 

 

Meet Jenna and Linc . . .

Jenna  

I celebrated my twenty-first birthday by persuading Trent Wagner, the guy I’d been crushing on for months, to sleep with me. When he broke my heart and crushed my dreams by rejecting me afterward, I did the unthinkable. I tried to end my life.

Over two years later, I’m finally finding my balance again. My job at the county historical society is steady and predictable, two elements I appreciate right now. I’m living on my own, and my world is peaceful, if lonely.

That is, until hot single daddy Lincoln Turner comes to town.

Linc

When my wife was killed in a car accident, she left me with two small children and a bleak future. Six years later, I’m a recovering alcoholic who’s just gotten my kids back. I’m ready to tackle a new position as co-owner of a building restoration company. 

I’m not looking for any attachments. But I’m also not ready for the irresistible attraction I feel for Jenna when a huge project brings us together. 

The road to true love has more bumps than we could imagine. Making our way to a happy ending won’t be easy. But when two bruised souls find their way to each other . . . forever is possible.

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

Lincoln

“The water feels amazing.” 

I turned my head toward the glare of the ocean as Abby Donavan—uh, Abby Kent now, I had to remember that she was married—dashed up the beach to where I sat next to her husband Ryland. I had to smile; I still wasn’t used to this more spontaneous, impulsive version of the contained Miss Abigail Donavan. When I’d met her a few years back, she had been our boss on the restoration of an old hotel, and I’d described her as steely. Maybe even a little bit icy. The lady had definitely melted, and I knew for sure it was more than the heat of the Florida sun that had done the trick. 

In the beach chair next to me, the man who was responsible for most of Abby’s melting grinned. “Looking good there, Mrs. Kent.” 

She shot him a saucy smile before dropping to the beach blanket in front of me, where my daughter sat with her arms around her knees. “Becca, come out with us! It’s so much fun. You can body surf with Ollie and me.”

Becca’s jaw tensed as she shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m fine here.”

“Bec.” I nudged her rear end with my foot. “Why don’t you go enjoy the water? This is your first beach trip. Don’t you want to play in the ocean? Have some fun, darlin’.”

My daughter replied without turning her head to look at me. “No, thanks. I don’t want to go into the ocean.” She paused a beat before adding, “It’s not safe. See that flag? It means there’s a rip current. People get carried away, and they can’t swim back.”

“We’re not going that far out, sweetie.” Abby pulled a towel out of her bag and dried off her legs. “I’m keeping my eye on your brother, too. We won’t go any further than just our hips, okay?”

“No, thanks.” Becca hugged her legs a little tighter as she repeated the words. “There could probably be jellyfish, too. And there can be bacteria in the water. Sometimes people die just from putting their feet in.”

I fought the strong desire to roll my eyes. “Becca, don’t be—”

Ryland jabbed an elbow into my ribs. “Hey, Becs, how long have I known you?”

She glanced back at us, frowning. “Ummm . . . I don’t know. All my life?”

“Yeah, just about. Did you know you were the first baby I ever held? Your mom didn’t give me a choice about it. She just plopped you into my arms. Now, would your mom have done that if she didn’t trust me?”

She gave a tiny headshake. 

“Okay. And you know how much I love both you and your dweeby little bro?” 

For the first time all day, my daughter’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “Yeah.”

“So you also know I would never, ever let you do anything where you might get hurt, right? Never. I’d throw myself in front of a speeding train to push you out of its path. Take on a grizzly bear if it were chasing you. You got that?”

Becca nodded. 

“Then do you think, really think, that I’d let Aunt Abby take you down to the ocean if there were anything the least bit dangerous there?”

She pursed her lips and lifted one shoulder. “I don’t know.”

Ryland cocked an eyebrow at her. “We got to stick to logic here, tootsie roll. And logic tells you the truth.”

“But Uncle Ry—”

“Hey.” He pointed to her. “Not finished yet. Because I want you to think of something else. Do you know how much I love Aunt Abby?”

Becca sighed. “Yeah.”

“So you know I’d never want her to do anything where she might get hurt either.” Ry glanced at his wife. “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t even told your dad. Aunt Abby and I are going to have a baby.” He paused, letting that news sink in. “As much as I love you and Ollie, as much as I love Aunt Abby and this little peanut in her belly, would I sit back and let all of you do anything where you might get hurt?”

Becca’s head swiveled in Abby’s direction. I could almost feel her struggling to accept what Ryland was saying, to let it begin to overcome the fear. Finally, she gave a tiny shake of her head. 

“Okay. I’ll go down.” She stood up, brushing sand from her legs. “But only a little bit in, right? Not deep.”

Abby rose, too, and extended her hand. “I promise, baby girl. No further than you want.” Over my daughter’s head, Abby smiled at me and winked. “We’ll just play around by the surf.” 

Hands linked, the two tripped across the sand. I watched them go, grinning when Ab body-checked Becca and pretended to be sorry. It gave me a sense of relief to see my little girl finally relaxing a little bit. She might’ve been going on twelve, but she was always going to be my baby. 

Which reminded me . . .

“So.” I tilted down my sunglasses and folded my arms across my chest, fastening Ry with a glare that was more bark than bite. “Something you needed to tell me?”

His smirk was huge and not at all repentant. “Hey, the situation called for something big, so I gave it to her.”

“Yeah, jackass, telling my daughter before me that you’re going to be a dad. What the hell, man?” I couldn’t hold the faux-mad any longer. Reaching across between the chairs, I punched his arm. “Congratulations, bro. ‘Bout time.”

The expression on Ryland’s face could’ve lit up NRG Stadium. “Yeah, right, about time. More like a miracle. Between Abby working so hard to get the hotel up and running and me being on the road all the time, trying to move the business down here, what’s more amazing is that we were in the same state long enough to make it happen.”

“So is this the reason you’ve decided to stop traveling altogether?” I pushed my glasses back into place and leaned against the webbed chair. 

Ry shrugged. “Well, it was in the works anyway, you know. It was always the plan, for me to move all the operations down here, so we could start a real life together. We figured that we’d talk babies after that, but it turned out someone had other plans.”

“Babies are like that.” I stared out into the blinding blue of the ocean. “I don’t think I ever told you this, but Becca wasn’t exactly planned. Sylvia and I had only been married about seven months, and we were living in this cramped apartment, barely more than a room. Working for Leo Groff back then, remember, but still pretty far down the food chain. Syl and I had plans—we had that crappy little apartment so that when I had to travel for a job, she could come with me. I came home one night, absolutely dead on my feet. Filthy from a project we’d just started. I remember I was pissed because I could tell she hadn’t started dinner yet, and I was starved. Syl was curled up in the corner of this ratty old sofa we’d inherited from her aunt, and she’d been crying. I finally got it out of her that she’d taken a pregnancy test.”

“Oh, man.” Ry’s voice was filled with empathy. “What did you say?”

“What could I say?” I lifted one shoulder. “I mean, it was a done deal. And she hadn’t exactly gotten knocked up by herself. Takes two to tango, and let’s just say, I always liked a good tango. So I hugged her tight, told her she’d just made me the happiest man on the planet, and we started picking out baby names. After Becs came along seven months later, neither of us could imagine our lives without that kid.” I sighed a little, remembering. “All this stuff works out for the best.”

“Yeah.” Ry fidgeted, his chair creaking as he settled again. “You know, Linc, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve heard you talk about Sylvia without . . . I don’t know. The deep pain. Like maybe you were about to lose it. It’s good to hear you say her name again with a smile.”

“We had good times. We had a great marriage, and I’ve never regretted one minute of our life together.” I hesitated, waiting for the usual boulder of grief to roll over me. But this time, as it has been lately, the feeling was not as devastating. I still missed Syl every day. I still sometimes talked to her when no one else was around. But the pain didn’t feel like it was going to consume me anymore. It was sadness, but it was no longer despair. “It’s not that common to find the love of your life when you’re seventeen. I was one of the lucky ones, and I’m never going to forget it.”

“So you believe that?” Ryland regarded me with curiosity. “That we all get only one great love?”

I dug trenches in the sand with my heels until I hit the cooler damp layer. “Don’t you? Isn’t Abby your one and only love?”

“Of course.” He didn’t miss a beat in replying. “And I’m counting on us having at least a hundred years together.” When I raised one eyebrow, he lifted his hands. “What? My family is very long-lived. But if something wacky happened and I bought the farm after five years, I’d like to think Abby might find someone else. Someone not quite as attractive as me, of course, because hey, you can’t expect to hit the jackpot twice.” 

“Don’t forget humble,” I added dryly. 

“Never would. I’m just saying, maybe sometimes second chances come along. Look at Jude and Logan.”

Jude and Logan Holt owned the hotel whose restoration had brought Ryland and me to Crystal Cove two years before. They’d been married as long as I’d known them, but Ry had told me their story: Jude had been married to Logan’s best friend and business partner, Daniel, for over twenty years before he passed away from cancer, leaving her with two nearly-adult kids, her own beach-front restaurant and their company’s unfinished projects. Apparently, although he’d never let it be known, Logan had secretly loved Jude all those years. It was only well over a year after Daniel’s death that he’d begun to court his friend’s widow. 

Knowing them now, as I did, I couldn’t imagine any other ending for those two. Logan clearly worshipped the ground Jude occupied, and she was head-over-heels for him. They shared not only their businesses—which had only expanded in the past years—but also her grown children and her two grandchildren. 

“Yeah, that’s true.” I gave Ryland a brief nod of agreement. “But I think that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the people I know who end up married again, or in another relationship after they lose a spouse, don’t find the same fire. They’re together for comfort and companionship. And that’s great, but it’s not an epic love. I don’t think anything can ever touch that first time you fall.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Ryland fisted sand and let it sift through his fingers. “So, you ready for this change? Ready to become a man who stays in one place again?”

“I think so.” I stretched out my legs, letting the sun bake them. “It’s going to be good, I’m pretty sure. Burton seems like a nice town, and it’ll be a fresh start. For all of us.”

“And you need it.” My friend stared out ahead of us. “How’s it going, anyway? The transition with the kids, I mean. They seem to be doing okay.”

“It’s hard to tell yet.” I rubbed my fingers over my forehead. “We haven’t settled down to real life yet, you know? I picked them up from their grandparents’ house just about a month ago, and since then, we’ve been on vacation, more or less, down in Orlando and then up here visiting with you and Abby. That’s nothing different than what we’ve done other summers. The real adjustment will come when we’re alone in our new house, just the three of us, and I have to enforce the rules all the time. I’ll have to come up with a routine, and they’ll be getting used to new schools. That’s going to be the test.”

“Still.” Ryland cast me a sideways glance. “They seem happy.”

“Mostly.” I wanted to be optimistic, but the truth was, realism served me better. “But you see Becca. She’s scared of everything. Afraid to move and afraid to stay still. We were at a theme park last week, down in Orlando, and she got a little ahead of me in the crowd. I didn’t worry, because I had my eye on her the whole time, but when she looked around and couldn’t spot me, she freaked out. Took me nearly an hour to calm her down.”

“Hmmm.” Ry frowned. “That seems a little extreme.”

“It is. Maybe not for a five-year-old, but Bec’s almost twelve.” I lowered my voice, although there was no way either of the kids could hear me down in the waves. “That’s Doris. She’s always been a little bit of a worrywart, but since Sylvia’s accident, she sees disaster and tragedy around every corner. Becca’s picked that up, and it’s going to be a tough habit to break.”

“Maybe once you three are settled in Burton, she’ll relax a little. Have you thought about therapy?”

I nodded. “Both kids have had some counseling over the last six years. We might have to step it up a little in Becca’s case, though.”

“Ollie seems pretty happy.” Ryland watched my son as he splashed the females and made them squeal. 

“Yeah, but he worries me, too. I don’t think the kid has quite wrapped his mind around the idea that they’re living with me now, for good. The other day, he said something about when he goes back to Texas. You know, he was only three when Sylvia died. He doesn’t remember her at all, and Doris and Hank are the only parental figures he knows. I was more like a visiting uncle than a dad to him.”

Ry gripped my shoulder briefly and then released me. “It’ll come together, man. Don’t stress it too hard. Kids are resilient, right? Isn’t that what everyone says?”

“I guess.” I sighed. “We needed this week in the Cove. I appreciate you and Abby letting us stay.” 

“Hey, our hotel is your hotel.” He laughed. “Or something like that. And don’t worry. When we find a house, we’re going to make sure it has plenty of room for you guys to come down whenever you want.”

“You’re seriously going to move out of the Riverside?” Since before their marriage, Abby and Ryland had lived at the hotel that our company had restored. Abby was the manager, so it was easier for her to be on property. They had a roomy, comfortable apartment, and I’d never heard either of them complain.

“We are. We thought about trying to make it work there for a while longer, but the truth of the matter is that no hotel guests want to hear a crying baby in the middle of the night, and I’m given to understand that sometimes babies do that. Cry at night.”

It was my turn to smirk. “Now and then.”

“Yeah, well, anyway, Ab wants to do up a nursery, and I want a place where I can put in my own workshop. I’ve talked Cooper into partnering with me on some local projects, and it would be nice to have a place to do some of the work at home.” 

“You’re becoming domesticated, Ry.” I ignored the twinge of envy I felt. “It looks good on you.”

“I never could’ve gotten here without you, buddy.” Ryland cleared his throat. “If you hadn’t come on as my partner and agreed to head up the new headquarters of Kent and Turner, I’d still have to be on the road. I’d still have too much responsibility to handle the local stuff, the artisan work. So . . . thanks, Linc. I can’t tell you how much Abby and I appreciate it. How much we owe you.”

I coughed away the lump in my own throat. “You don’t owe me anything. You . . . Ryland, you stuck by me when everyone else was ready to give up. When I was an ugly mess from the booze, when I cried my way through every day after Sylvia, you’re the only one who stayed. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be dead in a ditch somewhere, and my kids would be orphans, raised by their grandparents. And you gave me the courage and the wherewithal to take them back, too. If you hadn’t believed in me, I’d have let Hank and Doris keep them. I’d still be miserable, alone. So don’t think I’m doing you some big favor. You’re giving the kids and me a way to start over. To make a new life.”

“Guess we’re both good for each other.” Ryland didn’t look my way, which was fine by me. After all, we were men, and gazing fondly into each other’s eyes wasn’t our thing. 

After a few minutes, I felt like it was safe to speak again. “Really appreciate you hooking me up with Meghan Reynolds, too. She found us a house that looks to be perfect for the kids and me. I’m looking forward to getting up there and settling in.”

“I think the location will be just what we need business-wise, too.” Ry took a swig of his water bottle. “There’s still a lot of historical restoration work going on in the greater Savannah area, and you’ll be central to jobs in Atlanta, too. Alex Nelson gave me some contacts from when he used to live there.” Alex and his partner Cal now ran the Hawthorne House, a bed and breakfast that was also owned by Jude and Logan Holt. Before he’d moved down here to the Cove, Alex had worked in corporate event planning in the Georgia state capital. 

“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you.” I smacked the arm of the chair. “I had an email this morning from the Baker Foundation. The approval came down from the state on restoring that old plantation house, and we got the contract. So my first big job is going to be local to Burton.”

“Dude.” Ry lifted his hand for a high five. “That is huge. How’d you forget to tell me?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw it on my phone right as we were leaving for the beach, and then Ollie couldn’t find his other shoe, and with one thing and another, I guess it just slipped my mind. Oh, and keep it quiet for now, okay? The local historical society hasn’t been informed yet. This was just a heads’ up from one of the Baker Foundation board members.”

“Will do. But hey, this is awesome. I’m jealous, though. A plantation? I’ve always wanted to take on that kind of project.”

“You’re welcome to come up and put in some hours whenever you want. Bring Abby, so she can see our new house and hang out with the kids.”

“We’ll plan on it. Don’t worry, I won’t be able to keep her away from checking out your new digs. Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s gotten attached to your kiddos.”

We both looked down to the ocean. Becca had ventured far enough in that the water hit her knees, and she was giggling as she watched her brother pretend to be a dolphin. My breath caught for a moment; I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard my daughter laugh with that kind of abandon. 

“I think the feeling’s mutual.” The edges of my mouth curled. “Makes me wonder if we should’ve settled here instead. The kids would have you and Ab, and there’d be a sense of familiarity, at least.”

“Maybe. But at the same time I’d love to have all of you right here in town, I think it’s like you said. You need a fresh start, and in Burton, you’ll get that. You won’t be that far away from us, and we can visit.”

“Yeah.” A lump rose in my throat. “I guess there’s part of me that’s scared shitless I’m going to screw this up. The kids, I mean. Becca’s growing up. She’s going to hit those teen years before I know it, and how do I talk to her about all the ‘your changing body’ shit? That was supposed to be Syl’s job.”

Ryland blanched. “Dude, don’t look at me. I guess you’ll have to find some female up in Georgia who can help you out. Ask Meghan. She’s a chick.”

“But that’s just the beginning. There’s always going to be stuff I need to handle, not just as a dad, but as a mom, too. It’s terrifying, Ry. You think this baby part is going to be a tough gig? Just you wait, buddy.”

“Thanks, Linc. Appreciate all the encouragement.” He shook his head and gnawed at his thumbnail. “You know what, though? It’s going to be okay for both of us. We’ll make it through, ‘cause we’re both strong manly men. We got this.”

Scooping up a handful of powdery sand, I let it sift through my fingers. “I hope so, Ry. I really hope so.”

 

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First Chapter Friday: The Always One

 

Maureen

I’ve had a crush on Smith Harrington since we were in college together. I knew he didn’t see me as anything more than his friend—just one of the guys—but that didn’t stop me from weaving sexy fantasies about him.

Now, after years of maintaining a long-distance friendship, Smith’s moving to Burton to be my partner at the veterinary clinic—and he’s living upstairs at my new house. After all this time, I should be able to handle working and living with him without getting hot and bothered. 

Or maybe not. 

Smith

I’ve wanted Maureen Evans since the first day I saw her, but she never seemed interested in taking things to the next level. Eventually, I figured we were destined to stay in the friend zone. And although we’ve lived hundreds of miles apart for years, to me, she’s still the one who got away. 

When Maureen asks me to be her partner at the veterinary clinic, I jump at the chance. Maybe all hope is not lost. Maybe with a little effort on my part, we can finally have our shot at love. So even as Maureen tries to maintain our just-friends bond, I push those boundaries . . . until flirting crosses the line into something more. 

When friendship is no longer enough, there’s always love.

Read the first chapter now!

Maureen

“Have no fear, reinforcements are here!” 

I heard Meghan’s voice before her red head poked around the corner of my bedroom door. She grinned at me and held up the pile of flattened packing boxes she’d brought. “As promised. And I’ve got some wrapping paper and tape in the car. I’ll go grab them.”

“Why don’t you hold on for the moment? We’ve got enough to get started, and we’re tight on space.” I gazed around my room, sighing. Who would think that thirty years of living in the same house, with a brief hiatus during college, would let me accumulate this much crap? And yet here we were, knee-deep in boxes, knick-knacks, books, and clothes.

“Okay, where should I start?” Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the scene. “This is your show. I’m just a hired hand.”

“Yeah, well, don’t expect anything in the way of recompense, toots. This is strictly a charity gig. I’m poor now, you know.”

“Don’t worry. The only expectations I have are paper cuts and maybe a pizza and a couple of beers.”

“That I can handle. Why don’t you start with the books? There’re a few sturdy boxes from the liquor store in the corner.”

“On it.” She retrieved one of the boxes and began pulling books from the tall shelves that lined my walls, stacking them carefully. “I passed your mom on my way in. She seemed a little, ah, preoccupied. Everything okay?”

I blew my bangs out of my eyes. “Yeah. She’s picking up the pizza.” I concentrated on wrapping a small crystal box. “She claims it’s not true, but I think on some level, she’d started to think I was going to live here with her forever. You know, the widow Evans and her spinster daughter.”

“Shut up. You’re not a spinster.”

I nodded. “Oh, you’re right. I forgot about the husband and kids I have. Crap, where did I leave them now?”

Meghan rolled her eyes. “I just mean, you’re hardly old and dried up. Lots of women stay single later nowadays. You’re a modern career gal.”

Snorting, I reached for another pile of paper. “Sure I am. Or I’m the oldest single woman in Burton under fifty.” I watched my friend try to work out what I’d said. “No, it’s true. I figured it out the other day. Miss Charity, who works at the bank, is in her mid-fifties, near as I can figure. I don’t think there’s another unmarried woman in town my age or older until you get to her.”

“Maybe if you dated a little more instead of spending your Friday nights thinking about that stuff, it’d be a moot point.” She taped up the first box of books and moved on to another one. 

“Uh-huh. That reminds me, I need to send a change-of-address notice to the men knocking down my door, begging to take me out.” I lifted my own finished box and carried it to the hallway. We were getting a nice little collection out here. Pretty soon, I could build a tunnel. 

“I’m not going to argue and point out that if you wanted to go out on dates, you could.”

“Yeah, with who? You took the last decent available man in town.” I thought about Sam Reynolds, who’d been more like a brother to me than anything else, and I gave a little shudder. “Not that I was interested in Sam that way. Ever. I’m glad he ended up with you.”

Meghan smiled. “Me, too. But while I’ll admit I happen to think my husband is the sexiest, most incredible man in town, I find it hard to believe he’s the last one.”

“Okay, maybe Rilla’s the one to blame. She snapped up Mason from under our very noses.” 

“Were you interested in Mason?” Meghan’s voice was equal parts surprise and amusement. 

“Not one bit. I mean, the man is seriously hot. He’s built for sin, he’s a huge flirt, and he’s sweet as sugar to boot. But other than that, not my type.” I flipped up the top flaps of a half-packed box. 

“So exactly what is it you’re looking for, if it’s not someone like Sam or Mason?” She started on a new shelf of books. 

“Ah, I didn’t say I wasn’t looking for someone like Sam or Mason. But there are definite aspects of those men I’d love to have in my OAO.”

“OAO?” Meghan’s forehead wrinkled. 

“One and only.” I winked at her and then tilted my head, thinking. “I guess I’m looking for someone . . . easy. Someone who I can hang out with, who knows me and likes me for who I am. Someone I don’t have to pretend with.” Smiling, I stood up and stretched my back. “Physically, I’m not that picky. A little taller than me, in good shape but not too built, you know? I don’t want to be intimidated by how much he works out. A regular guy.” 

“There’ve got to be tons of regular guys around Burton. Maybe you’re just not looking in the right places.”

“Oh, yeah? And just where do you think this battalion of regular guys hangs out, pray tell? At Mason’s? At church? Out at the farm stand?”

Meghan threw up her hands. “I don’t know, Reenie. But you have to put yourself out there to meet people. Your—what did you call him? Your one and only isn’t going to just walk up to your front door and ring the bell.”

“Maybe he’ll bring in his dog to the clinic. We’ll lock eyes over his only-a-little-bit sick pet, and he’ll say . . . ‘Hello, Dr. Evans. I’m just a regular guy, and I’ve been looking for a girl just like you.’”

“You’ve been reading too many romance novels.” She lifted a stack of paperbacks. “Exhibit A.”

“Yeah, whatever. Why shouldn’t my life be like one of those books? I deserve a beautiful happily-ever-after.”

“Of course you do. I’m just saying you might have to do a little something to make it happen.” Meghan lifted up the box and carried it out of the room. “So is your mom really upset about you moving out?”

“No. I don’t think so.” I stopped moving for a moment. “I mean, I think she’s a little sad. I’m the last chick to leave the nest. Iona’s been gone since she left for college and Flynn . . .” I rolled my eyes. “He left with all the big drama, of course.”

“And came back in the same way.” Meghan dropped onto the floor and began to put together one of the flattened boxes. “But it all worked out.”

“Yup.” My baby brother had left our small town the day after his high school graduation, full of ambition, determination and with a badly broken heart, since his long-time girlfriend Ali Reynolds had changed her mind at the last minute about going with him. He’d only returned about a year and a half ago when our father had died suddenly. He’d been as surprised as the rest of us to learn that Ali’s daughter Bridget was actually his child.

As Meghan had said, everything had worked out. Ali and Flynn had gotten married about a year ago, and now they divided their time between New York City and Burton, where they’d built a small house on the Reynolds’ family farm.

“Still, I don’t think it bothered Mom so much because I was here. Or Dad was. And when I told her my idea about buying the old Walker house, she was as excited as I was.” I wrapped another piece of crystal. “But over the last few weeks, she’s been pretty moody. Maybe it just hit her that I’m really leaving.” The thought of my mom rambling around this big house, lonely and sad, hurt my heart.

Meghan stepped around boxes and piles of stuff to sit on the bed next to me. “Maureen, this is a good thing. It’s a move forward. You’re buying your own home, and now you own the clinic, too. Your mom knows that, even if it’s going to be an adjustment at first.”

“I know.” I sniffled a little and dug in the pocket of my jeans for a tissue. “I guess change is always hard.”

“Helloooooo!” A familiar voice floated up the steps, and I smiled. 

“Up here!” Meghan answered, and we heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps running lightly up the stairs. A few seconds later, my sister-in-law’s head peeked around the corner. 

“What’s this? I thought we were working. Packing and shit.” 

“Ali!” Meghan popped up and clambered over everything blocking her way to the door. “When did you get into town?”

“Just now, basically. We pulled into the farm, and Sam told me where you were. I left Bridge and Flynn to unpack and settle in. I figured y’all could use some help.” She surveyed the room. “Seems I was right. Shit, Reen, how the hell did you accumulate all this stuff?”

I shrugged. “I have no idea. And I swear I didn’t have this much crap until I started packing it. Maybe it multiplied.”

“That sounds possible. Point me in the direction of boxes, and tell me what to do.”

I pointed to the shelves. “How about helping Meghan finish up the books? That seems like the biggest priority.”

“On it.” She grabbed a box and began pulling books from a shelf Meghan had begun. “Okay, bitches, tell me all the news. Email and texting are great, but I feel like I never get the real scoop until we talk.”

“First of all, can we discuss how you talk when you come back from being up north? Since when do you call your friends ‘bitches’?” 

Ali laughed. “Sorry. I need to stop talking Yankee when I hit the Mason-Dixon, huh? But stop trying to divert me, Reenie. I need to know what’s going on with you and one Mr. Smith Harrington.”

My face grew warm, and I dropped the marker I was using. “Nothing. What do you mean?” I bent over to retrieve the pen.

“I mean, when we left for New York after Christmas, you were living here, working at the clinic, clinging to the status quo. Then about a month ago, I hear from your mom that you’re taking over Dr. Yancey’s practice, buying a house, and the guy who made your heart go pitty-pat all through college is moving down here. Moving in with you.” She dropped two books into the box and threw up her hands. “What the fu—uhh, I mean, heck? Tell me what happened.”

I reached for a pile of notebooks and slid them into the box I was packing. “First of all, Mom’s not here, so you don’t have to worry about her yelling at you for your language. Second, Smith isn’t moving in with me. He’s going to rent the upstairs part of my house. Mrs. Walker converted it to a duplex a few years back.”

“But how did Smith end up being your renter? I didn’t even know you were still in touch with him.”

I’d forgotten that Ali would probably remember Smith—and that she was one of a very select group of people who’d known about the huge crush I’d had on him. She and I had still been friends early in my college years; our estrangement hadn’t happened until the summer before my junior year. Crap.

“Yeah, we did. Keep in touch, I mean. Nothing big, just emails, social media, that kind of thing.” I worked hard to keep my voice casual. No way did I want Ali making a huge deal out of this. “He was looking around for a new practice, and I knew I didn’t want to try to run Dr. Yancey’s on my own. I’ve got some good ideas for expanding it, but I can’t do that without a partner. So it worked out well.”

“Mmmmmhmmmmm.” Ali finished her box and began taping it. “And is Mr. Smith Harrington married?”

I didn’t look up. “Um, no.”

“And is he currently involved in a relationship?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“And are you planning to jump his bones?”

“I don’t—God, Ali. Seriously? Are you fifteen?”

“Nope. Just morbidly curious.”

“Well, stop. That whole thing with Smith—that was a long time ago. And keep your mouth shut when he gets here because he never knew about any of that craziness. Thank God. I’d have been mortified.”

“Okay, I feel like I just walked into the second act of a play. What’re you talking about?” Meghan looked from our mutual sister-in-law to me. “I thought Smith was just an acquaintance from college. Did you guys date?”

“No.” I filled that one word with as much emphasis as possible. “We did not. We were very good friends. We still are. And that’s all we’ll ever be.”

Ali nodded, her face poker straight. “That’s right. They were very good friends. Smith was the very good friend Reenie wanted to screw silly.”

I groaned and dropped my head into my hands. “Ali. You’re making me regret telling you all my deep-darks way back when.”

“Too late. And tell me it’s not serendipity, him deciding to move down here. You’ll be in the same town, in the same house, working together . . . sounds like the perfect set-up to me. Time to make some of those sexual fantasies come true.”

“When did you get such a dirty mind?” I stood up and crossed my arms over my chest. 

“Blame your brother. We’ve been making up for lost time, and he’s very creative. Just the other night, we—”

I clapped my hands over my ears. “La, la, la, la—I don’t need to hear the disgusting details of your sex life with my little brother.” 

Meghan came over to sit next to me again. “Don’t worry, Reen. If she gets out of hand, I’ll just make sure I talk about what her brother and I did last weekend down at the lake.”

Ali made a face and held up one hand. “Okay, okay. You win.” She shook her head. “When did it happen that my sisters-in-law ganged up on me like this?”

“That’s what happens when you spend six months out of the year in the big city, little sister.” I picked my way across the room and folded her into a tight hug. “But we love you anyway. Thanks for coming over to help, even if you are a pain in the ass.”

“Maureen Ann, language!” The front door slammed shut, and my mother’s words sailed up the steps. 

I rolled my eyes. “Why is it always me she catches? You two could out-swear sailors and she never hears a word.” Raising my voice, I leaned out into the hallway. “Sorry, Mom.”

She appeared at the top of the stairs, lifting her curling black hair off her neck. “It’s hotter than hades out there. Ali, come here and give me a hug. Look at you, you’re more beautiful than ever.” Mom wrapped Ali in her arms then leaned back, studying her daughter-in-law. I saw my mother’s eyes narrow a little, but she didn’t say anything before she released her. “How’re you girls coming up here? Almost done?”

“Oh, uh, we’re getting close.” I glanced behind me at the partially-packed boxes and piles of assorted stuff. 

“Hmm.” Mom raised one eyebrow. “Well, pizza’s waiting for you downstairs. Let’s go eat while it’s hot.” She turned and headed down the steps.

I slung an arm around Ali. “You know what the best part is of you and Flynn and Bridge being back in Burton? It means Mom has three other people to worry about and pester.”

Ali sighed and shook her head. “Oh, joy.”

I laughed. “Welcome home, little sister.”

 

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