First Chapter Friday: I Choose You

Wedding bells are ringing for us. I hope.

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

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

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

Read the first chapter now!

Ava

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

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

***

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

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*******

Enjoy this little tidbit of my story, Tits the Season . . .

“You know, Celeste,” I began conversationally. “I could be remembering wrong, but I think you and I used to like each other fine. Back in the day, I mean. When we were growing up, and when we were in high school.”

“What’s your point?” Her hands gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. 

“You’re pissed off at me for something, and you have been since I got back to town. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, though. You called and asked me to perform this weekend, and I didn’t even hesitate. I said yes. But from the time I saw you at the bar last night until now, you’ve been bristling at me like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

Celeste shot me a glare filled with venom. “I don’t bristle. And don’t compare me to a cat.”

“I happen to be a big fan of cats, so it’s not like that’s an insult,” I returned calmly. “My point is, darlin’—” 

“Don’t you darlin me, Ty Hollins.” 

I ignored that. “The point is that you’re acting like I’ve wronged you in some way, and I can’t think of anything that might qualify. So I’d like you to enlighten me.” 

She was silent, but I saw the tension in her jaw. With a sigh of defeat, I slumped down and stared out the window. 

I forgot sometimes how dark it got out here in the country, especially around midnight in December. Still, the headlights picked up enough of our surroundings that I had a good idea of where we were. Almost without thinking about it, I began to reminisce. 

“Krissy and Carl Hochuck’s place is out this way, I think.” I paused for a moment. “That was some party they threw that year—it was the end of the summer a few years after Danny and I graduated. Do you remember?” 

Celeste snorted and rolled her eyes, and it was about that time I began to get a clue. 

The Christmas One

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The Christmas One

Merry Christmas to my wonderful readers!

Here’s a little Christmas vignette, featuring Sam and Meghan.

 I hope you enjoy it!

Light spilled into the bedroom, bathing Meghan’s face in its soft glow. I lay next to her in our bed, watching the beams play across the smooth white skin of her cheek. Pale red lashes teased the faint freckles, and one lock of her hair had fallen near her full red lips. I brushed it away with the tip of my finger, but she didn’t stir.

I loved the luxury of gazing at her when she was asleep, when she didn’t know I was staring. If she caught me doing it during the day, I’d never hear the end of it. She’d tease me, her face going that soft pink that made me want to pull her close and nibble down her neck. And most mornings, I was up and out of bed long before the sun rose. Working a farm was a twenty-four/seven job, and it was only this time of year, in the dead of winter, that I got a little break. I wasn’t about to waste it by jumping out of bed before I had to.

“What time is it?” She spoke without opening her eyes.

“Early. For you, anyway. It’s not seven yet.”

“Mmmmmm.” She hummed, her lips pressing together. “Then why are you awake?”

“How did you know I was?” I leaned closer, catching her ear lobe between my teeth.

“I could feel you staring at me. It’s creepy.” She shivered as my tongue tickled a spot on her neck.

“It might be creepy if I were some random guy, but I’m your husband, which means I’m exempt from creepy-guy status. I can stare at you all I want. I’ve got a signed document giving me permission.”

“Hmph.” She sounded skeptical, but I spied the subtle twitch of her lips.

“Hey, baby?” I nuzzled the curve of her shoulder.

“Yeah?” She opened one eye, regarding me with curiosity.

“Merry Christmas. I love you.”

Meghan turned toward me, sliding her arms around my neck. “Merry Christmas, Sam. I love you, too.” She kissed my jaw, then my cheek, working her way to my mouth, where she took her time, teasing my bottom lip with her teeth, tracing the outline with the tip of her tongue.

“Don’t you want to see what Santa left you under the tree?” I snuck one hand under her nightshirt, over the warm satin skin of her stomach and up to cup her breast. My thumb circled her stiff nipple, and I was rewarded with her sharp intake of breath.

“I think I’d rather unwrap the gift that’s right here.” She snuggled closer, pressing her hot core against the stiffness between my legs.

Thrusting my hips forward, I growled into her ear. “Have you been a naughty girl? Do I need to—”

“Merry Christmas, Uncle Sam! Are you awake, Auntie Megs?” My niece’s voice cut throw the haze of desire. It was followed by the slam of the kitchen door and the pounding of her footsteps heading toward the stairs.

“Fuck.” I dropped my forehead against Meghan’s shoulder, groaning.

She giggled. “Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s off the table right now.” She nudged up my chin with her finger, sealed my lips with one intense, soul-stabbing kiss, and then sat up, patting my ass. “Come on, Uncle Sam. You need to get your, uh, self, under control before Bridget opens that door. In three, two, one . . .”

“Come on, you guys! Mommy and Daddy said I can’t open anything until you come downstairs. We walked all the way over here, and guess what? Daddy says it smells like snow. And I saw a deer right on the edge of the woods. Are you coming?”

~~~***~~~

“It never fails to amaze me that I can spend hours shopping and wrapping, and the opening is over in a matter of minutes.” My sister yawned and snuggled back against her husband, tucking her feet beneath her on the sofa. My eyes strayed down to where her grey cotton shirt stretched over the small bump at her middle. I glanced at Meghan, wondering if her thoughts were following my own, but she was occupied on the floor, examining a new set of charcoal pencils Santa had brought Bridget.

“Which is actually a good thing in this case, since we need to get over to Mom’s. Reenie just texted that she and Smith are already there, and Iona’s crew is on the way.” Flynn swiped his thumb over his phone and grinned at me. “We’ll leave the newlyweds alone.” He kissed the top of Ali’s head, his hand skimming over her bump in a way that was both possessive and casual. “Enjoy it. Once the rugrats come along, the relaxing Christmas mornings are a distant memory.”

I snorted. “Yeah, the last relaxing Christmas morning I had was before Bridget was born.” I’d spent more holidays with Bridge than Flynn had, and I wasn’t going to let him forget it.

“Touche’.” Flynn was a good guy, and I knew he appreciated the years I’d taken care of Ali and Bridget, when he wasn’t around. He nudged Ali up. “C’mon, woman. Get moving, or Mom’ll be calling to see where we are.”

Meghan and I stood by the Christmas tree as they bundled up for the short walk back across the fields and down the path, to the small house they’d built on the farm. Ali stood on tiptoe to kiss my cheek.

“Merry Christmas, big brother. See you later on for dinner at Mason and Rilla’s?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but we’re not staying late. We’re hitting the road early tomorrow morning, so we can get to the Cove by lunch time. Meghan’s mom is anxious for us to be there.”

“Understood.” She hugged my wife before they were all out the door, Bridget’s excited chatter the last thing I heard as they disappeared around the bend.

And then the house was quiet. Meghan sighed and turned toward the fridge.

“You want some eggs, or shall I make pancakes?”

“Hey.” I came behind her and circled my arms around her waist. “You okay?”

“Of course.” Her voice was too bright, too perky. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

The effect of the words was ruined by the catch in her breath. I closed my eyes, dropped my face to bury in her neck and pressed one hand over her flat stomach.

“It’s stupid.” She spoke so softly, I had to concentrate to hear her. “I mean . . . it wasn’t even . . . we barely knew I was pregnant.” She sniffled. “And it wasn’t like we wanted a baby so soon. It was just an accident.”

“Meghan.” I gripped her upper arms and turned her to face me. “No child of ours could ever be an accident. And no child of ours will ever be unwanted.” I lifted her face so that I could see her eyes, bright with unshed tears. “I won’t pretend to know what you went through, or what you’re feeling now. But I hate that you’re hurting. And I’d do anything to stop it.”

She rubbed her forehead against my shoulder. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do except get through it. I’m trying to be happy for Rilla and for Ali—I am happy for them. But it still hurts a little that they’re getting what I was too dumb to know I wanted.”

“Darlin’, you weren’t dumb. We were both surprised, and we were still adjusting when—well, when there wasn’t anything to adjust to anymore. Stop beating yourself up.” I brushed at her cheeks with my thumbs, swiping at the salty tracks. “And when the time’s right, it’ll be our turn. There’s a baby in our future. I know that for sure.”

Meghan sniffed again. “How can you know that? Maybe this was our baby. Maybe our only chance.”

“I know, because we’ll never give up. When we’re ready, it’ll happen.” I kissed her on the mouth, hard and quick. “And until then, I’m going to enjoy the time I have with my gorgeous, sexy wife.”

She gave a half-laugh, half-sob and caught her hands together behind my neck. “How on earth did I ever get lucky enough to find you?”

I laughed. “You got drunk at a bar in my town, had a bad serpentine belt, and I just happened to be the guy who came to your rescue.” I touched my lips to the turned-up tip of her nose. “And then you came back and rescued me from my dull and boring life. See, baby? It all works out.”

Meghan threaded her fingers through my hair and tugged me down toward her face. “Merry Christmas, Sam. I love you.”

“Merry Christmas, Meghan. I love you right back.” I gave in to her coaxing and kissed her again, this time slow and full of promise.

When she came up for air, some of the pain had seeped out of her eyes. “How about those pancakes?”

I bent, scooping her up in my arms and holding her tight to me. “Pancakes later. First . . .” I pivoted and made my way to the stairs. “You. Me. Upstairs. Naked. Lots of naked.”

She giggled, and the sound warmed my heart.

“You always have the best ideas.”

~~~***~~~

The End . . . for now

Review

The familiarity of home, the warmth of family ties, the sweet sensation of being wrapped in the arms of THE ONE love thatTLOEbookSW meant everything. . .each story is a remarkable package of all this and more.

–Olivia Hardin
USA Today Best-Selling Romance Author

From the Author

The One Trilogy begins with Sam and Meghan’s story in The Last One . . .

Nobody ever said love was simple.
It continues with Flynn and Ali’s re-discovered love in The First One . . .
Can first love last forever?
And it concludes with Mason and Rilla’s surprising romance in The Only One.
Sometimes love isn’t the easy choice. Sometimes it’s the only one.
Writing these books has been an amazing experience. For nearly a year, part of me has lived in the small Georgia town of Burton. I’ve loved watching this community: embracing their sorrows, celebrating their joys and exulting in their love stories.
I hope you’ll spend some time in Burton, too. One warning: you may not want to leave.
And if you enjoy The One Trilogy, come back to Burton for the Always Love TrilogyAlways For You is available now, and Always My Own is coming January 26th!

The Last One

FREE on all venues for a limited time

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Merry Christmas!

From my home to yours. . .

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We wish you a very merry Christmas!

May your day be filled with family, friends and food. . .and may many of the brightly-wrapped boxes beneath your tree contain books, e-readers and of course, gift cards for more books!

A Christmas Wedding. . .A Sweet Happily Ever After!

I Choose You

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I CHOOSE YOU 

is live now on all venues.

I Choose YouThe path of true love was a bumpy one for Ava and Liam. He was her best friend’s ex-boyfriend, son of a local politician and the campus playboy. She was a hard-working, single-minded scholarship student with no time for romance. They were the couple least likely to succeed. 

But almost two years later, love is better than ever. Liam’s pursuing his dream of being a college professor, and Ava’s the rising star at a local ad agency. But Liam still has one more goal: marrying the girl who changed his life.

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

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Don’t forget. . .

the first book in the Perfect Dish Novels

Best Served Cold

is FREE right now.

And the second book

Just Desserts

is available at all retailers.

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