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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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: 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.

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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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Bosom Buddies Episode One

Sabrina

Everything in life is a tradeoff.

At least, that’s the way I look at things. Take today, for instance. Here I was at the end of a twenty-four-hour shift at the hospital, and by all rights, I should have been heading back to my condo to collapse into bed for a solid eight hours of desperately needed sleep. But instead, I’d turned left out of the hospital parking lot and aimed my car toward the small town of Burton, located about forty-five minutes due west of Savannah.

I wasn’t driving all the way into town today, even though I was tempted to pop into my friend Celeste’s adorable lingerie shop and shoot the breeze with her. No, my destination was about ten miles outside of Burton: I was driving to a picturesque little piece of property that boasted a small lake, two acres of wooded land, and over a hundred years of fascinating history.

Oh, and it also included a rambling old mansion that hadn’t been occupied for several decades. Seeing the beauty it could become hadn’t been easy, but I had a discerning eye for spotting potential, and this house had it in spades. I’d fallen head over heels for the place and made a rare impulsive decision. I’d forsaken the search for a cookie-cutter suburban starter home and committed to another year or two in my soulless Savannah condo in order to fund the rehab of my dream home.

Last month, the work on the bones of the house—the structural support, electricity and plumbing—had all been finished. This week, the company I’d hired to handle the historical rehab was supposed to begin working its magic, and I couldn’t wait another moment to see what they’d done so far.

Hence, the tradeoff. I was giving up sleep in exchange for a quick walk-through of my dream home.

It was late afternoon, so I wasn’t completely surprised to see that there weren’t any trucks in the winding driveway that led to the house. Was I a tiny bit disappointed? Sure. I wanted to think that the people I’d hired were giving my precious project all of their time and energy and attention, but the truth was that they probably had other jobs going on at the same time.

Anyway, being alone would give me a chance to really soak it all in without anyone there to rush me along or ask pesky questions. There you go—yet another tradeoff.

I let myself in through the front door only because I wanted the full effect of stepping into the magnificent foyer. I wasn’t disappointed. The walls were freshly painted in an updated shade of their original color, and the woodwork we’d selected for this space was already up, and even though it hadn’t been finished yet, I could already see how gorgeous it was going to be.

“Oh, baby,” I murmured. “You are going to be so beautiful when they’re done. I’d say we’re restoring you to your former glory, but I think it’s going to be even better than that. Kind of like getting a facelift that makes you look like a sexier version of your twenty-year-old self.” I giggled to myself, thinking of all the women who would line up for that kind of surgery.

Kneeling down, I ran my fingers over the baseboards and craned my neck to examine the molding that ran along the top of the walls, seeing in my mind’s eye the old photos one of my contacts at the county historical society had dug up for me, the ones that we’d used to make style and color decisions. It really was like the original, only better.

I was about to stand up again and make my way toward the kitchen when I heard footsteps upstairs. That was disturbing; if the crew had left for the day, no one should have been here. But there they were again: yeah, someone was definitely upstairs, and whoever it might be wasn’t making any effort to disguise his or her presence.

My mind raced through a number of possibilities, landing on the worst one first. I’d heard that sometimes vagrants or addicts or criminals scoped out empty houses and camped out there when they were fairly sure no one else was around. My place was pretty far off the beaten track, but still . . . if someone happened upon it, they might not like the idea of being chased away, and if they felt cornered or had a weapon, I could be in trouble.

I moved slowly, reaching into my purse and groping blindly. Like most women, I’d learned young the defense method of threading keys through my fingers, and if I could find them now, I might be able to buy myself time to get to my car. I thanked my past self for feeling safe enough out here that I’d left it unlocked. The door was just a few feet away, and if I could get to it silently—

And then the footsteps sounded again—this time louder and coming closer. My heart pounded, and sweat broke out all over my body. I tried to swallow, but my throat was bone dry. I took a deep breath and was about to make a run for the door when I heard a deep voice.

“Sabrina?”

I looked up, lifting my eyes to the banister on the second floor where a man was staring down at me. I blinked, my mind darting this way and that as I tried to make sense of the stranger above me who knew my name.

It wasn’t Linc Turner, the co-owner of Kent and Turner, the historical restoration company I’d hired. I’d have guessed it was one of the men who worked for him, but I hadn’t met any of them. It might have been someone local to Burton—someone I’d met with Celeste or maybe through Young Survival Coalition, the breast cancer support network and organization where we both volunteered. But it wasn’t. Somehow, I knew I hadn’t seen this face in a long time.

But I didn’t know him. The familiarity was frustratingly fleeting and vague. I frowned, rising slowly as the guy who seemed to know me jogged down the steps. My keys were still in my hand, so if he turned out to be psychopath who somehow happened to know my name.

“I didn’t put it together . . . I mean, Hudson is a common name, right? But then I heard your car in the driveway, and when I looked out the window to see who was here, I knew it was you.” He took a step toward me.

I moved backward. “I’m sorry. I don’t . . .” My voice trailed off. “How do you know me?”

He was quiet for a moment, and then a half-smile curled his lips. My heart sped up again, but this time it wasn’t fear making my pulse race. It seemed that my body had realized who he was, but my head was slow to catch up.

And then he spoke, his voice low and husky.

“Brina girl.”

Just like that, it all came flooding back to me, and I knew without a shadow of doubt who was standing in front of me.

“Wesley?”

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

Who is Wesley?

And how does he know Sabrina?

Read next week and find out!

Meanwhile, catch up on all of the steamy romance happening in Burton right here!

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