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 Eight

If you missed Episode One, read it here.

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Coral

There’s never an invisibility cape around when you really need one.

I don’t write fantasy or paranormal or any other kind of book that might include such a thing—my gig is strictly historical romance—but that doesn’t stop me from wishing they really existed. And if they did, that I had one that I could stash in my purse for moments such as these. Times like this, when I’ve said or done something so mortifying that I just can’t bear the idea of anyone looking at me.

But since this kind of wish almost never comes true, I did the next best thing. I whipped my phone from my huge handbag and put on my best expression of horror.

“Oh, my God, I can’t believe this! My sister’s been trying to get in touch with me—she just texted that she’s stuck along the side of the road. Her car broke down.” I rose to my feet, grabbing at the napkin that had been resting in my lap before it could hit the ground. “I’m so sorry about this, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave.”

Maybe part of me was still holding onto hope that I hadn’t embarrassed myself beyond redemption—that maybe the total fox sitting across the table from me might look at least slightly disappointed that I had to take off. If so, that hope was in vain, because if anything, the sexy face only appeared to be relieved.

Not that I could blame him. Tonight hadn’t been the romantic frolic that I’d been fantasizing about ever since my best friend Sabrina—well, one of my best friends—had offered to set me up with a hot hematologist from the hospital where she worked. Tonight was meant to be the meet-cute, the warm-up act to the big event that was happening this weekend.

But it looked like this show was closing before opening night.

***

Crap.

My date—and I was using that term loosely now—did not offer to come help me rescue my sister. He didn’t even stand up to acknowledge I was leaving. Matter of fact, he didn’t bother to put down his fork.

“Best of luck,” he mumbled through a full mouth of risotto. “Great meeting you.”

“Yeah, you, too.” I pushed the chair under the table with just a little too much force, rattling all the dishes and glassware on the table. The doc never missed a beat; he kept chewing even as he reached out to steady his glass of wine.

“Pig,” I muttered to myself as I walked away from the table, clinging to as much of my dignity as possible. I mean, was it my fault that the date was an utter disaster from the word go? Probably, yes. Was I as awkward as all hell? Definitely.

But still, that was no excuse for him to be so rude. Just because he looked like sex dripping from a stick didn’t give him the right to treat other people like they were the dirt under his very fancy, very expensive Italian leather loafers.

I made my way out of the restaurant and into the lobby of the ritzy hotel, pausing for a moment to catch my breath and get my bearings. I’d taken a YouRideIt to dinner, partly because I figured I’d be drinking, partly because I’d hoped the night might end with me not being alone . . . but mostly because I didn’t drive. That little factoid wasn’t such a big deal usually, but tonight, being stranded at a hotel in Savannah, almost an hour away from home, felt huge. And overwhelming.

I knew I should probably just go outside and flag down a cab to take me . . . where? To Sabrina’s townhouse? That was a possibility, though she was more than likely at the hospital, working a shift. I wasn’t going to get any taxi to carry me all the way to Burton, to the house I shared with our other best friend, Celeste. It was too far and too late.

So my options were taking said cab to another hotel, which seemed absolutely ridiculous, or checking to see if this lovely and fancy place happened to have a vacancy tonight. It wasn’t like I couldn’t afford it. I almost never splurged on anything, so I could’ve booked a month in the priciest suite in this place and never even blink.

There was only one small detail holding me back, and that was so silly that it didn’t even bear considering. Who cared if Dr. Dopey, formerly known as my date for the evening, spotted me checking into this hotel and realized that my reason for abandoning him at the table had been nothing but a clever ruse? He had it coming. I didn’t owe him a damn thing.

“Not a damn thing,” I said aloud, and then I pivoted on the balls of one foot, intending to march toward the reception counter with my head held high.

Instead, though—because I’m me—I slammed into something solid that was moving in the opposite direction. And before I could help myself, my stupid high heels—the ones I’d picked out for this evening and paid way too much money to own—okay, so maybe sometimes I did splurge—anyway, those shoes lost their contact with the shiny, highly polished marble floor.

The next thing I knew, I was flying through the air. Someone was shrieking, and it occurred to me that someone just might have been me. Then I was falling, and my head struck something hard and unyielding that would probably turn out to be the ground.

The world waved and shimmered around me, and the edges of my vision grayed.

“Oh, fuck, are you all right?” An unfamiliar but very attractive, very sexy male face came into my wavering line of sight. “Miss, hey, there, miss! Can you hear me? Can you see me? Are you okay?”

I wanted to open my mouth and say something witty—or maybe just something basically appropriate for once in my life. But instead, my lips formed words that my brain hadn’t approved.

“Hey, there, hot stuff. What’re you doing Saturday night?”

And then the world went dark.

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TITS THE SEASON

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Bosom Buddies Episode Five

Episode One

 

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Sabrina

“Great. Just abso-fucking-lutely great.”

With a scowl and a glare into my rearview mirror, I shifted my car into park and hit the button to kill the engine. I’d just barely managed to fit my sensible little compact car into this tiny space, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the giant gas-guzzler SUV behind me wouldn’t ding me on its way out.

I’d had to park nearly a block away from Celeste’s shop because all of the spaces in front of Between the Sheets were already filled. I’d have said that was good news for my friend’s business, but I had a feeling it was just a typical Saturday morning on the main street of Burton. The town tended to bustle on weekends.

And yeah, I was in a little bit of a pissy mood. I wasn’t exactly sure why. Today was the third day in a rare five-days-off break, and considering how much sleep I was getting—a hell of a lot more than normal—I should have been floating through life, sprinkling freaking fairy dust from my hands. But instead, I was growling, grunting, and grumping.

Did I realize deep down inside that this state of mind had something to do with one Wesley Crane and my last awkward encounter with him? Maybe. Was I going to admit that to myself or to anyone else? I was not.

That day last week, I’d given myself a stern lecture all the way from Savannah to my house. I had been prepared to see him again—or so I had told myself. When Linc had greeted me at the front door, I had been cool and relaxed, pretending that I didn’t have a care in the world. I’d oohed and ahhed over the changes and the finished walls and floors. I had laughed at Linc’s quips and had generally been a delight.

But the moment I’d caught sight of Wesley at the top of the steps—I’d been about halfway up at that point—the gig had been up. I’d nearly tumbled down backward, and I’d no longer had control of my breath, my heart—or my words.

That had been abundantly clear when I’d sniped at him. I’d been so flustered and embarrassed that I’d used a casual text from Coral as an excuse to run away.

I had two choices now, as I saw it: I could pull up my big-girl panties and start acting like a grown-ass woman, pretending that I’d never met Wesley before, treating him like a stranger. Which he basically was, come to think of it. I hadn’t seen him since we were teenagers, and that meant everything that had happened to him since was a mystery to me.

Or I could sell the house and never have to see Wesley again.

With a smothered sigh at my own ridiculousness, I yanked open the door to Celeste’s shop and stomped inside. My friend was standing at the counter, and she glanced up with a frown at the sound of the bell over the door ringing.

“Oh. Sabrina.” She blinked, tilting her head. “I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“You said you needed me here ASAP,” I reminded her. “Your text said it was an event-planning emergency.”

“Well, I might have been a little dramatic when I said that,” she conceded. “It’s not so much an emergency as it is that I needed your input on a few decisions.”

I threw up my hands. “And you couldn’t have just called me? We could have video chatted. Saved me time and a tank of gas.”

“No, because I wanted to see you.” She grinned. “You know, sometimes it’s just nice to spend a few hours with your bestie.”

“Uh-huh. But we have a date this weekend to help Coral find a dress for her big premiere shindig, remember? You’re both coming into the city to stay with me and shop?”

“Well, sure, but maybe I wanted to talk with just you. I thought we could discuss Coral’s date situation. Have you talked to the hematologist yet? Is he interested in being Coral’s escort that night?”

Damn. I’d been so preoccupied with my own life that I’d neglected to reach out to the guy as I’d promised.

“Um, I’ve laid the groundwork,” I answered, using mental reservations to justify the fib. I planned to take care of it, and I’d do it the minute I went back to work.

“Okay, well—” Whatever Celeste had been about to say was lost as the bell over the door rang again, admitting a pretty woman with long dark hair in large sunglasses.

“Jenna, wow, great to see you. What a surprise.” Celeste rounded the end of the counter and crossed the store to greet the newcomer.

“Um.” She took off her glasses. “I just stopped to pick up the thing I ordered.”

“Yeah, of course.” Celeste nodded vigorously. “The peignoir you wanted for the romantic weekend Linc’s planning for you.”

“Right. That’s it.” Jenna’s smile seemed a little . . . relieved? But before I could I mull over that fact, I realized that I recognized her name.

“Wait a second. Your name is Jenna? And your husband is Linc Turner?”

“Guilty and guilty.” She offered me her hand. “You wouldn’t happen to be Dr. Hudson, would you?”

“Also guilty. But please, call me Sabrina.” I shook her hand. “Linc speaks of you often. I’m so glad to meet you.”

“He’s said nice things about you, too. And he’s kind of got a crush on your house.” Jenna rolled her eyes. “Which isn’t as unusual as you’d hope it would be. Also, I’ve heard Celeste talk about her best friends and all of the great work you’re doing for the benefit this Christmas.”

“I was saying to Jenna the other day that Coral and I are dying to get a look at the house, but that you won’t let us until it’s finished.” Celeste pretended to pout.

“You saw it in the before stage when I’d just bought it, and then you’ll get to see the massive transformation,” I told her and then turned back to Jenna. “What Linc’s doing there—it really is beyond my wildest hopes. Every time I get to take a look, I’m completely blown away.”

“He’s got mad skills, my man,” Jenna waggled her eyebrows. “And his team is incredibly talented, too. Have you met them all?”

“Uh . . . most of them,” I hedged, not loving where this was going.

“We had everyone out to our house for a barbecue last weekend, and I got to know some of the newer people.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “One of the guys in particular . . . he was telling me—” Jenna closed her eyes and shook her head. “Fuck it, Celeste. I’m crap at this kind of thing.”

I glanced from my friend to Jenna Turner. “What?”

Celeste groaned. “It’s not you, Jenna. This was all stupid. Men and their lame ideas.” Wrinkling her nose, she leaned back against the display case behind her. “Linc put Jenna up to this, and she recruited me to help.”

“What are you talking about?” I was bewildered.

“Wesley Crane.” Jenna wrung her hands. “Linc wanted to figure out a way to make sure you knew what really happened with Wesley all those years ago. And he thought maybe if I just kind of casually brought it up in front of you, maybe you’d listen.”

My cheeks went hot. “This was Wesley’s idea?”

“No, not at all.” Jenna shook her head. “This was totally my husband’s brainstorm. He has a huge heart and good intentions, but he doesn’t always stop and think.”

“If Wesley wants me to know something, he can just tell me himself,” I sniffed. “I don’t know why it even matters.”

“But you won’t stick around long enough to let him give you his version,” Celeste reminded me. “And Sabrina, seriously, you need to hear this.”

I rounded on her. “You already know?”

Guilt etched in her eyes, she nodded. “Jenna told me.”

For a long moment, I was silent, curiosity battling with stubbornness in my head. Finally, I shrugged.

“Okay. Tell me what you know. It’s not going to make any difference,” I hastened to add. “There’s no excuse for what Wesley Crane did to me back then.” Lifting my chin, I clenched my jaw. “Absolutely none.”

***

“Oh, my God,” I murmured, my arms tingling as I rubbed my hands over them. “That’s . . . it’s really true? You’re sure this wasn’t just Wesley spinning a pathetic story to get sympathy?”

“It’s true,” Jenna assured me. “Linc believed him, but he figured you’d have questions, so he did the research. There were a couple of police reports from years ago, when Wesley’s mom was still angry enough to report the abuse. Then there’s the death notice for Wesley’s father. It was right when he said it happened. It’s all legit, Sabrina. He didn’t know he would be leaving town that night. But he couldn’t risk his father finding them.”

From the vantage point of adulthood and new information, I remembered a few incidents now with new clarity. Wesley’s father had rarely been part of our lives, and when he had shown up, things had been tense. I recalled that when Wesley had vanished, my own dad had been thoughtful and sober, gently advising me to give my friend the benefit of the doubt. I wondered what Daddy would say now if I told him what I’d learned.

“I feel horrible for what I said to him,” I confessed to Celeste and Jenna. “He was trying to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t see beyond my own hurt.”

“The good news is that you still have a chance to make up for that,” Celeste reminded me. “Wesley is here. Just a few miles away, putting in hours on your house. You could go out there and tell him . . . well, talk to him.”

“Does it even matter?” I wondered out loud. “We were kids. We were friends, but barely more than that. Life tore us apart . . . and maybe we should just forgive each other and move along.”

The other two women sighed in unison. “Sabrina, I don’t know you, but I’d have to wonder why you were so angry—and shaken—by seeing Wesley again if it really means so little to you.” Jenna patted my arm.

“You told us once that he was your first love,” put in Celeste. “You owe it to sixteen-year-old year to at least see if there’s something there.”

“But how do I do it?” I gnawed my bottom lip.

“I think you just drive over to the house, and you walk up to Wesley . . . and you ask him to tell you everything. You tell him you’re ready to listen.”

The idea of doing that made me break out in cold sweat. What if Wesley blew me off? What if he was angry about how snarky and mean I’d been? What if he told me that I’d never mattered enough to miss? What if he thought that I’d been making a big deal out of something that did mean that much?

But at the same time, beneath the terror and uncertainty beat a small yet persistent thrum of hope.

“All right,” I said at last. “I’ll do it. I’ll go see him. I’ll talk with Wesley.”

Want to know what comes next?

Episode Six is coming next Friday!

Sabrina and Wesley finally talk. And listen.

And . . .well, wait and see!

The tale of Coral’s movie premiere date

is coming in this month, too.

What about Celeste?

Her romance is revealed in

TITS THE SEASON

which is part of the holiday benefit anthology

TINSEL AND TATAS

Releasing October 5th

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Bosom Buddies Episode Two

 

If you missed Episode One, read it here.

 

Wesley

 

I never thought I’d see her again.

Okay, so I hadn’t exactly been looking for Sabrina Hudson in the fourteen years since we’d last been together. For the first year, not thinking about her had been a matter of self-preservation. It had hurt too much, caused me too much gut-deep pain to let my mind linger on memories of her deep brown eyes, the way her whole face lit up whenever I said something she found amusing.

And then . . . well, life had gone on as it does when you’re young and grappling to figure out basic shit like surviving high school, getting into college, and supporting yourself. If I’d thought of Sabrina, it had been occasional and fleeting, with the pang of regret a little more bearable each time.

When I’d seen the name Hudson on the schedule that Linc had sent out to the crew, sure, I’d thought about Sabrina and her family. But as I’d noted a moment ago, it wasn’t exactly an unusual last name. It hadn’t even occurred to me this project we were working—this incredible sleeping beauty of a house—might belong to my Sabrina.

Because that was still how I thought of her. In my mind and in my memory, she was still my Brina girl, the first one I’d loved, the person who I’d most suffered over when Mom and I left town.

She was staring at me now, and in her gaze, I saw a mix of confusion and trepidation give way to disbelief and wonder.

“Wesley?” She breathed my name. “Is it really—how are you—I mean, what are you doing here?”

Of all the questions I was sure Sabrina was about to ask, that hadn’t been the exact one I’d expected. I gave my head a little shake just to get loose of the cobwebs before I answered.

“I work for Kent and Turner. I’m on this project, restoring this—well, uh, I guess your house.” I lifted one shoulder. “How’s that for a hell of a coincidence?”

“Yeah, coincidence,” she echoed, her eyes still stuck to my face. “It’s been—God, I haven’t seen you in—”

“Fourteen years,” I finished for her. “I know. I figured I’d never see you again. Every now and then I check on social media to see if you’re there. I saw a profile that looked like it might have been you, but it was ten years old, and nothing after.”

Sabrina wrinkled her cute little nose, making me want to reach out a finger to stroke down its length and smooth those bumps.

“I don’t do social media,” she said. “It’s not my thing. I had a couple of accounts for half a year back in college, but I hated how it made me feel, so I got rid of them.”

“Ah, so that was you.” I grinned. “You went to Carolina for college, huh? Long way from Waukesha.”

“Yeah, that was kind of the point,” she shot back. “I wanted to start over, far away from everyone I knew back in Wisconsin. I was ready to stop being poor little Sabrina Hudson whose mom died when she was in kindergarten.”

“No one ever thought of you that way.” I frowned, thinking back. “At least I didn’t.”

“You were one of the few. Every year, I had to deal with a new set of teachers who handled me with kid gloves, like I might shatter. And every time there was something in school that involved mothers, everyone looked at me like I was going to have a meltdown. Like the reminder that I didn’t have one was going to break me.” Sabrina pressed her fingers to her temples as though she was holding her head together, and suddenly I remembered that was her stress tell—what she did every time she was grappling with something huge like a killer exam or bickering friends. I hated the idea that I was the one causing her angst right now.

***

“Hey.” I couldn’t help myself. I lifted my hand to brush her fingers away from her hairline. “It’s okay, Brina girl. Maybe the rest of them were idiots, but I always knew you were made of stronger stuff.”

For just a moment, her lips curled into the ghost of a smile, and her eyes met mine with a muted gratitude. And then she seemed to remember where we were and everything that had happened between us. She stepped backward again.

“Yes, you always said I was tough.” The smile turned brittle. “Guess that’s why you figured I could handle it when you left me without a word. You never looked back, did you?”

“Sabrina.” Slowly, I shook my head. “No. That wasn’t what happened at all. It was—I didn’t have a choice.”

“That’s bullshit.” She tossed her head, making her wavy black hair dance. “Everything is a choice, Wesley. You moved away without giving me any notice, any explanation at all. You could have dropped me a note. You could’ve sent me a text. But you decided I wasn’t worth the time or energy.”

“It wasn’t that way,” I began again, but she rolled her eyes and cut me off.

“It wasn’t even the fact that you skipped town the day after—” She stopped abruptly, biting her lip, and I knew what she’d been about to say. “But we were friends, Wesley. You’d been my closest friend since preschool. We went through so much crap together, and I thought you were the one person I could always depend on. In a sea of craziness, you were my reliable float. After you left—” She turned around, giving me her back, but the way her head bowed, I knew she was hiding tears.

That just about killed me.

Who knew that all these years later, Sabrina Hudson still had the ability to rip out my beating heart?

“Sabrina, you have to realize that if there had been any way for me to reach out to you, I would have done it. God, don’t you think it destroyed me, having to leave everything and everyone behind me when we left? And if you don’t know, after all the years we were friends, after I told you that night how much I cared for you, if you didn’t know that you were at the top of the list of people I’d miss, then . . .” I trailed off. “Maybe there’s nothing I can say.”

“I guess not,” she whispered, the sound muffled since she was still facing away from me. “And if there’s nothing left for either of us to say, then I’m going home.” She waved one hand, gesturing vaguely to the space around us. “Tell Linc I was here and everything looks fine. Tell him I’ll be back next week to check on the progress.” She paused. “Please.”

“Don’t you want to take a look around? Check out what we’ve done upstairs?” I hated that my surprise appearance was robbing Sabrina of the joy of watching her house come back to life.

“No, not now.” She turned toward the door, and once again, she held her head between her hands. “I just came off a long shift at the hospital, and I need to get home to sleep.”

There was so much I wanted to ask her. She worked at the hospital, so did that mean she’d realized her long-held dream of becoming a doctor? Where was she living now, while she waited for her house to be ready? How had the last fourteen years treated her? Was she married, living with someone . . . did she have a family to raise in this rambling old house?

But I could tell that she was on the verge of falling apart, and I knew that if I witnessed that, it would only make her resent me more. So I didn’t ask any questions. Instead, I stayed where I was, hooking my thumbs in the beltloops of my jeans.

“Okay, Sabrina. I’ll let him know.”

She nodded and reached for the doorknob, hesitating only a second before she stepped across the threshold.

“I didn’t know what happened to you, Wesley, and I always wondered. I’m glad you’re alive and well.”

Before I could respond, she was out the door, pulling it shut behind her. I listened to the sound of her feet on the porch and then crunching on the gravel of the drive, but I went back upstairs before the slam of her car door.

A few minutes later, I heard the familiar rumble of Linc’s truck, and shortly after that, he climbed the steps to find me.

“Got those nails,” he announced, tossing me a small paper bag. “But we need to order some more from the company because the local hardware store doesn’t stock them on a regular basis.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “I thought what we had on hand would work, but these will be better.”

“Agreed.” Linc squinted at me, frowning. “Was that the homeowner I passed on the way in? I slowed down to wave, but she just kept on going.”

“Yep.” Tension made me a little terse. “She came by to check on things, I guess.”

“Didn’t hang around very long, did she? Was she happy with what she saw so far?”

I hesitated, unsure of how much to say. “She didn’t get any further than the foyer. I went downstairs, and I think she was surprised that she wasn’t here alone.” I opened the bag and pretended to examine the tiny finishing nails. “Turns out that she’s someone I knew . . . a long time ago.”

“Oh.” Linc watched me, waiting for me to go on, and when I didn’t, when my face went hot, his eyebrows rose. “Ohhhh. Old girlfriend?”

“Not quite. Kind of, maybe. We were just kids, and things—didn’t end the way I’d hoped. Or the way she’d hoped, I guess.” I closed the bag of nails again, crimping the paper to keep them from spilling. “It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time and a good ear,” Linc offered.

“That’s okay.” I shook my head. “I know you need to get home, and I’ve lost the light here, anyway. Mind dropping me at the office on your way?” All of us working on the house tried to share rides to and from the site to cut down on too many vehicles in the driveway.

“No problem.” Linc waited as I grabbed my tools and stood up to follow him down the stairs. “You know, that offer to listen isn’t going to expire. Any time you need to talk, I’m here.”

“Thanks. You’re a good guy, Linc.”

He paused at the back door, his smile wry as he dug in his pocket for the key to lock up.

“I wasn’t always, and that’s what makes me a good listener. I don’t judge, and I believe in second chances.”

I nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

But as we trudged to the pickup, I wasn’t thinking about Linc’s offer. Instead, I was hoping that maybe, somehow, Sabrina might also be an advocate of second chances.

It was unlikely. She didn’t seem disposed to hear me out or to understand what had gone done all those years ago in Wisconsin.

But a guy could hope.

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

What’s the story between Sabrina and Wesley?

And will she give him a second chance?

Read next week and find out!

If you missed Episode One, read it here.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t read the first four Burton romances,

catch up on them here!

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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