VIRTUAL Coastal Magic!

Coastal Magic is going virtual.

Of course, we all wish we were going to be back together again at Daytona Beach, but this year, we’re virtual once more–to keep us safe so that we can meet again.

Here’s how I’m participating (all links will be on the Coastal Magic website that weekend):

Tawdra’s Q&A Friday, February 25th, 11:15 AM EDT

Tawdra’s virtual book signing, Sunday, February 27th, 3:15 PM: If you want to take part, you can preorder your paperback here and then chat with me while I sign it and then send to you.

Coastal Magic Convention Charity Anthology–available here now! All proceeds benefit Habitat for Humanity. My story in the book is called Cake By the Ocean and features Cal and Alex from both Crystal Cove and Love in a Small Town.

Kobo

Barnes&Noble

Google

 

 

 

First Chapter Friday: Just Desserts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the first chapter now!

            “Well? What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What’s she doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

            I raised one eyebrow, my skepticism clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Complicated, huh? Care to elaborate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “You could try.”

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

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

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

            “And you care. . .why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Nothing. Or maybe everything. Maybe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!

The First One is only 99 cents today!

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A sneak peek of Intentional Grounding

Grey’s Anatomy meets Monday Night Football. 

Heat and heart clash in this rollercoaster of a love story.

Noah

I’m Noah Spencer, famous football player, all-around good guy . . . and widower.

When my wife died, I knew that part of my life—the part where I could love or be loved—was over. But then I met Alison, and suddenly, I find myself beginning to believe in hope again.

Still, I know the kind of pain love can bring. I know what it feels like when my heart shatters.

Do I have the guts to risk it all again?

Alison

I’m Alison Wakely, physician, perpetual loner . . . and possible bad-luck charm.

Long ago, I resigned myself that true love and happily ever after aren’t in the cards for me. But then I met Noah, and he tempts me to trust in happiness again.

When everything begins to unravel, though, I realize I should have known better. I’m fated to be alone.

But fate has a way of surprising us now and then.

The second trilogy in the best-selling Diagnosis: Love world is made up of two SHAMELESS CLIFFIES before the finale. You’ve been warned. The books release a week apart, so your angst doesn’t have to last long–and the happily ever after in book three is worth the journey.

 

Noah

“Noah?” 

The voice behind me as I stood under the portico at the hotel was hesitant but oddly familiar. I turned around to see a drop-dead gorgeous total babe approaching me from the direction of the lobby. 

“Uh . . . Alison?” I croaked like a boy going through adolescence. “Hey. Um, wow. You look . . .” I gave a little cough to try to get my voice back under control. “Amazing.” 

Her cheeks flushed a very pretty pink. “Thank you. You don’t look bad yourself. Actually, if I’m going for brutal honesty, you look a hell of a lot better than you did the last time I saw you.”

I grimaced. “Not hard to do. I was pretty wrecked that day.” 

“Yeah, I know.” She glanced around us. “So you’re staying here, too?” 

“There wasn’t a lot of choice. Emma said all of the out of town guests who weren’t being put up by people in Harper Spring were coming to this hotel. It was nice of them to spring for the shuttle.” 

“Nice, yes. A good idea, absolutely.” Alison tilted her head. “Think about all the celebrating that’s going to happen tonight. Poor Anna and Jimmy might end up with a house full of unexpected guests who aren’t sober enough to drive back to the hotel if they didn’t have the shuttle option.” 

“Good point,” I allowed. “It works for me, too. I haven’t been cleared for driving yet.” 

“How did you get here from Tampa, then?” she inquired. 

“Car service,” I admitted. “It was the easiest way to go.” 

She fiddled with the clasp on her sparkly little purse. “I would have been happy to give you a ride, you know.” 

It was on the tip of my tongue to make a suggestive reply to her remark, but I reined myself in. After all, Alison and I might have bonded during my time of pain and need, but she didn’t know me all that well. I didn’t want to scare her off. 

“I appreciate the thought, but I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.” 

She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, the shuttle lumbered to a stop in front of us. The hotel doors slid open and a group of people came out, all of them chattering as they headed for the bus. 

“Guess we’re not the only ones planning to get there early,” I observed. “We better get on board, or we might not get a seat.” I bent my arm and offered it to Alison. “Shall we?” 

She grinned at me, and something frozen and nearly dead in my heart began to melt. 

We found two seats together in the front of the vehicle. I stepped aside to allow Alison the inside seat. 

“I don’t mind the aisle,” she said, hesitating. 

I shook my head. “I need to keep my leg straight. It helps with the stiffness.” 

“Ah. Okay.” She slipped around me and took her seat, watching as I settled myself down next to her. 

“At the risk of bringing up a painful topic . . . how is your knee?” She glanced at me. “I felt bad leaving you that day in the hospital, but I figured between your doctor arriving and things calming down in the ER, I’d only be in the way.” She tugged the hem of her short, sparkly dress down over her knee. “I did check on you before I left that day, though. They told me you were already in surgery.” 

“Yeah, I don’t remember much after you left. Emma and Deacon arrived a few minutes later, I think, but I barely saw them before I was wheeled into the OR. And there’s no need to feel bad about leaving. I was out of it for quite a while.” 

Alison nodded. “And now? I’m sure you’re sick of answering the question, but how’s recovery going?” 

I hesitated. “It’s . . . slow. Dr. Taleb determined that I’d torn both my ACL and my MCL. He thought he’d be able to fix them during the initial surgery, but the damage was worse than he expected. Several tendons were, uh, ruptured. So we’re playing a sort of waiting game. I’m doing therapy, working just as much as they’ll let me, resting it when they tell me to.” 

“Are you out for the season?” she asked quietly. “Or do you know that yet?” 

“No one’s saying. The team doctor says it’s too early to make that determination. If it were a few games later in the year, I’d definitely be done.” 

“But since it’s not, maybe you’ll still have a chance.” She offered me an encouraging smile. 

“Maybe.” I didn’t want to be a downer, but I wasn’t optimistic about this season. I was still clinging to hope that I’d be able to start next year. 

“Are you scared?” She looked me straight in the eye as she asked the question, and I found I couldn’t be anything but honest with her. 

“Shitless.” I rubbed my palm on my thigh. “And I’m sick to death of thinking about it. It’s like this huge looming presence next to me, day and night. At first, all of my teammates came by the house to see me. I had a constant stream of visitors. But they didn’t know what to say. They just served up the same old crap, promising that I’ll be back on the field in no time. But I can’t stand their pity. It’s almost the worst part of the whole thing.” 

Alison studied me silently. “I’ve been through a lifetime of crappy, Noah. I know what it is to feel alone, to know that no one else can really understand. I can’t say anything to change it, but I can promise, I don’t pity you. If you need someone who’ll listen to you rant and rave, I’d be a good ear. A decent shoulder if you ever need one to cry on.” One side of her mouth curved up. “Not that big, strong men like you ever cry.” 

“You’d be surprised.” I stretched out one hand to take Alison’s, curling my fingers around hers. “Thank you, Alison. And . . . I need to thank you, too, for sitting with me that day. A lot of what happened is kind of hazy for me, but I do remember how kind and compassionate you were. You hung with me when you didn’t have to, and I’m really grateful.” I huffed out a half-laugh. “And this is something I should have said sooner. I should have gotten your number from Emma and called. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“Oh, Noah. I didn’t expect you to call me. It’s not like I did anything extraordinary. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was glad to do what I could.” She shrugged. 

“Still.” I tightened my hold on her hand. “It meant a lot to me.” I waited a beat. “And having finally done the right thing, now I’m going to ask you for another favor.” 

Alison lifted one finely arched eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?” 

“I think we talked that day in the hospital about how neither of us was planning to bring a date—against Emma’s, uh, persuasion.” I favored her with what I hoped was my most winsome smile. “But I really don’t want to go through tonight by myself. I don’t want to answer the endless questions about my knee, say the same old shit over and over.” 

“I can understand that.” She nodded. 

“So how about it? Would you be my wedding buddy?” 

A slow smile spread over her face, and twin spots of pink deepened on her cheek bones. “Seriously?” 

“If you really wouldn’t mind.” 

“Of course, I wouldn’t mind.” Alison leaned a little closer to me. “You’d be doing me a favor, too. I hate this kind of thing.” 

My face must have reflected my surprise, because she hurried to explain. “That sounded so much worse out loud than it did in my head. I don’t hate weddings, per se. And I’m so happy for Emma and Deacon. But any big family event like this is tough on me. I feel like I don’t belong. I don’t know what to say or how to act . . . and it’s worse if I’m by myself. So . . . yeah. Let’s call this a mutual favor to help each other, okay?”

Something Alison had said while she’d been sitting at my bedside suddenly emerged from my memory. She’d talked about being abandoned by her mother when she was born and not knowing who her father was. We hadn’t talked any more about it because she’d made a remark about her father being Hugh Hefner, and then . . . I couldn’t remember where our conversation had gone after that. 

But now I wondered about it. About her. If she’d never known her mother or her father . . . well, she must have been adopted, right? That wouldn’t explain why family events would make her uncomfortable, unless she’d felt as though she didn’t belong. 

I realized she was watching me, waiting for me to respond. I held her hand a little tighter and said, “Absolutely. There’s nothing I’d like more.”

* * *

“And now, by the power vested in me by the state of Florida and by God Almighty, I now pronounce you man and wife.” The minister beamed down at Emma and Deacon. “Deacon, son, you may kiss your bride.” 

There was spontaneous applause among all of us witnessing the marriage, followed by a outburst of awwwws as Deacon framed Emma’s glowing face with his hands and bent his head to kiss her. 

Next to me, Alison sighed, and I smiled. I got the sense that the good doctor liked people to think that she was impervious to things like romance and sentiment, but the expression on her face as our friends had made their vows gave lie to that idea. 

This was the first wedding I’d attended since Ang had died. I’d had a few invitations from teammates and cousins since her death, but I’d made an excuse for every single one. I’d known all along, though, that I couldn’t miss Emma’s big day. She was too good a friend for me to hurt her that way. In addition to our close friendship, she and Deacon had also stuck by me after my injury, researching doctors, treatments, and therapies that they felt might benefit me. I owed them both more than I could ever repay.

But I’d known being here wasn’t going to be easy. Having Alison by my side, even if it was just through our coincidental arrival, helped more than I’d expected.

The music began again, and Emma and Deacon walked back up the aisle, happiness emanating from their faces. Behind them, the matron of honor, Emma’s friend Jenny, followed escorted by Deacon’s grandfather, Jimmy, who had served as his best man. Jenny’s husband Nico was sitting in front of Alison and me, and he turned to wink at me as the guests began to stand up. 

“Well, they finally did it.” He grinned. “There were times when I was sure they’d kill each other before they got to this happy ending, but I’m glad I was wrong.” 

Alison laughed. “I’ll never forget my last day at St. Agnes. Deacon asked me to update him on a patient, and Emma was there, too. They got into a fight, and I wasn’t sure if they were going to start throwing punches or if Deacon was going to throw Emma onto the couch in his office. Talk about sparks.” 

I sighed. This was exactly why Emma had ended her relationship with me. We never had those kinds of spats. Was that wrong? I couldn’t remember Angela and I battling that way, either. Maybe it was just me. Maybe I just wasn’t capable of that kind of passion. That was depressing as hell. Sure, I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but it was a downer to think that I might not ever experience something that others found so attractive. 

“I’m going to go find my wife.” Nico sketched a wave toward Alison and me. “See you over there, yeah?” 

“Definitely.” I braced my hands on either side of the chair and lumbered to my feet, hating the fact that I couldn’t just stand like other people. I moved like an eighty-year-old man these days. Come to think of it, Deacon’s grandfather was spryer than I was. 

Alison didn’t say anything as I grunted, finding my balance again. I appreciated that. So many people wanted to fuss over me, wanted to give me a hand with something or another. I didn’t like feeling that I needed help. 

“So.” I cleared my throat. “I guess we’re supposed to move over to where they have the tables set up, huh?” 

“As far as I know. Looks like the caterers are guiding people that way. Emma told me that they’re doing a cocktail hour for the guests while the photographer takes more pictures of the wedding party.” 

“Cocktails sound good about now,” I observed, offering Alison my arm again. “Shall we head over there, then? If you don’t mind me moving slow, that is. My leg always gives me more issues after I’ve been sitting for a while.” 

“Take your time.” She slipped her hand around my elbow. “There’s no need to rush. I trust that the bar isn’t going to run out of booze.” 

“Let’s hope not,” I chuckled. “Because I know I’m going to enjoy myself tonight. I usually don’t drink during the season, but since it seems unlikely I’m going to be back on the field in the near future, there’s no reason for me not to have a good time.” 

“I agree. And I’m off for this entire weekend, with another doctor covering my service, so I’m free to get a little tipsy, too.” 

I inclined my head her way. “Dr. Wakely, I believe we’ve just made a plan for this evening. Would you like to begin having fun with a Tropical Orgasm?” 

Alison’s eyes went wide. “Um, what? Excuse me?” 

Laughing, I bent my head to speak close to her ear. “One of the little-known facts about me is that I’m an expert in dirty drinks. My brothers and I went through this phase in college where we competed to see who could find and consume the most cocktails that had really sexy names. One of my favorites was Tropical Orgasm. Trust me . . . you won’t be the same after you’ve had one.” I paused for effect. “But two is even better.” 

Color flamed on Alison’s face, but I saw the piqued interest in her eyes. “I’ve never been a woman who’s shy about asking for orgasms—tropical or otherwise.” She arched one eyebrow. 

“Is that so?” I murmured. 

“It is.” She tossed a coquettish smile my way. “Lead the way.” 

* * *

“You look beautiful.” 

As soon as the words escaped my lips, I wanted to call them back. Not because they weren’t true—they were; Alison Wakely, whom I’d never particularly noticed before in the way a man notices an attractive woman, was undeniably gorgeous tonight. No, the reason I wished I could take back what I’d said was that Ang had taught me never to tell a woman she looked beautiful. It was far better to say she was beautiful. 

Remembering that, of course, brought Angela back to the forefront of my mind, where she’d been lingering all day anyway. It would have been impossible to be at any wedding and not be thinking of her, but I knew how tickled she would’ve been to see Emma and Deacon finally tie the knot. I wondered if somehow, somewhere, she was aware. I liked to believe she was. 

I’d had a lot of time to think since taking that rotten hit on the football field. I wasn’t sure what had changed for me; maybe it was the idea that football, the one element of my life that had remained steadfast since I was a kid, was now in danger of deserting me, too. Maybe it was a brush with my own mortality, the very real fact that life didn’t last forever, that do-overs were rare, and that my time for finding happiness might be limited. 

Whatever it was, sitting here tonight in the near-dark, with sparkling fairy lights all around us, I found myself thinking of possibilities more than I had since Emma had broken up with me. Maybe even more than since Angela had died. It was possible that my shift in perception had to do with the romance of the evening or the multiple sexually named drinks Alison and I had both consumed, but I had a strong feeling that it had more to do with the woman who was sitting close beside me, her arm touching mine.

The woman I’d just possibly offended by saying she looked beautiful. 

But come to think of it, she didn’t seem upset. She actually smiled a little brighter, and I got the sense she’d liked hearing it. So maybe this was one tiny instance of Angela not being a hundred percent right. 

I wasn’t saying it just to be nice, either. Alison looked . . . I tried to think of the most precise way to phrase it. She looked special. Her black hair, which I’d only ever seen her wear pulled up in a tight knot at the back of her head, hung down over her shoulders in fat curls. Her eyes were huge and luminous, and if I wasn’t wrong, they actually looked almost purple. 

But the appeal didn’t stop at her face. No, her body was part of the show, too. She was tall—though not as tall as me, of course—with long legs that were on full display beneath her short sparkly dress. She was slightly on the thin side, but not gangly—I guessed that slender would be the right way to describe her. 

And when she leaned to the side to murmur something in my ear, the neckline of her dress gaped just enough to let me know two essential facts: one, she wasn’t wearing a bra. And two, she didn’t have an overabundance of boobage, but it was enough to make a man happy. 

I hadn’t noticed any of this before. Sure, we’d hung out pretty regularly when all of us were helping Emma build her cabin. There was almost always a bunch of us tackling whatever project Emma had come up with, but when I thought back, I realized that Alison had always sort of faded into the background when we were all together. 

My memories of her were so vague that when I’d first seen her in the hospital back when I’d gotten hurt, it had taken me more than a few seconds to place her. Of course, I could chalk some of that up to the fact that I’d been in the most excruciating pain of my entire life (which was saying something, considering that I’d been playing football since I was six). And I’d also been despondent, worried about what this injury was going to mean to my career. 

Tonight, though, all of that was different. I mean, yeah, I was still worried about my career, given the fact that my knee was still fucked up. I was still in a fair amount of discomfort on a regular basis, and the team doctors were being cagey about what came next. 

Somehow, none of that mattered right now. I was also sitting next to a sexy, gorgeous woman who was funny, smart and sort of sweet. I was enjoying myself. For the first time in a very, very long time, I found myself wanting to spend more time with a woman. And maybe more than just time . . . I realized that I wanted to know Alison. I remembered our game of two lies and a truth, and I recalled her honesty, how she’d described almost jumping off a bridge. It had been that stark truthfulness that had prompted me to lay my own truth on the table, too. For two people who’d only been passing acquaintances at best, we’d opened up quite a bit that afternoon. 

But now, I wanted even more. I wanted to ask her questions and listen to her answers. I wanted to find out what her skin felt like when I ran my fingers down her spine. I wanted to know if her eyes went cloudy with pleasure when someone—and in this case, that someone was me—drove her out of her ever-fuckin’ mind. All of these feelings were new, and part of me deep inside was panicking at the idea of what I wanted to come next . . . but I found that tonight, it was easy to ignore that small, anxious voice. It would be all too easy and wonderful to simply slide my arms around her and kiss her into oblivion. 

I caught my breath. Kiss her? Did I really want to do that? Having a one-night fling fueled by wedding emotions was one thing. Having that fling with someone who was also a friend of the bride might be a risky move. 

On the other hand, though, Alison hadn’t given me any indication that she was looking for a long-term commitment. As a matter of fact, she’d told me that Emma’s constant attempts to fix her up and marry her off were driving her nuts. It was possible that she’d be on the same page as me. Maybe we could pull off a friendly night of passion and still walk away friendly, with no one the wiser. 

Before any of that could happen, though, I had to stop staring and actually say something beyond those last words I’d blurted out. 

You look beautiful.

“Thank you,” Alison was replying even as my mind was rushing to catch up. “I’m not usually . . .” She swept one hand down her front, and her cheeks went rosy. It was enticing. “I don’t usually fuss. But I was so excited about this wedding.” She shook her head a little. “You probably think it’s silly.” 

“No, I don’t. I feel the same way. This . . . watching Emma and Deacon say I do, it was special. It’s a day worth fussing for.” 

Her smile stretched wider. “Thank you for saying that.” 

We’d been together since later afternoon, catching up, talking about the ceremony, the music, the food. But it had taken me this long to say what had been playing in my head since the moment I’d first laid eyes on her today. 

“Alison . . . you are beautiful.” I repeated the phrase with that slight, important difference. It seemed essential, given what she had just said. “Not just tonight, because you fussed. You just are.” 

She stared at me, and a tic jumped in her cheek as she ran her tongue over her lips. “Noah . . .” she murmured. “How’s your knee feeling?” 

I frowned. That question came out of the blue. We’d talked about my knee, my surgery, my prognosis, in excruciating detail earlier. I was a little nonplussed that she’d asked again. 

“Uh, well . . .”

“I mean . . .” Her face went even redder. “How is it now? Are you possibly up to a slow dance?” Her gaze dipped down. “You probably don’t remember it, but you asked me to save you a dance that day at the hospital.” 

“Did I?” I had no memory of that. 

“It was when I was leaving. I think you were already feeling the effects of the pain medication, so I won’t hold you to it if you’ve changed your mind. Or if you don’t feel like your leg can take it.”

“Ohhhh.” I considered. “Yeah. No, I don’t want to change my mind. I think I can manage a slow dance, provided you’re not disappointed that I don’t spin or dip you.” 

“I promise, Noah. I won’t be disappointed in you. I don’t think I ever could be.” 

Pleasure burned inside me at her words. There was something undeniably sensual about a woman who believed in me, whose touch and expression showed me that she felt safe to open herself up to me. And as we made our way to the dance floor and I took her in my arms, I felt as though something inside me that was rusty with disuse was grinding back to life. 

Alison looped her arms around my neck, clasping her hands at the back of my head. I drew her closer to me, my fingers digging into her hips. We swayed slowly to the music, our movements causing our bodies to brush against one another. I thought I hadn’t been so turned on by a dance since I’d been in junior high at my first formal. 

“I like this song.” Her breath tickled my neck. “Country music usually isn’t my jam, but sometimes the words are just perfect.” 

“Whoa, there.” I leaned back and pretended to glare down at her. “Darlin’, country is the only real music there is. It’s all about real life, real people, real problems . . .” 

She tilted her head. “Objectifying women, embracing a false narrative about this country’s past, glorifying gas-guzzling, environment-destroying vehicles—yeah, that’s what I want to blare when I’m driving down the backroads, letting off steam.”

I smirked. “Well, when you look at it that way . . .” 

Alison laughed, her fingers moving in intoxicating designs on the skin just below my hairline. “I’m not actually that militant about country music. I’ve been known to sing along with Dolly and Tanya and Wynonna now and then. Hell, I’ve even been known to enjoy some Brad Paisley now and again.” 

“Those are the good ones,” I admitted. “I’m not crazy about the acts that celebrate the ugly side or the singers who scream about someone prying guns out of their cold, dead hands. But where I grew up in Wisconsin, we had these fairgrounds near us. All the up and coming acts passed through and played, and sometimes the shows were free—or at least cheap.” I smiled a little, remembering. “I have two brothers and three sisters. My mom didn’t work, and my dad almost killed himself to make ends meet and keep us in food and clothes.” My thumbs drew circles on her hips. “Don’t get me wrong—we were happy, and we didn’t lack for anything we needed. We had a nice house, and my parents never told us that we didn’t have enough. My brothers and I played football and my sisters danced, played soccer and softball—no one said that it would cost us too much money to do it. But there wasn’t extra for things like concerts, you know? So from May through August, there’d be these cheap concerts. Mom would pack up snacks and we’d sit on the grass and listen to the bands. I loved those nights.” 

Alison’s eyes drifted closed. “It sounds so wonderful. You’re lucky to have those memories.” 

“I know.” I eased her a little closer, linking my hands just above her tempting ass. “I loved the way I grew up. I wouldn’t change a thing, and I know there aren’t many people who can say that.” I paused a beat, not sure if I should ask the question that was on the tip of my tongue. “Alison, that day at the hospital, you told me that you didn’t know your biological parents. But . . . you were adopted, right? I mean, a healthy, newborn baby—there must’ve been lots of families who wanted you.” 

Her eyes remained shut, and she lowered her forehead to my shoulder for a moment. We swayed in silence until she lifted her face to me again. 

“I went into foster care, and the woman who took me from the hospital planned to keep me. She started the process of adopting me—even named me after her own late mother. I took both my names from her. Or that’s what’s in my records.” 

“What happened?” 

Her shoulder rose and fell. “She was a widow—her husband had died young—and I guess that meant it took longer for her to be approved. And before she was, she met someone and decided to get married. But the guy she fell for—he didn’t want to adopt kids. Or at least, he didn’t want to adopt me.” 

“What the hell was the matter with him?” Irrational anger at a man I’d never known surged within me. “Why would he get involved with a woman who had a baby if he didn’t want to be a dad?” 

Alison shook her head slightly. “I have no idea. Believe me, I’ve spent way too many hours in the middle of the night agonizing over this. Why did he propose to her when he knew she was in the middle of the adoption process? Why did she choose to say yes to him? Did she think he’d change his mind? I have no idea. I don’t remember her at all. My earliest memories are from living in a group home when I was four.” 

“Christ.” I didn’t even know what to say. I felt almost guilty for the nearly idyllic life I’d known. “Alison, I just—God, I’m—”

“If you say you’re sorry, I’ll kick you in your bad knee.” The words were harsh, but she said them with patient humor. “I swear, I will. I don’t want your sympathy.” 

“You don’t have it.” I slid one hand up her back to press her head against my chest. “I don’t pity you, Alison. I don’t feel sorry for you. But I’m damned pissed off on behalf of infant you and two-year-old you. And I’d really like to give all those people a piece of my mind.” 

“Yeah, that was something I dealt with in the psych ward after I didn’t jump off the Golden Gate. And in all the years since. I had a lot of anger built up at a lot of people. It took hours of therapy to finally accept that the mad was only hurting me. You know how they say living well is the best revenge? Well, being successful and well-adjusted is my form of revenge, if you want to call it that. Maybe freedom would be a better word.” 

I bent my head to gaze steadily into her eyes. “You are, without a doubt, the bravest and strongest woman I’ve ever met.”

She blinked slowly. “That’s . . . thank you, Noah. I have trouble believing that’s true, given what I’ve heard about Angela, but I appreciate you saying it.” 

I waited for the typical lurch of my heart at her mention of Ang, but it didn’t come. Instead, I found myself considering what Alison had just said. 

“Angela was brave, yes. In the face of her illness, I think she found out just how strong she could be—and so did I. I won’t deny that I was awed by how well she rolled with the punches. At the same time, though, let’s remember that Angela never lacked for love or support. She was raised by two devoted parents who told her every day that she was their shining star. She had a sister who idolized her. And she had me, too. Being able to face a serious diagnosis was hard, but she didn’t do it on her own. Not like you had to do.” 

Alison didn’t respond right away. Instead, she pressed herself against me again, her arms twining tighter around my neck. After a few moments, I felt rather than heard her whispered words.

“Thank you . . . for seeing that. Thank you for seeing me.” 

I wrapped my arms around her slender body, holding her close, and we swayed to the gentle rhythm of the music.

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