Birthday Box Set Bonanza!

It’s my birthday week!

And that means lots of fun and goodies for YOU!

Ten of my fabulous box sets are discounted to just 99 cents for five days (because I’m celebrating turning 55).

Click on your favorite one below–or snap up all ten. Why not? It’s an unbelievable deal!

{Note: some of the links might go only to Amazon because the books were not updated yet at the other vendors. If your vendor isn’t linked, don’t worry– the sale should be happening there, too!}

 

 

 

 

Love in a Small Town Box Set I

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perfect Dish Romance Collection 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Anti-Cinderella Royal Romance Box Set

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Career Soldier Collection (Fort Lee Tour of Duty)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Love in a Small Town Volume 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Love in a Small Town Volume 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Love in a Small Town Volume 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diagnosis: Love Box Set One

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diagnosis: Love Box Set Two

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Recipe for Death Box Set 

First Chapter Friday: Temporary Duty

These are the men of the 94th ID. They fight with honor, they defend their nation and their brothers fiercely, and when they love, they do it with single-minded passion.

Kade Braggs grew up wild and free, surfing on a California beach without much ambition until an impulsive decision led him into joining the Army. What started out as a joke turned into a career, and now he’s a company commander, leading several platoons of soldiers. Still, Kade does it all on his own terms; he plays as hard as he works, and having a good time is non-negotiable.

Until he meets Leah Samson.

Leah doesn’t have time to play. On her own for as long as she can remember, she’s driven, focused, and intent on finishing law school at the top of her class. Nothing could distract her from that goal until an unexpected night of passion with a visiting soldier leads to life-changing complications.

But while neither Kade nor Leah planned this bump in the road, the unplanned parenthood that threw these two together may be the best thing that ever happened to either of them. That is, if the heat they both feel doesn’t sizzle out of control first.

Read the first chapter now!

Kade

“Dude, you are so fucked. So totally and completely fucked.”

Jake Robinson, one of the other company commanders in my battalion, slapped me on the back as I was on my way into the bachelor officers’ quarters. I’d just arrived here at Fort Davis, and the first order of business was to get settled in my temporary home-away-from-home . . . which would basically be a sterile bedroom in a drab building full of other sterile bedrooms. Welcome to the Army.

“Fine by me if it’s Scarlett Johansson doing the fucking. She’s on my list of undeniables.” I punched his arm and then hesitated. “Wait. Why am I fucked? What’re you talking about?”

“Guess who you’re stuck rooming with for the duration of this class?”

Dread began to creep under my skin. “Don’t even. Not the mule? Say it’s not so.”

Jake chuckled. “Sorry, bro. I saw the list. You’re with Eric Mueller, which means you get the pleasure of his company for the next six weeks. Congratulations.”

I closed my eyes and groaned. “Fuck. How the hell did I draw the short straw on this one?”

“Hey, everyone has to take a turn riding the mule.” He winked at me. “That’s only a figure of speech. He’s so damn full of himself, he’d never think any guy was good enough to screw.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Even if I were attracted to dudes, the mule would be at the bottom of the list.” I hefted my duffle bag more securely on my shoulder and began to head for the door of the BOQ before I turned back again. “Robinson, you’ve been on TDY here before, right? What’s around? If I have to share space with Eric Muller for over a month, I already know I’m going to need someplace else to be, or he’ll drive me out of my fucking mind.”

Jake squinted. “Not too much hereabouts. Couple of bars off post, a few restaurants . . . oh, hey, there’s a mall a few miles away. I went there to get a tat when I was here last time.”

I cocked my head. “You got a tattoo in a mall, Jake? I thought only chicks went to places like that.”

He shot me the finger. “Couple of the local guys recommended it, asshole. And don’t be a sexist pig. Try to learn from my example: I’d never assume a woman only got her ink at a mall. You should be all enlightened and shit, like me.”

“Yeah, whatever. I don’t see all your enlightenment getting you laid on the regular.”

Jake pretended to be affronted. “Just because I don’t screw a girl and then blab to all you guys about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I get plenty of action, thanks.”

Laughing as I walked backward, I nodded. “Sure you do, Jakester. Surrrrre you do.”

My humor lasted until I rounded the landing on the first flight of stairs, at which point I remembered the roommate situation. Fuck. I hated Eric Muller. I’d known him since we were both in officer basic together, over ten years before. Jake had been in our class, too, which was why he was all too well acquainted with the mule.

We’d given him that nickname privately after two weeks of OBC. Eric was the kind of guy who was just about impossible to like, no matter how hard we all tried. He couldn’t take criticism or a joke, although he was quick to point it out whenever the rest of us did anything wrong. He showed off in front of instructors, and worse, he was underhanded: although none of us had solid evidence, we were all sure he’d done things to make the rest of us look bad.

And living with him was apparently a real treat. He’d had three roommates during OBC, which was incredible because the Army really wasn’t that concerned with how we soldiers felt about our living situations. But the complaints had been ongoing: Eric threw a fit if a light was left on when he’d decided to go to sleep, no matter how early in the evening that was. He was fastidious to the point of obsession about the cleanliness of the room. He himself complained about all of us all the time, sneering about our lack of discipline.

The truth was that if any of the rest of us had behaved in such a way, we’d have found ourselves shaping up or being tossed out. But Eric Muller was the son of General Ronald Muller, and consequently, the rest of the world had to put up with his shit. We’d had to keep our mouths shut and ignore him until we all finished OBC and moved on. Mercifully, our paths hadn’t crossed often over the course of our careers. But since the Army is much smaller than most people realize, I’d heard things, and I knew that the mule hadn’t made many friends over the course of his tenure.

Rounding the corner of the staircase on the third floor, I trudged down the hallway to my assigned room. The door was closed, but I knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t inside, waiting for me.

Turning the knob, I stepped inside, as cautious as if I expected a snake on the other side instead of a mule. And there he was, sitting at the desk, back straight, hair about a half an inch shorter than regulation . . . his Army-issued T-shirt stretched over his narrow chest without a single wrinkle.

“Braggs.” Muller’s voice was bland and expressionless. “I was surprised to see you were still in. I’d figured you’d quit after your first six years were up.”

That was absolute bullshit because he’d have known if I resigned, and we both realized it. Asshole.

“Why the hell would you think I left?” I tried to keep my voice mild. Eric Muller might aggravate the living crap out of me, but he was still a general’s son, and that general was now part of the joint chiefs of staff.

Eric shrugged. “You always seemed more like a good time surfer boy than a soldier.”

I dropped my bag on the bed that seemed to be mine. “Yeah, it’s good to see you, too, Eric. It’s been too long. How’s life been treating you?”

He watched me, his eyes calculating. “Can’t complain. I’m on the shortlist for promotion. And when that happens, I expect to be assigned to Washington.”

Of course, he did.

“Awesome. Good to hear.” I unzipped the duffel and began unpacking my clothes. “So, you married? Got kids?”

“No,” he snorted. “That’s not part of the plan until I make major.”

“Aha.” I nodded as if that made sense. “Well, if you’re on the shortlist, do you have any potential candidates? For the wife, I mean.”

Something flickered in his eyes. “No. I don’t have time for that yet. Once I’m ready, the right woman will be around. These things work out.”

“Uh-huh.” I opened up a drawer and dropped T-shirts into it. “That’s great, Eric. I’m happy for you.”

I could almost feel his skepticism. “Yeah, I’m sure you.” He frowned as I closed one drawer and opened the other, dumping in socks and boxers. “Aren’t you going to fold those before you put them away?”

“Nah.” I shrugged, getting a little secret amusement at the idea that my unfolded clothes would drive him crazy. “I’m just going to put them on under my BDUs, right? Who cares?”

I wasn’t certain, but I thought he growled.

After that, Eric ignored me for a while. A couple of the other guys who were taking the strategic mobility course with us stopped by to say hello, all of us catching up from the last time we’d seen each other, comparing our current jobs and different assignments. I watched my roommate out of the corner of my eye; I could tell that each time another person opened the door and yelled hello, he tensed up more.

Finally, when our room was crowded, with everyone talking at once, Eric stood up.

“That’s it. Get out, all of you. It’s late, and I need peace and quiet.” He glared my way. “If you want to socialize, go do it somewhere else.”

Jake, who was sitting on the end of my bed, shot me a meaningful look as he stood up. “Okay, then. Hey, why don’t we go down to my room? I’ve got a six-pack, and we can turn on the game.”

Everyone filtered out, the voices echoing in the hall. I sat down on my bed and reached for my laptop.

“Hey, Braggs, you coming with?” Jake lingered in the doorway.

I shook my head. “Nah. I’m just going to kick back and catch up on iZombie eps. You all have a good time.”

He rolled his eyes toward Eric’s stiff back, which was facing us. “Yeah, you, too. See you at PT tomorrow.”

“I’ll be there.” I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t quite seven yet, and here I was on my bed like an old man. I stifled a groan.

“I hope you have headphones for the computer.” Eric’s words were clipped, and he didn’t look my way. “I’m turning off the light in an hour. I had a long trip today to get here from Texas, and I don’t feel like being up half the night.”

I gritted my teeth. “Yeah, I have headphones.”

“And you’ll need to turn it so that the light from the screen can’t be seen from my bed. I like to sleep on my right side, and the room must be completely dark.” He sounded so prim that I wanted to slug him in the face.

“You know what?” I slammed the computer shut, tossing it to the other side of my mattress. “You can have the whole fucking room pitch black. I’m going out so I don’t interfere with your beauty sleep.”

Grabbing a jacket, I shoved my feet back into my sneakers, yanking the laces tight. Across the room, Eric sniffed.

“Make sure you have your key, because I’m not getting up to let you in once I’m asleep. And just what do you think you’re going to do, anyway?  It’s Sunday night. Everything’s closed.”

I picked up my keys, wallet, and cell phone. “I’ll find something. But thanks for your concern. I really appreciate it.” When the spirit moved me, I could speak fluent sarcasm.

I managed to make it down the steps and out into the parking lot without running into anyone, which was a good thing since I was now in a pissy mood. Climbing into the driver’s seat of my truck, I headed for the post exit, not really sure about where I was going.

At the guard hut, where I had to slow down anyway, I leaned out my window and called to the corporal on duty. “Hey, is there a mall somewhere around here?”

He nodded. “Yes, sir. If you make a right here, follow this highway for a couple of miles, and then take a left at the first traffic light. The mall is on that same road, about five miles on the right.”

I nodded with a brief smile. “Thanks.”

“Have a good night, sir.”

The roads were dark, and I took them slow. I had nothing but time to kill. Rubbing the back of my neck, I let out a long breath. I’d been looking forward to this course for a while. Fort Davis was only about two hours northeast of Fort Lee, but it was closer to the ocean . . . and thus closer to the beach. It was true what people said: you could take the boy out of the ocean, but you couldn’t take the ocean out of the boy. After growing up on the sands of California beaches, I still had that need to at least see the water every once in a while.

I’d driven up this afternoon, anticipating a little unofficial vacation. I knew I could handle the work involved with the strategic mobility training course, and during the off-hours, I’d have nothing but free, unstructured time. It was why most of us enjoyed TDY: a temporary duty station meant a break from the routine and the stress that came from commanding a company.

Having Eric Muller as a roommate was going to put a crimp in that plan, but I was damned if I would let him ruin my time away, even if it meant I had to stay out of our room as much as possible. I had options, after all. There was this mall that I was turning the truck into now. True, it was on the small side, and the parking lot was pretty barren. The stores I could see weren’t familiar to me. But it probably had to have a food court, didn’t it? And of course, there was the tattoo place Jake had mentioned. Not that I wanted ink, but I could check it out to waste some time.

The mall, like its parking lot, was almost empty, with only a few shoppers wandering past stores, window shopping or munching on crap from the food court. None of it looked good to me until I spotted a kid with a foot-long hot dog, and then that hot dog was all I could think about.

Following my nose, I made my way past the card store, the sunglass cart, and the lingerie shop—though I’ll admit my eyes did sneak a few peeks at the stuff on the mannequins in that window. The shit that chicks wore to be sexy was an endless source of fascination for me. Bras, for instance. They were a mystery I hadn’t yet solved. Racerback, push-up, strapless, T-shirt, enhanced, full-figure support—what did it all mean? Sometimes—scratch that; all of the time—I was grateful to be a guy. All I had to worry about was stepping into my boxer briefs each morning and kicking them off every night.

Two teenagers were working at the Weiner Hut when I stopped to order my food. The one manning the register looked bored to death, and who could blame him? The place was dead. He barely acknowledged my existence beyond mumbling the total I owed for my dog, fries, and drink. The other employee was a girl with a high ponytail and a quick smile. I caught her staring at me with open admiration, and I shot her a little wink before I strolled away with my food. She was jail bait, for sure, and I didn’t want any part of that, but it never hurt to be friendly.

Once at the small table, I made short work of the hotdog and fries. Usually, I’d have sat back and people-watched for a little while, but there just weren’t enough folks to do that tonight. So, after I piled all the trash on my tray and deposited it in the bin, I began to head back toward the exit, retracing my steps. The evening was a bust. There wasn’t anything for me to do but to drive my bored ass back to post and maybe watch something on my laptop, under the blanket, while wearing my earphones, if that didn’t bother his majesty, my roommate.

And then I realized that I was walking by a bookstore. Score! Somehow, I’d missed it on the way in, but there it was: a little piece of nirvana, just waiting for me to wander in and find something to read. I knew at least two of my favorite authors had new releases this month, and I hadn’t had time to pick them up yet. This was the perfect opportunity to catch up on those books and amuse myself since I didn’t always have a lot of time to read.

Like the rest of the mall, the place was deserted. I strolled down the aisle until I hit the mystery area, where I got lost in checking out a bunch of different possibilities for tonight. Looking for the right book was kind of like searching for the perfect chick, I mused. Sometimes the covers were all pretty and promising, but then you opened it up and realized it was a dud.

I was chuckling at my own humor when I caught movement from the corner of my eye. A woman was standing with her back to me, facing the personal growth section. She was tall and thin, with blonde hair that reached nearly to her very fine ass. As I watched, she reached back to lift the strands away from her neck, and a very clear memory screamed across my mind. I saw that same hand brushing that same hair over that same shoulder as she straddled me. Her small, perfect tits bounced slightly and her neck arched, her mouth forming an O as she ground her pussy against me, and my cock was buried deep into her sweet heat—

Holy shit. For a minute I couldn’t breathe, and I wasn’t sure if it was the arousal from that memory flash—‘cause yeah, there was arousal in spades, baby—or surprise as I realized that I knew this girl. I’d met her a while back when I’d driven up from Fort Lee to Richmond to see my friend Cassie. Cassie had been in town visiting from California, and the woman who now tilted her head as she continued to peruse the shelves had been her . . . roommate from college. That was it, wasn’t it? We’d all met up in a bar, but after I’d dragged my ass the whole way up to see my old friend, Cassie had blown me off to hang out with her sorority sisters from college. So instead of talking old times with Cass, I’d gone home with her former roommate, whose name was . . . God. What was it?  I should’ve remembered it because I sure as hell remembered what had happened once we’d gotten to where she lived.

We’d gone back to her tiny apartment, and she’d made me dinner . . . we talked non-stop, sharing stories and experiences, and then I’d fucked her so many times, we’d both lost count. Against her bedroom door the minute it was closed behind us. In her bed. Next to her bed. I’d gone down on her while she had writhed on her kitchen counter when we’d paused for a snack. She’d ridden me until I’d gone hoarse, calling out her name. Which was . . .

“Leah.”

I didn’t realize I’d spoken it out loud until she turned her head. Those bewitching green eyes I remembered so well went round, and I wasn’t sure if she was more startled that someone was standing behind her at all, or that the someone was me, in particular. Shit, maybe she didn’t recognize me. Maybe I was just one of her many conquests, which would explain why she was looking at me with such a weird expression on her face just now. She probably didn’t remember my name at all—

“Kade.”

The relief that flooded through me was only because I was glad that I didn’t look like a loser for remembering someone who’d long forgotten me. Nothing else. Only that.

“Yeah.” I took a step toward her, stopping when her face filled with panic. “Uh, good to see you again. I can’t believe I ran into you here. How’ve you been?”

She still didn’t turn around, which I thought was kind of odd. And when she spoke, her voice was guarded. “What are you doing here?”

I slid my free hand into the front pocket of my jeans. “I’m here at Fort Davis on TDY—uh, temporary duty. I’m taking a six-week-long class. And I’m here in this mall because I was bored, and my roommate in the barracks is a little bit of an asshole. And I’m here in this bookstore because I needed something to read before I have to go back and deal with the asshole.” I spread out my hands. “So that’s my story.”

Leah nodded, and her shoulders seemed to slump a little. “Okay, well . . . sorry about your roommate. I hope it works out. Good to see you.” She faced the shelves again, her back stiff. I got the sense that she was willing me to walk away.

“Hey, do you want to grab some coffee or something with me? I’ve got nothing but time right now, and if you have, say, half an hour free, we could catch up.” I shifted the three books I was holding to my other arm. “There’s got to be someplace around here that’s open, right? It’s not that late. I just have to pay for my books.”

She glanced back at me over her shoulder again, checking out the paperbacks I held. “You’re buying those?”

I nodded. “Yup. I was planning on it. The Army frowns on me just taking stuff out of stores, you know. Paying for it seems like the best option.”

Leah mumbled something under her breath that sounded like either a prayer or a curse. “Okay. Well, I’ll meet you at the register. I’m the only one working tonight, so I’ll ring you up.”

“You work here?” Surprise tinged my voice. “You didn’t use to work in a bookstore, did you? I thought you were in law school and had a job at some big firm. What happened?”

She dropped her head, sighing. “A lot has happened since I met you, Kade. A lot has changed.” Squaring her shoulders, she pivoted around to face me.

Shock rendered me speechless and frozen because I realized now why she’d kept her back to me. While Leah’s frame was still slender, the small tits I’d enjoyed that night had grown much larger. But I couldn’t even look at them, because something else had my attention.

And that would be the high, round baby bump swelling the belly of this woman I’d slept with six months before.

 

You can read the rest of Temporary Duty here:

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First Chapter Friday: I Choose You

Wedding bells are ringing for us. I hope.

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

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

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

Read the first chapter now!

Ava

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

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

***

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

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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.

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First Chapter Friday: Just Desserts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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