Author: Rebecca Jenshak
Series: Sweetbriar Lake
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Blue Tulip Publishing
Chris White can take his big, chiseled muscles and shove it… at least to the room down the hall. After her apartment building goes up in flames, Tori Calloway finds her-self shacked up with her brother’s best friend and the man she’s spent the better part of her twenties hating with every fiber of her being.
Chris knows how to throw a punch that’ll drop a man to his knees, but sparring with Tori is a whole different game. He was just a boy when he lost her the first time, and he’s not about to make the same mistake twice. Toe to toe with his fiercest competitor yet, he won’t go down without a fight.
**Spar is a sexy, contemporary romance STANDALONE. Each book in the Sweetbriar series will follow a different couple**
Chris racked the barbell and glanced at the clock. It had been nearly eight hours since Tori had stormed — or rather, haughtily limped — upstairs. If she was determined to hide out, he wasn’t going to go banging down the door. This was his house, and he wasn’t tiptoeing around to spare her feelings. As he skipped up the dark stairway, he peeled off his sweaty shirt and shorts. A hot shower before bed sounded great.
No light peered out from the master bedroom. Tori was either sleeping or pretending to sleep. Either way it was a pretty clear signal she wanted to be left alone. Chris turned the door handle to the room he’d claimed for himself. Inside, he closed the door quietly and stepped out of his boxers. He fumbled for the light switch, cursing as he tripped over a pillow lying on the floor. What the hell?
Chris froze, momentarily taken aback by the woman in his room. Recovering quickly, he let her stare at his naked form. That’s right, sweetheart. Look all you want. A faint pink crept up her neck and into her cheeks, confirming that she liked what she saw.
Tori covered her head with the blanket, screaming incoherently.
Chris headed to the bathroom, smiling at the sight of her hiding under the covers.
“This is my room. I had planned on taking a shower and going to bed alone, but this is a nice surprise. Care to join me in the shower, or do you want to wait for me here?”
Tori flung the covers off and hobble-stalked after him.
“Shower it is, then?” Chris said as his eyes wandered down to her bare legs and back up to her chest, which was covered with his gym shirt. The cut-off sleeves showed just a hint of side-boob, making it next to impossible to look away.
She crossed her arms as she apparently recognized him openly appreciating her choice of clothing. The weight of her arms pressed against her chest pushed her breasts up higher. He’d never be able to wear that shirt again without picturing her in it.
“So where am I supposed to sleep?” she demanded, not looking at him.
“You’re more than welcome to sleep in my bed, but I made up the master for you. End of the hallway,” he said as he stepped into the spray of warm water.
She either needed to get her ass in the shower now, or he was gonna need a hell of a lot more than water to keep his feelings and something else from springing up.
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Rebecca lives in Arizona with her husband and children. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, going to the movie theater, and binge-watching Netflix.
Title: Balancing the Scales
Author: Laura Carter
A Hotshot Manhattan Attorney.
Drew Harrington knows exactly who he is—a legal shark with a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude that works just fine in his cutthroat world. He’s on the cusp of being named a partner in his firm, but only if he can prove to his colleagues that he has a more human side.
A Sweetheart of a British Patisserie Chef.
Becky Fletcher is running from her past, so the last thing she’s looking for is love. What she does want is a friendly face in a cold city. Her sunny outlook is the sweetness Drew never knew was missing from his life.
One fateful meeting at a bagel cart.
They sound like a match made in heaven—or is it a car crash? If they have any chance of finding happiness, Drew and Becky are going to have to rethink their life plans. Until then, is there really any harm in having some fun between the sheets?
All’s fair in love and lox!
BALANCING THE SCALES is out NOW.
Prepare to have your taste buds tantalized.
An excerpt from
Balancing the Scales
by Laura Carter
Meet hotshot Manhattan attorney, Drew Harrington, and witness his first taste of British Becky’s incredible cakes. Will they be sweet enough to turn this cocky man’s head?
“I turn my back to the window and stare at the three boxes goading me from the kitchen counter. I can almost taste the sweetness of Opera with a Twist. The bitter aftertaste of something, dark chocolate, perhaps, left in my mouth. My tongue slips along my lip as I remember the way the ganache dissolved—light, slick, delicious.
I grab a fork, pull up a stool at my breakfast bar, and open the lid of each carton. I start with Opera with a Twist. I need just one more mouthful. And shit, Opera plus coffee. Now there’s a match made in obesity heaven. I take every last piece from my fork, licking the sides, then I open my eyes to Red Silk.
White chocolate flakes, not flakes, something fancier than flakes, decorate the top of red waves of smooth, glossy icing. It really does look like silk. Suddenly, my mind is no longer on cake but the thought of Blondie in a red silk lingerie set. Maybe something trimmed in black lace. The cups of the bra barely covering her nipples so her plump mounds are pushed up, inviting my mouth.
Jesus, Drew. It’s a fucking cake.
Cracking my neck and clearing my throat in an extremely masculine way, I slide my fork through the lingerie topping and into layers of red velvet cake and cream. The cream oozes as the steel cuts through the dessert. I’m fighting to keep my filthy mind on cake as I bring the fork to my mouth.
Damn. I was wrong. This isn’t just cream. It’s…more. White chocolate. Vanilla. I have no idea beyond how good it tastes on my tongue. I wonder how Blondie would taste on my tongue?
With coffee, I wash away the thought of making the woman I don’t know, the woman who is absolutely not my type, squirm under my touch.
I turn my attention to the third and final cake. Violet Passion.
As I whisper the name to myself, my fucking mindless cock twitches. This. This is exactly why I need to get laid after a big win. Now I have excess testosterone that I’m going to have to take care of before I go to the office.
Violet Passion is cylindrical. A purple shiny finish, as shiny as Red Silk, covers the entire cake. A simple yellow and purple flower sits in the middle of the dessert. I hope that’s edible. My fork glides through the cake like a hot knife through butter. As the round bursts, syrup spills through the layers of purple and yellow, the exotic scent of passionfruit striking my nose. Taking a piece of everything and pushing syrup onto my fork with my finger, I taste Violet Passion.
Sweetness. A sour kick. If a cake can be quirky, this is quirky. This is…this is Blondie. Those sweet dimples. That perfect smile. Her sharpness of mind. Her quirky-as-hell sayings. Her Britishisms.
Holy shit, I have a thing for the indecisive, kind of obnoxious, brilliant and beautiful patisserie chef.”
Book 2 in the BRITS IN MANHATTAN series is PLAYING TO WIN and it releases on 20 February 2018.
Add it on Goodreads now
Come and chat with Laura about BALANCING THE SCALES, the BRITS IN MANHATTAN series, New York, or being British. She loves hearing from readers and you can find her here:
They haunt me.
I can’t look into a person’s eyes without seeing the six-digit date of their death.
I’m helpless to change it, no matter how hard I try.
I’ve trained myself to look down. Away. Anywhere but at their eyes.
My camera is my escape. My salvation. Through its lens, I see only beauty and life—not death and despair.
Disconnected from all those around me, I’m content being alone, simply existing.
Until I meet him.
The man beyond the numbers.
How can I stay away, when everything about him draws me in?
But how can I fall in love, knowing exactly when it will expire?
The intercom crackles loudly throughout the classroom, interrupting Ms. Sherman’s rather uninspiring Friday afternoon lesson on the life cycle of a star. Even though most of the students around me are furiously jotting down notes about nebulas, red giants, and supernovas, I’m half listening while I doodle caricatures of me and my friends in the margin of my notebook. It’s not that I’m not interested in the material she’s talking about. No, that’s not the case at all. It’s quite the opposite actually; science is my favorite subject, especially anything that deals with astronomy and the unknowns in our universe.
But with a dad who is a super-smart astronomer at Johnson Space Center—or NASA, as most people here in Houston call it—I learned about this stuff she’s teaching before I ever started kindergarten. Heck, just this past summer before fifth grade, Mama and I went to visit him at a planetarium in Hawaii, where he was part of a team that discovered eleven new moons orbiting Jupiter! If I don’t ace this test next week, I better not even go home. I definitely wouldn’t be able to be an astronaut then.
“Ms. Sherman, can you please have Lyra Jennings gather her things and come down to the office? She’s leaving for the day,” the office lady who reminds me of Paula Deen—Mama’s favorite chef—announces through the ancient intercom system.
At the sound of my name, my chin jerks upward from my pencil sketches to the standard black-and-white classroom clock mounted above the projection screen. The hands read 12:45 p.m., nearly three hours before the end of the school day, when my parents are supposed to pick me up as we head out to Dallas for the weekend to celebrate my eleventh birthday. Ooh, maybe getting out of school early was my surprise they mentioned!
I’ve been looking forward to this day since we came home from this same trip last year, and I know my parents planned something special for this year. Every birthday, instead of having one of those silly kids’ parties with pointy hats and piñatas, they take me to the Texas State Fair. There, we spend the weekend riding as many rides as possible, stuffing our mouths with sausage-on-a-stick and fried Twinkies, playing games until we win the biggest of the stuffed animals, and laughing until our faces hurt and happy tears stream down our cheeks. Hands down, it’s my favorite three days of the year, even better than Christmas. And I really, really like Christmas.
Excitement jets through me as I stand up from my desk and hurriedly cram my spiral notebook and textbook into my purple paisley backpack. If we make it there early, I’ll be able to go swimming at the fancy hotel’s indoor pool before dinner.
“Sure thing,” my teacher calls out in response. “She’ll be right down.”
Hoisting the strap of the bag up on my shoulder, I turn to leave the room and my gaze meets Ms. Sherman’s. Her warmth shines in her bright amber-colored eyes, highlighting the numbers 051123 that I see imprinted in her pupils. The same six white numbers I see every time we make eye contact. The numbers I’m not allowed to talk about. The ones everyone thinks are all a part of my healthy imagination.
But they’re wrong. They’re all wrong.
The numbers are real, and they never change or go away. I only wish I knew what they meant. Mama and Daddy—who, by the way, are the only two people I know that have the same numbers—call it my special superpower, but I know they just pretend to believe me. I see the looks they share when they think I’m not watching. They don’t want me to think about all those things the doctors say about me. I may only be ten years old, but I’m 100% sure I’m not crazy, nor do I lie for attention. I’m an only child, for Pete’s sake; my parents are overly interested in my life. Though I do appreciate their support, even if they don’t understand.
“Have a nice weekend, Lyra. Don’t forget we have a test over CHAPTERs six through eight on Monday. Make sure you’ve read all the material,” she reminds me.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be ready,” I reply modestly, not sharing with her or the rest of the class I’ve already read through CHAPTER thirteen in the text, including answering the study guide questions at the end of each section. I may be an overachiever, but I’m not a brown-noser.
Luckily, school just comes easy for me, and my parents get over-Jupiter’s-moons proud when I bring home straight A’s on my report card. It reassures them that I’m normal and well adjusted. At least that’s what I heard Mama whispering to Daddy on the phone one night when she thought I wasn’t listening.
I mouth a quick goodbye to my best friend, Beth, who I pass by as I scuttle toward the exit. With her last name being Blackmon and mine being Jennings, we rarely get to sit near each other, as most of our teachers put us in alphabetical order. Beth’s numbers are 022754, and like Ms. Sherman’s, they light up vibrantly when she looks up at me and mouths the words Have fun before I slip out the door.
I never want to break the rules or get in trouble, so I somehow fight the urge to sprint down the deserted hallway and force myself to walk as fast as my long, skinny legs will let me. The swishing sound from my denim shorts rubbing together fills my ears, creating a soundtrack for my excitement. My cheeks ache from smiling so big while I drop off my folders and books in my locker then make a beeline to the front of the school, where my parents are waiting for me. This is going to be the best of the best weekends ever, one that none of us will ever forget. I just know it.
Only, when I swing open the glass door to the main office, expecting to see my favorite two people in the world, I’m surprised to find my Aunt Kathy standing there, her face puffy and pink, the corners of her mouth pointing due south. Our eyes meet, and I can barely see her numbers—123148—because of how swollen the lids are around them.
The fluffy white cloud of elation I floated in on disappears instantly as a dark fog of dread takes its place. Engulfing me. Swallowing me whole. She doesn’t have to say a word—I already know. Not how or when or where it happened, but deep in my bones, I know.
I was right. This will definitely be a weekend I’ll never forget, only it will be for reasons I’ll never want to remember.
“I’m so sorry, Lyra baby girl,” she cries. “I’m so sorry. They’re… they’re gone.”
The word bounces around between my ears, getting louder each time it echoes. The first time, it freezes my movements. The second steals all the air from my lungs. By the third time, I’m pretty sure I have no pulse. I want to go, too.
With my feet stuck to the floor and my body stiff as a statue, Aunt Kathy rushes over to me and wraps her arms around my shoulders. Pulling me up against her chest as uncontainable sobs shake her body, she breaks down in front of the receptionist and attendance clerk, neither of who bother to hide their open staring. Numb, I stand completely still while she wails for several minutes, and I never once make a single sound or try to break free from the death grip she has on me. My thoughts race so fast they’re standing still.
I’m just… here. And my parents just… aren’t. And they won’t ever be again.
Climbing into the passenger seat of Aunt Kathy’s fancy sports car—a car I usually beg to ride in because there’s no backseat—I fasten my safety belt and then close my eyes as I lean my head back on the black leather, warm from the hot southern Texas sun. Even though it’s mid-October, I’m still wearing shorts and sandals, and just last weekend I went swimming at Beth’s house. But as I sit here and wait for my aunt to start the car, my teeth chatter loudly and my entire body trembles uncontrollably. My heart is frozen solid, but I’ve yet to shed a tear.
The phone rings and I jump, automatically looking at the caller ID on the screen, thinking… hoping… praying it’s someone calling to let us know this has all been a big mistake, that my parents are really okay.
“Hey, Mom,” Aunt Kathy answers after just one ring. We still haven’t pulled out of the parking space. “Yeah, I have her now. She’s safe and sound.”
My heart plummets even lower into my stomach than it was before as she pauses to listen to Granny Gina on the other end. Granny Gina is my dad and Kathy’s mom who lives in New Orleans, where she moved about five years ago after my grandpa passed away from lung cancer. Since my mom’s parents both died before I was born, she’s the only living grandparent I have, and luckily for me, she’s a pretty awesome one. But today, nothing is awesome. Not even close.
“I don’t know. She hasn’t said a word. I’m sure she’s in shock.” My aunt talks about me like I’m not sitting right here, as I finally feel the car jerk back in reverse.
Another pause. The car lurches forward into drive then we bounce hard as Aunt Kathy flies over a speed bump. I think I’m going to throw up.
“Okay, I’ll take her home so she can pack a suitcase of whatever she wants to bring, and then we’ll go to my place until you get here. You should be in about 5:00?”
Pack a suitcase of what I want to bring where? Where am I going? Why is this happening to me? I’m a good kid. I make good grades and I’m nice to people, even those people who everyone else makes fun of, and I listen to my parents and my teachers. What did I do to deserve this? Why me?
“Yeah, Mom, I know,” Aunt Kathy hiccups. She’s crying hard again. “I’ll take good care of her, and we’ll see you later. I love you.”
I keep my eyes screwed shut as she disconnects the call, scared she’ll want to talk if I open them. I don’t want to talk to her or Granny Gina or anyone but my parents. I want my mom and dad!
Thankfully, Aunt Kathy doesn’t try to talk to me as we drive, but when I feel the car come to a stop and hear the engine turn off, she gently taps my arm. “Lyra, sweetheart, we’re at your house. We’re going to go inside, and I need you to pack up a suitcase or two of the clothes and things you want to take to New Orleans. Whatever you need.”
“New Orleans?” My lids snap open and I whip my chin in her direction. I don’t even recognize my harsh, scratchy voice. “I’m going to New Orleans?”
“Yeah”—she nods sadly as she swipes at the black mascara streaks on her face with her thumbs—“with Granny Gina. After we take care of, uh, of everything here, you’ll go live with her there.”
Scowling, I cross my arms over my chest and grunt. “I don’t want to leave Houston, or my friends, or my school. Why can’t I stay here with you?”
“You know I travel with my job, Lyra. Sometimes I’m gone a week or two at a time, and there won’t be anybody here to stay with you. Granny Gina’s house has an extra bedroom, and since she doesn’t work, she’ll be able to better give you everything you need.”
What I need and will be better for me is my mom and dad. And my perfect birthday weekend at the fair.
She reaches out to attempt to soothe me with her touch, but I wrench away, banging my elbow on the car door in the process. The whack is loud, and the place I hit immediately turns red, but my brain doesn’t register the pain. I feel nothing. I’m broken.
I glance over at my aunt, and the tears spilling down her cheeks make me feel bad for acting the way I just did to her. What happened to my parents isn’t her fault, but I’m angry and this is all moving too fast. How am I supposed to pack up what I need in a couple of bags? I want to stay in my room, in my house, living with my parents.
“I know this is all unfair, baby,” she says through her sniffles, “and I can’t even to begin to understand what you’re thinking or feeling. I mean, I’m freaking the hell out and I’m a grownup who’s supposed to know how to handle these kinds of situations. All we can do is cling to each other as family and try to get through this together. Between me and Granny, we’ll do the best we can for you, and right now, we think the best thing is if you get your things and go stay with her.”
“How did they die?” I blurt out, completely off topic from what she’s talking about. My mind can’t stay focused on any one thing, but this is the question that keeps popping up. “I need to know how it happened.”
Swallowing hard, Aunt Kathy inhales a shaky breath through her nose and blows it out through her mouth, visibly trying to collect herself before she answers me. “It was a car accident,” she whispers after forever, barely loud enough for me to hear. “I don’t know why they were together in your mom’s car this morning or where they were going, but an eighteen-wheeler lost control and hit them. They were already gone by the time the first responders arrived.”
I nod, still unable to cry. I hear the words she’s saying, but they aren’t really registering. They make sense, but I don’t understand. It’s as if I’ve been swallowed up by one of the black holes Daddy taught me about and the darkness is sucking away my ability to think, to feel. All I hear is the word “gone” still replaying over and over and over.
“Okay. I’ll get my stuff,” I say flatly, finally opening the door and stepping out of the car.
My movements are robotic, and I can barely even feel the key in my hand as I unlock the front door to my house. Stepping inside, I’m overwhelmed by a combination of the sweet smell of my mom’s favorite vanilla cookie candle and the sight of my dad’s fuzzy slippers waiting by the coatrack—the slippers he puts on the minute he walks in the door from work every night. When I realize he’ll never wear those slippers again, nor will my mom ever be able to forget if she blew out the candle when we’re about to pull out of the driveway, an acute pain shoots through my chest and I stumble over to the staircase, grabbing the banister to keep my balance.
“I’m right here, Lyra,” Aunt Kathy murmurs from behind me as she slips her arm around my waist. “Let’s just get your things and head over to my place. Later, once we’ve had some time to deal with everything, we can come back to go through the house and all the stuff… if you want.”
Another nod and I let her guide me up the stairs to my room. I want to scream at her that there will never be enough time to deal with losing my parents, that I’ll never be able to go through their things, but I keep my lips pressed together and do as I’m told.
“Where do you guys keep your suitcases?” she asks, glancing around my room as if she’s doing an inventory of what I have. “I’ll go grab a couple while you start pulling out what you want to take. If you forget something, it’s no big deal, because you and Granny are going to be staying at my place for the next few days. I can just bring you back to get it, or I can even ship it to Louisiana if you remember once you’re there.”
“They’re in the storage cabinets in the garage,” I answer while walking over to my desk, my eyes locked in on a framed photo of me and my parents that sits next to my laptop.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
The thud of her heels on the hardwood floor grows quiet as she makes her way back down to the first floor, and just as I grab the picture and plop down on the chair, I hear her open the door to the garage. A few much-needed minutes by myself.
I gaze down at the photograph of the three of us from a day at the beach, me sandwiched between their cheerful, carefree expressions, and the first tear finally escapes. Once the dam breaks, I can’t stop the flow, and as I trace my finger over the outline of each of my parents’ faces, I cry for everything I’ll never have again. A supernova of tears.
Faces I’ll never see smile again.
Voices I’ll never hear say my name again.
Arms I’ll never be hugged by again.
A never-ending galaxy of love that I’ll never feel again.
It’s all just… gone.
After several minutes of vision-blurring bawling, I set the picture frame back upright on my desk. A hot pink heart drawn on my calendar with the words Birthday Weekend Begins written over today’s box catches my attention. I then notice the printed numbers next to my bubbly handwriting that read 10-18-02.
Snatching the picture up again, I stare directly into first my dad’s eyes, and then my mom’s. The numbers I see when I look people directly in the eyes only happens when I’m face-to-face with someone, never in photographs or through a screen or mirror. But even though I can’t actually see the numbers right now in the picture of my parents’ pupils, their numbers are forever etched in my brain from looking at them every day of my life. I used to think the reason they had the same numbers meant they were true soul mates, like God made them to match perfectly together, but now….
My gaze flicks over to today’s date of 10-18-02, then back to my parents’ faces, where I envision their numbers—101802.
My plummeting heart collides with my lurching stomach in an explosion of realization.
It’s my Big Bang Moment.
About Erin Noelle USA Today Bestselling Author
young daughters. While earning her degree in History, she rediscovered her love for reading that was first instilled by her grandmother when she was a young child. A lover of happily-ever-afters, both historical and current,Erin is an avid reader of all romance novels.
Most nights you can find her cuddled up in bed with her husband, her Kindle in hand and a sporting event of some sorts on television.
Show Me the Way
The first stand-alone novel in A.L. Jackson’s brand-new Fight for Me series…
Coming October 2nd
“This book is absolutely perfect.” – Corinne Michaels, New York Times Bestselling Author
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Title: A Better Place
Author: Jennifer Van Wyk
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Blue Tulip Publishing
Because fighting for love is always worth it.
After James Cole’s wife walked out on him, he put his dreams aside to raise his daughter. But now she’s grown and he’s ready for more.
When the opportunity arises to own a restaurant, his life-long dream, he can’t deny that it’s meant to be. And for more reasons than one.
He’s kept his heart closed off since the day his wife walked away. He’s never found someone who he thought was worth opening himself up to. But one look at her, and he knew she was everything.
Carly Hanson has a secret. A secret only she and her teenage son, Jack, know about. She’s built a new life but kept herself carefully guarded.
The day Carly stumbled, literally, into James, her world was turned upside down. She tries to keep him strictly as a friend, but he’s relentless in his pursuit. Can he break down the walls she’s so firmly built? Can he get her to join him in… A Better Place?
“Can I come in?” he asks, still standing on my front porch under the soft glow of the porch light.
“Oh! Yeah. Of course. Let me just let Jack know you’re here,” I say over my shoulder as I make my way back into the house.
“Wait. Can I talk to you? Just for a quick second?” he asks, reaching out and touching my hand and stopping me.
“Sure.” I nod my head. “What about?” I ask as I lean against the back of the couch in the living room. I reach over and grab one of the cream-colored throw pillows and hug it to my chest. It gives me a sense of comfort, and stops me from fidgeting — or reaching out and tugging him close to kiss the crap out of him. That might not give him the right idea for just staying friends.
“I have a favor to ask,” he hedges but hastily continues, “and I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t really important, and it’s a strictly friendship favor. I promise.”
“James. I know I’ve been a little… determined to keep it in the friend-zone, and you’ve never crossed the line. I can’t tell you how much your patience means to me. I trust you. I promise.”
“Yeah? I’m not being too pushy?”
“Okay. Good. That’s good. I would never want to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable.”
There’s not a single molecule in my body that doesn’t believe that. “I know. And you haven’t.”
“Would you go to a wedding with me?” he blurts out.
“What?!” I ask, surprise evident in my voice.
“I’m sorry. I just kind of blurted that out, huh? Let me start over. My niece, Emily, is getting married a few weeks after Christmas. It’s only about two hours from here, but I wondered if you would be my plus-one? And I’d love for you to meet Lily, and she’s been so swamped lately that she hasn’t had a chance to spend much time here. I guess she’ll be here for Christmas, so maybe you can meet then, but yeah. And, Tess will be there, obviously, so you would know someone.”
“I don’t know, James. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m honored that you invited me, or thought of me…”
“No one else I would think of,” he murmurs before I continue with my protest that I know will just fall flat anyway.
“You don’t want to bring someone else?”
“Like who?” he challenges, turning his head to the side.
I shrug my shoulders and say the only name that comes to mind. “Christine?”
They actually seem like a logical couple to me, both being in the food-service industry. Both being single parents of daughters. But even though there’s so much that seems right about those two together — and I love Christine dearly — the thought of it makes me physically ill.
He’s shaking his head before I even finish saying her name.
“There’s no one else I would rather bring with me to this wedding, Carly. Jack can come with us, if you’re worried about it being too date-like. I told you I would keep it in the friend-zone, and I don’t go back on my promises. But that doesn’t mean that I want to stop getting to know you better or spending time with you.”
“Can I think about it?” I ask, already knowing that he’ll break me down, and my answer will be yes.
His smile stretches across his scruff-covered face. I was never big on facial hair, but the way James does it makes shaving seem like it should be a crime. Apparently, anything James does makes me change my views. Tattoos? Used to make me turn the other direction. Now? Hot enough to lick. Facial hair? Used to make me think lazy and dingy. Now? I want to run my fingers through it and lick. Either I’m severely hard up, or James is getting burrowed deep under my skin.
“Of course. But let me sweeten the pot. This way you can answer that question that you’ve been dying to have answered since the moment you met me.”
I giggle quietly. “Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“Who’s the cooler uncle, Dean or myself?”
I almost burst out laughing. He’s so lighthearted and full of life. He’s truly just a fun guy to be around — always a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He could have become a bitter and cynical man after being left to raise a daughter on his own. Instead he embraced it.
“Oh, that question! I already figured it out!”
“It’s not hard to realize, right?” he said as he puffed his chest out a bit, giving me an impish grin.
“Nope. Dean is obviously the way cooler one between you two.” I press my lips together to stop the smile threatening to take over my face.
“Carly,” he warns playfully as he takes a step toward me.
“What? He’s probably not boring, and I’m sure way better looking.”
I nod my head seriously. “And in way better shape,” I say, almost choking on the words.
“You think so?”
“I’m positive. And cooking? Pssshhh. Hands down, I bet he’s better in the…”
I squeal and take off running through the house as James advances one step closer, a deep growl escaping his throat.
I burst out laughing. Heavy footfalls follow me, making my heart race in anticipation. I round the kitchen island and spread my hands across it, breathless from laughing and running. “Maybe I had it wrong this whole time, and he’s Captain and you’re Private?”
“Take it back,” he says, smiling, his own hands spread wide across the wooden countertop of the island.
I turn my head to the side. “What? Take what back?” I ask innocently.
“Carly,” he warns again.
I tap my finger on my chin, feeling more playful and lighter than I have in years. “Hmmm, maybe I will have to come with you to the wedding. See what the younger Cole brother has to live up to.”
His eyes flash, and I know I’m in trouble, but I can’t seem to stop. “Oh, you think you’re so funny, don’t you?”
I giggle and shrug my shoulders as I start to take steps toward him. He turns and saunters my way, flipping his ball cap backward, our eyes never leaving each other’s. “I think I’m a little funny,” I say as I continue walking toward him, holding my finger and thumb up with only a little space apart.
“Funny or delusional?”
I guffaw and press my hand to my chest. “Delusional? Who’s the delusional one here?”
“I’ll see the awesomeness of Dean? I have no doubts.”
And I’m suddenly hanging upside down over James’s shoulder being carried back into the living room.
“Aggghhh! James! Put me dow…” I laugh. “I’ll pee! James! Seriously!” I’m laughing so hard that tears are already forming in my eyes.
He tosses me on the couch and pounces, his large body covering mine in a very non-friendly way, but I don’t say a thing. I can’t say a thing. While we have not been overly touchy in the weeks that we’ve known each other, we also haven’t refrained from showing each other small amounts of affection. He always puts his hand on the small of my back when we’re walking, and he’s held my hand when we were crossing the street to go for supper. This, though? This is by far the most affection and feeling we have shown each other.
“Take it back,” he repeats, his eyes heated and voice husky, his arms pinning my hands above me, our fingers threaded together so perfectly it felt like they were made for each other.
“Hmm? What was that?”
“I said…” He lowers his face so we’re nose to nose. “…take…” His nose skims the length of my neck. “…it…” Deep inhale. “…back.”
My breathing picks up, and I know in this moment that I have two choices:
- Melt into a pile of goo. Which I’m basically well on my way to doing.
- Take matters into my own hands.
I choose option two.
I pull my hands free, frame his face, and pull him down closer. His eyes heat and flit over mine questioningly. And I do something I’ve been wanting to do for what feels like ever.
I lick him, from jawline to temple.
I lay my head back down on the pillow and watch as his face transforms from lust-filled to incredulous.
“Did you just… lick me?”
“I don’t know what to do with that,” he admits.
He pushes himself into sitting position, and I shimmy up the couch, crossing my legs and tucking my hair behind my ears. He’s facing forward. Slowly he turns his face toward me. “You licked me,” he says like he still can’t believe it.
“Yup,” I say. I have no clue why I did it, other than I just wanted to, so giving an explanation isn’t even an option at this point.
“First time your tongue was on me…” He trails off, looking away again.
A giggle bursts out of me, and I quickly put my hand up to my mouth to hold it in.
James shakes his head at me, stands up, and places his hands on his hips. He narrows his eyes and points at me. “Now you have to go to the wedding with me.”
“For the lick?”
“Wedding for the lick.” My eyes widen, and he continues. “That’s right. I said it. You licked me. Therefore, we wedding.”
“That’s not even grammatically correct!” Stupid argument? Probably.
“That’s your defense against going?”
“Hey! It’s true!”
“Be that as it may, doesn’t change the fact that you licked me. And we’re now going to a wedding. Together. Hi, Plus-One.”
I hear a deep snort from the other side of the room and gasp when I see Jack standing in the doorway to the living room, his broad shoulder leaning against the opening, an amused expression on his face.
“You guys are so weird,” he says, pointing to the two of us.
“You say weird. I say awesome,” James says. “Just wait and see who the best Cole man is when you both join me for Emily’s wedding.”
“Why am I being sucked in to this thing?” he asks. “I hate weddings. I don’t wedding.”
“Maggie will be there. In a dress. She’s a bridesmaid.”
“I’ll be there.”
James snorts and looks my way, winks, and my entire body goes up in flames. Bye-bye wall I built so strongly.
James huffed and puffed, and it blew right down.
From the Ground Up was Jennifer’s first published novel, with the hopes of many more to come. Jennifer makes her home in small town Iowa with her high school sweetheart, three beautiful and amazing kids, one crazy Jack Russell terrier. This is where her love for all things reading, baking, and cooking happen. Jennifer’s family enjoys camping, boating, and spending time outside as much as possible. When she’s not writing or editing/proofreading manuscripts for the many talented authors she’s come to love, you can find her cheering the loudest at her kids’ sporting events, sipping coffee or iced tea out of a mason jar with her Kindle in her lap or binging on Netflix.
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