Frayed (Connections Series #4)

( 13 )

Overview

He didn’t think, he didn’t question—he just acted.
What she wanted, she took—without regard.
It was only one night, but it changed everything.

After losing his fiancée, Ben Covington is unsure he’ll ever love again. But he’s so deeply drawn to Bell Wilde that he’s thrown for a loop. Maybe it’s purely sexual chemistry that’s igniting their spark… or maybe it’s his second ...

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Frayed (Connections Series #4)

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Overview

He didn’t think, he didn’t question—he just acted.
What she wanted, she took—without regard.
It was only one night, but it changed everything.

After losing his fiancée, Ben Covington is unsure he’ll ever love again. But he’s so deeply drawn to Bell Wilde that he’s thrown for a loop. Maybe it’s purely sexual chemistry that’s igniting their spark… or maybe it’s his second chance at love.

Bell Wilde has just gotten her life back on track and may not be up the challenge of Ben Covington coming back into it. However, once the spark is reignited…there’s no stopping it. But even if they both manage to pull together their frayed hearts, a secret from Bell’s past just might shatter them both.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
07/28/2014
The fourth Connections new adult novel (after Mended) is angst-filled and compulsively readable. Nearly six years after Ben Covington and Bell Wilde shared a night of passion, they run into each other at an awards banquet. Ben wants a relationship. Bell reluctantly acknowledges their fierce sexual chemistry, but insists on a no-strings-attached, friends-with-benefits arrangement or nothing at all. Determined to change her mind, Ben begins a concentrated plan of seduction involving erotic role-playing, romantic dinners, and light domination. But it turns out that Bell is hiding a huge secret that will almost certainly derail their budding relationship. Karr’s world is filled with imperfect yet relatable characters, a familiar but well-written story, and hotter-than-hot sex scenes. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"Ben is absolutely sinful and Kim Karr's writing sizzled from the first to the very last page." —-Katy Evans, New York Times bestselling author
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780451470683
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/2/2014
  • Series: Kim Karr's Connections Series, #4
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 267,428
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim Karr is the New York Times bestselling author of the popular Connections series, including Connected, Torn, and Mended. She lives in Florida with her husband and four kids. She’s always had a love for books and recently decided to embrace one of her biggest passions—writing.

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Read an Excerpt

PRAISE FOR THE CONNECTIONS SERIES

ALSO BY KIM KARR

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Frayed Playlist

Praise

Also by KIM KARR

Title page

Copyright page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Epigraph

CHAPTER 1

Come a Little Closer

CHAPTER 2

Past Lives

CHAPTER 3

You and Me

CHAPTER 4

Underneath It All

CHAPTER 5

Show Me What I’m Looking For

CHAPTER 6

Dig In

CHAPTER 7

Maybe Tomorrow

CHAPTER 8

Run Run Run

CHAPTER 9

Towers

CHAPTER 10

I’m Ready

CHAPTER 11

Show Me

CHAPTER 12

Still Into You

CHAPTER 13

Kinks Shirt

CHAPTER 14

I Choose You

CHAPTER 15

Show Me

CHAPTER 16

What Now

CHAPTER 17

Navigate Me

CHAPTER 18

Dirty Laundry

CHAPTER 19

Pain

CHAPTER 20

Little White Lies

CHAPTER 21

Away from the Sun

CHAPTER 22

Burn

CHAPTER 23

Stuck in the Middle

CHAPTER 24

Say Something

CHAPTER 25

Losing Sleep

CHAPTER 26

Sundown

CHAPTER 27

Counting Stars

CHAPTER 28

Talk Dirty

CHAPTER 29

Shape of Love

CHAPTER 30

Roar

CHAPTER 31

Start of Something

CHAPTER 32

Burn

CHAPTER 33

Best Day of My Life

CHAPTER 34

Dark Horse

CHAPTER 35

Say Something

CHAPTER 36

Our Song

CHAPTER 37

Come to Me

CHAPTER 38

Happy

About the Author

CHAPTER 1

Ben

The sign behind the bar reads:

WANTED . . .

THAT CRYSTAL ASHTRAY YOU FILCHED.

THE MONOGRAMMED TOWELS YOU TOTED OFF IN YOUR SUITCASE.

THOSE SCOTTISH-MADE LINEN NAPKINS YOU POCKETED.

IF YOU TOOK ANY OF THESE ITEMS IN THE LAST SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS . . .

WE WOULD LIKE THEM BACK.

PLEASE!

Resting my elbows on the slick surface of the bar, I gesture to the sign.

The bartender shrugs. “Don’t ask me, I only serve the drinks.”

A cute cocktail waitress slinks up beside me and slides her drink order across the bar. While she waits she crooks a finger and bends toward me at such at angle that her ample cleavage spills out. My eyes naturally fall to it, but I quickly force them away when the bartender’s voice booms over to us loudly.

“Lucy, gin or vodka in the martini?” he asks her sternly.

“Vodka.” But she doesn’t let her gaze wander and crooks her finger at me yet again.

“Rumor has it that management is looking to open a museum,” she whispers in my ear.

I straighten and lift an eyebrow. “Interesting way to go about filling it.”

“They’re even willing to give recognition to anyone who returns the items.”

I raise my glass. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I can show you what they’ve collected so far if you’re interested. I have time to take a break before dinner is served.”

Her body language and the seductive tone of her voice tell me she’s offering more than a quick glance in a closet. I admit to contemplating the offer. The devil on my shoulder reminds me what a bittersweet day today is and that getting lost for a while doesn’t sound so bad. But another, stronger, voice declares that the days of needing to get lost in women are long behind me.

My foot taps the stool rung at an increasing speed. “Maybe another time,” I tell her as nicely as I can manage, with a mental pat on the back.

A year ago I would have taken her up on her offer, unzipped my pants, lifted her skirt, and fucked her from behind without even thinking twice about it. She shrugs and bats her eyelashes at me as she puts her drink order on a tray. When she leaves she turns and winks, tossing over her shoulder, “I’ll be back. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”

What is she, the fucking Terminator? I loosen my bow tie, not able to stand another minute of restraint. And once I can breathe, I blink away any second thoughts. At the sound of a soft sigh coming from the bartender, I lift my eyes toward him. He looks forlorn and so I’m pretty sure he’s crushing on the cocktail waitress.

“She’s never asked me to see the items in storage,” he mumbles.

“Take the lead, man, and ask her.”

He seems to contemplate the idea.

Leaving him to ponder my suggestion, I turn around and lean against the brass rail to survey the room. Legend has it that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded here, that World War II military men used it as their recreation facility, and that John F. Kennedy’s nomination for president happened in this very space. The historic Biltmore Hotel has served great people who have done amazing things. And I can’t believe I’m here.

Turning back around, I sip the rest of my sparkling water and push the glass toward the bartender. “Thanks, man.”

“Anytime, and, sir . . .”

I look over toward him.

“Congratulations,” he says.

“Thank you. And hey, think about what I said—take the lead.”

He laughs before resuming his work. When he steps aside I catch sight of myself in the mirror behind the bar. For a minute I can’t help thinking about how damn lucky I am to have gotten a second chance at life. I was a dead man, a man who then lost sight of what mattered and then fell over the edge. But somehow after everything I went through, I was tugged back up by life and able to land on my feet.

A beep from my phone alerts me I have a text. I pull it out and smile at the screen—Dahlia London. I know her name is Dahlia Wilde now, but to me she’ll always be Dahlia London—the beautiful blond-haired girl with the tiniest of noses, heart-shaped lips, and a love of the beach that could only be matched by mine. She moved in next door when we were five and we spent our whole lives together. For the longest time I thought she was the one made for me. I even asked her to marry me. But then after things in my job went wrong, I entered the witness protection program . . . leaving her to think I was dead. When I came back years later, she was in love with someone else.

Time made me realize our love was one of comfort and familiarity, not true undying love. I don’t think I’ve experienced the latter, but I see it in her eyes. Sure, I struggled for a while before coming to terms with the fact that she has moved on, but we’re in a good place now.

I read her text.

I just wanted to say congratulations and I was thinking of you today.

With a smile, I type out my reply,

Thank you. That means a lot to me.

Switching my phone to vibrate, I slide it back in my pocket. She’ll always be important to me and I hope she’ll always be in my life, as a friend.

A hand on my shoulder pulls me from my thoughts. “You ready for this?”

I glance over. “Couldn’t be readier.”

Then Jason makes his way to the front of the room and his husky voice is amplified to fill the space. “I’d like to have everyone’s attention if I could please.”

The room becomes eerily silent and my nerves start to buzz.

He clears his throat. “I’m honored to be here today to present this award. For those of you who don’t know who I am, I’m Jason Holt, commander of an FBI special task force, and I am honored to be here tonight to present to you a man I know well—Ben Covington, California’s Journalist of the Year.”

The words of his introduction echo off the walls in the legendary Crystal Ballroom at the historic downtown Los Angeles hotel and it seems a little surreal. There’s a round of applause as I cross toward the stairs with years of reflection sweeping through my mind. When I finally reach the stage, I take the steps two at a time and stride across it heading toward my ex-brother-in-law. His eyes lock on mine and then he extends his arm, handing me the glass typewriter award, and suddenly everything feels so . . . real. With a handshake and a nod, he clears the stage and I’m left standing at the podium alone. It’s shorter than I had expected, and as I set the award on its shelf, I scan the room.

My eyes come to rest on the table before me. The circle of people sitting there are the ones who brought me home—not in the physical sense, but emotionally speaking. Serena, my sister, is seated front and center. Trent, my nephew, is at her side. Caleb Holt, my best friend for as long as I can remember, sits beside him. Then Kale Alexander, the mate I met in Australia who helped remind me of my love for writing. Beck Cavanaugh, who not only pulled me up from the darkness, but also shook me until I could see through it, is seated beside him. And finally closing the circle, Jason takes a seat beside his ex-wife, the same beautiful woman who is also my sister.

I clear my throat and begin. “In the movie Citizen Kane a reporter said, ‘I don’t think there’s one word that can describe a man’s life.’”

Lifting my eyes to the nods of people in the audience agreeing with me, I adjust the microphone and my voice grows stronger. “I’m sorry to say I don’t entirely agree with that statement.”

Nameless faces in the crowd furrow their brows, purse their lips, and stare at me. “Rosebud was the last word Charles Foster Kane muttered just before he died. In the movie a journalist tries to decipher what the millionaire newspaper tycoon meant. But in the end he gives up on his investigation and summarizes it by saying, ‘Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything . . . I don’t think any one word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle . . . a missing piece.’”

Long, rectangular white linen-draped tables outline the elegant ballroom with larger round ones filling its center. Journalists from all around the state occupy the many seats. Taking deep calming breaths, I continue. “And as we all know, in the end of the movie it is revealed to the audience that Rosebud was the name of the sled from Kane’s childhood—it was a reference to the only time in his life that he was really happy. At the end of the movie we’re left with the image of the sled being burned in the furnace because people thought it was just a piece of junk lying around.”

Food is being ushered out to the tables around the perimeter of the room and I know my time is running short. With sweaty palms, I grip the wooden sides of the stand and try to clarify what I mean. “I’ve spent the past year thinking, what is my Rosebud? And although I agree one word cannot describe your whole life, I do think one word can describe your life in the here and now. I think that word will change throughout your life, but the important thing is not to dismiss what it represents. Don’t let life pass you by.”

Against the white backdrop of the walls and the golden reflection from the chandeliers above, a vibrant flash of red movement toward the back of the room demands my attention. But then again I always notice women with red hair. I squint, trying to see past the shadows of the bright lights. Suddenly my world stops and I hope I don’t gasp out loud in the wake of all the air leaving my lungs. Is it really her?

My heart races and time stops as lust explodes within me. Red hair flows past her shoulders, and a tight green dress hugs her sexy body perfectly. I’d know her natural beauty anywhere—that knockout figure that is sexy as hell. No matter how hard I have tried, I could never seem to forget the way her body felt pressed up against mine.

I don’t even have to see those otherworldly emerald eyes to know it’s her, I can tell by the way she moves. She’s S’belle Wilde. We shared only one unbelievable night together, but it’s seared in my mind forever.

Wetting my lips, willing my heart to beat at a normal pace, I try to bring my thoughts back to why I’m here. But I’m having a hard time tearing my eyes from her—I’m drawn to her. I begrudgingly force my mouth to recite the rest of my speech. And even though the words that I’ve rehearsed flow out easily, I can’t focus on them at all. My thoughts are locked on her.

I remember the night we shared together so long ago and how she rocked my world. I remember how we reconnected this past summer and how I screwed everything up by acting inappropriately with our mutual client. I remember it all as it flashes through my mind—the good and the bad, the hot and the cold. And I remember how much I craved her then, and I can’t deny that I still do.

When I pause for a moment I’m momentarily distracted by the way she cocks her hip when she gives orders to the waitstaff. She marches to another table in those high heels, and my eyes sweep her body, from the curve of her hips, to the fullness of her breasts, to the pout of her mouth. With a pencil tucked behind her ear, she pauses, biting her lip as if assessing the position of everything on the table with a precision that is sexy as fuck. I suck in a breath and refocus on why I’m standing up here. “Sorry about that. I have to say I’m a little nervous. . . .”

I glance across the many faces in the audience as the words spill from my mouth and my gaze locks on hers. Her lips tip down into a frown when she notices my stare and she hastily averts her attention. Good. At least I can focus again. I continue, but I can’t stop constantly canvassing the space around me for her position. When I spot her directing those around her at the carving station, my pulse thunders at the sight. I shift my gaze to follow her and notice some of the women in the audience dabbing their eyes with napkins. I can only assume my heartfelt words have moved them. When I notice S’belle pick up one of the black linen pieces of cloth and do the same, it takes my breath away. Not only does she seem to be impacted by my presence, but fuck me if she isn’t wearing my watch, the one I left for her this summer after she told me hers had broken.

As I finish my speech, a strange feeling runs through me. I’m not sure if it’s finality, closure, hope, or a sense of new beginnings, but whatever it is—I’ll take it. It beats the despair and isolation that have kept me company for the past year. I raise the glass typewriter in the air. “I leave you all with these final thoughts. . . .”

My last words come out softer as the syllables catch in my throat. Applause reverberates through the grand ballroom and I close my eyes for a few moments, absorbing everything. When I open them a grin crosses my lips. But my smile isn’t for the strangers who surround me or even for my friends before me. It’s for the redheaded girl in the back of the room whose gaze keeps flickering over mine.

Exiting the stage, I keep my eyes locked on hers and can’t help noticing that hers are locked on mine . . . blue to green, a reflection from so long ago, but a memory I’ve never forgotten. However, I can’t read her. Each glance tells a different story. She seems to be shifting between emotions. Like to hate, disgust to admiration. She’s a blend of confusion that echoes my own feelings. I’m pulled from my thoughts as I approach the table and my sister rushes toward me.

“Oh, Ben, I’m so proud of you. I wish Mom were here to see you.”

“Yeah, me too,” I say as I hug her. Again my words catch in my throat.

“Mom, don’t cry,” Trent calls over my shoulder.

I grab his head in a vise lock. “Glad you made it home, kid.”

“I wouldn’t fucking miss this for the world.”

“Better lie low on the swearing or your mother will use the liquid soap in the restroom to wash out your mouth.”

“Yes, I will,” she adds.

I swing my arms around them both. “How do you hear everything?” I ask her as we approach the table.

“Superpowers.”

And I think, Oh yeah, just like our mom.

Caleb extends his hand and pulls me toward him. With his hand slapping my back, he doesn’t say a word, but I can feel what he feels. We had ridden this roller-coaster ride together. Both of our lives had changed once I started my investigation. I may have been the one who had to give up his identity, but a part of him was buried alongside me for those years. We both felt guilt, remorse, sorrow, but now was a time for celebration.

I push him away. “If you cop a feel I’m going to have to deck you.”

His grin broadens. “I’ll try to control myself.”

On a serious note I say, “Thanks for everything.”

His eyes dart to mine and I see the lump in his throat. “What are you drinking? I’ll grab another round,” he says.

“Sparkling water.”

He rolls his eyes.

“I need to keep my senses around you. Wouldn’t want you taking advantage,” I joke.

Caleb hasn’t been around much the past year. He hadn’t seen how I let alcohol consume me. Let it erase the memories that were just too hard to bear. I don’t consider myself an alcoholic, but I know I function much better when I stay away from it.

Kale and Beck are deep in conversation when I squat between them. “What am I missing that’s so important I didn’t even get a congratulations?”

Kale’s eyes take on a glimmer. “Beck here is telling me about . . .”

My attention wavers the minute I see her again. She pulls her mass of hair back and bends down to examine one of the dishes being set out. When she straightens she catches me staring. We’re close enough that I know she sees it when I smile suggestively, but she quickly cuts her eyes elsewhere. I narrow in on the vision before me. I can see her flawless skin left uncovered by her sleeveless dress. I notice the way her neck and arm flow into a sea of glimmer from the sparkling lights above. I imagine grabbing her, pulling her to me, and bending to nip the smooth hollow where her neck and shoulder meet. She looks back at me and this time a slight smile crosses her lips. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t light up the whole fucking room.

“Don’t go there, man,” Caleb’s voice warns.

“Hmm?” I turn to look at him.

“Here’s your drink.”

Turning back toward Beck and Kale, I clasp Kale’s shoulder. “Great work. Stop in my office Monday. I want to hear all about it.”

“I see the way you’re looking at her.” Caleb won’t drop it.

“I’m not looking at her in any way,” I deny.

“The fuck you’re not. You’re practically licking her off the rim of that glass.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

His hard glare cuts across the room to where she stands. “Yeah, I think I do. Just remember she’s forbidden fruit. Leave well enough alone. You’re in a good place right now—you don’t need to go down that road.”

“I hear you.”

He looks at me skeptically.

Glass in hand, I sip my drink and crunch on one of the ice cubes, thinking past wrongs and forbidden fruit—none of that matters when I remember the night we shared. I also know that my insides hum with every move she makes. But I don’t say anything else to Caleb, because he’s right; going down that road won’t lead to any place I need to go.

•   •   •

The night passes quickly with so many conversations with people I’ve never met. Beck left to pick his girlfriend, Ruby, up from work, and Kale followed him out, discussing whatever they are working on. Caleb was taking a red-eye back to wherever it is he goes, but said he’ll be back next month. And per his advice, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid S’belle, but it’s killing me to do it. I know there’s a huge chance she wouldn’t talk to me anyway after what happened this summer, but I also think there’s a chance she would and with Caleb’s words echoing in my ears, I’m not sure I should go there.

When my phone rings with a call from Aerie Daniels, I take the opportunity to slip away from the crowd. “Hello.”

“Hi, Ben. It’s Aerie.”

I open a door marked EXIT and end up in a quiet service hallway. With no one around I lean against the cool stainless wall behind me.

“Hey. Everything okay?” I ask.

Not only is Aerie my ex-fiancée’s best friend but she also works for me.

“I just wanted to apologize for not being there tonight. I’m leaving in the morning for that quick trip to New York City I told you about and thought I should get everything together for the November issue and go through it one last time.”

“Aerie, it’s going to be fine. Don’t stress about it.”

“Are you sure you don’t need me to stay?”

“I’m sure. Stop stressing. It’s all set and there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Okay. It’s just I’ve never been out of the office on trigger day. My plane lands first thing in the morning, so if anything—”

“Let’s bring out the desserts all at once.”

I hear a familiar sound—soft and sexy—nearby. Jerking my head to the right, I greedily take S’belle in. The way her body moves with each movement, I can’t suppress the memories that always surface when I see her. I remember everything about that night. Her perky tits that hardened the minute I caressed them, the way her mouth opened and her eyes closed when I touched her in the most intimate places, the feel of her hands seductively sliding over my body, the way she smelled, the raspy tone of her voice when she pleaded for more. My head begins to spin with fresh justification about why it’s okay to just talk to her. She exits the small space quickly, though, through the next set of doors, and again the hall is quiet once more.

“You there?” Aerie’s voice calls through the phone.

“I’m here.” I manage to make my own voice sound normal.

“Okay, then. I’ll check in when we land.”

“Sounds like a plan. And, Aerie, for fuck’s sake, have fun.”

She responds with a laugh, “Language, Ben, language,” and then she hangs up.

I shake my head and shove my phone in my pocket. Just as I’m about halfway to the door, it swings open again.

“Ben,” she greets me in a velvety soft voice.

I can’t even tell whether I’m more startled or happy to see her there. But when a flush runs up her neck and her breathing steadily picks up, I want to think she’s as impacted by my presence as I am by hers. Her reaction surprises me, but I’m even more surprised to see warmth in her gaze. My eyes drink her in with a thirst—her hot body, her beautiful stare. My nose catches a faint whiff of her lemony scent. She smells amazing and I almost spasm on the spot. Just as I open my mouth to speak, the door opens again.

“Did you find the serving spoons?” a guy much too young to be in charge asks.

“Grabbing them now,” she answers, chewing on her lip before moving across the hall to the counter and picking up a handful of silver ladles.

He holds the door open for her and she glances at me one last time before walking toward him. And as I watch her, the way her body moves with ease as she leaves, I can’t help thinking back to that night so long ago. The fantasy come to life that I’ve never been able to forget.

I filled my hands with her beautiful breasts as I slammed into her from behind. Moans of passion that I weren’t sure if they were hers or mine. My body shaking, hers quivering. I had been drunk, but I felt completely sober when my hands roamed her body and my lips followed. Her pussy was so sweet and I wanted more. Without any inhibitions, a string of my deepest darkest sexual desires left my mouth. I saw her smile at my words. She whispered how she wanted to answer them. And as I stood, I grabbed her neck and brought her mouth to mine. I felt my dick throb and I wanted more.

The way I felt when I was inside her was unlike anything I had ever experienced. But I force myself to blink the thought away. It’s not how I should be thinking. But fuck, seeing her again makes me horny as hell and makes me think about things I know I shouldn’t.

As I head back to the party, I tell myself that I need to leave the past in the past. But the words just don’t feel right.

CHAPTER 2

Bell

At first glance he had me aching for him. Just one word from him and I was purring. He exuded passion—I felt it the first time he touched me. If you met him, he would make you feel the same way too. I promise. Charming, elusive, full of sex appeal—nothing has changed. One look from Ben Covington and I know what he wants, and it’s not as though I don’t want the same thing too. But I also know all too well the pleasure I would feel would only be followed by a stabbing pain in my heart. That’s just the way it is with him. The only way it can be after everything we’ve been through.

I try to shake the memories he evokes, but they won’t budge. They just keep rushing back, flooding me further with want and need. I can’t help remembering how he made me feel. How I thought I ruled the world. How I even thought I had a superpower. It wasn’t as glamorous as Emma Frost’s telepathic manifestation or Wonder Woman’s ability to fly, but it was cool nonetheless. My superpower was that I had a way with words. Somehow my uncanny ability allowed me to talk myself into or out of just about anything—an extension on a late paper, a citation for illegally parking, admission into a sold-out club—it didn’t really matter what it was; if I wanted it I got it.

But I cursed that ability after the night I spent with him. Cursed him for everything, but especially for leaving an impact on my soul that felt as if it would last forever. Yet on seeing him tonight, hearing his moving speech, the feelings tumble through me as I set up the dessert table, making me question everything. I’m beginning to think I was wrong. Maybe wiggling my way into the fraternity party as a makeshift sorority sister and then into his bed wasn’t actually a curse. But if it wasn’t, then what was it?

•   •   •

“Bonjour!” I said to the girl with a name tag that read Claire pinned to her white lace blouse.

Medium-brown hair tumbled to her shoulders in smooth waves and was held back by a black ribbon headband. She wore a very short plaid skirt with red tights and ankle boots. Flawless and polished, she was perfectly put together. I had to blink twice because she looked so much like the character Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. She stood with a huge grin on her face behind a pink-draped table with a golden triangle and the letter Z emblazoned across it in the student center at the University of Southern California. It had only been two weeks since I traded in the City of Lights for the City of Angels. The night was cool, but since the rain had let up I had decided to get out and stop by the recruitment fair. Clubs, fraternities, and sororities populated the room. With so many choices, I had no idea which booth to visit first. I stood back and watched and it was Claire’s enthusiasm that caught my attention. So I moved closer and stood in line as she talked to a group of girls about joining her sorority. They giggled and jumped up and down when she gave them a piece of paper with an address on it and told them she’d meet them there.

Her gaze lifted at my greeting and she quirked a smile. With a gleam in her eye she said, “Hi. Are you from France?”

I gave a slight laugh. “No, California but I spent my freshman year in Paris.”

“Ah . . . you’re new. I am too. I just transferred in from New York University.”

I felt a spark of excitement. “Are you a sophomore?”

She straightened her shoulders. “No, actually I’m a junior.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like a character from Gossip Girl?”

Her smile grew bright. “All the time and I love to hear it. She’s my idol. I fashion my wardrobe after her.”

I nodded. Not certain of what to add to that, I quickly glanced down at the table of pamphlets and asked, “So, you were in a sorority at NYU?”

I was somewhat curious only because she was obviously the quintessential prep school girl turned college sorority member. I knew them well. I had gone to a prep school and I was sure all the girls I graduated with had joined sororities. But for me, the preppy schoolgirl look was never my thing. I liked to think my look was more Kate Moss. I mixed fashion-forward clothing with vintage. I wasn’t afraid to throw any two pieces together and put my own spin on an outfit. My mother liked my edgy wardrobe but warned me to avoid anything too revealing. That made me laugh because guys never looked at me that way anyway. I was always just the cute little sister.

“How did you know? Delta Zeta!” She beamed with pride, pointing to the flattering propaganda spread out in front of her.

I bit my lip. I had considered joining a sorority for the sheer purpose of making friends, but I wasn’t certain if I had the time with my heavy course load.

She must have noticed my eyes flicker in contemplation because she asked, “You are a PNM, aren’t you?”

“A PNM?” I questioned.

“A potential new member,” she clarified, leaning closer to me.

I shrugged. “Well, yes. I guess I am.”

“Great,” she said, assessing my outfit—a short cropped jacket, skinny jeans, low-heeled boots, and my grandmother’s always-present layered gold necklaces.

“What does a PNM have to do?”

“Depends on what you can offer and who you know.”

“I’m new, so I haven’t met very many people.”

She frowned as if reconsidering if she should have asked me.

Not wanting to feel rejected, I threw out, “But I have a brother in a band and another brother who’s a graduate student here.”

Her eyes twinkled with excitement. “Are they hot?”

I shrugged again. “I guess so.”

“Then you’re a PNM.”

I clasped my hands together in excitement at having a title and making a new girlfriend.

“We need little sisters to help at the Kappa Sigma’s Pledge Night tonight.”

“I’m not really a little sister, though.”

“Oh, I’m giving you temporary membership. Raise your right hand and repeat after me to accept and we can move on to the hazing,” she said in a serious tone.

My mouth dropped open.

“I’m only kidding.”

Not quite sure I believed her, I did as she instructed, trying to recall movies I had watched with sororities, but my mind went blank. I finished repeating the words.

She skipped around the table. “Done!”

I felt nervous and excited at the same time.

She grabbed her materials up off the flat surface. “Let’s go.”

I patted my hair. “Now?”

“Yes. Inspiration period is about to begin.”

I slanted her a questioning look.

“Hell week,” she mumbled.

“Oh, but I’m not sure I . . .”

She put her hand up and ignored my concerns as she filled her purse with the brochures and swung it over her shoulder. “But first you need to change your outfit. Come with me; you look close to my size.”

She took me to her dorm room, gave me a change of clothes, and we were off. It was dark and streetlights lit our way. The shoes she had me change into weren’t exactly made for walking long distances. I wore heels all the time, but those must have been five or six inches high. My hair blew in my eyes and I pushed it behind my ears. Claire had tried to tame it, but it was still a frizzy mess.

“What am I supposed to do tonight?” I asked, trying to keep up with her pace.

She rolled some lipstick on her lips and smacked them. “Be bitchy and nice, ugly and pretty, stupid and smart, innocent and slutty, blond or brunette.”

I looked at her in confusion.

She laughed. “It’s easy. You just tend to one of the fraternity brothers’ needs.” With a silver tube in one hand she air-quoted the word needs.

I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but I suddenly felt like a call girl in her short skirt and tight top and I started to think twice about going. My stomach lurched. I wasn’t really a partyer. I’d lived with my aunt in Paris and didn’t often participate in the college extracurricular activities. I always had tons of guys who were friends and I called them boyfriends, but I don’t think I ever had one in the true sense of the meaning. Girlfriends, on the other hand, those were harder to make and I wondered if I was a bit too quirky for most girls’ liking. But since Claire had brought me under her wing, I didn’t want to blow my opportunity.

“Ne . . . needs?” I stuttered.

She peered at herself in a compact mirror. “You be whatever he wants you to be. You know, make sure his cup is full, flirt with him, tell him what he wants to hear. Make yourself his dream girl for the night. But never, ever let him know it’s your job. It should seem natural and real—like you really like him.”

I stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk.

She looked over at me. “You can do that, can’t you?”

“Of course.” I swallowed, thinking maybe my silver tongue had gotten me in over my head this time, but then I thought no, I had read many books where girls molded themselves to be what the guy wanted and ended up liking who she became. With that thought I knew I could be the kind of girl she was talking about—strong and confident in her sexual prowess. I could be just like one of the heroines of my romance novels.

“Great! Just relax. Enjoy the free booze and man candy. I promise it’ll be fun.”

I bit my lip, hoping my brother Xander wouldn’t be there. He’d kill me not only for not telling him where I was going or for what I was wearing, but more so for what I was going to be doing.

She pushed her boobs up. “Oh, and if he wants a blow job, make sure you give him one.”

My eyes widened and my mouth fell open.

“Only kidding. But you should have seen what I had to do!”

“What?” I asked, once again stifling the urge to turn back around.

“I was forced to dance on tables for all the fraternities on campus to absurdly sexual songs.”

Oh God, I thought.

“So, tell me about that brother of yours that’s in the band.”

I couldn’t look at her. I was still trying to process what I had gotten myself into. I finally took a deep breath and said, “His name is River and he’s coming to visit in a few weeks. His band is actually going to play on campus.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Oh, I love rock stars. You have to introduce me to him.”

“Um . . . sure, I can do that.” But I already knew she wasn’t his type.

“Does he have a girlfriend?”

I laughed. “No, he says he doesn’t do girlfriends.” And I air-quoted my last word as she had earlier.

“He sounds dreamy,” she said.

Again I cursed my silver tongue.

When she opened the door to the frat house, all I could do was stare. People were everywhere. Music played loudly from the speakers in every corner, silver kegs lined one wall, and large plastic bowls overflowed with food on the tables. She led the way and when she stopped abruptly, I ran right into her.

“Sorry,” I hollered over the pulsing music.

She ignored me and moved forward, but I stood glued to the spot I had stopped in. My pulse was racing. My cheeks prickled with heat. There he stood, Ben Covington, just a few feet away—tall, beautiful, messy blond hair, a body that made mine tingle everywhere, and a smile that caused me to melt without even knowing why it formed on his lips.

Claire doubled back. She noticed my stare.

“Can I be assigned to him?” I pointed, my stomach fluttering.

She made a low dismissive noise. Waving her hand, she said, “He has a girlfriend.”

“So you don’t assign guys with girlfriends?” I asked a little too sharply.

She raised an eyebrow. “Sure, he’s all yours. But you should know he never really pays attention to any of us.”

I shrugged and resumed my staring.

She shook her head at me. “I have to say you really are a strange one.”

Lightly laughing at her comment and trying not to take offense, I kept my eyes glued on him. He was across the room talking to some younger guy rather animatedly, and when he stretched out his hand with a red Solo cup in it, I straightened my shoulders. “I’m off.”

She pursed her lips and grabbed my arm. “Do you want any pointers?”

Knowing I must seem like a contradiction, I met her eyes. “I got this, Claire.”

She grabbed my elbow as I started to walk toward him.

I twisted to look at her.

“Honey, my name is Stacy. Claire is my dream girl name. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Bell Wilde.”

“Oh, I like it. Is that your dream girl or real name?”

I gave her a blank look. “Real.”

“So what’s your dream girl name?”

A smile crossed my lips as I looked over to the guy who had captured my attention since I first saw him just a few weeks ago. Xander had taken me to a frat party but made me leave when he saw me drinking a beer and staring at Ben. The guy across the room was also the same guy I had been obsessing over since he talked to me in the library a few days ago. I couldn’t believe he was here.

“S’belle,” I said to her, more sure of that than anything I had since I met her. At that moment, I stood tall and strode across the room chanting, I can be his dream girl for the night over and over.

My insides froze when I stopped in front of him. I was so nervous that when I wrapped my trembling hand around his cup, I thought I might be sick. Then I thought, I can do this. It’s my job, after all. But when our fingers touched and a heat spread throughout my body, my nerves were back.

He grinned down at me with eyes that had to make every girl look twice. He shuffled his feet and for a second I thought maybe he was nervous too, but only for a second because when I looked up into the smoldering heat of those blue eyes, I saw nothing but confidence. That one look gave me strength and I suddenly found my words. “I’ve been assigned as your little sister,” I said, feeling as if my tone came out more little girl than dream girl. But the way he looked at me, I didn’t think that was what he thought at all.

“Bell, you okay?” Dino asks, and pulls me from my memories.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I reassure him as he places the last of the food on the table.

Dino works for Tate, my boss from my day job, and for me on occasion. I glance away from what we’re doing and catch sight of Ben. He looks almost edible in his tux. He’s talking to his sister and when he lowers his chin in an almost shy fashion, I have to look away. He’s just too much to take in.

With my heart pounding, I race out onto the terrace for some air. I have to stay away from him. The way he looks at me, I know what he wants. And I can’t control the way my body reacts when he’s near. I know he’s not good for me, and that nothing but heartache can come out of the attraction between us. There’s just too much in our past to ever make this work. Two wrongs will never, ever make a right.

CHAPTER 3

Ben

As the night draws to an end, people start funneling out of the ballroom, stopping one last time to congratulate me. With each good-bye I look around, trying to spot her, but she’s nowhere in sight. It’s probably better that way. Once most of the guests are gone, I make my way toward the bar for some refuge. It’s been a bittersweet night and I’m ready for the memories it’s awoken to once again become dormant.

“The same?” the bartender asks me.

I nod. “With a lemon slice if you don’t mind.”

I’m leaning over the short glass filled with ice, sparkling water, and the scent of citrus—the scent of her—chewing on a cube, thinking about my speech and the haunting sadness that Kane, with all his money and power, died with no one by his side.

When he died no one knew the one simple important fact that mattered most to him—the one thing that made him happy. Am I headed down that same road? Fuck. Recently my sister and I came into a ten-million-dollar inheritance, and since then I’ve done nothing except build my company. Put the pieces in play to establish what I hope will become a lucrative publishing holding company.

Staring at the lemon floating among the melting ice cubes, I can’t help thinking how much things have changed over the past year. I came back to California looking to reclaim my life. But that life was long gone before I ever returned. My childhood sweetheart, the girl I was engaged to, was already in love with someone else. Then before I could even accept that and move forward, my mother died and I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I know I spent many long months drowning my sorrows and making one poor decision after another. But I was serious about no more looking back. I need to move forward.

Jason slides in beside me. “Everything okay?”

Sitting up straight, I turn to face him. “Just thinking about a girl.”

“Dahlia?” he asks.

“No, actually not her. We’re in a good place as friends now.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Want to talk about the girl, then?”

“Jason!” We both turn in the direction of the voice. Serena walks toward us with her hands on her hips and a frown on her face. Her eyes narrow on the bar in front of us.

“What, baby?” he asks, pulling her toward him and kissing her lips.

She lifts my glass and sniffs it. Setting it back down, she looks between the two of us and smiles. “Nothing.”

“Ready to go?” he asks.

She nods, her long earrings swinging along her jawline. “If you are,” she answers, folding into his side. She looks toward me. “Come home with us?”

I can’t help noticing how much she looks like our mother tonight. Her hair is pulled back, she has makeup on, and she’s wearing a long black dress. She looks beautiful.

“I think I’ll stay a bit longer. When is Trent leaving?”

“You should tell him now,” Jason mumbles in her ear.

“Now now.” Twisting, she says to me, “In three days.”

“There might not be time,” Jason says louder.

“Come on, you two, I’m right here. Just tell me.”

“I don’t know how to say this,” Serena says, looking nervous and inhaling a deep breath.

Seriousness overtakes me. “Say what?”

“Baby, just tell him before you give him a heart attack,” Jason pushes.

She blows out the breath she was holding. “Jason and I are going to take Trent back to the University of Hawaii together.”

I give her a blank look. “Okay, have fun. When are you coming back?”

“It’s more than a vacation. We’re going to get remarried while we’re there.”

I stare at her for a long beat. Then I stand up and open my arms. My sister collapses into them. “I’m really happy for you,” I say.

She wipes away some stray tears and I offer my hand to Jason. “Congratulations, man. I know it’s been a long road.”

“I’ll take care of them better this time,” he promises.

And I believe him. I’ve been on this roller-coaster ride for three years, but he’s been on it for five. He distanced himself from his family to keep them safe as he pretended to be a dirty detective, all the while working under a special task force. He joined forces with a drug cartel to learn their inner workings and let his wife and son believe he was on the take. He sacrificed a lot to bring the cartel down. He deserves this second chance. But what’s most important to me is that my sister and Trent are happy. And as long as they are, I’m happy for them.

“What do you say we grab the boy and all stop for ice cream at that place he likes with all the toppings?” Jason says to Serena.

“I don’t eat that shit anymore,” Trent says, joining us.

I try to hide my smile but can’t. Instead I cross my arms and watch.

“Trent Holt, that’s enough of the potty mouth!”

“Mom, I’m not four. You don’t have to say potty mouth.”

“Son, let’s just humor your mother and leave the foul language for your uncle.”

I shake my head and laugh. “Have a good night, everyone.” I hug them all good-bye and watch as they head out the door, hoping that this time maybe they really can be one happy family.

With the room almost empty, I stare at the buffet tables that have already been broken down.

“Can I get you anything else?” the bartender asks.

I shake my head no and toss a fifty on the bar. “Have a great night.”

My fingers curl around the base of the crystal typewriter with the words California’s Journalist of the Year scripted across it. Despite the glamorous surroundings, a sudden wave of loneliness floods me as I exit the now-empty Crystal Ballroom. I can’t shake the feeling as I make my way out. I consider stopping in the lobby bar when I see the cocktail waitress in there but decide I’d better go home. I don’t want to do something I’ll be kicking myself for tomorrow.

Next I take my time wandering the corridors of the grand hotel and by the time I find an exit door, I notice I’m in the staff parking lot. Just as I’m about to turn around, I spot S’belle’s car. The little cabriolet sits among a few other stray automobiles. My spirits suddenly lift at the sight and I have a driving need to see her. Thoughts of her—her smile . . . never forced but always bright, her hair . . . red like fire, her body . . . hot and sexy—have flooded me with need all night, yet it’s her attitude . . . sassy but somehow innocent . . . that has made me burn for her.

For the longest time I stare up at the abundant stars in the clear night sky. I undo my bow tie and take it off, shoving it into my pocket as I question whether I should even be attempting to talk to her. Just then the sound of the side door opening startles me and I stand up straight. I nod toward the two guys wearing white server jackets and black pants, each carrying large silver trays. The taller one is the one who came to get S’belle earlier.

I relax back against the brick wall and consider just going home. But when the door swings open again and I spot that distinctive curtain of red hair, it’s too late. Her arms are loaded with smaller-sized pans and her attention is focused on the two guys, so she doesn’t notice me. I stand back and Caleb’s words echo in my head—leave well enough alone. The parking lot lights cast shadows over her as she walks farther away from me into the darkness. That’s what I decide to do—leave well enough alone.

“I’m parked over to the right,” her sweet voice calls to the guys ahead of her.

She fumbles in her purse while trying to balance the load in her arms. She seems to be losing the battle. And then without thinking, I rush over toward her, trying to grab what I can from her hands, but I’m too late and it all crashes down. Pans bounce off the blacktop, denting and skidding as they land, but our eyes aren’t on the fallen items—they’re on each other.

“Hi,” she says in a voice that screams innocence.

“Hi there,” I answer back.

The faint freckles on her nose are something I don’t remember. But the warmth of her breath whispering against my cheek makes my body come alive—need instantly floods me. Her smile gleams and I smile back. I study her. Her eyes are a liquid green that reminds me of emeralds; the color’s richer than I remember. Her red hair seems brighter than I recall it being and her curls are gone, but her mannerisms, her quirkiness, they’re all still the same.

“Need help?” one of the white-coated guys calls.

“I got it,” I yell back.

With the moment broken, we both squat to pick up the items and when we grab for the same tray our fingers touch and I feel it—electricity bolting through my body. She yanks her hand away as if electrocuted and I know she feels it too. And this time when our eyes meet, I am certain of what I see—desire. It’s then that my confusion fades and I know what I want.

•   •   •

Knowing what I want and getting it have usually gone hand in hand for me, but I’m not so sure that will be the case when it comes to the spitfire in front of me. Our history is sordid, maybe even tainted, but in this one moment of clarity I don’t give a shit. The attraction between us can’t be denied. And really what does it matter that we spent one night together when I was with someone else, or even that her brother is now married to that same girl? After all, two consenting adults should be able to have sex without the past being an issue.

Her fingers are shaking as she busies herself grabbing at the trays.

“I got them.” I cover up her hands with mine.

She stands quickly while I stay crouched gathering the last of the silver dishes from the ground. I’ve thought about being with her again for so long, and the attraction only grew when we worked together this past summer. And right now I’ll do whatever it takes to have her. I’m on my knees and I consider groveling, apologizing for my lack of morals when I messed around with the bride whose wedding I was reporting on and she was coordinating, but with two dudes watching over me, there’s no way in hell I’ll ever do that.

When I stand up, she tucks her hair behind her ear and my breath catches. Her face is strikingly beautiful—eyelashes longer than I’ve ever seen, wide green eyes with a look of innocence about them, ivory skin with faint freckles on her dainty nose, and full lips that I want so much to have on mine.

There’s a shift in her gaze as I stare at her and the warmth suddenly disappears. She pouts her lips and then attempts to take the trays from me.

I’m bemused by her mood swing. “Let me help you to your car.”

She turns on her heel and leaves me standing there.

My lips twitch. “I guess that’s a yes?”

She walks toward her cabriolet and clicks her key fob to open her trunk while nodding. The guys holding the larger pans are already beside the car, where they help her deposit the items.

“See you, Bell,” one says.

“Good night, Matt,” she answers.

“Night, Bell. You sure you’re okay?” the other asks.

She looks at me. “Yes. And thanks for all your help,” she calls as they both walk toward their own cars.

They seem young, yet hot for her just the same. But I can’t help wondering if the taller one is having a thing with her. The thought makes my stomach churn. Ignoring it, I set the stuff I’m holding on top of the others and close her trunk. I’m relieved that she doesn’t hurry to get in her car but instead stays where she is. My hands feel a little wet and sticky from the dishes, so I rub them together.

“I have something to clean your hands with in my backseat. Hang on,” she says, and opens her car door, pulling out a pile of black linen napkins monogrammed with a BH in the corner.

I raise an eyebrow. “Contraband?”

Her mouth falls open. “No! I grabbed what I could find quickly from the ballroom when I brought the food in. I used them to wipe up the juice from a tray that spilled on my seat on the way here. I’ll return them the next time I come.”

“Isn’t that what they all say?”

She places her hands on her hips. “I will!”

“I believe you,” I say with a grin.

She hands me one of the napkins.

“You know there’s a reward for items like those.”

Her eyes narrow. “You’re lying.”

My smile grows smug. “No, I’m not. Well, there’s a reward for seventy-five-year-old items like them. Come on, let me show you.”

“I don’t know, it’s late.”

“It’s not far, and who knows, we may even run into the ghosts who are said to haunt the place.”

I finish wiping my hands and reach for her elbow. She doesn’t flinch, so I let my fingers slide down her arm and rest on her tiny waist. Heat flares between us. “Come on. I’ll keep you safe.”

She slants me a look, her eyes settling on the position of my hands. She steps back. “This isn’t going to be like one of those Alfred Hitchcock movies, is it?”

I snort. “No, I promise.”

She shrugs. “Sure, okay, why not?”

As we walk side by side, I find that my glance keeps shifting down to her shapely legs and then up to her full breasts. She’s such a knockout. I blink a few times rapidly to erase the images playing in my mind and ask, “You watch Hitchcock movies?”

She clasps her hands together in the cutest fucking way. “Yes, I love old movies. I used to watch them with my dad all the time when I was a kid.”

I open the side door, which is surprisingly unlocked. “Me too.”

She seems to consider this for a moment before she steps back into the building.

In the hallway of the hotel she’s very quiet. “Everything okay?” I ask.

“Why do you think this hotel is haunted?” she asks, and I think she might actually be a little scared.

“It was built on a cemetery and it’s said you can hear laughing inside the Crystal Ballroom, but when one opens the doors, no one is in there. Some people have even claimed to have seen a ladylike shape walking through it.”

“How did you become such an expert on the place?”

“I’m not really an expert. I bought a book over the summer about the history of LA, and haunted locations was one of the chapters.”

“You mean there are others?”

I step aside as I open a door for her to yet another hallway. “Yeah, like twelve more. The Roosevelt is one. Marilyn Monroe lived there for a while. In fact, her first magazine spread was shot there. It’s rumored that people who stay in room 1200 can see her. I guess that’s the room she lived in.”

Her eyes widen. “See her how?”

“They say they see her living in the mirror.”

The hallways are dimly lit, so I do my best to lead us back to the Crystal Ballroom. The sound of a door slamming makes her jump.

I stop to look over at her. “Hey, Red, you’re not really scared, are you?”

She looks a little pale and I take a step closer to her. She closes her eyes and I follow the line of her jaw to the peak of her collarbone, gently brushing my fingertips up that same line. “Hey, look at me.”

She opens her eyes and there is no denying it. It’s the way she looks at me, has always looked at me. As though she gets me. It makes me want her as I’ve never wanted anyone.

“What are you two doing in here?” a husky voice calls from the end of the hallway. “This is for staff only.”

The trance is broken and she finds her voice. “Oh, I worked an event earlier and left something behind. I’m just going back to get it,” S’belle tells the man.

“Oh, okay, then. Make it fast.”

“Did you just lie to that man?”

Her eyes cut to mine. “It wasn’t really a lie. Just a half-truth.”

“There’s a difference?” I feign ignorance.

“Yes, now come on before he catches up with us,” she says nervously.

I laugh and her eyes stay locked on mine. Her initially hard stare softens second by second and then just like that she shoves me forward and takes the lead. I follow her and the next door takes us right into the Crystal Ballroom.

I scratch my head. “How did you know how to get here?”

“I just mapped the location out in my head and followed the service corridors.”

I raise my eyebrows. “I’m impressed.”

“We’re closed,” the bartender calls.

“Hey, man, I just popped in to show this nonbeliever your sign behind the bar.”

“Mr. Covington, I didn’t realize it was you. Come on over.”

“Mr. Covington,” she scoffs, and straightens her shoulders as she strides toward the bar. “Hi, Ryan. How was your night?” she greets him.

Shock overtakes me. She knows him too?

He smiles at her. “Busy,” is all he says when he catches the look on my face.

She takes a seat and I move to stand behind her, making sure he knows she’s with me. But with being this close, all I can think about is wanting to press myself against her.

He lifts the framed sign from behind the bar and hands it to S’belle.

Her laughter jolts through me. She looks over her shoulder at me. “You’re not going to turn me in, are you, Mr. Covington?”

I wink at her and lean down to whisper in her ear, “Not if you behave.”

She sits perfectly still.

I watch in the mirror as her eyes close. I stay close just breathing into her ear and inhaling her lemon scent.

“Funny, right?” Ryan comments as he takes the sign from her and puts it back, making himself scarce at the other end of the bar.

S’belle twirls around to face me. “Your speech told such an emotional tale. I never thought about all you went through. I’m really sorry—”

I place a finger over her lips. “Shhh . . . no sorries. That part of my life is over and I’m moving forward. But I want to apologize to you for the last time we spoke. I really should explain—I wasn’t thinking clearly then. I was in a really bad place and—”

She repeats my action and places her finger over my lips. “Shhh . . . we’ve all made mistakes. I shouldn’t have judged. So let’s just let it go.”

She’s letting me off the hook for my lapse in judgment. Good. Working as a wedding columnist over the summer and fraternizing with the bride is not anything I’m proud of or even want to ever think about again.

We lean toward each other, drawn together like two magnets. I place my hands on either side of her. This close there’s no denying that we are two people who want each other. Lust, fire, desire erupt between us.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Covington, but I have to close the room down now.”

The weight of his gaze as he takes us in tells me he wants to be me. A smug satisfied smile spreads across my lips that he isn’t.

“We’ll get out of your hair and thanks for letting us in.”

“Anytime,” he says.

I pull myself back to look at her.

She tries to step from the barstool, but one of her heels gets caught in the rung. I catch her splaying my fingers across her hipbones and guide her to safety. “You okay?”

She blinks but doesn’t answer.

When I assess her body for signs of injury, the only thing I notice is gooseflesh up and down her arms. “Ready to head back?” I ask her softly.

She nods, still unable to speak, seemingly in a daze. I find it rather adorable. But that feeling passes quickly when she raises her eyes and they meet mine. In them I see no need for words. I recognize the look—one of pure hunger.

CHAPTER 4

Bell

I’m not going to try to deny the desire burning within me. Heat flares as he leads me out of the ballroom, and it only seems to get hotter with each breath I take. I am, as always, completely under the spell that is Ben Covington—whenever he is near me now, then, and dare I say forever? The thing is that I can also tell he wants me just as much as I want him.

He turns around, walking and talking at the same time, his eyes drinking me in all the while. “Can you lead us back this way or should we take the main hallways?”

From the intense look he gives me, the same memory that was interrupted earlier assaults me.

•   •   •

At the frat party his eyes drank me in as if he had been in the desert for days and I were his first cup of water. Shivers went down my spine and I lost my ability to speak, but I didn’t really need to because he communicated with me by trailing his gaze slowly down my body. He stopped on my low-cut shirt and I was sure he could see my nipples popping out of the thin fabric. My breathing picked up as he lowered his eyes to the short hemline of my skirt. I had a feeling he knew my panties were already soaked, because I saw him swallow a few times.

When his eyes returned to my face, it was my turn. I scanned him in the same way he had swept his gorgeous blue eyes over me—from head to toe. His mop of shaggy blond hair was even more of a mess than usual. I wanted to run my fingers through it and comb it into place. His tall, lean, muscular body looked tan. I wanted to touch it to see how smooth it felt. He wore a white button-down shirt; he seemed to wear those a lot. This one was frayed around the untucked edges, which made it look comfortable—I wanted to wear it. I smiled and with a wicked grin he smiled back. He seemed to understand the purpose of my presence before him, but he didn’t release his hold. Something passed between us and then his stare went blank and he finally let go of the cup.

I twirled in a half turn and bounced over to the keg. I was extremely uncomfortable in this overtly short skirt and tried to shimmy it down with one hand as I walked. Claire’s shoes were too big and I kept slipping out of them, so I had to walk slowly. On my way back I saw Ben motion as if he was unzipping his pants and make a sucking gesture to the guy he was talking to. At that point I wondered if Claire was wrong about him. Maybe he didn’t have a girlfriend? Maybe he liked guys? I wasn’t close enough to hear what he was saying, but in the next moment he was laughing hysterically. The sound of his laugh made a heat creep up my chest.

Just as I approached him he turned around. I was sure I had a look of horror on my face because he said, “What?” with another laugh.

“That’s not really a part of hazing, is it?” I naively asked, wondering if Claire wasn’t kidding after all.

“Fuck no. I was just busting his balls,” he said, taking his beer. Then he said, “Thank you . . .”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2014

    Short and Sweet!

    This was a great story about Ben Covington who we originally met in Connected. As a Novella it is short, but is a great story. I loved that we get to hear Ben's story. I love it even more because his name is Ben Covington and I always picture Ben Covington from the show Felicity...YUMMY!

    I highly recommend all the Connections Series books. ENJOY!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 23, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Frayed by Kim Karr

    Kim Karr's Connections series continues with her latest book, Frayed. Readers who enjoy stories about redemption will find Frayed right in their wheelhouse. Ben Covington: determined, selfish, sexy. This character has his faults, but Karr transforms the way readers see him in the final book in this series. Ben shares a past with Bell that readers will find heartbreaking. Finding their way back to each other is a rush that will leave anyone who reads it well satisfied. Filled with passion, heart and emotion! A great conclusion to a great series! What I liked: Ben was never meant to be with Dahlia and that was evident from the onset of the series, but his actions with Bell still did not sit well with some readers, me being one of them. When Ben and Bell shared their first night together, Ben was still with Dahlia. In my mind that made him a cheater. Once a cheater, always a cheater. But I will have to say that Kim Karr is a master at changing the mind of the reader. She is able to take the reader into Ben's mind. To allow them to see why he did some of the things he did and how, like most of us, he is only human. And let's face it, humans are really good at screwing up. I loved the way that Karr was able to make Ben real, faults and all and to how she showed the reader he was worthy of his own happy ending. Bell is a great character on some levels and a little lacking on others. She wants to get her life on the right track and make something of herself. She realizes that her attraction to Ben might not be the best thing for her, but she can't deny her feelings. She has been through a lot and I applauded her for that, but she still let's her boss treat her badly. I wanted her to stand up for herself and tell him to shove it. But, I understood why Karr allowed this. It made the reader see Bell as more vulnerable and I think that was really necessary to the story. Ben and Bell have some strong chemistry going on in this book and it was as enjoyable to read as the heart wrenching parts of the story were. They don't have it easy and their relationship is fraught with a lot of obstacles. Things that happened in the past come back to haunt them, but through it all they have this amazing chemistry. There passion for each other in and out of the bedroom was steamy and felt extremely real. I think readers will be drawn to them and share in their struggles because they want this kind of tension and romance to exist. Karr simply does a fantastic job of bringing their love for each other to life. What I didn't like: I have always had an issue with characters who cheat, but Kim Karr really made me give that a hard look in this book. Ben cheated on Dahlia, and that was a huge thing to overcome, but I think as a reader I realized that sometimes we don't know all of the circumstances, the hidden and buried things in a person's life and past that might make them do things that are outside a reader's comfort zone, but not outside the realm of possibility. Bottom Line: Wow! I think Kim Karr did an amazing job with this story. Readers come full circle with Ben as this series concludes. Ben is still Ben. He's still a little selfish, a little too in the moment, but he's also real and honest with his past and his present. I found myself believing in him in spite of myself. I wanted this happy ending and I think readers will too. You can't miss this one, it's too good!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2015

    recommend

    loved the book..

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  • Posted September 19, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I am an absolute fan of this series but I sadly have to say that

    I am an absolute fan of this series but I sadly have to say that I did not care for this book as much as the others. I think after reading Blurred it was over redundant with Ben. I did start to like Ben in Blurred but I found Frayed was just a longer version of Blurred with the addition of Bell's POV.

    I did like Bell in the previous books even though she was a bit too sheltered from her family but she had many qualities that had potential and Kim Karr did a good lead into Bell's life with the other books tying in with this book but this book ended up still falling flat for me.

    As we start to read this I have to admit that Bell's hot and cold mood swings and her secret holding got a bit old for me. Plus she was holding a grunge on Ben when she pursued him knowing he had a girlfriend at the time plus he didn't even know her secret that caused her so much pain so I didn't see how that was fair (Hmmm I guess I'm turning Team Ben here... who knew).

    I don't know if I'm reading too many books which is started to get me jaded or what but lately the story lines of pure assumptions where she thinks he is with someone else and vice versa are driving me batty. I want more from books than this story line and the gem of miscommunication. I do still like Kim Karr and I did like this book I just didn't love it as much as the others. This rant is really just a rant but unfortunately this book is what through me over my edge as I have just read it too many times.

    I know I was reading the ARC version so many of the errors may have been fixed with more editing but it was hard to read for me because one of the things I adored most about Kim Karr's books was her genius way at organizing all the details of her tangled web of all the characters but this book had many time line and wrong name errors that it threw me. I hope it is the case of not the final edit not the case of too many details have finally gotten to hard to keep on top of.

    Even though this was not my favorite of the series I can't wait to find out the secret behind Caleb.

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  • Posted September 19, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I have absolutely loved the Connection series by Kim Karr, espec

    I have absolutely loved the Connection series by Kim Karr, especially the guys.....River Wilde is to die for in Connections and Torn, I loved Jagger in Dazed, and then Xander Wilde completely stole my heart in Mended.  That leaves one other guy that has made an appearance in almost every book....Ben Covington.  Originally, I so did not like Ben.  The novella Blurred gives you insight into Ben's side of the story and by the end of Blurred he had gone a long way to redeem himself in my eyes.  I even felt like I understood where he was coming from.  Finally, in Frayed, Ben Covington and Bell Wilde get their own story.   I have had kind of a love-hate relationship with Ben Covington over the course of this series, and by the end of Frayed he had completely won me over.  He still had his moments of jerkdom in this novel also and didn't handle some things the way I would have liked to have seen, but the fact that he's not perfect is also what makes him appealing.  Bell or S'Belle as Ben calls her, I just loved.  She was sweet, feisty, and passionate.....and I felt so bad for her for what she'd been through in her past and for the things she went through in this book....my heart broke for her in some parts and them did the happy dance for her in others.




    The story itself covers a lot of the background history from the other novels and the characters from the other novels in the series are also part of this story, which I really liked, and I enjoyed getting to see where they were in their lives and relationships.  Of course there is hot sexy romance, something Kim Karr does so well.  The ending was very satisfying and the epilogue even more so.  While River and Dahlia's, and Xander and Ivy's stories remain my favorites, I did enjoy Ben and Belle's story very much and was happy to see where Kim Karr took these two characters in this installment and I can't wait for the next book in the series to release.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2014

    Ben gets HEA

    I liked that Ben did find happiness...after all he did give up his girl to save her and I felt in the first book he did really love her.
    But moving on... love River with Dal.....but we don't get enough of the rest of their story .... she miscarries and then. ,,,
    The book was rushed in the end. We go through meal by meal for the first 300 pages then she tells him.....and has the baby
    Was expecting more between the brothers and Ben before accepting... that was way to easy. River was pissed when Dal wore his clothes.... and then his sister gets with him again.?
    Also what was the deal with Romero, Tate and Caleb (the jump drive)????
    Hopefully more to come because there has to be more to those stories......
    Your origional plan was one final book to bring all characters to an end?...was this it?
    Hope not, there feels like more to come
    I enjoyed the series just hate the time between books

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  • Posted September 10, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Ben finally gets his HEA!

    Ben finally gets his HEA!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2014

    Person

    Unchains u and leaves

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2014

    To person

    Look at you.

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  • Posted September 6, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    From the very beginning on the Connections series I couldn't fin

    From the very beginning on the Connections series I couldn't find enough redeeming qualities in Ben Covington. Did I feel for him, and hurt for him? Of course, but I also couldn't stand him. I have no idea why though. I wasn't just what he had done to Dahlia and his family, or his attitude. There was just something missing. After I read Blurred, the prequel to Frayed, I was still having trouble wrapping my head around Ben being the next hero in this amazing series. Don't get me wrong, I wanted, and to an extent, needed to love Ben. I just wasn't sold yet. And you best believe that chapped me. But, near the end of Blurred I could see a glimmer of what Frayed was going to turn into. I saw the redemption and healing about to take place. Leave it to Kim Karr to take a character that I had no connection to and didn't care for all that much and mold him into a special place in my heart. 

    I've done a complete about-face where Ben is concerned. Thanks to Bell Wilde. She was his redemption, and he was hers. She was that missing piece I couldn't find in the earlier books. When they came together in Frayed, despite the devastation and heartbreak, they stole into my heart and made me feel every square millimeter of their love and strength. It may sound silly, but really you should be used to hearing me wax poetic about this series. Frayed is no exception to that rule. 

    Bell and Ben come head to head to face their demons, heal their hearts and move on. Bell thinks she can move on without closure and without Ben. He's out to prove her wrong. To him, she's the best mistake he's ever made and he can't get enough. To her, he represents a past of pain, and emptiness. When Bell gives in to Ben's advances she finds the heat and all-consuming lust still there. When they begin to wonder if it's more, the past comes knocking and when the secrets are spread on the table it may catapult these two star-crossed lovers into an abyss they may never recover from. 

    Bell struck a cord with me from the very first book. I knew she had a dark story to tell and a pain to heal. I never expected the emotional punch to the gut this book delivered though. It was one of those books where just when you think they destruction is over, it's not. True to her style, Ms. Karr puts you through the wringer. But with high risk of your heart being smashed to smithereens, comes a high payout of the ending these two deserved. With each book I fall deeper and deeper into this fantastical world of coincidences and heartbreak, love and fate. And I can't help but wallow within these pages each time I get a new one in my hands. Frayed will forever be the book that blindsided me with its brilliance. And at this rate I'm going to have to find some way to bribe Kim Karr to make this the never-ending series, because there it no way I will ever get enough!

    Happy Reading!
    *ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2014

    Wow

    I thought ben was a jerk in the other books but i learned to locw andappreciate him in this story. What a perfect match of bell and ben. I laughed and cried. It doesnt get better than that...cant wait dor the next book...please hurry

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  • Posted September 2, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I¿m so pleased with this book! If you¿ve read my reviews on othe

    I’m so pleased with this book! If you’ve read my reviews on other books in this series, you know I didn’t have the best feelings about Ben. I wanted him to find peace and a future and redeem himself, but I didn’t know if it would ever actually happen. But now I can report with absolute certainty, that my feelings for Ben have changed. He found a way out of the dark in this book and while he won’t be making any of my favorite book boyfriend lists anytime soon, I can he’s redeemed himself in my eyes. 

    Sometimes it really is all about finding the right person. That couldn’t be more true than it is with Ben and Bell. The passion he lacked with Delilah was present in spades with Bell. They were perfectly matched – in and out of the bedroom – and I really enjoyed their story. Granted, I still take issue with him for cheating on Delilah back when this all started, but I think I can look past it now. Regardless of how long they’d been together, they weren’t right together. There was someone better out there for each of them. 

    Ben began his path to redemption at the end of Blurred. He made a series of bad decisions over the past several years and he lost a lot over that same period of time. I did sympathize with him for all that he’d lost, but it didn’t excuse away the behavior. I was getting a little tired of looking backward with Ben and I’m happy to say this book didn’t have much of that. It was more about the future, save for a few flashbacks from Bell’s POV, which didn’t bother me at all. I liked Bell from the start. I wasn’t pleased to learn of her history with Ben at first, but again, forgive and forget… right? 

    Frayed really was about Ben and Bell dealing with their past and moving on together and finding a better future. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind, before or during this book, that they belonged together and would get there. Together Ben and Bell confronted the ghosts of their pasts and realized what they had, no matter how hard they tried to fight it, was something special. They were smoking hot together. The sexy scenes were SUPER steamy and the romance was heart-melting. They were easy to root for. Ben atoned. It was time he got a happily ever after.

    The other thing I really liked about Frayed was that it gave me a chance to catch up on the lives of the other characters in this series. I loved each of them in one way or another and it was gratifying to learn where they are now. 

    I can’t believe I’m saying this, given my feelings for Ben at the beginning of this book, but I have to say this is one of my favorite books in the entire series. I loved the character development and the pairing of Ben and Bell. They gave me the warm fuzzies and often had me fanning myself from the passion. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a second chance story. I’m very happy with this book and I suspect other fans of this series will be as well.

    I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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  • Posted September 2, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Amazing storyteller--4 stars--FRAYED is the fourth full length n

    Amazing storyteller--4 stars--FRAYED is the fourth full length novel in Kim Karr’s adult, contemporary Connections romance series. This is Ben Covington’s continuing story-one brought about by a night of indiscretion. Told from alternating first person POVs (Ben and Bell) a portion of the storyline is a look back into both of their lives from the previous six years.
    The focus of the storyline follows Ben Covington and Bell Wilde. In the earlier books we were privy to Ben’s past-from faking his own death; entering the witness protection program and returning to find his fiancée had moved on and found a new love. Six years earlier, as a senior in college, Ben spent a wild one night stand with a woman he knew only as S’belle and everything about that night will change his life forever. Bell is his ex-fiancee’s new sister in law and a woman he has never been able to forget. 
    The storyline is a second chance, of sorts, for both Ben and Bell. At a benefit in honor of Ben’s journalism research, Ben and Bell will reconnect, and their attraction and desire for one another is hotter than ever-but Bell has limits-no relationship, no commitment, just fun.  Ben is looking for something more.  It is the something more for which Ben is unprepared when Bell reveals the truth about what happened after their one night together. 
    Saying that, there was plenty of angst and anxiety as it pertained to Ben and Bell’s relationship. Although the attraction was undeniable, Bell has issues that needed to be addressed. She is a woman torn between her desire for Ben and moving forward-her conflicted feelings made for some anxious moments. In this, the storyline decidedly faultered with Bell’s inability to commit or stay focused.
    The secondary characters include Bell’s coworkers-some good, some bad, some down right evil. Everyone has an agenda and Bell is in direct line of conflict. Both Ben and Bell’s family play a major role in their lives and a presence throughout most of the storyline. We are reintroduced to Bell’s brothers River and Xander Wilde, as well as their mates, and get a more personal look at Ben’s extended family. I suspect Ben’s brother has a storyline in the near future.

    Kim Karr is an amazing storyteller. Her Connections series brings together one family- all connected by a single couple-and therefore should be read in order. FRAYED is a story of forgiveness, finding love and moving forward. It is dramatic, intense and realistic in its’ presentation.

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