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No Strings Attached
A Falling for You Novella
By Nicolette Day, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Tara Fuller
All rights reserved.
"It's a sign."
Hayden Summers tugged at her heel stuck in the drainage grate outside of the Orchid Lounge. The music vibrated the walls and pulsed out into the parking lot, making her heart thump in time with the song. Apparently the universe wasn't on board with this whole one-wild-night plan. First, her car refused to start, and then she dropped her phone in a puddle in the parking lot. Okay, so she threw it into a puddle in the parking lot. To be fair, she hadn't meant for it to land in the puddle. And her ex had just texted her that he was getting married. To her cousin. As if breaking her heart into a thousand pieces hadn't been enough. He felt the need to move on to her family members now. Freaking parasite. Now her shoe was being held captive by this bitch of a drainage grate. She was starting to think the universe wanted her to be celibate forever. Overhead, a clap of thunder rumbled across the pitch-dark sky, as if to drive home the point. Oh yeah, definitely a sign.
Her assistant grunted and helped her pull on the sleek black pump. "It's not a sign. It's a shoe. A. Very. Stuck —" It jerked free, and they both fell back onto the pavement with an umph. Lilly blew a twist of blond hair out of her eyes. "Shoe."
Hayden grabbed the shoe and frowned. The heel to her Jimmy Choo was ... missing. She looked around and spotted it still stuck in the grate. Well, that was fan-freaking-tastic. They might have killed her feet, but they had also cost half of what she'd made on her last freelance job, and this was going to be her only chance to wear them for the next year. She wasn't exactly up with the fashion scene in Sudan, but she was guessing shoes like these wouldn't suffice when she was trekking across the war-torn country to get shots that would land her a coveted spot in Time magazine.
Hayden stood up, brushing her dress off, and helped Lilly to her feet. "It's okay. I have a pair of flats in your car."
Lilly laughed. "You are such a Girl Scout. I'll bet if I stepped on a rusty nail, you'd have a round of antibiotics in your purse for me. I wouldn't even have to go to the ER."
Hayden headed for Lilly's Honda and popped the trunk. So she might be a tad obsessive-compulsive. She stared into her emergency bag. Perfectly folded T-shirt and jeans. Flats. Toiletries. Aspirin and a bottle of water. A box of condoms. Okay, maybe more than a tad.
Lilly held up the box and grinned.
"What? You told me to be open-minded."
"I said be open-minded. I did not say to pack for a weekend trip to the Poconos. You've got enough rubber here to last you a month."
Hayden grabbed the box and threw it back in the bag, then slammed the trunk shut. "What if I end up going home with someone? Or staying the night?"
"You're kind of missing the point of a one-night stand." Lilly checked her hair in the side mirror while Hayden slipped on her sparkly black flats.
"I don't like to be unprepared."
"I don't think you have to worry about that. A zombie apocalypse couldn't catch you off guard."
Hayden stared up at the buzzing blue orchid hanging above the black double doors. A strange mixture of excitement and determination overwhelmed her. She'd never done anything like this. But saying the past year had been a dry spell would be an understatement. She hadn't even had a date in eleven months, let alone a good roll in the sack. And she'd be damned if Shane "the cheating bastard" Peterson would be her last sexual experience before she went off and risked her life. She wasn't stupid. The job she'd landed with Time might have been a photojournalist's wet dream — the kind Hayden had built her résumé for years to get a shot at — but it didn't come with any guarantees. People didn't always come back from a job like this. Not in one piece anyway.
So she'd made up her mind. She wasn't getting on that plane tomorrow with regrets. It was time for the universe to pull the stick out of its ass, because God knew it had taken her eleven months to get over the damage Shane had done and do the same. She'd worked her butt off for a year. A year of no social life and no man to warm her bed.
Well, unless you counted her best friend, Jace, falling asleep on her couch every Sunday night during their weekly Walking Dead date. Or in the weeks after she'd left Shane. She'd lost count of how many times Jace had crawled into bed with her and let her cry herself to sleep on his chest, his arms the only thing in the world holding her together. That so didn't count. Not when she'd been all weepy and pathetic. And definitely not when it was Jace she'd been wrapped around. He didn't see her that way, and now he never would. Not only did she lack the ability to attract men, she'd somehow managed to push Jace away, too.
"No ... no, no, no." Lilly put her hands on her hips and frowned. "I know that look. You are not bailing. If I can put up with the Antichrist tonight, you can put on your big girl panties and have one night of fun before you leave me."
Grateful for the distraction, Hayden shook her head. "Nate is not the Antichrist. If you would take the time to get to know him, you'd like him." How could two people so close to her repel each other so strongly? Putting Jace's brother and Lilly in a room together was like trying to get oil and water to mix.
Lilly snorted. "Doubtful."
"If it's too much for you, I do have wine and a new label maker at home. I'll even let you help me finish labeling the moving boxes. Going once, twice ..." Hayden grinned.
A look of pure horror crossed her friend's face. "Dear God, you are like one bad date away from collecting cats and wearing crochet sweater-vests with animals on them. Aren't you?"
"Of course not." Hayden looked up at the starless sky and thought about how much she'd miss this. The bustle and buzz of downtown Charlotte. The scent of magnolia trees laced with the breeze. Jace. "You know I'm allergic to cats. However, I can't make any promises about the sweater-vests. They do look cozy."
"Ha ha." Lilly leaned on the trunk and grinned. "Make fun now, but when you're knee-deep in sand and craving a pumpkin latte, you'll be thanking me for dragging you out of that apartment so you could have a memory to keep you warm at night."
Hayden laughed as they made their way over to the big metal doors of the club.
"Having a good night, ladies?" The bouncer's lips quirked as he perused Hayden from head to toe, clearly amused. She should never have let Lilly talk her into this dress. She tugged on the edges of the tight black fabric that disappeared mid-thigh, longing for her trusty Levi's. He held out his big hand. "IDs."
"You're not seriously going to card me, are you, Ron?"
He laughed. "Sorry, doll. I could get fired if I don't."
She dug into her bright red clutch and pulled out her wallet, then flashed him her ID at the same time that Lilly dangled hers over Hayden's shoulder. "Happy?"
He took a good look, as if he hadn't known her for three years and her best friend and his brother didn't own the bar. "I'd be even happier if you'd tell Jace I deserve a raise."
She shoved her wallet back in her purse. "If he ever decides to talk to me again, I will."
A lump swelled in her throat. Jace had pretty much shut her out the last two weeks. To be more exact, since the night she told him she was taking the job in Sudan. She thought he'd be proud of her. He'd always been her biggest cheerleader — even more so than her own parents. Whether he was reading her work over her shoulder when they met for their morning coffee or texting her while she was on location, Jace was always the one making her believe she could accomplish the impossible. But not this time. This time, he'd gotten pissed off and then disappeared, putting an impenetrable wall up between them.
"Oh, he'll talk to you all right." Lilly grabbed her arm and steered her through the doors, blowing a kiss to Ron. "In this dress, anyone with a dick and half a brain will have something to say to you."
Hayden squirmed again, pulling the fabric. If only it were a couple of inches longer. Maybe then she wouldn't feel like her vagina was on display for the entire club to see.
"Stop fidgeting," Lilly scolded, tossing her mass of thick blond curls over her shoulder.
"I can't help it. It's so short."
"That's the point."
Lilly tugged her toward the bar. Jace didn't get behind the bar much anymore, but when he did, he always drew a crowd. A squealing, bouncing, nausea-inducing crowd, just like the one in front of her.
"Looks like your boy is here," Lilly said, standing on her tiptoes, looking for a seat. How she hadn't broken her neck in those five-inch zebra-print heels was beyond Hayden's comprehension. They defied the laws of physics. "How are my boobs? Jace Jennings worthy?"
Hayden turned away and ignored the ugly burn in her chest when Lilly tugged on her bra to ensure the girls were on display. She hated when her assistant flirted with Jace. And the fact that she hated it just irritated her even more. "For God's sake, Lil, will you stop adjusting? You're on the border of nipple territory. I think they're good."
"Oh, for the love of all that's holy, they're both working tonight?" Lilly sighed. "All that hotness on display and a sea of silicone separating us. So not fair."
Hayden spotted a flash of the brothers working side by side before a group of guys slapping one another on the back blocked her view. Nate and Jace were behind the bar tonight. That didn't happen very often, and it explained all the excitement. They may have had some attractive bartenders working the club, but none of them compared to the Jennings brothers and the routine they'd spent years developing.
Right on cue, she heard Nate's voice ring out a command, and a bottle of vodka flew up above the bar. She didn't have to see to know that Jace had caught it behind his back to make his signature drink. Cheers erupted. It wouldn't be long before they had girls lined up on the bar for body shots. Hayden rolled her eyes and muttered, "Show-offs."
"Let's get a seat." Lilly leaned down and whispered in her ear, "And I know you said no frat boys, but if I were you, I'd make an exception for the blond one undressing you with his eyes over there."
Hayden nodded, feeling nervous and fluttery inside. God, was she really going to do this? Yes. But not before she got a drink in her. Or three. She pushed past a group of girls who looked young enough to have bedtimes and hopped up onto one of the sleek leather barstools. Jace was farther down the bar pouring a drink, completely unaware of her presence. His dark hair was styled into messy spikes. The deep, intricate colors of his sleeve tattoo swirled down his forearm to peek out from the navy blue Henley shirt that was pushed up to his elbows.
The way the fabric stuck to his cut, muscular frame was enough to make a girl drool. And he didn't have to take off his shirt for her to know the artwork didn't stop there. His parents' names were inked in old English just over his heart. He laughed at something a girl whispered into his ear, then slid her a drink with a lemon and moved on to the next person.
She sucked in a breath to calm the flutter of nerves that had erupted at the sight of him and arranged the unused cardboard coasters on the bar into a perfect line. One inch between each of them. No more. No less.
"Is he still pouting? I'm the one who should be upset. After you leave I'm going to have to go back to lame wedding photography, but you don't hear me bitching about it. I'm taking a more proactive approach." Lilly worked her way up onto the barstool next to Hayden, taking the same sideways stance to keep her red Spandex mini from riding up. "Like getting you laid. I'm thinking I'll get into the Guinness Book of World Records if I pull it off."
"Who's getting laid?" a familiar deep voice rumbled.
Hayden raised her chin to meet Jace's intense gaze. His eyes looked like mocha with sparks of gold. Something in those sparks caught fire, making her breath catch, and she pulled her hands away from organizing the coasters. He folded his arms across his wide chest and cleared his throat.
"Hayden," Lilly interjected. "And me if I'm properly persuaded." She winked, and Hayden kicked her shin under the bar, feeling the heat of humiliation flush her skin. Having a night of reckless abandon with a complete stranger was one thing. Jace knowing about it was another. He'd always been overprotective. There had been that kid who had pushed her off her bike in the sixth grade, the horny frat boy who tried to feel her up at a party sophomore year when she didn't want it, and a half dozen guys in between. They all had gotten an introduction to Jace's fist.
A dark look settled across his face. "Shouldn't you be packing?"
Here we go ...
"You haven't spoken to me in two weeks. Not a phone call. A text. Nothing," she fumed. "You do not get to dole out a lecture now."
He'd even skipped out on their morning coffee date at Amelie's. Amelie's for God's sake! They'd never had an argument that could keep either of them away from the magic of a twice-baked chocolate-and-almond croissant.
"If you missed me, all you had to do was say so." He raised a brow, giving her that cocky expression that he knew would piss her off. He'd been perfecting it for years. "I take it you're still leaving tomorrow?"
He knew the answer, so Hayden didn't bother to respond. If she did, it would only lead to another argument. And she didn't want to spend her potentially last moments with Jace arguing. When she didn't offer any words, he nodded, and his jaw ticked.
His expression darkened to a scowl when his gaze drifted from her face, down her throat, past the curve of her breasts, and stopped where the rest of her disappeared behind the bar. A shiver of warmth spread down her spine, around to her belly, and she took a breath to stop it from going any farther. The universe was a cruel bitch for making the hottest man in the room the one who found her as sexually appealing as a goldfish.
On the other end of the bar, an air horn blared.
"It's that time again, ladies!" Nate held a megaphone to his mouth, and the crowd started to scream. "You know the drill. I need three pretty ladies on the bar and one lucky son of a bitch who loves tequila."
Hayden started to back away, but Lilly grabbed her wrist and thrust her hand up in the air. "I've got one right here!"
Hayden's face flushed red and she jerked out of her friend's grasp. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Lilly smiled, a challenge in her eyes. "Helping you let loose and leave boring Hayden at the door. That was the plan, wasn't it?"
Yes, it was. And she was right. Hayden needed this. It was just a body shot, for God's sake, and tonight was supposed to be about shedding her inhibitions and having fun. What was the worst that could happen? Jace wouldn't let some freak manhandle her more than necessary.
"Fine." She placed a foot on the barstool. "Help me up."
Lilly squealed as Hayden hopped up onto the bar. Jace caught her by the elbow, the look on his face wary. "What are you doing, Hayden?"
"You needed a volunteer, didn't you?" She shrugged out of his grip and lay back on the bar. "You got one."
Jace took a step closer, his hand resting in a clenched fist next to her hip. His jaw tensed as he looked her over.
"Got your guy over here, Jace!" Nate yelled.
"No," he growled. "I've got this one. He can take the other two." He grabbed the bowl of limes Nate slid over to him and plucked a bottle of tequila from under the bar.
Hayden's eyes widened, and she sat up on her elbows. One girl was already laid out at the other end of the bar with her shirt hiked up. "Wait. What are you doing?"
"A shot." He leaned close enough to whisper in her ear. "Or would you rather me beat the shit out of some poor guy for putting his mouth on you?"
Hayden gasped. She should have been pissed off — she'd never taken his caveman crap in the past, and there was no reason she should start taking it now. In fact, she should've hopped right off that bar and told him to go screw himself. Instead, all she could think about was the fact that Jace was about to put his mouth on her, even if it was only because he was being overprotective and unreasonable. He nudged her back down, his jaw clenched.
Excerpted from No Strings Attached by Nicolette Day, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2013 Tara Fuller. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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