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The Best Friend Bargain
A Kisses in the Sand Story
By Robin Bielman, Wendy Chen, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Robin Bielman
All rights reserved.
"Will you marry me?"
"Hey Danny, want to get hitched?"
"Hi Danny. I know this sounds crazy, but marry me maybe?"
Ugh. No matter how Olivia Lincoln proposed it to her best friend, he was going to think she'd lost her mind.
She kind of had. That saying, pregnancy zaps you of brain cells? She'd been zapped. And little baby Lincoln was only a very new part of her. This didn't bode well for future brainpower.
Which might not be a bad thing considering she had a broken heart to go with the pregnancy. The less she thought about, remembered, and dreamt of her baby's daddy, the better.
She stood outside the Happy Harpoon in White Strand Cove and ran her hands down the knit black skirt she'd splurged on during London's Fashion Week last month. After first trying to find Danny at home, a neighbor had told her he was at the restaurant celebrating Midge's seventieth birthday. Olivia remembered the spunky senior vividly from her last time here eight months ago.
One more party guest didn't matter, right? Liv wasn't a complete stranger to the Cove, but she still felt uneasy. A little selfish, too. Danny had made a life for himself in the small California beach town. What right did she have to ask him for the biggest favor ever?
He wouldn't tell her no. He never told her no. She'd counted on him since the sixth grade when he'd defended her against the girls who teased her about her weight. From that day forward he'd protected her, made her feel like her full-figure didn't define her, and helped fix the never-ending string of messes she found herself in.
But this was different, and Danny didn't like different. He had his future mapped out, his goals set in unmovable stone.
She pushed through the doors of the restaurant and loud, happy chaos greeted her. The surf and sand might only be a few hundred feet away, but under this roof stood a sea of people — all wearing funny hats. Liv smoothed down her shoulder-length hair. Too bad it wasn't a crazy hair party. After flying the friendly skies for ten hours, her new blond tresses, cut and styled around her shoulders now, were mad as a hatter. She chuckled. At least she still had her sense of humor.
Danny liked her sense of humor.
It matched his own ridiculous brand.
No one noticed her at the reception desk, but nerves gripped her all the same. Nausea, too. She put a hand to her stomach, not that it ever helped, and slipped past partygoers in search of something to settle her queasiness. The bar came into view with plenty of room to lean against.
"7 Up please," she told the bartender before turning to scan the room for Danny. No doubt he had on his captain's hat. It was his go-to for any dress-up occasion. But with so many bodies and hats in different colorful shapes and sizes, her eyes crossed. She'd just sip her soda and send him a text in a few minutes. Guess who's here and wants to buy you a drink, sailor? The marry-me part she'd leave out. Some things needed to be said in person, even though an electronic buffer would make it a million times easier.
A super-sized cake atop the bar caught Olivia's attention, and she went for a closer look. An edible picture of Midge decorated the left side of the white icing and Happy 70th Birthday written in tiny frosted stars was on the right.
Liv put her face a little closer to breathe in the sugary sweet scent. Good to know her sense of smell had yet to be affected by pregnancy hormones. She took another whiff and sighed. Cake made everything better.
A commotion sounded from behind her, but before she could turn around to check it out, someone bumped her. Someone tall and solid, because the jolt knocked her off balance, and she face-planted into the cake.
Yes, she did.
Her nose actually hit bottom.
It was her face now alongside Midge's. Damntastic. She froze for a second. Since she couldn't see anyone, maybe no one could see her.
Firm but gentle hands took her by the shoulders and lifted her off the cake. "I'm really sorry. Are you okay?"
Olivia knew that voice anywhere. She hadn't heard it in the six months she'd been in Europe and, even with cake and frosting all over her face, hearing it now brought instant comfort. She licked her lips and swallowed the delicious taste of chocolate and vanilla buttercream before turning to say hi to her best friend.
His lips were pressed together, but his dimples were on full display and his eyes were laughing their ass off. He glanced down at the cake, back at her, then out toward the party. Whoever had pushed him had pulled a disappearing act and, unbelievably, no one else seemed to take notice of the girl wearing cake instead of a hat. Except the bartender. He put down her drink and said, "I'll grab you a clean towel."
Danny tipped back his skipper's cap. "I'm sorry," he said again. "But if it's any consolation, chocolate is a good look for you."
So he wanted to bypass the "Liv, what are you doing here?" question and banter instead? Fine. Liv could do that. She couldn't blame him for not wanting to get messy. Or for taking her sudden appearance with some cold shoulder. She'd left with barely a good-bye and few words since, too busy giving herself a European makeover and falling in love.
She blinked a bunch of times and slid her tongue across her bottom lip. Then, because humiliation didn't hurt quite as much with an accent, she went British on him and said, "There's a first time for everything."
He grinned and his brows rose in that charming way of his. He couldn't help himself. Accents were his weakness with every female but her.
"Done right, first times are better than any other time."
"And if it's done wrong?"
"Then you have to do it again. And second times can be tricky." He leaned his elbow on the bar, looking all relaxed and not the least bit contrite, like he was really enjoying seeing her covered in cake. The jerk.
"How'd I do?"
"I'd say you nailed it." His lips pursed together in an annoying grin. "You could stop here and be satisfied." He leaned a little closer. "Did I say chocolate was a good look for you? I meant great look."
"Aren't you the sweet talker." Olivia glanced over her shoulder for the bartender. What was taking him so long? She was about ready to climb over the bar in search of cocktail napkins.
"So I've been told," Danny said.
"By countless women, I know."
He cocked a brow at that. "I should tell you the accent makes the cake on your face even better."
"Imagine how good I taste."
"I'm all for taste tests," he said, his voice going deeper. Huh? He lifted his arm and gently rubbed the pad of this thumb across the corner of her mouth.
"What are you doing?" she asked, dropping the accent and taking a step back.
Danny stiffened and also took a step back. "Liv?"
"Yes, it's Liv. Who did you think I was?"
"Miss?" the bartender said, drawing her attention. He handed her a towel, which she gratefully accepted and covered her face with.
What in the world had just happened? And why was the spot Danny had just touched tingling? She took a deep breath, in through her nose — ack! Bad idea. She snorted cake and choked out an unflattering cough.
Danny's hand covered one of hers. "Let me help." He took over cleaning her face, careful not to rub any cake into her eyes. Once through, he tossed the towel onto the counter and studied her. "Hi."
"Your hair is blond now. And shorter."
She pried a piece of it off her sticky cheek. "Made a few changes while I was in London." Including her attitude. Optimism, she'd discovered, did more good for her body than any diet ever had and she'd lost a few pounds without trying. Morning sickness had more recently made a contribution.
"You look good."
"I think we already established that." She gave a shy smile and giggled.
"C'mere," he said with his usual affable tone, arms opened wide. His hug took them right back to where they'd always been. "What are you doing here? Is everything okay?"
Olivia pulled back. "Can't a girl pay a surprise visit to her best friend?"
"Of course she can." He eyed her with his super perceptive hazel know-it-all gaze and she had no doubt he knew a surprise wasn't her only reason. But he also knew she'd tell him when she was ready.
"I've missed you." She hadn't realized how much until right now.
"Yeah, that's why I heard from you so often," he only half teased. She winced. She'd ignored him for months and here she was, hoping he'd jump into marriage and parenthood with her. "You back for good or have I lost you to the British capital city?"
"I'm back." She left off the "for good," hating the hesitation that sat in the back of her mind. If Will showed up unexpectedly and wanted her back, she'd probably go. She still foolishly loved him.
"You need a place to crash?"
That would make marriage a lot easier.
Olivia had grown up without a father until her mom married when Liv was nine. Her mother had never wanted her. Certainly not out of wedlock, and only marginally afterward. Liv was a mistake that Joy Lincoln Marshall's faith prevented her from remedying. Liv still struggled with feeling a sense of security and finding where she fit in.
Did she really need to ask this of Danny? At twenty-seven she could do and act however she pleased. But no way could she tell her rigid mom and conservative stepdad about the baby without being married. She'd yet to do anything that didn't disappoint them.
Absently, she put her hand on her stomach. She knew Danny had no plans to get married and she'd do anything to maintain what little connection she had left with her mom. She was the only family Liv had and, regardless of her mom's resentment and detachment, Liv needed her in her life. Asking for Danny's help might not be the right thing to do, but it seemed worth a try. Being alone right now hurt through every layer of her skin.
Maybe she'd left London too soon? Will had freaked when she told him about the pregnancy. "I thought we were just having fun," he'd said. "No strings attached." Her heart had deflated at his words. She'd given him a week to change his mind. He didn't get in touch or come find her to declare his undying love and propose, so she left London. Going back to the States, she'd texted him in lieu of another face-to-face that would only bring the sting of his rejection back to the surface.
The long flight had given her time to think about her options — and Danny. And how a marriage between best friends could work to their advantage. Okay, pretty much only to her advantage, but she hated the thought of Danny being alone when —
"Earth to Liv." Danny waved a hand in front of her face. "Do I need to get you a drink or get you out of here?"
She blinked back to the present. "Out of here, please."
"Wait." She looked down. "What about the cake? I feel horrible. We can't just leave it like this."
Danny leaned over the bar looking for something. "Hand me that knife?" he asked. Then he cut off the half of the cake that she'd smashed with her face. It was smaller now, but none the worse for wear. She let out a relieved breath. "Toss this for us?" The bartender nodded.
Us. That one teensy tiny word injected life back into her aching heart.
"Thanks, man. And would you call over to the Beach Café and ask Rachel to send over all the cakes and cookies she's got? I'll square things up with her tomorrow." Danny turned to her. "Ready?"
Olivia wasn't sure how to answer that, so she didn't. Instead, she quietly trailed behind her best friend, hoping beyond hope that what she wanted to ask of him didn't ruin their friendship.
* * *
Danny had missed the hell out of Liv, but seeing her didn't entirely erase his agitation. He hadn't expected her to hop on a plane for London six months ago with barely a goodbye and then practically suspend communication. And he hadn't expected her to stroll into White Strand all these months later with something bothering her, and looking ...
He'd just forget about those moments when she'd had cake on her face and he'd had no clue who she was. That moment when, for the first time in a while, he'd wanted to take a woman home with him. The absurdity of the situation and her coolness had been damn appealing. She hadn't yelled or made a scene, she'd jumped into conversation. With an accent. If he were honest, though, he'd been intrigued by more than just the accent and even-temper. He liked the new hair color, the new curves, and a certain twinkle in her pretty green eyes that he'd never noticed before.
And here he was, taking her home, but for entirely different reasons. Liv had something on her mind he needed to get to the bottom of. They didn't keep secrets from each other. She'd left the country right after being humiliated and fired from her job. The few times she'd texted, she'd sounded good. Her occasional emails had been brief, but positive.
So it bugged him he didn't know what her deal was.
She followed him the short distance home in her rental car. He parked in the garage, tossed his captain's hat onto his passenger seat, and met her at the sidewalk, eager to show her the house he'd been renting and planned to buy. With no other homes available in the area, he'd lucked out landing this one. Sweet, little old Mrs. Landry owned the property and lived in the back guesthouse. Rumor had it she was getting ready to sell and move to Florida to be near her daughter and her family. He couldn't wait to make the house his.
"Let's head inside and I'll come back out to grab your stuff," he said.
"You really like it here," she answered, picking up on his enthusiasm.
"Yeah. There was a minute or two when I wasn't sure leaving the sports agent world to design furniture had been a smart thing to do, but business is finally taking off and being able to work with my hands and make something feels great."
"How are Bryce and Zane?"
Danny smiled at the mention of his two other best friends. "You know that Zane and Sophie had their baby and named her Hannah?" Liv nodded. "Wait until you see Zane. He's so stoked he's got a perma-grin going on that's wider than his surfboard. Bryce signed a new surfer since Zane is cutting back now, and Bryce and Honor are still shacked up and happy as ever."
"You're still okay being the fifth wheel?"
"You know I'm not in for anything else." Ever. Liv knew about his disease and that he'd never marry or have kids because he refused to be a burden to someone else later in life. It didn't take away how happy he was for his friends, and he rarely had trouble finding a warm female body when he wanted one for a night or two.
"Never say never," Liv threw out in a feisty tone he didn't recognize.
Something was definitely up with her.
They arrived at the front door at the same time Mrs. Landry came around the corner. "How was the party?" she asked.
"Fun," Danny said. "How are you feeling? Any better?"
"Not really," Mrs. L. said, joining them on the stoop, "but I needed some fresh air. Dr. Flynn stopped by to check on me, bless his heart. He wants me to come in Monday for a chest x-ray. I told him if he wanted to see the goods, all he had to do was ask." She winked, then coughed. One of those wet, barking dog coughs that Danny hated hearing from her. "And who is this lovely creature?"
"This is Olivia." Danny put his arm around her. "Liv, Mrs. Landry, my landlady."
"Nice to meet you," Olivia said.
"You, too. There's something in your hair."
"Oh, uh ..." Liv lifted a hand and, sensing her discomfort, Danny squeezed her tighter. "It's cake."
"Did you miss your mouth?" Mrs. L. teased.
"No, actually. My mouth was in on the action, too." Danny couldn't see Liv's smile out of his periphery vision, but he felt it.
Mrs. L. gave one of her I-understand-I'm-a-grandmother grins. "I like this one," she said to him.
"I do, too," he answered easily.
"I was going to stop by on Monday, but since who knows how long Dr. Flynn will want to examine me, there's something I need to tell you."
"I've decided to put the house up for sale."
"I'll buy it," he said quickly. He didn't care about the asking price or the escrow length. He'd made this house his home and he wanted to keep it.
Excerpted from The Best Friend Bargain by Robin Bielman, Wendy Chen, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Robin Bielman. 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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