Read an Excerpt
A Friendly Arrangement
A Friends First Novel
By Christine Warner, Karen Grove
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Christine Warner
All rights reserved.
Holly Haggerty frowned as she ran her fingers over the red letter S on the shiny blue nylon fabric of Superman's suit. Too bad things with Clark hadn't worked out. Even though she'd hurt him — and herself in the process — she'd never go back on her decision. They weren't right for each other, and the pain in his eyes when she'd told him wouldn't change that, no matter how bad it made her feel. He didn't need to waste any more of his time on her when he wanted something she couldn't give.
The word alone sent a shiver down her spine. She had no plans to live the traditional life of her '50s clone-like family — to be like her siblings and get married, live behind a white picket fence, and have kids. Definitely no kids. A second shudder rode the length of her backbone.
She wanted to live life on her terms and timetable. No two in-the-morning feedings, dirty diapers, conflicting soccer game schedules, all while trying to further her career, keep a marriage alive, and play maid.
No. Thank. You.
She respected the choices of her mother, twin sister, sisters-in-laws, and Grams. If only they'd respect hers and understand marriage wasn't her dream. No matter how much they tried to convince her otherwise by playing matchmaker and adding prospective candidates to their Holly's Husband List, she would not tie herself down to anyone. She bit her lip as she traced the letter one more time. She'd have to find someone else who'd fit Clark's suit and could be her date at the party. A party she'd been disinvited to only hours ago because she'd pissed off her biggest client — Alan Bennett — by calling it quits with his brother, a.k.a. Clark. But despite her invitation being revoked, she needed to go to that party so she could talk to Alan and persuade him to renew their contract. He'd become the bread and butter of her virtual assistant business. Without him she'd have to quickly find a client who could offer up all the work and replace the pay. That'd be nearly impossible. She handled a lot of special projects for Alan that she didn't for other clients, which is why he paid the premium he did.
She let out a frustrated groan. Finding a replacement would take weeks, if not longer. She didn't have that kind of time ...she was already living paycheck to paycheck.
Blood pounded in her ears, she felt queasy, and her heart raced. Was this what a panic attack felt like?
She held her hand to her chest. Breathe in, breathe out. Her inner voice urged her to calm down. But how could she when so much was on the line?
Oh my God. What about the women's shelter? Holly fought to get air into her lungs. She donated several hours each week to the nearby women's shelter. After all the shelter had done for her friend Lauren as she tried to leave an abusive relationship, Holly wanted nothing more than to give something back. In the name of her friend. A form of thanks since Lauren would never be able to give thanks on her own. Just thinking about her old friend, the hardships she'd suffered before her premature death, made Holly's heart ache.
If she couldn't get Alan back and was forced to find a new client — more like two or three to replace his revenue — that'd cut into her work time for the shelter. She didn't want to be forced to give that up in order to make ends meet. But she needed to make ends meet to survive and thrive ...
How had she allowed this to happen? To focus so much on one client that losing him would destroy all she'd worked for. What if she had to forgo her business and hit the pavement to look for a traditional nine-to-five to cover her expenses? She could almost hear her family cheering in the background. They'd like nothing better than for Holly to have a "normal" job. As if that would offer her the security they thought she needed.
She groaned again, looking at her ceiling, blinking heavily in order to quash the threatening tears of frustration. Everything had been moving along just fine. Until this morning.
Holly quickly scrolled down her online bank statement for a third time. Hoping against hope she'd missed something. Sometimes being self-employed was the hardest job of all. The last few months she'd put most of her extra cash flow into a new computer and operating system, as well as the shiny new workstation just across the room. But you needed the storage and space. You deserved it. Your business deserved it. Her bank balance had definitely gone on a crash diet. If she'd known she'd lose her biggest client, she'd have waited before forking out that kind of moola.
Then again, if she'd known Alan would drop her without warning, she'd have been prepared with a backup plan. She knew to always be prepared, or she thought she had. She'd definitely failed on preparedness this time around.
And the shelter. That still niggled at the back of her mind. They needed her. Told her repeatedly that she was a godsend and that they'd never have been able to afford the services she gave them free of charge. She couldn't let them down.
Losing Alan cut like a knife — a jagged knife that went straight for the jugular.
She swallowed the gritty sand filling her throat and closed her eyes, rubbing her temples as a small throb started.
Okay. Breathe. Calm down. Think. You need to talk to Alan. Make him see reason and give you back your job. You're just as important to him as he is to you. But first you need to figure out a way to get into the fundraiser. And that requires a date. She couldn't go to a Couples Through the Ages event as a minus one.
She grunted her frustration as she threw the costume over the back of her brown leather sofa and folded her arms. If only Roth were home, but her bestie had gone out of town earlier this week. Should she call Andrew or Alex? Either of her brothers would fit the suit, but then she'd be forced to explain how she'd broken up with Clark. And, more importantly, that she needed their help to save her business. From there, word would travel the family grapevine, and she'd end up forced into a conversation she wanted to avoid. At least for a while longer. That conversation would lead to her parents trying to talk her once again into getting a traditional job, living a traditional life, in a traditional home instead of her urban condo. Holly loved her condo, all seven hundred square feet of it. Turning from the sofa, she slid her hand along the granite countertop that separated her living room from her kitchen, then grimaced. Mom would go on and on about how she liked Clark, how Holly and he had seemed so right together.
Blah, blah, blah.
If only Alan had listened to her earlier when they'd talked on the phone instead of hanging up on her. If only he'd given her a chance to state her case. If only the party didn't require her to have a date. If only she hadn't been uninvited.
How come there were so many if only moments in her life today? She needed to calm down and make a plan.
Holly closed her eyes. Okay, Roth wasn't available, and her brothers were definitely crossed off the list. Maybe Will? They hadn't parted on bad terms but, last she'd heard, he'd gotten serious with someone new. More than likely that someone new wouldn't want to loan him out — especially to an ex-girlfriend — on a Saturday night.
There was always Steve. Holly ground her teeth as she paced. If she opened that can of worms she'd only be asking for trouble. He'd latch on to her again in hopes of convincing her to give them one more chance.
She eyed the vintage sunburst clock above the mantle of her gas log fireplace. The flames flickered and gave her a sense of calm. Winter in Michigan had drawn to a close on a final cold front a few weeks back, but she would continue to flick the fireplace on all year long for the ambiance. Sometimes even in the heat of July. Holly's jaw tightened as she snapped off the ambiance. She better start thinking about her gas bill — as well as every other bill in her file cabinet — until she had this dilemma figured out. Her attention returned to the clock as the minute hand devoured another sixty seconds. Her heart pounded as the last of her calm flew out the door. You have less than two hours to find a date that'll fit the suit so you can talk to Alan. Beg him even.
The pounding of blood rushing in her ears mingled with the muted tones of classical music. She swayed as she rubbed her temples a second time, only harder, against the soft throb of an impending headache. She stilled, grinned, and dropped her hands to her hips as she recognized that the muted tones came from across the hall.
She mouthed a thank you skyward.
She hadn't expected him back from his west coast trip so soon, but the music told her he'd definitely arrived home. Or he had a burglar who robbed third-story condos by Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
The music switched over to a piece she didn't recognize, and then another, and finally a fourth. Another Beethoven piece. The volume rose, and that clinched the deal. Roth had a habit of surfing his soundtrack when he worked, claiming he needed to feel the music in order to concentrate on the pieces of jewelry he designed. She had no idea how he could focus with the air and the windows around him pulsating.
Especially with classical music. Eighties rock would be a much better choice. Of course, she grew up biased based on her parents' listening habits.
Holly grabbed the Superman outfit by the shoulders and snapped the fabric out in front of her, picturing Roth between the stitches.
Her smile widened. "Perfect."
He and Clark were similar in size. Roth might be an inch or two taller and a little wider in the shoulders, but nylon stretched.
It might be a bit presumptuous to think her bestie would help her out on a minute's notice, but Roth had always managed to come to her rescue in her time of need.
He'd proven it just recently by helping her bake a Barbie cake — okay, taking over and doing it all himself — she'd promised her niece. Holly had no clue what possessed her to make that promise.
Not that she took advantage of Roth. They traded favors. She watered his plants when he was out of town as well as maintained his website free of charge. It was an easy job, and she didn't mind helping. After all, that's what friends did for each other. He may be full of confidence, cockiness, and an assured attitude when it came to most things in his life, but he struggled with computers as much as she did with kitchen duties.
Holly flung the costume over her shoulder. She'd never know unless she asked. If he didn't have plans, she felt sure he'd help. If he did, she'd have to dig deep and come up with plan B. But she wouldn't worry about that until after she talked to Roth.
An overabundance of nervous energy pushed her through the door and across the hall before she could overthink things. She didn't bother to knock — he'd never hear the sound over his music anyway — and pushed open the door to Roth's orderly home. He sat with his back to the bank of windows overlooking the Grand River that ran through downtown Grand Rapids. She'd have killed for his view, but her bank account couldn't accommodate the jump in her mortgage to get it. At least she could enjoy the tranquil scene from his place. For a moment, as she focused on the water, her heart calmed, and so did her breathing.
Roth sat with his head down, brow furrowed above his magnifying eyeglasses with the built-in jewelers' loupe. His left leg swayed below his desk in rhythm to the music. Holly's breath caught, and she stopped in her tracks, her heart pounding. She didn't want to break his concentration until he had the gemstone held between a tiny pair of tweezers placed into the delicate bracelet laced through his fingers, even though adrenaline raced through her veins.
She went all warm inside watching him work. Gawd, she admired his patience. His shoulder-length hair was tied back into a loose ponytail at his nape and gave a glimpse of the full back tattoo hidden beneath his tee. He was a big man, tall and muscular, but not body-builder muscular. That he designed jewelry and had to work with intricate details seemed at odds with his rough-edged looks, and actually kind of turned her on a little. Not that she'd ever tell him that, no matter how good of friends they were. There were some things you just kept quiet about. When she'd first met him her immediate thought had been biker dude, but she'd quickly discovered underneath his intimidating exterior he had a huge heart and a steady hand that designed some of the most gorgeous pieces of jewelry she'd ever seen. No wonder the rich and famous vied for his work. Not to mention all the women from every walk of life who wanted to date him.
And that tat. On some men tattoos became intimidating and long hair looked feminine, but not on Roth. The tat gave him an aura of mystery, and the casualness of his hair accentuated his strong features, chiseled jaw, and proud profile. There'd be no doubt he was all man.
He was damn nice to look at. And when it came to personality and being an all-around good guy, he could stand alongside her father and brothers any day of the week. For the umpteenth time she wondered why they'd never veered over the lines of friendship.
She tilted her head to the side and tried to study him through new eyes. His olive complexion and dark brown hair, his bluer than blue eyes, his lean strength ... but ...
He's Roth. Your friend. Your best friend of almost two years.
Obviously, they knew each other too well. At this stage of the game, switching things up outside the lines of friendship would be a little awkward. Wouldn't it? Sometimes things just were.
She slid her fingers over the silky material of the costume that still hung over her shoulder and hid her smile as she watched him work. Roth looked exactly like her seven-year-old nephew when he played with his never-ending pile of Legos. Concentration had his tongue poking against the inside of his cheek, and his eyes sparkled with excitement.
The moment he dropped the gemstone between the prongs, his shoulders relaxed and his rounded cheek disappeared. She released her own breath as he checked to make sure the stone stayed in place and then laid the tweezers on the velvet mat filling his desk. He twisted the bracelet from side to side. The light reflected off the gemstones, and dazzling twinkles flitted across the ceiling and walls. Satisfaction filled his smile, and the lines of concentration marring his brow disappeared. He smoothed out the bracelet beside the tweezers and then grabbed the remote and flicked off the stereo.
"What's up?" He sat back and flipped the glasses onto his forehead.
"You know how you're always coming to my rescue?" She licked her lips, shifting her weight from one leg to the other.
"Hmm." He nodded. "You mean how I'm there to fix a leaking pipe in your bathroom when maintenance can't get to it right away, or when you come to my door holding a bowl of dry cereal because you're out of milk, or —"
"Yes, apparently you're keeping tabs." She rolled her eyes, fighting back her smile.
He grinned, and then a tiny line furrowed the space between his eyebrows when he eyed the costume slung over her shoulder, before returning his attention to her face. "Don't tell me you've taken up sewing and have hand-stitched a Superman costume just for me. I feel honored, but I'd have helped you no matter what. Plus, there can only be one Superman."
She laughed outright. Roth always had a way of helping her forget her troubles. "I can't take credit for any type of sewing, but I could really use some rescuing tonight. Are you on a deadline?"
Excerpted from A Friendly Arrangement by Christine Warner, Karen Grove. Copyright © 2015 Christine Warner. 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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