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Read an Excerpt
Best Friends with Benefits
A Most Likely to Novel
By Candy Sloane, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Candy Sloane
All rights reserved.
Valerie had hit empty on her daily supply of exasperated groans. Over the past three hours, Alec's lateness had ratcheted up from charming to maddening to code-red-level dick. Hanging out in baggage claim with her elbow propped on her upended suitcase and her face in her hand wasn't how she'd planned on starting her high school reunion weekend.
Her chin was going numb and her neck ached. She shifted position and glanced down. While it alleviated her pain, the view rekindled it. Hours of waiting had wreaked wrinkled havoc on her tan linen skirt and fitted white button down.
She was going to kill him.
Her silent phone mocked her, though she was thankful for the excuse to have it glued to her hand. She'd been stalking her inbox all day for an email from the London Philharmonic.
She couldn't will an acceptance email for their year-long residency program into her inbox any more than she could check one of the arrival screens for an update on where the hell Alec was. He was traveling by private plane — a smirk tugged at her lips — just like anyone would to his ten-year high school reunion.
Alec had taken the time they spent hanging out in the Kenmore High School band room and become the lead singer and lead guitarist of the Grammy-winning rock band Chronic Disharmony. Valerie had taken it and become the second flute chair for the Philadelphia Philharmonic.
For now. She snuck another furtive glance at her inbox.
She and Alec had been so similar in high school — Val and Al — but they were polar opposites now, at least in the music world. Well, Valerie seethed as more minutes ticked by, in etiquette, too.
She noticed a lanky guy with brown hair in the distance and perked up — finally — but the relaxed smile she'd pasted on as camouflage before she ripped Alec a new one stiffened.
It wasn't him.
She crossed her arms and grumbled. Apparently he was going for induction into the Penis's World Record Book.
She had timed their expected arrivals to coincide with dinner. Walking in fashionably late would assure that the people she wanted to avoid would be occupied. But now, the Opening Night Dinner had long since ended. Her stomach clawed and whimpered. She riffled through her carry-on for the last of her plane peanuts.
She hadn't seen Alec in person since they'd graduated from Kenmore High, but lately his face had been everywhere: on TV, all over the internet, and on the cover of the magazine jutting out from her purse. She'd been browsing the airport newsstand in Philly before her flight when she saw him: Alec Rogers, her best friend, on the cover of Rolling Stone. They'd poured him into leather pants and nothing else. The museum of tattoos on his chest and shoulders was framed by taut arms. Two ladder rungs of ab muscles laced up his stomach, a concave at his belly button the perfect size for some lucky lady's lips.
She shook her head, a stress headache nipping at her temples. Why am I thinking about that?
Maybe because she'd bought the copy of Rolling Stone to give Alec crap about being such a rock star pretty boy, but instead she'd stared at it, at him, from the time she boarded the plane until she had reached cruising altitude. It might have ended up with a ring of drool around that belly button had the flight attendant not interrupted to see if she wanted a drink.
She had. Vodka straight.
Her phone finally dinged with a text from Alec.
It was the same message he sent her daily, usually after midnight. She had thousands just like it and thousands of other texts from him filling her phone like confetti.
No, she typed, her fingers taut with annoyance, just waiting at the airport for some dick who's more than three hours late.
"Want me to kick his ass?"
She knew that rough song-worn voice, knew the composed breath that waited for her response. Alec stood above her. As she took him in, her stomach seemed to float up like a balloon she'd just let go of — a cocktail of excitement and nervousness buzzing and zinging as it launched into her throat.
His signature dark brown fauxhawk was hidden under a baseball cap, his torso and arm tattoos shielded by a leather jacket. But it was him, her Al, and at the same time it wasn't. His combat boots made him appear taller than she remembered, and his shoulders seemed broader, even more so than when she'd seen them bare on the cover of Rolling Stone.
She finally remembered to smile, to do something other than stare.
His kind brown eyes lit up. "Val." He set down his guitar case and pulled her into an embrace so forceful she almost lost one of her pumps.
He smelled of leather and alcohol, of a rock star.
"Al," she replied, hugging him back. Forgetting her annoyance for the moment and remembering how they did this — said each other's names with different inflection dependent on their mood.
She snuggled into him. The slight frame he'd had in high school was as well-built as it looked. Her abdomen stiffened against the muscles of his own. The stubble on his chin bristled at her cheek.
"I'll do it," he said. "I'm just trying to figure out how you kick a dick's ass. Does it even have one?"
"I don't know. Maybe we should ask the dick."
He let out a dry laugh. "I'm sorry I'm late." He squeezed her again. "If Dante were still with us, he would agree that L.A. traffic should be the tenth circle of hell."
"I'd nominate high school reunions for that illustrious spot." Her stomach pitched. She'd hated having to wait all those hours for Alec, but now that he was here, they would have to go to the reunion. See all those people from high school. Worse, they would see her. "I can't believe you convinced me to come to this thing," she continued. She parsed out her anxiety from the dizziness of talking to Alec in person, being in his arms. Her heart panted like a dog begging for a treat. She forced herself to let go of him.
"Val, we've made good. We deserve to be here."
He certainly had. She wasn't so sure about herself. She used to be a girl who played flute, and now she was a woman who did. While Alec's star had risen, hers had barely even begun to gather up the dust to be born.
He inclined his head at her purse. "I see you got my Rolling Stone debut. Isn't it awesome?"
"Ten more minutes of waiting and I was going to draw donkey ears and domino-sized teeth on it."
Alec's mouth curved into a knowing smile. "Like we used to do to yearbook photos of people we didn't like. I know I was late, but you still like me, don't you?" His voice was thick, pointed.
He had the same gentle face she knew, the same wide jaw and honest chin, but there was a hint of something mischievous behind his eyes. Alec had always had that to some degree, but now he had the swagger and sex appeal to match. The way his brown eyes sampled hers, the way his body shielded her view from everything in the world but him — it was unsettling and not at all the way she expected to feel around him. The discrepancy almost made her stumble.
"You're not remembering right. It was people we thought were asses," she corrected, "and three hours late, that makes you officially an ass." One of the pictures from his magazine spread flashed into her mind — Alec, his strong back to the camera, a guitar sandwiched between his legs and his plump figure-eight ass in those leather pants. It was enough to give any woman daydreams for days, fantasies forever. But not her — she was not supposed to be thinking about that. She blinked, bringing herself back to the real thing standing right in front of her.
"I know it might seem dumb to someone waiting to hear about a chair in the London Philharmonic, but I'm proud of making the cover." He pointed at the magazine again.
"It doesn't seem dumb," she admitted.
Their gaze held. She considered telling him she was proud of him, too, but he knew. He knew every little thing her mind ever thought. She winced, hoping he'd missed the whole figure-eight ass in leather pants segment.
"Let's get the car before someone recognizes you," he finally said, leading her out of the airport.
A black Maserati convertible as dark as the night sky above sat out front waiting for them.
"They shipped it up for me special," Alec said as he opened Valerie's door. The inside reminded her of her flute case, black and soft. Valerie had known the minute she'd seen him, but sitting in this two-hundred-thousand-dollar car, there was no doubt Alec was a rock star. Successful beyond even the dreams he'd shared with her while they lay on the carpet of her high school bedroom staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling.
"It's amazing, but a bit much for Kenmore, don't you think?" she said as he started the engine.
Alec had removed his hat and leather jacket. A white T-shirt played tug of war with his pectoral muscles and was losing. The tattoos she'd studied on the cover of Rolling Stone were like pieces of artwork in person — a wing emerging from his left elbow, black feathers exploding up and down his arm. A black vine of thorns wrapping up his right, binding against his taut, solid ...
"Wait until you see the suite I got us. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms." He beamed, waking her from her trance, the dimple that fans fainted over peeking through.
She'd agreed without question when Alec suggested they room together for the reunion. But how could she have anticipated being near him would make her feel this way? Tongue-tied, nervous, confused as hell ... and a little turned on. In high school, they would lie next to each other on her bed for hours talking, the thought of touching him never crossing her mind — but now that thought needed an army of crossing guards.
"Things must have changed a lot since high school. I can't believe hotels in Kenmore have suites now."
"The Sheraton is the poshest hotel in Kenmore."
"Now that's an oxymoron."
His eyes scraped boldly over her. "Doesn't mean I can't throw a little money around for you, does it, Val?"
She shifted in her seat, hoping the thrum she sensed between her legs was just the roar of the engine.
"I'm surprised you didn't bring a date." She'd not only seen Alec all over the media alone, but with women, lots of them, each one as much like artwork as his tattoos.
Valerie, on the other hand, had dated exactly three guys since high school: one throughout college, one six months after she graduated, and the last, Charles, she'd broken up with because he couldn't commit to marrying her. He used to say: "The word commit makes me think of an insane asylum."
Valerie understood. Trying to get Charles to comply had made her feel like she was locked up and straight-jacketed in one, but she had learned her lesson. Keeping an unwilling man was like keeping a bird. You just ended up with an empty cage and a bunch of crap you had to clean up.
No more. Hopefully she would move to London and never look back. Still, she couldn't help staring at her naked finger. A ring was supposed to be the frosting on the cake of the woman she was now. Without it, she had no physical proof that men actually found her attractive. That she wasn't the same girl she used to be in high school.
"I'm surprised you didn't bring your flute," Alec finally replied as they pulled onto the Thruway.
Her cheeks bloomed despite the evening wind. "Hilarious." Valerie's teeth felt too big for her mouth, even though this was where their conversations went eventually — slid into jokes about their sex lives. Val's "boring" one and Alec's "excessively hot" one. "The next time you masturbate with your guitar, call me," she continued, trying to keep up.
Alec opened his mouth to speak and then closed it.
"You like to keep that stuff private?" she pressed, pleased she was winning this round.
He glanced at her, his eyes sharp. "Watching is optional, but once you do, participation is mandatory."
Her heart seemed to stammer, her lungs suddenly an inferno. Wow, she was not even close to winning. Lava spread up her belly, wound around her neck. She searched her mind for a response.
"Besides, I probably won't need my guitar for that this weekend," he said. "I'm thinking I'll find someone at the reunion."
She sensed a lump in her throat, but there was relief, too. He might look different, her body might be reacting differently, but he was Alec and she was Valerie. They were being Al and Val. She just wasn't used to jousting with him when he was so close. All their conversations since high school had been virtual; they'd just have to learn how to be physical again.
She fought wooziness at her slip. Not that kind of physical. There was no doubt being inches from a man who millions of women wanted was making her delirious. Or maybe it wasn't Alec at all. She hadn't touched anyone but herself since she and Charles broke up three months ago. She was bound to have booty on the brain.
"Well, if you bring someone back to the room," she finally replied, lifting the hair off her neck, needing the tickle of cool air, "put a necktie on the door or something to warn me."
"Maybe that's what they use in the Symphony; rock stars go with a bra."
"Why change what works?"
Valerie couldn't deny, even though it was baffling the hell out of her, that this new Alec worked.
He took his hand off the wheel and lowered it, his fingers hovering inches from her bare knee. Her skin prickled, goose bumps screaming to life. He changed gears and gripped the wheel again. The breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding burst out. Wow, this was going to be one long weekend.
They entered the yawning mouth of suburban Kenmore, NY. Strip malls and Starbucks reigned with farms and the start of New England woods sprinkled around for greenery. Valerie hadn't been back in five years, since her parents followed the migration of most of the older set from their temple and moved to Florida. Even in the dark, the suburban status quo had changed very little.
Alec parked at the hotel and began to exit the car, but Valerie paused. He would get a king's welcome, but she would still be the same band-geek Valerie she was ten years ago.
"You're not seriously nervous, are you?" Alec grabbed her upper arm, his rings pressing through the fabric of her shirt and into her skin.
"No." Valerie sighed. But she was. All her old insecurities came flooding back — dorky, knock-kneed, stringy-haired Valerie, the kind of girl who could only get lucky with her flute.
His chestnut eyes held her gaze. "Just follow my lead."
"You mean until you find the person wearing the bra you're going to hang on our door knob." Her lower lip quivered slightly.
He squared his hand tight on her shoulder, his eyes deepening. "There's no Al without Val."
It was what people used to say about them back in high school. They were inseparable besties. One was never without the other. Well, at least they had been until the day after graduation — the day it took Alec years to forgive her for.
Who would have known that ten years later she would be struggling to stop picturing him with his shirt off? Maybe it was good that once they were finally talking and texting again, life got in the way of them visiting each other.
She blew her bangs up. One issue at a time.
"If you hate it, we can go to the room and watch movies like we used to in high school."
"It'll be fine." Nothing was like it used to be in high school. If she had trouble being in the car with Alec, being alone in a room with him "watching movies" was out of the question.
"I can make it finer," Alec said, digging into the center console and unearthing a metal flask. He swayed it in front of her, hypnotist style. "It's vodka, your favorite."
She shook her head. She'd had a drink on the plane, but they were here now. She was with him now. She'd need her wits about her, that was for sure.
He unscrewed the top, brought it to his lips, and took a long gulp. He grimaced slightly but didn't cough. "You want to go into your high school reunion sober, that's your choice." His voice was syrupy from the liquor. "But there is no way in hell I'm facing those jackals unarmed."
Excerpted from Best Friends with Benefits by Candy Sloane, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Candy Sloane. 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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