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Noah Logan always knew the day would come when he officially morphed into someone he no longer recognized, and apparently his thirty-first birthday was going to be it.
But only if he didn't put up a fight.
And, hell yes, was he going to fight.
He folded his arms across his chest, adopted a you wanna say that again stance he'd learned from his military father, and clenched his jaw beneath the scruff of his beard. "No. No way. Not in a million fucking years."
His friend Braden Mack stuck out his bottom lip. "Come on, man. It'll be the best birthday present ever."
"It's my birthday, dipshit," Noah grumbled. He threw his hand out wide to gesture at the large circle of men and one woman who gathered around a table near the empty dance floor in Mack's country and western dance club, Temple. "And you can save that pouty thing for them. It doesn't work on me."
Which was a lie. Mack's pouty face was how Noah got here. At first, he'd been honored and humbled when Mack asked him to stand up with him in his upcoming wedding alongside his other close friends. But then came the bottom-lip thing, and the next goddamned thing Noah knew, he was doing all the shit he thought brides were supposed to do. Apparently, Mack's fiancée, Liv, had turned all planning over to Mack, who in turn had deemed it only fair that his male buddies get a small taste of what society usually required of women.
Which, hey, Noah was all for. But Christ, in the past eight months, he'd helped Mack pick out flower arrangements, considered lighting schemes, debated the mixed messaging of a particular Bible verse, and gotten into one singularly heated exchange with another groomsman over whether Mack should abandon the outdated tradition of tossing the garter. The wedding was next month, and Mack had officially reached epic levels of groomzilla.
And today? Oh, today they were crafting. Mack wanted a handmade archway at the entrance to the reception hall.
Which is why they were all gathered at his club at three o'clock in the afternoon on a Thursday in October to make about five hundred paper flowers. But clearly, it was all a ruse to drop the latest what the fuck.
Mack wanted them to perform a dance routine at the reception. A dance routine.
"Let me put this in words you understand," Noah said. "Fuck. You. I'm. Not. Dancing."
Mack glared with all the frustration of a kindergartner who'd been denied a second chocolate milk at snack time. Behind Noah, the scruff of shoes on the well-worn wooden floor told him that Mack was about to get backup. Seconds later, a calloused hand clapped him on the shoulder. Noah pitched forward, and his thick, black-framed glasses slid down his nose.
"We dance for Mack," said Vlad Konnikov, a hockey player they all just called the Russian because he was, in fact, Russian. His heavy accent dipped into the or else territory.
Which sent Noah's voice higher into the oh shit range as he tried another tactic. "What about Liam? Your brother lives in California. How's he going to learn the dance routine if he's not even here?"
"I'm sending him a video to learn on his own."
Noah pushed his glasses up and turned around and found an entire table of upturned faces watching him in anticipation of his inevitable defeat. "You all agreed to this?"
"Friends don't let friends embarrass themselves alone," said Del Hicks, a player for the Nashville Legends Major League Baseball team. His thick fingers were surprisingly nimble as they folded a piece of tissue paper into something that remarkably resembled a carnation.
"My wife threatened me with bodily harm if I didn't do it," added Gavin Scott, another baseball player whose wife, Thea, happened to be Mack's fiancée's sister. Del smacked Gavin upside the head. Gavin winced and quickly amended his statement. "I mean, I'm happy to do it."
The sole woman in the group snorted and dropped a pink tissue-paper flower into the box next to her chair. Sonia was Mack's longtime club manager and the crankiest person Noah had ever met. "Give it up, Noah. If Mack can convince me to craft, you can set aside your ego enough for one dance."
It wasn't ego. It was self-preservation. Yeah, he still wore his hair too long and his clothes too casual, but even with his man bun and geeky comic book T-shirts, his former hacktivist pals would never recognize him today. The man who'd once been arrested by the FBI for attempting to hack into a university research center was about to become a tuxedo-wearing dancing monkey at a million-dollar, Pinterest-worthy wedding alongside the rich and famous.
True, Mack and the rest of the guys were nothing like the warmongering scumbags he used to try to bring down with his computer skills. In fact, these men were the most decent people he'd ever known. But still, he'd come a long way. He was a successful businessman now, the owner of a growing computer security company catering to celebrities and other high-profile clients. He was officially respectable. A millionaire before he was even thirty. He was finally fulfilling his father's last, dying wish. Do something with that genius brain of yours.
A cheesy-assed groomsmen dance was definitely not what his father had in mind.
He grasped at his last, best excuse. "Dude, how do you even think Liv will respond to this? She hates this kind of romantic stuff."
Mack shrugged. "But she loves to laugh."
"So the point is to humiliate ourselves?"
"No. The point is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front of the women we love."
Mack said the last part with a pointed emphasis that made Noah squirm. It was a low blow, and Mack knew it. But Mack never missed an opportunity to harangue Noah about his relationship with his best friend, Alexis Carlisle. Mack and the guys couldn't understand why Noah had kept things platonic with Alexis, and he was damn tired of trying to explain it.
Noah reached around to squeeze the back of his neck where his bun had become loose. He jerked out the ponytail holder and quickly twisted his hair back up.
"Alexis will love it," Mack said, eyebrow raised. "You know she will."
And just like that, Noah let his arms fall limply to his sides. His next words came out in a defeated sigh. "What do I have to do?"
"Just show up Saturday to start learning the moves. I've hired a choreographer and everything."
Mack pounded Noah on the back. "This means a lot, man. And you'll see. It's going to be fun."
More like torture. Noah trudged behind Mack back to the table and dropped into his seat. Sonia slid a stack of pink tissue paper toward him. He mumbled a thanks, but then returned his glare to Mack. "But I swear to God, if there's twerking involved, I'm out."
"Dude, no one wants to see the Russian twerk," snorted Colton Wheeler, a country music star who'd gotten his start in one of Mack's four Nashville nightclubs and was now a friend to them all. He was also Noah's newest client. And he happened to be right about the Russian. The hockey player was big, hairy, and had a tendency to fart in public.
"What is twerking?" the Russian asked.
Colton dug out his phone and quickly found a video. The Russian's face turned beet red, and he returned his attention to his paper flowers. "No twerking."
"Speaking of your birthday," Mack said, bending in his seat to grab something on the floor. He sat back up with a plastic bag and passed it to Colton, who handed it to Noah.
Noah peeked in the bag and groaned. A paperback book stared up at him with the title Coming Home. The cover image was of a man and woman embracing, and the man held a football in one hand.
Noah tried to hand it back to Colton. "No. It's bad enough you're making me dance."
Colton pushed the book back at Noah. "Trust us. You need this."
Noah dropped it on the table. "No, I don't."
"But you'll like it," Mack prodded. "It's about this professional football player who comes back to his hometown and discovers that his old girlfriend is still there and-"
"I don't care what it's about. How many times do I have to tell you that I am never joining your book club?"
Noah was the only guy there who was not part of the Bromance Book Club, Mack's male-only romance-novel book club. The guys believed romance novels held all the answers to relationships. And while Noah couldn't argue with their results-Mack was happily engaged, and nearly all the other members had saved their marriages using the lessons from the books they read-Noah had rejected all of Mack's literary advances to lure him into the club.
Mack propped his elbows on the table. "All you have to do is read and listen to us, and we can fix this little problem for you."
Noah ground his molars. "My relationship with Alexis isn't a problem that needs to be solved. We're friends."
"Sure," Colton snorted. "Just friends. You only spend every other minute with her, go running whenever she calls, play some stupid word game with her on your phone-"
"It's called Word Nerd."
"-have a nickname for her that no one else uses, and hang out with her even though you're allergic to her cat. Did I miss anything?"
"I'm also allergic to Mack, but I still hang with him."
Mack slapped a hand over his heart. "I'm hurt. Truly."
Colton raised his hands in surrender. "I'm just saying that I don't understand why you're friend-zoning yourself on purpose."
"Leave him alone," came a calm but commanding voice from the other end of the table. It belonged to Malcolm James, NFL player, resident feminist, and Zen master. "Men and women can be friends without it needing to be sexual."
"Except in his case, he actually wants to have sex with her," Colton said.
Noah clenched his fist against the table. "Watch it."
"Yeah, dude," Mack said, shaking his head. "That was uncalled for. We don't talk about women like that."
Colton shrugged sheepishly and mumbled an apology.
Malcolm spoke again. "The so-called friend zone is nothing but a social construct designed to give a man an excuse to justify why a woman might not want to have sex with him. It's a bullshit lie, and we all know that. So leave Noah alone about his relationship with Alexis. We should be commending him for proving that men and women can truly be friends."
Like a class that had just been chastised by their favorite teacher, the table fell silent but for the crinkle of paper.
It didn't last long. Mack finally looked up with a sigh. "All I'm saying is that maybe she's ready, Noah."
Noah felt something pop in his brain.
"It's been eighteen months since-"
"Don't say it," Noah snapped. As if he needed Mack pointing out the calendar. Noah knew exactly how long it had been since he'd met Alexis. It wasn't the time that mattered. It was the circumstances.
And they weren't right. Not then. Not now.
Maybe not ever. Which was as depressing a thought as the idea of dancing.
Noah stared at the plastic bag on the table. He didn't want it or their help. And he sure as shit didn't need romance novels to remind him that he was currently a walking romantic disaster. Unrequited love made for a pathetic happy ever after.
But when things broke up an hour later, Noah took the book with him. Because if he had to pretend to read a damn book to get Mack off his back, so be it.
This was it. Alexis Carlisle could feel it. This was the day the shy young woman was finally going to talk to her.
For a full week, the woman with the long brown hair and rotating collection of sweatshirts had been coming into the ToeBeans Cat CafŽ-the coffee shop Alexis owned-to sit quietly in a corner with a book, alternating between petting one of the café's resident felines and shooting nervous glances at Alexis.
But today, she didn't have a book. Today, she simply looked around, her gaze lingering on Alexis whenever she thought Alexis wasn't paying attention.
In the eighteen months since Alexis had come forward as one of more than a dozen victims of sexual harassment by celebrity chef Royce Preston, Alexis's café had become a gathering spot for other survivors of harassment and violence. Nearly every week brought a new woman to the café in search of a supportive ear, an understanding hug, or guidance on how to get out of a bad situation. Alexis didn't choose this, but it had become her responsibility. Along the way, she'd learned to spot the signs of a woman ready to talk.
She turned to the barista-her friend and fellow Royce survivor, Jessica Summers. "Can you handle the counter for a little while? I'm going to try something."
Jessica nodded, and Alexis jogged into the back and through the kitchen to the closet where she kept the box of gardening supplies she used to maintain the brick landscaping beds that flanked the front door of the café. They were in desperate need of weeding and pruning, and this idea could maybe kill two birds with one stone. She lugged the box through the café, pretending to struggle more than she really was with its weight. As she approached the door, she wedged the box against the window and once again pretended to struggle as she reached for the handle.
The act worked. The young woman approached with a tentative smile. "D-Do you need some help?"
Alexis schooled her face into what she hoped was gentle friendliness and hid the fact that her insides were skipping rope and singing a summer-camp song. "Thank you, yes," she said, hoisting the box against her chest. "I need more hands."
The woman reached around Alexis to open the door and then took another step back to allow Alexis to walk outside.
"Chilly today, huh?" Alexis said, bending to set the box on the sidewalk.
The girl let the door swing shut. She pulled her hands inside the cuffs of her sweatshirt as she answered. "Yes. I-I didn't expect it to be this cold here."
"You're not from Nashville?" Alexis crouched to pretend she was looking for something in the box. She wanted to keep the conversation going but didn't want to be too aggressive. The last thing the women who found their way to her café needed was someone prodding them to talk before they were ready.