Keelie doesn’t believe in the “perfect man.” But the men who are worth the trouble are usually taken—like her business partner Zach Barnes. After a string of bad luck and the lost chance with Zach, Keelie decides that maybe flying solo—and living with suppressed desires—is the key to happiness.
As a photographer, Zane Barnes has an eye for the human form, and his eyes can’t get enough of Keelie’s curves. Unfortunately, Keelie is like most women—always fawning over his little brother, Zach. Zane is about ready to give up, but then a few stolen moments at his brother's wedding have him thinking maybe there's a chance there after all. Now he just has to prove that the perfect man does exist...for her.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
- Stop worrying so much about the future
- Call Roger and tell him off
- Flip off the next photographer you see
- Get a tattoo
- Have a torrid affair with a hot guy
- Ask that hot guy if he’d maybe like to marry me . . . up in Alaska
Keelie Jessup ran her finger over the warped pages of the journal and couldn’t help but smile.
The battered copy of Wreck This Journal lay in a place of honor on a table near where the wedding cake sat, waiting. That wedding cake looked more like a work of art than anything edible. But if she knew anything about Abigale Applegate—no—Abigale Barnes, then that cake would be as delicious as it was beautiful. A caterer now, Abigale knew all about finding the absolute best and yummiest of creations—or making them herself.
The newlywed Abigale Barnes was on the edge of the dance floor with Zach. Keelie assumed what they were doing might be called dancing, but it was more like swaying as they stared at each other. They might as well be off on their honeymoon—completely alone in the world, lost in each other.
Neither of them looked like they had eyes for anybody else.
A tug of envy twisted at her.
Not because Abby had Zach, really.
One thing had become painfully clear over the past few weeks. Keelie felt a lot of things for Zach, but she didn’t have the kind of feelings for him that Abby did. She’d thought she did. She’d wanted to, had hoped he’d realize he felt the same.
Then she kissed him.
She’d got as much wow out of that kiss as she did when her buddy Javi gave her a hug. Those rare, infrequent hugs. Physical contact wasn’t really up her alley and Javier, more than most, seemed to pick up on it.
No. She wasn’t in love with Zach, but who could look at those two and not envy the magic they obviously had? The insanity was that it had taken Abby this long to see it.
Shrugging off that tug of envy, she grabbed a pen and flipped through the journal. There was a space where other people were invited to draw in the journal. It had sat in Steel Ink for a while, the tattoo studio she co-owned in Tucson with Zach, but she hadn’t felt right doodling in it then.
Now, though, she had something in her head.
She bent over, braced one elbow on the table as she sketched.
The cartoon images were clearly Zach and Abby and she had fun making them look a little more gah-gah than they already were.
She jumped a little, looking up to see Zane Barnes towering over her. Zane, the oldest of the Barnes brothers, stood there watching her, his eyes unreadable behind a pair of glasses she secretly found terribly sexy. Okay, secretly she found him terribly sexy. All five of them were beautiful, really, from Zane down to the youngest sibling, Sebastian.
Forcing a smile, she looked back at the sketch, gave a few final touches, and then straightened. “Thanks. It’s just for fun.”
She glanced down at it and then gave the newlyweds a smirking smile. “You gotta admit, it’s pretty dead-on, though.”
Zane laughed. “Pretty much.” Then he held out a hand. “Dance?”
Her heart froze. Dance. With him.
For some reason, he always made her a little nervous. Those blue green eyes of his—beautiful eyes—made her feel like she had no shields, nothing between her and him and he could see all the flaws and holes and mistakes she’d made. And man, were there mistakes.
She hesitated, probably too long, because he started to lower his hand.
Impulsively, she caught it. “Yeah. Sure. I . . . ah. Look, I haven’t danced in . . .” She stopped to think. Shit. That long. “I think the last time I danced with anybody was in high school.”
“Well, I’m not going to be a great partner for your first dance.” He led her out on the dance floor and tugged her in close. “My brothers used to taunt me for how clumsy I was.”
She let him catch her hand in his, her breath trying to hitch in her chest as he slid his free arm around her back. He moved with a little too much ease for her to buy the clumsy bit, though. She tipped her head back, had to appreciate the fact that she actually could. She’d worn heels with her dress and with those heels, she stood six feet. Zane still had a good five inches on her.
His gaze rested on hers. Normally, silence didn’t bother her at all, but normally, she wasn’t moving on a dance floor with a guy. She didn’t know if normalcould really fit in here. She was in a dress. She was in heels. And she was dancing with Zane.
Since thinking about it made her even more nervous, she had to break the silence. “So what happened to them getting married in Alaska?”
“I think Abby decided it was easier to have a wedding—especially a fast one—for two hundred people if she actually had the wedding here.” A faint smile curled his lips. “Never let it be said that she doesn’t have her share of common sense. They decided to have the honeymoon there instead.”
Keelie shuddered. “I don’t get it. A honeymoon in Alaska. Sounds cold.”
“Nah.” He shrugged. The muscles under her left hand glided and shifted and she realized her mouth had gone a little dry. Nice muscles, she realized. Really nice. “It’s early fall. It will be getting cooler, but it won’t be bad. Besides, they’ve both always wanted to go. It’s beautiful up there.”
He lifted a brow.
“Your pictures. You mentioned it.” She shrugged self-consciously. She wasn’t about to mention that she sort of stalked him online. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a blog. It was easy to follow him through the pictures and posts.
“Yeah. Had a freelance thing there not too long ago. Didn’t pay much, but it was worth it just to go.” The black-framed glasses he wore caught the light, hiding his eyes from her for just a moment and then they swayed, the angle changing.
Her breath caught.
He wasn’t looking at her eyes.
His gaze was on her mouth, something hot flashing in the blue green depths. Her heart slammed hard against her chest and without even thinking about it, she licked her lips.
Then he blinked.
She felt like the air had been knocked out of her. Whoa—
Unconsciously, her hand tightened on his.
Dragging her eyes away, she stared out over the dance floor, looking back at Zach and Abby.
Her heart started to slow.
“He’s where he belongs.”
Swinging her head up, she met Zane’s level gaze. Blood rushed up to stain her cheeks. Well, hell. Of course Zane knew. Zach and his brothers were tight, but there was no denying he was closest to his older brother. She had the urge to pull away, find a dark corner and just hide until it was polite to leave. The reception had only been going on for forty-five minutes. They hadn’t cut the cake. Too early to leave yet.
Besides, she wasn’t about to make a habit of cutting and running just because she was uncomfortable. It wasn’t an easy habit to break, after all.
Mentally bracing herself, she confronted Zane’s stare. “Trust me, I’m well aware of that. That I didn’t figure it out earlier just means I’m an idiot. But then again, I wasn’t blind to it for what . . . fifteen or twenty years?”
“Give or take.” Zane smiled a little. “When something is always there, it’s easy to overlook it.”
She blew out a sigh. “I guess.”
“So you’re okay with . . .”
His words trailed off.
Blushing, she focused on his throat. It was easier to do that than to look at him now. She took a deep, slow breath and then wished she hadn’t, because suddenly she was aware of something almost painfully intense—Zane Barnes smelled really, really good. “Okay? Yeah. It’s not like I have much say in it.” She darted a look up at him. “I’m going to make a startling observation here and just say I assume you know I kissed him. It was stupid. But I figured something out almost right away—even if those two somehow decided they weren’t right for each other, it wouldn’t matter. Kissing Zach was like kissing Javi. There’s nothing there. If I felt what I thought I felt, there should be something there, right?”
* * *
It took more restraint than Zane thought he had not to pull her closer.
He didn’t know he had that kind of self-control. He’d been doing just fine up until she’d given him a quick, almost nervous glance under her lashes and he felt something arc between them.
He knew that sensation, all too well.
He’d been feeling it burn on his side almost from the first time he’d seen her.
Need. Lust. Plenty of it.
But Keelie was oblivious.
Suddenly, though, she wasn’t quite as unaware.
Of course, it would happen at his little brother’s wedding.
And it would happen now—when they were talking about that kiss that caused the first real fight between Zach and Abby.
“Something there,” he murmured, splaying his fingers out wide across her slender back, feeling the smooth, elegant line of her spine under his palm. Her dress, the same pale blue as her left eye, stopped three inches above her knees and clung to her slight curves like a lover, rising high on her chest, the sleeves long and tight. It was smooth under his hands and all he could think of was peeling it away and tasting the skin underneath.
Of course, he’d had those fantasies about Keelie for a long time.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding, like he wasn’t thinking about seeing her naked. Having her under him. Over him. Kneeling before him. Sweat started to bead along the back of his neck. “I guess there would have been.”
Hunger. Heat. Kind of like what he was feeling now.
“You okay?” Keelie cocked her head. “You look kind of hot.”
“Yeah.” He needed to get away from her—probably for the rest of the night, he decided.
“Me, too. Wanna go outside?” She’d broken away, although her left hand was still gripped by his. “They’ll cut the cake soon, but I need to get away from the noise for a few minutes anyway.”
Not a good idea.
But he wasn’t about to say no.
The French doors spilled golden light outside and they moved into the warm night, leaving the noise and the laughter behind them. Keelie didn’t go to one of the tables set up near the doors, though. She let go of his hand and kept right on walking, down the steps and into the night-dark garden.
The hotel set up on the outskirts of town was an old, elegant sprawl, the gardens designed for Tucson’s desert climate. Zane moved in her wake, trying not to stare at her ass, but he was having a hard time with it.
“That’s better,” she muttered, finding a bench and dropping down on it, her moves all easy, boneless grace. She stretched out her legs and rotated one ankle.
He dragged a hand down his face.
He should have stayed the hell inside.
“I haven’t worn heels in months. You’d think I’d remember how torturous there are. I don’t know why we put ourselves through this,” she said, eying the glittery, sparkling spikes on her feet with acute dislike.
“Well, whatever the reason, please know that men across the world appreciate it.”
The words escaped him before he realized he was going to say them.
She shot him a look and then she started to laugh.
“Yeah. Y’all wear them awhile and then maybe that will mean a little more.”
“Hell, no.” He moved in restless circles around the small, semiprivate square, listening to the distant sound of music, keenly aware of the woman so very close.
“How long are you in town?”
He shot her a look. “A few days.”
He checked his watch. “I should go in soon. They plan on doing the cake around seven ten. I’ve got to get pictures.”
“Oh. Crap. Right.” Keelie stood up. “I forgot you were handling that.”
He shrugged. “I’ve already gotten a lot and they left the party packs out for the guests to get some pictures, too. Abby already fussed at me to make sure I have fun, too. A twenty-minute break isn’t going to hurt me.” Standing out here staring at Keelie was going to do him a lot of damage, though. He wouldn’t sleep without seeing her in that dress, without dreaming about peeling it off.
She passed by him and another jolt of her scent went straight to his head.
His cock tightened. Just once . . .
A yelp of pain jerked him, and his dick, back to planet Earth. He caught Keelie right as she would have toppled.
She crashed into his chest.
Five feet nine inches of sleek, strong woman. Automatically, he braced her weight with his arm around her chest.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice rough. His heart started to race. She was so close.
Her mouth . . .
“Ah . . .” She licked her lips.
His gaze dropped, tracing the damp path her tongue had just taken.
A groan ripped out of him.
* * *
Keelie didn’t know what she’d expected when she’d kissed Zach a couple of months ago. A chorus of angels, an explosion of stars . . . something. Anything would have been nice.
But there had been nothing.
Now, though . . .
Her brain kicked off as Zane’s mouth brushed against hers. It was a soft, almost questioning touch. As if he sought permission.
Curling her hands into the lapels of his suit, she sucked in a breath as he lifted his head.
Permission granted! She might have shouted it, except she couldn’t breathe.
Instead, she did what he’d done, focused her attention on his mouth, and that seemed to convey the message just fine, because his head lowered once more.
At the same time, one big hand came up, cradling the back of her skull, and she shuddered as his tongue stroked along the seam of her lips.
Stars exploded behind her eyes.
Zane Barnes kissed her and stars exploded.
There might have even been angel song, but how could she tell? She heard nothing over the roar of her own blood rushing in her ears.
He nibbled his way along her lower lip, traced her upper lip with his tongue, taking his slow, sweet time, before he did anything else. By the time he deepened the kiss, she was clutching at him in desperation.
Then he slid his tongue into her mouth.
Her knees buckled and she sucked in a breath. At least she tried. That single action drew him deeper into the kiss and she wanted to sob from the pleasure of it as he tightened his hold on her.
She felt the world spin around her and then a rough brick wall was pressed to her back, while Zane’s chest was a hot, solid presence against her front. Trapped now, she arched. That drove her farther against him and she whimpered in pleasure as that single move had him brushing back against her.
So very close.
That teasing contact left her pulsing and throbbing for more. She didn’t know if she could handle any more.
Stop. A logical little voice in her brain whispered. You should stop.
Like hell. Awkward, she pressed closer to him and the hand gripping one hip tightened ever so slightly. More. She wanted more.
As though he’d heard her, he started to guide her, a slow, easy motion that met his, and her breath stuttered to a halt as their movements had him passingright over her.
She tensed, jerking her head back and driving it against the brick wall. A sharp breath hissed out of her.
He did it again.
Pleasure twisted inside her and she felt it gathering in her core. He did it again and she started to moan, shuddering.
“Keelie . . .”
His lips trailed down her neck, but she didn’t hear him, didn’t hear anything as he continued to rock and move against her. Blind, she hooked one knee over his hip and swiveled against him. I need I need I need . . .
“Zane! Hey, Z!”
She didn’t even hear it.
* * *
Blood pounded in his head.
The sound of one of his brothers calling for him was one of the most unwelcome sounds he’d heard in a long time.
Keelie’s eyes were blind.
What in the hell was happening?
Lifting his head, he looked around, spied the narrow dip in the brick wall, and he twisted, taking them inside it. The solid weight of her in his arms, the feel of her body against his was heady, a wonderful pleasure, one he didn’t want to give up.
“Zane . . .” She whispered his name as he turned her around, tucking her back against his chest.
“Shhh . . .”
He could feel how close she was. Her entire body had gone rigid. He wanted to pull her skirt up, tear her panties away and sink inside. But he’d be damned if the first time he made love to her happened here . . . like this.
Still, her body trembled, a fine subtle tremor that came from deep inside. When he lay his palm on her belly, the muscles jumped at his touch. Slowly, he slid his hand down and toyed with the hem of her skirt. “May I?” he whispered, pressing his mouth to her neck.
“What?” The question was a thick, velvety caress.
He slid the tips of his fingers up. “Let me do this,” he said softly. His cock jerked in jealous demand. It had better ideas, but that wasn’t going to happen.
She didn’t say anything, but neither did she pull away, so he slid his hand higher, the clinging material of her skirt rising up. He reached her panties and she was already wet. He could feel her through the damp material. Slipping his fingers inside her underwear, he circled her entrance and waited.
She bucked against him, a ragged noise escaping.
Off in the distance, he heard somebody shout his name again. One of the twins. Shit.
He covered Keelie’s mouth with his free hand, keeping the pressure light. She bit his palm and then turned her face toward him. “Zane, please . . .”
Mindless, he pushed two fingers inside her slick, tight passage.
She moaned, turned her face back into his hand so that the sound of it was muffled.
“You’re so damn wet. So tight . . .” he muttered, his mouth to her ear. He spread his fingers wide, twisted and felt her body clamp down on him. He did it a second, then a third time. She tightened around him, riding his hand.
This was insane.
She cried out as he flicked her clit with his thumb and he snarled against her neck as her strangled cry was smothered against his hand. She moved on him desperately. He arched against the curve of her ass, wished they were alone somewhere, anywhere, just so he could push her skirt up and sink his cock inside her, hear those broken cries instead of silencing them.
She went rigid.
The firm nub of her clit throbbed, swollen under his thumb. He pressed and circled it even as he thrust his fingers deep, hard.
She came with a weak, broken little moan.
He wanted to catch it with his mouth.
Even as she went limp against him, he heard the voice again.
Too close this time.
“Damn it, Z. Where the hell are you?”
* * *
Keelie froze, blood rushing to her face, scalding her skin as the world came crashing back.
What the hell?
Between her legs, she throbbed.
Her ankle ached—
Shit. Her ankle.
“Let me go,” she whispered, turning her head away from Zane’s hand.
He hugged her against him instead and she winced as he turned his head, shouting. “Give me five damn minutes, Travis.”
Travis. Son of a bitch. I just let Zane get me off while one of his brothers was out here looking for him.
Shame twisted through her and she tore away from him and then had to bite back a yelp as her weight hit her injured foot. Glaring at him in the scant light, she said, “You should go. It’s probably time for the pictures.”
“They aren’t going to start until I’m there anyway,” Zane said, his voice soft. “What’s . . . Keelie. Wait.”
She batted his hands away. “Would you go? If your brother shows up here, he’s going to figure out you were . . . we were . . .”
“That was Travis. He’ll give me five minutes, unlike the rest of them,” Zane said, his eyes lingering on her face.
She looked away.
“Nothing.” She swallowed the knot.
“Bullshit.” He moved in.
If she could have walked away, she would have. But her ankle was screaming at her and she felt like she was going to cry—not just from her ankle, either. She didn’t entirely know why. She just knew she felt like she was falling apart.
Frozen, all but trapped there, she went rigid as he reached up and touched her cheek. “I guess . . . shit.” Zane looked away, his hand lowering when she flinched. “I’m sorry.”
Then a low, raw laugh escaped him. “Even saying that feels like a lie. I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long, I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t think about it anymore. But you clearly didn’t want me to. For that, I am sor—”
“Stop.” She forced the word out, made herself look back at him even though her head was spinning from what he’d just said. I’ve wanted to kiss you . . .Her heart started to thud against her ribs and she got that same, lightheaded rush she’d felt when he first put his hands on her. Don’t. Stop. Be logical. “If you think I didn’t want you touching me, then you clearly don’t know much about women.”
His eyes came back to hers.
That intense, soul-searing gaze left her feeling naked and vulnerable.
“Then what’s wrong?”
How did she even explain that? Her gaze dropped to his mouth and to her dismay, she thought about reaching for him again, dragging him against her. Her hands curled into fists and she kept them locked at her sides to stop herself from doing just that. “I don’t even remember the name of the last guy who made me feel like that.” She met his eyes unflinchingly despite the fact that the blush on her face might have lit up the night sky. “Let’s just say it’s been a while. I prefer it that way. Then you go and put your hands on me and my brain leaks out. Your brothers, your parents, people I’ve known for years are just a few yards that way and I’m over here losing my mind because I can’t think about anything but finding a flat surface.”
His jaw went tight. “Vertical works for me.”
Her knees went weak. “No.” She licked her lips, ignoring the way her body screamed at her in denial. “That’s . . . I don’t do this, okay?”
For a long, taut moment, he just studied her and then he backed away.
She stared at his back as he turned toward the path.
Pride warred with pragmatism as her ankle continued to throb.
But she didn’t have to say anything.
Zane stopped before he’d even taken a step.
“Your shoe broke,” he said softly, crouching down and picking up something from the ground. He held out his hand and she grimaced at the sight of the sparkling heel in his palm.
“I noticed.” She glanced down at her ankle to avoid looking at him.
She practically felt him follow her gaze—felt it, like a burning caress.
“That . . . doesn’t look good.”
Her ankle was already starting to swell. “No. It really doesn’t.”
* * *
With her foot elevated, Keelie sat at one of the tables nearest the dance floor. Those were the “reserved” tables and her chair had been angled so she could see the dance floor, as well as the table piled high with presents . . . and Zane.
Too easily, she could see Zane.
Her abdomen went all tight and hot every time she saw him.
He’d picked her up like she’d weighed nothing, carried her inside.
When everybody was rushing around, he disappeared and returned with an icepack for her ankle.
Now, long after the cake had been cut and distributed, she was still trying not to look at him.
He’d gone into what she decided was his work mode, focusing on snapping pictures from every imaginable angle—and some she hadn’t imagined.
He’d long ago shed his tuxedo jacket and she couldn’t help but notice just how well he filled out the white shirt underneath. The bowtie hung askew around his neck and she found herself thinking about how much fun it would be if she could tug it off, unbutton the shirt the rest of the way—
“I can’t believe you twisted your ankle at my wedding.”
Keelie jerked her head away from Zane, focused on Abby.
“Better me than you, right?” The words popped out without her even thinking them through and then she winced. “That . . . sounded kind of shitty. Sorry.”
“Oh, no.” Abby grinned and dropped down into the seat next to Keelie. “I absolutely agree. Although I’m really sorry it happened—cuz that looks painful—I’d much rather you twist your ankle here than me.” She gave Keelie a dry look. “I appreciate that sacrifice.”
Keelie tipped her glass of champagne in Abby’s direction. “It’s the least I can do.”
Zach came up behind Abby and pressed his lips to her brow. “Can we leave yet? Can we leave yet?”
Abby turned her face to his. “You’re awful. You just asked that ten minutes ago.”
“I meant it just as much then as I do now.” He cupped her face, stroked his thumb over her lips. “You look beautiful.”
A dreamy smile curved her lips.
“You two are killing me.”
Keelie glanced up at the sound of Javi’s voice as he settled in the seat next to her, his wife taking the other one. “Javi, be nice,” Aida warned, her eyes dancing with humor in her round, friendly face. She smacked her husband in the arm before propping her elbow on the table and resting her chin on her palm. “The two of them are adorable.”
“Adorable?” Sebastian, the youngest of the Barnes brothers, joined them in that very moment. He studied his older brother for a long moment and then shifted his attention to his new sister-in-law. “Yeah. I guess I’d say they looked adorable.”
There was an edge to his voice that Keelie didn’t quite understand.
Zach glanced up at that very moment and Keelie caught the sharp blade of warning in his blue eyes. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the twins joined them. Travis smacked a hand across Sebastian’s head. “Behave, kid.”
Then he grinned over at Keelie. “He’s upset that for once, he’s not the center of attention.”
Keelie studied Travis for a moment, then shifted her eyes to his twin, Trey. “Yeah, I’m sure Sebastian’s ego is getting a beating tonight.” Sebastian shot her a devious grin, but before he could say anything, she looked back at Zach and Abby. “He’ll survive, though. Zach and Abby just look too sweet tonight. He might be a hot commodity in Hollywood these days, but right now he can’t hold up against . . .” She paused and waved her hand at the couple. “That.”
At that moment, Abby glanced away from Zach. “If everybody keeps calling Zach sweet and adorable he’s going to find somebody to arm wrestle just to prove his manhood.”
“I don’t need to prove my manhood.” He pressed his face to her neck and then groaned as Abby pushed him back. “Can we leave now? Can we leave now?”
“Hush!” Abby said, but there was laughter lurking under the words. “This is my wedding and I’m going to enjoy it.”
Zach leaned in, murmured something to Abby that had her face going red.
“Killing me,” Javi said again, his voice mournful.
“You’re not kidding.” Sebastian rolled his eyes and turned away. Over his shoulder, he said, “I think I need another beer.”
Zach opened his mouth. Abby jabbed him in the side. “Behave,” she whispered.
At the same time, Aida looked at Javi. “You hush. You’d think you don’t remember your wedding night.”
Javi slid his wife a sly look. “Maybe I don’t. You wanna remind me, mi corazón?”
Aida shook her head, but the look in her eyes spoke volumes.
Being surrounded by happy people suddenly made her feel that much more acutely alone.
“Zach, not to interrupt whatever dirty thoughts you’re whispering to Abby,” Javi said, “but I promised my baby I’d ask—hey!”
“Not now, Javi,” Aida scolded.
“But they’ll disappear for two weeks,” Javi said, rubbing his side where Aida had elbowed him. “I told Evie I’d ask.”
“Javi . . .” Aida said, her tone full of warning.
“It’s okay, Aida. Javi, what’s your baby girl need?” Zach asked, his tone teasing.
Their baby girl was fifteen, not really a baby anymore, but Javi still insisted otherwise. He gave his wife a smug look and leaned forward. “She’s trying to raise money for a workshop she wants to attend over the fall break—it’s a few months away but they have to get it worked out early. It’s in DC and it’s up to the student to raise the funds. We agreed we’d cover half, but if she really wants to do it, she has to raise the other half.”
“How much does she need?” Abby asked.
“She’s raised fifteen hundred. She needs another five—and no, I don’t want you covering all of it. She was going to ask you herself, but her asthma was too bad for her to come tonight.”
Travis whistled between his teeth. “A workshop that costs four thousand and they think students have that kind of money handy?”
“Some of the kids at her school do—or their parents do.” Javi shrugged. “She’s lucky—when I was her age, only way I’d have that kind of cash would be if I stole it. We can help with half. A lot of the kids, though, they want to go, and according to their teacher, it can open a lot of doors, but half of them won’t be able to attend.”
Keelie looked up. “What’s the workshop for?”
“Something in the science field.” Javi shrugged. “Evie wants to be a physicist. It’s still a pretty rough field for girls, she says. Not that they can’t do it, but . . .”
“A bunch of sexist morons don’t always want girl cooties messing it up,” Keelie said, snorting.
“Yeah. Kind of like you do with tattoos.” Javi winked at her. “What’s up with that?”
“Javi, you’re just jealous that some of the girl cooties are smarter than your cooties,” Zach said. His eyes bounced off Keelie’s—that was the same way he’d looked at her for the past two months. Her heart ached a little over it, but she’d done it herself. “Hey, Z.”
Even as he said it, before she even saw Zane, her skin was prickling.
Awareness streaked through her as he moved into sight, camera shielding his face. Automatically, she averted hers so that all he caught was the fall of her bangs.
“You’ve been taking pictures all night,” Abby said. She nodded to the seat behind Keelie. “Why don’t you sit down? Call it quits for the night.”
“Gotta make sure I get enough pictures.” He continued standing, so close it made her burn. And want. And wish.
Keelie felt herself growing all the more self-conscious. Her skin heated. She licked her lips, thought she could still taste him there, despite the champagne she’d had.
“Like you ever don’t get enough pictures,” Zach said, smirking. “Sit. Talk. Interact with the human race, Z.”
There was a moment of silence, and then she heard a shift behind her as he sat. Her skin started to hum. Oh. Man. This was so not good. Was she going to feel like this every time—
“What?” She jerked her head up, looking at Aida, who was making a clucking sound.
“You look beat,” Aida said.
Travis chose that moment to come around the table and crouch down in front of her. “You’ve been taking the ice off every twenty minutes, right?” As he asked, he lifted the ice pack away, studying the mottled, swollen mess of her ankle.
“Yes, Doctor Travis,” she said.
“Smart-ass.” He shook his head. “Everybody’s a smart-ass.”
“Like you’re one to talk.” Zane’s voice sounded tight. So tight, everybody but Keelie turned their head to look at him. Travis paused, his fingers gentle on Keelie foot and lower leg.
“You okay there, Z?” Travis asked mildly.
Zane snorted and in the next moment, he sounded like his normal self, cool, almost remote. “Just pointing out the obvious, Travis. You still like playing doctor with the pretty girls, little brother?”
“Who doesn’t?” Travis gave Keelie an easy grin. “You were able to put weight on it earlier, right?”
“Yeah. It just hurt like a mother—” She clamped her mouth shut, glancing over. Trey, Travis’s twin, had his little boy here, but Clayton was out on the dance floor. With the flower girl. As soon as she noticed it, Zane did as well, and he was already moving in to take pictures. She gave Travis a brilliant smile. “Yes. It just hurts.”
He grunted and bent his head back to what he was doing.
She bit back a yelp when he pressed down, but he noticed anyway. He gave her a grim look. “You need to get this looked at.”
“I’ll be fine.” She shrugged and tried to pull her foot away.
“That’s what you’re thinking now.” He rose and moved back to the seat he’d claimed a few minutes earlier. “What are you going to do when you can’t stand on your feet in three or four days? You’re covering for Zach for the next couple of weeks, remember? Get it looked at before it gets worse.”
She glared at him. “You’re an accountant, not a doctor.”
“True.” He smiled at her. “But I’m an accountant who has an interest in many things.”
“That’s just how he excuses being a nosy bastard,” Trey said. He tipped a water glass at her. “I’m more honest than he is. I’m just a nosy bastard, period.”
“Honey, you do need to get that looked at,” Aida said, peering at Keelie’s ankle. “That has to be killing you.”
“It kinda hurts.” She managed a tight smile. “But I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not. And don’t worry, Travis. I’ll make sure she sees a doctor.” Javi scowled at her when she would have argued. Then he kissed Aida’s temple. “Come on, baby. Let’s get our stuff and get her home.”
“No—” Keelie started to protest, but they were already up and moving, the two of them a united front she couldn’t possibly argue with. Sighing, she contemplated the issue of getting herself from here to the car.
“I’ll bring her out,” a soft, steady voice said from behind.
Her heart dropped out.
Her skin started to burn.
Her mouth went dry.
Slowly, she turned her head as Zane knelt at her side.
His gaze locked with hers.
Her composure threatened to shatter.
Forcing a smile, she said, “Sure. Doesn’t look like anybody is listening to me anyway.”
Three months later
“I am not taking dating advice from you two.”
She honestly couldn’t believe she was going out on this stupid blind date as it was. Part of her kind of wished she was still in the stupid airboot she’d just been able to take off a few weeks ago. She hadn’t planned to take Travis’s advice, but the next morning, her ankle had hurt even worse, so she’d given in, afraid she’d broken something.
Instead of a broken bone, she’d messed up the ligaments in her lower leg. The technical term was a high ankle sprain. She called it hell on earth. Instead of six weeks to heal a broken bone, she’d spent six weeks in an airboot everywhere she went, and another month in it if she was going to be on her feet for any more than a few minutes—which was most of the day for her.
On the other hand, though, that boot had been a great excuse to get out of things she didn’t want to do anyway. No, Javi . . . I don’t really want to go to the barbecue so Aida can try to fix me up with her brother. I can’t, see . . . it’s too annoying to hobble around and you know I hate to have people waiting on me. No, Ani, I don’t want to hang out at the club with you and hook up with some guy. Besides, I’d spend most of my time at the bar anyway, watching you dance, me and my stupid ankle. You go, okay?
Anais, one of the newer employees at Steel Ink, had caught Keelie in a moment of weakness. They’d gotten to be good friends and somehow, the cute, quirky blonde had known just when to strike.
Now Keelie just wished she could find a way out of this. She hadn’t had a date in over a year and she’d be just fine to keep it that way, too. Okay, so maybe she was a little lonely and maybe she did wake up thinking about—
Stop it. She’d spent the past twelve weeks trying to forget that night existed. That was, in part, why she’d agreed to this stupid blind date. But that didn’t mean she’d take dating advice from Javi and Anais. She’d listen to them on some things, sure. She went over tattoo design ideas with Javi all the time. And she’d let Anais talk her into the hoop she currently had piercing her left nostril.
But she’d said hell to the no when Anais suggested other piercings and in no way was she listening to dating advice.
She paused to shoot the two of them a dirty look before turning to study her reflection in the mirror affixed to the wall in her work area. A date. What in the hell had she been thinking?
You weren’t. She’d just reacted.
Anais had caught her at a weak moment—she’d had another brain-destroying, bone-melting dream about Zane and she’d been lying in the bed, half dying from the need burning inside her. It had been ten in the morning and, like she had a sixth sense, Anais had called. Dangled this blind date in front of her. He’s great, Keelie, I promise . . . he’s sexy. He’s got a steady job and he’s not a dweeb. Come on. Friday night. Say yes.
Keelie hadn’t thought.
She’d just replied.
She’d just said yes.
She’d said yes, and judging by the lead weight in her gut, the entire thing was going to be a disaster. It was too late to call it off now, though. She’d feel like a heel if she up and told Anais to call the guy and bail ninety minutes before she was supposed to meet him.
Brushing her hair back, she gave herself a thorough study and decided she looked fine. She wasn’t out to knock anybody dead, but she looked good. She’d come dressed for the date, and it was a damn good thing; her last appointment had gone way over.
The girl had shown up thirty minutes late and then proceeded to change her mind four different times . . . I can’t do this tattoo, no, I will, no, I won’t . . . I can’t put it there!
The entire process should have taken maybe an hour and Keelie should have been done by four, out of there in plenty of time. She might have even worked up the nerve to call Anais and bail if she wasn’t looking at her. But right here? In front of her?
She couldn’t do it.
Anais was adamant that this guy was just amazing and he was just about perfect for Keelie. Keelie’s thoughts on that were yeah, right. Then her brain had zoomed in on one man in particular—tall, lean, a serious face, and eyes that you could never really read.
Except she’d read them . . . once.
Her mouth went dry even thinking about that one time.
That one time she didn’t let herself think about.
She and Zane. That was insane; and in no way was he perfect for her.
Besides, the last time she’d thought a guy was perfect for her, look how wrong she’d been. She’d thought Zach was perfect for her and he wasn’t. Now there was a wedge between them and it was all her fault. For all she knew, he probably thought she still had something going for him. Would it make it better if she said something to him along the lines of kissing you was kind of like kissing my pillow?
Possibly. But it would also . . . well. She had a feeling it might also sound insulting.
She didn’t know. She was really good at insulting people without meaning to. Normally she didn’t let it bother her. But when people mattered? It kind of sucked.
“Keelie? Are you even listening?”
She met Anais’s wide blue eyes in the mirror and smiled easily. “Nope.”
Dating advice. From Anais. Not happening.
“Look, you need some help,” Anais said.
Help? Oh, honey you have no idea. But the kind of help Keelie needed didn’t come in the form of dating advice.
Cutting her friend a dark look, Keelie pushed her platinum-blonde hair back from her face. It was streaked with chunks of black and her roots were starting to show. She needed to do a touch-up. Sometimes she thought about going back to her normal color, but then reality realigned.
Noooo. She didn’t want to go back to that girl she’d been.
Not even in the most superficial of ways.
Maybe instead of the white and black, she’d try something different. Red. Vibrant murder red and maybe a streak or two of blue.
“Would you pay attention?”
Rolling her eyes, Keelie folded her arms over her chest and met Anais’s gaze. “Sure. Just what kind of help do you think I need?”
“When was the last time you went out with anybody? For that matter, when was the last time you kissed anybody?”
Keelie rolled her eyes and busied herself with digging around in her purse. “I haven’t gone out on a date in a year, Ani.” She wasn’t going to touch on the question of kissing. Her knees went a little weak thinking about it. “That doesn’t mean I need dating advice. I don’t think it’s changed that much. And for the record, the last moron I went out with? That fell more under the definition of hot mess than anything else.”
Anais arched her eyebrows. “Ohhhhh? And what happened?”
Keelie jerked a shoulder in a shrug. “Old history. But trust me, it falls in line with my luck as far as guys go. Part of the reason I don’t have a lot of interest in dating.”
“Guy was a dick,” Javi said. “Thought he could get free ink and when Keelie didn’t jump on that idea, he up and went to the bathroom—or that’s what he claimed. Then he just ditched her there. She saw him slipping out the front door.”
“You’re shitting me.” Anais looked at him, then at Keelie.
Keelie shrugged. “This is how my luck runs. Either I think I like the wrong guy, or I go out with somebody who seems like a decent guy and he’s a jerk.”
“Having a couple of bad dates doesn’t mean you should just give up.” Anais hopped up on the counter and grinned at Keelie. “So when was the last time a guy knocked you off your feet? I mean . . . really . . . knocked you off your feet?”
Three months ago. The answer was instantaneous. But she kept it to herself.
“Ani, I haven’t had a date with a guy who knocked me off my feet in forever. Trust me.” And that wasn’t a lie. Zane had knocked her off her feet, stolen the breath right out of her and made her come harder than she ever had in her life. But they hadn’t been out on a date—before that night, he’d never so much as kissed her. Oh, he’d asked her out, but she never really thought he was that serious. It was like an afterthought.
He’s asked you out since then . . . those aren’t afterthoughts, a sly little voice inside her whispered.
Her hands went slick. No. They weren’t. But the thought of going out with him terrified her. She couldn’t explain why.
“Okay, so you’ve had some lousy luck. You know what that means, right?” Anais looked like a cherub, big blue eyes, rosy mouth, round cheeks, blonde curls that were one hundred percent real. She didn’t go without a date unless she chose to, and that didn’t happen too often.
“Yes.” Keelie gave her a brilliant smile. “It means I should just give up this whole relationship idea.”
“No.” Anais rolled her eyes. “It does not mean that.”
“Sure it does.” Keelie held up a hand. “Last year’s bad date . . .” She ticked off a finger. “There was a guy before that who decided my tats meant I was crazy kinky and he shoved his hand up my skirt. So I punched him in the middle of the restaurant and the cops were called and he lied and I had to explain it all to the cops and half of them didn’t believe me.”
“What the fuck?” Javi demanded.
Keelie gave him a dark look. “Don’t ask. I didn’t want you threatening to kill him. I handled it.”
She looked back at Anais. “Then there was this guy I thought I did like . . . I made a move on him, it was a disaster—” She ticked off another finger, acutely aware that Javi had developed a fascination with the ceiling. Anais was new here, and didn’t know about the mess Keelie had caused with Zach and Abby. “He was involved with somebody else and I almost messed that up. See? Bad luck. I’ll give this guy a shot, but I’m not expecting it to be a rousing success.”
Anais looked away, her shoulders slumping. Keelie felt like she’d kicked a puppy and so she groped around, looking for something to say to make it better.
But Javi spoke first, his voice soft, “Keelie, maybe that’s the problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You go into it expecting there to be problems. Guys ask you out and you shoot them down before the sentence even gets out. The few who managed to get the words out, it’s like you’ve already written them off.” Javi shrugged. “If you go into this expecting him to be a jerk, expecting this be a failure . . . that’s probably what’s going to happen. Just don’t expect anything. You don’t know him. It’s hard to know what to expect from a guy you don’t know.”
Keelie made a face at him. She wouldn’t, under any circumstances, admit that he made sense. Nor would she admit that he might have a point. Maybe she did go into things expecting most of the guys she met to be something less than . . . well. Anything decent.
She’d stopped looking for the good in people a long time ago—only after they’d proved it existed did she let her guard down.
Aware that Javi was still watching her, she lowered her brows and gave him the stare that would have had most men backing away. “What?”
Javi only shrugged. “When was the last time you actually thought about giving a guy a chance? Ever liked anybody well enough to just relax and talk to him?”
“Well, that’s easy.” She fluttered her lashes at him. “I talk to you daily, honey. But the thing is, you’re married. You went and broke my heart with it, too.”
“Very funny.” He rolled his eyes. “Seriously, can you name one guy who you don’t automatically put at arm’s length? One guy who doesn’t automatically make you shut down?” Then he added, “Besides anybody who works here. We all get a pass.”
Well, yeah. She could. But she sure as hell wasn’t naming him.
Aware that Javi was watching her, she managed a casual shrug.
“There are a couple, yeah.”
“Okay, then. Give this guy the same benefit of the doubt you give them.” Javi grinned at her. “You don’t need to be looking for the man of your dreams—”
Her bark of laughter all but rang around the room. Javi ignored her and continued. “Just talk to the guy. See if you like him. The only thing you’ve got a right to expect is that he treat you well. He’s got the same right to expect that of you.”
Anais grinned and nodded. “Exactly, Javi. Give him a chance without assuming the worst.”
Bracing her hips against the counter, Keelie stared down at the toes of her boots. Give him a chance without assuming the worst. She jerked a shoulder in a shrug. “I guess I can do that.”
Assume the worst was pretty much her motto in life, but it hadn’t exactly made for the best life, either. Her life was damn lonely. Damn empty. It had seemed even more so the past few months, too.
Yeah. Fine. Mentally, she decided she’d try it. Once.
“That’s the spirit. Also, Keelie? Don’t get drunk.”
Jerking her head up, she stared at Anais. “Don’t get drunk?”
Even as Keelie said it, a shiver raced through her, drawing her gut tight with dread. Oh, she most definitely wouldn’t get drunk. She rarely let that happen anyway, and never with a stranger.
“Yeah. Not that I’ve ever seen you drink more than a beer or two, but definitely don’t get drunk on a blind date.” Leaning forward, she stared at Keelie, face completely serious. “Now, you should probably order a beer. Because you’ll relax a little and, Keelie, sweetheart, you need to relax. Actually, you should probably get laid, but that’s for another night.”
Covering her face with her hand, Keelie muttered, “I knew I didn’t want dating advice from you two.” She was not going to discuss sex with Javi standing right there. She wasn’t. Absolutely not.
“Hey, this isn’t bad advice. Besides . . . you know how bad an idea it is to get drunk around a guy you don’t know.”
An ugly headache started to pound at the base of her skull. Yes. Keelie knew full well how bad an idea that was. But all she said was, “That’s why I don’t generally drink when I’m going out on a first . . . or even a second or third date.” She didn’t drink much and when she did, it was only within the company of friends.
Anais waved a hand. “Just order a beer at the bar. That’s all you need. One drink. You’ll loosen up a little. Now . . . the most important thing . . . and I mean it, this is serious shit—”
Keelie lifted a brow. “You understand the concept of serious, Ani?”
“Absolutely. But only in reference to men and metal.” Anais did take metal seriously. As the only piercer they had on staff at Steel Ink, that was a good thing. She excelled at her job. And the men definitely loved her. “Now, are you listening to me or not?”
“I’m all ears.” And she was. Considering that Anais actually looked halfway serious, Keelie wanted to know just what her friend considered serious.
“So am I.”
Keelie shot Javi a look. Part of her suspected she should make him leave. There was no telling what would come out of Anais’s mouth. She had no filter.None. But Javi was like a brother to her and if what Anais had to say was going to embarrass her, it would likely embarrass Javi, too. Keelie believed in sharing the misery.
Unaffected by Javi’s presence, Anais pinned Keelie with a wide, direct stare. “Listen, no matter what, no matter how hot you think this guy is—and he is hot, I’ve seen him—no matter how hot he is, you can’t give him a blow job on the first date.”
The bell over the front door jingled, shattering the silence that had fallen after Anais’s declaration.
She might have said something—anything—to ease the embarrassment crawling through her.
But then she heard a familiar voice.
“Hey . . . anybody around?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Wrecked
“A successful romance and a good read…Poignant and sexy.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Made my heart beat out of my chest.”—Fiction Vixen
“Full of love, humor, and a passion that burns brightly.”—Joyfully Reviewed