For the first time in years, Julian is interested in more than just sex. He wants a relationship with intoxicating Alexa, but it's not that simple. Not only are Julian and Alexa struggling with the intensity of this new relationship, but they also have to contend with Luke, Alexa's best friend, whose own love for her leaves him willing to do anything to convince her that Julian is not the man for her.
Luke's determination and Alexa's secret past threaten to tear Julian and Alexa apart as she struggles to open her heart to love. Julian and Alexa embark upon a roller-coaster ride of emotional and physical passion that both pulls them apart and holds them together.
Despite their affinity for each other, Alexa fears that Julian will leave when he learns about her past and Julian is unsure he can love a woman who in so many ways remains a mystery, a woman who keeps threatening to run, a woman who can't decide if she is going to STAY.
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By Hilary Wynne
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Hilary Wynne
All rights reserved.
The traffic on the way to Ellen's office is horrible, and now I'm about fifteen minutes late. I tried to call and let her know, but the answering service always picks up when she's in session with a client. I know she won't care, but I'm upset because I need the whole hour today. Getting stuck showing units to a customer who I knew wasn't a serious buyer was a total waste of my afternoon and kept me from leaving the office on time.
I bound up the stairs, as much as one can bound in four-and-a-half-inch platform heels, and burst through the door to her small office. Nobody else is in the small lobby area, and I notice the door to her office is open. I peek in and see Ellen flipping through a magazine.
"I'm so sorry I'm late. I got stuck with a lookie-loo, and traffic was awful." I plop myself down on her couch and take a drink from the water bottle I'm holding in my hand. I'm totally frazzled and need a second to calm down. Unfortunately, I have already wasted enough time.
"No worries, Lexie. Take a second and catch your breath."
I've been seeing Ellen Berger for close to a year now. I found her on the Internet after my sister Jill convinced me I needed professional help. Ellen's practice is close by work and home, she was taking new patients, and she accepted my crappy insurance. I felt an instant connection with her, and pretty soon I was pouring out my whole life story to her—well, most of it anyway. My main reason for coming was to work through my feelings about Brady's death. I thought I would have gotten in and out of here in a couple sessions, but no such luck. I ran through my maximum appointments covered by insurance within about six months, but Ellen knew I needed to keep coming, so she offered me a deeply discounted rate and worked out a payment plan with me. She is a godsend and worth every dime I have charged on my credit cards.
"Why are you so agitated today?"
"I don't know. You're right though. I am agitated. I guess it's the time of year. A lot of memories are coming up right now. Plus, it's Luke's birthday on Saturday, and everyone wants to go out to dinner and then to Stellar afterward. I don't want to go at all, but I can't say no. It's stupid to be having anxiety about going out, but I can't stop thinking of ways to get out of it."
"It's been a long time since you've gone out and had fun."
"I know. That's what everyone keeps telling me. I'm just not sure if that's really what I consider fun these days."
"Hanging out with your friends, having a drink or two, and dancing is fun, and it's okay to want to do those things again. You're allowed to be the old Lexie again."
I have divided my memories of my adult life into three phases. Pre-Brady, during Brady, and post-Brady. Ellen doesn't think it's a great idea for me to compartmentalize my life like that, but the demarcations are so obvious that I can't help it. She constantly reminds me that all of my experiences have made me who I am, good and bad, and I'm just the person I'm supposed to be as a result. The issue is that even after close to a year, I haven't told her about all the experiences Brady and I shared. Right now she's suggesting I try to be the pre–Brady Lexie. She didn't know me then, but I have shared a lot of what I was like before I met Brady. I like that girl much better than the girl I am now, and I wish I could go back and find her again. That girl was confident and funny and opened her heart to people. She trusted others and let those same people rely on her. That girl was hopeful about love. That girl was whole.
I get lost in my memories for a few minutes until Ellen brings me back to the present.
"Have you had any nightmares lately?" Ellen is referring to my recurring nightmares. The one I have most often is where I'm frantically trying to get a hold of somebody so we can talk before something really bad happens. It's almost that vague. The characters are different. It can be a friend, coworker, or family member. Once it was a stranger. I run around from place to place, trying to find the person. I call and text and e-mail, and nobody will respond to me. I'm racing against a literal clock in the dream. I never actually find anybody in my dream, and I always wake up before the time expires, usually in a cold sweat and panicked. Last night's version had me chasing my sister Tracy all over South Beach. I woke up with an impending sense of doom, and I haven't been able to shake it all day today. I tell Ellen about it.
"I'm convinced I'm always going to have this dream. I really am. I wasn't able to get closure with Brady, and now it's going to haunt me forever." I know I sound a little melodramatic, but I really feel that way.
"The guilt that you have, the one where you feel you had control over what happened, will tear you apart if you continue to let it. You can forgive Brady right now if you want to. He doesn't need to be here. You can forgive yourself too. You need to remember, forgiveness is a one-time act. When you choose to have resentments and hang on to the guilt, you have to do it every day. Which one is harder, Lexie?"
"It's all hard, Ellen. It's all really hard."CHAPTER 2
If I'm being honest, I pretty much agree with my friends and family that I need to get back out into the real world. And by real world, I mean the one where I socialize and date and enjoy my life. The irony is not lost on me that if anyone was looking through a crystal ball at my life, they would think I have it made. I have a great job and an even better group of friends. My family is a little dysfunctional, but they do love me. I live in beautiful South Florida where the sun almost always shines, and I can wear sandals almost year round. The only thing that's really missing in my life is a boyfriend, and most of the time I'm okay with not being in a relationship. I actually prefer it. My relationship with Brady changed everything about the way I feel about love. Now I think it's not worth the pain that inevitably comes with giving your heart to someone. My friends seem to understand my reluctance to open myself up to someone and haven't pushed. They do wonder how long I plan to go without sex though.
I think about all these things as I get ready to go out tonight. It's Saturday, and it's Luke's twenty-seventh birthday. Luke is one of my best friends, and there's no way I'm getting out of this. We celebrated his twenty-first doing the "Tennessee Waltz" in Tallahassee, his twenty-fifth barhopping in Key West, and last year's clubbing with a huge group of friends in South Beach. Memories of that night are bittersweet. It was a good night. Brady was good. I was good. But soon after that night, it was anything but good.
This will be the first time in almost ten months I have set foot in a nightclub, and my anxiety is high. You would think I was going on a job interview instead of out to dinner and dancing with friends. I used to be a party girl. I have loved going clubbing since I scored a fake ID when I was seventeen. I was the one who was always up for going out. Now I'm worried if I start living like that again, all the painful memories I've been trying to forget will just come flooding back.
A voice interrupts my mind's trip down memory lane, and I hear my roommate and best friend, Marissa Delgado, yelling at me from down the hall. "Lexie, seriously, if you don't hurry up, we're going to miss our reservation."
"I'm almost ready. Give me five more minutes."
Everyone else is ready and waiting on me in the living room. I peek at my watch and realize it's already seven fifteen. Crap. If we're going to make an eight o'clock dinner reservation, I really do need to get going.
I'm a typical girl. The better I look, the better I feel. I guess that's why I'm putting in all the extra effort here. I've been in the bathroom for an hour with my glass—okay, two—of Pinot Grigio and my music, trying to both calm my nerves and get me in the mood to go out. My iPod is set on my dance playlist, and I can't help but move around the bathroom as I get ready. Music is my thing and the one constant that has always made me feel better and helped me express myself when I can't find the words to describe how I feel. There is nothing more comforting than hearing lyrics to a song you could've written yourself. The fact that another person did means someone else in the world knows how you're feeling and that you're not alone. I don't play any instruments, and I can't sing a decent note, but I love listening to music. I feel if I was ever to write a book about my life, I would divide the chapters by songs. The title would be The Soundtrack of my Life. Unfortunately, if I were to start writing my book today, it would be filled with a bunch of depressing stuff. That thought starts to bum me out, so I file it away and concentrate on putting the finishing touches on my makeup.
I glance at myself in the full-length mirror behind the door, and I have to admit I look good. I probably have more makeup on than I usually wear, but it still looks tasteful and not trashy. I'm wearing black, skinny pants with multizippered pockets that end just above my ankle. I'm really excited to wear them because I just bought them in a size smaller than I usually wear. I have dropped about fifteen pounds in the past few months, and it's showing in my clothes. I have been running a lot, but if I'm being honest, the weight loss happened because I've been a little depressed, and my appetite is not what it used to be. At least something good has come out of all this drama. I'm not a skinny girl, but I'm not heavy either. I have an athletic, fit body that's toned from years of playing soccer and tennis. The loss of the fifteen just helps me look leaner. I pair the pants with a black-and-white, multidirectional, striped, fitted bustier that really shows off my shoulders, breasts, and collarbone. About a half inch of leather circles the whole top and adds a bit of edginess to the look. There is a little V cut in the front that dips down between my breasts and gives a sneak peek of my ample cleavage. A long, silver, exposed zipper runs down the whole length of the back. I'm wearing brand-new Michael Kors black, caged, leather ankle booties with four-and-a-half-inch heels that add height to my 5'5" frame and make my legs look longer. I'm not sure they're a great idea for a night out dancing, but they totally help make the outfit. I add a skinny, silver, tube necklace and slip on my signature silver hoop earrings. I have blown out my wavy, dirty blonde hair and pulled it into a messy, poufy ponytail. I feel edgy and sexy, which is the look I'm going for.
I'm thankful my roommates and I are all about the same size because we can share clothes and shoes. We all love fashion, but none of us can afford to dress the way we want to all the time. I have somewhat of a shoe addiction, an expensive shoe addiction. I think it stems from when I was a freshman in college and some random guy in a bar told me I had the sexiest feet he'd ever seen and that I wasn't treating them properly. He said it all with a straight face too. I was wearing cheap flip-flops at the time. He told me I needed to dress my beautiful ladies up and show them off. Talk about odd pickup lines, right? He was hammered, and my roommates and I laughed our asses off about it all night. We still talk about it years later. I actually have pictured that guy's face a couple times during a few of my shoe shopping sprees. My roommates are always giving me crap about my shoe thing, but they sure don't mind borrowing them every chance they get.
We're going to Stellar after dinner. Stellar happens to be one of the hottest clubs in South Beach and where Luke is currently working as a bartender. It's Saturday night, and I'm sure it will be packed and that everyone will be dressed to impress. One more quick glance in the mirror, and I decide for sure I feel good about my outfit choice. I down the last sip of my wine, gloss my lips with nude lipstick, unplug my phone from the charger, and head out into the living room. I'm hoping my outward appearance will mask my inner feelings of discomfort.
"Finally," says Marissa. She's not used to nagging me to hurry up because I'm usually the first one ready to go anywhere, and I always make it point to be on time. When we were at FSU, I used to wait a full hour after she started to get ready before I even got in the shower. She always blames her lateness on the fact she operates on Cuban time. Tonight, she was ready before me and looks awesome. She's a beautiful girl with long, straight, brown hair, huge brown eyes, and perfect skin. She's wearing a white, lacy, mini dress that shows off her natural tan along with a pair of flesh-colored L.K. Bennett sandals she borrowed from me. My other roommate, Shannon Garrett, a pretty blue-eyed blonde, and her boyfriend, Cory Davis, a very tall, very big, ex-college football player, are going out with us too. I love this little group. They have been so supportive of me. Add Luke, and I couldn't ask for a better group of friends.
I roll my eyes at her. "Whatever. Let's go."
I grab my little cropped, black leather jacket from the hall closet on the way out the door. The club we're headed to has a rooftop bar, and that's where Luke usually works. It can get a little chilly at night in April, and more than likely we'll be spending time outside. I plan on getting all of my drinks from Luke, so they'll be free. We're all in our midtwenties and well into career mode, but none of us has tons of extra money. My job as a marketing and sales consultant for a major property-development company pays me pretty well, but I work for commission and only get paid once a month. I have to budget my money so it lasts. Dinner tonight will not be cheap, but we always try to treat each other well on our birthdays.
The plan is to catch dinner at Havana Nights, a popular restaurant in South Beach. After dinner, we are heading over to Stellar. Luke began bartending at Stellar about five months ago and has been asking us to go ever since. The others have been there. I haven't gone. Luke has to work tonight, so we're meeting up with him at the restaurant and catching dinner first. A text I got from him earlier today said he's bringing a date. It's a typical Luke move to show up with a new girl out of the blue. He hasn't changed much since college and is always surrounded by pretty girls.
I used to be one of Luke Miller's girls. Well, sort of. The first time I saw him, he was behind the bar at Bullwinkle's in Tallahassee. He was the guy all the girls wanted to give their drink order to—as well as their numbers. I think I ordered seven beers that first night just so I could keep talking to him. He was a total flirt, and I'm sure he made a killing in tips. Luke is tall, about 6'1", with jet-black wavy hair, ocean-blue eyes, and muscles in all the right places. His handsome boy-next-door face kept the girls lining up night after night. My friends and I would go to Bullwinkle's every Thursday night for nickel-beer night. After a few months of going and many, many cheap beers later, Luke and I struck up a flirty friendship. I learned he was a junior majoring in business, VP of his frat, and serially unattached. We talked about his family, friends, and school, and I could see he was a smart and driven guy. I felt like I was getting to know him pretty well even though we didn't spend time together outside of the bar. We kept in touch through texting, and at least a couple times a week I would get some funny, random text from him. I started to look forward to getting them, and pretty soon I admitted to myself I really was interested in being more than friends.
So when Luke invited me and my girlfriends to a party his frat was having, we went. I was very excited and was totally hoping we'd hook up. The party was the first time we had really ever socialized outside the bar, and I was curious to see how Luke would act toward me. He had texted me a few times throughout the day to make sure we were going. There were a couple of other things going on that night, so we ended up showing up late. It was a huge party and totally in full swing when we arrived. When I finally saw Luke, it was obvious he had been drinking heavily. He was very excited to see me and came right over and kissed me on the lips. I remember thinking the kiss was an awesome start to the night and that clearly I wasn't misreading the signs Luke was interested in being more than friends. We talked for a few minutes before Luke pulled me out into the middle of the floor where everyone was dancing. Well, it wasn't actually dancing; it was more like bumping and grinding. Our hands were pretty much all over each other, but we didn't kiss. To this day, I know Luke is not big on PDA, but that night I thought it was pretty obvious we were together. Obvious to me at least. Our "togetherness" didn't stop several drunken girls from coming up and pulling at him, trying to get his attention. He stayed pretty focused on me, but he did seem to enjoy the attention and never really told any of the other girls he was there with me. Because this was our first time out together, I didn't make a big deal about it, but it didn't make me happy.
Excerpted from Stay by Hilary Wynne. Copyright © 2013 Hilary Wynne. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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