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Authors: Stacey Lynn

His to Cherish

BOOK: His to Cherish
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His to Cherish
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Loveswept Ebook Original

Copyright © 2016 by Stacey Lynn

Excerpt from
His to Seduce
by Stacey Lynn copyright © 2016 by Stacey Lynn

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

L
OVESWEPT
is a registered trademark and the
L
OVESWEPT
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
His to Seduce
by Stacey Lynn. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

Ebook ISBN 9781101967973

Cover design: Caroline Teagle

Cover image: AS Inc./Shutterstock

randomhousebooks.com

v4.1

ep

Prologue
Chelsea

I was afraid to blink; too terrified of what I would see when I closed my eyes. The ear-piercing screams from earlier still echoed in my mind as if I were seeing the accident happen right in front of me.

God.

It was a prayer and a plea.

I couldn't stop seeing Derrick splayed out on the pavement.

A simple skateboarding accident on the hill outside my house.

If only they'd worn helmets.

Tears burned in my eyes and I sniffed them back, trying to stay strong.

Next to me, Shane held my hand and squeezed.

I turned to look at him and knew the zombie-eyed, pale-faced expression on his teenage face mirrored my own.

“He'll be okay,” I whispered fiercely, and squeezed his hand back. “He'll be okay.”

Shane let his tears fall and dropped his head. Next to him, his mom, Beth, wrapped her arm around her son's shoulders as he began to sob.

“I'm so sorry, Miss Dwyer. It's my fault. He wanted to play baseball, but I just wanted to skate.”

“It's not your fault. It was an accident. That's all.” I leaned forward and pressed my fingers to his chin, forcing him to look at me. I hoped like hell my expression was filled with confidence even though I knew it was a stretch.

There had been so much blood.

“He'll be okay, Shane. You have to believe it.”

I didn't know what he saw in my eyes, but he wiped the tears off his cheeks and nodded once before he collapsed into his mom's hold.

I lifted my head and looked at Beth. I had known her for years, since I worked at her son's school. She'd been head of the PTA for the last two years. She was as kind as she looked, although now her grief and fear was as evident as mine.

Thank you,
she mouthed, trying to force her lips into a smile.

There was nothing to smile about. Not yet.

Most likely not for a long time.

A flash of movement and a quick gasp gained my attention, and I turned to look from Beth and Shane to see Trina and Declan flying into the hospital waiting room. I had called them immediately after I called 911 so they could notify Aidan. I hadn't expected them to drop everything at the restaurant and rush down here, though.

As soon as they saw me, Trina's arms wrapped around me, pulling me to my feet and into her arms.

I hadn't known her long. She'd only been with Declan for a few months, but she was one of the strongest women I'd ever met.

I lost the hold on my emotions and my fears as my forehead hit her shoulder. Declan's arms surrounded us both. As my shoulders shook, their arms tightened.

“What happened?” Trina asked.

“Skateboarding. He fell and hit his head.”

“Oh my God.”

I nodded against her shoulder, uncaring that I was losing it. It was terrifying.

“Did you get ahold of Aidan?” I asked, pulling away and wiping my tears to look at Declan.

He and Aidan were friends, and I knew both of them from spending time with my girlfriends at Declan's restaurant, Fireside Grill. It was also how I'd met Trina several months ago.

“He'll be here soon.” His eyes dropped to my shirt and he flinched. “We should probably get you cleaned up.”

I followed his gaze and pulled at the hem of my oversized and frayed T-shirt. I'd been at home, relaxing on a Friday after a long week of school. With nothing planned, I'd changed into my most comfortable and well-worn clothes.

They were still covered with Derrick's blood.

A noise escaped my throat, but I didn't have time to react before Trina wrapped her arm around my shoulders and pulled me toward her.

“Come on,” she said, holding me close. “Let's get you cleaned up. Declan called Tyson and Blue, and they're on their way here, too. We'll see if the nurses have a change of clothes for you.”

She spoke to me like I was a child as she led me away.

I let her.

I couldn't think of anything except Shane's screams as he yelled for help and the blood and the ambulance I'd called as I held on to Derrick, praying with everything I had in me.

We reached the front desk in the waiting room of Detroit General when the doors behind us slammed open.

A voice I immediately recognized bellowed, “Will someone please tell me what the fuck is going on with my son?”

Trina spun around, taking me with her, and we locked our gazes on Aidan, rushing toward us, tool belt clanking around his hips.

He froze when he reached us.

“Trina…Chelsea…” He blinked as he looked at me, and then his eyes dropped to my shirt.

My arms went instinctively around my stomach to shield it from Aidan's view, but it was too late.

“What happened?” His hands wrapped around my biceps and he shook me, making my head snap back. “What the hell happened?”

Tears spilled down my cheeks before I could stop them. His grief. His fear. It was as real as the feeling of his fingers on me.

I began to shake my head. I wanted to erase the images I'd seen from my mind as much as I didn't want to have to be the one to tell him.

“I'm so sorry, Aidan. He fell…off his skateboard outside my house.”

He knew exactly where my house was. When he drove by in his work truck and I was working in the yard, he'd give me a friendly hand flip. He knew my house sat at the bottom of a hill around a blind curve.

“Aidan Devereaux?”

We all turned to the unfamiliar voice calling his name.

Aidan looked at me, blinked again, as if he was trying to understand what I had just told him before he turned back to the doctor walking toward us.

He cleared his throat. I felt his arm slip around my waist as he pulled me toward him.

In any other moment, at any other time, I would have enjoyed that. I'd had a crush on Aidan for the last couple of years, and I'd had glimpses where I thought he felt the same for me. We'd never acted on it. I never would as long as Derrick was a student at the school where I worked.

But in that moment, when his fingers dug into my side and he pulled me toward him, bracing himself, I wasn't thinking of my crush.

I was thinking of blood and screams and sirens and the news I knew was coming.

The doctor held out his hand and introduced himself, but all I heard was a whirring in my ears.

It grew fiercer and louder until the doctor shook his head and said so softly I almost missed it, “I'm sorry, we did everything we could…”

His voice trailed off as I felt the weight of a man collapse against me.

An anguished cry filled the room. It took me a moment to realize it was coming from both Aidan and me.

Aidan's knees buckled and I saw Declan move to pull him up. As he did, I was turned and pulled into Trina's arms.

Through it all, Aidan never dropped his hold, moving his arm to clasp his hand around mine. I did the only thing I could for a man who'd just lost his son.

I held on as tight as I could.

Chapter 1

Funerals sucked. There was simply no polite, pretty, or nice way to put it.

A child's funeral was hideous. Absolutely dreadful.

All day long I had stared out into space: at the funeral home, the cemetery site, and now the wake at the Devereaux's house. I couldn't help but imagine how these young teenagers, who were walking around like zombies, were supposed to grasp the magnitude of what had happened to their friend.

Derrick was well liked. That was always apparent in school. Not only did he excel in sports and earn straight As in almost every subject but he was also kind, with a great sense of humor. He was polite.

Was.

I shook my head and took a sip of my warm lemonade. It was amazing how quickly someone's life could be shifted from an
is
to a
was.

It was brutal. Everyone loved him. It was apparent from the large gathering of citizens from the community to the number of students and teachers. There were a million kind things I could say about Derrick Devereaux, learned during the three short years I'd known him at the middle school.

Mostly, I stayed silent. I spent most of the day huddled into a small corner with my friends Camden, Suzanne, and Paige, along with Jackson and Lucas, Suzanne and Paige's husbands. Tyson and Blue, and Declan and Trina joined us later. We whispered to each other, we hugged each other. The men spent time with Aidan, trying to talk to him, but it was clear he didn't want anyone around him.

He spent most of the day alone, staring out windows and only mumbling his appreciation of the condolences people gave him.

At the funeral home earlier, my eyes had burned with grief when he stood next to his son's casket.

It became clear to me then that Aidan was alone. There were no grandparents standing next to him. Even Derrick's mom, who I knew took off when Derrick was young, hadn't come.

It had just been Aidan until Tyson, Declan, and a man I didn't know but who was equally attractive, stood in the receiving line with him.

In any other circumstances, the sight of four handsome, tall, and broad-shouldered men, standing in a line, wearing suits that fit them all perfectly, would have made me speechless.

That morning, it had made me burst out crying onto Camden's shoulder.

I couldn't handle it. I still couldn't sleep without hearing Derrick's and Shane's screams filtering through the windows of my house the day of the accident. Every time I looked out my window, I shivered.

I wanted to go to Aidan and throw my arms around him and comfort him, but I knew it wouldn't be appreciated. So instead I held back. I helped my friends in the kitchen as we took care of all the food people had brought for Aidan, and we kept the snacks and drinks for the wake supplied.

Now the crowd was beginning to thin. Suzanne and Paige and their husbands had taken off. Most of the students from school were getting ready to head out.

Yet I couldn't bring myself to leave. Not that Aidan needed me.

But in my grief-muddled mind, I felt a pull toward him.

Perhaps it was because I saw the wreckage.

Perhaps it was because I couldn't get it out of my head, and, days later, it still woke me up on the nights I actually fell asleep, screaming because I didn't do enough.

The weight of my guilt was suffocating me.

I didn't do enough to help Derrick. The doctors told Aidan that it was a blood clot. Something they couldn't get to in time, and it ruptured on the operating table, killing him.

He died without pain.

Leaving behind a world that would be forever changed because he was no longer in it.

I felt selfish. He was not my child. He wasn't even my student or my friend.

Aidan was my friend, sort of. Closer to an acquaintance, really. I first met him a couple of years ago at Latham Hills Middle School where I worked as the school librarian. They had been registering Derrick for sixth grade, and Aidan and I had had a very brief conversation at the refreshments table. Afterward, I would see him frequently at Fireside Grill when I'd meet my friends there for dinner. He and Derrick often came in to pick up dinner or hang out with Declan and Tyson. Because of that, I'd gotten to know Aidan more in recent months as my crew of original friends—Camden, Suzanne, and Paige—grew to include Blue and Trina and their men. Aidan and I weren't close. We didn't know each other well even though we did speak to each other.

There was no reason for me to be at his house helping him.

Yet my feet stayed planted in his kitchen, overhearing single moms of Derrick's classmates place bets on who would land the mourning father first.

“He'll need some comfort,” one woman said, a predatory gleam in her eye that lacked genuine sympathy.

“Yeah, and I'll be the one giving it to him.”

“I bet he can give it real good.”

They chuckled.

I felt like vomiting on all of them.

Their conversation was revolting and crass. My stomach churned with disgust and I glared at them, wanting to dump my lemonade all over their fake blond hair extensions and scold them for their inappropriate behavior.

Instead, I inhaled a large calming breath and headed out the back door. I wanted distance from the crowd before I said my own goodbyes and headed home.

—

The late afternoon had a cool breeze, typical for March in Michigan. I looked to the cloudless sky and breathed in the fresh air, when I heard a sound.

I turned my head toward it and saw Aidan at the edge of the patio. He was sitting on a wood bench, elbows on knees, and a light plume of smoke billowed from a cigarette in his left hand.

He didn't look my way. I didn't want to intrude on his quiet time. He looked vulnerable and so incredibly pained that my heart hurt to look at him. I turned to leave, my hand on the door handle, when his voice stopped me.

“I never do this.” He still didn't look at me. I wasn't sure if he was speaking to me or was trying to break the heavy, mournful silence. It was thick with tension, choking me.

Aidan brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled. The paper turned red and sizzled as it burned bright.

I should have gone inside. I should have gone home. Instead, I took a step toward him. “I won't tell anyone.”

He looked away. “There's no one to tell.”

His sorrow reached out to enfold me, and I was paralyzed in the wake of his sadness. I watched as he dropped his head, shook it once, and took another puff from his cigarette.

I longed to comfort him, to find a way to ease his burden, but I stayed silent and unmoving.

I had absolutely nothing helpful to do or say in this situation.

“What about Derrick's mom?” Immediately, heat flooded my cheeks. I shook my head and held up a hand. “I'm sorry. That's none of my business.”

Aidan stared out at the empty backyard. “She left when we were eighteen. We were young and she decided she wanted to be free and unattached.”

I knew that, but I was still surprised to hear him speak so simply about it. He said the words as if they meant nothing. As if he had spent years perfecting the lack of emotion.

He continued talking, not looking at me, and I had a feeling the words were more for himself than for me.

“We were sixteen when she got pregnant.” He paused, shook his head, and I saw a hint of a sad smile on his lips. The deep lines around the corners of his eyes crinkled, making him seem older than I knew he was.

“Kids ourselves, really. We tried to make it work. At least, I did. When Derrick turned two, she decided she didn't want to be held down anymore.”

I said nothing. There was nothing to say. I couldn't claim to understand a woman who would abandon her child because she couldn't handle the responsibility. A bitter taste grew in my mouth for a woman I'd never met. Over the years, I had learned several things about Aidan and Derrick, even if it was from a greater distance than I truly wanted. The first one being that they were both honorable men. Derrick was a great kid—one of the best. He had to have learned his manners and compassion and values from someone. It certainly couldn't have been from the woman who had walked away from him.

It wasn't hard to feel disgust toward the mother who hadn't come to her own son's funeral.

“She's not here,” I observed.

He laughed. It was sad and harsh and sent a shiver down my spine. He didn't look at me when he answered. “No, I have no way to reach her.”

He turned to me with his eyes narrowed and eyebrows raised. He took another drag from the cigarette as if he just remembered he had it in his hand, and I watched the smoke plume and drift into the air as he exhaled.

“And what about you, Chelsea? You still talk to your ex?”

My heart skipped when he said my name. I wasn't aware he knew I had ever been married. It wasn't information I made known. And while we said hello and made pleasantries while around our group of friends, we didn't speak about anything personal.

“No,” I responded. The air felt warmer and my hands balled into fists. I hated having to think about how my marriage ended. The day Cory came home from work and said he didn't want to keep trying to have kids. He said he couldn't handle the stress anymore of doctor's appointments and specialists. What he meant was that he didn't want kids with
me,
because six months after he walked out our front door, I ran into him in public, and was forced to meet his new, visibly pregnant girlfriend.

God that shit burned. My gut flipped as if I were at Target all over again that Sunday afternoon when I saw Cory walking through the store, his arm curled around his girlfriend, smiling at her when she held up a pink baby outfit.

Still, I blurted out the honest, humiliating truth before I could force the words back down my throat. “He cheated on me, got another woman pregnant, and then married her right after our divorce was final. I haven't talked to him since the day he walked out of my house.”

“People suck.” Aidan said it simply, lacking the emotion that he deserved not to have on this day above all days, and I was pulled back to the present—to the reality of what he was going through. Compared to his pain, mine was minimal.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sometimes they do.”

“Derrick didn't.”

He looked away, tossed his cigarette onto the patio, and snuffed it out under black, scuffed dress shoes. They weren't a designer brand, and they didn't look overly expensive. In fact, the entire suit looked completely out of character on him; I was used to seeing him in faded jeans, T-shirts, and worn work boots.

“No,” I replied. My voice was soft and shaky. “Derrick was amazing.” Tears threatened, because it was true.

Something kept me there for several long moments before I pointed my thumb toward the sliding door that I had exited several minutes ago.

“I should go.” I swallowed the thickness in my throat. There was no reason for me to stay, yet the last thing I wanted to do was go home to an empty house, be surrounded in silence, and relive the day from a week ago that was haunting me.

“Don't.” Aidan stood up and walked toward me. He stopped several steps away and slid his hands into his front pockets. “Stay.”

Something about the vulnerability in his eyes along with the sadness made me pause.

I fought a small grin and failed. “There's a lot of food to put away.”

Like he understood my need to stall, he gave me a reason to linger. “I could use the help.”

My heart ached with the need to reach out and comfort him, but I didn't. He was like the wounded, abandoned animals I used to pick up on my parents' farm. I'd never been able to turn away from anyone or anything that was hurting.

“Okay, then,” I said as he met me at the door to his house. He slid it open for me and stood back while I stepped inside, avoiding looking at him.

In any other moment, I would have enjoyed that. I would have liked to have Aidan open a door for me.

That day, I felt nothing except sympathy for a man who had lost so much—a man who was more than an acquaintance, less than a friend.

When we reached the kitchen, Tyson and Declan were there, Blue and Trina close by. All of them turned their heads in our direction as we entered, Aidan closing the door behind me.

A strange silence hit the room, and in addition to our friends, the remaining parents and students froze as they saw us.

“You okay?” Declan asked, looking at me and not Aidan.

I pushed a chunk of blond hair behind my ear and nodded. “Yeah. We're okay.”

We weren't. I wasn't, and we all knew Aidan wasn't, but Declan nodded once before he walked to Aidan. They said their goodbyes after asking Aidan if he wanted them to stay.

Aidan said no to everyone, assuring them he wanted to be alone, but I didn't think it was lost on our friends that I wasn't preparing to leave.

After I hugged everyone, I stayed secluded in the quiet kitchen while Aidan said goodbye to the rest of the company, consciously stopping myself from staring at the fridge. Pictures of son and dad together in sports uniforms, and some with sandy white beaches in the background filled the fridge. Every time I saw one, tears burned in the back of my eyes.

There was also a calendar of the lunch menu and all of Derrick's after-school activities. I couldn't bring myself to look at it.

Hours later—after we tossed out the food Aidan knew he wouldn't eat and separated the rest into individual containers, after the sun had lowered completely and the quiet set in—I realized there was no reason for me to delay heading home.

“Thank you.”

I nodded and dragged my purse strap up and over my shoulder. “I'm glad I could help.”

Aidan walked me to the front door, and when I stepped through the doorway, he called my name.

“Yes?” I asked, looking at him over my shoulder once again.

He stared at me, and I found myself looking away from his eyes, unable to see the anguish and desperation in them without my own eyes filling with tears. The silence between us grew heavy.

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