Authors: Sophia Henry
Another lesson I should have learned from my ex. Despite teenage stereotypes, being hot and a star football player didn't make Tim a good person. His true colors came out when he'd been tested with adversity, or, in our case, pregnancy.
Two reasons to be cautious about the guys I dated: my son and my history of being deceived by men.
Jason came back with two bottled waters, one of which he handed to me. “Wanna get going?”
“Sure.” I nodded. I jumped off my seat, grabbing my purse and water before heading toward the door.
Jason put a hand on my back as we walked, and I felt a shiver of desire and comfort. Instead of dropping his hand when we stepped outside, he slid it to my hip and pulled me close.
“I had a great time. Thanks for coming out with me,” he said.
” I responded. “I had a blast. Not at all what I expected.”
“You didn't expect to have a blast?” Jason said, teasing, guiding me to his truck.
“That's not what I meant. I just didn't expect a drive-in and a live band. I thought you'd be more of the dinner-and-a-movie type.”
“I seem boring and traditional?” Jason pressed his key fob and the locks clicked. Then he opened the door for me and assisted me into his gorgeous monster truck.
“Well, according to the kid at Hank's, you are pretty predictable,” I said when he climbed into the driver's seat.
Instead of a response, Jason leaned over the console separating our seats and placed his lips on mine. I thought it would be quick, but it wasn't. He lifted his hands to my face, his fingertips soft as he tilted my chin up. His tongue slid between my lips and explored my mouth. And just when I thought he would lean back, he pressed in. Then he dropped his hands to my waist and pulled me toward him.
My entire body hummed at his gentle dominance. I grabbed his shoulders, then slid my hands up into his wavy locks.
He broke the kiss and lifted his head, but didn't take his hands off my waist. Yet his fingers didn't roam, either. Jason handled himself well. Very controlled. Very respectable.
“Predictable?” he asked.
“Nope.” I took a breath, preparing for another round.
That's when he let me go, straightened into the driver's seat, and pulled his seatbelt across his body.
I sat still, surprised at his ability to back off so quickly. With a frustrated sigh, I inched off the console between the seats and leaned back. “Has anyone ever told you how frustrating you are?”
“Excuse me?” he asked. He pressed a few buttons and a blast of air rushed out of the vents.
An involuntary shiver shook me when the initial burst hit my skin. “You heard me.”
“I have been told that, yes.” Jason grinned. “I used to frustrate the shit out of my brother Landon. I'm sure I still do.”
“How so?” I asked, pulling my coat over my legs, trying to shake my chill and hoping the heat would kick in soon.
“I tortured that kid.” Jason barked out a laugh.
“I just remembered a time I really got him.” Jason looked to his right and left before pulling the truck onto Mason Street. But he didn't continue his thought.
“Are you gonna share?”
“What? Come on!” I reached out and smacked his thigh. “You can't say something like that and not finish.”
He grabbed my hand and held it before I could pull it away. “Why not?”
The smile created creases around his eyes, which told me he was baiting me, but I fell into his trap anyway. “It's frustrating!”
“You're so fun, Indie.”
“Tell me.” I squeezed his hand. “Please.”
“It's a sick story, actually. I mean, it's funny, but disgusting.”
I leaned away until the armrest on the passenger-side door jabbed the small of my back. “Okay.”
“I can't believe I'm telling you this.” Jason rubbed his free hand across his eyes quickly, before focusing on the road again. “All right. There was this one time Landon and I really got into it, like, an all-out brawl on the living room floor.”
I nodded, though I could feel my eyebrows inching closer together as he spoke, waiting for the sick part to jump out at me.
“I'm older and stronger, of course.” Jason winked.
“Of course,” I agreed.
“So, I have him pinned down, almost eating carpet, right?”
“Well, one of our dog's Kong toys just happened to be lying right there. Inches from where I had his face pinned.” He paused to glance at me. “One of those thick, rubbery, pyramid-shaped things. You know what I mean?”
“I may have made him lick the crusty peanut butter inside the Kong.” He lifted a hand as he shrugged, as if he were innocent.
My barf reflex almost kicked in as the image passed through my head. “May have?”
“Okay, I did. I did make him lick the crusty, dried, dog-slobbered peanut-butter remains out of a rubber toy.”
“I don't even want to know you.” I couldn't keep the revulsion from my voice, even though I was totally joking.
Jason slammed on the brake, and I whipped my head to look out the windshield, where a red light glowed over our heads. He threw his arm across my body to stop me from jerking forward, and his hand skimmed my boobs.
I lowered my eyes to his hand. “You did that on purpose.”
“Just like you didn't purposely make your little brother eat disgusting peanut butter out of a dirty-ass dog toy?”
“Well, when you put it like that.” Jason lowered his hand to my thigh.
I jerked my knee up, banging his hand away. “How can you think about feeling me up after telling me that story?”
“I always think about feeling you up, Indie.” He placed both hands on the steering wheel.
“I want to be flattered. I really do. But I can't stop thinking about poor Landon.”
“Oh, don't âPoor Landon' me! I'm sure he deserved it.”
“Well, regardless. I hope my son never stoops so low.”
It slipped out. I swear it did. That's not how I wanted to tell Jason about Holden.
Jason slammed on the brake again, only there was no red light this time. And, thankfully, there weren't any cars behind us, either.
Our first date and I'd already set the end in motion. I knew what would come next. Jason would take me home, kiss my cheek at my front door, and never call me again.
Which was fine. I'd rather weed him out early than get my heart hurt later. Especially since I already felt my heart diving deeper than I ever expected for the handsome officer.
Indie has a kid?
“Excuse me?” I asked.
I could tell by the way her face paled and she cast her eyes downward that she hadn't planned on telling me.
“Iâ¦yeah.” She looked up, meeting my eyes with newfound confidence. “Yes. I have a son. He's three.”
Regaining my composure, I eased my foot back down on the gas, moving forward again. “The kid that's always at Damien's hockey games?”
“Did you think he was Damien's?”
“I didn't think he was Damien's kid. I thought he was his little brother.”
Indie crossed her arms over her chest and stared straight ahead. “Sorry I didn't tell you before we went out. I should have. I'm not ashamed of Holden. I justâ”
“I never said you should be,” I responded.
“But we probably won't see each other again, right?”
“You don't trust me around your kid?” If she could jump to stupid conclusions, so could I.
“What?” The hard lines around Indie's mouth softened and she unfolded her arms. “That's not what I meant. I thought you wouldn't want to date me after I dropped that bomb.”
“Shows how much you know. I love kids.”
“Yeah. From that story about Landon, I can tell.”
I laughed. “Are you gonna hold that against me for the rest of my life?”
“Now we're even.” She nodded solemnly. “Since you're holding the pig thing against me.”
“You really don't mind?” she pressed, with a frightened voice.
I knew she needed the truth. She needed me to understand, and not be scared off. If I'm being honest, I wasn't sure if I could give her that, but I put my best foot forward, because I wasn't sure I couldn't, either.
“You having a kid doesn't scare me off,” I assured her. The answer straddled the line between truth and a lie. I liked her, so I didn't want to end what we had before it got started. “Between siblings and foster kids, to coaching hockey and volunteering, I've been working with kids all my life.”
“You've had some interesting experiences.”
“Yeah.” I paused. “Interesting sums it up.”
The night had gone by too fast, especially just getting into this conversation right before arriving at her house.
“Now I understand why you're so full of surprises,” Indie said.
“I get the feeling you've been surprised quite a few times in your life.”
“Yeah, I guess I have.” I shifted my truck into park and moved that same hand onto her knee. “I can add you to that list.”
“Really? How so?”
“I like how you keep me on my toes. You go from busting my balls to all defensive and sensitive in three seconds.”
“Well, busting your balls is fun.” She shrugged. “Telling you something that might make you back out of my driveway and never look at me again isn't. Especially since I'm actually surprised by how much I enjoy being around you. Do not let that go to your head or I'll take it back.”
“Well, that's a far cry from the chick yelling at me during her brother's hockey game at least.” When Indie didn't speak, I continued. “I like being around you, too.”
I reached out and slid my palm against her cheek. When she tilted her head into my hand, it gave me the permission I needed to lean in and place my lips on hers.
Kissing Indie sent all the blood to my dick and I felt like a teenager again. Back in the days when the only things that mattered were getting off and playing hockey.
And since I don't play hockey anymore, getting off is the only thing I could think about right now. But I wanted to take it slow because Linden Meadows deserved it. Not only because she was the sister of one of my players, but also because I respected her. She challenged me and made me laugh.
And she made me hard. Obviously.
Indie pulled back. “I'd invite you in, but my mom is nosy as hell, and I don't want to explain that she was right.”
“Right about what?”
Indie opened the door and jumped out without answering my question. I tried to peer at her through the opening, but she shut the door.
“What the hell?” I asked, throwing my hands up in exasperation.
She stood outside the truck with a crooked grin, using her hand to make a rolling motion. As if either of us had seen a car with a crank to roll a window down in yearsâif ever.
But I obliged because I wanted to know what her mom said about me.
“You do have a nice butt.” Indie giggled and spun away, jogging up the walkway toward the front door like she ran marathons in high heels all the time.
“Thanks for picking me up.” I ducked my head and slid into Jason's squad car. No matter how many times I saw him in his uniform, his physique still made me grin. I'd never seen a cop fill out blue polyester as well as he did.
“I've got a surprise before we eat lunch. Is that okay? I'll still get you back in plenty of time.” Jason leaned across his seat and slid his soft lips onto mine.
I licked my bottom lip, where the tingle of Jason's mint-flavored Chap Stick still lingered. “I'd expect nothing less than a surprise from you at this point.”
Finding the time to go on dates hadn't been easy, since neither of us had a nine-to-five schedule. Thankfully, Jason Taylor was thoughtful and resourceful. Over the last week, since our first date, he'd picked up lunch for us and brought it to my office three times so we could eat together. The short dates were sweet, because it allowed us to maximize our time without having to ask Mom or Damien to watch Holden.
The fact that he thought of clever ways to see me made me feel all warm and fuzzy.
“It helps that you're so easy to surprise.” Jason drove down Mason Street two blocks before turning onto Maple and pulling into the parking lot in front of the county courthouse. The car ride hadn't even been five minutes. We could've walked.
“What kind of surprise is this?” I asked. What could we possibly be doing at the courthouse? Maybe he forgot something?
Jason rounded the car and pulled my door open. “Come on.”
I glanced behind him into the parking lot. “What are we doing?”
“Auden is getting married.”
“Are you picking up the license?” I fluffed my orange skirt away from my legs before getting out of the car.
“Nope. She's getting married today. This is the wedding.”
“Here?” I asked. At the Isabella County courthouse? On a random Thursday?
Jason grabbed my hand and assisted me out of the car, but I forgot to duck, and I banged my forehead on the door frame. I lifted my hands to my head and pressed my palms to my noggin.
“Damn, Indie! You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, though I continued to rub my skull, because that made it feel better for some reason.
Jason leaned forward and kissed my head. Kissing the boo-boo helped about as much as my rubbing did, but it was a sweet gesture.
“Auden's getting married here? Now?” I straightened up.
“Yep.” Jason squeezed my hand and led me through the parking lot to the building.
Who gets married at a courthouse anymore? Was Auden pregnant?
Great. Now my thoughts mirrored the mindless town gossips.
Jason navigated easily through the courthouse. Renovated less than a year ago, the hallway's stark, white walls and matching tile felt clean, in a creepy, clinical way.
He tugged me into a room with rows of chairs in front of a judge's desk, where Auden and her fiancÃ© stood at the front, speaking with an older couple. All four heads turned when Jason and I walked in.
“Jay!” Auden called. The full skirt of a sassy, red dress swished around her knees as she jogged to Jason.
I couldn't help the “Wow” that escaped me. Every once in a while, I saw something that surprised me.
Auden never really stood out unless she and KK were being overly loud in their silliness at Peak City. But she definitely stood out today.
Auden, who had always been sweet and funny, but somewhat wallflower-ish, wore a cherry-red dress similar to the ivory frock Marilyn Monroe made famous while standing on a subway grating. To top it off, I saw when I glanced down, her glittery, red pumps flashed every time the light streaming through the windows hit a sparkle.
I closed my eyes, hoping I'd blink away any dumbfounded look. But my surprise was so obvious, I might as well have pretended to wash my face.
“You look beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” Jason said. Auden wrapped her arms around his neck.
When they parted, Auden grabbed the sides of her skirt and held them out like wings. “Too much?”
“Yes,” Jason responded. I smacked his bicep and he rubbed it. “Ouch! I was gonna add that I'd expect nothing less from her today.”
At first I thought Jason must know something about Auden that I didn't, because I never would have pegged her for a red, sexpot dress and a courthouse wedding. But Auden has a way of surprising me, like transforming herself into the sultry singer for a local band every time she steps on stage. Her wedding-dress choice definitely matched her Strange Attraction alter ego.
“Ready, Audushka?” Aleksandr called out.
Auden's face lit up. The skin around her bright-blue eyes crinkled and she smiled like a model in a toothpaste commercial. She dashed away from Jason and me without a look back.
“Guess it's time.” Jason laced his fingers through mine and we took a place standing next to Auden's grandparents. I leaned over him and waved at Auden's grandma. She nodded and smiled in response.
KK moved to stand by me, patting my forearm with a smile. Though clad in perfectly acceptable business-casual work attire, I felt underdressed standing next to KK. Her gorgeous, mahogany hair was pulled up on one side with a sparkle-studded barrette as the rest cascaded over the opposite shoulder in big, beautiful waves. Her cocktail-length black dress put my cream sweater and orange skirt to shame.
Maid of honor to the max.
But that was KK. Always gorgeous. Always done up. Always alive.
The ceremonyâdo you call it a ceremony?âwas short and sweet. Auden and Aleksandr didn't take their gazes off each other the entire time. The sparkle in her eyes and the adoration in his were looks I'd longed for my entire life.
When Tim and I had been together, there was no sparkle. No adoration. Nothing, really. Just a feeling of relief when he left for college and I didn't have to put on an act anymore. Especially with a newborn on my hip.
One of my favorite parts of weddings was watching the couple's reactions throughout the ceremony. Their hopes and dreams for the future were apparent in the intense connection: their smiles, eye contact, and sweet gestures.
But I guess guys don't really care about that sort of thing, because when I glanced at Jason, he'd been looking at me. His lips rose, shooting me a quick smile before turning his attention back to Auden and Aleksandr.
My eyes wandered to Auden's grandparents. Though neither of their faces held any kind of telling expression, I saw that their hands were joined.
Sweet. Subtle. Strong. Through decades of shared family eventsâtragedy and joy.
Oh, hell, what did I know? The wedding had me sappy and hopeful and making up stories about people I barely even knew. But I wasn't used to seeing subtle public displays of affection and unity.
When my own grandparents were alive, I'd never seen them hold hands. Or kiss. Or sleep in the same bed. Not that any of that meant anything. I know people can be in love and not be publicly affectionate.
And after three years of sharing a room with my son, who barely slept in his toddler bed, I'd be the first to admit that sleeping alone has its perks.
Maybe someday I'd have the holding-hands-in-public kind of love.
Just then, Jason squeezed my hand, sweeping me out of my thoughts and into the present. Where I realized that we'd been holding hands the entire time.
The impeccable timing of the gesture made me freeze. There's no possible way he could have known I'd just been thinking about the power of couples holding hands in public.
He's a hand-holder. And a really sweet person. And he's attracted to me.
The jumble of ridiculous thoughts running through my head was cut off when the judge recited the concluding lines of the ceremony.
“May all of us present today do everything in our power to support and strengthen Auden and Aleksandr in their journey together on the road of life.” He lifted his gaze to address the crowd, then returned it to the couple standing in front of him. “In accordance with the laws of the state of Michigan, I declare that you are now husband and wife. You may embrace.”
Aleksandr, who had already started leaning toward Auden, took a step back and looked questioningly at the judge.
My heart sped up, waiting for the judge's response. Poor Aleksandr didn't know what to do.
“I guess you can kiss her,” the judge joked, elbowing Aleksandr's arm.
This time Auden leaned in, took Aleksandr's face in her hands, and pressed her lips to his. His arms enveloped her as he pulled her body in to his. The kiss wasn't too long or too intimate, but their embrace was. They stayed wrapped in each other's arms, staring into each other's eyes and whispering for an extended moment.
They kissed once more before releasing their hold on each other. Auden's grandparents were the first to step up to congratulate the couple.
Jason tugged me toward his sister and released my hand to extend his to Aleksandr. “Congrats, man.”
Instead of shaking, Aleksandr pulled him into a hug. “Thank you for being here.”
“Thanks for letting me.”
Jason sounded choked up, so I jumped in.
“Congrats, Auden.” I gave her a quick hug. “Are you guys having a reception?”
Auden glanced at Aleksandr and they shared a look before Auden spoke. “I've agreed to a small gathering.”
“What does âagreed to' mean?” Jason asked. Everyone else had gathered around to listen to the conversation. Evidently, I wasn't the only curious one.
“She didn't want big party,” Aleksandr said, shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands. “She tell me, âWe party if it last fifty years.'â”
Auden hid her face with a hand and shook her head, embarrassed at being called out.
“Then I say,” Aleksandr continued, “we enjoy life now. Who knows if we have even one year, yes?”
Everyone in the group nodded. And a solemn silence suffocated the room.
“Well, I'm glad you agreed to the party,” KK piped up. “Because I might break a hip dancing in fifty years. And my third husband won't be too happy with me.”
KK, always the jokester. The ray of light through a dark cloud.
“Third husband?” Auden asked.
“I'm already a serial dater.” KK shrugged. “I'm sure I'll be a serial wife, too.”
“And on that note,” Auden's grandpa interjected. “We should probably get going, unless your first marriage is up next, Kristen?”
“Not yet, Gramps.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “But I'm working on it.”
Jason slung his arm across my shoulders and pulled me close. “That girl is crazy,” he whispered in my ear.
“She's fun. And sweet. I'll miss her when she gets a real job.”
KK graduated this past May, but stayed in Bridgeland to work while she hunted for a full-time job. When I'd asked why she didn't want to live at home during her search, she claimed she had crazy, overprotective parents and she wanted to keep her independence as long as she could. I'd met them on a few occasions when they came in to Peak City, and they seemed fine.
But you never really know what someone else is going through. Or what constitutes crazy for another person.
“Jason!” Auden's grandma called out.
The realization hit me that Auden's grandma was also Jason's grandma. I hadn't felt strange being at Auden's wedding, because I've known her for years, but standing here for a conversation with a grandma he hadn't mentioned having any kind of relationship with seemed kind of surreal.
I took a step back so Jason could have a private moment, but he pulled me to his side.
Mrs. Berezin continued. “You haven't been over for lunch all week.”
“She even bought those pickles you like,” Mr. Berezin added, clapping his palm onto Jason's shoulder.
Jason had lunch with them? I got the impression that he didn't have any interaction with his biological grandparents. Then again, I never asked.
“I've been having lunches with Linden.” His hand slid from my waist to the small of my back as he introduced me. “Have you guys met her?”
“You look familiar.” Mrs. Berezin tilted her head to the side and adjusted the strap of her purse on her shoulder.
Mr. Berezin leaned toward Mrs. Berezin's ear and said, “We've met Indie many times. She works at the Peak City.”
I nodded. “I probably look different without my uniform.”
“I knew I'd seen those cheeks before.” Mrs. Berezin reached out and pinched my face.
I stood still as possible as this random lady pinched my cheeks as if I were a toddler. And my first thought wasn't even to question her odd action. My first thought was “What's wrong with my cheeks?”
“Her cheeks are super cute,” Auden said, “but you don't have to touch them, Gram.”
As if finally realizing her mistake, Mrs. Berezin dropped her arms to her side. “That was so rude. I'm sorry.”
“No problem,” I said through a smile.
“My grandma's losing it,” Auden whispered as she walked by.
I didn't smile, because I couldn't tell if she was being funny or telling the truth.
“Ready for a quick lunch?” Jason asked.
“Speaking of lunch,” I began, reaching into my purse to retrieve my phone, the only thing I had with a clock, “I don't know if I have time.”
Instead of letting me dig it out, Jason took my hand. “I called in an order earlier and had Taco Chico deliver it to your office.”
A refreshing calm spread through me, impressed yet again with this man who understood my concerns and cared about my schedule.
Jason could teach Tim a thing or two about being a man, that's for sure.
“That was so good,” I said after Jason and I had finished the lunches he'd had delivered to the office. My stomach was about to burst.
“I don't think I can move,” he groaned, sinking lower into his chair and spreading his legs in front of him.