|Genre||Lesbian Romance, Intrigue/Thriller|
|Length||74,775 words/240 pages|
|Pub Date||May 2014|
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…
I started to itch the minute the words left the preacher’s lips. Stupid suit, stupid tie, and all the other suffocating layers. The beauty of being a bounty hunter meant I spent most of my days sporting T-shirts, jeans, and boots. Standing in front of all these people in a stiff tuxedo was definitely one of the most uncomfortable situations of my life.
…take her to be your constant friend, your faithful partner, your love, from this day forward…
The words started to sink in, and suddenly, the suit was the least of my worries. This was really final shit. When that profound thought sunk in, I realized the itch didn’t have anything to do with how many clothes I was wearing. I glanced at Jess, but her eyes were locked on the preacher. She’d always been a stickler for authority, even now when she was showing leg instead of sporting a badge and a gun. No way was she wearing a gun under that dress. The idea almost made me forget my current distress. Jess didn’t look distressed at all. Was she buying into this shit? Forever, love, fidelity? Did I really know her?
…in sickness and in health, good times and bad, in joy as well as sorrow…
Well, now he was just piling it on. No one was living up to this litany of virtue. Why does anyone put themselves through this? Why was I the only one not smiling?
…for all the days of your lives.
The itch was powerful now. More powerful than my promise to stand up here and do my part. I started looking for exits. Big crowd, but I was sure I could beat a path to the door. I took one step to the side, but a soft voice and two simple words froze me in my tracks.
Jess wasn’t looking at the preacher now. The invincible Jessica Chance, who’d stepped in front of a bullet meant for me just a few weeks ago, now had tears in her eyes, and my knees buckled at the sight of her vulnerability. I wasn’t going anywhere.
What happened next was inevitable and expected, and I struggled to keep my own eyes from welling up as I watched my little brother kiss his bride.
A dozen fake posed family pictures later, I finally found Jess at the bar. If my brother, Mark, had told me about the Olan Mills part of the festivities, I never would’ve signed on. Tall women in tuxes are the photographer’s nightmare. Where should she stand to keep from blocking the shorter guys? Why isn’t she with the bridal party instead of with the groom’s contingent? I heard the silent questions with every tsk from the guy behind the camera.
Being best man was a hard job. Thankfully, I only had one more task, but I’d need a stiff drink to get through it. I slid up behind Jess. “Buy you a drink?”
“It’s an open bar.”
You’d have to know her as well as I did to catch the annoyance in her tone, but it was there, and I knew why. I couldn’t think about that right now. Not before the toast. I’d practiced what I planned to say about a dozen times, but what had seemed difficult in jeans and a T-shirt, loomed insurmountable now that I was wearing a penguin suit. And then there was the thing Jess was mad about. Hell, I wasn’t happy about it either, but what was I supposed to do? A beautiful woman shows up on my porch asking for favors and I’m supposed to turn her away?
Except this wasn’t just any beautiful woman. It was Ronnie Moreno, a hot Latina lawyer with whom I’d spent most of last summer. Naked. Our time together had been marred by lies, crime, and a shooting, but I’d survived and, when she took a job at a big deal law firm in D.C., I’d filed away the memories in the “that was fun, but it’s time to move on” drawer of my mind.
Now she was back, stressed and needy. The last woman who’d shown up on my doorstep looking for favors had led me down a rabbit hole. I wasn’t eager for a repeat performance. But whatever it was that interested me in Ronnie in the first place hadn’t totally vanished. All it took was her face at my door to flood my head with indecision, which should be a clue for me to run in the opposite direction.
Seconds before she’d knocked, Jess had her arms around me, and I had words I’d never spoken out loud on the verge of falling from my lips. Talk about saved by the bell, but I wasn’t sure which of us had been saved by Ronnie’s timing. I’d told Ronnie to bug off for the night, and she had, but not before pressing a card in my hand. On the back she’d written her number and a hotel address in flowing script. I hadn’t thrown it away.
“Want to hear my toast?” I asked Jess, trying to keep my tone nonchalant, but knowing she would hear the fear.
“Save your energy for the big moment.” She ordered us a couple of beers and handed me one. “Don’t drink all of this before it’s time.” She stared at me for a moment and then softened her tone. “And I’m sure it’s great.”
She was the only one. “Have you seen my dad?”
She glanced around the room and nodded. “He’s over at the other bar with Maggie. Don’t worry so much. It looks like she’s got him well in hand.”
As worried as I was about ruining my brother’s big day with a flop of a toast, I was more worried about Dad drinking himself into a frenzy or a stupor. Wasn’t sure which would be worse. My mother had already filled the role of monster-in-law with her over-the-top micromanaging ways. Mark didn’t need more trouble before he and his lovely bride were able to escape to a resort where no family could find them.
I realized some of my jitters had to do with the air between Jess and me, but I didn’t really know what to do about it. Talking about feelings was so not my thing, but I waded in anyway in the hope it might clear the air. “Jess, about earlier—”
She flashed a big, bright smile, and I assumed she was going to wave it off. I couldn’t have been more wrong. “Earlier? When the skank from your past showed up at your door? What, Luca? What about earlier?”
Her tone was even, cool, and simple, but I read volumes beneath the words. She was pissed. Real pissed. Wish I knew what that meant. Was she jealous or just annoyed? Could she possibly have been feeling what I had? Had we both been teetering on the edge of something more? If so, what were we going to do about it?
“And now for the toast from the best man, er, woman!”
If I were closer to the DJ, I would’ve kicked him in the groin. Wasn’t sure which was worse: giving a toast in front of several hundred strangers or analyzing my relationship with Jessica Chance. As the guy in the maroon tux shoved a mike in front of my face, I resigned myself to the fate of having to do both.
“You coming in?” I tried not to slur my words, but I knew it was pointless. Post toast, I’d indulged in the open bar like the guest they always warn you about. Champagne, beer, shots of tequila. They’d all tasted great at the time, but right now, they were churning in my belly like an angry wave. Jess had parked her car in front of my apartment several minutes ago, but neither one of us had made a move. I wasn’t sure if I could. I wanted to. I had lots of moves I wanted to make. I might be a mess, but Jess looked as hot now in her low-cut dress as she had when she’d picked me up for the wedding hours ago.
“I’ve been wasted before.” It was the solid truth, but no matter how wasted I was, I got her point. I may not be the expert when it comes to relationships, but I knew ours had taken a turn that afternoon, and dealing with it had to be done in a sober moment. This wasn’t it.
“Go inside, Luca. If you can’t make it on your own, I’ll help you to the door.”
I heard the soft undercurrent, but it didn’t contain any promises beyond the assistance she’d offered. I wanted her to help me inside, help me undress, and then make love to me like always, as if the words I’d almost spoken hours earlier were nothing between us. But like a petulant child, I chose to engage with anger instead of asking for what I wanted. “I don’t need your help.”
“Okay, are you planning to sit in the car all night?”
Seemed like a good alternative since she wasn’t offering up anything more, and I’d be damned if I was going to ask. No, she had to make the first move. I made a show of reaching for the door handle and cracking the door. “Don’t worry. I’m leaving. Sorry you had to endure a whole evening with me.” I turned away as I spoke the words, not wanting to witness their effect fall short.
I sighed as I felt her hand on my shoulder, but my relief was short-lived when she spoke. “You need to get your shit together or you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.”
She wasn’t coming upstairs. Not tonight anyway. Time to stop deluding myself and move on. Dad, Mark, even my mother had coupled up, and I’d fallen into the trap of thinking I should too. Well, that was a mistake easily remedied. I shrugged off her hand and stepped out of the car, grabbing onto the roof for balance as I fired back a retort worthy of a five-year-old. “Maybe being alone is exactly what I had in mind.”
I caught a glimpse of her face as I stumbled away, but I didn’t let the hurt I saw stop me from leaving.
I woke the next day to light pouring into my bedroom window. I felt like I’d been tied to the bed, and when I glanced down at the beer-stained tuxedo shirt still covering my long frame, I realized I wasn’t getting my deposit back. One more reason to hate this day. I comforted myself with thoughts about all the others who were feeling the aftereffects of last night. My dad was probably nursing his own hangover. My mother was likely still bitching to the man I knew only as husband number four about all the things she thought went wrong with the ceremony. Mark and Linda were probably well on their way to the resort in Belize not caring in the least about the trail of debris they’d left in their wake. Weddings suck for those who are left behind.
I reached over to my cell phone to check the time. Noon. That wasn’t too bad. Wasn’t like I had anything to do. I’d just finished rounding up a slew of jumpers for my go-to bondsman, Hardin Jones, and I wouldn’t get any new work from him until Monday at the earliest. I scrolled through the missed calls and counted half a dozen from the number I now knew was Ronnie. The lady was nothing if not persistent. I tossed the phone back onto the nightstand and rolled over, pulling the covers over my head. Not like I could do any more damage to the tux at this point.
I’d just drifted back to sleep when a loud pounding at the door woke me. I wasn’t expecting company, but Jess had a tendency to show up whenever she wanted. Despite my feigned nonchalance the night before, I regretted the way we parted company. I strode, barefoot, to the door in my untucked, crumpled shirt and tuxedo pants. Sometime between the ceremony and this morning, I’d lost my cufflinks and a few buttons, but I cared more about seeing her than how I looked. I swung the door wide.
Ronnie Moreno wore a red dress, low-cut neckline, and high, high heels. She looked better than she ever had. I blinked, mostly at the bright light, but partly to make sure my eyes weren’t messing with me. When she spoke, the bubble burst.
“You get a job as a butler?”
She was real all right, and she was the last person I wanted to see. “Very funny. I’m just getting my money’s worth out of this rag before I have to return it.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You’ll probably have to pay them to take it back. Why don’t you go change into something more comfortable and then we can talk?” She didn’t wait for a response before she pushed her way into my apartment and started toward the kitchen. I reached for her arm to stop her, but when I saw the steaming cup of coffee in her hand, I let her pass.
“Give me that and we can talk about anything you want.”
“Hot and dark. It’s all yours.”
I took the coffee from her hand but ignored the remark. She didn’t own me off just one cup, but I took a sip and groaned. When she settled onto my couch, I was unable to protest. She’d earned a few minutes of my time. “Tell me what you want.”
“Sit down. It’s complicated.”
I sat, not because she told me to, but because I wasn’t awake enough to stand. “Spill.”
“You remember my brother, Jorge?”
“That’s the one.”
“Nice guy.” I let my tone say it all. I didn’t care for the guy. He’d been an ass when I’d gone out with his sister, and I didn’t expect much had changed since I’d last seen him. “What’s up?”
“He’s in trouble.”
“Boys will be boys.”
“Serious trouble.” Ronnie leaned in as she delivered her words, her expression fierce, like she could frown her way into making me care about the douche she was related to.
“Okay, so he’s in serious trouble. Why aren’t you tapping one of his cop buddies to help him out?” I was only mildly curious, but her reaction to my suggestion provoked a visceral reaction.
“No fucking way. Those so-called buddies are what got him into trouble in the first place.”
And that explained why she’d shown up on my doorstep. I’d never told her my story, but it wasn’t a secret. She must’ve heard something—probably from her brother—that made her think I’d be sympathetic to an outsider on the force. Well, she was wrong. The closest connection to the Dallas Police Department I had was when Jess wound up naked in my bed. “Sounds like he needs a lawyer. Know any good ones?”
“Funny. We need some help.”
“You need to go elsewhere. Unless your brother’s on the lam and someone’s going to pay me to hunt him down, there’s nothing I can do for you.” I stood up. Time to change out of these clothes and wash away the memory of last night’s train wreck.
Ronnie didn’t get the hint, so I urged her along. “I have stuff to do. You should go.”
“Luca.” Her voice shook. “I need you.”
Her words were the perfect trigger to shut me down. “No, babe. Nobody needs me.” I wasn’t even curious enough to ask questions. All I wanted was for her to leave. Now. I’d had my coffee, and there was nothing else she could do for me.
I walked to the door and waited with my hand on the knob. An uncomfortable amount of silence later, she rummaged in her purse, pulled out a bundle of papers, and stood. As she walked toward me, I smelled a whiff of her familiar perfume, a memory I thought I’d banished from my brain. When she drew closer, I saw the tiny beauty mark near her ear. I’d kissed that sensitive spot more times than I could count. When she placed a hand on my chest, I struggled not to gasp. I remembered all the times she’d climbed on top and ridden me to orgasm, and I gave in to a small shudder as she whispered in my ear, “I’m not nobody.”
The light heat of her breath had barely dissipated when I felt her gently push the papers into my hands. Within seconds, she was gone. I stared at the open door. Torn. I don’t have much willpower when it comes to beautiful women, no matter how much crap they send my way. A few long strides and I could catch her, pull her back, and wrest back the control she’d just robbed.
I waited out my resistance and then shut the door. Speaking of crap, I had an armful of papers I assumed Ronnie had left to rev my curiosity. I tossed them on the kitchen counter and walked away. She didn’t have any right to assume she could jet back to Dallas and get me to do her bidding. Last time I’d done a favor for her, she’d lied every step of the way and nearly gotten us both killed. She could find someone else to do her dirty work. I wasn’t buying.