My Life as a Mixtape: A Single Dad, Rock Star Romance
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From award-winning author LJ Evans comes an emotionally charged, standalone romance between a sexy bassist and a small-town nurse who can’t walk away from each other when the chips fall down…
“I always saw relationships as a burden instead of a gift...until Wynn showed me the way.”
Lonnie Brennan may be the comic relief in the chart-topping band, Watery Reflection, but he’s also the one silently protecting it from behind the scenes. Which is how he ended up living in Tennessee and falling in love… with the Southern charm and sweet-tea lifestyle of the small town. When a sexy, redhead enters into the mix, he isn’t sure he’ll ever escape again.
Wynn Nichols has always been the stable friend guiding the way for others until her world crumbles, and she slinks home with disappointment and failure following her. With divorce papers in hand, she isn't looking to start a new relationship. Certainly not one with a sexy musician who treats life like a series of jokes.
When Lonnie finds himself suddenly in charge of his tiny niece, Wynn swoops in to help, and they form an unlikely friendship that gets them through the darkest days of their lives.
But can they risk the relationship they need for a chance at a very unlikely happily ever after?
Inspired by Chris Janson’s “Drunk Girl,” My Life as a Mixtape is the fourth heart-searing, slow-burn standalone in the My Life as an Album series. If you like unforgettable connections, emotional journeys, and beautiful prose, then you just might adore this series.
Also available in the My Life as an Album box set with exclusive content.
Release date: November 13, 2018
Publisher: LJ Evans Book
Print pages: 443
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Behind the book
I'll never be able to look at sock monkeys and Twinkies the same again after writing this book.
I hope as Lonnie and Wynn realize it's never too late to start over that you find the strength to chase your dreams or for your own new beginning.
My Life as a Mixtape: A Single Dad, Rock Star Romance
Weddings & Tequila
“Take a drunk girl home.
That’s how you know the difference
Between a boy and a man.”
Performed by Chris Janson
Written by Janson / Douglas / Hill
They sent me to find her, and even though I didn’t want to go, I couldn’t say no. It was always difficult for me to be around the Strawberry Shortcake.
Not that she was short, or even cutesy like that doll my sister used to play with. But she had auburn hair like the doll and skin so pale you’d think it was a white sheer hung on a window, filtering in sunlight. A polka-dotted sheer because she was dusted with cinnamon across her cheeks. Just like that damn doll.
And like the toy, she always seemed to have a fruit scent hovering around her. It was enticing in all the wrong ways.
This strawberry girl never wore her hair curly. It was pretty much always straight. Straight and silky. So, it was like she was the doll, but not.
Somehow, it physically hurt me to be in the same space as her. Every time.
I’d leave her presence with a bellyache and nothing to show for it. A bellyache should come from overindulging in some way, and I never got to overindulge in anything where she was concerned.
Truth was, it would have been more dangerous to other body parts than my stomach to do anything with her.
Now I had to go find her because they wanted to throw the bouquet, and they wanted her there. One of the bridesmaids had gone missing. Bridesmatrons? I’d heard rumors, but wasn’t sure what she was anymore. Married or not. I think I preferred the idea of her married. That way I couldn’t want her.
When I finally found her, she was half-hidden in the depths of the garden. The afternoon light barely filtered through the haze of trees and flowers and cast shadows across her. I heard the sob before she saw me, and I froze. Crying Strawberry Shortcake was going to do me in.
I waited to see if she would see me and stop crying. But she didn’t. She didn’t even raise her head from those slender fingers. What the hell was I supposed to do?
I finally cleared my throat, and she went silent mid-sob. I could see her, even amongst the foliage, wipe her eyes so that the tears wouldn’t show before she turned to me.
“Lonnie?” She seemed surprised.
“Hey…um…they’re about to throw the bouquet and wanted to know if you wanted them to…um…wait?” I didn’t mean to ask it like a question, but I was still trying to slow my stuttering heartbeat. When she finally looked up at me, it was with a smile that I could tell she pasted on her face and a laugh so sarcastic that it hit me in the chest instead of my stomach.
“No. I don’t think I need to catch the bouquet.”
“Okay,” I said, but we both knew it still meant she should head back.
“They sent you to find me? Like some misbehaving toddler?”
I had to grin at her. “Well, maybe not a toddler.”
“What does Mia call you? Lumberjack?”
“Or Idiot. But I think she prefers Lumberjack.”
“I bet we’ve both been called worse,” she said with a wave of her hand to my hair. Hers was ten times better than mine. Mine was almost tomato red, whereas hers was the shade of red that the bottled dye job companies want on their boxes. It was so smooth that my fingers ached to stroke it, and I had to fist them tightly, nails biting my palms, to prevent myself from doing something that stupid.
I shrugged at her. “Probably.”
“Well, let’s go, Lumberjack,” she said, and I followed her, watching as her bridesmaid dress swayed about her hips. It was a good color on her. A deep ocean teal that made her skin and eyes stand out. The dress clung to all the right places on her kick-ass body, showing off nicely shaped legs. Long legs. Because she was pretty tall for a girl. And damn if it wasn’t enough to make other parts of my body want to raise to attention.
We got to the door, and I grabbed it before she could, and she whispered thanks, but it was like that one action was enough to send her back sobbing again. I didn’t know why or how, but I wanted to bust something or someone for making her feel this way.
When we entered, she went directly to Mia’s side. Mia Phillips. Well, I guess Mia Waters now that she just married my best friend, Derek Waters. Derek and I had been friends since high school, and I’d been around as their whirlwind romance came to fruition last summer. Three weeks and they’d become inseparable. So inseparable that Derek and I had uprooted ourselves from Los Angeles and moved across the country to this small town in Tennessee.
It was funny. Everyone around here said it wasn’t a small town, but after you grow up in the L.A. Basin, everything seems small. And especially in this town because everyone seemed to know everything about everyone whether it was their business or not.
When Derek had dumped his whole life to move here after knowing Mia only three weeks, I wasn’t about to let him come on his own. No way in hell. How did I know that Mia and her family wouldn’t become cannibals and eat my boy for dinner some night?
So, I’d come with him. And now I was stuck. Because not only did I need to be here for him, but I was also strangely and unexpectedly attracted to the everyone-knowing everything-about-everyone thing.
Like the fact that I knew—even though it wasn’t any of my damn business—that the Strawberry Shortcake, Wynn, had moved home three months ago with some story about her husband being on assignment in Thailand. I didn’t know if that was the real deal or the story everyone was telling to protect her. Because this town also protected its own carefully.
I didn’t know what the truth was about Wynn because we hadn’t hung out. I’d seen her in passing. Or sometimes at family gatherings that I was invited to like I was part of the family when I wasn’t. She’d hardly spoken but a handful of sentences to me.
But that had been enough for me to know that she and I would never mix. She wasn’t the kind of girl that you took home for the night. She was the kind of girl you took home forever, and me and forever were never going to happen.
When we reached Mia, who looked damn beautiful in her lace-covered wedding dress, she turned her mosaic eyes at us. They filled with fire at the sight of Wynn and her red face.
“What in the fruit salad did you do to her, Idiot?”
Mia’s crazy non-cuss words were always sweet and unexpected, but I was about to object, when Wynn dived in for me.
“He didn’t do anything,” Wynn said. “You know me, I shouldn’t have been anywhere near the hydrangeas, but I couldn’t resist. It’s just allergies.”
Mia eyed us both but seemed willing to buy it or let it go. It was her wedding day after all, but I wouldn’t put it past Mia to actually buy what Wynn had just fed her. Mia tended to be on the gullible side. I think it was part of what had attracted Derek to her. That almost innocence.
Wynn and Cam—Mia’s almost sister-in-law in another long story—argued over whether Wynn should be out trying to catch the stupid bouquet. Wynn was putting up a good fight.
Except Cam wasn’t used to anyone not doing what she wanted. I didn’t know Cam well, but I knew that. In fact, the only person I’d ever seen her lose a battle to was her significant other, our entertainment lawyer, Blake.
“Wynn, don’t be a schmuck, just get your booty out there.”
“No. I’m married.”
“Not anymore,” Cam snarked back.
Wynn had her smile still pasted on as if Cam’s words hadn’t bothered her. But they hit me hard.
“Cam,” Mia scolded. She must have felt the same as I did. Cam just rolled her eyes. Mia turned to Wynn. “Don’t go out there with Kayla. She wants it so badly that if you accidently got it, we’d have one of those America’s Funniest Videos clips with her pounding you to the ground to take it away.”
The ladies all remembered I was there and turned to me with a scowl. I put my hands up and backed off because you never interfere with a bride on her wedding day. I’d learned that the hard way from my cousin when I was only ten, and I’d stuffed my face into her cake before she’d cut it. I’m lucky I still have hands to play my bass with.
I’d taken two steps away when Derek came up behind me, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for finding her,” he said with a nod toward Wynn.
“Yep, all good. You?” I turned, looking back toward the short brunette he’d made his wife.
“You are an idiot. Everything’s perfect,” Derek said with his smile that stretched his whole face and attracted the ladies like wax on a surfboard. But the ladies were out of luck now because he only had eyes for his Little Bird.
I grinned at him. “You really did it.”
“Did you doubt it?”
I shrugged at him. “No. It’s right.”
Derek got serious and nodded.
“You don’t need to stay in Tennessee, you know,” he said. “I appreciate that you did. To make sure I’d be okay, but this is exactly where I belong.”
I got kind of choked up, but there was no way I was showing that shit to him. “Well, I needed to make sure my lead singer didn’t disappear before our album reached platinum.”
“So, you going back to L.A.?” he asked.
“Hell no. I kind of like it here.”
“Really?” He was surprised.
His eyes narrowed at me like he was expecting me to cough up some kind of hidden secret. There really wasn’t one. I just liked Tennessee in a way that I hadn’t expected.
The scream of girls, like the ones at our concerts, brought our attention back to the dance floor. Wynn’s stepsister, Kayla, a stunning blonde with curves that could easily grace the PlayBabe Mansion that Derek used to live in, caught the bouquet and flushed happily. She cast an eye in the direction of her date who looked like he’d just eaten a guppy.
“Wow. Stay away from that one,” Derek said with a smile. “Otherwise you’ll be married before I get back from my honeymoon.”
“Well, that’s two weeks, which is about as long as it took you and Mia.”
“Don’t go for that, dude, she’s not right for you.”
I just nodded because it was true. Kayla—the blonde bombshell—wasn’t right for me. And her stepsister, Wynn—the Strawberry Shortcake—wasn’t right for me either, even though my loins objected to everything my head was telling me.
♫ ♫ ♫
Somehow I’d gotten roped into loading up all the presents and bringing them back to Derek and Mia’s place while they took off for their honeymoon. Maybe it was because I’d bought a goddamn truck like I actually belonged in this Tennessee town. Maybe it was because Derek could count on me to not steal the presents or leave them some ugly welcome home gift of beer stains and discarded pizza boxes like our idiot friends might have.
The other members of our band, Mitch, Owen, and our fairly new drummer, Eli, helped haul the presents out to the truck while Marina, Mia’s mama, supervised. I liked Marina. She let me call her Mama which was more than I could say for my own mother. My mother was known as Rochelle. To me and everyone else. She’d been Rochelle since I was barely old enough to speak.
The guys took off to the hotel, or more specifically, the bar at the hotel, leaving me with the presents to unload on my own when I got to Derek’s house. I just sighed and drove away. If I’d pitched a fit, one or more of them would have come with me, but they were already half-ass drunk, and I needed some time to myself after the long day.
When I pulled into Derek’s driveway, I was surprised to see a red Audi sports coupe sitting in the driveway and the lights already on in the house.
When I got to the door, it opened to reveal Wynn. She’d already changed from her sexy bridesmaid’s dress to jeans and a tank top that clung to her curves even better. I wondered, crazily, if the jeans would make her hot enough to shed them in the July heat that clung to the twilight.
We stared at each other for a moment as if we were both equally shocked to see the other.
“I have the presents,” I explained, even though she hadn’t asked.
“I’m staying to watch Jane while they're gone,” she explained, even though I hadn’t asked.
Jane was Derek and Mia’s kitten that they’d picked up on our tour last summer. The tour where they’d fallen in love while driving across the country. It seemed like a story that shouldn’t have ended happily, but it had. Sometimes I was slightly jealous that they fit so painfully well together, even though I didn’t want anything to do with happily ever afters.
I wasn’t lacking in female companionship. Not by any means. There were almost too many women following us around these days—before concerts, after concerts, during concerts. And even though I didn’t always take them up on it, when I did, the sex was just that—sex. I sure as hell didn’t want to wake up with any of them three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
As I turned back to my truck, Wynn followed and helped me unload the gifts. We didn’t talk as we took trips back and forth until all the boxes and bags were in the guest room.
Derek and Mia were almost done renovating the place that hadn’t seen anything new since the nineties. The kitchen was the last major overhaul that needed to be done after tearing down walls and expanding. It looked a lot better than when Derek had bought it sight unseen as we’d rolled into Tennessee last August.
Plus, Derek had his own music studio now, and that kept us both busy.
As Wynn and I left the guestroom for the last time, she turned to me with her polite smile. Today, I’d seen her fake smile, her held together smile, and now her polite smile. I hadn’t seen her real one yet. In fact, I’d only seen the real one once since she’d been home. During the rehearsal dinner, that smile had shined, making her pale blue eyes look like the sunlight was glinting through them.
All the girls here had beautiful eyes. Mine were just dumbass brown. I’d had one girl tell me they looked like God had taken an eyeliner pencil to the iris as if to make a point, but that was the nicest thing anyone had ever said about my eyes. But Wynn and Mia, and even Cam, had eyes that people wrote songs about. Maybe Derek should call our next song that: All the Girls with Beautiful Eyes.
I was standing there, staring at Wynn and her eyes, when she asked, “Would you like some sweet tea?”
She was all manners. Southern girl manners. I’d learned a lot about Southern girls in the eleven months I’d been there. But I also knew she hadn’t meant it. She didn’t really want me there.
“Nah, I’m going to head on over to the bar at the hotel. The guys are there, and I’m sure I’ll have to pull one or all of them off some poor girl before they puke on her.”
I headed for the door and she followed. As I stepped outside, I turned back at the last second, remembering her sobbing in the garden and wondering if being alone was the last thing she really needed. “Would you like to come with me—us—to have a drink?”
She hesitated. She was hard to read, but I could tell she’d considered it. I couldn’t tell why, but she had, and that made me want to push her to a yes like I’d never pushed a girl before.
“No. Thanks. You boys don’t need a sappy girl getting in the way of your charm tonight.”
“No charm on those bozos. Besides, I think you’ve earned a drink.” I smiled at her, thinking how weddings and divorces didn’t mix.
“I think Derek and Mia have wine here.”
“Wine? No way. You need hard liquor.”
She laughed. My whole body reacted to that laugh. It still hadn’t been with a full, real smile, but it had been close.
“I’m probably not the best company tonight. And if I drank, who knows what mischief I’d get into.”
“I swear on my mother’s grave that I won’t let you do anything stupid. I’ve got your back.”
“Your mama’s dead?”
I looked surprised. “Shit no. That’s just the saying, isn’t it?”
She laughed again, this one even closer to her real laugh and her real smile. “I don’t think that’s the way that saying is supposed to be used at all.”
“Well, hell. If you promise to keep me from saying stupid crap like that, I promise to keep you from embarrassing yourself with your liquor and sappiness.”
She hesitated again.
“Better than sitting here thinking of stuff that ain’t gonna make you feel anything but sad.”
It was the first time I’d even come close to mentioning the fact that I’d found her crying her eyes out in the garden. When she looked at me, her smile was gone, and I wanted to kick myself in the ass, but it was too late.
“You know what? You’re right. Let me just get my keys.”
She turned and went back inside before coming back a moment later with her little purse that had matched the bridesmaids’ dresses, keys twirling.
She climbed into my new truck, and I tried hard not to think about the ways that she and I could christen its front seat, because she obviously wasn’t in a place to want to be christening anybody’s anything. But she made it damn hard because she looked awfully good. Strawberry shortcake was always meant to be devoured.
♫ ♫ ♫
Two hours later, she’d downed at least half the bottle of tequila that I’d bought. Mitch, Owen, and even Eli had all but passed out on the table.
They’d danced with her, and she’d kept up with them, moving that body of hers in a way that made me horny as hell while I watched from the table. Because I was not the dancer in the group. I was the bass player. Bass players just stood and strummed. That’s what I was good at.
When Owen had gotten handsy on the dance floor, she’d laughed and told him she was married. It crushed his soul, but I knew better. She wasn’t married.
Eventually, the guys called it a night.
But not the Strawberry Shortcake. She was still drinking. I was sort of impressed. She wasn’t falling over sloppy. She wasn’t laughing and giggling. I mean, she was drunk; her words were slurred and there was a glassy look to her eyes, but she kept herself together. I wagered I’d win a bet that said she wasn’t one to lose her self-control over much of anything.
“You probably shouldn’t drink any more of that,” I said as she poured herself another glass.
“I was the shot queen in my sorority.”
Sorority? Crap. She looked like she belonged in a sorority. Like all those perfect girls that belonged together, but she hadn’t ever acted like a sorority girl to me. She was polite, and nice, and made you feel like you belonged, not like you stood out.
“How long’s it been since you were shot queen?”
She never gave much of herself away, I realized. Enough to be courteous. Enough to keep the conversation going, but not enough to really make you feel like you’d learned something about her.
She tossed back the shot and then flipped the glass over and over on the table. “Grant didn’t like it when I drank,” she said.
“Who’s Grant?” I asked, even though I had a general idea that he must be the ex.
“You don’t know?”
When I shook my head, she sighed. “I figured it was what everyone was whispering about.”
I didn’t respond, and she continued with a slur.
“He’s my husband…” She waved her hand. “Scratch that. My ex-husband.”
“Some guy was dumb enough to marry you and let you go?”
She laughed. It still wasn’t with a real smile though. This one was still all derision.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” she said as if I’d brought the subject up. “No talking about your ex when you’re out with a group.”
“Who says that? I thought all anyone who was getting a divorce wanted to do was talk about all the shitty things their ex did.”
“You have experience with this?”
“Not personally. Well, I take it back. There was this one chick in Portland who—”
“Stop! I don’t want to hear what she did.”
I laughed at her. “That’s the point. We didn’t do anything because as soon as we got naked, she started to cry and told me how she was just doing it to get back at the ex for ditching her.”
“That speaks highly of your prowess in the bedroom.”
I growled, “Nothing wrong with my sock monkey.”
She stared at me for a moment and then started laughing. A real laugh with a real smile that had her eyes lighting like sunlight even through the drunken haze, and my chest tightened because I’d been the one to make it happen.
“Did you just call your penis a sock monkey?”
I grinned at her and waggled my eyebrows, which had her laughing again. Not a drunken giggle, but a full out laugh. I was very sober all of a sudden because making her laugh was like scoring the winning touchdown.
“The next morning, she told me I was a great listener and then gave me a blow job as a thank you present.”
“Puhlease. I told you I didn’t want to hear about what she did.”
“I didn’t say she was any good at it,” I pushed because I wanted to keep her smiling.
“How can anyone be bad at a blow job?”
I choked on my beer as those words came out of her mouth.
“Believe me, there are plenty of ways to be bad at it.”
“Maybe that’s why Grant left. Maybe I thought I was awesome at giving them, and he thought I sucked but didn’t have the heart to tell me how to get better, so he divorced me instead.”
If she didn’t stop talking about blow jobs, I was going to have a hard time getting up without taking her with me, and so I risked the smile disappearing to change the subject.
“I don’t think anyone would get divorced over that.”
She shrugged, took another shot, and then spun the glass again.
“What did he tell you?” I asked because now I was curious. What would make any idiot leave this sexy, tall red-head with a smile that could send you to the netherworld and an attitude that just screamed confidence?
“He told me he was going to teach English in Thailand,” she responded.
“Teaching in Thailand doesn’t mean divorce.”
“I know!” she said, pounding the table like I’d just said something worthy of a Pulitzer. “That’s what I said. I was like, okay, for how long? And then he was like, I’m not sure there’s a time limit. I still wasn’t catching on, see. I just told him that I wasn’t sure the hospital was going to let me take a leave with no end date. And that’s when he said he wasn’t being really clear and handed me the divorce paperwork. He said he just didn’t think he could be married anymore.”
Wynn twirled the shot glass. I removed the tequila bottle from in front of her, and she was drunk enough not to notice that I placed it at the floor at my feet. Shot queen or not, she was likely going to go comatose if she drank any more.
“That’s pretty crappy,” I responded and meant it.
She was quiet for a moment, then put her head down on her arms on the table as if all of a sudden the alcohol and the world had just caught up with her. She closed her eyes and spoke almost as if she didn’t realize she was still talking.
“Yep. But the worst thing is that I let all my friends and family think he’s a schmuck for walking out with no real reason, but the truth is, there is a reason. A big reason.” She paused like she wasn’t sure she wanted to say anything to me. Like the secret was busting to get out of her, but she just wasn’t sure if she could let it escape.
I just waited.
“The real reason is that I’m defective.” She said it so matter-of-factly that it about killed me.
I could tell she believed it. That she was defective, and that snagged at that hole she’d been making in my gut all evening.
“No one knows this,” she said so quietly that I had to lean forward to hear it. “But we had two miscarriages in the year before he left.”
Fuck! Two lifeless babies in a year. I was surprised she was still standing. And the asshole had left her? After two times she’d carried part of him inside her and lost them?
“Shit,” I said. It was all I could get out as I watched her face. She was so unreadable. You couldn’t even tell if she had any emotions left after all that. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she was still so numb that there wasn’t anything to feel.
“Yeah. Pretty shitty,” she said. Like we’d just talked about losing a credit card or something. That was shitty. This was catastrophic.
“That just makes him more of a bastard to me. You don’t walk out on the person you love after something like that,” I told her. She still wasn’t looking at me, though. She still had her eyes closed, face on an arm, the other hand twirling the damn glass.
I wondered again how she was even functioning this much. With two lost babies, a husband that had left her, and having to work in the maternity ward all day, because I knew enough about her to know that was her job.
“It must be real hard working with babies all day after you’ve lost your own,” I said quietly.
She made a barely perceptible nod, but I saw the hand around the glass tighten. It was an emotion, at least, out of the void of nothingness she’d shown.
“You’re not defective,” I told her.
“It’s why he left, though.”
“He left because he’s an asshole.”
She sat up, eyes popping open as if she just realized she’d said all that out loud. To an almost stranger. To some guy she was drinking with in a bar.
“You keep saying that. But truth is, I thought he was the yin to my yang, the bubbles to my soda, the cheese to my pizza, but really it ended up just being another joke on me.”
It was the closest to sad I’d seen her since the tears in the garden. What I’d seen of her so far was that she was either showing no emotion, or she was happy and full of quick comebacks. I wanted to take her away from her dark mood. It was what I was good at after all. Lonnie the Goofball.
“I think you take this whole thing too seriously.” I smiled at her when she looked up with some surprise in her eyes. Surprised that I was telling her that her ex leaving her because she’d had two miscarriages was a joke. I didn’t think that, but I wanted to see her eyes light up again.
“What whole thing?”
“Life,” I told her.
“Um, you only get one.”
“Exactly. That’s why you can’t let anyone else’s crap weigh you down,” I said with a bigger smile and a swig of my beer.
“That’s a load of whale bits.”
I choked on the beer for the second time. “Whale bits?”
She smirked at me, and that relieved the knot in my stomach a smidge. “When Mia decided she was going to use interesting words instead of cuss words, that one came out once, and I liked it.”
“You know whale bits wouldn’t really be bits, right?” I grinned back at her.
“Exactly. It’s gonna be a shit ton of crap,” she said with that full smile that had a little quirk on the upper bow and had my chest tightening up in response.
“A shit ton of crap. Whale bits. I think I’m gonna have to use that one,” I chuckled in response.
We both smiled at each other a minute, and then she sighed, putting down the shot glass with a loud bang. “I think you better take me back, Monkey Boy.”
I wanted to choke on my beer yet again because she’d brought back up the sock monkey thing, and I realized I was way over my head with this one.
Hangovers & Kittens
A LITTLE BIT STRONGER
“I know my heart will never be the same,
but I’m telling myself I’ll be okay
even on my weakest days.”
Performed by Sara Evans
Written by Lindsey / Scott / Laird
The sunlight pierced Wynn’s eyes as they flickered open, and she winced. Her head hurt like it hadn’t hurt since her freshman year of college. Her mouth was so dry she might as well have stuck a maxi pad in it. She groaned and rolled over to look at the clock on the bedside table. It was ten.
She sat up and regretted it as her stomach heaved. She was still dressed—no shoes—but she was still dressed. She’d never gone to bed in her clothes that she could remember. Ever.
Her stomach turned with more than alcohol. It turned at the thought of her entire night. The night that had ended in a blur that she couldn’t remember. She shouldn’t have gone out last night. She had known that she wasn’t in a place to handle any of it well. And she hadn’t.
But she hadn’t wanted to stay home either. She just would have fallen into tears again over the finalized divorce paperwork sitting in her bag like a beacon of her failure. It had been too much to bear alone. Sane. Sober. It was why she’d agreed to Lonnie’s suggestion, even though her conscious had told her not to.
Now she felt miserable, but at least it was for a different reason. At least it was for something she did instead of something that had been forced upon her. Getting drunk had been all on her. She grimaced at the thought that she’d done it with Lonnie the Lumberjack. God, of all the people to get drunk with. Derek’s friend. The one that Mia called idiot. The one that she’d always found attractive, even when he’d only been Derek’s bandmate and she’d been married.
Next to the clock was a glass of water and some aspirin. She couldn’t remember if she’d put them there. She couldn’t remember even walking in the door of Mia’s house. She flushed in embarrassment, even when there was no one there to see it. The last thing she could remember clearly was sitting at the bar, drinking tequila with Lonnie.
At least her clothes were on, meaning she didn’t have to add a night of shame to her list of mistakes. It meant she hadn’t taken him into her bed like she remembered being tempted to when he’d watched her while she danced on the dance floor with Owen and Mitch.
It wasn’t that she was interested in really getting together with anyone. God. Not yet. Not ever. She’d only been tempted as a way to prove that she could do it: have sex with a guy that wasn’t Grant. She was single after all.
Single. After barely two years of marriage. Grant had left a month after their anniversary. Almost to the day. She hadn’t seen it coming. He’d bought her a beautiful set of sapphire earrings for their anniversary. He’d bought a card that said, “I love you.” And then a month later, handed her the papers.
Her stomach twisted with loss and pain as she thought of her husband. Of her ex-husband. Of that last day together. The day he’d left. The day her world as she knew it had stopped.
When she reached for the water and aspirin, she saw that there was a note sitting there, and she cringed. The note was in a scrawl she could barely read, but it said, “Hope you don’t feel too shitty. Here’s some water and aspirin just in case. Lonnie”
It was sweet. The note. The fact that he had obviously helped her to bed. It was so sweet that it almost hurt. Her heart lurched into her throat and got stuck there. She rubbed her forehead in frustration, at herself, for letting her sadness over Grant drive her into actions that were not normally her. Getting drunk with strange men. Letting them take her home.
Jane the kitten jumped on the bed and started rubbing on her. Wynn petted her, absently wondering how she was going to say thank you to Lonnie for putting up with her. For not taking advantage of her drunken state like many other men would have.
As she thought of the bar and Lonnie, she was filled with dread. How much had she told him about Grant and the divorce? She vaguely remembered admitting the divorce, but had she told him the real reason? Had she told him about the miscarriages?
God, she was stupid. Her stupidity was almost as bad as her taste in men.
The only guy who had been any good to her was her very first boyfriend, Zack. The one she’d lost because his parents moved to Louisiana and not because he wanted to leave her. She’d replaced him with Pete who’d callously screwed her and dumped her in high school. Her heart groaned at her younger self for ever being that naïve. For not listening to her instincts then. Just as she hadn’t listened to them last night, telling her to stay home.
From now on, she was determined to skip men altogether.
It would be better to be Auntie Wynn to the babies that would be coming into their lives like a waterfall now. There was already Mayson, Cam and Blake’s little one who Wynn loved more than any baby she’d ever met. And Blake was chomping at the bit for a girl. Plus, Derek would have Mia knocked up before Mia could even register what had happened.
It was painful at the same time that it was good. She was so happy for her friends. Her heart was full for them at the same time that it twisted and ached for what she couldn’t have. For what she wouldn’t let herself have anymore. No more babies. No more attempts at babies. No more men.
Jane meowed pitifully, batting at Wynn’s hair, reminding Wynn that she was there to take care of her. She picked the tiny cat up and took her into the kitchen to feed her. She stared out the kitchen window into the sunshine. Her world felt so dark these days, and the summer sun felt like a slap in the face. It would have been better if it was winter. Cliché as it was, it still would have fit her soul better.
She made her way into the hall bath that had been recently renovated and stared at her smeared makeup and knotted hair. Nice look. This is why you never go to bed in your clothes, she told her reflection. This is why you don’t get drunk with gorgeous men, her reflection said back.
She took a shower, trying to wash away the hangover, trying to wash away her pain, trying to wash away her memories. But there were just too many. She leaned her forehead against the tile, trying to hold back the tears. How did she get here?
Really, she was the most put together of all her friends. Cam had always been the ADHD, impulsive tomboy. She could get into more trouble in one year than Wynn could in a lifetime. After Jake died, Cam had come apart in little pieces. But she’d been putting herself back together when Blake had reentered her life with as much energy and impetuousness as Cam herself.
And Mia…Mia had always been quiet and reserved, but after Jake had died with her kidney inside him, Mia had almost disappeared. There wasn’t much of her left when Derek appeared and slowly brought her back to life.
Wynn kind of got how Mia had felt now because she also wished she could just disappear. She wished so badly that she could take her failed marriage, her failed job, her failed life and just vanish off the edge of the world.
♫ ♫ ♫
Wynn pulled herself together enough to sit on the couch with a ginger ale and put together goody bags for the neonatal ward while she watched HGTV. She had one bag left to assemble when she was interrupted by a text.
CAM: A little birdie told me that you went out with Derek’s bandmates last night.
WYNN: Go away.
CAM: *laughing emoji* Do you have a hangover?
WYNN: GO AWAY!
CAM: Did you at least get some action?
WYNN: What? No! Did Lonnie say that?
CAM: OMG! You little hussie. But no, I didn’t hear anything from Lonnie. I heard it from Keith.
WYNN: How in the world did Keith know?
CAM: He was staying at the hotel last night after the wedding. He saw you in the bar. He said he couldn’t stop in because Dylan had him running errands. How he stands being that man’s assistant, I’ll never know.
WYNN: This town sucks.
CAM: Then move back to Nashville. You can stay with Blake and me till you get your feet under you again. Mayson would love seeing you every day.
WYNN: No. Thanks, though.
CAM: You’re so stubborn.
WYNN: I learned from the best.
CAM: Are you saying I’m stubborn? *shock emoji*
WYNN: Is the sky blue?
CAM: I hope your hangover lasts all day.
WYNN: *GIF–tongue sticking out*
CAM: *GIF–drunk person*
WYNN: I’m turning off my phone now.
CAM: I’ll still be laughing at you.
WYNN: You suck.
CAM: Love you.
WYNN: Love you back.
She threw her phone down on the couch with disgust and a smile. Cam was the one person who could still make her happy no matter what. They’d been through so much together. Love. Life. Death. And now divorce. With a sigh, she turned back to the last goody bag. As she went to fill it, she realized the bouncy ball was missing. She had just enough to put one in each of the bags she’d made.
With a sense of foreboding that she couldn’t quite shake, she eyed Jane who’d been sitting watching ever so patiently while Wynn made the bags. She’d batted at a few things but hadn’t appeared overly interested in any of it.
“What did you do, Jane?”
Wynn got off the couch and started searching the floor, under the entertainment center, and into the kitchen. The kitchen was half in boxes because the renovation was starting on it as soon as Derek and Mia were back from their honeymoon. No ball.
She was bent over, looking under the side table when someone knocked and then opened the front door. In Nashville, someone entering her house would have scared the bejesus out of her, but here it was expected. No one in this town ever waited for you to say come in.
She lifted her head, still on all fours, to see Lonnie standing there with a pizza box, grinning like the crazy man she thought he might just be.
“Wow, that’s quite the view,” he smirked.
She flushed, realizing just what she looked like with her curvy, yoga-pant-covered rear end up in the air. It took her all of two seconds to stand back up. She didn’t get embarrassed very easily, but somehow Lonnie brought it out in her.
“What are you doing here?” she snapped and instantly regretted it, not only because it made his smile disappear, but because she owed him for last night. For taking care of her when a lot of guys wouldn’t have.
“I figured you’d need some grease for that hangover.” He waved the pizza box at her.
She was humbled by his thoughtfulness, but didn’t know how to tell him that. Instead, she asked, “Is it Tito’s?”
“I’ve been in this town long enough to know you don’t bring anything else.”
“What were you doing?” he asked, following her into the kitchen as she went to get plates and napkins.
“Searching for a bouncy ball.”
“Of all the things I expected you to say, that wasn’t one of them.”
“That’s because your mind was in the gutter,” she teased.
“You don’t know me very well to be saying that.”
“You’re a guy, aren’t you?” she retorted.
“Last time I checked.” He grinned and went to open the button on his jeans. She put out a hand, trying not to laugh at his grin and his actions.
“Stop. I’ve already heard enough about your sock monkey. I don’t need to see it too.”
“Are you sure? It’s a pretty nice sock monkey.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “You would say that. All the guys think their penises are the biggest and the baddest.”
He laughed, and they settled back down on the couch with pizza and sodas.
“How’s the hangover?”
“Better now. Thank you, by the way.”
“You already said that,” he said with a shrug.
“No. Not for the pizza…” she trailed off, fiddling with a piece of pepperoni. “For last night. Not many guys would have been as…”
“If you’re thinking I would have taken advantage of a drunk woman, you really don’t know me.”
Uncomfortable, she switched the topic of conversation back to him and away from what could have happened between them. “But the girls you take home are usually drunk, right?”
“Nah. Maybe a little tipsy, but not so far gone that they don’t know that they’re saying yes.”
She grimaced at the thought that she was so far gone that he wouldn’t even have had sex with her. The only way she could make herself feel better was by knowing that she’d earned that drunk. She’d earned it in every possible way.
“Well…thank you again,” she said, trying not to blush. Trying to brush it off like getting drunk with unknown men was something that she could handle, that she was accustomed to.
“You’re welcome. Anytime you need a wingman, just call. I’ve got your back.”
They sat eating in silence until he really registered the bags that she had on the coffee table. “What’s all this? You having a birthday party for a five-year-old or something?”
“Ha ha. No. A lot of times, the older kids whose siblings are in the neo ward don’t have a lot to keep them occupied. Their parents are focused on the newborn, and they’re left twiddling their thumbs. I like to be able to give them something to get their mind off what their family is going through.”
Lonnie turned, taking her in, and she looked away, unable to meet his gaze.
“So, you make these bags up with your own money and give them to the kids?” he asked.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” she protested.
“It is. I bet it’s huge to them,” he responded, and she couldn’t help but hear the admiration in his voice. In all the years she’d been with Grant, he hadn’t once said anything about the bags she made.
The quiet settled down amongst them again as they continued to eat. Wynn didn’t know what to say. It felt like they’d crossed off all the items they possibly could have in common to talk about.
“So you lost a bouncy ball?”
“I’m sure Jane ran off with it.”
As if to prove her both right and wrong, Jane started heaving. But nothing came out. That feeling of foreboding stole over her again, and she glanced at Lonnie with a sudden fear. Hoping that she was wrong. Hoping the cat hadn’t decided the bouncy ball was food.
“Shit,” Lonnie said, and Wynn’s stomach fell, knowing he had the same thought she had.
Wynn tossed the rest of her pizza on the plate and got on all fours, searching the floor again. Determined to find the ball anywhere but inside the cat that she’d been left in charge of.
“Cats heave all the time. Furballs. It doesn’t mean she ate the bouncy ball,” Wynn said, trying to convince herself, even as her stomach twisted once more, dreading that it was too late.
“We are talking about the same cat that got her tail cut off because she crawled into the engine compartment of a car,” Lonnie said, skeptically watching the cat as it laid down on its side lethargically.
“Help me look for the ball?”
He joined her on the floor, and they did a thorough search of all the areas of the house that Jane could possibly have taken the thing if she’d been batting it around.
By the time they made it back to the living room, Jane was heaving again.
Wynn’s panic increased. Jane was a very special cat. Derek and Mia had fallen in love with each other at the same time they’d fallen in love with the little creature. If anything happened to her on Wynn’s watch, she’d never be able to forgive herself.
It was four o’clock on a Sunday. There was no way the veterinarian clinic was open, but Wynn knew Doctor Morris from when she’d been in ballet with his daughter. She searched through her phone for the number, thanking God that it was another thing about this town that was true: you never removed someone’s phone number from your contacts.
“What are you doing?” Lonnie asked.
“Calling the vet.”
“I don’t think you need to do that. Most animals just pass whatever they eat. When I was a kid, I once ate an army man, and he came out just fine.”
Wynn stopped and stared at him. The visual of a young Lonnie cheering as the army man appeared in the toilet bowl was almost too much for her. It almost took her mind away from the frantic phone call she was making.
“You’re gross. Why would you eat an army man?”
“It was a dare.” His eyes flashed with something that he didn’t share, and then he got quiet. She wondered what that was about, but the thought disappeared when Doctor Morris picked up.
Wynn tried to stay calm as she explained who she was and what she thought had happened. He agreed to meet her at the clinic.
“The advantage of living in a small town,” Lonnie said after she’d hung up. “In L.A., your vet would have sent you to an emergency clinic, and they would have charged you an arm and a leg.”
“He’s still going to charge me an arm and a leg, but at least it’ll be someone who knows Jane.”
Wynn grabbed her purse, the one from the wedding that she still hadn’t switched out, and searched the house for the kitty carrier. She found it in the laundry room and came out to find Lonnie had the cat tucked up in his arms.
Wynn stopped dead in her tracks at the picture they made. The orange and white tabby had almost the same color hair as Lonnie did. But the cat looked like a mouse compared to Lonnie. He was huge. Tall and muscular in all the very best ways. A lumberjack just like Mia called him.
She shook herself out of her stare and opened the carrier so he could put Jane in. When Wynn headed for the door and he followed, she turned to him in surprise.
“What are you doing?”
“Coming with you.”
“I can take care of this.”
“I know, but I kind of need to tag along.”
“I’m the one in charge of the house and the kitten,” she told him.
“Yeah, but Derek would still find a way to blame me for it if something went wrong.”
She didn’t have time to argue with him, so she just let him come. He tucked himself up in the passenger seat of her Audi. He looked ridiculous. Like a gorilla in one of those circus cars.
She placed the carrier on his lap, and they took off. The whole way there, her heart pounded at the thought of anything happening to the little kitten that had been the cupid’s arrow in Mia and Derek’s relationship.
♫ ♫ ♫
They’d been at the vet for so long that Wynn’s nervousness had clicked to an almost unbearable level. Doctor Morris had taken x-rays and was consulting with another vet he knew via phone. Wynn was about ready to keel over from anxiety.
Fear and failure overwhelmed her. She couldn’t seem to take care of anything these days… mother anything. Her throat closed on those anguished thoughts. No one should ever leave her in charge of their children or their pets again. She wasn’t even sure she should continue her stints at the hospital after all of this. It proved that she wasn’t in a very good place.
“You’re overthinking,” Lonnie interrupted her thoughts.
“How do you know?”
“I can just feel it. This stuff happens. Could have happened to anyone.”
“I’m the one who brought the bouncy ball into the house,” she said dryly.
“This cat has gotten into all sorts of stuff. It ate a string of floss when it was first touring with us. While it still had its tail bandaged up.”
“Stop trying to make me feel better,” she huffed, regretting her tone but too full of misery to stop herself. “I shouldn’t be left in charge of anyone’s little creatures.”
She hadn’t meant to say it aloud. Hated herself for opening up to him. When he looked at her with sympathy instead of confusion, she knew that she’d told him about the babies…when she hadn’t told anyone. God, not even her mama knew. No one except Grant knew. She was too embarrassed. Too hurt. Too sad.
“I was thinking about what you told me last night.”
She wanted to stop him. Wasn’t sure she could handle whatever he was going to say. But he was nervous, and she knew she was responsible for sharing her truth with him in the first place. So she just stared at him, waiting for whatever he was going to say about the babies to hit her in the heart like it always did when she thought about them.
“I was thinking about how I’d heard Blake and Cam’s baby was a surprise. That must have been real hard on you. To have them have a baby without effort when you’d…” he trailed off.
She laughed with relief because it was easier to talk about Cam than her own painful memories. She could tell her response surprised him. She shrugged at him. “That’s just Cam being Cam. Doing babies like she does everything else. Without thought and with ease. She doesn’t mean anything by it. And she didn’t know about the miscarriages. No one does.”
She hoped he got the point. That she didn’t want him talking about the babies to others.
“Still had to have hurt like hell,” he said quietly.
She looked away, out the window. It had hurt. When she’d found out that Cam was pregnant. It had been shortly after her first miscarriage, when she’d still been so sad that she’d been unable to talk to anyone. But then she’d gone from hurt to desperate longing, to wanting to try again so that maybe her and Cam could have little ones that ran around together like she and Cam had done.
When she’d told Grant that she wanted to try again, he hadn’t agreed. Thought it was too soon. But she’d pushed it. Her own need to fill her loss overcoming everything until he acquiesced. She guessed her body had agreed with him. That it had been too soon, because she’d lost that baby even sooner than the first one. It had barely had a heartbeat when she’d lost it.
Grant had absolutely refused to try again after that. He said they needed to wait. But looking back, she was pretty sure that was the start of the end. Maybe it was his own way of grieving. Or maybe he’d realized he was lucky to not have had any kids after all because he didn’t really want to be tied down to a desk job at the college and a marriage to a defective redhead. Who knew?
Doctor Morris came out at that moment, and Wynn was glad because it meant she didn’t need to finish the conversation with Lonnie about what she’d lost. To relive those moments. But then the Doctor told them they’d have to cut the kitten’s tummy open in order to remove the ball, and she wanted to cry all over again.
She was a walking disaster. Mistake after mistake after mistake. She couldn’t wait to get home. To lose herself to a sleep that she’d have to force with a pill. To be able to escape, for a short while, all the screw-ups in her life.
They had to leave the cat with the vet, and he said he’d call after the surgery first thing in the morning. She left her credit card information, crossing her fingers that she wouldn’t have to pull money from savings to pay for it. Lonnie tried to help out, but she wasn’t letting him pay for her carelessness. Not now. Not ever.
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