Third Party: A second-chance, Christmas romance
A dog gone video game drove them apart. Can a virtual reality add-on of the same game (and a meddling Nana forcing them to finish her Christmas present) get them kissing faces again?
"Danika Bloom books have now hit 'don't need to know about the book, just need to get it!' status in my TBR lists." ~Amazon reviewer
Josh Rhodes has finally made his mark in the gaming world, an investor threw him a bone and bought his family-friendly dog game for millions. After years of living on ramen noodles he finally feels ready to ask his longtime girlfriend, Paige to marry him.
Paige Verbeck-Reid has only ever loved one man, Josh Rhodes. And as happy as she is for his success, with her own career as a dog trainer floundering, his massive success has her on the run: she’s seen what happens when a woman is financially dependent on a man. She gets stuck. Stays when she should leave.
As Josh’s success breeds more digital dogs and an exploding population of dollars in his bank account, he fears Paige will never come home. When Nana forces the pair to finish a Christmas present they made for her two years earlier, Paige has to resolve what she believes with what she feels.
Will their decade-long love stay in the dog house, or can they train their emotions to learn new commands?
Third Party is a stand-alone in the steamy, Mixed Six-Pack contemporary rom com series. If you like witty banter, grandma matchmakers, holiday weddings, quirky family dynamics and pet lover, steamy romance, you’ll adore Danika Bloom’s emotional love story. No cheating and a guaranteed HEA.
Buy Third Party to experience the grip of commitment today!
Release date: December 4, 2020
Publisher: Fire Lily Press
Print pages: 301
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Third Party: A second-chance, Christmas romance
Chapter 1 — Paige
If I’d had my way, I wouldn’t be riding a bus to Nana’s place. But Mom had insisted I get in touch. And to my surprise, Nana didn’t ask, ‘Paige who?’ when I called. In fact, she’d been so happy to hear from me she insisted I drop over for a visit. This afternoon.
That caught me off-guard and I had to think on my feet. It was Friday. What were the odds that Josh—or any of his brothers—would be visiting on a Friday afternoon?
“You sure it won’t put you out, having me over on such short notice? Nobody else is hoping for some Nana time? I don’t want to interrupt… ”
We agreed that I’d head over late afternoon and, after a visit, that I’d take Ranger, her Rough Collie, for a run in the park. Nana told me she’d been in a walking cast for a week and not able to go farther than the end of her driveway without getting tired.
It had been two years since I’d walked the tree-lined street in Vancouver’s University Endowment Lands. The contrast between my tiny flat in London with the homes in this neighborhood was stark. These people gave their cars more room to live in than people like me and mom would ever be able to afford.
Nana’s house was one of the last originals, almost a hundred years old. She’d lived there for over sixty and, despite it being ridiculously too big for one person, had no plans to move. “My memories live here. I’m not leaving them,” she’d say any time the subject was broached of her downsizing or moving to assisted living.
I, too, had memories in that house—only one decade worth—and it was all that history which had made me nervous about calling her and even more unsettled about visiting.
I wasn’t prepared for the chaotic mix of emotions and memories that being back in Josh’s world was stirring up. Sure, the majority were happy, but as I got closer to the life I’d inadvertently walked away from, the bad ones stood front and center in my mind. I stopped at the top of Nana’s block and debated turning around. I could call her and say transit was down…
And I might have, had I not promised to take Ranger for a walk. I made it to Nana’s door and stood outside for several deep breaths, trying to settle my nervous stomach. Steeling myself, I knocked twice before opening the door, as she’d told me to do.
“Hello! It’s me,” I called, knowing Nana would be sitting around the corner of the boot room, in the living room on her favorite recliner.
Ranger was standing right there to greet me. He didn’t bark or jump, but when I said his name, his butt went into tail-wagging overdrive. I was grateful to have him distract me as I sat on the bench to take off my boots, Ranger pressed against my leg, silently insisting on my attention.
Ranger was the first dog I’d trained, from start to graduation. His graduation, not mine. I’d learned that I had a knack with dogs when I was working at a shelter and used my intuition to teach him how to be a good, obedient dog. Now, after years working in the field, having trained hundreds of dogs, it had become clear that if I ever wanted to earn more than a basic living wage, I’d have to become certified. And that’s what I was planning to do in January. In London. In my new life.
“What a good dog! I’m so happy to see you,” I said, holding his face and burying my nose into the long, soft fur around his neck. “You’ve just been to the groomer, haven’t you? Did someone take you to the groomer?”
“Paige, darling, what are you doing out there?”
“Taking off my boots. Saying hello to Ranger. Be right there,” I said feeling anxiety creep from my belly into my chest. Should I still call her Nana? Or should I call her Mrs. Rhodes? Her first name? I realized I couldn’t remember what Nana’s actual name was, or if I ever knew it.
As I rounded the corner to the living room, I found Nana standing by her chair with one hand resting on a cane.
“Give your Nana a hug so I can sit down.”
She wrapped one arm around me and I hugged her with both. We were almost exactly the same height but she was leaning over and I found myself breathing in the scent on her neck, Joy by Paco Rabanne, and a small giggle escaped.
Nana let go and dropped into her chair. “What’s so funny?”
“Just as I was hugging you, I could smell your perfume and I had the same thought I just had hugging Ranger, ‘Nana must have just been to the groomer.’”
Nana rolled her eyes. “Did you know they’re not making my fragrance anymore? It’s been around since I was a little girl and just like that, someone in some fancy office decided that it was an old lady perfume. I guess old ladies aren’t their market.”
“That’s rude. I love your perfume.”
I had a memory of telling Josh that once we could afford it, I wanted it to be my signature smell. He argued that that was a terrible idea and having sex with someone who smelled like his grandmother creeped him out. And then he came home with a dozen samples of other high-end scents from the perfume counter at The Bay for me try. We agreed that Oui, by Lancôme was our favorite.
“Well, isn’t that the way? Now that you can afford to buy it, it’s not available.”
I didn’t want to argue with her, but the truth was that I still couldn’t afford to buy Oui. Josh could. But that didn’t mean I could. Not by a long shot.
“You must be happy to be home,” Nana said as a statement, not a question.
“Not sure ‘happy’ is the feeling,” I sighed. “More like confusion mixed with anxiety. I’m not sure where home is these days.”
Nana’s eyebrows furrowed and she pursed her lips. I prepared myself for a “tsk, tsk,” but she surprised me.
“Yes, I can see how hard it must have been, trying to live your life in two countries. Well, your mother must be happy that you’re back.”
I nodded, but Mom had been acting strangely. She seemed happy that I was visiting, but was making it clear that my staying with her was an inconvenience.
“It’s great to see her. But her new house is tiny and I’m in her way, sleeping on the floor in the living room since she feels weird sharing a bed with me. So I’m looking for a place to stay for the next few weeks.”
Nana scoffed. “You should be staying with Josh.” She said it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
It was my turn to give Nana the confused look. “Nana, we broke up a year ago. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Pish posh. He said something about that but I didn’t believe it then and the fact that you’re here visiting, tells me I was right.”
“I was worried you’d be mad that I ghosted you,” I admitted, feeling less anxious.
“I am upset that you didn’t stay in touch. I know you and Josh had an argument, but that’s no reason to drop off the face of the earth. For goodness sake, you’ve been family for almost as long as I can remember.”
“I’m sorry. I assumed that since Josh didn’t want me to come home, that none of you would. So… I decided to start fresh.”
“Hmph. Well, I’m glad you’re home and starting fresh again.”
“I’m only home for the holiday. I’m starting school in January,” I said with enthusiasm, expecting Nana would approve since the Rhodes family valued education and I’d never gotten more than my high school diploma.
Nana looked at me and waved her hand like she was clearing the air of a bad smell. Her tablet made a noise and she pulled it from beside her on her chair. She scowled, shook her head and typed for a few seconds.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
She ignored my question and placed her tablet back on her chair, beside her hip.
“I know you just got here, but why don’t you get Ranger to the park now, before it gets too dark. I’d feel better if you did.”
I nodded at Nana but spoke to Ranger, “Is it time for a walk, buddy?”
He jumped up and ran to the door, as if the words were a cattle prod and he’d just been shocked.
“Leash and bags in the normal spot?”
“Everything is exactly the same as it was when you left,” she said.
I stopped and turned to see if she was smiling. She had to be joking. She didn’t appear to be. I raised a finger, about to argue otherwise, but Nana interrupted, saying, “Don’t draw conclusions before you have all the facts, dear.”
Chapter 2 — Josh
As my Uber passed the park near Nana’s place, I happened to look out and saw a dog sniffing the ground. It was close enough to the sidewalk that I was ninety percent certain it was Ranger. I saw a couple standing with a small child across the field near the playground, but nobody with the dog.
“Hang on!” I said to the driver. “Stop here, please.”
I got out of the car and said, “Ranger, buddy, is that you?”
He looked up and bounded toward me, tail wagging.
“How’d you get out? Nana’s going to have fit that you’re gone.” I took him by his collar and opened the Uber door. “Can we bring this guy along? He’s my Nana’s dog. That’s where I was going.”
“Sorry, man. No dogs. You want to end the ride here?”
I couldn’t very well leave without Ranger so I sent the car on its way and started out of the park towards Nana’s.
“Hey! Stop! That’s my dog!” A woman screamed.
I looked back to see the lady who’d been standing with the child running across the park. She went no more than five steps before she slipped or tripped and landed on her ass.
“Ranger, come!” She called with an authoritative tone.
As soon as I heard that voice, that command, my stomach sunk and then lurched. Ranger pulled against his collar and I let go. He ran toward the woman on the ground—the woman I’d told I never wanted to see again the last time I’d spoken to her.
I glanced up the street to see if it was too late to catch my Uber, but it was gone.
My gaze was drawn back to the park. Ranger was sitting in front of Paige, blocking my view of her. Had she seen me? If she had, could she tell it was me from that distance, at dusk? Nope, I decided and started to walk away.
“Hey! You. Dog napper. Stop!”
I stopped and would have laughed if I hadn’t felt so nauseous. There was no escaping now. I plunged my hands deep into my coat pockets and watched as Paige marched toward me, Ranger now on a leash at her side. She was looking at the ground, shaking her head. I could imagine the words she was mumbling to herself.
About ten yards from me, she finally looked up and was already yelling, “What the hell?” before our eyes met. As soon as she saw it was me, her feet stopped moving but Ranger’s didn’t. He pulled her off balance and she hit the ground again. Hard.
I moved toward her without thinking. You see someone fall and you help them up, right? Instead of taking my hand she rolled away from me and pushed onto her knees.
I looked from Paige to Ranger, back to Paige.
“What… what are you doing here?” I asked. “When did you get back?”
It’s not that I believed she’d never come back—I always expected she would since Vancouver was her home—but for some reason I thought that I’d be the first to know. It made no sense but then neither did the depth of longing I felt to help her up and wrap her in a long, hard hug. Because I was over her. I’d pulled the Band-Aid off a year ago. The wound was healed. The scar tissue was strong. I made a fist and stared at my knuckles to prove it.
“Nana,” Paige said, “she kind of insisted I come over today.”
“How long have you been home?”
Paige got herself onto her feet and stood more than a yard away. It was hard to tell in the light of street lamps, but she seemed to look tired.
“You didn’t call.” God, could I sound any more pathetic?
Her look said more than words ever could have—raised eyebrows, chin tilted down, pursed lips.
“Why did you just try to take Ranger?” She put her hands on her hips and scowled.
“He was standing alone. I didn’t know he was with you.”
She sighed. “Nana said she didn’t have plans this afternoon. That’s why I agreed to come over. I didn’t know you’d be coming, too. Sorry. You want to take him back?” She took a step toward me with her arm outstretched, leash-in-hand.
I shook my head. “She called me a couple of hours ago and said she needed help with her laundry. Right away. She’s never asked for help with that before. I thought, you know with her foot, and she’s getting old, so… here I am. And here you are.”
Paige’s scowl softened, “She set us up.”
“Look, I don’t have to go over. You finish your visit and we’ll let Nana fold her own sneaky granny pants.”
Paige smiled and dropped her arm. We stood close enough to touch, but didn’t. I could not figure out what I was feeling since my body was tingling with a need to hold but my brain was yelling, “Run away!”
“I know you don’t want to see me, but the selfish part of me really wants to hear how you’ve been.” Paige’s eyes got glassy before she turned away and focused her attention on Ranger. “What do you think? Should I take you back or do you want to go with Josh?”
Ranger, who’d been sitting, stood and walked toward me. Paige’s shoulders slumped and she raised her arm again to hand me the leash. But Ranger walked past me and circled back to Paige, trapping me and pulling me toward her. Paige’s expression changed from sad to surprised as he pulled until he was behind her and the two of us were inches apart. She dropped the leash. Without the pressure pushing me forward, which I’d been leaning against, I stumbled backward. My arm shot out to get my balance and Paige grabbed my hand to keep me from falling.
And then… she was in my arms.
I don’t know which one of us pulled the other in, but there we were, pressed together in a stiff hug.
“Sorry,” we said at the same time, stepping back.
This was new territory for me—how to act around an ex. For Paige, too, as far as I knew. Unless she’d dated in the last year and had broken up with the guy.
I hated the idea of some other man with Paige and I guess my unkind thoughts showed on my face.
“You’re scowling,” she said. “I’ll leave and you can—”
“No. Don’t go.” I reached out and touched her arm. “I was… thinking thoughts I had no right to think.”
Paige tilted her head left and looked at me with a question in her eyes.
I shook my head, “Never mind. Let’s just get Ranger back. You can finish your visit with Nana and I can fold her laundry, I guess.”
We walked the five blocks in virtual silence, but the chatter in my head was anything but quiet.
You broke up with her. You have no right to expect anything more than a friendly conversation.
But she’s the one who didn’t come home for a year. So she ended it long before I said the words.
You think that feeling you just had holding her means you still love her.
No, it means I’m horny and she’s...
What? What is she?
She’s not mine to feel that way about anymore. She made that call. I’m over it. I’m over her. This conversation is done.
As we turned the corner to Nana’s street, I could see her under the streetlight, standing at the end of her walk. I waved and Paige looked up to see her, too.
“Uh, oh. Guess we took too long.”
We picked up the pace and before we reached her, Nana was making her displeasure with us known.
Paige looked up at me and said with a smile, “Just like old times.”
“I’ve got this.”
I jogged to Nana, ignoring her complaints that I was late and that I was supposed to come to her house, not go to the park.
“How long have you been out here?”
“Hours,” she muttered.
Without warning, I scooped her into my arms. “Josh Special!”
She whacked my arm but handed her cane to Paige who was only two steps behind, then leaned against me so I could lift her in a chair hold.
The Josh Special started when I was small, the youngest of my brothers, and Nana would carry me to bed. One day, in my early twenties, Nana was reminiscing about the Josh Special and how she missed it. So, I picked her up and took her to her bedroom.
“The door is unlocked, Paige. Hurry up so this gorilla doesn’t drop me.”
Nana didn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds. I could hold her like this for hours but I let my arms fall for a split second, just to startle her.
“Joshua Rhodes! Settle down.”
Paige chuckled and I felt things I had no business feeling.
That reprimand, “Joshua Rhodes! Settle down,” was probably the one we heard most from Nana over the years, usually a response to roughhousing I’d started with my brothers when I was a kid, or once Paige and I became best friends, for tickling her until she nearly peed her pants. It was like that for two years before we admitted to each other that we were more than just best friends. Or that we wanted to be.
I took Nana to the living room and set her feet down in front of her chair.
“I’m cold. Do you mind if I put the kettle on, Nana?” Paige asked. She knew the house as well as I did since she’d been part of our family for eight years before she left.
I waited until she was in the kitchen before I walked back to the front door to take off my boots. I wasn’t clear on what I was feeling—or why.
“Finding everything, dear?” Nana called to Paige.
“Everything but the cookies.”
“In the freezer. Look in the mixed vegetable bag.”
Paige moved from the kitchen to the doorway that joined it to the living room.
Nana waved her arm and shook her head. “I have to hide them from Anthony or he’ll throw them away.”
“Why?” Paige repeated.
Paige and damned her ‘Why?’ Always asking why.
“Diabetes,” Nana rolled her eyes as if to say she didn’t believe in diabetes.
“Nana, freezing the cookies doesn’t make them okay for your sugar level.”
“Oh, I don’t eat them frozen. I dunk them in my tea, blow on them, and they’re perfect.”
I could tell what Paige was thinking by the way she bit her bottom lip. Then, she put her hands on her hips, pushed her chest forward and looked like she was going to give Nana hell. That posture had a Pavlovian effect on me since there was a very fine line between angry Paige and horny Paige. “Well, if it makes Anthony mad, I’m down for some blowing.”
Christ Almighty. I bee-lined to the powder room to have a man-to-hand conversation with my alter ego.
By the time I came out, the tea was on the table.
“Thank you for folding my laundry, Josh.”
“I didn’t actually… yeah, I’ll finish it up after tea.”
I looked at the seating. I had two choices: sit beside Paige or across from her. I did some quick calculations and decided that it was safer to sit beside her since I wouldn’t have to look at her that way. Bad call, I realized, as soon as my ass hit the couch and I smelled her familiar ginger shampoo. Damn the instant, peppery warm, comforting memories of lying in bed, watching movies on a laptop, the smell of her hair evoked.
I pushed myself as far from her as possible without actually sitting on the arm of the couch then turned so I could breathe from fresh air side of the room.
“Josh, don’t you want tea?”
Pouring tea would require sliding toward Paige to reach the teapot.
“No, I’m good. Thanks, Nana.”
“Well, did you apologize to Paige, yet?”
“Apologize? For what?”
I looked at Paige. She was pressing her lips together tight, clearly trying to hide a smile. Nana always sided with Paige. First I scowled at Nana, then at Paige.
“What?” I asked trying to sound serious, but the truth was that this situation was so familiar I wanted to laugh, too.
She pointed at my face, “Good scwile. Looks like you’ve been practicing.”
Scwile was a word Paige had made up to describe the face I make when I’m scowling and smiling at the same time. That was her thing, blending words to make new ones. I realized I missed it.
“That was not a scwile. It was an unadulterated scowl.”
“Whatever,” she said. “Looked like it had some smile in it to me.”
“What are you two on about?” Nana asked.
“Nothing,” we said together.
“Well? Paige, has he apologized yet?”
Before Paige could answer, I interrupted, “Not the time or place, Nana.”
She ignored me and spoke directly to Paige again, “He missed you terribly, you know.”
“Nana, seriously?” I said.
“Well, you did. I don’t know why you’re trying to be such a tough guy. I’m sure Paige missed you, too.”
I could see from the corner of my eye that she shrugged. It felt like a punch in the gut.
“Well,” I said, “that was then, this is now. I’m over it. Moved on.”
“Really?” Paige turned. She sounded sincerely surprised and that pissed me off.
“Of course. Haven’t you?” Yup, I was fishing. She wasn’t wearing a ring which was both good and bad. Bad since when she left Vancouver she wore an engagement ring that I’d given her. Good since she wasn’t wearing a different one which meant she wasn’t in a serious relationship. Not that I cared…
Nana gave me a funny look. “What do you mean you’ve moved on? Who have you moved on with?”
“Lizzy,” I said, feeling a sharp twist in my gut because if she found out I’d just used her that way, she’d kill me.
“Lizzy? Kama’s friend?” Nana asked.
Oh my god, Nana, be quiet. “Yes, Kama’s friend.”
From the corner of my eye I could see Paige shifting. I could tell she was staring at me but I refused to look at her.
“Well, that’s a pickle isn’t it. What are you going to do now? You can’t very well have two girlfriends.”
“Can we please stop talking about this? I’m sure Paige has all kinds of stories about living in London that are much more interesting than my love life.”
Or lack thereof. Not that I’d ever admit it to her.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...