Tripped by Love
He’s a broody bodyguard with secrets he can’t share.
She’s a busy single mom with a restaurant to run.
They’re just friends until a little white lie changes everything.
Marco Hernandez is the somber trainer here only to bend my body into shape, but when the perfectly sculpted man holds my son in his arms and smiles, I’m a goner. Weak legs. Pounding veins. Too bad as my brother’s bodyguard, he’ll never look at me the way I crave. Too bad I don’t have the time between the café and my baby boy to persuade him otherwise.
Cassidy O’Neil has looked like an angel from the moment I met her…an angel I can’t touch. Not only because she’s my boss’s sister but because I’m still trying to redeem myself for the sins of my past. The tantalizing mirage of “family” she represents will remain just that―a dream-like apparition.
Until her ex returns trying to claim the son he never wanted, and I’m the one who shows him the door. The lie that falls from my lips while trying to protect her threatens the tenacious balance we’ve established.
Once it’s Cassidy’s heart on the line, how will I defend her? Especially if I’m the one putting it at risk.
Inspired by Ingrid Andress’s “We’re Not Friends,” this achingly tender, slow-burn, small-town romance from award-winning author LJ Evans has loveable characters, deep emotions, and a windy path to creating a family.
Get it now and see why readers say LJ creates unforgettable characters.
Release date: January 12, 2022
Publisher: LJ Evans Book
Print pages: 370
Reader says this book is...: emotionally riveting (1) entertaining story (1) escapist/easy read (1) happily ever after (1) heartwarming (1) realistic characters (1) satisfying ending (1) strong chemistry (1) strong heroine (1) swoon-worthy (1) terrific writing (1) unputdownable (1)
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Tripped by Love
“Ninety miles an hour going fast as I can,
Trying to push a little harder trying to get the upper hand.
So much to do in so little time.”
Performed by Jonny Diaz
Written by Smith / Diaz / Wood
“Mama!” My heart leaped, and joy filled me as Chevelle’s little voice echoed through the quiet of the restaurant’s kitchen a few seconds before chubby arms wrapped around my legs. I braced myself with a hand on the stainless-steel counter and smiled down at my gorgeous boy. Love soared through my chest, growing and expanding like it had every day since I’d found out I was pregnant, and even more since he’d been placed in my arms.
“Well, hello, Snickerdoodle.” I kept one dough-filled hand on the counter and leaned over to kiss the top of his head. The dark curls were soft against my lips as the scent of baby shampoo and apple juice filled my senses. I wanted to pull him to me in the tightest hug known to humanity, but it would have to wait until I finished the prep of the sourdough rounds.
“Sorry,” Tristan said, hurrying forward, out of breath. Her softly tanned skin was flushed from racing after my son, and she brushed at a wisp of dark-blonde hair that had escaped her bun held up by two paintbrushes she’d likely forgotten were there. “He just took off, and he’s getting fast.”
I chuckled. “The other day, he made it from the bathtub to the kitchen before I’d gotten off the floor.”
“Don’t even try to make me feel better. We both know it has more to do with my waddle-walk than his pace,” she said, putting a protective hand on the belly protruding from her soft T-shirt.
My brother’s and Tristan’s faces glowed with happiness these days after trying for two years to get pregnant. I’d watched their struggles to conceive with a guilty conscience, knowing just how easily Chevelle had come into existence. Too easily―through contraception and a spattering of sex―while they’d lived practically attached limb to limb, fighting for a baby.
I kissed Chevelle’s head one more time. “I’m almost done, buddy. Then, we can go home.”
Tristan eyed the finished bread that I’d sliced and was letting cool. I chuckled. “Go ahead. You know you want to.”
She grimaced. “Nah, I promised Hannah I’d be ready for her next pizza experiment, and if I eat now, I won’t have room for another four hours with this critter pushed up against my rib cage.”
“What’s her latest?” I asked.
“It’s pesto, apple, and smoked gouda, I think?” Tristan said, nose squishing together.
I couldn’t have hid my smile if I tried. Even though Hannah―at the mere age of seven―was almost as good on the piano as my country-rock legend of a brother, Brady O’Neil, she hadn’t let it consume her. Instead, she divided her time, spending almost as many hours in my kitchen as she did in Brady’s studio next door.
Chevelle tugged on my leg one more time before sitting down on my feet and holding on for dear life. I knew exactly what he wanted, and it made me hurry through my last task. I placed the last of the bread in the proofing containers before attempting a monster walk toward the sink with Chevelle riding on my foot. I pretended to groan. “Tristan. Help. I have a gremlin attached to me. It’s going to eat me.”
Chevelle giggled―a boyish, baby giggle that made me smile.
I was almost to the faucet when he tugged at my knees with just enough force to send me careening sideways toward the sink. I hadn’t expected it, and with nothing to grab onto, I landed on the rubber mat placed over the sealed concrete flooring, bringing Chevelle down on top of me. He laughed, thinking it was all part of the game. I gasped as pain shot through my elbow and shoulder.
“Cass!” Tristan was at my side, pulling Chevelle off of me in a heartbeat.
“I’m fine,” I told her. I inched my way toward the counter and pulled myself up before turning to Chevelle, who was wiggling in Tristan’s arms. His dark-brown eyes were full of laughter, and his cheeks pushed up into his eyes from the width of his smile—a smile that reminded me of my brother’s much more than his father’s.
“You are quite strong, monster,” I teased, tickling his stomach and leaving a trail of flour on his dark-blue shirt covered with his favorite animal―dogs.
I turned and washed my hands.
“You sure you’re okay,” Tristan asked, brow furrowing.
“Only my pride got wounded,” I told her.
I was resigned to it―the hits to my ego that came from being so weak. I was leaps and bounds stronger now than I’d ever been in my life, but I was still one of the frailest twenty-five-year-olds around. I had my extra X-chromosome to thank for it.
But I wouldn’t let the poor-me feeling overtake me today. I had a good life. Not only did I have my precious little boy, but I also had Brady, Tristan, and my parents, who’d all give a right arm for me. Or a left. Or both arms. Brady had already proven it by giving up an enormous chunk of change to help me start my restaurant.
I dried my hands and reached for Chevelle who was still trying to escape Tristan’s grasp. He came easily, and I finally got to give him the tight squeeze I’d been dying for since the moment he’d walked in. The kind of hug that made him grunt and giggle before snuggling up against my neck with his little hand squeezing the bottom of my T-shirt sleeve like he had since he was a few weeks old. The smell of him surrounded me again, soothing me in a way that made me forget completely about the pain in my left arm.
Tristan, however, was still looking at me with concern in her eyes.
I didn’t have to force the smile I turned to her. It was honest and heartfelt. “I’m good. Truly. Go before Brady comes in search of you. Then, I’ll never get out of here without being hauled to the hospital for an X-ray.”
She grimaced. “Just be grateful Arlene wasn’t here, or the ambulance would already be on its way.”
I laughed, but my heart fell, knowing it was the truth.
Tristan left by the back instead of the door on the second floor that joined my Golden Heart Café to their La Musica de Ensueños Studios, which meant Brady was already in the car, waiting. I was lucky he hadn’t appeared at her side, demanding what was taking so long. The only time he could stand being away from her for more than a few moments was when he was lost in his music, and that was something he did less now than ever before. Falling for Tristan and convincing her that she deserved a second chance at love after she’d lost her Navy SEAL husband had changed my brother’s life.
Sometimes, I ached for that same kind of devotion. For someone to put me at the center of their world not because I needed to be watched over like my parents seemed to think, but because they couldn’t bear to keep their hands off of me. Then, I would remember I barely had time to breathe after taking care of Chevelle and running the restaurant, and I knew I had no time for love or men.
After putting the finished loaves away one-handed with Chevelle still clinging to me, I made one last pass through the restaurant to ensure everything was ready for our morning rush. I paused in the archway between the kitchen and the dining space, and pride filled me, joy traveling through my veins as it did every time I stopped to really look at what I’d built.
There was a fountain in the middle of the room, and while it had been turned off for the night, the water still glistened and sparkled. An enormous Tree of Life soared out of the water’s base, the trunk etched with animals, plants, and carved hearts. The long metal branches and metallic-colored leaves stretched up to the ceiling. Windchimes dangled from the limbs, and when the air conditioning kicked in, like now, they blew softly. It was a barely noticeable sound when the restaurant was full, but when it was empty, the melodies were calming. Sweet. The fairy lights I’d weaved through the boughs were the only lights still on, and they cast a shimmering glow over the darkened room. It was beautiful. A stunning art piece that most new restaurants would never have been able to afford, but it had been a gift to me from my parents. I was pretty sure Brady had given them the idea after I’d drawn it and nixed it from the original plans. I hadn’t wanted him to cough up more money for a simple decorative piece.
The renovations on the café had been costly enough―money I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to repay him. The guilt ate at me even knowing Brady didn’t want me to pay him back. The restaurant wasn’t in the red anymore, and I was grateful Chevelle and I could now live on the little profit there was, but it didn’t leave much in my checking account at the end of each month. Once in a blue moon, I was able to write Brady a teeny-tiny check that he fought taking, insisting the restaurant had been a gift.
I shut off the lights, hit the alarm, and left through the front door with Chevelle half asleep in my arms. I knew I couldn’t let him pass out yet. There was no way he’d go down on time tonight if he snoozed at five o’clock in the evening.
I turned on the sidewalk and almost ran into a couple of college kids in Wilson-Jacobs sweatshirts, laughing and joking. “Oh, are you closed?” the girl asked, disappointment radiating from her.
“Sorry, we’re only open for breakfast and lunch,” I told her. My stomach twisted because I knew I’d be able to pay Brady off sooner if I stayed open for dinner, but I couldn’t afford to hire extra chefs or the management I would need to keep those kinds of hours. And there was no way I’d be able to stay on my feet from five in the morning until nine or ten at night—not if I wanted to keep my health and have even a few hours for Chevelle. He already had so little of my time as he was shuffled back and forth between Tristan and my parents.
“I told you,” the boy said, throwing an arm over the girl’s shoulder as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
She pouted, and he kissed her temple. A sweet move that made my chest ache. I’d never really had that―tender caresses from someone looking at me like I was everything they wanted.
“What are we going to do for food now?” she asked.
“Well, Mickey’s has great wings,” I offered. “And if you really want vegan, Artfully Thai just outside town has some great options. Or if you’re looking for something sweeter, Sweet Lips is still open.”
I didn’t wait for a response, heading down the sidewalk. They yelled, “Thanks,” in unison as if they were one instead of two. Something Brady and Tristan often did as well, completing each other’s sentences and speaking the same words. The ache in my chest grew.
“Mama. Treat?” Chevelle said, raising his head and patting my face. The mention of Sweet Lips Bakery had hope lighting up his deep-brown eyes.
I smiled at my dessert-obsessed little boy. “I have cookies at home. You can have one after dinner.”
“Momos?” he asked, bringing a smile to my lips at the adorable mixed-up word he used for the s’more cookies that were one of my Golden Heart Café specialties. Originally, I’d made them for Hannah and her friend, Kiran, but then they’d become a hit at the restaurant.
Creating new items was my true joy, playing with how flavors and textures blended together and how you could use healthy alternatives to make classic dishes. At a minimum, it was a way to keep my mind—which was forever on the go—busy. But it also meant my menu was constantly changing, keeping it fresh and unique.
“Yep, Momos, just for you,” I said, bringing his chubby little fingers to my mouth and kissing the tips. “But dinner first.”
He nodded and went back to snuggling my neck as I made my way to my Prius that was in the last stages of its life. I buckled him into his car seat, shut the door, and then got behind the wheel, watching as the couple went down the wooden sidewalk with the guy twirling the girl as if they were dancing. They were only a few years younger than me but seemed so much freer.
I rolled my eyes at myself. The melancholy was ridiculous. I’d gotten everything I’d truly wanted. My boy. The restaurant. I didn’t need more.
I left behind the postcard-perfect brick-and-ivy buildings of Grand Orchard’s downtown, driving a handful of blocks to the small Craftsman-style house I owned next door to my parents. It was yet another thing I had Brady to thank for, but I loved it almost as much as the restaurant. The deep-green siding and white shutters with rustic brown trim brought the forest feel of the café home with me. Like the Tree of Life had tagged along with us.
I’d just barely gotten us into the house when my cell phone rang. I answered without checking. “Yes, I’m home. No, we don’t need anything.”
Silence on the other end for a moment. Then, a deep chuckle erupted that hit me in the belly, licking its way down and making my already wobbly legs even more unsteady.
“I’m not Arlene,” Marco’s voice filled the line like he could fill a room with his mere presence. He didn’t laugh often. Usually, I was lucky to get a twitch of his lip or, on occasion, a full smile that could wipe away someone’s memory, but full-on laughter from him was as rare as a hot day in January in upstate New York.
“Sorry, but you have about thirty seconds before she calls, and if I don’t answer, she’ll rush over,” I said as I put Chevelle down. “Go put your shoes in the basket.”
He was growing like a leaf, but his uneven gait was still all toddler. It tugged at my heart that felt strangely bruised tonight. I watched as he half-sat and half-collapsed next to the basket near the back door and focused on taking off his shoes with a little furrow to his brow and tongue sticking out.
“Just making sure we’re still on for tonight,” Marco asked, and the question itself made me pause.
I couldn’t remember the last time Marco and I hadn’t worked out together after Chevelle had gone to sleep. Our daily routine was why I was stronger than I’d ever been before. He only ever missed them when he was traveling with Brady.
“Why? You got big plans or something?” I asked, trying to ignore the stab of jealousy that soared through me at the idea of Marco having plans that didn’t relate to his position as Brady’s bodyguard. Plans that might have involved a woman. Not that I’d ever seen him with a woman. Not in the entire seven years I’d known him.
“Plans?” he asked as if the idea itself was a surprise. “No. I’ll be there.”
Relief I didn’t have a right to had me loosening my death grip on the phone. I’d only been eighteen when Marco had first shown up at Brady’s side in Grand Orchard, and we’d barely conversed during the first few years. But ever since he’d started working out with me, we’d become friends. Or…maybe not friends…but something more than mere acquaintances. Or perhaps it was all in my head, and I was simply a project to him―a coach and his trainee. His boss’s sister who needed some beefing up.
My phone buzzed with another incoming call. “’Kay. I gotta go. That’s Mom.”
“See you at seven-thirty.”
He hung up, and I switched over, trying to get my pulse to calm down so Mom wouldn’t think there was something wrong. So she wouldn’t rush over to find out what I was hiding. So I could get through the night before starting my day all over again at four thirty in the morning.
“It’s hard to put your finger
On the thing that scares you most
And you can’t tell the difference
Between an angel and a ghost.”
Performed by Chris Stapleton
Written by Clark / Clark / Dobson
I tapped my phone to my forehead, silently swearing at my own ridiculousness. It was bad enough that I found my way to the window in the apartment over her parents’ garage at five o’clock each night, knowing she’d be driving in. Calling had been over the top. Normally, I just made sure she and Chevelle got into the house okay, but there’d been an aura of sadness about her today that had me dialing before I’d even really thought it through.
In the fading sunlight, her hair had glinted with golds and whites, shimmering like a halo around an angel. The two ever-prevalent buns she needed to keep her long, thick mane out of her face had been losing their battle with tendrils escaping everywhere. The flowy skirt and Golden Heart Café T-shirt she’d had on were her standard uniform―some unique combination of seventies flower child and modern―but it also hid her willowy limbs and lean frame from the world.
While I hadn’t been able to see them, I knew her feet were shoved into orthopedic shoes most people would deem ugly-as-sin. I had a love-hate relationship with them because I knew they helped her stand on her feet all day in the kitchen, but I also knew they made her feel undesirable when she was anything but.
That was when I cut my thoughts off.
No way I could desire her. Not only because she was my boss’s sister, but because I could never be the person she deserved at her side. My silent vigil and training her would have to be where the story ended. I’d make sure she had the strongest muscles possible and ignore the way she looked in a workout tank that showed off silky skin and shorts that clung to her hips.
My phone shook in my hand with a text from my partner. Trevor and I headed the Garner Security protection detail for Brady O’Neil. When he was touring, the team quadrupled in size, and the owner, Wayne Garner, took on a larger role, but whenever we were in Grand Orchard, he left Trevor and me in charge.
TREVOR: Ghost and family are home for the night. A reporter from The Exhibitor was sniffing for news about The Painted Daisies album he’s producing. I had to kick the guy off the property. Told everyone to keep their eyes peeled.
Brady’s code name was based on the single off his second album and went back to a time when I’d just come onboard with Garner, and Brady had had a real-life stalker on his tail. I’d barely known what I was doing then, having gotten into the protection business right as my military career had ended in a fiery storm.
ME: Thanks for the heads-up.
I yanked off my uniform of black on black on black, locked my two Glocks in the gun safe, and changed into workout gear. I had two hours to fill before I could ease through the backyard and over to Cassidy O’Neil’s house. The workout I did with her was never enough to keep me in the shape required for my job, but then, it had been designed for her and not me. I headed out onto the street for a run. After I came back from her house, I’d burn myself out with more weights until I was so tired that my memories couldn’t haunt me. I might sleep then. A handful of hours at best, but it would be enough to get me through.
The first few blocks, I kept my pace slow as I cruised by the edge of Wilson-Jacobs College. The apple trees lined the campus’s stone paths, and the heady scent of their fading blooms saturated the air. The sounds of crickets and a boom of bass coming from the dorms carried through the midnight-blue sky as it started to fade into black. A few stars began flickering into sight, and the temperature dropped.
As the old stone buildings covered in moss and ivy disappeared behind me, I had a decision to make. Curl my way through town or head out into the orchards. It was an easy choice. I skipped the red brick and wooden sidewalks that screamed small-town America and pounded my feet along the pavement toward the trees and farms. While upstate New York was very different from where I’d grown up in Texas, both places were capable of humidity that sank into every crevice. Tonight, there was only a hint of it in the air as May wound its way into June.
As if I’d sent out some kind of bat signal to her by thinking about Texas, my phone rang, and Maliyah’s wrinkled face appeared with a video call.
“Hola, Tía,” I answered, stepping off the side of the road and into the soft dirt that surrounded the orchard.
“You’re out running,” she said.
“I’m not even out of breath. How could you know that? I could just be taking a leisurely stroll.”
Her lips twitched. “You? Leisurely? Besides, you always go running before you work out with Cassidy.”
I was getting predictable if even Maliyah knew this about me. I needed to shake things up. Break the routine. But that meant breaking my workouts with an angel, and my chest seized at the thought.
“How are you?” I asked, changing the subject.
“I’m fine. Jonas is fine. We’re all fine. Stop worrying.”
My lips twitched more. “You called me, Tía. So, who’s really worrying?”
She waved a finger as if she was scolding me. “When are you taking a vacation?”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I just told you everything is fine. I didn’t ask because there’s anything going on. I asked because you work too hard. Constantly protecting someone else is no way to live your own life.”
I didn’t respond because I couldn’t. This was an argument we’d had for years now, and neither of us would change our views.
Instead, I changed the subject. “Did you take your meds today?”
“Yes. Jonas puts them in one of those daily pill containers for me, and then he watches me like a hawk while I swallow them before he leaves for school,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “I’m supposed to be the parent, not him. That boy is even more serious than you were at that age.”
Guilt washed over me as I realized how long it had been since I talked to Jonas, especially when I knew he was living my teenage nightmare for real. After losing my parents and being placed with Maliyah, I’d walked home from school every day, afraid I’d find her gone, and that was before her heart episode. The fear that she’d disappear from his life for good had to have been weighing on Jonas. I needed to check in with him soon.
Before I could dwell on my failings with my foster brother―like she knew I would―Maliyah launched into an update about everyone in her life, including Maria Carmen and her enormous family who treated Maliyah as if she was one of their sisters. The tightness in my muscles eased slightly when Maliyah broke into laughter while explaining Maria Carmen’s disgust with her firefighter son who was dating three women at the same time. After all the worry I’d put Maliyah through―after what had happened to her because of me―hearing her laugh was always a relief, and she knew it.
“I told her she should be happy because at least she has the chance of having grandchildren someday with Álvaro playing the field and not living like a monk,” she said as she stared into my eyes through the screen, her meaning clear. “Maybe you need to go on vacation to some Caribbean Island and find a beautiful lady to hook up with.” She winked, her hazel eyes sparkling with mischief before she wiggled her chestnut-colored eyebrows to emphasize her point.
A choke of laughter got stuck in my throat as images of Cassidy spread out on the Caribbean sand filled my head: in a bikini, with the sunlight bouncing off her smooth skin, and her honey-colored eyes tempting me to kiss every inch of her body.
I barely held back a groan.
“I need to finish this run,” I said, and Maliyah sighed.
“We’re not done with this discussion, mijo. And I expect to hear from you sooner than the end of the month. Do you understand?”
More remorse tore through me. I was lousy at keeping up with them.
After I hung up, I ran longer than normal, trying to beat the regrets out of me. Trying to forget my mistakes and the sadness in Maliyah’s eyes when I’d shown up on her doorstep with my dreams in shambles.
While burning myself out normally worked to stop the swirl of memories, it failed tonight, and they were still haunting me as I opened the back door of Cassidy’s home with the key she’d given me. We’d started working out together after she’d had Chevelle, and for the first year, it had been in my apartment above her parents’ garage or in their backyard if the weather cooperated. But after she moved, we’d converted one of the bedrooms into a home gym. We’d finagled a floor mat, treadmill, rower, and weights into the tiny space.
When I walked into Cassidy’s house, the sweet smell of chocolate hit me. She must have baked, even though she’d barely gotten home from the restaurant. She cooked like other people breathed. As if it was effortless. As if it was just something you did while standing.
The kitchen was neat, and the dishwasher was running with the stove light on, casting the farmhouse-style cabinets and sink into shadows. I made my way through it to the open living room beyond. It was completely feminine, full of modern colors and patterns that were splashed all over the walls and furniture. It was like seeing Cassidy’s flowered skirts morph into a living space. The pictures on the walls were mostly of Chevelle, but there were a handful of the entire O’Neil family, and one of Cassidy at the restaurant, smiling like she’d won the lottery. And I guessed she had in a way. Brady had funded it all for her, but I also knew how hard she worked to try and pay him back.
When I got to the open doorway of the home gym, my heart stopped. She was bent over, stretching with her rear-end facing me in shorts that lined every curve. That made my body respond instantly and harshly, in a way that required me to adjust myself before entering the room in my own exercise shorts, which were fairly loose but still wouldn’t hide the enormous hard-on the image of her had caused.
“You going to join me or just stand in the doorway like a weirdo,” she said without ever looking up from her legs.
I cleared my throat. “Don’t stretch too much before warming up.”
She unbent herself to shoot me an eye roll. “This isn’t my first day at the rodeo. What is with you today?”
Her hands were on her hips as if she was ready to scold me, and all I could think about was how I wanted to feel the entire length of her tucked up against me. She was tall, five foot eleven when barefoot, and while I still had three inches on her, the slight difference meant I’d barely need to tip my chin to kiss her.
I turned away from her, toward the shelf in the corner, and set down my water bottle and towel in order to give myself a chance to clear my head. To think about the last sequence of footwork we’d done the day before. To think of anything but kisses and curves and hard-ons.
I didn’t hear her cross the mat, and so I jumped when her long fingers hit my bicep. I turned my head to look down at her hand before I let my gaze slowly trail up and over all her exposed skin to eyes full of concern. Her brows were furrowed, and before I could prevent myself, I rubbed at the space between the delicate arches with my thumb.
“Don’t get frown lines because of me. I’m fine.”
Her eyes searched mine, honey ones mixing with my brown ones that were so dark they could be black in certain lights. As if I was a demon without a soul. Sometimes…I wondered if I was.
I stepped back before I did something stupid, like let my finger land on her soft-pink lips…before I let my mouth settle on hers. As I moved away, I glanced at the treadmill that was already down. “You starting there?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, I already did fifteen on it. Chevelle crashed early. I guess he ran around after Molly half the day.”
Molly was Brady and Tristan’s fox terrier, and Chevelle loved the dog like almost nothing else.
“Weights, then,” I said, moving over to the two sets on wheels in the corner. I turned the dial to the level she used most and pulled the weights off the rack. I handed them to her. “Squat raises?”
Her eyes were still squinty, assessing me, but I ignored them. Instead, I shoved the weights in her direction.
She took them with a sigh. I returned to the second rack, dialed in my amount, and pulled them off. We faced each other in the middle of the mat and went to do the first repetition, but as she raised her arms, pain streaked across her face.
I closed the minimal distance between us, jerking the hand weight from her.
“What the hell?” I asked, voice lowering, fear coasting over me. We’d been working out for two years, and the only time she’d ever looked like that was when she’d done something outside of the gym to hurt herself.
She rubbed her left elbow, continuing all the way up to her shoulder. I dropped the weights and gently pulled her arm toward me. There was a bruise forming above the joint.
“What happened?” I demanded.
Her face closed down, and she brushed me off, stepping away from me much like I had a few moments ago when she’d gotten too close. When she’d gotten under my skin.
“What always happens. I fell. It isn’t a big deal.” Her voice was full of frustration. Anger. She hated being weak. But she was a hundred times stronger than she’d been when we’d started this.
“Where did you fall?” I asked, trying to stay calm. To not freak out like Arlene did whenever she heard or saw Cassidy injure herself. Cassidy’s mom protected her with a fierceness that bordered on obsessive, but I knew it was born out of love. A love I understood because, once upon a time, my parents had felt the same way about me.
“In the restaurant’s kitchen. Chevelle was on my leg…we were playing…I just lost my balance.”
Likely she’d hurt herself worse because she’d done whatever she could to fall in the opposite direction of Chevelle. But it meant she’d hit the unforgiving cement floor. I reclosed the distance she’d put between us, tugging at her fingers gently.
“Let me see.” I couldn’t help the soft beg that littered my tone. Her eyes widened, but she didn’t pull away. I felt her arm, probing gently at the elbow, my time as a corpsman coming back easily and readily to me. “I’m pretty sure it’s not broken, but just in case, we should ice and elevate it to keep the swelling down. You definitely shouldn’t be lifting weights.”
“How could you possibly…it doesn’t matter. I just want to work out and push past it.” Frustration weaved its way through her words again.
“Cassidy, I get it. You don’t want to be injured, but you are. Pushing this will only end up with you at the hospital with Arlene hovering over you.” I used her mom as a weapon because I could. Because I wanted her to stop and take care of herself, and the easiest way to do that was to threaten Arlene’s stifling overprotection.
Her eyes flashed. “Don’t use Mom against me.”
My lips quirked because she’d called me on it. “Then don’t be stubborn. Ice the goddamn elbow.”
She lifted my fingers from her arm and moved away again, heading toward the door this time. She tossed back, “Fine. But when it’s all better in the morning, you’re going to be the one feeling like you overreacted, not me.”
I followed her as she made her way into the dimly lit kitchen. Relief mingled with disappointment wafted through me. Calling off our workout meant I wouldn’t be able to touch her. I wouldn’t be able to watch as her muscles flexed and bent. I’d have to go back to an empty apartment, staring out the window at the lights in her bedroom that called to me more than the stars in the sky.
“Making a mess, straight out of scratch,
Think what you think about that.
Oh, I'm just tryna make good a little bit greater.”
Performed by Maren Morris
Written by Robbins / Veltz / Morris
The restaurant’s kitchen was buzzing with noise and action. Cliff and I were chopping at a fiery pace as we scrambled to substitute items on our menu with things we had on hand. My order from one of the farms had been delayed, and while we were missing ingredients we sorely needed, I refused to serve any dish that was decreased in quality or taste because of it. I fought daily against the image people had of “health” food. They expected it to be bland, dry, and cardboard-like just because it was good for you. I loved surprising them. I loved when they found more flavor in my meatless products than those loaded with it.
Being a farm-to-market restaurant meant my menu was changing constantly with the seasons and availability. It also meant I was never bored with what I was cooking and got to experiment on an almost daily basis. The downside was I had to plan for things to go awry occasionally. Like today.
My bigger problem at the moment was that I wasn’t in the best shape for the challenge. Not only did my elbow and shoulder still ache like someone was constantly yanking at them, but I also hadn’t slept well. It usually took a long time for my brain to shut off once I landed in my bed at the end of the day, but last night, I’d been haunted by Marco’s hands on me as he’d held the ice to my arm. I’d been haunted by the scent of spice surrounding him as he sat close enough for his breath to coast over my neck, and his heated gaze watched my chest rise and fall with my arm angled above my head. It had all been a tantalizing hint of what it would be like if we were actually tangled together for a very different reason.
The appealing visual of us skin to skin had burned itself into my mind. I wanted to feel and taste the contours of his abs that I got peeks of as we lifted weights together. Most of the time, I thought the desire was one-sided. He usually treated me like some recruit in the military he’d once served in and never talked about. But occasionally…occasionally, I saw a flicker of flame in his eyes, and it always kept me awake after seeing it. Made me wonder if there could ever be something more to the spark that drifted between us.
Even though Marco had been in our lives for years, what I knew of him was barely more than I’d known the first time we’d met, because he never talked about his family or his past. Instead, the pieces of knowledge I’d gathered had come from seeing him in action, protecting Brady, pushing me, and playing the hero when I slipped on the ice.
Willow’s voice brought me out of my thoughts. “Hey, Cass, one of the customers wants to talk to you.”
I slid two dishes that were ready to be served out the pass-through toward her. If it had been Laney telling me a customer wanted to see me, I would have rolled my eyes because Laney couldn’t handle someone saying their coffee needed creamer, let alone a more strenuous complaint. But Willow was not only my best waitstaff, she had an innate sense of how to deescalate things—a sense that she was honing as a restaurant management major at Wilson-Jacobs.
I sighed. We were in the middle of our breakfast rush, and I still had recipes to switch out with new ingredients. I didn’t have time to be pacifying anyone. But it was part of the gig. Part of owning and managing a restaurant. One of the parts I disliked.
Willow smoothed a hand over her long, red ponytail, looked out to the crowd, and then back to me. She leaned in and said as quietly as she could through the open window, “I think he’s some bigwig. He’s got a suit and that look, you know.”
My eyes followed hers to the corner booth that was barely visible from the kitchen under the dripping branches of the Tree of Life.
“What’s he upset about?” I asked, wiping my hands on a towel.
She frowned. “That’s it, I’m not sure. He kept saying how much he liked everything. He ordered five different dishes.”
I’d seen the orders come in and thought it was a family. He’d ordered some of my regular items that, thankfully, we’d had all the ingredients for, but I’d also had to substitute his carrot pancakes with zucchini.
“You explained about the order change?” I asked.
I looked back at Cliff, who was my second in command. “I need five minutes to take care of a customer. You got this?”
He eyeballed the orders and the dishes being prepped before giving me a thumbs-up. Cliff had more experience in restaurants in one pinky than I did in my entire body, but he’d never once treated me like I didn’t know what I was doing.
I washed my hands, dried them on a towel, and headed out into the restaurant.
I had to stop twice before I got to the booth in the corner as locals greeted me, asking about Chevelle or my parents. The man there was an older gentleman, not quite in his sixties like my dad, but still with wrinkles around his eyes, mouth, and forehead. Like he’d carried too many expressions on his face throughout his life. His hair was almost pure snow with hints of a soft brown that must have once been barely a shade over blond, and he had eyes such a startling blue that they stood out against his pale, white skin.
“Hi, I’m Cassidy O’Neil, the owner. Is there a problem?” I asked.
Surprise flitted over his face as he glanced over me. I was used to it. People―who weren’t local―were always astonished by how young I was. They’d ask to speak with my boss as if I was dense and hadn’t heard the request to talk to the person in charge.
“No. No problem, Ms. O’Neil,” he said, a smile widening his face.
Willow was still hovering nearby, and I shooed her away. She left with some reluctance. Her curiosity had been piqued, and she’d definitely demand the scoop when I returned to the kitchen.
“How can I help you?” I asked, keeping my smile plastered on.
“I think…we might be able to help each other,” he responded.
That did wipe my smile away, but he didn’t seem to notice it. Instead, he waved to the seat across from him. “Please, won’t you sit and give me five minutes of your time? I know it’s your morning rush, so I won’t keep you long.”
His glance took in the full tables and the line waiting outside. The weekends might have been our busiest time, but Friday mornings weren’t far off. Locals came in before work or school, and tourists, who’d come for the apple blossom season, showed up excited to kick off their long weekends.
I slid into the other side of the booth.
“The recipes you use to make your food, are they yours? Or do you have a chef who creates them for you?” he asked.
“They’re mine,” I told him.
“You haven’t borrowed them from someone else? Used something one of your line cooks have created?”
I shook my head, eyes narrowing. Was someone suing me, thinking I stole their recipe?
“They’re mine,” I said, unable to keep the note of defensiveness from my tone.
“That’s good. Very good.” He smiled, reached into the inside pocket of his suit, opened a little case, and took out a business card. “My name is Lance Ralley, and I own Earth Paradise Distributions.”
The name jiggled at the back of my brain, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“We’re a growing health food company. We produce, market, and sell alternative and earth-conscious food items to grocery stores around the globe. Do you know Wandering World Chips?”
I nodded. They were a potato chip alternative made from turnips and other vegetables. Air fried. Made from ingredients supposedly grown on sustainable farms. They sold off shelves as fast as they came in because the production was so limited.
“Well, I’d like to discuss the possibility of buying your recipes for distribution. Maybe create an entire line based on your Golden Heart menu.” He waved his hand at the half-eaten food on the table. “The pomegranate-and-acai coffee cake was fantastic, as well as the soy chorizo quiche. And those s’more cookies…out of this world.”
I stared at him, trying to put his words into some sort of order in my brain.
“I don’t understand,” I finally said. “We’re a tiny restaurant. There’s no way we could make enough for you to sell to grocery stores.”
He chuckled and nodded as if I was a small child in need of soothing. I’d done it myself when Chevelle was frustrated with something he couldn’t do.
“Right. We’d buy the recipe and produce it in my facilities.”
My heart thudded. He wanted to buy my recipes? Just the idea of it was overwhelming. I had no idea how to negotiate something like this or if I even should. What were the downsides to it? What could go wrong? He seemed to read my reticence and pushed forward.
“You’d be involved every step of the way, of course. Any changes we needed to make to the original recipe to produce it for a mass market would have to be approved by you. We’d use the Golden Heart name, and you’d have a say in the branding. We’d give you a one-time fee for the recipe purchase and negotiate a percentage of the products sold from there.”
It sounded like…someone’s dream. Maybe not mine, but someone’s. To have the food they created become a household name sold around the world. I didn’t have those kinds of dreams. I had dreams about cooking for the people and the town I loved. His offer sounded…big. Like it would take time I already didn’t have. That might cut into my already precious hours with my son. But a whispered thought filtered into my conscience. You might be able to pay Brady back.
When I still hadn’t said anything, Lance chuckled. “I can see I’ve left you speechless. But my offer is legitimate and heartfelt. You’re one of the first farm-to-market, health-centered restaurants I’ve wanted to come back to in a very long time.”
“You’ve been here before?” I asked, stunned.
“Once a month for the last three months.”
I didn’t recognize him, but that didn’t mean a thing. During the two tourist seasons, which were centered around the apple trees blossoming and then later in the fall around harvest, people flooded the town and the restaurant. I’d never be able to keep their faces straight even if I didn’t spend the majority of my time in the kitchen while my staff handled the floor.
“I’m not asking you to agree to anything right here and now,” he continued. “I’d like to set up a meeting with you, your investors, your lawyers, and my team.”
“I’m not sure…” I wavered, even though I couldn’t articulate what was actually holding me back.
“I understand it’s a lot to take in. Is there a number I can call other than the restaurant’s main line?” he asked.
I eyed him, trying to decide if I should give a complete stranger my cell phone number. He never lost his smile, even while I gave him continued silence. Instead, he stood, placing cash on the table next to his bill.
“Or you can call me.” He tapped the business card he’d left behind. “But I’m warning you, if I don’t hear from you by the end of the week, I will be calling the restaurant. Repeatedly. I’ve been told I can be dogged when I see a worthy cause. I can make us both a lot of money, Ms. O’Neil. I promise you that.”
He walked away, and I sat there, dumbfounded. Wheels turning. Heart pounding. A glass shattering brought me back to my senses. I turned to see that Laney had dropped a coffee cup as she watched Brady saunter across the restaurant toward me—a normal reaction from her, and many others, who regularly gawked at my brother whenever he appeared. He practically oozed rock-star charisma as he approached with his shaggy, blond hair styled to perfection, scruff littering his chin, and a muscled body he showed off in torn jeans and a faded ABBA T-shirt. Today, he had a beanie on his head and Chucks on his feet, but he was equally as comfortable in a cowboy hat and boots when he was on tour.
Brady slid into the seat Ralley had vacated.
“Can I get you anything?” Laney asked, voice wobbling as she appeared at his side even though this wasn’t her table. Brady didn’t notice her drool, just like he rarely noticed anyone’s anymore. These days, the only person who drew his eyes was his wife.
“Just a coffee, please,” he said.
Laney nodded, pushed her dark hair behind her ear, and all but skipped away.
“Should I be worried?” he asked, frowning and snapping the leather bands on his wrists like he always did when deep in thought.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re sitting down in the middle of the morning rush. Did you hurt yourself worse than you let on yesterday when you fell?”
I groaned. I wasn’t sure if it was Tristan or Marco who’d told him about my mishap.
“No, Mom,” I said with a little growl. It was one of the ways I got him to back off—taunting him with Mom’s overprotectiveness. I waved the business card at him. “I had to meet with a customer…”
Brady frowned. “Do I need to send Marco or Trevor to deal with it?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “No. And what? Is your security team a hit squad now? Would Marco even agree to that?”
“He was military. He knows how to kill.”
“You’re ridiculous. No. This guy…” I slid the card to him. “He wants to buy my recipes. Produce them to sell in grocery stores.”
Brady’s eyes widened. “Really?”
He picked up the card, read it, and then his frown returned.
“Because my food isn’t good enough to be mass-marketed?” I said, half-tease, half-hurt.
“Cass, you know that’s not what I meant at all. Your food is amazing. No, it’s just weird that some stranger walks in, happens to eat your food, and then says he wants to offer you some kind of deal. What did he ask for upfront? Some kind of down payment?”
“You’re so cynical,” I said. “He didn’t want me to give him anything. He wanted to pay me. And he said it was the third time he’s come back.”
“Did he ask you to sign something?”
“I’m not stupid, Brady. No. He said he wanted to meet with me, my investors, and my lawyers. He asked me to call him, but he said if he didn’t hear from me, he’d call the restaurant.”
Brady looked down at the card, thoughtful. “I’ll have Lee poke around a bit. See what he comes up with.”
Lee was Brady’s business manager, and he’d kept Brady in line since he’d first signed a record deal. He’d been there through all the ups and downs of Brady’s career, including the stalker and the media storm that had tried to turn his relationship with Tristan into some sort of tragedy. Brady trusted the man with everything in his life, and it was Lee who’d helped Brady and me find a handful of successful restauranteurs to guide us as we’d created the business plan for The Golden Heart Café.
I swallowed hard, wanting so badly to not need my big brother to come in and rescue me again. To save me from getting hurt. But this was what I got for burying my pride and asking Brady to back the restaurant for me to begin with. Now, I had no choice but to continue to let him be a part of it. It was his money and reputation on the line, even more than mine in many ways. If something went wrong with a deal like this, it could splash back on him and his career. Everyone knew he’d invested in The Golden Heart. If we put the brand out there, it would be like putting his stamp of approval on it.
My gut was torn.
Maybe it was too risky. Maybe it was too much to take on. Maybe I needed to stick to my small dreams and the comfortable life I was making for Chevelle and me. We didn’t need anything more. Did we?
“When you can’t pull through, when life's hard on you
Know it ain’t no thing, know it ain’t no thing
You know what to do.”
Performed by Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown, and Ava Max
Written by Harry Edward Nilsson
Brady stormed back from the restaurant through the secret door on the second floor with eyes blazing, and my heart fell. Was Cassidy worse this morning than last night? Should I have insisted on her going to an urgent care for an X-ray? He’d raced from the studio to check on her when Tristan had let it slip that Cassidy had fallen the day before.
Tristan’s eyes widened at the concerned expression on his face, eyes darting from me to Hannah and back to Brady.
Hannah was at the piano, playing a piece with no music in front of her. I thought it was a new song she and Brady were writing together, but I wasn’t sure. Her blonde hair was bent toward the keys, and her flowered shawl was slipping from her shoulders. The top hat she’d worn almost daily for the first year after her great-grandmother had died had been left at home today.
“Is she okay?” Tristan finally asked.
“What? Oh, I guess,” he said distractedly. “She said she was fine. But this guy”—he shoved a business card in my direction—“was there saying he wants to buy her recipes and produce them for grocery stores. I need you and Lee to check him out.”
Tristan pulled out the paintbrush she’d stuffed into her bun and twirled it. “This is incredible news. Why are you upset?”
“I just don’t like people poaching off her. You know Cass. She’s all sunshine and rainbows. I don’t want anyone to take advantage of her.”
I barely held back my retort as I took the card. Cassidy was one of the most positive people I knew, but she was also incredibly smart. Savvy in a way her family tended to overlook. She didn’t need everyone huddling about her like she was ten instead of a grown-ass businesswoman.
It didn’t mean I wasn’t going to run this guy and his company through every background check we could find. Maybe even send it out to Nash, a former Navy SEAL who’d worked briefly for Garner. He still had ties to the military that I didn’t.
Hannah’s fingers crashed to a stop, and she looked up with golden eyes to Brady and her mom. If you didn’t know that Hannah wasn’t Brady’s child, you’d think she was. They were all golden, just like Cassidy. With hearts just as big. Just like the name of Cass’s restaurant, even though I knew that wasn’t the reason she’d chosen it. When you looked at them all together, they reeked of love. Of belonging. Of family.
Sometimes, seeing it caused an ache in me that was hard to stifle. An ache that felt large enough to swallow me whole. My parents and I had blended together that way. Completely dark to this family’s light, but still glowing with adoration. With true affection. I’d missed them every day of the last fourteen years. Losing them at fifteen and being placed into foster care―into homes where love was not on the table―had been eye-opening. It had made the love I’d found with Maliyah and her rowdy, extended family a gift. But it had still never felt the same. It had never felt like the love standing in front of me.
I suddenly needed air. I needed to escape before the black hole that had embedded itself into my soul after that last night at the fair made me implode.
“Josh is downstairs,” I said. “I’ll just run back to the office and start on this.”
I left without looking back. I heard Brady say something to Hannah. I heard the music pick back up, and I kept going.
Josh gave me a curt nod as I left the studio before crossing Main Street and heading to the stairs on the side of Sweet Lips Bakery. Since Brady had made Grand Orchard his home base, opened the studio, and invited a number of famous musicians to record here, our team in town had grown large enough that we’d needed office space to accommodate us. We rented the rooms above the bakery because it gave us line-of-sight to La Musica de Ensueños even when we didn’t normally need it.
When I opened the door with my key card and thumbprint, Trevor’s head swiveled around from the nearest desk. He was blond and lithe, just like the trio across the street, except his pale-blue eyes were a contrast to the warm browns of the O’Neil family.
“What’s up?” he asked, frowning because I rarely left Brady’s side during the day unless he was tucked away at home.
“We need to create a file on this guy,” I said, handing the card to Trevor and explaining who he was.
Trevor nodded, turned to his computer, and started typing in details. He didn’t even look up as he said, “Garner wants to check in with us regarding our security plans for The Painted Daisies.”
In a few days, Brady was bringing The Painted Daisies into town to record their next album. The all-female band had burst onto the music scene in the last year and were known for causing mayhem everywhere they went. Not only because of the fans and anti-fans that followed them across the country, but because some of the members were trouble on wheels themselves. The Garner Security team that normally protected the band would be onsite as well as our team, but we were planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
Trevor’s fingers paused, and he frowned at the computer screen.
“What?” I asked, doing my damnedest to keep the panic from my voice at the thought of some schmuck trying to weasel into Cassidy’s life.
I moved behind him and looked down at the screen.
“Espionage charges?” I couldn’t keep the shock from my tone. That was the last thing I’d expected.
“Corporate espionage, not the national security kind,” Trevor said. “I’ll dig some more.”
Brady would flip. Cassidy would be disappointed.
“Don’t say anything to Brady until we have all the facts,” I said. “We don’t want him to overreact.”
Trevor chuckled. “Brady? Overreact when it comes to Cassidy? What could you possibly mean?”
I didn’t return Trevor’s smile. It wasn’t a joke to Cassidy. She hated the way her family coddled her almost as much as she loved them for it.
My phone rang, and I glanced down at it, fully expecting to send it to voicemail, until I saw Jonas’s face on the screen. As part of the generation who knew how to text but not how to carry on an actual phone conversation, he rarely called. My remorse filled as the promise to myself from last night returned, and I stepped away from Trevor’s desk to head for the privacy of the conference room.
“Hey, Jo-Jo. What’s up?” I greeted.
A sniffle came from the other end, and my heart fell. “She had another episode.” His words struck me in the gut. “She’s alive, Marco. But they’ve got her wrapped up in wires and machines.”
Goosebumps littered my skin in a way they rarely did. I took a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled.
“What have the doctors said?” I asked as every single muscle in my body tightened, ready to do battle against an enemy I couldn’t fight.
“No one will tell me,” he responded as his sadness turned to anger and frustration that I couldn’t blame him for.
“Can you give them my number? Have one of them call me? That way we’ll get the facts.”
“Fine. But they should tell me. I’m not a kid.”
He was, but I remembered being sixteen and thinking I was already a man. It took years for me to figure out that I wasn’t. It took situations that were out of my control and standing up for things I believed in before I realized I hadn’t really known what being a man was before. Even then, I’d still failed.
“You’re not. But they see a number attached to your face and nothing more,” I told him, trying not to wound his pride more than it already was. “Is she awake?”
My stomach twisted, thinking of Maliyah’s happy face sagging with pain. Guilt almost rendered me frozen as I thought of what she’d looked like the last time she’d been in the hospital for her broken heart syndrome―because of me. What would happen to Jonas if this continued? Would Child Protective Services let him stay with her if she kept having these episodes?
“I stepped out to call you when she fell asleep,” he answered.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I came home from school and found her at the bottom of the stairs. The EMTs said she hadn’t been there long, otherwise she might not have…” He couldn’t finish it as a sob overcame him.
We both sat in silence while I allowed him to get control of his emotions, fighting a desire to cry myself. I blinked back tears, my grip tightening on my phone as my other hand formed a fist with my nails biting into my palm.
“She said she was taking her meds,” I said quietly. Plans started flying through my brain. I’d need to catch a flight to Austin. I had to work on a coverage plan with Trevor. I had to talk with Cassidy...
“She is. I watch her take them every day.” His voice grew stronger, tucking away his actual feelings. I hated that he felt like he had to put a front on with me, but it had always been this way between us. The first time I’d come home on leave to find him sitting on the back step, he’d fucking saluted me as I’d walked up in my camos. It had made the pain stretching through me that day even worse because, at that moment, I’d been nothing more than a rat in the henhouse. The soldier turning on his military family.
“I’m coming,” I said. “I don’t know how long it’ll take me to get there, but I’m on my way. Who’s there with you?”
“Maria Carmen and Julianna. They both said I could stay with them, but I’m okay at the house,” he replied, defensiveness in every word. He was more than old enough to be on his own for a night, but I could almost guarantee one of them would badger him into going home with them until I showed up.
“I’ll call when I have a flight, but if she wakes, will you call me so I can talk to her?”
He sounded broken. Jonas’s life had been nothing like mine. I’d been loved and cherished until the accident that took my parents from me. Jonas had been an afterthought to a mom focused on her next high. Maliyah was the first person to be utterly devoted to him, and now she might disappear.
“It’s going to be okay, Jo-Jo,” I said quietly.
“No. It’s really not.” And he hung up.
My gut and chest twisted a notch tighter, making it difficult to breathe.
“Fuck,” I said to the ceiling and thumbed open my phone’s browser, looking for flights out of Albany.
I SAVE ME
“I don't need no hero, don’t waste ‘em on me
I'll rescue my own self, I’ll set myself free.”
Performed by Diane Warren and Maren Morris
Written by Franklin / Ousley / Franklin
I kissed Chevelle’s forehead, and he didn’t even wake as I set him in the crib. Normally, I put him to bed before he was fully conked out so he could learn to fall asleep on his own, but I’d been exhausted tonight, unable to get up from the glider in the corner where we’d been reading together. I’d almost fallen asleep along with him.
In addition to the tired seeping through my bones, my elbow was still sore. Icing it had eased it some. Enough that I was determined to make up for my lost workout session by doubling my efforts tonight. If nothing else, it would wear me out and hopefully cast me into a deep, dreamless sleep where I wouldn’t think about Marco, the money I owed Brady, or Lance Ralley’s offer.
I took the baby monitor with me, shutting the door to Chevelle’s room and making my way to my own. The soft lemon-and-white décor soothed me. Like stepping into a field of daisies. Normally, I felt like I could breathe here, but today, the hamper almost overflowing with clothes only made me feel more overwhelmed.
I tossed my long skirt and The Golden Heart Café T-shirt at the pile and searched for a clean pair of workout shorts and a tank. The restaurant was closed on Tuesdays, so I’d have time to do laundry then. I’d just add it to the endless list of things I had to do. Sometimes, all I wanted to do was play with Chevelle, snuggle in bed, and sleep our day away, but that was rarely how my days off went. Still, I was living the exact life I’d wanted―chosen―and it would be ungrateful to gripe about it. Maybe I hadn’t really understood what I was signing up for, but I’d signed on the dotted line, and I wouldn’t give it up now.
I’d just changed and gone to fill my water bottle in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. It was followed almost immediately by a sharp knock, as if whoever it was couldn’t be patient enough to see if I’d answer the first before doing the second.
I didn’t get many visitors. Most people I knew walked in my back door with their own key. Mom and Dad. Brady and Tristan. Even Marco.
I made my way to the front door. It was a beautiful piece, carved from old apple trees and lined with tempered glass along the top that didn’t allow me, even as tall as I was, to see out. I took a peek through the peephole instead. The image was blurry and contorted, but it was enough to send my heart into my throat. A knock resounded again, and I couldn’t help the startled jump it caused. I balanced myself on the wall with a hand as my legs tried to buckle.
“Cassidy?” his smooth voice called through the wood, scattering my skin with goosebumps. Not the good kind. Not the kind that Marco caused by skimming a finger over my arm even accidentally. This was all disgust.
Disgust with me. Disgust with him.
What did he want?
I took in a deep breath, held it, and then slowly exhaled. I tried not to let the tremble in my fingers show as I flipped the locks and opened the door only wide enough for him to see me. It was far from an invitation to come in.
He looked exactly the same as he had the last time I’d seen him. Dark-brown hair perfectly pressed, square chin with a dimple in it. Gray eyes hidden behind glasses that were hardly needed but added to the scholarly look he so desired. He was in a suit that had to have cost a pretty penny—maybe even more than his monthly salary at Wilson-Jacobs had once been. It was a deep navy with a gray striped shirt underneath and a tie that echoed his eyes.
He looked me over much as I was him, taking in my bare toes with lack of polish, my skinny legs dressed in workout shorts that barely covered anything, and my workout tank that was both bra and top. I had no layers of armor to shield myself from him. I was bare in a way I didn’t want to be. On display when I’d promised myself he’d never see any part of me again.
“Cassidy.” He nodded, eyes squinting slightly.
“Clayton,” I said with a calm I didn’t feel. Inside, I was panicking. Why was he here? What did he want? It certainly wasn’t me. It wasn’t the little boy I’d tucked in bed with his favorite blanket and a stuffed dog he called Hippo.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
I didn’t move. I didn’t open the door any farther. “What do you want?”
“I’d prefer to talk inside.” He glanced both ways down the street furtively. As if he was ashamed to be standing on my doorstep. As if it was costing him every ounce of pride to be here.
“Now isn’t really a good time,” I told him.
His eyes narrowed. He’d never liked it when I’d disagreed with him. Never liked it when I hadn’t easily acquiesced to whatever he wanted…commanded. In a list of regrets in my life, he was at the top while also being at the bottom.
I couldn’t completely regret him when I had Chevelle.
“When would be a better time?” he asked.
I groaned internally. Did I want him to come back? Did I want to see him a second time and risk my parents seeing him here? No way in hell. But if I knew Clayton at all, he’d keep rapping on my door until he’d said whatever it was he wanted to say.
“Never,” I tossed out but swung the door wider, took a step back, and waved him inside.
He hesitated but then brushed past me. I closed the door, stepping around him and turning to watch him absorb my house with the same scrutiny he gave to his students’ assignments. Full of disdain and condescension. Nothing ever good enough. I was grateful he’d never been my professor.
I tried not to see the room through his disapproving eyes, but it was hopeless. Toys from Chevelle were still scattered around the space that I hadn’t had a chance to pick up. The furniture was mostly secondhand because I’d been determined to fill my house with things I could afford rather than more money from Brady’s or my parents’ pockets. None of the pieces were in bad shape, but they clearly weren’t new, and they were in patterns I knew would drive him crazy. Mix-matched. Florals and paisleys and stripes in rainbow hues that made me think of more flower fields and blue skies.
Clayton’s house had been gray and white and black. Sterile. Modern. The interior had been a complete contrast to the exterior of the old home. It had been another reason he’d wanted to leave Grand Orchard. To escape the quaint feel of the town and the college, even though Harvard had its own old-school charm.
“What do you want, Clayton?” I repeated through gritted teeth.
He turned, schooling his expression and pushing up his glasses on his nose.
“You. The baby,” he said.
I laughed. Harshly. Not only because it was insane to think he’d come back after two years to try and resuscitate a relationship that had hardly existed to begin with, but also because I didn’t believe him. The Clayton Hardy I knew had no wish for relationships or children. He only cared about his name and the prestige it carried.
He looked away and then back at me, jaw clenching. “I’ve taken a summer professorship at Wilson-Jacobs just to have the chance to spend time with you and the baby.”
“What happened to Harvard?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’m still there. I’m on track for tenure, just like I planned.”
“But you decided to come back to Grand Orchard…for me?” I scoffed.
“You and the baby.”
“What did I have? Do you even know? Is it a boy or a girl?” I demanded.
He had the decency to look chagrinned. “I didn’t look far enough ahead, Cassidy. I didn’t see what I was giving up.”
I snorted. “You gave up an occasional fuck. That was all you lost.”
“Why are you being difficult? Isn’t it simple? I’m the father. I’m here. I want to make a go of it with you and the baby. Did you have a boy or a girl? Can I see him or her?”
He’d clearly expected to just show up and for me to go weak in the knees with relief at having Chevelle’s father there at last. As if I’d been pining away, miserable without him. As if I’d be grateful that he suddenly deemed me necessary in his life. I narrowed my eyes at him.
“What? Does Harvard expect you to be a family man in order to gain tenure? Too many female students clogging your office hours? Are there whispers about you there like there were here?”
“I can’t help it if I’m good-looking. I’ve never slept with a student,” he growled.
“You slept with me.”
“You weren’t my student. You’d graduated. It was completely different.”
I laughed sarcastically. “I’d literally just graduated. I’d walked across the stage that day and gotten my diploma.”
He stepped closer, and I stepped back. “Cassidy, give me a chance. Let me spend time with you and the…” He looked around at the toys littering the floor and the pile of baby clothes I hadn’t folded yet. “You and my boy.”
“Good deduction, Professor. But it isn’t going to happen. Not now. Not ever.”
“I’m just asking for a chance. Don’t be so…”
“Bitchy? Defiant? Angry? Which word would you like to use?”
His jaw was ticking repeatedly. He shoved his hands into his pockets as if to keep me from seeing how they’d tightened into fists. He turned away, toward the windows.
“Spending time with my son…with you…it’s the least you can give me.”
The least I could give him! Fury filled me, and I would have snapped back, but suddenly, a strong arm looped around my waist from behind, drawing me into a muscled chest. A chest I knew even if I’d never been tucked up against it in quite this way. As if I belonged to it. As if the arm was claiming me in a single, possessive scoop.
“I don’t think I like the idea of my girlfriend spending time with the shitty-ass man who left her with money for an abortion and nothing else,” Marco’s deep voice barreled through the room, coasting over my ear and my cheek and causing Clayton to flip around, startled.
Clayton’s eyes squinted, taking in the arm around my midriff. Taking in the wide breadth of Marco’s stance and the muscles that rippled beneath his workout gear.
“Who’s this?” Clayton demanded.
“Like I said. I’m her boyfriend, and you’re the asshole who’s leaving.”
My heart flipped and twirled with the stupid wish that the words were true. That somehow, I’d be lucky enough to claim this stunning man as my own. That his possessive, protective grip was something I was used to.
Clayton glared—one I returned, and one I figured Marco was also returning even if I couldn’t see his face. It didn’t surprise me when it was Clayton who relented first. He stalked toward the door, opened it, and then looked over his shoulder at us.
“I’ll be back in a week, and I’ll be here all summer. I have a right to see my son, but I want to see you both. Maybe you should figure this out before I return,” he said, his eyes landing on Marco’s arm before coming back to my face. He was pissed. Angry that whatever plan he’d had going on in his mind had been thwarted with Marco’s appearance. With my lack of submission.
The door slammed behind him.
I sagged in relief, my heart pounding as much from Marco’s length tight up against mine as from the confrontation with a man I was ashamed to have let in my life.
I pulled away, and Marco let me. The loss of his touch hit me stronger than any loss I’d ever felt from Clayton. This loss made me want to step back into Marco’s embrace and see if he could hug me as tightly as I hugged Chevelle. Until there wasn’t even a breadth of space between us.
I couldn’t meet his eyes. I was afraid that not only would he see the longing in me, but that I’d see disappointment spreading over his face because I’d once let that weasel into my bed. I couldn’t bear to be less in Marco’s eyes than I already was.
“What the hell was that?” he asked, and instead of stepping away, he closed the distance again. He put a finger under my chin, drawing my gaze to his. I saw anger there, but I also saw fear tangled with another emotion. One I wanted to call yearning but was probably just concern. Still. It made me gasp. A little breath of air that drew his eyes to my lips.
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head, but so entranced by Marco’s skin touching mine that it was hard to think.
“He’s really Chevelle’s father?” Marco asked.
“Sperm donor. Not a father,” I said, my chin raising.
As if it suddenly hit him how close we were and just how much he was touching me, Marco stepped away, all his emotions shuttering behind a blank face that was square and beautiful. As if he was an ancient Aztec god come to life. Black hair shorn short like the military man he’d once been, the bristles echoing the ones scattered across his chiseled cheeks and sharp chin. Heavy brows sheltered his dark-brown eyes that flickered with the emotions his face was trying to conceal.
“He wants to know Chevelle. Wants you?” His voice deepened as if the idea was enough to hurt him. My heart flipped wildly with the hope that maybe there really was more to Marco’s and my arrangement than just being workout pals. Maybe the feelings I held at bay were also buried in him.
The image of the couple from the day before, spinning down the sidewalk together, hit me, but instead, it was Marco and me. Could we be that? I shook my head. It was ridiculous. A dream I couldn’t risk wishing for not only because I knew better than to expect him to desire me, but because I didn’t have time for anything in my life but Chevelle and the café.
“I hardly think that’s his real plan,” I finally spoke. “He was very clear he never wanted children—and certainly not with some backwater nobody.”
Marco’s eyes flicked to the door and back to me, his tall frame straightening, tightening as if he was ready to do battle.
“Just ask it,” I said.
His eyes widened a hair, nostrils flaring slightly.
“Ask me why I was with that pompous, arrogant asshole.”
It was a dare I wasn’t sure he’d give in to. Because if we were merely gym buddies―if I was merely a project he was overseeing―then he shouldn’t care why I’d been with Clayton Hardy, Esquire of Jackasses. But Marco had shown up. Defended me. Claimed me in order to do so, and now I wanted to know if he’d go further, even when I knew I shouldn’t tempt it. I ached to know if he’d come out from behind his armor to show that there was more to him…to us.
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