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I Can't Even
I…can't…even," I snapped at my windshield as I slammed on the brakes when the car started to pull out in front of me, and I knew it wouldn't stop because they couldn't care less I was only three car lengths away and going five miles (okay, maybe ten) over the speed limit.
"Stupid millennial!" I shouted when I noted the age of the clueless person driving.
Of course, I was a millennial.
Which meant, obviously, I could call my own people stupid and clueless.
Some Gen Xer said something like that, it'd tick me off.
But right then, I had visions in my head of ramming him from behind just to make a point à la Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes.
Sadly, Evelyn's insurance was great, but mine wouldn't take another bust-up, of which I'd had many (and this might have a wee bit to do with me going five, more like ten miles over the speed limit on more than the regular occasion—then again, I was always in a hurry and it was no lie that wasn't hardly ever my fault).
Another reason my insurance agent was going to blackball me to all insurance companies happened right then.
My phone rang.
And I looked to it instantly.
What could I say?
I'm a millennial.
The call was from my mother.
Normally, it was a very good possibility, to the point of it being a probability, I would avoid my mother's call.
Today, I could not.
So I snatched up my phone and engaged, hopeful to the last (in other words, delusional) that maybe for once, I might have backup in the current situation I was going to have to handle. A situation, like all of them, that was not mine.
"Hey, Mom," I greeted eagerly.
"Evan, darlin', please tell me you're going to see your brother."
Oh, I was going to see my brother all right.
I was Norm from Cheers at Denver County Jail.
"Of course I'm going to see him," I replied.
"Okay," she said, sounding relieved.
I understood her relief.
And my heart sunk.
Because it was not about the proud mother of a good little sister looking after her big brother.
It was a good little daughter doing what a mother should be doing and thus the mother didn't have to do it, which was good, since she wouldn't do it anyway.
"Tell him his momma sends her love and if he needs anything…" She trailed off.
Call your sister, Evan, I finished for her in my head.
"Mom, I gotta say, this is the last time—"
"Okay, honey, good chat. I gotta go. I gotta get to work."
She did not.
She was unemployed.
"Talk to you later," she went on. "Come over for dinner. Your stepdad and I miss you."
With that, she hung up, not setting a dinner date, not staying on the line long enough for me to share with her I was D…O…N…E done with sorting Mick's crap and not ending the conversation saying such as, "I love you, you can't know how much. You're so responsible, I've no idea how you got that way, but we're so lucky you did because I don't know what we'd all do without you."
No, she did not say that.
I tossed my phone to the seat, drove to the jail, and as I was pulling in the parking lot, I heard it buzz with a text.
I glanced at it, looked back out the windshield, and muttered, "Oh boy."
I found a parking spot, shut down my car and snatched up my phone again.
I went to texts.
I read the latest and then, because I was clearly in the mood for self-flagellation, I scrolled up and read it from the top.
The tippy-top stating the text string was with DANIEL MAGNUSSON.
Hey, this Evan?
Yes, is this Daniel?
Mag. And yeah.
Who called themselves Mag?
Hey, we doing this?
"This" being going on a blind date because our mutual friend Lottie (who'd set us up, like she'd set up all my girlfriends at the club where we worked with friends of her fiancé, Mo) would not let it go even though I got the impression both of us consistently, and for some time, tried to put her off.
For my part, I knew I did just that.
And his "we doing this?" solidified the impression he did too.
Indoor climbing. Rock walls.
Was he insane?
I did not climb.
I owned eight pairs of Chucks in eight different colors.
But I did not own a single item that might be construed as anything that had anything to do with physical activity.
This was partly because I stripped for a living, which was physical enough.
This was also partly because, when I wasn't stripping, I was so busy doing everything else, I didn't need to work out.
How about we go for ice cream?
That got me about two full minutes of continual dot, dot, dots, which did not turn out to be a textual opus.
It turned out to be three words.
Right. Sounds good.
Such a lie.
I knew he thought it didn't sound good.
He probably had protein shakes for breakfast and lunch and an unseasoned chicken breast for dinner.
What could I say?
He was Mo, Lottie's fiancé's former roommate, and Mo was a commando.
And so was Mag.
That was what I'd guess commandos ate.
That and rations.
You open Tuesday?
How about 6:00?
Liks. In Capitol Hill.
I know it.
See you there.
See you there.
This had all happened last Thursday.
It was now Tuesday and my hope was that his latest text would be about canceling.
Hey, we still on for tonight?
Because Mac won a gift card to a restaurant.
It expires tomorrow and if someone doesn't use it, it'll be wasted.
She's offered it to us.
Mac, by the by, was what some people called Lottie, seeing as her last name, for the time being, was McAlister.
And considering she wasn't close with her dad, she was totally going old school and taking Mo's name when they got married.
"Yes," I said out loud to my phone. "We're still on, after I go in, see my brother, listen to him beg me to post bail while I try to find the courage to tell him this will be the last time ever I post bail for him or get his ass out of whatever jam he's gotten himself into. Then I'll fail to find that courage. I'll then go to my second most often visited hotspot in Denver. Saul Edelstein, bail bondsman. But I actually do not want to have dinner with you, alpha male, probably toxic male. Though Mo isn't toxic, he's very sweet, but Lottie warned me you had 'issues' and needed someone to settle you down, and apparently, she thinks I'm that person."
I stopped talking to Mag, who Lottie told me was actually called Danny, who wasn't there.
And I stared at the phone thinking that the issues Lottie didn't share with me, but the girls at the club did, were that some woman had broken Daniel Magnusson's heart, and like a definitely toxic dude, his strategy for curing it was sleeping with everything that moved.
However, to be honest, although this appeared to be one more project I didn't need, even if Lottie hadn't been entirely forthcoming, my sense was that mostly Lottie seemed like she wanted to fix us up because she liked us both a lot, thought we'd be good together, look out for each other, and in the end, be happy.
I could not imagine what she was thinking.
A commando was so not my style.
My last boyfriend was shorter than me by two inches, weighed twenty-five pounds less than me and his skin had not seen the sun for probably five years and not because he was a vampire.
Because he was a gamer.
I liked him.
We shared a lot of the same interests. He was funny, he could be gentle, he listened, he wasn't all that great in bed, but he gave it his best shot, and he felt safe.
Of course, his eventual utter lack of interest in anything but gaming led to the demise of our relationship.
So now, I missed him.
Or the him I'd had before I lost him to gaming.
My thumbs flew over the bottom of my phone screen.
When and where?
I was folding out of my car when I got back,
I'll pick you up.
Pick me up?
For a date?
What was this?
I'll meet you there. Where is it?
And 6:00 is good.
I was nearing the door when I received,
Picking you up, Evan.
I don't think it's fancy.
But I don't think it's T and jeans either.
Mac gave me your address.
See you at 6:00.
Of course she did and of course he was old school too.
No one got picked up for dates anymore.
And now I was stuck for a whole dinner.
It was easier to feign a headache or, better yet, period cramps and duck out if I had my own ride.
"Damn," I whispered, standing outside the doors to the jail.
See you then.
Looking forward to it.
I got back an unconvincing,
Now I had to spend at least a couple of hours with this guy rather than snarfing down a quick cone while we mutually agreed we didn't suit, shaking hands, then I'd go home and give myself a facial or watch some Japanese anime or repeat a binge watch of Fleabag or something.
I entered the jail, did the rigmarole check-in, and while doing it, caught up with Officer Bobbie behind the desk (bad news for Bobbie: her kid had the flu so bad, they had to hospitalize him, good news: he was okay now, and mental note: stop by the jail and give Officer Bobbie something fun to give to her recently very sick kid).
Then, I was sat in front of a video screen and I waited for Mick to appear before I grabbed the handset.
But when he appeared, I didn't grab the handset.
My heart started beating in a strange way I'd never felt before.
It was like there was nothing in my chest cavity, it was hollow, save my heart, and my heart was thumping in there, all alone.
I snatched the handset so fast, my hand was a blur.
And I nearly came out of my skin listening to the warnings about how the police were recording our visit.
When it was done, his name jumped out of my throat.
"Hey, Evie," he said, his voice wrong, wrong, wrong.
My cocky, criminal, wastrel, good-time, bad-decisions big brother didn't get scared.
I leaned forward. "Mick—"
"You're gonna get a text, honey. Take it, and…you know. Just take it and do right by your brother."
"What?" I asked.
He leaned toward his screen too.
"You…are gonna…get a text, Evie. Take it. And…do right."
What did that mean?
Before I could find some words to ask him to share in ways that wouldn't get him into trouble, or later be used to incriminate him, he kept talking.
"I'm counting on you."
And then he did not ask me to go to Saul.
He did not say the reasons for his current accommodations were all a mistake.
Or he'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or they'd brought him in on nonsense to lean on him to rat on someone else.
Or one of the hundred other excuses he used.
He did something that sent ice splinters tearing through my veins.
He pressed his middle three fingers to his lips, then pressed them to the screen, hung up his handset, stood and walked away.
What am I doing?" I asked my reflection as I leaned away from my bathroom mirror and stared at myself.
I was holding a mascara wand in one hand, the tube in the other, and I'd just finished putting on some powder, a little blush, minimal highlights on my cheekbones, under-eye-shadow base over my lids up to my brows to even the skin tone and now mascara.
I didn't wear makeup unless I was stripping, first, because I had two pounds of makeup on when I danced and that not only felt ick, I figured I was already over my quota, and second, I just didn't wear makeup.
Okay, lip gloss that was actually lip treatment disguised as lip gloss, of which I had varying colors, but only because this was Denver, Denver was arid, and if I didn't my lips would be chapped all the time.
So might as well throw a wave at something girlie while I was keeping my skin healthy.
Now, I was going on a date with Lottie's commando friend and suddenly I was a traditionalist.
Or, probably more accurate, I was going on a blind date with Lottie's commando friend after my brother freaked me out about some text I'd be getting where I'd have to "do right," whatever that meant.
And since Mick Gardiner hadn't done right since he was around the age of two, his version of doing right did not bode well for me.
I'd pushed the wand into the tube and was about to grab a wipe and take all the makeup off, add some moisturizer (again: Denver) and maybe some powder so I wasn't all shiny, and that was it, when someone knocked on my door.
I looked down at my phone on the basin, touching it to activate the screen.
"Hell," I whispered, tossed the tube in the basket that contained my measly collection of cosmetics, grabbed my lip treatment that was a shade called "buff" and dashed out of the bathroom.
I slicked on the gloss as I shoved my feet in chili-red Rothy's points, grabbed my blazer that was on the bed and rushed out of my bedroom.
I tossed the blazer on the kitchen counter, the lip gloss on the blazer, at the same time I hesitated because I realized I hadn't put on any jewelry and considered running back to my room in order to do that really quick.
This was when another knock sounded at the door (apparently Daniel Magnusson was not patient).
This possibility led my mind to race to the hope that, regardless of his apparent impatience, Mag was like Mo.
Maybe not as humongous as Mo (though, that wouldn't be bad, Mo didn't seem cuddly as such, more like terrifying and able to tear you limb from limb with his bare hands, but he looked sweet and openly happy anytime Lottie cuddled him).
But definitely as soft-spoken and gentle and loving as Mo was with Lottie.
I mean, it would not suck having a man in my life, that man being like Mo.
I could pay my own bills (and sometimes my mother's, and a lot of the times, my father's, this being the reason why it was taking forever to earn my degree—I kept having to sit out semesters because of lack of funds, the sole reason why I stripped, because I didn't make Lottie-style tips, but strippers at Smithie's made a bucketload).
I could take out my own trash.
But it'd be nice to have someone around.
Okay, so maybe it would be nice to have someone around to listen to me bitch about my delinquent brother or my user mother and the many times they inveigled (or out-and-out connived) me into getting involved in their messy lives.
But it also would be fun to cook with someone again.
Or have someone to go see movies with, then dissect them after.
Or go out and enjoy some really good food together, good food that came with good conversation.
Or take a vacation and not think of anything but whatever excursion we'd planned that day.
So, all right.
Maybe I should give this a real shot.
Lottie was good people, a good friend, a good woman.
She wouldn't steer me wrong.
I went to the door, looked out the peephole and froze stiff.
Mo was six five, bald, with unique but handsome features (when you got past the terrifying) and was the aforementioned humongous.
The man outside was not any of that.
I watched as he lifted his hand again to knock, I unfroze, unlocked and threw open the door, blurting, "I forgot to put on jewelry."
His chin jerked into his throat, his torso swayed back, and his electric-blue eyes did a slow sweep of me, from hair to Rothy's. Those eyes grew alert, then they grew appreciative, and after that, his mouth curled ever so slowly into a sexy smile.
All that dark hair, longish, flipping and curling and falling into his eyes.
Tall, maybe not as tall as Mo, but not too far off.
Way taller than me, and I was five nine.
Not humongous, but lean, broad of shoulder and chest, trim of waist, and bulky of thighs.
Dark gray trousers, light-blue button-up, and he'd done a French tuck.
The Queer Eye boys would give him an A++++.
"Evan?" he asked.
"Danny?" I mumbled.
"Mag," he stated.
"Uh…" I kept mumbling. "Lottie said—"
"Lottie's bustin' my chops," he told me then softened his next with a grin. "No one calls me Danny but Mo's sisters and that isn't at my request."
"Oh," I whispered.
"You forgot your jewelry?" he prompted.
My hands flew to my earlobes as I said, "Right. Um, come in. I won't be a second."
I stepped back, opening the door wide for him to enter.
He walked in and looked around.
I closed the door.
"Let me guess," he said as he stopped looking around and turned to me. "You drive a Prius."
"Well, yeah," I replied.
He busted out laughing.
My nipples tingled.
What was happening?
He was so not my thing.
I was a freak.
I was a geek.
And as such, I was into freaks and geeks.
Stick with what you know.
But the sound of his laughter…
The look of it on his face…
I changed my mind.
I was not giving this a shot.
My brother was in jail (again).
My mother was unemployed (again).
My stepfather (this one number two) was undoubtedly stepping out on her (again) so she'd dump him (again) only to take him back (again).
My father was a professional pothead disguised as a guitar teacher, and underlying all of this, for decades, he'd been a grower and dealer. But now, since marijuana was legal, he worked part-time at a dispensary, and he'd started that because he thought he'd get an employee discount but stayed because he enjoyed communing with his brethren.
Last, my little sister spent all her time attempting to garner followers on social media as well as get on reality programs, therefore how she paid her bills, I had no idea, but if my mind went there, it grew troubled.
Oh, and I was going to get some text from someone, and my brother needed me to do right by him, which undoubtedly would not be right by me.
I did not have the time, or the inclination (that last was a bit of a lie) to be charmed by, become besotted with and put the effort into taming a brokenhearted manwhore who was so pretty, my heart wept just watching him laugh.
But in the end, that heart would just be broken.
Because he'd break it.
"What's funny?" I asked.
- "The excellent first romance in Ashley's Dream Team series . . . Those who like a dash of sweetness in their suspense will be delighted."—Publishers Weekly
- "I don't know how Kristen Ashley does it; I just read the damn books and happily get lost in her world."—Frolic on the Dream Man series
- "Kristen Ashley's books are addicting!"—Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author
- "[Kristen] Ashley captivates."—Publishers Weekly
- "When you pick up an Ashley book, you know you're in for plenty of gut-punching emotion, elaborate family drama and sizzling sex."—RT Book Reviews
- "Kristen Ashley books should come with a warning that says, 'You may become addicted to KA books.'"—Night Owl Reviews
- "Any hopeless romantic would devour everything Kristen Ashley has to offer!"—Fresh Fiction
- On Sale
- May 26, 2020
- Page Count
- 496 pages