Always a Bridesmaid   Cindi Myers
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, andincidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are...
Listerine, Diet Coke, Etch A Sketch, Nerf, X-Men, Pop-Tarts, Pixar, Superwoman, Craigslist, Macy’s, iPhone,Trojan.
For Debby Tisdale Mayne
Chapter OneIn possibly the worst twenty-four hours of herlife, Stephanie Ludlow lost her lease, learned agood friend was g...
her telephone headset as the phone rang.“Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning. Howmay I help you? Oh, hello, Mrs. Grayson. ...
latte.   “I’m getting married. I want you to be there.”   A fountain of honey-sweetened chai and milksprayed across the de...
Stephanie hadn’t realized things were quite soserious between the two. Apparently hertalkative coworker didn’t tell her ev...
alcoholic who crooned Beatles tunes off-keyafter his third beer. Or the time he’d persuadedher to take snowboarding lesson...
bride and stuffing herself into orange taffetaruffles, it had taken her weeks to recover. “Yes,and I’ve sworn off them sin...
would probably never sell. “Uh, wow. Howgreat.” She tried to sound cheerful. “When doyou need me to be out?”    “Friday. I...
punched off the phone.   “What’s wrong?” Justin peered at her.“You’ve gone all white.”   “I’ve been evicted.”   Justin gri...
She shook her head. “Thanks, but don’t youthink Ilsa might object?” She and Justin weregood friends, but that’s all they w...
yard, game room, living room, everything.”   Stephanie had vague memories from a partyshe’d attended at the house last yea...
Justin shook his head. “Divorced. His ex-wifereally did a number on him, and I guess he’sbitter. But he’s a great guy.”   ...
romance could you have with four or five otherpeople always around?                      …By the time Stephanie shut off h...
this view every day? She only hoped some otherlucky sucker hadn’t rented the space out fromunder her.    Using the rearvie...
Feelings she would have sworn were longdormant suddenly clamored for attention. Herheart pounded. She forced her gaze up t...
father’s dark hair and blue eyes. “Who’s thelady?” he asked.   The man turned back to Stephanie. “Who didyou say you were ...
a woman.” He held the door open wider andmotioned Stephanie in. “I guess you figured outby now, I’m Mike Brubaker. Sorry I...
his voice. Mike might be bitter about women, buthe clearly had a soft spot for his son.   “Does he live here with you?”   ...
too. Mike didn’t look like a man who let anyonetell him what to do.   “But you didn’t come here to listen to myproblems. C...
the only great scenery around here.   He turned and caught her staring at him. “Sowhat do you think?”   I think you’re too...
“Yes!” she blurted.   What was a little unrequited lust compared tothe chance to live in a place like this?
Chapter TwoStephanie put most of her furniture in storage andtalked Justin into moving the rest to Mike’s housein his truc...
early fifties whose thick silver hair contrasted withhis heavy, dark brows, rose from his chair in theLudlow Heating and A...
cleaning. She loved her father. She really did. Buthe was as old-fashioned as they came about theroles of men and women. O...
managing other businesses and to see some ofthe world on her own.   “I need my own place, Dad. This is a greatopportunity ...
needed was a dirndl. Though the T-shirt Ilsawore clearly worked for Justin, who climbed outof the passenger seat of Stepha...
native English speaker. “Maybe he is working.”   Of course. And it wasn’t as if any of her pastlandlords had helped her mo...
The two women carried armloads of clothesinside and hung them in the closet while Justinand her father put the bed togethe...
dimples forming on either side of her mouth. “Ibought my dress at a bridal shop sample sale,and when I told the owner of t...
pulled out an ankle-length column dress of blackcrepe. “Here. You can wear this.” She held thedress up to Stephanie. “I ha...
mouth. “They are hideous.” She shook her head,making a clucking noise with her tongue. “Iwould never do that to a friend.”...
Her voice trailed away as she turned and sawthat her thanks fell on deaf ears. Justin and Ilsawere lost in a kiss, tangled...
jeans, and work boots. The jeans had been wornand washed until they were the texture of rawsilk, shaped to his thighs and ...
curve the way he might trace the narrows andswells of a woman’s body. He had long,sensuous fingers. She felt hot and short...
imagining how everything would look when shewas unpacked and she’d had time to arrange itall.    “If you need anything, le...
more likable side. “I’m looking forward to seeinghim again,” she said.   “He’ll want to see you, too. He said you had anic...
No such luck. “I just want you to know mydaughter is a good girl, and you should respectthat.” Jack glowered at Mike.   “D...
Justin and Ilsa came back into the room, theirarms full of boxes. “Hey, Mike, glad you’rehere.” Justin set his box on the ...
headache,” Mike said.   Justin laughed and pulled Ilsa into his arms.“Don’t listen to him. Remember, he doesn’t havetoo hi...
was nothing but a recipe for heartbreak.   His expression hardened, the off-limits signflashing once more in his eyes. He ...
Ilsa shook her head. “I think Mike is afraid tobe serious about anyone.”     Jack turned to Stephanie. “You stay awayfrom ...
It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to settledown, just that she couldn’t afford to keepputting her heart out there to ...
great time.” She’d double up on her studies afterthe wedding.   Her father patted her shoulder. “You do that.Have a good t...
bridesmaid’s dress.                      …Mike sat at the bar, watching Justin and the othergroomsmen play pool while the ...
Okay, so maybe Mike hadn’t been that giddy.Even in the early days, Kaye had made himuneasy sometimes, but he’d chalked tha...
clear the table before you get one shot.”   Justin laughed—the loud, hearty chortling of aman no misery could reach. “Come...
or waste time looking for another renter.”   “Well, anyway, I appreciate it. She’s great.”   “Then why don’t you introduce...
table and rolled back toward the center.   “Stephanie’s just different, you know?” Justincontinued.   “What do you mean?” ...
Justin picked up his cue and moved in for hisshot. “Stephanie’s not like that. She’s prettynormal as far as I can tell. Ma...
if women like that even need men.”   “I don’t know.” Mike aimed for his next shot.“There’s something to be said for a woma...
“Who said I had any ideas about her? She’san attractive woman, that’s all I said.”   “You can have all the other attractiv...
heart.”   “I know you. You date a woman just longenough for her to think you’re interested, thenyou drop her and move on t...
be around for good. He’d been upset when sheleft in a huff.    Mike had learned his lesson. He needed to bemore careful fo...
“Don’t look now, but I think things are goingto get a lot more interesting.” Matt noddedtoward the door, and the others tu...
Chapter ThreeStephanie stared at the other end of the bar,where Mike and the other male members of thewedding party were g...
The two bottles of champagne the women hadconsumed back at the house obviously hadn’tdone anything to dampen her ardor.   ...
designated driver,” a groomsman said. “But hesaid he had more reason to drink than any of us.”   Mike raised his glass in ...
“Champagne!” Ilsa giggled. “It is not good tomix drinks, is it?”   “I’ll have vodka.” Alina shrugged. “I amRussian; what e...
watching the pool players, but Stephanie noticedhe kept glancing over at her, then looking away.He had his fingers wrapped...
away again.   “Maybe you are afraid.” Alina grinned, herbrown eyes dancing with mischief.   “That’s ridiculous.” Stephanie...
obviously listening.   Oh, no. They’d never let up now. Rather thanhave her personal business become a topic ofentertainme...
here, and if you say no I’ll look like a fool.”   “Sorry. I don’t dance.”   She leaned closer, so close she could smell hi...
her like a man who knew about women, not as ifshe were so fragile that she might break, and notso tightly that she couldn’...
well together.”   “Ilsa’s great, but I can’t help remembering thatjust last week Justin said he wasn’t ready tosettle down...
A heated look stole into his eyes, and hepulled her closer. She could no longer hear themusic for the buzzing in her ears....
emotions. “Justin said you don’t have agirlfriend.”    “That’s true. I’m not looking for one, either.”    “I’m not applyin...
man had depth, which made him that much moredangerous.   “What about you?” he asked. “You seeingsomeone?”   She shook her ...
and when their eyes met, she felt the heatshimmer between them once more.   “So nothing’s going to happen between us,” hes...
caressed her mouth with his, teasing her withgentle brushes of his lips against hers, and thendeepened the kiss. She felt ...
was aware of the others watching them andwhispers rising around them.   Her face burned, and she stared at the floor,wishi...
them.   In the bathroom, she splashed cold water onher face and stared at her reflection in the mirror.Her cheeks were sti...
doesn’t trust women, Mike is definitely takenwith you.”   “I told you, it was all show. Consider it part ofthe evening’s e...
“Oh, yeah. His ex is a real piece of work.”   “I met her once when she dropped Ryan off,”Ilsa said.   “She’s the kind of w...
with him. She might not be the sharpest pencil inthe box, but she was pretty sure two brokenhearts didn’t add up to a whol...
and sinful. She smelled like fresh cotton sheets,and he knew the minute their lips touched thathe’d made a big mistake. Th...
“She asked me to dance.”    “And you took that to mean you could maulher on the dance floor?”    He glared at Justin. The ...
Mike drank, he saw Stephanie slip out of thebathroom and join Nicole and Alina at their table.Her face was still flushed, ...
Chapter FourEither Ilsa is the luckiest woman in the worldor she’s a witch, Stephanie thought as she stoodat the back of t...
“Mine were going to be cream and royalblue,” Stephanie said.   “Were you engaged?”   “No. But I thought I might be heading...
“the one.” Two years ago, they’d met at a parkdistrict league softball game. He was handsomeand funny and smart—the perfec...
Stephanie thought so, too, but who was she tojudge? Everything she’d known about true lovehad been written on an Etch A Sk...
bridesmaids’ signal to make their way up theaisle. She settled her bouquet of red roses firmlyat her waist and began the s...
her, or at the idea of a wedding?   Maybe he’s just hung over. She found herrhythm again, though she couldn’t look awayfro...
That did it for Stephanie. She’d promisedherself she wasn’t going to tear up at thiswedding. Six times as a bridesmaid oug...
And then it was over. The organ trumpeted theprocessional, and Ilsa and Justin practicallyskipped up the aisle. Mike met S...
handed her a handkerchief. “Here. Yourmascara’s running.”   “Thank you.” She looked at the square ofcrisp white linen. “I ...
polished announcement of “Just Married”scrawled across the back window. Mike satacross from Stephanie, facing backward. “I...
to make bridesmaids look like some sherbetdessert or something.”     He looked around the room, which was fastfilling up w...
than this. Too big. Eight bridesmaids, whichmeant I had to come up with eight groomsmen. Ihad to call in every favor I cou...
mean what people think they mean.”   “You’re cynical.”   “I’m a realist. How can anybody make apromise like that and keep ...
arranged marriages,” Mike said. “Everybodyknew up front what they were getting into.”   “No messy emotions?”   “Yeah.”   S...
me.”   “And Stephanie needs to dance with me.”Justin, still immaculate in tie, cummerbund, andtuxedo jacket, pulled her to...
“Blond and foreign?”    “You know what I mean—someone who willgive you the kind of happiness Ilsa has given me.”    “Of co...
and miserable depths of love. Now all shewanted was someone who’d keep her on aneven keel.                       …“You and...
split, Ryan had been hurt the most.   “She likes you, too. I can tell.”   “Ilsa…” He gave her a warning look.   She smiled...
“Just remember—no sex in the living room orthe kitchen.”    She laughed. “I will remember. It is a beautifulhouse.”    “My...
day wasn’t so real the next.   Stephanie and Justin danced close.Stephanie’s eyes met Mike’s, then slid away as ifshe didn...
figure out.   No—he had her figured out. She’d beenburned by love the way he had, and she wasn’tready to try again. She wa...
both hideous, but she hadn’t wanted to tell himthat, so she chose the least offensive of the two,thinking Judy could retur...
the beach and everything.”   “Dad, that’s so sweet!” Her throat tightened,and tears stung her eyes. For all his gruffness,...
She nodded. “A bunch of us left our vehicleshere before the wedding so we’d have themlater.”    “Good. I thought about jus...
the airport, and they’re good to go.”   “All right.” It wasn’t as if anyone was going tomiss her anyway. They were all too...
asked, forcing her gaze away from his arms. Shesettled for studying the arrangement of artificiallilies on the table behin...
hired a limo driver to take them to the airportstraight from the reception. I’m going back to thehouse to pack a bag for t...
Chapter FiveStephanie followed Mike out to the parking lot toa black truck with BRUBAKER AND SON,BUILDERS stenciled on the...
She’d never thought of riding in a car as aparticularly intimate act, but it felt like one now.Here she sat with Mike, sea...
crept up her neck. Her face must have been asred as the rose in his boutonnière.   “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea...
“That was going to be a playroom,” he said.   She winced. How did he live here, whereevery room represented a dream deferr...
it’s their honeymoon.”    Shaking her head, she opened a seconddrawer and pulled out a pair of baby-dollpajamas.    “Skip ...
more medication, reading glasses, or somethingelse the couple might need. She opened thedrawer, and then quickly slammed i...
Stephanie’s face. “Want to try them out?”   “No!”   He laughed. “You’re very cute when you’reembarrassed.”   “Shut up. Did...
staring at her with a particularly…predatory lookin his eyes. But the only thing he made her fearwas losing her self-contr...
She’d expected the fierce passion and insistentpressure of the night before. Instead, his mouthexplored hers with exquisit...
that kind of complication in her life.   She slid her hands up between them andpressed against his chest, pushing him away...
“I don’t think you’re a jerk.” She wasn’t surewhat she thought of him, but “jerk” hadn’t cometo mind.   “If I try to kiss ...
dreams coming true did make her feel a littleanxious. Desperate, even. Apparently Mike feltthat, too. “You’re not a jerk.”...
to get the happy couple.”   The side door from the hotel opened, andJudy emerged, towing Ilsa and Justin behind her.“Anoth...
at him. “Men don’t understand romance.”   “I’m just thinking about what he’s going to bedoing tonight that I’m not,” Mike ...
personal life, and he revealed as little as possibleto her about his. They would never be friends,and that was fine with h...
The silence on the other end of the line had aweight to it, as if she expected him to saysomething more. “Is there anythin...
that sleazeball is moving in with my kid?”   “Todd is not a sleazeball, and I’ll thank younot to refer to him that way in ...
of junk.” She issued orders like a general. In theearly days of their marriage, he’d admired herenergy and efficiency. Now...
had felt like an ass. He’d worked hard to regainRyan’s trust.   He left his office and wandered down the hallto Ryan’s roo...
forth thing. Kaye and Mike had stayed civil,something he was secretly proud of. If he coulddo that after what Kaye had don...
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  1. 1. Always a Bridesmaid Cindi Myers
  2. 2. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, andincidents are the product of the author’s imagination or areused fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales,or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.Copyright © 2012 by Cindi Myers. All rights reserved,including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in anyform or by any means. For information regarding subsidiaryrights, please contact the Publisher.Entangled Publishing, LLC2614 South Timberline RoadSuite 109Fort Collins, CO 80525Visit our website at www.entangledpublishing.com.Edited by Ruth HomrighausCover design by Liz PelletierManufactured in the United States of AmericaFirst Edition April 2012The author acknowledges the copyrighted or trademarkedstatus and trademark owners of the following wordmarksmentioned in this work of fiction: Spider-Man, St. Pauli Girl,
  3. 3. Listerine, Diet Coke, Etch A Sketch, Nerf, X-Men, Pop-Tarts, Pixar, Superwoman, Craigslist, Macy’s, iPhone,Trojan.
  4. 4. For Debby Tisdale Mayne
  5. 5. Chapter OneIn possibly the worst twenty-four hours of herlife, Stephanie Ludlow lost her lease, learned agood friend was getting married, and fell madly inlust with her potential new landlord. Not that anyone of these things was so bad by itself. (Well,except for losing her lease. That sucked.) Buttaken together, she was certain they added up toa disaster in the making. “You busy next Saturday?” These were thefirst words her friend and coworker JustinThibodeaux said to her after she clocked in thatMonday morning in late spring. The lanky blondhad worked alongside Stephanie for the past fouryears and was always good for a laugh or thelatest gossip. Stephanie slid into her desk chair and put on
  6. 6. her telephone headset as the phone rang.“Ludlow Heating and Air Conditioning. Howmay I help you? Oh, hello, Mrs. Grayson. Yes,Mark Greenlaw is scheduled to be there thismorning by ten o’clock. Yes ma’am. Noproblem. Thank you for calling.” “Saturday. What are you doing Saturday?”Justin rolled his chair closer to hers, the line fromhis own headset trailing behind him like a deepsea diver’s tether. “Just studying.” Since she’d decided to goback to school for her master’s degree inbusiness administration, studying had becomeStephanie’s life. She didn’t mind, really. Herdegree was going to open a lot of new doors andallow her to really make something of herself.“Other than that, I don’t have anything planned.Why?” She took a slug of her extra-large chai
  7. 7. latte. “I’m getting married. I want you to be there.” A fountain of honey-sweetened chai and milksprayed across the desktop, and Stephanie wasmomentarily overcome by a coughing fit. Justinpounded her back. “Are you okay? What’swrong?” She wiped at her mouth with a paper towel.“Married? Didn’t you just tell me last week thatyou weren’t ready to settle down?” He looked sheepish. “Yeah, well, that wasbefore I found out Ilsa’s going to be deported.” “Isn’t she here on some kind of work visa?” “Her visa’s expiring. She has to go back toRomania. But if we get married, she can get agreen card and stay.” Though Justin had dated the cute Romaniannurse longer than anyone in recent memory,
  8. 8. Stephanie hadn’t realized things were quite soserious between the two. Apparently hertalkative coworker didn’t tell her everything. “Agreen-card marriage. How romantic.” “Aww, don’t be like that. I really do love her.I just hadn’t planned on popping the questionyet.” “Saturday is a little soon for a wedding. Areyou sure you aren’t rushing things?” “We don’t have much choice. If we don’tmake it legal quickly, immigration will kick herout. So will you be there? Please?” “Of course I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it.” “Good. Then will you do me a favor?” She narrowed her eyes at him, recalling pastfavors Justin had asked of her. Like the time he’dtalked her into going on a blind date with his ex-college roommate, who had turned out to be an
  9. 9. alcoholic who crooned Beatles tunes off-keyafter his third beer. Or the time he’d persuadedher to take snowboarding lessons with him, andshe’d broken her wrist the first day. “Itdepends.” “Would you be one of Ilsa’s bridesmaids? Shestill doesn’t know that many people here, and itwould mean a lot to me. And to her, too.” She stared at him. “Aren’t bridesmaids a littleformal for a rush job like this?” “Ilsa wants to do this right. She says she canpull it together. She’s already found a church.” Stephanie shook her head. “Sorry, but I don’tdo bridesmaid.” “You were a bridesmaid in Jackie Miller’swedding, weren’t you?” She made a face, remembering that particularnightmare. Between dealing with the neurotic
  10. 10. bride and stuffing herself into orange taffetaruffles, it had taken her weeks to recover. “Yes,and I’ve sworn off them since. Five weddings inugly dresses is enough. I’ve done my time.” “Please. It would mean so much to both ofus.” She was saved by the phone. “LudlowHeating and Air Conditioning.” “Stephanie? It’s Marge Carter.” “Oh, hi, Marge. Is something wrong?” Shehad remembered to mail this month’s rent check,hadn’t she? Why else would her landlord call herat work? “Listen, hon, I got a buyer for the house, soI’m going to have to ask you to clear out.” Stephanie’s stomach plummeted to knee level.The rental she was in had been on the market formore than a year—so long she’d decided it
  11. 11. would probably never sell. “Uh, wow. Howgreat.” She tried to sound cheerful. “When doyou need me to be out?” “Friday. I know it’s short notice, but the manand his wife are paying extra, and they want itright away. I can’t lose the chance to unload theplace after so long.” Stephanie bit back a scream of frustration.“Marge, I don’t know if I—” “You’re young and single. And it’s not likeyou have a ton of stuff. Couldn’t you stay withfriends? Or your dad? I’ll refund your depositand the rest of this month’s rent. Look, I have toget off the phone now. The buyer said he’d callback right away. I’ll tell him everything’s okay.All right?” Before she could squeeze out an answer, thedial tone sounded in her ear. She slumped and
  12. 12. punched off the phone. “What’s wrong?” Justin peered at her.“You’ve gone all white.” “I’ve been evicted.” Justin grinned. “All those wild parties, right?C’mon, what’s up, really?” “Marge sold the house. I have to be out byFriday.” She buried her head in her hands. “Whatam I going to do? I’ll never find a place by theend of the week.” Her father—and her boss—Jack Ludlow would let her crash at his place, noproblem. But the prospect made her shudder.Once she crossed the threshold of her dad’stownhome, she would be Daddy’s little girl again,with all the overprotective concern and loss ofprivacy that implied. “No problem,” Justin said. “You can move inwith me.”
  13. 13. She shook her head. “Thanks, but don’t youthink Ilsa might object?” She and Justin weregood friends, but that’s all they were—friends.What new bride-to-be would understand that? “No, really, one of my roommates moved outa few weeks ago, and the guy who owns thehouse has been looking for a replacement. It’s abig front bedroom with its own bath.” She remembered now that Justin shared ahouse on Bear Creek with a lot of other people.“Who else lives there?” “There’s Mike—it’s his house. Nicole—she’san accountant over at Baxter and Evans. Me.And Ilsa. She’s already moved in with me.” “Wait a minute. You’re still going to live thereafter you’re married?” “We can’t really afford our own place rightnow, and it’s a sweet setup. You’ve seen it—big
  14. 14. yard, game room, living room, everything.” Stephanie had vague memories from a partyshe’d attended at the house last year of soaringceilings, a stone fireplace, and a creek practicallyrunning past the front door. It was deluxe allright. “Rent’s five hundred a month. You won’t findanything close to that price that’s anywhere nearas nice.” No kidding. You couldn’t rent a toolshed inEvergreen, Colorado, for five hundred a month.She gave Justin a grateful look. “It sounds prettygood. Can you set it up for me to come by andtake a look?” He was already dialing. “Don’t worry. You’lllove it. And Mike’s going to love you. Well, asmuch as he loves any woman.” “What’s that supposed to mean? Is he gay?”
  15. 15. Justin shook his head. “Divorced. His ex-wifereally did a number on him, and I guess he’sbitter. But he’s a great guy.” “Whatever. I’m not interested in him as a man.Only as a landlord.” Her phone line rang, and she hurried to answerit. Dating was fine, but she was done with seriousrelationships. She’d proven to herself that shewas lousy at them. Every time, just when shethought it was going great and she started hearingdistant wedding bells, things would blow up inher face. It had happened with both of the guysshe’d gotten serious about, and she wasn’t up tomaking it three in a row. Besides, right now she needed to focus onschool. She didn’t have time for a love life. Betterto keep things casual. A houseful of roommatesmight be helpful with that. What kind of a
  16. 16. romance could you have with four or five otherpeople always around? …By the time Stephanie shut off her engine in thedriveway of Mike Brubaker’s house after work,she would have seriously considered tradingcertain nonessential body parts for the chance tolive there. Natural river rock and cedar timbersrose two stories amid hundred-year-old bluespruce and lodgepole pine. Expanses of tintedglass reflected the surrounding forest andmountains, and the silvery waters of Bear Creektumbled over rocks less than a hundred yardsfrom the front deck. She studied the windows and tried to decidewhich one belonged to the bedroom Justin hadmentioned. What would it be like to wake up to
  17. 17. this view every day? She only hoped some otherlucky sucker hadn’t rented the space out fromunder her. Using the rearview mirror, she freshened herlipstick, smoothed back her dark cap of hair, andtried for a not-too-eager expression. Ugh.Acting was not her strong suit. She got out of thecar and climbed the steps to the front door. “Yeah, yeah. Just a minute,” came the shoutedanswer to the doorbell’s summons. She heardshuffling, fumbling sounds from the other side ofthe door, and then it opened to reveal a broad-shouldered, flat-stomached man dressed in fadedpurple pajama pants—and nothing else.Stephanie stared at the light dusting of hair acrosshis chest and struggled to keep her gaze fromdropping to the single line of hair below his navel,disappearing into the low-slung pants.
  18. 18. Feelings she would have sworn were longdormant suddenly clamored for attention. Herheart pounded. She forced her gaze up to theman’s face. He had thick brown hair, tousled asif he’d just awakened; a strong jaw shadowedwith dark stubble; and piercing blue eyes. Sleepyeyes. Sexy eyes. “I, uh…I’m here about the bed.I mean the bedroom.” Fortunately, Mr. Gorgeous was distracted bysomething behind him. He looked back over hisshoulder. “Ryan, what are you doing in there?” “I’m lookin’ for the video, Dad.” “I’ll help you find it in a minute. Get back onthe couch.” A much smaller version of the man before her—without the chest hair, muscles, or beardstubble—came into the hallway. He, too, wasclad in flannel pajama pants, and he had his
  19. 19. father’s dark hair and blue eyes. “Who’s thelady?” he asked. The man turned back to Stephanie. “Who didyou say you were again?” “Stephanie Ludlow. Justin’s friend? I’m hereabout the room you have for rent.” He blinked and not-so-subtly checked her out.“When Justin said you were a friend from work, Iwasn’t expecting—” His gaze hovered over herchest, and she wished she hadn’t worn such atight T-shirt. “Well…” She folded her arms over her chest and triednot to sound as pissed off as she was beginningto feel. “You were expecting a man. Do you havea problem renting to a woman?” “What?” He dragged his gaze up to eye levelonce more. “No. You just caught me by surprise,that’s all. One of my other housemates, Nicole, is
  20. 20. a woman.” He held the door open wider andmotioned Stephanie in. “I guess you figured outby now, I’m Mike Brubaker. Sorry I’m notdressed for company. My son’s home sicktoday, and I stayed in to look after him. We weretaking a nap.” “Now we’re going to watch Spider-Man,” theboy said. “That’s a good movie,” she said. “I’m sorryyou’re not feeling well.” “I got a code.” He sniffled loudly. Mike put his hand on the boy’s shoulder andturned him back toward the living room. “You goback on the couch, sport, while I show Ms.Ludlow the room.” They watched Ryan shuffle back down thehall. “Cute kid,” Stephanie said. “He’s a great kid.” No mistaking the pride in
  21. 21. his voice. Mike might be bitter about women, buthe clearly had a soft spot for his son. “Does he live here with you?” “Not as much as I’d like. Is that a problem? Iknow some people don’t like having kidsaround.” “Oh, no!” She shook her head. “I love kids.” He rubbed his chin. The sound of his beardstubble rasping against his hand sent a quiverthrough her middle. Obviously it had been waytoo long since she’d been this close to a man. Atleast one wearing so few clothes…and who hadsuch an incredible body. “Ryan’s supposed to live here half the time.His mom and I share custody. But she has a wayof changing things around to suit her schedule,not mine.” “Oh. That’s…unfortunate.” And surprising,
  22. 22. too. Mike didn’t look like a man who let anyonetell him what to do. “But you didn’t come here to listen to myproblems. Come on. I’ll show you the room.” Heled her through a large formal living room to thespacious bedroom. “Almost three hundredsquare feet. Walk-in closet. Private bath with ashower. Overlooks the creek.” She bit back a cry of delight. It was perfect.Living here would be like living in some posh bedand breakfast. Except for the breakfast part. Andno maid service. But still… She tore her eyes away from the fantasticwalk-in closet and turned back to Mike. He hadhis hands on his hips and was staring out thewindow. Muscles bunched across his shouldersand upper arms, and that quiver went through hermiddle again. The view out the window wasn’t
  23. 23. the only great scenery around here. He turned and caught her staring at him. “Sowhat do you think?” I think you’re too gorgeous for me to livewith in the same house. She tore her gaze fromhim and looked at the room again. Who wouldn’twant to live in a place like this? She’d be acertifiable idiot if she passed up this chance.She’d never find anything nearly this wonderfuland this cheap again. “It’s beautiful. The wholehouse is beautiful.” “Thanks. I built it.” “Really?” She was impressed. “That’samazing.” He shrugged. “It’s what I do.” “It’s really a wonderful house.” “Thanks. The rent for this room is five hundreda month. You want it?”
  24. 24. “Yes!” she blurted. What was a little unrequited lust compared tothe chance to live in a place like this?
  25. 25. Chapter TwoStephanie put most of her furniture in storage andtalked Justin into moving the rest to Mike’s housein his truck. Marge, grateful for Stephanie’scooperation, refunded the entire month’s rent andthe deposit, which allowed Stephanie to payMike without emptying her savings account.Lucky break number two—number one beinglanding this place. That left only her father to deal with. Inanother life, she’d have moved without tellinghim, but since she needed to give her newaddress to the payroll department at work—whowas her aunt Judy, her father’s sister—keepingher new digs a secret wasn’t a possibility. “You’re moving into some stranger’s house?”Jack Ludlow, a stocky fireplug of a man in his
  26. 26. early fifties whose thick silver hair contrasted withhis heavy, dark brows, rose from his chair in theLudlow Heating and Air Conditioning office andleaned over the desk toward his daughter. “Witha bunch of people you don’t even know?” “I know Justin. And it’s not as if I’m moving inwith strangers. I have my own room. My ownsuite. It’s a really nice house, Dad.” She rushedto head off all her father’s potential objections.“And the rent is a real bargain. And it’s in a safeneighborhood.” “Why don’t you just move in with me? I’vegot a spare bedroom and bath. And I won’tcharge you any rent at all. You can help aroundthe house in exchange for the room.” Stephanie gripped the arms of the chair untilher knuckles ached. “Helping out around thehouse” was her dad’s code for cooking and
  27. 27. cleaning. She loved her father. She really did. Buthe was as old-fashioned as they came about theroles of men and women. Oh, he’d hire a womanto work for him without blinking, if she had theskills. But he pictured even the toughest techgoing home at the end of the day to don an apronand whip up dinner and vacuum the rugs. She could have dealt with all that, even. ButDad tended to be a little overprotective. Okay, alot overprotective. After her mom had walkedout when Stephanie was sixteen, her father hadthrown himself into the role of single parent. Hecouldn’t seem to stop trying to look after her andprovide for her every need. That was one more reason she’d decided togo back to school. Though she’d probablyeventually end up taking the reins at LudlowHeating and AC, she wanted to try her hand at
  28. 28. managing other businesses and to see some ofthe world on her own. “I need my own place, Dad. This is a greatopportunity for me.” “I’ll be the judge of that.” Which was why on moving day she followedher father’s truck up Bear Creek Road towardher new home. Her dad had insisted on loadingup her bedroom furniture himself—with Justin’shelp—while Stephanie stuffed her trunk and thebackseat of her car with boxes and draped mostof the contents of her bedroom closet across thepassenger seat. When they pulled up to the house on BearCreek, Ilsa was waiting for them. A buxom,round-faced woman with streaked blond hair andexpressive brown eyes, Ilsa reminded Stephanieof the St. Pauli Girl beer advertisements. All she
  29. 29. needed was a dirndl. Though the T-shirt Ilsawore clearly worked for Justin, who climbed outof the passenger seat of Stephanie’s dad’s truckand greeted his beloved with a passionate kiss.Less than twenty-four hours until the wedding,and it looked like they wanted to start thehoneymoon early. Stephanie cleared her throat to remind themshe was still there, and they managed to tearthemselves away from each other. Ilsa grinned atStephanie. “I came to help. I am very good atunpacking.” “Thanks. I need all the help I can get.” “Where’s this Mike fellow?” her fatherdemanded, glaring at the front door. “I have not seen him.” Ilsa shrugged. Shespoke with the carefully rounded vowels andavoidance of contractions of a skilled but non-
  30. 30. native English speaker. “Maybe he is working.” Of course. And it wasn’t as if any of her pastlandlords had helped her move in. Still, Stephaniewas disappointed she wouldn’t get to see him.The man was awfully easy on the eyes. “Come show me where you want this bed.”Her father shouldered past her with theheadboard to her grandmother’s cherry sleighbed. Stephanie followed him inside. He stoppedin the living room to survey the soaring ceilings,stone fireplace, and fabulous view. “Isn’t it great, Dad?” Stephanie asked. “Hmmph. Where’s your room?” She led him to the bedroom, which was just asspacious and inviting as she remembered, andshowed him how she wanted the bed placed inthe corner. Then she ran back out to help Ilsaunload the car.
  31. 31. The two women carried armloads of clothesinside and hung them in the closet while Justinand her father put the bed together. “Thank you for agreeing to be in ourwedding,” Ilsa said as they hung the last of theclothes. “I guess I am sentimental, but it isimportant to me to start our marriage off right,with our friends around us.” “I’m still amazed you were able to pulleverything together so quickly,” Stephanie said.“I know people who spend months planning awedding.” “I asked everyone I know to help me. Thechaplain at the hospital has a friend who let ususe her church, and one of my patients works ata hotel and told us about a cancellation for one oftheir banquet rooms, and other friends arehelping with the reception.” She smiled, deep
  32. 32. dimples forming on either side of her mouth. “Ibought my dress at a bridal shop sample sale,and when I told the owner of the shop what Iwas doing, she did the alterations right away.” “Everybody loves Ilsa.” Justin looked up fromfitting the pieces of the bed together. “People fallall over themselves to do stuff for her. I’ve neverseen anything like it.” Maybe it was the combination of dimples andbig brown eyes, or perhaps it was simply that Ilsawas genuinely nice. “It sounds like you’ve takencare of everything,” Stephanie said. She took adeep breath and steeled herself for the answer tothe question she’d been dreading. “Um, whatabout bridesmaids’ dresses?” “Oh, that is no problem.” Ilsa opened thecloset and began rifling through Stephanie’sdresses. She shoved a bunch of clothes aside and
  33. 33. pulled out an ankle-length column dress of blackcrepe. “Here. You can wear this.” She held thedress up to Stephanie. “I have a white lace scarffor around the shoulders, and so there.” Shenodded approvingly. “You will look beautiful.” Stephanie stared at her in amazement. “Wherehave you been for the other five weddings I’vebeen in?” At Ilsa’s look of confusion, Stephanie leanedover and moved clothes aside until she came tothe five brightly colored dresses grouped togetherat the back. Taffeta rustled like old newspaper asshe pulled out chartreuse, orange, raspberry,eggplant, and mustard yellow concoctions ofruffles and poufs. “I don’t know why I keepthem, except that I spent so much money on eachone, it seems wasteful to throw them out.” Ilsa’s face paled, and she put a hand to her
  34. 34. mouth. “They are hideous.” She shook her head,making a clucking noise with her tongue. “Iwould never do that to a friend.” She held up theblack dress again. “My wedding will be blackand white, with red roses. Simple.” Justin straightened and shoved a screwdriverinto the back pocket of his jeans. “That’s myIlsa.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Is shea class act or what?” “Then how did she end up with you?” Herfather joined them and winked at Ilsa, whogiggled. Yes, Dad could be charming when hewanted to. She turned to look at the bed. The antiquewas made for a room like this. Once the mattressand box spring were in place, and hercomforter… “Justin, thanks for helping me withthis. I…”
  35. 35. Her voice trailed away as she turned and sawthat her thanks fell on deaf ears. Justin and Ilsawere lost in a kiss, tangled in each other’s arms. Stephanie sighed and tried to ignore a sharppang of envy. Not too long ago, she’d dreamedof sharing her antique bed with a love of her own,but things hadn’t worked out. She pushed awaythe thought. No moping, she silently scolded andheaded back to her car for another load. She was balancing a box of books on one hip,grappling with the doorknob, when a familiarvoice rumbled behind her. “Give me that beforeyou hurt yourself.” She turned as Mike strode up the steps andrelieved her of her burden. Tucking the heavybox under one arm like an empty suitcase, hemoved past her and opened the door. He wasdressed in a blue chambray work shirt, faded
  36. 36. jeans, and work boots. The jeans had been wornand washed until they were the texture of rawsilk, shaped to his thighs and butt like a secondskin. He’d rolled up the sleeves of the shirt,revealing muscled forearms. Stephanie wassuddenly conscious of her own dusty tank topand shorts. “Uh, thanks,” she managed tomumble, and combed a hand through herdisheveled hair. He hefted the box. “What’s in here? Bricks?” “Books.” She followed him into the house andacross the living room to her quarters. Justin, Ilsa, and her father were gone when sheand Mike reached the bedroom. He set the boxof books on the floor and walked over to thebed. “Nice.” He ran his hand along the smoothcurve of the footboard. She watched his hand follow the dip of the
  37. 37. curve the way he might trace the narrows andswells of a woman’s body. He had long,sensuous fingers. She felt hot and short of breath,trying to remember the last time a man hadtouched her with half the tenderness Mike nowlavished on her bed. “It was my grandmother’s,” she blurted at last.One her mother’s side. When Joy Ludlow hadwalked out, she hadn’t left much behind for herdaughter, but there had been a note. Give Stephthe bed. Not much of a legacy, but it wassomething. He looked up. “It’s a nice piece. It looks goodhere.” He took a step back from the bed, towardher. “Are you getting settled in okay?” “Yes, thank you. I know I’m going to love ithere.” She surveyed the growing stacks of boxes,
  38. 38. imagining how everything would look when shewas unpacked and she’d had time to arrange itall. “If you need anything, let me know.” She nodded and searched for something elseto say. She wasn’t ready for him to leave just yet.“How’s Ryan?” The smile he gave her transformed his features.The lines across his forehead softened, thoughthe ones around his eyes deepened. His teethwere white against his tan. “He’s doing great. Heinsisted on going back to school the next daybecause they had a field trip to the sciencemuseum.” “How old is he?” “Nine. He’s really into science.” So Mike wasn’t all bitterness and bravado.The mention of his son brought out this softer,
  39. 39. more likable side. “I’m looking forward to seeinghim again,” she said. “He’ll want to see you, too. He said you had anice smile.” Mike had a nice smile, too, though she hadn’tseen it nearly enough. They were still looking at each other, neither ofthem speaking, when her father entered theroom. He carried the rocking chair that had alsobeen her grandmother’s. “Are you the landlord?”he asked, using the tone of voice he usuallyreserved for apprentices who’d handed him thewrong tool. “I’m Mike Brubaker.” “Mike, this is my father, Jack Ludlow.”Stephanie tucked her hand into the crook of herfather’s arm as if that might keep him from sayinganything to embarrass her.
  40. 40. No such luck. “I just want you to know mydaughter is a good girl, and you should respectthat.” Jack glowered at Mike. “Dad!” Stephanie’s face burned, and shewished the floor would open up and swallow her.Or better yet, swallow her father so he couldn’tstand there and make things worse. “I’m only telling him the truth, right?” If her father wanted to believe she was still aninnocent virgin who never drank, cursed, or somuch as thought about sex, Stephanie wasn’tgoing to try to dissuade him. But she drew theline at him presenting this image of her to others.“Dad, Mike is renting me a room. He’s notinterested in my personal life.” “Right.” Mike backed toward the door, eyeingher father warily. “This is just a businessarrangement. Nothing personal.”
  41. 41. Justin and Ilsa came back into the room, theirarms full of boxes. “Hey, Mike, glad you’rehere.” Justin set his box on the floor. “Now Iknow we’ll get finished up in time for thebachelor party.” Ilsa looked at her fiancé, one eyebrow archedin question. “What is this bachelor party?” “It’s a tradition to take the groom out andmourn his last night of freedom.” Mike clappedJustin on the back. “I promise to see that hemakes it to the altar in one piece.” “Don’t listen to him.” Justin tried to reassureher. “We’re just going out for a few drinks.” Ilsa shook her head. “Fine. Go. But if youhave a headache at our wedding, I will have nosympathy. I will ask the DJ to play the musicextra loud, just for you.” “Then the least I can do is make sure he has a
  42. 42. headache,” Mike said. Justin laughed and pulled Ilsa into his arms.“Don’t listen to him. Remember, he doesn’t havetoo high an opinion of marriage.” He kissed herforehead. “But I’ve discovered the secret. Youjust have to find the right woman.” Mike rolled his eyes. “Is that where I wentwrong?” He glanced at Stephanie, and in thatmoment she glimpsed the pain behind hisbravado—a hurt that mirrored her own carefullyguarded emotions. She knew how tough it wassometimes to watch other people being happywhen that kind of bliss had eluded you. She andMike had more in common than he probablysuspected. One more reason to avoid any kind ofinvolvement with him. Everybody knew reboundrelationships were a bad idea. A double rebound
  43. 43. was nothing but a recipe for heartbreak. His expression hardened, the off-limits signflashing once more in his eyes. He turned hisattention back to the cooing couple. “I’d bettergo and get cleaned up.” He pushed past them,out the door. Ilsa looked after him. “Poor Mike. I think he isvery lonely.” Join the club. “Don’t waste your pity on Mike,” Justin said.“He’s got plenty of women who would be glad tokeep him company.” Stephanie tried to signal Justin that this was notthe subject she wanted discussed in front of herfather, but it was too late. “Are you saying thisMike guy is a playboy type?” Jack asked. Justin sent Stephanie a panicked look. “No! Imean, he’s no monk, but—”
  44. 44. Ilsa shook her head. “I think Mike is afraid tobe serious about anyone.” Jack turned to Stephanie. “You stay awayfrom him, Stephie. You don’t need a guy likethat.” “Mike’s a good guy,” Justin said. “Stephaniedoesn’t have to worry about him.” “You make sure she doesn’t.” Justin paled. “I’m sure Stephanie can takecare of herself. Besides, you’re not interested insettling down right now, are you, Stephanie?” She and Justin were going to have to have alittle talk about him and his big mouth. “I’msaving myself for the right man,” she said.“Besides, I have to focus on school.” The secondpart was true, at least. Her father smiled and nodded. “That’s mygirl.”
  45. 45. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to settledown, just that she couldn’t afford to keepputting her heart out there to get trampled on. Awoman could only take so much. Time to change the subject. She turned to Ilsa.“What are you planning to do while Justin’s at hisbachelor party?” Ilsa shook her head. “Nothing. I will sit at myapartment and worry about him.” “You can’t do that.” Stephanie grinned. “Wehave to have a bachelorette party. Who else is inthe wedding?” Ilsa tilted her head to one side, thinking.“Nicole, who lives here, and my friend Alina fromwork. There are some other friends who arehelping with the reception.” “Let’s call them all.” She found her purse anddug out her cell phone. “We’ll go out and have a
  46. 46. great time.” She’d double up on her studies afterthe wedding. Her father patted her shoulder. “You do that.Have a good time. And if you need anything, youcall me.” “I will.” She kissed his cheek. “Thanks forhelping me move.” He looked around the room. “It’s a nice place.But you remember my spare bedroom is alwaysavailable.” “Thanks.” He left, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “Your father is very nice,” Ilsa said. “He is.” His hovering was sweet, really, whenit didn’t annoy her. “Come on, let’s get busyplanning your party. We have a lot to celebrate.”If nothing else, she could toast the fact that shedidn’t have to invest in yet another hideous
  47. 47. bridesmaid’s dress. …Mike sat at the bar, watching Justin and the othergroomsmen play pool while the jukebox blaredloud rock music in the background. For Justin’ssake, Mike was making an effort to at least looklike he was enjoying himself, but he knew he wasdoing a lousy job. Justin laughed about something and raised hispool cue like a staff. “Another round of drinksover here,” he called to the waitress. The man was half out of his mind withhappiness, crazy in love with Ilsa. Mike had beenlike that once, and look where it had gotten him. The groom-to-be bent back over the pooltable and promptly sank the cue ball. The menaround him jeered, but he let out a whoop.
  48. 48. Okay, so maybe Mike hadn’t been that giddy.Even in the early days, Kaye had made himuneasy sometimes, but he’d chalked that up toher being a woman. She’d wanted a fancy wedding, so he’d gonealong with it. She’d wanted a kid and a career,and he’d been happy to do whatever he could tomake that happen. She’d asked for her dreamhouse, and he’d given it to her. Then she’ddecided that he wasn’t the husband she’d wantedafter all and left him for some lawyer in a fancysuit. Maybe he should have seen the split coming.He hadn’t, though. So much for thinking he wassmart. Justin came over to him and clapped him onthe back. “Come on, let’s play some pool.” Mike shook his head. “I don’t want toembarrass you in front of all these people when I
  49. 49. clear the table before you get one shot.” Justin laughed—the loud, hearty chortling of aman no misery could reach. “Come on. Let’splay.” “Anything for the groom.” Mike pushed asidehis empty beer mug and followed Justin to thetable. The other groomsmen, Matt and Ed,moved aside. Mike broke, sending the balls spinning acrossthe green felt. The ten ball dropped into thepocket. He bent over the table and sighted alongthe cue, aiming for the six ball that teetered infront of the corner pocket. “Hey, thanks for renting to Stephanie,” Justinsaid. “You really helped her out of a jam.” The ball fell into the pocket, and Mike movedon to his next shot. “You could say she helpedme out of a jam, since I didn’t have to advertise
  50. 50. or waste time looking for another renter.” “Well, anyway, I appreciate it. She’s great.” “Then why don’t you introduce her to me?”Matt called from his perch on a bar stoolopposite the tables. “I could use a great woman.And since you’re taking yourself off the markettomorrow…” “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t introduce my worstenemy to a dog like you,” Justin shot back. Mike paused, an unnerving thought catchinghim off guard. He looked up at Justin. “Did youand Stephanie ever…?” Justin paled. “No! We’re just friends.” Heshook his head. “She’s more like my sister, youknow? Anyway, she’s not my type.” Mike thought of Stephanie—petite and dark-haired. Definitely very different from blond, curvyIlsa. The two ball bounced off the side of the
  51. 51. table and rolled back toward the center. “Stephanie’s just different, you know?” Justincontinued. “What do you mean?” “Yeah,” Matt said, “does she go shoppingwithout paying for things or have a weirdaversion to baths or engage in long conversationswith imaginary people?” “You actually know women like that?” Edasked. “No wonder you’re single.” “Look who’s talking,” Matt said. “You oncedated a woman who carried a can of disinfectantaround in her purse and sprayed it oneverything.” Ed shrugged. “Turns out she had a germphobia. I tried to kiss her, and she gave me alecture on all the bacteria living in my mouth.Made me want to go gargle with Listerine.”
  52. 52. Justin picked up his cue and moved in for hisshot. “Stephanie’s not like that. She’s prettynormal as far as I can tell. Maybe a little too…”He hit the side of the cue ball, sending it rollingharmlessly in the wrong direction. He shook hishead. “I don’t know. Independent. I guess I gofor women who are a little softer. Not soopinionated.” “Then you’re in for a rude surprise, dude,”Matt said. “Every woman has opinions, and I’msure Ilsa will be happy to share plenty of themwith you.” Justin frowned. “You know what I mean.Stephanie is one of those women who doesn’twant to depend on anyone for anything. Forinstance, she could be set for life, working for herdad, but instead she decided to go back toschool and get her master’s. I sometimes wonder
  53. 53. if women like that even need men.” “I don’t know.” Mike aimed for his next shot.“There’s something to be said for a woman whocan stand on her own two feet.” He’d gottenawfully tired of Kaye depending on him to makeher happy. At least when a woman like Stephaniewas interested in you, you could be reasonablysure she was interested in you, not just your bankaccount or what you could do for her. He sank the four ball. “I like a woman whostands on her own two feet, especially whenthose feet are attached to a pair of killer legs.” “Oh, no, you don’t.” Justin leaned over andclamped a hand on Mike’s shoulder. Mike shrugged out of his grasp. “Don’t what?” “Don’t go getting ideas about Stephanie. She’snot going to be one of your flavor-of-the-monthwomen.”
  54. 54. “Who said I had any ideas about her? She’san attractive woman, that’s all I said.” “You can have all the other attractive womenyou want, but leave her out of this. She’s hadenough men stomp on her heart without youdoing the same.” So Stephanie Ludlow had been unlucky inlove. Had she made bad choices, or did she havesome flaw in her he hadn’t yet seen? For the littlehe’d been around her, she’d seemed like a smart,classy woman with good taste. He rememberedthe books and her antique bed. It was a beautifulpiece, sensual. Like her. “Mike, I mean it. Stay away from Stephanie.” Mike glared at his friend. “I make onecomment about a woman’s legs, and the nextthing I know you’re accusing me of breaking her
  55. 55. heart.” “I know you. You date a woman just longenough for her to think you’re interested, thenyou drop her and move on to the next conquest.” “And there’s a problem with this?” Mattasked. Justin gave him a withering look, and thenfocused once more on Mike. “Fine by me if youwant to live that way, but you hurt Stephanie andyou’ll answer to me.” Justin made him sound like Jack the Ripper.He’d only been seriously involved with onewoman in the six months since his divorce. Hisaffair with Madeline—relationship was toodignified a word to describe it—had proven hewasn’t ready to get in over his head again. She’dbeen his roommate, living in the room that wasnow Stephanie’s, and Ryan had assumed she’d
  56. 56. be around for good. He’d been upset when sheleft in a huff. Mike had learned his lesson. He needed to bemore careful for Ryan’s sake, if not for his own.He’d vowed to himself that whatever personalsacrifices he had to make, he would provide hisson a stable home. Or as stable as a home couldbe when Ryan was only with him half the time. “Okay, okay.” He threw his hands up in mocksurrender. “I’ll stay away from Stephanie.” For now, anyway, he was staying away fromall women. “Are you two going to play pool or talk allnight?” Matt asked. “Yeah, I thought this was supposed to be abachelor party.” Ed thumped his empty beer mugdown on the bar. “I’ve been to more excitingoffice parties.”
  57. 57. “Don’t look now, but I think things are goingto get a lot more interesting.” Matt noddedtoward the door, and the others turned to look. Mike stared, not quite believing his eyes.Walking through the front doors was the femalecontingent of the wedding party. And leading theway in jeans and a figure-hugging red top wasStephanie herself. Their eyes met, and he wassure his blood pressure ratcheted up a notch.He’d just sworn to Justin he wouldn’t haveanything to do with Stephanie, and lord knew hedidn’t need some woman mucking up his life anyfurther. All of a sudden, none of that meant much. Blame it on alcohol or abstinence or plain old-fashioned attraction, but he had a feeling thingswere about to get very interesting indeed.
  58. 58. Chapter ThreeStephanie stared at the other end of the bar,where Mike and the other male members of thewedding party were gathered around the pooltables. Mike’s eyes caught and held hers, intenseand searching. A warm flush spread across herchest and up her neck. If he could do that to herwith one look, what would happen if he actuallytouched her? She might melt down right there infront of everybody. “What are they doing here?” Nicole Weller,her other new roommate and one of thebridesmaids, whispered into Stephanie’s ear. Stephanie shrugged. “I guess they had thesame idea we did for their party.” “Justin!” Ilsa had already spotted her fiancéand was hurtling toward him, arms outstretched.
  59. 59. The two bottles of champagne the women hadconsumed back at the house obviously hadn’tdone anything to dampen her ardor. “Hey girls, pull up a barstool.” Justin wavedthem over. Reluctantly, Stephanie followed the othersover. “So this is your wild bachelor party,” shesaid, sliding onto the barstool one of thegroomsmen had vacated for her. She lookedaround at the pool tables and the silent jukebox.“I thought guys usually went to strip joints.” “The night is young,” Mike said. “Yeah, we just stopped off here for a fewdrinks first,” Justin said. Ilsa put her hands on her hips and frowned athim. “You can’t drive anywhere if you’ve beendrinking.” “We tried to talk Mike into being our
  60. 60. designated driver,” a groomsman said. “But hesaid he had more reason to drink than any of us.” Mike raised his glass in a mock toast. “Onlybecause I let Justin talk me into this after I sworeI’d never put on a tux and stand up in front of apreacher again.” Did Stephanie imagine that his eyes were onher when he spoke? Fine. She got the message.What made him think she was interested in himthat way? What made him think she wasinterested in him at all? Except, of course, the heat that sizzledbetween them every time they were withinspitting distance of each other. For her dignity’ssake, she’d hoped Mike hadn’t noticed it. Nosuch luck. “Speaking of drinks,” Justin said, “what can Iget you ladies?”
  61. 61. “Champagne!” Ilsa giggled. “It is not good tomix drinks, is it?” “I’ll have vodka.” Alina shrugged. “I amRussian; what else?” The other women ordered, and then Justinturned to her. “What about you, Stephanie?” “Diet Coke for me.” “So you’re the designated driver,” Mike said. “No. We came in a cab.” She avoided hiseyes. She was drinking soda because she wantedher wits about her while he was around. The manmade it difficult for her to think straight as it was. Someone put money into the jukebox, and agroomsman dragged one of Ilsa’s coworkersonto the little dance floor. Stephanie sipped herdrink and watched Mike, who sat on theopposite side of the room—as far from thewomen as he could get. He pretended to be
  62. 62. watching the pool players, but Stephanie noticedhe kept glancing over at her, then looking away.He had his fingers wrapped around the neck of abeer bottle, and she thought again of how he’dstroked the bed. “If you’re going to keep staring at him likethat, you might as well ask him to dance,” Nicolesaid. Stephanie blinked and sat up straighter. “Iwasn’t staring.” “It looked like staring to me.” Nicole turned tothe other women. “What do you think?” “You were staring,” Alina said, and the othersnodded. “Ask Mike to dance,” Ilsa urged. “I think hewould like it.” “No. I don’t want to dance with him.” Shelooked back at him, just in time to see him look
  63. 63. away again. “Maybe you are afraid.” Alina grinned, herbrown eyes dancing with mischief. “That’s ridiculous.” Stephanie suddenly wishedshe’d ordered something stronger than soda. “Then why not ask him to dance?” Nicolesaid. “I hear he’s a good dancer.” “Then you ask him to dance,” Stephaniecountered. Nicole laughed. “I’m a terrible dancer.Besides, I’m not the one who keeps staring athim.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice.“And he’s staring back.” A new song started. “Go on, ask him.” Ilsanudged her shoulder. “Ask who what?” Justin set their drink orderon the table and put his arm around Ilsa. Some ofthe other men looked up from their game of pool,
  64. 64. obviously listening. Oh, no. They’d never let up now. Rather thanhave her personal business become a topic ofentertainment for the whole bar, Stephanie slidoff the barstool. “All right, I’ll ask him.” She avoided looking at Mike as she made herway toward him, but she could feel his eyes onher, hot and intense. Her steps slowed as sheexaggerated the movement of her hips. If he wasdetermined to seduce her with his gaze, she’dturn the tables and do a little tempting of her own.Not that she had any intention of letting this gotoo far. After all, neither of them wanted to getinvolved. They’d made that clear. She stopped in front of him. “Want to dance?” He shook his head. “Nope.” She curled her fingers against her palms.“Come on. Just one. I walked all the way over
  65. 65. here, and if you say no I’ll look like a fool.” “Sorry. I don’t dance.” She leaned closer, so close she could smell hiscologne and an underlying maleness that madeher stomach tighten. “Everyone’s watching us. Ifwe don’t dance, they’re going to spend the restof the night annoying us with their comments.” His eyes flicked past her, then jerked back.“You’re right.” He raised one eyebrow, a hint ofa smile at the corners of his mouth softening hisexpression, making him seem less forbidding.More…touchable. “Do you know how much Ihate to admit that?” She took his hand and tugged him off thestool. “Dance with me, and I’ll forgive you.” He led her onto the dance floor. She fit into hisarms, resisting the urge to close her eyes and layher head in the hollow of his shoulder. He held
  66. 66. her like a man who knew about women, not as ifshe were so fragile that she might break, and notso tightly that she couldn’t breathe. His right handrested at her waist, warm and heavy, and his leftwrapped around her fingers, strong and secure.She could feel the calluses on his palms, and shewondered how they would feel against moresensitive skin… “So what do you think of Ilsa and Justindeciding to get married?” His question pulled her mind away from herdangerous thoughts. She glanced around andfound the happy couple had joined them on thedance floor. They were dancing very closetogether, lost in each other’s eyes. Had she everlooked at a man with such naked longing?Probably—before she learned to guard her heart.“I’m happy for them,” she said. “I think they’ll do
  67. 67. well together.” “Ilsa’s great, but I can’t help remembering thatjust last week Justin said he wasn’t ready tosettle down. Then the next thing I know, he’sasking me to be his best man.” “Maybe he had to face losing Ilsa to see howmuch he wanted to keep her.” “Maybe.” The word was weighted with regret.“I figure the odds are fifty-fifty they’ll staytogether. I hope for their sakes they’re one of thelucky ones.” “Justin will be a good husband to her.” Shewanted to believe this, but honestly, who knew? “Yeah, I think you’re right.” He shook hishead. “I don’t think I was ever very good at thewhole marriage thing.” The admission surprised her, and it begged thequestion. “What are you good at?”
  68. 68. A heated look stole into his eyes, and hepulled her closer. She could no longer hear themusic for the buzzing in her ears. He smiled, aheart-stopping look that made her heart pound.“Sex. I’m good at that.” I’ll bet you are, whispered a voice in herhead. She closed her eyes. Every nerve hummedwith awareness of him. “What about you, Stephanie? What are yougood at?” She used to think she was good at keeping herdistance. If you let people too close, they endedup leaving. She didn’t want to deal with the hurtanymore. But here in Mike’s arms, in the heat ofthe way he looked at her, she felt as if all herdefenses were stripped away. “It’s a secret,” shesaid. She mustered a flirtatious smile, determinedto regain control of the conversation…and of her
  69. 69. emotions. “Justin said you don’t have agirlfriend.” “That’s true. I’m not looking for one, either.” “I’m not applying for the position, believe me.But I’m surprised. You don’t strike me as themonk type—and you were the one who broughtup the subject of sex.” The faint lines across his forehead deepened.“I never said I was a monk. But right now I needto focus on being a dad.” “Dads can’t have sex?” “Kaye and I have been divorced less than ayear. Ryan needs stability. He doesn’t need tosee different women drifting in and out of mylife.” “That’s very admirable.” Mature, self-sacrificing, and far different from the bittermisogynist he’d seemed on first impression. The
  70. 70. man had depth, which made him that much moredangerous. “What about you?” he asked. “You seeingsomeone?” She shook her head. “Why not?” That assessing look again.“You’re a good-looking woman. You seemsmart. Not a flake.” “Thanks. I guess.” She shifted, putting a littlemore distance between them. “I’ve just startedgrad school, and it’s taking all my spare time.” “Graduate students can’t date?” “I’m taking a break. My last breakup was…difficult. I’m not ready to go through that again.” She waited for some flirtatious reply. Instead,he only said, “Yeah,” and squeezed her arm. Thesimple gesture of sympathy sent a tremor throughher. She made the mistake of looking up at him,
  71. 71. and when their eyes met, she felt the heatshimmer between them once more. “So nothing’s going to happen between us,” hesaid, his voice so low she wondered if he wastalking to himself. “No. Of course not.” “And the fact that I want to kiss you right nowdoesn’t mean anything.” She opened her mouth to protest that she hadno intention of kissing him. But of course shewanted nothing more. She leaned into him again,lips parted but words refusing to come. His lips covered hers, hot and insistent. Shefroze, balanced on the precipice between desireand caution. His warm arms encircled her, and hepulled her closer. Caution lost. With a soft moan,she slipped her arms around his neck and clungto him, need shuddering through her. He
  72. 72. caressed her mouth with his, teasing her withgentle brushes of his lips against hers, and thendeepened the kiss. She felt the scrape of hisbeard stubble against her cheek, and the mingledscents of cologne, beer, and man flooded hersenses. Damn, the man could kiss! All her mostsensitive places responded to his silent skill. Sheopened to him, and his tongue swept across hers,washing away the last vestiges of caution. Herhead buzzed from more than champagne now,and she ground against him, shameless. When he pulled away from her, she stumbledback, dazed. He held her at both sides of herwaist and squeezed gently, his face flushed, eyesfull of apology. “Didn’t mean to get so carriedaway.” The words came out as a growl, and shecould hear his ragged breathing. Looking up, she
  73. 73. was aware of the others watching them andwhispers rising around them. Her face burned, and she stared at the floor,wishing it would open up and swallow her. “Ithink maybe I had a little too much to drink,” shemumbled—though her last glass of champagnehad been more than an hour ago. “Yeah. Me, too.” Not looking at him, she moved off the dancefloor toward the bathroom. She needed to calmdown and think straight. The thing to do was geta grip and stay away from Mike for the rest ofthe night. It was that last expression of sympathy thathad been her undoing. She hadn’t expected himto be so understanding. A man who really gother like that could be more dangerous to herequilibrium than the physical attraction between
  74. 74. them. In the bathroom, she splashed cold water onher face and stared at her reflection in the mirror.Her cheeks were still flushed, her eyes slightlydilated. What a mess. “You and Mike certainly got along well outthere.” Nicole spoke from the doorway of thewomen’s room. Alina and Ilsa peered over hershoulder. Stephanie waved her hand as if dismissing awaiter and tore a paper towel from the dispenser.“We were putting on a show for you guys.” “And enjoying every minute of it, from thelooks of things.” Nicole came all the way into theroom and leaned against the counter next toStephanie, arms crossed. The others trailedbehind her. “For a guy who likes to pretend he
  75. 75. doesn’t trust women, Mike is definitely takenwith you.” “I told you, it was all show. Consider it part ofthe evening’s entertainment.” “Do you like Mike?” Ilsa asked. “As aboyfriend?” “I don’t even know Mike.” That much wastrue. They’d had the equivalent of two and a halfconversations and shared one truly sizzling kiss,but that was scarcely enough to build a firmopinion on. “He’s not interested in gettinginvolved with anyone right now, and neither amI.” “You’d never know it from that kiss,” Nicolesaid. “I told you, that was just an act.” And she wasa lousy liar. It was time to change the subject.“Did you know his wife?”
  76. 76. “Oh, yeah. His ex is a real piece of work.” “I met her once when she dropped Ryan off,”Ilsa said. “She’s the kind of woman who always lookspast you instead of at you,” Nicole said. “As ifshe’s searching for someone more worthy of herattention.” “Why did they divorce?” Stephanie asked. “She found someone better.” Nicole shrugged.“There’s probably more to it than that, but that’sthe gist of it. She’s got a rich boyfriend now.” “That’s so sad.” Ilsa’s brown eyes brimmedwith tears. “Yeah, sad,” Stephanie agreed. At least whenshe’d been dumped, it hadn’t been for anotherwoman. That kind of thing was enough to makeanyone bitter. She could sympathize with Mike,but that didn’t mean she wanted to get involved
  77. 77. with him. She might not be the sharpest pencil inthe box, but she was pretty sure two brokenhearts didn’t add up to a whole. …Mike retreated to the bar and ordered anotherbeer. Maybe it would stop his lips from tingling. What the hell had that been about? When he’dagreed to dance with Stephanie, he hadn’texpected to feel so drawn to her. He’d hopedgetting physical would scare her off a little. Eversince they’d met, she’d been sending out signalsthat she wanted to keep her distance. He’dfigured he would breach that boundary and she’drun the other way. No more worries about eitherof them acting on this crazy attraction betweenthem. Except the kiss had solved nothing. Whenhe’d pulled her close, she’d felt so soft and sweet
  78. 78. and sinful. She smelled like fresh cotton sheets,and he knew the minute their lips touched thathe’d made a big mistake. Thirty seconds into thekiss, he’d been ready to take her on the pooltable. Fortunately, his brain still had some controlover his hormones, and he’d sobered up enoughto realize how stupid he was being. He’d beenamazed she hadn’t slapped him when he pushedher away. Part of him wished she had. Thenmaybe he wouldn’t be sitting here now feeling sorotten. “What was that about?” Justin’s voice camefrom behind him. “What was what about?” “Come on, Mike. The whole bar saw youkissing Stephanie.” Justin leaned against the barbeside him. “I thought you were going to leaveher alone.”
  79. 79. “She asked me to dance.” “And you took that to mean you could maulher on the dance floor?” He glared at Justin. The man might be hisfriend, but Mike could only take so much. “Youdidn’t see her fighting me, did you?” “I told you—” Mike held up his hand. “Save the rest of thelecture. It was nothing. We both had a little toomuch to drink, that’s all. It won’t happen again.” “I just don’t want to see her hurt.” “You already made that clear, and I alreadytold you, it won’t happen again.” He picked uphis beer and shoved away from the bar. “Comeon. This is supposed to be a party, isn’t it?” Heraised his glass and his voice. “To Justin andIlsa.” “To Justin and Ilsa!” the others chorused. As
  80. 80. Mike drank, he saw Stephanie slip out of thebathroom and join Nicole and Alina at their table.Her face was still flushed, her hair mussed as ifshe’d just gotten out of bed. Or was ready to betaken there. He wondered if he ought to go to her, toapologize. But no. The best thing to do was tostay away from her. As far away as possible. But how could he dothat when the two of them lived in the samehouse?
  81. 81. Chapter FourEither Ilsa is the luckiest woman in the worldor she’s a witch, Stephanie thought as she stoodat the back of the church Saturday afternoon.How else had Justin’s bride put together such agorgeous wedding in only a few days? From herspot at the back of the church, Stephanie had aview of the sanctuary. Vases of red rosestrimmed with white satin bows filled the front ofthe church, and clusters of white candles cast aromantic glow over the scene. “I never thought of black and white for awedding before, but it’s beautiful.” Nicole leanedover Stephanie’s shoulder and spoke softly in herear. “I always thought if I got married, my colorswould be pale green and pink,” she added, hertone wistful.
  82. 82. “Mine were going to be cream and royalblue,” Stephanie said. “Were you engaged?” “No. But I thought I might be heading that waya couple times.” She smiled ruefully. At least shecould smile about it now. The first time—she’dbeen all of nineteen—she’d been so deadlyserious. Certain that Robert Millowski, the boyshe’d dated since tenth grade, would ask her tomarry him when he came home from college thatChristmas. Instead, he’d broken up with her,explaining how they needed time to grow up andexperience more of the world. Bob had been right, but it had taken Stephaniea while to realize her life wasn’t shattered. She’dthought because Bob was her first love, he’d bethe only one. Greg had been the next guy she’d thought was
  83. 83. “the one.” Two years ago, they’d met at a parkdistrict league softball game. He was handsomeand funny and smart—the perfect man. She’dfallen hard and fast, and they’d been inseparable.They’d had everything—physical, emotional, andintellectual compatibility. They’d moved intogether, and Stephanie had been sure they’d getmarried soon. And then they’d just drifted apart. They’dfallen out of love almost as quickly as they’dfallen into it. She didn’t know why it hadhappened, only that it hurt when it did. Howcould she have been so wrong? The crowd inside the church stirred, andJustin, looking pale and unfamiliar in his tux,walked to the altar, followed by his groomsmen.“He and Ilsa make such a great couple,” Nicolesaid. “I think he really does love her.”
  84. 84. Stephanie thought so, too, but who was she tojudge? Everything she’d known about true lovehad been written on an Etch A Sketch, erasedtoo many times now to be legible. Her gaze shifted to the best man. Mike wasturned so that his profile was to her, hisexpression somber, almost grim. Her lips tingled,remembering his kiss. What had come over herlast night, to react so powerfully to a stranger?Had he caught her at a particularly vulnerablemoment, or was he really that talented? Shewould have sworn the kiss had affected him, too,but maybe that had only been wishful thinkingand the aftereffects of the champagne she’ddrunk earlier. Her judgment about men wasn’texactly reliable. The organ began to play, something sweet andsoaring that Stephanie didn’t recognize—the
  85. 85. bridesmaids’ signal to make their way up theaisle. She settled her bouquet of red roses firmlyat her waist and began the stutter step up theaisle she could do in her sleep. Though shewasn’t the main attraction, at this moment everyeye was on her. In order not to give in to nerves,she’d taught herself to focus on something at thefront of the church—a goal it was her duty toreach. As she scanned the area around the altar for alikely target, her gaze landed on Mike once more—dark-haired, dark-eyed Mike, more gorgeousthan ever in his simple black tux, the jacket fittingacross his broad shoulders as if it were custom-made. He looked right at her, his gazesmoldering. She faltered a little in her step,wobbly at the knees from the force of that look.His expression was so intense—angry, even. At
  86. 86. her, or at the idea of a wedding? Maybe he’s just hung over. She found herrhythm again, though she couldn’t look awayfrom him. Her lips burned as if he’d kissed heronly moments, instead of hours, before. Her skintingled with the recollection of him holding her.How could one kiss with a man who waspractically a stranger be so firmly imprinted onher? She reached the altar and managed to tear hereyes away from him, turning instead to watchNicole and Alina follow her up the aisle. Then theorganist began the first notes of “The WeddingMarch,” and the crowd rose with a sound likecards being shuffled. Ilsa, an ivory doll in herwhite satin dress, moved gracefully up the aislealone, her gaze locked on Justin. Both bride andgroom were grinning ear to ear.
  87. 87. That did it for Stephanie. She’d promisedherself she wasn’t going to tear up at thiswedding. Six times as a bridesmaid ought to havebeen enough to accustom her to the vows. Butthe happiness on Ilsa’s and Justin’s glowing facesbrought a lump to her throat, and by the time theminister began reciting the vows, tears made saltytracks down her face. Nicole nudged her and handed her a tissue.Stephanie nodded her thanks. Blotting at hereyes, she silently repeated the vows along withthe bride and groom: for richer, for poorer; forbetter, for worse; in sickness and in health… By the time the minister pronounced them manand wife, Stephanie was choking back sobs. Shesniffed and searched for a dry spot on the tissuewhile everyone was focused on the bride andgroom kissing.
  88. 88. And then it was over. The organ trumpeted theprocessional, and Ilsa and Justin practicallyskipped up the aisle. Mike met Stephanie in frontof the altar and offered his arm. Shifting her rosesto the hand that held the tissue, she tucked thefingers of her free hand into the crook of hiselbow and let him lead her toward the back ofthe church. “Are you crying because another schmuck gotsuckered into marriage?” he asked out of thecorner of his mouth. The words should have made her angry, buthis movie-gangster delivery and the exaggeratedwiggle of his eyebrows made her laugh. “I’mweeping with happiness,” she said. “Happinessthat I didn’t have to wear another odd-coloredbridesmaid’s gown.” When they reached the back of the church, he
  89. 89. handed her a handkerchief. “Here. Yourmascara’s running.” “Thank you.” She looked at the square ofcrisp white linen. “I hate to ruin this.” He waved aside her protest. “Don’t worryabout it. My mother gives them to me by thegross for Christmas. She’s convinced the sign ofa true gentleman is always having a cleanhandkerchief.” She laughed. “Maybe she fears you’re leavinga trail of weeping women in your wake.” He returned the smile, and she forgot all aboutweeping. She wouldn’t be surprised if that smile,directed at the right person, could lower thecrime rate. The wedding party rode in a limo to thereception a few blocks away, trailing the car thatcarried the bride and groom, with its shoe-
  90. 90. polished announcement of “Just Married”scrawled across the back window. Mike satacross from Stephanie, facing backward. “Is mymascara still smeared?” she asked. “You look fine,” he said. “Great.” She looked away. It was a throwaway remarkfrom an accomplished flirt—she shouldn’t readanything into it. “I need a drink,” Nicole said as soon as theywere inside the hotel ballroom. She headedtoward the bar. Mike unknotted his tie, slid it off, and tucked itinto his pocket. “So what have you got againstbridesmaids’ dresses?” “Nothing. Except no one wears them except atweddings, and then after the wedding you’restuck with a dress that’s too expensive to tossand you can’t wear it anywhere. And they tend
  91. 91. to make bridesmaids look like some sherbetdessert or something.” He looked around the room, which was fastfilling up with wedding guests. The DJ hadalready started playing dance music. “I take ityou’ve done this before?” “Six times.” Stephanie parked her bouquet ona nearby table. The roses still looked surprisinglyfresh. “What about you?” He shook his head. “Once in college, I think.And then my own wedding, of course.” “What was your wedding like?” She tried toimagine him as a groom—but honestly, would helook much different than he did right now? Anymore handsome? He made a face, furrowing his brow andsquinching up his nose. It didn’t matter, shedecided. He still looked good. “It was bigger
  92. 92. than this. Too big. Eight bridesmaids, whichmeant I had to come up with eight groomsmen. Ihad to call in every favor I could think of toconvince eight guys to put on monkey suits andstand up at the front of a church. Her uncle gotsloppy drunk, one of the bridesmaids was allergicto the flowers… It was a disaster.” “Those are the kinds of stories that makeweddings memorable.” “I don’t remember anything about theceremony itself,” he said. “I was in a daze.” “Were you happy?” She half expected him to say he’d been toodumb to know better, or to make some similarlydismissive remark. Instead, he surprised her withhonesty. “Yeah. Then, I was. I believed all thatstuff about till death do us part.” He unbuttonedthe top button of his shirt. “But those vows don’t
  93. 93. mean what people think they mean.” “You’re cynical.” “I’m a realist. How can anybody make apromise like that and keep it?” “People do. My grandparents were marriedalmost sixty years.” “A few, but how do they know? I thought Iknew, and look what happened. They say love isblind, but really it makes you blind. It clouds yourjudgment.” “And when love dies, you doubt everythingyou ever believed about yourself.” The wordsslipped out—a thought spoken out loud. His gaze met hers, questioning. Analyzing?“Yeah. Yeah, it does. You said you weren’tmarried.” “No, but I’ve been in love. And it didn’t last.” “I think people were better off when they had
  94. 94. arranged marriages,” Mike said. “Everybodyknew up front what they were getting into.” “No messy emotions?” “Yeah.” She shook her head. “That seems so cold.” “But I bet the sex was hot.” No waggling eyebrows this time. Their eyesmet, and she felt the same liquid heat and light-headedness he’d induced with his kiss. “Youdon’t need marriage for sex,” she said in asurprisingly normal voice—surprising consideringhow unsteady she felt inside. “My point exactly.” She didn’t have time to think of a comebackfor that. Ilsa descended upon her, a cloud ofwhite satin and sweet perfume. “What are youtwo doing hiding over here in the corner?” Shegrabbed Mike’s hand. “You must dance with
  95. 95. me.” “And Stephanie needs to dance with me.”Justin, still immaculate in tie, cummerbund, andtuxedo jacket, pulled her toward the dance floor. Grateful for the reprieve from the intensity ofMike, Stephanie let him lead her into the dance.“Congratulations,” she said. “The ceremony wasbeautiful.” “It was, wasn’t it?” He wore the goofy,besotted grin of a man drunk on love. Stephaniehoped the photographers took plenty of picturesfor the couple to marvel at in the coming years. “Thanks for being here today, and for standingup with Ilsa.” He squeezed her hand. “I wouldn’t miss it. Ilsa is great. I really likeher.” “I hope you can find someone like her. Well,the male equivalent.”
  96. 96. “Blond and foreign?” “You know what I mean—someone who willgive you the kind of happiness Ilsa has given me.” “Of course. Who doesn’t want that?” Shetried for a teasing look, hiding the sadness thewords made her feel. When you were in love, theidea seemed so simple. But from where shestood, on the outside looking in, that giddy joywas impossible to hold on to. “What were you and Mike talking about?” This was the real reason he’d asked her todance, she suspected, but she’d play along. “Hethinks arranged marriages are better—no messyemotions.” “I told you he was a downer. Tell him thosemessy emotions make life worthwhile.” “Right.” But part of her was inclined to agreewith Mike. She was tired of the extreme highs
  97. 97. and miserable depths of love. Now all shewanted was someone who’d keep her on aneven keel. …“You and Stephanie spent a long time talking,”Ilsa observed as she settled into Mike’s arms onthe dance floor. “Don’t match make,” he said. “I am not matchmaking! I was merely makingan observation. I think Stephanie is very nice.” “She is very nice.” Too nice, really. He wantedto do naughty things with her, but he couldn’t riskit. Not until Ryan was more settled. Mike hadrushed into a new relationship with Madeline—just a stress-relieving fling, really—and Ryan hadreacted as if Madeline was going to be apermanent part of his life. When she and Mike
  98. 98. split, Ryan had been hurt the most. “She likes you, too. I can tell.” “Ilsa…” He gave her a warning look. She smiled, twin dimples on either side of hermouth. “Do not be such a scold. You are lonely,and you need a woman. She is lonely and needsa man. So…” She shrugged, as if the solutionwere obvious. “I can get a woman anytime I want,” he said.Maybe he was bragging a little, but honestly, didshe think he was pathetic and desperate? “In your bed, yes, but not in your heart.” “I don’t want anyone messing around in myheart.” She made a face at him but was wise enoughto change the subject. “Thank you for allowingme to move into your home,” she said. “I thinkJustin and I will be very happy there.”
  99. 99. “Just remember—no sex in the living room orthe kitchen.” She laughed. “I will remember. It is a beautifulhouse.” “My best work,” he said. “If the marketwasn’t so bad right now, I’d sell it. I don’t needsuch a big house.” “It is a big house even for you and your wifeand Ryan.” “We’d planned a big family. Kaye said that’swhat she’d always wanted, but obviously shelied.” “Not all women are such liars, despite whatyou might think.” “Right.” Ilsa had been telling the truth whenshe’d said her vows. Maybe Kaye had beentruthful when she’d promised to stick with him forlife. But the truth changed—what felt real one
  100. 100. day wasn’t so real the next. Stephanie and Justin danced close.Stephanie’s eyes met Mike’s, then slid away as ifshe didn’t trust herself to look at him too long.Welcome to the club. Any woman who coulddistract him the way Stephanie Ludlow did was awoman he needed to avoid. When guys startedthinking with their little head, they got into bigtrouble. “You don’t have to worry about Stephanieand me,” Mike said when he and Ilsa had dancedaway. “We understand each other.” “Oh?” “Yeah. She doesn’t want to get involved anymore than I do.” The hopeful look on Ilsa’s face faded. “Thenshe is as difficult as you are.” Difficult. Yeah. Like she was a tough puzzle to
  101. 101. figure out. No—he had her figured out. She’d beenburned by love the way he had, and she wasn’tready to try again. She was off limits. Something he needed to keep remindinghimself, in case he did something stupid like lethimself fall for her. …Stephanie’s father stopped her as she emergedfrom the bathroom. From the happy glow on hisface, he’d already had a few beers to go with theone in his hand. “I need your help,” he said. “What kind of help?” she asked warily. Whenher dad asked her for help, it usually meant hewanted a feminine perspective. Last Christmas,he’d asked her to choose between two sweatersfor her aunt Judy’s Christmas present. They were
  102. 102. both hideous, but she hadn’t wanted to tell himthat, so she chose the least offensive of the two,thinking Judy could return it. But Aunt Judydidn’t like to return things. Instead, she’d madethe whole office miserable for weeks afterChristmas, complaining about how her brotherand niece had no taste. “I need you to help me kidnap the bride.” “What?” Just how drunk was her father? “Not really kidnap,” he assured her. “I’ve justgot a little surprise planned for the happy couple,and I need your help getting Ilsa out to theparking lot.” “What kind of surprise?” “I know the kids can’t really afford ahoneymoon, so I booked them a long weekendat the beach in Florida. I hired a limo to takethem to the airport, and they’ve got a condo on
  103. 103. the beach and everything.” “Dad, that’s so sweet!” Her throat tightened,and tears stung her eyes. For all his gruffness, herfather had a soft spot a mile wide. And it was justlike him to keep this all to himself until the lastminute. He loved surprising people. He flushed. “Hey, I know a travel agent, andshe got me a good deal. But we need to get Ilsaout to the limo. I want it to be a real surprise. I’mgoing to tell them the limo is to take them back totheir house, but instead the driver will give themthe tickets and other information when they get tothe airport.” “So all I have to do is get Ilsa out to theparking lot?” That sounded simple enough. “That, and I need you to go back to the houseand pack a bag for her and Justin. You have yourcar here, don’t you?”
  104. 104. She nodded. “A bunch of us left our vehicleshere before the wedding so we’d have themlater.” “Good. I thought about just sending them off intheir wedding clothes and telling them to buy stuffwhen they got to Florida, but Judy said what ifthey’re taking medication or something? Plus, shesaid no woman wants to ruin her wedding gownsitting on a plane for hours.” “Judy is a very smart woman.” “That’s because she’s my sister. Brains run inthe family.” Her father grinned. “Anyway, youlive in the same house as the two of them, right?So you can pack a bag and get it back here.” “When do you need it?” “Right away. Their flight leaves in three and ahalf hours.” He checked his watch. “I figure, halfan hour to get the bag, another half hour to get to
  105. 105. the airport, and they’re good to go.” “All right.” It wasn’t as if anyone was going tomiss her anyway. They were all too busy dancingand drinking and telling stories about thenewlyweds. Her dad gave her a thumbs-up sign, then madehis way back to the bar. Stephanie fished herkeys from her purse and headed for the door. Mike intercepted her in the hall just outside theballroom. “Where are you going?” “I’m going home.” “Without even saying good-bye to the brideand groom? The party’s just getting started.”He’d taken off his jacket and rolled up thesleeves of his shirt, revealing muscular, bronzedforearms. Construction work definitely did nicethings for a man’s body. “Have you been dancing this whole time?” she
  106. 106. asked, forcing her gaze away from his arms. Shesettled for studying the arrangement of artificiallilies on the table behind him. He shrugged. “I like to dance.” Not what he’d told her at the party last night.“I’m coming back,” she said. “I just have to…todo a favor for a friend.” “What kind of favor?” “Are you always this nosy?” She couldn’t helplooking at him again. He was smirking. Even hissmirk was sexy. Ridiculous. “Yes.” He leaned closer, his voice low.Seductive. “What are you up to?” She ignored the flutter in her stomach andglanced around to make sure no one waslistening, but the hall was deserted. “My dad—Justin’s boss—has arranged a honeymoon inFlorida for Justin and Ilsa. It’s a surprise. He
  107. 107. hired a limo driver to take them to the airportstraight from the reception. I’m going back to thehouse to pack a bag for them.” “I’d better come with you.” He pulled his carkeys from the pocket of his pants. “You don’t have to do that.” “You need me to get you into their room.” Hedangled the keys. “The door’s locked.” “Fine. You can grab Justin’s things while I getIlsa’s.”
  108. 108. Chapter FiveStephanie followed Mike out to the parking lot toa black truck with BRUBAKER AND SON,BUILDERS stenciled on the side in white lettering. “Isn’t Ryan a little young to be in theconstruction business?” she asked. “It doesn’t hurt to start young.” He held openthe passenger-side door, and she hoisted herselfinside, conscious of the fact that there was nograceful way to climb into a truck while wearing atight dress and high heels. As if reading her mind, Mike said, “I’d giveyou a boost, but somehow I think you’d beoffended.” She said nothing, merely snapped her seat beltclosed. “We’re in a hurry here.” “I’ll drive fast.”
  109. 109. She’d never thought of riding in a car as aparticularly intimate act, but it felt like one now.Here she sat with Mike, sealed off from the restof the world, close enough to touch. So of courseall she could think about was touching him. It was all those make-out sessions in highschool and college. Americans probably hadalmost as much sex in cars as they did in beds.Her horniness right now was probably justcultural conditioning. She glanced at him, wondering if he wasthinking the same thing. He chose that moment totake his attention off the road, the look in his eyespinning her back against the seat. Even thoughhe’d turned up the air conditioner, heat washedover her. He shifted his gaze back to the road. “Ishouldn’t have kissed you last night.” “No, you shouldn’t have.” The heat of a blush
  110. 110. crept up her neck. Her face must have been asred as the rose in his boutonnière. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea,” hesaid. “I don’t get involved with my housemates.” “Good. Because I don’t get involved with mylandlords.” “Just so we understand each other.” What she understood was that Mike was themost confusing, infuriating, and fascinating manshe’d ever met. And he kept her constantly off-balance, like a woman who somehow foundherself standing on a wobbly high dive over apool she’d sworn she’d never dive into again. At the house, Mike unlocked the front door,then the door to Ilsa and Justin’s room. Itresembled Stephanie’s space, but the main roomopened onto a slightly smaller space next door.“Interesting floor plan,” she said.
  111. 111. “That was going to be a playroom,” he said. She winced. How did he live here, whereevery room represented a dream deferred?Maybe she’d be bitter, too, in the same situation. He pulled a duffel bag from the closet, andStephanie went to the dresser and began takingout bras and underwear, shorts and T-shirts, andwhat was possibly the world’s smallest stringbikini. “Nice,” Mike said, nodding to the bikini. She tossed it in the duffel and added a filmycover-up and a colorful sarong. “What do you think—condoms or no?” She turned and saw Mike holding up a box ofTrojans. Her face burned once more. She was sure shewas as red as the box of condoms. “Yes.” “Better put in two boxes,” he said. “After all,
  112. 112. it’s their honeymoon.” Shaking her head, she opened a seconddrawer and pulled out a pair of baby-dollpajamas. “Skip those.” Mike came up behind her. “Thelast thing she needs on her honeymoon is anightgown.” He had a point. She shoved the pajamas backin the drawer. “I’m going to check thebathroom.” She found an asthma inhaler with Ilsa’s nameon it and collected toothbrushes, a flat iron, and apink-handled razor. “Can you think of anythingelse they need?” she asked. “I just finished a mystery Justin said he wantedto read. I’ll get it.” While he was gone, Stephanie remembered tocheck the bedside table, thinking she might find
  113. 113. more medication, reading glasses, or somethingelse the couple might need. She opened thedrawer, and then quickly slammed it shut. Oops!Obviously, that was where they kept their sextoys. “Find anything?” Mike asked when hereturned with the book. “Nothing!” She jumped back from the drawer. Mike leaned around her and opened it. “Ohho! What have we here?” He pulled out a largepink vibrator and grinned. He switched it on, andit began to gyrate wildly. “Maybe we shouldpack this.” “Maybe we shouldn’t.” “Might make going through airport securityinteresting.” Still grinning, he replaced the vibratorin the drawer and took out a pair of handcuffs.“Naughty.” He dangled them in front of
  114. 114. Stephanie’s face. “Want to try them out?” “No!” He laughed. “You’re very cute when you’reembarrassed.” “Shut up. Did you get everything Justinneeds?” “T-shirt, swim trunks, shorts, and flip flops.Razor and sunglasses.” “No underwear?” “What for? I figure ninety percent of the timehe’s going to be either on the beach or in bed,naked.” She started to deny this, but after all, it was ahoneymoon. Mike was probably right. “Fine.Let’s get back to the reception. The limo’swaiting.” “Yeah, I guess we’d better get back.” Hemade no move to leave the room. In fact, he was
  115. 115. staring at her with a particularly…predatory lookin his eyes. But the only thing he made her fearwas losing her self-control. He took a steptoward her. “What are you doing?” She tried to take astep back, but the bed blocked her in. “I’m wondering if that kiss was a fluke,” hesaid. “Something in the alcohol.” “It could have been.” “Maybe we should test that theory.” He wasclose enough that she could see the pulse jumpingin his temple and the movement of his Adam’sapple as he swallowed. “Maybe we shouldn’t.” But he was already dipping his head towardher, and as if drawn by a magnet, she rose on hertiptoes to meet him, a tremor running through heras their lips met.
  116. 116. She’d expected the fierce passion and insistentpressure of the night before. Instead, his mouthexplored hers with exquisite tenderness, as if hewere hesitant to push too far or ask too much.All her reluctance fled at this gentle invitation. Sheleaned into him and sighed, surrendering to thepleasure of the moment. He brought one handaround to caress her back, pulling her tightagainst the hard plain of his chest. All she had to do was lean back, and shecould pull him onto the bed on top of her. Ifshe’d had a little more to drink, she might havegiven in to that impulse, forgetting Ilsa and Justinand Mike’s own previous cynicism. But that would be a bad idea. With thephysical attraction between them so strong, itwouldn’t take much for her to end up with heremotions involved as well. And she didn’t need
  117. 117. that kind of complication in her life. She slid her hands up between them andpressed against his chest, pushing him away fromher. “We need to stop.” He stared at her, eyes glazed. “Mike?” She poked him with a finger. “Mike,this is a bad idea.” He blinked, and his vision came back intofocus. “Yeah.” He licked his lips. “Yeah. Badidea.” He turned and walked out the door. Still shaky from the kiss, she shouldered theduffel and followed him to his truck. Without aword, he took the bag from her and stowed itbehind the cab, then climbed into the driver’sseat and started the engine. But instead of backing out of the driveway, hecleared his throat. “I’m usually not this much of ajerk,” he said.
  118. 118. “I don’t think you’re a jerk.” She wasn’t surewhat she thought of him, but “jerk” hadn’t cometo mind. “If I try to kiss you like that again, do us botha favor and slap some sense into me.” “Or maybe we should just make it a point notto be alone together.” “Right.” At last, he turned to look at her. “Ilike you, Stephanie. And obviously, we’rephysically attracted to each other. But I meant itwhen I said I didn’t want to get involved.” “I understand. You’re not going to ask me tomove out, are you?” “No. I really would be a jerk if I did that.Today—and last night, too—I’m sure it’s just allthe wedding stuff. It stirs up emotions andeverything.” “Yeah.” All that talk of love everlasting and
  119. 119. dreams coming true did make her feel a littleanxious. Desperate, even. Apparently Mike feltthat, too. “You’re not a jerk.” A little impulsive,maybe. Sexy as hell. “We’ll be okay now that thewedding is over. We’ll just…keep our distanceand give things a chance to cool off.” “Right.” He put the truck in gear. “Thanks forunderstanding.” “No problem.” She understood that gettinginvolved with a man like Mike—a man as afraidof commitment as she was—was a guarantee ofheartache. She’d miss those smoldering kisses,but they’d both be better off as friends instead oflovers. They drove in silence to the reception, whereJack met them in the parking lot and took theduffel from Mike. “I’ll put this in the trunk,” hesaid. “Judy was too excited to wait. She’s gone
  120. 120. to get the happy couple.” The side door from the hotel opened, andJudy emerged, towing Ilsa and Justin behind her.“Another limo!” Ilsa clapped her hands togetherand squealed. “Just a little wedding present,” Jack said. “Iwanted you kids to travel in style.” “I always wanted to ride in a limo,” Ilsa said.She put her hands on either side of Jack’s faceand kissed him on the lips. He grinned goofily. “Go on now,” he said.“Have fun.” After a few more minutes of hugs and kissesand excited good-byes, the couple climbed intothe back of the limo, and it glided out of theparking lot, tin cans clanking merrily behind. “It’s so romantic.” Nicole sighed. Mike made a growling noise. Nicole scowled
  121. 121. at him. “Men don’t understand romance.” “I’m just thinking about what he’s going to bedoing tonight that I’m not,” Mike said. “Walking on the beach?” Stephanie said withfeigned innocence. His eyes met hers and scorched her to thecore. Oh yeah. This guy was definitelydangerous. Sleeping with him would be likesleeping with lit dynamite—and just about asdestructive. …Since his divorce, Mike and his ex-wife, Kaye,had a relationship he thought of as strained butcivil. Their conversations centered on Ryan andall the details of making the transition from onehouse to the other as smooth as possible for theboy. Mike didn’t want to know about her
  122. 122. personal life, and he revealed as little as possibleto her about his. They would never be friends,and that was fine with him. He admired peoplewho could pal around with their exes after themarriage ended, but he wasn’t one of them. So when she called him to tell him school wasletting out early on Friday and he needed to pickup Ryan, he didn’t think anything of it. This wasthe kind of conversation they often had.“Apparently, they sent a note home about thislast week, but Ryan forgot to give it to me,” shesaid, as close to an apology as Kaye would evercome. “Another mother mentioned it to me thismorning.” “I have a meeting with a client Friday morning,but I’ll be done in plenty of time to pick him up,”Mike said. “Good.”
  123. 123. The silence on the other end of the line had aweight to it, as if she expected him to saysomething more. “Is there anything else?” “Todd and I have decided he should move inwith me.” Todd—the lawyer she’d left him for. “He’sgoing to be living in the same house with myson?” He ground out the words, struggling tokeep his temper even. “I want the two of them to get to know eachother better. Todd could be Ryan’s stepfatherone day.” The words were like a kick in the gut. “Ryanhas a father. He doesn’t need a stepfather.” “I knew you were going to act this way. Iwouldn’t have told you at all, except I figuredRyan would say something.” “Act what way? You think I should be happy
  124. 124. that sleazeball is moving in with my kid?” “Todd is not a sleazeball, and I’ll thank younot to refer to him that way in front of Ryan.” “Ryan and I don’t talk about Todd. At all.” “He’s a part of my life, and he’s going to be apart of Ryan’s life. You might as well get used tothe idea.” “I don’t think this is a good idea, Kaye. Whatif Ryan gets attached to the guy and the two ofyou break up?” “We’re not going to break up. Why are youso pessimistic?” I learned from you. “You need to think aboutthis more,” he said. “What this will do to Ryan.” “Ryan will be fine. Pick him up from school bynoon—he’ll be waiting up under the portico atthe bus entrance. And don’t forget, he needs hisear drops twice a day. And don’t let him eat a lot
  125. 125. of junk.” She issued orders like a general. In theearly days of their marriage, he’d admired herenergy and efficiency. Now her instructionsgrated. “I know how to take care of my own son.” Her silence made it clear she didn’t believehim, but he wasn’t going to waste his breathdefending himself. “Tell him I’ll be there.” He clicked off his phone. So Todd wasmoving in with Kaye—and into the role ofstepfather. Mike felt sick to his stomach. Itwasn’t that he believed Ryan would never haveother men in his life. He just hadn’t let himselfthink about it. Especially not Todd. And then there was the whole Madeline thing.When Mike split up with her, Ryan hadn’t takenthe news well. He’d accused Mike of being meanto Madeline, of sending away his friend. Mike
  126. 126. had felt like an ass. He’d worked hard to regainRyan’s trust. He left his office and wandered down the hallto Ryan’s room. When they’d moved in, Kayehad decorated the room with a border along theceiling of bears playing different sports and aDenver Broncos comforter. Sometimes whenRyan was at Kaye’s, Mike liked to come intothis room and sit, to feel close to his son. It wasthe only room in the house that remainedunchanged. The one that had stayed exactly likeit was supposed to. And when Ryan was home,Mike could easily imagine what life might havebeen like if things had worked out. But there was no sense moping about whathadn’t happened. Mike was making the best ofthings, and Ryan, resilient as kids always are,seemed to have adjusted to the whole back-and-
  127. 127. forth thing. Kaye and Mike had stayed civil,something he was secretly proud of. If he coulddo that after what Kaye had done to him,anything was possible. …Paul and Sandy Kellerman had “perfect family”written all over them. Mike could have guessedtheir history: high school sweethearts, marriedright after college, he the up-and-coming youngexecutive and she the business major who wasstaying home to raise their little girl, a blanket-swathed dumpling they referred to merely as“baby.” “We want baby’s room to adjoin the mastersuite,” Paul told Mike as they discussed the plansfor the couple’s new house, which they’d hiredMike to build.

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