Principal Imagine Me
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Table of Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Epilogue Imagine Me Fiona Cole © 2017 by Fiona Cole All rights reserved. Cover Designer: Najla Qamber, Najla Qamber Designs, www.najlaqamberdesigns.com/ No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Created with Vellum To my husband. I imagined you being there, and you were. I love you. Contents Playlist Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Epilogue Acknowledgments Other books by Fiona Cole Deny Me Shame Me Not Playlist The Scientist – Corinne Bailey Rae The Shell – Rose Cousins What Kind of Man – Florence + The Machine Hardest of Hearts – Florence + The Machine Happy With Me – HOLYCHILD Strip Me – Natasha Bedingfield Standing In Front of You – Kelly Clarkson Drumming Song – Florence + The Machine I Don’t Dance – Lee ; Brice Wanted You More – Lady Antebellum Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus Road Less Traveled – Lauren Alaina Happy – Leona Lewis Tin Man – Miranda Lambert Roll Away Your Stone – Mumford & Sons Love Is Hard – James Morrison Frist Day of My Life – Bright Eyes Looking Out – Brandi Carlile Pray – JRY (ft. Rooty) …Ready For It – Taylor Swift The Story of Us – Taylor Swift Ask Me How I Know – Garth Brooks Chapter 1 “What if we got married?” “Wha . . .” Shock prevented me from finishing the word. “Marry me,” Hudson said again. This time he sounded more sincere and less like he was tossing out some ludicrous idea at random. “Then you can come back home and stop this charade in Cincinnati.” My eyes widened as my confusion mixed with anger. Charade? “We haven’t been together in over a year.” My voice was shrill, and I struggled to keep it low as we stood among the throng of people trying to check their bags and head to their gates. “Besides, you don’t even have a ring.” “Come on, Jules. We’ve been best friends forever.” Best friend was an exaggeration. “Our families are close and it makes sense that we’d end up together. We fit. I’d never imagined having anyone else by my side.” “But you’ve seen other people since we separated. It’s not like you’ve been pining over me and trying to get me back.” It had seemed to me he had been almost relieved to get the chance to date other women since we’d split up. My nose scrunched. His surprise proposal had scattered all my thoughts. “Yeah, but I always assumed we’d end up married. I figured you just needed some space so you can feel like you’ve lived a little before we settled down.” Before I became the perfect Southern belle and married the man who was supposed to take over my father’s company? Hudson had never taken anyone else to one of my family’s charity fundraisers because it would’ve been insulting to take a date when it was assumed that I’d eventually be Mrs. Hudson Murphy. My mouth hung open as I struggled to come up with words to make him understand. It turned out he didn’t need a response from me to keep on talking. “I mean, what more do you want? Your parents let you go to college. They even let you go to grad school. And how do you repay them? By not coming home after you graduate. Think about it.” A dull roar echoed inside my head. “They let me?” I asked incredulously. “I’m an adult.” “You’re the baby of the family.” “That doesn’t mean I deserve any less.” My face heated with frustration for having to defend my right to be my own person. “I thought you understood me. How many conversations did we have where I bared my secrets to you? How many times did I tell you I wanted more than to be a society wife?” He shrugged as if I were simply being difficult. As if he weren’t actually insulting me. “I figured it was a phase. One you needed to explore on your own while you still had time in grad school. So, yes. I was supportive and didn’t say anything. Didn’t put up a fight and let you have your space because I loved you, and I wanted you to get it out of your system. I figured you had an itch you needed to explore, but to be honest, after your trip to Jamaica, it seemed to get worse.” I ignored the comment about Jamaica, not wanting to explain the things that trip had made me want to explore. He had no idea I had met a man there who had lit a fire in me greater than any Hudson could have hoped to kindle. Instead, I focused on his silence when he could’ve told me how he felt a year ago. Not that it would have made any difference. “You didn’t say a word when I explained my plan to go to Cincinnati and stay with Jack. I thought you supported me.” “I didn’t actually think you’d follow your brother to another state when your dad threatened to pull all financial support. I figured you’d come to your senses at some point.” “Come to my senses,” I muttered heatedly. “I know how stubborn you are, Jules.” He said it softly, like he was trying to remind me how well he knew me. Yet there he stood, baffled that I wasn’t tossing aside my future, my hopes and dreams, to fulfill the role expected of me by my parents. “If I’d have let you see how frustrated you were making me, you’d have dug your heels in further.” Screaming would probably send the TSA running from all directions, yet that was exactly what I wanted to do. “I wasn’t some stubborn child, Hudson, throwing a fit.” He cocked an eyebrow at me like I was exactly that, a stubborn child. I had to keep myself from stomping my foot. If he thought I was throwing a tantrum now, then I’d happily show him how bad a tantrum I could throw. “And now you’re living in Cincinnati with an unsafe car. What other risks are you willing to take for this so-called independence?” He used air quotes around independence and I wanted to slap his stupid fingers down. And how dare he insult Betsy, my old Honda Civic. She wasn’t always the most dependable, but she was all mine. I’d been proud of myself when I’d come home at Thanksgiving to share the news. My father had grumbled how I was putting myself in jeopardy, and Hudson had watched me with a clenched jaw. His tone softened, but his words still let me know how little he cared about what I wanted. “You’re twenty-five, Jules. How much longer are you going to keep up this nonsense? Most women your age are already settled down with a husband and are thinking about kids.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. “You don’t know me at all.” The frustration I felt had me practically growling. “Juliana.” He sighed my name and ran a hand through his hair. “And it’s not nonsense.” I jabbed a finger in his face, and with that parting reminder, I turned to storm away. I was immediately stopped by his strong fingers circling my thin wrist. “Don’t leave like this,” he pleaded. He looked at me with truly soft eyes. “I’m sorry I threw that out there. It was wrong of me.” He looked at me like the friend I grew up with. The one who understood me and never liked arguing with me. But I wasn’t ready to let him off the hook just yet. “Damn right it was.” “You’re my friend, always have been.” He spoke softer and moved his hand down my wrist, wrapping it around my fingers. “Always will be.” “Then what is this all about?” For the life of me, I couldn’t figure how we got from him walking me into the airport, to asking me to marry him right before I entered the TSA checkpoint. He ran a hand through his dark hair and tugged. “I don’t know, Jules. I guess I didn’t expect you to leave. And then when you did, I assumed you’d decide to come back before too long. I figured maybe you were waiting for something to ground you here, and if I threw it out there, you could come home.” “I’m not some rebellious teenager trying to stick it to my family. Like you said, I’m twenty-five. And rather than seeing it as a point to settle down, I see it as a time to live. To explore.” I stretched my arms wide and shook my head. “I get that I’m the baby, and a girl, but at some point, I have to be allowed to live my own life.” He rolled his lips across his teeth, assessing me. “Have you even looked for an apartment yet? Or are you going to live with your brother and his wife indefinitely?” His tone was laced with skepticism. “Yes, I’m looking,” I answered primly, chin held high. He sighed and pinched his lips before asking his other question, the one he already knew the answer too. “And your car?” “Betsy and I are just fine, thank you very much.” “Juliana.” “Hudson.” I dropped my arms to my sides and relaxed my stance. “I’m looking for an apartment, but I want to make it worth it. And I will get a better car once I have more in savings. I just started my job in September, so I need time to build a nest egg. My parents taught me well about managing money, and now I need to be able to apply it.” I needed to get to my gate soon, and I didn’t want to leave on a sour note. I made a joke like we always used to do before all this tension. “I thank you for your extravagant proposal. You were so many of my firsts, so it only seems fair that you would be the first person to ask me to marry him.” “Next time it will be better. With a ring.” His tone didn’t hold nearly as much humor as I expected. It sounded more like a promise. “I’m always here, Jules. And I’ll be waiting for when you’re ready to come home.” “Don’t wait for me, Hudson.” He didn’t answer, just gave me a sad smile and pulled me in for a hug. I wrapped my arms around his waist and breathed in his familiar spicy scent—Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. “Thanks for bringing me to the airport,” I mumbled into his chest. “I should be back for Easter.” “Anytime. Let me know when you land.” With that he placed a soft kiss against my hair, pulled back, and waved goodbye before disappearing into the crowd. I grabbed my bag off the conveyor belt almost thirty minutes earlier than scheduled. I’d messaged Evie, my sister-in-law’s best friend, and she’d let me know she’d be there. My brother was supposed to have picked me up, but he’d bailed and sent Evie in his place. As long as I didn’t have to pay for a long Uber ride home, I was fine. The doors slid open and a cold blast of air hit me, so different from the Texas heat that never seemed to lessen. I scanned down the row of cars looking for my Evie’s little red MINI Cooper. But before I could find it, my attention was diverted to a mess of dark curls swirling in the wind attached to a petite body. I almost decided the cost of an Uber would be worth it when I read the sign Evie waved at me. Model MacCabe Welcome home from jail. “Juliana MacCabe, I’ve missed you so much.” She shouted from ten feet away. “You look so good. That prison food must be better than I assumed.” People turned to stare, and I wished I was shorter than my five-foot-ten self so I could hide among the crowd. Heat burned up my cheeks and I marched toward her, if for no other reason than to make her stop yelling. “Really, Evelyn?” “What?” She smiled innocently, glancing at the sign. “You do look like a model with your sharp cheekbones and runway-ready body. And you’ve mentioned how being home with your parents can sometimes feel like jail. I don’t see what’s so wrong with the sign.” She was so honest about it, I just had to laugh. She bobbed her eyebrows and smirked, knowing she’d won. “Where’s your car? I’m ready to go home. And what happened to Jack?” “He said something came up.” She shrugged and popped her trunk. I loaded my suitcase and we got on our way. Evie glanced over at me. “Rough trip home?” I breathed a laugh at how much of an understatement that was. It’s not like it was a bad trip. Jack and Luella had been there for a couple of days, which helped distract my parents, but the rest of the time, they looked at me like I was an errant teenager on the verge of mental breakdown. I got it, I was the baby. I arrived ten years after Jack, blessing in disguise, and they coddled me from day one. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family fiercely, but I needed space to grow and find out who I was. My hastened desire to leave Texas and rush to Cincinnati had nothing to do with the passionate night I’d had in Jamaica. It had nothing to do with my brother’s friend, Shane, sparking a need in me I hadn’t known existed. One I doubted I would ever find again if I stayed in Texas. It had nothing to do with the fact that Shane lived in Cincinnati and I imagined the possibility of hooking up with him again. Nope. Not. At. All. “Can I ask you something?” I asked, sidestepping her question. At her nod, I continued. “You used to be independent, right?” Evie scoffed. “Bitch, I’m still independent. I just now have a sexy as sin man by my side.” “Fair enough.” I raised my hands in defeat. Taking a deep breath, I decided to share what had happened with Evie. “My ex-boyfriend asked me to marry him before I took off.” Her eyebrows shot upward and her eyes shifted to look at my hand. “And? I don’t see a ring on your finger.” “He would’ve had to have a ring for that to happen.” “The man proposed without a damn ring? Hell no.” She shook her head and pursed her lips in disappointment. “He proposed without a plan. I’m pretty sure without even thinking it through.” “And you said no. Good for you.” She watched me pick at my chipped nail polish. “I feel like there is more to this. Start from the top.” “Ha.” I barked out a laugh. “I don’t know. We dated for a long time, and we’ve known each other forever, but I broke up with him a little over a year ago because I needed to explore. Once I was in grad school, I knew I wasn’t planning on staying in Texas. I wanted to be able to leave without having him waiting for me. I wanted to find out who I am on my own. He’s always been my friend, and I’d assumed he’d supported me. Turns out he’s been in line with my parents in thinking I should come home.” I stopped picking at my nails and twisted my fingers on my lap. “But I want to live, Evie. I don’t want to only be known as some rich man’s wife. I want to explore. Explore the world, myself, my sexuality.” She remained quiet, and I worried that I’d said too much and made her uncomfortable. It felt impossible to do with Evie, but you never know. “First things first. You do you. Period. And to do that, you need to move out of your brother’s house. Because he’s still there and we all know how protective Jack can be when it comes to you. There will be no drunken nights of stupid ideas and one night stands around him.” “I’m surprised he doesn’t have an ankle tracker on me.” We both laughed at how true that statement was. Jack ran his own security company, and had plenty of access to all those gadgets to keep me from exploring too far. He knew I hadn’t wanted the life my parents expected of me. He’d been understanding of that, but it hadn’t stopped him from forever seeing me as a baby who constantly needed protecting. “Once you move out, then you can be as free as you want. Drink all the alcohol, throw parties, drive around in your shit car without hearing about it every morning. Have all the sex with all the men–just use condoms. The possibilities are endless.” Sex. I was surprised I hadn’t forgotten what that was, it had been so long. About eight months to be exact. I hadn’t stayed celibate on purpose. It was just that the last time I’d had sex, the bar had been set so damn high, I was scared to jump with anyone else. And being in the same city as the man who’d set that bar, I couldn’t deny hoping to see him again and maybe have another go. Another go of his rough hands on me as they held my legs apart. Another go of him wrapping his body around me from behind as he bit my shoulder and moaned his release against me. Yeah, I needed my own place. If I ever got another chance, I’d need somewhere to take him. We pulled up to my temporary home. It was actually my sister-in-law, Luella’s family home. Jack moved in when they got together. It was pretty big, especially by downtown standards, and they were letting me stay until I found a place of my own. I inserted my key and opened the door. “Yes. Yes.” Luella’s chanted words greeted me and Evie as we stepped through the front door. My brother’s bare ass peeking out of his jeans as he flexed and pushed into Luella was the first thing I saw when I jerked my head in the direction of the living room. I dropped the handle of my suitcase and covered my eyes, letting out a horrified yelp of disgust. I jerked in the direction of the door and bolted, completely judging the distance wrong and ran into the door itself, bouncing back, almost falling. “Fuck. Ouch.” I peeked past my hands and shoved past a laughing Evie to get out. “Nice ass, MacCabe,” Evie said. “Get out, Evelyn,” my brother’s voice bellowed from the open door. She lifted her hands in defeat and stepped out. “I guess something really did come up,” Evie muttered, still smiling. I shuddered, wishing I could bleach my mind of the last five minutes. Yeah, moving out had just jumped to the top of my priority list. Chapter 2 “Hey, girl, hey.” My lab mate, Jolene, spun her chair in circles giving me the wink and the gun. I laughed as she slowed to a stop and turned to face me as I settled in at my desk in the lab. It was good to see her. I’d been home for a week and was ready to get back into the pattern. “How were the holidays?” My body sagged into my chair with an exasperated sigh. “Good. Nothing like sitting around the tree on Christmas morning and defending your decision to be in Cincinnati. Merry Christmas to me.” My fingers waggled, giving jazz hands and a fake smile. “Hey. Me too.” Jolene sat up excitedly in her chair, but it didn’t take long to pick on her sarcasm. “Because fuck, the six years I slaved away at school and all the research awards I won. Science is nothing for a pretty little girl like me. I should just move back home and marry a good man. Be a good little wife.” “You don’t sound bitter at all.” She shrugged. “Not even a little bit.” I laughed and hit the button to bring my computer to life. “If it makes you feel any better, I was welcomed home to my brother’s ass as he fucked my sister-in-law against the living room wall. My efforts to move have increased ten-fold.” Jolene’s jaw dropped before she threw her head back and cackled. I glowered. “You’re right. That does make me feel better. Especially imagining your brother’s tight ass. Mm mm.” Her eyebrows bobbed up and down. “Gross, Jolene.” “Well today is your lucky day, chica.” She spun in her chair again, arms held wide. “My roommate got engaged on Christmas.” Her eyes rolled. “Cheesy, I know—but she’s moving out.” Tiny waves of excitement shot through me, though I tried to ignore them until I knew for sure she was serious. “It’s not funny to play with my emotions, Jo.” “Why would I play with your emotions when I’m still busy imagining your brother’s naked ass?” I threw a paper clip at her. “Stop it.” “Juliana.” Dr. Stahl’s voice boomed across the lab, announcing his presence. “If it isn’t Mr. Misogyny,” Jolene muttered under her breath. “Dr. Voet wants to see you in his office. Jolene, I’d like to double-check your procedures. Make sure you’re doing them correctly.” He didn’t look up from his iPad as he barked orders at us before turning to leave again. Jolene rolled her eyes and pretended to shoot herself in the head. Dr. Stahl was the biochemistry professor at the University of Cincinnati and ran the lab where we worked. He was Russian with a strong accent that made his orders sound harsher than most. He also had horrible manners, but worst of all were his beliefs about women in science. Yet, Jolene and I were the two lucky women to keep the lab going as his senior research associates and teaching assistants. Someday, I hoped to go back to school for my Ph.D. and have a lab of my own. Until then, Jolene and I worked like a well-oiled machine, dodging Dr. Stahl’s jaundiced eye as much as possible. I ducked out of the lab and headed to Dr. Voet’s office. He was the dean of the chemistry department and also a professor in inorganic chemistry. I shook out my limbs before knocking on the door. The man was freaking gorgeous, and I always got a little nervous when I was around him. He may have been the hottest scientist I’d ever seen, with his dark, scruffy beard and longish hair that he was always pushing back off his head. And boy did I love it when a piece flopped forward. His biceps would flex as he threaded his fingers into his hair and shoved it back, all the way down to where it brushed against his collar. I will not blush. I will not stare. My knuckles sounded too loud against the door in the empty office. It was before eight, so his secretary wasn’t in yet. “Come in,” his slightly accented voice called out. Jolene gushed over the faint lilt in his speech. She Googled him and discovered he was Dutch. I didn’t know what they put in the water over there, but they did right with Dr. Voet. It didn’t hurt that he was actually friendly and treated all the employees in the department equally. I pushed the door open. “Dr. Stahl said you wanted to see me?” “Yes, come in. Have a seat.” He stood by a shelf that held a Keurig and some cups and gestured to the seats in front of his desk with a warm smile. “Can I get you a coffee? I know it’s early.” “No. Thank you though. I had one on the way in and too much caffeine will ruin my steady hand.” “We wouldn’t want that.” He sat and brought his mug to his smiling lips. Before taking a sip, he mumbled, “Wouldn’t want to make Dr. Stahl any angrier than he is.” A laugh escaped at his unexpected joke. It was no secret that Dr. Stahl was the Grinch of the department. It just caught me off guard when our dean made a joke about one of his staff. I laughed a little harder when I saw what his mug said. Lab Rule #3. If you don’t know what you’re doing, at least do it neatly. “Nice mug.” He shifted it in his hands and looked at the front. “It’s a good rule.” “I’ll keep it in mind.” He took one last sip, and eyed me over the rim. Don’t stare. Don’t blush. I managed to look away, waiting for him to speak first. “Anyway, Ms. MacCabe. I called you in here because I have a job that I think you would be perfect for, considering the lab you worked in while attaining your master’s degree.” I raised my eyebrows and waited for him to explain. “I’d like for you to train the new forensic toxicologists and technicians in the Cincinnati Police Department’s Forensic Unit.” A tingling started low in my abdomen and fluttered up through my chest at hearing the possibility of going to the police department. I knew a certain detective there and just the thought of possibly seeing him, of having a reason to stop and talk to him, made my breath catch. My imagination sparked at the thought of running into him in the hallway at the department and him tugging me into the bathroom to pick up where we left off in Jamaica. “They’re taking on more employees and need help training them on the equipment and techniques,” Dr. Voet continued, completely unaware of the bells and whistles taking up residence inside me. “I know we’ve discussed the experience you have with the instruments, and I thought you’d be a perfect fit. You would head to the department lab twice a week instead of being Dr. Stahl’s TA.” “Does that mean Jolene will be his sole TA?” My face scrunched up at the idea of leaving poor Jo taking the brunt of Dr. Stahl’s rudeness. “No.” Dr. Voet chuckled at my expression. “We’ll have a student from the master’s program help this semester.” “Well, then. Wow.” I didn’t know what else to say. I was blown away by the opportunity to work so independently. “Thank you.” “Of course. I see how well you work as a teaching assistant and I thought, with your patience and the way you take the time to explain things, that you’d be perfect.” “Well, thank you.” He returned my smile as I stood, and we agreed to meet again and talk before I was needed at the department in a few weeks. I had a little more pep in my step as I skipped into the lab and sat at my bench. Jolene stared at me with a pinched expression on her face. “What?” “No one is allowed to be that happy in this lab. Spill the beans.” After I explained my meeting with Dr. Voet to Jolene, she rolled over to slap my arm. “You lucky bitch.” “I know.” I agreed easily as I plucked out two blue nitrile gloves. Jolene cocked her head to the side. “Didn’t you say you knew someone who worked as a detective in the CPD?” I focused on fitting my hands in the gloves and thought about how to answer. Did I know him? Not really. But I knew what he tasted like. I knew the sound he made when he came. I knew how rough his hands felt as they palmed my breasts and pinched my nipples. “What’s that blush for?” Jolene asked with narrowed eyes. “Nothing.” I turned in my chair and grabbed my notebook, hoping she would drop it. No such luck. “Unh-uh, Juliana MacCabe. I need details.” I turned to face her, rolling my eyes. “I don’t really know anyone. But I may have slept with someone that works there when I was in Jamaica for my brother’s wedding.” Jolene’s smile was big and knowing. “This is the guy your brother sometimes works with isn’t it. Shane?” I didn’t respond. Just pinched my lips and stared at the wall over her shoulder. “Ooooo. This is going to be great.” She clapped her hands and rubbed them together as though plotting a trap. “When is the last time you saw him? Do you still talk to him? Maybe you can continue the hook-up now that he’s so convenient. Maybe he can use his handcuffs this time.” “Oh, enough,” I interrupted. “I haven’t spoken to him since that night. I’ve actually only seen him when we’ve crossed paths at my brother’s office. On those rare occasions, I say hello, and he responds with a head nod as he bolts out the door.” I hated those times. Especially at first. I remembered the first time, walking in and seeing his broad back not long after moving to Cincinnati. I’d been swinging by to have lunch with Jack and Shane had stood, leaning against Jack’s office door. My heart beat in double time and my body heated, remembering the way he’d worked me over. What would I say? Would his eyes simmer across my skin? Would he smile, and demand I have dinner with him so we could repeat that night? Would he look at me with regret and apologize for abandoning me in the early rise of the morning? None of those things happened. He’d briefly glanced in my direction before nodding and leaving. He’d barely looked at me, and there was no recognition in his eyes. They had been blank. It had been the biggest shock for him to treat me like that, and the few times we’d crossed paths since then, it had been the same thing. “He probably isn’t even in the building where the lab is. You know there are different department buildings.” “Maybe he won’t. But maybe he will,” Jolene said, her eyes flashing in excitement. I shrugged, trying to tamp down the butterflies that had taken flight in my stomach at the thought of being around him long enough for him to actually look at me and acknowledge me. “Well, either way, I want all the details.” Jolene tugged her goggles back on her face. “And since you’ll be my roommate, you won’t be able to escape me.” I rolled my eyes at her chipper tone and assumption that I’d move in. I mean, I was, but she could’ve at least waited for me to say yes. Laughing to myself, I tugged my own goggles down to get to work. Before I got too far, my phone vibrated on the bench next to me. Hudson: I hope you made it home okay. You never checked in. Have you found an apartment yet? If not, you are always welcome home. That was one hell of a loaded text. I couldn’t wait to rub in his face that, as a matter of fact, I had found an apartment. He would learn, along with the rest of my family, that Cincinnati was my new home, and I was just fine on my own. Chapter 3 “Finally done with the last of my clothes. Only four-thousand, three-hundred, and seventy-six more boxes to go.” “Don’t exaggerate. That room will only hold four-thousand, three-hundred boxes.” Jolene leaned against the kitchen counter, playfully rolling her eyes as she licked the ice cream off her spoon. I placed my hands on my hips and nodded. “You’re right. I’m a total drama queen.” “I may have to kick you out if you don’t get it together.” She pointed her spoon at me as I walked into the kitchen where I snagged my own spoon and dug into the mint chocolate chip. “Then who would buy you ice cream on the second day of living here?” “Fine. I’ll let you stay a little longer.” She tapped my spoon with hers while I laughed. Jack, two of his employees, and Jack’s brother-in-law, Jameson, helped move me in yesterday. Between the four of them and my minimal belongings, it only took one trip. They made it seem so easy, but there was nothing easy about unpacking boxes all day. But it was worth it. Jolene’s apartment was newer, with an open layout and two bedrooms and bathrooms. The bedrooms were both the same size, except the master had an en suite. The real bonus was never, ever, walking in on my brother and his wife again. I mentally shuddered at the slightest reminder. My phone vibrated against the granite countertop, and I abandoned my spoon to read the message from my sister-in-law. Luella: Come over for grilling. Everyone’s coming. Luella: Bring Jolene. Everyone. Did that include Shane? I liked to play this game with myself. I figured a lot of people did, at least that’s what I told myself to rationalize my overactive imagination. I would think of these extravagant situations that would never happen, but I’d let them play out in my mind and let my heart rate speed up like they would actually come to fruition. I’d been in Cincinnati six months and hadn’t had one let’s-sit-down-and-chat kind of run-in with Shane, but it didn’t stop me from imagining. Yesterday I waited impatiently at Jack’s for everyone to show up to help move, hoping maybe he would’ve been one of the guys Jack called to help. Maybe we would’ve exchanged heated glances when no one was looking, and afterward, he would stay to help me unpack . . . And undress. For the first few months whenever driving around Cincinnati, I looked at every police car, not that a detective would be driving a police car, and wondered if it would be him. Maybe he’d pull me over for speeding and demand sex to get out of the ticket. So many possibilities. I knew my little daydreams were crazy, but my body failed to pick up on that, what with the way it heated and tingled in preparation for a man that never came. Like it did now, letting the chance that Shane may be part of the “everyone” Lu mentioned. My skin warmed and my heart skipped a beat. Maybe he’d wait for me to leave Jack’s and follow me home, where he would knock on the door and ravish me as soon as I opened it. Probably not though. “That was Lu,” I said to Jo. “They’re cooking out and want us to head over. You game?” “Free food? Hell yes.” When we pulled up, the driveway was almost full and all the lights were on. We got out and were greeted with the smell of burgers on the grill wafting from the backyard. Winter be damned. Nothing was going to stop Jack from using his grill. He loved that damn thing. “They can be a little rowdy, but everyone is pretty awesome.” I went to go open the door, but stopped and gave Jolene one last warning. “Beware of Evie. Super awesome. Super bold. Try to hide your fear.” With that I pushed the door open. No one was in the front room where the stereo was playing some jazz music my brother favored. I hung our coats on the rack by the door and led the way to the voices in the kitchen. “Juliana.” Luella greeted me with open arms and pulled me in for a hug. “I’m so glad you could make it. Dinner’s almost ready. Evie,” she directed over her shoulder. “Take them into the dining room and introduce everyone.” “You got it, boss.” Evie saluted Lu with a glass of wine and led the way. Walking in I saw all the guys standing around. I recognized one from Jack’s office, then there was Jameson, Jack, and—. If my imagination could conjure up a faster heartbeat and rapidly warming skin, then the real thing was setting my heart off at a gallop and my skin heated like a wildfire. Shane. He stood leaning against the table, legs cross at the ankles. He held a beer bottle in his hand and was laughing at something Jameson had said. Blood pounded through my veins and sent a whooshing sound in my ears. “Boys, you all know Jack’s sister, Juliana. And this is her friend . . .” Evie faded off waiting for Jo to fill in her name. “Jolene,” she said with a small wave. “Thanks for having me.” “Jolene?” The guy I didn’t know repeated. “Yup. Puerto Rican parents who really loved Dolly Parton.” “I love it,” Evie said. “Well, since you’re new let me introduce everyone.” “I’m Evie. You’ve already met Lu, Jack and Jameson.” She pointed off each guy in the room, landing on the tall blonde in the back. “This is Clark, he works for Jack. And this big, silent one is Shane.” Shane slanted a small smile Jo’s way with a head nod before his eyes moved to me. I fully expected them to flick away like usual, but this time they lingered. His jaw ticked and nostrils flared, but then he looked away and drained his bottle. It was the first time he’d actually seen me. It was the first time he gave any sign that he remembered me. There was no stopping the smile slowly stretching my lips. Maybe tonight would turn out somewhat like I’d imagined. My hopeful heart soared at the merest idea. “Hey, Jules.” Jack came over and kissed my cheek. “Jolene. I’m glad you could come.” “Thanks for the invite.” “Make yourselves at home. There’s beer and wine in the fridge. I’m about done at the grill. Shane, come help me bring the food in.” Shane’s eyes flicked to mine one last time before turning to follow Jack out. When I went to follow Evie back into the kitchen, I was met with Jolene’s wide, knowing eyes that shifted to the doors outside. I shrugged, playing ignorance about her acknowledging Shane, and walked into the kitchen. We each got a glass of wine and stood around as Lu finished putting together the salad. I almost choked on my drink when Evie asked, “Is that the first time you’ve seen Shane since the wedding?” There was a glint in her eye, and I did my best to banish the red creeping into my cheeks. Looking into my glass, I responded, “Yeah. Why?” She waited for me to look up at her before she cocked an eyebrow. “No reason.” She held my eyes. “He doesn’t come around much. Too much of a loner and very private.” “He has beer with the guys every once in a while,” Lu chimed in. “He’s actually pretty close to Jack. An anomaly according to Jack, because he said Shane’s not really close to anyone.” “Hmm. Maybe he’s looking to change that.” “What makes you say that?” Lu asked. No matter how much I tried to avoid Evie’s eyes, I kept looking back. She knew. I didn’t know how she knew, but she did. The silence became more apparent when Jolene cleared her throat uncomfortably. “What?” Lu asked, looking at everyone. She stared between me and Evie, and it didn’t take long to click. “No. No, no, no.” She faced me. “Jack would lose his mind if he found out you liked Shane. Juliana, he’s a perpetually single guy. I’ve never seen him with the same woman twice, and I always hear about his exploits.” “It’s nothing.” I waved my hand and tried to control the high pitched panic in my voice. “Don’t tell Jack anything. Evie is just assuming too much. It’s nothing.” Evie scoffed, but thankfully remained silent, and Lu looked unconvinced. “Other than he’s hot.” Jo inserted her opinion. “Anyone can appreciate that mountain-sized body and those ice-blue eyes. Nnng,” she groaned. “And that scruff.” “Do you need a minute?” Evie laughed. Jolene took a deep breath and pursed her lips in thought. “Nah, I’m good.” Her joke broke the tension and we all laughed. Each of us grabbed a dish and took it to the table where the guys were already waiting with the meat. Praise everything good and holy, because there was an open seat by Shane and since Jo sat by Clark, it was the only place left. Thank god for all the conversation to drown out my heartbeat. It vibrated in my chest, and I was sure if the room was quiet, everyone would be able to hear it. The whole time, I was acutely aware of Shane next to me. I hadn’t been this close to him in almost a year. I wondered if he was just as excited as me. If he was having a hard time focusing on the conversation because he was remembering our night in Jamaica. “You think you can sneak into my room, put these perky tits in my face and not expect me to suck on them?” His tongue traveled down my breastbone, parting my satin robe. Kneeling between my spread legs, he stared down at me, taking in my bare body. “I’m going to do so much more than taste your breasts. I’m going to eat your cunt. Listen to you scream and beg me to let you orgasm. I’m going to pinch your rosy nipples and lick up all that cum. Make you all nice and wet, so I can fuck you as hard as I want.” He leaned over me, nibbling at my trembling lips, pressing his cock to my core. “You made a mistake sneaking in here, little girl, but since you’re here, I’m going to use you up.” I had to clench my fists around the silverware to help stop the shaking. Once I had it under control, I reached out to take a drink of water, hoping to cool myself down. Toying with my fraying nerves, Jolene kept shooting me looks, and waggling her eyebrows. I almost choked on a bite of cheeseburger when she ate her hot dog a little inappropriately. “You okay over there?” Jack asked, concerned. “Yup.” I leveled a death stare over at Jolene who shrugged innocently. “Gag reflex giving you trouble?” Shane’s voice rumbled across my skin. It was the first thing he’d said to me all night. The first thing he’d said to me at all in nine months. And it was laced with a lot more meaning than a simple question. I turned to look at him for the first time since I sat down, and one side of his lips had barely curved up. It was the knowing glint in his eye that sent a blush roaring into my cheeks. A look that said he knew how good my gag reflex was. He’d tested it well that night. “Watch it, Shane. That’s my little sister you’re joking about.” Jack’s voice was light as he pointed his fork at Shane. Like he didn’t think he had to be serious enough to actually worry about Shane flirting with me. Shane looked at Jack and his lips tipped more firmly in a smirk that was meant to taunt him. “C’mon, man. I think she can handle all I’ve got going on.” My skin prickled when he dragged his finger along my shoulder, firing Jack up. My chest heaved from nerves and from having him touch me again. Even if it was a faint graze along three inches of my body through my sweater. Even if he did jerk away like he’d been burned from the small connection. Jack, still playful, cocked his brow at Shane. “The real question is can you handle life without your balls if you even think about my sister that way.” “Jack,” I interrupted, not wanting to be spoken about like I was some child. “Juliana,” he said, staring innocently at me. He used to be the overprotective brother all through high school, but I wasn’t fifteen anymore. “I don’t think many men would be able to handle Juliana,” Evie cut in between the sibling stare down. “I bet she’ll crush all the men of Cincinnati. I’ll be sure to help her.” She gave me a nod of solidarity. “Ha. Ha.” Jack was not amused, as all the girls clinked glasses. Shane turned back to his meal. The conversation moved on after that, until we all finished and began clearing the table. The night was coming to a close and the pressure increased in my chest as my chances of talking to Shane alone became more and more limited. So, when I saw him head off to the bathroom, I followed. When he came out, he looked at me leaning against the wall. The hallway was narrow and away from everyone else, so we were left with a little privacy. “Hey.” I stood up and took a step closer. “Hi.” His eyes flicked down each end of the hallway, checking to see if anyone was watching, then back to me. I tried to see something in his face, something in the depths of his blue eyes. Anything that would give me an inkling that I was making the right move. But they remained mostly blank, other than a tinge of caution. Fuck it. I had to take this chance. “So . . .” My voice came out a little high-pitched and I cleared my throat. I wanted to sound confident and seductive, not like Minnie Mouse. “I was thinking, maybe you can come by tonight. Or whenever you’re not busy.” I wanted him to know the offer was open past tonight. I watched for a reaction and my breath caught when I saw a spark in his eyes, but it faded too quickly for me to decipher. The silence stretched for hours, each passing second making me more nervous. His jaw clenched and he swallowed, looking over toward the family room where everyone was hanging out. When he looked back at me, his eyes were no longer blank, but hard. “No, Mini MacCabe.” His tone was condescending, as if he were speaking to a child, and it was the first hit to my confidence. “I work with your brother and just because you caught me off guard that night, doesn’t mean I’ll make the same mistake again.” Mistake? Mistake? The word rolled over me, crushing my lungs under the weight of what it meant. I was a mistake? “You’re cute, and you’re a good fuck, but I’m much too old for you. Find some little boy your own age to play with.” And with that, he left me alone in the hallway. My eyes burned, and I looked away, because hell no was I going to cry. My mind scrambled at how quickly my imagination had crumbled. This was not how I’d expected the conversation to go. He may as well have patted me on the head when he delivered his speech. I was cute? Find some little boy my own age? I was a mistake? My pain morphed with each line replaying in my head and shifted to anger. Good fuck? He was full of shit. That night was amazing and if I was such a mistake, maybe he shouldn’t have repeated it three more times that night. I could still hear his moans replaying in my mind, reminding me of just how much he enjoyed himself. Fuck him. My anger took over my imagination. The possibilities changing. Plans began forming. I’d find a man. A man better than him and then I’d rub it in his face. I’d take Evie’s advice and crush all the weak men of Cincinnati until I could find one that made Shane look like a little boy. That asshole was going to regret calling me a mistake. Chapter 4 “You can do this. Shane won’t be in there. He’s probably in another district.” I squeezed my hands around the steering wheel, my knuckles turning white, and continued with my pep talk as I sat in the parking lot outside the station. “And if he is in there, you won’t even see him. You’ll be locked away in a lab he’ll have no business being in. Hell, he may not even be in the building. Probably roaming the streets as a super cop anyway. You can do this.” I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath to further steady myself. But behind my closed lids, I imagined walking in and seeing him. He would stare at me and realize what an ass he was, and what a huge mistake he’d made. He’d eye me across the room and follow me to the lab, where he’d sweep all the pipette tips off the counter and take me right there. “Enough,” I growled. I needed to shut down my imagination and get in there. I didn’t want to be late on my first day. I entered the one-story brick building and was checked-in. Security at the entrance looked through my purse and had me walk through a metal detector. While all of this went on, they made a phone call and by the time I had my jewelry back on, a dark-skinned woman with curls that bounced with each step, strode toward me. “Juliana?” she asked with a smile. “That would be me.” I moved my purse to the crook of my arm and offered an awkward wave. “How nice to meet you.” She took my floundering hand and shook it. “I’m Laney, supervisor of the crime scene unit. I’ll be showing you around and helping you get settled.” I followed her down a labyrinth of hallways as she pointed out things here and there until she opened a set of double doors to the lab. “And this is where you will be most of the time.” “Oh, wow.” I stroked my fingers lovingly across the new science equipment, the large machines unmarred by years of wear and tear. “Is this the new RapidFire Mass Spectrometer? It’s so beautiful.” “Spoken like a true lab rat.” She laughed softly at the way I looked at each instrument with reverence. “We recently got funding to upgrade some of our space and old equipment. And with more space, we can hire more people. That’s where you come in. We’ve worked closely with Dr. Voet and the entire department at UC. We believe in hiring locally as much as possible and helping each other out. So, thank you for taking the time to come here.” “I was honored to be chosen. This is one hell of an experience.” She walked me around the lab, explaining how it was set up and introduced me to some of the workers there. I got a good vibe from the space and my excitement increased. “Why don’t I show you the rest of the building? Get you comfortable with your surroundings should you need to go anywhere else.” I set my purse down at my bench and followed her, trying to remember each turn we took so I could find my way back to the lab. “This is the bull pen,” she said, pushing open another set of double doors. “This is where all the cops, detectives, and everyone else resides.” I took in the rows of desks, each with a computer and cluttered with paper, half-empty coffee cups, and takeout containers. Offices flanked each side where I assumed the higher-ups on the force were located. Men and women walked around hurriedly. Some in uniform and others in street clothes. I blinked a few times, taking in the organized chaos until my eyes clashed on a giant of a man across the room with ice blue eyes staring straight at me. I choked on a breath and fought to keep my eyes from widening. I would not let him know he had an effect on me. I lifted my chin and held his gaze until he was forced to look away when someone began talking to him. I still stared, hoping if I looked long enough it would be like contact therapy, and my heart would stop jumping up into my throat every time I’d see him. He stood across the room, dressed casually in jeans and a long sleeve, gray Henley, that did nothing good for the pounding in my chest. I had to make sure my jaw was hinged closed from the way the shirt stretched across his broad shoulders. “Girl, don’t waste your time. As closed off as a wall, that one is.” Laney interrupted my therapy session, dropping the same words that Evie and Luella used last night. “He’s okay with the other detectives, and he’s polite if not a little rough around the edges, but he isn’t very friendly beyond that.” I let out a short laugh. “Oh, don’t I know it,” I said, recollecting his not so kind words from the other night. It had been a week and they still managed to knock the wind out of me. When Laney looked at me, eyebrows raised, I rushed to clarify. “He’s my brother’s best friend, but I don’t see him much. They usually hangout around work-related things or go out for drinks.” “MacCabe,” Laney said. “I thought your last name sounded familiar. Now Jack’s nice. Especially when he brings some of Luella’s cookies to share with everyone. Those delicious treats are always an added bonus when the station contracts his security company.” She smiled before turning back toward the door. “Alright, I have a few more places to show you, then we can get back to the lab.” I followed Laney out but shot my eyes one last time back at Shane, who was looking at me again. I wished I was closer so I could see what those depths held, but all I’d probably see was that same blank stare. Laney continued to point things out, but I was too consumed with the fact that Shane was here in this district building. What were the freaking chances? I wanted to tamp down the excitement and smother any hope. Stupid hope. Stupid imagination, hoping for anything positive to happen with him. Stupid memory trying to remind me of the look in his eyes when I’d dropped to my knees in front of him. “We were lucky enough to get a small cafeteria added on recently,” Laney said, bringing me back to the present. We walked into the last room on the tour, and my stomach grumbled at the smell of food wafting through the air. “It’s not much, but better than a vending machine if you forget your lunch. Let’s run back to the lab, grab our purses and we can come back and have something to eat. Then we can sit and you can ask me any questions you have up to this point.” I didn’t really have any questions. Probably because my mind was consumed with thoughts of Shane for most of the tour, but I managed to think of a few while we ate. A couple of people from the lab sat with us at the bench-style seating and it was nice getting to know them. When the doors opened again, I could tell it was Shane from the corner of my eye. He was taller than most and his broad shoulders were hard to miss. Plus, my body seemed to have developed a sixth sense where he was concerned, and zeroed in on his presence. Traitor. He stared right at me, just as aware of my presence as I was of his, as he walked toward the lunch kiosk with a man next to him. I tried to divert my eyes and focus on the others, laughing at the table, but it felt impossible. Even more so when the two men came over to our table. “Hey, Laney.” The man who walked in with Shane greeted Laney with a flirty smile. She cocked her eyebrow in return, but responded. “Hey, Reese.” “This spot taken?” He asked gesturing to the open seats next to her. He didn’t wait for an answer before sitting down. Shane sat beside him. “Reese, this is Juliana.” Laney introduced me. “She’ll be training our new technicians on the lab equipment and procedures. Juliana, this is Reese Hill, the only man dumb enough to be partners with Shane over there.” Shane just grunted and stared down at his sandwich, but Reese stretched his arm across the table for me to shake. “Nice to meet you.” His full lips stretched into a handsome smile. Hmm. Shane’s partner. It seemed like an interesting combination. Shane, with his lighter hair and eyes, and his closed-off personality. And then there was Reese, who was dark in contrast and seemed to have an easy smile for everyone. Maybe the two of them worked perfectly and used the good cop, bad cop routine. “So, Juliana, do you have any plans this week?” Laney asked, returning to our conversation. My eyes flicked to Shane who still wasn’t looking at me. Coward. “Actually, I do. I’ve got a date on Friday.” I made sure to say it loud enough so he couldn’t even pretend not to hear. “Oooh, good for you, girl. Where did you meet? Where is he taking you? Give me some details.” Again, I looked to Shane. This time he stared back at me from beneath his lashes. “I’m not sure where we’re going. He’s surprising me. But I met him at work. He works on the floor above me in the physics department.” Shane let out a loud scoff. “Sounds boring.” Reese laughed and elbowed his partner. I sent a withering glare in Shane’s direction. He had no right to comment on my dates. What a dick. “He sounds smart.” Laney leaned past Reese and glared at Shane, before sitting back and waiting for more details. “What’s he look like?” “He’s very sexy in that smart, nerdy kind of way. Very buff, but wears glasses. Think Clark Kent.” I made myself sound more excited than I really felt. I wanted to make sure Shane knew I was fine without him. “And he’s very smart. He’s new at the university, just like me, so, we have that in common.” “I’m sure he’s just as young and cute as you,” Shane said, interrupting the excited oohs and ahs from Laney. “There’s another thing you have in common with him. A little girl and a little boy on a sweet little date.” One side of his mouth tipped up and leveled a challenging stare at me. I wanted to slap him each time he said the word “little.” And I didn’t miss the way he reminded me of how “cute” he thought I was. “Don’t be mean to our new girl, Shane.” Laney waved her hand in his direction. “Just because you have a cold heart doesn’t mean we all have to be miserable.” “Burn.” Reese laughed and Shane smacked the back of his head. Reese shook it off and turned to Laney with a smooth smile. “Hey, Laney, you know I have a heart of gold and would love to share it with you any time.” “Please.” Laney chucked at Reese’s come-on. “I know what you want to share with me and it isn’t your heart. And what you do want to share with me . . .” Her eyes dropped to below his waist. “I’m gonna need more than that.” The table erupted in laughter and I thought I even saw Shane’s lips twitch, but as soon as he caught me staring, they flattened again. Lunch moved quickly after that until we were all getting up to go back to work. Before I could walk away, Shane gave me one last parting shot. “Have fun on your cute, little date, Mini MacCabe.” Asshole. Chapter 5 “There she is.” My brother strode toward me from the bar as I entered an empty King’s. Every Sunday everyone tried to meet up for brunch at Jameson’s bar to catch up on each other’s lives. It had started between Luella and her brother Jameson, then Evie started coming because I guess she was like a sister to Lu and is now dating Jameson, and then finally Jack came in once he started dating Lu. Because of Jack, I was invited to attend these weekly meet-ups. I didn’t mind them, they were actually a lot of fun. They just weren’t a priority. The first month after I moved, I came religiously, my stupid heart pumping harder at the thoughts I’d conjured in my head with my stupid imagination. I would picture myself walking into the bar one day and finding Shane sitting there, waiting for me with a smile. He was part of the group, being so close to Jack, but behaved more like an outsider. Of course, he never showed, and I was too much of a coward to ask if he ever came. Eventually, the brunches became less important and I spent my Sundays in my pajamas. Today though, Jo had a friend coming over and I promised I’d make myself scarce. “I’m glad you decided to grace us with your presence this week,” Jack said sarcastically. Luella came up behind him and smacked his arm. “Ignore him.” “He’s just lonely because he doesn’t have another MacCabe to stick up for him.” Evie chimed in from the table. Luella rolled her eyes with a laugh. “Anyways. I hope you like pizza. We made enough for an army.” “I would never turn down pizza. Especially free pizza.” Before I could sit, Jack held me back by the door. “You have to call Mom and Dad more. They worry.” Translation? He was tired of getting phone calls asking for updates. “I call them plenty. They don’t need me to call every five seconds.” “Jules, you’re the baby of the family. They worry.” “They let you go off to war and didn’t give you shit when you moved here. So, what’s the difference?” “Because you were the unexpected surprise they always wanted. Mom and Dad would give you the world, but you know they’re a little old fashioned about men’s and women’s roles.” I scoffed. “Oh yeah. I know. Like how they want me to stay close so they can take care of me until I find a strong suitable husband to step in. Maybe they can find a goat as a dowry.” “You’re being dramatic.” “I’m not. I’m doing my best on my own, and it’s frustrating when it feels like everyone around me is hoping I fail.” Jack’s lips pinched. He tried to be neutral, but he always took on the big brother role. He was the only reason my parents hadn’t had me kidnapped and taken back to Texas. They trusted him to keep an eye on me. “We’re not pushing you to fail. It’s just hard for them to feel good about you so far away when you don’t even keep in touch and drive a shitty car.” I dug my finger into his chest. “Betsy is wonderful and I won’t have you talking about her like that.” “Betsy is a junker waiting to break down.” “She’s mine and I paid for her. I earned her all on my own. Most parents would be proud of their child’s independence.” “Most parents can’t afford to buy both of their kids five cars each.” “Most parents wouldn’t expect their daughter to stay home and be nothing more than a trophy wife.” I took a deep breath to calm the anger rising up inside me. “Besides, I only need one car, and I choose Betsy.” He heaved a sigh and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Come on, let’s drop it and go sit down.” “How’s work going in the lab?” Lu asked once we all settled down. “It’s good. I had a pretty successful gel and we were able to collect some new data from that. Now it’s just on to the western blot test.” I explained my research knowing that she understood all the lingo since she worked in medical research. I ignored the way Evie rolled her eyes as we slipped into ‘nerd-zone’ as she called it. “Oh, that’s so exciting when something goes right. I swear it takes a thousand tries to move an inch,” Lu said. “We’ve talked about various ways of extracting the strand of DNA and putting it through individual tests. That is, if the professor leading the lab lets us.” “Why wouldn’t he?” “He’s a misogynistic pig. He’s one of those guys who looks down on women and questions everything we do. It takes ten times longer to do things because he wants us to report back to him on the most intermediate tasks.” “Ugh. What a douche.” The door to the bar opened, halting our conversation, and in walked the man I’d given up hope on ever showing up to a Sunday brunch. Too bad it was too late. I was no longer filled with excitement, but with disgust and frustration. Maybe anger. Too bad my body hadn’t gotten the message. My pulse raced and my heart beat harder just seeing Shane’s tall, broad frame fill the door. “Oh, thank god!” Evie shouted, throwing her hands up in the air. “You saved us from our minds exploding listening to these two geek out. Thank you, Shane. You’re my hero.” She pressed her hands together under her chin and batted her eyelashes. “Hey, now,” Jameson said. Evie laughed and leaned in to lay an uncomfortably long kiss on his lips. “Ah, the elusive Shane finally shows. How many years have we been trying to get you to come?” Jack asked. “Two, asshole. And I’ve showed up a few times.” He took off his jacket and walked toward the table, doing his best to not look at me, but I caught his eyes flick in my direction at least twice before he finally sat. Right across from me. My lips twitched at how miserable he probably was at the seating arrangement. “Shane, you remember Juliana.” Jack introduced me, thinking we’d only seen each other twice. “Vaguely,” Shane said. Asshole. Such an asshole. “You’re so full of shit,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I saw Shane earlier this week and will continue to see him about twice a week now that I have that position at the station.” I’d told Jack about the work I’d be doing in the forensic lab when I’d first learned about it. He was happy for me, but it was Luella who sat me down after dinner and asked me all kinds of questions. God, I loved having a sister who understood my love of science. “Oh, hey, I didn’t realize that you’d be at Shane’s station,” Jack said. Shane nodded his thanks to Jameson for the beer he brought him, and muttered, “Neither did I,” before taking a long pull. “Sounds like you’re both thrilled to be so close to each other.” Evie laughed at her own sarcastic comment. “Well, this is great,” Jack said. “Shane make sure you take care of her. I know how those assholes can be at the station. Bunch of perverts.” “Speaking of perverts.” Evie clapped her hands and gave me a wink. “How is dating all the men in Cincinnati going?” “I don’t want to hear about my sister’s love life,” Jack whined. “Hush. Let the girl talk,” Evie said. “It’s Sunday brunch. Everyone shares.” Jack leveled a stare at Jameson, probably some guy code to control your woman, but Jameson just wrapped an arm around Evie and drank from his beer. Evie was not one to be controlled. “Meh. It’s okay.” I shrugged and reached for my glass of wine, spinning it on the table. “I had a date Friday, but it just wasn’t going well.” I took a drink and looked across the table at Shane to find him smirking at me. “But after he left, I stayed for another drink and ended up meeting someone. We have a date tonight.” I held his icy gaze the whole time, his smirk falling to a flat line. Luella catcalled and Evie said, “You go girl.” “Jules, do you think it’s smart to be dating so much?” I turned to my brother and gave him a blank stare. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that. Or I’ll have to start bringing up your earlier years, and I’d hate to do that in front of your wife.” He stared at me, irritated, and drank from his beer rather than respond. But when Shane let a choked laugh slip out, Jack leveled his glare on him. “Don’t even get me started on you, man-whore.” Luella spoke up—loudly. “Anyhoo . . . Anyone else have anything fascinating to share?” Evie had a new overseas fashion project that could make her a bigger designer than she already was. Jameson was set to open his new bar next month, expanding King’s to a new area. Jack regaled us with stories about the types of clients that came in and tried to hire his security services. And Luella and I lost ourselves in conversation when she started talking about her project at work. “So, what about you Shane? Anything new in your life?” Lu asked. “Any new ladies?” Evie taunted. Jealousy set fire to my blood. He may not have wanted me, but I didn’t want to sit there and listen to him talk about women he thought were more worthy than me. I stared at him, waiting for his answer. He leaned back in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed as one hand casually turned his beer. He looked like he didn’t have a care in the world, while I sat there, each second tightening my muscles a little more. Finally, he put me out of my misery. “Not really. No one to bring home to mom.” Jack laughed. “You don’t have a mom.” They both laughed like it was an inside joke, but my chest pinched at the possible reasons why he didn’t have a mom. Had she died? Were they estranged? I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking. “Even if I did have one.” “Well, maybe we can keep you roped into coming to these get-togethers, and one day you’ll walk through the door with some lucky lady on your arm.” I swallowed hard when Shane leveled me with a stare across the table. He lifted his beer for a drink and before it touched his lips, he muttered, “Maybe.” That one word seemed to have more weight than what it seemed. At least, it weighed on me. I thought about it the rest of brunch and on my drive home, completely distracted. The idea of him walking into the bar with his hand wrapped in someone else’s taunted me. It wasn’t until I was getting out of my car that I checked my phone and saw a text from Hudson that made me want to throw my phone. Hudson: You know I still love you right. If you’re worried about being alone here, I just want to reassure you that you were always the one for me. Call me later. Still loved me? It had been so long and I’d already changed so much. What would he think of me if I told him about my night with Shane, about the things I now craved from a man? Things Hudson had never given me. Would he be so eager to have me then? Chapter 6 I jogged down the hall to our lab at school. Today was a day I was supposed to be at the department, but first I needed to grab an updated book on some of the equipment. The technicians were quick to pick up the protocols and this book was a great tool. I turned the corner and bumped into a wall. Well, maybe not exactly a wall, I realized as I stumbled back and stared up into a pair of smiling brown eyes. “Whoa. Careful there.” Dr. Voet gripped my upper arms to help keep me on my feet. “Where’s the fire?” I laughed. “No fire, just trying to run in for a book.” I swallowed, always nervous around him, and brushed my hair back from my face. “Sorry about that.” “No worries.” His grip loosened and his hands dragged down to my elbows before letting go. That was normal. A harmless, normal gesture. “I’m glad I ran into you—or actually you into me. I wanted to ask you how things were going at the police department.” “Great. They have all new equipment and, not that I would admit to anyone, I may have Googled how to turn on the HPLC. Turns out they moved the on switch to the other side.” “It’s always the smallest things that trip us up. And how are the technicians? Are they picking up on it okay?” “Yeah, they’re doing great. Really fast learners and they ask all the right questions. Thank goodness.” “Good. One of them used to do research in my lab a few years ago. Frank, I think.” “Oh, yeah. Frank is really funny and very smart.” Frank was probably too advanced to be a technician, but said he didn’t have the time to devote to going to grad school. “Well, I won’t keep you. I just wanted to check in to see how it was going, and I always seem to miss you on the days you’re here. Keep up the good work.” I almost choked on my tongue when his hand patted my shoulder and then dragged down my arm before he walked away. I tried to decide if the giggle bubbling up my throat was from nerves or excitement at the overly familiar touch. “Lingering in the hallway is unacceptable and a waste of time,” Jolene said in a deep voice behind me. I turned and rolled my eyes. “Don’t let Dr. Stahl see you. You know how much he hates when you waste time instead of slaving away over his notes.” I walked alongside her to our room. “I’m just swinging by to grab a book and then I’m heading out.” “Well, you can take five minutes to give me the DL. I feel like we’re ships passing in the night and never have time to catch up at work.” “Not my fault you have a man to keep you busy.” She bit her lip and smiled. “I know, I know. But he makes my late nights at his place worth it.” I smirked. “I bet he does.” “Okay. Tell me. How is the station with Shane, and how was your date Sunday night?” “Honestly, other than that one time, I haven’t really seen Shane at the station. They keep me locked away with all the pretty new equipment.” “Ugh, bitch. I’m so jealous of all your cool toys.” “Don’t be too jealous. My date Sunday was a bust. He was a total creeper. I think he applied four thousand coats of Chapstick throughout the night. And would only drink half a cup of water before demanding a fresh, new one. Also, his hand tapped against the table the entire meal. So annoying.” “Wow. Sounds . . .Awesome. Were his lips at least soft at the end of the night?” she asked, sounding hopeful. “Er. I wouldn’t know because I was not going to even try.” “Are you giving up? I know this weekend was a bust.” “Hell, no. I met another guy at the supermarket on Tuesday, and he’s taking me out Saturday.” “Yes, girl.” She lifted her hand for a high-five. “Okay, I have to get going. Let’s make a date for ice cream, pizza, and movies soon.” “You had me at ice cream.” Mercifully, I made it out of the building without running into Dr. Stahl. Last time I saw him, he gave me a disapproving speech about falling behind in my research, and informed me that he knew it was hard for a woman to multitask effectively, but to at least try. I thought I was going to need to make an appointment with the dentist after grinding my teeth through that talk. He was such a dick. When I strolled into the lab, Laney greeted me with a smile. “Before you get settled can you take this up to the Chief? They’re the results he’s waiting on for a case.” “Sure.” I set my purse down and hung up my coat before heading to the bullpen. Was Shane working? Would he stare at me as I walked past his desk toward the Chief’s office? I wore a new pair of slacks, and they made my ass look fantastic if I had to say myself. Would he imagine gripping each cheek and hoisting me against the wall and grind into my core? Maybe he’d follow me out and corner me in a supply closet, unable to control himself. Stop! I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing my imagination to quit with the possibilities. He probably wasn’t there, just like he hadn’t been there the entire week. Except that he was there, and as soon as I saw his dirty blond hair across the room, I stood a little taller, swayed my hips a little harder in case he looked. And he did look. I’d made it about halfway to the office when his eyes zeroed in on me. I smiled—to be polite—not because my heart skipped a beat in my chest and butterflies fluttered in my stomach. My body would never be so traitorous. Unfortunately, his eyes didn’t track to my ass looking fantastic. Instead, he gave me his signature blank stare. I softly knocked on the open door. “Come in,” a gruff voice responded. I walked in and smiled awkwardly at the large man with dark mocha skin behind the desk. “Mr. Pearson.” “Yes?” I stepped forward and held out the file. “I’m Juliana. From the forensic lab. Laney asked me to bring these up to you.” As soon as I explained who I was his expression went from irritated to relaxed and smiling. “Ah, yeah, Ms. MacCabe. I’ve heard a lot about you from Jack. I should’ve recognized you since you both have the same blue eyes.” “I get that a lot.” He stood and took the file, but blindly set it on his desk, still smiling at me. “How are you liking the Queen City?” “I love it. Cincinnati is beautiful.” “Good. Good. Well if you ever need anything, you let me know, and we’ll be sure to help however we can. We like to take care of our own here.” “Thank you, Sir.” I walked out the door and only managed to take two steps before I ran into another wall. “Dammit.” I swore at my clumsiness and stumbled back, looking up into a pair of familiar light eyes. “How was your date, Mini MacCabe?” I didn’t know why he was asking. By his condescending tone, probably just to taunt me, but I wasn’t going to give him the opportunity. I plastered a big smile on my face. “It was fantastic. He was a real gentleman. Hot. Such a strong man.” I accentuated the word ‘man’ as a rebuttal to all the times he told me I should go date little boys. He laughed under his breath and stepped closer. “Did he take you home? Kiss you goodnight?” he asked, his voice deep and gruff. I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. He was closer to me than he’d been since our night in Jamaica, which wasn’t saying much, but it still kicked up my heart rate. “A lady never kisses and tells, Shane.” Another step, this time almost coming into contact with me. I struggled to keep my aloof composure when he went one step further and leaned closer to my face. He hummed. “Did he find out what you sound like when you scream? Moan? Come? Does he know that you taste rich and decadent?” My eyes dropped to his lips as they formed the words. My mind scrambled to form a response. Taking in his words, I replayed the way he made me scream, moan, and come as he figured out how I tasted. “Shane.” I breathed his name, unable to control the small pants puffing past my lips. “Why do you care?” I didn’t understand why he would push me away, make fun of my dates, and then taunt me with what had happened between us. He had to know what his words were doing to me. I just didn’t understand why he was saying them. He opened his mouth and took an incremental step forward. One more inch and we’d be chest to chest. “I didn’t do it!” A shout came from the front of the office. “I swear. Get your hands off me.” Our heads jerked in the direction of the commotion and saw two officers bringing in a man who clearly seemed to be resisting. I took in the dirty jeans and white t-shirt, looking up to find a familiar face. “Oh, shit.” There, being dragged into the station, was my date. The one I’d just been talking up. “What?” Shane asked beside me. I stepped back and tried to turn my body, but the motion drew the man’s attention. “Hey! Hey, baby,” he directed at me. Then turned to the two cops over his shoulder. “She can tell you. Her. Baby, tell them I would never be a creeper. I’m a good guy.” The whole station turned to look at me–Baby. “She knows. We went on a date. Tell them Julie. Baby! Julie!” My face flamed. I dropped my head and worked to take subtle, deep breaths to help control the way my blood was pounding underneath my skin. I could feel Shane’s eyes on me, and I seriously considered just running out without looking at him. Maybe I’d never have to see him again. “It wasn’t me,” he said again. “That lady was lying about me jerking it to her. And even so, maybe she shouldn’t leave her blinds open. She was wanting me to see her.” I cringed and felt a little sick that I sat across from him for an hour over dinner. “Julie!” he shouted one last time as they took him through the door. Shane chuckled next to me, and I glared at him from beneath my lashes, still not facing him head on. “Sounds like a good date, Julie. Can’t wait to see who you date next.” “Fuck you.” It was a real mature response. And his laughter as I stormed away was really the icing on the cake. Chapter 7 I rotated my body so I could only see my left side in the mirror and then turned again to look at my right, comparing which shoe I should wear on my date. The black pump or the over the knee suede boots. Maybe I should’ve scrapped both options and gone for flats. Being five-foot-ten made wearing heels on a date a risk. Some guys got intimidated by my height. But I felt confident with heels, so if the guy was that easy to scare off, then fuck him. I settled on the boots. I liked the way they matched my sweater. Sitting on my bed, I pulled the other boot on when I heard my phone vibrate on the nightstand. I picked it up and opened the message, immediately regretting it. Mom: Hey sweetie. Just checking in. How are you? Mom: We miss you. Mom: I was talking to a lady at the country club today and she said there was a volunteer position opening up at the hospital near home. That way you could still work in your science-y stuff and be close to us. Mom: Hudson came by today. I think he really misses you. My science-y stuff? I took deep breaths trying to calm my frustration. My mom didn’t fully understand what my degree was in, but it had nothing to do with volunteering at a hospital. Not that there was anything wrong with it, but when you slave over a degree for as long as I had, you wanted to use it to its full potential. It was a slap in the face for her to assume I’d give up what I had here just to go home. And as though he knew my mom had just mentioned him, a text from Hudson came through. Hudson: Your mom told me she offered you money for a better car and you turned it down. We get it Juliana, you’re an independent adult. But you don’t have to be dumb about it. My face heated as I stared at his message. Dumb? Dumb? I had to toss the phone aside to prevent myself from sending back a scathing response. Hudson had hidden his hope for me to be his trophy wife better than my parents had, but it was still obvious he hoped I’d fall in line like the other women we’d grown up with. What he so conveniently ignored, was that money from my parents came with a string that tugged me away from the life I was building here. I stomped across the hall to the bathroom like a petulant child and put the final touches on my makeup. After my last dating fiasco, I said I wouldn’t do it again, but I was at a coffee shop when he approached me. He’d been so freaking handsome, my heart had skipped in excitement. He’d sat across from me and been so humble and kind that when he asked if we could meet for drinks tonight, I couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to. I put the mascara away and stared at my reflection. Maybe it would work out, and I could bring him to the next family brunch, maybe even make Shane jealous. My plum-colored lips tipped up at the idea. He would be so jealous that he’d missed out. He’d rage when he saw my hand in my new boyfriend’s. He’d corner me in the back hall and tell me what a mistake he’d made and set about convincing me with his hands and mouth. Wait. No. Not that. Shaking my head, I collected my phone and ordered an Uber. We were meeting at a bar in Over the Rhine, and I didn’t want to worry about driving. Also, I wanted to impress him. As much as I loved Betsy, she wasn’t for everyone. The Uber dropped me off at Sundry and Vice. I saw him leaning against the outside wall, his dark head bent over his phone. “Jacob.” I called his name and he lifted his head before walking toward me. The looked he gave me warmed my core. “Juliana. Wow.” Once he was closer, my heels brought us eye to eye and I was pleased to see that he didn’t seem to mind. He took my arm and led me into the crowded bar. It was small and reminded me of an old London pub, with a bar along the wall on one side and about five booths along the windows on the other side. Thankfully, we found one of the booths open and grabbed a seat. “You look beautiful.” His green eyes twinkled at me and I giggled like a school girl. This was it. This was going to be the date I’d been waiting for. Butterflies took flight in my stomach and we ordered our first drink. Jacob asked for top shelf bourbon in his Old Fashioned and it made me like him even more. He had such confidence and an inclination for the nicer things in life. I followed suit and didn’t hesitate when I ordered my drink, despite the price. We fell into easy conversation about our lives. He worked in marketing and had always lived in Cincinnati. I told him about my job in research, and he seemed as if he was really trying to understand what I was explaining. Thankfully, we got that out of the way earlier in the night, because as the night went on, his drink orders started coming faster and I struggled to keep up. When my face started to feel numb I asked for a water. “Tell me about your family. You said you aren’t from around here, so where did you come from?” His deep voice washed over my tingling body and encouraged me to share. And share I did. I told him about my family wanting me to come back home. I shared how they wanted to pay for my whole life as long as I remained the perfect Southern belle. I explained how I wanted to be an independent woman. “Oh, so you’re rich,” Jacob said. “Ummm,” I hesitated over my words because where I came from, money wasn’t really something we talked about specifically. “I guess my family is. But, like I said, I won’t take their money.” “But you could. So technically, you’re just as well off.” “I guess.” I shrugged off the statement, turning the conversation, asking about Cincinnati. He began slurring through his words, but so did I. We were having fun. Laughing. Our hands touched in the middle of the table and it sent goose bumps up my arm. Maybe I’d take him home with me. “Hey, I’m going to go to the bathroom. Be right back.” “Okay.” As soon as he walked through the door, I pulled out a compact and touched up my lipstick. I wanted to look my best when he came back. I was going to ask him to leave with me. It was just before twelve-thirty according to my phone and the night was coming to a close. I waited, watching the door. Then I waited some more. I brought my phone to life and checked the time. Twelve-forty-two. I was just about to get up and go check on him when a waitress stopped by me, sliding a piece of paper across the table. “The man in the back asked me to give this to you.” She gave me a polite smile and walked away. I opened the note and my heart sank to the floor. Thanks babe! Had to go. I’m sure you can afford it anyways. XOXO Son of a bitch. Hot tears burned the backs of my eyes, and I closed my fist around the piece of paper. I downed the rest of my drink and gathered myself. Deep breaths. I thought about running out after him and making him come back and pay. Groaning inwardly, I tried to calculate how bad this was going to be. Probably the equivalent to my half of the rent. Shit. I was going to have to dip into my savings. Why did I order such fancy drinks? Why did I just assume he would’ve paid? At least my drinks weren’t as expensive as his, even if he did have twice as many as me. I snatched my purse off the seat and approached the bar, wiggling between the crowd in front of the register. “Can I help you?” a bartender with a handlebar mustache asked. “Yeah. Can I have the check for the table over there?” I pointed at the booth I’d vacated. He cocked an eyebrow at me and asked, “All of it?” “Yup. My date ditched me and left me with the bill.” He pulled up the check and printed it off, slipping it inside an old book and sliding it over to me. Slowly, I opened the pages, peaking inside like it was a snake about to bite me. Three-hundred and seventy-six dollars. I almost threw up the last drink I’d had. Fuck, this was painful. “Looks like you found a winner, Mini MacCabe,” an all too familiar voice said next to me. Nope. The bill was no longer the most painful thing. Having Shane there to witness my complete and utter humiliation was soul crushing. I looked to my right at the man who haunted both my dreams and my nightmares. He met my glare with a smile before bringing a tumbler of amber liquid to his lips. I growled and jabbed my hand into my purse, searching for my wallet. Before I could get my card out, a large hand with strong fingers held out a silver card to the bartender. “I’ve got this, Andre.” “No, Shane.” I didn’t need his help. I could face my mistakes without being saved. “I won’t take your money. I can pay for it myself.” I held my chin high, showing no weakness. “I know you can. But you’re not. Consider it the city paying for the dick-holes on the street,” he said to me before addressing Andre. “Add another drink for her too.” “What?” I turned my whole body to face him rather than just staring at him from the corner of my eyes. He looked delicious. Gray buttoned up shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his thick forearms. A tie hanging loosely around the collar. And a leather jacket draped across the back of his chair. “No, Shane.” He completely ignored my demand as the bartender finished the transaction and handed him back his card. “Sit, Mini MacCabe. Relax.” I begrudgingly sat and pulled my fresh drink close to me. “Seriously,” I muttered miserably. “You just had to be here. Shouldn’t you be in a hole by yourself?” “Shouldn’t you be on a date?” Placing his elbow on the bar, he leaned his head on his fist and smirked at me. “You sure know how to pick ‘em.” I took a drink avoiding his eyes, forming my defense. “I’m testing the waters. Being free of my parents and my ex and their expectations.” I copied his position and stared into his icy eyes, letting him know he didn’t scare me. “If I want to date them all, then I will.” “Seems to be going great so far.” He smiled. “Can’t wait to see how it goes from here on out.” The asshole was laughing at me. “Oh, and you can do sooo much better. You have some wise wisdom to impart, Yoda?” “Of course, I do. I’m much older than you. More experience and more wisdom.” The way he growled, it made me imagine he was frustrated with our age difference. “Fine,” I said with a challenging smile. I snatched his phone from where it was on the counter and pulled up the text messages. Surprisingly, he didn’t grab it back or say anything, instead just cocked an eyebrow. I entered my contact info and sent a message to myself. “I’ll be sure to let you know how the next date goes and get your wisdom on the experience about what I can do better.” “Juliana,” he said, a warning note in his voice. “We’re friends now. You’re welcome.” I downed the rest of my drink and hopped off the stool. “Night, Shane.” With a finger wave, I held his eyes until I exited through the door, hoping that behind his frustration with me, there was the pulse of excitement too. Chapter 8 I couldn’t believe I had forgotten to pay the electric bill. Way to show everyone what a mature adult you are, Juliana. I ignored the taunting voice in my head and hopped on one foot toward the door as I put my boot on the other. Thankfully, no one was there to witness my idiocy. Jolene had gone home over the weekend to visit family, and apparently, also meeting future husband possibilities. She sounded super stoked when we talked. I told her to ask them if they were into platonic sister-wives so we wouldn’t ever have to separate. That at least got a smile out of her. I scrambled to find my phone, keys, and the bill. Technically, it wasn’t late yet. If I could make it to the building by noon, then I wouldn’t owe a late fee. But there was no chance of mailing it in with it due tomorrow, on a Sunday. Cue eye roll. I’d never been late on a bill before, but I’d been so caught up with extra research material Dr. Stahl had given me. Because he hated me. Hell, he hated everyone, but for someone who was striving for success on her own, he was making it more difficult for me. It didn’t matter that I had strict orders to be at the forensic lab twice a week, he’d scoffed and stared down his nose at me. “Since you’re off gallivanting around, Jolene has had to take on more TA work with the useless undergrad student,” he had snarled at me. “She has fallen behind on research, so I expect you to pick up the slack. Have these read by Monday with a plan ready for the week.” He’d tossed a stack of research articles that would take anyone a month to read through. So, my mind had been a little frantic over the week, trying to cram as much information in as possible. If I hadn’t taken a small break to eat, then I would’ve completely forgotten the bill that sat on the kitchen counter under my Chinese take-out menu. Now I was about to be a frantic failure without power if I didn’t haul ass. Dramatic? Yep. Slipping my last boot on, my phone began to vibrate in my hand. I almost drop it on the tile when at the last minute I caught it, bringing it to my ear with a breathless, “Hello?” “Hey, Jules.” Hudson’s voice boomed through the phone. “Hey, Hudson.” I locked the door and jogged down my apartment stairs toward Betsy. “I was calling to check in. I haven’t heard your voice in a while. I miss you.” “Oh, yeah. I’ve been busy with work and everything.” I purposefully ignored the ‘I miss you’ comment. “How are you?” “Yeah, yeah. I’m good. Got a promotion at work last week.” “That’s great, Hudson. I know you love working for my dad.” I put my key into the ignition and said a silent prayer that Betsy would turn over on the first try. I didn’t need Hudson to hear her struggle and start in on me again. “I do. Your parents had me and my family over for dinner this week.” I struggled to follow the quick topic change from work to my parents. “They asked me if I’d mention to you maybe calling more.” “Hudson,” I said, hoping he’d catch the warning note in my voice. “They miss you, Jules. We all do.” “I know. But that’s just the way it is. My life is here now.” Hudson and I had been friends since we were in diapers. We got in trouble together, played together, did everything together. We were each other’s first everything, too. It was no secret that our families expected us to end up together. And with me leaving, it had changed the future they had imagined for me. They had been upset when Hudson and I broke up, but I guessed they’d expected me to go to grad school and come back to my rightful place by his side. I threw a curve ball to their plans when I left. I hadn’t realized Hudson had been expecting me to return to his side too until he’d dropped that huge bomb on me at the airport. But it was too late. I had never felt passion with Hudson. It was more like comfort. That comfort had become even more apparent after my night with Shane, which lit me on fire in ways I’d never experienced. I just couldn’t go back to Hudson after that. “What happened to us Jules? Weren’t we happy together?” This wasn’t the conversation I wanted to have as I sped through the streets trying to get my bill dropped off on time. “Of course we were. Just . . .Maybe not in the way we should have been.” “What do you mean? Did I not satisfy you? Because the way I remember it, I satisfied you many times.” I laughed uncomfortably, not wanting to talk about our past sex life. “Did you honestly feel a fiery passion with me? If you did, then why did you let me walk away so easily?” “Because it’s what I thought you needed, and time away would make you realize how great we were.” “No, Hudson. I walked away because I wanted to feel more.” “I refuse to believe we’re completely over. If you need to get it out of your system, then fine. But I’ll be here, waiting for you.” “I’m sorry, Hudson. I have to go.” I hung up before he could respond. I didn’t know what to say anyway. Finally, I pulled up to the building at twelve-ten. Traffic had been a bitch, but maybe someone was still there and would let me in. I parked and walked up to the door and of course no one was there. The place sat dark and barren. A sign on the door read that all weekend payments could be dropped off at the slot on the side of the building. At least I wouldn’t be late. I walked around and slipped my payment in, feeling satisfaction at having it done, just as the skies opened and buckets of rain poured down on me. I pulled my jacket tight and ran toward Betsy, getting soaked on the way. Freaking end of February was just cold enough to chill me to my bones, but not cold enough for snow. I got in and blasted my heat, which decided to take forever to get going, but at that point, I was okay with even slightly warm air. “Come on, Betsy,” I said, stroking the dash. “We just got to make it home. Mama will take you to the spa and get you an oil change and checkup. Just warm me up, baby.” However, a couple blocks later, Betsy gave up on me. She sadly puttered, and I had enough sense to coast over to the shoulder. I placed her in park and tried to get the ignition to turn over. A couple of false starts, and then nothing. The lights came on, but the engine was dead. “Betsy. Baby. Don’t do this. I’ve defended you to everyone. Don’t let me down, girl.” I closed my eyes and whispered a quick prayer before turning the key. Nothing. “God dammit!” I yelled. “No! No, no, no!” Every word was punctuated by me smacking the steering wheel. Frustrated tears burned the backs of my eyes and I clenched my jaw to hold them back, but it was useless. The day, the week, the conversation with Hudson, it all caught up with me. I let my forehead fall to the leather of the steering wheel and cried. Who was I going to call? The obvious choice would be Jack. He’d know what to do. But my pride refused to give in. He’d look at me with this I-told-you-so look. Then he’d call my mom and dad and I’d be fucked. And I couldn’t call anyone else because they’d all talk about it at Sunday brunch, and I’d sit there like a shamed child. After letting a few more tears fall, I sat up and wiped my cheeks, taking a deep breath and tried to think until a light bulb went off. Shane. He was a cop, he had to help me. And he didn’t really chit chat with anyone, so it’d be fine. I’d just have to ask him to not tell Jack. A part of me didn’t want him to see me like this, but he’d already seen me low, so whatever. He was the lesser of two evils. I pulled out my phone and scrolled until I found his name. It rang once before he picked up. “Have a date so soon after the last awesome adventure?” His tone teased me, but it was all I needed to hear, and dammit, if I didn’t embarrass myself even further when I started to cry. “Sh-Shane.” “What’s wrong? Where are you?” Immediately his tone changed to serious, falling into cop mode. “I’m fine. So-sorry. My car broke down and I didn’t want to call Jack because he would just get on my case and I can’t, I can’t have any more today. I didn’t know who else to call.” It all poured out of me and I could hear his sigh through the phone. “Okay. Have you called insurance for a tow?” “Umm, no. I didn’t know I needed to.” I was such a novice and felt like an idiot admitting everything I didn’t know. “Where are you?” I gave him my location. “Stay in your car with the doors locked. I’ll be there shortly.” As soon as I hung up, I dropped my phone into the passenger seat and pulled down my visor to check myself in the mirror and wipe away any stray mascara trailing down my cheeks. I did the best I could with a paper napkin I found in the glovebox, and then closing my eyes, I took some deep, steadying breaths to try and calm down. Shane had heard me lose my cool; he didn’t need to see what a hot mess I looked like on top of it. Once I looked a little less horrifying, I began searching for my insurance card. I was pulling it out, as Shane nosed his car in behind me. He came around to the passenger side and I unlocked the door to let him in. The rain had slowed, but not stopped. Water dripped down his temples and the bridge of his nose. “I found my insurance card.” I held up the piece of paper like it was the answer to all our problems. He was nice enough not to laugh at me. “Good. Why don’t you go ahead and call them? Let them know you broke down and need a tow. But first, try and turn the engine over for me. Let me hear it.” I pushed me keys into the ignition and hoped that Betsy would both start, so I could avoid whatever was wrong with her, and also not start because I would feel like the biggest tool bag for making a mess out of nothing. Taking a deep breath, I turned the key. Silence. The lights came on, but the ignition didn’t do a damn thing. “Well, it’s not your battery. Besides that, it could be about anything.” “That narrows it down.” He ignored my sarcastic comment. “Pop the hood and let me see if I notice anything off.” “Okay.” I started looking along my dash around my wheel for something that looked like it popped my hood. Apparently, I took too long, because Shane’s long arm reached across my chest and pulled a lever by my steering wheel. My breathing stuttered at having him so close, his body slightly leaned over mine, the heat from his skin reaching across the small space between us to light me on fire. He was so close, I had to fight from leaning forward to bury my lips against his neck and licking the drop of water that slowly slid down his sharp jaw. A blush worked its way up into my cheeks from my thoughts, but deepened when he gave me a slightly exasperated look, making my embarrassment at looking so dumb impossible to hide. Miss I-want-to-be-independent couldn’t even pop her own damn hood. Thankfully, if he noticed, he didn’t acknowledge it before getting out and moving around the front of my car. While he peeked under the hood, I called my insurance company and stumbled through answering all the questions. By the end of the conversation, I had been taken down a peg on how smart I thought I was. I had a Master’s in biochemistry and could break down the parts of a cell, but I could barely make an insurance claim. So much for college. Shane climbed back in a couple of minutes after I ended the call. He was drenched. His light hair looked almost brown as it clung to his forehead. I clenched my fists to stop myself from dragging my fingers across his forehead and pushing it back to stop the water dripping down his face. “I don’t see anything obvious out of the ordinary, so it’s going to have to be taken to a shop. They may get a chance to look at it today, but if not, they probably won’t until Monday.” “Dammit. I guess I’ll have to see if Jolene can give me a ride. Or I’ll have to ride the bus.” “Don’t ride the bus.” “I don’t have much choice.” “You have lots of choices. Jack—” “I am not asking Jack for help. He barely thinks I’m capable as it stands. If he found out about this, he’d jump ship to Mom and Dad’s side and probably cart me back to Texas himself.” “Okay.” Shane dragged the words out and lifted his hands in defeat. “Just, don’t ride the bus. They’re not always the safest places. Call me if you need a ride and, if I can’t give you one, I’ll find someone who can.” “Thank you,” I muttered, my eyes glued to my lap. “The tow should be here soon.” “Good. We’ll get you all squared away and then I’ll get you home.” “Thank you,” I said again. We didn’t wait long before the truck arrived. We were going to follow him to the shop, but the driver told me there was no point. They wouldn’t be able to work on it today. He said they’d call me with an update, then he looked me over, shivering and wet in the cold rain, and told me to hurry home before I got sick. Shane escorted me to his car and blasted the heat. Actual heat. Not the pitiful gasps of warm air Betsy struggled to give off. “Listen,” Shane said with his hands gripping the steering wheel, the car still in park. “I live right around the corner. Let me take you there and get you warmed up. I’ve got some soup too, and then I’ll take you home.” “I can take care of myself.” I sounded like an ungrateful snotty child, as I sat shivering in the seat. “I know. Just . . .Just let me get you warm.” Biting my lip, I watched his profile and my imagination took off. How would he keep me warm? Why did he care so much? He probably missed me and was using this opportunity to get close to me. The idea warmed me more than the heat coming through the air vents. However, the snug image I had created in my head shattered with his next words. “If Jack ever does find out about this, at least I can say I took care of his little sister and maybe he’d spare me some mercy.” Chapter 9 Shane’s garage had about ten spots for the residents in the converted corner building. Cincinnati had converted a lot of its older factories into condos and apartments. They were all gorgeous and Shane’s place was a lot more put together than I’d expected for a bachelor. “I’m not a heathen, Juliana,” he said, watching me stare around his modern apartment in awe. “I know. I just didn’t expect it to be so decorated, I guess.” “If you want to call hanging curtains decoration, then sure.” But it wasn’t just the curtains. It was the way they draped on the floor with elegance. It was the black and white photos of Cincinnati hanging on the exposed brick wall mixed with a few personal photos. It was the throw blanket that matched the pillows on the sectional couch. In my mind, Shane had been a playboy bachelor with pizza boxes, beers, and condoms littering his loft apartment. This image didn’t mesh with the one I was seeing now. “Well, it’s a nice place.” “Thank you.” His response was short and gruff and it made me think that maybe he was embarrassed by someone seeing that side of him. “Let me get changed and I’ll bring you some warm clothes to change in to.” He disappeared down a short hall. I imagined him stripping off his wet clothes and the rivulets of water trailing down each ridge of his abs. But then I didn’t have to imagine because I remembered the way he’d looked standing naked in the shower in Jamaica when he’d told me to turn around and brace my hands on the wall. I jumped when he rounded the corner and tossed some clothes at me. I muttered a quick thanks, keeping my head down so he couldn’t see the flush staining my cheeks as I walked past him. “You’ll probably have to hold them up, but they’re the smallest pair I have.” “Thanks.” Then I stood in his room and it looked more like a man’s space. The bed was unmade with dark gray sheets and comforter. One nightstand with a lamp and glasses, and a dresser completed the room. There was only one picture on the wall of the precinct. The rest of the walls were blank. It felt intimate standing in the middle of his bedroom as I stripped off my wet clothes. I thought about keeping my bra and underwear on, but they were soaked. Besides, my small breasts wouldn’t be noticeable under the baggy T-shirt he’d given me. Balling everything up, I walked over to where he stood in the kitchen, pulling containers out of the fridge. “You can toss those in the dryer just around the corner.” I walked past the open kitchen, finding the stackable appliances and threw my clothes in, hoping they took forever to dry, giving me more time with him. When I returned he was pouring what looked to be soup out of the containers into a pot on the stove. “You didn’t have to go through this much trouble,” I said, sitting on a stool at the island, watching his back muscles ripple with every move under his black T-shirt. “It’s not much. I had leftover chicken noodle. Hope you don’t mind.” “It sounds great. Thank yo