With This Fling (Summersweet Island #5) Read Online Tara Sivec

Categories Genre: Chick Lit, Funny, Romance Tags Authors: Series: Summersweet Island Series by Tara Sivec
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 82089 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 410(@200wpm)___ 328(@250wpm)___ 274(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

With This Fling (Summersweet Island #5)

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Tara Sivec

Language:
English
ISBN/ ASIN:
B09XJ148J8
Book Information:

Laura Bennett has spent her life taking care of other people and running the Dip and Twist. Happily spending her time being single and carefree, she has no intention of settling down or falling in love. With an ever-growing family, she’s a mother to them all, and she loves every minute of it. But her baby is getting married, and her oldest has her own life changes she’s dealing with. Suddenly, being all alone doesn’t sound so appealing anymore.

Dean Campbell has been the black sheep of his family since the day he was born. The only one he cares about is his nephew, Palmer. Deciding at the last minute to attend Palmer’s nuptials, Dean knows he’s going to need to try his hardest not to be his usual, grouchy self. He doesn’t like people, and he really doesn’t like weddings. But the sexy and sassy mother-of-the-bride has him wanting to check Plus-One on his invite. He’s never had more fun getting under someone’s skin, and it doesn’t take long for all the people, noise, and chaos that surround Laura Bennett to become a few of his favorite things.

Laura thinks a fun wedding fling is just what the doctor ordered to get her out of this funk. But Dean’s been sprinkled with Shepherd’s glitter and the magic of Summersweet Island. He’ll do whatever it takes to convince her that, with this fling, she just might change her mind about falling in love again.
Books in Series:

Summersweet Island Series by Tara Sivec

Books by Author:

Tara Sivec



Chapter 1

Laura

“We all have issues.”

“Put those Reese’s Pieces down right now.”

Big, sad blue eyes meet mine from across the room when I use my mom voice as I walk back inside the Dip and Twist after taking a few trash bags outside to the dumpster.

“I thought you were better than this, Laura.” Bodhi Armbruster-Powell shakes his head at me. His shaggy, surfer-blonde hair falls down into his eyes as he slides the plastic container of peanut butter candies back inside the cubby in the counter next to the rest of the ice cream toppings.

I’ve had a soft spot for my bonus daughter Tess Powell’s husband ever since the first day I met him. This thirty-four-year-old man-child who looks like Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High has the quiet wisdom of Buddha, the weed addiction of Cheech and Chong, and the biggest heart I have ever seen. And the biggest sugar addiction known to man.

“Don’t give me that look,” I scold him, walking over to a lower cupboard right by Bodhi’s legs. Grabbing the super-sized bag of Reese’s Pieces that hasn’t been opened yet off the bottom shelf, I drop it down on the counter in front of him. “You know you can’t eat out of the toppings containers. It’s unsanitary, and I taught you better than that. Your snacks are always in the cupboard under the counter.”

Bodhi swipes away an imaginary tear from his cheek with a sniffle, making me laugh in spite of his toddler-like behavior. Ripping open the orange bag, he shoves a large handful of candy into his mouth.

“You’re the best mom ever.” He talks around his mouthful of candy with a blissful smile.

My heart fills with so much joy it feels like it might burst. I always wanted a big family, and I dreamt of having at least four children when I was younger. As an only child to older parents who never thought they could have kids of their own—until I came along as a surprise when they were almost fifty—I grew up with a lot of quiet, hanging out with a lot of boring adults. I had to entertain myself and played alone. I didn’t get to experience the craziness of a big family until I went to school, made friends, and had sleepovers at other people’s houses. I wanted what they had. I wanted noise and laughter, messes and chaos. A house filled with people, but most of all, a house filled with love.

I was only blessed with two biological daughters, but through my girls, Wren and Birdie, I gained two bonus daughters in their best friends, Emily and Tess. And now that they have all found love, I have the big family I’ve always wanted. I have eight kids, one grandson, and another bonus grandchild on the way, thanks to Tess and Bodhi. I have a life filled with people, noise, laughter, messes, and chaos. They aren’t all mine by blood, but I love them like they are. I couldn’t be happier with the way my life has turned out.

Yep, sure… keep telling yourself that, Laura.

“Tess is going to murder you, Mom.”

Thankfully, Wren’s voice cuts off the annoying one in my head. I watch my oldest daughter fill an ice cream cone with chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve and hand it to a customer through the window before she continues.

“You know Bodhi isn’t allowed to have sugar. It makes him crazy.”

“What kind of mother would I be if I listened to all the rules my children give me? A boring one, that’s what,” I tell her. “Your son is sixteen-years-old. He still has his own candy drawer in my kitchen, and he turned out just fine. Bodhi will too when he grows up, won’t he?”

Bodhi nods enthusiastically when I look at him, giving me a thumbs-up as he chews. His cheeks are so packed with candy he looks like a squirrel getting ready for winter.

“Speaking of growing up…” My daughter trails off casually as she looks at Bodhi while we have a break in customers for the first time on this beautiful summer evening. “Why are you here at the Dip and Twist, inhaling sundae toppings, instead of at home with Tess?”

“She’s seven months pregnant,” Bodhi states.

“And?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that needed more of an explanation. Remember last month when we were all having dinner for Shepherd’s birthday, and Tess threatened to slit someone’s throat if they ate the last piece of chicken? And then you said, ‘Jesus, she’s only going to get worse. Next month will be fun.’,” Bodhi says, mimicking Wren’s voice. “Ding-dong, next month is here! And it’s fucking worse and not fun!”

With a sigh, I walk over to Bodhi and give him a reassuring hug. Pulling back, I pat his cheek twice and smile at him.

“Suck it up and go home to your wife. She has a right to be scary. She’s growing an entire human being from scratch inside her body, and she has to lug around thirty extra pounds of weight every day. Her bones hurt, her brain hurts, and her hormones are out of control. Take whatever shit she gives you with a smile on your face. And do not walk in that door without some sort of delicious, ooey-gooey food in your hand. I would suggest loaded cheese fries from Dockside Eddy’s with three extra sides of ranch dressing.”

When I finish, I point to the back door of the stand. Bodhi immediately tosses the bag of Reese’s Pieces on the counter, gives me a quick kiss on the cheek, and then races out of the Dip and Twist—to hopefully take my advice and save his own life. I adore our tough girl, Tess, but she really is super scary as a pregnant woman. Bodhi won’t be the only one breathing a little easier once she finally gives birth.

“Since you’re on a roll with helping people out,” Wren begins when we’re alone, while I seal the bag of candy and put it back under the counter, “you need to have a talk with your annoying daughter.”

“Aren’t I doing that right now?”

Wren just glares at me. Both of my girls stopped appreciating my sarcasm right around the time they got their first periods and learned how satisfying it was to slam their bedroom doors in my face. Thank God for Tess, Emily, and all of their men. Since we don’t share the same blood, they appreciate my humor more.

“Very funny.” Wren scoffs. “You know I’m talking about Bridezilla Birdie. Your youngest spawn, the one whose wedding is a week away and who is driving everyone insane with her constant freak-outs. She woke me up at three o’clock this morning, because she had a dream all her teeth fell out while she was saying her vows. I turned my phone off after she sent me multiple pictures of people with no teeth, and then I woke up to thirty-seven texts from her. Thirty-seven! Each text was a link to a new wedding Pinterest board she created. I can’t handle another week of this, Mother.”

I know Wren means business when she calls me Mother instead of Mom. And she’s right. Birdie, my sweet, sweet Birdie, has been an absolute nightmare the last few weeks now that the official countdown is on for her wedding and since out-of-town guests will start arriving on Summersweet Island tomorrow. After spending most of her life in love with her childhood crush and one of her best friends, Palmer Campbell, my girl is finally getting her happily ever after with the professional golfer, who has made all her dreams come true since he came back to the island and into her life.

As a professional athlete, Palmer definitely has the bigger guest list and the more impressive one. There will be a bunch of other professional athletes here on the island for the wedding, a few ESPN reporters who will be here as friends instead of in a professional capacity, Curtis Rockwell, one of my favorite celebrity chefs from the show Chef to Go on the Adventure Channel, three Hollywood actors, as well as the small team of people who work for Palmer. It’s all very exciting, and I fully understand Birdie’s need to panic, even though she has absolutely nothing to worry about.

Palmer’s family is sadly not a part of his life and won’t be attending the wedding, because they’re selfish jerks. But thankfully, he has more than enough people who do love and support him, who will be here for their big day. And those people don’t care one bit if every single thing isn’t perfect.

Regardless, Birdie has still been a little on edge, making sure the wedding guests will enjoy their time here. She put together little welcome baskets for everyone that will be waiting for them in their rooms at the Summersweet Island Hotel when they arrive sporadically over the next week. She set up golf cart rentals for all of them to get around the island, and she organized a bunch of activities leading up to the wedding. All of that on top of the last-minute preparations for the actual wedding. Thankfully, today was her last day working at the golf course for the next few weeks, and she has one less thing to worry about. We’ve all tried to help Birdie as much as possible, but she’s a stubborn one and prefers to handle things on her own.

She definitely gets that from me.

“I will stop by Birdie and Palmer’s cottage on my way home from work and kindly tell her to calm the fuck down,” I reassure Wren, always willing to do whatever I can to help my kids when they need it. Even if that means telling one daughter off for the other.

“Make sure you call first. One or both of them will most likely be naked and trying to make you another grandchild,” she complains with a sigh, grabbing a bag of sugar cones from under the counter and refilling their dispenser on the wall that’s gotten low. “I’ve seen my future brother-in-law’s bare ass running away one too many times at this point. No more unexpected visits, ever.”

I chuckle and shake my head at my hypocritical daughter.

“Do you know how many times I’ve walked into this ice cream stand to find you in a compromising position with Shepherd?” I remind her, taking the empty plastic bag from her hand when she’s finished with the cones and walking it over to the garbage can.

“Right, and you broke one of the shelves in the walk-in freezer when you brought a guy back here after hours,” Wren counters with a snort, grabbing a wet rag from the sink and wiping down the front counter. “We all have issues.”

Me and my girls are close. Being a young, single mother and having to fill the role of both parents, I have always been open and honest with them about everything, and we have always talked about everything. Some people probably think we overshare with each other, but it’s scary as hell raising not just one but two girls alone. I would much rather they tell me everything than keep me out of their lives and tell me nothing.

Plus, I’m fifty-four years old, and my girls are in their thirties. I don’t really care what anyone thinks about my relationship with them or how I live my life. I cared in my twenties. I cared in my thirties. I even cared for a little bit in my forties. But now, I’m too busy dealing with hot flashes, suddenly wanting to cry one minute and then flip a table the next, and forgetting what I just walked into the room to grab as soon as I got there. I don’t have time to care if Debbie down at the golf cart gas station doesn’t think my daughter should tell me she’ll be late coming into work because she needs to recover from morning sex with her fiancé.

Mind your business, Debbie.

“You also need to tell Birdie if you’re bringing a plus-one to the wedding before her head explodes, thinking the caterer will completely run out of food if she doesn’t tell them about this one single plate,” Wren reminds me, turning away to take a customer’s order who just walked up to the window.

My skin suddenly gets hot and sticky in the air-conditioned ice cream stand, and I can’t even blame it on a hot flash. This is 100 percent brought on by panic. The same panic I’ve felt every time Birdie has asked me if I’m bringing a guest to her wedding, and the same reason I’ve suddenly got an annoying voice in my head, questioning my happiness.

“It’s not like you don’t have your choice of men to pick from. And I use the term men loosely, considering the last one still lived at home with his mommy, and instead of kissing you goodnight, he asked if you’d make a video with him for social media.” Wren snorts as she grabs a Styrofoam bowl and starts filling it with ice cream for a hot fudge sundae.

I grab a towel from the counter next to me and chuck it right at the back of her head. “I’ll have you know his mother was a lovely woman who gave me lots of encouragement when it took me seven tries to get that dance right,” I argue. “And then we realized we went to girl scout camp together on the mainland when we were nine. You know, since we’re the same age and all, and well… the date pretty much crashed and burned at that point.”

It’s true; I date a lot. And those dates usually happen with men who are closer to my daughters’ ages than my own. The one benefit of being a young mother is that you’re still young when your kids move out. Like I was really going to just sit around feeling sorry for myself with an empty nest and not go out. I wanted to live my life, do whatever and whoever I wanted, and have all the fun I didn’t get to have when I was younger while I was busy making sure my girls grew up well-rounded human beings and running my own business.

Giving up on the idea of my own happily ever after when the girls’ dad walked away, I’ve had quite a fine time dating nothing but younger men. I like their energy, and I like that they’re always up for trying new things. They’re scared of commitment, they don’t ask any questions when you want all the lights off before you get naked, and they just want to have fun. And I really like that I can kick them to the curb before anyone develops any feelings or gets attached, then not feel an ounce of guilt over it.

They’re young. They’ll bounce back quickly. And they still have their whole lives ahead of them to date plenty more women. Women who will always wonder how their man learned to do that thing with his tongue. I really am doing a wonderful service for womankind if you think about it.

Regardless of what the voice in my head is trying to tell me, I am perfectly happy living my life this way. Or at least I was until it came time to make Birdie’s guest list a few months ago, and I suddenly started questioning all my life choices. The idea of going alone is depressing as hell. But I’m not going to drag a random date to the classy wedding of my second-born at the Summersweet Island Golf Course and have to look at this person I don’t know or care about in wedding album photos for the rest of my life. I do have some standards.

After all these years of being a strong, single, independent woman who has successfully raised two amazing daughters alone and assisted in raising the equally amazing Emily and Tess, I’m suddenly sad that I don’t have a plus-one. I want to cry at the thought of going to such a momentous occasion for my daughter with no one special to share it with. With no one’s hand to squeeze the first time I see Birdie in her gown with her hair and makeup done and my mother’s veil on her head, giving me the strength not to completely break down in tears. With no one’s arm wrapped securely around me, holding me up when my daughter officially walks away from me and down the aisle for someone else to take care of.

I’m surrounded by all of these wonderful human beings I’ve watched grow into adults, and I’m witnessing how blissfully happy they are having men in their lives who adore them, and it’s hit me that I’m the only one still alone. I’m the only one with nobody to go home to at the end of the night. Single, carefree Laura Bennett, that’s me! Except it doesn’t feel very good being this person anymore.

I’ve had an empty nest since Birdie went to college and wanted to have her freedom and independence, even though she went to school locally. My home is rarely empty with such a big family and with people stopping by at all hours. But when it is empty, I’ve never been bothered by the quiet or having my alone time. I don’t know why being by myself is suddenly freaking me out after all this time, and I don’t like it one bit.

“Here’s a brand-new idea,” Wren says, turning back to face me after handing the customer their sundae and giving them their change. “Instead of bringing some random, young guy to the wedding who calls everyone ‘bruh’ and owns ten Nirvana T-shirts even though he wouldn’t be able to name one Nirvana song if his life depended on it, how about you bring an actual adult. Someone with a 401K, who can do math in his head without the calculator app on his phone, who doesn’t get all of his world event knowledge by checking to see what hashtag is trending, and who can read cursive handwriting. Someone with potential, who you have things in common with and could maybe see yourself falling in love with.”

Butterflies start flapping around in a panic in my stomach, even though my daughter just basically insulted me and my dating choices. Pressing my hand against it, I shake my head at Wren as she walks by me to go to the industrial fridge against the back wall to put away the milk she grabbed for a shake.

“Yeah, not gonna happen.” I laugh uncomfortably. “You know I don’t do love. I’m too old for that nonsense anyway. I much prefer quick, meaningless sex with a man whose name I don’t have to worry about remembering the next morning. Love is definitely not on the menu.”

And this is why you aren’t happy with your life anymore, even though you say you are.

Wren rolls her eyes at me, and I roll my eyes at the stupid voice in my head. When she nudges her chin at me as she shuts the fridge door, indicating there’s a customer at the window behind me, I’m thankful this conversation is put on hold for a moment. Turning around, I paste a big smile on my face.

“Welcome to the Dip and Twist. What can I get you?”

“Not quite sure I want anything, now that I know love isn’t on the menu.”

The long silence that follows that cheeky statement would be awkward if I weren’t already dying a thousand deaths that someone overheard what I said to Wren.

The owner of the deep, raspy voice moves out from the shadows to stand in front of the open serving window. As soon as his eyes meet mine with the glow of florescent lighting from under the awning surrounding him, it feels like I just got the wind knocked out of me. It takes a few seconds for me to remember how to breathe while I just stand here staring at him.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” he says, the corner of his mouth tipping up until I can see a dimple peeking through his facial hair, making my stupid heart flutter in my chest, even though it’s obvious he’s not sorry at all.

I honestly don’t know what the hell is happening right now. The man looking at me with a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his brown eyes is probably a few years older than me, going by the salt-and-pepper coloring in his trimmed facial hair, a few white strands in the dark-brown, wavy hair he’s got pushed back from his face, and the crow’s feet around his eyes that look like they’ve seen some shit.

I am not turned on by Jeffrey Dean Morgan lookalikes. Guys with tattoos up and down their muscled arms, weathered skin from working outside, and rough hands from doing manual labor. Even though no one can argue men like this are ridiculously hot, they still look like they’re closer to retirement than me and would rather settle down and take a nap than go out and have fun.

Nope. No way. Never gonna happen. Older men do absolutely nothing for me except leave me alone with two daughters to raise.

Wren is right. We all have issues, and I’m the leader of the pack and the worst role model ever. I honestly don’t understand how my daughters turned out relatively normal or why anyone ever takes my advice.

“But seriously, is love really not on the menu? Because that sure would be a shame. And I’ll take two scoops of mint chocolate chip in a cone, please.”

When I have to clench my thighs together with every word out of his mouth, because suddenly the word scoops sounds sexy in that deep, gravelly voice, I let out a little huff. Then I remember I’m a business owner and have to be nice to people who want to spend money here, even if their lame attempts at flirting are annoying.

“Sugar cone or cake cone?” I ask, trying not to grit my teeth, choosing to ignore the “love” comment from the rude eavesdropper.

He takes a moment to consider his options, his eyes locked right on mine, making it hard to look away. For some ridiculous reason, my heart starts pounding faster, and after a few quiet seconds, he grins at me again.

“Oh, I definitely want some sugar.”

I ignore the flush I can feel warming my cheeks, blaming it on a hot flash instead of the way this man just looked at me like he’d rather take a bite out of me than an ice cream cone.

“Coming right up,” I chirp in my best customer service voice and with my best fake smile.

Turning away, my feet stutter a little, wondering where in the hell my daughter suddenly disappeared to. Of course she leaves me alone now. Grabbing a cone from the dispenser on the wall as I go, I walk over to the chest freezer, lifting the lid and bending down inside. I fill this tourist’s order as quickly as possible, so he can go away and I can start feeling normal again. It’s definitely the wedding that’s got me feeling so out of sorts. Someone should have warned me being the mother of the bride might possibly make me crazier than the actual bride.

When I get the cone piled with mint chocolate chip, slam the lid of the freezer closed, and walk back to the window, the man has his hands casually shoved in the front pockets of his jeans. His eyes track my every movement, watching me grab a few napkins to wrap them around the cone, walk over to tap in the price on the register, and then step back to the open serving window.

Now, my heated skin is suddenly breaking out in goose bumps, and I’m feeling all nervous and jittery with his eyes on me. I’m not blind. Even if he is a few years older than me, he’s still a very attractive man. He’s just not my type, and my body needs to get that damn memo already. I get hit on by plenty of tourists from young to old. They’re a dime a dozen every summer, thinking they can give me a few compliments and the poor, small-town, middle-aged woman will jump at the attention and into their bed. They think my life is so boring on this island that I’ll be blinded by their fake charm and not realize what huge jerks they actually are.

It’s annoying. Been there, done that, got two living, breathing souvenirs as a result. And the way this guy won’t stop staring at me is annoying too.

“Have we met before?” I finally ask him, wondering if maybe he’s been to the Dip and Twist in the past and expects me to remember him or something.

We get thousands of tourists every season. The chance of me remembering him is slim to none, no matter how good-looking he is. Handing him the cone, I ignore the little shiver that tries to work its way through me when his fingers brush against mine. I grit my teeth and ignore it again when they graze my open palm as he places exact change in my hand.

“I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I’d remember meeting you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I bristle when his stupid, sexy voice suddenly sounds annoyed with me for some reason.

He rests his free hand on the ledge, leaning closer to the open window and to me with a completely serious look on his face.

“Sugar, I was a teenager the last time a woman made my dick hard just by watching her bend over to get ice cream out of a freezer. You’d definitely be someone I wouldn’t forget.”

Well then….

“And you’ve got a killer smile… even if it was fake,” he adds, and my stomach drops right into my toes, then he gives me a nod as he starts backing away from the window. “Have a good night. Thanks for the ice cream.”

With that, he turns and walks away, bringing the cone up to his mouth as he goes. And I absolutely do not stare at his perfect ass in those tight jeans as he walks down the sidewalk until the darkness swallows him up like he was a figment of my depraved imagination.

Unfortunately, I am not imagining the fact that a random tourist just made my underwear melt right off inside my jean shorts by saying something so blunt to me. At least he didn’t overhear the part about me wanting meaningless sex and not having to remember a guy’s name. I can only take so much mortification in one evening.

“I choose him.”

Wren’s quiet, dreamy voice from right behind me makes me jump, and I curse myself that I taught my daughter the art of sneaking up on your children to see what kind of shit they’re getting into. She’s not allowed to use that against me.

“Choose him for what? And where the hell did you conveniently disappear to?”

“Just wanted to give you some time alone with my new daddy. Yum!” Wren wags her eyebrows at me.

“Wren Elizabeth Bennett!” I scold, swatting the side of her arm. “I’m going to tell your fiancé you’re lusting after another man.”

She just laughs as we both start cleaning up and shutting down for the night. “Nope, just appreciating that fine, age-appropriate specimen for my sweet, loving, amazing mother. Who has spent enough time taking care of all of us and needs to finally find someone to take care of her. He looks like a good man who just drove into town on a Harley and wants to give you a ride.”

“All right, that’s enough,” I mutter, even though the image of that man straddling a motorcycle is now burned into my brain forever, and I’m having a hard time focusing. I never should have let Tess talk me into bingeing Sons of Anarchy; Jax Teller ruined me forever. “I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I’ve done just fine on my own, in case you haven’t noticed.”

I’m a little aggressive when I smack the switch to turn off the neon Open sign, while Wren puts all of the covers on the toppings containers.

“Of course you have. You taught all of us to be perfectly self-sufficient, and we love you very much for that. You also taught us that we might not need a man in our lives, but we definitely want one.” She pauses to smile at me.

“I do not want one,” I remind her with a frown.

“You go ahead and keep telling yourself that.” Wren laughs, giving me a pat on the shoulder as she carries the cold toppings over to the fridge to put them away.

“Birdie is officially my favorite daughter today, and you’re out of the will,” I inform her, crossing my arms and glaring at her back while she continues to chuckle with her head in the fridge. “But I still love you. Go home to Shepherd.” I hold up my hand when she whirls around to argue with me. “Nope. Go home. You have a wonderful fiancé waiting for you there. And he’s probably waiting for you on the couch naked, since your son is spending the night at a friend’s house. Take advantage of it, and I’ll finish closing up.”

“He’s actually probably waiting for me naked in his craft room with a jar of edible glitter in his hand.” Wren sighs, and then a huge smile takes over her face. Knowing better than to try to argue with me twice, she grabs her purse from under the counter, giving me a quick hug before racing out the back door and home to her man.

I’m supposed to be letting Wren take over the business. I’m supposed to be retiring young and enjoying my freedom and my life. The problem is, my family and this ice cream stand are my life. Wren is finally happy and has a man who adores her and Owen. Why would I make her stick around here, closing up the ice cream stand, when she doesn’t have to? When she has someone to go home to and I don’t.

Glancing back over my shoulder, I look out the open serving window into the darkness. As the other businesses down Summersweet Lane start shutting off their lights and closing for the night, I stare at the spot where some random tourist stood, making my heart race more with just a few quietly stated words than any guy I’ve ever met.

Letting out a long sigh, I tilt my head from side to side, trying to work out the kinks in my neck, stretching my arms up over my head to do the same with my aching back. I’m not at all sad that I’m going home to a quiet, empty cottage with no one to greet me, no one to listen to me complain about my day, and no magic hands to give me a much-needed massage.

Whatever. I still don’t need or want a man in my life. It’s just Birdie’s wedding making me feel this way; that’s it. This will all pass in a week.

Chapter 2

Laura

“You come in like a fucking wrecking ball.”

“You’d definitely be someone I wouldn’t forget.”

“You’ve got a killer smile.”

Letting out a sigh when the voice that haunted my dreams last night refuses to go away, I look around the covered patio deck of the Summersweet Island Hotel, not understanding why I can’t shake the words of some random tourist I spent maybe three minutes with.

“Has anyone seen Wren?” I ask. “I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“She’s fine. Stop changing the subject and tell me about our new daddy’s cute butt again,” Birdie orders.

Yep. That’s probably why I can’t shake him.

“For fuck’s sake, Roberta.” I glare at my daughter, and she glares right back at me when I use her given name.

“Can I call him daddy too? He sounds hot,” Bodhi adds, making me close my eyes and count to ten, while I take a couple of deep breaths.

“Come on!” Birdie complains. “Wren was in a bad mood this morning and would only tell me the story once. I want to hear it again, slower this time.”

It’s all Wren’s fault I’m being tortured like this. Wren and her inability to keep anything secret from her sister. And then Birdie caught me when I was otherwise distracted, and I made the mistake of blurting out how dreamy that stranger’s ass was. I was distracted from thinking about how dreamy his ass was, but that’s neither here nor there. This is all Wren’s fault, and she is sooo grounded!

“I never should have signed that form at the hospital when you guys were born that said I wouldn’t shake you or your sister.” I sigh when I open my eyes again.

“They made you sign a form that said you would not shake your baby?” Birdie asks me in horror.

“How have I never told you this before?”

“What happened if you didn’t sign it?” Bodhi asks.

“Oh, they still let you take your baby.” I shrug. “Ed Walton’s wife, Karen, refused to sign it when Ed Junior was born. She would never in a million years shake her baby, but she didn’t take too kindly to someone telling her what she could or could not do with her own child. So, yeah. It was a wild time back then.”

Birdie just blinks at me, and I listen to Bodhi put a voice note into his phone.

“Ask hospital if they still have the shaken form, and if not, can we sign one that says we won’t stir the baby either?” Bodhi finishes the recording and looks at me with a smile that quickly falls when he sees my face. “Tess probably won’t think it’s funny if I say that to our doctor, will she?”

Birdie and I just silently shake our heads at him, and he quickly deletes the voice note before sliding his phone back inside one of the many pockets of his khaki cargo shorts.

“Stop distracting Mom,” Birdie orders him before turning back to me. “Tell me more about the hot older man who called you sugar and got your juices flowing at the Dip and Twist last night.”

She nudges me with her elbow, and now it’s my turn to look at her in horror. “I think it’s time we start establishing some boundaries. Let’s begin with never saying the words ‘juices flowing’ in my presence ever again.”

Bodhi snorts, quickly clearing his throat and dropping his smile when I flick my irritated eyes in his direction.

“Have you met yourself?” Birdie laughs. “You come in like a fucking wrecking ball. It’s in our DNA; we don’t do boundaries. Now, tell me everything Wren left out and—”

“Everyone is having a great time. I think you can relax a little bit now,” Palmer interrupts her, coming up behind Birdie and resting his hands on her shoulders.

“You’re my favorite future son-in-law.” I smile at Palmer, thankful for his interruption.

I’ve already spent enough time replaying the words that stranger I’ll never see again said to me last night. I don’t need to keep talking about it or thinking about it.

“Hell yeah I’m the favorite.” Palmer nods.

“We’re not finished discussing this,” my daughter informs me before craning her neck to look back and up at Palmer. “And I am perfectly calm and relaxed.”

There’s a few seconds of silence before we all laugh. Birdie won’t be calm or relaxed until she’s walking down that aisle and it’s too late to worry if anything is going to be screwed up.

“You really did a great job with everything,” I tell her as we look around the deck at all of the out of town guests with drinks in their hands and smiles on their faces as they chat during the cocktail hour before the welcome dinner begins.

There’s a reason why my youngest is the director of social media and marketing for the Summersweet Island Golf Course and handles all of Palmer’s PR. She’s smart, organized, and creative, and she always gets shit done no matter how stressed out she is. I’m so proud of her every single day, even if she was just annoying the hell out of me.

The guests who came in today all arrived safely on the ferry at different times throughout the day, got their rented golf carts with ease, and checked into their hotel rooms without any problems thanks to Birdie’s expert planning. They all raved about the welcome baskets in their rooms she left for them, which included beer koozies printed with the words All Fore Love, Palmer & Birdie, a map of the island, a box of salt water taffy from Chew on This, a bunch of free tokens for Hang Five Arcade, a coupon for one free ice cream treat at the Dip and Twist, their schedule of events for their time here, and a few Summersweet Island souvenirs. As other guests arrive throughout the next few days, Birdie will be there to greet them and get them settled in as well.

Now, everyone is enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres and having a relaxed time before dinner. The deck off the back of the hotel is right on the beach with a beautiful view of the ocean as the sun sets. The wood-beam ceiling of the patio has been strung with Edison lights, as well as all around the deck railing, and Birdie decorated the center of each round table with the most adorable centerpieces—short, square planters with real grass in them, with yellow tulips jutting out, along with a golf ball on a tee nestled down in the grass.

“God, I love it here.” Birdie sighs.

Both of us lean our hands on the railing and stare out at the ocean as the sun sets, while Palmer and Bodhi chat a little ways behind us, and Shepherd, Tess, and Emily’s boyfriend Quinn make their way over.

I will never get tired of being able to look out wherever I am and see the ocean. I love the place I grew up. I could never imagine living anywhere else. And there’s no better feeling than knowing the girls love it here as well, and I get to have them close while they build their own families. I’ve always wanted to do some traveling though when Wren officially takes over the Dip and Twist. I imagined myself being all Eat, Pray, Love, going to new places, seeing new sights, and learning new things, perfectly happy to discover the world all on my own.

The only thing I’ve learned lately is that the idea of going anywhere without someone to experience it with and talk about it with in the moment sounds completely dull, and boring, and exactly like my childhood.

Zero stars. Would not recommend.

With a sigh, glancing over to the bathroom when I hear Shepherd say Wren is in there with Emily and I can relax about that at least, I turn my eyes back to the ocean and try to let the beautiful view take away the rest of my annoyances.

“You got room for one more at this party?”

What the hell?

That voice…. It’s the same one from the stand last night I haven’t been able to get out of my head. And now, like my damn daughter magically summoned it by not shutting up about what her sister gossiped to her, that deep, sexy thing is clear as a bell right behind me.

“Sugar, I was a teenager the last time a woman made my dick hard just by watching her bend over to get ice cream out of a freezer.”

My skin is overheating even with the ocean breeze fluttering around me as his words from last night replay in my head, when I slowly turn around. My eyes meet the same sparkling brown ones that followed my every movement the night before, and my heart starts thumping wildly in my chest, remembering what it felt like to have them on me…

Like he’s been around the block enough that he wouldn’t care about the new wrinkles that keep showing up on my skin every time I blink.

Or the little stomach pooch I can never freaking get rid of that I will swear until my dying day is still baby weight thirty-four years later.

Or how I have to stretch before any kind of physical activity or I won’t be able to move for two days.

Or how even if I stretch, I still won’t be able to move for two days, because my goddamn bones are old, and they hurt when I breathe sometimes.

“Are you stalking me?” I mutter, my brain unable to comprehend why he’s here, standing a few feet away from me, at a private party for my daughter and her fiancé.

The corner of his mouth tips up into a smirk. Annoyance replaces any kind of worrisome or lustful thoughts I was having when, all of a sudden, his eyes leave mine as Palmer slams into the front of him. The two men embrace in a laughing, back-patting man-hug while I stand here staring in confusion at what’s happening.

“What the fuck?” I whisper.

Birdie moves closer to me and leans in as my stalker and my soon-to-be son-in-law continue greeting each other very boisterously while everyone on the deck watches.

“I can’t believe he was able to come!” Birdie gushes with tears filling her eyes, and one hand presses over her heart. “That’s Uncle Dean!”

“What the fuck?” I whisper a little louder this time for the people in the back, while Bodhi steps in to give the man a hug when Palmer moves away.

“You know, Palmer’s uncle? Or half-uncle… whatever, I’ve told you about him,” Birdie reminds me, while the glass of wine I had a little bit ago starts threatening to come back up.

“What. The. Fuck?”

He’s not a tourist.

Am I happy about that or still pukey? It seems the results are inconclusive.

“Are you broken? Why do you keep saying that?” she asks, grabbing my arm and shaking me a little while my eyes remain locked on… Uncle freaking Dean!

Yes, my daughter has mentioned Palmer’s uncle before, and Palmer himself has been telling me stories about him for years. The black sheep of the Campbell family and the result of an affair Palmer’s married grandfather had with a young woman who cleaned their home. It wasn’t Dean’s fault his father was a cheating bastard, but everyone in that family treated Dean like garbage—his own father included.

Everyone except for Palmer. He adores the man and has said on many occasions that good “old” Uncle Dean is one of the reasons he turned out so normal. Dean Campbell got his engineering degree when he was in the army and learned how to design golf clubs as soon as everyone knew Palmer was headed to the pros. And then Palmer pissed off his father by hiring his uncle to be his clubmaker. Birdie told me he’s old-school, refuses to use a computer for design, sketches everything by hand, and hammers and welds everything by hand as well, even though there are machines and technology that will do it for you now.

“You said he was old!” I remind Birdie as Palmer introduces his uncle to Quinn and Shepherd.

“Uh, he is.” My daughter shrugs.

“You little shit. He’s not that much older than me,” I practically growl at her. “I don’t care if you’re thirty. I will still ground your ass.”

“You know what I mean.” Birdie rolls her eyes. “He’s not young-young, like the guys you go for, so I didn’t even bother giving you an accurate description. As much as I would’ve loved to play matchmaker with you two long ago, I knew you would laugh in my face. And I told you he was older, not old. Why are you freaking out?”

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because I’ve spent the last twenty hours or so fantasizing about the man I thought was a stranger I’d never see again, which made it okay, and now I think my head might explode.

Birdie also told me he’s a nomad, a loner, traveling wherever Palmer or any other golfer who hires him needs him to be, and a little on the grouchy side. Combined with everything else I know about the guy, I assumed he was old. Like… a crotchety, elderly man with a bald head, a long gray beard stained with nicotine, and scoliosis from bending over a workbench all day, yelling at people about how technology will rot their brain. A troll living in a van down by the river.

Not a walking, talking advertisement for one of the badass hot guys in my favorite motorcycle club show. A man who shares a name with the hot, famous actor he resembles and who is currently walking back over to stand a foot away from me now that greetings and introductions are complete as everyone talks amongst themselves.

“Don’t worry; I’m not stalking you, sugar.”

Let’s get something straight here. I have never liked it when a man I don’t know calls me a term of endearment. Baby, sweetheart, darlin’—it’s creepy, and weird, and you don’t know me, buddy. I don’t know what it is about the way this man says that word, but all sorts of dirty images start popping into my head that have no business being there.

Like him licking sugar off my body while his facial hair scratches me in all the right places….

Birdie lets out a little gasp when she suddenly realizes what Dean just called me, and I close my eyes, knowing there’s no use trying to stop what is about to come out of my daughter’s mouth.

“Wait a minute! Uncle Dean is our new daddy with the hot voice and the great ass?”

Son of a bitch.

Okay, so when Birdie caught me off guard earlier, I may have also mentioned what his raspy timbre did to me along with his dreamy ass. I am never answering my phone again before I’ve had coffee.

“Oh shit!” Bodhi laughs. “I can’t believe I didn’t put two and two together, since I’m the only one who knew he was coming into town. Uncle Dean does have some junk in his trunk.”

“Well, now I’m really glad my plans changed so I wouldn’t miss the wedding.”

I open my eyes just in time to see that damn smirk popping out from under Dean’s facial hair again as his eyes sparkle at me in amusement. He clearly got the memo that tonight was a casual-dress dinner, and he took it to the extreme. Wearing another pair of dark jeans that hug his thick thighs and hang low on his hips, he paired them with a black belt, a fitted black T-shirt tucked into the jeans with all that ink decorating his muscular arms on full display, black motorcycle boots, and a black beanie on his head. He looks like a hot, badass, middle-aged hipster, and I want to sit on his face.

This is not good. This is not good at all.

My vagina is already dying a slow, menopausal death. Uncle Dean looks like he’d just finish her right off in thirty minutes or less. Like late-night pizza delivery… but without the heartburn.

“What’s up with the hat?” I ask him, coming up with anything I can think of to say to him, hoping my voice covers up Birdie annoyingly explaining to a confused Palmer what she and Bodhi were shouting about.

“I was having a bad hair day. Couldn’t get it to lay down right.” He shrugs, making me laugh out loud at his completely unexpected response.

He just looks like the type of guy who would reply, “What the fuck is wrong with my hat? Fight me,” when asked a question like that.

When I realize his smile has slipped away and he’s just staring at me, my laughter quickly cuts off. “What?”

He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, and the only thing that can be heard is Shepherd now squealing with Birdie after she told him what’s going on as well.

As he slides his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, I stop breathing and my body completely freezes when Dean leans his face closer to mine and lowers his voice.

“Your laugh is like a goddamn ray of sunshine,” he mutters roughly, his eyes flickering down to my mouth.

Well then.

My heart is still trying to beat its way out of my chest, when he suddenly pulls back and takes a bottle of beer someone hands him, as if he didn’t just say something that turned my legs to jelly.

“I thought you were a tourist,” I finally say after clearing my throat when I remember how to speak again. My family is still all busy discussing my life without me a few feet away. “It doesn’t really seem fair that you obviously knew who I was.”

“Is my ass even greater now that you know I’m not a tourist?”

I can feel my cheeks heat with embarrassment, and I silently curse Birdie in my head. “Oh, you’re definitely a great-big ass.” I smile sweetly, making him chuckle, the sound entirely too pleasing to my ears.

He looks so gruff, and serious, and like he doesn’t laugh very often. Which I know for a fact he doesn’t, going by the stories I’ve been told over the years. Why the hell do I like it that I can make him laugh?

“Why didn’t you tell me who you were when I asked last night?” I question, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice, even though I am seriously annoyed.

If I knew he was Palmer’s uncle, I wouldn’t have….

Okay, fine. My underwear would have still melted off my body after the things he said to me, but I would have been more polite to him.

Probably.

Maybe.

“Technically, you asked if we’d met before. And we hadn’t.” He shrugs. “And it was a hell of a lot more fun watching you get flustered, thinking I was just some nobody.”

“I didn’t get flustered.” I scoff. “There was no flustering going on. I don’t fluster!”

Jesus, shut up, Laura!

“Oh my God, Uncle Dean. I feel awful!” Birdie suddenly says, finally getting the man to take his damn humor-filled eyes off me to look at her. “I don’t have a hotel reservation for you. The place is fully booked, and so are all the rentals at Sandbar Cottages. I won’t even be able to get you a golf cart rental until probably tomorrow evening.”

That’s right. Stay annoyed with him. He’s giving your daughter more anxiety she doesn’t need by showing up to this wedding unexpectedly, when everyone thought he’d be out of town.

“There’s nothing for you to feel bad about at all,” Dean reassures her. “I’m just sorry my plans didn’t change until the last minute. Don’t even worry about the hotel. I got in last night, and LaVon at the front desk found a cancellation. Got myself a nice king-sized bed with a little jacuzzi tub in the bathroom.”

Palmer laughs, patting the man on the back.

“Now that’s something I can’t even imagine. Your big body fitting into a tub for a bubble bath.”

Don’t worry; I’m imagining it just fine for everyone.

Relaxed halfway down in the water, reclined back with his eyes closed, droplets of water dripping off every muscled, tattooed inch of his chest and arms. One wet hand lifting off the edge of the tub to push his hair back, the other hand sliding down his chest, over his abs, and disappearing under the water until he roughly grips his—

“Dick!” Birdie shouts happily, my eyes widening in complete mortification that my dirty internal thoughts somehow became external, until she quickly continues, “I’ll call Dick Franklin at the golf cart rental place now and leave him a message about putting one on hold for you.”

“No need,” Dean says. “I brought my bike over on the ferry. It’ll get me around the island just fine.”

Oh, God, no….

“You own a bike?” I ask him, coughing to hide the stupid squeak in my voice.

My hands are suddenly sweaty and I rub them together in front of me, while Wren’s comment last night about him driving into town on a Harley and wanting to give me a ride suddenly pops into my head.

Please let it be a ten-speed… or a mountain bike. Even a BMX would work. Do people still ride those?

“Yep.” Dean nods. “A Harley, why?”

God. Dammit.

“Those things are dangerous. You better wear a helmet at all times,” I immediately warn him, wincing as soon as the stupid words come out of my mouth.

Nice one, Mommy.

“You worried about my safety, sugar?” He smirks.

“Stop calling me that.” I narrow my eyes at him, making his shoulders shake with laughter, and my annoyance skyrockets.

“All right, now that this is all settled, I have the perfect idea!” Birdie announces.

The look on her face as she smiles at me, the sheepish one I am quite familiar with that says she’s about to do something that is going to piss me off, makes me frantically search around the room for a waiter and a much-needed glass of wine.

“Since Mom still can’t decide who she’s bringing as a plus-one, and we weren’t expecting Uncle Dean, even though we’re so happy he was able to make it, he can be her plus-one! That fixes things with the caterer, and I won’t have to redo the seating chart!”

My head whips back around from searching for alcohol to glare at my daughter. Sadly, she’s immune to my angry-mom stare at this point, and she just continues to piss me right the hell off with her ideas that are anything but perfect.

“And now she’ll also have a partner for all the wedding activities, and I won’t have to worry about her doing everything alone. Yay for fixing everything!”

Twenty-seven hours of labor and this is how she repays me?

“Oh hell no,” I squawk at the same time Dean says, “Sounds good.”

My head slowly turns to the side to once again find him grinning at me. “You’re not going to be my plus-one at my daughter’s wedding. And I don’t need a partner to sightsee with around the island I already live on,” I inform him, while I see Birdie moving farther away out the corner of my eye, knowing I’m going to kick her ass as soon as I get my hands on her.

“Sounds to me like it fixes everything,” Dean reminds me. I want to kick him in the shin, even as my heart starts pounding again when he leans in close to me once more and lowers his voice. “Don’t worry. Even if we have meaningless sex, you’ll definitely remember my name the next morning.”

This motherfucker….

Of course he overheard everything I said to Wren last night. Why couldn’t he just pretend he didn’t, like a goddamn gentleman? I’ve never been so turned on and so pissed off in my entire life.

That’s it. Now Wren and Birdie are both out of the will and grounded for life.

Chapter 3

Dean

“Fucking weddings.”

“Nice hat.”

“What the fuck’s wrong with my hat? You wanna fight me?” I mutter to my nephew, taking a healthy swallow of my beer.

Palmer just laughs and shakes his head at me, giving me another pat on the back. “I know it physically pains you to be in a good mood, but could you stop glaring for five minutes and share a toast with me? I’m getting married, and I finally got your grumpy ass to come to Summersweet Island! Hell yeah!”

Palmer’s excitement actually does make me crack a smile. I clank the neck of my beer bottle against his and force my eyes away from the irritating woman on the other side of the room.

Irritating—because I can’t keep my fucking eyes off of her.

I am not this person. I don’t flirt. I don’t tease. I don’t get easily distracted by a great ass and a nice pair of tits. And yet, in the span of twenty-four hours, I have suddenly become this person.

“I’m happy for you, kid,” I mutter, bringing the beer up to my mouth again before I say anything else.

Like all the reasons why he shouldn’t get married. She’ll make you change. You’ll do everything to make her happy, and it still won’t be good enough. And then one day, a week before your tenth wedding anniversary, you’ll come home early from work to surprise her and find your next-door neighbor balls-deep inside her.

Palmer has asked for my advice on a lot of things over the years, except for love and marriage. He knows my view on those topics—that being alone is better than being fucked over. But I keep my mouth shut, and I say what I’m supposed to say.

No one can deny Palmer is over-the-moon happy to be marrying the woman he’s been in love with since he was a teenager. And I am happy for him. I’m happy he’s happy. What I’m not happy about is that my eyes keep straying to the other side of the room to get another good look at the mother of the bride. I feel like a damn kid again, wanting to chase her around like a fucking puppy, when I had every intention of coming here and continuing to dislike her from afar.

Of course I knew who Laura was when I walked up to the Dip and Twist last night. Even if I’d never actually met her before, I’ve been hearing all about the great Laura Bennett since Palmer was fifteen years old. I heard all about how perfect she was, how amazing she was, and how supportive she was. How she’s always running around, taking care of everyone else, even though she’s busy raising a family and running her own business.

Along with spending more time with my nephew than I ever could, able to be there in person for him, when the majority of my support over the years has been through phone calls while we were on opposite sides of the world most of the time. I always pictured her as a frumpy soccer mom, haggard and hard from being left alone to raise two girls and run a busy ice cream stand on her own. Nicotine stains on her teeth from hiding out behind the stand, chain-smoking her stress away. I resented her and all the time she got to spend with my family member. The only family member I have who wants anything to do with me, and vice versa. I wanted to hate her on sight for being so perfect and amazing, when I’m just an irritable asshole who gives zero fucks about pretty much everything.

I never expected to find a smoking-hot blonde with an adorable attitude I couldn’t stop thinking about ever since I walked away from her last night. After making those idiotic comments about love—I don’t even know what possessed me to say those things. I took one look at her, and a bunch of bullshit I wouldn’t normally say came flying out of my mouth. And now that I’ve seen her again, and annoyed her again, I still can’t stop thinking about her, and all the other things I could say to get a rise out of her, just to watch her roll her eyes at me again.

Fucking weddings. They make people crazy.

“…and then the sightseeing tour, a beach volleyball competition, movie night on the beach, a party at Dockside Eddy’s, and I think we’ve got…”

Even now, as Palmer rattles off the plans for the next week, my eyes automatically scan the room until I find her again. And my goddamn dick twitches in my jeans, just like it did the previous night when she bent over that freezer.

Last night, she was adorably sexy with her blonde hair piled on top of her head in one of those messy bun things, her ass that I wanted to sink my teeth into barely covered by her tattered jean shorts. Tonight, she looks like a beach vacation wet dream, wearing a gray-blue sundress that matches the color of her eyes and clings to all of her mouth-watering curves, stopping midthigh and showing off a whole lot of leg. Long, sun-kissed, toned legs that I can already feel wrapping around my waist. All of that blonde hair is now hanging loose and wavy around her shoulders, and I just want to gather it around my fist, preferably while I bend her over that freezer.

Perfect Laura Bennett, smiling that perfect smile, surrounded by people who love her for being so perfect, who doesn’t have a care in the world, because her life is so amazing and put together. Everything about her should annoy the piss out of me, but all I can think about is walking over there and sniffing her goddamn hair again. Someone should have warned me she’d smell like the same vanilla ice cream she flings to customers all day long, making me want to lick every inch of her body to see if she tastes that way too.

I haven’t gotten laid in longer than I care to admit, which is the only reason I have to shift my feet and subtly adjust my dick in my jeans when I watch her lean over a table to grab something out of her purse. I’m sure at this point, anybody will do. The blonde hair, big blue eyes, ass that won’t quit, and sassy little mouth is just an unexpected perk.

Maybe a quick fling is just what the doctor ordered to get me out of the funk I’ve been in lately, and even more so since I stepped foot on this godforsaken island. Get whatever this is out of my system so I can stop wondering why her laugh makes me feel like someone punched me in the gut and why trying to annoy her is the most fun I’ve had in ages. Maybe dirtying up perfect little Laura Bennett’s life before I leave is just what I need.

“Whatever you’re thinking, stop it.”

Palmer’s voice cuts into my thoughts, and I look away from Laura guiltily, hoping he doesn’t know I was just thinking about bending his future mother-in-law over that table and fucking her until she stops rolling her eyes at me.

“Look, I know you aren’t a fan of weddings, or people, or being out in public, but you’re on vacation on the most magical island there is,” he says, making me realize he assumed I was having murderous thoughts instead of X-rated ones. “Have some fun for once, make new friends for once, and if you’re still thinking about finally settling down and staying in one place, there’s a cottage for sale right down the street from me and Birdie that I can show you while you’re here.”

“Will you give that a rest already?” I mutter with a shake of my head.

I made the mistake of casually telling Palmer on our last phone call a month ago that I might be getting tired of the nomadic lifestyle. Tired of living out of hotel rooms and extended stays, renting out workspaces to get jobs completed, and never really having a place to call home. Aside from my storage facility, which is just depressing as fuck. He’s been like a dog with a bone ever since I let that internal thought slip out, constantly telling me about all the good things Summersweet Island has to offer and why this would be the best place for me to finally put down roots now that retirement is looming.

The only roots I want to plant are inside of that maddening woman who keeps glancing at me over her shoulder, pretending like she isn’t seeking me out just as much as I am her.

I could definitely have some fun with that one.

And that’s all it would be. Just a little fun so I could stop feeling so… lonely all the damn time suddenly. I like my solitude. I like my peace and quiet and only having myself to worry about. But some days, especially lately, it’s just too quiet with only the thoughts in my head to keep me company. Driving across the country on my bike used to be my favorite thing to do, with nothing but the sky above me and road below me to keep me company.

Yet the entire drive here, I got sick of listening to the thoughts in my head and started wishing there was someone on the back of my bike with me. Someone special, with her body wrapped around mine, holding on tight while she rattled away in my ear.

It’s suddenly hit me that I have no one in my life who needs me. Sure, I’ve got Palmer, and I’ve had to talk him down from quite a few ledges over the years, but it’s not the same. I’m not the first person someone calls when they’re in a jam. I’m not written down as anyone’s emergency contact when they’re hurt or in trouble. I’m not the first person anyone thinks of when they’re having a rough day and need a shoulder to lean on. And I’ve always been fine with that until recently.

Being on this island, surrounded by my nephew, his fiancée, all of his friends, and the women who brought them to their knees, seeing how close they all are and how happy… it just makes me regret every life choice I’ve made up to this point.

This fucking wedding is really messing with my head. As soon as it’s over and I can get away from here and back to my regular life, everything will be fine.

Sure. Your quiet, boring-as-fuck life. Sounds like a blast.

“You don’t have to be Laura’s plus-one for the wedding. I know that’s why you’re in a grumpier-than-usual mood. I’ll talk to Birdie later and tell her why that’s a horrible idea.” Palmer laughs, pulling me out of my thoughts and making me glare at him.

“Why is it a horrible idea?”

“Um, because you’re you.” He laughs again. “You would be the worst plus-one ever, bitching and complaining about everything. I would kind of like my future mother-in-law to not hate me after this wedding is over.”

His words sting a little, even though he’s mostly right. I do bitch and complain a lot, but people piss me off a lot. That doesn’t mean I would purposely set out to ruin someone’s week, especially the week of her daughter’s wedding. Just the opposite. I could make both of our weeks a hell of a lot better with multiple orgasms.

“And just ignore the girls and Shepherd with all their squealing about you two being perfect for each other. They don’t know you as well as I do. You’re not her type anyway, even if she was momentarily distracted by your cute butt,” Palmer explains, my eyes once again locked on the woman in question as she sips a glass of champagne Palmer’s agent just handed to her. “I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to forget Birdie even mentioned the plus-one thing, so you can be left alone in peace this week. Laura is fun, and carefree, and doesn’t want to settle down. Actually, now that I think about it, you might be perfect for each other in that regard.”

Exactly. Tell me more.

“She doesn’t take life too seriously, and we like her this way. I don’t want your grumpy attitude to rub off on her. I don’t know why I’m even worrying about this. Everyone knows Laura only goes for younger guys anyway. You’re too old and broody for her,” he finishes with another chuckle, now making me wish I would have told him to shut up.

I wasn’t a younger guy even when I was a younger guy. On the rare occasion my mother would say something nice to me, it would be to call me an old soul, and I always liked that about myself. Until right this minute, when my soul and my body suddenly feel absolutely ancient, watching Laura throw her head back and laugh at something Palmer’s agent says to her. His twenty-something, too damn good-looking agent, who I have the sudden urge to throw through the nearest fucking wall.

What in the actual shit is wrong with me?

Who gives a fuck what Laura’s type is and who she usually goes for? I’m here for a week. I just want a nice, relaxing vacation without any complications. I’ve already heard her say she prefers meaningless sex, so really, we’re a match made in heaven. You know, temporarily, while I’m visiting. Nice and easy, with no strings attached—just how I like it. We both get our rocks off, and then we both go our separate ways. I don’t have to deal with any of her baggage or bullshit, not that she has any anyway, with her perfect little life. And she doesn’t have to deal with mine. I think we’ll get along just fine, and she’ll enjoy having me as her plus-one once she admits she wants me.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be on my best behavior with your future mother-in-law,” I reassure Palmer, smiling to myself when Laura catches me looking at her and rolls her eyes before looking away.

Something about her makes me feel lighter, younger, not so hard and filled with a lifetime-worth of anger and resentment. It intrigues me and pisses me off at the same time.

Fucking weddings. Making me get in touch with my goddamn feelings, when I should only be thinking about getting in touch with the hot blonde who keeps pretending she can’t stand me.

When Bodhi walks over a few minutes later, and I have to listen to him and Palmer regale me with stories about all of them having Sunday dinners together, going to baseball and football games together, celebrating every birthday and milestone together, people constantly coming and going in everyone else’s houses, getting in each other’s business, and all the noise, noise, noise that seems to go hand in hand with living on Summersweet Island, it reminds me again why putting down roots here is just not for me. It sounds entirely too exhausting and peopley. It might be a nice place to visit, but I don’t need that kind of chaos in my life twenty-four seven.

Peace and quiet and solitude. That’s all I want. After I have a taste of Laura Bennett and get this wedding over with, I can go back to being perfectly content with my life.

Chapter 4

Laura

“Get off my lawn!”

“Hey, Lala, Mom said I could have a glass of champagne.”

“I’m fairly confident your mother did not say that.” Chuckling at my grandson, Owen, as he walks up to me with a devious smile on his face, I continue sipping the glass of champagne in my hand. “Nice try though.”

Wren started off referring to me as Grandma Laura. When Owen was learning how to speak, I became Gala, which eventually turned into Lala, and it just kind of stuck. And I secretly kind of love it a lot more than being called Grandma. As the mother of two girls and having their two best friends practically live at my house, when I found out Wren was having a boy, I was a little scared. On top of the fact that my daughter suffered the same fate as I did and had her pants charmed off of her by a piece-of-shit tourist, I didn’t know the first thing about little boys. I was honestly petrified I wouldn’t be able to connect with him like a grandmother should, worried I wouldn’t be able to give Wren all the support she’d need. But this boy practically came out of the womb with a dimpled smirk on his face, full of charm and sass, and it was love at first sight. Sixteen years later, this boy still has me wrapped around his finger.

“Fine. Then can I spend the night at your house tonight?” Owen asks.

“As long as it’s okay with your mom and Shepherd.”

“We can finish watching season six of Sons of Anarchy.” He nods, head down, looking at his phone.

“Nope. No. We’re not watching that. I hate that. Bad idea. Booo!”

My grandson looks at me like I’m nuts, considering I’m the one who got him hooked on that stupid show. As does my friend Karen Walton, who is currently perched on a stool next to the bar with me, on the far side of the deck, where I’m currently standing. And where I escaped to after Birdie made her stupid plus-one announcement that did not, in fact, fix everything.

“Whatever,” I mutter to both of them before smiling at Owen. “We can stop at the store before it closes on the way home and stock up on junk food.”

Owen gives me a kiss on the cheek, then heads off across the patio, where Shepherd is still standing with the rest of the group. Minus Wren and Emily, who still haven’t emerged from the bathroom. Which is really starting to concern me now.

“Enjoy how young he makes you feel now.”

Turning my head, I look at Karen in confusion. She’s been one of my closest friends since she moved to Summersweet Island in high school, when I hooked her up with her husband Ed during third period study hall.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I loved every second of being a grandma the first time.” She smiles wistfully. “I felt like such a young, cool grandma. It’s when more start coming along that you really start feeling your age. As soon as Eddie Junior and Beth had the twins, and I suddenly became a grandmother of three, I felt like a grandmother. It got more tiring watching them, and keeping up with them, and having patience with them. Plus, when you have more than one grandchild, you go from getting fun and useful holiday gifts to getting nothing but picture frames and sweatshirts with fake turtlenecks that say crap like Nana’s Garden and their names on it. More than one grandchild just makes you feel—”

“Don’t you dare say it,” I cut her off, taking a bigger gulp of my champagne. “You’re supposed to be distracting me over here before they start serving the salad course. Tell me something else.”

Anything else. As long as it doesn’t make me feel that dumb, three-letter word that starts with O and ends with D, with a big loser in the middle. Or makes me think about the man my friend is supposed to be distracting me from.

Karen thinks for a minute as the bartender refills her wine glass. “Remember Donny Richards from high school?”

“Sure.” I shrug, trying and failing not to look back over my shoulder where most of my family is gathered, only to find Dean looking right over here at me.

My head whips back to look at Karen, quickly drinking more of my champagne to try to drown the butterflies in my stomach.

“He graduated with me, so he was a senior when you were a freshman. He was the guy who used to dress up as a cow at all the home basketball games and moo at the other team from the student section,” she reminds me.

“Right, right, Donny Richards.” I nod. “He was really nice. I’m friends with him on social media. He married Sue Hobbs, and they moved to Montana. He always posts the funniest stuff.”

“Yeah, he died. Heart attack.”

“Jesus, Karen!” I shake my head at her.

“Sorry.” She shrugs, not at all sorry. “After our thirtieth high school reunion, it’s just all downhill from there, and we all start dropping like flies. I read the obituaries at this point just to see who to take off my Christmas card list.”

I sigh, shaking my head at her again. “You are just a bringer of joy this evening, aren’t you?”

“You know what brings me joy? Watching that tall, dangerous, and delicious plus-one of yours on the other side of the room keep undressing you with his eyes ever since you walked over here,” she muses, making me finish off the glass of champagne Palmer’s agent ordered for me before he wandered away and wave down the bartender for a refill.

“He does not,” I mutter, even though the back of my neck tingles, and I know damn well he still hasn’t taken his eyes off me. “And he’s not my plus-one.”

“Did anyone tell him that?” Karen snorts.

“I did. Repeatedly.” Which is why I’m now on the other side of the deck, because I got annoyed every time he’d just smirk at me when I told him he was absolutely not going to be my date to my daughter’s wedding. Or any of the other events leading up to that day.

“I swear to God if you don’t take him out for a test drive, I will stab you,” Karen warns me as I thank the lovely bartender who quickly refills my glass before I start chugging away. “This is the first time Ed and I have been out on a date since EJ’s wedding, and he’s already nodding off at our table. His idea of a good time is having me pick him up from Dockside Eddy’s and pouring me a beer while I wait for him to close. I need to live vicariously through you.”

Glancing back over my shoulder and avoiding the far corner of the deck, sure enough, Karen’s husband has his arms folded over his stomach and his head dropped forward, snoring away at their table, surrounded by people drinking, laughing, and chatting. Ed won’t be planting anything in Karen’s garden tonight, and that just makes me feel sad for her. And it reminds me that the next time he comes up for his nightly butterscotch milkshake while I’m closing the Dip and Twist, I’m going to have a chat with my dear friend about keeping the romance alive in his marriage. Or at least staying awake until the first course is served.

Thankfully, Wren and Emily finally emerge from the bathroom, and I don’t have to think about anything dangerous or delicious wandering through my own weeds. I quickly set my champagne glass down on the bar when I see it looks like Wren has been crying as she makes her way toward me, with Emily following quickly behind.

“Hon, what’s wrong?” I ask.

“It’s fine. Everything is fine. It’s just great.” Wren smiles at me as I step forward to give her a hug, because I know my daughter is lying.

She walks right by me, and I turn as she goes, watching her walk into Shepherd’s arms. He hurried across the deck, weaving in and out of people as soon as he saw her come out of the bathroom.

My heart hurts for just a second, even though this is what I always wanted for her… for both of my girls. But it still stings sometimes, knowing I’m no longer the one they run to first when they need someone to dry their tears or make something better. They have strong, sweet, wonderful men in their lives who absolutely adore them and would walk through fire for them. I’m so thankful every day for that.

But taking a backseat in their lives is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in mine. I was a single mom, and it’s always been just the three of us against the world. The fact that both girls were in their thirties before they found their men just meant I had more time to be needed by them. It’s taking a little longer for me to adjust than I’d like.

“She really is fine. She’s just worrying about other people instead of herself, like always.” Emily rolls her eyes before she walks by me as well, pulling me out of my depressing thoughts.

I calm down a little when I know nothing too serious is happening with Wren, who is currently whispering something in Shepherd’s ear, while he still has his arms wrapped tightly around her.

“I feel like you’re avoiding your plus-one.”

Letting out an annoyed sigh when Dean walks up next to me, I shake my head without taking my eyes off Shepherd and Wren. He suddenly lifts her up in his arms and spins her around in a circle. My heart starts beating faster when Owen joins them a few seconds later, and the three of them cling to each other in a group hug while they talk with their heads bowed together in the center.

“And I feel like you didn’t hear the part where I said no,” I remind Dean as I watch Birdie and Palmer walk up to the trio.

The girls spend a few seconds talking animatedly back and forth, with wild hand gestures, smacks on the arms, and one hair-pull. And then suddenly, Birdie is wrapping her arms around her sister and scooping her up in a hug. That champagne I quickly drank is suddenly churning in my stomach, because I’m pretty sure I know exactly what’s happening right now.

“You okay there, sugar?” Dean’s voice is filled with concern instead of sarcasm.

The fact that I like it and don’t have the urge to punch him in the throat for calling me that again momentarily distracts me from the scene unfolding in front of me. “No. Yes. I don’t know, but we’ll go with no,” I reply to him.

Dean chuckles softly, his arm brushing against mine as he brings his bottle of beer up to his mouth.

I’m sidetracked by his close proximity and how good he smells, and I feel my traitorous body swaying in his direction so I can breathe him in. Thankfully, Birdie raises her voice with Wren right then, snapping me back to reality and stopping me from sniffing this man’s shirt in public.

“Wren, do it! I promise you aren’t taking anything away from my night. Like I’d give a shit about that!”

My eyes guiltily fly back across the room to my family when Birdie finishes scolding her sister, after being locked on Dean’s mouth while he licked his lips from his sip of beer. My heart starts beating faster when Birdie turns away from her sister to loudly address the rest of the guests.

“Can I have everyone’s attention please?”

A hot flash from hell chooses this exact moment to start wreaking havoc on my body, and I grab the front of my cotton sundress and start fanning myself with the material. Everyone in the room turns in their seats or where they’re standing to look at Birdie, but my eyes are glued to Wren’s face. Shepherd yanks her back into his arms and peppers her face with kisses, and I know. I knew sixteen years ago what was going to come out of my daughter’s mouth before she even said it, just like I know what’s going to come out of it right now.

“I’m pregnant!” Wren announces to the room, her overjoyed face going blurry on me when my eyes immediately fill with tears once I hear it confirmed out loud.

The entire room erupts into a chorus of whistles and cheers, and my daughter looks across the room at me with happy tears running down her own face and a huge, beautiful smile stretched across her cheeks.

“After Tess in two months, and then Shepherd and Wren, it looks like you’re going to have three grandkids soon! Congratulations, Grandma!” someone in the crowd shouts in my direction.

Everyone in the room cheers again, but all I hear is a loud hum in my ears as my heart pounds faster and panic overwhelms me.

What the hell is wrong with me? I’m deliriously happy, and this is just absolutely wonderful news! Quit being an idiot, Laura!

I really am happy. Wren deserves to have everything she’s ever dreamed of, and Shepherd is going to be the best father in the world, who would rather die than ever even think of walking away from her, Owen, and the baby. As a mother, I couldn’t be more ecstatic for her.

But as a woman who just a few weeks ago felt like she was in the prime of her life, I kind of want to throw up a little.

Wren finally rushes over and gives me a big hug. I push aside my bullshit for a minute, hold her in my arms, and I rock her back and forth, telling her how happy I am for her, and I mean it. I squeeze her tightly to me, so thankful our family has been so blessed, until she slips out of my arms and moves right back into Shepherd’s.

I smile… and I congratulate my future son-in-law… and I make a joke to Owen about changing dirty diapers… and I laugh when he dry heaves. Everyone is happy, and laughing, and teasing Wren for being a wreck after getting a call from the doctor as soon as she walked into the hotel this evening. She knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it from Shepherd but worried it would take the spotlight off of Birdie and Palmer. It all feels so wonderful, because my family is growing even bigger, just like I always wanted.

I’m not at all thinking about what Karen said—while the words “old” and “alone” flash over and over in my head—as champagne is passed all around for a toast and everyone in the room takes turns hugging Wren and shaking Shepherd’s hand. I’m definitely not picturing myself letting my dyed-blonde hair go and allowing the gray to completely take over… while I’m sprawled on my couch, looking exhausted and grandmotherly in my Nana’s Sweethearts sweatshirt. My grandchildren will be running circles around me, I’ll eat dinner by four and go to bed by eight, after taking a nap during Jeopardy, talking to myself and all the cats I’ll probably fill my empty house with.

Now is not the time to fall apart, Laura! This is a joyous occasion!

“Congratulations, this is good news,” Dean says as I turn my face toward his, wishing I could ask Donny Richards what it felt like when he was having a heart attack, because I think I might be having one now.

“Yep, it sure is! It’s wonderful! So good! Sooo good.”

Dean’s eyes study mine for a few seconds, and I shake out the numbness in my right hand while my breath starts panting out of me faster. And then I realize it would be my left side going numb if I was dying of a heart attack, and a few giggles escape out of me.

“You want more champagne, or something stronger?” Dean suddenly asks, his serious and concerned eyes still locked on mine, making some of my panic over being an old, dried-up grandmother switch over into panic that I like his concern for me a little too much.

I’m thinking about sitting on this man’s face, and now I’m going to be a grandmother again. No one wants a grandmother of three sitting on their face. That’s just gross for all parties involved. Oh, hell… I think I’m going to cry again, and these won’t be happy tears.

“I think I’d like to chug an entire bottle of tequila before I start coming up with names for all the cats I don’t have yet!” I announce a little too quickly and cheerfully, still shaking out my right hand for some stupid reason.

Probably because my entire family and this whole party is celebrating around me, and I feel like I’m about to completely fall apart. With no one to catch me, or tell me it’s going to be okay, or that fifty-four is not old—even if you are a Lala of three—because it’s the new forties, goddammit!

“Turtleneck sweatshirts, and grandma gardens, and white hair! We’re having so much fun, and I’m so happy I could scream!” I ramble, my voice getting louder and more panicky with every word I say, feeling like I might actually start screaming any second now.

My skin is still hot and sweaty and feels too tight for my body. I can’t seem to take in a deep breath of air no matter how hard I try. Tears start prickling the backs of my eyes, and I’m so tired of keeping this smile plastered on my face that I want to flip a table. I’m all over the place with emotions right now, and I don’t know what to do. This is a doubly happy occasion for both of my daughters, and I just want to be anywhere but on this deck. Just for a few minutes, so I can breathe and get my emotions under control, then come back and join this happy celebration for real.

All of a sudden, Dean is turning away from me and walking a few steps back to the bar. I smile and wave distractedly at some people who congratulate grandma and pat me on the back. My eyes frantically search the deck for the closest set of stairs, until Dean is right back in front of me a minute later, with two full shot glasses in his hands.

I don’t even hesitate, grabbing them both from him and shooting them back quickly, one right after another.

“One of those was actually for…. Never mind.” Dean chuckles softly.

I shiver while the tequila makes its way through me, not entirely sure if it’s from the alcohol or the sound of this man’s laugh. Which just makes me feel even crazier. Dean takes the empty shot glasses out of my hands, setting them on a vacated table next to us before studying me again.

“Better?” he asks.

The concerned look in his eyes and the way he won’t take them off me, even when someone bumps into him from behind, makes everything inside me tingle and every thought in my head come pouring out.

“Oh, sure. I’m great! Maybe I’ll fall asleep at the table; maybe I won’t. I’ll definitely need a bigger closet for my turtleneck sweatshirts. Get off my lawn! Did I do that right? I should probably learn how to crochet and start collecting trinkets. I definitely need a bowl of hard candy stuck together on my coffee table that no one ever eats, and several used tissues shoved down the sleeve of my cardigan that I can offer to strangers when they sniffle,” I ramble with a hysterical giggle as I smile and wave at Palmer’s agent when he walks by.

Something that sounds like a growl comes out of Dean, but I’m too busy turning and quickly making a beeline for the stairs that lead out onto the beach to worry about it.

“Ahhh, shit” is what I think I hear Dean mutter from behind me, followed by the sound of his motorcycle boots thumping against the wood floor as he jogs to catch up with me.

I weave in and out of tables, tripping over chairs as I go, not even paying attention, just wanting to get the hell off this deck so I can lose my shit in peace, rambling nonsense over my shoulder as I go.

“You don’t have to follow me. I’m fine. Perfectly fine! Nothing a good scream and maybe a lobotomy can’t handle. Have you ever had a heart attack before? I’m sorry; that was rude. I didn’t mean it in a rude way, but I’m guessing you might have a couple of years on me and maybe know what it feels like. But now that I say it out loud, it really is rude, and I….” My rambling pauses for a few seconds when I feel Dean’s hand press against my lower back as we walk.

The smell of his soapy, manly skin engulfs me again, along with the heat from his body as he keeps his hand at my back. His chest brushes against my arm every time he leans around me as we walk, yanking chairs out of my way to help me get to my destination without hurting myself.

The thoughtful gesture makes my heart clench right in the middle of my midlife-crisis panic attack. Ignoring it, since I can only deal with one problem at a time, I walk faster and say more stupid things, because that always works out well for me.

“Anyway, I don’t really like naps, but I guess this is who I am now. I should probably start going to bingo on Sunday afternoons in the elementary school gym, maybe get some orthopedic shoes, and I definitely need one of those chains to attach to my reading glasses so I don’t lose them. Do you think it’s too late to cover my furniture in plastic? I should invest in more lace doilies.”

When we’ve made it down the stairs, into the sand, and a few yards away from the hotel, with me talking nonsense the whole way, Dean’s hand on my lower back curls into a fist, tugging on the material of my dress to get me to stop walking and turn to look at him. I don’t even realize I’m panting and having a hard time getting air into my lungs until he finally speaks.

“Breathe, sugar,” he orders. “Nice and slow, and tell me what you need.”

What I need is to move away from this man who makes me forget about all my problems just by staring into my eyes and looking at me like he really wants to fix everything. But do I move away? Of course not. It suddenly feels like I’m standing in the sand with cement shoes on my feet, and I wouldn’t be able to move them if I tried. So, I do exactly what he orders. I breathe nice and slow, watching Dean’s chest moving up and down slowly right along with mine to keep me on pace. We stand toe-to-toe on the beach under the stars, with the faint sounds of music and people laughing at the dinner party floating out here and mixing with the waves crashing to the shore. My eyes trail up his chest and land on his lips, watching them part along with mine to slowly let out the air we seem to be breathing together.

“Tell me what you need,” Dean says again after a few minutes of quiet, slow breathing.

Right when I’ve gotten my heartrate under control and I don’t feel like I’m going to pass out or go completely insane, I notice the heavy weight of his hands on my hips that he placed there in the last few minutes. I start feeling lightheaded again as I tip my face back more to look the rest of the way up at him.

“I need to get my shit together and go back to the party. I’m fine. I just…. I’m fine,” I reassure him with a weak smile, my heart starting to beat wildly in my chest again when his eyes remain locked on mine, and his hands grip my hips tighter.

“Nope. Try again,” Dean says with a shake of his head. “What do you need?”

I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before, and now this man who barely knows me has asked it three times. And hell, I don’t really know him either aside from the handful of stories I’ve heard, all of them mentioning how ornery and crabby he is. But I somehow just know he would do whatever it takes to make sure I got whatever I need in this moment. All my annoyance with him disappears in the blink of an eye, which immediately causes more word vomit.

“I hate this. I hate everything about this feeling, when I should be nothing but overjoyed with happiness. My baby is having another baby, and this time, it’s with an amazing, wonderful man. You’re right. It’s good news. It’s the best news. But I feel like I’m losing control of my life, and it’s all just passed right by me in the blink of an eye, when just yesterday I was holding a tiny baby Wren in my arms, and now she’s making me a grandmother again!” I say in one breath. “I don’t understand how I’m old enough for this to happen, when I feel like I haven’t even lived, yet here we are.”

The ocean breeze picks up, fluttering my hair into my face, and Dean removes one of his hands from my hip to quickly bring it up between us. The tips of his fingers brush against my forehead as he pushes the hair out of my eyes and tucks it behind my ear, making my body involuntarily shiver. He stares into my eyes now that they’re hair-free, one of his brows quirking up, silently ordering me to finally answer his question and tell him what I need.

“I just want to feel alive,” I suddenly whisper, wishing I could take the words back as soon as they’re out of my mouth. My breath starts coming out of me so fast I feel like I might actually pass out for real this time, while tears cloud my vision so much I can barely see.

“We could always make out. If you get too handsy, don’t worry; I’ll let you know if it makes me uncomfortable.”

Once again, this man says something completely unexpected, wagging his eyebrows at me as the corner of his mouth tips up into a teasing smirk. My tears quickly disappear, and a bubble of laughter immediately bursts out of me.

I know he’s being sarcastic to try to provoke me. An attempt to get me to stop freaking out and crying and go back to just being mildly annoyed with him. But I’m in the middle of a nervous breakdown right now and cannot be held accountable for my actions. I’m also pretty sure this is exactly what I don’t need, but the part of my brain that makes rational decisions is no longer in working order.

“You just worry about your own hands, buddy,” I warn him.

YOLO, bitches!

I see a quick flash of surprise in Dean’s eyes as I fist the front of his shirt in both my hands, filling me with triumph.

And making me forget why this is a really, really bad idea as I yank his mouth down to mine.

Chapter 5

Laura

“Son of a bitch! Not again!”

“It’s not that bad.”

I pull my dark sunglasses down the bridge of my nose just enough so Karen can see me glaring at her. When the bright, early-morning sun shining through the windows of The Barge makes my entire face hurt, I quickly push my sunglasses back in place with a groan, swiveling to face the counter on my diner stool once more.

The clattering of plates, orders being called, bells dinging, cash register drawer slamming, and the hum of conversation during the breakfast rush at the only diner on Summersweet Island makes me vow to never drink again. I wish I’d never gotten out of bed this morning—along with about a dozen other things I wish I’d never done in the last twelve hours. Like canceling the sleepover I’d planned with my grandson, because his Lala had too much to drink and made an ass out of herself.

“In what universe is this not the absolute worst possible thing that could have happened?” I demand, bringing my cup of coffee up to my mouth and taking a much needed sip.

“I’m sure you’re not the first woman to have too much to drink and then… spill your guts to him.” She doesn’t even last three seconds with a straight face before throwing her head back and cackling.

“How long have you been holding that one in?” I mutter over her loud laughter.

“At least fifteen minutes,” Karen continues to chuckle as she reaches over and pats my back. “It’s really not as bad as you’re making it seem.”

“Oh really?” I laugh sarcastically, smacking my coffee cup down a little too aggressively as some of the hot liquid sloshes out and onto the counter. “Let’s review! I made all of my internal thoughts external after two glasses of wine, four glasses of champagne, two tequila shots, and one nervous breakdown. And then I grabbed good old Uncle Dean’s shirt and yanked him toward me, my head connecting with his chin so hard I’m pretty sure I’m still concussed, and then I proceeded to vomit at his feet. How is that not as bad as it seems?”

I screech that last part, immediately regretting it when the sound makes my hangover headache even worse, and half the diner turns in my direction.

After I wave them away with my hand and a weak smile, everyone goes back to their breakfasts, while Karen just continues to chuckle through my pain. But she’s nice enough to reach over the counter and grab the carafe of coffee from the warming plate, topping off both our cups without bothering the busy waitress. Putting my elbows on the counter and dropping my head in my hands, every horrifying second of last night rushes through my aching head again.

“Son of a bitch!” Dean shouts in pain, holding onto his chin where my head just connected, while I groan in my own misery, pressing both my hands to the top of my skull.

“Why did you jerk your chin down?” I complain.

“Why did you jerk your head up?” he fires back, still rubbing at his chin. “What just happened here?”

“Nothing. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. It was nothing, and now I’m going to go back to the party and forget about this nothing that never happened,” I ramble.

“Did you just… try to kiss me?” he asks, a little bit of shock and whole lot of humor written all over his face, putting this moment in time at the very top of my list of most mortifying moments in my life.

“No!” I scoff. “It was nothing. I was just….”

“You were just trying to take me up on my offer and make out with me.”

I don’t know if it’s the twinkle in his eye or the blow I just took to my head, but I suddenly don’t feel very well, and he seems to be enjoying my misery a little too much.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t make the first move, or you probably would have punched me in the face.”

“No one was making any moves!” I argue with a stomp of my foot in the sand like a petulant child, immediately regretting that decision when it makes the nausea in my stomach churn even more. “We’re just going to chalk this up to me having a bad night. Forget any of this ever happened. I’m going to go back to the party before I do anything else to humiliate myself this evening.”

I barely get the last few words out before I’m bending over and vomiting all of my bad decisions out into the sand between us. My hair is immediately pulled back from my face, and Dean gently pats my back and rubs small, soothing circles against it, while I purge all of the demons.

“You were saying?” he teases when I finally stop retching into the sand.

I quickly stand up and jerk away from his hand that was still holding my hair back, while Dean just smiles at me in that annoying way. This is now officially the most mortifying moment of my life. That’s just great for me.

“So, I’m gonna guess it’s still a no on the making out?”

“Oh, you can just fuck all the way off,” I mutter, making his smile turn into a full-on belly laugh as I stomp around him, kicking up sand as I quickly make my way back to the stairs for the hotel deck.

“At least you didn’t puke on his feet.” Karen shrugs, bringing me back to the present as she tears into a packet of sweetener and dumps it into her coffee cup. “Those boots were hot, and I would…”

Karen’s voice and the rest of the diner sounds fade away when my eyes land on the empty white packet she tossed down in front of me with the word Sugar printed across it.

“Tell me what you need, sugar.”

Dean’s words from last night flash through my mind, and my body heats with something other than this damn hangover and a shit-ton of mortification. And then I remember the vomit and quickly come back down to reality with a sigh.

“I puked in his general vicinity after trying to maul him. I can never look at that man again,” I remind her. “Why is this even bothering me so much? He’s just one man. One extremely hot, kind, slightly annoying man, but still. I don’t even know him! I’ll never see him again after this wedding is over and he goes back to his life, so who cares if he thinks I’m a hot-mess grandma of three who can’t hold her liquor?”

“You are a hot-mess grandma of three who can’t hold her liquor.”

Karen’s laughter at her own joke cuts off with a curse when I grab her half-eaten cinnamon bun from her plate. I chuck it as hard as I can across the room, barely missing a tourist’s head, before it lands on the floor and rolls under a table.

“What do you need, sugar?”

Karen’s complaining is drowned out by Dean’s voice in my head. His words just won’t leave me alone, or the way he looked at me, and that’s probably why it’s bothering me so much. It felt entirely too good having someone ask me that and to actually feel like I could let go and allow someone to take care of me. I didn’t feel alone for once, and I had someone to just spew all of my problems to—as well as the contents of my stomach. He wasn’t a family member or a best friend, or anyone required by law to listen to me bitch and complain. He followed me outside to make sure I was okay, and he just listened and wanted to make it better. And it was… different.

Intimate.

Sweet.

Hot as hell.

Until I drunkenly decided to live a little and head-butted him as a thank-you. I’ve never been with any man I felt like I could just unload all of my problems and worries onto, especially right when I met him. Younger men don’t want to hear about hot flashes, or mid-life crises, or feeling old, or grandmotherly problems. That’s just a bright neon sign flashing in their face, reminding them how much longer you’ve been on this earth than they have.

“You’re right. It’s pretty bad.” Wren snorts from the other side of me, finally speaking up and reminding me that Karen isn’t the only one hearing all about my disastrous evening. “But absolutely fascinating. Please continue.”

My body hurts too much to swivel my stool in my daughter’s direction and glare at her over the top of my sunglasses, so I use my loving words instead.

“Who even invited you? Go away.”

“Are you kidding me?” Wren laughs in between bites of french toast. “Like I was really going to miss OG Sip and Bitch today. You barely gave us any of the goods last night after you came racing back onto the deck and locked yourself in the bathroom during the salad course.

Because I was too busy choking down dinner and trying not to throw up again, then zig-zagging around people the rest of the night to avoid that man at all costs.

“And I say again, who invited you? OG Sip and Bitch is just that—it’s for the OGs. You know, the ones who invented Sip and Bitch and graciously gave it to you girls,” I remind her as Karen lifts her cup of coffee and clinks it against mine.

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times,” Karen toasts. “Your mom and I just wanted to enjoy a nice glass of wine in the living room every once in a while, without listening to the melody of teenage angst coming through the thin walls.”

“So much screaming.” I shudder. “Birdie complaining to Tess about boys, you complaining to Emily about boys, and then all of you together, complaining about boys.”

“It was too much.” Karen nods. She might not have had teenage girls, but she was over at my cottage enough while mine were growing up that she felt my pain and wanted a resolution as much as I did. We felt like geniuses when we came up with the idea of Sip and Fuss, where the girls could enjoy a tasty slush from the Dip and Twist and complain all they wanted at the picnic tables outside.

Even though it happened at my place of business, it wasn’t inside of my own home, where nothing could drown out the sounds of their rage. It was in a safe, public place where I could still keep an eye on them, and they had to condense their raging to once a week, unless there was an emergency. When the girls got older, it morphed into boozy slushes and being called Sip and Bitch. And a lot of those evenings resulted in several late-night phone calls where I had to either bail them out of jail, bail them out of a jam, put out a fire Tess started, or bail them out of the Summersweet Pond after they drunkenly rode their bikes in there, but still. Very therapeutic. All in all, it’s been the perfect invention.

“Stop trying to distract us with a trip down memory lane,” Wren complains. “We need to figure out what you’re going to do with sexy Uncle Dean. I think you need to play a little hard to get and make him work for it.”

The perfect invention until one of your annoying daughters decides to crash your private bitch session.

“I’m pretty sure one of the rules of you being allowed to attend an OG Sip and Bitch was that you had to just sit there, feed my future grandchild, and shut up,” I remind her. “No one is working for anything. I will be perfectly fine if I never see that man again.”

But imagine what would have happened if you didn’t make a mess of everything. That mouth of his definitely looks like it would be good for a lot more than sarcasm.

“You’re thinking about kissing him right now, aren’t you?” Karen asks while studying my face.

“Oh shut up,” I complain, my cheeks heating with embarrassment even though she doesn’t really know that’s what I was thinking about.

“So what’s the plan, exactly? There’s a week of wedding activities Birdie has on the schedule, on top of the actual wedding. I’m assuming you’ll want to flee the country now,” Karen jokes.

That thought did cross my mind.

“I’m not fleeing the country. And I’m not going to be made to feel uncomfortable on my own island. I’m a grown-ass woman, and this is my daughter’s wedding. I’m going to do the mature thing by spending the next week avoiding him and not making eye contact. He’s going to want to be as far away from me as possible after that shit show last night anyway, so this is a moot point. I am now a walking, talking, puking turn-off.”

And doesn’t that just suck to think about, which makes my headache even worse.

“Stop fighting it,” Wren complains, even though she’s supposed to be shutting up. “You can’t just avoid him all week and pretend like he doesn’t get your juices flowing.”

“I already banned that phrase from your sister’s vocabulary.”

“I know. She told me.” Wren shrugs, taking the last bite of her french toast. “You know that just makes us want to say it more, right? Juices flowing, juices flowing, juices—Ow! That hurt!”

She finally stops chanting when I smack the side of her arm. “I’m not afraid to punch a pregnant woman. Give it a rest. There is nothing flowing, juicy or otherwise.”

“Eeew, that was much worse than what I said.” Wren grimaces.

“You are too smart to let what happened to you thirty years ago stop you from finding real happiness now,” Karen reminds me. “Stop being afraid, and put yourself out there with the first guy who actually has potential, looks to be man enough to handle you, and can read fucking cursive!”

“That’s what I said!” Wren agrees, leaning around me to give her a high-five.

“Honestly, that last guy couldn’t even read the menu at Island Slice. It was embarrassing.” Karen sighs.

“It’s a pizza place! They only serve pizza, and he still couldn’t figure out how to order.”

“All right, that’s enough.” I stop them, trying not to be embarrassed by my past dating choices. “Just because Dean is hot, and surprisingly sweet, and his voice makes me feel like melted butter, and when he looks at me I want to climb him like a tree… does not mean I want to fall in love with the man.”

“Wow, melted butter. That’s a new one.”

Son of a bitch! Not again!

Taking a deep, fortifying breath, I swivel my stool around slowly to find the man I’ve been sipping and bitching about all morning—and who I’d hoped to avoid for the rest of time—eavesdropping once again on my conversation. With the same smirk on his face from the last time he did it.

Why does he have to be so annoyingly hot? It’s just not fair. His hair is damp from a recent shower, and another crisp, clean T-shirt clings to his muscles and is tucked into a pair of jeans that fit him like a glove, all of that beautiful ink on his muscular arms making me want to reach out and trace my fingers over everything. He looks like he should be on the cover of a badass hot-guy magazine, whereas my long blonde hair is in a messy bun on top of my head, and I’m still wearing smudges of last night’s makeup that I fell asleep in and didn’t give two shits about washing off this morning. At least the dark sunglasses cover up some of the mess on my face. But my faded Dip and Twist T-shirt with ice cream and chocolate stains from the last time I wore it to work, and the old pair of joggers that Owen left at my house the last time he stayed over that I threw on before I ran out the door, just scream what a mess I am.

“What are you doing here?”

I don’t mean for the words to come out so bitchy, but I look like fresh shit, and I’d just like to wallow in peace without the subject of my wallowing standing right here to witness it.

“Nothing sounded good to eat at the hotel. I get bored with hotel food anyway, since that’s all I ever eat.” He shrugs. “So I threw up my hands and decided to come into town to look for something better.”

My eyes narrow at him behind my sunglasses.

“They really should think about purging their menu.”

Karen snorts and tries to cover it up with a cough.

“Anyway, good thing I found this place. They really know how to regurgitate their recipes.”

“That doesn’t even make sense,” I finally speak with a roll of my eyes, even though he can’t see it.

“I know, but I just had to get that last one in there.” He winks.

Fucking winks! Who the hell does he think he is? He can’t just come in here, looking like he does, making puke jokes, and get all winky.

Before I can come up with a good insult, Dean is suddenly crowding into my personal space. I jerk back with a gasp, and my back bumps into the counter behind me when he bends down toward me. He rests both of his hands on the counter on either side of me, caging me in, his face only a few inches from mine. A couple of seconds pass where he just studies me, and then he removes one of his hands from the counter, using the tip of his finger to pull my sunglasses down just far enough so he can see my eyes.

“You okay?” he asks softly, all of the teasing gone from his voice, nothing but concern replacing it.

My heart pounds, and my hands get sweaty. He’s really concerned, and I like that he’s really concerned. I have no business liking it, because he’s not my type. A fling would have been nice, but I definitely ruined that with the puking.

All I can do is nod in response, since I’m afraid of what might come out of my mouth if I open it. Probably something desperate. Definitely something stupid.

Dean looks back and forth between my bloodshot eyes, and when he’s satisfied that I’m telling him the truth about being okay, he dips his head to the side of my face and puts his mouth right by my ear.

“Just so there’s no confusion, far away from you is definitely not where I want to be. Absolutely nothing about you turns me off. It’s just the opposite, actually.”

Jesus, how long was he standing there listening? And why do I feel like I would have just gotten pregnant from his words alone if I still had that capability?

He drags his palms along the counter as he leans back away from me and stands up to his full height again, while I try and remember how to breathe again.

“Ladies.” Dean nods in Wren and Karen’s directions before his eyes come right back to me. “Think I’ll grab a drink to go with my takeout order before I leave. I heard the orange juice is really flowing this morning.”

Aaand now I want to punch him in the face.

“Eat shit,” I mumble as I push my sunglasses back up in place, which just makes him laugh as our waitress Melanie rushes over and hands him a Styrofoam box.

He thanks her and then turns and heads toward the door of The Barge, whistling as he goes. “See you soon, plus-one!” Dean shouts without turning around, waving over his shoulder before he pushes open the door.

“You’re not my plus-one!” I shout back. But he’s already out the door and heading down the street. And now everyone in this damn place is looking at me again.

“Can we start calling him Daddy now?” Wren asks, making me turn back around on my stool and repeatedly bang my head against the counter.

Chapter 6

Dean

“I hope you starve.”

“Fucking bullshit.”

Tossing my sketchpad onto the table in the corner of my hotel room, I realize it’s pointless to try to concentrate on work. Or anything else, for that matter. Leaning back in my chair, I scrub my hands down my face with a defeated sigh.

“His voice makes me feel like melted butter, and when he looks at me, I want to climb him like a tree…”

Perfect Laura Bennett isn’t so perfect after all. She’s kind of a mess, actually. But a sexy, funny, thrilling mess. And I have never been more turned on in my entire fucking life.

I’ve also never taken one look at a woman and wished I could snap my fingers and make all her troubles go away. I’ve never gotten a nauseous pit in my stomach at the first sign of tears in her eyes. I’ve never made it my mission to annoy the piss out of her just so I can hear her adorably tell me off. And I have definitely never been headbutted and almost puked on, then found it the most charming thing that has ever happened to me.

Now, the only thoughts that are consuming me are about how good it felt to take care of her, have her unload all her problems on me, and for her to look at me like I could make everything better. And wonder why in the hell I tossed and turned all night last night, unable to relax or get rid of the anxious feeling in my gut, until I walked into that diner this morning and saw her again. Until I pulled those dark sunglasses off her face, looked into those gorgeous blue eyes of hers, and made sure she really was okay.

What in the hell is even going on with me right now?

There’s a light tapping on my hotel room door, saving me from having to think about this bullshit any longer. Pushing up from the hard, wooden chair my ass has been parked in for far too long, I let out a groan when my body reminds me I’m too old to be hunched over a table in an uncomfortable chair for hours.

After I brought my breakfast back here and inhaled it, then found out Birdie didn’t plan anything for the guests today so they could relax and get settled in after traveling yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to get caught up on work and enjoy my peace and quiet. I’ve spent the last several hours doing nothing but staring at my sketchbook, pacing my hotel room, ordering shitty room service for lunch, and being so bored with my own company I wanted to put my fist through a wall. I wondered what Laura was doing, where she was, if she still felt like shit from her hangover, and if she’d finally recovered from finding out she was going to be a grandma again.

I let out another, more irritated groan when a louder knock hits my door this time, and my feet move me faster across the room, looking forward to any kind of interruption right now. Even if it’s just someone on the hotel staff bringing up the extra towels I called down for.

I’ll take any kind of distraction right now that will get Laura Bennett out of my damn head.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I mutter under my breath as soon as I fling open my hotel room door, even as my dick stirs to life in my jeans.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Laura greets me with an eye roll. “What are you doing here?”

Her annoyance with me just makes all of my own irritation fly right out the window, and I feel a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth.

“Well, sugar, I’m here for a wedding. You might have heard about it.”

Laura narrows her eyes at me, and it just makes me smile even bigger. I’m not going to analyze why I’m suddenly in a much better mood now, when the woman who is the cause of all my mental grief is standing right in front of me.

“I mean in this room,” Laura explains, hefting the large basket she’s holding higher in her arms. “Birdie asked me to drop off welcome baskets to a few of the guests who got in today, and Palmer’s manager was supposed to be in 409.”

“Oh yeah, LaVon had me switch rooms when I got back from getting breakfast this morning. I guess the guy’s wife specifically requested a jacuzzi tub with their reservation, and I had the last one.”

“So no bubble bath, huh? That’s a pity…,” Laura trails off, her eyes flittering down the front of me.

She quickly clears her throat, and her eyes snap back up to mine. I have just enough time to appreciate the flush that covers her cheeks, wondering what she’s thinking about, when she suddenly pushes past me and into my room.

“Well, I guess you can just have this basket then, and I’ll go grab another one for Martin.”

Closing the door behind her, I turn around and stay right where I am, before I’m tempted to pick her up and toss her on top of my bed.

She turns around to face me in the middle of the room, and my eyes guiltily fly up from her ass where they were glued. It looks like she showered and dressed for work since I saw her this morning. She’s wearing a clean Dip and Twist T-shirt stretched tight across her tits, another pair of tiny, tattered jean shorts that have my hands itching to clutch her ass and pull her against me, and all that blonde hair back up in another messy bun, making me want to attach my mouth to the side of her neck and taste her skin, the smell of vanilla now invading my space and making me hungry for something other than food.

“Where should I put this?”

I point to the table behind her where I had just been sitting, afraid if I open my mouth right now I’ll say exactly what I’m thinking.

Laura turns and sets the basket down in the middle of the table, amongst three other sketchpads and sheets of paper with drawings on them strewn all over it. She stares down at the mess, and I watch her head cock to the side as she reaches out with one hand, moving a piece of paper out of the way of the sketch I’ve been trying to work on all day.

“These are really good,” she says softly, the tips of her fingers tracing over the page with several 3D drawings of club-heads. “You’re like a golf artist. I never thought golf clubs could be so pretty. I also didn’t realize it took so much work to make one.”

Her words make me chuckle and my fucking heart flip-flop in my chest.

I never show anyone my work until it’s finished. My rough drafts are just that. Rough. They’re a complete mess I don’t want anyone seeing until I can work everything out in my head, getting the calculations and the aerodynamics for the club correct and the design exactly how I want it. There’s something about having her look at everything and appreciate it, even if she has no idea what she’s looking at, that makes me want to puff out my chest and pat myself on the back.

I take a lot of pride in my work. I get shit from people in the industry all the time because I refuse to use computers or fancy equipment, and it takes me twice as long to complete a project. I like that my hands are the only thing that ever touches the clubs I make. I like knowing I can create something from nothing that will improve a golfer’s game just by tweaking a few numbers. I enjoy the hard work, and I even enjoy the frustration when I don’t get it right and have to start all over again.

And I really like that I can impress Laura, since I’ve been nothing but impressed by her since she unloaded all her troubles on me on the beach last night. She has so much going on in her world right now. So much that is changing and throwing her for a loop, and all I can think about is making it better and taking her mind off of things.

“So how come you got tasked with delivering the welcome baskets? Shouldn’t you be at the stand?”

Laura finally looks up from my sketches, shoving her hands into the back pockets of her shorts as she turns to face me.

“Birdie and Palmer are busy down at the ferry dock, picking up more guests who are coming in today, so I told her I’d handle it.” She shrugs. “That’s the beauty of owning my own business. I can close it for a little bit if I need to do something for someone and don’t have anyone to cover for me. Something my parents never quite got the hang of.”

She chuckles softly, but there’s a sadness that comes over her eyes I don’t like one bit.

“They weren’t fans of closing down the stand for any reason?” Crossing my arms in front of me, I lean my shoulder against the wall in the small alcove of my room, wondering where this chattiness is coming from. Since when do I give a shit about talking with a woman?

“Oh God, no.” Laura shakes her head with another small laugh, tucking a strand of hair falling down from her bun behind her ear before those gorgeous blue eyes meet mine from a few feet away. “My favorite childhood memory ever is spending time with them at the stand when they’d let me, but they were both major workaholics. Always too worried about the ‘what ifs’. What if there’s an emergency? What if we don’t have enough money in the bank to cover it? They worked themselves to death. Literally. They never took off for my school concerts, plays, or sports, and they never closed for holidays or special occasions.

“They were good people, and good parents for the most part, but they were just never really around much. I always ate dinner alone and got myself off to school alone. I told myself I would never do that to my girls. I made sure I was always there to make them a home-cooked meal for dinner and put them to bed, and I made sure I was always there when they woke up in the morning to make them breakfast and get them off to school. And I have absolutely no problem closing the place if I need to so I won’t miss anything in their lives. My family always comes first.”

Her words and the strong conviction in her voice makes something break apart inside me. She really, truly loves her family. I’ve known that about her from all the stories I’ve heard over the years, but seeing it with my own two eyes makes me respect the hell out of her even more for what she’s created and done all by herself. And makes me wish I’d had even just a small piece of her dedication and love aimed my way growing up. Maybe I would have been a different man if I had someone in my life who actually knew what it meant to be a family and knew how to put others before themselves. My family is filled with nothing but selfish assholes who care more about themselves than literally anyone else. If I’d had someone like Laura in my life, maybe I wouldn’t have turned out to be such a cynical asshole.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a home-cooked meal in my life unless it came from a restaurant, and definitely not made by either one of my parents.” I chuckle humorlessly. “And the one and only time I asked my father to come to one of my football games back when I was in school, he replied, ‘Why in the fuck would I want to do that?’ My mom worked three jobs just to keep a roof over our heads, so she was never around much either, and never really hid how much of a burden I was on her.”

Jesus, way to sound like a pussy, Dean. And way to take a depressing trip down memory lane, when you have a hot woman alone in your hotel room.

“I’m sorry,” Laura whispers, making that achy feeling come back to my chest with the concerned look in her eyes. “Parents really suck sometimes.”

“It was a long time ago, sugar.” I clear my throat, feeling uncomfortable with the way she’s looking at me like she wants to give me a hug. And even more uncomfortable that I would let her and be more than satisfied with just having her arms wrapped around my middle, letting all of her goodness soak into me.

“And here I am getting all emotional just because my girls don’t really need me anymore.” She laughs softly, the sound warming up everything cold inside me after talking about my shitty childhood.

The rapid-fire dinging of several text messages blowing up her phone echoes through the quiet hotel room, and Laura quickly pulls it out of the back pocket of her shorts.

She lets out a little moan as she reads the screen of her phone, and my balls tighten at the throaty sound, imagining her making that sound while she rides my cock on that king-sized bed a few feet away.

“You good?” I ask, even as I have to shift my feet where I’m standing because I am suddenly not good, and my brain is now filled once again with dirty thoughts about this woman.

“Birdie just asked me to run to their place and grab another basket she forgot to give me that she needs me to take over to Sandbar cottages. Shepherd is at baseball practice, and Wren needs me to pick up her anti-nausea meds from the pharmacy the doctor called in for her. And she also wants an order of fried pickles from Dockside Eddy’s. Because that makes perfect sense.”

“See? They still need you,” I remind her.

Laura lets out the most adorable snort as she darkens the screen of her phone and then shoves it back in the pocket of her shorts. “You’re right. Some days, I’m exhausted from how much they need me.” She smiles at me, and I know she sort of means it, but not really. I know for a fact she would rather be completely dead on her feet as long as it meant her family was happy and taken care of.

It makes me want to tell her to sit down and let me handle things for her, just so she can have a break and take some time for herself. She’s turning into an actual real person with real feelings, and not just a body I want to fuck into next week and then leave without a second look back.

This is not good. This is really not good for me.

Before I know it, she’s walking back across the room toward me, and I’m pulling open the door and holding it for her as she crosses the threshold and steps out into the hallway.

“Thanks for the basket,” I tell her, nodding back over my shoulder as she turns to face me while I grip the door. “You need any help with anything?”

The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. I should be happy she’s leaving, and I’m getting my hotel room back to myself, and I can get back to work and enjoy the quiet since we’re not going to do anything fun like get naked. But it suddenly sounds like the most depressing, lonely thing in the world. And I realize I would much rather follow Laura around, annoying the hell out of her, than literally anything else right now.

It’s just because I want to sleep with her. That’s it. She’s a hot piece of ass I want in my bed, and I’m clearly willing to do anything for it, including offering my help, talking about my shitty childhood, and giving up my alone time.

Yep, I have officially lost it.

“I’m good. I can take care of things just fine… by myself… like always.” She’s a little defensive when she speaks, but before I can say anything about how I know damn well she can take care of things and just wanted to help because I’m bored, she’s moving on to the next subject. “You have any dinner plans later?”

“Why? You want to take me out on a date? I no longer have a jacuzzi tub to offer you, but we could have just as much fun in my bed afterward.”

That’s it… go back to the harmless flirting. It’s safer that way.

Laura lets out an exasperated sigh that makes me laugh and forget about whatever fucking spell she’s cast over me that has me acting like a completely different person.

“You’re a pig,” she mutters, even as her eyes flicker over to the bed behind me, and I watch that adorable flush darken her cheeks again. “I hope you starve.”

“It was good to see you too, plus-one.”

“You’re not my plus-one,” she growls.

I’m still laughing when she stomps down the hallway and I close my door, knowing I’m going to have a hell of a lot of fun getting under that woman’s skin this week, and hopefully under her clothes.

While absolutely not getting my fucking feelings involved, because this is just about sex. That’s it. I need to get laid. I do not need to be worrying about making some woman’s life easier.

Two hours later, there’s another knock at my door. When I open it, LaVon hands me a Tupperware container with something wrapped in foil on top, along with a folded note. She says not a word to me in explanation, just gives me a smile and then quickly gets back on the elevator across the hall, waving at me and telling me to enjoy my night as the doors close.

Taking everything over to the counter of the small kitchenette area and setting it down, I pick up the note and open it.

Everyone should enjoy a home-cooked meal every once in a while.

Even someone as annoying as you.

Try not to choke on it.

—Laura

I’m laughing to myself even while my heart starts pounding and my hands shake as I take the lid off the Tupperware container. The smell of tomatoes, garlic, and cheese immediately assaults me, making my stomach growl and my mouth water. The foil has four pieces of garlic bread in it to go with the homemade lasagna, and I know damn well she probably made that from scratch as well. She even included napkins and plasticware.

As I wait for the food to heat up in the small microwave on the counter, I rub away that stupid fucking achy feeling in my chest with my fist and just concentrate on picturing Laura naked.

This is just about sex. That’s it.

Chapter 7

Dean

“Shut up and pass me the goddamn glitter.”

I. Am. Fucked.

There are a million things that should be on my mind right now. Like the fact that I forgot to buy Palmer and Birdie a wedding gift before I rushed out of town to get here in time after I had a last-minute work trip cancellation. The five custom club orders I’m going to be even more behind on finishing because of this vacation. The measurements I need to get from Palmer while I’m here so I can get started on the new putter he wants for an upcoming tournament in Scotland. Along with a shit-ton of other things I can’t even remember right now, because my brain is filled with nothing but Laura and the dinner she brought me last night.

All of the shit she had to do yesterday, on top of working at the ice cream stand and worrying about her daughter’s upcoming wedding, and she took time out of her busy day to make me dinner and drop it off at the hotel. All because I happened to mention I’d never had a home-cooked meal. My ex-wife was a spoiled fucking princess who never lifted a finger inside the house. Or outside of it for that matter. She never worked a day in her life, and certainly never made a meal for me, or did anything at all for me while she was home all day and I was out busting my ass at work. We either ate takeout every night that I’d order on my way home, or I threw together one of the handful of dishes I could make, which she would bitch about the entire time she ate it.

Suddenly, some woman I barely know is making me lasagna, doing something sweet for me, taking care of me at the same time she’s insulting me, and I’m questioning all of my life choices, regretting every single one I’ve made up until this point. Coming to this island is either the best decision I’ve ever made, or the worst. The jury is still out.

“Awww, man, you didn’t fold it right,” Palmer complains, his voice breaking me out of my thoughts long enough to watch him snatch the piece of paper out of my hand I’ve just been sitting here holding while I stared off into space.

On top of everything else I should be focusing on, I should also be paying attention to whatever the hell I’m supposed to be helping Palmer with right now, but I’m finding it physically impossible.

No one ever surprises me. I know exactly who they are, and I can see their intentions a mile away. But this woman? Jesus Christ, she keeps me on my toes, and I just met her, even though I feel like I’ve known her forever. And now all I can think about is spending as much time with her as possible, annoying her as much as I can, and getting to know everything about that crazy, maddening, sweet-as-hell woman until I’ve inserted myself so much into her life that she has no choice but to let me in.

“What’s wrong with your face?”

My eyes blink back into focus, and I stare across the table at Bodhi, who’s currently looking at me like I have two heads.

“Nothing’s wrong with my face. But I can make something wrong with yours,” I mutter in annoyance as Shepherd comes over to the table and sets down three more containers of glitter.

“There he is! Welcome back, Uncle Dean,” Palmer cheers, patting me on the back with one hand as he reaches for one of the containers with his other hand. “We were getting a little worried. You were just sitting here… smiling.”

“It was scary,” Bodhi whispers. “Much scarier than the thought of you punching me in the face. Although that would suck too.”

“What the fuck are we even doing here?” I complain, taking the focus off of me for a minute as I look around the table at all the crafting supplies. “You said the guys were getting together to do some last-minute wedding stuff after breakfast and wanted my help. I thought it would involve bachelor party planning, not… whatever the fuck this is.”

I wave my hand over the glitter, glue, and pieces of paper in every color strewn across the table in Shepherd and Wren’s basement craft room, wishing I was alone in my hotel room so I could think about the way Laura’s soft skin smells like vanilla and jerk off in peace…

Or think about her laugh, or her smile, or how thoughtful she is even when she’s trying to hate me, or how much I want to help make her life easier.

Yep. I’m definitely fucked.

“We’re putting together the wedding programs and reception favors. Only the most important items needed for a successful wedding.” Shepherd sighs with a frustrated roll of his eyes as he pulls out a chair at the table and sits down. “My God, man, pull your head out of your ass and start taking some pride in your work. These hearts you cut out are atrocious.”

Palmer has mentioned on more than one occasion that Summersweet Island is a magical place. He was definitely lying. It’s cursed and filled with some sort of voodoo, making me do shit I wouldn’t normally do and feel shit I wouldn’t normally feel, surrounded by grown-ass men who like to play with glitter.

“Once more for the people in the back—What the fuck?” I mutter, looking around the table at my nephew and his friends.

I didn’t really need to be introduced to them when I got to the welcome dinner the other night. As a huge sports fan, of course I knew who they were. Shepherd Oliver was one of the top five center fielders in the major leagues before he blew out his knee and retired to coach here on the island. And Quinn Bagley is currently a star quarterback for the Virginia Beach Sharks. And they’re happily crafting on a Sunday morning… with smiles on their faces.

“I think Uncle Dean is confused, because we’ve all been Summersweetened,” Bodhi states, abandoning the heart he was just putting glitter on to dig his hand into a giant bag of Skittles sitting on the table in front of him.

“Ahhh, yeah, it can be a little jarring at first.” Shepherd nods as he sets his glue stick down. “But you get used to it. The sex is totally worth it.”

“Amen, brother!” Palmer, Bodhi, and Quinn all cheer at the same time before half of them drop their heads and go back to their crafting.

“What the fuck are you even going on about?” I question, huffing in annoyance at myself as I pick up a pair of scissors and take my time cutting out another stupid fucking heart from the red construction paper, so I don’t get yelled at again.

Which is the only reason I’m doing this. Not because it’s actually kind of calming, and I always do enjoy working on things with my hands….

Son of a bitch! Fucking island voodoo.

“Summersweetened,” Quinn repeats the stupid word. “Adjective. From the Latin word aestas condimentum. When an individual who isn’t normally sweet comes to the island and is suddenly filled with sugar and happiness. Summersweetened.”

“It happened to all of us.” Palmer nods, his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth as he bends over his piece of paper and concentrates. “We came to the island, we fell in love, and the only thing we give two shits about now is making sure our women are happy, and sometimes that involves glitter.”

“I like to call us the Stale Cinnamon Rolls,” Bodhi adds.

“Stop trying to make that happen. It’s not going to happen. You read entirely too many romance novels,” Shepherd complains.

Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t you dare fucking ask.

“What the hell is a stale cinnamon roll?”

You fucking idiot.

“I thought you’d never ask!” Bodhi claps his hands together excitedly as he sits forward in his chair and rests his arms on the table. “A cinnamon roll hero in a romance novel is a dude who is kind, supportive, oh-so-sweet, and too good for this world. But I added in the stale part just for us. Tell him about the stale part. It’s sexier when you do it.”

Bodhi nudges Quinn’s arm with his elbow, and Quinn finishes the asinine explanation without looking up from the wedding program he’s folding.

“He added the stale part, because even though we’re soft and gooey on the inside to make our women happy, they make us happy by letting us be hard and rough on the outside when we fuck them like champs. Stale Cinnamon Rolls.”

“Chills,” Bodhi says with a shiver. “Honest to God chills every time you say it.”

“Oooh, maybe he’ll take up knitting while he’s here,” Shepherd suggests.

“I will not take up knitting,” I growl, shaking out my hand aggressively when a glittery piece of paper covered in glue gets stuck to it.

“I think latch hook might be more his speed,” Shepherd continues like I didn’t even speak. “I’ve got a few extra patterns in a drawer I’ll send back to the hotel with you.”

“Whatever the fuck that is, I’m not taking it up either.” A stream of curses flies out of me when the damn piece of glitter paper still won’t come off my hand, and Palmer takes pity on me, reaching over and yanking it off. “I’m going to drink beer, flip back and forth on the television between football and porn, maybe do a little fishing, get some work done, and enjoy my peace and quiet. I’m not doing anything that involves knitting or talking about my feelings.”

“You’ll change your mind when you see all the new yarn colors I got on sale last weekend.” Shepherd chuckles. “The periwinkle is to die for.”

“You all need a fucking intervention.” I shake my head at them, while thoughts of all the things I could do to make Laura happy and not so filled with panic about getting older flip through my head.

“We’re just fine. You need the intervention,” Palmer informs me, turning in his seat to lean back and cross his arms over his chest. “You don’t have to be your usual crabby self with a chip on your shoulder at all times, you know. And you can’t stay in your hotel room and skip out on all the activities. You’re going on the sightseeing tour around the island tonight if I have to drag you there myself. Let the island work its magic and make you feel lighter. You’re allowed to be happy.”

“It hurts my face,” I deadpan.

A flash of guilt makes its way through me, but I quickly push it aside. I’m a crabby man. I don’t put up with bullshit, and I don’t like people in general, so I try to avoid them as much as possible. I’ve told him a million times that I prefer my solitude, my peace and quiet, and not having to worry about anything or anyone but myself. This is who I am, and my nephew knows that. Except…

“It didn’t seem to hurt your face too much at the welcome dinner with Laura,” Bodhi pipes up with a knowing smile. “I saw you being all laughy and fun and not at all murderous with her.”

And he doesn’t even know about my hotel room yesterday and what a fucking Chatty Cathy I was.

“I thought I was high and seeing things.” Bodhi laughs.

“You were high,” Quinn reminds him.

“Oh, I know! But I can confirm that I wasn’t seeing things. Uncle Dean has the hots for Mom, and he’s totally going to fall in love with her and live happily ever after with us on the island. You better not hurt her, or we’ll hurt you.”

My eyes narrow on him.

“Okay, so we won’t physically hurt you. You’re like a goddamn brick wall. But we will say some really mean things that will totally hurt your feelings,” Bodhi warns me, pointing a glue stick at me instead of his finger.

Yes, I have the hots for Laura. What isn’t there to get hot about? Long blonde hair, bright blue eyes, an ass that I want to sink my teeth into, and legs for days that I can already feel wrapped around my waist. But love? Oh hell no. Been there, done that, got the scars and the divorce papers to prove it. Besides, I’ve heard twice now—from her own sassy little mouth—that she doesn’t do love.

Why in the hell does that suddenly feel like a challenge?

“Fucking Summersweetened…,” I mutter.

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving!” Shepherd cheers. “I give it a week until he’s filled with sugar.”

The only thing I want to do in the next week is fill some sugar of my own.

And make her laugh again, and annoy her until she tells me off again because it’s better than seeing her sad, and help take some of her stress away. And keep making her feel alive in whatever way she wants me to. Because just being near her has made me feel more alive than I have in fifty-seven years. She makes me want to be… different. Better. A man who laughs easily and doesn’t take things so seriously.

Shepherd’s wrong. It’s not going to take a week. It’s already fucking happening.

“You’re thinking about banging her, aren’t you?” Bodhi snorts.

Among other things.

“Shut up and pass me the goddamn glitter,” I mumble, unable to stop the smile creeping onto my face when I start thinking about all the ways I could possibly annoy Laura to get her mind off everything that’s stressing her out.

All I gave a shit about was having a quick, uncomplicated fling. Now, all I seem to give a shit about is chasing the high I feel every time I’m around that beautiful, complicated mess of a woman.

Fucking Summersweetened.

Chapter 8

“You’re adorable when you’re plotting my death.”

“Will you stop stalking me already?”

“Your customer service skills are impeccable, Laura.”

“Go away, Dean. There’s a line a mile long behind you of actual customers.”

“Exactly. I’ve been waiting forever. The service here sucks.”

“You suck. Go. Away.”

“Such a mouth on a professional business owner.”

“Do you actually need something, or did you just come up here to annoy me at work?”

“For your information, I came up to thank you for the delicious meal you made for me last night. And to redeem my coupon for a free cone that was in the welcome basket you delivered. Annoying you is just a nice perk.”

“The coupon expired. Too bad. Next customer, please.”

“It literally says Never Expires right here at the bottom.”

“Fine, then it’s for our other location.”

“Oh yeah? Where’s that?”

“In hell. You should go there.”

“It’s about time you got here, plus-one.”

“Stop calling me that. Just because we’re in the same place at the same time, does not mean you’re my plus-one.”

“And yet, we’ve been assigned a seat together on this golf cart tram for a fun sightseeing tour around the island this evening. If you get cold once the sun goes down, feel free to… what was that you said? Climb me like a tree? Yeah. Feel free to do that to stay warm.”

“I’m going to push you out into oncoming traffic at the next stop.”

“See? Look at you already having fun. You’re adorable when you’re plotting my death.”

“I’ll take a large coffee with one sugar, and she’ll have the same, but with two sugars and a splash of cream.”

“I can order my own coffee, Dean. Just because Island Brew is a stop on the tour, doesn’t mean you have to keep up with this plus-one nonsense.”

“I wouldn’t have asked you how you took your coffee if I didn’t want to order it for you. And saying it out loud helps me commit it to memory. You know, for future reference.”

“Oh, like, for when I wake up in your bed one morning?”

“Thank you for confirming you think about being in my bed.”

“What? No! I laughed. You heard me laugh. It was a joke. I was just saying what I assumed you were going to say.”

“Uh-huh. Sure. Maybe we shouldn’t sit by each other for the rest of the tour. Your dirty thoughts are making me uncomfortable.”

“You’re an ass.”

“Just can’t keep your thoughts off my ass, can you?”

“Just this one for me, and then that pile of hers.”

“Will you stop it? You can’t keep paying for my stuff at every stop on this tour. I can pay for my own books at The Book Attic.”

“Stop arguing and put them up on the counter. I’m not usually this giving. Take advantage of it.”

“You’re insane. These are all hardcovers!”

“What does that have to do with anything? You want those books, so I’m going to get you those books. Are you okay? You look like you’re…. Oh my God. You’re picturing me naked right now, aren’t you? Because of books?”

“No!”

“You said that really fast. It’s a little suspicious.”

“I need some air.”

“While you’re out there, just keep in mind I don’t wear underwear. It will help you save time undressing me faster.”

“…and then he greases up his palms and starts tugging and pulling, rubbing his hands over the entire length to make it nice and long before it gets too hard.”

“I’m going to need you to explain this process one more time. But slower, and with more feeling. Feel free to use my body as an instructional guide.”

“You’re disgusting. We’re in Chew on This! A family establishment!”

“Hey, you’re the one talking about greasing things up and making them hard.”

“Candy! I was talking about the candy pulling process!”

“Suuure.”

“Fine. You know what happens if I tug and rub that hot, long length too slowly? It cools down, and then I can just… snap! Break that thing right in half.”

“Well, that was just plain mean. You’re definitely not getting any old-fashioned ribbon candy for the road now.”

“That was fun! Same time tomorrow for our next plus-one activity, sugar?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Oh, come on. You can admit you had a little fun with me this evening.”

“Who even are you? I was always told you’re a grumpy, irritable mood-killer. Not a—”

“Hot piece of ass you’re still picturing naked?”

“More like an annoying ass that kind of makes me want to throw up in my mouth.”

“Better than at my feet.”

“Eat shit.”

“You know it just turns me on when you’re feisty. And I don’t know who the fuck I am right now or what the hell I’m doing. All I know is that I’m having a damn good time getting under your skin.”

“Too bad you aren’t.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night. You know, while you’re dreaming about me naked.”

Chapter 9

Laura

“You’re dead to me.”

“Is your husband there?” I whisper into my phone, taking another peek around the side of the industrial fridge to look out the front serving window.

“Yeah, he just walked in the door,” Karen replies. I quickly whip back behind the fridge and flatten my body against the cold metal when I see the same sight that caused me to scurry back here and hide as Karen continues. “Why is he home already? Did you close the stand early? You know you’re supposed to give me a head’s up when you do that so I can mentally prepare myself that my precious alone time is over. His nightly milkshake runs are more for my mental health than your safety.”

“Put Ed on the fucking phone right now!” I whisper-screech, feeling bad for a second that I’m yelling at my friend when it’s not her fault her husband is an idiot.

While I listen to her yell in my ear at Ed, I stare out the back door of the Dip and Twist from my hiding spot, seriously considering sneaking out and running all the way home, leaving my golf cart right where it is. Parked next to a goddamn Harley, with the most annoying man in the world straddling it, sipping a milkshake that I sure as shit didn’t make for him.

“What’s up, kid?” Ed’s voice booms through the line, making me roll my eyes even though I’m having a crisis here.

We’re both in our fifties, and this man still calls me kid just because he’s three years my senior. Normally, I find it endearing, but right now, Ed is on my shit list.

“I haven’t closed yet,” I remind him. “Why did you leave?”

Ed has been coming up to the Dip and Twist a few minutes before closing time ever since my parents passed away when I was nineteen, when I became a business owner overnight. He always orders a large butterscotch milkshake, and he sits in his golf cart out front until I’m finished closing the stand. He doesn’t pull away until I’ve gotten in my own golf cart and headed home, and he’s made sure no one stuck around to follow me. He did the same thing for Wren when she worked nights, up until Shepherd fired him and took over his nightly watch duties. In thirty-five years, through rain or shine, sickness or health, Ed has been out there, making sure I’m safe being here alone. Until tonight.

“I was told to go home,” Ed informs me, and I can practically hear him shrug through the line.

I squeeze my phone pressed against my ear so hard I’m afraid I might snap it in half.

“I realize that,” I growl at Ed. “Why in the hell did you listen?”

I take a couple of deep, calming breaths, cursing the man still sitting out front, acting like he has no intentions of leaving until I do. Of course I heard his bike pull up half an hour ago. I felt like Pavlov’s dog at the sound of that thing, every inch of my body perking up as soon as I heard the rumbling engine. But the stand was swarming with customers, and I only had enough time to glance out the window and see him chatting with Ed before I went back to work. I figured he smartly realized I was too busy for him to come up to the window and annoy me, and he left. I figured wrong.

“Well, I got my milkshake, and he was parked next to me when I walked back. We got to talking, and I told him what I was doing up there, and he said he’d take care of it. So, I handed him my milkshake and went home. Who was I to argue?” Ed explains.

“I have been telling you to go home for years, and you’ve done nothing but argue,” I remind him.

“Have you seen that guy?” Ed chuckles. “He looks like one of those biker dudes on that TV show that gets Karen all in a tizzy. He’s scary. He could kick my ass.”

“I could kick your ass.”

Ed just laughs, and my anger skyrockets.

“You’re cute. Are we done here? The game’s on. It’s the eighth inning, and we’re only down by one.”

“You’re dead to me.” I end the call with Ed still laughing at me and shove my phone into the back pocket of my jean shorts.

After last night, I just wanted a break from Dean. Some time to get my head back on straight so I can stop feeling so off-kilter. Which is why I raced over to the mainland as soon as the sun came up, skipping the beach day Birdie planned for the wedding guests, and spent the day grabbing supplies for the stand that I definitely didn’t need.

I did have fun with him on that island tour. Too much fun. It all felt so natural, having him there with me while I visited all the places I’ve been to a thousand times alone. Someone to open doors for me, carry all the bags of stuff I got, listen to me yammer on and on about the history of the places we went to and tell stories of funny things that have happened at them. Even arguing with him and telling him off is more fun than I’ve had in a really long time. But now he’s tainted every business and store that I love on this island. Now, he’s all I’m ever going to see, and hear, and feel, and smell when I walk into those places after he leaves, and that’s just bullshit.

Realizing I’m being an idiot, hiding behind the fridge when I have a business to close, I huff out a breath and stomp around it. Refusing to look out the front window, since the vision of that man with his thick, muscular thighs straddling his bike is already burned into my brain, I keep my head down and start grabbing toppings off the counter and putting them away.

Even though I don’t dare look out the front window, I know he’s there. I can feel his damn eyes on me the entire time I move around inside the stand, going through the closing procedures. I refill containers for tomorrow, stack more cones in the holders, replace empty ice cream cartons in the front freezer with full ones from the back storage freezer, balance the register, prepare the deposit that will go in the bank tomorrow, and wipe everything down until it’s spotless. My heart rate picks up and my hands get sweatier the closer I get to being finished and having to walk out there to get to my golf cart, so I keep finding more things to do that don’t really need to be done.

In just the span of a few short days, this man has completely thrown me into a tailspin. I feel like a giddy teenager, nervous to talk to her crush. He annoys me, he makes me laugh, he says the most ridiculous things, and… I hate that I don’t hate it at all. I love every annoying minute, and that scares the hell out of me. As maddening as that man made me on the island tour yesterday, ordering for me and buying things for me, it also felt nice. Too nice, having someone take care of me, even if it was something as simple as ordering my coffee. I still don’t even know what possessed me to go home after I dropped off that basket to his hotel room the other day and spend an hour and half making homemade lasagna, just because my heart hurt hearing him say he’d never had a home-cooked meal before.

When I realize I have nothing left I can busy myself with, I take a fortifying breath so I won’t be charmed by that man or anything he might say to me, turn off the lights, and head out the back door. Even though I did have a fleeting thought of having a quick fling with him while he’s here, I know it would only make matters worse. I already know he’s not the type of man I’d be able to sleep with once and never look back. We haven’t even kissed, and he’s in my head twenty-four seven. Sleeping with him would ruin me. I need to keep doing what I did all day today and just avoid him until he gets the hint.

Yanking the back door closed a little more aggressively than I wanted to, I wince when the glass in the door window rattles. My phone starts ringing from my back pocket as soon as I get the deadbolt locked.

Pulling it out and bringing it up to my ear, I walk around the side of the building to head toward the front, my feet stuttering to a stop when my eyes lock on Dean’s twenty yards away, where he’s still sitting on his bike. He pulled it forward into the parking spot next to my golf cart, and he’s been sitting on it backward so he can watch the stand. And me.

Seeing him in his hotel room the other day, barefoot and comfortable while he lounged against the wall and talked about his childhood, did things to my heart I’d rather not think about. Seeing him straddling his bike does things to me I have no choice but to think about, since he’s right in front of me. My skin heats even more as I watch him bring Ed’s milkshake up to his mouth and take a sip from the straw, his eyes never leaving mine. I have to force my feet to start moving again, when all I can think about is his mouth tasting like the sweet, buttery vanilla drink in his hand. His cold tongue sliding through my warm—

“…need you to go check on Owen at our house ASAP!”

Wren’s voice in my ear reminds me I answered my phone and makes me guiltily tear my eyes away from Dean’s as I stare down at my feet while I walk to my golf cart.

“Say that again, slower this time,” I tell my daughter, who sounds completely panicked on the phone, making me feel like a horrible mother that I was fantasizing about Dean instead of listening to her.

I fish my golf cart keys out of the front pocket of my shorts as I start walking faster, while Wren repeats everything she just said about being worried that something happened to Owen. Wren and Shepherd had to go over to the mainland earlier for an ultrasound appointment, and Shepherd convinced Wren they should make a night out of it to celebrate the pregnancy, just the two of them. He booked them a hotel in the city after they had a nice, romantic dinner, and now they’re supposed to be enjoying their alone time. Not worrying about a sixteen-year-old, who is more than capable of holding down the fort while they’re gone and knows he can call any one of us here on the island if there’s an emergency.

“I’m sure Owen is okay. Just because he sounded weird on the phone doesn’t mean anything is wrong. If he told you things were fine, I’m sure they are,” I reassure her when she finally stops freaking out as I walk around Dean’s bike and slide into my golf cart, refusing to look at him when I can still feel his eyes on me.

“Remember that one time you and Karen went on a girls’ weekend, and you called to check on things, and Karen said the exact same thing to you when we told you everything was fine? What happened?” Wren demands as I shove my key into the ignition of the cart.

“When I got home, I found out Tess got mad at a boy, burned one of his sweatshirts in the kitchen sink, and accidentally lit half of my counter on fire.” I sigh, quickly turning my key to the On position. “I’m going to your house right now, at top speed.”

Nothing happens when I turn the key as I end the call, and I mutter a curse, trying again.

Nothing.

I try four more times, cursing louder each time the cart doesn’t start.

“Need some help, sugar?”

I close my eyes and sigh, wishing the sound of his voice didn’t make my body tingle. Stupid, traitorous body. It’s already screwed up my periods, and my moods, and given me night sweats. I don’t need this kind of complication on top of it. It’s not like there’s a vitamin I can add to my daily regimen to stop getting turned on by a stupid voice.

“Nope. Everything’s great. You can go back to the hotel now,” I tell him, saying every prayer I know and wishing on every damn star in the sky above me as I turn the key again.

Nothing.

“It looks like you need my help.”

I can hear the humor in Dean’s voice, then he takes a loud, slurping sip of his milkshake. I shake my head and grind my teeth, even as the cart still refuses to start when I try one last time, and my phone starts dinging with rapid-fire texts on the seat next to me.

Wren: Did you leave yet?

Wren: Call me when you get there.

Wren: Are you there yet?

Wren: WHAT THE HELL IS TAKING SO LONG? MY SON COULD BE DYING?!!!!

“Get on the bike.”

My eyes fly up from the screen of my phone to see Dean has gotten off his bike and turned around to sit on it the right way. He leans over and tosses his Styrofoam cup into the garbage can in the grass a few feet away, then rests his hands on the handle bars as he looks over at me, all the humor gone from his face.

“I don’t need your help. I am perfectly capable of—”

My words are cut off by the roar of the Harley engine as Dean starts up his bike, eyes still locked on mine, while I glare at him for cutting me off.

“As I was saying, I—”

“Get on the fucking bike, Laura.”

Well then….

The gruff, broody Dean Campbell I’ve always been told about has suddenly made an appearance. I should be telling him off for speaking to me that way. I should be pissed and stomping away from him. No one tells me what to do or orders me around. I’m the one who does all the telling and the ordering around here. Too bad I’m not pissed; I’m turned on. All sorts of dirty images start flying through my brain, like him ordering me to get on my knees, bend over, take more… until I’m sitting here in my dead golf cart, panting like a dog.

This is not good. This is sooo not good for me.

“Please get on the bike,” Dean speaks again, his voice a little softer but no less gruff and demanding, even if he did try to soften it with some manners. The damage has already been done. No amount of pleases will erase what has now been implanted into my brain.

Easy-going, sarcastic, smirking Dean is hard to resist, but I’ve done a fine job of it. Hard, demanding Dean is clearly my freaking kryptonite, and this is definitely how I die.

With another muttered curse under my breath, realizing that I have no other choice, I grab my cell phone from the seat and slide out of my golf cart to stand next to Dean and his bike.

“Just so you know, I’m only doing this because it’s an emergency. Not because you ordered me to do it,” I inform him as I shove my phone in the front pocket of my Dip and Twist hoodie, narrowing my eyes at him as he revs the engine. The stern look on his face is immediately replaced with that maddening smirk.

“Whatever you say, sugar.”

I continue glaring at the back of his head, even though he can’t see it, as I climb onto the back of his bike, yanking my hands off his shoulders as soon as I’m in my seat to rest them on my thighs. Dean immediately reaches behind him with both hands, grabs mine off my thighs, and tugs me closer. My body jerks forward until it’s stopped by the hard wall of Dean’s back. Every inch of the front of my body from my breasts down to my thighs is plastered up against the back of him. Hoping to God he can’t feel my heart pounding against him, I try to slow my breathing. With his hands still holding mine, he helps me wrap my arms around him, patting the top of my hands to keep them in place once he’s flattened my palms against the front of him.

Of course I’ve noticed how much bigger he is than me, but feeling his hot, hard body against mine as I’m draped around him makes my hands itch to run them all over him and see how big he is everywhere. The vibrations of the bike between my legs isn’t helping matters, so I pinch my eyes closed and try to think about anything else but being fucked by this man on this bike.

“You okay back there?” Dean asks over his shoulder, raising his voice over the rumble of the engine as he starts walking his bike backward out of the parking space.

I can hear the humor in his tone as he moves us, and it annoys me to no end. This man can probably tell I am anything but okay right now, since I can’t slow down my wildly beating heart that is still pounding against his back.

“Just behave and get me to my daughter’s house quickly and in one piece,” I threaten loudly over the sound of the bike, knowing we only have about an hour until the island noise ordinance kicks in.

Dean cranes his neck even more to look back at me while his bike idles in the middle of the empty parking lot, putting his mouth dangerously close to mine. His warm breath skates against my lips, and it takes every muscle in my body to hold perfectly still and not close the distance between us to see if he still tastes like that butterscotch milkshake.

It’s all just too much right now. My body draped around his, my bare thighs hugging his denim-covered ones, feeling the steady beat of his heart under one palm, the muscles of his abs bunching under the other, the rumble of the bike coursing through me and heightening everything, making me want to rub myself against him until this ache goes away….

“Sweetheart, you’re the one straddling me. If anyone needs to behave, it’s you. Don’t get too handsy while I’m steering.”

The bubble bursts, and I pull back to shake my head at him.

“Will you just shut up and go?”

“I’m just saying…,” Dean trails off for a second, tipping his face back closer to mine and suddenly getting serious again. “You move that right hand of yours a few inches south, and you’re gonna feel what having you on the back of my bike does to me.”

Gulp.

“Care to move your hand a few inches south?”

The teasing sparkle is back in his eyes, and the urge to punch his mouth instead of kiss it has returned.

“Oh, you can just eat sh—”

The rest of my words are cut off with my own screaming laugh as Dean guns the engine, quickly pulling us out of the Dip and Twist parking lot, and I cling to him as tightly as I can.

While absolutely not moving my hands in any direction, north or south.

No matter how much I want to.

Chapter 10

Laura

“Welcome to the dick party.”

“Holy shit!”

“Son of a bitch!”

Dean and I both shout when he has to quickly swerve the bike right at the end of Shepherd and Wren’s driveway to avoid hitting someone.

“What happened? Is Owen hurt?” Wren shouts into my ear as Dean starts making his way down their long, dark driveway.

After the fifth time I felt my phone vibrating in my hoodie pocket with a call on the way across the island, I removed one of my arms from around Dean to answer it when we came to a stop sign. Realizing there was no reason for him to pull me against him and make me hold onto him so tightly for this ride—since no cars are allowed on the island and the speed limit is an achingly slow fifteen miles an hour—I loosened my tight grip on him with my free arm and talked Wren down from the ledge the rest of the way here. And I did it with my chin resting on Dean’s shoulder, yammering away in his ear the entire time. But I’m not going to think about how I just couldn’t seem to pull myself away from the solid warmth of him right now. I’ve ridden on the back of a motorcycle plenty of times in my life; I could have easily sat up behind him and just held on to the sissy bar at my back.

“It’s fine. Dean almost hit a kid,” I quickly reassure Wren as Dean curses when he has to swerve again, and I have to clutch onto him tighter. “Oops! Almost hit another one!”

“What the fuck?” Dean mutters when he finally stops the bike in front of the garage and kills the engine after narrowly avoiding not one but two teenagers passed out on the ground. Wren is screaming even louder in my ear as I quickly get off the bike. I squint to look around and see what the hell is going on, but it’s too dark out here to see anything.

“Wren, I’m gonna call you back. The house is not on fire. Everything is fine, so stop screaming.”

Ending the call, I turn on the flashlight on my phone, holding it up in front of me and shining it around. Dean swings his leg over his bike and moves to stand next to me right at the edge of the front lawn.

“Jeeesuuus,” he mutters, dragging out the word as the bright light scans over three other teenage boys passed out in various positions in the grass.

“That little brat,” I whisper, cursing my grandson for obviously throwing a party while his parents are out of town. “Now I’m gonna have to yell at him.”

God, I hate being the bad guy.

While I’m busy mentally preparing myself to yell at my sweet, adorable little turd of a grandson, drafting the long scolding I’ll have to give Owen while he bats his eyelashes at me, Dean reaches down and grabs my hand.

“Come on, let’s take care of this.” He turns and starts charging toward the front door, tugging me along with him. And I just let him. I stare down at our joined hands, letting him lead the way as he stomps his boots up the stairs of the front porch and marches to the door, while his words repeat over and over in my head.

“Let’s take care of this.”

Let’s.

Let us.

Us.

I’ve never liked the sound of that word more than right now. Us. Me and you. Two people, working together to take down a common enemy, that which we all know as… teenagers.

I silently watch Dean turn the handle on the front door, shove it open, and shout into the house, “If you are underage and do not live in this home, get the fuck out of it!”

I have never wanted a man more in my entire life.

His big, warm hand wrapped around mine gives me a gentle squeeze before he steps into the foyer and pulls me along with him. I have just enough time to see a flash of Owen running away, out of the living room, and reassure myself that he’s alive and well before teenagers start charging us. They fly around corners, pour out of rooms, scramble off furniture, and run as fast as they can toward us to do what Dean said.

It looks like the entire Summersweet Island High School is in this house right now, and I recognize most of them. A handful work for me part time at the stand, a bunch are Owen’s baseball teammates who have been to my house before, and most of the rest I know by name because I’m friends with their parents. I know these kids. I’ve watched them all grow up. I have at least seventy-five percent of their parents’ phone numbers in my phone, and I should be the one scolding them and kicking them out, but I don’t. I just stand here next to Dean, smiling up at him like a loon, letting him handle everything as the kids file past us and out the front door.

“Go home.”

“Why the hell are you missing a shoe?”

“Get out of here.”

“Where the fuck are your parents?”

“Someone get those kids off the lawn and find that one down by the street.”

“No, you can’t have a drink for the road, you little shit.”

I practically pant watching Dean, wondering why it’s so hot seeing someone breaking up all the fun. He lets go of my hand to snatch bottles of liquor and red Solo cups out of teenagers’ hands as they file past, piling everything up on a side table next to him in the foyer until it looks like the counter of Dockside Eddy’s after a Sunday Sharks’ football game.

Hunter Paige, a senior on Owen’s baseball team who can sometimes be a little jerk, is the final kid to shuffle by us. When he tries to sneak out with something behind his back, Dean stops him with a hand to his chest, then holds his palm open in front of the boy.

“Nice try. Hand it over.”

Hunter lets out a huge sigh, then whips his arm out from behind his back, smacking what he was holding into Dean’s waiting hand.

We both look down at it in silence.

“What the fuck?” Dean finally curses.

“That doesn’t look like booze to me,” I speak, biting down on my bottom lip to stop myself from laughing.

This isn’t funny. Nothing about this is humorous. My grandson threw a party with underage drinking while his parents are out of town. I’m turned on by a man yelling at teenagers. And I think I’m having an existential crisis, because for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to be the bad guy and am not alone dealing with bullshit, and I like it so much I think I might cry. Nothing about this is funny, and yet…

“Did you just… put a rubber dick in my hand?” Dean glares at Hunter.

“Not just any rubber dick, but a purple glittery one! That’s fun!” I nudge Dean with my elbow, and he shifts his glare to me.

That just makes me smile even bigger.

“It was the price to get into the party.” Hunter shrugs, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his joggers. “You know, a way to keep people out who weren’t invited. Bring a fake dick to the party, and we know you can come in.”

“Where did you even get this?” Dean questions, making the laughter bubble out of me as I watch this big, strong, threatening man shake a sparkly dildo in the air.

“Ever heard of the internet, old man?”

The humor over this situation dies in an instant. I quickly step around Dean and point my finger at Hunter.

“Watch your mouth, you little shit. Apologize, or I’ll call your mother.”

“Seriously? Apologize for calling him old?”

Dean’s arm is suddenly wrapping around my waist and tugging me back against the front of him as I start to lunge toward Hunter when he just chuckles.

“Easy there, tiger,” Dean says softly, dipping his head down right by my ear, his arm like a steel band around my waist while I continue glaring at the kid. “While incredibly hot watching you defend my honor, I don’t think you really want to go to jail tonight for punching a kid, right?”

What the hell am I doing? I mean, Hunter is eighteen, and he’s being a jerk, but still!

I don’t know what kind of look Dean gives Hunter over my shoulder from behind me, but it’s enough to wipe that smile off his face and have him mumble out an apology to both of us before he takes off running out the open front door.

“Tell your mom I said hello!” I quickly shout after him, trying to make up for my behavior as he jumps off the top porch step and darts down the driveway at full speed.

“Were you really going to put your hands on that kid for what he said?”

I let out a huff when I hear the laughter in Dean’s voice, the motion making me realize his arm is still tight around my waist, holding me against the front of him.

“It made me mad,” I mutter, starting to pull away from him.

Dean tightens his hold on me, dipping his head and putting his mouth right by my ear once again. “I like that it made you mad.” His voice is quiet, all teasing gone, his lips brushing against the shell of my ear.

My head automatically drops to the side, and my hand comes up to clutch onto his arm against my stomach. His lips are suddenly pressed to the side of my neck, the scratchy feeling of his facial hair and the warmth of his mouth on me sending a straight shot of lust coursing through my body, making me rub my thighs together and stifle a moan.

“What are you doing?” I whisper, making no move to pull away even though I should.

“Just giving myself a little taste, sugar.”

Jesus, why is everything he says so hot? Taste away. Lick every damn inch of me.

My eyes start to flutter closed as he kisses and nips his way up the side of my neck, and I almost completely forget where I am and what I’m doing here. Until the loud gonging of the hideous grandfather clock Shepherd insisted on buying a few months ago reminds me where I am. I quickly jerk my neck away from his maddening mouth and shrug out of Dean’s tight hold on me, taking a few steps farther into the house.

I keep going, with Dean staying right on my heels, clenching my hands into fists before I’m tempted to run my fingertips over the side of my neck where I can still feel his lips, shaking my head as I walk. And not just because he’s sticking to me like glue when I need a little space after whatever the hell that was, but because there are red Solo cups littering every surface, along with a bunch of empty pizza boxes and crumpled-up napkins.

“Welcome to the dick party,” I mutter, pausing in the middle of the living room.

“The goddamn price of admission…,” Dean trails off as he steps up next to me, and we take it all in.

Everywhere we look, there are plastic and rubber penises in every size, shape, and color haphazardly decorating Shepherd and Wren’s home. They’re stuck in planters, resting on window ledges, shoved into couch cushions, wedged into light fixtures attached to the wall, and mixed in with the bananas and apples in the fruit bowl on the kitchen island.

“You want to go look for Owen?” Dean asks.

“I’ll give him some time to continue hiding and trying to come up with a good lie to tell me.”

Moving through the living room and into the kitchen, I walk around the island and pull open a cabinet above the counter just for the hell of it. A few rubber penises immediately come tumbling out, one of them rolling off the counter and right onto the floor. I turn back around when I hear Dean mutter a curse.

“This is gonna be a hard one to explain to Wren,” he says as he nods seriously. And I can’t hold it in any longer when I see him standing across the island from me, still holding that damn purple, glittery dildo in his hand as he points around the room with it.

I begin to laugh, and once I start laughing, I can’t stop.

“You said hard one!” I sputter before throwing my head back and howling.

“You think this is funny, do you?” Dean starts walking around the island toward me. He tries to give me a stern look as he walks, pointing the pretty purple penis at me in a scolding manner and making me laugh harder, but I can see the corner of his mouth twitching as that thing jiggles in his hand. “This isn’t funny.”

“Well, the air is thick with laughter.” I giggle as he tosses the purple dick on the counter as soon as he’s standing right in front of me. When it lands with a loud thunk, I start dying all over again, one hand clutching my stomach while I rest the other on the counter. “Come on, don’t be so rigid.” I can barely get the word out I’m laughing so hard while Dean’s mouth still twitches as he shakes his head at me.

“Are you finished?”

“I’m sorry.” I snort. “Are my jokes flaccid?”

My laughter suddenly cuts off with a gasp when Dean snakes his arm around my waist again, jerking my front against his this time. My hands fly up to grab onto his shoulders, while his mouth hovers inches away from mine—not moving, not saying anything for a few moments, just staring down at me with heat in his eyes.

All I can do is stare right back at him, breathing heavy, feeling every hard, beautiful inch of him pressed up against all my soft parts as his arm tightens around me.

“What the hell are you doing to me?”

The words are whispered, but he might as well have shouted them with the way my ears are ringing and my head is spinning.

His eyes search my face like it has the answer to his question on it, but I just want to melt right into him, wondering what the hell he’s doing to me as well. I never get butterflies with a man, and now I have a swarm that has taken up permanent residence in my stomach. And I like it. I like that he makes me nervous and feel like a giddy teenager. And I definitely like how good it feels to have his arm around me, holding me against him, the heat from his body warming all the cold and loneliness inside me.

My eyes flicker down to his mouth, wanting it on me so badly I feel like I can’t breathe. Dean lets out a little groan and flattens his hand against my lower back, pressing me closer, slowly inching his lips toward mine, where I need them the most. I even like this feeling of anticipation as well, my heart pounding faster, everything around me disappearing until it feels like we’re the only two people in the world right n—

“Aww, man, is the party over?”

Dean and I scramble away from each other like someone just shouted that the house is on fire, both of us groaning when we turn toward the owner of the voice.

“Bodhi? Seriously?” I scold the man currently lounging against the doorframe of the kitchen that leads into the dining room while he shovels a handful of Cheetos in his mouth from the bag tucked into the crook of his arm.

“Sorry about the cock-blocking.” He grins, not at all sorry as my body heats with embarrassment.

Choosing to ignore it, I concentrate on my annoyance instead. “What are you doing here?”

“Heard there was a kick-ass party happening on the island tonight, and it only cost a dick to get in.” Bodhi shrugs, swiping his hand back and forth over the front of his T-shirt and leaving orange Cheetos dust behind as he pushes off the doorframe to walk toward us. “Didn’t realize this kick-ass party was at Wren and Shepherd’s until I got here. Don’t worry. I made sure they didn’t do anything too stupid, and confiscated all of their weed. Cheetos?”

He holds the bag out toward me, and Dean rips it out of his hand and tosses it onto the counter. “And you didn’t think to call someone?”

“I ain’t no snitch, man!”

While Dean starts arguing with Bodhi, Owen finally makes an appearance, sheepishly sticking his head around the corner from the hallway. “I’m sorry; please don’t kill me!”

I can only keep the disappointed look on my face for about five seconds. Grabbing Owen’s arms to keep him in place, I start peppering kisses all over his face while he squirms and laughs and pushes me away. I’m just thankful he’s safe and nothing too bad happened here tonight. He really was quite smart about the whole thing, making sure everyone who attended the party walked here, so there would be no drunk golf cart driving at the end of the night. Just a bunch of idiots stumbling home. There’s no point in yelling at him. Wren and Shepherd will do plenty of that when they get back tomorrow.

When I finally let Owen go, Dean immediately grabs onto my shoulders and steers me over to the small table in the kitchen nook, pointing at one of the chairs.

“Sit. You’ve been working on your feet all night. I’ve got this.”

Giving me his back, he takes over and takes charge. It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell him not to order me around, that this is my problem to clean up, but nothing comes out. My body slowly slumps into the chair without argument, and I just stare at him while he hands out orders to Bodhi and Owen like a drill sergeant, putting them to work to clean up the house. He follows them around with a box of garbage bags, making sure they don’t miss a single piece of trash or one hidden penis, straightening cushions and righting tilted picture frames on the walls as he goes, and my eyes follow him the entire time.

“You are too smart to let what happened to you thirty years ago stop you from finding real happiness now.”

Karen’s words from a few days ago ring in my ears. As well as all the things my daughters have been saying about finally putting myself out there with someone in my age bracket who has potential. Dean has potential. He has so much potential that it scares the hell out of me. And doesn’t it just suck that the first age-appropriate man I find myself attracted to in thirty-five years will be gone in just a handful of days, completely negating all of that potential?

“You okay?” Dean asks, pausing in front me on one of his trips back and forth between the dining room and the living room.

I look up at him and see the concern in his eyes, even while he’s holding a handful of multicolored penises against his chest. My heart flutters, and a lump forms in my throat while he waits for my answer, wondering if I’ll ever be okay again after he leaves this island.

“I’m feeling quite firm in your decision for me to relax.” I finally smile up at him.

Dean groans with a laugh and a shake of his head. And then he wanders back out of the room to take care of the chaos that is my life.

While I sit back and let him. Just this once.

After this night is over, I can go back to being annoyed by the sight of him, reminding myself that his time on this island is temporary. Tomorrow, I can go back to taking care of my own life, by myself, like always.

Chapter 11

“Fucking ducks.”

Dean: Hey, it’s Dean. Who is the groin question mark. Fun honey more ducks and I laughed send.

Laura: Forget asking how you got my number. Are you having a stroke?! Do I need to call 911??

Dean: Stupid fucking speech to text. Palmer keeps telling me it will make my life easier. How in the hell is this easier?

Laura: What were you even trying to say?

Dean: What I actually said was, “How is it going? Find any more ducks after I left?”

Dean: Ducks.

Dean: Fucking ducks!

Dean: GOD DAMMIT! Why are these smart phones so stupid?

Laura: I think your phone is just traumatized by all the dicks you had to deal with tonight.

Dean: It really was a startling amount. Did you call Wren after I left? How did she take the news?

Laura: You don’t have to do this.

Dean: Do what?

Laura: Check in on me or whatever. It was really nice of you to help tonight, and I can’t thank you enough, but you are officially off duty now. You are supposed to be relaxing and enjoying your vacation and the wedding festivities, not worrying about me. I’m fine. Bodhi went home to Tess, Owen went to bed, and I’m crashing here until Wren and Shepherd get home in the morning. It was nice of you to text, as confusing as that initial one was, but you didn’t have to.

Dean: Let’s get something straight here. I never, and I mean NEVER, do something I don’t want to do. Text or call me if you need anything. Sleep tight. Don’t let the ducks bite.

Dean: DUCKS.

Laura: Just give it up, man. Let the ducks win.

Dean: You up?

Laura: If you need something right now, I will punch you in the throat.

Dean: Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine at 7 a.m.?

Laura: Sorry! That was uncalled for. Shepherd and Wren are late getting back to the island, and they’re out of coffee. So I’m trying to deal with a thousand different things at one time without caffeine, and I just realized my fucking golf cart is still broken down at the Dip and Twist, and I need to be there in thirty minutes for a delivery.

Laura: Ignore all that. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. I’m just having a bad morning.

Dean: I thought we agreed you would contact me if you needed something.

Laura: No, you told me to do that, and I decided not to listen. It’s fine. I’m just going to have Karen run up to the stand and sign for the delivery… if she ever answers her phone.

Dean: It’s a good thing I knew you’d be stubborn. Go outside.

Laura: Fresh air is not going to make my morning any better.

Dean: Stop being difficult and just go outside.

Laura: Whose golf cart is that??

Dean: I got you a rental and had them drop it off earlier. I’ll stop by the stand in a little bit to get the keys to your cart and see if I can figure out what’s wrong with it.

Laura: No, you most certainly will not! Thank you for the rental. You really didn’t have to do that. I can handle getting my own golf cart fixed.

Dean: Message failed to send.

Laura: Nice try. You know the messaged failed error doesn’t come through as an actual text, right? And I can see the read receipt.

Dean: Block contact.

Laura: I’m going to be really disappointed right now if you’re attempting speech to text again. Haven’t the ducks been through enough?

Dean: Real cute. Thanks for the package you left for me at the front desk.

Laura: Who is this?

Dean: I’m sorry… I didn’t realize there were multiple people you left a box of dicks for at the hotel.

Laura: Don’t you mean ducks?

Dean: Very funny.

Laura: Well, you’re welcome. It was just my way of saying thank you.

Dean: You know you could have just given me these while I was in the parking lot working on your golf cart, right?

Laura: Where’s the fun in that? I had to drop off a shipment of ice cream pints for the hotel to put in their lobby snack bar, and I figured, who doesn’t like to get a phone call from the front desk saying they have a delivery? Very exciting. Also, you’d be surprised how difficult it is to try to find homes for 137 fake dicks. This was an easy way to get rid of 20 of them. Oh, please tell me you opened the box in front of LaVon.

Dean: How could I not? Have you met that woman? She kept shouting, “What’s in the box?! WHAT’S IN THE BOOOX?!” I felt like I was in that scene from the movie Seven. I would have much rather opened the box and found Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in there.

Laura: Did she start singing that “Dick in a Box” song from SNL?

Dean: Every fucking time I walk through the lobby.

Laura: My work here is done.

Dean: I was able to start your cart, in case you’re wondering why it’s not in the parking lot anymore. I got it to Palmer and Birdie’s place before it broke down again. Borrowed some of Palmer’s tools, and it’s running like a charm now and shouldn’t give you any more issues. I’ll have Palmer and Birdie drop it off to you in a little bit. Is your house key on this keychain with your golf cart keys?

Laura: Yes, why?

Dean: Birdie said the receipt that’s needed to pick up the bridesmaid dresses is on your kitchen counter. I’ll stop by and grab it before they bring the cart, then head over to the mainland.

Laura: What?! No! Just because I had an employee call off and Wren is puking her guts out with morning sickness doesn’t mean I can’t handle it. I’m closing the stand in a half hour to go over and get the dresses. That’s the beauty of owning my own business, remember? I can do whatever the hell I want. You’re supposed to be heading over to the volleyball competition with Birdie and Palmer for the wedding guests.

Dean: You’re not closing the stand during your busiest time of the year when you don’t have to. Do I look like someone who wants to frolic around in the sand, under the blazing sun, in jeans and boots, swatting a ball around? I’m good. I’m assuming the address to the dress shop is on the receipt?

Laura: Block contact.

Dean: You’re adorable. I’ll take that as a yes.

Dean: If I wind up missing and on an episode of Dateline, it’s your neighbor’s fault.

Laura: Awww, you met Murphy! Isn’t he the sweetest?

Dean: He chased me around the front yard with a golf club, because he thought I was breaking into your home.

Laura: Well, I told you not to go there, so technically you did break into my home. Anyway, he’s harmless.

Dean: There is a giant bruise on my shin that says otherwise.

Laura: OMG, he actually caught you?!

Dean: Don’t say it like that. He is INCREDIBLY fast for someone in his seventies.

Laura: Uh-huh. Sure.

Dean: Dammit. Why do I feel like I need to go to the gym right now?

Laura: Might want to work on that stamina, buddy.

Dean: My stamina is just fine. Care to test that out when I bring these dresses up to you?

Laura: You’re only bringing them to me at the Dip and Twist because you’re afraid to go back to my house, aren’t you?

Dean: Shut up. I’ll be there in ten minutes.

Dean: I have brought you all together in this group chat to let you know to stop bothering Laura at work. Or outside of work for that matter. All wedding emergencies and problems should now be directed to me.

Bodhi: Sweet!

Wren: You’re the best!

Palmer: Are you feeling okay? OMG did someone steal your phone? You guys, don’t reply any more until we know this is really Uncle Dean.

Dean: *photo attachment*

Shepherd: It’s him! I’d know that middle finger anywhere! Does that mean you’ll be able to swing by the dry cleaner and grab my tux then? I’m gonna be stuck at this batting lesson a little longer than I thought, and the dry cleaner is closing early today.

Birdie: Oh thank God! Can you also pick up aspirin from the drug store and drop it off at the front desk of the hotel for the guest who isn’t feeling well?

Bodhi: I mean, if you’re already gonna be at the store, I could go for some gummy bears.

Wren: You totally don’t have to grab my dress from Mom at the stand and drop it off here so I can try it on, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood, that would be wonderful!

Tess: While you’re at the store, add in a pack of BIC lighters, two cans of lighter fluid, and a box of matches.

Bodhi: Honey, I already apologized a hundred times for going to the dick party without you. Come on, have a heart! Think of the baby.

Tess: Make that three cans of lighter fluid.

Dean: Yes to everything above but the flammable items. I’m sorry, Tess. No can do.

Tess: Understandable. You’re new here, and you don’t fear me yet. Give it time.

Laura: NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! Absolutely not. NO! I will handle all of this. Leave Dean alone. These are not his problems.

Dean: They’re not yours either.

Laura: They WERE until you decided to look at my phone on the counter while I was busy with a customer. I told you I had all those texts under control.

Dean: And now *I* have them all under control, and you can just worry about getting out of work and getting to Dockside Eddy’s on time for dinner and the live band that’s on the agenda.

Laura: You are really annoying.

Dean: I know. It’s my best quality.

Bodhi: Anyone else super turned on right now?

Laura: No one else better text him for anything. Do y’all hear me???

Dean: Remove Laura from group chat.

Dean: I said remove Laura from group chat.

Laura: OMG stop trying to make speech to text happen!

Dean: Are you still at work?

Laura: No. I’m home and just got out of the shower, why?

Dean: Oh, nothing serious. Just, you know… wondering how to get two pregnant women to stop crying.

Laura: I told you not to take those dresses over for Wren and Tess! Nothing good can happen when two pregnant women try on dresses they got fitted for months ago. That was a text I fully planned on ignoring until several glasses of wine had been consumed.

Dean: When a woman asks you if she’s fat, you are never supposed to answer. I kept my mouth shut like a smart man, and they still cried. And when I told them they looked fine, they screamed at me and locked themselves in the bathroom.

Laura: Oh God. You should just run. Right now. Just get out of that house and RUN before they come back out of that bathroom.

Dean: Since when is “fine” a bad word?

Laura: Since the beginning of time with every woman ever! Seriously, man, RUN. Save yourself.

Dean: Funny. What are they going to do? Attack me? I think I can handle two pregnant women.

Dean: Jesus Christ, who gave Tess a fucking blow torch???

Laura: Oh, that was Bodhi’s Valentine’s Day present for her. She’s not supposed to use it until after the baby is born.

Dean: Is this what your life is like on a daily basis?

Laura: Pretty much. Welcome to the shit show. See you at Dockside Eddy’s in an hour. Unless you can’t outrun Tess like you couldn’t outrun Murphy. That would suck for you.

Chapter 12

Dean

“I said that out loud, didn’t I?”

“I wouldn’t go with flowers; that’s too cheesy and cliché.”

“You take that back right now, Palmer! Several hundred purple roses, one for each day you’ve known each other, is thoughtful and poignant!”

“Just bang it out, my dude. You won’t know anything until you bang it out.”

“Have some respect, Bodhi. You’re talking about our mother-in-law!”

“Are we all forgetting Laura is a total MILF?”

“No one is forgetting Laura is a MILF. We’re all just a little more tactful, and don’t say it out loud.”

“No one could forget it anyway. You just have to take one look at her. And the attention she always draws.”

The idiots I made the mistake of sharing my fucking feelings with, who haven’t shut up since, all turn in their seats out on the deck of Dockside Eddy’s to look inside the building at the bar.

“How attached are you to your agent?” I mutter to Palmer when the guys turn back around from looking over at Laura currently chatting it up with that douchebag inside.

“Holy shit,” Palmer whispers. “You’re jealous. You like her.”

“He already told the Ya-Ya Sisterhood he likes her as soon as he sat down, you dipshit. Keep up,” Murphy mutters, smacking the side of Palmer’s arm.

Laura’s neighbor left his 9-iron in his golf cart tonight, thank God, and has been content just sitting across the table from me, shooting daggers in my direction for the last half hour. And he’s right. I told the table I liked Laura as soon as I sat down. I also told them not to say one fucking word about it. A lot of good that did me.

“But he likes her, likes her,” Palmer says with wide eyes, while I clear my throat and shift in my chair uncomfortably. “He’s plotting my agent’s death as we speak. You can beat him up a little, but stay away from his face. He really likes his face. And he makes me a lot of money, so you can’t kill him.”

“He does have a pretty face.” Bodhi nods. “Very symmetrical eyes, and a strong jawline.”

“I’m not going to kill anyone. I’m not jealous. I don’t get jealous,” I mumble, taking a sip of my beer even as the green-eyed monster starts breathing fire in my gut again when I watch that little fuck with the strong jawline move in closer to Laura.

“Ed will not be happy if you get blood on his floor,” Shepherd warns me.

I look down at the weathered and worn wooden planks barely being held together with nails underneath us, keeping my eyes locked there instead of staring murderously across the room.

Dockside Eddy’s is a rustic seafood restaurant and bar with nautical artifacts hung all over the mismatched clapboard walls inside, and the huge covered deck we’re sitting on looks out over the ocean. The whole building leans a little to the left and looks like it’s taken the brunt of all the hurricanes that have hit the island, but it’s a great place with a nice atmosphere and exactly the type of low-key establishment I usually frequent when I want to relax with a beer.

I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing evening here tonight, where I could spend it flirting with Laura. And I was having a nice, relaxing evening, sitting out here, watching the sun go down over the water, and enjoying a drink. I didn’t even mind admitting I liked Laura to this table of morons, since I was too busy being distracted by watching her as soon as she walked through the front door.

She’s beautiful any time, but tonight? Tonight, she looks hotter than ever. And it’s not just because of the tiny pair of white shorts she’s wearing with a pair of red fuck-me heels, making her toned legs look longer than ever. Or the fitted, low-cut gray T-shirt tucked into her shorts, showing just enough cleavage to make my mouth water, with her long blonde hair hanging loose and wavy around her shoulders. It’s just her. Everything about her.

She lights up a room as soon as she enters it. Everyone wants to talk to her, and everyone wants a piece of her time. Because Laura is the sort of person whose time you want to steal, just so you can spend it with her.

I should know. I spent the whole fucking day doing whatever I could just to spend another minute with her or find another excuse to text her. Just to watch her get annoyed with me, and be stubborn with me, and every once in a while be sweet with me. Those random and rare moments when she’d let down her guard, the tension in her shoulders would drop, and she’d give me a smile, trusting me to handle things. To take care of her. To do whatever I could to make her crazy life easier. I am in complete awe of Laura and all she does for her family. With how fiercely she loves them, and how she would do anything for them, always putting everyone before herself.

All of these things combined make her the hottest woman I’ve ever met. I’ve spent the last twenty or so years running away from everything and everyone, telling myself I enjoyed the peace and quiet. Telling myself it was good to only have myself to worry about, because then it didn’t give anyone a chance to fuck me over. But I was lying. I don’t enjoy it. There’s nothing good about it.

I want to be part of her chaos. I don’t want to move from place to place anymore, never having a home. Never having a family or people who depend on me. I spent twenty minutes alone in my hotel room earlier, taking a shower and getting dressed to come here, and I couldn’t stand the quiet even for that short amount of time. I couldn’t wait to get back to the noise, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Laura, just to be a part of her world.

“I can’t believe she hasn’t given him the brush-off yet.” Bodhi laughs, everyone turning around again to look inside at the bar.

Why the hell hasn’t she given him the brush-off yet? And now she’s smiling at him? This motherfucker….

My nice, relaxing evening has quickly turned to shit. I’ve been so busy annoying Laura and handling some of her chaos that I forgot to remind her she’s my plus-one. Her breath hitches when I get close to her. Her heart races when her hot body is pressed up against mine. She would have fucking kissed me in Shepherd and Wren’s kitchen last night if Bodhi hadn’t interrupted us. She trusts me to take care of her.

And now she’s giving some of my sweetness to a baby-faced little shit on the other side of the room who wouldn’t know how to satisfy a woman without googling it first. My hand grips my bottle of beer so tightly I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter. I have the sudden urge to charge over there and throw her over my shoulder like a goddamn caveman, carrying her out of here so everyone knows she’s fucking mine.

“Holy shit.”

“What the fuck?”

“Are we in the Twilight Zone?”

“I don’t know, but I’m super scared right now, you guys.”

My eyes dart away from Laura to glance around the table at the morons all yammering once again, everyone with equal wide-eyed, shocked looks on their faces, including Murphy.

“Fuck,” I mutter, smacking my bottle of beer down on the table and running a hand through my hair. “I said that out loud, didn’t I?”

“Duuude.” Bodhi whistles. “‘She’s fucking mine’? That was hot. I need to say that to Tess.”

“Don’t say a word.” I point my finger at Palmer right when he opens his mouth. “I know this is completely out of character for me. I know she only goes for younger guys. I know I’m not her type and that dick-fuck up at the bar is. I know she’s all sunshine and light, and I’m all darkness and doom. I know I’m supposed to be leaving this island in a few days. I know all of this, and I don’t give a shit, okay? I don’t give a shit! I like her. So everyone can just fuck right off with all the reasons why this is a bad idea.”

No one says a word at my outburst, and I look over at the bar again to see Laura scribble something on a napkin and slide it over to Tanner.

Oh, hell no.

A few seconds later, I watch her throw her head back and laugh at something he says. That beautiful, full-belly fucking laugh that makes me feel like someone threw a brick at my chest, and now she’s giving it to him.

“I actually wasn’t going to say any of that,” Palmer finally speaks, while I rub my hand against my chest, wondering why this bullshit achy feeling won’t go away. “I was just going to say that you being Summersweetened has clearly happened much earlier than anticipated. Just embrace it. Get your ass out of that chair, and go get her already. For fuck’s sake, what are you waiting for?”

“Seriously, man, it’s kind of embarrassing.” Bodhi nods.

“Even I’m embarrassed, and I spent all afternoon making glitter shirts,” Shepherd complains.

“Oooh, did you make me the one I want to wear to the wedding?”

“For the last time, Bodhi, I’m not making you a shirt that says Bridin’ Dirty. You’re not the bride. It doesn’t make sense. Focus! We’re supposed to be disappointed in Uncle Dean right now.” Shepherd sighs.

“It’s starting to smell like little bitch in here.” Palmer nods, making me narrow my eyes at him.

“You’re a dumbass” is all Murphy adds.

With that, I push my chair back from the table and stand up.

“Fuck off. All of you,” I mutter before turning and making my way inside, ignoring the chorus of whistles and cheers from the table I just vacated.

Laura is mine, she just doesn’t know it yet.

But it’s about damn time she does.

Chapter 13

Laura

“I happen to like Wheel of Fortune.”

“I still don’t understand why you haven’t fucked him yet.”

“She hasn’t slept with him yet? Good God, it’s been six days since he got here. That’s like ten years in Laura Bennett time.”

“I think she’s scared because she likes him too much.”

“She’s not scared. When has she ever given a shit about some dude? Let’s burn his motorcycle boots.”

“He’s currently wearing his motorcycle boots.”

“Exactly. He’ll scream louder that way. Just say the word, Laura, and I’ll make him scream.”

“Can we perform an emergency C-section on her now and get this baby out of her?”

“Can we please all focus on the matter at hand and stop being distracted? All in favor of Mom riding the motorcycle man, say—”

“Shut the hell up,” I finally interrupt Wren, taking a second to share my glare with Birdie, Tess, and Karen, all of us standing at the bar of Dockside Eddy’s.

“I was actually going to have everyone say, ‘Ride, Laura, ride!’ to the tune of ‘Ride Sally Ride,’ but we can do it your way too.” Wren smiles at me.

Thankfully, Emily and Quinn had a charity event they needed to attend tonight for the Sharks, so I have one less woman standing here annoying me right now.

“You’re freaking out,” Karen states.

“I’m not freaking out,” I tell her, totally freaking out.

Birdie grabs a beer out of the bucket of ice in front of us and hands it to me. Tipping it back, I quickly drain half the bottle before smacking it down on the bar top, closing my eyes, and taking a couple of deep breaths.

Aside from one guest who is under the weather and hasn’t left her hotel room much, everyone has been having a great time on the island, participating in all the things Birdie planned, as well as wandering around and finding things to do on their own. Even so far tonight, everyone has been enjoying drinks, talking, laughing, eating appetizers, playing darts inside, or playing cornhole out in the sand right off the deck, waiting to order dinner and for the band Palmer’s agent surprised him and Birdie with to start playing.

There hasn’t been one complaint about anything. The wedding is only a few days away now, everything seems to be going off without a hitch, and according to the quick phone calls I made to the vendors before I came here, they are all on schedule and ready to help my daughter have the wedding of her dreams. I have absolutely nothing to be stressed out about. I should be laughing and having a grand old time just like everyone else, and yet I am a complete, freaking-out mess.

“I have to be honest,” Birdie says, turning around to face the room and leaning her back against the edge of the bar next to me. “I really thought after dealing with us today that Uncle Dean would have been on the first ferry out of here.”

Me too.

“But he just kept coming back for more.” Birdie laughs with a shake of her head. “And he definitely didn’t run anywhere but up here to Dockside Eddy’s as fast as he could to see you again.”

“He even went up to the store and got me and Tess an entire cart-load of junk food and a jumbo pack of Kleenex, and that was after she chased him out of the house with a blow torch,” Wren adds, pushing the knife in my chest even deeper.

“Now I know why my husband smokes weed. That was a high unlike anything I’ve ever known, and I can’t wait to feel it again.” Tess sighs, rubbing her hands over her huge belly as Wren continues.

“You know we were having a tough time because it took a pair of plyers to close the zippers on our bridesmaid dresses, so giving us items that will make our asses even bigger probably wasn’t wise, but it’s the thought that counts.”

“I can respect a man who opens the bathroom door just enough to throw everything in there at us, then yanks the door closed again before someone bites him. He’s a thinker, that one.” Tess nods, tapping her forefinger against her temple. “It’s probably rude to plot his death now.”

I watch out the corner of my eye as Birdie smiles and lifts her hand in a wave, and I just know she’s waving to Dean. Which is why I keep facing the bar and drink more of my beer. Dean was already here when I arrived a half hour ago, sitting out on the deck at a table with the boys. I felt his eyes on me before I saw him, and I’ve felt them on me ever since, thanks to the open wall of Dockside Eddy’s where the deck begins, giving him a clear view all the way in here.

I’m not avoiding him, technically. I’ve just been in here chatting with locals and wedding guests, and he’s been out there. I spent the entire day with him off and on, whether he was stopping by the stand or texting me, but something feels different now. I feel different now. And it’s because of the day I had with him.

After my initial arguing, I gave in and let him handle things. And handle things he did. He handled the chaos so well that for the first time when I got home from work, my head didn’t feel like it was going to explode. Whenever I tell people I’m exhausted, they always like to tell me I need a nap. I don’t need a damn nap. I need a break from having to remember everyone’s shit. And Dean gave that to me. And now I just want every day to be like today, where I have someone in my corner to help me when I’m too stubborn to ask for it. Someone to argue with, someone to laugh with, someone who understands how important my family is to me and that I will never, ever refuse them no matter what they ask. Who will just ask “what do you need?” instead of listing all the reasons why I should say no.

But every day won’t be like today, because he’ll be gone after the wedding, and I need to remember that. This is just temporary. His help today, and even the day before with Owen’s party, is not something I should be getting used to. He’s not something I should be getting used to either, but it feels like it’s already too late for that. I don’t understand how just a handful of days ago, the only thing on my mind was the fear of getting older and being sad about my baby getting married. Now, the only thing on my mind is a man who will soon disappear from my life as quickly as he came.

“Can I buy you a drink, beautiful?”

I swallow back the groan that wants to come out when Palmer’s agent slides up next to the bar in between me and Birdie. Glancing over his shoulder to give my daughter a “please, God, help me” look, I see Birdie is busy chatting with Wren. I can hear Tess and Karen deep in conversation behind me, so I have no other choice but to interact with him.

“It’s an open bar tonight, Tanner,” I remind him with a tight smile, making sure to keep the sigh out of my voice.

“Well then, how about you buy me a drink, pretty lady.” He moves in closer, nudging me with his elbow, laughing at his own joke. While I try not to vomit at the “pretty lady” thing.

It’s no Sugar in that deep, gravelly voice that makes my toes curl; that’s for sure.

This is probably the fifth time in total since Tanner got to this island that he’s tried flirting with me. He’s Palmer’s newer agent since he fired his father, and Tanner’s made him a lot of money in a short amount of time. Along with Birdie’s expert marketing and PR, he’s also gotten Palmer’s pro golfing career back on track.

My son-in-law is doing better than ever, gaining more popularity with each tournament he continues to dominate. I don’t want to mess anything up for him, but I don’t know how much more of this I can take. Initially, the flirting was nice. Like, the very first time he attempted it the night of the welcome dinner. It’s always a good feeling to know you’ve still got it and that younger men find you attractive. But now?

“I spent so much money hiring Jimmy Buffet to play tonight that I might have to cut back on the Cristal and start drinking Dom like a peasant. Did I tell you how much this band set me back? The Benjamins were flying when I…”

Tanner’s voice quickly blends in with the background noises in the bar, and I just stare at him in wonder… and a little bit of disgust with myself. I can’t believe this is the type of guy I’ve been wasting my time with all these years. Baby-faced fools who love the sound of their own voice the most. With soft hands because they’ve never done a hard day of manual labor in their life, and even softer personalities. Who will quickly back down when you give them any attitude, instead of just giving it right back and ordering you around when you’re being a stubborn idiot. Who will spend all night talking about themselves and never once ask you anything about yourself or what you need. Who don’t care if you’re exhausted, or overwhelmed, or happy, or sad, or if your daughter was mad about a dick party, or if you have transportation to work, or if he bought the right brand of gummy bears for a pothead.

Or who just aren’t Dean Campbell…

“…that’s why I don’t really believe in monogamy, you know?” Tanner’s voice comes back loud and clear above the noise of the bar, just as grating as nails scraping down a chalkboard. “It’s such an archaic way of life. You look like a smart, progressive woman, and I like that about you. Did you see that trending hashtag today about couples who aren’t sexually compatible because—”

“Yo, Ed!” I shout to my friend behind the bar, flagging him down with a wave, suddenly not giving a shit about being rude to Tanner. “I need a napkin and a pen.”

Ed slides a drink across the bar to a waiting customer and then grabs what I need from under it. Walking down to me, he smacks the items in front of me without a word, and I quickly grab them as he moves on to help another customer.

“That is so cute you’re writing your number on a napkin all old-school-like.” Tanner chuckles.

I roll my eyes while I finish writing on the napkin. Setting the pen down, I slide the napkin across the bar and in front of Tanner. “What does that say?”

Tanner picks up the napkin in confusion when he doesn’t see a string of numbers, shaking his head and then shrugging. “I don’t know. It’s just a bunch of scribbles.”

“For fuck’s sake, it’s cursive! How can you not read that?” I demand.

“It says ‘You’re a giant douchebag,’” Karen informs him, someone finally coming to my rescue as she leans around me.

“Sorry, Tanner, you kind of are.” Birdie smiles at him sheepishly while I try to contain my laughter. “No offense! Palmer and I absolutely adore you, but yeah. You may need to bring it down a notch with the ladies.”

“Seriously? I thought I was doing really good…,” Tanner trails off dejectedly, and that just makes me throw my head back and laugh.

I cannot believe I slept with men like this. More than once. Why didn’t someone smack the living shit out of me?

Ed is suddenly back in front of me again. My laughter quickly cuts off when he grabs my hand from the top of the bar, tugging me closer until we’re both leaning over it. He puts his cheek right next to mine and his mouth right by my ear.

“Whatever you’re doing here, you better nip it in the bud fast, kid,” he speaks quietly. “There’s a man out on my deck looking this way with murder in his eyes right now. I’m not really in the mood to clean up blood stains this evening, even if it does come from that little shit stick who snorts every time I tell him we don’t have any of that fancy-ass piss water he keeps trying to order.”

Ed drops my hand and pulls away, giving me a nod before heading to the other end of the bar.

My heart starts pounding, and my hands get sweaty, knowing damn well the man he’s referring to is Dean. Is he… jealous? Of Tanner? That thought makes me want to throw my head back and laugh again, but I decide to concentrate on the panic instead. Panic, because I like the idea of him being jealous and territorial and wanting me all for himself.

Is it hot in here all of a sudden?

I want Dean. And I want to stop assuming all of this has just been harmless flirting and doesn’t mean anything, when it does. To me. It means so much in such a short amount of time. I wish I could just embrace it and stop being afraid, but I don’t know how.

Tanner finally wanders away to leave me in peace, but that just makes the girls and Karen start in on me again, everyone giving their opinions on what they think I should do.

Think of something else. Anything else!

Grabbing my beer, I quickly bring it up to my mouth and drink. And I drink, and I drink, until there’s finally a break in everyone trying to plan out my life for me, and I smack the bottle back down on the bar when I empty it.

“I think we’re all forgetting a very important fact here,” I finally speak. “I don’t date older men!”

Even though you were just freaking out about dating younger men! Hello, Laura, younger or older, freaking pick one!

“I know math isn’t your strong suit, but he’s only three years older than you, not a decade, you dick.” Karen laughs.

It’s easy to ignore her, since I’m feeling a little bit buzzed right now from chugging the rest of that beer, along with the celebratory shot I shared with Birdie when I got here. I probably shouldn’t continue speaking, but I do.

“An older man just wants a mommy. Someone to take care of him, and put him on a pedestal, and cater to his every need, because he’s a grown-ass man-child who can’t do anything for himself. He’s set in his ways and never wants to change, and he thinks a good time is sitting on opposite ends of the couch, watching Wheel of Fortune, and then taking a nap!”

“I happen to like Wheel of Fortune.”

Tingles run down my spine just like they always do when I hear that voice behind me, along with a whole bunch of annoyance that I keep letting this happen.

How? Hooow does this keep happening to me? Remove Laura from chat. I said remove Laura from the fucking chat!

Chapter 14

Laura

“You’ve got two choices, sugar.”

Dean pauses behind me just long enough for my soul to leave my body, wishing a hole in the floor would open up, and I’d drop down into it. I decide to remain facing the bar to avoid any further humiliation with direct eye contact.

“Wheel of Fortune keeps my brain sharp,” he finally finishes.

“It really does,” Karen adds from one side of me.

“I still don’t understand why everyone shouts their letter guesses. You have a microphone attached to you!” Birdie complains from the other side.

I am mid eye-roll when my entire body tenses as I feel Dean move right up behind me. He crowds me against the bar, his chest against my back and his arms brushing against the sides of mine as he brings them up on either side of me, flattening his palms on the wood and caging me in. All of the heat and power from his body surrounds me and makes me lightheaded. I hold my breath, standing completely still and staring straight ahead as his head dips, putting his mouth right by my ear.

“And just so you know, I wouldn’t be napping if you were next to me on the couch,” Dean speaks quietly, making a shiver run down my spine. “I’d be too busy fucking the hell out of you.”

My breath leaves me on a shaky whimper when all of a sudden Dean is pushing off the bar and stepping back from me, taking all the heat of his body with him. Once again, I’m wondering why in the hell I ever dated younger men. And why in the hell I couldn’t have just kept my mouth shut, instead of spewing all that bullshit he heard, which I didn’t even mean.

“Ladies, it’s always a pleasure,” Dean says to the girls as I slowly turn around to face him, an apology on the tip of my tongue, but nothing comes out.

There’s fire in his eyes even with the grin on his face, and that nervous anticipation I like is back with a vengeance. The butterflies flap wildly in my stomach, thinking about what he just said to me and all the images he just implanted into my brain. Hot, sweaty, naked images that make me want to grab onto the bar for support.

Almost like Dean knows I’m barely holding it together, he reaches down and grabs my hand, lacing his fingers through mine before taking his eyes off me to nod at the girls. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m just gonna steal Laura away from you for a minute.”

Before I can even utter one word, Dean turns and starts walking away, his tight hold on my hand pulling me right along behind him. And I let him. Because I’m quickly realizing I would let Dean take me anywhere, as long as it’s with him.

“You better last longer than a minute!” I hear Karen shout, followed by loud peals of laughter from all of them.

Dean doesn’t even look back or say a word. He just continues charging through the crowd, quickly weaving us around clusters of people who all start heading out to the deck as the band begins to play. I stare at his back in a daze the entire way, my feet moving on autopilot, not even caring where he’s taking me. I’m too consumed with the words he just whispered in my ear and the way my body feels like it’s on fire.

He keeps going until we round the corner, and we’re walking down the long hallway that leads to the bathrooms and Ed’s office. My mind is racing as fast as my heart, and I finally open my mouth to ask him what we’re doing, when the muffled sounds of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” echo down the hallway. I let out a hysterical giggle instead, wanting nothing more right now than to get drunk and screw this man.

Dean’s hand is suddenly dropping mine, and my feet come to a stuttering stop when he spins around to face me. I’ve told Ed a hundred times to put more light back in this hallway, because it can be creepy at night with just the one light fixture on the wall and a dim bulb lighting the way. There’s nothing creepy about it now, standing here alone with Dean. It’s quiet and intimate. There’s just enough light for me to see him, and see him I do.

His hands are clenching and unclenching down at his sides, the muscles in his tattoo-covered arms rippling with the movement, making me ache to feel the power of them around me again. His chest is heaving with every breath he takes, and that heat still burns in his eyes as he stares at me, making goose bumps pebble my skin, even as it feels like it’s going to melt right off my body. I have the urge to take a step forward and close the distance between us, to run my palms up the front of him until they’re resting over his chest to see if his heart is pounding as fast as mine, but I don’t move. I am completely frozen in place by the power of this man staring at me like he doesn’t know whether to kiss me or spank me.

I’ll take one of each, please.

The muted sounds of Jimmy Buffett fade away, along with the cheers and whistles of everyone out on the deck with them, until I can’t hear anything but the blood rushing through my ears. I’m supposed to be out there on the deck with my family, enjoying the live music and celebrating with them, but right now, this is the only place I want to be.

And I know in this moment that I’m finally giving up. Waving the white flag. Realizing it was ridiculous to think I could avoid having a fling with this man, when I honestly just don’t want to. Why in the hell should I deny myself something I want, even if it will only last for a few days? That’s a few days of absolute bliss I’d never get to experience otherwise, and that’s just stupid.

“I’m too old to be playing games,” Dean finally speaks, one of his hands coming up to swipe through his hair.

“Me too,” I whisper, wishing I could calm my racing heart.

“Can we be finished with the bullshit now?”

His voice is pleading, begging me to comply, and my racing heart cracks wide-open with how desperate he sounds.

“That would be nice.”

“You like that guy at the bar?” he asks gruffly.

“Tanner?” The shock in my voice is evident, and a part of me wants to laugh that he’s asking this, but it’s not funny. He’s serious. Ed’s warning comes back to me, and now I can see with my own two eyes that Dean really is a little jealous. Another thrill of excitement makes its way through me, even though I never want Dean to think in a million years I would prefer Tanner over him. Or anyone over him, really. But that’s too much, too soon, and I’m just here to have a fling.

“I thought I did. I mean, guys like him,” I tell him honestly, because he’s right. We’re both too old to be playing stupid games. “But not so much anymore. Younger guys just don’t seem to do it for me now.”

Dean just gives me a tight nod.

“Good answer.”

The quietly muttered words are barely out of his mouth before his hands are cupping my cheeks, tugging me forward, and crashing his mouth down to mine.

I have fantasized about this moment since the first time he called me sugar. Now that I finally know what it feels like to have Dean’s mouth on mine, I immediately know I’m never going to be the same again. When his tongue pushes past my lips and tangles with mine, all I can do is clutch the front of his shirt in my hands and hold on for the ride. As soon as he groans into my mouth when I push up on my toes and kiss him right back, I am completely lost.

Dean’s hands quickly drop from my face. He slides them under my ass and lifts me up against him like I weigh nothing. My legs wrap around his waist, my arms wrap around his broad shoulders, and my ankles lock together behind him. Through it all, he never stops devouring me with his mouth, and I don’t even realizing he’s moving us until my back hits the wall.

And then he’s just on me. Everywhere, all at once. The heavy weight of his powerful body pinning me to the wall, hands still clutching my ass, fingertips digging into my flesh as he rolls his hips between my thighs, letting me feel how much he wants me. I moan into his mouth when the thick bulge in his jeans rubs against me, wishing there wasn’t so much clothing separating us.

I need relief from the ache he’s creating while he claims my mouth and claims me. Every deep swipe of his tongue through my mouth sends tingles through every part of my body, until I’m whimpering and moaning into his mouth, churning my hips against him, my hands clutching handfuls of his hair at the nape of his neck, until I’ve completely forgotten where we are. Right now, it’s just the two of us, making out like teenagers, and I’ve never felt more alive.

He rocks his body between my thighs like he was made to be there, and he kisses every thought, and worry, and argument out of my head until there’s nothing left behind in there but want and need for this man.

I want him to erase all the doubts in my head, and I need him to make me feel alive in the way that only he can.

Suddenly, Dean’s mouth is wrenching away from mine. He’s still pinning my body to the wall, his hands are still gripping my ass, and I’m still throbbing with need, panting against his mouth so hard I’m not sure I’ll ever catch my breath again.

“You have two choices, sugar,” Dean speaks against my lips, his hips jerking between my thighs and making a whimpered moan come out of me again. “You can unwind these pretty legs from around me, put your feet back on the ground, and go back out to the party, or…”

He trails off to stare down at my mouth when my tongue darts out to wet my lips. My thighs tighten around him, making him let out a muttered curse when I swivel my hips, shamelessly rubbing myself against him.

“Or?” I breathe against his mouth.

“Or, you can point me to the nearest empty room, so I can rip these clothes from your body and fuck you until your voice is hoarse from screaming my name.”

“Second door on the left. Ed’s office is never locked,” I quickly reply in one breath.

Chapter 15

Laura

“You’re gonna fucking ruin me, aren’t you?”

“Wait, stop!”

I want to take back the words as soon as they’re out of my mouth. Dean immediately jerks his head back from the side of my neck where his lips were attached, and his fingers stop working on the buttons of my shorts to quickly bring his hands up between us, palms facing me.

“What’s wrong? What do you need?”

I just smile up at him when he asks me that, trying to slow my breathing after being carried in here to Ed’s office with Dean’s mouth fused to mine the entire way, until he kicked the door closed behind us. With my legs still locked around his waist, we ripped each other’s shirts off, and I had just enough time to appreciate the glory and beauty that is Dean’s ripped chest and abs covered in ink before his mouth sealed right back to mine. He carried me the rest of the way into the room, deposited me on the edge of Ed’s desk, and we’ve been making out and clawing at each other on top of it for the last few minutes. Until I had to go and ruin it. I absolutely do not want to stop right now, but before we go any further, something… delicate needs to be discussed.

“I left my purse at the bar.”

Dean just blinks at me as he slowly drops his hands, placing his palms on top of my bare thighs.

“I have protection.”

“Oh good. That’s perfect.” I nod seriously, like this is really what my concern was.

It’s not, by the way.

I forget what my concern was for a second when my eyes drop down to watch Dean’s hands slowly slide up my bare thighs. His big, rough hands covered in ink, against my pale thighs that automatically fall open wider for him so he can step right back between them. My eyes flutter closed when he leans down and puts his mouth back on the side of my throat.

One of his hands comes off my thigh and slides around the back of my neck. When his hand keeps sliding up into my scalp until he’s clutching my hair in his fist, a desperate whimper flies out of my mouth as he tugs, pulling my head back and giving him better access to my neck. My ankle hooks around the back of his leg, and I pull him closer, my hands gripping tightly to his thick, corded biceps. More sounds come out of me when his cock hits my center again, and his mouth moves over my throat, grazing his teeth against my skin as he kisses his way up to my lips, until I’m rubbing myself against him again.

When he moves his free hand off my thigh and it goes to undo the last button on my shorts, that bucket of cold water that ruined the moment a few minutes ago dumps all over me once more. I pull back away from him and let out a frustrated huff that he keeps distracting me.

“I don’t give two shits about a condom, although it’s lovely you’re prepared,” I quickly speak before I lose my nerve or he uses that mouth to distract me again. “I need my purse, because there is a small bottle of lube in there. Believe me—this will be much more pleasurable for both of us if I go get it.”

One of Dean’s eyebrows quirks up at me, and I see the corner of his mouth twitching with the need to smile. I roll my eyes.

“Look, I’m no spring chicken. There are certain ailments that come with being a woman my age, and one of those ailments is being as dry as the Sahara Desert, no matter how much what you’re doing to me turns me on, and no matter how much I want you to flip me over this desk and… what was it you said? Fuck the hell out of me?”

I try to add a little humor to this mortifying moment, but Dean doesn’t smile. With other guys, I’ve had to stealthily excuse myself and go to the bathroom to take care of this little problem, and they were none the wiser. But we’ve decided to drop the bullshit, and this is as bullshitty as it gets. Menopause can eat a dick.

Dean’s hand just wraps right around the back of my neck again, and he tugs me forward, latching his mouth to mine. He kisses me until I’m breathless and then quickly pulls away again. “Yeah, that’s not gonna be necessary.” He grins at me as I sigh, grabbing both of my hands and pulling me off the edge of the desk until I’m standing on my feet in front of him.

“I can appreciate your arrogance, but this is science.” I reach up and pat his chest to try to soften the blow to his ego.

“You’re adorable” is all Dean says.

He kisses the tip of my nose, and then every thought in my head leaves me with a gasp when he immediately drops to his knees in front of me, hooking his fingers in the waist of my unbuttoned shorts, and dragging them down my legs right along with my underwear as he goes.

“The shoes stay on,” he orders, making my goddamn dry vagina clench as I step out of my shorts, and my red heels click-clack against the floor.

He tosses my shorts to the side, grabs my hips, and deposits me back on the edge of Ed’s desk. My thighs are roughly jerked open wider with his palms, and a low growl rumbles out of Dean’s chest when his face is right in front of my bare pussy. I feel that growl from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

My eyes start to flutter closed, and my head tries to drop back, but Dean grips tighter to my spread thighs.

“Nope. Eyes stay open. You’re gonna watch while I make you wet enough to take my cock.”

Sweet mother of God….

I’m leaning back on the desk on my hands, but before I can fully brace myself, Dean makes good on his cocky promise. He buries his head between my legs, dragging his tongue through my center with one… long… slow swipe.

“Jesus,” Dean mutters against my heated core as I pant, staring down at him. “I knew you’d fucking taste like sugar.”

And then he stops speaking, and I just completely forget how, when his mouth goes right back where it was. He kisses between my thighs like he kissed my mouth, licking and sucking with long, firm strokes, making me wet with his lips and tongue, and wet with my need for him in the blink of an eye. His hands slide over my thighs and under my ass, tugging me up off the desk and fitting me more snuggly against his mouth, and I forget my own name.

“Oh, God… Jesus… holy shit….”

I don’t even know what words are coming out of me as one of my hands flies off the desk to fist a handful of his hair between my fingers, tugging him closer, my body rocking against his mouth as he works me over. He alternates between long, languid strokes of his tongue and quick flicks of it back and forth over my clit—like he’s done this to me a thousand times before and knows exactly how my body works. I can’t take my eyes off him while he feasts on me. It just makes everything hotter, more intense, and before I know it, he’s pushing me right over the edge.

I’m coming against his mouth so hard and so fast that I should probably be embarrassed, but I’m too busy shouting his name, trying to rip his hair out by the roots with how hard I’m gripping it. The added sting of his facial hair moving against me along with his mouth heightens everything as I jerk my hips, and my orgasm pulses against his talented tongue.

I haven’t even fully come down from whatever planet he just sent me to before he’s quickly standing up between my thighs again.

“You can just wipe that smile right off your face. I was—”

The rest of whatever I was going to say to him is cut off when, once again, his hand wraps around the back of my neck, and he tugs my face to his. His kiss is quick and hard, just a firm swipe of his tongue through my mouth, making me taste myself on him and reminding me that he has every reason to be cocky right now.

Wrenching his mouth away from mine, the grin on his face is gone and is replaced with fire. My heart starts thundering in my chest as I watch him take a step back from me and unbutton his jeans. My tongue darts out to wet my lips when he pushes the front of them down just enough for his cock to spring out. A whimper flies out of me, and I already want him again when he fists that thick, hard length in his hand. I reach out toward him, but he quickly swats my hand away.

“You touch me right now and I’m gonna come before I’m even inside you,” he growls, and I swear to God I have another mini orgasm when hard, demanding Dean comes back out to play. “Turn around. Hands on the desk, ass in the air.”

I’m scrambling off the desk, doing as I’m told without a moment’s hesitation, wondering who the hell I even am right now. I’ve always been the more dominant one in any sexual encounter I’ve had. It just comes naturally, because I’m a bossy person, and I usually prefer it like that. The way my breath is coming out of me in gasping pants, wanting him to order me around again, tells me I’ve been doing this all wrong for far too long. I hear the crinkle of a condom wrapper being quickly ripped open, the shuffling of his hands, and then the heat from Dean’s body is surrounding me again, crowding me against the desk, his cock pressing against my ass.

“Hard or slow, sugar? What do you need?”

“Yes,” I answer on a sigh, feeling the rumble of Dean’s laughter against my back, everything inside me melting into a puddle of goo with just those last four simple words.

My hair is quickly wrapped around his fist again, and my head is tugged to the side again. His head drops down to attach his mouth to the side of my neck, lining his cock up with my entrance as his other arm snakes around my waist. I have just enough time to moan in appreciation when his teeth nip the skin of my neck, and then he just fucks right into me. A quick, rough thrust of his hips and he slides right in, because of course he does after what he just did to me and what he continues to do to me just by being him.

“Jesus Christ… you’re gonna fucking ruin me, aren’t you?” Dean mutters, holding himself still deep inside me, panting against the side of my neck.

My body clenches around him, right along with my heart in my chest when he says those words. Needing him to move like I need air to breathe, I slide my hands forward more on the desk, lifting my ass and pushing back against him, forcing a loud curse out of his mouth.

“Please, Dean.”

My begging is all it takes for him to completely lose control. Or maybe it’s the way I whispered his name like a prayer. His arm around my stomach loosens its hold, and his hand slides back to my hip. And then he just takes me against this desk. He pumps in and out of me with rough, jerky movements, letting go of the tight hold he has on my hair to smack his hand down on the desk, fucking me harder, and wrecking me more completely.

It’s frenzied, and rough, and it hurts so deliciously good I never want it to end. Every wicked word he whispers against the side of my neck as he thrusts in and out of me, jerking my hips back to meet his powerful plunges, brings me closer to another release—and closer to losing my heart to him.

“Your pussy was fucking made for me.”

“Jesus, you’re perfect.”

“Where the hell have you been all my life?”

Over and over, he ruins me with his words while he bends me over this desk, and I just let it happen. I obey his commands when he orders me to touch myself, spread my legs wider, take more. Everything he does and says feels so absolutely right and perfect, and I know I’m never going to recover from what he’s doing to me.

Before I know it, I’m coming for a second time, my fingers working frantically over my clit as Dean grunts, and fucks, and rips this orgasm out of me, my voice indeed growing hoarse from shouting his name. He follows quickly behind, coming with a roar that would probably rattle the windows if there were any in this room, arm wrapping back around my stomach and holding me tight against him as he pumps his release into me.

My arm holding me up finally gives out, and I collapse forward on the desk, pressing my heated cheek against the cool wood. Dean follows me down, and his lips kiss their way up my spine. My panting breaths make a piece of paper flutter across the desk as he gently brushes my hair out of the way, pressing a soft kiss to the back of my shoulder before resting his forehead there to catch his own breath.

His cock is still pulsing inside me, and my body feels boneless and deliciously sore, but tears pool in my eyes for some stupid reason when his arm tightens around me and he just… hugs me to him, like he never wants to let me go.

But he has to. Because he’s going to leave in a few days.

“I don’t hear or see anything!”

My melancholy mood comes to an abrupt halt. I let out an ear-piercing scream, jerking up from the desk as Dean jerks out of me and stumbles back, when the closet door in the office flies open and slams against the opposite wall, and Bodhi comes flying out, yelling at the top of his lungs.

I’m pretty sure neither Dean nor I have ever moved this fast in our lives. I continue screaming while we scramble away from the desk, frantically scooping up our discarded clothes and trying to cover ourselves up as fast as possible.

“I’m just gonna see myself out and you can forget I was ever here!”

My screaming stops when I realize Bodhi is yelling louder than I am. I also realize he’s got both of his hands covering his eyes, and he’s shouting because he’s got his earbuds in. I can now hear the muffled sounds of loud rock music blasting in his ears as he stumbles around the room, bumping into walls and tripping over the garbage can in his haste to get out of here, with his hands still shielding his eyes.

“I just came in here to hide in the closet and smoke a bowl, but I gotta take a piss so fucking bad!” Bodhi continues to shout as Dean sighs and shakes his head as he scoops up my shirt from the ground and hands it to me after I shimmy back into my shorts. “I swear to God as soon as I figured out what was going on, I did not listen, and I put on some music to respect your privacy! Ow! Fuck! Man, I’m so high right now.”

Dean takes pity on Bodhi when he walks face-first into the closed office door with his hands still over his eyes. Walking over to him, grabbing his shoulders, and moving him out of the way, Dean opens the door and shoves him out into the hallway.

Bodhi turns around with his eyes still covered, the loud music still blasting in his ears. “Thank you kindly! If you could just grab my weed from the closet, I’ll—”

Dean slams the door in Bodhi’s face, immediately cutting him off.

“Rude!” we hear Bodhi yell from the other side of the door before the sound of his flip-flops smacking against the ground fades away.

Dean finally turns around to face me. It’s quiet for a few seconds as we stare at each other with wide eyes, and then we both start laughing as he pulls his shirt he was holding in his hand over his head.

And I try to forget just how much he’s ruined me here tonight and just concentrate on how much fun we’ll have over the next few days—in my completely chaotic life—until he leaves me and goes back to his quiet one.

Chapter 16

Dean

“For fuck’s sake, can I shake it now?”

“I just want to know where your head is at, Laura.”

“It’s on top of my neck, Karen.”

“Stop being an asshole, and give me the goods!”

“I thought you came by the stand to grill me about having sex with Dean last night.”

“Oh, I did. And we’ll get to that later. Right now, we have more important things to discuss.”

“I’d much rather talk about having sex with Dean.”

Staying right where I am, next to a shelf filled with ice cream sprinkles in the back of the Dip and Twist, I shamefully crane my neck to try to hear more of what’s being said about me. I walked in through the back door a few minutes ago to bring Laura coffee. My feet came to an abrupt halt before rounding the corner when I heard my name, and I quickly reached my hand out to stop the screen door from slamming closed behind me.

I know I should have made my presence known, but I’d like to know where her fucking head is at as well. And also, sneaking up on Laura while she’s talking about me has quickly become one of my new favorite activities that brings me great joy.

Along with watching her smile, hearing her laugh, eating her pussy, and fucking her until she’s screaming my name.

I’ve been an anxious, miserable bastard since the minute we parted ways last night, after sneaking back out onto the deck of Dockside Eddy’s. We listened to the rest of the band’s set, ate dinner, and hung out with the family and wedding guests until the place closed. All the while pretending like I hadn’t just been inside her or know what she sounds like when she comes. We tiptoed around each other, both of us making polite conversation while we were constantly surrounded by other people. If I thought that was pure fucking torture, it was nothing compared to her giving me a quick, obligatory peck on the cheek in the parking lot at the end of the night, just like she did with everyone else, and then driving away from me in her golf cart.

I didn’t like it that we didn’t spend the night together after what happened in that office. I told her to come back to my hotel room with me after Bodhi stumbled out of the damn closet, and I shoved him out the door. For the first time, she didn’t do what I told her to do. She just flat out told me no. And the look in her eyes said I shouldn’t argue with her or push it, so I didn’t.

And I fucking hated it.

I wanted her next to me all night. I wanted to hear her breathing. I wanted the smell of her skin on my sheets. I wanted to know if she snores or talks in her sleep. I wanted to wake up and make her coffee just the way she likes it, have it ready when she opened her eyes to start her day. And fine. I wouldn’t have minded slipping between her thighs again… buried under the covers, half asleep, with the sun just starting to peek through the hotel curtains, taking my time, and lazily rocking into her warm body, until she had no other choice but to stay in my bed longer. Like maybe forever.

Fucking Summersweetened has seriously done some shit to me.

“I just want to know why you thought you preferred younger men all this time.”

Karen’s voice around the corner has my ears perking up again.

“Was it all the crazy stuff they took you to do? Like skydiving and shit?” she asks.

“Oh hell no!” Laura laughs, the sound hitting me right in the gut. “That was literally the worst date of my life, and I cried the entire time. You know that.”

“Okay, fine. Not the crazy, thrill-ride stuff. Was it the bar-hopping and going to clubs late at night so you could feel younger? That last guy didn’t even pick you up until ten o’clock.”

“I had to take two naps that day, and I still fell asleep in his car on the way to the club. That was embarrassing.”

I smother a laugh with the hand that isn’t holding Laura’s coffee, even though the jealous beast inside me is starting to stir. We’re both far from virgins. I know there were men before me, just like she knows there were women before her. But that was then, and this is now. And now, I just want to tell her there will be no more men after me, because I’m the last. But I’m scared as hell she won’t do what I tell her to do, just like last night.

“You need to be with someone you can slow down with and finally relax with. Someone who makes you comfortable and doesn’t push you out of airplanes or make you stay up past your bedtime. I vote for someone who has a Harley, who can rev his bike’s engine and yours at the same time.”

“Give it a rest, Karen.” Laura sighs. “It’s just a fling. Stop trying to make happily ever after happen.”

That fucking ache is back in my chest, and I’m really starting to wonder if it’s a medical problem I should seek help for. Knowing my doctor said my blood pressure was in pristine condition the last time I had a checkup, I push it out of my mind. I like that her friends and family have been calling her out. I like that they’re trying to make her see there’s something better out there. And that something better is me. If she wants to keep it light and pretend like this is just a fling, fine. I’ll let her have that if it makes her feel more comfortable. For now.

“At this point, I don’t even think you know why you dated younger men all this time,” Karen continues. “I feel like it was just something you thought you had to do because you’ve been doing it for so long. It was a habit. A habit I’m pretty sure Mr. Big Cock broke last night.”

A big grin takes over my face, and my worry subsides momentarily.

“Will you stop calling him that?” Laura pleads.

“I will when you give me more details. It’s your own fault for just magically reappearing from that hallway halfway through the band’s set, quickly walking by me, while muttering, ‘Jesus, God, his cock is huge and amazing,’ and then just going about your business the rest of the night, giving me absolutely nothing else. That’s just mean.”

“I came so hard I forgot my own name.”

Figuring there’s no time like right now to make myself known, I quickly walk around the corner like I just came through the door.

“Good morning, ladies.”

Laura jumps and lets out a squeak of surprise from where she was leaning her back against the front counter with her arms crossed, and Karen just gives me a huge smile from her perch, sitting on top of the deep freezer against the wall.

I don’t miss the way Laura fidgets where she stands, nervously tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and then playing with the hem of her Dip and Twist T-shirt as I make my way across the room to her. I like that I make her nervous. It gives me hope.

“Good morning, Dean!” Karen greets me as she slides off the freezer. “What brings you out on this crappy morning?”

The sky has been cloudy and overcast since dawn, sprinkling off and on as soon as the sun came up and refused to shine. It started coming down again pretty hard, luckily right when I walked through the back door and not when I was out in it. Which is the reason Laura and Karen were able to have so much uninterrupted girl chat without having to stop for customers. I only passed two other people on my way here. Everyone seems to be staying indoors, waiting for the rain to pass.

“Oh, nothing much,” I tell Karen, stopping in front of Laura and handing her a large coffee with two sugars and a splash of cream from Island Brew. “Mr. Big Cock just had a coffee delivery for Ms. Sugar Pus—”

Laura’s hand quickly flies up to clamp over my mouth before I can finish. Her cheeks flush, and her nose crinkles up in that adorable way when she’s trying to give me a mean look.

“You need a bell around your neck.” She shakes her head at me.

I grin against her palm. And then I behave like a toddler instead of a fifty-seven-year-old man by licking her hand.

She lets out a laughing squeal as she jerks her palm off my mouth and wipes it on her shorts, and all I can do is smile down at her like an idiot. I missed her. Nine hours without her and it felt like nine years.

She’s going to spend the night with me tonight if I have to tie her to the bed.

Laura takes a sip of her coffee and lets out a long moan that goes right to my dick. Then she steps up to me, presses a hand against my chest as she pushes up on her toes, and smacks her lips against mine. “Thanks for the coffee.”

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, a shocked look comes over her face, and she pulls back from me with a jerk. Like she can’t believe she just did that. Even I can’t believe she just did that, and I can still feel the heat from her lips against mine and still feel her hand resting on my chest like she just branded those areas with a hot iron. It was so natural. So easy. She just stepped right into me without thinking about it and gave me a kiss for the coffee. Like it’s something we do all the time. Like I bring her coffee every morning, say something to annoy her, and still get a kiss for my trouble.

“Oh no you don’t.” I shake my head at her when she tries to take another step back from me. Snaking my arm around her waist, I haul her against me, dipping my head and giving her a proper kiss. Part of me does it because I know it will annoy her that I’m doing this in front of Karen. But the majority of me does it because I fucking need to.

She keeps her arm holding the coffee out to the side so it doesn’t spill, but as soon as my tongue pushes past her lips, her free hand comes up to curl around the back of my neck. I take my time, memorizing everything about the taste and feel of kissing her, locking it away in case I ever have to go this long without it again. Laura sighs into my mouth, and her body melts right into mine like she’s been counting down the minutes until we could do this again, just like I have.

“Don’t mind me; I know the way out.” Karen laughs from a few feet away, making me end the kiss even though that’s absolutely the last thing I want to do.

I don’t let go of my tight hold on Laura, and she doesn’t try to pull away for once. Her hand moves from the back of my neck, sliding it around and down until it’s resting in the center of my chest again. She doesn’t even look over her shoulder as she nods and says a distracted goodbye to her friend. Her eyes stay locked on mine.

“Hi,” she finally says shyly when it’s just the two of us alone in the stand, with the sounds of whirring ice cream machines and the rain pounding against the roof enveloping us.

“Hi yourself.” I smile back, running my hand up and down her spine, watching her eyes flutter closed, and a contented sigh comes out of her when my hand wraps around the back of her neck and starts rubbing the stress out.

“I didn’t hear your motorcycle pull up. I hope you didn’t get caught with it out in this rain.” Her eyes slowly open back up to look at me, and for a minute, I forget what she just said. There’s nothing quite like having Laura’s eyes on me. Looking up at me with her head cocked to the side, a smile tipping up the corner of her lips, and making a dimple pop in the center of her cheek that I want to kiss.

So I do.

She giggles a little when I kiss the indent in her cheek, scratching my facial hair against her skin before pulling back.

“Left the bike in the hotel garage. Felt like going for a walk and getting some air, so LaVon let me borrow an umbrella.”

A brave soul who also decided to go for a walk in the rain steps up to the serving window behind Laura right then, collapsing her umbrella and shaking the water off of it when she gets under the cover of the awning. Unfortunately, I have to let go of Laura and let her do her job. She moves away from me and sets her coffee down on the counter, greeting the young woman with a chipper smile and telling her about a special she’s running today, while I happily watch her work.

“Do you have any plans about two hours from now?” Laura asks me after getting the customer’s order and turning away from the window.

I’d like to tell her my only plans for the day include getting her naked again as fast as possible, but I decide to wait until there’s not a customer standing right here. Grabbing a Styrofoam bowl from under the counter next to me, I hand it to Laura for the woman’s hot fudge sundae order.

“Not that I know of. The wedding schedule says we’re free until movie night on the beach later tonight. As long as it stops raining.”

“Yeah, Birdie has been blowing up my phone all morning, freaking out about the weather,” she speaks a little louder over the noise of the ice cream machine as she fills up the bowl.

As soon as Laura finishes making the sundae, she walks by me from the industrial fridge where she just loaded it up with whipped cream, taking the spoon and napkins out of my hand that I grabbed and held out for her.

“So, two hours from now… would you be able to come back here, help me unload a delivery, and put everything away? It should be here around eleven and will only take about a half hour with the two of us.” Laura looks away from me to hand the sundae through the window, ring up the order on the register, and give the woman her change, chatting to her the entire time about the rain. “Thanks for stopping by! Stay dry!”

I have to swallow past a fucking lump in my throat when she so easily asks me for help, then turns right around and charms a customer with her sunny disposition, like this isn’t a big fucking deal. Like she didn’t just casually ask me to help her, the same way she was talking about the weather. The fact that she could even say the words “help me” without forcing them out or rolling her eyes makes me feel like I could pick up a car and chuck it down the street like a baseball.

“Y-Yeah, yep, no problem,” I stutter, nodding and acting like something didn’t just happen here. Something big. “Although Bodhi did send me a text right before I got here that just said ‘help.’ I should probably see what that’s about.”

Laura walks up to me, tapping the side of my hip with her hand to get me to move. “Oh God, that’s probably about the baby.” She sighs, opening the cupboard under the counter where I slid out of the way and pulling out a huge bag of Reese’s Pieces.

“Tess and Bodhi’s baby? What’s wrong? Did something happen?”

Now I feel really bad I haven’t replied to his text yet.

“No. Not that baby.”

The screen door to the back of the Dip and Twist—that I ever so gently closed behind me when I got here—slams open loudly right then like someone kicked it open.

“For fuck’s sake, can I shake it now?” Bodhi screams as he comes running around the corner.

“That baby.” Laura sighs again, holding the jumbo bag of Reese’s Pieces she just grabbed from the cupboard out to Bodhi when he races up to her.

With something… screaming out of the backpack-looking thing he has strapped to the front of his body. Bodhi snatches the bag of candy out of Laura’s hand and shoves a handful into his mouth as the ear-piercing wailing gets louder and louder.

“What the hell is that noise?” I wince while Laura laughs.

“That’s punishment for the dick party,” she explains, pulling what I now see is a baby doll out of the carrier strapped to the front of Bodhi. The fake baby continues to cry and wail in a robotic baby voice that is seriously fucking creepy as Laura hugs it to her chest and starts gently bouncing it.

“Technically, the one Owen has is punishment for the dick party,” Bodhi says around a mouthful of candy. “Shepherd borrowed them from one of the teachers at the high school for that parenting class the kids take. Wren wanted to teach Owen about responsibility and consequences of making poor choices or some shit; I don’t know. I don’t get it. I think they just did it because it’s funny as hell watching the poor kid freak out every time he can’t get the baby to do something. I figured I should have one as well in solidarity, since I attended the dick party.”

“Now, we just have two boys running around the island, freaking out with fake babies,” Laura says with a roll of her eyes, which I’m happy isn’t aimed at me for once.

Bodhi tips the bag of candy back into his mouth and finishes it off. “I thought it would be good practice for me, but that thing never shuts up. Real babies aren’t like that, right? They don’t cry all the time, do they?”

Laura just reaches up and pats Bodhi’s cheek that’s puffed out with candy.

“Of course they don’t, sweetie,” she reassures him, then nodding and mouthing to me “yes, they do” when he turns his back, making me cough to cover up a laugh.

Laura’s cell phone on the counter dings a few times with incoming texts. Since it’s right next to where my hand is resting, I can clearly see Birdie’s name pop up with a string of frantic texts, all of them freaking out about the rain and the possibility of having to cancel movie night on the beach later. Followed by three texts from Owen begging for her help with his fake baby, because his parents just keep laughing at him when he asks them.

“You wanna handle Birdie, and I’ll handle the babies?”

The words are out of my mouth before I even think about it.

Laura just blinks at me a few times, and I wonder if I went too far and now is when she’s going to realize she’s not the type of person who asks for help or accepts it when it’s offered. I hold my breath, but she just shrugs, handing me the fake baby that starts wailing again as soon as it’s in my hands.

“Deal. See you back here in two hours.”

She turns away from me and picks up her phone, immediately calling Birdie. While I try to figure out what the fuck to do with two fake babies, when I’ve never even held a real baby. My asshole brother wouldn’t let me anywhere near Palmer until he could walk and talk, and he was certain I wouldn’t drop him.

“Come on,” I tell Bodhi with a jerk of my head. “Let’s go find Owen.”

Laura laughs at me as I start heading to the door with Bodhi following, and I think she’s enjoying this a little too much. My arms are stretched out in front of me with my elbows locked, holding the stupid doll like it’s the antichrist and I’m afraid to get too close. Which it is… and I am.

But I don’t care. Because if I close my eyes, I can pretend that this is my life. Stopping by my woman’s ice cream stand to bring her coffee, get a little sugar from her, and help her out with whatever crisis is currently happening. It feels right. And I never want it to end.

“Careful,” Bodhi warns from over my shoulder as we round the corner. “That thing shits too. It’s just chocolate pudding, and it’s delicious, but it’s still kind of gross. I won’t be able to eat my own baby’s shit, so that’s not really an accurate representation of parenting if you ask me.”

Okay, this part can end any time now.

Chapter 17

“Who hurt you???”

Laura: How’s it going with the babies?

Dean: Perfectly fine. Haven’t heard a peep out of them in an hour.

Laura: You locked them in a closet somewhere far away, didn’t you?

Dean: How dare you!

Dean: Fine. They’re in the basement in a ribbon drawer in Shepherd’s craft room.

Dean: Okay, okay! I’ll go get them.

Laura: I didn’t even say anything.

Dean: I could feel you rolling your eyes from here.

Birdie: Where are you?? We need to come up with a new plan. This stupid rain isn’t going away.

Laura: One of the ice cream machines broke down, and suddenly the entire island has decided they don’t care about rain, and they all want ice cream. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

Birdie: Never mind. Uncle Dean just walked in and said to tell you he’ll take care of it.

Birdie: Why is he covered in chocolate pudding?

Dean: I’m in your home.

Laura: That’s not really a text that makes a woman feel warm and fuzzy.

Dean: It’s not like I told you I was riffling through your underwear drawer.

Laura: OMG!

Dean: I didn’t have to anyway. The red lace bra hanging off one of your kitchen chairs is a nice decorative touch.

Laura: Don’t judge me. The girls need to be free when they say they need to be free, and sometimes that happens when I’m making a sandwich. Why are you in my home?

Laura: Hello???

Dean: Sorry. I was distracted thinking about you standing in front of me with free tits.

Laura: Well, now that just sounds like they’re usually for sale.

Dean: I know I’d pay top dollar for them.

Laura: WHY ARE YOU IN MY HOME???

Dean: Right, my purpose for this text. Birdie told me about your finished garage that you added onto the house and transformed into an extra gathering space for holidays and family get-togethers. We’re gonna see if we can spruce it up for movie night.

Tess: Who left this stupid fucking screaming doll on my doorstep?!

Wren: I will kill my son!

Dean: It’s not Owen’s. I just put his down for a nap on Laura’s couch. And before you get mad, he actually gave me twenty bucks to babysit so he could go to the movies with some friends. He’s being a very responsible young man.

Wren: That little shit asked me if he could borrow twenty bucks before he left!

Tess: SOMEONE COME GET THIS STUPID FUCKING BABY!

Birdie: God, you’re gonna be such a good mom.

Shepherd: I ran to the mainland to pick up supplies for the Cricut so I can show Uncle Dean how to use it. Otherwise, I’d take that little guy off your hands.

Dean: I already told you, I’m not learning how to use a fucking crafting machine. We don’t need to craft to turn Laura’s garage into a movie theater. We don’t need to craft EVER.

Shepherd: A piece of my soul just died. Who hurt you???

Tess: I am going to set fire to this screaming piece of plastic if someone doesn’t come get it right now.

Laura: I’ll come get the damn baby as soon as Hunter gets here for his shift.

Dean: Wait, Hunter? As in the kid you tried to beat up at the duck party?

Palmer: Did I miss a duck party?

Birdie: Who had a duck party without us?! I’m in charge of the schedule this week!

Dean: Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Laura: He means dick. DICK party.

Wren: WTF, Mom?!!! You tried to beat up a kid at my house?!

Tess: This pleases me. The baby can live. Tell me more.

Laura: I didn’t try to beat him up. I just lunged at him a little. It’s fine. I apologized, and everything is fine.

Dean: I’ll be there in ten minutes just to be sure. Text me what you want for lunch from The Barge, and I’ll put the order in now.

Bodhi: Anyone seen a screaming doll anywhere around the island? I seemed to have misplaced Shit Ass.

Palmer: You’re not in charge of naming your real kid, are you?

Tess: I’m going to tie this thing to you and light you both on fire.

Birdie: You really should have to get some kind of background check before being allowed to reproduce.

Dean: This Cricut is fascinating. Have you ever used one?

Laura: I thought you refused to learn how to use it.

Dean: I mean, I did. And then Shepherd made me a coffee mug that says “Fuck Off” with a line through the words, and then underneath that, it says “Hi.” How cute is that?! My God, the possibilities are endless with this thing. I could make decals for my bike, and shirts, and more coffee mugs, maybe even greeting cards. I’ve never bought a greeting card for anyone before, but I think I might be a card person now.

Laura: And I think you’ve officially spent too much time with Shepherd. You should probably borrow one of those dicks in the box I left you, since you seem to have misplaced yours *winky face emoji*

Dean: Ahhh yes, my monster cock that made you come so hard you forgot your own name. Have you remembered it yet?

Laura: *middle finger emoji*

Dean: I’ll take that as a no. See you when you get off of work, Laura. Say it with me, L-A-U-R-A.

Chapter 18

Laura

“Oh, that’s Puppy-Baby Syndrome.”

“Oh my God, this looks amazing! How did he even put this together so fast?” Karen asks, having just walked through the side door of my garage.

“I have absolutely no idea.”

I’m still in shock, and I’ve been standing here by the door since I walked through it from work. Just staring with my mouth dropped open at everything for the last fifteen minutes, while Dean and Shepherd finished hooking up the projector. My purse is still hanging on my shoulder, and my golf cart keys are still clutched in my hand.

The original plan was for Birdie and Palmer to set up a bunch of groupings of pillows and blankets out on the beach for each couple and put a small basket of snacks at each place, with a few coolers of drinks nestled in the sand for everyone to help themselves to. Birdie and Palmer’s simple, original plan has now been turned into something off a home movie theater Pinterest board.

In between helping Bodhi and Owen care for their fake babies all day, it looks like Dean worked his ass off making sure this night wouldn’t be ruined for Birdie and Palmer in the most epic way possible. He lined the walls with drapes of red velvet fabric and covered the ceiling with black fabric that has been decorated with strands of white Christmas lights. He attached the huge projector screen Birdie rented to the back of my closed garage door and borrowed a bunch of cushioned folding chairs from somewhere to intermingle with the sofas and loveseats I already had out here. He even moved the coffee table and end tables that went with the furniture into the house temporarily to get them out of the way.

There are vintage movie posters attached to the fabric hanging down from the walls to make it look like a real theater, and a long, skinny red carpet has been laid down on the floor—to create an aisle down the center of the room in between the rows of furniture—that he also lined with white Christmas lights to make it look like a real theater aisle. There are two old-fashioned popcorn machines against one wall that have been filling the room with the heavenly scent of freshly popped popcorn since I got here, with a stack of red-and-white-striped popcorn boxes sitting next to the machine for people to fill.

There’s even a cafeteria table along one wall covered in a red-and-black table cover, filled with every kind of movie theater candy you could imagine, from Sugar Babies to Butterfinger Bites, and Sour Patch Kids to Lemonheads, until it looks like a scene right out of Willy Wonka. And it’s not all tossed on top of the tables haphazardly either. Everything has been neatly arranged in baskets and containers, all of them matching the red, white, and black color scheme.

There are cute movie theater signs hung up all around that say things like Concessions, Turn off cellphones, and Shhh no talking during movie that are definitely a product of Dean’s Cricut lesson with Shepherd earlier today. There’s also a fully stocked bar cart in one corner of the room that Tess happily offered to bartend before the movie starts and during intermission, after Dean provided her with all the details about how I almost beat up a teenager.

It’s absolutely perfect and more than I ever could have imagined. And the best part—Birdie cried happy tears as soon as she walked in the door, after spending all morning crying awful, sad tears that this night would have to be cancelled.

The wedding guests have all filed in, grabbed some snacks and drinks, and now have all taken seats, waiting for Bridesmaids to start, the first of two wedding-themed movies that will be playing for them this evening.

“Jesus, will you look at that? Even my ovaries are quivering, and I don’t have ovaries. Wherever they are, you can be sure they’re quivering.”

I want to turn my head and shoot Karen a glare, but it is physically impossible to turn my eyes away from the scene unfolding on the other side of the aisle, on one of my couches in the last row.

“What is even happening to me right now?” I whisper, staring at Dean while he cradles Owen’s stupid fake baby to his chest, rocking it from side to side, patting its back, and explaining to Owen sitting next to him what he was doing wrong.

“Oh, that’s Puppy-Baby Syndrome,” Bodhi interjects, grabbing a box of Milk Duds off the table next to us. “When a woman sees a man holding a puppy or a baby, pheromones are released into her body, causing a chemical reaction that makes her want to mate with the man. Puppy-Baby Syndrome.”

“That’s not a real thing,” I mutter, even as my decaying ovaries start screaming in protest when Dean turns his body toward Owen and ever so gently places the now-quiet doll in Owen’s arms.

All I can think about now is this man holding Tess and Bodhi’s baby in a few months, and then Wren and Shepherd’s a few months after that. Cradling them against his chest, gently patting their tiny backs with his big hands, and making goofy faces at them to get them to smile. I can see it so clearly in my head that I have to swallow past a lump that’s suddenly formed in my throat.

“It happened to Tess when I took her for that Christmas getaway in West Virginia,” Bodhi says around a mouthful of chocolate and caramel candy. “She got the lady shivers when I held a baby. It’s okay, Laura; it’s totally natural. Just let the pheromones happen.”

I swat Bodhi’s hand away when he tries patting my back comfortingly. Thankfully, Birdie chooses that moment to join us, and I finally pull my purse off my shoulder, shoving my keys inside before tucking it under the candy table.

“It just hit me that after tomorrow, I won’t be a Bennett any longer, and now I’m sad.”

For fuck’s sake, does everyone want to make my life miserable right now?

Birdie leans her head on my shoulder, and I wrap my arm around her waist, pretending like she didn’t just make me sad as hell too, realizing I’ll be the only remaining Bennett after Wren and Shepherd get married.

“You could just make Palmer take your last name like I did with Tess,” Bodhi suggests, now tearing into a box of Nerds.

“His name is his brand. That would be like telling Tiger Woods to change his last name.” Birdie sniffles, lifting her head from my shoulder.

“Okay, Miss Delusional.” Bodhi snorts. “Palmer is no Tiger Woods.”

“Oh bite me. You are literally the worst caddie ever,” she complains as Wren turns off the overhead lights from the switch on the other side of the room, blanketing the garage in darkness, aside from the pretty glow of the Christmas lights.

“I just had the best idea ever!” Birdie suddenly announces, her frown quickly turning into a huge smile. “Mom could marry Uncle Dean, and then she and I would share a last name. Oh my God, how perfect would that be?”

“Dude, excellent idea!” Bodhi leans around me, and the two share a high-five, while I’m suddenly having trouble breathing.

Shepherd turns on the projector sitting on a table at the end of the red carpet aisle, and everyone cheers and claps as the opening credits for Bridesmaids begin to roll, while I try not to have a panic attack. Because suddenly the idea of marriage doesn’t sound so horrible after all, and Laura Campbell does have a nice ring to it….

“Don’t you have a baby you’re supposed to also be paying attention to?” I complain in annoyance to Bodhi, quickly changing the subject before Birdie starts picking out bridesmaid dresses and I start doodling Dean’s name in a notebook like a child.

“Palmer took Shit Ass off my hands so I could grab a snack,” he informs me, quickly shoving three boxes of candy into the pockets of his shorts before Tess can see him and yell at him.

Birdie moves away from me when one of the guests waves her over from a few rows up, while I see Palmer rush over to the couch with Dean, flopping down on the other side of him. When I see he’s holding Bodhi’s fake baby upside down by its ankles, I quickly walk over there to rescue him.

“…gonna tell Laura later.”

I’m a few feet away from the back of the couch right when I hear Dean say my name to Palmer. My mouth opens to say something cheeky about them talking about me, but no sound comes out. I’m just going to blame it on the fact that this man has walked up behind me and heard me talking about him enough this week, and now it’s my turn.

“Where are you supposed to be going after this?” Palmer whispers back to Dean as the opening scene of the movie starts playing.

“Got a job for some college kid I have to finish and get to him in Denver,” Dean replies quietly, and my stomach starts to feel queasy.

“Collin Roberts? That kid has been kicking ass in the rankings. If you make him a better putter than me, I will disown you,” Palmer threatens, still swinging Bodhi’s surprisingly quiet baby around by its legs while Dean chuckles.

“Don’t worry; you’ll always be my favorite golfer. After Collin, I’ve got an order from a guy in Augusta, and two from a woman in Phoenix.”

“Jesus. You’re going to be busy as hell after the wedding.” Palmer shakes his head.

Colorado, Maine, and Arizona… about as far away from a tiny island off the coast of Virginia Beach as you can get.

So, this is it. He’s gonna tell Laura later, “This was fun and all, but you knew it was just a fling, and now I have to leave and get back to my life far, far away from here.”

I suddenly don’t feel like watching a movie. I feel like locking myself in my room and crying for the rest of the night.

Both fake babies choose that exact moment to start wailing at the top of their battery-operated lungs in my quiet garage. Owen starts freaking out, Palmer starts swinging his baby faster to get it to quiet down, people shush them, and someone throws a handful of popcorn at Palmer, while Birdie turns around in her seat a few rows up and looks like she’s ready to kill everyone on the couch.

Before I can blink, Dean grabs both dolls from Owen and Palmer. He puts one on each shoulder, jumps up from the couch, and races to the door that leads into my house, quickly disappearing inside until the wailing of babies tapers off.

And I just stand here, wondering what in the hell has happened to my life.

I don’t want to think about Puppy-Baby Syndrome. I don’t want to think about Birdie not being a Bennett any longer. And I certainly don’t want to think about Dean leaving. I’m supposed to be happy, and having fun, and just enjoying this fling and whatever time I have with him, not worrying about how much I’m going to fall apart when he leaves.

Get it together! You’re single, carefree Laura Bennett, and you do not need a man in your life permanently!

Closing my eyes and shaking my head, I quickly push away everything that makes me want to cry and just focus on the here and now.

And right here, right now, nothing sounds better than disappearing into my empty house with Dean, so I can finally thank him properly for what he did for my daughter today.

Focus on the fling. Don’t focus on the fall-out.

“Tell Shit Ass that Daddy loves him, and I promise not to try to use him as a bong again!” Bodhi quickly whispers to me as I rush by him.

Chapter 19

Laura

“This is just a fling.”

“I am not allowed to shake you. I am not allowed to shake you…”

Smothering a laugh with my hand as I lean my shoulder against my bathroom doorway right off the kitchen that Dean escaped to, I stare at his profile. He’s half turned away from me, facing the sink, his full concentration on bouncing the fake babies against his chest while they continue to cry. He’s so damn handsome I feel like I could stand here for an hour just looking at him. This big, strong man wearing a fitted white T-shirt and faded jeans, in a pale yellow bathroom with a floral motif, with his big, tattooed arms wrapped around two tiny baby dolls. Being gentle with them, and quietly shushing them, and caring for them like they’re real babies, tucked away in my half-bath so the movie wouldn’t be disturbed. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. He’s so perfect I can’t even handle it, and once again, an image of him holding my grandchildren in his arms flashes through my mind.

This is just a fling. This is just a fling.

Clearing my throat to get rid of the stupid lump that won’t go away, the sound makes Dean quickly whirl around to face me.

“I feel like someone is playing a cruel joke on me. No matter what you said, babies cannot be this horrible,” Dean complains as I move into the room, closing the door behind me before taking one of the dolls out of his arms as it wails even louder.

Flipping the doll over, I tug down the back of the onesie and pry open the battery panel in the middle of the doll’s back, flipping the switch to power it down. I quickly do the same with the other doll, Dean just staring at me with his mouth dropped open when his arms are empty and the small room is no longer filled with the sound of screaming babies.

“Oh, you’re a devil woman,” Dean mutters, making me laugh as I set the now-quiet dolls on top of the closed lid of the toilet. “That power switch was there the whole fucking time, and you didn’t say anything?”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

I barely get the words out when Dean’s arms are wrapping around my waist and tugging me against him. His head dips down, and he seals his mouth to mine as soon as my hands come up to rest against his chest. I immediately sigh when he deepens the kiss after dreaming about kissing him again since this morning and the way he scrambled my brain when he brought me coffee at the stand.

This is just a fling. This is just a fling.

Pulling back from the kiss before I get too lost in what he’s doing to me, I keep my eyes on him while I trail my hands down the front of him, stopping when I get to the button of his jeans.

“You look good wearing my shirt.” I smile up at him, his hands sliding down my back and moving to grip my hips when I unbutton his jeans.

When there was a small accident with one of the dolls earlier that resulted in Dean being sprayed with chocolate pudding, I told him he could grab one of the extra Dip and Twist T-shirts from a box in my dining room. It was a shipment that just arrived yesterday of shirts for my employees, and I knew there were a few extra-larges in the box. It’s just a simple white T-shirt with the stand logo on it, but he really does look good wearing it. He looks like he belongs here. He looks like he’s getting ready to head up to the stand to help me work. Like this morning, when he was grabbing the items I needed to make that hot fudge sundae, making my life easier, helping me out without me even asking, and making everything better just by being there.

This is just a fling. This is just a fling.

“What are you doing there, sugar?”

Dean’s voice is filled with a teasing lilt, but his fingers dig into the sides of my hips as he grips them tighter. His eyes darken as soon as I yank his zipper down, already feeling the bulge thickening behind it.

“Just thought I’d thank you properly for everything you did today,” I tell him, pushing up on my toes, pressing my lips to his as I slide my hand into the waistband of his boxer briefs, and wrapping my hand around his cock.

Dean groans against my mouth as I pump my hand up and down his shaft, feeling him thicken in my palm, his cock getting harder, and my entire body starting to thrum with the need to make him feel good.

As I pull my mouth away from his and my hand out of his boxers, Dean lets out a little grunt of protest when I move. Until I quickly drop to my knees in front of him with the sink at my back, tugging his jeans and boxers down his hips just far enough for his cock to spring free.

“You don’t have to—”

“Hush,” I cut him off. “I want to… but hold that thought, and don’t move!”

Quickly grabbing onto the edge of the sink to haul myself back up, my knees groan in protest as I stand. I can’t help but laugh when Dean looks at me like I just killed his dog, as I quickly fling open the bathroom door and race out into my living room. Grabbing one of the throw pillows off my couch, I scurry back into the bathroom, close the door behind me, and toss the pillow onto the floor by Dean’s feet.

As much as I didn’t want to kill the mood, I’d like to be able to walk again after this blow job, thank you very much.

“Sorry about that,” I mutter, sinking back down to my knees on the soft cushion of a pillow this time instead of hard tile. “Ahhh, much better. Where were we? Oh yeah… hands on the counter, ass in the air, sweetheart.”

Dean quirks an eyebrow down at me with a grin when I say the same thing he said to me in the office, adding in the sweetheart part just to make him smile more, until I wrap my hand around the base of his cock.

His smile drops away with a hitch of his breath, and he finally complies with my order, smacking his hands down on the bathroom counter right above my head with a curse, when I take my time, flattening my tongue and licking my way up the underside of his shaft.

“Fucking hell, Laura,” Dean groans, the guttural, needy sound in his voice turning me on.

“You better hold on tight,” I warn him with a cheeky smile before wrapping my lips around the head of his cock and sucking hard.

“Oh, fuck,” Dean grunts, his hand hitting the counter again with a smack.

With my hand still wrapped around the base of his shaft, I lower my mouth on him, taking him as deep as I can, while curses fly out of him. His fist hits the counter this time with a loud thump that rattles the floor under my pillow-protected knees, when I pull my mouth back, sucking and swirling my tongue around him as I go. I revel in the salty taste of him, the feel of him pulsing against my tongue, his hips jerking slightly, like it’s taking everything inside him not to just thrust right into my mouth.

Blow jobs have always felt like a chore to me. Reciprocation because it felt like the polite thing to do. Random thoughts flying through my head during the act, like wondering if I remembered to shut off my curling iron, reminding myself to add peanut butter to the grocery list, and wondering how much longer this is going to take, because my stomach is growling and I need food.

But this is Dean, and nothing about this feels like a job or a chore. The only thoughts going through my head right now are that I want to make him feel good. I want him to know I appreciate everything he did for me, and not just today but every day he’s been here. I want to hear, and feel, and see him lose control because of me.

By the time I’ve slid my mouth up and down his shaft a few times, sucking and swiping my tongue over the head of his cock with each pass, with my hand working in tandem up and down his length, I’m wet. Without the need for lube, without the need for an hour of watching porn, I’m wet, just from bringing this man pleasure. The sounds he’s making, the way he tastes and smells, my name panting out of his mouth every time I take him to the back of my throat, and the way he gently brushes my hair out of my eyes and tucks it behind my ear with the tips of his fingers with one hand, while his other hand is gripping the counter so hard I’m surprised he doesn’t pull it right out of the wall. It’s all so hot that I can’t handle it, and I moan around his cock.

“Touch yourself.” Dean growls out the order, and my pussy clenches with need. I glance up at him while my head bobs on his shaft, and the look on his face is full of begging and pleading, like he can’t fully appreciate this unless I’m getting pleasure out of it too.

I don’t even hesitate. With one hand wrapped around his cock as my mouth works him over, I slide my other hand right down the front of my jean shorts, needing this relief as much as he does. I moan around his cock again when my fingers touch my slick flesh, and any control Dean was holding onto completely leaves his body while he watches me.

His hips start moving with slow, steady thrusts as he moves one of his hands to the back of my head, while my own hand works quickly between my thighs. It’s all too much and feels too good, looking up at Dean while I suck his cock and having him watch me take him in my mouth while I pleasure myself.

I suck him harder and faster, my hand shuttling up and down his length easily from the wetness of my mouth, with my fingers working just as fast between my thighs, swirling around my clit, my entire body tingling with the need for release.

“Oh, fuck… oh, fucking hell,” Dean mutters, his fingers curling into my scalp until he’s clutching a handful of hair, helping me move along his cock, the sting of it turning me on even more as my own hips start thrusting against my hand.

He warns me he’s going to come and tries to pull back, but I don’t let him. I suck him harder, move my hand up and down his shaft faster, my fingers sliding easily over my clit, until I feel him pulsing against my tongue with his release.

“Jesus… Christ, Laura.”

Watching this man orgasm is now my new favorite thing I never knew I needed in my life. The muscles in his arms bulging and tightening with the firm grip he has on the edge of the counter, head bowed, brow furrowed, with his eyes locked right on mine and my name choking out of his mouth with the intensity of it all. It ignites my own release.

Dean pants my name while he fucks into my mouth, and I moan around his cock again, my own orgasm washing over me so quickly that my entire body shakes from it while I swallow him down my throat.

“Fucking… hell… this is embarrassing,” Dean stutters out with a groan through the last of his orgasm, making me laugh around his cock as he mutters about how fast he just came.

I am laughing with this man’s dick in my mouth, and nothing could be more perfect.

Dean’s hands are quickly wrapping under my arms and hauling me up from the floor, until my head is buried in his neck and his arms are wrapped tightly around me.

“Where the hell have you been all my life?” Dean whispers while he pants, the same thing he said to me when we were having sex in the office, and hugs me to him as tightly as possible, making my heart thump wildly in my chest.

This is just a fling. This is just a fling.

“Everyone is finally gone, and your garage is back in order.”

Glancing up from my spot on the floor, I quickly swipe the tears from my cheeks when Dean walks into my living room, having completely lost track of time.

“You okay, sugar?” he asks softly, the worry and concern on his face making my eyes sting with more tears, but I quickly blink them away.

After our little fun in the bathroom, I squirmed out of his arms before my emotions got the best of me, washed my hands, gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and left him alone in there to rush back out to the garage. I told myself it was because I didn’t want everyone to see us walk in together, knowing what we’d disappeared to do, but that was a lie. I just needed some space. I needed to breathe, and think, and get my head back on straight without his arms around me or his eyes on me.

I spent the next fifteen minutes keeping myself busy—and my mind off what’s going to happen to me when he leaves—by rushing around the garage, refilling people’s popcorn boxes, grabbing them drinks, and anything else I could think of to stay moving. Until I walked by the loveseat Dean relaxed on when he came out of the bathroom. He grabbed my hand and tugged me down to sit next to him, pulling me against his side and cutting off my protests with a kiss.

We watched the ending of Bridesmaids and all of The Wedding Singer with me snuggled into him, his arm draped around my shoulders. After movie night was over and everyone left, Dean forced me back into the house to finally get out of my work clothes and take a shower, while he and the boys cleaned up my garage.

“Just looking at some photo albums,” I finally answer him as he toes off his boots and pads across my living room in his socks.

Moving behind me, Dean sits down on the floor and leans his back against the couch. His long, jean-clad legs stretch out on either side of my bare ones, since I changed into a T-shirt and cotton shorts when I got done with my shower. Wrapping his arms around my waist, he tugs my butt back across the carpet until I’m nestled into him with my back resting against his chest, the photo album laying open across my thighs.

“Show me,” he speaks softly against the side of my ear, resting his chin on my shoulder.

I’m supposed to be reminding myself this is just a fling, but my emotions are out of control right now. And I made them even worse with the decision to look through some old photo albums while I waited for Dean to finish up out in the garage.

I slowly flip through the pages, pointing to pictures of the girls growing up, telling him where we were and what we were doing in the pictures, until I feel another tear slip down my cheek.

Four-year-old Wren sitting on the couch with her hair up in two pigtails, a huge toothy smile on her face as she holds an infant Birdie in her arms. Birdie sitting in a highchair, hands and face covered in pink frosting from her first birthday party. Wren wearing a purple-and-white polka dot dress with a Scooby-Doo backpack, standing in front of my cottage door on her first day of school. Me kneeling in the sand with both girls wrapped up in beach towels and in my arms, the three of us laughing hysterically as someone’s dog raced down the beach, the blur of his furry body in the shot when he ran right in front of us just as the timer on my camera went off. Both girls sitting cross-legged in front of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning in their matching pajamas, happiness and excitement shining on their faces with brightly wrapped presents surrounding them. If I close my eyes, I can still hear their squeals and the tearing of paper, their little feet smacking against the tile in the kitchen as they laugh and run around the room with new toys in their arms, Christmas music playing softly from a radio in my kitchen….

“God, it feels like just yesterday they were sitting on my lap, and now they’re getting married and having babies.” I sniffle as Dean squeezes me harder when I run my fingers over a picture of five-year-old Birdie sitting on my lap on a hay ride at a farm we went to when she was in preschool. I have my arms wrapped around her tiny body with our cheeks pressed together and huge grins on our faces. “I feel like I’m losing them. My baby is getting married tomorrow, and I’ll never get these moments back, and I just wish I could. I want to hold them on my lap again, and I want to brush their hair after a bath again, and I want to hear their little-girl giggles while they play in their rooms together again. I should be happy that they’re happy, but I’m just sad. I just want to go back and do it all over again. Have them be little again and need me again.”

The tears fall steadily down my cheeks as I continue flipping through the album, my two beautiful girls growing up right in front of my eyes as I turn the pages, almost as quickly as they did in real life.

“They adore you. You can tell in these pictures, and you can tell just by spending five seconds with all of you. You’re a good mom. A great mom. And they aren’t going anywhere,” Dean reassures me, just making the tears fall harder. “They will always need their mom, no matter how old they get.”

“You should have been a dad. You would have been an awesome one,” I tell him, swiping at the tears and sniffling as I rest my head back on his chest, trying to lighten the mood. “Shit Ass and Die Already really adore you.”

I feel the rumble of Dean’s laughter against my back when I say the only name my grandson has called his baby all day.

“Wasn’t in the cards for me.” He shrugs around my body. “Found out a few years into my marriage that I couldn’t have them. So, my ex decided to screw our neighbor and have kids that way instead.”

My heart clenches when he says these words so casually, like he’s reading a grocery list. I knew he was married at one point, and I knew his wife left him, but I didn’t know all the details. Anger washes through me, drying up all my tears and making me want to hunt this woman down and beat the shit out of her for hurting him this way.

Dean removes one of his hands from around me to flip to the next page in the photo album. “Is that the girls’ dad?”

I just nod as Dean points to a picture of Alex sitting in a chair in the corner of the hospital room, holding a newborn Wren in his arms, looking down at her with nothing but fear in his eyes. Something I never noticed back then. I got rid of most of the pictures of him not long after he left the island and never came back, but I kept a few of him with the girls. Even though he wanted nothing to do with us, he still existed. He was still the man responsible for fathering them, and I wanted them to at least have one or two photos of him. Even if they did nothing but give his picture the finger when they would flip through the albums themselves. He’s still a part of their history and fifty percent responsible for giving them life. But I have never been more grateful that when I look at my girls, I don’t see any traces of that man. The Bennett genes are strong in this family.

“You don’t have to talk about him if you don’t want to,” Dean reassures me gently, pressing a kiss to my cheek and making my stomach flop.

I never talk about Alex. I don’t even say his name out loud, sticking to calling him “sperm donor” instead, since that’s all he turned out to be. But my mouth opens, and the words come tumbling out of me easily with Dean’s arms wrapped around me, the solid weight of him at my back making me feel safer than I ever have in my life.

“I should have known what kind of person Alex was from the very beginning, but I guess I just didn’t want to. I was a nineteen-year-old who’d just lost her parents and suddenly became a business owner, and he was a twenty-nine-year-old tourist who swept me off my feet. He made me a bunch of promises I kept holding on to, even as he was making excuses for why he couldn’t move to the island to be with us. By the time Birdie was born, he was barely coming to the island once a month,” I tell him, waiting to feel the usual tidal wave of anger and resentment flow through me. Waiting to feel like a fool that I convinced him to have another baby after Wren was born because I wanted her to have a sibling, and I thought it would make him want to be here with us more. But none of those feelings show up.

“I take it he didn’t want to be a family man.”

I chuckle at Dean’s words as I flip the page, smiling when I see a picture of me and the girls at the zoo.

“He got married six months after he left for the last time, and they have four kids together. He wanted to be a family man. He just didn’t want to be one with me.”

“He’s a stupid motherfucker,” Dean grunts from over my shoulder without missing a beat, making me laugh again. “Any man would be a fucking fool to walk away from you.”

My heart starts beating faster, wondering if he’s still talking about Alex—or himself. The words he said to Palmer earlier, about telling me something later, make panic flutter in my chest. I’m not ready for him to tell me he’s leaving. I already know it’s happening, and I don’t need to hear the words.

“Show me more pictures.”

I smile to myself at Dean’s order, some of the panic falling away that he wants to see more of the girls’ and my lives. Leaning away from him, I close the photo album on my lap and set it on the carpet, exchanging it for another one. Scooting back against him again, I bring my knees up and open the album against my thighs as Dean wraps his arms around my waist again and hugs me to him. He brushes my hair off my shoulder and rests his chin back on it as I point to the first picture of ten-year-old Wren, standing behind the counter inside the Dip and Twist, happily helping me work.

“That was the day she told me she was going to run the Dip and Twist someday.”

Curled up in Dean’s arms on my living room floor, with his back resting against my couch, and my back resting against him, I flip through this photo album, along with five more, and I tell him everything else about the life of Laura Bennett.

Aside from the fact that I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with my fling.

Chapter 20

Dean

“Your mom.”

“I will stab you with this fork if you touch that last piece of bacon.”

“Has anyone seen my tie? I think I left it at the house.”

“What’s a seven-letter word for easy?”

“Your mom.”

“Ow! You motherfucker!”

“I told you I would stab you if you touched the bacon. Laura! Quinn ate the last piece of bacon! I can kill him for that, right?”

Sitting up with a groan when the noise won’t stop, I swing my legs off the couch, my feet getting tangled in a blanket on their way down to the floor. It takes me a second for the sleep to clear from my brain and to remember where I am and why.

At some point last night, Laura and I moved up here, because my entire body started to ache from sitting on the floor. I remember Laura sitting sideways next to me on the couch with her legs draped over my lap and our heads resting on the back cushions, trading stories about our lives until late into the night. I hate talking about myself and avoid it at all costs. But something made me want to share everything with her, the good, the bad, and the shitty. Let her comfort me through the ugly parts, and smile with me through the handful of good ones. Most people listen half-assed when you’re talking to them, which is why I just don’t bother. They look away, they dick around on their phones, or they’re busy planning what they’ll say next. Laura focuses all her attention on you. Eyes never wavering, mind never straying. It’s a heady feeling having someone hanging on your every word, actually interested in what you’re saying. I felt like I could sit and talk to her forever on this couch and never get bored.

Which makes me feel like an asshole that I didn’t talk to her about the elephant in the room. The one thing I needed to talk to her about the most, especially after my talk with Palmer earlier in the night. But I just couldn’t do it. She already had enough on her mind after going through those photo albums, and I didn’t want to add to it.

I don’t remember who fell asleep first, but I know damn well we fell asleep together.

And now I’m waking up alone.

I want to be irritated that Laura didn’t wake up next to me, but all I can do is smile as the chaos continues in the kitchen. With the scraping of silverware against plates, the smell of bacon and coffee in the air, and all the arguing, it sounds like I just woke up in the middle of the breakfast rush at The Barge. It’s the complete opposite of every morning I’ve ever woken up, and that just makes me smile even bigger. The fact that I slept through most of the noise of breakfast being made and guests showing up reminds me I’ve also never slept so soundly in my life.

“If I lost my tie, Birdie is going to kill me.”

“I’m bleeding, you dick fuck! I cannot believe you actually stabbed me! You’re lucky this isn’t my throwing hand.”

Pushing up from the couch with another groan as my back reminds me couch-sleeping isn’t as comfortable as it used to be, I make my way across the living room and over to the kitchen doorway, pausing to take in the scene.

The kitchen counter is filled with mixing bowls, utensils, empty egg cartons, and a box of pancake mix, and the sink is filled with dirty pots and pans. Bodhi, Shepherd, and Quinn sit around the kitchen table arguing, while Palmer stands behind Bodhi’s chair, all wearing the matching shirts Shepherd made for the day of the wedding. Palmer’s is white and says Groom in black glittery letters across the front. Everyone else is wearing black T-shirts with white glittery writing. Bodhi’s says Best Dude, while Shepherd and Quinn’s say Groomsman. And on the back of all of them, they say Palmer’s Foursome. It’s supposed to be a cute nod to Palmer being a golfer, but it just looks like they’re all going to a dude orgy, and I’ve been laughing about them ever since Shepherd showed them to me the other day.

“Calm down. I have your tie. Try the word lenient. And for God’s sake, Bodhi, I will make more bacon. Here you go, Quinn.”

Laura rushes into the kitchen from the laundry room, handing Palmer his tie, helping Shepherd with his crossword, giving Quinn a band-aid, and then grabbing a tray of bacon sitting on top of the stove. She’s got her long blonde hair pulled up into curlers on top of her head, wearing a flannel with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows and a pair of cotton shorts. And she takes my fucking breath away.

I must make some sort of sound leaning against the doorway when she bends over to slide the tray of bacon into the oven, since I’m given a perfect view of her ass, because everyone sitting at the table whips their head in my direction.

“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty!”

“We tried to keep it down. But then we realized we just didn’t want to.”

“Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of the couch.”

“Aww, do you need a hug?”

Laura tells them all to shut up and leave me alone while I walk into the room. She grabs a coffee mug from a cupboard and fills it from the pot on the counter, and I stop next to the table as Palmer pulls out his chair and sits down with everyone else. I watch her scoop a spoonful of sugar into the mug, quickly stir it around, and then walk it over to me.

“Sorry,” she mutters, handing me the coffee, not looking up to meet my eyes. “I tried to keep them quiet for as long as possible.”

I reach for her, but she quickly turns away from me, moves to the kitchen island, and starts clearing it off. A feeling of dread washes over me that I didn’t just talk to her last night. Before she started doing what I knew damn well she would do if I didn’t talk to her like a fucking adult. It’s happening whether we talk about it or not, but I was hoping to find out where her head was first before I made a final decision. I made commitments… I signed contracts, and I can’t go back on my word now.

I just wanted her to ask me to stay.

“Sit. Eat,” Bodhi orders, patting the empty chair next to him and then pointing to a foil-covered plate in front of it. “Mom made you a plate before we ate all the food.”

The guys start arguing over something else, but all I can hear is the blood rushing through my ears. I’m still stuck on the fact that Laura made my coffee exactly the way I like it, and she remembered from when I ordered it the night of the island tour. And she set aside a plate of food for me. And no one seems to be questioning the fact that I woke up here this morning. They just welcomed me into the fold like I’ve always been here, waking up to the sounds of their pandemonium over breakfast.

I should be happy as fuck right now, but I’m not.

As I move over to where Laura is standing and gathering up items in her arms, she quickly turns away from me as soon as I get next to her and try to talk to her. She takes the long way around the kitchen island to get to the other side of it instead of just brushing past me. That feeling of dread grows, wondering if I’ve fucked everything up and lost it all before it was even mine to lose.

I knew I should have talked to her last night about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I knew the longer I waited, the worse it would be. My stupid brain thought maybe the longer I waited, the more chance I’d have that she would ask me to stay. But now she won’t make eye contact with me. And she pulled her hand back so fast after handing me my coffee I was afraid I might drop the mug. And she’s moving around the kitchen, cleaning up the mess, staying as far away from me as possible, with her back to me the entire time.

“Where are you headed to next? I thought I heard Palmer say Maine, but—Ow!”

Palmer smacks Quinn, cutting him off, and it takes me a second to realize Quinn was talking to me as the two men share a quiet stare-down at the table.

“I hear Maine is beautiful this time of year. That should be a fun trip!” Laura chirps from the sink with her back still to me.

That feeling of dread turns into full-blown panic when she sounds perfectly fine about me leaving. The longer I waited to talk to her, the more time it gave her to continue thinking this was just a fling. She’s pushing me away before I’m even gone… and doesn’t that just fucking suck?

I take a sip of my coffee as I sit down at the table, even though I suddenly feel nauseous.

Who was I to think she’d actually want a relationship with me? This woman has avoided emotional commitments since that asshole left her alone with two little girls to raise. What in the hell made me think she’d want to settle down with me? She has a life. A home. A family. And what? I thought I could just crash through it all like the Kool-Aid man and make it mine?

No wonder she’s putting distance between us. She knows I’m supposed to be leaving tomorrow, so in her mind, this “fling” is almost over. It’s too much, too soon. I was an idiot to think I could change her mind in a fucking week. What was it Palmer said to me the night of the welcome dinner? Laura is fun, and carefree, doesn’t want to settle down, and doesn’t take life too seriously. He warned me, but I didn’t listen. Who the fuck was I to think I should change the best parts about her? Making her settle down wouldn’t make her fun and carefree any longer. It would fucking settle her down, and she would hate it. I should have known that and kept it light and fun. Instead, I had to go and get Summersweetened, all while she was counting down the days until I left.

My eyes follow her all around the room, willing her to stop moving and just look at me, but she never does. She makes it even more obvious she doesn’t want to be near me when Bodhi gets up from his seat next to me, telling her to sit down and that he’ll finish cleaning. She just waves him away and flits around the kitchen, wiping down the counter she already wiped down and restacking a pile of mail she already restacked twice. I get the picture and finally take my eyes off of her.

“Don’t forget, Laura, when you get to Wren and Shepherd’s house, make sure you apologize to Tess for me again,” Bodhi instructs her around a mouthful of pancake. He sits back down in his seat, while I try to choke down a bite of scrambled eggs over the lump in my throat.

The girls are all getting ready for the wedding over there, and Laura is supposed to be meeting them after breakfast, while all the guys get ready here. I was looking forward to this day of hanging out with my nephew before he says “I do.” Now, I’m just panicking that Laura will have an entire day apart from me to push me even further away.

“She’s not going to apologize to your wife about you having weed dick last night.” Palmer rolls his eyes, while I actually do start choking on my food.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Quinn complains, reaching over and patting me on the back. “You made Uncle Dean choke, talking about your weed dick and not being able to satisfy your woman.”

“You smoke entirely too much weed.” Palmer sighs, grabbing a piece of toast from a pile on a plate in the middle of the table.

“I don’t smoke nearly enough weed.” Bodhi chuckles. “And I’ll have you know, this was my first experience with weed dick. It left us both a little irritable, and we both said things we didn’t mean.”

“Can we please stop talking about choking and dicks at the breakfast table?” Laura complains, making me want to laugh even through my misery, as she sets a big bowl of cut-up fruit down on the table next to all the other food. “All right, I need to get out of here before Birdie sends me another text yelling at me. Take the bacon out when the timer goes off, and make sure you turn off the oven. Don’t be late to the ceremony, or I will slit all of your throats.”

Laura makes her way around the table, kissing the top of everyone’s head, her feet stuttering to a stop when she gets to me. I hold my breath while she hesitates, her eyes finally meeting mine. I search her face, looking for any kind of clue about what she’s thinking, but she just gives me a tight smile and a nod.

“See you later, plus-one.”

My stomach drops right down into my fucking feet as she turns and heads toward the front door. She spent my first few days here getting pissed off every time I called her that, and it was fun annoying the hell out of her. Hearing her say it to me is anything but fun right now.

Grabbing her purse and keys from a hook hanging next to the front door, she pauses and looks down at the floor where my boots are resting right next to a few pairs of her shoes. Then she looks over to the couch where I left the blanket tossed over the back of it, and my balled-up socks on the floor in front of it. I watch her let out a huff before flinging open the door and disappearing through it out into the bright morning sun, letting it slam closed behind her. More than likely pissed off that her fling just made himself right at home in her house.

With a frustrated grunt, I turn back around and dig into my breakfast. Regardless of how shitty I’m feeling, I’m still starving, and Laura makes damn good food. I’m taking this too personally and being a big fucking baby. Laura is distracted and giving me the brush-off, and of course she is. It’s her daughter’s wedding day. She obviously has more important things on her mind than me, and my ego needs to take a break.

This is one of the biggest days of their lives, and I need to suck it up and be whatever Laura needs me to be today. Whether it’s a shoulder to lean on, a friend to talk to, or just her plus-one who she’ll be more than happy to get rid of once this wedding is over.

Bodhi smacks his hand against the top of the table twice, drawing everyone’s attention.

“All right, who wants to hear more about my weed dick and how you too can prevent this from happening to you?”

Chapter 21

Laura

“You’re such a buzzkill.”

“You ready to talk about it yet?”

Turning away from the window right outside the room, where Birdie is getting dressed with the girls in the clubhouse on the golf course, I ignore Wren’s question and give her one of my own. “What are you doing out here?”

Wren pulls the door to the dressing room closed behind her and walks up to me, her floor-length, pale-yellow bridesmaid dress swishing around her legs and her sparkly, strappy heels clicking against the floor. As soon as she stops in front of me, I reach out and fix the heart-shaped yellow diamond necklace around her neck so it’s more centered, smiling at the gift Birdie gave all the girls to wear today.

“Birdie kicked me out for crying, same as you,” Wren says with a sniffle, gently dabbing one of her fingers under her eyes so she doesn’t ruin her makeup.

I laugh softly, pulling a Kleenex from the box on a small table next to me and handing it to her. I’ve already gone through ten of them after my daughter forced me out of the room to put her dress on, when I couldn’t stop getting all weepy. I kept it together pretty well all day over at Wren and Shepherd’s while the hair and makeup ladies worked on all of us. We shared mimosas and laughter, played music and danced, and all-in-all, it was a perfect day. But now that we’re here on the golf course, every time I looked at Birdie with her hair and makeup finished and my mother’s veil on her head, as Tess carefully took her dress off the hanger for her to step into it, I couldn’t hold it together.

“All right, now that we have a few minutes to ourselves, spill it,” Wren demands after blotting under her eyes and blowing her nose before tossing the tissue into the small trash can next to her.

“There’s nothing to spill.” Fiddling with my own necklace—a heart-shaped ruby surrounded by diamonds that was my mother’s and matches my dress—I silently will my hands to stop shaking, wishing my nerves were just from the wedding alone.

“Um, a text from my fiancé that said you had a gentleman caller spend the night last night says otherwise.”

Cursing my future son-in-law and his chatty mouth, I put a smile on my face even though I want to finish off that box of Kleenex with more tears. I’ve never let a man stay at my house before, not since Alex and his random visits to the island. I knew it would be a big deal when the girls found out, but I was hoping it could wait until after the wedding.

“This is your sister’s day, and that’s all we’re focusing on right now, okay? Drop it.”

If only I could follow my own advice.

My baby is getting married, and that’s all that should be on my mind right now. Hoping she’s happy, praying she still loves her dress even though she’s probably tried it on a hundred times by now, worrying about the weather for an outdoor ceremony, crossing my fingers the caterers don’t screw anything up with dinner, and about a million other wedding-related worries that should be my only focus. But all I can think about is this morning and what an absolute bitch I was. And wish I could go back in time, wake up on my couch again wrapped up in Dean’s arms with our legs tangled together, and not completely freak out by how right it felt. Not quietly slip out of his arms and off the couch before the sun came up to get as far away from him as possible so I could think straight. Not refuse to look at him, or get anywhere near him, or act like I was okay, when I am anything but okay. It would serve me right if he wants absolutely nothing to do with me now, when I was so cold with him, especially after everything we shared with each other last night in my living room.

“The Dude to Sparrow, The Dude to Sparrow. Come in, Sparrow.”

Wren rolls her eyes, and I let out a sigh of relief at the interruption when the walkie-talkie in her hand crackles to life. She brings it up to her mouth, pressing the talk button on the side.

“For the love of God, Bodhi, we do not need code names,” Wren speaks. “We are literally the only two people who have walkie-talkies here today.”

“You are such a buzzkill. All the guests are in their seats and ready to go. I sent Shepherd back for you guys a few minutes ago. Over and out.”

The wedding ceremony will be taking place out on the green of the 8th hole on the course, and the boys have been shuttling the guests out there on golf carts since they started arriving. It’s a special spot for Palmer and Birdie, and one that makes me think more than just declarations of love were shared out there, considering the way my daughter blushes every time Palmer whispers something in her ear whenever they talk about that location on the course. White chairs have been set up for the wedding guests on the green that overlooks the ocean, along with an arbor at the front for Palmer and Birdie to stand under, draped in flowing white fabric and decorated with yellow flowers. After the ceremony, guests will come back here to Tee Time, the restaurant in the clubhouse for the reception.

“I’m gonna go pee again really quick before our ride gets here, and then you’re going to tell me everything on the drive to the hole.”

Wren sets the walkie-talkie down on the table and brushes past me to head for the bathroom on the other side of the hallway. As soon as the door clicks shut and I’m alone with my thoughts, I stare out the window again and start replaying everything that happened this morning once more, definitely not taking my own advice. When the sound of heavy footsteps hitting the hallway floor breaks into my thoughts, I’m more than happy for the interruption as I turn away from the window.

“Wren’s in the bath… room.”

I have a hard time finishing my sentence as soon as I turn around and realize it’s not Shepherd who just joined me in the hallway.

“Jesus… you are stunning.”

I feel Dean’s quietly stated words from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, and they warm up everything in between in the process. My heart pounds as he stays where he is a few feet away, his eyes slowly trailing up my body. I knew I looked pretty good in the strapless, red satin, floor-length gown that Birdie picked out for me in my favorite color. With a slit up one side and a sweetheart neckline on the corset-style top, it fits me like a glove, and I’ve been in love with it ever since Birdie first made me try it on a few months ago. But nothing has ever made me feel more beautiful than the way this man looks at me, and I nervously reach up and brush a wayward strand of hair falling down from my updo out of my eyes.

“You clean up pretty nice yourself, Mr. Campbell.” I smile at him, rubbing my sweaty hands together in front of me, when all I want to do is close the distance between us and wrap my arms around him.

Shepherd sent a picture to Wren a little bit ago of all the guys huddled together with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders out on the 8th hole, so I already got a preview of how good Dean looks today. But nothing prepares me for seeing him in person, in a tailored black suit and white dress shirt that looks like it was definitely made for him, wondering when in the hell a bow tie on a guy suddenly became so hot.

“I think there’s a rule somewhere that says the mother-of-the-bride shouldn’t be prettier than the actual bride,” Dean muses, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, making some of my nerves about being with him again after how I behaved this morning disappear.

“You better hush,” I warn him, unable to hide my own smile, even though I’m trying to scold him. “If my daughter hears you say that, none of us will be safe from her wrath.”

We both share a small laugh, and Dean shoves his hands into the pockets of his suit pants. As he rocks back on the heels of his shiny black dress shoes, the awkwardness suddenly comes back now that we’re both quiet again. This man has been inside me. I’ve had his dick in my mouth. He spent the night after talking for hours about ourselves, and I suddenly have no idea what the hell to say to him right now.

Tell him you’re sorry.

Tell him you’re scared.

Tell him you need him, especially today.

Tell him you don’t want him to go, especially not tomorrow.

Or any day after that either—

“Where’s Shepherd?” I stupidly ask, instead of saying any of the thoughts flying through my head.

“He’s right behind me. Figured you ladies wouldn’t all fit in one cart.” He shrugs.

Silence fills the hallway again until I can’t stand it any longer, and I open my mouth, not even sure what’s about to come out of it.

“Mom?”

Birdie’s soft voice from behind me saves me from whatever mortifying thing I was about to say. Turning away from Dean, my breath hitches, and one of my hands flies up over my mouth. My eyes immediately fill with tears when I see my baby standing in front of me in her gown. It’s strapless and hugs her body with a corset-style top that matches mine, and it’s overlaid with sheer lace that continues out into a long train behind her. Her blonde hair has been expertly styled and curled to lay long and soft all around her shoulders, and my mother’s veil is pinned at the crown of her head, flowing down her back and onto the floor to pool with the bottom of her dress.

I helped her pick this dress out after she tried on at least fifty other ones. I’ve been to every fitting, and she’s popped by my house—where I stored the dress for her—to try it on at least once a week since we brought it home. But seeing her now, fully dressed and made up and ready to walk down the aisle, takes my breath away. She is without a doubt the most beautiful bride I have ever seen, and I can’t believe I gave birth to her.

And I can’t believe that in just a few moments, I’ll have to officially let her go.

A quiet sob makes its way past my hand still covering my mouth, and in an instant, I feel the heat from Dean’s body behind me. He steps right up against my back and rests his hands on my hips, securing me against the front of him as he dips his head down by my ear.

“It’s okay, sugar. You’ve got this.”

All I can do is nod at his whispered words, quickly blinking away the tears as my hand drops from my mouth. Taking a deep breath, I step away from him and over to Birdie, pulling her right into my arms. I squeeze her tightly to me, and I don’t even bother hiding it when I turn my face and sniff her hair, just to commit the smell to memory one more time.

I rock her in my arms, and I tell her how beautiful she is, and I tell her how proud I am of her and how happy I am for her. I say all the right words without breaking down, and I know it’s only because of the man standing quietly a few feet away. Far enough to give us privacy, but close enough in case I need him.

“You sure you want to do this? Just say the word, and I can have you out of here in ten seconds,” Tess says, stepping out through the doorway of the dressing room behind Birdie with Emily joining her, and Birdie and I pull apart. “Ride or die, bitch. Even though I hate you for making me wear a dress.”

The two of them share a fist-bump and emotional smiles, and Birdie reassures her that she definitely wants to do this. Wren joins us from the bathroom, and the five of us share one last group hug, before Shepherd peeks his head around the corner at the end of the hallway.

“Let’s go, ladies! Your chariots await!”

Thankfully, Birdie was too busy practicing her vows the entire ride out to the 8th hole, and Wren and I kept quiet to let her concentrate. Which gave Wren no time to grill me about my overnight guest while Shepherd hummed a song to himself as he drove us, and Dean followed closely behind in a cart with Tess and Emily.

Before I know it, Birdie and I are standing off to the side of the 8th hole, and Emily, Tess, and Wren have already made their way down the aisle and are waiting in a line on one side of the arbor. The boys are in a line on the other side, with Palmer standing in the middle with his back to us, so he doesn’t see Birdie until it’s time.

“You ready, sweetie?” I whisper.

Staring at Birdie’s profile, my heart is so full of happiness when I see how eager she is to get to the man at the end of the aisle that she’s practically bouncing on her feet next to me in the grass.

“I love him so much I want to puke.”

My daughter’s reply makes me laugh, even as the tears start filling my eyes.

Birdie slips her hand around my bent elbow, positioning her bouquet in front of her stomach with her other hand. She squeezes my arm, and I want to tell her I felt the same way when the doctor first put her in my arms—I loved her so much I felt sick with the magnitude of it. And that feeling hasn’t stopped for thirty years. But I know anything I say right now would just make us both cry. Birdie would kill me if we were a blubbering mess right before we walked down the aisle.

And then suddenly, before I can think of something to say that won’t make either of us sad, everyone is standing and turning in our direction before I feel like I’m ready, and Palmer starts turning around.

The look on his face when he first sees Birdie makes my heart melt, like he can’t believe she’s actually his. And when I see him mouth the words “Holy shit” as his eyes take in their fill of her in her dress, Birdie lets out an emotional laugh as she takes a step forward.

And after dreaming about this moment and equally dreading it for as long as I can remember, it’s suddenly here. My feet are moving, and I’m walking my girl down the aisle, with a smile glued to my face as the photographer’s camera shutter rapidly clicks from farther down the grass, and all eyes are on us. My hand is resting on top of hers that’s nestled into the crook of my bent arm, and the guests’ faces all blur together as we go. And then we’re joining Palmer in the front, and I’m handing Birdie over to him with a kiss and a hug for them both.

It all happens so fast… in the blink of an eye, really, with no time to memorize or savor every smell, every sound, every footstep I take, or every detail I can. I don’t even realize it’s happened—that her hand is no longer holding onto me, and she’s no longer standing next to me, and I actually let her go—until I feel an arm wrap around my waist and hear a quietly firm voice in my ear while I struggle to get air in my lungs.

“You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

Dean pulls me out of the aisle and steps us back into the front row where he was standing, tucking me into his side while I remember how to breathe. His arm is like a life preserver around my waist, keeping me afloat when it feels like my knees might give out. And then he drapes it over the back of my chair when we sit as the officiant welcomes everyone, scooting closer and keeping me together. As soon as the officiant is finished and indicates they can begin their vows, Dean takes his arm off the back of my chair and grabs one of my hands resting in my lap, lacing our fingers together and holding on tight, as Palmer and Birdie turn to face each other.

Palmer suddenly dips his head forward and presses a quick kiss to Birdie’s lips, pulling back immediately with a nervous laugh.

“Sorry. I know I wasn’t supposed to do that until the end, but I couldn’t wait. You’re so fucking pretty,” Palmer whispers to her, just loud enough that we can hear him in the front row, making our hearts melt even more. “Also, I can’t stop staring at your tits.”

“Oh my God,” I mutter, shaking my head and laughing right along with the handful of other people in this row who heard that.

“At least he’s honest,” Dean leans over and whispers in my ear.

I ignore the shiver that makes its way through me on this hot summer day when Dean’s mouth brushes against the shell of my ear before he leans back.

Palmer clears his throat to begin his vows, and I squeeze Dean’s hand so hard I’ll probably cut off the circulation by the time this is over.

“I have loved you from the first moment I saw you,” Palmer starts, making a lump form in my throat, watching him look down at my daughter with all of that love shining in his eyes, their hands joined as they stand facing each other. “I wish I would have told you that day that every time you smiled at me, I couldn’t think straight, and every time you laughed, it felt like someone kicked me in the stomach. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed. Every time you smile at me, I wonder how in the hell I got so lucky, and every time you laugh, I hope I never stop making you happy. You’re my best friend, and you drive me crazier than anyone I’ve ever met, and you make me happier than anyone ever could.”

I can feel Dean’s eyes on me before I can see him looking over at me out the corner of my eye, my heart thundering in my chest as I force myself to keep facing forward. His hand is still wrapped around mine as I grip it like a lifeline. The heavy weight of it resting on my thigh, and the strength of him sitting right beside me while these words are being said, comforts me and wreaks havoc on me at the same time when he doesn’t take his eyes off me as Palmer continues.

“I promise to always bring you back maple bacon donuts when I leave the island so you won’t have to murder me in my sleep, and I promise to always pick you up from Sip and Bitch when you’ve had too much to drink, so you won’t ride your bike into the Summersweet Island Pond.”

“Oh my God, that was one time,” Birdie complains with a roll of her eyes even as a tear falls down her cheek.

The crowd all chuckles, and I laugh right along with them, accidentally glancing over at Dean. He’s still looking at me, and my laughter cuts off as my heart starts beating faster when our eyes meet, unable to look away from him while Palmer finishes.

“You didn’t ask me to stay, and I didn’t ask you to go with me, and it was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. I promise to never forget how much I can’t breathe when I’m not with you. And what a fool I would be to even try.”

I don’t even hear the last few words he says after that to Birdie, because my heart is pounding so loudly in my ears. I have to force myself to look away from Dean before the tears pooling in my eyes spill over, Palmer’s sweet words making me want to tell this man everything I feel right in the middle of my own daughter’s wedding. I stare up at Birdie and Palmer in a daze as she recites her own vows to him, thankful that she’s practiced them on me at least a hundred times in the last month, so I don’t feel bad when I barely hear half of what she says.

It’s an absolutely perfect, beautiful ceremony with the sun setting out over the water when they exchange rings. And just like that, in just under twenty minutes, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell are being introduced to the crowd. Everyone jumps to their feet with cheers and whistles and catcalls when Palmer can finally tug Birdie into his arms and kiss his wife properly.

And whatever spell I was under after looking over at Dean is quickly broken as I let go of his hand to clap along with everyone else.

“Time to get fucked up!”

Everyone cheers again when Bodhi throws his hands in the air and shouts to the crowd after Birdie and Palmer pull apart. She hooks her hand through his arm with the biggest smile on her face I have ever seen, and they walk down the aisle and past us, staring at each other the entire way, completely oblivious to everyone around them.

Dean and I make our way out into the aisle once the bridal party walks by, just in time to see that the last few rows of guests did what they were asked to do when they arrived. Each person at the end of the aisle had a golf club under their seat, and they now hold them up and out toward the aisle, forming an arch with the clubs for the bridal party to walk under.

“What do you say, plus-one? You wanna go get fucked up?” Dean asks me with a grin in the middle of the aisle, bending his arm and offering me his elbow.

I suddenly hate myself for referring to him as that this morning to try to put some distance between us. It used to annoy me when he first got here and called me his plus-one. Now, it just freaking hurts, and I wish I’d never said it.

Pushing aside all my bullshit, I smile back at him and wrap my hand around his arm, determined to enjoy the reception and celebrate the evening with my family.

“Lead the way, good sir. I could use about a gallon of wine right now.”

Chapter 22

Laura

“Fuck yeah, it’s tee time!”

“You doing okay?”

Karen pulls out a chair and sits down next to me at the empty table I decided to rest my feet at, while everyone is out on the dance floor.

I don’t even know how to answer her question right now. After spending all night walking around the room, talking to guests, friends, and distant relatives who made the trip, making sure everything ran smoothly so Birdie and Palmer wouldn’t have to do anything but enjoy their reception, my feet are killing me, my head is killing me, and I’m all talked out. I just feel… emotionally exhausted. I didn’t want to be sad thinking about Dean, and I didn’t want to be sad thinking about my baby being married and leaving on a two-week honeymoon in the morning, so I decided to spend the evening just not feeling anything at all, while I performed all of my mother-of-the-bride duties. Nothing except for happiness that the day went off smoothly and Birdie loved every minute of it, while I smiled, and I chatted, and I stayed in the moment with my family, enjoying the reception and appreciating the memories we were making.

But after being alone with my thoughts for the first time tonight, I’m feeling entirely too much right now, and I’d like it to stop.

“I don’t know what I am,” I finally tell Karen honestly with a sigh. “I am on emotional overload at the moment.”

“Well, you guys pulled off an absolutely perfect wedding, and everyone is happy. So we can at least cheers to that.”

Picking up my wine glass from the table, I clink it with Karen’s and take a sip, glad that this day went exactly how Birdie planned and dreamed.

After the ceremony, the guys all shuttled the guests back up here to the restaurant at the clubhouse. The reception immediately got underway with drinks and hors d’oeuvres while Birdie and Palmer had some photographs taken out on the course before the daylight disappeared completely. Dinner went off without a hitch, and the guests have been raving about everything. From the wedding cake—a giant tower of maple bacon donuts from Dolphin Donuts with a small, white frosted cake on top for the traditional cutting—to the centerpieces on the table—glass bowls filled with golf balls, a bouquet of yellow tulips coming up out of them, and a small golf flag jutting out the top with the table numbers printed on them.

“Also, I’m going to steal like ten of these table favors before I leave. I don’t know what I’ll do with them, but I want them,” Karen informs me.

I laugh as she pulls a few closer to her, grabbing them from the empty places at the table. During the boys’ crafting day, they put together over a hundred little square glasses with real grass planted in them. Each one has a yellow ribbon tied around it and a golf ball nestled down in the grass with Birdie and Palmer’s names and the wedding date printed on them.

Along with all the other little golf-themed touches Birdie added throughout the room, she really made this day special and personal. The guests enjoyed the food, they enjoyed the location, and they’re definitely enjoying the music the DJ plays and the beverages the bartenders serve, going by all the laughter and fun being had out on the dance floor. All the out-of-town guests wouldn’t stop talking about what a good time they had this week on the island, and all the locals in attendance are happy they’ve gotten to hang out at a great party with a few celebrities this evening while celebrating Birdie and Palmer.

The reception will be winding down soon, and I can’t believe after so many months of planning that this day is almost over. And it couldn’t have gone more perfectly, and like Karen said, everyone—including my family—couldn’t be happier.

I spot Wren sitting at another empty table on the other side of the room. Her shoes are kicked off, and her feet are resting on a chair in front of her with Shepherd sitting next to her. He’s leaning down with his face right by her stomach, making Wren throw her head back and laugh at whatever he’s currently saying to the baby, while she runs her fingers through his hair.

The bride and groom disappeared a little bit ago, both of them claiming they forgot something out at the maintenance shed next to the 8th hole. They were both acting a little weird and giggly when they quickly slipped out the side door and promised me they’d be back before anyone noticed. A few feet away from Wren and Shepherd’s table, the double glass doors that lead out onto the deck are wide open, and with the glow from the lights hanging on the railing, I can see Palmer and Birdie did indeed make it back without anyone noticing, and they’re out there all by themselves.

They’re wrapped in each other’s arms as they slow dance, even though the song the DJ is currently playing is a fast one. Palmer seems to be missing his tie and his tuxedo jacket, and Birdie’s veil is no longer on her head, and her hair is a little disheveled, but they don’t seem to care as they rock back and forth, never taking their eyes off each other.

Turning my head toward the dance floor, I spot Emily trying to teach Quinn the moves to the dance that goes along with “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode, which is currently blasting from the sound system. Quinn moves left when he should have gone right, and the two bump into each other, laughing and pointing fingers about who was in the wrong. Quinn immediately gives up on the dancing to scoop Emily into his arms and kisses her in the middle of all the guests while they dance around the couple.

“In case anyone is wondering, the lighting in the photobooth is horrendous if you’re trying to take dick pics to surprise your wife.”

I look away from the dance floor just in time to see Bodhi zipping up his pants as he steps out of the photobooth a few feet away that Birdie and Palmer rented for this evening.

Almost like she has a homing beacon that notifies her as soon as her husband does something stupid, Tess shows up out of nowhere, saving me from having to scold him. With one hand resting on her belly, she grabs the strip of photos with her other hand as soon as the machine spits it out, crumpling Bodhi’s surprise in her fist.

“Every time you open your mouth, I question my love for you,” she mutters to him.

“That’s not what you said a half hour ago in Birdie’s office when I opened my mouth between your—”

Bodhi’s words are immediately cut off when Tess takes her hand off her belly to clamp it over said mouth. A blush colors her cheeks as she shakes her head at him, while Karen and I share a laugh, and Bodhi grins behind her hand. When she slowly lowers her hand away from him, Bodhi grabs her face and gives her a kiss that makes Karen and me shield our eyes and look away for a few minutes.

“See? The lighting is all wrong. My dick is way bigger than that.”

We finally look back when the two have broken apart, after Bodhi snatched the crumbled strip of photos out of Tess’s hand and smoothed it out.

“It sure is, sweetie,” Tess reassures him with a placating pat to his chest.

Bodhi leans down and kisses her huge belly before popping back up and kissing her cheek, and the two of them walk away with their arms around each other. Until Tess finally rips the photo strip back out of Bodhi’s hand, pausing at their table to lean over and set the thing on fire with the candle flickering next to the centerpiece.

My whole family, even the lovely and difficult Tess, was able to get over their bullshit to find happiness and a happily ever after… so why can’t I?

The loneliness I haven’t felt since the moment Dean first set foot on this island threatens to overwhelm me all over again as I look around the room at my family, and I quickly take another sip of my wine.

When I was a little girl, I loved believing in fairy tales, because they seemed so magical and like happily ever afters could happen for everyone if they just believed hard enough. As an adult, I know now they’re not really magical, but they do still happen. I see it right in front of my eyes with all of my kids, and I see it every day that I spend with them. Fairy tales are real, and they happen… just not for me, and I’m so tired of it.

“You’re not going to tell him, are you?”

My eyes look away guiltily from where they searched out Dean, only to find him standing next to the bar, talking to Ed.

“Tell who what?”

Karen narrows her eyes at me. “Tell your fling that you’re falling in love with him.”

I choke on the sip of wine I was taking until Karen has to reach over and pat me on the back. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to hide anything from my best friend.

“If that’s true, I’m not thinking about that now. It’s my daughter’s wedding, and that’s all I’m thinking about,” I remind her, grabbing a napkin from the table and wiping off the wine that leaked out of my mouth.

“Except her wedding will be over in about five minutes, so what’s your next excuse going to be?” Karen asks, my eyes making their way over to Dean again no matter how hard I try to look anywhere else.

I haven’t had hardly any time to spend with him tonight, and as much as I didn’t want it to, it really sucked. I got pulled in a hundred different directions from going back and forth with the catering staff, the bartenders, and the DJ to make sure everything ran smoothly, to chatting with guests all night. I had to thank relatives for coming out to the island for the day and spend some time catching up with them, as well as meet some of Palmer’s people for the first time, not wanting to be rude as they eagerly struck up conversations.

But all through the night, Dean was always close by, quietly taking care of me without any fuss. He silently slipped up next to me while I was talking to Birdie’s boss, exchanging the empty wine glass in my hand with a full one without interrupting our conversation. He brought my plate of food over to the table I’d gotten stuck at, talking with one of my cousins, while dinner was being served, setting my plate down in front of me and then walking back to our table without a word, so I wouldn’t forget to eat. When I was out on the deck after dinner, chatting with the officiant, and started rubbing my arms when the ocean breeze gave me a chill, Dean showed up out of nowhere, draping his suit coat over my shoulders before disappearing back inside. Little things here and there all evening, anticipating my needs, taking care of me, and making it harder and harder to continue not feeling anything tonight.

“I begged someone else to stay once, and we both know how that turned out,” I remind Karen, turning around in my seat to face the table, my hands picking up a napkin with Birdie and Palmer’s names printed on it with the wedding date and shredding it into little pieces as I continue. “And I know that shouldn’t still bother me thirty years later, but it does. I begged, and I begged for four years, and I still wasn’t enough to make him stay. I thought it would break me apart until I realized he wasn’t worth my tears or my time. If I asked Dean to stay, and he said no….”

I can’t even finish the sentence when all I can see each time I close my eyes is Dean shaking his head and then walking away from me. After four years with Alex, it hurt like hell when he left. But after only eight days with Dean, a sharp stab of agony hits me right in the chest, shattering me before he’s even gone.

“Can we please stop talking about this now? I just want to enjoy the remainder of this reception and not think about anything.”

“Fine.” Karen shrugs. “For now. But there will be a Sip and Bitch in the near future, and you will talk about all of it.”

Reaching for my wine again, even though there’s a nauseous pit in my stomach that won’t go away, I drain the rest of my glass.

“You good, or do you need another one?”

Wondering if Dean has the same homing beacon for me that Tess has for Bodhi, I turn my head and look up at him standing next to my chair, nodding toward my empty glass, appearing out of nowhere because he thought I might need something.

I’m not good at all. I just need you to stay.

“Nope. I’m fine, thank you.” I smile up at him. “But I’ll probably need some help loading up all the wedding gifts and taking them home when this is over, if you don’t mind lending a hand.”

My stomach flip-flops when his face lights up with a grin, like I just told him he won the lottery. Before I can ask him why he’s so happy I’m putting him to work after this long day, the DJ’s voice comes over the sound system.

“Before I play the last song of the evening, the groom would like everyone to know the last tee time will be happening at the bar now!”

“Fuck yeah, it’s tee time!” Bodhi shouts from the other side of the room with his hands thrown up in the air, while I groan.

Our family has a long-standing tradition at weddings called tee time that started God knows how many years ago with a great-grandfather who was obsessed with golf. The band or the DJ will announce when it’s tee time, and then the bridal party and anyone who wants to join them goes up to the bar, and they all share a toast with a shot of whiskey. It starts off at every wedding reception by happening every half hour. Until everyone starts getting hammered and forgetting how long ago they last did a shot, and tee time is suddenly being announced every five minutes. The fact that the current tee time is happening in the restaurant named Tee Time has just made everyone more excited and cheer even louder every time the DJ makes the announcement.

“Is it my turn to keep Bodhi away from the bar, or yours?” Karen asks.

“Remind me again why Bodhi isn’t allowed to participate in tee time?” Dean prompts.

“He’s been banned from mixing weed with whiskey ever since the time he stole a truck full of goats and woke up in a field in Michigan,” I explain.

“Why would Bodhi steal a truck full of goats?”

Karen and I just shrug.

“To fucking cuddle them. Why else?” Bodhi shouts as he goes running by our table. “Fucking teee tiiime!”

“Stay there and relax; I got him,” Dean says with a chuckle as he turns and heads to the bar right as I started to push up from the table.

I watch him walk across the dance floor, weaving in and out of couples to get to the bar before Bodhi is handed a shot, taking care of things for me like he does so well.

And out of everything on my mind that shouldn’t be right now, the one thing that suddenly bothers me the most is that I never even got to dance with my date tonight.

“…and also that one time he got arrested on Venice Beach for trying to fight Criss Angel.”

“The magician?” Dean asks with a laugh as we get the last of the wedding gifts into my living room after three trips back and forth to the golf course, and I finish telling him all the reasons why Bodhi isn’t allowed to mix pot with whiskey.

Dean has heard a few of the stories over the years from Palmer, but he had no idea what caused any of them.

“That’s the one.” I nod, setting the basket of cards on top of the pile of presents in front of my couch as Dean closes my front door behind him.

“I can see that. There’s just something about his guy-liner and creepy smile that makes me want to punch him in the face. I’m pretty sure everyone hates Criss Angel.”

“Right? He just has this look about him, like he’s actually made bodies disappear—but with stabbing instead of magic,” I say with a shudder as I turn around to face him.

Dean and I share another laugh… until I realize all the gifts are inside, there’s nothing left for him to help me with, and I’m all out of crazy Bodhi stories to tell. Being with him is just so natural and easy, and within seconds of getting in the golf cart with him back at the course, I forgot everything that was troubling me and just enjoyed being with him.

Now, he stands a few feet away from me in the middle of my living room, hands in the pockets of his dress pants, head cocked to the side with his eyes on me, making no move to leave. I don’t know if I’m happy about that or not, knowing the longer he’s here—in my home and in my world—the harder it’s going to be not having him here, and everything that’s troubling me comes back with a vengeance.

All of the adrenaline that kept me going today has finally left me, and now that the day is officially over and I have nothing else to keep my mind occupied, I’m just so tired. Of worrying about everything, and being afraid of everything, and second-guessing everything. I just don’t want to think anymore. Not right now, not an hour from now, and certainly not tomorrow, when this man’s shoes will no longer be kicked off next to mine by the front door, and he’ll be gone from my living room and gone from my life.

“Dance with me.”

My heart leaps in my chest when Dean takes a step closer, pulling one of his hands out of his pocket, and holding it out to me.

“There’s no music,” I whisper, even as I’m taking a step and sliding my hand into his.

My breath leaves me with a gasp when Dean yanks me to him. He keeps his hand wrapped around mine and holds it against his chest, his other arm wrapping tightly around my waist and holding me against him.

“Pretend there is. I’ve been waiting to dance with you all night.”

With my heart pounding and butterflies flapping in my stomach, I close my eyes, and I do what he says. I bury my face in the side of Dean’s neck, breathing in the smell of his cologne as he slowly rocks us to an imaginary song in the middle of my living room. Tears sting the back of my eyes as he holds me close, wishing this man could hold me like this forever but too afraid to ask him.

“What do you need, sugar?” Dean asks quietly a few minutes later while we continue to dance, with his chin resting on my head and his hand rubbing up and down my spine.

I need to stop being afraid.

Pulling my head back to look at him, I wish I could just open my mouth and say what I need to say, but I can’t. I’ve never been a coward, and I hate that I’m being one right now. I’m tired of being scared, I’m tired of being alone, and I’m tired of not getting the happily ever after I deserve. I’m so tired of it all, and I just want to let this man give me everything I need.

Since I can’t say the words, I push up on my toes, and I kiss him instead. I press my hands to either side of his face, and I tell him the only way I can just how much I need him and how much I wish he would stay, hoping he can hear me.

As soon as my mouth is on his, it’s like I’ve given Dean the green light to devour me, and he’s been waiting all day for this moment. His hands are everywhere all at once, and his kisses make my head spin, until we both start moving at the same time. Clothing is quickly discarded in a trail through my house as we make our way back to my bedroom. My dress is tossed over a chair, his shirt and tie land on an end table, and his pants and my strapless bra flutter to the floor in my hallway, our kisses only stopping long enough to laugh when we blindly bump into walls and knock over a lamp in our haste.

Once we’re in my room, I laugh again when he breaks our kiss to pick me up and toss me in the middle of my bed.

He pauses to palm his cock at the edge of the mattress as he looks down at me lying naked on my back with my legs spread, and it’s the hottest thing I have ever seen. With the light from my hallway spilling in here, highlighting his muscles and tattoos and powerful body, it makes me squirm in anticipation in the middle of the bed until his eyes suddenly leave me to glance around my bedroom.

“Do you have three fans in here?”

I roll my eyes as I push up on my elbows and watch Dean look up at the ceiling fan above us, over at the box fan sitting on my dresser, and then at the small pedestal fan sitting on my nightstand.

“It’s called hot flashes, Dean. Don’t judge me.”

“Oh, I’ll give you hot flashes.” He grins down at me when his eyes finally come back to mine.

My laughter quickly cuts off when he climbs on top of me and presses his mouth to mine, settling himself between my thighs. I wrap my arms around his back and my legs around his waist, clinging to him as tightly as I can, and memorizing everything about the way he makes me feel, staying in the moment with this man instead of worrying about tomorrow.

Even though we rushed to get in here, everything slows down as soon as he pushes inside me. There’s nothing frantic or hurried about the way we come together this time, as opposed to the night in Ed’s office. Dean runs his hands and his lips over every part of me he can reach while he slowly rocks into me, stealing the breath from my lungs and my heart from my chest with how gentle he’s being. Like I’m the most precious thing in the world, and he knows this is exactly what I need right now. And like he knows it’s exactly what will tip me over the edge from being in the process of falling for him, to being full-blown, out-of-my-mind in love with him.

Dean grabs my hands from behind his back, lacing our fingers together as he pushes my arms over my head and pins them to the bed, pushing into me deeper, grinding against me harder, and kissing all my worries away. I give him everything I have in this bed, and I tell him everything I can’t say with my body and my heart while we move together, hoping it’s enough, and hoping he can feel it and hear it.

As much as I want this moment to last, it’s impossible to stop an orgasm from happening when Dean is pulling it out of me so perfectly with every move he makes. He follows quickly behind, shuddering against me and groaning into my mouth while I refuse to pull my lips away from his through his release.

When we’re finished, Dean slides out of bed and heads to my bathroom while I lay here staring up at my ceiling and trying to catch my breath. I’m suddenly so physically dead-tired after being on my feet all day that I can’t even move a muscle, and my eyes drift closed when I hear water running in the bathroom and then the click of the door opening back up a few minutes later.

“Do you need anything?”

I shake my head at his question, opening my eyes just in time to watch him turn off my hallway light. He flips the switch that turns on my ceiling fan, then moves around the room, turning on the other two fans. He slides into bed with me when he’s finished and pulls the sheet up over us before leaning over me and giving me a kiss. Sliding his arms around me, his mouth leaves mine as he rolls over onto his back, pulling me right along with him until I’m sprawled over his chest.

With his fingertips tracing up and down my spine, my head resting right under his chin, I fall asleep within seconds with a smile on my face to the sound of his heart beating against my ear and the breeze of my fans keeping me cool. I sleep more soundly than I ever have in my life, dreaming of hearts and rainbows and happily ever afters.

Until I wake up the next morning in an empty bed, inside an empty home, with no shoes sitting next to mine by the front door, and I realize I should have spoken louder.

Chapter 23

Laura

“Don’t be dumb. It’s giving me heartburn.”

“Who pissed in your coffee this morning?”

Looking up from the coffee mug in my hand that I haven’t even taken one sip out of yet since I sat down on the steps of my back deck an hour ago, I just blink at my seventy-year-old neighbor Murphy standing in the sand in front of me. Taking a sip out of his own mug he brought over here with him, he waves his other hand at me, and I scoot over on the step to make room for him. He sits down next to me with a groan, complaining about his bad knees and his bad back, just like he does every time he comes over and joins me.

We’ve spent a thousand mornings like this ever since the day he moved in next door, when Birdie was six and Wren was ten, and he came over to yell at me that they were making too much noise playing in the front yard. Murphy was the grumpy neighborhood curmudgeon who hoarded all the balls the kids on this street kicked into his yard, yelled at people to get off his lawn, and he hated everyone equally—men, women, and children alike. Technically, he’s still like that. But he had a soft spot for me and the girls from day one, and he was always a little less grumpy with us. He was also always making chauvinistic comments that would make me laugh before making me argue with him, about how it wasn’t right a woman was all alone raising her girls without a man to help. And he always joins me for coffee when he sees me sitting out here in the mornings, watching for dolphins out on the water as the sun comes up.

He’s like the grandfather the girls never had, and the father I wish I did. As irritable as Murphy can be, he will drop everything if we need something. He’ll walk away from the middle of a poker game if someone needs to be picked up from the ferry dock. He’ll skip his afternoon nap to threaten someone’s life if they hurt us. And he’ll never sugarcoat things when you need advice. Which makes me equally happy and dreading it at the same time that he’s joining me here this morning.

“You gonna answer me, or are you just gonna sit there pouting all day, until a bird flies over and shits on your lip?”

Even though I’ve felt completely numb since I woke up alone and went through the motions of making coffee without even paying attention to what I was doing, Murphy’s words never fail to make me crack a smile whenever he talks to me like a child.

“Kinda thought pouting all day sounded good.” I shrug, finally taking a sip of my coffee and then tossing it right out into the sand with a wince when it’s ice-cold and disgusting.

“You know Birdie will be back in two weeks. For shit’s sake, she hasn’t left the island for good.” Murphy grumbles to himself about women being fragile and always crying over everything, before taking another sip of his coffee. I don’t even have the energy to argue with him like I usually do about his old-school comments.

And I haven’t even had time to be sad that Birdie has already left for her honeymoon, and I had to say my goodbyes to her and Palmer last night before we left the reception. They stayed in the honeymoon suite at the Summersweet Island Hotel, getting the first ferry off the island at 5:00 a.m., so they could get to the airport and make their early-morning flight to Bali.

Right around the time I rolled over in bed and realized I was alone.

“I know Birdie will be back before I even know it. That’s not the problem.” I pause for a minute, staring out at the ocean with the sun just starting to peek above the horizon, blanketing everything in a soft, hazy light. It’s my absolute favorite time of the day, when the beach has been freshly combed, the neat lines through the sand haven’t been disturbed by people just yet, and all you can hear is the crashing of the waves to the shore and the cry of seagulls as they dive into the water to catch their breakfast.

But now, everything feels tainted, and nothing feels good, even my favorite view.

“I think I fucked up,” I finally whisper, blinking the tears away as I stare out at the water.

I haven’t shed any yet since I woke up and Dean was gone, and I’m not about to now. I know as soon as I start that I’ll never stop.

“I’m assuming it’s with the guy who broke into your house that you’ve been playing kissy-face with?”

I roll my eyes and sigh.

“Do you know when it’s too late to fix something you fucked up?” he continues, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, holding his coffee cup between them. “When someone keels over and dies.”

“Jesus, Murphy,” I mutter with another roll of my eyes, even though he can’t see them.

“Did this guy die?” He turns his head and looks back at me.

“Of course not.”

“Then it’s not too late to fix things.” He shrugs, like it’s that easy.

“I’ve only known him for a week.”

The excuse sounds lame even to my ears, and Murphy picks right up on it, chuckling as he takes another sip of his coffee.

“I met my wife on Tuesday, married her on Friday, and we were happily married for twenty-five years,” Murphy tells me, my mouth dropping open when he tells me this.

I knew he was married and became a widower far too young, but he never seems to like talking about his wife very much. I’ve never pried or pushed him, letting him drop random comments here and there over the years when he felt comfortable. I knew her name was Elise, they met in line for a ride at an amusement park, honeymooned here on Summersweet Island, and she always talked about wanting to come back some day, and she died suddenly from a massive heart attack. That’s about all I knew. I had no idea everything happened that quickly.

“There’s no timeframe for having a connection with someone, and just knowing in an instant they were made for you, and there’s nowhere else you’d rather be than wherever they are. Don’t be dumb. It’s giving me heartburn.”

Murphy’s rare, sweet words are of course punctuated with his usual insult and irritability. It’s nice to know that at least one thing never changes around here.

“And yet, you’ve been perfectly fine being alone all this time since then. You haven’t needed anyone, just like me. I’ve been perfectly fine being alone….”

Until now.

“Did you fall and hit your head this morning?” Murphy questions me with a frustrated grunt as he sits back up and turns to face me on the stairs. “Do you think I like being alone? Do you think I prefer hanging out with someone as annoying as you, with your equally annoying daughters and their annoying friends all these years, instead of someone who will make my dinner and wash my jockey shorts?”

“Hey, I’ve made you plenty of dinners. Stop being a chauvinistic pig,” I finally scold him, not even taking offense to what he’s saying, because I know damn well Murphy Swallow doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do.

“You’re all still annoying,” he grumbles before continuing. “I’ve been alone all this time, because I was already with the best. And you can’t mess with perfection, so why even try? You’ve been with nothing but shit lords. They were not the best.”

“Shit lords?” I chuckle softly, sniffling with my unshed tears.

“Eh, that moron Bodhi said it the other day. Thought I’d try it out. Doesn’t really roll off the tongue like I thought it would,” he muses, quickly changing subjects and firing a question at me. “This Dean guy… is he the best?”

I don’t even have to think about the answer. All I can do is nod as the lump in my throat that hasn’t gone away since I woke up starts to get bigger. He is the absolute best, and I know I will never meet anyone else who makes me feel the way he does. Or drives me insane as much as he does, or makes me as happy as he does, or fits into my family and my life so seamlessly as he does, or takes care of me so effortlessly like he does.

“Then what the hell are you doing, sitting here next to me?” Murphy scoffs.

“What if he says no?” My voice cracks on the words, and the same fear that kept me from saying anything to Dean last night makes my heart start beating faster, and panic flutters in my stomach.

“Fuck that. What if he says yes?”

Murphy’s question, one that I haven’t even allowed myself to think about because I’ve been so sure of what Dean would say, makes me feel like the biggest fool in the world. I’ve been so busy worrying about what would happen if I asked him to stay and he said no that I’ve stopped myself from thinking about the opposite happening as soon as it would enter my mind.

But I let it happen now. I take my time, and I imagine what it would be like if he said yes, and I see it so clearly in my mind it almost feels like it’s already happened. Dean sitting at the table with all of us for a family dinner, the two of us snuggled up on the couch, watching a movie, arguing that we bought too many Christmas presents for everyone and who should have to wrap them all, him popping by the stand to bring me a coffee just because he wanted a kiss, both of us taking care of each other, and loving each other, and spending the rest of our lives proving just how much.

“I think I need to go,” I mutter, jumping up from the stairs, my heart pounding and my stomach flopping with excitement instead of nerves and misery.

“Tell that yahoo he owes me a new putter!” Murphy shouts after me as I race up the stairs and across my deck. “I got a dent in mine when I chucked it at his head, and it skidded across the driveway!”

I don’t even bother wasting time putting on a bra or real pants. I fly through my sliding glass door and into my house, grabbing a Dip and Twist hoodie I tossed over the back of one of my kitchen chairs and throwing it on over my T-shirt and cotton pajama shorts as I go. I only stop long enough to slide my feet into a pair of flip-flops by the door, hoping and praying Dean’s boots will be sitting there by the end of the day.

And that his socks will be balled up on my living room floor, and the smell of his cologne will be on my sheets, and his toothbrush will be on my bathroom sink, and his motorcycle will be parked in my driveway, and everything else that goes along with asking someone to stay with you and having them say yes.

I make it to the Summersweet Island Hotel in record time, since half the island is still asleep and there aren’t that many people out on the streets yet, the tires of my golf cart squealing into a parking space right in front of the building. I jump out of the cart, waving to one of the landscapers as he waters the shrubs, and race inside the lobby with my hair flying out behind me, my flip-flops smacking against the floor, and a nervous and excited smile on my face.

“Hi, LaVon. Bye, LaVon!” I shout with a wave and a laugh as she emerges from the office behind the front desk when I go racing by, and she hears me hoofing it through the lobby toward the elevators.

“Laura, wait!” she shouts after me, making my feet slip on the freshly-waxed floor as I quickly try to stop.

LaVon is still laughing at me after I had to windmill my arms to stop from face-planting on the floor as I turned and ran back to the front desk, practicing everything I want to say to Dean in my head before I get up to his room.

“Sorry!” she apologizes while I try to catch my breath. “You look like you’re in a hurry. I promise this will just take a second.”

I rest my hands on the counter and continue going over everything I’m going to say to Dean, my body bouncing with anticipation. And a little bit of annoyance when LaVon turns and disappears back in the office. Before I can say “screw it” and take off toward the elevators again, vowing to apologize to her later for being rude, she pops right back out with a large box in her hands, walking up to the counter and setting it down.

I immediately recognize the box, and a spark of worry hits me right in the chest as LaVon pushes it across the counter toward me.

“I know you gave these to him, so I figured you’d want them back.”

LaVon smiles as she opens one of the flaps of the box and chuckles to herself when she peeks inside, while my spark of worry turns into full-blown panic.

“I don’t know who in their right mind would just leave a box of dicks behind when they check out, but he did.” She continues to laugh as she closes the flap… until she looks up at me. “Oh no! You don’t have to take them if you don’t want to. I could definitely give them away at our next book club meeting if you’d prefer.”

As she mistakes the tears in my eyes for sadness that I don’t want a fucking box of dicks, I swallow them back as hard as I can and force the words I don’t want to say out of my mouth.

“He checked out?”

LaVon nods, and my heart drops right into my stomach as she walks over to the phone when it starts ringing at the other end of the counter.

“Probably about two hours ago by now,” she tells me as she reaches for the phone. “Didn’t say much. Just left his key on the counter, asked me what time the next ferry left, and told me to have a good day.”

I barely hear what she says as she picks up the phone and greets whoever is calling with an energetic voice, while everything inside of me feels like it’s withering and dying.

If I wasn’t standing in the middle of a hotel lobby, I would let my legs give out, sink down to the floor, and curl up into a ball so I could get all of these unshed tears out of me.

“I can keep the dicks then?” LaVon shouts after me as she holds the phone against her chest when I turn away from the front desk and start walking, not even understanding how my feet are moving me and my legs are working when my whole body feels numb.

He left.

If I thought I was sad waking up without him this morning, it’s nothing compared to the misery I feel that he checked out of his hotel and he’s gone, and he didn’t even say goodbye. I can’t even be mad at him for doing it. I treated him like a fling who didn’t mean anything to me, so he left like a fling who didn’t mean anything to me.

Telling LaVon I don’t care what she does with the dicks, I walk out of the hotel in a daze much slower than I entered it, knowing I more than fucked up at this point.

And knowing I lost my chance to find out what would happen if Dean said yes.

Chapter 24

Laura

“Well, that’s certainly good news.”

“You should go home.”

I ignore Wren and continue wiping down one of the picnic tables under the awning of the Dip and Twist, until she puts her hand on top of mine and makes me stop.

“Seriously, Mom. Go home.”

“We’re closed. I don’t really care now if my face is scaring away customers,” I tell her, moving my hand out from under hers to finish cleaning off the table.

“You know I was just kidding when I said that.” Wren laughs softly, taking a seat at the table I’ve now washed three times.

I know she was kidding and was trying to make me laugh when I got here earlier, but she really was right. I look like shit, and I feel like shit. My eyes are red and puffy, and I look like I’ve been crying all day. Which I have. Until I decided to get up and go to work because being curled up in a ball on my couch feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to bring Dean back. And neither did driving all over the island after I left the hotel, hoping maybe he was still here, feeling even worse when I never found his bike parked at anyone’s house or in front of any of the businesses in town, and everyone I asked said they hadn’t seen him since the wedding.

“Don’t lie. Her face is about to scare me away, and nothing scares me.”

I finally stop wiping down the table to glare at Tess, sitting back at the girls’ purple picnic table designated for Sip and Bitch, inhaling a hot fudge sundae.

“Be nice to Mom. She’s sad,” Bodhi sticks up for me from next to her on the bench.

I’d like to give him a smile, but it hurts too much. And the fact that these two showed up here right after I got to work and have been hovering ever since just makes me want to frown even more. At least Quinn and Emily listened to me and got lost when I told them to a few hours ago.

“I’m fine. You guys don’t need to babysit me,” I remind them for the hundredth time.

“You’re right; we don’t. So how about you go home and let me finish up here,” Wren says again. “I’m supposed to be taking over the business, remember? You shouldn’t be stuck closing anymore or be up here all the time. That’s my job now. You’re supposed to be relaxing and enjoying your life.”

What life?

I don’t realize I said that out loud until Wren lets out a sad little whimper from next to me, wrapping her arms around me while mine hang limply down by my sides.

“Why don’t you just text him?” she asks softly with a tight squeeze.

I haven’t said anything to Wren about Dean since I got to work, but I didn’t have to. She could see it all over my hideous face, and I heard her whispering to Tess and Emily all day when she thought I wasn’t paying attention. And the fact that he didn’t pop by the stand to annoy me or send me a text to make me laugh while I was here was all the proof Wren needed to realize he was gone.

“What the hell would I even say?” I scoff. “Oh, hey, I’ve been miserable since you left. I’m sorry I was such an idiot. I miss you; please come back.”

Out of instinct, I glance back over my shoulder, almost expecting him to be standing right there, eavesdropping on our conversation. My heart falls when there’s nothing but an empty parking lot behind me, and I look back down at the picnic table.

“Um, yeah. That sounds good. You should do that.” Wren nods as I shrug out of her arms and toss the rag in my hand into the bucket of water on the ground.

“That sounds ridiculous,” I tell her, even as I’m pulling my phone out of my back pocket with shaky hands.

I pull up his name in my text messages, my heart clenching as I glance through our old messages, my finger hovering over the area to write a new one.

“What do you have to lose?”

“Her dignity?” Tess answers Wren’s question for me around a mouthful of ice cream.

“Don’t listen to her,” Wren argues, giving Tess the finger without looking away from me. “Just text him, and then I’ll leave you alone and never annoy you again.”

I laugh, knowing the chances of that happening are slim to none. Taking a deep breath, I quickly type a simple I miss you, and hit Send before I can change my mind.

A ding echoes through the air a few seconds later, and I look at my phone in confusion when I don’t have any new texts.

“Well, that’s certainly good news.”

My phone slips right out of my hand and clatters to the cement as I whirl around.

Dean looks up from his phone a few feet away with a grin on his face, and I don’t even hesitate as soon as I see him standing in front of me. I launch myself into his arms before he has a chance to finish sliding his phone back into his jeans. A sob flies out of me as soon as I feel his arms come around me. He squeezes me to him as tightly as he can, the solid weight of him holding me against him and his heart pounding against my chest letting me know this is real, and I’m not dreaming, and he’s here.

“Hey, sugar, why all the tears?” Dean asks softly when I just can’t seem to stop crying as he rubs his hand up and down my back.

Pulling his face back, he bends his knees so he can look me in the eyes. He lets go of me to hold my face in his hands, swiping away my tears with his thumbs, while shock replaces the concern on his face.

“Oh, shit. Did you… did you think I left? For good?”

“You did!” I fire back at him, a little bit of anger starting to replace my sadness as I sniffle.

“Wow.” Dean chuckles as his hands slip from my face, but the sound is filled with annoyance, making me want to punch him in the mouth. “You must really think I’m an asshole. You honestly thought I would leave the island without saying goodbye to you?”

Okay, now I feel like an asshole.

“You checked out of your hotel,” I mutter pathetically.

“Yeah… to move into my new cottage.”

And now I feel like I might faint.

“What?” is all I can manage to whisper in shock.

“I’m sorry I left before you woke up this morning,” he tells me with a sheepish shrug. “After the way you acted the last time I woke up at your house, I didn’t think you’d be too keen on me doing it again. Didn’t really feel like getting kicked in the balls this time instead of just getting the brush-off.”

All I can do is laugh through my tears, and I launch myself at him again.

When his arms come around me and he buries his face in the side of my neck, I say the words I should have said to him last night.

“Don’t ever leave me again,” I whisper brokenly as the tears start falling once more.

“Are you kidding me? I’d be a fucking fool to walk away from you,” Dean whispers right back, letting me know those words he said to me the night we looked at photo albums were really about him. “Besides, I signed an eighteen-month contract on the cottage a few places down from Palmer and Birdie the other day. I’ve got commitments I can’t break now. You’re stuck with me for at least a year and a half.”

“Wait, has Mom been sad all day because she thought Uncle Dean left?” Bodhi suddenly pipes up from the back picnic table.

“What the hell did you think we’ve been talking about all day?” Tess asks her husband.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention. I could have told you he didn’t leave. I helped him pick out furniture online when he showed me the place earlier.”

“For fuck’s sake, Bodhi!” Wren shouts at him, while I ignore all of them and just enjoy the man with his arms wrapped around me, who doesn’t seem like he ever wants to let me go.

“I’m sorry I didn’t ask you to stay,” I admit to him as Wren makes Tess and Bodhi get up from their picnic table and follow her inside the building.

Dean pulls back to look down at me again, locking his hands together at my lower back, in no rush to let me move away from him.

“I knew damn well you were too stubborn to ask me.” Dean smiles, making me narrow my eyes at him. “And then I realized you didn’t have to. I knew from the minute you first rolled your eyes at me that I was never gonna leave. I didn’t say anything, because I was afraid you wouldn’t want me to, and I’d piss you off by sticking around. But you eventually told me in your own way what you wanted… so I listened.”

I guess I did speak loudly enough.

“What about your job? And all of the places you have to go?”

Dean brings one of his hands up between us to brush my hair out of my eyes and tuck it behind my ear before locking his fingers behind my back again.

“I can do my job anywhere. I figured you knew that. I just need a garage and to get all my tools shipped here to me. I only travel to all those places and hand deliver the clubs because I have nothing else to do, not because I have to.”

I close my eyes and drop my forehead to his chest when his explanation seems so obvious, and I curse myself for not talking to him about it sooner and just making assumptions. After overhearing him talking to Palmer about something he needed to “tell Laura later” in the same breath that he spoke about his work commitments, I naturally assumed he wanted to tell me about leaving to travel to his next job, not about renting a cottage.

“I’m sorry I made you cry.” He pauses to kiss the top of my head, and I lift my face away from his chest to look up at him as he continues. “In hindsight, it definitely wasn’t the best decision to give you some space today.”

“I deserved it.” I shrug. “I should have just talked to you. I should have told you…” I have to pause to take another deep breath, knowing I can’t stay quiet about anything with him anymore. I have to be honest, even if I might not like his answer. “I should have told you I was in love with you, but I was—”

My words are cut off by Dean’s lips landing on mine. He kisses all my sadness away, and he kisses all my fears away, and he tells me without saying a word that he loves me too.

He pulls back just enough to look at me when he ends the kiss. “Just remember when you get pissed at me again that you said it first.”

“You’re so annoying.” I roll my eyes at him as he dips his head and kisses my cheek.

“Yeah, well, you fell in love with your fling.”

“So did you,” I quickly reply with my own grin.

“Best fucking decision I’ve ever made.”

“Yo! You guys almost finished out there?” Bodhi shouts, sticking his head out of the open serving window. “I gotta take a shit, and Wren says we can’t leave until you guys do.”

“There’s a bathroom in here, you idiot,” I hear Wren say from inside the building.

“Do you really want the smell of my dump taking up this entire small room? You have no idea what I’ve eaten today.”

Dean and I finally let go of each other, and he bends down to pick up the bucket of water for me, grabbing my phone that I dropped at the same time and handing it to me.

“You sure you really want to do this? I come with a lot of baggage,” I remind him, pointing my thumb over my shoulder at the grown-ass children inside the stand, arguing loudly about shit. Literally.

“I think I can handle it,” Dean says with a smile, grabbing my hand and lacing his fingers through mine as we walk to the back of the stand. “I don’t know how good I’m going to be at all of this though. It’s been a long time since I had to think about someone other than myself. I’m not used to having a family. Especially one as crazy as yours.”

I laugh, because it’s true.

“You mean a family as crazy as ours,” I correct him, and he gives my hand a squeeze.

“I’m only claiming the normal ones. You can have the crazy ones.”

As soon as we get to the back door of the Dip and Twist, the kids are all still arguing inside, and we see a squeeze bottle of chocolate sauce go flying past the door, followed by a loud curse from Bodhi when it hits him.

“Yeah, I don’t really think there are any normal ones.” I laugh.

Dean opens the door for us, ordering everyone to behave and act like adults as we step inside. When he lets go of my hand to dump the bucket of water out in the sink and then marches over to Bodhi to scold him for eating out of the toppings containers because it’s gross and unsanitary, all I can do is shake my head.

“I’m pretty sure you’ll do just fine having a family,” I whisper to myself with a smile.

After the stand is all cleaned up and closed down for the night, we wave goodbye to Wren, Tess, and Bodhi, and Dean takes my golf cart keys out of my hand as we walk across the parking lot.

“Your place or mine?”

I love the sound of him asking me this so much that I don’t even complain when he gets behind the wheel of my golf cart and starts it right up. I just slide in next to him and scoot all the way over until our thighs are touching, so I can rest my head on his shoulder.

“I don’t care. Surprise me.” And I don’t. We can go back to my place, he can take me to see his place, or we can stay right here in the parking lot. “I don’t care where I am, as long as it’s with you.”

“Awww, that was cute and cheesy,” Dean says, kissing the top of my head after he backs us out of my parking space. “I love you. Let’s go home, sugar.”

Epilogue

Dean

“Oh, this just got interesting.”

Two months later

“Give me the baby.”

“It cries every time you hold it. I’m not giving you the fucking baby.”

“You’ve been hogging that thing for the last half hour. It’s my turn!”

“No.”

“I know where the Off switch is now. Come on!”

“Go away.”

“Tess! Uncle Dean is being mean and won’t give me our goddamn baby!”

“That’s it. Give me my granddaughter,” Laura interrupts Bodhi’s and my argument, carefully taking the sleeping newborn out of my arms. She smiles down at the little girl wrapped in a blanket and cradled against her chest, and her voice turns soft and melodic like she’s talking to the baby while she scolds us. “She has a name, dipshits. I love you both, but please stop calling her ‘that thing’ and ‘it.’”

Nora Bennett Powell-Armbruster, a tiny little lass with a big name to live up to, came screaming into the world two weeks early with an attitude just like her mother. And just like her Lala, for that matter.

“Don’t annoy me on my wedding day.”

Laura tries to glare at me, but it doesn’t stick. Especially when I lean over Nora, grab Laura’s face, and give my wife the type of kiss that will most likely make this child wince and pretend to puke when she’s a teenager. And I’m so happy I’ll be here to witness it.

I met Laura on a Friday and married her on a Wednesday. It didn’t happen in the same week, even though I would have married her the day she told me she loves me. It happened, and that’s all that matters. Maybe a little soon according to some people’s standards, but neither Laura nor I give one single fuck about what other people think. We both spent entirely too long wasting time with the wrong people. What’s the point of waiting when you find the one you’re supposed to be with?

“How soon can we get out of here so I can get you naked?” I murmur against Laura’s lips.

She pulls back with a laugh and gently shifts Nora up to her shoulder when the baby starts to fuss in her sleep. It’s the most amazing thing in the world watching this woman take care of Nora and seeing her entire face light up as soon as she looks at her. It makes me a little sad I never got to see her like this with her own girls, but at least I get to experience it now, and again in another few months with Wren and Shepherd’s little one.

“I promise we’ll sneak out of here and go home as soon as dessert is served,” Laura reassures me with another kiss.

I spent exactly two weeks living in the cottage I rented… until Laura threw up her hands one night and said it was bullshit. I moved my stuff into hers the next day, too afraid she might change her mind, and now I use the other cottage as my office and work space. Having a home is something I never thought I needed until I came here, and now I can’t imagine how I never had one before. Gone are the days of living out of duffle bags and never staying in one place. I have a white picket fence, a man cave in the spare bedroom, and a bowl on the counter for my change and my keys. And it won’t be long now before I finally convince Laura that we absolutely have to get a dog.

My grumpy ass came to Summersweet Island for a wedding and a fling, thinking I enjoyed the peace and quiet of being alone, and determined to stay single forever. Now I have a wife, and a family, constant noise and interruptions, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

“Eeew, gross. Give me my little cousin before she pukes on you.”

We pull apart with a laugh and turn toward Owen, and I watch Laura hand him the baby.

“Come on, kid. I’ll tell you all about how disgusting the adults in your life are, with all the kissing they do,” Owen tells Nora as he walks away with her.

“He’s doing quite well with that baby. Much better than he did with the fake one.”

“I think he’s just happy he’s still the only boy grandchild after Wren and Shepherd found out they’re having a girl too.” Laura smiles at me.

“Food’s here, people!”

Everyone cheers when Ed walks under the awning of the Dip and Twist, with three employees from Dockside Eddy’s right behind him, all of them carrying trays of food. Laura quickly walks away from me to help Palmer and the boys set everything up on two picnic tables, and I smile when Laura threatens Ed’s life if he forgot the crab cakes.

“You’re lucky she’s happy with this little party, or I’d take out your other shin.”

I chuckle when Murphy steps up next to me, and both of us watch Laura smile and laugh at something Birdie says to her.

“You know damn well she didn’t want the fuss or attention of a big wedding so close to Birdie and Palmer’s, and with the celebration of Nora’s birth,” I remind the man.

It made me love her even more that she was always thinking about other people, even though our first big fight was over her not letting me give her the wedding of her dreams. It lasted exactly forty-five minutes, with two door slams and a pillow chucked at my head. And it was the kick-ass latch hook pillow I’d just finished at Shepherd’s house of a beautiful beach scene, dammit. But the fight ended with us getting naked in the middle of the living room, when she told me the only thing she needed for the wedding of her dreams was for me to be the groom.

“She just wanted something small and casual, with the people she cares about the most. Which makes me wonder how your grumpy ass got invited.”

Murphy grunts at me, but I see a smile tugging the corner of his mouth before he walks away to get food, letting me know he’s slowly warming up to me. The brand-new putter I finished and gave to him a few days ago might have helped with that as well.

After Murphy walked Laura down the makeshift aisle, with our ten family members, plus Karen, and Ed in attendance, we stood on our deck that looks out on the ocean and said “I do” as the sun went down. Now, we’re celebrating at a closed-for-the-night Dip and Twist with a bunch of our friends from the island that have joined us, a full spread of food, and ice cream for dessert, of course.

Standing at the back of the seating area of the stand, I watch Laura smile and hug each new person that walks up to join the celebration. Her casual white sundress with a short, flowy skirt shows off her long, gorgeous legs, and the plunging neckline shows off her sun-kissed skin, giving me an eyeful of her gorgeous tits. With her blonde hair hanging wavy and loose all around her shoulders, and a white flower tucked behind her ear, she’s the most beautiful bride I have ever seen, and I can’t believe she’s mine.

Laura flits all around the picnic tables, helping people get food and grab things they need, never saying no to anything she’s asked or taking a break for herself. I smile to myself, knowing I’ll have to eventually make her sit and eat something, and I can’t believe I was ever worried about settling her down. The only settling down she will ever do is the kind she does only with me. She still works at the stand as much as she can, and if you can’t find her here, you’ll find her traveling all over the island, helping anyone who asks. She has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known, and I’ll never understand why she gave it to me.

Knowing I have one last thing to take care of that I’ve been putting off for long enough, I take a deep breath. Smoothing my suddenly sweaty palms down the front of my dark jeans, I loosen my tie as I walk over to the purple picnic table, with my motorcycle boots thumping against the concrete.

Birdie and Wren are deep in conversation over their plates of food when I get there, both of them cutting off midsentence and looking up at me when I sit down across from them.

“In case I haven’t mentioned this yet, you look very handsome today.”

I’ve never blushed in my entire fucking life, but hearing these words from Birdie make me preen like a peacock, even while I have to shove the sleeves of my white dress shirt up to my elbows, because I’m suddenly sweating like a pig.

“Look, I wanted to talk to you girls before today, but I’m not really good at this shit, so bear with me.”

Birdie and Wren both look at me with curious expressions on their faces, and I clear my throat and quickly wipe the sweat from my brow.

“I don’t know the first fucking thing about being a dad,” I begin, having to clear my throat again when my goddamn voice cracks. “And I know you’re grown women, and you’ve done perfectly fine without one all these years, and you have the best damn mom in the whole world, and there’s nothing I could do for you that your men can’t. I just… I just want you both to know I’m here, okay? And I’m not going anywhere. So if you need help changing a flat tire, or you need me to kick someone’s ass, or you want to borrow a tool or something… whatever you need, you can always call me, yeah?”

The girls silently nod, both of their eyes filled with tears, making me feel like a dick that I’m upsetting them.

“Okay, good.” I nod back at them, glad that I got this over with and didn’t die.

“Can I have a pony?”

“I need forty bucks to get my nipples pierced.”

“Can we go to Disney World?”

“Let’s have a tea party!”

“Oooh, he should definitely wear a tutu for that.”

“Can you go to the store and get us super-extra-plus tampons for our heavy flow?”

I just shake my head at the girls with a smile when they finally finish and then throw their heads back and laugh.

“Smartasses,” I mutter when their laughter quiets down, and they both reach over the table and each grab one of my hands.

“Welcome to the family.” Wren winks at me.

“We love you Daddy Uncle Dean,” Birdie adds with a smirk.

“You’ve gotta stop trying to make that happen.” I shake my head at her as they let go of my hands with more laughter and get up from the table as Laura makes her way over here. “Can we at least vote on it?”

My shout after them as they walk away with their plates to join their men is completely ignored, just like I knew it would be.

“Can we vote on what?” Laura asks, tucking the skirt of her dress between her legs as she straddles the bench next to me.

“Don’t ask.” I smile at her, leaning in to give her a kiss.

“Hey, Ryan!”

Our kiss is interrupted with a shouted greeting from a few of the family members, and we look over at the table next to us to see Emily getting up and giving the newcomer a hug. When they pull apart, he lifts his hand and waves at Laura.

“Didn’t mean to crash the party. I was just walking by and thought I’d say congratulations.”

“Who’s that?” I lean in and ask Laura after she thanks him, and he starts talking to Palmer seated next to Emily.

“Oh, Ryan and Emily dated off and on for years until he finally broke things off because he met someone,” Laura tells me quietly as I look at the man.

He’s dressed in a crisp polo shirt with the Summersweet High School mascot over his heart and neatly pressed khakis, with clean-cut, perfectly styled hair and a big, eager smile on his face as he happily chats to the table with his hands in his pockets.

He looks like a thirty-something, innocent boy scout who could in no way handle the fiery, redheaded Emily, and it just makes me chuckle.

“So, yeah, when he broke things off to date someone else, it let Emily stop feeling guilty that she was falling for Quinn,” Laura finishes her explanation. “He’s just the sweetest. His dad is the mayor of Summersweet, and Ryan is the high school bowling coach and algebra teacher. Kind of like an eager-to-please puppy. Nicest young man you’ll ever meet. Oh, there’s Danny. Hi, Danny! We’re back here!”

Laura raises her hand to wave and shout across the patio to a young woman who just walked up to the stand.

“Remind me again who Danny is?” I ask under my breath as the woman starts weaving in and out of people and picnic tables to head back here.

“The one I ran into yesterday in the hotel lobby when I was dropping off the ice cream order, remember?”

It all comes back to me when Danny stops behind Ryan to shift something under her arm, and he starts to turn around to see who Laura was yelling to. I notice she’s carrying a large, framed canvas, and I remember Laura called me as soon as she left the hotel, to tell me she bumped into “the most adorable artist ever” while she was there. Literally. They ran right into each other, causing the stack of canvases Danny was holding to all go tumbling down to the lobby floor. I don’t know the first fucking thing about art, but Laura told me she was so obsessed with one of the paintings that she had to buy it off of her immediately for our living room.

“She was checking out of the hotel today to move in with a roommate later this evening. After she had it framed, she asked if she could drop the painting off before she got busy with that, so I told her stop by here anytime tonight,” Laura finishes, right when Ryan gets turned around.

“Nerd?” Danny asks in shock as soon as Ryan is facing her.

“Nutjob?” he replies in just as much shock, making me press my fist against my mouth before I bark out a laugh.

“Do you two know each other?” Laura asks. “Wait. This isn’t your girlfriend that we’re finally meeting, is it?”

“What? No! Oh my God, no! Ha ha, that would be crazy! No. Nope. Definitely not.”

Ryan doth protest too much…

And Danny looks like she’s about ready to punch him in the face with all of his protesting.

“Never seen him before in my life,” she mutters. “He just looks like a nerd.”

I do bark out a laugh this time, and Laura shushes me with a smack to my arm.

They’re obviously lying about knowing each other, but she looks like she would eat him alive if she was actually his girlfriend. Whereas Ryan looks like a sweet, innocent Mr. Nice Guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly, Danny looks like a badass who works in a tattoo parlor, seconds away from breaking a beer bottle against the edge of the closest picnic table and slicing Ryan’s throat with it.

She’s wearing an oversized tank top with some kind of lacy bra thing under it, with a pair of frayed jean shorts, and black Doc Marten’s on her feet. She’s got a full sleeve of colorful tattoos on one arm, some more on the side of one thigh peeking out from under the edge of her shorts, a nose ring, and a trucker hat on backwards over her long black hair streaked with bright red at the ends. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more opposite people in my life.

“Well, then, Danica Brewster, this is Ryan Hutton; Ryan, this is Danica,” Laura introduces, playing along with their charade. “Although I believe she said her first name is actually Tinsley, but she goes by her middle name. It definitely suits her better, wouldn’t you agree?”.

“Oh, fuck,” Danny mutters. “You’re Ryan Hutton?”

“You’re Tinsley Brewster?” Ryan replies, quickly starting to back away from her, tripping over the leg of one of the picnic tables in the process.

“Oh, this just got interesting,” Laura muses.

I can immediately smell matchmaking on her mind. I can also see it on her face when I look at her, while she watches Ryan make a hasty retreat away from the Dip and Twist, saying a quick goodbye to everyone before practically running away down the street.

“There’s definitely something there. I’ll call Ryan later.”

“No, you will not,” I tell Laura.

She rolls her eyes at me, and I lean over and kiss the tip of her cute little nose.

“Did you like it when people were meddling in our business?”

“No.” She pouts, crossing her arms in front of her with a huff.

“Exactly. Leave Ryan and Danny alone.”

Laura scoots closer to me on the bench, grabs onto the front of my shirt, and tugs me toward her. “I thought we discussed this. It was even in your vows. You are not allowed to tell me what to do unless I’m naked.”

“Then get naked, woman.” I smirk at her, making her laugh and let go of my shirt when Danny finally makes it to our table.

Laura gets up to give her a hug, then takes the painting and stows it inside the stand. She spends a few minutes chatting with Danny in there before coming back to me.

Turning around on the bench, I grab onto her hips and pull her down on my lap. She wraps her arms around my shoulders, and I wrap mine around her waist.

“I’m sorry to tell you that I think you just became a dad again,” Laura sheepishly admits to me as she turns and watches Danny walk into town on the sidewalk. “I think I just adopted another stray. It’s a girl!”

All I can do is laugh. “Whatever you need, sugar.”

I pull her closer and kiss my wife—the woman with the biggest heart in the world.

An hour later, we manage to sneak away from the stand while everyone is busy eating their ice cream. With our hands joined, we giggle and whisper like a couple of kids as we jog around the back of the stand, stopping every few feet to kiss before we make it to my bike parked in between everyone else’s golf carts.

“You know, as soon as I start this thing, everyone will hear it and know we’re sneaking away early,” I tell Laura as I hold my hand out to her once I’m seated on my Harley, helping her get on the back behind me.

“Don’t care,” she tells me, wrapping her arms around my waist. “Take me home, plus-one.”

Hearing her call me that doesn’t have the same effect on me it did a few months ago. Especially since she put it in her vows that nothing makes her happier than knowing she has a plus-one for the rest of her life.

The bike starts with a rumbling roar, and just like I knew it would, the sound makes everyone in the picnic table area stand up and rush out from under the awning to stand in front of the Dip and Twist.

“Looks like someone’s in a hurry to consummate the marriage!”

“Don’t use all those condoms in one place!”

“Murphy better sleep in a hotel tonight, or he’ll never get any sleep from all the shouting next door!”

“Don’t knock up our mom!”

That last shout from our family makes everyone laugh in the crowd, including me and Laura. She tightens her arms around me, and I pull away from the stand with one last wave to them, the Just Married sign with condoms taped all over it the boys attached to my bike fluttering out behind us, the empty soda cans on strings clattering against the ground as we go.

A part of me is sad Laura and I didn’t meet sooner, wishing I actually had the capability to have kids of my own, so we could have had them together. But everything happened the way it was supposed to. And besides, marrying her gave me eight kids, two grandkids, and another one on the way. I don’t think I could love them any more than I already do, even if they were my own flesh and blood.

“What time do we have to leave tomorrow?” Laura asks in my ear as I slowly cruise through town.

“There’s no set time. We can take off whenever we want.”

Laura snuggles closer to me on the back of the bike with her thighs hugging mine, her body pressed against my back, and her chin resting on my shoulder, talking in my ear the entire way home about our trip.

She insisted we spend our honeymoon hand-delivering a few of the recent club orders I finished, and I have never been more excited to take off across the country than tomorrow with her. I’ve gotten her on the back of my bike as much as I could in the last few months, driving around the island and taking her over to the mainland on the ferry to go to dinner and to run errands, but I can’t wait to have her there for more than a half hour at a time. I used to enjoy being alone on my bike, with nothing but the wind in my face and my own thoughts quietly in my head. Now, I can’t even remember what it was like when I did that, and I couldn’t imagine being on this bike now without Laura wrapped around me and her voice in my ear. And I don’t even want to try.

“I love you, Mr. Campbell.”

Taking one hand off my bike, I rest it on top of Laura’s that’s pressed against my heart.

“I love you too, Mrs. Campbell,” I tell her, sighing contentedly when she kisses my cheek as I turn a corner, my heart thumping faster under her hand just like it always does when she tells me she loves me.

With this fling, Laura gave me a home, a life, a family, and a reason to get up every morning. She can adopt as many strays as she likes, continue to fill our lives with people and noise, and help whoever she wants…

As long as she always comes home at the end of the day to settle down with me.

“Care to move that hand resting on my stomach a little farther south?” I tease loudly over the sound of the engine and the wind rushing against our faces.

Laura laughs against my ear and then kisses the side of my neck.

“Why, yes—yes, I would.”

Her hand slides right down between my legs without hesitation. I immediately twist the throttle and move us faster toward our destination, so I can get my wife naked.

The End

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