CHAPTER 1

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The Romance Novel Convention, Honolulu, Hawaii

“KENNY! HERE YOU ARE. I’ve been looking all over for you.” My literary agent, Gail, pulls out a chair and joins me at my poolside table. I know she’s been trying to find me, but I’ve been … well, busy. Too busy to answer her texts and definitely too busy to take her calls. Besides, she has other authors to look after that I’m sure would be thrilled to have the undivided attention of Gail Walters.

Without looking up from my laptop, I huff, “Well, congratulations – you found me.”

I hear her rambling on about something she thinks is important, but frankly, there’s too much inspiration here to ignore. My fingers are flying across the keyboard, furiously recording every detail I can absorb.

Sunset in Honolulu is breathtaking. The sun radiates gold and amber as it dips low into the horizon. The sky is an electric blue shimmering above billowy clouds of white. A ribbon of ruby red and the most intense bursts of fuchsia and violet span the horizon, skimming the surface of the vast ocean.

Palm trees and banyan trees are adorned with bouquets of the purest white flowers, too numerous to count. There is no carpet for the bride to walk down. In its place is a trail of white flower petals, meticulously arranged in a swirling pattern that perfectly mirrors the water behind, leading towards a small arbor where the groom awaits.

The groom. Standing stock still, waiting, dressed in khakis and a white dress shirt. All eyes are on him, especially the female guests, in joyful appreciation. They are all telling themselves that if this man can be tamed and domesticated, this beautiful man who could undoubtedly have any woman he desires, then perhaps they can find a fantasy man of their very own.

Suddenly, the music starts and everyone turns to see the bride enter, preceded by …

“Ahem,” Gail drags me away from my observations. “Kenny, please. Your Social Media Workshop for Authors was a big hit today. Stop working and relax a little.”

“Fine.” I save my notes, close the laptop, and smile. “What’s up?”

“Quite a wedding going on down there on the pavilion. Do you know who that is?” she asks.

Duh. “I’d have to be dead not to know who NFL quarterback Evan McGuire is, Gail. Every woman alive knows who he is. He and his fiancée have been all over the news. I’ll tell you one thing, they sure do know how to put together a wedding. It’s the perfect setting for my next book. I think it’s time Suzi and Liam run away and get married. The readers are clamoring for it. They keep begging me for a wedding or a baby. What do you think?”

I sit back and wait for her insight. Gail has become more than just my literary agent, she’s my sounding board. She knows what it takes to turn a good book into a great novel, and her advice hasn’t been wrong yet. With her smart editing and spot-on suggestions, my last book, “Before I Forget,” sold millions of copies.

She furrows her brow making worry lines appear on her forehead. “Your mind ever stop? You’re young, beautiful, newly single, and in one of the most romantic places on the globe, and yet all you can think about is playing make believe.”

I open my mouth to argue, but she waves me off and continues lecturing me. “Kenny, forget about Suzi and Liam for one goddamn minute, will you, please? Come, stop working and have a drink with me. Preferably something with an umbrella in it.”

“I guess I could…”

Before I can even finish my sentence, Gail waves over one of the attendants on duty. She reaches over, grabs my laptop, and hands it to him. She reads the name embroidered on his shirt and asks, “Lani, would you be a darling and deposit this in room 613?”

He considers his response momentarily, but as he glances down, he notices the crisp hundred-dollar bill discreetly passed along with the laptop. How the hell did she do that? I didn’t even see her take out her wallet.

With a gleam in his eye and a satisfied smirk on his face, he quickly accepts. “With pleasure ma’am. Is there anything else I can do for you ladies this evening?”

“Oh, yes!” Gail looks around at the other guests and assesses their drink of choice. Her eyes land on a tall hurricane glass filled with a bright blue spirit and a skewer of tropical fruits. “That looks tasty. I’ll have one of those.”

“A Blue Hawaiian. Excellent choice.” He puts it to memory and turns to me. “And for you, miss?”

Without hesitation, I know exactly what I want. “I’d like a Blood Orange Mojito, but only if you have fresh blood orange juice – not that flavored vodka crap. If not, then just a Pomegranate Martini.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Be right back with your drinks.” He turns and walks directly to the bar to place our order.

Gail’s eyes are firmly set on his firm behind. “He’s yummy,” she purrs.

“He’s also twenty five years younger than you. You’re old enough to be his mother.”

She humphs. “Aunt, maybe. Mother? No way. Unless he has mommy issues he needs to work out. In that case, I’d be happy to stroke his … ego!”

I shake my head as images of Gail and that poor young man pummel my senses. “Ew. Just stop. How the hell am I supposed to get that picture out of my head?”

“Not my problem,” Gail quickly counters. Her mood quickly changes and her eyes soften. She reaches across the table and takes my hands into hers. She’s worried about me. “How are you holding up?” she asks sympathetically.

Two weeks ago, I caught Trent, my fiancé, cheating on me. Well, I didn’t actually catch him … he threw himself under the bus. Like the idiot he is, he left a voicemail for her on my cellphone.

I swear – stupidity will get you every time.

Of course he tried to deny it, claiming it was all very innocent and insisting that I must have misunderstood. That she was someone from work: a client he was charged with overseeing. But when I played back the explicit voicemail of him telling her all the things he was going to do with her (and to her), his lame ass work of fiction quickly disintegrated and he had no choice except to fess up to his indiscretion.

Eventually, I dragged the truth from him and I found out her name is Freya. She’s not a client, she’s an associate from the company’s London office. I can just imagine listening to her precise diction and superior air. In my mind, she’s Princess Kate Middleton and I hate her. In fact, I now hate all of Europe.

“You know, Gail, the funny thing is that I’m not sad. Not even a little bit. Disappointed, yeah. Angry, you bet. But sad?” I stop to think. I search my emotions to see if sad has showed up yet. “Nope. Is that wrong?”

“I dunno. Did you love him?”

Lani returns with our cocktails, interrupting our conversation, and then scurries away to take my laptop up to my hotel room.

Once he’s gone, I continue. “I cared for him – a lot. I really thought Trent was the one. He fit perfectly into my box.”

“Finally, a conversation worth having. Tell me more about your box!” she exclaims loud enough to get the attention of everyone around us. “I found that one way or another, no matter how big or impressive, they all find a way to fit.”

“Not that box,” I tell her, “my boyfriend box. When I was a teenager, I made a list of all the qualities for my perfect man and I placed it safely into a box. Over the years, my list has changed a lot. I’ve changed a lot.”

I laugh a little as I recall the first quality to be removed from ‘the list’. I wanted a fairy tale romance and it seemed necessary that my prince charming know how to ride a horse so he could whisk me away like a knight in shining armor.

“Lani must have some of the qualities needed to get into your box,” she teases. “I wouldn’t mind putting him in my box now that you mention it.”

I shake my head emphatically. “Not enough. But then again, Trent checked off almost all the boxes and we both know how that turned out.”

“Tell me about this list.” Gail sits back and begins to empty her glass quickly and efficiently.

I know the list by heart.

One. He uses proper grammar.” Gail rolls her eyes.

Two. He makes eye contact when he talks to me.” She shrugs.

Three. He has great hair.” This one earns me a firm nod.

“Wait a minute,” Gail interrupts, “that sounds like Lani to a T.”

I ignore her and continue my recitation.

Four. He can’t be prettier than me.” Another nod. Bye-bye Lani.

Five. He treats his mother well.”

Six. He has a good, stable job.”

Seven. He tips well.”

Eight. Knows how to cook the perfect steak.”

Nine. Can use a hammer and a screwdriver.”

This is the one that replaced horseback riding. I’ve learned how important it is to have a man with actual life skills.

Ten. He has a strong handshake. Which includes hard, calloused man hands.”

“You know, Kenny – I’ve met Trent and I’m fairly sure he never worked a hard day in his life. His hands are softer and smoother than mine.” Gail holds out her hands for my inspection. “And I’ve got great hands.”

“Yeah, that’s the only box that he didn’t check off,” I admit.

“Well, I say that tonight you find some hottie with big strong hands and get Trent the Tool out of your system.” She scans the bar looking for a potential target. “How about him?” she asks, pointing to a young man with shaggy hair and sleeve tattoos standing at the bar.

“No way – not my type,” I tell her.

“That’s the point,” she growls, refusing to admit defeat. “Let’s see. There’s got to be someone…”

“Give it up. Not going to happen. I’ve never had a one-night stand in my life and I’m not about to start now. Tomorrow I have a six-hour book signing to look forward to and I need a good night’s sleep. Alone. Period. End of discussion.”

Tomorrow is the last day of the Romance Novel Convention. This is the place where authors, agents, publishers, editors, cover designers, bloggers, and readers mix and mingle. I’m here to promote the release of my most recent book, “After the Storm”. This is business – big business – and I have no intention of mixing it with pleasure.

Gail knows me well enough to know that I’m not easily swayed, so she drops the subject. Instead, we order far too many drinks and gossip about all the beautiful people gathered at the star-studded wedding reception just a few yards away.

I love people watching. We start off with an old-fashioned game of Wife-Girlfriend-Mistress-Daughter. We sit together in critical judgment of all the beautiful women at the wedding reception and decide what their relationship is to the man at their side.

This game turns out to be more of a critique of the men rather than the women, since our declaration comes more from the vibes sent out by the guys rather than their dates. The nice guys, we decide, are with their wives or girlfriends. The ones we deem to be giving off a creepy vibe are with their mistresses. We haven’t found a single one with a daughter yet, but we keep searching.

Gail empties her glass and glances around, searching for Lani. “Where the hell is he? I need another drink.”

“You know, you could go up to the bar and get one yourself,” I suggest. “You are a lot of things, Gail Walters, but helpless isn’t one of them.”

“You’re right,” Gail declares. She stands up and swipes her glass off the table. “I’ll be right back. How about you? Want another?”

“Sure. Why not,” I tell her. It’s getting late and the night is almost over. One more drink before I head up to my swanky hotel suite, courtesy of Breakaway Publishing Group.

A few of the reception guests have meandered over to the bar as well, and Gail is taking longer to return with our drinks than I expected. I pull out my cell phone and make more notes for Liam and Suzi’s dream wedding. The tiki torches surrounding the bar even inspire an excellent title, “Through the Fire”, which I quickly add to my growing list of notes and ideas.

As I’m typing, a deep and sexy male voice speaks to me. “Um, excuse me, but I’m supposed to give you this,” he places a drink in front of me, “and this,” he adds as he slides a note scribbled on a bar napkin in my direction.

I chance a glance up at him from under my lashes and I’m suddenly staring at a strikingly handsome man who flashes me a smile that I feel all the way to my core. Standing in front of me is the flesh and blood version of my fourteen-year-old mind’s Prince Charming. This man is all muscle and towering length, easily topping six-four, with massive shoulders and a tight chest clearly shows through his white linen dress shirt.

My breath hitches as our eyes collide. His eyes and smile are intensified by the sexy scruff on his jaw and the messy, unkempt dirty blond hair that frames his attractive face.

Heat floods my cheeks at my body’s instant reaction to this man’s presence. I can feel my breasts swell and my lower belly squeeze, and as we continue to stare at each other in intense silence, my mind and body are immediately at war. My body is panting, “He’s yummy and we want a taste,” while my mind is screaming, “Don’t be an idiot. We don’t do this.”

The more he stares, the more I stare, and the more I stare, the more I notice how deliciously lickable he is. Whoever he is, does he have to be this handsome? Seriously?

I drag my focus away from him and toward the napkin he’s laid in front of me. Cautiously, I open it and read. It’s from Gail.

Fuck the box and live a little. You’re welcome. ~G

“Well, what does it say?” he asks with a glint in his eye.

I blurt out, “Fuck the box,” without thinking.

Without missing a beat, he answers with a smile, “But I don’t even know your name.” He pulls out the chair that was once occupied by Gail and folds himself into it. God, he’s tall. His knees are practically pressing against the table.

He holds out his hand and grins at me again. “You know, there’s one way to rectify that situation. My name is Cole.”

I reach for his hand and it’s the exact kind of grip I love. His hands are big, strong, and rough. For a fleeting moment, I imagine sticking one of his fingers into my mouth and sucking, running my tongue up and down the pad of his finger.

“Kenny,” I breathe out in response, still clutching his hand tightly.

“Kenny, huh? That’s an unusual name. Is it short for something or did your parents really want a son?”

Even though I’ve heard it a million times before, a light chuckle escapes from my lips. “Does it really matter?” I ask, slipping my hand away from his.

His eyes never leave mine and his intense gaze is unnerving. “Not in the least,” he answers. “So what brings you here? Are you here for the NFL Pro Bowl Game?” I wonder if he’s a football player. He sure looks like one.

“No, I’m here for the RomCon,” I confess. Shit, I don’t want him to know I’m an author. I don’t want him to know anything about me.

“Oh, a girl who likes to read. What else do you like to do?”

I guess a little light conversation can’t hurt. I take a sip of my drink before I respond. “Zumba,” I tell him. “Dancing, stomping, and wiggling around to music makes me feel like I’m in a music video. I always leave sweaty and with a smile on my face.”

Why did I say all that? I definitely said too much. Damn my mouth!

“Funny, that’s my motto. Always leave them sweaty and with a smile on their face,” he teases.

I can’t help but wonder how the light scruff on his chin would feel pressed against my skin … behind my knees, between my breasts, between my legs. Holy shit, I bet he would feel amazing between my legs.

I’m smiling. And he’s smiling back.

“Finish your drink,” he tells me in a very direct tone. “I’m taking you dancing.”

“What? Where?” I look around. “No one is dancing,” I argue.

“Of course they are – right over there by the lagoon.” He stands up and again, holds out his hand. “Coming?”

“Not yet,” I mumble under my breath.

Shit. What’s wrong with me? I hope he didn’t hear that.

This is a mistake.

“Listen, Cole, you seem like a really nice guy,” I begin to explain.

He puts his hand down and leans closely, just a few inches from my face. “Do I?”

I can’t do this.

“See, I just broke up with my fiancé. You don’t know me, but if you did, you would know that I’m not the kind of girl that crashes weddings and I’m definitely not the type to hook up with some random guy for a one-night stand. My life is very complicated right now and I have a big day planned for tomorrow.”

I have more to say, much more. But Cole puts his finger against my lips, stopping me. “It’s a dance, Kenny. Nothing complicated about it. And we’re not crashing, I’m a guest.”

“Look at me, I’m not dressed for a wedding. Especially not that wedding.” I look down to examine myself. I’m wearing a white eyelet dress, strapless, with a hem that flares out just above my knee. My hair is down in loose beachy waves and the only makeup I’m wearing is some lip-gloss. I am, however, wearing the cutest pair of strappy sandals with a considerable wedge heel.

He ignores my protest and gently pulls me to my feet.

His crystal-blue eyes are sharp and assessing as they take a slow stroll down my body, then back up to my face. A slow, sexy smile spreads across his lovely face, and I’m rendered defenseless as my insides melt.

“You look perfect to me. Come on. Let’s go,” he insists, again holding out his hand for me.

What am I fighting against? A dance? I’m an adult and I’ve danced with boys before. Lots of them. This one is no different.

I stand and place my hand into his as he leads me away. Together, hand in hand, we walk across the beach. The music grows louder as we get closer to the dance floor.

I contemplate the wisdom of starting down this road.

One dance, no problem. But I already know that one dance will lead to two, two will lead to three, and after that – who knows? This isn’t smart. It’s not too late to change my mind.

“Forget it. It’s too crowded. There’s too many people. And I don’t belong here,” I try to explain.

“Kenny?”

“Yeah?”

“Shut up and dance.”

Cole leads me to the center of the dance floor. “Oh. Okay.”

The dance floor is packed tightly, but we squeeze in. He places his hands on my hips and begins to move. More people crowd the floor. We squeeze closer together. I put a hand on his firm chest as I move with the music.

Everyone and everything around us fades away. All I can think about is the way his chest rises and falls with each breath and how I can feel his heartbeat, keeping perfect time with my own.

He wraps his long arm around my waist and pulls me tightly against him. Our bodies begin to move as one. The way he moves … the way we move together … holy crap, he knows how to move his body. Men who know how to move on the dance floor know all the right moves in the bedroom. That’s my theory anyway, and I’m ready to do a little research on the subject.

Great. Now I’m hot, sweaty, and all I can think about is ripping the clothes from his body and feeling his skin pressed against mine.

When the next song starts, I find enough room to turn around and press my back against him. My breathing speeds as I rest my head back against his chest, looking up at the open sky above. This feels good. It feels right.

Again, he wraps his long arm around my waist, holding me firmly against him. In this position, I can feel his hardness pressed against my back. His free hand slowly moves the hair off my neck and he breathes into my ear, “Oh, God Kenny – do you know what you’re doing to me?”

I can feel his breathing growing ragged as I move my hips against him in answer to his question. I smile knowing that he’s thinking the same as me.

He leans down and presses his lips against the exposed skin on my neck, where he lingers. His tongue begins to explore, journeying up my neck and pausing to nibble on my ear. I lean into him – it feels so … electrifying. Everywhere his lips contact my skin burns in the most pleasurable way.

And damn, he smells good.  

Slowly, I turn around in his arms, my heart racing even harder.

The light from the full moon illuminates his cheek in the darkness. My fingers reach to trace the light on his face. He looks down at me with smoldering eyes.

Slowly he leans toward me and presses his lips to mine. I feel his lips part as the soft tip of his tongue joins in with his kiss. His mouth is soft, wet, and completely hypnotic. Desire for him shoots through every cell in my body, consuming my every thought.

I throw my hands up and knot them in the back of his thick hair. His hands run up my back and hold me tight.

The heat, the throbbing music, his strong hands, his fast breath, his scent, his taste, his soft lips and exploring tongue— all of it is driving me insane.

My eyes open and I pull away from his lips, panting softly, his face breathless but unreadable.

Two words come to mind.

I surrender.

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