WORTH THE WAIT
by AJ Pine Kingston Ale House #4 Publication Date: January 16, 2017 Genres: Adult, Entangled: Select, Contemporary Romance
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Synopsis: I like to think of myself as a man of pleasure…I enjoy a good pint of ale, being in the arms of a beautiful woman, and living by my own rules. The only thing I try to avoid? Commitment. And I’ve got a three-year success rate to prove it. I wasn’t planning on Grace—the beautiful, funny, totally off-limits massage therapist who keeps popping up in my life. She’s on a six-month mission to rid her life of toxins. No alcohol. No red meat. And, yeah, no men. I’m talking full-on man cleanse. I know I should walk away, but I can’t…and the only way to keep her in my life is to live by her rules. I’ll need to prove to a woman who’s lost all trust in men that I’m worthy of her love. And do it all without so much as a single kiss. The only problem? If I win, I’ll lose the one thing I swore I’d never give up. My heart.
Chicago Tribune: Arts and Entertainment
Saturday, December 17, 8:00 a.m.
City Dweller’s Man Cleanse Ends in Bar Brawl
By Jennifer Bloom
Popular microbrew and neighborhood eatery Kingston Ale House was home not only to owner Jamie Kingston’s wedding rehearsal last night but also to local reality television history.
Grace Bailey—daughter of the dynamic prosecuting duo behind the Law Offices of Bailey, Bailey, and Dawson (Dawson being Bailey’s older sister)—was set to end her six-month cleanse by introducing local viewers to Mr. Right, the man she’d chosen to kiss on live television after six months of no sex, last night at Kingston Ale House. Bailey had been following the tenets of the New York Times best-seller, Man Cleanse: Six Months to a Healthy, Happy You…and the Road to True Love, by Suzanne Summerville. Additionally, she’d partnered with Whitney Gaines at local news affiliate WBN to chronicle her cleanse and search for Mr. Right with the promise of a $25,000 prize if she remained steadfast in her abstinence and had her first kiss on air. The local public followed Bailey’s journey on the Facebook page set up by the station, which was supposed to culminate in a live broadcast last night. Instead the evening ended with one arrest, one trip to the ER, an impromptu press conference, but—you guessed it—no kiss.
Did Grace Bailey find her Mr. Right? Did she win that twenty-five grand? Or did her six-month man cleanse leave her empty-handed? The sponsored Facebook page has been deactivated, and despite numerous pleas on social media for the end of the story—including a fan page that has popped up titled Grace’s HEA (Happily Ever After)—WBN has remained tight-lipped about the situation. Additionally, as of this story going live, Grace Bailey has declined to comment as well. How do you think the story ends, Chicago? We’ll be monitoring the HEA page ourselves for any new developments.
Three months earlier…
Jeremy Denning strode right past the hotel desk clerk, which was saying something because she was a freaking knockout, and headed straight to the elevator. He couldn’t muster the energy to jog up the stairs to his second-floor room. His back was sore. His legs were stiff. Shit, even his brain hurt. He’d considered going for a run in the hotel’s workout room, but now he was mentally crossing that item off his list.
“Science is stupid,” he mumbled to himself like a frustrated child, even though he knew science was very, very important to the art of brewing beer. He’d admit that in thought, just in case his boss had somehow wiretapped his brain.
Shit. He was delirious.
The elevator doors opened and welcomed him in.
A host of other hotel patrons, who were nowhere to be seen seconds ago when he pressed the up button, flooded into the small compartment, pinning him against the back wall. The man in front of him was wider than he was tall, and although Jeremy could see over his balding head, he found no feasible exit route around the guy, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a fragile-looking elderly woman with salmon-colored hair on one side and a young father wearing a baby in some sort of front backpack on the other. Would you call it a front pack? Why did everyone wear their kids, by the way?
Actually, Jeremy wouldn’t mind if someone was wearing him at this point. And no. Contrary to popular belief, his thoughts did not tend toward euphemism, regardless of today being a day that ended in y.
He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. He just wanted the hotel bed. A nap. Possibly some room service. Then he’d consider the whole wearing situation from the euphemistic perspective.
Seconds later, the elevator came to a stop at the second floor. The only other button lit on the number panel was six, and as if the doors were in the rear of the packed sardine can of a vessel, the sixth-floor residents all turned to see who the asshole was who took the elevator to the second floor.
“That’d be me,” Jeremy said aloud. And because there was no possible way for the folks in front of him to part in order to let him through, they all just stood there and stared at him. Even the baby.
He half expected one of them to spout, “None shall pass,” and then challenge him to a bloody duel where he’d either end up limbless or the victor. But instead the salmon-haired woman gave him the slow head shake before backing out of the elevator. The rest of the occupants followed until finally he was able to walk free.
“I have no quarrel with you,” Jeremy said to the whole lot, all with judging, narrowed eyes. Not one of them even hinted at a smile. It was like they were channeling his mother or sister.
“Black Knight?” he asked, backing down the hall as the last of them filed back into the elevator. “Monty Python? Anyone?”
A woman brushed past him from the opposite direction, a flurry of flailing arms as she speed-walked toward the elevator while simultaneously pulling her golden waves into a ponytail.
“Excuse me. Sorry. Hold the elevator, please. Going up!”
He saw nothing other than the ponytail’s near miss as the elevator doors closed behind her. Yet she left something in her wake, the scent of fresh lime. And although salmon-haired lady couldn’t see him, he mimicked her controlled head shake and laughed quietly to himself. He’d worked in a brew pub so long everything smelled like either food or beer to him.
“I’ll take the damn stairs next time,” he called out to the empty vestibule, then spun back toward the waiting hotel room doors.
“Helloooo, two-eleven, you sexy, sexy beast,” he said when he stood before his door. “We meet at last.”
It only took one swipe of his key card to open the door and approximately four seconds for him to barrel into the room and face-plant onto the bed.
“Fucking finally,” he groaned into a pillow.
Eight hours of lecture on the chemistry of brewing was enough to drive even the biggest beer enthusiast mad. Okay, fine. His boss, Jamie—and soon to be partner, if Jamie had anything to say about it—would have gotten off on a forty-minute PowerPoint detailing the humulene hop compound and isocohumulone, the isomerized hop alpha acid. And yes, Jeremy could remember those ridiculous words because the professor had droned on about them for forty minutes.
Did he mention the forty minutes? And that wasn’t even an eighth of the day.
Jamie had been hinting at wanting to dial back his hours ever since he proposed to his girlfriend, Brynn. With the wedding only three months away, the hints were getting less hint-like and more straightforward.
“Jeremy, have you ever thought about taking some serious brewing classes?” Jamie had asked a couple months ago. Because yeah, he’d dabbled. That was pretty much the story of his life: dabbling. Jamie was the brewmaster and the ale house owner, one of his sister’s oldest friends and therefore a surrogate big brother. Jamie was the grown-up. Hell, he was almost thirty. But Jeremy? Well, twenty-six was still a kid. Still time to dabble. Still waiting to figure it all out.
It was only when he overheard Jamie telling his fiancée that he was considering taking on a partner that Jeremy found himself asking, “What about me?”
The words had flown out of his mouth before he’d considered the ramifications. And before he knew it, Jamie was signing him up for lectures to see if he was up to the task. This was his first one, and Jeremy was feeling anything but.
He rolled over to his back and grabbed the television remote off the nightstand. Tomorrow would be better. First of all, the class was only four hours instead of eight. Secondly, it would be hands-on…in the lab. No more lecture. He just needed to relax and regroup.
Jeremy scrolled through the listing of cable channels, opting for halfway through the five o’clock news over the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, especially since there was an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond following the news. He fucking loved that show.
It should have registered when the anchorwoman said something about Navy Pier that he’d stumbled on a Chicago affiliate even though he was sprawled like a starfish on a bed in southern Wisconsin. But exhaustion, both physical and mental, had gotten the better of him. So when the woman at the desk said, “And now we’ll head over to Whitney Gaines with the weather,” Jeremy thought he must have started dozing off. Because Whitney Gaines didn’t live in Chicago anymore, not since she crushed him like he never thought was possible. No, she was off in some podunk town in Florida, chasing hurricanes and talking about what the humidity did to gators and shit.
“Thanks, Robin. It sure was unseasonably warm for September today!”
Jeremy sat bolt upright in his bed, those two sentences—ten little words, really—tugging him forward like a tether. There she was, that silky blond hair resting on her shoulders, a little longer than the last time he’d seen her. Then again, that was three years ago, and he’d heard that hair could do that—grow if given time. Florida must have agreed with her. She had that slightly sun-kissed look without actually being tan. Whitney Gaines cared too much about her skin to subject it to ultraviolet rays for long. And frankly, the thigh-high boots she wore with that form-fitting dress agreed with her, too.
“We’ll be closing out the weekend with a cold front, though, and you know what that means for Chicago—temperatures dropping to the low fifties and rain. Let’s take a look at the five-day forecast.”
Jeremy held up the remote in an attempt to silence the voice that all too quickly brought his past to the present. But he froze, thumb on the power button. He didn’t give a shit about the forecast. What he did give quite a few shits about was why she was taking a look at the five-day forecast. In Chicago. Where he lived. Because you don’t just turn down a guy’s proposal, move to Florida because you need to feed my ambition and find a guy who has ambition of his own, and then fucking move back and just show up on a hotel-room television.
He was dialing before he had his ear to the phone.
“Concierge, how can I help you?” a pert, female voice asked.
So many answers popped into mind.
Can you point me toward the bar and tell me the quickest way to giving zero fucks about what I just saw?
Have you ever seen that Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Yeah, can you do that to me? Make my mind all spotless?
Call my friends and family and tell them I’m moving here. Where am I again? Madison?
But instead he settled on, “Can you connect me to the spa or tell me if they have any appointments open? I know it’s last-minute, but I’ve been sitting in this lecture class all day, and I think I actually jacked up my back by not moving and—”
“Actually, sir, one of our massage therapists just had a cancellation. If you hurry up to the sixth floor, they should be able to get you right in. Shall I charge it to your room?”
Jeremy let out a long breath and shrugged. The room was on Jamie’s business credit card. What would another hundred or so hurt?
“Yes! Charge me. Sixth floor. Got it. On my way.”
He was out the door so fast, he might not have even hung up the phone. Several minutes ago he couldn’t get away from the elevator fast enough. Now he needed to put as much distance as he could between himself and what he’d just seen, and that meant going to a place where there’d be no television, where he could close his eyes and shut it all out until the memories in his head decided to shut the fuck up.
The elevator was empty this time, and he smiled in appreciation at his couple minutes of peace. When the doors opened onto the sixth floor, those couple of minutes were not cut short as he stepped into what was, apparently, peace incarnate.
He walked out onto what looked like a bamboo floor. The walls were paneled with a darker, warmer wood—fat luxurious planks that ran from seam to seam. The air was warm but not hot, slightly fragrant but not intrusive, and soft tunes piped through overhead speakers—that Irish Celtic sort of music Brynn told Jamie he should play in the ale house for Sunday brunch. But Jamie opted for baseball games on the big screens in the summer and football in the winter.
He stood in the midst of this Zen-like setting, closing his eyes as he took it all in. He almost didn’t need the massage. Just standing here would be enough.
“Yeah,” he said, his eyes blinking open as he strode toward the check-in desk. “How did you know?”
She stood, her blond ponytail swishing across her shoulders as she did.
“Your appointment just came through on the computer with a note from the concierge saying you sounded like you really needed some help relaxing, and that’s, like, what we’re all about here. Relaxing. And then you got off the elevator and had that look—you know, the one that said you did want some help getting all…relaxed. So I knew it was you.” She reached for something behind the desk and held it out toward him. He willingly accepted. “Here is a robe and slippers and a lavender eye mask if you want to rest those pretty blue peepers while you wait.” She gasped and covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. That was a little forward. You just have great eyes. And”—she leaned over the counter in his direction—“I’m totally into gingers.”
Jeremy chuckled. “Sounds like you’re still working on—”
“The whole relaxing thing?” she interrupted. “Yeah. I know.” Her smile turned a bit devilish. “But I can’t help myself when I see something I like.”
Jeremy’s eyes widened. Maybe he could forget about the blonde from his past by spending some quality time with one in the present.
“What time do you get off tonight, Kaylee?” he asked, thankful for her name tag.
She bounced on her toes and grinned. He liked her energy. “Eight,” she said.
He grinned back. “Well, I just happen to be free at eight as well. Maybe I’ll see you in the bar downstairs?”
She nodded. “Maybe you will.”
DON'T MISS THE OTHER BOOKS IN THE KINGSTON ALE HOUSE SERIES!
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Synopsis: She’s holding out for a happy ever after.
Annie I know where to find my happily ever after—between the pages of a romance novel. It’s why I sell books, why I blog about them, and why I’ll never get disappointed by love.So what if my brother’s best friend from high school is now a bestselling author? Or that he just blew back into town on a Harley, filling out a pair of jeans like he never did before? Or that he’s agreed to do a signing at my bookstore on such short notice? Because despite all his adoring female fans, I kind of hated his book.
Wes The last time I saw Annie Denning, she was a senior in high school, three years older than me and way out of my league. Now I’m her last-minute date to a wedding, and what started as a night of pure fun has turned into something more real than either of us anticipated.Annie is my muse. When I’m with her, my writer’s block fades away, and the words finally flow.The only problem? She wants the fairy tale—her very own happily ever after—and anyone who’s read my book knows the truth. I just don’t believe they exist.
If there was magic in words other than the ones the professionals put to paper, it was in everything he said to her tonight, and everything left unsaid yet spoken with this kiss. She felt a tender ache in her chest as his tongue slipped past her lips, his movement deliciously slow and driving her mad all at the same time. His hips pressed to her belly, and she cursed her broken shoes that would have given her the advantage of extra height. Now she moaned softly against him, rising on her toes in an attempt to slide up his hard length.
“Christ, Annie,” he whispered. Then his hands were on her hips, and he was lifting her so she now sat on the small railing. There was no way she could sit there on her own, but he pushed her knees open and hiked her skirt up to the top of her thighs, holding her there with his weight, his erection firm as she throbbed against him.
“Is this what you want?”
His voice was rough in her ear, and the only thing she could do was squeak out a small yes.
His hand slid up her thigh, his thumb skimming the seam of her panties. Oh God, did I wear good underwear? Annie thought she’d had her mind made up about Wes before he’d shown up tonight, so much so that what she had on under her dress hadn’t crossed her mind. Because no way in hell was the evening going in this direction when she’d convinced herself he was Ethan, the not-a-romance hero.
But now it was, and come heaven or hell, she did not want him to stop. She did, however, need to do a panty check before things went any further. But Wes’s lips were on her neck, hot and full of need, and one of those thumbs had just slipped under the panty seam, and Annie lost her train of thought as he swirled that thumb over her wet, swollen center.
She cried out softly, thankfully quiet enough that she still heard the ding of the elevator reaching its destination.
Wes withdrew his hands so quickly that she nearly toppled off the railing, but he caught her in his arms and even had the forethought to smooth down the skirt of her dress so her—yep—pink, Lydia Bennet YOLO boy briefs would not be on display for all hotel patrons to see. She supposed she’d have some explaining to do later, but for now she had to focus on staying upright.
The doors opened to the fifth floor and a young couple waiting to head downstairs.
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Synopsis: She created the game, but the rules are about to change.The second I met Will Evans in his three-piece suit with that hot as hell British accent, I wanted him. That is...until he insulted my shoes and stole my corner office. Now I have to work side-by-side with the surly British arsehole who just set my career back six months. It's fine. That accent won't get to me, no matter how sexy it sounds when he asks permission to do things professionals shouldn't do. On the couch. In the corner office I still wish was mine. Maybe we can't keep our hands off each other, but I'm sure as hell not falling for a guy who lives an ocean away. Because in six months, he's leaving for good. I don't do broken hearts, but you know what they say... There's a first time for everything. Each book in the Kingston Ale House series is a standalone, full-length story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Holly closed her eyes and started reliving the kiss, not able to shake the feeling of standing on her tiptoes and pressing her pelvis to his. She’d felt him hard against her. She knew he wanted exactly what she did. Okay, well, she couldn’t confirm that he was going through a dry spell, too,
but he wanted her. That much she knew.
She stalked to the bathroom and turned on the faucet so that water rushed out in a loud, whirring splash. Then she stripped herself bare and adjusted the temperature before changing the water source from bath nozzle to showerhead. Holly stepped over the lip of the tub and pulled the curtain shut, letting out a resigned sigh.
The water hit her face, her neck, her breasts—nipples still sensitive and hard just from brushing up against him. She imagined Will’s velvety voice asking, May I kiss you? May I touch you? May I…
Holly lifted the showerhead out of its cradle and adjusted the setting to her favorite combination of pulse and vibration. She gave it a pointed look.
“Do you have any secret children you’d like to tell me about before things go any further?”
The showerhead said nothing, but she knew what it was thinking.
I’m it for you, sweetheart. I’ll always be here, and you’ll always come back to me. We’re meant to be.
Well, they were meant to be for this evening, anyway.
She let her head fall against the cool, tiled wall and dropped the hand holding the showerhead between her legs. Eyes closed and shoulders finally relaxing, Holly let her hips pulse to the rhythm of the water, and she let the water do what she needed it to do.
Only, her H2O lover wasn’t doing his job. She shifted her stance, but it still wasn’t right. Maybe it was placement? But no, adjusting placement did nothing to uncoil the tight heat from her core. Then, understanding the risks, she did the unthinkable. Desperate times called for desperate measures. With her thumb resting on the small lever at the base of the head, Holly swiveled it forward just a notch—and changed the setting.
“Shit!” she yelled, throwing the nozzle against the wall. It bounced and sprayed hot needles at her torso, her face, and then the shower curtain. She grabbed it before it nailed her in the face again, not wanting another aggressive facial.
Note to self—
Next time you want to change the showerhead setting, remove said showerhead from between your legs first!
Holly’s much-needed release was going nowhere fast, so she nudged the dial back to where it was—or where she thought it was—and attempted to get back to business. But it was no use. The pulse was too weak, the water streams too thin. She tried again, and then again, prodding the dial just enough to enact the smallest change, but she couldn’t get it back to her original setting.
Her greatest fear had been realized. Her showerhead setting had lost its sweet spot, which meant her sweet spot was to remain unsatisfied.
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Synopsis: How far will one man go for the woman he's loved since high school?Jamie Kingston has been Brynn Chandler's best friend since middle school. Only once was their friendship tested—when Brynn gave Jamie a single kiss. Since then, they've had an unspoken agreement never to cross that line again, and she’s ready to let go of the past and move on. But Jamie has loved Brynn for as long as he can remember, and now that he's ready to tell her, she has her sights set on someone else. Knowing this is his last chance, he asks Brynn to go on a two-week road trip. But their time alone brings old hurts to the surface, and Brynn has to decide if the one that got away lies at the end of the journey or if he's been by her side all along.
EXCERPT: The One That Got Away by AJ Pine
(Ten years ago)
A turtleneck would hide it. It didn’t matter that it was Memorial Day weekend and the warmest day of the year so far. Brynn was going to the party. Sure it hurt to swallow, and maybe she was running a fever, but this was it. Her last chance. All year she’d promised herself she would kiss Spencer Matthews before she graduated, and graduation for the class of 2005 was in one week. Time was running out. This was it, their last hurrah before he left for school in California. There was no way she was going to miss it.
“Oh…my God. What’s wrong with your neck? Ew, Brynn. What are those bumps?”
Leave it to her sister, Holly, to notice…and with a flair of drama only Holly was capable of. She stood in Brynn’s bedroom doorway but already looked poised to make a run for it.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Brynn insisted, but even her voice was a dead giveaway. She could barely get that second word out. It sounded more like a gurgle than a word. It didn’t matter. She would power through. Spencer was going to be at the party, and he expected her to be there, too. It would have been enough if he’d just stopped by her locker to say hi, but she played his words over and over again now.
“You’re going to be at Becket’s tomorrow night, right? Promise me I’ll see you there.” It was a simple request, and Brynn was determined to comply.
Jason Becket was her class’s notorious party thrower, and tonight’s festivities were guaranteed to be epic. So, of course, she promised Spencer she was going. He was single for the first time this year, and so was she. Still. The stars had finally aligned, and nothing was going to stop her from turning fantasy into reality. Mind over matter, right? If she didn’t admit she was sick, she wouldn’t be sick.
“And your voice!” Holly continued. “You sound like the worst Kermit the Frog impersonator I’ve ever heard.”
Holly was two years younger and a typical drama student. She performed whether she was on stage or not. Tonight was no exception. And anyway, who was she to say Brynn’s voice was the worst Kermit she’d ever heard? Cut a sick girl some slack. If she was going to sound like a frog, she was going to sound like a good frog.
But she wasn’t sick. So it didn’t matter. She needed to focus, keep her eye on the prize.
“Do you know what’s supposed to happen tonight?” she asked her sister, and Holly recoiled. Did she sound contagious? It was possible her ears were clogged. Hell, everything was clogged, and everything hurt. But this was her night, and she was not contagious because she was a healthy, seventeen-year-old girl who just couldn’t swallow without the threat of tears.
Holly took a step back toward her own room. “Ugh, Brynn. It’s so cliché to like a guy like Spencer Matthews. He’s, like, too perfect. Any girl would get an inferiority complex around someone like that. Better yet, I bet he’s so good his girlfriends don’t even get mad. They get bored. I think the best guy is the one who pisses you off every now and then. Like…like Patrick and Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You!”
Life was not some romantic comedy. Holly was full of shit. Of course Spencer was perfect. That’s why she’d crushed on him the whole year, biding her time until he was single and would maybe, hopefully, look at her the way she looked at him. Today she was sure he did—or would once they found a moment alone tonight. If being a hot, smart, football-playing-marching-band drummer was a crime, Brynn wanted to be his willing accomplice. Seriously, a guy who started pregame on the field with the band—in his formfitting football uniform—and spent the rest of the game as running back…how hot was that?
Brynn attempted a groan, which really freaking hurt, but she wouldn’t give whatever plague she was carrying the satisfaction. If anything, a twenty-four-hour bug had taken up residence in her throat, which meant she was at least a quarter of the way through it at this point. She was probably already on the mend.
“Have you ever felt fireworks?” she asked.
Holly answered her sister with a roll of her eyes and slid down the wall until she sat on the floor in the hallway, still keeping clear of Brynn’s room.
“Okay,” Holly said, waving her on. “I’m comfortable. And this feels like a safe distance from patient zero.”
Brynn wanted to groan, but she thought better of what that would feel like on her throat and instead plopped down on the foot of her bed, sweat beading at her hairline.
“Fireworks,” Brynn said again. “Falling in love—knowing you’re in love because when you kiss the guy who’s the right guy…” She closed her eyes and smiled dreamily, despite how miserable she felt.
Holly took the liberty of finishing her sentence. “Fireworks?”
Brynn nodded, then opened her eyes. “That and ‘I’m a Believer’ will start playing in my head.”
“Love doesn’t come with fireworks and soundtracks filled with songs by the Monkees, not that I’ll ever understand how Mom got you obsessed with a forty-plus-year-old boy band. I think you might be delirious with fever or something.” Holly laughed. “Hey, maybe that explains your taste in music, too!”
Brynn huffed. “Whatever. You’re only fifteen. You’ve never been in love.”
Before Holly could offer a rebuttal, the front door opened, and Brynn let out a tiny whimper of relief because if there was one thing Holly could call her on, it was Brynn never having been in love, either. God, if she could just make it to the party and kiss Spencer, she knew there’d be fireworks…plus Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones harmonizing in her head, no delirium necessary.
But with the sounds of footsteps bounding up the stairs, Brynn’s dream slipped further away. It was for sure Jamie because he never knocked. He was practically a resident in the Chandler house. Jamie would take one look at her in a turtleneck and yoga pants and put the kibosh on the whole operation.
Time to rally.
Brynn pulled her hair out of the bun sitting atop her head and finger-combed the curls. Then she swiped on some lip gloss and affixed her best smile—until she tried to swallow, and her eye betrayed her with a rogue tear.
Jamie appeared at the top of the stairs and stopped in the doorway, his too-straight, sandy hair slicked back like Leo DiCaprio in the Titanic ballroom scene. Brynn sighed. She loved Titanic. Why couldn’t Rose just move over on that piece of driftwood? There was definitely room for two.
Brynn blinked a couple of times. The fever must be rising, because she could swear Jamie looked super cute tonight, and she did not have thoughts like that about Jamie Kingston.
He ran a hand through the product in his hair, and a shock flopped down over his eyes before he pushed it back again. She did not find this adorable, either. Because that would be the weirdest, looking at her best friend like that. Besides—Spencer. Spencer was the issue at hand.
“Holy shit, B. What happened to you?”
Jamie wasn’t sure whether to take a step into the room or back down the stairs. He always thought Brynn was beautiful, but she looked bad. Like, really bad. Her eyes were bloodshot and her cheeks flushed. And her swollen neck? Whoa.
She stared at him through the thick lenses of her glasses perched mildly askew atop her nose. Her wild brown curls were matted to her face, dampened with sweat. But this was just at the hairline. The rest was a tangled sort of nest-like display, which could only mean she’d just taken it down from a bun. Jamie was the only one Brynn let see her immediately post-bun, and he took a certain pride in this—even if he was here to take her to a party where she planned to kiss another guy.
“Sleepy Jean, I say this with love, but you look like shit.”
She flopped back on her bed and groaned. This was how he knew something was really wrong. He didn’t call her Sleepy Jean solely for her inexplicable love for the sixties TV band, the Monkees. Brynn really was a “Daydream Believer.” She saw opportunity in every situation and never took no for a final answer until she’d exhausted all other possibilities.
Jamie took a chance and moved toward the edge of the bed. Screw it. He sat down next to her, resting a hand on her leg.
“What’s with the turtleneck, Dieter?” He raised his brows.
Brynn laughed. At least he thought it was a laugh, but she also could have been trying to blow bubbles in mud. Sprockets was her favorite Saturday Night Live skit, another one of Brynn’s retro faves, this time from the nineties, and although Mike Myers wasn’t on the show anymore, Jamie had a stockpile of his parents’ VHS recordings for them to watch whenever the mood struck. He smiled to himself. Brynn was clearly sick, but he made her laugh, and that was something.
She sat up, tears pooled in her eyes. When she pulled the turtleneck down to her collarbone, Jamie sucked in a breath.
“Duuuuude. You’ve got mono.” The glands in her neck swelled on each side like she was a cartoon character who had swallowed a small branch that got stuck in her throat just below her head.
The tears came fast now, tears that tugged at his heart because he knew what they were for. He knew whom they were for: Spencer Matthews.
“My throat hurts so much, Jamie. I can’t even swallow.”
Okay, so maybe he was a selfish asshole. It’s quite possible the river of tears was for the extreme pain she was in. He knew what it felt like because he had had mono sophomore year, and it sucked.
He brushed a damp curl off her forehead and tried to tuck it behind her ear. But Brynn’s hair had a mind of its own and had no intention of obeying. Kind of like the girl herself.
Jamie bit back a smile.
“Mono?” Brynn croaked.
Holly was still in the hall, standing up now and, at the utterance of the word “mono,” she ran to her own room and slammed the door.
“Let me know when you’re on some antibiotics or something, and then I’ll come out!” she called from the other side.
He chuckled. Typical Holly.
“Where are your parents?” he asked, and Brynn flopped back down on the bed.
“Out,” she whined. “My dad has some work dinner thingy in the city, so they’re staying the night in a hotel.”
He looked at the pout on her lips, letting his mind wander for a few seconds. What would it be like to kiss those lips? What if he was the guy Brynn was willing to risk her health—and others’—to see?
She whimpered, and he drifted back to reality.
“Holly!” Jamie kept his eyes on Brynn while he called for her sister.
His eyes grew wide. Holly sounded much closer than she should have, considering she was barricaded next door.
“The vent,” Brynn said, and Jamie couldn’t help but laugh.
“You guys still do that?” he asked, heading toward the wall Brynn’s room shared with Holly’s. He dropped to a squat and directed his request toward the metal slats of the vent in the floor.
“Holly?” he called, using his indoor voice this time.
“James?” she responded, and he had flashbacks to when he and Brynn were in middle school, sitting in her room doing homework while Holly and her friends giggled and squealed next door, some of them professing their love to him—through the vent, of course. Brynn had always laughed and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t they know you’re practically our brother?” she’d once said. Jamie hated that she still saw him like that now.
“Call your parents and ask if I can take Brynn to urgent care,” he told Holly.
“Okay, James.” He could hear her smile.
“Stop calling me James.”
He smiled, too. Then he heard Holly speaking to her mom.
“Are you sure it’s mono?” she asked him.
“Pretty sure,” Jamie said. “I had all the same symptoms.”
He glanced back at Brynn, who had turned to her side to watch the back and forth between Jamie and Holly. He wondered if she had any clue what she did to him, if she knew how much he wanted to scoop her up in his arms and hold her until she felt better. And maybe after that, hold her a little more.
He lay down next to her and tilted her glasses up so he could swipe a thumb across her tear-streaked cheek.
“You’re burning up, B.” He let the frames fall softly back against the bridge of her nose.
“I know,” she whispered. “I took my temperature. But I thought if I didn’t admit how bad I felt that I could ignore it.”
He pressed a kiss to her forehead, her skin like fire against his lips. But he didn’t care, not if he could give her the smallest bit of comfort.
“You know I’d give my left arm to make you feel better, right?”
She pressed her lips together and nodded. “It’s not that big of a sacrifice, considering you’re a righty. If you really cared—” She cut her own joke short to attempt a swallow, and it only made her cry more.
“For you, Sleepy Jean, I’d give them both.”
Fuck. He was a goner. How he made it through this year without blurting out his feelings was a mystery, because when she looked at him like that, like he was the only one who could fix the mess that was her night, the words repeated over and over again in his head: I’m in love with you, B. But she’d made no secret of how she felt about Spencer Matthews since the school year started, which meant Jamie was well practiced in the fine art of holding it all in.
“Mom wants to know how high her fever is.”
Brynn tried to clear her throat, then moaned in pain before she said, “One hundred and two.”
Jamie repeated the response to Holly, then sighed as he looked at his miserable friend.
“Does she want them to come home?” Holly asked, and Brynn shook her head, her eyes still on Jamie.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “Because this is it. Our last high school party. I don’t want you to miss it, too.”
Shit. If she only knew how many other parties he would have skipped if it meant a night alone with her instead… But all he said was, “I’m sure.”
Brynn tilted her head back in the direction of the vent.
“My night and, let’s face it, my goal for the year are out the window,” Brynn said. “Tell them Jamie will take me to the doctor, and then I’ll go to sleep. They don’t need to ruin their night.”
After Mrs. Chandler insisted she speak to Brynn, Holly chucked her phone into the room and ordered Jamie to sanitize it when Brynn was done.
And that was that. Instead of taking Brynn to the final bash of their senior year, he’d take her for a blood test, maybe top off the night with a throat culture. Man did he know how to impress the ladies.
“This was supposed to be my night, Jamie,” she said after getting off the phone. “My night. And now all I want to do is chop off my own head to end the pain.”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. She was cute when she was a mess.
“First of all,” he said. “I think the whole beheading thing might be a little more painful and a lot less practical than, I don’t know, going to urgent care? And second, this can still be your night. Just a different kind. We’ll see a doctor, get you a nice prescription for some codeine, a pint of Cherry Garcia, and a stack of Dieter tapes—as long as you still have the VCR hooked up.”
She sniffled and sat up. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get sick?”
He shook his head. “I’d chance it to take care of you. Plus”—he gave her a knowing smile—“you’re not supposed to be able to get mono twice. I’m probably immune to your plague.” To prove it, he kissed her on the forehead, happy to show her she didn’t have to be alone tonight. But even in her state, all the kiss did was prove to him how hard it was to just be her friend.
“Okay, maybe we’ll get you a quick shower, too.” The least he could do was lighten the mood, for both of them.
She sniffled again. “Can we listen to the Monkees in the car?”
He put his arm around her, pulling her head to his shoulder.
“Anything for you, Sleepy Jean.”
And he would do anything for her, even step aside for someone else. He’d made it all the way to junior year not falling for her. It had taken him dating Stephanie Delaney to realize no other girl made him feel the way Brynn did. Though who’s to say it wasn’t always there, this thing between them? Correction—this thing between them only Jamie seemed to feel. And who was he to stand in the way of her dream? He wouldn’t be that guy, letting his feelings interfere with her happiness. They had too much history for that kind of selfishness. Brynn made her choice, and it wasn’t Jamie. But tonight the universe seemed to be on his side, postponing the torture of watching her fall for someone else. Tonight was not for Spencer Matthews. It was for Jamie and Brynn. Even if they were only friends.