Consolation Prize by Linda Kage - Read Online
Consolation Prize
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Summary

Don’t you just hate it when someone destroys all your carefully made plans?

I mean, I had goals: college to graduate in one semester, a future I was working hard to reach, and an image of myself I wanted the world to see. My life was stacked into these precisely placed blocks. But then Colton Gamble came along and knocked them all askew.

I hated how he messed everything up, how he could hog all my attention whenever he was around, how he made my pulse quicken—but only because he ticked me off...not because I was attracted to him. Oh! And I hated how he knew how attractive he was too, the shallow, full of himself, doesn’t take no for an answer, too flirty, too cocky, extremely irritating jerk.

The boy had all the qualities that turned me off. Or so I thought.

One night he wasn’t quite the brainless, overconfident jerk I assumed he always was. One night, he took care of me when I was at my lowest. He opened up to me and made me open up to him. Now I’m learning maybe he’s not what I first thought he was. And maybe I’M not what I first thought I was. Maybe it’s okay to rearrange a couple of my perfectly set blocks. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop worrying about what I’m afraid everyone else will think and finally reach for something I really want. It’s possible some of my plans need to be destroyed, and Colton Gamble is exactly the kind of mess I need in my life.

What do you think? Should I give him a try?

Desperately seeking your advice, Julianna Radcliffe

Published: Linda Kage on
ISBN: 1310553033
List price: $2.99
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Forbidden Men Book 9

Consolation Prize

Linda Kage

Consolation Prize by Linda Kage

Don’t you just hate it when someone destroys all your carefully made plans?

I mean, I had goals: college to graduate in one semester, a future I was working hard to reach, and an image of myself I wanted the world to see. My life was stacked into these precisely placed blocks. But then Colton Gamble came along and knocked them all askew.

I hated how he messed everything up, how he could hog all my attention whenever he was around, how he made my pulse quicken—but only because he ticked me off...not because I was attracted to him. Oh! And I hated how he knew how attractive he was too, the shallow, full of himself, doesn’t take no for an answer, too flirty, too cocky, extremely irritating jerk.

The boy had all the qualities that turned me off. Or so I thought.

One night he wasn’t quite the brainless, overconfident jerk I assumed he always was.

One night, he took care of me when I was at my lowest. He opened up to me and made me open up to him.

Now I’m learning maybe he’s not what I first thought he was. And maybe I’M not what I first thought I was. Maybe it’s okay to rearrange a couple of my perfectly set blocks. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop worrying about what I’m afraid everyone else will think and finally reach for something I really want. It’s possible some of my plans need to be destroyed, and Colton Gamble is exactly the kind of mess I need in my life.

What do you think? Should I give him a try?

Desperately seeking your advice,

Julianna Radcliffe

DEDICATION

One true friend adds more to our happiness than a thousand enemies add to our unhappiness.

~Marie Dubsky

This one’s for

Lindsay Brooks

&

Lauren Sweeney

Thank you for wiping away two thousand unhappies!

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Once again, I’m writing a story to honor the request of a reader!

A little over a year ago, Ms. Ciara Townsend wrote to me: My best friend and I are avid readers, and my favorite books usually have white lead characters and black minor characters, and they’re usually quite ghetto. It’s a little discouraging when all of the couples are with people of the same race when there are so many mixed people in the world. I would love an interracial romance, especially when there are so many people that don’t believe in it.

I always crave a good writing challenge, and this one is another for me because like Ciara, I haven’t run across a lot of interracial stories myself. I have no idea what kind of elements are usually in them or not in them. So hopefully I do this one some justice! Fingers crossed!

Here is a little bit of forbidden interracial romance just for you, Ciara.

COLTON’S CHAPTER | 1

Damn, I loved wedding receptions.

Parties must’ve been in my blood because I seemed to flourish at them. There was just something about the noise and energy and hint of wild abandon that got my engines revving. And no better place could I make a spectacle of myself, projecting the image I wanted everyone to see, than in a busy, crowded room like this.

Oh, the things you could hide behind a loud, boisterous personality at a loud, boisterous party were truly amazing.

I know what you’re all thinking, I drawled into the microphone I carried as I meandered back and forth behind the wedding party’s table to address the crowd. Why the hell did a specimen as lovely as Sarah Arnosta settle for my loser of a big brother when she could’ve had all this, right?

As I splayed a hand down the side of my tux jacket, motioning to myself, my brother Brandt twisted in his seat to punch at me, muttering curses as he swung. But I only chuckled and ruffled his hair before dodging out of his reach. Well, all I can say to that, my friends, is love must be blind.

My answer drew a laugh from the crowd. I grinned and waited for the sound to die down before I got serious. Or maybe Aristotle said it best when he wrote, ‘love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies,’ because despite the fact I am obviously the far more handsome and charming brother, Sarah made the right decision. Setting a hand on the bride’s shoulder, I grinned at her affectionately. She recognized the missing part of herself nine years ago when she met Brandt, and there was no separating either of them from that point on.

When she reached up to squeeze my fingers, I leaned down to kiss her cheek. For all of us who watched your romance bloom into what it is today, it felt as if it took you guys forever to realize you were meant to be more than just friends. But patience truly must be a virtue richly rewarded because you two have hit the jackpot. This right here, what you have between you, is a love-till-death-do-us-part if I ever saw one. I’m so happy you guys finally figured it out. And I’d say good luck to you, but I know you don’t need it. You already have what you need to make a great life together. You’ll be just fine. I love you both. You’re my inspiration.

Lifting my fluted glass full of champagne, I called to everyone, Here’s to fifty years of wedded bliss for Brandt and Sarah, and fifty more after that.

Everyone drank with me, cheers and applause ringing through the hall behind my toast. My brother rose from his seat to give me a quick, hard man-hug as he said into my ear, Thanks, bro. You weren’t even as annoying as I thought you’d be.

That was for Sarah’s benefit, not yours. I teasingly jabbed a fist toward his gut and laughed when he flinched away from me.

Whatever. You’re such a pipsqueak. He jostled my arm and grinned as he stepped back because his wife had swiveled her wheelchair around to face me.

When Sarah held up her arms for her own hug, I knelt down to give her a warm embrace.

Thank you, Colton. That was lovely.

Anything for you, beautiful. You make him happier than you can imagine. I kissed her cheek one more time and then handed the mic over to Reese, the matron of honor who wanted to give her own toast.

As she spoke, I plopped into my seat next to Brandt, relaxing enough to sling an arm over the back of my chair so I could twist my torso and survey the people sitting nearby on my right. They were all family, even the ones who weren’t blood relatives. They’d helped raise me into the guy I was, and I loved each and every one of them.

A part of me recognized how much I didn’t deserve their affection and support, and that part appreciated every little piece of love they’d ever tossed my way. Yet another part of me was scared shitless, afraid of losing them and eternally certain they’d realize someday they could do so much better, and they’d cut me loose. That part remained an asshat, determined not to show how much he cared about them because everyone knew the moment you let people see what you cared for most, it became your biggest weakness and you were bound to lose it.

When cheers rose and everyone drank, I realized I’d spaced out through Reese’s entire toast. Whoops.

I drank with them anyway and kept guzzling until I drained my glass. Noel had said this one glass was the only alcohol I was allowed tonight, but...yeah right.

Glancing around to make sure no one saw I was empty, I rose to my feet and started toward the waiter nearest me who still had a tray full of untouched champagne. Chin-bobbing and calling out a greeting to people I passed to blend in, I reached the guy in seconds and exchanged my glass for a new one smoothly, without anyone noticing.

Just as I took my first sip of the new bubbly, Remy—one of my non-related family members—passed with another chick.

Loved your toast, the chick said with a provocative grin as she trailed her hand up the center of my chest, with the longest, reddest fingernails I’d ever seen. Damn, you’re a cutie. Then she winked and kept walking past, her short, tight sparkly gold dress shifting snugly over lush hips and a tiny waist with every step she took.

Without taking my gaze off her, I grabbed Remy’s arm, stalling her at my side. Who was that?

"That was Carmen. She’s my cousin. When my eyebrows lifted with interest, Remy patted my cheek and cooed, Oh, honey. Don’t even bother. She’s twenty-six."

An eight-year difference. Meh, that wasn’t a deal breaker for me. Tipping my head to the side to check out the lovely curved backside of twenty-six-year-old Carmen, I said, "I have no issues with experience because she seemed into me. Didn’t she seem into me?"

Oh yeah, she had definitely seemed into me.

Remy’s voice was dry when she answered, Carmen’s into anything with a penis.

Grinning, I finally turned my attention to her. Well, what do you know, I happen to have one of those.

Eww. She wrinkled her nose and immediately backed away from me. I don’t want to hear about your icky boy parts. Then she patted my arm with a maternal sigh. Just...don’t say I didn’t warn you because she can be a man-eater.

As she started away to catch up with her cousin, I called after her, Screw careful. She can snack on me anytime she likes.

She pointed back at me. Behave, young man.

Ha! As if. This was a wedding, the prime opportunity to hook up with lonely women seeking a little TLC. And I was just the type of guy to help them realize it was perfectly okay to be single and unattached.

Behaving was the last thought on my mind. In fact, I needed a little misbehavior tonight to help take the edge off more than I wanted to admit. Things at home had been getting a little too intense lately. Temporary escape was crucial.

"Hey, that’s not a new glass of champagne, is it?"

I paused from the sip I was about to take to send Brandt an innocent glance as he strolled toward me, one hand in his pocket, the other holding his own glass. Of course not.

He didn’t even pretend to believe me. Just don’t let Noel catch you. You know what a tight ass he’s been lately.

I nodded and took another drink. Yeah, did I know. Our oldest brother had plenty of reasons to be losing his shit, but damn, I was beyond ready for his asshole to loosen again so that stick could fall out of it.

I live with him, I said dryly. You don’t have to remind me.

Brandt shifted closer, his gaze clouding with worry. Aspen’s still not getting any better, is she?

Bothering him with doom and gloom on his wedding day wasn’t what I wanted, but there was really no way to sugarcoat it. So I shook my head miserably, finished my glass, and then stole his, switching him out with my empty.

He didn’t seem to mind. If anything, he only looked more concerned as he watched me gulp from his champagne. Has he taken her back to the doctor?

Opening my mouth, I planned to tell him I didn’t want to talk about it. Tonight was for celebrating and merrymaking. We could go back to worrying about our sister-in-law in the morning. For one evening, I just wanted to forget about that shit. Aspen’s problems weren’t going anywhere; they’d still be there tomorrow.

But before I could try to distract him, Asher—Remy’s husband—joined us. Man. He bumped his elbow into Brandt’s. Juli can’t stop staring at you tonight.

Juli? That name perked me to immediate attention. Julianna’s here?

I followed Asher’s gaze to a dimly lit table in the back corner that bordered the dance floor. It was empty save for one individual, one of the loveliest individuals to grace the planet.

I have no clue how she did it, but Julianna Radcliffe always managed to look equal parts disdainfully untouchable and wet-dream sexy.

Tonight, her dress was pure sin. She wore a long, strapless light gray number that had a front slit, exposing a perfectly toned leg most the way up her thigh and a bustier top that hugged proud, ample breasts. The paleness of her dress made the tone of her skin appear even darker than usual, which made my stomach knot with tension because I yearned to investigate all that dark, dark skin, see how it felt under my hands, how it tasted against my tongue, how it trembled when I stroked it.

Yet I knew without a shadow of a doubt there was no way that would ever happen because that lady right there was a ball-breaker. You could tell it by the straight-backed, poised way she held herself as if she might as well be behind a boardroom table, doling out punishments to her inferior subordinates, and by the way she had no tolerance for stupidity or players. I swear, her stare alone could shrivel a guy’s family jewels to impotent nothingness. I usually had the itching urge to cover my junk whenever I talked to her.

And yet she was an irresistible challenge to idiots like me. Not just because she was model-worthy stunning, which she was. Nothing on her was ever out of place. But because her flawlessness always struck me with the urge to mess her up…in the best ways possible. I felt the need to be the exception to the rule, the one who got past her defenses and scaled that impossible mountain of poise and perfection.

Fuck, Brandt groaned.

I glanced at him, forcing my brain back to the problem at hand, that being Julianna and her inability to take her eyes off my newly married brother.

Hasn’t it been months since you and she were over? I asked, confused.

He sent me a sharp glance. "Over? We never started. There’s nothing to be over. Juli and I didn’t even finish the one date we went on."

Asher sniffed. "Well, it looks as if she’s still willing to finish it."

Dammit. Brandt glanced toward his wife. I hope Sarah doesn’t see her watching me. I don’t want anything upsetting her on our wedding day.

Asher shook his head. So, why’d you even invite Juli?

"I work with her." Brandt moodily tugged at the collar of his tux.

It seemed odd to me that someone so classically beautiful worked in a nightclub as a bartender. To me, Julianna clearly belonged on a runway, displaying the latest fashion, or—

It would’ve been strange to invite everyone else from the club and leave her out. Besides, we’re still friends. She’s probably my favorite coworker.

Hey, Asher muttered, offended since he occasionally bartended at the Forbidden Nightclub with Brandt too.

Brandt rolled his eyes. You don’t count.

But that only seemed to confuse Asher more. Why don’t I count?

Ignoring him, Brandt brought his hand up to his mouth so he could chew on his thumbnail. We need to distract her somehow. Someone needs to... Trailing off, he turned slowly toward me, and the intent in his gaze was pretty damn clear.

I paused mid-sip. "Wait, what? You can’t possibly want me to distract her?"

You’re the one who’s always flirting with her, he hissed.

"Because she hates it, I muttered right back. It’s fun to piss her off and watch her blood pressure boil." And seriously, it was. Knowing I could make such a flawlessly controlled woman like her come unhinged was an adrenaline rush every time.

On any other night, I would’ve loved nothing better than to go bug her and watch her lose her shit. I always felt the need to flirt and smile at her every chance I got. But the truth was I don’t think anyone had ever hated my personable, charming personality or adorable grin as much as she did. And tonight was not a good night for me to take on that kind of abuse. I needed a pick-me-up, so I had other plans, like hot wedding hookups and complete, drunken misbehavior.

Babysitting my brother’s not-even-ex was not on the agenda.

Brandt didn’t seem to care. "Then go piss her off like you do. Just...anything to keep her attention away from me. Shit, I thought she was over me. She said that ship had sailed. Doesn’t that mean the woman’s lost interest?"

I rolled my eyes. "No, you moron. It means she’s trying to save face and make you think she’s lost interest because she knows you already have. Jesus, it’s like you don’t understand women at all."

Shut up, asshole. He smacked me on the back of the head. I understand Sarah, and that’s all I need to understand. Now go over there and make Juli forget I even exist.

I glanced longingly at the opposite side of the room. But I was going to try to hook up with Remy’s cousin Carmen tonight.

What the fuck ever. You don’t stand a chance with Carmen. Go talk to Juli.

"And you think I have a chance with Juli?" I snorted.

When pigs flew. If she were a five-star restaurant, then I would’ve been that questionable hot dog stand out back, manned by the greasy dude with sweaty armpits.

Dude. Asher shook his head. You don’t have a chance with either.

This time it was my turn to say the affronted, "Hey."

Yes, I was offended, even if it was true.

Brandt sighed. "You’re not trying to score with Juli, dipshit. You’re just keeping her company so she’ll stop staring at me. When I wrinkled my nose at such a task, my brother grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket and jerked me right up into his face. Do you want your new sister-in-law starting her marriage with any kind of self-doubt, especially when there is no reason for her to have any?"

Groaning at his over-dramatization, I rolled my eyes. Sarah knows better.

"Yes, she does. But I still don’t want to take a chance of anything upsetting her. Anything, got it? Now get your ass over there. He let me go hard enough that I tripped away from him in Julianna’s direction. I had been going to go, anyway, but then he added, You owe me."

Well, shit.

I gulped and nodded before lowering my gaze.

Fine. All right, I’m going. I backed away from him, my hands held up in surrender.

I owed Brandt a hell of a lot more than distracting a pretty girl for him. But when I turned away to stalk toward Juli, I paused, nauseous from the whole you-owe-me thing.

I thought he was over that. He’d said he was over it. He’d even asked me to be his best man to prove it was water under the bridge. It still haunted me, yeah, but at least I’d been comforted by the knowledge he was past it.

Except how could he be past it if he was bringing it up now?

Damn, he wasn’t over shit.

Gulping, I glanced blindly around the reception hall at all the family and friends I knew so well. Since moving to this town when I was eight, I’d made a home here. It was my place of comfort and support, my safe haven. Yet as my gaze shifted over the familiar faces, I couldn’t help but wonder what they really thought of me now that they knew, which I’m sure most of them did. Nothing stayed secret long in our group.

I wanted to slink away somewhere quiet and lick my wounds, but a dance song thing started, and the crowd cheered when Brandt led Sarah to the edge of the dance floor so he could dance for her. Watching him, I remembered my mission and reluctantly returned my attention to Julianna.

I could hide my own misery behind my flirty smile and carefree attitude. It was what I did, what I excelled at. So it was what I’d do now too. Brandt needed me here, with her, so this was where I’d stay.

Julianna was watching him again, smiling in the saddest way as if she loved what she saw and yet it hurt her to keep looking at it. Misery etched every inch of her features. The rigid set of her shoulders didn’t even appear as poised and polished as they usually did. It was as if she was trying too hard, straining at the seams and about to burst any second.

With a sigh, I shook my head. Poor girl. I actually felt bad for her. She was a hot mess, and she didn’t even know it.

She really did need me to save her.

This was just too painful to even allow to continue. She should escape this reception before her bruised and tender feelings started bleeding out her pores. And since I didn’t know anyone else who could annoy her and send her running off in a huff faster than I could, I was just the guy for her.

It’d be like a mercy killing, really.

Okay, so wedding hookups and misbehaving was clearly off the schedule for tonight. It was time to be charming for an entirely different reason.

Cracking my neck one way, then the other, I rolled my shoulders in preparation as I strolled Julianna’s way. You better be ready for me, baby doll, I murmured because I was about to give her a big ol’ dose of Colton Gamble to the extreme.

JULIANNA’S CHAPTER | 2

I shouldn’t be here.

I had been telling myself variations of that very sentiment all day, starting with I shouldn’t go as I’d dressed for the wedding all the way to What the hell am I doing? as I’d entered the church. And here I was now, still filled with a torturous regret as I sat alone at a round table during the reception and watched a bunch of white people trying to dance to the Cha Cha Slide.

That was just plain painful all by itself.

Except for the groom. He looked adorable attempting to perfect the Charlie Brown. I could tell he was only on the dance floor to entertain his bride, who sat in her wheelchair a few feet in front of him and covered her mouth with her hands as tears streamed down her cheeks from laughing so hard.

A reluctant smile tugged at my own lips. Yeah, he was pretty damn cute with the way he so enthusiastically got into the song, shaking his ass at her. And that tux fit him like sin on an ice cream cone. Made a girl just want to lick—

Not that I’d ever licked that.

I was probably the only woman in attendance—aside from the bride herself—who’d gone on a date with him, though. Well, half a date. It had been kind of interrupted by, what do you know, the bride herself, and we’d never gotten a redo before he realized where his heart truly lay.

I didn’t blame the new Mrs. Gamble for ruining my date and crushing what might’ve been a grand, passionate romance. Not really.

But being passed over for someone else had been a bitter pill to swallow because I had liked Brandt Gamble. I’d liked him a lot, like enough to maybe even break my five-date rule of going all the way if that first one had ever made it to completion. Yet I’d never even gotten a kiss from him. I bet he was a good kisser too. His lips looked like the soft kind that made your toes curl as soon as they were within a foot of you.

He was damn-near perfect all the way around. Gorgeous, good humored, kind, compassionate, easy to talk to, and just rough enough around the edges to be a wholly and appealingly, hard-working guy.

Glancing away as the song ended and he swept forward to press his soft-looking lips against his wife’s, I cleared my throat, feeling vile for even thinking what I was thinking.

Who in their right mind attended a wedding to watch their old crush marry someone else?

Me, apparently.

I was such an idiot. I should just grab my purse, get up and leave already. I was better than this. If I put my heart into it, I could probably get any man I wanted. I didn’t need to mope over some unavailable—

Across the table from me, a guy in a tux slumped into a seat in a sloppy, drunken manner, saying, Hey, sexy.

I jerked my gaze up to the man’s face only to groan.

Not a man. Just a boy. Just a cocky, way-too-attractive for his mere eighteen years, boy.

The best man, aka Brandt’s annoying little brother, wiggled his eyebrows amorously. "You look good enough to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And that slit in your skirt, running halfway up your thigh...mmm, baby doll, that’s been driving me crazy all night."

God, strike me dead now. If there was anything worse than watching the guy you were pining after marry another woman, it had to be spending any time in the company of Colton Gamble.

Why...? I demanded, glaring enough that hopefully he’d get the hint and behave for once in his life. Couldn’t you have just been decent for once in your life, dropped all that annoying shit, and merely said I looked nice?

Nice? He snorted, his brown eyes sparkling with delight. The bride looks nice. My sisters and little nieces look nice. You...no, you don’t look nice. You look fucking delicious.

Against my will, heat coiled in my stomach. That’s what I hated most about Colton. His pesky annoyances I could handle and swat aside without another thought. It was the way his stare could make my thighs quiver and breasts go all heavy that made me boil and stew.

He was the complete antithesis of his brother. Where Brandt was humble about his appearance, Colton knew how hot he was and liked to play it up. Brandt seemed to work for everything he had while Colton had a laziness about him as if he just sat back and let the world come to him. His personality was so loud and domineering, I wasn’t sure what was important to him, except maybe himself, while Brandt wore his feelings for others right there on his sleeve for the world to see. Brandt’s presence was soothing and put me at ease. He was a nice, safe guy to crush on. Being near Colton always made everything inside me twist and tighten with...I don’t even know. Annoyance? Dread? Awareness? Excitement?

Whatever it was, I hated it. And worse yet, I swear, he knew how much he affected me. His grin always bore that smug, arrogant smirk, as if he could read every dirty thought in my head. I hated that too...almost as much as I hated him.

Okay, maybe I didn’t hate him per se—I didn’t even really know him—but I could definitely do without all that freaking mess he caused inside me. Messes were just...messy. And I did hate messes. I was the kind of girl who thrived off order and control. It only took one glance at Colton to know those things did not exist in his wheelhouse.

Propping his elbows onto the table, he rested his chin in one hand as he regarded me thoughtfully. You looked lonely sitting over here all by your sexy self. I decided I just couldn’t allow that.

I ignored how sweet it was that he’d been concerned about my well-being at all, and I sent him a dismissive glance. I’m fine.

He lifted an eyebrow, spearing me with an intense stare that made me squirm inside as if I could feel him poking through all my innermost thoughts. Are you?

Drawing in a breath, I tore my gaze from him and scanned the room, needing something else to focus on. When I spotted Brandt leading his bride toward the cake and punch, I blinked rapidly.

No. No, I wasn’t fine. Not at all. I was a freaking lonely mess inside, and I hated that too.

Messy, messy Juli. We couldn’t have that.

Across the table, Colton leaned toward me. Tell me something, Julianna. What’re you doing here?

His question made me squint. Veering my attention back to him, I shook my head, confused. What do you mean? This is where my place card was. I lifted my card to show him the name Julianna Radcliffe printed neatly on the folded piece of cardstock. Where else would I sit?

But he shook his head. "No. Not at this table, here. What are you doing at this wedding, here?"

My lips parted. Feeling suddenly unwelcome and small, I narrowed my eyes at the source of this crappy feeling. "I was invited," I bit back.

Colton sighed and glanced momentarily toward the ceiling before meeting my gaze and murmuring, Didn’t mean you had to come.

What? Back straightening and chin lifting, I said, Do you have some kind of problem with me, Little Gamble?

He laughed. The bastard was half a second from making me cry and slink away from this stupid reception with my tail tucked between my legs, and he had the audacity to laugh in my face. Jerk. I should claw his motherfucking eyes out. And all this time, I’d thought he liked me when he flirted mercilessly. Every time he saw me, in fact, he made some comment about wanting to get into my pants.

Knowing he didn’t want me here made me feel betrayed by all his previous false acts of seduction. It made me feel as if no one wanted me, anywhere.

As if no one would ever want me.

But then he said, Hell no, I don’t have a problem with you.

Confused, I frowned.

Colton only smiled and tipped his head to the side. What? Have I not made that clear enough every single second I’ve ever spent in your company? Because, you know, I could try harder.

"Dear God, no! Against my will, my body settled with relief to learn he didn’t dislike me after all, except the relief pissed me off, because I didn’t want to care what he thought of me. Then what the fuck is your deal?" I demanded, cursing myself because I cared a hell of a lot more than I wanted to.

I didn’t want to like him; it drove me crazy that once I realized he was in a room he was the only thing I could focus on or think about. It’s like the bastard stole my attention against my will, and I hated that. But I couldn’t seem to stop it.

I don’t have a deal, he answered flippantly, making me rumble out my aggravation. "I’m just curious why you decided to torture yourself and attend this wedding only to watch the guy you’re crazy about marry someone else."

I froze.

Praying he hadn’t just said what I knew he’d just said, I slid my gaze toward Brandt, only to guiltily slice it right back to Colton, who lifted his eyebrows and waited for my answer like a smug know-it-all.

So I took a long, slow drink from my champagne glass, nearly draining it, and then I set it back on the table before returning my attention to him.

Affecting an amused laugh, I asked, What makes you think I’m crazy about Brandt?

Colton laughed too, like threw back his head and bellowed the sound, making people at other tables glance our way. I ground my teeth, trying not to sink through the floor from mortification as he slowly settled down enough to say, Not have feelings for Brandt? Good one. Wiping a tear from his eye, he flicked it from his fingers. Damn, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all night. But seriously, you don’t have to play dumb with me. I know you like him. I watched you stare at him for a good ten minutes straight before I came over here to rescue you.

"I was not—" Oh, shit. I had been staring, hadn’t I? "He’s one of the only people here I know, I bit out defensively. And he’s the groom. Who was I supposed to watch?"

Colton grinned. You could watch me.

"Oh, Jesus. Really?" I rolled my eyes and reached for my purse from the middle of the table to leave. It was humiliating enough to get caught staring, but Colton’s pathetic flirting on top of that made my night complete. This evening was just too sucky to continue.

Hey, wait. Colton flashed forward, snatching my purse before I could get my hand on it.

I glowered. Dammit, Colton. Give me my purse back.

He didn’t. Grinning, he clutched it to his chest before holding up a finger. Just give me a second here. I have an idea. What if I knew how to help you get over him?

His words caused half a second of pause because of the enchanting temptation they roused. I would love nothing else in the world than to stop wondering what-if every time I was around Brandt.

Sitting back, I crossed my arms over my chest, acting as if I didn’t care and was just playing along to recover my possessions. Oh, really? And how do you suggest I do that?

With a shrug, he said, Same way any woman gets over a guy she likes. By settling for some other lucky schmuck to get your mind off him, of course. Grinning, he lifted his hand. In fact, I volunteer as consolation prize.

JULIANNA’S CHAPTER | 3

I couldn’t help myself. My mind went there. It took a good three-second vacation to envision what being with Colton Gamble might be like—which, embarrassingly, wasn’t the first time I’d wondered it either. And I had to admit, there was no way tangling with him could ever be boring or staid. The guy had a way of making me catch my breath just by looking at me as if he knew things… hot, kinky, exciting things, scrumptious things I hadn’t experienced in a long time, or maybe even ever.

He had never laid a hand on me, but I already knew if I let him, those hands would be everywhere. They looked like naughty, mischievous hands, all long and slim-fingered, or like a magician’s hands that did all kinds of flashy, interesting things right before your eyes and then snuck up and surprised you with the real trick without you even being aware of it, until bam, orgasm central.

My body kind of suddenly wanted those hands to pull a rabbit out of my hat.

Which made me blink with guilt and squeeze my thighs together inconspicuously as I glared at him. But seriously, why would he do this to me? He probably hadn’t even been seriously propositioning me, and here I was, tingling and throbbing over the mere suggestions he’d put into my head.

The jerk.

I’m not sure why I’d actually thought he might’ve had some kind of legitimate plan to help me get over my silly crush on his brother, either. I should’ve known he’d only been trying to segue into another one of his stupid, empty pickup lines.

Give me back my purse, you idiot.

When I held out my hand, he sighed and surprisingly handed it over without any resistance, which disappointed me as much as it shocked me. Wait, I hadn’t said disappointed, had I? I didn’t mean disappointed.

And yet, I kind of did.

Is it the forbidden thing? he asked as I clutched my purse to my chest, singularly aware of the warmth secreting from it where his hand had been holding it.

I’d planned on storming away and leaving for good, but his question made me waver. Excuse me?

The fact that he’s unavailable. Colton rolled his hand to explain himself. You’re not one of those women who only wants a guy once he’s already taken, are you?

What? My mouth fell open, unable to believe he’d ask me that. It stung that he’d even think of me that way. "Good God, no."

Because, you know, he went on conversationally as if I hadn’t spoken. "It would make sense why you’ve never wanted me. Maybe I made myself too available."

Never wanted him? Humph. I almost laughed in his face over that one.

But hell, if he wasn’t aware I’d had all kinds of dirty thoughts about him, then…yeah, I was going to keep it that way. Who knew how big his head would grow if he suspected what kind of sexy, forbidden daydreams I’d really had.

Thinking of him that way had always made me feel like a guilty piece of slime, though, as if I was cheating on my old feelings for his brother when I’d had those thoughts, which had to be really fucking messed up.

But in all seriousness, if a person were to put Colton’s sex appeal into Brandt’s personality, my ovaries probably would’ve exploded months ago.

When I noticed Colton was watching me as if waiting for a response, I realized, shit, my mind had just wandered to places it should never go.

I cleared my throat. Uh…no. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m not like that. And honestly, if anything, you’re probably five times more forbidden than your brother, anyway.

Really? Eyes sparking with interest, he leaned closer. "That sounds exciting. Why am I forbidden?"

Damn, why had I told him that? And why did I feel the urge to explain it? I knew I was going to regret getting into this discussion, but I just couldn’t help myself. The boy dragged out the arguer in me. It was as if he knew I loved a good debate.

Well, first of all, you’re underage.

Wrong. He made a game-show buzzer sound before grinning. But you already know I’m legal now.

The hell if you are. You can’t drink alcohol until you’re twenty-one, buddy.

But I’m adult enough to vote, go to war, and have all the consensual sex I want, which is what really counts.

Yes, I definitely knew he was eighteen. He’d given me a countdown every time he’d visited the bar where I worked. And then, on the very day he turned, he’d invited me to his big birthday bash, assuring me he’d make it worth my while if I showed up, which I didn’t do.

"You’re still four