He’s the man who’s been pining after her for nearly a decade, she’s his sister’s best friend, and in Alison Rhymes’ third novel, Reed and Leighton are finally getting their chance at a happily ever after. I am delighted to share the first chapter with you.
“What can I get for you, Love?”
Ireland has been great, but if one more person calls any of us love, I’m going to lose my freaking mind. It reminds me of Leighton. Every. Single. Time.
As my sister’s best friend, Leighton had been invited on this family vacation. This insanely lavish vacation. Thanks to my brother-in-law, Drew. He’s normally frugal, especially for being one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL. But Drew didn’t skimp on this trip. It was a gift to my mother. A trip my father always planned on taking her on, but he died too soon.
None of us are flashy; he could have booked basic hotels and commercial trains. But that’s not what he did. We’ve stayed in luxurious hotels and even one castle. And we have a private driver.
We’ve experienced everything in a style none of us are accustomed to. I have to say, I’ve enjoyed it. Not that I care about polished luxury sedans and hotel rooms equipped with the best of the best. Ireland itself is what I’ve enjoyed. This is a special place, and I felt it as soon as we stepped off the plane. I’ve never been to another place like it. It’s lively while still being inherently laid-back. And every touristy destination we’ve been to has blended seamlessly with its surroundings. Unlike in the US, where every landmark becomes a theme park. A return trip is high on my list of plans. I’d love to spend more time in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Both places are so rich in history, I could get lost in it too easily. Plus, the graffiti in Belfast—I could spend days and days there. But not with my entire family.
I’m an artist at heart. Something I’ve never been overly open about. Graphic design pays the bills, and while I enjoy it, it’s not my passion. My family knows it. But other than my parents, June, and Drew, nobody has seen my paintings.
My mother has loved every minute of Ireland. She deserves it. Not only did she raise my bratty ass, she’s also the reason my sister is the most caring woman to have ever lived. And she was a pivotal figure in Drew’s life, as well.
My father, before his passing a few years back, had been planning this trip for some time. Mom always had the dream of coming here and he wanted to give her the opportunity. Drew is giving it to her instead, but it’s no less special to her.
Leighton declined the invitation to vacation with us all. Because of that, I was looking forward to this trip. Not just in spending time with my family, but as a reprieve from all things Leighton. Or rather, all things Leighton and Connor, her boyfriend. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Her being in anything remotely like a relationship with anyone but me. But she’s been dating this guy for months now. On page, they’re a great couple; successful, good-looking, confident. Except, Connor Anders is nothing more than a placeholder, because Leighton Ward has always been mine.
Ireland has done nothing to quench my mind’s thirst for her. She’s taken up permanent residence there. Every blonde woman I see, reminds me of her. Every new, gorgeous site we visit makes me wonder what she’d think of it. What she’d look like standing in grand ruins or along the Cliffs of Moher, her hair blowing in the wind as I’d wrap my arms around her to fight off the chill. So obsessed with her am I that every bedroom I step into at night creates an image of her spread out on the bed waiting for me .
It’s a fucking problem.
My entire world purview has been reduced to Leighton Ward, and only Leighton Ward.
Even here, sitting in the busy hubbub of the Guinness Storehouse, surrounded by the chatter and laughter of hundreds of strangers. It’s Leighton I hear asking me what I’d like for lunch, her hand softly touching my shoulder to gain my attention.
Our server looks nothing like Leighton, though. Perhaps the height is right, but that’s where the similarities stop. She’s not blonde, no. Instead, her red, curly hair is pulled into a messy topknot, exposing the fair skin of her neck dotted with freckles. Leighton’s freckles lightly speck the apples of her cheeks, exactly where the hue deepens when I say the right thing or look at her a few beats too long.
Our server is pretty and has a comfortable ease about her that I like. Confidence is something I’ve always found sexy as hell. This waitress, Emma, her nametag reads, has confidence in spades. And I’m frustrated enough to take her up on the flirtatious banter she’s been throwing my way while taking our orders.
My head isn’t interested in Emma. But my dick is.
I order fish and chips and watch her ass as she walks back to the kitchen.
“Drew, this has been the most amazing vacation. I could have never dreamed up everything you planned for us,” Mom tells him, a smile brightening her face.
“But it’s time to get home, huh?” He winks at her.
“Oh, dear, yes. I’m exhausted.”
We’re all wearing down with that homesickness that kicks in at the end of a long vacation. Drew and June need to head back to Seattle for training camp since the season starts soon. He’s already pushed the date to make this trip. I’m sure his coach isn’t pleased, but overall, the team has been supportive of him and June taking more time for their marriage.
June discovered last year that Drew had been cheating on her. It was a hard road for them both, and they’ve been through many, many therapy sessions. Both together and separately. Drew is a different man than before. Thankfully, because it’s hard to hate your best friend, your brother. But I did during that time. I’ve always loved him, though, it’s not impossible to feel both emotions simultaneously. It was hard on us all, my mother included, who sees Drew as more than a son by marriage. She helped raise him. We were livid at what he’d done, but supportive as he navigated his way to becoming a better man. It was difficult to help them while they worked through the issues that drove Drew to what he’d been doing.
A balancing act I never want to repeat. If he fucks up like that again, I’ll murder him with my own hands. He’s gotten a second chance from us all because we believe in his love for June. He won’t get a third. But he knows that. He’s very aware of how lucky he’s been, and he’s not taking it, or my sister, for granted any longer.
It says a lot about a man when everyone he knows stands behind him in the darkest times. Nobody condones what he did, by any means. But everyone gave him the chance to change. Drew’s entire team has been overwhelmingly accommodating to his efforts. In return, he’s ready to work harder than he ever has for them. He has big expectations for this season, and we all believe in him.
It will be a big year for me, as well.
I took a new job. A big one. While my sister and Drew will move back to Seattle for the next several months, I’ll be relocating from there to where their second home is. New Orleans, Louisiana. And I’ll be living right next door to the woman whom I see as both the love of my life and the current bane of my existence.
June has a love for real estate. Specifically, old houses that come with their own slew of ghosts. She’s an adorable weirdo like that. Drew had been secretly buying them up all over the country. Likely to soothe his own guilt. Whatever the reason, he knew June would love the one in New Orleans most. It’s a grand old thing and happened to be in the city where her best friend lived. Knowing June would want to spend a lot of time there, he bought the duplex next door, too. Half for me and my mom, half for Leighton and her dad.
Leighton has moved in for months now, while my side sits empty.
That will change in a few weeks when I start my position with Southern Lifestyle magazine as the art director for their new publication. They’ve been around for years, but their subscriptions have been falling with the younger crowd. Looking to expand their demographic, they’re revamping by adding a new online magazine geared toward the under-forty crowd.
That’s where I come in. All I have left to do is pack up the few belongings I plan on taking with me, which isn’t much. My clothes will come, although I won’t need all the gear for colder, wetter days while living in the southern heat and humidity. Most of my furniture is staying too. Basically, if it doesn’t fit into my SUV, it’s not coming with me.
“Oh, that’s pretty,” June says absently, while looking at her phone.
“What is?” Mom asks.
“Lorelai posted a picture of the sample flower arrangement for the wedding.”
“You follow her?” I ask, not a little astonished. June has empathy for days and days, but Lorelai is the woman Drew was involved with on the side. The one June caught him with.
She is also the woman marrying June’s close friend and co-worker, Noah Anders. Noah, brother of Leighton’s boyfriend, Connor. We could not be a more convoluted bunch if we tried.
It’s a messy web.
Drew always insisted that Lorelai wasn’t a bad person. Noah is even more adamant about it, and he’s a hard man not to trust. I know little about the woman. What I do know is that it’s twisted for my sister to be following her on Instagram.
“Yeah,” she says with a shrug. “Morbid curiosity, I guess.”
“Have you decided if you’ll be going to the wedding?” Mom asks her. Noah and Lorelai invited June and Drew. I’m sure it was as to not seem rude, but I figure they don’t expect them to attend.
June sighs heavily.
“We’ve been discussing it,” Drew answers. “We can go to support Noah, but if either of us shows any discomfort… Well, that may ruin their day. So, maybe, it’s better to skip it.”
June stays quiet, still flipping through her phone.
“That’s perfectly understandable. I’m sure Noah understands. If the tables were reversed, I imagine he’d do the same,” Mom says. My sister doesn’t look convinced. While I don’t know Noah nearly as well as her, I’m not sure what Mom said is true. Noah Anders is unlike anyone I’ve ever met; it’s probably why he and my sister get along so well. Because she is, too.
If ever there were two people who could stay friends after such a complicated situation, it’s them.
“Maybe I’m overthinking it,” June finally comments. “I mean, I know she’s not trying to break up our marriage. It’s clear how much she loves Noah, how happy she makes him. That should be enough for me. It’s what’s most important, after all.”
“Sure, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to celebrate with her. Noah wouldn’t put those expectations on you, baby girl. Only do what you’re comfortable with.”
“Reed’s right, Junie,” Drew agrees. “Let’s just see how you feel the closer it gets. There isn’t any pressure to decide. Noah told us that himself.”
“Do you want to go?” I ask him.
“The situation is different for me. Lorelai did plenty to piss me off, but I guess I understand her better. And let’s be clear here, I’m the one that owed June more than I gave. Lorelai was a bystander, not an altogether innocent one, but still. I know that I had more power and responsibility in the situation than anyone else,” he says, running his hands through his hair. A tell that he’s uncomfortable. “I know firsthand how terrifying it is to lose the love of your life and not know if you can ever get them back. I’m honestly glad she and Noah have worked things out. I’m happy for them, and I want the best for their marriage.”
“You’ve grown up a lot this past year, Drew,” Mom says, reaching over to take his hand. He pulls it up to his mouth and kisses it.
Drew grew up with a dysfunctional father and no mother. When June left him, he was horrified that he’d not only put his marriage at risk, but that he might lose the only mother he’d ever known. He and my mom spoke often while he was going through therapy.
Emma comes back with our food and the subject changes to much less stressful topics. I notice the way she lingers at my side, touching my arm again after she sets my meal down.
“Let me know if I can help with anything else,” she says, her meaning clear. Drew laughs and mumbles something under his breath.
“Seriously? That is like the tenth time some random woman has tried to flirt with you on this trip.”
“What can I say, dear sister? I’m a fucking catch.”
“Language, Reed,” Mom scolds. “But you’re right, of course. Any woman would be lucky to have you.”
“You have to say that, Mom. He’s your son.”
“It’s true, June. And I always said the same about you. Though it was clear from an early age, your heart was already taken.”
“Ew, stop,” I tease. “I don’t need the reminder of their pining teenage years. It still gives me nightmares.”
“Shut up, Reed,” June says as Drew smacks my shoulder. Mom and I just laugh.
We call it an early night. There’s time in the morning for breakfast before our flight, but it will be a long day and the rest will do Mom good. I have other plans.
In the form of one pretty, confident redhead who knocks on my hotel room door just after ten o’clock. June was right, plenty of women on this trip have shown me interest. This is the first time I’ve reciprocated. Emma came at the perfect time of my own self-pity.
I cure it with my dick in her mouth. It’s not classy; it’s cliché, even. Spending myself in some random woman as I pine for the one who isn’t mine because I refused to stake a claim when I should have. I’m not proud of using her this way, but I don’t stop either.
Emma knows the deal. This is just sex. Just one night. She’s likely using me to forget someone else for a hot minute, too. By the look on her face, when I strip my clothes off, she’s appreciative too. You don’t grow up with a dedicated, elite athlete without learning how to take care of your body. I’m in excellent shape and I don’t mind showing it off when the time is right. It doesn’t happen often. My sex life is active enough, but I don’t go out looking for it just for the sake of fucking.
I like sex. I like it more when there is some connection beyond mere mutual attraction. Lust is easy. Sex is easy.
I want more.
I want a challenge.
I want Leighton Marie Ward.
Despite not getting a full night’s rest, thanks to Emma who left in the wee hours of the morning, I’m feeling better the following morning. Slightly less in my head. More present and alert. Maybe I needed a good release.
I meet the family in the dining area of the Bed and Breakfast Drew bought out for our stay here in Dublin. I’m the last one, but it doesn’t look like they’ve been here long. Taking a seat, I grab the carafe of coffee from the center of the table.
The owners of the B&B bring out too much food for us. Scones, boxty, oatmeal, porridge. I forgo the black pudding but add several pieces of sausage to my plate.
“Good morning, son.”
“Morning,” I say before taking a bite of my scone.
“Sleep well, dude?” Drew asks, a smirk taking up half of his face. He knows me too well.
“Gross,” June says, so I shoot her a big grin. Her phone rings, and after a peek at the caller, she gets up and steps away from the table to take the call.
“I hope you were safe, Reed.”
“Mother.” I sigh.
“I’m just saying,” she says, holding her hands up. “The last thing you need is an STD or a woman pregnant halfway around the world.”
“Jesus,” I mutter while Drew laughs loudly. “I was safe. Would you like the details, or can you just trust me?”
“Reed,” she admonishes. Drew laughs even louder.
After several moments, June returns to the table, looking more somber than she did when she received the phone call.
“Everything okay, baby?” Drew asks.
“It was Love,” she says, shaking her head. “Connor is moving to Taiwan and asked her to go with him.”
My heart almost stops beating, and the edges of my vision blur. Anxiety is never something I’ve struggled with; panic attacks aren’t anything I’ve ever worried about. But I’m sure I’m about to be swallowed up by one as the voices around me sound farther and farther away. My focus narrows into tunnel vision on one single thought.
I will murder that man if he takes Leighton to Taiwan.
She’s mine; I’m sure of it. Gut-clenching guilt wracks me at the idea that I’ve missed my opportunity to make it clear to her. To the world.
Something June says breaks through the thick fog in my head.
“No, they broke up.”
“Say that again,” I nearly growl.
“Say it again, June. The whole thing. Say it again,” I grind out.
“Connor asked Leighton to move to Taiwan with him, but she said no. They broke up.”
Oh, thank fuck.
June looks at me like I’m asking the dumbest question on the planet. I just want clarification. Or reassurance.
The blood rushes back through my limbs, tingling the tips of my fingers.
“Don’t fuck this up, buddy,” Drew whispers to me.
I have no intention to, either.
I’m coming for Leighton. She better be ready.
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YAY! Thank you!
Just found you and damn happy i did. Mahalo.
I’m glad you found me, too. :)