Stephanie Rose takes us back to the small town of Kelly Lakes with an all-new small town, opposites attract, fish out of water, fake relationship romance—out this week—and you can read the whole first chapter right here.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” I sighed when I noticed the blue and red lights in my rearview mirror and the shrill whooping sound in tandem with the sirens.
Gravel crunched under my tires as I maneuvered my car onto the side of the highway. Other than my car and the police cruiser pulling over behind me, I saw nothing for miles but asphalt and woods on either side of the road. So much for using the drive to calm myself down before I arrived at my best friend Peyton’s house. I shut my eyes at the footfalls coming from behind my now-open car window.
I’d always loved the drive from Brooklyn to Kelly Lakes. Once I made it out of the New York City boroughs, the traffic would ease for the most part, and it would be only me on the open, quiet road. I’d enjoy the long miles of nothing but my own company before I spent a few days with my best friend and her adorable family.
As I’d white-knuckled the steering wheel for the past almost-three hours, the low hum of the engine and my own exasperated sighs the only things filling the silence inside my car, this drive had been anything but relaxing. In fact, with every mile that had ticked by, the more time I’d had to think about what had just happened and to let it all sink in. A flurry of emotions had barreled over me after the initial shock had faded, coming out in the nail marks on my steering wheel and my lead foot on the gas pedal.
Thirteen years. Thirteen fucking years. My friends had all job-hopped after we graduated from college—except for Peyton, until her own professional life had imploded and she’d escaped to what I called the country, Kelly Lakes. Every time I’d come to visit, I got a kick out of the small Upstate New York town that always reminded me of a Hallmark movie set.
Sure, moving around would have meant bigger salary increases, but I had been happy where I was and never wanted to leave. Maybe I’d gotten too comfortable, but why would I leave a job I liked and that I was good at? Maintaining sales quotas and new business pitches was stressful, but I loved the challenge and the people I worked with.
When the company had changed hands last year, we’d all been a little nervous, but I’d never had any fears or doubts about keeping my job. I had the highest revenue in our office, my clients loved me and would often refer new prospects to us, who would ask for me specifically. The new group of executives had been every bit a boys’ club, but I’d endured the mansplaining during our weekly staff meetings and grinned while setting them straight that I knew what the hell I was talking about.
I had always been outspoken, even as a kid. My father said that smart women had to be louder than mediocre men in order to be heard, and while he’d get exasperated each time I’d gotten into trouble for talking in class, I was never punished for it.
I’d learned early on to be polite but unyielding. And in the past year, that attitude had pissed off upper management enough to endure an undercurrent of tension whenever I came into the office. My friends had left the company one by one, and I was all that was left of the original staff. I knew deep down I’d have to leave eventually, but I’d thought it would be on my terms.
Once I’d spotted the meeting invitation from HR—with no explanation—when I’d opened my inbox this morning, I’d known. I’d had fifteen minutes to let it sink in before I was called into the conference room with my boss and a terrified HR manager.
“You’ve been a great asset to the company, Claudia. This isn’t performance-based. We just want to go a different direction,” my boss had said. That different direction being a fresh out of graduate school sales rep—whom I’d caught calling my boss “Uncle Greg” on his first day. They’d asked me to bring him to client meetings and lunches for him to shadow me and learn, but after I’d had to shut him down a few times for promising things that he didn’t fully understand yet and couldn’t deliver on, he began shadowing his uncle in executive meetings instead.
He was young and arrogant without experience, but I supposed he’d thought that since he had a penis, he would automatically know better than me. I’d always laughed it off when I met guys like him, but I’d never thought I’d lose my job to one.
My foot had come down even harder as I’d thought of all the late nights and weekends, all the anxious Sunday nights I’d spent worrying if the week would go well. My love life had always been a mess, but I’d nurtured my professional one and made it my priority. All those years of hard work seemed like time squandered as I looked back from where I was now.
My parents had reiterated from the time I’d had a summer cashier’s job to save twenty percent of each paycheck because “you never know,” and to shut them up, I’d let my father set up a savings account for me. My plan had been to go on a bucket-list vacation or buy the house of my dreams someday with all I’d accumulated over the years, never thinking it would become an emergency fund.
I had severance and unemployment to fall back on for the next few weeks, and I had enough contacts to get feelers out, but the very thought of meeting with recruiters or going on interviews exhausted me, and I wasn’t ready to even think about any of that yet.
Not now, and maybe not period.
The thought of starting over pissed me off, and what for? Just to be back here again someday? I had been loyal to my company and had given my all every single day, and one morning, they’d discarded me like yesterday’s garbage. The anger and disappointment were raw, but deep enough to shift the mind-set I’d always had.
After that one fifteen-minute meeting, all my years of hard work had equated to nothing.
My stomach had turned in disgust at the realization, until it’d dropped when I’d realized I was being pulled over.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” the police officer growled in my ear.
“What difference does it make? I’m the only one on this road.”
That was the wrong answer and wouldn’t help at all, but frustrated petulance had taken over for my common sense.
“Almost thirty over the speed limit. License and registration, please.”
“Look,” I said, plastering on a wide smile as I sucked in a slow breath. When I turned, I found an at least six-foot-tall Adonis with narrowed blue eyes, a chiseled jaw covered in just enough stubble to stay on this side of clean-cut, holding out his toned forearm.
“I know the chief,” I stammered, clearing my throat when my voice came out scratchy. “His niece is my best friend, in fact.”
“Chief McGrath wouldn’t like the idea of you speeding on his roads, no matter who you are and what time it is. License and registration,” he requested slowly, as if I were a child and he’d just run out of patience.
And it was hot as hell.
Something I shouldn’t have noticed in the cop I was in trouble with—and definitely not after the day I’d just had. I’d jumped in my car and torn out of my spot in front of my Brooklyn apartment building to escape to a friendly place where corporate assholes didn’t exist and there were little parlors dedicated to ice cream.
I had been so dead set on getting as far away from my problems as possible, I hadn’t thought about anything else—or realized that I was doing close to ninety on the highway. Still, there was something about this guy that was impossible not to notice. He had a presence, a quiet intensity that I supposed most cops were trained to have, but those steely blue eyes had me fumbling my words, a problem I’d never had before.
“Listen, Officer…” I peered up at him, squinting at the badge pinned to his wide chest as I handed him my paperwork. “Oh sorry, Sergeant. I promise I have respect for the law. I’m…having a really bad day,” I said, flicking my eyes up to his icy ones. He was built but not in a meathead way, a man who could lift and throw but didn’t seem like the type to spend hours in a gym. Maybe fighting bad guys gave him that body?
“Davis.” He shifted his torso toward me, the muscles in his shoulders working under his shirt. “If you want to take down my badge number, you can, but the chief is going to side with me.”
I lifted my head to his raised brow, embarrassment bleeding into my heated cheeks. I wasn’t this person, the one who speed-raced down an open highway and got snippy with police officers.
“No, it’s fine. I deserve a ticket,” I said as I blew out a long breath and let my head fall back. “Uncle Keith would totally side with you.” I turned, expecting Sergeant Davis to be scribbling on the pad in his hand. Instead, I met his narrowed eyes as he searched my gaze.
“A bad day isn’t an excuse to be reckless. Maybe there aren’t a lot of cars out here, but something could jump out in front of you, and at that speed, you wouldn’t be able to steer around it.”
All I could do was nod. I’d had my share of minor fender benders, but I’d never earned even one speeding ticket. He was right. A bad day was no excuse to put myself and anyone I came across on the road in danger. The rage I’d headed here with had now dissipated into shame and regret.
“I lost my job today, Sergeant Davis. It’s no excuse, but I’ve been there for thirteen years and worked my ass off every single day. And this morning, they gave my job to a little asshole who isn’t half as good as me just because his uncle is the boss and he has a penis…”
I cringed when his brows popped up.
“No offense. I’m not trying to talk myself out of a ticket…anymore.”
I smiled and swore I spotted a tiny curve of his lips for a split second.
“You’re right. And I shouldn’t have mouthed off to you just now. That’s not who I am—or, not who I usually am. It’s just…a bad day.” I peered up at Sergeant Davis, expecting an eye roll or a blank expression for the city chick speeding down a country road. Instead, I found a softer expression when I caught his gaze, almost as if his eyes were holding mine and not glaring at me as I would have expected.
“Tell Uncle Keith I’m sorry. Or maybe don’t tell him at all. I’ll pay the ticket quickly and quietly, and he doesn’t have to know that I endangered his roads. I love Kelly Lakes and would hate not to be allowed back.”
I sputtered out a sad chuckle as I propped my elbow onto my car door and raked my hand through my hair. I’d come here to calm down, but I didn’t want anyone other than Peyton to see me in the middle of a breakdown.
My gaze drifted to the still-empty road ahead when I caught Sergeant Davis start to hand back my license and registration in my periphery.
“If I hand this back and forget I ran into you, can I trust you to go the speed limit for the rest of your trip into town?”
I nodded and straightened in my seat.
“Yes, absolutely,” I said, taking my license and registration from him. I was happy, relieved, and a little unnerved at the spark from where our fingers brushed. The man really was beautiful and not only in a broody, hot cop sort of way. If I’d run into the good sergeant at a bar, I would have annoyed him until I could make him crack a smile, but now was not the time for flirting—regardless of how difficult it was not to focus on the flex of his biceps as he shoved the pad back into his pocket.
“Thank you. And I mean that.”
His gaze slid to mine, his expression softening for another millisecond before he nodded, blinking his long lashes as he took a half step back as if he were flinching at something. I searched his face, his very handsome face, as he shook his head. Everything about him screamed no-nonsense authority—other than deciding to let me go—but something in his tiny, quick expressions drew me in. As if he had so much to say behind those soulful eyes.
Or I was that tired and he was a pretty mirage that I’d latched on to in the midst of my shitty day.
“Be careful, Ms. Ng.”
“Oh, you can call me Claudia.” I waved a hand, my fingers quivering at the dip of adrenaline mixed with relief. “And I can call you…” I lifted a brow. There was no harm in flirting a little, right? I might have been depressed and despondent, but I wasn’t dead inside. As he leaned forward, I spotted a thin gold chain hidden under his collar, right above where his broad chest pulled at his uniform shirt buttons. I took my awareness of the sexy and surprisingly benevolent cop who had pulled me over for reckless driving as a good sign that my current life crisis hadn’t dulled all my senses.
“Sergeant,” he said as he backed away from my open window, his eyes still fixed on me but his gorgeous features now flat and unreadable. “Drive safely, Ms. Ng.”
“Right,” I said on a sigh, giving him a two-finger salute. “No more trouble from me. I promise.” I cut my losses instead of pushing my luck and started the engine, allowing myself to enjoy Sergeant Davis’s walk back to his car in my rearview mirror, his uniform pants hugging the globes of his ass the same way his shirt sang the praises of his broad chest, before I pulled my car back onto the highway.
Sergeant Davis disappeared into his cruiser, but he stayed parked behind me until I couldn’t find him in the distance.
At least one man hadn’t screwed me over today. I’d get to Peyton’s house, pass out on her basement futon, and start to figure out what the hell to do with my life.