A slow burning, opposites attract romance—featuring a sassy, fiercely independent young woman looking for true love and a grouchy single dad in need of a nanny—is out next week from Jeannine Colette, and I have the whole first chapter for you.
I am dancing with the most handsome guy at the wedding.
Brown hair, matching eyes, a devilish grin, and patent leather shoes that are currently stepping on my toes. I’d be annoyed, but when you’re dancing with an eight-year-old, you let it slide.
“You’re a good dancer, Tara,” Hunter says as he raises his arm to twirl me.
I duck between our joined hands. “Not so bad yourself, kid.”
“This is our fifth dance in a row. You sure you don’t want to dance with a grown-up?”
“Why would I want to dance with any of these fools when I’m already with the coolest person here?”
I’m not kidding.
I look around the lavish reception of my best friend’s wedding and sigh. It’s no surprise that the bride and wedding planner extraordinaire, Melissa Jones, has transformed a barn into an elegant affair. She and her groom, William Bronson, paired their tastes perfectly. The room is rustic chic with twinkling lights and extravagant florals.
And while it’s ripe with romance, there isn’t one to be had for me.
There are plenty of handsome single men here tonight. At the bar is Todd, Dick, and Kyle—all friends of the groom. Todd and I went out once, but the night ended when he asked if I wanted to go back to his place and play video games. No, that wasn’t a euphemism. He literally wanted to play Romp the Sack—a two-person battle where you fight each other’s avatar on the latest gaming system. Dick and I had a coffee date, where he berated the barista. I left with my full latte in hand. And Kyle and I chatted at a party once, but there was no spark.
Seated at a nearby table is Kent, a sergeant I dated, but his fear of intimacy had us parting ways. Standing by another table are a few single gentlemen I’ve met through Melissa and Will. I’ve scouted them all and even kissed one or two. Instead of princes, they all turned out to be frogs.
My dating history is longer than Taylor Swift’s, and I don’t have the cool songs or Easter egg–laden music videos as a bonus to each romance ending horribly.
“You know what your problem is?” Hunter states. “You’re picky.”
“I’m a successful, gorgeous thirty-six-year-old woman with an amazing sense of humor, and killer taste in style—I mean, have you seen these shoes? More importantly, I know my fucking worth. Let that be a lesson to you, my fabulous godson. Never settle for anyone less than what you deserve!” I declare and then add, “Oh, and don’t tell your mom I cursed. I promised I’d watch my language.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.”
It’s not usually my style to come to an event stag. As a woman on the hunt for a man, I know better than to attend a wedding or engagement party without a date. Women tend to eye the single gals with skeptical glares. They hang on to their man’s arm like a mama bear protecting her cub from a circling vulture. It’s as if going to a wedding is supposed to make me extra horny and want to sleep with every man whether he’s taken or not.
For the record, I’ve never ever taken another woman’s man.
After a series of dead-end relationships, bad dates, and a thumb that hurts from swiping left, I decided to just enjoy the evening of my best friend’s wedding on my own.
Melissa’s laugh from the dais sounds over the music. She’s seated beside her now husband and is positively glowing—and not just because she’s in her third trimester of pregnancy. It’s because of the man whose eyes she’s staring into, the ones that are lit up with a smolder as he looks at her like she’s the most magnificent being on the planet. It makes me smile, and a warmth runs up my arms and swirls in my chest.
When Melissa’s first husband left her, she never thought she’d find love again. Will had to bang down the door to her heart, and she’s now happier than she’s ever been. While I’m still searching for my one and only, this bitch was lucky enough to get it twice.
Yes, I can call her a bitch because she’s my soulmate. My sister. The one I would kill for—and almost did when her swine of an ex had an affair. I had the shovel in my hand, ready to bury the body.
Alas, she opted to move on.
The best of us do.
I’m living proof.
“Mind if I cut in?” a young voice I know well asks.
Hunter and I turn to Ainsley, the six-year-old daughter of my other friend, Jillian—another one who found love this past year. Jillian fell in love with the same man not once, but twice. Luke had stolen her heart years ago, broken it, then put it back together after discovering they had a child together. It’s a complicated story but a good one.
I’d even settle for a love like that … angst and all.
I turn to the little girl in a sparkly dress and smirk. “Actually, I do mind if you cut in. Hunter’s dance card is full.”
She places her hand on her hip. “Dancing all night with a second grader isn’t a good look for you, Tara.”
“It makes me look like the sweet aunt who’s spending time with her nephew.”
“It makes you look desperate.”
I match her snark. “Watch your mouth, young lady, or I’ll have to tell your mother.”
“She’ll yell at you right back. She says I’m turning into a mini you.”
“What did you say in return?”
“That if I grow up to be half as classy, sassy, and badassy as Tara, I’d be a lucky girl.” Ainsley snaps her fingers and gives a flip of her hair.
I laugh and then release Hunter’s hands so I can throw mine around Ainsley. “I love you. You are a sweet, silly, and sassy little thing. Don’t ever change.” Taking a step back, I sweep my hand toward the vacant space. “Have at it, kids.”
I glance around the dance floor that is full of couples, hands joined, cheeks touching, and eyes gleaming.
Izzy—Melissa’s teenage daughter—is gyrating, cell phone in hand, with the teens and young twenty-somethings as they film their entire life for social media. Melissa’s aunt calls me over to come dance with the over-sixty crowd who have made a circle on their section of the dance floor. I politely decline and step away.
It’s time for a drink.
A very tall drink.
I sashay through the crowd with my shoulders back, tits up, and my chin held high as I sway my hips.
As my grandmother always said, “Walk into a room like you own it,” and own it I do every time.
As I sidle up to the mahogany bar, I lift a dainty wrist and call over to the bartender.
Beside me, a gentleman in a dark gray groomsman suit looks my way. I recognize him from pictures I’ve seen at Melissa’s house. I have been quite curious about Cade, the youngest brother of the groom and an elusive bachelor.
We lock gazes, and he finds this as his invitation to approach.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks.
“Sure, at the hotel bar after the wedding because the drinks here are free, and I don’t talk to men who like to pawn off free cocktails to get in my pants.” I wink and then turn to the bartender. “Pinot grigio, please. Make it a generous pour.”
The bartender leaves, and Cade places an elbow on the bar.
He has a wicked gleam to his eye. “You’re attractive and feisty.”
“I heard you were a lady charmer.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
I lift my now-poured glass of wine and turn to him.
“Where do I start? Cade Bronson, world traveler, bedder of woman, and often in trouble for not showing up to family holidays. Left home when he went to college and hardly ever returns to his hometown of Castleton, yet makes many appearances on social media, where he posts Pinterest-worthy photos of himself in various cities and often with a different half-naked woman on his arm.”
“Guilty on all counts.” He has a Cheshire grin.
“Word also has it, you call your mother every day, so we all know you’re not the total bad boy many think you are.”
He laughs. “Also guilty. That must mean you are Tara Parsons, the bride’s best friend, who is known as a stunningly beautiful troublemaker who’s looking for love.”
“Only trouble if you get caught.”
“Trouble is when you’re doing something wrong.”
“Depends on whose rule book you’re reading.”
“I like you.”
“Touché, little brother.”
He places a hand on his chest and winces. “Ouch. Little is never a good thing to be called when you’re flirting with a woman.”
“You don’t stand a chance with me.” I take a sip of my wine and eye the handsome bachelor. Light hair, dark eyes, and all the features that would make any woman swoon. Too bad he’s not my type. “There are only two reasons a man would stay away from his hometown for as many years as you have. One is because he’s running from the law, but your brother is a sergeant in this county, so I know that’s not the case. The other is running from unrequited love. I’d be a fool to flirt with a man whose heart is already taken.”
His brows rise with an impressed grimace. “You’re good.”
“What’s your story? Why hasn’t a catch like you gone for a walk down the aisle yet?”
My stomach churns momentarily, and my breath hitches, but not in a good way. It’s funny how your body reacts to situations before your brain has a chance to catch up.
I lift my chin and smile with my cheeks tight. “Why walk down an aisle when I can run down the freeway?”
I raise my glass, and Cade clinks his with mine.
“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Tara. Enjoy your evening.”
I drink more of my wine as I watch him walk away. My fingers run along the smooth wood of the bar as I let out a deep breath, giving myself a moment to let that uneasy feeling in my stomach subside.
A teenager takes Cade’s place beside me at the bar. I turn my back slightly to have a moment to myself as I numb my nerves.
“Beer, please,” the teenage boy asks the bartender, who shakes his head.
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m older than I look.”
“Let me see an ID.”
The teen scoffs. “I’m at a wedding with my family. Why would I ask for a drink if I’m not allowed to have one?”
The bartender doesn’t appear to like the rude tone. “I’m not losing my job over some kid. You want a beer? Ask your parents to come up and get you one.”
The teen looks at me and then back at the bartender, motioning his head in my direction. “She’s my mom. She says it’s okay.”
I blink a few times as it dawns on me that he’s referring to me as his mother.
I squint my eyes at the teen. “Excuse me?”
“You okay with that, ma’am?” the bartender asks me, and now, I’m staring at him with narrowed eyes.
“I’m not old enough to be his mother,” I declare and then do the math in my head. Damn, actually, I could be.
And when I was his age, I most definitely was stealing drinks from Melissa’s parents’ liquor cabinet and imbibing in the neighbor’s tree house. Now, I’m about to tell a kid he’s too young to do the stupid thing I did when I was his age.
“You have any Athletic Brewing Company back there? Get me a Wit’s Peak.”
The bartender does as I asked, and I place a tip in the nearby jar. I hand the beer to the teenager, who looks at me like I’m handing him turpentine.
“You got me nonalcoholic beer?”
“You’re lucky I got you anything at all. Where are your parents?”
“My mom’s not here, and my dad’s an asshole.”
“If you’re gonna play the moody bad-boy role, you at least have to pretend to be charming. If you walked up here and complimented me, I might have gotten you a beer.”
“I said, might have. After the flattery wore off, I would have remembered you’re about five years too young to be drinking. Now, go dance. Have fun. It’s a wedding.”
He sulks off with his booze-free beer, and I commend myself for acting like an adult. It’s not often I make good decisions, so when I do, I give myself a mental pat on the back.
The band leader announces it’s time for the bouquet toss. Young women sprint toward the dance floor.
Melissa’s aunt calls me over. “Tara, you’re still single. Get on out there!”
I smile and tip my glass at her. This is my cue to step away.
I’m walking toward the ladies’ room when I nearly collide into a burly man who stepped into my path.
“Tara, I’ve been looking for you,” he says, to which I do a double take.
I vaguely remember meeting him at Melissa’s engagement party. “Hello.”
He takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs his forehead, which has light beads of sweat along the brow. “Sorry, it’s hot in here. Great wedding!”
“It’s amazing. Enjoy your evening.” I try to walk around him, but he sidesteps in front of me, forcing me to give him my attention.
“So, um, my wife and I were wondering if you wanted to … you know … hang out after the wedding?”
He nods his head toward a table not too far away. A woman is seated there with wide eyes as she watches our conversation.
“Yeah, sure. The hotel bar is where most people will probably be hanging after the wedding. I’ll see you there.”
I start to walk away, but he moves to block me.
“Actually, we were thinking of something more … intimate.”
My feet feel like lead, and there’s a heavy sensation in my gut. I tilt my head as I look at him. “Can you explain what you mean by intimate?”
The handkerchief makes an appearance again. This time, he swipes the side of his head. “My wife and I have been talking about expanding our interests for a while, but she hasn’t been comfortable with anything yet. Tonight, she agreed that if you said yes, she’d do it.”
I pull my lips inward as I try to comprehend what I think he’s asking. “Do what?”
My jaw nearly hits the floor. For a gal who always has something to say, I find myself temporarily at a loss for words. “Wow. You don’t know me. I’m not that kind of girl.”
“That’s not what I heard,” he states, dumbfounded.
My eyes narrow into fierce slits. “What exactly did you hear about me?”
“That you’re a whore.”
A wave of shock, annoyance, and mortification slams into my chest, nearly toppling me over. Adrenaline surges through my veins, boiling beneath the surface, like a volcano on the verge of erupting. My fist clenches, and I fight the urge to punch him in the face. Instead, I do what any lady would do.
I knee him in the balls.
“Asshole,” I spit as I walk away from him and toward the exit as he winces in pain.
His wife jolts up from her table and starts to sprint over.
Luckily, no one else seems to have noticed the scene because they’re all gathered around the dance floor. Melissa is standing with the bouquet in her hands, ready to throw it as the eager singles wait with reaching hands.
I pick up my pace.
My pulse quickens.
My hands open and close as I try to find a way to not crawl out of my skin. That’s what I want to do. I want to bolt right out of my bones and fly somewhere else. Be someone else.
The blood pulses in my ears as I walk quicker toward the exit. There’s a tightening in my ribs, restricting my ability to breathe.
I need air.
I need space.
I need a damn Valium.
I run outside, bursting through the door. There’s a group of people having a smoke. My wine sloshes as I dart to the right and head toward the back of the building and down a stone path. I’m not one to run away from a situation, but my heels click loudly on the ground as I scurry away, desperate for a moment to collect my thoughts.
It’s dark on the side of the building. The only light comes from the full moon. It’s large and bright and so close that I feel like I could touch it. I want to, so much so that there’s a tree at the end of the path at the back of the property, calling my name. It’s the kind of tree Melissa and I used to climb as kids. The kind where we’d share our dreams of the future, back when we had decades ahead of us and were excited to see what would happen.
I sprint to the tree.
Out of breath and out of my mind, I slam my hand into the bark. It’s coarse against my palm. Earthy. Cool. Reliable.
I place my glass on the ground, slide out of my shoes, and hoist myself onto the bottom branch.
Why am I climbing a tree exactly? Like I said, I don’t always make the best decisions, and apparently, being indefinitely single at yet another romantic wedding, continuously awaiting my Prince Charming, realizing I could be the mother of a teenager, and being called a whore makes me want to climb a tree.
Limb by limb, I hoist up my dress and lift myself up, nearly slipping a time or two, until I’m as high as I can go. On a wide, sturdy branch, I settle myself against the bark and look up.
My breaths are long and hard, the inhales so deep that my lungs hurt. I allow myself the time to calm down up here, about fifteen feet off the ground. I rest my head against the hard trunk and wait as my heart composes to a subtle beat.
The moon appears through the leaves. I give a small wave to the moon, and it glistens back. It’s like it’s blinking hello to me, day after day, as it peers down and says, Hi, Tara. Have you found your happily ever after yet?
I shake my head. Not today, moon.
Hunter says I’m picky. I’ve heard that before, and usually, it’s from judgmental idiots who think procreating with a man because some ticking time clock is about to alarm is a reason why a woman should give up her priorities.
I don’t want any man. I want a real man.
One who values the woman in his life. Who treats her with honor and doesn’t take advantage of her weaknesses or use them against her. A man who recognizes she’s different from him and respects that. A man who I, in turn, can love, support, and above all, bust his balls to high hell because whoever ends up with me will have to have a sense of humor and a whole lot of patience.
We’ll dance in the kitchen at three in the morning, drink coffee in the afternoon while talking about celebrity gossip, and travel the world together, placing pins in our corkboard map we keep in the dining room. It’s not just the activities that will make our relationship amazing; it’s also the fact that we’ll want to do them together.
We’ll be in love.
“I know it will happen for me.” I speak into the night sky. “My fairy tale will come true. Doesn’t matter if I’m eighty years old and in the nursing home. I know I’ll meet him someday.”
A breeze whispers strongly through the leaves, and it nearly knocks me off the branch. I grip the thick wood and catch my balance. My head spins at the idea of falling.
The cheers of the bouquet and garter toss and the loud music that follows echo out of the barn. I don’t want to go inside yet, but I should get out of this tree.
My stockings make it harder to get traction on the way down. I try to hold my dress while bracing my weight as I get my foot on the next limb. The space between branches feels farther apart than they did when I was climbing up. I stretch my toes to find the next one. When I do, I lose my footing and start to slip.
“Ahh!” I yelp as I quickly grab onto the branch, catching myself and dangling from the limb.
Looking over my shoulder, I’m still about ten feet in the air. If this were a social media post, it would be captioned “Dumb Ways to Die”.
With desperate grips, I claw at the branch. I’m crazy strong from regular workouts, but my arms burn, and my hands can’t grasp the loosening bark as it scratches at the pads of my fingers.
I slip even more and panic.
This isn’t good. I haven’t even met the man of my dreams, and now, I’m going to die from falling out of a tree. Okay, maybe I won’t die, but this can’t end well.
I grasp and scratch and try with all my might to help myself, but it’s no use.
My fingers slide down the bark, and I lose my hold.
I fall fast and far down the tree.
I yelp again loudly and then gasp as I land on something hard.
I’m not on the ground.
No, I’m in the strong arms of a man who caught me with a step back and a steadying of his body, hoisting me up with his rugged and tanned hands peeking out of the sleeves of a gray suit.
I grab on to his titan-like shoulders. My heart is beating a million miles an hour. My breath is coming out in heaving pants.
I thought I was going to crash onto the hard ground, yet here I am, cradled against the chest of my hero.
I turn in the man’s arms to look at him and find myself face-to-face with rich almond-shaped eyes, darkly peppered stubble, and the concrete jaw of the one man I never ever in my life would have thought would play hero to my damsel in distress.
Fuck my life.