NEVER SAY NEVER
West Coast Happily-Ever-After, Book 2
FIRST KISS © Loner Llama Press
“Why is it so important to be number one?”
He shrugged. “No doubt Dr. Freud would say it’s wrapped up in my dad dying. People have told me he might have won Best All-Around Cowboy the year he died. My folks were on their way home from a rodeo when their truck rolled and went into a ditch.”
In an effort to brush away the sadness in her eyes, he said, “Or, as your mother liked to say, it could be cussed orneriness. She said I inherited that from my grandfather. Bull riding is what I do.”
“Even if it kills you?”
Will startled. Did she know about his doctor’s report? He knew rumors had been circulating when he left, but surely Anne couldn’t have heard anything. “What’s that mean?”
“You’re getting older. Your body isn’t as malleable as a young kid’s. You could land wrong and break your neck.”
He released the breath he’d been holding. “Actually, I may not look it, but I’m in better shape today than I was fifteen years ago. I lift weights and run. And my timing is sharper.”
She took a deep breath. “I wasn’t casting any aspersions on your body.” The compliment seemed to loom between them and she quickly added, “So, you’re planning on going back to the circuit this fall.” It wasn’t a question.
She rose to her knees and started to gather up their mess. “And, I’m taking a new job, too–a promotion that’s long overdue. It sounds like we have our futures all lined up and ready to go. To get involved on an emotional level would be terribly foolish, don’t you agree?”
“When you put it like that…but–“
She didn’t let him finish. “We’re adults, Will, not kids. Proximity and unresolved lust just aren’t good enough reasons to risk involvement.”
Will agreed on an intellectual level, but the shimmer on her lips was speaking to him at a different level altogether. “So, we won’t get involved, but one kiss every fifteen years isn’t going to kill us.”
She started to disagree, but Will knew a proven way to distract a woman. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
Anne gave a token resistance–a mumbled uh-uh that almost immediately turned to uh-huh. There was a small clattering sound as the colored pens scattered on the floor. Her arms encircled his shoulders, her body flattened against his as her mouth opened.
She tasted salty and sweet. Popcorn and soda, plus an intangible quality that made him groan. And as their tongues met, Will knew he’d made a serious mistake. Fifteen years hadn’t been enough to make him forget, and now, he had nowhere to run.
A storybook kiss on New Year’s Eve at the Big Sky Mavericks Masked Ball in Marietta, Montana should have been the beginning of a grand romance for Gretchen Zabrinski and Daniel Andrews. But when Gretchen overhears a phone call from Daniel to his brother about what he really wants from a woman, she takes off…without leaving so much as a glass slipper behind.
Daniel wants a family. Gretchen will never be able to give him that. So why does fate keep throwing them together so cruelly? First, at a Copper Mountain Chocolate Shop Speed Dating event, then when he’s hired to open a new division at her PR firm. But competing, shoulder-to-shoulder, to sell the most exotic chocolate kisses for charity really is the last straw.
Is love a cosmic connection or a karmic joke? Sometimes, the answer reveals itself in a kiss—a sweet kiss shared beneath a warm Montana summer sky.
“How did you become such a wonderful dancer?”
“Lessons. My parents are both teachers. They don’t believe in leaving anything to chance—and given my father’s terrible lack of rhythm, Mom refused to inflict that on any woman in case two left feet was a dominant gene.”
“Please tell her I owe her a debt of gratitude.”
“You can tell her yourself. Dad called this morning. They’re starting home in the morning. My sister is ready to deal with her new reality alone. She might move back to Montana at some point, but for now, she doesn’t want to uproot the kids on top of adjusting to losing their dad.”
He’d alluded to a sad mystery surrounding his late brother-in-law’s death, but there were too many getting-to-know-each-other topics to get into any one conversation too deeply. Including her reason for dropping out of college and moving to Montana.
That would come out later. After the music ended. After the countdown began. After their kiss. After a night of unimaginable bliss in each other’s arms.
She crossed her fingers and stopped thinking. Tonight was about feeling. About taking risks and experiencing life to the fullest.
Moments later, the DJ played an Ed Sheeran song Makayla had shared with her earlier that week. Perfect. A shiver ran down the length of her spine.
She’d immediately downloaded the song and added the video to her playlist. She imagined the love story he sang about was her love story—the one that never happened. She squeezed her eyes tight, wishing she still wore a mask.
Daniel’s hold tightened a tiny bit, then he kissed a bare spot where her neck and shoulder met. “Nice song. I’ve never heard it before, but you truly do look perfect tonight.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you. I love my Cinderella dress. Krista’s sister has great taste.” He pulled back, a questioning look in his eyes. Did he think she was pretending to show false modesty or fishing for compliments? She blurted out a question she’d meant to ask earlier. “So, do you always take a tux with you when you travel to a dog-sitting gig?”
“My best friend has a key to my condo. He took it to a shipper I use all the time.” He looked down. “Luckily, he remembered my Ferragamos. Dancing wouldn’t be quite the same in snow boots.”
She recognized the designer’s name even if she hadn’t recognized the brand on his feet. My first time is going to be with a guy who can afford designer shoes.
In what felt like a blink, Austen returned to the stage, carrying a large digital clock and a microphone. “We are fast approaching the bewitching hour, my friends. A new year is about to begin. On behalf of the Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Group, thank you all for coming. We promise to put your generosity to beneficial use locally, and we’ll see you next year.”
On cue, people started shouting, “Ten…nine…eight…”
Gretchen turned in Daniel’s arms so their fronts were pressed together. Reaching up, she slipped her fingers under the rim of his mask and pulled it free. They looked into each other’s eyes as what she hoped was an unspoken understanding passed between them.
She looped her arms across his shoulders and brought her face closer to his. “Two…one…Happy New Year!”
His lips were warmer than she’d expected. And softer. And when she gave a little “Oh,” his tongue slipped inside her mouth. Curious, friendly, interested. His taste was hers. His smell? Completely his own and something she’d forever identify as Daniel Andrews.
She melted against him, needing to touch as much of her body to his as possible. Gretchen wanted him to be the one. Her first. From what she’d learned about him on social media, he was a fun-loving go-getter who didn’t seem the least bit interested in settling down.
When it came to women, he was…um…experienced. Perhaps a bit of a player.
Works for me.
She wanted to be with someone who would treat her with gentle finesse…or maybe not-so-gentle finesse. How would she know what she liked until she tried it?
An unnatural buzzing sensation near her breast made her startle.
Daniel groaned and pulled his phone from his inside jacket pocket. “My brother. Do you mind? He and Krista are in California. Different time zone.”
“Not at all. We wouldn’t be here if not for them. Please.”
“They’re on FaceTime. With all the noise, we won’t be able to hear a thing. Oh, well.”
He touched a button. A second later, two faces appeared on the screen. Krista let out a squeal of glee. “Oh, Gretchen, you look fabulous. Show me the dress, Daniel. Show me the dress.”
Daniel rolled his eyes, but he took one step back. He lowered and raised the phone as Gretchen did a spin. Then, he pulled her in close again.
Krista blinked as if to keep away tears. “I absolutely love it. You look like a fairy-tale princess. Are you having fun?”
“It’s been magical. Daniel hired a limo, and he dances like a dream. He’s been a perfect gentleman.” Until later, I hope. She bumped her nose against his cheek. “Thank you so, so much for making this happen.”
“No thanks necessary. Jonah and I are having a wonderful time, too. We only called to wish you Happy New Year.”
Jonah squeezed in. “We’re an hour behind you, so we get to make out in public twice. But hey, Daniel, quickly, did you leave the TV on for the dogs? In case someone starts shooting off guns? You are in Marietta, Montana, after all.”
Gretchen missed Daniel’s reply when Sarah Zabrinski walked up to them. “Aunt” Sarah was Gretchen’s father’s first cousin by marriage, but because of their age difference, people forgot they were part of the same generation.
She gave Gretchen a quick hug. “You two are just the cutest couple. We really enjoyed meeting Daniel. I hope you bring him tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Since she’d never spent the night with a man, she didn’t know what to expect from the morning after.
Gretchen made what she hoped was a noncommittal reply and waved goodbye as the crowd swept Sarah away.
She turned back to Daniel. She reached out to touch his shoulder but stopped when she heard him say in a low, confidential tone, “I never thought I’d say this, brother, but I think I just kissed the mother of my future children.”
She sucked in an involuntary gasp when a pain as sharp and gut wrenching as the one she’d felt in her doctor’s office the day he’d explained the ramifications of her diagnosis made her knees wobble. Panic hit a second later.
No. No. It’s not supposed to be like this. Tonight is mutual fun, no commitment. No future. Period. Anything else wouldn’t be fair.
Especially to Daniel.
But she couldn’t speak those words aloud because then he’d ask why…and she hadn’t said those words to anyone. Not yet.
Intent on disappearing, she turned and melted into the crowd exiting the party. She grabbed her jacket from the coatroom, grateful her tiny purse held her cell phone. Her Uber app showed one driver in her area. Three minutes later, she was on the road back to Paradise. Her sister and niece might not be expecting her, but Sam would understand. And that was all Gretchen wanted. Someone who wouldn’t ask for something she couldn’t give.