I, Contessa Imogene Madigan, Tessa to my friends and family, have been officially driving a man crazy. Not intentionally, mind you, except, yes, sort of, intentionally. Which sounds like it makes no sense. To clarify: Driving Gray Thorne crazy wasn’t my goal. It was either a temporary side-effect or my plan was failing spectacularly.
What plan? Oh, right, my plan. A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to rethink my life. One of those “life is short, so don’t waste it” deals. A game-changer, if you will. I resolved to stop settling for what felt safe. I decided I needed to take a few risks and live life to the fullest.
Or maybe it was simply the last-minute lame Halloween costume, a Viagra pill, and a case of mistaken identity. Either way, that night was where it all started…
I was a cat.
It was nine P.M. on Halloween and I stood in a crowded bar named Big Eddie’s waiting for my best friend to arrive. Halloween was one of our traditions. A tradition that started back in fourth grade when we’d won first prize with our Thing 1 and Thing 2 costumes. There was no stopping us after that. In fact, we rocked the best friend costumes for seventeen years straight. Peanut butter and jelly. Curious George and the Man with the Yellow Hat. Thelma and Louise. Mario and Princess Peach. Lucy and Ethel. Salt-N-Pepa. The singing act, not the spices.
This year, after a three-year hiatus, we were back, baby. Laura was the mouse to my cat. Not very original, true, but this was one of those moments when showing up was the big deal. The lack of imagination in this year’s costumes was totally my fault, since I waited until this morning to decide we needed to do this, but truthfully I only felt a small twinge of disappointment in breaking our streak of awesome.
Mostly I felt happy. Happy to be where I was after the three years I’d just made it through. I mean, if I ignored the fact that I was in a crowded bar where I knew next to no one. Ignored the fact that I’d seen at least two other women dressed in identical cat costumes like mine. Ignored the elbows nudging my ribs while I tried to hold my place at the bar and make eye contact with one of the fast-moving bartenders. Ignoring all that, I was happy to be standing exactly where I was.
“Sister-cat, you’ll never get their attention like that. You’ve got to show some skin.” One of my identical twin cats offered the advice from right next to me. One glance and I immediately saw what she meant.
The woman had spectacular cleavage on display. One I couldn’t achieve if I used duct tape and a crane of some sort. One could only suspend gravity if one had something to gravitate. My girls just wouldn’t rise to the occasion. That dog don’t hunt. Skin, huh? I pushed up the sleeves on my leotard and the woman laughed.
“I’ve got this.” She winked at me, leaned forward against the bar, and managed to get a bartender down at our end in three point four seconds. “Eddie, I’d like a draft beer and shot of tequila. My new friend would like to order also.”
“What’ll it be?” the burly, tatted bartender asked, tossing a coaster onto the bar in front of me.
“Two champagne cocktails,” I said, instantly regretting it when the bartender frowned at me. I got it; it was crowded and busy. My knee-jerk reaction was to change my order to something more low-maintenance. But you know what? Laura and I were celebrating, darn it, so I pushed my sleeves up a bit more, rested my forearms on the bar, and smiled up at him. “Please.”
Eddie stared at my forearms, quirked an eyebrow at me, and shuffled off, hopefully to get the drinks. I guess a little skin did work.
“Champagne cocktails? Gutsy move on a busy night like tonight, but good job not letting Big Eddie intimidate you out of what you want.” The woman refreshed her lip gloss before adding, “I say women should go after what they want, right?”
“Right.” That was the same conclusion I’d come to two years ago. Even if it wasn’t in my comfort zone.
“Speaking of going after what we want, see that gorgeous hunk of man across the bar?” She nudged me with her elbow.
I had to lean back to see who she was talking about and, considering the group of men on the far side of the bar celebrating something were all various levels of hot, I didn’t know who she was referring to. There was a toast, raised glasses, smiles all around. “Which one?”
“Wow, well they’re something all lined up like that.” I’d heard of the Thorne brothers. Any woman in the Raleigh singles scene would have. Not that I’d met any of them, only gazed from across a bar or concert a time or two.
“I’ve got my sights set on Gray.” She sighed and boosted her girls up with her hands.
I leaned forward for another peek around the woman.
I actually hadn’t. My cat clone wasn’t exaggerating. He was like something you see in a magazine or up on the big screen. Tall, muscled, gorgeous face. Eyes so blue they practically glowed in his tan face. Dark blond hair, chiseled jaw, and as if he didn’t have enough, dimples. I might have melted a little at the man’s smile as he laughed at something one of his brothers said. I felt the power of that sexy smile deep in my belly.
“I’ve been biding my time, trying to get his attention, and I think tonight’s my night. I’m not wasting a single second of it.”
“Good luck,” I said.
The woman pulled her attention from the object of her affections and gave me the once over. “You’re cute. You could lasso a Thorne. Only, not Gray. He’s mine.”
The woman slammed me with a narrow-eyed look as Eddie delivered our drinks.
“Oh. You were serious? No—I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m up for lassoing anyone, much less one of them.” The closest I’d get to Gray Thorne would be in my dreams.
What? First, how did I not know a woman could use her cleavage for storage purposes? I thought of the possibilities. Lip balm, tissue, or my vitamins for when I got halfway through the day and realized I’d forgotten to take them at breakfast. Maybe even a snack, like a Twizzler or a cheese stick. Now I definitely felt cheated.
Second, what was with the Viagra in the beer? Sure, I’d been out of the dating scene for a few years, but seriously? Was this what women did these days?
“Eddie, sugar, could you please deliver this to Gray Thorne?”
Eddie looked at the beer, his gaze locked on the pill at the bottom of the glass, and exhaled loudly, giving the impression this wouldn’t be the first time he’d delivered a Viagra-spiked beer to Gray Thorne. “Message?”
“Tell him I think he’s the cat’s meow.” She stroked a bright red fingernail along her low-cut neckline, looking like a feline anticipating a bowl of cream.
On the other hand, it must be nice to be that confident. Calling a guy “sugar.” Sending over a beer with a Viagra in it. Sure it was weird, but it took guts. My gaze followed Eddie over to the Thorne party. The woman next to me adjusted her half-mask and fluffed her hair as Eddie leaned over, handing the beer across to Gray with a few words. The smile wiped clear from Gray’s handsome face. He raised the beer to glance in the bottom before lifting his gaze in our direction.
The woman smiled and went into full preening mode which included a very smooth move of her rib cage that had her chest on precarious display. I was impressed. I glanced over to see if Gray was as impressed as I was and—
Whoa, no. Not looking impressed at all. And wouldn’t you know, Gray Thorne’s handsome face was just as sexy wearing a deep frown. I turned to the woman just in time to see her eyes go wide and then she took off, disappearing into the crowd. Moving faster than a cat on a hot tin roof. Slinking away like an alley cat. So, maybe a Viagra in a beer wasn’t what women were doing these days. Good to know.
Shaking my head, I grinned and grabbed my phone to see where Laura was. She was going to laugh when I told her the story. A text from Laura two minutes ago said she was here and had grabbed us a table. Nice.
I pulled my credit card from my purse and stood, trying to catch Eddie’s attention when a hand slid lightly on my waist and onto my belly, pulling me up against a wall of hard muscle. My gaze jerked up to the mirror behind the bar. Somehow I knew who I’d see. The same swirling feeling I had when I’d looked at his gorgeous face across the bar threatened to pull me under again.
You know when you’re in an elevator and that moment just before it begins its descent—that split second of weightlessness before gravity catches up—that happened. I hung suspended for a tick of time as our eyes met in the mirror. And then some voice in the deep recesses of my brain whispered to me, “Pay attention.” Pay attention? I always paid attention. Back in college, I was that nerd who sat in the front row of every class.
Gray Thorne must have an off-the-charts level of testosterone because the shock through my body could only be what it felt like to remap a person’s DNA. To rip apart the double helixes and rearrange them. In knots.
He leaned down and his lips brushed against my ear just before his dark, whisky voice slid over me.
“While I appreciate the offer of a drink, kitten, the little blue pill you added is unnecessary…and uncool.”
My breath caught as his hand pressed against me, pulling me even closer against his ripped muscles. So close I felt his belt buckle at the small of my back.
That’s what I’d thought. I pulled in a breath, taking in the scent of him, subtle notes of sandalwood and amber. Rugged and male. Dark and sexy and definitely on the way to lassoing my ovaries. My senses were so caught up in the man, the sound, smell, and feel of his hard-muscled body at my back that it took me a few moments to remember I wasn’t the woman he thought I was.
“Um… I’m not your cat.”
“That’s what I came over to tell you.” His voice shot through me like white lightning. I noted the pure sexiness of it, but also the clipped anger. Anger aimed at me. Me. I hadn’t done anything.
“No, seriously. I didn’t send you the drink.” There was one easy way for him to see he had the wrong cat. I sucked in a breath and spun around until I was nose to chest with him. Holy heck, his chest was rock hard and still I wanted to use it for a pillow. Wrap my arms around him and snuggle close.
Snap out of it, Tessa. I took a quick step back, letting him see he had the wrong woman. The tale of two cleavages would reveal all.
“Damn,” he said, stepping back. “My apologies. I should have noticed…your flats.”
Did he just point out I was flat? I frowned and jerked my chin up a notch, crossing my arms over my chest. I mean, sure I knew my bust didn’t compare to the Viagra-pushing, stellar-cleavage cat woman, but he didn’t have to make it so—
“Oh, go ahead and rub it in, why don’t you.” I glared at him through my mask. “I suppose you don’t mind if women make the same comparison when your pants come off.”
His lips twitched the slightest bit, not looking like he’d mind that comparison a bit. Oh, sure. Of course the man was gifted across the board. And there was that confidence again. Man, I needed to buy myself confidence like he and the cat woman had.
He cleared his throat. “I was talking about your shoes. Her high heels to your flats. A difference of about four inches.” He smiled an innocent smile. “What did you think I was talking about, kitten?”
“Nothing. I wasn’t thinking anything. Noooo. Nope.” I pulled my gaze away from his gorgeous face (the man had deep, deep dimples, so it took time to crawl out of them) and pointed into the crowd. “Your cat went that way.”
“I think it’s best she keeps going. Sorry to bother you.” He gave me a nod and made his way back to his brothers.
I settled up with Eddie, trying to keep my gaze from wandering over to Gray Thorne. Not an easy task. Because there was something about the man that drew me in. I threw one last look at him before moving to the back section where Laura’s text had said she’d snagged a table.
“Sorry! We had an emergency root canal come in just before we closed, so I stayed to help.”
“Not a problem.” I scooted into the booth and slid her drink across the table before reaching up and pulling my mask off. “The important thing is the dynamic duo is back.”
“No crying allowed,” I said, feeling a sting at the back of my own eye sockets. “If you cry, then I’ll cry, and we both know I’m an ugly crier. Splotchy cheeks, snotty nose, and hiccups. So, a toast, to friendship and shenanigans.”
“Friendship and shenanigans. Also, to you; the strongest person I know.” Laura clinked her glass against mine, her lips sliding into a devious grin. “Now drink up, kitty. This mouse is ready to party. We’re taking an Uber home because this celebration is long overdue.”
We drank (only one for me until I rebuilt my tolerance) and split an order of loaded French fries while I told her the whole Viagra cat woman story.
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with him?” See? This was what I needed to pay attention to. What the guy was really like, not what the unreliable voice in my head was whispering. The fact that my lady parts were siding with the voice? Totally irrelevant. Because if it came up for a vote, I got the last say. And I say I’d been burned by a good-looking, smooth-talking man before, so no thanks.
“While you’ve been out of circulation he’s sort of gained a reputation.” She scanned her gaze around, maybe checking to make sure there were no Thorne brothers within hearing distance. I guess it made sense. There were a lot of them.
Laura looked at me with a tilt of her head. “Huh, now that I think of it, none of the above.”
“So, what? A non-flosser? Double crosser? Tax evader?” Being a criminal would definitely lower his sex appeal. Probably. Maybe. His face flashed through my mind again and I decided no, he’d just be a very sexy bad boy. “Is he a player?”
“Oh.” Yeah, that didn’t sound good. “So he’s a two-timing jerk who sleeps with women and then doesn’t call?”
“Not a mystery. You should smell him.” I remembered his scent…and the feel of his chest…and his dark voice like warm honey over my body and a shiver rolled through me. I also remembered the part where it got weird and my inner voice whispered to me. And it doesn’t matter what it said, because I was going to ignore it.
I know that people tell you not to ignore those inner voices. Especially cops—cops tell you that all the time, right? They say when your inner voice tells you something is wrong and to run, do it. It could save your life.
But my voice didn’t give me that kind of warning. And my brain had been through a lot the last three years, so to tell the truth, I didn’t always trust it. Especially after my brain had convinced the rest of me that I was in love with my ex, and that had been a mistake. So, I wasn’t putting stock in any of my brain’s inner whispers until it had proven it was reliable again.
“How do you know so much about Gray Thorne?” I asked with a shake of my head.
“You’d be surprised what stories people tell me sitting in my hygienist chair.”
“People talk. Mostly right after the rinse and spits. Oh, hey, by the way, I love the paint job on the van.” Laura pointed a fry at me. “Saw it on my way to work this morning. Does that mean you’re ready to drive it?”
“Um… No, not yet. But I still have to redo the interior, so I have time.”
Laura’s eyes roamed my face. “Sweetie—”
“You sure have.”
“Oh, and I’m finally ready to move forward with my house renovation.” I grabbed a fry, scooping plenty of chili, cheese, and bacon onto it. I would have procrastinated longer on that too, but the old oven wasn’t cutting it for my baking needs. “I’ve got a list of companies to call.”
“Might as well call the Thorne brothers. They’re some of the best when it comes to remodels. One of the other hygienists in the office used them. Said they were awesome, and I’m pretty sure she meant their work.”
“Six Brothers Construction? Yep, they’re on my list.”
“It’s a big job. Whoever you hire will be in your house for weeks if not months.” Laura wagged her eyebrows and grinned. “It might make the reno less painful to live through if it meant having a gorgeous Thorne brother or two in your house. I could wake up to that every morning. Oh, God, can you imagine them shirtless with a tool belt hanging low on their hips?”
Well, I hadn’t until Laura just mentioned it. Wow. My stomach did one of those slow roll flip-flops at the thought of Gray Thorne standing in my kitchen in faded jeans, bare chest, and a low-riding tool belt.
“I see you can.” Laura grabbed the plastic Happy Hour menu from where it was stuck into the condiment cozy and fanned my face with a laugh. She stopped mid-laugh, her gaze focused over my shoulder. “Oh, hell. Paul’s here.”
“Hello, Tessa. Laura.” Paul Jenson stood next to our booth as good-looking as I remembered. Not that he took up any space in my memories. He’d been scrubbed from my memory banks two and a half years ago. Life was too short to waste my time on him.
“Just a bit of bar hopping with some of the guys from work.” He shrugged, pulled off his Yankees cap, and tucked it into the back pocket of his baseball uniform. No surprise he looked good in the tight, white pants and jersey. He’d played baseball in college. And I thought my cat costume was unimaginative. “Mind if I join you?”
My gaze whipped to Laura’s and we did that mental telepathy thing the way best friends do. (Me: OMG, no! Laura: My thoughts exactly. Me: Under no circumstance do I want him to sit with us. Laura: Trust me, his ass will not touch our booth.) And she jumped right in, since I was afraid I’d cave and say yes even though that was the last thing I wanted.
“The thing is, Paul, we’re in the middle of girls’ night out, so unless you’ve got a secret you want to tell us…we’ll have to take a rain check.” This was why she was my best friend. Because she always had my back.
“Oh, sure. Another time. I’ll call you, Tessa.” He stared for a too-long awkward second before leaving.
“Why would he want me back? He’s the one who broke up with me.” But I had to admit, between the awkward stare and the out-of-the-blue phone call last week, and now showing up at the same bar…it was a possibility.
“I don’t like this. The problem is even though you know what a jerk Paul is, you’re too nice. He’ll pull some BS crap excuse out of his tighty-whities and then probably throw in a few tears and you’ll feel sorry for him and actually think about taking him back just to shut him up.”
“That’s not true.” It was possibly true. I was a people pleaser. Wait. Scratch that. I used to be a people pleaser. It wasn’t that Paul wasn’t a nice guy—he actually was—but the breakup had been bad timing on his part. Really bad. It had hurt. Devastated me at the time. But it hadn’t broken me. So no, I didn’t want or need him back in my life.
In Laura’s eyes what he’d done to me was unforgivable. He’d become the enemy and she stood as the guardian at the gates. I loved that about her.
“You’re Luke before he learns to use the Force,” she mumbled, her gaze running around my face, before her eyes went steely. She pointed at me. “You’re calling Six Brothers Construction tomorrow. Promise me you’ll call them and get going on your renovation.”
“I was planning on it, but why the urgency?” I frowned over at her. “Are you worried I’ll keep putting it off? Because I’m totally working through my list. The driving thing is just—”
“I know you are and it’s amazing to watch. No. What I’m worried about is Paul.” Her eyes narrowed with her annoyance over the man. “I want you surrounded by as many not-Pauls as possible while he’s trying to get you back.”
“Don’t forget I’m a new person now. I’m learning to be better at standing up for myself. Learning to go after what I want. I don’t want Paul back. Not at all. Is never too short of a time to see him again?”
“That’s the problem: You’re new at this. Also, you’re a romantic. Just like your mother was. And just like your grandma. If Gigi isn’t already, the next thing she’ll be pushing for is for you to start dating again. Which you totally should, except it’s tough out here in the dating pool. And if Paul keeps hanging around, I’m afraid he’ll wear you down in a weak moment, and you’ll end up on a date with him, and it’ll feel okay, like a comfortable old sweater. But you and I both know that sweater is a moth-eaten holey mess ready to fall apart at the worst times. And what if he’s a good kisser?”
“He is a good kisser. Not that I have much to compare him to since dating him meant four years I wasn’t kissing other men. The only other guys I kissed were during freshman year. David Stone and Kurt Matthews. Neither kissed as well as Paul. Although I’m sure their kissing technique has improved since then, so it’s not a fair comparison.”
“Comparison? That’s it! You’ve just lived through a long dry-spell and you might be swayed by his kiss. You need someone you can compare him to.”
“I’ll add rent-a-kisser to my to-do list.”
“This is serious. Any of the Thorne brothers would work. Gray Thorne, especially, would be excellent.”
“No. I told you how not excellent he is at relationships. If rumors are true, he’s an excellent kisser. But seriously, any good kisser who isn’t Paul will work. I’ll even offer up Steve for the job.”
“Your brother? Um, no. He’s like a brother to me. Besides, I kissed him back in middle school.”
“Spin the bottle. Trust me when I say, Steve sees me like a sister. I haven’t traded spit with him since we both wore braces.”
“Please stop.” Laura wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “Now you have to call Gray Thorne so I can wipe that vision from my brain.”