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Madrid (International Guy Book 10) by Audrey Carlan (1)

1

SKYLER

I smile widely when I hear the elevator chime. “Daddy’s home!” I squeal to my pooches, who are both hanging out near my feet while I make dinner. Parker doesn’t admit it, but he loves that I can cook and shows me he does by gobbling up everything I make as though he hasn’t had a meal in weeks. I usually make him a homemade breakfast too. Makes me wonder what kind of women he dated in the past, aside from that witch, Kayla, who cheated and betrayed him. I’m happy we’ve gotten past that hurdle; Kayla and Johan are both history. Bringing up former romantic relationships does nothing but stir the pot, and Parker and I are focused on nothing but the future.

At the sound of the elevator doors opening, Midnight jumps up, his little black body wiggling as he jets off to the living room and entryway. Such a daddy’s boy.

“Parker, honey . . . ,” I call out while wiping my hands on a dish towel and heading toward the living room. “Come on, Sunny, let’s go greet Daddy.” Sunny follows along, her body touching my legs, when I hear the now familiar sound of Midnight growling.

I turn the corner and find not Parker, but Tracey, standing there with her hands up in the air as if she’s just been caught red-handed by the police.

“Trace, what the heck are you doing here?” I’m shocked to see my bestie in the flesh and unannounced for that matter. She’s supposed to be in New York.

“Um, Birdie, care to call off your guard dog?” Her voice wobbles as she takes a step back. Midnight growls more, his little lips pulled back, teeth visible.

I start to laugh and scoop up my dog, who’s getting almost too big to pick up. “Midnight, that’s Tracey. She’s my best friend, silly.” I coo to the dog and nuzzle his neck with my face. “See, baby, she’s fine. Trace, extend your hand slowly, palm down.”

She does so, and I bring Midnight closer. I pet Tracey’s hand. “See, baby, she’s fine. She’s Mommy’s best friend and your auntie now. It’s okay; we love Tracey.”

“Is this really necessary?” Tracey replies sarcastically.

Midnight watches my movements intently as I bring him closer to her hand. He sniffs it but still growls low under his breath, as if he is not buying what his mommy is selling him. Weird.

“Baby boy,” I say more firmly. “Tracey is fine. No need to protect me from her. She’s family.” I bounce my dog and walk over to the treat bin near the entryway, lift the ceramic lid, and pull out an organic doggy bacon bit and hold it out to Tracey. “Here, give him this. It will help win him over.”

She rolls her eyes and sighs dramatically but takes the treat. “Here, here, boy.” She dips her voice as if her desire is to sound sweet, but she really just sounds exasperated. “Take your treat.” She holds out the bacon bit. Sunny jumps up against my leg, knowing full well what I gave to Tracey.

Finally Midnight eases his nose out and takes the treat, but he still makes a little growling sound. Odd. “It’s strange that he doesn’t seem to be fond of you.”

Tracey huffs. “I’m not really fond of him either. Besides, I’m not a dog person. Cats are more my gig. They do what they want, leave you alone, and look beautiful doing it.”

I shrug, get a treat for Sunny, and give it to her. She wags her little booty in pure glee. “Guess so. Anyway . . .” I set down Midnight, who promptly runs off, his sister chasing after him. I spin around and hold out my arms.

Tracey beams and pulls me into her embrace.

“Glad to see you, Flower, but I’m totally surprised. I didn’t expect you in Boston. What brings you out?”

Tracey frowns. “You didn’t expect me here? Sky, I’m going to come here to visit you all the time now that you live in Boston. Besides, Geneva James is planning to arrive in a couple of weeks, and we’re meeting with the producers about the A-Lister shoots.”

“In a couple of weeks? Uh . . .” I look down and notice not one or two, but three good-size suitcases standing in my entryway. “Then why are you here now?”

Tracey’s head jolts back as if I’ve slapped her. “Did you not want me here?”

I open my mouth and shake my head. “No, no, not at all. Of course, you’re always welcome; it’s just . . . I mean, Parker and I are kind of living on and off at one another’s houses, so it will be a bit of a . . . um . . . a plan changer to have an unannounced guest.” I glance over to the patio, where I’ve set out a romantic dinner for two. “I was just making dinner, but you know”—I wave my hands—“I can just change it up, or we can go out. Help you get to your hotel.”

Tracey’s voice lowers, and she frowns so deeply it leaves two little lines in her forehead with her efforts. “Hotel? Sky, this is me. Trace. Your only friend. I didn’t book a hotel.” She scoffs. “I’m staying with you.” She laughs and enters the room more fully, moving around to the couch and plopping down with a groan. “It has been such a long damned day. Looking forward to soaking in your huge Jacuzzi tonight and chilling with my best girl.”

I bite down on my bottom lip and try to figure out how to approach this situation. When I lived with Johan before, he didn’t care when Tracey dropped in. He actually seemed eager to have her there as often as possible. Why, I didn’t know. He always said he just loved having her around. Parker is not going to feel that way. He’s a much more private man. He doesn’t even like Rachel and Nate hanging out when he’s home. When it’s his time to settle in for the night, he likes it to be me, the pups, and whatever we’ve decided to do, whether it be watch a movie, a show, read our own books, hang out and talk, play with our fur babies, take a bath, or a mixture of the above. What that list does not include is an unexpected guest he would feel he had to entertain and share space with when he wants to just relax.

“Hmm, well, since my Jacuzzi is in the master bedroom, I’m thinking that’s not going to happen. Parker should be here any minute . . .”

“So?”

“Well, Trace, as I told you, we’re living together now. Going from his house to mine, but mostly mine. He thinks it’s confusing to the pups to keep going back and forth, and since we’re on the lookout for our own home, it shouldn’t be too long before we find and buy the right place. It will make it easier on the dogs to not be moving around all the time.”

“What does that have to do with me wanting to spend time with you and taking a bath?” Her jaw seems to tighten, and her lips come together in a reproaching little snarl.

“The bathtub is in our bedroom, Trace. As much as I want to spend time with you, this last case really did a number on my man. He’s different lately. A bit more on edge. He’s questioning everything. Not to mention the fact that they can’t get a read on this stalker/fan/texter person. It’s driving him mad.”

“Why? You’re not in any real danger. I mean, are you?” Her voice rises with her concern.

“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s freaky either way. Mostly, though, Parker has a lot on his plate, especially with us looking to buy a home together and move in with our pups.”

Tracey leans an arm along the couch and rests her head in her hand. “Have you thought about the fact that maybe it’s too soon to be moving in and adopting animals together?”

Her words hit me like sand that has just been power blasted into my face. It’s gritty, raw, and it hurts. “Why would you say that?” I rub at my chest and sit down next to my dearest friend.

She grabs my hand and holds it in both of hers. “Sky, sweetie, you guys haven’t even been together a year, and you’re already moving in with one another, buying a house, not renting or leasing. You adopted two animals together. That’s serious, life-changing stuff. And not long ago, he threw you away like yesterday’s trash and was kissing another blonde in Montreal. Let’s not forget about that debacle.”

I suck in a harsh breath. “That’s not fair; it was my fault, and for the most part, it was a misunderstanding.”

“Yeah, one in which you didn’t do anything wrong. He assumed you cheated. Any man who can believe you’d cheat on him isn’t worth your time,” she says frankly. “And, honey, that’s the simple truth.”

I squeeze my eyes shut and run my hand through my hair, a sense of hopelessness burning at my chest. “Trace, what are you saying? This is so out of left field.”

“No, you moving in with your on-and-off-again boyfriend after only a minute of happiness is out of nowhere and crazy, if you ask me.”

I want to lash out and remind her that I didn’t, in fact, ask her, but what she’s saying hurts too much. She brings her hand to rest over my thigh.

“Do you not like Parker?”

She purses her lips and remains silent for a long time. It feels like the earth has just crumbled under my feet at the cliff’s edge I’m standing on, and now I’m free-falling into a pitch-black ocean of nothingness.

“I liked him for the job I hired him to do. He encouraged you. Helped you get your muse back. He’s good at his job; there is no contesting that . . .”

“Except you . . . you don’t think he’s right for me?” I can barely mutter the words, not even believing the sentiment could be possible.

Tracey puts her arm around me and hugs me to her side. “It’s not that I don’t think he’s right for you, it’s just you’re doing all the changing for him. What has he done to make his own commitment known?”

“Besides agreeing to move in together, buy a house, and adopt animals?” I say a little cynically, but still cuddle next to my bestie, wanting her warmth, compassion, and approval in this as I do in all areas of my life. It’s the people pleaser in me coming out in a flourish.

She sighs. “I’m just worried about you. I’m your girl. I’ve always been your girl. Ever since your parents died, it’s been me holding you up, making sure you’re at the top of your game and the best in your field. It’s my job to protect you and keep you safe from any and all threats. Whether it be a crazy fan, a producer trying to lowball your fee, or a man insinuating himself into your world so completely that, all of a sudden, you’ve picked up and moved out of New York and are planning to buy a home in Boston. Boston of all places.” Her voice rises on the city name with an intense sense of disdain. “It’s a city, but it’s not the city. You’ve always called New York home base.”

I frown. “Well, yeah, because a lot of business is done in New York and you’re there.”

“Exactly. Now you’re all the way over here, and I have to get on a plane to see you. It’s the pits, Birdie. I don’t like being this far away from you, but I can’t leave my business and staff to be closer to my best friend for too long.”

“And your best client.” I grin, puffing up my chest.

She smiles. “Yes, my best client. Still, is this you? Really? Domesticated. Next, you’re going to tell me you want to get married to the man.”

Marriage.

The thought has crossed my mind a lot more recently. I’ve always wanted to find my other half, create a home, and build a life together. And that life would include family and children of our own. “I’d marry Parker in a second if he asked me,” I say dreamily, imagining just that. Parker in a tux, holding my hand, saying “I do” in front of his family and our friends.

Tracey gasps. “Did he ask you to marry him?” Her eyes are wide and horrified, studying my face as if I’m keeping a major secret from her.

I’d heard the elevator doors open, and Parker walks in, a beautiful smile on his face as he answers Tracey’s question. “No. I didn’t, actually. Though when we take that step, we’ll make sure you’re one of the first people to know.”

My man chuckles, looking absolutely delicious in his navy suit and crisp white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar just enough to see a sexy swath of tanned skin. My mouth salivates as he approaches me, his eyes taking in my flirty dress and bare legs. I stand up as he reaches my side and wrap my arms around his neck. Parker dips his head down and kisses me hello.

Best part of my day.

The moment when my man comes home from work and kisses me with a desire and passion that resonates through me straight to my toes is awesome. Every time he lays those kisses on me, it’s as if he’s been gone a month, not ten hours. When he’s taken his fill, he leans back and caresses my nose with his. “Hi, baby. How was your day?”

I smile and lift my head to the ceiling, letting my hair fall back, enjoying being in my man’s arms. “Good. As you can see, Tracey has surprised us with a visit!” I try to sound chipper about it, but for the first time ever, I’m not. She should have called first, especially if she planned to stay in our guest room. It’s just, in the past, she’s never had to because I’ve always been alone. Things have changed, and I need to find a better way to make that clear to her without hurting her feelings.

“Oh, that’s nice. Hello, Tracey. It’s good to see you.” He hooks his arm around my waist and keeps me at his side.

“Yeah, figured I’d come and hang out for a couple of weeks before Geneva James comes to town,” she states flatly.

Parker’s face lights up at the information, obviously missing the part that she plans on staying two weeks. He genuinely liked spending time with Geneva James in London. He runs his fingers across the leather band at my wrist that says “LIVE YOUR TRUTH” before maneuvering us both down to the couch, me tucked next to him. I run my thumb across his leather bracelet that says “FOLLOW YOUR HEART” so he knows I got his gesture and feel the same about our time in London.

“You’re planning on staying two weeks, Trace? Isn’t that hard with your company and the rest of your clients?” I ask, hoping she gets the hint that two weeks is a lot to drop on a newly shacked-up couple.

She smiles. “Oh, Birdie, I’ve got my laptop and my cell. Mobile office. I can work anywhere, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with my best friend. It’s been too long since we’ve spent some real time together, and with all of these changes happening in your life, I thought you might need me close.”

Now how the heck am I gonna tell her I feel the exact opposite? That Parker and I need privacy during this stage in our relationship? I sigh against Parker’s neck, and he comforts me with a squeeze.

I’ll figure it out. With my man at my side, I can handle anything. Even nosy best friends who don’t quite yet know their place.

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