The last thing Dylan Stone expected at nine-fifteen on Friday evening was a knock on his door. He was equally surprised to find his best friend, Serena Fields, standing on the other side of the threshold, considering it was supposed to be the night that she'd intended to go all the way and seal the deal with her latest guy after holding out on him for the past five weeks.
She'd definitely dressed to impress and seduce her date. The sexy little red number she'd chosen to wear for the occasion molded to her curves like a second skin from chest to thighs, and it was all Dylan could do to keep his gaze from lowering to the upper swells of her breasts being pushed up by the tight, strapless band of fabric wrapped around her tempting body.
Don't fucking look, he told himself, because ogling his best friend's full, lush tits wasn't cool. And because he'd spent years keeping his attraction to her a secret from everyone around him, and especially from her, he managed to maintain that normal outward indifference to Serena as a desirable woman, despite the heated lust coursing through his veins. If she'd been any other female, he would have already had that fuck-me dress on the floor and his cock buried eight inches deep inside her.
Surprisingly, it was those dirty thoughts that made him aware of the fact that nothing about her appearance announced that her latest Mr. Right had enjoyed what she'd been offering. There were no wrinkles in her dress, her makeup wasn't smudged, and her honey-blonde hair looked impeccably styled and untouched by a man's hands—unless her date was one of those self-centered guys who had no clue how to please a woman in the bedroom.
Then he recognized the disappointment in her blue eyes and the discouraged slump of her bare shoulders. He was all too familiar with that look of utter defeat because he'd seen it dozens of times before. It told him that yet another douchebag had shattered those hopes and dreams she harbored of finding a husband, getting married, and having babies.
"I take it things didn't go well with Dick?" he asked, stepping back and opening the door wider for her to come in.
"No, it didn't go well at all, and his name is Darren," she corrected as she passed by Dylan, enveloping his senses in a soft, seductive perfume that made his lower region stir inappropriately.
"Darren . . . Dick." He shrugged unapologetically as he closed the door and followed her into his living room, doing his best to keep his eyes off her swaying ass. "Close enough."
She turned around to face him, the barest hint of a smile on her red, glossy lips at the nickname he'd given the latest guy who'd crushed all her expectations and had hurt his best girl. His attempt at humor in these situations—and there had been way too many of them—always helped to lighten the moment, and her mood. He was the guy who was always there to pick up the pieces of her fractured confidence, who bolstered her esteem and encouraged her to give dating a new guy another try. That's what best friends did, because she deserved a good man in her life and that fairy-tale ending she'd been chasing for years.
Her smile faltered as her gaze took in his naked chest, the old, worn sweatpants riding low on his hips, then back up to the hair he knew was all over the place because he'd run his fingers through it a few times while figuring out the glitch in one of the newest apps he was building.
Ironically enough, Serena’s dating woes had inspired the the Boyfriend Experience app he was currently working the bugs out of, which offered a woman the ability to choose the perfect man for her based on her ideals and qualifications—mostly for a temporary arrangement when they needed a quick, on-the-spot fake boyfriend for an event or other occasion. But this latest issue in the code was frustrating the hell out of him and putting him behind on launching the app.
"Umm, I didn't catch you at a bad time, did I?" she asked, her voice dropping a husky octave as her pretty blue eyes darted around the room, clearly looking for evidence that he had a guest over.
"If you're asking if I have a woman here, no, I don't." Not that it would matter. He'd always put Serena first, before any female he brought home for the evening. Which was all those dates ever were—casual, no strings, and usually one-night stands because emotional ties were so not his thing. “I was just working on the Boyfriend Experience app and trying to figure out where the problem is in the interface. You know, nerd stuff,” he teased.
Her expression softened with relief that he was alone, and she tossed her small purse on a chair in the living room and returned her gaze to his. "Good, because I really need to vent about my awful night. But first, this tight dress that I can barely breathe in and these stupid shoes that are killing my feet are coming off."
With that announcement, she whirled around and headed down the hallway to his master bedroom, making herself right at home like she always did. As soon as he heard her rifling through his dresser drawers, he headed into the kitchen to get phase two of her breakup routine started. He opened the side-by-side freezer and reached for the only thing that helped to cure her dating-night blues . . . a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream.
It wasn't a coincidence that he always had at least three cartons of the flavor on hand at all times. He was always prepared for a late-night visit, because inevitably, Serena's idiotic dates fucked up a good thing and she ended up on his doorstep to wallow in her inability to find a decent, honorable man—one who didn't come with any kind of obnoxious traits, offensive mannerisms, or disturbing personal issues that slowly, eventually, made themselves known over their time together.
He couldn't wait to hear what this latest moron had done to let such an amazing woman slip through his fingers, he thought with a smirk. Especially on a night that should have ended in hot, sweaty, multiple-orgasm sex. What guy in his right mind screwed up that kind of sure thing?
Dylan grabbed a spoon from the drawer and frowned at the unwelcome image that filled his head of another dude getting it on with his best girl friend. Okay, if he was honest with himself, Dylan had to admit that he was grateful that the night had been aborted, because he hated knowing or hearing about some other man kissing her, touching her, and doing all the dirty things he'd spent years privately fantasizing about doing with and to Serena.
And how awful was it that he could breathe a little easier when these guys did something stupid or didn't live up to Serena's standards, and she ended things with them? Not because he enjoyed seeing her upset or hurt, but if he was truly honest with himself, he was dreading the day when someone else came along and replaced him in her life as her best friend. It was inevitable that it would happen at some point, and he didn’t like thinking about the possibility.
With her carton of ice cream in hand, he headed into the living room and settled on his dark gray sectional couch, comprised of a large sofa and a chaise lounge attached at the end where he sat. Then onto phase three . . . turning on the Hallmark Channel on the TV so it was playing in the background for now. A few years ago, he’d subscribed to the on-demand service just for her because she loved watching the sentimental movies that gave her hope for the next guy, while he endured the eye-rolling, corny shows for her sake and tried to keep his snarky comments to a minimum while she swooned over the predictable romantic plot.
Down the hall, where the guest bathroom was located, he could hear Serena moving around and water splashing in the sink, then a few minutes later she returned, her now bare feet padding softly on the hardwood floor. He wasn’t surprised to see that she’d washed her face free of the makeup she’d worn for her date, or the fact that she was wearing one of his old T-shirts, despite having a dedicated drawer and closet space in the guest bedroom, where she kept spare clothes for these impromptu sleepovers.
And yes, he already knew she was staying the night . . . because it was a Friday evening and once her stomach was full of her creamy dessert and she’d finished raking her latest dating disaster over the coals, she’d eventually fall asleep on his couch while they watched one of the latest Hallmark movies. And when she woke up in the morning, she’d expect him to make her the chocolate chip pancakes she loved. It was a ritual they’d done dozens of times before.
He sank into the corner of the couch and stretched his arms across the back cushions, knowing he was probably going to hell for noticing the gentle bounce of her breasts beneath his shirt and the outline of her puckered nipples grazing the soft cotton as she approached. The shirt ended mid-thigh, and instead of taking a long, leisurely journey down her gorgeous legs, he commended himself for lifting his gaze back to her freshly scrubbed face.
But Jesus Christ, there was something so fucking sexy about a woman wearing a man’s shirt—specifically, his shirt—and little else, though Serena was the only female he’d ever allowed that privilege. The first time she’d changed into one of his shirts their freshman year of high school, she’d explained that she liked how the material smelled like him, and being wrapped in his scent made her feel safe and secure.
What she didn’t realize was, by the time she left in the morning and returned his shirt after sleeping in it all night long, it was her fragrance that lingered on the fabric. More times than not, he found himself reduced to his horny, fourteen-year-old self as he buried his nose in the material, inhaled her soft, powdery scent, and imagined the hand stroking his aching cock was hers, instead of his own. It was his one guilty pleasure, since those moments were the closest he’d ever get to satiating his desire for her.
With a heavy sigh, she plopped down onto the couch cushion next to him, causing her breasts to jiggle temptingly once again. She crossed her legs in front of her and tucked the hem of his shirt in between her thighs, but not before unknowingly giving him a quick, memorable glimpse of the red lace panties she’d worn to seduce her dipshit of a date.
After reaching for the pint of Ben and Jerry’s he’d set on the coffee table, Dylan pulled off the lid and handed her the carton, along with the spoon.
“Thank you,” she murmured, and dived right in to the ice cream.
He gave her a couple of minutes to enjoy a few bites and get all that chocolatey goodness into her bloodstream. When he could no longer handle her soft, husky moans of pleasure as she indulged in the treat, as if mere ice cream could make up for the fact that she’d been denied the orgasm she’d been hoping for tonight, he decided it was time to find why she’d ended up at his place instead of in her date’s bed.
“So, what happened with Dick? You’ve been dating him for five weeks now, so I can’t imagine what went wrong . . . unless he’s gay or likes to dress up in women’s lingerie?” he joked.
She shook her head, her lips pursing seriously. “No. Worse than that.”
He raised his brows at her dismayed tone. “Jesus. What could be worse than either of those scenarios?”
Her brows furrowed even more as she met his gaze, her own troubled. “He’s thirty-seven years old, he’s a finance manager for a car dealership, and money doesn’t seem to be an issue for him, considering how he dresses and what he spends on our dates,” she said.
“Okaaay,” Dylan replied, unable to find fault in any of those things.
“He drives a brand-new Mercedes,” she went on, waving her spoon in the air, her gestures and tone growing agitated. “He sends me a dozen roses every week at work and wants to take me to Fiji on vacation.”
Dylan scratched a finger against his temple in complete and utter confusion. The guy sounded damn near perfect. “So flowers and romantic getaways are suddenly a deal breaker for you?”
“No,” she said, adorably exasperated with him now. “Darren is almost forty, and he’s portrayed himself as a successful, financially stable guy, but tonight, I find out that he lives in his mother’s basement.”
“Maybe it’s just a temporary arrangement?” he suggested, trying to give the other guy the benefit of the doubt.
Serena shook her head as her lush, pink lips removed another dollop of ice cream from her spoon. “No, it’s not an interim thing, because I flat out asked. He’s never moved out of the house he’s lived in since childhood with his mother, and doesn’t plan to.”
Dylan blanched in disbelief and had to admit that the scenario was the stuff that horror stories were made of. “Okay, that’s creepy as fuck.”
“I know, right?” she said, sounding vindicated that he agreed with her. “That’s what I thought when I realized he lived in a basement! I could hear his mother moving around upstairs when we first entered the place through a back entrance. And then, as if she’d been waiting for Darren to get home, she opened the basement door, called down to him, and asked if he and his date wanted a slice of Darren’s favorite chocolate cake she’d made.”
As Serena explained the comical situation, Dylan started to chuckle, and by the time she finished, he was in stitches and laughing so hard he snorted.
She grabbed one of the throw pillows on the couch and smacked him in the face with it. “It’s not funny!” she said indignantly, because she always took these dates very seriously, mainly because she was looking for that forever guy and they always disappointed, one way or another.
He pressed a hand to his aching side, still laughing. “No, it’s fucking hilarious.”
“You’re such a jerk,” she said, though the corner of her mouth twitched with humor, which was exactly what he wanted. Darren the Dick wasn’t worth her frustration or anger.
“How did you not know this about him before tonight?” Dylan asked, more serious now. “You’ve been dating him for five weeks.”
“Don’t remind me, because I’m feeling incredibly stupid for investing that kind of time in him,” she said with a shake of her head. “I honestly thought he was just being a gentleman about sleeping with me and not pressuring me by taking me to his place.”
Dylan clearly remembered the day that Serena had met Darren, because he’d gone to the car lot with her when she’d traded her small, fuel-efficient vehicle for a newer model and had witnessed the flirtatious overtures between the two of them once Darren discovered that Serena was single and Dylan was just a friend. By the time she’d signed the finance paperwork and had her new keys in hand, the other guy had Serena’s digits in his phone with a promise to call and set up a date.
Up until this point, Darren had practically checked all the pertinent boxes as the prince charming Serena had been searching for. Economically stable, check. Attentive and thoughtful, check. Emotionally available, check. Hell, they’d also talked about the fact that they both wanted marriage and a family.
Even the few times that Dylan had been around him, he’d never seen a cause for concern, which maybe, in hindsight, should have been a cause for concern, he thought wryly. No guy was without their issues and faults . . . especially one who was thirty-seven and had never been married. Obviously, there was a reason for that, and tonight Serena had discovered her date’s fatal flaw that had undoubtedly ended many relationships before theirs . . . the fact that Darren was first and foremost a mama’s boy and probably always would be.
She put her half-eaten carton of ice cream on the coffee table and exhaled a huge sigh. “I guess I should have suspected something wasn’t right since we always went to my apartment after a date because he claimed it was easier or closer or some other reason that I accepted. And tonight, being the big night,” she said, putting the two words in air quotes, “he wanted to take me to a nice hotel and spend the night there, but that just felt . . . well, cheap to me. Especially for our first time together. So, I suggested we go to his place, and while I know he wasn’t thrilled with the idea, I told him that it was important to me to see where he lived.”
“Surprise!” Dylan said facetiously.
“No kidding,” she said, then lifted her chin in that stubborn way Dylan knew oh so well. “At first, I thought maybe he lived at home because his mother was sick or something, but that didn’t seem to be the case. When I expressed my concern about his living arrangements with his mother, when I need a man who is self-sufficient rather than codependent on a parent at thirty-seven years old, he had the nerve to get defensive and mad at me for being insensitive!”
Yeah, Dylan wasn’t shocked that didn’t go over well.
“And then, he informed me that he had to live with his mother, because he was so far in debt that he couldn’t afford a place of his own,” Serena said, her disappointment etched all over her face.
Dylan groaned, knowing that revelation had definitely sealed the other man’s fate. Serena had grown up with a mother who spent money frivolously, to the detriment of barely being able to make rent, pay utilities, and care for her two daughters after Serena’s father had passed away. Since then, Nina had already married and divorced five men, who were all flash and no substance, mostly because she liked being a kept woman.
Unfortunately, Serena’s younger sister, Christie, had followed in her mother’s footsteps, whereas for Serena, her childhood experiences and Nina’s behavior made her more determined not to make the same mistakes. As a result, Serena was practical, responsible, and independent . . . and not so patiently waiting for her Mr. Right to come along and give her the things she desired the most. Stability. Security. Love, commitment, and a family.
He reached out and placed his hand on her knee, giving it an understanding squeeze while trying not to think about how soft her skin felt against the pads of his fingers, or how badly he wanted to trail those same fingers up the inside of her smooth, supple thigh . . .
Swallowing hard, he forcibly banished the direction of those thoughts from his mind before his body followed suit. “Look, the way I see things, you dodged a major bullet,” Dylan told her, trying to soften the blow.
She made an annoyed sound beneath her breath and muttered, “How many bullets do I have to dodge before I find a guy who isn’t a jerk and treats me like I’m important to him or doesn’t disappoint me in some way? Or one who isn’t a cheat or has a wandering eye? And then there’ve been the men who aren’t looking for anything more than just a fuck buddy, or think women need to cater to their every whim like a ’50s housewife.”
He blinked at her and deadpanned, “I don’t know why that last point is such an issue for you. That’s my number one prerequisite when it comes to dating a woman. You know, it’s all about me and what I need.” He grinned.
She rolled her eyes, but a smile threatened to appear on her lips, too. “You’re such a liar, and your sweet but fierce mother would strip your hide if she heard you talking like that.”
“True.” He chuckled as he kicked his feet up onto the chaise part of the couch so he could stretch out more comfortably. His mother had raised her three sons to be gentlemen, respectful of women, and to treat them as their equal. Anything less and, yeah, he’d be in a world of hurt.
Serena grabbed the pillow she’d hit him with earlier, settled it in her lap, and absently played with the fringe around the edges. “Your problem is, you’ve been a commitment-phobe most of your life, and especially since your breakup with Brandy,” she said, reminding him why he kept his own relationships casual and short term, because for the long haul, women demanded and expected more from him than he was able to give.
“And don’t forget all the other women who find out I have money and see me as their sugar daddy,” he added for good measure.
Truthfully, he hadn’t always been stupid wealthy, and having millions had never been his goal, but his company, Stone Media, had catapulted him into a seven-figure-a-year income over the past two years, all because he got paid for what he loved to do—creating and designing apps. For himself. And for big-name companies. Having more money in the bank than he personally needed had just been a bonus.
“You know, not all women are money grubbers like the ones you’ve come across lately,” she said gently.
He tipped his head to the side and arched a brow. “And not all men are like the ones you’ve dated,” he retorted wryly.
She laughed lightly, but the sound was tinged with a bit of sadness. “I don’t know that I believe you.”
“Touché, sweetheart.” Because he didn’t believe what she’d just said about the women he’d attracted lately. After Brandy had blindsided him, trust didn’t come nearly as easily as it once had. And even before her, that trust had been precarious at best.
Shaking her head at his rejoinder, Serena placed the throw pillow on his thighs, scooted around on the sofa, then laid her head in his lap, making herself comfortable as she stared up at the ceiling and contemplated life. As he looked down at her, there was a furrow between her brows he wanted to smooth away with his fingers, but he refrained from touching her so intimately. It was hard enough—pun intended—that her silky, honey-blonde hair was tumbled across his bare stomach so sensually, so temptingly, and conjured arousing images that had no business being in his brain.
After a few quiet moments, she spoke again. “So much for having a date to Leo and Peyton’s wedding next month,” she said of his brother’s nuptials. “I really thought Darren might be the one.”
She sounded so dejected. “He doesn’t deserve you,” he replied, meaning it. Dylan hated that she couldn’t find a decent guy, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Serena had been on a mission to find “the one” since graduating from college, which added up to five years of dating and disappointments.
Her gaze shifted from the ceiling to his face, her big, blue, emotion-filled eyes meeting his. “Why can’t I find someone like you?” she whispered.
Her comment was like a punch to his gut, and Dylan struggled to breathe, because he knew she was being completely serious in her wish. Hell, she might as well have said, I want it to be you, since those words were more accurate and truthful.
Dylan wasn’t the obtuse idiot everyone thought he was when it came to the beautiful, smart, sexy woman who’d been his best friend since they’d both been in diapers. Despite pretending as though he couldn’t see that Serena had worn her heart on her sleeve for years when it came to him, and that he wasn’t aware of the longing way she occasionally looked at him—like now—he’d always known exactly how she felt about him. That she was in love with him.
He cared for Serena. Would do anything for her, and yes, he loved her because she was his best friend. His rock. His other half. His desire and attraction to her weren’t part of the equation when it came to his feelings for Serena, because he’d never act on those urges and risk ruining their friendship, since he’d never be able to give her the things she longed for the most.
And the truth was, he’d never been in love. Not even with Brandy. He didn’t trust that intense level of intimacy that meant being open and vulnerable, which was why he’d always avoided that kind of emotional depth and commitment to one person. He supposed it didn’t help his frame of mind that his father had set a shitty example of just how much someone could hurt the person they’d committed their life to, claimed to love, yet could so easily walk away from his wife and family while Dylan’s mother was battling breast cancer. Those painful years had made him more self-contained with his emotions, including not putting his heart on the line.
So, no, he wasn’t the forever guy Serena was searching for. She deserved so much better than him, a man who had no clue how to love in the capacity she needed. And ultimately, he wanted that for her.
It was that thought that prompted his teasing reply. “I’m hardly a great catch and have my own commitment issues, as you just so kindly pointed out.”
Smiling up at him, she lifted her hand and pressed her cool palm against his cheek. “Yeah, but at least I’d know what I was getting with you.”
It was difficult seeing the yearning in her eyes and not being able to give this woman everything she wanted and desired. “Trust me, sweetheart, there’s a guy out there for you.”
But that man wasn’t him, no matter how badly she might want it to be.