NOMINEE - Independent Audiobook Awards, Romance Category (narrator: Nick J. Russo)
After their umpteenth breakup, Brad Sweeney and Jeff Hayden are living apart and starting over from scratch. The morning after a promising first date, they’re more optimistic than ever that they can make it work this time.
Until Jeff’s ex-wife and business partner calls to announce she’s pregnant… with Jeff’s baby.
Brad’s already competing with a demanding business for Jeff’s time. Now there’s a baby on the way, and worse, he’s afraid Jeff is still carrying a torch for the woman who’s carrying his child.
Jeff is desperately trying to keep everything in his life together, but before he can even get his head around the news that he’s going to be a father, his ex announces she wants to leave Tucker Springs. Now he has to either take over her role at the shop while ferrying the baby back and forth from Denver, or move the business—and himself—with her.
Brad and Jeff knew reconciliation wouldn’t be easy, but they’re rapidly running out of room for compromise. And sooner or later, something has to give.
This previously published book is #7 in the Tucker Springs series, and can be read as a standalone.
I thought I was nervous on our first date.
Which I had been. God, I’d been a wreck. But tonight? Sitting outside the restaurant, drumming my thumbs on the steering wheel in between texting with my friend Nathan, nervous wreck didn’t even begin to describe it. Four years, a few breakups, and a year of struggling to work things out had led up to tonight.
Even if things don’t go perfectly, Nathan sagely said via yet another text, so what? You guys have been trying too long to fix it for one night to screw it up.
He was probably right. If one night could blow this thing out of the water, we’d have been history a long, long time ago. Assuming, of course, this didn’t turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s—
Don’t think like that, I reminded myself again and again.
I wrote back to Nathan: OK. He’ll be here shortly. I’m heading in.
My thumb hovered over the button, as if the text committed me to getting out and going in, but then I bit the bullet and hit Send. As soon as the message was gone, I stepped out of the car, straightened my jacket, and headed inside.
I hadn’t been here before. Neither had Jeff. We’d both agreed it would be fitting to start over in a new place, on unfamiliar ground—a fresh start in every way possible. And besides, it wasn’t like we could go to the restaurant where we’d had our first date. Just last year, it had been demolished to make way for a hipster bistro with a vegan menu and poetry slams.
So we’d agreed on the Whitewater Grill. Nathan said his boss had insisted it was good and that the prime rib was utterly spectacular. Guess we’d find out.
The restaurant was dimly lit, almost completely dark except for flickering candles on every small, intimate table. It wasn’t coat-and-tie formal, but it was upscale enough I was glad I’d opted for a jacket.
A pretty brunette in a crisp, white shirt smiled at me from behind the hostess’s podium. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I— Yes. I have a seven o’clock reservation for two.” When had my mouth gone dry? “Brad Sweeney.”
She found the reservation and took me to a table on the far side of the restaurant by the windows, promising to send Jeff over as soon as he arrived. After she’d gone, I opened one of the leather-bound menus, scanning the entrées in between glancing at the front door.
My phone vibrated. This time, the message hadn’t come from Nathan.
I’m on my way. Will be about 15 min late.
Fifteen minutes? Not bad.
I’m here, I sent back. Should I order wine?
A minute or so later: Get something red. :-) Be there shortly.
I smiled and reached for the wine list. So he really was on his way. Otherwise, he’d have told me to wait. He’d be here soon.
Oh God. He would be here soon, wouldn’t he?
I took a gulp of ice water. When the waitress came by, I ordered a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. And a refill of water. Another after she’d brought and presented the wine.
I closed my eyes and took a few slow, deep breaths. I was overreacting. It wasn’t like this was a first date with a stranger who might be nothing like the description from his online profile or by a well-meaning mutual friend. We knew each other. Hell, we already knew each other’s irritating quirks and habits. There was no need for first-date bravado and being on our best behavior, even if my fluttering stomach begged to differ.
If anything, this was just a formality. Going out to dinner to mark the first night of trying again. So, no pressure or anything.
Nope, no pressure at all.
The air in the room changed with the opening and closing of the front door. I looked, and my God, he was here.
It was a damned good thing my—our—table was on the opposite side of the room. I needed a moment to get used to him, and it wasn’t only because of my nerves. Not this time. We weren’t here for a confrontation, and seeing him like this, as my date and not my adversary, took me back to the night we’d met. As he crossed the crowded room, a black blazer hugging his shoulders and a pair of tight jeans hugging his hips, he was every bit the blond-haired, blue-eyed piece of eye candy who’d nearly caused me drop my drink at that party a few years ago. A little bit nervous, a little bit cocky, and a whole lot of oh fuck, please tell me I’m not imagining him.
When he was a few steps away, I stood, not even sure what the protocol was here. A platonic handshake as if we really were strangers? A hug? Fuck, I really sucked at this.
Jeff smiled and, without any hesitation at all, put his hand on my waist and kissed my cheek. “Sorry I’m late.”
I laughed in spite of my nerves. “You’re always late.”
His cheeks colored in the low light. “I really did mean to be here on time, though.”
I shrugged and gestured for him to sit. As we took our seats, I said, “Stuck at the shop?”
“Yeah. But we’re training Tim up to be our new assistant manager, so hopefully that won’t be happening as much anymore.”
One can hope, right?
Our eyes met, and we both smiled. Then we picked up our menus and perused them, even though I’d already been through it seventy-eight times and knew exactly what I wanted. At least it was something to do while I got my head around Jeff being on the opposite side of the table.
Jeff settled on something, and we both closed our menus. When the waitress came back, we ordered, and then she was gone . . . with the menus, which left us with nothing to distract us but a bottle of wine.
Where the hell to start, anyway? We’d hit the ground running on our actual first date, talking from the moment we sat down until the manager kicked us out thirty minutes after closing. Tonight? Crickets.
“So.” Jeff cleared his throat. “I, uh, guess we don’t have to go through the motions of hobbies, favorite movies, and all of that.”
I laughed. “No, I think we’ve got that pretty well covered.”
“Yeah, we do.” His eyebrows flicked upward. The unspoken question didn’t help the nervousness in my gut: So what do we talk about?
As the flickering candlelight played on his features, we locked eyes. It was weird to see him like this. For the last few months, every dinner we’d shared had been in the name of keeping this thing alive, and the tension had been reminiscent of a treaty negotiation. Tonight, though, we were here on different terms. But where the hell did we start?
“So how are things at the shop?” I wasn’t crazy about discussing work over dinner, especially that fucking shop, but it was something.
Jeff ran a finger along the edge of the placemat. “Busy. And it’s been a little crazy since I started adjusting my hours.”
“Oh yeah? How is that going?”
He shrugged. “It’s going. I’m training one of the guys to handle—” He dropped his gaze, laughing a little as his cheeks flushed. “I already said that, didn’t I?” Before I could respond, he cleared his throat. “Anyway, Tim’s picking up more responsibilities, and I’ve even been eating lunch at my desk so I can still get things done.”
“Jeff.” I eyed him. “Cutting your hours doesn’t mean cutting out all your breaks.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s not that bad. I just catch up on emails and invoices. Stuff like that.”
“As long as you’re not killing yourself.”
“I’m not.” He smiled. “I promise. I’m scaling things back. Though cutting my hours has been weird. Not bad, but weird.”
“So Christine didn’t mind it?”
Jeff shook his head. “No, she understood. In fact, she’s doing the same thing. I mean, I could never in a million years convince her to work less than a sixty-hour week, but she’s got an ironclad day off every week now.”
“That’s good to hear. She needs it.”
“She does. And once Tim is ready, she and I can scale back more.” His forehead creased. “It’ll take some time, but I’m trying. I promise.”
“I know.” I smiled. “You can’t completely rearrange your life overnight.”
Jeff’s long workdays had been one of many bones of contention, and God bless the man, he’d been making a hell of an effort to spend less time at work. A huge time commitment came with the territory of owning a business, which I absolutely understood, but even he agreed we stood a better chance at making this work if he wasn’t coming home at midnight and leaving again at six.
He reached for his wineglass. “So what’s going on with— What the hell?” He shoved a hand into his pocket, and as soon as he’d pulled out his phone, I recognized Christine’s distinctive ringtone. Glaring at the screen, he muttered, “Goddamn it, Chris. Seriously?”
I picked up my own glass and slowly swirled my wine. “If you need to take it, go ahead.”
Jeff shook his head and declined the call. “No. I want my job to interfere less with us. That starts tonight.” He fiddled with the phone again, probably putting it on silent, and put it back in his pocket.
“But what if Christine—”
“No.” Jeff put up a hand. “She knows. She understands.”
“Except she just tried to call you.”
“Whatever it is, she’ll handle it.” He cracked one of those sly grins that had always made me weak. “And if nothing else, she’ll yell at me when I go in on Sunday.”
I laughed. “I have no doubt about that.” We both knew she wouldn’t really yell at him—no other ex-spouses on the planet, business partners or not, could calmly hash things out like Jeff and Christine—but she’d certainly let him know if she was unhappy.
“Anyway.” Jeff’s hand made it all the way to his wineglass this time. “As I was about to ask before we were rudely interrupted, how are things at work?”
“Oh, you know. The usual retail shit. Though the other day . . .”
Just like on our first date, we kept talking until long after the food was gone. Wrapped up in each other, enjoying this easy, relaxed conversation after months on end of fighting and cold silences, neither of us seemed to be in any hurry to stop.
I didn’t want the night to be over. In part because it was so good to be like this with Jeff again, but admittedly, there was a little more to it than that. We were in a weird place between dating and not, between something completely new and something we’d long ago broken in, and neither of us really knew the rules. We’d eventually figured out how to start the evening, but how in the world did we end it?
First dates were usually something to play by ear. A kiss? A handshake? A blowjob in the backseat? Waking up together the morning after? That was half the fun of a first date—anything was possible.
Jeff and I, though, we had to handle things a little more delicately. Aside from a brief, platonic embrace each time we’d said good-bye, and that kiss on the cheek earlier, we hadn’t touched in months. Sex blurred lines and complicated everything. I didn’t want to fall into bed with him and risk the temptation of sticking around just because the sex was good, so we’d kept each other physically at arm’s length while we tried to get closer emotionally. We had both stayed in miserable relationships because we enjoyed the sex, and we’d both regretted it. Not this time. No sex until we’d worked the kinks out of everything else.
But holding each other’s gazes across the table, chuckling over the rims of our wineglasses as we leaned over the places where our plates had been a couple of hours before, I was tempted. Holy fuck, I was tempted. I’d forgotten how his blue eyes could make my head spin faster than the wine in my glass could.
And when he reached across the table and put his hand over mine, the effect was like a magnet to a hard drive. My mind went completely blank. Whatever we’d been talking about just then—gone.
Jeff looked down at our hands and quickly withdrew his. “Sorry,” he muttered and went for his wineglass.
“It’s okay.” I smiled and hoped to God he couldn’t hear my pounding heart and that he hadn’t suddenly developed X-ray vision that would let him see through the table and to the effect that simple touch had had on me. “Old habits die hard, right?”
“Yeah.” He laughed, though it sounded forced. “Guess they do.” He broke eye contact, cleared his throat, and glanced at something behind me. “I think we’d better go.” He chuckled. “Our waitress has checked her watch about six times in the last five minutes. I think the poor girl wants to go home.”
“Oh. Is it that late already?” According to my cell phone, it was almost eleven. “Wow. Yeah, I guess we should go.”
Jeff flagged down the waitress and asked for the check, and while we waited, he faced me again and smiled. “I guess this is the part where I tell you I had a good time and nervously ask if we can do this again?”
I smirked. “Does that mean it’s the part where I act all coy and tell you to call me later this week so you have to figure out where the line is between too soon and too late?”
Jeff laughed, which didn’t do much to unscramble my thoughts. “To be serious, I think tonight was a good start. We really should, um, do this again.”
“We should.” Relief rushed through me, even though his comment brought to life a whole new set of nerves. Yeah, we’d pulled this off once, passed with flying colors and not fucked things all up again, but could we swing it a second time? Only one way to find out. “My evenings are free when I’m not working a closing shift. Tell me when and where.”
“We’ll make it happen.”
We split the check and each left a generous tip to make up for occupying the table for so long. The manager locked the door behind us after we’d stepped outside, and Jeff and I walked in silence down the wooden stairs to the mostly deserted gravel lot.
We were halfway to our cars—his truck was parked two spaces over from my Camry—when he stopped.
I stopped too and faced him, thinking he might’ve forgotten his keys or his phone inside. Wouldn’t be the first time, and a little playful nostalgia brought a smile to my lips as I remembered that running joke. What’d you forget this time? I almost asked.
But then I realized he wasn’t searching his pockets, and he wasn’t looking anywhere except right at me. As he drew in a deep breath, one of those slow and deliberate ones that meant he was about to say something, my stomach somersaulted.
“Listen, I . . .” His eyes flicked toward the ground between us, then met mine again. “I meant what I said in there. I really do want to see you again.”
I swallowed. “Me too.”
Gravel crunched beneath his feet as he shifted his weight. “There’s another new place down by the university. Indian restaurant. I, um, I’ve heard it’s pretty good. Maybe we could give it a try?”
“I think I’ve heard about the one. Let’s go.”
“When’s good for you?”
The sooner the better. I tried not to fidget, but it was a struggle. “How does your weekend look?”
“I need to work on Sunday, but otherwise . . .”
“This is my weekend off. Maybe we could try that place tomorrow night?”
“Good idea.” He smiled. Then faltered a little. “So, for tonight, do we . . .” He broke eye contact and cleared his throat.
Jeff pushed his shoulders back and met my eyes again. “Since we’re starting over and this is technically our first date, does that mean we get another first kiss too?”
All the air left my lungs. “I, uh, guess we get to make our own rules. If we want one, then . . .”
He held my gaze. Then he narrowed the space between us by half a step, ratcheting my pulse upward. “Then maybe I’m asking the wrong question.”
I gulped. “So what should you be asking?”
His hand entered my peripheral vision, nearing my face slowly, cautiously, and I couldn’t look anywhere but right at Jeff until his fingertips brushed my cheek and I closed my eyes.
“I guess I should ask . . .” His thumb drew a gentle arc across my cheekbone. “I should . . .”
I opened my eyes and met his. Just ask. I promise I’ll say yes.
He didn’t ask.
He drew me in, pressed his lips to mine, and turned my world on its ass.