There are so many people I have to thank for helping with this book: my wonderful critique partner Nara Malone for her valuable feedback; all of the Nine Naughty Novelists for their incredible friendship, support and encouragement through challenging times, in particular, PG Forte and Erin Nicholas who read this manuscript and also gave feedback; as always my family who support me no matter what; and most especially goddess editor Sue-Ellen Gower—thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support and input! I’m so glad we’re working together again, Suz!
The last time Kaelin Daume had seen Tyler Wirth and Nick Kernsted, they’d been naked, and they’d had a naked girl tied to a chair.
The memory of that had been seared into Kaelin’s brain, haunting her more times than she wanted to admit. In fact, every time she had sex she thought about it. Which could be one reason her sex life wasn’t all that great.
She swallowed hard as she tugged the plastic garment bag down over the bridesmaid dress in her bedroom. Now that she was about to see Tyler and Nick again, nerves jumped in her stomach. She took a breath. She had no choice. She had to do this. She picked up the dress and her purse, slid her feet into a pair of sandals and headed for her back door.
She passed the living room where Taz lay on the couch, nose between his palms, giving her the sad puppy dog eyes he did every time she went out. “I won’t be late,” she said to him as if he understood. “You’ll be fine.”
He didn’t lift his nose, but when she backed her car out of the short driveway, his little black-and-white face appeared in the window from his perch on the back of the couch, his favorite place to sit and watch the world go by. The way he watched her leave, head tilted sadly to one side, tugged at her heart, as always. She was way too softhearted about him. “I wish I was staying home with you,” she muttered, even though she was in the car and this time there was no hope of Taz hearing, let alone understanding.
Margot Wirth sat in front of the computer in her office. Or what they called her office. Not that she’d ever had any business to conduct there, other than household business such as paying bills and online shopping. She rolled her chair in closer and clicked on her email program. Yes. There was a message from him.
Warmth spread through her as she read his email, chatty and warm and funny, and she smiled as she started tapping in her reply. Then her husband spoke from behind her.
“What are you doing? People are going to be here any minute.”
She started and quickly minimized the program, then turned to smile at Ken. At sixty he was still attractive, his dark hair now mostly gray and receding just slightly, but still thick. His athletic body had softened a little, but he was still in good shape even though he did little to stay that way. Unlike she, who worked out every other day, played tennis and golf in the summer and ran on the indoor track at the gym in the winter. And she was ten years younger than he.
“I know,” she said. “Just had one more little thing to do for the dinner tomorrow night.” Their daughter’s wedding had been a welcome diversion in her mind-numbing life of shopping, decorating, golf and gossip at the Mapleglen Country Club.
“I thought Tyler would be here by now.”
“Should be any time now. They’re driving down from Chicago.”
Nerves fluttered in her stomach. They hadn’t seen their son for nearly ten years, after that horrific incident with the Brown family. But Avery had insisted that her little brother be there for her wedding and had somehow convinced him to come home. And had also convinced her father Tyler should be there.
Margot longed to see both her children with a deep, aching yearning, especially Tyler. She’d never been able to get over losing him like that, had never told her husband about her efforts to keep track of him, to make sure he was okay, to know how he was doing. She knew her hopes for this wedding were silly and unreasonable, but god, would they ever have another chance to rebuild their family? For her to see her two children together, as adults, to see her daughter begin her married life, to see the man Tyler had become. In some ways she was nervous, terrified that he was not going to live up to her husband’s impossible expectations. Because she’d come to realize that her own impossible expectations were just that…impossible. On the other hand, she knew enough about Tyler that she was also filled with excited anticipation and maternal pride.
“God, I’ll be glad when this wedding is over,” Ken said.
She pressed her lips together. When this was over… She closed her eyes. When this was over her life would go back to normal. And she wasn’t sure if she could stand it.
Kaelin paused at the front door of the Wirth home, the location of that erotic, disturbing scene she’d accidentally witnessed ten years earlier, and forced herself to ring the doorbell, palms sweating. Then the door opened and Mrs. Wirth stood there. “Hello, Kaelin! Come in.”
Kaelin smiled at her best friend’s mom, so pretty with her shoulder-length blonde hair and slender figure. As usual she looked impeccable in a sleeveless flowered silk dress but Kaelin, despite being so nervous herself, didn’t miss the tightness at the corners of Mrs. Wirth’s eyes or the tension in her smile.
This family wedding might kill them all before it was done.
As she stepped into the foyer, Tyler was the next person she saw through the open French doors into the living room, and the sight of him made her stomach drop and her pulse leap.
“Kaelin!” Her best friend Avery Wirth hurtled from the living room of the big old two-story Victorian house belonging to her parents. “You’re here!”
Kaelin dragged her eyes away from Tyler, stunningly gorgeous, still magnetically attractive, who’d turned to look at her when his sister Avery called her name. She focused on her best friend who she hadn’t seen in months, excruciatingly aware of Tyler in her peripheral vision.
“I’m here.” She smiled and lifted her arms. “With the dress.”
Avery took the dress and hung it on a coat tree then they hugged in a long, tight embrace. “So good to see you,” Avery murmured.
“You too,” Kaelin said and they drew back to smile at each other.
Avery took her arm and led her into the living room. “Come say hi,” she said. “Tyler and Nick are here, and my mom and dad, and you can meet Scott’s parents too.”
The Wirth family was gathering for Avery’s wedding the coming weekend, reunited in Mapleglen, Illinois, where Kaelin and Avery had grown up together, best friends since middle school.
Kaelin hugged Scott, Avery’s fiancé, who she’d met a handful of times. Avery had met Scott in Los Angeles, where she now lived. Kaelin approved of him as a husband for her best friend. Tall and lean, with a slightly receding hairline that did nothing to diminish his good looks, he handled Avery’s energetic personality perfectly. Kaelin shook hands with Scott’s parents when he introduced her, hugged Avery’s father, Dr. Wirth, and then she was face-to-face with Tyler.
Her cheeks heated and her stomach tightened, but she smiled politely as she greeted him. God, she’d never thought the next time she saw him would be in a room full of people, but maybe that was better. A rush of emotions flooded her–remembered shock, heartbreak, disappointment and…arousal.
“Hey, Kaelin.” He took her hand in his, big and warm. Lord, Avery’s little brother had grown up, way up, a good eight inches taller than her five foot six, and he’d grown out too, sporting a pair of shoulders that would do a football player proud, though he was still long and lean. “Long time no see.”
“It has been a while,” she choked out. His face was inscrutable, his mouth firm, his cobalt-blue eyes cool and unreadable. As a teenager, Tyler had been good-looking in a sexy, wicked way. Ten years ago, he’d worn his dark gold hair long and straight. Now it was cut shorter, with a casual messy look and sideburns. His lean jaw and chin with its deep cleft wore a heavy layer of dark gold stubble that only added to the wicked charm.
“You remember Nick?”
She turned her attention to Tyler’s friend Nick, pulling her hand back from Tyler’s grip, resisting the urge to yank it free.
Did she remember Nick? Of course she remembered him. The emails they’d exchanged over the years from time to time had ensured that. But Tyler didn’t know about that.
“Of course.” She smiled at Nick.
“Kaelin.” Nick pulled her in for a hug and she went into his embrace with a rush of emotion at seeing him again. Despite the lingering embarrassment and betrayal at what she’d caught him doing, she couldn’t hate Nick. He seemed happy to see her too, and she’d always felt he was a kindred spirit, still a friend even though she hadn’t seen him for nearly ten years. Though she had to admit, his bulked-up body didn’t inspire thoughts of friendship. She drew back. Nick too, had changed.
“Look at you,” she said, brushing a hand over his close-cropped head. He was as close to being shaved bald as you could be, and it suited him. “What happened to your hair? And where’d you get all those muscles?”
He grinned. “Working out.”
Her gaze tracked down over thickly muscled shoulders, rounded biceps and strong forearms, then over his broad, hard chest in a snug T-shirt. “Clearly.” She smiled back at him. “You look great.”
“Thanks. So you do.”
She smiled and gave him a small eye roll.
“Seriously, Kaelin.” Nick looked her up and down appreciatively, and her body tightened. “You were always pretty. Now you’re just plain gorgeous.”
She laughed at his outrageous compliment and shook her head.
“When did you get into town?” She changed the subject.
“Just a little while ago.” Nick glanced at Tyler, who was watching them from beneath lowered brows, arms folded across his chest. “We drove down this afternoon.”
Tyler and Nick lived in Chicago, a few hours away. You’d think it was the other side of the world for how often they came home. But then Tyler never had been one to do what was expected of him. Such as visit his parents once in a while. She knew they’d had a rocky relationship, but everyone grew up sometime, surely, and his parents weren’t getting any younger. Whatever. His life.
“I hear your business is doing well.” She spoke to both men, her gaze moving back and forth between them. She didn’t want to let on to Tyler how much she knew about his life now, but it was reasonable that she’d know at least that much from Avery.
Nick shot Tyler a narrow-eyed glance and a tight smile, but he nodded. “Yeah. So far, so good.”
Oh-oh. She sensed something beneath the surface, but Tyler was already moving on, so clearly she wasn’t going to find out what.
“And you’re still living here in Mapleglen,” Tyler said. She nodded. “I hear you’re a lawyer.”
“No.” She pushed down the twinge of regret at his words. “Not a lawyer. Just a paralegal.”
“Not just a paralegal,” Nick said, bumping her with his shoulder. “I’m sure you’re a great paralegal.”
She smiled. “Yes. Yes I am.” She turned back to Tyler. “I didn’t go to law school, but I did get a job at a law firm here in town. Bickford Long.” She knew he’d recognize the name since her boss, Paul Bickford, was a good friend of his dad. She held his gaze steadily, chin up, waiting for his mocking comment about where she worked, the small-town ultraconservative law firm. He’d always teased her about being a good girl—studious, serious, cautious. She fit right in at Bickford Long. Sort of.
“Yeah, I’d heard you work there. That’s great,” he said.
She liked her job, but it certainly wasn’t exciting like his career. Apparently he was like a rock star in the advertising business in Chicago and had recently decided to open his own agency. Nick, an accountant, had joined as his partner. She knew the basics from one of Nick’s emails but she hadn’t wanted to ask too many questions about Tyler. But it had been easy to follow Tyler’s career on Google, though shame burned through her at the fact that she’d done so, keeping track of him all these years. It wasn’t surprising that he hadn’t done the same to her, but the reality was, even if he had Googled her, there’d be nothing to find. Her life was pretty basic, living in the small city of Mapleglen, working at the law firm, visiting at the seniors’ home with Taz, helping with church activities. Much of her adult life had been spent caring for her parents, but they were gone now.
“Okay, you can all catch up later!” Avery interrupted them, taking Kaelin’s arm and squeezing it in a hug. “Kaelin needs to come upstairs and see my dress.” She dragged Kaelin away from the others, out into the hall and then up the stairs. “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done,” she chatted, leading the way. “I could never have organized this wedding without you.”
“I think your mom could’ve handled it,” Kaelin replied dryly. She’d had some challenges with Mrs. Wirth throughout this whole deal.
“But she wouldn’t have done what I wanted!”
“True that,” Kaelin said with heartfelt agreement. The wedding would have been completely different if Mrs. Wirth had her way. Kaelin didn’t think she’d ever met anyone so concerned with what people thought, with making a good impression, putting on a show. Well, besides Dr. Wirth, just as preoccupied with image as his wife. Kaelin had had to use every ounce of her negotiation and persuasion skills to keep Mrs. Wirth from turning the wedding into an over-the-top, blow-the-bank spectacle.
“She only has one daughter,” Avery continued, walking into the room that had been her bedroom, where the two of them had spent so many teenage hours. “That’s what she keeps telling me. And it doesn’t look like Tyler will be getting married any time soon.”
Kaelin sank her teeth into her bottom lip and strove for casual. “No? No girlfriend?”
Avery shrugged. “He was going out with someone last time I visited him in Chicago, but he didn’t want to bring anyone to the wedding, so I guess not.”
Kaelin couldn’t even identify all the feelings swirling inside her at that comment.
Avery walked into the closet and returned with her dress. “Here it is!”
Kaelin gazed at the dress, then back at Avery. “This is it?”
Avery frowned. “Yes. I know it doesn’t look like much on the hanger, but when I put it on you’ll see. And it looks pretty plain, but I have these necklaces that go with it…” She laid the dress on the bed and rushed over to the dresser. Kaelin stroked a hand over the strapless column of ivory taffeta. The dress was very simple—no ruffles, lace or tulle, not a pouf or sparkle in sight.