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Chapter One


Casual Sex,” I say, twisting the phrase so it sounds like a bad thing. “There. I said it.” I look across the table and meet my best friend’s dark, knowing gaze. “Happy now?” Unable to hold her penetrating stare any longer, I reach for my tepid chai latte, grateful it’s tasty even cold.

“I know you think I’m being a shrewish bitch, Carla. But it’s for your own good.” Heather picks up her favorite vanilla cappuccino and takes a drink.

“And why is that, exactly?” Regret gnaws at my stomach. Why did I let myself get dragged into this conversation during my lunch hour? “Sure, you found your great ‘one-and-only’ guy, but I don’t think that’s going to happen with me.”

Heather ignores me and taps her finger on the small sheet of paper on the table between us. “Next one.”

Geez, this feels like a one-woman intervention, and despite the jokes I could make over that realization, I’m really
not enjoying it. The pleading on her compassionate face has me glancing at the slip of paper once more. “Friends with Benefits. Oh, come on, that too? I kind of like that one. Makes it much easier to stay friends when the guy winds up being dumb, but not bad in bed.”

Heather’s mouth sets in a firm line and I plow ahead to the last item on her unhelpful “list” of what she sees as my love life faults. “
Avoidance of Intimacy. Seriously? You think I do all this crap?” A knot of anxiety sits in my throat. “I’m not a fun-loving chick all the time, you know. I have been searching for the right guy.” The right guy who’s perfect in the sack and magically disappears before dawn. “Just haven’t found him yet.”

“Really?” she counters, showing a touch of backbone my once-shy friend didn’t have a month ago. “And none of them were
worthy of your time after you slept with them, huh?”

A grimace twists my face and I try to smooth my features. “It’s not like that—I swear.” Secretly I fear it’s
exactly like that. And what the hell does that say about me? That I’m a slut? I’m not. I like sex but I don’t sleep with just anyone like her darned unasked for list of faults implies. “They weren’t good matches for me.”

“Uh-huh. Sure.”

“Why are we discussing this…,” I gesture to the paper between us, “
list of yours? I’m a careful woman. I always make sure they use a condom. My instincts are good. I’ve never been in a situation I couldn’t handle. What happened to make you think I needed—no wanted—your input in my love life?”

Heather’s strength deflates and I feel like I’ve kicked a puppy. “It’s because I care about you, Carla, and want to see you happy. You keep up with this casual approach to relationships and you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.”

A snort erupts from me. “Like that’s a bad thing? I’m not afraid of being alone. In fact, I’m quite all right with it.” I resist the urge, just barely, to throw her words from a few weeks ago in her face.
She was the one afraid of winding up alone and eating microwave meals-for-one her whole life. Not me. Never me.

My goal has always been to find an exciting, independent man—one who’s a great lover
and wants nothing emotional from me in return. I gaze out the window of our favorite coffee shop, staring at the pelting rain washing the city streets. Maybe my relaxed attitude would be better suited in Europe. Seems like the Puritanical ideals of America are still going strong, no matter how much women struggle with equality. If I were a guy no one would bat an eye at my desire for a lover with no emotional attachments weighing us down.

An exciting man who’s good in bed. That’s not too much to ask is it? We’re in “the city that never sleeps” for crying out loud. There’s got to be a few guys who learned
something in the sack since college, right? Maybe I can find one who isn’t emotionally scarred from a long-term relationship and where the woman taught him a thing or two. That would be hitting the relationship lottery in my book.

Don’t forget good looking, great body, successful career, a big dick…

Yeah, a girl can dream, right?

Aware I need to get back to work, I glance at my watch then gather the remains of my meal. We say our goodbyes and I race into the rain, pulling up the hood on my stylish raincoat for the three-block trek to the office.

Heather likes to forget—I’m not like her. I’ve always known what I want in my life
and in my bed. She and Tony met at the exact time she was ready to blossom. My sexuality bloomed a long time ago and I quickly became disappointed with the unknowledgeable lovers I invited into my bed. Hell, when the first few trysts were a let down, why go back for more?

It’s pretty sad, really. They all appeared to be so promising during our initial dates.

Despite Heather’s list making me sound like a “good-time girl,” a phrase I hear a lot from my mom, I actually practice a lot of decorum when choosing a lover. They all have ambitious careers, their own apartments, aren’t married, and know how to treat a lady with manners. I don’t have a set laundry list of physical attributes the guy has to have, but I do want a man who cares enough about his health and appearance to not be slovenly or obese.

Unlike Heather, I never sit on the sidelines waiting for life to come to me—I actively seek adventure and always will. Who says a woman needs a man to be happy? I’m happy as I am on my own. And I intend to keep it that way—not hung up on a guy like my mom was with my dad. When he left us, she was devastated and it changed her outlook on life forever.

Avoiding large puddles and dangerous sidewalk grating, I wish I would’ve changed out of my heels before dashing off to meet Heather. A short woman like me learns the benefit of being on equal eye level in the advertising world. Doesn’t hurt that I look great in them, too.

The awning to my building appears and I gratefully step under it and push back my hood. I unzip the coat and flap the sides, knocking off moisture before entering.

“Hey, Carla,” a masculine voice calls from the doorway.

I look up to see one of the company accountants holding the door for me. “Thanks, Andrew.” I step through, avoiding eye contact with him.

He’s tried to make casual conversation with me for months, and I’m always polite but careful not to lead him on. I mean really, he’s an
accountant. Could a job be more unexciting? Just stick him in an IT position and buy him a ticket to the next Trekkie convention in town.

One thing I’ve learned while shopping for an exciting man—I won’t find one in a humdrum job like his. I’m not saying Andrew is boring, he seems nice enough. But his job sure as hell is unexciting, which decreases his chances of being a stimulating guy by eighty percent.

While we walk across the lobby to the elevators, I sense him fidgeting beside me, perhaps too nervous to talk. I smother a smile at his awkwardness. Honestly, he’s not bad looking—no beer gut and he dresses okay. Maybe I should hook him up with Katrina from yoga class. She’s been on the prowl for a decent man.

He clears his throat as we step into the elevator. “Do you have time later to talk about the Stringer account?”

My ears perk at the mention of my largest client. “Of course. Is something wrong?”

The doors whisk closed and we ascend to our floor. “No, nothing’s wrong. I was looking over the latest numbers and think I’ve found a way to free up some advertising money in their budget that isn’t working where it is now. Might help you up-sell them to a larger ad space in the areas that are working.”

“Sounds good.” I smile, the first genuine one to grace my face since I met Heather for lunch. “Your cubicle or mine?”

His blue eyes crinkle at the corners as he returns my smile. “Come to mine, I’ll show you the spreadsheets.”

Hours later I hang up the phone with Jennifer Stringer, the owner of the largest independently owned fabric distributor in the legendary New York garment district. She was thrilled with Andrew’s findings and eager to pour fifty thousand more into the current advertising campaign. We helped to increase her business twenty percent in the last three months. Satisfaction for a job well done warms me, filling me with a sense of completeness like no encounter with a man ever has.

A sigh escapes as I relax into my chair. Damn, talk about a long week. It’s Friday and after five. I stifle the urge to chant
TGIF and log off my computer, eager to shake the stresses of the week from my shoulders.

IMs flew around the office ten minutes ago and people are gearing up to meet at the bar down the block for drinks. I freshen my lipstick, straighten my desk, and grab my bag. Andrew stands the same moment I do and our eyes meet across the cubical walls. “Are you going tonight?” I ask him.

Interest lights his eyes. “Yup.”

He runs a hand through his short brown hair, the gesture making him appear more confident. Too bad he’s boring, he’s almost handsome. “Great, I owe you a drink for that tidbit you shared after lunch.”

A small smile turns up his mouth as he walks down the opposite aisle toward the door. “Just one? Could have sworn my ‘tidbit’ helped you make your monthly quota a week early.”

I laugh at his ballsiness. “Maybe I’ll buy you two. But don’t get your hopes up.”

A spark ignites in his blue depths as his gaze travels up and down my length. An awareness tingles through me and I can’t deny, he looks
different, somehow. He’s only a few inches taller than I am in heels, which makes him a couple of inches shy of six-foot. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to reveal corded forearms with a light dusting of hair. With warm heat banked in his gaze, his average looks jump a thousand points.

I brush off the sudden interest spiking in my gut. I can’t let an office romance begin to brew. I told Heather I wasn’t doing any of the things she accused me of. No matter how much I might wish otherwise, I highly doubt a
co-worker with benefits is much different than the friends with benefits on her sheet.

As a large boisterous group of our co-workers join us in the elevator, I resolve to steer clear of any temptation offered by Andrew at the bar. No way in the world could he be a good match for me.

Chapter Two


Bodies press against Carla, shoving her closer to the bar as she tries to leave the stool. I reach out an arm to protect her from the worst of the crush. “Carla, let me see you home. You shouldn’t make your way alone.”

Her buzzed smile and feeling-no-pain expression is a sure sign we should have had dinner when the bartender offered menus an hour ago.

“No worries, Andy. I’m good.” She stumbles and lands face first against the broad chest of a nearby guy. The grin on his face shows he’s not angry at her slip.

“My…you’re big,” she says while pushing blond bangs out of her face. “Want to help me get a cab?”

Anger boils close to the surface at the mere thought of the curvy blonde going home with this meathead. I will not stand here and let her make a poor choice when she’s been drinking. The large man opens his mouth to respond, then catches sight of what I hope is a nasty look on my face. His smile dims as he looks back to Carla. “Maybe next time, sweetheart.”

I nod my thanks while trying to steer my more than tipsy co-worker out of our company’s favorite after-work bar.

“But, Andy,” she whines, “he looked hot. Lemme get his number.”

I take a firm hold on her arm and gently maneuver her toward the door. “You’ll thank me later.”

The cool late spring air smacks us, jolting me with a much-needed surge of energy. Hopefully, it will have the same affect on Carla. “But, he looks like a
real man,” she says, with a pointed look my way.

I ignore the brush of annoyance I feel at her implication I’m not a real man. Where the hell is her aggravation coming from? “Yeah, and I’m sure he’ll call you in the morning, too.”

“That’s not fair, Andy. The guy I picked up two months ago called me.”

I hail a taxi and pour us inside.

“But he turned out to be dumb.” She snorts at a memory while I tell the cabbie her address. In the ensuing silence she whispers, “Couldn’t even find my clit.”

I resist shaking her for her stupid actions. I know firsthand she has a solid mind and a sharp wit. It’s the alcohol getting to her, and it’s getting to me, too. The mere mention of sex has parts of me growing in my suit pants. She settles snug against my side, hugging my arm. “Whoa, Andy. You have some serious muscles here. Have you been working out?”

Her grasping fingers massage my bicep through my jacket. “I’ve always worked out.” I pry away her grip then she squeals and aims to tickle me. Bad move. Her quick hands graze my expanding arousal and she freezes.

“Andy! Do you want me?” A wisp of longing sounds in her voice.

I suppress the sigh aching to burst forth. I’ve wanted Carla from the moment we teamed up on the Stringer account six months ago, but needed to wait for the right time to approach her. And partially drunk is not the right time. “Carla, let’s just get you home. We’ve both been drinking and I don’t want to do anything we may regret later.”

She nips playfully at my ear. “How could I possibly regret fooling around with you? We could be
friends with benefits. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“While the idea sounds excellent, I’m not so sure it ever works.”

“Oh, come on. You’re starting to sound like my friend, Heather. I like sex… it’s fun. It never hurt anyone.” Her previously frozen hand strokes my erection through the fabric.

Dear God, are we almost to her building? I need to get her off me and out of this cab before I come in my pants.

“We could make it work, Andy. Despite what Heather says.” She pulls her hand from my erection and turns my face to hers for a kiss, moisture gleaming in her eyes. “We could try.”

Excitement courses through me. Her breath smells sweetly of white wine and I want nothing more than to crush my mouth to hers and devour her whole. Energy seems to leap from my lips to hers as I lean in, succumbing to the raging desire to possess her.

The taxi lurches to a stop, jerking us toward the front of the cab, breaking the spell a moment before our lips touch. The fog of lust clears from my mind and I want to ask about Heather and what she may have said to upset Carla, but instead I fish out the cash to pay the driver.

I impulsively decide to walk her to her door. Maybe we could make this work. I admit I want more from her and this night of fun might be a good place to start.

She grabs my hand and playfully drags me past her doorman. I nod at the man, feeling a shit-eating grin spread across my features. “Come on, Andy,” she loudly whispers, her voice carrying easily across the lobby, “let’s have dinner at my place.”

The walk through the lobby doesn’t cool our previous heat and the moment the elevator doors whisk shut, Carla is on me like a tick on a dog. Her full mouth crushes mine and manicured nails rake through my hair. Instantly, my erection surges, pressing against my zipper, straining to get closer to this sexy woman.

I pull back from the intense kiss and mutter, “What floor?”

“Nineteen.” She gasps and locks her mouth to mine again. I press the button and the car ascends.

“God, Andy, I’m so freakin’ hot right now.” She thrusts her hips to mine, grinding against my hardness. “Want to do it here in the elevator?”

I wrap my hands around her hips and leverage her slightly away from the front of my pants. “As good as that sounds, I don’t think we should.”

“Pfff… you’re no fun, Andy.” She reaches for my zipper and has my cock in her hot little hand before I can grab her wrist. “Ohh… but this looks like it could lead to a lot of fun.”

The elevator pings and I jerk in surprise. The doors slide open ten floors shy of her level. Panic surges and I wrap my arms around my curvy, drunken co–worker, pinning her to me—not wanting the older man in workout gear who just stepped into the car to see me hanging out of my pants.

He glances at us, hits the button next to the word “Gym”, then stands on the far side.

Carla giggles, but thankfully shoves my cock into my pants and then yanks up the zipper. The rasp of metal on metal brings a sharp look from the man, but his head whips around to face straight ahead.

We finally arrive at Carla’s floor and rush off the elevator. Adrenaline floods my body and I swear, if she asks, I’m going to follow her in and screw this horny woman senseless.

“Andy?” Carla asks, a hopeful note in her tone. “Want to come in?”

Tension I didn’t know I was holding eases out of me. I move behind her while she jiggles her key into the lock and wrap myself around her slight frame. Planting kisses along her neck, I give the only answer my fired up body will allow. “I’d love to.”

When the door closes behind us, it’s a mad dash to see who can get their clothes off faster. Glimpses of black underwear and toned limbs whir through my alcohol fogged brain.

Carla giggles while stumbling to her bedroom. She switches on the bedside light and tosses me what she must think is a sexy smile, but looks more like a slight sneer. “Come and get me, Mr. Super Accountant.”

I hesitate in the doorway. Parts of me rage to barrel forward and take her up on her offer before she changes her mind, but my big head gets the best of me. “Are you sure, Carla? You want to take this step?”

She reaches between her legs and starts to touch herself. “If you aren’t interested, I’ll handle things on my own.” I approach the bed, determination firming my mouth. “Good boy, I knew you’d come around.”

Climbing across the mattress, I crawl on hands and knees to cover her lithe form. Her hips thrust up to meet mine while grasping hands pull me down. “Now, Andy. I want you

“Whoa, slow down. We need protection.”

“You’re right.” Giggling again, she twists to the side, then reaches into the nightstand drawer to pull out a small foil square. Carla tears it with her teeth, her face scrunching up. “Ewww… spermicide tastes like crap.”

Taking the torn package from her, I remove the latex and sheath myself as fast as possible.

“Get it in, get it in, get it in…” she chants. I position myself at her entrance, wishing we’d slowed down a little bit. Her hips push forward as she impales herself on my length. “Oh…” she moans as I finish the first stroke in, burying deep inside, “that’s right.”

The orders start flying before I have a chance to slow her down: “Faster!” “Harder!” “Slam it in me!”

Thrusting my hips in a frenzy, I try to fulfill each request the second it’s uttered. The hot, inner muscles of her body encircle my length, and the speed combines with my buzz to push me toward the finish before I’d like.

“I’m close, Carla. I need to slow down.”

“No! More! Do me harder!”

Nails rake along my spine and hot hands grab my ass, pulling me closer despite my desire to wait. Her feet splay on the bed, pushing up her hips to pump me when I hold back.

The sensations overwhelm my control and my orgasm steams past the gates. A loud moan spills from my mouth. I try to keep up the pace a little longer, hoping to bring her as well. “Are you close?”

But Carla’s quiet. A glance reveals her eyelids are drifting closed, and I can feel her hips have stopped moving. “Carla?”


“Did you come?”

“Are we done?” She yawns. “Gosh, I’m sleepy.”

I roll to the side, snatching some tissues to clean up. This may have been a very bad idea. She doesn’t seem to be aware I came. “Carla?” I say, fitting my body snug against her back. “Would you like to feel my mouth? Or my hand?”

“Nah, ‘s all good,” she slurs while turning onto her side to pillow an arm under her cheek.

Her breathing deepens and I’m left wondering what the hell to do. That was singularly the worst orgasm, if any orgasm could be bad, I’ve ever had. She wasn’t even experiencing the act with me—more like ordering, using, and then losing interest.

“Don’t worry, Andy,” she says softly. “It was tolerable.”

Tolerable? Did she just call our sex tolerable? I roll away to stare at the ceiling. Shit. I may have blown my one and only chance with her. Maybe I should bring her around with my hand? It’s only half past eight; she can’t be that tired yet.

Resting a hand on her hip, I savor the smooth softness of her skin. “Carla, honey. Wake up.” A small mew escapes her and her hips rock in a slight movement. Feeling emboldened by her response, I smack her hip lightly.

“Hey! I was getting comfy.” She glances over her shoulder at me. “You can go now.”

The dismissive tone surprises me. “I don’t think so. You haven’t had your turn.” I ease closer to rest against her back while sliding my fingers inward, toward her belly button.

Her bottom leg pressing to the bed lies straight while the top one rests bent at the knee and cocked forward, allowing room to ease down between her slick folds. Her tiny clit still feels aroused, when I flick it softly she moans.

I slide my fingers to bracket the aroused peak, slowly stroking the heated skin next to her clit, mindful of how sensitive the engorged flesh may be. The swollen lips of her sex hug the contours of my thick fingers, causing my cock to stir against her ass.

Keeping my pressure light, I force my pace to stay unhurried. The idea is to build her slowly and then drive her to a huge orgasm. The wet scent of her fills the air and her musky aroma wraps around me.

“Oh….” she whispers while tossing her head on the pillow. Her bare neck lures me and I bow to plant kisses along its length. “Mmm….” Sensing a shift in her, I tilt away allowing her to roll onto her back. Her hard nipples point to the ceiling and her legs spread for easier access.

Carla’s eyes are at half-mast, but her movements encourage me to continue. Propped on an elbow, I lean over to capture one peak in my mouth. Laving it with my tongue, a thrill zips through me when she arches to press herself deeper between my lips.

A sigh escapes her and she softly utters, “Johnny…”

“Excuse me?” I don’t know who this dream lover is, but I don’t intend to stop over a stranger’s name. Within a few moments her movements become more energetic, hips gyrating in small tight circles on the bed, her head lashing side to side.

Her eyes snap open and she locks on my face. “Oh, God. Andy, your fingers feel so good.”

Her eyes drift back down. I intend to give her pleasure however I can, as long as she’s not saying
no. Sucking one nipple in deep, I nibble the surrounding flesh.

Circling her clit in soft, delicate strokes leaves Carla gulping for breath while her muscles tense. I pull my fingers away from her clit and skim her inner thighs, hoping to make her relax and stop chasing the feelings.

Two or three breaths later she calms down, thrashing less and not holding herself as tight. Reaching to her slit I run two fingers along her wetness, coating them in her arousal. I tickle at her opening to see if I should proceed, when a sexy whimper full of want bubbles from her mouth.

Needing no more proof, I plunge the digits deep and curve them upward, seeking the squishy spot at the top front. Carla arches off the bed, dislodging my mouth from her nipple. I sit up and reach my other hand over to massage her clit again.

“Yes! Yes, just like that!”

Pinching the aroused flesh between my thumb and forefinger, I squeeze lightly, timing her peak. Moisture pours over the fingers lodged inside her as I circle her g-spot, and the moment is right to push her over the finish line.

Carla’s eyes open again and she locks onto me, “Andy! Oh my God, I’m gonna come!”

Switching from pinching, I rub her clit hard, steam-rolling past her previous tension in a rocket of sensations. She screams into the dimly lit room and convulses around my hands. Wave after wave of her orgasm washes over her body—a sheer beauty to behold. Especially knowing I gave it to her.

As she quiets, I pull the covers over us and snuggle next to her. She rests her head on my shoulder and I whisper into the darkness, “Was that more than tolerable, Carla?”

“Mmmm…,” she says while drifting into sleep.

Chapter Three


My growling stomach wakes me. When I realize Andrew is still in my bed, an uncomfortable queasiness overshadows the missed meal. Holy hell, what was I thinking? Heather’s crazy list at the coffee shop flashes across my mind. She specifically said no friends with benefits.

Ugh. Isn’t that exactly what I’ve done
again, only this time with a co-worker? What the devil was I thinking?

The HR department sent around another reminder about the company’s non-dating policy in the office last month. Having never dated a co-worker at this place, it didn’t apply to me.

Dated? Ha! You just freakin’ slept with the guy.

A shudder hits me hard. Maybe I did cross a line last night. I scoot from under Andy’s arm, hopeful I can slip on a robe before he wakes.

No such luck, the second his arm hits the mattress he’s alert. “Hey. Where you going?”

I grab the robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door and quickly pull it on. Evidence of our haste to get at each other lays scattered across the room in haphazard droppings of clothes. Andrew’s pants lay in a heap and his shirt drapes across the bottom of the bed.

I gather his things into a pile, placing them within his reach.

“Want to get dinner?” he asks, a small, shy smile on his face. “Or maybe order in?”

The knot in my stomach lurches and I force myself to take a deep breath. “This was a mistake.”

His face freezes. “What?”

I look toward the door, fidgeting with my robe tie. “It’s late. You need to leave. My mom is visiting in the morning.”

He runs a hand through his hair and checks the time. “It’s barely ten p.m. There are lots of places still delivering. We could share a meal and then I’ll head home.”

I shake my head and sit on the edge of the bed. Regret over my impulsive actions curves my shoulders, hunching in on myself. “Look, it was fun—but I’m sorry. I don’t date guys from work. Besides, it’s against company policy.”

Andrew grabs his shirt and slips it on. “So, that’s it? Just like that you’re writing me off? Using a convenient excuse like work policy to make it kosher?”

His anger rises, evident in his jerky movements as he finishes dressing. His face is flushed while he slips on his shoes. He stands at the end of the bed facing me. “You won’t use me and blow me off like every other guy. Not this time.”

Shock hits me at his words. Is that what he thinks? That I use and blow off guys? A small niggle in the back of my brain acknowledges I might do exactly what he’s saying. And what does that make me? Not a person I want to be, that’s for damn sure.

I stand to escort him to the door. “It’s not you.” The sex wasn’t all that great so what the hell is the big deal. “It’s me.”

He laughs as he follows me through my apartment. “You’re really using the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ line? When we didn’t even go on a date? Are you serious?”

I open the door and he stares into my eyes, his body vibrating with energy. “We’re not over, missy.”

I straighten my back and return his bravado. “Yes, we are.” I go for the jugular, eager to have my apartment to myself. “It was okay, but I don’t intend to experience a repeat performance.”

Surprise drops his jaw as I smile and shut the door in his face. Well, that little escapade should make for unwelcome tension in the workplace. Idiot. Heather is right: I’ve been too casual in choosing my bedmates lately.

A few drinks on an empty stomach and I immediately revert back to unsafe behavior exhibited in college. Time for a change. I’m not that young girl looking for attention or trying to prove myself anymore. I’m a woman who knows what she wants and shouldn’t settle for less just because my body has sexual urges.

My stomach growls again, the sickening turmoil I felt earlier disappeared once Andrew left. I help myself to leftovers in the fridge and mentally prepare for the visit with my mother. God, that woman pushes all my buttons. Tomorrow will not be fun.

I take a shower and then drift into bed. The remembrance of Andrew’s touch triggers a foggy memory of me writhing on the sheets. Did that bit at the end really happen or was it wishful thinking on my part? The actual act itself was pretty empty so maybe my overactive imagination embellished the new ending.

Thoughts of his blue eyes staring into mine chase me into my dreams.

“Carla, what a great bistro.” My mother’s voice holds a hint of surprise. Like it’s absolutely shocking
I picked a decent place. “You’re lucky they let you in with a blouse that revealing.”

First strike. Not as overt as usual. Her opening jab bounces off me and I try to ignore it. She couldn’t keep her critical mouth shut for long. I grind my teeth and deliberately tug at the hem of my tight shirt, exposing a tad more cleavage. If she thinks I’m toning down how I dress because she’s trying to make me feel sixteen again, then she’s got another think coming.

We make it to our table in blessed silence. I order my meal and sip my sweet tea before she starts in on another well-used track.

“Honey, believe me, the kind of men who like flashy women don’t last. You’d do better to stop dressing so crass and catch a good one that will last the long haul.”

I set down my glass and stare out the window. “Maybe I don’t want a man that will last.” Why the hell is everyone suggesting I pair up with someone? I might be turning twenty-nine next month, but it’s not like I’m a freakin’ spinster, for crying out loud.

My comment prompts her to plunge into another disastrous topic. “Good, because none of them will.”

Oh, no…I know exactly what’s coming next.

“Take a look at your father. He’s the best example you’ll find on men who run out on a woman.”

And there it is. I glance at my watch. Only took two hours to get around to her favorite subject.

“Walked out on us when you were fourteen. Never paid a child support payment, never called—nothing.” Her face twists into a bitter mask and pity wells inside me. She never dated after he left. She worked two jobs to make ends meet and keep us together. My younger sister, Julie, never truly missed him; she was too young when he left. But Mom and I both did.

“Yeah, Mom. I know. I was there, too.”

“Don’t count on a man and you’ll be fine.”

Our meals arrive and I hold back what’s really in my mind. Desperately I want to yell what’s been on the tip of my tongue for years:
Right, and look where it’s gotten you. You’re the unhappiest person I know.

Instead, I try a different route. “If men are so useless, then why all the grief on my clothes, Mom?”

She harrumphs and picks at her food. “There’s no need to look like a tramp, is there?”

Ahh... My mother’s conflicting dichotomy of arguments never ceases to amaze me. Thankfully, she’s driving back upstate this afternoon.

I smile at the waiter when I catch him eyeing my breasts. He boldly grins before heading to another table.

My mother gasps. “Dear God, you’re not thinking about picking up the waiter are you? Surely you’ve got better sense than that?” She shakes her head, disbelief marring her face. “If you’re going to live your life as a ‘good time’ girl at least be smart enough to pick a guy with money.”

I feel the emotional wall between us growing a little bit stronger and higher. Why did I agree to her visit today? Oh yeah, her birthday’s next week.

I remain quiet during the rest of the meal, half listening as she once more lists all the ways to avoid unhappiness in my life. Too bad she never has any advice that could actually
help her daughters.

At three o’clock I’m eager to send my mother on her way. As she climbs into her car, I dutifully kiss her cheek and deliver the empty promise that we’ll get together again soon. My muscles feel weak and drained after holding my opinions inside for so long.

She’s got to be the most miserable person I’ve ever met. Is it any wonder her two extroverted daughters don’t race to spend time with her? That kind of negativity sucks the positive energy out of a person.

Back at my apartment, I change into jeans and a t-shirt and head out to
Dress for Success. It’s my turn to log in donated clothes that arrive on a Saturday. The trip across town helps to wash away the inadequate feelings my mother never fails to stir.

Melissa waves from the front desk when I enter, her chipper smile and calm personality a great match for welcoming newcomers. The organization provides nice, gently used business outfits to low-income women re-entering the workforce. A lot of these ladies remind me of my mother all those years ago, with one major exception—most of them aren’t bitter man-haters.

They may be single moms, newly divorced women with no kids, or married ladies attempting to change careers after earning a diploma at night, but all of them come with a sense of hope. Something my mom has lacked since the day Dad left.

In my teens, I often wondered what happened to him, but gave up the hope of him returning long before becoming an adult.

“Carla?” Cindy calls, pulling me from my negative thoughts. Cindy is the tall blonde who handles new arrivals at
Dress for Success. “Peggy had to leave and someone’s here who needs to pick out a suit. Care to help?”

I smile, happy to do my favorite task rather than unload clothes. “You bet.” I cross the lobby to shake hands with the young Hispanic woman next to Cindy.

“This is Erica,” Cindy introduces us. “Erica, Carla is the best personal shopper we’ve got. She’ll have you dressed like a million bucks in no time.”

I gesture for Erica to follow me and we make our way to the rack-filled room that never fails to bring a smile to the candidates who seek help from the program.

A small gasp sounds from behind me. “I feel like I’ve died and gone to clothing heaven.”

Joy bubbles inside me as I turn to the young woman. A large smile creases my face as I look Erica over from head to toe. “Are you about a size ten?” She nods. “Great. I know we’ve got something that will work for you. Where are you interviewing?”

The latter part of my day outweighed the crappy encounter with my mother. It’s after six by the time I get home and for once, I don’t mind not having a date lined up. It’ll be nice to chill for a night and forget about men for a while.

You mean forget about Andy, don’t you? Wasn’t it his blue eyes you were mooning over while unpacking clothes?

No, it was not. I mean all men.

Uh-huh. Sure.

I flop on the couch, pushing thoughts of last night from my mind, and finally check my phone—an act which done at lunch would have unloaded a shit storm of remarks from my mother on my bad manners. There are several texts from Heather, offering encouragement, as she knew I was meeting my mom today. And one from Andrew.
I want to see you again.

I return Heather’s texts first. Thanking her for her pep talk and then I keep my return texts bitching about my mom to a minimum.

I debate on what to say to Andrew. Might as well be blunt and get it over with.
Not going to happen.

He immediately texts back.
It can be good between us. Give me another chance.

My face heats in embarrassment as his words remind me of the crass “it was tolerable” comment I made after we had sex. I can’t believe I said such a shitty thing! Not one of my finer moments. Although, the experience wasn’t anything to write home about.

What should I say to convince him to leave me alone and realize this thing between us isn’t going anywhere? If I make the response too harsh, I’m a bitch. Too light and teasing, he’ll think he has a chance. And his chances of a rematch of last night are slim to none.

No thanks. I don’t date guys at work.

We’re not exactly dating.

Exasperation leaves me in a sigh at his deliberate obtuseness. I don’t sleep with guys at work. Is that more clear?

Yup. I won’t sleep with you at work. Got it.

Not interested. Good night, Andrew.
With a growl, I shut off my phone for the night.

Chapter Four


Dammit! That little minx just brushed me off! I click my phone to sleep and slam it on the coffee table. Man, I knew I should’ve trusted my gut and not slept with her. She’s going to use that stupid
no dating at work policy to shut me out—which I know she wouldn’t have used had I been on my game when we had sex.

One chance! I had one chance with her and I blew it! Is she even going to acknowledge I’m the one who pleasured her afterward or is her sleep-fogged brain crediting it to her mysterious dream lover? Hell, she called out my name and seemed fully aware of her faculties. Maybe the alcohol helped her forget.

No. She wasn’t that far gone. And you know it. She just doesn’t want you.

I’ve admired Carla from afar too long. Now that I’ve seen the passion simmering below her surface, I aim to draw it out, stroke it to life, and leave it begging for more—
from me. Not some dream lover she calls out by mistake. Damn, that really rubbed me raw. A woman’s never done that before.

She needs a man like me—a man with a gentle hand who won’t tolerate her mindless flirting, and who will keep her sexually satisfied, to never
need to wander to another man’s bed. Turning her around to monogamous sex will be an incredible challenge. One I am mightily looking forward to.

What is it about the prickly lady that draws me? Is it the hurt beneath the bravado? I bet someone messed with that girl’s head for years. I’d like nothing more than to kiss her senseless and drive every thought of other men from her mind forever.

My doorbell rings. It’s Rocko from across the hall. “Hey, Ace.” He greets me with his usual fist bump then a half-hug, shoulder touch with a brief clap on the back preferred by a lot of touchy-feely musician types. “You watching the game?”

The scruffy appearance of my neighbor pulls a smile from me. Instead of the leather vest he performs in, he’s wearing old flannel and jeans. His adoring fans should see him now.

“Sure, want to join me?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” He runs a hand across his scraggly beard. “Tonight’s gig was cancelled, so I’m staying in.”

“What, no hot date with a groupie?”

“Come on, man. You know that shit gets old once you hit thirty. Like I’m molesting a bunch of barely legal college girls.”

I grab us some beers, settle on the couch, and turn on the game. We drink in silence for a few moments, watching the players warm up by throwing a ball around the bases.

“Did you play last night?” I ask. Rocko is lead guitar in a local band. They’re working hard, playing any gig they can in the hopes of building a fan base to catapult their song sales.

He nods, his eyes on the game. “Tiny hole in the wall—Fitzpatrick’s—right here in the Village. Great crowd.”

“Yeah, I’ve been there before. Good energy.”

We watch the game together, but my mind keeps wandering. I need to figure out a way to seduce Carla back into bed, to prove I can be the kind of lover she’s looking for.

Does she even know what the hell she’s looking for?

I shake my head at my silent musings, not really sure where I messed up things last night, but determined not to quit.

“Dude?” Rocko asks.

“Huh?” Damn, has he been talking to me for a while?

“You’ve got that far off look on your face again. Is it over that chick at work you mentioned?”

“Am I that obvious?” I laugh. “I saw Carla on Friday.”

“It’s pretty easy.” He smiles. “You look all stupid-spacey and shit.” He coughs into his hand to pretend to hide his next word: “Pussy.” I glare at him across the couch. He shrugs, uncaring. “How did it go?”

My chest tightens in frustration. “Let’s just say it was not my finest performance.”

He laughs, his humor at my expense filling the room. “Dude, you messed up? Oh, that’s rich. You can charm the panties off ladies of all ages the moment your fingers tickle the ivories.” He gestures to the baby grand sitting in what would be my apartment’s dining area. “And yet in an office environment you tank?” He snorts. “That’s fucking pathetic.”

I ignore him and take a swig from my beer. My silence is the male equivalent of stating I refuse to rise to his bait.

“So,” Rocko says, “what do you plan to do? Gonna give up like a wuss?”

“No,” I bite out, surprised by the vehemence in my tone. “I just need a plan. Something that will get her thinking about me…”

“Remember that Tina chick I dated a couple of years ago?”

A vague memory of him mentioning a Tina stirs in the depths of my brain. “I think so. What about her?”

“She came across as rough on the outside, but was a hellcat in bed.” A satisfied smirk tugs the corner of his mouth. “Man, she brought out the wild in me. Really liked it when I came on strong.”

“Yeah, so?”

“She turned off every guy with her smart ass comments and sneer.” He picks at the label on his beer. “But under that do-not-touch exterior was one hot tamale.”

“What happened to this hot woman? Why did you let her go?”

“Not me, man. She moved for work.” He takes a long drink from his beer. “If a gig ever takes me to Baltimore, I’ll be looking her up.”

We lapse into quiet and I wonder if Carla could be like Tina. Maybe she’d like me to come on strong. I watch more of the game, lost in thought.

The mental pull from the shiny piano nags at the back of my brain. I’d like nothing better than to lose myself in the feel of the keys beneath my fingers and the sound of the notes filling the air. But this complex woman keeps drifting into my head, demanding my attention.

She’s a complicated bird, Carla. Haven’t quite figured her out yet. Likes to flirt with everyone—which could just be a natural part of her personality and that’s made her a good salesperson. If I’m honest, perhaps it’s more that she’s very approachable and friendly instead of an outright flirt.

I take another long drink, the cool amber liquid easing the tightness in my chest. On the other hand, I have witnessed her leave with a guy from the bar, so her behavior does go beyond flirting when she wants. One other thing I’ve noticed—I never hear her mention her latest hook-up at work. That usually means the man isn’t in the picture anymore. Watching her for the past few months has shown me more into her psyche than she might like.

Tension radiated off her last night after mentioning her mother. And yet in the brief exchanges we had tonight in texts she didn’t say anything about the woman.
That’s because she was too busy trying to blow you off, jackass.

No, I don’t think that’s it. In the short personal conversations we’ve shared since we met, she’s casually mentioned a sister, her best friend Heather, and where she grew up. Nothing about her folks. I wonder why.

A fist clenches in my chest when I think of my own parents. After Dad died a few years ago, Mom has gone downhill. The hospice nurse said she may pass any day now. I’m going to go see her again tomorrow, even though my sister has been there every day.

Acceptance settles through me at the realization our mother’s fight will finally come to an end. This two-year battle has been draining—for her, my sister, and me. We both said our goodbyes when our mom was still cognizant of her surroundings. Since then all we can do is keep her comfortable. The frustration I felt over her imminent death released its hold a while ago—and not a moment too soon. I wouldn’t want anything to taint a peaceful passing for her.

Rocko and I watch the next few innings in silence, one of us venturing to the kitchen for a fresh beer every so often. An alarm goes off on my watch.

“I’m going to call my mom. Do you mind?”

Rocko grabs the remote and mutes the sound, familiar with my nightly ritual. “Nah. Go ahead, man.”

I finish my beer and shove the guilt of missing my call last night to the back of my mind. My mother would’ve never wanted me to feel bad or obligated, and I’ve got to keep that forefront in my mind so I can enjoy this last bit of time with her.

I move toward my first love and sit on the cushioned bench, setting my fingers to the keys like I’ve done for over twenty years. I work through scales, warming up, and launch into one of my mother’s favorite Elton songs,
Candle in the Wind. The music fills the apartment, bouncing back to fill my soul with warmth. The words spill out, freeing all the heart and passion I lock up at work every damn day to earn a steady paycheck to pay medical bills.

Rocko raises his beer in tribute, but remains silent, focused on the game.

When I’m done, I call the nurse on duty. “Hi, Iris. How’s she doing?”

“Same as yesterday. No change.”

“Thanks. Do you mind holding the phone for her?”

“Not at all, child. I love to hear your voice.”

I set the cell phone on the piano lid and begin to play.


This ends the free excerpt. It is my sincere hope you enjoyed the book enough to keep reading!