by Rachel Van Dyken
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
Copyright © 2013 RACHEL VAN DYKEN
Cover Art Designed by Laura Heritage
1997 Portland, Oregon
“Kacey, wait up!” Travis ran after her, tears streaming down his face from laughing so hard. Kacey was his best friend, but only in his heart. In real life, she hated him, he just didn’t know why. At eight years old he did the best he could to show her he liked her, but she always ended up getting her feelings hurt.
Girls were dumb.
His younger brother Jake finally caught up to them. “Why’d you do that, Travis?” He shoved him in the side.
Travis’s tongue suddenly felt thick in his mouth. He wanted to explain the reasons behind tripping Kacey, really he did, but words wouldn’t come. He hated his stutter. It made it so hard to talk, and it only happened when he was either trying really hard or in front of Kacey.
“Ugh!” Jake kicked the dirt with his foot. “Now she won’t even kiss me!”
“Kiss you?” Travis yelled, horrified that his brother would even say the word kiss, let alone think about doing something like that with Kacey. Besides, why would his six-year-old brother get a kiss over him? “She doesn’t even like you like that.” He crossed his arms.
Travis at least knew that much — girls didn’t like boys. They liked men, and he was well on his way to being a man. In fact, he had just found a hair on his chin. He’d most likely be shaving by the end of the week. He puffed up his chest and scowled at his brother.
“Oh yeah? Well, she hates you.” Jake stuck out his tongue. “She told me so, plus…” He shoved his hands into his pockets and took a deep breath. “I’m gonna marry her.”
“Are not!” Travis pushed his brother to the ground. “I’m older. She’s going to marry me.”
Jake stuck out his tongue then brushed the dirt off his pants. “Wanna bet?”
“Yeah!” Travis sneered. “I do. A million dollars!”
“Fine!” Jake spit on his hand and held it out. “Shake on it. Blood oath.”
“But there’s no blood,” Travis pointed out.
“Duh! Mom would kill us if we used blood. It’s just as good. Kacey said so.”
“Fine.” Travis spit on his hand and smacked it against his little brother’s.
Jake grimaced. “Gross.”
“Grow up.” Travis rolled his eyes and searched the backyard for Kacey. He hadn’t meant to trip her. Well, actually he had, but he had a really good reason for it.
He knew for a fact Kacey loved princess stories. She would talk about how girls are supposed to be treated like princesses, and boys are supposed to be princes.
But how was he supposed to be a prince when there were no dragons to slay?
How could he prove himself when there were no monsters?
Good thing he was the smartest kid in his class. He knew just what to do. All he had to do was cause the trouble and then save her from it.
First, he set her doll on fire, but that didn’t work out as planned. In fact, the doll was now sitting in the garbage can. How was it his fault that the fire extinguisher didn’t work?
Next, he put a snake in her sleeping bag. When she woke up screaming, he rushed to her side to grab the snake but then couldn’t find it! Jake ratted him out, and Kacey was so angry she cried.
In one last final attempt to impress her, he tied her shoelaces together so she would fall, and then knelt down on his knees to help her.
But she was so mad she slapped his hands away, threw off her shoes, and ran away crying.
He would never understand them.
After all, he was trying to help her every time.
And every time she just pushed him away more.
Which meant only one thing. In order to win the bet, he would just have to try harder. And he knew just how to do it.
“Hey, Jake? Do you know where any rocks are?”
Kacey searched his eyes for any hint of amusement. He couldn’t be serious, not Jake. Jake never took anything seriously. She quickly raised her hand to feel his forehead and inwardly shuddered. Why God had blessed such an arrogant man with the face of a movie star was seriously beyond her realm of understanding.
But there he was, a regular Adonis, staring back at her as if his eyes didn’t make mortal women uncomfortable.
“Are you drunk?” she whispered, leaning in closer, all the while cursing the expensive aftershave floating off him.
Jake slapped her hand away. “No, I’m not drunk. Geez, Kacey, you’re acting like I’m propositioning you for sex or something.”
“That’s the example you come up with? Sex? Really? Because to be honest, Jake, this is so much worse!” Her hands shook as she tried to level her breathing to a normal pace. At this rate she was going to have a full on panic attack.
“How is this worse?” His voice rose a few octaves as other patrons of the coffee shop looked in their direction.
Kacey leaned back against the leather chair and groaned.
“I’m dead serious, Kacey. It’s the only way to convince them.” Jake leaned forward, his bronzed muscular forearms flexing against his rolled up sleeves as he rested his hands across the table.
“You do realize your parents have known me since I was three? Furthermore, I’m convinced that your mother would be able to see right through us. And don’t even get me started on that grandmother of yours.”
Jake’s stone face cracked into a smile.
“Don’t laugh! I’m serious, Jake! The woman should have worked for the FBI.”
“It’s her eyes.” Jake shrugged. “They always get me.” He shuddered. “But you’re getting off-topic, Kacey. I’m desperate.”
“Oh, wow. Well, when you put it that way, how could I turn you down? You’re desperate! Romantic man you are not. I have no idea how you managed to become the city’s most eligible bachelor, and at twenty-one. Impressive.” She shook her head in disbelief.
“Really, you don’t know?” He leaned forward, his biceps tightening beneath his grey button-up shirt, ready to burst through at any minute. His clean-shaven face held a hint of a five o’clock shadow, and his dark hair fell in waves across his forehead. Clear hazel eyes gazed back at her, and she couldn’t find the strength to look away from his lips as his tongue ran across them.
Crap. She was actually sweating just looking at the guy. It didn’t help matters that this was the first time she had heard from him since the incident. Not that this was the time to bring that up.
“Fine.” Kacey told her heart to stop beating so fast and closed her eyes again. “Jake, it won’t ever work. Why don’t you get one of your stripper girlfriends to do it for you?” And please, for the love of God, leave me alone. Too many memories stared back at her through his eyes, and she wasn’t sure she could stomach it. Not after hearing that the restaurant her parents had owned just opened up two new locations, one of them in Seattle. The wound seemed to open all over again. She shuddered and let Jake continue to plead his case.
“Um, because they’re strippers
Kacey paused. “Another stroke? As in she’s had a few?” Is that why Grandma Nadine hadn’t written her in a month?
Jake winced. “Yes, it’s been getting worse.” He ran his hands through his thick hair. “Will you help me or not? I’ll pay you—”
“You’ll pay me?” Kacey snorted. “Just like you pay your strippers? Why do I feel like I’m getting nothing out of this?”
Jake grinned. “Wow, I hate to pull out the big guns, but you owe me.”
“I owe you?” Kacey repeated. “Oh, please tell how I owe the great Jake Titus a favor. I’m dying to know, really.” She raised her eyebrows and tapped her manicured nail against the cup of cold coffee.
“Fine.” He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Fifth grade, you wanted a dog. Your parents said no. So I, being the good friend I am, went to the store and bought you one.”
“Doesn’t count,” Kacey interjected. “You named him after yourself.”
“He had dark hair,” Jake argued. “Besides, you slept with him every night.” His grin was shameless, and Kacey wanted to punch him in the face for it.
She opened her mouth to say so, but he interrupted her.
“Eighth grade,” he repeated with a wink. “You had a crush on Stevenson Merrit. I, being the friend that I am, told him that you were the best kisser in the entire school. You guys went out for a year before you dumped him for greener pastures.”
“Ah, so that’s how you refer to yourself now days. Greener pastures.” Kacey smiled patronizingly.
“Yeah, well, it’s true.”
“Not good enough.” Kacey sighed. He was so close she could smell his shampoo. A spicy masculine mix of mint and cinnamon that teased her senses with visions of a man she would never have again. Scratch that. Never had in the first place.
“Fine.” Jake shook his head. “I didn’t want to have to do this.”
Feigning boredom, Kacey merely stared back and waited.
“Your first year of college, you had a fish, named him Stuart. Ugliest fish that ever lived.”
“Hey!” She glared. “He was my best friend.”
“Who you also left at school for two weeks, assuming your Mother Theresa roommate would take care of it for you.”
“She always did hate that fish,” Kacey grumbled.
“So who took your fish in?”
Kacey looked down at her hands.
“Who took in the fish, Kacey?”
With a large sigh she answered, “You took in the fish, Jake.”
“So I win. And again, you owe me. Plus, do you really want my grandma to die? The very same grandma who helped you win homecoming queen? The one who actually wore your macaroni necklaces? It really is quite simple. Just do it for the weekend and I’ll be out of your hair.”
Refusing to answer him, Kacey stared at the coffee table and licked her lips. Maybe if she looked pathetic enough he’d just leave her alone. Just being in the same room with him was enough to cause her heart to clench.
“Kace,” Jake groaned. “You have no idea how important my image is to me.”
“Wow, so not helping your case,” Kacey snapped.
“I need this.” Jake reached across the table and grabbed her hand. His hands were always so large and warm, as if by holding them, he could take away all her pain. But she knew the truth, those same hands destroyed her, ruined her, and in the end, those selfish hands never handed back her heart. “I’ll pay off your student loans.”
“How do you even know about my student—”
“I know everything.” He winked. “It’s my job to. Come on, you need to finish your senior year of college, Kace. It’s been three months since graduation. Do you really want to be left behind while everyone else is out there making something out of themselves?”
The guy should never try to be a lawyer. Kacey would be surprised if she had any self-confidence remaining by the time she left the coffee shop. As it was she was trying to decide if it was possible to bang her head against the coffee table hard enough to gain a concussion.
“Please,” Jake pleaded. His hands squeezed hers tighter. “Do this for me. Do it for Grandma. Hell, do it for you. You have to finish school, Kace, and since your parents—”
“Don’t you dare bring them into this.”
Jake swallowed slowly and released her hand. His fingers danced along her jaw as he turned her head so he could look directly into her eyes. “It’s only for the holiday weekend. How bad could it be? We used to be best friends.”
Used being the key word. He hadn’t even texted her since graduation.
“Heartless billionaire…,” Kacey mumbled. The guy had no shame whatsoever. What sucked was that she really did need to finish school, and she was about to default on her loans. All the money her parents left her had gone into the house and retirement, and well, it wasn’t as if Seattle University was a cheap school.
“Billionaire? Not yet, babe. Heartless?” Jake reached out and touched her face with his hand. “I think we both know the answer to that.”
Memories of his touch flooded her senses until Kacey felt like she couldn’t breathe. She had traveled that road one too many times with the man. First in high school and then again in college. She hadn’t thought that life would get in the way of the only man she had ever given her heart to. But Jake changed, and for that she would never forgive him. Kacey looked down at her lap and closed her eyes. How did he still have so much power over her? One touch and a bribe and she was ready to do exactly as he said.
True, she had always had a weakness for his grandmother, no matter how scary she was or was not. Plus, Grandma Nadine had been the only one to help Kacey get through the time in her life when she didn’t care if she died in her sleep or went on living. The dark years were just that. Dark. Kacey shuddered to think of how bad things had gotten. If Grandma Nadine was sick, and he was really trying to help her, and if Jake followed through and paid for her remaining credits. It would be worth it.
“Only the weekend?” Kacey asked in a small voice. “And you say Grandma’s been all sentimental and not feeling well?”
Jake nodded. “She says she wants to see you, and I need my parents off my back about this whole press fiasco with that stripper. If I bring you home with a ring on your finger, all will be forgiven. Dad won’t think he needs to jump back out of retirement, and Grandma won’t shoot me. It’s a win-win. Besides, like I said, image is everything and I still want to have full control of my grandmother’s company at the end of the month. The board won’t go for it if I keep getting bad press. I need everyone on board. We’ll go our separate ways and I’ll fake a breakup, cry on TV and well, then at least the board members who hate me will feel sorry for me.”
He didn’t wait for her to agree. Instead, he reached into his pocket. “It’s for more than just me. It’s for Grandma, Kace. She isn’t doing well. This may be the one thing that makes her want to keep on living.”
Kacey narrowed her eyes. Lying bastard. In his twenty-one years Jake hadn’t learned to lie better than that? His smile was tense, his breathing a bit ragged. But he did mention Grandma.
Kacey suddenly felt ill. She wanted to hop on the plane right now, but Jake didn’t know she and his grandma still talked. Nor did she want him to. “Fine, but Grandma can’t know about the student loans. Deal?” Kacey held out her hand, hoping Jake wouldn’t notice the slight tremble.
Exhaling, Jake smiled. “Thanks for doing this for me.”
Kacey looked into his crystal green eyes. “For Grandma. I’m doing it for Grandma and for me.” Not for you, never again for you, Jake. The rest of the thought hung in the air. Suddenly the coffee shop seemed a much-too-small arena for digging up past demons. Kacey gave a shaky laugh and rubbed her sweaty han
Jake pushed away from the table. “Right, okay. Well, thanks for being my fake fiancée.” He pulled out a three-karat ring and confidently slipped it onto her finger.
“B-but…” she stuttered. “How did you know my size?”
He smiled and rose from his seat. “A man could never forget those hands, Kacey.”
“No matter how many hands the man-whore has held?” Kacey asked sweetly.
Jake chuckled. “Absolutely. I’ll see you Friday morning, okay?”
Kacey sighed. “Okay.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Kacey watched in agony as the man who still held her heart whistled, thrust his hands into his pockets, and walked out of the coffee shop. Seattle’s most famous bachelor had just proposed marriage. Albeit a fake marriage, it was still a proposal. She should be thrilled.
But it was hard to be thrilled when the love of her life, the boy who used to make mud pies with her and kiss her knees when she fell, thought of her as nothing but a way out of a crappy situation.
She suddenly wished she was at a bar instead of downtown Pike Place Market.
Jake Titus thrust his hands in his pockets. Damn, she looked good. He hadn’t expected his response to be so strong. After only a few months, he had expected everything to feel exactly the same. Unfortunately, it didn’t. It felt damn difficult. The woman was walking sin, curvy where guys loved it the most. Her outfit had only enhanced her curves and made lust shoot straight to the wrong places for any man sitting in a coffee shop.
Kacey’s long brown hair boasted honey blonde highlights, and her deep brown eyes seemed to set everything off beautifully. Add to that the cutest two dimples on God’s green earth, and he was ready to throw her onto the table and have his way with her.
If anyone could take him off the market it would have been Kacey, not that he would ever let her. He’d traveled that road with Kacey one too many times. They dated in high school, but soon figured they were better friends. Or maybe it was that he couldn’t keep it in his pants? It was probably a mixture of both, but who really dates only one person in high school?