L.O.V.E. Chapter One
My coffee was hot. My speech well-practiced. Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall In Love” played in the background. Not the ideal soundtrack for a public breakup, but I could use the sentiment to my advantage.
Gathering courage in one deep inhale, I opened my mouth to speak.
Holden beat me to the punch, belting, “Who are you looking at?”
“What?” I snapped my gaze from the swirling liquid in my mug to the man sitting across from me, who as it turned out, wasn’t paying me any attention at all.
Face red, chest inflated, body vibrating with unbridled energy, Holden glared hellfire at someone at the counter. I risked a quick perusal at the poor soul, and dear, sweet Jesus, no wonder my hotheaded, soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, was ready to blow. The target of Holden’s outrage was handsome, the kind of pretty that made you do a double take, but his obvious beauty wasn’t the issue. The problem was the beautiful stranger seemed to be frozen in time, coat in one hand, phone in the other, dreamy eyes aimed my direction with laser focus.
My stomach flipped, then warmed, the heat spreading from gut to limbs like a shot of Dad’s expensive whiskey. I had never felt more coveted. Ever. Not through words, touch, actions. Especially not from the way someone looked at me. And that man studied me like I was the answer to all his questions.
Oh, shitty, shit, shittard.
Look away, I mentally urged the clueless stranger. For the love of God, look away.
Holden shifted, readying to stand, a move I knew too well.
Predicting the outcome, I slammed a hand around his thick wrist, my grip tight but slight compared to his bulk. “Holden, please. Not today. Just ignore the guy.”
“Ignore him?” he seethed. “He’s eye-fucking my woman.”
Admiring. Appreciating, maybe. Regardless, I kept those thoughts to myself.
Holden ran hot one hundred percent of the time, and the slightest spark could cause a devastating explosion. Great quality in bed, not so much in public.
“Please.” I summoned my frail voice, knowing he couldn’t resist vulnerability in any woman, but especially, his woman. “I need to talk to you.” Then, because Holden loved an ego stroke, I threw in, “He’s probably one of your fans and recognizes me from your posts.”
Holden vibrated, his leg bouncing under the table. He gnawed on his bottom lip, that vein in his left temple protruding. Finally, a dramatic exhale signaled a shift from his rage haze, and he turned to face me once again.
“Yeah, baby, you’re probably right. What do you need to talk about?” His steely, blue eyes searched mine, but never landed, never focused.
Palms sweaty, I released his arm and opened my mouth to speak. “I think—”
“I wish you’d wear contacts when we’re out together,” he interrupted. “Those glasses hide your gorgeous face.” Leaning closer, he reclaimed my hand and rubbed a small circle in my palm, as if to soothe the sting of his words. “And those lenses always ruin our pictures.”
I choked down my retort because his comment was only one of the many reasons our relationship was over.
In my periphery, a tall figure drew near, his presence a pulsing, radiant force. My body hummed, attuned to his frequency. With every bit of willpower I possessed, I refrained from straying my focus.
I pushed my glasses higher on my nose, sucked in a breath, and started again the speech I’d practiced for days. “Listen, Ho—”
The stranger, now mere steps from our table, cleared his throat, drawing Holden’s attention, and mine, in his direction.
I was met with a soft, inquisitive gaze, and my insides shifted, tightening and tingling and, dammit, I heated from the inside out, my cheeks burning something fierce. The man was dressed for a day at the office but carried himself like a prize fighter about to enter the ring, confident, focused, ready to conquer.
As if Holden was nothing but air, the clueless patron offered me a nod and added a cocky, sideways grin before moving past.
Sweet Lord, he had dimples.
If the man’s presence was a spark, his blatant flirt was a barrel of gasoline with a lit bundle of TNT thrown into the mix.
Holden exploded from his chair, knocking the table, me, and my coffee off balance. Hot liquid scorched my chest. “Goddammit, Holden!” I cried, stumbling to my feet. A woman screamed. Men shouted from behind the counter.
Someone hooked an arm around my waist, pulling me to safety before our table flew. Behind me carried on the unmistakable grunts, huffs, and all-too-familiar smacks of a fight well under way.
Just another day in the life of Holden Oswald Travers the Third.
My vision blurred, rage washing away the humiliation.
One and a half years had been five hundred forty days too long to be acquainted with the fitness model/personal trainer/self-proclaimed media superstar, despite his boyish blue eyes, well-conditioned body, or his giant…ahem, never mind. For the record, size did not matter when attached to a narcissistic gym rat.
Without a second thought, or running to the aid of the innocent victim who’d done nothing but look at me, I stormed out the back exit.
Fuck Holden. He didn’t deserve the courtesy of a mature breakup.
And fuck that beautiful stranger and his mesmerizing stare.
Mesmerizing. Sweet Jesus, that woman knocked me for a loop, and then some. Right before her bulldog attacked.
Been a long time since anyone had gotten the jump on me. Too bad that silver-eyed angel hadn’t stuck around to watch me wipe the floor with her boyfriend.
The guy was all brawn and bravado. No brain. The type I was all too familiar with. A runaway train with faulty brakes. Only way to stop that path of destruction was by way of decommission. A few jabs for warm-up, then one strike to that square jaw, and the hot-head had dropped like a fly.
Even unconscious, the guy looked angry. Made no sense, that matchup. She was sunshine, and he was gloomier than the fall drizzle outside.
Not my problem, I reminded myself.
The police were called. An ambulance, too.
Witnesses confirmed my story. I’d been jumped and acting solely in self-defense. I wouldn’t press charges. Not worth my time.
The kicker? The woman had disappeared. I didn’t get a chance to make sure she was okay, and that bothered me more than losing thirty minutes of my morning.
Ellis waited outside, arms crossed over his massive chest, hip against my Roadster. “How is it you manage to destroy a cafe, but don’t get a speck of dust on your silk shirt?”
“Thanks for your help, asshole.” I bumped his arm as I passed.
“You had it handled. Besides”—he tapped on the door—“someone had to guard your shiny new car.”
I’d recently ditched my gas-guzzler for electric and, damn, she was a beauty. Quick, too. God bless Elon Musk. Ellis, two sizes too large for the vegan leather seat, never wasted a chance to be seen standing next to, or sitting inside, my sporty black Tesla. Always with the window down. Always with a cheesy grin on his face. Didn’t take much to keep my friend happy and, damn, I liked him happy.
I made my way to the driver’s side and told him over the roof, “Some over-juiced pretty boy didn’t like me looking at his girl.”
“What girl? And why the hell were you looking?”
“God’s honest?” I settled into the driver’s seat, waited for Ellis to tuck in. “I don’t fucking know.”
I knew. Didn’t like what had come over me. A strange sense of kismet, an unexplainable familiarity, an unholy attraction.
“Spell it out for me.” The skin between his thick brows wrinkled.
I merged into traffic. “I was minding my own business, waiting for our coffee, and I heard her voice. She sounded like Cadence.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. God, I missed my sister. “That’s what made me look. And, damn, the woman was beautiful. Had this aura. She glowed. Stopped me dead.” I refrained from waxing poetic about her silky blond hair, her pink, full lips, or eyes the color of cold steel.
“Aura?” Ellis laughed. “C’mon man. That’s bullshit, and you know it.”
“Yeah, I fucking know. Doesn’t change the fact it happened. Swear to Christ, when she looked at me, my brain short-circuited.”
“You’re lucky her boyfriend didn’t make a meal outta your skinny ass.”
Ellis stood an inch taller than me, had me by a good fifty pounds, but where I was turkey breast, my friend was more prime rib, and he never let an opportunity slip to remind me he was bigger, despite the fact he’d never taken me down on the mat.
Our trip to the gym passed in silence. Ellis only zipped his lips when he had something epic to say, a think before you speak kind of guy, so I parked, cut the engine, and said, “Spit it out, bud,” then made myself comfortable, settling into the seat and buckling down for an earful.
After a deep rise and fall of his chest, he blurted, “I’m worried about you.”
“Okay.” So was I, but that was between me and my weathered spirit.
“Seriously. What’s up? You’ve been off lately. You’re always on edge. You spend all your free time at the gym. And what was that scuffle really about this morning?”
“He attacked me,” I reminded him. “And you know damn well why I’m at the gym.”
Holden rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know. You’re on a mission. Noble, yes, but nobody gets the jump on you unless you wanna fight.”
Fuck. True. First glance I’d known that, if provoked, the guy at the coffee shop would react, and maybe I’d needed the release. But that wasn’t what’d made me look in the first place. That woman’s presence had drawn me in. Siren enchanting the sailor. Seeing her sitting next to that Mike O’Hearn wannabe had summoned my primal urges.
“Not sure what came over me. It was crazy like I knew her, but on a whole different level. God.” I scratched my aching temple. “This is hard to explain. There was a connection. Just…something. That ever happen to you?”
The left side of his mouth twitched. He tried and failed to hide his grin. “Yeah, when I met Darlene.”
Darlene, the woman who’d broken his heart more than once before skipping town with Eva, his one-eyed Yorkie.
“So you get it?”
“No, dipshit.” He flicked the side of my head. “I don’t get it.”
“But you just said—”
His thick finger jabbed my chest, silencing me. “Not the same.”
“How’s it different?”
With a huff, he jerked the door handle and dropped one foot to the asphalt, then paused. “When I met Darlene, I was single.” Before closing the door, he turned and asked, “And where the hell is my coffee?”