Bowen Landry looked out over the green lawn of the rented estate and tugged at his tie, realizing that the ridiculous penguin suit he wore must surely demonstrate just how much he loved his little sister. Though the enormous white tent was filled with his friends, he was feeling about as out of place as a guitar player in an a cappella group. Running his index finger along the collar of his tuxedo shirt he figured the unusually warm Portland spring afternoon paired with the free-flowing booze and upbeat wedding music was about as close to his version of hell as he was going to get that day.
Man, he was practically coming out of his skin. The heat. This suit. The party and all these people. People he loved, no doubt, but now that everything had changed, especially him, he wasn’t quite sure where he fit into it all anymore. He pulled his coat off and folded it over his arm before pulling at his shirt again.
“I feel the same way about this stupid dress,” a quiet voice said from behind him. He started to laugh and turn, but froze, his voice stuck in his throat, when he saw who stood there. Gabby, a newer addition to his tight-knit group of friends, who also happened to be his new neighbor. And she looked hella hot. Unexpectedly so.
She’d recently started hanging out with his best friend’s fiancée and had become part of their squad pretty quickly. They’d even worked together a couple times at the Portland Community Women’s Resource Center, also known as Quirk, where they both volunteered, along with most of their group. But, today Gabby didn’t look like Gabby. Normally she wore slacks and long-sleeved blouses with boots or flats—the boring costume of a cubicle dweller. Other times, like at his sister’s engagement party the month before, she’d had on a pair of worn jeans, a hoodie or T-shirt, and skater shoes. Basically, she either dressed like an office rat with ill-fitting clothes or like him. But today she wore a dress and heeled black boots. Coppery highlights glinted in her dark hair, which he’d never seen down before. Now it hung in loose curls down her back.
“Sorry.” She glanced down for a moment, cleared her throat and looked back at him with her striking green eyes. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Those eyes. It wasn’t that they were huge and lined with the black fringe of her long lashes. There was that, but they were deep and dark. Fucking deep, like she saw things inside him that he didn’t want people to see. And dark, full of stories she’d never shared with anyone. He wondered again what the usually quiet and often sarcastic Gabrielle Alvarez hid behind those green eyes and her ironic smirk. He knew it was probably a little ugly and maybe a little sad. So definitely not for the first time he thought he and Gabby should steer clear of each other because two people with secrets and smoky pasts didn’t mix well.
Not that he was going there anyway. No way. His days of charming anything with boobs and a vagina were over. Way over.
She was beautiful, for sure, but she was a no-fly zone for Portland’s former bad boy. Thankfully, his vocals cords thawed and he found his voice again. “You didn’t startle me. And I think that dress looks smokin’…uh, pretty.”
Way to keep it casual, douchebag. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d known plenty of hot women. A veritable fuck-ton of them. But now he was blurting shit out like a middle schooler at his first boy-girl dance. Next, he’d be passing her notes: if you like me, check yes. Geezus, so this was him sans booze now?
She coughed and covered her mouth with her hand for a moment, but not before he saw the corner of her lips twitch up. How had he not noticed how full her mouth was before?
“Uh, thank you?”
“You’re welcome?” He smiled. Not defaulting to his old habit of winking or trying to charm her out of her panties was challenging. Great, now he was thinking about her panties. What kind did she wear? Bikini? A sexy thong? Unlikely. She probably wore superhero boy shorts or some equally enticing, but nerdy equivalent. “But, yeah, a tuxedo is not exactly my go-to ensemble.”
“I’m not much of a dress and heels kind of gal either. But…”
“Yeah, but it’s not every day my sister gets married, right?”
“Let’s hope not.”
“I’m pretty sure this is it for her,” he said and yanked on his collar again, this time loosening the bow tie and popping the top button.
When he stole a glance at Gabby the expected dreamy expression that chicks always got at weddings was missing. He was surprised to see something else altogether. Instead of rainbows and butterflies floating around her head, he saw a mix of dark heartache and distaste. Interesting. Little Gabby was not a romantic. His eyes were drawn to her slender hand at her neck where it worried a charm dangling from a leather and silver necklace. Her teeth were doing the same thing to her bottom lip. For just a small micron of time he imagined sucking that plump lip into his own mouth and nibbling on it. How would she taste? A sharp ribbon of lust unwound from his chest and shot straight to his dick. His sad, celibate dick.
“Bowen?” Gabby asked. A little line divided her brows and he had the sudden urge to smooth it with the pad of his thumb. “Earth to Bowen.”
Fuck, he must have been staring at her. Weird that he’d known her for months, even lived in the same apartment building, and was only now realizing how attractive she was. Well, that wasn’t true. He wasn’t an idiot. He’d noticed how stunning Gabby was, but since getting out of rehab six months ago he’d had his nose to the grindstone. Work, meetings, work, and meetings. That was his life. With a little band practice thrown in here and there for shits and giggles.
But he’d always liked her eyes. Gorgeous cat eyes sprinkled with a million different shades of gold and green. A dude could get off just staring into those eyes. But, no, he hadn’t really thought of her like that. She was his buddy’s fiancée’s friend. She was one of the chicks in his crew now.
“Sorry. Guess the wedding has me all nostalgic and shit. Crazy to watch my little sister marry that big goon.”
“Yeah,” she said simply.
He looked back at the tables scattered along beneath the tented grass. An old pastel-colored Victorian house sat to the right of the property on a grassy hill, overlooking the party like a giant dollhouse watching one of his sister’s doll parties. Only this time it wasn’t pretend. It was real. His sister Kevan, his rock, sat at the head table drinking a rare glass of champagne, talking with Jami, sister of the groom and his best friend Jackson’s—or Jax as everyone called him—woman.
Kevan radiated happiness. He could almost feel it as it rolled off her in waves, spreading out to her guests. He smiled when she threw her head back and laughed before reaching out and pulling Jami into a hug. They were physical opposites: Kevan tall and dark haired, her blue streaks shiny in the fading light. Jami was petite and her long blonde hair so light it was almost white. Over the past several months the women, who were nearly opposite in personality too, had grown closer than sisters. And now they actually were. Sisters-in-law, anyway.
Mason, the biggest, broodiest fucker Bowen had ever met, walked behind the women and landed a kiss on each of their heads. The gentleness of the act made his chest constrict. Kevan was getting her white picket fence. And if there was anyone he trusted the most important person in his life to, that would be her new husband, Mason. Bowen hadn’t been there for her when she’d needed him most. But Mason Dillon had. He owed him so much. Both of them.
Mason hopped up on the stage and turned the mic on, tapping it. “Is this thing on?” Everyone swiveled to attention. “Wanted to thank you again for showing up for us. And now that the speeches are done, and food has been eaten, it’s time to grab some free booze and dance, people!” He raised his glass to the crowd and then turned to his new wife. “Bettie, will you do me the honor of sharing the first dance as my wife?”
The DJ, a new client of Mason and Kevan’s entertainment marketing company, spun up “Falling in Love With You Again,” a ballad by Imelda May, his sister’s favorite rockabilly singer. A hand wrapped around Bowen’s forearm and tugged, sending a sharp tingle up his arm and down his spine. He obviously needed to break his self-imposed dry streak and get laid. “Why does he call her Bettie?” Gabby leaned forward and stretched up to whisper. He was at least a foot taller than her, so he bent down and turned his face, bumping his chin against the top of her head. They both stumbled, grabbing at each other to prevent falling. He grasped her shoulder and her cheek, while one of her hands landed on his chest and the other grabbed tighter onto his arm.
Her face turned crimson and then drained of color altogether. “Sorry. I’m a klutz.” A warm feeling filled his chest. And he laughed. For the first time in a long time he laughed. It felt weird, tight, but good. Like something stuck had been knocked loose. Or maybe like a really good stretch after a particularly difficult workout.
She jumped away from him, obviously uncomfortable with his touch. He, on the other hand, quite liked her hands on his body.
“Sorry,” he said quickly. “I’m not laughing at you. I used to be smoother than that. I swear.”
How the mighty have fallen, he thought ironically.
She smiled—at least, he assumed the little twitch of her mouth was her version of a smile—and licked her lips. “So I’ve heard,” she mumbled and looked away, chewing on her lip again. This time he did reach out and tug it from her teeth with a pop. He liked how her eyes widened, but she didn’t pull it into her mouth again.
Good girl. Wonder how good she is at following other orders.
“It’s after Bettie Page.”
When she looked at him with a question in her eyes, he continued, “The famous pinup and fetish model. That’s why he calls her Bettie.”
“Ohhh,” she said and stared at the dance floor where his sister smiled, a secret grin with a meaning only her husband and partner in life could decipher. Kevan walked toward Mason with a dreamy look chicks in love wore. They met in the middle of the dance floor where he kissed her hand. Bowen thought he heard a sigh next to him but was sure he’d been mistaken when he glanced down at Gabby and she was busily chewing on her pinkie. When he looked back up Mason was spinning Kevan in a circle, her bright purple crinoline flaring out from under the skirt of her white fifties-style wedding dress. Their eyes caught and Kevan waved her hand at him. “Bobo, come dance with us.”
Really? Because that was literally the last thing he wanted to do right then. Well, getting drunk was really the last thing he wanted right then, but dancing was a close second.
“Bobo? Hot bad boy Bowen Landry’s nickname is Bobo?” Gabby sneered playfully.
He laughed again—she seemed to have that effect on him—and twirled the long chain connecting his wallet to his belt loop. “Pretty badass, right?”
Wait, did she say he was hot? Fuck. Probably should ignore that. Probably should walk away and grab someone he wasn’t attracted to. Where the hell was Jax’s sister, Mandi? Instead of doing what he should do he grabbed Gabby’s hand and pulled her toward the dance floor. But she didn’t follow him, like he expected, like most girls usually did; she yanked her hand from his and stood firm. He turned to discover what had kept her and was surprised to see her standing there with her arms crossed and a cute, but stern look on her face.
For the first time, he took a minute to really take her in. Honestly, Gabby usually struck him as pretty, but kind of mousy. Not that she wasn’t attractive—she was. But she was usually quiet. Not really timid, because when she did talk she had a decisively biting wit, but more reserved. That day, though, not so much. Even her clothes exuded a completely different personality. Confident. Sexy.
The deep burgundy dress she wore had a tight corset thing on the top and long tulle skirt on the bottom. He didn’t know what the hell it was, but he did know one thing: it was hot as fuck. Especially as she stood there tapping her high-heeled black leather boots. Hot. As. Fuck.
“You don’t want to dance?” he asked, trying to hide his smirk, the one that always convinced even the most ambivalent chicks to do his bidding.
“Oh, my bad, was that you asking me to dance?” She raised her brows and cocked her head.
“Well, yeah. So…”
“So let’s dance.”
“I’m still missing the part where you ask me, Bobo.”
Well, damn. This little mouse had teeth. And what the hell was the matter with him? Wasn’t he trying to be a better man? Not the dickhead he used to be?
“You’re right. Sorry. Would you like to dance with me, Gabby?”
She shook her head.
The corner of her pretty mouth turned up. “I don’t want to dance.”
He reached forward and took her tiny hand in his. She was so delicate, so slender. “Please come dance with me,” he said and pulled her forward gently. This time she gave a little and took a step forward and he noticed the pink tinge to her golden skin.
She shook her head again. Hell, he hadn’t had to work this hard to get a girl into his arms in a very long time. Even at his worst, he could still charm the pants off—usually—most women.
Her mouth moved, but he couldn’t make out the words, so he pulled her a little closer as he stepped back.
She shook her head again as he tugged her into his arms, wrapping one hand around her slim waist and holding her other hand in his, and took another big step back. Her body stiffened slightly, but she didn’t pull away again.
“See? We’re already here.” Her eyes widened, and she swung her gaze back and forth. “Might as well finish the song.”
The stories about Bowen Landry’s legendary charm were apparently true. At least partially. Until now, he’d kept mostly to himself other than when they worked together at Quirk, the Portland Community Women’s Resource Center they both volunteered at, or when she ran into him in the stairwell at the Hawthorne area apartment building they both lived in. But even when they went out with the same group, he almost never said anything directly to her or to any of the women who swarmed the men in their group. She’d begun to believe his reputation was all bullshit.
Tonight, though, she was getting a little taste of the bad boy formerly known as Bowen. Smooth as silk and charming as a beekeeper. Up until now she suspected she’d only known the watered-down version of Bowen. Jami had told her he’d been out of rehab for over six months and that he claimed to be pretty committed to his recovery, but she knew more than anyone that once an addict, always an addict.
Add that to his unnerving good looks and the man was a recipe for disaster.
And yet, there she was, in his arms. Dancing, of all the ridiculous things. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d let a man touch her in anything more than a quick hug or professional handshake. But, surprisingly, his hands on her didn’t fill her with the need to run. Her heart beat faster, but she definitely did not feel like fleeing. Nope, she actually wanted to lean in to his embrace.
So when he started to sway she tried to follow his steps. Making a fool of herself on the dance floor held zero appeal. She shouldn’t even be at the wedding. It was nice of Kevan to invite her and all, but she barely knew these people. Well, okay, that wasn’t true. She knew Jami pretty well and some of the guys from Tatuaggio, the local tattoo parlor, volunteered in the art and music program at Quirk, but she didn’t know them know them. Right at that moment, she was about a mile outside her comfort zone.
“Uh, I can’t dance, Bowen,” she said, finally finding her voice.
“You seem to be doing fine.” He held her close enough she could almost feel his deep voice rumble through her chest, which was somehow comforting and not terrifying. He squeezed her hand and turned her on the wooden dance floor, sending tingles down her arms. “Relax and let me lead.”
As if. She didn’t let anyone lead. Ever. Nope, she was the captain of this ship, thankyouverymuch. Letting anyone take the reins had trouble written all over it. Kind of like the big man guiding her with his strong body. His perfect body. Did all the guys in this damn group have to be so big? So fucking gorgeous? Seriously, it was ridiculous. Kind of like this stupid outfit Jami and Ella, her other close friend and co-worker at Quirk, talked her into. This ridiculous corset that was lifting from the skirt just enough for her to feel the calloused tip of one of his fingers breach the hem and make contact with her skin.
Her skin sizzled; her nerve endings crackled to life and sent threads of electricity through her body. Was that normal? Was that what other women felt when a man touched them? It wasn’t normal for her. Not at all. She had no interest in any kind of sexual attraction to any man. Especially a man like the one who seemed to so easily control her body.
“Yeah well. It’s an anomaly,” she said, proud she kept the uncertainty out of her voice.
He bent forward close to her ear. “Call it what you want, but you’re dancing. With me.” The soft puffs of his breath on her cheek sent shivers down her arms despite the unusual warmth of the late afternoon.
She looked up and was greeted with that damn smirk. She’d bet that mouth was responsible for melting the panties of half the women in Portland. His light blue eyes locked with hers. They were striking with his crazy-long dark lashes and his shaggy almost-black hair. No doubt, he was the most attractive man she’d ever met. Looking at him up close and personal only solidified that fact. And she almost forgot for a minute that she wasn’t interested in bad boys. Or boys of any persuasion for that matter.
The song ended and she shifted, ready to pull away from him. She needed to escape, to breathe. Get some water. Maybe get the fuck out of this crazy place.
But Bowen had other ideas. “That was only half a song. One more.”
Rihanna’s “Stay” started to play over the tent speakers. Really? It had to be that song?
Bowen started singing the song to her in a silly singsong voice, making her laugh. “Don’t care for pop songs, but I like this one,” he said pulling her up against his body with a tug so swift she had to put her hand on his chest for balance.
Oh shit. He was rock hard under that tux shirt. The temptation to run her fingers over his pecs was almost overwhelming. Almost. But not quite. Gabby did not touch men, let alone rub herself up against them like a cat in heat.
“I hate this song,” she blurted.
He pulled back and raised a brow as he looked at her. “Hate’s a bit strong, don’t you think?”
Nope. Not at all. Stupid song about a stupid co-dependent woman.
“Just don’t like it.”
“Yeah? There’s a story there. Spill, Gabby.” He shook her hand and waist a little. “And relax for fuck’s sake—it’s just a dance.”
Maybe for him. But she hadn’t been held by a man like this in a long time. Hmm, or maybe ever.
“I told you I couldn’t dance.”
“You’re doing fine.” He rubbed his hand in circles at the small of her back, shooting arrows of desire straight to the pulsing bull’s-eye between her legs. “Just relax and let me lead.”
She snorted. Maybe because he was so irritating. Or maybe to hide the fact that she liked the way he talked to her. The way he said that—let me lead—sounded so sexy, so in control. She shouldn’t find it hot, but she did. So sue her. It wasn’t like they’d do more than dance.
“So what’s the story, little one?”
Gabby bristled, and took a deep breath. “No grown woman likes to be called little. And there’s no story.” And she wasn’t sharing any stories with him.
Instead of dropping her hand and walking away—which she half expected, which she more than half wanted—he spun and dipped her, holding her over his arm—which felt strangely more solid than flesh, like a downed tree or a steel fricking girder—as he peered at her with those eyes. “I don’t mean anything derisive to your womanhood, Gabby. You’re smaller than I am. Slender. So tiny I could pick you up and carry you around on my shoulder if I wanted to. So my petite and prickly friend, why won’t you share your stories with me? I’m a good guy.”
He continued moving their bodies across the dance floor like a pro and not like the metalhead she knew he was. That, and his damn hand on her lower back, made it hard to focus. Hard to follow their ridiculous conversation. “Pretty sure we covered the whole bad boy thing.” Dusk was teetering on the edge of evening and, for the first time, she noticed little white lights that wound romantically around every pole and blanketed the ceiling of the white tent. If she was any other girl she’d probably think they looked lovely. But she wasn’t any other girl despite her girly costume.
“Reformed,” he insisted, spinning her slowly. She risked a look up into his face, his pretty, pretty face.
“No such thing,” she nearly whispered. His casual, almost lazy, tone and demeanor were not reflected in his gaze. His eyes snapped and crackled, drew her in with their heat.
“You don’t believe people can change?” The song segued into another and he stopped dancing and stared at her. Like her answer mattered. Like he needed her to say she believed in change. But she didn’t. She didn’t believe because the opposite had been proven to her again and again. But the look he was giving her made her reconsider her sometimes too blunt honesty.
When Kevan hip-checked Bowen and broke his intense gaze, Gabby released a long breath and pulled from his embrace. She ran her hands over her hair and smiled at Kevan.
“Hey, kiddos, how’s it hanging?” Kevan grinned broadly and Mason twirled her, her gorgeous antique dress swirling around her like she was some kind of rockabilly princess. “Having fun?” She looked back and forth between Gabby and Bowen.
“Great wedding, Kevan. Beautiful. Thank you for inviting me,” she said and moved forward to hug Kevan and then get her ass home. And away from this awkward interlude with Bowen. Get away from this whole social thing where people were expected to act in a certain way, laugh at certain things, converse and share information. It was all so confusing. And exhausting.
Kevan wrapped her in a hug, but pulled back with her arms still on her shoulders. “So did you talk to Bowen about the tattoo?” Shit. Gabby had been hoping that wouldn’t come up. In a vulnerable moment at Kevan and Mason’s combo bachelor-bachelorette party, Gabby had mentioned she had a scar she’d like covered one day. Jax, Bowen’s best friend and Jami’s fiancé, had been giving Jami her first ever tattoo on her ankle and Jami had asked Gabby, Kevan, and Ella to come along for moral support.
Kevan had nominated Bowen since he’d done most of her ink and Gabby had admired it on more than one occasion. But after spending about ten seconds in his presence with all that fierce attention solely on her, she’d decided no. The work she needed done would take several sittings, and she didn’t want to think about what it would do to her head to have his hands on her for all that time. She’d prefer to have a woman tattoo artist do the work anyway.
No thank you. She’d find someone else. Or, fuck it, not get it done at all. No one saw the damn scar except her anyway. And no one ever would.
“Gabby did not mention wanting a tattoo by yours truly.” Bowen flashed that damn smirk again, and after quickly hugging his sister, grabbed Gabby’s hand. “But I’m all ears.”
When he led her off the dance floor, weaving through the dancers and partiers, to a table near the back wall of the tent, Kevan called after them. “Don’t go far—Manix and Toast are going to play soon!”
Of course. How could she forget? The two hottest rock bands in Portland were going to play at the wedding. And the guitar player for one of them, Toast, was holding her hand at that very moment. And all the members of Manix Curse were either in the wedding party or at the reception since Kevan and Mason managed both bands’ marketing and public relations’ efforts.
The party had barely started. She really needed a better exit strategy. Hopefully, they’d play soon and she could sneak away. She’d dressed up, brought a present, had dinner, and even danced. She’d made small talk with people she didn’t know even though it almost killed her to do so. Now it was time for her to get the hell out and back to her quiet little world that did not include blistering-hot tattoo artists.
End of Excerpt