I’m Luna Josling, owner of Sweet Water’s most popular clothing boutique and known as an all-around shy artist. And after I catch my long-term boyfriend cheating on me in a totally humiliating way, I’m more than ready to escape my small town for a while.
Who better to do that with than my best friend, Brad Washbrook?
The only catch? I have to pretend to be his fiancé for two weeks while he attends a retreat for a prospective company partnership.
It should be easy, right?
Brad has always been amazing to me, but now that I’m single, I’m noticing him in entirely new ways. Like when we dance, his hands roam over me in a possessive way that makes my skin spark. And when we’re forced to share a bed, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if I spanned the distance between us and finally find out what it’s like to kiss him.
But he’s been my friend forever, and we’ve never crossed those lines before.
The longer we pretend to be engaged, the harder it is to deny the very real feelings growing between us. And after one sizzling kiss, I know I’m a goner.
He’s everything I never knew I needed, and soon I can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake, but it all feels way too good to question.
Just when I think Brad and I are on the same page, my ex shows up and threatens to ruin everything.
And if I can’t set things right, I’ll lose the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
*This is a steamy contemporary romance set in the Carolina Reapers' territory of Sweet Water*
Check out the first chapter below!
Me: I can’t do this.
Zoe: Yes you can. Wait. What are you doing?
I blew out a breath, my fingers shaking as I texted my best friend Zoe.
Me: I’m in Dennis’s apartment, waiting for him to come home from his trip.
Zoe: That seems like a very easy task to accomplish.
I glanced down at what I was wearing, and cringed.
Me: I’m wearing fishnets. And garters. And a bra that barely covers anything.
Zoe: Damn! Get it!!
I laughed, the action helping ease some of my nerves. Dennis and I had been dating since my freshman year in college—so just over five years. I shouldn’t be nervous at all…except, I was.
It could be the fact that Dennis constantly made me feel less than adequate in the bedroom, but I’d always chalked that up to him having more relationships in high school than I did. I mean, when we did have sex, we made it work. It wasn’t mind-blowing or anything like it was in the books I read, but it was something we did as a couple. Something that signified the intimacy in our relationship.
I just wanted it to happen more. I wanted to experiment to see if we could have that spark that was always present in my favorite romance novels. Any time I’d come to him with a scene from one of the books I was reading, he’d tell me it was a fantasy and that real life would never live up to those expectations. And, I suppose, he wasn’t wrong. I’d never had an orgasm from just his hand or his mouth, and that happened like a zillion times before chapter twelve in almost every book I read.
Plus, he was the only real boyfriend I’d ever had. Dennis was my first, and since he had more experience than me, I’d always let him take the reins.
But things had been strained between us for a while and I was looking to shake things up. I hoped he’d see me sprawled out on his couch with this outfit on and not be able to keep his hands off of me.
Me: Am I crazy?
Zoe: Are you asking me as your best friend or as your best friend who happens to be a clinical psychologist?
Me: I wouldn’t say no to Dr. Casson’s opinion on this one, but throw in a little bit of my friend too.
It was both a blessing and a curse having Zoe as a best friend—we’d known each other since high school—and while I loved her brilliant mind and the way she broke things down for her patients, I understood it was hard for her to turn off when it came to girl talk. But bless her, she always tried for me.
Zoe: You need a change.
Me: In what way?
Three little dots popped up on our text, then went away, then came back again. My heart sank. Zoe wasn’t Dennis’s biggest fan, and Brad downright hated him. Both my best friends had expressed many times that I deserved better, but they didn’t know Dennis the way I did. He could be kind, charming even. There were times he really tuned in and made me feel like we were the only two people in the world.
Or at least he had been in the beginning.
Lately he’d been short with me, constantly criticizing the amount of time I was putting into my little boutique and my dreams of starting my own clothing line. But that just meant we’d hit that age-old relationship rut, right? All we needed was something to mix it up and we’d get back to where we started.
Zoe: It means that you need your emotions and feelings to be heard. And he needs to change in order to do that.
Me: Okay, that was Dr. Casson. Now be Zoe.
Zoe: He’d be crazy not to drop to his knees and worship you the second he sets eyes on you.
I smiled brightly at my phone, a thrill rushing through me. I didn’t need him to worship me, I just wanted some emotional and physical attention. I was practically starved for it with how distant he’d been recently. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t been putting in the effort on my end—I tried to create fun dates for us, tried to create the quality time that laid all the ground work for intimate time as well. But for so long now, he’d been rushed, pushy, or too tired to give me time at all, quality or intimate.
Me: Maybe I’m trying too hard.
Zoe: Maybe you shouldn’t have to try so hard.
I swallowed a lump in my throat as I read her response. Maybe I was trying to ignite something that had fizzled out. Maybe Dennis would never see me as the sexual being I felt like. Maybe he’d never try with me. And that’s all this was about, me asking him to try. If we ended up not enjoying being a little wilder in bed, then no harm no foul, right?
Zoe: I love you, babe. I think you’re amazing. If I walked in on you like that I would tear you to pieces.
I laughed out loud at that one, the well-timed joke shoving all the doubt out of my head.
Me: Same. He’s ten minutes out. Wish me luck.
Zoe: You don’t need it!
I double-checked the find-my-phone app we’d set up on each other’s phones after a year of dating, and nodded to myself before setting my phone on the end table next to the couch. He was close, and with each minute that ticked by my heart raced a little faster.
It was cold in here, raising chill bumps all over my exposed skin, and I switched my position about a dozen times. What was more flattering, one leg up and on the back of the couch, my spine pressed against the cushions and chest sticking up? Or was it me sitting up straight, legs spread so he could get a full view of the entire outfit?
There wasn’t much to it—scraps of lace and fishnet, with black triangles of fabric barely covering my nipples. If I would’ve planned ahead, I would’ve made something for myself, but I’d been spontaneous in this choice. Dennis had been out of town for work for a week, and we hadn’t made plans to see each other tonight, but I thought a sexy surprise might be just the thing to treat us both for his return home.
Dennis’s voice sounded from outside the front door, which was directly across the room in his quaint apartment. He must be on the phone, which only made my heart climb up my throat even more. If he was on a business call, then he definitely wouldn’t be happy about the shock—
The door swung open, and Dennis stumbled inside…
With another woman in his arms.
My heart plummeted to my stomach, my entire body freezing where I sat, legs spread wide on his couch.
He was kissing her feverishly, his hands roaming over her entire body. He looked passionate and invested and—
Um? That’s what came out of my mouth? Fucking hell.
They broke apart at the sound of my brilliant outburst, Dennis’s eyes flaring wide when he spotted me.
“Who the hell is she?” the woman asked, her brow furrowed as she took in my appearance.
Kill. Me. Now.
My mind finally caught up with my body, and I grabbed the throw from the back of the couch, wrapping it around my shoulders. It was small so it only covered my top half, but I’d take it.
“Luna,” Dennis said, his mouth practically gaping open. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He could’ve smacked me and I would’ve been less shocked. “That’s your response?” I asked.
“Omigod,” the woman said, and to her credit, she looked absolutely mortified. “Are you dating him?”
“Yes,” I said.
“For how long?”
“Five years,” I answered, my heart shattering at the way Dennis stood there looking between us during our exchange. From the way he ground his jaw, he was angrier about getting caught than he was worried about hurting either one of us.
“Ew,” she said, raising her hands and taking a giant step away from him. “Girl, I had no idea. I promise. I’m so sorry.”
I raised my brows at Dennis, waiting for any sort of response.
“You’re an asshole,” the woman said before stomping out of the door and slamming it behind her.
He really was.
I’d been trying, hadn’t I? I planned dates and cooked him meals at home when he didn’t want to do the dates I planned. I’d laugh at his jokes and go to his business functions. I even loaned him money when he was struggling. I tried. I really fucking tried.
“Are you really going to stand there and not say anything?” I finally snapped once the anger had replaced most of the mortification.
“Don’t.” He shook his head, jerking his tie from around his neck. “You shouldn’t even be here, Luna—”
“Are you kidding me?” I cut him off, shaking my head before hurrying into his bedroom where I’d left my bag.
He followed me inside, hovering in the doorway. “You aren’t!”
“And you weren’t supposed to be fucking someone else!” I fired back, grabbing a pair of sweats out of the bag and shoving my legs inside them.
“You don’t understand,” he said.
“Please, explain it to me!” I shook my head, dropping the throw and pulling a T-shirt over my head. “God, I’m such an idiot. Sitting here hoping you’d love this,” I mumbled to myself, gesturing at the lingerie that was now thankfully covered up by my usual clothes.
“This isn’t like you,” he said as I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder. “Is this a stunt from one of those ridiculous books you read?”
My mouth dropped as I looked up at him where he was blocking my path. “You’re unbelievable.” I sucked in a sharp breath. “How long?”
“How long what?”
“How long, Dennis? How long have you been cheating on me? How long have you been pushing me away when I try anything intimate with you, while you’ve clearly been welcoming whoever the hell that was into your arms without a second thought?”
He had the audacity to look annoyed.
Had he always been this heartless? This cold—
“You have no idea what it’s like being a man,” he said. “None.”
Anger licked up my spine. “Enlighten me.”
“We have needs that can’t be satisfied by one woman,” he said, reaching for me. “You know how I feel about you, Luna. You’re great. There are just things I can do with her that I can’t do with you.”
I jerked away from his touch, revulsion rippling through me. Tears gathered in the back of my eyes. “I’ve been asking for more…” I shook my head. It didn’t matter. He clearly didn’t see or want me in that way. “Five years. You told me you loved me—”
“I do love you,” he cut me off, reaching for me again. I backed up, and he raised his hands like he was trying to calm a wild animal. “I do. Maybe it’s a good thing this happened.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I don’t want to hide from you anymore. If you can accept that I need multiple—”
“No,” I cut him off. “You can stop right there. You barely entertained my ideas when it came to sex, so no, I won’t be understanding your need to find pleasure in other partners. We never agreed to anything like that. God, you always lose your shit when I have lunch with Brad and he’s my best friend—”
“He’s an asshole,” Dennis said.
“That’s rich, coming from you.” I tried to move past him, but he blocked my way.
“Don’t be like this, Luna,” he said. “Tons of people have open relationships—”
“Yeah,” I said. “And the thing about those relationships? They set up those rules and boundaries beforehand. They don’t lie and cheat and hurt each other.”
“It’s cute that you think you know a thing about it,” he said, and I cringed at the level of arrogance in his tone. “Luna, you’ve depended on your trust fund your entire life. You have no idea what the real world is like.”
I gaped at him. I built my boutique from the ground up, using money I’d earned by selling custom pieces…actually, fuck this. “Get out of my way.”
“No,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. “Not until you calm down. You’re being irrational.”
I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. At least I didn’t have the urge to cry anymore. Now all I wanted to do was punch him in the throat.
“Move out of my way. Now.”
Unease shot through me. I’d never been afraid of him before, but he was trapping me here. Adrenaline replaced every other emotion, and I quickly shoved past him, racing into the living room where I left my phone.
He raced behind me, stopping in front of the door. “You’re not leaving until you talk this out with me.”
“There is nothing to talk out!” I snapped, finally getting my phone. “We’re done. You cheated on me. You betrayed me. You…you’re a liar. And I’m done.”
“Luna,” he said, drawing out my name like he was talking to a child. “Nothing has to change between us—”
“Everything has changed!” God, he was making me feel like I was the one losing my mind. “We’re done. It’s over. Let me leave.”
He remained standing in front of the door, and every instinct in my body flared with warning.
I pulled up 9-1-1 on my phone, my thumb hovering over the call button.
“The cops?” he asked, glaring at me. “You’re seriously going to go there? Don’t you think you’re overreacting—”
“Move or I call them.”
He rolled his eyes, but stepped out of the way.
Relief spiraled down my spine and I sprinted out of the door, racing down the steps until I reached the parking lot and my car.
He called after me, but I ignored him, driving away as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t until I stepped inside my house that the adrenaline faded and the tears hit me.
I dropped my bag and slid to the floor, leaning against my closed front door, not having the energy to take two more steps inside. Tears streamed down my cheeks, hurt, angry tears as memories and emotions whirled inside me. Every time he’d told me he wasn’t in the mood, every time he’d told me he was too tired to go out, every time he’d ignored one of my polite requests for something different.
He didn’t care about me or my feelings, my needs.
He never loved me.
How could he? Or was I really that old-fashioned to value monogamy in a relationship? I didn’t fault anyone who wanted an open relationship, but that just wasn’t me. He knew that, and what he’d done wasn’t open. It was a lie.
I rubbed my palms against my face, forcing the tears to stop. I wasted years of my life on someone who never even loved me in the first place. How could I have been so—
My phone buzzed next to me, jolting me out of my thoughts. For a second I was terrified it was Dennis, armed with more painful words about how I was the one being ridiculous.
But it wasn’t. It was Brad.
I’d never declined a call from my best friend, and I wasn’t about to do it just because one asshole ruined my day.
“I know you’re going to say no,” he said before I even said hello, and something about his voice slid over me like a warm blanket. He’d always been a constant in my life, a source of happiness when everything else was changing. “But the retreat is a week away—”
“Yes,” I blurted over him, sitting up straighter.
He’d been asking me for two weeks now to go with him to some corporate retreat hosted by a company he was trying to land. I’d said no, naturally, because I knew Dennis wouldn’t approve of it, especially since Brad wanted me to pretend to be his girlfriend the whole time so he could participate in all the couple events.
“You’ll do it?” Brad asked, elation coloring his tone. “Really?”
“Yes,” I said again, something settling inside me. “A vacation is exactly what I need right now.”
“You’re the best!” he said, then paused for a second. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re lying,” he countered. “I can hear it in your voice. What’s up?”
“I don’t want to get into it right now.”
“Fair,” he said, and I blew out a breath. God love this man. He never pushed me. “Tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Lunch. Lyla’s Place? We can talk.”
He hesitated a few beats longer. “I can stay on the line with you,” he said. “If that’s what you need. Or I can come over.”
Tempting. It was so very tempting to have him or Zoe come over and let me cry and vent about the unfairness of it all, but right now, I just wanted to be alone. Plus, I was still wearing the most revealing lingerie I’d ever worn beneath my sweats, and Brad definitely didn’t need to see that. A flush raked my skin with just the thought, and I shook my head against my phone.
“Thanks,” I said, picking myself up off the floor. “I’m okay. I’m just going to take a shower and go to bed.”
“All right,” he said. “But if you change your mind I can be over there within ten minutes.”
A soft smile shaped my lips at his gesture. “I’m good,” I said before thanking him again and ending the call.
I wasn’t good.
Because while I was upset and angry, I felt…indifferent.
I felt more unhinged about the things I forgave or overlooked in the relationship than I did about Dennis cheating on me. I felt sad about trying so hard for someone who clearly didn’t think I was worth trying for. I felt ridiculous for begging for attention from someone who apparently didn’t respect me at all.
I wasted years of my life on him, constantly catering to his needs in the hopes that he’d find time to focus on mine.
Well, I was done trying.
I was free.
Getting out of town for a couple weeks sounded like the absolute perfect prescription to this mess. And who better to do that with than my best friend?