It’s time to move again, which means I have books to give away! I don’t have as many as the last move, but I have a set of the first three books of the Wedding Planners Series. So, first is an excerpt from It’s Always Been You and Me. Just a warning about language. This book is from Charlie’s point of view and she’s got the mouth of a sailor, or can when prompted. Don’t forget to check out after for the instructions on the giveaway!
Excerpt from It’s Always Been You and Me
The warmer fall came to a sudden end when the cool front we’d been waiting for finally dumped a ton of rain as it plowed over the east coast. With the weather, my beach volleyball match with Elliot had been postponed a week. Luckily, the change in day didn’t conflict with my work schedule, or else we’d have had to forfeit.
I wasn’t a fan of beach volleyball when it felt more like winter than summer, but at least I had my long-sleeved Clemson top from my days playing in college. Although I’d mostly competed on courts, I’d always loved playing in the sand and digging my toes into the warmth beneath my soles, using it for a solid base when I jumped to spike the ball.
Elliot glanced over to me and lifted his eyebrows while we waited for the other team to serve. He held the same passion for the sport I did, which worked well. I’d never played mixed doubles until he approached me to play in this recreational league. We’d been partners ever since.
I shifted on my feet with my hands on my hips then kicked my heels back one at a time. The last thing I wanted was to get cold.
The other team served, and Elliot rushed up to the net, jumped, and attacked the ball, sending it into the sand on the opposite side. He walked back and lifted his hand for a high five before resuming his spot. That was when I saw him.
When I’d peered over my shoulder, Jensen stood along the side with his arms crossed over his chest, his burgundy long-sleeved Henley clinging in all the right places. I ripped my eyes away. My heart beat quick and heavy in my chest. What was he doing here? A hand interrupted my view, and I startled.
“Earth to Charlie. They’re about to serve.” For the second time that afternoon, Elliot’s eyebrows rose on his forehead. After we won the next point, he glanced behind him while I valiantly pretended Jensen had vanished into another dimension. If I didn’t look, he wasn’t there, right?
The rest of the game dragged by as I kept my attention focused as best I could on the game and not whether Jensen still lingered somewhere off to the side or whether he was talking to some woman. Why would I care if he flirted or spoke to someone else anyway? I sure as hell didn’t want him back.
When we scored the last point, Elliot came over, hugged me, and whispered in my ear, “Him? Is he the reason you won’t give me or any other guy a chance?”
“Shut up,” I said, pushing him away. “I never said a word.”
With a laugh, he rolled his eyes. “You didn’t need to, sweetheart. For anyone who looks, it’s written all over your face.”
I ignored his butthead comment and headed toward the concrete ledge near the parking lot. I’d left my bag on top so it wouldn’t be full of sand when we finished. As I dusted the annoying grit off my legs, a shadow crossed the pavement in front of me.
“I’ve been trying to call you.”
“I don’t know why. I told you we have nothing to discuss.” I jammed my foot into the leg of my sweatpants. The sooner I had those on, the sooner I could leave.
“We have the same friends and always have. I’m not sure why you’re so hostile, but I thought if we could agree to get along, it would be more comfortable for everyone.”
I straightened and clenched my fists at my sides. “You’re not certain why I’m hostile? You fucking left.”
“You didn’t want to marry me,” he countered. “I had school in Chicago. You knew that.”
“I never said I didn’t want to marry you.” I grabbed my phone and keys and zipped my bag. “See, this is why we have no business dredging up the past. It won’t magically cure anything. It won’t suddenly make us friends.” I started to walk toward my car, cringing when footsteps followed me. “I can’t believe you followed me out here to resurrect an ancient argument we have no business rehashing.”
“You’re still good—really good. Did you ever try out for the Olympic team like you’d wanted? I know you made the U.S. Collegiate National team your sophomore year. I tuned in to watch volleyball at the Olympics in Beijing, fully expecting to see you kicking ass. I was shocked you weren’t there.”
I gritted my teeth. “I tore my ACL during training a month before. Instead of playing in the Olympics, I was having surgery to repair it. I know athletes who’ve continued with high level athletics, mainly soccer, after ACL surgery, and their knees are a mess. I didn’t want to be thirty with the knees of an eighty-year-old. My coach red-shirted me for the year of rehab, hoping I’d change my mind. I didn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” he said with more feeling than I would’ve expected. “I know how important that was to you.”
“I know it’s cliché, but life and shit happens. I’m not the only person in this world prevented from living their dream by one circumstance or another, but I came damned close. I have no regrets.”
He gestured at the beach. “You still play, though.”
“The sand is much more forgiving on my knee, and it’s not the same as hard court international level volleyball.” I threw my bag in the backseat of my car as a blonde, leggy thing walked up behind Jensen and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
“Hey, there. You ready?” she said in nearly a purr next to his ear.
“I swallowed the vomit that rose in my throat and stung the back of my tongue. My eyes narrowed. It was the gym bunny bimbo from Halloween. Not his type. Hah!
“Charlie, you know Kimberly, don’t you?”
“You’re a member at the fitness center, aren’t you?” I didn’t offer my hand.
Her eyes lit and widened. “Oh, yeah! I didn’t realize you played. One of my sorority sisters and her husband were on the opposing team today. She told me before we came out that they didn’t stand a chance.”
I forced a smile on my face.
“Charlie!” Before I could speak, Elliot came bounding up, holding out an envelope. “Your gift card, madame.”
As I took the envelope, Elliot put an arm around my waist and pulled me in, his lips claiming mine. I froze so solid it must’ve been like kissing a rock. What the hell did he think he was doing?
When he pulled away, he tugged me a little closer and turned to Jensen. “Oh, I’m sorry for interrupting.” He held out his hand. “I’m Elliot.”
“Jensen,” said Jensen woodenly while he shook Elliot’s hand. Jensen glanced back and forth between us, but I couldn’t look at him. I fixed my gaze on the ground as though it were a Playgirl centerfold.
“Good to meet you.” Elliot’s natural ease with everyone shone while he rubbed his thumb in an intimate gesture under my ear. “I hope you don’t mind if I whisk her away. I owe her lunch for a game well-played, you know?” I did my best to relax but that damned thumb tickled so badly I struggled not to slap the holy heck out of his hand.
“Of course. I wouldn’t want to hold you up.”
I had no idea what sort of expression Jensen wore. All I knew was his hands were stuffed into his pockets even though Kimberly remained plastered to his backside. Before I could take a peek, I was shoved into the passenger seat of my car.
Elliot’s face appeared before me as he bent over. “Relax,” he whispered. “He’ll never buy it if you won’t touch me.”
I glared at him while my hand curled around his ribs. I should be thankful Elliot stepped up and kept me from looking like a pathetic idiot, but I’d never dealt well with surprises and I was certainly no actress!
“Good girl,” he crooned with a grin. “Now give us a kiss.”
He leaned closer until he pressed his lips to my neck. I closed my eyes and gripped his t-shirt. There was a reason I didn’t date and this awkward revulsion was exactly why. With a wag of his eyebrows, Elliot pulled away, ran around the car, and hopped into the driver’s seat. “Where are the keys?”
As I closed the door, Kimber-bimbo pulled Jensen in the opposite direction. He glanced back for a second, making me whip my head around to Elliot. “Now that they’re gone, what the fuck are you doing?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Calm down. I’m helping you. Trust me.” He leveled me with a know-it-all gaze, his index finger pointing. “You nearly went down in flames out there. The last thing you want him to know is that you’re jealous, and that foul-mouthed green monster you possess is lurking just under the surface, ready to pounce. I had a much better vantage point since I have no emotional involvement. He attempted to break a few bones when I shook his hand, and he kept taking peeks at you. Trust me. He’s still interested.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re over. We were over more than a decade ago.”
“You wouldn’t be so tied up in knots if everything was final and packed away for good. I’m telling you, he still has feelings too. I’m willing to bet he’ll either try harder or give up. If he gives up, he’s not worth it.”
I slapped my keys into his palm. “He gave up thirteen years ago.”
Elliot laughed and shifted the car into reverse. “By that frown he’s wearing, I’d be willing to bet he wouldn’t mind a second chance.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen.”
“Sorry, babe, but I don’t believe you. I don’t even think you believe yourself.”
“Where are we going anyway?” I turned around in my seat, spotting Elliot’s beat up Civic still sitting in the parking lot. “You’re leaving your car, you know?”
“We’ll swing by for it after lunch.”
“I never said we’d go eat.” Why was Elliot’s impulsive behavior such a shock? It wasn’t like I hadn’t known him for years.
“Don’t worry. I’m paying.” He shot me a crooked grin. “Consider it that date I’ve never gotten you to accept.”
“It’s not a date, Elliot.” My voice hardened. All I needed was this added to the mess that was my life.
In less than five minutes, we pulled up to a food truck with “The Best Arepas in Charleston” emblazoned across the back.
“We’re here,” he said nearly chirping as he bounded from the car.
I hurried after him, almost tripping on a seam in the concrete and face-planting. “You’ve got to be shitting me? You’re bringing me to a food truck?”
“Hey, they have great food. I promise.”
A loud snort escaped before I could stop it. “Just be warned. If I get food poisoning, I’m coming after your ass. You won’t walk for a month.”
“Promises, promises.” He chuckled and yanked me up to the window by my arm. “Only in my dreams, sweetheart.”
I could only shake my head while he ordered for both of us. Normally, that would’ve completely pissed me off, but since I knew nothing about the menu, it didn’t bother me this time. When we were seated at a wooden picnic table with our food, Elliot kicked my shoe.
“So, what’s up with this Jensen guy? You’ve never spoken about him.”
“Because I always tell you about my personal life?” I countered.
“Touché. Doesn’t mean you can’t?”
I swallowed my first bite and sighed. “Why does everyone think talking will be the miracle cure for happiness? Like if I purge my soul, it will be all rainbows and sparkly unicorns.”
Elliot grimaced while he forked up a bite but let it rest in the paper bowl. “I would never make that sort of promise. Sometimes revealing the past and getting our feelings out in the open is cathartic. You and I aren’t particularly close, but that can make talking about personal matters easier. You never know.”
“I don’t . . .”
I stabbed my fork into my food several times and slumped. “We started dating when I was a freshman in high school. He was the stereotypical high school quarterback with perfect grades and perfect looks.”
“And he went for the athletic girl with the amazing body and beautiful face instead of the self-absorbed cheerleader. I have to admit. I admire that.”
With a shrug, I took a sip of my drink. “I was gawky.”
“I doubt it,” he said with pursed lips. “How long did you go out?”
“Until the night I graduated from high school. He’d left for the University of Chicago the year before, but we called and emailed all of the time. We used to meet in this clearing in the woods behind my parents’ house.
Jensen’s strong arms wrapped around me the moment I stepped into the clearing. “God, I’ve missed you.”
My lips claimed his as I slipped my hands under his t-shirt, loving the feel of his solid abs and the sound of his swift inhale. I pulled back long enough to whisper “I missed you too” before I reached for the button on his jeans.
With a groan, he guided me back, tugging me down on a quilt he’d spread before I arrived. His lips grazed down my neck while he shifted my skirt up and out of the way so he could touch me, bringing me to orgasm before he satisfied himself. It was fast, but we’d been apart for months. While he had been gone, I’d yearned with everything in me for that connection. He must’ve as well. His touch and kisses spoke of desperation rather than the slow burn we’d always had in the past.
Afterwards, my cheek rested on his chest, near his shoulder, the sound of his heart thrumming in my ear. “When do you want to talk to your parents?” he asked. His fingers combed through my hair and his lips grazed my forehead. My stomach sank. I lifted onto my forearm so I could hold his eyes.
“I love you.”
His forehead crinkled like he did when he was confused. “I love you too.”
“Do you remember when I told you about the scholarship the head coach offered me at Clemson?”
“Of course, I do. It’s awesome, and I’m so proud of you.”
I grazed my teeth along my bottom lip. “I accepted it.”
“What?” He lifted up as I sat back on my heels, my blouse hanging loose, unbuttoned all the way down. “I asked you to marry me before I left for college. We agreed we’d get married when you graduated.”
I shook my head and clenched the blanket. “I told you I wanted to marry you, but I also told you that I wasn’t ready yet.”
“Because you were still in school?” He said slowly as though he were trying to explain it to a small child.
“No, because I just turned eighteen two months ago, because I’m not ready to move so far from my parents, because I have my own dreams. I love you, but it’s not fair to ask me to give up on what I want.”
“You can play volleyball at Chicago.”
Once again, I shook my head then covered my face. “You have three years left on your degree before you join the Navy. Then what happens to me?”
“You come with me. We can both go to school during the summer so we both finish our degrees and graduate at the same time. You might have to wait in Chicago until I finish basic training, or maybe you can stay with your parents.”
“No, Jensen. When I spoke to the coach at Chicago, he didn’t offer a scholarship. You have that college fund from your grandfather you’re using to pay for college, but I don’t expect my parents to pay so much money. I want to marry you, but I’m not ready to be your wife. I can’t imagine being left for months on end while you’re deployed or go wherever the Navy sends you. Please understand, I need to have something for myself first.
“I want to go to Clemson with Ellie. You and I can continue emailing and living for breaks. You can come back to Marysville. I can travel to Chicago for spring break. I’d love for you to show me around.”
His eyes searched mine, but he didn’t smile or give any sort of hint about how he felt while my eyes burned. I couldn’t lose him!
“I want to be with you. I need you, Charlie.”
“I want to be with you too, but I don’t want to be an adult quite yet.”
Finally, something cracked, and he shook his head. “I can’t come back to Marysville. My father won’t let me stay at the house—not that I’m really complaining since his drinking has become worse. You know how he can be when he’s drunk. I have to stay at that crappy little motel right outside of town. All of my savings is for school. I can’t afford to travel down here and stay in motels all of the time. If you go to Clemson, we’ll never see each other.”
I tried to take his hand. “We will. I promise.”
He withdrew his hand before mine could wrap around it, shook his head again, and stood. “I have to go.”
“Jensen, wait. Can’t we talk about this?”
A noisy breath came from his lips. “I don’t know. I have to go.”
“He left me sitting alone in the woods in the dark. The next day, I borrowed my mother’s car and drove out to the motel where he was staying. He’d already left town. I didn’t see him again until a few months ago when he walked into our office. I’d called the police over a former boyfriend of Jena’s and in walked Jensen as if he owned the damned place.”
Elliot sipped his drink from a straw with a frown. “You were both too young. I mean think about it. If you’d married him, would you still be together today? At least you recognized you weren’t ready. He should’ve respected that, but as I said, you were both young. If you’d actually gone through with it, you wouldn’t have traveled to play volleyball in college, you wouldn’t have the business with Jena and Ellie, and you’d probably be divorced and wondering what to do next with your life. You might even be saddled with a child or two.”
“I wouldn’t mind the child. I could never regret that.”
Elliot rested his forearms on the table and held my eye. “Single parenthood isn’t easy. My mom struggled financially even though my father paid child support. My point isn’t about having a child. It’s that you wouldn’t have the solid foundation you have now if you’d followed that road. I believe you’d make an awesome mother if you had to do it on your own now. You have the financial means and support because of the choices you’ve made. My mother was a housewife when my father left.”
“Jensen didn’t have to leave like he did.”
Elliot sighed and took my hand. “I agree that it was shitty of him to leave without a word, but the two of you both had the opportunity to shoot for your dreams. You probably don’t want to hear this, but letting go was the best thing you could’ve done for one another.”
I blinked back tears. Crap! I never cried, and I was about to blubber like a baby. “Is it stupid that I’m still in love with him—that I can’t see myself with anyone else?”
“Did you try to move on?”
“More than once,” I said, jabbing my straw into the ice in my cup. “It always felt wrong—like I was being unfaithful. I lost my heart to Jensen and never managed to get all of it back.” I bit my lip and slumped. “I always wanted a child. Now I wonder if I’ll ever have one.”
“Tell you what.” He waggled his eyebrows, making me jerk back and give him a sidelong stare. “If you aren’t married, or you don’t have a significant other by the time you’re thirty-four, we’ll have a kid together.”
“I’m not having sex with you, Elliot.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Who said anything about sex? We can turkey baster it.”
“Eww! You’re terrible,” I said, dissolving into laughter.
“But you’re laughing.” His index finger pointed directly at my chest. “I much prefer this to that weepy Charlie I just saw. It’s so unlike you that I don’t know what to do with her. You might be like a Tootsie Roll pop, but it doesn’t mean I need to see it.”
“A Tootsie Roll pop?”
“Yeah, hard on the outside and soft in the middle.”
More laughter bubbled up from my throat as I snorted loudly. I covered my nose and shook my head.
“That’s hot,” he said sarcastically.
When I could breathe, I nodded my head. “Thank you.”
“Just remember. I’m always around if you need a date—no strings attached. Maybe he still holds a torch for you? We could make him jealous.”
“Do I really want to put my heart out there again?”
He shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest. “Only you can decide that. If you can’t give him another shot, you need to move on. Clinging to something or someone without a future won’t fulfill you and will only leave you with huge regrets down the line. You deserve to be happy just as he does.”
“What about you?”
His smile widened, and he glanced to the side. “I’ve always asked you out, but it didn’t mean I stopped dating. Recently, I’ve taken an interest in someone. I’ll make a move eventually. I’m not quite ready yet.”
His chuckle carried with the breeze. “Honestly. You’re pretty and fun. I thought we’d enjoy going out. I don’t think the two of us would be more than two people spending an evening together. I met someone a couple of months ago. We don’t know each other well, but we bump into each other from time to time. It’s odd. I hardly know her, but I want to know everything about her.”
My lips quirked upward. “I know what that’s like.”
Elliot bobbed his head. “Yeah, I guess you do.”
“Are you going to go for it?”
“Don’t wait too long,” I said. “She might find someone else.”
“You act as though it’s easy, asking out someone you’re serious about.”
I gave him a half-hearted smile. “Easy, no. But even if she says no, you’ll have tried.”
Alrighty then! Let’s talk giveaway! I have the first three Wedding Planners in paperback. Giveaways are limited to the U.S./APO addresses. Sorry! Postage has gotten crazy expensive these days. Just leave me a comment to enter!
It’s Always Been You and Me is on Kindle, KU, and Paperback!