Thermochemistry - Elements of Chemistry (Part 1) ATTRACTION (2015)

Elements of Chemistry (Part 1) ATTRACTION (2015)

Part 2. Heat

Chapter 1. Thermochemistry

I walked through the house and the partygoers in search of quiet and space and cleanliness. In the end, numbness descended and I embraced it. Basically, I decided not to care, and instead thought about my ideal party.

Give me a small intimate gathering of five people, a dinner party, where one-on-one conversations can be had, where people talk about current events, good books, good food, and weird news. That was my idea of a good time.

Not keg stands with a hundred people on a private island; with a DJ and underage girls puking in the bushes while venereal diseases were shared in the hot tub; add to that Martin ignoring me and making out with random girls.

Not that. That was no fun.

I happened upon the library, or a room with a lot of books. It was packed with people and I’m pretty sure a few someones copped a feel as I tried to squeeze past the bodies in favor of the books. I scanned the shelves and felt a spark of something good, something nice as I spotted Twenty Years After, by Alexandre Dumas. I’d been meaning to read it for a while. It was about the three musketeers twenty years after their initial adventures.

To my right someone threw up on the carpet. I glanced at the guy and decided that if people were throwing up on the carpet then no one would care if I borrowed a book.

I pulled it off the shelf, clutched it to my chest, and went in search of a quiet space. I roamed the house for a bit, thought about going back to the souped-up golf carts and just waiting for everyone outside, but dismissed the idea. The available reading light would be insufficient. I also dismissed the bedrooms as those would be occupied. A bathroom was an obvious choice, but not a good one because they’d be in high demand and it would be selfish of me to tie one up so I could read.

I tried to find a closet with a light. At one point I almost tripped over a passed out Ben in the hallway. I glanced around and found Herc hovering nearby, talking to several girls. He gave me a nod, I returned it and continued on my way. I decided my suspicions were correct, Herc had been following Ben around. I wondered if Ben had inadvertently consumed his own date rape drug.

Shaking off thoughts of Ben the rapist, I ended up stumbling upon the laundry room quite by accident. It was actually perfect. There was a clean comforter folded on the washer and plenty of reading light. Therefore, I arranged the blanket and hopped up on the machine, leaning against the wall with the cushy comforter at my back and began to read.

It was a truly excellent book. I didn’t know how much time passed, two hours, maybe three. That Porthos… I swear, he’s a riot. His antics always made me laugh. Although Athos was my favorite; I think it was because of his tragic past. I was a bit of a sucker for guys in books with a tragic past.

“What are you doing?”

I lifted my eyes at the sound of Martin’s voice, but not immediately. I finished the paragraph I was reading, then I looked up, holding my place in the book with my thumb.

He was dressed in swim trunks and he was wet, beads of water dripping down his chest. As such, he looked super hot. However, only the right side of his body was visible as the other side was blocked by the door. His hand was still on the door knob and he leaned a tad to one side, into the room.

My eyes wandered over his form and I allowed myself to appreciate the beauty of Martin like I might admire the beauty of a cold, soulless statue. Physically, he was a magnificent male specimen, all chorded muscle, long limbs, and rigid angles. Even his temples were drool worthy, especially since I knew his head housed a giant—albeit mismanaged—brain. Truly, he was one of our finest. His ancestors should really give themselves a big pat on the back.

A little pool of water had gathered at his feet, which made me wonder how long he’d been standing in the doorway. My eyes traveled upward again and I noticed he wore an angry expression. Actually, he looked livid.

I started a little at his stare. Then I glanced around the laundry room, searching for the source of his anger. I found that I was still alone. Therefore, I surmised that his fury must be directed at me.

But, just to be sure, I said, “Who? Me?”

“Yes. You.” He growled, stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “What are you doing in here?”

I raised the book and tipped my head toward it. “I’m reading.”

Martin exhaled loudly, another growl. “I can see that, Parker. But why the fuck are you in here reading?”

I frowned at his use of profanity, my shoulders bunching with tension. I realized I’d gotten used to it, how often he cussed; I’d accepted it as part of him. But that was before he’d left me standing at the entrance to a party I didn’t want to attend and that was before I’d seen him kissing a random girl.

“It’s the first sequel to the Three Musketeers, I’ve been meaning to read it. I found it on the shelf in the library—or living room, or whatever room. There are too many rooms in this house, I don’t know what half of them are called.”

Martin gritted his teeth, I got the distinct impression he wanted to strangle me. “Parker. This is a party. Are you’re in the laundry room? Reading?”

I paused a beat to make sure his wasn’t a trick question. When I could find nothing amiss with his interrogation, I nodded slowly. “Yes. This is a party. I am in the laundry room reading.”

“Why? What is wrong with you?”

My mouth opened and closed but no words arrived, because his questions continued to confuse me. Finally, I admitted, “Martin, I don’t know what you want me to say or why you appear to be upset. I found the book when I was in one of the several rooms with lots of books. I’ve been meaning to read it. So I picked it up and found a quiet place. Why are you so angry?”

He charged at me and I ineffectually scrambled backward on the washing machine. In less than two seconds he’d pulled the book from my hands, slapped it on the counter at my left, and braced his arms on either side of my legs, leaning forward.

I realized he’d made me lose my page in the book. I decided to ignore my urge to vocalize this complaint, because his eyes were beyond heated.

They were incensed blue flames. I braced myself, my gaze wide and watchful, and flinched when he lifted a hand. I relaxed a smidge when he used it to push my hair off my shoulder.

When he spoke his voice was low, strained, like he was trying very hard to control his temper. “I brought you here as my date. That was our agreement.”

I nodded once. “Yes. I know.”

“And, instead of talking to people or having fun, you’re in here reading a book.”

I kept my voice even and calm, tried to sound soothing. “I am having fun. I’m reading a book.”

His eyes moved between mine. “You’re trying to punish me for winning our bet, for bringing you here.”

I shook my head, hoped he would see the honesty in my denial. “I’m not. I promise. I like to read.”

“Who comes to a party, an entire mansion at your disposal, and reads Dumas in a laundry room? I’ve been looking for you for over two hours. You’re avoiding me.”

“Honestly, Martin…” I shrugged. “I didn’t think you’d notice.”

“You didn’t think I’d notice?” He roared, apparently no longer trying to control his temper.

I winced, “That’s right.”

He blinked at me once, then held perfectly still. His features completely motionless as though his face were stuck in angry suspension. I could see something building behind his eyes, like how you can see a storm from far-off gathering in the distance. Therefore, I decided it would be best to explain before he lost control of his temper.

“Earlier, after I changed,” I motioned quickly to the string bikini I was wearing, “I went back to the deck and saw you had your hands full—and at one point, your mouth full of a tongue that wasn’t yours—so I figured you were good. You know, entertained, taken care of, no need of my escort services.”

He flinched, blinked rapidly during my explanation like I’d splashed water in his face, and his back straightened.

“You saw that?”

I nodded and continued, lifting my hands up between us like I surrendered, “But, no worries. I understand that kissing random girls is in your wheelhouse. Which, like I’ve been saying all along, is another reason why we’re not compatible. Because, as I’ve said—and no judgment—but I’m not really into kissing guys who kiss other girls. That’s not in my wheelhouse. So you should go return to your women folk. I’ll be down here reading, no rush. But if you plan on spending the night let me know so I can hitch a ride with Eric and Sam, or Ray. For your own safety though, please make sure the sheets are clean. I overheard one of the guys in the library say that he thinks he has ringworm. I didn’t ask which bedroom he used.”

Martin’s eyes narrowed on me as I spoke and his mouth curved into an unhappy line. When I was finished he lifted his gaze to the ceiling, subtly shaking his head; he paired an eye roll with a whispered, “Fuck.”

Again, I flinched at the profanity and scrunched my nose, my gaze moving back to the discarded book. I wondered how much longer this conversation was going to take, because Porthos’ shenanigans were seriously cracking me up.


My eyes jumped back to his, which were now once again on me. He didn’t look as angry, but he did look frustrated.


Martin lifted his hand like he was going to put it on my leg, but stopped when I stiffened. He cursed again. Shook his head, again. Gritted his teeth, again.

“Look,” he said, “If you’d stayed, then you would have seen me push her away. I’m not interested in her.” His expression relaxed, and I saw the flash of hopeful vulnerability. My heart leapt in response.

Stupid heart.

He cupped my cheek, his thumb tracing the line of my jaw, and added, “I’m not interested in any girl here other than you.”

I pressed my lips together to keep from frowning, though I knew my eyes betrayed my disbelief because Martin’s frustration visibly spiked.

Before he could continue, I interjected, “Martin, even if I believed you—which I don’t—it doesn’t really matter. You pawned me off on Ray for the drive over. When we walked in here, in to this house, you left me. You walked away from me, you didn’t introduce me to anyone, you went off as though I wasn’t there. I don’t know any of these people and I’m terrible at parties.”

His gaze turned thunderous. “Is that what this is about? Are you down here because you’re pissed that I left? I thought I was doing what you wanted. You said that you didn’t want me to be possessive and hover. Is this some kind of punishment? Because I don’t respond well to that kind of mind-fuckery or passive-aggressive bullshit.”

Despite my desire to stay calm, his words felt like gasoline on a fire I’d been carrying around in my chest, but had thus far managed to keep under control. My temper rose and with it the volume of my voice.

“No, Martin. I don’t do passive aggressive and I don’t punish people, that is one of my life rules. I’m honest. If something upsets me, I’ll let you know. But in order for me to be upset, I’d have to be surprised by your terrible behavior. What you did, leaving me in a room full of strangers and giving CPR to female partygoers didn’t upset me, because I don’t really expect more from you.”

It was his turn to flinch. He sucked in a sudden breath and straightened away from me, his eyes cooling to frigid icicles. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re used to getting what you want or who you want when you want it. And I could care less if you were upstairs, right now, having a ginormous orgy with the ring-worm gang. Because I’ve known all along that you are a jerk face and you don’t know how to treat people with decency.”

His mouth fell open, presumably at my words and my hostile tone, and he stared at me. His expression was that of someone who’d been stunned speechless.

I didn’t like losing my temper. In fact, I prided myself on how laid back I was, how I was in control of my reactions, how I never lost my temper. Therefore, this loss of control was another irritating new development since spending time with jerky Martin Sandeke.

At length, he found his voice. Though, surprisingly, he didn’t sound quite as angry. “If you don’t like how I treat you, then why do you keep letting me kiss you?”

“Opportunity and lust.”

Gah… that was spiteful.

He flinched like I’d kicked him and he glanced away. His reaction made my heart hurt and, therefore, I heaved a gigantic regretful sigh.

My words came out in a rush, “That’s not true. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. The truth is…”

He lifted his eyes to mine and the raw emotion there made me forget myself. It made me forget to be cautious. Without really thinking about it or planning to do so, I gave him the whole embarrassing truth.

“You’re smart—in fact, you have flashes of brilliance which is a huge turn on for me—and you’re funny and charming when you want to be. And sometimes you treat me with kindness and respect. Also, you’re a good kisser. I thought at first it was my lack of experience, but now I think you’re just an exceptionally good kisser. I like kissing you. I like the way it feels. I love how you make me feel when you touch me. But what feels good isn’t always what’s good for me, and I’m not willing to settle for being with someone who sometimes treats me well. I’d rather be alone.”

With the end of my unplanned speech the numbness returned. I peered at him in a way that I hoped demonstrated my acceptance of the situation and the impossibility of us, and I reached for my book. I did all this while I tried to suppress my blush of mortification. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Porthos is rather charming and I’d like to finish this chapter before leaving.”

Martin’s glare moved from me to the book. Before I understood his intention, he’d reached for the book, pulled it from me, and tossed it over his shoulder. I yelped my surprised unhappiness, but couldn’t retrieve the novel because he’d stepped forward again, crowding my space. His hands gripped my waist and he yanked me forward so that he was between my legs and my chest was against his.

My mind might have been numbed to him, but my pants weren’t. I sucked in a sharp breath at the contact, everything tightening and twisting and bracing for his touch.

He stared at me for a long moment, during which—I’m ashamed to admit—my heart rate quadrupled and my body responded by pressing more fully against him. When he did speak, his voice was a growly and hostile whisper. “Listen to me for one fucking second, ok?”

I also whispered, but only because he was whispering, “Only if you stop using the f-word like you get paid royalties every time you say it.”

“I’ll fucking use whatever fucking word I want to fucking use whenever I fucking want to.” He whispered back.

I shook my head and spoke mostly to the two washing machines and two dryers lining the walls. “Again, proving my point, jerkface.”

“Kaitlyn, you are irritating.”

“Feeling is mutual, jerkface.”

“Especially when you’re right.”

“Well, you can…” I paused, blinked at him and his shocking words, “Wait, what?”

His eyes moved over my face as he spoke and the tension in his body eased. Peripherally, I noted that he was wrapping his arms around me, one hand sliding under the string of my bikini and against my bare back.

“I’m sorry.” He was still using his growly whisper.

I narrowed my eyes, attempting to peer into and through his words, looking for trickery. As well, I was trying to ignore the wave of goosbumps that had spread outward from where his hot palm pressed against my back and the fluttering butterflies in my stomach.

A beautiful man is the devil’s most potent weapon.

A few seconds ticked by while we stared at each other. I wondered if I looked as hostile as he did.

At length, I responded, “Do you even know why you’re apologizing?”

“Yes.” Another growl.

“Why? Why are you apologizing?”

“Because I shouldn’t have left you when we got here. I should have kept you close me, and I shouldn’t have let Danielle close enough to touch me, not when I’m here with you.”

I frowned my confusion at his accurate listing of offenses. “This seems like a miraculously sudden apology.”

His jaw flexed. “Are you seriously going to give me shit about apologizing?”

I shook my head. “No. No I am not. I accept your apology. Thank you for apologizing.”

His eyes flickered between mine, then lowered to my mouth. “Now it’s your turn.”

“My turn?”

“Your turn to apologize.”

My eyebrows bounced an inch upward. “What am I apologizing for?”

“For always assuming I’m an asshole.”

It was my turn to stare at him while he filled the silence, his chin dipping toward mine, our mouths scant inches apart.

“I didn’t leave you because I was trying to be a jerk. I wanted to give you your space. I thought I’d circle back around and find you, prove that I trusted you. I don’t know how to be near you without being possessive because every time a guy looks at you I want to rip his head off. I’ve never come to a party with someone before, I don’t know girl-rules. This is new for me. And I wasn’t kissing Danielle. She kissed me and I pushed her away, you obviously didn’t stick around for the half second it took me to tell her I wasn’t interested.”

My mouth opened and closed. I was shocked. His words shocked me.

He wasn’t finished. “You promised me you would give this a try. But you’ve already made up your mind about me. Sitting down here, avoiding me isn’t trying. Seeing another girl kiss me and then walking away isn’t trying. Assuming the worst of me isn’t trying. Either you do this for real, or you break your promise. But don’t put this all on me. I’m not a fucking mind reader.”

I sputtered, perplexed, “Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I assumed the worst. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Apology accepted. Now kiss me.”


HEAT: Elements of Chemistry Part 2 releases April 30

Pre-order on Amazon: http://www.Microsoft Word/Penny-Reid/e/B00BI7A7SY/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Sneak Peek: Truth or Beard (Winston Brothers Series #1) by Penny Reid

(Release date July 23, 2015)



I PULLED INTO the Green Valley Community Center parking lot and scared the crap out of five senior citizens.

Though it was Halloween, frightening senior citizens was not on my agenda.

I’d dutifully stopped as they crossed in front of my vehicle. Unfortunately for everyone within earshot, the truck made a ghastly, high-pitched whining sound whenever it idled.

All five of them jumped, obviously startled, and glared at me as though I’d commanded the truck to make the screech on purpose. Soon their glares morphed into wrinkled squints of plain befuddlement as their eyes moved over my appearance from my perch. It took them a few minutes, but they recognized me.

Everyone knew me.

Nevertheless, I imagined they were not expecting to see Jessica James, the twenty-one year old daughter of Jeffrey James and sister of Jackson James, dressed in a long white beard sitting behind the wheel of an ancient Ford Super Duty F-350 XL.

In my defense, it wasn’t my monster truck. It was my mother’s. I was currently between automobiles, and she’d just upgraded to a newer, bigger, more intimidating model. Something she could plaster with bumper stickers that said, Have You Kissed Your Sheriff Today? and Don’t Drink and DERIVE, Alcohol and Calculus Don’t Mix, and Eat Steak!! The West Wasn’t Won With Salad.

As the local chief of police’s wife, mother to a police officer (my brother) and a math teacher (me), and the daughter of a cattle rancher, I think she felt it was her duty to use the wide canvas of her truck as a mobile pro-police, mathematics, and beef billboard.

After a few more moments of confused stares, the gang of seniors shuffled off toward the entrance to the community center, casting cautiously confused glances over their shoulders. As quickly as I could, I maneuvered the beast into a space at the edge of the lot. Since inheriting the truck I usually parked on the edge of parking lots so as not to be that jerk who drives an oversized vehicle and takes up two spaces.

I adjusted my beard, tossing the three-foot, white length over my shoulder, and grabbed my gray cape and wizard hat. Then I tried not to fall out of the truck or flash anyone on my hike down from the driver’s seat. Luckily, my costume also called for a long staff, and I leveraged the polished wood to aid my descent; the rest of my costume was negligible—a one-piece mini-skirt sheath with a low cut front—and made stretching and moving simple.

I was halfway across the lot, lost in delighted mental preparation for my father and brother’s scowls of disapproval, when I heard my name.

“Jessica, wait up.” I turned, found my coworker Claire jogging toward me. I set my wizard hat—which had a built-in wig—on my head and waved.

“I thought that was you. I saw the beard and the staff.” She slowed as she neared, her eyes moving over the rest of my costume. “You’ve made some… modifications.”

“Yes.” I nodded proudly, grinning at her warily amused expression. I noted that Claire hadn’t changed since work; she was still wearing an adorable Raggedy Ann costume. Lucky for her, she already had bright red hair and freckles. All she had to do was put her long locks in pig tails, add the overalls and white cap.

“Do you like what I’ve done?” I twisted to one side then the other to show off my new garment and the high-heeled strappy sandals.

“Are you still Gandalf? Or what are you supposed to be?”

“Yeah, I’m still Gandalf. But now I’m sexy Gandalf.” I wagged my eyebrows.

Claire covered her mouth with a white-gloved hand then snorted. “Oh my God! You are a nut!”

A sinister giggle escaped my lips. I’m not much of a giggler unless I’ve done something sinister. “Well, I couldn’t wear it to work. But I love the irony of it, you know? All those stupid Halloween costumes that women are expected to wear, like sexy nurse and sexy witch and sexy bee. I’ve actually seen a ‘sexy bee’ costume. Am I missing something? Is there a subset of men who get off thinking about pollinators?”

“I agree. You can’t wear the sexy Gandalf costume to work. In addition to being against the dress code, you’re already starring in the sex fantasies of all your male students as their hot calculus teacher. If you’d worn sexy Gandalf at school instead of regular Gandalf, I think they’d go home feeling confused about their sexuality.”

I laughed and shook my head, thinking how odd the last three months had been.

Like me, Claire was a native of Green Valley; also like me, she’d moved back to town after college. She’d become the band teacher during my senior year of high school. Now we were coworkers. With her gorgeous red hair, light blue eyes, and a strikingly beautiful face, during my senior year as well as now, she was labeled the hot music teacher.

She even had those awesome high cheekbones that magazines talk about, with the little hollow above the jaw. Add to her stunning good looks the most laid-back, kind, generous, and all-around talented person I’d ever met, she should have been in New York or Milan living the life of a muse or a model or a concert pianist.

But she had sad eyes.

Unlike me, she’d married her childhood sweetheart. Her husband, Ben McClure, had been a marine; he’d died overseas two years ago. Having no other family to speak of, I surmised that Claire was still living in Green Valley because she wanted to stay near his family.

I’d left home for college a content, albeit geektastic, invisible nobody. I didn’t marry my childhood sweetheart because I didn’t have one. But upon my return (just a short four years later), same school with the same social order and subsets, I’d now become a new stereotype.

I was the hot math teacher.

I’d never thought of myself as the hot anything.

I shivered as a gust of late autumn wind met my excess of bare skin.

“Come on,” Claire looped her arm through mine. “Let’s get inside before you freeze your beard off.”

I followed her into the old school building; as we neared I heard the telltale sounds of folk music drifting out of the open double doors.

It was Friday night, and that meant nearly every able-bodied person in a thirty-mile radius was gathering for the jam session at the Green Valley Community Center. As it was Halloween I noted the place had been decorated with paper skeletons, carved pumpkins, and orange and black streamers. The old school had been converted only seven years earlier, and the jam sessions started shortly thereafter.

Everyone in Green Valley would start their evening here. Even if it hadn’t been Halloween, married folks with kids would leave first, followed by the elderly. Then the older teenagers would go off, likely to Cooper’s field for a drunken bonfire. Those that were adult, unmarried, and childless would leave next.

When I was home last, four years ago, I was part of the Cooper’s field drunken bonfire subset, even though I never stayed long and never got drunk. Now I was clumsily and hesitantly trying to find my way in this new single adult subgroup as of September when I moved back to Green Valley after completing my bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee with a double major in mathematics and education.

Where each individual from the unattached adult cluster (to which I now belonged) ended the evening would depend heavily on that person’s personal goals. If the goal was to have good, clean fun, then you typically went to Genie’s Country Western bar for dancing and darts. If the goal was to get laid, then you typically went to the Wooden Plank*, a biker bar just on the edge of town. If the goal was to get laid and cause trouble, then maybe get laid again, then you went to the Dragon Biker bar, several miles outside of town and home of a biker club named the Iron Order.

Or, if you were like me and the goal was to grade a week’s worth of calculus assignments, then you went home, put on flannel PJs, and turned on The Lord of the Rings for background noise and glimpses of Viggo Mortensen being dreamy.

I spotted my father before he spotted me as a crowd had gathered; he was speaking animatedly to someone I could not see. My dad was standing at the table just inside the entrance to the old school where a big glass bowl had been placed to collect donations. He was, as always, wearing his uniform.

Claire stood on her tiptoes then tried leaning to the side to gauge the cause of the crowd. “Looks like they’re doing trick-or-treating. I see a bunch of kids in costume, and there’s a bucket of candy at the table.”

I nodded, glancing down one of the short hallways then the other. I noted that I only heard music coming from one room, but there was a mass of kids going in and out of the five classrooms, each with either a decorated pillow case or an orange plastic Jack O'Lantern bucket to hold their treats.

I leaned close to Claire to suggest we skip the line and make our donations later when my eyes snagged on a red-haired and bearded man coming out of one of the classrooms, holding the hand of a blonde little girl—not more than seven—dressed like Tinker Bell.

I felt a shock, a jolt from my throat, travel down my collarbone to my fingertips, weave through my chest and belly and hips and thighs. I lost my breath on a startled gasp. The shock was followed by a suffusion of spreading warmth and levels of intense self-consciousness—the magnitude of which I hadn’t experienced in years.

My eyes greedily traveled over every inch of him, dressed in blue Dickies coveralls that had been pulled off his sculpted torso, the long sleeves now tied around his waist to keep the pants portion from falling down; they were dotted with grease stains and dirt at the knee and cuff. He wore a bright white T-shirt and black work boots. His thick red hair was longish and askew, like he’d just run his fingers through it…or someone else had just run their fingers through it.

Beau Winston.

I knew it was Beau and not his twin Duane for three reasons. He was smiling at the little girl. Beau always smiled. Duane never smiled. Also, he appeared to be helping the little girl in some way. Beau was friendly and outgoing. Duane was moody, quiet, and sullen. And lastly, my body knew the difference. I’d always been reduced to a blubbering mess of teenage hormones at the sight of Beau. Duane, though identical in looks, did absolutely nothing for me.

My adolescent crush—nay, my adolescent obsession—was walking toward us, his attention focused solely on the child next to him. He looked like a ginger-bearded James Dean, only taller, broader, and a hell of a lot sexier. I think I forgot how to breathe.

“Jess,” I felt Claire nudge me with a sharp elbow, “Jessica, what’s wrong?”

I couldn’t pull my eyes away from Beau, from watching how he walked, how his hips moved, the way his T-shirt pulled over his pectoral muscles and was tight where the short sleeves ended at his biceps. I was all kinds of abruptly aroused.

Goodness gracious, I thought I might incinerate on the spot.

How some pre-teens lose their minds for Boy Bands, rock stars, and hot celebrities, I lost my marbles for Beau. It all started when he climbed a tree to save my cat. I was seven. He was ten. He kissed me on the cheek. He wiped my tears. He held my hand. He hugged me close.

He was my hero.

My infatuation with him was like a wound that re-opened every time I laid eyes on him. I wondered for a flash whether there was something truly wrong with me, whether there were other twenty-one year old women out there who still experienced a paralyzing avalanche of hot, raging lust at the sight of their first crush. Really, he was my only crush. Shouldn’t I have outgrown this by now?

My voice was a weak whisper, and my mouth was dry when I finally answered, tipping my head just slightly toward the pair. “That’s Beau Winston.”

There was a little pause, and I knew Claire was looking past me to where I’d indicated.

“No.” She squeezed my arm with hers. “No, that’s Duane Winston.”

I shook my head, forcing myself to look away from all his manly deliciousness, even though my heart protested wildly, and met Claire’s eyes. “No, that’s Beau.”

Claire’s mouth hooked to the side as she studied my features; I’m sure my face had gone mostly pink, a byproduct of being blessed with freckles and an insane, persistent crush on the nicest, sexiest, funniest guy in the world. I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was impressively flushed. Growing up, whenever I was in the same room with Beau, he had that effect on me. Full-on butterflies in the stomach and music only I could hear between my ears. It appeared some things never changed.

Growing up, every time I saw him I’d spend the next hour or day lost in a teenage love fog; duration depended on the length of time I’d spent in his presence, whether we’d spoken, and if he’d inadvertently touched me. I once went two days without washing my hand because he’d accidentally brushed it as he walked by.

“I’m telling you, that’s Duane. Beau’s hair is shorter.”

“Nope.” I shook my head again, more resolutely this time as I tried to regulate my breathing and body temperature. “I don’t go haywire around Duane. That must be Beau.”

In fact, I didn’t much like Duane. During the same episode that initiated and solidified my life-long adoration of Beau, my aversion for Duane had also been established. While Beau was climbing the tree to save my cat, Duane was throwing rocks at the branch. While Beau had been kissing my cheek, Duane had been mocking his brother.

I could tell Claire was trying not to laugh as she added, “Cripes, you weren’t kidding when you told me you had a crush on that boy. Is this the first time you’ve seen either of them since high school?”

“No. I saw Beau once at the Piggly Wiggly during my sophomore year when I was home for winter break. He was buying bacon and green beans, and I stood behind him in line.”

She stopped trying to hide her smile and grinned. “I bet you can recall the conversation word-for-word.”

I stared at her, wanting to deny it, but also not wanting to lie. She was right. I could recall the conversation word-for-word, action-for-action. He’d turned to me and asked if I’d mind passing him a gum package that was just out of his reach. I tried to shrug, but I’m sure it looked more like a minor seizure. Then I fumbled for the gum, accidentally knocking an array of breath mints to the floor.

He’d knelt and helped me pick up the felled mints, our hands touched, I almost fainted, and I was certainly bright red. Then he smiled at me. I almost fainted again. Then he helped me stand, and I almost had a heart attack.

He asked, “Hey, Jess… are you okay?” dipping his head close to mine, his amazing blue eyes all sparkly and lovely and concerned.

I nodded, not able to speak because his hands were still on my forearms, and gazed up at him. Butterflies and music only I could hear—that time it was Eternal Flame by the Bangles—drowned out the sound of his voice and the next words from his mouth. I did see that his lips curved in a barely-there smile as he studied me.

Then my brother Jackson appeared and ruined everything by telling Beau to mind his own business. Beau shrugged—an actual shrug, not a semi-seizure—and turned back to the cashier. He paid for his bacon and green beans and left.

I was such a doofus. Though I had introverted proclivities, I was not a shy person. I considered myself confident and levelheaded. But Beau Winston had always rendered me beyond completely tongue tied. He rendered me stupid.

Now, nearly three years since the last time I’d seen him, my hands were balled into fists, and I couldn’t quite force my fingers to relax. I could feel and hear the whooshing of blood through my heart and between my ears. I was, in a word, completely ridiculous.

Okay, that was two words. I was so ridiculous, I’d lost the ability to count.

“Jess, seriously…are you all right? Your face is turning bright red.” Claire squeezed my arm, drawing my attention away from the sound of my blood pressure.

“Yeah.” I knew I sounded weak. “Just let me know when he’s gone.”

“You’re not going to talk to him?”

I shook my head quickly.

Her nose wrinkled; her eyes flicking over my shoulder briefly, presumably to his approaching form; she squeezed my arm again. “Honey, most of those Winston boys are nice boys. Why don’t you talk to him?”

“Because I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No. Really. I can’t.” I felt my eyes widen to their maximum diameter. “I’ve never successfully carried on a conversation with Beau Winston. Every time I try to speak it’s like my brain forgets English, and I start slurring Swahili or Swedish or Swiss.”

“The people of Switzerland don’t speak Swiss. They speak German, French, Italian, and Romansh.”

“See? I’m becoming dumber with each second.”

I sucked in a breath because I could hear his voice now; he was speaking to the little girl, and the sound was so fantastically adorable and sexy it caused my stomach to pitch then lurch like I was in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. I placed my hand over my belly and braced my feet apart.

When he entered my peripheral vision, my attention was drawn to him like a magnet. He was still smiling, but it was smaller, polite. He was handing the little girl off to a lady I recognized as Mrs. Macintyre, the lead librarian at the local branch in town. I knew at once Tinker Bell must be her granddaughter.

She said something about a chicken or a rooster. He said something in response. They laughed. I stared, letting the velvety sound wash over me. Once again I was caught on a big wave in the middle of the ocean—pitch, lurch.

Then it happened. His eyes flickered to the side, likely feeling my stalker stare, and he did a double take, his gaze ensnaring mine. My throat worked without success, and I was a lava field of suffused heat and awareness. His stare narrowed just slightly as I continued to meet his gaze.

God, I was such a creeper.

I wanted to look away, but I physically couldn’t. He so rarely looked at me, I felt like I was falling, my surroundings fading away—everything except him and his blue, blue, blue eyes.

Annoyingly, the music only I could hear whenever he was near started playing between my ears—this time it was Dreamweaver by Gary Wright—therefore I missed the sound of his voice when he said, “Hey, Jessica.” Instead, I surmised what he’d said based on the movement of his lips and subsequently tried my best to turn down the volume in my head.

I nodded at him, still not able to look away.

Then, horrified, I watched as he excused himself from Mrs. Macintyre and Tinker Bell and walked to where I was standing with Claire. I swayed a little, took a step backward as he advanced; Claire slipped her arm through mine and fit herself against my side. She probably thought I was going to either faint or make a run for it.

Unfortunately, I managed neither by the time he made it to where we were standing.

“Hey…Beau.” Claire said, the hesitation in her voice obvious. “You are Beau, right? Or are you Duane?”

He gave us a crooked smile that looked completely adorable and mischievous, his eyes darting between us. “You can’t tell the difference?”

Claire returned his smile with a small one of her own. Beau’s charm was contagious and addictive; I’d once overheard my daddy tell my momma that the six Winston boys had inherited their father’s ability to charm snakes, the IRS, and women.

I was also smiling, although mine probably looked dazed and weird. I was thankful for the long gray beard around my mouth. I hoped it camouflaged my expression of worshipful adoration.

“I’m pretty sure you’re Duane,” Claire said, then indicated me with a tilt of her head. “But Jess thinks you’re Beau.”

His eyes moved back to mine—somehow more intense, interested, piercing than they’d been before—and he swept me up and down once again. On the return pass I saw what I thought might be appreciation, and that’s when I remembered I was wearing my ironic sexy Gandalf costume, which basically hid nothing except my face and hair.

It hadn’t occurred to me until that very moment that someone might look at me, my curves in this scrap of fabric, and see more sexy than irony.

“What’s this costume, Jessica? Are you a wizard?” His lips tugged to the side, but his tone deepened when he added, “I like it.”

The tenor of his voice paired with the words sent a jolt of racing through my body. I gripped Claire tighter to keep from sinking to the floor.

“She’s sexy Gandalf. She was going to be a sexy bee, but the shop sold out of pollinator costumes.”

Beau laughed—a sound that, for reasons unknown, I felt in my uterus—and reached for the beard at my navel. The back of his fingers brushed against my stomach as he plucked the length of synthetic facial hair from my inconsequential sheath of a costume.

“The beard adds a certain something…” He tugged just gently and winked at me.

Of course, my response was to stare at him mutely because my first impulse was to dry hump his leg. Some odd little corner of my brain briefly thought about the logistics of wearing this long white beard always, every day.

“Hey, if you tug her beard, she gets to tug yours,” Claire teased.

His smile growing, the redhead stepped forward and into my space, his eyes at half-mast as they glittered down at me. “Go ahead, Jessica…Touch it.”

His nearness stole my breath.

I could smell him, and it just made me want to…want to…want to touch every inch of him. Tie him up and grab and squeeze and feel and bite and lick and suck and listen as he moaned my name. I wasn’t this person; I didn’t have these kinds of thoughts about anyone but Beau Winston. He brought out the horny hare in me.

Beau’s eyes seemed to flicker then flare as though he could read my thoughts; they dropped to my lips.

Yeah. I was definitely going to dry hump his leg. That was going to happen in 3, 2…

“I am so sorry about your momma, son.” A voice to my right and his left pulled our attention away from each other. We both turned our heads to find Mr. McClure, our local fire chief and Claire’s father-in-law, standing there with his hand outstretched. Beau looked down at it and then, taking a step away from me, accepted the offered hand as the man continued. “She was a good woman, and she’ll be missed.”

I shook myself a little, a spark of sobriety cutting its way through Dreamweaver. The Winstons had just lost their mother not more than four weeks ago. Bethany Winston was only forty-six. It was very sad and had been quite sudden. I hadn’t gone to the funeral as I was sick with flu, but apparently everyone else in town had shown to pay their respects to Mrs. Winston, her six sons, and her daughter.

“Thank you, sir.” Beau nodded once. The heat of his earlier expression was now extinguished, replaced with a tight-lipped smile and a shuttered gaze.

Mr. McClure nodded at Beau, then turned to Claire and me. He greeted us warmly, stepping forward to give Claire a kiss on the cheek. During this intermission, I felt Beau’s eyes follow my movements. I gave myself a mental high five for keeping my attention on Claire’s father-in-law, even though I really, really wanted to just stare at Beau.

After hellos were exchanged, Mr. McClure narrowed his eyes at Claire, “Claire, did you lock your car?”

I thought it was cute how Mr. McClure looked after Claire like she was his daughter, it warmed my heart.

She nodded, her lips curved in a warm and patient smile, “Yes, sir. I locked my car.”

To my surprise, Mr. McClure swung his blue eyes to me, “Jessica, did you lock your car?”

I blinked at him, caught off guard, and glanced at Claire.

“There’s been some thefts,” Claire explained, “and not just tourists, like usual. Jennifer Sylvester’s new BMW went missing last week.”

“Her momma told me she had a banana cake in the front seat, too.” Mr. McClure tsked, like the real crime was the loss of the banana cake, then he turned his attention back to Beau. “Your brothers here?”

“Yes, sir. Everyone but, uh…” his eyes flickered to mine then back to Mr. McClure. “Everyone but my twin.”

“I see…” He nodded, glancing down the hallway toward the sound of music. “I need to talk to Cletus about the transmission work he did.”

Beau stood a little taller. “Is there something wrong?”

Beau, Duane, and their older brother Cletus owned the Winston Brothers Auto Shop in town, hence the blue, grease-stained coveralls he currently donned. Cletus, son number three in the Winston family, was four years older than the twins but had always been a little…odd. Sweet, but odd.

As an example, he’d started attending my first period advanced placement calculus class two weeks ago. Apparently, he’d talked to my principal and had been cleared to sit in for the rest of the year.

The fire chief shook his head. “No, no. It’s not for my truck, son. It’s Red, the fire engine. He’s helping me get the old girl running again for the Christmas parade.”

“Ah. I see. Yeah, Cletus is playing his banjo.” Beau tossed his thumb over his shoulder. “Only one room is jamming so far tonight; I think everyone else is waiting until the trick-or-treating is over.”

Mr. McClure glanced in the direction Beau had indicated. “I’ll go sit in then and wait for a break.” He then turned a friendly smile to Claire and me. “Girls, I’d be honored to be your escort.”

Claire nodded for both of us; but before she could verbally accept the offer, Beau reached out and grabbed my arm lightning fast.

“Claire, you go on.” Beau pulled me away from my friend in a smooth motion. “I’d like to catch up with Jess. See y’all later.”

He didn’t wait for Claire or me to react.

Before I knew what was happening, he’d slipped his rough palm into mine, grasped my fingers, and turned toward the converted cafeteria, tugging me after him. I was so shocked by the sensation of his skin, the electric current running up my arm, that I could only follow mutely.

I loved the feel of him. In truth I was in danger of climbing him. I just wanted to be near him, touch him, snuggle against him. He was so epically enticing.

We wove through the crowd as I tried to memorize the feeling of his hand grasping mine. I had difficulty drawing breath; my stomach was an eruption of amorous butterflies. People said hi—to both him and to me—but we didn’t pause. I was his shadow as Beau led me to the buffet table; I dreaded reaching it because he would likely release me. To my surprise we kept on walking.

He didn’t glance back at me as we skirted around a table laden with lemonade and sweet tea, heading behind a curtain that ran the length of one wall—from ceiling to floor—and obscured a set of stairs leading to a small stage. The stage, likewise, was hidden by the curtain. Beau didn’t pause once we were up the steps or on the stage. Instead he continued tugging until he had me to one side, backstage, completely hidden by the curtain, around a corner, and behind a wall.

It was dark and my eyes required several seconds to adjust; likewise, my brain hadn’t yet caught up with where we were and how we’d arrived here, not to mention who I was with. A single light source overhead cast our surroundings in a grayish murkiness. Therefore, I nearly tripped over my own feet when Beau turned, his hands suddenly on my hips, and backed me into the wall.

I felt solid concrete behind me, Beau and all his gorgeousness looming before me, scant inches away. His glittering eyes ensnared mine. Then and only then did he stop.

I was so confused—really discombobulated was the word for it. This was like something out of my music video fantasies. (Did I forget to mention that my daydreams actually present themselves as music videos ala Paula Abdul’s Rush, Rush complete with glowing, imperfection-blurring lens filters?) Therefore I could only gaze up at him in wonder.

He leaned forward, and his forehead hit the rim of my hat. Scowling, he pulled it and the wig from my head.

“I like this costume,” he said in a low voice as his hands reclaimed their spot, his thumbs rubbing the area just above my hips like he was entitled to touch me and my body how he liked. The heat from his palms sent spiking shivers to my lower belly. “But I do not enjoy that hat.”

I’d known Beau for almost fifteen years, had dreamt of a moment like this since my earliest awkward stages of puberty. In all those fantasies, Beau had been sweet and slow, gentle and coaxing, patient. As well in my fantasies, nothing ever really happened. He’d kiss me, I’d feel warm and tingly. Basically they were the neutered fantasies of a young girl.

But Beau didn’t look patient now and he felt very, very real. Even in the murky dimness his eyes glittered like sapphires, like they possessed their own internal radiance. I thought mournfully of my plain brown irises and, like the weirdo I was, I hoped that our make-believe children would inherit his eyes.

His hands slid up my body then pushed my cape over my shoulders with a whisper-light touch. He removed the staff from my hands. I watched as Beau leaned it against the wall with care, his boots scuffing against the wooden floor.

“Jessica James, you’ve been giving me hot looks that are difficult to ignore.” He said this in a near growl, leaning a fraction of an inch closer.

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what a hot look was, what it meant, or how to make it on purpose. Regardless, I surmised my inadvertent hot looks were responsible for our alone time. Therefore, I mentally high-fived my hot looks. My heart twisted then leapt as he wet his bottom lip just before drawing the succulent flesh into his mouth, between his teeth, and biting.

That’s right, bite that lip.

I almost groaned.

I was maniacally and fiercely aroused, and I was completely ill-equipped to deal with these feelings. A broken hymen while horseback riding; a few inconsequential and forgettable gropings in high school and college; a drunken, laconic coupling in my dorm room with my physics lab TA last year. These were the pithy total of my sexual exploits.

In all honesty, I’d enjoyed the horse ride more than the man ride. At least the horse had been a stallion. Looking back, my lab TA was more like a Shetland pony—hairy and small.

Instinct told me to tackle Beau, maul him before he discovered his error and tousled my hair like I was still a twelve year old. At the very least, I’d made up my mind to force his mouth down to my chest. Nothing fantastic had ever happened to my nipples before. I was pretty sure I’d die a happy woman after Beau Winston did something fantastic to my nipples.

Speaking of nipples, I didn’t realize I’d brought Beau’s hand from my hip to my breast until hot sparks of desire radiated from where I pressed his palm against me, the only barriers between our skin my lace bra and the thin fabric of my sheath.

I didn’t know what I was doing. My experience was so lackluster, and in my fantasies we never made it to second base.

Beau stared at me, his mouth parted in stunned surprise. His eyebrows jumped, and his eyes widened at my forward gesture. I arched forward, again without consciously meaning to, straining to close the distance between our bodies, wanting to feel his hard against my soft.

And then I learned what a hot look was.

Because Beau Winston was giving me a hot look.

I wanted to label it as incendiary, but as it was the first hot look I’d ever been aware of receiving, I decided instead to make his hot look the baseline by which all other hot looks would be measured.

I didn’t get much time to mull over what units of measurement I would apply to hot looks—would it be Celsius? Calories? Watts? Or voltage?—because Beau did four things, driving all thought and ability to reason from my brain.

First, he tugged my beard off my face and over my head.

Second, his fingers at my breast worked, massaged, and caressed while his thumb brushed over the nipple. His hand felt greedy, rough, and fantastic.

Third, his free hand reached around, gripped my bottom, and squeezed as he brought me against him.

Fourth, he kissed me.

And, oh God, parts of me tensed, clenched, braced in a completely new way, a way that made no sense at all, but sent all the amorous butterflies diving straight to my pelvis and heat to my lungs. I was abruptly starring in the music video for Beyonce’s Naughty Girl and desperately trying to figure out how to get all Beau’s clothes off.

He dominated, pushing me against the wall, his hands under my sheath, on the bare skin of my hips then into my lace underwear, grabbing my bare ass. Nothing about him was soft. He was hard edges, solid granite everywhere I touched. And I touched him. I touched him in a fevered frenzy because I didn’t know what the hell was going on or when it would stop. I hoped never. Peripherally, I heard my wizard’s staff clatter to the ground.

I’d always thought of Beau as a really, really nice guy. But he didn’t kiss like a nice guy. He kissed with dangerous and punishing hunger, his mouth greedy and demanding. He bit me, my bottom lip, then soothed and tasted the abused flesh with his tongue while grinding his hips against mine, his hard length growing against my belly.

“Fuck, Jess…” He growled, pulled his mouth from mine, his breathing labored. He bent to bite my jaw, lick my ear, suck the soft skin into his hot mouth while one hand pushed my little gray dress up to expose my breasts. The fingers of his other hand danced around the hem of my panties but moved no further. I felt his hesitation and I clawed him. I dug my nails into his shoulders and bucked instinctively, wanting him to touch me.

In response he tugged the cup of my bra down. Then his wet mouth was on the center of my breast. Then his tongue swirled over my nipple as a tortured-sounding moan rumbled in the back of his throat. Then I panted because it was fantastic.

I reached for his white shirt, drawing him closer, then roughly pulled it off. He acquiesced as my fingertips fumbled for the hem of his boxers then delved into his pants. My hand closed around his hard length, and he sucked in a startled-sounding breath, releasing it raggedly as I stroked him.

“Oh, God...” he breathed, his eyes moving back to mine. I’d expected to find them dazed with desire, instead he looked a little shocked, panicked even. “Wait, wait a minute.”

He reached for my wrist, and I saw his intentions clear as day. We were moving too fast. He was going to put on the brakes.

But the thing was, I didn’t want brakes. I wanted acceleration. I wanted velocity. I wanted reckless, heedless, crazy, passionate sex with Beau. And I wanted it right now, against this wall, at the Green Valley Community Center, while children trick-or-treated and Mrs. Sylvester traded recipes for blueberry muffins, ignorant to the fervent and erotic moment on the other side.

I stroked him again, pressing my chest to his and lifting on my tiptoes to bite his neck. He shuddered, moaned, his hips instinctively jutting forward and into my palm even as his fingers tightened around my wrist and gently tried to force my withdrawal.

Instead I rubbed my body against his, my thumb circling the head of his erection. With my other hand I brought his fingers back to my panties, pressing them against my center, and nipped at his parted lips.

His breathing was labored, and he moaned again, cursing. His eyes were squeezed shut like he was trying to separate himself from what was happening, like he was trying to strengthen his resolve, like he was losing control.

Abruptly, and with an audible growl, he yanked my hand out of his boxers and turned, walking ten steps further backstage and away from me.

I felt the loss of his heat first, then the loss of his touch. I didn’t try to pursue him because I felt dizzy and disoriented and out of breath. Instead I leaned against the wall at my back, closing my eyes, my body humming and protesting the loss of promised comprehensive sexual fulfillment. I don’t know how long I stood there, gulping air and trying to figure out what had just happened and why it ended.

“Goddammit…” I heard him say, again like a growl. His voice closer than I’d expected.

I opened my eyes and found him standing a few feet away, shirtless, hands on his hips. His chest visibly rose and fell as he breathed. His gaze flickered over my body then to the floor of the stage. Numbly, I adjusted my bra to conceal my breasts and tugged my tiny dress down to my thighs even as I allowed myself to devour his muscled torso, the ridges of his stomach, the plane of his hard chest.

“Jessica, you have got to stop looking at me like that.” He sounded irritated, desperate, catching me off guard and pulling my eyes back to his.

I was surprised to find that his teeth were clenched, his eyes flashing; however, despite the fact that he’d just reprimanded me for how I was looking at him, Beau was giving me an extremely hot look. Regardless of his words and the fact that he’d been the one to end our frantic grope-fest, he appeared torn. He appeared to be struggling.

He appeared to want me very, very badly.

I stared at him mystified as this realization paired with the reality of the last twenty minutes caught up with the here and now. He was watching me as I was watching him. My stare was undoubtedly one of inviting and anxious expectation; whereas his glare oscillated between blatant desire peppered heavily with longing and then fierce frustration.

I waited silently, witnessed his resolve waver, his eyes lose focus as they moved beseechingly between mine. He was still breathing hard.

He took a step forward as though he were pulled, stumbling in a daze, had no choice; words tumbled from his lips in a rush, “Jessica, I’m not who you think I am and—fuck me—but I want you, I’ve always wanted you, and I can’t do this without you knowing—”

“Duane, you dummy. Are you back here?” A man called from my left, and I heard the telltale sound of boots on steps.

My eyes bulged. My jaw dropped. My breath caught in my throat. And my head whipped to the side and toward the newcomer.

It wasn’t that I feared getting caught in a heated moment, not at all. The cause of my intense shock was the sound of the approaching voice.

It was Beau’s voice.

The steps slowed, then stopped, Beau once more calling out to us, “Should I… uh, do you need some privacy?”

My body jolted as understanding punched me in the stomach. I turned my attention back to the man of my dreams.

Except he wasn’t.

My companion was most definitely not Beau Winston—hero, world’s sexiest, nicest guy. No, no, no. This man was not Beau. This man was Duane. And this man had just done fantastic things to my nipples.


Truth or Beard (Winston Brothers Series #1) releases July 23