include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Natalie's Wedding (The Bridesmaid's Checklist series) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.

Praise for The Bridesmaid’s Checklist



“While this looks like a story about how to put on a friend’s wedding it is also a story about personal growth… Nice HEA with a cliff-hanger ending.”

Mixed Book Bag



“Ms. Castle wrote a great contemporary romance (with a hint of spice/kink) that just so happens to have characters that fit the NA age bracket. I adored this book… Kass and Josh are perfect for each other… This is a great start to a series about friends and the post-college years.”

Harlie’s Books



“I would recommend it to a lover of contemporary romance and it’s a great start to a new series.”

Romance Authors That Rock



“Bridezillas, ex-boyfriends, and Bora Bora. Oh, my! … A quick read with humor and a sweet romance.”

Up ‘til Dawn Book Blog



“K.T. Castle weaves an intriguing new adult romance tale that sheds a whole new light on the crazy dynamics of friendships, romance, and wedding planning… The Bridesmaid's Checklist: Laura's Wedding is an enjoyable romance tale that will leave a smile on your face.”

Jersey Girl Book Reviews

By K.T. Castle

Copyright

The Bridesmaid’s Checklist

Copyright © 2018 by K.T. Castle

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.



Editing by Kathrin Hutson

Cover design by Victor Alberto Rivera

Photographs: model by Elias Portes; front and back cover by Pixabay in Pexels.

Book design by K.T. Castle Books

First publication July 2018.



This book is a work of fiction. Any names, events, people, incidents, and places are product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, places or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Ebooks are not transferable. All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced, transmitted, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without prior written permission of the author. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyright work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without permission.



This book will be cataloged with the Library of Congress.

Thank you for you for reading this ebook.

Find out about art, exclusive content, and updates by following K.T. Castle on social media and joining her mailing list.

Click here to learn more.



Dedication

Dedicated to those who have suffered and those who stand next to them, cheering them back into comfort and hope.

Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Author’s Notes

About the Author

Also by the Author

Chapter 1

Whenever a friend of mine dropped for a quick visit, it was always a nice surprise. Having Natalie for dinner was no different. She was a lovely woman, always doing her best to make everyone around her happy and comfortable. I thought she was even more beautiful on the inside than she was on the outside, and that was hard to top. With blonde hair, sky-blue eyes, and a smile so bright, she had a way of making people happy to comply with whatever she asked. But tonight, her charming smile didn’t illuminate her face. If I really thought about it, her smile hadn’t been the same for a while. Now I understood why.

“Why would you say that, Nat?” I couldn’t understand what she’d just told me.

“Because it’s true, Kassie.” Her shoulders fell as she exhaled what she believed was true. “I know it’s hard to believe. I couldn’t believe it myself, but I reached the point where there’s no denying it anymore. He’s definitely having an affair.”

She seemed so heartbroken. Her wide eyes glanced around the house as if she were lost, apparently finding it difficult to concentrate on any given point. She slouched as if in defeat, her hair seemed dull pulled back in a painful ponytail, but most of all, her sad smile seemed forced, so out of place on her face. She seemed so lonely sitting on my kitchen counter stool, regardless of whether or not if Josh and I were there with her. When did this happen? Why didn’t I notice before? I quickly moved to her side and held her in a tender hug with no idea what to say. I didn’t want to believe that Andrik could possibly put her through that. He was always so protective of her, looking after her every need. He was hands down the most decent man I’d ever met.

There had to be some sort of mistake.

“Natalie, do you think you could’ve made a mistake?” Josh sat next to us by the kitchen counter. He and I had been about to have one of our in-home dinner dates when Natalie showed up at our place. Naturally, we invited her to join us. What we didn’t count on was the bitter aftertaste her news had left in both our mouths. “Andrik would never cheat on you.”

Natalie and Andrik had always been the most stable couple out of my group of friends. They weren’t the first to get married—that had been Denise and Clay—but they’d been next in line. It had surprised us all a little when Nat decided to marry a man so many years her senior; Andrik was actually her mother’s age. But everything about them had always been so natural, so organic. They seemed to belong to one another from very beginning of their relationship. I wasn’t any more ready to see that change.

I wish that were true, Josh,” she told him.” But I’m positive that’s what’s happening.” Her voice trembled with emotion, her eyes red, and her hand felt clammy and cold in mine.

“That makes no sense,” Josh insisted. “He’d never do something like that.”

She laughed a little, more as a defense mechanism than humor, and it came out lifeless and sad. Staring at the dark marble of our counter, she traced the intrinsic pattern with her fingers. “How can you be so sure, Josh? You don’t know him that well.”

“I know him enough,” Josh answered with certainty. He leaned over the counter, holding himself up with his arms and hovering too close for Natalie’s comfort. “He’s crazy about you. He would never do something to hurt you.”

Well, he sure is hurting me right now.” Natalie had never liked confrontation, and Josh’s questioning certainly didn’t seem to help. She held herself in a protective hug, her eyes now fixated on our floor as she avoided eye contact with either one of us.

“Why? How is he hurting you?” Josh insisted, changing his position now to stand right in front of her, his arms crossed before his broad chest. Somehow, I needed to get him to back off. Natalie never could stomach having all her feelings out on display; she preferred suffering in silence. Knowing that, it made sense why she hadn’t mentioned anything before. If she was here now, letting us know, it was because she needed a shoulder to cry on, not someone to make her spill her guts out.

There’s a lot of things going on, Josh.” Natalie still couldn’t look at him, making an effort to lift her head and meet his gaze only for a second before she turned away again. She sounded exhausted and desperate, her voice pained and weak.

“Name one—”

“Josh, babe,” I interrupted as I slowly breached between them, lightly pushing Josh away and wrapping my arm around my friend. “Could you please open another bottle of wine? I think we could use a drink.”

“Kass, I don’t—”

“Well, I think Nat needs a minute,” I said. Then she started crying against me, hiding her face from us. “You could use a breather, too.”

“Sure.” He exhaled as he looked at Natalie behind me, obviously aware now that he’d pushed her to the precipice without realizing it. He scratched the back of his head and took two steps toward the wine cellar, then gently placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Nat. I just can’t fucking believe it. This is so messed up.”

I gave her a minute to calm down and compose herself. I needed it, so I was sure she needed it, too; it was heart-shattering to see her this upset. I went around the counter and grabbed some tissue to offer her. It occurred to me to go to the bathroom to grab an actual box of Kleenex, but I didn’t want to leave her alone or for Josh to come back before I did.

He didn’t take long, coming back with a new bottle of wine and some sparkling water just in case. Natalie had mentioned she was going to pick up her daughter from her mother’s after visiting us, and I could only assume he wanted to give her another option.

Ella was almost one year old—a little cherub. It was easy to fall in love with her curiosity and never-ending supply of smiles and laughter. So far, she was a perfect replica of Natalie, and she’d been so wanted. Natalie had dreamed about her even before she married Andrik, and once they started their life together, it became Natalie’s mission to make that daughter in her dream a reality.

I held Natalie in my arms as she silently cried against my chest. Josh offered her some more tissues to dry her eyes, and she accepted them, pulling herself from my arms and grabbing her now full glass of wine. “I probably shouldn’t drink. I won’t be able to drive.”

I’ll take you home if you’d like,” Josh offered without hesitation.

“That’ll be nice.”

“You could definitely stay here too if you’d rather spend the night with us,” I added. I didn’t know if it was something she needed, but I had to make sure she knew she had other options.

“That just feels like running away.”

“Sometimes, taking a break from reality is exactly what we need,” Josh commented. He stepped up beside her as I sat on the stool next to her, and he put a hand on her shoulder. As soon as his arm wrapped around her, she gave a slow nod of agreement. I didn’t know if it was Josh’s protectiveness making her agree with him, but what I knew for sure was that she’d come to our house for just that kind of break—though Josh and I had had no idea at first. “Sorry about before,” he added.

“I’m sorry for showing up and having a huge meltdown,” Natalie replied as she held my hand.

“You’re always welcome here.” I gave her hand a squeeze to emphasize my point. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

What do you want, Nat?” Josh asked.

“I think… I need another spring roll.”

“Have as many as you like.”

“There’s just no fucking way Andrik’s sleeping around on Nat. No way!” I’d heard Josh say the same thing several different ways on our drive home. He not-so-gently gripped the steering wheel of his Challenger.

I know. I can’t believe it, either.” I was running out of replies, and I had no idea how to make him feel better, seeing as since I struggled with it myself. Honestly, I was more worried about Natalie than anything else. I’d only seen her that upset one other time, when she told us she couldn’t have children. All her life, she’d wished for the perfect family and somehow, against all odds, became a mother with the best husband in the world. The possibility of Andrik hurting her so deeply and taking away her dream seemed surreal.

“I’m sure it’s some sort of misunderstanding.” Josh couldn’t let it go. “You have to make Nat talk to him. He isn’t an asshole. He worships the ground she walks on. It makes no fucking sense.”

I’ll check on her tomorrow,” I said. “Tell the rest of the girls about it. Natalie needs us.” I rubbed my pant legs, my hands feeling cold and unpleasantly damp.

“But make sure she talks to her husband.” He gave me a determined stare before looking back at the road. “Andrik isn’t that kind of man. I wouldn't be surprised if Ed had a fling on the side, but not Andrik. Never him.”

What makes you so sure?” His words surprised me. Edward was his best friend, and Josh had no problem picturing him cheating on his wife. Why couldn’t Andrik cheat on Nat? He’d cheated before; in fact, he’d cheated on his previous wife with Nat, and that was how they fell in love. He’d been married before he broke his wedding vows and ultimately left his family to begin a new one with my friend. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t discard the possibility that he’d do it again.

There’s just something about the way he looks at her. It’s so obvious how much he loves her. He’s still in love with her. I’m just sure.” Josh switched gears angrily, and I was afraid he’d wreck the clutch and not even notice. He’d regret that later. “It’s like when you told me you thought Dzed was cheating on Babbah.”

“Shut the hell up!” What did my grandparents have to do with anything?

Exactly! Not fucking believable.” He shook his index finger at the windshield before slamming his hand bitterly back down on the wheel.

“Why do you have to use my grandparents as an example?”

I couldn’t use any of our parents.” He shrugged. Josh’s mother had raised him on her own, and my parents had died when I was five. While our families weren’t the best illustration, I still held onto the greatest memories of my parents as a couple. “I’m sorry, babe,” he added. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m so fucking shocked.”

“I couldn’t tell.” I chuckled softly and rolled my eyes. “And I feel the same way. I just don’t understand why you feel so strongly about this.”

“I really like them. They’ve been kind of an example to me. I look at them, and that’s the kind of life I want with you.” Josh moved his hand from the wheel to take mine. “Of course, it’s nice that there’s not such a big age gap between us.” He winked at me, then let out a long, slow breath. “I guess I also feel really protective of Nat. She’s too sweet. I don’t want her to hurt, especially since I consider her our personal cupid. We might not be together if it wasn’t for her.”

It surprised me that he felt the same way as I did about my friend’s support of our relationship. Natalie had cheered us on from the very beginning. She’d always made little remarks about how Josh was the perfect man for me, even when I was in total denial. She’d been his champion whenever we were all in the same room. When I turned the other way, she kept pushing him toward me, and she never gave up. Even if she asked us not to interfere, I owed her whatever help I could give to save her marriage.

We’d left late to pick up Ella and take her and Natalie home, and when we finally got back to our house, I was exhausted. What I really needed was a long bath before bed, and I’d work on figuring out how to help Natalie—without hurting her even more—in the morning. She’d torture herself endlessly if she waited too long to talk to Andrik about what was going on.

Josh parked in front the house, not bothering with the garage. As he turned off the engine, I let myself out and went to unlock the front door. Once I’d stepped inside the wooden entryway, I felt his hands on my waist, and he turned me around to face him, pressing me against the wall with his body. He pressed his lips against mine, working his magic and leaving me sore. Eager hands roamed my body until they found their way to my neck. Josh held my face tenderly, making me feel precious, needed. Then the kisses that had quickly made me forget about my friend’s situation abruptly stopped. Josh’s forehead rested against mine, both of us breathing heavily.

“I can see the gears turning in your head,” he said. “I know you’re trying to figure out a way to help Natalie. And while I’m nothing but supportive, I want you to remember something.” He pulled back a little, his deep gray eyes gazing intently into mine. “I love you, Kass. You’re everything to me.”

“I love you, too.”

“I just need you to know that. Whatever’s going on with Natalie and Andrik is upsetting and sad, and I really hope it isn’t true. The only thing I know for sure is how much I love you. How much I want you.”

Anything I could have said would have just repeated what he’d already told me. Instead of telling him how much I loved him back, I showed him the best way I knew how.

I jumped into his arms and wrapped my legs firmly around his waist, my lips seeking his to continue their previous assault. I’d always found it easier to communicate with my body what I couldn’t voice. I kissed his neck and could almost feel his eyes roll to the back of his head in pleasure. It gave him time to say, “I know it’s totally selfish, but I don’t want to worry about our friends tonight.”

I pulled my lips away from the soft skin of his neck, where I’d felt his heartbeat pulsing, and leaned back to look at him. “Take me upstairs,” I said, a little breathless. “I want to show you exactly how I feel about you.”



Chapter 2

In one of the most exclusive cities in Los Angeles county, Natalie pulled into the driveway, exhausted. She and Andrik had favored Calabasas, wanting to be surrounded by wealthy residents and gated neighborhoods. She never pictured herself returning to a dark and empty house, but lately, it seemed to always be that way. She missed Josh and Kassandra’s company already.

Kassie had been one of her best friends for longer than she could remember. She’d been the first person Natalie told when she got her first kiss, had sex for the first time, fell in love, decided to marry, and finally got pregnant. Kassie was the only person she thought of when she wanted to tell someone about her imminent failure as a wife. Natalie hadn’t stopped for a moment to consider that Josh would be there, but his presence had been comforting in a way—even if he refused to believe Andrik was having an affair.

She and Josh had become fairly close friends since the first time they met, and she’d almost instantly realized his true intentions with Kassandra. Kassie had been stubborn enough not to admit how much she was into Josh, and Nat was there to help them out a little. She knew they were meant to be together, and she’d always been happy for them. Even now, her friends had offered to take her to her mother’s house to pick up the baby.

Natalie parked the SUV in their garage and carried her daughter inside. When she’d first picked up Ella from her mother’s house, her daughter had been so full of energy. Thankfully, the drive home had done the trick and put the active little girl to sleep. Inside, she stopped to turn on the entryway light, then found herself turning on almost every lamp to try to bring some life into the gloomy house, stopping once she reached her daughter’s gray and pink room. Natalie had hired the best decorator in the city to give Ella a beautiful nursery, easily transformable into a girly room as her daughter grew. Now with Ella in her crib and the monitor on, she could go to her room and think about the best way to approach her husband. Not that she’d thought about much else for the last few days.

Taking a shower to wash off the long, emotional day didn’t have the desired effect. She couldn’t relax; she didn’t feel better. Knowing her husband would be home late again “because of work” didn’t exactly put her mind at ease, either. Andrik was a hard worker—he had been when they met—and it was one of the reasons she loved him as much as she did. She wouldn’t expect anything else. She also knew how demanding his job was. Once upon a time, that job had come in particularly handy when they’d decided to start a life together.

Andrik was an extremely successful divorce attorney. In a place like Los Angeles, dissolution of marriages was an everyday occurrence. Some ex-couples were lucky enough to settle in the office after several meetings, and others needed to go to court. Andrik’s clients were usually far too wealthy to allow for any scandal, but sometimes, the press interference and the money involved made a circus of a very intimate legal situation. When millions of dollars were in dispute, people showed hidden sides of their personality in quite a different light.

Natalie wondered if something of the sort would happen to them. It had certainly happened with Andrik’s previous wife.

The sharp sound of the door closing helped Natalie leave the past and concentrate on the present. Andrik was home, and she’d decided that tonight, she’d confront him about his recent unusual behavior. Maybe Josh was right. Maybe he wasn’t cheating on her. Either way, she had to know exactly what was going on.

“Oh, hi, honey. I didn’t expect you to be awake,” Andrik said. He entered their bedroom and placed his suit jacket on the chair by the door, not bothering to hang it on one of the cedar hangers in their walk-in closet. “It’s late, sweetie. Aren’t you tired?”

I wanted to see you before I went to bed. You’ve been so busy lately that if I don’t wait up for you, I might never see you.” She sat on her side of her bed, pretending to look at one of her fashion magazines.

I know,” he replied. “I’ve been so busy with that model’s case, I haven’t had much time for anything else.” One of his new clients was in the process of divorcing a movie star. The supermodel had been naive enough not to sign a prenup, and now that her career was more successful than her spouse’s, she was looking at losing a lot of money. “We want to hurry and solve everything up before the media gets a hold of the story.” Andrik walked toward his wife and placed a tender kiss on her lips, quickly leaving her side to move around the bed.

“I see.” Natalie didn’t care about the skinny bitch and her problems. She wanted her husband to herself, and to hell with everyone else. She placed the magazine on her side table and said, “Let’s go downstairs, and you can tell me about it. I can fix you some dinner.”

“You’re sweet, but talking about the case isn’t exactly what I want to do.” He loosened his silk tie, pulled it over his head, and let it fall to the carpet under his feet. “I want to shower and get some rest. One of the paralegals already brought everyone dinner. I don’t feel like anything else.”

“Oh, I see.” A paralegal had brought him dinner—a leggy young woman who was probably serving him dessert, too. “I could bring you a nightcap while you take a shower. Whiskey, bourbon… I could even have some Irish cream myself and join you.”

“I’d rather not drink this late. I’ve got a really early start tomorrow,” he said, sitting on the mattress, his back to her.

Natalie felt her husband slipping through her fingers, and she didn’t like it at all. He continued their short conversation as he unbuttoned his shirt. “I’ll just shower and go to bed. You should do the same, sweetheart.”

Natalie crawled across the bed on her knees to reach for the collar of his custom-made dress shirt and pulled it down off his shoulders. Andrik exhaled when his skin was bare, and Natalie placed her small hands on his back. Delicately, she massaged his neck, doing her best to release some of the tension in his shoulders. To her surprise, he actually allowed her to take care of him, which distracted her from her original mission. Now, she thought of where this massage might lead tonight.

She missed her husband—physically. Maybe the distance she felt between them was just due to their dry spell. Maybe by initiating a sensual moment, everything would be better. Maybe talking wasn’t the answer, and they needed to make love instead.

With that in mind, Natalie moved her delicate hands down his shoulders and arms, placing her lips on the taut skin of his neck. Her mouth left a wet trail of kisses as she tended to his tense muscles, and she felt Andrik relax under her warm ministrations. It gave her the encouragement she needed.

For the first time in months, she slid her hands down his chest and felt the definition of muscles beneath her fingertips—the light patch of hair guiding her touch down his stomach. Her breasts firmly pressed against his back, and the sensation of his bare skin against her thin satin nightgown made her nipples harden in excitement. As she pressed her lips to his neck, her hands slid farther down to first unbuckle his belt, then unfasten his pants.

“Natalie, stop,” Andrik said softly. “I told you I’m tired.” He grabbed her hand and placed it on the bed next to him. Even though he didn’t let go of it, it was enough of a rejection to stop her.

I know, honey. But I thought I could kiss you for a little. You know, make you feel good and help you relax.” They’d been married for six years, but she was still too shy to tell her husband she wanted to suck him dry, as Laura would have put it. She wanted nothing more than to please her husband and in doing so also find her own pleasure. “You don’t have to do anything. I’ll do all the work.”

“It’s unnecessary, Natalie. I don’t feel like it tonight.”

Or any other night, she thought. Natalie couldn’t remember the last time her husband had been inside her in any way. “I just thought… Maybe you and I could… We haven’t done it for a while, Andrik. I thought it would be nice to make love tonight.”

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m too tired for sex.” Andrik’s words made her throat tighten. “But I could fool around a bit and make you come quickly if you want.”

Being fingered for a quickie just so he could go to sleep that much faster held no appeal at all. Natalie wanted her husband, wanted the relationship they had before Ella was born, before she got pregnant. Then she realized that the last time they’d had quality sex was the night they’d conceived Ella. Had bearing and birthing his child erase any attraction he’d had for her before?

As if on cue, their baby girl started crying, her voice blaring through the monitor. “I guess Ella needs you, Natalie.” He sounded tired, even if his body seemed completely awake. “I’ll take a shower while you’re with her, and I’ll try to stay up until you get back.”

Natalie felt cold after he stood up from the bed they shared every night. His warmth had left her again, and there was nothing she could do about it—unless she decided to let Ella cry herself back to sleep. Then she could join her husband in the shower to show him how much she really wanted him—needed him. But she couldn’t do that to his daughter, and he’d made it perfectly clear how uninterested he was in her.

She walked to the baby’s room, where Ella sat in her crib, crying. Her daughter immediately raised her hand as she saw her mother approach, making it perfectly clear how much she needed her. Natalie went to her and whispered a few sweet, motherly words. She pulled Ella out of the crib and carried her to the fancy rocking chair in the opposite corner of the room. The baby still cried with her mother’s arms around her, perhaps still reliving a bad dream.

“Everything will be fine, baby girl. There’s no need to cry. Daddy and I will make sure that nothing ever hurts you.”

She didn’t believe her own words for a second. She had no doubt about their ability to care for their daughter, but lately, she doubted they would do it together.

As she comforted her little girl back to sleep in her arms, Natalie cried.



Chapter 3



Boston, Massachusetts. Seven years, three months ago.



Every time my boyfriend slept over, I woke up sore and aching—everywhere. Part of me felt it was wrong to enjoy it, but at that point in my life, I really did. I thought it was the way I should feel, because I had someone in my life who was so crazy about me, he needed to have me all night long in every possible way. I felt loved and sexy. We’d made it our mission to try all the positions in the Kamasutra. The simple things like me straddling him, missionary-style sex, or even sensual spooning weren’t ever used until the morning after. No, this guy liked it hard and rough, especially taking me from behind.

I was so young.

He took me to Ocean Prime on Seaport Boulevard, his favorite steak and seafood restaurant. That night, he wasn’t interested in ordering any Filet Mignon. Instead, he told me to blow him in the car while he fingered me. My panties were so drenched afterwards, I had to leave them behind and felt self-conscious all dinner long, knowing I was naked under a very short dress. Dinner could have been better if everything hadn’t tasted like cum. But I was happy. Truly happy. Because he was proud of me. Because he liked me nasty. Because he loved me.

Or I thought he did.

As soon as we got back to my apartment, he bent me over the couch and took me from behind. He enjoyed the little frisky show I gave him, with my ass up in the air and my tits popping out of the neckline of my dress. My pleasure was a priority for him too, even if he wasn’t gentle. I’d never come so hard with anyone until he fucked me. Almost all our nights together ended with me on my knees and his dick in my mouth. He almost always controlled the act too, deciding how hard and how fast, how long until he was finished. I tried to make sure he had all the pleasure he wanted from me, and I never had a problem with him coming all over me like he always wanted—as long as I didn’t get any in my eyes.

That had been our relationship since we’d started dating. I was so in love with him. I felt desired and wanted, and this was the way I always wanted to feel. Plus, all the exercise made me the slimmest I’d ever been. That was why I didn’t mind feeling sore. That was why I didn’t mind him being a little controlling. Because I thought life couldn’t get any better.



My phone rang and woke me up a little before noon. I didn’t usually sleep in that much, but the night before had left me sore and spent. “Hello?”

“Hey, Kassie. It’s Natalie.”

Hey, Nat.” My voice was still raspy with sleep. I looked to the other side of the bed, noticing only his blond hair as he lay facing away from me.

“How are you?”

I was still in bed, naked and sore. The duvet lay on top of us, covering our bodies and protecting them from the cold. “Asleep. You?”

“I’m sorry! Did I wake you up?”

Yep,” I whispered, not wanting to wake him up.

“Isn’t it noon in Boston?”

Isn’t it too early in L.A.?” I was being bitchy, and I knew it. I needed to get up soon, but building up the energy was going to take longer than normal.

“It’s a bit after eight o’clock here. I thought it was okay to call you with the time difference.”

“It’s Saturday, Nat.”

There was a small pause on the other line. She knew I’d always been an early riser, and I couldn’t blame her for assuming I’d be awake. “I’ll call you later, then,” she said. “Or you could call me when you’re fully awake.”

“Don’t be silly, Nat. You have me on the phone already. What’s up?” I glanced around the bedroom for some clothes but couldn’t find anything I could easily grab and put on. That only made me want to stay in bed longer. It was the middle of January, and we’d had a mean winter so far. Even when I kept the heater on, I couldn’t stand how chilly it would be if I left the warmth of the bed completely naked.

You won’t believe this,” Nat said, “but I’m getting married!” I could almost see her jumping up and down in excitement on the other side of the line.

“Oh, shut up!” I’d completely forgotten about trying to keep quiet at that point. “Is it that older man you’re dating? The attorney?”

“Yep. Andrik. We’re getting married!”

Oh, my God, Natalie. Congratulations!” The body next to me shifted in the bed. “Wait, though. Wasn’t he married?” I turned to the side, giving him my back so I didn’t disturb him much more.

“Kassie! Weren’t you paying attention to me last time we talked? He got a divorce before the year ended.” I honestly couldn’t remember having that conversation, but I hadn’t paid a lot of attention lately to what my friends had to say. “And last night, he gave me a ring and asked me to marry him. Isn’t it great?”

I’m so happy for you, Nat. That’s what you wanted, right?”

“It was. It is. I was so happy when he finally left that crazy woman so we could really be together. But I had no idea he was going to want to marry me. Like he just couldn’t wait. He mentioned he wanted to build a new life with me and wanted us to take care of each other and just be happy. I feel so lucky, Kassie!”

He’s the lucky one,” I said. That old guy was about to take the sweetest, most caring of my friends and make her his wife. She could have had any man she wanted, and she chose Andrik. In my opinion, that made it his duty to make her the happiest woman alive.

“Tell me you’re coming home soon,” she said. “There’s so much I need to talk to you about, Kassie.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to LA. The year before, I’d skipped Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Please come visit. Do you think you’ll come for my birthday next month?”

“I don’t know, Nat. I’m focusing on my last semester of college. I have lots of things to do.” As if on cue, I felt a hand beside me reaching for my body, fingers sliding between my legs. The man beside me—the man I adored—pressed himself hard against my back with an urgency I couldn’t ignore, the bulge pressing at my back.

You know, we’re all busy with the final semester before graduation in May.”

“Everyone but Denise,” I snipped.

“Everyone but Denise.”

All our friends knew how upset I was that Denise decided not to go to college. Yeah, she and Clay were married now, but I didn’t see why she let that stop her from getting a degree. “I can’t promise you much, Natalie. But I promise I’ll come visit before graduation.”

“I’ll hold you to it.”

Warm hands roamed over my body, his lips leaving trails of kisses on my neck and back. I had to end the conversation before he slipped inside me in the middle of a phone call. “I really need to go.”

We’ll talk soon, Kassie. You can always call us, too. And, hey, happy birthday in advance!”

It was hard to reply with his head now between my legs. “Thanks, Natalie. Bye.” I put the phone down just as he dove between my thighs, massaging me with both his fingers and tongue.

“I take it that was a call from home,” he said in the husky voice that made me shiver, his breath hot on my thigh. He pulled back to look at me with his blue eyes, still working on me with his hand.

“One of my best friends…” I gasped and closed my eyes. “She’s getting married.”

That’s why she woke us up?” He stopped briefly, and I moaned in mock irritation before he traced a small X on my nipples with the same fingers. “Maybe her man should tell her not call her friends on a Saturday morning.”

“It’s almost noon,” I started, stopping when his mouth went to my nipples, his tongue flickering playfully.

Then he moved up my body again so our faces almost touched. Placing one finger inside my mouth, he said, “Maybe I should teach you not to answer the phone until we’re ready for the day.”



What do you want to do today?” I asked, watching him through the mirror in the bathroom afterward.

I have a class at one,” he said, stepping into the shower. “I only have time to clean up before I go.”

“Oh, right.” This quarter at UMass, whatever class he needed toward his MBA was only offered on Saturdays. I saw him enough as it was, the classes I took for my BBA leaving me with a fairly normal schedule. So the day would be mine. “Then I’ll make you some breakfast, Eddie.”

“Sure, sweetheart.” He gave me one of his heart-stopping smiles. “That’d be great.”



Chapter 4



Present



Saturday morning, Josh headed out for a photo shoot he expected to last all day. He didn’t usually work on weekends, but it happened from time to time. It still bothered me a little that his job involved being surrounded by beautiful young women so he could capture that beauty, but whenever I dropped by for a visit, everyone knew who I was and what I meant to him. That made it easier for me, and I knew it made it easier for Josh. He loved working for himself and had grown JAG Modeling Agency from the ground up.

Since I’d be on my own for the day, I decided to take advantage of the situation and invite the girls over for a chat with Natalie. She had asked me not to intervene in her situation with Andrik, and while I respected her wish of me not talking to her husband, I knew she needed support from her friends.

I’d asked them to be at my place around nine and to leave the children at home with their fathers. We needed some girl time alone. Then I tried to cover all my bases with breakfast—fresh juice and fruit in case anyone was on a diet, spinach omelets without cheese for those who avoided dairy, and pancakes just in case someone needed something a little stronger. I also bought some high-quality steak cuts, potatoes, onions, and corn, thinking that if our meeting ran too long, my friends’ husbands would show up and turn our breakfast meeting into a barbecue. Even though all my friends had the space and furniture to throw these get-togethers in their own homes, Josh and I had taken on the role of hosting them every week since we’d moved in together a month ago. I wondered how much longer we’d be able to keep up that kind of consistency.

Marisol and Laura showed up early, and I gave them a small briefing on what the gathering was about. The news shocked them, too, and they wanted to try to convince Natalie that it had to be something else. While they helped me set up, I reminded them that we needed to be delicate and careful not to overwhelm her.

Natalie arrived not much later, looking far less than her normal, glamorous self. Her bleach-blonde hair was now long enough to pull back into a messy ponytail, and I wasn’t sure the look suited her; we were used to seeing her with a little more care given to her appearance. She wore beige capris with a floral, short-sleeve shirt—something much more suited to Marisol. The little changes Natalie made now leaned more toward comfortable and away from posh, and I knew it was because she was unhappy. She’d never let being a wife and a mother distract her from presenting herself as if she were about to make her way down a catwalk. She still looked good, but it wasn’t her.

We sat on my terrace around the glass table Josh and I had added to the patio furniture. I was happy to see that everyone seemed to enjoy the food, and the conversation was amicable. But it didn’t flow or feel comfortable. I guess we were all waiting to see who would bring up the elephant in the room first.

I still can’t believe you let Josh adopt a dog,” Marisol said as she crossed her legs in her chair, doing her best to avoid the beautiful American Pitbull licking her toes.

“Let?” I asked. “This is his house. How could I say no? Besides, have you looked at this guy? He’s gorgeous!” I called the goofy mutt by offering him a piece of bread. Josh was adamant about only feeding him the holistic dog food and healthy treats, but I couldn’t resist. “Come here, Jagger.”

Josh and I had fallen in love with him the day we stepped into Malibu’s Pet Shelter. Someone had found him in one of the parks around our neighborhood, and we helped the people at the shelter look for his owners; someone had to be missing him dearly. Sadly, no one responded to the ads we posted on social media or the flyers we handed out at the park, so we took him home. Jagger was perfect for us. His coloring was a soft silver that reminded me of Josh’s eyes, and oddly enough, Josh had said the dog’s blue eyes reminded him of mine. In that way, bringing Jagger home meant we had officially started our own family. I never had any pets as a child; Babushka never allowed it, even when I almost convinced Dzed to get me one. I started out not knowing exactly how to take care of a dog, but I sure was having fun learning. Josh adored animals, and his nephew Elliot wanted to come live with us to spend as much time as possible with Jagger.

“No, dog. Go to Kassie... Shoo.” Laura swatted at him after he went for her toes next. Surprisingly, she was rather warm toward him, but she didn’t seem excited about all the drool.

As I went to get him some water, Natalie called the pup to her and scratched him behind the ears. Jagger would do about anything for a little love and affection. “How are you, big guy?” she asked. “I’m bringing Ella to meet you soon. Yes, I will. Yes, I will.” She rubbed his chin. “You better be nice to her.”

“Aren’t you worried she’ll be afraid of him?” Marisol asked with a frown. “Michael thinks Micah would adore him, but I think he’d scare Maya too much. He’s huge!”

“He’s not. He’s perfect.” I corrected her. “He’s as gorgeous as Josh.”

“Don’t pass your fear on to your children,” Natalie explained. “They’ll be just fine. And believe me, you’d rather bring Micah and Maya to visit Kassie and Jagger than have a dog at home. Think of it as practice.”

“Oh, no way! We’ll never have a dog,” Marisol replied. I blamed Mama Tina for her reaction; no one in that family had ever been allowed to bring home a pet. “Michael has two children. That should suffice.”

I’m sure he’ll find a way to convince you, Sol,” Laura said. She’d said very much the same thing to me some time ago, hinting that Josh had sexed me up perfectly to convince me to get a dog. He had, although he didn’t have to try too hard.

As soon as Jagger saw me place his water bowl on the floor, he ran to me. Then I laid out some of his toys to distract him from my friends’ toes. This dog was the start of a completely new adventure in my life with Josh, but talking about him only moved us further away from the reason we were all here.

Okay, I’ve had enough.” It didn’t surprise any of us that Laura took the plunge. “We all know the food is good. Micah, Maya, and Ella are doing great. We all look like freaking supermodels.” She grabbed her glass and refilled it with orange juice. “And Kassie and Josh’s house is homey and warm. None of us can believe Josh found a way of convincing Kassie to have a dog, and we all think this means he’s a sex god...” As she spoke, she waved her hands about in exasperation and splashed her drink all over the deck. “But what the fuck did you mean when you told Kassandra you think Andrik is having an affair?”

“God, Laura.” I took the glass from her hand and placed it on the table. “We agreed we would take it easy.”

Yeah, we did. But not talking about it at all isn’t enough,” she said, raising an eyebrow and glancing at me. “I can’t believe it, Natalie. Andrik is not that kind of man.”

“Why did you have to tell them?” Natalie looked at me, hurt and disappointment overflowing in her eyes, and her whole body tensed, her back growing rigid and protective. That look was exactly why I’d asked the girls to take it easy. I should have opened a bottle of wine for Laura.

“‘Cause she knows we’re your friends and you need us right now,” Marisol interjected and grabbed Natalie’s hand.

Natalie sat with perfect posture that reminded me of a ballet dancer—back straight, shoulders squared, head held high, so very proper and untouchable. “I don’t think I’m ready to talk about this.”

Well, I’m not ready, either, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s cheating on you, does it?” Laura countered, giving our friend exactly what she needed to confront her demons.

“I guess not.”

“So start speaking, Little Angel.” Laura had been using this nickname for Natalie since they were roommates in college. Neither of them had ever explained its origin, but Laura was the only one to this day who ever used it.

“We just want to know how we can help,” Marisol added.

I don’t think there’s much you can do about it. I just have this feeling in my gut that Andrik’s cheating on me.”

So it’s just a feeling?” Laura leaned forward, and I knew she’d take this on as her own side project. When Laura decided to take matters into her own hands, there was no rest for the wicked. Never thoughtful or delicate, she operated boldly and directly; she could have been a Sergeant at times. And even if her tactics didn’t work for the faint of heart, her aim was to help her friends no matter what.

“You haven’t talked to him yet?” I asked, surprised after the conversation Josh and I had had with her.

I tried to talk to him about it when I left your house the other night, but I just couldn't find the words. How could I even start?”

“You just grab him by the balls and ask him what the fuck is going on,” Laura almost shouted. Marisol placed a hand on Natalie’s knee the same time I did. Our friend needed the opportunity to vent, and we all knew pushing her to do things with force never worked for her.

“Calm down, Laura,” Sol said gently. “Not even you would do something like that.” I nodded.

“You’re right. But I wish I would,” Laura replied, her fire dying down just a bit. Everyone remembered the time Laura had found out an ex-boyfriend had been cheating on her when they were dating. It had completely devastated her when she’d discovered that her boyfriend had been sleeping around with the guy I was dating at the time. Things had gotten really ugly. “That’s what I should have done with Julian.”

I patted Laura on the back to let her know I understood exactly what she was talking about.

“It’s not as easy as you’d think,” Natalie replied, rearranging her hair. “I have so many things in my mind that I need to say. So many questions to ask. But when I’m alone with him, I can’t think straight. I can’t find my voice to say what I have to say. I just want to hug him and show him that I’m the one he should be with and not anyone else.” She hugged herself, looking down at her lap, and even though her baby-blue eyes were hidden, we could all see the tears falling from her face.

Marisol was the closest to her, and she rapidly moved her chair and placed her arms around Nat. I reached out to rub her thigh. Laura wasn’t close enough to offer physical comfort—maybe for the best. She remained in her chair with a vicious grip on her orange juice. Even Jagger offered his support, sniffing at Natalie’s toes and licking her pink-painted nails.

Everyone was silent when Denise arrived.

Sorry I’m so late, you guys,” she said as she dropped her purse on one of my deck chairs. “I just had an argument with Clay this morning. Can you believe him?” Without realizing what was going on, she sat next to Laura and angrily piled everything edible on a plate, quickly throwing Jagger a small piece of pancake when he approached her to say hi. Josh was so going to kill me. “He finally got a job offer. After years! After five years of unemployment, he’s finally offered a job, and the idiot tells them that the salary isn’t enough. It isn’t enough! What the fuck was he thinking? Anything is better than nothing. Is he blind?”

Only Jagger looked up at her, probably waiting for something else to eat. When she finally took in the sight of us, she noticed Marisol holding Natalie in her arms and Natalie’s eyes flooded with tears. Natalie seemed to be crying harder now, either in solidarity with Denise’s story or relief that the topic had been changed, even if just a little. I was unable to decide which friend to comfort—the one who was apparently losing her husband or the one who was about to murder hers.

Finally, Denise asked, “What’s going on?” Laura grabbed her hand surprising me with the sympathy in her eyes.

Andrik’s cheating on me,” Natalie said.

“Shut the fuck up.” Denise dropped her fork, along with the piece of pancake she was about to eat. “What’s wrong with men today?”

Come on, Denise. I’ll tell you all about it.” Without releasing her hand, Laura stood and took Denise with her into the kitchen. “Kassie, I think we need a drink.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Jagger followed them inside the house, and I hoped they’d remember to bring him back outside when they were done. He didn’t like to stay on his own for long.

It took a few minutes for Natalie to calm down, dry her tears, and start breathing normally again. When she was feeling better, continuing the conversation felt a little safer, especially with Laura and Denise out of the picture for the moment.

So you aren’t sure?” Marisol asked. “Right now, you just think he might be cheating on you.”

Why is it so hard to believe that he’d do that?”

“I told you before, Andrik seems so completely in love with you,” I said. She needed to see it from our perspective. It wasn’t hard to believe because we thought she was wrong; it was hard to believe because we put so much faith in the kind of relationship they had. “You’re the greatest couple. We all live by your example. It’s difficult for any of us to think that of him. I wouldn’t believe it of Michael, either. Would you believe Michael would cheat on Sol?”

I guess I wouldn't,” Natalie confessed.

It would be completely different if Laura suspected Edward of an affair…” Marisol said with a flippant wave of her hand. It probably still amazed all of us that their relationship was so functional despite their naughty quirks.

“I heard that, Sol. Not cool!” Laura stepped out of my kitchen and onto the terrace, followed by Denise. They had several bottles between them, one of them was vodka. My grandmother always said everything could be cured with a little vodka. “My man is completely satisfied, of that I’m sure.”

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” Marisol was just being herself, which meant being completely honest, sometimes to a fault.

Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clay was cheating on me,” Denise added. “He certainly has the time.”

How can you say that?” Natalie asked. “Clay absolutely adores you.” Clay had loved Denise since high school. His lack of income had less to do with his faithfulness and more to do with him being a lazy ass.

Denise just rolled her eyes and drank whatever was in her glass.

It’s so hard for any of us to believe Andrik’s cheating on you. We all know how much he loves you,” I repeated, trying to avoid derailing the conversation yet again.

I wouldn’t be saying any of it if I didn’t believe it.” Natalie seemed calmer now, but she still couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. She tried to hide it and pretended she was focused on playing with Jagger.

Then what makes you think he is?” Marisol asked.

“I’m not stupid.” Natalie’s eyes flashed up to meet Marisol’s, her face flushing in anger. “It’s something you just know.” Her words came out clipped and harsh. “Especially when he leaves early in the morning to go to work. He doesn’t have time to come home for lunch. Not even to text a complete sentence and let me know he isn’t coming home to eat. And especially because he comes home late at night, takes a shower, and falls asleep.”

We were all quiet; it didn’t sound good now that she’d explained it. I said a little prayer for her and hoped I never saw myself in the same situation.

“But that could just mean he’s super busy at work, not that he’s cheating,” Marisol said. “Sometimes Michael has loads of work and needs to stay long hours. He tells me about it, and it's disappointing, but I just deal and wait till he’s done before we can spend some time together.”

We don’t spend any time together,” Natalie replied.

I believe she means sex, Nat,” Laura bluntly explained.

“That’s what I meant, too.”

Silence fell all around us once more. Now we knew he spent a lot of time out of the house, supposedly working, and they didn’t have sex. Fuck. That didn’t look good at all.

“There must be more to it than that,” Denise said, trying to sound reassuring. “Clay and I have been married for almost ten years. And we’ve been through some dry spells in our marriage. I’m sure that now that you have a baby, it isn’t as easy as it was to have sex. Or am I wrong? Sol, are you and Michael getting at it all the time?”

Well, we do have sex,” Sol explained with a small, shy shrug. “When it was only Micah, it was a bit easier, but now that we have Maya, it’s more complicated.”

See, it’s not only about not having sex,” I told her. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a baby and try to maintain a healthy sex life, but I was grateful Sol was here to help with that.

“I’m telling you, Nat, Andrik isn’t cheating on you. When I was with Julian, there was more to it than just his lack of interest in sex. He had mood swings, and he was secretive about some parts of his life. Especially his finances. He was always hiding his phone and computer, and when I asked him about it, he explained to no end why he was so private about them. I should have known.”

But Julian wasn’t just cheating on you, Laura. He was also gay.” Yes, Denise was dealing with her own issues, but she could have saved that comment.

“I remember clearly, Denise. I was there,” Laura said with a pert shake of her head. I’d been there too, when she and I walked in on her boyfriend blowing my date at Marisol’s wedding. “What I’m trying to say, Natalie, is to give Andrik the benefit of the doubt until you find something that proves he’s cheating on you.”

How am I going to do that?” Natalie shyly asked.

“Find proof? Don’t worry, baby. I got your back,” Laura said with a confident smile. “Leave it all to me.”

I just rolled my eyes at Laura’s evil grin, finding it only too easy to imagine what was going through her mind. “Talk to him, Natalie,” I reminded her. “There’s no better way to find out than to ask him directly and see how he reacts.”

I can be there if you want me to,” Laura offered.

So can I,” Marisol said quickly behind her.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-30 show above.)