Authors: J.C. Valentine
USA Today Bestselling Author
It started with a drink.
It turned into a promise.
Ransom Scott lost his heart the day the woman he loved chose another man. Or so he thought. Estranged from his brother, distancing himself from the world, he’s been drowning his sorrows in cheap booze and women…determined to forget.
His world is falling apart, until a beautiful woman decides to take a chance on him.
Dani Deviche is as bewitching as she is innocent. Full of youth and vitality, she captivates him. Challenges him. She’s everything Ransom never thought to look for in the opposite sex, and he can’t get enough.
When a promise of friendship turns into something more, can Ransom fulfill his end of the bargain, or will a secret from Dani’s past destroy his last chance at happiness?
A BLONDE, A BRUNETTE, and a redhead walked into a bar.
Oh, there was no punchline. Ransom was just a very observant man, and the three women were now steadily approaching him with a distinctive sway to their narrow hips. Christ, but he wasn’t in the mood for entertaining. Ever since his brother had run off and impregnated then married the woman that
loved, following a very tumultuously confusing affair that left him the odd man out with a broken heart and shattered ego, he’d been a moody bastard.
That was putting it mildly.
Ransom had been an impossible person to get along with, his sullenness and quick temper earning him a lot of well-deserved hostility from friends and co-workers. The only people he hadn’t run off yet was his family, but that was because they were a stubborn bunch—almost worse than him. Hell, they could try a saint’s patience for all the times they’d attempted to play shrink.
And he was no saint.
Far from it. In fact, if the thoughts running through his head about the blonde in the way-too-fucking-short-to-wear-in-public dress were any indication, one sick bastard could be added to his prestigious, self-imposed title. At the rate he was going, he could win Bastard of the Year without so much as blinking an eye.
The trio sidled up beside him and the blonde closest to him leaned over the bar top, flashing everyone and God her matching fuchsia G-string, and Ransom couldn’t prevent himself from sneaking a peek.
Nice ass. High, round, and firm. Slappable. He wouldn’t mind putting his hands on that.
As if she could feel him staring, the blonde turned to look over her shoulder, her pretty loose curls skating across her back to graze her hips.
Ugh. Way too much makeup.
Ransom never had much of a preference until Josephine entered his life. She was something else. A natural beauty. Sensational in every light. She didn’t need the help of cosmetics to make her beautiful. She just was. She was the total package: smart, talented, beautiful, loving, sexy.
And she wasn’t his.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Ransom slugged the last of his whiskey neat and slammed the glass on the counter.
The bartender—some young college looking type—stepped up and refilled it, his attention fully fixed on the women beside him.
As soon as he’d finished taking their orders, Ransom felt the heat of the blonde’s eyes on him again. He wanted to tell her to take a hike. Find some other chump to buy her drinks. Find another fucking loser to take her to bed, but then he remembered that he’d been sitting in the same spot for…Well, he’d lost track of how many hours he’d been there. Enough to know he’d be calling a cab home. So she was probably just sizing him up because he reeked of booze and bad decisions.
Glancing up at her, he caught her fresh blue eyes staring and mustered up enough energy to grunt a hello.
A small, flattering smile tilted her paper thin lips and she angled herself toward him. “You look like you could use a friend.”
Breaking eye contact, Ransom picked up his glass and brought it to his lips. “Never had much use for one actually.” Then he downed the whole damn thing in one swallow. It didn’t even burn anymore.
“Hard day at work?”
More like a hard several months at life, but who was complaining? Ransom shook his head, annoyed that she wouldn’t just leave him alone. He wasn’t in the mood. Not tonight. Maybe not ever. He was about to tell her to fuck off when he gave her another once-over.
She wasn’t exactly pretty—mouth too small, nose too piggish, chin too sharp—but she had nice eyes, a good figure, and a sweet ass.
His dick twitched and his mood shifted. Swaying on his stool, Ransom cocked a half-smile, the one he imagined his brother, Rebel, used to win Joe over. Instantly, interest sparked in her eyes and Ransom knew, all he’d have to do is ask and he would have her in his bed.
“You wanna get out of—”
The redhead’s excited yell startled him, cutting off his request, and Ransom turned to see two freakishly tall, broad-shouldered guys headed their way. The redhead bolted from her chair and, with a squeal, the blonde followed. He watched the guys’ arms spread open and the women leap into them, all high-pitched wails of delight. Romance at its finest.
It made him sick.
Ransom’s brows dove down, sitting heavily over his glassy eyes. Well, so much for that. When a woman ran into the arms of another man, it was time to throw in the towel and head home. He’d learned that particular lesson all too well.
Sighing deeply, he reached for his wallet. That’s when he noticed that he wasn’t exactly alone.
“Uh, hi,” he said, caught off-guard and unsure what to say in the face of someone…Well, someone like
The brunette part of the trio had taken up the blonde’s seat and was now eying him with a soft, alluring smile playing about her full, lush lips.
She was drop-dead fucking gorgeous.
Ransom’s eyes roamed freely, sucking up her delicate features, milky smooth skin, and curvaceous frame like a man caught in the middle of the desert during a drought.
Holy hell. He was suddenly at a loss for words, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, his jeans straining behind his fly. He stared into a pair of honey gold eyes rimmed with coal, the gears in his brain grinding to a halt and, suddenly, he couldn’t recall what brought him to the bar or why he’d been feeling like a steaming pile of shit. All he knew was the curious sensation bubbling in his chest now, the lightness in his head overpowering the booze he’d been trying to pickle himself in, and the inexplicable need that coursed through his veins, turning his blood into molten lava.
A bead of sweat trickled down the back of his neck as Ransom studied the beautiful woman in front of him. She wasn’t just beautiful though. She was magnificent.
A startling thought entered his head and he banished it before it could take root.
Then he noticed her mouth moving and realized she was speaking to him. Clearing his throat, Ransom said, “Excuse me. Could you repeat that?” He flicked his hand toward the ceiling where a sound system belted out hard country beats and leaned in closer, blaming his lack of attention on the outrageous level of noise.
Mirroring him, she leaned in too, and he caught the clean notes of mint and cherries on her breath. “I said hi, I’m Dani!”
Her voice, deep and throaty, summoned a smile. Ransom’s gaze fastened on her lips, smooth and plump, and when they tilted up for him, inspired thoughts best left to the imagination. “I’m Ransom. What are you drinking?” Lifting his chin, he indicated her empty glass.
His arm shot up and he ordered her another.
“So, drinking alone?” Dani asked with her pretty lips hovering over the straw.
Dragging his hand over his mouth, Ransom replied, “Until you showed up.” Her mouth quirked. So did his. “How about you? I see your friends brought dates.”
Her gaze drifted behind them to a pool table where the group bantered playfully with one another, tossing back shots and dancing like fools.
“Yeah,” was all she said, but the forlorn look in her eyes told a deeper story. One Ransom understood all too well.
“Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be alone on Halloween,” he said just for the sake of digging a little deeper. After all, the last woman he tried to invite into his bed leapt into another man’s arms before he’d had a chance to finished delivering the offer.
Dani shrugged lightly and turned back to her drink. “Stuff happens. Besides,” she said, a coy smile springing to life as she slanted him a flirty look, “a handsome guy like you shouldn’t be alone either.”
Well then. “Why, Dani, are you hitting on me?”
Dani’s head flipped back, tossing her mane of long, chestnut hair over her slender shoulder and revealing the graceful column of her neck as she belted out a laugh that was so robust and full of life, it stole Ransom’s breath.
Goddamn, the woman was stunning.
Her joy was infectious. Ransom found himself smiling right along with her—the first time in a long time since he’d used those particular muscles—that light feeling growing by the second.
“I’m sorry,” Dani wheezed, indelicately wiping beneath her eyes and giving light to the fact that, aside from sheer lip gloss, it was the only place she wore any makeup.
Ransom’s heart pounded at the realization.
With an almost panicked response, he sized her up once more, but aside from her general voluptuousness and good looks, she was nothing like Josephine—shorter, thicker, more delicate.
He breathed out an audible sigh of relief.
The last thing Ransom wanted was to attach himself to a body double. Again. The sad fact of life was there was no substitute for the original. Some lessons needed to be learned the hard way, and he’d been down that road far too many times to count. He wasn’t about to repeat those steps again.
Finally calmed of her hysterics, Dani shot him a nervous smile and dropped her gaze to her glass, which was now firmly pressed between her long, slim fingers. “You probably think I’m some kind of weirdo.”
Brows pinching together, Ransom asked, “Why would I think that?”
Her hand twirled out in front of her. “I don’t normally hit on strange men.” He raised a brow and, noticing, her eyes rounded. “Not to say that you’re strange,” she backpedaled. “Just that you
a stranger and—”
“Your mom taught you never to talk to strangers?”
“Well, yes, but…That’s not…I mean,” she spluttered.
Ransom watched her cheeks flush a pretty rose and took a moment to enjoy watching her flounder before he took pity and tossed her a lifeline. “I know what you mean,” he said, stopping her with a hand on her wrist. Instant electricity zipped up through his arm and the contact.
Seeming not to notice, she blew out a breath. “You do?”
He shook off the sensation. “A woman like you, you’re probably used to men coming to you.”
She didn’t have to say anything to confirm what he already knew to be true. The way she rolled her bottom lip between her teeth said it for her.
“For the record, you did pretty well for your first time.”
Her eyes darted to his, a grin sprouting up. “Who said it was my first time?”
When it dawned on him what he’d said, Ransom’s jeans grew even tighter. A pretty face
a dirty mind? Oh, hell yeah. He needed another drink if he was going to hang out with her
be expected to keep his hands to himself.
But he’d already had his fair share of alcohol for the night and, even though the buzz was starting to wear thin, he didn’t think it was wise to refresh it. Not if he planned to teach a room full of college students in the morning.
Noticing his drawn expression, Dani pointed to his empty glass. “Can I return the favor?”
Ransom’s eyes flipped up. “I never let a woman buy me a drink. Thanks anyway, sweetheart.”
Her smile slipped, but she quickly hid it as she dove back into conversation. “So what’s your story? Why so glum?”
Impressed by the ease with which she bounced back, Ransom felt curiously compelled to tell her every sordid detail. But who wanted to hear about the lonely professor who fell for his student, only to watch her run off with his twin brother? It read like a damned romance novel for crying out loud, all tortured hero longing for the one thing his heart desires but can never have.
“I don’t think either of us have the time to peel back the lid on that can of worms tonight,” he drawled.
She considered him for one long, intense moment before straightening her back and polishing off her drink. “I’m not going anywhere, but I can see you’re a man of many secrets, so how about this. I go first, and then if you want, you share yours. Deal?” She caught Ransom’s eye and when he gave her the signal, she forged ahead. “My boyfriend of four years sent flowers to me for Sweetest Day.”
“That doesn’t sound bad,” Ransom observed.
“No, they were lovely. Until I opened the card and found another’s woman’s name on it. My sister’s name, to be exact.”
Ransom inhaled sharply, her story hitting a little too close to home for comfort. It would also make him feel like an ass if he didn’t return the gesture and share a bit of his story with her. So he did, and when he was done, Dani’s expression was almost comical.
“Well, I’ll be…What are the odds that two people such as us, with such similar backgrounds, would end up here, in the same place, licking the same wounds, on Halloween?”
Yes, what were the odds. Suddenly, Ransom felt tired, the weight of the day—hell, months—catching up to him. “I should take off.” Sliding off the stool, he was reaching for his wallet when he felt the heat of a warm body press against his side.
Looking down, he found Dani’s doe-like eyes staring up at him. Heat flashed in their golden depths and when she spoke, her voice was soft and raspy. “Call me crazy, but I don’t want to be alone tonight, and something tells me neither do you.”