PLAYING FOR KEEPS | PILLOW TALK

 

PFK_Cover_AltSince her mother’s death more than fifteen years before, Grace Connors has been the matriarch of her family. She’s put her own dreams on hold to raise her younger sisters and keep her ex-marine father in line.

So when her sister Nell decides to get married, it’s on Grace to make it a wedding their mother would have been proud of. It can’t be hard to organize a party, right?

But then everything falls apart, including her budding romance with her sexy best friend Pete. Caught in the crossfire with the enemy at her back, will Grace be able to fix it all before she becomes a casualty of love?  { scroll down for sneak peek!! }

 

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SNEAK PEEK
Playing For Keeps — Chapter One

If a secret piece of news is divulged by a spy before the time is ripe, then the spy as well as the one to whom the secret was told must be put to death.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

When Pete told me, I did what any woman in my shoes would have done. I spewed my mouthful of beer across the bar. “What did you say?”

He whacked me on the back a couple times and dabbed a napkin at the corner of my mouth. “You okay, Grace?”

I pushed his hand away. Some things in life were more important than beer dribbling down your chin. “She’s what?”

Pete winced. “I guess you didn’t know yet.”

“You guessed right.”

“I’d have thought Nell would have told you right away.”

Yeah, that was what really stung. I crossed my arms. “I’m waiting,” I said in that imperious, parental tone I used on my sisters when I meant business.

“There isn’t much to tell. Riley asked me if I’d be his best man. He said he and Nell were getting married in October. I can’t believe Nell didn’t tell you.”

I slumped on my stool, wondering which feeling was stronger: hurt that my sister didn’t tell me she was getting married or jealousy over the fact that she was. Right now it was a toss up.

“Hey.” Pete lifted my chin and studied me. “Nell’s probably waiting till she can make a dramatic announcement. You know how she is.”

Pete always knew how to make me feel better. “I suppose.”

Then I gasped, remembering. “I didn’t think. Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” He took a sip of his beer.

Maybe because my dear sister Penelope dumped him for Riley, who happened to be his best friend. Sure, that was two years ago, but he’d been really broken up. I knew—I helped him drown his misery in tequila. And now Nell was marrying Riley. Apparently. “Come on. Be honest with me.”

“Nell and I only went out three times. I never had time to get attached to her. I didn’t love her that way, and the truth is I don’t think I could have.”

“Of course you loved her. You loved her so much, I still can’t see tequila without getting nauseous.”

“You were so pathetic.” He grinned. “You came to make sure there’d be someone to look after me and I ended up having to look after you.”

“Got your mind off Nell, didn’t it?”

“Hard to think about anything else when someone’s puking on your shoes.”

He sounded okay, but his eyes looked more gray than blue. Pete had chameleon eyes. I could always tell his mood based on what color they were. When he was amused, they were the bright blue of a robin’s egg. When he was angry, they turned dark and murky. When he was sad, they looked gray, like they did now. Then again maybe they just reflected the gray T-shirt he had on.

Still, I didn’t believe he was as indifferent as he was pretending to be. But if he wanted to pretend, who was I to call him on it?

“What kind of pizza do you want, Grace? I’ll even let you order pineapple on your half if you want.”

Big concession. Pete hated pineapple and didn’t like it anywhere near his slices. He said the juice contaminated the entire pizza. “I can’t stay. I have to go home and make dinner for Daddy and Clo.”

Pete shook his head. I could hear his thoughts loud and clear but he voiced his opinions anyway. “Don’t you think it’s time your dad and Chloe learned to take care of themselves? You’ve got to lead your own life.”

I hated when this topic came up. My left eyelid always started to twitch. Daddy would say when you’re boxed in, take the offensive. “So when did you say you were going to open up your own carpentry shop?”

“It’s not the same thing.” When he frowned, deep lines that reminded me of quotation marks grooved between his eyebrows. “I like working with my brother. You work with your dad out of duty.”

Whatever. He just didn’t get it. How could he? He wasn’t the one who spent months at his mother’s deathbed. He wasn’t the one who promised his mother to take care of the family.

They’d needed me. Chloe had only been three at the time—a baby. Nell had been eleven but no less needy. And Daddy had been so lost when Mom died. When he decided to retire from the Marines and move to Portland, I was the one who suggested he open a martial arts studio. Fighting was what he knew after all. It was just taken for granted that I’d help him run it.

Pete was one to talk. I’d seen the designs he doodled on napkins when he thought no one was looking. I pointed a finger at him. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t rather build furniture than work in construction.”

“At least I have a life.”

“Ouch.” Low blow, even if it was true.

He took my hand in his. “That was cruel. I didn’t mean it.”

“Yes, you did.” The sad part was I couldn’t argue against it.

“Grace—”

“I’ve got to go.” I pulled my hand from his, trying not to notice how his hands were rough and big and warm and felt like they could encompass you. I drank the rest of my beer in one gulp, stood up, and slipped into my coat. “See ya.”

Pete caught me by my collar and pulled me back. “I’m sorry.”

I nodded but didn’t turn around.

I felt rather than heard him sigh. He kissed my cheek, close to my ear. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I nodded again. Pete was one of those guys who actually did call if he said he would.

Getting into my old Civic, I went on autopilot. Only instead of ending up at home, I ended up where I seemed to be spending more and more time lately—in front of a small Pearl District storefront with a For Sale sign in the window.

I sat there and stared at the shop. A light illuminated the interior, giving me a clear view through to the back. Two naked mannequins stood near the front counter, the only remnants of the clothing store that had occupied the space last.

It was the perfect spot for my flower shop.

Several months ago, Chloe and Nell had taken me shopping. Actually, they’d forced me to go shopping after they’d burned all my clothes, but that’s another story.

I’d been trudging along behind them when I noticed the little boutique going out of business. Nell and Clo had rushed in because of the incredible deals on the remaining clothes. I’d followed reluctantly but the second I stepped in the door I knew I belonged there. My best friend Celeste would have said it was kismet.

Since then, I found myself going there, staring at the space longingly like some star-crossed lover, dreaming about what could be.

Like tonight.

I could see myself inside, surrounded by flowers of every shade known to man. Their perfumed scent would overpower the freshly waxed smell of the hardwood floors. Customers would walk in and I’d know just by looking at them which flowers suited them. When I’d hand over their bouquets, their eyes would light up with joy, and I’d know that I made someone happy.

It was a pipedream.

I’d never told anyone about my desire to open a flower shop except Celeste, and that was only because she made me have one too many lemon drops shots one night. My family, Pete, and everyone else knew I loved flowers, but no one suspected it went beyond that. Being a florist was a fantasy I pulled out in the dark of night, when what if…? floated in the still air.

It’d never become a reality. I had to help my dad and take care of my family, and that didn’t leave time to run my own business. Besides, I had no experience. What made me think I could pull it off. And, in the end, flowers just died, so why bother?

Because you really want it, a soft voice from inside me whispered back.

Sighing, I dropped my head against the steering wheel. What was I doing there? I was just torturing myself, but I couldn’t seem to help it. The retail space called me like a lodestone.

I wished Pete hadn’t brought this up tonight. He’d been doing that more and more lately—pointing out what I was missing. I knew he meant well. He’s my best friend, after Celeste.

As if I wasn’t overly aware of my sacrifices already. I twisted the key in the ignition and headed home.

I pulled into the driveway and stared at our house. Nell had moved out several years ago, but Daddy, Clo, and I still lived together.

It looked peaceful and warm from the outside. Quintessentially cozy. And I’d made it that way. It was worth everything I’d given up.

I walked in, dropped my purse on the table by the door, and followed the buzz of the TV into the living room.

Daddy reclined in his chair, reading the paper. Chloe sat on the floor, doing homework while she watched Mad Men reruns. I shook my head. But I couldn’t complain because she was a year ahead in college and pulling a 4.0 grade point average.

“Hi, Daddy.” I kissed his forehead. “How was class this afternoon? Wendell break anybody’s arm today?”

Wendell was one of Daddy’s student instructors. He had some issues.

“No. He gave a white belt a black eye though.” Daddy stared at me with narrowed eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think anything’s wrong?”

“You’ve got that puppy dog look.”

Not the puppy dog thing again. “Have you heard from Nell?”

“Not today.” He frowned. “You had drinks with Pete after work, didn’t you? He didn’t do anything to upset you, did he?”

No. Not at all, Daddy,” I reassured him quickly. I didn’t want him hunting Pete down. To say my dad was a little protective was an understatement.

“Pete’s hot,” Chloe said without lifting her head from her chem book. “I wish he’d upset me.”

Chloe.” Not that I could disagree. With his dark hair, muscular build, and goatee, Pete could be summed up in one word—YUM. All caps. Maybe even followed by a couple exclamation points. But hearing my baby sister talk that way about him was wrong.

She shrugged. “Well, it’s true.”

Daddy shook his head. “What did I do to deserve three girls?”

Chloe smiled sweetly. “It’s called sex, Daddy.”

He threw a pillow at her, which she threw back with more force. One thing about having a father who’d dedicated his life to combat was you didn’t escape without knowing how to hold your own in a fight.

I got out before they started wrestling and dragged me into it. I needed to call Nell to find out what was going on.

There was no answer at Nell’s condo. Not a surprise really—Nell was always doing something. She was so elusive she gave Bigfoot a run for his money.

I was putting a salad on the table when Nell sauntered through the back door.

“Just in time.” She hung her purse on the doorknob and looked inside a pot on the stove. “You make the best macaroni and cheese. Mine always turns out pasty.”

She was getting married and all she could talk about was my mac and cheese? I gaped at her.

She glanced at me as she put a place setting on the table for herself. “What’s up? You look constipated.”

What’s up?” I sounded shrill even to myself. “What’s up is I had to hear about my sister’s engagement through an outside source.”

Nell frowned. “Chloe’s getting married? She’s too young.”

“Not Chloe. You.” I rubbed the stress off my forehead. Thirty-two was too young to get wrinkles.

Nell blinked at me with wide green eyes. It was the only feature my sisters and I shared. Nell and Chloe resembled Mom. I took after my father: long, lean, and flat chested. They both had honey blonde hair while my hair was just plain mousy. I tried not to resent fate just because they were petite and curvy with long thick eyelashes. Sometimes I was successful.

“Ri-ight.” Nell smacked her forehead. “Damn, I forgot to tell you. Colin Farrell proposed to me the other day and I said yes. He said he wants to set up house, and he can’t see anyone else bringing him his slippers when he comes home after work.”

“This isn’t funny.” I snapped a napkin at her. Although, at another time, the thought of her being domestic would have cracked me up too. I dropped onto a chair and scowled. I wished she took things a little more seriously sometimes. The carefree thing was getting old.

She finally stopped laughing and really looked at me. “You’re serious.”

“About time you noticed.”

She slid into the chair beside me. “Hell, Gracie. How could you think I’d get engaged and not tell you right away? You’re my sister. I don’t know who you were talking to but Riley and I aren’t engaged.”

“That’s not what Pete says.”

Pete told you Riley and I were getting married?” She sounded genuinely surprised.

“Pete said the wedding is in October. Riley asked Pete to be his best man.”

She gawked at me for a long second before her legendary temper kicked in. “That bastard!” She jumped up and the chair fell over. She kicked it for good measure, sending it skidding across the kitchen. “How could he just assume I’m going to fall over myself to marry him? I’ll kill him. No, I’ll kill Pete. No, I’ll just castrate them both.”

I wasn’t sure why she was going to take this out on Pete—he was just the messenger. It was Riley who needed to be gelded.

I grinned. That thought didn’t displease me at all.

Okay, it wasn’t much of a secret that I wasn’t Riley Neill’s biggest fan. There was something phony about him, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. He was just too plastic, too perfect. Kind of like a Ken doll. When Pete told me about the engagement, I’d have been seriously upset by the idea of Riley as a brother-in-law if my feelings hadn’t been crushed by Nell not telling me.

But it turned out Nell hadn’t kept anything from me and Riley wasn’t about to enter the family. I felt good.

Chloe strode into the kitchen. “Daddy wants to know what the hell is going on in here.”

Nell rounded on her. “I’ll tell you what’s going on. My goddamn boyfriend is going around telling people we’re getting married. Only the bastard’s neglected to ask me first.” She punctuated each word of that last sentence by hammering the table with her fist.

“Careful with the goddamn potty mouth,” Chloe said. “Gracie might wash it out with soap.”

I grinned, remembering the one time I did it to Chloe. She’d been five and it’d been so satisfying. Not that it’d worked. My entire family talked like they just crawled out of the gutter.

Nell responded by grabbing Chloe in a headlock. I’d have been worried about Chloe if I didn’t know she could hold her own. Did I mention our dad had started teaching us kung fu before we could walk?

I picked up a pot and slammed it on the counter. Nell and Chloe stopped grappling and gaped at me. I rolled my eyes. “Oh, like I’m the lunatic in this crowd.”

Daddy stormed the kitchen. “What the hell is going on here?”

I smiled. “Dinner’s ready.”

 

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