Sun
May 28 2017 12:09pm

Nicole McLaughlin Excerpt: All I Ask

Nicole McLaughlin

All I Ask by Nicole McLaughlin

Staff Sergeant Reeve Miller lives by his own golden rules: Train hard, Work hard, and f*ck hard. This way of thinking has served him well. He’s enjoyed a successful career in the military, started his own landscaping business while serving part time in the Guard, and left a string of very happy females in his wake… until he meets one feisty, smart woman in a bar looking for a one-night stand.

Emily Phillips is tired of working her ass off and not enjoying her life. According to her accountant, Emily is a millionaire. But her friends say she is a workaholic heading for lonely spinsterhood. The night of her high school best friend’s bachelorette party seems like a good time to try something new, and when the blue-collar hottie at the bar gives her the look, she’s ready to take a walk on the wild side. He makes it clear that he can give her a night to keep her very satisfied, and since it’s only a night, why bother sharing her title of CEO? But as one night becomes two and three, both Reeve and Emily find it harder to keep their hearts safe.

Get a sneak peek at Nicole McLaughlin's All I Ask (available May 30, 2017) with an exclusive excerpt of a selected scene.

CHAPTER ONE

Staff Sergeant Reeve Miller refused to go into his mother’s house. He knocked hard on the door, knowing that the doorbell had been broken for nearly fifteen years and there was no way in hell she’d had it repaired. He could hear things shuffling inside so he knew she was making her way over. He stepped back off the crumbling front step, waiting on the walkway.

He told himself that he didn’t enter the home because it was physically difficult to step inside due to the piles of shit everywhere. But the truth of the matter was that he could not stomach seeing how she lived day in and day out. Just being in her presence was hard enough. Entering the house would be like going back in time to a life he tried hard to forget.

He loved his mother, and he knew down deep she loved him, too, in her own way, but their relationship was damaged almost beyond repair.

The faded and peeling front door slowly creaked open, revealing his mom. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, and her cheeks splotchy. Besides her obvious distress, she looked as well as could be expected, but when she stepped out onto the front porch Reeve noticed how frail she really was. His mother had always been a slight woman, no more than five foot four, and he could probably pick her up with one arm if he wanted. But now her body seemed fragile beneath her old jeans and a T-shirt that had enough cats and sequins on the front to make a grown man recoil.

For one guilty second, Reeve was grateful his friend Brad was waiting in the car.

“Mom, we’re all done out here.”

She gave him a weak glare.

“I know you’re upset, but it had to be done.”

She sniffed, crossing her arms over her chest. She wouldn’t acknowledge what he’d done in any way but a negative one, he knew that, but it still stung. He and Brad had just cleaned twenty-five years’ worth of trash, debris, and weeds from her yard. The exterior still needed paint, had for years. And the landscaping left everything to be desired, which was tough for Reeve, considering that’s how he made a living. But there was no doubt that neighbors were currently peeking through their windows in shock at the transformation.

Alice Miller should be thrilled with the results. Reeve sure was. He no longer had to cringe in shame when he pulled up in the driveway. But no, Alice was too busy crying and pouting.

“Your father bought that riding mower the year you were born,” she said.

“He sure did, Mom, and it’s been sitting right where he left it since the day he left us. So I’m not sure I give a damn.” He knew his words were harsh, but he’d had it. His ability to sympathize with her had disappeared years ago. Plus, it never worked. Anger didn’t work, either, so Reeve had resorted to just saying whatever the hell he felt right at the moment. Sometimes she argued back with him; right now she just made him feel like shit.

“What if he came back and looked for it?”

“Mom, I’m sorry, but he is never coming back. Why don’t you think about how good it feels to have your yard looking so open and clean? No more angry looks from the neighbors.”

The city of Manhattan, Kansas, had been receiving complaints about Alice’s yard for years. They had finally taken their threats to the next level and had informed her that they were about to come in with bulldozers and a hefty fine if she didn’t act herself. That was the only way Reeve had gotten her to agree to let Brad and him do the cleaning for her. He’d found out the hard way that her agreement had only been half the battle. Getting her to commit to a date had proven unsuccessful, so he’d finally taken it out of her hands and they’d just shown up at six this morning. Her puffy face was the best indicator of how well that had gone over.

Ninety-five percent of what used to be considered her yard—the odd piece of machinery, the occasional broken yard decoration, and years of overgrown landscaping—was now loaded into a Dumpster and taken away. He’d even paid extra to have the trash company come right back that afternoon and collect the receptacle so his mom couldn’t sneak out there and retrieve anything. He had no doubt that she’d have tried if given the chance.

“You’ve broken my heart, Reeve. How will I split and replant my daylilies this year now that you’ve thrown away all of my dirt and mulch?”

Reeve sucked in a deep breath. The pile of dirt that had been sitting in the corner of her backyard for over four years had been so full of weeds, it had turned into a small jungle hill. The bags of mulch she’d bought God knew when were so molded through that he and Brad had pulled out masks to clear it all. He could have tried to explain all of that to her. Easier to just lay out the facts.

“Mom, most of the daylilies were not salvageable. The ones that were I split myself. I think you’re all good for now.”

“Still. Such a waste of money.”

Before he said something regrettable, Reeve said his good-byes and walked out to the truck. When he opened the door Brad gave him an eyebrow raise. “She okay?”

“She will be. It might take her spending fifty bucks at the discount store on shit she doesn’t need to do it, but she’ll get there.”

Brad shook his head. He was the only person in Reeve’s life who knew the truth. They’d met in high school and he quickly became Reeve’s first true friend. These days he had several good friends—a guy didn’t go through eight years of the marines and not get tight with his comrades—but there was only one guy like Brad, because he knew. He’d never been in the house, never seen what Reeve had lived through, but just telling someone all those years ago had been a relief.

It was something he never would have done on his own, but when Brad had asked if he could use their restroom one day when he came to pick him up, Reeve had been forced into a corner. An excuse about a broken toilet could only be told for so long. Reeve still remembered and still appreciated Brad’s response. “That sucks, man. But you’ll be out soon.”

The words had been so simple, and yet the fact that he hadn’t freaked out, made a face, or, worse yet, judged Reeve for it had meant the world to him. Nothing about their friendship had changed after the conversation, which had always been his fear. Why he’d always kept people at a distance.

He pulled into Brad’s driveway. “Thanks for helping me out. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“No problem. But remember, you’re showing me your appreciation with unlimited beers tonight. So I’ll see you in . . . forty-five minutes? Because after today, if I sit my ass on the couch I can’t promise I’ll get back up.”

Reeve laughed. “I hear ya. Forty-five minutes is good.”

After driving the short distance to his own house, Reeve got out and headed inside. He tossed his keys into the bowl on the entryway table. Immediately he took his shoes off, carried them to the closet, and pushed them against the wall.

Living with a hoarder for the better part of his life had fundamentally changed him. Clutter and mess terrified him. To most, his home could be considered bare. Unlived in. To him, it was one step away from tragedy. Leaving one mess, one dish in the sink, was a slippery slope. He didn’t dare test fate, because at any moment the hoarding gene that lay dormant in his body could activate and things would tailspin out of control.

His years in the military had been good for him in that regard. Order, cleanliness, and organization were hard for many of the guys to get used to. Reeve had thrived on it. It had been a relief to live in that kind of surrounding when he’d gone off to basic.

After making a quick dinner, he shoved the last bite of his second PB&J in his mouth, threw his napkin away, and wiped up the counter. An ache in his back smarted and his head pounded. Nothing that a hot shower and a few beers wouldn’t cure.

Twenty minutes later he was refreshed and pulling back into Brad’s house, this time on his Harley. Brad stepped out to his own bike and started up. Before long they were on their way out of town and heading toward their favorite dive bar, The Wicked Deuce.

Reeve needed this. Badly. Not only the destination, but the journey. A good ride would clear his head and help him to refocus on the upcoming workweek. Big Blue Landscaping—his and Brad’s baby—was really taking off. Things had been hectic, but he was not complaining.

He had a very basic philosophy for his life, something he and a few friends had jokingly come up with years ago: Work hard, train hard, fuck hard. Yes, it was not something he said out loud, but so far it had served him well. Big Blue and his part-time National Guard drills kept him sane, working out regularly kept him in shape, and tonight he would seek out the third piece of the pie. Arguably the most satisfying piece.

It had been a few months since Reeve had been with a woman, so he was feeling highly motivated. Since Brad was going through a divorce, Reeve had a feeling they were on the same mission.

The feel of his bike’s engine beneath him was soothing, and the monotony of the road slowed his racing mind. After nearly an hour of the wind whipping his face, he was feeling inspired and renewed. All he needed now was a drink, and if a beautiful woman showed some interest tonight, all the better.

Brad’s taillights lit up and Reeve followed him off the highway before pulling into the bar parking lot. The Wicked Deuce looked like an oversized shack from the outside, but nobody seemed dissuaded by that. Reeve and Brad liked that it was far enough out of town that they rarely saw anyone they knew and the bartenders tended to overpour their already cheap-as-hell drinks.

After parking on the gravel patch off to the side of the building, they entered through the main door and inhaled the heady scent of dive bar: a mix of wood polish, cheap perfume, and backed-up floor drains. Smelled like a relaxing Saturday night. On the inside the place was a little more visually appealing than the exterior, but not much. Probably why they kept the lights low. But it suited Reeve and Brad’s purposes just fine.

Without a word, they sat down at the end of the bar, ordered their usual, and took a long drink. Finally, after they’d both hydrated and acclimated to their surroundings, Brad spoke up. “Busy tonight.”

Reeve glanced over to the dance floor and nodded in agreement. It was the weekend, so it wasn’t that unusual, but there did seem to be a lot of bodies in the old building. The Deuce tended to attract a certain crowd. Mainly farmers, country folk, and young people who lived nearby. It was only about an hour north of Manhattan, so occasionally college students from K-State or soldiers from Fort Riley would find their way out here, but tonight there was a different vibe. And then Reeve saw why.

About a dozen or so ladies were on the dance floor sporting bright-pink boas and blinking headbands. Definitely not the type of woman the Deuce usually attracted. Men weren’t always the quickest on the uptake, but the quality of their dresses, the sleekness of their hair, and the perfection of their makeup were dead giveaways. These females weren’t country-bred, they were country-club, and the farm boys were enjoying the show. Obviously, these ladies were partaking in a little recreational slumming. Wasn’t that sweet.

Reeve looked over at Brad. “Bachelorette party.”

“Oh hell.” Brad shook his head and then lifted his glass to his mouth.

Reeve chuckled. “Never know, they could be looking for a good time.” Sometimes the classier clientele liked to take their slumming to the extreme. He was pretty certain he’d been a willing victim of that before.

Brad gave him a side eye. “Yeah, well, I’m not looking for a fight with someone’s fiancé. Or husband. They don’t look like a young bunch. Got to be in their thirties.”

Reeve glanced back to the group. The bride-to-be had a crown on her head and appeared to be having a heck of a time. She was cute. A couple of them were, but Brad was right, they weren’t exactly the just-out-of-college type like most of the bachelorette parties one encountered in a bar. Most of these women were probably married and enjoying a rare night out. Reeve liked to keep his hookups mess-free, which usually leaned toward younger and definitely unattached.

“How about the Debbie Downer in the back,” Brad said, nodding to the back corner and interrupting Reeve’s thoughts.

He looked where his friend indicated and spotted the woman holding down the fort alone at the table on the far side of the dance floor. She also had a light-up headband on her blond head, and Reeve chuckled to himself as he realized the two objects bobbing on top of her head were shaped like dicks.

“Must be the designated driver.”

“I don’t think so. She’s got something pink in her glass,” Reeve said absently.

“She’s kind of hot.”

She was. Beautiful even. But damn, she did not appear to be having a good time. Probably some female drama she was pissed off about. The way she kept glancing down at her phone and biting at her lip—possibly her husband was mad that she was out and it was killing her buzz. Who the hell knew and why in God’s name was he thinking about it?

Brad had spotted her first, so the brotherly thing to do would be to give him dibs. Then he watched as she shoved her cell phone down the top of her strapless dress, lifted her hands to her head to adjust her dick headband, and stood up.

Reeve swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry.

“Damn,” Brad whispered beside him. They watched the blonde turn and walk back toward the restrooms. After she disappeared, Reeve turned to his friend.

“Damn is right.”

“I can’t believe she had room to squeeze that phone in there with those tits.”

Reeve shook his head. He’d been thinking the same thing. “Lucky phone.”

At that they both took a drink in salute of the tiny black number that Debbie Downer had been wearing. It was short and tight, hugging her ass like a teenage boy’s wet dream come true. For a while they focused on the news that played on the TV, but for some reason Reeve’s eyes kept finding their way back to the table, waiting for the black dress and pouty red lips to return. When they finally did he couldn’t seem to stop staring. She was so far out of his league it was laughable, but that had never really stopped him before. It’s not like he wanted to ask her out on a romantic date.

But at the same time, he couldn’t help wondering what her story was. Why wasn’t she out there on the dance floor making a fool of herself alongside her girlfriends? What was so interesting on that phone? And would he be able to fit his fingers down that tight-ass dress? Okay, not part of her story, but it was a question on his mind.

Once seated, she quickly slid her hand back down her dress to retrieve the device, and again stared at it like it held the secrets of the universe. His curiosity continued to be piqued.

After the music switched to a slow song, the rest of the ladies in the bachelorette party made their way back to the table and sat down with her. She quickly nestled her phone back down into the side of her breast—and then she did something that nearly blew Reeve’s mind.

She smiled.

Good Lord, if he’d thought she was beautiful before, now he knew she was downright gorgeous. He couldn’t really explain it, but there was just something about her that pulled his attention like a tractor beam. She laughed with the other ladies, so his theory about her not getting along with the group was out. Maybe she just didn’t like to dance. Couldn’t hold that against her. He didn’t like it, either. But he had to admit that he’d like nothing more than to see her on the dance floor. Might even inspire him to drag his ass out there just to get close to her.

Glancing over at Brad, Reeve found his buddy eyeing the news again. Probably busy thinking about his ex. Again. Reeve took it as a sign that Brad had no intention of pursuing Debbie Downer, so he went back to watching her.

She was no skinny chick. Her curves were full and supple, her breasts squeezed and standing at attention in that dress. The group talked and laughed, and he couldn’t help but wonder what he’d have to do or say to make her smile at him like that.

A pop song that sounded just as annoying now as it had twenty years earlier came on over the speakers, sending the women squealing and rushing back to the dance floor. They might look like they were in their thirties, but put a pack of women together and they all acted the same. The bride-to-be grabbed the woman in black’s hand and practically dragged her onto the floor.

She was quickly swallowed up by the crowd and lost from view. Irritated, Reeve tossed back the rest of his beer and motioned to the bartender for another one. Two women sat down on the other side of Brad and instantly struck up a conversation, but Reeve continued to keep one eye on the back-corner table, even as Brad initiated some awkward introductions.

Reeve couldn’t find himself even the slightest bit interested in the two of them, which was probably stupid since it had all the signs of a sure thing. But no, he’d already laid eyes on the woman who interested him tonight. And right then Reeve decided that if the opportunity presented itself, he was going to speak with her. Just for kicks. If nothing else, he wouldn’t mind watching her do that phone trick up close.

* * *

Emily Phillips was a complete failure when it came to partying. Not that it never happened; sometimes it occurred by accident. Like the time she’d thought she spent the evening drinking virgin daiquiris at a cousin’s wedding back home, only to end up drunk at a karaoke bar with strangers until three in the morning. That had been fun. She’d let herself go and even made out with a hunky guy for an hour. That was, until she’d had to go home and face the real music. Even at twenty-one years old—and her first time ever sneaking into the house in the middle of the night—her asshole stepfather had managed to make her feel like shit for “risking the family’s reputation.”

Emily didn’t know if it was her genetic makeup, or growing up under the oppressive influence of Brigadier General Allen Strickland, but party girl was not her style. That sort of recklessness might appeal to some, but she knew that kind of behavior in general was neither wise nor reasonable.

Now a successful woman on her own, she preferred subtler pleasures. A hot bath after a long day was one of her favorite pastimes. Reading the most recent best-selling business book was a great way to spend an evening. She even enjoyed a takeout-and-Netflix binge on the weekends when she didn’t have extra work to do. But what she found herself doing right now, this grinding with strange men at a dive bar and making a fool of herself? This was foreign and utterly ridiculous. Her only defense was that it was the bachelorette party of her oldest friend, Amanda, so concessions had been necessary. Including the awful and gratuitous blinking headband she was sporting. But everyone else was still wearing their penis headbands and since she never wanted to be the Debbie Downer in the group, hers had remained firmly in place.

This was her third visit to the dance floor this evening, surely an adequate number, so she felt safe retreating once again. As Emily wiped her damp brow and glanced around at the beefy cowboy dancing behind her, she gave him an awkward smile and headed off the dance floor to resume her self-appointed position as official purse-sitter. But first she made her way to the long bar on the far side of the building, cringing as the shiny red soles of her favorite black chiffon Louboutins stuck to the nasty beer-soaked floor with every step.

She pushed her way between two men facing opposite directions and leaned forward in order to get the bartender’s attention. For such a dump, the place was packed. Of course it was Saturday night, but they were in the middle of nowhere—Amanda’s choice. She’d wanted a dive bar and that was certainly what this was. The clientele was a mix of country bumpkin, weird old guys, and college Greeks. An interesting assortment, no doubt. But at least it wasn’t a trendy yuppie pickup bar. Emily shuddered imagining how the night would have been different surrounded by MBAs convinced they were God’s gift.

The music at the dive represented the customer base, playing twangy country one minute and hip-hop the next, which made it seem like the place was having a massive identity crisis. Still, it seemed to be profitable.

The bartender was clearly busy and Emily wondered why there wasn’t a second on such a busy night. She tried repeatedly to make eye contact, even lifted her hand as he walked by. Nothing. Not even a nod of I’ll get to you when I get to you. She sighed, accidentally bumping the man to her right. He turned, eyed her, and his face slid into a leer that he probably thought was charming.

“Hey, Steve, this cutie needs a drink,” his voice called out over the music and voices.

Emily nearly rolled her eyes. Instead she cut the idiot a look. He smiled back at her. The misogynistic ass was under the impression he’d done her a favor. Of course it worked, damn it, and the bartender walked right up to her.

“I’ll take another vodka cran, please. With a lime.” She laid a five on the bar and watched as he filled the glass with ice and then sloppily poured her drink. No wonder the first one had given her such a buzz. Who was keeping track of this dive’s bottom line? Even a shithole like this should be run with some efficiency.

“I’ll start you a tab,” he said and began to walk away.

“Uh, no-no,” she said loudly before he got too far away to hear. She tapped her fingernail on the five-dollar bill. “I prefer to pay now, please.”

The bartender took a quick step back and held out his hand. “You can give me a card. Easier to run a tab.”

“Actually, I don’t run tabs. But thanks,” Emily said loudly over the buzz of voices as she firmly pushed the bill to the edge of the wood.

The man sighed deeply and his lips quirked. Clearly he didn’t want to deal with the bossy little lady. “Listen, sweetheart. If you didn’t notice, I’m busy. It will be easier for me to open you a tab.”

Well, then. She stood straighter. “Oh, I certainly did notice. Despite that, I’m going to have to disappoint you by not being a sweetheart when I point out that had you just immediately given me my change we could have avoided this awkward discussion altogether. In addition, considering this is a service establishment, I’m pretty confident the idea is to do what’s best for me, not you.” She sucked in a breath, her eyes trailing around the bar at the wide gazes staring back at her. She refused to feel ashamed for sticking up for herself, even though she was tempted to flip off the asshole at the end of the bar chuckling behind his beer.

“What a bitch,” she heard a woman near him say.

The burly bartender slapped his beefy hand down on the five-dollar bill before walking over to the cash register. She held back a wince as he slammed the cash drawer closed and then came back to lay down her change. Three quarters and three pennies.

“Anything else I can get you, doll?” His words oozed with sarcasm and thinly veiled anger.

Emily made a show of carefully separating the quarters from the pennies, pushing the latter in his direction, and picking up the quarters for herself. She gave him her most sincere tight-lipped smile before she replied. “No thank you. And while I usually base gratuity on the quality of service, you’ll see I’ve decided to be generous today.”

With that she grabbed her glass and turned around before letting out a long shaky sigh. Despite her ability to put on her work hat and speak with confidence off the cuff, it wasn’t always easy for her. But she’d learned the hard way not to take bullshit, especially from men. The key for her was to keep her cool. Let her words and the facts do all the talking, so to speak. No need to yell, get frantic, or even worse . . . cry. That was what they always expected.

Sitting down at the table, she took a sip of her drink and then discreetly pulled her phone from its hiding spot nestled between her dress and the side of her breast. She held back a smile as she opened the book app on her phone and found where she’d last left off in the fantastically trashy romance novel she’d been reading.

A few months ago she’d been on a business trip to LA when she’d picked up a small paperback novel in the airport gift shop on a whim. The woman behind the counter had seen her and pounced, holding up her own copy and droning on and on about how good the book was.

“Trust me, you will not regret it,” the cashier had said. “I’m almost done and don’t want it to end.”

Emily hadn’t read fiction in a while, and she’d instantly liked the cover—a scenic image of a field full of wildflowers. It had looked like maybe a sweet family drama or coming-of-age story.

But the outside had been incredibly deceiving, because nothing could have prepared her for the dirty-talking, motorcycle-riding, orgasm-inducing hero who graced the pages inside. There she’d been, thirty thousand feet in the air, more turned on than she’d ever been in her entire life.

The phrase life changing came to mind when she thought back on that day, and at this point she’d bought every single one of that author’s books. In digital versions, of course, because some of the covers weren’t so . . . innocent. Including the one she was currently reading. It was another blue-collar, motorcycle-riding hero who was so bossy and crude, it was almost offensive. She’d never have guessed that it would be sexy for a man to be so wild and gruff. And yet when it mattered, he could turn on the charm and be the sweetest thing. He was fighting his love for the female hard, and Emily idly wondered if such a man existed off the pages of her books. And if so . . . would she really be attracted to the He-Man type in the real world? Admittedly, the hero was kind of an ass. But something about a man who saw what he wanted and went after it with wild abandon was so hot. Maybe because it wasn’t real. Just a fantasy. But the thought was inconsequential, because she’d likely never know.

After reading for a few minutes she glanced up to make sure her friends were still on the dance floor. They appeared to be having a blast, and she forced herself not to let that make her feel like a bachelorette party dropout. She’d never failed at anything, except having a good time. In high school when her friends were going to field parties and cruising, she was studying for her ACTs and trying to keep her GPA at 4.0. In college she barely had time to sleep and eat with her course load so there was definitely no time for extracurricular festivities. And now that she ran a multimillion-dollar company, she was busier than ever. In fact, this was the first time she’d seen her lifelong best friend, Amanda, in three months. Even that last time had been a quick coffee date.

Emily spotted a laughing Amanda on the dance floor. As if feeling her gaze, Amanda glanced over and gave Emily a pitiful smile. What’s that about? Did Amanda feel sorry for her? Annoyed, Emily plastered on a grin and gave a little wave to the ladies on the dance floor. There was no need for the other women to feel sorry for her. She really was just fine observing.

And reading about dirty sex in secret.

But as if to check in on a child in time-out, Amanda was making her way off the dance floor and heading in Emily’s direction.

“Are you still on your first drink?” Amanda asked as she sauntered toward the table. Emily quickly laid her phone facedown on the table before replying.

“For your information, this is my second drink. And I’m about to finish it.” Emily tossed back a healthy gulp of her vodka cranberry, winced, and then stared at Amanda.

“Oh, Em.” Amanda lovingly patted Emily’s head. “I wanted this night to be fun for you.”

“I am having fun. And in case you’d forgotten, this is your bachelorette party. Meaning you need to worry about you enjoying it. And by the looks of your flush I’d say it’s a success.”

“Yes, but you’re my friend and maid of honor so I want you enjoying it with me.”

“I said I am, don’t worry. I grinded with that tall cowboy, didn’t you notice? And dinner was amazing, I enjoyed the . . . entertainment, and now I’m enjoying you girls making fools of yourselves on the dance floor.” She was only partially lying. Dinner had been excellent, but the hour they’d spent at the strip club had been incredibly awkward.

Emily always wanted to be that girl, the one who laughed out loud, drew attention for being adorable and quirky, and threw caution to the wind. But outside that lone karaoke night when she’d been twenty-one, she knew it just wasn’t who she was. She was cautious. A critical thinker. She liked punctuality and decisiveness. Success wasn’t just a goal, for Emily. It was life or death. Okay, not really, but it sure as hell felt like it sometimes. Anything frivolous—like grinding on strangers while wearing light-up penises on your head—was just a distraction. And unnecessary. Sure her books made her yearn for a little crazy in her life, but the odds of that cowboy turning out to be the nasty-when-it-was-hot-and-sweet-when-necessary kind of guy were slim at best. More likely he would want drunk sex in the back of his pickup. Or be a full-time asshole like her step-father. No thank you to that.

The only frivolity she could get behind was shoes. Good shoes were always justified.

“Every time I look over here you’re working.” Amanda nodded at Emily’s phone.

Emily’s mouth dropped open. “Oh . . . no . . . I promise I haven’t been working . . .”

She wasn’t able to react fast enough as Amanda swiped her cell phone off the table and flipped it over. Emily’s cheeks flamed with embarrassment. She clamped her eyes shut just as she caught sight of Amanda’s going wide with shock.

“Oh. My. God.”

“I know, I know, I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be reading that. Especially during your bach—”

“This is the latest Becky Bradley.”

Emily gasped. “Do you read them, too?”

Amanda leaned forward, elbows on the table, and gave Emily her best are-you-kidding-me stare. “I’m obsessed with them. The last one, where Kayley gets taken by the stalker and then Wade goes and saves her before they have super-hot sex? Oh my God, I bawled my eyes out.”

Emily couldn’t believe it. She’d been so ashamed of reading these books. They were full of raunchy sex and far from classic literature. But she was enjoying them so much. “I did, too.”

“They’re so good and so hot. Devon and I have the best sex after I read one of those books.” Amanda was practically yelling in Emily’s ear to be heard over the noise of the bar, but she knew their conversation was still private.

Emily leaned toward her friend. “Does he know you read them?”

Amanda gave her an odd look. “Of course. He loves it.”

“Huh.” She was tempted to ask if Devon’s sex talk was as filthy as that of the guys in these books, but that seemed like too personal a question even for her and Amanda. Or maybe she just didn’t want to know that about Devon. No, more likely she didn’t want to feel jealous of her best friend.

“So the truth is out. I highly approve of you reading, but you can do that anytime. Tonight you should be dancing with me. Come on, one more dance and I’ll consider it a success.” Amanda stuck out her hand and smiled, but before they could stand up, a female server set another pink drink down in front of Emily.

Her head jerked up. “Oh . . . I didn’t order another one,” she yelled, trying to get the server’s attention before she got too far away.

The woman nodded toward the bar. “Courtesy of the gentleman.” Without waiting for Emily’s response—which would not have been forthcoming since she was too much in shock to speak—she made her way back toward the front of the room.

“Oh my goodness,” Amanda shrieked, craning her head toward the bar. “Which guy is it? Can you see?”

Emily finally found her voice. “I have no idea. I don’t want to look.” She’d been up there not twenty minutes earlier bitching at the bartender. What the hell?

“Well, you have to look,” Amanda cried. “You have to give the customary head-nod acknowledgment.”

Emily balked. “I’m not required to acknowledge a man who presumed I would accept a gift from him. Especially a consumable. He could have put drugs in it.”

Amanda rolled her eyes. “A server brought it to you from the bartender. Slipping a customer a Mickey is sort of bad for business.”

Yeah, if Amanda knew that Emily had just rubbed a three-cent tip in his face she might see the need for concern. Emily gave her a sidelong glance. “Isn’t the buying-a-drink practice a little dated and barbaric? ‘Me man. You woman. You drink alcohol.’”

Amanda laughed. “He didn’t revoke your voting rights, Em. He sent you a drink. You were sitting here drinking already, for goodness’ sake. It’s an opener.”

“An opener to what? I certainly don’t need a man to buy me a four-dollar drink to let me know he’s looking for a one-night stand.”

“True. You could probably write a check for this entire property faster than he could call the bartender back over. That’s not the point. And you don’t know he only wants a one-night stand.”

Emily gave Amanda a side eye.

“Okay, he probably does. But maybe he’s hot. It could be fun. I mean, I’m as much of a feminist as you are, but sometimes it feels good to have a man be a man. You know? Like . . . in charge. Making the move. Kind of like a Becky Bradley hero. And don’t tell me you’re not looking for him. I see your eyes darting around.”

“Fine, I am curious.” Emily said. A large group of cowboys had just walked in and she didn’t have a clear sight to the far end of the bar thanks in part to their ridiculous hats. “But still, sending a drink over is just so . . . cliché.”

“Hmmm, you know what they say about a woman that protests a lot.”

Emily rolled her eyes and laughed. “You fail at Quoting Shakespeare 101.”

Amanda laughed. “I’m not ashamed of that, and now I’m going to walk away and hope that our mystery man comes over. And if he does, and he’s hot . . . consider saying yes. Or at least talking to him.”

“Amanda, no—”

Too late. Emily watched the backside of her friend disappear onto the dance floor. Trying for nonchalance, she glanced toward the bar once more. She had been looking for the mystery man. And the truth was, when that server had revealed that a gentleman had sent her a drink, a melty type of warmth had spread through her body. Men didn’t usually send her drinks across the room unless they were fellow businesspeople, or she was at an industry conference. Slimeballs and opportunistic businessmen abounded at the hotel bar in those situations. But this was different. Nobody knew her here. Chances were that this was from a countrified slimeball, but what if . . .

For a moment she looked down at the phone in her lap and found the last few sentences she’d read. His gaze never left hers as his fingers found her wet and ready for him. “I’m going to devour you, Sarah. Understand me?”

Oh, that lucky Sarah.

Sitting up, Emily glanced back in the direction of the bar and her mystery man. The group of cowboys that had been blocking her view had dispersed and a few people moved from the fringes of the dance floor, revealing the far end of the long bar, and that was when she saw him.

Holy. Shit.

Two men were perched side by side, their faces illuminated by a few neon signs on the wall beside them. To the left, two women sat laughing and flirting with one of the men. The other was the one whom she’d caught laughing after she’d gone off on the bartender.

And now his eyes were directly on her. There was no mistaking he was the one. She could feel it. He had short, dark hair, and his face was all hard lines. Except for his lips, those looked full and ripe, and they began to turn up a little in a smile. Nearly a wicked smirk. At her.

I’m going to devour you, Emily . . .

Emily shook that thought from her mind and slowly moved her gaze all over his upper body. He was built, muscles pushing at his shirt and trailing up the sides of his neck. When their eyes met once more he lifted his beer bottle just long enough for her to notice the acknowledgment. It was so subtle, yet so masculine, she could feel hibernating nerve endings in her body crackle to life.

A thought flashed through her mind. This may very well be it. The moment she believed would never come, when she could experience the things she’d never believed she would. Her chance to be that girl, the fun one who took risks and got wild. It wouldn’t be an accident this time; she could be fully present and aware of what she was doing. Just this once.

She forced herself to give a little smile—it felt like it held a touch of snark, she couldn’t seem to help herself—and then quickly looked away. He was almost too handsome. And he’d most definitely witnessed her skirmish at the bar, which was a little embarrassing. What was he thinking? She’d been the epitome of stuck-up bitch. Did that turn him on? One thing was certain: The self-assured look on his face told her that he was all trouble, with a huge ego.

Scanning the dance floor, she caught sight of Amanda, her eyes wide and her hands lifted as if to ask, What are you gonna do?

Emily just shrugged, because she had no idea. She hadn’t left home tonight with the intention of hooking up. Not that she’d ever left the house with that intent. Shit, she wasn’t even sure she’d know what to do with a one-night stand, and anything more with the man across the bar was out of the question.

Emily’s eyes darted back to her mystery man. He was laughing with his friend, his smile so sexy she had to take a deep breath. His gaze cut to her once more, catching her looking at him. He grinned. Damn.

This man was clearly out of her league when it came to flirting and hookups. Between his muscles and his body language, he was the type of man that screamed hot sex, while all her past partners had screamed mediocre sex. Her college boyfriend Zack had been her first, and he’d been . . . okay. She dated Gage for a while three years ago and they’d had sex about once a week. Also . . . meh. Basically the physical aspect of relationships was always somewhat of a disappointment, so she’d never been inspired to look for a one-night stand. And contrary to popular belief, she wasn’t often presented the opportunity. A well-meaning colleague once informed her that she appeared unapproachable. On the other hand, many women often assumed that because Emily was successful, had a wardrobe of expensive clothes, and could basically afford to do whatever the hell she wanted, she must be having daily orgasms at the hands of beautiful men.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. She barely made time to have them at her own hands.

This guy at the bar looked like he wanted something that she didn’t know how to give. Put her in a boardroom, behind the podium at a quarterly investor meeting, or at dinner with a client? She was balls-to-the-wall confident. But outside of business, introduce her to a charming guy with a nice smile and she often turned into that nervous sixteen-year-old girl with braces and a perfect attendance record. Or even worse, she dialed her bitch up to eleven and pushed him away before he could reject her first.

As flattering as the drink was, she couldn’t do this tonight. But one more glance at the bar—and his empty seat—sent her heart racing.

She wasn’t going to look around and make it obvious that she was freaking out. Before she could lose her mind any further, a large hand grabbed the back of the chair to her left. The legs screeched across the wooden floor as he turned it around and straddled it. Emily quickly slid her hands under the table to hide the evidence that she’d been reading on her phone. His sudden presence enveloped her in the dark scent of musk and masculinity.

This close he seemed bigger, wider, and more dominating than he’d appeared across the room. Sitting up straight, she forced her lips together and managed to look at him.

He grinned, the kind that told her he knew exactly how uncomfortable she was and he had no intention of putting her out of her misery until he was damn good and ready.

“Hello,” he said, his eyes fixed on hers. And, oh goodness, his voice. It was like melting chocolate, deep and smooth, with a hint of roughness. His voice was a Crunch bar. A gooey, delicious, heavenly, Crunch bar. His lips quirked and she prayed that her thoughts weren’t obvious on her face.

“Hi,” she said.

He cleared his throat and leaned forward. “At the risk of sounding crass, for a woman that has not one but . . . two dicks on her head, you do not seem to be having a very good time.”

Her mouth dropped open in shock, and without time to think it through, she laughed. A full-out laugh. He joined her, his own sounding rugged and sexy. The lines at the corners of his eyes made it obvious that he spent time outdoors, and the size of his biceps hinted at manual labor. No tie, no suit, no business lingo. He had just walked up and used the word dick, which meant he was totally unlike the guys she normally encountered on an everyday basis. And she wasn’t sure if she should be offended or amused. Either way she was a little turned on.

“Well, you’re laughing. I take that as a good sign.” He scooted the chair closer to the table, putting their faces only a few feet apart. Something about his forwardness sparked a moment’s concern, but a quick glance at his handsome face and genuine smile had her ignoring the warning. Maybe she’d test him a little bit before sending him packing.

Emily cleared her own throat and leaned on the table, gently interlocking her fingers. “A person can laugh for a variety of reasons. It’s not necessarily a sign of acceptance. Or an invitation.”

His expression faltered for a fraction of a second, but he pulled himself together and grinned. For a moment he glanced out to the dance floor as if collecting his thoughts. When he turned back to her, his chin dipped, head tilted a bit, and his voice went dark. “True. But if I play my cards right, and I keep making you laugh, I’m hoping I can end this conversation with an invitation.”

Their eyes met in challenge at his second outlandish zinger. On top of that, the way he’d approached her, so cocksure and full of swagger . . . it just felt raw. And then he’d made her laugh, which had set an interesting tone to the entire situation. This could be her chance. One night with a man who would make her feel as if she were stepping into her fantasy. Into one of her books.

It was as if he’d managed to cut through all the awkward bullshit with that easy and outrageous comment. He wasn’t baiting her with pretty words or charming lies, the kind of weird conversations she never knew how to navigate or keep up with. No, this man was throwing an offer on the table like a business deal, and even a former nerd knew what that offer was. No-strings sex.

With this hot, blue-collar, beer-drinking epitome of male virility.

And she wanted it. Suddenly she wanted it more than anything. Never in her life had a man like this had his hands on her. She wasn’t even sure why he desired it, but she didn’t want to waste time asking questions like Why me? Maybe, just maybe, this man could . . . devour her.

Emily’s eyes flicked to the dance floor and clashed with Amanda’s who was holding her hands together in prayer and nodding yes. She found herself sliding into her business mode, the one where she could think quickly on her feet, and speak with complete confidence.

With that thought, and her friend’s encouragement, Emily glanced back to the gentleman and gave a small smile. “Well then, for both of our sakes, I hope you play your cards right.”

***
Copyright © 2017 by Nicole McLaughlin.
***
Learn more about or order a copy of All I Ask by Nicole McLaughlin, available May 30, 2017:

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Nicole McLaughlin wrote her first full length book (6 pages) about the birth of her baby sister, when she was eight years old. She only finished it because her mother bribed her with a Rick Astley cassette tape. Sad, but true. Now her characters are what keep her writing and her subject matter has gotten a little bit deeper and a lot more romantic. She resides in a small town outside of Kansas City with her husband and three sons.

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