Carved In Wood

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He’s obsessed with his art and with a woman who doesn’t want to love him.

Maybe he should be grateful. Without the constant frustration, Joseph McEldowney figures he might never have answered any artistic urge to express his emotions. Now carving life from wood is all that soothes him. Too bad he can’t carve out a place in this world where nothing matters except the heaven-sent pull he and Jillian Lansing have towards each other. She says he doesn’t fit her long-term plans. If that’s true, why should he torture himself with the short-term pleasure she’s offering? But how can he turn her away when he can’t get her off his mind?

Jillian Lansing has been ambitious all her life. Despite helping care for her deceased brother’s children, she kept her own big dreams for a family of her own. Sure, they’ve been put on hold for the last few years, but her life is way more stable now. Her auntie duties are relaxing into something almost normal. Reesa and Shane are doing great with the kids, and now expecting one of their own. Her lifelong best friend’s pregnancy is another wake-up call for her. Despite both of them grieving the loss of their siblings, Reesa managed to find her perfect partner. So where is hers? She’s certainly dated enough trying to find him. 

Brooke hastily shoved her feet into her heels when the doorbell rang. She hustled to the living room, halting when she got a whiff of cologne. It smelled like…Drake?

Shocked at her reaction, she sniffed again. Yes. Definitely Drake.

Feeling guilty that the man at the door wasn’t the one she was now wishing for, she shook her head in denial as the doorbell sounded again. With one hand on her stomach to quiet her nerves, she opened the door with the other. She was speechless when she saw the man standing there.

“Drake?”

Unable to speak, all he could was stare at her. Brooke was dressed in a short black dress with bare legs and tall heels. Instead of speaking, he held out the triple bunch of roses.

Brooke was breathing nervously, trying to figure out what to do about the fact that Drake was there when he shouldn’t have been. She took the flowers just to get them out of the way. “Thank you. I would invite you in but I’m…expecting someone.”

Drake rubbed a hand across his face. “He was here already…but he left.”

“Why? What did you say to him?” Brook demanded.

Drake ignored the question and stepped across the threshold without an invitation. “You probably want to put those flowers in water. Roses don’t last long otherwise. I’ll wait.”

“Wait for what?” Brooke demanded, closing the door harder than she intended.

When she turned around, Drake had stepped close. She backed up, but the door stopped her retreat from him.

“I’m waiting because we need to talk,” Drake said softly. “Even if talking is not really what I want to do right now.”

“We don’t need to talk. We have nothing to discuss,” Brooke denied, using the bouquet as a floral shield.

Drake considered his options and discarded all but one. He couldn’t out debate Brooke. Her mind was too sharp. All he could do was give her more to think about.

“Maybe we can find something to talk about…after we do this…,” he declared. Drake grabbed and tossed the expensive bouquet across the room and into a chair.

“Hey…” Brooke complained, as the flowers left her grasp.

Not willing to give her any real chance to talk him out of acting as irrationally as he’d decided to act, Drake stepped into Brooke’s body, his mouth hot and demanding as their well-matched forms lined up perfectly. Hard slid against soft, just as it had the first time he’d kissed her in her mother’s kitchen.

In contrast to his demanding mouth on hers, Drake slipped his hands around Brooke’s waist slowly, letting her feel the gentle forward slide of his fingers before they slid low and pulled her hips tight against his. His body revealed the truth of his intentions to both of them as he surged and pressed her into the door while she groaned and arched against him.

He broke off the kiss, dragging his mouth from hers. “I ran off your date,” he whispered.

“Why? I don’t understand.”

Drake snorted. “Of you course you understand. You’re just afraid of admitting it. Brooke, I can’t bear the thought of you with other men. If you have any other relationships—sexual or otherwise—damn it, end them.”

Brooke shivered at his command. “Why should I?” The zipper on the back of her dress slid down swiftly as his mouth covered hers again.

CHAPTER 1

“You’re thirty-five this year, right?” the doctor asked.

Jillian nodded as she bit her lip. Why was it that bad news always seemed to start with someone pointing out your age. Getting older sucked. “The fibroids are still there, aren’t they?”

“Yes. They’re still there, but they haven’t grown much. And the good news is that there are a lot of new drugs on the market. Sometimes they can help keep fibroids small but no medicine gets rid of them. That’s still the case.”

“Are we talking surgery to eventually remove them?” Jillian asked. She bit her lip when her doctor shifted in his chair.

“The problem with surgery is the location of the fibroids which might necessitate the removal of at least one ovary. The problem with the drugs is that they can affect fertility. In time, I think surgery to remove the fibroids will be our only option at some point. I would say if you’re planning to have a family, you will need to do it this year, or at least by next year.”

Jillian sighed at the news. After a few years of fighting her birth control, the reality of what her doctor was saying didn’t surprise her, but it did depress her. “There’s no serious man in my life right now, so I don’t see myself having babies in the next year or even two.”

“That doesn’t have to stop you. If you’re interested in alternatives, I highly recommend the Bluegrass Fertility Center here in Lexington. You can choose the perfect donor and they’ll ship the sperm to my office for the procedure. If you don’t find the diversity of donors you need there, there’s another good service in Louisville. Shop until you find a donor match that suits you.”

Shaking her head, Jillian lowered her gaze to stare at her bare feet. “I don’t want children that badly. I’ve been helping raise my nieces and nephews since my brother and his wife died. They live with their other aunt. Honestly, my biological clock stops ticking after a day spent with them. They’re a handful.”

The doctor laughed and nodded. “I hear you. I have three of my own and children are a lot of work. You can let me know if you change your mind and I’ll write a recommendation for you then. Let’s see you back here in six months so we check everything again. If you start feeling a lot of pain, come in immediately. I want us to keep close tabs on those fibroids.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jillian said, smiling so he’d believe her. It actually sounded awful, but she was not having a meltdown in front of her OB-GYN.

When the exam room door closed behind him and the nurse that had been with him, Jillian slid off the table and pulled the paper gown from her body. She looked down at herself and frowned. All her life she’d been proud of her body and how she looked. She’d been proud of her curves and her smooth chocolate skin. Now she felt betrayed by it. On the outside, everything was the same as always, but on the inside? Nothing was what it seemed.

That went double for the state of her hurting heart.

* * *

“The new minister is single. I don’t think he’s cooked a single meal for himself since he got here. We’re having him over next week, so don’t be making other plans for next Thursday night. And no working late either, Jillian.”

“I already met the man,” Jillian said to her mother, giving her a narrowed-eyed look. “He’s got gray hair and has to be at least fifty. Why are you trying to hook me up with him?”

“If you weren’t so particular, there might be some younger ones left to pick from. You can’t be waiting until you’re in your forties to have children. Lots of women start the change after forty-five.”

“That’s a whole decade away…” Jillian protested, shaking her head. “No fifty-year-old man is going to want to give me babies. I don’t like older men anyway. Even if I had a child with someone like that, I’d end up taking care of the child and him as he got older. Is that really the life you want for me? Who’s going to take care of you and Daddy?”

“More family might not seem so bad to you if you weren’t always looking after…”

“Stop right there.” Jillian’s head snapped up as she threw out her hand. “I am doing what my brother would have wanted and what I think is right. I’m not arguing about it again.”

“You’re only helping out so much because that woman can’t handle raising a family on her own. She should never have agreed to do it if it was that much of struggle for her.”

“That woman’s name is Reesa which you managed to call her all the years we were friends and growing up together. I’m sorry my best friend in the world is not the proper color you think she should be, but I’m leaving if you start putting her down. Reesa gave up everything for those children. She gave up a man, her work, her car—everything—and she did it to keep those children together as a family. You ought to be singing her praises for being such a saint. With all the traveling I did with my job, I could never have done it.”

“Now you know we don’t agree on her raising all the children. Your father and I both think her financial struggles are just the natural result of her stubbornness. She could have let us raise Zachary and Chelsea. She didn’t have to be a martyr and do it all.”

“Reesa was never going to let anyone further divide her home which had already been divided by more death and loss than most families have to endure in three or four generations,” Jillian added. “I side with Reesa on all the actions she took to get custody of the children. I always will. I’m sorry—but that’s God’s truth, Mama.”

“You always talk like your father and I are bad people who would have kept Zack and Chelsea from seeing Brian and Sarah. That’s an awful thing to think about your parents.”

“You never offered to take all four of them. You only wanted two. That wasn’t fair to them.”

“It’s called being realistic. We couldn’t afford all four of them. The younger two still need a lot of attention and care. We travel far too much for all those counseling sessions and special classes she has them taking. The older two would have taken care of themselves.”

Jillian frowned as she rolled her eyes. “Reesa and Shane haven’t asked you and Daddy for anything. They let the children come visit you two guilt free. You should be grateful they don’t hold a grudge over you dragging them through court. What you did already made the kids mad at you. How do you think they feel knowing you and Daddy only wanted two of them?”

“Why are you so defensive about this, Jillian? They’re not your children. They’re not your responsibility. It was proper for the courts to decide and they did. Now we’re all living with that decision whether it’s for the greater good or not.”

Jillian glanced away from her mother as she thought about how to answer without being meaner than she was already being. “No, they’re not my children, but I’m sharing the responsibility for them as best I can. Reesa is like a sister to me and those children are my family. Plus, they may be the only the mothering I ever do in my life.”

“Well, if you weren’t always pushing away good men…”

“Like the one you set me up with last month who wanted me to do his laundry and take care of his house while he was out of town?”

“It wasn’t like he was asking for the world, Jillian. His mother was too sick to do it.”

“Mama, we had two dates. We were still practically strangers. You don’t ask a woman after two dates to mind your house and wash your damn clothes.”

“You look for any excuse. No man’s perfect, Jillian.”

Jillian sighed and stood. She picked her up coffee cup and headed to the kitchen. “A woman has a right to be loved. If I can’t have that, then I’d rather live alone.”

“Love isn’t all that wonderful, girl. Love can lead a good woman down paths she shouldn’t be walking. Look around at all the people you know getting divorced and tell me that’s not true.”

Jillian watched her mother squirm. With role models like her ambivalent parents, it was a miracle her brother had fallen in love and married before he was twenty. Oh, how often she’d wished that she’d been as lucky. If she had, she would have had someone in her life all this time.

“That’s a pretty jaded view of love, Mama. Are you saying you don’t love Daddy?”

“Of course, I love your father. He’s a good man and a good provider. He’s given me a life I wouldn’t have had without him. He gave you and your brother a good life.”

“A life where he was gone all the time. He wasn’t there for Jackson and he wasn’t there for me. You were the only one who came to anything we did in school. We grew up without Daddy making any contribution to what we did. He can’t make up the difference by being in Zack’s life.”

“How can you be so ungrateful? Your father gave you a life where you never wanted for anything.”

Except for parental love and approval, Jillian thought but didn’t say it aloud. Her mother hadn’t married for love and didn’t seem to regret that she hadn’t. The woman who gave her life would never understand that the only real need Jillian had in the whole world was to be wanted and adored.

“I appreciate all you and Daddy did to raise me. I’m not ungrateful one bit, but the older I get the more I know that I can’t live the life you think I should. I hope one day you can understand that I need different things. Having a husband is not even a goal for me. Finding love is.”

“All you’re going to find is a broken heart at the end of your hopes, Jillian. You’re thirty-five. It’s time to be practical. You don’t want to grow old alone. No one has to be a maiden aunt these days.”

Jillian gathered up her coffee and snack plate and headed to the kitchen. “I don’t intend to be one, but if that’s how life works out for me, so be it. I’m not going to settle.”

CHAPTER 2

Joseph stopped sanding when he heard the doorbell ring. He thought about ignoring it for a moment but changed his mind. His obsession with what he was doing wasn’t healthy—he knew that from confessing his frustration to his smart-ass psychologist friend—so any kind of interruption had to be the universe intervening. Right?

Rolling his eyes, Joe groaned. Now he was even starting to sound like Shane. His best friend from childhood had gotten a job at a research university and Joe had been a Larson lab rat ever since. If he didn’t love Shane like a brother, he’d go over to his house and kick his giant Larson ass for planting so much worry in his brain.

So what if he’d cleaned out the spare bedroom in his apartment and converted it into a workspace for a hobby? Using a whole room for it didn’t mean he was going crazy. Not long ago, his projects had been spread out across the dining room, but he’d outgrown the space. And okay–he’d wanted to hide it from himself to slow his compulsive need to finish it which often meant working until two in the morning.

Blowing out a breath, Joe set the sandpaper next to the base of the mahogany statue he was polishing and closed the bedroom door behind him as he left the room. His need to hide what he was doing was instinctual… and strong.

He didn’t buy all the woo-woo his Larson buddy did, but his Irish ancestors had definitely passed down an urge to trust his gut.

“Stop knocking already. I’m coming,” he yelled.

Expecting the now escalating pounding to be someone’s lost pizza delivery, Joe opened the door and glared. But it wasn’t a pizza delivery gone astray. It was the last person he’d expected to ever see standing outside his home. Joe stared and blinked his blue eyes—totally at a loss for anything clever.

“Are you going stare at me all night or invite me in?” she demanded.

Words returned when he heard her snarky demand. “I think my brain is still working out whether or not you’re a mirage. Why are you here, Jillian? I thought you didn’t want anything to do with me. Wasn’t that what you said last time we spoke?”

Joe watched as she bit her lip and dropped her chocolate gaze. His followed the downward motion and they both ended up staring at her pointy red shoes with heels that made her his height. His eyes wouldn’t stay down though and instead traveled up her shapely legs and over her knees to where her snug red dress hugged the curves of her ample hips. He wanted under that stretchy red fabric almost more than he wanted to breathe, but it was never going to happen. It wasn’t what Jillian wanted. And he’d already pushed their attraction farther than she’d ever wanted to take it.

He ran a hand through his hair. He should say something ugly and run Jillian off once and for all. That was the model his old man had set for him. Insults had flown between his parents and his father had gotten meaner and meaner with the passage of time. If his father had ever smacked his mother around, Joe hadn’t seen it happen, but it had been a constant concern for him, even as a child. He’d worried about it until the day he’d come home from school and seen Will Larson talking nose-to-nose with his father. Two days afterward his father had packed up and left.

“You haven’t answered any of my questions,” Joe said, stalling while he decided what to do about her. The last time he’d talked to Jillian was four months ago, and before that, it had been at Shane and Reesa’s wedding. Dwelling on that Larson fiasco led to a madness that neither drink nor other women had been able to rid him of.

“I know,” Jillian said, shifting on her heels. “I’m don’t have any answers. I just…” Her eyes closed on a resigned sigh. “I went to dinner tonight—on a date—and I…” Her gaze opened and sought his. “I was thinking of you instead of him. It seemed rude to keep doing that.”

Joe chuckled. “You’re right. That was rude. But it’s still no answer.”

“Making me stand out here in your hallway and confess my sins isn’t an answer either. The only thing I can say is that I’m obsessed with you and I want to get over it. That’s why I’m here.”

Joe crossed his arms and leaned against the door jam. “You’re mistaking me for Shane. I’m not a therapist… nor am I a monk. If you come through my door, I can’t promise you anything is going to go the way you’re probably spinning it in your head.”

Jillian nodded. “I’m not looking for promises about anything. In fact, I’m not looking for anything but some peace of mind.”

“See? That’s where you and I disagree, Jillian. I think you’re looking for something more than you’re willing to admit to yourself… or to me. And I think I know exactly what you’re looking for but a man has to have a little bit of pride.”

Jillian snorted. “If you wanted to keep your secrets to yourself, Joseph, you should have worn tighter pants.”

Joe grunted and shrugged. “If you’d wanted something uncomplicated, you should have gone home with your dinner date.” He pointed at her and then at his own chest. “We—you and I—are complicated. We always have been.”

Jillian grunted back. “We are not complicated. We’re just obsessed.”

“Well, I can agree with that, but I’m still not sure I want to let you in. That dress you’re wearing is like a weapon. I’m thoroughly threatened by my reaction to it.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure I want to let you in either, but I’m here to see if you’re still interested.” Jillian sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry for the bad pun—it was all I could think of.”

Irritated that Joseph hadn’t thrown the door wide the moment she’d shown up, Jillian crossed her arms to mirror his resistant stance. She was an ample woman all over and the action made the front of her dress slide down her cleavage. It made Joe’s gaze slide down as well and her girls warmed with remembering his eager mouth on them. Damn it.

Once again she asked herself “Why him?” and once again there was no reasonable answer to that query. Joseph McEldowney was not the one for her. Joe was just… Joe. He was shaggy Shane Larson’s childhood friend and definitely did not fit her plans. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—let her mother and father down this hard, despite her disappointment in their viewpoints. Her parents were finally getting used to Reesa and Shane having custody of her nieces and nephews—at least a little. The family boat had already been rocked as hard as it could without overturning.

To say her parents didn’t understand that her bigger, more inclusive worldview was an understatement. All the luxury they lived in and all the comfort they had earned hadn’t sweetened the bitterness of what they still saw as their dead son’s defection in his choice of a wife. Color preference was only one aspect of their judgment. They hadn’t approved of Reesa’s sister or Reesa. Reesa’s family had been naturally wealthy and eccentric enough to adopt Reesa. Her bootstrap to wealthy parents thought they’d earned their right to their snooty attitude as well as their money.

It was all just craziness because her brother had created exactly the kind of loving family he’d wanted. Jackson had worked hard on being a great father and husband. Instead of an NBA career, he’d taken a coaching job to avoid being away from his wife and children. Her parents’ dream of having a famous NBA player son hadn’t died quietly. They’d blamed her sister-in-law—Reesa’s sweet sister—and her lack of career for her brother’s choices.

Despite her own financial success, which was starting to be as good as her father’s, Jillian hadn’t made them proud of her yet either. She’d dated plenty of men but had never come close to finding one she cared enough about to spend her life with. Color aside… coming here to sleep with a man who’d forsaken his engineering degree to work as a handyman carpenter would surely be one more mark in the disappointment column.

Jillian sighed. Her situation with Joseph McEldowney was no win-win scenario. She couldn’t take this obsession seriously—beyond needing to indulge it in order to move past it. Being celibate had never suited her, but she’d been unable to feel desire for anyone else since she’d kissed the man still staring at her.

She needed to get Joseph out of her system and move on—and the sooner the better.

“Are you letting me in or not?” Jillian asked.

“Yeah. I guess I am,” Joe said with resignation. “I’ll order a pizza. I haven’t eaten and you must be starved.”

“Why would you say that? I just told you I was at dinner before I came here,” Jillian protested.

Joe snorted. “And you probably pretended to eat. I know how women are on dates, especially if this was a new guy.”

“We go to the same nightclubs. I know all about how you date,” Jillian grumbled.

Joe swung back and stepped into her. He kissed her hard, his mouth mercilessly taking all the liberties it wanted. His muscles tightened when Jillian moaned and his heart beat hard when her arms wove themselves around his waist. He dragged his mouth away and put his forehead on hers. “I haven’t been with anyone since Shane’s freaking wedding and it’s all your fault. No one smells like you or tastes like you or kisses like you…”

“Stop… just stop saying that shit…” Jillian ordered, her palm shoving against a strong shoulder that she knew had gotten that way from hours and hours of hard manual labor. She doubted Joe had ever seen the inside of a gym.

“Are you afraid of the truth?” Joe demanded.

“Yes,” Jillian confessed, returning his blue-eyed glare. “And of you.”

Joe nodded and let her go. “Well, I’m afraid of you too. Guess that makes us even. You can stay for pizza… or the whole evening. Your call.”

“You sound like you don’t care one way or the other,” Jillian said, crossing her arms again—this time to hug herself. His words were honest. They shouldn’t hurt. So why did they?

“You coming here means everything to me, but I’m smart enough to know we’re not on the same page,” Joe said softly. “That makes letting you stay one of the biggest, dumbest mistakes I could ever make.”

“But you’re still going to make it?”

Joe smiled as he nodded. “Yeah. I’m still going to make it.”

He tugged her inside and closed the door on the rest of the world.

CHAPTER 3

“Woman, you look ready to pop at seven months. That’s what you get from bedding that big old shaggy Viking you married,” Jillian teased as she sat down on the couch next to the basket of laundry waiting to be folded.

The baby was estimated to be nine pounds already and Reesa still had two months to go. A C-section was in her friend’s future and Jillian knew Reesa was trying hard to make peace with it. Whether boy or girl—something Reesa and Shane had decided not to learn in advance—their child was already proving that he or she intended to take after its giant father.

“I don’t want to talk about the state of my body at the moment. Let’s talk about something more fun. How was your date?” Reesa asked as she lowered herself into a chair.

Jillian didn’t look up at her very pregnant friend as she folded towels. “My date was boring, just like they all are lately. You can tell what a guy thinks of you from the restaurant he picks. Last night my date took me to a sushi place even though I told him I didn’t like sushi. He apparently loves the stuff.”

“Did you starve while he ate?” Reesa asked.

Jillian shook her head. “No. I had some miso soup and a small salad. Then I went…” she paused and sighed. “After the date ended, I had three slices of pizza to drown my misery.”

Reesa chuckled. “Another bad date bites the dust. You can’t hang with a man who won’t feed you. What is with cheap-ass guys these days?”

Wanting to avoid all thoughts of pizza and the generous man who’d eaten the rest of what she hadn’t, Jillian pointed at the three baskets of clothes. “What’s next to fold?”

“Just the one that says Princess Sarah on it. Brian and Chelsea take care of their own these days. I wash and dry. Everyone folds their own.”

“About damn time,” Jillian said firmly. “You’re not their laundry maid.”

Reesa laughed at Jillian’s tone. “Are you kidding? I’m living large these days. I’m suddenly getting help in the kitchen too.”

“How? Chelsea hates anything in that room. Is Brian learning to cook?”

Reesa laughed. “No, but he loads the dishwasher without complaint. That’s all the progress I can hope for from a thirteen-year-old boy.”

“So who’s helping with cooking?”

“This is Chelsea’s senior year. She’s trying to convince us that she’s mature enough to live with a girlfriend when she goes to college. She doesn’t want to live in a dorm.”

Jillian chuckled. “Smart girl. Has she gotten over her crush on Brandon Barrymore yet?”

Reesa shook her head. “I don’t think so, but they’re very low key with each other—very discreet. Sometimes I think they’re more friends than actually dating. I do catch them holding hands once in a while, but she makes him keep his distance around family.”

“Good for her. I talked to her about setting boundaries. A woman has got to have some respect for herself.”

Reesa sighed and shook her head. “I’ve worried plenty about feeding them, but I’ve got to say that I’ve never once worried about their moral decisions. And I’ve definitely not worried about Chelsea since Brandon rescued her from that frat guy.”

“Lots of women end up learning that lesson the hard way. Trying to convert the bad boys is a bad-bad habit.”

“I want to agree, but you know I thought Shane was a bad boy. I can’t criticize anyone when I had that habit myself.”

Jillian laughed at Reesa’s honesty. “Yeah, but Shane only looks tough. Inside, he’s about as good-hearted as men get. Sometimes Shane reminds me of Jackson. My brother acted tough around everyone except your sister. It didn’t take long after he met April for him to drop that male bravado shit.”

“They were so great together. The kids they made are great too,” Reesa said, smiling softly. “Losing their parents affected Chelsea and Zack the most. They seemed nearly grown-up when I moved in with them full-time. Now Brian? That boy is wicked and sneaky, not to mention an absolute delight when he turns on the charm. He’s going to be a problem as he gets older—you can bet on it.”

Jillian grinned in agreement. “Oh, I’m sure you and your shaggy Viking with his psychology degree can handle one smart-ass teenage boy with raging hormones.”

Reesa laughed. “I don’t know, Jillian. Brian’s so much like Jackson that it makes my heart hurt. And I remember my sister falling hard for him the first time he spoke to her.” She sighed over the future. “I hope Brian waits a good long time before falling in love.”

“No wonder you’re so worried about adding a brand new child to your crazy household. Raising kids is nearly overwhelming.”

“You know it,” Reesa said honestly, sighing again at her worry. “It’s going to be fine though—or mostly fine. Shane is great with children, but I’m… well, I’m still adjusting to the ones I inherited. And Princess Sarah is still very needy. Now I’m going to be asking her to share my attention with a baby. So yeah… I’m a bit worried.”

Jillian huffed. “Well, let those worries go, girlfriend. I’ve got your back. Now that they hired me for the director’s job, I’m going to be handling marketing and social media instead of jetting all over the world to check product quality. It’ll still be long work hours for me, but I’ll be able to be here more.”

“Jillian, I love you for wanting to help us, but you need to find your own life. Your financial help made my life with the children possible. Now Shane makes enough money to care for all of us. I can even hire household help if I need it—and baby help too. Carrie’s delivering the art gallery’s records to the house so I’m not even going to miss my own work. All is well with me and the kids. Seriously—it’s time for you to focus on yourself.”

“What about their college tuition?” Jillian asked.

“Zack’s got a full-ride basketball scholarship and his grades are good. Chelsea’s working on weekends and saving her money. Plus, Shane has signed up for a program to get half Chelsea’s tuition paid if she goes to UK. If she gets scholarships too, then Chelsea can use her savings to live with her friend like she wants. Chelsea’s going to be fine.”

“Okay. How about the other two? Brian’s only got a few years until he’ll be needing help with college.”

Reesa shook her head. “Unless something miraculous happens to change his mind, Brian is going to art school. Jessica and Michael are working with him every week. Who knows how far they’ll take his art? I don’t know how we’ll pay for his formal training yet, but we’ll find a way. Then we’ll have a good long while before Princess Sara gets old enough for college.”

“No worries about the little princess. I’ll be paying for fashion school for her,” Jillian joked as usual. “That girl has a sharp eye.”

“And a smart mouth…” Reesa added, grinning when she made Jillian laugh. “We are the best aunts in the world, aren’t we?”

“We definitely are. I regret nothing about what we’ve done. I hope you don’t either,” Jillian said.

“You know I don’t. This is my family—our family. Just think, by the time Sarah goes to college, any babies we have could be right behind her.”

“Those baby hormones are making you delirious. My baby?” Jillian exclaimed, chuckling over the idea. “I’m certainly not going to be getting a child from anything I’ve been doing lately.”

“Why? All your dates can’t be as bad as the sushi guy.”

“That’s what you think,” Jillian said firmly. She pushed the basket away. “The only sex I’m having at the moment is…” She froze and stared at Reesa who arched an eyebrow. Wow—the truth had almost slipped out on its own.

“The only sex you’re having is with yourself?” Reesa finished with a laugh.

“No. I’m not that desperate yet,” Jillian said, unable to lie completely. “I have a guy that I…”

“You have a booty call guy?” Reesa filled in with a giggle.

“Something like that.”

“Is he good?” Reesa asked.

“I don’t know,” Jillian said with a frown. “We haven’t got that far.”

“Maybe you need to talk to him about the definition of a booty call.”

“Shut up,” Jillian ordered, snorting as Reesa dissolved into giggles. “We’re doing other things.”

“Other things?” Reesa repeated as she laughed harder.

“Yes, smart-ass… other things.”

“Good other things?” Reesa asked with a grin. “Geez… this sounds like high school. I hated high school.”

Jillian sighed. She had never, ever, ever been able to lie to the petite woman grilling her. Not since they were six. But she was not about to confess what she had yet to understand.

“Let’s just say the man is the best at everything we’ve done so far… and yes, it feels a bit like having a high school boyfriend. The man is creative about providing me relief. But no, it’s not all I want from him. However, it’s better than going without or resorting to toys.”

“So why don’t you date the creative sex guy?”

Jillian looked away. “I can’t. He’s not my type.”

“No suit? Or no chocolate?”

Snorting, Jillian didn’t raise her head. “You think you know everything about me, don’t you?”

“I know you avoid dating men who don’t have skin as dark as yours. I keep hoping you realize that’s about your parents and not about you. Plus, you haven’t brought a single guy to meet me. I’ve been worried about you for years.”

“Did it ever occur to you that I’ve moved beyond all the one-night stands and flings? Dating the creative sex guy would be an act of futility. He has nothing going for him that’s on my long-term list. When I meet the right man, the creative sex guy will be history.”

“Except he’s obviously talented at other things that maybe aren’t on your long-term list. If he makes you laugh, you’re in big trouble, Jillian. That’s how they get you. The sex is just how they seal the deal.”

Jillian rolled her eyes. “He bought me pizza and we made out on his couch like horny teenagers. I went home several hours later with my underwear shoved into my purse. It was not a proud moment for me. I haven’t done anything like that since college.”

Reesa laughed. “If he’s that talented, when are you going back to get the real thing from him?”

Jillian picked up a pillow and threw it at her friend. “As soon as I can. Are you satisfied?”

“Why yes, I am. Shane takes great care of my needs, but I thought we were talking about you.”

“Oh—haha. The shaggy Viking is good in bed. I knew that the day I picked him out for you. He walked you out with his fingers on your back. The man was a toucher and those are the best kind in bed.”

“I’m sure you’ll find an equally perfect man eventually. You have latent talent.”

“My pickup mojo doesn’t work as well for me,” Jillian said with a sigh. “I can’t seem to find any guy that has it all.”

“Maybe because none of them do,” Reesa said, pushing her whale form out of the chair. “Put being good in bed and loving you outside of it at the top of that list of yours. All the other stuff can be worked out. Jobs and titles and the rest come and go with fate.”

“OMG, I thought I’d never live long enough to hear you talk this way. The realist has become an optimist,” Jillian teased.

“Love can change your life in ways you can’t even imagine until it happens,” Reesa said. “Want some cherry pie? I think I might even have some ice cream to go on it. Shane’s been doing the shopping. I’m getting spoiled.”

“Sounds like you have your husband trained. What’s your secret?”

“Sex is a very powerful thing, Jillian.”

“I hear you, girlfriend. I hear you,” Jillian said, laughing as she followed her tiny, pregnant friend into the kitchen.

Connected Books: ART OF LOVE SERIES


 Carved In Stone

Book 1

Created In Fire

Book 2

Captured In Ink

Book 3

Commissioned In White

Book 4

Covered In Paint

Book 5

Cruising Speed

Based on AOL Series