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Unbroken

By Donna K. Ford

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Donna K. Ford

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Unbroken

When Kayla and Jackie, two women with every reason to reject Happy Ever After, fall in love, will they have the courage to overcome their pasts and rewrite their stories?

Unbroken

© 2017 By Donna K. Ford. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-922-8


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: May 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Healing Hearts

No Boundaries

Love’s Redemption

Unbroken

Acknowledgments

Writing Unbroken was a long undertaking. Although the story was mostly finished, these characters allowed me to take a year away from them to write Love’s Redemption. The time away was well spent, and I can say this story was worth the wait.

I would like to offer a special thank you to my dear friend Kellie. Thank you for sharing your stories with me. I am so proud of your strength to overcome the past and the courage to build an amazing life with your own happily ever after.

This has been a very special year for me for many reasons. It has been marked with tragedy and joy, both of which have changed my life forever. I said good-bye to my dear daddy this year. That is a heartbreak that will never heal. But I know he was proud of me and this work, and I know he loved me. What more could I ask? This was also the year my girl and I said I do. She is my best friend and my forever person. Thank you, Keah, for being my world, my love, and my partner. I want to offer a special thank you to my dear friends D. Jackson Leigh and Sheila Causby for standing beside us as our best persons, and to Hilde Phipps for her unconditional love and beautiful words of union. It was wonderful to have the blessings of so many family and friends surrounding us.

So much more goes into writing a book than the hours spent plotting, writing, and editing. It takes the support and patience of those we love and those who work to get our stories to our readers. As always, I am grateful to Bold Strokes Books for making this dream possible. I am especially thankful to my editor, Ruth Sternglantz, for her amazing support, patience, and understanding. She is a great teacher. And last, I don’t know what I would do without my beta reader Brianne. I hope she knows how special her friendship is to me and how thankful I am for her work.

Dedication

For Keah, forever is a good start.

In memory of Donald E. Ford, the strongest man I’ve ever known. I miss you, Dad.

Chapter One

Jackie fell back against the bed breathing hard, her sweat-soaked hair clinging to her neck and cheeks.

“Oh my, you are something special,” the woman beside her cooed.

Jackie rubbed her face. Despite the hours she’d just spent having sex, she was empty and detached. Normally when she felt this way she could blow off her tension with a beautiful woman for a night. And Heather was beautiful—she practically oozed sex. Everything about the way she talked and moved was designed for luring women to her bed. She was the kind of woman that made Jackie’s fever boil. But tonight something was different. She hadn’t wanted to be touched. Every time Heather tried to claim her, she had turned the attention around until Heather had collapsed, sated and physically exhausted.

“I don’t think I can move another muscle after that. Whatever it is you needed to work out tonight, I hope it comes back. I’d love to do seconds sometime.”

“Hmm.” Jackie mumbled noncommittally, staring at the odd patterns on the ceiling. She leaned up on one elbow and looked at the clock. It was four in the morning.

Jackie pressed a quick kiss to Heather’s lips. “I have to go.”

“So soon?” Heather moaned and rolled onto her stomach.

“Heather?”

When there was no answer, Jackie climbed out of bed, gathered her clothes, and left. She didn’t get it. Why hadn’t she been able to get into things with Heather? She was attractive, willing, very responsive, and almost insatiable. What was the problem? Jackie sighed as she slipped her hands into the pockets of her jeans and hunched her shoulders under the weight of her unrest.

She wouldn’t see Heather again. Maybe she needed to take a break from the one-night stands and the occasional couplings with a few acquaintances she sometimes met up with for short rendezvous.

Jackie was barely aware of the changing lights along the Henley Street Bridge as she crossed the Tennessee River on her way home. A light rain misted against the windshield as water slushed beneath the tires. The streets of Knoxville glistened as the lights of the city illuminated the wet roads with a kaleidoscope of color. The wipe-wash sound of the wiper blades stuttering across her windshield counted out time like a metronome, hammering the nail of disappointment deeper into her mind.

She opened the door to her apartment and tossed her keys on the small table by the door. She couldn’t wait to get a shower and wash away the smell of sex and the feel of Heather’s hands on her skin. She stood with her head bowed beneath the spray letting the water beat against her shoulders and stream down her face. But no matter how long she stood there, and no matter how hot the water, the emptiness seeped deeper into her bones.

She rubbed the towel back and forth over her head to soak up the water as she walked to her bedroom. She stopped in front of the dresser and stared at the framed black-and-white photo of a strikingly beautiful woman with windblown hair, her face turned to the sun, eyes closed, and a hint of a smile in the curve of her lips as if she were about to be kissed. Jackie never let a day go by without looking at this photo and wondering where her mother was. Every year since her mother had left was harder, not better. The old adage that time healed all wounds didn’t apply to her. As time passed and the image and the photo faded further into the past, it was as if the color of her own life seeped away and she feared she would someday find herself a faded, empty image of herself.

Jackie rubbed her hand across her face and sighed in resignation. If she had to describe her feelings, she would say she was lonely. But that couldn’t be right—she didn’t get lonely. She didn’t need anyone. It had been years since she had allowed anyone close enough to her to cause that kind of need. She touched her finger to the frame. Maybe this was what had her out of sorts. She always missed her mother this time of year.

Well, whatever it was needed to work itself out soon. She climbed into bed, letting the cool sheets and heavy comforter cradle her. She sighed. Friday night would be as good a time as any to shake things up a bit. Going out with the crew from work would settle her down and put things back on track. God, she hoped so, because this restlessness was beginning to wear her down.

She peered through the shadows and the glow of moonlight at the picture on the dresser. What happened to you? Where did you go?

The image of her mother smiled back at her as if she should know the answer. Jackie pulled the covers up under her chin and turned away from the memory of her mother and the loneliness that tethered her to the past.

*

The sound of the intercom was like an alarm blaring inside Kayla’s head. She rubbed her already throbbing temples to soothe the incessant pain. She looked at the clock, thankful to see it was already six thirty. She blew out a sigh of relief that the torturous day was finally at an end and she had made it through another week of back-to-back clients. Miraculously, she had somehow kept up with all the paperwork that went along with the caseload. Kayla closed the last file on her desk, already looking forward to a long hot bath, a glass of wine, and some quality time with a good book. A gentle tap at her door drew her attention. She looked up, surprised to see her friend and colleague at her door.

“Hey, do you have a minute?” Jen asked.

Kayla took in the hollowed look in her friend’s eyes and her heart sank with dread. She knew by the tremor in Jen’s voice that something was wrong.

Kayla raised an eyebrow and cocked her head to one side. “Are you kidding?” she said sarcastically.

“Busy day, huh?”

“That’s an understatement. I feel like my brain has been through a blender.”

“Yeah. You kind of look like it too,” Jen said with a teasing smile.

“Thanks.” Kayla grimaced. “What’s up, Jen? All kidding aside, you look like you need to talk.”

Kayla had worked with Jen for two years. They had started out on a community project together and although their work had taken them in different directions, the bond between them was strong and they were each other’s inner office voice of reason.

Jen cringed. “Is it that obvious?”

Kayla shrugged. “To me it is.”

Jen smiled but dropped her gaze.

Kayla could see Jen was hurt and that could mean only one thing. “What did he do this time?”

Jen brought a trembling hand to her lips as she looked up at Kayla. All the worries of the day suddenly faded when Kayla saw her friend so fragile. She shut her office door and handed Jen the box of tissues she kept on the edge of her desk.

Jen took a deep breath and looked up at Kayla, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “He stayed out again last night. I even went to the bar and tried to make him come home with me. He just laughed at me. He told me I was a buzzkill and he was going to go find someone who wanted to have a little fun. I found him passed out on the couch this morning, soaked in his own urine.”

“Oh God, Jen, I’m so sorry.”

Jen shook her head. “No, that’s not even the worst of it. He called me this morning and said he wants me to leave. He wants a divorce.” Jen closed her eyes as if she could shut out the pain. Her hand shook as she toyed with the tissue.

Kayla reached for her friend and tried to console her in the best way she could, but inside she was secretly jumping for joy. She never wanted to see Jen hurt, but she hoped that if Jen would finally divorce Mike, she could break free of his abuse and be happy.

“Can you believe it? He wants to divorce me!”

Kayla shook her head. “What a loser. You know, if he can’t see what he has, he doesn’t deserve you.”

Jen sniffed. “I’ve cried all day. I just felt so hurt. Then he called a few minutes ago and wants me to put money into his bank account. Can you believe that?”

“Please tell me you didn’t do it.” Kayla said with a groan.

Jen sighed with resignation. “I did.”

“Jen!”

“That’s the last time, I swear. I just couldn’t let him go all week at work without food.”

Kayla clenched her teeth and tried not to growl. “Yeah, we both know that’s not what he’ll be spending the money on.”

“I know.” Jen sniffed again. “Maybe I should just go ahead and file for the divorce.”

Normally Kayla would keep her opinion to herself, but this was not a client, this was her friend. “Yes. Yes, you should. Enough is enough.”

“Where would I go? I just can’t move back in with my parents—I already feel like a failure. I don’t have enough money to start over. He’s drained the bank account and what little I have saved just isn’t enough.”

Kayla considered her answer carefully before responding. “You could stay with me until you get your own place.”

Jen looked up suddenly, her eyes wide with surprise. “Really?”

“Of course. What are friends for, if not to help you get out of a tough spot and help trash the guy who is…well…being an ass?”

Jen’s smile was real this time. “So does that mean you’ll also go out with me tonight?”

Before Kayla could protest, Jen put up her hand, effectively halting Kayla’s words before they even left her mouth.

“I just can’t sit around wondering where he is or what trouble he’s getting himself into. I need a distraction. Come on, Kayla, it’s Friday night, and Tennessee doesn’t have any games going on so you can’t use that as an excuse to avoid going downtown. Let’s go out.”

Kayla wanted to argue. She always felt weird when she went out with Jen. She felt out of place in the straight clubs. She just wasn’t girly enough and the guys either gave her a hard time or she was ignored completely. She tried for a compromise. “How about we just hang out at my place? The beer and wine are cheaper and we don’t have to worry about cab fare.”

Jen shook her head. “Come on, Kayla. Please?” Jen pleaded.

“Oh, crap.” How could she say no? Jen was just too damn cute and vulnerable and…well…cute. “Okay. Where are we going?”

Jen threw her arms around Kayla. “Thank you.”

Kayla sighed and hugged her friend. She knew it would be a long night, but if it helped Jen find a reprieve from her hurt, it would be worth it.

*

The moment they walked into the bar, Kayla knew she had made a terrible mistake. It wasn’t the painted-on Wrangler jeans everyone wore, or the crunch of peanut shells under her feet. It wasn’t even the looks they got from the men lined up at the bar as they entered. It was the mechanical bull wildly bucking and thrashing in a small roped-off area to the left of the entrance that filled her with dread. To Kayla’s amazement the bull cast off its rider, who flailed around like a rag doll flung into the air. Kayla jumped back as the rider landed at her feet with a sickening thud.

Oomph,” the rider grunted.

Cheers erupted from the crowd as Kayla reached down to help the stranger up, hoping no bones were broken.

“Thanks,” the rider said, grasping Kayla’s hand to pull herself up. “That’s going to hurt tomorrow.”

“It looks like it hurts now,” Kayla said, shocked that the rider was a woman.

“Maybe a little bit, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” Out of nowhere she quickly leaned in and kissed Kayla on the mouth.

Cheers erupted again from a circle of men on the opposite side of the bull. “Excuse me,” the woman said as she withdrew her lips from Kayla’s. She flashed Kayla a devilish grin and rushed back to the bull.

Kayla stood rooted to the spot, stunned. Her eyes were riveted to the long lean body, taut muscles, and firm ass. What on earth just happened?

A fierce pinch on the back of her arm made her flinch. “Ouch.” She spun around and glared at Jen with her best What the hell? look.

Jen had her hands on her hips and wore an incredulous expression. “I can’t take you anywhere. We’ve only been here five minutes and you’ve already kissed a girl.”

“I didn’t kiss her,” Kayla protested, still not believing what had happened. “She kissed me!”

“That’s just a technicality. The point is, your lips were on hers.”

“At no fault of my own. I didn’t do anything, I swear. And why isn’t anyone freaked out about it…besides you, of course?”

“Kayla, this is a gay bar. Haven’t you noticed?”

Kayla looked around, seeing the men at the bar in an entirely new light. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You brought us to a gay bar?”

“Yeah. I know it can be hard on you when we go out to some of the straight clubs, and I’m not in the mood for the male drama tonight. So I decided to try things your way.”

“My way?” Kayla said, arching her eyebrows.

“You know what I mean. I wanted us to have fun. That means going to a place where we can both relax and enjoy ourselves.”

Kayla was amazed. She had never seen this side of Jen and she didn’t quite know what to think of it. She smiled as the realization set in. If the welcome at the door was any indication of how the evening would go, this was going to be one hell of a night. “Come on then, let’s get a drink.”

They made their way through the throng of men and women to a tall bar-length table that doubled as a railing encircling the dance floor. The whole setup reminded Kayla of a rodeo arena. A rowdy group of young men made their way onto the dance floor, pairing off and gliding into each other’s arms as seamlessly as a flock of starlings. The two-step had never looked so good. Their broad shoulders and muscles bulged as hands grasped possessively to the tight jeans stretched across firm buttocks.

Kayla smiled at Jen who was gaping at the men, her mouth half open and eyes wide. She knew Jen was comfortable with people who were gay, she just wasn’t so sure she had much opportunity to see the real thing in action.

“Your mouth is hanging open.”

Jen looked at Kayla, wide-eyed. “Those are the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen.”

Kayla laughed.

“Seriously, look at them. I can’t believe we haven’t come here before. As of tonight, this is my new favorite bar.”

Kayla worked to suppress her grin. “They’re all gay, Jen.”

“I know,” Jen said cheerfully. “That’s what’s so great. I can look all I want and not have to worry about pickup lines, rude groping, or unwanted flirting. I love it.”

“Is that how you usually feel when you go out?”

“Please,” Jen scoffed. “Do you think I like putting up with all those guys pawing at me when we go out?”

Kayla furrowed her brow, confused. “Well, yeah,” she said.

Jen shrugged and waved her hand in the air as if swiping the thought away. “Well, sometimes I do, but right now I just want to be around men without having to worry about what they’ll do next. At least you don’t have to worry about things like that, K.”

At that moment an arm slid around Kayla’s waist from behind. Without warning, a woman leaned over between Jen and Kayla and set a beer down on the bar in front of Kayla. As the woman withdrew she leaned in and kissed Kayla on the mouth. Her left hand pushed into Kayla’s hair and held her gently as their lips met.

Kayla pressed her hand to the woman’s chest and pushed her away.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Kayla said with irritation.

The woman took a step back and grinned. “I’m apologizing.”

“What?” Kayla looked at the woman, staring into hazel eyes that looked like starbursts, the colors of brown and green stretching across her irises with subtle streaks of gold. Despite the sudden rise of anger, Kayla couldn’t help but feel like she was falling into a sea of scattered light.

The woman flashed a crooked smile and took another step back, her arm still resting along the back of Kayla’s stool. “I came over to apologize for my behavior earlier. I’m Jackie Phillips.” She extended her hand to Jen.

Jen shook the offered hand. By the look on her face she was almost as confused as Kayla felt.

When Jackie then offered her hand to Kayla, Kayla stubbornly refused. “You mean you’re apologizing for kissing me earlier by kissing me again?”

Jackie looked down at Kayla and shook her head. “No. I’m not apologizing for kissing you. I’m apologizing for leaving without introducing myself. The second kiss was because I enjoyed the first one so much I wanted to make sure I got to do it again.”

Kayla scowled. Her pulse raced as shock and annoyance threatened to ignite her anger. “Are you always so sure of yourself?”

“Pretty much,” Jackie said, smiling.

Kayla felt the heat rise in her face as her temper flared. She was embarrassed at having been treated so carelessly in front of everyone. Jackie had no right to put her hands or her lips on anyone without their permission. “Well, I hope you enjoyed yourself, because that’s the last time it’s going to happen.”

Jackie studied her for a moment. She cocked her head to the side and trailed her eyes across Kayla’s face. When Jackie looked into her eyes, the intensity of her gaze took Kayla’s breath.

“Okay. You’re right,” Jackie said, putting both hands up in a sign of surrender. Her eyes softened and her brow furrowed slightly, forming a small crease between her eyes. “I was out of line. I’m sorry if I offended you.”

Kayla wasn’t ready to let the issue go, but all her bravado seemed to evaporate when she saw the softness enter Jackie’s eyes. She tried to be angry, but the truth was that Jackie was hot, very hot. Kayla hadn’t been out with a woman in six months, and if she was being completely honest with herself, the kiss had been nice…shocking and rude, yes, but nice.

“So, what are your names?” Jackie asked.

When Kayla didn’t respond, Jen answered. “I’m Jennifer Harris but you can call me Jen, and this is my friend, Kayla McCormick.”

“Well, Jen and Kayla, let me buy you a drink to make up for my forwardness.”

Kayla was about to say no, when Jen spoke for them both. “That would be wonderful, thanks.”

As Jackie walked toward the bar to get the drinks, Kayla glared at Jen. “Why did you do that? She’s rude and presumptuous—”

“And cute,” Jen added. “Besides, it’s nice to see the gay world isn’t all that different after all. This way I get to watch you figure out what to do with the pickup lines, rude groping, and unwanted flirting.” Jen smiled. “This is fun.”

“Great,” Kayla grumbled. “I’m glad you’re amused.”

Jackie returned with the drinks and pulled up a stool.

Jen immediately jumped into conversation. “So, what was the bull like? Do you do that a lot?” Jen laughed into her drink and winked at Kayla.

“No. This is the first time I’ve been here. I’m here with some guys from work and we had a couple of bets running. They bet I couldn’t stay on the bull for five seconds.”

“How long did you last?” Jen asked.

“Eight. I could have made it longer, but when you two walked in, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet you.” With the last statement, she met Kayla’s eyes.

Kayla wasn’t buying it. “So you threw yourself at my feet deliberately?” she said in disbelief.

“Well, I wasn’t supposed to land on my face, but yes.”

“Right. And what was the other bet exactly?”

Jackie grimaced and shook her head. “I better not say.”

“Come on,” Jen pleaded. “Out with it.”

Jackie looked away this time and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “The guys bet me I wouldn’t be able to get a girl to kiss me tonight.”

Kayla’s face burned. “So not only were you rude, you used me as the butt of a joke. Nice.” Kayla scowled at Jackie.

“Well, I just acted on impulse. As soon as I realized what I’d done, I wanted to make it up to you.”

“By humiliating me? Twice!” Kayla had had just about enough of this charade and rose from her chair to leave. A firm but gentle hand caught hers before she could step away.

“No. I swear the second kiss was real. The more I watched you, the more I realized you were someone I wanted to know. I’m not even really sure why I kissed you again. It just felt nice. I’m really sorry. I know I’m not explaining myself very well, but I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Can we start over? Please.”

Jen laughed. “Come on, Kayla, it wasn’t that bad.” Then with mock surprise she covered her mouth with her fingers. “Or was it?”

Kayla couldn’t help but laugh a little. She rolled her eyes. She might have been able to hold on to her anger if she was just dealing with Jackie, but the two of them together were impossible.

“I’ll live.”

*

Three drinks later, Kayla found herself on the dance floor trying to learn the latest line dance. Jen and Jackie seemed to pick up the moves easily, but she continued to struggle. After she almost tumbled into the man in front of her, she felt a hand brush along her back and grasp her hip. Jackie moved so close to Kayla the sides of their thighs brushed. Jackie guided her through a complicated series of stomps and kicks, their bodies swaying seamlessly to the music. Kayla had to admit, Jackie felt good. It was nice to have someone pay attention to her, a very sexy someone.

Jackie took Kayla’s left hand and stood slightly behind her, then wrapped her right arm around Kayla’s waist and pressed her right hip just to the back of Kayla’s left. Kayla could feel Jackie’s breast brush her back as they moved, and the press of Jackie’s hand against her side was gentle but firm. The slightest movement of her hand and shift of her body made her feel as if they were joined and their movements had become one. A wave of heat ignited in her belly and spread through her body. A light sheen of sweat broke out on her skin and her stomach fluttered with arousal.

Kayla laughed out loud when Jackie spun her around. With one quick twist they were face to face, and Jackie’s strong hands were holding her, guiding her, driving her. Jackie moved her hands to Kayla’s waist, pulled her close, and began to sway in a slow dance as the music changed. In an instant the playful energy between them shifted to something much more alluring. The hypnotic rhythm of the music coupled with the press of Jackie’s body against hers was intoxicating. Kayla felt a twitch between her legs. She was aroused, and as they moved, she imagined Jackie’s naked skin pressed against hers. Every step, every turn on the dance floor was like free-falling, and Kayla had the urge to press her lips against the sweat dampened skin of Jackie’s neck.

Jackie was silent as she held Kayla in her arms. Kayla’s breath against her cheek was like a caress, and every cell in her body pulsed in time with the rhythm of Kayla’s breathing. Normally she would use the closeness to suggest a more intimate joining, but just holding Kayla was more satisfying than anything she had experienced in the last few weeks, and she wanted to hold on to that feeling as long as she could.

The music ended and Kayla pulled away. “I need to go to the bathroom. Dance with Jen for a while—I’ll be right back.”

Kayla’s withdrawal was like having the air swept out of the room, and Jackie wanted to grasp on to her, anything to push away the emptiness she knew was waiting for her outside Kayla’s embrace. Jackie held her breath as Kayla’s hand slipped from hers. She didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew she wanted more.

Jen claimed her arm. “Hey, tiger, my turn.”

Jackie nodded, thankful for the distraction. She let out her breath and took Jen’s hand, hoping to chase away the emptiness of Kayla’s absence. “Good idea, come on.”

Jackie worked to clear her head as they danced and quickly slid back into her usual playful flirtations. She teased Jen about her missed steps and who had the better hip thrust. Jen laughed and countered every jab with a jest of her own. Jackie enjoyed the banter and wondered at the easy flow of conversation and the pleasure she felt not pursuing sex with a woman.

*

Kayla watched Jen and Jackie dance. She laughed when Jackie picked Jen up and spun her around until Jen’s laughter rang out over the crowd. Kayla was amused by Jackie’s antics, and despite her inner warnings, was intrigued by the attractive, confident woman. Kayla felt a stirring in her middle and shifted uncomfortably. The last thing she needed was to be attracted to someone so impulsive. Kayla knew she was just reacting to the physical lure of Jackie’s flirtations, but since when did she even entertain flirting back? She’d had enough warnings about the carefree lifestyle, growing up with constant reminders about her parents, that she knew that kind of life wasn’t for her. She preferred predictable and stable.

Kayla saw Jackie watching her and looked away. She recognized the look of interest that had settled into Jackie’s eyes, and she didn’t want to admit how much she wanted that attention. Jackie gestured to Jen to take a break, and a minute later they plopped down into their chairs beside her. A light sheen of sweat coated Jen’s skin and her eyes were bright with playful energy.

“You two looked pretty good out there,” Kayla said smiling at Jen. She was pleased to see her friend having a good time. It had been a hard day for Jen and she needed this diversion.

Jen laughed. “Casanova here kept stepping on my heels, but otherwise I guess she was all right.”

“Hey”—Jackie was quick to jump to the defense—“that was only because your steps were too small.”

The sound of cheers got their attention, and they looked over to see a new crowd had gathered around the mechanical bull.

“Oh, let’s go see,” Jen said grabbing Kayla’s hand and pulling her out of her chair. Jackie followed so close she could have been Kayla’s shadow, allowing only a step or two between them. A small thrill tingled across Kayla’s skin at the slightest touch of Jackie’s hand on her back. Damn it, why did she have to like her?

A throng of men and women stood watching as people took turns trying to ride the bull. Each time a rider was thrown or simply fell off the machine, the crowd roared with laughter and cheers. Jen laughed too and cheered and jumped up and down when one man managed to stay upright through a series of wicked twists and turns and bucks. Jen’s laughter was contagious, and soon Kayla was laughing too.

“Do you want to try it?” Jackie asked, leaning across Kayla to get Jen’s attention.

Kayla caught her breath as Jackie’s breast brushed lightly against her shoulder, and she shuddered at the jolt of electricity that surged through her. She glanced at Jackie, quickly sneaking a peek at the line of muscle at the base of her neck. The pulsing beat of Jackie’s heart was instantly echoed between Kayla’s legs. Kayla shut her eyes and looked away. God, what’s happening to me? She had to get her mind off the feel of Jackie’s body and back on the reason she was here.

Excitement blazed in Jen’s eyes. “Oh yes!”

“Come on,” Jackie said, taking Jen by the hand and leading her to the man at the controls.

Kayla watched with anxious amusement. This ought to be good.

A few minutes later the crowd roared with laughter as Jen attempted to get astride the contraption. She managed to get her body up onto the bull by bouncing on the mat before jumping onto the slick leather back, but the momentum carried her over the other side, and she hit the mat with a sharp smack. Jen lay on the mat for a moment laughing before gathering herself for another try.

Kayla laughed as she watched her friend try helplessly to hang on to the unpredictable machine, her left arm and both legs flapping like a rag doll as she was tossed willy-nilly from side to side.

Jackie came back to stand next to Kayla and pressed her hand lightly against Kayla’s back. Kayla was acutely aware of the suggestion in Jackie’s touch and the heat of Jackie’s palm warming her through the thin fabric of her shirt. When Jackie leaned over the railing and cheered for Jen to hang on, her hand slid to Kayla’s waist and rested against her hip. Kayla knew she should move away but was mesmerized by the rightness of Jackie’s touch. The pressure of Jackie’s hand on her sent chills up her spine. Despite her better judgment, she allowed this one indulgence. Despite how the evening had started, Kayla had enjoyed Jackie’s company and found her mind wandering to places she knew could only mean trouble.

Jen fell from the bull again in what seemed like slow motion. Her laughter rang through the crowd with a high-pitched squeal punctuated with a snort just as she came to rest on the mat. Kayla and Jackie ran to Jen and helped guide her back to her seat.

Jen raked her fingers through her hair to smooth the unruly strands. She was still laughing. “That was great!”

Kayla laughed. “You were pretty good. I’ve never seen that technique before. You definitely fall like a pro.”

“Ha-ha.” Jen tried to swat Kayla’s shoulder as she slid her chair closer with a grimace. “Ouch, I think I’m going to have a bruise.”

“Oh yeah, more than one, I’d say,” Jackie said as she slid her arm casually around the back of Kayla’s chair.

A voice over the loudspeaker announced last call. “Seriously,” Kayla said pulling out her cell phone to check the time, “I can’t believe we’ve been here all night.” She was a bit disappointed that the night was coming to an end. Although she didn’t exactly know what to make of her interest in Jackie, she wasn’t ready to break the connection. She knew that once she walked out the door, she would come to her senses and playtime would be over.

“Hey, I’m going to the little girls’ room before we go. I’ll be right back,” Jen said, pushing back her chair. She swayed a little and grimaced before heading to the back of the bar to the restrooms.

Jackie reached for Kayla’s hand, wrapped her long fingers around Kayla’s more delicate hand, and extricated Kayla’s cell phone. She quickly manipulated the buttons on the screen.

“What are you doing?” Kayla asked incredulously.

“I’m putting in my contact information so you can call me.”

Kayla leaned back in her chair and raised her eyebrows. “What makes you think I’m going to call you?”

Jackie looked up and met Kayla’s gaze with such intensity Kayla felt like she had been touched. Jackie’s voice was smooth as silk and she answered seriously. “It isn’t that I expect you to call me, Kayla, but I hope that you will. I’d like to see you. You know, like a real date, not just a meeting in a bar. I haven’t been able to think of anything except you all night.”

Kayla was surprised by the sincerity and tenderness in Jackie’s voice. In that moment all Jackie’s bravado was gone. Kayla felt Jackie’s gaze, as intimate as a touch that sent a shiver up her spine.

Jackie slid a hand along Kayla’s jaw and caressed her face. Kayla looked up into Jackie’s eyes as Jackie leaned in and kissed her. The kiss wasn’t like the others. This kiss was soft and tender, like the gentlest glide of satin against her lips, and the faintest brush of tongue teased her flesh with the promise of a deeper, more sensual passion.

Jackie pulled away, her lips hovering only a breath away from Kayla’s mouth.

“Will you call me?” she whispered.

The heat of the question was like a flame on Kayla’s lips. Her pulse raced as she fought the urge to claim Jackie’s mouth again. She could feel Jackie’s fingertips like tiny points of promise against the tender skin of her neck. Hazel eyes held her captive, pleading for her to say yes. But Kayla knew better. The night had been fun, but it wasn’t her, and Jackie Phillips was the last thing she needed in her life right now.

“No,” she breathed huskily, her voice coated with desire. Her body was saying yes, but Kayla knew better than to listen. The spark between them might be hot tonight, but that kind of heat would quickly burn itself out.

Jackie smiled and nodded. She trailed her fingers along Kayla’s neck, across her shoulder, and down her arm until her fingers molded into Kayla’s hand. “I hope you change your mind.”

Kayla pulled her hand away. Every second she touched Jackie made it harder to walk away, and she was not an impulsive person. She didn’t give in to reckless desires or fall for women in bars. The more space she put between them, the safer she would be.

Kayla looked around for Jen. She wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. She didn’t want Jackie to see her true feelings. She didn’t want Jackie to see she was getting to her. It was time to get her feet back on the ground and her head out of the clouds. It was time to go home.

Chapter Two

Kayla sauntered into the kitchen, taking in the familiar sign of a hangover. Jen sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee as if she could will the pain in her head to stop pounding against her skull. She looked like she hadn’t slept well and the coffee didn’t seem to be doing much to help. Jen was wearing a pair of light blue cotton sleep pants and an oversized sweatshirt that had seen better days. Despite her swollen red-rimmed eyes and messed-up hair, she was beautiful. Kayla’s heart warmed. She imagined Jen as the little sister she’d always wanted. Kayla cleared her throat and took a coffee cup from the cupboard. She filled her cup before turning to face her friend.

“How are you feeling?”

Jen groaned. “My whole body hurts.”

Kayla grinned, understanding that after the events of the evening, Jen probably wasn’t exaggerating.

“Can I get you anything?”

Jen opened her eyes into slits and surveyed Kayla as she slid her coffee cup across the counter. “How can you sound so cheerful this morning? Aren’t you the least bit hungover?”

Kayla shrugged and shook her head. She didn’t get hangovers. “Sorry. Want breakfast?”

Jen grimaced and clasped her hand over her mouth as if she might be sick. “Do you mind if I just sleep it off?”

“Sure. Like I said, you can stay here as long as you want.”

Jen sighed. “Thanks, K.” She got up from her chair and added sugar to her cup. Before turning away, she put her arms around Kayla and pulled her into a hug. “Thanks for going out with me last night and for letting me stay with you. You’re the best.”

Jen’s lips brushed Kayla’s cheek. Hesitantly she put her arms around Jen, and wondered how Mike could be so blind to how wonderful Jen was. She would never understand how Mike could treat Jen the way he did.

“I had fun too,” she whispered, giving Jen a squeeze before releasing her. She smiled at Jen, hoping she couldn’t see how concerned she was, and her worry had nothing to do with Jen’s hangover.

Jen smiled at her thoughtfully as if she was about to say more, but the moment passed and she moved away. She picked up her cup and disappeared down the hall.

Kayla watched Jen go and thought back on their evening. It had been good to see Jen laugh and have a good time, and she hoped that it was only the beginning for Jen. She had been through a lot with Mike in the two years they had been married. The thought of Jen laughing and dancing instantly brought up the image of Jackie, and a tingling sensation danced along her skin. What are you doing, K? You know better than this. She shook herself to rid the memory of Jackie’s lips from her mind. She didn’t need to think any more about Jackie Phillips or the dream she’d had of her last night. At a loss for what else to do with herself, she decided to head out to the gym. A good workout would help clear her mind. She was just overreacting. She didn’t want to be attracted to Jackie—she didn’t need that kind of trouble in her life. Kayla picked up her keys and headed for the door to escape the memory of Jackie’s kiss.

All through her workout as Kayla pushed her body, she did everything to release the relentless tension evoked by her attraction to Jackie. Soon her mind calmed, but her body still hummed with sexual energy, and she hadn’t been completely successful in ridding her thoughts of Jackie. Kayla sighed and increased the pace on the treadmill. It really had been too long. As the sweat trickled down her chest into the swell of her breasts, a new thought began to penetrate her mind. She licked her lips, recalling the delicate taste of Jackie’s mouth during that last kiss. She allowed her thoughts to play out the memory of each touch. She groaned. No amount of running could make her forget that kiss.

What would her grandmother say if she were there right now? Kayla cringed. This was just the kind of thing her grandmother always warned her about. She was just feeling lonely lately. That didn’t mean she had to go losing her head. This was the kind of thing that would get her hurt.

Kayla felt a little more together by the time she returned home. Jen’s car wasn’t in the garage and the house was quiet.

Kayla groaned when she saw a note lying on the counter. Thanks for everything. I’m going back home. I’ll figure out what I need to do next. See you Monday. Love, Jen.

Kayla let out an exasperated sigh. Jen had gone back to Mike. She knew this wouldn’t be the last time Jen would need her. As long as Mike was in the picture, Jen couldn’t be happy. She crumpled the note and tossed it in the trash. She didn’t understand why Jen couldn’t break away from such an abusive relationship, and she worried that things would only become more unstable as Mike’s drug use escalated. But for now, all she could do was to be there for her friend and wait.

*

Kayla sat at her desk, thumbing through her calendar. Six weeks stood between her and the annual conference on behavioral health and addictive disorders she would be attending. It was the biggest training she’d attend all year, allowing her to meet counselors from all over the United States presenting on the latest research in her field. Although she would spend seemingly endless hours in lectures each day, she looked forward to a break from the usual office routine. She had managed to book an extra week at the beach resort following the conference for a long-overdue vacation. That would at least make her travel free and help out her budget a bit. It was times like these that she really did love her job.

Of course the first week she would pine for the warm rays of the sun as she listened to the latest studies in brain research, therapy techniques, emerging problems in the world of psychology, and endless talk of the barrage of books touting the latest treatments for all sorts of disorders. But her evenings would be free to explore the beach, eat all the oysters her little heart desired, and maybe even explore the local nightlife.

Just thinking about the getaway was exciting. She wouldn’t know a soul and could do anything she wanted without worrying about running into a client. It would be nice to get away.

Kayla’s phone buzzed and Jen’s name flashed across the screen. “Hey, Jen, what’s up?” Kayla said cradling the phone against her shoulder as she flipped through her schedule.

“Are you busy?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Are you going to that conference in Florida in May?”

Kayla had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Yeah, I’m already registered, why?”

“Well, the board has decided I should go to represent the coalition. It looks like we’ll be going together. Isn’t that great?”

“Wow,” Kayla said trying to sound excited. “That is great.” Kayla imagined a balloon bursting over her head and mentally kissed her worry-free trip good-bye.

“They also want me to consider taking a transfer to the Nashville office. They need someone who already knows the grants we work under to help restructure the program.”

Jen paused, and the silence on the line bore into Kayla’s brain as she took in the information. She experienced shock, dismay, and happiness in quick succession. Luckily, she was used to keeping her feelings and reactions to herself until she knew where things were going.

“What do you think?” Jen added nervously.

Kayla struggled to think. “Um…what did you tell them?” she asked as her mouth went dry.

“I said I needed to think about it. I know Mike won’t go for it, but maybe it’s time for me to think about making some real changes for myself.”

“Okay.” Kayla still wasn’t sure what she should say, so she waited for Jen to continue.

“I’m not sure what I should do. It’s a great opportunity and it will make me make some decisions about my life.”

“What are you going to tell Mike?”

Kayla heard Jen sigh and could imagine her slumped forward, her elbows on her desk, her forehead cradled in the palm of her hand.

“I’m not sure yet. With his job, he could live anywhere. But he thinks my job is stupid, and I know he won’t want to go to Nashville. If I decide to do this, it’ll mean going alone. Right now he doesn’t have to know anything. I’ve been staying at my mother’s since I left your place.”

Kayla was surprised by the news. She’d been certain Jen had gone back to Mike. “That’s tough. Want to come over tonight and talk about it over dinner? We can break open a bottle of wine and celebrate.”

“Thanks, K, but I’m still at the Nashville office. I won’t be heading home until tomorrow morning.”

“I understand. We’ll do lunch when you get back.” Kayla tried to sound upbeat, but her emotions were in turmoil. Her long-awaited getaway was now going to include Jen, her best friend was thinking of moving three hours away, and she was worried about what Mike would do to Jen if or when he found out about her plans to move, especially if those plans didn’t include him.

“I’ve got to run, K. I just wanted to share the good news.”

“Sure. Be safe, and congratulations.”

Kayla rubbed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and finger and mumbled to herself. “Not good, not good, not good.” She sighed and looked at the clock. Suddenly the thought of going home to her empty house was depressing. She would miss Jen if she moved, but she was happy that Jen was beginning to think of herself and her own future instead of letting Mike hold her back.

She sighed. She thought of her grandmother. She’d had her quilting club and church groups until she died, and despite her age and limitations she’d led a fulfilling life. Kayla realized she hadn’t done much to build a life of her own outside of work, and now that her grandmother was gone, the emptiness had started to show. She needed to change that, but how? Where did she start?

Kayla toyed with her phone, scrolling through her contacts. She stopped when a new number grabbed her attention. Jackie Phillips was not the answer she was looking for. She’d done her best to forget the tall, beautiful dark-haired woman, but the memory of that last kiss continued to make her heart race.

An hour later Kayla still hadn’t moved. She picked up the phone and found the number Jackie had programmed into her cell. She stared at the phone, her finger hovering over the call button. She drew in a deep breath and put the phone down. No. She wouldn’t call Jackie. She liked her orderly, predictable life. Going out with Jackie would be inviting trouble. Her parents had lived the fast and furious lifestyle and she knew there was no room for her in that world. Maybe she should consider getting a cat.

The sound of a disembodied voice rang out over the intercom. “Kayla, could you come to the front please, code Charley.”

Kayla froze. She glanced at the code sheet next to her phone. Code Charley was an alert that someone was potentially hostile. Kayla grabbed her keys and locked her office on the way out. As she made her way down the hall, she tried to ready herself for what she was about to face. Her heart raced and she tried to maintain an outward appearance of calm.

She could see Martha at the front desk through the glass partition that divided the reception office from the waiting area. Martha was pale and her eyes were wide. She looked scared to death. Kayla turned the corner toward the waiting area. A tall gangly man paced the small lobby like a lion in a cage. His head was bowed and he rubbed his hand over his close-cropped hair in an anxious gesture. Kayla’s stomach lurched. Although she had never met Mike in person, she recognized him instantly from the photos in Jen’s office.

Kayla stepped into the room making sure to keep her distance. She cleared her throat. “Hello, can I help you?”

Mike turned toward her so fast, Kayla took an involuntary step back. His eyes were wild and there was a noticeable tremor in his hands. The shimmer of sweat on his pale skin and dark circles under his eyes made him look ill.

“Who are you?” He asked.

“I’m Kayla McCormick. I’m one of the therapists here.”

He narrowed his eyes and scrutinized her. “You’re Jen’s friend. She talks about you.”

“Yes, I know Jen.”

“Where is she? I want to see my wife.”

Kayla extended her hand. “Then you must be Mike—I’m glad to finally meet you.” Kayla hoped her open and friendly demeanor would help Mike relax.

Mike stared at her hand a moment before taking it. His palm was clammy and Kayla felt the tremor in his hand. She was certain he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and that could be a game changer.

Kayla released his hand and moved away so that she could see beyond his shoulder to Martha.

“I’m sorry, Mike, but Jen’s out of town right now. We aren’t expecting her back today.”

“I don’t believe you. Where is she? I want to see her, now.”

“Would you like to sit down and talk about it? Maybe I can help.”

“I don’t need your help. I need my wife.”

It was apparent Mike was growing desperate and more unpredictable.

“I’m really sorry. Jen didn’t mention she was expecting you before she left. I really would like to help. Would you like to tell me what has you so upset?”

For a moment Kayla thought Mike was going to give in. He looked confused and swayed slightly on his feet. Then his eyes widened and he jerked as if he’d been struck.

“You’re keeping her from me. I’ll get her myself.”

Mike tried to pass to the hall but Kayla stepped in front of him. She held up her hands with open palms in a gesture to stop his progress while trying to be nonthreatening.

“I’m sorry, you can’t go back to the offices. I need you to think for just a minute, Mike. Did you see Jen’s car in the parking lot when you came in? I promise you I am not trying to keep you from her, she’s simply not here. I’d love to talk if you like, but otherwise I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

Kayla glanced over Mike’s shoulder and was relieved to see Martha signal that the police were on the way.

“Think about it, Mike. No one is keeping you from your wife. She really isn’t here.”

Mike glared at her. Everything about him seethed distrust and desperation. Mike tried to step by her again, and Kayla took a step to the side blocking his path. This time she put her hand on his arm to change his focus. She knew this was a gamble, but she couldn’t allow him into the back offices where clients might be at risk.

He stopped and stared at her as if he didn’t know what to do next. The scream of sirens broke through the silence. Mike jerked his head around as if he didn’t know where to run. He slammed his hands into Kayla’s chest and shoved her away from him. Kayla flew backward. She crashed to the ground and slid backward on the slick floors, her head and shoulders hitting the wall behind her.

Kayla was more stunned than hurt. She hadn’t really expected Mike to strike her, and everything happened so fast she didn’t have time to defend herself.

Mike ran out of the building the instant Kayla hit the floor. Martha was by her side an instant later.

“Oh God, Kayla, are you all right?”

“I’m okay.” Kayla straightened and took stock of her body. To her surprise there was no pain except maybe some minor bruises, and her neck was a little stiff. She really was okay.

Once she was standing again, Kayla took Martha’s hand. “Call Jen. We need to warn her.”

Martha nodded and ran to the phone just as the police came through the door.

Chapter Three

The next morning Kayla couldn’t get out of bed. Every time she moved, searing pain streaked down her neck and back like she was being stabbed with an ice pick hooked to a live wire. She managed to shift herself around so she could reach her phone, but it took her a while to decide who she could call. She called work and canceled her appointments for the day and then went through her very short list of options for getting medical attention. She could call an ambulance, but that seemed a bit dramatic and she didn’t want them breaking down her door to get into her house. Now that her grandmother was gone, she didn’t have any family left. Kayla finally called her neighbor. They weren’t close but he had always been nice and always offered to help if she needed anything.

Three hours later she was home from the doctor and was tucked back in bed with prescriptions for muscle relaxers and pain medication, which she hated. But at least she could sleep awhile, and maybe when she woke up this time, she would be better.

The next time she opened her eyes the clock said eight o’clock but it was light outside. Kayla frowned. Surely she hadn’t slept an entire day. She checked the date on her phone to be sure and saw that she had missed six calls, and indeed, a day had passed.

Kayla tested her range of motion and found if she drew her knees up to her chest and moved slowly, she could bring herself to a sitting position. It didn’t take long for her to figure out that the medication was not the way to go if she was going to get better.

She checked her missed calls. Two were from work and the other four were from Jen. After a much needed adventure to the bathroom, Kayla called the office. She could kill two birds with one stone by catching Jen at work. After a brief chat to reassure Martha that she was okay, she was put through to Jen.

“Oh my God, K. Are you all right? I’m so sorry. I don’t know what he was thinking.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jen. I’m okay. How about you? Are you all right?”

Jen sighed. “Yeah. I just can’t believe he did this.”

“That’s not your fault.”

“I guess. But I still feel terrible.”

Kayla took a deep breath and grimaced as pain stabbed beneath her shoulder blade. “I need a favor.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going to try to get in to see a physical therapist today. Can you take me?”

“Of course. I’ll cancel the rest of my day and be right over.”

“Thanks.”

Kayla let out a sigh of relief. She wasn’t used to asking for help and the situation made her realize just how alone she was. If Jen hadn’t been there, she had no idea who she would have called. The neighbor was working today, she had no family nearby she could call, and her list of friends were mostly the people at work. Maybe she should rethink her introverted ways and get out more.


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