A Red River Series Book by Victoria James
Florist Claire Holbrook has always played by the rules her entire life, but breaks them to spend one night with sexy lone wolf Jake Manning, a man she’s adored since she was a teenager. Six weeks later, things get complicated when she discovers they created a bond that will last a lifetime
Jake has never played by the rules. Getting Minister Holbrook’s daughter pregnant wasn’t part of any life plan, but he won’t run from his responsibilities. He’ll step up and be the best man he can, even if he doesn’t have a clue where to begin. The more time he spends with Claire, though, the more he wants her, and the harder it is to get close, because that would mean sharing the one thing he hasn’t with anyone–the truth and his heart.
© 2013 Victoria James
© 2013 Victoria James
“To Holly and Quinn,” Jake Manning said, holding up his champagne flute.
Claire Holbrook raised her glass, toasting to her best friend and her new husband. Holly’s cheeks were flushed with an unbridled happiness. Her eyes glistened with tears, and her smile hadn’t wavered all day. Holly had claimed love, Quinn, and happily ever after.
“Welcome to the family,” Evan Manning said, leaning down to give Holly a kiss.
“You’re the only woman I’d wear a tux for,” Jake said, giving Holly a hug.
Claire’s heart dipped, but she held her smile intact. And she should. Today wasn’t about Claire and her ridiculous, lifelong crush on Jake Manning. Or the fact that he’d basically just said he’d never wear a tuxedo again, which pretty much meant he was never intending on getting married. She forced those thoughts aside and focused on these last few minutes with the bride and groom.
“It was a gorgeous day. Everything was perfect,” Claire said with a smile, her eyes taking in the Edwardian ballroom again. The event had been straight out of an issue of Martha Stewart Weddings. The ceremony in the charming chapel had been poignant, and the reception a true celebration of the couple’s new life together. But now that the night was coming to an end, only a few guests were still meandering around the ballroom. The live band was playing soft music, and Holly and Quinn’s daughter, Ella, was dancing with a few children on the dance floor. The five of them were standing together for one last chat before Quinn and Holly left for the night.
“Thank you all for everything. Claire, you’ve always been like a sister to me. Evan and Jake, you’ve made me feel like family right from day one and I will never, ever forget that. I never thought I’d have a family again—and now I have one that is better than I could have imagined,” she said, tears filling her eyes. Quinn wrapped his arms around her from behind, still holding his champagne flute. Her friend leaned back into her husband. They were perfect for each other, and anyone who saw them together knew it. Felt it. Today all of Holly’s dreams had come true. She had married the man she’d loved since she was a teenager.
“To the best men,” Holly said, smiling and holding up her glass to Evan and Jake. Quinn’s brothers had shared the honored position, and Claire spent the day being sandwiched between the two of them as maid of honor.
“To the best men,” Claire said.
“And to the maid of honor,” Quinn said, smiling at her.
“And to Mom and Dad. Quinn, I know they’d be really proud of you today,” Evan said, holding up his glass.
“All right, Schmaltz family, I think we’re done with the toasts,” Jake said wryly.
“To me!” Ella came charging through and stood in the middle of the circle they’d created. They all laughed as she bounced around in her pink dupioni silk gown, which was now horribly stained and wrinkled. Quinn picked her up, and the half-eaten cupcake she was holding came precariously close to landing on his shoulder.
“Okay, for Ella we make an exception. To Ella,” Jake said, giving his niece a kiss and holding up his glass. Claire’s toes curled at the sight. Two-and-a-half year old Ella had her uncles wrapped around her little finger.
“To Ella,” they all agreed and she clapped her hands, cupcake landing on Quinn’s tuxedo.
“I think it’s time for us to make our exit,” Holly said, turning to give them all a kiss.
Her friend stopped to hug her tightly. “I love you, Holl,” Claire managed to choke out as tears clogged her throat.
“I love you too,” she whispered, her own eyes filled with tears. Claire looked up at Quinn, who was smiling at them both, Ella sitting wide-awake and alert in his arms.
“I love you, Auntie Care,” she said and blew her a kiss.
Claire blew her one back and waved at them over Quinn’s shoulder as they left the room.
She, Jake, and Evan stood still, silently watching them leave.
“I always knew Quinn would be the first to get hitched,” Jake said after a few minutes, downing the rest of his champagne.
“Me too. He was always the sap in the family. Soft,” Evan said with a nod.
“Like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” Jake said, still staring at the doorway.
“You guys are horrible. You’re both speaking out of insecurity,” Claire said, looking back and forth between them. They made quite the pair, the two brothers. And if she had to bet on the next contender for marriage she’d put her money on Evan. He was a levelheaded, handsome doctor who should have been exactly her type. Unfortunately, it was Jake she’d been infatuated with since adolescence.
Reckless, hot, brooding Jake.
“I don’t have an insecure bone in my body,” Evan said.
“Me neither,” Jake said, tugging at his shirt collar.
“I wouldn’t mind some fresh air,” Evan said, glancing at the large French doors that led out to the terrace.
“That sounds good,” Jake said without looking at her.
Claire stood there feeling like an idiot. “I, uh,” she pointed to the bar. “I think I’ll go grab a drink.” She really should just go to her room upstairs. She should put an end to this day.
She turned on her heel before they had a chance to see the humiliation play across her face. Once again, Jake dismissed her. It was the same old thing. She was the same old thing. It was time to make changes. Big changes. She’d spent the entire day in Jake’s company and was about to end it with nothing more than a nod of his perfect chin in her direction.
“I’ll have a whiskey, please,” Claire said at the bar. “Actually, make it a double.”
The bartender gave her a quick nod and then placed her glass on the marble counter.
She stood there, alone, her feet aching in her three-inch heels. Every part of her ached for the man outside. She glanced toward the balcony, looking for a glimpse of Jake, but it appeared empty. They had probably left, and without even saying good-bye. As happy as she was for Holly, she had never felt so damn alone.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to obliterate the image of Jake from her mind. He was rough and hard, sexy in a way that made most women shiver inwardly with anticipation. He was the guy who worked hard but played harder, and he was never without a woman by his side. Jake was the kind of man so good-looking that temperatures rose a few degrees the moment he walked into the room. The kind of man who always knew if he wanted a woman he could have her. The kind of man…oh shut up, Claire. She took a long drink, savoring the slow heat as it traveled down her throat.
“I never had you pegged as a whiskey drinker,” a deep voice said close to her ear. Her body and mind recognized that voice at the exact same time. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. He’d come back. Jake was the only man who could fill the void that was threatening to consume her tonight.
She could feel the heat emanating off his body. He was standing directly behind her, close enough that if she leaned back an inch or so, she would be against Jake Manning’s hard chest. She slowly turned around, heart hammering, senses buzzing, and looked up into his blue eyes.
Try to be cool, Claire. Sultry. “And what kind of drink do you think I would have ordered?”
A leisurely smile graced his handsome face, revealing straight white teeth. “A Shirley Temple.”
Her mouth dropped open. The man thought she was a child. “Thanks,” she muttered, determined tonight she would change his opinion of her. “I bet you your Harley you don’t know a thing about me.” She finished off the remains of her whiskey and licked the moisture from her lips. Jake’s gaze went from her mouth to her eyes, and then he took a drink. He placed his empty glass on the counter, his arm brushing against her bare shoulder.
“Can I buy you another one?”
“It’s an open bar, but I guess old habits die hard. Woman at bar. Buy drink. Score,” she said, tapping her finger against his hard chest.
“I’ll have you know it takes a lot more skill than that,” he murmured, his voice low and delicious, each syllable resonating inside her body.
“I’ve seen the women you hang out with. I’m sure it doesn’t.”
“I wasn’t aware you were keeping tabs on me.”
“I wasn’t. Just a guess,” she whispered, her courage faltering slightly as his eyes focused on her mouth. “I don’t frequent the Red River Tavern—”
“Right. Busy going to church?”
“Yup. Me and church are like this,” she said, crossing her index finger over her middle finger. She almost groaned out loud at her own stupidity. Of all the dumb things to say. She needed to show him there was more to her than he thought. She needed to seduce him. It was now or never, tonight or never. She’d spent too many years secretly wanting him. Tonight she planned on having a taste of heaven.
A taste of Jake Manning.
He was going straight to hell.
Jake stared down at Claire, the only woman who’d interested him lately, and the only woman who was off-limits. She was Holly’s best friend. She was Reverend Holbrook’s only daughter. She was the good girl. And there wasn’t a good bone in his entire body. Right now, he didn’t really care about all that anymore.
Her voice sent vibrations of awareness through him. He’d been aware for the last five years. He’d been aware all damn day. And now after a few drinks, he was even more aware of how attracted he was to her.
He looked at Claire the way he’d wanted to since the moment she’d walked down the aisle today. He started at the top of her head, taking in the shiny dark hair that fell around her shoulders, the updo she’d had long gone, when she’d pulled her hair free while dancing. He admired the smooth, perfect skin, and the mouth that teased him mercilessly. Her shoulders were toned, bare except for the thin straps of her pale-pink dress. His eyes wandered lower, and her chest was rising and falling in rapid breaths.
He held her gaze as he ran his hands up her bare arms, and she shivered. She wanted him as much as he wanted her. He knew it the moment she’d walked down the aisle today and had made eye contact with him. Maybe it was seeing his brother get married to the love of his life, but he didn’t want to be left alone tonight.
“You looked beautiful today,” he murmured.
She raised her eyebrows. “That’s it?”
“What do you mean?” he said, taking a step toward her.
“That’s all you’ve got? You’re supposed to be a pro at this. You’ve got to be able to come up with something better than that.”
“I didn’t think you’d fall for the usual lines,” he whispered, the urge to take her mouth with his overwhelming now that he stood this close to her. “And for some reason, I don’t think I want to use any of those lines on you.”
He caught the way her eyes ignited. Her hands slowly traveled up his chest, her eyes not leaving his. She tugged at his nape, urging him to bend down. Her lips grazed his ear. “I don’t want lines. I don’t want anything except you tonight.”
Jake stopped breathing for a moment. The invitation was written all over her beautiful face when she pulled away from him. She couldn’t make it any clearer. That was probably the last thing he’d ever expect from Claire.
“Let’s go,” he said, linking her hand in his.
They were halfway across the ballroom when he stopped. “Wait.” He left Claire standing in the middle of the ballroom and walked toward the band, which was beginning to pack up. He didn’t question why it mattered, why he was stopping, why he was making this more than it should be. The chandeliers in the room were off, the tables cleared, the massive dance floor empty.
“What’s your favorite song?” he called out to her. Her mouth dropped open, and he was momentarily distracted by her lips. She paused for a second, then told him.
He repeated it to the singer of the band.
“Sorry, buddy, we’re ready to go. Last song was twenty minutes ago. We’re only paid until one a.m.,” the young man said, his hand ready to tug the microphone off the stand.
Jake handed him a large bill. “One song.”
The singer looked at the bill, stuffed it into his pocket, and nodded.
“What are you doing?” Claire whispered as he tugged her along to the middle of the dance floor.
“I’m dancing with you the way I wanted to dance with you tonight,” he whispered roughly, and pulled Claire into his arms. And she fit there exactly as he knew she would, just like the dreams he’d had about her. Except it was better because she smelled like flowers and spring and her skin was soft and smooth. He knew he didn’t need to do this. And he didn’t want to question why he was doing this. His hands traveled up the small of her back and to the nape of her neck, gently pulling her head back. He wanted to kiss her, finally taste the mouth of the woman he had no business wanting.
He bent his head and stood still. Everything stopped as he finally tasted her, savored her, and became consumed by her.
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