Emma Sanders has always dreamt of being a bride, wearing fancy gowns, pretty pearls, and—of course—falling madly in love. Then life happened. Finding herself one fiancé short of her happily ever after, she leaves the fairytales behind. Some days are simply too perilous for pink gowns and pearls.
Riley Lockhart is the sort of man who can make a woman lower her gaze with only a smile. That he doesn’t realize his charm makes him all the more enchanting. Determined to save Emma the pain of her breakup, he steps in as a friend, but soon finds himself wanting more.
She was just a girl, but she somehow winds up being the strongest woman he’s ever known. Losing her is not an option and when life can’t be tied neatly in a pretty little bow, he holds tight to all that he loves—his Emma. His hero.
Sometimes the greatest scars are worn on the inside.
It was amusing how the girls on the subway watched Riley. Emma supposed he was above-average handsome, but since he was Rarity’s older brother she never looked too hard.
Now, seeing him in his element, riding the subway in a Pet Shop Boys T-shirt, jeans, and battered chucks, she recognized what the other women on the train were seeing. Riley was hot.
His brown eyes were so clear they shined as though they were blue. Sloppy chestnut waves curled in perfect careless disarray, complimenting his naturally tanned olive skin. He even had the five o’clock shadow down to an art.
Scanning the surrounding female passengers, she counted six of them gawking at him, begging with their eyes for him to glance their way. Amazing. The pheromones could choke a prostitute.
Skimming the male passengers, she frowned. Not a single one was looking at her.
What if she was Riley’s girlfriend? They were standing close enough, but the other girls didn’t seem to notice her at all.
She rolled her eyes. Invisible. Meanwhile, Riley scratched his nose with his thumbnail—it was practically a casual pick—and three of the six leering women sighed as if he read a verse of poetry. So unfair.
“Wait until you taste some of the food there,” he whispered in her ear.
Her chest filled with warmth as his voice sent a thrill of excitement tearing through her belly. It wasn’t sexual. It was what being feminine was all about. Who cared what he said? He was talking to her; the guy every other girl was drooling over was talking to her. And in that moment, the other women finally registered her presence. Every stink eye she got was so totally worth the thrill of attention.
Ha! Not only does he talk to me, he lives with me. I’ve seen him in his skivvies. Take that, ladies.
As the ride continued, her pride mended with each spiteful glance tallied in her favor. Not used to this catty need for attention, she chalked it up to recently being dumped. It was against her nature to behave like a clingy girlfriend, but with Riley it was all make believe, a temporary tonic for her battered ego.
Sometimes it was nice to be seen, though a great deal of her life had been conducted as a wallflower. Perhaps her affability gave her fiancé the impression that she wouldn’t mind him delving into another woman’s panties. Or maybe he’d already lost interest…maybe she wasn’t good at sex. Oh dear God, was she vanilla? A wallflower in bed?
Again, the emphasis she placed on other people’s perception concerned her. Riley didn’t care what anyone thought and people loved him. Even when they were in school, he was always a popular guy. Teachers loved him, jocks loved him, and, of course, women adored him.
Rarity was popular by default, because she was Riley’s sister. Publicly kissing girls promoted her to a novel level of cool only genuine lesbians could achieve in high school, but she’d always been cool by proximity first.
Emma was drawn to their energy like planets to the sun. No one was immune. They were simply attractive people. And as the permanent sidekick that existed in the cool guy’s sister’s shadow, it felt nice to have a bit of Riley’s innate popularity rub off on her as they stood together on the subway.
You’re pathetic. Those girls only know you exist because you’re pretending to be something you’re not. Oh, well! Self-esteem is in the gutter and pretending is helping.
She arched a brow at one of the gawkers.
“What are you grinning about?” he whispered.
Her attention jerked to his smiling russet eyes. He was almost a foot taller than her. Should she tell him? Would he laugh at her? Deciding she didn’t care, she whispered, “You’re inadvertently inflating my ego.”
Confusion tightened his brow so she tipped her head at the other passengers. Shockingly, it seemed the first time he noticed the other women.
“They all assume I’m with you. They hate me.”
He glanced at the other woman, each glare transforming to a seductive pout the moment his attention fell upon them. With his hand gripping the rail above her head, he leaned close. “And them hating you is a good thing?”
Didn’t he get it? “They’re jealous of me. Not many people are.”
The train rattled and slowed. People got off as new passengers climbed on and settled into seats as it whistled back up to speed.
His scrutiny heated her cheeks as he unabashedly studied her. “I can play that game,” he whispered.
Rather than answer, his mouth hooked in a half smile and he winked. She flinched as he dragged his curved knuckle down her bare arm, making the fine hairs rise in its wake. His fingers laced with hers and she watched, amazed, as every female followed the motion.
Her belly tightened with the thrill of exhibitionism. Her feet pointed toward the aisle. His pointed to her, his hip angled at their audience. Shifting a step closer, still holding on to the bar above, he spoke loud enough for the others to hear. “I caught you.”
Her eyes traveled past his lips, no longer shaped in a smile, and landed on those dark eyes. Her brow knit in confusion, unsure what he was doing.
“Looking at me,” he clarified. “You know how that makes me crazy.”
Oh, my God. She should have never told—
“It’s like this morning, when we were spooning in bed, my body pressed tight against yours, flesh to flesh, belly to back, nook to cranny. Everything was fine until I pressed that one kiss on the back of your neck right here.”
Her body tensed with awareness as his finger touched an extremely sensitive spot behind her ear. She couldn’t remember anyone ever touching her there.
“The second I kiss that spot you turn to liquid in my arms, soft and wet, and I can’t help but drink you up, taste every square inch of you on my tongue. My lips. Everywhere. When I catch you looking at me like that, it’s my kryptonite, my secret neck kiss.”
She swallowed and glanced at the women watching them. They were literally gaping, some even appeared to be quietly panting. Holy crap he was slick. “Um…”
Thank God he didn’t let her say anything. She didn’t have his skill. “Next time you look at me like that…” He tucked a curl behind her ear as chills raced over her shoulders. “I can’t be held responsible for what happens.” His fingers squeezed hers tightly and the train hissed and whined to a stop. He winked. “Let’s go. I’m suddenly ravenous.”
He tugged her off the train and into the loud subway. Musicians played for coin and people bustled through the underground world, racing to get where they needed to go. She saw it a thousand times before, but now it was brand new, her senses overstimulated and raw.
As they climbed the stairs to the street her heart pounded wildly. Wafts of traffic, people, and city food greeted them under the August heat. Voices and motion mingled into a cacophony of commotion until she was standing above sea level, fighting to catch her breath. What the hell had he done to her?
Laughing, he released her hand and turned—a totally unaffected grin on his charming face. “That was fun.”
“Y—yeah.” It wasn’t fun, it was thrilling and telling, and in some secret way, quite embarrassing. He’d been toying with those women, putting on a show, yet in those few seconds of phony attention, his artificial reverie trumped every real experience she had. She needed to get a grip.
Demanding her emotions go back into the shadows, she focused on their purpose. “So where’s this Smorgasburg?”
“Can’t you smell it?” He breathed deeply and grinned as his chest expanded, raising his broad shoulders. Weird. She didn’t want to keep cataloguing his every masculine trait, yet she couldn’t stop. “Ah, it’s just past the bridge. Let’s move.”
The snap of her flip-flops put a melody to their strides. As the impressive Brooklyn Bridge stretched before her, she had one of those out of body moments that reminded her she lived in one of the coolest cities on earth. “I don’t appreciate New York the way I should.”
Walking beside her, a pleasant set to his mouth, he sent her a sidelong glance—not bothering to disagree.
“Becket and I never walked around like this. Once he took me to Tiffany’s, but we were in and out. I’m not even sure what he was picking up.” Probably something for his mistress. “He never stopped for street meats or pretzels. We only dined at restaurants that held reservations.”
“You can’t plan New York through a concierge. It’s meant to be experienced. It’s alive, pulsing, like an animal. We can only observe it and let ourselves be led by its verve. The minute we try to control it we miss something spectacular, like with nature. It really is the world’s largest organism. There are so many people setting its rhythm, better to experience it organically.”
“I never thought of it that way.” The scent of ethnic faire grew thick in the air; tempting her appetite out of hiding and drawing her steps toward the mouth-watering aroma of succulent meats grilled over open flames.
Voices traveled, rising in volume as they stepped into a mass of people patronizing what appeared to be a market of New York’s cleverest food venders. How had she not known about this event?
Riley rotated, a phenomenal grin on his face as though he’d entered man heaven. “Where should we begin?”
“You’re my captain. I trust your instincts.”
Canopies and makeshift booths formed long aisles for people to wander. Steam clouded the various sites, eliciting attention with each peculiarly pleasant aroma.
Chefs acted as street performers, enchanting patrons, drawing them near with careful explanations for pairing fermented spices and specialized condiments with seared meats. It was a sort of live gallery, showcasing the artistry of New York cuisine.
Servings were sometimes dainty, offering a sampling of what could be the world’s most eclectic menu. The selection was endless, filet mignon sliders, fresh pecan bread sold by the slice, doughnuts the size of grapefruits, and even specialty booths for vegans and other diets she’d never heard of before.
“Oh, we have to start here,” he veered to the right and she followed. When the walkways became clogged with people, he reached through the crowd and pulled her to his side. “Watch this, Em. This is how meat should be treated.”
It was indeed a performance. The vendor tossed a steaming brisket onto the wood surface and unwrapped the charred foil covering. Juicy morsels of fat were trimmed away to unveil perfectly cooked, tender, pink beef. As the peddler made a show of slicing the meat in precise portions, it fell apart and her mouth watered.
Riley’s voice turned gravely. “Oh my God, we are so eating that.”
She grinned at him, loving the glazed lust in his eyes. Only men got that way with meat. She supposed beef and pork were to a guy what shoes and purses were to most women.
As the chef prepared their sandwich, Riley asked questions about the smoking process. The vendor was very friendly and informative. “You want everything on it?”
“What’s everything?” Riley asked.
“Cheese, pickles, hot peppers, sweet sauce.”
He glanced at her. “You afraid of hot?”
“No.” She wanted to taste the sandwich the way the creator intended it.
Riley grinned. “Give us the works.”
The man dressed the small sandwich until it was bursting with meat and dripping with sauce. Riley paid and she followed him to the side of the booth where coolers held the vendors’ supplies.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked, eyes set with excitement.
“You taste it first.” She wasn’t sure what would be more enjoyable, watching his exhilaration or actually tasting it for herself.
She nodded as he carefully held the messy sandwich and took a bite, bits of cheese and meat falling from his fingers. “Oh my God,” he moaned over a mouthful. “You have to try this.” She reached out, but he shook his head, still chewing. “Just open. It’s too messy.”
Opening wide like a ridiculous baby bird, she let him shove the corner of the sandwich in her mouth and bit down. “Oh my God!” she echoed.
“I know, right?”
An exquisite blend of flavors burst over her tongue. “It’s amazing,” she mumbled, holding her fingers over her lips so food didn’t fall out.
“I could eat twenty of these.” He took another bite.
“We so should.” She opened as he held the rapidly shrinking sandwich out for her again.
They didn’t waste time talking for the next few minutes as they devoured the most delicious sandwich she’d ever tasted. When they finished, Riley snagged some napkins and passed her several to wipe her mouth.
As they journeyed onward they sampled maple bacon cupcakes, Bangladeshi street cuisine, and even shared a pumpkin spiced S’more cooked under the flame of a blowtorch. It was an incredible festival of food.
“Do you like oysters?” he asked as they approached a merchant standing before a bowl of crushed ice.
“I don’t know.” She’d never tried an oyster before.
“Wanna try one?”
As the chef sliced open the rocklike case and revealed an opalescent inner shell, she tried not to be revolted by the goopy booger looking mollusk inside. He shucked the blob loose, leaving it resting on half a shell, and placed it in a bed of crushed ice.
“What do they taste like?” she asked.
The chef continued to shuck. “Briny, like the ocean. If you’re virgins I can dress them in a mignonette sauce to soften the taste. I have a nice ginger cucumber one.”
“What do you suggest?” Riley asked.
“I’m a purist, sir. I like them with a bit of pepper and lemon and that’s it.”
Riley glanced at her.
“I think I should try it with the sauce.” The more she stared at the little glob the more unappealing it became. These were considered delicacies? If she was remembering correctly, they were also aphrodisiacs. She didn’t see anything sexy about them.
“Ready?” Riley asked, holding his lemon oyster while offering her the one dressed in the ginger sauce.
Timidly, she reached for the shell.
Their eyes met and he counted off. “One… two…three.” His head tipped back and her mouth filled with—
Oh my God. What the fuck is in my mouth?
“Not bad.” Riley grinned then started laughing. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head, booger mollusk sliding around her tongue, and desperately searched the table for a napkin. You gag and it’s all over.
“Swallow it!” he shouted, laughing at her.
The vender passed her a napkin.
“No, don’t spit. Swallow!”
Oh my God, she was going to kick him if he didn’t shut up. People stared as they walked by and she spit the disgusting thing into the napkin and balled it up.
Riley shook his head. “Oh, Emma, I’m disappointed. Good girls swallow.”
“Shut up,” she snapped, her face burning.
He laughed and nudged her, tossing a few dollars on the table and directing her into the crowd.
“That was disgusting. Now I can’t get the taste out of my mouth.”
He stopped and ordered a cup of cranberry Brooklyn soda. “Here, you big tissue.”
“I’m not a tissue. I tried it.”
“Let’s sit for a while.” He led her to a stout cement barricade along the jetties and they sat facing the East River.
They’d walked miles in a matter of hours so she was grateful for the respite. The short wall was warm from the afternoon sun. “Today was really fun, Riley. Thanks for bringing me here.”
“I had fun too. It’s nice to waste a day taking advantage of everything the city has to offer. We can get immune from living here.”
She smiled, her cheeks tingling under the moist wind off the river. “There’s so much I’ve never experienced. I’ve never even been to the Empire State Building.”
She laughed at his shock. “I know. I’m the worst New Yorker in the world.”
“You gotta get out more, Em.”
“I want to.” Letting out a deep breath, she relaxed. “I’m so sick of being me. It’s so tedious, always doing what everyone else thinks I should do.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I think you were right. I don’t think I loved Becket.”
“Was it that obvious? Because if I’m being honest, I’m still getting over the shock.”
“Don’t hate me, but Becket was a prick. He didn’t bring anything to the table. You guys were always running off to meet his friends or attend functions at his father’s law firm.”
“Well, I do work there.”
“Exactly. You work for his family. When was it about Emma Sanders?”
There wasn’t an excuse at the ready. “I guess it never was.”
“Yeah, that’s not love. So when you say you don’t think you were in love with him, I can believe it.”
“You’re a pretty deep guy, Riley. Not a lot of men are like that.”
He shrugged. “I’m comfortable with you. I can just say what I feel.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, her mind drifting back to Riley as a tousled child in grass stained corduroys and wild curls. Although they knew each other since braces and bike rides, this was the first time they actually hung out alone. It was strange they never talked about personal things before, because she really was extremely comfortable around him.
“What do you say we head back and go get that mani-pedi?” he asked.
Her feet were killing her and the idea of a pedicure sounded divine. “Okay.”
He glanced down at her flip-flops and tsked. “I’m not sure they can help those stank walkers.”
She gaped at him. “There is nothing wrong with my feet!”
“Whatever. Where’s your baby toe?”
“It’s right here!” She lifted up her foot.
He leaned forward and squinted. “You can’t call that Darwin freak show a toe.”
“If it’s not then what the hell is it?” Her toes were perfectly normal!
“That’s a nubbin.”
“Whatever.” She stood.
He rose as well. “You think you can manage on you’re deformed hobbit hooves? We got a hike back to the subway.”
She stomped away. “Jerk.” And just when she was starting to think he was nice!
“Wait up,” he called. “Don’t be like that. We don’t have to wee-wee-wee all the way home. It was a good day at the market, piggy.”
She held up her middle finger and prodded on—laughing under her breath.
Lydia Michaels is the award winning author of 23 romance novels. Her novels from the darkly compelling Surrender Trilogy were iBooks Bestsellers and her work has been featured in USA Today. In 2015 she was the winner of The Best of Bucks Award and she has been nominated as Best Author in the Happenings Magazine two years running [2015 & 2016]. She is a four time nominee for the prestigious RONE Award. Her books are intellectual, emotional, haunting, always centered around love. Lydia Michaels loves to hear from readers! She can be contacted by email atLydia@LydiaMichaelsBooks.com