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The steamy, laugh-out-loud romance that will heat up your reader.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Woodhull

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Chapter 1

Elle

It feels like it’s been three years, seven months, four days and six hours. At least. It’s actually been ten days. Ten. That’s how long I’ve been on vacation with my family. I’m finally back home in the Queen City, where I can get chicken prepared as nature intended—fried, on a biscuit with a slice of cheddar cheese.

Don‘t get me wrong—the trip was amazing, and the Bailey clan is great. My brother is hilarious, and my parents are loving and supportive, if a bit over-the-top. This year’s Bailey Family Bonding Adventure, the term for vacation that my father has insisted on using for the past twenty years, was a big one. Every other year, we go somewhere outside of the U.S. that we’ve never been before. No phones. No computers. GPS is the closest thing to technology that’s permitted while we take in the culture and spend quality time together. The theme of this year’s trip was Black Forest to Bavarian Alps. Ten days of my father in lederhosen and my mother’s ample bosom spilling out of a dirndl is enough to send anyone into therapy. Somehow, though, I have survived.

 

I really missed my friends. Okay, friend. I basically just have the one. Noah Adler. He works across the hall, lives around the corner. He has been a part of my life for years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

On the plus side, going to Germany, home of the world’s finest gummy bears, means I’ve been able to bring Noah back a suitcase full of the wriggly gelatinous little globs of sugar he so adores. Gummy everything, per his request.

 

My parents pull up to my building and my brother Andy gets my bags out of the back of the SUV. I lean into the window and kiss my

 

Mom’s cheek and wave goodbye to my Dad.

 

“Sunday night! Seven o’clock. Don’t be late or you’ll have a lot of dishes to do, young lady!” Dad winks at me. Late for dinner, wash all the dishes. Bailey house rules.

 

“Got it, Dad. Thanks again for an amazing trip. Love you guys!” I walk back to the trunk where Andy is standing with my suitcases and clobber him with a hug. “Watch yourself, Bailey boy.”

 

“You watch yourself, Bailey girl. Love ya, sis. Thanks for making the trip more fun. Sorry we couldn’t find you an Alpine goatherd to marry,” he jokes as he hugs my neck.

 

“Sorry all the barmaids thought you were twelve.” Now that is a real joke because in the last couple of years, Andy has filled out and looks like a man—a big one at that. I’m the only one under five-ten, and the only real redhead in a sea of blondes. I swear they found me in a cabbage patch.

 

I grab my suitcases and turn to wave as they drive off. I lug the two huge suitcases up the four steps to the door of my building. At least I was smart enough to pick a place with elevators.

 

Outside my place, I put my ear to the door before I put the key in the lock. Silence. Noah must have decided not to come over and welcome me home. I breath out a sad sigh as my shoulders drop. It’s fine. There’s no reason he should rush over to see me just because I’ve been out of the country for ten freaking days. It’s no big deal. Really.

I open the door and roll my giant luggage into the foyer of my apartment. The number one thing I want to do is have a shower. Well, the number one thing was see Noah, but that doesn’t look like it’s happening. The number two thing is eat pizza and drink a soda with ice in it, a luxury I have not enjoyed for ten whole days.

 

I walk over to the stackable washer/dryer combo in the back of the kitchen, drop my jeans, peel out of my t-shirt, and look for a towel in the basket of clean laundry I thought I had left on the washer, but it’s not there.

 

I must’ve left the basket in my room. Getting packed was a blur—digging for shoes, throwing toiletries in the bag, and throwing clothes around the room. It wouldn’t surprise me if that stuff is still strewn across my bed.

 

I walk down the hall, and turn the corner into my room to find, to my shock and dismay, a wall of dripping wet muscle standing at the foot of my bed, toweling himself off.

 

I gasp, clutching my palm to the bare spot on my chest between the cups of my bra—thankfully, a t-shirt model that offers at least a little coverage. Hearing me, he turns, holding the towel just so that the most critical information is unavailable.

 

“Hey, you’re home!”

 

Noah takes three long strides toward me and leans forward to hug me. I put my palm out, and it lands firmly in the middle of his perfect, muscular chest.

 

“You’re naked! You can’t hug me naked! It’s weird!”

 

“You’re naked too!” He argues, wrapping the towel around his waist and folding it into a not-very-secure-looking knot at the side.

 

I silently will the knot to fail and expose the only bit of Noah Adler that I’ve never seen, but sadly I still have not developed telekinetic powers, so nothing happens.

 

“There, better?” He stands back, cocks his head a little to the side and turns his palms up.

He doesn’t give me a chance to answer and instead wraps thick, muscular forearms and defined biceps around me as he pulls me into his sculpted torso.

 

“I missed you!” He says, laying his cheek against the top of my head.

 

I wrap my arms around his midsection and look up as I give him a squeeze, carefully jutting my ass out so my belly doesn’t make contact with what I imagine is a sizable and delicious member beneath the towel he’s barely wearing.

 

“I missed you too. You should’ve come with us,” I close my eyes, inhaling the soapy goodness of his skin as I do a happy dance on the inside because he came to see me after all.

 

“I’m not a Bailey. No Bailey family bonding adventures for me,” he laughs. “But I’m going to need you to tell me every detail, Ariel.”

 

I squirm away from him. “Well, that didn’t take long. I’m over missing you now.”

 

Only my parents call me Ariel, a name I detest. My mother’s love of animated movies, the year of my birth, and my red hair collided in the perfect storm that led to her giving me the worst name a little red-headed girl could have. Instead, I choose to go by Elle so fewer people make the mermaid comparison.

 

“Aw, come on! It’s been nearly two weeks! You gotta give me at least one.” He puts his hands on his hips.

 

Drop, damn you, you stupid towel! Drop!

 

Nothing.

 

“Whatev,” I shake my head as I step toward the bathroom. “I’m taking a shower. Order us food, would ya? And put some damn clothes on, you pervert. Why are you showering at my place anyway?”

 

“Well, you clearly didn’t notice since I haven’t heard a thank you, but I cleaned your nasty apartment. I was gross after I finished. I wanted to clean up. Luckily, it was pretty to find one of my t-shirts, though, since you steal them like an unrepentant kleptomaniac. I had to dig around to find some sweats I’ve left over here at some point, though.” He grins, cocking up an eyebrow, and I freeze in my tracks.

 

Shit!

 

“First of all, I liked my stuff where I had it. I hate it when you do this—it will take me weeks to find all my shit now. Second of all, when you say dig through…,” I trail off.

 

I take mental inventory of the contents of my home, wondering if I could’ve left anything incriminating.

 

Playgirl? ‘Sports’ massager? Voo-doo love potion labeled for use on best friend?

I think I’m safe. I mean, as a single woman, I have been known to take matters into my own hands, but if I’m being perfectly honest, the far-more-expensive-than-reasonable shower-head in my bathroom is my weapon of choice.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t find anything remotely fun or interesting. I did wash and put away about a hundred pairs of sad, white cotton panties. Sheesh! No wonder you’re always so cranky! You’re definitely not getting laid if you’re always wearing granny panties.” He shakes his head.

Well, he’s not wrong. I haven’t gotten laid in far too long. I haven’t really dated anyone since I broke up with Nathan a few months ago. That was the weekend I spent like a catatonic baby kangaroo, balled up on Noah’s lap for two solid days.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Shut your pie-hole, order us some pizza, and put some damn clothes on!” I smile sweetly and bat my eyelashes before disappearing into the bathroom.

I drop my bra and peel off my underwear, which are now completely soaked thanks to my bestie being naked and gorgeous in front of my poor, deprived eyes, and hop into a scalding hot shower. I wash my hair and slather myself with honey-papaya body wash. I’m running the soapy loofah between my legs, the valley between them twinges with ache, and I glance up at the detachable shower-head.

 

Don’t even think about it, sister. You can’t. Absolutely not. Noah’s right in the next room.

I try to tamp the thought down, but the ache is cruel. I’ve spent ten days sharing a room with my younger brother, and when I get home, the first thing I see Noah’s spectacular body, dripping and naked. I lick my lips and still everything, listening intently to see if I can hear where in the apartment he might be.

 

“It’s the shower-head, isn’t it?” Noah’s voice booms from the other side of the shower curtain, startling me and causing an avalanche that starts with me dropping the loofah, flailing to catch it, and ends with every bottle of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash on the shelf in my shower tumbling to the floor in a clatter.

 

“What the hell? Why are you in my bathroom? Dude! Boundaries—maybe you’ve heard of them?” I yell over the water.

 

I hear his deep, throaty laughter as it cuts through the steam. “I told you, I missed you. You were taking too long. But back to my point, the reason I didn’t find anything fun is because you use the shower-head, isn’t it?”

 

I place one hand on the edge of the shower curtain, and yank the edge back with the other, just enough to poke my head out. “Seriously, Noah. Get. Out. Of. My. Bathroom.”

 

He stretches his neck just a little as if he’s trying to see around me to sneak a peek behind the curtain, and smirks. He leans forward and kisses the tip of my nose. “I’m waiting for us to catch up. Hurry up and get out here or I’m coming in.” He winks, and calls back as he walks out, “Food should be here any minute!”

 

I have no response. The thought of him joining me in the shower is enough to cause my brain to implode.

 

I hurriedly finish my shower, grateful that Noah didn’t catch me in the act, and get dressed. When I walk out to the living room, Noah is sitting on the sofa in a pair of sweatpants and my favorite t-shirt, the green one that he bought on our trip to Cedar Point. The one that I very specifically did not return when I borrowed it because I love it so much.

 

He has the pizza laid out on the coffee table, along with a beer for him, and a soda for me. In a glass. With ice. Because he’s perfect like that.

 

“Please tell me you have pictures of Dr. Bailey in lederhosen.” He pulls a piece of meat-lovers from the box.

 

“Oh, so many,” I roll my eyes. “I have pics of Mom in authentic gear too, but I’m not sure if I should show you those. They are mostly

PG-13, but some of them are going to cause me to need to call the company benefit line for the names of some therapists.” I pull up the photo app on my phone and hand it to him, then take a long sip of soda. “Mm. That tastes so damn good.” I smile and sink back into the comfy, oversized sofa I love so much, despite the fact that my feet don’t come close to touching the ground when I scoot all the way back in it.

 

He smiles. “I thought you’d be going through ice cube withdrawals.” He flips through the pics and lands on one of me, Andy, Mom, and Dad in the Bavarian Alps. We’re standing on the balcony of the hotel that we stayed at, which is built like a chalet with scrollwork and gingerbread molding all over. Mom and Dad are standing in front of the railing, and Andy and I are leaning over the porch above them, all of us in German outfits. It’s a cute picture, all of us smiling, and the dirndl and puffy shirt actually make it look like I have decent-sized boobs.

“Please, dear God in Heaven, tell me you brought this outfit home with you!” He smiles that broad, easy smile of his that reaches all the way up his face and flashes in his blue eyes.

 

“You know perfectly well that it’s going in the collection.” I toss my nose in the air.

I have every traditional outfit, souvenir t-shirt, and piece of headwear we’ve ever bought on the Bailey Family Adventures, going all the way back to fourth grade. There’s a whole section of closet dedicated to them. I have no doubt that Noah thinks the German getup is pretty hot, if someone else were wearing it, that is. Someone with curves. Someone closer to six feet tall than five. Someone that’s not his platonic bestie.

 

“Speaking of things, you brought home, did you bring me something, Elle? I mean, if I abandoned you for ten days without so much as a text message or phone call, I would definitely bring you back something special.” He narrows his eyes, and I smile.

 

“Oh, Noah. Did I bring you back something? Did I ever!” I grin and walk over to my suitcases, wheeling the smaller of the two back toward the sofa. I squat down, unzip it, and turn to Noah. “Close your eyes and lean back.” I wriggle my eyebrows, and he cocks his head, suspiciously.

 

My eyes narrow as I put my palm flat against the top of the suitcase, a gesture that threatens to keep the contents locked away. He shrugs, leans back, and closes his eyes, his perfect lips turning up at one corner in anticipation. I retrieve a double-sized, reusable grocery bag from the suitcase, and walk over to the sofa.

 

“Keep them shut tight, or else.” My warning is playful.

 

I walk over and stand in front of him, positioning myself between his knees. If he sat upright, I swear, we would be nearly the same height.

 

“Keep your eyes shut and hold your arms out.” He eagerly complies.

 

I grab the bottom edge of the bag, and turn it up, emptying dozens of bags of gummy candy out onto his lap. He opens his blue eyes wide, laughing.

 

“Holy shit!” He exclaims as the last of the packages spills out, off the edges of his lap, and onto the sofa around him. “This is amazing! You are the best!”

 

He leans forward, putting his arms around my waist, and pulls me down beside him so I’m laying back on the sofa. My heart is thumping like an off-balance washing machine. Pinning me down, he grabs one of the bags of sour fruit gummies and pulls it open, taking a huge piece of candy from it, and holding it against my mouth.

 

“Try one!” He laughs.

 

“No way, those things are gross!” I argue and pinch my lips together tightly.

 

“Come on, Elle! They’re awesome! Trust me. Just try a little taste.” He coaxes.

 

“Mm-nn,” I make the no sound while shaking my head back and forth, lips glued shut.

 

“Just try it. A tiny little taste. You’ll like it. Don’t you trust me?” He asks, cocking up an eyebrow.

 

I roll my eyes. Damnit! I do trust him. I trust him with everything except the one thing he has no idea he owns—my heart.

 

I let out a breath and relax my lips, and he places the giant peach slice between them so its hanging out of my mouth. I hold it with my lips and run my tongue along it. It’s sharp and sour and I’m not such a fan. I scowl and pout a little, my bottom lip jutting out making the candy bounce up and point toward Noah.

 

He laughs hard. “So, I take it that’s a no?”

 

I shake my head up and down. He leans forward his face so close to mine, we could kiss. For a reckless, confusing, pathetically hopeful moment, I wonder if we’re going to. He opens his mouth, and leans down, grabbing the candy from my lips with his. As he takes it, he uses the tip of his tongue to hold the slice against his lips. His tongue just grazes my bottom lip before he sucks the candy into his mouth.

 

He sits up, grabbing my hand to pull me up beside him.

 

“So fucking good.” He closes his eyes and rocks his head back and forth as he chews. “These taste so fresh it’s like they were made yesterday.”

 

“They probably were made this week,” I eke out the reply, grabbing my soda and taking a gulp to soothe my suddenly parched throat. “I made my parents stop at the factory store in Bonn so I could load up.”

 

“You did that for me?” The expression on his face is so incongruous with everything else about him. This tall, broad-shouldered, crushingly handsome man is looking at me with the sweet expression, like a little kid who just got the best surprise ever, and it makes my heart melt.

 

“Of course, I did. I mean, we were right there, and you’re my best dude.” I wink at him, my heart trying to return to its normal pace. I’m starting to feel normal again, except for the tiny spot of seared flesh just below my bottom lip where Noah’s tongue has been. That spot will never, ever heal. Having Noah’s tongue on me is something from which I will never recover.

 

“You’re amazing. Thank you.” He smiles broadly at me.

 

“So, I guess work was pretty boring without me, huh. You really did miss me?”

 

“Elle, you have no idea.” His eyes narrow and his lips curl up into a smirk.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Noah

 

I walk into my apartment and put down the bag containing a dozen or so packs of gummies onto the spotless kitchen counter. I smile thinking of how many bags Elle brought back for me. She is the best. Really.

I can’t believe she almost caught me, though. I thought I’d hang out at her place to surprise her and wait for her to come home. It’s been a long-ass ten days without her, that’s for damn sure. Her place was a mess, like usual, so I thought I’d do something nice and clean it up for her. When I started putting her clothes away, I was putting her bras and panties in the drawer, and I started thinking about what she would look like in them, especially that lacy light blue set that was shoved into the corner of the drawer when I opened it.

 

Of course, that led to me thinking about pulling them off of her and burying my face between her thighs. I couldn’t let her come home to find me in her apartment, alone, with a raging hard-on. So, I decided to take a shower and take matters into my own hands.

 

I imagined her coming home and confessing that she realizes she’s in love with me, and how she could hardly wait to show me how much she missed me. I imagined my mouth on her skin, that tight, muscular little body of hers wrapped around me as I fuck her like I’ve wanted to for so long. I squirted some of that fruity conditioner she uses into the palm of my hand, and shut my eyes tightly, stroking one out to the images of her that played in my mind. It didn’t take long for me to find a release.

 

I’m not proud of it, okay? She’s my friend. My best friend. The problem is, lately, especially since she’s been gone, I’ve realized…that’s just not enough anymore.

 

I pick up a bag of sour gummy bears and walk back to the living room. I kick back on the plush, blue sofa, the one Elle insisted I buy instead of the sturdy gray one I had chosen and open my phone. I reply to my college buddy saying I won’t be going in with him and the rest of his crew on season tickets for football this year. I’ve got that money earmarked for far more important things. I also see a new message from Cassandra in my inbox and smile. We’ve been emailing back and forth the last few weeks. As soon as I told her what I wanted, she was on board—excited, even, to help me make it happen.

 

It’s just a little after five, so I give her a call. She agrees to meet me, and an hour later, I pull into the parking lot of Haberdish, one of the most popular restaurants in our NoDa neighborhood. The pretty blonde who’s about ten years older than me, is seated at a large booth in the back of the restaurant. She smiles and waves when she sees me walk in.

“I’m glad you called, Noah. When we talked last time, you didn’t seem too sure. I’m glad you came around.” Cassandra flashes a coy grin.

I sit down across from her. “I knew I wanted to do it, I just…well, it’s a big decision.”

 

“So, you said this is your first time?” The words leave Cassandra’s lips just as the waitress walks up to take our order. The girl looks from Cassandra to me and blushes wildly as she tries to contain a grin while taking our order for drinks and an appetizer.

 

“Yeah, this is my first. When I was a kid, we moved around a lot with my Dad’s work. From junior high through high school I never started and finished at the same school two years in a row.” My shoulders tense and I gulp down a sip of my water.

 

“Sounds like that made it tough to put down roots.” Her lips purse and her brows furrow a little.

She’s right. Nobody wants to get close to the guy who’s going to be here today and gone tomorrow. Maybe that’s why I appreciate what I have with Elle as much as I do. She’s solid—steady. She’s the person that I know, above everyone else in the world, that I can truly count on.

 

“Well, I think I’ve got a proposal you’ll like. Let’s make this happen.” She turns the folder on the table around to face me and opens it.

 

The address of the property is listed on top of the page. It’s a house Elle, and I have driven past a hundred times before. Cassandra explains all the terms and goes over the details of the offer before I sign the paper. It’s no wonder she’s one of the most popular realtors in Charlotte. She knows her stuff. I just hope that her experience will lead to the sellers accepting the offer.

 

After Cassandra drafts the offer on the house, I know Elle will love, I head home but I’m too keyed up to sleep, so I grab the remote and flip the TV on to an episode of the X-files.

I’ve dated my fair share of women—girls who could easily be models, but who were unattractive because of their personalities, lack of intelligence. I’ve dated women who were what some guys might consider average looking, but who blew me away with their intelligence, wit, or sense of humor, and that made them sexy as hell.

 

One thing I’m certain of is that finding a woman who is gorgeous, intelligent, funny, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and has a kind heart, is nearly impossible. It’s like finding a unicorn in the middle of an island full of mermaids while standing on a hill made up of all the gold from the lost city of Atlantis. Well, I happen to be the luckiest son-of-a-bitch on the planet, because I have found exactly that. My personal unicorn is named Ariel Bailey, but she answers to Elle.

 

Unfortunately, she has moved me so far into the friend zone that I’m getting mail there. Noah Adler, Friendzone, USA.

I pick up the bag of candy from the coffee table and throw a couple of red sour gummy bears in my mouth, the gelatinous centers growing soft and sticky against my teeth as I chew through the sugary, tart exterior. When I was little, my friends always liked chocolate or sugary candy. I always liked the sour stuff. See, I knew, once I got through the tart exterior, the inside would be even sweeter. Kind of like Elle, in a way. She acts like she has this hard edge, always a little outwardly sour, but inside? Inside, that girl is pure sugar. She’s sweet, delicious perfection.

 

She has long, thick, auburn hair, the biggest, most beautiful blue eyes you’ve ever seen, framed by thick, dark lashes. Her lips are full and pink, and her smile is so bright that I swear to God her teeth must glow in the dark. Across her cheeks are a spattering of freckles. Twenty-six, to be exact. I know this because I’ve counted them a hundred times. She has narrow shoulders and a slim little frame, but she’s strong as an ox. I’m convinced she must have superpowers because the density of those tiny muscles of hers could not possibly be explained by science.

 

The night she came over after the asshole broke up with her, as she laid there, my arms wrapped tight around her and I explained to her how beautiful she is…how amazing she is, and how sorry I feel for the asshole who can’t see it, the realization washed over me like a tsunami. The idea was so complete and overwhelming and obvious that I could drown in it, and I still can’t believe it never dawned on me before.

 

I love her.

 

I’ve told her this a million times in the best friend, love ya—mean it, kind of way, but in that moment, it hit me. I really love her. I never want to see her with another man, and I never want another person or thing on the planet to make her cry. I just want to hold her and protect her and love her forever and never let her go.

 

She still sees me as a player, though—that guy who’s here today, gone tomorrow. The guy I’ve always been up until now. So of course, I didn’t tell her any of that.

 

I still haven’t.

 

But I’m going to.

 

Earlier tonight, when Elle dumped out the candy on my lap, I thought, for the briefest moment, that maybe she was my present. I imagined her mouth on mine, and my hands all over that glorious little compact body of hers, the one I saw so much of when she walked into her bedroom almost naked.

 

Jesus, that was almost more than I could take.

 

I was naked, and I mean bare-ass-to-the-world naked, when she walked in wearing just a bra and panties. I was so happy to see her, I just rushed over to her, but at the same time, I was repeating a boner-killer mantra in my head.

 

Grandmas with suntanned leather skin. Mouse traps. Paper cuts and lemon juice. 3.14159265359…

So, yeah, I’m in love with my best friend, apparently. I have no idea how she’s going to feel about that. I mean, she loves me, I know that, but I don’t know if she loves me the way I love her, or if, as I fear, she has platonic, more fraternal feelings toward me.

 

Fuck I hope that’s not true.

So, I have to come up with a way to figure it out, and quick. I mean, she’s not dating anyone right now, and her taste in guys is notoriously terrible. Still, she’s a goddess, and eventually somebody besides me, somebody who’s not a complete asshole, is going to see it. Then, I’m going to lose her forever. When that happens, the whole world will implode, leaving a gaping black hole of mayhem that eats the universe, and it will be my fault because I was too chickenshit to tell a girl I like her, like her.

 

I tuck my arms behind my head and lay back on the sofa, considering how to go about things. I need to get Elle to see past us as just friends. I need to get her to see the possibility of more, because more is exactly what I want. I want it all. I want her heart. I want to own every gasp, every moan, every scream she utters. I want to own every orgasm and make sure the only name on her lips is mine. I want to make her laugh and make her feel safe. I want the house and the kids and the dog, and the whole damn thing.

It’s a gamble. If I win, I get all of her, and that’s everything to me. If I lose, though, I’ll lose her forever. If that happens, I don’t know how I’ll ever live without her. Like Cassandra said earlier, it’s tough to build anything with a temporary guy. I don’t plan on being that guy anymore, though. I’m going to show her I’m serious about putting down roots—about her being my forever.

 

I know what she’ll say. She’ll say a fling would ruin our friendship. I’m not after a fling, though. I want much more than that. Besides, romance won’t ruin our friendship. It’s our platonic friendship that’s ruining our romance.

 

Now, I just have to convince her of that.

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© 2019 by Jennifer Woodhull.