“BLESS HER HEART.”
This—the quintessential Southern phrase “bless her heart”—is the ultimate kiss of death.
The irony isn’t lost on me since I just avoided my own kiss of death, figuratively speaking. Instead of walking down the aisle, I’m trudging along the Pensacola Beach boardwalk in my wedding dress.
With tear-stained cheeks.
Two elderly women peer at me, blatant curiosity etched across their features, and one turns to the other to hiss, “I wonder if the groom left her.”
“Would you blame him?” the other woman responds, disdain dripping from her tone. “She’s got a”—she utters the next words much like they’re absolutely scandalous—“nose piercing.”
The dark glare I direct at them is concealed by my sunglasses, so with a dismissive huff, I continue plodding along, swiping a hand across my tear-streaked cheeks. Judging by the black smudges on my fingers, my waterproof mascara clearly lied.
Damn jackass mascara.
Damn jackass groom. I’m starting to see a trend here…
The longer I walk, the more stares I get. One little girl in a tutu bathing suit points to the top of my head and squeals with joy, “Look! A princess!”
Damn jackass tiara and veil my mother insisted I wear.
I march over to a large trash bin and—without any finesse whatsoever—begin tugging the pins holding this awful tiara-veil combo in place. As I’m attempting to remove it, agitation takes over due to my sad lack of progress. I bunch the veil in my fists and give it a firm tug from my elaborate up-do. Bobby pins shoot and ping in various directions, and I distractedly pray no one gets too close and loses an eye. Shoving the obscene length of fabric in the trash, I feel a bit lighter.
The June sun beats down on me as I stand on the stamped cement of the boardwalk, the heat radiating through the soles of my favorite flip-flops. My eyes flutter closed as I inhale a deep breath of the salty Gulf of Mexico air.
God, I love this beach. It’s always been one of my favorites, especially since it takes just under an hour to drive here from Mobile. The water is a gorgeous shade of blue-green, and the sand is perfectly white and free of pesky shells. Any other time, I’d be kicking off my flip-flops and running toward the surf. Now, though, I have different priorities: a stiff drink. Or ten.
The challenge is finding a place where I might not draw attention—er, as much attention. I slowly survey the nearby choices of bars and restaurants lined up along the boardwalk; I scan and dismiss them one by one.
Wait a minute.
One particular sign snags my eye. It has an outline of two men standing back to back, their forms filled with a swirl of rainbows and the name Be-Bob’s written in script-like font beneath it.
A gay bar.
With my key ring clipped to my small wristlet, I stalk over to the bar, doing my best to ignore the startled looks and gawking from other beachgoers. Tugging open the heavy door, I step over the threshold and into the brisk air conditioning.
Into a place where I might find slightly more acceptance.
I slide my sunglasses to rest atop my head and take a moment to allow my eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. There are only about eight people scattered about, chatting over drinks. When I don’t earn more than a brief glance before they return to their own conversations, I breathe my first sigh of relief. Most of the patrons are likely indulging in the great weather and enjoying a Saturday at the beach, not looking for refuge and hiding out like I am.
I scan the framed photos that adorn the walls featuring local drag queens and scantily clad male models before striding over to the bar. I hoist myself up onto a worn leather bar stool, and catch the eye of the only bartender behind the counter. He appears to be taking inventory of the liquor, if his clipboard is anything to go by.
When he turns around and gets the full visual of me, his expression is priceless, his eyebrows nearly hitting his hairline. I’d laugh if I had it in me, but I’m emotionally spent.
As he regards what’s visible to him from the top of the bar on up to my hair, his light brown eyes soften and the corners of his mouth tip up slightly. Without batting an eye, he reaches below the counter and produces a wet wipe. I gratefully accept it and he rests his forearms upon the lacquered surface, regarding me with interest as I rid my cheeks of the dark mascara streaks.
The bartender waits until I’m finished and then accepts the wipe from me before tossing it into the trash.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve ever served a runaway bride before.” My makeup-fail savior appears to gauge me, as if expecting me to burst into a river of tears.
Funny enough, the drive here has expended me of those and I’m firmly entrenched in the anger stage of my fiancé’s betrayal.
I prop an elbow on the bar, rest my chin on my palm, and offer what I know is the weakest excuse for a smile. “There’s a first time for everything, right?”
He doesn’t immediately answer, eyeing me curiously until his lips stretch into an easy smile. His eyes do that little crinkly thing at the corners and he has what I call “kind eyes.”
Then again, I remind myself, what the hell do I know?
I’m clearly not the best judge of people. That much has become all too evident.
The bartender reaches out a hand. “Casey.”
I grasp his hand, noting his impressive manicure. This guy’s cuticles are better than mine and I love the shade of metallic gray polish on his nails. “Nice to meet you, Casey. I’m Emma Jane.”
He reaches beneath the bar and I hear a clinking as he scoops ice, before he brings a cup into view. Then he works his magic, and pours in a bit of this and that from one bottle to the next. Finally, with flourish—and a maraschino cherry tossed in—he slides the plastic cup across the smooth surface.
“It’s my special, secret mix. I call it”—he leans in toward me and lowers his voice, his eyes dancing with mischief—“the Panty Dropper.”
One of my brows arches as I stare back at him with dismayed skepticism. “I hardly think I’m a prime panty-dropping candidate right now.”
Casey lifts a shoulder in a half shrug, his eyes flickering over my shoulder before returning to me. His smile grows wider. “You never can tell.”
With a tiny laugh, I shake my head and wrap my lips around the straw to take a sip of the concoction he’s made me. Just as I swallow the sweet drink, I both feel and smell a person sidle up next to me at the bar.
Hell. The reason I came here was because I thought for sure my chances of getting hit on would be slim to none. But, as I glance at him from the corner of my eye, I observe strong, muscled forearms, tanned and sprinkled with dark hair. The scent of him is appealing and masculine, a cologne that doesn’t overpower. Just the sight of those arms alone, however, makes me incredibly wary to see the rest of him.
Casey doesn’t address the newcomer, his focus still on me. “I’m all ears, Emma Jane. Been told I’m a great listener.”
Good Lord. Where do I even start?
Before I can answer, the man speaks up, his deep voice booming. “Are you cheating on me, Case?” He makes what sounds like a gasp of exaggerated indignation. “I can’t believe you’d betray me like this.”
I glance up to see Casey’s expression full of mirth, and he rolls his eyes. “You know better. I’m still waiting on you to switch over.”
A husky laugh greets my ears and it sounds far too male—far too appealing—which is why I refuse to turn and look at the man beside me.
“I might switch if you’d agree to root for my team.”
“Not gonna happen,” Casey scoffs before his gaze meets mine. “Isn’t that drink exactly what the doctor ordered?”
I muster up a smile because he seems like a sweet guy. “It is.” With a start, I realize I haven’t given him my card to pay or at least start a tab. I reach for my wristlet. “What do I owe you?”
He waves me off. “Honey, that one’s on me as long as you promise to dish before we get slammed in a few hours.”
A loud exhale spills past my lips. “It’s a pathetic story, really.”
“Let me guess.” Mr. Forearms’s husky voice is a deep timbre, amusement threaded in his tone. “You caught him with your maid of honor.”
I let out a harsh laugh and fiddle with my straw, using it to move around the ice cubes in my drink. “Nope.” If only it were that simple, I muse internally.
“Caught him with his best man?”
This time, his suggestion drags a lighter sounding laugh from me. “Not even.”
“Well, you know I can’t leave here without hearing the story. I’m intrigued.”
This guy is something else, that’s for sure. His voice is the epitome of sexy, and yet, even with all that’s transpired, I have zero interest.
Finally, I drag my attention from my drink and my eyes travel up those muscled forearms, over the bulging biceps stretching the short sleeves of a dark-blue polo shirt and up to the face that—
My breath catches in my throat as recognition floods me, my eyes widening as I take in the man beside me.
Becket Jones, the quarterback for the NFL team in Jacksonville, Florida. He’s a two-time Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Florida and had been the second overall draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Adding to that impressive resumé, he’s been recently voted MVP and is also a Lombardi Trophy recipient. His face is in commercials and on billboards everywhere. Living in Mobile, Alabama, and in a state without a pro football team, most of us either gravitate toward the Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints, or the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I don’t follow NFL as closely as college football, but I’d have to live under a rock to not recognize Becket and his pretty-boy face. Even beneath the brim of the ball cap, which curls under at the edges and draws shadows over his eyes, I’d recognize that wide charming smile of his anywhere. He’s slouching against the bar but I know he pushes well over six feet.
His features cloud as he observes my response, his large hand reaching up to tug his cap lower. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to sell some seedy story about seeing me in a gay bar to a stupid gossip rag.”
“Of course not. I’m just…” I falter for a moment, “surprised.”
His chin lifts, gesturing to a couple of guys standing nearby a jukebox, laughing and talking. One of them is wearing a shirt with bright pink flamingos printed on it, along with a yellow feather boa draped around his neck.
“I’m with my brother, Brantley—the one who insisted on that crazy getup—and his roommate, Vonn, whose birthday we’re celebrating.” His eyes flicker to them briefly, obvious affection in his gaze, before returning to me. “I drove in from Jacksonville late last night to join them.”
I nod politely, not sure what to say. “Well, I hope you guys have a great night.” I turn back to my drink and studiously take another sip of the dangerous concoction while acknowledging Casey and Becket’s attention is fixed on me with unfettered curiosity. This drink is deliciously sweet and I know it’s masking the copious amount of liquor Casey put in it. And I can’t get hammered. I should—and I really want to—but I can’t. I have bigger fish to fry.
Like figuring out my freaking life.
With a long sigh, I unzip my wristlet and withdraw my cell phone—whose ring had been silenced—to face the “music” I know is about to blare at me.
Let this be noted as mistake number one. Because I’m certain my phone is going to overheat from the number of text messages and missed calls I’ve received already. Mainly, the ones from my father.
Dad: You’d better get back here now, young lady.
I continue scrolling past all of his other messages until I get to the last one, time stamped from about five minutes ago.
Dad: Consider yourself disowned. Don’t even think of coming back to this house after the way you’ve embarrassed everyone.
Huh. Well, thank heavens I’d already thought of that and had made a quick stop at the house before driving here. I’d scooped up the items I’d need most, knowing my father’s reaction would be extreme. Maybe I was delusional, but I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this.
Just as I’m about to place my phone back in my wristlet and avoid the remainder of the painful messages sure to come, another one comes in.
Dad: Forget your job at the magazine. It’s done. You’re done. You did this, Emma Jane.
My chest tightens and my stomach churns sickly. I knew it was coming but it doesn’t make it any less devastating. I’d worked my ass off for Southern Charm Lifestyle magazine at their new location in Mobile. I know I have the potential to rise up in the ranks.
But now it’s gone. Poof. All because of my father. The one and only Davis Haywood, city councilman, owner of the local newspaper and the city’s largest magazine, and commercial developer galore. He has the money and power to make things happen in Mobile.
I just never thought he’d use that money and power against his own daughter one day.
“So.” Becket startles me, so caught up in my own drama-filled thoughts. “You might not know this about me, but I was brought up to be a gentleman.”
I regard him warily, unsure where he’s going with this. “O-kay,” I drag out the word slowly.
“This means I can’t leave you sitting at this bar, staring down at your phone, looking like your puppy just died.”
I shoot him a hard glare that would normally cause people to rear back…but then I recall that this man faces the risk of being tackled by two-hundred-plus-pound men on any given game day.
So, as much as my dangerously narrowed eyes might flare with the “Don’t even go there” vibe, my glare does nothing.
He looks around first before slipping his ball cap around on his head, the brim now at the back. And honestly, on any other grown man, it would look juvenile. On Becket Jones, however, it actually looks cute.
Casey slides a bottle of water to him, which Becket uncaps before downing half of it. Resting his arms on the bar, he playfully nudges me with his shoulder.
“Go ahead. Spill.”
Exhaling loudly, I peer up at him skeptically. “You really want—”
“To hear all the sordid details?” He grins at me, nearly blinding me with his pearly white teeth. “Absolutely.”
Shaking my head at him, I take another sip of my drink and toy with my straw, making the ice cubes clink together within my cup. “Fine. But don’t you dare give me a bless your heart that’s chock-full of pity.”
Letting a long sigh loose, I answer, my voice muted and laced with pain. And I hate the way it sounds.
“I’m running from a man who doesn’t really love me.”