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Authors: Jennifer Bernard

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BOOK: Set the Night on Fire
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“Because of what, exactly?” His voice was low, intimate, and did devastating things to her insides. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Because of men. Because men are men. Like you. Being a man.” Oh, the babbling…but it was impossible to keep her head when he smelled so good and felt so strong.

“Guilty as charged. I’m feeling especially man-like at the moment.”

She swallowed hard. That tingling sensation racing through her made it so hard to concentrate. “I occasionally go on dates, but only out of obligation. I have much better things to do with my time.”

A muscle ticked in his jaw, and for an instant, awareness flashed in his eyes.
He understood
, she realized. He knew it was because of Brad. That panicked her more than anything else.

But as quickly as it came, the look vanished, replaced by something more smoldering. “If you go to dinner with me, I promise it’ll be the best possible use of your time.”

She pulled herself from his grip. It felt like fighting against quicksand, or gravity.

“Sorry,” she told him coolly. “I’m far too busy these days. I have a town scandal to deal with. And don’t you have a hotshot base to open?”

He tilted his head, as if granting her the victory—temporarily. “Fine. The offer’s still on the table if you change your mind. Thank you for the coffee.” Whistling softly, he headed for the door.

On his way out, he flipped her sign to “open.”

“You’re welcome,” he called as he disappeared down the street.

The
nerve
of the man.

7


M
argaritas
,” declared Brianna when she breezed into the gallery shortly before closing.

“Count me in,” Evie said right away. Brianna darted into the back office, where she kept a change of clothes. The sound of water splashing told Evie that her friend was rinsing off the soil accumulated from her day of tending gardens around Jupiter Point. Ever since they used to build fairy houses in the woods as children, Brianna had wanted to design gardens, and she was brilliant at it.

Evie finished tallying up the day’s receipts just as Brianna reappeared. Her hair clung in damp curls around her face and she wore a flowered sundress.

Evie raised her eyebrows in surprise at her tomboy friend’s transformation. “Are we celebrating something?”

“Yes. We survived week one of the Brad-apocalypse. These brain cells need a reward. And you look like you could use some tequila in your system. Merry has a booth waiting at the Orbit. Come on!”

They strolled down Constellation Way, past the Fifth Book from the Sun and the Goodnight Moon B&B, with its courtyard draped with jasmine and star twinkle lights. Jupiter Point’s downtown businesses catered to tourists, especially honeymooners. Honeymooners didn’t mind spending money on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Their little town had more B&Bs and romantic restaurants per capita than any other town in California. If you honeymooned in Jupiter Point, you could enjoy a catered night picnic in a bungalow on the beach, a romantic sunset sailboat cruise, maybe a private tour of the Observatory with a chance to name your own star.

As the president of the JPBC, it was Evie’s job to make sure business continued to grow.

Great job so far.

They joined Merry Warren at the most popular hangout in town, the Orbit Lounge and Grill, with its glow-in-the-dark stars scattered across the ceiling. Evie had become good friends with Merry after she’d written a piece in the
Mercury News-Gazette
about the gallery opening. Merry had moved to Jupiter Point from Louisiana to advance her journalism career. Evie loved her fiery spirit and her passion for facts and details. Even though some locals had been wary of an outside reporter—of mixed race—she’d proved herself right away.

Merry rose to her feet and gave Evie a long hug and a whispered, “Hang in there.”

“In case you’re wondering,” she added as they sat down, “I’m off the clock and everything said tonight is in the vault. So feel free to vent.”

Evie took a long swallow of the watermelon margarita already waiting for her. “I’m fine, really. I’ll say one thing. Becoming the talk of the town is good for business. This was the busiest day for the gallery so far. I even managed to guilt a few people into buying pieces.”

“Come for the gossip, stay for the art?” Brianna grinned as she picked up her usual neon-green melon margarita.

“Whatever it takes.” With a weary smile, Evie sucked down another inch of her margarita. In fact, after Sean had asked her to dinner, the rest of the day had sailed by as if it were a dream. Not even Mrs. Murphy’s afternoon interrogation had bothered her.

“Sean asked me out,” she said casually, straw still between her teeth.


What?
” Brianna spluttered in the midst of swallowing.

“That’s what’s known as burying the lead, girl.” Merry gave her a little flick on the arm.

“Ow.”

“When did this happen?” Brianna bounced up and down on the black pleather seat. “This is fantastic! He’s so hot, I can barely stand it. Are you going to go out with him?”

“Of course not.”


What?
” Both of her friends stared at her as if she’d turned into a cactus.

“I don’t like dating. Everyone knows that.”

“Yes, but…this is Sean Marcus.” Brianna enunciated the name carefully, emphasizing every syllable. “He’s a fireman.” She ticked off the items on her fingers. “He’s brutally hot. He has money. You knew that, right? He inherited everything after the plane crash. He’s got that bad boy thing going on. Didn’t he spend a night in jail?”

“Really?” Merry perked up, her eyes bright with interest. “No one mentioned that to me when I did my profile on him for the paper.”

Evie hurried the conversation past that topic. “I’m not interested in going out with Sean.”

“I call B.S. on that,” said Brianna. “I saw you looking at him during the meeting. And I also saw him looking at you. No no, Evie, this is great news. I’m not letting you off the hook on this one.”

“Excuse me? I can make this decision for myself.” The waiter dropped off a bowl of guacamole and chips, then hurried away again. The place was starting to fill up, as it always did during happy hour.

“Nope, I’m making it for you.” Brianna pointed a tortilla chip at her. “You need to go out with him. Actually, no you don’t. You hate dating, and why wouldn’t you? Dating sucks. You don’t need to date him. You just need to fuck him.”

Evie choked on a mouthful of margarita, while Merry whooped and high-fived Brianna.

“I’m tired of this ice queen act you’ve been working on. You’ve convinced yourself that you don’t need a man. But I know that’s not true. Maybe you don’t
need
a man. But you
want
a man.”

“You don’t know what I want.”

“Merry, help me out here. Does or doesn’t Evie want Sean Marcus’s hot body?”

Merry gave Evie an apologetic smirk. “Based on my observations as a reporter, I’d have to say that’s a yes.”

“You’re attracted to him, right, Evie? Come on. This booth is a zone of complete privacy. And we’re your friends so you can tell us anything.”

When Brianna got that look in her eye, Evie knew she wouldn’t quit. “I admit I’m attracted to him. That doesn’t mean anything.”

“It means
everything.
Evie, I’m tired of you locking yourself away like, like, Sleeping Beauty or something. You have so much more to offer someone. I know you’re not happy. I’ve known you my whole life. I know Happy Evie, and this isn’t it—I mean, you.”

Stung, Evie lashed back. “I’m not locking myself away. I’m a semi-successful businesswoman. I’m the head of the Jupiter Point Business Coalition. I’m always there for my mom. I’m a good friend.”

“You’re an amazing friend,” Brianna agreed.

Merry nodded and put her hand to her own heart. “You are a fantastic friend. I’d still be an outsider here if you hadn’t befriended me.”

Brianna continued, almost as if she were putting Evie on trial. “And you’re an amazing daughter. You stayed in Jupiter Point so you could help take care of her. You’re always kind, always calm, amazing, perfect Evie, like…like…Venus shining from the sky.”

None of this sounded like praise. “I never said I was perfect.” Tears sprang to her eyes, then overflowed.

“Oh no, I made you cry. I didn’t mean to make you cry! I know you didn’t say you were perfect. Evie, you know I love you.” Brianna was sitting next to her, but she scooted closer and wrapped her arms around Evie and leaned her head against her shoulder. “You’re my best friend. I adore you. But you need to break out of this rut you’re in. And if you’re attracted to Sean, that’s your body telling you you’re still alive. That Happy Evie is still in there.”

Evie endured Brianna’s hug, wishing she could explain. Evie had never told her what happened with Brad, how ever since then, she froze up when she got within kissing distance of a man.

Except…she hadn’t frozen up with Sean. And he’d definitely been within kissing distance. He’d been so close to her body. She’d felt his heat, his solid physique, the ridges of tendon and muscle. She hadn’t freaked out. She’d gotten excited. Turned on.

Wow. Maybe Brianna was right.

“You okay, Evie?” Merry asked softly. One of the things Evie loved about Merry was her perceptiveness. Not that Brianna wasn’t perceptive…well, she wasn’t, actually. She was more of a bull in a china shop, knocking things down every time she turned around. She was forthright—okay, maybe tactless—but her heart was always in the right place and no one was more loyal. Brianna always had her back.

She should tell her friends what had happened with Brad. Before she lost her nerve, she opened her mouth to do so.

Then snapped it shut as she caught sight of Brad and two of his campaign workers walking into the Orbit. In shirtsleeves, with his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, his tie loosened, he could have walked out of a men’s magazine article on up-and-coming politicians.

He scanned the guests, waving to some, winking at others. Then his gaze lighted on her and his smile dropped for a fast second. He beckoned to his two followers and the group headed toward their booth. She felt like a rabbit hypnotized by a snake.

“Evie McGraw, I’ve been trying to reach you.”

“Hi Brad.”
Keep your cool, keep your cool.

She felt Brianna take her hand and squeezed back, grateful for the grounding effect of her warmth.

“I was hoping we could have dinner sometime to discuss this situation.” Even though Brad was smiling, his gray eyes held a frigid fury. It was hard to believe she used to moon over him. “Word has it you’re playing hardball, and I’m willing to play along for the good of the town. Controversies aren’t good for the honeymoon business.”

Ugh, he knew her soft spots so well. She didn’t want to hurt Jupiter Point. She loved her hometown, and she loved peace and harmony as much as she hated controversy. Now she was stuck in the middle.

She glanced around and saw that everyone in the Orbit was aware of their conversation. Some customers were openly staring; others were more surreptitious.

Brianna spoke up. “If Evie doesn’t want to, she shouldn’t have to—”

Evie cut her off. As much as she loved Brianna, she had to fight her own battles. “That’s fine, Brad. We can discuss the situation over dinner.”

“I’ll have someone call you and set it up.” Brad nodded to one of his lackeys, who made a note in his smartphone. He beamed one of his fake smiles at her, forcing her to respond with one of her own.

Great, now everyone in the place had seen them smiling at each other. Point to Brad.

As soon as Brad’s group had settled in at their own table, Evie slumped against the back of the booth. She gripped her hands together to stop them from shaking. “Did I really just agree to dinner with him?”

“Yes.” Brianna drained her margarita. “Two dinner invitations in one day, and you say yes to Brad’s. I have to say, between Sean and Brad, I’d pick Sean any day. Between Brad
Pitt
and Sean, I’d pick Sean.”

The waiter swung by their booth with a tray of margaritas. “Courtesy of Brad White,” he informed them. Evie wanted to throw them on the floor, but instead she smiled politely.

God, she was tired of smiling politely.

“What about that other hotshot?” Merry posed the question. “What are we thinking about him?”

Evie withdrew into herself as Merry and Brianna began playing the “Who Would You Rather” game. The violent revulsion she felt around Brad still echoed through her nervous system. Her heart was galloping, nausea clutched at her throat. He had such a powerful effect on her, even after all these years. How was she going to survive an entire dinner with him? She might throw up.

This was exactly why she always avoided him. Why she avoided all—

A lightning bolt of understanding flashed through her.

Brad White had stolen her sexuality.

She’d never thought of it that way before. She knew she avoided men because they made her anxious. The Incident had been too traumatic, too unexpected, and too completely suppressed. The one time she’d spoken about it, to Aunt Desiree, she’d been warned to keep her mouth shut. The memory sat there like a big, ugly, silent toad, tainting everything. As if Brad had put a spell on her.

Brad had stolen her sexual side. No—she’d
let
him steal it. Or at least bury it so deep that she’d turned down an invitation from a very attractive, very appealing man, someone who made her feel alive.

Brianna was right. Maybe she didn’t need a man, but she wanted one—the one who’d been in her gallery earlier. Her sexual side still existed. Her reaction to Sean proved that.

Maybe she’d responded so strongly to Sean because she didn’t have to hide anything from him. He knew what had happened. Or maybe it was just that he was so irresistibly sexy. Whatever the reason, maybe this was the perfect opportunity to reclaim what Brad had stolen.

“Evie, did you hear what I said?”

“What?” She shook her head, tuning back into their conversation.

“If you don’t want to take my advice and go to bed with Sean, I have another idea. Just give it a chance. Try one kiss with him.”

“One kiss?”

“Yes. One kiss. If you feel enough sparks to take it further, then you can. If you don’t, you can let it go.”

“What if
he
doesn’t let it go?” The nightmare with Brad had started with an innocent kiss.

“You mean if he falls hopelessly in love with you? Which is pretty likely given what a great person you are?”

Evie’s face heated. Sean didn’t look like the type of man who would fall hopelessly in love. “That’s not what I mean.”

“Look, a kiss is a kiss. That’s all it has to be. People kiss all the time. In fact, Jupiter Point probably has more kisses per hour than anywhere else, thanks to all the honeymooners. It’s just a kiss. Just give it a shot, Evie. Promise?”

She closed her eyes and pictured Sean’s rugged face lowering over hers, the firm curves of his lips brushing against her own. Would his kiss be gentle or intense? Deep or tender? She could use her imagination…or she could use her courage. “Okay.”

BOOK: Set the Night on Fire
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