Who’s ready for Valerie and Barney’s love story?
In case it’s not clear, NEITHER one of them is ready. They both think love is for suckers. Valerie thinks relationships are for idiots, and Barney knows how relationships can crash and burn. Been there. Done that. He’s got the scars to prove it and absolutely zero interest in a repeat.
But when Valerie’s apartment is trashed, all bets are off.
Want a sample before you buy? No problem. Here you go:
We’re not socks, but I think we’d make a great pair.
“We need to talk, Valerie.” I scowl at Barney’s declaration. I have spent my entire life avoiding having the ‘talk’ with a man. Barney Lewis is not going to ruin my streak.
He may be one sexy middle-aged man – my hands itch to run through the soft texture of his black hair once again and his ever present five o’clock shadow gives my body all kinds of ideas of how his stubble will feel scratching certain areas of my delicate skin – but his handsome appearance doesn’t give him the right to boss me around.
Especially not when we’re at a wedding. A surprise wedding on Christmas day no less. Barney’s friend, Wally, proposed to his girlfriend, Chrissie, this morning, and then when they arrived at McGraw’s Pub to celebrate Christmas with everyone, he surprised her with a wedding. Naturally, Chrissie freaked out, but we got her down the aisle eventually.
Welp. Best get this stupid ‘talk’ over with, so I can get back to enjoying the party. I indicate the hallway leading to the restrooms. When he lifts his chin in agreement, I square my shoulders and march to the hallway as if I’m not dreading this stupid conversation.
Barney doesn’t immediately follow me. Of course not. He doesn’t want anyone to know what we’ve been up to after all. He made those thoughts perfectly clear when he ran away from me on Saturday evening after kissing the daylights out of me.
I reach the hallway and lean against the wall to wait. I cross my arms over my chest and tap my toe as I become impatient – or more impatient, I should say. I don’t want to be in the hallway having some conversation with Barney I don’t want to have. I want to be in the pub celebrating my friend getting married.
Barney appears at the mouth of the hallway and grabs my hand before leading me to the office. His friend, Max, owns McGraw’s Pub. Max is engaged to my friend, Faith, which is how I ended up in this bar in the first place.
“We need to talk,” he repeats once we’re behind the locked door in the office.
I stand in the middle of the room and place my hands on my hips. “So you said.” I raise an eyebrow and wait for him to speak.
He bites his lip and my mind flashes back to when we made out in this very office a few days ago. It was me biting his lip then. His responding growl made me want to throw him down on the floor and have my way with him. Unfortunately, the man made a break for it before I got the chance.
When Barney doesn’t speak, I throw my hands in the air. “Well? Are you going to say actual words or are you going to stand there and stare at me?”
“We need to talk.”
“Dude, you said those words three times already. Get to saying whatever you’ve got to say so we can get this over with and get back to the wedding reception.”
“It’s about us.”
“There is no us,” I interrupt to say.
I don’t do relationships. I may love romance – and I do seriously love romance – but I know better than to expect it for myself. It’s an illusion after all. Once there’s a ring on someone’s finger, they change and anything resembling love and romance flies out the window.
He clears his throat. “Exactly.”
“Good. We agree. Are we done here? I want to get my drink on and celebrate with Chrissie and my friends.”
My friends. I smile at those words. For such a long time, my only friend was Faith. And when Faith left Saint Louis with her son Ollie to live in Milwaukee, my circle of friends was reduced to zero. I can’t be mad at Faith for abandoning me, though, not when she found the love of her life in Max. He proposed to her on Thanksgiving and now they’re planning a Valentine’s Day wedding. I am beyond happy for her.
When I had to leave my job in Saint Louis, I decided to follow Faith to Milwaukee. It’s working out well thus far. Faith’s crazy group of friends didn’t hesitate to include me. Now, I feel more at home here than I ever did in Saint Louis despite growing up and living there my entire life.
“Don’t drink too much,” Barney orders.
“No man tells me what to do.” I march to the door to escape before this conversation becomes awkward – or more awkward, I should say.
Barney clamps a hand down on my shoulder to thwart my escape. I whirl around on him. “What is it now?”
“I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
“Dude, you could give a woman whiplash. You don’t want a relationship with me? Fine. I completely and totally understand. But don’t pretend to care how I feel.”
He growls. “I do care how you feel. You’re my fr—” He clears his throat. “You’re my brother’s woman’s friend.”
His brother’s woman’s friend? I roll my eyes. He can’t even say we’re friends? Geez. Thanks for nothing, pal.
“I’m not mad. I’m annoyed because I don’t want to be here.”
Pain flashes in his eyes before he blinks, and it’s gone. Did I say the guy could give a gal whiplash? I was wrong. He’s going to give me a migraine with the way he runs hot and cold.
I admit it was fun chasing after the guy for the past month. I do love a good chase. And the way he panicked every time I got close made it all the more fun. But since he’s made it perfectly clear he’s not up for a roll in the hay with me, I’m done chasing. I don’t chase men who don’t want to be chased. I’m not a predator.
I inhale a deep breath and straighten my shoulders. I guess I have to be the adult here. And I do hate being the adult. “I understand. You’re not interested. I’m a big girl. I can handle it.”
He rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s not…I’m not…”
I pat his shoulder. “It’s fine. Our lives are intertwined because of our friends. We can be casual acquaintances.”
I march to the door and fling it open to find Faith and her gang of friends – Suzie, Phoebe, and Hailey – waiting on me. Well, not all of the gang.
“Where’s Chrissie?” I ask.
“She left for her honeymoon,” Faith answers.
“Honeymoon? Wally arranged a surprise wedding and a honeymoon? He literally proposed this morning. He must have been awful sure of himself.”
Suzie snorts. “Have you met Wally? The super-secret spy is very sure of himself.”
“Is he a super-secret spy if you know about it?”
We all think Wally is some type of super-spy after what happened with Chrissie. I don’t know much about it, but apparently, she was in danger from an ex. Wally gathered his former military buddies – including Barney – together and they managed to catch the guy. Since Chrissie is a badass herself, I can only imagine how scary the situation was.
Lexi saunters into the hallway but stops when she notices all of us standing there. Lexi is a friend of Chrissie’s who showed up at the last minute to attend the wedding. “What’s going on?”
Faith raises her eyebrow at me. “Exactly what I want to know.”
“Yeah, Valerie.” Suzie scans my body. “What were you doing locked up with Barney in the office?”
Hailey smiles and rubs her hands together. “They were obviously not getting down and dirty, which means I’m still in the running to win this bet.”
Faith frowns. “Christmas day isn’t over yet.”
I widen my eyes to feign innocence. Ha! I haven’t been innocent in a long ass time. “What are you talking about?”
I know exactly what they’re talking about. Barney and his friends bet on everything under the sun. Somehow the women got involved and now they throw out bets like crazy. Everyone’s currently betting on when Barney and I will finally ‘get together’. Considering the ‘talk’ Barney just subjected me to, Faith is definitely losing this bet.
Speaking of Barney, where is he? He’s not in the office listening to us talk, is he? I glance over my shoulder, but he’s not there. What the heck?
“If you’re searching for Barney, he’s gone,” Hailey says. “My uncles can disappear into thin air.”
Hailey considers Barney and his friends her uncles since they helped raise her after her mom took off when she was young. In addition to Barney, the ‘uncles’ include Wally, Sid, and Lenny. All of them, plus Hailey’s dad, Max, know each other from their military days. The brothers are now handsome middle-aged men who haven’t let age slow them down one bit. Faith definitely hit the lottery when she walked into McGraw’s Pub searching for a job.
“Speaking of Barney,” Faith begins.
I hold up a hand to stop her. “Nope. I’m not talking about it.”
Her shoulders slump. “Okay.”
Suzie wrinkles her nose. “Okay? No, it’s not okay. I veto. I want to hear about it. Whatever it is.”
“I’m guessing it has something to do with Barney scrambling after Valerie on Saturday night after his ‘date’ showed up.” Hailey stares at me as if she’s waiting for me to contradict her.
She can keep waiting. I know Faith and her friends get all up in each other’s business, but I’m not telling them what happened. Not because I’m embarrassed. I’m not. Barney was the one who was embarrassed when Wally pranked him with a male date. I don’t know why. Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of.
But Barney’s embarrassment was to my advantage when he shoved me up against the wall and told me he was going to prove he’s not into men. It was one of the sexiest moments of my life. Unfortunately, the sexy ended there. After kissing all the common sense out of me, he ripped his mouth from mine and sauntered off without a word spoken.
Time for a diversion, because I’m not telling anyone what happened on Saturday night. I clap my hands. “Who’s ready to learn who the real karaoke queen is?”
Suzie’s hand shoots into the air. “It’s me.”
I wink at her. “I guess it’s time for you to prove it.”