Chapter One

COME ON.

Billy glanced at his watch, then stared out the window of the coffee shop. Watching wouldn’t make Annie get there faster, but it took his mind off the reasons she was probably meeting him at the coffee shop instead of letting him pick her up at home.

He sucked in his breath and let it out slowly. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe she’d just been nearer the coffee shop and didn’t want to drive home. Yeah, right.

He sat back and looked around Laguna Grind. Five people worked at laptops while they drank their overpriced lattes. All of them qualified as part of the eclectic Laguna crowd except for the guy in the corner wearing dusty jeans and a work shirt, flipping through an out-of-date magazine and sipping black coffee. Billy knew what he was drinking because he’d heard him order it from the cute girl behind the counter. Funny that a blue-collar guy would pay these rarified prices for black coffee. This was not a blue-collar hangout. Billy ought to know. Mr. Black Coffee was a guy like him, and he wouldn’t be in here either if Annie hadn’t picked it.

He looked at his watch. Come on. Mama hated when he was late to family dinners and this one was for Rhonda and Mitch, so she’d doubly hate it. Double hate from his mother was serious shit.

The guy with the coffee looked up at the girl behind the counter. Man. The look of pure longing on his face made Billy wince. So that’s why the coffee. The guy wanted the girl. Sorry, Charlie, probably not gonna happen. What would it be like to want somebody that bad?

A blast of air washed over him as the door opened. Evenings in June were still cool in southern California, which meant it was getting late. He looked up—and froze. Who the hell?

The new arrival turned every head in the coffee shop to look at his blaze of flame red hair flying around his head in a wild arc and falling on his shoulders. He was clothed in a hot pink shirt with several ropes of beads decorating the front. His black pants hugged so tight they should have been sold in a paint store. Jeee-sus.

The pretty girl looked up and called out, “Getting your own coffee? What is the world coming to?”

Redhead airily waved a hand. “I set them all to working and escaped, darling. Feed me caffeine intravenously, please.”

That voice—high and dancing with humor—vibrated up Billy’s spine. Funny. The guy was kind of ridiculously flamboyant, but beautiful too. Features like you might expect on a girl, but more defined. Not soft. Huge eyes, full lips, high cheekbones. He probably had some added color on all those features, which should look weird, but on this guy it all made sense. Beautiful.

Billy sensed movement and glanced over toward the blue-collar guy. The young man looked like a bull. An angry bull. He sat forward, staring at the redhead and clenching his fists. Blue-collar didn’t think the guy was beautiful. Shit, his expression was pure hate. Billy tensed. Was it personal or just prejudice?

The redhead chattered with people and didn’t seem to notice the guy. How could he miss it? Fumes were coming off the big bulldog head. Imagine going through life with people hating on you like that. But if that red-haired man walked by one of Billy’s construction sites, every guy there would strain his vocabulary to find new ways to call him fag. Billy might not join them, but he probably wouldn’t stop them. Guys like him hated gays. That’s just the way it was.

The girl coffee server walked from behind the counter with a large steaming latte. She went to the redhead’s table, put down the cup, and kissed the pretty guy on the cheek.

Uh-oh.

Blue-collar guy stood up. Not good. Nobody seemed to notice. Shit.

The man was big, but not as big as Billy. Billy rose slowly, staring at the worker. Look at me. The big guy’s eyes flicked to him. Casually, Billy moved his head from side to side. Don’t do it. For a second, the guy just stared at Billy blankly, and then he seemed to recognize somebody like him. Somebody in rumpled work clothes. His eyes met Billy’s, focused. He shook his head once, fought some kind of internal war, then tensed and stepped forward.

Billy stepped forward too.

The guy turned red to his hairline, made a soft sound, and took off out the door like he was being chased by the damned Gay Pride parade.

Billy could feel his hands shaking. What would he have done if the bulldog guy had attacked the redhead? Would Billy have hit him? Stopped him? Who was he trying to protect? Crap!

He glanced around. Everybody just went on doing their thing like nothing big had happened. Then Billy’s eyes met the steady stare of the redheaded man. The guy gave a slight nod and a little smile. He knew. He knew what happened. What did he think?

“Billy?”

He jumped and turned. There stood Annie. “God, you startled me.” He’d forgotten why he was here.

She frowned. “Sorry. I assumed you were waiting for me.”

“I was. It’s just that—I mean, I am.” He glanced again at the redhead, who stared at Annie with a blank expression. Ballew, pay attention. He pointed at the chair next to his. “Sit down.”

She perched on the edge of the leather chair. He sat too. Try to look relaxed.

Billy nodded at the extra paper cup on the table in front of them. “I got you tea with milk.”

“Thanks.” She picked up the cup and took a sip. Such an attractive girl, and nice too.

Billy drained his latte. “So, you want to take it with you? Mom will have dinner ready to go, you know her.”

She sighed, and his blood cooled a few degrees. “I’m not coming to dinner.”

“No?” Shit, shit, shit.

“No, Billy.” She looked up and her big brown eyes glistened. Such a bad sign. “You know I’m going to say that it’s not working, right?”

He stared at his empty cup. Empty made sense. “I didn’t know it until you said you wanted to talk.” He forced a grin. “Talking is always bad news for guys.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for a bunch of days. Maybe weeks, if I’m honest. I need to move on, Billy. Please apologize to your family for me.”

Not again. “Can I ask why it’s not working for you?”

Annie shrugged and rotated her cup on the low table. “You don’t want to know that.”

He could let it go like he always did. But hell, how would he ever learn? He shrugged. Into the valley of death. “Actually, I do. Would you tell me?” He held up a hand. “You don’t have to rip my skin off or anything.”

She smiled and shook her head. “You look like this big alpha male, but you’re a sweetie.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” He tried to smile.

“Of course, but my dog’s a sweetie and I don’t have sex with him.”

Ouch.

She was warming to her subject. “God knows, you’re gorgeous. I’m going to miss showing up places and watching women drool over my boyfriend—and him not even giving them a glance. Which is flattering, but also a little weird, you know? Most guys would be enjoying beating them off with a stick.”

He frowned. “You’re mad because I’m faithful?”

“No.” She puffed out a breath. It sounded like half sigh and half exasperation. “Tell me, honestly, where did you see us going together?”

“Hawaii?” He cocked his smile that always charmed the ladies.

“Seriously.”

He wiped a hand over his face. “I thought we could date some more and maybe get serious and, I don’t know, maybe end up married.”

Her eyes widened. “Really? You see us married?”

Did he? “Why not? You’re great. Smart and pretty. My family loves you.”

She grabbed his arm. “Yes, your family loves me and I love them. But do you love me, Billy?”

“Sure. I know I don’t say it a lot, but guys like me aren’t all that emotional, you know?”

“What do you mean, ‘guys like you’?”

He shrugged. “Blue-collar dudes. You know?”

“Billy, you’re not like any blue-collar dude I’ve ever met. That’s why I liked you and picked you out in the bar that night, remember?”

He nodded. It had been one of the few times he’d gone out with his crew. Mostly he felt a little weird with the guys, but that night Annie had been the prettiest girl in the bar, and she’d picked him out of the pack. Asked him to dance. “Yeah, you made my reputation.”

She half smiled. “I picked you because you weren’t one of ‘those guys.’ You were different from the guys I know, but—maybe you’re too different or something. We just don’t really click. We go out and talk, but I never feel like you’d die if you don’t see me. We have sex and it’s fine, but I don’t want fine. I want some firecrackers and shooting stars. At least a little.”

Hell, how was he too different? “Come on, this is real life.”

“Damn it, Billy, I’m twenty-four. I’m too young for real life.”

Maybe asking was a bad idea. It sure hurt, knowing.

She sighed. “I don’t think I’m your type.”

“Then who is?” It sounded like a wail.

Annie gazed at Billy. “I don’t know. I wish I did.”

“So it’s mostly the—” He swallowed and lowered his voice. “—the sex?” Shit, it took all his nerve to ask that.

“No, it’s the everything. Like the contractor thing. I know you can take that test and pass it with flying colors if you just set your mind to it. But you don’t. I know you don’t think you’re smart enough, but damn it, Billy—” She sat back and crossed her arms. “I think there’s a dynamo under there somewhere. A tiger waiting to escape. But I never see him. You don’t really want me. I’m just convenient. And honestly, I deserve better than that. So do you.” She stood up from the easy chair and looked out the window. “I’ll miss you, Billy. But I don’t want to look up two years from now and be in the same position, or, worse, have gotten married because—” She made quotes with her fingers. “—everyone likes me, and find myself with a kid and a husband who’s just meeting everyone’s expectations but isn’t really happy.”

“Wow. You should have written The Hunger Games.”

“I don’t care. You asked and that’s the way I see it. Tell your family I’m truly sorry not to be there for Rhonda’s wedding.”

“You can still come.” He swallowed hard. “Rhonda will be so disappointed.”

She shook her head, and her eyes were shiny. “It would hurt too much. I really do care for you, Billy, and it was hard not getting my hopes up.” She took a step toward the door. “See ya.”

Holy shit. He couldn’t breathe. Just like that, she was gone. He didn’t want to say like the others. Annie wasn’t just one of a group.

He sat back and then looked up. The redheaded, beautiful guy was talking to one of the baristas. Laughing. Billy did not feel like laughing.

That morning he thought he’d seen the whole picture of his life. Pleasant dinners with family. Dancing a little at the wedding. But had he been kidding himself?

What if I’m always kidding myself?

How do you feel? He closed his eyes like he was taking a short nap. Butterflies in his stomach warred with the steel spike in his chest. Hurt. He felt hurt. And confused. And—relief. He felt relieved.

That couldn’t be right? Sure, he’d felt relieved when he broke up with Nancy, but she was a bitch, and Trisha wasn’t really serious. But Annie. He loved her. Didn’t he?

His eyes flew open and he looked at his watch—5:30 p.m. Oh crap, he had to go to his folks’ house. He had to face the family with no Annie, and then go through the whole damned wedding with no woman on his arm. His mother would freak. He dropped his head in his hand and ran his fingers through the waves. Even his hair would get him in trouble. Too long. His mother liked him neat. But she’d forgive him anything if she thought he was on his way to the frigging altar. Now she’d bitch about his clothes and everything. No more Mrs. Nice Guy. He’d be a three-time loser in her eyes. A man who couldn’t hold a woman. A man who couldn’t give her grandchildren.

He stood up and headed toward the door. Toward the firing squad.

He paused, and his head seemed to turn on its own. Across the shop, the beautiful man stared directly at him. His lips curved up and he flashed some teeth.

Billy glanced beside him. Who? He looked back. The guy was looking at him. The shiver started at his tailbone and worked its way into a field of goose bumps. Weird. Just weird. He shoved against the door and forced his feet to move out of the shop. Why did he feel like the guy was laughing at him?

Because you deserve it, loser.

Hell, like Scarlett O’Hara said, he’d think about that tomorrow. He ran flat-out to his truck.

Twenty minutes later he pulled into a spot five doors down from his parents’ house in Santa Ana. Cars lined the street, and he knew the owner of every one of them. The clan was gathered for Rhonda. She’d roped them all in. After tonight’s family gathering, Billy had to go to the bachelor party, the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, the reception, and the wedding breakfast. Alone. Jesus! He might stand six five and weigh in at two twenty-five, but his mother could still take him out.

Get it over with.

He walked down the sidewalk and up the long driveway to his parents’ 1950s ranch house. He’d always liked the old place, and he worked hard to keep it looking nice for them. All the maintenance and repairs, he did. Even most of the gardening so they didn’t have to pay for anything but mow and blow occasionally. His dad couldn’t do the heavy lifting since his heart attack. Funny. People always said his heart attack, like he owned the damned thing.

No knocking required, he just turned the knob and walked into the small entry. His dad and brother-in-law, Austin, were holding up the walls on both sides of the space, his dad leaning on his cane. Billy stepped between them. Laughter and voices floated in from the kitchen and dining room. As usual, hardly anybody hung out in the living room.

Austin stuck out his hand. “Hey, man, good to see you.”

“Sorry I’m late.”

His dad patted his shoulder. Man of few words. “Where’s Annie?” Why did he have to choose those frigging words? Shit. His dad loved Annie. The fun begins.

“We broke up. That’s why I’m late.” Billy glanced at his old holey sneakers.

Silence.

He looked up at his father. The man stared at him like he’d just announced he’d taken up serial killing as a hobby. “What? It wasn’t my idea. She broke up with me.”

His father glowered. His six-foot frame didn’t measure up to Billy’s six five, but he still looked damned formidable. “What did you do to piss her off?”

“Nothing!” He sighed. “Everything, I guess. She said she didn’t think I loved her.”

“Were you cheating?”

“Hell, no. She thought I should look at other girls more.”

His dad stared at him weirdly.

Austin punched his arm. “Hey, man, I’m sorry. She’s a nice girl.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

His dad shook his head. “She’ll get over it. Women get these romantic ideas in their minds. Send her some flowers and write her a poem or some shit like that.”

Billy’s stomach clenched. “I don’t think so. She sounded pretty convincing.”

“Damn. Well, I guess you’ll have to tell your mother.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I know. Telling you was practice.”

Austin laughed.

His father nodded. “Good luck.”

Billy dropped his windbreaker on the pile of purses and sweaters on the chair in the hall. Take a deep breath, man. He walked into the dining room. Rhonda and her fiancé, Mitch, stood on the other side of the extended dining table talking to his Uncle Fred and some knockout girl Billy’d never seen before. Blonde, slender, with a rack the size of Utah. Really nice clothes, it looked like.

Great smells poured out of the kitchen. Yeah, that’s where he’d find his sister Teresa, his aunt, and, God help him, his mother. He should stay here. He walked around the table to Rhonda. “Hey, lovebirds. How’s it going?”

She looked up and smiled. The strange girl in the dining room was lovely but didn’t outshine his youngest sister. Rhonda was a beauty with brains. Tall, dark-haired like Billy, with a body that knocked men on their asses, she’d finished her master’s at UCI on scholarships and a lot of financial help from Billy, and now taught history for a private college. “Hi, baby brother.”

Fred gave him a pat on the back, and Mitch stuck out his perfectly manicured hand. “How are you?” Mitch was pretty. Almost as pretty as the guy in the coffee shop.

Billy shook his hand. “Okay.”

Rhonda frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Damn. Could he avoid this whole thing if he just ran out the door? Billy looked away from Rhonda to the blonde girl. “Hi, I’m Billy Ballew, Rhonda’s brother.”

“Yeah, hi. She’s told me lots about you. You sure are tall.” She giggled. “And cute.”

What did you say to that? “Thanks. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Oh, sorry. I’m Sissy. Sissy Auchincloss.”

Mitch nodded. “My cousin.”

Which explained the expensive-looking clothes. She probably had as much money as Mitch. “Nice to meet you.”

His sister was staring at him. “Where’s Annie?”

He shook his head.

“What happened?”

“We broke up.”

Fred made an “oooh” sound.

Rhonda’s eyebrows met over her slim nose. “When?”

“A little while ago.”

“Oh damn, don’t tell Mom.”

Mitch laughed. “Yeah, I think she wanted a double wedding.” Rhonda glowered at him, and he wiped the smile from his face. “Sorry. She’s a nice girl.”

Sissy put a warm hand on Billy’s arm. “I’m so sorry. Breakups are awful. Just awful.”

A little shudder rippled through his skin, and he nodded and pulled his arm away.

“Billy Ballew.” The call of doom. His mom’s voice rang out from the kitchen.

He flinched, and Mitch laughed. Billy called back, “Hi, Mom.”

Her graying head popped out of the kitchen. “Aren’t you going to come kiss your mother?”

“On my way.”

Fred whispered, “Good luck.”