Chapter One

 

 

IT WASN’T that I didn’t want to be there. Really, the bar wasn’t that horrid type, the kind with the pounding bass and the waitresses in too-tight everything, offering up breasts and asses to the desperate throng of singles that filtered through the hopelessly chic stained-glass doors. No, this was more a quiet kind of dying. The artfully bare décor, the abstract paintings that stood for nothing at all, the dim lighting, the polished wood of the bar; it all nearly went together in a way that didn’t. Like someone had once seen a picture of what they wanted very much, in a dream, while high, and then attempted to recreate it while none of those things.

But in the end, it wasn’t the worst way to spend an evening. Tracy would never forgive me if I didn’t follow through, anyway. Apparently I was “exuding loneliness,” whatever that meant. Therefore, my happy, newly wed best friend had taken it on to her shoulders to find me a man. What was it about settling down that turned everyone into meddling matchmakers? I felt a little like an extra in Fiddler on the Roof.

You’ll love him, Quinn, I promise. He’s just what you need.

And what is that?

You know, breathing. Walking. Talking. Come on, trust me. It’ll be fun.

I bet General Custer had promised his men the same thing. “Come on, guys, just one more fight. It’ll be fun.”

But here I was, showered and dressed and shaved as promised. I was sitting at the bar staring down at the vivid pink concoction the bartender had pushed under my nose. For nerves, he’d said, with a cute, flirty wink I was positive had charmed many an outrageous tip from men and women alike. It’d certainly worked on me.

“That looks positively dreadful.” The amused drawl came from over my left shoulder, and I turned, eyebrows raising. “Please don’t tell me that’s your usual. Even I think that might be too flaming for an everyday drink.”

The man was taller than me, hair a purposeful mess of blond curls and product, brown eyes glinting as he spread perfect lips in an even more perfect smile. He had that kind of graceful, knowing wink about everything he did: how he moved, how he held out his hand for me to take.

“Quinn O’Malley, I presume?” he asked, again with that grin.

I nodded, slipping my hand into his, surprised at the firmness and strength there. “You must be Brady Banner.”

Brady wrinkled his nose and collapsed elegantly onto the barstool next to me. “Don’t make fun of the name,” he sighed, raising one long finger and waggling it at me in playful warning. “My mother liked things to match. I have three sisters, Brittany, Belinda, and Beatrice.”

It did sound like something you’d put on a fake ID or use as a stage name for a stripper. But I smiled politely and shrugged, asking, “Can I get you a drink?”

“Not if you’re going to order me one of those,” he said with a mock shiver, poking the plastic spear of rum-soaked fruit standing proudly out from the drink. “Can I ask what possessed you to order a Care Bear in a glass?”

Feeling a little awkward and a bit defensive, I shrugged. “The bartender suggested it. I, um, I don’t go out much. Normally, I just have a beer at home if I’m going to drink.”

“Now that sounds excellent.” He smiled at me and gestured for the bartender. Beers in hand, pink drink abandoned, Brady led the way to our table. It was a quiet little booth in the back, tucked away and private. Candles flickered in the dimmer light there, one on each table, and I realized all at once this was a date. Not that I hadn’t known before. Of course I did; I was the one on it. It was just a little more real with soft glow and cozy seating and Brady there.

To his credit, Brady seemed to pick up on my discomfort. Without missing a beat, he leaned across and blew out our candle. Handing me my beer, he leaned back in his seat and smiled, pushing a menu across to me. “So, how long have you known Tracy?”

I settled in, trying to not look as stupid as I felt. Of course I was on a date. Everyone said it was high time I started doing that again. I’d agreed to it, after all. Very silly of me to care if there was a candle on the table. But I appreciated that Brady had blown it out anyway.

“We grew up together. Tracy was kind of my big sister. She said I was hopeless without someone looking after me.” I half smiled, shrugging. Relaxing a bit, talking about a mutual friend, which, I realized, was probably Brady’s goal. “She was right, of course.”

“Tracy’s always right,” Brady said somberly, with a glint in his eye. “That’s the first rule of dealing with her. She’s always right, and she’ll more than happily point that out the second you forget it.”

I breathed out a laugh, a little startled by the sound. It’d been a while since anyone had been able to make me do that. “So, how do you know her?” I asked, curious. I’d never bothered to find out. “Tracy’s been telling me about you for a few weeks, but I can’t say I asked how you and she met.”

“Only a few weeks?” Brady smiled, holding his hand over his heart, feigning hurt. “I’m devastated. Here she’s been telling me about you for months. Apparently you are the last good man in the entire state, and I will die desolate and alone if I don’t at least agree to dinner with you. Which, as you can see”—he gestured at the menus—“I am more than willing to do.”

Off my wide eyes, he paused, finger going to his lips as he winced. “And you had no idea she was shopping you around, did you? Oh, God, I’m so sorry. Really, she’s just very sweet, and she knew I was kind of horrified by the whole club scene anymore. I promise, this is not a meat market or anything.”

“I’m probably going to kill her,” I said conversationally, wishing the ground would swallow me up. “Really, I asked her not to….” Sighing, I scrubbed my hand across my face. “Sorry. I promise, about half of what she told you was pure exaggeration, and the other half was probably all the things I never wanted anyone else to know.”

“All she told me was that you were worth getting to know.” There was the weight of his hand on my own then, and I looked up to find those brown eyes, warm and sweet, staring into mine. Brady smiled, this one softer, none of the flash and mirth and charm of earlier. It was just a smile, one that crinkled the corners of his eyes and made me feel a little less like jumping in front of a bus.

“Well, that’s true,” I managed with a faint shadow of a grin, only to be rewarded by Brady’s laugh sending soft little goose bumps along my skin.

“And I know Tracy through work.” Brady was fiddling with the menu, paging through it. It was the first sign of nerves I’d seen him have all night, and that alone had my interest.

“You’re a lawyer?”

Another laugh, this one not quite as warm, but there was no bitterness in there. Just genuine amusement. “Tracy really didn’t tell you much, did she?” he asked with a grin.

“Just that I was going to die alone and be eaten by my cat if I didn’t take the chance to meet you.” This time I was the one who smiled at him, less hesitant and shy than before.

“And are you regretting that daring leap of faith?” Brady’s hand, I realized all at once, was still on mine. Heart in my throat, I turned my palm over, letting the cool slide of his fingers settle in beside my own.

“Not so far,” I admitted and he laughed, loud and infectious.

“Now that’s what I call a rousing endorsement,” he teased. We turned our attention back to the menus, though I found it hard to concentrate on anything other than the feel of his fingers curled around mine. It’d been a long time since I’d done this. I almost felt guilty about it, until I remembered the empty bed at home, the single chair at the kitchen table. This was what I was supposed to be doing. There wasn’t any reason to feel guilty.

When the waitress appeared, Brady opened his mouth to order before hesitating, turning to me. “Please don’t tell me you’re the type of guy who will judge me for ordering mozzarella sticks on a first date.”

“Only if you refuse to share,” I returned, lips curving upward.

Brady beamed at me, squeezing my hand and sending little hop skips of tight warmth through my chest. He ordered the fried cheese and a salad, a strange dichotomy I found amusing and intriguing by turns. Off my glance, after I’d ordered a BLT and we’d turned our menus over to the waitress, he shrugged. “Life is all about balance,” he informed me with a wink. “Indulgence is only ever really fun if it’s tempered with restraint.”

“How very progressive of you,” I responded dryly. He laughed and our fingers tightened together; it was all so normal. So different from what I’d learned to live with.

Once the food arrived, Brady took his hand back. I tried not to miss it. He didn’t say anything when I carefully removed the tomato from my sandwich, but I could feel his eyes on me as I meticulously rearranged the bacon and lettuce back onto the bread, removing the middle slice of the three-layer club.

“I don’t like to bother the kitchen,” I explained with a tight upward twitch of my shoulders, feeling out of place and defensive again. This was the part I’d forgotten, the part that was always so hard to do: figuring out a new person, their little tics and oddities, finding out if you fit.

“That’s… kind of awesome,” Brady told me quietly, and I looked up, startled, to find him beaming that gentle smile at me again. “I mean, most people wouldn’t think about it like that.”

The acceptance made me feel even more awkward, but the tightness in my posture eased as I carefully cut a section of the sandwich. “They have a lot more to do than fuss over my tomatoes,” I said, then took a bite. He was grinning at me again, looking at the knife and fork in my hands, but he didn’t say anything. Just carefully dribbled dressing across his greens and vegetables and took a bite.

We shared the mozzarella sticks, our hands bumping together as we reached for them. It happened more than once, and I began to suspect Brady was doing it on purpose. A theory supported by the Cheshire cat grin I caught on his face the fifth time our fingers tangled together. That time, though, he didn’t let go. He just tugged me in a little closer, leaning across the table to kiss me, lightly, gently. It was barely more than a brush of our lips, a faint hello of a touch. My cheeks burned with color and I stared at him, stunned, fingertips going up to touch my mouth.

Heat bloomed across my gut, a lurch there like I’d just stepped off a cliff.

“You ready to get out of here?” Brady asked, and all I could do was nod dumbly, still overwhelmed. He paid the bill, ignoring my fumbling for my own wallet. Normally, I would have insisted, but it was nearly impossible to get my brain to form single words, much less an articulate sentence.

I walked most places. Driving made me nervous, and public transportation was too crowded for short trips. We ducked out of the bar, my mind finally kicking back into gear, only to find it was pouring out. And I was six blocks from home.

Fantastic.

“I’m sorry,” I said, managing to get my cell phone out of my pocket without injuring myself or others. “I didn’t realize it was so late. I should get home.”

It was an excuse, a lame one, but Brady took it with good grace. “At least let me walk you to your car,” he asked, hand resting at the small of my back. I could feel it with every inch of my body, that gentle, faintly protective touch of his fingers. Strange how such a small thing could become so overwhelming.

“I don’t have a car,” I told him, holding up my phone. “I was just going to check the bus schedule. I think there’s a stop around the corner.”

He looked positively scandalized. “Okay, well, while you do that, I’m going to pull up right here. And then you’re going to get in and I’m going to drive you home.”

I spluttered out objections, but he held up his hand, one eyebrow cocked. “You are far too cute to die of pneumonia,” Brady informed me, smirking at my immediate blush. “And I’m not an ax murderer or a stalker. Let me drive you back to your place.”

I glanced back at the sheetlike downpour and sighed, relenting. “Fine. But I….”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” Brady reassured me, his hand gripping my shoulder lightly before his fingertips went up to brush across my cheek. My throat jumped at the tender movement, but he didn’t back away. “You need to go slow. I get it. Don’t run away just because I messed up.”

“You didn’t—” I started, but he cut me off.

“Honey, you were bolting for the door the second I kissed you,” he said with a rueful little smile. “I misread you, and I’m sorry. But I do like you, Quinn. You’re sad, but you’re sweet, and I think you need someone like me. So I’m going to drive you home.”

With that he was gone, dashing out into the rain toward his car. A few moments later and he’d pulled up, as promised, pushing the door open for me from the inside as I darted out to collapse inside in a mess of soaked limbs and dripping hair.

“You’re even cute when you’re a wreck,” Brady teased me as he revved the engine and pulled out onto the street, flipping the heat onto high. “No one should have eyes like yours, I swear. They’re unfair to the rest of us mortals.”

I blinked said eyes at him, startled. “I….” Sadly, I never had been good at this part.

“They’re just so blue,” Brady explained with a grin. “Add that to the brown hair and the little upturned nose and honey, you are delicious.”

Shifting in my seat, I frowned slightly, running my hand through my hair and grimacing at the messy tangles. “Do you really just say things like that to people?” I asked, a bit startled. “I mean, is that kind of your thing? You say stuff no one else will?”

“Does it make you uncomfortable to be complimented?” Brady returned, following my indication to turn at the light. “You really are adorable. That’s just a fact.”

Shrugging, I nodded to the street ahead. “You can park right there. That’s my place.”

The nonanswer didn’t faze Brady. He bounded out of the car as if the rain didn’t matter, coming around to pull open my door for me before I could manage to figure out the handle. Then I was faced with the awkward situation of having him there with me as I walked inside. I could hardly leave him out in the rain, and he was far too soaked through to send him on his way. With a sigh, I tilted my head toward the door as I unlocked it. “Come on in. I’ll make you some coffee and you can towel off before you go.”

To his credit, Brady did his best to look innocent, as if that hadn’t been his plan all along. He dripped cheerily onto my rug as I rushed around to get us towels, peeling off his sweater with a squelch to wring it out over the sink. He was left in jeans, slung low on his hips and wet enough that they left very little to the imagination, and a white T-shirt that clung to his slim frame, giving me an eyeful of what would lie underneath.

Cheeks on fire, I turned away, busying myself with undoing my own clothes, the dress shirt wrinkled and soaked. All at once, Brady’s hands were there, helping to coax out the stubborn buttons, gently smoothing the shirt from my shoulders. I looked up, eyes wide, as he smiled at me, as we moved closer still. He didn’t touch me; we simply stood, trembling, bodies poised on the brink of falling. His heat was shared, was made my own, our breaths mingling in ever-shorter pants. He didn’t speak, didn’t tease me for my blush or my self-conscious stumble of almost words. We just looked at each other, the rain making a heavy drumbeat that nearly matched the grinding rhythm of my heart.

When he moved away, letting the connection fade, I let out a slow, trembling breath. Brady collapsed gracefully down onto my couch, bare feet and bared arms somehow looking completely at home there. He laughed when I shooed him up to get a towel laid down, but he took my fussing good-naturedly, helping to get a second towel arranged so I could sit as well.

“I like your place,” he commented, picking up a blue porcelain whale I’d gotten during one sun-soaked vacation to the Florida Keys. “It’s very… you.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “And what does that mean?”

Laughing, Brady shrugged, somehow still looking completely at ease and put together despite being only partially dressed and squelchy. “It’s surprising. You have a leather-bound copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next to a cheesy tourist souvenir whale.”

Frowning faintly, I shifted, glancing around my living room, gaze half-betrayed. “And how is that like me?”

He leaned over, catching my cheek with the rough pads of his fingers, letting his touch slide back to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “Because you, Quinn O’Malley, are surprising. Unexpected. A strange contrast of things I’m quite enjoying trying to figure out.”

“I’m not a contrast,” I protested, feeling the burn in my cheeks as his touch lingered against my skin.

“You’ve been giving me the ‘kiss me now’ look since I made you laugh in the restaurant,” he murmured, shifting closer. I suddenly couldn’t find it in me to protest he was now getting the couch wet. “But you blush when I touch you and you get more nervous the closer I get.” He paused, eyes widening. “You’re not a virgin, are you?” Interpreting my stunned silence as a yes, he hastened to add, “It’s okay if you are! I just… I didn’t expect to—”

“Jesus, no,” I cut him off, having to laugh at the absurdity of the question. “No, definitely not.”

A grin curved up Brady’s lips. “Good. ’Cause I haven’t been with one since I was one and I wouldn’t have been sure how to do this next part.”

“What next part?”

I really shouldn’t have asked. I’d seen it coming the second he’d helped me take off my shirt. Brady leaned in, catching my lips, my question, and teasing them lightly with his. I sighed into it, an exhale that rumbled through my whole body, reaching up to catch my fingers into the wet fabric of Brady’s shirt. He took that as the “yes” it definitely was, drawing me in closer, the wet press of his tongue against my lips making me shudder.

“Wait,” I whispered, and to his credit, he immediately did. He rested his forehead against my own, soothing soft strokes down my back, rubbing a thumb along my cheek.

“Yeah?” he asked, then grinned slowly, nudging our noses together. “Hey.”

“Hey,” I murmured back, heart thundering, a smile threatening my own lips. “I just… I’m sorry, it’s been a while.”

“It’s fine.” Brady pressed one last kiss to the bridge of my nose before leaning back, his hand still making slow paths up and down my back. “That was kind of incredible, just like that.”

It had been. Acknowledging that made me feel exhilarated and guilty all at once. But the guilt—I knew, I thought, I kept telling myself—was foolish, so I tried to concentrate on the giddy high instead. “It was,” I agreed softly, and when our hands found each other again, when our fingers laced together easily, I let myself sink into that sensation. We sat there for a few moments, Brady’s arm around me, our hands clasped tightly, listening to the rain.

Into the stillness came a low, inquisitive rumble, a chirping hello, and then twenty pounds of pure fluff and disgruntled sass sashayed his way into the room. Winston, my odd, huge, squished-face cat, had decided to see what was keeping me from turning into his bed warmer.

Before I had a chance to warn Brady, Winston made a beeline for his feet, nudging his face happily into the arches before he wound his way around Brady’s legs. Then, with one last happy exhale, Winston collapsed, engulfing Brady’s feet in a gigantic pile of contented feline.

“He likes feet” was my weak explanation. Brady was laughing too hard to really care, it seemed, bending over to pet Winston, baby talking him as the cat rolled over to show his belly for even more pats. The boy was shameless.

“Who’s a gigantic fluffy fatty?” Brady crooned while Winston’s stubby legs kneaded the air in bliss. His squished face made him look constantly displeased with the world around him, but there was nothing the cat loved more than attention. That or tuna.

“That’s Winston Churchill,” I explained. Off of Brady’s amused look, I shrugged, reaching down to give Winston a scratch behind his ear. “My partner—my ex-partner—uh, he was a political history professor. When he found Winston, someone had abandoned him behind the university along with the rest of the litter. Winston was the only one who survived, so Aaron, um, he said the cat deserved a fighting name.”

Brady absorbed that information, stroking the thick hair of Winston’s side. I really did need to take the poor cat to be groomed. It’d just been something we’d always done together, Aaron and I. The last time I’d broken down into tears in the parking lot. I really didn’t need to embarrass myself like that again.

“So, political history, huh?” Brady gave me a quick smile. “You have a thing for smart guys?”

I snorted out a laugh, shrugging. “Aaron was… yeah, Aaron was kind of beyond description. But sure, I like smart guys. Why, are you not smart?” I was trying to tease, trying to ignore the horrible ache in my throat talking about him was creating.

“Well, I’m not a professor,” Brady returned, watching my expression carefully. “I’m an event planner. That’s how I met Tracy. I did a charity event for her firm.”

“Oh.” I thought I did a pretty good job of keeping my expression neutral, but Brady grinned at me, nudging my leg with his elbow.

“You totally just dismissed me!” he said with a laugh, not appearing offended so much as amused. “My God, as soon as you heard the words event planner you completely dismissed me.”

“No, I didn’t,” I protested, but Brady simply grinned impishly, waving me off.

“You did. You think all I do is swan around and plan parties for the über-wealthy.”

After hesitating a moment, I ventured, “Is that not what you do?”

Brady smirked. “I like to think I don’t swan so much as sway.”

He was teasing me. I got that after a moment and sighed, rolling my eyes at his laugh. I turned back toward him, though, when his hand found mine.

“You’re going to re-evaluate your ideas of event planners,” he told me, confident and somehow astoundingly sexy as he held my gaze. “Because you, Quinn O’Malley, are smitten.”

“Excuse me?” I asked, sputtering, but Brady laughed at me, leaning in to kiss away the protests.

“You are smitten with me,” he repeated with a little grin. “Tomorrow, you’re not going to be able to stop thinking about me. And you are going to rethink this whole ‘event planners are beneath me’ thing. After all, that professor is your ex for a reason.”

I paused. It was too long a pause; it turned teasing into dreadful silence. The air practically burned with my stillness, with that horrified nothing. The smile slid away from Brady’s face as my hands, shaking, dropped from his. “Quinn?” he asked, but I shook my head, swallowing hard.

Smile. I had to smile while I said it. I had to make it sound light. Casual. No one wanted to hear about this: it was too awkward, too terrible, too real. Tracy told me I needed to not dominate every conversation with this, that I needed to learn to let go. That Aaron would have wanted me to let go.

“He died,” I explained with that horrific smile on my face, my voice cracking at the edges as I strove for lightness. “So, uh, that’s why he’s an ex.”

Brady went pale; his mouth dropped open. “Shit. Shit, Quinn, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Tracy…. Fuck, Tracy just told me you were getting over someone.”

I shook my head, drawing back, feeling like the room was spinning. Like there was a white, rushing noise in my ears that made it hard to hear anything else. “It’s fine,” I was saying, still smiling, still desperately smiling. “I asked her not to tell anyone a while back. I was tired of the way people looked at me when they knew.”

His hands were on me again, pulling me close, and it took me a moment to realize he was hugging me. Tightly, he held on, and after a few beats of not being sure how to react, I sagged into him. I rested my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes, wishing I didn’t feel exactly the same every time I said his name.

Guilt followed that thought promptly, an overwhelming wave of it. Why shouldn’t I feel this? He was gone. If I let go of that grief, if I had a moment of not missing him, how could I ever say I’d loved him?

“How did it happen?” Brady was asking, distantly, and it took me a while to struggle through the answer.

“Cancer.” Such a stupid little word. It was far too little, too simple, to explain what had happened. To fully encapsulate the horror of watching that big, booming man with wild red hair and a grin that lit up the sky turn into a skeleton. That the person who’d once taken up a broadsword in class, swinging it around with a manic grin while he told his students of the War of the Roses, who’d tramped across hiking trails like there was no time at all between himself and his Viking ancestors, or who’d held this tiny, mewling, starving kitten in his hands so gently, that that person had been slowly killed off, piece by piece. That he’d died in stages, in starvation and sores and sickness. That the man who’d kissed me so passionately, who’d touched me and made me come alive, who could turn me on with a look, the man who I was supposed to grow old with, had been stolen.

Cancer was an ugly word. But one word could never fully encompass the soul-sucking terror of living through it. And I’d do it all again, every heartbreaking moment, because it would mean that for a little while, I’d have Aaron back again. I’d have my soul in one piece.

“I’m so sorry.” The most useless phrase in the world. Brady was patting my back, was trying to say something that would mean anything. There wasn’t, though. I knew that. He was trying, and that was the point. “When did you lose him?”

“Almost two years ago,” I said lowly, fighting off the urge to cry. I certainly didn’t know this man well enough to start bawling in his arms over my dead partner.

Brady drew back, studying my face. “I really am so sorry,” he whispered. I’d heard those words over and over, so much they all blurred together. But I could tell he meant them, so I gave him a sickly smile and shrugged, eyes dropping away from his.

“It’s okay,” I told him, voice nearly steady again. Then, taking a slow breath, I tried for some levity. “Man, this has got to be the worst first date in history.”

Brady snorted inelegantly, glancing at me before he let himself smile. “Oh, honey, you clearly haven’t had many bad dates. Trust me, this is nowhere near the worst. In fact—” He reached out, lightly laying his fingertips on the back of my hand. “—I kind of think it was pretty great.”

He stood, carefully folded my towel, dislodged a grumbling cat with one last pat goodbye, and gathered his shoes and his sweater. I walked with him to the door, feeling wrung out and unsure. Brady smiled at me, leaning in to brush a kiss across my cheek. “I really do think you’re smitten,” he told me, and I found myself smiling, just barely, back at him.

Then he was gone and my apartment was empty again. Just me and a fat, now snoring cat, and the ghosts of what once was.