Title: A Better Place
Author: Jennifer Van Wyk
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Publisher: Blue Tulip Publishing
Because fighting for love is always worth it.
After James Cole’s wife walked out on him, he put his dreams aside to raise his daughter. But now she’s grown and he’s ready for more.
When the opportunity arises to own a restaurant, his life-long dream, he can’t deny that it’s meant to be. And for more reasons than one.
He’s kept his heart closed off since the day his wife walked away. He’s never found someone who he thought was worth opening himself up to. But one look at her, and he knew she was everything.
Carly Hanson has a secret. A secret only she and her teenage son, Jack, know about. She’s built a new life but kept herself carefully guarded.
The day Carly stumbled, literally, into James, her world was turned upside down. She tries to keep him strictly as a friend, but he’s relentless in his pursuit. Can he break down the walls she’s so firmly built? Can he get her to join him in… A Better Place?
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“Can I come in?” he asks, still standing on my front porch under the soft glow of the porch light.
“Oh! Yeah. Of course. Let me just let Jack know you’re here,” I say over my shoulder as I make my way back into the house.
“Wait. Can I talk to you? Just for a quick second?” he asks, reaching out and touching my hand and stopping me.
“Sure.” I nod my head. “What about?” I ask as I lean against the back of the couch in the living room. I reach over and grab one of the cream-colored throw pillows and hug it to my chest. It gives me a sense of comfort, and stops me from fidgeting — or reaching out and tugging him close to kiss the crap out of him. That might not give him the right idea for just staying friends.
“I have a favor to ask,” he hedges but hastily continues, “and I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t really important, and it’s a strictly friendship favor. I promise.”
“James. I know I’ve been a little… determined to keep it in the friend-zone, and you’ve never crossed the line. I can’t tell you how much your patience means to me. I trust you. I promise.”
“Yeah? I’m not being too pushy?”
“Okay. Good. That’s good. I would never want to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable.”
There’s not a single molecule in my body that doesn’t believe that. “I know. And you haven’t.”
“Would you go to a wedding with me?” he blurts out.
“What?!” I ask, surprise evident in my voice.
“I’m sorry. I just kind of blurted that out, huh? Let me start over. My niece, Emily, is getting married a few weeks after Christmas. It’s only about two hours from here, but I wondered if you would be my plus-one? And I’d love for you to meet Lily, and she’s been so swamped lately that she hasn’t had a chance to spend much time here. I guess she’ll be here for Christmas, so maybe you can meet then, but yeah. And, Tess will be there, obviously, so you would know someone.”
“I don’t know, James. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m honored that you invited me, or thought of me…”
“No one else I would think of,” he murmurs before I continue with my protest that I know will just fall flat anyway.
“You don’t want to bring someone else?”
“Like who?” he challenges, turning his head to the side.
I shrug my shoulders and say the only name that comes to mind. “Christine?”
They actually seem like a logical couple to me, both being in the food-service industry. Both being single parents of daughters. But even though there’s so much that seems right about those two together — and I love Christine dearly — the thought of it makes me physically ill.
He’s shaking his head before I even finish saying her name.
“There’s no one else I would rather bring with me to this wedding, Carly. Jack can come with us, if you’re worried about it being too date-like. I told you I would keep it in the friend-zone, and I don’t go back on my promises. But that doesn’t mean that I want to stop getting to know you better or spending time with you.”
“Can I think about it?” I ask, already knowing that he’ll break me down, and my answer will be yes.
His smile stretches across his scruff-covered face. I was never big on facial hair, but the way James does it makes shaving seem like it should be a crime. Apparently, anything James does makes me change my views. Tattoos? Used to make me turn the other direction. Now? Hot enough to lick. Facial hair? Used to make me think lazy and dingy. Now? I want to run my fingers through it and lick. Either I’m severely hard up, or James is getting burrowed deep under my skin.
“Of course. But let me sweeten the pot. This way you can answer that question that you’ve been dying to have answered since the moment you met me.”
I giggle quietly. “Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“Who’s the cooler uncle, Dean or myself?”
I almost burst out laughing. He’s so lighthearted and full of life. He’s truly just a fun guy to be around — always a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He could have become a bitter and cynical man after being left to raise a daughter on his own. Instead he embraced it.
“Oh, that question! I already figured it out!”
“It’s not hard to realize, right?” he said as he puffed his chest out a bit, giving me an impish grin.
“Nope. Dean is obviously the way cooler one between you two.” I press my lips together to stop the smile threatening to take over my face.
“Carly,” he warns playfully as he takes a step toward me.
“What? He’s probably not boring, and I’m sure way better looking.”
I nod my head seriously. “And in way better shape,” I say, almost choking on the words.
“You think so?”
“I’m positive. And cooking? Pssshhh. Hands down, I bet he’s better in the…”
I squeal and take off running through the house as James advances one step closer, a deep growl escaping his throat.
I burst out laughing. Heavy footfalls follow me, making my heart race in anticipation. I round the kitchen island and spread my hands across it, breathless from laughing and running. “Maybe I had it wrong this whole time, and he’s Captain and you’re Private?”
“Take it back,” he says, smiling, his own hands spread wide across the wooden countertop of the island.
I turn my head to the side. “What? Take what back?” I ask innocently.
“Carly,” he warns again.
I tap my finger on my chin, feeling more playful and lighter than I have in years. “Hmmm, maybe I will have to come with you to the wedding. See what the younger Cole brother has to live up to.”
His eyes flash, and I know I’m in trouble, but I can’t seem to stop. “Oh, you think you’re so funny, don’t you?”
I giggle and shrug my shoulders as I start to take steps toward him. He turns and saunters my way, flipping his ball cap backward, our eyes never leaving each other’s. “I think I’m a little funny,” I say as I continue walking toward him, holding my finger and thumb up with only a little space apart.
“Funny or delusional?”
I guffaw and press my hand to my chest. “Delusional? Who’s the delusional one here?”
“I’ll see the awesomeness of Dean? I have no doubts.”
And I’m suddenly hanging upside down over James’s shoulder being carried back into the living room.
“Aggghhh! James! Put me dow…” I laugh. “I’ll pee! James! Seriously!” I’m laughing so hard that tears are already forming in my eyes.
He tosses me on the couch and pounces, his large body covering mine in a very non-friendly way, but I don’t say a thing. I can’t say a thing. While we have not been overly touchy in the weeks that we’ve known each other, we also haven’t refrained from showing each other small amounts of affection. He always puts his hand on the small of my back when we’re walking, and he’s held my hand when we were crossing the street to go for supper. This, though? This is by far the most affection and feeling we have shown each other.
“Take it back,” he repeats, his eyes heated and voice husky, his arms pinning my hands above me, our fingers threaded together so perfectly it felt like they were made for each other.
“Hmm? What was that?”
“I said…” He lowers his face so we’re nose to nose. “…take…” His nose skims the length of my neck. “…it…” Deep inhale. “…back.”
My breathing picks up, and I know in this moment that I have two choices:
Melt into a pile of goo. Which I’m basically well on my way to doing.
Take matters into my own hands.
I choose option two.
I pull my hands free, frame his face, and pull him down closer. His eyes heat and flit over mine questioningly. And I do something I’ve been wanting to do for what feels like ever.
I lick him, from jawline to temple.
I lay my head back down on the pillow and watch as his face transforms from lust-filled to incredulous.
“Did you just… lick me?”
“I don’t know what to do with that,” he admits.
He pushes himself into sitting position, and I shimmy up the couch, crossing my legs and tucking my hair behind my ears. He’s facing forward. Slowly he turns his face toward me. “You licked me,” he says like he still can’t believe it.
“Yup,” I say. I have no clue why I did it, other than I just wanted to, so giving an explanation isn’t even an option at this point.
“First time your tongue was on me…” He trails off, looking away again.
A giggle bursts out of me, and I quickly put my hand up to my mouth to hold it in.
James shakes his head at me, stands up, and places his hands on his hips. He narrows his eyes and points at me. “Now you have to go to the wedding with me.”
“For the lick?”
“Wedding for the lick.” My eyes widen, and he continues. “That’s right. I said it. You licked me. Therefore, we wedding.”
“That’s not even grammatically correct!” Stupid argument? Probably.
“That’s your defense against going?”
“Hey! It’s true!”
“Be that as it may, doesn’t change the fact that you licked me. And we’re now going to a wedding. Together. Hi, Plus-One.”
I hear a deep snort from the other side of the room and gasp when I see Jack standing in the doorway to the living room, his broad shoulder leaning against the opening, an amused expression on his face.
“You guys are so weird,” he says, pointing to the two of us.
“You say weird. I say awesome,” James says. “Just wait and see who the best Cole man is when you both join me for Emily’s wedding.”
“Why am I being sucked in to this thing?” he asks. “I hate weddings. I don’t wedding.”
“Maggie will be there. In a dress. She’s a bridesmaid.”
“I’ll be there.”
James snorts and looks my way, winks, and my entire body goes up in flames. Bye-bye wall I built so strongly.
James huffed and puffed, and it blew right down.
From the Ground Up was Jennifer’s first published novel, with the hopes of many more to come. Jennifer makes her home in small town Iowa with her high school sweetheart, three beautiful and amazing kids, one crazy Jack Russell terrier. This is where her love for all things reading, baking, and cooking happen. Jennifer’s family enjoys camping, boating, and spending time outside as much as possible. When she’s not writing or editing/proofreading manuscripts for the many talented authors she’s come to love, you can find her cheering the loudest at her kids’ sporting events, sipping coffee or iced tea out of a mason jar with her Kindle in her lap or binging on Netflix.
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