Chapter 1

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Sam

May, 2011

"Let me help you up." Joe extends his hand toward the steps of the awaiting horse-drawn carriage.

My chin lifts ever so slightly. "You think I need your help?"

The lines of his lips curve up. "Don't put words in my mouth. Being a gentleman, offering assistance, doesn't mean I think you're incapable of doing something on your own. What's with you today, anyway?"

I shift my weight, contemplating touching him again. That day in the bar I thought it happened because of the shot, the emotions and weight of the situation regarding Gabe, my estranged father. But through the rehearsal and today, every connection of our skin, his mere words, glances, and smiles make my insides flip and turn. Blatantly ignoring his gesture would be rude. I've tried to subtly avoid any interaction possible. It's kind of hard to do when we've been paired together as the maid of honor and best man of my sister, Gabby's, wedding to his best friend, Bradley. It's especially difficult seeing as Joe is my boyfriend's brother.

"Well? You're holding up the entire wedding party. Take my hand, Sam." His brown eyes bore into mine, and the tone of his voice is edgy. My breathing quickens. How can I even acknowledge the feeling Joe gives me? Everything about it is wrong. Pure lust. The reality is, it's forbidden, and the grass is always greener on the other side. That's the appeal. That's the origin of these feelings. They aren't real, but rather an illusion. A potentially painful one.

"Samantha..."

My hand seems so small in his when it finally reaches out and connects our palms. The instant they touch, a zap scorches through my body from my head to my core, ending in my toes. The blush I feel creeping from my neck to my cheeks betrays me. Turning my head away, I climb aboard, eventually releasing him. I sit on the cushioned bench, facing the back of the coachman. "It's so hot today." I fan myself. "Humid, too."

He climbs in beside me, and I scoot an inch away from him. "Feels great out here, if you ask me."

"I didn't." My eyes are drawn to his sly smile, the smattering of stubble on the rigid lines of his jaw as I turn my head. "Ask you." My mouth is dry, and my voice cracks. "I didn't ask you."

He glances at my lips as he licks his. "You're much nicer to me on the phone. What's up your ass? My big brother not providing you adequate stress relief?"

"When you were asked to dig up dirt on Gabe, you could have lied to Bradley. Pretended you didn't know who he was." I huff before looking away, trying to break his spell. "That could have provided a shit-ton of stress relief."

"This again?" He narrows his eyes. "Deceit doesn't solve problems, Sam. It creates more. Secrets only destroy lives. You have dedicated your life to saving them, not destroying them." His fingers tug my chin. "And I didn't peg you for someone who condones shady behavior."

Rolling my eyes and shaking my head, I can't believe my thoughts even made it out as words. I've been ashamed of thinking them since the day I saw the file at Joe's bar.

"What hurts most is you think I'm the type of person who would pull a stunt like that." His lips purse into a thin line. "He...Ryan...has always been portrayed as the better brother, the one with the most accomplishments. And that's fine and well." He runs a hand through his hair. "I don't give a shit about accolades. Don't need 'em. But I'm a solid guy, and I protect the people I love." I hang my head as tears well in my eyes. The coastal breeze whips in my face. I suck the salty, soft skin of my bottom lip in between my teeth. "Bradley has been the best friend I've ever had. Sees me for more than anyone else ever has. I wasn't going to deceive him. And I'm sorry if that decision caused you pain." I refuse to look up at him like this. His fist is resting on his knee, which is right beside mine, and I watch as it tightens. It might as well be sucker punching me. "Is causing you pain."

The coachman, whom I'd totally forgotten was in front of us, glances over his shoulder as he pulls the reigns back. "Whoa, boys." He nods. "We're here."

Joe climbs out, extends his hand, and I accept it without hesitation. A pit grows in my stomach. "Thank you for the ride."

Joe helps me down the steps, and I stop once I reach his side. Celia, the wedding coordinator, is waiting on us. "Sam. Joe. Follow me this way."

We obey the orders, not touching. "For what it's worth," I whisper, "I appreciate most of what you said."

"You didn't appreciate all of it?" He glances down at me.

"Right. Specifically the part about my sex life." I laugh, trying to lighten the mood. "Could have lived without that."

He shrugs. "Well, I think I asked about your stress relief. But since you bring up sex, it's only fair conversation. If you were mine, you'd never have a care in the world. I said I take care of the people I care about."

"Actually, you said you"—I do little air quotes with my fingers—"protect the people you love."

He shakes his head. "No, I didn't."

"Uh huh. Yep. You did. That's what you said. Verbatim, even."

"I think you like putting words in my mouth, Sam." He clears his throat. Is Joe Adams speechless? "And to be clear, I was using you as you in general not you specifically." He nudges me. "Just what kind of guy do you take me for anyway?"

"You strike me as a bad boy." My heart races. "Dangerous. Threatening."

"Pfft. Then we'll need to spend some quality family time together so you can get to know me better. Turns out you have no clue who I am."

Family time getting to know Joe better? The problem is I've already gotten to know him through our phone calls and pretending to not care today has been easier than acknowledging just how much I'd like to get to know him better. In fact, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't started to like the electrifying pings throughout my body over the course of the day, the way he smiles at me, or how easy laughter can come after tears. What was that all about?

When we reach our destination, marked by Celia pointing to a spot, I glance back to see Ryan walking with Carmen, Bradley's sister. They are enthralled in conversation and laughter, and I don't even think he notices me. But Joe does. "Do yourself a favor and try not to fall much more in love with him than you already have."

"Seriously?" I shake my head. "Maybe you need some stress relief yourself."

The sparkling lights reflect off one side of his face, while the other is completely dark. "My stress level is very well managed. Thanks for your concern, though." He nods his head in Ryan's direction. "He's never going to marry, settle down. He's in love with his work. And he's a constant flirt." He shoves his hands in his pockets, crossing his leg over his ankle. "You deserve better."

"Wait a minute. Are you sure you're not describing yourself?" I wrap my arms around my waist, a chill sending shivers over every square inch of my body. I peer at the water, then into Joe's eyes as they wander to my cleavage, and I squeeze my upper body tighter.

His lids become hooded as he licks his lips. "Careful, Sam. You don't know anything about me other than what I allow you...the world...to see."

"You're the epitome of the word player, Joe. Except, the only one playing your game is you. Grow the hell up."

He sucks in a breath, and a low rumble of a man's voice booms as music blares from the speakers over our heads, drowning out the words he mumbles. My heart's in sync with the beat, pounding in my chest like a caged animal waiting to be released to defend itself from its attacker. Joe's jaw ticks, and I fear he has the ability to annihilate me in all the best and worst ways. And he's practically family. So, I'm effectively screwed.


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