Chapter Twenty-Two


When I walk into Smithy’s, Brinley is the first thing I see. She stands out like a beacon, sitting at a big table with her friends, her head thrown back as she laughs. She’s changed out of the tight black pants and blouse she was wearing at the lake and now she’s in a pair of jeans and a blue halter top that shows off her tan shoulders.

“You’re staring.”

I turn to Smithy and shrug. “Can you blame me? Look at her.”

His brows disappear beneath his shaggy mop of hair. “Look at all of them. So much hotness in that corner. If insurance knew, they’d make me keep the fire marshal on standby.”

I chuckle. He’s right. Each woman in that group is beautiful in her own way, but I can’t take my eyes off Brinley when she’s smiling like that.

“Are you going to go over there or just stare all night?” he asks.

“I don’t want to interrupt her fun.”

“She and Julian broke up.” He grabs me by one shoulder and gives me a shake. “This is the moment you’ve been training for, soldier!”

Grunting, I nod to the bar. “Get me a beer, meddler.”

“Hey, Marston!” Kace waves me over from his perch farther down the bar.

I take the spot next to him while Smithy pours my drink. “How are you here every night? Don’t you have a kid at home?”

“Hope’s with her mom this weekend, and I don’t like an empty house,” he says, but he’s distracted by something behind me. When I turn to follow his gaze, I see Stella, laughing with a group of guys by the back hall.

When Kace turns back to me, I arch a brow. “You and Stella?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “Fuck no.” There was something in the way he was just looking at her that says otherwise, but I’m not about to argue. “Her brother and I are business partners, and she’s absolutely not my type,” he adds.

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” Smithy mutters as he taps an order into the computer.

Kace shifts awkwardly, so I pretend I didn’t hear Smithy. “So how’s the whole single-dad life treating you?” It wasn’t until I ran into Kace at the grocery store a couple of days ago that I even found out he has a daughter. This is what I get for avoiding Orchid Valley all these years. I totally missed out on my friends’ lives. It seemed like the only choice at the time, but now I wonder if Abraham Knox wasn’t just manipulating me to his will.

“It’s awesome in some ways, really fucking hard in others. I never expected to be a card-carrying member of the divorced-before-thirty club.”

I grunt. If Brinley has her way, we’ll both be part of that group in no time. “Can I ask what happened?”

Kace takes a sip of his beer and sighs. “I don’t know. I worked too much? She didn’t communicate enough? Whatever the reason, she was dissatisfied and didn’t believe we could fix it.” He shakes his head. “By the end, all that mattered to either of us was what was best for Hope. Amy looked at me one day and said, ‘Is this the kind of marriage you want your daughter to have? Because whatever we show her is what she’ll believe marriage should be.’”

“Damn,” I whisper. “That’s . . .”

“True,” Kace says. “And it made a hard decision easy, or easier, at least. It helps that we see eye to eye on how to raise Hope. I think we’ve been doing a stellar job of co-parenting.”

“That’s awesome.” I nod. I sometimes wonder what my mom’s lack of even a halfway-decent partner did for my perception of relationships. I hate thinking about it too much, because it never goes anywhere good.

Smithy leans over the bar. “Bro,” he says, tapping on my beer. “Don’t look now, but Brinley can’t take her eyes off you. You sure you don’t want to be spending tonight with her?”

“I never said that,” I say, turning on my stool to see Brinley.

“Dude, I said don’t look.” Smithy groans behind me. “You have zero game, I swear.”

Fuck him, it’s worth it. The moment I make eye contact with Brinley, she smiles and her cheeks turn pink. I wink at her and turn away again, even though every cell in my body tells me to go over there, even though there’s nothing I want more than to feel that smile against mine. But I can be patient. She might think I’ve given up, but she hasn’t even seen me try yet.

Two beers later, Stella wanders up to the bar on sky-high pink heels, a pink martini in one hand, and gives Kace a once-over. “Hello, gorgeous.”

He stiffens. “Hey, Stella.”

She bursts into laughter. “Oh my God, it’s like you think I’m going to jump you.” She squeezes his shoulder and whispers, “Don’t worry, Kace. If it ever comes to that, I’m pretty sure you could fight me off.”