Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Love and Relativity, you’re in for a real treat:
Love, life, and happily ever after? It’s all relative.Marine biology student Emma Pierce lives in paradise—geographically speaking, anyway. Stranded on Sanibel Island, Florida, she works at a nursing home by day and spends her nights dodging the island’s infamous bad boy, Jackson Taylor, at her favorite karaoke bar. Trying to heal from the loss of her sister and a failed relationship she rerouted her life for, she’s ready to graduate and finally leave Florida behind.When a run-in with Jackson and his rowdy crew goes sour at the bar one night, sparks fly and irreversible damage is done. It’s no secret that Jackson loves to get underneath her skin, but this time he’s gone too far. Now all he wants is to earn her forgiveness before she’s gone for good, but their ideas of closure—and the future—are enough to keep them worlds apart.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
The muggy evening heat engulfed me when I stepped outside of the classroom, causing my glasses to fog up the instant I hit the campus pavement. Pulling them from my face, I tossed them into my book bag. I didn’t need them for anything other than reading, but every now and then, I toted them around in public. They made me feel like a different person, an alternate me—the one who would’ve been clear across the country right now, finishing up college in Washington, with my ex high school sweetheart by my side. Only that would require an alternate him as well, because the real him decided he didn’t want to leave Florida after all, and that sleeping with some freshman he met at a beach party was a wake-up call that he didn’t love me as much as he thought he did.
It was a miracle I didn’t hinder his ability to have babies the night he told me the news.
That was a year ago, and now I was back at Edison State College for round two, beginning my sophomore year. Chris, the ex-boyfriend, and I had taken some time off after high school and made a pact to spend our freshman year here together in Florida, at Edison, to knock out some general education classes before transferring to the Northwest to finish our degrees. I was preparing for a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a Marine Biology concentration, and he had his sights set on psychology.
The original plan was cool with me. The Southwest Florida lifestyle had suited me well since I was born. I loved the sunshine, the tropical humidity, the weekends at the beach and afternoons by the pool, and the year-round flip-flop and tank top wardrobe requirements. It also gave me time to save some money. When Chris ditched me for the freshman and my sister passed away shortly after, all of that changed.
Now I craved cloudy days, hated the unbearable heat, and found myself interested in wearing more than shorts and a bathing suit all the time. Not a day went by when I didn’t imagine what it would be like out West with Chris, or where Jen would be right now if she were still here, which lives she’d touch and the amount of light she’d shine. I might’ve given up the dreams to leave this place a year ago, but my desire for them wasn’t dead, just dormant.
And Jen’s absence never let me forget it.
Hopping in my car, I pulled out of the campus parking lot and made my way toward Sanibel Island, where I lived and worked. Driving inland to Fort Myers to go to school a few days a week was no biggie. In fact, it was a relief. I liked getting off the island, and it gave me a chance to think. I seemed to emerge from my car after every ride with a little more clarity, which was something I ached for lately. You think when someone you love passes away, everything becomes clearer, that your priorities and perspectives align in a way they’ve never aligned before because of the sobriety of it all.
But it doesn’t.
Those revelations just become skewed and distorted until you’re forced to rewrite them entirely. You can’t walk straight on a new path when you have too much luggage on your back. You just keep swerving, trying to find a way to accommodate the weight, but it’s all dead and you know it’s going to take you down. The only answer is to re-route.
I pulled up to Pete’s Tavern at 9:30 p.m. on the dot, relieved to see Whitney already waiting for me when I walked in the door. There she sat, propped in our favorite spot at the bar, with her petite frame swallowed up by the wide high-back bar stool, and her dark, onyx hair piled high up on her head in her signature messy bun. The seafood joint felt more like New England than Southwest Florida, but it was cozy and offered the best drinks and coconut shrimp in town, not to mention the best karaoke selection.
Jimmy Buffet was singing about it being 5 o’clock somewhere, and the Friday night regulars were just getting started. There were only two kinds of music that made it onto the radio here: Jimmy Buffet’s greatest hits, and country. We might have been in the tropical Sunshine State, but we were also in the South. And that meant a lot of country. And whiskey. And pick-up trucks, muddin’, and crazy-ass Southern boys who loved to raise hell. While most of the region was a melting pot like the rest of the state, that didn’t stop Fort Myers from carrying its own particular brand of backwoods Southern flair.
Whitney swung around to meet me with a smile when she heard Pete whistle at me from behind the bar. His voice boomed across the restaurant, prompting head turns and a whole lot of hooting and hollering. “Well I’ll be damned, kids. Our favorite lush is in the house. Come on in, darlin’, I know you missed me, now. It’s been over a week!”
“Hey, Pete.” I grinned up at him while I took my seat, tossing my book bag near my feet. “Yeah, just been busy with the new semester.”
“Soooo….how was class, chick?” Whitney asked.
“Okay,” I said, pulling the clip from my hair to let my wavy, chestnut-brown hair down. Pete was already busying himself behind the bar, working on my usual. “How was work?”
“Eh, same old, same old. Snotty bitches turning their noses up at me because they have money and they know I don’t.” Whitney worked as a maid at one of the most uppity resorts on Sanibel Island. Most of the time, the guests were seniors: mostly sweet, occasionally grumpy, or something in between. But the recently renovated, urban chic atmosphere attracted all sorts of locals and tourists now, including younger people with daddy’s money and yachts waiting at the dock. Whitney worked hard for her money, working another waitressing job on the side to make ends meet, and I was damn proud of her for doing all that, plus taking classes. Friday night was the one night a week we both shared off, and Pete’s was our watering hole of choice.
If our Friday nights were ever taken away from us, I was sure I’d lose my sanity.
“Did you fluff their pillows to their liking?” I batted my eyelashes and gave her my most sarcastic eye roll.
“Girl, some days, I’d like to take those pillows and tell them to stuff ‘em where the sun don’t—”
“Here ya go, darlin’.” Pete slid me my drink. “Shrimp’s comin’ right up.”
“So,” she gave me that devious look I knew so well, “I’ve decided to take a weekend trip to Orlando. You game?”
“Nah, not this time, Whit. I requested this weekend off for a reason—because I need a break from running around…and to deal with…ya know. The new class and work schedule is already wearing me out. I’m staying home. It’s going to be me, my Kindle, and the beach.”
“I need a break, too, chick. I rarely get a weekend off. But I can catch some sun, sand, and read a good book in Orlando, and so can you. And there will be guys. Lots and lots of guys. I’m driving. Come onnnn, Em! You shouldn’t be home alone this weekend.”
Her expression turned earnest and I raced to deflect the direction she was headed with that piece of conversation. “Somebody’s on the rebound.” I snickered, raising my eyebrows.
“I am not on the rebound, thank you very much.” Whitney had recently gone batshit crazy after breaking up with Adam, her boyfriend of two years, morphing into a serial dater. She’d go on one date with someone and be out the door before he even picked up the check. No matter what, no one would ever compare to Adam. Whitney was like me in that way. We’d both been hopeless romantics since kindergarten, believing in soul mates and the ability to be perfectly content in a committed relationship. Still, we never felt the need to have men in our lives to make us happy. Both Adam and Chris—before they were assholes—knew this about us and were pretty supportive of our independence.
I grew up seeing a partner as an equal, someone who made you a better person and encouraged your individual growth, not a lesser or a better who dictated your every move. I had my mom to thank for that. She’d been happily married to my dad for 30 years until he randomly died one day from a heart problem. They were positively my role models in the romance department, and although my hope for a healthy, genuine relationship had been mired by a new, less-than-optimistic outlook on love, deep down, I knew not all guys sucked. Only the high school sweethearts with football player abs, massive egos, and pearly white smiles—the ones who walked straight out of Abercrombie catalogues, like Chris Williams—did. Damn him, damn him, damn him.
I repeated this mantra at least three times a day.
“Whit, you’ve been on the rebound for six months,” I said. “You’ve left a trail of broken hearts from here to Mexico, and it’s not getting any better.”
“Excuse me, miss I-don’t-date-at-all-and-I’m-22-years-old.” She gave me her own signature eye roll and popped a cherry in her mouth. “I’m just trying to keep my options open. It’s not my fault they follow me around with puppy dog eyes and then cry a river when I don’t agree to a second date.”
Pete returned with my shrimp basket and I dug in, savoring the coconut flavor and exotic spices as they melted on my tongue. “Mmmmm.” I sighed contently and glanced over my shoulder when I heard the front door open and the familiar laughter roll into the restaurant. “Hey, I date. Just…not very often. Well, you could always opt for more temporary solutions, since you don’t seem to be interested in anything serious.” Nudging her in the ribs, I waited for her to pivot around and follow my gaze.
She eyed the group of guys who’d walked in and made a gagging sound. “Please, Em. Jackson Taylor and his dimwit assclowns? I don’t think so.”
“What?” I feigned innocence. “They’re hot and they’re with different chicks every week. I’m sure they’d be happy to oblige to your serial dating ways.”
“Ugh. Emma, sometimes I wonder if you even know me at all. Would you look at them? Strutting in here like they own the place. Ppffftt.”
“Brace yourselves, ladies,” Pete’s voice made us snap our heads back around. “Looks like trouble’s making its weekly rounds.”
Hearing the laughter grow louder, I glanced over my shoulder again and sighed. Yup. Once again, Jackson Taylor and his army of mischief-makers were on their way over to Whitney and me to commence their Friday-night ritual: harassing us until we agreed to dance and sing karaoke with them.
There was a generally amicable understanding between all of us: They were allowed to entertain themselves with the idea that they actually caused us to swoon and grow weak in the knees, as long as they didn’t interfere with our girl time when we told them to screw off. Most of the time, they abided by that rule. By the sounds of them tonight, though, something told me they were all about interfering.
“And how are my favorite angels tonight?” Jackson’s voice called out in a sing-song tone behind us, meeting me with that mega-watt grin of his and that wild, mussed-up dark brown hair that made him look like he’d just had hot elevator sex. “Emma, looking stunning as usual.” His blue eyes raked down my body, then back up. He leaned in, aligning his eye level with mine.
I crossed my legs and straightened my back, deadpanning him. “Ah, Jackson, you’re looking simply divine yourself, as usual.”
“That’s because the heavens opened up and out I fell, just for you.” He winked, swiping the olive from my glass to toss it in his mouth.
“Hey! I was going to eat that.”
“No you weren’t. You never eat the olive.”
“Tonight I was.”
“I call bullshit.” He chomped down playfully before unleashing that smug grin again, flicking his gaze down to my lips, making me squirm in my seat.
There was no denying it, as much as I hated to admit the fact: Jackson was one fine sight. His thick, wild brown hair was so dark it was almost black, and his strong jaw, plump lips, and piercing blue eyes turned heads wherever he went. He always seemed to have a visible shadow of stubble, as if he were deliberately late for a shave.
But what really sealed the deal was his infectious, carefree attitude. His middle name should have been ‘mischief,’ and miraculously, this somehow added to his appeal. He was a legend on the island. Throughout high school, I’d heard he’d made the newspaper numerous times for being involved in all sorts of fights and property damage, and for purposely chasing Ms. Stein’s cat up a tree. It took them two days to actually get the poor thing down, and when asked why he did such a juvenile, stupid thing, he just shrugged and said, ‘boredom makes you do stupid things.’
Well, yeah. Apparently.
Still, he somehow managed to keep every girl on the island wrapped around his little finger. Didn’t matter the age or walk of life—they all melted around him. The sweet 65-year-old Ms. Stein forgave him for the cat incident almost instantly, citing something about Jesus and his disciples’ penchant for forgiveness, and every time he broke some poor girl’s heart, she would take him back anyway the minute he flashed her a smile. That smile lit up a room. Always wide, always perfect, always accenting his plump lips. Jackson Taylor was the whole tempting, sexy, albeit frustrating package: playful, charming, and rebellious. All together, it made for one delicious dish.
I was reminded of this every time he did this I-know-you-want-me thing he was doing right now, leaning into me over the bar. Even as Ruben and Jeff, his wingmen, gravitated straight to Whitney to launch off into their joke-cracking ritual to vie for her attention, I was reminded of it when I met his crystal blue eyes, unable to focus on anything else around me except those mesmerizing pupils.
He leaned in closer and placed two hands on each side of me, resting them on the bar, his black Egyptian ankh tattoo peeking out from below his shirt sleeve when it rode up against his tan, firm arm. I backed up slightly, savoring a whiff of his typical sunscreen and cologne scent.
“Oh, Jackson,” Whitney chimed in, swatting Jeff and Ruben away, “go drool over the other regulars tonight, will you? Or haven’t you figured out by now that she’s immune to your charm?”
“Ha.” His eyes lowered to my lips once more before returning to meet my poker-face gaze. “She’s not immune. Just hasn’t figured out how great of a catch I am yet.” Pushing off the bar, he gave me my personal space back, and a small part of me—one I instantly resented—was bummed by the fact. Jackson had made his intentions clear—he’d wanted me—for three years now, since I started coming in to Pete’s. But I’d also made mine clear. Not only did I have no desire to be just another notch on his bedpost, I also had history with him now. Anything more than our sort-of friendship would only complicate things. “I see how it is. You girls just aren’t in the dancing mood tonight. Damn shame, because I’ve been working on my lawnmower move, and you’re totally going to miss out on witnessing that level of brilliance.”
“What a tragedy.” I shrugged with a faux pout, turning to Whitney.
“We can see it perfectly fine from across the room,” she said sweetly.
“Fine. But I have a Grammy-worthy performance for you ladies about an hour from now, and I refuse to let you miss that one.” Jackson’s favorite karaoke song to sing was “Santeria” by Sublime. I had to hand it to the man, he nailed it every time, tipsy and all.
I grinned and shook my head, swiveling around in my stool to pick at my shrimp. “Oh, we look forward to it, Celine Dion.”
“Michelle and Kayla are on their way, man,” Jeff’s deep voice butted in. He started texting at Jackson’s side, giving Ruben and Whitney free range to chat. No matter what Whitney said, I knew she had this weird thing with Ruben. He was tall, built, and Latino—very much her type—and as obnoxious as he was around his friends, his persistence was starting to grow on her. When the two of them talked, they tended to disappear underneath this bubble and the whole world just dropped away around them.
It was kind of like with me and Jackson, although any prolonged time I spent with him made me want to strangle him, and vice versa. Saying we were polar opposites was putting it mildly. His persistence was irritating, but over the past few years, a strange sort of comfort evolved from it, so every now and then, I cut the guy a break.
Hence the agreements to engage in mortifying karaoke performances with him.
“Tell them to bring their friend Kelly,” Jackson said to Jeff, his voice low while he peered down at the text message.
“Yeah, she was hot, man. Didn’t she say she’s coming tomorrow?”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
Taking a healthy bite of my shrimp, I waved to Pete for another drink and tried to tune out of their conversation. I so didn’t want to hear about their shenanigans with Michelle and Kayla tonight. They were nice girls, but completely naive to the guys’ antics, and it was painful to watch.
Jackson cleared his throat and tugged a lock of my hair, wrapping it around his finger to get my attention. “So…‘Santeria’? After I play one game?” His arctic eyes snapped to mine and he dragged his feet closer, the tips of his shoes hitting my stool’s legs. Sun-kissed skin peeked through the holes of his worn-out, relaxed t-shirt, causing my eyes to wander down to his chest. He seemed to notice my ogling, a pleased grin playing across his lips. He always noticed.
“If you insist.”
“I insist.” Turning on his heel for the pool table, he started belting out “My Heart Will Go On,” and Jeff followed him, chiming in with the rest of the bar in booing his performance. Ruben joined them a second later, finally prying himself away from Whitney.
Picking up where we left off before Troubles ‘R Us made their appearance, Whitney and I rambled on about our day. Pete eventually shooed us away from the bar after one too many drinks, and before we knew it, the karaoke mic was calling. Jackson was waiting with that expectant smile of his, toying with the mic stand.
“It’s on like Donkey Kong, Em. Shit, can you stand?”
“Very funnnny,” I giggled, grabbing the mic. “Um…I think so.”
“No face planting allowed tonight, you got it? Now hold still.”
Each time Jackson belted the chorus, I laughed until my stomach hurt, saving me from actually having to sing much of the song. Every few seconds he’d reach out and steady me, taking swigs of his beer in between verses. I somehow stumbled through our performance with some of my dignity still intact, and then it was Whitney’s turn at the mic while the guys gathered around to play another round of pool. She started singing her own personal tribute to Adam, something about if he liked it, he shoulda’ put a ring on it.
“You get better every time we do that song!” I smiled wide at Jackson, leaning over the pool table. My head was starting to spin and I wanted to hug everyone. Bad sign.
“You get worse every time we do that song.” He laughed, smiling back while he waited his turn to play, cue stick in hand. “I think it’s time you got some water.”
“Heyyyy now, I’m fine. Don’t start with me.”
“Emma, water. Now.” He pointed behind us to the bar.
I pushed away from the pool table and leaned back on the wall. “No. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Oh, here we go.”
“Don’t ‘here we go’ me!”
He shook his head, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. He twisted around and called out to Pete. “Hey, Pete! Two waters, por favor!”
“I cut her off half an hour ago, Jackson. Don’t go giving her any of your beer, now,” he hollered back. “I’ll call her a cab.”
“Yeah, don’t go giving me any of your beer, Mr. Elevator Sex,” I slurred, grabbing the Corona from his hand.
He dropped his cue stick and wrestled me for it, his grin reaching epic proportions. “What did you just call me?”
“Oh, don’t flatter yourselfff.”
“I knew you fantasized about me, baby, but damn. I didn’t picture you as an elevator sex kinda girl.”
He won the war for the beer and Pete delivered two waters, shooting me that take-it-easy look. “I don’t fantasize about you, Jackson. And that proves you know squat about me, ‘cause I’d love to have elevator sex.”
He choked, spewing his beer everywhere. “Is that an offer?”
“You’d be the last person I’d want it with.” I stuck out my tongue and sloppily cracked open one of the water bottles.
“Please. Who would you want it with, Scott Morgan? The dick would be too worried about scuffing up his loafers. He’s so damn uptight.”
“What do you know about Scott? I’m not even interested in him. And he does not wear loafers!”
“He seems to think you still are. Just last weekend Ruben and I were at Kayla’s party and he was going on and on about how you won’t stop calling him.”
“And you bought that?” I got close to him—too close—to look him in the eye. “I went out with the guy twice.”
He tilted the water bottle back toward my lips, encouraging me to keep drinking. “What did you see in him, anyway?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged, glancing around for Whitney. Some unfamiliar redhead was at the mic now and she was nowhere to be found. The bar noise was growing louder, and the room started going blurry each time I moved. It was time to go. “We had a lot in common.”
“Like what, ironing socks? Discussing your favorite cleaning products? Come on, Em.”
“I’d rather be a neat freak than be a slob. You’re so messy.” I slapped my hand on his chest and he caught it, holding it in place, resting his free hand on the corner of my hip to steady me.
“Right now, you’re the messy one.”
“I’m going home.” I tried pulling my hand from his chest but he wouldn’t budge, his eyes scanning my face.
“You love my mess.”
“No, your mess gives me a headache. You know what else does? Chris. He’d never have elevator sex with me. He barely wanted to touch me. That’s when I knew…” The image of him and the ditzy freshman came to mind, and I was ready to hurl. “I gotta go, Jack.” I covered my mouth and clutched my torso. “I’m soooo tired and I think I’m gonna be sick. Have you seen Whit?” I tried pulling free again and this time, I succeeded, but I wasn’t cut free from his grasp for long. I lost my balance and gripped the pool table. Jackson’s arms shot out to catch me.
“Shit, Emma, you shouldn’t have drunk so much. You know how you get with liquor.”
“Leave me alone.” I shrugged him off, looking around again for Whitney. “Isss not your job to take care of me.”
“Just let me help you find Whit so you can catch a cab together, come on.” He gestured to his pool buddies that he was ditching and took me by the hand, leading me toward the door. “There’s a good possibility she’s outside.”
“Huh?” I bumped into his shoulder as he guided me. “Why?”
“Because Ruben’s outside. I saw him sneak out a few minutes ago.” Opening the door, we stepped out onto the porch to find Ruben and Whitney sitting on the hood of her car, making out. “What’d I tell ya?”
Whitney came up for air. “Emmm!” She slid off the hood of the car and straightened out her skirt, dashing over to meet me. “I don’t want to go home yet. I’m having soooo much fun.”
“I can see that.”
“Jackson? Take her home? Pretty please with sugar on top?” Whitney begging. Now that was a sight. “You know it’s the anniversary of her—”
“Yes, Whitney, I’m well aware.” His hand tightened around mine. “But no can do. Pete called her a cab; she’ll be fine.” He let go of my hand and eyed a black SUV as it rolled into the parking lot. A cab pulled in behind it and my shoulders sagged in relief. All I had to do was make it home and into bed, and this night wouldn’t come for another year.
Kayla and Michelle emerged from the black SUV, squealing with laughter, and Whitney quickly changed her tune. “Never mind, Em, I’ll go home with you.”
“What?” Ruben perked up, at her side in an instant. “Wait, Whit, let’s go back inside and hang out—”
“See you fools later,” she said, linking arms with me and pulling me toward the cab. Kayla and Michelle’s laughter grew louder as they approached the front porch, latching on to Jackson and Ruben to drag them up the porch steps. They were gorgeous and all decked out as usual, with their perfectly bronzed skin, big boobs, and stilettos. I couldn’t help but look down at my simple jean skirt and heels and feel plain in comparison.
“Wait a minute.” Jackson darted back down the porch steps and trotted around the front of the cab to the driver window, towing Kayla with him. She just laughed and started texting in her other hand, barely sparing the driver a glance. Pulling out his wallet, Jackson paid the driver and leaned into him, his voice hushed. Whitney and I slid into the backseat. I might have been smashed, but I could make out what he was saying.
“Please don’t take Prescott Lane. Take Palermo to Fourth and then turn on Olympia.”
I leaned back and let myself sink into the smelly leather seat, taking a deep breath as I did. My gaze caught Jackson’s through the driver’s window before we pulled away, and those harrowing words passed between us.
I’ve got you.
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