Friday, October 30, 2015

Release Celebration: A Friendly Arrangement by Christine Warner (Excerpt)

A Friendly Arrangement

by Christine Warner

Adult Contemporary Romance
ebook & print, 292 pages
October 26, 2015 by Entangled Publishing, LLC
Friends First #2


What happens when your plus one becomes "the one"?

Holly Haggerty and Roth Esterly are two besties with everything in common--they're neighbors, career-driven, and commitment-phobes. Tired of always being set up on dates by well-meaning friends and family, they take matters into their own hands: they will be the other's plus one--a little friendly arrangement between friends.

Easy…until a steamy night where they cross the line. But that's okay, they'll add an addendum--one that includes a little action between the sheets…on top of the sheets…and without the sheets. But there are rules. Dating and sex are exclusive until one of them decides to terminate the agreement. No slumber parties. And if either party becomes emotionally involved they will break things off with no hard feelings.

When unexpected news changes their plans and turns their fun arrangement into something more serious, Holly and Roth must come to terms with what's more important--what they thought they wanted, or what they really need.





Review Quotes

"A sheet-twisting romance that will leave you breathless" -- Sarah Ballance author of the Chase Brothers series

"If you love friends to lovers books you should add this to your tbr!" - Danielle

"This book took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. I laughed, I teared up, and I even had a few heart twinges. What a great read!!" -- Sassy Beta Reading and Reviews

"I highly recommend you add this one to the top of your reading list, its sure to leave you with a happy heart and smile on your face." - Misty

"This is the first book I've read by Christine Warner & I definitely enjoyed her writing style." - Shanon

"This book was just all sorts of wonderful, and I highly recommend it!" --Miss Riki


Excerpt

A Friendly Arrangement
by Christine Warner

Copyright © 2015 by Christine Warner. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.


Chapter One
Holly Haggerty frowned as she ran her fingers over the red letter S on the shiny blue nylon fabric of Superman’s suit. Too bad things with Clark hadn’t worked out. Even though she’d hurt him—and herself in the process—she’d never go back on her decision. They weren’t right for each other, and the pain in his eyes when she’d told him wouldn’t change that, no matter how bad it made her feel. He didn’t need to waste any more of his time on her when he wanted something she couldn’t give.


Commitment.

The word alone sent a shiver down her spine. She had no plans to live the traditional life of her ’50s clone-like family—to be like her siblings and get married, live behind a white picket fence, and have kids. Definitely no kids. A second shudder rode the length of her backbone.

She wanted to live life on her terms and timetable. No two in-the-morning feedings, dirty diapers, conflicting soccer game schedules, all while trying to further her career, keep a marriage alive, and play maid.

No. Thank. You.

She respected the choices of her mother, twin sister, sisters-in-laws, and Grams. If only they’d respect hers and understand marriage wasn’t her dream. No matter how much they tried to convince her otherwise by playing matchmaker and adding prospective candidates to their Holly’s Husband List, she would not tie herself down to anyone. She bit her lip as she traced the letter one more time. She’d have to find someone else who’d fit Clark’s suit and could be her date at the party. A party she’d been disinvited to only hours ago because she’d pissed off her biggest client—Alan Bennett—by calling it quits with his brother, a.k.a. Clark. But despite her invitation being revoked, she needed to go to that party so she could talk to Alan and persuade him to renew their contract. He’d become the bread and butter of her virtual assistant business. Without him she’d have to quickly find a client who could offer up all the work and replace the pay. That’d be nearly impossible. She handled a lot of special projects for Alan that she didn’t for other clients, which is why he paid the premium he did.

She let out a frustrated groan. Finding a replacement would take weeks, if not longer. She didn’t have that kind of time…she was already living paycheck to paycheck.

Blood pounded in her ears, she felt queasy, and her heart raced. Was this what a panic attack felt like?

She held her hand to her chest. Breathe in, breathe out. Her inner voice urged her to calm down. But how could she when so much was on the line?

Oh my God. What about the women’s shelter? Holly fought to get air into her lungs. She donated several hours each week to the nearby women’s shelter. After all the shelter had done for her friend Lauren as she tried to leave an abusive relationship, Holly wanted nothing more than to give something back. In the name of her friend. A form of thanks since Lauren would never be able to give thanks on her own. Just thinking about her old friend, the hardships she’d suffered before her premature death, made Holly’s heart ache.

If she couldn’t get Alan back and was forced to find a new client—more like two or three to replace his revenue—that’d cut into her work time for the shelter. She didn’t want to be forced to give that up in order to make ends meet. But she needed to make ends meet to survive and thrive…

How had she allowed this to happen? To focus so much on one client that losing him would destroy all she’d worked for. What if she had to forgo her business and hit the pavement to look for a traditional nine-to-five to cover her expenses? She could almost hear her family cheering in the background. They’d like nothing better than for Holly to have a “normal” job. As if that would offer her the security they thought she needed.

She groaned again, looking at her ceiling, blinking heavily in order to quash the threatening tears of frustration. Everything had been moving along just fine. Until this morning.

Holly quickly scrolled down her online bank statement for a third time. Hoping against hope she’d missed something. Sometimes being self-employed was the hardest job of all. The last few months she’d put most of her extra cash flow into a new computer and operating system, as well as the shiny new workstation just across the room. But you needed the storage and space. You deserved it. Your business deserved it. Her bank balance had definitely gone on a crash diet. If she’d known she’d lose her biggest client, she’d have waited before forking out that kind of moola.

Then again, if she’d known Alan would drop her without warning, she’d have been prepared with a backup plan. She knew to always be prepared, or she thought she had. She’d definitely failed on preparedness this time around.

And the shelter. That still niggled at the back of her mind. They needed her. Told her repeatedly that she was a godsend and that they’d never have been able to afford the services she gave them free of charge. She couldn’t let them down.

Losing Alan cut like a knife—a jagged knife that went straight for the jugular.

She swallowed the gritty sand filling her throat and closed her eyes, rubbing her temples as a small throb started.

Okay. Breathe. Calm down. Think. You need to talk to Alan. Make him see reason and give you back your job. You’re just as important to him as he is to you. But first you need to figure out a way to get into the fund-raiser. And that requires a date. She couldn’t go to a Couples Through the Ages event as a minus one.

She grunted her frustration as she threw the costume over the back of her brown leather sofa and folded her arms. If only Roth were home, but her bestie had gone out of town earlier this week. Should she call Andrew or Alex? Either of her brothers would fit the suit, but then she’d be forced to explain how she’d broken up with Clark. And, more importantly, that she needed their help to save her business. From there, word would travel the family grapevine, and she’d end up forced into a conversation she wanted to avoid. At least for a while longer. That conversation would lead to her parents trying to talk her once again into getting a traditional job, living a traditional life, in a traditional home instead of her urban condo. Holly loved her condo, all seven hundred square feet of it. Turning from the sofa, she slid her hand along the granite countertop that separated her living room from her kitchen, then grimaced. Mom would go on and on about how she liked Clark, how Holly and he had seemed so right together.

Blah, blah, blah.

If only Alan had listened to her earlier when they’d talked on the phone instead of hanging up on her. If only he’d given her a chance to state her case. If only the party didn’t require her to have a date. If only she hadn’t been uninvited.

How come there were so many if only moments in her life today? She needed to calm down and make a plan.

Holly closed her eyes. Okay, Roth wasn’t available, and her brothers were definitely crossed off the list. Maybe Will? They hadn’t parted on bad terms but, last she’d heard, he’d gotten serious with someone new. More than likely that someone new wouldn’t want to loan him out—especially to an ex-girlfriend—on a Saturday night.

There was always Steve. Holly ground her teeth as she paced. If she opened that can of worms she’d only be asking for trouble. He’d latch on to her again in hopes of convincing her to give themone more chance.

Not happening.

She eyed the vintage sunburst clock above the mantle of her gas log fireplace. The flames flickered and gave her a sense of calm. Winter in Michigan had drawn to a close on a final cold front a few weeks back, but she would continue to flick the fireplace on all year long for the ambiance. Sometimes even in the heat of July. Holly’s jaw tightened as she snapped off the ambiance. She better start thinking about her gas bill—as well as every other bill in her file cabinet—until she had this dilemma figured out. Her attention returned to the clock as the minute hand devoured another sixty seconds. Her heart pounded as the last of her calm flew out the door. You have less than two hours to find a date that’ll fit the suit so you can talk to Alan. Beg him even.

The pounding of blood rushing in her ears mingled with the muted tones of classical music. She swayed as she rubbed her temples a second time, only harder, against the soft throb of an impending headache. She stilled, grinned, and dropped her hands to her hips as she recognized that the muted tones came from across the hall.

She mouthed a thank you skyward.

Roth.

She hadn’t expected him back from his west coast trip so soon, but the music told her he’d definitely arrived home. Or he had a burglar who robbed third-story condos by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”

The music switched over to a piece she didn’t recognize, and then another, and finally a fourth. Another Beethoven piece. The volume rose, and that clinched the deal. Roth had a habit of surfing his soundtrack when he worked, claiming he needed to feel the music in order to concentrate on the pieces of jewelry he designed. She had no idea how he could focus with the air and the windows around him pulsating.

Especially with classical music. Eighties rock would be a much better choice. Of course, she grew up biased based on her parents’ listening habits.

Holly grabbed the Superman outfit by the shoulders and snapped the fabric out in front of her, picturing Roth between the stitches.

Her smile widened. “Perfect.”

He and Clark were similar in size. Roth might be an inch or two taller and a little wider in the shoulders, but nylon stretched.

It might be a bit presumptuous to think her bestie would help her out on a minute’s notice, but Roth had always managed to come to her rescue in her time of need.

He’d proven it just recently by helping her bake a Barbie cake—okay, taking over and doing it all himself—she’d promised her niece. Holly had no clue what possessed her to make that promise.

Not that she took advantage of Roth. They traded favors. She watered his plants when he was out of town as well as maintained his website free of charge. It was an easy job, and she didn’t mind helping. After all, that’s what friends did for each other. He may be full of confidence, cockiness, and an assured attitude when it came to most things in his life, but he struggled with computers as much as she did with kitchen duties.

Holly flung the costume over her shoulder. She’d never know unless she asked. If he didn’t have plans, she felt sure he’d help. If he did, she’d have to dig deep and come up with plan B. But she wouldn’t worry about that until after she talked to Roth.

An overabundance of nervous energy pushed her through the door and across the hall before she could overthink things. She didn’t bother to knock—he’d never hear the sound over his music anyway—and pushed open the door to Roth’s orderly home. He sat with his back to the bank of windows overlooking the Grand River that ran through downtown Grand Rapids. She’d have killed for his view, but her bank account couldn’t accommodate the jump in her mortgage to get it. At least she could enjoy the tranquil scene from his place. For a moment, as she focused on the water, her heart calmed, and so did her breathing.

Roth sat with his head down, brow furrowed above his magnifying eyeglasses with the built-in jewelers’ loupe. His left leg swayed below his desk in rhythm to the music. Holly’s breath caught, and she stopped in her tracks, her heart pounding. She didn’t want to break his concentration until he had the gemstone held between a tiny pair of tweezers placed into the delicate bracelet laced through his fingers, even though adrenaline raced through her veins.

She went all warm inside watching him work. Gawd, she admired his patience. His shoulder-length hair was tied back into a loose ponytail at his nape and gave a glimpse of the full back tattoo hidden beneath his tee. He was a big man, tall and muscular, but not body-builder muscular. That he designed jewelry and had to work with intricate details seemed at odds with his rough-edged looks, and actually kind of turned her on a little. Not that she’d ever tell him that, no matter how good of friends they were. There were some things you just kept quiet about. When she’d first met him her immediate thought had been biker dude, but she’d quickly discovered underneath his intimidating exterior he had a huge heart and a steady hand that designed some of the most gorgeous pieces of jewelry she’d ever seen. No wonder the rich and famous vied for his work. Not to mention all the women from every walk of life who wanted to date him.

And that tat. On some men tattoos became intimidating and long hair looked feminine, but not on Roth. The tat gave him an aura of mystery, and the casualness of his hair accentuated his strong features, chiseled jaw, and proud profile. There’d be no doubt he was all man.

He was damn nice to look at. And when it came to personality and being an all-around good guy, he could stand alongside her father and brothers any day of the week. For the umpteenth time she wondered why they’d never veered over the lines of friendship.

She tilted her head to the side and tried to study him through new eyes. His olive complexion and dark brown hair, his bluer than blue eyes, his lean strength…but…

He’s Roth. Your friend. Your best friend of almost two years.

Obviously, they knew each other too well. At this stage of the game, switching things up outside the lines of friendship would be a little awkward. Wouldn’t it? Sometimes things just were.

She slid her fingers over the silky material of the costume that still hung over her shoulder and hid her smile as she watched him work. Roth looked exactly like her seven-year-old nephew when he played with his never-ending pile of Legos. Concentration had his tongue poking against the inside of his cheek, and his eyes sparkled with excitement.

The moment he dropped the gemstone between the prongs, his shoulders relaxed and his rounded cheek disappeared. She released her own breath as he checked to make sure the stone stayed in place and then laid the tweezers on the velvet mat filling his desk. He twisted the bracelet from side to side. The light reflected off the gemstones, and dazzling twinkles flitted across the ceiling and walls. Satisfaction filled his smile, and the lines of concentration marring his brow disappeared. He smoothed out the bracelet beside the tweezers and then grabbed the remote and flicked off the stereo.

“What’s up?” He sat back and flipped the glasses onto his forehead.

“You know how you’re always coming to my rescue?” She licked her lips, shifting her weight from one leg to the other.

“Hmm.” He nodded. “You mean how I’m there to fix a leaking pipe in your bathroom when maintenance can’t get to it right away, or when you come to my door holding a bowl of dry cereal because you’re out of milk, or—”

“Yes, apparently you’re keeping tabs.” She rolled her eyes, fighting back her smile.

He grinned, and then a tiny line furrowed the space between his eyebrows when he eyed the costume slung over her shoulder, before returning his attention to her face. “Don’t tell me you’ve taken up sewing and have hand-stitched a Superman costume just for me. I feel honored, but I’d have helped you no matter what. Plus, there can only be one Superman.”

She laughed outright. Roth always had a way of helping her forget her troubles. “I can’t take credit for any type of sewing, but I could really use some rescuing tonight. Are you on a deadline?”

“Just finished up the last piece for a special order due in a few weeks.” He locked his fingers behind his head as he settled farther in his seat. Bulging biceps drew her gaze, and a twinge of excitement pulled at her tummy. His chair rocked back and forth slightly as he studied her with a lopsided grin. “Don’t tell me you need my help in some role-playing fantasy.”

“You wish.” And from the attention you’re paying his biceps you are, too.

“What would you say if I told you that you were right?” He wiggled his brow.

A warm flush settled over her skin. How come the very idea sent a shiver of excitement through her body? She didn’t even have time to try to come up with an answer before his face sobered and his chair went still.

“I thought you had plans with Clark. Some big charity shindig or something. Isn’t that why you canceled coupon-poker night?”

“We canceled coupon-poker night because you were going to be out of town and I had plans with Clark for a charity event.”

“You know how I hate living out of a suitcase. I sped up the process in L.A. so I could get home sooner.” He sounded drained, as if even the mention of travel wore him out and tested his patience. He removed and folded his glasses before putting them in the case on his desk. “What about your plans with Clark? He back out?”

“We broke up. But I still need a plus one.”

He jerked his attention to her. “You okay?”

She nodded. Her throat swelled and her eyes filled with tears as she recalled this morning with Clark. The pain of their conversation would gnaw at her for a long time to come.

“You don’t look okay. As a matter of fact, you look kind of pale.” His shoulders tightened, and the lines around his mouth deepened. He looked as tense as she felt.

“No. I just feel bad about how things ended.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, freeing the length at his nape, before kneading his flesh as he twisted his neck from side to side. “I’m sorry, Holl.”

She raised one of her own hands to her neck. How would his big hands feel on her neck? Her shoulders? Her… Just the idea eased most of her tension away, and another array of shivers overtook her flesh.

For the second time in a matter of minutes, thoughts of Roth being more than a friend made her flesh come alive.

He closed his eyes for a second, and his mouth parted and relaxed. His full, perfectly shaped lips guaranteed he’d be an awesome kisser, and his image only fueled her daydream. Her stomach flipped, and she tried to moisten her lips with an almost dry tongue.

Holly Haggerty, what the heck are you thinking?

He let out a sigh and then gave her his attention. “So, what happened?” he asked.

What happened was that I was daydreaming about kissing you, and I liked it. Good thing he couldn’t hear her thoughts. Heat spread across her face as he studied her with a growing intensity. Had she entered an alternate reality where her best friend looked decidedly better than he had a week ago? Maybe the awareness that tugged her toward him lately had finally taken a solid root.

“As Grams would say, I’m in a pickle. A pickle that spiraled out of control. If I wasn’t so frustrated, scared, and confused, I’d cry. But I don’t have time.”

He leaned forward. “What’s going on?”

She took a deep breath as he stood and grabbed her hands. She drank in his warmth and comfort, and for the first time all day she had a sense that things would be okay. “It all started this morning. Well, actually it started a few weeks back when I introduced Clark to my family.”

“I thought that was taboo.”

She nodded. “Usually it is. I don’t know what I was thinking. Right after he met them, he started acting differently. Then this morning, he stopped in to bring me a muffin on his way to work, which is something he never does. Come to find out he really wanted to talk. I’d sensed he’d had something on his mind for days, but I had no idea what a huge bombshell it’d be.” Her emotions were still raw from earlier. But she’d done the right thing. She may feel like a jerk for hurting him, but deep down in her gut she knew that any hurt he experienced now had saved him from a deeper pain in the long run.

“He changed the rules of the game, didn’t he?” Roth’s eyebrow raised a notch.

She pulled her hands from his grip with a frustrated sigh. At least Roth would understand her reasoning for the breakup. They shared the same three common bonds: to work hard in their careers, keep relationships light, and avoid the C and L words—commitment and love had no place in their lives—and no kids required. Period.

“I don’t understand why he had to ruin a good thing. I liked him. I liked us. Just the way we were. Sometimes men don’t make sense.” Her last sentence ended on a whisper.

I’m sorry, Holl. I liked him, too.”

“From the moment he met my family, all of our conversations seemed to include something about the future—no matter how many times I tried to steer things back to safer subjects. You know I don’t do future. At least that kind of future. I thought he understood that, too.” She shook her head. “Talking about next week is about as far in the future I can handle, and he was yapping about planning a vacation next summer, looking for a place together… What possessed me to bring him home for Sunday dinner?” She’d opened up like a sieve, unable to stop her rambling thoughts from spilling between her lips.

“Don’t let guilt eat you up. Maybe he liked the cozy comfort of family time. Seeing your family gathered around the dinner table, kids playing in the background, homemade apple pie in the oven…” His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes this time. “Quite the ‘Kumbaya’ moment.”

Holly cringed inwardly. He’d just described Sunday dinner at her folks to a tee. She brushed aside the mental image of her mom gushing over Clark the night she’d brought him home. The way her brothers and dad had included him in their conversation about best baseball teams and up-and-coming players. Even Grams had practically spoon-fed him her special pie.

One of the main reasons she didn’t bring guys home was because she never wanted to set up her family for disappointment. They didn’t need to get attached or have reason to think she might finally be ready to settle down. And lately Holly’s Husband List had been the main topic of conversation with the women in her family. Especially since Holly’s cousin Becca got married a few months ago.

Had Holly—maybe subconsciously—brought Clark home to dangle him like a carrot so they’d stay off her back?

“It doesn’t matter at this point,” she answered herself and Roth. “Introducing him to my family might have been the beginning of the end. I wish they’d understand that I’m not opposed to having a guy in my life, but I don’t hear wedding bells, babies crying, or the ding-dong of the doorbell in my cozy suburban Cape Cod. As far as I’m concerned, any guy I have in my life can keep his own place. We’ll live our own lives, and come together when it’s…well…”

“Mutually satisfying.”

Their gazes held and locked. Holly’s urgency lowered a notch along with her blood pressure. “I wish my family got me as easily as you do. Sometimes I wonder if you’re really my twin instead of Hailey. Two like minds and all. For twins, Hailey and I are polar opposites.” She stopped her second bout of rambling by biting her lip. Her habit of going on and on drove her insane but always made Roth smile with an indulgent grin.

“Anyway, game over for Clark and me.” Her words came out more flippant than she felt. Holly’s head throbbed at the memory of her conversation with Clark that morning. As soon as he mentioned the L word, she had broken out in a sweat. Then when he suggested getting a place together, her stomach had hit the floor. When they’d met nine months ago, they’d been on the same page. Or so she thought. What happened?

“I really am sorry about Clark, but you have to trust your instincts. You probably saved him from a bigger heartbreak later on.”

“Even though that’s exactly what I thought, it doesn’t make the reality of it any easier.”

He tweaked her nose playfully, in the same manner her dad always had when she’d been a kid and things didn’t quite work out the way she’d planned. His lips twitched as he fell back into his chair. “How come none of the women I date think like you?”

She shrugged, chuckling softly. “Because you and I are a rarity. At least around here. If we were smart, we’d be each other’s plus one.”

His eyes widened. “As in dating?”

She waved away her words with a frustrated growl and paced back and forth in front of his desk. “If you really think about it, why do we even have to date at all? How come it’s not acceptable to go anywhere alone? If you do, everyone seems to shoot you looks of pity, worry, or silent nods with compassionate smiles. The worst are weddings.”

Roth laughed. “I was just in those shoes last month.”

“Me, too. It’s as if others don’t think it’s possible to have a good time on your own. Why can’t people understand some of us are actually happy without a plus one?” She spun around to face him, hands on hips.

He jerked one shoulder as if he’d already lost the battle when it came to making sense of that part of life. “Seems like everything and everyone is geared toward couples.”

“Except most TV dinners,” they said in unison, and then laughed.

“As for me, most of my troubles start with a few well-meaning friends who know the perfect someone.” Roth rubbed his chin.

“Oh. My. God. I know. Why is it that to be normal you have to fall into the couple mold?” Her mind drifted to her family and all their suggestions for her future. The stress banded her chest until she could hardly breathe. She paced again, tugging the costume back up onto her shoulder and then combed her fingers through her hair. “Why is it that everyone thinks you need to work nine-to-five instead of working from home, or live in a stamped-out community with a white picket fence and a Stepford spouse, and have 2.5 kids hanging off your leg to be happy?” Her voice raised an octave with each word.

His chair groaned as he rocked back and forth again. “Sounds like you’ve been talking to your mom.”

She turned to face him, rolling her eyes. “It’s the same conversation we’ve had for years, and it’s wearing thin. I think she believes if she keeps repeating it I’ll suddenly agree.”

“Your mom has spunk.”

“That she does.” Holly plopped down into the overstuffed chair that didn’t go with any of the other sleek, modern pieces in his home. She flung her hands across her middle. The costume slid down her shoulder and came to rest in the crook of her arm.

“Okay, I get the deal with Clark, but that doesn’t explain how you want me to rescue you tonight. Or what the deal is with the costume.” Roth’s expression sobered.

“This is where the pickle gets juicy.”

He leaned in, resting his elbows on his knees, steepling his fingers. “I’m on the edge of my seat.”

“Literally,” she said. His smile made hers bigger. “This is going to be lengthy. Do you need a potty break before I get started?”

“No worries, I have a bladder of steel.” His eyes drifted to the Superman costume again, and he wiggled his eyebrows as she laughed.

“Nicely played.” She took a breath. “Okay, here goes. After Clark left this morning I got a call from his brother, Alan.”

“He’s one of your clients right?”

“The biggest. Our contract is up for renewal later this month, and he informed me that he wouldn’t be renewing it, and that as of that very minute my services weren’t needed, even though he’d already paid up until the end of the month.”

Roth leaned back, brushing his hand through his hair. “Man, Holl, that’s tough.”

Even though she’d sounded strong, she swallowed hard, fighting the sting of tears at the back of her throat as she relived the moment when she’d lost his contract. “You have no idea.”

“So he nixed the contract because you broke up with his brother?”

She nodded.

“That’s not fair.”

“Tell me about it. Without Alan’s account, I’m in a huge pile of doo-doo. He is—was—my biggest client. He threw a lot of work my way.”

“You’re awesome. You’ll have no trouble finding a new client.” Roth’s brows creased further as if he didn’t understand her dilemma.

“Thanks, but it’s not that easy. Finding a new client could take weeks, months even. My bank balance can’t handle that amount of time. I didn’t think Alan would ever end our contract, not after all the years we’ve been together. He’s always raved about my work…” Her voice trailed off, and the room grew silent. She licked her lips. “But besides all that, the biggest bummer is that in order to replace the revenue Alan generated for my business, I’m probably going to have to find two or three new clients, and that’s going to cut into the time I donate at the women’s shelter.”

She squeezed the skin between her brows, closing her eyes to fight back the emotions building inside. She wouldn’t cry. She’d get this figured out. And talking to Roth definitely helped.

He waved his hand back and forth. “Wait. Wait. Wait. Women’s shelter?”

“I’ve been devoting some of my know-how to help out down at the women’s shelter on Bridge Street.”

“I remember you saying something about that.” Respect laced his words.

She nodded. “I work on their website, help with the books, and organize events—generally whatever they need help with. They’d mentioned a few times that they’d eventually like to hire me, but I don’t know if that’ll ever materialize. It’s good just knowing that all the money coming in goes toward what really matters: helping women in need. But, if I have to take on additional clients to cover the income I lost from Alan, my extra time will be eaten up elsewhere. I really don’t want to give up the shelter. But I also know I can’t work twenty-four seven. I’d spread myself too thin, and my work would suffer. I’d be no good to anyone. And I really wanted to help with the upcoming fund-raiser they have in the works. A lot of donations are going to start rolling in for the auction that’s planned, and I wanted to put in some extra time. Really make a difference.”

“I love your passion for the cause.” He rubbed his chin as if contemplating all she’d just spilled. “How’d you get involved with them?”

“I told you about Lauren?”

“Your friend who died last year?”

Holly nodded. “She’d actually stayed at the shelter off and on through the years. They helped her try to break away from her boyfriend. Even though in the end they weren’t able to help her, they have helped so many others.” She waved her hand in front of her eyes, giving Roth a watery smile. “Sorry, I always get emotional when I think of her. After she died, I went down to the shelter to offer my help. And I feel good for the little I manage. I only wish it were more.”

“I’m sure you’ve done more than you realize.” His gaze softened, and he nodded. “And how does me rescuing you and the Superman costume come into play?”

“When Alan and I talked this morning he didn’t let me get a word in edgewise before he hung up on me. And he refused my call when I tried to call him back. I need to talk to him. Try to get him to give me a chance. So much depends on keeping our working relationship intact.”

He nodded. “Okay, I can see that.”

“Showing up tonight may be the only way I can convince him to hear me out,” she said.

“And this is the part where I come in?”

She grinned, relief pouring through her. “Exactly. I was supposed to go to the DeVos Children’s Hospital fund-raiser tonight with Clark, but obviously that isn’t going to happen.” She pulled the costume from her arms and spread it across her lap, smoothing the fabric with her palms as she fought for calm. “Alan will be there, and if I can get in to talk to him, maybe I can get my job back. I’m ready to beg if I need to.”

Confusion filled his eyes. “Then go. Track him down and talk to him. You don’t need me. Or Superman.”

“But I do. Tonight’s theme is Couples Through the Ages. I can’t wander in by myself. I’d stand out like a sore thumb. Plus, I could really use some moral support, because Alan is a tough cookie. My palms are sweaty just thinking about what I’ll say once I see him. If I see him.”

“Gotcha.” He nodded slowly, the line between his brow disappearing.

“There’s a little more,” she said sheepishly.

“Okay?” He dragged the word out.

“I’m sure Alan has taken me off the guest list. We wouldn’t be able to stroll in the front door. We’d have to go through the kitchen entrance. Are you okay with that?” Holly felt like an outlaw. Her twenty-sixth birthday was only weeks away; shouldn’t the life she thought was in order be a little easier than this?

Her stomach spun at the way Roth frowned at her as he stood. She craned her neck to see his eyes. Silence filled the room, and the only sound in her ears was the steady pump of her heartbeat.

“I admit to sneaking into a few movie theaters through the back entrance when I was a teenager, but it’s not anything I’m interested in doing now.”

“I know. I feel guilty for even suggesting it, but the tickets are sold out. I plan on giving a donation to the hospital to make up for sneaking in. I’m desperate, Roth. Alan refuses to take my calls, and I know he’ll sic security on me if I go to his office.”

He studied her in silence and then smiled. “I know your heart’s in the right place. Let’s do it.”

Her shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you for rescuing me yet again. You’re the best.”

“Besides the donation, I have a condition.”

She laughed nervously. “As long as it doesn’t involve reciprocating plumbing services or baking a cake, I’ll agree to anything.” She held the costume out toward him and frowned when he didn’t take it.

“You might want to hear me out before you start doling out costumes.” One of his eyebrows shot up to an intimidating angle.

How’d he do that?

“Okay…” She dragged the word out in length, a thin line of trepidation wrapping around her spine.

“I think your suggestion about dating each other is—”

Holly laughed and held up her hand as relief poured over her. “Don’t even go there. I thought you were being serious.”

“Who says I’m not?”

Her mind became a jumbled, panicked mess. “We know each other too well. You’ve not only seen me sprawled out on the couch sicker than a dog, but you’ve been privy to my laundry-day underwear. That’s a true sign of friendship. After witnessing things like that, there’s no way we can date.”

“It’s not like you were wearing granny panties. I caught a glimpse when I put away your laundry.” He chuckled.

She fought her laugh. “It’s bad enough you know I have them.”

His grin spread across his face. “Picturing you in them still makes me laugh.”

“And it makes me cringe. Enough undies talk.”

“You’re right.” He bit his lip until he could get his playful grin under control. “I’m not joking about dating. And I’m not saying we date-date, this would be more along the lines of an arrangement between friends. Like what you’re asking me to do for you tonight, but long-term.”

“Come on, quit giving me a hard time.” She laughed, but the sound came out hollow when he didn’t join in.

His steady gaze locked onto her until her legs wobbled. He really was serious. At least if the set of his jaw and the intent gleam in his eye were any indication.

His phone rang and broke his concentration. He glanced at the screen, frowned, and sent it to voicemail. He rested his forearms on his knees, leaning closer as he laced his fingers together.

“Technically we wouldn’t be dating, but whenever one of us needed a plus one for an evening—”

“Like I do tonight.”

“And I will next weekend.”

“Mmm.” That would be putting this plan into action right away.

“We’d be all set. This arrangement would allow each of us to have built-in dates right across the hall for however long we want. No strings, no expectations. A dating relationship based on true perfection: friendship.”

He made it sound so easy. And it was enticing. This might not be such a laughable idea after all. “It’s not like it would be all the time, either. I mean, my calendar isn’t overflowing with functions that require a date, but every once in a while…”

He nodded, and his jaw relaxed. “Same here. Going out together will be easy because we’re comfortable, and we know each other so well there are times—”

“We can finish each other’s sentences.” She gave him a smart-alecky smile.

“Or say the same thing at the same time,” they both said in unison again. The air between them held a punch of playfulness and fun.

“Proof in point.” Roth pointed at her as he stood and then rubbed his hands together. “We’d each get what we need without having to play interference to well-meaning family and friends.”

“And strangers.” Excitement pulsed through her. This might not be so crazy after all. The more they talked, the more she liked the idea. Or was it just desperation for tonight? Nah. “I’m definitely in for scratching your back if you’ll scratch mine.”

“I knew you’d be game.”

“The best part is that after we show up with each other a few times, everyone will assume we’re in a relationship.” Her voice caught on the last word, and she coughed. She’d always had an allergic reaction to that word. “And they’ll stop trying to fix us up all the time.”

“And we will be in a relationship, but not the kind they’re thinking.” He stopped pacing in front of her, brushing his chin with his finger. “Think about it. I mean really think. It’s perfect.”

“It’s diabolical.” But she loved it.

He paced again. “Why didn’t we think of this before?”

“It doesn’t matter. The point is we did now. And you’re right. I love it. We’re like a couple of dating duo superheroes.”

“I like that. You’re Wonderful Woman and I’m—”

“Super Hot Neighbor Guy.” They laughed.

“I like that. Super. Hot. Neighbor. Guy.” The words rolled off his tongue slowly as if he savored each one.

“You’re such a guy.”

“No, I’m Super Hot Neighbor Guy.” He winked.

She rolled her eyes, loving his playfulness even more so than the fact he’d agreed to help her tonight. “I’ve created a monster.” What man wouldn’t like to be referred to as hot? For that matter, what woman wouldn’t?

“I’m the protector of single women everywhere. At least single women who are my neighbors.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

He shook his head. “It’s not a deal, we’re a deal. Or should I say we’re official, at least when it comes to any event requiring a plus one?” He winked again, only this time her stomach flipped. Not because he was Super Hot Neighbor Guy but because they’d just changed the rules of their friendship.

For better? Or worse?


Other Book in the Series

A Friendly Engagement
by Christine Warner
Adult Contemporary Romance
ebook & print, 298 pages
June 23, 2015 by Entangled Publishing, LLC
Friends First #1

What's a little engagement between friends?


Omar Esterly is married to his job. But when Omar sets his sights on a potential, family-oriented client, his confirmed bachelorhood becomes a problem. Fortunately, his friend and employee, Devi Boss, has the perfect plan...

Okay, so it wasn't exactly Devi's plan to become her friend's fake fiancée. Lies aren't her style. However, Omar offers her a big, beautiful raise - enough to track down the missing father she's never known - and Devi reluctantly agrees to the whole engagement hoax...

This was supposed to be a no-strings-attached win-win for both Devi and Omar, but when they cross the line between friendship and...well, something more, Devi realizes she's made a huge mistake that just might cost her both job and friend - falling for her fiancé.

About the Author

Christine Warner is living her dream in rural Michigan along with her family, one laptop, and a much loved assortment of furry friends.

Besides laughing and a good round of humor, she enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, reading, writing but no arithmetic. A confessed people watcher, she finds inspiration for her stories in everyday activities. She loves to read and write about strong heroes and determined, sometimes sassy, heroines.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the news about A Friendly Arrangement :)

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