Copyright © Karla Doyle, 2014
All Rights Reserved, Karla Doyle
Curtis and Sara
Curtis subtly flicked his wrist to check the time. Almost four o’clock. No wonder he could see his brother’s jaw clenching from a dozen feet away. Time to wedding rehearsal—two minutes. Conspicuously absent—the maid of honor.
“Shit.” Conn muttered the curse under his breath as he joined Curtis on one of the small church’s front pews. “Any chance you brought your handcuffs this weekend?”
Curtis raised an eyebrow at his brother. “Maybe. You looking to start the honeymoon early?”
Conn laughed. Just once, a short burst, but it drew inquisitive looks from everybody assembled. Including Nia. Conn smiled at his bride-to-be while answering Curtis’ question. “Every day is like a honeymoon.”
Should have seen that one coming. The guy’s love-struck grin seemed to be in permanent residence on his face. Curtis was happy for his brother, he really was, but Conn and Nia were sweeter than a cup of sugar. And as a rule, Curtis preferred spicy.
The odds of Curtis landing anything spicy this weekend barely registered on the scale. Not in Nia’s hometown with its population of a few thousand—on a busy day. But he wasn’t here to pick up. Even if that was the only good thing to come out of most weddings, in his experience.
“Who do you want restrained?” he asked. “One of Nia’s ex-boyfriends?”
“Ha. Nope. Somebody closer to home. Nia’s sister—if she ever shows up.” Conn spoke low enough to keep the conversation private, his clean-shaven jaw ticking in the process. “I can’t believe she’s doing this.”
“From the bits and pieces you’ve told me, screwing up the festivities sounds right up her alley.”
Conn grunted and clasped his hands behind his head. “Sara’s a handful, no question. But I honestly thought she’d keep her shit in check for the wedding. She and Nia have a pretty solid relationship, hard as that is to believe, given their differences.”
“If you say so, man.”
It’d been a year and a half since fate—or more specifically, car trouble and bad weather—had brought Conn and Nia together. In that time, there’d been several occasions where the Lawler and Chambers families had mixed. Sara hadn’t attended. Not even Christmas dinner at her sister’s house. Sara’s family didn’t make excuses on her behalf, nor did they seem upset. Instead they affectionately tossed around terms such as “free-spirited” and “nonconformist.”
Well, the free-spirited nonconformist better walk through the church doors, stat. Anybody who got in the way of his brother’s happiness, especially this weekend, would be answering to Curtis. Badge and handcuffs not required for that job.
“You didn’t bring a date for the wedding,” Conn said, interrupting Curtis’ internal threats toward a woman he’d never met.
“Nah. With the wedding all the way up here, that would’ve meant spending an entire weekend together at the various family-bonding events. An invitation like that tends to send the ‘this is serious’ message.”
Conn stretched his arms along the top of the church pew while nodding. “Gotcha.”
“Yeah.” He didn’t have to explain it further. His brother knew that Curtis didn’t have anything against commitment itself, he just didn’t have much faith in it lasting. He’d seen too many of his buddies, especially the cop ones, fall victim to the big D.
“Since you’re flying solo this weekend, I need a favor.”
“Spending tomorrow in a monkey suit isn’t favor enough? Especially after that overly friendly tailor at the tuxedo-rental place got a little too much enjoyment out of measuring my inseam?”
One of Conn’s patented grins took over his face. “Did you check the pockets yet? He might’ve slipped you his number.”
“Whatever, man.” He issued Conn a friendly shot to the ribs. “How you, the totally unavailable groom-to-be, got the hot Asian chick to measure you while I got stuck with the grabby-hands guy, I have no fucking idea.”
“Was she hot? I didn’t notice.”
Oh man, he was serious. Love had put blinders on his brother. Big time.
“Ten out of ten,” Curtis said, shaking his head. “So, what’s the favor?”
Conn’s smile thinned. “Keep an eye on Sara. Make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble.”
“Is she that bad?”
“I hope not,” Conn said as the church’s front door slammed and all heads turned toward the entryway from the vestibule.
Call him fucked-up, but one look at the dark-haired beauty who’d just strutted into the building, and Curtis kinda hoped Sara lived up to her troublemaker reputation.
* * *
There were only nine people in the church, but every eye in the place was trained on her. Which was how Sara liked it—usually. Not this time. Not when the attention resulted from her late arrival to her sister’s wedding rehearsal. Worse—the looks on her family’s faces. Relief on Nia’s. Disappointment on her parents’. Conn looked plain-old pissed off.
With her track record for stirring up trouble, nobody would believe the truth. That she’d stopped en route to help a stranded motorist whose car looked ready to combust. To hell with it, she wouldn’t even bother explaining. Let them all think the worst. They were going to anyway.
“Hey, ho, everybody.” She snapped her fingers while closing the distance to the waiting pastor, bride, groom, and the rest of their assembled family members. “Let’s do this pretend-wedding thing.”
A layer of tension hung over the small group, everybody waiting to see how Nia would react, most likely. On the surface, Sara didn’t crack. She wore her confident smile like the armor it had always been. Inwardly, she held her breath with the rest of them. After a rift that’d lasted eight shitty years, she and Nia had finally found their way back to being best friends. The last thing Sara wanted to do was fuck that up. Again.
For a minute, Nia remained still and silent, staring at her with those big, brown eyes of hers. Then she stepped forward and pulled Sara into a hug. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Dude, save your public displays of affection for your fiancé.” She faked a gag and made a show of breaking free of Nia’s embrace, but that’s all it was—a show. The hug meant the world. Sara hadn’t ruined anything. Nor would she. Not this weekend.
The mood in her hometown church lifted, kicking into a full-fledged buzz as the young pastor directed everybody to their places for a mockup of tomorrow’s big event. Both sets of parents hovered on the first row of pews. Nia and Conn stood before the pastor, beaming as the man described how everything would unfold.
Nia would pass her bouquet to Sara. The lovebirds would face each while the pastor “charged them on the duties of marriage.” Whoa. And snore. The best man—and hello, Hottie McHotterson with the tats—would hand Conn a wedding band so he could pledge his undying love. Then it’d be Nia’s turn. Blah, blah, blah. And while several dozen guests oohed and aahed, the romantic spectacle would hit its saccharine-sweet pinnacle with a kiss. Your standard-issue fairytale wedding.
For her sister, Sara would smile through the lot of it. She’d wear the pink bridesmaid dress Nia had chosen. Pink, a color that hadn’t graced Sara’s wardrobe since the third grade. But it was her sister’s favorite and that’s what mattered. While wearing the pink dress, she’d make nice with people she didn’t know or didn’t care to, along with some she did know but wished she didn’t. But at least the best man would be there.
She leaned forward for a better look at him. Short hair, piercing eyes, enough scruff to make things interesting. So what if he was Conn’s brother. And a cop. With all the ink she could see and the lean, hard body it decorated, he couldn’t be totally uptight and boring. Maybe she’d do a little detective work of her own later, just to confirm.
His focus shifted from the pastor to her. Their eyes locked—briefly—before his gaze descended to her cleavage in the black babydoll t-shirt she wore. To her waistline and hips. To her legs encased in a pair of skintight jeans and the tall, high-heeled boots she loved more than was probably normal or healthy.
She raised an eyebrow and tilted her head when his attention returned to her face. And…nothing. He simply resumed looking at the pastor.
Son of a bitch. She knew for a fact he wasn’t married or gay. With the good, long look he’d taken, she would’ve bet he found her attractive. Unless his taste in women ran similar to his brother’s—blonde and demure. She and Nia had very different styles. Different everything.
Whatever. His loss. She enjoyed a challenge, but she’d pass on cracking the straight-faced best man. Because, hello—cop. Not on her wish list in a guy.
Unless the wedding guests included some sexy surprise specimen, she’d just go a couple days without fun of the naked-male variety. By Sunday morning she’d be on her way back to the city. Lots of attractive men to choose from there, none of whom would care about the small matter of her criminal record. Or her current employment status. Plenty of guys would find both things hot. To hell with any who didn’t, frankly.
The pastor wrapped up the rehearsal with a reminder of when everybody needed to arrive tomorrow. Nia practically jumped into Conn’s arms. Forget about waiting to kiss the bride, Conn laid one on his bride-to-be right then and there.
Sara had to admit, it was a hot one. Kind of had her rethinking her decision about the sexless weekend—and the tattooed cop.
“Everybody back to the house for barbecue and beer.” Her dad waved his hand in the air, as if the simple action finalized the command. “You too, Ben.” This, he directed at the pastor. “Bring a date if you’d like, we’ve got plenty of food and drinks.”
“Thanks, Peter. No lady in my life at the moment, but I’d love to join you all after I lock up here.”
“Great.” Dad shot her a hopeful look that included a wink. “We’ll see you there.”
Oh, for crying out loud. It wasn’t enough that she’d agreed to be the pink-satin-wearing sidekick in Nia’s picture-perfect wedding, now her dad wanted to set her up with a freaking pastor? Her family really needed to get with the program. The one where she was a lost cause in the growing-up and settling-down departments.
While the Lawler and Chambers family units hovered around the glowing couple, Sara beelined it toward the outside aisle, and temporary freedom.
“Hey,” a deep, husky voice called as she reached the vestibule.
Not her dad. Not the pastor or Conn, either. That left two men—Conn’s father or his brother. Sara only had fifty bucks spending money to get her through to payday next week, but she’d bet it on the brother. A voice that sexy had to belong to a hard-bodied male with lots of ink.
She paused, turned, and won the self-imposed bet.
“Last one to show up, now the first one to leave.” Conn’s brother took a few more steps, positioning himself between Sara and the outer door. He tucked his hands into the front pockets of some fine-fitting jeans. “You’re not trying to skip out on the rehearsal party, are you?” His stance and tone were casual. His pointed remarks, not so much.
“Aww, isn’t this sweet? We haven’t even been formally introduced and already you’re devastated at the thought of an evening without me.”
His eyes twinkled and the corner of his mouth twitched. “Curtis Lawler, Conn’s older brother.” He didn’t offer a hand to shake. Just stepped closer, completely invading her personal space. “And you’re Sara.”
“Figured that out on your own, detective, or did they show you my mug shot in advance to make things easier?”
“It’s Constable first class, but that’s a mouthful, even for one that works as well as yours. Probably easiest if you call me sir.”
“Never going to happen, lawman.” She tried to sidestep him and he mirrored the action, halting her getaway without laying a finger on her. But damn, he might as well have touched her, because every inch of her skin had goose bumps from the electricity between them.
“Never’s a long time.” Curtis’ gaze locked with hers and a wicked smile curved his sensual lips. “And for the record, I’m not a patient man.”
Holy mother of sin. Talk about balls. And potential. This weekend might not be as sweet and chaste as she’d feared. She tossed her hair behind her shoulder, enjoying the way it distracted the man blocking her path. As a test, she caught the end of a thick lock and twirled it around her finger.
Curtis tracked the action intently, his nostrils flaring when her head tipped from the slight tugging she applied. So the man had a thing for long hair, maybe for playing with it or pulling it? Well, yes please, she could go for some of that. But she still wasn’t giving an inch. Not this early in the game.
She let the dark strand slip free from her fingers and gave Curtis a smug smile when his attention drifted back to her eyes. “For the record, I think patience is overrated. Why wait nicely for something when you can just take what you want?”
His eyebrows rose and the devilish twinkle returned to his steel-blue eyes.
Laughter and voices filled the air as the rest of the small group approached the vestibule. Playtime was over. For now.
She leaned in, close enough to smell his aftershave and feel the heat emanating from the hard chest hidden beneath a dark-blue t-shirt. Close enough to feel his stubble brushing her jaw when she whispered in his ear. “See you around, lawman.”
The ripple from his deep chuckle reached all the way to her toes.
“So this is where you disappeared to.” Meredith Chambers appeared at Sara’s side. She did a motherly, head-to-toe scan of Sara. Curtis received similar treatment. Apparently satisfied they hadn’t managed to defile the church in the past five minutes, she pulled Sara into a hug. “My beautiful little girl,” she said, planting a noisy smooch on Sara’s temple.
A white-toothed grin spread across Curtis’ face. As hot as he looked wearing a cocky half-smile, this version suited him equally as well. The crinkles at the outer corners of his almond-shaped eyes, the crescent-shaped scar on his left cheek, the subtle dimple in his chin… He could be the nice guy next door. Or a total badass. Both at once. The man pushed buttons she didn’t even know she had.
“Curtis.” Meredith addressed Conn’s brother while giving Sara another squeeze. “Peter and I are parked out front. You can follow us to the house if you’d like, we’re headed there now.” She smiled at Nia and Conn as they passed and exited the church. “I wouldn’t count on those two to lead the way. I imagine they’ll be visiting your brother’s hotel room before they join us.”
Sara drew back enough to stare at her mom with artificial shock. “Are you implying that your darling daughter and her perfect prince of a fiancé are stopping for a quickie?”
“Not at all.” Meredith gave her a sly smile. “They might very well take their time.”
A hearty laugh rolled off Curtis’ tongue. Sara countered with a smile of her own. How could she not, given her mother’s merry mood and the eye-candy less than two feet away?
“Let’s head out,” Peter said as he joined them. “Curtis, your folks and sister went out the side door to the parking lot. They’ve already been out to our place, so they’re on their way, but you can tail Meredith and me.” He chuckled. “As long as you don’t pull me over and give me a ticket if I speed a bit. Those steaks I picked up from the butcher are calling me all the way from the house.”
Shit. Right. The always-a-cop factor. One more reason to walk the straight and narrow this weekend. Sara couldn’t afford to pique Curtis’ interest, even if he did look like the best sex she hadn’t had.
“You and Meredith go ahead and get the grill warmed up.” Curtis’ gaze slid to her. “Sara offered to show me the way to your place.”
“She did?” A fresh layer of hope lit her dad’s face, along with a healthy dose of shock.
“Of course she did. My lovely girl.” Another embarrassing smooch landed on Sara’s cheek before her mom mercifully let her go. “See you both at the house.”
The heavy wooden door closed after her parents. The pastor had to be somewhere within the church’s interior, but that knowledge didn’t minimize the sensation of being alone with Curtis.
He shrugged. “Whatever it takes to ensure you get to the party.”
“Should I be flattered or alarmed by your intense desire for my company?” At his amused grunt, she stepped closer. “You know, I’ve never done it in a church. Or with a cop.”
“Me either.” Mischief danced in his eyes. Daring her to go further, maybe?
She’d never been one to resist a dare, especially from a sexy man. Hence the misdemeanor conviction for having sex in a semi-public place, which she may or may not have broken into, depending on how you looked at it. Well, she wouldn’t get arrested if she got caught misbehaving with a cop, now would she? She placed one palm in the center of his chest and one on his—
“Oh—I didn’t realize anybody was still here.” The pastor stepped into the vestibule, his gaze snagging immediately on Sara’s second hand where it hovered near Curtis’ fly. “Maybe you were thinking the same thing.”
“Sorry to hold you up.” Curtis caught Sara’s hand and pulled her to his side. “We should’ve taken our conversation outside.”
She snickered. Conversation. Right.
He squeezed hard enough to make her jump. “See you out at Peter and Meredith’s, Father.”
“Call me Ben.” He gestured at his neck. “No clerical collar here. Just an ordinary pastor, not a priest.”
“Does that mean I’m not going to hell for groping the best man on hallowed ground?” she asked.
Dimples popped in the pastor’s cheeks as he laughed. “I think you’re safe.”
Curtis shook his head and jerked her toward the door. “Come on, troublemaker.”
Brilliant June sunshine blinded her as they stepped out of the church. But Curtis didn’t stop moving, nor did he let go of her hand. Not until they rounded the corner and reached a vintage black Mustang parked curbside beneath a large maple tree.
“Glad you think so. Get in,” he said, while opening the passenger door.
“If that’s your idea of foreplay, you could use a few pointers.”
“Not from him.” She ignored Curtis’ hand waving her through the open door and settled her hip against his car. “Though I bet the old J-man had no problem getting lucky with all the religious groupies following him around.”
“Oh man. I think I have my work cut out for me this weekend.”
She pushed off the side of the muscle car and stepped close enough to put them practically chest to chest. “And what ‘work’ is that?”
“Keeping you out of trouble.”
Those weren’t flirting words. Not the way he spoke them. What. The. Fuck. “Who stuck you with that job?” She kept her tone level, but her voice seemed far away, drowned out by the race of her pulse, hammering in her head.
He shrugged. “Nobody.”
“Liar.” Unlike before, this time when she spoke the word, she meant it wholeheartedly.
He caught her arm when she tried to spin away. He met her narrowed gaze with an unwavering stare of his own. “Just making sure everything goes smoothly for my brother. And your sister.”
She yanked, and his fingers tightened around her wrist. “By handcuffing me to six feet of good behavior?”
“Six-two. And babe, if and when I put the cuffs on you, you can count on my behavior being very, very bad.”
She shivered and he grinned. She jerked again, this time breaking free of his grip. “Fuck you, lawman.”
“Try never.” Not now, knowing any attention he’d shown her was the result of a babysit-the-troublemaker assignment.
“Never say never, babe,” he called after her.
She flipped him the bird without looking back, her heels clacking loudly against the concrete as she left Curtis Lawler and his stupid sexy laugh in her dust.
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