Divorce attorney Harper James can't catch a break. Bad enough that she runs into her ex-hubby, Nick, at her sister's destination wedding, but now, by a cruel twist of fate, she's being forced to make a cross-country road trip with him. And her almost-fiancé back at home is not likely to be sympathetic.
Harper can't help that Nick has come blazing back into her life in all of his frustratingly appealing, gorgeous architect glory. But in Nick's eyes, Harper's always been the one. If they can only get it right this time, forever might be waiting—just around the bend.
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Kristan Higgins is a New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author and two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award. Her books have been praised for their "genius level EQ, whippet-fast, funny dialogue and sweet plots with a deliciously tart edge" (USA TODAY). She lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband and two extremely advanced children, one shy little mutt and an occasionally affectionate cat.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Stop smiling. Every time you smile, an angel dies."
"Wow," I answered. "That's a good one."
The man with the negative attitude sat at the bar, looking as if he was living a bad country-and-western song—no woman, broken truck, dead dog. Poor slob. "Listen," I said. "I know it's sad, but sometimes, divorce is just the euthanization of a dying relationship." I patted his shoulder, then adjusted his white collar, which was just a bit off center. "Sometimes our hearts just need time to accept what our heads already know."
The priest sighed. "Listen to her with that ridiculous line," he said to Mick, the bartender.
"It's not ridiculous! It's great advice."
"Oh, my," I said. "You're taking it harder than I thought."
"It's true. After all my hard work, you swoop in and ruin everything."
"Father Bruce!" I said, feigning hurt. "There was no swooping! How cutting!"
The good father and I were at Offshore Ale, Martha's Vineyard's finest bar, a dark and charming little place in Oak Bluffs and a favorite place for locals and tourists alike. Father Bruce, my longtime friend and the immensely popular pastor of the island's Catholic church, could often be found here.
"Now come on, Father," I continued, sliding onto a stool next to him and tugging my skirt so as not to flash him. "You and I are actually a lot alike." He responded with a groan, which I ignored. "We shepherd people through life's hard times, guiding them through an emotional minefield, the voice of reason when reason is lost."
"Sad thing is, she believes it, Mick." I rolled my eyes. "Stop being a sore loser and buy me a drink."
"Marriage ain't what it used to be," the priest grumbled. "Mick, a bourbon for the shark here."
"Actually, just a Pellegrino, Mick. And Father, I'm going to strike that last moniker from the record." I smiled generously. Of course I was a shark. All the best divorce attorneys were.
"I take it you lost again, Father?" Mick said, adding a slice of lemon to my sparkling water.
"Let's not discuss it, Mick. She's gloating as it is."
"I'm certainly not gloating," I objected, reaching over to move another patron's beer, which was in danger of being knocked into Father B.'s lap. "I have nothing against marriage, as you will soon see. But in the case of Starling v. Starling, these two were doomed from the day he got on bended knee. As is one in three couples."
Father Bruce closed his eyes.
Though on opposite sides of the divorce issue, Father B. and I were old pals. But today, Joe Starling, a lifelong parishioner in Father Bruce's parish, had come into my office and asked me to begin divorce proceedings. There'd actually been a race to my door, and Joe won. He was…let's see…the ninth parishioner in the past two years to do so, despite Father B.'s best efforts at weaving together the fraying bonds of matrimony.
"Maybe they'll have a change of heart," Father Bruce suggested. He looked so hopeful that I didn't remind him of one hard fact: not one of my clients had ever backed out of proceedings.
"So how's everything else, Father?" I asked. "Heard you gave a killer sermon last weekend. And I saw you power walking the other day. Your new heart valve must be working great."
"Seems to be, Harper, seems to be." He smiled—he was a priest, after all, and had to forgive me. "Did you perform your random act of kindness today?"
I grimaced. "No. It was a senseless act of beauty." Father Bruce, viewing my soul as a personal campaign, had challenged me to, in his words, "offset the evil of your profession" by doing at least one random act of kindness each day. "Yes, yes," I admitted. "I let a family of six go in front of me at the cafe. Their baby was crying. Does that pass?
"It does," said the priest. "By the way, you look nice today. A date with young Dennis?"
I glanced around. "More than a date, Father." Wincing as John Caruso accidentally-on-purpose bumped into my back, I pretended not to hear his muttered epithet. One grew used to such slurs when one was as successful as I was. (Mrs. Caruso got the condo in the Back Bay and the house out here, not to mention a very generous monthly alimony payment.) "Today's the day. I plan to present the facts, make a convincing case and wait for the verdict, which I completely expect to be in my favor."
Father Bruce raised a bushy white eyebrow. "How romantic."
"I think my view on romance is well documented, Father B."
"One would almost pity young Dennis."
"One would, except the boy has it made, and you know it."
"Please." I clinked my glass against Father Bruce's and took a drink. "To marriage. And speak of the devil, here he is now, all of four minutes early. Will wonders never cease."
My boyfriend of the past two and a half years, Dennis Patrick Costello, was…well. Picture every fantasy you've ever had about a hot firefighter. Uh-huh. That's right. Eye candy didn't even begin to cover it. Thick black hair, blue eyes, the ruddy cheeks of the Irish. Six-two. Shoulders that could carry a family of four. The only fly in the ointment was a rattail…a long, anemic braid to which Dennis was senselessly attached and which I tried very hard to ignore. Be that as it may, his physical beauty and constant affability always gave me a little thrill of pride. There wasn't a person on the island who didn't like Dennis, and there wasn't woman who didn't break off midsentence when he smiled. And he was mine.
Den was with Chuck, his platoon mate on the Martha's Vineyard Fire Department, who gave me a sour look as he headed to the far end of the bar. Chuck had cheated on Constance, his very nice wife. Not just once, either. Nope, he'd pulled a Tiger Woods, eventually admitting to four affairs in six years of marriage. As a result, Chuck now rented a single room in a crooked, 600-square-foot "cottage" out on Chappaquiddick and had to take the ferry to work every day. Such are the wages of sin.
"Hi, Chuck! How are you?" I asked. Chuck ignored me, as was his custom. No matter. I turned to Dennis. "Hey, hon! Look at you, four minutes early."
Dennis bent down and kissed my cheek. "Hey there, gorgeous," Dennis said. "Hi, Father B."
"Dennis. Good luck, son. I'll offer up a Hail Mary."
"Thanks, Padre." Apparently not curious as to why a priest would be praying for him, Dennis smiled at me. "I'm starving. You hungry?"
"You bet. See you around, Father Bruce," I said, sliding off the bar stool. Dennis gave me a smoky once-over—that was, after all, the point of my dress and painfully high heels, which bordered on slutty. I wanted Dennis's full attention, and, as he was male, showing a little breast wasn't going to hurt my case.
Tonight, I was popping the question. Two and a half years with Dennis had shown me that he was very solid husband material. Good heart, steady work, decent guy, close family ties, quite attractive. It was now or never. at almost thirty-four, I wasn't going to hang around and be someone's girlfriend forever. I was a person who made lists and took action, and Dennis, bless his heart, needed direction.
First element of the plan.. feed Dennis, who needed to eat more often than an infant. A couple of beers wouldn't hurt, either, because Dennis, though he seemed quite happy with our relationship, hadn't yet brought up the subject of marriage on his own. A little mellowing wouldn't hurt.
And so, half an hour later, a pint of Offshore Nutbrown Ale already in him and a massive blue-cheese-and-bacon hamburger in front of him, Dennis was telling me about an accident call. "So I'm trying to get the car door off, right, and all of a sudden, the thing comes flying off, hits Chuck right in the nuts, and he's like, 'Costello, you asswipe!' and we all just lose it. And the thing is, the old lady's still in the car. Oh, man, it was priceless."
I smiled patiently. Firehouse humor—for lack of a better word—was crude at best. Nevertheless, I chuckled and murmured, "Poor thing," meaning, of course, the old woman stuck in the car while the brawny men of the MVFD clutched themselves and made testicle jokes. For Chuck, I felt only that justice had been served. "Was the driver badly hurt?"
"Nah. Not a scratch on her. We wouldn't have laughed if she was decapitated or something." He grinned cheekily, and I smiled back.
"Glad to hear it. So listen, Den. We need to talk."
At the dreaded words, Dennis's smile dropped. Blinking rapidly, as if I was about to punch him in the face, he groped for his half-pound, overladen burger as if for protection—defensive body language, something I often saw in the spouses of my clients. Best to move in for the kill. I folded my hands neatly in front of me, tilted my head and smiled.
"Dennis, I think it's time for us to take things to the next level, you know? We've been together awhile, we have a very solid relationship, I'll be thirty-four in a few weeks, next year is advanced maternal age, medically speaking, so let's get married."
Dennis jerked back in alarm. Drat. I hadn't sounded terribly romantic, had I? Maybe I should've gone for a more sentimental note, rather than a recitation of the facts. This is what I got for practicing in front of a dog, rather than a human. Then again, there was nothing wrong with being straightforward.closing arguments, if you will.
My boyfriend answered by shoving a good quarter of the giant sandwich into his mouth. "Mmm-hrmph," he said, pointing to his bulging cheeks.
Well, resistance was expected, of course. Dennis was a guy, and most guys, with only a few notable exceptions, didn't pop the question without a nudge. And I had been nudging…I'd admired an engagement ring of one of Dennis's cousins three months ago, commented on Dennis's love of children, telling him he'd be a good dad, mentioned my own desire to procreate.but so far, nada. I assumed Dennis needed something a little more, er, blatant. A kick, for example. Didn't most men need a good swift kick?
"Now don't panic, hon," I said as he chewed desperately.
"We get along great. We spend most nights together, we've been together for more than two years, you're thirty now, you know you want kids…It's time. Don't you think so? I know I do." I smiled to show him we were both on the same team.
Dennis swallowed, his chiseled, gorgeous face now pale. "Uh, listen, dude," he began. I grimaced— dude? Really? He noticed. "Sorry, dude," he said. "I mean, Harper. Sorry." Dennis closed his mouth, opened it, hesitated, then took another massive bite of burger.
Fine. I would speak. It was better that way. "Let me go on, okay, Den? Then you can say something. If you still want to." I smiled and maintained eye contact, which was a little hard, given that Dennis's eyes were darting frantically. Also, the Red Sox game was on, which didn't help, as Dennis was a rabid fan. "Den, as you know, I spend my entire day dealing with crappy relationships. I see the mistakes people make, and I know what to avoid. We don't have a crappy relationship. Our relationship is great. It really is. And we can't be in limbo forever. You're at my place most nights anyway—"
"Your bed is wicked comfortable," he said sincerely, stuffing some fries into his mouth. He offered a few to me, but I shook my head, my own salad more of a prop tonight.
"No thanks. Back to the subject…" I leaned forward a little more, giving Dennis a better glimpse of my cleavage. His eyes dropped the way Pavlov's dog drooled, and I smiled. "Our sex life is certainly good," I continued, reminding him of our finer moments. A woman at the next table, who was trying to convince her toddler to eat a fried clam, gave me a sharp look. Tourists. "We obviously find each other attractive, don't we?"
"Most def." He gave me the wide, even smile that rendered so many women speechless. Perfect. He was now thinking with the little head, which would help my case.
"Exactly, hon. And I make a great living, you have. well, a solid salary. We'll have a very comfortable lifestyle, we'll make beautiful babies, et cetera. Let's make it permanent, shall we?" I reached down for my bag and withdrew the black velvet box. "I even picked out the ring, so we know I love it."
At the sight of the two-carat rock, Dennis flinched.
I closed my eyes briefly. "I paid for it, too, so don't worry. See? This isn't so hard after all, is it?" I gave him my firm court smile, the one that said, Your Honor, please. Can we stop screwing around and get this done?
Father Bruce and Bob Wickham, head of the church council, made their way over to the table next to our booth. The priest shot me a knowing look, which I ignored.
At that moment, Jodi Pickering, Dennis's high school girlfriend and a waitress here, shoved the prow of her bosom into Den's jaw. "Are you all set here, Denny?" she asked, ignoring me and giving my soon-to-be fiance a docile, cowlike gaze.
"Hey, Jodi, what's up?" Dennis said, grinning past her 36-Ds to her face. "How's the little guy?"
"Oh, he's great, Denny. It was so nice that you stopped by the game the other night. He just loves you! And you know, without a father in the picture, I think T.J. really needs—"
"Okay, we get it, Jodi-with-an-i," I said, smiling pleasantly up at her. "You have an adorable son and are still quite available. Dennis, however, is with me. If you would just take your boobs out of my boyfriend's face, I would deeply appreciate it."
She narrowed her eyes at me and sashayed away. Dennis watched her departure as one would watch the lifeboats paddling away from the Titanic. Then he swallowed and looked at me. "Listen, Harp," he began. "You're…you know…great and all, but, uh…well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? I mean, why change a good thing? Can't we just keep hanging out together?"
Again, totally expected. I straightened up and tilted my head a few degrees. "Dennis," I said firmly, well aware that this kind of circular conversation could go on forever. "This isn't high school. We're not kids. We've been together for the past two and a half years. I'm thirty-four next month. I don't want to hang out indefinitely. If we're not going to get married, we need to break up. So.shit or get off the pot, honey."
"That was beautiful," murmured Father Bruce as he opened a menu.
I favored him with a withering glance, th...
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