Cover reveal, blurb, and excerpt: Down and Dirty (Dare Me, Book #2) by Christine Bell

He was a dare she’d never been able to resist…



Could you resist Shane? We don’t know if we could?! Read below and if you’re salivating for more, Shane is waiting….

Cat Thomas has never been the kind of girl to stick. A self-professed infatuation junky, she latches on the newest, hottest guy on the block, then finds a reason—real or imagined—to dump him. When she accepts a dare to rekindle her high school flame and jump in bed with her brother’s best friend, Shane Decker, she knows she’s in trouble. She can’t resist the man, even after all these years apart, and that just won’t do.

Shane has come back to town for a couple reasons. The biggest one? He’s tired of living away from those he loves, including Cat. But now she’s spooked and will do anything to drive a wedge between them, including trying to fix him up with other women through an online dating service.

What does he have to do to make her see that settling down doesn’t mean settling, and he’s ready to spend a lifetime proving it?

Title: Down and Dirty (Dare Me, #2)
Author: Christine Bell
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 224
Release Date: February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-62266-795-6
Imprint: Brazen

 Praise for Down and Dirty by Christine Bell 

“Heroic hunk, fun heroine, and smoldering sex—I loved DOWN AND DIRTY from beginning to end!”
– USA TODAY Bestselling Author Kathy Lyons

“Sizzling hot chemistry. Witty, fresh dialogue. A second chance at love. Down and Dirty delivers it all. I dare you not to enjoy this story.”
– Diane Alberts, author of TRY ME


Chapter One

© 2013 Christine Bell

Cat Thomas eyed the couple playing tonsil hockey across the black lacquer table and snorted with mock disgust. “Gross. Get a room, would you?”

They broke apart, cheeks flushed, and Cat swallowed a grin. She still wasn’t totally used to her best friend and her brother pawing each other, but for all her bitching, she was frigging stoked. They were a great couple—which, to Cat’s mind, was as about as common as a two-headed snake—and later this year, she’d be walking down the aisle as Lacey’s maid of honor. Again.

“Sorry. Your brother is a perv,” Lacey confided with a smile. She slipped off Galen’s lap and back onto her own barstool, which was emblazoned with the face of quarterback Peyton Manning. If her friend had to sit on a Manning’s face, Peyton was obviously the better option, but the decor of this particular sports bar seemed poorly thought out. Not that it had stopped Cat from spending ten minutes searching for a Tom Brady seat before finally agreeing to sit on Mark Sanchez. He couldn’t throw for shit, but he sure was pretty.

“Yeah, I’m the perv,” Galen said to his fiancée with a satisfied smirk. “You’re the one who had me tie you to th—”

Lacey slapped a hand over his mouth and squealed. “Oh my God, shut up! You’re totally going to embarrass your sister.”

“Not likely,” Cat said. “I won’t be thinking too hard about it or anything, because ew. But I’m really glad to see he’s loosened you up a little.” She eyed her laughing friend and shook her head in amazement. Less than a year before, Lacey had found her groom, Marty, in the linen closet of their reception hall, balls-deep in one of her bridesmaids, a lifelong friend of both Cat’s and Lacey’s. That still made Cat stabby when she thought about it, but she managed to keep her wrath under wraps. Not because of her forgiving nature, but mainly because Lacey was blissfully happy now and settled with her childhood crush, who also happened to be Cat’s brother, Galen.

Who woulda thunk it? Not Cat. In fact, the incident between Marty and Lacey had only confirmed what she’d always known: most relationships were far more trouble than they were worth. If Lacey hadn’t caught Marty in the act, she’d probably still be with the loser, having the life sucked out of her.

That would never be Cat.

She took a long pull from the lukewarm beer she’d been nursing and glanced around the semi-crowded bar.

Holy hotness.

A man…no, a giant had just stepped into her peripheral vision and derailed all coherent thought. She twisted in her Mark Sanchez chair to get a better look. The guy’s head was turned, so she could only see his face in profile, but damn, that and the full-frontal body shot were more than enough. She sized him up with a practiced eye, calling him an easy six-three, two-twenty. He wore a threadbare white T-shirt that should’ve been as noteworthy as a bowl of oatmeal. Instead, it clung to his chest like it had aspirations of taking over for his skin. Hell, she’d have the same life goal. His chest was a dream, the contours clearly defined by the soft cotton. She could totes cling to him for a night.

In spite of her flight-prone ways, she’d never had a true one-night stand, and it was top ten on her bucket list. Maybe…

She took a quick glance at the guy’s face to make sure he hadn’t caught her staring, then sent her gaze downward to size up the rest of the package.

And speaking of package, oooh mama. His jeans were as old as the shirt and had worn down in all the right places, clinging to his thick thighs and what appeared to be a sock…no, a bunch of socks stuffed—

“Shane!” Lacey yelped, launching herself off her stool and scurrying toward him.

No way. There was just no. Frigging. Way.

But apparently there was a way because the sexy behemoth turned to face them full-on, and there he was.

Shane Decker.

He and Galen had met in high school when Galen was a sophomore and Shane was a freshman. They’d bonded over football and had quickly become the best of friends. The four of them had spent a lot of time together the summer before Galen went off to college, so Lacey had stayed in touch with him.

Cat had not.

Or at least, not intentionally. Once Galen had gone away, Shane had appointed himself as her official guardian and unofficial conscience. For the majority of her junior year, every time she’d tried to have a little fun, he’d shown up with a disapproving frown and an offer of a ride home.

Except that one night.

The memory—with edges far crisper than they should have been after all these years—rushed forward, and her face went hot. When Shane met her gaze over Lacey’s shoulder, the half-smile stretching his firm lips had her itching to look away, which was silly. She was a grown-ass woman now. She could handle him.

She met his gaze head-on and willed the blood in her cheeks to chillax. It had been a while since she’d seen him, and the years had been kind to the lucky SOB. Generous, even. He looked fantastic, aside from those stormy blue eyes. Like him, they’d always been a little too intense, like he could see inside people’s heads and read the thoughts they tried to hide.

“Hey munchkin, how’s it going?” He gave Lacey a bear hug, and Cat tried not to stare at his biceps as they flexed.

Galen stood and grinned. “I thought you weren’t coming.” He yanked his longtime friend into a one-armed man hug. “Did you make it in time to catch any of the fight?”

“Come on. You send me a ticket to your last bout before you retire, and you think I’m not going to show? Not unless there was a monsoon somewhere.”

A couple hours before, Galen had defeated Manny Hermosa for the heavyweight belt in a third-round knockout. Even though Shane’s job as a search-and-rescue specialist took him all over the world, Cat should’ve known he would make every effort to get here. He and Galen were like brothers, and that bond had held strong through the years in spite of them living on opposite coasts. Clearly his arrival was a surprise, though. No way would Lacey have left her in the dark on this.

“You were on fire out there. You sure you’re ready to hang it up?” Shane asked, giving Galen that searching look that used to make Cat squirm when it was aimed at her.

Galen nodded and slid an arm around Lacey. “I’m old enough to have had a good, long career, and young enough that I’m going to walk away one hundred percent healthy with my melon fully intact. Not something a lot of fighters can say.”

Cat doubted that was all there was to Galen’s decision, but Shane seemed satisfied with that answer and turned his attention to her. “Mary Catherine.”

He tipped his head but didn’t move in for an embrace. That didn’t surprise her. The handful of times they’d seen each other since he’d left town after high school, they’d circled each other like boxers in the first round of a fight, giving wide berth, sizing up their opponent’s strategy. Sure, she covered her anxiety with bravado because…well, because that was how she rolled, but being near him was unnerving at best. He threw her off her game, and she didn’t like it one bit.

She took a sip from her glass to whet her suddenly dry whistle. “Hey, Shane.”

“Still sewing clothes and breaking hearts?” he asked.

She clenched her hand tighter around her beer, quashing the urge to toss it at him. “Still playing superhero and boring the ladies?” she shot back. Why was it that whenever she was around him, she regressed ten years?

His response came slow, after a long look that made her wish she’d just kept her trap shut for once. “Well, definitely the latter. As for the former, I do what I can.”

His self-deprecating response made her feel like a shrew for slapping back at him, but impulse control had never been her strong suit. Especially when it came to Shane Decker. That annoyed her even more, but her brother was eyeballing her hard now. The last thing she needed was another inquisition about why things were always so tense between the two of them. She blew out a sigh and vowed to keep things light and friendly. “Actually, not doing a whole lot of sewing anymore. I have my own line with Nash and Company now. Daytime separates and casual evening wear.”

He waited, brows raised, for her to continue, but she pursed her lips, silently daring him to ask about her breaking hearts again. She’d been getting a lot of flak for her inability to commit lately, so him putting her on blast in front of the two people leading the charge? Made her want to stomp on his foot. She refrained, but it was a close thing.

Light and friendly.

“You planning to stay for the whole weekend?” she asked, trying not to look too interested in his answer. Due to his job, Shane rarely stayed in one place for long. Maybe this was just a quick drive-by show of support for Galen and tomorrow, he’d be on his way again. Please, God, and thank you.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get away today until the last minute, so I don’t even have a room yet. But no, I’m going to leave tomorrow afternoon.” Relief rushed through her, but he continued, “Then I’m actually going to be staying in Rhode Island for a while.”


Cat’s heart thudded and she could feel Lacey—the only other person who knew about her and Shane’s little hookup—staring at her, searching for a reaction. Determined not to give her one, she took a slow, measured sip of her beer.

“You’re coming home?” Galen crowed, the delight plain on his face.

Shane nodded, casually snagging one of the stools from the next table and folding his big body onto it. “For a month. It’s been a while, and the last couple times I’ve only managed long weekends, so I took a leave. My parents’ thirtieth anniversary is coming up, and Mom’s been hounding me about spending more time with the Reign of Terror. I had a ton of unused vacation days, so it seemed like a good time to do it.”

The nickname Shane had given his twin five-year-old nieces was a perfect fit. Despite their plump cheeks and wide blue eyes that perpetually avowed innocence, they were a handful. Shane’s sister and brother-in-law were awesome parents to the precocious pair, but most days, it was no easy task.

She conjured up her brightest smile and leveled it at Shane. “Yeah, I agree with your mom. More time with the twins is exactly what you need.”

Lacey shook her head at Cat and muttered, “You’re so bad.” She reclaimed her seat across from Cat and turned her attention back to Shane. “So we get to keep you for a while! It’s going to be wonderful having you back.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

A flicker of something on Shane’s face caught Cat’s attention. Was there something more to this leave of absence than he was letting on? Maybe there was, but it was none of her business. She needed to focus on staying out of his way for the next month. It wouldn’t be so bad. She’d run into him around town and probably a couple times at Galen and Lacey’s, but she could use work as an excuse to stay scarce until he was safely back in California.

“And we’re really glad you were able to make it for the fight. I know it goes without saying, but if they don’t have any rooms left tonight, you can bunk with us,” Lacey offered with a smile.

“That’s okay,” Shane said. “If not here, they’ll have one at Caesar’s or something. No worries.”

Galen gave him two thumbs up paired with a grin that was all male. “Thanks, buddy.”

Lacey smacked his arm and blushed. “You’re going to make him feel unwelcome.”

“Babe, I’ve followed the prefight no-sex regimen for ten days now. I’m pretty sure something’s going to pop if I have to go another night. We can make him feel welcome tomorrow. Or,” he glanced at his watch-free wrist, “in like fourteen minutes if we go up and start now.”

“Be still my heart,” Lacey said, face still flaming.

Cat rolled her eyes and Shane barked out a laugh.

“Seriously, though, if you can’t find a place…” Galen’s expression was sincere. In spite of his razzing, Cat knew—hell, they all knew—he would give his friend the shirt off his back if Shane needed it. They were like family, and family took care of one another.

Guilt pricked at her. Her brother had just won the last fight of his career. A career that Cat wasn’t certain he was truly ready to give up. Surely he deserved to spend a little quality time alone with his fiancée to celebrate?

Lacey cleared her throat, eying her pointedly, and Cat glared back.

All right, all right. “Let’s not get all in a tizz,” Cat said, the world’s fakest smile stretching her lips. “First, let’s see if we can get him a room.” She shot off another unspoken prayer, this one complete with mental gesticulation for good measure, and continued. “If not, I have two queen beds in mine. He can stay with me. No big deal.”

No. Big. Deal.

Except when Shane looked at her, it felt like a big deal. The sound of the jukebox faded away, muffled by the beat of her heart in her ears, and the memory came again, unbidden. The drag of that mouth along her neck. The warm water lapping against her breasts. A full moon, fat in the sky, lighting his face. Clenched jaw, bodies rocking, Shane pulling away, with a whispered no.

“Yes!” Lacey smacked her hand on the table.

Cat jerked back, tearing her gaze from Shane’s to face her friend.

Lacey’s eyes were bright with excitement. “Awesome idea. Now that’s settled, let’s get another drink.” She leaned back with a satisfied smile and raised her hand to flag down the blonde cocktail waitress in a purple bustier. “Shane, beer for you?”

“Sure.” His voice was suspiciously husky and Cat wondered for a crazy instant if the whole mind-reading thing wasn’t so far-fetched, but he seemed to recover quickly, turning his attention to Lacey. “Whatever’s seasonal on tap is good.”

The waitress took the rest of their orders and then made her way to the bar. The others chatted amiably about Shane’s job and updated him on the latest family news and town gossip. Cat took the time to regroup, and when the waitress returned with the drinks, she was back on track. Shane was there. Big frigging deal. Whatever had transpired between them was old news. So why, all these years later, was she still acting like a teenager after a Bieber sighting? It was going to stop, here and now.

She threw back her shoulders, ready to dive into the discussion and behave like her witty, charming self, but she was saved the effort when some fans approached their table asking Galen for an autograph. Once the floodgate was opened, there was no closing it, and over the next hour, dozens of people stopped by for a picture or a high five. Her brother handled it so well and seemed genuinely honored each and every time, which made them love him even more. Invariably, once the female sect realized that Galen was very taken, they turned hot eyes on Shane and asked if he was a fighter, too.

“Nope. Just a regular Joe,” he’d drawl.

The most recent group—this one, all ladies—was clearly out for a good time and didn’t mind Shane’s lack of pro-athlete status. One dark-haired chick separated herself from the pack and boldly dragged a stool up to sit beside him. “More like a G.I. Joe. Where’d you get all those muscles?”

Her skirt was so short that Cat caught a flash of rhinestones that were either appliquéd onto the front of a flesh-colored thong or part of the girl’s attempt at vajazzling. Cat’s professional curiosity required her to investigate further—even if she didn’t design underwear—so she squinted hard, half-tempted to squat down for a proper look. If she eyeballed the girl’s lady parts any harder, she was going to feel obligated to buy her dinner or something.

When she finally looked up, she found Shane staring at her with a bemused smile. She turned away, cheeks hot. So much for playing it cool.

“Well, Joe? You gonna tell me where you got all these fine muscles?” the vajazzler pressed, pouting as she leaned into him.

“Just like to stay fit, is all.”

Cat looked at him hard. Was it her imagination or was he leaning away from those gargantuan breasts? Interesting.

The woman seemed to note that, too, and after a few more halfhearted attempts at flirtation, stood with a defeated sigh. “Well, this bar’s pretty dead. We’re going to find some action. Nice meeting y’all.”

She tottered away on her knockoff Pradas and Cat turned to face Shane. “What’s up with that?”

“What’s up with what?”

“Most guys would have jumped at the opportunity to make some time with her. You have a girlfriend back in Cali or something?”

“Nope. I’m just…selective.” His gaze drifted from her face downward, and Cat’s breath hitched. How could such an innocuous word seem so suggestive coming from those lips? Lips that she would love to—

She froze, slamming the door on that thought, quick. Even if she did think he was sexy in an overly intense and annoying way, and even if he did want to pick up where they’d left off all those years ago—which he surely didn’t—a fling between them would cause nothing but problems in the long run. She didn’t need a protector all up in her business and he didn’t need a…what was it he’d called her that night at the lake? Right. A “spoiled pain in the ass with a death wish” messing up his neat little life, even for a little while.

She’d broken eye contact with him and was about to excuse herself to run her heated mug under the ladies’ room faucet when Galen let out a groan.

“Anybody hungry?” He rubbed his stomach and frowned. “I feel like I haven’t eaten in a week.”

“Lacey and I ordered a couple appetizers while we were waiting for you to shower and ice down,” Cat said.

“Yeah, we’re all set,” Lacey agreed. “I ate my weight in tapas. Want to order something? Kitchen is still open, I think. Want me to get a menu?”

Shane nodded. “I had peanuts on the flight and that’s about it, so I’m starved.”

“I’m hungry for man-food, babe,” Galen said. “I’m not interested in salmon mousse with a bunch of field greens, or tapas. I want to go to Johnny Rockets and get a big, fat burger and some fries.” He rubbed his stomach again, this time with a longing expression.

“It’s the middle of the night,” Lacey said, nose wrinkling. “If I eat that it’ll sit in my stomach like a rock and I won’t be able to sleep. You guys go. Me and Cat will hang here and have another drink before bed.” She looked to Cat for approval.

“Sounds good to me. I don’t want to go traipsing all over town in these heels anyway.” She poked a finger at her kickin’ crimson stilettos and wagged her foot.

Shane slid a glance downward and then met her gaze. “I could give you a piggyback if you want.” His voice was low enough that she had to strain to hear him over the music, and his words sent a pulse of heat through her.

“I’m okay, thanks,” she said, too quickly, before reclaiming her cool. “Me and Lacey will stick here for a bit.”

“Won’t you be lonely without me?” Galen leaned forward and tucked a strand of hair behind Lacey’s ear.

She playfully swatted his hand away. “Nope. Your sister is good company. Besides, I’ll see you in the room a little later.”

“You going to wait up for me?”

The sizzling look between her brother and her best friend made Cat turn away, but not before she saw Lacey’s cheeks flush and her eyes sparkle.

“You guys are so gross, even if I was hungry before, I’m not anymore,” she announced and stood. “Come on, let’s grab the waitress and order another while these boys stuff their faces.”

While Lacey kissed Galen like he was going off to war, Cat made a show of picking some lint off her black pencil skirt, giving it the stank eye. It was a prototype, and after only two wears it was already pilling. She made a mental note to talk to manufacturing about other fabric options before it went to production.

“How about you?” Shane asked softly, derailing her thoughts. He stepped in closer until she had to crane her neck to see his face. “You going to wait up for me?”

Jesus, he was handsome. “Wh-what?” Blerg. Had she really just stammered like that? She was Cat fucking Thomas. Successful designer. Daredevil extraordinaire. A goddamn force to be reckoned with. She was so not going to allow some stick-in-the-mud to get a rise out of her just because he touched her boobies one time almost a decade ago. She cleared her throat and raised a brow at him. “And why, pray tell, would I wait up for you, Decker?”

“Well, Mary Catherine,” he said, the smile in his voice belying his earnest expression, “if I can’t get a room, and you haven’t offered me a key, how else am I supposed to get in?”

Damn. “Right. Of course.” She took an instinctive step back, desperate for some space, and reached for her purse. “You take my key and I’ll get another one at the front desk,” she said. She plucked the card from her bag and held it out to him. “Number 1248, Garden Tower. Make sure you go by the front desk before you eat to see if they have an open room first. And stop calling me Mary Catherine,” she added, not caring that she sounded like a petulant child.

He popped off a salute and gave her a mocking smile. “Will do.” His fingers brushed hers as he reached for the keycard, and she steeled herself. She’d always loved his hands, even in high school, even before he’d ever laid them on her. The hands of a man. Strong and hard, ready to throw a football or pull in an anchor, but equally capable of sliding ever so gently over a hip…

“Thanks,” he said, tugging the key from her death grip before stepping back. “I’ll have Galen text you one way or the other so I don’t startle you.” He turned to follow her brother, who had already started for the door.

Cat watched them walk away, heart pounding, eyes glued to Shane’s ass. The mental strip-down she was giving him wasn’t exclusive to that region, though. Where had those shoulders come from? He’d been in shape when they were young, but this? This was out of control. She blinked and sucked in a deep breath. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me,” she muttered, more to herself than anything.

Lacey followed her gaze. “I can help you there. You’re impulsive, realllly short, like almost stumpy, and you’ve got a potty mouth.”

“Thanks. I feel much better now.”

Lacey slid back onto her stool and patted the one next to her that Galen had vacated. “Seriously, though, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect. But I’m guessing the Shane thing got you freaked?”

Cat hopped onto the seat and shook her head. “No. Yes.” She scrubbed a hand over her face and groaned. “Shit, hell if I know anymore. It’s just so…awkward whenever he’s around.”

“Doesn’t that tell you something?”

“Yeah. It tells me that I should try harder to not be around him. Which I’ve done a really great job of until tonight.”

Lacey just shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I knew your brother invited him, but Shane told us he couldn’t make it. How was I supposed to know he was going to surprise us?”

“You weren’t. It’s not your fault. I’m just not looking forward to playing ‘Dodge Shane’ for a month when we get back home. Not to mention the fifty-fifty shot of having to shack up with him tonight.” She absently traced a circle of condensation on the table with her pinky, willing herself not to think about having to sleep with Shane in the next bed.

“Well, I think it’s great.” Lacey said, and crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s high time you dealt with this. I want us all to be able to hang out while Shane is home, like we used to, and tonight is the perfect time to clear the air with him.”

“And how am I supposed to do that? I’m pretty sure most of it’s one-sided, and the parts that aren’t are probably in my head. So what do I say? ‘Hey Shane, let’s talk about that time we almost banged a billion years ago, and why I remember it like it was yesterday in spite of the fact that I can barely stand you.’”

Lacey drew back and gasped. “I knew that was it! That’s what makes you so uncomfortable around him. Not that it happened, but that you want a repeat performance.”

“First of all, it was certainly not a ‘performance.’ It was a prelude at best. And second, no I don’t.” At Lacey’s dubious stare, she amended, “Or if I do, it’s only because of the curiosity. You know how when someone takes a bite of something and says ‘Ew, this is gross! Take a bite,’ and you know it’s going to be bad, but you have to try it anyway? Like that.”

“You didn’t seem to think it was gross that night. In fact, I recall you saying that his hands were like magic and—”

Cat cupped her palms over her ears and groaned. “Ugh, I know what I said. I was a melodramatic teenage girl. I also thought From Justin to Kelly should have won an Oscar. What did I know? Anyways, you’re missing the point of my analogy.”

“That’s because it was a stupid analogy. I think you owe it to yourself to figure out what all the fuss in your head has been about.”

She pulled her hands away and laid them on the table faceup. “Look, I know it’s your fondest wish that Shane and I get married and have a pile of kids and get a minivan so we can be besties married to besties, but that’s not going to happen. You know that, right, Lace?”

Her friend nodded, but not convincingly. “Yeah. I’m just wondering if maybe this has been the holdup with you and other guys. You had this amazing night with Shane that never resolved itself and since then, no one has measured up. Every guy you date, you dump after discovering some silly, made-up flaws.”

“They’re not made up,” Cat protested.  “Some of them are—”

Lacey shut her down with a talk-to-the-hand. “What about Steve? Pushing someone away because they don’t get your Monty Python references isn’t normal.”

“Bring out yer dead!” Cat quipped with a weak smile, and slumped in her seat, trying not to get too defensive.

Lacey shook her head, exasperation plain on her face. “What about Ty? Or Griff? He was so nice.”

She bolted upright, nearly knocking over her beer. “Whoa, wait a second. Who could date Griff long-term? He used the phrase ‘That’s my motto’ like five times a day. ‘Go hard or go home, that’s my motto.’ ‘You only live once, that’s my motto.’ ‘Shoot for the stars and you’re bound to hit one, that’s my motto.’ Jesus, Griff, pick a fucking motto, am I right? It was ridiculous.” Even as she said it, she could feel her cheeks getting warm. Maybe Griff wasn’t the only one who was ridiculous.

Lacey’s lips twitched, but she held strong. “I’m serious here. I’m not saying any of these guys have been your soul mate, but I am saying that you’ll never know if you don’t let them in a little.”

“If they had their way, I’d be letting him in a lot, if you catch my drift.” Her friend’s cheeks went pink and Cat chuckled. “For all the changes in you, it makes me proud that I can still get you to blush.”

Lacey sniffed and folded the bar napkin into a neat rectangle and set it next to her beer glass. “Stop trying to derail the conversation.” The waitress passed by and Lacey held up two fingers, gesturing at their empty glasses before turning her focus back on Cat.

“So what do you suggest, Lace? I should just ignore my instincts and stick around when someone is rubbing me the wrong way? Because that’s what it sounds like.” She tried to keep the edge out of her tone, but judging by her friend’s wounded expression, she’d missed the mark a little.

Lacey lifted her chin. “Nope. What you should do is make sure you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“That’s the stupidest expression ever. Who throws out a baby? Like, ‘Oh, oops. Didn’t see you there, li’l fella.’ Not to mention, you’d think they’d cry when they landed and you’d catch your mistake in time to scoop it back into the bath.”

Lacey’s eyes went kind of evil and she poked Cat’s arm, hard.

Damn, Galen really had toughened her up.

“Stop. Deflecting. It’s fine to be like Shane said. Selective. It’s not fine for you to run every guy off within two months over some perceived flaw.”

“I’m not taking dating advice from Old Killjoy Decker. Even in high school, when everyone was being irresponsible and having fun, he was busy looking for parades to crap on. I’m sure that hasn’t changed and he’s still about as exciting as a kiddie roller coaster.” And seeing as how Cat typically selected vacation destinations based on the proximity of the best amusement park, this was the highest of insults.

A crease marred Lacey’s brow and she gave her golden head a shake. “I never understood that. He’s the most fun, interesting guy I know—besides your brother, of course. And gorgeous to boot. How could you possibly think he’s boring?”

“Maybe the way he tried to corral me my entire junior year of high school like I was some wayward cow and he was the ranch’s most enthusiastic farmhand?”

The waitress came by with their beers, and Cat leaned aside to make room. It gave her a moment to think, and she decided grudgingly that maybe boring wasn’t the right word for Shane. An image of that sexy, soul-searching stare sent a bolt of heat through her. Sexy? It wasn’t sexy. It was…invasive. And annoying.

And sexy.

When the waitress strolled away, Lacey held up a hand. “The super-hot professional hero with an amazing work ethic and one of the best men I’ve ever known is boring. Fine. You are officially hopeless. Nobody is good enough for you. So, great, you’ll get exactly what you’ve been working toward your whole life.”

Cat knew for sure she didn’t want to hear the rest of this. In fact, maybe it was time to hit the slots—

“A life alone.”

Cat winced.

“Hah! You flinched!” Lacey shouted, stabbing a triumphant finger in Cat’s direction. “You try to act so tough, but you don’t want to be alone forever, do you?”

“You didn’t just discover plutonium, genius, so calm down. It’s not that shocking. Who wants to be alone forever? I just haven’t found the ri—”

“You haven’t even tried. Twenty-five’s in the rearview mirror, and you’ve never had a relationship last longer than ninety days. That’s sad.”

Maybe it was. But it seemed to her that relationships were a constant drain. Even when the getting was good, one person always ended up compromising. Most of the time, they gave up so much of themselves they became someone else entirely. That’s why she mainly hung out with guys who were willing to give a little, get a little, and let her live the rest of her life on her terms. When things got too serious, she walked away. Maybe it was time to take a harder look at the cycle. Not to give herself over completely, but to find a guy who wanted the same things she did.

Cat plucked a bar napkin off the table and began absently rolling the edges.  “Okay, so what then? I should propose to Shane so I don’t die alone?”

Lacey’s soft features went tight. “Don’t be a smart-ass. Of course not, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be so damned hasty.”

Cat took a sip of her beer and mulled it over.

“In fact,” Lacey said, her tone eulogy-serious, “I dare you.”

Cat gaped at her friend, noting the challenge in her eyes that looked so out of place. “Dare me to what?”

“I triple-dog dare you to explore this Shane thing and see if it’s just a case of nostalgia. If it is, no harm, no foul. You can get some closure and move on. And if it’s not? Maybe you can actually admit to yourself that you have some feelings for him that need to be dealt with.”

Lacey looked pleased as punch, so sure that Cat would take the bait. What did she think, Cat was an idiot? So easily led that she would just cave and—

Shane’s mocking half-grin flashed in front of her eyes. Still sewing clothes and breaking hearts?

Maybe she was, but who was he to judge? Lacey was right. The deed couldn’t possibly live up to the hype she’d built up in her head. Maybe if she got him out of her system, she could focus on finding a guy more suited to her lifestyle long-term. Someone fun and easy.

Someone exactly not like Shane.

A vision of his face, those cutting blue eyes drilling into her, ran through her mind, and common sense flooded back in. “Nope. This is one dare I’m going to have to pass on.”

Lacey’s face fell a little, but she nodded. “Okay, well, you have the month to think about it. And if not Shane, at least consider opening up to someone and allowing yourself to connect before you dump the guy. I only want you to be happy, Cat.”

Despite the seriousness in Lacey’s big brown eyes, Cat couldn’t contain the laughter bubbling up. “We must be in Crazy Town right now. What are the odds that you would end up being the one to dare me to do something this trip?”

Since grade school, she’d coerced Lacey to go along with her, daring her to do all sorts of nutty stuff, from dyeing her hair green to jumping out of a plane, but this was the first time the shoe had been on the other foot.

Lacey’s lips twitched into a grudging smile. “Pretty low, I guess. In fact, we probably have a better chance of winning at the slots.”

“Amen to that.” She clinked her glass to Lacey’s and took a swig of beer. As the icy liquid poured down her throat, Lacey tugged her cell phone from her pants pocket and peered down at the screen.

“A text from Galen. No rooms, so Shane will be staying with you.”

As Cat digested that news, she half-expected a bell to toll. Was that a sign of some sort? Of course not. It stood to reason that the hotel was booked to capacity due to the big fight. It had no bearing on her and Shane at all, except that they’d be in the same room. She’d stayed in the same room with him dozens of times on trips to the Thomas family cottage, so this was no biggie.

So why couldn’t she shake the sense of foreboding pressing on her like an anvil?


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