Love Me (Take a Chance)
Author:Diane Alberts

chapter Seven


Brianna rolled on her stomach, pillow hugged close, and eyed the cell phone flung at the foot of the bed. The project portfolio from MotoTek was next to it with the neat little business card insert and its square paper slip of temptation. Temptation with Thomas’s cell phone number printed on it.

It had been two days since he stormed into her office, and then stormed right back out of it like a tornado consisting of pure lust and anger. So much anger. She shouldn’t even be thinking about calling him. He’d probably taken himself and his California-surfer good looks back to the MotoTek offices in San Francisco, anyway. It had been days, and she hadn’t heard from him. Not about the contract.

Not about them.

She’d tried to keep herself busy, but her mind kept drifting back to him. When he’d found that picture of her with Michael, she’d frozen. Panicked. The way he’d looked at her hadn’t helped. She’d grown past letting anyone look at her that way, letting anyone make her feel like she was inferior by their standards. The fact that he’d dared had infuriated her.

But if she’d been honest with him in the first place, he wouldn’t have had reason to.

She’d only lied by omission. She didn’t owe him anything, but that bitter look of betrayal in his eyes…as if she’d torn open an old wound she hadn’t even known was there. She wanted to tell him the truth. To at least give a clean ending to something that had never even really begun and restore their business relationship so they could painlessly conclude their transaction and part ways. She could partner with MotoTek to remodel and rebrand the casino. Thomas could continue on whatever path he went down after they parted ways.

And she could forget about that burning knot of hunger that clenched deep inside her body every time she thought about how he’d touched her.

She glanced at the clock. Nine thirty at night. In Vegas, nine thirty was practically morning. He’d still be up. She had purposely waited until the kids were in bed. She didn’t want him to hear their voices in the background and have him fly off the handle again. Not until she had a chance to explain everything to him. She smoothed her hands over her fluttering stomach, made herself pick up the phone, and punched his number.

It rang two times before he picked up. He sounded tired. Wary. Angry. “Hello?”

“Thomas? It’s Brianna.”

He said nothing. The silence weighed long and dark between them. Accusatory. She took a calming breath, but her heart rate doubled.

“Are you still in town?” she continued. “I’d like to see you.”

“I’m still in Vegas,” he said after a long pause. “But I have no intention of seeing you. We can conduct business over the phone and via e-mail.”

She gritted her teeth. He was going to make this difficult, wasn’t he? “Please, I need to talk to you. In person. Would you be available to meet?”

“If this is a hookup call…” he said, his voice tinged with warning.

“It’s not.” She dug her fingers into the pillow until they disappeared into the plush cotton. “Whatever your damages are, they aren’t my fault. Don’t treat me like they are.”

“Then don’t use me to fuck up your husband’s life.”

“Stop assuming that’s what I’m doing.” Deep breaths again. She couldn’t fly off the handle. Couldn’t lose her temper. She rarely lost her temper, but Thomas just seemed to be able to push her buttons. “I just want to talk.”

“Why?”

“You wanted the truth, didn’t you?”

“And I got it.”

So much for deep breathing and calm thoughts. She snapped. “Listen, you pig-headed, arrogant, close-minded prick,” she hissed. She tried to bite the words back, but they poured from her lips in a furious torrent. “You have no idea what it is you got. You assumed. I’m trying to be honest with you. So let me.”

His answer was so long in coming that she thought he’d hung up. Then he chuckled and murmured, “You called me a prick.”

“That’s because you’re acting like one,” she growled. “And you don’t have to sound so amused by my cursing.”

“Then stop sounding so funny when you do it.” He let out a sigh so heavy it crackled through the receiver. “Fine, we can talk. Where?”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was no way around it. She had to invite him to her house. Maybe she could wait for him on the doorstep and break the news of her family to him over a drink at dinner. Or maybe after three drinks. She could work her way into a confession on her own terms. If she told him she wanted to meet somewhere neutral, he would probably still think she was hiding something. And she was. It wasn’t just a husband. But how long could she hide the kids from him? And why bother?

Once he saw them, he’d make his excuses and go back to wherever he belonged. Their brief dalliance would be over, and she’d have cleared her name from adultery. So what if the thought of coming clean made her palms sweaty? It didn’t matter. It was time.

She clenched the phone tighter and forced the words that would seal her fate to come out. “My house. Tomorrow at six.”

“I’ll be there,” he said. “No more lies between us, Bree.”

“No more lies,” she promised, and wondered what she was getting herself into. “Now get a pen.”

She gave him her address, then hung up. Her palms were sweating, her body shaking, but this was far from over. Now came the hard part. The hardest part of all.

Waiting until tomorrow so she could come clean.



Thomas was fairly sure he was about to get punked by Chris Hanson.

Maybe Jerry Springer.

Yeah. Springer had a bigger audience.

He stood on the walk and eyed the front door. There was probably a camera crew in the bushes and another inside Brianna’s sprawling ranch-style house. The husband was probably waiting upstairs until Jerry gave the secret signal. Jerry would say lowlife, and the esteemed Mr. Faulk would jump him. Jerry would wait just a little too long to call his security monkeys to pull him off. Just long enough so that when they replayed the video for the studio audience, they’d pump their fists and scream Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! while the fight rolled on.

And Thomas would deserve every single blow.

Why was he even here? So she could rub his nose in her infidelity? So she could have some kind of emotional revelation with her husband, while Thomas watched on? Maybe she even intended to use Thomas as an excuse to end her marriage.

He sighed and rapped his knuckles to the door. It cracked open.

“Thank God. You’re la—” Her eyes widened. “Crap.”

She slammed the door in his face.

Then latched it.

What the hell was she up to now?

“Damn it, Bree,” he called through the door. “We said no games. What are you doing?”

“We said no lies but I’m not playing any games.” The thick oak door made her voice hollow. “I thought you were the— I thought you were my sister. You’re too early.”

“I’m not—” He checked the time. He was actually early. He was never early. “Okay. Fine. So I show up ten minutes early and it’s a social faux pas worthy of slamming the door in my face?”

No answer. He groaned and glanced over his shoulder. No sister. No one. Just an empty yard, and around the corner of the house, he could just barely make out the edges of a multicolored…kids’ play set…

Oh. Oh, hell no.

A little snake of panic bit at his insides. “I’m leaving.”

“Don’t.” Her exasperated sigh came clearly through the paneled oak. “What if we reschedule? I’m not really in the mood to go out. I’m tired.”

His stomach turned. Toying with him again, and he didn’t even have one foot in the front door. And why the hell did she have a swing set in her yard? “Why did you tell me to come here if you didn’t want to see me?”

The latch slid. She cracked the door open again. One liquid hazel eye peeked out. “I’m just— I’m not—”

“You’re not what?”

“I’m—” Her lips pinched together. “Oh, screw it. Come in.”

She opened the door fully. He stepped across the threshold, his eyes taking in every inch of her body even though he didn’t even know if he liked her right now. She wore a pair of black slacks and a sparkly tank top that hung to her curves. “What’s going on, Bree?”

She shrugged stiffly. “There’s something I haven’t told you yet.”

“I gathered that.” He crossed his arms. “Look, let’s not make any unnecessary drama. If it was just a one-night thing, let it be that so I can walk away. Or tell me what’s really going on.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I’m trying.”

“It can’t be that bad, can it? You’re a mass murderer? You eat people for dinner?” he asked, and then his gaze drifted to the pictures on the wall.

Yes, it very much was that bad.

One of the photos, at least a few years old, was of Brianna. She held a baby. There were other kids in the rest of the pictures, and he didn’t think they were her nieces and nephews.

And the man from her desk photo was in all the portraits, smiling as if he was the luckiest man in the world.

Ah, shit.

Slowly, as if he were on autopilot, he turned back to her. His limbs felt wooden. So did his lips as he said, “You’re married. With kids.”

Her shoulders hunched. “I have three kids, yes. And my husband—”

“To hell with this.” He reached back blindly, grappling for the doorknob. He could barely see her pale, stricken face through a white-hot sheen of fury. “I don’t want to hear anything about your husband. I don’t want to hear your excuses about how cold he is, or how he’s never home. You have kids, Brianna. Kids and a family. I’m not going to be the one to rip it apart.”

Thomas jerked the door open and walked out—and nearly walked into another woman. A younger woman, a blond with wide, confused eyes, stood on the doorstep, staring at him as if she thought he would hurt her. He ducked around her, careful not to touch her. He’d never hurt anyone, but that didn’t mean he wanted human contact right now. He should have trusted his gut. Brianna was definitely married.

Married, and he’d been played for a fool.

Halfway down the walk, a warm hand caught his elbow with surprising strength. “Stay right there.”

She spun on her heel and walked back to the house. A teenaged boy hovered in the doorway, watching them with his mouth twisted into a curve of sullen resentment. Brianna said something to the boy, shut the door, then stalked back down the path. Thomas felt sick. Why had he stayed, and let her boss him into sticking around?

Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes alight. “I’ll have you know I’m not the type of woman who cheats on her husband.”

He gave a harsh laugh. “Do you have some other explanation for the pictures? Divorcées don’t keep shrines to their exes. I’m divorced, and I’m fairly certain every picture of her I didn’t burn ended up down the garbage disposal.”

She cocked her head. “When were you married?”

“A while ago. As in, not right now. Ever wondered how that felt?”

Her face fell. She dropped her fists to her sides. “Not really. You’re right. A divorcée wouldn’t still have pictures up. But I’m not divorced.”

“That makes no sense. The only way you could be not married, but not divorced, is if…”

Oh.

Thomas, you idiot.

“Is if he’s dead,” she finished. Her slim hands planted against his chest, shoving him gently backward. “He’s dead. If you’d let me finish, you’d have heard me. I have three kids, I’m a single mom, and my husband is dead. There. Happy?”

Happy? He’d been an asshole to a woman who didn’t deserve it. He should just give up and walk away, but he couldn’t. Pride choked him—pride, and that damnable need that roused every time he looked at her.

He swallowed hard. “No. I can’t say that makes me particularly happy. How long ago did he… When did he…?”

“A few years ago. And I didn’t want to tell you right away.” She let out a tired, dry laugh. “I mean, who wants to date a single mom of three? It’s something you ease into after a few dates. Not right away. Not like this. But…we kind of skipped the date and hopped right into…”

“More like out of our clothes. That’s what you meant when you said you don’t normally do this.”

She nodded. No wonder. She had kids to care for, to protect. She wouldn’t want strange men around until she was sure her children would be safe with them, and it wouldn’t be fair to bring men into their lives who might only be a temporary presence when they’d already lost their father. And he was definitely a temporary presence.

Then again, he wasn’t sure he was ready to even think about being a father figure, either.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and gripped her shoulder gently. “I’m an idiot.”

She smiled weakly. “No. You just bit off more than you could chew. At least now you’ve got your excuse.”

“Excuse?”

“You know. Why it wouldn’t work.” She wrapped her arms around herself. A defensive barrier—against him. “So you can walk away with a clean conscience now.”

She had the future all figured out already—including his reaction to her news. With any other woman, she would have been right. But for some unknown reason, Brianna wasn’t just any woman. He couldn’t walk away from her so easily. She felt too damned good in his arms to let her go. “You think I’ll give up that easily?”

“I saw the look on your face when you realized I have kids. It was the look of a man with his head in the noose. Let me tighten the rope for you and make it a little easier. I’m thirty-two and a single mom with a lot of baggage. Zach’s thirteen and miserable. Katelyn’s six and thinks she’s twenty. Cody is eight, lives in his own world, and thinks Transformers are real.”

Thirteen? So she’d had her first when she was only nineteen?

He never really envisioned himself with kids. Never even pictured a family of his own. And the idea of dating someone with kids had never even crossed his mind. He never would have considered getting involved with a woman who had children. Not because he didn’t like kids. He did.

It was his own fucked-up mentality that kept him away. Did he want to be responsible for turning some kid into a raving lunatic who didn’t know how to trust anyone? Did he want to make another person feel the same insecurities he felt? Hell no.

But this was Brianna. She was watching him with her big eyes, biting her lip as she waited for his reply, and he couldn’t say good-bye yet. The idea of walking away and never getting to kiss her lips again clawed at his insides like some hidden monster, refusing to let go.

Kids or not, he wanted to be with her. Wanted to explore the new feelings she brought out in him.

“I don’t know what look I had on my face. Probably a man who felt like he’d just been punched in the nuts for being an ass to a widow.” He closed the distance between them, tilting her chin up so he could see her pretty eyes. “But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t give up easily.”

She wouldn’t look at him. He couldn’t look away from her. “You are a fascinating man, Thomas, but I think it’s best if we let this go.”

“Why? Because you have kids?” He gestured at the play set hunched in the grass like a little gingerbread house. “I’ll keep my distance until you decide that I’m ready to meet them. If that ever happens.”

“It’s not that!”

“Then what is it?”

“I’m scared.” She blew out a breath that caused her hair to flutter. “Scared to let you in.”

He got that more than she would ever know. She terrified the hell out of him. “I’m scared, too.”

She looked up at him in surprise. “Then what do you propose we do?”

“Maybe nothing. Do you actually want to do something?”

“Maybe.”

He growled. “I don’t want a maybe, Brianna. I want to know if you’re going to give us a chance to figure out what we have or if you’re going to send me away before we can even find out if we would work.”

She stared up at him, her eyes wide and wary, but he refused to look away. “Fine,” she finally said, her lashes lowering. “Yes. Let’s do this.”

He released her chin and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “All right, then. Let’s go on a real date. Are you available tonight?”

She smiled. “We can go out. I have a ‘get out of jail free’ card tonight.”

“The babysitter?”

“My sister. Kiersten.”

Kiersten was currently leaning in the now-open doorway of the house, watching them with thinly veiled amusement. She looked much like Brianna but with an impish streak. Thomas waved; she waved back with a wink.

“Is she your only sister?”

“Yeah, but I have a brother, too. Mike.”

“I have a sister.” He brushed his fingers down her arm. “Now that we know each other a little better…I can’t think of a better time than now for date one-point-five than the present.”

“I’ll be right back.”

“Hurry up,” he said, his tone teasing and light. “If you don’t, I just might decide to hold another pair of your shoes hostage.”

“I still haven’t gotten the first pair back.”

“You’re welcome to come up to my room to get them.”

She gave him a searching look, then smiled, rose on her toes, and kissed his cheek before walking away, back up to the house. Thomas glanced back to his rental truck. If he were smart, he’d run right now before he made a mess of this.

But he wasn’t running.

He wanted Brianna with a hunger that even the specter of her dead husband couldn’t diminish. That was a large void to fill, stepping into the empty absence her husband had left behind. He wasn’t sure he was up to the task. Hell, he didn’t even know what to do with kids.

He focused on the gentle sway of her hips. It wasn’t until she disappeared inside that he saw the teen boy glowering down at him from an upstairs window.

Great. He’d just been caught ogling the boy’s mother. Thomas forced a smile and waved. He was rewarded by a middle finger and the sight of the boy’s back.

He remembered those days. He hadn’t had a mother to protect from men like him, but he’d had a sister who liked boys from the wrong side of the tracks. Maybe the boy just needed a gentle hand, a male role model in his life. A role model Thomas wasn’t sure he knew how to be, and…and…

…and that? That was the boy’s bare ass in the window.

They were off to a wonderful start.





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