After years of loving her from afar, will TJ finally make a move and win Jen’s heart? Or will her walls keep them apart? Here’s Maybe This Time by Nicole McLaughlin! Scroll down and read the full second chapter of the novel then one-click this one!
Jen Mackenzie has been knocked down more than a few times, but she always gets up and makes sure she has the last word. It’s the reason she now considers herself equal parts self-sufficient and free-spirit. But since losing her job and trying to help her mother beat cancer, real life—and her occasional careless choices—have begun to catch up with her. Her one saving grace: The Stag, a boutique distillery that has become Kansas City’s go-to wedding venue. The only catch: One of the owners, TJ Laughlin, happens to be the one man who somehow manages to make Jen feel inadequate.
TJ has secretly had a thing for Jen since high school. Now, as her new boss, it’s a daily struggle between revealing his feelings and wringing her beautiful neck. Only one thing is for certain: he can’t stand idly by and watch the woman he cares for struggle. She may be convinced that accepting TJ’s help is a weakness. But all he sees in Jen is beauty and strength, inside and out. As things finally heat up between them, can TJ find a way to convince Jen that love is about give and take—and having it all, together?
Standing in her mother’s tiny apartment kitchen, Jen Mackenzie squeezed her eyes shut as she logged onto the bank app on her phone. She muttered a quiet prayer. Please not yet. Please not yet. Please not yet.
Holding her breath, she opened one eye and peeked at the screen. A heavy sigh of relief escaped her lips as she quickly scanned the list of debits and determined the car payment she’d paid online yesterday hadn’t yet posted to her account. Her pitiful bank account remained in the black another day. Constantly checking her bank app was an anxiety-laced game she’d been playing more often lately, ever since she’d lost her job at Maple Springs Community Theater, which had finally closed due to federal funding cuts.
She hated being broke all the time, but until her Broadway dreams came true, or that sugar daddy quit evading her, it was probably her destiny. But at least today she could get some gas in her car and make it to work. Tonight she’d leave the Stag with tips from the bar, and Monday was payday, so if everything worked out as planned, she should be all good before that bill posted to her checking account. Score a point for head-barely-above-water Jen.
Realizing it had been a half hour since her mother went into the bathroom to shower, Jen walked down the hall and tapped on the door. “Everything okay, Mom?”
“I’m fine. I had trouble shampooing my damn hair.”
Jen frowned. She’d thought her mom had seemed a little stronger today when she’d shown up for her daily check-in. Clearly, after watching her mother battle cancer for the past year or so, she’d lost all perspective of what the woman looked like on a good day. Considering she’d given up her favorite hobbies—drinking and smoking—when she received her diagnosis, one would have thought her mother would feel better. Like a new person. But although Jen was so proud of her mom for making that lifestyle change, sometimes she wanted to bring her a bottle of vodka from work. You know, just to see her smile again. Or stop being a total bitch.
So far, Jen had refrained from being the ultimate enabler. For now.
Instead she took the brunt of her mother’s frustration with life. Checking on her daily even though she was ungrateful, bossy, and irritable. Some days the woman didn’t even have the strength to get out of bed, and while Jen had urged her to discuss depression with her doctor, she didn’t think it had happened.
It wasn’t that she and her mom had experienced an ideal mother-daughter relationship up until this point. Quite the contrary—except for when things were going well in Diane’s life. But Jen had secretly hoped the diagnosis would inspire a change in their tumultuous relationship. So far, no dice.
“Do you need help?” Jen said to the closed door.
“No. Said I’m fine.”
Leaning against the wall in the hallway, Jen felt guilty for being annoyed. She hated the self-centered feelings she sometimes had regarding her mother, but as much as she wanted the woman to make a full recovery, caring for her was difficult. After a lifetime of bitterness toward her selfish mother, it wasn’t always easy to be the bigger person. It was downright difficult. But just as her mother had found the will to give up smoking and drinking, Jen had decided her contribution would be that of head cheerleader. Her constant attentiveness wasn’t earning her any thank-yous, but she wasn’t being told to lay off either. Deep down she knew her mother was grateful—they just didn’t really know how to love one another.
But Jen was trying, by showing up every day, driving her to the doctor when it was needed, making her food. Being present and kind, even when it was brutally hard and she was emotionally and physically wrung dry. She could only imagine how her mother felt—considering it was her poor body that was under attack—but sometimes Jen just wanted to stand on the side of the highway and hitchhike herself out of this life.
Glancing down at her phone, she realized she’d been there longer than she’d thought. She pushed off the wall and leaned into the bathroom door once more. “Okay, well, I need to get to work. You going to be okay?”
“Of course I am,” a slightly irritated voice answered.
Jen looked up at the ceiling and bit her tongue. Sorry for worrying about you.
The door opened, releasing a puff of steam into the air. She backed up as Diane Mackenzie stepped into the hall. Jen instinctively glanced away before her eyes could land on the woman’s satin robe. The way it clung to a flat—almost concave—chest. The same chest that used to fill out a Circle H gas station uniform polo to the point of straining the buttons. It wasn’t that Jen was repulsed by the sight of her mother’s double mastectomy, it just made her achingly sad.
Fear of injury or sickness had always been a problem for Jen. The sight of blood or a trauma, or even just hearing about someone’s accident made her feel lightheaded. Then there was the panic of her own health. She’d finally forced herself to stop doing internet searches for the statistics of the heredity of breast cancer. The problem with that was, while she could stop looking, she couldn’t erase the previous information from her mind. It could hit her out of nowhere, and then repeat in her brain like an earworm of “We Are Family” after a night bartending a wedding. Having two relatives with breast cancer is more concerning if they are on the same side of the family. Bad news for Jen—her mother and her aunt were survivors. For now, anyway. So statistically speaking, it didn’t look good, and she couldn’t help thinking that her D cups gave cancer a lot of space to take up residence.
As she followed her to the bedroom, Jen noticed her mother’s hair had grown a little longer, finally covering the tops of her ears. It had grown in grayer than before she’d lost it. Diane hadn’t said, but Jen knew she hated that. If they’d had a normal mother and daughter relationship, Jen might have suggested she try styling it, to make her feel more like herself. But as it was, she couldn’t imagine making the offer. And it was possible the idea was stupid, since her mother’s hair had been down her back before the chemo. Something Jen had always thought silly for a woman in her forties. But when it had all begun to fall out in thick clumps, leaving her mother crying on the shower floor, Jen had quickly realized how a person’s hair—a woman’s especially—was wrapped up in their identity. Their self-confidence. Even their sexuality.
Now that she looked again, the short wisps around her mom’s ears suddenly didn’t seem like something to celebrate but more like a reminder of what she’d lost.
After finishing up her last round of chemo in May, they’d been hoping for some positive news. But three weeks ago, testing had revealed an elevated white blood count, which then led to an MRI, and of course they’d found another small mass underneath her armpit, because neither Jen or her mother could catch a break in life. Diane had barely reacted. Almost as if she’d known it was inevitable. Her lack of sadness, outrage, fear . . . any emotion at all, had terrified Jen.
Assuming she’d be ready to start fighting with another round of chemo, Diane had shocked Jen when she’d chosen instead to do a clinical trial of two new medications that had until recently been used only in Europe. Sure, they’d had some good results, but Jen was still furious about it. There was too much unknown. So far, the side effects appeared to be fatigue and depression. Or maybe those were just the side effects of dying.
“Do you have plans today?” Jen asked, trying to take her mind off her renewed frustration.
“I do. Terri is going to come by with dinner. Bringing a movie.”
“That sounds nice. You haven’t seen her since she took you to your last appointment, have you?” Jen leaned against the door frame. Terri was the only one of her mother’s friends she liked. Probably because she’d always been happily married and not as inclined to party like Diane and their other friends. The woman had also been a godsend the past year, helping take Diane to appointments, to pick up her prescriptions, and whatever else they needed help with.
“Not in a week or so, no.” Diane pulled some underwear and a soft tank-style undershirt from her top drawer. There was no longer much need for bras, and Jen had gotten rid of them before they’d even come home from the hospital eleven months ago. Her intentions had been good, but she still didn’t know if she’d made the right call by doing that. Her mother had never mentioned it, so she hoped that was a good sign.
“Can I do anything for you before I go?”
A heavy sigh preceded her “No, Jen. I’m just fine.”
“Just fine” was her mom’s favorite phrase. Jen had heard her say it a million times, as an answer to a million questions throughout her life. You’ll be just fine. We’ll be just fine. It’ll be just fine. Everything will be just fine. Jen had learned one thing: living a just fine life was pathetic.
“I’d like you to be good for once, Mom. Consider lying if necessary. Just to give me some peace of mind.”
Her mother turned and stared at her. “You know . . . you don’t need to check in on me all the time,” her mother snapped.
Jen pushed off the doorframe, ready to leave. She forced a deep breath and then replied in the sincerest tone she could muster. “Yeah, well, I think I’ll keep doing it whether you like it or not.”
“Then don’t complain about my response.” Diane tied her robe and jerked the belt tight.
“Noted. I’ll keep being the best daughter ever, and you continue to have a chip on your shoulder.” Jen waited for a snarky reply, almost pissed when one didn’t come. It had been a while since the two of them had engaged in a good yelling match. Maybe they were due for one, but Jen refused to be the one to start it. “Well, I’ll probably be late tonight. It’s the uncasking party.”
That seemed to rouse a genuine smile from Diane. “Give the guys my love.”
The “guys,” in Jen’s life, were her three bosses at the Stag Distillery, Dean, TJ, and Jake. And in classic Diane fashion, they had earned her mother’s love just by being handsome men.
“I will. They’d have liked you to come tonight.” Dean had insisted that Jen take an invite home to her mother, who had at first been excited to go. That is until this new mass had been discovered.
“I know, but they understand.”
“They do. They just like to see you.”
“I’ll come visit them soon when I feel better,” she said. The which will probably be never remained unsaid.
“Okay, well, bye, Mom. Have fun with Terri.”
Her mother just raised a hand in response. Jen rushed through the dark living room to the front door, and took a deep breath as she stepped outside. She would never stop checking in and worrying about the woman, but it was always a relief to leave. Walking down the sidewalk, Jen turned to head up the metal and wood staircase. She and her mother both lived at the shitty Shady Meadow apartment complex in Maple Springs, Kansas, just a five-minute drive from the downtown square. And its name did not lie, because it was shady alright. The management did the bare minimum to keep the place maintained, and many of the residents were on a first name basis with the local cops.
Jen lived on the second floor of building C, her mother on the first of building B, right next to the parking lot and the mailbox, which had proven pretty damn annoying once or twice. Notably the last time Jen walked out with a guy one morning and her mother was standing there in a robe holding her Bed Bath & Beyond mailer. That had earned her a long, judgmental stare. Ironic, considering men had always been her mother’s third weakness, coming in after booze and cigarettes.
Dropping her keys on the sofa, Jen headed to her own tiny kitchen—identical to her mother’s except that it was flip-flopped— to grab her jug of distilled water. Saturday was plant-watering day, so she went from pot to pot checking on her babies, talking gently to them as she touched their soil and then watering those needing it. She currently had eight plants, down one after losing Fey a month prior. Some asshole had stolen the fern off her miniature deck, and Jen still hadn’t recovered from it. Who steals a fern?
She’d discovered her love of plants when her mother had her mastectomy and the owner of the convenience store she worked at sent a calathea to the hospital. Diane had seemed unmoved by the gesture and in too much pain to care for it, so Jen had taken it home.
It hadn’t taken her long to realize how comforting—and surprisingly therapeutic—it was to care for something else, especially something that couldn’t talk back. Slowly she added to her collection when she had a few dollars to spare, and now she practically had a greenhouse in her little apartment. She loved it. Not only were the plants peaceful, but she loved the way they softened the look of her crappy place. It felt more fresh and alive.
Once all the living things had been cared for, Jen headed to her bedroom to finish getting ready for work. She swapped her shorts for her favorite denim skirt and then gently maneuvered her fitted gray Stag tee over her half-up hairdo, which she’d sprayed into submission just an hour before. Jen had a bit of an obsession with makeup, and she could easily waste away an entire Saturday watching video tutorials online.
She’d recently purchased a new red for her lips, although she really shouldn’t have. But hey, it was from the drugstore, she was bad with money, and thus could convince herself that even she deserved a splurge now and again.
Moving her head from side to side, Jen inspected her eye shadow and liner. Perfect. As were her brows, if she did say so herself. Growing those puppies back in was one of her biggest personal accomplishments over the past five years. Pretty frickin’ sad for a woman who’d just turned thirty and had one day hoped to have her name in lights.
Standing in the doorway of her tiny closet, Jen stared down at her collection of cheap shoes. It would be a long night, but she wanted to feel a little cute, so she chose her Mary Jane–style athletic slip-ons.
After grabbing her purse, she headed out the front door and down the stairs. She couldn’t help throwing a quick glance at her mom’s front door—still closed, drapes shut—and then walked to her ten-year-old F-150 pickup. Twenty minutes later she had a quarter tank of gas, her favorite purple energy drink in her hand—another shouldn’t-have purchase—and was heading inside the Stag Distillery on the corner of Hickory and Sterling in Maple Springs.
Stepping inside, she was greeted by a chill rushing over her skin and the familiar yeasty scent of the distillery building she’d been working in for the past several years as a bartender and now also temporary receptionist. At first glance it appeared no one was here. The front desk in the lobby where she sat Monday through Friday was empty, so she checked Dean’s office. Empty. A little further down the hall she checked TJ’s, her heart accelerating. Stop it. Empty. And since Jake usually ran late, she didn’t bother checking his office or the meeting room.
Someone had to be here, considering the party started in less than two hours. She headed for the old freight elevator and pulled open the metal cage door before stepping into the car.
“Hold up,” a deep voice called out from the back room. Jen froze. Of all the people to encounter first, it would of course have to be TJ.
Sometimes she still couldn’t believe that after crushing on him all through middle and high school she ended up working for his company a decade later. When she’d applied for the bartending job several years ago to supplement her income at the community theater, she’d had no idea TJ was one of the owners. Dean, a co-owner, had hired her on the spot because they had started booking weddings at breakneck speed and were desperate. She’d happily accepted and started the same night, despite her only experience being a lifetime of watching her mother and her friends drink. Turned out that had worked just fine, and she’d learned the rest from Google searches on her phone when needed.
She could still remember that following weekend when TJ had come in and they’d seen each other for the first time in almost a decade. Her first thought—after catching her breath—had been that he’d barely changed. Still handsome as all get-out, just older, more muscular, and with a shorter, more modern haircut. The butterflies in her stomach had performed the same dance at the sight of him as when she was still in a B-cup bra.
There’d really been no mistaking the what-the-hell-is-she-doing-here look on his face that day. But as much as she’d wanted to, she couldn’t hold that against him because there was no doubt she’d been wearing the exact same expression at seeing him. And for the past several years they’d maintained a civil—albeit slightly tumultuous—working relationship. Mostly because she enjoyed pushing his buttons.
Before he got on the elevator, Jen quickly took a guess at what TJ might be wearing today. Khaki slacks with a light-blue button-up, or gray slacks with a white button-up. It was always one or the other. Belt, sleeves rolled up at the forearms, top button undone revealing a hint of his neck. God, he was so predictable it was maddening. In fact, she was almost getting tired of giving him shit because the material never changed. Then again, part of the problem was that he looked so damn good in those preppy outfits.
Jen stood waiting, holding the gate, listening as his footsteps sounded on the tile as he headed in her direction.
“Thanks,” he said as he stepped onto the platform and pulled the elevator door shut.
Jen swallowed, her mouth going dry at the shocking site of him this afternoon. Quickly finding her voice, she lifted an eyebrow and decided to throw him a bone. It was a day of celebration, after all. It was the least she could do for a sort-of friend. “You look rather GQ this evening.”
He glanced down at himself as the metal gears of the old elevator jerked to life. “Thanks. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to wear tonight.” The boyish grin on his face when he lifted his gaze back to hers had her feeling a little melty. Not entirely unusual for her in this man’s presence, although she hated to admit it, even to herself. Plus, she didn’t often see his smile. Not directed at her, anyway.
She shrugged. “I think you did okay. The jacket is nice.”
“Thank you. It was a gift from my mom.” He touched the lapel, glancing down at the fabric. He glanced up at her through lowered lids. “I’ll await your ridicule for that.”
Jen feigned insult, putting a hand on her chest. “I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.”
He just shook his head. Yes, she gave him shit. But she wouldn’t tonight. Besides, it was no surprise that he was the pride and joy of clan Laughlin, and tonight his mama made sure he dressed the part. His dark denim jeans were so perfectly fitted to his hips and thighs, Jen wondered if he’d had them specially made. He still sported his signature brown belt, paired with—wait for it—a blue-and-white-checked button-up. Something she’d never seen on him before, and while it almost should have been tacky, it was perfect. But the best part was definitely his mom’s gift, the navy dress jacket, and there was no doubt it had been tailored. That service alone probably cost more than her rent. But lord, it was worth every penny. The sight of his broad shoulders and firm biceps made her mouth water. She looked away.
Of all the men she’d encountered in her life, why did the fantasies in her twisted head always fall back on this one? It didn’t make sense, her weird thing for him. She’d known him for so long, had seen him go through his awkward pubescent phase and he her many awkward phases. Shit, she was still trying to figure out who the hell she was. Right now, she was knee deep in “almost middle-aged, broke woman trying to look put together.” But tonight, TJ was perfectly polished sexiness. Now her fantasies would never get a reprieve. Damn him.
“Excited for tonight?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah. I am. Five years is a long time.” He was referring to the bourbon and whiskey they’d first barreled five years ago when he and his two partners Dean and Jake had first started their distillery business. Tonight, they’d finally share their signature offerings with the public.
“Good things come to those who wait. Or some trite bullshit like that,” Jen said.
TJ chuckled. “Hopefully they say it because it’s true.”
“I’m sure it is. This will be great. I’m happy for you guys.”
His left eyebrow lifted, and she realized she’d not been the only one surprised at her pleasant words. She and TJ had a default mode: awkward. It was a combination of her giving him constant verbal jabs, and him being annoyed with her. She couldn’t help herself, he was so damn stuffy and self-righteous. TJ Laughlin had been judging her since middle school, and so she’d made it her personal mission to remind him that she was her own woman and she didn’t give a shit what he thought. How’s that going for you, slick?
“This is a big night for you too, Jen,” he said, this time surprising her. “You’re an important part of this company.”
Hmm. She wasn’t sure where to go with this conversation as she stepped off the elevator. He followed behind her, shutting the metal gate with a loud click. The two of them didn’t usually have such pleasant and benign interactions, so he was probably expecting her to reply with a snappy comeback. A test maybe. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of being right. She’d already complimented his outfit for goodness’ sake.
With a smile, she said, “Thank you, TJ. That really means a lot.”
His eyes narrowed the slightest bit, but she just turned and headed toward the far end of the event space—her domain.
The massive wooden bar where Jen slung fancy cocktails held up the east end of the room and sat perpendicular to the giant fireplace centered on the north side. This event space on the second floor of the Stag was gorgeous. Wooden floors and beams, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the square, and a massive and intricate handmade antler chandelier. Complimenting that was a giant stag head over the huge fireplace. There was no denying the three male owners had been instrumental in styling the space, and somehow they’d managed to pull off rustic and elegant at the same time. Big and spacious, yet cozy and intimate. And that was the reason it was such a popular wedding venue and had made the guys a lot of unexpected money, considering they’d never planned on being in the event business when they’d first bought the building. But it had worked out, giving them much-needed additional revenue while their main liquor offerings aged in barrels in the giant storage building across the alley.
Up until recently, they’d only been selling their unaged spirits, which had been very well received over the past five years. They had a lot of customers chomping at the bit to get a taste of what would come out of these barrels tonight.
Jen immediately got to work behind the bar, taking stock of what was there, making note of what she’d need to go get from storage. Tonight would be fun. They’d created several new cocktail recipes to highlight the signature products, and she couldn’t wait to serve them.
While this was called an uncasking party—and they would ceremoniously open a reserved barrel—they’d officially opened the rest of them two weeks ago in order to be ready for distribution next week. It had been crazy hectic at the Stag, planning this evening, bottling, tasting, finalizing orders, on top of the work for their wedding clients. The guys had worked their asses off over the summer, and that didn’t even include the personal drama that they’d all been dealing with. Everyone deserved to enjoy themselves this evening. Even stuffy old TJ, Jen thought, as she caught sight of him from the corner of her eye. Something she tended to do from time to time. Or constantly.
She watched as he arranged bottles of Stag Signature Bourbon on the display near the fireplace that had been set up the day before. It all looked nice, various old crates stacked on top of one another. Someone—probably Charlotte, Dean’s new girlfriend, who was very creative—had inserted some mason jars of dried wheat and rye and some ears of corn to represent the varieties of alcohol they produced. However, the way TJ was just shoving in the bottles was completely ruining the aesthetic.
Jen shook her head and walked over. “I hope you don’t decorate your own house.”
He glanced over at her and then back at the display. “What’s wrong with it?”
Reminding herself that she was giving him a reprieve tonight, she changed her tune and gave him a tight smile. “You’ve given it a good try, but I think it would look better if you lined them up just so.” She rearranged the last four bottles he’d set up in a nice row, staggering a few in front. “See how much better that looks?”
He lifted an eyebrow and let out a manly sound of agreement. “Thanks,” he said quietly. “That does look better.”
“See, having me here isn’t as bad as you think it is.” She turned to walk away, but he grabbed her hand, shocking her. Their eyes met as she jerked back.
“Why do you always do that?” he asked, still holding on to her hand.
“Do what?” She swallowed.
“You know what, Jen.” His voice was low and controlled, but she could hear the frustration in it, as if her pleasant attitude had confused him and he was just waiting for a moment to return them to their normal. “You like to imply that I don’t want you here. It’s bullshit. You know I want you here.”
Okay. That was not their normal. “Maybe I have low self-esteem,” she joked, feeling a little overwhelmed. And his fingers were still burning into her skin.
He glared at her. “Please.”
She smiled in reply, trying to make light of the conversation, and not be offended by his sarcastic tone. Just then she heard heavy footsteps coming up the back staircase followed by a concerned feminine voice echoing. He let go of her hand at the sound and they both turned toward the back stairwell door.
“Everything will be fine.” The voice was Charlotte’s. Jen recognized it immediately. “She knows what she’s doing. Let’s just enjoy this evening.”
Dean entered the room first, his face full of fury, and Charlotte bringing up the rear with a smile on her face as soon as she spotted them. Odd. Was everyone participating in Opposite Day around here? Dean was usually super laid back. Took a lot to ruffle his feathers, although Jen had accomplished it a time or two just because she couldn’t resist a direct challenge.
“Has to be about Alexis,” TJ muttered, referring to Dean’s younger sister.
Jen nodded her agreement as they both watched Dean stride purposefully toward them across the big room. He and Charlotte held cardboard boxes of what appeared to be table centerpieces. When Charlotte set her box down on the closest table, Jen could see the worry in her eyes. She tried lightening the mood.
“Hey, lovebirds. These are pretty,” she said, picking up one of the centerpieces. It was similar to the decorations on the crates TJ had been arranging, a large glass bottle full of wheat and silk sunflowers. Very Kansas.
“They’re left over from Alex’s wedding.” Dean said, his words clipped with anger or frustration. Maybe both.
Jen bit her bottom lip, regretting her words and not knowing what to say in response. Dean’s younger sister was in the army. She’d been deployed for several years, and over the past few months Charlotte and Dean had been planning a wedding for her. They’d chosen everything: the cake, the DJ, even the meal. Had things gone as planned, Alex and Nate had only to show up during their short leaves and get hitched. Except things hadn’t worked out quite that way. The wedding was supposed to have taken place last Friday, but about a month before, Nate had been killed in a helicopter accident on deployment in the Middle East.
Setting the glass jar on the table, Jen smiled. “Well, they are lovely. How nice that they can still be enjoyed.”
Dean didn’t respond, just began unloading his box, but Charlotte piped up. “I agree. And Alex was relieved that they could still get used. This was the perfect event.”
Nate’s death had shaken them all at the Stag, even those that had never met the man, like Jen. But obviously Dean had been devastated. He’d practically raised Alex, and as soon as he’d heard the news, he’d flown to Georgia—where Nate was from—to meet his sister and her fiancé’s remains. They’d buried him there with his family, and Alex had spent the past four weeks grieving, understandably so. Jen knew that Dean had been struggling to see his sister go through so much pain, but the one bright side of the past few months was that he and Charlotte had finally come together through the process. Finally, because Jen had been a spectator to the two of them dancing around their obsession with each other for a while.
Jen smiled at Charlotte, who reciprocated, but the other woman’s expression was still forced. TJ hadn’t taken his eyes off Dean, no doubt trying to assess what he should say to his friend.
Charlotte placed a gentle hand on Dean’s arm. “I’m going to run back out to the car and get all my gear. I’ll be back.”
Dean nodded silently. Charlotte turned to Jen. “Could I ask you for a hand?”
“Oh, sure. Of course.” Jen jumped at the chance to flee the awkwardness in the room, but more important, she wanted to get the scoop. The two women headed down the back staircase, through the area that held the supplies and the access to the distilling room, and out to the back alley.
“What is going on with him?” Jen asked as they made their way to Dean’s SUV. Charlotte sighed before she opened the door to the back seat.
“Alex just informed us this afternoon that she is going ahead with her deployment to Italy.”
Jen considered that for a moment. “Okay, that does suck. But hadn’t that been the original plan?”
“Yes,” Charlotte said, as if relieved someone finally saw reason. “It was the original plan for her and Nate after the wedding. It was part of the reason we’d been planning their wedding, their short time at home before leaving. She’d reenlisted and requested to go there so they could be together. But for some reason Dean had assumed Alex wouldn’t still go alone.”
Charlotte leaned into the backseat and then handed Jen a black bag of camera gear. Charlotte was a photographer—the catalyst for her and Dean meeting since she shot so many weddings at the Stag. Jen admired Charlotte immensely for owning her incredibly successful business, and also for just being one of the funniest, kindest women Jen had ever known, and it had occurred to her more than once that she might even get along well with Charlotte outside of work.
“So, he’s upset that she’s leaving or that she’s leaving alone?”
“Both, I think.” Charlotte reached for one camera body, then a second, before shutting the back door with her butt. “He’s scared. It’s always worried him that Alex is in the military, but he’s afraid for her to go back as a grieving widow of sorts.”
“Maybe it’s what she needs. To return to normalcy. Get away. I mean, Italy sounds like a pretty awesome place to heal. And the military is what she does. I’m sure she can handle it.”
“That’s exactly what she said, and I agree with her. He’s just being an overprotective big brother. He’ll get over it, he just has a bad habit of thinking he knows what’s best. I’m trying my hardest to break him of it,” Charlotte said with a sigh.
“Good luck with that,” Jen replied, hefting a bag farther onto her shoulder.
Charlotte laughed quietly, and then her brows furrowed. “I just hate that it happened today of all days. This was supposed to be a good day for him.”
Jen followed Charlotte back into the building. “Yeah, not great timing. When does she leave?”
Charlotte glanced at Jen. “Monday.”
“Yikes. So soon. Is she coming tonight?”
“That had been the plan and I hope she still does,” Charlotte said, her voice going quiet as they headed into the building. “He was kind of a dick back at their place when she told him. Made her cry. I know that’s the biggest reason he’s pissed right now. He’s mad at himself as much as he’s upset about her leaving.”
“Another thing you need to break him of,” Jen said. “You’re reminding me why I avoid relationships.”
Charlotte stopped on the third step up to the second floor and turned, her expression pensive. “It’s true. It’s work. But . . . it’s worth it. You know?”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Jen’s lips quirked. The fact that she liked Charlotte so much was really saying something because Jen didn’t usually have a lot of friends. Especially female friends. Acquaintances, party buddies, sure. But true secret-telling kinds of friends? She couldn’t even recall the last one. How many times had her mother reminded her that most women were spiteful and couldn’t be trusted? And yet, for some crazy reason, Jen could see herself trusting Charlotte.
The only thing making her hesitate was guilt. Once upon a time when she’d first started working at the Stag, she and Dean had hooked up. One time. They’d been drinking one night after a late and very stressful wedding and each saw the other as an available warm body. It had been stupid and meaningless, and while she didn’t necessarily do regrets, Jen had never had any desire to repeat it. She was certain that Dean felt the same way.
The incident had really been of no consequence, until now. She wanted this friendship with Charlotte to develop, but the closer they became, the more Jen felt the need to come clean. But then that would quickly end the relationship, wouldn’t it? It was a moral dilemma that Jen usually didn’t suffer from, but in this scenario, she would be perceived as the woman who couldn’t be trusted, and the thought made her feel like shit.
“One more thing before we go up,” Charlotte said, her brow furrowing. Her sudden change in demeanor had Jen’s arms feeling weak. Or maybe that was the heavy-as-hell camera bag she had in her
“I wanted to tell you before she showed up. TJ has a date coming. Some woman he’s been going out with for a few weeks.”
The stairs suddenly felt as if they’d turned to a metal slide under Jen’s feet, and her body went warm and tingly. Not the good kind. And not because of the heavy bag. No, this was the warm prickly feel of her body screaming Danger! Abort the situation.
She managed to play it cool. “Well, good for him. I didn’t know he was seeing anyone.”
So much for trust, but right now Jen couldn’t stomach the sympathetic look on Charlotte’s face. What the hell tipped her off to make her think Jen cared if TJ had a date or not?
And also, how had Jen not known TJ was seeing someone? Oh yeah, because she and TJ didn’t communicate well. The last person he would discuss his relationship status with was her. The person who always made fun of him for having no love life and for being a prude. Ironic.
“Charlotte, seriously, I don’t know why you’re concerned.” And this is why you don’t have friends.
The other woman shrugged. “Well, I wasn’t really, but Dean’s kind of convinced you guys like each other. Don’t tell him I told you that. I’m only sharing because, in case he was right, from one woman to another, I didn’t want you to be blindsided tonight.”
Jen sucked in a breath. Okay, that was nice. “I appreciate that, Charlotte. I really do. But no, it’s fine. I’m happy for him. And I can promise you, there is no way TJ likes me. I live to piss him off.”
“Are you sure? I mean, we’re totally friends, Jen. I won’t tell anyone if you do like him,” Charlotte whispered before turning and making her way up the rest of the stairs.
“And by ‘anyone’ I assume you mean anyone who isn’t Dean?” Jen said to Charlotte’s back. She hoped the other woman could discern the amusement in her voice.
Thankfully, Charlotte smiled over her shoulder. “Well . . . only if it came up.”
“Which it would.”
They stopped at the top of the stairs before entering the main room. There were other voices now. Probably the caterers, so they wouldn’t be heard.
“But seriously. If you need anything tonight, let me know. Okay?” Charlotte said before walking into the main room. Jen blew out a breath and followed. Damn. She hadn’t lied to Charlotte. Not completely. Dean was wrong if he thought TJ had any interest in her, and she’d never given him any reason to think she had feelings for him.
But if that was true, then why did the thought of seeing TJ with another woman suddenly make her sick to her stomach?
Copyright © 2018 by Nicole McLaughlin in Maybe This Time and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks.