When you fall for a guy who’s about to become your stepbrother—do you listen to your heart and risk everything? Or listen to your head…and take one step back?
In high school I had a hundred reasons to steer clear of my soon-to-be-stepbrother, Joe Beneventi. He was a hothead, and I was reserved. His life was football, mine was academics. He wanted to be out and proud, and I desperately needed to keep my orientation secret.
But when we fell in love, my heart took the wheel, and I took every risk to be with Joe. Then one horrible night our secrets shattered. Joe disappeared—wrecking our families and breaking my heart.
Eleven years later, I landed a challenging job at a premier PR firm. And the hotshot publicist who’s been assigned to my first big account? Yep. It’s Joe.
Fate truly hates me because now Joe and I have three days to hole up in a Chicago hotel room and nail down a deal that could make or break our careers. He keeps distracting me, but I’m too jaded to fall for sexy smiles, bedroom eyes, and his impossible-to-ignore body. Except…
I like being close to him again. A little too much. Working together 24/7 is showing me sides of Joe I’ve never seen before.
And when we touch, being together seems like the only step worth taking.
I take a deep breath. Gotta prepare myself for being up-close and personal with the force of nature that is Joseph Vincent Beneventi.
“Hey, Joe,” I say, my voice cracking. Not how I’d wanted to sound.
His sexy mouth curves, and I get hit with the full impact of his attention-sucking energy. It zaps across the entryway. Through the guesthouse and the five-acre yard. All of Chicagoland. The state of Illinois, the entire Midwest…
Yeah, you get the picture. Joe has it. Chemical hoodoo-voodoo oozes from his pores and makes you forget whatever it is you’re doing, whatever happened to be on your mind. And all you can do is stand there and stare at him. And listen to the ridiculous shit that comes out of his gorgeous mouth.
I’ve had to cope with this Joe-phenomenon for three years now, as long as his mom and my dad have been dating. Weekends and vacations together at first, and then mostly full time as of last year, after Kim and Bernie got engaged and bought this monstrosity of a property together.
Wedding-planning and “a home where we can be a family” was supposed to bring us stability. Wishful thinking, because things between my dad and Joe’s mom—between all of us, really—seem rockier than ever.
“Hey, you.” Joe leans against the door jamb, killer smile flashing.
He’s a big, glossy beast, and he lights up the night that I’ve tried to darken. I look away from his shining eyes, but his jacked chest and abs, his maybe-too-tight board shorts, his legs, his feet, aren’t any easier to ignore.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d be home tonight?” he asks. His deep voice has a slight throb, like he’s actually hurt. “You didn’t answer my message. Any of my messages. I get why you didn’t want to show for my amazingly fucking boring graduation, but… I was hoping to hear about your plans. For the summer.”
He reaches up to brush damp hair from his face, the movement popping every muscle from shoulder to wrist. Matty actually sighs from behind me. I try not to notice how the longer hair and the scruff on his chin make Joe look hotter than his usual smoking hellfire.
He spent his senior year at a therapeutic high school here in the Chicago area and the place didn’t demand buzz-cuts the way the military school did. The longer black waves do amazing things for his cheekbones, his squared-off chin, his sin-dark eyes.
I’m supposed to be saying something. So I open my mouth and a lame excuse comes out. “I wasn’t sure about flight times. Until the last minute. Storms in New York.”
He nods, head tilting as he scrutinizes my features. He wants to believe me even though it’s obvious I’m lying. The sky had been clear when I’d jetted away from LaGuardia, my freshman year of college complete.
I’d been avoiding all contact with Joe since Christmas break. I’d figured he’d understand why I didn’t respond to any of his messages today. Or at least take the hint. Hey, Joey, after I don’t answer your two-hundredth-and-seventieth voicemail, maybe that means I don’t want to communicate with you. But Joe is thick in more ways than one.
His dark eyes get warmer as they take me in, the dimple in his right cheek popping. His thumb traces the sand-dollar tattoo under his left nipple, a move I’m sure he’s making unconsciously. I do the same thing sometimes. I have a matching tattoo; we’d gotten them in Mexico during Christmas vacation two years ago. The ’rents had been very confused when both of us suddenly wore rash guards 24/7 for the rest of the break. Joe had come up with a BS-but-brilliant excuse about stingray sightings and the angle of the sun and the chemicals in sunscreen lotion killing off coral reefs.
And, okay. I’m not being fair. Joe isn’t thick. He’s probably smarter than me. He just doesn’t know how to rein in a lot of the bad shit that constantly roams his head. I’ve actually tried to help him figure out some stuff, given him some pointers about how to focus and prioritize—
There’s a crashing noise from the pool area. More shit breaking.
“Fuck,” he mutters, looking over his shoulder.
“You better get back there. Broken glass. Blood. Nastiness. It’s all gonna happen.”
He sighs—a shudder wracking his six-five frame. “Should’ve never invited anyone over.” His smile is crooked. “Your fault. I wouldn’t have had to get up to shenanigans with Bran and Troy if I’d known you’d be here tonight.”
And, there it is.
The reason why he always, always manages to piss me off. I’m not responsible for him. Not responsible for his feelings, for his actions. I refuse to be.
“Not my fault,” I say, my voice cracking again, damn it. I take a step backward, my hand pulling the door closed.
“Asher, come on. You know I didn’t mean it like that—”
I shut the door in his face. Then I pull the blinds closed, blocking out his beauty, blocking out his hurt expression. Maturity can go fuck itself, because literally closing off Joe from my senses will be the only way I can survive the summer.
“Wow,” Matty says.
“Yeah,” I agree.
It’s probably a few hours later when something jolts me awake. It’s Joe looming over me. I must’ve passed out after Matty left. I’m sprawled on the big chaise in the guesthouse’s living room, Joe standing so close his knees are touching the cushion’s edge.
There’s only one light on, a yellow glow coming from the glass-fronted cabinet that displays Joe’s shell collection. It creates weird, streaky shadows across his super-defined chest and abs.
His shorts are dry now, not as tight on his thighs or his package, but I can see he’s erect, a righteous bulge that’s impossible to miss. And, when I look up into his face, my gaze snags on his parted lips, his heavy-lidded eyes .
The house is quiet. No more party outside. When Joe inhales suddenly, I can feel the sharpness of his breath in my own lungs.
I sit, swinging my legs to the side of the chaise, planting my feet on either side of his. He takes my face in his hands. His fingers are warm, familiar, his touch so tender it makes me want to cry.
And, God, when our gazes connect, and I immediately fall into that dark brown and gold I dream about, tears clog my throat, for real.
“Ash,” he whispers, his voice so hoarse I can barely hear it. The pad of his thumb passes over my lower lip. I lick away the taste of him and he sighs. “Damn, I missed you.”
I nod. I can’t speak. It hurts.