Stand Alone

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He’ll promise her a summer she won’t forget…

Instead of soaking up the SoCal sunshine while housesitting for my aunt, I’m dealing with a Pomeranian who thinks she’s a Pitbull, two half-sisters who would happily prune me off the family tree, and him. Vaughn Shaughnessy. Hot model about to go nuclear, dangerously sexy flirt whose perceptive green eyes promise he’s more than just a pretty face. He’s the kind of walking, talking temptation I should avoid, but that’s impossible because he also happens to be my extremely lickable—I mean likeable—neighbor.

He’s turning me into a hot mess.

Thing is, I can’t handle more messes in my life. I’m still trying to come to terms with the monumental ones in my past, and getting involved with Vaughn—even for temporary summer fun—is guaranteed to get messy. I don’t dare risk it, but I’m not sure I can resist…

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Chapter One

Kendall

I don’t usually make wishes on stars, but looking up into the late-night June sky, I close my eyes and think, I want to wake up every morning, full of energy and so excited for the day that I don’t need coffee. Sounds simple enough, but simple and easy are two very different things. I could pretend law school is what I want and spend the summer enjoying carefree days until my house-sitting gig is up and I head to the University of Chicago for another three years of education, but that would be like a giraffe impersonating a koala bear. Wrong.

Opening my eyes, I tug on Snowflake’s leash and continue down the front walkway of my aunt and uncle’s Hollywood Hills home for a quick stroll before bedtime. “It’s not like it will kill me to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” I say aloud. “But I want to love what I do, not settle. For a long time, I wanted to be an actress. Now, I don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life, but I’ve got the summer to figure it out.” I drag in a deep breath, the scent of jasmine and roses filling my nose. “God, I love the smells here. I’m not going to miss the car fumes and hot asphalt of New York. The hot dogs, though, those I’ll miss.”

I’m talking to a dog.

Don’t judge.

Snowflake is the cutest furball on the planet, but do not say it to her face, no matter how adorable she looks prancing across the grass on her short little legs, trying to act all badass. She’s a Pomeranian who thinks she’s a pit bull. In her tiny little mind she’s the alpha, and she will puff herself up and cute you to death with an angry dance and a frenzy of high-pitched barks to prove it. As far as I know, Aunt Sally is the only one who can love on her without unleashing the full force of her Pomeranian fury. The rest of us she merely tolerates. But tonight I choose to take her quiet disregard as a sign of respect. She’s deigning to be a good listener.

As soon as we hit the sidewalk she selects a nice patch of grass to do her business. “Good girl,” I say. She lifts her snout and looks at me like she already knows this. I laugh. It’s been a couple of years since my last visit, and she hasn’t changed a bit. The pet sitter did warn me she’s been feistier than normal but attributes it to missing my aunt and uncle and said I could call her if I had any problems.

I follow Snowflake’s lead up the street, the moon smiling down on us. Compared to my apartment in New York City, it’s downright tranquil here. Earlier, music blasted from the house next door, f-bombs dropping repeatedly in many of the songs. My aunt briefly mentioned her next door neighbor, “Vaughn.” She texted to say that if I needed anything, he could help, and included his phone number. From the music selection, I’m guessing he’s closer to my age than hers.

The noise level has since subsided, but lights shine brightly. Shadowy movement passes beyond the windows. There are definitely people inside. Music suddenly shatters the quiet, the latest Maroon 5 song blaring through the wide open front door. Inexplicably, Snowflake chooses that moment to bark like someone yelled “dog party!” and run toward the neighbor’s driveway. I tug on her leash because I’m not one to trespass, but she’s crazy for something and isn’t about to back off. Then I realize someone’s walking down the dark driveway. Someone tall, broad-shouldered, and ambling with a loose-limbed grace that suggests he thinks he has the driveway to himself. Whoever he is, Snowflake can’t wait to greet him.

I’m about to call out hello when an engine revs. Red taillights blaze from the top of the driveway, and a vehicle jerks like the driver forgot to release the brake. Oh crap.

The guy stops and turns in slow motion as an SUV rolls down the drive. I’m close enough now to hear his, “Oh fuck no,” as the car lurches.

He sprints to the center of the driveway and faces the car like he’s the Hulk and can stop two tons of metal momentum with his bare hands. What is he thinking?

“Stay,” I command Snowflake and run up the driveway. “Hey!” I shout.

The guy turns around and oh my God, the car suddenly picks up speed and heads straight for him. “Look out!”

He doesn’t listen, his eyes locked on mine instead. In a burst of super-human strength I didn’t know I had, I tackle him and fling us to the side of the concrete before he’s roadkill.

“What the—” he mumbles then oomphs as we hit the ground. Lucky for me, I’m sprawled on top of him, a slight sting in my shoulder from our initial landing.

Icy fear grips me as I look down the drive, praying Snowflake has stayed put. She has, but being the badass that she is, she’s barking for the driver to get out of the vehicle and keep all hands where she can see them. Thankfully, the SUV has stopped, its back end in the thick green bushes flanking the entrance to the driveway.

A tall blond woman in a short blue dress stumbles out of the car, laughing her head off like she didn’t almost crash into a human being. “Jesus, Vaughn, your ride is as fucked up as you are.” More laughter comes from a second woman climbing out of the passenger seat. Snowflake growls.

Beneath me a low voice mutters, “It is now.”

I turn back to my aunt’s neighbor. A small corner of my mind registers the sound of high heels clicking up the drive and Snowflake’s bossy bark telling those girls where to go and how to get there, but the rest of me is totally focused on the man beneath me. Slammed against his warm, hard body I feel small, his broad shoulders and chest cushioning my fall. My gaze slides to defined biceps straining against his short sleeves. His masculine scent is clean, with a hint of something spicy. Whatever it is, it puts sexy ideas in my head. I let out a deep breath, grateful he’s still in one piece. My heart stops trying to punch its way out of my chest.

Then I raise my eyes to his face, and holy crap. He’s beautiful. The face of a model beautiful. Wait. I think he is a model. Like of the gigantic Times Square billboard variety. His light brown hair is a little longer now, but there’s no mistaking that square jaw and those dark, olive green, come-closer-if-you-dare eyes.

A slow grin takes over his very nice mouth, making my cheeks warm.

He blinks like I’ve all of a sudden gone out of focus. “Thanks for saving my life, angel,” he slurs. “Are you okay?” The smell of alcohol hits my nose, and my stomach pitches.

I scramble off him. “No problem, and I’m fine.”

Maintaining eye contact, I put a hand out to help him up. Adrenaline continues to fizz through my system. I can’t believe what almost happened.

His warm palm connects with mine, and I brace to counterbalance his weight, but he gets to his feet under his own power, teetering just once before gaining his footing and standing upright.

“I hope she wasn’t your ride,” I deadpan.

Vaughn cracks up like that’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard. His laugh is contagious, and I’m laughing with him in seconds. It’s that or digest the seriousness of what just happened. Snowflake’s bark breaks our hysterics. She runs to me.

Make that him.

I watch as he scoops her up and she licks his face like he’s wearing bacon-flavored cologne. “How’s my girl? How’s my pretty girl?” he murmurs. “Did you chase Becca back inside the house?” Snow can’t get enough of him. Little dog legs run in the air as he lowers her to the ground. When he straightens, his eyes wander down my body and on the return get stuck at my chest. I glance at my thin white Winnie the Pooh tank and red shorts and cross my arms to block his notice. I didn’t think I’d run into anybody, so I didn’t bother to put on a robe. “Nice outfit,” he says, his gaze finding mine again.

That’s my cue to hurry home. I’ve been around my share of hot, complimentary guys. NYU was full of them. But this handsome stranger makes me more nervous than all of them put together. I grab Snowflake’s leash. “Thanks. See ya.”

Without a word, he walks with me, his feet bare, his steps not exactly steady.

“What are you doing?” I ask. “Shouldn’t you go make up with your girlfriend?”

“She’s not my”—he hiccups—“girlfriend. But that is my car she left blocking the driveway. I’ve got to move it or my roommates will have my balls and hang them as a rearview mirror ornament when they can’t pull up to the garage.”

There’s an image I could do without. I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. He winces as if confused by what he just said. When we reach the car, he fumbles with the door handle before feeling his way into the driver’s seat like he’s not sure it will hold his weight. I have no idea how much partying he’s done tonight, but it’s obviously enough that I can’t, in good conscience, let him stay behind the wheel, even if it’s only to travel up the driveway. Call me overly cautious, but that’s how it is. I’ve gotten behind the wheel when I shouldn’t have, and I’m still not over it.

The driver’s side door hangs open, so I reach in and pluck out the keys before he can turn the ignition on.

“Hey. What are you doing?”

“I don’t think you should be driving. I’ll give these back to you tomorrow.” I could move his car for him, but I don’t want to chance leaving him his keys after I do so. To avoid any argument, I hurry away.

He stumbles over the smooth sidewalk, trying to keep up with my quick strides. I look up and notice his face is pale. Shit. I hope he’s not going to be sick. I slow my pace as music blares from his house again.

“Can you slow down, speed racer?”

His uncommon label gets me to stop in my tracks, happy memories pushing aside my haste. “I love that movie,” I say, risking coming off as a dork. I was the only one of my friends wowed by the live action film, but whatever.

He smiles. “Me, too. My friends called me Mach 5 when I was younger.”

“Because you drove fast?” I am really glad I took away his keys.

“Ran fast.”

“From girls?” Snowflake tugs on her leash, signaling I need to stop conversing and get us tucked into bed.

“Why would I do that?” he asks in a flirty tone.

Right. Silly me. “I’ll return your keys tomorrow,” I repeat, closing the distance to home. I contemplate throwing the keys in the rose bushes around the perimeter of my aunt’s front yard so he’ll leave me alone, but I can’t do it. I’d hate to see any thorns leave even the tiniest scratch on him.

He follows me up the walkway, his uneven gait about as far from a runway model’s as you can get, but he still manages to tap my shoulder. “Why?” he says.

I stop a few feet from the front door. “Why what?”

He looks down at me with verdant eyes full of uncertainty. He’s not sure what to make of me. I’m not sure what to make of him, either. Then he closes the short distance between us.

He’s not so stable, and his chest brushes mine. “Why do you care?” he asks softly.

I’m afraid if I step back he’ll lose his balance and fall, so I hold my ground. It’s not easy. I’m nervous. Not that he’ll hurt me. That he’ll kiss me. Which is crazy with a side of never-going-to-happen. My imagination hasn’t run this wild in a long time.

“I don’t care about you,” I lie. I’ve known him all of five minutes but don’t want to see anything bad happen to him. “I mean, I don’t care care.” What am I spewing? This is what happens when exhaustion hits. Long travel day equals verbal nonsense. “I care about people in general, and it seems like you’ve had a rough night.”

His long dark eyelashes sweep down and stay there, and for a second, I wonder if he’s fallen asleep on his feet. I clear my throat.

“People don’t usually give a shit about anyone but themselves in this town.” He’s studying me now, like I’m something rare. I both like and hate it. I don’t deserve the pedestal I think he’s just put me on.

I put my hands on his upper arms to steady him and take a step back. “I’m not from around here.” The space between our bodies is cold, but relief fills me all the same. “Go home, Vaughn. Get some sleep.” I give him a small smile before turning around. “Good night.” I open the front door. Snow sits patiently while I take off her leash and then she bounds inside.

“Wait. I know this is asking a lot, but…would it be okay if I hang here for a while? Someone’s spoiling for a fight and I really don’t want to deal with it tonight.”

Snow puts on the breaks, the pitter-patter of her paws

on the hardwood coming to a quick halt. She spins around and I swear she nods her approval along with a wag of her tail.

Okay then. Looks like we’ve got a guest. I’ve no idea what Vaughn’s story is, but right now it seems like he needs a safe place to rest and, given he’s friendly with my aunt (not to mention Snowflake), I’m willing to provide it.

Until a Nine Inch Nails song practically shakes the foundation. I am never going to get to sleep tonight. Before I can say, “Do you think someone could turn the music down?” he lifts his finger in the universal show of hang on a minute and pulls his cell from the pocket of his light blue jeans. I’m impressed when his fingers type a text with ease. Seconds later, the music stops.

The grin he gives me could win an Academy Award. “Done.”

Okay, guess we’re on the same wavelength. I spin around and wave for him to follow. The light is on in the kitchen and, as I round the corner of the breakfast bar, I discreetly drop his keys into a drawer, closing it quickly so he doesn’t notice.

“So you’re one of the nieces,” he says.

“I am.” I reach into a cupboard and pull out the aspirin. “Sally told me you’d be here this summer.” He sits at

the breakfast bar. His arms cross atop the counter and his body sags. He looks tired, and I can’t explain why, but I get the feeling it’s not just from lack of sleep. But from the day-to-day stuff we all have to deal with. It’s in his eyes. They remind me of my own when I look in the mirror after a difficult day.

I fill a glass with water from the sink and hand it to him along with the two small white hangover helpers.

His eyes lock on mine. For five heartbeats—yes, I count—he just stares. Finally he looks down at the aspirin in his palm, looks back up at me. I’m curious what he’s thinking. I’m suddenly curious about everything that has to do with him.

“Take two and call me in the morning,” I tease when the silence makes my pulse pick up. I lean against the counter across from him, grateful for the support.

“Thanks, angel.” He swallows the pills with the water and puts the glass down. I’m about to remind him of my name—I’m sure my aunt mentioned it—when he scrubs a hand over his jaw and adds, “Or should I call you Trixie?”

I bite my lip to keep from grinning. I wanted to be Trixie so badly. Speed Racer’s girlfriend, played by the awesome Christina Ricci, was the coolest.

“How about Kendall?”

“I’ve never met a Kendall I didn’t like.”

“How many have you met?”

“Counting you?”

Good to know his sense of humor is still intact. “Of course.”

“One.”

I smile, expecting he’d say that. “You’re my first Vaughn.”

“I’m honored to take your Vaughn virginity.”I laugh. “You should be. Clearly I’ve been saving it.” Instead of a quick comeback, he closes his eyes and dips his head for a long moment. “Okay, either Sally and Jack installed a carousel in their kitchen, or I’m more wasted than I thought.”

“I’m going to have to go with more wasted than you thought. You should probably lie down. Lucky for you, I just happen to have a vacancy on the living room couch.”

“Thanks. Sorry for…” He makes an all-encompassing gesture with his hand.

I give him an It happens shrug and walk out of the kitchen. He follows me to the family room even though I’m pretty sure he could’ve led the way. He’s got a familiarity with the house I’m guessing stems from my aunt having him over for breakfast or dinner or something. She and my uncle don’t have any kids, and she’s always taking in strays.

Not that Vaughn is lost. But there’s something about him I can’t quite put my finger on. I grab a blanket out of the antique wooden chest behind the love seat while Vaughn sits on the couch and puts his feet up on the coffee table. For the second time, I notice he’s barefoot. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. Drunk and shoeless seems so…so desperate to escape his own party. His own life, maybe?

All of a sudden, my own tangled mess of regret and guilt pulses louder than the beat of my heart. I hate when my past takes over my present, so I bite down hard on my bottom lip to remind myself where I am and that I want this summer to be about new beginnings. It’s time I move on from my mistakes.

Vaughn’s green eyes are intense and right on mine when my head clears. I quickly walk over to the love seat and grab the throw tossed over it.

“Sit with me a minute?” he asks, moving his feet to the floor and sitting taller as I approach.

I hand him the plush chenille throw while deciding how to answer. He takes it, grazing my arm with his fingertips in the process. The slight, probably inadvertent contact makes me crave more. Nope. There’s no way I can sit with him. If I do, I don’t know what will happen, and I’ve lived the past four years knowing exactly what will happen. Since the accident, staying in control has been my lifeline.

“I’m beyond tired.” Total truth right there. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay? And if someone is still spoiling for a fight then, you’ve still got me on your side.” I turn away, ready to collapse into bed.

“Promise?” he says softly.

I twist around to hit the light switch and say, “Promise.”

“G’night,” he mumbles.

“Goodnight.” I can just make out the outline of his body in the darkened room before I rush upstairs and dive under my covers. The sheets are cool, comfortable. Safe.

For now.

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Lyric Whetsone only had eyes for Quinn Sobel’s brother Oliver, until a car crash took Oliver’s life on New Year’s Eve. Then, a moment of shared grief between Quinn and Lyric became something more impassioned, something that frightened Quinn so much he ran from Lyric’s bed and her life, disappearing for four long years.

Now Quinn’s back for another New Year’s Eve, struggling for closure, desperate to leave his grief in the past and make amends with the girl of his dreams.

But Lyric has a secret–one that could drive Quinn from her life forever. Will Quinn run away from the love and acceptance he’s always wanted…or will he claim his New Year’s kiss and make her his at midnight?

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