Forever With YouJ. Lynn
For the readers.
None of this would be possible without you.
I can’t start off these acknowledgements without thanking my agent, Kevan Lyon, who has always tirelessly worked on my behalf. A huge thank you to Tessa Woodward, my awesomely awesome editor, who helped whip Forever with You into shape. Thank you so much to my publicity team, especially Caroline Perry, and not because of your awesome purple streaks and glasses. Thank you to my other publicist with the most-est K.P. Simmons for helping do everything to get the word out about the book.
I would go crazy if it weren’t for these following people: Laura Kaye, Chelsea M. Cameron, Jay Crownover, Sophie Jordan, Sarah Maas, Cora Carmack, Tiffany King, and too many more amazing authors who are an inspiration to list. Vilma Gonzalez, you’re an amazing, special person, and I love you. Valerie Fink, you’ve always been with me from the beginning, along with Vi Nguyen (Look, I spelled your name right), and Jessica Baker, among many, many other awesome bloggers who often support all books without the recognition deserved. THANK YOU. Jen Fisher, I heart you and not just for your cupcakes. Stacey Morgan—you’re more than an assistant, you’re like a sister. I’m probably forgetting people, but I’m currently stuck at a hotel and my brain is fried.
A special thank you to all the readers and reviewers. None of this would be possible without you and there isn’t a thank you big enough in the world.
About the Author
By Jennifer L. Armentrout
About the Publisher
The overpacked moving box teetered precariously in my arms as I stepped sideways, using my hip to close the back door of my car. I held my breath, completely immobile in the parking lot, next to a massive motorcycle, the box rattling dangerously.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five . . .
The box finally stopped moving and shaking when I reached six, and I let go of my breath. What was in the box was way too precious to drop. Something I probably should’ve thought of before I packed a billion things in it.
Too late now.
Sighing, I peered above the cardboard edge so I could see the sidewalk and the entrance to my apartment, then I started forward, determined to not drop the box or break my neck in the process. Thank God and all His—or Her—trumpet blaring angels that my place was ground level.
I really hoped I wouldn’t have to move again for a while. Even though I didn’t have that much stuff I had to pack up, this was still a huge pain in the butt. Thankfully the big stuff—the bed, couch, and other furniture—had been shipped and delivered. I just had no idea I could collect so much crap while living in a dorm.
I’d made it to the sidewalk, near the wide stairway that led up to the upper floors, when the burning in my arm muscles grew in its intensity. The box started to shake again, and I swore under my breath, a blistering curse that would’ve made my father and his father so very proud of me.
Only a few more steps, I kept telling myself, just a few more steps and I— The box slipped out of my grasp. My knees bent as I tried to regain my grip but it was too late. The box full of totally breakable stuff started to fall.
“Son of a bitch-ass, rat bastard, mother fu—”
The box halted suddenly, a foot from the cement, startling me so strongly that my string of curses was cut off. The weight of the heavy box was completely gone, and my obviously weak arm muscles wept with relief. At first I wondered if I’d developed some kind of superpower, but then I saw two very large hands that weren’t mine on either side of the box.
“I admire anyone who can successfully use the words ‘rat bastard’ in a sentence.”
My eyes widened at the sound of the incredibly rich voice. I rarely blushed. Ever. In fact, it was usually me making others blush. But I did then. My face heated like I’d pressed my cheek against the sun. For a moment I got hung up on staring at his hands. The fingers were long and elegant, the nails filed down to blunt ends, giving away to skin a few shades deeper than mine.
Then the box moved up, and as I straightened, I let my gaze wander above the box, over broad shoulders and then to the very source of that voice.
Holy hot guy . . .
Standing before me was the living embodiment of tall, dark, and handsome. I’d seen a lot of sexy, but this guy was simply off the charts. Maybe it had to do with his unique coloring. His dark brown hair, trimmed close to the sides and slightly longer on top, framed high cheekbones and a cut, angular jaw. His skin tone had a deep, olive tint, hinting toward some form of ethnicity. Possibly Hispanic? I wasn’t sure. My great-grandfather had been Cuban, and there were some lingering traits of his that had been passed on to me.
Striking eyes peered out from behind a fringe of thick lashes, and those eyes were truly something else. They were light green around the pupils and almost appeared blue along the rims. I knew that had to be some kind of optical illusion, but they were stunning.
This guy was impressive.
“Especially when those words are coming from a pretty girl,” he added, his lips curling up at one corner.
I snapped out of it before I needed a bib to catch my drool. “Thank you. There was no way I was going to save that box.”
“No problem.” His eyes roamed over my face and then dipped, lingering in some areas more than others. Since I’d been knee deep in unpacking boxes and running around, all I was wearing was gym shorts and a fitted T-shirt despite the chilly weather. And the gym shorts could barely be considered shorts. “You’re welcome to finish that ‘Son of a bitch-ass’ sentence. I’m curious about what other combination you were going to come up with.”
My lips twitched into a smile. “I’m sure it would’ve been epic, but that moment is now long gone.”
“That’s a damn shame.” He stepped to the side, still holding the box. We were side by side, and although I’m a pretty tall girl, he was still a good head taller than me. “Tell me where this goes.”
“That’s okay. I got it from here.” I reached for the box.
He arched a dark brow. “I don’t mind. Unless you plan on cussing again, then I might be swayed.”
I laughed as I lowered my lashes, checking him out. He had a leather jacket on, but I was willing to bet my savings account that there were some nicely defined muscles lurking under the coat. “Okay then. My apartment is right over there.”
“Lead the way, madam.”
Grinning at him, I brushed the long ponytail over my shoulder as I headed to our left. “I almost made it without dropping the box,” I told him as I opened the door. “So close.”
“Yet so far away,” he finished, winking when I shot him a look.
I held the door for him. “So true.”
He followed me in and stopped. Things inside my apartment were kind of a mess. What I had managed to unpack was scattered across the couch and on the hardwood floors. “Anyplace you want this in particular?”
“Right here is fine.” I pointed to the only empty space near the couch.
Walking over, he carefully placed the box on the floor, and like a total horn dog, I couldn’t help a perusal of the assets when he bent over. Nice. As he straightened and faced me, I smiled and clasped my hands together.
“You just moved in?” he asked, glancing around. Boxes were stacked near the galley kitchen and on the small dining table.
I laughed as the lopsided grin reappeared. “I moved in yesterday.”
“Looks like you have quite a bit to go before you’re finished.” Stepping toward me, he dipped his chin as he held out his hand. “By the way, I’m Nick.”
I took his hand. His grasp was warm and firm. “I’m Stephanie, but almost everyone calls me Steph.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” His hand still held mine as his lashes lowered, his gaze dipping again. “It’s very nice to meet you, Stephanie.”
Warmth curled its way into my belly at the sound of how he spoke my name. “Mutual,” I murmured, lifting my gaze to his. “After all, if you hadn’t happened along, I’d probably still be out there cussing.”
Nick chuckled, and I liked the sound of it. A lot. “Probably not the greatest way to meet new people.”
“Seemed to work just fine with you.”
The half grin spread slowly, becoming a full smile, and if I had thought he was handsome before, it was nothing compared to what I thought now. Wow. This guy was as gorgeous as he was helpful. “I’ll let you in on a little secret,” he said, squeezing my hand before slipping his hand free. “It wouldn’t take much for you to make it work for me.”
Oh, my little ears perked right on up. What a flirt. “That’s very . . . good to know.” I stepped closer, tilting my head back. A faint cologne clung to him, a crisp scent. “So, Nick, do you live in this condo?”
He shook his head and a strand of dark hair toppled across his forehead. “I have a place on the other end of town. I’m just here, waiting to help pretty ladies carry boxes into their apartments.”
“Well, that’s a real shame.”
His eyes flared, deepening the light green irises. A moment passed as his gaze held mine, and then his lips parted. “That it is.” Lifting his hand again, surprise shuttled through me as he touched my cheek, dragging his thumb to the corner of my mouth. “You had some dust there. All gone.”
My pulse kicked up, and as I stared at him, for the first time in my life I was absolutely dumbstruck. I was bold. Hell. My pappy said I was as bold as brass balls. Not the greatest imagery there, but it was true. When I wanted something, I worked for it. That mentality had been ingrained in me since childhood. Grades. Dance squad in high school. Boys. A degree. The career. But even in all my boldness, this man rocked me a little, and right off my game.
“I’ve got to get going,” Nick said, lowering his hand. The smile on his face, that crooked half smile, said he clearly knew the effect he had. He headed for the door and glanced over his shoulder. “By the way, I bartend at this place not too far from here. It’s called Mona’s. If you get bored . . . or want to rethink your ability to string curse words together on demand, you should come visit me.”
I knew how to read guys. It was definitely a honed skill, and he was extending an invitation. Just like that, he put it out there, and I liked that. My own smile was slight and most definitely mirrored his. “I’ll keep that in mind, Nick.”
A fine layer of dust coated my arms as I stepped back from where I’d piled the last of the broken-down boxes, lifting my hands to my face just in time. The sneeze powered out of me with enough force that my ponytail flipped over my head and nearly smacked me in the face.
Bent over at the waist, I waited a few seconds. Another sneeze was building, and I wasn’t wrong. I sneezed again, surprised that I hadn’t knocked over the stacked boxes with that one.
Straightening, I flipped the ponytail over my shoulder and took a moment to let it all sink in, past the dust and the skin, even all the way to the bone. I’d finally done it.
Not to some apartment in the same town I grew up in or went to college in, but to a clear, different state, and for the first time in twenty-three years I wasn’t within a twenty-minute drive of my mama. Even at college, I’d lived in a dorm that was no farther than a quick trip to her house. It had been hard—harder than I realized it would be. Since I was fifteen, it had been just my mom and me. Leaving her, even though that was what she wanted, had been difficult. There were tears, and that had been a big deal for me. I rarely cried. I just wasn’t that . . . emotional of a person.
Unless one of those damn ASPCA commercials came on the TV, especially the one that featured that “Arms of an Angel” song. Ugh. Then there were tiny ninja onion peelers lurking under my eyes.
After two whole days of unpacking, I was done, and when I looked around me, I felt damn good about what I’d accomplished.
The one-bedroom condo was pretty sweet even though I’d really wanted a two-bedroom. I needed to be sensible for once in my life, though, and by sticking to a one-bedroom, I was saving bank. It had a great galley kitchen, stainless-steel appliances, and gas stovetop—a gas stovetop I’d probably never use due to my irrational fear of blowing myself up.
But the living room and bedroom were spacious, and I was also pretty sure a cop lived here, because there was a cruiser in the parking lot on and off since I moved in two days ago.
And someone who lived here had a really hot friend named Nick.
Walking over to where I’d left a framed picture on the kitchen counter, I wiped my dusty hands off on my cotton shorts and then picked up the picture. I carefully undid the bubble wrap, revealing the photo that rested safely underneath. Pressing my lips together, I ran my thumb along the silver frame.
A middle-aged, handsome man in beige fatigues smiled back at me, the endless golden desert in the background. A message in a black Sharpie was scrawled next to him.
Not nearly as beautiful as you, Stephanie.
I bit down on the inside of my cheek and walked the picture into my bedroom. The gray bedspread and the white, aged furniture had been a gift from Mom and my grandparents. It gave the whole room a comfy, cottage feel.
Heading for the shelf I installed just above the TV that I’d centered on the dresser, I stretched up, giving the photo a new home next to another special photo. It was of the girls from college and me, at Cancun during our last spring break. A grin tugged at my lips.
The black bikini I’d worn barely covered my boobs. Or my butt, if I remembered correctly—actually, that was about all I recalled of that spring break. Well, that and those twins from Texas A&M. . . .
Everything was definitely bigger in Texas.
On either side of the photos were gray candles, and I thought it all looked good.
Like they belonged.
I stepped back and for a few moments I stared at the photos and then turned away with a heavy sigh. The clock on the nightstand told me that it was way too early in the evening to call it a night, and despite unloading everything, I wasn’t tired. My mind wandered to Nick and what he had said yesterday about the bar he worked at. When I drove out to get groceries last night, I had seen it.
Biting down on my lip, I shifted my weight from one foot to the next. Why not go out and have a drink? And a drink could lead somewhere quite fun. I was a hundred percent full supporter of no-strings-attached hookups. However, I never understood, and never would, the double standard that existed. It was okay fo
r the guys to take charge of their pleasure, but not women?
Not in my world.
If Nick happened to be there and he happened to be as flirty as he was yesterday, then tonight . . . well tonight could become very interesting.
I was so going to take Nick home with me tonight and do all kinds of bad things to him—naked and fun things that should burn my ears right off my head. Or at least cause embarrassment since I was visualizing said things in a public spot.
Not in the very least.
A case of instalust had hit me hard. I was attracted to this guy on a pure primal level, and I was woman enough to admit that.
Moss-colored eyes met mine once more. Thick lashes lowered, shielding those extraordinary light green peepers. God, I’ve always had a thing for guys with dark hair and light eyes. Such a startling contrast that did very unhealthy things to all my interesting pulse points. I’d never really seen someone with his eye color. They were definitely green, but whenever he stepped out from under the bright lights over the bar and into the shadows, the color seemed to shift to an aqua blue.
Those eyes gave him some great bonus points.
“I’m way too curious, so I’ve got to ask. What in the world brings you to Plymouth Meeting, Steph?”
At the sound of the familiar voice, I twisted around on the bar stool and looked up, finding myself staring into the baby blues that belonged to Cameron Hamilton. When I first walked into Mona’s, I was shocked to see a few people I’d gone to college with. I was still stunned over the fact that Cam and crew were here, several hours away from their normal stomping ground, which had been Shepherd University.