Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Almost Just Friends

Jill Shalvis



  Title Page

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29


  P.S. Insights, Interviews & More . . .*

  About the Author

  About the Book

  Read On

  Praise for Jill Shalvis

  Also by Jill Shalvis


  About the Publisher

  Chapter 1

  “Chin up, Princess, or the crown slips.”

  Piper Manning closed her eyes and plugged her ears against the horror. She’d known this would happen even as she’d begged against it, but sometimes there was no stopping fate. She shook her head. You’ve survived worse. Just push through it. Pretend you’re on a warm beach, and there’s a hot surfer coming out of the water. Wait, scratch that. A hot Australian surfer coming out of the water, heading for you with a sexy smile and that accent—

  Someone tugged her fingers from her ears. Her best friend and EMT partner, Jenna. “The torture’s over,” she said. “You can look now.”

  Piper opened her eyes. No warm beach, no sexy surfer. Nope, she was still at the Whiskey River Bar and Grill, surrounded by her coworkers and so-called friends and way too many birthday streamers and balloons, all mocking her because someone had thought it’d be funny to do up her thirtieth in gloom-and-doom funeral black.

  “You do realize that turning thirty isn’t exactly the end of the world,” Jenna said.

  Maybe not, but there was a reason Piper hadn’t wanted to celebrate. She’d just hit a milestone birthday without being at any sort of milestone. Or anywhere even close to a milestone. Certainly nowhere near where she’d thought she’d be at this age.

  “Hey, let’s sing it again now that she’s listening,” someone called out. Ryland, no doubt. The hotshot firefighter was always the group’s instigator.

  And so everyone began singing again, laughing when Piper glared at them and tried hard not to crawl under the table. She’d rather have a root canal without meds than be the center of attention, and these asshats knew it. “It’s like you all want to die,” she muttered, but someone put a drink in her hand, and since she was off duty now for two days, she took a long gulp.

  “I was very clear,” she said when the alcohol burn cleared her throat, eyeing the whole group, most of whom were also first responders and worked with her at the station or hospital in one form or another. “We weren’t going to mention my birthday, much less sing to me about it. Twice.”

  Not a single one of them looked guilty. “To Piper,” Ryland said, and everyone raised a glass. “For gathering and keeping all us misfits together and sane.”

  “To Piper,” everyone cheered, then, thankfully, conversations started up all around her so that she was finally no longer the center of attention. Everyone was well versed in her ways, which meant they got that while she was touched that they cared, she didn’t want any more attention. Easily accepting that, they were happy to enjoy the night and leave her alone.

  “So, did that hurt?” Jenna asked, amused.


  “Being loved?”

  In tune to the sounds of the bar around them—someone singing off-key to “Sweet Home Alabama,” rambunctious laughter from a nearby table, the clink of pool balls—Piper rolled her eyes.

  “You know one day those eyeballs are going to fall right out of your head, right?”

  Ignoring this, Piper went back to what she’d been doing before being so rudely interrupted by all the love. Making a list. She was big on bullet journaling. She’d had to be. Making notes and lists had saved her life more than once. And yes, she knew she could do it all on a notes app on her phone instead, but her brain wasn’t wired that way. Nope, she had to do everything the hard way and write that shit down by hand like in the Dark Ages. She flipped through some of her pages: Calendars, Grocery Lists, Future Baby Names (even though she didn’t plan on having babies), Passwords (okay, password, singular, since she always used the same one—CookiesAreLife123!).

  And then there were some random entries:

  Life Rules

  Occasionally maybe make an effort to look nice.

  Don’t cut your own bangs no matter how sad you are.

  Never ever, EVER, under any circumstances fall in love.

  She also had a bucket list of wishes. Oh, and a secret secret bucket list of wishes . . .

  Yeah, she clearly needed help. Or a little pill.

  “New journal?” Jenna asked.

  “Maybe.” Piper’s vices were simple. Basically, she was an office supply ho—a never-ending source of amusement to Jenna, because Piper was also a bit of a hot mess when it came to organization and neatness. Her purse, her car, her office, and also her kitchen always looked like a disaster had just hit. But her journals . . . those were pristine.

  “How many journals have you started and either lost or misplaced since I’ve known you—a million?”

  Piper didn’t answer this on the grounds that she might incriminate herself.

  Jenna pulled out the pack of stickers that were tucked into the journal. They were cute little thought bubbles with reminders like DOC APPOINTMENT, EMPTY DISHWASHER, and CAFFEINATE.

  “I feel like stickers are cheating,” Jenna said.

  “Bite your tongue, woman. Stickers are everything.” So were pens. And cute paper clips. And sticky notes . . .

  “Come on. There’re far more important things than stickers.”

  “Like?” Piper asked.

  “Like food.”

  “Okay, you’ve got me there.”

  “And sex,” Jenna said. “And that should go above food, actually.”

  “I’m going to take your word on that since it’s been a while.”

  “Well, whose fault is that?” Jenna leaned in, trying to get a peek. “What’s today’s entry?”

  “A list for figuring out what’s next on fixing up the property.” Piper and her siblings had inherited from their grandparents a house and some cottages on Rainbow Lake. “It still needs a lot of work. I’m in way over my head.”

  “I know.” Jenna’s smile faded. “I hate that you’re going to sell and move away from Wildstone.”

  Wildstone, California, was Piper’s hometown. Sort of. She’d moved here at age thirteen with her two younger siblings, Gavin and Winnie, to be raised by their grandparents. But in the end, Piper had done all the raising. It’d taken forever, but now, finally, her brother and sister were off living their own lives.

  And hers could finally start.

  All she had to do was finish fixing up the property; then she could sell and divide the money into thirds with her siblings. With her portion, she’d finally have the money and freedom to go to school and become a physician assistant like she’d always wanted.

  So close. She was so close that she could almost taste it. “I plan to come back to Wildstone after school.”

  Because where else would she go? Her only other home had been following her parents all over the worl
d, providing healthcare wherever they’d been needed the most. But her mom and dad were gone now. Her family was Gavin and Winnie, and everyone in this room.

  “But why the University of Colorado?” Jenna asked. “Why go so far? You could go thirty minutes up the road to San Luis Obispo to Cal Poly.”

  Piper shook her head. She’d been stuck here for seventeen years. She needed to go away for a while and figure some things out—like who she was if she wasn’t raising her siblings. But that felt hard to explain, so she gave even her BFF the ready-made excuse. “U of C is one of the really strong schools for my program. And I think I’ll like Colorado.”

  Jenna looked unconvinced, but she was a good enough friend to let it go.

  “Don’t worry,” Piper said. “I’ll be back.”

  “You’d better.” Jenna took another look at Piper’s list. “I can’t even make a shopping list.”

  “That’s because you don’t go food shopping. You order in.”

  Jenna smiled. “Oh, right.”

  Outside the bar, they could hear a storm brewing. The news had been talking about it all week. Wild winds pushed against the building, making the lights flicker and the walls creak, but nobody even blinked. Wildstone people were a hearty bunch.

  “Paint samples!” Piper remembered suddenly, and wrote that down.

  “You know you’re a bit of a control freak, right?”

  When you ran your world, everyone in that world tended to depend on you to do it right. That’s how it’d always been for her. She’d been in charge whether she liked it or not. Piper chewed on the end of her pen. “I’m forgetting something, I know it.”

  “Yeah,” Jenna said. “To get a life.”

  “What do you think I’m trying to do here?”

  Now it was Jenna’s turn to roll her eyes. “Everyone else is talking about the new hot guy in town, and you’re over here in the corner writing in your journal.”

  “Hot guys come and go.”

  Jenna laughed. “Yeah? How long has it been since you’ve had a hot guy in your life, or any guy at all?”

  Piper looked across the bar to where Ryland was currently chatting it up with not one but two women. Her ex was apparently making up for lost time.

  “And whose fault is that?” Jenna asked, reading her mind. “You dumped him last year for no reason, remember?”

  Actually, she’d had a really good reason, but it wasn’t one she wanted to share, so she shrugged.

  “What you need is a distraction. Of the sexy kind,” Jenna said. “You carry that journal around like it’s the love of your life.”

  “At the moment, it is.”

  “You could do a whole lot better.” Swiveling her barstool, Jenna eyed the crowd.

  “Don’t even think about it,” Piper said.

  “About what?”

  “You know what. Fixing me up.”

  “And would that be so bad?” Jenna set a hand on Piper’s writing arm. “You’re the one always fixing everyone’s life, everyone’s but your own, of course. But even the Fixer needs help sometimes.”

  It was true that she’d gone a whole bunch of years now being the one to keep it all together. For everyone. Asking for help wasn’t a part of her DNA. But Jenna did have a point. Today was her birthday, a milestone birthday at that, so she should do at least one frivolous thing, right? She turned the page of her journal and glanced at her secret bucket list.

  Take a cruise to Alaska.

  Get some “me” time every day.

  Learn to knit.

  Buy shoes that aren’t nursing shoes.

  “Okay, no,” Jenna said. “You’re not sitting at your birthday party eyeing a list about buying nursing shoes.”

  “About not buying nursing shoes,” Piper corrected. “And this isn’t my party.”

  “It’s your party. And if you’d told Gavin and Winnie about it, they’d be here helping you celebrate too.”

  Just what she needed, to give her twenty-seven-going-on-seventeen-year-old brother and her not-quite-legal-to-drink sister a reason to party. “I told them not to come. Gavin’s busy at his job in Phoenix, and Winnie’s working hard on her grades at UCSB.”

  “They’re lucky to have you, I hope they know that,” Jenna said genuinely. “Look, you work so hard keeping all of you going. But today, at the very least, you should have some fun.”

  “I hear you. But keep that in mind.” She pointed to the sign hanging above the bar:



  Jenna laughed but wasn’t deterred from taking in the closest table to the bar, where three guys sat drinking and talking.

  “Don’t you dare.”

  “Who here is single?” Jenna asked the table.

  Two of the guys pointed to the third.

  “You?” Jenna asked him, clearly wanting confirmation.

  He took a beat to check Jenna out. She was channeling Beach Barbie tonight, with her wild blond hair rioting around her pretty face, her athletic build emphasized by tightly fitted fancy yoga gear.

  “Yeah,” the guy said. “I’m most definitely single.”

  “Good. Because it’s my friend’s birthday.” She turned to gesture at Piper, who froze in the act of trying to sneak off.

  “Why is she hiding in the corner writing in a book?” Single Guy wanted to know.

  Jenna looked at Piper. “Well, we’re not all perfect. But she’s got a lot going for her. She’s friendly . . . ish. And she’s got all her shots, and is potty-trained to boot. I mean, yeah, okay, sometimes she hides out in bars writing in her diary. But hey, who doesn’t, am I right?”

  Looking alarmed, Single Guy turned back to his friends.

  “Gee,” Piper said dryly. “And you made me sound like such a catch too.”

  Jenna shrugged. “Maybe he’s not a diary fan.”

  “Yeah. That’s definitely it. And it’s a journal.”

  “Don’t you worry,” Jenna said. “I’m not done.”

  “Please be done.”

  But Jenna was now eyeballing the man who’d just taken a barstool a few seats down. Ohmygod, she mouthed. That’s him. That’s New Hot Guy!

  He was in military green cargoes and a black Henley that hugged his long, leanly muscled body. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark scruff, all of which went with his quietly dark expression that said not feeling social.

  Jenna started to stand up for round two of Let’s Embarrass Piper.

  “Don’t you dare!”

  “Hey,” Jenna said to the man, who nodded in return. “So . . . you’re a guy.”

  “Last time I checked,” he said.

  Jenna jerked a thumb toward Piper. “It’s my best friend’s birthday.”

  Hot Guy’s gaze locked on Piper, who was wishing for an invisibility cloak.

  “She’s made herself a list,” Jenna said, and helpfully turned the journal his way.

  Honest to God, Piper had no idea why she loved this woman.

  Hot Guy read the list, rubbed the sexy scruff on his jaw, and then spoke to Piper. “Is this for you or your grandma?”

  Jenna snorted. “That’s actually her nickname. Grandma.”

  “Some wingman you are.” Piper snatched up the journal and closed it.

  “What does the ‘me time’ entail?” Hot Guy asked.

  “Pretty sure it involves batteries,” Jenna said.

  “Okay.” Piper pointed at her. “You know what? You’re cut off.”

  “Notice that she didn’t answer the question,” Jenna muttered.

  “It doesn’t involve batteries!” Jeez. No way was she going to admit what it involved was a nap.

  Jenna took the journal, flipped to the right page, and added something to her list:

  Get laid.

  Then she drew an arrow pointing at Hot Guy.

  The guy nodded in approval. “Now you’ve got a list.”

  “Keep dreaming, buddy.” Piper sho
ok her head at Jenna. “And you. Are you kidding me? You wrote that in ink.” Which meant it couldn’t be erased. And Piper couldn’t rip it out either. You couldn’t just rip out a page from a bullet journal; it went against how she’d been coded. She supposed she should just be grateful Jenna hadn’t turned to the next page and revealed her secret secret bucket list.

  Jenna turned to Hot Guy. “Listen, don’t let her bad attitude scare you. She’s all bark and no bite.”

  He shrugged. “I like bite.” And his and Piper’s eyes locked. His were an intense, assessing hazel, a swirling, mesmerizing mix of green, brown, and gold. He was good-looking, but so were a lot of men. He was clearly in good shape—also not all that uncommon. But there was something else, something intangible that created an odd fluttering in her belly, and it took her a moment to recognize it for what it was—interest. Which made no sense. She wasn’t looking for anything, and he . . . Well, in spite of his easy engagement in their conversation, his eyes seemed . . . hollow, and he hadn’t cracked a single smile.

  Maybe they were kindred perpetually-pissed-off-at-the-world spirits, she didn’t know. But one thing was for sure, he didn’t seem uncomfortable in the least as she studied him. In fact, he didn’t seem the sort to be uncomfortable in any situation.

  Around them, the bar was in full nighttime fun mode. Music, talking, laughter . . . Everywhere came the sounds of people having a good time, not a one worried about the storm building. When someone called out for Jenna to join a darts game, she slid off her stool. “Okay, so, I’m going to abandon her now,” she told Hot Guy. “Feel free to play the gallant gentleman swooping in to save the birthday girl. ’Night, Piper.”

  “That’s Grandma to you.”

  Jenna just laughed and kept walking, and Piper pulled out her phone to thumb in a text.

  “Bet you’re telling your wingman that you’re going to kill her.”

  Okay, gallant gentleman her ass. More like dark and dangerous . . . She hit send and looked up. “I might’ve mentioned she shouldn’t close her eyes when she goes to sleep tonight. But you know what? Yours is better. Hold please.” She typed a new text: Don’t forget, thanks to my dad, I know a ton of ways to kill someone with my pen.

  He read over her shoulder. “Nice.”

  “You find violent tendencies nice?”