CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE AUTHOR
Copyright © 2022 by Joslyn Westbrook
All rights reserved.
Love is even hotter the second time around in this steamy contemporary romance by Josly Westbrook
Reed Cortez is a one hundred percent clichéd sight for sore eyes.
Especially since I thought I’d never see him again.
Back in college, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other.
We were on a whirlwind path to forever—until our career goals split us apart.
Six years later, fate has brought Mr. Lava-Hot Footballer back into my life, and he’s agreed to be my fake fiancé at my sister’s destination wedding.
When our ruse forces us to share a hotel room for a weekend, red-hot flames reignite and sizzle between the sheets.
But, come on.
I’m not real wife material.
So why is a man who could have any woman he wants determined to give us
another shot at forever?
One Month After College Graduation
Whoever said all good things must come to an end could go fuck themselves.
Giana Rossi and I were meant to be forever, until the twelfth of never, for keeps.
Apparently, fate had something else in mind.
As I stared at the blank sheet of notebook paper, ink pen in hand, realization squeezed my chest.
The love notes I’d written to Giana every day for the last four years had made her flash a breathtaking smile, laugh, and even shed a few happy tears.
But this … Wasn’t a love note.
This was goodbye.
Letting you go was never part of the plan.
I’ll miss your laugh.
Your sexy-as-sin moans.
How it feels to wake up with you in my arms.
I’ll miss you. I’ll miss us.
Maybe someday we’ll have another shot at forever.
Six Years Later
Even though heartache fucks with your mind, torches your soul, and crushes your forever-after dreams, don’t let its afterburn transform you into a salty little bitch.
I channeled the mental note-to-self, hoping it would help me gain clarity, help me ease past the eye-rolling minutes spent on the phone with Margo.
“I know it’s kinda last second,” she yapped, “but our plane takes off at midnight, babe.”
Not only did this woman babe me, but her time-sucking phone call interrupted my Friday Night Ozark Bingefest, complete with Thai takeout, wine, and buttered popcorn.
“Please?” Margo’s whimpered plea for me to spend the weekend showing her client a few homes, oozed through my speakerphone.
I didn’t want to come across as some bitter single woman who gave zero shits that Margo’s might-as-well-be-Prince-Charming boyfriend surprised her with a weekend getaway to Paris. But I must’ve been in a “if the shoe fits” kind of mood.
“Sorry, no can do.” I paused to take a sip of wine, a fleeting smirk pulling my lips. “Need to wash my hair.”
It’s worth mentioning that Margo and I weren’t friends, teammates, cohorts, or besties who vacationed in Nantucket.
For the last five years, we’d been competitors at Dynasty Realty, New York’s hottest real estate firm, which catered to celebrities and athletes.
Margo and I had our respective sites set on earning top-seller status; as such, a keep-your-enemies-close vibe swirled around us like a category five shitstorm.
And our rivalry didn’t stop at who could sell more million-dollar homes. Our one-up game was fierce, whether it be a new pair of shoes, invites to exclusive parties, or who sold what home to whom for how much.
“C’mon, Giana, I’d totally do the same for you.” Silence, just a beat, sailed by before the ever-so-anticipated passive-aggressive jab bounced out of her mouth. “I mean…if you had a boyfriend.”
I could almost see Margo, face aglow with Mean-Girl Skank cheer, getting off on her serpentine reference to my epic post-engagement breakup—which happened over a year ago, mind you—that made me the salty little bitch I am today.
“Bye, Margo.” My voice remained pacified, unbroken as I took the high road, holding back F-you with the strength of a thousand mighty warriors. “Enjoy your weekend in Paris.”
Before I could tap the red end call icon, hang up ahead of my brain exploding, Margo singsonged, “You’ll earn a full—not a split—commission if my client purchases any of the properties you show him this weekend….”
In a seller’s market that had grown wilder by the second, working as a real estate agent had more monetary ups than downs. Commission I’d earned on homes sold over the past three years yielded the cash needed to pay off student loans and Noni’s house.
Money made also allowed me, a twenty-eight-year-old nobody girl from Jersey, the opportunity to purchase a condo in desirable SoHo. The condo’s space may have only been large enough to house a fire ant, but the terrace and the fancy-as-hell doorman who greeted residents twenty-four-seven were bonus perks that made it worthwhile.
Still, if I were to ever launch a real estate firm—a goal of mine since college—my bank account needed more dough.
“Full commission?” Surely the Cutthroat Queen couldn’t have been that desperate.
“Yes, full commission.” She sighed as if the admission made her heart bleed. “The buyer has a shit-ton of wealthy connections, a long list of potential buyers. If I cancel on him, he’ll go to Empire and take those potential buyers with him.”
Empire Real Estate, Dynasty’s only rival, was run by the Vetari family—real estate mob bosses who pounced at the chance to snag buyers whenever the time seemed ripe.
“Where are you scheduled to show homes?” It was a mere question, not a commitment to step in for her and forgo my weekend “hair washing” plans.
Margo’s two-worded reply sounded more like a mic drop, a crafty move from a poker player who slapped a winning card on the table.
Commission, minus broker fees, on a home sold in the Hamptons would’ve been enough to make my dwindling bank account do cartwheels. And while the coastal community for the rich and famous harbored broken memories that set my heart ablaze, I decided to take one for the team.
“Fine.” My snappy it’s-whatever-like comeback deserved an Oscar. “I’ll do it.”
I turned up my middle finger at babe and endured the forever-long minutes it took Margo to provide detailed next steps.
By the end of her spiel, she promised to email me her client’s file, the seven home listings scheduled for our tour, and text me the lockbox code to Dynasty’s corporate estate. Apparently, showing homes in the Hamptons was a weekend event packed with tours and entertainment. And because the seaside community was three hours from New York City, agents were provided overnight accommodations at the firm’s six-bedroom waterfront property, which I’d never been to.
“He’ll meet you at the estate at ten tomorrow morning,” she babbled, “so I’ll order a car to arrive at your place around 6 a.m.”
Ugh. An early pickup meant I’d have to kiss my Friday Night Ozark Bingefest goodbye. “Have fun in Paris, Margo.”
* * *
Who knows what jolted me awake?
Exhaustion must’ve lured me to sleep. After staying up for hours packing, I nodded off during the entire three-hour ride into the Hamptons.
Falling asleep meant I failed to peruse the client’s file, didn’t study which home amenities appealed to him most, or learn what he could be swayed on even if the price ran over budget.
At least Margo’s eye-stabbing spiel disclosed that the potential buyer once played professional football, loved to cook, and wanted a luxurious refuge far from New York City’s hustle and bustle. I prayed I’d score a favorably commissioned sale from the seven homes we were to tour this weekend.
Nico, my driver, slowed to the posted fifteen-mile-per-hour speed limit, then politely told me we were almost there.
Lampposts lined the narrow street, and a smile curved my lips as we drove past a rustic blue Welcome To East Hampton sign.
The coastal city was quaint. Lively. It was a little past 9 a.m., yet, women, men, and families were already scattered about, all outfitted in swimsuits and summery garments, cheer igniting their faces.
With the push of a button, I lowered the sedan’s dark tinted window.
Crisp air kissed my cheeks, sunlight beaming through the cloudless sky. I breathed in the briny sea air, my face hanging out the window like Rover on a family road trip.
My gaze flicked past trendy shops and fresh seafood restaurants I had frequented with my ex-fiancé Chad. The Hamptons had been where we’d spend our holidays, relaxing and unwinding. Every year, I looked forward to those memorable nuggets in time until he, and his new fiancée, ripped my heart out and hammered it into a trillion unrepairable pieces.
Blowing out a breath, I steeled myself and swiped off those useless waterworks. Noni once said I should save my tears for a guy who’d be there to wipe them away.
I should be so lucky.
Nico turned onto Waterloo Street, then slowed the car to a near crawl, coasting up a long, narrow driveway before parking alongside a beachfront property.
I took in the elegant, white, two-story home with blue trim, which looked more beautiful than I’d imagined.
A flutter bloomed in my chest when I stepped out of the car. Knowing I’d get to hang out here this weekend made me feel as giddy as a five-year-old on Christmas morning.
“Would you like help with your bag, Ms. Rossi?” Nico’s voice sliced through a chorus of seagulls cawing as he wheeled my luggage over to me.
“No, thanks.” I bit down on my lower lip, giving his offer more consideration—as if one suitcase wouldn’t have been easy for me to handle. “I’ll be okay.”
After I assured him I’d be fine on my own, that the buyer was bringing his own car to get us around East Hampton, Nico reminded me he’d pick me up Sunday night for a ride back into the city.
I watched him drive away, then wheeled my suitcase up the walkway, and once at the front door, entered the lockbox code Margo had shared via text.
As I ventured inside, a soft gasp escaped me.
With its sandy-colored walls accented by nautical decor and shiny Maplewood floors, the open space was jaw-dropping with a rich blend of a dining room, an amazeballs kitchen, and a roomy yet cozy living room.
But the true star of this corporate abode: a ginormous window that unveiled a view of effervescent water crawling toward the shore. I stood, mesmerized by resplendent streams of light sashaying across cerulean-blue swells.
The quiet hum of waves had a way of laying life’s problems to rest, even if for a moment in time. Comfy pajamas, a cup of tea, and a hunky hottie’s strong arms—tattooed, please and thank you—snaked around my waist would have been icing on this salty little bitch’s cake.
I freshened up and poked my nose in at least four of the six bedrooms before finding my way back downstairs and into the kitchen. When Margo texted me the lockbox code, she mentioned asking our office assistant to ensure the fridge and cupboards were fully stocked. Sure enough, I discovered pasta, sauce, fresh produce, pastries, coffee, creamer, a case of Pellegrino sparkling water, and wine. Evidently, Margo had planned to bring Prince Charming along for a weekend shack-up until he surprised her with Paris.
Ignoring the burn in my throat, I swallowed the rancid realization that, apart from showing houses, I’d be spending the weekend here alone.
Ugh, I hope I remembered to pack my vibrator.
As I set out two Pellegrinos onto the kitchen-island countertop, a knock at the door made me jump.
A quick glance at my watch showed it was already 10 o’clock. “Right on time.”
I padded to the foyer, smoothed down my dress, and took a deep breath. Since joining Dynasty Realty a year after college, I’d sold several houses, more than I’d expected—more than they’d expected me to. Yet, for some reason, the pressure to sell just one this weekend felt like I had something to prove.
You’ve got this, Giana.
Nerves back to their semi-normal state, I opened the door, and…my heart stopped.
Standing before me was Reed Cortez, hot-as-fire pro-footballer turned celebrity chef.
Cosmopolitan Magazine once called him a walking wet dream.
And I once called him my college sweetheart.
He was a one hundred percent clichéd sight for sore eyes.
I silently begged the manic thumps in my chest to slow their roll, implored my eyes not to dry-hump every tall, dark, and delicious inch of him. It was the first time I’d seen Mr. Lava-Hot Baller in a suit—a custom muscle-hugging one to boot.
We flashed wide-ass grins, both likely wondering the same thing: What are you doing here?
Part of me wanted to leap forward, wrap my arms around him for a few lingering beats. Instead, I held back, speaking the first thing that popped to mind. “Reed.”
It had been damn near forever—two thousand-plus days—since I’d seen the man my dumb ass let slip away, and all I managed to whisper was his freaking name? Fabulous, Giana. You’ve just made this a fucktastic facepalm moment.
Reed brandished a lip tilt that could’ve warmed the chill out of Antarctica. “Gigi.”
Tingles, actual tingles, zipped down my spine at the sound of his voice—still as gruff, husky, and downright sexy as I remembered—when Gigi floated from his mouth. He’d given me that nickname while we were in college, back when he was my absolute world.
We met at a keg party during Freshman Year.
He had saved me from falling into a swimming pool after one of his drunken jock buddies tried to push me in. I swear Reed was the epitome of sex on a stick.
A football tight end with a tight end.
He asked me out, and because I refused to end up butt-hurt over a jock with a playboy reputation, I kept tossing him a thanks but no thanks response. When his persistence rebounded from annoying to adorable, I finally agreed to meet him for coffee.
Seven coffee dates later, we became inseparable, over-the-moon in love, cruising down a road destined for forever. Friends, even Insta followers, called our whirlwind romance “relationship goals.”
Until it fell apart.
Feigning nonchalance, I leaned against the doorframe, convinced he could hear my damn heart, its beats like a marching-band drum. “I guess this means you’re Margo’s client.”
Reed ran his thumb along his bottom lip, cocoa-eyed gaze honed down on mine. “And you’re the agent taking her place this weekend.”
I bit down on my lip, holding back a giggle.
Six years apart, and we’d become a set of Captain Obvious twins.
A pause lingered before our faces cracked a smile, and when I opened my mouth to speak, Reed pulled me into his arms. “Good to see you, Gigi.”
My belly flipped as I sank into his embrace, a whiff of cologne whirling around me.
The musky notes and the feel of Reed’s body against mine, his hands sliding up and down my back, shook comatose memories to life, memories I thought I’d pulled the plug on years ago. “Good to see you too.”
Time didn’t budge while we stood in each other’s arms. Seconds turned to what felt like minutes, as though we wanted to bask in a moment too surreal for words. The chance that Reed Cortez would’ve ended up being the client I’d agreed to show million-dollar homes to was ridiculously slim, even in a world so small.
Blinking away tears, I broke our hug and motioned for Reed to step inside. Regardless of our past affiliation, he was a client now.
I needed to keep things between us professional, force myself to ignore that he’d become a thousand times more eye-pleasing than he’d been in college, and, most of all, forget how at home I felt in his arms.
Besides, I was pretty sure Reed Cortez had a girlfriend, even though his Instagram page didn’t prove my assumption. Over the years, I may or may not have occasionally stalked it—ahem—glanced over it. But don’t judge me. When Reed left New York for California six years ago, reason number three hundred seventy-two why we imploded, ESPN and TMZ provided little to no coverage about him besides football stats. So, Instagram became a reliable buzz source into his personal life, a sought-after confirmation that all was good in his world, sans me.
“So, when did you come back to New York?” I led us into the kitchen, then offered him one of the Pellegrinos I’d set onto the island countertop.
“It’s been several months now.” He twisted the cap off the emerald-green bottle and took a sip. “Bought an apartment at Atelier on West 42nd Street.”
Atelier’s all-inclusive luxury building came with bells and whistles: a coffee shop, two daycare centers—one dedicated to kiddos and the other to fur babies—a gym, a yoga studio, a hair salon, a doorman, plus a rooftop lounge with 360-degree views of Manhattan and the Hudson River. New Yorkers called it Celebrityville, especially since nothing but celebs, athletes, and people famous for being famous resided there.
Two years ago, I sold one of Atelier’s hard-to-come-by penthouse units. That sale gave me a sweet taste of what earning myself a six-figure commission felt like.
But the building itself brought back buried memories of Reed, since he’d added living there to his bucket list when we were in college, and it took me weeks to come out of a spiraling could’ve-should’ve-but-didn’t funk.
The spiral caused me to seek therapy—which led me to therapist and ex-fiancé Chad, a Band-Aid who, ironically, in the end, only made me feel worse, like salt on an open wound.
Don’t let its afterburn transform you into a salty little bitch.
Arms folded, I shook my head, a playful smile tugging my lips. “Of course you bought an apartment there.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The playful twinkle in his eyes told me he already knew.
“Back in college, you said you’d live there someday.”
“No … I said we would live there someday.”
A cloud of awkwardness, dark and storm-worthy, crept over us as remorse barreled through me.
When we were a couple, dreaming big was our thing. We’d made so many plans, plans that perished when our hopes and dreams collided.
Unsure of what to say, I flicked my gaze away from his, and as if the universe could sense an emotional storm brewing, my phone chirped with a calendar reminder.
“Well, now look at that,” I squeaked. “It’s time for us to head to the first house.”
My heart stuttered when Giana opened the door.
She looked even more beautiful than she did the day I first laid eyes on her.
Seeing the woman who should’ve been my forever love only solidified what a fool I’d been to let her go. I missed her smile, her raspy voice, her touch.
I simply missed her.
Going separate ways six years ago burned a hole in my heart. Our career aspirations got between us, and even though I wanted Giana to come with me, she didn’t want to leave her grandmother. Besides, I wouldn’t have wanted her to walk away from opportunities she’d worked so hard to achieve. Giana and I went back and forth with the long-distance option. Yet, we’d decided early on in our relationship that becoming distant lovers would never be a viable lifestyle for us. Maybe we should have tried.
Either way, I promised myself I’d never let Giana—or Gigi, the nickname I gave her back in college—know that our collapse broke me and shattered my belief in “love conquers all” bullshit.
As we drove to the first house, a wall of silence sat between us, save for her phone’s GPS sounding off directional commands.
In college, conversations between us flowed effortlessly, no matter the topic.
Now, nothing but dead air flowed effortlessly between us.
Ideas for small-talk starters swam in my mind like hungry sharks —New York’s warm weather streak, the Yankees losing to the Mets, how stunning she looked—but all the possible words stalled in my throat.
“So, why East Hampton?” she asked as I parked alongside a sandy-orange home with a wraparound porch.
“I’d like to settle down, get away from the city, ditch the limelight of being a professional athlete.”
Her brow rose in a slow, challenging arch. “Since when do you want to ditch the limelight?”
I shifted the car’s gear into park. “Since I grew up.”
We walked down a set of cobblestone steps that led to the house, and despite its curb appeal, I knew it wasn’t for me.
Too small. Too open. Too plain.
I needed space, seclusion, and a place that immediately felt like home.
After tapping in a lockbox code, Giana opened the door, and I trekked behind.
“This home is more traditional, the smallest of seven we’ll tour this weekend” —she led me through a foyer and into a dark living room— “with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a finished basement.” She stepped over to the staircase, long legs accented by high heels that click-clacked against hardwood floors.
My heart thrummed wildly at a flashback of nights when those legs were wrapped around me.
Calm the fuck down.
Her phone chirped, and she plucked it out of a black designer bag held in the crook of her elbow. After glancing at the screen, Giana rolled her eyes and tossed the phone back into her purse. “There are four bedrooms upstairs—”
“Actually,” I interjected. “Can we move on to the next house?”
She whirled around to face me, bewilderment—or maybe annoyance? —etched in a pair of stormy blues that always took my breath away. “You’re already over this without giving it a chance?” The icy inflection in her voice made the question sound more like an accusation.
“I just don’t feel it necessary to waste our time with what I know won’t work for me.”
Giana brushed past me, marching toward the door, irritation rising off her like smoke. “No worries.”
Okay. Experience taught me that things were far from good when the feisty dark-haired beauty uttered, No worries.
I wanted to spin her around and ask her what I did wrong.
But she shot out of there like an arrow from a bow.
I once dreamed about a reunion with Giana, and while it lacked a cute-puppies-and-colorful-rainbows vibe, it sure as fuck didn’t have this maddening enemies-for-life vibe. If we were to spend today, and possibly tomorrow, touring potential homes together, shit had to be sorted out.
Once we were inside the car, Giana’s nose was in her phone, thumbs pounding the keyboard.
I pushed my car’s ignition button and then turned to face her. “Maybe we should talk, clear this negative air between us?”
She blew out a breath, eyes still fixed on that damn phone. “Okay. Let’s regroup where we met this morning.”
* * *
Back at the house on Waterloo, we settled down on bar stools positioned around the kitchen’s center island.
Giana had made coffee, and we sipped our java in silence—I wracked my brain on how to break the ice, and she seemingly did the same.
Fuck, we’d never been at a loss for words. I guess time, distance, and reality had altered that.
“How have you been?” The question may have sounded like the epitome of small talk, but one of us had to start somewhere.
Giana smiled, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’ve been good—busy, but good.” She took another sip of coffee. “What about you?”
“Same. Busy, but good.”
“How’s the family?” Laughter rang through the open space, tackling the deafening silence as we simultaneously posed the question. That laugh of hers, sultry and infectious, reminded me of how much I’d missed it.
After I shared that my parents were as lively as ever, Giana said, “Sofie’s getting married next weekend.”
“Married?” Her sister swore she’d never get hitched. “Who changed her mind about marriage?”
Giana chugged her coffee as though it were a shot of whiskey before setting the cup down with a thud. “My ex-fiancé.”
My jaw drifted open as the shock hit me in waves.
Not only did I have to digest that her sister, who used to vomit at the thought of marriage, decided to marry her ex, but hearing that Giana had been engaged made my stomach harden.
“Sorry, it’s why I may have seemed preoccupied or like I’m in a shitty mood.” She held her cell phone up, a frown locked between her brows. “Sofie keeps texting, asking me to confirm the rehearsal-dinner menu…among other things. It’s one of my duties as her maid of freaking honor.”
“You’re joking, right?”
Mouth pressed in a hard line, Giana shook her head. “If only this whole wedding fiasco were nothing but a colossal joke.” She reached over and touched my arm, naturally, as though time or distance hadn’t passed between us. “Let’s not make this day, this weekend, about my stupid family drama. We’re here to find you a house.”
I studied her expressionless face and wondered how much hurt or anger she concealed. “Promise you’ll fill me in later tonight over dinner? You know I’m a sucker for family drama.”
A whisper of a smile danced across her lips. “I’d like that a lot.”