Love heals all wounds…
Special Forces soldier Dan Jansen has come home from Afghanistan with one objective: to marry Josephine Swann. First he has to convince his childhood friend that their marriage ‘agreement,’ a tipsy scrawl on a beer coaster three years ago, is binding. And that platonic love is enough to build a passionate future on.
Protect those you love…
Jo has only thought of Dan ‘that way’ once; the night before a surgery that changed her life forever. Friendship is all she has to offer as she struggles to care for her grandmother and resurrect her business.
Both have wounds only the other can heal. But that requires surrendering their secrets. Can two best friends create a love story for the ages?
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Dan knew Jo had realized he wasn’t playing games as soon as he saw her striding down Main St.
Through the plate-glass storefront she looked like a gunfighter at the OK corral, purposeful, with a determined set to her delicate chin as she steeled herself to shoot down the buddy who’d gone loco.
Knowing her so well, he could even see she was a little frightened that he was so willfully destroying the status quo. So was he.
“Earth to Daniel, can we concentrate please?” He returned his attention to Barry, who was rifling through the racks of suits labeled ‘special occasions.’ “So it’s a definite no to the cummerbund and bow tie?”
He’d come in to rent a wedding suit and been inundated with choices…satin or grosgrain lapels, cummerbund or waistcoat, bow tie or cravat.
“You know me, Baz. A man of simple tastes.” Except in women. “You choose.”
Dan turned back to the window. Jo stood at the traffic lights, arms folded, foot tapping impatiently as she waited for the walk signal.
The last time he’d seen her – at Auckland Hospital after the funerals – she’d been recovering from surgery on a rotator cuff injury from a fall on her shoulder. Even shattered by grief Dan had seen she wasn’t well enough to hear what he was going through so he’d said he was coping. They sat quietly, feeding the birds with the muffins he’d bought and couldn’t eat and he’d held her hand like a lifeline. Maybe the seed of this obsession had been sown then.
Barry’s exasperated voice broke into his reverie. “Daniel Jansen, I’ve said the same thing three times.” His friend planted his hands on slim hips. “Black or charcoal gray for the stroller coat?”
“Charcoal gray.” Outside Jo had been waylaid by a well-wisher. He watched her gesticulate, shake her head in denial. And smiled. “The color of the bride’s eyes when she’s pissed.”
“We need a contrasting color for the waistcoat and tie.” Barry flicked through the racks. “Taupe is hot this season.”
Dan was momentarily diverted. “What the hell color is taupe?”
“Fawn.” Barry pulled out a waistcoat to show him. “Is the bride going to be in white in ivory? You don’t want clashes on the day.”
“I think the clashes might be earlier then that.” The anemic sun caught her short auburn curls. The new-look short hairstyle suited her, feathering around her cheekbones.
“So the waistcoat…full-back or back-less?”
“Full-back sounds more manly.”
Barry grinned. “Not secure in your masculinity, sweetie?”
“Not with my bride bearing down on us. Hide the scissors.”
The bell above the door jangled and Jo swept in. “What the hell is going on?” she demanded.
“We were discussing taupe,” he said mildly.
Barry glanced from one to the other. “He wasn’t supposed to come without you, was he, the naughty boy…Jo, I like your suit…What’s the label?”
“Karen Walker.” Her gaze took in the row of tuxedos and narrowed as it returned to Dan. “This farce has gone far enough.”
“Now why can’t you just be swept away by the romance of it all?” Dan complained. “Baz, forget taupe. Give me a waistcoat in silver.”
Jo intercepted the handover. “Oh yeah, very romantic. Organizing a wedding without the consent of the bride.” Dan started reaching in his jean pocket. “And if you bring out the damn beer mat again, Jansen, I’ll ram it down your throat.” She handed the silver waistcoat back to Barry. “Of course he’s not serious.”
Dan raised his brows. “Why aren’t I?”
“I don’t even know why we’re having this conversation.” Exasperated she turned on him. For one, I’m not interested in marriage and kids anymore. To anyone. For two, you never were.”
“Groom’s prerogative to change his mind.” Dan reached past her for the waistcoat. “But not the bride’s.”
Jo caught his hand in a death grip. “I’m trying to be diplomatic here.”
He laughed. So did Barry.
“I’m making a list of aiders and abettors,” she warned and Barry looked to him for guidance. Dan freed his hand from Jo’s and gestured for the waistcoat.
Barry dithered. “You’re both my friends…I don’t know whose side to take.”
“Mine,” Jo ordered.
Dan crooked one finger. Barry gave him the garment. “Sorry, Jo, he’s brawn; you’re mainly bluster. And sweetie, he really does want to marry you.”
“Why are you doing this?” There was bewilderment in her voice as she turned back to him.
Walking over to the mirror, Dan held the waistcoat against his chest. “You want a family; I’m ready to settle down. Who better to marry than with the only woman I’ve ever had a halfway decent relationship with? It’s a win-win for both of us.”
She gave a strangled laugh. “Marriage isn’t a business deal. There’s a little matter of love?”
“We love each other.”
“That means it will last.”
“For God’s sake, Dan, get real. We’ve had fifteen years of being grown-ups when we could have got together and we never have. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“Yeah, that timing is everything.” He smiled at her. “Hit on me again now.”
A rare blush colored her cheeks. “We don’t talk about that.”
“We haven’t talked about it.” Dan shrugged on the waistcoat. “That doesn’t mean either of us forgot…Baz, you look like a man in need of a coffee. Give us five minutes, will you?”
He waited until their buddy left the shop then said, “Funny isn’t it? At the time I was outraged that my best friend was coming on to me. But I never could get that image out of my head.” His voice grew husky. “The way your breasts looked under that chiffony thing-”
“Don’t!” She turned away and all he could see was her profile as she began spacing a row of jackets. “…Don’t build a future on one drunken pass I barely remember.”
He did up the buttons on the waistcoat. ” You suggested the marriage contract when you were drunk; you hit on me when you were drunk… Maybe your subconscious was trying to tell you something.”
She scoffed. “Yes, stop drinking cocktails…I don’t get this sudden desire for matrimony. Didn’t you say you’d never get married?”
“No, I said there was plenty of time.” In the mirror some idiot was standing in jeans, a flannel shirt and a shiny silver-gray waistcoat.
There was a pregnant silence. “And you learned different,” she said in a low voice.
“Yeah, I learned different.” Dan unbuttoned and took off the vest, his fingers leaving faint traces of cold sweat on the satin back.
As a soldier he’d accepted his mortality. But his troop-mate’s deaths had rammed the lesson home on an emotional level that was hard to bear. “I can’t bring Steve and Lee back but I can honor their memory by making sure I live big for all of us.” Live like it matters. “Quit flitting from woman to woman and make my life count…settle down.” He tossed the waistcoat aside, tried on another one in black. “Jeez, a moustache and I’d look like Wyatt Earp in this thing.”
Shrugging it off, he reached for a coathanger and replaced it on the rack. “When I packed up my stuff and found that beer mat I got to thinking, It’s not a stupid idea marrying your best friend. You already know each other’s faults. And all the boring bits are taken care of,” he grinned. “Respect, commitment, loyalty. Which leaves the fun stuff to work on, like hot sex.”
He looked over at her, his smile fading. “Given a do-over, Jo, I wouldn’t have turned you down.”
“But you don’t get a do-over.” Her face was pale, her gaze steady. “You said I’d be relieved you rejected me when I sobered up, and you were right.” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if the tragedy made you wish different, but I want to leave our friendship as it is. And as I’ve already said, I don’t want a family anymore.”
He watched the pulse beating fast in her throat. “I don’t believe you.”
“It doesn’t matter… I’m not marrying you.”
Dan picked up the silver waistcoat and re-hung it. “You need some time to get used to the idea,” he said. “So here’s the deal. I’ll organize the wedding, all you have to do is decide whether to show up.”
“Of course I’m not going to show up!”
“See that’s one of your faults – snap judgements,” he said kindly. “Try and keep an open mind. My failing, as you know, is stubbornness. Once I’ve got an idea in my head, there’s no shifting it. Which sets us up for one hell of an interesting few weeks, doesn’t it?”
As she stared at him speechless, Barry stuck his head around the door, took silence as safety and came in, holding a to-go coffee.
“Nearly,” said Dan. “So honey, you weren’t serious about our bridesmaids wearing pink were you?”
“Pink!” Barry threw up his hands. “Jo, with your red hair?”
His bride finally found her voice. “I am not marrying you!” Cheeks flushed, she advanced on him. “Quit fooling around and tell Baz.”
“Uh huh.” Dan put on a top hat, tilting it as he checked his reflection. “I’m practicing being a husband…soothing noises, not really listening.”
Jo knocked the top hat off his head and with a squawk, Barry scrambled to rescue it.
“You seriously want to play chicken?” she asked incredulously. “With me?”
“I was thinking tonight to start working on the fun stuff.”
She turned on her heel and wrenched open the door. Dingalingaling.
He went to the doorway, waiting until she was fifty yards down the road. “If you really weren’t interested you wouldn’t have jumped me in Auckland.”
Glancing at interested passers-by, she hurried back to hiss. “I was drunk!”
“It only occurred to me afterwards but the only time I’ve seen you drunk like that is when you’re in trouble.”
She looked away. “That’s ridiculous.”
“One of the reasons we became mates when we were five years old was because you’d decided I’d be useful for carrying things…I’m still good at sharing the load, Jo.”
She held his gaze. “Help me. My best friend’s crazy.”
Dan leaned against the doorjamb. “How did your business meeting go?”
Jo blinked. “Couldn’t be better.”
“I hear Nan’s been diagnosed with dementia.”
Jo lost her composure. “I wish people would mind their damn business.”
“I’ll tell Mom that.”
Her expression became hopeful. “She can’t approve of this.”
“See how much you’ve already got in common?”
“Ahhh!” She walked away, came back. For the first time he saw pleading in her eyes. “Dan, you’re my escape buddy, don’t do this to us.”
“Did you ever see that Costner movie, Field of Dreams? About the guy who built a baseball field in a cornfield. It didn’t make sense even to him. He only knew he had to do it.”
“That’s the dumbest reason I ever heard.”
Barry joined him at the door and they looked after Jo’s retreating figure. “What was that about?”
“It didn’t actually sound like she wanted to marry you, Dan, ” he ventured.
“No,” he admitted. “But I’ve got twenty-two days to change her mind.”
“So you have a Plan B, then?”
Dan snorted. “Mate, I expect to hit the end of the alphabet before the wedding day.”
“Karina Bliss is an excellent writer whose plots are so complex and her characters so realistic that readers are given much more than cookie cutter rehashes of classic stories. Also, her solutions to the problems are unique… Bliss has definitely become one of my auto-buys.” – Pat Henshaw’s Desert Isle Keeper review on www.likesbooks.com. Read the full review here.
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