It should have been the perfect New Year’s Eve date. But when Gemma Forester gets called to bail her older brother out of trouble, she comes face to face with some of her own. Aaron Hendricks never forgot his best friend’s little sister, but ten years wasn’t enough to prepare him for the woman she’s become. Will a chance meeting allow them to overcome the past?
Once Upon A New Year’s Eve is a novelette of approximately 8,500 words.
She stopped mid-step and her focus narrowed on blue eyes she hadn’t seen in a decade but remembered like it was yesterday.
In all the honky tonks, in all the towns, in all the South, you had to walk into this one.
She actually felt all the maturity, all the layers of poise and composure she’d worked for slip away as nerves began to dance a rumba in her belly and her tongue tied itself in knots. Just like that, she was fifteen again, with a crush on her brother’s best friend. A crush that got totally shot down.
Aaron Hendricks smiled at her, flashing that slightly crooked incisor and she felt a blast of very adult heat blow through her system, complicating the nerves with a healthy dose of pure chemistry that scrambled her brain. Oh. My. God.
“Aaron,” she said. Her voice came out breathless. Mortification flared bright. She could feel the color rising in her cheeks and hoped the lousy lighting was low enough to hide it. The need to escape beat in her blood. No. No, she couldn’t deal with this, couldn’t deal with him.
“What are you doing here?” she managed, tightening her grip on Rick, who was only semi-conscious by now.
“I think Red went through Rick’s entire contact list. I got the voicemail, so I came to get him.”
Because Aaron was still the dedicated, responsible friend in the bunch. She’d always liked that about him.
“I’m taking him home,” she said. Under other circumstances, she might’ve cringed at the brusque, dismissive tone. She wasn’t rude, as a rule. But she didn’t trust herself to speak without stumbling over her own tongue.
“I think that’s a good idea. Let me help you with that.”
“No!” Gemma snapped. God, she didn’t want him helping. She wanted to get away as fast as humanly possible. “Jason and I have got him.”
Jason, who’d readily offered his assistance when she’d nearly face-planted off the stage with her brother, eyed Aaron with suspicion. “This guy hassling you?”
“No,” said Gemma, suddenly exhausted. The last thing she needed was some kind of testosterone showdown. “He’s fine. We’re fine. Let’s just get my brother outside.” She glanced over.
Aaron was still there, still looking concerned, still looking delicious as ever with those broad shoulders her hands itched to stroke and that sensual mouth that had starred in countless sexy dreams.
“Let’s go,” said Gemma, tugging their little trio toward the exit.
Aaron skirted around them, moving to Jason and starting to reach for Rick. “Look, man, thanks for your help, but he’s my friend. Why don’t you let me—”
“We’ve got this,” Gemma snarled, taking a firmer grip on her brother. “Thanks.”
Aaron jolted back as if she’d slapped him, but Gemma was beyond caring. If she had her way, she’d never see him again, so it hardly mattered.
Almost a year. A year back in Memphis and she’d manage to avoid running into him. She could make that happen again. It wasn’t like they ran in the same circles.
“Who’s that?” mumbled Rick.
“No one important,” she said softly. “C’mon. Just keep moving with us here.”
Aaron fell back and let them pass. After the noisy, stuffy heat of the roadhouse, the cool air of the parking lot was a balm to Gemma’s aching head.
“Rick, where did you park?”
He struggled to lift his head, squinting at the rows of vehicles. “Somewhere.”
“What’s he drive?” asked Jason.
“Black F150. Supercab.”
That didn’t narrow the field much. They both scanned the lot.
“That it? Back left corner. Two tone with the tan on the bottom?”
Gemma followed Jason’s gaze. “Yeah. Come on, big brother. Let’s get you home.”
They skirted around the truck with steamed up windows, where the couple she’d seen on her arrival had disappeared. The light out here was lousy, not extending far beyond the pools cast by the floodlights mounted on the corner of the building. With a litany of silent prayers for her ankles and shoes, they made it to Rick’s truck.
“I’ve got him,” said Jason. “You get the door open.”
Relinquishing Rick, Gemma unlocked the truck, pulled open the passenger side door. The seat was covered with files, his briefcase, and the other detritus he hadn’t gotten around to stowing from the work days earlier in the week. Gemma shoved the lot of it into a banker’s box in the floorboard and shifted the box into the backseat.
“There. Okay, Rick. In you go.”
“He’s out now.”
Gemma held in a string of curses. How the hell was she going to get him in the house? Maybe she’d just bring a blanket out to him and let him sleep it off in the truck.
She crawled into the backseat herself and pulled as Jason pushed. Between the two of them, they managed to get Rick and all his appendages into the truck and buckled in.
“Finally.” Gemma took the hand Jason offered and climbed out of the narrow backseat. She turned to shut the suicide door. “Thanks for your help.”
When she turned back around, Jason was inches away, mouth curved into a smile that raised the hair on Gemma’s arms. “My pleasure,” he said, planting his arms on either side of her to cage her against the truck. Alarms began to blare in her head as the first wash of fear had her heart beginning to pound.
“Um, look, Jason, I—”
“Just thought you might want to show your appreciation. I had a few ideas.”
Obviously, she thought. Screw the shoes. The stiletto heels were practically weaponized. If one broke when she brought it down on his instep, so be it. But even as Gemma lifted her foot, Jason pulled back.
No, he was being pulled back.
Aaron spun Jason neatly away and placed himself in front of her as a shield. And damn it if that didn’t just get her heart racing for a whole other reason.
“I expect you do have a few ideas,” he said. “Let me go ahead and advise you that they’re bad ones. A gentleman doesn’t expect payment for helping a lady out. So why don’t you go on back to Red’s and find somebody more receptive to your advances.”
For a moment, Gemma thought Jason was going to argue, but evidently he decided she wasn’t worth it. With a rude remark under his breath, he turned and headed back for the bar.
Aaron watched him go, shoulders rigid until the other man went inside. Then he turned to her, eyes still hot. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks for that.”
She could see the temper warring on his face, waited for the confrontation about why she didn’t want his help. Instead he said, “Rick’s out cold. You’ll never get him in the house on your own. I’m following you home.”
Gemma opened her mouth but he interrupted before she could speak.
“Don’t argue with me, Gemma. At least you know I won’t try to molest you.”
It made her feel small and petty. She hunched her shoulders defensively. “I wasn’t going to argue. I was going to say thank you.”
Aaron relaxed a bit. “Okay then. I’m parked on the drive. I’ll follow you out.”