An Apple Trail Novella 1
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She doesn’t want wild and raunchy, just a little spice…
He wants commitment and long-term, not a quick roll…
Two best friends who both want each other, but for very different reasons.
The walls are thin in the Apple Trail Apartments. Ever since she moved in after her divorce, Stephanie has listened to her best friend next door getting busy. By the bed knocking on the wall and the gasping women, Stephanie wants to be one of those women on the other side. She just has to get the courage up to ask.
The only woman Parker Madison ever wanted long-term was the very-married Stephanie. He’s tried finding a substitute, but there just isn’t another woman like her. Now that she’s available, he just has to keep his hands to himself for a respectable length of time after her divorce. He’s planning to make a move after eight months. Stephanie takes him by surprise after three. Does he fulfill her request and risk becoming that best friend rebound guy or wait it out to better his chances for happily ever after?
Anybody with even a little sense wouldn’t be outside in the god-awful, soul-sucking summer heat, but Stephanie Faulkner was out there anyway, melting away. Only one thing persuaded her to brave a backyard barbecue in late July.
He was her best friend and neighbor. Their apartments were mirror images, including their headboards parked on the same wall. From the moaning, screaming, yelping, and pleading coming through that wall at night until women left in the wee hours of the morning, Stephanie knew the man had some stamina and skills. And damn it, she wanted her world rocked by more than her vibrator. Parker could do that, without a doubt. Not only did he apparently have god-like abilities, the man was built like one, too.
Images of his muscular body and all he could do with it had provoked the drinking of three margaritas already—drinks that were more José Cuervo and less lime. The concoction had her leaning a bit more on the fence encasing the yard than what sweet tea would have. Or it could be the sun. Or thinking of her plans left her swaying. Somewhere between salting the second cup, thinking about the flex of his shoulders when he was shirtless in his garage, and mixing up her third, she had decided tonight was the night.
Finally, her nerves had built enough spark to ask Parker Madison to bring his skills to her bedroom.
And this wasn’t like those other times where she was going to ask and then chicken out. No ma’am. This time, all or nothing. The alcohol might or might not have something to do with that.
She licked the last bit of salt from her now-empty plastic cup when the fine piece of hardened, tanned flesh prowled through the crowd. Yes, prowled. Parker took long strides, his eyes always searched and lips grinning in this way that said he was pleased about something. She desperately wanted that something to be her. Somewhere between the pit of her stomach, libido, and up around her heart her hormones took a jumping kick-start.
Ah, Parker Madison. How had she known the man for so long and not realized all this? Her thoughts darkened as her ex-husband’s face intruded. She kicked him out of her head. She would not have her day ruined by thoughts of the cheating bastard.
She’d rather lust after Parker, and she returned to watching the man who’d haunted her dreams—both the night and day ones. When a woman with half a brain thought Parker Madison, visions of sex were sure to happen. Now to do something so she’d have more than visions to go to bed with.
She cleared her throat, threw her shoulders back, and tugged her halter top straight. Serious. She needed to be a serious-sexy woman. Cute wedges, short ass shorts, and a halter top equaled serious-sexy woman. At least some random article in a magazine thought so.
As the muscular hunk of beef shifted through the crowd, she grabbed at that fence again. Forget Mr. Curveo and his tequila potency. He couldn’t hold a candle to taking a girl off her feet in comparison to Parker.
“What are you doing off to the side and waiting by the gate?”
Stephanie started and glanced over as her friend, Jessie McBride, leaned on the gate next to her. “God, I didn’t hear you come up. You scared me.”
Jessie grinned. “With the way you’re studying something, a snake could have bitten you and you wouldn’t have noticed.” She handed over another margarita. “You look like you could use this.”
She didn’t waste time in taking the cup and placed it inside her other empty one. Number four, headed down the hatch. “I do. I’m waiting for Parker.”
“Looked like you were doing a lot more than waiting. You’re going to do it, aren’t you?” Jessie shifted until she faced Stephanie. “You’re finally going to ask him out. I honestly don’t know how you’ve waited this long. I mean, hell. You two are in his garage all day, every day, mostly alone for how many hours?”
“Eight. And not every day.” Just six days, but that seemed like too small a thing to point out. Also, they typically saw each other at some point on Sunday, too.
“Customers come in. And the phone rings off the hook. And the paperwork. Really, it would be useless to try to start anything there.”
Jessie raised her brows. “You’re blabbering.”
She stared into her cup at the slushy, tart drink inside. Half empty already? Surely it wasn’t full when Jesse handed it over. “I might be slightly drunk.”
“Good. It’ll make asking him out easier. What are you going to suggest? Not much to do in town. Ask him to take you to Little Rock for some fun.”
True. Apple Trail was a charming little town filled with mom and pop stores and little else. Luckily, Stephanie wasn’t interested in a date-date. “We already do movies and dinner all the time. I’m going to ask for more.”
Just a little spice was all she needed. Nothing raunchy or overly kinky, but some spice. Was that too much for a girl to ask? She didn’t think so. She crossed her fingers and hoped he wouldn’t, either. But man, if she couldn’t even say it to her friend, how would she get it out to Parker?
She steeled her spine and took another quick drink. “I’m going to ask Parker for sex.”
Jessie’s mouth dropped in mock horror. “You slut.”
She nudged her with an elbow. “Shut up. You’re supposed to give me advice to make this easier.”
“Then I suggest you make your move before that ‘ho—“ Jessie tilted her head toward the crowd. “—has him under her fingernails again.”
Stephanie glanced up to see Parker’s ex from earlier in the summer stop and whisper something in his ear. All the tequila in Stephanie’s belly rolled and threatened to come back up. Oh man. She stared at the treeline in the far distance to settle the liquor. The tops swayed in the breeze, though, making her sway with them. She dropped her gaze back to them as that girl wrapped her hands around Parker. “I thought she left. I haven’t seen her in a week.”
“I’m past ready for that chick to go back to college. Rumor is her daddy’s not too thrilled to have her running around, either. She keeps flirting with his customers, and he’s losing business. Wouldn’t surprise me if she was shipped off to her momma’s in Louisiana for the last of the summer.”
“I hope so.”
The ex flattened her hand across Parker’s stomach, shooting a choking, throat-grabbing pinch right in Stephanie’s neck. It wouldn’t do at all if Parker took the woman home.
Parker said something, making the girl laugh. Of course she laughed. It was probably something funny and charming. Alcohol-induced jealousy churned. It was a troublesome, recurring thing lately. With each new woman gasping Parker’s name through the wall, Stephanie’s fingers dug deeper in her palms and the green-eyed monster reared its ugly head.
She had no claim to Parker. They’d been friends for a long time, but they weren’t friends like that. Being friends like that never even came up between them. She licked her suddenly dry lips. At least, not yet. And it never would if that woman didn’t get her hand off his stomach and quit whispering things in his ear.
Parker grinned at whatever thing she said, and his head tilted just a little bit so the sun touched his slightly-too-long blond hair that Stephanie’s fingers were itching to get into. She was already familiar with the silky strands that were just long enough to snatch between her fingers. What a waste of time making that discovery had been. She’d shaken the golden locks and commented on his needing a haircut. A haircut. Yeah, that was her. What an idiot. She should have yanked him to her so that every inch of her lined against all of him—especially that undiscovered place on his body. Her gaze dropped to the place in question. That throat-pinching hold suddenly got a lot more pinchy, and her fingertips were just dying to get a hold of the metal zipper. Perhaps she should have stopped at three margaritas. Or two.
Jessie shook her cup and loosened the last of her frozen margarita from the bottom. “You’re going to owe me a free oil change for this.”
But Jessie was already walking away. “Claire! Hey, girl.”
Claire looked up from Parker and waved.
“It’s hot as heck out here and getting late. I’m headed over to Michael Bill’s place. Braves are playing and he’s got some people coming over tonight. Wanna come with me?”
And just like that, Claire peeled her hand off Parker’s chest and the nausea doing an acid-rain dance in Stephanie’s belly stopped. Michael Bill were magic words to having a good time. Jessie turned and winked.
Stephanie waved a two-finger thanks. “I’m throwing in a set of windshield wipers!”
She laughed. “You better!”
Parker swaggered to her, looking all rugged and waiting to be tossed in some sheets. Okay, maybe two drinks would have been plenty. Oh, what the heck. Two, six, or none, it wouldn’t have mattered. Over the past few months, Parker always looked ready to wrestle naked. The alcohol went back to warming Stephanie’s blood. Need shuddered through and made her panties a little wet.
She leaned against the gate, hopefully looking cool, as Parker drew closer. Oh, the things the man was probably capable of. She didn’t know a lot about sexual variety. Her ex-husband had kept things very…civil. From what she’d heard through the sheetrock, Parker was anything but vanilla.
Sex with Parker must be like winning the Triple Crown, Super Bowl, and World Series all in one night. Things she’d been uncertain about in the past, she wanted to get down and do.
And get dirty, even.
Sweaty and twisty and panting for air.
She shivered and pushed hair from her face. Wow. Her breath was taking off without her and they hadn’t even got started. It was time to cross this bridge. Surely she couldn’t be the only one swept away in a need for a passionate love affair. She thought of him at night when she could hear his grunts. In the mornings as his shower ran all she wanted was to get in there with him. During the day while she balanced his books and ran the front office of his garage, she craved to walk into the shop wearing a trench coat and get busy on a car hood.
A few times, though she’d never admit it to anyone, she’d used her vibrator along with his noise in the evenings. Oh yes, she had. Heat flamed through her face.
Thankful for the July sun, he probably couldn’t tell.
His stride was long and smooth. Sure and confident, exactly like him. “When did you get here?”
Parker’s arm snaked around her shoulders and hugged her against his side. As usual, he looked glad to see her. She hoped he was super happy because he, too, laid awake thinking of doing the dirty with her. Then again, he could just be glad to see her because he was Parker and good to her. Either way, she leaned into him as he pulled her close.
See, this was something else about Parker. Any other man standing outside in July would be sweating and smelling like a pig that had been rooting around in the mud. Not Parker. She could still smell the crispness of his soap and the spice of his deodorant.
She dropped her head against his shoulder, as she’d so often done. Only now, as she’d been doing for the past six or eight weeks, she imagined her head there while gasping for air. Pictured his big, coarse hands on her naked skin, gripping her hips. His big brown eyes stared at her, and she swallowed her fear. It was time to get this out there and confront it.
She wanted scintillating sex.
Parker knew how to give it.
Doing it together seemed the natural choice.
He had always been there for her, and she trusted him. When they’d walked in and caught Jake in the act, her ex had tried coming toward her with explanations rolling off his tongue. His side girl had literally still been over the back of the couch trying to catch her breath while he stood there stark naked making excuses. Parker had punched his childhood friend in the mouth and ever since then, he’d been beside her through thick and thin. If he said no to this sex idea, she was confident they could go back to their routine. It would be a silly request and nothing more, chalked up to the fact she hadn’t been laid in over a year.
Oh, and her four margaritas.
Ha! Having four made some sense after all. “Hey. I came looking for you.”
He stared down at her, waiting, expecting more. And…there was more to say, but it lodged in her throat. It was just sex. And it wasn’t the man in question causing all these nerves, it was the act itself. The last man she had stretched horizontal with, she’d married. Said man had since left her for her best friend and moved some twenty hours west. But Stephanie was over that. Mostly. The sting wasn’t so bad anymore. Mostly.
What hadn’t dissipated was a ridiculous, nagging curiosity. This dig had started very small and hidden away. For months, the thought had remained in the back of her head. When she’d found Jake and Crystal together, he’d been doing her from behind over the arm of the couch. They’d been doing the nasty, super nasty-like. He’d had her hair fisted in his hand, forcing her spine into a deep arch. Scratches had been across his chest and a distinct hand-print on her butt. It had looked excessively dirty compared to their missionary sex. After the initial shock and hatred wore off a few months later, Stephanie wondered why she and Jake had never had sex like that. Had he thought she wouldn’t have been open to roughing it up a little bit?
Parker squeezed her against his side, hugging her close, and then loosened his grip. “Here I am. At your service all night long.”
That was a loaded statement if she’d ever heard one. If she had ovaries worth some salt, she’d yell, okay! But she didn’t. Instead, she swallowed again and fumbled around for a polite way to ask for dirty-ish sex. She was pretty sure there wasn’t one. Well, bock-bock and cluck the walk home or take a risk. She was going to do it. “I need some help.”
He didn’t wait a beat. “I’m all yours, doll, ask away.”
She nodded and walked, drawing him away from the barbecue and the crowd, steering him toward home. Home was an apartment across the street, so it wasn’t much of a walk. Which meant she better get it out before they crossed the double yellows in the middle of the road. She would never voice her question out loud once they were inside the building where all the neighbors might hear. Plus the middle of the road offered the added bonus of being able to run anywhere if he laughed. Like head-first into a car.
He hugged her against his side, gently jostling her. “Never known you to be so quiet.”
Parker was right. And she needed this. She pulled in a deep breath, stopped right there in the middle of the dead Sunday afternoon road and stared right into his eyes. “I want rough…er, sex.”
He looked at her for a long moment, and finally, he chuckled. “Funny.”
There was her way out of this conversation. She could laugh with him and that’d be it. But she didn’t want out. “I’m not being funny.”
“Uh-huh. And how much did you have to drink?” He tugged on her hair. “Not like you to drink this much.”
“I’ve only had a few.”And she was feeling darn sober at the moment. “I’m serious.”
His mouth dropped and his arm fell away from her shoulder. His eyes drifted closed as he shook his head. “We’ve never…”
She was in deep now and she wouldn’t back away. The margaritas were a help. Ding! Point two for having four. She swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. “I know. I want to. To find out.”
His mouth snapped shut. His jaw tightened, giving her the first sign of just how big of a mistake this might be, but she refused to give up, so she forged onward. He had to at least think about it. “I want something more than plain vanilla.”
He wasn’t looking at her. In fact, he had turned away until his tight jeans, curving along his nice ass, faced her. The sun blazed down even hotter on the pavement somehow, or maybe it was embarrassment burning her through and through. That scent of hot tar? That wasn’t from the pavement but her body melting from her blush.
Noise and laughter from the barbecue carried over and echoed off their apartment building and back to them. Which meant their words could also go back to the barbecue. They weren’t quite as alone as she’d like, especially with a couple of kids coming down the sidewalk toward them.
Sweat trickled down her temple and she shifted her feet, kicking a stray rock from the road. There was no breeze or shade. She was sitting under a heat lamp while her future paced about in front of her, trying to figure out if she was indeed serious or completely drunk off her ass.
Parker stopped and stared up at the bright blue sky. “Why me?”
Liquid courage pushed her on. “We’ve been neighbors for months now. Our beds are on the same wall.” He was turning. She could picture his slack-jawed mouth and yep, there it was, right along with big eyes. Not quite horrified, but then, he didn’t exactly looked thrilled. She squared her shoulders. “Well, I think, from what I’ve heard, that is, you could help me.”
Before he could say anything, the hum of an engine revved. A truck pulled out of a driveway and headed their way. Parker put his hand to her back and steered her off the road, toward their building. So much for being in the street to put her out of her misery should this little chat get any worse. And one thing was for certain: this conversation was surely going to get worse. She tried ignoring the sensation of a cold fist of rejection coming her way.
Parker shook his head. “No. This isn’t a good idea.”
She shrugged, trying to maintain a casual I’m-so-cool-I-can-ask-for-sex look. “It would just be a couple…encounters.”
“Encounters,” he echoed with a shake of his head. “No. We’re going to our apartments, and we’re going to forget this.”
She held her ground. “I’ve never had anything exciting. It’s always been just a rub over my hip, a stroke down my thigh, and that’s it. And that was okay, but I want more. I want to be used and—”
“I don’t want to hear this.” He jabbed his key in the main door and pulled it open.
She stopped in front of him and held him there in the doorway. The blast of the air conditioning slapped her with a whole new sense of drive. She could do this. She could push through. Maybe if she put her chest against his and slid her leg up his thigh, but she hadn’t drank quite enough for those kinds of moves. “What I’m saying is, it was always the same. Eighty percent of the time I was on the bottom.”
“Not listening.” He put his hand to her back and turned her toward the building.
But he was listening. He wouldn’t be wiping at his brow and tugging at his shirt otherwise. She’d seen him go through a variety of emotions over the years. Nerves wasn’t one of them that happened very often. Was this didn’t want to and didn’t know how to let her down? Or was this wanted to, but didn’t want to cross the line she’d been staring at for a long time?
“I’m not asking for a lot, just something up against a door. Or in the shower. I don’t want to be whipped with bloody welts left behind. I just want a little something more.”
He turned and faced her. His eyes were narrowed. His hands were balled into fists at his sides. “So what, you’ll call after you get out the shower one day and ask me over?”
She squirmed. “I hadn’t really worked out the details.”
“You can’t just decide one day to have wild sex with me.”
“I didn’t.” The words snapped out harder than she wanted, but she couldn’t help it. He’d struck a nerve. It wasn’t like she’d decided this was a good idea thirty minutes ago. She’d been dithering over it for months. Considered it on those late nights while hearing grunts, groans, and moans from his bedroom. “Isn’t this every guy’s wet dream? To have a woman ready and willing anytime?”
“No. Not like this.” He looked downright angry.
“You’d have a woman at your beck and call. Anytime, anywhere.” She goaded him, trying to get a little laugh and the Parker she knew back, but he wasn’t smiling. It hit her then. He already has that. The truth of what she’d feared sunk deeper. “You’re not into me that way.”
She shook her head and turned for the stairs, blinking away ridiculous tears. She knew this had been a possibility, but she had just… She sighed. She really hadn’t decided what to do if he said no. “It’s fine. I did just throw this on you all at once. I didn’t consider that you couldn’t think of me in that way.”
Footsteps echoed through the old building, silencing him, and had her looking ahead to see old Mrs. Colder rounding the white corner. The harsh overhead lights made her silvery hair look bluish and her overwhelming makeup like a kid had colored her face with highlighters.
Thankful for the interruption, Stephanie hurried past and up the short flight of concrete stairs. She fished the key to her apartment out of her pocket to slip inside as soon as she reached her door. Too bad having her keys in her hand hadn’t helped her run faster. Parker was right on her heels.
“Forget it.” His rejection pinched harder than she wanted to admit. Which was silly, because quick casual sex was all this had been about, anyway. It wasn’t a relationship he turned down, but it still felt like a rejection of her specifically. Cause for goodness sakes, she’d certainly seen a wide variety go in and out of his bedroom. Who even know he had a type he didn’t like. Apparently, she filled that category. Now to suck it up and be an adult about it. “It’s what you wanted, right? That’s what you said.”
And tomorrow, she’d play the drunk card and pretend to not remember a moment of it. Score three for the four margaritas. And hey, who knows, she had some pre-mix in the refrigerator. Dragging the bottle out and finishing it off sounded like a plan so she would forget.
Parker spun her around at her door and leaned over her, around her, covered her. He was a winter coat and she the cold, lonely body beneath it. And boy, was she warming up. His gaze covered her face, seemed to linger on her mouth, but she wasn’t sure. She wasn’t doing much breathing on her own and it was making her lightheaded. He’d never been this close before, not like this. Not with this heat between them. Or at least, heat only on her side because even hearing him say no hadn’t been enough to tame her feelings.
Parker leaned in a little more. His mouth was just there. His breath, scented of beer from the party, caressed her cheeks so softly, it was like his lips touched her. She was unable to stop her eyes lowering, a natural response to the aching need of a kiss—and then he went and pulled back. “You’ve never made a move or looked like you were interested in me that way.” He shook his head. “Damn it, you can’t throw something on me like that and expect me to jump.”
“Fine.” She dropped her gaze. And fine was right because he was right. She’d thrown it on him out of nowhere. They had been friends for a long time. He’d been a friend of Jake’s, which was how they’d met. He’d been standing next to her, helping her bring in groceries, when she walked in on Jake and Crystal doing it doggie style on her couch. Parker had stood by her through the good and the bad while Jake fought her for every fork, bowl, and pan out of the kitchen. Seven years of friendship, and suddenly she wanted to change things. She could see his point. “So we’re at a you’ll think about it and let me know?”
He straightened and swiped a hand down his face. “I suppose. And you need to think more on it, too. We take that step and things will never be the same.”
He lifted her chin. “Will never be the same.”
Parting bit of advice offered, he pushed off the wall and walked the few feet down the hall to his own door. With him, he took his heat and his…just everything. Too bad he didn’t take her pounding pulse.
She hurried inside her apartment and leaned against her front door. For the first time since leaving the barbecue, she felt like she could breathe. A talk that was supposed to be casual and off the cuff had become intense in two-point-five seconds flat. With her blood pumping at this rate, she should be stripping.
People made stuff like this work. Friends with benefits for a while and then back to normal on down the line. They were close enough to sustain that. Honestly, she would be okay attempting more of a relationship, but Parker didn’t do long-term.
Despite his cut-and-dry thoughts, things between them would only change if they let it. And she wouldn’t allow a wedge to form between them. She needed him by her side above anything else. But she wouldn’t lose hope yet for a little excitement. He was thinking about it. She pushed off the door, kicking off her heels and leaving them where they lay in the path to her bedroom. It was a step. Smaller than she would have liked. She had shaved after all, hoping for the full event with the possibility of an unfastening-buttons-while-kissing-up-the-stairs.
While she had thought he hadn’t seemed into it, looking back, disinterest wasn’t the impression she got. Or maybe the four margaritas were at work here, causing a major case of desire fogging her memory. She stopped and rubbed at her head, trying to piece things together through lime-sloshed thoughts and hoping she was getting it all right. There at the end, while standing at her door, he seemed more unsure than against the idea. She was fairly positive about that.
She sighed and hurried to her room, where she crashed on her bed. If she was right, then she just needed something to push him over the line and convince him benefits were a good idea. You’ll be having sex with someone anyway, why not me? probably wouldn’t be the way to win him over.
The day was over now. She’d attempted all she’d known to get her hands on Parker, and there was nothing more to do about it for the night. Tomorrow was another day.
Tomorrow was Monday. A work day. She’d be in the office of his tiny garage with him only steps away. His arms would be streaked with grease. A rag would dangle from the back pocket of worn jeans. Sweat would be gathered at his lower back as he worked. That old Razorback ballcap of his would be switched around from front to back—depending on what he worked on. Somehow, with all that going on and her desire for sex now out in the open, she was supposed to have a clear head to be able to bill out piston rods and lube jobs.
Cheeks flaming hot, stomach flopping, and her thighs twitching, she sat up and ripped her shirt over head and tossed it aside. It caught on the cracked open top drawer to her nightstand. She stretched to flick it to the floor, but something inside stopped her.
A grin stole her lips. Perhaps it was time to turn the tables a little. Let him hear her for once. She’d never been too vocal, but just maybe she should change that. She pulled Old Reliable out of the drawer and clicked it on. The plastic hummed in her hand. It tickled her palm and brought a chuckle to her lips.
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