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They were at the spa, wearing fluffy bathrobes and sipping tea, except for Christy, who was nursing a diet soda.
“Just name a time and place, and we’ll be there with a shovel. No questions asked,” Annie said, and Holly and Tate assented.
“I could claim temporary insanity.” Heck, emotional self-defense too.
“Don’t worry, we’ll vouch for you. No jury in its right mind would convict you,” Holly stated. “I thought you were exaggerating, but boy, were you understating. What a…character.”
Ha. That was one way of putting it.
Annie nodded in commiseration. She’d met Martha a long time ago, when the girls were in college. Christy had gone for an East Coast institution, hoping it would be out of her mom’s range, but going away had been useless. There was no place far enough.
Crazy had its own methods of reaching her.
“Where’s the Grand Diva now?” Tate, Christy’s future sister-in-law, asked.
“Checking out wedding dresses. She arranged an appointment at a bridal shop. I stood her up.”
Her whole posse turned to her, looking stupefied.
“She’s picking out a wedding dress without the bride?”
Yeah, typical Martha stunt.
“I know I should be there, but why, really? She won’t listen to anything I say. I might as well save my breath.”
And a whole lot of pain and abuse in the process.
The girls pondered for a second and then nodded.
“Oh, and remember,” Christy added, reaching for her diet soda. “I’m not here. I’m in the middle of a massive twelve-car accident. Well and healthy but stuck inside the vehicle and waiting for the firefighters to come and cut the roof open to rescue me.”
That her mom hadn’t rushed to her side when Christy called her—and that Christy had known she wouldn’t—already said it all.
“And when your mom realizes your car is intact? Then what?” Tate asked, to which Christy couldn’t help snorting.
“That would imply she remembered our talk. It won’t happen. A total impossibility.”
Christy would bet anything, her first unborn child included—and her second and third—that her mom wouldn’t even mention it. That was the advantage of being disappointed one too many times; no way in hell to harbor false illusions.
Martha’s number-one priority was…Martha. Followed by whatever man she was screwing with at the moment. How she’d managed to marry a decent guy and keep him for several years was beyond Christy. Then again, Fred was too kind for his own good. That or he had a hell of a lot of bad karma from a previous life.
For a split second, she’d considered going to the bridal shop, but then she’d discarded the idea. Defaulting to her smile-accept-and-walk-away technique, she’d nodded and kept quiet. And had run in the opposite direction at the first chance. Let her mother get her kicks. Just let her do it far away from Christy. Besides, there was no damage Martha could do; Christy had told the shop assistant not to reserve anything without her consent.
Holly poured herself more tea. “Doesn’t she know you don’t want a traditional dress for your summer wedding?”
“She knows. She just doesn’t care.” They were talking about a woman who had gotten married four times, once with a beer-can tab as a ring. Appointments at high-scale bridal shops were a dream come true for her. “I feel like a shitty daughter, but I’m so ready for her to leave.”
Martha had come for Christmas with her husband and stayed a couple of days. It had gone rather well, probably because Cole was scary enough and Martha hadn’t worked herself up to be…well, herself. This time around, she’d been in Alden for three days, without Fred, and Christy was ready to face the gallows for a chance to get rid of her.
Fate had thrown Christy the mother of all curve balls when it chose Martha as her sole parent.
Their relationship had always been complicated, to say the least, with Christy spending all her life putting out fires—Martha’s—and eating to cope. Eventually she’d gotten her food addiction under control, but changing her mom and her nasty ways was something out of her reach.
And having Martha living with her without Fred as a buffer was bringing up all sorts of feelings and automatic coping mechanisms that Christy had thought she’d left behind.
Lora, Christy’s former sponsor, had been right: nothing guaranteed recovery, and they were always one upset away from relapse.
“What about Cole?” Tate asked, taking Christy out of her reverie. “Isn’t he putting her in her place?”
He would if he knew. Apparently Martha was learning subtlety, at least in front of a 240-pound, uncompromising ex-marine. It also helped that Christy had asked him not to interfere. Cole was a black-and-white kind of person. Intransigent and not inclined to put up with moronities. Left to his own devices, he would have kicked Martha out the first day.
“She’s…contained around him. I think she’s scared of him.”
“She and half the world, sister,” Holly mumbled.
Christy rolled her eyes and, after reaching inside the pocket of her bathrobe, fished out a sugar-free cherry lollipop. “Come on. Cole is a harmless sweetie.” Who liked macho power tripping and playing with cuffs, but a sweetie nonetheless.
They’d been together for six months, and although they’d clashed several times, he’d kept his word and hadn’t shut her out. He’d leave to cool down—sometimes he went to his brother James’s; sometimes she saw him pacing up and down the yard, muttering under his breath—but he always came back and they always found middle ground.
“To you he’s harmless,” Holly corrected as Christy unwrapped the candy. “Wait until he finds out about the pole-dancing classes. Mike already told Kyra to up her insurance. And to make sure there are no guys lurking around during said classes.”
Cole and his men had started working on Kyra’s dance studio right before Christmas and had gotten it ready in no time. Anything to get the exotic aerobics and the horde of giggling women in tight thongs out of Haddican’s, the local gym, and away from so much bubbling testosterone.
“It’s all Annie’s fault,” Christy shot back, giving her friend the evil eye. “She signed me up without asking.”
Christy wasn’t much for showing herself off, and pole dancing was exactly that, but Kyra had been so excited to have her and Tate on board that it had been impossible to get out of it without hurting Kyra’s feelings.
On the plus side, Martha hadn’t found out about her daughter’s new hobby. She would have made fun of Christy or joined the classes. Either way, no number of twelve-step meetings would have helped Christy get through that trauma. Her mother was many things, but ugly and clumsy she wasn’t. That her ass and boobs were still perkily pointing north and that she moved perfectly to capitalize on that also helped. Working a pole under her reproving stare would have killed Christy and her shaky, newly developed self-esteem. For all Martha’s dumb decisions in her personal life—and boy, were there plenty—she had a witty tongue and knew how to deliver killer putdowns.
“Duh, you would have said no,” Annie replied, bringing her back to the present. “And I owed you one after you got me into exotic aerobics.”
“You know I can’t quit the exotic aerobics. I needed company.” Christy had gone there just on a whim, but then Cole saw her and, in one of his my-way-or-the-highway stunts, had tossed her over his shoulder and stomped out of the class. Now she couldn’t quit, just on principle. She needed to stand her ground with Cole, especially when he was being a control freak and attempting to fuck her into submission, which was very often.
Besides, she liked that class. And defying Cole.
Annie pursed her lips. “A pregnant woman wiggling her ass around a chair and pretending to be sexy is…definitely not.”
“I’m pretty sure Max feels otherwise,” Holly said. “I’ve seen him watching you. No way to disguise that look.”
“That tight expression. The she’s-mine-everyone-back-the-fuck-off glare, mixed with wait-till-I-get-a-closed-door-between-us-and-the-rest-of-the-world.”
Tate laughed. “That’s the standard Bowen look.”
Damn right. Christy had seen it on Cole’s face many times. Before and after fucking her senseless. Heck, while too. She loved that proprietary look. It said she was beautiful and he needed her. For someone who’d battled self-esteem issues all her life, it meant the world. Cole meant the world to her.
“As soon as the baby pops out,” Christy said, pointing at Annie’s seven-months-pregnant belly, “you’re marching into the pole-dancing classes with me. No frigging excuses.”
Annie shook her head. “I have shitty coordination. I’d kill myself.”
“Sure. And the swing up in Max’s room?”
They were all rosy from their facial massages, yet Annie visibly flushed. “Hmm, that’s for yoga?”
Christy couldn’t stifle the giggle. Neither could Holly or Tate.
Yeah, because Max was such a yoga type.
Christy dipped her sugar-free lollipop on her diet soda. “If I’m making an ass out of myself and Kyra is risking the integrity of her new business, you’re joining us after recovering from childbirth.”
Annie grimaced, pointing at Christy’s glass. “That’s gross. I thought you were cutting back on your weird stuff.”
Yeah, she’d thought that too. Until her mom blew into town.
“Cola-flavored cherry lollipop or cherry-flavored soda. Not weirder than scooping Nutella with bacon.”
“True, but I’m hormonal.”
Ha! Pregnancy hormones had nothing on the spike of anxiety that Martha created.
“By the way, Tate,” Holly chimed in, “did you get a pole installed in the bedroom?”
Now it was Tate blushing. “Yes.”
She blushed even harder. She was six months pregnant, and although she had some limitations where the movements were concerned, Christy had seen her dance. Tate really knew how to make it work. She kicked ass. Pregnant and all.
“James loved it. As in really loved it.”
“On a scale of one to ten?” Holly asked, wiggling her eyebrows.
“Thirty. And don’t worry,” Tate hurried to appease Christy. “I made him promise he won’t say a word to Cole about the classes.”
Good, because Mike was right. If Cole found out, Kyra was going to need top-of-the-line insurance, especially with Amantis’s dancing crew and the security detail snooping around.
“Although I don’t see the big issue. It’s for Cole. Whenever you’re ready, he’ll be the one enjoying the result of the classes, right?”
“Right,” Christy mumbled. She’d started liking it, but considering how klutzy she felt at pole dancing, it was going to take a couple of decades before Cole got to see her.
Holly turned her inquisitive gaze to Annie. “And your, uh, yoga swing? Scale of one to ten?”
“Thirty,” she answered after a long pause, red as a frigging tomato.
“Wow. Swings, dancing poles. The pregnant ladies here like their toys,” Holly said with a grin.
Christy glanced at Annie and Tate, both fanning themselves. “We should change the subject. Before the kinky pregnant ladies faint.”
“You’re a fine one to talk. And the cuffs tucked in the drawer in your nightstand?”
“What? I’m being tactful. The cuffs were the only objects I recognized.”
Okay, they were so banned from each other’s bedrooms.
“Really?” Holly asked, looking intrigued as hell. “What kind of objects?”
“We are deviating from the subject, people. We were talking about how to off my mom, remember?”
Tate waved around. “That’s easy. We bring her here, lock her in the sauna, and turn it to high.”
“It won’t work. She’s from LA. And she lived in Georgia for a while, chasing after some crocodile hunter. The heat’s nothing for her.”
“Or now that we have plenty of props,” Holly said with a wink, “we could plant Tate’s dance pole somewhere in the forest and cuff Martha to it. Leave her for the wolves.”
Poor wolves. Her mother would have them committing suicide in no time. Christy couldn’t do that to them.
“Must be a simpler way. Can’t you just send her to hell?”
Christy shrugged. It was easier said than done. Her mom had the nasty habit of doing something nice whenever Christy was reaching critical mass. She couldn’t send her to hell in good conscience.
The girls couldn’t understand. Annie had a kick-ass mom. Tate too. Holly’s she didn’t know, but the messages between mother and daughter were hilarious, so she imagined their relationship was solid. People with great parents had no clue how difficult it was to deal with bad ones.
“How long until she leaves?”
“Still a while. Thirteen days, nine hours”—Christy reached for her cell—“twenty-five minutes and thirty-five seconds, to be exact.”
Annie chuckled. “You keeping track?”
“I have a countdown set.” Every twenty-four hours, an app sent her a yay-you-can-do-this message. “She’s leaving four days before Valentine’s Day. She wants to be in LA then, so that she can prepare for it.”
“Four days in advance?” Holly asked. “What’s she planning on doing for her husband?”
“For Fred? Nothing. She goes to make sure he gets her all that she wants.”
“You can say that again. How he puts up with her, I don’t know.”
Her smile-accept-and-walk-away technique was failing her big-time now that they were both under the same roof. Or maybe it was that she had gotten a taste for normal and supportive with Cole, and going back to mental was hard.
“We should call Fred and get some pointers,” Holly suggested. “Thirteen days is a long time. Spending your and Cole’s first Valentine’s Day in jail wouldn’t be too much fun.”
“Run to Vegas ahead of schedule. You’re going there anyway for your annual convention, right?” Annie asked.
Tate frowned. “What convention?”
“The geeky version of Valentine’s,” Annie said. “I was there once with her. Memorable. Not going ever again.”
Christy rolled her eyes and turned to Holly and Tate. “There’s a Star Trek convention held in Vegas the weekend before Valentine’s every year.” Plus this year they had the premiere of a new Star Trek movie. “And no, I’m not going. Cole wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that. I’ve been dropping hints about it for a couple of months already, but he isn’t biting.”
Holly patted her on the arm. “So no hanging out with your nerdy friends and stuck with your mom. That sucks.”
Book Summary & Purchase links
Cole Bowen is experiencing a world of firsts: first time in love, first engagement, first Valentine's, first in-laws. He's found the woman of his dreams, so he figured dealing with Martha Sheridan was a small price to pay. That is before his monster-in-law plants herself in their home and inside Christy's head, stirring up old demons and destroying her newly regained self-esteem. And while his hands are full with trying to neutralize their meddlesome guest, a mysterious phone call turns his world upside down.
With ghosts from the past resurfacing and threatening to tear Cole and Christy apart, can they make it to the wedding they both so desperately want, or will heavy secrets send their relationship to the breaking point?
The Bowen Series Reading Order
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Meet Elle Aycart
While she is probably now thinking of a new profession, her head never stops churning new plots for her romances. She lives currently in Barcelona, Spain, with her husband and two daughters, although who knows, in no time she could be living at the Arctic Circle in Finland, breeding reindeer.
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