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By´╝ÜJackie Steele

It was worse than anything I had ever tried in my life. Counting the fact that Jude and I had been roommates for years, that said a lot about just how bad it was.

“I’m not eating it. And neither are you.” She snatched away my plate before I could pretend to want to take another bite.

“I’m so sorry. This cooking thing isn’t for me. I swear this is going to be my last attempt ever.” She shot me a hesitant smile, and I nodded even though she had made that same promise so many times before, I had lost count. “Ready to order pizza?”

“Are you sure? Maybe once it’s cooled down…” I trailed off.

To be honest, I couldn’t wait to see her concoction safely tucked in the bin, but the beauty of friendship is you don’t hurt each other’s feelings. And so I settled on telling a little white lie, which wasn’t really that much of a lie, because, if I focused hard enough and imagined myself in a nice restaurant, Jude’s meal almost tasted bearable.

Jude shook her head decisively. “No. I’m ordering pizza.”

Thank God!

How could I argue with so much determination?

“If that’s what you want. The gesture’s all that counts.” I handed her the phone and watched her speed-dial. As she turned away I snapped a quick picture of her cooking disaster on my phone, figuring a scrapbook was the perfect Christmas gift. She’d be both mortified and laughing her head off at the same time. And it would be the best reminder never to try Thai again.

Chapter 2

“Chase wants to do what?” Jude asked, chewing on her slice of pizza.

In spite of the clouds of disbelief floating around inside my brain, I laughed at Jude’s shocked expression.

“He said he’ll marry me. Before my birthday.”

“Without having sex first?” Jude asked incredulously.

I nodded.

She leaned back, still regarding me. “Wow. Who would have thought he was so old-fashioned? He strikes me more of a ‘wham bam, thank you, ma’am’ kind of guy.”

The truth was…I had thought that, too.

“Is he religious?” Jude’s voice penetrated my thoughts.

“Not as far as I know.” I shook my head. “He does it to help me, not because he’s in love or really feeling it.”

“And you said?” Her expression changed from shock to delight as she drew out the words. I didn’t need to see her sudden grin to know what answer she expected me to give.

“I said—” I stopped, hesitating. Yesterday the though of marrying Chase had been appealing, but in the morning, during the drive home, I realized that pulling Chase into the midst of the mess that was my life might not be such a good idea. Not when I wasn’t sure who had sent the envelope. I didn’t like Clint watching us, nor the fact that Chase could end up hurt. The previous day’s decision had been a rash and foolish one. Away from him, his stunning eyes, and the magnetism he exuded, I knew better than to let myself fall into the fairy tale attitude that there might be something between us. Besides, marriage is sacred—a bond between two people, pursued out of love, not out of need to get something I had always wanted.

“Laurie?” Jude’s voice drew me back in.

“Obviously, I’ll have to give it more thought and—” I brushed my fingers through my knotted hair, faintly aware of the fact that if I was to marry Chase, I’d have to schedule an appointment with a hairdresser and find a dress and…

Oh, God.

I was officially crazy, because no woman in her right mind would marry a stranger. Not even one as hot as Chase, especially not after the previous night and relentless memories of his tongue between my legs, licking me, filling me with want and need for his hard body. I pressed my legs together, my mind fighting to suppress the haunting images before my eyes. But I was so turned on, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was written across my forehead.

“I can’t believe it,” Jude said, jerking me out of my thoughts. “You’re getting married, and then you and Chase will end up having lots of babies and I’ll be Auntie Jude.”

“No.” I slapped her arm gently before she got completely carried away and started choosing baby names. I had thought hard about it and eventually came to the conclusion that the shorter we kept the entire experience, the better. “I’m not really getting married, Jude. It would be a fake marriage that would lead to a fake divorce. I wouldn’t stay married to him.”

Her delighted smile disappeared. “Why not?”

“Because.” I threw my hands up in despair. “There are a million reasons. Like the fact that we know literally nothing about each other.”