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By´╝ÜJackie Steele

“I insist.” The fleeting thought of a maxed-out credit card entered my mind and left it just as quickly. I wasn’t much of a drinker, and wherever Jude appeared, guys offered to pay. Some even forked out a drink or two on me in the hope to impress her with their display of so-called generosity. The whole evening wouldn’t cost me more than forty bucks. A hundred, tops. A few dollars, more or less, wouldn’t really make much difference to my overexerted bank account. And to be honest, I really owed her.

“Maybe tomorrow.”

Judging from the way she kept fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, she wanted to come. She wanted it badly; she just felt guilty at the prospect of letting me pay.

“Clint has left me some money. We might as well spend it.” The half-lie made it past my lips so fast, I barely had time to acknowledge it.

Yes, Clint had insisted I cash in my allowance check, but it was for life-threatening emergencies only. Besides, I wasn’t comfortable taking money from him. He was already too involved in my life, always lecturing me on the merits of dedication and hard work. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of admitting that my attempts at attaining financial independence had remained fruitless and would most likely stay that way for a long time.

“In that case—”

I didn’t catch the rest because Jude was already out the door, and halfway across the hall, heading for her bedroom. I followed and watched her through the open door as she chose two outfits for us—dresses so short I knew I’d end up tempted to wear a long coat just to hide my half-bared ass. Maybe Jude didn’t mind flashing her panties to anyone who wanted a glimpse, but it wasn’t really my thing having other people staring up my legs.

I was ready to tell her just that when she tossed a piece of fabric my way and glared in case I started an argument with her.

For once, I clamped my mouth shut and just did as she expected of me.

Chapter 3

Five minutes into our drink at Jude’s favorite bar and already there was a line of interested guys, all eyeing up her long, toned legs and devastatingly low cleavage. She had it all: slender, tall body, hair and skin to die for, and the charm to enchant an entire room with just a modest smile. But I wasn’t envious, because being a male magnet had a huge downside to it.

“Did the guy just grope me?” she whispered, pointing at the grinning man in the adjacent cubicle. He was half sitting, half leaning toward Jude, his naked arm almost resting on the back of Jude’s chair, his fingers brushing suggestively over the polished wood. He winked at me, knowing we were talking about him, and leaned forward, ready to commence whatever he thought was his game, when I turned my back on him.

“Talk about creepy.” I rolled my eyes and agreed to swap seats with her even though I knew it wouldn’t stop his ogling, or the next brainless ape, who thought every attractive woman was an easy catch.

The bar was full, as usual. The chatter of conversations intermingled with the background music. We were at Jude’s usual table, which the bartender had cleared the moment she had entered the door.

“I can’t believe you’re getting married,” Jude said. “I feel like a mother bird whose baby’s leaving the nest, flying into the unknown. I’ll have to teach you everything I know about the birds and the bees.”

I laughed at the twinkling in her eyes. “There’s not going to be any of that, because Chase and I aren’t interested in consummating the marriage.”

Her brows shot up. “So you’ve decided to marry him?”

Dammit! Why did she have this uncanny ability to coax people into revealing their plans and decisions before they even knew for sure what those plans and decisions were?

“I don’t know,” I said. “My head tells me that it’s a stupid idea. It’s all so definite and scary.”

“It probably is…for a commitment phobe, like you.” Her blue eyes narrowed on me.

“I don’t suffer from commitment phobia.”

“And you want me to believe you?” She regarded me with raised eyebrows. “There are sexy guys and there are good, nice guys. And then there’s a mixture of both.”

“Let me guess, Chase belongs to the last category,” I said, and raised my brows. “Your point being?”

“My point being he’s a rare breed. A catch.” She smiled. “In all honesty, what keeps you back, Laurie? Life doesn’t have to be as difficult as you make it out to be. It’s hard, and cutting, full of mistakes and failures, but once you’ve reached the top, with the sky so low you can almost touch it, and the whole world at your feet, it’s beautiful and exhilarating. You’ll see it’s worth the ride.”