Charlene Bastien was absolutely great at weddings, just so long as they weren’t her own. Or she had been, once upon a time. This time, for some reason, things were proving to be a bit more difficult.
Which is ridiculous, she thought as she climbed the porch steps of the Garden District mansion that housed the New Orleans chapter of Club Volare. The club itself was new, but the imposing mansion already gave it a stately feeling of permanence—something that made Charlene happy, even if she couldn’t enjoy the club herself. It made her think that her friends would be around for a long, long time.
The couple she was there to see were the closest thing she had to a real family. Gavin Colson, who owned the club, had been her best friend since college, and Olivia Cress had fast become the sister she’d never had, and Charlene loved them both with all her heart. And she was here, today, to help them with their wedding.
Yet climbing these steps was proving…difficult.
Charlene paused on the top step to take in the new club. It wasn’t even that new anymore, but she still couldn’t get over it. A Club Volare here in New Orleans! She would have killed to have a BDSM club like this when she was just getting into the scene all those years ago.
The English ivy curled around the outside of the house, and the sun kissed the trees before piercing through to the manicured grounds in strong, bright columns of brilliant light. She breathed in deeply, the sweet smell of honeysuckle filling her up, and something inside her quickened.
If she let herself, she could almost forget that she couldn’t enjoy this type of thing anymore. There was a reason she hadn’t spent time in BDSM clubs since her own marriage fell apart. A really freaking good reason.
That didn’t mean she didn’t miss it.
“Suck it up, Charlie,” she said to herself, and rang the bell.
The door opened, and Charlene braced herself, then rolled her eyes. What was she expecting, an instant hot air blast of pure kink that would test her self-control? She shook her head, smiled at herself, and waved to the woman who’d opened the door.
“Hey, Simone,” she said.
Simone Delavigne grinned back at her. Simone was a bit younger than Charlene, and a whole lot taller and blonder, but they’d known each other forever. Simone’s sister, Gabby, had been one of Charlene’s best friends before she’d passed away, and that connection may have waxed and waned over time, but it was always there. It made Charlene feel warm and fuzzy as a Snuggie to see Simone smiling. The younger woman had seriously blossomed since she’d gotten back from rehab, both at the club and in her professional life in public relations, though Charlene had heard that she was still too embarrassed to face her former Dom.
And Charlene knew all about being unable to face a Dom. Any Dom, in her case. That fact kept worming its way inside her head, and it was starting to drive her absolutely bonkers.
“You here for the wedding huddle?” Simone said.
“I am,” Charlene said, looking down at the binders bursting with color-coded ideas and clippings and scraps of paper that she was only barely holding together in her arms.
“You are a machine, I swear,” Simone laughed. “I have no idea how you do it.”
Charlene smiled a little sheepishly. The truth was, Charlene didn’t always know how she did it either—she had her own restaurant, and she ran a charity that she’d endowed with the inheritance that her otherwise-deadbeat dad had left her, and she did both at the same time. It was a lot of work, but Charlene did it all. It definitely kept her too busy to have much of a social life, and, looking around at all the equipment on display in the Club Volare great room, Charlene was reminded why she needed the distraction.
Oh my Lord, there’s the St. Andrew’s Cross.
That used to be one of her favorites. She could still remember the feeling of being tied down and spread at the same time, the thrill that would charge through her when the leather bit into her skin, the…
Nope. Do not go there. But she was too late—the memory had its foot in the door, and then it just pushed ahead to the front of her mind.
The last time she’d been on a St. Andrew’s Cross, her ex-husband, Jimmy, had made her cry by entertaining another sub, totally outside the negotiated terms of their marriage, and then he’d yelled at her in front of the entire party and said that she’d imagined the whole thing. It was all in her head. It was always just all in her head. Of course, she’d found him balls-deep in that other sub just a few months later.
But the really screwed up part was that even though Charlene had found her husband literally inside another woman, there was a moment—just a moment—when she had actually doubted herself.
Simone’s worried voice snapped Charlene back to the present. She forced a smile and shook her head.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll just head upstairs.”
Simone laughed. “Have fun,” she said, looking up at the giant staircase. “I have no idea how Olivia does it.”
Neither do I, Charlene thought to herself as she started the first of four flights that lead to the attic. Gavin and Olivia had been living together in the attic suite of the club while they waited for their new house to be built, but things had changed. Hell, that was the whole reason the wedding had been bumped up.
Olivia was pregnant.
Charlene smiled, remembering the look on her friend’s face when she’d told her. It was the happiest accident to happen since…well, Charlene couldn’t even think of another example. And like her Gran always said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. But that meant they wanted the wedding to happen soon, and those two needed to move out of the attic even sooner.
And Charlene could help with the wedding, at least.
Secretly proud of herself for only being a little out of breath, Charlene banged her hip into the door at the top of the stairs.
“Incoming!” she said, and heard laughter. She grinned. The last time she’d come up here she’d accidentally surprised those two in an intimate moment, nearly scarring Charlene for life. Gavin was like her brother.
Then she realized she couldn’t turn the knob.
Ok, doors at the top of stairs win the awkwardness award. She had her hands full of wedding stuff, and the stairs were narrow—no way she was risking a wedding organization explosion of papers all the way back down the curling spiral staircase.
“I lied!” she shouted. “Someone come let me in!”
She heard footsteps—heavy footsteps. But not Gavin, and definitely not Oli—
The door opened. And the world stopped.
All six-foot-plus of his rough, muscled frame standing there, right in front of her. His shoulders straining at his white button down, his corded arms relaxed at his sides, his gold-flecked eyes glinting at her. He smelled like sawdust and musk and…man. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak.
She just stared.
And felt her body snap to life. It was like she’d been slapped. No thoughts, no memories crowded her mind. Just nothing but the sensation of the moment, her blood rushing through her veins, her heart pumping, pounding, in every square inch of her flesh, her ribcage shaking with every beat. Sensation sizzled over her skin, from the tips of her fingers through her chest, her breasts, down to her core. She could feel her heart beat between her legs. She was definitely, immediately, wet.
Luke Logan was Gavin’s old poker buddy, some kind of construction magnate genius, and the only Dom who could make her forget, even for an instant. A dangerous instant. There was a reason she’d made sure she never had to get this close to him.
And he was staring at her. Hard.
And now the silence between them was heavy. Awkward—for her. Luke never seemed bothered by anything, not even the fact that he could obviously see exactly how her body responded to his.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted.
“Talking to the happy couple about building a house,” he said easily. God, his voice was like honeyed chocolate. “You?”
“Talking to the happy couple about building a wedding,” she said, and tried to raise the binders she held in her arms. The shift in weight made her wobble, just a little, but she was in heels on the edge of some stairs and—
He caught her.
Arm around her like steel. Warm, strong. Hard.
“I’m fine,” she said quickly.
He didn’t say anything at all. Just pulled her close to him, inside, across the door, and for a moment nothing else existed. Just his warmth, his scent. His arm around her waist.
Her breath hitched.
And she would have stayed like that forever, probably, if she hadn’t heard footsteps.
With relief, she stepped back into the attic, away from Luke, and tried to pretend he wasn’t there. The only way that was possible was if she turned around—and nearly smacked right into Olivia.
“Are you planning the invasion of Normandy?” Olivia said, laughing down at the overstuffed binders.
Gavin, gruff as always, stood behind her. He’d been smiling that lopsided, scarred smile a lot more since Olivia had come into his life, and just as it always did, the sight of the two of them together made Charlene both incredibly happy and—if she were completely honest—just a little bit sad, too. It was like proof that there were happily-ever-afters in the world, even if Charlene’s own happily-ever-after had turned out to be more of a tragicomedy than a romance.
“It’s always good to have options,” Charlene said, looking down at the massive amounts of options all perfectly collated and organized that she still cradled in her arms.
Olivia and Gavin exchanged a look. And if Luke hadn’t stepped forward so that he was standing right behind her, Charlene might have picked up on it a little bit quicker.
“Come sit down,” Gavin said. “And we’ll tell you what we’re thinking.”
Charlene heard him, sort of, but it was like a voice over a terrible connection, because Luke had just put his hand on the small of her back.
His touch burned through her blouse, right to her skin. For a moment, she leaned into it. Then she forced her eyes open and propelled herself forward, her mind racing, her heart…doing something weird, possibly gymnastics-related, in her chest. She had to get this done, and get out of there.
She looked around—she’d only been up here a few times, but she could see that Olivia had redone the place, as much as possible. It had been this very raw, very romantic, but very impractical loft attic space when Gavin moved in as he was getting the club off the ground, and now it looked more like the sort of dreamy attic loft you might see on a television show. No more visible BDSM equipment—thank God, although obviously Gavin wouldn’t have let it go far—and a lot more furniture, with the kinds of details that made a room. It actually looked like a home.
And there was a giant table made of reclaimed wood right in the middle of it, underneath a skylight. Charlene steamed ahead.
“Ok, so should we get started?” she said, maybe a little too quickly, and finally laid her binders down on the table. “So for locations, I was thinking—”
“Hold on, Charlie.”
That voice. Luke spoke so easily—unhurried and calm. Completely confident that the world would stop and listen. It was one of the most infuriating things about him.
Charlene forced herself to look up and raise an eyebrow. “Are you involved in wedding planning?”
It was meant to be a joke, kind of? But no one laughed.
“That’s one of the things we wanted to talk to you about,” Olivia said as Gavin helped her—helped her?—into a chair.
Olivia was barely showing. She shouldn’t need help with things, and yet there Gavin was, his intense gaze focused only on his bride-to-be. The way he looked at the future mother of his child awakened that weird mix of happy-sadness in Charlene’s chest, and she had to fight to put it back down.
“Plans have changed,” Gavin said. He couldn’t take his eyes off Olivia.
“It’s twins,” Olivia said, smiling broadly. “But…”
Charlene stared at her friend. Olivia smiled a little more.
“Twins?” she whispered.
Ok, now it was Charlene couldn’t keep the smile off her face. She clapped her hands together, and would have run over to give Olivia a giant hug if Gavin wasn’t clearly in worried-husband mode. “Seriously? We get two?”
“Twins,” Gavin said. “And higher risk.”
Charlene opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again. She knew in an academic kind of way that pregnancy was a totally mixed bag, and no one really knew what they were going to get. But she’d missed out on the details herself—during those years when most of her girlfriends were getting married or having kids, Charlene was hard at work on her restaurant, and then with the charity. She’d really only seen everything from a distance.
She looked at Olivia.
“Are you ok?” she asked.
Olivia rolled her eyes. “I’m fine. This one is just a little overprotective—”
Charlene could have sworn she heard a soft growl come from Gavin’s throat.
“But my blood pressure isn’t great, and the doctor said we need to take it easy—both of us,” she said, looking at Gavin pointedly. “And, well, weddings are stressful. So are stairs. So is moving. I’m just not sure how to—”
“You can stay with me,” Charlene blurted. “You know I’ve got the room, and—”
“Char, I love you, but your house has stairs too,” Olivia said, smiling. “And we’d drive you crazy.”
“I’ve rented a penthouse in a concierge building downtown,” Gavin said. “We’ll be moving immediately, and the house will be finished…?”
“You’ll have plenty of time,” Luke said.
And then his hand was on the small of her back again, and a chair was being pulled out for her. Charlene blinked. She hadn’t thought much about offering her house to her friends, it was just an instinctive reaction, so she wasn’t prepared to feel disappointed when Gavin shot that down, even if it was obviously the right thing. Her house did have stairs. It was just that living alone hadn’t felt lonely to her until this exact moment.
And somehow Luke…saw?
Luke’s warm scent enveloped her as he drew closer, pulling her attention away from feeling sorry for herself. His hand gently on her hip, his touch burning through her, he guided her to her seat.
How had he known she needed to sit down?
About eleventy million alarm bells went off inside her head all at once.
“Ok,” she said, and tried to ignore how close Luke was. “Ok. I can help with the wedding, that I can do—”
“About that,” Olivia said. But softly.
Charlene looked up. The look of disappointment on her friend’s face was unmistakable. She knew Olivia had spent her entire adult life taking care of her brother and her father, to the point where she’d never really let herself think about having a family of her own. The once-famous actress had finally been able to quit the profession she’d never really liked and pursue dreams that were all her own, now that she’d met Gavin. And one of those dreams was the perfect wedding.
“No,” Charlene said.
Because she knew what was coming.
“I think we might just end up doing kind of a courthouse thing,” Olivia said, and looked away. “It’s so much simpler, and—”
“I told her money is no object,” Gavin grumbled.
Olivia looked slightly exasperated. “It’s not the money. It’s the time, and the trips, and the decisions, and everything has gone wrong so far—”
“Let me do it.”
They all stopped, and looked at Charlene. She could feel their eyes, but none quite so heavily as Luke’s. He was still standing, beside and behind her, as though he were standing over her. And she didn’t have to turn her head to know he was looking at her. Every hair on the back of her neck was standing straight up.
“Please let me do it,” she said again, even though what that meant was starting to sink in. She had barely enough hours in the day as it was, but it didn’t matter. These two were her family, and her heart was so full at the idea of them together that it actually hurt. And the idea of them missing out on that day brought a heaviness to it, and, in that moment, Charlene would have done anything to lift that weight for her friends.
Hell, she could brave a meeting with Luke Logan standing entirely too close to her, and still manage to string words together in nearly coherent sentences. She could do anything.
“I’ll do all of it,” she went on. “All the work, the trips, the planning. If you want. I can just text you pictures and bring you samples and stuff, and I can do all the organizing and the logistics, and you won’t have to worry about anything at all. And I know a bunch of things have gone wrong so far, but that just means we’re due for some good luck, right? I’ll take care of it. I promise.”
There was a pause.
“You planning to clone yourself, Charlie?” Gavin said.
“I can do it,” Charlene insisted. “Please let me do this for you,” she said, this time looking at Olivia.
Olivia, who was tearing up.
“Just don’t cry,” Charlene warned her. “You’ll make me cry, and I don’t want to have to do my face all over again.”
“Are you sure?” Olivia said, kind of crying. “I mean, that is so much work—”
“Work is what I do,” Charlene said, and realized how disturbingly accurate that was. “Please let me do this for you. Please?”
Olivia looked at Gavin, and Gavin looked at Luke, and grinned. Wait. Gavin grinned?
Charlene’s sixth sense started screaming. Gavin was a Dom, through and through, and she had a feeling she’d just walked into something.
“On one condition,” Gavin said.
Charlene looked at Olivia. Olivia shrugged.
She’d totally walked into something.
“You let the best man look after you today.”
Luke. Luke freaking Logan was the best man.
Charlene closed her eyes, though she knew it wouldn’t matter. She heard the chair next to her move, heard those cowboy boots on the wooden floors. Heard him sit next to her.
When she opened her eyes, he was looking at her. Grinning at her. Studying her.
Suddenly that feeling of nakedness, of total exposure, that she’d only ever felt around certain Doms, washed over her. Like he could see everything. Like there was no point in hiding or arguing. Slowly the rest of the world faded away, and she realized she’d stopped breathing.
Charlene shook her head.
“I don’t need looking after,” she said. “No offense.”
“No offense taken,” Luke said, just as easily as before. “But that doesn’t change a thing.”
Charlene looked at Olivia, then Gavin. Both of them smiling. Both of them traitors. She knew what they were up to—they’d planned this. They’d planned this. And now she felt like she’d been abandoned all alone out in some unknown territory without a map while a relentless Dom hunted her. And the worst part was that, even though she knew better, she wanted to get caught.
“You knew I was going to offer to plan your wedding,” she said to Olivia. More of an accusation than a question.
“We had an idea,” Olivia admitted.
Suddenly Luke stood up, and Charlene stopped talking. The grin was mostly gone. Just those gold-flecked blue eyes flashing in his chiseled-granite face, his jaw hard, his expression stern.
“It’s not up for discussion,” he said.
And she believed him. Instantly.
Charlene opened her mouth to try to speak, but no words came out. She looked helplessly at Olivia.
“I’m afraid he’s right, Charlie,” Gavin said.
“It’s the only way I’ll feel ok with you taking on all that work,” Olivia said.
Dazed, Charlene let Luke pull her chair out, and when he offered her his hand, she took it. Stupid. The charge of his touch raced through her and short-circuited her brain—again. She couldn’t take much more of this without completely losing her mind.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Olivia says we have an appointment with a florist,” he rumbled from somewhere above her. She couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t do anything. Hell, she’d just forgotten about the appointment she herself had made.
Then Luke chuckled.
Charlene looked up, intending a withering glare. Then she saw those eyes, and forgot what she was going to do.
“I bet you’re used to being in charge, aren’t you?” Luke said. “At your restaurant.”
“I am,” she said softly.
“That’ll be a nice change of pace, then,” he said.
Charlene hated that she believed him.