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Recklessly Ever After by Heather Van Fleet (1)

Chapter 1

Gavin

Getting stuck in an elevator with the sexy blond I’ve been fantasizing about for months should have been a dream come true. But instead, it was a damn nightmare.

Standing before me, dressed in a pair of blue, cloud-patterned scrubs, McKenna Brewer put her hands on my forearms and spoke to me as if I were a kid. “Just breathe, Gavin. I promise we won’t be in here long. In through your nose, out through your—”

My throat burned as I growled out the words. “I’m fine.”

“Let’s at least get this off you.” The back of her knuckles grazed my chest as she tugged on the ties of my hoodie. “You’re sweating and—”

Don’t touch me.” I nudged her out of the way with my shoulder, then moved to the other side of the hospital elevator. There, I pressed my forehead against the wall, silently begging for this to be over.

I’m surprised she even remembered who I was, since we hadn’t seen each other in a few months. That tended to happen when you were a recluse like me. Collin and Max, my best friends, both said I had issues—which I didn’t deny. But really, it was the introvert in me that avoided crowds and going out.

Plain and simple? I just didn’t like people.

When I did see McKenna, I avoided her. It’s not that I didn’t like her. I just had no idea what to say when I was around her.

She made me feel things. Weird things.

Things I’d avoided for years.

Things I was dying to experience but had no idea how to let myself do.

Her small hand settled against my lower back. I jumped at the unexpected touch, ramming my dick against the metal bar halfway down the wall. “Son of a bitch.” I curled over at the waist, my hand on my crotch.

“Oh God. Are you okay?”

I turned to face her, teeth gritted. “Been…better.”

“Is anything fractured? Do you need me to take a look?”

“Not unless you wanna see my dick,” I snorted through my wince.

“Huh?” She jerked her head back, eyes narrowed.

“Never mind,” I barked, not meaning to. But nothing said claustrophobia like a clingy nurse—good intentions or not. “Just…stay back and give me a sec, all right?” I paused for a minute before adding hastily, “Please.”

Her eyes flashed between my crotch and my hands, widening in surprise. “Ohhh.”

“Yep.” I popped my lips and waited for the pain to ease, eyes to the ceiling, heart racing too quickly. Sweat beaded along my temples, and I shut my eyes, imagining myself in a safe place. The psychiatrist had told me to go there mentally whenever I had one of these…these episodes. The irony is that the place where I always went was with the woman standing right there in front of me.

Fucking hilarious how fate worked sometimes.

McKenna had been the star of my dreams for God only knew how many months. I’d done my best to keep my distance until I was right enough in the head to make a move. Or at least I’d tried to. But there I was, freaking out in front of her. Max had been right when he’d told me I didn’t have game.

I stepped back, only to slide to the floor against the wall. “Fuck me,” I mumbled under my breath, hands in my hair. I was a damn mess.

“I called for help.” A few feet away, McKenna crouched to the floor, her white orthopedic shoes coming into view. “It shouldn’t be that much longer. Heck, maybe it will be a simple factory reset, and they won’t even have to call the fire department.”

I nodded, unconvinced.

A minute passed. Then two. I was counting the silent seconds in my head.

“Is your, um, stuff okay?”

I looked up at her question, finding her bottom lip pulled between her teeth. “My stuff?”

She nodded, eyes shifting briefly to my crotch again.

“My dick, you mean.”

Her lips curled into a half grin. “There are more suitable terms to use in front of a lady, you know.

“Guess I’m not a suitable kind of man.” I propped a knee up, wincing, then leaned over on one hip and rubbed my hand over my chest. My dick was the least of my problems right now.

McKenna sat next to me, still managing to keep some distance between us, thank God. I respected that about her. Typically, when I was having one of my moments, people tended to crowd around more, which usually ended with me causing a scene.

“You don’t have to be suitable to say suitable things. Trust me.” She winked.

I grunted and leaned my cheek against the cold wall, eyes locking with hers. My chest grew tighter with every breath, but hearing her talk? It helped.

“For example, a more appropriate term for your stuff would be ‘penis.’”

I lifted a brow. “You really gonna do this now?”

She nodded quickly, and hair from her short ponytail fell over her forehead and nose. She blew the strands away, but they landed in the same spot. She’d cut her hair since I’d seen her last.

“Yes. I am, actually.” She rolled her shoulders—one, then the other, only to fling her arms out in front of her and wiggle her fingers. My lips twitched as I watched her. Damn cute is what she was.

“There’s ‘member,’ ‘groin,’ and ‘wiener’—although that one might be crossing the line as far as suitable goes. Then there’s ‘manhood.’ That’s always been my favorite.”

I frowned. Was she serious? Or was she fucking with me?

“Oh! ‘Endowment’ is a good one too.” She crossed her legs, only to flap them up and down like wings. Her energy level was contagious, like Chloe’s when she couldn’t sit still.

At the thought of my friend’s daughter, my chest eased a little.

“I’d prefer to call it my disco stick,” I mumbled.

“Of course you would.” McKenna rolled her pretty blue eyes. “But from my standpoint, I don’t necessarily like pet names for the peen.”

I frowned. “You just called it a peen. Isn’t that a pet name?”

She shrugged. “It’s better than ‘beef whistler,’ ‘wing dang doodle,’ ‘zipper ripper,’ or the ‘just-in beaver,’ am I right?”

“Did you just call my dick Justin Bieber?”

“No, silly. It’s the ‘Just. In. Beaver.’” She grinned. Not a hint of a blush covered her cheeks. This girl was shameless.

“Damn. You’re something.”

“Something good, I hope.” She shimmied in place.

I couldn’t help but grin, loving the way her nose scrunched up as she spoke, but then things went quiet again, reminding me where we were. I rubbed a hand over my newly grown beard just as a creak and a thud sounded above us.

I shot up and pressed my palms against the wall, ready for battle. With a motherfucking elevator. “Jesus, what was that?”

Kenna stood too, calm and completely in control. Hands on her hips, she looked at the silver trapdoor above us, grinning. “Hey! Anyone up there got beer?”

A man laughed and said, “I’ll buy you one as soon as I get you out of there, miss. How’s that sound?”

Hands shaking, I brought them to my sides and relaxed as I sat on the floor again.

“Sounds great, actually.” She grinned, those eyes twinkling like stars in a midnight sky.

I remembered them from the night I’d first met her last fall. I’d nearly knocked her off her barstool at O’Paddy’s, the bar Collin, Max, and I always went to after our rugby games. Later that night, I found her sitting against the wall by the bathroom, wasted.

She’d been crying. Knees to her chest like I was sitting now, bawling about a broken nail and a broken heart. Those eyes were all I could see when I’d asked her if she was all right, yet her words tumbled out faster than a hurricane: Fuck men.

That’s when I’d crouched in front of her, told her I’d take care of her, and helped her to her feet. No questions asked, she let me…then started purring at me like a cat. Told me she’d be able to get over her ex if I promised to be her sexual bandage. Also pretty sure she told me that if she ever decided to have kids, I’d be the one she’d call for the sperm.

“I could really use something stronger than a beer, ya know?” She sat on the elevator floor again, this time across from me, her smile still wide, her voice disrupting my thoughts.

I swallowed hard and wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. My pulse continued to race, but my breathing seemed to steady.

Damn it all to hell. Why couldn’t I just be normal?

“Hey.” She bumped the toe of her shoe against mine, a shadow of a dimple forming on her right cheek. “You heard the man. It won’t be long now.”

I looked away, not wanting to stare, zoning out on the sounds of the clunking above us instead.

“…claustrophobic?”

“What’d you say?” I narrowed my eyes and looked at her again.

“I wondered if you were claustrophobic. Like, do you have issues with being in tight, enclosed spaces?”

“What gave it away?” I snorted and rubbed my hand over my beard just as the elevator hummed to life, only to die again.

The guy above said, “Well, hell,” and I hit the back of my head against the wall.

Breathe, idiot.

“You want me to talk you through it?” she asked.

“I’m fine.” I gritted my teeth, barely opening my mouth. Whether I wanted it to or not, I knew a soft voice like hers wasn’t going to completely talk me down. This was something I had to do myself. Besides, I’d just seen a doc. The last thing I wanted was someone else trying to pick my brain.

Life in my world consisted of doctors and solitude. Alone time to function and occasional talks with my best friends that never turned serious. Collin and Max didn’t have a clue what my life had been like before them. Nobody did, other than my high school girlfriend and the people who’d made me the way I am today.

As long as I lived and breathed, it would stay that way. Because subjecting the people I loved to the kind of pain I’d endured was not something I could deal with.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll just keep talking, even if you don’t want to answer. I love to talk. Like, a lot. Sometimes to myself, even,” McKenna continued.

As always when she came near, I couldn’t stop myself from studying her, her eyes a beacon in the storm. More than anything, I needed to stop, regroup a little, maybe shut my own eyes if I had to. Because relying on someone else to ease my pain meant I’d never truly be able to find my way alone.

Still, the longer I stared at her, the more the raging winds inside me calmed.

“Talking to yourself is fine. Just as long as you don’t answer.” I cleared my throat. “Isn’t that what they say?”

“Very true.” She leaned her head back, smiling at the ceiling. “Which is why I don’t shut up most of the time. I’m a people person who needs conversation.”

I wondered what that might be like.

Then shuddered at the idea a second later.

“Just so you know, my sister suffers from anxiety. I know how to help you.”

Exhaling, I turned away. I could almost bet her sister didn’t suffer from the same shit I did, but what did I know?

“Let’s do the question game. That always helps. You don’t have to give full answers if you don’t want. One word is fine. Maybe two or three if you’re feeling particularly generous.”

I grunted.

“Grunts are good too.” She shrugged one shoulder. “So, what do you do for a living again?”

I waited a beat before answering. “I’m an EMT.” Though currently suspended for losing my shit on a coworker. It’s why I was at the hospital today. In addition to seeing my psychiatrist again, I’d been taking anger management classes three nights a week.

McKenna scooted closer, though still respectfully keeping her distance. “How come I’ve never seen you here before? I mean, I don’t work in the ER except maybe once a month, but still.”

I shrugged and looked at my lap. Most likely because whenever I saw her, I ducked and ran. But she didn’t need to know that.

“Were you born and raised here? Is Carinthia your hometown?”

“No.” Not technically. If anything, I wasn’t really from anywhere.

Foster home to foster home, city to city in Illinois… A person who’d lived in the system since they were ten years old didn’t tend to relate to that word—home.

“Well, I was born in New Orleans, but moved to Macomb later on. After college, I relocated to Carinthia to be closer to Addie.” She shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about relocating back south though. I’m young and tired of the cold winters. Arizona would be nice, but that’d be even farther away from Addison. I’d be a mess without her.”

My gut tightened. Move? Out of state?

“My mother still lives in New Orleans. Not that I’d move back there for her. More to see my sister, who stays with her because she’s the only child who refuses to walk away from those sons of bitches called our family.” She cleared her throat. “Sorry. TMI. I don’t have much of a filter. Addie always says I wear all my secrets on my sleeve.” She shrugged and tugged at the hems of her scrub pants.

I looked away and nodded. That was Addie, all right.

Though I’d never held a one-on-one conversation with McKenna before now, I’d found her fascinating—even from a distance. She was funny. Made everyone laugh. Had opinions and wasn’t afraid to express them. It was refreshing for someone like me, who tended to run and lock himself away when things got too tough.

“A person can’t run from their problems,” I said, the biggest hypocrite alive. “Not healthy.”

“True…” She twiddled her thumbs, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. “But don’t you ever want to start over in life? Be someone else, even if only for a day?”

I didn’t have to think about my answer. “No. I like my job.” And even though my mind didn’t work like everyone else’s and my past was shit, I wouldn’t change who I was today. Mainly because I had a family in my two best friends and Chloe.

“Not many people can say that. You’re one of the lucky ones. I mean, I don’t hate being a nurse, but it’s definitely not ideal either.” She reached up and yanked the hair tie from her ponytail. I swallowed hard, watching as her wavy blond hair spilled down around her face, hitting just at her shoulders. The scent of wildflowers had my mouth going dry and my cock twitching in response.

“Hmm” was all I could manage.

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

I could feel her gaze on my face, the warmth of her stare, her attention suddenly everything I wanted, even though I tried to fight it. “No.”

“Well, I do, if you couldn’t tell already.”

“You already said that.”

The elevator jerked. I pressed my palms flat against the floor, my knuckles going white.

Like it was no big deal, McKenna kept talking, while moving closer and crouching so her knees touched my feet. “Talking is my thing, you know? My way of dealing with stress and life. I tell people what my thoughts are, and I don’t keep them inside. Like I said, TMI is pretty much ATT for me.”

“ATT?” I asked.

She bumped my foot with her knee. “It stands for ‘all the time.’” She winked at me. “And you don’t have to, but if you ever decided you wanted to get unfiltered, then you should hit me up sometime. Swing by when I’m at Addie and Collin’s place visiting. Or…I could stop by and see you.”

I nodded, failing to ignore the way my heart raced at the thought of her in my house. In my bed even more. I cleared my throat, just in time for the elevator to lurch again. “Fuck.” Without thinking, I reached for her hand and yanked her forward. She landed chest first on my knees with an oomph. Other than her lips parting as she stared up at me, McKenna barely flinched.

“Shit. Sorry.” I jerked back and scrubbed a shaking hand over my face.

Instead of calling me a freak, slapping me, or screaming for help, I felt her sit up, her movements slow against my jeans. Soon, she was straddling my thighs, the heat of her breath washing over my hands too.

I swallowed as she pulled them down from my face, then blinked as she whispered, “Movement’s a good sign, trust me. Those movies that show elevators plunging people to their deaths are fictional for a reason.”

I groaned at the image she created in my mind.

Each time I swallowed, each time I tried to breathe, I felt less and less oxygen in my lungs, my breaths squeezing my chest as if hundreds of ropes were knotted around my heart.

The elevator began to move, only to jerk to a stop once more.

The guy hollered down at us—“Almost there”—yet his muffled reassurance did nothing to ease my anxiety.

Kenna’s warm body scooted closer, her chest to mine, her soft hands on my cheeks. All thoughts of pushing her off me grew suddenly null and void. Not when her nearness was the only thing keeping me from losing it completely.

“When I was a little girl, my dad used to tell me stories about brave princesses rescued by their princes.”

I cringed. “I’m no prince.”

The side of her mouth kicked up. “And I’m no princess either. Lucky you.” Her lips twitched, but the expression did nothing for me this time. “Take a deep breath, Gavin,” she whispered. “Breathe for me.”

“No.” I squeezed my eyes shut.

She dropped one of her hands from my cheek and squeezed my fingers in between our stomachs. “Eyes on me. Don’t look away.”

My throat burned, but I managed to do what she asked.

“Tell me something. Tell me your biggest secret.”

The elevator lurched once more, and the guy on top mumbled something over the noise.

Breathe. Just breathe.

“Tell me a secret,” she asked again, this time adding, “Please.”

I shook my head.

“Why?”

My jaw locked at her question. Still, I didn’t respond.

“Are you afraid I’ll hold it against you after all this is done?”

“No. Not because of that.” Because the only secret I could share in that moment would be about having her naked in my bed, and now wasn’t the time for that.

Her face fell, indecision wavering in her eyes for a second. She searched my eyes, seeming to decide on something before she finally said, “I guess I’ll just have to distract you another way.”

Then she kissed me.

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