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Winter Heat by Jennifer Lucia (1)

CHAPTER ONE

 

“So, then he asked me what I think of Texas tube steak, and he just whipped it out, right there in the bar,” I said, and Hannah howled with laughter. Jamie looked confused at the euphemism but smiled politely.

Jamie, Hannah, and I were having our weekly brunch at Zag’s Restaurant. We used brunch as a chance to catch up on what we’d been up to that week. We talked about work, pets, family, dating- you name it. Mostly dating, though. Jamie had the perfect boyfriend, thus her dating life was far less interesting than Hannah's and mine. Hannah and I had a running competition on who had the most absurd dates, and I almost always wound up on top. I have had some doozies of a date in my life.

“Texas tube steak? What does that even mean?” Jamie asked, her pancake dangling from her fork mid-air on the way into her mouth.       

 “Well, he was originally from Texas...” I didn’t want to spell it out explicitly in public, so I waited for Jamie to connect the dots. She blushed, shaking her head, and I knew she’d gotten it.

“I hope you didn’t go home with him,” she chided, swatting my arm gently.

“Well, I’d never had Texas tube steak. I wanted to see what it was like.” I shrugged. Hannah laughed harder the more Jamie blushed.

“You need to raise your standards for boyfriends. You guys are catches, and you always wind up with these turds,” she said.

“We can’t all date perfect, wealthy, handsome business owners,” Hannah said, rolling her eyes at Jamie’s uncomfortable look. Jamie’s boyfriend, Logan, was the head of a restaurant corporation that took failing restaurants and made them profitable. I’d known Logan since college, and he was a great guy. Humble, gorgeous, funny, and best of all, head over heels for my friend Jamie. Logan and Jamie had been dating for a few months now, and Jamie was still uncomfortable with Logan’s wealth. Jamie is an idiot.

“Yeah, some of us have to settle for broke, unemployed jerks,” I said, grinning over my coffee. My dating history is long and sordid- I date a lot, but nothing ever progresses past the first or second date. I suspect it is because I always go for men who are dumb but very pretty, and of course they always know how good-looking they are. I’d had exactly one “long-term” boyfriend, an unemployed male model. That had lasted about three months, which had been a record for me. I had a hunch that I purposely dated idiots so that I wouldn’t have the possibility of a real commitment.

“You guys will find someone,” Jamie said. “It happens for everyone eventually.”

Hannah nodded kindly and rolled her eyes at me when Jamie was looking away. She wasn’t too big into relationships either, with a dating history that I suspected rivaled mine. The only guy she consistently hung around with was Dylan, her other best friend. When I’d first met them, I’d suspected something was going on, but they claimed they were just friends. Dylan had just started dating a new girl he’d met down at Bender’s, the bar he worked for, anyway. I suspected Hannah wasn’t entirely okay with Dylan dating someone, but it seemed too sensitive to bring up.

“So how’s your dog?” I asked Jamie, changing the subject.

“Amazing as always,” she gushed. “Here, look at these pictures I took of Luke at the beach the other day. He’s so ridiculously photogenic.” She pulled out her phone and flipped through the photo gallery while I nodded politely. Jamie was a little obsessed with her dog, and he is cute, for sure. He just loses his luster a bit when you’re forced to look at a thousand photos of him in microscopically different poses. Jamie was oblivious to my boredom, though. It’s like when a parent shows you pictures of their baby and you have to pretend to be interested. It’s basic courtesy.

“Jamie, we’ve all seen your dog. He’s cute, but you’re insane. Put your phone away,” Hannah said, sipping her mimosa. Jamie and I had gotten coffees while Hannah opted for a mimosa. Today was the first day of Thanksgiving break for her school district, and she planned on getting tipsy.

Jamie stuck her tongue out at Hannah but put her phone away. Eric, Jamie’s other best friend, sat down at our table just as Jamie was throwing her phone in her purse.

“Hey guys, I have like a half hour until my shift starts. Want some company?” he asked, grabbing a piece of toast from Hannah’s plate.

“Hell yeah,” Jamie said, smiling. He smiled back at her through a mouthful of toast. Eric was unreasonably good-looking, even with a full mouth. It was a shame for women everywhere that he was gay.

“So, Hannah, I’ve told my terrible date story from this weekend. How did yours go?” I asked.

“Oh man, do I have a story for you guys. I went on a date with a guy from Arkansas.”

“Ooh, I love a Southern boy,” Jamie said. Eric and I nodded in agreement.

“That’s what first attracted me to him- his accent.” At my disbelieving face, Hannah added, “Well, that and the fact that he was shirtless and super hot.” Yep, that sounds about right. “So anyway, he’s from Arkansas, super sexy, keeps calling me ma’am, dances well. Everything is going great, and we’re heading towards Bangtown. But I make the colossal mistake of trying to talk to him about mutual interests.”

“How is that a mistake?” Jamie asked.

“Well, first off, I tell him that I’m a science teacher. He tells me he loves science.”

“How is that a problem?” I asked, interrupting her. “That sounds awesome.”

“Let me finish,” Hannah said, holding up her hand as she polished off her mimosa. “He tells me he loves science, and how awesome he thinks it is that the earth was created in seven days using science and that it would be awesome if humans could live with dinosaurs again.”

 “Again?” Jamie asked while I groaned. Yikes.

“Yeah, he was a big-time creationist. I was incredulous, but I decided to let this go because it’s not his fault if that’s how he was raised. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to marry this guy. So I focus on his pretty face and his pretty abs and things are going as well as they can be. But then a gay couple walked into the bar.”

Eric looked wary, and I could tell we both knew exactly where this was going.

“And he got irrationally angry. Like, pissed off. He slammed his beer bottle on the table and slumped into a chair, moaning,” Hannah said.

Eric’s jaw dropped. We had not known where that was going.

“What the hell?” he said. “I’ve encountered homophobes, but never anything insane like that.”

“Yeah,” Hannah said. “So I asked him what he was so pissed off about, and he said that he hates gays because they corrupted his father and made him leave his mother for another man using his gay magic.”

Eric's mouth formed a perfect O before he burst into hysterical laughter. “Gay magic? Oh my god, I’m totally using that as a pickup line. Hey baby, wanna try a little bit of my gay magic?” Everyone chuckled uncomfortably. He could joke about it, but homophobic rage was a bit of a mood killer.

“Tell me you ditched him after that,” Jamie said.

“Well, he started crying. I couldn’t ditch him,” Hannah said, fingering her empty glass while avoiding eye contact.

“Crying?” Eric asked. “Because gay magic took his father?”

Hannah nodded. “Yeah. He was pathetic. I couldn’t just ditch him. He may be a homophobe who thought dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time as humans, but he was so sad.”

“Boo-hoo, poor him,” Eric said, pursing his lips as he drank some of Jamie’s coffee.

“So,” I said. “What did you do with him?”

“I took him home and cheered him up. After we had sex, I told him there was no such thing as gay magic, evolution is real, and I’m a Democrat. He left pretty quickly after that,” Hannah said with a shrug.

“You’re shameless,” Jamie said, shaking her head. Hannah grinned at her.

“Interestingly enough, my last date was from Arkansas too,” Eric said. “And he was really into gay magic. He was into it two or three times that night.” Eric winked at Jamie, who laughed. “I didn’t ask him his thoughts on dinosaurs though. Maybe I’ll do that the next time I see him.”

“So, Jamie, what about you? What ridiculously thoughtful thing has Logan done for you this weekend? Candlelit massage? Bubble bath and prosecco? Bought you the library from Beauty and the Beast?” I asked, rolling my eyes.

“I wish,” Jamie sighed. “No, we just laid on the couch and watched movies all weekend while massaging each other’s legs. He cooked a big dinner for us on Saturday which we ate on the back deck while the dogs ran up and down the beach. Pretty regular weekend.”

“Oh, only massages and picturesque sunset dinners?” Hannah said. “Your relationship is so perfect it sickens me.”

 Jamie smiled happily. “Yeah, it is,” she said dreamily, making me want to gag. “And all of you could have that too if you’d stop dating nimrods.”

 “I like nimrods, thank you very much,” Hannah said. “They don’t require as much maintenance.”

Eric chuckled at this, then looked down at his watch. “Five minutes left. I’m going to go change for my shift. I’ll make sure to swing by your table before you guys leave.” He stood up and kissed us all on the cheek. “Ciao, bellas.”

We all blew him kisses and waved goodbye. I looked down at my empty plate. “I’m disgustingly full,” I announced, pushing out my belly.

“Ah, you’re just training your stomach for this Thursday. You’ve got to stretch it out. Otherwise you can’t fit all the food you want,” Hannah said, leaning back in her chair. “I’ve been stretching it out since last week.”

Jamie, whose tiny stomach had probably never been full, laughed. “I don’t want to gorge myself until I’m sick.”

“Speak for yourself, sister,” Hannah said. “That’s what I plan on doing. My mother cooks amazing food, and I don’t want to miss out on any of it.”

“Same,” I said. “I can’t wait to go home and eat an entire pan of sweet potato and marshmallow casserole.”

“Yummm,” Hannah moaned. “And mashed potatoes with gravy. And that jarred cranberry jelly.”

“Ew,” Jamie said. “Nobody likes that stuff, you freak.”

“I do,” Hannah said. “I love when it retains the shape of the can it came in.” I screwed up my nose in disgust but remained silent.

Our waitress came by to refill our coffees (and Hannah’s mimosa) and clear our plates for us. Eric emerged from the back room, coming back around the bar in full uniform. He looked around, then walked back over to our table.

“I can sit here until I get my first table,” he said, sitting back down in the chair he was occupying earlier.

“I would love to stay, but unfortunately, I have to get to work soon,” I said, checking my watch. The law firm opened at noon today because of the holiday, so I had an hour to get there. Real estate law is more boring than criminal law, but there are definite perks to it, such as having regular hours. I made eye contact with our waitress, who smiled and brought our check over. We put some cash into the checkbook, splitting it three ways, and handed it back to the server.

“Well, a table is sitting in my section now anyway. See you ladies next week,” Eric said, getting up and looking over at a table where two older ladies were sitting themselves. He put on his best server face and straightened up as he readied himself to wait on them. I smiled and he winked as he walked away.

On the way over to the table, however, Eric stopped dead in the middle of the aisle to stare up at the television above the bar. I followed his gaze, wondering what could have caused him to stop in his tracks.

Breaking News: There has been a prison break at Coffeewood Correctional Facility in Culpeper, Virginia. The escapee is a convicted murderer and is considered very dangerous. This convict is a serial killer who is known to have killed at least ten women. If you encounter this individual, do not engage. Hide in a safe place and call this tip-line immediately. Further details forthcoming.

“Wow,” Hannah said. “That’s insane. I didn’t know prison breaks happened in real life.”

“Yeah,” I said uneasily. “They’re super rare, and usually happen because someone has seduced a guard.”

“Or tunneled through a wall behind a poster of Rita Hayworth,” Jamie said.

“Or that,” I said, still staring at the television with dread. Show us the picture. The news anchor finally stopped talking, and the mugshot of the escaped convict filled the television screen.

My heart stopped- it was Jack Nelson.

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