No. No, no, no.
Sophie Delaware stared in horror through the window of her boyfriend Evan’s office, where the bobbing blonde head of his secretary was just visible at the level of Evan’s groin. This can’t be happening. Not now. Sophie and Evan’s relationship was stronger than ever. Or so she’d thought. Sophie stood, rooted to the floor, clutching her coat tightly around herself as if it would provide a shield against his betrayal. Bile rose in the back of her throat, and she gagged.
Finally, her feet unstuck from the floor, and she backed away from Evan’s office, staggered down the stairs, and yanked on her car door. When it refused to open, she swore and tugged harder. Then she remembered it was locked and fumbled in her coat for the key. Her hands were shaking so badly, it took three attempts to slot the key into the lock. She dropped into the driver’s seat and without buckling her seatbelt, slammed her foot on the accelerator and screeched away.
Sophie was driving too fast, but she didn’t care. She had to get away from that place, scrub the things she’d seen from her memory and pretend it hadn’t happened.
Why does this always happen?
Again and again, over and over, she was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Sophie shuddered and scrunched her eyes shut, then flinched in fright when the car veered to the left.
“Shit!” She slammed on the brakes, then leaned over the steering wheel to catch her breath. “Damn it!” Fury burned through her veins, and she came upright and punched the steering wheel hard enough that her fist throbbed. “Bloody hell!”
She smacked the steering wheel again and again. Her fist landed on the horn, which blared loudly in the quiet night. Startled, she changed tactics and turned her fists on herself, thumping her thighs and feeling a sick sense of satisfaction at the pain that spiked up her legs. Eventually, she collapsed against the steering wheel, exhausted, and gave in to the crushing sense of defeat.
Why does this happen to me?
Sophie hadn’t loved Evan, not as much as she should have, but he’d been her security blanket: a lawyer with a decent income and a respectable business. She’d cared for him. Hoped he cared for her. But Sophie didn’t believe in romantic love. Never had. All she wanted was someone to belong to, someone who could take control for a change. She was sick of being the responsible one. For years, she had put others first. She’d never left Itirangi, her small New Zealand home town, because her sick mother needed her. She’d been loyal to her boyfriends, even when they didn’t deserve it, and never demanded too much from anyone. Was it too much to ask for someone to treat her the same way?
She could have—and had—forgiven Evan a lot, but she would never be able to erase that image from her mind, and if she couldn’t forget, she couldn’t forgive. She floundered, with no idea what to do. She couldn’t stay here by the side of the road and pretend it had never happened.
Sophie growled in frustration. Her on-again off-again relationship with Evan had taken up most of her energy for three years, and he’d obliterated it all in one fell swoop.
What would life look like without him?
Sophie had no idea.
What she did know was that she couldn’t sit in her car all night and going home seemed like a bleak prospect. She could drive around aimlessly, but the temptation to drive out of town and keep on going might get the better of her, and she couldn’t leave her mother, Antonia, behind to fend for herself. While she might resent her mother sometimes, she loved her, too.
Turning to her friend, Avery, wasn’t an option. The ‘I told you so’ talk was never fun.
That left Aria, her childhood friend, always ready with a kind word and a supportive hug. Aria’s fiancée, Eli, and his younger sister, Teri, were out of town, visiting their grandparents, so Aria was alone.
Mind made up, Sophie steadied her breathing and eased her foot off the brake, setting out with new purpose. Aria would be there for her. They could snuggle up on the couch with ice cream and watch Sandra Bullock movies. It would be therapeutic.
Sophie paid extra attention to the road. She didn’t want any more almost-accidents. Hands trembling on the steering wheel, she cruised across town at forty kilometers an hour until she reached Aria’s driveway and rolled to a halt. The house was dark, but Aria would get out of bed for her, no question about it.
Sophie took the bottle of wine intended for her date with Evan and knocked on the door. No answer, and it was locked. The house was empty. Sighing, Sophie sank onto the ratty sofa on the front porch and tucked her feet beneath her. Wherever she was, Aria would be home soon.
She withdrew the bottle of wine tucked beneath her arm and twisted the lid off to take a fortifying gulp. The wine slid down her throat easily and was surprisingly refreshing. Swigging down another mouthful, Sophie mentally reviewed her dating history. She’d had a few lovers, but only three serious relationships. One had ended when her boyfriend tried to date Sophie and her friend at the same time. The second, a long-distance relationship with a university academic, had ended when his unrealistic expectations exhausted her. Relationship number three was with that cheating, lying pig, Evan.
Sophie wondered how she’d ended up with such a dismal dating record. Cheated on more often than not. How depressing.
Taking another sip of wine, she hoped Aria would be back before long. Goosebumps had broken out on her exposed legs, and although she was in a masochistic mood, she wasn’t prepared to freeze her ass off. Maybe she should just go home.
She heard footsteps. Loud footsteps. They didn’t belong to Aria; Sophie would recognize the sound of her friend’s footsteps anywhere. These were heavier, stronger, more... male. They were coming from behind the house.
There weren’t many reasons for a man to be lurking outside a woman’s house in the dark, and even though Sophie was partially hidden on the sofa, the footsteps scared her. She screwed the lid back on the wine and tiptoed around to stand behind the porch, in the darkest shadows, wielding the bottle like a weapon.
The footsteps grew louder but also slower, like the man knew she was there and was waiting to see what would happen. Sophie edged forward, careful to stay in the shadows, then stretched her neck and peered around the corner. Against the dim streetlight, she could make out the silhouette of a very large man. His shoulders were broad, and he stood well over six-feet-tall. Probably six-three or six-four. More than a foot taller than she was. In a confrontation, she stood no chance of winning. Better to take him by surprise.
Without thinking about it long enough to change her mind, Sophie held the bottle like a baseball bat and jumped out from her hiding spot, screaming at the top of her lungs.
* * *
Cooper Simons didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do when he was confronted by a harpy wielding a half-empty bottle of wine and screaming. Should he be scared? Horrified? Amused? Somehow, he doubted ‘amused’ was the correct response.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he said gently. Pacifying the harpy was at the top of his to-do list. “You can put the bottle down. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Then why are you hiding in the bushes?” The harpy’s voice shook, but he sensed that she was second-guessing the need to bonk him over the head and gut him.
“I wasn’t hiding in the bushes,” he replied, taking a step closer to get a better look at her. Other than her wide eyes and shallow breathing, she seemed normal. Wait...was that...
“Sophie?” he asked.
“Yeah?” She lowered the bottle until it hung by her side, her left hand clasping her trench coat closed so tightly, her knuckles went white.
“It’s Coop,” he told her. “Cooper Simons.”
“Oh.” Sophie grimaced and shook her head in self-disgust. “Now I feel like an idiot.”
“Are you okay?” Despite recognizing the crazy woman as one of his sister’s closest friends, he remembered how disturbed she’d looked a moment earlier.
“I’m having a really shitty day,” she admitted. “I came to visit Aria, but she’s not here, so I was waiting on the porch...” She trailed off, then shrugged. “I may have overreacted. Sorry.”
Cooper edged forward and held out a hand, palm facing upward, non-threatening. “Bottle, please.”
It took a few moments for his meaning to sink in, then Sophie slapped the bottle into his palm. “I’m so sorry,” she said sheepishly.
He set the bottle on the ground, then inched closer, taking care not to startle her. Her eyes tracked him, but she didn’t back away. Sophie’serHe bare legs beneath her coat—which only reached mid-thigh—made her look small and vulnerable. And cold. The temperature had dropped rapidly since sundown, and there would be a frost by morning. She must be frozen.
Cooper slung an arm around Sophie’s shoulders and led her back up onto the porch. He pushed her softly down onto the sofa, and she tucked her feet beneath her butt. Cooper shucked his jacket and laid it over her exposed legs.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that!” she exclaimed. “I’m fine. I don’t want you freezing on my behalf.”
“I insist,” Cooper replied, smiling when she stared at him in disbelief. “I’m a gentleman. I couldn’t live with myself if I let a woman be cold while I’m toasty warm.”
He expected her to be pleased by the sentiment, so he was shocked when she scowled and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right,” she said. “Gentlemen don’t exist. You’re all the same: a bunch of misogynistic pricks who think with their dicks.”
Cooper smothered a laugh, compelled to defend his gender. “We’re not so bad. Most of us are nice once you get to know us. It’s not our fault we get distracted by pretty faces.”
“Pretty faces,” Sophie spat, her expression outraged. “Like I’d believe that! Boobs and butts, that’s all men care about. Long legs, great. Cold heart? Who gives a shit, right?”
“Men appreciate beautiful women,” Cooper agreed, feeling strangely like she was leading him into a trap. “Maybe we let them get away with stuff because we like to look at them. Where’s the harm in that?”
“What about the rest of us?” Sophie demanded. “Do we deserve to be treated badly because we aren’t a perfect ten?”
“Of course not.”
Was he supposed to be agreeing, or playing devil’s advocate? Cooper had no idea. Clearly, something had pissed Sophie off. Presumably a man, given her animosity towards him. Though now that he’d thought that, with the way his luck had gone today, he could well have said something offensive and not known it. Damn confusing creatures, women.
Cooper had sought out Aria for much the same reason as Sophie: comfort and reassurance. He’d broken things off with Gemma, a sexy nurse who worked at the hospital, and damn, had she taken it badly. Spouting nonsense about how he used women for his own benefit, how he’d end up old and alone. For Christ’s sake, he loved women. Which was part of the problem, of course. Unfortunately, he didn’t always know the best approach when dealing with their emotions.
He opted for a sympathetic approach. “What happened, Sophie?”
“Nothing happened,” she snapped.
“Come on,” he prompted. “Clearly, you’re upset. Want to talk about it?”
She said nothing else. The silence stretched for over a minute and started to become awkward. Cooper was wondering what tactic to try next when she spoke again.
“Men are sleazeballs.”
Leaning back against the couch, Cooper regarded her thoughtfully, and Sophie pointedly looked the other way. It had been years since he’d had anything much to do with her. Back in high school, she’d been a fixture in his life, as all Aria’s friends had been. The Simons’ home had been a popular hangout because his mother, Donna, kept the pantry stocked with home-baked goodies, and his father, Geoff, was keen to put on barbeques or umpire sports games.
After high school, Cooper had joined the army, and spent three years training and six years in active service. He’d been to Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, places he’d gladly forget if he could. At twenty-seven, he’d returned home having seen more death and destruction than most people did in a lifetime. It was enough to make a man sick. Two years on, he still remembered the dust and despair.
In the years he’d been back, he hadn’t seen much of Sophie. He remembered Aria saying something about a controlling boyfriend, and Cooper wracked his brain, trying to remember. Hell, he hadn’t even noticed she hadn’t been around much. All things considered, Sophie was virtually a stranger to him. How was he supposed to handle this?
* * *
Sophie snuggled beneath Cooper’s jacket, which was still warm from his body. The man himself was as silent as a rock. He sat at the far end of the couch, putting as much distance between them as possible, and seemed to be waiting for her to regain her sanity. Either that or lose it completely and begin dancing around naked and chanting prayers in some mysterious language. The heavy silence was unendurable, and although she knew she had put him in a difficult position, she was angry with him for not saying something. Anything.
“You’ve got that strong, silent thing down to an art,” she said finally.
“No one would believe you if you told them that,” he replied. “I’m the family gossip, after all.”
“Yeah, right,” she muttered. “You’re the family playboy.”
“Is that what the ladies are saying?”
He sounded amused by the prospect, and Sophie turned her head until she was facing him again. Most of the tears that had gathered in her eyes were gone, but she was pretty sure a snot bubble was hanging from her nose.
“As if you don’t know that.” Her voice had a hard edge, even though she’d meant to tease him. “You’ve got that buff, sexy thing going on. Add in your charming personality, and I’m surprised women’s pants don’t magically fall down when you pass them in the street.”
“You think they don’t?”
His eyes twinkled mischievously, and Sophie almost smiled. “That’s exactly what I mean. All you men think about is sex.”
“What’s going on, Soph?” The nickname slid off his tongue easily, and she liked the way it sounded. Not many men dared to shorten her name.
“Man troubles,” she explained. “I’ll get over it.”
“Vent to me,” he offered. “I don’t mind being used as a verbal punching bag.”
“That’s nice of you, but you don’t have to listen to my problems.”
“Wait a moment.” Cooper left the couch, strode out of view and returned with the bottle of wine. “More comfortable now?” he asked, handing it to her.
“Are you kidding? I’ve got booze and a hot man. What else do I need?”
She was deflecting, and she was sure he knew it.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
This time it wasn’t a request, but a command. Surprising herself, Sophie obeyed. “Evan cheated on me.”
Searching his eyes, she saw genuine sympathy. “It’s not like things have been great between us,” she said. “But I can’t believe he’d cheat on me. I’m so stupid.” Choking on a rising wave of emotion, she fought to continue. “Since we got back together, we’ve been taking it slow. No sex. It was my idea. Tonight, I decided we’d waited long enough, so I went to surprise him at his office.” She shrugged helplessly. “He was with his secretary. You know, with. And now that picture is burned into my brain. Couldn’t he just wait a couple of weeks for me? Was that too much to ask? You’re a guy. What do you think?”
“Great way to put me on the spot,” Cooper said good-naturedly. “I don’t want to be responsible for a woman hating men for the rest of her life.”
“Seriously, Soph,” he mimicked her. “I don’t do long-term relationships. I haven’t got a clue. I think he should have broken up with you if he wanted to be with someone else, but that’s as far as I’ll go.”
* * *
Cooper watched Sophie digest his words. Clearly, she needed some insight into the male mind.
“Have you ever cheated?” she asked.
“I copied Michael Portman’s answers on the senior calculus exam.”
“You know what I mean,” she said irritably. “Have you cheated on a girl?”
“I had sex with my girlfriend and her best friend at the same time once. Does that count?”
Sophie shook her head as if he were a lost cause. “You’re disgusting.”
“I’m a connoisseur of women.” Except that after that awful episode with Gemma, he was beginning to wonder: What if all the women he dated ended up hating him? Most of them took the breakup well because they’d known it was coming. Cooper never hid his intentions. Women knew the arrangement was only temporary, but maybe they hoped for more.
“Whatever you say.”
She obviously thought he was full of shit, that he was leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him. Hardly fair, but he couldn’t blame her, given what she’d been through.
“I’m sorry you have to be here for this,” she said abruptly. “It must not be much fun for you.”
“I can think of worse things to do with my time.”
“Really?” She raised an eyebrow, as if she were daring him to come up with something worse than listening to his sister’s friend complain about men.
“I could be forced to watch Downton Abbey reruns while drinking margaritas and painting my toenails.”
Sophie laughed, her sense of humor returning. “I really am sorry.”
“Forget about it,” he told her. “Now, how about you get in my car and I drive you home?”
She nodded. Thank God, he thought. She wasn’t in a good state to drive, and he’d never be able to show his face at his parents’ place again if he didn’t see her home safely.
“Thanks.” Standing, she gave him back his jacket, then followed him to the car. “You’re not such a bad guy, Cooper Simons.”
He winked, the thought buoying him. “Let’s make that our little secret.”