Kelsey Spencer glanced around the hotel café and tried to gauge how many of the wide-eyed crop milling about were the enlivened attendees of the romance convention it seemed every other person had come to town for. Probably everyone—the hotel was crammed with cover models, Regency gowns, and actors surrounded by a tight circle of security. Plus some aspiring actors and writers. If you had a ken for breaking into the industry, the Comic Con of the romance genre was definitely the place to do it.
But good Maude on a shingle, the audience this event attracted was varied.
Deena, Kelsey’s spiral-haired agent, had even decided to go all cosplay. She wore a leathery steampunk outfit that sharpened her typically rounded features. Unfortunately, those sharpened edges were no good combined with her brash communication skills. She looked like a pretty raptor with a parasol and bustle. “Doll, just trust me on this. You can’t genre-hop. Not now. You’re too small.”
Fifteen books and two USA Today bestsellers…when would she be big enough in Deena’s estimation? Maybe when she actually drew a comfortable wage from her writing? Kelsey sighed. “I’m just tired of feeling like a fraud.” Even her romance author persona had begun to irritate her, like a cheap wool scarf wrapped a little too tight around her neck. It paid the bills—barely—but every time she posted to her blog about some real-life epic romance, she had to resist the urge to include a betting pool for how long it would last.
Deena patted her hand. “You’re not a fraud. You write romance. Everyone knows it’s a goddamned fantasy. Quit being a baby.”
Yeah, easy to say when Deena didn’t have to sit in on a book signing where one reader after another gushed about how the books made them feel. It was a rush, sure, to know that her writing resonated, but without fail, the reader would wax on about meeting her own hero one day.
And that? No bueno. That was a one-way ticket on the Crazy Cat Lady Express. Just look at her own history: twenty-eight and suckered into a doomed marriage when she was twenty-one. She’d been desperate for love after a childhood without, and she’d fallen for a guy who seemed like The One with his twinkly eyes and commanding ways and bad poetry and pretty flowers, and what had happened?
Inside of a year, she and the jerk were divorced.
“This book is done, though. It’s a thriller with a…” She seesawed her hand. “Vague romantic element. I’m not saying it’s great, but I think it might be pretty good.” Kelsey clasped her hands in a pleading gesture. “Just read it in your copious spare time and tell me if we can maybe, possibly consider shopping it.”
Deena scowled. “You’re running up on a deadline as it is, chickie. Where’s the book you owe Dyer-Hall? Remember the magic I worked on that contract, like I’m your goddamned fairy godmother?”
“Yes, how could I forget? Finished it last night. I’ll have it turned in as soon as I do a spit shine.” She sat up straight and grinned huge. Deena was still negotiating a new series with Dyer-Hall, so Kelsey had some spare time now. “Please just read it?”
Deena looked like the stays holding her torso rigid had just buckled. She dropped her hands, her head lolled, and she rolled her eyes. “Goddammit, fine. Send me the thriller.” She straightened again and pointed. “No shit, kid, I’m doing this because I love you and not because I think it’s even worth considering at this point.”
Kelsey nodded and tried to hold back the urge to bounce in her seat.
“I’m for real here. If it’s not fan-fucking-tastic, we’re shelving it for at least a year. Maybe more.” Deena cranked up her stank eye at Kelsey. “Now where’s your next proposal?” She leaned closer. “Romance, natch.”
Holding up her hands, Kelsey ducked her head. “Working on it. Doing some research right now.” It was a lie. She was log-jammed. Creatively clogged. Mentally constipated. But Deena didn’t need to know that because it would pass and the words would flow.
“Tell me you’re researching SEALs and shit.”
Kelsey nodded. “Yeah, SEALs and shit.”
Deena looked ready to call her on obvious bullshit, but someone approached their table just then and squealed. It was way too early in the day for anyone to make a noise of that wavelength, and half the café turned to see what the hell was happening.
A dark blonde with curls framing her face and eyelashes stretching to reach Texas clapped her hands over her cheeks. “Kelsey Spencer?”
Kelsey had a moment of panic—someone from her past or an exuberant fan? She rarely had exuberant anything in her life, so she was leaning toward the former possibility and wracking her memory for some clue as to this woman’s identity.
“I knew it! Kelsey fucking Spencer. I. Love. Your. Books.” She whipped her large Givenchy purse off her shoulder and rummaged through it. Inside of five seconds, she snagged something and tugged it free. A load of freshly used tissues came with the book she slapped onto the table. “Best book ever written.” She snatched away the errant tissues and stuffed them into her purse.
Deena kicked Kelsey under the table.
“Thank you.” It was one of Kelsey’s favorites. She’d really enjoyed writing it, and the sales had been decent, but it had begun the freefall in her writerly confidence. This book—Macadan’s Woman—and the reader response to the grand finale scene left her questioning her responsibility as an author. Was it really okay to present such an unreasonable fantasy to readers who loved the idea so much, they insisted the fantasy could be their reality?
Deena kicked Kelsey again. She glared at her agent.
“Maybe Kelsey fucking Spencer could sign the book for you?” Deena asked.
The fan practically shone when she grinned. “Yes, please! And then if you could package up Macadan and deliver him to my home, I will be forever grateful.”
Kelsey forced a smile, gritted her teeth, and pulled the book closer. “Deena, got a pen on you?” Deena handed her a red pen…of course. “Who should I sign it for?”
“Jasmine. That’s me.” She dropped to a squat beside Kelsey, and her cute and obviously expensive yellow sundress floofed around her knees. The conference nametag she wore flipped around to show her name. Jasmine Grant. “The way Macadan scaled a goddamned mountain for Kat. Fucking magical. Every man should have to scale a mountain to prove his worth.”
Kelsey laughed. “There’d be a whole lot fewer relationships in this world.”
Deena kicked Kelsey again, hard this time. Kelsey yelped.
Jasmine covered Kelsey’s hand lightly. “At the risk of sounding like a creepy stalker fan, tell me who hurt you so much, and I’ll kick his ass for you.” A shimmer covered her eyes, as if she were trying not to cry, but it felt less like a single white female reaction and more like a moment of sisterhood solidarity. Like Jasmine herself had just been kicked in the teeth by the reality that romance and all the fantasy surrounding it weren’t real.
Kelsey withdrew her hand so she could awkwardly pat Jasmine’s and shush some there-theres, but suddenly Jasmine flushed, and her eyes widened as she stared past Kelsey’s shoulder. “How did he find me?”
Kelsey’s heart rate kicked up, and she turned to see what had caused Jasmine so much alarm, but she couldn’t pick out a threat from the crowd headed toward the casino. She turned back to Jasmine. “Are you okay, hon? You look scared.”
Jasmine smiled, but her eyes darted between Kelsey and whoever she’d identified as a threat. “Not scared, just very surprised, and not in a good way. There’s a man behind you. He hasn’t seen me yet, so I’m going to sneak away. I’d love to fangirl squee over you some other time. We chatted once on your blog about the effectiveness of the matchmaker trope, and it was awesome.”
Kelsey remembered that convo, and she remembered this woman. It had been awesome, a moment that sparked her love of the genre again thanks to the smart responses and insight Jasmine had offered.
“Oh no, he saw me.” She stood and backed up a step.
“Go, I’ll cover for you,” Kelsey said, and Jas spun and did a fancy rendition of Olympic speed walking out of the café area—impressive considering the height of the designer shoes she wore.
Kelsey stood, pushing her chair back hard as she turned. The chair caught a man in the knee, and he stumbled. Ack! Kelsey reached out for him, thinking she could right him but forgetting she wore the most ridiculous pair of fuck-me heels she owned. They both went ass over teakettle onto the floor.
Somehow, Kelsey landed half on his chest. He’d taken the brunt of their fall, and he seemed to be staring at the ceiling like he was reconsidering all his life decisions to this point. He was breathtakingly handsome, with sandy hair and bright green eyes that, when turned on her, were laser focused.
Kelsey felt a stab. Want.
“Where’s the woman you were talking to? Where did she go?”
And with that, Kelsey realized he and Jasmine had been an item, and he was apparently stalkery enough to track her down at a romance convention. Jackhole.
“You okay down there?” Deena grasped Kelsey’s shoulder and urged her to stand.
“Fine.” At least her unplanned attempt to block him had worked. When she stood—a feat made possible only by her yoga classes thanks to her tight skirt and clearance rack heels—and brushed herself off, she confirmed Jasmine was long gone.
The man she’d fled stood and gave Kelsey a hard look as he, too, dusted his unmolested shirt and ran his hand through unmussed, rather gorgeous hair. The look wasn’t complimentary and, in fact, spoke volumes about his assumptions. Two could play that insult game, so she affected her own look of contempt and gave him a quick inspection Take that, not-so-dudebro dudebro.
When she was done, he smirked. Her eye twitched. It was no wonder Jasmine wanted away from this guy.
“If Jasmine was that unwilling to talk to me, you only had to say so. No need to assault me with your chair.”
“Maybe don’t leave a girl with the impression she has to assault a guy with a chair to get away?” She pursed her lips. “Sorry about that, though. I actually meant to use other means to stop you.”
When he let his gaze drift down to the cleavage her unbuttoned blouse exposed, Kelsey inhaled sharply. Deena elbowed Kelsey, lifted her eyebrows, and mouthed, Outta here. Kelsey grabbed at Deena, but the traitor slipped free and waved. Ta ta, she mouthed.
Kelsey’d get her back. Send her the thriller she’d written and then start immediately hounding her for a response. Like, every hour.
“I assume you aren’t going to tell me how to find my sister?” he asked.
Sister? Ohhh. This made sense, and some of her desire to fight dissipated. But she’d still cover for Jasmine, never mind it was no piece of cake, given she didn’t know Jasmine’s last name, much less where she’d taken off to. “Nope,” she said. But her insistence was pointless.
“Are you injured?” Jasmine asked, gently clasping each of them, and Kelsey started.
Well, there went the whole point of her chair attack. But Jasmine looked concerned, so Kelsey bit her tongue.
“We seem to be fine,” the guy said. He flicked an annoyed gaze at Kelsey, but his eyes lingered again on the front of her blouse. Kelsey angled away from him.
Jasmine’s face morphed from concern to irritation. “Goddammit, Aaron. You caused that racket on purpose because you knew I’d come back to make sure you hadn’t broken your goddamned leg.” She released them and took the opportunity to smack Aaron on the shoulder.
His face darkened, and he narrowed his eyes. “Just come home.”
“I don’t think so. I have vacation time saved up, and I’m taking it.” Jasmine crossed her arms, and Kelsey took a step back, hoping to escape what looked like a family brawl in the making.
“This isn’t like you,” he said quietly. “Be reasonable.”
“By reasonable, you mean do what you and Dad think I should do, yes?”
He shrugged. “In this case…”
Kelsey took a full step back and fumbled for her purse. This was definitely not a conversation she needed to be part of.
Jasmine turned and gave Kelsey a sunny smile. “Sorry, my brother is a bit overbearing, don’t you think? Like a classic alphahole.” She glared at the guy.
“What, is that an insult? It sounds like an insult.” He put his hands on his hips, pushing back the tasteful suit jacket he wore over a light green shirt. The movement outlined his silhouette, and Kelsey warmed a bit at the hint of muscular definition beneath the slim-cut and expensive looking shirt.
“Of course it’s an insult. Now go away and leave me to my fun.”
He reached out to Jasmine but didn’t touch her. Palm up, he looked like he was posing for a GQ photo shoot, and it hit Kelsey how ridiculous this was, like a scene from a book she’d write. Hunky hero, older brother to the heroine’s designer-clothed best friend, and he was there to run everyone’s lives and make sure everything fell into clockwork efficiency—as only an alpha older brother hero could. He even fit the physical bill, ruggedly handsome and dressed like he was at least upper middle class. “I’m not leaving without you.”
Jasmine sighed and rolled her eyes. “Aaron, this is my favorite author, like, ever. Kelsey fucking Spencer. Thanks for making a scene in front of my favorite author, like, ever. That makes you the worst brother, definitely, ever.”
Aaron glared. “I made a scene?” He leaned in closer. “I’m only concerned. The way you left…”
Jasmine firmly pushed Aaron back and pasted on another bright smile, but suddenly Kelsey could see the pain underneath, and she wanted to protect this slight but vibrant woman, too. She seemed like the kind of person everyone flocked around to cushion from the blows of life, but the way she held herself said she didn’t actually need anyone.
“Kelsey and I were just discussing how men should have to prove themselves worthy in this world, just like in romance novels. Then you’d know when you have the right kind of guy.”
He scowled. Kelsey fought her own scowl. She most certainly hadn’t agreed with that idea.
“You know, like maybe he should propose in a thunderstorm on top of Pike’s Peak or something instead of at a stuffy family dinner with overbearing brothers in attendance.”
He scowled harder and pursed his lips like he was trying to form less snark than his mind wanted to deliver. “Pike’s Peak during a thunderstorm is an invitation to a funeral, not a wedding.”
With a satisfied hmph, Jasmine spun to Kelsey and snatched her book from the table. “Will you be at the book signing? I can get your autograph then, Kelsey fucking Spencer, since Aaron fucking Grant can’t see fit to let me deal with my shit the way I want to deal with it.”
Kelsey smiled and shouldered her purse. With a pointed glance at Jasmine’s brother, she asked the woman, “You’re okay?”
Jasmine nodded. “He’ll go home soon enough. He won’t be able to stand all this floof and squealing and romance. The rash it will give him will force him back to the airport.”
He laughed then. “Actually, I’m here all weekend.” He tugged a convention badge from his pocket and flashed it at her.
“Great,” Jasmine whispered. Her shoulders drooped, and then she turned and stomped away.
Once his sister had disappeared into the lobby, Aaron turned his attention to Kelsey. “I apologize for my sister. She shouldn’t have dragged you into this.”
“Actually, she seems like a lovely woman who’s doing her damnedest to have some fun this weekend.” Kelsey pursed her lips. She hadn’t meant to blurt that out, but the way his green eyes flared, she thought maybe it was worth it just to feel the warmth his gaze sparked. Also, alphas had all the sass coming.
“She’s had a bad month.”
“Looks like she’s doing okay considering the whole month has sucked for her.” Kelsey shrugged a shoulder. “But I just met her, so.”
“Yes, you did. You have no idea. Look, maybe you can talk some sense into her. She’s mentioned your name before, pretty recently, though without the profanity.” He shifted his stance, leaned forward. “A moment of your time,” he said, not in the way a normal person might have asked, but in the way only an overbearing big brother can demand. He gestured at the seat Deena had abandoned.
Kelsey really didn’t want to land in the middle of anyone’s family drama, but she didn’t know how to say as much to someone who—with her luck—she’d run into again and again this weekend regardless of her wishes. Not that it would suck to run into him…literally. He looked all kinds of hard and warm. Besides, she felt a kinship with Jasmine, and not just because they’d bonded over romance tropes a while back. And not because she had a family, something Kelsey had always dreamed of. When Aaron righted her chair, she dropped her purse over its back, and they sat at the table.
“She canceled her wedding earlier this month. Last week, she decided to come to this convention, said she was going to get away, ‘surround herself with motivation to find new love,’” he said with air quotes, “and meet her favorite authors. She says you people inspire her. A lot. So maybe you can help talk some sense into her.”
Kelsey’s laugh sounded almost like a yelp, and she cringed. “You sound like the stereotypical big brother who can’t stop running everyone’s lives. Why don’t you let her learn whatever lesson this is? Be there on the other side to catch her when it sucks.”
He tapped his finger on the table. “This is the part where I catch her.”
Kelsey tipped her head. “You like to scowl a lot. Does that work for you?”
She pointed at his forehead. “Your brow is all furrowed. And no, this is not the part where you catch her. She’s still figuring out…whatever it is.”
“Her fiancé got married last weekend.”
Ouch. “That sucks. But what does that have to do with me? Or you, for that matter? It’s her life, her mistakes to make, her lessons to learn. Why not back off and quit involving strangers?”
He relaxed into his chair and draped an ankle over his knee, taking some time to study her until a blush threatened to creep into her cheeks. “She believes in the fairy tale. I know as a romance writer, it’s your job to believe in it, too—”
“Hoooold on there,” Kelsey said, leaning forward. “I do not buy into the fairy tale. Romance is bullshit and…” She glanced around at the surrounding tables, grateful she hadn’t spoken too loudly. She whispered, “They’re books. It’s not real life.”
He gave her a once-over, as if reappraising her, and when he pursed his lips, Kelsey realized she might be caught with no way out—he’d made a decision, and nothing would stand in his way. “And Jasmine doesn’t seem to understand that. Our mother says she based her entire wedding ceremony on romance novels she’s read over the years. She had something from each of her favorite books included because she thought she was getting her own happily ever after.” He tapped the table again, hard enough her coffee rippled. “And her asshole fiancé used their ceremony with his new bride.”
Oof. That really did suck. “Okay, so it’ll sink in that some guys are shits, and maybe she’ll find someone else someday.”
He shook his head. “She’s already looking for the guy who’s going to rescue her with ‘grand gestures and epic romance.’” He air-quoted again.
This sounded bad, which was extra bad because now her resolve was slipping. “I really can’t get involved in family business. Besides, you’re being awfully paternalistic. She’s a grown woman.”
His lips pinched together, and his eyes darkened. “You don’t know her or my family.”
“Exactly why I shouldn’t be involved.”
He slumped a little then, leaned close, and clasped his hands, much like she’d recently done to Deena at this same table. “I’m begging you,” he said with a voice so strangled, she wondered how much of his soul he’d sacrificed in order to voice those words. “Please help me. She won’t listen to me because I’m just her brother. She might listen to you—you’re her inspiration. And if you really don’t buy your own…well, fantasy, then this is perfect. Jasmine can enjoy her vacation, go home on Sunday, and get started on a realistic life.”
“If I’m not feeding her the romance line, what makes you think she’ll even listen?”
“I’m desperate, Miss Spencer. She’s broken-hearted, and I can’t stand to see her so miserable and still hopeful that she can have the fantasy. Also, it’s affecting the family business, which means our father might fire her. Then she’d be out of a job and pining. In fact, if she’s not back on Monday, she’ll definitely be out of a job.”
He scowled and released his hands, but he didn’t argue. “Business is business, he’d say, and then he’d let her go. And then she’d move in with me, and she’d eat all the peanut butter and ice cream in the house, and she’d throw out my porn stash…” He winked in a way that was miraculously not cheesy, and her heart fluttered. Goddamned fluttered. “Kidding. But it would be bad.”
What the hell was going on with her? She was acting as goofy as her heroines. “My schedule is very full until Saturday, but I’m glad to offer a supportive nod if you happen to corner me.”
He swept his gaze over her then, and she hoped for a second he might corner her a few times. When he focused on her mouth, she wondered if he was thinking the same thing. “Maybe we can meet for dinner tonight. To discuss strategy.”
She pushed back from the table and gathered her things. “What strategy? You corner me with Jasmine, I agree with you that romance isn’t a real thing that ever happens like it does in books and movies, and then you guys go home.”
“Dinner,” he said.
“Pretty sure I have plans.” Plans that included her working on her career. She wasn’t here for a weekend fling. This was her professional life, and it was on the skids thanks to a shifting market and her own conscience. She had to focus on her priorities before anyone else’s. As much as the thought bummed her out, she had to research “SEALs and shit” or else return to a cubicle to pay for her food and electricity habit.
“Unless I corner you. At dinner.” He scooted his chair back and stood.
She jumped. Her heart beat hard and insistent when the scent of his aftershave wafted over her.
“I’m looking forward to that.” He nodded once and strode away like he’d won a battle.
Kelsey couldn’t help herself. She watched him go, and the way he walked filled her head with all the clichés she’d ever written.
Sauntered away like he was in charge. Like he owned the room. Owned the whole damned hotel. Owned the city itself.
Goddamn. If he cornered her, he might well own her.