Read an Excerpt
Braden Mack pulled his Porsche SUV into an empty spot at the back of the dark parking lot and waited for the signal. Facing him from two rows down, a Suburban idled with its lights on.
A moment passed. Then two.
Finally, the Suburban flashed its high beams twice.
It was time.
He turned off the engine, silenced his cell phone, and shoved it in the pocket of his leather jacket. As he exited his car, the men in the other vehicle did the same. One by one, their hulking frames unfolded from the Suburban, their breaths forming little puffs around their faces. Mack met them halfway between the two cars.
"You're late," said Del Hicks, one of Mack's closest friends.
"I had to save a marriage."
"Another lonely wife?" That was from Derek Wilson, a local businessman.
"Men never learn."
"Which is why we're here, right?" said Malcolm James, his voice deep and Zen-like behind the thick beard that hung nearly to his collarbone.
"Right." Mack sized up each man, measuring guts and commitment. "Anyone who wants out, say it now, because the minute we start this, there's no going back."
"I'm in," Derek said.
"Yeah, man." Del pounded one gloved hand into the other. "Let's do this."
"What the fuck are we doing again?" whined Gavin Scott, one of the newest members of the group, his shoulders hunched against the wind. "Besides freezing our balls off?"
Mack turned and looked at the building. A bright-red sign lit up the bustling sidewalk that ran the length of the strip mall. music city books. For three years, their book club had hidden in the shadows. Read in secret. Met behind closed doors. There were ten of them in all-professional athletes and city officials, tech geniuses and business owners. And, in the case of Mack, the owner of several Nashville bars and nightclubs. All drawn together by a shared love of books that had made them better men, better lovers, better husbands.
Except for Mack on that last one. He was currently one of the last single guys in the group. "What are we doing?" he repeated, looking at the guys. "We're going to buy some goddamned romance novels in public."
He planted his hands on his hips and waited for the dramatic response. Maybe some cinematic music or something, or a loud cheer from the guys. But all he got in response was a resounding fart from the fifth member of their group, a hockey player whom everyone just called the Russian and who had an unfortunate intolerance for dairy products.
The Russian clutched his stomach. "I have to find the bathroom."
Mack shook his head. "Let's go."
The Russian took off first with a slightly lopsided gait. The rest of them followed, with Mack in the lead. They waited at the edge of the parking lot for a line of cars to pass before jogging to the sidewalk. The Russian disappeared inside without a backward glance, his steps growing quicker every few feet. Things were getting dicey there. That bathroom had no idea what it was in for. RIP to the bookstore's plumbing.
Mack took a deep breath, hand on the door handle. He looked once again at the rest of the guys. "Okay. Here are the rules. Everyone has to buy at least one book for the rest of the club to consider for our next read. No hiding the covers. And if anyone asks, you are not buying it as a present. You're buying it for yourself. Any questions?"
"What if someone recognizes us?" Gavin grumbled. Of all the guys, he was probably the most famous and recognizable right now. As a player for the Nashville Major League Baseball team, the Legends, he'd skyrocketed to national fame last year when he nailed a walk-off grand-slam homer in a playoff game.
"Who cares if we're recognized?" said Malcom, another famous face. He was the running back for the Nashville NFL team. "We spend a lot of time talking about the unfairness of how our toxic masculine society forces us to be ashamed of embracing romance novels. Yet we buy our books in secret. It's time we practice what we preach."
"Couldn't have said it better myself," Mack said, standing tall.
"Of course not," Gavin snorted. "Malcolm has a genius IQ, dumbass."
Mack flipped him off.
Gavin returned the gesture.
Del sighed and opened the door. "I'll go first."
They attracted attention as soon as they walked in, but Mack doubted it was because anyone recognized any of them. How often did a group of hulking, good-looking men walk into a bookstore together? They were like an offensive line for the Literary League of Tennessee.
"Where's the romance section?" Del asked quietly.
Mack shook his head, eyes searching the signs that hung from the ceiling. "I don't see it."
"We're going to have to ask for help," Malcolm said.
Gavin cursed and tugged the brim of his cap lower to hide his face.
They approached the information desk, and a woman in an I Read Banned Books T-shirt looked up from her computer screen. "Can I help you?"
"Can you tell me where the romance section is?" Malcolm asked.
She squinted. "Like marriage and self-help?"
"No," Mack said, sidling up next to Malcolm. He propped one hand on the desk and leaned toward her with a smile. "We mean romance novels."
"You guys are looking for the romance novel section," she said, skepticism hanging on every word.
"We sure are." Mack winked.
The woman's cheeks flushed under his attention. "I've never had men ask for romance novels."
Mack leaned closer and lowered his voice to a level somewhere between seductive and conspiratorial. Her blush deepened. "There are a lot of us," he murmured.
She pointed toward the back of the store. "Last shelves on the right."
Malcolm led them through the store. Gavin made a disgusted noise. "Is there anyone you don't flirt with?" he asked Mack.
Mack shrugged. "Not my fault if I'm born with natural charm."
They stopped at a single aisle in the back with a meager selection of paperbacks. Just one wall had been set aside for romance. "This is a disgrace," Malcolm said, shaking his head.
Gavin glanced around nervously. "I wouldn't mind if we were still shopping online."
"Have some pride," Mack said, turning his head to read the spines of the books.
The Russian returned. "Good bathroom here. Very clean."
The Russian could identify the best public bathrooms in every major city in the United States. If he ever retired from hockey, he could create an app ranking them and make more money than he ever did as a player.
Mack found his favorite author and pulled The Protector, her newest book, off the shelf. A romantic suspense about a Secret Service agent and the president's daughter. He loved a little danger with his romance, and he especially loved an enemies-to-lovers story. There was just something satisfying about two people discovering that what makes them fight is also the thing that makes them perfect for each other.
"Are we meeting Friday night?" Gavin asked, glancing at a book with a red spine. "The game doesn't get out until probably seven, so Del and I can't meet until late."
"It'll have to be Saturday," Mack said, cracking open his book to read the first page. "I have a date with Gretchen Friday night."
A knot of tension unfurled in his gut. Tomorrow night would officially be three months with Gretchen, a local attorney he'd met at a party, and he wasn't sparing any expense to make it special for her. He'd pulled every string he had to make an impossible-to-get reservation at Savoy, one of Nashville's swankiest restaurants, which was owned by a celebrity TV chef. And if all went well, he planned to do the thing he'd never done before-have the talk. The let's be exclusive talk.
The silence behind him was suddenly too obvious to be a coincidence. He turned around and found the guys having a silent conservation with raised eyebrows and hand gestures. Del dug into his wallet and shoved a twenty-dollar bill at the Russian.
"What the fuck is that? What are you doing?"
They jumped with matching expressions of guilt. "He owed me money," the Russian said, shoving the twenty in his pocket.
"Bullshit. What are you guys talking about?"
The Russian's shoulders drooped like a puppy who'd just been scolded for pissing on the carpet.
"He won the bet."
Mack's eyebrows furrowed. "What bet?"
"That you would choose a romantic suspense," Del said quickly.
Mack folded his arms over his chest, tucking the book under his armpit. "You expect me to believe that you made a bet about what kind of book I would choose?"
The Russian whistled and looked around. Del smacked him upside the back of the head.
"For fuck's sake." Gavin sighed. "They have a running bet over how long until you dump Gretchen."
Mack blinked. "Are you fucking kidding me right now?"
"It was his idea," the Russian said, pointing at Del.
Del didn't deny it. Instead, he shrugged. "I've lost a lot of money, but I'm impressed that you've stuck with her this long. This has to be a record or something."
Mack gaped, trying not to be insulted, but what the fuck? Sure, he probably deserved his reputation as a one-and-done bachelor, the kind of guy with a different woman on his arm every weekend. He'd just never met anyone he could imagine settling down with. And despite what most people thought of him, he did want to settle down. But his own friend was betting against him? If that wasn't a kick in the balls, he didn't know what was.
Mack pointed at Del. "I'll have you know, douchebag, that I've stuck with her this long because I like her. She's beautiful, smart, and ambitious."
"And totally wrong for you," Malcolm interrupted, entering the conversation for the first time. He'd been studying the shelves during most of the exchange but now turned around with four books tucked in his massive hands.
"Excuse me?" Mack sputtered. "How is she totally wrong for me?"
"Because all the women you date are wrong for you," Gavin snorted.
Mack sputtered again before responding. "Dude, you've known me for less than six months."
"Yeah, and in that time you've dated six different women. Amazing women. All smart, talented, gorgeous. Perfect."
"And that's a problem?" He sounded defensive, which made him feel defensive. Dammit, he was defensive. They were supposed to be buying books, not analyzing his love life.
Gavin shrugged. "You tell me. You dumped them all."
"Because it didn't work out with them," Mack said in a growl.
"And it's different with Gretchen?"
"Yes," Mack said.
"How?" Malcolm asked.
Mack had no response to that. It was different with Gretchen because, because . . . dammit, because he was ready for it to be different. Wasn't that enough? He was tired of watching his friends live happily ever after while he fruitlessly searched for the future Mrs. Mack-someone he could spoil, grow old with, and cherish forever. He was the founder of the damn book club but the only one who'd never experienced the real thing. So, yeah, he was working extra hard this time to stick with it because, dammit, he wanted his own happily ever after.
Gavin held up his hands in a truce. "Look, all we're saying is that for all your talk about being the expert, it seems like you miss the most important lesson of these books."
"Which is?" His tone now edged toward petulance, but he didn't like being lectured about the lessons of the manuals-which was what they all called romance novels-by the newest member of the club.
"There's a big difference between romancing someone and loving someone."
Mack rolled his eyes. "Easy for you to say. You fell in love at first sight with the perfect woman."
Gavin sobered. "My wife isn't perfect. She's just perfect for me. And there's been nothing easy about our marriage."
Tension once again tugged at Mack's gut, this time from guilt. Gavin and his wife, Thea, had nearly divorced six months ago before the book club stepped in to help Gavin get her back.
But rather than apologize for being an asshole, he dug in. "I'm going to prove you wrong," he seethed.
Mack yanked his wallet from his back pocket, heart pounding with the arrogance of something to prove. He shoved a hundred-dollar bill at Del.
"Five-to-one odds that after tomorrow night, I officially have a girlfriend."
"You look beautiful tonight."
Mack reached across the table for Gretchen's slim fingers. She smiled as he brushed his thumb across her knuckles. The earrings he'd given her last week for her birthday hung from her delicate earlobes and sparkled in the candlelight.
"Thank you," she said. "You certainly say it enough to make me feel beautiful."
She laughed and looked down at herself. "Um, no. I got this at Macy's a couple of years ago. Clearance rack."
She tugged her hand back. "Thank you. Again."
Gretchen tore her gaze from his and looked around at the restaurant. Their VIP table in the loft gave them a full view of the urban-chic decor. Wrought-iron chandeliers hung from the high ceilings, and exposed-brick walls gave it an unfinished feel. But when paired with the dark woodwork and the ornate gold, it also had an old-world opulence to it.
"I always wondered what it looked like in here," Gretchen said.
"What do you think?"
"It's, um . . ." She winced as if reluctant to criticize. "It's a little over the top."
"So is Royce."
"You know him?"
Mack adjusted his sport coat as he sat back in his chair. "We've met several times. Charity golf tournaments and that sort of thing. We tend to run in the same circles as business owners."
"Ah. Of course." She squinted. "I don't really run in those circles, you know."
"You run in more important circles." Gretchen was a public defender specializing in immigration cases.
Their waiter approached the table with a bottle of chilled Dom Perignon. Mack had ordered it when he'd made the reservation, along with the signature dessert-the Sultan cupcake. It was so elaborate and expensive, it had to be ordered in advance. He couldn't wait for Gretchen to see it.
"Champagne?" Gretchen asked as the waiter popped the cork.
"We're celebrating," Mack said with a wink.
The waiter poured two tall flutes and then left the bottle in a bucket of ice next to the table before saying he'd be back in a few minutes to go over the specials for the night.
"Sure," Gretchen said, accepting her glass. "So what's the occasion?"
Mack raised his glass. "I closed the deal today on the new building," he said. "But more importantly, here's to us. Three months. And hopefully many more."