Excerpt: Along Came Love

Excerpt: Along Came Love

Book 2: Shades of Love

Chapter One

India Shaw’s stomach twisted into a Gordian knot. She pressed a hand to the still-flat surface, cursing the unfortunate mingling of nerves and nausea.

Settle down, Nugget. Please.

She lifted the starfish pendant that hung from the long silver chain around her neck and brought it to her nose. She inhaled, grateful when the sweet, bracing aroma of peppermint had the desired effect. Exhaling, she squinted against the bright San Francisco sun and watched the uniformed doorman assist the exiting man pushing twins in a top-of-the-line stroller, a leather messenger bag slung across his body. Sending them on their way with a wide smile, the doorman turned back to Indi and the indulgent expression melted from his countenance.

“Was there something else?” he asked, his tone managing to convey his disinterest in her response. He eased past her and reclaimed his post behind the chest high amber-colored glass cubicle.

Indi cleared her throat, choking on the Asshole that yearned to escape her lips. “About that list—”

“You’re not on it.”

“That’s not possible.” She took a deep breath, pushing back the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. “Can you check again?”

He ignored her and continued studying the large computer screen in front of him.

She braced her hands on the rich wood-grained counter and shifted her weight forward, trying to see the spellbinding monitor.

The man tightened his thin lips and shifted the screen, further obstructing her view of the list. “I don’t need to check again. Your name isn’t on the list of approved entrants for Penthouse A.”

Her stomach churned again and she slid back to the ground, her boots knocking against the bag at her feet and echoing on the marble floors. This couldn’t be happening. What was she going to do? Where was she going to stay? And how could she have forgotten that Chelsea and Adam wouldn’t be home?

Because from the moment she’d seen those contrasting pink-toned, parallel lines, her brain had been as disordered as a greasy diner’s breakfast scramble.

Sorry, Nugget. Bad analogy.

But how else to explain her sudden resignation from her job as a craft beer server at the brewery, her mad dash to the Seattle train station, and her having endured loud one-sided phone conversations and bone jarring bumps and rocking for the thirty-five-hour trip? She’d eschewed freshening up at the train station before heading to the apartment—preferring necessity over propriety—and assumed she’d sidestep her sister’s interrogation, take a much-needed shower, grab food and a nap, then talk to Chelsea about her situation.

Not for one second had she thought gaining entrance to the apartment would be an issue.

Looking at the stack of brochures proclaiming the expanded hours of the restaurant off the lobby, she straightened them, making sure the edges lined up neatly and all the papers were facing in the same direction. “Clearly there’s been a mistake—”

“This may be new to you, especially if you live in the Tenderloin,” he said, scanning her braids, cable-knit sweater, long floral skirt, and leather ankle boots, “but here at the Hermitage at Avalon, we take pride in protecting the privacy of our homeowners.”

Indi frowned. She didn’t know what “live in the Tenderloin” meant—how could someone inhabit a piece of meat?—but his arched brow, curled lip, and eau de condescension was enough to clue her in to his opinion of her.

Did this man think he could intimidate her? She’d been thrown shade by people more elite and more proficient at it than him. She plastered on a bright smile.

“I’m sure Chelsea and Adam appreciate that, but it’s not required in this case. You’ve met Chelsea, right?”

“Mrs. Bennett?”

Indi rolled her eyes. “Technically, but she’s keeping her last name. We used to talk about it when we were younger. She’d say she wasn’t going to work hard to establish her career and name only to give it away when she got married. So, see? How would I know that if I didn’t know Chelsea? We’re sisters.”

Lines creased his forehead. “Mrs. Bennett doesn’t have siblings.”

She swallowed. “Why would you say that?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Because I heard her mention it to Mr. Bennett.”

Why would Chelsea tell Adam she didn’t have family? Was it happening already? And if it was, could Indi blame Chelsea for wanting to embrace the happiness in her future and forget everything—and everyone—who reminded her of the past?

Indignation battled with anxiety and disappointment.

And nausea. These days there was always nausea.

“You were eavesdropping?” she challenged. “Is that part of the service the Hermitage at Avalon provides?”

“Maybe not,” he said, his gaze darting away from her, “but a good concierge uses whatever tools are at his disposal to help him do his job. That’s how I know you’re not related to Mrs. Bennett.”

“Your tools are a little dull. Chelsea and I aren’t sisters by blood, we’re sisters by circumstance. Foster sisters.”

The doorman smirked and turned his back to her, but Indi reached across the desk and grabbed his arm. “Don’t underestimate the bond we created. We’re very close.”

She couldn’t imagine loving a biological sibling more. Her chest tightened at the invisible wound created by that bond being severed.

He looked down at her hand on his arm and then back at her. She unclenched her fingers and removed her hand, holding both up in a gesture of peace.

“Look, I appreciate you’re just doing your job, but Chelsea and Adam would want you to grant me access to their house.”

“I’d have no problem doing so, despite my personal opinion, if they’d put you on the list. But they didn’t, so…” He shrugged, not bothering to finish the sentence.

“So if Chelsea or Adam called and said it was okay, you’d put me on the list?”

His eyes remained glued to the screen as his fingers flew over the keyboard. “If they called and used their password, then yes, I’d put you on the list.”

She couldn’t even bask in the fleeting moment of satisfaction she’d experienced at his acquiescence. They wouldn’t call because they were on their postponed honeymoon. She didn’t remember where they’d gone, or even how long they’d be away, just that Chelsea had mentioned something about a resort in Fiji where Adam wouldn’t be able to use his devices and they’d be free from any contact with the outside world for at least a week.

Dammit. She bit her lip and stared at the professionally garbed patrons dining next door. What if …

“Does it have to be Chelsea or Adam?”

That got his attention.

“Excuse me?”

“You said ‘on the list,’ so one must already exist for them. Is it fair to assume it contains other names?”

He crossed his arms tightly across his chest and stared down his nose at her. “Possibly,” he said, drawing the word out into several syllables.

Indi nodded. If this list granted access to their house, it would be populated with the names of people they trusted. If Chelsea had set it up, Indi’s name would’ve occupied the top slot. Their stint through the foster care system solidified their relationship. They’d experienced ordeals that either caused people to never speak again or bond for life.

Chelsea trusted her. Of course she did.

Are you sure?

Indi refused to take notice of the splinter of doubt that implanted itself just beneath her skin.

That meant Adam had probably established the list and moved on to his next task, not thinking Chelsea’s input was necessary. To say the gorgeous genius and CEO possessed a single-minded focus understated his intensity. And suddenly, Indi was certain of who was on the list. Adam’s two best friends, Jonathan Moran and Mike Black.

Sensation bobbed and weaved in her belly.

Oh, so you recognize the name, huh, Nugget?

Mike.

Memories she’d tried desperately to suppress came skipping to the fore of her mind. His brilliant blue eyes holding her gaze while his hands learned the contours of her body. His unruly blond curls clutched between her fingers, while his lips skimmed across her skin. His lean muscled body nestled between her thighs as he coaxed back-arching orgasms from her.

He was Adam’s best friend and Chief Operating Officer of their immensely successful technology company, Computronix. He’d played an instrumental role in Chelsea and Adam meeting and almost losing each other forever. The man was tenacious, ruthless, and self-righteous. But after three tequila body shots, she found him charming, fascinating, and panty-meltingly sexy. Why hadn’t she learned her lesson in five semesters of college?

Nothing good ever comes from tequila.

She refocused on the point she wanted to make. “If a person on the list called you, could they verify that I should be on the list?”

“No.”

Crap. She twirled one of her long braids around her index finger. But—

“If a person on the list showed up and requested entrance, you’d have to let them in, right? Even if they were with a guest?”

His face contorted as if he’d swallowed something unappetizing.

Score! It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday. Go Indi, go Indi.

And yet, once again, she had to deny herself the taste of victory. Jonathan, a James Beard Award-winning chef wasn’t in the city. At Chelsea and Adam’s wedding he’d informed everyone that he’d be spending the next year in DC, opening a new restaurant.

That left Mike as her only option.

She couldn’t call him. The last time she’d seen him, she’d been leaving his bed at the crack of dawn after a sex-filled—and -fueled—weekend. The last time she’d spoken to him had been the night before she’d crept away: she’d screamed his name and dissolved into an orgasm when his tongue pushed against her clit. She couldn’t call him now and say, “Hey, I know I disappeared on you and ignored your calls and texts, but can you put that behind you and help me?”

And that would be the easiest part of their conversation.

No, she couldn’t contact Mike. Not yet. So what was she going to do? Despite her travels, she’d never been to San Francisco. Besides Chelsea, Adam, and Mike, she didn’t know anyone else in the city, and she’d spent most of her cash on the train ticket and the cab from the station. If she’d stayed in Seattle and worked in the brewery until the weekend, she could’ve made more than enough in tips to—

Her lips parted on a gasp.

Her stash.

Sporadically over the past few years, she’d entrusted some of her earnings to her sister. A personal savings account that earned no interest because Indi refused to let Chelsea deposit it in a bank. And Chelsea always had it, no matter where she’d been living. It was here. Indi could take some of that money and get a nice hotel room until Chelsea and Adam returned from their honeymoon.

“When does Barney’s shift begin?” she asked, changing tactics. “He was on duty when I stayed here three months ago during the wedding.”

The doorman blinked. “Barney is on indefinite leave.”

“Oh no!” she gasped. “Is he okay? Was it his wife?”

The doorman’s eyes bulged briefly before receding back into his face. “I cannot discuss his private information.” He hesitated. “But how did you—”

“The last time we talked she’d just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I volunteered at a hospital where they’d had successful trials using a cancer drug to treat some of the symptoms. I gave him some information so he could mention it to her doctor.”

“Oh,” he said, tapping his thumb against his bottom lip.

Was that a weakening in the levee? “How would I know that if I hadn’t spoken to Barney? And I’d only have spoken to him if I was here and spent time with him and that would only have been possible if I actually knew Chelsea and Adam.”

She waved her hand with a flourish. That had been a persuasive argument. Surely he couldn’t refute that logic?

“If I recall it properly, we had really low temperatures a few months back. Maybe you stepped in from the cold, and Barney, being the nice guy he is, chatted with you while he let you thaw out. Maybe you have been here before, but to visit other people. Or maybe you’re a stalker and that’s how you know the information.”

She frowned. Come on. She hopped up and down on her toes, attempting to hold off the encroaching exhaustion. “This is silly. I’ll only be a second. You can come with me. There’s something I need to get—”

“You’re not on the list.”

“Enough with that fucking list!”

The door to the restaurant opened and the overpowering odor of garlic wafted over and immediately snuffed out her ire. The assault to her senses was devastating. She placed a hand on the counter, bent over at the waist, and took several deep, cleansing breaths. She grabbed her scent necklace, willing the peppermint to assist Nugget and the nausea in chilling the hell out.

Most people would’ve shown her some compassion, some consideration. Not the doorman. He offered no assistance, just delivered his final poisonous barb.

“Did you ever consider that you’re not on the Bennetts’ list because they didn’t want you to be?”

His words were more disruptive then the garlic. They snaked their way through her, winding their way around the handles and flinging open the doors behind which she’d hidden her deepest fear.

Indi was no longer the most important person in Chelsea’s life. And she’d continue to tumble down that list as Adam’s friends, family, and kids arrived on the scene.

Her muscles tightened and her belly fluttered. Indi straightened and pushed her shoulders back.

Don’t worry, Nugget. I don’t care what that asshat says. I’m getting into that apartment.

 

With a satisfying click the last tumbler settled into place. Indi removed the bent hair clip from the lock, dusted her hands together, and pushed to her feet. The fact that the lock was still an old-fashioned tumbler and key and nothing more high tech was her first clue that Chelsea and Adam still hadn’t settled in.

People thought very little of expressing their opinions about her “frivolous” tendency to move from city to city, job to job. But she learned something important from each relocation experience, whether it was a clearer understanding of what she didn’t want to do or a skill she could cultivate for later use. In this case, working with a private investigator in Greensboro yielded more than the money she’d needed to get to the next city.

She hefted her fringed backpack over her shoulder and edged open the door. She’d left the building after her encounter with the doorman only to sneak back inside when he’d provided assistance to a guy delivering several large packages. She paused, listening for the telltale beeping of an alarm system. Hearing none, she slipped inside, turning to quietly shut the door … and causing her backpack to crash against a pile of boxes stacked near the entrance. She cringed and watched as the box on top clattered to the marble floor in horrifyingly slow motion, the noise resounding throughout the cavernous foyer.

Dammit.

Had that been as loud as she feared or was the reverberated noise amplified by the pounding of her heart, the ringing in her ears? She stared at the mess she’d created and recognized the contents as accessories from Chelsea’s apartment in LA. Working quickly, she stacked the gold-framed pictures and books back into the box. She rescued a lamp that dangled by its cord, frowning at the frosted glass bowl that lay in pieces on the floor.

“This is all the doorman’s fault,” she told Nugget, using her boot to sweep the pieces of the bowl into a pile. “If he’d just let me in like I’d asked, I wouldn’t have had to stoop to these tactics.”

Indi headed down the short hallway. The sun glinted off the bare beige walls and spotlighted another stash of boxes piled beneath the chair rails. In her LA condo, Chelsea had displayed her vibrant art collection. Their absence here was her second clue that the penthouse hadn’t become their penthome.

The hallway opened into a large, bright room bracketed by two walls of floor to ceiling windows. Dropping her backpack on the caramel-colored sofa, she took a moment to soak in the majestic view. It was postcard quality: pale blue waters, cloud-capped mountains, a bridge in the distance. She was as enthralled with it now as she’d been when she’d first seen it before Chelsea and Adam’s wedding. Unlike then, she didn’t have time to sit on the wraparound balcony. She needed to locate her cash stash and get out of the building without the doorman’s knowledge.

The burnt-orange area rug muffled the sound of her boots. Where to begin? More boxes populated this room, too. On the floor, on the large stuffed sofa, on the low coffee table made of some dark, thick wood. Some boxes were opened with bright accessories peeking out of the top. Some of the boxes were closed. Most were covered in Chelsea’s familiar scrawl. Indi conducted a cursory examination of the boxes’ labels, finding nothing more descriptive than the owner’s name and the location.

Despite the clear disarray of the place, the tableau represented a harmonious merging of two households, two styles, two personalities. Her vision blurred. What would it feel like to belong? To know where you were supposed to be and who you were supposed to be with? The closest she’d ever come to that feeling was the eight months she and Chelsea had been foster sisters. She’d finally met someone who cared about her well-being. Someone who looked at her and saw a person, not a paycheck.

A lesson for you, Nugget. Self-pity is so unbecoming.

She wouldn’t begrudge Chelsea her happiness, even as she dreaded the eventual change in their relationship. Pursing her lips, she headed across the large room, toward the master bedroom and the section of the house that led to Chelsea’s office.

When Chelsea had given Indi the tour before the wedding, she’d shown Indi the room she’d claimed.

“It gets great light and the view of the bay is incredible. But most importantly, it’s on the opposite end of the house from Adam’s office and his workshop. When we both need to work, it’s best if we stay away from each other.”

Her features softened, one corner of her mouth quirked upward, and her eyelids lowered like window blinds covering a provocative scene.

It was the look of a woman recalling sheet-fisting, toe-curling sex.

“Ewww,” Indi said, slapping her shoulder.

“Don’t you ‘ewww’ me.” Chelsea planted her hands on her hips. “If I had to listen to you create odes about the showerhead in my old apartment, you can deal with a look while I think about the man I love.”

Chelsea had managed to mount the big screen TV on the wall opposite her desk and assemble the ceiling high bookcase and shelving unit. But the stash of boxes labeled “Chelsea—Office” and the clutter of supplies on her desk indicated that she still had a ways to go before she was settled in.

Ugh! Indi clenched her teeth. There was no way she could go through all of these boxes. She let her head drop back and her gaze fly skyward. That’s when she saw it. On the top shelf, a small blue sphere jutted from the bookcase. She’d found one.

She rolled her eyes. Of course it’d be at the top. Chelsea was an Amazonian goddess, several inches taller than Indi’s own slightly above average height. But even she would’ve needed help getting it up there. These were ten-foot ceilings.

Indi grabbed the lightweight chair from the corner and carried it to the bookcase. Bracing herself against the unit, she climbed up and grabbed the blue ceramic penis from its “hiding” place.

There was a slit in the top—heh!—where money could be put, but unlike most piggy banks, no plug in the bottom to make accessing the money easy. If you wanted your cash back, you had to break this bad boy.

When Indi had aged out of the foster care system, she’d vowed to never be dependent on anyone else again. She’d go where she wanted, do what she wanted, and not let anyone dictate how she would live. For the first time ever, she was in control of her life. To that end, she got a job as quickly as possible and worked nonstop for six months. She saved up every penny she could until she had an amount she believed she could live off, for a month or so, if necessary. She’d sent that money, in a ceramic figurine, to Chelsea and asked her to hold on to it. Over the years, she’d sent her more and more cash-filled figurines until Chelsea could’ve operated her own tchotchke kiosk at the mall.

They were her cash stashes. Her “break only in case of an emergency” savings fund. And not an “I need this dress—it’s on sale for only two hundred dollars” kind of emergency. This was for a “shit’s going down and my options are limited” kind of emergency.

Pregnant. Alone in an unfamiliar city. No place to stay, no money at hand.

Yeah, this qualified.

She carried the earthenware phallus back into the great room and shoved it inside her backpack. She couldn’t chance breaking it here. She needed to get out of the building unseen. She remembered there was a cute artisanal bakery up the street. She’d go there, use their restroom. She didn’t know how much money was in this one, but there had to be enough to cover decent lodging for a week or so until Chelsea—

The door crashed open. Indi gasped, skidded back against the sofa, and sat down hard on the rolled arm.

The doorman frowned and pointed his arm, like a bad extra in an episode of Law & Order. “She— That’s the woman who tried to talk me into letting her in here!”

Indi had difficulty catching her breath, the air around her selfishly deciding to remain free instead of trapped in her lungs.

“Wait, what?” she wheezed.

“I thought you’d left. You can’t be in here. You’re not on the list.”

“Sir, please.” An officer held up a hand, an imposing figure in dark blue attire displaying the San Francisco Police Department seal. “Let me handle this.”

Indi blinked. “This is just a misunderstanding. My sister lives here.”

“But you’re not on the list,” the doorman interrupted. “If you’re not on the homeowner’s list, I can’t grant you access when the homeowner isn’t home.”

“Ma’am, he says he didn’t let you in because you don’t have the proper authority.” The officer’s voice was low and steady.

Think, Indi.

“Authority means different things. I’m not on the list, but—”

“Then how did you get in here? Do you have a key?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Can you produce a key?”

The cold fingers of inevitability skittered down her spine. She crossed her arms over her belly. “No.”

“Then I’m afraid I have no choice.” The officer strode over to her, magically whipping cuffs from some undisclosed location on his uniform. The creaking of his leather shoes and gun belt seemed loud in the sudden silence. “You’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent …”