New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan never thought she’d be a writer. Not really. No, she loved math and science and even went on to graduate school in chemistry. Yes, she read as a kid and devoured teen fiction and Harry Potter, but it wasn’t until someone handed her a romance book in her late teens that she realized that there was something out there just for her. When another author suggested she use the voices in her head for good and not evil, The Redwood Pack and all her other stories were born.
Carrie Ann is a bestselling author of over twenty novels and novellas and has so much more on her mind (and on her spreadsheets *grins*) that she isn’t planning on giving up her dream anytime soon.
Her newest book is LIVE today, Harder than Words (Montgomery Ink Book 3)
Once best friends, now strangers: Second chances don’t come along often. Indulge in heat, ink, and romance in the third book of the NYT Bestselling Montgomery Ink Series.
Meghan Montgomery-Warren thought she knew what love was when she’d married young and had two children. After years of being emotionally beaten down, her husband has finally left her and now she’s forced to find her way once again. Somehow she needs to find the person she used to be and figure that the strength she’d thought she’d lost was always there.
Luc Dodd left Denver and his best friend Meghan when he was forced to watch her walk down the aisle with another man. He might have only been her best friend, but he held his true emotions close to the vest. Now he’s back in town and in Meghan’s life. Only he needs to decide if that’s enough for him…and her.
Their journey from friends to lovers is a slow burn of seduction and pain. When Meghan’s past comes back to haunt them both, the two of them will have to stand closer together or be torn apart by their own misgivings forever.
Nine Years Ago
If today didn’t kill him, the thought of what would happen later that night would. Luc Dodd ran a hand over his face, wishing he’d been smart enough to down that shot of single malt whiskey the father of the bride had offered him a couple hours before. Instead, he’d waved it off, wanting a clear and collected head when the deed was done.
Not one of the most logical things Luc had ever done in his life.
For a normal person, watching his best friend get married would be one of the best days of his life. For Luc, not so much.
Today royally sucked.
He rolled his shoulders back, the ache down his spine clinging. He hadn’t slept for shit the night before, but he’d expected nothing less. It wasn’t as if he spent the evening with the groom making sure the guy was ready to be married or even helping with any of the setup. No, he wasn’t friends with the man and, honestly, never planned on trying to be.
The bride? He wanted to be there for her no matter what. He’d promised her he’d always be there and always help her follow the path she’d been destined for. Only he didn’t know what that was anymore. It had forked in a new direction he wasn’t sure he could follow with her.
It seemed he wasn’t going to be able to live up to his promises.
Not that Meghan knew that presently.
No, that bomb would drop when she came back from her honeymoon.
Damn. Her fucking honeymoon.
His best friend was getting married to a man Luc didn’t know much about, and what he did know he hated. As much as he tried to jump on board with the whole damn thing, he hadn’t been able to.
Not when he loved Meghan with all his heart.
Fuck. He let out a breath and paced the hallway. He needed to get his head out of his ass and back squarely on his shoulders. He’d paste a smile on his face and fake it through the ceremony and the reception. Then he’d jump on his bike and head out because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it if he had to see her day in and day out in her new life.
That didn’t make him much of a friend. In fact, that made him a shitty one. He was pretty sure she’d never forgive him for leaving, but he also figured it would be for the best. He didn’t want her to see the man he’d become once he was forced to watch her grow and intertwine her life with a man who wasn’t him.
Jealousy wasn’t becoming, but it was the only thing he had left.
That and the memories of what he’d had with her.
He’d take those, and he’d leave. She’d be better off without him and his moods.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have seven siblings and countless cousins to rely on anyway. Luc wasn’t family. He wasn’t her fiancé. He wasn’t good for her.
And as soon as she said her vows, he’d put the last nail in the coffin of what they once were and never see her again. His stomach rolled, and the lead weight grew heavier. That weight had been there since the moment Meghan showed him her shiny ring while crying happily in his arms. He didn’t want to do this, didn’t want to see the lace and silk with roses and baby’s breath. He didn’t want to watch her walk down the aisle with her hand tucked inside her father’s elbow. He didn’t want to stand on the sidelines at the reception while those who were actually part of the wedding gave toasts and celebrated the union of a man and a woman who couldn’t be more different from one another.
Well, in that, he was wrong. He and Meghan were the ones so opposite even their friendship didn’t make sense.
Meghan and Richard made more sense.
And if he kept telling himself that, then maybe one day he’d believe it.
He was only a guest at the wedding, not a groomsman or even an usher, though Meghan had done her best to try and get him to be a freaking bridesmaid. He grinned in spite of himself at the memory of her begging him to stand at her side. She’d promised him he wouldn’t have to wear a dress and heels, though her sister, Maya, pointed out that his legs would look damn fine in heels. Maya scared the shit out of him sometimes, but he wasn’t about to admit that out loud.
He did agree to stand as her man of honor because he couldn’t help but say yes when Meghan blinked her big eyes up at him and smiled. He would walk with Meghan’s sisters, Maya and Miranda, down the aisle and stand in a row up front, and make damn sure his best friend was happy.
Of course, the groom nixed the whole idea as soon as he could. Oh, he wasn’t rude about it. Richard was smart when it came to Meghan’s feelings, but he’d pressed ever so slightly about appearances and his family. Ironic that the bastard would be so concerned with clean lines and perfection considering the fact that most of Meghan’s family members were tattooed and pierced. Luc could at least hide most of his ink under a shirt—not so for many of the other Montgomerys.
Meghan conceded defeat and didn’t ask Luc to be on Richard’s side since her groom had his roles already handed out.
So Luc would sit in a pew in the back of the church and nod along, and watch his best friend slip through his fingers.
He hated the fact that he couldn’t be happy for her.
But most of all, he hated himself for loving a woman who would never love him.
In his early twenties, he should have been sowing his oats or some shit like Meghan’s brothers and cousins had done, but he’d fallen in love with his best friend in high school and was too chickenshit to tell her.
It was his fault he was in this situation, so he would just have to deal with it.
“Luc? What the hell are you doing pacing the halls? Get in here. We need you.”
His head snapped up at Maya’s words, and he couldn’t help smiling. Her black and hot pink hair was in some kind of complicated updo, but with the vibrant colors, it made her look just punk enough to still be Maya. Meghan had gone with a soft dove gray with a subtle pink outline for her wedding’s color scheme, and the look on Maya worked for her. He was sure that the other Montgomery sister, Miranda, would look just as good. As soon as he thought of her, Miranda stuck her head out the door and smiled.
“Oh good, Luc. You’re here. Meghan wants to see you.” She opened the door a bit wider, and Luc shook his head.
“It’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.” And if he saw her so close, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to leave when he had to—either then or later.
Maya raised her pierced brow at him, and he held back a curse. That damn woman could always see through his bullshit. Meghan usually could as well, although she’d been blissfully oblivious to his feelings for her.
“That’s for the groom, silly,” Miranda said, rolling her eyes. She was still a teenager, so he was surprised she didn’t huff when she said it. There were so many freaking Montgomerys that they ran the gamut on ages.
Luc cleared his throat. “Damn. Who knew?”
“Everyone,” Maya said dryly. “Now get your ass in here because Meghan wants to see you before the wedding. This way I don’t have to go hunt you down.”
“Tactful as ever, Maya,” Miranda remarked sweetly, then reached out and gripped Luc’s arm. “Come on.” With surprising strength, she pulled him into the bridal suite and closed the door behind her.
And he found himself alone in the room with Meghan after the others had scurried away.
He couldn’t find the words to scold Maya. Not when he’d just swallowed his tongue at the sight before him.
Holy Mother of God, she was captivating.
Fucking sexy as hell.
Every word that described the picture she made slammed into his brain then fluttered away, leaving him at a loss for words.
“Well?” she asked, her voice low and husky. Or maybe that was just his hearing because she was usually a little more crisp and to the point. “What do you think? I trust you to tell me if I look like a hag or something. You’re my best friend.”
The dress molded her body and flared out at her hips and knees slightly. The lace looked antique over a more golden white than a bright white. He wasn’t a tattoo artist or good with colors, so he couldn’t tell what the true difference was, but he knew it made her pale skin glisten in the light. She’d opted not to go sleeveless since her breasts were too big for that kind of dress. The lace-capped sleeves were so delicate he wasn’t sure how they were holding up the dress, but he didn’t care. The fact that she felt free to tell him that even now told him she thought of him only as her friend, but right then, he pushed that thought out of his head.
Her hair had been pulled back in soft curls that bunched at the base of her neck with flowers tucked here and there. She’d chosen delicate jewelry that paled in comparison to the brightness of her eyes and the width of her smile.
Damn it to hell, she was happy.
Happy to marry a guy he hated.
Happy to marry a guy who wasn’t him.
He swallowed hard and smiled back. It wasn’t her fault, he reminded himself. He’d never stepped up to the plate, and now he had to deal with the fact that he’d never have the woman he wanted.
This was his doing.
“Luc?” A hint of uncertainty layered her voice.
He shook his head and winced. He was totally botching this. “Meghan, you look utterly breathtaking.” He spoke softly, his voice low, deep. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so beautiful.” Her eyes brightened, and he grinned. “Well, maybe that one time when you were covered in mud, grass, and who knows what else after the mud run, but I’ll let you take this one as the top runner. It is your wedding day, after all.”
She let out a laugh then rolled her eyes. “Jerk. You had me worried for a moment. Come over here and help me make sure my lace is right in the back, okay? The girls left me, and I’m freaking nervous.”
He didn’t want to step closer to her because, if he did, he’d be able to touch her, scent her, and he’d never let her go. He wasn’t sure he was strong enough to resist that.
He stepped closer anyway.
When he reached her, she tilted her head up at him, a single tear rolling down her cheek. His chest ached, and he reached up to brush it away with his thumb. The image of his dark skin against the creamy paleness of hers made his cock twitch and his heart thud, but he pushed that away.
“What’s wrong, angel eyes?” He kept his hand on her cheek, his thumb running along the silk of her skin.
She licked her lips, and his eyes followed the motion. He swallowed hard, forcing himself not to move, not to breathe, not to think too hard.
“I’m getting married today,” she whispered.
He tried to smile but knew he failed. “I got that from the dress and the fact that I’m wearing this monkey suit.”
“I’m happy,” she said softly, her gaze on his.
“Are you telling me that or yourself?” he asked before he could stop himself.
She tilted her head, her cheek pressing into his palm. “Both of us,” she said firmly. “Thank you for being here, Luc. I know you couldn’t be part of the wedding, but I’m grateful you’re here.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” With that, he leaned down and brushed his lips against hers. It was just a moment, nothing more than a whisper between friends. They’d done it countless times before during special circumstances, but he knew this would be the last.
Not only because he was leaving, but also because he couldn’t stand by and watch her move on anymore.
From the look in Meghan’s eyes when he pulled back, she knew it too.
She would soon be Mrs. Richard Warren. A wife. A partner.
“I wish you all the best, Meghan Montgomery. I want you to be happy, loved, cherished, and the center of his universe. I love you, Meghan. You’ll always be my angel eyes. No matter what.”
She swallowed hard and gave him a searching look, her eyes glittering with tears. “I love you, too, Luc.”
“Good luck today, Meghan. Good luck with everything.” With that, he kissed her cheek then moved away.
He turned his back on her, unable to look at her any longer and not tell her everything in his heart. He was too late. Too fucking late.
He left the bridal suite just as Maya and Miranda stormed in, a blur of silk and lace.
“See you soon, Luc!” Miranda called as he made his way down the hallway.
He sucked in a breath and tried to calm his heart down. He could make it through the ceremony, make it through the reception…right?
He let out a breath and moved out of the way as a flower girl did tumbles down the hallway, a harried-looking mother following her. The woman gave Luc an apologetic look then ran after her daughter.
He heard the music starting up in the distance and felt the tension in the air rising. His stomach clenched, and he fisted his hands at his sides. He didn’t think he had the strength to endure the sight of her promising herself to another man.
He was a coward. A useless, fucking coward who needed to find the man he would be without Meghan Montgomery by his side and in his life.
Knowing he was about to do something she would never forgive him for, he stepped outside the church. The sun beat down on his face as if casually judging him for breaking a promise and his soul.
He jumped on the back of his bike and slid his helmet on. Meghan was strong, so fucking strong; she’d be fine without him. She had Richard to lean on and a family that would never let her fall. If he stayed, he’d only regret who he’d become. Instead, he kick-started his bike and gunned it out of the parking lot.
Meghan Montgomery wasn’t his anymore.
She never had been.
There had to be a better way to deal with files and estimates other than wanting to burn them in a fire of glory and pain.
At least that’s what Luc figured when he stopped himself from slamming his head against the desk. He knew for a fact that wasn’t true. He’d been the journeyman electrician for Montgomery Inc. for over a year now, and he felt like all he did was paperwork. Estimates, bids and proposals were the bane of his existence. It didn’t matter that he knew his shit inside and out. It still sucked. The family-owned business was the most efficient one he’d ever worked for, and their administrative assistant, Tabby, did most of the work with her scarily organized methods, but he felt the need to complain about it anyway.
When he’d come back to Denver after almost a decade away, he never thought Storm and Wes Montgomery would hire him on without even looking at his resume. Yeah, Luc had worked for them before and grew up learning the trade. He was over at the Montgomery house more than his own most weeks, but still… He’d left everyone without a word, and they welcomed him back with open arms.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. At the time, he’d told Harry Montgomery, the Montgomery siblings’ father and owner of the company, he’d be leaving, but that was it. He swore Harry to strict secrecy, even though he knew it had hurt the older man to keep it from his daughter. But if Luc thought about it too hard, he’d recognize the fact that nothing got past Harry, and there was a reason the man let Luc go without a word.
But, again, Luc wasn’t going to think about that.
It had been too fucking long, and he was no longer the lost boy who wanted the girl he could never have. He’d lived his life and seen the world to become the man he was today.
A man who wanted to scream at the numbers on the screen.
He’d rather be working with his hands than doing this number shit, but being an adult meant he had to be accountable and actually do his job.
“Are you still threatening to slam your head into the screen rather than actually finish up the work?” Wes, his boss and friend, said as he walked up to Luc’s desk.
Wes, like the rest of the Montgomerys, had dark brown hair, strong features, and bright blue eyes. He wasn’t as built as some of the others, not even his twin, Storm, but he was still pretty big. Luc had a couple inches on the man, but it didn’t feel like that much when he was surrounded by the whole Montgomery crew.
“I hate doing this.” Luc pushed his chair back so he could stretch his legs. “I have everything input and triple-checked, but I still have to freaking organize it and make sure I’m not fucking up. I hate working with estimates.”
Wes shook his head. “Then don’t. You did the part you needed to do. Let me or Tabby work on the other parts. I’d rather you get out to the project house and work on the system than sit here and let your eyes dry out because you’re not blinking.”
Luc ran a hand over his face then blinked a few times. Huh. He guessed his eyes were drying out. Who knew? “It’s not your job to take care of my work, Wes.”
“Actually, you’re doing our work,” Wes countered. “We’re a team, and you did your part. I know you want to be able to handle everything, but the number parts aren’t your job. You did most of the estimates already, and now you’re just nitpicking. You’ve put in everything you can, so now, let’s work on the projections and everything else that comes with them.”
And this was why Luc didn’t want to own his own business. Yeah, he could do it all if he had to. He’d even been forced to do it a couple times when he preferred working as an electrician and not on payroll. He’d rather fix the problems he could handle rather than make more for himself by worrying about those details that were out of his control.
“You’re working too hard on things you can delegate. Let us help.”
“But I should be able to do it all.” Luc was annoyed with himself for some reason.
“You can, but you don’t have to. That’s the whole point of delegating.”
“Funny words coming from your mouth, bro,” Storm said as he came up from behind his twin.
They were fraternal twins, so they didn’t look too much alike, other than clearly being siblings. Storm liked to dress down all the time; Wes dressed in slacks and pressed shirts while he was in the office and not on a project site.
“I delegate,” Wes said. His friend was lying. But Luc wasn’t one to talk then, so he didn’t point it out.
“We all kind of suck at it,” Decker said. Decker was Miranda Montgomery’s husband and their lead contractor. “But still, stop doing everything and try to work less than sixty hours a week. It’s okay to actually have a life.”
Luc frowned. “I have a life outside Montgomery Inc.”
“Do you?” Decker asked, and Luc just glared.
As much as he liked working with his friends, sometimes it sucked that they knew so much about him. Or at least were learning about the man he was now.
There was only one person who knew more about who he was.
“What are all of you gathered around for?”
And there she was.
Luc looked over at the front door of the building as Meghan Montgomery-Warren came in, her face freckled with dirt and her jeans caked with mud. As she was the Montgomery Inc. landscape architect, so the mud overlay wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Still, every time he saw her, he got what felt like a kick to the solar plexus. After all these years, he figured he’d be over her by now, but nope. He still thought she was fucking gorgeous.
Her long chestnut hair fell over her shoulders in waves as she took it out of her ponytail. Her high cheekbones had become more prominent over the years as she’d grown out of her youth. Her bright blue eyes weren’t as carefree anymore—the darkness of divorce and the pain of her life since he’d left taking hold—but damn, she was still beautiful. She’d lost weight when she was married and was just now starting to gain it back. But because she worked her ass off—more than any of the men around his desk, including himself—she was still too thin for his liking.
“We’re just trying to convince Luc to not work so hard,” Wes said as he grinned at his sister. “Though since you’re here, we’ll yell at you, too. Why the hell are you covered in mud?”
Luc held back a groan when Meghan narrowed her eyes at her brother. “Excuse me? I’m working for a living. It gets messy. I can’t help it if you love your pressed linen to the point of obsession.”
Luc snorted a laugh, as did the other guys, but Wes just grinned. “I look good, and you know it. Anyway, you were supposed to be back from your job site an hour ago. What happened?”
Meghan shrugged. “Had an issue with one of the burlap-wrapped trees. Little bastard didn’t want to go in the hole.”
“Probably should have used more lube,” Storm said with a straight face, and Luc closed his eyes.
Nope. Not going there.
Meghan clucked her tongue, but when he opened his eyes again, she was smiling. “I walked right into that one. Anyway, I need to go pick up the kids and head to the parents’. You guys coming to dinner?”
“Yep,” the three others said.
Meghan turned to Luc then and, for the first time that day, met his gaze. They’d seen and talked to one another often in the past year she’d been divorced and he’d been back. He even held her that one time she’d needed it. But they’d never be the friends they once were.
He’d broken that.
“What about you, Luc? You coming?”
He shook his head, regret in his heart. “I’m having dinner with my own folks tonight. But have fun.”
She smiled then, the light in her eyes reminding him of a better time. “Have fun.”
“Always,” he said softly then cleared his throat. “Okay, then. If I don’t need to work on this paperwork, I’m heading out.”
He said his goodbyes and made his way out to his truck, determined not to stare too long at the woman who had once been the best, and most painful, part of his life.
He couldn’t help but stare at her.
But he didn’t love her. Not anymore. The man he used to be loved the woman she had been long ago. He didn’t know this Meghan, and that was on purpose. The distance between them was calculated and necessary.
He’d left Denver and the life he’d created for the woman in front of him once before, and he wasn’t about to do it again. Staying away and being the man he was now, and letting her find the woman she wanted to be, was the only way he could survive.
Even if it hurt like hell.
If you haven’t started the Montgomery Ink series, you can do it NOW for FREE!
This is a Special Bonus Prequel to the Montgomery Ink Series.
Shepard Montgomery loves the feel of a needle in his hands, the ink that he lays on another, and the thrill he gets when his art is finished, appreciated, and loved. At least that’s the way it used to be. Now he’s struggling to figure out why he’s a tattoo artist at all as he wades through the college frat boys and tourists who just want a thrill, not a permanent reminder of their trip. Once he sees the Ice Princess walk through Midnight Ink’s doors though, he knows he might just have found the inspiration he needs.
Shea Little has spent her life listening to her family’s desires. She went to the best schools, participated in the most proper of social events, and almost married the man her family wanted for her. When she ran from that and found a job she actually likes, she thought she’d rebelled enough. Now though, she wants one more thing–only Shepard stands in the way. She’ll not only have to let him learn more about her in order to get inked, but find out what it means to be truly free.
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