“Is there anything I could say or do to earn your forgiveness?”
Website designer Chelsea Parks grew up believing she would marry her best friend’s brother. In college, she gave him her virginity and he broke her heart. She knows she’ll have to face him now that she’s maid of honor at his sister’s wedding, but she doesn’t expect to sit next to him on the plane to California. Good thing she’s so completely over him.
Architect Gavin Fairfield knows he screwed up, but he’s matured since then. Standing in as Father Of The Bride because his dad recently passed, he’s reassessing his future, realizing how short life is and how much he misses Chelsea. He can see now that they’re meant for each other. Too bad she’s so completely over him.
Staying at his family’s summer home, revisiting their old stomping grounds, burns Chelsea alive in old flames. Gavin is as easy to love as ever. She’d like to be friends again, might even succumb to a fling for old time’s sake, but real relationship aren’t built on a weekend of nostalgia. Are they?
Fun Fact: If you enjoyed this story and would like to read the sequel about Brock, look for Blessed Winter, announcement coming soon.
"I don’t hate you. I hate myself for thinking I was different."
— Chelsea to Gavin, Cruel Summer
I started to write Cruel Summer for a contest offering free promotional services to the winner. As the story took shape, however, I fell for Gavin. He broke Chelsea’s heart, but he really was her destiny. I couldn’t bring myself to sign them away to strangers.
I decided to offer Cruel Summer to new readers as a sample of my writing. Cruel Summer is similar in tone to my Montana Born novellas, but has all the emotion and passion of my Presents, so it makes a great, no-risk calling card for readers who are wondering whether they’ll like my books.
And here’s a fun add-on. I don’t usually write to music, but I wound up mentioning a lot of summer oldies in this story.
Song list (in the order mentioned in the book):
Cruel Summer, Bananarama
Summer Breeze, Seals and Croft
Summer Nights, Grease (also known as Summer Loving)
Endless Summer Nights, Richard Marx
Summer Madness, Kool and the Gang
Boys Of Summer, Don Henley
Hot Fun In The Summertime, Sly & The Family Stone
Summer Love, Justin Timberlake
Suddenly, Last Summer, The Motels
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Chelsea Parks kept running all the way down the jet bridge, relieved to see the air hostess waving her into her connection, rather than locking her out.
Heart racing as she entered the galley, she breathlessly asked the woman to stow her bridesmaid dress in the little closet at the front. The jury was still out on whether her checked bag would make it to California, but she would be covered—literally—for Amber’s wedding.
Turning to find her seat, which was in First Class thanks to Amber being a travel agent and a generous friend, Chelsea caught sight of the man who would be seated next to her.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
She glanced with mild panic around the very full plane, all the way to the back of coach. That tight connection in Denver began to look highly suspicious.
Okay, it wasn’t like she hadn’t been mentally girding her loins to see Gavin Fairfield again. She had just thought it would be at the beach house, where she would have space to avoid him after a very brief, very civilized, very fake, Nice to see you again.
Not that she was still mad. It had been six years. She was so over it.
“Your sister is hilarious,” she said as she came even with him.
He looked up from his tablet and—damn. Those eyes. They were like antique glass, translucent blue-green, sometimes fiery, sometimes cool. At this moment the color nearly disappeared into a halo as his pupils expanded in surprise.
“Chelsea.” His mouth formed her name in a way that was familiar and fascinating. Don’t look at his mouth.
But those lips.
The top one was thin, barely there, yet shaped with such exaggerated peaks and valleys she kind of tripped into the hint of the smile he projected. Then the bottom one, so full and sensual, reminded her of the times she’d kissed and nibbled it and—
Oh hell, this was going to be a long week. And it wasn’t even a full one. Four days. This flight was going to be less than four hours, but it would be interminable.
“Can I get in?” she asked, pretending the reason she was blushing and sweating was that run from across the concourse. “I think everyone’s waiting for me.”
“Yeah, of course.” He unbent, rising to his oh, so dominating height of six foot something. He’d filled out since university. His chest was wide, his shoulders powerful, his gray-blue shirt tight enough to accentuate all of him to perfection.
He held out his hand for her courier bag.
“I’ll put it under,” she said, ducking to the middle seat and catching a whiff of his familiar man products, taking her back to necking in his room that one semester she’d scrimped and saved and worked so hard to make happen.
Gavin settled back into his seat and did what guys his size did on planes: splayed his knee into her space.
Chelsea shrank in on herself, trying not to touch him as she belted herself in. Trying to pretend this was totally fine. They’d been kids. And he’d always been a player. She had known that going in. Becoming notch number one-hundred-and-whatever on his bedpost had been her choice. At no time should she have supposed she was special.
Even though she had kind of hoped and wished and convinced herself she was at least a little bit special.
Taking her romance novel out of her bag, she set the book in her lap and used her foot to push her bag under the seat in front of her.
“A paper book?” he asked.
She glanced at him, vaguely bemused that he wasn’t taking issue with her reading material so much as her medium. “I’m on computers a lot. I like to unplug.”
“Oh. Not just one of your charming, old-fashioned ways then.”
Yeah, she was old-fashioned. For instance, when she slept with a guy, she kind of expected him to only sleep with her. Without a word, she opened her book to the bookmark, shifting it to another page as she did.
“I got your card. Thank you,” he added.
Something in his voice made her throat ache. She moved the bookmark back to the spot it had been in and closed the novel on her finger. “How is your mom?”
He hitched a shoulder, eyes averting from hers as the rest of his expression fought to stay neutral. “You’ll see. It’s killing her and Amber that Dad won’t be there to give her away.”
Chelsea wanted to pat his leg and say something bland like, At least she has you, because she felt the loss of Mr. Fairfield very deeply and might cry if she opened up too much. She couldn’t do her surrogate father or any of his family the disservice of glossing over her feelings though.
“Whenever I think of your dad, I remember the time at soccer when the new coach thought I was his daughter and your dad just went with it. Pretended for a whole season I was his. I always thought I’d ask him to walk me down the aisle.”
That was supposed to come out light and self-deprecating, but to her horror, she started to choke up.
“He was always there for me,” she added fast. “Whatever I needed. I miss his dumb jokes.”
“Yeah.” Gavin’s laugh was strangled. His hand twitched and she realized she was staring at his fist on his thigh, knuckles white and stark against his tan. “Your mom was sick,” he said in sudden recollection, glancing at her. “That’s why you didn’t make the service.”
“Yeah. Chemo.” Her voice went husky, but she kept her brave smile in place with superhuman effort. “She’s doing okay. Still run down, but her prognosis is good.”
They both needed a minute to collect themselves. She cleared her throat and opened her book, but could feel him looking at her.
The plane was taxiing, making a turn. Maybe he was just looking out the window, watching Denver go by.
She couldn’t concentrate on the words before her, too preoccupied with thinking maybe Amber had done her a favor, seating her next to Gavin for this final leg of the trip.
They’d made a kind of peace, she decided. Set the tone that the past was the past and they could be adults and have a conversation and, really, had nothing much to say to one another anymore.
Leave it to Chelsea Parks to take him from vague boredom to nearly crying in public. Gavin tried to get hold of himself, swallowing a lump of grief that hadn’t faded much in the last year. Weird that it could be both better and worse when Chelsea offered up a heartfelt memory of the old man.
Actually, the worse came from guilt. Old and new. He hadn’t sent her a card. Not even an email. What would it have taken to text a few words? I’m sorry to hear about your mom. Hope she recovers soon.
He’d thought it, when he’d stood in the kitchen of his Chicago apartment, reading the first sympathy card he’d had the stomach to open. All the rest had sat on his counter for weeks, but the minute he’d seen Chelsea’s name and her New York address, he’d run his finger along the seal and read her apology for missing the service.
A tasteless kind of relief had struck him. He’d wondered if he was the reason he hadn’t seen her at the service, but he hadn’t had the guts to ask his sister or mom why she wasn’t there. Then his mom had mentioned her situation and he’d been worrying about the two of them ever since.
But he hadn’t reached out. Even though he’d been hoping to see her at the service. Certainty that he would finally see her again had got him through those days between hearing the news about his dad and struggling through the eulogy.
Chelsea had been seven years old when she’d lost her own dad. He’d been nine and it had been his first experience with something like that happening to someone he knew. She’d spent a lot of time at their house in Santa Clara after that, mooning at him through high school, which hadn’t done his ego any harm. He’d been as protective of her as he had been of his sister, Amber, but for a completely different reason.
He always carried a mental picture of her sitting in his dad’s lap, crying her eyes out while they’d all been wearing their best clothes.
There had been a million reasons he’d wanted to see her at his own father’s service, but that was a big one. She would understand.
And she did.
But she didn’t want anything to do with him beyond that quiet expression of shared loss. Not anymore.
The plane’s engines began to whine as it prepared to take off. It rumbled forward, pressing him back into his seat, making the weight on his chest feel even heavier.
He looked at her hand. No ring, not that he expected one. He stalked her on social media now and again, checking up on her. Not trying to connect because, well, when a girl you’d finally hooked up with walked in on you making out with someone else, you didn’t come back from that.
Witness the disinterest she was directing at him now.
While he wanted to talk. Catch up. Touch her golden hair and watch her straight teeth flash as she spoke. He wanted to see her smile. Smile at me, damn it. Chelsea wasn’t glamorous gorgeous, more wholesome pretty, but when she hit a guy with direct eye contact, brown eyes warm and amused, welcoming laughter on her lips, well, it was a hit. A kick.
An irresistible tractor beam that drew you in.
An irresistible invitation to a young man sewing wild oats. I want it to be you the first time. I know I can trust you.
Not so much, as it turned out.
She turned a page.
The plane leveled out.
“Chels, I’m sorry,” he said. Blurted it, really, even though he’d said it once before. She hadn’t been in a mood to listen then, but she was trapped now.
“For—? Oh!” Her gaze came up and flickered away, but not before he saw the pang of old pain in them. “Forget it. I have.” Her nose went down and her book came up.
“I was young and stupid,” he said.
“So was I.” She flipped another page.
He winced, surprised how much that hurt. The one thing Chelsea had never been was stupid. She was not only book smart, but she didn’t make a lot of life mistakes. His sister made questionable choices, but Chelsea had always put thought into her future. If she had chosen him as The One, it had been because she really believed he could make her happy.
Which told him how much he’d disappointed her.
She was also the girl who could keep up with his sister, talking a mile a minute, making jokes, never backing down from a bit of hazing from a guy, and she was always the one to reach out with her heart pinned firmly on her sleeve.
For her to be this dismissive of him and his callous treatment, well, it told him exactly how far he’d been relegated to her past.
What had he thought, though? That they’d hook up this week while his sister got married?
Dinner. He’d definitely hoped for that much. He wanted to make up. He missed her. That card of hers had been so much more than a social convention. She’d reminded him how good, how really good she was as a person. Kind-hearted and thoughtful.
Everything he wasn’t?
Hell, what could he ever say to excuse his behavior? The freedom of university, the course load that had sent him down dual paths of self-destruction and extreme stress relief, a gift of looks and charm that had always given him his pick of the females around him.
By the time she’d caught up to him as an impressionable freshman he’d been well on his way to world-class douche-dom, conceited enough to think his three years of experience was wisdom. He had convinced himself that sleeping with Chelsea was a favor, that he was initiating her into the world of possibilities around them. Then a former paramour had made him an offer he should have refused, and he hadn’t. Because life was to be enjoyed, right? Opportunities were supposed to be seized.
How had he imagined he’d get through a dinner and somehow explain himself in a way that allowed him to come out remotely elevated in her eyes?
“For what it’s worth, I grew up after that,” he said, not even sure if she was listening. Not blaming her if she wasn’t, but he had to try. “I’m not such an arrogant a-hole anymore.”
“I’m sure your girlfriend appreciates that.” Flip.
“We broke up.”
“That’s a shame.”
He snorted at her insincerity, oddly encouraged by it even as he stung under a fresh lash of guilt. Maybe he hadn’t grown up as much as he claimed. Karen had jumped on the significance of one card being opened. One photo of a bridesmaid dress saved to his family album. One old girlfriend he kept trying to tell her was a friend. It had turned into a thing, which now made him wonder if she’d seen something he hadn’t.
At the same time, this milestone of his sister’s had also caused conflict between him and his live-in lover. He hadn’t been contemplating marriage at all. Karen had turned up the pressure in the last few months, though, using words like ‘intention’ and ‘future’ and ‘family.’ She had clearly been hoping she’d be wearing a diamond ring to his sister’s wedding. They’d finally had it out a couple of weeks ago, leaving their relationship a chalk outline on the sidewalk.
He’d called his travel agent sister to cancel Karen’s flight and change the time on his own so he’d have an extra day in Chicago to make arrangements with the movers.
This had been Amber’s revised itinerary: seating him next to her best friend.
“Did you ever tell Amb—”
“No,” Chelsea cut in sharply.
“My therapist.” Her smooth lips offered up a flat smile as her gaze cut up to his and quickly flicked away.
He snorted, not convinced finding him cheating on her had been so traumatic she’d sought professional help, but wondering. She’d been through some tough times.
“Is there anything I could say or do to earn your forgiveness?”
“Letting me read my book would be a good start.”
Yeah, he’d missed Chelsea Parks. Who else could tell him to eff off so politely?