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Wishful Seductions

The Truest of Hearts Series, Book 3




DawnMarie Carpintero



Copyright © 2018 by On My Way Up, LLC


All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the photocopying, scanning, uploading and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property.



Published by On My Way Up, LLC at Smashwords

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the result of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.




This book is dedicated to Roy Coddington Sr. You’re not only an awesome uncle but are also a man who’s admired by all. When you stand in front of others, people know the seriousness of your intentions. When you sit, you become the loving, silly, all-around good guy we’ve grown to love, admire, and appreciate. You speak volumes through your words, but your heart speaks worlds. I love you very much. So, for that, I dedicate this third book of the Truest of Hearts Series to you.



The Truest of Hearts Series

“Some of the best lessons we ever learn are learned from past mistakes. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future.” – Dale E. Turner

This series chronicles the stories of four New Jersey billionaires determined to find their true loves. Wishful Seductions is the third book in my Truest of Hearts Series. Each book will take you on a journey like no other. Ray and Barbara’s journey begins here.


In Wishful Desires, Jared found love with Patty. Though thoughts of her had remained with him for decades, he never thought that the girl who captured his heart during a high school play would turn out to be his truest of hearts.


In Wishful Dreams, Mike found love with Kelsey, a woman he’d fallen for at first glance. He knew from the start that no matter the obstacles, she was meant to be his truest of hearts in the end.


Wishful Seductions follows Ray’s efforts to connect with Barbara, the girl who has the sweetness of a peach and a smile that takes his heart to places he’d only hoped and dreamed of in the past.


I hope that you enjoy this amazing journey of everlasting love. Now, let’s see where Ray and Barbara’s journey begins. Will this couple find their truest of hearts in each other? Will they be able to overcome obstacles that arise in the strangest of places? The most important question is: Will Ray and Barbara find their happily-ever-after? Turn the page to embark on a journey like no other I’ve written – until now.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Epilogue

Acknowledgements




Chapter 1


Ray


It was early February when things in my love life really began to heat up. Back in November, I’d witnessed one of my closest friends, Mike Kristopher, marry Kelsey Shaw, a woman he’d first seen from afar on Earle Naval Base in Colts Neck, New Jersey. Mike and Kelsey married in Hawaii and had no regrets. As I witnessed their exchanging of vows, I got to thinking that perhaps I, too, could find everlasting love.

You see, I met Kelsey’s friend, Barbara Budge, on my buddy Jared Morris’s private plane on the way to Mike and Kelsey’s wedding. We immediately hit it off, but nothing serious happened between us. Since the wedding, I’d returned to Holmdel, New Jersey to live in Mike and Kelsey’s pool house while they explore the Hawaiian Islands. I was supposed to move into Patty’s home after she married Jared, but I decided that moving there would be too much of a temptation for me.

Patty and Jared had a whirlwind romance once they reconnected after twenty years apart. They were the first couple in our circle to marry in Hawaii. I was supposed to move into Patty’s home with Rachel, a woman that I met through another close friend, Roman Nickels. But I decided that living with Rachel would bring with it the temptations of women, alcohol, and partying, all of which I was trying to avoid. The fact was that my life had turned into one, big mess due to my alcoholism and weakness when it came to women and living it up. I needed time alone to get my head on straight.

Barbara had given me her number after a night we’d spent just talking before Mike and Kelsey’s wedding. I wanted to get my act together so that I could be a better person when I was ready to make the call to her. I didn’t want her to see me as a worthless guy who was down on his luck. That was exactly what I was when she’d met me, but she’d still given me her number and asked for mine. My goal was to prove to her that I could be worthy of a woman like her.

Jared had recently given me the opportunity to work with his company once again since I’d lost my landscaping business. I’d made some bad decisions involving two women, Amanda and Kathy. Thankfully, they were completely gone from everyone’s lives by that January. Without having their drama to weigh me down, I could focus on working for Jared’s company, Worldwide International. Jared ensures that the homes and businesses of his clients surpass their dreams, and I’d come to understand his passion for making certain that their visions are fulfilled. Like him, I love seeing the looks on clients’ faces when they see the finished projects. My landscape designs help make their dreams a reality.

As the months had passed, I’d gotten closer to the point where I could finally reach out to the woman of my dreams. It took many months to finally get up the courage to be the man I knew she would want me to be: Ray Hogan, a man’s man who was finally willing to share his heart with the right woman.

Now forty, I used to think a “man’s man” was some macho dude who guzzled booze and slept with every pretty, single girl in town. Women were drawn to my brown eyes, brown hair, my six-foot- three height, and my fabulously conditioned body. Yeah, I am pretty cocky, except when it comes to Barbara.

Barbara, who is five foot six, weighs about one-hundred-fifty pounds and has brown eyes and long, curly brown hair that has some red in it when the light shines just so. In my eyes, she’s a rare beauty. Barbara has her own computer business and is currently working for Jared and Patty’s new resort ventures in Hawaii. She also has three kids, so she has her hands full between work and home. Unfortunately for me, she lived in Florida at the time we met. I hoped that Jared’s company might expand to the southeastern U.S. so that I’d have a chance to fly down from New Jersey to see her.

I’d been ruminating on that possibility one Thursday evening when my phone rang. Glancing at the screen, I thought, Speak of the devil.

Hey, Jared,” I answered. “What’s up, Buddy?”

“I have some news that I think you’ll like. We’re creating a new southern division of Worldwide International.”

“Where?” I asked, thinking and hoping it would be in Florida but not willing to say it aloud.

“If you’re thinking Florida, you’re right. My dad’s plane is at Newark International, and he’s offered us its use for your trip. I need you to hightail it to the airport tomorrow morning to catch your 7:00 a.m. flight. I want you to check out the sites that we’ve recently acquired.”

“What’s your main objective?”

“Patty and I have been talking about putting another home base down there. Since Barbara and her crew work from their houses, we thought it would be beneficial to have a corporate presence in that region. Also, we want to tap that market while it’s hot.”

“Man, can’t you get your mind out of the gutter for one minute?” I said, laughing.

“Speaking of minds in the gutter, have you spoken to Barbara since you left here?” he asked curiously.

“Nope. You know as well as I do I needed to get my life back together before I could contact her.”

“You’re quickly getting there, so why not call her just to touch base?”

“I was considering sending a text to break the ice.” Feeling deflated, I added, “She might not even remember me after all these months.”

“Trust me when I tell you that she remembers you. She and Kelsey are old friends, but she also made a big impression on Patty. The women are tight, and girls talk. Between you and me, she’s asked Patty about you several times in-between work discussions. So, get off the horn with me and call, text, or whatever you intend to do when it comes to her.”

“I’m not even sure if I’m ready.”

“Ray, you might not be in the place that you personally want to be in, but you’re ready to call Barbara. Trust me, Man.”

“We’ll see,” I said uncertainly. “Now, back to my work assignment. Am I staying at a hotel, Roman’s house, or what? It doesn’t matter to me, especially since it’s on your dime if I’m not going to crash at Roman’s place.”

“Do you want to stay in Bradenton where Barbara lives or Daytona where Roman lives? I’m footing the bill for the trip either way, so make sure you get your work done. I don’t want you to slack off because of what your dick tells you to do.”

“Ha, Ha. I’m sure you know that I want to stay in Bradenton so that I can be close to Barbara and see her if I decide to make that call.”

“You’re such a pussy! How about if I set up a meeting involving the two of you? You both work for me, right? I’ll arrange the meeting, but you have to take it from there.”

“That’d be great,” I said, secretly relieved.

“Contact Barbara before you leave New Jersey.” Pausing, he said to someone else on his end of the conversation, “What? Oh, thanks.” Then, to me he said, “Patty asked me to tell you that she’s just made your reservation at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Bradenton’s downtown historic district.” He paused again and then continued with a bemused tone in his voice. “She also added not to blow it with Barbara.”

“Tell her thanks.” Chuckling, I said, “I won’t blow it, but you might get lucky after we hang up and Patty will.”

“Whatever, you perv,” Jared said, and I could picture him shaking his head.

“I’ll be in touch soon. Email me the information you want me to review while I’m in Florida.”

“Have fun, but remember that you’re there to work first. You can play afterwards.”

Yes, Sir. And thanks again for everything, Buddy.

“No problem. If our roles had been reversed, you’d do the same for me. Now, hang up and get presentable. You represent Worldwide International, and I don’t want you showing up in Florida looking like a hobo.”

“Got it.”

“One more thing,” Jared said before ending the call. “Do not screw this up, Ray. Any of it! You’re a good guy, and here’s your chance to prove that you’re able to be at the top of your game when it comes to work and love.”

Love, I thought. I’ve never been in love. But maybe dreams can come true when it comes to love and me. Jared’s sending me to Florida and setting up the meeting with Barbara in Bradenton. But will she reject me? I don’t think I could take it if she did. What if she’s dating someone else? What if Patty is wrong about Barbara’s interest in me? I should have asked to talk to Patty myself, but am I even supposed to know about the girl talk that Patty shared with Jared? Still, Barbara’s asking about me is a good sign, right? Why in the hell am I talking to myself when I could be talking to Barbara? Damn, I’m just going to take the plunge and text her!


Ray: Hi, Sweetness. Are the sunsets better in Hawaii or Florida?


I hoped she’d put me in her Contact list as I’d added her to mine while we were in Hawaii for Mike and Kelsey’s wedding. I needed for her to know that the text was coming from me. If she hadn’t added me to her list, that might be telling in and of itself.

When I didn’t get an immediate response, I wondered whether or not Barbara was busy with work or her kids. I tried not to consider that she wasn’t texting back because she no longer wanted to talk to me.

At least we are in the same time zone. I guess packing would be a good thing to do. That would keep my mind off my phone for a few minutes. What does one pack for a business trip to Florida that will hopefully be mixed with pleasure? I’m assuming casual and business casual clothes for a warm climate with a suit or two thrown in. Sighing, I thought, Okay, I don’t know how anyone plays the waiting game when they send a text. I’m not used to caring, because I haven’t really cared about the women I’ve been with in the past. Seriously, Barbara is torturing me since I haven’t been in touch sooner. It’s my own fault. Or maybe she simply isn’t interested at all anymore.


Barbara: Who is this? Florida has the best sunsets, but Hawaii has the second best.


I imagined her smirking at the phone. Meanwhile, I was jumping up and down excitedly because she’d replied. I wondered if I should make her wait for a reply.

Like that will happen!


Ray: I am hurt that you don’t know who I am. Who did you spend a sunset with in Hawaii?

Barbara: Oh! Hey, Roman! How are you doing?


That response told me that she was jerking my chain. She knew whom she was talking to, and it made me smile.


Ray: Haha. Funny. You know who I am. Admit it!

Barbara: I will not admit anything, Ray.

Ray: I wasn’t sure if you remembered me.

Barbara: How could I forget the man who said he’d call or text? Except you didn’t.

Ray: I have no excuse. All I can say is that I wanted to get my head on straight before I got in contact with you.

Barbara: Is it on straight now?

Ray: Mostly. Are you still single? Or have I lost my chance?

Barbara: That depends on you really. Do you still want a shot?

Ray: Of course, I do.

Barbara: Then the ball is in your court. I just got an email about a meeting you and I are supposed to have in a couple days. That should give you ample time to get some girls lined up for your time spent in my area. I assume that you’re going to be lonely while you’re here. That’s probably the only reason you want to see me other than during work hours.


My jaw dropped, and I wondered, Geez, does she really think that badly of me?


Ray: Fuck this, Sweetness. Texting is good for a few minutes, but I think we need to talk on the phone about something as important as this. Answer your phone in a few seconds. It’ll be me calling.

Barbara: I can’t answer your call at the moment. I’m on a date.

Ray: Answer your phone, Sweetness. I am NOT joking.

Barbara: So demanding!

Ray: You know you like it.


I hadn’t planned to call her, but her last few texts had me riled up. To top it all off, she was on a date! The only guy she should have been on a date with was me. I realized that I wanted Barbara to learn that she was meant for me and no one else. I hit her mobile number and waited, listening to the rings and willing her to answer.

“Hey,” I said when she did. By then, I was pissed.

“Hey yourself,” she answered, clearly pissed, too.

“I’m assuming you’re not on a ‘date’ with one of your kids.”

“Of course not! I’m on a date with a very nice man,” Barbara said, irritated.

“The key word there is ‘nice,’ which we both know is a synonym for ‘boring,’” I said, smiling to myself.

“Well, he isn’t really like that,” she said evasively.

“Did you meet him or did he pick you up?” I asked, thinking she’d tell me that it was none of my business.

Surprisingly, she confided, “I met him here at the restaurant.”

You’re speaking to me while you’re at the table with him, aren’t you?” When she didn’t answer, I prompted, “Well?”

“Maybe,” she said sheepishly.

“You’d rather be with me, wouldn’t you?” I continued, gaining self-confidence with each passing moment.

“Yes,” she admitted. “But I got tired of waiting for a call or text that never came.”

“This is what I want you to do. Think twice about arguing with me, Sweetness. I won’t have it. A punishment will follow when I see you if you don’t do as you’re told. Understand?”

“I do.”

“Listen to me. Thank whatever-his- name-is for a very nice evening. When he asks why you’re leaving, tell him that the ‘sunset’ called you. That will leave him with questions which you won’t answer. You’ll only thank him again and walk away. If you don’t do that, expect a handprint on your ass the first time I get you alone. Got it?”

“I’ve got it.”

“Hm. I thought you would have put up a bit of a fight on that one.” When she didn’t comment, I ordered, “Don’t hang up the phone! I want to listen to you tell him. Go ahead. Remember, I’ll be listening.”



Chapter 2


Barbara


I couldn’t believe that Ray decided to text me after months of silence. Not only that, but once he found out I was on a date, he put his “Big Boy Alpha Man Panties” on and called me. I thought I had gotten over his not calling after our all-night talk in Hawaii, but obviously I hadn’t. Unwilling to cave and call him first, I did what I thought most women would do if she works for the guy’s friends: I asked Patty Morris how Ray was doing every chance I got. Patty was tight-lipped, saying that she didn’t want to share Ray’s personal struggles with anyone, that it was his business. She’d reassure me that he was “fine,” but I wanted to hear more than “fine.” I wanted him to be pining after me but understood where she was coming from since she and Jared have known him for decades from what Kelsey said. Ray was one of four male friends who hung together in high school and beyond, always doing something together every Friday night until Jared married Patty. That changed the dynamic of the men’s friendships although it didn’t end them.

Watching them at Kelsey and Mike’s wedding, I observed the connection that made them great friends. No matter what the circumstances, they took time out for the people they loved the most. When one was in trouble, the others rallied around him. If there were problems, the friends would drop everything to make certain that solutions were found. That was true friendship, and it had spilled over to Patty and Kelsey, who were more like sisters-in-law than fairly recent friends.

Kelsey had been my best friend for a long time, but she fit right into the new group. I was not surprised. She would drop everything if I’d ask her to, not that I would. That’s just not the type of person I am. Giving is a big part of me, so I thought that if Ray and I ever would get together, I’d fit in well with his friends and their wives. The main difference among Patty, Kelsey, and me is that I’d been married once before and had three kids.

Of course, Ray decided to text me while I was on a date. I’d only told him part of the truth. Yes, I’d met the man at a restaurant, but it was because my local friends had set me up on a blind date with him. I wasn’t thrilled about going on a blind date but did need to get out of the house. The man’s name was Patrick, and we’d talked a couple times on the phone before our date. He seemed interested in me and sounded okay. He asked me to meet him at Juan’s Mexican Restaurant, even after I mentioned I didn’t like Mexican food. I guessed he wasn’t listening to me after all.

In truth, I would have had a better dining experience at the local Denny’s. Instead, I arrived at Juan’s first and waited. And then I waited some more. Just as I’d decided to leave, a tall man about six foot one with long, black hair and weighing approximately three hundred pounds appeared beside me.

“Are you Barbara?” he asked.

Yes, and you are?” I said, hoping it wasn’t Patrick.

“Patrick! I’m your fantasy come true!”

“Um, nice to meet you. Why don’t you have a seat?” I suggested, feeling as if I needed to run to the ladies’ room to be sick.

“Why don’t you stand up and give me a kiss right here?” he said, pointing to his lips.

“I don’t think so!” I said, horrified by the thought and the fact that Patrick had made such a suggestion immediately after meeting me for the first time.

“A feisty one!” Patrick said, winking. “I do like women who have a bit of fight in them.”

“Whatever.” Trying to change the subject, I asked, “So, what do you do for a living?”

“I hope to be doing you later,” he stated, leering.

My cellphone received a text at that precise moment. I didn’t care who it was; I was thankful for the interruption.

My savior! I thought before looking at the screen and noting that I‘d gotten a text from Ray Hogan. I asked Patrick to give me a second. During my brief exchange with Ray, I heard Patrick tell the waitress my order.

“Um, thanks for ordering for me, but I was going to stick with peach ice tea since I really don’t like Mexican food,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Oh, come on! Everyone loves Mexican food! You know you like it, don’t you?” he asked, as I got more and more pissed.

Patience, I told myself. Then my cellphone rang. It was Ray, of course.

“Excuse me,” I told Patrick, as red snaked up his neck. “I have to take this call. It’s the babysitter.”

What followed was not my usual exchange with men I’m interested in dating. However, I was so relieved that Ray had saved me from an evening with Patrick that I let him get away with being controlling. I even decided to follow his orders although not to the letter.

While Ray was listening to my side of the conversation, Patrick stood and grabbed some of my hair in one hand before yanking it. I yelped and struggled to rise as a policeman entered the restaurant.

“Are you okay, Ma’am?” he asked, hurrying forward just as I buried my knee in Patrick’s family jewels.

“Good work,” the policeman said, pulling out a pair of handcuffs and cuffing Patrick before using his phone to call the station. “I’m off-duty, but I’d be happy to make sure this guy’s taken care of for you.”

“Thanks,” I said before turning to Patrick again and saying, “Guess this night’s not going to end quite in the way you’d hoped, eh? Boy, are my friends going to get an earful later!”

It didn’t take long for a squad car to arrive. I gave my statement, as did other witnesses in the restaurant. Eventually, I realized that I was still holding my cellphone and that Ray had remained on the line.

“Did the police officers just haul away your friend?” Ray asked, laughing.

“Yes,” I grumbled. “Thanks so much for your concern.”

“It sounded like you handled yourself just fine, Sweetness. But I was worried for a minute there. Are you okay?”

“I just want to go home,” I said tiredly.

“Go home then. I wish I were there to comfort you.”

“I wish you were, too. I’m going to get off the phone so that I can drive home and will call you after I am settled in. Okay?”

I can’t deal with any more men tonight. I need to be by myself and calm down.

“Are your kids at home?”

“No, they’re with their dad this week. I love my kids, but it’s nice to have some alone time.”

Okay, Sweetness. You promise that you will call though, right? I’m gonna worry about you till you call me,” he said, and I could hear the caring tone in his voice.

One minute he’s all Alpha on me; the next he’s Mr. Sensitivity. Where did he hide the old Ray?

“I promise I’ll call after I’m settled. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“I haven’t stopped worrying about you since we parted ways.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah, but that story will have to wait for another time. Right now, you need to hang up and get home. At least text me when you get there so that I know you got there safely.” When I didn’t respond quickly, he added, “Please?”

“I will. And Ray? Thank you for calling and caring,” I said sincerely.

“Talk to you soon, Sweetness.”



Chapter 3


Ray


I couldn’t believe that idiot put his hands on my woman, let alone any woman. I thought that this couldn’t have been his first time doing this to someone, and Barbara got lucky with that cop coming in when he did.

My thoughts were going wild in my head, but one thought remained constant: No matter what I have to do in order to make it happen, Barbara will be mine in the end. I worried the entire time I waited for her to call or text me, telling me that she was home. I’d have thought it might take minutes, but it felt like hours.

Is this what it feels like to care for someone other than yourself? I wondered.

I considered calling in reinforcements but decided that would only make me worry about her more. Finally, my phone rang, the word “Sweetness” popping up on the screen along with the ringtone.

“What in the blazing hell took you so long to get home? I’ve been freaking out, thinking that you might get hurt or worse!”

“Well, I got stuck at every red light between the restaurant and here. Also, there was an accident on Highway 41. As for your overprotectiveness, I appreciate it but told you that I’d call you once I got home. I’m home so just stop giving me crap!” Barbara snapped.

“I won’t apologize for being worried,” I said tightly. “This is a new emotion for me.” Knowing that she was waiting for some sort of apology, I offered, “But I will say I am sorry for my tone of voice.”

“Well, that’s something. And thank you for texting me just at the right time.”

“You’re welcome, Sweetness.”

“So, what are you doing right now?” she asked, sounding curious.

“Besides packing and pacing around the house? I was thinking about tomorrow.”

“Does your flight leave early?”

“7:00 a.m. I’m flying in on Jared’s father’s plane since Jared and Patty’s is in Hawaii with them at the moment. When I arrive, I have to check out a few recently-purchased properties, make notes, and give him a full report. After that, I should be free for a while.”

“So, what time do you think you will be done with all that?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.” The wheels in my head turning, I asked, “Would you like to see the properties with me?”

“That would be great, depending on what time you actually arrive.”

“Well, you and I have a meeting scheduled soon, but we could move it up. For the life of me, I don’t know what it’s about.”

“You know, I don’t know either? Do you think this is a set up by Jared to pave the way for us to work things out?”

“I could give Jared a call,” I suggested, not answering her question.

“Or we can call him together during our meeting.”

“Sure. So, how about if I pick you up after I land in the morning? You said your ex had the kids for a few days, so you don’t have to worry about them at home. Hell, I can’t even remember how many you have.”

“You could ask about them,” she said, sounding perturbed.

“That still feels kind of…weird to me,” I conceded. “I’ve never really dated anyone before, so I definitely haven’t dated anyone with kids.”

But I really want Barbara to be the first, the one and only. Since she has kids, they’ll be a part of that, too. It sounds strange for someone who only went for one-night stands or wild relationships that only involved sex and lies. But I’m starting to realize that there’s so much more to life. What a revelation!

“Tell me about your oldest child,” I said, deciding to take the plunge.

“Marc, my Nascar fan, is fifteen going on thirty. Although he hasn’t yet been to a race, he’s constantly watching television reruns of races, studying each one by taking notes and going over every mistake that each driver makes until he knows how to fix it. I can only imagine what the years to come are going to be like with him.” As I chuckled at her description, she continued, “I want him to meet your friend Roman because he’s a Nascar driver.”

“Roman’s been sidelined because of lack of sponsorship, but Patty and Jared had been dropping hints regarding a new sponsor for the upcoming season.”

“Maybe if they sponsor Roman, I could take Marc to a race or two.”

“That would make his year!”

“What about your other kids?”

Well, my daughter, Chelsea, has brown hair and brown eyes like her older brother, but she’s barely over five feet. Marc’s already almost six feet tall. Chelsea loves to read everything and anything that she can get her pretty little hands on. She loves school, even though schoolwork doesn’t come easy to her. She studies hard and makes good grades.”

“Both of those kids sound smart and determined like their mother,” I volunteered.

“Thanks,” she said, sounding embarrassed but pleased. “I’m the proudest mom ever!”

“What about your youngest child?”

“That would be Logan. He’s thirteen, a little shorter than Chelsea, and has blonde hair and brown eyes. He loves computers and does well in school without even trying. When I asked him last week what he was going to be when he grew up, he told me, ‘I’m going to be a doctor!’”

“I hope that he gets his wish.”

“Yes, assuming he doesn’t change his mind. He’s only thirteen. No matter what career he ends up selecting, I know he’ll be successful.”

When Barbara talked about her kids, I could almost feel the maternal glow emanating from her through the phone. I knew with certainty that she was the only woman I wanted to be with, to learn from. I was on my way to becoming a better man, but I wanted to be her better man.

“Logan is pretty smug,” Barbara was saying. “He knows how smart and capable he is. He’s a great kid, but he can have an attitude with me sometimes.”

“I’m sure he does. Keep in mind that he’s a thirteen-year-old boy whose hormones are probably about to go into overdrive. You think he’s bad now with being smart and knowing it? I hate to tell you, Sweetness, but it’s only going to get worse.”

“You can stop gloating right now,” she grumbled.

“Hey, I was that age once, remember?”

“Oh, I’m sure you were a handful at thirteen. You were probably a handful right before I met you a few months ago!”

I’m probably still a handful, I thought ruefully.

“Ray, I’m sure you weren’t the perfect kid, and neither is Logan. But at least he has an outlet that I hope will keep him grounded,” Barbara said optimistically.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but nothing in the world will keep a teenager from wanting to go after the hotties, not even something as sexy as computers.”

She laughed and insisted, “Just because I think computers are sexy….”

“Well, computers and your kids are your life, Sweetness. I’m just saying that Logan might find girls a bigger distraction from his goals than you think.”

“Logan isn’t like that! Not every young, hormonal boy is going to grow up to be like you, Ray!”

“I never said he was going to end up like me. No one deserves to end up with my past. Hell, I wouldn’t wish my past on anyone. I’ve done some really stupid things and have taken responsibility for them. I don’t want to get into my past; all I want to think about is the future. I’m hoping it’s a bright one since I want you to be a part of it.”

“Assume much?” she snapped.

Sighing, I asked, “What’s going on with you? You keep running hot and cold with me. Sometimes, I think you’re interested in me. Other times, you sound like you almost can’t stand me.”

“I’m fine,” she stated in a clippped tone of voice. Don’t worry about me.”

“That’s not going to happen, Sweetness,” I informed her, getting angry.

“Look, Ray,” she began wearily. “I’m tired; it’s getting late; and all I want to do is climb into bed and pretend this night never happened.”

I could tell that Barbara was holding back tears and asked, “Even the part when I texted you?”

“No, I would never change that part. But the whole Patrick incident? I’d like to forget that completely.”

I could tell that she was about to break down, and it just about killed me.

“Okay, Sweetness. Go get your jammies on, and climb into bed. Get some sleep. I’ll call you in the morning so that you’ll have a better idea of when I’ll be arriving in Bradenton.”

“Okay. Thanks. Good night, Ray.”

There was no way I was going to let her be alone all night long. I dialed Patty’s number without thinking. When she answered, I said, “Hey, Patty! Who is your favorite person in the whole, wide world?”

“Hm. Besides my husband, it would have to be Roman. But I know Roman wouldn’t have the balls to call me and play games if he needed something,” she said, laughing. “So, what’s going on, Ray? Why call me and not Jared?”

“I need to get to Barbara tonight instead of tomorrow,” I said firmly. “Could you arrange for a company plane to pick me up this evening instead of Jared’s dad’s pilot flying me out in the morning?”

“What happened?” she asked worriedly.

“Some of her friends set her up on a date with an asshole who tried to hurt her, and she won’t admit that she needs someone there tonight to comfort her. Her kids are with their father, and she’s alone.” Getting more and more agitated, I said, “I need to get to her now. You’ve gotten to be good friends with Barbara over the past couple months. I knew that you’d understand and could help me make a miracle happen tonight.”

“Wow,” Patty said, sounding shocked. “I so didn’t expect that. I’ll call one of our company pilots and tell him to get a plane ready for departure. It won’t be a luxury jet like ours or Jared’s dad’s.”

“I don’t care about that. All I care about is getting to Barbara.”

She paused and then said, “You’re doing great, Ray. You know.” Before I could answer, she continued, “Don’t worry. The plane will be ready by the time you get to the airport. Take care of Barbara.” Then, “I really hope things work out between you two.”

“Thanks. I just don’t want to hurt her. You know what a man-whore I’ve always been.”

“The past is behind you; the future has yet to be written. You’re a different person today than you used to be, Ray. Go to Barbara, and work on your future together with care.”

“You mean that I should handle her with care?” I asked, slightly confused and wanting clarification.

“Handle her and yourself with care. She’s already got a failed marriage behind her, and you’ve never had a serious relationship before.”

“Umm would you have any idea about why a cab just pulled up in front of Mike and Kelsey’s house?”

“I’m good at multitasking,” she said, giggling.

“Thanks, Patty. You’re the best.”

“You’re welcome. And Jared says to tell you that he knows I’m the best.”

“The bastard’s been listening in this whole time, hasn’t he?”

“No secrets between us,” she pointed out. “Call if you need either of us. Send a text when you land. We’d both feel better knowing that you’re there safely and are on your way to Barbara.”

Yes, Mom,” I said, chuckling. “Thanks again.”

Christ, I’ve never felt like this toward any other woman in my life. I’m falling hard for Barbara Budge. But will she fall for me? What do I do if she doesn’t?

Attempting not to obsess about my concerns, I picked up my suitcase and headed for the door.




Chapter 4


Barbara


For some reason, Ray couldn’t grasp the concept that I really did just want to be alone. I supposed I understood since it was the first time the man had actually seemed to care for any woman in a true romantic way. I could hear it in his voice, but that still wasn’t comforting.

Once I got into bed, sleep eluded me. Sighing, I reached for my phone.


Barbara: Ray, I’m sorry I was rude to you. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk. It was only that I needed time to get over the happenings of tonight by myself. I love how you showed your caring for me.


Sending that text made me feel a little better. Thinking that maybe I could actually get some sleep, I put the phone back on the nightstand and shut my eyes. But sleep didn’t come. After hours of lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling, I resigned myself to the fact that sleep was not coming for me.

What did eventually come was a knock on my door that was followed by the ringing of my doorbell.

Who could be at my door at this time of the morning? Patrick? Would they have released him from jail already?

Running downstairs in my pajamas, I tried to slow the pounding of my heart. I needed to be calm. The front door was locked. If it was Patrick, then I simply wouldn’t answer.

“Who is it?” I asked apprehensively.

“Open the damned door before I kick it down, Sweetness,” a familiar voice said.

“Ray?”

“Are you expecting someone else?”

I opened the door and fell into his waiting arms, not sure if I was dreaming or if he was really there on my front porch. Guiding me back inside, he went back for his suitcase and then shut the door behind him.

“What are you doing here?”

“Did you think that I could just sit around in New Jersey after we hung up last night?”

Glancing down at my pajamas and imagining what the rest of me must look like, I admitted, “I didn’t want you to see me like this. Plus, I can take care of myself. I’m a big girl.”

“After that exchange last night, the only thing I could think about was getting to you. I called Patty and asked for her help in getting me to Florida sooner. I needed to see that you were safe, even if you didn’t want me by your side.”

Ray looked and sounded so sincere. My heart melted as I stared up into his eyes.

“Okay, I wanted you here to hold me, to make it all go away,” I said, holding onto his biceps with a death grip. “I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I didn’t want to ask you because I knew you were already going to be heading here…well, today.”

“Sweetness, I am not leaving your side ever.” Offering me a devilish grin, he amended, “Ever – or until your kids come home. There’s a lot that we need to talk about.”

“There is. Promise me that, no matter what, you won’t leave my side for the next two days.”

“No one’s prying me away from you,” I assured her.

“Thank you for coming,” I said with a smile. “I really needed your strong arms around me.”

“I couldn’t stay away.” Glancing around the foyer, he asked, “Will you show me around?”

Interlocking my fingers with Ray’s, I took him on a tour of my comfortable, four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home. From the foyer, we had a perfect view of the stairs to the right that led up to the bedrooms and two full baths. A step down to the left led to an area of the house that included an entertainment room with a modest bar, the laundry room, and a half-bath. Past the laundry room and half-bath was a short hallway that led to a storage room and the two-car garage.

I decided to show Ray the small kitchen first since it lay straight ahead of us. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen had a “coastal” feel to it. Everything was light and bright, and the sliding glass door at the back helped to make the small space feel more open. The door led out onto a large lanai, a screened-in porch.

On the right side of the kitchen, an archway opened up to the dining room, which held a table with six chairs and a china cabinet. Despite my divorce, I’d kept my wedding china, which was elegant and looked great on display with its white center and gold edging. To my chagrin, I hadn’t used it since my ex and I had become parents. Having formal dinner parties had gone by the wayside once Marc’s birth had turned us from a couple into a family.

From the dining room, one could enter the living room. It was filled with large, over-stuffed furniture that both kids and adults liked to lounge around on while reading, talking, or just hanging out. Another archway took us back to the foyer where we ascended the stairs.

Ray and I turned left at the top of the stairs. That was where the kids’ rooms were located. I usually don’t show my children’s rooms to anyone, but Ray brought out something in me that compelled me to do so that time. After taking a peek into their shared bathroom, I open the door to Marc’s room, hoping it wasn’t a disaster.

Oh, well, I thought, staring at the piles of dirty clothing on the floor. So much for that.

“Hey, he really does love Nascar, doesn’t he?” Ray said, taking in the posters and flags on the walls and the shelving unit filled with Nascar memorabilia.

“Oh, yes,” I said, grinning. “As you can tell, that’s all he’s really interested in. Maybe that’s why he ends up doing all of his laundry in one day when he finally gets down to his last pair of boxers.”

“He does laundry?”

“Each of my kids does their own laundry, although not without complaint.”

“I’m impressed that they do it, period. I didn’t do my own laundry until I moved out of my folks’ home.”

Next, I showed him Chelsea’s room. Filled with books, posters of pop stars, and her collection of Disney figurines, it was a unique blend of things that my daughter loved. Little girl’s treasures, teenaged crushes, and adult fiction were revered within the girly décor of her room.

Logan’s room looked as if it had been transported directly from the deck of the Starship Enterprise. He had two computer desks, one with his desktop and two specialty monitors and the other with his laptop. He also had a table where he tinkered with building and modifying computer components. Star Trek posters and a framed signed portrait of “Captain Kirk” were on the walls.

“A Trekkie, eh?”

“The new movies, not the old series.”

“Damn, I like the old series more. Oh, well. Kids, huh?” Scratching his chin, Ray asked, “So, Sweetness? Where is your bedroom?”

Instantly angry, I asked, “Why? Did you pretend to be interested in the rest of my house so that you could get into my room?”

“No. I’ll either stay at the hotel or on the couch.”

Flustered, I asked, “What if I want you to sleep beside me and hold me?”

“Don’t tempt me. As it is, my cock is so hard you could use it as a hammer. But I’m determined not to take you until the time is right. No matter what you do or say, it won’t happen. Foreplay isn’t in the cards this time around either. Well, except maybe kissing.”

Relaxing, I asked, “Why is kissing okay and nothing else?”

“Because those luscious lips of yours remind me of a ripe peach. I want to nibble at them and suck on your tongue with all its juices. Tasting you like that is something I want to do over and over again.”

I am so screwed, I thought. Man-whore turned potential boyfriend. Man, am I in trouble!

“Speaking of juices, do you want anything to drink?” I asked coyly.

“What I’d like is to hold you on the couch until you fall asleep in my arms,” he said tenderly.

“I can’t seem to fall asleep,” I admitted. “Every time I close my eyes, I see Patrick and feel him grabbing me. It scares me.”

“You’re safe with me, Sweetness.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?” I asked curiously.

“Because you’re the sweetest woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” he said smoothly. “So, the nickname fits. You want me to stop calling you that?”

“No. I like it.”

“Good. Now, let me hold you. I promise never to hurt you.” As Ray wrapped his arms around me and took me downstairs to the couch, he said, “You can show me your room another time. For now, I’ll just fantasize about it.” Once we were both seated in the living room, he said, “There. See? You’re safe.”

Releasing a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding in, I tilted my face up and brought my hand around Ray’s neck in order to give him a kiss. I needed to feel connected to the man in more ways than one. Kissing him felt like coming home, a feeling I’d long since forgotten. The kiss was languorous and helped me to let go of any remaining stress. Sleep overtook me. Finally, I felt completely safe. It was the best feeling in the world.

When I woke, I was alone in my bed. I supposed that Ray had carried me upstairs and deposited me there before leaving. I sulked for a minute until I smelled brewing coffee. I wondered where it had come from since I only stocked a variety of teas, orange juice, and milk in my kitchen. I went downstairs and found the most adorable man making breakfast.

“Do I smell pancakes?” I asked hopefully.

“Pumpkin pancakes,” he said with a broad grin. “I know pumpkin is one of your favorites.”

“How’d you know that?”

“A little birdie told me.”

“Would that little birdie’s name be Patty?”

“Maybe.”

“Hm. I know I didn’t have coffee or all the ingredients for pumpkin pancakes in my house. Where in the world did you get all this?”

“Last night, I couldn’t help but notice the supermarket two blocks over when the cab was bringing me here,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “So, I walked there while you were sleeping and picked up some necessities.”

“You could have woken me, and I would have taken you. Or you could have just borrowed my car. I wouldn’t have minded.”

“You were sleeping like an angel. I didn’t have the heart to wake you.” Flipping pancakes, he said, “I hate that I have to go check out those properties for Jared today, but it’s part of my job, I guess.”

“So, you still plan to work?” I said flatly.

We have to work. Remember, you were going to go with me. Jared wants to keep all of his employees on track. I swear, I know he’s one of my best friends, but he can be really annoying sometimes. I think I’ll mention it to Patty next time I talk to her.”

“No, you are not mentioning anything to Patty when you speak to her. Do you understand, Mr. Fancy Pants? You are going to act nice and sweet. One step out of line and you’ll have more trouble than you bargained for. Do I make myself clear?”

Ray won’t be doing any bullying around me. Not only would he lose his job and living accommodations in New Jersey, he’ll lose my respect if he turns out to be a bully. If he wants to act like a child, then I’ll treat him like one.

“Really?” he asked indignantly. “You’re pulling rank here?”

“If you want to call it that, then the answer is ‘yes,’ Ray Hogan!”

I expected an argument, but he simply said, “Fine, Sweetness. Are you still coming with me?”

Surrendering to his boyish grin, I smiled and said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”



Chapter 5


Ray


Mr. Fancy Pants. Really? That’s the nickname Sweetness chose for me? I wouldn’t have selected that nickname for myself. If anything, I’d have called myself “Mr. Man-whore.” Okay, Mr. Fancy Pants does sound a lot better than that! I thought. Barbara sure is different from any other woman I’ve wanted before. I would never have considered jumping on a plane to make sure a woman was safe before last night. I’m glad I did it for Barbara. Simply being around her makes me happy.

“Are you ready?” Barbara asked as she came downstairs.

“It took you long enough to get dressed, Sweetness,” I said, grinning.

“I would have been done a lot sooner if someone hadn’t cooked me breakfast. By the way, that was the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

As she drew nearer, I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a kiss on the top of the head.

“I would do anything for you, no questions asked.”

“Yet you wouldn’t sleep in the same bed with me,” Barbara said, laughing and backing away.

“That’s because my willpower’s weak where you’re concerned,” I pointed out. “Plus, I’ve told you that you’re not like other women. You’re more special to me than any other.”

“So you say,” she giggled.

“It’s the truth. Right now, we have to table this conversation so that we can get to the sites. That way, I can submit my report to the boss.”

“A.k.a. Jared,” she said, as I released her, giving her a swat on the ass.

“Hey, Mr. Fancy Pants! Watch your hand unless you want it broken!”

“You can’t tell me that you didn’t anticipate that,” I said, smirking.

“Whatever,” Barbara said, rolling her eyes. Then, raising her hand to her mouth as she looked outside, she exclaimed, “Oh, wow!”

“What? You knew that Jared was sending a vehicle to take us to the sites.”

“Well duh! But I didn’t think he was going to send a limo, let alone a white one with a purple tint.”

“That was my doing. I remembered your favorite color was purple and put in a request. I didn’t think Jared would just make it happen, but I’m glad I took a chance and asked. It’s kind of cool, don’t you think?” I asked, as Barbara practically dragged me out of the house.

The young driver got out and came around to open the rear door, saying, “Sir, I’ve been instructed to take you to two of the designated sites and then where ever else you’d like to go after that. Mr. Morris has also instructed me to give you this envelope.”

“Thank you very much,” I said, accepting the envelope before slipping in next to Barbara and leaning over to kiss her.

“What’s that all about?” she asked, pointing to my hand.

“I don’t really know. All I was asked to do was to meet with you and view the sites.” Opening the envelope, I said, “This is unexpected.”

As I unfolded the sheet of paper inside, Barbara looked anxious and asked, “What does it say? Is everything okay?”

“Let’s find out,” I said, and we both scanned the paper.

Ray and Barbara,

First, I’d like to thank you both for helping with Worldwide International business and with Kelsey and Mike’s wedding. Mostly, I wanted to thank you, Barbara, for capturing Ray’s heart. You may not realize that you’ve done this, yet. Trust me; you have. None of us ever thought the man-whore could be tamed. Maybe he isn’t yet, but something happened that night you and he talked in Hawaii. You triggered something inside him, something that made him make changes in his past that were long overdue. Therefore, our little group of friends has prepared a reunion of sorts for the both of you.

Barbara, open the center console. Once you get your breath back, return to this letter. Okay, I fear you won’t do that, so I’ll give you a preview of what’s in store. The driver has been instructed to stay with you until all tasks have been completed.

The tickets are for the Broadway musical The Beautiful Carole King. A private jet will fly you there and back. I’m sure you’re wondering what you’ll wear to the show, but don’t worry. The women have taken care of your wardrobe, Barbara, and the driver will take you to the store where you’ll be dressed to the nines. Ray, you’re in trouble since Mike has picked out your outfit for tonight. Don’t say I haven’t warned you.

After the show, you’ll truly embark on your journey, one that will bring you closer as you should be. Barbara, talk to Ray about the rule he’s set up for himself. It’s a great one and should always be followed. Push yourselves to the extreme, but never break that rule.


Enjoy!

Jared (and Patty, Mike, and Kelsey)


“They went through all this trouble just for us,” Barbara said with wonder in her voice. “Why? Kelsey’s been my friend for years, but the others don’t really know me well. And Jared called you a man-whore, but you’re not! You’re my Mr. Fancy Pants!”

“Sweetness, you have no idea what I’ve been doing the last few months in order to be the man you’d want, the man you’d be proud to introduce to your kids, family, and friends. You already know my friends but not my family. We’ll talk about them another time. Today’s not the day. Today, we should enjoy our surprise. But first, we need to check out those property sites for Jared and patty.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Barbara said, as her cellphone began to ring.



Chapter 6


Barbara


I suspected that Ray had wanted to kiss me, but my cellphone started ringing. So, he settled on a kiss to my forehead as I sighed and took the call.

“Hey,” my son, Marc, said in greeting.

Hey, Sweetie. How are you, Chelsea, and Logan?”

Ignoring my question, Marc said excitedly, “Dad just said that he’d take me to Sprint Cup Unlimited, but it’s on a school day! He said I had to clear it with you since we’d have to be in Daytona the weekend before, too. Please, can I go? Please, Mom?”

“Let me speak to your father,” I said, annoyed with my ex that he’d talked to Marc without first clearing his plan with me.

Okay, but you know how much I love Nascar, so you have to let me go! You just have to!” Marc said in a pleading tone.

“Let me speak to your father,” I said again, making no promises.

After offering a dramatic sigh, Marc yelled, “Dad! Mom wants to talk to you!”

The phone was passed from son to father. My ex, Joe, then said, “Hi, Barbara. I guess you heard the news. It was supposed to be a surprise for Marc.”

“Joe, you’re a wonderful father, but you’ve never been able to keep surprises from the kids.”

“Guilty,” he said with a laugh. “So, are you cool with what I’m proposing? I know he’ll have to miss a little school, but I think it’s worth it in this case.”

“What about you and Sandy? Is she going with you two? You and she will have to take off work for this as well.”

“You know my wife loves our kids like they were hers, too. Yes, I’ll be taking off work. As for Sandy, there’s a book convention in that area the weekend before the race. She could take Chelsea to that. Now, all I need to do is find a computer convention that will interest Logan. There has to be something computer-related going on at the same time!”

“It sounds like the kids would have to miss several days of school, though. Marc and Chelsea really can’t afford to take the time off.”

“How about a compromise?” Joe suggested, knowing it would have to be a good one.

“I’m listening,” I said, wondering what he’d propose.

“What if Sandy and I keep the kids for a few days longer? We’ll leave for Daytona on Saturday. That way, we can manage to hit the book convention, the race, and a computer fair of some kind. The kids can get their assignments from their teachers in advance, and I’ll make sure that they do all their schoolwork in-between the fun stuff.”

“What do Chelsea and Logan think about all this? Do they even know? Is Chelsea willing to miss school? You know how hard she works for her grades.”

“No, Chelsea and Logan don’t know what we’re discussing. I’ll have that talk with them right now.”

“Good. I’m actually working on a special project for Worldwide International. Can I call you back in a little while? That should give you and Sandy plenty of time to talk to the kids about your plan.”

“That’d be fine. Talk soon, Barbara.”

“Bye, Joe.”

Ray, who was frowning, asked, “Everything okay?”


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