Title: Pretty Pink Ribbons
Author: K.L. Grayson
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: March 24, 2015
Cover Design: Perfect Pear Creative Covers
Photographer: Tomasz Zienkiewicz Photography
Dying . . .
Dead . . .
Deceased . . .
It doesn’t matter how many times I say it or how many different names I give it, it still means the same thing. One of these days I’ll be nothing but a passing memory, a familiar face in a forgotten photo. But there's three things I need before this life of mine ends . . .
I need to tell him I love him more than life itself.
I need to feel the strength of his arms wrapped around me just one more night.
Most of all, I need him to forgive me.
Eight years ago I broke the heart of the only man I’ve ever loved and today I’m moving home in hopes that he’ll let me put it back together. I’m not sure how many breaths I have left, but I’ll use each and every last one fighting for what I destroyed.
My name is Laney Jacobs and this is my journey.
“Levi?” Her soft voice rings through the bar, effectively kicking my heart rate up a couple hundred notches, and I take a deep breath. This is what she does to me. When she’s around, my entire universe shifts and I know—I know—that this woman is it for me.
“Coming.” I rush to light the last of the candles, taking a quick inventory to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I’ve known for several months that Laney is different … special. But the other night when her warm body was curled up in my arms, head tucked under my chin, I realized just how perfectly she fits. And not just with me, but into my life.
A loud thud followed by a faint “shit” catches my attention and I run across the patio, through the door, toward the dining room. “You okay in here?”
Laney is bent over, rubbing her knee. She lifts her head and her dark hair slides away from her face, putting her hazel eyes—the eyes that I love—on display. Her nose crinkles and she cocks her head. “Why is it so dark in here? You know I’m afraid of the dark.” I laugh, bending down to inspect her knee. “Are you laughing at me, Mr. Beckford?” I glance up in time to see a sly grin split her face and I return it before focusing my attention back on the bruise that is now marring her flawless skin. Leaning forward, my lips graze her knee and she sighs, threading her delicate fingers through my hair. “When you act all sweet like this, it’s hard to be mad at you for laughing at me.”
I look up and she places a soft kiss against my lips. “I have a surprise for you,” I whisper, pulling away, knowing good and well what her sweet innocent kisses can turn into. Sliding a hand along her back, the other under her knees, I lift her off the ground and she squeals, wrapping her arms around my shoulders. Burying her face in my neck, she starts peppering kisses along my jaw.
“I love surprises.” Her voice is low and sexy as shit, and if she says one more word, I’m certain we won’t make it out to the patio. Soft lips encircle my earlobe and she nips it playfully before sucking the sensitive flesh into her mouth. I swat her ass and she moans, the vibrations sending a rush of blood straight to my dick. Fuck … the things this woman does to me.
Stopping in front of the patio doors, I lower her to her feet. “Close your eyes.” Her gaze snaps to mine and her eyes widen with excitement before she slaps a hand over her eyes. Gripping her free hand in mine, I gently lead her across the threshold into the warm summer air.
I couldn’t have asked for a better night to do this. My dad closed Flame for the weekend to celebrate my cousin’s wedding so we have the entire restaurant to ourselves, and the weather is absolutely perfect. I blow out a slow breath, hoping that this perfect night gets a little bit more perfect when I tell Laney just how much she means to me. “Open your eyes.”
She smiles wide, her sparkling white teeth lighting up her face. Her hand remains locked across her eyes and I can’t help but laugh. “Laney.” I tug at her arm, but she doesn’t budge. “Open your eyes.”
“Wait,” she laughs, pushing me away with her free hand. “I’m prolonging the moment. I haven’t had a surprise since I was seven years old and my mom bought me a Cabbage Patch doll for my birthday.” Laney’s smile falters and something inside of me clenches. Laney doesn’t have a lot of memories of her mom, and she has even fewer good memories of her dad. “It wasn’t even new.” I stood there, my hands hovering at my sides, at a complete loss for words. “I think she got it from a garage sale, but I didn’t care … I loved that doll.”
Stepping toward her, I lace my fingers around the back of her neck, drawing her to me. “Laney, I didn’t—”
“No.” She buries her covered face in my chest and takes a deep breath. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I got carried away. I’m just really excited for your surprise, even if it’s nothing … I’m not saying it’s nothing, but if it was, I’d still be just as excited.” She pauses, pulling away from me. “Wait. That didn’t come out right.”
My hand glides down her back and I pull her to my chest. I want to spend the rest of my life making her happy. Logically, I know it’s way too early to talk about marriage, what with the both of us still in college, but the thought lingers in the back of my head. “I know what you meant.” She nods and I kiss the top of her head. “I’m going to give you lots of surprises, Laney.” She nods again. “I’m going to spoil you rotten. I promise, one of these days you’ll be sick of surprises.”
She lifts her face as though she is looking for a kiss, but her hand is still covering her eyes and she isn’t anywhere close to my mouth. I grin. She looks so damn cute with her pouty pink lips puckered and ready. “Where’s your mouth?” she huffs, lifting up on her toes. “Levi?” Slipping my arm under her butt, I lift her up and she instinctively wraps her legs around my waist. Gripping the back of her head in my palm, I guide her smiling face toward mine and her lips part, granting me access. Our tongues collide, sliding and pushing against one another. Kissing Laney is like getting a taste of heaven. If she’d let me, I’d probably spend most of my days walking around with my lips connected to her in some way, shape, or form.
“Can I have my surprise now?” she mumbles against my mouth, biting at my bottom lip. I groan and she smiles against my mouth, knowing good and well what she’s doing to me. “Did that turn you on?” She waggles her eyebrows above her hand, her knowing smile completely infectious. If her eyes were open, I’d adamantly deny any such thing. But they’re closed so I smile back, loving this playful side of her.
“Not even a little.”
She tries to pull back and my arms lock around her middle and she giggles. The most perfect sound in the entire world. “I don’t believe you.” She wiggles her free hand between us until she finds the swollen bulge busting at the zipper of my jeans, causing her to burst into full-on laughter. “I knew it. I knew it. Good God, you’re easy.” I have no comeback because she’s right. This girl can fucking breathe on me and I’ll get hard.
“What do you expect? You’re fucking gorgeous, Lane.” I run my nose up the side of her neck and back down. Her laughing morphs to giggling and she scrunches up her shoulders when I suck on the spot just below her ear. How easily she forgets that I know how to make her squirm too. “What’s a man supposed to do? You’ve got these perfect tits rubbing all up on me.” My hand roams up her side, my fingers grazing the outside of her breast. She’s no longer laughing … or giggling. I inch my hand up a little bit higher, tangling my fingers in her hair. Wrapping her dark waves around my hand, I give a firm tug and her head leans back, a small whimper falling from her lips. But I know my girl and that was not a whimper of pain. I just turned the fucking tables.
“Did you like that, Lane?”
“Mmm-hmm.” My cock throbs at the sight of her, skirt bunched up around her hips and neck stretched, begging for my mouth.
“You look turned on, Lane. How turned on are you?” My nose slides down her neck until my lips hit the swells of her breasts and her breath hitches.
“A five. I’m a five.” Bullshit, she’s a five. Letting go of her hair, I slip my fingers in the top of her shirt, yanking it down. Laney’s breast pops free, her nipple tightening when it meets the warm breeze. My mouth waters at the sight and I lean down to suck her sensitive bud into my mouth. My tongue swirls and my teeth nip, and within seconds she is writhing against me.
“A five, huh?” I blow on her wet nipple and she moans.
“I hate you,” she pants. “A ten. I’m a ten.” Her eyes flutter, but I’m not quite done with her yet.
“Did I tell you to open your eyes?” I swat her ass and she grinds into me, shaking her head furiously. “You haven’t seen your surprise yet. Do you want your surprise?” She squeezes her eyes shut and nods.
“Is it you? Can I have you?” Her words slam into me and suddenly our little game is so much more. “I just want you.” That last part sounded more like a plea and my throat constricts. I can’t wait any longer. I need to tell her … she needs to know.
I push down on her hip, and she reluctantly untangles her legs and slides to the ground. I fix her shirt and attempt to adjust her bra. She laughs at my awkward movements and reaches up with her free hand to help. When her clothes are righted, I entwine our fingers, bringing her hand up to my mouth.
“You have me, Lane.” I kiss her knuckles and she takes a step toward me. “I’m already yours.”
“Levi? There’s something—”
“Wait.” I press a finger to the center of her mouth. “Open your eyes first, Lane.” She obeys and I spin her around. Her mouth drops open on a gasp, her hand flying to her mouth.
“Oh my God.” She turns to look at me, and then back to the patio, then back to me. “Levi,” she sighs. “This is … it’s … you did all of this?” Her golden eyes glitter under the pale moonlight.
“I wanted to do something special for you. It’s not much, but—”
Laney turns, stepping into me. She grips the collar of my shirt with her manicured hands and pulls my face close to hers. “What do you mean not much?” She glances over her shoulder and my eyes follow, taking in what she’s seeing.
Flame sits on the banks of the Mississippi River and the patio overlooks a wide expanse of rippling water, providing a magnificent view of the Arch riverfront. Lanterns are strung along the railing, emitting a soft ethereal glow, and a round table is tucked in the corner adorned with her favorite flowers.
Laney’s grip loosens on my shirt and she twists around, taking off toward the table. “You made me dinner?” She lifts the silver cover that’s hiding one of the plates, then quickly replaces it. She turns to me with a brilliant smile. “My favorite.” I nod, watching her reach toward the bouquet of Calla lilies. She pulls one from the bunch and raises it to her nose. Her eyes close and she sniffs, her entire chest rising and falling on a slow inhale. Her face is the perfect picture of serenity.
This is it … here’s my cue.
“Laney?” I stand in front of her and she smiles, slowly peeling open her eyelids. My heart is pounding against my ribcage, and if my palms get any sweatier, I’ll be embarrassed to touch her. Come on, Levi, do it. The words are stuck in my throat, threatening to choke the shit out of me if they don’t come out. I rub my hands along my thighs and take a deep breath. “You like the lilies?”
What the hell was that? I was supposed to confess my love, not ask if she likes the damn flowers.
She stuffs the lily back in with the bunch and squeezes my hand. “I love them.” Damn it. I was really hoping she was going to say ‘I love you’ … then I wouldn’t have to be the first. Ever so gradually, she lifts herself up and when our lips meet, something stirs inside me. I feel like I’m home. She is my home. She kisses me softly several times, never deepening it. “This is beautiful. It’s wonderful.”
Now would probably be a good time to spit it out … get it off my chest. If only I could concentrate—or breathe. I should probably breathe first; that would be good. My lungs fill and I blow out a big breath.
“Are you okay? Do you want to sit down?” Laney pulls me to a chair and shoves me in it.
“I have to tell you something,” I blurt, catching her off-guard. She clears her throat and pulls out the chair next to me.
“I have to tell you something too.” She looks away and then down at her hands, which are fidgeting with the hem of her shirt. She’s nervous. What the hell is she nervous about? I’m the one about to lay my heart out on the line. Alas, my dad always told me ladies first.
“You go first.” I scoot my chair forward until our knees are touching and she glances up at me, blinking rapidly. She wrings her hands together, her eyes searching my face. “No.” She shakes her head adamantly. “You planned this amazing surprise. You go first.”
“No, really—” She shakes her head jerkily, dismissing me, and we both sit there … staring at each other. Neither one of says a word and the air grows thick with awkward tension.
This is not how I wanted this to go. I wanted to tell her I loved her, hear her say it back, eat dinner and then make love to her under the stars. But really, I just want to tell her I love her … and hear her say it back.
Both of us, obviously disturbed by our lack of communication, start talking at the same time.
“I love you.”
“I got in!”
“What?” she gasps, her face beaming. She moves closer, which is funny because suddenly I’m wanting to move away.
“What did you say?” My stomach hardens as a wave of nausea rolls through me. My mind is working desperately to try and figure out what she’s talking about, but I’ve got nothing.
“You got in?” I ask, brows furrowed. “You got in where?”
Her eyes sparkle with excitement. I want to be excited with her, but the pain I have gnawing inside my gut is telling me that this is going to change everything. Her knees are bouncing at a fast clip and she bites back a smile. “Do you remember when I applied to the CIA?”
I nod once, vaguely remembering her talking about some scholarship for the Culinary Institute of America. She never said anything else about it, so I just assumed it was a passing thought. I was wrong, obviously.
Laney loves to cook. In fact, that’s how we met. She started to waitress and hostess for my dad at Flame, and I bartend for him on the weekends and occasionally during the week. She told me once that she wanted to be a chef and working in a restaurant was her first step in that direction. I’m not going to lie, the girl can cook. There were a few times when my dad even pulled her back to the kitchen to help out if someone called out or left sick.
“I got accepted, Levi.” She catapults forward, throwing herself into my arms, but I can’t move. I’m in shock. What is this going to mean for us? Where is the school? I never once considered the fact that she may move. She can’t move, I love her. “Levi? Did you hear me? I got accepted!” Her eyes are gleaming, but for the life of me I can’t find the strength to smile back.
“So, what does that mean?” I manage to stutter out.
She sits up, her hands locking on mine. “It means I get to go to college. On a full scholarship. I don’t have to pay for anything, Levi.”
“But you’re in college.” I don’t see what the big deal is. What can she do there that she can’t do here? Her whole life is here. She can’t possibly think it’s a good idea to just pick up and leave. And what about Luke? She can’t leave Luke … she can’t leave me.
Her smile fades, the light in her eyes dulling a fraction, and she stares at me. “I’m going to a community college, Levi.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a community college,” I insist.
She shakes her head. “No, there’s not, but I’m not doing anything there. This isn’t where I want to be.” Her words are a punch to the fucking gut and I stand abruptly, sending my chair toppling backward. “Wait”—she reaches for me, but I pull away—“I didn’t mean it like that.” Slowly, she stands. “There is nothing for me here.” Another fucking punch. “My life is going nowhere, Levi … you know this.” Jesus Christ, screw the punch, she’s using a jagged-edge knife. I rear back at her harsh words and she hangs her head, a tear slipping down her flushed cheek.
Laney’s mother died of cancer when she was ten years old, and a few months after her passing, Laney’s dad became a raging alcoholic. Laney spent her entire childhood raising her brother. The only good thing her poor excuse for a dad ever did right was give Laney access to any money he ever had. I’m not sure where he got his money, considering he could never keep a job for longer than a few months at a time, from what Laney told me. But he got it from somewhere, and it kept food in her and Luke’s bellies and a roof over their heads.
“What about me, Laney?” I yell, jamming my finger into my chest. “What? I’m nothing to you? Your life with me won’t ever go anywhere?” My arms are held out to the sides, but she doesn’t answer. Her head snaps up and she moves forward.
“No.” Her voice is high and frantic. She looks bewildered at why I would say that. “That’s not it at all. You’re everything. You mean everything. This doesn’t mean we’re over, it just means I’m going away to school for a while.”
My eyes lock on a barge floating slowly down the river—what I wouldn’t give to drift away right along with it. “Where is it? Where is the school?”
“St. Helena … California.”
My eyes snap to hers. “California?” She nods and my stomach twists. “When would you leave?”
“The semester starts in six days. There was a last-minute cancellation … that’s how I got in. That’s why it’s so sudden.”
Tears are swimming in her eyes, but that does nothing to subdue the anger that is boiling up inside me. She bites down on her bottom lip, a small quiver taking root in her chin, and I grip my hair tightly, spinning away from her. “Christ, Laney,” I growl, my voice echoing into the empty night.
As hurt as I am by what she’s just told me, it’s what she didn’t say that’s bothering me the most. Those three little words that I was dying to tell her were not reciprocated and that slices right through me. Did she even hear me say it?
“This doesn’t have to change anything.” I can feel her body behind me, the familiar scent of her perfume wafting through the air. I hang my head in defeat. What am I going to do if I can’t see her every day? She has become my life. I go to bed thinking about her, I wake up thinking about her … hell, I probably even dream about her.
Not to mention, she’s bound to get noticed. A girl like her catches the eye of every hot-blooded male within a five-mile radius. I’m going to go insane not being able to be there, and it very well might kill me not knowing who she is talking to or what she’s doing at any given time. And when am I going to see her? It’s not like either one of us can afford to travel back and forth.
“This changes everything.” There has to be somewhere closer for her to go to culinary school. This can’t be the only option. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be away from you.”
Her eyes soften, but something about that pisses me off. Reaching out, she grips my forearm and gives it a gentle squeeze. I don’t pull away, mostly because something inside of me is screaming that this may be the last time we touch. “It’s only for a couple of years. I have to do this, Levi.”
“I can’t do a couple of years.” My words come out surprisingly calm considering I’m about two seconds away from punching the goddamn wall.
Her hand falls from my arm as she takes a step back. “What do you mean you can’t do a couple of years?” Her words are slow and careful.
I need her to pick me. I need her to pick us. If she just gives us a chance—a real chance—one where she isn’t thousands of miles away, we can make this work. I just need to finish school, then we can work at getting her into culinary school and I’ll happily follow her wherever she wants to go. If she leaves now, we’ll never make it. I won’t survive it. Jesus, I probably sound like a fucking pussy, but I need her. When she’s not around, I feel like I can’t even breathe. Right now I need to know that she feels the same way about me. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
When I look up, big doe eyes are watching me … waiting. As much as I want to pull her to me and tell her everything is going to be okay, I can’t. My stomach clenches hard and tight as rejection and a ton of other emotions that I can’t even name rip through my body. “If you leave” —I glance over her shoulder, unable to look her in the eye— “we’re over.”
“You don’t mean that?” She lunges toward me, but I step back. Tears streak down her face and my hands itch to make this right, to somehow make it work.
“But I do.”
She sobs, frantically wiping the tears from her face. “We can make this work. You’re making this into so much more than it is. Please, Levi, you have to understand that this is my chance to get out of this town and start a new life.”
“A life without me.”
“No,” she says, shaking her head vehemently.
“Really?” I yell, throwing my hands out to the side.
“How do you suggest we make it work? You won’t be able to afford to fly home, and I can’t afford to fly to California.” Her mouth snaps shut. She knows I’m right. “What are we going to do, talk on the phone every night? Sure, that might work in the beginning, but what happens when school starts to get busy and those calls start getting missed? What happens when I start wondering where you are and who you’re spending time with? Or vice versa … what if you start wondering where I am or who I’m with?”
Laney crosses her arms over her chest. She’s frustrated. Good, so am I. “You don’t trust me?” she scoffs. “You think I’m going to go away to school and just forget about you … forget about us?”
“I don’t know, Laney, you tell me!” Adrenaline is coursing through my body. My lungs are heaving, my heart racing.
“I trust you, Levi.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t.” I don’t mean it. I don’t. But I’m hurt, and this is what fucking happens when I’m hurt. I’m stubborn as hell and I feel the need to hurt back, which judging by the look on her face, I hit my mark.
Her eyes are like daggers shooting straight through me, but I don’t budge. “So what’s it going to be, Laney?”
“You want me to choose? You want me to give up my dreams, my one chance to get out from under my dad?”
It kills me that I’m doing this to her. Lord knows I don’t want to give her an ultimatum, but I know me, and I know I can’t do long distance. I know that if she just chooses me, I’ll move heaven and earth to make every fucking dream of hers come true. “Yes. I’m asking you to choose.”
Laney’s hand covers her face. Her shoulders bob several times as soft cries float from her mouth. A few minutes pass and then she straightens her back, wipes the remaining tears from her face, and looks at me sadly. “I’m sorry.” She hiccups on another sob and her shoulders hunch forward. “I’m so sorry, but I have to do this, Levi.”
Her words slam into me like a freight train. My mind goes blank, everything around me dissipating into a mass of emptiness. Without thinking, I reach for the vase and hurl it across the patio. Hand-painted glass shatters against the wooden deck, sending two dozen Calla lilies into the air. A faint scream echoes through the air, but my mind blocks it out as I grab one plate and then the other, slamming them into the side of the restaurant. A loud roar rips from my lungs, echoing through the quiet summer night.
“Levi, please.” A shaky hand touches my arm and I whip around, wrenching free from her grip. The sight of her tear-streaked face rips open my heart and infiltrates my soul, a place that I will never allow another woman to ever go again. I can feel large steel walls slam down around my heart, effectively closing it off.
My eyes fall on hers, which are full of fear and anxiety. I don’t want to scare her. That wasn’t my intention, but she hurt me. And I’ve already been hurt by another woman, one who walked away from me without a second glance. Chose a different life … one I didn’t fit into. Unfortunately, I was only twelve and didn’t know not to trust and love another woman again. Well, this time I’m older, wiser, and I’ll learn from my mistakes.
Swallowing hard, I turn to look at the destruction my anger left behind. Closing my eyes, I grip my hands behind my neck, tilting my head up to the sky. “You need to leave.” My voice is soft … resigned.
“GO,” I snap, just wanting her gone. She doesn’t say another word. I’m not sure how much longer she stands there, but I know the minute she walks away because she takes my heart with her.
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