The 12 Step Program
Going a month without a man or a date was probably an impossible task for serial romantic Lucy Adams. She’d made a habit of falling in and out of bad relationships that always started with her finding the man of her dreams and ended with her kicking him to the curb.
After her latest breakup, her best friend and neighbor Tom Henson bets her she can’t go thirty days without a date. With a nickname like Love ’em and Leave ’em Lucy, the odds were stacked against her. Still, she’s up for the challenge, and the chance to rub Tom’s nose in it when she wins. Nothing like a friendly wager between friends to make things interesting. But when the game changes, all bets are off…
Warning: Strong language
Breakups, beer, bragging, and bets.
“Hey, scoot over,” I whispered as I lifted the soft cotton blanket and slid into bed.
Tom Henson, sexy cop by day, my next-door neighbor and best friend by night, grumbled as he moved over to make room for me. Thank God for the balcony patio that joined our apartments. So much easier than pounding on his door and waking him up.
“It’s two in the morning. You do realize I have to be up at five-thirty.” More grumbling. Still, he swung his arm over me like it was the most natural thing in the world for me to be crawling into bed with him in the middle of the night. Well, I guess I had done it more times than I cared to admit.
“I know. I’m sorry. I… kicked Craig to the curb.”
That seemed to grab his attention. For a split second, he tensed, then he blew out a long breath. “Aw, Luce. What happened?”
“Apparently Helen Foster gives good head.”
“Uh… I don’t know what to say to that.”
I sighed. “My nursing leadership class got cancelled at the last minute today. Craig’s been whining and complaining about all the hours I spend at work and school and that we haven’t been spending a lot of time together. So I thought I’d surprise him and meet him for lunch, maybe talk him into taking the rest of the day off. Instead, I got the surprise. I found him with his ass plastered against the window of his compact screwing his assistant.”
“Holy shit. The bastard.”
“Yeah. Only I called him a maggot-eating fuck face.”
Tom gave a sleepy chuckle. “That’s one for the books.” How did his breath smell so good at two in the morning?
A tear escaped, and it hit me that I hadn’t cried yet. My relationship of nearly a year with the man I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with had just met a sudden, shocking death, and I hadn’t cried until now.
With the first sniffle I let out, Tom had me wrapped in his arms protectively. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who should be apologizing to you for crawling in bed with you at this ungodly hour, not that you seemed at all surprised I showed up.”
He kissed the top of my head. “Babe, these walls are pretty thick, but even they couldn’t contain the screaming and throwing of things going on in your apartment. Hell, I expected you an hour ago.”
I jabbed him in the side. “Jerk.”
“Umph… That boney elbow is lethal. Don’t you know you could get in trouble for assaulting an officer?”
I snuggled closer to him. “Good thing you love me.”
There were advantages to having your best friend live next door. The fact that he was hot was a definite perk.
“Yeah, yeah. Go to sleep. Some of us have to work at the butt crack of dawn.”
“Tom… Craig is coming back to get his stuff. I really don’t wanna deal with him…”
“I’ll be home at four. Have him come by then.”
“Thank you,” I whispered as I closed my eyes and drifted off.
I awoke to the sound of the shower running. The gray light of dawn filtered through the open window then the room fell into darkness only to lighten again as the salty Atlantic breeze straight off the beach teased the dark blue drapes, lending the illusion that dawn was turning on then off then on again. A wave of giddiness followed the thought, and I suppressed a giggle.
But then a twinge of guilt gnawed at me for waking Tom up and robbing him of a full night’s sleep. He really was an amazing guy. I counted myself lucky that he put up with all of my crap and was always there for me. Not for the first time I wondered why all men couldn’t be like Tom Henson. Why some woman hadn’t snagged him up years ago was a mystery.
Secretly — okay, selfishly — I was glad Tom was unattached. It was a comfort having him a few feet away if I needed him. I highly doubted any woman in his life would be on board with me showing up all hours of the night.
The shower shut off, and a few minutes later, the bathroom door opened. Tom strolled out, his dark wavy hair damp and a towel wrapped around his waist — very, very low on his waist. Forget six-pack. The man had an eight-pack. My vagina did a somersault. Damn, did I ever want that towel to come loose and fall to the floor.
I squeezed my legs together — down, girl — and rolled onto my stomach. “Geez, try to be a little quieter. Some of us are trying to sleep.”
“I’m sorry, princess. Forgive me. Would her majesty like scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and pancakes for breakfast?”
“Yes, please. And also waffles. And fresh squeezed orange juice. And coffee. All the coffee. And I’d like it served in bed.” I yawned, stretched, and rolled onto my side.
“I’ll get right on that,” Tom said as he buttoned up his shirt.
“So basically if I want breakfast I’m stuck with stale cereal and out-of-date milk?”
He walked over and ruffled my hair. “You got it.” He tugged on one of my blond strands gently before heading out of the bedroom. “Don’t forget to shut the patio door before you leave. Last time you left it open, and I came home and found Mrs. Gussini’s cat sleeping on my pillow. I’ll see you at four.”
I sighed. Tom definitely fell into the love-to-watch-you-leave category. Seriously, it was no hardship having a hot male best friend. No, it was not.
I sat up and threw the blanket off, my body yelling for more sleep, my mind working overtime making a list of all the stuff Craig the Cheat had in my apartment. Best if I gathered it all before I headed off to my nursing theory class. There was no way I’d have time between it and statistics class to come back and gather up the dirt bag’s crap.
God, had I done this breakup thing so many times that I didn’t even mourn the loss anymore? Talk about depressing. Why couldn’t I find a decent guy for once?
Unfortunately, Professor Gibson wouldn’t hold class for me to reflect on my crappy taste in men. Which meant I had to get moving if I wanted to make it by nine.
Harry’s Hangover Hut sat at the end of the boardwalk. Most of the booths had a great view of the beach during the day. Or if you preferred, you could sit outside at a picnic table with your feet in the sand. It was the place Tom and I went when it was just the two of us. It wasn’t so loud that you had to yell to be heard, and it wasn’t so quiet you had to whisper to keep people from eavesdropping. Most of the patrons were regulars who were there to watch TV — more specifically, sports. So it was usually pretty relaxed. And after the last two days, I definitely needed relaxed.
The only thing worse than a cheating ex-boyfriend was a refuse-to-accept-this-is-the-end ex-boyfriend who makes a spectacle of himself on your doorstep. It had started when I texted him to be at my apartment at four to pick up his shit. He called and left rambling messages about how much he loved me and how sorry he was. When he wasn’t apologizing, he was telling me how it was my fault he cheated and if I’d been the girlfriend I should have been, he never would have gone elsewhere. Five voice messages and twelve text messages later, his compact screeched to a halt outside my apartment building, and he started screaming that he wasn’t leaving until I talked to him. To say I panicked is an understatement. It had been a little before three. Craig had shown up early. On purpose, no doubt. He knew what time I got out of class on Fridays. I’d texted Tom and told him to get home ASAP. Five minutes later with Crazy Craig still pounding on my door, Tom showed up and read him the riot act. He’d insisted Craig return to his car and wait. Then he’d carried the two boxes of crap to the car and informed my ex-douchbag that if he ever tried to contact me again, he’d be arrested.
I’d hated staying by myself while Tom finished his shift. Saint that he was, he’d settled me in his apartment to wait for him and promised to pick up a new lock for my door on his way home and install it. And, God love the man, he’d brought home a pizza. After such an eventful afternoon, we both wanted to go have a few beers at Harry’s. The fact that it was within walking distance made it a shoo-in for our favorite hangout.
Tom and I said hi to the people we knew when we walked in. Crystal, Harry’s wife, waved to us and motioned to the empty booth at the opposite end of the bar. The place was still quiet for a Friday night, which suited me just fine.
God love Crystal. She was setting mugs of beer on the table before we’d settled into the booth.
“That’ll be seven dollars, unless you want me to start a tab.”
Tom handed her a ten. “Keep the change, and start a tab.”
She tucked the money into the pocket of her apron. “Can I get you two anything else?”
“Thanks. We’re good for now,” I said, smiling.
Halfway through my second mug of honeyed microbrew, I made eye contact with a guy at the bar. He flicked a glance over me and smiled but then quickly looked away. From the corner or my eye, I caught his gaze returning to me a few times, but it was always fleeting, as though he was afraid I’d notice. I looked over at Tom, who was staring through the open window toward the beach.
Not that I needed his approval or anything, but...
“Do you know the guy at the end of the bar wearing a green polo? The blond? I’ve seen him in here a few times. He’s kinda cute. I think I’ll ask him out.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Oh boy. Here we go again.” He grabbed his beer from the table and chugged.
I stiffened, more than a little offended by his attitude. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He set the mug down with a thunk, annoyance radiating from his eyes as he looked at me. “It means Craig’s side of the bed is barely cold and you’re already looking for his replacement. If you need to get laid, go for it. But you should probably try not to take home any more strays for a while. Just take him out back and screw his brains out.”
My mouth fell open, and I could do no more than stare at him. Had he seriously just said such a crass thing?
His eyes softened and took on a confused gleam. “What?”
Was he joking? I sat up straight and put my elbows on the table, leaning as close to him as I could. “First of all, gross! Like, really, really gross. As in, I can’t believe you just said that. Second of all, I think I’ll leave the boinking out back to screw ’em and shoo ’em Tom.” I lifted my beer and took a drink.
“You’re right. Being love ’em and leave ’em Lucy is working out so well for you.”
I choked and spit beer all over my arm. Some of it came out my nose, and it burned like fire. I slammed down my mug and snatched a couple of napkins from the dispenser to wipe off my face and arm. “Excuse me? Love ’em and leave ’em Lucy? I’m not love ’em and leave ’em Lucy. That isn’t even close.” I all but stomped my foot when I said it.
His eyebrows shot up as if to say, “Yes you are and you know it.”
My next breath stalled in my lungs. Was I love ’em and leave ’em Lucy? How many boyfriends had I gone through since kicking my high school sweetheart Mark Titus to the curb four years ago? The best thing to have come out of that relationship was that the apartment Mark and I shared was just a few patio steps away from Tom’s. Tom had quickly moved from hot neighbor to one of my best friends. He’d thankfully let me crash in his bed and study in his apartment while he was at work, since my juvenile boyfriend spent most days playing video games and eating junk food with his homies.
“Look, it’s cute. You’re a hopeless romantic. You honestly believe the only way to find your prince is by kissing a bunch of ugly ass frogs. But if you keep kissing frogs at the rate you’re going, you’re gonna end up with a bunch of damn warts.”
“Ewww. Nice visual.” I shuddered. “And what a male chauvinist you are. I guarantee you’ve slept with more women in the four years I’ve known you than I’ve even thought about dating.”
He scratched his chin, appearing deep in thought. “You know… I always wondered why my average went down after I met you. Now I know you were stealing some of my prospects.”
At least I wasn’t taking a drink this time. “Did you—” I sputtered and set down my mug so I wouldn’t be tempted to throw it at him. That would just be a waste of good beer. “Did you just accuse me of sleeping with women?”
His eyes twinkled over the rim of his mug as he took a slow sip. “Depends… did you just admit you’ve thought of dating women?” A dreamy expression crossed his face. “That’s quite a picture… you and some of the women I’ve banged. Maybe I should give them your number when I send them home.”
“Do it and die.” I smiled and picked up the mug again. “To clarify, for the feeble-minded, in the four years I've known you, the list of men I've dated is way shorter than the list of women you've slept with.”
He straightened and puffed out his chest. “Why thank you very much.”
“It wasn’t a compliment. It’s bullshit that you think it’s okay for you to play the field but horrible for me—”
“That’s just it. I play the field. I make no promises to the women I… date—”
I let out a dramatic snort. “Man whore.”
Tom scowled at me. “Anyway… I might—”
“If I slept around as much as you do I’d be the slut of Ocean City. You know it, and I know it. But you do it and you’re a god. If that isn’t a double standard, I don’t know what is.” I’d worked myself into quite a snit. Tom’s high and mighty attitude had upset me ten times more than finding Craig doing the nasty with Helen the ho.
He held his hands up in surrender. “Fair enough. And I’m not judging you. Or calling you a slut. Far from it. And you know that.”
I drew my forehead up in a petulant frown, still irritated. But I did know that. Tom respected me, and I’d never seen him be anything but a gentleman to women. If anything, women threw themselves at Tom constantly. It was disgusting, really.
Still, I wasn’t ready to let him off the hook yet. So I slumped in the booth seat and sulked.
“Aw, Luce, don’t be mad. I just worry about you. I hate seeing you get your heart broken.” Tom ran his thumb along the rim of his mug.
I reached for his hand, squeezed it, and with as sincere a voice as I could muster said, “And I hate seeing you get the itch.”
His cheeks turned an adorable shade of red. He he. He deserved it.
“All right. Point taken. It’s none of my business.” Tom waved in the direction of the blond at the bar. “Go pick up frog number… what is it, one thousand twenty-seven?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Very funny. I haven’t had that many boyfriends.” At least I didn’t think I had. “I think you’re confusing me with the number of bimbos you’ve banged.” I smiled sweetly at him.
Tom grabbed his chest like he was having a heart attack. “Ouch, ouch. You wound me. I assure you my number is much higher.”
The man was infuriating. “Ugh. Men really are pigs. If I had any sense, I’d steer clear of all of you.”
He actually had the nerve to laugh at me. “Good one, Luce. Like you could go longer than a day without a man.” He downed the rest of his beer.
Before I could come back with a snappy response, a waitress arrived with a fresh beer for Tom. A woman I’d never seen before. She must be new. She had very dark hair worn in a bouncy short cut and wide hazel eyes. And surely those boobs weren’t real. Funny, I didn’t recall him signaling to her for another round or her asking him if he needed one. She bent over so low as she set the mug down that her boobs almost spilled out the top of her T-shirt. Probably would have if they hadn’t been fake. Sickening.
“Anything else, honey?” she asked in a husky come-and-get-me voice, leaning in closer to him.
“My friend here is ready for another beer, too.” Tom half-ass pointed at me but continued to ogle the waitress’s rack.
The waitress jerked up and had the nerve to look down her nose at me. The bitch! And what was with eyeing Tom like she wanted to have him for a midnight snack?
“What are you drinking?” slutty bitch asked in a dry, bored tone.
“The same thing he’s drinking.” Did I really trust her not to spit in my beer? The thought made me panic big time. Being a nurse made me super seriously more freaked out about germs. Best to make sure I didn’t get any cooties from the slutty bitch, so I reached across the table and snatched the mug she’d set in front of Tom. “I’ll just take his, and you can bring him one.”
The waitress wheeled and stormed back to the bar. Yep, she would definitely have put something extra in my beer.
“Do I even want to know why you did that?” Tom asked, amusement dancing across his face.
Slutty bitch waitress returned with Tom’s beer. She set it down slowly, again leaning in as she did it. “Here you go, cutie. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thank you.” Tom gave her one of his dazzling killer smiles and winked.
Annoyance washed over me when they just continued to stare at each other. So I kicked Tom under the table. Childish but effective. He swore and shot daggers at me with his eyes.
I ignored him and addressed slutty bitch. “We’ll let you know if we need anything else.”
Yep, I was done drinking for the night.
“What was that for?” Tom snapped once the waitress was out of earshot.
“Reflex. Sorry. I can’t control it. It acts up whenever slutty bimbo bitches are within arm’s length.” I hoped I was giving him my innocent face. “I can call her back if you want me to.” If he did want me to, I was going to kick him between the legs.
“Nah. She’s not my type.”
“She has boobs and is practically inviting you to take her clothes off. She’s your type.”
Tom glanced toward the bar in the vicinity of slutty bitch. “Good point. But she ain’t goin’ anywhere. The night’s young.”
“Ugh! See what I mean? You couldn’t go a day without a woman.”
Tom eyed me. “Speaking of, don’t let me keep you from your preppy blond at the bar.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the guy I’d been eyeing earlier. “Better hurry. He turns into a toad at midnight.”
“And let you gloat about being right?” I shook my head. “No thank you.”
His eyebrows shot up. “So you’re saying you haven’t already been imagining him as your next boyfriend?”
Fire. My face was on fire. I had been imagining just that about blond guy. Oh, shit. Maybe I did have a problem. “No more than you’re imagining undressing our slutty waitress.”
“Apples and oranges, babe. Apples and oranges.”
He was really starting to piss me off.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I truly am thinking with my dick. The only thing I see is a way to make Mr. Happy, happy. You think with your heart. You see that guy over there and start falling in love. And you always jump in with both feet. And you always get burned.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, my God. I’m not that bad.” Was I?
“Then prove it.”
“What?” I swallowed some beer.
“Prove me wrong.” The man was relentless. And I still wasn’t sure what he thought this would accomplish.
“Nothing would make me happier,” I snapped. “How exactly do I prove you wrong?”
“Go over there, take blondie outside behind the bar, and fuck his brains out. No commitment. No dating. No giving him your phone number.”
“You can’t be serious.” The thought of doing such a thing horrified me. I was a strong believer in at least five dates before having sex and only then if we’d talked about where we saw our relationship going—
Holy shit. Tom was right. I definitely had a serious problem. I groaned inwardly.
“Can’t do it, can you?” The smugness in his voice made me want to slap him.
My eye started twitching. “I bet I can go longer without a having a boyfriend than you can without a woman — I’m sorry, I meant piece of ass.” I threw down the gauntlet.
His eyebrows shot up. “Oh, really?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Yes, really.”
“Then put your money where your mouth is.”
“I’m not going to take your money. You need it to buy antibiotics.” Ha! Take that, Tom Henson.
“Fine. We won’t bet money. It’ll make it more interesting if the winner chooses how the loser pays.”
I squirmed in the seat. “M-more interesting?” Crap.
“I bet you can’t go thirty days without dating or having a new boyfriend. That means no giving out your phone number. No letting a guy buy you a drink. No sitting around having conversations that last longer than five minutes. No. Dating. Period.”
“Yeah, yeah. I get it. And if I’m not dating, neither are you.”
Tom actually paled. “Uh… I can still have sex with random women, right?”
The groan he let out was beyond dramatic.
“Afraid you can’t do it?” I goaded.
I laughed. “This is going to be worth it just to watch you suffer for a month.” I picked up my mug and took a drink.
“Thanks. My balls are getting blue just thinking about it.”
For the second time that night, I spit beer all over myself.
“Laugh now, Adams. Let’s see who’s laughing in a few days.”
“Oh, it’ll still be me. Knowing the torture this month is going to put you through is all the encouragement I need to win. That, and the fact that if you lose, I intend to make you pay up by going to the spa with me and getting a facial, a manicure, a pedicure, a mud bath… and maybe even waxing. Oh, and you’re paying. And then I think I’ll make you walk on the beach wearing a bathing suit of my choosing. And I’m using the word suit loosely here, just FYI.”
Tom eyed me suspiciously. “You came up with that awfully quick.”
“Yeah… I’ve been thinking of ways to torture you since slutty bitch waitress pissed me off.”
I raised my beer and saluted him. “You’re welcome.”
“In that case, if I win, you have to go on a date with a guy of my choosing. You have to go on three dates with said guy—”
“If you think I’m letting you set me up on a date again after Hank, you’re batshit crazy.”
Tom furrowed his brow and tilted his head to the side. “What was wrong with Hank?”
“Nothing except he dry-humped my leg the whole night. Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Okay, then. In that case, since you are the reason I’ll be celibate for thirty days—”
“Don’t even finish that sentence.”
He gave me the Tom Henson killer smile. Dimples and all. My vagina contracted. Holy hell, I never knew a smile could put me on the cusp of a freaking orgasm.
“You could do worse than me.”
My lady parts were on bended knee begging and pleading with me to just throw in the towel now and declare Tom the winner of our bet. And as the winner, to let him take me to bed and have his way with me over and over again. I squeezed my legs together and pushed the thought down — deep down. Tom was my best friend. The only thing sex between us would do was ruin our friendship. He meant too much to me to let that happen, no matter how much my inner slut objected.
Tom sobered, the sparkle from moments ago gone from his baby browns. “Forget it. Bad idea.” Was there a hint of disappointment in his voice?
“Besides, I agreed to your terms without arguing. So you have to agree to my terms without putting up a whiny fuss. If I win, you have to go on three dates with a guy of my choosing. You have to wear an outfit for each date that I pick out. And… I’m sure I can come up with a bathing suit for you to parade around on the beach in.”
“I’m sure you can.”
“So, Adams, do we have a deal?” he asked, holding out his hand.
By nature, I wasn't a sore loser. As a child, I hadn't taken my ball and gone home pouting if I didn't get my way — my mother would have beat my ass. But as I looked at Tom's hand, the thought of losing was not an option. My only goal was to knock that smug look off his face — he clearly thought he had this in the bag — no matter what I had to do to make that happen. Call it cheating. Call it stacking the deck in my favor. Call me a lying bitch. But even if I had to trick, beg, borrow, and/or steal, there was no way in hell I was losing this bet.
I slipped my hand into his and shook. “Deal.”
Let the games begin.