“I recognize this!” Claire smiled at Jake in the driver’s seat. “This is where we had our first date.” They were in Connecticut, where they’d rented a house to be close to friends and family. Shooting for Fierce Craving, based on the second book in the Fierce trilogy, would start on a nearby estate in Connecticut next month.
Jake gave her a tender smile. “Seemed appropriate for our one-year anniversary.”
A tickling of unease went through her despite the romantic sentiment. Their first date had been paddleboarding on the Saugatuck River followed by a picnic in the park across the street. The problem was, at the time, she’d been in disguise as Jenny wearing a red wig and green contacts to avoid attracting attention. Today, she was just her casual, highly recognizable self—blonde hair, hazel eyes, wearing a white peasant blouse and tan capris with flip-flops. Jake had told her she didn’t have to worry about paparazzi. Still, they’d be in a public place.
“Maybe we should call Frank to join us,” she said. That was her bodyguard. After some scary and downright dangerous situations she’d found herself in with overzealous fans, Frank’s presence let her relax. He was former Army Special Forces, and no one ever got past him.
“It’s a Tuesday afternoon in September, which is a slow time for paddleboarding. Besides, I rented all the paddleboards ahead of time so nobody else could.”
“What about random hikers?”
“Don’t you know by now I’d kick anyone’s ass who looked at you cross-eyed?”
She relaxed a little. Not only was Jake strong and athletic, he’d been working with Frank to learn some defensive moves. So romantic.
He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze. “Relax, I got this.”
She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She was a tad too anxious about public outings, and Jake was a tad too laid-back. They were both headstrong and determined, but this wasn’t a fight she wanted to take on. It was their anniversary, and he was being romantic by recreating their first date.
Jake pulled into the gravel lot not far from the river, parked, and turned to her, cupping the back of her neck and drawing her close. “Trust me, okay? I love you more than I love myself.”
She smiled. “That’s a lot.”
He kissed her. “You’re the piece of me I was missing, and I didn’t know it until we met. My other, better half.”
Hot tears sprang to her eyes, and she threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, Jake. Me too. I found happiness when I found you.”
He rested his forehead against hers. “Jenny and Josh, the sequel. This time we can enjoy it as ourselves.” That was who they’d pretended to be on what must’ve been the weirdest blind date in history. She’d gone in disguise as small-town-girl Jenny, and Jake had taken his identical twin’s place as a favor to Josh. Neither of them knew their true identity until much later.
She smiled and stroked his clean-shaven jaw. “Can’t wait.”
He reached to the floor of the back seat and then put a tan baseball cap on her head. She pulled it off and stared at it. “I’ve been looking for this!”
“It’s the hat you wore that day. When I saw it, I tucked it away for the surprise. It’ll give you a little more privacy too.”
She put it back on her head. “You really thought of everything.”
He opened the glove compartment and stashed his cell phone there. She did the same. Then he got out of the car, walked around, and opened her door for her.
She stepped out. “Now that was very Josh-like.”
“Hey, I have just as many gentleman manners as my twin.” He shut the door behind her, locked the car, and took her hand, entwining their fingers together.
“But you use them so infrequently,” she teased.
“So you’ll appreciate it when I use them.”
They walked over to the paddleboard stand to pick out one for each of them, giving a quick hello to the old guy who worked in the rental shed. He winked at them with a smile, in on the private outing. Jake slipped him some cash, which made the guy smile even more before going back to watching a small TV.
Well, that was nice and drama-free.
Once they had their paddleboards in the water, they gasped in near unison at the chill of the water around their calves. It wasn’t as warm a day this year as it had been last year.
She shook her finger at him. “If I take a dunk in the river, we’re going straight home for dry clothes.”
“Aw, you’re no fun. Last year, you said you’d call me foxy all day if you took a dunk.” He steadied the board for her. “Do you remember how to do this?”
“Might need a refresher.”
He gave her some quick instructions, which she followed exactly. A moment later, he helped launch her paddleboard into the river with her safely aboard.
She started paddling, and the way to steer came back to her. “Catch up! The current’s stronger this time.”
“Cool. This should be a wild ride.”
As soon as he caught up to her, they rode the current with a few swells that pushed them on even faster. It was exhilarating. The breeze gently flowed around them, birds chirped, and the sky was a bright blue with white fluffy clouds. She couldn’t have asked for a better day.
“If we get a house here, we should do this regularly,” she called over to him.
“Would you like that? Being near my family?”
“Absolutely. I love your family. Bonus that my best friends are here.”
“We’d have to work out the logistics with our jobs.”
“The only logistic I need worked out is that we’re together.”
Her heart squeezed. Sometimes he just came out with the most romantic words. She was about to reply in kind when he suddenly took off, saying over his shoulder, “Race you to the bridge.”
She shook her head and paddled hard to catch up. Jake and his entire family—honorary brothers included—loved athletic competitions. She gave it her all, knowing how much he loved to race.
A few minutes later, Jake punched a fist in the air, winning the race.
She caught up to him. “You had a head start.”
“It’s my power moves. You know I’ve been working out.”
She laughed. “More like Frank’s been working you.”
Jake shook his head. “He’s a toughtaskmaster. Let’s keep going to the next bend for the view of the Sound. Then we’ll head back for our special anniversary dinner.”
“You’ve been so secretive about your plans. Is it a picnic?”
They paddled on in companionable silence in perfect synch. She took in the beauty of the rippling water, the slight nip in the air that promised fall, the surrounding trees still in their full greenery and sighed. This was the life.
Jake managed to get them both back to shore relatively dry and stashed the paddleboards back on the stand. He patted the zipped pocket of his swim trunks to make sure the diamond engagement ring was still there. He was just as glad as Claire that they hadn’t taken a dunk in the river. Didn’t want to chance losing the ring.
He caught up with her standing next to the car and snatched the hat off her head. She wouldn’t want that in the proposal pictures.
“Jake! I’ve got hat head.” She smoothed down her hair. It was fine and stuck up easily.
Jake made a show of smoothing her hair down. “There.” He opened the passenger-side door, tossed her hat in the back seat, and retrieved their cell phones, handing hers over and sending a quick text before sticking his in his pocket.
He shut the door, locked it, and blew out a breath, nerves racing through him. A proposal was a really big deal. “Ready?”
“Why do you seem nervous all of a sudden?”
Did the woman know him or what? He took her hand and started walking with her toward the park. “Why would I be nervous? I just did my second favorite activity with my favorite person, and I’m about to have dinner with her.” She knew very well what his first favorite activity was, and that sure as hell never made him nervous. He was so damn lucky they were a good match in and out of bed.
“Are we going to do your first favorite activity in the park?” She looked him up and down. “Not that I object to park activity, but you don’t seem to have a blanket or tent on you. How’re we going to pull it off without putting on a show?”
“All will be revealed.”
They crossed the street and took the beginner hiking trail just like they had on their very first date.
“One day we’ll be skilled enough for the advanced trail,” she said.
“Truth. But today’s a walk down memory lane.”
She sniffed the air. “Did you get a chef to prepare dinner in the woods?”
There was a hint of charcoal-grill scent. His twin was getting things ready for dinner.
“No chef.” Just my foodie brother.
He kissed her as a distraction. She responded passionately, her fingers tunneling through his hair, her tongue darting out to mate with his. He got lost in it for a moment, lust flooding him.
It took every ounce of willpower to back away. He walked ahead, discreetly adjusting himself. Couldn’t show up to a crowd like that.
Claire caught up. “What’s the hurry?”
He circled back, hugging her and twirling her around. She laughed. Had to keep her distracted. Claire was sharp and didn’t miss a thing. He wanted this to be a surprise.
But as they got closer, they could hear the sound of voices. Jake had left strict orders with Josh to keep everyone quiet. He’d just texted him that they’d be there in a few minutes. Granted, it was a crowd with both his and Claire’s family and all of their friends.
Claire halted. “It sounds like other people got here first. We should call Frank.”
He pulled his phone out. “Calling right now. I told him to stay nearby. He’s in town.” He punched the number.
Frank answered immediately. “Everything’s in place.”
“Glad to hear it. Could you meet us on the beginner’s trail of the park I told you about? Thanks. Bye.”
He disconnected and put the phone in his pocket.
Claire glanced behind them. “Should we wait?”
Just then Frank appeared on the trail ahead of them. They weren’t far from the clearing where he and Claire had had their first awesome date.
He gave Claire’s hand a tug forward.
She stared at her bodyguard. “Frank! How did you get here so fast? And from that direction?” She gestured behind them. “I expected you that way.”
Frank, stone-faced as always, merely inclined his head.
“Isn’t that strange?” Claire asked him. “It’s like he was waiting in the park for us.”
Jake said nothing. Their friends and family were talking and laughing, unable to keep quiet.
“Don’t worry. The natives are friendly.”
They stepped into the clearing, Frank at their back. There were streamers and Happy Anniversary balloons decorating three picnic tables. His twin, Josh, set some steaks on the grill as soon as he saw them. Claire’s friends from the Happy Endings Book Club rushed her, hugging her and exclaiming over the romantic sequel date.
“Only this time we get to share it with you!” Hailey exclaimed. She held up her phone and snapped a picture of them.
“I’m so surprised,” Claire said. “It’s like a party.”
“I brought the tequila,” Mad said, a gleam in her eye. “No worm this time. I brought the good stuff.”
“And I brought the same wine you had on your first picnic date,” Hailey said.
Jake slipped away while the women caught up, even though they’d just seen each other this past weekend. Claire’s parents and brother were here too, along with his brothers and dad. That should keep her busy for a while.
Josh caught up with him in the woods, pulled off his navy T-shirt, and handed it over. “What’re you going to do if she fails the test?”
Jake handed Josh his white T-shirt and pulled on his brother’s shirt. “Probably kick myself.”
“I’ll kick you.” He turned and did a swift kick behind him to kick Jake’s ass. Jake stepped away just in time.
Jake straightened his shirt. “It’s poetic, right? Another twin switcheroo on the anniversary.”
“You’re twisted.” Josh picked up the picnic basket with a red bow he’d stashed earlier and headed out to the clearing to find Claire.
Jake ambled over to the grill with Josh’s laid-back demeanor. He kept an eye on Josh more than the steaks.
“Everyone quiet,” Josh said above the noisy chatter.
People kept talking until Josh caught Hailey’s eye, and she realized she was needed. She stood on a picnic table bench and waved her arms. “Quiet, everyone! It’s present time!”
Josh held out the picnic basket to Claire.
She grabbed it and held it close. “It’s just like the one from our first date!”
“Now we can have picnics whenever we want,” Josh said.
Claire kissed Josh’s cheek. “So sweet.”
Jake’s stomach dropped.
Then she set the basket down and hugged Josh. Everyone snapped pictures except Hailey, who cocked her head, seeming confused. At least Hailey realized something was off with Claire mauling his twin!
Finally, Claire pulled away, smiling at Josh. “I thought we said no presents.” And then she turned and looked right at him.
He nearly collapsed with relief.
She shook her head. “Seriously, Jake? A twin switch on our anniversary?”
“I knew it!” Hailey crowed, stepping down from her bench.
Josh took a step toward Hailey, seemed to remember himself, and turned back to take over at the grill.
Jake made his move, heading straight for the love of his life. He grabbed her and kissed her passionately. She smacked his shoulder repeatedly and then pulled him close. His woman. She knew him inside and out.
Their friends and family started cheering and wolf whistling.
She broke the kiss and looked around. “Forgot we had an audience.”
He pulled the ring from his pocket and went down on one knee. “They’re here for this.”
She clapped a hand over her mouth.
He held up the ring, a platinum band with a round diamond. “Claire, you walked into my life under false pretenses, as did I—” he paused while their friends and family laughed “—and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you heart and soul.” His voice choked. “And I swear I’ll do everything in my power to protect you, care for you, and make you happy for the rest of my life. Will you marry me and make me the happiest man on earth?”
Tears streamed down his beloved’s face as she smiled and nodded.
He slid the ring on her finger, his hand a little unsteady. The depth of emotion shook him to his core. He stood and folded her in his arms. She hugged him tightly. The happy sounds of congratulations from their family and friends faded into the background. All of his focus was on the amazing woman in his arms. His soon-to-be wife.
He cradled her face to look in her eyes and saw love shining there just for him. “I love you so damn much, Mrs. Jake Campbell.”
Her eyes lit up with her smile, and she kissed him. “I love the sound of that.”
He lifted her hand and kissed the back of her knuckles. “Hope you can handle joining the Campbell clan.”
“I already handle you. How hard can they be?”
“That’s a smart fiancée you have there, Jake!” Josh yelled from the grill. “He’s the worst of us.”
“Ha!” Jake yelled back at Josh. “She chose me; of course she’s smart.”
Claire rolled her eyes, and he grabbed her in a hug. “I’m thankful every day for that,” he whispered in her ear.
She sighed and cupped his jaw, giving him a quick kiss before turning to the crowd, holding up her ring hand. “It’s official! I’m keeping my name for work, but in my heart I’m a Campbell!”
His brothers and honorary brothers whooped and pounded their chests. His sister, Mad, let out a loud whistle with her fingers between her teeth to shut them up.
Claire turned to him and whispered, “To think you’re the most civilized of the bunch.”
He laughed, slung an arm around her shoulders, and they joined their friends and family. Love finally came for him, a real lasting love. He hoped the same would happen soon for his twin. After all, they often led parallel lives.
Don't miss the next book in the series, Inviting Trouble, featuring Mad Campbell. That tough chick has a secretly mushy heart for the man she worshipped as a teen. Get your copy of Inviting Trouble!
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