Title: I Know Better
Author: A.P. Watson
Genre: Adult Contemporary Romance
Cover Designer: Regina Wamba of Mae I Design
Editor: Tamara Beard of Wrapped in Writing
When love gave me more pain than fond memories, I did whatever it took to escape the cycle. Even if it meant selling my car so I could move from the land of cotton to the Windy City. But when I couldn’t quite figure out the best way to start over, my two best friends devised a plan to force me back into the dating world. The only problem was that men and I mixed just about as well as cheeseburgers and clogged arteries. I was burned too many times, and the scars I carried would last a lifetime.
A blind date and one-night stand with a devilishly handsome bachelor was supposed to revive my confidence after past traumas, but our encounter quickly transformed into something completely different. Instead of making me another notch on his belt, he offered another arrangement—friendship. Because I believed he was way out of my league, I agreed. It should’ve been an easy task, but it seemed like the only thing I was good at was being wrong. The intense connection we shared was unlike anything I’d ever known. It was just my luck that the only man who had ever treated me with kindness and respect had zero interest in sleeping with me. As my feelings for him deepened past the confines of our friendship, I wanted to believe things between us could change and all my old wounds could heal, but most of the time . . . I Know Better.
A.P. Watson is a contemporary and paranormal romance author. She is an avid reader, pole fitness enthusiast, and registered nurse currently residing in Johnson City, Tennessee with her adorable pup, Elle.
Chapter One: Young Years Wasted
After scrolling past the fifth sonogram picture on my Facebook newsfeed, I shut off my phone and threw it in my purse. There are only so many peanut-shaped fetuses you can stare at in one day and not want to double up on your birth control. As a twenty-six-year-old Southern woman, my inability to get engaged, married, or pregnant meant I was a constant disappointment to my mother. If I’d known the purpose of college was to find a husband and get married as soon as I graduated, I would’ve saved myself the $25,000 in student loans and worked my way through one of Julia Child’s cookbooks. This type of mentality was exactly the reason I was relocating from the land of cotton to Chicago. Sure, I’d be trading in my townhouse to move into an apartment with my two closest friends from college, and I’d incessantly bitch about freezing my ass off in the winter, but at least I’d have my sanity. Not to mention, such a drastic relocation meant my dating slate would be wiped clean.
My two post-college relationships weren’t simply mediocre entanglements, the sexual side of things left much to be desired. If I was being completely honest, I’ve had steamier gynecologist appointments. And I don’t even want to begin thinking about the incident. That idiotic jerk-off practically ruined all men for me. I mean, as a nurse I’m used to people showing me weird things on their bodies, but checking out a large mole on someone’s back doesn’t even compare to being asked to diagnose a guy’s venereal disease. My dating spectrum seems to shoot from one extreme to the other. Either the guys I date are promiscuous idiots who can’t keep their junk in their pants, or they’re vomit-inducing assholes. Is there some cosmic law stating I can only attract complete duds?
“Are you done with your pancakes? I’d like to get to Chicago and have all your shit moved in before the football season starts,” Sean asked, tipping his chin at me in exasperation. What a little twit. Three years younger than I and a whole foot taller, he assumed he could boss me around.
“If you sass me one more time this trip, I’ll murder you.”
His eyes widened at my response. “You wouldn’t hurt me. I’m your cousin!”
“So, what? I don’t care if we’re related. Just because I’m a nurse doesn’t mean I’m overflowing with compassion.” I slid my compact out of my purse and flipped it open. Good thing I wasn’t flying to Chicago. The bags underneath my eyes were so big I’d have to check them as carry-on luggage. I dabbed a bit of powder on the dark circles and called it a day. If I wanted to mask the smattering of freckles covering my nose and cheeks, it was going to take a heck of a lot more effort. But I didn’t mind. The combination of my sassy tongue, fair skin, copper hair, and freckles meant I was a walking, talking spitfire. “Actually, it’s the first thing to go once you start working in a hospital.”
“That doesn’t inspire much confidence.”
I snickered at his response. “I’m an ICU nurse. My job is to save people’s asses, not kiss ‘em.”
“And to think, the other day I kept asking myself why isn’t Wren married yet?”
I flipped my middle finger at him. “Because I’m too fucking awesome to be tied down.”
“You know I’m kidding.” He grabbed my cup of coffee and took a quick swig. “I’m surprised Aunt Shelly is okay with you moving so far away.”
“I think she’s praying I’ll meet the love of my life or get knocked up. Still not sure which she’d prefer more though,” I replied with a shrug. I finished off the last of my bacon and took another bite of pancakes. There was magic in a stack of pancakes and fresh bacon. Something about the mixture of butter and grease always seemed to set my world straight after it goes askew.
“Seeing as how all of her friends have grandchildren and she doesn’t, I’m betting on the latter,” he noted.
“Me too,” I agreed, sighing loudly. Sean left a tip on the table and stood from our booth. While he went to pay for our meal at the register, I gathered my purse and hoodie. I’d just slung my bag over my shoulder by the time he was done and followed him out of the diner. We still had two hours left to drive, and once we got to the townhouse, we needed to unload the U-Haul. “Let’s get to Chicago, smartass.”
We climbed into his Jeep and fastened our seatbelts. “So, why exactly are you moving there?”
“I needed a fresh start, and it seemed as good a place as any.”
“Plus, Terayn and Ryan are there.”
“I know! Honestly, I don’t even care that I’ll be their third wheel. I’ve missed them.”
“I’m sure you have. The three of you were inseparable in college,” he added.
“I think this move is going to be good for me.” I had some doubts, but I brushed all that negativity aside and focused on the positive.
“I think so too, and I’ll only be a couple of hours away if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” I said, nudging Sean’s arm with my elbow. We may have been cousins, but we acted more like brother and sister. His support meant the world to me. “You know I appreciate you helping me move this weekend, right?”
“Hey, what are cousins for anyway?”
“True. So, when is graduation?” I asked.
“The first Saturday in May, I think. Are you still planning to come?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“I mean, it’s still nine months away, but I’d like for you to be there,” Sean said, shooting me a sideways glance.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
“I just can’t wait to be done with classes. Last semester nearly killed me.”
“You’ll get through, and it’ll be worth it.”
He snorted. “Yeah. Be an electrical engineer, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.”
“On the bright side, at least you don’t get splashed with other people’s urine.”
At my comment, Sean cringed. “Point taken. I’ll stop complaining.”
“You know that’s not what I meant!”
“Of course not, but your job is disgusting.”
“Don’t I know it.”
I started nursing school with the intention to help people, but after Liam fucked me over, my desire to care for people who needed compassion and understanding increased tenfold. Life could be shit sometimes, and if I could alleviate another person’s suffering, then I would. Every job had its bullshit you had to wade through, but nursing was my calling.
Ahead of us, a green sign pointed to the left, indicating the Chicago exit. We still had a ways left to drive, but a strange sense of elation filled my veins. I was rushing toward a new life and, though the prospect was daunting, I was thrilled. Things would change for the better, and I couldn’t wait. Seeing your two best friends hopelessly in love tended to put things in perspective. Sure, one day I hoped to find what they have, but for now, I simply needed to have a little fun and put myself out there. I grabbed my phone and sent Terayn a quick text to let her know I was on my way.
Me: Hey girl! Sean and I are still en route to Chicago. We’ll be there in less than 2 hours!
Her reply was so fast, I didn’t even have time to set my phone down.
Terayn: Eeek!!! I can’t wait!! Keep me updated on your ETA!
Her responding text was over the top, but that was just Ter. In the years we’ve been friends, I’d come to love her die-hard enthusiasm. The accompanying barrage of emojis she also sent was another story altogether.
Me: Will do. I can’t wait to see y’all! And you know how I feel about too many emojis.
Terayn: LOL You know you love me! We’re so excited to see you! Ryan has been running through the townhouse all morning fixing things and making sure everything is perfect for you to move in.
Me: He’s so sweet when he wants to be! Tell him thank you!
Terayn: Will do!! See you soon, babe!!
I plugged my phone into the car charger and leaned my seat back. After a few minutes of squirming, I finally found a comfortable position.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Sean looking at me over his shoulder. “How long has it been since you slept?”
“Not that long!” I turned to stare out the window, watching as the row of trees hugging the interstate blurred together.
“Don’t lie to me,” he ordered.
“I slept yesterday!”
“A fifteen-minute nap doesn’t count.”
“I slept three hours yesterday after my shift ended, and then I spent the rest of the day packing.”
“Three hours? That’s all?”
“It’s better than nothing.”
“You need to sleep more. You hardly get any rest as it is.”
I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly. After two years of working overtime shifts, I was used to functioning on zero sleep. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“Funny.” He sighed heavily, focusing his attention back on the road. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you take a nap and I’ll wake you up when we get there?”
I considered his proposition. A nap did sound like heaven, but he’d been driving since we left Tennessee. I felt guilty at the thought of making him drive even longer. “Are you sure?” I asked.
“Fine. But if you need me to take over and drive, don’t hesitate to wake me up.”
I closed my eyes, thinking I would fall asleep for a few minutes. However, when I awoke, I was surprised to find Sean and I were parked outside my new townhouse.
“Wren!” Terayn jumped down the steps, her jet-black hair waving behind her like a flag, and flung open the door to Sean’s jeep before I could even unbuckle my seatbelt. She practically crawled inside and pulled me into a tight hug. “I can’t believe you’re finally here!”
“This is going to be just like college but more fun!” she shrieked loudly.
“You bet your ass it is!” We stumbled out of the Jeep, and she hooked her arm through mine. I glanced in either direction, trying to get a better understanding of my surroundings. Townhouses lined the sidewalk on both sides of the street. The two-story brick buildings were perfectly spaced out, allowing for small patches of grass and pear trees every so often. “Wow, this is really nice.”
“Yeah, I love it. It’s a little more spacious than living downtown.”
I stared at my new home, my heart filled with wonder. “I can only imagine.”
“I got us a bottle of wine to drink while we unpack tonight. I figured it would make the tedious work more bearable.”
“God, I love the way your brain works.”
“That would make two of us,” said a masculine voice from behind me.
“Ryan!” I spun around to see him standing next to Sean. “It’s so good to see you.” He held out his arms and, like magnets, Terayn and I sprang forward to hug him.
“Likewise,” he replied, smiling broadly. His arms wrapped around Ter and me, and despite our combined weight, he managed to pick both of us up at the same time. “Reunited at last!”
“Hey!” I socked him once in the chest. “Y’all are the ones who left me to fend for myself.”
“I don’t even want to hear it! I’ve been begging you to move up here for almost two years now!” Terayn shouted dramatically.
“I know, Ter. I know.”
“Besides, it’s probably for the best that Wren is just now moving up here. I don’t think Chicago will know what hit it with the two of you living under the same roof,” Ryan added, setting Ter and me back on the ground.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Terayn mocked surprise. “Yeah, when you get the two of us together, we’re just a couple of saints.”
“Like hell you are. Don’t you remember Halloween of sophomore year? The two of you got me drunk and talked me into streaking through Greek row at midnight. Kappa Phi thought I was some pervert and started chasing me down. I almost got my ass beat by a bunch of sorority sisters and their fraternity boy toys.”
“I know how you feel, man. These two are notorious for causing trouble,” Sean replied.
I headed over to where Sean stood, my attention still focused on my two best friends. “Ryan, you’re the one who listened to us!”
Terayn slid her arm around Ryan’s waist. “Those frat boys were just jealous of you, baby. You looked way better than they did.”
Sean laughed, nudging my shoulder with his. “It’s good to see the three musketeers back together again.”
Ryan nodded his head in agreement. “I was just thinking the same thing. When will you be done with school, Sean?”
My arms folded across my chest as I glanced at my cousin. “You’re only glad to see us back together again because we talked your parents into letting you come to Mexico with us when you graduated high school.”
Sean shrugged his shoulders slightly. “So, I may be a bit biased.”
“We should plan another trip for May! We went on one after you were done with high school, so it’s only fitting we do another one when you finish college.” Terayn beamed at Sean, pulling him into a quick hug.
I snagged my purse and hoodie from the passenger seat. “I guess we can’t break a tradition.”
Ryan nodded in agreement. “I’m in.”
“Awesome, I can’t wait. Why don’t you girls unpack the boxes while Ryan and I unload the rest of the U-Haul?”
Terayn and I scaled the stone steps to our townhouse. She crossed the threshold and led me to our connected living room and kitchen. “I’ll get the wine glasses!”
The interior of the townhouse was gorgeous. One wall in the living room was comprised of exposed brick, and the kitchen had a long bar you could eat at. Two windows flanked either side of the front door, allowing natural light to fill the space. I glanced around, my eyes admiring some of Ter’s paintings. She truly was a gifted artist. Stepping over to a bookcase next to the television, I noticed the tall structure was decorated with picture frames, many of which I was in. I smiled, picking up a photograph of Terayn, Ryan, and I from college. This was home.
“I’ve always loved that picture.”
“Me too,” Terayn agreed, handing me a glass filled with wine.
Several hours later and most of my stuff was unpacked. Ter and I worked like we were on crack as we crammed the closet with my exorbitant amount of clothes. Once it was full, we turned our attention to the dresser Ryan, and Sean carried inside. It rested on the empty wall by the closet. Despite the beauty of the rest of the townhouse, my room was my favorite spot in the whole townhouse. It was my own little slice of heaven.
I tucked the ends of my sheets underneath my mattress as I stared at the paint covering the walls. “Did you paint in here recently?”
“Yeah, do you like it?”
“Oh, I’m so glad you like it! I went through eight samples of paint before I found the right color of seafoam green. I thought Ryan was going to have a stroke.”
I reached for the other end of my white duvet cover. “You painted this for me?”
“Of course! We want you to feel at home!”
She helped me pull the duvet over my sheets and litter the top of my bed with pillows. “Just being around the two of you makes this feel like home.”
“I think it was time for you to leave Tennessee.”
I grabbed my glass of wine and sat on the bed. “I agree. I mean, it’ll always be home, but I was completely adrift there. I think I got too comfortable, and I knew in my heart the longer I stayed, the harder it would be to leave.”
She nodded, taking a long sip of wine. “You can have a fresh start here, and this place is practically crawling with dateable men.”
I snorted at her comment. “We both know, with my luck, the dateable man who is interested in me will probably still be living with his mother.”
“Oh, Lord! That’s so true!” She collapsed on the bed, laughing.
“You always attract the losers.”
“I’d almost be offended if I wasn’t so dead inside.”
Ter and I were best friends, and at times, we were also opposites. She was a bundle of light. I, on the other hand, had moments where I descended into darkness. Having your heart, confidence, and sense of self-worth crushed tended to take it out of you. I recovered, but the scars I bore were permanent reminders of past wounds.
She pushed on the stem of my wine glass, prompting me to take another sip. “Drink more. It makes everything better.”
“You only say that because you’ve already found an amazing guy!”
“There are so many lepers and creepers out there, you have no idea, girl,” I whined.
“After you called me during your last blind date, I can only imagine.”
I gagged. “This wine is delicious. Please don’t make me throw it up.”
“Okay, I’ll never mention him again!”
“All I’m saying is you’re extremely lucky to have Ryan.”
“I want you to say that again, but louder and into my phone, so I can record it.” Ryan stood in the doorway. I was surprised he hadn’t cut his shaggy blonde hair, especially considering he was working as an investment banker now, but I guess he would always be a surfer boy at heart.
Terayn rolled her eyes dramatically. “Don’t do it, Wren. It’ll only make his head even bigger.”
“I didn’t know that was possible!”
“Oh sure, you girls get back together and in less than a day you’re already ganging up on me.”
“You know you like it, babe,” Terayn countered.
“The pizza is here. Sean and I were going to play some video games in the living room. Do you want me to bring you ladies some pizza and plates in here?”
“That would be amazing!” I held my empty wine glass out to him. “And could you bring us refills? We need more wine stat.”
He accepted my wine glass and turned to kiss Terayn before grabbing her drink as well. “I’ll do it, but only because you are my two favorite girls in the whole city.”
We gorged ourselves on pizza and wine for hours. The guys kept to themselves. I guess they could sense Terayn and I needed some time to catch up. It’d certainly been too long since we’d seen each other, and baring my soul to her about all my recent work and dating mishaps was nothing short of cathartic.
When we got up to change into our pajamas and grab a glass of water from the kitchen, we found Sean and Ryan passed out on the couch. We laid blankets over them and headed back to my room, trying to be as quiet as possible.
I crawled into my bed and nestled under the covers.
I watched as Terayn jumped in beside me. “Oh, I’m staying in here too. I figured we could have a sleepover!”
“Thanks for letting me move up here. I know I’d be lost without you and Ryan.”
“I know what you mean. I love my friends up here, but it just isn’t the same, you know?”