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Coming Apart at the Seams – Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

San Francisco—Present Day

Blunder. Gaffe. Misstep. Error. Snafu. Although plenty of words described the huge, life-altering mistake Nick Priest had made, none of them quite conveyed his stupidity. He’d had a chance with Teagan O’Brien, but he’d blown it. That was his biggest regret, and he had a lot of them.

As he stared at her across the ballroom, he had to remind himself to breathe. Her long, red dress clung to her curvy body, just tight enough to make every man in the room wish his pants were a little looser behind the zipper.

She reminded him of a starlet from the 1950s with her abundant breasts, narrow waist, and round hips. He’d had the pleasure of shaping those hips with his hands, tonguing her rosy nipples, and sinking into her luscious body, although pleasure didn’t really describe what he’d felt when he had been with her.

She laughed, her deep blue eyes glinting in the light from the chandeliers, and her date leaned closer, licking his lips as he got an eyeful of her tits. Nick clenched his hands into fists, barely controlling the urge to ram the fucker’s head into the wall.

For more than a year and a half, he had been trying to persuade Teagan to give him another chance. But she hated him with all the passion she’d given him during their one and only night together.

He thought about approaching her but discarded the idea. She had become a master at avoiding him, and she would find a reason to excuse herself immediately.

Forcing himself to relax, he settled more comfortably against the wood-paneled wall. He wasn’t trying to blend in. He knew that was impossible.

His face and form were highly recognizable from years of playing pro football, and most recently, appearing in commercials for Riley O’Brien & Co., the nation’s oldest designer and manufacturer of blue jeans. Since he’d thrown his lot in with the company, he had figured he ought to attend the annual holiday party. Plus, he had known Teagan would be here.

This wasn’t the first O’Brien celebration he had attended. He’d known the family for about fifteen years. He had played football with Quinn O’Brien at the University of Southern California, and he had formed friendships with both Quinn and his younger brother, Cal.

The O’Brien brothers were Nick’s best friends, two of his favorite people. But his absolute favorite person was their little sister, Teagan. He’d known her almost as long as he had known Quinn and Cal, and before he’d messed things up, they had been friends. Best friends, in fact.

He let his gaze wander the ballroom of the Westin St. Francis in downtown San Francisco. With its lavish holiday decorations, it could have been any company party. But the huge photo banners hanging from the ceiling made this one unique.

Every black-and-white image showed a different view of Riley O’Brien & Co.’s signature blue jeans. He was pretty sure the jean-clad ass in the photos was his own.

He chuckled wryly. The banners proved what he’d always known: he was nothing but a giant ass. He had no doubt Teagan would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment.

Teagan’s date touched a curl that had fallen to her shoulder, and Nick growled under his breath when the fucker stroked the smooth skin of her upper chest. He would rather take a direct hit from a 350-pound linebacker than watch that loser put his hands on her. Hell, he’d rather be buried under the entire defensive line than suffer the torture of watching another man paw the woman he wanted for himself.

Moving his gaze from her body, he focused on her face. Her full lips were painted a deep scarlet that matched her dress, and he took a moment to remember the taste of her mouth, addictive in its sweetness.

Her wavy dark hair was pulled into an elaborate updo, emphasizing her graceful neck and smooth shoulders, which were bared by her strapless dress. Years ago, he’d had his mouth on that supple skin before he had trailed his tongue down into her creamy cleavage.

“Priest.”

Jerking his head toward the voice, he was surprised to find Quinn standing next to him. Nick mustered a smile for his old friend, clasping the hand he offered and slapping him on the back.

“It’s good to see you,” Quinn said. “I’m glad you could make it.”

Nick hadn’t been sure if he would be able to attend the party. His schedule had depended on whether his team made the playoffs. But they’d lost their last three games, dashing those hopes.

Although it didn’t reflect well on him, he hadn’t cared much that his team wasn’t heading to the playoffs. He was ready to move on, and although he had yet to announce it publically, he’d decided to retire. He had given enough of his life to the game, and it had given him what he had needed in return. Now he needed something else.

He needed Teagan.

A waiter passed with champagne, and Nick plucked a crystal flute from the tray. “Congrats. Times two,” he said, tapping his glass against Quinn’s highball.

Only days ago, Quinn had officially taken over as president and CEO of Riley O’Brien & Co. More important, he’d become engaged to Amelia Winger, a sweet little thing with a real talent for fashion design.

“Thanks,” Quinn said, a big grin on his face. “I’m a lucky man. A very lucky man.”

His happiness was almost tangible, and Nick experienced a stab of envy, not because the other man didn’t deserve to be happy, but because he wasn’t. Far from it.

The two of them slouched side by side with their backs against the wall. The party was in full swing, the band wailing away and the dance floor packed. Hundreds of people milled around the ballroom, the men dressed in dark suits and the women garbed in cocktail dresses. It was one of the few times Riley O’Brien & Co. employees had to dress up. Usually, they all wore Rileys and T-shirts.

Quinn scanned the crowd, visibly relaxing when he spotted his redheaded fiancée. The look on his face was a mix of pride, possession, and adoration. The guy obviously was head over heels in love with his future bride.

Pulling his attention from Amelia, Quinn looked toward Nick. “Listen, Priest, I need to talk with you about something important.”

He tensed. As far as he knew, the O’Brien brothers were still unaware that he and Teagan had hooked up.

He nodded, silently directing Quinn to continue. He preferred to say as little as possible so he could hide the severe stutter that had plagued him since childhood.

Quinn was one of the few people who knew about his speech impediment. They’d spent too much time together over the years for the other man not to notice, but he’d never said anything about it. He wondered if they were drawn to each other by the simple fact that Quinn talked too much and Nick didn’t talk enough.

“I’ve persuaded Amelia to have a short engagement, and we’re in a hurry to nail down the wedding plans.”

Nick stifled a grin. He had little doubt how Quinn had persuaded Amelia.

“Cal is my best man, and I’d like you to be my one and only groomsman.”

He studied the groom-to-be. He knew it wasn’t manly to admit it, but he loved Quinn like a brother. It would be an honor to stand beside him as he made his wedding vows.

Of course, he didn’t tell Quinn any of this because it required too many words. It was too much effort to get his brain and his mouth to work together. They were enemies.

“Okay.” He focused on shaping the sound that caused him the most problems. “W-w-w-when is the w-w-w-wedding?”

“The first Saturday in March.” Quinn sighed. “Ten long weeks away.”

Nick chuckled wryly. Compared to the time he’d spent chasing Teagan, ten weeks was nothing. A hit from the kicker instead of a thumping from a linebacker.

“When are you heading back home?” Quinn asked.

Nick shrugged. He had played for the Tennessee Titans for the past two years, and he currently lived in an upscale suburb outside of Nashville. But now that the season was over, nothing prevented him from staying in San Francisco as long as he wanted. As long as it took.

Quinn narrowed his eyes. “Where are you spending Christmas?”

“Not sure.”

“With your dad?”

He laughed, the sound shaded with bitterness he didn’t bother to hide. “No.”

“Why don’t you stay and celebrate Christmas with us? You know Mom and Dad would love to have you.” When he didn’t reply, Quinn punched him on the shoulder. “And Amelia and I are having a New Year’s Eve-slash-engagement party. You can’t miss that.”

Quinn had unknowingly given Nick the perfect opportunity to spend more time with Teagan. It was more than he could ever have hoped for.

###

Teagan’s feet hurt, her head pounded, and her face ached from the fake smile she’d pasted on hours ago. She grabbed another glass of champagne from a passing waiter and downed it in one swallow, hoping the alcohol would dull the pain.

It had been a huge mistake to bring Evan to the company’s holiday party. In the span of three hours, he’d transformed from a man into an octopus. What else could explain the sliminess she felt when he touched her?

Evan had seemed like a decent guy when she’d met him at an ugly Christmas sweater party. He and his sweater, a truly hideous garment that illustrated the twelve days of Christmas, had caught her eye.

When he’d asked for her number, she’d given it to him without a thought, and she had forgotten about him until he had called a few days ago. He’d asked her out, and she’d suggested they attend the party together.

She hadn’t wanted his company, not really. But she had been afraid Nick would be here, and she’d thought a date would be a good buffer.

Teagan didn’t trust herself to be within one hundred miles of Nick. No matter how hard she tried to force her body and mind to work together, they just didn’t agree. Her mind knew best. It wanted to stay far away from him. But her body . . . oh, it wanted him so badly.

His hard kisses, his hot caresses, his deep thrusts.

It had been years since they’d been together, but she remembered it like it was yesterday. She remembered everything—his taste, his scent, his size.

Warmth trickled between her legs, and she scowled. She hated Nick Priest. She hated him for breaking her heart. She hated him for not being there when she had needed him most.

She hated the way her body came alive when he was near. She hated the way her mind always found its way to him when it was left to wander. And most of all, she hated herself for letting him get to her after all this time.

She shifted on her heels, using the pain to force her thoughts from Nick. She looked around the room. Where was Evan?

She wanted to leave, and she needed to let him know she intended to take a cab back to her place. She planned go home and enjoy a long soak in the tub, and she wasn’t up to fending off octopus man.

Teagan rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers but stilled when someone came up behind her. She knew without looking that it was Nick. She instinctively recognized his scent and the heat of his body.

Stiffening slightly, she tried to move away from him. But he moved closer, placing his hand on her waist to stop her. He leaned down close to her ear, and his breath made her shiver.

“Stay,” he ordered quietly.

“I’m not a dog,” she snapped.

He chuckled softly. “Stay,” he repeated, dropping his hand to her hip and squeezing lightly to emphasize his command.

A flash of energy traveled from his fingers to all the nerve-rich places on her body—her nipples, her clit, her lips. Desperate to get away from him, she jerked sharply and stumbled into Amelia.

“Whoa!” Quinn exclaimed as he caught his fiancée against him.

Teagan blinked in surprise. She hadn’t even noticed her older brother was nearby. He glared at her, his protective instincts on high alert.

“Be careful, T. You almost knocked over Amelia.”

She managed to squeeze out an apology, and Nick, damn him, resumed his place behind her. He loomed over her by several inches even though she wore five-inch heels. His height made him one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

Amelia stared over Teagan’s head, her brown eyes speculative. “Nick, I thought I’d see you here,” she said, a faint Texas twang in her voice. “How have you been?”

“Fine,” he said, drawing out the word, his baritone rumbling through Teagan’s body.

“I was sorry to see you guys didn’t make the playoffs,” Amelia said. “But there’s always next year.”

Teagan felt Nick shrug. “Not for me.”

At his announcement, Teagan, Amelia, and Quinn all chorused “What?” in varying volumes. Teagan’s definitely had been the loudest.

She jerked away from Nick, and this time, he let her go. She spun to face him, and even though she struggled to digest the bomb he’d dropped on them, she noticed how his expensive black suit outlined his broad shoulders. The dark color made his blond hair look even lighter, and his French blue dress shirt showed off his tan.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, staring into the face she dreamed about almost every night.

He was gorgeous—beyond gorgeous.

He knew it, of course he did. But unlike a lot of extraordinarily handsome men, he didn’t seem to care much about his looks.

“I’ve decided to . . . umm . . . retire,” he said.

She gasped. “Why?”

“It’s time.”

“What are you going to do?” Quinn asked.

“Not sure,” Nick replied, running a hand through his short hair.

Her hands itched to touch the silky strands. He’d cut his hair since she had seen him a few weeks ago, and the color seemed to change depending on the length. Right now, his hair was a mix of honey and caramel, and as it grew out, it would turn lighter, almost the shade of morning sunshine.

Quinn cocked his head, staring at Nick with a calculating look. He turned toward Amelia.

“Juice,” he said, using his nickname for his bride-to-be, “did you know Priest has a degree in American history from USC?”

Amelia smiled, showing the sizable gap between her front teeth. “No, I didn’t know that.”

“Priest, you didn’t know my Grandma Violet, but she was an interesting woman. Kind of eccentric. She was ten times richer than my Grandpa Patrick, maybe even a hundred times richer. The O’Briens made their money by clothing prospectors, but her family actually found gold.”

Teagan stared at Quinn. Why was he talking about Grandma Vi? Was he drunk?

Nick narrowed his eyes. “And?”

“Well, you see, Grandma Violet set up an endowment to create a museum that celebrates the history of Riley O’Brien & Co. and the role it played during the California Gold Rush. And that endowment money has to be used by 2017.”

Teagan sucked in an appalled breath. He wouldn’t! Would he?

“What would you think about heading up that project? Laying the groundwork for the museum?” Quinn asked Nick. “It would be part of the company’s charitable foundation, which falls under Teagan’s purview. She’d be your boss.”

Nick slanted a cunning look toward Teagan, his light green eyes glowing like peridots. He smiled slowly.

“I’m in.”