The Bromance Book Club (Bromance Book Club, #1)

“Damn, that felt good,” Liv said, handing the sledgehammer back to Thea. “We need music for this.”

As Thea took possession of the tool once again, Liv dug out her cell phone, swiped the screen a few times, and then the Bluetooth speakers throughout the house blared with the voice of Aretha Franklin demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Liv grabbed Gavin’s bat from the floor, held it like a microphone, and started belting out the lyrics. She extended her hand to Thea, so Thea joined in for the girls’ benefit, who laughed as if the impromptu concert was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.

And just like that, she and Liv were teenagers again, singing at the top of their lungs in the stuffy bedroom they shared at Gran Gran’s house. It was there, while their mother was off finding herself in a haze of anger and alimony and their father was too busy cheating on wife number two to pay attention to his daughters, that they memorized P!nk songs and promised to never trust a man, to never be as weak as their mother or as selfish as their father, and to always protect each other.

It was them against the world. Always.

And now again. Only this time, Thea didn’t just have a little sister to protect. She had to protect the girls. And she would. No matter what it took. She would make sure they never knew what it was like to grow up surrounded by tension or as the pawn between two warring parents.

A swell of sudden emotion stung the corners of Thea’s eyes as an ache spread through her chest. Her voice caught on the lyrics as her throat convulsed. Spinning away from the girls, she swiped at her face.

Liv casually covered for her. “Hey, girls. Run upstairs and change your clothes, OK? First one to the stairs gets to pick the movie tonight.”

The promise of competition sent the girls scrambling toward the stairs. Seconds later, the song quieted.

“You OK?” Liv asked.

A painful lump blocked Thea’s voice. “What if I’ve already hurt them?”

“You haven’t,” Liv said sharply. “You are the best mom I have ever known.”

“All I wanted, have ever wanted, was to give them a life that we never had. To give them safety and security and—”

Liv grabbed Thea’s shoulders and turned her around. “He’s the one who moved out.”

“Yes, because I told him to go.” She hadn’t been able to take one more minute of the cold shoulder after nearly a month of him refusing to talk about anything and pouting in the guest room. Two toddlers in the household were her limit.

“And he couldn’t go fast enough,” Liv said.

True. Still, guilt gnawed at Thea’s edges. There were things Liv didn’t know. Gavin was wrong to react the way he did when he discovered Thea had been faking it in bed, but Thea shouldn’t have let him find out that way. “It takes two people to ruin a relationship.”

Liv tilted her head. “Sure, but I’m your sister, which means I’m biologically predisposed to only take your side.”

They stared at each other, silently thanking God once again that they had at least one person they could always count on.

Thea once thought Gavin was that person too.

Damn him! Thea retrieved the sledgehammer. It was time to stand on her own two feet. To pick up where she left off when she gave up everything for him and his career. Time to start living up to the promises she and Liv made all those years ago.

Thea swung, and another hole broke the wall.

Liv laughed. “I’m not the only one picturing his face now, am I?”

“No,” Thea growled, swinging again.

“Good. Get it out. You’re a badass who doesn’t need a man.”

The speakers blared an angry Taylor Swift song about burning pictures.

Liv grabbed Gavin’s bat from the floor again. “Watch out. I’m coming in.”

“Wait! That’s his favorite bat!”

“If he wanted it, he should’ve taken it with him,” Liv said.

Thea ducked as Liv swung. There was a loud bang as it connected with the drywall.

Thea dropped the sledgehammer and wrenched the bat from Liv’s hands. “We can’t break that.”

“It’s just a bat.”

“He won the state high school championship with it.”

Liv rolled her eyes. “Men and their wood.”

“It’s important to him,” Thea said.

“Isn’t that the problem?” Liv snapped. “Baseball was always more important than you.”

“No, it wasn’t.” The sudden deep timbre of Gavin’s voice sent them both whipping around.

He stood ten feet away, as if their conversation had summoned him out of thin air. Butter barked and jogged toward him traitorously with a happy wag.

A tremor shook Thea from the inside out as she watched Gavin drop a hand on Butter’s head for a distracted ear scratch. He wore a pair of faded jeans and a plain gray T-shirt. His damp hair stood askew, as if he’d raced through a shower and simply rubbed a towel over his head. His hazel eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles. At least two days’ worth of brownish blonde stubble darkened his jaw.

But he still somehow managed to look irresistibly, unfairly sexy.

Liv turned down the music and crossed her arms. “What do you want, asshole?”

“Liv,” Thea warned again. Then to Gavin, she said, “You don’t live here anymore, Gavin. You can’t just walk in.”

He motioned to the door behind him. “I tried knocking.” His eyes darted between the broken wall and the sledgehammer on the floor. “What—what are you doing?”

“Tearing down the wall.”

“I see that,” Gavin said slowly. “Why exactly?”

“Because I hate this wall.”

Gavin’s brows pulled together. “Is that my bat?”

Something hot and petty burned a path through her common sense. “Yep. Works great.” Thea turned and slammed the bat into the wall.

Gavin ducked instinctively.

“I’m going to set up my easel here,” Thea said. She slammed the bat again. “This stupid wall blocks all the good light.”

“Maybe we should talk about this before you—” Gavin winced as Thea swung the bat a third time.

“Maybe we should have talked about a lot of things,” Thea snapped, stepping away from the wall. She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead.

A sudden squeal from the stairs interrupted them. “Daddy!” Amelia leapt from the bottom stair and raced toward Gavin. She threw her arms around his legs. “Mommy is breaking the wall!” She laughed, raising her hands to be picked up.

Gavin, still staring warily at Thea, hoisted her in his arms. Amelia instantly cocked her head. “Are you sick, Daddy?”

“Uh, no, honey,” Gavin said. “I just didn’t sleep very well last night.” He kissed her cheek. “You smell like syrup. Did Mommy make special Saturday pancakes for breakfast?”

“Yeah, with chocolate chips!” It came out chocate thips.

Gavin met Thea’s eyes, and for a moment they stopped being combatants and just became parents. Amelia had been showing signs of a lisp the past several months, and Gavin feared it was the beginning of a permanent speech problem like his. Thea offered a soft smile. “It’s just a lisp,” she said quietly.

Gavin reached his other arm toward Ava, who had shuffled slowly behind her sister. “Hey, squirt.”

Ava wouldn’t go near him and instead came to stand next to Thea. It was an act of instinctive protectiveness that broke Thea’s heart, even more so when Ava lifted her chin in a bold tilt and declared, “Mommy cried.”

Oh, no. Ava had been climbing into bed with her in the middle of the night ever since Gavin left. Had she heard Thea sneak into the bathroom last night? She didn’t want the girls to ever hear her cry.

Gavin swallowed slowly. His eyes moved across Thea’s face as if he’d never seen her before, stopping on freckles and blemishes she hadn’t bothered to cover with makeup before he met her eyes again. Thea flushed under the weight of his stare. Why the hell was he looking at her like that?

“Can we take Butter for a walk?” Amelia said. That was their thing—taking the dog for a walk around the neighborhood. Or, at least, it used to be when Gavin still lived there.

“Another time, sweetie,” Gavin said. “I need to talk to Mommy.”

Amelia made a pouty face—a new, devastatingly effective technique she’d recently discovered. Gavin swallowed hard, and Thea almost felt sorry for him. “I’ll be at your school musical Monday,” he said. “Maybe we can walk Butter after that?”

“I’ll take them for a walk,” Liv said, putting just enough fuck you in her voice to make a point.

Butter danced at the door as Liv reattached his leash and helped the girls into their fleece coats. She walked out but then ducked her head back in the room. “Don’t take too long. We still need to set up your online dating profile.”

The screen door slammed.

Gavin made an indecipherable noise.

Thea hid a smile.

“You’re not answering your phone,” Gavin said as soon as the girls were out of earshot.

“The battery died last night. I didn’t feel like charging it.”

He stepped closer, his eyes softening with concern. “Are you OK?”

Thea ignored the tiny ping-pong of her heart. “I’m not the one who smells like he spent the night on the whiskey trail.”

“I got drunk last night.”

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