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Book 7.3 in the Montgomery Ink Series
A high school reunion is about to get down and dirty and a whole lot more complicated in this new steamy romance from NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan.
Grayson Cleary left town before graduation day and never looked back. Most people back home pegged him as a dropout. Over time, he’s worked to make something of his life and leave his past behind, so when his ten-year reunion comes up, he has no intention of attending. Only when his best friend begs him to go, Grayson finds himself confronted with a past he’d rather forget and the one woman he’s always craved.
Kate St. Dalton had everything when she left her hometown. Not only was she Valedictorian with a full scholarship, but she was also engaged to the boy of her dreams. Then fate threw a wrench in her plans, and she had to find a way to live the new life fate handed her. The last thing she needs is the hot boy from high school returning to town as the sexy man of her dreams.
When the two take a chance and use the reunion week to burn up the sheets, they’ll have to remember that it’s only for a few nights—not for a lifetime—and decide if what they have is just a fling…or something far more than a mere reunion.
Dropout is Book 7.3 in the Montgomery Ink series
- Book 0.5: Ink Inspired
- Book 0.6: Ink Reunited
- Book 1: Delicate Ink
- Book 1.5: Forever Ink
- Book 2: Tempting Boundaries
- Book 3: Harder than Words
- Book 3.5: Finally Found You
- Book 4: Written in Ink
- Book 4.5: Hidden Ink
- Book 5: Ink Enduring
- Book 6: Ink Exposed
- Book 6.5: Adoring Ink
- Book 6.6: Love, Honor, and Ink
- Book 7: Inked Expressions
- Book 7.3: Dropout
- Book 7.5: Executive Ink
- Book 8: Inked Memories
- Book 8.5: Inked Nights
- Book 8.7: Second Chance Ink
- Book 8.9: Montgomery Midnight Kisses
- Book 9: Montgomery Ink Bites Cookbook
- Book 9.2: Inked Kingdom
- Boxed Set: Montgomery Ink Box Set 1
- Boxed Set: Montgomery Ink Box Set 2
The full series reading order is as follows:
Grayson Cleary wrapped his fingers around the lead pipe below him and grunted, annoyed it was taking this long to get the job done. He let out a breath, tightened his grip, and pulled. The pipe that some idiot had jammed underneath the carriage of the truck propped above him came out with a screech and almost banged him right on the head.
He let out a curse and rolled out from under the vehicle, flipping off his friend when Brody pressed his lips together as he held back a laugh.
“Did you hit yourself?” Brody asked, a little concern in his tone. At least the man had that. Now that he had a woman, he at least tried to act like he cared more than the others at their shop.
Grayson shook his head. “Came close, though.” He held up the pipe. “Why did this guy think this would make his truck sound like it had a bigger engine? It literally did nothing except freeze the whole damn thing when he tried to go up a hill.”
Brody shrugged, wiping his hands on one of the garage rags. “Saw it on YouTube, apparently.”
Grayson pinched the bridge of his nose, a headache coming on fast, then remembered he still had engine grease and God knew what else on his hands and let out yet another curse. Thank fuck they weren’t in the public part of the auto body and mechanic shop or Grayson probably would have been fired years ago. Cursing came naturally to him, and it had been a long time since he’d been in a position where he actually cared who heard the words coming out of his mouth.
Considering that his best friend Leah had an even dirtier mouth than he did, he figured it could always be worse.
“At least we don’t have to clean up as many keyholes or fix dents in doors these days since that viral tennis ball video seems to have died down.” Grayson went to the sink after dropping the pipe on the bench and washed his hands. He’d never fully get the grease out from under his fingernails—hazard of the job he loved—but he’d at least be cleaner than before.
“How many idiots broke their windows trying to push air into their keyhole?” Brody asked with a shake of his head. “I mean, it was good money for the shop, but still.”
Grayson let out a breath and glanced at the clock above the work area, subtracting seven minutes and adding an hour. The damn thing had been off for four years now, but the owner liked to keep everyone on their toes. Now, doing the math to figure out the time without having to take out their phones—and potentially breaking them because of the grease—had become second nature. What it said about him that he’d rather do the math than find a ladder and fix the stupid thing he didn’t know, but at least he wasn’t the only one who just went with the flow.
“They’re idiots for sure,” he said absently. “I’m done for the day.” He gestured to the truck still on the lift. “Rick wanted to do the oil change when he got in tomorrow. Once he does, I’ll give it a once over and make sure the pipe didn’t do any permanent damage.”
Brody let out a breath. “I’m done, too. And, yeah, I don’t really want to think about what damage that DIY job might have cost this guy.”
“His fault for following a dumbass video.” Grayson cleaned up his area of the bench and wrote down a few notes for the next day as Brody did the same. “You want to get a beer before you head home.”
Brody shook his head. “Can’t. Holly’s taking the night off from grading, so I’m taking her to dinner before we have sex on the new couch.”
Grayson snorted as he grabbed his stuff. “She okay with you telling the world about your sex plans? Wait, you two really have sex plans?”
Brody smiled like a man who was not only in love but one who got laid on a regular basis. “She likes lists, and I like making sure she can check things off. What can I say? Sex on the couch sounds fun, and if she can use a shiny sticker on her to-do list later after I make her come, then all the better.”
Grayson would never understand couples in committed relationships. They were truly a weird and unregulated group of people. “Whatever you say, man.”
“Maybe you can grab Leah and get a beer if you’re thirsty.” The man winked, and Grayson rolled his eyes.
“I’m not having sex with Leah. Never have. Never will.” He shuddered just thinking about it.
“What? She’s sexy. You have to admit that. And she’s smart as hell. That’s usually your type, right?” Brody slid on his light leather jacket since the man had driven his bike to work. It might be a little too warm for a coat, but Brody had promised his new girl that he’d be safe.
Grayson froze. “I wasn’t aware I had a type.” The fact that Brody had just described not only the last woman he’d slept with but also the first woman he’d ever wanted in his bed worried him. He didn’t have a type, right? And it sure as hell wouldn’t be her.
Grayson quickly pushed that visual out of his head. He knew why she kept invading his thoughts, and there was no way he wanted to go down that road again.
Brody raised a brow and snorted. “If that’s what you want to keep telling yourself…”
“Don’t you have a couch to break in?”
“That I do, Grayson. That I do.” The man by his side practically whistled. If Grayson didn’t like him so much, he’d probably punch Brody right in the face just to keep him quiet. It wasn’t that he was jealous of the clearly well-lubed man—okay, maybe he was a little jealous, but that wasn’t all of it.
Grayson opened the door for them both as they went to the back lot where the employees were allowed to park. Their little shop had started picking up business recently, and Grayson had a feeling their employee lot would soon be no more. Not that he minded more business since that meant steady work, but he didn’t like the idea of having to park way the hell away with snow on the ground. As Denver usually snowed overnight or in the morning before melting away in the afternoon and icing over, that meant Grayson would be stuck with a shitty space, no matter what he did.
“Drive safe,” he called out to Brody as the other man swung his leg over his bike.
“You, too. See you after the long weekend.” And with that, the other man drove off, leaving Grayson standing by the side of his old truck that he’d done his best to remodel over the years. He could probably afford a new truck now, but he’d spent countless hours on his baby and didn’t want to part with it. When he’d first bought it, he’d barely had two cents to his name, but he’d needed a vehicle to get to work. At the time, he had lived on canned green beans and whatever food Leah brought over when he couldn’t afford groceries on his own. It wasn’t easy to find jobs these days with just a high school education—and barely one at that when it came to him.
He slid into his truck and banged his head on the steering wheel a few times. He needed to get the past out of his head and start living again. Only it wasn’t that easy when he had his best friend on his back about everything they’d done before they came to Denver—or rather, what they hadn’t done.
Grayson drove home, blaring music from his high school days since that was now the classic rock station. Dear Lord, it had only been ten years, but that apparently meant a throwback in the music world. He desperately needed a beer. He pulled into his driveway, grabbed his things, and headed inside the small, two-bedroom home he’d bought with his blood and tears a year or so back. The bank might own most of the place, but he made his monthly payments so he could call something his rather than it being rented, borrowed, or stolen.
He wasn’t that man anymore. Hadn’t ever been if anyone bothered to look beneath the surface. But to those who had thought to know him back when, he’d been the dropout, the slacker, the quiet one in the back who hadn’t done much with his life. They hadn’t seen the kid who had to work two jobs to keep a roof over his head and go to school at the same time. They were blind to the kid who wanted to do more with his life but hadn’t been given a chance.
Grayson twisted the top off his beer and chugged a good half of it down, pissed off once again that his mind had gone in that direction. He might not have become a millionaire in the past ten years, but he’d made himself a better man. Why the hell did he keep kicking himself because of it?
His phone buzzed, and he picked it up off the counter, rolling his eyes as he read the screen. He didn’t want to answer, but he had a feeling she’d kick his ass if he didn’t. And since he wasn’t sure he could actually take her—at least most days—he pressed Accept.
“What do you want, Leah?” He took a sip of his beer, needing the strength. He and Leah had been best friends in high school and remained that way after they moved from Catfish Creek, Texas to Denver, Colorado.
“I love that you answer the phone that way now,” she said dryly. “I mean, it makes me all aflutter.”
“Just get on with it since you call me at the same time every day to hassle me about the same damn thing.”
“And yet, you answer your phone. It’s as if you’re scared of me.”
He was. “I’m just being polite,” he lied.
“You love me,” she teased.
“Only on Wednesdays, and only because you saw me naked that one time and didn’t laugh.” It was their old joke, yet he knew if he actually said he loved her like his best friend and family, she wouldn’t laugh at him. But making fun of it was always easier for both of them.
“We were like fourteen, and you saw me naked, too.”
“And I didn’t laugh.”
“Of course, you didn’t laugh. I’m perfection. Anyway, I’m calling because you need to get your ass down here.”
Grayson pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m not going, Leah. You can’t make me.”
“For the love of God, just get your ass down here and come to this reunion.” There was something in her voice that worried him, and he leaned forward.
“What is it, Leah? Do you need me to go down there with you?”
“I’m fine, Grayson Cleary. No need to make me your damsel in distress.”
He let out a breath. God forbid, Leah Camacho ever admit that she might need help with something. “Why do you want me to go to our ten-year reunion? You hated high school as much as I did. Why go back?”
“Because, Grayson.” She didn’t elaborate, and he blew out a breath. She wanted him there for a reason, and he had a feeling it was because she wanted to go to show the others that she wasn’t the person she had been before. And if Leah needed him to go…he figured he’d have to go. She’d been his rock for most of his life, and he hoped it had been the same for her with him.
“I didn’t RSVP in time,” he said, trying one last time to get out of it, just in case.
“I did for you, months ago. So get your ass down here.” And with that, she hung up, leaving Grayson alone in his kitchen, holding his phone in one hand and a near-empty beer bottle in the other.
Apparently, he was going to his ten-year reunion. He wasn’t sure Catfish Creek was ready for their town troublemaker and dropout to return. Then again, it had never been ready for the two of them, why start now?
In some ways, Catfish Creek, Texas hadn’t changed much in the ten years Grayson had been gone; but in other ways, he couldn’t recognize it. The town was about three hours west of Dallas—yes, Texans measured distance in time rather than miles most days—and a typical small Texas town where football reigned supreme, and Friday nights were all about the game and where to make out or party afterward.
Grayson hadn’t been part of that crew, but he’d been around enough to know what happened for most people who didn’t have to work two jobs to keep a roof over their family’s head.
The town still had its main drag that held many of the landmarks, but it had grown considerably since he left and his family had moved closer to Dallas for his mom’s new job. The Grange—the local dance hall and watering hole—looked like it hadn’t seen a new coat of paint on the outside since he left. But, Frank Dallas, the owner and former bull rider, usually cared more about the inside than what it looked like to strangers and passersby.
The Hamburger Shack still stood, though it looked like it had had a slight facelift in the past ten years. He’d gone there with Leah and his younger sisters a few times when he’d had the extra cash to spoil them since the Shack had the best greasy burgers and spicy fries this side of Abilene.
There were a few new buildings and wider streets that showed off the chain restaurants and shopping centers. And there were even a few new roads that looked like they went to some new neighborhoods. The town had grown in the time he’d been gone, but he wasn’t all that surprised by that. Catfish Creek might have that small-town feel, but it had a couple of Christian Universities that brought in hordes of students, staff, and professors. And with that came other jobs and new families. Towns without something like that or a natural resource to work on slowly died while the rest of the world moved on.
So even though Grayson could see some familiar aspects of his childhood, Catfish Creek wasn’t exactly as he remembered. And, honestly, he wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Leah had booked him a room at the local hotel where some of the out-of-town alumni were staying. Most had families to come back to, but since his had moved on shortly after he sped out of town, he didn’t have anyone local to stay with. He’d be sure to keep his credit card on file though since Leah had a tendency to want to pay for things for him given that she had a better income. Grayson was just pulling up to the hotel but hit a red light before he could turn. He rolled his eyes, remembering that this particular light always ran long, and he had a feeling at least that much hadn’t changed in the past ten years.
He let out a breath when he noticed who stood in front of a tan building across the street. Of course, she would be the first person he saw as soon as he came back. He hadn’t even gotten out of his car and stepped foot in the damn town and he’d seen her.
Valedictorian of his class, all around brilliant and talented individual. Kate with the long, flowing, chestnut hair that seemed to shine even more now than it had back when he’d been lusting after her in high school. Of course, he was pretty sure she didn’t even know his name. Their high school was big enough that they could play 5A ball, and their zoning restrictions had been restructured enough to make that happen. Hence why his below-poverty-level family could go to the same public school as the Williamsons and St. Daltons. As long as football was taken care of, everything else trailed behind.
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel as Kate walked into the building, closing the door behind her. He couldn’t believe he still reacted like this with just the barest sight of her. She’d spoken to him a few times in his life, more than likely promptly forgetting who he was afterward. They hadn’t run in the same circles, and yet he couldn’t help his unwarranted reactions.
She’d been the first girl he crushed on, the only girl in high school that had ever made him smile outside of his and Leah’s friendship. Nothing had ever come of it, of course. She’d been dating Jason St. Dalton throughout most of high school, and had been the straight-A student to his solid-C education, but his dreams had held much more possibilities.
And now, he felt like a grade-A loser and perhaps even a bit like a stalker for even thinking about her like he had back in the day…and even now.
Someone honked behind him, and he cursed, noting the now green light. He let his foot off the brake, hit the gas, and turned into the hotel parking lot. Five minutes into this event and he already wanted to turn around and drive back to Denver. He parked and turned off the engine, taking steady breaths. He’d taken the week off, though he hadn’t wanted to, but his boss hadn’t cared. Grayson never took time off since he needed all the income he could get, but between Brody and a couple of the other guys, they’d filled in for him easily. After all, he’d done the same for them countless times. He’d also decided to make the twelve-hour drive himself rather than fly down. Not only was it cheaper, but he also had time to get his head on straight and prepare for what he was about to do.
Of course, all of that planning had gone out the window as soon as he’d seen Kate. Apparently, old ghosts didn’t fade away as they should.
Grayson Cleary was the class of 2007’s dropout, who wasn’t quite a dropout. He’d gotten his diploma a few months after everyone else did, but he had done it through the mail since he’d left town as fast as he could.
“Enough.” He shook his head and got out of his truck. Time to deal with this because Leah needed him, and then he could get out of town as quickly as possible. If he were lucky, no one would recognize him or even care that he was back. After all, he was just the town’s degenerate, nothing important.
After he had gotten the key to his room, he threw his things inside the small king-bed single and made his way back to his truck. Leah had told him he needed to check in with the reunion committee to get his packet or some crap like that. Apparently, there were a few things going on throughout the week ahead of time, but he knew there was no way he’d be a part of those. He was supposed to meet Leah for a beer later at the Grange, but he knew that probably wouldn’t happen either. He was exhausted from his drive that had started way too freaking early in the morning and just wanted to sleep.
For now, he drove toward the school, past the football field that seemed even larger than it had been, and parked in visitor parking. Grayson narrowed his eyes as he rubbed his jaw, a sharp pang radiating through his gums before becoming a dull ache.
Well, fuck. He’d been clenching his teeth the whole way down here—despite the views of Colorado—and he was pretty sure he’d cracked a crown.
If he had to find a dentist in Catfish Creek on his way to a damn reunion he didn’t even want to go to, Leah would owe him more than a beer. Hell, more than a keg.
Ignoring the pain in his jaw, he made his way into the main school building where the email Leah had forwarded him told him to go. School was out for the year, so it was at least quiet from the hustle and bustle, and free of teenage aggravation and angst.
Thankfully, there was a sign about checking in on the right, and he bypassed the principal’s offices. Leah had visited there more than he had, but he still didn’t want to go down that particular memory lane.
He froze when he recognized the woman standing behind the table marked for the reunion. She looked a little older than she had back in high school, but her makeup hid most of that. She still had her bleach-blonde hair, teased accordingly to the current styles, and smiled wildly at him.
Of course, Karly Stocker was in charge of the Reunion Committee. Who else would want to organize so many things at once? She was like a dictator in love with control.
“Hi there,” she said with a bright smile. Her gaze traveled over his worn jeans and faded T-shirt that showcased the fact that he worked hard with his body day in and day out. He’d bulked up some since high school and had the abs to prove it, and from the way Karly studied him like a cat in cream, he assumed she liked what she saw.
He had a feeling a single shower wouldn’t get the ick feeling off his skin, at least not anytime soon.
When her gaze went to his face, her eyes narrowed. “Grayson Cleary. I didn’t think you’d actually show up.”
He was going to kill Leah for this.
He cleared his throat. “I’m here.”
She snorted. “A man of few words, as usual. I’m a little surprised the rest of the committee agreed to your invitation, but here we are. I mean, most people who will show up this week actually graduated.” She giggled, and Grayson clenched his jaw. Blinding pain shocked his system, and he held back a curse. He did not want to go to a dentist, but it looked like he wasn’t going to get what he wanted anytime soon.
“Got the invitation anyway.”
She rolled back her shoulders. “Yeah, it seems you did. And Leah is registered, as well.” Her eyes narrowed once again. “Did you two finally marry? Her last name is the same, but knowing her, she kept it after she got married. She’s one of those women. Feminists.” She spat the word like it was a bad thing to think women needed equal rights.
“Just friends. Like we were before.”
She snorted sweetly, though there was nothing sweet about it. “Sure, honey. Whatever you say.” She looked through a stack of envelopes and handed one over. “Here’s the schedule of events and things you’ll need for the reunion. The Brisket BBQ is tonight if you want to make it.” Her gaze traveled over his clothing again. “And remember, the actual reunion is a masquerade.” She paused. “A gala with masks if you don’t know what that means.”
Once again, he ignored the pain as he clenched his jaw. “I saw the description in the email.”
“Sure you did, honey. Just be sure to dress appropriately, or they won’t let you in the door.” She giggled again, and he just barely refrained from rolling his eyes.
She waved him off, a giant diamond on her left hand. “Bye-bye, Grayson Cleary. I’m sure we’ll be seeing you around.”
The way she said it made him think she’d be texting everyone she knew—at least those who she thought might care—that he was back and as much of a loser as ever, just as soon as he turned his back.
It had been ten fucking years but, apparently, he was right back in high school again.