Embraced in Ink
Book 3 in the Montgomery Ink: Boulder Series
The Montgomery Ink saga continues with an unforgettable romance where two best friends make a bet that could change their lives forever.
Bristol Montgomery and Marcus Stearn have been best friends for so long, they sometimes forget when they weren’t as close as they are now. While friends and family think there’s something beneath the surface of their friendship, the two have always been steadfast in their stance on no heated looks or deeper feelings.
The problem? Years ago, they promised each other that if neither of them was married by the time Bristol turned thirty, they’d marry each other.
Even though both have long since decided never to force the other into an arranged marriage, circumstances and sheer stubbornness force them to refuse to back out of their deal.
Now, they’re determined to get married—even as dangerous exes and feelings they deny, block their path.
**There is a bonus epilogue exclusively in the audio and ebook editions!**
Embraced in Ink
10 years ago
Turning twenty was an exercise in futility. You were no longer in your teens, but you still couldn’t have a drink to celebrate your birthday.
Not that Bristol Montgomery was actually obeying that teeny tiny little law at the moment.
She sipped her cheap champagne as she looked over the group of friends who had gathered for her party and tried not to grimace.
She didn’t actually like the taste of champagne, but it was her birthday-slash-going-away-party, and she wanted to be fancy, classy, and the epitome of perfection.
She’d have a Coke later to wash her mouth out.
“Well, how is my baby sister?” Liam asked as he came to her side. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and she glanced up at him, grinning. He looked exactly like her other two brothers and cousins, though his eyes were different, looking more like their mother’s than the rest of the family.
All the Montgomerys had dark hair and light eyes. The men were all big and built, the women mostly curvy, and her female cousins could probably break a man over their knee if someone dared to hurt their family. Bristol might not be able to do that, but she could try.
“I’m doing fine.” She leaned into him. “How are you, Liam?”
“Doing great. Mom knows how to throw a party. Though I am wondering why you have a glass of champagne in your hand when I do believe this is your twentieth birthday, not your twenty-first.”
Bristol rolled her eyes. “Mom’s the one who poured it for me.”
“Ah, yes, the whole you’re-allowed-to-have-a single-drink-on-your-birthday-as-long-as-you’re-in-the-house-and-not-driving rule. I remember that.” He let out a breath, and she knew he was smiling above her head.
“Just because you’re an old man who’s allowed to drink now, doesn’t mean you can try to lower your voice and pretend you’re giving me sage advice and thinking of the old days.”
“I’m not old. I’m not even thirty yet.” Liam grinned, and she smiled.
“Don’t tell Mom that you said thirty was old.”
“Considering you’re the one who lamented over the fact that you were reaching old age at twenty, I really don’t think you have a leg to stand on.”
Bristol grimaced. “I was having a bad morning. Plus, the fact that Mom couldn’t stop laughing at me as I said it probably meant she didn’t take me seriously.”
“You’re the baby of the family. Of course, they’re not going to take you seriously when you lament about your age. They’ve already been through it all before.”
“I am not the baby of the family, thank you very much. Aaron is still a teenager,” she said, speaking of their youngest brother. “Where is Aaron?” she asked, looking around for him.
Liam shrugged. “Probably making out with a girl in a closet.”
She looked at her big brother and rolled her eyes. “You would think since you’re the model and all, you would be the one making out with a girl in a closet. Or a guy.”
Liam just smirked, shaking his head. “I don’t need to make out with a girl or a guy in my parents’ closet. I can rent a hotel room to get out of here. And I won’t tell you exactly what we’d be doing.” He winked, and she visibly shuddered—like she knew he wanted her to.
“Gross. Don’t talk about things like that. I am pure and innocent, and I don’t need to hear any of that.”
Liam threw his head back and laughed, and she flipped him off.
“I’m the birthday girl, and this is my going-away party, you should be nice to me.”
“I’m always nice.” He paused. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”
Bristol shrugged, not really knowing if that was the right answer or not. “I want to be okay. Though I’m a little nervous.”
“You’re supposed to be. This is a big thing.”
She looked at her big brother, then leaned into his side and sighed. “I thought you were supposed to help me not stress out about things like this.”
“No, I’m supposed to help you with the big things. Just like the rest of your big brothers are, and your little brother, and your parents. You’ve got your BFF to help you feel better.”
She looked over at her best friend, Marcus, who was hanging out with his sisters. He turned to glance at her over his shoulder and winked.
She smiled and then looked back at Liam. “Marcus tells me things honestly, too. None of you guys only try to make me laugh and do your best to make me feel better.”
“You’re about to enter a world where everybody is going to want a piece of you. They’re going to tell you that you’re pretty and you’re amazing, and then they’re going to want something. Maybe not money, maybe not fame, but they’re going to want you. And your soul, and your heart. So, you’re going to have to keep people around who tell you the truth and tell you exactly how it is.”
Fear crawled up her spine, though she kept a smile in place. This was her birthday party mixed with her going-away party. She wasn’t going to look scared or worried. Because she was Bristol fucking Montgomery. She wasn’t scared of anything.
“Well, that’s a pep talk.”
Liam turned and hugged her tightly. She wrapped her arms around her big brother’s waist and held on for dear life.
“I love you, baby sister. And even though we’re going into slightly different worlds, I know firsthand what happens when people see you differently. You are a nationally renowned cellist, and you’re about to be a world-renowned one. You’re going to play for kings and queens and dukes and duchesses. For celebrities and for the high-stakes people of the world. I’m so proud of you. However, if you need me, I will be there in an instant. Because you don’t have to do any of this alone. I want you to remember the Montgomery that you are, and know that we are flesh and blood, and all of us will always be here for you.”
She wiped away tears, really annoyed with herself for crying. “I cannot believe you made me tear up.”
He kissed the top of her head and rubbed her back through the silk of her dress. “I didn’t mean to make you cry. In fact, I was going to give you this pep talk tomorrow or even when I saw you next in France or Venice because you know I’m going to visit you as much as I can.”
He scowled at her. “Of course, I’m going to visit you. You may be an adult and everything, and you may have a whole team that’ll be there for you, but your family will be there for you, too. I love you.”
“I love you, too. And thank you. I know that it’s not going to be easy, but this is what I’ve been training for my whole life.”
“And you are the best at what you do. I can’t wait to see where you go. But remember, if you need anything, we’ll be on a plane in the next instant,” he promised, pausing. “And so will your best friend.”
He glared as he said it, and Bristol just laughed. “You say that as if it’s a bad thing that Marcus and I are still best friends after all these years.”
“I don’t know. The first time you brought that boy home, I thought Dad was going to have a fit.”
“I was like six.”
“And his baby girl was going off to her bedroom, alone, with a boy.”
“To have a tea party.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what Dad thought.”
“I will not shush. I totally remember Dad glowering at Marcus for like the first year.”
“Well, now he thinks of Marcus like a son, and Dad’s very grateful that Marcus and I are only friends. And the fact that Marcus will always be here when I get back.”
Liam raised a brow.
“What? What’s that look for?”
“Marcus will be here because his job is here, and he likes being at home. While I know you want to see the world, don’t forget him when you’re gone.”
Shock slid through her, so did an oily feeling that made her want to throw up. “I could never forget him. He’s my best friend.”
“I know, but you’re going to change. You’re going to be a different person after this tour.”
She didn’t like the sound of that. “I hope not too different. I like who I am.”
“And we like who you are, too.” He frowned into his glass. “Just don’t take advantage of the fact that he’ll always be here when you come back.”
She didn’t like this. Not the feeling his words pushed through her, and not what he was getting at. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying,” he said and then ran his hands through his hair. The style gave him this beach-boy look with his longer hair, and Bristol could actually see women looking as if they were ready to swoon behind him. The fact that her brother was an internationally famous model that women drooled over might make her a little queasy if she thought about it too hard. Still, she did enjoy the way women stopped whatever they were doing and ran into walls while looking at him.
“I’m not going to take advantage of Marcus. I never have. We’re best friends. So, we have each other. I’ll always be here for him. If he needs me, I’ll drop everything.”
“I believe you. And I believe that he would do the same for you. However, this is going to be the longest you guys have ever been apart. I don’t want you to get hurt if he changes along the way. Just like you’re going to change.”
For some reason, her eyes stung, and she blinked away tears. “I don’t want to think about that, Liam. Stop it, okay?”
She said the words quickly, and Liam nodded before he hugged her tight to him again. “I’m sorry, I’m thinking about my own friends, I guess. They all want something from me, you know? I don’t have what you have with Marcus.”
“You want me to kick their asses for you?” she asked, her voice a little hoarse. She didn’t want to cry, but she had a feeling she would if she thought about this too long.
Marcus had been her best friend for as long as she could remember, and she didn’t like the idea that they might change and go in opposite directions. It wasn’t something she had planned for, and she had planned on a lot.
So, she’d have to make something happen. Tell him that she was never going to change and drift from him. She would have to cement something, make it so they couldn’t walk away from each other.
She had no idea what that was yet, but her mind whirled, and she did her best to come up with something.
“Another glass of champagne?” Liam asked, his voice low. She knew he had to be worried about her if he was offering her more booze.
She nodded, her gaze off in the distance. Liam murmured something, and then was back in the next instant, a fresh glass of champagne in his hand.
“Don’t tell Mom.” He kissed her cheek. “I’m sorry I’m an ass.”
She shook her head, blinking so she could settle her gaze correctly. “You’re not an asshole.” She paused. “Okay, you are. Then again, so am I.”
“However, thank you, you’re right. I need to make sure I don’t take advantage of Marcus, just like I need to make sure others can’t take advantage of me where I’m going.”
“I didn’t mean to put a damper on your birthday. I’m sorry, babe.”
She shook her head, then went up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. “You’re my favorite biggest brother.”
Liam laughed. “I don’t know. Aaron’s getting kind of big.”
“But you’ll always be the old one.”
“I’m going to hit you for that one day, but it’s your birthday, so not today.”
“Thank you for that. For everything. Now, I need to go find my best friend and make sure he knows that I love him.” He raised a single brow, and Bristol knew she blushed. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Oh, shush.” She turned and started making her way towards Marcus, downing the rest of her glass of champagne. She set the flute down on a tray and talked with a few other people on her way. People who wanted to say goodbye—some from work, from school, and from classes. A lot of her friends from high school had shown up, and one of the guys that she played with.
“Hey there, love,” Colin said, his British accent far too sexy. “I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”
She swallowed, her eyes wide. “I didn’t realize you’d be here,” she said, fumbling over her words. She had such a crush on this guy, and between the booze in her system and that accent of his, she was probably going to sound like an idiot.
“Well, I’m going on tour with you, so I thought I’d make sure I was here for your birthday. We can celebrate together when we’re in Venice if you’d like.” He said the words, and it went straight to her belly. She let out a sigh.
“Okay. Maybe. I, uh, need to go find someone, though. I’ll see you later? Tomorrow, right?”
Colin winked at her, and she giggled before heading toward Marcus again. She made her way past a few other people and talked with her instructor, who she was now leaving. She shared a little teary-eyed hug with her. Even though the old woman had scared her to death for the first five years of her training, she would still miss her. Finally, she made her way to the other side of the room.
Marcus’s three sisters waved, said happy birthday, and then headed off to their boyfriends, leaving Bristol alone in the corner with Marcus.
“Hey there,” he said and opened his arms for her. She went into his embrace easily, sighing. The champagne had gone straight to her head, and she had never had more than half a glass before. She knew she was likely to babble if she weren’t careful.
“Hey,” she said, sighing the word.
Marcus chuckled, his deep rumble against her ear soothing. He smelled like that new cologne she had bought him for his birthday the week before, and she smiled.
“You smell nice.”
He laughed again, and she leaned into the rumble. “Considering you picked it out, I hope I smell nice.”
She looked up at him then and just smiled while studying his face. He had such a strong jaw, and eyes that seemed to always know exactly what she was thinking. They were a dark brown and piercing. His skin was a smooth brown that shone under the lights. He had shaved his head recently, but she knew he regretted it. He had spent forever growing it out, but for his birthday the month before, he’d decided to shave it to see what it looked like. He wasn’t happy, but she didn’t mind. She liked the way he looked no matter what.
After all, he was her best friend. She always felt that way.
“Hey, come out with me,” he said, pulling away so he could tug on her arm.
She followed easily, needing a break from all the people. She had loved her birthday bash, and the going-away party it had also turned into. She’d talked with every single person there, even the ones that she didn’t know but who had wanted to come anyway. Her parents had gone all out for her, and she would be forever grateful, but she needed a minute to breathe. Marcus always understood what she was feeling, and she loved him for it.
“So, are you ready?” Marcus asked as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. They were standing in the gazebo in the back yard, one that her mom had decorated with sparkly lights but hadn’t turned on because she didn’t want people everywhere all over the property. Bristol didn’t blame her.
“I think so? I’m all packed, and my passport’s ready to go, and I’m checked into my flight. It’s going to be a really long one.”
Marcus nodded, studying her face. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I know.” That sick feeling filled her again, and she swallowed hard. “I wish you could come.”
“A cellist doesn’t need a librarian. Especially one who’s still in school to get their degree.”
“I don’t know, I’m going to some of the most famous libraries in the world. I’m sure you’d want to visit those.”
Marcus laughed. “Yeah, I’ll definitely want to go to those, and maybe I’ll come out to visit for that. But it’s okay, Bristol. We’re allowed to have separate lives.”
She scowled, not liking the thought of that. “I don’t want that. I want things to be the same.”
“No, you don’t. Like I don’t.”
“So, you want me to go away?” she snapped, getting a little angry. The champagne was wreaking havoc on her emotions.
“That is not what I meant. And you know it. All I want is to make sure you live life to the fullest. And you’re going to be amazing. You are amazing. I cannot wait to see how high you soar. And I’m going to be here when you need a place to land. I promise.”
She looked down at long fingers that made it so she was biologically perfect for playing the cello. She had a few calluses, but her hands were her life. “I don’t want to change too much. And I also don’t want to lose you.”
“You’re not going to lose me. They have this thing called a phone. And the internet. It’s pretty cool.”
She laughed. “But what if you find a new best friend and you stick with them forever? And then you tell them all your secrets.”
“You don’t know all my secrets,” Marcus said, and she scowled.
“I know most of them. Just like you know most of mine.”
“I think I know all of them, Bristol Montgomery.”
“You’re a jerk, but I love you.”
“And I love you. And that is why you’re allowed to go and fly. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Tears stung her eyes, and she hated this. She didn’t want to leave him. “Let’s make a deal. A bet.” The idea came to her so quickly, she knew it was likely all the champagne, but she didn’t care.
Marcus’s brows rose. “Okay. What kind of bet?”
“In ten years, let’s make sure that we remain best friends.”
“And how are you going to do that?”
She swallowed hard and blurted. “In ten years, if neither of us is married, we get married.”
Dear God. She’d said it.
He simply blinked at her. “Huh?”
“It’s perfect. That way, we will always have each other as our backup plan.”
He swallowed hard, and she hoped to hell she hadn’t made a huge mistake. “Are you saying that you don’t think either of us can get married without each other?”
“I’m not saying that at all.” She wasn’t sure what she was saying.
“So, what are you saying?”
“I don’t want to lose you. I want to remain best friends.”
“Marriage isn’t going to fix or ensure that, Bristol.”
She let out a breath before beginning to speak quickly. “No, but really… It’s a surefire way to make sure we always stay in each other’s lives. Because we’ll have that bet. And if, in ten years, we’re both still single, then we get married.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
“But I’m your lunatic.”
That made both of them laugh.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“Not much,” she lied.
“So, you’re saying in order to make sure we stay best friends, we get married in ten years?”
“Well, it sounds stupid when you say it aloud like that.”
“It is stupid, Bristol.”
“All I’m saying is that you don’t want to marry a stranger, right? So, you remain my friend in case we end up having to get married. That way, we make sure we still like each other. We don’t want to be a statistic.”
Marcus ran his hands over his face and laughed. “Only you would think of this as a way to make sure we stay friends.”
“It’s because I’m brilliant.”
“I’m sure you think so,” he said dryly.
“I would flip you off, but we’re almost engaged here.”
He looked at her then, and they both burst out laughing. “Okay. You know what? Why not?”
Her heart thudded, and she blinked. “Okay?”
“Seriously. Because I have a feeling one or both of us will already be married by then. So, it’s probably not even going to matter.”
She ignored that thought, though she didn’t know why exactly. She just felt like she desperately needed to. “All right, but we have to remain friends so we don’t marry strangers. Okay?”
He held out his hand and smiled that heartwarming smile that she knew melted girls’ panties from miles away. She never let it get to her, though. Because, after all, he was her best friend.
Maybe her future husband, but she didn’t really think it would ever get that far.
“Shake on it,” he said.
She put her hands in his but didn’t move. “If we shake on it, it’s cemented. Because we don’t go back on our words or our handshakes or our promises. In ten years, if neither of us is married, we get married.”
“And you remain my best friend along the way.” He paused. “No matter what.”
“No matter what.” She squeezed his hand, and they shook on it.
She had a feeling that she had just changed the course of her life.
Either that, or she was going to have a really funny story to tell her children about their favorite Uncle Marcus. Because there was no way she was going to marry her best friend.
Embraced in Ink
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