Forever Only Once
Book 1 in the Promise Me Series
From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Carrie Ann Ryan comes a sexy new contemporary stand-alone series.
Hazel Noble has survived horrors she wouldn’t inflict on her worst enemy. Since then, she’s healed, found herself, and connected with a group of women she’s proud to call her friends. However, when they make a pact to start looking for love, Hazel finds herself not only up first but also forced to face a past she thought she’d escaped.
Cross Brady has no need for a relationship. As the oldest of five, he’s always been the one his family can rely on. Now, all he wants is to work in peace and live his life. His priorities shift dramatically, though, when Cross finds himself in Hazel’s path.
Though the two initially fight their connection, they soon learn that it’s safer to fall for each other than keep running from what’s holding them back—not to mention, who wants them dead.
**There is a bonus epilogue exclusively in the audio and ebook editions!**
Forever Only Once
I couldn’t afford to be late today. I had promised that I would be there on time because everybody else had meetings and other appointments after our coffee break, and I couldn’t be the one to hold them back. It didn’t help that I had hit every single red light on the way here, and a student had come in to ask a question just as I was about to head to my car. I’d stayed later than I wanted to, mostly because I would never leave a student hanging. He’d had legit questions, and even though my office hours had run an extra thirty minutes past my scheduled time, I felt like I had helped him solve a few problems so he could work on the rest on his own. Thankfully, that student was also one who asked pointed questions, which got him thinking.
That didn’t always happen with some of my students at UB.
Even though I truly loved them and was glad to help, doing so meant I was now running late.
I hated being late.
I crossed the street, moving away from the public parking lot, annoyed that I hadn’t been able to find a spot in front of Dakota’s café, the Boulder Bean.
I loved living in Boulder, the college-town feel with the central university taking up most of downtown, and my smaller university residing in a little corner. Boulder was weird, at least that’s what everybody said. I kind of agreed. But after trying to find a place that called to me, I had needed weird, needed a little bit of home.
I didn’t have any family left. Didn’t have a place to call home outside of this. Boulder was it.
I loved my new city, though it wasn’t entirely new anymore, seeing as I’d been here for long enough. I’d made friends, ones that I truly liked. An inner circle that was waiting for me because I couldn’t find a fricking place to park. Parking was nearly always a nightmare.
Boulder had boomed over time, and it was getting a little ridiculous now. I found it harder to find my little piece of privacy and peace.
Tourism was getting more substantial thanks to the fact that I lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The mountains were right behind me, the foothills gorgeous and looking as if they were painted on the horizon.
I tried to take pictures, but it just didn’t work out. A photo could never capture the true beauty.
I loved Boulder. I loved the home that I had been forced to make for myself. I did not enjoy the fact that everybody and their mother was moving to Boulder. I might technically be a transplant, but I liked to think of this as my new home. If I had my way, everyone else would just stay away for a minute so I could enjoy it. I knew I was part of the problem—I hadn’t been born here, after all—but I wasn’t going to think too hard on that.
I took another turn and ran straight into a massive chest.
I held back a curse, mostly because I hadn’t been watching where I was going, just like he clearly hadn’t. He gripped my elbows, clutching them ever so slightly. My heart raced at the unwanted and unexpected contact, and I froze, every single lesson I had learned in my self-defense classes seeping out of my mind as I tried to catch my breath. I grabbed onto my purse strap, as if that could protect me. Then I looked up—and up—at the man in front of me.
He was clean-shaven, wearing a perfect suit, his thin tie finished with an elegantly crafted knot at the neck. He smiled down at me, his eyes full of warmth…and something else I didn’t want to name.
I had gotten skilled at deducing what a man thought when he looked at me.
I didn’t like what I saw with this stranger.
“Hello there,” he said, his voice deep, a little accented. Irish, maybe? That didn’t sound right, though. No, it sounded as if he had been watching a little too much British TV and decided to add an accent to his voice.
With his hands still on me, seemingly not willing to let go, my heart raced, and flashes of other hands came at me, shaking me to my core. But these weren’t those hands. This was not him. I needed to remember that.
“Sorry,” I said, annoyed with myself for even apologizing since we’d both been in the wrong and moving too quickly. But I had run into this stranger just like he had run into me, so perhaps I’d needed to apologize anyway.
“No need to be. It’s good to have…run into you.”
I attempted to move away, but he kept his hands on me as if he were trying to keep me steady.
I tried not to let the bile make its way up my throat.
“Excuse me. I need to go.”
“I just want to make sure I didn’t hurt you. After all, we did hit kind of hard. This will be a funny story we can tell our children one day. Don’t you think?” He winked, and I just blinked at him.
Was that supposed to be a line? One where he still wouldn’t let go of me?
I took a deep breath and twisted in his arms so he had to move his wrist or risk it getting broken.
He took a step back and frowned at me.
“What the fuck?”
My pulse pounded in my ears. “Thanks for making sure I didn’t fall, but I’m fine now. Have a good day.”
I moved a step forward to get past him, but he gripped my arm again.
“I was only making sure you were okay. There’s no need to get hostile. I’m safe. I’m not one of those guys.”
“Sure. Have a good day.” I moved forward again. This time, his other hand reached down and grabbed my ass.
I froze and turned toward him.
“Are you serious right now?” I asked, my heart racing, a lump in my throat.
“If you’re going to treat me like a lecher, I might as well get something out of it.” He narrowed his eyes. “Bitch.” And then he pushed ever so slightly, and I wobbled on my heels before he turned and walked away. No one noticed the interaction, everyone was too busy with their phones and their own lives.
No one had seen that he’d assaulted me, called me a bitch, and almost hadn’t let me go. If I hadn’t known how to get out of that hold, I wasn’t sure he would have let me go at all.
My lips were dry, and I knew I was sweating. I took a deep breath and practically ran towards the café, hoping my friends were already there since I was running late as it was.
Despite hoping they’d beat me to the café, I also needed a moment to collect myself. The others didn’t need to see me like this.
No one did.
They might understand because they knew my past, at least most of it, but I didn’t want to talk about it.
I wanted to forget every memory, every moment of pain, everything about that time. I didn’t need to bring it up again, even with the women I counted as family.
I nodded at a few people and pasted a smile on my face that I knew probably looked a little manic. Regardless, they smiled back. Boulder people were quite friendly if you tried.
I quickly made my way to the front of the Boulder Bean, a cute little shop with coffee brands listed in the windows, and a small coffee mug with steam billowing off the top as the café’s logo.
I let out a breath, rolling my shoulders back and telling myself that nothing was wrong. That everything was normal. Then, I walked inside.
There were tables strewn about, and a couple of booths with comfy seats along the walls.
Some people were working on their laptops, others looking at their phones or just sitting down and enjoying a cup of coffee. A couple of students worked with textbooks and notebooks in front of them, their laptops closed so it looked like maybe they were doing math. They weren’t my students, but I almost wanted to go over and see what they were working on.
I was a math professor. It soothed me to work with numbers, especially when I sometimes didn’t feel soothed at all.
I looked to the back corner, in the booth nearest the front counter, and smiled at the three women sitting there.
Dakota, the owner of the Boulder Bean and my friend, got up and walked over, her eyes narrowed as she looked at me.
I knew Dakota had come from a life far different than mine. Though our paths had crossed thanks to an incident that mirrored what’d happened to me, we didn’t talk about that.
We did our best to forget our pasts, all of us, and I was fine with that.
We were friends because we wanted to be, not because we wanted to share our deepest and darkest secrets.
“Hey, I was just about to call you. Are you okay?” Dakota asked, reaching out and hugging me. I hugged her back and inhaled her scent. She smelled of cinnamon, coffee beans, and vanilla today.
The Boulder Bean was mostly a coffee shop, with just about any kind of coffee arrangement you could imagine. But they also did decent business with tea, mainly because Dakota loved tea, but coffee was her bread and butter.
They had a few snacks as well, things that Dakota made in the back, or ordered in from a small shop nearby. But she did her best to make the Bean a pure coffee shop, mostly because there were enough cafes around the area and she wanted to stand out just a little bit.
“Sorry, I ran behind at work. I apologize for being late.”
Dakota narrowed her eyes. “You’re all clammy and pale. What happened?”
I just smiled. “Good to know I look like crap.”
“Stop being evasive,” Paris said as she slid out of the booth, Myra right behind her.
The four of us had become friends a couple of years ago, though I had met Paris in college and knew Myra from when we were younger. Our families lived near each other, and with the way our families were, that meant we were always forced to attend the same parties and the same high-society events.
It wasn’t my favorite thing. However, Myra and I had been close, even though we’d been a couple of years apart in school.
Paris had been in a few classes with me in college. And Dakota owned this coffee shop. When I came in with Paris one day to catch up, we had started up a conversation with Dakota, and everything had snowballed from there. When Myra moved back to town, we picked up our friendship right away, and now it was the four of us against the world.
At least, that’s what we told ourselves.
“Let me get some coffee, and I’ll explain it all.”
“What are you in the mood for today?” Dakota asked, taking a step back so both Paris and Myra could hug me.
I embraced them tightly, closing my eyes for just a minute so I could pretend that I wasn’t still shaken or on the verge of throwing up.
“I’d love a vanilla latte.”
“That’s easy. I can do that for you. Now, go sit down. We already have a plate of pastries because…why don’t we just attack ourselves with sugar?”
I smiled at Dakota as she walked off and then followed Paris and Myra to our booth. We didn’t always sit here, but it was the most convenient booth for us to use when Dakota still needed to work.
And while Dakota’s staff was on the clock, and Dakota technically didn’t need to be behind the counter today, I knew that my friend wanted to make our coffees herself.
Her staff didn’t mind, at least that’s what they’d told me. They knew that Dakota was just particular when it came to her friends and her family.
Not that Dakota had much in the way of family, but the other woman was just as secretive as the rest of us.
“You want to tell us what happened?” Paris asked, raising a brow.
“Let’s wait until Dakota’s back,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t get out of this. Frankly, I just wanted to get it off my chest. What had happened outside wasn’t why we were here today, so I’d just have to get over that little incident. It wasn’t as if something like that hadn’t happened before in my life. I held back a shudder. Sadly, it had. And incidents like it happened all over the world on a daily basis. Women were never safe. Not really.
Wasn’t that a thought I wanted to think right then? I sighed.
“I have your latte for you. Now, tell us what happened,” Dakota said as she took a seat in the booth. She had her back to the wall, her usual position so she could look out over her café.
I took a deep breath and tried to sound as nonchalant as possible, even though I was anything but. “Oh, I was just accosted on the road. I’m fine, though.” Everyone started talking at once, and I held up both hands. “One second.” I lifted the ceramic mug, blew on the top, and took a sip. I groaned, closing my eyes with my head tilted back. “Seriously, best coffee ever.”
Dakota leaned forward. “Thank you. Now, go back to the whole thing you just said about being accosted.”
I went through what had happened, and Paris’s eyes narrowed into slits by the end of my story. She was already trying to push Dakota out of the booth as if she could find the man and attack him, but I held up my hands again.
“It’s fine. Seriously. Let’s just move past it. I’m not going to press charges, even if I ever see him again. It was just something that happened.”
“It shouldn’t have happened at all,” Myra stated.
“But we both know it does. It’s fine. I’ll never see him again. If I do, I’ll probably kick him in the nuts.”
“You should have fucking kicked him in the nuts today,” Paris said, her voice low since she didn’t want to curse in the middle of the café.
Dakota was the one who scared me, though. She just kept looking at me, her gaze intense.
“No harm done. I’m just fine,” I said.
Dakota tilted her head, studying my face. “You are. If you weren’t, we would go out and find that man, and we would cut off his dick.” She smiled as she said it, but I froze for a second before everyone burst out laughing.
“You know it’s always the quiet and sweet ones,” Myra said, sipping her tea.
“I’m not sweet, and we both know it. I can’t raise a little boy as a single mother and be sweet.”
“No, I guess you can’t,” I said and then rubbed my temples. “Enough about me. We came here to talk about our plan. However, I almost feel like, after today, maybe I shouldn’t join in.”
“No, none of us is going to back out.”
Paris pulled out her day planner and looked at the notes she had made before. “We are going to finalize this plan. Because dating sucks, online dating is worse, and the entire population of men has dwindled to like four single guys. We need to find them.”
“I hope there’s at least four,” Myra responded, tapping her spoon on the napkin in front of her. “If there isn’t, then we’re going to have to share. And while I admire triads, I’m not the sharing type,” Myra said, and I burst out laughing. It felt good to smile and laugh, and these girls usually did it for me.
“So the plan…” Paris continued.
“The plan,” Dakota echoed.
“The plan is, we are going to find each other dates,” Paris said sternly.
“Blind dates suck, though,” I said.
“Have you ever been on a blind date?” Paris asked.
“No, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suck. Going out on a date is scary enough. Going out with a stranger?”
“A stranger that we will find for you. There are men in our lives at work, at the gym, at the grocery store, everywhere. A lot are kind. We’ve all said this in the past. But they just don’t fit us for one reason or another. We’re going to somehow make this work and happen for the rest of us.”
“So…blind dates. That’s what we’re going with?” I was already nervous, and after what had just happened outside, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to be part of this anymore. But it had been far too long since I had been on a date, and I missed it. Oh, I might still have some fears, but I missed being in a relationship. I missed being held. Hell, I missed sex, but that wasn’t something I was going to say aloud.
“Not just blind dates,” Myra corrected. “Perhaps there’s someone you already know in your life that we feel would be good for you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked cautiously.
“We’ve already talked about this,” Dakota said. “We’re going to be open to dating. If there’s a man in one of our lives that we feel would be a good fit for one of the others, that’s one mark. Or maybe we want to help push each other in the correct direction.” Dakota frowned. “Not…correct, but at least decent. You know, or just find something that actively promotes a healthy relationship.” Dakota kept stirring her coffee. I wasn’t even sure the other woman had taken a sip yet.
“Yes, healthy, loving, and hot relationships,” Paris said, tapping her notes. “We’ve already discussed this. Today, we are here to go over the final rules and to draw straws.”
“Do we need rules?” I asked, a little worried now that this was all becoming real.
“You are a mathematician,” Paris said. “You love rules.”
“I know that, but I don’t know if I want to bring math into my relationships,” I said, laughing. I paused. “So math in a relationship does sound kind of hot, but I’m a nerd.”
“I’m pretty sure we all are at this point, especially if we are actively pursuing this type of plan,” Myra said, her voice soothing and always a little classy.
“What do we do?”
“We are going to work as a group to find each of us a happily ever after,” Dakota said, nodding. “Because we are four amazingly smart, strong, and beautiful women.” She rushed the last word, and Paris snorted.
“You are gorgeous,” Paris said. “Don’t even start with the whole ‘y’all are so pretty, and I’m just plain’ nonsense that you sometimes do. You’re fucking gorgeous, so just shut up.”
I snorted and sipped my drink.
“For such a sweet woman, your mouth sometimes surprises me,” I said.
Paris raised a single brow. “I don’t think anyone has ever called me sweet,” she said and then looked down at her notes again.
“We all need to write down the characteristics that we want in a man. Even though we’ve talked about this before, we are going to double-check. Then, we will draw straws and work on each of us one at a time. However, as we go through this, if we find someone that’s perfect along the way, we will take that into consideration. So, are we ready?”
“I guess I don’t have a choice,” Hazel said, swallowing hard.
“Good,” Paris said and looked down at her notes again. “Most of us want similar things, kind, caring. Some of us want beards, no beards. But that is just part of the appearance section and doesn’t matter so much.”
“I would like it if he’s not a troll,” Myra said and then laughed. “I’m kidding. I’m not that much of a bitch. That much.”
“We need four perfectly sexy but sweet, caring, gentle, growly, productive men. They need to have jobs, they need to—hopefully—not have criminal records, though we can look into that on a case by case basis,” Paris said with a nod.
Dakota laughed. “This means we’re looking for four bearded unicorns, is that what I’m hearing?”
I snorted and just shook my head. “We can look at the attributes at some point, but I honestly don’t think that’s what we’re going to end up with. As long as they’re not sleazy, slovenly, or sedate, it’ll work for me.”
“We’re going against the three Ss,” Paris said, taking down more notes. “We will look for our bearded unicorns without the three Ss. Either way, we need to do something. Because I am not trying online dating again.”
“I don’t even know how you did it the first time,” I said honestly.
“Desperate times and all that. I have actual straws. Paper ones because we’re not using plastic straws here,” Paris said, holding up four.
“Thank you for that,” Dakota said.
“No problem. I’ve cut them down to size, and they’re all in my hands. We’re each going to choose a straw. The shortest one goes first, and so on.”
“Not the longest?” Myra asked, her voice pure sarcasm.
“We can make it whichever one you get goes first if you’d like,” Paris said, her voice haughty.
I closed my eyes and reached out, taking a straw. I didn’t want to see. The others all whispered, and I opened my eyes, knowing exactly what I would find. Because, why not?
“Hazel, it seems that you will be the first to find your bearded unicorn,” Paris said, writing down the order.
I didn’t even look at who would be next.
It didn’t matter, because it was my turn. I was going to find my perfect happily ever after.
And, somehow, I did not want any part in that.
Not after today. Not after what’d happened before. But I promised myself that I would try, and here I was, trying.
We went through the rules a bit more, but after looking down at my small straw, I knew I needed to go home and think. The others seemed to agree, wanting to do the same for themselves, so we disbanded.
I was quiet in the car, not even listening to music on my way home, trying to imagine exactly what would happen over the next few weeks. Would I finally go on a date? Would I find that bearded unicorn as the girls had called him? Or would I try, fail, and then hopefully move on to the next phase of this plan?
The latter seemed more likely. Mostly because I didn’t trust myself to actually do anything about what I thought I wanted.
I pushed those odd thoughts from my head as I pulled into my driveway and got out of the car.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I looked around as I walked up, confused. No one was there. Thomas wasn’t here. I was just thinking about him thanks to that encounter with the stranger and now I was feeling things that didn’t make sense.
I didn’t see anyone, so I pushed aside those worries for now. I quickly got into the house and double-locked the door behind me, my pulse racing.
I was fine. No one was here to scare me. I was only seeing ghosts, things that didn’t exist.
I was fine.
And, eventually, I would go on a date, living up to the promise I made after a single glass of wine. I felt the little spark of hope that I had tried to ignore for so long.
Maybe this would work out.
Or perhaps I would end up broken again.
Either way, I had to try.
Because I had given up for long enough.