Below are a few chapters from Hungry Heart, a standalone novel.

Chapter One

There’s something wrong with me.

Not maybe.

Definitely.

There’s no other explanation for what I’m thinking right now. What I’m feeling.

What exactly is the feeling bothering me so much?

The fact I’m extremely turned on by the strange man staring at me from across the cafe. I caught him out of the corner of my eye. I refuse to look at him and give him the satisfaction of knowing how he’s affecting me. I’ve an inkling he knows precisely what his intense stare is doing to me; he probably does it to lots of women.

He just has that look about him. You know, the one where his ruffled wavy black hair that touches the nape of his neck just so is perfect, his face is slight scruffy but not enough to count as anything less than sexy, and his lowered eyes make you think he’s not been out of bed long. Yes, he looks like he wants to go back to bed and take someone with him.

And I think the person he wants right now is me.

But, that’s too bad, because I don’t know him.

I’m also not single.

Not that me having a boyfriend is a deterrent. My boyfriend and I have a special arrangement. However, it doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, or fuck whomever I want.

There are rules.

And this man is making me want to break every single one of them.

Hence, why there’s something really fucking wrong with me in this instant.

When my friend, Ethan, takes a seat across from me and blocks the view of the other man, I’m beyond grateful. I grin, which Ethan mirrors back at me, and nods at the latte he’s placed in front of me.

“Drink up and tell me, what’s up with Professor Ryan? He seemed to have a bug up his ass about something this morning,” he says. “I wanted to bitch slap him.”

Snickering at his scrunched up nose, which makes him look silly but amuses me like nothing else, I take a sip of my latte and shrug. “I think he was pissed so many people were behind on their projects. He wanted to see what people had done, but nobody really did anything yet.”

“Except you. You’re always prepared. A teacher’s pet.”

“You don’t get a perfect GPA by being lazy and leaving things until the last second,” I tease him, knowing he’s got a nearly perfect GPA even though he's a procrastinator. “Well, except you. You’re almost there.”

“We both know that teacher gave me an A-minus because she heard me bragging about how I never do my work ’til the last second and had a perfect GPA because I’m a genius.” He gives me a mock scowl, then winks at me.

“You probably went too far with the genius comment.”

He laughs and sits back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head as he turns to stare out the window. I swear, Ethan has the most flawless profile. He might be one of the few people I’ve ever met who has a near symmetrical face in all aspects like myself. We've been friends since we were babies. Our mothers had us in the same hospital on the same day and shared a room, and we’ve been pretty much inseparable every single day since. People often mistake us as relatives, since we share light brown hair and blue eyes, which is perfectly okay with both of us since we are completely platonic.

For the record, my life isn’t like a romance novel. Ethan and I suddenly aren’t going to say, “oh my god, I’m in love with you!” because no, it’s just not like that. We are literally like brother and sister — I’m the sister he never had and he’s the brother I never had. He has two older brothers, but me, I’m an only child and my parents pride and joy. And Ethan looks out for me in a way nobody else ever has and our relationship is sacred. Not even my boyfriend would dare to speak against how close we are if he were inclined to say something, which he isn’t.

Ethan and I are solid. My boyfriend and I are solid.

And when Ethan leans over toward the window to squint at something, I find my eyes locked on the strange man across the cafe who looks up at that exact moment. He smiles at me, and I swear, I’m blown away.

Shit, shit, shit.

I’m in trouble.

Especially since I’m about to blatantly invite the trouble into my life.

“You know what,” I say suddenly, standing up. “I want a chocolate chip muffin. I’ll be right back.”

Ethan nods, not really hearing me, focused on whatever it is he’s gazing at out the window and I head to the counter to order. There is one person in front of me so I have to wait, and because people are predictable, it’s only a moment or two before I feel the man stand behind me. I don’t even have to look to know.

“I’m Benedict,” he murmurs, leaning in close to my ear so his breath brushes me in an intimate manner. His deep voice is sexy just as I imagined it would be from simply looking at him.

I ignore the way it makes me feel and am direct as possible so he knows everything he needs to. “I’m taken.”

“Are you?” He chuckles, still close to me even though he isn’t touching me in any way. “So am I. Now, what’s your name?”

Interesting. Well, he gets points for being honest, and I’ve no idea what his situation is, so I give him an honest answer. “I’m Caroline.”

“Is that your boyfriend sitting with you?”

“No.”

“A friend? A relative? Someone I have to worry about beating me up for speaking with you?”

I can’t help it. I laugh at the question and turn to face him as the person in front of me continues to waffle about what they want to order. Our bodies are inches apart as he straightens, and I have to look up into his face because he’s got a good six inches on my five-foot-five frame. And the first thing I notice is he’s even more attractive up close. His face might have a five o’clock shadow, but it’s blemish free, and his hazel eyes shine bright as he gazes down at me, his multi-colored tie emphasizing the various flicks of color in them.

“He’s my friend,” I say with a smile. “Since we were kids. He’s like a brother, and no, he won’t beat you up.”

Benedict’s eyes are even more vibrant, if that’s even possible, as he lifts a hand to my hair and pushes it behind my ear. It’s forward, has my stomach dropping and my heart careening, but I can’t seem to find the heart to object to this simplest of touches. He seems as fascinated by me as I am by him and I need to see what he wants.

“How old are you, Caroline?”

“I’ll be twenty-one tomorrow. You?”

“Nice.” He drops his hand, stepping back as the cashier behind us announces the total to the person ordering, and smiles at me. “I’m thirty. But it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to make sure you were legal.”

Legal for what?

“May I help you?” The cashier asks from behind me, and I turn around without saying anything in response to his comment, stepping up to the counter.

“Yes, I’d like a chocolate chip muffin please.” I wait until she holds her hand out for the money, then give it to her and step aside with a glance back at Benedict. “Your turn.”

“Oh,” he replies with a naughty grin, removing himself from the line to stand next to me. “I don’t want anything to eat. At least, not from this cafe.”

I ignore the butterflies in my stomach at his suggestive words and roll my eyes at him instead. “I’m sure your girlfriend would love to know you’re hitting on a girl that isn’t her in this cafe.”

He leans in at the same moment I feel his hand slide into my pocket, tugging me until my side is against his, and whispers in my ear, “We have an open relationship.” He says that as if he knows I’ll know what it means as my eyes collide with his. Which I do, but he can’t know that having just met me. Then, he steps back while removing his hand from my pocket and sliding it into his own. “My card is in your pocket, Caroline. Call me.”

I don’t get a chance to reply as he turns around and walks away, out the door in the blink of an eye. The other person working holds out my muffin and I take it from her, then head back to my seat where Ethan is waiting for me with a smirk on his face.

“Who was the guy all up in your space?”

“His name is Benedict.” I take a bite of my muffin, scowling as his grin grows wide, and I lift a brow as if to say, ‘what?’

“Ah, nothing. It’s obvious he wants to fuck you.”

A piece of muffin gets caught in my throat and I start coughing like mad. Ethan jumps up and pounds on my back, chuckling as I take a deep breath and lean forward to take a drink of my latte.

“Asshole,” I say once I can breathe again.

“You say the same to me all the time about the girls who hit on me, Caro.” He shrugs. “I wonder what Nathan will think.”

Nathan is my boyfriend, and Ethan knows all about our arrangement. He doesn’t necessarily approve, but the great thing is he loves me and trusts me enough to know I’m the only one who gets any say about how I live my life — in general and in the romance department.

“Nathan has someone else, as you know. I’m the one between us who hasn’t had any interest in anyone besides him.” I reach into my pocket and pull out the card, which is bare except for his name and number, and hold it up. “Benedict put this in my pocket and told me to call him. Said he’s in an open relationship. The fact I have a boyfriend didn’t seem to stop him from assuming I’d be interested.”

“Because you are and he knew it.” When my mouth drops open, Ethan rolls his eyes. “Come on now. You were seconds away from jumping into his arms. Your interest in him was written all over your face.”

It's dumb to deny the obvious, although jumping into his arms is a bit of an exaggeration. “Well, he’s gorgeous. Can you blame me?”

“Nope. Go for it.” Ethan stands up and swipes his backpack from the chair beside him, tossing it over his shoulder as he winks at me. “We still meeting at the club?”

“Uh huh. Wouldn’t miss having my first legal drink at the stroke of midnight for nothing.”

He comes around the table and kisses my cheek. “Invite the soon-to-be boy toy.” At my scoff, he laughs. “See ya there at eleven-thirty, Caro.”

I finish eating my muffin and drinking my latte, then ten minutes later, I head home to prepare for my evening out.

Chapter Two

Nathan and Rissa, his other girlfriend, are having sex when I arrive home.

I know this because I can hear her moans all the way at the front door, which I slam in a deliberate fashion to make them aware of my presence. Perfect, since this results in a sudden drop in her verbal announcements of pleasure.

Up until a year ago, I lived with Ethan. But once Nathan bought a house of his own, he insisted living together was the best for both of us. He made it clear staying close and connected with me was the most important thing to him, and I loved that he didn’t want to live apart.

The rules of our relationship made it so the rules must be made clear to anyone we have interest in. This house is Nathan’s and I’m the only other person who lives here. People we’re with may sleep over, hang out, spend a day with us, but they can’t live here. They aren’t allowed to leave things here ‘just in case’ and that’s the way we want it.

Other rules include always introducing the other people in our lives to each other first before we sleep with them, always use protection, and spending two nights with each other a week alone is mandatory. Respect is key as well, and nobody's allowed to disrespect either of us, or our relationship. If they do, it is to end immediately.

Of course, as I told Ethan, Nathan is the only one between us to have someone else, but even his relationship with Rissa developed slowly. It wasn’t so much that she wasn’t cool with it, but it’s always a little awkward making it clear to someone they are welcome to hit on your boyfriend, and yes, even sleep with him as long as she doesn’t try to come between us.

Nathan had been into Rissa the moment he met her, and pursuing her had been half the fun. I had even helped him. She thought we were joking when we sat her down and told her it was totally okay for her to like him. We told her our belief is that monogamy isn’t necessary for a successful relationship; trust and honesty are.  It’s natural to want to sleep with others, and sleeping with or even dating additional people doesn’t lessen your love for your other partner or partners.

I wasn’t sure she really understood the concept of polyamory — that’s many (poly) and love (amory), or more than one love in plain speak — thanks to the way society leads people to believe romantic love is only between two people and it’s not possible for any other way to exist. But, she took us at our word that it was cool, and I’d even chuckled when she apologized and said she wasn’t into girls, asking if threesomes were part of the rules to date him.

Her relief when I told her I was only into men had both Nathan and I cracking up.

After that, they’d began dating, and although it took a few weeks for her to relax around me, all was well now for the last six months.

And finally, it’s my turn, because I’ve found someone who is into me.

That is, if he’s telling the truth about being in an open relationship. Unfortunately, I’m all too aware of how many men will lie to sleep with you, and people in a true open relationship are more than happy to assure you it is true. Those who aren’t willing to introduce you to their significant other to make sure are flat out lying.

But first, I need to talk to Nathan about Benedict and make sure inviting him out this evening is a good idea.

Putting my stuff in my room and walking toward the kitchen to get a drink, I take out my phone and the card Benedict gave me. Setting him up as a contact first, I open up a message after taking a glass down from the cupboard and decide it will amuse me to see how long it takes for him to realize who is texting him.

Hey.

Opening up the fridge, I pour myself a glass of water from the Brita pitcher before putting it back in the fridge. My phone buzzes as I’m taking a drink and carrying them both to the living room, I sit down before opening it to see what he said.

Hay is for horses.

You sound like my mother,” I reply with a grin, lifting my legs and crossing them, using the table as a foot rest. “She always says that.

I bet she’s hoping you’ll quit saying it and say hello instead.

Hello,” is my smartass reply. “Is this Benedict?

Depends on who’s asking.

Hmm. I don’t know…

Not a lot of people have my personal mobile, so you’re either the really beautiful girl from the cafe, or an older lady I helped cross the street earlier today.

Which would you prefer I be?

The older lady for sure. She’s definitely more my type.

I laugh out loud, his teasing reply making it clear he knows it’s me, as the bedroom door opens. I lift my head to look at the same time Nathan catches sight of me and smiles, pulling Rissa close and kissing her on the cheek before heading toward me.

“Bye Rissa,” I say with a lift of my hand, leaning forward to put my phone on the table after removing my feet from their perch.

She blushes, gives me a little wave in return, and goes out the way I came in a mere ten minutes ago.

Nathan plops down on the couch next to me, putting his arm around my shoulders before pulling me in for a kiss with his minty fresh breath. He doesn’t linger, pulling back to say, “Babe, how was your day?”

“Oh, you know, amazing as always.” I lift my arms and put them around his neck with an impish grin. “Nothing like a riveting three-hour class on a bright, Saturday morning.”

My phone buzzes on the table and I ignore it as Nathan wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my neck, dropping small kisses from my jaw and on down. “Better you than me.”

“Mmm, I’m never doing it again.”

“You said that last semester,” he replies with a chuckle, pulling away from me with a final kiss as my phone buzzes again. “You gonna get that?”

“Sorry.” Leaning forward, I pick up the phone and read the texts.

The first says, “I know it’s you Caroline. I’m glad you decided to contact me, although I did say call me…” followed by, “When am I taking you out?

“Who is it?”

I put the phone down without replying, giving Nathan my full attention, placing my hands over his as I lock our gazes. “I met someone earlier. I may go out with him.”

“Yeah?” He pushes a hand through his hair, which is dark brown and cropped short, his equally dark brown eyes twinkling at me as his smile grows wider. “Where’d you meet him? What’s his name?”

It’s moments like these when I really appreciate and adore him and our relationship. I love that he’s curious and interested and is happy for me, just like I was when he met Rissa.

“Benedict. And it was at the cafe where I was hanging with Ethan after class.”

“You inviting him out tonight?”

“As long as you’re good with it, yep.”

“Then answer the poor guy back,” he says, groaning as the phone buzzes again. “I’m gonna go hop in the shower, and then go run a few errands.”

“All right.” I give him a kiss before he stands up, then slap his ass through his shorts as he walks past me. “Love you.”

“Love ya too.”

Taking the phone in hand as Nathan leaves the room, I text Benedict back.

We’re going out tonight for my birthday so I can have a drink at midnight. You in?

His reply is almost instantaneous: “Sure am. Where are we meeting?

It may also include me trying to dance and embarrassing myself. Club Play. You know it?

Yeah. My girlfriend and I are there all the time. We’ll be there about 11.

K. See you about 11:30.

Can’t wait.

I’m unable to keep the grin off my face as I stand up and walk toward the bathroom to surprise Nathan in the shower. This evening is going to be great and I can’t wait.

Chapter Three

Being a Saturday night, the club’s packed when Nathan and I arrive. He has his arm around my waist, and I have a hand in his back pocket, both of us flashing the bouncer our IDs. Letting us pass with a nod, we step inside and are immediately consumed in the mob of people. Nathan pulls me close, forcing his way through the people until we reach the bar, where I take a seat on the empty stool while he stands behind me with his arms wrapped around my middle.

“He didn’t stamp your hand,” Nathan points out with a grin, and my eyes go wide as I realize he’s correct, and answers me before I can ask the obvious question. “I stopped by earlier today while I was out and told him it was your birthday at midnight. He said just don’t order before midnight. It’s not illegal to not stamp your hand.”

“That’s awful trustworthy of him,” I tease, and Nathan chuckles in my ear as he hugs me from behind.

“We’ve been coming here for two years now, babe. He knows us and trusts we won’t break the rules.” The bartender steps overs to us and raises an expectant brow. “I’ll have whatever’s on tap, and she’ll have a coke until she turns twenty-one at midnight.”

The guy looks down at my hand, then back up at us with a nod, and walks away to get our order as I say, “He’s so going to make me show him my ID, you know that right?”

“Yep. But hey, we’re following the law.”

Right then, my phone buzzes, and I open it to find a message from Benedict.

Where are you? Are you here yet?

Yeah,” I text back as Nathan releases his hold on my waist with a smile, leaning back against the counter next to me, eye on the crowd. “At the bar getting a soda and waiting on Ethan to show up. You?

Be there in a sec.

I laugh and put my phone down as I touch my hand to Nathan’s, getting his attention. “He says he’s on his way over.”

“Cool.” The bartender sets down our drinks, Nathan handing him a card as he says, “Go ahead and open a tab.”

“Their drinks are on me this evening.” Benedict’s voice comes from out of nowhere, and I whirl on the stool to find him standing right behind me. He’s so close to me my knees almost touch his legs. “Don’t worry about it, Frank. Make sure you add yourself a nice tip at the end of the night, too.”

I don’t see what happens behind me, but in a second, Nathan stands up straighter, and steps closer to my side, placing his hand around my waist once more. And Benedict doesn’t even blink at this, which is a point in his favor, holding out his right hand to Nathan with a smile.

“I’m Benedict, and you must be Caroline’s boyfriend.”

“Yeah.” Nathan takes his hand to shake, and I look up into his face to see he’s totally relaxed and smiling as well. “I’m Nathan. And you didn’t have to get the drinks…”

Benedict releases Nathan’s hand and waves a dismissive hand as his eyes find mine. “I own this place. And it’s my pleasure.”

Oh, I bet it is. And seriously, the owner of Club Play? I caught the eye of the owner of the place my boyfriend and I frequented all the time? I can’t believe it, but next to me, Nathan whistles low, then laughs.

“Good luck with this one, babe. I’m gonna go find Rissa.” He leans in and pecks my lips, then nods at Benedict. “Have fun you two.”

Nathan grabs his beer and walks away, leaving me alone with Benedict, who stands where Nathan just vacated and stares down at me. “I’m glad you decided to come.”

Something — perhaps it’s the naughty glint in his eyes — tells me those words were absolutely meant as a promise for what he wanted to make me do, and therefore, his statement is a double entendre.

“Where’s your girlfriend?” I raise a brow as he smiles and leans on the bar with one elbow as he quirks a brow. “You knew I’d want confirmation of your claim to openness.”

He holds up a hand with three fingers without a word, then lowers them one by one in an exaggerated and slow fashion. When the final finger joins his fist, I don’t even get to blink as a body crashes into Benedict.

“Honey, there you are! You said by the bar, but did you have to lean on it so I couldn’t see you through the crowd? Geeze.” The woman with long and curly red hair throws her arms around his shoulders and kisses him on the cheek in a flamboyant fashion, then turns to me and grins. “You must be Caroline. Nice to meet you.”

It happens so fast I’m left with my mouth gaping open and Benedict laughs.

“Caroline, meet my girlfriend, Miranda.” He leans down and kisses his girlfriends lips, then looks at me as he states, “Here’s your proof you wanted to make sure she’s real and all that jazz. Satisfied?”

“Oh yes,” Miranda squeals, leaning forward and hugging me, and honestly, it’s a tad awkward. She pulls back, and steps away from both of us. “You two have fun! I’m going back to Len. Later!”

She runs off before I can even speak, and Benedict holds out his hand. “Come with me.”

“She—you—I—” I look to where she went to, then down at his hand, and back up at his face. “What?”

“Frank,” Benedict calls out, and within seconds, the bartender asks ‘yes?’ as he stands by us, and Benedict tilts his head toward me. “Tell Caroline here who my girlfriend is and what she looks like.”

“Uh, okay.” He looks at me and I can tell he’s confused by the request as he shrugs. “Tall. Name is Miranda. Curly red hair. Hyper in a way that sort of has me imagining how a chipmunk on crack would act—”

I bust out laughing, cutting him off with a wave of my hand, and stand up. “Okay, okay, I believe you. But I’m still waiting for Ethan to show up. He’s late.”

“Text him and tell him to text you when he arrives. We’ll come back and join in when he arrives. I’d like to go to my office where it’s quiet and talk.”

“Okay.” I do as he says, then slide the phone into my tiny purse and pick up my soda. “Ready when you are.”

He leads the way and as we enter the office, he shuts the door and therefore, shuts out all the sounds from the club, leaving us all alone.

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