Defying the Odds by Autumn Reed

 

Chapter 1

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, I sang to my closet, trying to choose between my small but growing selection of stilettos. These days, my motto was more along the lines of why choose?, but I could still only wear one pair of shoes at a time, even if I was dating three men. Three sexy, smart, and surprisingly sweet men. Great, I was even using alliteration in my mental descriptions of my boyfriends now.

Tonight’s art gallery opening would be our first official public appearance as the torrid foursome, and I couldn’t seem to stop smiling. Ever since my birthday party two weeks ago, things were better with the Triple Triple Threats (or Ts for short). The threat of losing Cole had finally pushed me to accept the unconventional relationship I shared with him, Shane, and Nicholas. I didn’t expect things to be easy now, but I felt different, braver.

A lot of that was due to the confrontation with my mother. Although she’d reacted as badly as expected, the entire encounter was oddly freeing. If I could survive telling her I was in a serious relationship with three men, I could survive telling anyone. Maybe someday it would even become second nature.

Despite my newfound confidence, the thought of my mother brought on a twinge of disappointment and sadness. She still refused to speak to me, and I’d had to resort to calling my dad while he was at work, because she made his life hell if he talked to me at home. It seemed hopeless to believe she would ever get over it, but it had only been two weeks. I needed to give her time. I couldn’t let myself think too much about what would happen if she never accepted the Ts. Not that I was guaranteed to stay with them. We’d only officially been together for a couple of months. It wasn’t like I could count on this lasting forever.

Pushing all my negative thoughts into a box and locking it up tight, I went back to studying my shoes. My gaze fixated on the red stilettos Cole gave me to wear on our first date, and I knew they were the ones. Maybe I’d finally get to model them naked for him. My skin flushed while I imagined him removing my silky black dress then picking me up and shoving me against the wall, my legs wrapping around his waist. He would hold my wrists above my head, and my heels would dig into him…

A heavy knock sounded at my apartment door, making me jump. Damn daydreams. They got me every time.

I slipped on my shoes and hurried to the door, flinging it open with more excitement than I dared admit to. The Ts stood together, looking too handsome for my sanity in their dark slacks and dress shirts.

Nicholas was the tallest of the three, his thick blond hair adding a couple of inches to his already impressive stature. His black-frame glasses were perched on his patrician nose, something I knew was for my benefit since he rarely wore them in public.

Shane was wearing my favorite smile, the boyish one that transformed his typically serious demeanor into one that inspired thoughts of fun in the sun. Even though I’d never seen the California boy side of him, I believed it was in there somewhere, hiding.

Cole’s dark eyes roved down my legs and lingered on my stilettos. I had an inkling that his mind wandered to the exact place mine had moments before. When his searing gaze met mine, my suspicions were confirmed, and my breath caught.

“You all right, enthusiastic Emma?” Shane’s tone was amused, as though he was reading my thoughts.

“Perfect,” I squeaked, ignoring the chuckles from behind me as I turned to grab my clutch from the coffee table.

The Ts failed to step aside when I closed the door and reached for my keys to lock it. My skin heated, and not just from their combined body heat at my back. A pleasing mixture of Shane’s spicy cologne and Cole’s and Nicholas’s less pronounced scents invaded my senses, and I almost swooned.

A hand brushed my hair aside, and I fumbled with the keys when lips pressed against my neck. Another pair of lips landed on my bare shoulder while fingers brushed the inside of my thigh. Good lord. Were they going to do this to me all night? If so, I was going to combust before my first glass of Champagne.

“Here,” Nicholas said, taking my keys and locking the door. Caught up in the intoxicating presence of my boyfriends, I hadn’t noticed that my hand had frozen before even making it to the deadbolt.

The Ts finally stepped back and we walked as a group to Nicholas’s Range Rover. Shane opened the front passenger door for me, whispering, “You look as enticing as ever.”

I shot him a grin. Even though I doubted he would care if the others heard him, he seemed to understand that I appreciated stolen moments even when we were spending the evening as a group.

On the way to the warehouse district, Cole and Shane proudly told me how they spent the day teaching Snow White to roll over…sort of. Apparently, she understood the concept enough to roll onto her side, but she couldn’t get her little puppy body to complete the rotation. Shane showed me a video on his phone, and I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks. She was so stinkin’ cute.

Nicholas was silent through the entire conversation, and I briefly wondered if something was bothering him. He seemed to sense my attention and turned his head, giving me a soft smile. Okay, maybe he was just quiet because the guys in the back were dominating the conversation.

We parked at Loft25 and walked the few blocks to the gallery. Shane had managed to snag us invitations to the event by befriending the owner. He’d convinced several of the current warehouse district business owners to meet informally once a month to discuss cross-promotional ideas. They’d had their first meeting last week, and I would hopefully get to attend the next one.

The party was in full swing when we arrived, well-dressed attendees roaming through the space, talking, eating, drinking, and admiring the displays. The interior matched what I was expecting—smooth, gray concrete floors, white walls and half walls, and a black ceiling with black beams gave the space a modern but intimate feel. The only lighting came from spotlights trained on the artwork. I watched Nicholas study all those features, and ones I didn’t know to look for, before giving an approving nod.

Once we were through the door, a waitress immediately approached and offered us flutes of Champagne. Presumably since Cole’s hand rested on my waist, she aimed provocative smiles at Shane and Nicholas, who pointedly ignored her. I barely resisted rolling my eyes while reminding myself that this would happen every time I went out with more than one of the Ts. If I couldn’t handle other girls flirting with my guys, I was doomed.

As we strolled through the room, pausing to take in the art and sample the delectable appetizers, I found it easy to ignore everyone around us. In a dance that felt almost choreographed, the Ts took turns holding my hands, kissing my cheeks or hair, and fetching me refills. We all talked and laughed together, effortlessly moving as a unit. Would it have been this simple all along, and I’d just been making it difficult with my insecurities and doubts?

“Shane,” a female voice said from behind me, and I turned to find a woman in her forties approaching. “I’m so glad you made it.”

“Hello, Karen. Thank you for the invitations,” he replied, before introducing Cole and Nicholas as his business partners. “And this is Emma, our girlfriend.” Instead of stuttering, like I would have expected, my heart fluttered with happiness at his words. I was theirs and proud of it.

I waited for Karen’s reaction, and she didn’t disappoint. Her eyes widened in surprise, but she quickly schooled her features. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Confidence I didn’t even know I had seemed to radiate from me as I smiled at our hostess. “You as well. Congratulations on the opening. The event appears to be a smashing success.”

“Thank you. It’s been my dream for as long as I can remember, so I couldn’t be happier that tonight is going well.”

“I’m doing an article on the warehouse district revitalization for my externship with the Las Vegas Daily, and I would love to interview you. Would you be willing to sit down with me sometime in the next few weeks?”

“Of course,” she said with an encouraging smile that allowed me to relax, somewhat. “Give me a call. Shane has my number.”

“Thank you, I will.”

“I need to get back to mingling. Enjoy the rest of the event,” she said, speaking to all of us, “and drink more Champagne. Our store room is overflowing with bottles of it.”

As soon as she walked away, Shane slipped his hand in mine and pulled me into a dark corner of the gallery, where an intricate light display made it appear like the wall was a window looking out into a rainy night. Before I realized what he had in mind, his body shielded mine from view and his head dipped down, stopping just short of my mouth.

“You’re driving me crazy,” he rasped, breath fanning over my lips.

“I am?”

He gripped my hips and tugged me fully against his body. “Yes.”

“Is there a particular reason I’m driving you crazy?” It wasn’t like I’d been doing anything remotely sensual.

“It doesn’t take much, especially in that dress, but seeing how you handled what I said to Karen back there…” He shook his head. “It was totally hot.”

I laughed, wondering if he was losing it. “Okay, strange Shane.”

He nipped at my throat. “Not to mention watching you with Cole and Nicholas.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Are you saying that watching me with them turns you on?”

His lips tipped up in a mischievous smirk. “Now, do you think I’m really strange?”

The lack of jealousy between the Ts would always be odd to me. But wasn’t that how it needed to be? The only way the torrid foursome could survive long term was for the three of them to be on the same page and remain there. Each had to be okay seeing me with the other two. If Shane took it a step further and actually enjoyed watching me with Cole and Nicholas, who was I to complain?

“Maybe, but I’m okay with strange.”

He ran a finger along the chain of my diamond necklace that had been a Valentine’s Day gift from the three of them. “May I kiss you?”

Despite the temptation to try to see around him and make sure we were alone, I kept my eyes glued to his blue-gray ones and nodded. Apparently, I was getting accustomed to his penchant for semi-public displays of affection.

Instead of the demanding kiss I expected, his lips gently caressed mine, making me think of days in the sun and sand once again. He didn’t linger, but he didn’t need to. I’d felt so much in that one kiss—desire mixed with an underlying patience that I instinctively understood. Our relationship still needed a chance to develop, mostly because we’d had so little time alone over the last couple of months.

“Go on a proper date with me Monday night?” he asked, though his tone told me he wasn’t giving me much of a choice.

“Absolutely.”

“Good.” He tugged on my hand. “We should get back to the others before they hunt us down.”

Nicholas and Cole were standing next to a nearby exhibit, and I half-wondered if they’d spied on us before deciding it didn’t matter. As soon as we reached them, Cole pulled me into his arms and planted a kiss on my mouth.

“Welcome back.”

“We were only gone for five minutes,” I said with a laugh.

“Five minutes too long.”

Glancing around the room, I asked, “What haven’t we seen yet?”

“We need to go,” Nicholas interrupted, his voice steely.

“Is something wrong?” I followed his line of sight and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, though there was a man taking photographs of the guests nearby. He looked vaguely familiar. Maybe he worked at the Daily?

“No, but two of us need to get to work.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, feeling disappointed even though I understood. Saturday was the busiest night of the week at the club.

As we walked back to Loft25, my eyes kept drifting to Nicholas. His posture was rigid and his jaw tight. Despite what he said, he was clearly upset about something.

“Did you tell Emma about the app?” Shane asked, his tone unusually upbeat. He was probably trying to distract me from his roommate’s foul mood.

“Not yet,” Cole replied, a massive grin spreading across his face. “Give me your cell, Em.”

I eyed him suspiciously but handed him my phone anyway. When I told him my passcode, he laughed, as though I was crazy to think he would need a passcode to get into my phone. Yeah, that’s what I got for dating a tech wiz.

“Remember when you told me you were thinking of making a pin the tail on the hottie game to decide whose room to sleep in?”

Shane snorted, and I punched Cole in the side. “It was a joke. You weren’t supposed to tell anyone.”

I’d mentioned to Cole last week that part of the reason I still wasn’t staying at the townhouse as often as the Ts wanted was because I didn’t know how to choose whose bed to sleep in. I was half-tempted to suggest we all sleep together in Nicholas’s massive California King, but I had a feeling that would get awkward. I needed someone, or something, else to decide for me.

“Anyway, I came up with something better,” Cole said as we reached the Range Rover.

He handed the phone back to me, and I immediately noticed a new app displaying a Queen of Hearts playing card. The classic queen image had been replaced by a cartoonish avatar of me in a short red and black dress and red stilettos. The text below the icon read, “Sexy Shuffle.”

“Oh my god. What did you do?” I asked on a laugh.

Cole winked. “Oh, just you wait.”

I opened the app, and a menu appeared with three options. One took me to a sub-menu with various card games and another took me to a game where I could dress up my avatar in an insane number of different outfits. I would undoubtedly waste too much time playing around with it.

“How did you possibly get this done so quickly?”

“The avatar app is launching later this month, so I had one of my best programmers create a modified version specifically for you.” He shrugged like it was no big deal.

When I finally clicked on the icon with the silhouettes of three men, a screen appeared with the Ts’ names in individual green boxes.

“I made it so you can deselect any of the names for when you’re choosing between two of us,” Cole explained. He touched his name and the green box was replaced by a red one. Then, he touched it again, turning it back to green. “When you’re ready to play, just tap the heart in the bottom corner.”

I stared at the app, undecided whether to laugh or cry. Although it was hilarious that he’d made an actual game out of choosing between them, it was also ridiculously sweet. This app would make it so much easier for me to stay with them, and Cole knew that. Dammit, I was going to cry.

Throwing my arms around Cole’s neck, I thanked him. “I can’t believe you did this for me.”

“Anything for you, Em,” he replied with that contagious smile of his. “You know that.”

“We thought you might want to try it out tonight to help you decide who goes to work and who gets to take you home,” Shane added.

I nodded, my finger hovering over the heart. I couldn’t decide if I was hoping the game would choose Nicholas or anyone other than Nicholas. Part of me wanted to figure out what had gone down back at the gallery; the other part wanted to forget about it and enjoy the rest of my otherwise amazing night.

When I pressed the heart, animated playing cards flew across the screen then disappeared until only one remained. I tapped it, and it flipped over, revealing an avatar of Cole that was somehow both adorable and sexy.

“Are you sure this game isn’t rigged?” I asked him with a grin. It looked like he just might get to see me in nothing but my stilettos tonight after all.