Only a handful of days to go before the release of The Unreal Boyfriend on the 30th of November! Before the big day arrives, I'm excited to share Chapter One of Bernadette and Derek's story with you.
Here it is. Happy reading!
The Unreal Boyfriend Chapter One
Bernadette Luna grinned at the utterly handsome Derek McCarthy, thrilled at the glint she saw in his chestnut-brown eyes. “How high?”
“As high as you can,” Derek answered with a quirk of his lips.
Bernadette inhaled deeply, staring at the dark brown hair she was itching to run her hands through. Forcing herself to peel her gaze away from Derek, she looked around. A few of their friends were helping the little kids play basketball on the other side of the giant jumping castle, not paying any attention to them. So she bent her knees, raised her arms like chicken wings, and launched herself into the air.
Her eyes widened as she felt her right foot land awkwardly, and a little yelp escaped her throat as gravity pulled the rest of her body towards the soft ground. Drats! She quickly smoothed down her billowy skirt that had ridden up her thighs, praying that no one had gotten a peek at her underwear.
“You okay?” Derek asked.
She laughed to cover up her embarrassment. “See? This is exactly why I hate being in these inflatable things.”
“At least I’m not jumping all around you like some mean boys did when you were twelve years old,” Derek teased.
“I guess. And at least you’re not chanting ‘we saw your pink panties’,” she said dryly.
Derek helped her up, not giving an indication if he’d had an eyeful of her… well… pink undies.
Frankly, she wouldn’t have minded if he had. In fact, she’d love it if Derek saw her naked—as long as he was naked with her in a room with a bed. Ugh, how bad did she still have it?
“So let me get this straight,” Derek said. “You hate jumping castles because you lost your footing in one before, and you couldn’t get back up because mean boys were jumping all around you while they teased you mercilessly about your pink panties?”
“Seventeen years ago?” Derek asked softly.
She flushed. “That sounds silly, doesn’t it? But didn’t I just prove to you that bouncy houses and I don’t get along?”
“Come on. Time to get over this silly fear. Jump higher.” Derek clapped his hands like a coach encouraging his charge.
Bernadette raised an eyebrow. She’d like to think Derek was somehow flirting with her. Sure, it was usual for him to be this friendly and fun, but he’d never spent this much one-on-one time with her before. She had a feeling it meant something. “Am I your case to solve now?”
“You’d disappoint Tanner if you didn’t enjoy this castle, too. Look at him. He’s so loving it in here.”
She chuckled and turned her attention to the birthday boy, the son of Paige Grant—her best friend—and Tristan Grant—Derek’s best friend. The one-year-old’s laughter was infectious as he sat in the far corner between his grandmothers, watching his two-year-old and three-year-old playmates shoot small beach balls into a plastic hoop with the help of their daddies and uncles.
Without saying a word, she attempted another jump… and stumbled towards Derek.
He caught her, his hands gripping her upper arms tightly.
“I’m okay,” she said, giggles bubbling out of her. “I’m starting to seriously believe I’m cursed when it comes to jumping castles.”
“And you’ve been in how many in your lifetime?” Derek asked, his hands sliding down to her wrists.
“Two,” she said a tad breathlessly, the warmth from his touch travelling throughout her whole body. Derek was probably only wanting to make sure she’d gotten back her balance, but so what? Derek McCarthy was holding hands with her—almost. After a year and a half of being secretly in love with him, she’d allow herself to enjoy this moment.
“Two, huh? Yeah, maybe the jumping castle fairies have something against you,” Derek said teasingly.
“Auntie Bernie, Uncle Derek! Watch me!” said the three-year-old son of Lucas and Jade Renner-Bilton.
Bernadette felt bereft when Derek let go of her hands to watch Julian jump.
“See, I didn’t fall!” Julian said proudly.
Bernadette clapped. “That’s great, Julian. If I jump and fall again, will you help me get up?”
“Julian helped me when I falled,” Lara informed.
Bernadette grinned at Rick and Lexie Donnelly’s cute daughter, whose third birthday was up next in two months. “Wow, Julian helped you when you fell?”
Lara nodded vigorously. “You can do it, Auntie Bernie.”
“I can jump, too!” shouted Nate. Gavin and Natasha Redford’s son started bouncing up and down, and his cousin, Carter and Cassie Garrett’s daughter, Chelsea, took his hand to jump with him. The two-year-olds shrieked in laughter as they lost their balance and tumbled together.
“Mama! Dada!” Tanner suddenly cried out, his face lighting up as Paige and Tristan entered the jumping castle. The birthday boy snatched his arms from his grandmothers’ grips and crawled with speed towards his parents.
Bernadette sighed. Gosh, these kids were making her clucky! She glanced at Derek, the guy she hoped to be The One. The man of her dreams was putting his phone against his ear.
“Holly, what’s up?” Derek said to his caller.
Bernadette’s breath hitched. Holly? Suspicion quickly rose up inside of her as she watched him from out of the corner of her eye.
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow night,” Derek said before hanging up.
“Who’s Holly?” Tristan asked.
“Oh, just… a friend,” Derek said casually.
Tristan smirked. “I bet it’s your on-again, off-again girlfriend. Now we have a name for her.”
Bernadette gulped. No.
But Derek remained silent, not contradicting Tristan’s declaration.
Bernadette took a sharp breath. Of course she’d misread Derek’s extra friendliness. She had a habit of doing that, then reality would always whack her in the face. Good thing she’d learned how to deal with disappointments a long time ago—pretend she didn’t care.
She kicked hope out of her chest and placed her heart back in its protective box. Then she plastered a smile on her face.
Paige stood close to her and murmured in her ear. “The girls are plotting to get Derek to introduce us to this invisible on-again, off-again girlfriend.”
Bernadette kept her lips curved up. “Why?”
“Why not? We’re all finding it very strange that he hasn’t so much as shown us a picture of her after all this time. Besides, I think it’ll be good for you. You’ve been holding yourself back from getting serious with other guys. Being face-to-face with Derek’s girlfriend might help put out the torch you’ve been carrying for him.”
Bernadette sighed. Paige knew her better than anyone. “So what is the plan?”
“Don’t know. The girls are discussing it right now.”
Bernadette peered through the castle’s window. The other women were huddled at one of several outdoor tables decked out in Disney-themed decor in the large garden of Tristan and Paige’s country property. The sun was shining brightly on this beautiful spot in the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, but her mood was becoming bleak.
She didn’t particularly want to meet Derek’s girlfriend, but she supposed it would be better to know what was being planned so she could prepare herself for it. “Okay. I think I’ll join the girls.”
“Sure,” Paige said.
“Hey, where’re you going?” Derek called out as Bernadette headed for the exit. “We’re not done yet.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “I’m just taking a break.”
“But we’re going to have a dancing competition, right, kids? We’re all gonna see who can dance the best without falling down.”
Julian started shaking his hips. “Dancing contition is fun, Auntie Bernie!”
“Dancing competition, bubba,” Lucas said, ruffling Julian’s hair.
Julian scowled at his dad. “I’m three already! Bubba means baby. Marissa is a baby. Aimee is a baby.” He pointed first to Jarryd Westbourne and Marilyn Grant’s five-month-old daughter, then to Brad and Erin Mead’s six-month-old child. “The baby in Auntie Geri’s tummy is a baby,” he added.
“Sorry,” Lucas said with a grin. “But you’ll always be my bubba, no matter how old you get.”
Julian rolled his eyes. “Fine. Can we do the dancing contipition now, Uncle Derek?”
“When Auntie Bernie comes back.”
“Don’t go, Auntie Bernie!” Lara said. “We’re dancing now!”
Chelsea ran to Bernadette and clung to her hand. “Please?”
Bernadette relented and walked back to the group. “Okay, then.”
“Yay!” the children cried.
Derek played a fast song on his phone. “Okay, everybody. Dance!”
Bernadette let out a laugh as Derek took her hand and twirled her around. At least Derek was being a wonderful friend who went out of his way to make her feel like a valued part of a big family—something she didn’t get from her own flesh and blood.
She appreciated the man, even though he unknowingly kept on breaking her heart over and over again.
* * *
Derek released Bernadette’s hand to dance with Lara, ignoring the curious glances being thrown at him by his buddies. What a time for Holly to call him. And how stupid of him to have called her by name. He bet his friends wouldn’t let up until they’d learned more about the woman he’d told them he’d been dating on and off for years. He could only hope he’d continue to get away with simply fobbing off their questions about her.
“So you’re seeing Holly tomorrow night, huh?” Tristan said, one of his arms around Paige’s waist while he carried Tanner in the other as he danced with his family. “Exactly when do we get to meet Holly?”
Derek filled his lungs with air, careful not to look like he was sighing, and even more careful not to give in to his strong desire to check out Bernadette’s reaction.
He’d been thoroughly enjoying Bernadette’s company today. And, as usual, he found her laughter thrilling… and her long-lashed chocolate-brown eyes captivating… and her sweet smile fetching…
“Dude, we’re dying of curiosity here,” Lucas said.
“Nothing’s changed,” he answered in a bored tone.
“You should have brought Holly here today,” Tristan said.
“Hey, no one told us we’re having a disco here,” Marilyn said, walking inside the bouncy house with her husband Jarryd. “And who’s this Holly person you’re talking about?”
Argh, the last thing Derek wanted was for anyone else to hassle him about Holly, no matter how close he was with everyone in this tight-knit group.
“Holly is the name of Derek’s mysterious girlfriend that he couldn’t wait to introduce to us,” Tristan said with sarcasm.
Marilyn’s jaw dropped. “Really? Holly, huh? So when do we finally get to meet her?”
“I’ve told you guys before,” Derek said patiently, “there’s no reason for you to meet her at this point. We’re still only casual.”
“Look,” Marilyn said, “I know it’s really none of our business, but I honestly don’t understand it. You’ve always introduced girlfriends to us in the past, even if you weren’t serious with them. So what’s so different about Holly that you don’t want us to meet her?”
Derek shrugged. All this bullshitting about his relationship with Holly was taking its toll on him, but it had to continue. “It’s just one of those things. I don’t know where to take it with Holly yet and, like I’ve said, I don’t want her to think our relationship is serious enough to introduce her to you guys.”
“But you’ve been dating the woman for over two—or is it three?—years now,” Marilyn said. “If you’re still not serious about her after all this time, then shouldn’t you… I don’t know… set her free and move on?”
“And aren’t you misleading her anyway by still keeping her around when you know you’re not serious?” Tristan pressed.
Derek shook his head. “It’s actually the same for Holly. She’s not serious about me, either. We’re just in an on-and-off relationship because it suits us to have a casual connection every once in a while.” This time, he couldn’t help glancing at Bernadette. She was dancing with Nate, and her long, silky black hair covered her face from his sight. Argh, he wished he wasn’t being grilled about Holly right now.
“So,” Paige said, “do you mean that you and Holly get together simply out of convenience?”
“Yeah, you could say that.” He refrained from looking at Bernadette again.
“I think it would help both you and Holly if we meet her,” Marilyn said. “It couldn’t be fun being in an emotional limbo for over three years.”
Derek snickered. “Who said we’re in an emotional limbo? And before you get on my case because you bet on me for our Captured by Love game, I can tell you I’m not the next guy going down on one knee in front of a woman.”
“Literally all of us here had bet on you to be the next person to propose to someone,” Marilyn said with a wink. “Actually, the girls and I were just talking about that. Since it won’t be fun if we all win—or lose—we decided that we’ll also bet on when you’re going to give up your bachelorhood. Whoever nominates the closest date to your actual proposal will win.”
“Hey, I like that idea,” Lucas said. “So this is an additional game?”
“Yes. The wider game is still ongoing, since there are now over a hundred people putting in their bets for charity. Nine different bachelors have been named to win this round. But this separate game is just for our gang because we all put our money on Derek to be captured by looove next.”
“Okay,” Tristan said. “The date I’m nominating for Derek to propose to someone is this time next year—Tanner’s second birthday.”
Derek snorted. “Are you kidding me?”
“Hey, I married Paige within months of meeting her. I’m sure that you proposing to someone in a year is not that impossible.”
“Your relationship was supposed to be fake!”
“Don’t let me down, bro. I haven’t won a single Captured by Love game yet. I’m counting on you.”
Derek groaned. “Don’t anyone tell me their dates anymore. I don’t wanna know.”
Everybody laughed, but they did let him off the hook and got busy doing funny dance moves with the children.
Derek watched Bernadette surreptitiously. Her movements weren’t as energetic as everyone else’s. He hoped she was only watching her balance, and that the conversation about Holly hadn’t depressed her.
Had he done the wrong thing by seeking her out and spending a lot of alone time with her today? He knew she’d had a crush on him not long after they’d first met on Tristan and Paige’s wedding day, but he was also certain she’d gotten over him quick smart since she’d been dating other guys. Hopefully she hadn’t read much into his actions. He didn’t want to give her the wrong impression.
Well, in a way, he’d been giving her the right impression since he very much wanted to enjoy her company. But he should stop and watch himself in case the others started to notice. He wouldn’t hear the end of it otherwise, and it really wasn’t fair to Bernadette.
“Excuse me, Paige. We’re ready for lunch,” a man in a pirate costume said by the castle’s doorway.
“Oh, great! Yes, please,” Paige said.
Mr. Pirate rang a handheld bell. “Boys and girls, who wants to join me at the captain’s table, har har?”
“Me!” all the kids cried, raising their hands.
“Great! Follow me and we will eat delicious food while I tell you a very exciting story!”
“I’m not hungry,” Chelsea said, crossing her arms against her chest.
“Everyone eats first before we start playing again,” Carter said firmly to his daughter.
With some coaxing, all the kids agreed to eat their lunch with Mr. Pirate and his able assistant, and the adults made their way to the long buffet table brimming with mouth-watering dishes.
“So,” Tristan said to Derek as they settled themselves on one of the outdoor settings after filling up their plates. “Is tomorrow night with Holly just a booty call, or are you trying to work something out with her?”
Derek bit into his mini burger, buying himself a few seconds to think of a good answer that would put a stop to this topic.
“Seriously, Derek,” Marilyn said, joining them. “We can’t figure out your relationship with her.”
He held back a sigh. Tristan and Marilyn were among his oldest friends and they’d always been open and honest with each other. But he simply couldn’t share this particular matter with anyone, not even them. “Right now, our on-and-off relationship works for us. We’re only on when we want to hang out with each other, and we’re off for the rest of the time. But because we’re both busy with our work, we always end up just dating each other instead of other people.”
“So what’s with flirting with Bernie all day?” Marilyn asked casually.
His eyes widened. Had he been that obvious? “I wasn’t flirting with her.”
Tristan snorted. “Come on. You’ve been all over her today.”
“I honestly wasn’t,” he insisted, running a hand over his face.
“You know,” Marilyn said, “I’d thought in the past you’d be married by your mid-twenties—well before any of the other guys. You took relationships more seriously than they ever did in our younger days. Yet here you are, thirty-three years old and the only remaining bachelor in our group. I really think you’re hiding something.”
Derek glanced sharply at Marilyn.
“Why don’t you want to introduce Holly to us? Before her, you’ve always taken your dates—even the non-serious ones—to our get-togethers. But you’re so reluctant to let us meet Holly. Why?”
“I already told you why.” What else could he say?
Tristan let out a heavy breath. “I know what Marilyn’s saying. In the beginning, I kept buying your story that you simply weren’t serious enough about this Holly person to warrant introducing her to us. I got distracted from looking more closely into your situation because of my past drama with Paige’s parents, and then getting married and having a baby. But now I smell that something’s off with all the excuses you’ve been feeding us.”
Derek shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Marilyn leaned closer to him. “What’s really going on? I can’t imagine you continuing to see the same woman for over three years and still calling it casual. That’s just not you.”
“You guys are reading too much into this. It is simply a casual thing that’s been going on for a while. Introducing her to our group might wreck something that’s working perfectly fine for Holly and me.”
Tristan’s brows furrowed. “We might wreck something? If it’s only casual, why are you worried about that? There are a lot of inconsistencies with your answers, bro, and I’m starting to get worried.”
“Really? What’s there to worry about?”
“How can it be casual and yet be exclusive? For over three years? I still can’t believe we—your best buddies in the whole world—know virtually nothing about the woman you’ve been seeing for over three years. Hell, we’ve only just discovered her name today! And if Holly’s also not serious about you, why are you concerned that she might get the wrong impression if you got her to meet us? See? Lots of holes and very weird.”
Derek’s gaze flicked away from Tristan’s probing eyes. “I told you, it’s just one of those things that happened to work like that.”
“You know,” Marilyn said, “I could always ask Gavin and Carter to check if everything’s okay with you. It’s so not you to be this secretive about your relationships, especially to us.”
“Hey, good idea, Marilyn,” Tristan said.
Derek’s heart raced. Surely these guys were only joking. But, knowing them, they just might act on Marilyn’s suggestion if he didn’t assuage their concerns. The last thing he needed was for their private detective friends to start snooping around his affairs. He couldn’t take that risk.
He let out a chuckle. “Fine. If you guys are really that keen to meet Holly, I’ll introduce her to you. If she’s free, I’ll bring her to Lara’s birthday in a couple of months.”
“Finally!” Marilyn said, looking up to the heavens.
“Good,” Tristan agreed.
Derek’s gaze involuntarily went to Bernadette, sitting at the table next to theirs. He caught her staring at him before shyly looking away.
His chest squeezed, and he frowned at the strength of it.
Damn it. He was in such a big fucking mess.
***End of Chapter One***
That's all for today. In the meantime, you can preorder The Unreal Boyfriend right now from the following stores:
Amazon.com | Other Amazon Stores | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple iBooks
The store link to Google Play will be available very soon.
Keep an eye out for Chapter Two tomorrow!