First Chapter of One Smokin’ Night


This is not the weekend I’d scrimped and saved for. This weekend was supposed to be about me and my former college housemates getting together in the city where we had attended the university to celebrate Riva’s thirtieth birthday. The plan included indulging ourselves in a spa day, then a night of club-hopping, a day of shopping, eating, just enjoying each other’s company. Riva is the first of us to turn thirty, which may be why she was always our little mother hen.

But now she’s gone off to the emergency room with her ex after he got punched in the face by some rando.

Maya and Chelsea have been MIA since the first club.

Autumn met some dude in another club and told us to go on without her.

So it’s down to me, Spencer and Diane. Spencer told us she’s pregnant, and Diane had the idea to drive out to confront the baby daddy, who is none other than Lincoln Gentry. Yes, that Lincoln Gentry, the self-made billionaire who dated Alanna Davila for like a year and was on the cover of all the tabloids.

How do I know this? I work the night shift at the grocery store and I see all the tabloids at the register.

Anyway, apparently Lincoln got my friend Spencer pregnant, and when she told him, he accused her of using him. So now we’re heading to his house party to make sure he’s making good decisions where she’s concerned.

The idea of a house party excites me a little. See, I like to read romances, and historical romances are my favorite. People in those books are forever having house parties, you know, the kind where people all spend the night under one roof and there are always meet-ups in hallways or libraries or kitchens that end up in scandalously sexy times.

At least I sobered up a bit on the drive up here. I went a little crazy on the cocktails because it’s been so long since I’ve been out. When you’re working two jobs, there’s not a lot of time, and friends will only be put off so many times before they stop inviting you.

Just as well. I spent as much for this weekend as I did for my student loan payments this month, and it’s only Friday night.

I haven’t told my friends our yearly get-togethers are a financial hardship for me. It’s just embarrassing to bring it up, you know, when they’re all successful and moving forward in their careers, and I haven’t even really picked a career yet.

We pull up in front of Lincoln Gentry’s mansion and I gaze out at it with a sigh. I feel like Elizabeth Bennet seeing Pemberley. I wonder about my chances of having my own Mr. Darcy-in-a-lake encounter.

Apparently I haven’t sobered up completely.

What would it be like to live in a place like this, instead of in the apartment over your parents’ garage? And from what Spencer says, Lincoln doesn’t even actually live here. He lives in the city and hasn’t been out here in months.


I’m the first one out the door as the driver stops the car, and I hear Spencer tell him to wait.

Honestly, I’m surprised Spencer is going along with Diane’s plan to confront Lincoln at his house party. Spencer is actually sober, but maybe she just wants to get this all out in the open and have it settled.

I don’t know what I’d do if I turned up pregnant. No way could I afford a baby. I don’t even have good health insurance, so that would be another bill. At least Spencer makes good money and could do this on her own. No worries, though. I don’t have time to date.

I need to shake off my poor pitiful me attitude. We are going to a party for rich people. I never get a chance to do this. I need to enjoy myself.

I proceed up the walk to the main entrance ahead of the others. Because my thoughts are so centered on Pemberley and Darcy and sexy romances, I’m disappointed when a man in a white shirt, black tie and black pants opens the door to reveal people wearing regular modern clothes.

I mean, they’re nice modern clothes, which really makes us in our dance club outfits stand out. These people don’t need to know I thrifted my outfit, because I look good in my LBD.

Behind me, I hear Spencer tell the guy in the tie that we’re invited. I must still be a little drunk because I drift away from my friends to look into the ballroom—okay, I know it’s not a ballroom, but what is it you call a large party room with a high ceiling where there’s music playing?

I’ll think of it eventually.

Diane recognizes Lincoln right away. She grabs my arm to direct me and leads Spencer and me toward him. I don’t know what she wants me to do. I am not the confrontational type. But I’m here, may as well be moral support.

Lincoln looks nervous at being confronted. Spencer looks miserable, but Diane is in her element. He motions us toward the kitchen, but I think Diane really wants to have this confrontation out here in the open. She defers to Spencer’s wishes, though, and we follow the man into the kitchen.

He really is handsome. No wonder Spencer has fallen for him, though she won’t admit it to us. I just know Spencer. She wouldn’t be so upset by his reaction if she didn’t care for him.

One of Lincoln’s guests interrupts our escape, and Lincoln handles it smoothly, then we’re all in the industrial size kitchen. This place must have been a boutique hotel or something before he bought it, along with the winery outside. The appliances are top-notch, and there’s room to do everything in here, though he’s had this party catered.

“I am so sorry,” Spencer murmurs when the door closes behind us.

“What are you sorry about?” Diane demands, whirling on our friend. “You both took part, so he has a responsibility, too. And if this is his place, he can afford to make it right.”

I’m not sure what Diane means by that. Spencer already decided against an abortion. She’s told us she’s keeping the baby. She can hire help, and she doesn’t know if she’ll get another chance to have a baby. I can’t imagine being the sole person responsible for another human being, but Spencer is stronger than I am.

She takes the moment to calm Diane down. “Lincoln, these are my friends Jamie and Diane. They…found out and felt they had to come to my aid.”

He nods at me, avoiding eye contact with a scowling Diane. Then he addresses Spencer. “Can we talk?”

She hesitates a minute, then Diane interjects again. “Oh no, you’re not taking her somewhere where you can make her feel like this is all her fault. Whatever you have to say to her, you can say in front of us. That’s the whole reason we’re here.”

Lincoln turns to me, his blue eyes appealing. “Why don’t you ladies go enjoy the party?” He indicates with his head that he wants me to take Diane with me. “There’s plenty of food and drink. Help yourselves.”

I’m personally starving, so this time, I take Diane’s arm and lead her, with some resistance, out of the kitchen.

The party is going strong, considering it’s pretty late, and the buffet table still has plenty of food. I haven’t eaten since before we went out to the clubs, and it might be good for me to get some food in my stomach to absorb some alcohol and sober me up. I drop Diane’s arm and pick up a buffet plate, inspecting the offerings. Shrimp on a bed of ice, don’t mind if I do. Crostini, yes please. Pear and prosciutto bites, you bet.

I love food, okay? Thankfully, because of my crazy schedule, it hasn’t caught up to me yet, but it will. I hear a snicker and I look across the table to see a man with his arms folded over his chest, a crooked smile tilting his mouth as he watches me.

I lower my plate slowly, resting it on the edge of the table. I know those hazel eyes anywhere, and I would not expect to see him here, though I guess he does have a restaurant or two here in town, so he’d be one of Lincoln’s VIPs. Still weird to see him here on a weekend when I’ve been thinking too much about college.

When I’d had a soul-destroying crush on him, and he’d been dating my roommate Autumn, spending lots of time in the house we’d all rented.

He has grown up so fine, so different from the boy who lived in t-shirts and jeans, at least right now. He’s wearing a suit that fits his broad shoulders and narrow waist exquisitely. Honestly, the suit designer should pay him to be a model, the suit looks that good. His light brown wavy hair is to his collar, giving him a kind of artistic insouciance. He has just a dusting of golden stubble on his long narrow jaw and I fold my hands together to resist touching him.

I force my shoulders to relax, tilt my head back a little as I try to portray confidence to a man who has made a name for himself by opening expensive and, by all accounts, delicious restaurants across the country.

“Sawyer Decker.” I struggle to keep my tone casual. “What are you doing here?”

“Spencer didn’t tell you? Lincoln and she are working on the ads for my restaurants. They’re really beautiful ads.” His voice is a low drawl pitched for my ears, and I feel it all the way down my spine.

“From what I hear, you don’t need ads to get people into your restaurants.” In fact, I heard getting reservations takes months.

“That won’t last if I don’t have a reputation.”

“Oh, from what I hear, you have quite a reputation.” I’d been stunned to learn that he was known to be aloof and curt, a far cry from the affable guy who used to hang out in the house we’d all rented.

A flash of that familiar smile appears, then disappears, as if he remembers the image he’s trying to maintain. “Part of the draw is the mystery of the chef.”

I give him a skeptical look, because his parents are pretty well-known lawyers, so people can find out whatever they want to about him.

Don’t ask me how I know. Ahem.

“So what are you doing here?”

I feel my face heat, because I can’t exactly tell him. “I’m here with Spencer, in fact. And Diane.” Though I’d lost track of Diane somewhere along the way to the buffet table.

His face grows guarded. “Not Autumn?”

I’d thought he and Autumn ended on good terms, but maybe not, based on his reaction. “No, she didn’t make it this far.”

He gives me a bemused look, but I don’t elaborate. Surely he’s not still hung up on her after all this time, after the life he’s lived.

Dumb thing to think, because if he gave me even the slightest hint he is interested in me, I would fall all over myself to be with him. I’d had such a thing for him. Such a thing.

“So you’re doing really well. I see your name everywhere.”

He arches his eyebrows. “Like where?”

Okay, I can’t answer that. I can’t let him know I’ve kept tabs on him, watched his interviews on YouTube whenever I had a chance. I’m not obsessed. No! I’m genuinely happy for his success, and I like to think I knew him when.

Though I’d never tell anyone.

“Um, on that cooking channel, and sometimes in magazines.”

His brow furrowed. “Just started the magazines, so it must have been something else.”

I stammer, because honestly, other than glancing at the covers of magazines that come through my register, I haven’t opened a magazine in years. You know the stereotype of the bored cashier flipping through a magazine between customers? It’s not really like that where I work. “Maybe it was an ad online or something.”

“Okay.” He drags the word out, like he doesn’t believe me. “What are you up to these days? I can’t really remember. What were you studying back then?”

“Neither can I,” I laugh. “Probably design. Or maybe Asian studies.”

His eyes brighten at that. “Did you ever get to Korea?”

I shake my head, the pang I used to feel no longer as strong. I’d changed my major from Asian studies when I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford to travel overseas. But I’d shifted to public health, only to get burned out during the pandemic.

“Ah, man. I went a couple of years ago and I thought about you. I even remembered some of the words you’d taught me. I hoped you’d gotten to go.”

“I don’t even remember any of the words I learned,” I say with that deflated feeling you get when you once were so sure you wanted something, never to have that dream realized.

“I went, and didn’t know any of the language, but I got through okay. And really, if you get a chance, you should go. So much to see. So much to eat.”

I push aside my melancholy and reach over to pat his stomach. “Doesn’t seem to have any detrimental effects.”

My casual gesture surprises a full grin out of him. He’s no longer the sophisticated chef, but the boy I’d known in college. He rubs his hand over his flat belly. “Takes a lot of work not to let it go to my gut.”

I glance down at my plate, hoping he’s not judging me, but really, why would I care? “So are you cooking out here this weekend?”

“Ah, no, Lincoln had it all catered.”

Seems weird that Lincoln wouldn’t use Sawyer’s staff, if he was trying to help him advertise, but maybe he had his reasons. “I guess it’s nice to have a break.”

His grimace made me wonder if he didn’t think the break was good. “Weird being away from it for so long.”

I frown. “How long?”

He laughs softly. “Ah, I left right after the lunch rush. And I won’t go back until Sunday dinner.”

I have to admit, I get it. I’ve not been off three days in a row in a year, since our last girls’ weekend. Not going to work feels weird.

“You never said what you’re doing now,” he says, and my turn to grimace because I don’t want to tell him about my chaotic life. I’m almost thirty. I should have figured out some of these things by now.

“I work behind the scenes at a news station in the Metroplex.”

His frown returns. “I don’t remember you ever talking about being interested in that. That was always Autumn’s thing.”

I don’t want to talk about Autumn. In fact, I dread him asking me about her. But I can’t avoid mentioning her now. “She helped me get the job before she moved to Phoenix.” I stay there because it’s interesting, at least, for now. I already feel myself growing restless, and maybe if I find something that pays better, I won’t have to keep on at the grocery store.

“So based in Dallas, then. I’m based in Houston, but I thought about moving here now that I have a restaurant here.”

“Kind of expensive,” I say automatically.

His smile broadens. “Thankfully not something I’m worrying about right now.”

Not living above his parents’ garage. Got it. Though, like I said, his parents weren’t struggling themselves, so they probably had a pretty nice apartment garage. I wonder if they’d let me move in.

Suddenly Spencer appears at my side, her eyes wide, panicked. “Where’s Diane?”

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