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Somebody to Love

Ever After Series, Book 5

Don't sleep with your best friend's brother.

My best friend, Gia, has a rule for her employees and her friends: No dating her brothers.

But Leo Giovanni is the guy I’d secretly crushed on since high school—who also happens to be Gia’s eldest brother.

The Giovannis are the family I never had, and I refuse to do anything to mess that up.

Leo has always had a special relationship with my daughter, but when he starts coming around more, taking us out on dates, building Evie a playhouse, and whispering sweet Italian words to me, I find myself lowering the walls I’d erected around my heart.

He says all the right words and has made it clear he wants both Evie and me, knowing we come as a packaged deal. The only problem is, he wants to keep our relationship a secret.

His parents want him to marry a nice Italian girl, and his sister—my best friend and employer—would feel betrayed if she ever found out. Not to mention, the expansion of his family’s restaurant hinges on his parents’ approval.

We both have a lot on the line if this goes south, but I refuse to be anybody’s dirty little secret.

How can we make a relationship last when everything is so stacked against us?



 

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Chapter One

Harper

We had no business being here. We didn’t know the couple getting married, Naomi and Chris, and we weren’t there to support them or Naomi’s ex, Finn. Gia wanted to scope out Silas Sharpe’s resort and wedding business.

I had a bad feeling about this ever since Gia told me we were coming, and it only intensified when I woke up this morning. Gia managed to wrangle invitations, not only for her but for me and her brother, Leo, too. I tried to talk her out of it, but when Gia set her mind to something, it was almost impossible to convince her otherwise.

Unease pricked my skin as we sat on the bride’s side and listened to Finn warm up on his guitar. Paisley, Finn’s daughter he shared with Naomi, was the flower girl. I was surprised that Finn got along with his ex.

I had a different experience with exes because my mother had been through so many men. None of them ever stuck around long enough to be considered for a stepdad role. Manny, the father of my little girl, Evie, dropped in and out of our lives, providing neither stability nor support.

Growing up, I lived in an apartment near Gia’s family’s restaurant and home. I loved how loud and boisterous her family was. They owned a local pizzeria, Giovanni’s, that everyone in the family worked at, including me. Over the years, Gia’s family had essentially adopted me. There was a standing invitation to meals and holidays, and when I was younger, sleepovers when I wanted to avoid my mother’s boyfriends.

I’d only recently gotten a full-time job working with Gia as the manager of her wedding planning business, Happily Ever Afters. I still worked part time at the pizzeria for extra income, and Gia’s mother, Louisa, babysat Evie for me.

The Giovannis were the family I never had, and I’d never do anything to mess that up, especially lust after Gia’s oldest brother, Leo. She had a standing rule that her friends weren’t allowed to crush on, much less hook up with, her brothers. When we were teens, one of our best friends made out with her brother, Mateo, and it caused a huge fallout.

I never wanted to lose my friendship with Gia over a guy, and besides, my feelings for Leo were purely physical. When he was near, I got hot all over, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. And when he held my daughter or played with her? My heart melted.

I’d crushed on him forever, but he didn’t see me as anything more than his younger sister’s best friend. Pursuing this attraction wasn’t worth losing a life-long friendship over, or the only family I’d ever known. I didn’t have the best track record with men.

I was independent and took care of my daughter. I wouldn’t be like my mother and bring men in and out of Evie’s life. I would be her constant support, and she’d never have a reason to doubt my love.

Today, Leo was accompanying us, probably to keep an eye on Gia, but I couldn’t ignore his presence. He sat next to me on the dainty chairs, his thigh pressed against the length of my leg. I couldn’t breathe without imagining what it would feel like for him to touch my bare thigh with his hand. The heat would sink into my skin, sending tingles up my leg and into my core.

I startled when Silas appeared next to his wedding planner, Hannah. She tilted her tablet in his direction, showing him something on the screen, probably the schedule for the wedding, and then he nodded, lifting his head to scan the area.

When he saw Leo, his expression lightened, and he approached us. I stiffened, worried Silas would see Gia and kick us out. Leo was good friends with Silas, which made this situation even more awkward.

Silas clasped hands with Leo. “I didn’t realize you’d be here.”

“I guess you could say the bride and groom are friends of mine.”

I tensed, waiting for Silas to notice Gia, who was sitting to my right, or to call Leo out on his blatant lie. Even if Silas couldn’t possibly know that we were here under false pretenses, I was sure the deception was written all over my face.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” Silas asked, managing to be attentive to his friend while also keeping one eye on what was going on around him. It was probably the manager in him. He couldn’t turn it off.

Leo inclined his head. “The room and service are top-notch as usual.”

I assumed Leo spent some time here with his brothers, probably drinking at the bar and boating. They’d been close friends growing up, although Silas had gone to a local private school, and Leo and his siblings went to public schools.

“Let’s grab a drink after the ceremony,” Silas offered, and before Leo could respond, he scanned our row of chairs before his gaze settled on Gia. “What are you doing here?”

His voice barely contained the irritation.

Gia bristled. “I’m a guest at this wedding.”

I wiped my sweaty palms on my dress, wishing I could disappear. I wanted nothing to do with this confrontation. I’d told Gia this was a bad idea. Growing up, she was the leader of our friend group, forever leading us into one crazy adventure after another. Back then, it was thrilling, but now I preferred to avoid drama.

Silas rocked back on his heels as if he was settling in for a discussion and not the verbal sparring I was used to seeing between them. “So, you’re not here to scope out my resort?”

Gia snorted softly. “Why would I need to do that? I’m here to enjoy a friend’s wedding. Nothing more.”

Her voice was light and airy as if she didn’t have a care in the world, and Silas’s presence hadn’t affected her.

Silas’s lips twitched as he tipped his head toward the altar. “What do you think of Harrison’s arbor? He created it specially for my resort.”

For the first time, Gia’s stoic expression faltered, and her gaze shot toward the wooden arbor on the raised dais, where the happy couple would exchange vows. Harrison Cain owned Cain Rentals and provided all our tables, linens, plates, and silverware. He also created custom arbors and was creating a name for himself in the business.

Gia’s smile wavered. “Harrison made the arbor?”

As her manager, I’d seen the contract between her and Cain Rentals. She paid for his priority in providing services, but not exclusivity. At the time they made the agreement, Gia’s business wasn’t big enough to support that, so Harrison was free to work with other businesses. But everyone knew how she felt about Silas Sharpe and Chesapeake Resort. She probably assumed Harrison wouldn’t work with him, which was a mistake on her part.

“He works for me now. Or didn’t you know that?” From Silas’s cocky expression, it was clear he already knew the answer to his question and was reveling in throwing Gia off-balance.

Gia’s eyes narrowed on Silas, and his answering smile was self-assured. Gia’s presence might have initially caught him off guard, but he’d recovered quickly. I was sure it was the businessman in him. He didn’t let anyone throw him off his game.

Gia stood, making her way past me and Leo, before pausing in front of Silas. Even though she was shorter than him, even in heels, she managed to look down her nose at him. “If you’ll excuse me. I’m here to enjoy the wedding.”

Silas’s nostrils flared as he took her in from head to toe. Her hair was pinned in a chignon at the base of her head, and she wore a wraparound dress that accentuated every curve.

Gia brushed past him, moving with purpose down the aisle, and into the main building. Silas watched her go, and I wondered if he was following the soft sway of her hips. He waited for a beat and then followed her into the hotel.

I started to get up, intending to follow her, when Leo’s hand encircled my wrist. “Let her go. She’s fine.”

“You don’t think I should check on her?” I wanted to make sure Silas wasn’t going to hassle her. But Leo might not have realized the level of antagonism between his sister and his best friend.

Leo let go of my wrist and settled his arm on the back of my chair, smiling down at me. He leaned in close to say in a conspiratorial whisper, he said, “You’re the only other person I know here.”

He was so close I could feel the press of his arm on my shoulders and the scent of his aftershave. He was huge and his presence was all-consuming. I couldn’t stop the heavy beating of my heart when Leo turned on the charm. I didn’t think he even noticed his effect on me. Or maybe he assumed that, because I was Gia’s friend, I didn’t think of him as anything other than a brother.

“I’m worried about her,” I said softly, reveling in the weight and warmth of his arm on my shoulder and how protective it felt. If we were here together, I’d feel like I was his. With that dangerous thought, my heart galloped away entirely.

Leo shook his head slightly as he pulled away. “Gia can take care of herself.”

I knew her family believed that, and I was sure it was true on some levels, but they didn’t see the woman I knew. She yearned for her brothers’ respect and her father’s approval, even though she didn’t work at Giovanni’s anymore.

“You don’t believe that?” Leo asked, really looking at me for the first time today.

I shifted on the hard chair under his scrutiny. “She’s strong, but she can be vulnerable too.”

He leaned back in the chair, spreading his legs wide so that his thigh was once again pressed against mine. His sprawl was undeniably sexy. “Gia can handle Silas.”

That’s not exactly what I was worried about. I suspected that Gia was attracted to Silas, and there was no way that could end well. Every time they were near each other, sparks flew, and I’m sure her brothers thought it was the competition between them, but it was more than that.

They got under each other’s skin, and there was an undeniable passion simmering just under the surface. I had a feeling they’d implode if they got together, and it wouldn’t be good for any of us. The only way Silas and Gia co-existed was because her business was in Annapolis, and Silas’s was out of town. Silas occasionally showed up to important family events, but otherwise, they didn’t cross paths much.

“What about you, little Harper?”

I rolled my eyes at the moniker Gia’s brothers gave me when I was younger. “I’m not little anymore. I’m all grown up.” I crossed my legs, shamelessly letting the hem of my dress slide up my bare thighs.

Leo’s gaze tracked the movement, and I felt the heat of his stare. I clenched my thighs together. I’d wanted Leo since we were kids, and he’d never given me any impression he was interested in me as anything more than a family friend. He as tasked with driving me and Gia to and from parties and dates when we were in high school, and his gaze had never lingered; his eyes never darkened with desire like they did now.

He swallowed hard before he finally looked away. “I can see that. You are all grown up, Harper Manning.”

 I rocked my foot to keep my mind off how good it sounded to hear my name on his lips. Not my nickname or a silly moniker, my full name. A tingle ran through my body.

Was this it? Had he finally seen me for the woman I was? Did he see me as desirable, someone he could see himself with?

The only problem with this crush that I’d had on him forever was that I hadn’t gotten past the part where he’d finally notice me. I was safe behind my crush. There was no way Gia’s older brother would look twice at me, much less stare at me with the heat he just had.

An usher stopped at our aisle, and we stood to allow a couple to move past us to the end of the row, and the intimate moment was gone. Gia returned to her seat before the wedding processional began, and Paisley made her way down the aisle.

Leo didn’t look in my direction for the rest of the ceremony, but I felt him. Every time he shifted in his chair, letting his leg relax against mine, and the adjustment when he realized we were touching.

Not for the first time, I wished that he was just some guy I met at the bar. I could have one spectacular night with him, get it out of my system, and go back to boring life as a single mom.

 Naomi and Chris’s ceremony was beautiful. I could feel their love as they allowed Paisley to stand next to them as they exchanged vows. For a few seconds, I allowed myself to imagine me in the same position. A man by side, declaring his love, not only for me, but for my daughter, too. But it felt false, like it wasn’t meant for me.

I’d concluded long ago that I’d never get married, and I thought I was okay with that. None of the men my mother dated loved her enough for that. And my mom was so busy chasing the next guy, she never saw me. That’s why I latched on to Gia’s family at a young age. I wanted what she had, and maybe that was part of this crush I had on Leo. I wanted to be part of the Giovanni family so bad that I imagined this attraction to him.

I was attached to Gia [JR1] and her family, not the other way around. They didn’t need me as I did them. Mr. G. gave me my first job when I was fourteen, and Mrs. G. watched Evie so I could work. They protected me. But I was starting to think it was time for me to separate from them.

We stood as the couple made their way back down the aisle, this time to cheers. I was happy for them, even if I didn’t know them.

“Are we staying for the reception?” Leo asked Gia.

Gia nodded, her expression calculating. “Of course. I want to see how everything is run.”

“So, you are spying on Silas,” Leo asked seriously.

Gia rolled her eyes. “Any good business owner is aware of the competition.”

Leo’s forehead wrinkled. “Don’t forget Silas is my friend.”

Gia scoffed. “And my biggest competitor.”

“I hate that you two don’t get along,” Leo said softly.

I wondered if Leo felt in the middle of that situation. There was animosity coming from Gia, and I’m sure Silas didn’t have good things to say about her.

Gia’s eyes narrowed. “Does it matter? We’re competitors. We were never going to be friends.”

I could see Gia and Silas interacting as enemies and maybe even lovers, but anything else was too preposterous to consider. Both of their personalities were so big they’d clash. Not that I was an expert on relationships.

“What about you? You need to get back?” Leo asked me, and I was touched that he cared.

“Your mom said she didn’t mind keeping Evie. You know she loves her as if she’s her grandchild. But I don’t want to leave her all night.” Mrs. G. loved to say I was the only one of her kids who bothered to give her grandkids. I loved that she’d referred to me as her child, but a part of me knew she was just being nice. I wasn’t part of the Giovanni family. Not really.

As we moved into the aisle, Leo let Gia walk ahead of us, and he wrapped his arm around me for a second time, drawing me into his side. His heat enveloped me. “I want to thank you for that. As the eldest, I get the most pressure in that department.”

“To get married and have kids?” I was aware of the dynamics of the Giovanni family, but it never failed to surprise me how much they cared for each other.

Leo nodded as we followed the line of guests to the cocktail area.

“You don’t want that?” It wasn’t something I’d ever had an opportunity to ask before. We were usually surrounded by their family. It was loud and boisterous, and private conversations weren’t possible.

Leo sighed. “I do. Just not on my mom’s schedule.”

He’d dated Bianca for three years, and everyone thought they would get engaged. Her family owned a fancy Italian restaurant in town. For me, her existence meant that Leo would remain a silly crush, not a real possibility. When they broke up, everyone was surprised, but I never heard why it didn’t work out.

Leo was a good son. He’d eventually give in to his mother’s demands and get married to a nice Italian girl who didn’t already have kids with a deadbeat dad. He’d be with someone worthy of him. I had no delusions that I was it for him.

When a waiter walked by with a tray, we each grabbed a champagne glass. Leo held his up, and said, “To Happily Ever Afters.”

“Happily Ever Afters,” I repeated, and Gia smiled.

“I can get behind that.”

We clinked glasses, and I drank deeply from mine. It was dry going down, and I immediately started coughing.

Leo’s large palm rested on my back as I leaned over, hoping the ground would swallow me. “Are you okay?”

“It went down the wrong pipe,” I said, slightly embarrassed yet enjoying his concern.

Leo grabbed a glass of water from a nearby waiter and handed it to me.

I drank slowly, hoping it wouldn’t set off another coughing fit.

When they were satisfied I’d recovered, Gia drifted away, presumably to see how things ran at a Chesapeake Resort wedding. But Leo kept his hand on my back as I sipped my water.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. His eyes were soft and filled with concern.

I sighed, wishing I could stay this close to him forever. “I am now.”

When I was with Leo, I felt protected and cared for, even if he didn’t see me as anyone more than his sister’s best friend.

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