Publication date: July 1st 2021
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Romance
What happens when you fall for the one person you can’t have?
Anna has always tried to do everything right, working hard through medical school, and now in her career as a doctor. She’s worked hard at her eight-year relationship with her fiancé Phil too, and can’t wait to get married and become part of Phil’s extended family. Then the unthinkable happens. Phil breaks up with her three months before their wedding.
Luckily, Phil’s younger brother Seth works at the same hospital and is there to help her through the aftermath.
Seth’s always been the laid-back, jokey one in contrast to his more serious brother. He’s always secretly envied Phil’s relationship with Anna because she’s his epitome of the perfect girl. When he sees how devastated Anna is after his idiot brother dumps her, he does everything he can to get her smiling again. But the more time they spend together, the more their connection grows.
Your brother’s ex-fiancée is off-limits. Everyone knows that.
The problem is when you accidentally cross that line, the repercussions can be immense.
The intercom buzzed. Sure enough, it was Seth: Mr. Dependable. Right on time. That was one trait he shared with his brother. Their mother had drilled punctuality into them.
When Seth and I started hanging out, there had always been those first few moments when I saw him, before his height or the unruly hair registered, when my imagination could fool itself into thinking he was Philip. Funny how I’d stopped doing that in recent weeks. I no longer wanted it to be Philip; I was more than happy it was Seth.
“Happy Birthday.” Freshly shaven, he enveloped me in a quick one-armed hug at the door while holding a bag of groceries in his other hand. I caught a whiff of his aftershave.
“You smell nice,” I said as I pulled away.
“Yeah, I’m trying out this new thing. It’s called showering.”
“Oh, trust me, it is.” Seth strolled into the apartment and set the grocery bag on the counter. “So, I know we talked about doing those mini quiche things that Mum makes as a starter, but I thought some hearty pumpkin and bacon soup might be better given the weather.”
“It’s your show. I’m merely the hired help,” I said.
We chatted about work and life as we sliced and diced the pumpkin. Soon the soup was bubbling away, and Seth turned his attention to seasoning the lamb rack while I put the finishing touches to the cheesecake. As I returned it to the fridge, I realized there was one topic Seth hadn’t touched on.
“Have you hung out with Imogen this week?”
“Um…no, actually…Imogen and I broke up.” Seth scratched his nose, looking uncomfortable.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought things were going well between you guys.”
“Yeah…they were. But it was one of those situations where things looked good on the surface, but we didn’t really connect at a deeper level.”
I felt a surge of anger at her. Seth was such a great guy; she must be some kind of fool to let him get away.
Seth glanced at me. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re surprised to hear I have a deeper level, right?”
“A bit. I had you pegged as someone with about as much depth as a puddle.”
Seth grinned. “I like that. Bradley’s writing a song about the things people say to each other when they break up. I might give him that line.”
“Make sure he doesn’t forget ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’” I could hear the bitterness in my voice. “That’s the one Philip used on me.”
Seth picked up a spoon to stir the soup. “That’s probably the first time in Phil’s life that he got something in the emotional domain correct.” He held out the spoon. “Want a taste?”
I opened the drawer and took out a clean spoon. “We’re doctors, remember? We should probably observe the basic rules of hygiene.”
“I’m also a guy,” Seth pointed out. “I can cook an entire meal using one spoon and one pot.”
“That’s something everyone should aspire to.”
“It sure saves a lot of time washing up.”
I helped myself to a spoonful of soup. The flavor exploded on my tongue: the perfect balance of sweet pumpkin and salty bacon. “It’s delicious. You’re a culinary genius.”
Seth gave me a wink. “I need to pad out my resume somehow, make myself more attractive to the ladies. With a face like this, I need all the help I can get.”
I snorted. “Whatever.” Both Johnson boys were far too handsome for their own good. I couldn’t imagine Seth having any trouble attracting women, and Philip had even managed to attract one while engaged to another.
Not that Seth would ever do that. Funny how I knew that instinctively. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where Seth would cheat on the person he was with.
Then again, before he’d done it, had I ever imagined Philip would?
Why was I thinking about Philip so much tonight? Maybe it was due to the fact this was my first birthday in nine years without him. And, if everything had gone as planned, he would have been at my side, helping me instead of his younger brother.
Seth grabbed the oven mitt and pulled out the lamb rack. As I watched him make a delicate slice, testing whether it was cooked through, I couldn’t help rewinding the evening, imagining if it had been Philip cooking alongside me.
Philip always cooked in an “Aren’t I amazing? Make sure you admire me as I’m such a fantastic guy for helping you out” kind of way. He would have instructed me while we cooked, trying to make sure everything was perfect.
And it would have been tense because for Philip, it was always about making an impression. He could even turn a casual birthday dinner with friends competitive. He’d have found some obscure wine and made a big deal of opening it. We’d have cooked complicated dishes well outside our comfort zone, as it was important to Philip that everyone gushed over the dinner.
And I would have gone along with him because that’s what I did.
I could almost see myself—that alternative Anna—face flushed, trying to think of ways to destress Philip before our guests arrived, inwardly cursing that I’d ever suggested doing the cooking when a restaurant would have been so much simpler.
In contrast to this reality, where I’d spent the past few hours laughing and joking with Seth as we prepared a perfectly edible meal. Okay, it might not be haute cuisine, but my guests wouldn’t care. Nor would they care when I served them cheap bottles of wine.
I was so much happier than alternative Anna would have been.
That thought startled me out of my daze.
Seth was talking. I blinked, trying to focus on what he was saying.
He was telling me about the musical aspirations of his roommate Bradley.
“Anyway, his band’s scored a gig at that new club on Victoria Street in a few weeks, so I said I’d go along to support them. Do you want to come too?”
“Don’t you think I’m a bit old to go clubbing?”
“I’m reasonably confident your arthritic limbs can handle it.”
“Okay, sounds like fun.”
“Based on the noises coming from his room when he’s practicing, fun isn’t quite the word I’d use. More like painful.”
“You’re really not selling it to me now.”
Seth flashed me a grin. “I’ll be there. What more of a sales pitch do you need?”
“So true,” I deadpanned. I met Seth’s eyes, clocking their deep hazel color before regaining my senses. What was I doing? Making meaningful eye contact with Seth? That’s the kind of thing one did when having a flirty conversation, not our typical jokey exchanges. I looked away, acutely aware of the blush creeping up my neck, hoping he’d put it down to the heat in the kitchen.
Fortunately, the buzzer rang.
“I’ll get it.” I wiped my hands on a towel and headed over to buzz the first of my guests in.
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Jacqueline Lee is an award-winning romance author who writes stories with heart and humor. She loves writing characters who have fun with each other while building a deeper connection. Formerly a high school biology teacher, Jackie is living her own version of happily-ever-after with her husband and three children in New Zealand.
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