FOOL ME ONCE by Nicole Williams is available now!
Second chances are for kids, diets, and shelter pets—not for relationships. Especially not one like Chase and Emma’s.
Before he was writing chart-topping hits and smashing record sales, Chase Lawson was Emma’s childhood friend and first love. They promised each other forever, but forever expired at eighteen, when he landed a major record deal and left Emma and their hometown behind.
Ten years later, he shows up at their high school reunion with a proposition she can’t refuse. Six months. Seven figures. He gets a chance to clean up his reputation, and she gets the means to restore the old family farmhouse. It’s only for show—hold hands in public, kiss for the cameras—but boundaries blur behind closed doors.
It isn’t long before Emma feels her resolve slipping, crushed by the shadow of the boy she grew to love in the man selling out stadiums of present. Can Emma resist one of the most irresistible bachelors in the world? Or will she fall for the same man twice?
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Chapter 1 Reveal
Some things weren’t meant to be. That’s what I told myself for the thousandth time when I caught sight of my ex with his newest flame.
“You’re too good for him.”
“Way too good for him.”
My childhood friends, Brooke and Sophia, assured me as they circled in tighter.
“I don’t know why I decided to come to this thing,” I muttered before finishing what was left in my champagne glass.
“Maybe because a ten-year high school reunion only happens once in a lifetime?” Brooke spun me around so the happy couple wasn’t in view, while Sophia dashed off to grab another glass of champagne.
“You know what? A hysterectomy is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing too, but I’m not going to sign myself up just because.” I checked the time, my shoulders falling when I did. Barely an hour in and I already felt like this experience had extinguished whatever patience was left in my person.
“Just be thankful you didn’t waste any more time on a guy like that. Chalk it up to experience and move on.”
“And look at the line of men I have to move on with?” I motioned at the area in front of me; it was empty. “I should have been smart like you and Sophia and gotten married young to some nice, hard-working local boy.”
“Would you stop? You’re twenty-eight. It’s not like you’re horizontal and decaying,” Brooke put her hand on her hip, leveling me with a serious look.
“No. I’m decaying vertically”—I tapped the corners of my eyes, where I’d detected the early stages of crow’s feet earlier this summer—“practicing for my future as a cranky old spinster.”
“You girls talking about me behind my back again?” Sophia reappeared with a fresh glass of champagne, practically ramming it into my hand.
“Please. We prefer to direct our insults to your face.” I winked at Sophia as we clinked our glasses.
“That’s a sign of true friendship,” Brooke toasted before we all took a drink.
“Hey, ladies, this isn’t homeroom. Break it up and dance already.” Rob, Brooke’s husband, popped up beside us, ringing his arm around his wife’s neck.
“I hate this song.” My nose curled as I stayed planted in place.
The three of them headed toward the dance floor as Sophia made a face at me and said, “It was eleven years ago. Time to let it go, girl.”
Brady, her husband, joined her for a dance.
“Not likely,” I said under my breath, taking in the party from my spectator seat on the sidelines.
Almost everyone had made their way to the dance floor, singing at the tops of their lungs. I didn’t know how anyone could stand to hear this song after it had been played nonstop on the radio the past four months.
Jesse, another of my good friends, settled beside me. “Do you think he’s going to show?”
“There aren’t any cameras or fancy awards, so unlikely,” I grumbled.
“Ever since the accident, it seems like he’s been keeping a low profile anyway.” Jesse waved the bird at my ex, who was too busy lodging his tongue down his dance partner’s throat to notice. “I still can’t believe Chase was that drunk. I mean, blowing a point two isn’t for the faint of heart, and I don’t remember him drinking at a party even once when the rest of us were being rebellious teenagers.”
I rolled my eyes at my friend, who had this concerned expression as though Chase was the victim. “There was also the bit about him plowing his truck into a parked car and getting arrested.”
“Fame and money really ruin people.” Jesse clucked her tongue. “That’s why I’m so grateful to live paycheck to paycheck and have good friends who babysit for free at the drop of a hat.” Jesse nudged me. “Thank you again for last night. Johnny and I had a really nice night. Adult conversation, dinner that wasn’t some variation of mac n’ cheese, and I got to wear earrings without fear of having them ripped out by grabby baby hands.”
“They were perfect angels for me, as always.” I smiled at her. “And you’re welcome. Any time.”
“How are you?” Before I could even attempt to give the bullshit answer, Jesse added, “For real?”
“I’m okay. Learning to accept I might be happier alone than the alternative.” My eyes had wandered to a certain couple moving in such a way that made clothes seem pointless.
“You haven’t met the right one.”
“Because the right one isn’t out there.” I wound my arm around hers, hoping that would be the end of the conversation.
My friends cared, and that’s why they felt the need to dissect my every relationship-gone-wrong, but the last thing I wanted to do was detail my failures in the romance department. Especially with three friends who were happily married and starting their own families.
“Of course he’s out there. You can’t give up hope.”
I lifted my glass. “In my fourteen years of dating, I’ve been cheated on, lied to, broken up with over a social media messenger, heartbroken, ditched for an eight-figure record deal, and proposed to by seven African princes.” My gaze dropped to my bare left ring finger. “I have just enough hope left to say yes to the next prince who asks for my hand.”
Jesse shook her head. “He’s out there. And when you agree to marry him, it better be me you call to be your maid of honor.”
“Deal.” I clinked my nearly empty glass to hers, which was already empty. “Whatcha drinking? My treat for the relationship counseling.”
“A screwdriver.” She handed me her glass. “Hold the alcohol.”
“Wait. What?” It took me two seconds of confusion before my eyes dropped to her stomach. “Number three?”
Jesse’s hand lowered to her stomach. “All four and a half months of him or her.”
My face lit up before I threw myself at her, winding my arms around her as much as I could with two glasses in my hands. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you guys.”
“Thanks, friend. I don’t know what I’m going to do with three in diapers, but I guess I’ll figure it out.”
“Are you kidding? You’ll more than figure it out. You are, like, the best mom ever.” I planted a kiss on her cheek before backing toward the bar. “I’m going to get some drinks to celebrate. Virgin screwdrivers coming right up.”
Jesse flashed a rock and roll symbol, biting her tongue. I chuckled before turning around so I didn’t run into someone or something. With the three glasses of champagne I had in my all of five-foot-four frame, it was an Easter miracle I was still upright.
I’d just made it to the bar when a chorus of cheers reverberated through the room. Jason Gallagher had probably stripped to his skivvies and was doing the moonwalk like he used to do every last day of school from the time we hit middle school.
But then I heard a familiar name being called out, practically chanted.
Good god, no. My luck wasn’t that bad.
Setting the empty glasses on the counter, I slowly turned around, praying I was mishearing the name still ringing through the reception room.
I saw him right away, as though my eyes were trained to find him in a crowded room. I hated that they still followed that habit.
There he was, Chase Lawson, the legend himself, sauntering into a high school reunion in the same small town he’d waved farewell to eleven years ago.
My stomach knotted as I scanned the nearest exits.
“What can I get you?” The bartender interrupted my mini panic attack.
“Um . . .” I tried to remember a simple drink order. It was difficult with two ex flames in the same crowded room. “Two screwdrivers.” I fumbled with the bills inside my leather clutch. “Two virgin screwdrivers.” I remembered right as he was about to pour in the vodka.
“So two orange juices?” He gave me a look that suggested I was even more unhinged than I thought. He shook his head when I held out a twenty. “On the house.”
I grabbed my OJs and hugged the perimeter as I made my way back to where I’d left Jesse. Except she’d been pulled onto the dance floor by her husband and was way too close to Chase and his ever-present following of fawning females for my comfort. Making a last-minute decision, I ducked through the half-open door leading outside.
“I knew I shouldn’t have come,” I said to myself before taking a sip of one of the orange juices. It wasn’t like I’d had to travel or rent a hotel—Jericho High was a whole four miles from my family’s farm—but I doubted I’d feel more inconvenienced if they’d held it on some iceberg in the Arctic.
Following the walkway toward the small pond tucked behind the reception hall, I settled onto the first bench I came across. My feet were killing me thanks to the weapons of torture I’d selected for tonight. My feet were used to boots, not four-inch strappy heels. But according to Sophia, our town’s resident fashion maven, the royal blue heels were exactly what my scarlet cocktail dress was in need of. We’d all felt really high class rolling into Tulsa a couple weekends ago to hit the mall for our reunion digs, but some articles were better suited for hangers than bodies. Mine in particular. I’d never in my life had to work so hard to take a full breath.
Once I’d torn off the shoes I had plans to drop off at Goodwill tomorrow, I sat back, made my best attempt at relaxing, and stared at the sky. It was overcast, but a few stars were popping through the thick clouds. How many times had I stared at that sky as a young woman, spinning plans that would never come to fruition? Dreaming dreams that would never connect with reality?
Too damn many, that’s the closest I could get.
I’d had plans to travel, to visit every continent before I had kids, and I’d barely made it to a handful of bordering states since. The upside was that I wasn’t going to be a mother anytime soon, if ever, so I still had plenty of time to visit those continents.
“Is this where the Anti-Social Club meets?”
I flinched so hard, I wound up with the majority of two cups of juice on my lap. Add the dress to the Goodwill pile. “Turn around. Go away.”
A low-timbered chuckle. “You always had a way with words, Em.”
My head whipped over my shoulder. “Uh-oh. No. You do not get to call me Em.”
Chase flashed one of his infamous smiles, the one that had made him a hit with the ladies before his face had been plastered across billboards, magazines, and screensavers. It was the part-smirk, mostly-smolder grin. Right dimple set. Cobalt eyes flashing. What Celebrity Instagrammers had labeled the underwear-incinerator.
But not these underwear. Chase Lawson had no sway over the condition of my underwear anymore.
“Okay, Emma.” The sound of Chase’s boots connecting with the pavement made my teeth grind together. In a different life, I’d loved the sound of his boots as he moved closer. “Is this seat taken?”
“Yes.” I slammed the empty glasses on the bench, lifting my eyebrow at him.
“Sorry about the dress,” he said when his eyes dipped to the wet circles dotting my stomach.
“Of all the things to apologize for, my dress is not high on the list.”
His smile stretched. “I’ve missed having someone around whose primary language isn’t bullshit.”
“Is that meant as a compliment?”
Inhaling, I twisted in my seat so my back was angled toward him. No matter how many pieces of confetti Chase Lawson had diced my heart into when he left me, it wasn’t safe for any red-blooded woman to stare at him face-on at this close of a distance. Not unless she was in the market for a heartbreak.
“How have you been, Em—Emma?” He caught himself, but from his smirk, the slip had probably been intentional.
“Amazing.” I breathed through my mouth when a familiar scent hit my senses. I couldn’t believe he still wore the same cologne. It seemed like I should have had some kind of proprietary right over it since I was the one who got it for him on our first Christmas together.
“Amazingly amazing.” When I caught him glancing at my left hand, I tucked my hands beneath my legs.
“Good to hear.”
I bit my cheek, wondering if I could figure out a way to time travel to freshman year when I’d agreed to be Chase Lawson’s date to homecoming. Even the fourteen-year-old version of me had known getting involved with Chase was equivalent to playing a game of Russian Roulette. She hadn’t heeded the warning, but she’d at least acknowledged it.
“If you’re looking for your fans, you’ll find them back in there.” My thumb hitched over my shoulder. “I know you can’t go more than a few minutes without being worshipped or else you risk spontaneous combustion.”
“Please. I can go a good ten minutes without being worshipped now. I’ve matured.” I heard the smile in his voice, but damned if I was going to check for it. That was the one-hundred percent smirk one.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked. “We both know you’re the center-of-the-crowd type, not the wallflower who sneaks off to be alone.”
From the corner of my eyes, I saw him slip his hands into the pockets of his snug jeans. Another Chase Dawson trademark—close-fitting jeans to better emphasize an agreeable rear and an even more agreeable swell around front.
“A person can change,” he said, his shoulders lifting. “A person does change when all day, every day they’re surrounded by people and noise.”
My eyes lifted. “Must be difficult making all of that money from all of those adoring fans.”
“I’m not going to be able to say anything without you twisting it, am I?”
A wave of exhaustion came over me as though twenty-eight years of life had decided to catch up to me all at once. “I don’t want to fight with you.”
“Could have fooled me.”
I chipped away at the fresh pale pink polish on my nails, a nervous habit. It was the first manicure I’d had in years, and it hadn’t survived twelve hours. “Why did you come back?”
His head tipped toward the reception hall. “It was the ten-year reunion.”
A huff escaped from my mouth. “Please, you left this place and haven’t so much as spared a second thought for anything or anyone here. And some lame reunion in the Best Western ballroom is the can’t miss event of the summer?”
He rubbed the back of his neck in a familiar way. Used as a stalling measure when he was trying to figure out what to say and how to say it, it was a display I was all too acquainted with.
“I came back from one reason.” He slowly angled in my direction. When he let out a breath, his gaze all-intentional, my chest seized.
“Me?” I screeched, at the same time choking on a laugh. “You’re out of your damn mind if you think I’ve been waiting here, on pins and needles, for you. Keep on strutting back to that fancy Nashville estate of yours, because the only part of you I still want is the cautionary tale.”
Chase’s hand rubbed his jaw, his smile unmistakable despite his efforts to erase it. “I didn’t come back for you,” he stated, promptly bringing a flush to my face.
Of course he wasn’t there for me. The seventeen-year-old version hadn’t expressed any qualms ditching me as an up-and-comer; the twenty-eight-year-old country icon certainly wasn’t back to rekindle anything.
“Sorry to burst your bubble, even though I can tell you’ll be all torn up knowing that,” he said.
“Good to hear you still have a knack for sarcasm.”
He crouched beside the bench, staring at the dark pond. I was more concerned with checking the shrubs and shadows for any signs of the paparazzi he seemed to attract wherever he went. Literally, everywhere. Some dude had managed to snap a picture of Chase through his Tennessee estate’s bathroom window, fresh from the shower and shaving. The thirst for Chase Lawson had gone from parched to panting in one intimate image.
“I’ve got a new album that just dropped,” he said. “A whirlwind tour kicking off next week. I’ve had a bit of a public image problem this past year, and my PR team assured me that getting back to my roots will help shift that.”
My fingers snapped. “I knew this had something to do with the media. By the way, where is the camera squad tonight?”
“Somewhere. They’re always around.”
“I’m sure you really hate all that attention,” I chided, wondering how much more I had to throw at him before he’d move on.
“I came back because I need to clean up my image and do some damage repair to my reputation.” He went back to rubbing the back of his neck. “Now that I’m here with you, and you sort of accused me of being here for you, a crazy idea popped to mind.”
“I’d like to recommend you keep this idea to yourself,” I suggested, but he was already talking.
“If I had my old high school girlfriend with me on tour—rekindling an old flame with a small-town country girl—how could that not clean up an image?” He motioned at me. “You’re exactly what I need to show fans I’m getting my life back on track. A wholesome, down-to-earth girl who gets up at five to water the horses instead of going to bed at that hour after drinking the town dry.”
My head whipped in his direction, finally looking at him to determine if he was being serious. My god, he was.
“Not a chance in hell,” I said, enunciating each word slowly.
Chase didn’t blink. “Even if that proposition was tied to a sum of money?” When I opened my mouth to argue, he added, “A large sum?”
“My principles aren’t for sale.”
He shuffled a little closer, still kneeling. Damn. He was just as attractive in person from three feet away as he was on the cover of Rolling Stone. My stomach knotted again, but this time for a different reason.
“I don’t want to buy your principles.” One brow lifted. “Just six months of your time.”
For a minute, I sat there silently, part hypnotized by his presence, part contemplating his ridiculous offer. There were few people I disliked more than Chase Lawson, but I also had big plans for my future. Plans that necessitated money.
My head shook when I heard my question out loud. What was I saying? What was I actually contemplating doing?
“One hundred thousand a month,” he replied.
My hand curled around the arm of the bench. “Six hundred thousand dollars?” I shrieked, giving him a look like he was crazy.
“Fine. Six months. One million dollars.” He exhaled. “Final offer.”
My hand was dangerously close to ripping the handle from the bench. “One million dollars.”
My mind raced with everything I could do with that money. Restoring the farmhouse the way I’d dreamed, turning it into a quaint B&B with an agrarian twist. Spoiling my parents with a fancy cruise and a new farm truck. Finally getting to travel to some of the places I’d only imagined through the pictures of a magazine.
All it would take was six months with Chase.
It wasn’t exactly an easy decision, but it wasn’t a hard one. I’d given two years of my life to him already, and it had cost me more than I’d been prepared to pay. This time, he’d be the one paying for it. One million dollars to be exact.
I couldn’t answer quickly enough. “Deal.”