Vince Santini considers himself the last man standing. Being the only unmarried brother is a badge of honor, until the woman had always been in his heart returns. Acting on his attraction hadn't been an option seeing that she was his best friend's girl, but now she is single and free for him to pursue.
Julianna Andrews is a survivor. It took her years to walk away from her abusive husband, and now all she cares about is building her business. She doesn't have time for Vince or the temptation he represents. He is a reminder of her past. One argument leads to a heated kiss, and the passion that threatens to consume them both.
Vince knows that Jules might not be ready for happily ever after with anyone, but he is bound and determined to convince her that he can give her that—and more. This Santini is happy to be the last man standing—as long as he is HER man.
Vince Santini fell in love for the first and only time in his life thanks to getting hit in the face with a locker door. He didn't even remember where he was going or what he was doing. He just remembered turning to hurry out of school and walking straight into steel. He fell back, smacking his head on the tiled floor. When he opened his eyes, his world was spinning.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," a girl said. She was leaning over him, her dark brown eyes filled with worry, her red curls tumbling over her shoulder. "I didn't see you coming."
He shook his head trying to clear it and found himself face to face with a titan-haired goddess. And she kept putting her hands on him. Jesus. If she didn't stop, he was going to embarrass himself. He could smell her. Some kind of mixture of baby powder and lust. Although the lust might have been his part.
Then she stopped. "Vince? Vince Santini?"
He nodded then winced. "Damn."
She laughed and offered him a hand. "You don't remember me. It's Julianna Andrews, from Twenty-nine Palms. You know, the seventh grade, Mrs. Gillepse's Algebra?"
Then it clicked. The gangly girl, taller than most, so skinny…always with a smile. "Yeah, Jules." It had been more than three years since he'd seen her and Jules had definitely filled out. He let her help him up and shook his head trying to clear it.
"You live here now?"
She nodded. "Dad's an instructor. We moved in a month ago."
"Julianna, I see you met my best friend, Vince," Mike Callahan said as he walked up and slipped his arm around her shoulders. "I told you about Julianna, didn't I, Vince?"
He nodded. "I didn't make the connection. We were at Twenty-nine palms together. Of course, I called her Jules."
"Yeah, well, Mike doesn't like that." Then she bent down to help him pick up the books he'd dropped. "I thought it might be you he talked about. I mean how many Santini families are there especially with four boys, but, you never know."
Once he had all his books and papers in his arms, Mike smiled. "We were going to get a burger, you up for it?"
He shook his head. "Naw, you go ahead. I've got some studying to do."
Mike chuckled. "Vince is kind of an egghead, but then, he'll probably get into Annapolis. See ya, later."
They turned to walk away and Jules smiled back over her shoulder at him. "It was great to see you again."
He watched as his best friend walked out of the school with the girl of his dreams.
Almost 18 years later.
"Vicente, are you there?" his mother asked him. He was sitting the back of his parents SUV daydreaming.
Great instincts, Marine.
"Yeah, just sort of dozed off back here."
She sighed. "I thought you two would help me. You will help me pick flowers, both of you."
His father gave his mother an indulgent smile and followed her out of the SUV. That's the way it was for Santinis. Hard as nails military men, always done in by a woman. And he was about to come face to face with the one who always tied him in knots for the first time in fifteen years.
Jules wanted to scream. Worse, she wanted to do harm to an inanimate object. The one thing about running her nursery was that she had a lot of freedom. Unfortunately, she also had to handle the computer work.
There was a knock at the door and through the glass she saw Joey Santini waving at her. Immediately, Jules heart lightened. Since starting her business six months earlier, Mrs. Santini had been a godsend, suggesting her to friends and even giving her advice about advertising.
She waved the older woman into her office and stood. "Mrs. Santini, I didn't know you were coming by today."
She hugged her and it felt good. With her parents back in California, Jules was pretty much on her own. Mrs. Santini had taken her under her wing and had checked on her from time to time.
"Well, the whole family's coming in. Marco is bringing Alana for us to meet, since we've only talked on the phone, and that skypy thing. I wanted to get some arrangements and flowers for the house. Oh, and Gee just got engaged."
"Oh, my. Little Gee is getting married? Now I do feel old."
"You? I'm about to be a grandmother."
She looked at the woman she had known for over twenty years. "You haven't aged a bit, Mrs. Santini."
"I told you to call me Joey."
"Babe, did you say you wanted tulips? They're a little expensive," Mr. Santini said from behind her.
"Yes, I think we can afford some tulips. They are Kianna's favorite from what Gee says and I want to give them to her."
He grumbled something but went off to do her bidding. It never failed to amaze her how all the Santini men did whatever she wanted. There was a healthy does of fear among all of them.
"You're a rock star, you know that?"
She shook he head. "What do you mean?"
"That man will do anything to make you happy."
Joey laughed. "That's a Santini. I'm sure you'll see it all in action tomorrow night."
For a second, her brain didn't "Wait. What?"
"I want you there. The boys would love to see you."
Only Joey Santini would call four hulking military men boys and make them sound like they were sweet little innocents. Of course, in Joey's eyes, they were all sweet and innocent.
"That's really sweet of you, but I have a lot of work to do."
"I didn't say what time and I doubt you have work to do on a Saturday night."
Jules narrowed her eyes. "Joey, quit trying to be all innocent like you don't know what you're doing."
Joey made a face. "I want you there. Can't you do it for me?"
She shook her head. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
"There is nothing shameful about this. I would like you to see the boys, they would like to see you. In fact, Vince is with us today. Vince."
And true to her word, Vince walked across her nursery. Okay, walk was too simple of a word. Striding…marching…something because Vicente Santini just didn't walk. And seeing him among the flats of flowers was kind of surreal.
Just like they hadn't talked in years, as if there was no strain between them. "Hey, Vince. How're doing?"
Jules didn't miss the eye roll his mother gave him. "I was telling Jules she needed to come by tomorrow night. I know the girls would like to meet someone from your childhood."
Something like alarm moved over his features before it dissolved. "They would probably like that. Of course, I don't know if we can leave her alone with MJ."
"You leave Maryanne out of this. You be nice to my daughter-in-law."
"You are all sweet on her because she's giving you a grandbaby."
"Exactly. I have no problem admitting that."
He laughed and now that he was paying no attention to Jules, it was easy to study him. He was even more attractive than he had been in school. He'd always been well muscled, but now he was filled out. The extra lines around his blue eyes made him even more attractive. Another of those unfair things women had to deal with.
"So, it's settled."
"What?" she asked when she looked at Joey.
"You will come. Seven o'clock. Unless you have a date or something," Joey said smiling.
A date? She couldn't remember the last time she'd even entertained that idea. She was usually so tired by Saturday she would only plan for spending all day at home on Sunday. Rufus expected it.
"You know the address? Wait, wouldn't it make sense for you and Vince to come together. He lives over here in your neck of the woods."
Alarm shot through her again. Vince and her. Alone. They hadn't done that until the day before her wedding.
"Sure," Vince said.
"Write down your address for Vince and he'll pick you up. See you tomorrow, Jules."
Then Joey turned and left them alone.
"Just go with the flow. It is always best to let her have her way on the little things."
She blinked and looked at Vince. "I don't even know what to wear."
"It's a Santini family get together. Casual always works. Plus, Mom is gonna be cooking all day, so nothing too fancy just in case you drop red sauce."
She chuckled. "Of course you remember what a klutz I am."
She wrote down her home address on a sticky note and handed it to him. "What time?"
He blinked. He still had all those wonderful dark lashes around his deep blue eyes. It as almost hypnotic to look into them. "What?"
"What time will you be picking me up?"
"How about six-thirty?"
He didn't leave. He just kept standing there staring at her as if he expected her to say something. She didn't know what to say to him. Other than go away and that seemed rude.
"Vicente, I have a house to clean, let's go," his mother bellowed across the nursery.
Vince gave her a smile and she felt her heart take a tumble. "What she really means is she making Dad clean the house."
"I heard that."
"Ears like a bat. See you tomorrow, Jules."
Then he walked out. She watched the family pile into their car together feeling a little homesick. Not that she had a home since she was a brat but it was where her parents were, which was Modesta, California. She sighed. She'd been happy when Joey had started to come around. They had even started to do lunch every now and then.
"Who was that hunk?" Angela asked as she walked down the aisle to Jules. She was only ten years younger than Jules, but Angela made her feel as if she were a hundred.
"That was Vicenti Santini, Joey's oldest baby boy, as she calls him when he's not around."
"Well, he is hot. I wanted to take a big bite out of that perfect ass."
Jules smiled at the younger woman. She had been a great find in a sea of applicants. A military brat working her way through college with a head for numbers and a personal gift for selling, Angela made the long hours all that more enjoyable with her unrestrained commentary. "It is kind of perfect. All the girls in high school were in agreement with that."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, lord, you went to high school with that?"
"No. He looks better today than he did then. Which is why men suck."
Angela laughed. "Well, he was mighty interested in you."
She shook her head. "No, he isn't."
"Yeah, he is. He kept looking back there when his Mom was talking to you. He's got a thing for you."
"Have you started drinking with breakfast? Besides, I doubt Vicente Santini spends any of his time thinking about me."
"I bet you ten bucks he does. A lot. I have a sense about these things."
"You mean like the sense you had about the UPS guy being a mob guy in witness protection."
"Okay, so I was wrong about that, and UPS had no problem changing his route when it got uncomfortable."
"Yeah, he got sick of you trying to trick him into saying his real name. He didn't even look Italian."
"Not everyone who works for the Mafia is Italian and not all organized crime is Italian. But, that hot hunk of burning Marine blood is. I'm right about him. Bet ya."
"I'll take that bet, because I know for a fact he doesn't like me."
Especially not after the kiss. She could remember like it was yesterday. They were alone in her parents' backyard and were supposed to be getting ready for the wedding rehearsal and he had kissed her. Right there with the cherry blossoms blooming overhead. And, he told her he loved her.
It had been the last words he had spoken to her until today.
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