Hard to Handle

Jessica Lemmon

For my brother, Nick, who shares Aiden’s unbreakable spirit.

“Life is a beautiful struggle.”


First and foremost, my humble thanks to God for giving me the amazing opportunity to write and create. I love this gig! Thank you to my husband, John, who puts up with deadlines (and lack of food in the house during deadlines) like a champ. Thanks to “cheer-readers” Niki Hughes, Amy Wade, Amber Dunlevy, and Jennifer Hill, who can’t wait to read my next book no matter what stage it’s in.

Fellow writers on Twitter and beyond (too many of you to name!) for encouraging me when I was in the freak-out stage. Nicole Resciniti, my agent and friend, for fact-checking motorcycle stuff (all mistakes are mine) and for loving my work. You make me smile.

Lauren Plude, my editor and other half, for loving Aiden with a purity that rivaled my own. (Invite me to the Plude/Downey wedding, will you?) Everyone at Grand Central Publishing/Forever for your hand in polishing this book, especially the editors who make me look like I know the difference between blond and blonde.

Thanks to everyone at Reliable Construction, where I worked while creating this book. It’s the little things that meant the most. To Dave and Richard for your constant encouragement, to Tammy for teaching me to recycle paper and use the back for note-taking (you have no idea how much of this book is jotted on half sheets of paper!). And to Chuck Bern…I’m not saying you’re Axle Zoller, but he certainly has your mustache.

Unlike Shane’s story, Aiden’s didn’t flow out in a smooth ribbon of inspiration. As open and awesome as Aiden is, you wouldn’t think he would’ve been such a hard nut to crack! Eventually, though, I found him. In the midst of my writing and rewriting and tweaking, finally, he appeared. Thanks to all the readers who let me know you couldn’t wait for Aiden’s book. You inspired and challenged me to be true to who Aiden is, and give you the best story I could write. I pray I succeeded…and hope Aiden is worth the wait!

Chapter 1

Aiden Downey spun his beer by its neck, the now-warm contents sloshing against the sides of the bottle. He’d been watching Sadie from his chair at the back of the reception tent for the better part of thirty minutes, unable to shake the guilt swamping him.

Shane and Crickitt, God bless them, had been so careful when they asked Aiden and Sadie to be the only two members of the wedding party. But if there was one thing he and Sadie could agree on, it was doing right by their friends. They’d put aside their differences for the big day and had managed to be cordial, though not sociable, until the start of the reception.

That’s when Aiden had bumbled his way through a long-overdue apology. While he’d never apologize for prioritizing his mother during her fight with cancer, he realized too late it was a mistake to allow his ex-wife back into his life. He meant well when he decided to keep the divorce quiet, but Aiden should have told his mother before she died. Now she’d never know the truth, never get to meet Sadie. A regret he’d have to live with.

Sadie’s buoyant giggle, a fake one if Aiden had to guess, lifted onto the air. He turned to see her toss her head back, blonde curls cascading down her bare back as she gripped Crickitt’s younger brother’s arm. Garrett, who had been Krazy-Glued to Sadie’s side the entire reception, grinned down at her, clearly smitten. Aiden dragged his gaze from her mane of soft golden waves to her dress, a pink confection hugging her every amazing, petite curve. He couldn’t blame the kid for staring at her intently. Sadie was beautiful.

“Rough,” he heard Shane say as he pulled out the chair next to him and sat, beer bottle in hand.

His cousin looked relaxed with his white tuxedo shirt unbuttoned and the sleeves cuffed at the elbows. He’d taken off the tie he’d worn earlier, a sight that almost made Aiden laugh. Before Shane met Crickitt, Aiden would’ve bet Shane slept wearing a tie. Crickitt had vanquished Shane’s inner workaholic and in return, Shane had stepped up to become the man Crickitt needed.

Aiden had had a similar opportunity with Sadie. It was a test he’d failed spectacularly. “She has a right to be mad,” he said, tilting his beer bottle again.

“You were in a difficult situation,” Shane said magnanimously.

Maybe so, but after his mother succumbed to the cancer riddling her body, after he’d grieved and moaned and helped his father plan the funeral, Aiden had seen things more clearly. Remembering the way he’d shut Sadie out of his life, rejected her in the worst possible way, stung like alcohol to a fresh cut. He should have brought her in, no matter how bad the circumstances. His mother would have accepted her.

His mother would have loved her.

“If I could go back, I’d tell Mom the truth.” He swallowed thickly. “She deserved the truth.”

“Don’t do that, man.” Shane clapped him on the shoulder. “You did what you believed was best. It was never going to be an easy situation.”

True, but he’d taken an already hard situation and complicated the hell out of it. At his mother’s diagnosis, Aiden went into Responsibility Mode. With his sister in Tennessee, a brother in Chicago, his other brother in Columbus, and his father simultaneously grieving and working, everything had fallen on Aiden.

When his mother said she wanted to move to Oregon to seek alternative treatments, Aiden rearranged his entire life and helped her do just that. Later, his siblings had argued with him that they would have helped if they’d known about any of it. Aiden had known in his gut there wasn’t enough time to pull everyone together for a powwow.

“I appreciate you being here,” Shane said.

Aiden snapped out of his reverie. “Oh man, I’m sorry. I’m being a jerk on your big day.” He straightened in his chair, ashamed to have let melancholy overshadow his happiness for Shane and Crickitt.

Speaking of, here she came, poured into a slim white wedding dress, fabric flowers sewn into the flowing train. She grinned at Shane, her face full of love, her blue eyes shining. When she flicked a look over to Aiden, he promptly slapped a smile onto his face.

“You look amazing, C,” he told her.

Crickitt’s grin widened. “Thank you.”

“And this reception”—he blew out a breath for effect—“the lights”—he gestured to the hundreds of strands draped inside the tent—“the flowers, the band.” The three-piece band included a formerly famous singer a decade past his heyday, but the guy still had it.

Crickitt rested a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Shane insisted on all this. I wanted something simple. When he suggested getting married in a tent in Tennessee…I didn’t expect this.” She waved a hand around the interior of the tent: the shining wooden dance floor, the thick swaths of mosquito netting covering every entrance, the tall, narrow air conditioners positioned at each corner to keep the guests cool and comfortable during the warm June evening.

She smiled down at Shane. “But it is pretty great.”

You’re pretty great,” Shane said, tugging her into his lap and kissing her bare shoulder. The wedding photographer swooped in, capturing the picture for posterity, a good one by the looks of it.

Aiden picked the moment to excuse himself for a refill.

Or maybe two.

*  *  *

Sadie caught movement out of the corner of her eye and swept her attention away from Crickitt’s attentive brother to see Aiden tracking his way across the tent in that easygoing lope of his.

She’d never seen him in a suit until she preceded Crickitt down the aisle. He didn’t wear the tie he’d worn earlier, picked to match her bridesmaid’s dress. She knew the intricate design by heart. She’d traced the tiny pink and silver paisley design, all the while trying not to allow the sorrow in his voice to crack through her defenses. He’d not only broken her heart last summer with a phone call, he’d broken her will, demolished her sense of true north. She couldn’t forgive him—or herself—for allowing it to happen.

She’d cut the conversation short tonight, recalling the promise she’d made to never show her vulnerability to this man again, and stalked away from him as fast as her sparkly pink heels would carry her.

Garrett turned his attention to someone else standing in their little circle, and Sadie took the opportunity to watch Aiden. Tailored black pants hugged his impressive thighs and led up to a tucked white shirt, open at the collar and showing enough of his tanned neck to be distracting.

I made a mistake last summer, Sadie. One I’ll regret always.

A pang of guilt stabbed her. She hadn’t expected the flood of emotion that crashed into her when she saw him for the first time in nearly a year. She’d planned to tell him she was sorry he lost his mother. And she was. She may have never met the woman, but she saw her once. And she saw the connection between mother and son as clearly as she saw Aiden now.

Sadie kept up with Aiden’s mother’s illness via updates from Crickitt. The decision not to go to the funeral went without saying, but Sadie hadn’t been able to stop herself from sending an anonymous bouquet to the funeral home. Losing a parent was one of the worst things in the world, she knew.

Sadie straightened her spine, wiggled her heel into the floor, and reminded herself again not to dwell on her own heartbreak. Her best friend’s wedding wasn’t the place to dig up the past. Even so, she’d spent most of the day desperately trying to tamp down one emotion after the other. Thank goodness girls were supposed to cry at weddings.