CRYSTAL MOON’S STOMACH knotted as she drove through the gates of West Millstone Estates Wednesday evening. Estates. She scoffed, her eyes darting to a group of scraggly looking guys smoking beside the rusted chain-link fence that surrounded the trailer park where she’d grown up. The “gate” hadn’t functioned since she was ten, when a stoned neighbor had driven his truck through it. Doing her best to ignore the lascivious stares coming from another group of guys standing by the run-down trailer on her right, she focused on the road, mentally ticking off the only names she’d ever associated with the people who had lived in the trailers as she passed each one.
Hateful. Creepy. Sweet. Staythefuckaway.
With the exception of her mother, she no longer had any idea who lived in each trailer, but the names she’d given them when she was a kid would stick forever, like the dirty feeling that clung to her like a second skin every time she returned.
She parked behind her mother’s old Toyota. Decomposed leaves lay like skeletons on the hood. Dirt caked the wheel wells and lower half of the door. She’d made the mistake of giving her mother money to get a new battery ages ago, but her mother had spent it on alcohol. She scanned the street for her older brother Jed’s truck. Uttering a curse, she pulled out her phone and called him.
He answered on the first ring. “Hey, you.”
“Don’t ‘hey, you,’ me. I’m sitting in front of Mom’s. Did you forget? Third Wednesday of the month.”
“Oh, shit. I’ll get a ride and be there in ten.”
The line went dead. She’d forgotten his driver’s license had been suspended for too many unpaid tickets. Mike McCarthy, a local cop, had a personal vendetta against Jed, and pulled him over every chance he got, doling out the highest points possible. Jed swore the guy had a homing device to keep track of him, but Crystal knew their hatred went back to their high school days, when Jed had slept with every girl Mike had dated. She had a feeling it hadn’t stopped after graduation, but that was one confirmation she didn’t need. She loved Jed to the ends of the earth, but he was a bit of a hoodlum and had spent his teenage years in and out of trouble, and as an adult he’d spent a few months in jail for stealing. He said it was in his blood, but Crystal could attest to the fact that, unless she was born from different parents, it wasn’t. It was simply Jed.
She zipped up her hoodie and glanced at the stack of designs she’d been working on for Princess for a Day, the boutique where she worked with her best friend, Gemma Wright. She’d met Gemma at a café shortly after escaping from her second bout with hell. When she’d left the dregs of the trailer park, she’d thought she’d left that nightmare behind. A few years later she found out that hell came in many forms, and the trailer park hadn’t looked quite so bad. She hadn’t returned, though. She’d been broken, not stupid.
Pushing those dark thoughts away, she cut the engine.
Untrusting of the cachectic, shirtless dude standing across the street, holding the chain of a vicious-looking barking dog, she shoved the designs into her bag and slipped the strap over her head and across her body. A barrier. As small as that thin strap was, anything separating the person she’d become from the mother who bore her was worth its weight in gold.
She made one last sweep of her car, searching for anything theft-worthy. The 2010 Ford Fusion might not be much, but it was hers. Her eyes caught on the colorful worry doll hanging on her rearview mirror, a gift from her father. He’d made it out of twigs, fabric, and yarn when she was eight, and he’d given it to her the first week they’d moved into the trailer park. He’d been making her dolls for years, but this time he’d given her a reason. Give these dolls all your worries, and then you’ll be free of them. Like magic. Her eyes drifted to the smaller doll hanging from her key chain. Little reminders that she’d once had a parent who’d loved her. She snagged the doll from the rearview and stuffed it in her bag. It would piss her off if it got stolen. She’d hang it up again when she left.
She stepped from the car and locked it up, bracing herself for the visit. It’s only once a month. One hour, twelve times a year. She could suck it up for an hour. Then she’d return to her life in Peaceful Harbor, Maryland, forty-five minutes away. Just far enough to allow her to pretend that this part of her life didn’t exist.
Her phone vibrated with a text, and she pulled it out, ready to give Jed a hard time for whatever excuse he might use to skip dinner. Him flashed on caller ID. She rolled her eyes, trying to keep her body from heating up from head to toe. It didn’t work. It never did. She’d listed Bear Hot-as-Fuck Whiskey as Him in her contacts in an effort to fool her mind into thinking of him in generic male form. The problem was, there was nothing generic about the six-three, bar-and-auto-mechanic-shop-owning, tattooed biker.
She opened and read the text. Bear.
One word was all it took for fire to ricochet through her body like lightning. Traitorous body. The guy was relentless. He’d been acting as if she were his ever since she’d met him more than eight months ago, when Gemma had first met her fiancé, Truman Gritt, who was Bear’s best friend. The harder she’d pushed Bear away, the more determined he’d become. He’d been texting her his name for weeks, always out of the blue. It wasn’t like he knew she’d changed his name in her phone. He was just being Bear. Did he really think texting his name would change her mind?
There wasn’t much changing necessary. She swallowed against that reality. She was not only hot for the guy, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him. The hardest part was that over the past eight-plus months, he’d grown on her like a third arm—exciting, reliable, and uncomfortable all at once. He was cocky and arrogant when it came to pushing himself into her life, which should have made her wary of him, but she was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Because he was also a loyal, generous friend and funny in ways that made her wonder what it might be like to experience all those attributes tangled together—in her bed.
Ugh. She really needed to stop thinking about him.
Her phone vibrated again with a text from Gemma. She opened it and found a picture of Bear painting. Great. Now she’d never stop thinking about him. His muscular, tattooed arm was over his head as he painted along the edge of the window. His shirt clung to his broad back, tapering down and disappearing into a pair of low-slung jeans that hugged his frustratingly hot ass. Another text rolled in. Enjoying watching my man paint. Thought you might want to see yours.
She rolled her eyes. Gemma knew she wasn’t with Bear in that way. She was meeting Gemma and Truman after dinner to help paint their living room in preparation for their backyard wedding, and she knew Bear would be there. Their close-knit group included all four Whiskey siblings, so Bear was always around, like an itch she shouldn’t scratch. Her stomach fluttered, and she groaned. The last thing she needed in her busy, not-living-in-a-trailer-park life, was to be lusting after a man. Especially one who assumed he owned her.
She shoved her phone in her pocket, inhaled deeply, and faced her mother’s mustard-yellow trailer, wishing she could climb back into her car and return to her normal life.
Each of the trailers had a tiny plot of land out front. Most had turned to dirt over the years from being trampled or driven over. But before her father had been killed in a car accident, he’d set enormous rocks around the perimeter of their lot, where he and Crystal had planted a garden. Now that tiny plot of land was overgrown with long grass and the type of prickly bushes she’d always given a wide berth, as if the branches were gnarled claws that could capture her as she walked by.
The whole complex feels like that.
She stepped onto the musty indoor-outdoor carpeting beneath a green awning that hung from the side of the trailer. Jed had put it up when they were teenagers. The stench of cigarettes and sweat hung in the air. Two ancient lawn chairs and a plastic table sat at the far end of the carpet. Outside living at its finest.
She hesitated, wishing Jed would hurry up, and finally reached for the metal handle of the screen door, which had no screen.
“Jeddy? That you?” Her mother’s raspy voice might sound sexy if her speech weren’t slurred and the raspiness weren’t clearly the sandpaper sound of a throat worn down by too many cigarettes.
Crystal stepped inside, assaulted by the earlier stench, only a hundred times stronger. Habit had her breathing through her mouth, which seemed less repulsive than smelling the rancid air with every inhalation. Her eyes skirted over the dark paneled walls, low-pile carpeting, and plaid sofa, hallmarks of her youth. The same green and yellow curtains that were there when they’d moved in hung from metal rods, darkening the windows. The two wooden chairs Crystal and her father had painted bright aqua the first summer they’d lived there were now chipped and marred. They were the last project she and her father had worked on together. Two empty beer bottles sat on the coffee table beside an empty carton of cigarettes, the top of which was torn off. Welcome home.
“Chrissy?” Her mother stood by the stove stirring something in a big pot. A cigarette hung from her lips, as if it had grown roots. “I was expecting Jeddy.” Ashes floated to the floor as she spoke. Pamela Moon was a blond, drunken Peg Bundy lookalike, from her overly teased hair, pink tank top, black leggings, wide white belt, and high heels to the way she carried herself with one hand constantly waving.
Crystal cringed at the name she’d given up when she’d gone off to college. It had been years, and her mother hadn’t noticed. Either that or she simply hadn’t cared. Crystal imagined it was a little of both.
“Sorry, Mom. Just me.”
She hoped her mother remembered they were supposed to have dinner. Sometimes she forgot. Crystal used to bring dinner for their monthly visits, but her mother complained about everything, and she’d given up trying.
Her mother grabbed a beer bottle from the counter and took a long swig. Crystal gauged her unsteadiness, tallying the five empty bottles in sight and knowing it probably wasn’t the day’s total count. Her mother had gone downhill after they’d lost their father to a drunk driver, which made no sense to Crystal. Her father’s death had had a profound effect on her in too many ways to count, but most importantly, Crystal was careful not to drink too much. At first she’d thought her mother’s drinking was a coping mechanism, but as the months, then years, had passed, she’d realized she had a problem and had encouraged her to go to AA and seek help. Her mother had ignored her efforts, turning cold and bitter. Crystal had no idea how she functioned with the amount of alcohol she consumed.
Crystal peered into the dark mass in the pot. “What are you making?”
“Chili. You hungry?” More ashes drifted to the floor.
“Yeah, sure.” She’d push the food around on her plate and praise her mother’s cooking. Then she’d wrap it up and leave it for her mother to eat tomorrow. She set her bag on the coffee table, settling in for the next hour, hoping it would race by.
“How are you, Mom? Is your job okay?” Her mother worked at a convenience store three blocks away.
She nodded, inhaling loudly as she plucked the cigarette from her mouth, and waved a hand. “Twenty, thirty hours a week. They’re still talking about making me a manager, but you know.” She winked and stuck the cigarette between her painted lips. “I’ll find me a good man before that happens.”
“Sure.” Crystal had long ago stopped believing her mother’s stories about being promoted, and had also given up trying to convince her that a man would never be the answer to her troubles.
She set the table, listening to her mother rattle on about a woman she worked with. Just once she’d love for her mother to ask how she was or what was new in her life, the way she had before her father had lost his job and they’d been forced to move from their home in Peaceful Harbor. But her mother hadn’t been that woman for years. She had changed when they’d moved, and she’d gotten even worse after her father was killed.
The door flew open and Jed stepped into the room, making the tight quarters feel even smaller. At six two, with dirty-blond hair, a beard that came in a shade darker, and piercing blue eyes, he was the spitting image of their father.
He kissed the top of Crystal’s head. “Hey, shrimp. Still doing the goth thing?”
She rolled her eyes. She’d dyed her hair black right after she’d moved to Peaceful Harbor. That had been more than four years ago. She’d thought he’d be used to it by now.
“Still doing the stealing thing?” She nodded at his leather jacket as he dipped his head to kiss his mother’s cheek.
He flopped down on the couch and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. “Nope. I helped a guy fix his car.” He brushed an invisible speck of dirt from the dark leather. “Earned the money for this legally.”
“Uh-huh.” Crystal pushed his feet off the coffee table and went to fill water glasses for dinner. “I can’t remember the last time you earned money the hard way. Where are you living these days?”
“Crashing at a friend’s place. Basement apartment.”
“Got my cigarettes?” their mother asked.
“Oh, crap.” Jed winced. “I knew I forgot something.”
“Christ, Jeddy,” their mother said as she dished the chili onto three plates. “What have you been doing? I’ve waited all day.”
“Ma. I’ve been working. Don’t worry,” Jed said. “I’ll get them after dinner.”
Crystal’s ears perked up. “Working? Really?”
“I’m trying to pull my shit together. Finally putting that mechanics training to good use and picking up a few hours here and there at a restaurant.”
Their mother scoffed. “Right. Get on up here and eat.”
They sat at the table, the silence broken only by the clinking of silverware on plates. Crystal pushed her food around, watching her mother smoke and eat. She had vague memories of her mother without cigarette-stained teeth, yellowed fingers, and the bitterness of someone who the world had wronged. Memories of a woman who would send her off to elementary school with a paper-bag lunch and greet her with a smile when she’d stepped off the bus at the end of the day. In a sense, her father’s death had stolen both of her parents.
“Where are you working?” Crystal asked, taking a longer look at her brother. He wasn’t a big drinker, and he’d never been a drug user. Unfortunately, there weren’t any outward signs for a thief.
“My buddy runs a gas station. I’m helping him out.”
“How much do you pocket?” his mother asked.
“Mom!” Crystal might not buy that her brother was suddenly trying to clean up his act after a lifetime of trouble, but she didn’t like her mother’s condescending attitude. It was bad enough that she’d never believed a damn thing Crystal said, but at least she could understand her mother’s anger toward her. She’d left home at eighteen with a Pell Grant to attend college and had never looked back. But Jed had stuck by their mother, put her to bed when she was too drunk to walk and done whatever she’d asked of him for years.
“What?” She took a drag of her cigarette. “You can’t trust a liar’s word. He’s just like your father.”
“Someone has to provide for you,” Jed snapped.
“Jesus, Jed. Please tell me you are not giving her money.” Crystal couldn’t get lost in that right now; she was too pissed at what her mother had said. “Dad wasn’t a liar.” She crossed her arms, unwilling to fight the familiar battle. Her mother claimed her father had promised her a good life. It wasn’t his fault he’d gotten laid off. Wasn’t that what loving someone “for better or worse” meant? Sticking it out through the tough times? He’d given them all a good life, and he’d loved them. It wasn’t his fault that at the first sign of trouble their mother had started drinking. She’d never understood what more her mother could have wanted, and at this point she simply didn’t care.
Her mother pulled the cigarette from her mouth to speak, and Jed put a hand on her arm. “Mom, don’t.”
“Okay, you know what?” Crystal gritted her teeth. “I didn’t come here to listen to you berate Jed or Dad.”
“Why did you come here?” her mother challenged.
“I ask myself that question every time I visit.” She looked away. “Some sort of warped sense of loyalty, I suppose.”
Her mother rose to her feet, talking around her cigarette. “Don’t be so stuck-up. You came from my womb. You have my blood in you, girlie. You’re no better than me, so don’t you dare judge me.”
Crystal forced herself to dig deep and find the calm voice she used with overbearing parents at the boutique. “I’m not judging you, Mom. I just wish you’d stop judging Jed and Dad.”
“Hey, how about we change the subject.” Jed winked at Crystal. “How’s your boyfriend?”
He laughed. “Uh-oh. Did you break up?”
She rolled her eyes. “With…?”
“Bear? The guy who had his arm around you at Tru’s Christmas party and again at the Easter parade? Did you forget I was there?”
“He isn’t my boyfriend.” Although he’s played a starring role in my dreams for months. “There is no boyfriend. Same as last time and probably the same as next time.”
Their mother scoffed. “She can’t keep a man. A man touches her and she flips out.”
The night of the attack, and the reason she’d left college, came rushing back. Why she’d thought she could confide in her mother was beyond her. The hell with this.
She stormed across the room andgrabbed her bag. “Sorry, Jed. I’ve got to get out of here.”
“That’s it. Run away, just like always.” Her mother waved a hand and picked up her fork, stabbing at her food.
“Whatever.” She was so sick of the same old shit; her mother was barely worth the energy of her halfhearted response.
“Jesus, Mom. Give her a break.” Jed pushed to his feet and stood between the table and Crystal, thankfully blocking her view of her mother. “Ignore her. She’s blitzed out of her mind.”
“You need a ride?” Crystal was dying to take a shower and scrub off the smoke and grime of her past.
“Yeah. I get my license back in six weeks, but can you swing me by my buddy’s?” He looked at his mother, and Crystal saw the guilt eating away at him.
She rolled her eyes again. “I’ll take you to get her cigarettes first, but I don’t know why you cater to her.”
“Same reason you’re here every month. Good old-fashioned guilt.”
CRYSTAL FLEW THROUGH Truman and Gemma’s front door like wildfire, eating up everything in her path. Her raven mane was soaking wet, framing her beautiful, scowling face as she stormed into the living room. Her black hoodie hung open over a Rolling Stones T-shirt, and her piercing baby blues threw daggers. Her skintight black jeans had tears along her thighs and beneath her knees, revealing flashes of her tanned skin. Skin he’d like to touch and taste and have wrapped around him.
She stopped a few feet from Bear and set her hand on her hip. “Give me a paintbrush, or a roller, or a goddamn gun for all I care. Just give me something and get out of my way.”
They’d finished painting ten minutes ago. Bear chuckled at her vehemence. She was sexy as sin no matter what mood she was in, but this tigress before him made him want to comfort her and fuck her at once.
“Hard night, sugar?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Not hard enough. And I’m not your sugar. I need to work out my frustrations.” She thrust out a hand, obviously waiting for a paintbrush.
He grabbed that delicate little hand and hauled her against him. His entire body flamed. Several months of playing cat and mouse was way too long. Her eyes darkened and her breathing shallowed. Bear was done messing around. This brazen beauty not only wanted him, but she needed him. She just didn’t know it yet.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She spoke in a low voice and probably meant it to sound threatening, but she sounded sultry and hard to resist.
He cupped her chin, brushing his thumb over her lower lip, and the air rushed from her lungs. His hand slid over her hip. She had the sleek, sexy curves of a ’61 Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide, and he couldn’t wait to rev her up and make her purr. “Giving you what you need. A wild Whiskey night is the perfect remedy for your frustrations.”
“Uncle Be-ah!” Three-year-old Kennedy ran into the room wearing a Dora the Explorer nightgown and clutching the Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toy Bear’s younger sister, Dixie, had given her. She squeezed between them. Truman had rescued his younger siblings, Kennedy and Lincoln, from a crack house after their mother overdosed. He and Gemma were raising them as their own.
Crystal smirked at Bear and arched a brow.
He reluctantly released her. Cockblocked by a three-year-old.
“Hi, pretty girl.” Crystal gave Bear a snarky look as she crouched and hugged Kennedy. “This cuteness is all I need after a frustrating evening.”
“Why are you fwustrated, Auntie Cwystal?” Kennedy still had a hard time pronouncing r’s, and the way she spoke turned Bear’s insides to mush.
“I’m not anymore, thanks to you.”
“I came to kiss you and Beah good night.” She gave Crystal a tight hug and kiss, then reached her spindly arms up to Bear and went up on her toes.
He lifted her up, and she wound her arms around his neck.
“Thank you for letting me help you paint.” Kennedy yawned and rested her head on his shoulder. “The house will be pwetty for Mommy and Tooman’s—I mean Daddy’s—wedding.” Although Kennedy and Lincoln were Truman’s siblings, when Lincoln had begun talking, he’d called Truman Dada, and Kennedy had said she wanted to call him that, too. Sometimes she forgot and called him Tooman.
Bear ran his hand down her back. It was hard to believe it had been less than a year since Truman had found them. Kennedy had gone from a rail-thin, frightened little girl to a healthy, happy member of not just Truman’s family, but Bear’s, too.
“You’re the best painter around, sweetheart. Thank you for helping me.” He lifted his eyes, catching Crystal watching him with a warm—interested?—look in her eyes. He liked that a whole lot.
Crystal’s eyes skittered away. “Hey, Ken? Where’s Mommy?”
“She’s giving Lincoln a baf.”
Crystal smiled. “Want me to take you up to bed?”
“Yes,” Bear and Kennedy said at once.
Crystal rolled her eyes at Bear and reached for Kennedy.
Bear put an arm around Crystal’s waist, ignoring her glare. “I’m escorting two of my favorite girls upstairs. Deal with it.” He guided her toward the stairs, where they ran into Truman on his way down.
Truman stood eye to eye with Bear, his dark eyes moving between the two of them. His lips curved up and he shook his head. He must have read the annoyed expression on Crystal’s face, because he reached for Kennedy. “I think I’ll intervene. Thanks, guys.”
After he went upstairs, Crystal said, “You can let go of me now.”
“No thanks.” He kept ahold of her as she stalked back to the living room. “Want to tell me what happened tonight?”
“No. I want to paint.” She squirmed out of his grip and he tugged her back.
“If you think I’ll let this go, you’re wrong. Talk to me. What’s got you so irritated?”
“Jesus, Bear,” she snapped. “I’m not yours. You don’t have to protect me.”
He ignored her comment because she knew damn well how things worked with the Whiskeys. More importantly, she knew him well enough to know he’d never sit idly by and let her get hurt. If someone had pissed her off, he’d straighten them out.
“You’re not mine yet,” he conceded.
“God, you’re so arrogant and handsy and…Ugh!” She pushed away. “I just had a rough visit with my mom, that’s all.”
“What happened?” Her not wanting to go into specifics didn’t surprise him. She’d always been cagey about her parents.
She grabbed the ladder and dragged it toward the far wall. He took it from her, and she glared at him again. She was the most stubborn woman he’d ever known. She was also sharp, confident, and possibly the most sensitive person he knew, though she’d never admit to it. Those were just a few of the things he found utterly entrancing about her.
Her arms were crossed, and he was pretty sure if it were possible she’d have steam coming out of her ears. “Can we just paint?”
“Sorry, sugar, but we’re done for the night.”
“Seriously?” She looked around the room, and her stomach growled. Her lips curved up at the edges as she spread a hand over her belly.
Perfect. He whipped out his phone, texting Tru and telling him he was taking Crystal out for a bite to eat. “Grab your bag. We’re going out to eat.” He draped his arm over her shoulder and headed for the front door.
“I’m not hungry.”
He gave her his best deadpan stare.
Challenge rose in her beautiful eyes. “You don’t tell me what to do.”
“All right. Your stomach’s growling. Obviously you’re hungry. Let’s go grab something to eat.”
She folded her arms over her chest. “That’s telling.”
“Christ, woman.” She had no idea how much he adored this side of her. They’d never been on an official date, but they’d gone to grab a bite to eat spur-of-the-moment like this plenty of times. “Are you hungry?”
“I could eat.”
“Great,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Oh my God. Really? Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to ask a woman if she’d like to go out to eat?”
“Are you telling me to ask you out on a date?” He slid his arm around her waist again and waggled his brows.
“No.” She laughed.
He loved her laugh. It was brazen and loud, like her. “Damn. Thought I got lucky. Crystal Moon, would you like to grab a burger with me?”
She picked up her bag from the floor. “Fine. But I need to tell Gemma. You’re so bossy.”
“You totally dig bossy, and I already texted Tru and told him.”
“Presumptive and bossy.”
He pulled open the door. The starless sky made the night extra dark, and even with the streetlights it felt as though the night had swallowed the earth.
Crystal walked toward her car, and he tightened his grip. “We’ll take my truck.”
“I can drive. Then you don’t have to bring me back to get it.”
He opened the passenger door of the truck and said, “I also wouldn’t have you with me on the way there. Climb in.”
“Bossy.” She stepped onto the running board and he smacked her ass. She glared over her shoulder.
“You know I like it when you glare at me.” He circled the truck and climbed into the driver’s seat, debating unhooking her seat belt and hauling her pretty little ass across the bench seat. But her expression turned serious, and he remembered she’d had a hard night. Empathy pushed his desires to the side.
They drove to Woody’s Burgers in silence, which was how he knew there was probably more to this than a shitty visit with her mother. He also knew she wasn’t going to tell him what was really going on. At least not yet. He came on strong, but they had a solid friendship that felt more like a relationship and went beyond his desire to finally taste her luscious mouth. He cared about her, and one way or another, he’d figure out a way to get her to talk. He had to, because knowing she was hurting and not being able to fix it made him want to tear someone’s head off.
He parked the truck and reached across the seat, giving her hand a comforting squeeze. “Hey.” He waited until she met his gaze. “Whatever’s going on, you know you can talk to me.”
Her eyes fell to their hands, and a hint of a smile lifted her lips. “Yeah, I know. Thanks.”
Woody’s was a low-key burger joint with brick walls that had been painted white and bright green tables and benches. Overgrown ferns and decorative iron lights hung from metal rods along the ceiling. The floor was a mismatched patchwork of wooden planks. It didn’t look like much, but they had the best burgers and fries in Peaceful Harbor, and tonight Bear had the prettiest girl in the harbor on his arm, too. It was a good night, despite the cloud hanging over Crystal’s head. He’d shelter her from whatever storm came her way.
He slid into the booth beside her.
“There are two benches for a reason,” she pointed out.
“Oh, right.” He kicked his feet up on the bench across from them, the tips of his black leather boots visible over the edge of the table.
“Your turn.” He tapped her thigh, leaving his hand there as she lifted her feet beside his.
She pushed his hand from her thigh without a word, and he stretched his arm across the back of the bench.
“Are you always like this?” She picked up the menu and looked it over.
“You’ve known me for a long time. You tell me.”
“I know how you are with me. I mean with other girls. I’ve never been out with you, like on a date.”
He began kneading the tension from her shoulder. “Then maybe it’s time to remedy that.”
The waitress interrupted before she could respond, and they ordered burgers and fries, and Crystal ordered a milk shake. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry mixed, please. She was unique in everything she did, and he loved that about her. Their food came quickly, and they made small talk about getting ready for Tru and Gemma’s wedding.
When he couldn’t stand the edge in her voice any longer, he said, “Tell me about your mom.”
She shrugged. “Nothing to tell. We’re not very close.”
“Why was tonight so rough?” He picked up a fry and dunked it in her shake as she lifted her burger to her mouth.
“Um…?” She lowered her burger to the plate. “What are you doing?”
“Dunking my fry in your shake.” He popped it in his mouth. “Haven’t we done this before?”
“We’ve known each other for almost a year and we’ve never had fries and shakes? That’s not true and you know it.”
“You’ve never dunked your fry in my shake,” she clarified.
He brushed his shoulder against hers. “Whose fault is that? I would love to bury my fry in your luscious milk shake.”
She laughed. “Not happening.” She took a big bite of her burger, her cheeks puffing out like a chipmunk, clearly trying to avoid talking about that.
He finished his burger and put his arm around her again, dipping another fry in her shake. He held it up for her, and she swatted his hand away, pointing to her full mouth. Her eyes were wide, but smiling, which he totally dug.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what. Tell me why tonight was so rough, and I’ll leave your shake alone.”
She shook her head, and he dunked another fry. She whimpered, trying to swallow her burger as quickly as she could.
“My girl doesn’t swallow well. Noted.”
She laughed/snorted and choked on her burger. He patted her on the back, both of them laughing.
“I’ll help you with that whole swallowing thing,” he offered, which made her laugh harder, causing her to snort again.
She tried to catch her breath, and he dunked another fry.
“Just try one. You’ll like it. I promise.”
She eyed the fry as if it were poison.
“One bite.” He dragged the fry along her lower lip. Leaning closer, he said, “You’d better lick that off before I do.”
Her eyes narrowed, and her tongue swept over her lower lip.
“Christ Almighty,” he grumbled.
She laughed. “That’s pretty good. Salty and sweet.”
“Stick with me, baby. I’ll make sure you get your fill of salty and sweet.”
She shook her head, laughing softly. “You never answered my question about if you were this way with all women.”
“You never answered mine about what really happened tonight.” He dunked another fry and held it up for her.
Their eyes locked, unstoppable heat pulsing between them. She shifted her gaze to the fry, her fingers curling around her thigh. She didn’t move, didn’t say a word, just stared at the fry, as if that might cool down the inferno that followed them like a shadow.
He leaned forward to eat the fry at the same time she did, and they ended up nose to nose, their mouths a fry apart.
She licked her lips, and he lowered the fry, clearing the way for the kiss he’d been fantasizing about for months.
“I had to drive Jed all over creation,” she said softly.
It took him a second to realize she was answering his question.
“I’ve got a ton of designs to work on for the boutique now that we’re trying to make and sell our own costumes. And I haven’t had time to get my car inspected, which I need to do before I get a ticket. Tonight was a total time suck. Not now,” she clarified. “Earlier. With my mother and Jed.”
She dressed and acted tough, but there were brief moments like this when she let her guard down just enough for him to catch a glimpse of the vulnerable woman behind the walls. He wanted to take her in his arms and protect her and love her at once. But she’d finally let him in, and he realized he still owed her an answer to her question.
The truth came easily. “You asked if I was this way with everyone. I’m this way because it’s you.”
He watched her assess his response with a skeptical expression. Did she sense the honesty in his confession? Seconds passed like minutes, minutes like hours. Months of pent-up sexual energy sparked between them. He slid his hand beneath her hair, drawing her closer. She was looking at him like she wanted to dissolve into him. Finally. He leaned in for the kiss, and just as quickly as their passion built, coolness descended over her face, lowering the sweet curve of her lips as she leaned back, putting space between them.
She turned her body toward the table, and lowered her feet to the floor, sitting up straighter and leaving him to wonder what the hell had just happened. He’d been this close to taking the kiss he’d been craving for months.
The shrill ringtone for the Dark Knights Motorcycle Club he and his brothers were members of, and his father headed up, broke through his confusion, and he whipped his phone out of his pocket. His heart thundered—from their almost kiss or the club alert, he couldn’t be sure.
He answered the call, listening to his oldest brother, Bullet, relaying the information about Trevor “Scooter” Mackelby, a seven-year-old boy whose mother had caught the attention of one of the club members when she’d posted on Facebook about her son being bullied. The Dark Knights had “adopted” him into their club and had sworn to protect him. There had been an incident at school, and now Scooter was afraid to go to sleep. Tonight the club members would rally around Scooter’s house, staying until morning, to ensure he felt safe.
“I need to drop Crystal at her car and grab my bike,” he said to Bullet. “I’ll meet you there.”
He stepped from the booth and threw cash on the table, wishing he could delve into their almost kiss, but there was no time. “I’m sorry, sugar, but duty calls. I’ve got to take off.”
Confusion clouded her eyes. “Duty?”
“Club business.” They hurried out to the truck, and he explained about Scooter on the way back to Truman’s to get her car. His great-grandfather had formed the Dark Knights, and his father, who went by the road name Biggs, for his six-five height, was the president. Bear and his brothers had been brought up to respect the brotherhood and honor its creed.
“‘Love, loyalty, and respect for all’ runs as thick as blood through our veins. A blessing and a curse.” He went on to explain how they’d connected with Scooter and gave her examples of when they’d helped in similar situations in neighboring towns.
“So, if a kid or an adult is bullied—”
“Or abused,” he corrected her.
“Or abused, you guys all sit outside his house until he feels safe?”
“Essentially, but not always. It depends on the situation. Schools, teachers, even the police, can’t do much when it comes to bullies. The victims are left feeling weak and vulnerable. We empower them to tell and to know they have support. By getting involved and showing up in force—outside their house, for example, or around their block, or escorting them to school or work—the person who is hurting them realizes the victim is not alone and vulnerable. We’re there to protect them.”
“But what if they’re abused and not bullied, by an adult?”
Bear ground his teeth together to ward off the anger the question incited. “We’re there for those cases, too. And when they go to court, we escort them. The whole club, on our bikes, in front of and behind their parents’ cars. And we line up in court to show our support.”
“Intimidating the abuser?”
“That’s a nice side effect, but our goal is to empower the victim and make them feel safe.”
He pulled up in front of Tru’s house and climbed from the truck, coming around to open Crystal’s door and help her out. “Think of it this way. If they call a social worker at ten o’clock at night, they’re not going to get an answer. Once they’re ‘adopted’ by our club, they’re a member for life, and we stand by them no matter what time of day or night. It all started a few years ago, when my father met a family who had lost their son to suicide after he’d been bullied. They were from Florida, but it opened his eyes. He brought the mission up to the members, and now it’s part of who we are.”
She dug in her bag for her keys. “That’s impressive. I’m surprised there haven’t been articles about you guys.” Finally finding her keys, she unlocked her car door.
“We don’t want press. It’s all about helping the victims.” He stepped closer, and she backed up, giving him a clear signal that whatever had scared her off in Woody’s was still hanging around.
“I had a nice time tonight,” he said. “Thanks for letting me dip my fry in your shake.”
She smiled and shook her head, her eyes sliding to the ground. She looked adorably sexy. Another glimpse into that softer side of his tough girl.
With a finger beneath her chin, he lifted her face so she had to meet his gaze. “That goes for you, too. If you don’t feel safe at any time, any hour, you know you can call me.”
She looked at him for a long moment, as if she was struggling to decide if she should make a smart-ass remark, or go with the heat between them. It seemed to be the look du jour.
A smile crept across her face, and she climbed into her car. “And feed into that big head of yours? I don’t need protecting, but I’m glad you’re helping that little boy.”
He leaned in and kissed her cheek. He’d snuck kisses like this a few times, but it always felt like the first time. His lips lingered on her warm skin, soaking in her feminine scent. “You haven’t seen my big head yet, sugar. But I’m pretty sure you’ll like it even more than the one you’ve been staring at all night. Drive safely.”
She closed the door and rolled down the window. “Why do you keep texting me your name?”
He felt himself grinning. “I may have been out of sight, but I’ll make damn sure I’m not off your mind. ’Night, sugar. Drop me a text to let me know you got home okay, and lock your doors.”
She rolled her eyes. “I will if I want to.”
“Oh, you do.” He blew her a kiss, listening to the sound of her locks clicking into place and wondering how long it would be before his phone vibrated with a text.
CRYSTAL SPREAD THE designs she’d been working on out over the table at the boutique Thursday afternoon and stepped back, giving Gemma room to assess them. A few weeks ago Gemma had mentioned wanting to expand the boutique, and they’d discussed several options, including creating and selling their own costumes. Crystal had gone to college for business and fashion design, and she’d tinkered with designing her own clothes ever since. She had transformed her dining room into a quasi design studio when she’d first moved in and had been dabbling in making her own clothes ever since. Recently she’d begun playing around with a few new costume ideas. They purchased costumes in bulk from large suppliers, which allowed them to keep a nice variety in stock.
“Wow, you’ve been busy.” Gemma tucked her brown and gold hair behind her ear, studying the designs.
Princess for a Day was Gemma’s brainchild, and what Crystal loved most about it was that it had nothing to do with stereotyping girls as frilly little princesses and everything to do with enabling girls of any age to become whatever they wanted, at least for a few hours. They offered costumes for just about everything, from rockers and academic princesses to construction workers and goth princesses. Girls could dress up in leather or lace, tomboy outfits, and just about anything else they could dream up. As Crystal thought up new designs, she realized that with their own designs, the possibilities were endless.
Gemma and Crystal wore the costumes they offered, and Crystal loved when Gemma pushed her outfits beyond the proper confines of societal norms. Today Gemma wore a fancy Snow-White-meets-Lolita princess costume, complete with white thigh-high stockings, shiny black Mary Jane’s, and a short dress similar enough to Snow White’s for children to make the only connection they should. Even though they were best friends, Crystal’s goth cheerleader outfit, complete with fishnet stockings and a black spike choker, underscored their differences. But while Gemma wore the outfits that rang true to who she was inside and out, Crystal’s were only partially driven by who she was. They were mostly derived from the persona she needed to convey in order to feel safe.
“These are just sketches,” Crystal finally responded. “But I think they’ll add a unique flair to the princess realm. I took the warrior princess idea from Game of Thrones. You know that tall, sword-carrying blonde? She’s my inspiration. I think lots of little girls dream of being that kick-ass. And the snow goddess is one of my favorites. We can make the boot covers out of white faux fur, and give the girls a choice of a long flowing dress accented with gold and sparkle appliqué to simulate snowflakes, or a knee-length outfit with tights. I love the nerd princess idea, and the banker princess, because, let’s face it, some girls are number ninjas.”
She fidgeted with the jagged edges of her skirt, anxious to hear Gemma’s thoughts on her designs. In the silence, her mind drifted back to last night. She hadn’t texted Bear when she’d arrived home, as he’d asked. She’d wanted to, but they’d been so close to kissing, she felt like they were on the cusp of taking their long history of excruciatingly hot flirting to the next level. And she wasn’t ready for that. Yet.
For months his attention had had her insides whirling like a tornado, and working on these designs had thrown her right back to her college days, bringing an onslaught of both good and painful memories. The combination of both was overwhelming. Determined not to be defined by her dysfunctional family or where she’d come from, she had reinvented herself when she’d gone to college, and she’d done a hell of a job. She’d even gone by a different name. “Chrystina” had been everything “Chrissy” wasn’t, and people had liked her. She was girly and proper and smart, of course, because her father had always drilled the importance of good grades into her head. And despite her mother’s fall down the rabbit hole, she wasn’t a stupid woman. But just over two years into her wonderful new life, one party, and one treacherously bad decision, had brought her world crashing down around her—and no-bullshit, hard-as-nails, don’t-fuck-with-me “Crystal” was born. Creating a reputation for being into tough guys and having a penchant for one-night stands had made her emotionally untouchable, and that had kept her safe and sane.
“These are great,” Gemma said, bringing Crystal’s mind back to the moment. “But do you really think we can make them and still keep up with the business? Between the kids and the boutique, I have so little free time.”
“I think so, if we start small. Maybe we make a few of one outfit so production is rote, and see how they sell. If they do well, we can recruit design students to work—”
“I can’t afford a manufacturing staff,” Gemma interrupted. “I guess we could see what it would cost to have them made overseas or something.”
“I don’t think we need to do that. Just hear me out.” Crystal moved the papers over and sat on the table, getting more excited by the second. Never in her wildest dreams had she thought she’d find such a fabulous friend, much less have the opportunity to be part of something so exciting. “As I said, we can start by making a few costumes ourselves. I’ll do it after hours.”
“Says the girl who’s going to get a big honking ticket because she doesn’t have time to get her car inspected,” Gemma reminded her.
“I know. I’ll get to that this week.” She knew that probably wasn’t going to happen, given the limited hours of the inspection station, but hoping it was true kept her anxieties at bay.
“I have a sewing machine. I just need the production materials. If they sell well and there’s enough demand, then we can recruit fashion design students and offer them a piece of the pie. I’d have given anything to have an opportunity like this when I was in school. They basically work for free for the first few months, until we get ahead of our costs. Then they get a commission off of each piece that sells. It’s a win-win. They can use their experience on their résumés, like a commissioned internship.”
“Or even better, maybe some of them stay on and we can build a staff.” Gemma’s green eyes glittered with enthusiasm. “I know how we can free up some of your time. I’ll call the store where we ordered my wedding dress and set up a fitting instead of having you hem it and take it in.” Gemma’s dress wasn’t a typical wedding gown. Two weeks ago she’d fallen in love with a knee-length white satin dress with a strapless crisscross bodice, a layer of chiffon over the skirt, and a jeweled sash. She looked gorgeous in it, but they’d had to order her size, and Jewel Braden, the manager of Chelsea’s Boutique, where they’d found the dress, had warned her that that particular dress almost always needed to be fitted.
“Are you sure? Does Chelsea’s even do fittings?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Jewel said they have a part-time seamstress. It’s perfect. We can bring Dixie and look for your dresses at the same time. That is, if you don’t mind going with me? That’s a maid-of-honor thing, isn’t it?”
Crystal laughed. “It’s a best friend thing, and I’m totally on board with it. Let me know when they can do it.” She’d never imagined being anyone’s maid of honor, and when Gemma had asked her, she’d actually teared up. “There’s so much you can do with the company if we make our own costumes. I know you weren’t sold on taking the franchising plunge, and if this goes well, you can sell your designs to similar boutiques all over the country. No need to franchise. Then you’d just need to hire someone to manage the production.”
“Wouldn’t that be amazing? But while I think we can afford the material costs for a few costumes, if you’re talking about making them in bulk, there are other associated costs.”
“Right,” Crystal agreed. “I’ve thought about that, too. Depending on how big you want to go at that point, we can either do some grassroots marketing or get a bank loan.”
Gemma looked over the designs again. “Starting small is the way to go. If it takes off, we’ll figure out the rest. You’re really talented, Crys. You never told me why you stopped going to college.”
“Sure I did.” She slipped off the table and gathered the designs into a stack. “I ran out of money.” She hated lying, but the last thing she wanted was pity, especially from Gemma. They’d met shortly after Crystal had returned to Peaceful Harbor, and she’d been barely holding her shit together. Gemma had been her saving grace. She’d offered friendship and a job Crystal adored, both of which she might not have given so readily had she known how broken Crystal had been back then.
Pushing those thoughts away, she went behind the register and put the designs in her bag to work on later that evening. “I’m going to start bringing out the costumes.” She went into the back room, checked the costumes to make sure they had all their pieces, and tugged the tall metal clothing rack toward the front of the store.
Gemma looked up from where she was crouched beside the accessory bucket in the play area. “Are you going to tell me how last night went with Bear? Or should I pretend you didn’t come over and leave without ever saying hello to me?”
Crystal laughed. “Jealous?”
She set the rack by the dressing area and went back for another, passing Gemma on the way. “I forgot to tell you. The wedding cake tasting is set up for two weeks from Saturday. I requested several flavors because how often do you get to do a wedding cake tasting?”
Gemma was the closest thing to a sister she would ever have, and she hoped she was doing enough to help her prepare for the wedding. She and Truman had wanted a simple backyard wedding. They’d ordered flowers from Petal Me Hard, a local florist, and Crystal had already arranged for the rental of tables and chairs. One of their customers had suggested they call Finlay Wilson, a caterer who had just moved back to Peaceful Harbor and hadn’t yet reopened her business. Finlay was super sweet and so easy to work with. They’d instantly hit it off. She was also affordable and excited about catering the wedding.
“Sounds fun. I can’t wait. But stop changing the subject and tell me what happened with Bear! I told you all about Tru when we started dating.”
Crystal hiked a thumb over her shoulder. “I’m going to get the costumes. There’s nothing to tell. We had burgers. He dipped his fry in my milk shake.”
Gemma gasped. “He did? Was it amazing?”
“You are a filthy-minded princess,” Crystal teased. “We went to Woody’s. Can’t chat any more or my boss will dock me for gossiping on company time.”
“Sounds like a real bitch,” Gemma called after her.
Crystal pushed through the doors to the back room, threw a few extra costumes on another rack, and headed back into the shop, dragging the rack behind her. The front door chimed, playing the boutique’s special tune, and she was shocked to see Bear walking in.
His eyes locked on hers, and a wicked grin lifted his lips as he closed the distance between them like a lion on the prowl. He wore the same clothes he’d had on last night. His hair was tousled, his chiseled jaw covered in a thick layer of dark whiskers. Knowing he had spent a sleepless night to ensure a little boy felt safe brought a collision of overwhelming emotions.
He raked his eyes down the length of her body, awakening all the parts she was struggling to ignore as he placed a hand possessively on her hip and kissed her cheek.
Had last night’s kiss on the cheek opened a door? He’d stolen two or three cheek kisses in the past, but this wasn’t a stolen kiss. It felt like a kiss of ownership. Was this his new and improved greeting? She liked it a lot more than she probably should.
“Good afternoon, sugar,” he said in a gravelly voice full of lust and fatigue. It slithered beneath her skin and settled in like steam from an iron.
Her heart melted a little every time he called her sugar, but hearing it in that voice made her wonder what it would sound like when their bodies were intertwined. She shifted her eyes away, pushing past the lustful thoughts that had been surprising her a lot more often lately. There had been a time when fear of being close to a man could swallow her whole. After years of therapy she’d finally gone out on a few dates, and surprisingly, she’d never felt anything. Not panic, not lust. Nothing. But when she played around with those thoughts about Bear, desire consumed her. She was sure that she was too attracted to him, and if they were close, she’d probably lose her mind.
“You didn’t text last night. Next time send the text.” His tone was somewhere between demand and concern. He brushed the back of his fingers gently down her cheek. “I worry about you.”
She swallowed hard trying to regain control of her runaway hormones, but memories of last night drifted in. I’m this way because it’s you. She wanted that almost kiss. He’d had her wanting more from nearly the very first time they’d met. She’d seen him snap into protective mode, and she’d seen him melt over Tru and Gemma’s babies. He was as fierce and intimidating a protector as he was a gentle and kind friend, and she sensed that he’d love a woman with tenderness and devotion that she once thought only happened in storybooks.
It was those thoughts that had her fumbling to find her voice.
“Hi. What are you doing here? How’d it go last night?” An awful thought raced through her mind. What if he hadn’t been at the boy’s house all night? What if this was his morning-after-a-random-hookup look? A herd of elephants trampled through her stomach.
“It went well,” he said, ignoring her first question in typical Bear fashion. “We escorted Scooter to school this morning, and he went right up to that bully and said, ‘I’m not afraid of you anymore.’ It was great to see him so confident.”
She sighed with relief. He had been there all night after all. “I guess intimidation goes a long way.” Catching her knee-jerk snarkiness, she added, “I mean that in a good way. Anyone would feel safe with burly bikers like you and your brothers on their side.”
“Yeah?” He leaned closer. “Then how do I make you feel?”
Hot and bothered and scared of losing my self-control. “Like I need to get back to work.”
“Hey, Bear,” Gemma said as she walked by.
“Hi, Gemma. Sorry to take Crystal away last night, but her stomach was growling like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. I was afraid for her life.”
“No worries.” Gemma winked at her. “I’m still waiting on the details.”
Bear put his arm around Crystal’s waist. “You mean she hasn’t told you we’re a couple yet?”
“We are not a couple.” She slipped from his grip and pushed the rack into place. “Nothing has changed.”
“Don’t be coy, sugar. Gemma’s pulling for us.”
He strutted behind the counter, and Crystal shot Gemma a what-the-hell look.
“What? He’s sort of right,” Gemma said.
Bear grabbed Crystal’s car keys from the hook where she kept them.
“Hey. What do you think you’re doing?” she asked as he came around the counter. “Give me my keys.”
Bear shoved them in the front pocket of his jeans with a cocky grin.
She heard Gemma laugh.
“Hand them over.” She thrust her hand out again, and he grabbed her wrist, pulling her against him as he’d done last night. He smelled earthy and manly, like Tarzan. Thoughts of playing in Tarzan’s jungle rolled through her mind, setting off alarm bells, and she pushed away.
Confusion wrinkled his brow. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I’m taking care of that inspection you need, babe. No need to get all up in arms. I’ll bring your keys back later.”
“You’re…my inspection? How did you know I needed one?” She looked at Gemma again, wondering if she’d told him, but Gemma shook her head.
“You mentioned it last night,” he reminded her.
Holy cow. He remembered? “But you haven’t slept, have you?”
“I caught an hour or two on the lawn. I’m good to go.”
The bells chimed over the door, and a group of giggling girls walked in with their mothers in tow.
“Hi. Welcome to Princess for a Day,” Crystal said to the group, then quickly returned her attention to Bear as Gemma went to greet the customers.
His eyes drifted down her cheerleader outfit again, making a purely male sound of appreciation loud enough for her ears only, and damn, her insides lit right up.
“Maybe you can cheer for me later.” He blew her a kiss and headed for the door.
She watched him strut out of the boutique wondering how she was supposed to concentrate on a birthday party for seven little girls when her big-girl body was on fire.
BEAR PACED THE parking lot of Whiskey Automotive with the phone pressed to his ear, discussing last night’s events with his father. Although his father no longer rode, he still ran the Dark Knights. He listened to his slow, slightly-hard-to-understand speech, a harsh reminder of the stroke he’d suffered shortly after Bear’s high school graduation. The stroke had taken more than his father’s once rapid and demanding verbal abilities. It had rendered his left side weak, his left hand clumsy, and had kept Bear from pursuing his dream of going to college to becoming a motorcycle designer. With Bullet out of the country on a military tour, Bones entrenched in medical school, Dixie a mere fifteen years old, and his mother, a nurse, caring for his father as he endured months of therapy, Bear had stepped in to run the bar. A few years later, his uncle Axel, who had run the auto shop and had taught Bear everything he knew about cars, passed away. He left the shop to Bear’s family, and Bear had taken over running the shop, too.
“Sounds like it went well,” his father said. “We need to meet to discuss the bar.”
Both businesses were owned in equal partnerships between his father, Bear, and each of Bear’s siblings. Since Bullet’s return to civilian life, he’d taken over the day-to-day operations of the bar, while Bear and Dixie handled the business management of both the bar and the shop. Dixie and their mother, who was now retired, worked part-time at the bar, and Bear took on bartending shifts as needed. They were all stretched for time, but their father refused to hire outside of the family. Bear was waiting for that decision to bite them in the ass.
“I think it’s time to make some changes,” his father said. “Can you come by the house tomorrow morning?”
Not if all goes well with Crystal tonight. “I’m not sure, Pop. Probably not, but I’ll talk to Dixie and make sure she’s there. She can fill me in.”
His father was silent for a beat. A fucking annoying beat. Dixie was an equal partner in the businesses, but despite that, their father refused to give Dixie any say in them. Biggs had been raised by a hard-core biker with old-school beliefs that went back several generations. The men in their family bore the weight of all major responsibilities. It went hand in hand with the all-male motorcycle club mentality. Bear didn’t have an issue with responsibility. He’d taken on more than his share over the years. But he took issue with excluding his sister, especially since she’d not only helped keep the businesses above water, but she’d made them even more profitable.
The struggle between family loyalty and the inequity of how their father treated Dixie left Bear harboring a nugget of resentment, like a festering wound that wouldn’t heal.
“We’ll do it another time,” his father said, pushing Dixie to the side once again and leaving no room for negotiation.
Harley, Bear’s favorite of the new litter of kittens that were born to Big Mama, the auto shop cat, rubbed against his leg. He bent down and picked her up, tucking her against his chest. She purred the loudest of the litter, and she stuck to Bear like glue. Her cuteness helped push away the familiar discomfort that accompanied business conversations with his father.
“Still trying to rope that little gal?” his father asked, as if he hadn’t just rubbed Bear the wrong way.
Bear smiled at his choice of words. Trying to get together with Crystal often made him feel like he was trying to lasso a wild pony. It had bugged the hell out of him that she hadn’t texted last night. He’d thought they’d broken new ground. But he wasn’t about to give up. Eyes never lied, and Crystal’s screamed, I want you.
“Crystal,” he reminded him. His parents had met Crystal in passing when she was hanging out at the bar with the rest of them, but his father was never big on names. “And yes, you could say that.” He scratched the top of Harley’s head. The little calico nuzzled against him.
“It’s been a long time, son. Sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree?”
At thirty-three, Bear had sown more than his share of wild oats, but he’d never met a woman who made him want more than a few hot nights. Until Crystal. She had a spark of rebellion that had captured his attention right off the bat, and a sweeter, more vulnerable side that she tried her best to hide. The combination had reeled him right in. He wanted to strip away all those layers and get to the heart of who she was. And after months of getting to know her, building a friendship that bordered on coupledom—without the physical side—he had a feeling they’d fall perfectly into sync.
“Definitely not,” he said. “Listen, Pop, I’ve got to run. I’ve got her car, and I need to get it back to her before she gets off work.” And he hoped to finally convince her to give in to the undeniable heat between them and give him a chance. He had to work at the bar tomorrow night, and he didn’t want to wait another day. Not after they’d come so close to finally crossing the line from friends to something more.
They talked for another minute, and his father wished him luck with Crystal. He knew plenty of guys who couldn’t stand their parents, and Bear considered himself lucky in that department, despite their differences. His father had always been hard on them, pushing them to be the best they could be. When you think you’re done with something, look it over again and see how you can make it better. And his mother was as straightforward as a dart. There was a no-bullshit-accepted rule in the Whiskey household. But he knew without a shadow of a doubt that if he were in trouble, they’d always be there to back him up. Just like he was in his father’s time of need. He’d never questioned their love or devotion to any of their children, including Dixie, despite his father’s old-school ways with regard to business.
He went into the shop and headed for the playroom. When Truman had shown up with Kennedy and Lincoln the morning after he’d rescued them, he’d been afraid to leave them with anyone else. They’d renovated the shop to include a playroom with a fenced-in outdoor play area, and now he and Dixie helped care for them. Eventually they’d need to hire a babysitter, as it was getting more difficult and dangerous to get their work done with curious little ones underfoot, but Bear loved having them around.
Tru had taken Kennedy out on a father-daughter dinner date, and Dixie was watching Lincoln while Gemma went to the grocery store. Dixie looked up from where she sat on the floor with Lincoln in her lap.
The adorable tyke clutched a fistful of Dixie’s flame-red locks and reached for Bear, yanking her hair. “Babababa!”
“Ow. You little rascal.” Dixie untangled his fingers from her hair and kissed his pudgy hand. “Now I understand why Bullet shaved his beard. This little man has a powerful grip.”
Bear set Harley on the floor and reached for Lincoln. Spending time with Lincoln and Kennedy had fueled his love of babies. He’d always known he wanted a family, and watching Truman, Gemma, and the babies build their lives together had amped up that desire. “He could be your son with that strawberry-blond hair.”
“Bababababa,” Lincoln babbled as Bear kissed his cheek.
“Don’t jinx me. I need a baby like I need a hole in the head.” Dixie was the youngest of his siblings, and the mouthiest. At five nine, she was tall and thin, with colorful tattoos that rivaled her brothers’. She was the only one of them to take after their mother’s side of the family. She shared her red hair and green eyes, while Bear and his brothers took after Biggs, with dark hair and brown eyes. “You should really take Harley home with you. She wants to be yours.”
“She can be mine here. I like having her at the shop with me. I’d miss her if she was at my house all day.”
“You’re such a softie,” Dixie teased, petting the kitty. “Tru told me he dropped you at Crystal’s work this morning and he was supposed to pick you up after you got her car inspected. But you still have her car…?”
Of all his siblings, he’d always been closest to Dixie. Together they’d weathered their father’s stroke, helped their mother cope, and brought both businesses to new heights. Dixie was as overprotective of him as he and his brothers were of her. “Our date got cut short last night. I’m hoping to make it up to her tonight.”
“Did she know it was a date? Tru said you absconded with her.”
He tickled Lincoln’s belly and handed the giggling boy back to Dixie.
“You worry too much, and Tru knows me better than that. You’ve seen her with me, Dix. You know how she feels about me.”
“You two do always look like you’re going to rip each other’s clothes off, but that doesn’t mean you’re a couple. You know I freaking love Crystal, but it’s been months of this flirtatious game you’re playing. I worry you’re going to smother her and get your brawny heart broken.”
“If I get lucky, I’ll smother her all right.” He made kissing sounds and went for the door, waving as he walked out.
He thought about what Dixie had said as he drove through town, but no matter how he turned it in his head, he couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever this was between him and Crystal, it was worth the wait.
The door to the boutique was locked. The lights in the front of the store were off, but the back was lit up. He peered through the glass door and saw Crystal bent over a table. The skirt of her cheerleading outfit barely covered her ass, and her thigh-high stockings took his mind to dark places. He imagined a black lace thong riding high on her hips underneath that sexy little skirt, and taking it off with his teeth. His mouth watered at the thought.
Crystal stretched, arching her back and thrusting her magnificent breasts forward. Her red and black cropped cheerleading top lifted, exposing a few inches of taut flesh. His fingers itched to touch her. He longed to feel her hot naked flesh beneath him, to see her hair fanned out on his pillow while she cried out his name in the throes of passion. Fuck. He was hard as steel. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could take this.
Who was he kidding? He hadn’t gotten a hard-on for another woman in months.
As if she felt his presence, Crystal glanced up at the door, and his body thrummed. Jesus, what was he? A horny teenager?
No, jackass. A guy who has gone without for too fucking long and knows there’s only one woman to satisfy him.
Crystal strutted up the center of the store with the confidence of a model on a catwalk. Her hips swayed, her shoulders squared, and that long black hair he wanted to wind around his fingers cascaded behind her, as if she were walking into the wind. Or maybe that was just his sex-starved mind working overtime, because he also imagined her completely naked, save for those sexy stockings and heels, beckoning him forward with a come-hither stare. Come, baby, come.
The sound of the locks turning snapped his brain into gear. He shook his head to clear his dirty thoughts as she pushed the door open.
“You okay?” She dragged her eyes down his body, lingering on the erection he had no chance of hiding. “Hard evening?”
He stepped into the boutique and turned the lock on the door. She had a badass reputation as a girl who was into tough guys. Bear wondered if he hadn’t been aggressive enough with his playful banter. Tonight he’d step it up and give her what she seemed to find attractive in other guys. Or at least what she used to. He hadn’t heard her talk about any other guys in months, and his gut told him it was because she was totally, one hundred percent into him. He just needed to get past whatever was holding her back.
“Baby, you have no idea what you do to me.” He walked forward, backing her up until she hit the costumes hanging on a rack. “I’m not sure how I feel about you dressing like this in public.”
“You have no say in how I dress.”
He gathered her in his arms, and she squirmed.
“What are you doing?”
“More than eight months, baby.” His hands moved down her back to the dip at the base of her spine. “That’s a long damn time to be thinking about you the way I think about you.”
“Then don’t,” she challenged.
He touched his lips to her cheek, feeling her heart hammering against his. “What are you waiting for, Crystal? You know I want you. I know you want me.”
“What I know,” she said in a firm voice, “is if you move your hands an inch lower, my knee is going to put a permanent end to your ability to have a hard anything.”
“What’s wrong, baby?” he asked softly. “What scares you so much that you have to toy with me?”
She clutched his chest, the color draining from her face. “Bear, please stop.”
He stepped back, shocked by the conflicting emotions staring back at him, and fought the urge to pull her back into his arms and protect her. From himself?
“Crystal, you know I’d never really force myself on you. I was just playing around.”
She rolled her eyes, scoffing as she walked away. “No shit.”
“So, what’s wrong? Shit, babe. The last thing I want to do is scare you.”
“Your chick meter is off. I’m not scared. I’m just not in the mood for this. It’s been a long day, and it’s not nearly over.”
“Christ.” He let out a relieved breath. “You scared the piss out of me.”
“Sure it was piss?” She glanced at his jeans and raised her brows. He’d gone soft at the fear he’d thought he’d seen in her eyes. “Looks like we took care of that mighty sword of yours.”
“Not quite the way I had envisioned,” he mumbled.