Kylie Johansen glanced up from the pitcher of beer she was filling from the tap, her attention instinctually drawn to him as he opened the door of Captain Jack’s, bringing a temporary flash of blinding hot summer sunshine into the darkened room with him.
Tall and lean, his body pulsing of raw sensuality and arrogance, Jimmy Rogan worked his way through the crowd, his eyes locked into hers as he approached. As always, he had come straight from work. Concrete dust clung to his jeans and to the faded the black t-shirt that fit snug across his solid shoulders. Sweat dampened his hair, the deeply tanned skin of his neck. Hard work looked amazing on him.
“Hey, you,” she said when he was close enough to touch.
“Brent’s bachelor party started without you.” She tipped her head toward the corner of the room where Jimmy’s brother and thirty of his closest friends had staked their claim around the pool tables. “You’re about six shots behind.”
“Is that all?” He pulled a stir straw from the dispenser beside the tap and settled onto his favorite stool at the end of the bar, turning slightly so his back was to the wall. With an air of disinterest, he scanned the crowd. “I’m sure I’ll catch up.”
“I’m sure you will.”
For the most part, those in attendance were the same guys who would populate Jack’s on any given Friday night, but Brent’s impending wedding had lent a more nefarious atmosphere to the small town bar. If the night didn’t end with at least one bloody fistfight and a half-dozen separate acts of infidelity, Kylie would be surprised.
“Beer?” she asked.
A hint of exhaustion carried in his voice and deepened the color of his eyes hiding beneath the battered ball cap he wore pulled low and tight, the bill shaped by abuse.
He shrugged, noncommittal as he chewed on his straw, the muscles along his jaw contracting and relaxing in a lazy, rhythmic motion.
“Don’t forget, Brayden’s staying at Mom’s tonight.” She added the full pitcher to a tray already loaded with clean glasses and a whiskey sour.
The corner of his mouth twitched in smile. “Trust me, I haven’t forgotten.”
She grabbed a Budweiser from the cooler and twisted off the cap as she closed the distance between them. Teasing, she reminded him, “I still haven’t invited you over.”
“You will.” Confidence darkened the crystal blue of his eyes, his gaze holding her captive as he lifted the frosty bottle to his lips. Instantly, her body responded, igniting in dangerous desire.
“Stop doing that,” she warned.
“You know what.”
He shrugged, the picture of pure innocence, but his slow smile belied the fact he knew exactly what he was doing to her, and had absolutely no intention of stopping.
He set his beer bottle aside and reached for her hand, threading his fingers through hers, his calluses rough against her skin. His hands were working hands, powerful and sure, aged beyond his twenty-seven years, but his touch could be remarkably gentle. As he stroked a teasing pattern against her palm with his thumb, he slowly pulled her closer, erasing the space between them across the bar.
“I have something for you,” he whispered.
“What is it?” she asked, her interest piqued.
“What time do you get off?”
“Really late. What is it?”
“What’s what?” he teased, tugging her closer.
“Jackass.” She smiled against his lips, barely tasting him before Brent Rogan yelled from across the bar.
With a growl of frustration, Jimmy hollered back, “What?”
“Get your sexy ass over here!” Dan Handley called out in his deep baritone.
A chorus of whistles and rowdy catcalls followed.
Jimmy flipped off the guys as a whole.
“Go. Play with your friends,” Kylie teased, shooing him away. She turned to concentrate on the margarita order for the bank tellers sitting at the corner table. “You’re distracting me anyway.”
“Jimmmmy!” Brent called out again.
Jimmy groaned. “I don’t want to play with them.”
“I’ll play with you, Sexy,” Marissa Vasek, one of the waitresses, said as she came to the bar to exchange her empty tray.
“You sure you want to do that?” Jimmy challenged.
Unable to stop herself, Kylie glanced over her shoulder. Jimmy’s gaze had slipped away from her and settled onto the Captain Jack’s t-shirt stretched as tight as a second skin across Marissa’s braless chest.
Full and firm, her breasts demanded attention. Jimmy gave them the respect they deserved. His eyes hovered for a long moment, soaking in the view before slipping lower to the tight shorts she wore. As he took a drink, Marissa stepped closer, encouraging his gaze to slide down her tan, toned thigh. A breath of air would have been hard pressed to fit in the space separating her leg from his knee.
“I think I remember your favorite games,” Marissa said.
Almost unperceivable in motion, but blatant in intention, she arched her back the slightest bit, lifting his gaze upward, taking him on a leisurely, sightseeing journey up the length of her leg, around the curve of her hip, across the flat plain of her stomach, returning him home to the twin mountains of her breasts.
“I’ll bet you do.” His tone played disinterest, but his gaze lingered below her collarbone as though considering the open invitation.
It was a simple dance, one Kylie had witnessed countless times in the four years she had worked at Captain Jack’s. Simple, but effective. An arch of the back, a tuck of the hair, a glance through lowered eyelashes—young, old, fat, thin, rich, poor, single, married, gay, straight—it didn’t matter who you were or how long it took you to get there. Once started, the dance always ended in sex.
And those two had danced before.
“I get off at ten,” Marissa said, her voice carrying as light as a whisper.
Lifting his eyes from her breasts, his gaze held hers for a heartbeat too long to be a meaningless exchange. “Good to know.”
Satisfied with her odds, Marissa turned away from Jimmy. As she traded her empty tray for the full one sitting on the bar, she caught Kylie watching her. Her smile changed to one of sweet innocence.
“Two pitchers of Light, a Bud, and another Old Style can for Dave.”
“Coming right up.” Kylie forced a similar smile onto her face, but as soon as Marissa moved out of earshot, she dropped the pretence and mimicked, “I get off at ten.”
“Oh, shut up, Jimmy.” Kylie slammed the margarita pitcher onto the blender base harder than she intended, cracking the plastic rim. “Damn.”
He laughed, which only ticked her off more.
“Don’t you have somewhere else you need to be?” she snapped.
Sarah Rogan, another of the waitresses, and one of Jimmy’s many cousins, whirled up to the bar. “Heads up, Ky. Your sister just came in.”
Kylie looked past Sarah, toward the throng of people lingering in the doorway. Ashley was hard to miss with her hips crammed into a microscopic, tattered denim miniskirt and her cleavage showcased in a scrap of silk masquerading as a blouse. Like a chameleon, her hair color changed with her mood. Deep violet was the hue of the day. Not a good sign.
“Shit,” Kylie whispered under her breath. The tickle of a headache she’d felt teasing her temples since she’d clocked in blossomed into a full grown migraine.
“Did she find that skirt in the little girls’ department?” Sarah asked.
“I wouldn’t put it past her.”
“Hate to admit it, but it looks really good on her,” Sarah said.
Kylie hated to agree, but she had to. Everything looked really good on her sister.
Two years younger than Kylie, Ashley possessed every curve and soft line Kylie had failed to inherit. Tall and thin, Kylie was all sharp bone and lean muscle, like their mother. Ashley was softer, shorter, prettier, blessed with a heart-shaped face and emerald-green eyes. She looked exactly like her father, Charlie, which meant she looked absolutely nothing like Kylie. They were only half-sisters.
“Are those margaritas mine?” Sarah asked, pulling Kylie’s attention away from the door.
“Yeah. Sorry.” Kylie set the final glass on the tray. “And thanks for the warning.”
“Anytime.” She lifted the tray of margaritas high to prevent it from being tipped over by a careless customer. Her eyes narrowed in distain when her gaze landed on Jimmy. “Prick.”
Jimmy blew her a sarcastic kiss in reply.
Kylie sighed. “When are you two going to learn how to play nice?”
Standing, he drained the rest of his beer in one long, healthy swallow. Kylie reached into the cooler and handed him another. He tossed a handful of cash onto the bar toward the party’s tab and slipped a hundred dollar bill into the tip jar.
“Jimmy,” Kylie protested.
But he had already disappeared, blending into the crowd on the left-hand side of the bar as Ashley approached from the right, his escape perfectly choreographed avoidance. It was a move he had practiced while he and Ashley dated, one he had perfected since their relationship ended.
Kylie returned to her post behind the bar as her sister swirled up on a cloud of Dolce and Gabbana not quite heavy enough to mask the bitter undertone of fresh cigarette.
“You’re smoking again?”
Ashley dismissed the accusation with an easy shrug. “Only after sex.”
With a roll of her eyes, Kylie chastised, “Ash.”
“Hey, you asked,” Ashley countered. She snagged a beer off the tray Kylie had been filling for Marissa. “Where’s the asshole running off to in an all-fired up hurry?”
Kylie nodded in the direction of the pool tables. “In the back.”
Ashley glanced over her shoulder, to where he stood beside the back door of the bar, talking to Marissa. She smirked. “Aw, how sweet. They always did look cute snuggled up against each other.”
Kylie ignored the insinuation but she could feel her ears flaming in unwarranted jealousy. She hated how easily her sister’s words could twist her heart.
Ashley shrugged, playing innocent. “Hey, at least Jimmy never pretends to be faithful. You know what you signed up for with him.”
“I trust him, Ash.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
“I do,” Kylie insisted, forcing her voice to sound more confident than she felt.
She did trust Jimmy. She trusted who he was now. With her. But trust, no matter how deep it ran, could not erase the truth of his past or everything she’d witnessed while he’d been dating her sister. She remembered every late night when his gaze had lingered where it shouldn’t for too long; every night he when had left the bar by himself, yet he had not gone home alone; and every night he had been too drunk to care about hiding what he was doing, or who he was doing it with.
She trusted him, but those memories of who he used to be allowed doubt to creep in late at night, invade her dreams, steal her contentment, and cause her to question her sanity.
“I trust him,” Kylie repeated.
She said it more to herself than to Ashley, but she said it aloud, as though the verbal declaration could somehow become something tangible. An object she could physically hold on to and find comfort in during those dark hours of doubt. A worry rock she could carry in her pocket and brush her thumb across, the words etched deep and permanent into the cool, smooth surface, reminding her heart, I trust him.
“Whatever you say, Ky.”
Ashley took a slow drink of her beer as she scanned the room, checking who was there, who wasn’t. It was the first thing everyone did when they perched on a stool. People didn’t feel the need to keep tabs on each other at the grocery store or the gas station, but they took careful attendance at the bar. The only other place Kylie had ever witnessed the crowd scrutinized with the same level of intensity was at church. It was an oddity of human nature that fascinated her.
Not finding anyone of interest in the crowd, Ashley turned back around. “What time do you get off tonight?”
“I close. Why?” Kylie glanced up as a scrawny shadow filled her peripheral vision. She bit back a groan of disgust and forced on a smile. “Hi, Mike.”
“Hi,” he answered, his voice timid, his eyes avoiding hers.
“Are you drinking tonight?”
“He’ll have a Coke,” Ashley answered for him.
“Coke and what?” Kylie asked.
Awkwardly, he perched on the stool beside Ashley. “Just Coke.”
Kylie filled a plastic cup with crushed ice, stabbed in a straw, and filled it with soda from the fountain. “Cherry?”
Mike shrugged. She took that as a yes, added a splash of grenadine, and plopped a maraschino cherry on top. He accepted it gingerly, as though she handed him a live grenade.
To Ashley, she said, “Just so you know, Aria plans to do family photos at the church right after the ceremony, so don’t go running off anywhere until I say we’re done.” She glanced at Ashley’s blouse and added, “And maybe try to wear something that’s a little more church-appropriate.”
“Wow.” Ashley huffed and lifted her beer to her lips, cursing under her breath.
“Wow what?” Kylie demanded.
“Nothing,” Ashley snapped.
Mike hid behind his cherry Coke, and Kylie sighed in frustration. “Why does everything have to be a struggle with you? Just tell me what I said that pissed you off.”
“It’s not so much what you said. You ever think maybe, just once, you could talk to me like a grown up? I’m not four years old anymore, Ky. Stop freakin’ bossing me around all the time. If you want me to go somewhere, or do something, just ask me.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Kylie set the second pitcher on the bar and replaced the beer Ashley had swiped just as Marissa came to collect her tray.
“Three more pitchers, Ky.” As she exchanged money at the register, Marissa raked an appreciative appraisal along the length of Mike’s body. “You’re new.”
“Naw, I’m pretty used,” Mike dismissed her easily as he hooked his arm onto the back of Ashley’s stool.
A simple gesture, Kylie thought, but beautiful in meaning. Jimmy could stand to take a few notes from the guy.
Ashley shot an icy glare at Marissa’s retreating back before returning to their interrupted conversation. “Even if you had asked me nice, I wouldn’t be in the pictures anyway.”
“I’m not family.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Not anymore, not since you and…” She paused, dropped her gaze to the bottle in her hand, wiped a bead of sweat from the glass with her thumb before stating, “I just don’t want to be in the pictures, okay? I don’t like Aria, and she sure as hell doesn’t like me.”
“She likes you.”
“Bullshit.” Ashley’s jaw tightened as stubbornness set in. “I’m not going to be here anyway.”
“Man, it’s getting crazy in here.” Sarah whipped behind the bar, grabbed a handful of shot glasses from the rack and started filling them with Jagermeister. “I’ll make these if you can mix me up a Long Island real quick.”
“Only if I can make a second one for myself,” Kylie said, semi-seriously.
“I started drinking as soon as I clocked in,” Sarah said with a teasing wink as she started cracking open cans of Red Bull in practiced succession. “It’s the only perk to this crappy job.”
Kylie filled a highball glass with crushed ice. “I keep telling you to put your accounting degree to good use and find something better.”
“I’ve been looking. No one’s hiring.”
Red Bull splashed onto the counter as she turned toward Kylie in surprise. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. I’ll tell him you’re interested.”
“He’d never hire me.”
“That’d piss Jimmy off,” Sarah smiled mischievously.
“Yes, it would,” Kylie agreed with a smile of her own.
Ashley rose from her stool and leaned over the bar, forcing Kylie’s attention back on her. “I’m moving to Kansas with Mike.”
Kylie nearly dropped the bottle of triple sec onto the bar. “You’re what?”
“When—” Kylie sputtered. “Why?”
“When did you decide this?”
Ashley shrugged again. “We talked about it this afternoon and just decided to go for it.”
Kylie shot a glare toward Mike, and he nodded in affirmation.
“What about Trevor?” Kylie demanded. “What does he think about this?”
“Oh my god!” Ashley growled in irritation. “Why do you people keep asking me about Trevor? Who gives a flying fuck what he thinks about anything? He’s not here!”
Cautiously, Sarah stepped in and nodded toward the glass in Kylie’s hand. “Sorry, Ky, but are you done with that?”
“What? Yeah…” Having lost track of what alcohol she’d already added, she threw in a shot of tequila for good measure, topped it off with a splash of Coke, and stabbed a swizzle straw through the center of the ice. “If they complain, give it to ‘em for free.”
“If they complain they can go to Gimp’s.” Sarah grabbed the glass and disappeared.
Kylie turned her full attention toward her sister. “Are you pregnant?”
Mike choked on his Coke.
“Oh, that’s rich, Ky,” Ashley snapped. “Especially coming from you.”
“I had to ask.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Kylie grabbed a clean pitcher and started to fill it as her mind raced with a million still-unasked questions. “I don’t get it, Ash. You just started a new job. You just signed a lease. Trevor’s coming home in a few weeks.”
At the mention of his name, Ashley let out a weary sigh. “I don’t care about Trevor. I don’t care about my shitty job, or a stupid apartment. All I care about is me making my own decisions, living my own life, doing what makes me happy.”
“And this makes you happy?”
Kylie glanced toward Mike and tried very hard not to be judgmental, but she couldn’t help herself. When she looked at him, at his lanky arms, his pockmarked face, his thin lips and his scarred skin, all she saw was a drug addict, a life of pain, a repeat of the same poor decisions Ashley had barely survived at the age of fifteen. Kylie would fight like hell to keep her little sister from falling into that same black hole again.
“What does Mom say about this?”
Ashley shrunk behind her beer. “I haven’t told her yet.”
“Ash…” Kylie exhaled her frustration on a low growl.
“I’m telling her tonight, I swear.”
Kylie knew it was a lie, but she let it go. “Where do you plan to live?”
“We’ll find a place.” Ashley dismissed.
“My cousin has a camper we could buy cheap,” Mike suggested. “There’s a ton of places we could park it for free.”
Kylie raised her eyebrows but didn’t need to say a word. The look of utter disgust on Ashley’s face was enough to permanently squash Mike’s dream of boondocking.
“What about a job? Health insurance?”
“There’s a million jobs out there, Ky. Everyone needs a nurse.”
“She’d be covered by my insurance if we got married.”
Ashley smacked him upside the back of his head. “Mike!”
“Married?” Kylie slammed the pitcher onto the counter, sending an amber tidal wave of cold beer sloshing over the rim. “First you’re running off, now you two are getting married?”
“What’s it to you if we do get married?” Ashley stammered defensively. “You’re with Jimmy, of all people. You don’t see me passing judgment on you.”
“I’m not passing judgment.”
“That’s all you ever do, Ky!”
“How can I pass judgment when I still don’t know what the hell’s going on? You’ve been avoiding me like the plague for months, and now all of a sudden you pop in here talking nonsense about moving and marriage, and all I can think is you’ve made these massive decisions on some sort of stupid whim! Why didn’t you come and talk to me first?”
“I’m twenty-three years old! I can make my own decisions without asking for your permission.”
“If you’re so grown, then answer my questions. Are you pregnant?”
“No!” Ashley practically screamed.
“Are you getting married?”
“What if I am?” Ashley snapped. “What are you gonna do about it?”
“In all honesty, try and talk you out of it. You’re not ready to get married.”
“And you are?” Ashley challenged.
“No, I’m not,” Kylie answered, surprised by how true the words rang. The very thought of marriage scared the crap out of her.
“Well, you might want to say something to Jimmy. He seems to think you are.”
Unexpected, heavy worry filled Kylie’s chest. “When did you talk to Jimmy?”
“I don’t talk to that asshole. I’ve got nothing to say to him.” Ashley lifted her beer to her lips, but seemed to think better of staying to finish it. She slammed the bottle down and slipped off her stool. “You’ve never been supportive of anything I do. I don’t know what made me think you’d change now. Screw you.”
She turned on her heel and pushed her way toward the door.
“Ash!” Kylie rushed to chase after her, but she was too late for apologies.
Mike stood to leave and pulled a rumpled mess of dollar bills from his front pocket. “What do I owe you for the drinks?”
Feeling ridiculously close to tears, Kylie waved him off. “Nothing. They’re on me.”
His gaze drifted across the room, following Ashley’s escape. “I know you don’t think much of me, but I promise I won’t let anything happen to your sister.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Kylie said, struggling to control her anger, and her tears. “It’s impossible to protect her from herself.”
“Right.” Mike scratched the back of his neck, considering her warning. “But maybe what she really needs is protection from you. That, I can do.”
Stung by his words, Kylie could only stare after him as he walked away.