“Hey, baby girl.”
“When did you and Mom get back?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Jackson is fine. He missed you. He says hey.”
“I miss him too. I wish I could’ve gone to meet his new football coach, but someone had to hold down the fort, right?”
“Speaking of…I stopped over at the Stone jobsite. The guys said you’ve been gone since before noon. You run into problems?”
“Huh. You sound funny. Is everything all right?”
No. Willow directed her anger and frustration at her father. “Maybe I sound funny because my dad is checking up on me first thing. Did you think I was slacking while you’re gone?”
“Hell no. I just talked to the guys—”
“I work hard in this company, day in, day out, and if I want to take a long lunch or time to clear my head, I don’t appreciate the guys tattling on me to you like I’m some juvenile delinquent—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait just a damn minute, Willow. I trust you and you damn well know it. The guys mentioned it ’cause they’re worried about you. They said you showed up late yesterday morning too. You never do shit like this.”
“I don’t want an apology. I want you to tell me what’s really goin’ on.”
She sniffed. “It’s nothing. Forget it.”
Pause. Then, “Does this have something to do with that bartender working at LeRoy’s that Paul told me about?”
Stupid big mouth Paul. “Dad—”
“Is he there with you now?”
“Who is this guy? Paul said he saw you together at your house all lovey-dovey and you were doin’ repairs in the bar.”
“So, is this guy using you?”
I don’t know. Maybe I was using him.
“Since when do repairs include a stint working as a cocktail waitress?” he demanded.
“It’s a long story. Besides, it’s over.” Her voice caught on the word over.
His angry pause burned her ear. “Sweet baby Jesus, Willow Rose Gregory. Are you…cryin’?”
She nodded her head yes but whispered, “No.”
“What did that dumb f**ker do to make you cry?”
“Drop it, Dad.”
“The f**k I will. Goddammit where are you?”
“Let me talk to Mom.”
“Like hell. You’ll tell her to tell me to calm down and I don’t wanna calm down. He makes you cry, I make him cry.”
For crap’s sake. She was twenty-five years old! “Don’t you dare, Dad. I mean it—”
A scuffle erupted and Willow guessed her mother grabbed the phone. Then the dial tone rang in her ear.
Good. Her dad was protective and hotheaded, but her mother was the voice of reason. She’d keep him from acting rashly.
Too bad her mom hadn’t been around earlier to keep her from doing the same.
Two hours later, Blake was working on a fairly decent drunk when the door slammed open like an angry bull had kicked it in. The cowbell crashed to the floor with a final dull clank.
The bar went utterly still.
He knew without turning who’d come for a piece of him.
Big Kenny Gregory.
Blake tossed back the shot of tequila. He straightened his carriage to his full height of six foot three. He briefly wondered how bad Willow’s dad could be. Or how big he could be. Given Willow’s petite frame chances were good this guy bullied people with his mouth, not his size. He slowly spun his barstool around.
Holy freakin’ shit.
The guy was at least six foot eight. He weighed a good three hundred and fifty pounds. He had shaggy, curly dark hair laced with streaks of gray and a matching ZZ Top beard, which made him look like an outlaw biker. Or a prison escapee. Or both.
He stalked toward Blake, wraparound shades obscuring his eyes. His black sleeveless T-shirt read “What the Fuck You Lookin’ At?” Ropes of thick chains swooped from the front of his jeans to the wallet jammed in his back pocket. Chains which rattled against the gigantic knife clipped to the left side of his studded belt.
Before the heavy boot steps stopped, Blake stood. He wasn’t meeting this guy halfway, but he sure as hell wasn’t sitting on his ass.
Big Kenny ripped off his shades and loomed over Blake. “You the piece of shit who made my baby girl cry?”
Not the answer Big Kenny expected. “Least you ain’t denying it. You’d better start talking, boy, about what you done, or I start breaking bones until you do.”
“With all due respect, Big Kenny, what happened between Willow and me isn’t your business, so back off.”
“Who the f**k you think you’re talking to, boy?”
“I ain’t a ‘boy’ and Willow isn’t a little girl. She’s a woman who doesn’t need her daddy to run interference in her personal life.”
Big Kenny growled.
“But I see where she gets her temper. You get pissed off first, stomp away second and worry about the rest of it later. Am I right?”
“In fact, I’ll bet you a thousand bucks she didn’t tell you what happened between us. Know why? Because that’d mean she’d actually have to…I dunno…talk about it. But fuck, that’d be too goddamn easy, wouldn’t it? No, it’s much more productive to make assumptions! Which was what I was tryin’ to avoid from the get-go, but she’s pretty damn quick to jump to conclusions and not so quick to listen to explanations.” Blake’s eyes narrowed. “Does she get that trait from you too?”
Big Kenny glared at him.
Blake couldn’t seem to shut his mouth. He was tired of being the nice guy. Tired of being called a Boy Scout. Tired of being the understanding type. Tired of being the calm one. Tired of being the one who walked away rather than stay to fight.
“I ain’t gonna lie. I wanna throttle her.”
“You’ve got a death wish by telling me that. If you touch one hair on her head—”
“For Christsake, chill out. I’d never hurt her. Do you have any idea how much it twisted my guts into knots to see pain in her eyes? Dammit, that tough little woman looked at me like I’d broken her favorite hammer.”
“No! It’s just a stupid misunderstanding that would’ve taken like ten minutes to clear up, but she couldn’t be bothered to stick around and hash it out. She had to leave!” Blake grabbed onto the front of Big Kenny’s shirt. “Where the f**k did she go, huh?”
“Hands off. Now.”
“Blake. Buddy. Take it easy. Sit down,” Dave said from behind the bar.
“Shut the f**k up, Dave. I don’t wanna sit down. I’ve been taking it easy for too goddamn long. I wanna clear at least one thing up in my life right now.”
Blake locked his gaze to Big Kenny’s. “Go ahead and beat the shit out of me. ’Cause I sure as f**k couldn’t feel any worse. And if I’ve got goddamn bruises and scabs, maybe I won’t feel like such a f**king pu**y for letting that little slip of a thing knock me to my knees.”
“Remember you asked for it,” Big Kenny snarled.
Blake would’ve laughed if he hadn’t felt like crying. Or if he hadn’t been bracing himself for the impending ass kicking from Willow’s larger-than-life father. “Bring it on.”
But the big man just sighed. He clapped Blake on the shoulder so hard Blake winced. “Boy—I mean, Blake, is it?” Blake nodded. “Sit yo’ ass down.” He signaled to Dave. “Give us a bottle of Jack, two shot glasses and then scram.”
Dave complied and then they were alone.
Big Kenny poured them each a shot. They didn’t toast. But Blake knew drinking protocol: Keep up with Big Kenny, shot for shot, no matter what. He apologized to his stomach lining and knocked the first one back.
“Since Will ain’t gonna tell me nothin’, I’m asking you to explain everything.” Big Kenny looked over his shot glass. “Everything G-rated that ain’t gonna make me kill you on the spot.”
So Blake started talking. He kept talking until he had to reach behind the bar for a glass of water. When he finished, he realized Big Kenny’s expression hadn’t changed the entire time. Crap. He finished his shot and cringed when Big Kenny poured him another.
“Lemme see if I’ve got this straight. She was so damn glad to get rid of that title she got shitfaced right afterward. She got belligerent. You kept her out of jail and she spent the night with you—”
“Nothing happened.” That night, but he doubted Big Kenny would appreciate the clarification.
“And while you’d basically protected her from herself and from the other perverted men looking for a drunken piece of ass, she was working off her damages and the two of you became…friends.”
“She thought you were just a bartender.”
“I am a bartender,” he pointed out.
“At one point you told her you’d been employed in the construction business.”
“Also the truth,” Blake said. Hell, was Big Kenny going to go over every tiny detail of their conversation? Probably. Probably it wouldn’t be wise to suggest they move on to coming up with a solution to the situation with Willow rather than rehashing the problem.
“So she thought you were an unemployed carpenter who was stuck slinging drinks.”
“But at no time during the four days you spent with her did you tell her that you were a sheep rancher?”
“Why the f**k not?”
Blake swallowed another shot. “Do you know how many Wyoming sheep f**ker jokes I’ve heard in my lifetime? Christ. For the first time ever I didn’t have to explain what I used to do for a living isn’t who I am.” He looked over at Big Kenny. “I didn’t lie: I just didn’t think it mattered. I especially didn’t say anything after Willow told me her theory on people who raise barnyard animals.”