“There’s a woman at the end of the bar, the one with the fuck-me heels—Jesus, don’t look! What, are you an amateur? She said she’d do things to me that are illegal in thirteen states if I did the puzzle in less than five minutes. So for all that is holy, hurry the fuck up. Just don’t let her see you doing it.”
Hot Biker looked at Maddie and smiled. “Trying to impress a woman here, Ford.”
Ford turned to Maddie speculatively. “I suppose you already know that this guy here has got some charm. But did he tell you that in our freshman year we nicknamed him Hugh because his stash of porn was legendary? Yeah, he had more back issues than eBay. And maybe he mentioned that he can’t pee his name in the snow anymore because the last time he did, he gave himself a hernia trying to cross the X at the end of his name?” Ford turned back to Hot Biker and slapped him on the back. “There. Now you have no hope of impressing her, so get cranking on that puzzle—you owe me.”
Hot Biker grimaced, and Maddie did something she hadn’t in weeks.
“A glass of wine is always the solution.
Even if you aren’t sure of the problem.”
So you collect porn.”
Jax Cullen took in the genuine amusement on the woman’s face and shook his head. Fucking Ford. “Past tense,” he corrected. “I sold the collection to an incoming freshman when I left for college.”
“Uh-huh. That’s what they all say.”
Liking the way the worry had faded from her eyes, which were now lit with good humor, he leaned over the bar and whispered near her ear, “Want to swap stories, Speed Racer?”
She composed herself enough to grimace. “I’m just glad you can laugh about me almost killing you.”
“As opposed to?”
“I don’t know. Yelling.”
Jax studied her face before she turned away from him, purposely eyeing the bottles of alcohol lining the back of the bar, trying to conceal her discomfort. “Not much of a yeller,” he murmured and reached out to play with one of her dark blond curls. He couldn’t help himself—they were irresistible.
So was she.
“I’ve heard that LA women are pretty aggressive in their pickup tactics. But this just might be one for the record books. You should probably just save us both some trouble and ask me out directly.”
“Hey, I didn’t nearly run you over on purpose. And I tripped on the bike trying to read the sign.”
“Ah, but you don’t deny the attempting to pick-me-up part.” He nodded. “You want me bad.”
She laughed and then shook her head as if surprised at herself. “If you plan to keep stalking me like this, we should be on a first-name basis. I’m Jax.” He held out his hand. “Jax Cullen.”
She slid her smaller, chilled-to-the-bone hand in his. “Maddie Moore.”
He knew the name, more than he wanted to. She was Phoebe’s middle daughter. Giving himself a moment, he rubbed her hands between his, trying to warm them up. Earlier when she’d been using the highway—and nearly his body—for offensive-driving practice, he’d gotten the impression of a sweet, warm, and very stressed-out woman, and that hadn’t changed. He loved the wild, curly hair which was barely contained in a ponytail, but her long side bangs brushed across one eye and the side of her jaw, nearly hiding her eyes and her pretty face.
She’d dressed to hide her body, as well. Watching her squirm on her barstool under his scrutiny, he wondered why. “What’s your poison?”
“A beer, please.”
Jax grabbed two Coronas, lifted the walk-through, and took the barstool next to her. Ford, who was a coowner of the place—and until about two minutes ago also one of his best friends—came back and jabbed a finger at the sudoku book. “You haven’t even started it? Killing me, Clark.”
Maddie frowned. “Thought your name was Jax.”
“It is, but Leno-wannabe here thinks he’s being funny when he calls me Clark. As in Superman,” he clarified, making Ford snort.
“As in Clark Kent,” Ford corrected. “See him squint at the puzzle? Yeah, that’s because he needs reading glasses and he won’t wear them. He thinks he won’t ever get laid again if he does. Because apparently squinting is sexier than admitting his vision sucks.”
“Thanks, man,” Jax said.
Ford clapped him on the shoulder. “Just keeping it real.”
Maddie was looking at him. “Actually, you do sort of look like Clark Kent, if he were really fit. And tough. And edgy. What’s your superpower?”
Ford grinned in approval at her and opened his mouth to answer, but Jax reached across the bar, put a hand on Ford’s face, and shoved. “I try to keep the superpower on the downlow,” he said. “Because the people here like to gossip.”
Even with Jax’s hand on his face, Ford managed another snort and tapped the sudoku book in front of Jax. “If he’s a superhero, ask him why the puzzle’s still blank. Tick-tock, bro. Tick-tock.”
“Forget it. And maybe you could actually be the bartender and serve us.” Jax looked at Maddie. “Food?”
She was too nervous to eat and shook her head.
“That’s all right,” Ford said. “This guy’ll eat me out of house and home all on his own.” He leaned over the bar, smiling at her, pouring on the charm that got him laid so regularly.
“Hey,” Jax said.
Ford grinned at Maddie. “He doesn’t like to share. It’s because I’m hotter than he is.”
Maddie was smiling again. “You always make fun of your friends?”
“Hey, you can’t make fun of your own brother, who can you make fun of?”
Maddie took a long pull on her beer, set it down, then once again turned to face Jax, eyeing him for a long beat. “You’re brothers?”
Jax understood the question. Ford had lighter hair, lighter eyes, and more bulk to his muscle, like a football player. He mostly sailed these days and was, in fact, a world-class pro. When on the water, he moved with easy, natural grace, not that you could tell by looking at the big lug. “Not by blood.”
“Yeah, by blood,” Ford said. “We cut each other’s palms and spit on them in the third grade, remember? Misfits unite.”
Maddie was still dividing her gaze between them. “Neither of you look like misfits.”
“Ah, but you didn’t see us back then,” Ford said. “Two scrawny, bony-ass kids. The best that could be said of us was we knew how to take a beating.”
“And run fast,” Jax reminded him.
Maddie looked horrified. “How awful.”
“It wasn’t so bad.” Ford lifted a shoulder. “We had Sawyer.”
“Our secret weapon. He’d been wrestling with his older brothers since before he could walk. It’s why we let him hang out with us.”
Maddie finished her beer and set the empty down, looking infinitely more relaxed. “Another, please.”
Ford obliged. “So is this a social second round or a get-shit-faced one?”
She pondered that with careful consideration. “Does it matter?”
“Only if I have to peel you off the floor and call you a ride.”
She shook her head. “No floor peeling.”
Ford nodded and smiled, then turned to Jax and pointed at the puzzle before moving off to serve his other customers.
Maddie sipped her second beer. “So you and Ford are close.”
“Do you two fight?”
“And how do you settle these arguments?”
“Depends. Fight night in town square usually works.”
At that she gave him a long look, and he smiled, making her shake her head at herself. “You’d think LA would have beaten the gullible out of me,” she murmured.
“Nah. I’m just good at pulling legs.”
“So what do you and Ford argue about? Women?”
“We try to avoid that.”
“Okay, not a woman. Something else. Would you solve it with, say, a diplomatic coin toss?”
“Probably not,” he admitted. “Loudest usually wins. A well-placed punch is always a bonus.”
When she narrowed her eyes in blatant disbelief, he smiled again. “See, you’re catching on to me already.”
“Actually,” she murmured, “it’s not a bad idea. But I’d lose a fight against my oldest sister. Tara’s got some serious pent-up-aggression issues.” She considered her beer for a minute, her fingers stroking up and down over the condensation, drawing Jax’s full attention.
“Probably I could take Chloe on account of her asthma,” she said. “But that’d be mean. Plus I’m out of shape, so…”
At that, he gave her a slow once-over, fully appreciating her real curves, and shook his head. “Not from where I’m sitting.”
She blinked. Compliments obviously flustered her, which only stirred his curiosity all the more. “You could challenge your sisters to a street race in your Honda,” he said. “My money’s on you.”
She choked out a little laugh, set down her beer, and pointed at the opened puzzle book. “Four.”
“Four goes there. And six goes there.” Leaning in, she took his pencil and filled in the two spots while he found his mouth so close to her ear he could have taken a nibble. Instead, he inhaled her scent. Soft. Subtle. Nice.
She cocked her head sideways, concentrating, and he just breathed her in. Which was how she filled in the rest of the puzzle before he realized it. “Damn.”
“Don’t be impressed,” she said. “I’ve got a little compulsive problem. I can’t stand to leave anything unfinished.” She hopped off the barstool. “Unfortunately, they don’t have a twelve-step program for such things.”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com