Mia’s aunts were in the window. They’d been incredibly kind but incredibly vague about Mia’s exact location. Not up to par on family protocol, Nick figured he had some serious ass-kissing to do. He was prepared to do that. What he wasn’t prepared for was the glacial wall of protectiveness from Maddie’s husband, Jax, and Chloe’s husband-to-be, Sheriff Sawyer Thompson.
The dog and little girl weren’t imposing. The little girl was offering a soggy cookie to the dog.
“Baby, don’t feed Izzy,” Jax said, and hoisted her up into his arms.
The dog shot Jax a look of reproach and sighed.
Everyone else looked at Nick.
This was possibly the most important moment of his entire life, and he had an audience. Well, what the hell. He was good at tuning out the bad shit. He’d been able to tune out unfavorable foster parents, nosy teachers, menacing bullies…everything. It was a unique gift. So he used it now, and looked only at Mia.
But she’d craned her neck and was watching Tara and Ford walk across the yard toward them. Perfect. Now everyone was here to witness this.
Mia was wearing sweats—his, he was relieved to note—and her hair was piled precariously on top of her head. She had a sleepy-eyed look to her, one that he knew well. Normally, the heavy-lidded look was accompanied by a sweet yet sexy-as-hell smile as she woke up, stretched, and then climbed all over him.
She’d clearly just very recently woken up—hopefully not with the tall, dark, and attitude-ridden Carlos, who was still standing too close at her back.
Nick wanted to be alone with her to talk, but apparently she didn’t have ESP because she looked at him for a long beat, then gestured to the couple who’d just crossed the yard. “I’m assuming you met my parents, Ford and Tara.”
They shook hands. Nick noted that they were watching him with guarded sympathy.
“And you’ve met the rest of my family?” Mia asked him as she swept a hand toward the B&B.
Carlos sent Nick a narrow-eyed glance that said, You screwed up.
There was no doubt.
Nick’s life had been only what he had made of it. He was used to being responsible for his own emotions, just as he was well used to controlling them tightly. But he hadn’t slept for two days now, and his control was slipping big-time. Plus, Mia wasn’t showing much. Since she’d always shown him her feelings before—no holding back—this was a bad sign.
“We need to talk,” he said.
She arched a brow. “You came across the country to talk?”
“I came for you. Look,” he said, all too aware of their company, “I know I suck at this, but can we talk? Please?”
It may have been wishful thinking, but her eyes seemed to warm. “Okay.”
Nick let out a breath and eyed their avid audience pointedly, but not a single one expressed any embarrassment at shamelessly eavesdropping. Finally, one of the aunts took mercy and stepped in. “All right, show’s over,” Maddie said, soft-spoken though her voice was laced with steel as she turned and gave the entire gang a shooing motion.
To Nick’s relief, everyone actually listened to her and began to move off.
Except Carlos. He grabbed the shovel from against the porch railing and leaned on it, staying right at Mia’s back.
“You’ve had a long trip,” Mia said to Nick. “Though why you made it when you so clearly didn’t want to, I can’t imagine.”
“I was hoping we could discuss that. Privately.” This last word he directed at Carlos.
Carlos didn’t move.
“Nick,” Mia said quietly.
Christ, he thought, she was going to turn him down.
“It’s a really busy day here,” she said. “There’s last-minute fittings, and the rehearsal dinner, and I have to help.”
“I’m not leaving,” Nick said.
“You’re leaving if she wants you to leave,” Carlos said, and set aside the shovel.
Nick stared at him. “This is none of your business.”
“Did I say that to you when you waited like a vulture in New York to swoop in and pick at the bones?” Carlos asked.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Mia said. “This is ridiculous. Both of you need to—”
“She was mine then,” Nick said, stepping closer. He could feel Mia’s surprised reaction at this, and couldn’t blame her. It was the first time he’d laid public claim to his feelings for her. He was surprised as hell, too. But oddly enough, it felt natural.
And right. “She’s mine now,” he said.
“Hey,” Mia said with a frown, “I’m—”
Carlos stepped up to Nick so that they were toe to toe. “You need to go. I’m going to stand here and watch you. Then I’m going to pick at the bones this time. How’s that?”
“You have a real problem,” Nick said.
“Yeah,” Carlos said. “It’s you.” And he punched him.
Perfect, Nick thought, swinging back. A fight was just what he needed, and the next thing he knew, he and Carlos were in a tangle, rolling around on the ground, fists flying.
Carlos landed a few good hits, but so did Nick. In fact, he was getting the best of the fight when they were suddenly blasted with icy water.
He and Carlos rolled away from each other, flat on their backs, gasping for breath. Nick swiped dirt and water from his face and blinked as an old lady came into view. She was in a pink velour sweat suit with white sneakers, and she was holding a hose.
“That’ll do it every time,” she said to Mia.
Mia’s mouth was pinched tight. “Thanks, Lucille,” she said. Then, with one long, hard glare at both Nick and Carlos, Mia stormed inside the B&B and slammed the door.
The sound of the lock clicking into place was unmistakable.
Lucille tossed the hose aside and brushed off her hands. “Hello,” she said to Nick. “Nice to meet you. I run the art gallery down the street.” She looked at Carlos. “You two are good now? No more silly boy stuff?”
“Yeah,” Carlos said and sat up, rubbing his jaw. “We’re good.”
Nick sat up, too, rubbing his aching ribs as he nodded.
“Great,” Lucille said. She pulled a cell phone from her pocket and snapped a picture of them. “Behave now.” And then she was gone.
Nick glanced at Carlos. “She for real?”
“You going to tell me what the hell that was about?” Nick asked.
“Does it matter?”
Nick thought about it. “No.” Taking a careful breath, he rolled to his feet. “We are done, right?”
Carlos gave him a long, considering look. “Depends on how stupid you are.”
Nick shrugged. He tried hard not to be stupid, but apparently where Mia was concerned all bets were off. Wet, dirty, and off center, he walked around the B&B until he came to the back. As he suspected, there were steps leading up to the wraparound porch and a sliding glass door, which was thankfully unlocked.
Inside, Mia sat on the couch with her smartphone, working on a word puzzle. “I have a problem,” she said when Nick walked in. “I need a three-letter word for asshole, and I don’t know if it’s M-E-N or Y-O-U.”
“Either, no doubt.” He walked over and crouched in front of her, his hands on her thighs as he looked into her face. “Am I too late, Mia?”
Mia was startled by Nick’s question. “That’s an odd thing to ask,” she said carefully, “for a guy who was too afraid to come to a wedding with the girl he’s been with for six months.”
“I wasn’t afraid.”
She just looked at him and he grimaced. “Okay, maybe a little.”
Carlos appeared at the slider, as dirty and wet as Nick, and Mia narrowed her eyes at him as well.
“Hey,” Carlos said, raising his hands in surrender. “I’m just working here.” But he didn’t go anywhere.
Mia stood between the only two men she’d ever been with. The only two men she’d ever loved. “We need a moment,” she said to Carlos.
“You going to dump him?” Carlos asked. “Because if you are, I should get to watch. It’d be nice to be on the other side of the fence on that score.”
“You dumped me,” she reminded him.
“Yes,” he said. “So that you could go live your life.” He looked at Nick. “Not to get hurt.”
“Carlos,” she said, and knew he heard the warning in her voice because he sighed.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. Ignoring Nick completely, he leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, taking his sweet-ass time about it, too. “Give him hell,” he whispered against her ear. “Neither of us deserves you.”
And then he was gone.
She drew in a deep, steady breath and looked at Nick. “So. You want to talk?”
* * *
“Not here,” Nick said, and pulled Mia to her feet. He knew damn well her uncles hadn’t gone far. Maybe Carlos didn’t intimidate him, but Jax and Sawyer sure as hell did. He wasn’t scared of much, but this—Mia’s family—terrified him. They’d loved her a hell of a lot longer than he had, and he was pretty sure he hadn’t made a great first impression.
Or a second…
Mia led him through the inn. There was mistletoe hanging in various spots, and he longed to shove her beneath it and kiss her until she melted against him and remembered that she liked him.
But since steam was still coming out her ears, he resisted.
She took him to the kitchen, where Sawyer stood against the counter drinking a coffee. He didn’t express surprise at the sight of Nick all dirty and rumpled from the fight. “Nice right hook,” was all he said.
Mia let out a sound that managed to perfectly convey her annoyance, probably with the entire male race, then went to the freezer. She grabbed a small bag of frozen peas and brought it up to Nick’s right eye with exactly zero gentleness.