All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel) (5 page)

BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
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“Hey, welcome to the Double Shot!” A cheery blonde greeted Ava from behind the polished mahogany hostess stand. “How many in your party?”
“Just me, but I’d love to sit at the bar, if
that’s okay.” The words felt odd in Ava’s mouth, probably because she’d never once spoken them in her life, but if she wanted another shot at talking to Nick, being up close and personal was definitely her best chance.
The blonde’s lips curved into a knowing smile, and she tilted her ponytail toward the stretch of dark, glossy wood spanning the restaurant’s entire back wall. “You and everybody
else.”
Ava’s eyes made the full adjustment from the over-bright sunshine to the dusky low lights in the bar, and whoa. Both the dining room and the bar area were more than halfway filled with a growing crush of people, servers weaving expertly through the crowd to take orders and deliver drinks amid the rising din of voices.
“Is this normal for four-thirty on a Friday?” Ava asked, unable to
hide her shock. Why on earth would a small-town bar and grill be brimming with this many people only thirty minutes after opening?
Unless of course, that small-town bar and grill had a big-time story working behind the counter.
“Nope.” The blonde’s head shake confirmed both Ava’s suspicion and her fear. “I mean, the new menu’s great and we’ve been busy lately, but not like this. Oooh, it looks
like you’re in luck though. There’s one seat left at the end of the bar over there. Feel free to grab it while you can.”
“Thanks.” Ava zeroed in on the same spot at the end of the bar where she’d taken up residence last night, moving with purpose toward the empty bar stool. The seat was fairly out of the way—likely why it was the last stool standing right now—but Ava didn’t mind. She’d chosen
it last night for its good vantage point on the rest of the bar. Sometimes gathering facts meant watching twice as much as asking, and even though she’d had only the one brief exchange with Nick last night, Ava had still learned plenty.
He might not have given anyone a story, but everyone in Pine Mountain wanted a piece of Nick Brennan.
“Oh! There he is. There’s Brennan!” The excited murmur
came from somewhere in the growing crowd, and Ava’s gaze shot involuntarily to the swinging door behind the opposite end of the bar. Her pulse tapped out the Morse code equivalent of
yes, yes, yes
at the sight of Nick emerging from the kitchen, falling into step to take drink orders alongside the same tall redhead who had been behind the bar last night. They orbited around each other with precision
and an ease that suggested they not only worked well together but were friends, and Ava watched him covertly as he interacted with various customers.
His movements were smooth and decisive, right down to the stretch of lean, corded muscles over his forearms as he reached for a chilled pint glass to fill it expertly at the tap in front of him. Every motion had purpose, and the unwavering control
built in to his stubbled jawline sent a quick streak of envy through Ava’s gut. While it quickly became clear from Nick’s deadpan expression that there was a reporter or two in the bunch asking questions, he took the attention from the other people at the bar in polite stride.
Until he landed in front of her, anyway.
“You’re back,” he said, his dark eyes going wide. For just a sliver of a
second, there was nothing between them but high-octane intensity, and it shot down Ava’s spine in a bolt of pure want.
“I, ah, thought I’d give dinner a try.” She held up a menu, trying like mad to remain unaffected by both her mutinous libido and the sudden scowl spreading over Nick’s darkly handsome face. He snapped a clean bar towel from a stack beneath the counter, putting it to use on the
polished wood between them.
“Have you ever heard the expression
let sleeping dogs lie?

Her snort was soft but inevitable. “Yeah, I’m a reporter. I poke the dogs.”
“I’m not giving you a story,” he said, his tone completely devoid of emotion, but two could dance to that song. It was obvious she was going to have to chisel out whatever leeway he’d give her, and she was nothing if not persistent.
Plus, he had a hell of a smile, and damn it, Ava really wanted to see it again.
“Okay. Then could I please have a cheeseburger with waffle fries, hold the tomato, and extra fried onions?”
Nick’s brows winged upward, but hell if he didn’t step up to the plate. “Not planning on kissing anybody later, I take it?”
The heat that had flared through her only a minute ago went on a massive comeback
tour, but going soft wasn’t on her menu of options. “That’s kind of a personal question, don’t you think?”
Ava got the smile she’d been after, and great God in heaven, the sweet and seductive pull of Nick’s mouth could render an otherwise intelligent woman totally useless.
“How’s that shoe fit when it’s on the other foot, Spitfire?”
A shocked laugh popped past her lips without her brain’s
permission. “You did not just call me that.” The nickname he’d given her seven years ago had settled into the dusty recesses of her memory, but it curved right back into her ear as if it had never left.
“You’re changing the subject,” Nick said, sliding a scoopful of ice into a pint glass with a
clink
. He’d filled it two-thirds of the way with lemonade before Ava finally conceded.
“Fair enough.
Tell you what, then. Why don’t we trade?”
“Trade what?” He topped off her drink with the perfect layer of iced tea, placing it on a cocktail napkin in front of her.
“A question for a question,” she said. Okay, so it was a wing and a prayer and a whole lot of
hey, what the hell
, but at this point, she had no other options. “I’ll answer yours if you answer one of mine. In fact, I’ll even go
first.” After all, what could it hurt to tell him that she didn’t have any plans to kiss anyone later? It wasn’t like she had to cop to the fact that she hadn’t been kissed—truly, properly, felt-it-in-every-corner-of-her-being kissed—in what had to be a century.
Or however long it had been since Nick had last put his mouth on hers.
He paused, and oh my God, he was thinking about it. “Off the
record. Nothing about what happened yesterday is on the table. And I answer first.” His tone was as immovable as his stare, and Ava jumped in with both feet.
“Done.”
“Okay, then,” Nick said, his hands hitching just slightly as he wrote up the ticket for her order. “Ask away.”
She scooped in a deep breath, but said nothing. She needed to gain his trust here, which was the mother of tall orders,
considering their past. But her sudden desire to melt his calm, cool exterior extended past wanting a story, so Ava simply said, “How long have you worked here at the Double Shot?”
“That’s your question?” Now Nick’s hands screeched to a complete stop. His lips parted, showing just a flash of white teeth against his nearly black facial scruff, but she stood firm.
“That’s my question,” Ava agreed.
He examined her for a second, as if looking for a trapdoor. “Two years,” he finally said.
“Oh.” Her brain brimmed with no less than a thousand other questions, but a deal was a deal. “To answer your question, no. I’m not planning on kissing anyone later tonight.”
“That’s nice, but it isn’t my question.”
Ava pulled back against her bar stool. “I’m sorry?”
“You said a question for a question.
I never specified which question I wanted to ask.” Although Nick’s expression delivered just the facts, the tiny crinkle at the corners of his eyes was a dead giveaway that she’d been had.
Of all the underhanded, sneaky . . . “You tricked me.”
“Yup,” he acknowledged, unrepentant. “But you agreed.”
Damn it, there was no way she could
not
answer whatever he asked now, and judging by the look
still hovering in his eyes, the question was going to be a doozy.
“You’re right. I did.” Ava squared her shoulders, shoring herself up for a direct hit. “What would you like to know?”
Nick leaned in, so close she could feel the warm puff of his breath on her lips and the hypnotizing heat of his nearness, and in that moment, she remembered exactly how much he didn’t disappoint in the go-all-in
department.
“I want to know why you left me seven years ago.”
Chapter Five
If kicking his own ass wasn’t a physical impossibility, Brennan would’ve polished up his shoes and gone for broke right there behind the bar. It was bad enough that he’d agreed to answer anything Ava had to ask, even if she’d surprised the hell out of him by going totally benign with her question. But any second now, she was going to recover from the shock currently dominating
her pretty face, and not even one-upping her was worth hearing her answer.
Keeping his emotions on lockdown was hard enough, thanks.
“You know what, forget I asked. I’ll get this in for you.” Brennan gripped the ticket with her dinner order hard enough to make his knuckles blanch, but Ava was quicker on the draw.
“Nick, wait.” Her hand landed on his, but Christ, he felt it everywhere, and
if she didn’t move, his composure was going to go up in flames.
“Brennan,” he ground out, simultaneously wanting her to let go and pull him closer. He might push himself to the point of pain while he worked, but carrying that over into his personal life couldn’t happen. Especially not now.
Especially not with Ava.
She opened her mouth, but before even a syllable could get past her lips,
a man in a rumpled blazer and the most hideous tie known to man elbowed his way to the bar.
“Oh hey, are you Brennan? Harrison Frost with the
Rock-ledge County Examiner
. I was wondering—”
“No comment.” Brennan nailed the guy with enough of a glare to stop the flow of his question, and Ava slipped her hand discreetly back over the bar. Before she could say anything else, or worse yet, before
the reporter standing next to her could connect the dots and start asking
different
questions, Brennan pulled an about-face. His lumbar vertebrae did their best to blackball the sudden movement, but he forced his cross-trainers over the rubber bar mats in quick, deliberate strides, not stopping until he’d reached the touch-screen register at the midpoint of the back counter.
“What’s the matter,
Brennan? Pretty reporter got your tongue?” Teagan arched an auburn brow to go with the wry smile tugging at her lips, and Brennan grappled for a slow, steady inhale.
“No.” But the baser part of his brain reminded him just what he could do to Ava with his tongue. His calming breath jammed to a stop in his windpipe, and come on—how had he miskeyed a fucking cheeseburger on the register? He had
to enter at least thirty per shift.
Teagan was next to him in less time than it took to finish his muttered curse. “Hey, I can kick these pain-in-the-ass reporters out if they’re bugging you that much. Just say the word.”
Brennan’s head whipped up from the register’s touch-screen. “Are you crazy? Look at this place.” They’d barely been open for an hour, and there had to be seventy people in
the bar and restaurant combined, with more flowing in by the minute. “The business is over the top.”
“Yes, but it means damn little if it costs me my bar manager’s sanity. So really, are you okay?” She measured him with a worried glance that marked the question as rhetorical.
But Brennan would be goddamned if he couldn’t get these feelings back under control where they belonged. Being rattled
just wasn’t his MO, and he hadn’t been this out of whack in years.
Two and a half of them, to be exact.
“I’m fine,” Brennan said, mashing down on the tightness in his chest once and for all. He’d been through worse than this by the truckload. Facing a few reporters and saying
no comment
for another day or two until some other story caught their attention might be aggravating as hell, but it
wouldn’t kill him. He just had to focus, breathe, and block everything out. And stay away from the end of the bar, because apparently, the key to blowing his composure was sticking around for dinner instead of going home to get kissed.
Yeah. He needed to get moving and do his job. Right. Now.
“Can I help you ladies?” Brennan asked, leaning in toward two giggling brunettes who barely looked
old enough to drink. Triple-checking their IDs, he pulled the two light beers they ordered from the cooler at his hip, gaining slight comfort from the
hiss
and
clink
of each lid as he liberated them from the bottles.
“So, um, my friend Courtney wanted to ask you something, but she’s a little shy.” The taller of the two women nodded toward her friend, who served up a smile that said she was anything
but bashful.
The feeling of ease that had just settled in his chest gave a hard flicker. “Shoot.”
“I thought maybe I could get a picture with you. You know, for my Facebook page?” She held up her cell phone, and Brennan exhaled as the flicker burned out.
“Sorry, I’m not a camera guy.”
“Oh, please don’t say no!” The woman pouted, crossing her arms beneath her cleavage in a not-so-subtle
lift. “It’s just that living in Pine Mountain, we never get to meet anybody famous.”
Brennan aimed for a courteous smile, but the tight pull of his jaw told him he’d missed his mark. “Hate to disappoint you, ladies. I’m just a bar manager. Let me know when you need refills.”
He hustled to the kitchen, praying like hell that there were plates to expedite, and thank God, Adrian delivered. But
the handful of round-trip loops from the kitchen to the dining room yielded two more requests for photo ops, another batch of cookies, an afghan from the Pine Mountain Knitting Circle, and four polite yet firm
no comments
. Thank God his cell number was unlisted, Brennan thought. At least he had that tiny bit of peace and sanity.
Right up until his sister Ellie sent him a text that read,
Pictures of my wedding dress attached. Mom wants to know if you are bringing a date—call me!
Keeping his head down and eyes forward went from game plan to game over in less than half the dinner rush. By the time they closed the kitchen and transitioned to the bar-only crowd, the phrases
what can I get you
and
no comment
were neck and neck in Brennan’s vocabulary, and he was starting to think
the whole this-won’t-kill-me concept was more fantasy than fact.
“I heard the kids from Pine Mountain Community Center made you enough banana bread to start your own bakery,” Adrian said, adjusting his Harley-Davidson baseball hat as he grabbed a bottle of their local brewery’s IPA for the guy across from him at the bar. While Brennan recognized the genuine gratitude pouring in from the locals
bringing him thank-you gifts, the spotlight of their attention still burned on the back of his neck. He hadn’t run into danger to find Matthew Wilson because he was a hero.
He’d done it because he wasn’t.
“Yeah. Jesse told me,” Brennan said, angling himself toward the cooler in an effort to dodge Adrian’s X-ray vision.
But Adrian stepped in to deftly check the movement, his proximity and
his lowered tone limiting the conversation to just him and Brennan. “Look, I’m not complaining about the business, but we’re even more crowded than last night. This place is busting at the joists with local reporters looking for something to print. You gonna humor one of them?”
“I don’t have anything to say.” Brennan’s shrug dropped off his double-knotted shoulders. Rather than slowing down,
the requests-slash-demands seemed to multiply with every
no comment
. “I just want to stay busy,” he said, popping the handle on the lowboy fridge nestled under the bar top. “Holy crap, what happened to all the iced tea?”
Adrian’s chuckle smacked him right in the sternum. “Your reporter, that’s what. She’s been down there drinking Arnold Palmers and chatting up Annabelle and Teagan all night.”
The door to the cooler snapped shut with a
thunk
. “What?”
“Relax. Nobody here is giving up so much as your shoe size. And anyway, Ava didn’t ask. Matter of fact, I think she’s the only person in here who
hasn’t
asked about you tonight. Looks like she’s just hanging out.”
“Oh.” Brennan paused, sliding a glance toward the end of the bar. Ava’s head was tilted down, her attention focused on
a stack of papers in front of her, her forehead creased into a V of concentration as she read. She scribbled something on the top page, tapping the end of her pen against the soft divot at the center of her mouth, and story or no story, Brennan had never wanted to be a Bic so bad in his life.
“Anyway.” He cleared his throat, shaking off the impetuous heat making a playground out of his gut.
“She’s not mine.”
He turned toward the alcove to grab a box of tea bags from the bottom shelf, ignoring the dark eyebrow that had disappeared beneath the brim of Adrian’s hat. Brennan set the tea to brew, filling a handful of drink orders as he made his way toward the end of the bar. If Ava wanted to act like a regular customer, then he would treat her like one.
Even if after seven years of
radio silence, there was still nothing regular about her.
“Got fresh tea brewing for you,” he said, pointing to her nearly empty pint glass as she looked up from the sheaf of papers on the bar. She blinked in surprise, but her recovery time spanned only a few seconds.
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Ava lowered her pen, shuffling the pages into a manila folder before placing it in her bag. Although
her smile was genuine, the shadows smudged beneath her emerald green eyes betrayed her weariness, sending an involuntary ripple through Brennan’s chest. Okay, so she’d made no bones about wanting a story on the fire, and yeah, that story was what had propelled her back in front of him after seven long years. But when he’d popped off that stupidly impulsive demand to know why she’d left without
a word, he’d seen that same vulnerability layered underneath her wide-eyed stare.
Ava was hiding something.
But before Brennan could run the revelation down the chain of command from his brain to his mouth, a swift flurry of movement snagged his attention from the seat next to Ava’s.
“Evening, Brennan. Heard you’re playing hardball on giving up a story. I have to admit, I respect a man who
knows what he wants.”
Years’ worth of training to notice the details—even the pretentious-as-hell, squinty-faced ones—placed the guy elbowing his way next to Ava as the Perrier-drinking asshat from last night, and Brennan dialed his expression up to its deadliest setting.
“The only thing I want is to do my job in peace. I still have no comment, Mr. Trotter.”
The reporter snorted, shooting
the cuffs of his overstarched dress shirt as he settled back on his bar stool. “What if I told you I could get your story on the front page of the
Bugle
, and I do mean above the crease, in addition to complete social media coverage? Plus, if you sign on right now, I’ve got contacts in TV who would pick up this story in a second.”
Brennan blanked the irritation from his voice, but just barely.
“I’m not holding out for the best exposure, and I definitely don’t want to be on TV. I don’t have anything to say, above the crease or anywhere else.”
“Nothing at all?” Trotter peered through his glasses in haughty disbelief.
“You mean other than
no comment?

The reporter’s thin lips pinched into a nearly nonexistent line. “Is all that silence noble, Brennan, or is there something you’re
trying to hide?”
Before Brennan could slice out an answer and a
get the hell out
, Ava turned in her seat to peg the guy with a disdainful stare.
“Jesus, Mike. He said no comment. Let it go.”
Trotter smiled, all teeth, and Brennan buckled over the urge to use them as target practice for his right hook. “Trying to get me to walk so you can slide in and steal this story? I don’t think so, sweetheart.
Everyone’s got something to say. Isn’t that right, Brennan?”
Trotter swung back toward the bar, his eyes narrowing to near slits as he thrust his recording device about two inches from Brennan’s chin. Brennan parried out of sheer instinct, gripping Trotter’s forearm in a tight hold as the guy struggled to shove the microphone back toward Brennan’s face, but Ava’s sudden gasp and flinch stole
his concentration. In the split-second distraction, Trotter pounced. Using his stool for leverage, he pushed up over the edge of the bar, breaking Brennan’s grip on his arm with a forceful yank.
“Hey!” The word fired from Brennan’s mouth in a jagged burst, but it was too late. Momentum catapulted Trotter from his seat, his arm whipping back desperately in the panic of lost balance.
His elbow
connected with Ava’s breastbone in a heavy crack, and she crumpled from her bar stool right to the floorboards.
“Adrian!”
Brennan’s bellow sliced up from his lungs, and he vaulted over the bar without thought. Indelible instinct reared up from its deep-seated home in his chest, and he pushed past the tangle of limbs and shouts and hard-moving footsteps to hone in on the flash of bright green
silk beneath the chaos. Ava lay curled on the mahogany floorboards like a slender question mark, and panic laddered up the back of Brennan’s throat.
Focus. Assess the situation. Breathe.
“Ava?” Her name got lost in the din of Adrian’s zero-tolerance commands, the sloppy shuffle of feet over hardwood, and Trotter’s sputtering protest growing farther away by the second as the furious chef steered
him toward the front door. A stern voice—their waitress, Annabelle, maybe?—cleared a wide berth of space at the bar while issuing a no-nonsense warning against anyone taking photos with their cell phones.
“Ava,” Brennan tried again, leaning in. Trotter might have a face like a weasel, but he was built like a damned linebacker, and he’d hit Ava with the full force of his body weight. Although
it was uncommon, blunt force trauma to the chest could have nasty implications if the blow landed in just the wrong spot, and Brennan couldn’t tell if she’d hit her head during the fall. He reached out for Ava’s shoulder to gently pull her upright for a better look.
BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
11.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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