Authors: Carly Michaels
“I’d like that.” He grinned before leaning in to kiss me again. “I’ll talk to you soon. Nice to meet you,” he muttered to York before walking away.
“What the hell was that?” York demanded, planting his hands on his hips before turning to face me. “You make a date with another guy while you’re out with me?”
His voice carried, and he’d already attracted the attention of a few kids playing with their parents and an elderly couple walking a small dog on the path, though he seemed oblivious.
“Would you please keep your voice down?” I was used to dealing with aggressive men, which meant I didn’t back down. Ever.
“Why would you want to go out with that loser?”
“You don’t know anything about him.”
I knew it was his stupid male pride talking, but I hated people who made snap judgments. I’d had people looking down on me all my life. First because we were “trailer park trash,” and later because I struggled in school and fell in with the wrong crowd. I’d developed a thick skin and rarely cared anymore if people stared at my ink or trash-talked behind my back, but once in a while, someone said or did something to set me off in defense of a friend. Like now.
“Fine. You tell me what’s so great about him. Did he give you a few mind-blowing orgasms and—”
“I’m done,” I said before storming off. Not only was he making a scene, but he was making me feel as though I owed him an explanation. It took me back to another man and another time I’d rather forget…
“Lacy, wait,” he said, jogging to catch up with me.
Thankfully I was wearing running shoes and the studio was only a couple of miles away, so I kept walking. I didn’t need him to give me a ride. I didn’t need anything from him.
“I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have said that.”
My pace slowed, but I didn’t stop. I heard his footsteps cease. He was clearly waiting for me to give in, but I turned to face him, walking backward instead. “No man is ever going to disrespect me again, York.”
I was taking my frustrations out on the heavy bag when my brother walked into my home gym, eating an apple.
“Hey,” he said, straddling my weight bench. “What’s up?”
“What does it look like?” I said, pummeling the bag.
“Looks to me like you need to get laid.”
I glared at him. “When are the painters gonna be done at your place?” I braced a gloved hand on the bag as I caught my breath. “I’m getting sick of looking at you.”
“I thought you were going out for lunch with that hot little bartender,” he said, tossing the apple core into the wastebasket in the corner.
“I did.” Reaching for the water bottle I’d tossed aside, I said, “But we kind of got into it.”
Wes chuckled, lying back and eyeing the weight on the bar before hoisting it over his head. “Why am I not surprised?”
I watched him do ten reps, wondering if he was right when he’d claimed I should stick to one-night stands. “She made a date with some dude right in front of me.” I wasn’t wrong to be pissed about that, but I should have been mature enough to take it up with her when we were alone and I’d calmed down.
“Seriously?” Wes asked before doing another set. “Guess she was trying to send you a message, huh?”
I would have agreed, but I knew how to read women. Lacy was definitely into me. “Anyone else and I would have said she was doing it to make me jealous. But Lacy isn’t into games. She’s a straight-shooter.” And I loved that about her.
“So why do you think she did it?” Wes struggled with his last rep, so I moved closer to spot him.
“I don’t know.” I thought about what had led up to it. I’d slipped my arm around her waist, trying to send a message to her friend that we were together. Maybe that had set her off. “We were getting along great. Then shithead shows up and she turns on me.”
“You didn’t go all bat-shit crazy on her, did you?”
My brother knew me better than anyone. He knew I was a jealous asshole when I was really into a woman. Which was wasn’t often.
“What would you have done?” I asked, reaching for a towel to wipe the sweat off my forehead. “Kept your mouth shut and let her—”
“I wouldn’t have acted like I owned her, and I’m assuming that’s what you did.” He sat up, rolling his eyes when I didn’t respond. “Of course that’s what you did. Isn’t that what you always do? You’re such a dumbass.”
I’d fought with my last girlfriend plenty because we were both jealous hotheads and didn’t trust each other. Turned out I’d been right not to trust Michelle, since she cheated on me.
“This girl’s different,” I said, sinking onto the leg press machine. “She’s not like Michelle.”
“But you treated her like she was.”
“Yeah.” I barely knew Lacy. We’d only been out a couple of times, shared a few kisses. I sure as hell didn’t have the right to assume I was the only guy she was seeing. I knew that, but when I thought about her with someone else, it made me crazy. “So what do you think I should do now?”
“Is she working tonight?”
“Perfect. Go to the bar and talk to her brother. You said he seems like a pretty cool guy.”
“He is, but how is Ash going to help me—”
“Who knows her better than he does, right?”
“I guess.” I considered my kid brother’s advice, wondering if it would make her even more upset if I talked to Ash behind her back. She hadn’t been very forthcoming about her past, but after a couple of pseudo-dates, I didn’t think I had the right to expect to know her secrets. “You think she’s hiding something from me?”
“I think you’re paranoid because of what happened with Michelle,” Wes said, moving on to the universal gym. “Not all girls are gonna screw you over, you know. Though why you’d wanna get tied down with just one is beyond me.”
I was thirty-three. I’d been single a long time, had more than my fair share of women, and I couldn’t shake the feeling it was time for something more serious. I thought about my recent conversation with our old man. “Dad said something to me recently. He said losing Mom nearly killed him. Had it not been for us, he wouldn’t have survived it.”
Wes swallowed, looking as affected by those words as I’d been. “What’s your point?”
“Don’t you ever want to feel like that about anyone?”
“And risk losing them?” he asked bitterly. “No thanks, I’ll pass.”
It hit me suddenly, like a sledgehammer upside the head. That was the reason my brother was still single. He didn’t want to risk falling in love because he was afraid of losing someone who meant everything to him, the way we’d lost our mom when we were kids.
“What happened to Mom,” I said, my head down. “It was a fluke, man. Most people don’t die in their thirties.”
“But some do.” My brother put himself through his usual paces, barely breaking a sweat.
“You can’t go on being afraid, you know. Mom wouldn’t have wanted that for you.”
“I’m not afraid of shit,” he said, breathing between reps as he moved on to pull-ups.
He was pretty fearless when it came to most things. He’d gone skydiving, rock climbing, white water rafting. Hell, he’d even driven his buddy’s race car at death-defying speeds and lived to tell about it. But he’d never been in love, and I’d been too self-absorbed to ask why. Until now.
“Why haven’t you ever gotten serious with anyone?” I asked, thinking about the dozens of beautiful women he’d introduced me to over the years, women who would have done anything to be his one and only.
“Don’t need the hassle,” he said, reaching for a clean white towel from the stack my cleaning lady kept on a shelf in the closet. He made his way over to the water cooler.
“Maybe you’d be happier,” I said as he filled and drained a plastic cup before tossing it in the trash. “You wouldn’t be drifting like you are. Mad at yourself and the world.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he asked, looking at me as though he suspected I was high. “Where is this coming from?”
“You’re so cynical. Down on women, your profession, your neighborhood, everything. Everything sucks. You ever consider maybe you’re the problem?” I didn’t want to be cruel, but somebody had to call him out. As his best friend and brother, I was the logical choice.
“Worry about your own life,” he said, tossing the sweat-drenched towel at me. “I’ve got mine under control.”
I reached for my phone when it buzzed, hoping it would be Lacy. No such luck. “Hey, Ace. What’s up, man?”
“I just got off the phone with your girl. Is she as hot as she sounds?”
That was when I remembered I’d texted Ace when Lacy and I were at the deli, suggesting he call her roommate because I thought they might hit it off. The beautiful blonde was just my friend’s type. “She’s hot. You guys getting together, or what?”
“Yeah, tonight. You and Lacy wanna come?”
“Uh, I don’t think Lacy would wanna see me right now.”
“Uh oh, what happened? I thought you were really in to her?”
I rarely talked to my friends about the girls I dated, but Ace got me the way few other people did. He knew I was ready to find a good girl and stop chasing tail.
“Apparently some other dude’s just as into her,” I said, clenching my fist as I paced the gym, remembering her interaction with the guy in the park.
“That’s no surprise,” Ace said, laughing. “I’m sure lots of guys are into her. She’s a rocket, man. Not to mention where she works. She must get hit on all the time.”
“Yeah, but it happened right in front of me, and she didn’t blow him off.” I raked a hand through my damp hair. “In fact, she was the one who suggested they get together for dinner next week.”
“So you’re thinking she might be another Michelle? If so, better you found out now, right?”
“No, she’s not like that,” I said, thinking about my ex and how different she and Lacy were. Michelle was flirtatious. She fed off attention from other men and got off on my reaction. Instead of instigating a fight, Lacy had walked away.
“How can you be sure?”
I headed down the hall to the bathroom, planning to take a shower. “I knew right off Michelle was bad news. Hell, she dumped her boyfriend to get with me. I ignored my gut ‘cause she was so hot. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“So where do things stand with you and Lacy? You think you’ll see her again?”
I closed the bathroom door, leaning against it. “I want to.”
“You gonna call her?”
“I don’t know. I might give it a couple of days, let her cool off.” I considered my brother’s advice. “Wes thinks I should talk to her brother, try to get a feel for where her head’s at before I get in too deep. What do you think?”
“Might not be a bad idea,” he conceded. “If you think she’s worth the trouble.”
“She’s definitely worth it. No question about that.”
Ash was slammed when I walked into his club that night, yet he still made his way over to me and shook my hand. “Hey, York. Good to see you again. Lace isn’t in tonight, if you’re looking for her?”
“Yeah, I know. I was hoping I could talk to you, if you’ve got a minute.” Stupid question. It didn’t look as though the poor guy could spare a second, much less a minute.
“Uh, sure,” he said, looking around. “Let me ask one of the girls to bring a couple of drinks back to my office. What’ll you have?”
“A Corona’s good.” I shouldn’t be drinking at all, since I’d be training again soon, but since I wasn’t sure what to expect from my discussion with Lacy’s brother, I went for it.
Ash had a quick word with the waitress who’d filled me in on Lacy during my last visit before he led me back to his office. As he closed the door to the dimly lit, spacious office, it was clear the room had been soundproofed because I could finally hear myself think.
“So what’s up?” Ash asked, sitting behind his imposing mahogany desk as he pointed at a black leather chair across from him.
Before I could respond, the waitress tapped on the door and poked her head in. “I’ve got your drinks here, boss.”
“Great, bring them in, Laura.” He accepted his while I took mine.
“Thanks,” we said in unison before she winked at me and left the room.
“So, uh, about your sister…”
What can you tell me about her?
When I realized how stupid that sounded, I began questioning my sanity for coming here at all.
“What about her?” Ash asked, tapping his beer bottle against mine. “Is she breaking your balls already?”
Something like that. I could tell how protective he was of his little sister, so I knew I’d better be willing to take the blame if I expected any help from Ash. “We kind of had it out today.” I tipped my bottle back while he did the same. “I overstepped. It was all on me.”
“And let me guess… my sister let you have it?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“We ran into a friend of hers while we were having lunch in the park. Actually, he’s a customer of yours. Sounded to me like they’d been out together a few times—”
“Brent,” Ash said, scowling. “He’s the only one of my customers she’s ever dated. She knows how I feel about my employees mixing it up with the customers, so she usually steers clear, but I guess this guy wore her down.”
“What do you know about him?” I was overstepping again. I had no right to ask about the other men in Lacy’s life. We hadn’t even slept together yet, and after the way she’d left me hanging today, I wasn’t sure we ever would.
“He runs one of his daddy’s car dealerships,” Ash said, looking disgusted. “He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Wouldn’t know how to do a hard day’s work if his life depended on it.”
Ash and I obviously had that in common—we were no strangers to hard work and had no respect for anyone who was. “Doesn’t seem like Lacy’s type.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so either,” Ash said, shaking his head. “But maybe she was ready for something different.”
By the way his blue eyes flashed with regret, I guess he’d said more than he intended to. “Let’s just say she’s hooked up with some losers over the years. After the last douche cheated on her, she said she was done with men, but this Brent guy somehow convinced her he wasn’t like all the rest.” He shrugged. “I don’t think she’s serious about him. They’ve gone out on a couple of dates at most.”