Jake ran his hand through his thick dark hair and sucked down the rest of his beer, set the bottle on the bar with a loud Ahh, and motioned for another.
“Emily said you weren’t exactly picky,” Dae said. All of the Braden men were more than six feet tall, with dark hair and hallmark Braden dark eyes. Dae fit right into the tall, dark, and built-for-a-fight mold, although he wore his hair much longer than the close-cut styles Jake and his brothers sported.
“Life’s short, man. Gotta share the love.” Jake thanked the bartender for his drink and leaned his hip against the bar, allowing himself a better view of the tables and the dance floor in the back of the bar. “I don’t remember there being this many good-looking women in Trusty.”
Wes turned around and eyed the dance floor. “Your standards have gone to shit, bro.”
“Ouch, man. That hurts.” Jake laughed.
“Come on,” Pierce said. “Let’s get a booth in the back where we can talk.” As the oldest, Pierce was used to directing. Their father had left before Luke was born, and Pierce had stepped in and watched over them all. Pierce owned resorts all over the world, and there had been a time when Pierce matched Jake woman for woman—a playboy without any interest in settling down. But meeting Rebecca Rivera had changed all of that. Jake was the last single Braden, and he intended to keep it that way.
“Sounds good to me. I forgot how meat-markety bars are. Haven’t been in one for a while,” Ross said as he followed Pierce away from the bar.
Jake watched them take a few steps. They were a good-looking bunch, no doubt, but something about the way his brothers carried themselves had changed since they’d each entered couplehood. The sharp edges they’d honed hadn’t exactly turned soft—Braden men were alpha to the core—but Jake noticed less of a swagger and more of a confident, my-woman’s-waiting-at-home hitch in their gait.
“I’m gonna grab another beer. Meet you there in a sec.” Jake waved them off and eyed the blonde again. She was twisting her hair around her finger and eyeing him like he was a big old chocolate bar. Oh yeah, baby. You can have a piece.
She smiled and sauntered over. She arched her back and leaned in close, giving Jake a clear view down her sweetly low-cut blouse.
“Jake Braden, right?” she said in a heady voice.
“The one and only.” He held her seductive gaze, but hell if in the back of his mind he didn’t hear his brother’s words. Your standards have gone to shit, bro.
Standards. Jake wasn’t sure he had many of those left, and he liked his life that way. Uncomplicated. No ties to anyone other than himself and his family. He tossed back his beer and ordered another.
Blondie slipped her index finger into the waist of his low-slung jeans. Her eyes widened as she wiggled that finger against his skin, searching for drawers she wouldn’t find. Jake grinned.
“You’ve got quite a rep around here.” She glanced down at her finger, still hooked in the waist of his jeans. “Is it true that stuntmen do it rough?”
Jake leaned down and put his mouth beside her ear, inhaling the scent of her sweet perfume and letting her anticipation build before answering. He knew how to play the game. He was a master at it. Hell, most of the time he felt like he’d invented it. He did a quick sweep of the bar, readying to tell her just how good he could be—rough and raw or gentle as a field of daisies—when his eyes caught on Fiona Steele sitting at a booth near the back of the room and staring directly at him. His gut clenched tight.
Blondie tugged on his waistband, bringing him back to the current situation, where he was leaning over a twentysomething blonde who may or may not have slept with half of Trusty. His brain was stuck. He couldn’t think clearly. Fiona was there, and she looked so damn good that he felt himself getting hard. If his dick were a guy, he’d knock the hell out of it. He’d done a damn good job of avoiding her for all these years—well, except last year, when in a moment of weakness he’d tried to find her the last time he’d been back in town. He never had found her, but he’d found a brunette from another town more than willing to take the edge off his pent-up frustrations.
He forced his eyes away from Fiona, grabbed his beer from the bar, and stalked toward the back of the bar without a word to Blondie.
“Hey!” Blondie called after him.
He kept his eyes trained on the back wall of the bar with one goal in mind, to find his brothers and drink himself into oblivion.
He hadn’t heard her voice in years, and it still sent heat searing through him—and stopped him cold. Walk. Keep moving. His body betrayed him and turned to face Fiona Steele. His eyes swept over her flawless skin. Her sharp jawbone and high cheekbones gave her a regal look. Not in a pretentious way, but in the way of a woman so naturally beautiful that it set her apart from all others. His eyes paused on her almond-shaped eyes, as blue as the night sea. God, he’d always loved her eyes. Her face was just as beautiful as it had been when she was a teenager, maybe even more so. He shifted his gaze lower, to her sweet mouth, remembering the first night they’d made out. They were both fifteen, almost sixteen. She’d tasted like Colgate toothpaste and desire. They’d kissed slowly and tenuously. He’d urged her mouth open, and when their tongues touched for the first time, his entire body had electrified in a way he’d never matched with any other woman. Kissing Fiona had made his entire body prickle with need. He’d dreamed of her kisses, longed for them every hour they were apart. They’d made out between classes and after school, staying together late into the night. Her mouth was like kryptonite, stealing any willpower he’d ever possessed.
Until that summer afternoon, when that mouth he’d fallen in love with broke his heart for good.
“Jake,” Fiona repeated.
He clenched his jaw and shifted his eyes over her shoulder—not seeing anything in particular as he tried to move past the memory of losing the only person he’d ever loved. He’d spent years forcing himself to forget how much he loved her and grow the hell up, and in doing so, he hadn’t allowed himself to even say her name. And now he didn’t want to hear it coming from his lungs. Instead he lifted his chin in response.
“You look great. How have you been?”
Maybe no one else would have picked up on the slight tremor in her voice, or the way she was fidgeting with the edge of her shirt, but Jake remembered every goddamn mannerism and what it meant. Good. She should be nervous.
He knew he was being a prick, but years of repressed anger simmered inside him. The memory of the first time they’d made love slammed into his mind. He remembered the almost paralyzing fear and the thrill of it being her first time, and his. He’d worried that he wouldn’t last or he’d do something wrong, but his biggest fear had been that he’d hurt her. He turned away, trying to force the thought away. Little did he know that two years later, she’d be the one doing the hurting.
“Great, thanks,” he managed. It was no use. He couldn’t resist meeting her gaze again, and the moment he did, he felt himself being sucked into her eyes, stirring up the memories he’d tried to forget. He couldn’t look away. Not even when the memory of her dumping him all those years ago came back like hot coals burning him from the inside out. She’d stopped taking his calls, and though she’d returned his texts for the first day or two, after that it was like she’d vanished without caring that she’d ripped his guts out.
She shifted her eyes and he saw them lock on Wes. She smiled in his direction, then quickly looked away.
What the hell was that about? Jake pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “Gotta go meet my brothers.”
“Oh.” Fiona dropped her eyes, breaking their connection.
Jake’s synapses finally fired and he turned away, catching sight of Shea waving from a booth to his left. She’d been barely a teenager when he’d left for college, as starry-eyed and naive as the day was long. He lifted his chin in greeting and stalked back to his brothers’ table.
“I’m outta here.” He felt th
e heat of Fiona’s stare on his back.
“What? You haven’t even had a beer with us.” Pierce smacked the seat beside him. “Sit your ass down, bro.”
Jake blew out a frustrated breath. “She’s here.”
Wes and Ross exchanged a knowing glance that made his blood boil. He got the feeling that they’d known Fiona was going to be there. What the hell is going on?
Pierce grabbed Jake’s arm and yanked his ass down beside him. “Sit down and have a beer with your family and Dae.”
Normally Jake would tell Pierce to piss off when he was in a mood like this, but something strange was going on inside him. He was too angry and confused to bother. He couldn’t get the image of Fiona’s beautiful face out of his mind. Goddamn it. He picked up Pierce’s beer, and when Pierce opened his mouth to complain, Jake shut him up with a fight-me-for-it glare and sucked it down. He should have grabbed the blonde chick and left the bar for a night of no-strings-attached sex. Now he was bound to be up all night, trying to forget the hopeful and pained look in Fiona’s eyes—the same damn look she’d had when she’d kicked him to the curb.
“You didn’t have to be a dick to her,” Wes said. “You look like a rattlesnake coiled to strike.”
“That was an asshole move,” Ross agreed. “You left her standing there looking stupid when she was just trying to say hello.”
Jake looked away from them, breathing harder by the second.
“Jake.” Dae’s dark eyes turned serious. “Weren’t you with her for two years or something? She’s probably trying to mend fences or find closure.”
“Yeah?” Jake rose to his feet and slammed the beer down on the table. “Well, I’m not that guy anymore, and I have no interest in mending a damn thing.” He turned on his heel, stormed over to the bar, grabbed Blondie’s hand, and dragged her outside, chased by the forlorn look in Fiona’s eyes and the clawing ache of wishing it were her he was helping into his car.
JAKE WATCHED THE sun rise over the mountains from a lounge chair on his mother’s deck. It had been a long time since he’d watched a Colorado sunrise, and he bristled against the memories it stirred. He lifted his mug of black coffee to his lips as the glass doors opened and his mother, Catherine, came out to join him. She tightened the belt on her fluffy blue robe and smiled, squeezing his shoulder as she passed. He lifted the mug in her direction.
“Thanks, honey.” She took a sip. “How long have you been out here?”
Jake shrugged and rubbed his unshaven jaw. “Couple hours.” His voice was rough from lack of sleep.
“Have fun with your brothers and Dae?” Catherine had hair the color of Jake’s, and it fell past her shoulders, still tangled from sleep. She smiled, despite the early hour. Jake had few memories of her not smiling. She’d raised Jake and his siblings on her own after their father left her for another woman when she was pregnant with Luke.
“Always do.” His mother had taught Jake and his siblings to be responsible and loyal, and he couldn’t help but wonder what she knew of his lifestyle over the past few years. He was pretty sure his siblings had tried to buffer her from the lascivious details of his raucous personal life, but he didn’t want to know the answer.
She handed him the mug, and he took another sip before setting it down on the deck beside his chair. Catherine leaned on the railing, looking out over the mountains.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it? I’ll never tire of watching the sun rise.” She turned a warm gaze to Jake.
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees, and sighed. “It is pretty.”
“You okay? Need something for a hangover?”
He lifted his eyes. I need something for a lifeover. “Nah. I’m good. Thanks, Mom. Just tired, I guess. How was your night? Did you stay out late with Em and the girls?”
“Oh, goodness, no. I hung out for an hour, then let them have their fun. They don’t need me hanging around, but it was nice of them to invite me.” She took another sip of his coffee. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Emily so happy and settled. She’s usually got an edginess to her, like she can’t sit still.”
Jake had no idea how to respond to that. Women looked at things completely differently from guys. He’d never thought of Emily as being unsettled. She was Emily. His little sister, someone he loved and protected, but he hadn’t noticed if she was edgy. She had a ton of energy. Wasn’t it that simple? Was that a bad thing? She seemed happy now, but she’d seemed happy before meeting Dae, too.
“I think Dae’s good for her,” his mother added.
“He’s a nice guy.” His cell vibrated. He pulled it from his jeans pocket and saw the name Ready flash above a phone number. He pressed Ignore and set his phone on the deck.
“Everything okay?” his mother asked.
“Yeah, fine.” Ready. He had names like that for many of the women he hooked up with. Ready happened to be a buxom blonde with two similarly built friends he’d spent a few hours with. Willing and Able. Jake liked to work hard and play harder, to keep his mind off of the fact that he never played for keeps. But the sight of Ready’s name on his phone after seeing Fiona only made him feel shittier. He needed to go for his morning run. Pounding out a few miles always cleared his mind. He’d had the same workout routine since he was fifteen and he never missed it, no matter what condition he was in from the night before. He glanced at his mother and decided to visit with her for just a few more minutes.
Being home brought a dichotomy of emotions that never failed to shake him up. He loved seeing his family, but he’d lost a big piece of himself after Fiona had broken up with him, and coming back home brought discomfort akin to walking around with sandpaper scraping against his skin.
Jake’s phone vibrated again. His mother’s eyes dropped to it. “Isn’t it before dawn in LA?”
“Yup.” He picked up the phone and saw Emily’s name on the screen. Damn. He had no desire to deal with what he knew would be the third degree. He handed the phone to his mother and leaned back in his chair.
“Emily? What would she want this early?” Catherine answered the phone, and before she could say hello, Jake heard Emily’s voice. “Is it true? Tell me it’s not really true.”
Jake scrubbed his hand down his face and held his hand out for the phone.
“Good luck.” His mother handed it to him.
“Good morning, Em.”
“Jake.” She said his name like an accusation. “Is it true? Did you go home with Sarah Chelsum last night?”
Jake imagined Emily’s brows drawn together as she paced her living room, arms crossed, a scowl on her pretty face. She was as protective of her brothers as they were of her, but what he was hearing wasn’t protective at all. It was disgust.
“It’s the ass crack of dawn. You got up to ask me that?”
“Chill, sis. No. I didn’t go home with her.” He shifted his eyes away from his mother.
“You left with her. Apparently everyone in Trusty saw you.”
“You mean Dae saw me leave the bar, and he told you.”
She blew out a loud breath. “No. Dae and three friends who all texted me last night. I waited to call until now.”
“Christ,” he mumbled.
“Christ? Is that all you can say? You know everyone in town is going to be talking about this, and Fiona is home, so she’ll find out.”
Jake gritted his teeth. “Do you think I give a rat’s ass about what anyone thinks of me, much less what she thinks?”
She huffed into the phone.
“I gotta go for my run. Good to talk to you, sis.”
He handed the phone to his mother. “I’m going for a run. Want to talk your daughter off the ledge?”
She took the phone and covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “Jake. Sarah Chelsum? She’s ten years younger than you.”
Jake rolled his eyes, then ki
ssed his mother’s cheek. “Have faith in me, Ma. You didn’t raise an idiot.” Just an asshole.
FIONA GAZED OUT at the overlook on the side of Old Hill Road. She was wearing a tank and running shorts and was thinking about how often she and Jake had run along that route. They’d run together nearly every morning before school and most weekends during the two years they’d dated. She’d calculated it once and knew it was more than one thousand hours of easy conversation and heated innuendos. More than one thousand hours of running side by side with the only guy who’d ever really understood her. And she’d spent thousands of hours since then thinking about meeting him here and hoping they could rekindle their relationship, because once she’d been with Jake Braden, nothing and no one else measured up. Not geology, not family, and sure as hell not any guy.
Fiona bounced from one foot to the other in anticipation of seeing him. She checked her watch, though she wasn’t sure exactly what time he might go running. Especially since he’d left the Brewery with Sarah Chelsum last night. The thought made her sick to her stomach, but not sick enough to give up on him. He used to be as much a creature of habit as she was, and she knew from friends that he’d been running their trail in the mornings since he’d been home.
She looked out over Trusty, thinking about how many times she and Jake had kissed in that very spot and how many times over the years she’d come back and revisited the memories. Sometimes she wondered how she could have been so stupid to break things off before college—and other times she didn’t have the strength to question it, accepting that it might have been the right choice.
Sow your oats her mother had told her that summer, right after her father had moved out. Experience life. The advice had helped her do well in school, because if she’d stayed with Jake, she would have been sidetracked by him. Once they’d broken up, she’d thrown herself into her schoolwork and into drowning her doubts. But it hadn’t taken her long to realize that while her mother’s advice had helped her academically, it wasn’t good advice for her heart. She’d partied hard and dated a handful of guys, which was enough for her to know deep in her heart that Jake was the right guy for her. The only guy for her.