“Not tonight,” Ava says. “The boss said she’s drinking for free.”
Jake winks at us, and Nic’s brow wrinkles in confusion.
“That’s Jake. He’s my brother and he runs this place,” I explain. Damn Jake. Now it just feels weird, as if we’re working together to get the girl drunk. “Perks of hanging out with me, I guess.”
“Oh.” Nic gives Ava a bright smile. “Well then, tell your boss I said thank you.” Ava walks away, and Nic lifts her shot glass and looks at me. “To friends in high places.” She drains her shot and puckers her lips. “Yikes!” She shudders delicately. “It burns a little less each time, but it never tastes better.”
“If you don’t like tequila, why do you drink it?”
“Oh, I usually don’t drink. At least not very often, but when I do drink, I like beer because it slows me down and it’s fun to taste all the different varieties. There are a couple of breweries where I grew up that—” She winces. “Sorry. I’m rambling.”
But I like it. I like the way she waves her hands around when she talks and the way she seems to communicate with her whole body, swaying into her sentences. Of course, that might have more to do with the amount of alcohol she’s consumed than with her personality. “Don’t apologize. It’s great. Half the folks in Jackson Harbor fancy themselves beer artisans, so there are plenty of craft breweries around here. It’ll be good for someone like you.”
She wrinkles her nose as if my words smell bad. “Someone like me? What’s that supposed to mean?” She doesn’t sound offended, just baffled.
“Young, carefree, the type of girl who . . .” My eyes drop to the swell of her cleavage at the top button on her flannel. I’m trying not to look at the black lace of her bra that’s peeking out there, but it’s taking more self-control than I’m interested in commanding tonight. “No responsibilities. The world is your oyster.”
“Unlike you, then, huh? What are you, seventy? Did you just age spectacularly well?”
I swallow hard. “I feel ancient some days, but my wild and crazy days are behind me.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t think I’ve ever been wild and crazy. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. Coming here was the most impulsive thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“Coming to the bar?”
“No, to Jackson Harbor. I just . . .” The pink in her cheeks blooms and morphs into a flush that creeps all the way down her neck. Her skin reminds me of the petals on the white roses in front of Mom’s house—soft, perfect, and calling for my touch. “I want to start over.”
“What’s stopping you?”
The flush from her cheeks races down her neck. If I followed the color with my fingertips, it would lead me to the swell of her breasts.
The persistent direction of my thoughts surprises me. I appreciate looking at a beautiful woman, but I don’t typically gawk and let my imagination get away from me. Maybe my brothers are right and my virtually nonexistent sex life is starting to affect my brain. I’m overdue to scratch an itch, but I already know I can’t do that with this girl. She’s too sweet and doesn’t strike me as the one-night-stand type. Hell, her admission that she’s never done anything wild or crazy is practically an admission that she’s not. But even as I think it, I’m in no hurry to leave her side.
Ava returns and drops a plate of deep-fried appetizers on the bar in front of Nic and me. She gives me the stink-eye as she says, “Don’t you dare think about leaving this bar with her until she’s eaten something.”
I meet Ava’s eyes and nod. Regardless of what she might think of me, I understand what she’s saying and respect her for wanting Nic to sober up before making decisions she might regret.
Nic’s eyes go wide as she looks at the food. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve had fried food?” She bites her knuckle then looks at me. “Am I drooling? It smells so good that I’m afraid I might be.”
I chuckle. “Well, if you’re going to indulge, Jake’s cheese balls are where you should start. That’s goat cheese rolled in a homemade batter, deep-fried, and then drizzled with honey.”
“Seriously?” She’s so captivated by the food in front of her that I feel actual jealousy toward a fucking fried ball of cheese.
I wave to the plate. “After you, then.” I wait as she pops a cheese ball in her mouth, and then I’m enthralled by the sight of her chewing and swallowing. Her eyes close, and I think she might have moaned.
“I’m never dieting again if this is what I’ve been missing.” She shakes her head. “Never again.”