“For a woman who’s never touched hard liquor, you’re staring awfully hard at that bottle of whisky.”
“Huh?” Clementine Cox tore her attention away from the rows of bottles behind the bar when she realized Jake Donovan was talking. To her. Even though the Holy Grale brewpub—named for its ale so delicious, it would make anyone drop to their knees in worship—was empty at this time of day, she still glanced over her shoulder before answering. “Oh, um, maybe I’m just in the mood for something different.”
He shook his head and gave her the sexy half smile that seemed to compel every one of his female patrons to giggle flirtatiously and triple their tips. Everyone but Clem. Not that she didn’t appreciate those dark brown eyes, broad shoulders, and jaw so sharp you could carve ice with it. The man oozed charm. She just wasn’t the type to fall for it.
Fantasize about him on those dark, lonely nights in her bedroom? Heck, yeah. But she knew the difference between real and fake. Gorgeous, confident men like Jake did not sit around thinking about how to get a bookworm with frizzy hair in their beds. She liked herself just fine, but there was no denying she had nothing in common with him.
“You’ve been coming to my pub for over three years, sitting in that exact same stool every time, and never once ordered anything but a lager or coffee.”
“People change,” she said with a shrug. Especially after hiding in the bathroom for the better part of the night like a coward while two guys smashed through her dining room window and tore through all her belongings.
She’d spent all morning dealing with the police and her insurance company, which left her exhausted and well past her quota for human interaction for the next month. The broken glass, scattered clothes and mud-covered floors were bad enough, but the bastards had destroyed her bookshelf and entire collection of paperbacks with it. The shredded covers and torn pages were too intolerable to deal with right now, which is why she found herself back at the Holy Grale trying to escape reality for another few hours.
No one ever talked to her here. Until today.
Jake grabbed the bottle of 10-year-old Laphroaig off the shelf and poured two fingers into a small tumbler.
She picked up the glass he set in front of her, gave it a sniff, and winced as the alcohol fumes burned a trail through her nasal passages straight to her retinas.
He laughed and snatched the glass back. “Didn’t think so. Why don’t you tell me what you really want?”
She sighed and centered her white coffee mug in the exact middle of her coaster, a task made even more difficult because of the optical illusion created by the Holy Grale’s slightly oblong logo. “You got anything that will put me into a state of euphoria so I can forget the last twenty-four hours and actually enjoy dinner with my family tonight and still drive without getting arrested?”
“Yep.” Eli, the co-owner of the Holy Grale, set down the pint glass he’d been washing, threw the towel over his shoulder, and came to stand next to Jake. “It’s called sex. Wild, monkey, make-you-scream-so-loud-the-neighbors-complain-then-ask-to-join-in sex.”
Heat rushed to Clem’s cheeks and she nearly choked on the sip of coffee she’d just taken.
Eli set his hand on Jake’s shoulder. “Unfortunately, Mr. ‘Health Code Violations Are A Very Big Deal’ over here won’t let me put than on the monthly specials list. And don’t bother trying to get it with this guy. He’s a little rusty. I, however, am a well-practiced expert. Just say the word.”
The hard glare Jake sent Eli’s way was uncharacteristic, but effective at silencing him. Thank god, because picturing wild, monkey sex with Jake Donovan right at this moment was not a good idea if she wanted to keep coming to this place. That kind of fantasy was strictly for when she was alone, under the covers, and could claim plausible deniability.
Clem was a creature of habit, and three years ago her inner muse had decided to dig her roots into this spot. Something about the rich smelling wood, the whirring machines of the adjoining brewery, and the haunting architecture left over from the building’s first incarnation as a church had sucked her in. There wasn’t another place like it in the entire state. No one bugged her while she treated this two-foot section of the mahogany bar like her own personal office. And the fact that it was right down the street from her little bungalow was a huge added bonus she couldn’t replicate just anywhere.
“Uh, thanks. I’ll stick to coffee this afternoon,” she said right before accidentally knocking her cup and spilling the contents all over the bar. “Shit! Sorry!”
Thankfully, she had the presence of mind to move her tablet and notebook before they were destroyed by the river of caffeine winding toward them. Her BLT and fries didn’t survive unscathed but she didn’t have much of an appetite today, anyway. She carefully placed her belongings on her stool and grabbed a handful of napkins from the stack Jake was using to sop up the brown liquid.
He set his hand on top of hers, sending an unexpected jolt of heat zinging through her body. Thanks a lot, Eli. “Not your job. I fired you three years ago, remember?”
“And yet you still offer me the employee discount on every meal.” She slipped her hand out from beneath his and let him get back to dealing with the mess.
“Really? I’ll have to fix that,” he said with another grin, wiping away the last bits of coffee. “One of these days.”
“Thank you.” Her words came out in a mumble, not because she didn’t mean them, but because she did. Too much. The unwelcome rush of jumbled emotions swept through her body like a tidal wave, crashing in her stomach and tightening her throat.
She tried to hide her unease from her expression, but Jake’s deep brown eyes zeroed in on her. He leaned forward and set his arms on the bar, forcing her to meet his gaze. “Hey, what’s really going on?”
Shit. This is why he was so good at his job. He could gauge moods like he was hardwired with an emotional barometer, and know exactly what to say at the right time. It was a talent she admired but didn’t possess. Her atrocious people skills and dislike of small talk, combined with a bad case of resting bitch face, pretty much forced him to fire her after two days as a waitress. But Jake had somehow managed to still make her feel welcome here when she kept coming back like an obsessed stalker. And for the last three years, he’d let her quietly sit on the same stool at his bar, head buried in a manuscript, taking piles of notes and occasionally mouthing out the words and accents to herself like a weirdo, not caring if she scared away other customers. Knowing exactly what she was going to order before she even opened her mouth.
Just like he knew at this moment there was more going on with her.
She forced a smile to her lips and resigned herself to opening up about what happened. She hadn’t told anyone but the cops. Maybe it would be good to get it off her chest, and if anyone could listen to her without making her feel like a freak, it was him. “I’m just tired. My house was broken into last night. No big deal.”
“No big deal?” Jake came around the side of the bar to stand next to her with Eli following right behind. “Did they hurt you?”
She shook her head, though her heart pounded in her chest. The intruders hadn’t done anything to her physically, but the break-in had left her in a cold sweat all night. “The cops got there pretty quick and arrested the guys who did it.”
“Jesus, Clem.” He pulled her into a hug, wrapping his muscular arms around her back. She stiffened from the unexpected physical contact. Not only had they exchanged more words in a single instance than they had in all the time they’d known each other—including when he’d sacked her, they’d moved on to touching. Full-body touching.
As the seconds awkwardly ticked by, the warmth of his body and the deliciously spicy scent of his skin chipped away at her discomfort. She let her exhaustion wash over her while he held her close until the pace of her breathing fell in sync with his, like he was recharging her soul. He rubbed small circles onto her back, and she melted into him. She was hugging Jake Donovan, and it felt good. Really, really good. God, how long had it been since she’d touched a man like this?
Too long. She was the epitome of boring. No risk. No romance. No adventure—except for the many hours she spent lost in a good book. After everything she’d been through, maybe she deserved to be just a little bit reckless.
She set her hands on his lower back and traced the muscles along his spine. He inhaled sharply and buried his fingers in her hair, holding her tight against his hard chest. A strange tingling erupted deep in her belly, snowballing in potency as it descended toward the apex of her thighs.
“Aw man, let me in on that action.” Eli threw his arms around both of them and squeezed them together in the world’s most awkward group hug. “It’s okay, let it all out. Uncle Eli is here to collect your tears.”
“Can’t breathe,” she managed to say while sandwiched between the two men. They disentangled and she retreated back to her stool. Her eyes flashed toward Jake like metal to a magnet. His irises looked like they’d deepened three shades, staring at her with an intensity that made her wonder if the spark she’d felt when they touched wasn’t just in her head.
“You got anyone you can stay with tonight?”
Maybe it was the gruff tone in his deep voice, or her overactive imagination, but that question felt more loaded than a simple inquiry from a concerned friend should. “I’ll be fine.”
“You want us to come over and play bedtime bodyguard?” Eli asked with a wink.
Jake gave him a small shove. “What about your family?”
She laughed, grateful once again to Eli for breaking the tension. “I’d rather spend another night with my robbers.”
“They can’t be that bad,” Eli said with a frown.
“You’ve never met them. If they find out about this, they’ll be camped outside my house for the next five years wearing matching berets and T-shirts that say ‘Cox Avengers,’ or something equally embarrassing.”
Eli sputtered. She wished she’d been joking, or at least exaggerating. She loved them, but it was hard being the black cloud in a family of rainbows.
“Better than not having any family,” Jake said cryptically. He returned to his spot behind the bar and refilled her coffee mug, this time adding a splash of Bailey’s.
“I know.” She shifted uncomfortably, realizing she’d just hit the point in the conversation where everything turned awkward because she’d said or done the wrong thing. Like usual. She downed half her coffee in one gulp, grateful to have something to occupy her hands as she recalibrated to the changing atmosphere in the room.
Julia, Eli’s sister, came through the backroom door a moment later, eyes fixed on a clipboard in her hands. “Hey, Eli, we need to talk.”
“Not now. Clem’s about to give us all the juicy details about her crazy family.”
“Yes, now.” She pointed to the back office before giving Clem a small smile. “Sorry. Business emergency.”
“No problem.” Except that for the fact she would be alone in the big bar with Jake without Eli’s humor as a buffer.
She quickly finished her drink while Jake went back to work, preparing for the happy hour crowds that would be trickling in soon. She didn’t usually take anything in her coffee, but the small shot of creamy, sweet alcohol warmed her throat just enough to make her feel a little more human.
Hopefully it would be enough to get her through another Cox family Sunday-night dinner extravaganza with enough energy left over to clean the mess waiting for her at home. She checked her watch and realized there wasn’t any time left to procrastinate. If she delayed any longer, the onslaught of phone calls and texts asking where she was, if she was okay, what hospital room she was in, and whose kidney she needed, would begin.
She opened her wallet to grab a twenty-dollar bill, but Jake shook his head. “It’s on the house today.”
“You really don’t have to do that.”
He leaned over the bar and took her hands in his. “I know. But I’m doing it any way. Same way you don’t need to ask for help right now, but you could.”
She cleared her throat. “You know you’re never going to get rid of me if you keep this up.”
“Not something I’m worried about. I am worried about you not taking care of yourself or asking for what you need.”
A shiver ran down her spine. “I’m fine. Really.”
“At least let me walk you home, Clem.”
Her heart thumped in her chest. She might be shy, but she recognized that burning look in a man’s eye when she saw it. After the ordeal she’d been through over the last twenty-four hours, there’d been a restlessness building inside her chest. A need to do something reckless and remind herself she was the one in control of her life, not the assholes who’d trashed her place. Doing something reckless with Jake was starting to seem like exactly the kind of thing she needed. “Okay. Sure, that would be—”
“Well, you sure moved on fast, Jake.”
Clem jumped out of Jake’s grasp and turned around to see a tall, gorgeous brunette walking toward them. The woman took hold of Clem’s hand and shook it with the force of snake devouring a small rodent. “Hi. I’m Kelly Vanderburgh. Jake’s fiancée.”
Fiancée? She winced, realizing she’d completely mistaken his earlier kindness for something totally different. Like a fool. This was why she didn’t open up with people. “Nice to meet you. I was just leaving. Thanks for lunch, Jake.” She wrenched her hand free from Kelly’s and gathered up her things.
“Clementine—” Whatever Jake was about to say next was cut off by Julia and Eli bursting back into the room.
“Oh crap,” Julia said, adding to Clem’s confusion.
“We should get a move on, Jakey. Wedding’s only a week away.”
Wedding? Clem wasn’t good with people, but she’d never before misread a situation so badly in her life. She headed to the door without a single glance backward, hoping she was fast enough to outrun her mortification.