Alexis Wakeland had never started a bar fight before. It would probably surprise her family to hear that. She’d always been the black sheep, the one the others rolled their eyes at when they thought she wasn’t looking. She was the hellion who got into more trouble than the rest of her siblings put together, the one who made bad choices and couldn’t admit she was wrong. Despite all that, she’d never once been the cause of a barroom brawl––until tonight.
All she’d wanted was a fun night out with her big brother. A couple of drinks and laughs before he deployed to Afghanistan. You couldn’t blame her for being sentimental. She was afraid she’d never see him again.
Like Jeff. Angie’s husband had died over there. And now Allie’s big sister was a widow, raising two kids alone.
Poor little Jack still refused to believe his daddy was really gone.
Allie would never ever be a military wife. It couldn’t possibly be worth that kind of pain. Some days she couldn’t imagine how her big sister managed to get out of bed every morning, and face every day without Jeff. The two had always been like clouds and sky, inseparable. One couldn’t exist without the other.
Yet somehow, her sister kept going.
And their brother Adam was deploying tomorrow.
Adam was also talking to her, but she wasn’t listening. “I love you, you know,” she blurted.
He was quiet for a second. Then he said, “I love you, too. And I’m coming home, Lexie. I promise.”
His pet name for her made her eyes get wet. No one else called her Lexie. “You friggin’ better.” She pressed the heel of her hand to her cheek to absorb a rogue tear and, for once, didn’t hate him for it.
“I’m sorry I can’t make it tonight.”
She tapped the phone’s volume button. Adam’s voice was hard to make out in the noisy bar. “You didn’t just say what I think you said, did you? I’m already here.”
“It’s an emergency. I wouldn’t stand you up if there was any way to get out of it.”
Allie rolled her eyes. Everything to do with his job was always an emergency with her brother. He ought to have the word “duty” tattooed on his forehead. And whatever the issues, he was always sure he was the only person who could possibly handle it.
“Does this mean I won’t get to see you before you go?” she asked, trying to mask the disappointment in her voice. It was hard though, because her throat went tight in the middle of the question.
“Of course not. Let’s get up early and have breakfast tomorrow morning.”
She was still disappointed, but she knew she had to swallow her emotions. She wasn’t going to send him off on the memory of her being a petulant brat. It would just confirm his belief that she was still thirteen. “I’ll take what I can get,” she told him.
“Good,” he said. “And when I say early, I mean early. Don’t stay out partying all night.”
Allie sighed. She shouldn’t be surprised by his assumption. She shouldn’t be hurt by it, either. The truth was she rarely drank anymore. Not since college, but her family had built an image of her as the crazy party girl, and arguing wouldn’t change that. Angie said the only thing that would ever change it was time. The self-help book on her night stand said the only thing that could ever change it was her.
“I’d have called it a night already if I hadn’t been waiting for you.” That probably sounded defensive. “I’ll see you in the morning, big brother. Early.”
“Night, kid,” he said.
Allie tapped the end button on her phone and dropped it into her bag with a sigh. This was not how she’d pictured the evening going, but as long as she got to see her brother before he left, she’d be content.
She drained the last of her drink––rum and diet with a splash of grenadine––and decided to head back to her hotel room. Fort Sill, Oklahoma wasn’t so far from home that she couldn’t have made the trip back to Big Falls, but she’d vowed to do the responsible thing, and plan ahead, just in case she had a couple drinks with her brother. She wasn’t about to get behind the wheel after she’d had a drink, not that her family would believe that.
What other people think of me is none of my business, she reminded herself.
Mentally reciting quotes from self-help books usually calmed her, but not when it came to her family.
She pushed herself to her feet, wobbling a little on the heels of her boots. Stupid choice in footwear, she thought. Sneakers were her usual choice, but she’d wanted to dress up for a night on the town. It had been so long since she’d had one, she’d let herself get a little excited about it. She glanced down at the skinny black jeans that hugged her legs all the way to her knee-high boots and smiled a little.
Uncomfortable, but worth it. She looked damn good.
Allie took another step, trying hard not to wobble. The rum was hitting her harder than she’d realized. She’d skipped lunch, and she couldn't remember the last time she’d had a drink. Ever since her brother in law Jeff had been killed in action, she’d been on high alert, ready to run to Angie’s house any time she was needed. And she’d been needed a lot. Thank God for our family, she thought. And then she smiled, because she’d just been complaining about them in her head a moment ago.
Another careful step. She looked up to make sure she wasn’t about to run into anyone, but as soon as her gaze left the floor, the heel of her boot caught on something. She tried to regain her balance. Her arms flailed in front of her, but it was no use. She stumbled forward and slammed into a hard chest.
A strong arm wrapped around her waist to steady her. She looked up into warm blue eyes and a face so handsome she couldn’t catch her breath for a second. Everything froze, and then switched to ultra-slow motion. The handsome stranger’s glass flew right over his head and crashed into the big, angry looking guy behind him. The angry guy lunged toward him, and Handsome shoved her backward out of his path. She stumbled, tripped over her heels and fell to the floor, bumping her head on a table on the way down.
“Hey!” She was too surprised to utter anything more intelligent. But it didn't matter, because the word was barely out of her mouth before the good-looking stranger crashed onto the floor, too.
His head landed on her chest and she felt a mix of embarrassment and excitement. She knew she should move, stand up, get out of there. Something. But all she could do was gape at the man lying on top of her.
His eye was red and puffy.
That big guy hit him.
It seemed her brain was functioning again at last. Allie glanced toward the bar and saw the meaty giant, beer still dripping down his face. He was advancing fast.
The man on her lap shot her a killer smile, apparently unconcerned with the brute. The puffy eye should have messed up his good looks instead of adding a rugged and irresistible appeal. When he grinned, a dimple appeared in his cheek, and a chill tap-danced up her spine.
“There are easier ways to get a man’s attention,” he said.
“Believe it or not, I wasn’t throwing myself at your feet.”
“No? Maybe I’m throwing myself at yours, then.”
“Cute, but how about you get off me before you have two shiners instead of just one?”
His grin widened. Not exactly the desired effect, but she had to admit that smile was almost enough to make her forget to be annoyed with the guy.
He pushed himself to his feet and held out a hand to her. She grabbed it grudgingly and started to pull herself up when he suddenly let go again. She plunked right back onto the floor.
“Even less funny the second time,” she muttered.
The big guy at the bar had finally made his way through the crowd. He was holding the front of her new friend’s shirt and was about to punch him again, but a dazzling smile and brilliant blue eyes weren’t her rescuer’s only strengths. He dodged the blow, twisted free, grabbed her by the hand and pulled her with him toward the exit.
“I hope you’re worth all this trouble,” he said.
She wanted to tell him he’d never find out, but the hulk was already in pursuit, shoving people aside or plowing over them.
They pushed out through the door, into the cool March wind. It had been much warmer when she’d walked into the bar earlier. But the sun had set, and now it was raining. The temperature had dropped by at least ten degrees, and the wind made it feel even colder. Allie glanced behind them, but didn’t see any sign they were being followed.
She was still a little shocked at the direction the night had taken. And he was still holding her hand.
“Sorry about your drink…and your face.” She pulled her hand out of his. Her palm tingled where he’d held it. The danger seemed to be behind them, but adrenaline was still pumping through her system and she felt warm and tingly, despite the weather.
“I’m Logan,” he said. “And you are?”
“Leaving.” She said it fast, before she could talk herself out of it.
“That’s cold. I just got decked because of you, and you’re not even gonna tell me your name?”
“I’m Allie,” she answered before she realized she was going to.
“Beautiful name. It suits you.”
Allie rolled her eyes. “Does that line usually work?”
“Give me a break, I just got my face smashed in by Lou Ferrigno. My material is bound to be a little off.”
“Only a little? Did Ferrigno scramble your brains, or are you just really bad at pick-up lines?”
Logan’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “I have other assets.”
That much was perfectly clear, she thought, trying to resist the urge to glance at the muscles she had felt so clearly before, when he’d been lying on top of her on the barroom floor. His t-shirt and leather jacket did nothing to hide the hard planes of his chest, and those sinfully tight jeans made her think all kinds of things she shouldn’t be thinking. She forced her eyes back to his face, but his grin told her he knew exactly where her mind had been.
He took a step closer and Allie’s mouth went dry.
“So, Allie, what exactly do you plan on doing with the rest of your night?”
“That, Logan, is none of your business.”
He pursed his lips, as if considering her words, and Allie felt her eyes widen as he took a step closer. His body wasn’t touching hers, but she could feel the heat radiating from him and it made her want to lean closer.
He raised his hand and ran it through her hair, and she couldn’t think of one damn word to say. He looked at her, blue eyes penetrating.
He’s going to kiss me, she thought. She knew she should be annoyed. She didn't even know him, but there was no denying the butterflies in her stomach or the goosebumps rising on her flesh. He flashed that damn mischievous smile again.
“Peanut shell,” he said pulling something from her hair.
That was not a prickle of disappointment, she told herself. She wouldn’t have let him kiss her anyway. He was a stranger, and even she knew better than to make out with strangers outside of dive bars.
“Well, like I said, I should get going. Sorry about…everything.”
She turned and started to walk up the wet sidewalk toward her hotel. She was not using her best judgment, and probably ought to get away from this guy before she did something stupid.
“That’s it? I thought after getting me punched in the face and spilling my drink, you’d at least offer to buy me dinner.”
She glanced over her shoulder, but didn’t stop walking. “Something tells me that’s not the first time you’ve been punched in the face. And it’s probably not going to be the last.”
“True. But it might be the first time it was undeserved. I usually have it coming.” He fell into step beside her.
“That part I believe. But I bet if you think hard enough, you can come up with a reason. Karma’s funny that way.”
Logan smiled again. “That’s an interesting point. And probably true. So, no dinner?”
“Definitely not. I don’t make a habit of buying dinner for strangers who follow me down dark streets in the middle of the night.” Allie looked at him pointedly.
He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Am I giving off a stalker vibe? Cause I can go. It’s just that this isn’t the best neighborhood. And a young, ridiculously attractive person shouldn’t be walking down dark streets in the middle of the night all alone.”
Allie turned her head quick, but her smile was quicker. “Ridiculously attractive, huh? That’s sweet, but I can take care of myself.”
“I was talking about me. I’ve already been assaulted once tonight. Not sure I can handle another incident like that.”
She couldn’t stop the laugh. It bubbled up in her chest and she lowered her head as it escaped. “I see. So, you need a bodyguard?”
“A bodyguard makes me sound like a wimp. I prefer to think of it as employing the buddy system.”
“I see your point,” Allie said throwing him a sideways glance. “But this is my stop. Do you think you can manage the rest of the way on your own?” She glanced up at the three-story hotel where she was staying, in absolutely no hurry to go inside.
“I’m not sure. I should probably be under observation for at least thirty minutes, just to rule out a concussion. Don’t you think?”
“Well, I definitely wouldn't want you to drop dead the second you stepped in your front door.”
“Worried about me?” Logan asked.
“No, it’s just that people saw us leave together. I’d be questioned and I have a busy day tomorrow.”
Logan smiled again and that damn dimple in his cheek reappeared and made her lose her train of thought.
“There’s a bar in this hotel,” he said. “It’s still early. I could buy you a drink to make up for the fact that you’re stuck in my company for a little longer.”
“It’ll take more than a drink to make up for that. And I think you’re underestimating your ability to annoy me if you think that will solve the problem.” Allie looked up at him and smiled. She wobbled on her heels again, and this time she didn’t think it had anything to do with the alcohol or the boots. He held out his arm and she took it. Oh yes, he was trouble. No doubt about it.
* * *
An hour later Allie and Logan were sitting in a corner booth at the bar. They’d agreed to just one more drink each, and it seemed neither of them was in a hurry to finish. Allie wanted to have her wits about her. Logan was too good looking, and he could charm the claws off a lobster. She didn’t trust herself to make good choices around him, but she was having fun. She didn’t want the night to end too soon.
It was hard to believe, but they had been talking non-stop the entire time. Conversation came easy with him. She told him about her little photo studio, and how she was carving out a living for herself doing what she loved. She told him about her house and the special place she lived—Big Falls—and how legend had it the town chose its residents. People Big Falls wanted to keep always wound up staying. And people she didn’t like couldn’t shake her dust off their boots fast enough. She was a living entity, Big Falls, Oklahoma. Allie told him all that, and more. She would talk until she ran out of things to say and then he would ask another question and she’d start talking all over again.
“So, you’re in town to visit your brother and he stood you up?” Logan asked after another lull in the conversation.
“Not entirely his fault. He’s the responsible one. Responsible people always get stuck with the last-minute crises.”
Logan smiled. “I bet he wouldn’t be very happy if he knew you were here with me instead.”
He was looking deep into her eyes and Allie took a sip of her drink, feeling suddenly self-conscious. “Probably not, but he wouldn’t be too shocked either.”
“Really? So, you do this a lot?”
Allie laughed. “No. Never, actually. But he doesn’t know that. My family is convinced that I’m only capable of making bad decisions.”
“You have to admit, bad decisions are much more fun than good ones.”
“I’ll have to take your word on that. Contrary to what my family thinks, I’ve been very careful to avoid bad decisions for the last couple of years.”
“And why is that?”
Allie took a slow sip and thought about her answer.
“When I was a kid, I think I just craved attention. When we were younger, my sister was always the brainy one, and my brother was the star athlete, and I didn’t really have a thing. So, I became the troublemaker. But then everyone’s lives got crazy. My brother was gone all the time, and my sister lost her husband. I was needed. So, I stepped up. I grew up. But it’s hard to get my family to see that,” she sighed. “How about you? Are you the doting son or the black sheep?”
The smile disappeared from his face.
“Let’s not talk about my family.”
“Why not? Is it that bad?”
“I don’t want you to think I’m telling you some sob story just to get sympathy.” He smiled again, but the sparkle was gone from his eyes and Allie found herself wishing it would come back.
“You don’t need my sympathy.” Allie inched closer to Logan in the round booth.
“Why’s that?” Logan asked. The sexy smile returned to his face. The dimple reappeared and Allie let out a sigh.
“You made those bad decisions sound like so much fun, I think I might want to try one.”
Logan leaned in close and his fingers twined in her hair. His lips brushed across hers and her mouth tingled. He pulled back a little, looking at her, waiting for her to react.
She knew what she should do. She should run back to her hotel room, bolt the door and sleep until this particular bad decision no longer seemed like a good idea. She stared into Logan's deep blue eyes and knew that wasn't going to happen. All her common sense was gone.
She smiled and raised her lips to his. She pressed her body closer. He kissed her, soft and sweet. His lips were warm on hers, gentle and tender. But she didn’t want tender. Not tonight. She wanted something to make her forget her sister’s broken heart, her nephew’s shattered childhood, and the gaping whole Jeff’s death had left in their family, to make her forget how it was tearing out her heart to see her brother leave them from the same airport, heading for the same destination.
As if reading her mind, Logan turned his head, angled his mouth across hers and kissed her like she’d never been kissed before. A tingle of anticipation swirled in her stomach. She didn’t want to feel sad or afraid tonight, and she knew that if she let him, Logan would keep her too busy for any of those thoughts to enter her mind. He could make her forget, for a little while. If she let him, he could make her forget. And that was exactly what she was going to do.
She placed a hand on his chest, pushed him gently backward and said the first thing that popped into her head. “Wanna walk me to my room?”