Big badd wolf, p.15
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.15

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "Talkative?" Tate suggested.

  "Gregarious?" Eva added, at the same time.

  "Not an asshole?" Corin said.

  I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck. "Yeah."

  Corin laughed. "Not off to a real strong start, bud, with that one-word answer."

  I did a fake, toothy, sarcastic grin and flipped him off. "Better, dickhead?"

  "Hey, you got two words out in a row!" He pretended he was talking to a puppy. "Good boy, Lucian! Good boy!"

  "That's enough, Corin." Eva put her hand on Corin's shoulder, silencing him as effectively as if she'd put a ball-gag in his mouth. "I think it's wonderful you're trying to turn over a new leaf, Lucian."

  I groaned, face-palming myself. "Just don't use that phrase anymore, or I'll feel like I'm in a self-help book."

  Eva laughed. "Starting a new chapter on life?"

  "Starting with a blank slate?" Tate said, giggling.

  I couldn't help a grin. "Now you're just trolling me."

  Eva patted me on the top of the head. "Yes, Lucian, we are." She turned serious, then. "What happened, though, for real?"

  I sighed. "I don't even know where to start." I scuffed at the floor with the toe of my running shoe. "I think things just got a little too...real...for the both of us."

  Eva's gaze was knowing. "Someone used the 'L' word?"

  I stared at her. "God, no. We've been on one actual date, and we've kissed, like, three times."

  Corin looked at me with something akin to horrified embarrassment. "And that's all it took for her to run away from you? Jesus, Luce. Either you're a really shitty kisser, one or the both of you has serious trust issues, or when you say 'kissed' you mean went from zero to sixty-nine way too fast."

  Tate snorted, covered her mouth with a hand, and then smacked Corin on the chest again. "CORIN!"

  "Um. The latter two," I said. "Definitely not the first one. At least, not according to Joss."

  "So mostly the second one," Eva said. "Trust issues."

  "Yeah, as in we're both drowning in them," I said.

  Eva just smiled at me. "Those can be overcome."

  "How?"

  "Simple--you take a huge, terrifying leap of faith, and just...trust each other."

  "Just like that?"

  "Just like that. No guarantees you won't get hurt. No assurance that it'll work out, just...hope, faith in the other person, and a whole lot of love." She smiled at me. "I came here with nothing. I left my family behind, the entire massive fortune I was set to inherit, and an easy life of idle wealth...all on the hope that the love Bax and I have for each other will be enough."

  I blew out a breath. "Damn, Eva. That takes balls."

  "You think I wasn't scared out of my mind? I was! For months, I had these middle of the night fears that everything would just...vanish, that he'd stop loving me, that it would get taken away from me, somehow." She shrugged. "I still get those, sometimes, but then I look at Bax, and I know it's going to be okay. He's proven time and again that I can trust him. But let me tell you, that first step? It's a hard one."

  I blew out a sigh. "I've talked more about me and my love life in the last couple hours than I have in my entire life."

  Corin, uncharacteristically serious and genuine, just wrapped an arm around my shoulders--still bare, as I never put a shirt on after my run. "Luce, buddy, it's a good thing, trust me. I like this new you. Now we just gotta get you to crack a joke and a smile now and again, and we'll really be cooking with gas."

  Eva clapped her hands. "Okay, therapy session is over. I need to paint. What brought you guys here?"

  "Oh! Damn pregnancy brain." She lifted the framed photograph. "What do you think of this, Miss Princeton Art Major?"

  Eva took the frame and examined the photograph critically. "This is wonderful work, Tate. I'm impressed." She glanced at Tate. "This is kind of outside your usual style, though. Are you experimenting with macrophotography?"

  Tate gave me a grin that fairly screamed I told you so. "Actually, I didn't take this." She shoved it at me, and I took it automatically. "Luce did."

  Eva eyed me with a new appreciation. "You did?"

  I shrugged. "I guess I did."

  "You guess you did?" Eva asked. "Or you did?"

  "Yeah, I took it." I admitted it almost as if ashamed, which was ridiculous.

  She clapped her hands in delight. "Another artist in the family! Yay!"

  "I wouldn't say artist," I protested. "I took one photo. Beginner's luck, that's all."

  Eva snorted derisively. "Bullshit." The curse held weight coming from Eva, as she rarely used profanity, unlike the rest of us, who swore like sailors. "This has a wonderful sense of proportion and subject, Lucian. It's just one photo, but to the trained eye, it reveals a lot. If you want my advice, I would say, pursue this. Take a million photographs, of everything. Figure out what you enjoy shooting the most, and shoot the heck out of it."

  "I don't have a camera."

  Eva walked across the studio to an antique rolltop desk she was in the middle of refinishing. Opening the top, she grabbed a large black rectangular bag and brought it to me. I opened it, and whistled at the contents: a huge, bulky, expensive-looking Nikon camera and several lenses of varying sizes and shapes.

  "Eva, now come on. I don't know cameras, but this has to be--"

  She cut me off. "My parents sold their estate recently and, in doing so, went through all of my things, and ended up sending me a semi full of my old things. I've donated most of it, but this I kept. It's a professional grade DSLR with a standard lens, a telephoto lens, a wide angle, a fish-eye, several prime lenses, a macro lens...and, oh, um...some filters, a flash, a spare battery pack, the charger block, a light meter, and maybe some other odds and ends. That's almost twenty grand worth of photography supplies."

  I handed it back to her. "No. Thank you, but no. You can't just give this to me."

  Eva shoved it back to me. "Yes, I can. It was a gift from Thomas, meant to butter me up into accepting one of his silly marriage proposals. I don't want anything to do with it. What's more, I'm not a photographer--never have been and never will be--I prefer a more hands-on medium. I like getting dirty, I like getting paint in my hair." She smiled at me. "Lucian, please. Just accept it."

  Tate was fairly drooling. "If you don't take it, I will. That's some seriously sparkly shit right there, Luce."

  I glanced at Tate. "Can you teach me that editing program?"

  She shrugged. "Sure. I've only taken a few classes myself over at the university, but I'll show you what I know."

  I zipped the case and slung it by the strap over my shoulder. "Eva, thank you. Maybe I'll give it a try. Thanks."

  Corin, Tate, and Eva all stood staring at me expectantly.

  I stared back. "Um...what?"

  Corin waved at the door. "Hello, McFly? Go after Joss, dumbshit!"

  "I--she's gone. I don't know where she is."

  Corin rolled his eyes. "Xavier can track a fly fart across the Mojave if he wants to. I'm pretty sure he can get a bead on Joss. So that excuse ain't gonna pass muster."

  "Do you care about her?" Eva asked.

  I nodded. "Yeah, I do."

  "Will you regret it the rest of your life if you don't find out if you guys could have been great together?" Tate asked.

  "Yeah," I answered.

  "Are you gonna actually die if you don't get her naked and screaming your name?" Corin asked.

  Tate smacked him across the chest. "CORIN! RUDE!" She glanced at me. "But really. Are you?"

  I blinked at Tate and Corin, waiting for my answer. "Well...yeah." I grinned. "It was pretty hot the first time."

  They both howled in laughter, and Corin high-fived me. "That's my boy!" He shot me a surprisingly sharp and serious look. "For real, though, bro--don't let her get away. That girl was one of a kind."

  I still hesitated. "She ran away, guys. Like, bolted as fast as she could. What if she doesn't want the same thing I do?"

 
; Corin put both hands on my biceps and stared me earnestly in the face. "Lucian, I'll only say this once, okay?" He waited until he was sure I was listening. "You ready, buddy?"

  I rolled my eyes at him. "Out with already, Cor."

  "DON'T BE A FUCKIN' PUSSY!" he shouted, his face inches from mine.

  Tate buried her face in her palm. "Corin, you lack any semblance of subtlety, you know that?"

  He nodded. "Yep. Sure do. Fuck subtlety." He shoved me, hard. "Go. Get the fuck out of here. Find your girl, throw yourself at her feet, and tell her you fuckin' love her."

  "Could you maybe throw a few more fucks in there, Corin?" Eva asked. "I don't think there were enough."

  Corin, without missing a beat, started over. "Fucking go, Luce," he said, shaking me dramatically. "Get the fuck out of here! Find your fuckin' girl, throw yourself at her fuckin' feet, and fuckin' tell her you fuckin' love her." He glanced at Eva and winked. "Better?"

  Eva cackled, slapping him across the shoulder. "You're so bad! Bad, but funny."

  Corin shoved me toward the door again. "Go, Luce. For real. Go get your girl."

  As I walked out the door, for the first time in more than three months, I felt I was finally getting my shit together.

  12

  Joss

  * * *

  The sun was rising.

  I was still sitting in the grass, holding the phone in both hands, watching the sunrise and thinking...hard. I had Dru's contact information queued up on the screen, so all I had to do was wake up the phone--Dru hadn't assigned a PIN yet--and hit the phone icon. I could call her. Tell her she was right. Tell her I wanted to come home.

  But Lucian was back there.

  What if he didn't want me anymore? What if he didn't actually care about me? What if he just wanted sex? I'd sat in plenty of train and bus stations listening to girls crying into their cell phones about guys who had fucked them and then ghosted. If Lucian was like that, I'd be stuck in a hell of a situation.

  And if he wasn't like that? Was I just supposed to hang my entire future on some physical chemistry with a man I'd known a little more than ninety days? Was a relationship with a guy I'd known all of three months going to work? Was I going to hang my future on the way I felt about Lucian?

  But god, what chemistry! It was so intense, and we'd barely scratched the surface. I may be a virgin, but I could feel, just from those few brief encounters, that there was a maelstrom of life-changing passion waiting to be unlocked, if I was to let things with Lucian develop.

  But what if I couldn't? What if I freaked out every time we got close to having sex? He'd never shown any sign of expecting me to do anything to him in return. He'd given me an orgasm, and I knew--and had known at the time--that if I'd said the word, he'd have backed off immediately. But eventually his patience would give out. He would only be able to deal with my ambivalence for so long. And if that were the case, I couldn't blame him for feeling I was playing with him, teasing him. Dear god. What if I kept freezing, kept replaying the past?

  What if...what if...what if...?

  There were a million of them. The longer I sat on the side of I-5, watching the traffic rumble past, doubting myself, the more what-ifs cropped up.

  I was paralyzed by doubts, by fears, by my own pride.

  Which was a joke--what pride? Sheer stubbornness, that's all it was. I'd run, and now I was too stubborn to admit that I wanted to go back.

  A tractor-trailer--a semi without a trailer--hauled to a stop some twenty feet away, brakes squealing and hissing, flashers blinking. The driver's side door opened and closed, and a short, stout middle-aged woman rounded the back end of the trailer. She walked toward me, lifting a cigarette to her lips along the way, spewing a trail of smoke. She stopped in front of me, gazing at me evenly. She was darkly tanned, with wrinkled, leathery skin, graying brown hair cut in a mullet Richard Dean Anderson would have been proud of, and a mouth permanently puckered from sucking on cigarettes. She was wearing dirty jeans, a baggy trucking company T-shirt, and orange Crocs with white socks underneath.

  "Looks like you've seen better days, sweetheart," she said, her voice permanently hoarse.

  I shrugged miserably. "Yeah, you could say that."

  She took a long hard drag, and then spoke around the smoke. "Need a ride somewhere?"

  I held my head in my hands and moaned. "I don't know. Fuck, I don't know what to do."

  "Mmmmm." It was, somehow, a sound that conveyed a complete understanding of my predicament. "I see. Well, come on. No sense just sitting here."

  I stood up, hiked my backpack on one shoulder, and cradled my phone in both hands. Following the woman to her truck, I climbed up into the cab with practiced ease.

  Reaching her seat beside me, the woman eyed me. "You done that before."

  I just nodded.

  "You runnin' away from somewhere, or away from someone?"

  "Both."

  She turned off her flashers, put on her blinker to indicate she was merging over, and watched her mirrors as she brought the truck up to speed. When traffic was clear, she got back onto the freeway. The radio was on, country music playing. The cab was, oddly, a comforting space. Familiar. The tattered, smooth leather bench, the hiss and crackle and staticky voices from the CB, the radio playing softly, the smell of cigarettes, the rattle of soda bottles and the crinkle of snack wrappers. I'd spent a lot of hours and many miles riding in cabs like this one.

  "They hurt you?"

  I sighed. "No."

  "They want you back?"

  "I--maybe. Probably." I groaned. "Yes."

  She eyed me carefully. "Been crying, looks like." She held back a smirk. "I'd bet my bottom dollar there's a man in this somewhere."

  I nodded again.

  "What's your name, honey?"

  "Joss."

  "Joss. I'm Big Mama Thornton. Not the original, obviously, or any kinda relation, it's just what folks call me."

  "Nice to meet you." I stared hard at the phone in my hands, willing it to ring, saving me from having to make a decision myself; it didn't.

  "So. Runnin' from a man, but he ain't hurt you, and wants you back. I got that right?"

  I snorted. "There's a bit more to it than that, but yeah."

  "Always is more to it, baby-girl. But all that, the more to it? Just fluff. Distraction. Bullshit. You gotta sweep all that aside--" Here, Big Mama Thornton swept her cigarette in a wide arc, scattering flakes of ash, "--and just focus on the particulars."

  "Focus on the particulars."

  "Yep, the big picture. The important shit."

  I laughed. "What is with truck drivers and roughly spoken wisdom?"

  Big Mama Thornton cackled, snorting smoke out her nose. "'Cause we sit in these cabs all day with no company except our own, no one to talk to and nothing to do but think." She tossed the butt out the window and glanced at me, tapping her temple. "If I ever remembered to get that dictation software thingy, I could write me a bestseller with all the shit I got floatin' around up here."

  "I bet you could," I said, smiling.

  She nodded. "I could. I will, too, someday." She laughed uproariously and waved her hand. "Nah, I never will. I just think about it."

  "You should. I'd read it."

  "Awww, you're sweet." Big Mama Thornton eyed me steadily. "So why you runnin'? If he ain't hurt you, and he wants you, what's got you runnin' your fine little heinie away from him?"

  I stared out the window, twisting two dreadlocks around each other. "Well, number one, my heinie isn't exactly little. And number two, I'm running because..."

  All of the arguments I'd been using to justify my flight seemed to wither under her silent scrutiny; I could trot them out and explain them till I was blue in the face, but I had a feeling this woman would just slice right through them with a handful of words.

  "The truth is," I said, finally, "I'm scared."

  "Scared enough that bein' alone out on the side of the freeway at six in the mornin' is the better opti
on?"

  "Seemed like it at the time." I waved at the windshield. "That back there, and this here, being in this cab like this--it's the only life I've known since I was seventeen. After spending three months with Lucian and his family, suddenly I can't do it anymore. But I'm just so scared of...of..."

  Big Mama Thornton lit another cigarette. "Of what you don't know," she finished for me. "Look, baby-girl, I don't know your story and I don't need to. But one thing is clear as shined-up crystal: you love that boy, and for whatever reason, that scares the smart right out of you."

  I could only nod. "Yeah, pretty much."

  "I had a man, years back. I was about fifty pounds lighter, had hair down to my waist, a figure you could put on magazines--yeah, believe it. I know it don't seem like it now, but it's true. I was one o'them stay-at-home wives, you know? Cookin' and cleanin' and waitin' on my man to come home." She smiled dreamily to herself, remembering. "Ohhhhhh honey child, I loved that man somethin' fierce. Then, one day, he just...didn't come home. Quit his job out of the blue and just...took off. Never heard from him again, not a letter, not a call, nothing. No divorce papers, nothin'. He was just gone. Been thirty years and I still wonder where he is, some nights." Her gaze went to mine, sharp and penetrating. "My point is this, girlie--after he done took off on me, I got man-shy. Never could quite get myself to trust anyone after that. Tried, but just kept figurin' he'd end up leavin' like Ricky did, and so what was the point? Now I'm too old and fat and ugly and stubborn and set in my ways to pretend I'll ever change. It don't have to be that way for you."

  I felt heat pricking at the corners of my eyes. "It's not that simple."

  She just snorted smoke. "Bullshit. Sure it is." She took a long drag, held it, blew it out and then glanced at me. "People say it ain't that simple when they know what the right thing to do is, but they're just too damn scared or stubborn to do it."

  "So I should just...go back."

  "Yup."

  "What if--"

  "Now that shit right there? Asking what if? You might as well hogtie yourself and lay down on the side of the highway as a start down that slippery-ass slope. It'll paralyze you." She took another drag. "Met a guy once who used to work for one of those intelligence agencies in DC. He was tellin' me about a thing called 'analysis paralysis' where you get so bogged down asking what if and overthinking shit that you never get off your ass and actually DO anything. Sometimes--shit, most of the time--you just gotta jump and figure out where you gonna land on the way down. This is real life, sweetheart--there ain't no safety nets and there ain't no guarantees. You wanna make somethin' of your life, you're gonna have to quit runnin' and start doin'."

 
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