Big badd wolf, p.2
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.2

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  At that moment, Xavier, Brock, Claire, Bax, Eva, Zane, Mara, and little baby Jax all trooped in; everyone except Xavier was coated with snow, which meant the others had just arrived from their respective homes while Xavier had been downstairs doing who knew what. The noise level increased, well...nine-fold, at least, as they all tromped in, half a dozen different conversations going on at once.

  Joss froze, and the knuckles of the hand gripping the fork went white. "Holy shit," she muttered under her breath. "More people. Great."

  "Not a fan of people?" I asked.

  She blushed yet again, not looking at me. "No, I like people okay, I'm just--it's just--" she shook her head. "It's fine. I'm fine. Forget I said anything."

  "They're all cool. Just relax."

  "Easy for you to say." This was more to herself than to me, though, and she took a deep breath and straightened her spine.

  "Let me see my nephew," Bast said, in his loud, booming bartender voice, cutting in over the chatter. Mara handed Jax to Bast, who immediately softened, taking the six-month-old baby in his arms and muttering at him, his gruff, growling voice gone tender. "Hey there, little man. How ya doin', champ? Oh man, look at that grip--you're a monster! Oh yeah, get it, boy. Grab it! There ya go..."

  Joss stared at Bast, as amused as everyone else as the big, burly, tattooed Bast went all Papa Bear with Jax.

  "It's like watching a pit bull play with a kitten," she said to me.

  "It kind of is, isn't it?" I said, chuckling.

  Joss was breathing slowly and evenly, as if trying to regulate her breathing to prevent a panic attack. "So many people."

  They were all clustered in the kitchen--Zane was pouring coffee, Claire was buttering toast, Mara was rummaging in the fridge, Brock and Xavier were raiding the snack cupboard, and Bax and Eva were twisting the tops off of beers. The previously quiet four-way conversation around the kitchen table had turned into 11/15 of the full Badd family experience. All we needed now was--

  Corin, Canaan, Tate, and Aerie.

  And about ten seconds later the four of them, involved in a loud four-way argument about the merits of a certain band's early work versus their newer material, came in through the doorway which led up from the bar.

  "Fuck me running," Joss muttered.

  I laughed, then. "That's everyone."

  Joss was losing the battle against hyperventilation. "This is...a lot."

  I eyed her--she was pale, and her hands were trembling. "Too much?"

  She nodded. "Yeah." She backed her chair out and stood up. "I'm gonna...I'm gonna go. Thanks. I just--I have to go."

  I stood up with her and caught her arm; I didn't miss the way she tensed at my touch. "Hey, I know there's a lot of us, but--"

  "Lucian, I really, really appreciate you saving me. I'll never be able to repay you for that. But this is just...I need to go."

  "Where are you going to go? I'm not trying to, like, trap you here, but this blizzard is no joke--I'm not even sure how the ferry made it in."

  Zane sidled up, mug of coffee in hand. "Luce. Who's your friend, bro?"

  "This is Joss Mackenzie. Joss, this my second oldest brother, Zane."

  Joss and Zane shook hands, and Zane eyed Joss. "Heard you talking about leaving, and I gotta say that's a bad plan. I grew up here, and we only live a couple blocks away, and the trip here was harrowing as fuck. I didn't realize how bad it was myself until we were halfway there; if I had known, we wouldn't be here in the first place. If you don't have to be anywhere, stay."

  Zane's attention on Joss brought everyone's attention to her, and soon she was inundated with questions, introductions, handshakes, and a gentle hug from Eva.

  Seeing that Joss was seriously struggling, I knew I had to do something to ease her tension. I put my fingers to my lips and blew a piercing whistle, which silenced conversation. "This is a hell of a lot of people in a very small space," I said. "Why don't we move this party downstairs to the bar? With the weather being the way it is, I say we keep the bar closed and just have a family day."

  Bast groaned. "Well, there goes my overhead for the month."

  Xavier, a jar of peanuts in hand, spoke up. "Actually, speaking as the one who does the books, we made enough just on the day before Thanksgiving to cover our overhead for December." He popped a handful of peanuts into his mouth. "So, you know...we're good."

  Somehow or another, everyone ended up downstairs. Several tables were shoved together to make room for everyone, and Bast and Zane headed behind the bar to pour a few pitchers of beer.

  Xavier wandered toward the kitchen, stopping to tap me on the shoulder on the way past. "Help me in the kitchen, Luce? I'm gonna fry up some snacks."

  I stood up. "Sounds good."

  Joss was standing in the middle of the bar, several feet away from everyone, shoulders hunched, just watching as my family settled in, tossing jokes and insults back and forth, telling stories, doing what we do.

  I'd never met anyone so socially uncomfortable and standoffish my life, and I wondered, not for the first time since pulling Joss out of the water, what her story was.

  2

  Joss

  * * *

  I'd never seen so many beautiful people in one place in my entire life. Literally, not one of them was anything less than stunning looking, but each in their own way.

  The Badd brothers were, easily, eight of the sexiest men I'd ever seen in one place. All the men were easily identified as brothers with their rich, thick, deep brown hair and, except for Xavier, they all had expressive mocha brown eyes. What a gene pool.

  Luce, though... was the only one who made my heart pound. There was ...something about him. I couldn't identify it or place it, beyond raw physical attraction to a gorgeous man. Which in itself was unusual for me, as my life had not, over the past few years, lent itself to idle nonsense like crushes on guys. I'd been too wrapped up in survival to be bothered with guys. But Lucian? It was impossible not to be attracted to him. He gave off a quiet, mysterious, calm confidence. His eyes, whenever they landed on me, seemed to see into me, into my soul. I'd exchanged a handful of words with him, and knew literally nothing about him nor he about me, but I...

  I felt like I knew him, somehow.

  But this didn't explain why I was in an industrial kitchen, standing at a massive grill, helping Lucian flip two dozen burger patties. Nor why I kept forgetting to breathe whenever Lucian got too close to me, when his thigh nudged mine, or his hip bumped mine, or his elbow brushed mine. Nor did it explain why I was so reluctant to leave, so eager to stay here in this bar and have this meal with this enormous gathering of people--these perfect strangers.

  Lucian prodded a few of the patties with his spatula, and then glanced at me. "So. How'd you end up in the Passage?"

  "I fell in. Didn't see the edge."

  He frowned. "Right, but what were you doing on the docks in the first place?"

  "Walking."

  Lucian laughed. "I thought I was terse, but wow." He bumped me with his hip. "You're taking uncommunicative to a new level."

  "I'm uncomfortable with personal questions." I poked a patty with the tip of my spatula. "I have no idea how to tell whether these are done."

  Lucian's eyebrow quirked up. "You've never made hamburgers before?"

  How to admit to that without answering a lot of personal questions? I didn't want him to see me as...well, as what I was--a homeless orphan.

  I just shrugged. "I don't cook a lot."

  He nodded. "Fair enough, I suppose. Well, we're going for a nice medium. Take your flipper and poke a little hole in the burger with the corner of it, pry the hole open, and see what color it is in the middle."

  I frowned at him. "Flipper?"

  He lifted his...what I'd been thinking of as a spatula. "This. It's a flipper."

  "I thought it was a spatula."

  Xavier, at the deep fryers, reached over to an open-sided metal shelving unit, grabbed and held up three different utensils. "The word 'spat
ula' is, in fact, an umbrella category for a whole wide array of kitchen utensils. It is not incorrect to call that device you're holding a spatula, but it is, more accurately, a flipper or turner." He held up the thing you'd use to scrape the last of the pancake batter out of a bowl. "This is also a spatula, but it is correctly termed a scraper." He held up a slotted, wide-bladed...um, thing. "This is also spatula. But they each have different specific names and uses."

  That eyebrow of Lucian's arched yet again-- I was noticing he could communicate a wide variety of emotions with just that one eyebrow. "Thank you, Xavier, for that highly informative breakdown on spatulas."

  "You're welcome." Xavier seemed to have completely missed his brother's searing sarcasm.

  I gripped my...utensil, and followed Lucian's instructions. "So. I've used my spatula flipper mc-deal thingy to poke a hole. What color is it supposed to be inside?"

  "A nice pink. Not too red, like raw, but not brown all the way through either."

  I peeked inside the patty. "Well, this one looks kind of like that."

  Lucian looked too. "Yeah, that one's done." He gestured to the patties on the grill, in rows of four burgers across. "I put these on here back to front, so the burgers closer to the back will be done before the ones in front. So we can probably start taking the ones farther back off the grill."

  We stacked the burgers on a giant platter, and then Xavier took the platter, along with a giant bowl full of French fries, and another full of chicken tenders, out to the table.

  "So," I said. "We're done cooking burgers?"

  Lucian laughed as he opened a refrigerator unit nearby and pulled out a tray of patties. "Hardly. That's only twenty-four burgers."

  I stared at him. "Only twenty-four?"

  "Have you seen my brothers?" He gestured through the open doorway, to where Bast, Bax, Brock, and Zane were standing in a line abreast, each of them holding a pitcher of beer in one hand. "That plate will be empty in five minutes."

  "Are they...are they competing to see who can drink an entire pitcher of beer the fastest?" I asked.

  Lucian leaned backward and watched through the doorway for a moment, and then nodded. "Looks like it."

  "It's two in the afternoon. On a Wednesday."

  "We own the bar, and the bar's closed for the day." Lucian shrugged. "That's my brothers for you."

  "Who will win, do you think?" I asked.

  Lucian snorted as he laid patties on the grill. "Bax, by a lot. Zane won't be far behind, Bast will be third, and Brock last."

  I watched the contest: When one of the twins--I wasn't sure which was which--said "Go!" all four men lifted the pitchers to their mouths and began chugging. Sure enough, it was clear within seconds that Bax was going to win. He finished the pitcher faster than I'd have believed possible, and Zane was only a few seconds slower. There was a lot of cheering as Bax finished, each of the women howling for her man. It was a loud, boisterous event, this chugging competition. And then, to cap it all off, Bax held up a finger, quieting everyone, and then let loose a belch so loud I think the glass of the windows rattled.

  I shook my head at the spectacle. "That's disgusting."

  "The burp or the chugging?"

  "Yes."

  "Oh, come on." He rolled his eyes at me. "Like you've never chugged beer before?"

  And here we were again, at an awkward question. "No. I don't chug. Beer or anything else."

  Lucian made a sarcastic face. "Well pardon me, m'lady. Sorry my family offends your delicate sensibilities."

  I stepped away from him, one hand on my hip. "Fuck off." I flipped him the bird. "I said nothing about you or your brothers, just that I don't chug."

  "Have you ever tried it? It's fun."

  I rolled a shoulder, discomfort rifling through me. "I'm...not twenty-one yet."

  "Neither am I." He just waved a hand. "It's a family party, so it's not like anyone's going to report us. No big deal."

  "Not interested."

  He sighed. "Suit yourself." He flipped burgers, each motion neat and smooth and economical.

  "I feel like you're judging me." I helped him flip, but made sure to stand far enough away that he couldn't make contact with me again.

  "I could say the same."

  "I just...drinking like that isn't my thing."

  "Look, I'm just trying to make you feel at home, okay?" Lucian met my eyes. "I know we can be loud and crude and vulgar, but we're good people."

  "I don't doubt that. I'm just...I'm used to being on my own."

  "Yeah, I can tell."

  I whirled to face him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

  His gaze on mine was even and unruffled. "You don't answer the smallest, most innocuous question." He shrugged and turned his eyes to the grill. "You're prickly."

  "Well what, you want my life story within ten minutes of meeting me?"

  "No, but you could pretend to be interested in, oh, I don't know...basic conversation?"

  "I don't know you. I don't know them. I'm new to Ketchikan." I threw both hands in the air in an I-give-up gesture. "This whole day has been kinda overwhelming for me."

  He did the eyebrow again. "The whole day? It's not even three o'clock in the afternoon."

  I sighed, and set down the spatula...flipper...whatever. "Look, it's just been a very, very, very long day for me. Falling into the water was just the cherry on top. And then you saved me, and then you have a million brothers and sisters-in-law and whatever, and now there's a chugging contest, and I'm just...it's a fucking lot to take in, okay?"

  With a nod, Lucian seemed content to let it go, and we finished cooking the burgers in silence. When they were done, Lucian stacked the finished burgers onto another platter. "Come on. Come sit and eat."

  "We just had eggs and bacon."

  "And now we're having burgers and fries." He led the way to the table, where two spaces had been saved for us, sandwiched between the two sets of twins who seemed to be married to each other, or something. "If you're not hungry, don't eat. If you're hungry, eat."

  "Oh is that how it works?" I asked sarcastically. "I had no idea how appetites function."

  Lucian hadn't been kidding when he said the first platter would be gone in minutes; by the time we sat down, the platter was totally empty, and Bax reached for another burger even as Lucian set the platter down.

  Bast eyed me as I sat, spine straight, hands on my lap. "Want a beer, Joss?"

  "I'm not--I'm not twenty-one."

  Bast waved a hand dismissively. "Meh, it's just a beer, it's not a big deal. Besides, you're about the same age as Luce, which makes you close, right? I wouldn't serve you if we had customers around, but this is family. It's cool."

  Not wanting to appear ungrateful or rude, I shrugged. "I guess I'll have one. Thank you."

  There were at least half a dozen pitchers of beer on the table, not counting the four empty ones the brothers had chugged from.

  Bast poured beer into a clean glass and slid it across the table to me with the practiced ease of a bartender. "Bottoms up, sweetheart."

  "Wait, hold up!" Bax, sitting across the table from me, interrupted. "Don't drink yet--everyone, glasses up. We're doing a toast!"

  "What are we toasting to?" asked one of the female twins--she was the only person at the table aside from Jax who wasn't drinking a beer, now that I had one, and I noticed her T-shirt was a little tight around the belly, likely making her a few months pregnant.

  "To Joss," Bax suggested, lifting his beer high. "For falling into the Passage, and into our lives."

  "To Joss!" was echoed by more than a dozen voices all at once.

  "Um. Thanks?" I managed to speak in something louder than a whisper, somehow.

  My cheeks burned. I don't think I'd ever felt so awkward or on the spot in my life, even though no one seemed to expect anything of me. Everyone lifted their glasses and held them toward the center of the table--there were far too many people for everyone to clink, but everyone made the gesture, at least.
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  I wondered, though--how had I fallen into their lives? I was spending the afternoon with them, not staying forever.

  After everyone had toasted and taken a drink, a dozen different conversations erupted, and the focus was no longer on me.

  Bax, now on his third--or was it fourth?--burger, winked at me. "Welcome to the fam, babe. We just made your life a whole lot more interesting."

  I blinked at him. "All I did was fall into the water."

  Bax grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. "Yeah, well, you clearly don't know how things work in this family."

  Eva, a stunning woman with jet-black hair and a perfect hourglass figure, giggled. "Don't scare the poor thing, Baxter. She's new and you people are a lot to take in." She addressed me, then. "The Badd brothers kind of have their own gravitational pull. Once you're in their orbit, it's hard to escape."

  The woman next to Eva was a small, delicate, loud woman, with blonde hair cut at her chin. Clea? Claire? Something like that. "What Eva means is that these boys have a way of pulling you in and making you never want to get away. It's not that you can't escape their orbit, it's that they have a way of making you not want to, even the ones you're not actually with."

  "What can I say--" one of the Badd brother twins said.

  "We're just that lovable," the other finished.

  What made their ability to finish each other's sentences impressive was that they had the girl twins, Lucian, and me in between them.

  I glanced at Lucian, who was watching all this conversation without comment; he seemed happy to let the conversation flow around him. "Do they do that a lot?" I asked him. "Talk in synch like that?"

  "You're new, so they're showing off," he said.

  Again, calling me new, as if by falling into the water and being rescued by Lucian, I had somehow opted into a Badd Family adoption without knowing it.

  One of the male twins, with long, loose brown hair and a piercing through the center of his lower lip, leaned forward to catch my attention. "So, Joss. What's your story?"

  I froze. "Um. My story?" I had both hands around my burger, but I suddenly had no appetite. "You know. Nothing special."

  "Oh, come on. Everyone is special. Everyone has a story." The twin snagged a pitcher as he spoke and refilled his pint glass. "I'm not asking for your deepest darkest secrets here. Where are you from? That's easy enough, right?"

 
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