Big badd wolf, p.23
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.23

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  I laughed. "Someone worked up an appetite, I see."

  She bit my chest. "All that fucking made me hungry--what can I say?" Joss glanced up at me in sudden consternation. "Should I not call it that?"

  "It was lovemaking, and it was fucking. It can be both. It can be whatever we want to call it." I chuckled and squeezed her butt playfully. "I like hearing you curse, though. It turns me on."

  I stood up, snagged my T-shirt off the floor, and tugged it on over Joss's head. "My shirt, for my beautiful, sexy-as-fuck girlfriend."

  She shoved her arms through the holes, eyes shining up at me. "You talk to me all sweet like that, Luce, and I can't be held responsible for what it'll make me do, sore or not."

  I tugged on a pair of gym shorts, grabbed her hand, and hauled her to her feet. "Come on, babe. Let's eat. And then I have something I wanna show you."

  16

  Joss

  * * *

  An hour and a half later we'd eaten a huge breakfast, and had taken a shower--together, a first for me, oddly scary in its vulnerability. Being naked with him in bed, having sex was one thing, but being naked with him in the shower, just naked? I was nervous, at first. But then, as I realized he couldn't keep his eyes off me any more than I could him, that we were both curious about and attracted to each other, I relaxed. We washed each other, taking our time exploring each other's bodies in a way that was at once sexual and merely affectionate, exploratory and arousing.

  I really was sore--more so than I was letting on to Lucian, but he seemed aware of this, and the shower remained merely a shower. I was sore enough that I was even walking funny, which I wore as a badge of pride--at least around Lucian...if I saw any of his family I might feel differently.

  He'd said he had something to show me, but wouldn't say what. When I pressed for more information, he just shook his head and said it was something he had to show me. So, finally, bellies full, bodies clean and dressed, I tugged on Lucian's hand.

  "What do you want to show me?" I asked. "The curiosity is killing me."

  He sighed, eyes searching mine, and then stood up. I followed him into the bedroom, confused; he dug in the pocket of his jeans, but I couldn't see what it was. He tangled our fingers together and led me to the stairs.

  "Come on," he said. "It's outside...sort of."

  Baffled, I followed him through the studio and outside into the cool early spring dawn. He led me toward the bar, but stopped before he got there, and stood in front of an empty storefront.

  I frowned. "Didn't there used to be a little business here? A travel guy or something."

  Lucian nodded. "Yeah. He, uh, he moved to Florida."

  I eyed Lucian--he was acting truly odd. "Luce, what's going on? What did you want to show me?"

  He cleared his throat, jingling whatever it was in his hand. "Um. I'm gonna show you." He gestured at the storefront. "This is it. This is what I want to show you."

  Puzzled, I turned to face him, taking his hands. "It's an empty retail space."

  He flipped our hands, so my palm was facing up, and placed something in my hands. "It seems crazy, now that I'm telling you." He closed my hand around what felt like a set of keys. "I, uh--I put a deposit on it."

  I blinked. "You--what?"

  He pointed at the storefront. "This, Joss. I put a deposit on it."

  I breathed out shakily. "You're kidding."

  He rubbed his face with both hands-- I used the opportunity to look at the keys he'd given me, two sets containing three different keys. "I'm making a mess of this."

  I laughed. "Well, just a little bit. And maybe I'm a little clueless right now." I leaned up and kissed him, a brief touching of lips. "Why don't you start over?"

  He led me to the front door of the storefront. "Let's go in. It'll make more sense if we're inside." He indicated the keys. "That's two sets of keys, the original and a duplicate set Dave made for me. There are three keys--one for this door--the front door--one for the back door, and one that unlocks the door to the stairs between the retail space and the living area."

  "Wait, what? A living area?"

  He nodded. "Yeah. Let's go inside and I'll explain as we go." He tapped a key. "This one is for the front door. Why don't you unlock it?"

  "But Lucian, if you put the deposit on it, why are you giving me the keys? You're buying it, not me." An inkling of an idea flitted through me. "Lucian, you're not giving this to me, are you?"

  "Not exactly, no. Not like you're thinking." He darted a nervous glance at me. "I was...I was hoping we'd buy it together."

  "But I--I have no money. Like, a couple grand saved up, but that's it." I frowned even harder. "And I know nothing about setting up a purchase like this.

  "Dru is in real estate," he said. "She'll arrange things. You'll have to sign in a few places, but that's it. Your name will be on the deed."

  "Just mine?"

  He held my gaze. "Next to mine."

  I let out a shaky breath, unlocked the front door and went in. "What does this mean, Luce? I mean, I think I have an idea of what you are proposing, but I need you to explain it to me."

  As we entered, Lucian pushed past me, tugging me by the hand into the interior. The front half of the space was all open, with built-in shelves lining the walls, and then, about halfway toward the rear of the space, there was a flimsy, hastily built wall with a doorway in it. On the other side was a kitchen area, which seemed mostly neglected, as if it needed a good cleaning. The back wall was all windows--with a view of the alley and the building behind, and a ton of natural light filtered in. Tucked into a corner was a closed door; Lucian unlocked the door, but let me go up the stairway first. The stairway ended at another door, which opened directly into a living room area, opening into a small but cozy kitchen and a hallway, where I saw three doors--two bedrooms and a bathroom.

  There was a small, round table in the open area of the kitchen.

  I sat at one of the two chairs that went with the table, glancing up at Lucian. "Can you please explain what's going on?"

  He took the other chair, and spent a moment in silence, thinking. "So, when my dad died, his will stipulated that we all had to come back to Ketchikan and live here and work at the bar together for a full calendar year. After that year, the terms of his will would be completed, and his estate would be distributed equally amongst all eight of us. Our inheritance came to about thirty grand each."

  "Luce, so--what's that got to do with this place?"

  He held up a hand. "I'm getting to that. I worked a lot of hours and saved my money for years. When I traveled, I traveled cheap. Stayed cheap, walked a lot, took buses and trains. Point is, I have a lot of money saved up. Or...I did." He let out a shaky breath. "I worked out a deal with Dave, the previous owner of this place. I used most of my savings and inheritance to put a hefty deposit down."

  "But what is your plan? What are you going to do with this place?"

  "Dave and his wife used it as a travel agency, but it wasn't always a retail space. Think about the kitchen in the back. This place was originally built as a cafe or something. I'm not sure. It has all those built-in shelves, with plenty of space for more shelves around front. Zane and the guys and I can knock down that wall in about ten seconds, update the kitchen, put in some tables and couches..." he trailed off meaningfully. "I...my thinking was, this is The Garden."

  My throat closed. "Luce."

  "I know it's your dream, and I'm not trying to hijack it, but...I thought--if you and I were together, we could create The Garden together. I'm good at numbers, and I've been doing a lot of the inventory and ordering for Bast lately. I grew up watching my dad and Bast run the bar, so I know how to run a business, the back end, nuts and bolts of the process, I mean. Which would leave you free to be out front, doing what you do."

  Tears pricked at my eyes. "Oh my god. I don't even know what to say. Why would you do this?"

  He let out a shaky breath. "It was a bit of an impulse. I mean, I thought about it for a couple o
f days, and it just made sense. I knew I loved you, and I knew I wanted us to be together, and I was banking on the hope that you felt the same." He stood up, pacing away. "Dave wanted to sell, badly. He just wanted out of Ketchikan, so he's giving me--giving us--a hell of a good deal. I mean, I almost feel bad, basically stealing this place from the old guy, but it's what he wanted. He didn't care about money, and told me as much."

  I shook my head. "This is crazy."

  He stared at me. "It felt right at the time. Crazy, yeah, but right. It's between the studio and the bar, and we could put doors in between them, or even connect all three apartments." When I still didn't say anything, he rubbed his face in his hands. "Shit. Shit. I've fucked this up."

  I stood up, crossing over to him. "No, Luce, no. You haven't fucked up anything. But answer me this--why?"

  "Because I love you, Joss. Because--I wanted you to have a reason to stay. I thought--I thought if I could give you somewhere we could build The Garden, you'd...you'd be more likely to stay here." His eyes flitted to mine, and then away. "With me, I mean."

  I choked on tears, felt them on my cheeks, tasted the hot salt of them. "Luce..."

  He shook his head, pacing away. "It was stupid." He wiped his face with both hands. "It was so stupid of me."

  I caught his hand and pulled him back to me. "No--"

  He resisted. "It was. I thought it could be our thing. But you're not--you hate the idea."

  I stepped into his space. "Lucian--shut up a second, you idiot."

  He stared down at me, frowning. "What?"

  "I'm speechless. I'm stunned. I'm overwhelmed." I held on to his hands, squeezing hard to override his objections. "But only because, never in my life, ever, has anyone done something like this for me."

  "You deserve it...you deserve this and more."

  "Luce, I didn't need a reason to stay. I don't need a reason, except you." I gazed up at him, letting the tears flow, letting my smile bloom, letting my happiness truly shine. "But this? I couldn't have even dreamed of this."

  "I did this before you told me how hard it was to ask for anything, or to accept anything. I was worried it was too much, but I just had to go with my gut."

  "What's messing with my mind right now is the way you said we, right? We build The Garden. We do this together. That little word means so much, Luce."

  He nodded. "That's...yeah. That's what I was hoping. That you'd let me be involved with it."

  "Lucian, can I admit something to you?" I said.

  "Sure, of course."

  "My dream of opening a place like my parents had? That was a way to motivate myself to keep walking. I never let myself think about it beyond a fantasy of one day doing it. But in reality? I don't have the first fucking clue how to--" I laughed, shrugging. "I don't even know where to start. It was probably a silly fantasy of a lost and lonely kid just trying to survive."

  "It's not silly or dumb or anything else, Joss. It's a beautiful tribute to your parents."

  "When I left Ketchikan--when I ran away, it was because I was so scared of how much I wanted Ketchikan to be my place. How much I wanted to belong here, how much I wanted Ketchikan to be home, but that also meant you, and I was falling in love with you, and--I was doing everything I could to stay away from you." I threw myself into his arms. "But now?"

  "But now, what?" His voice was a rumble in his chest, buzzing against my cheek.

  "But now I know loving you doesn't have to be scary. I mean, it's still scary, but it's also beautiful and perfect." I craned my neck to gaze up at him. "And now this? I mean, is this for real?"

  "If you want it, Joss, yeah. It's real."

  "You, me, and The Garden?" I kissed him. "Yeah, Luce. I want it. More than I've ever wanted anything."

  Luce and I had a future together. I don't know what the future will look like, but I do know I can face anything with this incredible man--and his loud, vulgar, crazy, funny, loyal family--by my side.

  * * *

  He let out a shaky sigh of relief. "Holy shit." He laughed. "When you didn't say anything, I thought you were mad, or...or that you are going to run again."

  "I'll never leave you again. I'm here, with you, forever."

  He pulled away. "You, me, and The Garden?"

  "You, me, and The Garden."

  And just like that, The Garden was born.

  Epilogue

  Harlow

  * * *

  "Miss Grace, over here!"

  "Miss Grace! How do you feel about being called America's new sex symbol?"

  "Have you ever thought about baring it all for the camera, Miss Grace?"

  "There are rumors you go topless in your new movie--can you confirm this, Miss Grace?"

  "What do your parents think about your status as a sex symbol, Miss Grace?"

  "What was it like filming with Dawson Kellor, Miss Grace?"

  I ducked my head, as if the barrage of questions was a physical assault, and that's sure how it felt. I ignored the questions and pushed through the jostling crowd, shutters clicking and flashes blazing. My bodyguards held me between their bodies, their thick arms barring anyone from getting too close, but even the imposing statures of Trace and Van couldn't block out the questions. I was less than twenty feet from the door of the hotel to my limo, but it felt like a mile. You'd think that by the hundredth time you'd gone through this you'd get used to it, but you don't.

  I talked to Dawson about it on set once. Having been famous for a lot longer than me, he had some wisdom on the topic.

  "You don't ever get used to it," he said, his deep voice conveying his own distaste for it. "And if you do, it's time to quit Hollywood."

  Dawson's wife, Grey, had smiled at me. "Harlow, honey, you'll be fine. The paparazzi is part of the job, that's all. He hates it, I hate it, and I don't think I've ever met another actor who didn't hate it. But if you love the work, you just...deal with it."

  Dawson's loving smile as he gazed at his gorgeous wife had melted my heart. "Yeah, well, you're more pragmatic than I am, honey. That shit makes me cranky."

  She'd just giggled. "Good thing I know how to cheer you up, huh?"

  How could they still be so sweet, so in love? They were Hollywood's darling couple, Dawson and Gray Kellor. They had three kids together, and were clearly just as in love as the day they met.

  But their advice had been good--the paparazzi were part of the job, one we all had to deal with.

  As good as the advice had been, it didn't make it any easier to deal with having invasive questions shouted in my face, having cameras snapping at me from every angle. And then would come the flood of wildly speculative articles in all the gossip rags and rumor blogs--

  Which Hollywood hunk had I hooked up with? Had Dawson and I carried out a torrid affair during the filming of December's Last Light? Did Grey know? Was he leaving Grey for me? Were the nude photos leaked onto 4Chan really of me? Had I leaked them, or had I been hacked?

  It was all bullshit, of course. Dawson was so in love with Grey it was stupid. Our kiss scene had been carefully choreographed, and Dawson had insisted on one take only, with Grey watching--and as soon as the take was done, he'd bolted away from me and gone to her. The sex scenes had been faked using body doubles and CGI--a topic Dawson had been vocal about during the press tour. And yes, there had been a body double for me, too. No, the photos on 4Chan weren't of me. After all the leaked photo scandals of recent years, there was no way in hell I'd ever take a nude selfie, even if I did have a boyfriend--which I didn't.

  But still, the rumor mills loved to create drama.

  And the rumor mills loved me, more than anyone else right now. There were so many rumors circulating about me it was impossible to keep them all straight, and it could be a full-time job keeping on top of them all. My publicity team killed the nasty ones, and the blatant lies right away. I categorically denied the rumors about Dawson and me in a series of carefully scripted interviews. The nude photos were obviously not of me, so those I ignored.


  But no matter how much damage control I did, the press seemed determined to turn me into some sort of...well...sex symbol. Regardless of the fact that I'd never appeared topless in a movie, or shown any more skin than what you'd see in a bikini. I'd never done a full-on sex scene myself; I used body doubles exclusively ...yet I was a sex symbol. There were posters of me, memes of me, photoshopped nudes...someone had even used an open-source CGI face-replacement software to put my head on a porn star's body, and had then uploaded the video to all the most popular sites. It had gone viral within days, despite my team getting it taken down as quickly as possible--the internet is forever, and now that stupid "deep fake" video crops up every few months on a different site, under a different name, from a different source, but it's always my face on that woman's body, doing things I'd never done, or ever would do, and would certainly never do on film.

  I wanted to be an actress, not a sex symbol. I was careful about the roles I took--I was careful to take roles that were serious, and that would further my career. I had no interest in being tits-and-ass fodder for a boobs and guns and explosions flick. I had an education in film from NYU, had earned my chops on stages and sets from the time I was sixteen years old. I'd acted on Broadway with some of the biggest names in theater, and had filmed my silver screen debut with Steven Soderbergh, to rave reviews. My second film had been my big mistake. The director had insisted on a bikini shot--me on the beach, nothing revealing or sexual. The scene had fit in with the rest of the plot, so I'd done it happily enough--because shit, what was the point of paying nutritionists and trainers to keep me looking this good if I never showed it off?

  The roles I was offered after that had all been about the T-and-A.

  I'd turned them all down, and instructed my agent to stop sending me anything that wasn't a serious role. Eventually, I'd gotten a decent script, a drama in which I played the love interest and foil to Dawson's character. It was serious, a heavy, intense role, and early buzz was that it was an Oscar contender. I'd gone all in for the role, and had, I felt, turned in my best performance to date.

  Yet all the talk in the press was all about me in the sex scene--which, again, I hadn't actually filmed. The rumors were that it really was me, that I was playing coy, or something.

 
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