Big badd wolf, p.7
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.7

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "Joss, it's not like that. It's not a big deal. You're allowed to do whatever you want and you don't need to give me or anyone explanations." I moved toward her, standing behind her; she was facing away, hands shoved in the pouch pocket, hood still up.

  She must have felt my presence, because she took a step forward, out of reach. "Just...let it go."

  I sighed. "Fine."

  She turned around. "Lucian, I don't want you to think--"

  I held up a hand. "You said let it go, so fine, let's just let it go."

  A long, tense moment of silence between us.

  "Can we go to the other place, where the bar is?" Joss asked, after a while.

  "That stressed out you need a drink, huh?"

  She glared at me. "That's not what I--"

  I waved a hand to stop her. "I was kidding. Let's get shoes and coats and go."

  "I don't have shoes here, all my wet stuff is in the other apartment."

  "You can shove your feet in a pair of my boots. They'll be big but it'll work for the short distance we have to go."

  These exchanges were tense and uncomfortable, each of us feeling out of sorts.

  I found her a pair of thick wool socks, which came up to her knees, and an extra pair of snow boots her feet swam in, but between that and an extra puffy coat I found in a closet, she was fine to make the short trek down the sidewalk. Of course, that didn't take into account the insane amount of snow we'd gotten--something like three feet in less than seventy-two hours. The city was doing their best to keep the streets and sidewalks clear as it fell, but we never got this amount of snow, so they didn't have the infrastructure necessary to keep up. Which meant snow had blown in from the water and was piling up against the buildings in drifts taller than me, in some places--and snow was still flying thick and hard in a blinding, stinging wall of white. We left through the front door of the studio, and I had to shove the door hard to clear snow away enough to let us out, and then we immediately sank into snow up to our thighs, and had climb out over the drifts and into the street where the snow was only up to our knees.

  Joss clung to my arm and put her mouth to my ear. "This is crazy!" she shouted, and the wind even then tried to snatch her words away. "Will we even find the bar in this shit?"

  I pulled Joss close and shouted in her ear. "Stay close! Hold on to me!"

  She clutched the back of my coat and followed in my footsteps as I stomped and slogged through the knee-deep snow, clearing a bit of a path for her. It was brutally difficult, and I was out of breath by the time I caught a glimpse of the front door of the bar. I angled us onto the sidewalk, and caught a shovelful of snow in the face, thrown by one of my brothers. It was Bast, decked out from head to toe in layers of clothing, a scarf around his mouth and nose, a pair of goggles on his eyes, a shovel in his hands as he dug out the door.

  He saw us coming and stuck the shovel into the snowbank, hauled open the door, and we both ushered Joss in before us.

  I leaned close to Bast. "What the fuck are you doing?"

  He gestured at the snow with his mittened hands. "Shoveling snow, dumbshit. What's it look like?"

  "I know, but why?"

  "Because if I don't keep it at least somewhat clear, we'll get trapped in, if this bullshit keeps up." He gestured up at the second-story window. "You wanna jump out from there and dig us out when it stops snowing?"

  "Good point."

  "No shit."

  I left him to it and went inside. It was weird, seeing the bar empty and dark like this in the middle of the day, all the chairs up on the tables, only the hanging lights over the bar turned on. Joss was standing just inside the doorway, stomping snow off her feet and shaking it off her arms.

  I gestured at the empty room. "Well, we're here. Now what?"

  She shrugged. "Hang out upstairs with whoever's here?"

  I shook my head. "So you just don't want to be alone with me."

  Joss's shoulders slumped, and she turned to look up at me. Her golden-brown eyes were soft, hesitant. "Lucian, that's not--I mean, it is, but not how you're taking it."

  "Then enlighten me, because I'm confused."

  "I'm not staying, Lucian. I'm not getting into a relationship, or joining your crazy but amazing family." She shook her head and shrugged, hands lifting, palms up. "I can't get into anything. I just can't. Not with you, or anyone. Not now, and maybe not ever."

  I backed away from her, away from her scent, from those eyes, from the temptation her lips presented. "Fine. I get it."

  "Lucian..."

  I shook my head. "Don't. I get it, I really do." I gestured at the stairs. "Go hang out."

  "What are you going to do?"

  I shrugged. "I dunno. Help Bast shovel, probably."

  "Lucian, I don't want you to be--"

  "I'm not anything. I'm fine." I tugged the hood of my coat up over my head and exited the bar before I said or did anything else.

  I didn't have a hat or gloves or anything, but I didn't care. I just needed to be away from Joss and her eyes and those words, and my own stupid hurt feelings.

  Bast saw me come out and rested on the end of his shovel. "Okay, Luce?"

  I nodded. "Fine. Let me see the shovel."

  He held it out to me. "Wanna take over? This shit is hard-ass work, man."

  I took the shovel. "Yeah, I'll go to work on it." I made a gimme gesture with my hand. "Let me have your hat and gloves and shit."

  Bast ripped the hat, goggles, and gloves off and handed them to me. They were damp with his sweat and from the snow, but I didn't care. My hair was still damp and my ears were cold and my fingers were stinging. But it was better than having to look at Joss and act like I didn't care that she'd just rejected me. I tugged the cold-weather gear on and attacked the snow with all the hurt and anger I had.

  As I shoveled, I tried to keep my mind off of Joss, but it was a losing game. Every second or third shovelful of snow, she kept arising in my mind--naked, her lush dark skin wet; standing in the bathroom doorway, her eyes raking me, tongue sliding hungrily across her lower lip; on my bed, spine arched, heavy breasts swaying as she thrashed, her fingers between her thighs as she brought herself to orgasm.

  "Fuck!" I shouted, frustrated, aroused, and angry.

  I threw the shovel down and collapsed back against the door of the bar, gasping breathlessly. I glanced at my handiwork and discovered that in my angst I'd gone a little overboard, shoveling out into the street rather than just around the doorway, clearing a huge swath of sidewalk.

  I went back inside, then, panting, sweating, heart hammering, fighting yet another hard-on I wouldn't do anything about.

  I found Joss upstairs on the couch in front of the TV, a PS4 controller in her hands, tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth as she played the newest Call of Duty with Canaan, Corin, and Xavier. Bast, Bax, and Brock were in the kitchen talking, and I could hear the other women somewhere, chatting.

  Joss was having fun, it looked like, ducking her head as shots whipped past her on-screen avatar's head, moving the controller around as if that would move her character faster, shrieking in triumph when she scored a kill against Corin.

  "Goddamn, Joss!" Corin crowed. "You're good at this shit. Sure you haven't played recently?"

  Joss didn't take her eyes off the game. "Nope. First video game I've played in...oh god, five or six years? My ex-best friend Maria's younger brother had one of these games, and we used to play with him once in a while, but like I said, that was a long time ago."

  Tate was sitting at the island, her Nikon plugged into a laptop as she sorted through photos; she glanced at Joss quizzically. "Ex-best friend? What happened there?"

  I noticed Joss's hesitation, but I don't think anyone else did; it was a subtle thing, just a hunching of her shoulders, a tightening of her jaw. "Um...nothing too interesting. There was a boy we both liked, and we were both immature teenagers. We fought over his stupid ass--who liked him most, and who would get to date him, blah blah blah. It
got so out of hand that we stopped talking, and never really figured out a way to get over it."

  Tate made a sympathetic noise. "So who got the guy, after all that?"

  Joss snickered self-deprecatingly. "Neither of us, which is the truly shitty part."

  "Ohmygod!" Tate exclaimed. "You and your best friend broke up over a guy neither of you ended up even dating?"

  Joss nodded. "Yep," she said, and then cursed good-naturedly as Xavier sniped her from across the map.

  "Wow. That sucks, hardcore."

  Joss shrugged. "Yeah, it does. But...it's old news so, whatever, at this point."

  Joss scored two kills in a row, nailing Xavier and Canaan with a single grenade. She stood up, controller held over her head, cackling. "What now, bitches!"

  Corin glanced at me. "Luce, buddy, your girlfriend is kicking our asses at our own game, man."

  "Yeah, well...you guys suck at that game anyway." I grabbed a stool at the island beside Tate and watched her scroll through black-and-white photos of various locations throughout Ketchikan. "Those are awesome, Tate. You're really talented."

  She smiled at me and turned the laptop so I could get a better look, and clicked to a different window to show me a photo she was editing in Photoshop. "I've been experimenting with retouching black-and-white photos with a single element of a bold color. It's nothing groundbreaking, obviously, but it's a lot of fun and really compelling."

  The photo she was working on was of a big, bearded man kneeling down on the sidewalk, tugging a winter hat onto his daughter's head, while the daughter laughed and reached up to tug on her dad's beard. The only element of color was the hat, which Tate had turned to a vibrant royal purple, drawing the eye to the little girl's head, and the grin on her face. It was an incredible photo, and I found a little knot of jealousy forming inside me.

  "I got the father to sign a release for the photo, so I'm gonna sell this at Eva's studio."

  I breathed out between pursed lips. "That's... a really incredible piece, Tate."

  She met my gaze. "You think so?"

  I nodded. "It's amazing. For real."

  Her grin brightened even further. "Thanks, Luce. That means a lot."

  I squirmed inside, hating the jealousy I felt for her obvious talent. I'd never found my thing, aside from traveling. From sports to flying to athletics, my brothers all seemed to be happy with their career choices, but me? Nothing.

  I had gone to the docks at every opportunity just to escape the house, the bar, and the enormous shadows cast by my brothers, and had found a measure of peace and quiet there, with the water lapping against hulls, ropes clinking against masts, the cry of the gulls and the honking of cruise ship horns. Dad's friend Clint had taken to me, for some reason, and let me spend my every free moment on his boat, and he never seemed to get tired of my questions and my presence. I loved the sea and I loved traveling, but was that a skill or a talent? Not really either. It wasn't something I could translate into a passion, or a career, unless I wanted to buy a boat and become a fisherman. But I don't love the fishing; I just love boats and the water, the freedom and quiet of coursing across the waves, far from anything.

  Tate, Aerie, Eva, Mara, Claire, Dru, they all have their things.

  Even Joss has something she's interested in.

  I clamped down on the unsettling disquiet running through my brain. I stood up and left Tate to editing her photographs, and everyone else to their conversations.

  Where did I fit in?

  I slipped back downstairs to the bar, unnoticed, and sat alone at the bar, in the dark, nursing a glass of whiskey and my private inner turmoil.

  6

  Joss

  * * *

  I don't even know how long I sat on that couch, playing that stupid but fun video game. It was so dumb, but so fun. Relaxing. Easy. I wasn't in a shelter or a bus station, or on a bench in a park, or in an alley trying to rest while keeping one eye open. I was just...hanging out with people who seemed ready and willing to simply accept me. Bring me into the fold.

  I want this.

  I want this kind of atmosphere all the time, and these people around me. A sense of home. A sense of family, a sense of belonging.

  But I don't. I don't belong here, and I don't belong with them. This was just an accident, a situation brought on by a freak storm. I'm just biding my time here.

  And Lucian?

  I don't even know what to think about him. Every time my mind goes there, I shy away from it, unable to think about him, or how he made me feel.

  It's too raw, too real, too scary. Too much.

  It's not meant for me. I don't know what to do with it, with him, with my feelings for him, which are developing so fast. These thoughts are so intense and I'm not in the least prepared for any of it. Meeting someone like Luce was the last thing on my mind when I arrived here in Ketchikan in the middle of a blizzard.

  I'd tapped out of the game and Bax had taken over for me, so now I was sitting on the couch sandwiched between Bax's enormous, hard-as-marble bulk and Corin's long, lean frame. The boys were all shouting insults at each other as they killed or died in the game, talking smack and jostling each other. In the bedroom, down the hall, the girls were shouting strings of profanity at each other and then cackling--playing Cards Against Humanity, it sounded like, with the baby, Jax, providing baby babble commentary at the top of his little lungs. Brock, Zane, and Bast were in the kitchen where Brock was refereeing an arm-wrestling contest between the other two, where again, there was a lot of shouting and cursing and good-natured smack-talking.

  The noise in the apartment was deafening and overwhelming.

  My emotions were raging, my heart was hammering, my hands were shaking, and I couldn't take it anymore.

  Where was Lucian?

  I couldn't see him--my initial instinct was to find Lucian and let him calm me down, and somehow, I knew he would. This instinctual need for and trust of Lucian only added jet fuel to the flames of my anxiety.

  I shot to my feet, unearthing myself from the pile of elbowing, shouting Badd males, and made my way around the couch and toward the hallway, trying to remain at least visibly calm while I sought somewhere to catch my breath and get a grip on myself. There was a bedroom door open across the hallway from the room the other women were in--it looked vacant, the bed neatly made with a blue down comforter and a couple of pillows. Judging by the orientation, I guessed it would overlook the city, but I could see nothing through the window except a wall of howling, blowing, drifting white snow. It was nominally quieter in here, so I sat down on the bed, threw back my hood, and cradled my head in my hands, trying to catch my breath and calm my nerves.

  I left the door open; through the doorway and across the hall to the other bedroom, I had a direct line of sight to Dru, sitting cross-legged on her bed, sideways, her back to the wall, a pair of black and white cards in her hands, with Jax on her lap wiggling and shouting nonsense and trying to grab either the cards or Dru's fiery red hair, or both at the same time. Dru glanced at me, and then held my gaze. Her grin turned to a carefully blank expression, and she played her last two cards before handing Jax over to someone else and sliding off the bed.

  She crossed the hall and hesitated in the doorway, one hand on the doorpost. "Hey. Care for some company?"

  I didn't, really, since I'd come in here to be alone, but I didn't say that. "Sure."

  She swung the door closed all but a few inches and sat on the bed beside me. "Overwhelmed?"

  I nodded. "Yeah, a bit."

  She laughed. "Our tribe is...a lot. Especially if you come from a small environment."

  I focused on slow, deep breaths. "You come from a small family?"

  Dru nodded. "Yeah. My mom left Dad and me when I was eleven, and he raised me by himself. But he was a cop--he's retired now--so he was gone...pretty much all the time. I was a pissed-off and confused eleven-year-old who took care of myself most of the time."

  "That's rough," I said.

&nbs
p; She shrugged. "It was just Dad and I after that. He never dated again, and I never trusted again, so I was alone a lot. I mean, I had friends, but no one I really trusted down deep."

  I searched her open, kind green eyes. "You married Bast, though."

  She nodded, smiling. "He's the first person I ever really let in. And let me tell you, it's been a hell of an adjustment, going from living on my own, holding my own counsel, no real friends to..." she waved at the apartment, "to this. Of course, I was the first to date one of these big, rough, gorgeous hunks of Alaskan beefcake, so, except for me, there was literally zero estrogen around here until Zane snagged Mara."

  "Do you trust her?"

  "I do now. I didn't at first. I mean, we were friends, sort of, but more out of necessity than anything else, being the only two women in a family of eight men all living under two roofs and working in the same bar. We were thrown together, in a way. Thank god we got along right away, but did I trust her right away? No, of course not. I was still working on really, truly trusting Sebastian. That shit takes time, you know?"

  I picked at the edge of the duvet cover. "What do you mean you were 'working on trusting Sebastian'? You either trust someone or you don't."

  Dru's smile was gentle. "See, I disagree. And I say that having thought the same way my whole life." She pointed toward the kitchen. "I knew I loved that man, like fucking hard, but loving someone and truly trusting them aren't the same. I loved him, but trusting him--and I mean, like, living with him all the time and letting him see my vulnerabilities and trusting him to compromise when we fight and all that? That's a process. You don't just have that, you have to build it, and that takes a step of faith."

  "Oh."

  Dru laughed. "'Oh', she says."

  I sniffed, a sound that wasn't quite a laugh, but almost. "I don't know. Sorry. I'm just...I got stuck here because I fell into the water and then the storm escalated, and no one seemed to think it was safe for me to leave. And after the walk here from the other apartment, I agree about the safety. But I'm just stuck here, and you guys are amazing and fun and so fucking loud, and kind of crazy, and a lot overwhelming, and you all seem to think I'm here now, like somehow I've been adopted or something, and I'm just--" I stopped before I said something really dumb.

 
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