Big badd wolf, p.9
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       Big Badd Wolf, p.9

         Part #7 of Badd Brothers series by Jasinda Wilder
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  "Yo," he said, with a jut of his chin. "Think about it at all?"

  I tuned in to this.

  Joss lifted one shoulder, but then nodded. "Yeah, a bit."

  "And?" Dru reached across Bast to take her hand. "No pressure, but I'd like it if you stayed."

  Stayed? I glanced at Joss, then, sharply, inquisitively, but she wouldn't meet my eyes.

  "I'm staying," Joss whispered. "But I don't know for how long."

  "I think it's a smart move, Joss." Bast patted her knee. "Welcome to the shitshow, babe."

  Joss just nodded, seeming scared, or nervous. "Thanks." She glanced at Bast and Dru. "I mean, thank you. From the bottom of my heart. You don't know what this means to me. You really don't."

  "Did I miss something?" I asked.

  She finally glanced at me, her gaze hesitant, distant. "Um, your brother said I could stay here, in their extra bedroom."

  "I see." I nodded, looking away. "There's an extra bedroom at the other apartment too, you know."

  I didn't need to say that. She probably already knew that and I was just asking for more rejection.

  Which I got.

  Joss's whisper was low and meant only for me. "Come on, Lucian. Don't."

  "Don't what?"

  "I think I need distance and time, okay? It's not personal. I just..." She blinked hard, picking at a loose thread on the seam of her hoodie. "You, and me, it's...I'm not there yet, okay?"

  I let out a breath, nodded. "Yeah, fine."

  "Lucian." She tried to catch my gaze, but I avoided hers. "Don't make it weird."

  "All I said was, yeah, fine. I meant it. It's cool." I shrugged. "Besides, we've been drinking. Not the best time for these kinds of conversations anyway." I got to my feet and went down to join Bax, Brock, and Lucian in the bar kitchen, and helped them prepare a boatload of food for everyone.

  The rest of the day passed smoothly enough, if you ignored my moody, sullen silence. Which, to be honest, wasn't much different from any other day. But today, my silence was weighted with an irritated, pissed-off, morose glower.

  Which I realize is stupid, and childish, but I couldn't seem to help myself.

  Her parents died, leaving her an orphan. She was homeless, and she had literally walked across all of Canada, alone. She's survived, alone. So, yeah, intellectually, I completely understood how she wouldn't be in a place for a relationship, but shit, I wasn't asking for one, was I? All we did was kiss, and we both saw a few things we maybe weren't meant to see, but I haven't even touched any part of her body except her waist.

  And she's pushing me away, because she needs time and space, even though she's living with my brothers above the bar I work at?

  Whatever.

  The snow stopped the next day, and the city eventually got the streets and sidewalks clear, but it took a couple days for business to pick back up to normal levels. For Joss, moving in was literally just putting her backpack into the bedroom, as she owned nothing else.

  For the first week, she worked at the bar washing dishes, running food, and bussing tables, but in her spare time she scoured Ketchikan putting in job applications. Not that she minded working at the bar, she said, but she didn't really enjoy food service and wanted something of her own choosing, and after about a month of looking, she got a job at a bakery.

  During that month I was restless, though, and unhappy. Unsatisfied. Something about Joss's presence threw my entire life into chaos, a phenomenon I couldn't quite understand. Nothing was different, on the surface of it--I wasn't doing anything different. I read books in my free time, worked out, and pulled long hours in the bar, slinging drinks, taking orders, and helping Xavier in the kitchen when he got swamped by food tickets--which wasn't often, as the guy seemed to grow six extra arms when he was in the kitchen, capable of doing seven or eight different things at once. Usually, he was utterly focused on the one thing he was doing, to the exclusion of literally everything else. But in the kitchen? He just...exploded into a frenzy of coordinated mania.

  So...if my life wasn't different, why did it feel so thrown out of whack?

  Or was it me?

  Why did I feel so off?

  I barely saw Joss, especially after she started at the bakery. Once in a while she'd stop in after her shift and would sit at the bar and sip hot tea if it was before close, or a pint if it was after, and we'd fall into easy conversation--easy, as long as we kept it light and didn't go deep or personal. We had an easy camaraderie, and I was able to talk to her in a way I couldn't with anyone else. Which made it hard. I'd leave those conversations wanting more. Wishing I could see her more. Wishing I could do dumb teenager shit like hold her hand, or see a movie with her, or just sit and hang out. But we never got that. Maybe she was keeping busy to avoid that? I don't know.

  She was working crazy hours, I knew that much. Doubles almost every day, and frequently she worked the prep shift, which meant she was often heading to work when we were finally finished closing the bar at 3 a.m.

  Late one night, while mopping the floors, it hit me. Joss was busting her ass, working sixty and seventy hours a week...saving money, and working to make her dream a reality.

  I worked similar hours...but for what?

  So why was I busting my ass? I had plenty of money stashed away--I'd put my portion of the inheritance in the bank and left it, adding it to my already sizable savings. I didn't LOVE the bar. It was a family thing, sure, but it was really just...something to do. I wasn't working FOR anything. I didn't have a goal, or a dream.

  I was spinning my wheels.

  While Joss was driving hard for the one thing she wanted, with singular focus.

  What was I doing?

  What did I want?

  And suddenly it hit me--Joss had shown up and, without knowing it, had highlighted the lack of purpose in my life.

  Two more weeks passed, and I became increasingly restless. Books ceased to be able to hold my attention for very long, a problem I'd never had before. I took Xavier's motorcycle out and rode for hours, going nowhere, just riding to feel the wind in my hair; I also found myself at the docks a lot, watching boats strike out to sea. Whenever a sailboat or fishing boat heads out for the open ocean, I find myself wistful, anxious, restless--why am I still here? I asked myself, quite frequently. Why not get on a boat and go?

  My brothers need me, for one. Bast isn't ready to take on outside help yet, although that time is coming, and soon.

  Even though I haven't really spent much time with Joss, lately, I still hold out hope that she'll have gotten the time and space she needs, that she'll find herself more comfortable in this new life.

  I washed glasses and stocked the bar, watching her talking to Xavier, laughing at something he said, and I got jealous. She was sitting at the bar eating lunch between shifts, so I took a quick break to sit beside her and talk to her, inhaling the scent of the bakery on her layered over shampoo and woman, and desire flooded through me.

  She seemed happy. Less prickly, less closed off. Having a home and a job has...not quite softened her, but smoothed out some of the edges. She's quicker to laugh, to smile.

  Not at me, though.

  Her eyes flick to mine frequently, and our eyes meet, and her expression goes carefully blank, as if she's afraid to give away too much of what she's thinking or feeling; I'd give anything to know what she's thinking and feeling, even once. To get one of those brilliant smiles and barking, enthusiastic laughs the others get when they say or do something funny.

  Her smile lights up the room, and her laugh fills it with joy.

  But none of it is for me.

  The more time passes, the more restless I become.

  The more dissatisfied with my life I become.

  Working at the bar isn't a life, isn't a career--it's just a job.

  Joss seems content to avoid me and work like a madwoman, burning the candle at both ends.

  My brothers couldn't be happier--everyone has their thing, and those things are going well. Xav
ier recently received an order for several large crates of robotic parts he'd been saving for, and was working on creating larger-scale robots to sell, now that his business was booming. The women were all just as busy with their own jobs and hobbies and projects.

  Everyone had something...

  Except me.

  Joss had been in Ketchikan for two months. We'd started spending a little more time near each other, if not actually together. Apparently she and Tate had taken a shine to each other, and so Joss would pop over to the apartment in the mornings on days she didn't work until late afternoon or evening, and she and Tate would sit and talk, or watch reality TV together and, oddly, play video games together. Tate, being pregnant, rarely wore anything except what she called her "preggers uniform," which consisted of capri yoga pants with an extra wide and stretchy waistband tugged up over her belly, and a tank top, sans bra. She was eight months pregnant by then, so her belly was huge and she waddled and peed every ten seconds.

  With Aerie on tour with Canaan most of the time, Dru more involved than ever in her budding real estate business, Claire freelance programming, Mara with the marketing firm of which she was now a full partner, Eva doing her art, and Corin busy running the twins' record label, Tate often found herself at odd ends, alone and deprived of company, so Joss being around was a godsend for Tate.

  It also meant I got to see Joss more. And, since Tate sat around wearing...not a lot, Joss tended to do the same. She'd show up in this pair of ultra tight, bright red yoga pants that came to the knee, and a scoop-neck T-shirt with nothing underneath--her comfy clothes. That T-shirt drove me absolutely crazy; it tended to hang open at the neck, giving me tantalizing glimpses down her shirt. The pants, though...shit. Bright red, contrasting with her dark skin, and crazy tight, hugging her thick, muscular legs and highlighting the firm, round perfection of her ass.

  I think she wore the outfit just to make me crazy.

  If so, it was working. I often had to leave the room when the two of them were around, because they ended up laughing and teasing and causing a ruckus, and certain elements of their anatomy would be bouncing and jiggling and I wouldn't be able to keep my eyes off Joss, hoping for another look, another glimpse.

  I couldn't handle how bad I wanted her, and I didn't know what do with it or how to squash it, or pretend I didn't feel it. But I also wasn't willing to risk another rejection by her again, so I just...plugged along miserably, like a pathetic teenager with his first crush.

  She noticed me staring, too. She never said anything, but she noticed. She'd catch me looking, and then give me a steady gaze I couldn't read. Not reproachful, but not playful either, and certainly not inviting.

  I didn't know what to do...

  About Joss, or about my life. About anything.

  One morning, nearing Joss's three-month mark in Ketchikan, I was sitting at the kitchen table at the apartment over the studio, reading a book, listening to music, and trying to act like I was ignoring the girls while secretly stealing glances at Joss as she and Tate played the latest Far Cry game. They both had their favorite outfits on, and were cackling and teasing each other and being generally loud and playful. Corin breezed in from the studio, where he'd been working on the finishing touches of the Canary EP.

  "Tate, babe." He stood behind the couch with his hands on her shoulders. "Get some shoes on, sexy, I'm taking you to lunch."

  "Yay--food!" Tate squealed as she paused the game. "But I need a bra, too. Can you grab me one?" She glanced at Joss. "Sorry to bail on you, J."

  Joss just grinned and waved a hand. "Go! Have lunch with your husband."

  Tate glanced from Joss to me, opened her mouth, but then thought better of it. Corin brought her a bra, and Tate pulled her arms inside her T-shirt, put on the bra, shoved her arms back out, put on a sweatshirt and shoes, and then she waddled out of the apartment hand in hand with Corin, arguing with herself about whether she wanted a burger and fries, or a salmon Caesar salad.

  And, just like that, for the first time in weeks, Joss and I were alone.

  I paused my music, tugged out my earbuds, and set my Kindle down. Joss was still sitting on the couch, game controller in hand, toying with the buttons. Her eyes flicked over to me, down to her feet, and then back to me.

  My heart was banging like a jackhammer. "You hungry?" I asked.

  She set the controller aside and offered me a hesitant smile. "Yeah, actually."

  I stood up, shoved my phone and wallet into my hip pockets, and sat on the couch next to her to lace up my boots. "You changing?"

  She shrugged one shoulder. "I wasn't going to. You think I need to?"

  I used the exchange as an excuse to sort of blatantly look her over. "No. Not at all. You look...amazing. I was just asking."

  "I could probably use a bra, though."

  I stood up. "Not on my account." I allowed a hint of a smirk on my lips, a foray into flirtation. "Doesn't bother me any."

  "Yeah, I'll bet," she murmured, standing up and grabbing her backpack.

  "What's that mean?" I asked.

  She hesitated over her answer. "I feel you looking at me."

  "Hard not to."

  She stood facing me, chin lifted, eyes searching me. "Why's that?"

  "Because you're beautiful." I held her gaze for a moment, and then slid past her to the stairs, getting away from her before I did something I'd regret, like kiss her.

  She followed me down the stairs and out onto the street, tugging a hoodie on and zipping it as she caught up to me. "When you asked if I was hungry, I assume you were implying we eat together."

  I nodded. "That was the idea, yes."

  We walked a few steps in silence; I was heading toward a breakfast cafe I sometimes frequented when I didn't feel like cooking for myself.

  "So is this a date, then?" She asked this quietly, her voice so low I almost missed it.

  Well, damn, that was a loaded question. I looked over at her, searching her. "Do you want it to be?"

  "Are you answering a question with a question?"

  "Aren't you, too?"

  She laughed, a musical sound that sent sparks of something electric through me. "This is stupid." She stopped, turned to face me, and met my eyes. "Just answer the question, Lucian. Is this a date?"

  I held her gaze. "I would like it to be."

  "So would I." She paused, as if hunting for the right words. "But can we just...it's just date, okay? Can we take it slow?"

  I nodded. "I can handle that."

  We walked in silence to the cafe, sat down, ordered coffee and breakfast food, even though it was closer to noon than breakfast. After a few minutes of silence, Joss leaned forward, her hands wrapped around her mug.

  "You've been avoiding me."

  I nodded. "Sort of."

  "Why?"

  "Things felt...awkward."

  She frowned. "Because of the kiss?"

  "More because of after the kiss."

  "It was unexpected. It surprised me, overwhelmed me. The kiss, I mean." She stared into her coffee. "And then after...it was just too much too soon. I'd just met you, I was with you and all these people I didn't know, and then being attracted to you, kissing you, and the other stuff that happened--you catching me, all that. It just..." She shrugged. "It was too much. I felt like I was jumping off the deep end and I wasn't ready for that."

  "It was just a kiss." I waved a hand. "And the other stuff? It just happened. Doesn't have to mean anything."

  "It wasn't just a kiss, Lucian."

  I blew out a breath, eyeing her. "Then what else was it?"

  "A gateway drug." Joss leaned back in the booth as the waitress brought our food.

  We ate in silence for a few minutes, and then I glanced at her. "You're going to have to explain that one. What do you mean, gateway drug?"

  She quirked an eyebrow at me. "You know what I meant."

  "Humor me."

  "If the other stuff hadn't happened--if you hadn't seen me naked after I fell in, if
I hadn't walked in on you in the shower, if you hadn't caught me jilling it--there may have been a chance of it being just a kiss. But that stuff did happen, Lucian, and now..." She paused to take a few bites, washed it down with coffee, and then continued. "And now we're both aware of...of the fact that we have chemistry."

  I laughed at that. "Joss, that kiss alone would have been enough to make us painfully aware of the fact that we have chemistry."

  "Exactly."

  "Why is that a bad thing? What are you scared of?"

  Her gaze hardened. "A lot of things, Lucian, and for good reason."

  "Look, all I meant was--"

  "What you said," she interrupted, and then she sighed. "And yeah, just for the sake of honesty, then, I should admit I've been avoiding you too."

  I narrowed my eyes at her. "No shit."

  "I just...I couldn't handle the complication. I still don't know that I could." She fixed me with a hard glare. "And what about you? I told you I wasn't ready for what seemed to be brewing between us, and instead of just being my friend, you spent the last two months all but avoiding me completely, while still staring at me over the top of your Kindle, like I wouldn't notice." She poked the back of my hand with her fork. "You know what that says to me, Lucian? It says you're scared too."

  I couldn't deny that, but wasn't willing to admit to it out loud, and certainly not to her. The waitress came by at that moment, thankfully, and provided a distraction as I paid the tab. We left, walking in silence, and somehow ended up at the water's edge, standing side by side at the railing, watching a cruise ship come in.

  Eventually, I found myself fumbling through an explanation. "If I have been avoiding you, it's because I'm not sure how to make an in-between thing work."

  "Meaning...what?"

  "How to be just your friend."

  "So the only other option is avoid me altogether?"

  "Pretty much."

  "Or what?"

  "Or I'll kiss you again."

  She glanced sideways at me. "Just like that? Just kiss me?"

  "Pretty much."

  "What if I don't want you to kiss me?"

  I straightened and turned to face her; she mirrored my action, so we were standing facing each other, about a foot of space between us.

  "You don't?" I asked, inching toward her.

  "I said what if I didn't. Not that I don't."

  "You want me to." This was foolish. Reckless. I was pushing her, and she'd just said she wanted to take it slow.

 
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