Michael Novak was a US Marshal with his whole life figured out. Right up until the woman he called partner betrayed him. He’s been hiding in Bliss, CO, trying to pull himself out of the darkness. The only bright light is Lucy Carson. Something about Trio’s favorite waitress calls to him, but he can’t trust his instincts anymore.
Yearning for the future
Lucy has loved Tyler since they were kids, but he never seemed to feel the same way. She worried she would never want a man the way she does Ty, and then Michael grumbled his way into her world. Beyond the broody exterior she sees a burning fire in his eyes, and she is drawn to that flame.
The time is finally right
Ty knows Lucy is the one for him, but Lucy wrote him off romantically long ago. If he could get her to see him in a different light, he knows she would realize that they’re perfect for each other. His obstacle is the town’s reclusive former lawman, Michael. But this is Bliss. A rival can turn into a partner for the right woman. And Lucy is definitely the right woman.
Ty approaches Michael with a plan to get Lucy between them. A bargain is made, and Lucy is their target. But Lucy is already in much more dangerous crosshairs. Murder has come to Bliss, and Lucy is at the center of the investigation.
Release date: November 16, 2021
Publisher: DLZ Entertainment, LLC
Print pages: 361
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Far from Bliss
Two years later
“So Alexei told me I should hang out even if I’m done because you don’t like being alone.” Sylvan Dean leaned against the doorjamb, his dark hair slightly curly and the tiniest bit too long. “Is that because you’re a cautious lass or is there a story behind it? I ask because this is a weird town and you’ve lived here for a while.”
Lucy Carson picked up the pink grapefruit scented cleaner she used on the tables. Trio was Bliss’s tavern, and she’d worked there for a while now. The whole time she’d been a waitress here, she’d worked with either Alexei Markov or Zane Hollister. Van had recently hired on as a part-time bartender, and he was already a favorite with the ladies. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy and took all the crazy Bliss stuff in stride. “You don’t have to stay. I can close up. I’ve got keys and everything.”
Sometimes she also had an escort. The past few weeks Michael Novack had hung out until closing time and escorted her to her car. He was quiet and awkward at first, and he deeply confused her since he’d never made a single move on her, but she’d liked the fact that he made sure she got to her car all right.
Now she wondered if someone had asked him to.
Van moved his lean body, allowing her to walk out of the supply closet. “No way. First of all, I wouldn’t leave anyone to close by themselves. Not at this time of night. I was just wondering. I’ve heard weird rumors and I’m not sure if they’re true or all crazy or a mix of both. See, the whole wolf pack on the prowl thing sounds like it might be true. The pack of rabid possums seems like a stretch.”
She had to stop and turn his way. “Who told you that one?”
“The lady at the Trading Post. The kind of mean one.”
Ah. Marie was hard at work trying to scare off anyone she considered a tourist. “Possums rarely get rabies. They have a lower base body temperature than other mammals. Marie’s screwing with you. And the wolves only come down when they’re really hungry, though they will usually run from humans. Do you have a pet?”
“No. I was raised in a family where all animals should be free.” Van followed her into the dining room. “Seriously. My parents were beyond hippies. When ants got into our RV, we were told to learn to live in harmony with them. My oldest brother went into the Army and they disowned him. Sometimes I think I should have followed him there.”
“They disowned him?” That seemed extreme.
Van shrugged. “They kind of freaked out. I’m pretty sure they thought they could convince him not to do it. Big brother is stubborn. Mom and Dad are eccentric, but they realized they made a mistake. It took them years to correct it. You should have seen my parents pull up in my brother’s bougie neighborhood in that ratty RV. It was funny. So why did you ask about a pet?”
“If you don’t have a pet, then you’re probably safe.” Lucy started in on the tables and was happy to see Van pick up a dish towel and help. “The wolves will eat your dog or cat if they’re hungry enough. The good news is Maurice will only try to steal your candy bars.”
His lips kicked up in a grin. “Ah, yes. I’ve been told to watch out for the moose and for aliens.”
“Then you’ve met Mel.” Mel Hughes was a legend around Bliss. He was known for his whiskey making and more importantly, as a fount of information about the various ways aliens were threatening to take over Earth.
“So you’re just cautious,” he concluded.
That wasn’t the whole story. “I would say nervous due to a prior encounter with a man who tried to use me as bait to get revenge on his ex-wife.”
Van stopped, his brows rising. “Revenge? Like he wanted to make her jealous?”
“Like he was a cult leader who got angry that his underaged bride had managed to get away and he wanted to kidnap or kill her. Maybe both. I don’t know. I didn’t ask him which it was. His reasoning didn’t matter when I helped my friend Hope kill him,” she explained in a practical way she likely wouldn’t have been able to had she not spent some time in therapy. “I know he’s gone, but I still get nervous at night. Alexei and Zane are nice men who treat me like a little sister.”
Van stared at her for a moment. “Wow. I’ve heard a lot of crazy stuff happens here, but like I said I didn’t quite believe it. Do they really have an I Shot a Son of a Bitch club?”
“Oh, yes. They’re serious about actually shooting your personal son of a bitch. I’m an ancillary member because I took mine out with a chair.” She’d been in Bliss long enough to have developed a slightly mean sense of humor. “I’m always looking to move up.”
Van grinned. “I’ve been isolated at the resort. I thought it was crazy up there with the occasional BDSM party. This place is way cooler.”
At least he was open to the experience. She cleaned off a booth and glanced out the windows. Trio was located in Bliss’s downtown area, as the mayor liked to call it. Of course the downtown area consisted of three blocks of one road, though they’d recently put in a second light. She was fairly certain that Nate Wright had talked the town council into it because he wanted a new desk. “It has its advantages. Do you like the resort?”
“I do.” Van started wiping down the laminated menus. “It’s well run, and the owner is pretty cool. Some of the guests are total assholes, but they’re mostly the ones who stay in the villas. The hotel guests tend to be okay. I actually prefer it when Mr. Roberts has his private parties. I thought it was weird at first, but those kink people are nice and polite and don’t act like massive asses when you mistakenly give them a lime instead of a lemon in their drink.”
The Elk Creek Lodge was just outside of Bliss proper. It was a ski resort and housed a good portion of the tourists who poured into the area for skiing during the winter. Van worked there as a bartender in addition to his duties at Trio. “Is it really bad?”
Van stopped and stared for a moment. “Ah, now I know who they offered the job.”
Lucy looked around as though worried someone might overhear. She didn’t want to hurt Zane’s feelings. He’d given her a job when no one else would. “It’s nothing more than a test drive. I’m coming in for the party this weekend. No one knows I might take the supervisor position, and you have to keep that quiet.”
“My lips are sealed,” Van promised. “And I should be good at keeping secrets. My brother is pretty much a spy. Well, he was at one point. Now he mostly complains about the unholy amount of poop his kids can make. He’s the reason I have the job out at the resort. He knows the owner and when I needed a job, he came through. I was kind of hoping he’d bring me on at his company, but I suppose we haven’t been close in a long time.”
She heard a note of wistfulness in his tone. “Are you close to any of your family?”
“I wouldn’t say close, but I also don’t have ill will for any of them,” he replied, paying close attention to every menu. “My parents are ‘live in the moment’ kind of people. They ramble through life. I wanted some roots.”
“And your siblings? Do you have more than your brother?” She was also interested in how other families worked. It was probably because her own had been so deeply dysfunctional.
“I have a bunch of siblings. Most are like my mom and dad. They travel a lot, take odd jobs. I wanted something different. I’m not actually close to my brother, but he’s a good guy and when I needed help, he was there for me. The only person I’m close to is Hale. He’s pretty much my brother.”
And he was also the reason why Sylvan might fit in perfectly here in Bliss because she’d been told they liked to share. “I’ve got friends like that. River and Ty. We grew up together.”
“I’ve heard you talk about River. She’s been gone for a while?” Van seemed perfectly happy to steer talk away from his family.
The mere thought of River Lee returning home brought a smile to her face. “Yes, she’s been on the…” She’d been about to say on the run, but she didn’t know how much River wanted the world to know about what had happened to her and her husband. “She’s been in Europe with her husband for a little over a year. Long honeymoon.”
“Wow, that’s sounds spectacular.” Van settled the menus onto the hostess stand. “Although I’m going to admit I drifted a lot of my childhood. I like staying in one place, and I like the resort. I was worried we would be stuffed into dorms, but on-site staff has apartments. It’s probably the nicest place I’ve ever lived in.”
“What does Hale do?” She was curious about the latest duo in town. Mostly they’d stayed at the resort, but apparently Van and Alexei had been in a couple of classes together at the community college, and the big Russian had coaxed him down the mountain to help out until they found a permanent extra bartender.
“He’s the handyman. He can fix anything. Cars, plumbing, heaters. He can do it all, and I can fix him a martini afterward,” Van said with a grin. “Now tell me about Ty because I do know him and I don’t think he considers himself your brother.”
Ty worked at the resort during the tourist season. He was a certified EMT and was used to providing backup to the nurse on site. During the summers when he wasn’t on call with Bliss’s only ambulance, he guided nature tours with River’s company. He’d been her friend since that first day their moms had put them on a bus to kindergarten. It had been the three of them. River and Ty and Lucy. They’d stuck together because they’d always been those weird kids. “Cousin, then. The three of us all grew up together. Technically we’re from Creede, which is north of here, but we didn’t live in town. We were all on larger tracts of land. Well, River and Ty were. My dad inherited his dad’s whole two acres, and we lived there in a couple of trailers. River’s house was nicer. Ty’s was the nicest though because Ty’s mom loved to cook, and she never thought twice about feeding the grubby kids who came home with her son.”
“That’s cool, but you have to know that dude is totally into you.”
Everyone got confused by that. She and Ty hung out a lot, but there had never been anything between them. Oh, there had been that time in high school that she’d asked him out and made a complete idiot of herself because she’d thought it was a date and he hadn’t liked her that way. But he’d been super nice about it. He’d gone away to college, and she’d found a boyfriend. That had been a truly heartbreaking relationship, and Ty and River had helped her through it. “Like I said, we were childhood friends, and now we’ve been around each other so long, we can’t imagine life without the other. That’s why we’re so happy to have River coming home. It was a rough year. I worried about her.”
Van’s raised brows told her he didn’t buy what she was selling. “Okay. Maybe I’m reading that all wrong. I’m still getting the lay of the land down here in town. So is it the crazy mountain guy you’re into?”
“He’s not crazy.” She hated it when people said Michael was crazy.
“He lives in a cabin without indoor plumbing and he’s got the cra…uhm, he has a strange look to his eyes that can make one think he’s perhaps attempting to intimidate those around him.” Van proved he could be tactful. Sort of.
Michael didn’t have crazy eyes. He had perfectly lovely eyes, and the fact that they’d seen some pain didn’t mean they were a reflection of insanity. “He’s been through a lot. I’m not sure how much you know, but it’s a long story.”
“His fiancée tried to kill the person they were supposed to protect. She drugged him and Holly Lang shot her in the parking lot of the Movie Motel,” Van surmised.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a long story. “Yes, and that traumatized him.”
“I could be really fucking traumatized and still want a functional toilet.”
She frowned his way. She wasn’t about to let the man know she actually agreed with him. Michael had seemingly gotten something from living in that ramshackle cabin on the mountain. “He’s getting better. Earlier this year, he did that job taking care of Nell and he didn’t even shoot anyone.”
Van held up his hands, obviously ceding the fight. “I’m sure that means he’s all healed and ready to date.”
Lucy sighed. “No. He’s not. At least he’s not ready to date me. A while back he spent time with me at the Fall Festival and I asked him if he wanted to go to the town hall meeting with me and he said no.”
“You asked the man on a date to the town hall meeting?” Van asked.
“Oh, yes. It’s actually a very popular date night activity here in Bliss,” Lucy explained. “He would have had fun if he’d gone with me. That particular town hall featured a debate between Nell and Mel on who is more at fault for climate change—humans or aliens. It included Nell’s interpretive dance and Mel’s PowerPoint presentation on alien mating seasons coinciding with increased methane production.”
Van grinned. “Oh, I will definitely be attending the next one. So you couldn’t tempt that guy to go?”
She’d wanted to shut herself away after he’d turned her down. “No. He doesn’t do a lot of town activities. He’s shown up a couple of times here at Trio.”
“I heard Zane talking about how he’s been here most nights when you work but he doesn’t drink much. He eats dinner and waits until close and then walks you to your car.”
Yes, he was very good at playing the big brother, too. She seemed to find a lot of those. It was her lot in life to always end up in the friend zone. “It’s habit. For a while there Henry Flanders was worried some bad guys from his past might come to town, and Nate instituted the ‘no one walks alone’ code. He claims it’s in the town charter, but we all know that the town charter was written on a napkin from Stella’s back in the sixties and Hiram used it to blow his nose in the eighties. It was a bad cold, so he tossed it out. Now Nate and Rafe seem to think they can make stuff up.”
Rafe Kincaid was the mayor of Bliss. He’d taken over after Hiram Jones had passed. When Henry had trouble, the whole town had come together to protect their own. It was one of the reasons she loved living here. People cared about each other.
There was a knock on the windowpane. In the low light she could see Ty standing outside, his coat zipped up to his neck. He was heartbreakingly gorgeous, with golden blond hair and baby blue eyes that always made her breath catch. He waved at her.
“So he’s like a cousin who comes by after work to make sure you get home all right?” Van watched as she made her way across the dining room.
“Hush,” she admonished his way. “You should be happy he’s here. It means you can get back to the resort before it gets too late.” It was a weeknight, so Trio closed up at eleven. If Van hustled, he could make it back before midnight. She unlocked the deadbolt and a blast of chilly air hit her. “Hey, Ty.”
He gave her the sweetest smile as he walked in. “Hey. I happened to be in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d come by and give you a ride. Did you not get my text?”
She closed the door behind him and turned with a grimace because she was about to get a lecture. She locked the door again. “I forgot my phone. It’s on the charger back at my place.”
“Hey, Ty. You don’t have to wait. I can totally give her a ride,” Van offered. “I know you’re busy.”
“Nah.” Ty shook his head. “I can do it. We need to talk about what we’re going to do when River and Jazz get back into town. I was thinking surprise party.”
Lucy frowned his way. “His name is Jax, and he is her husband.”
Ty’s lips curled up. “Yeah, but it’s fun to tease her. He doesn’t even remember his real name, so I figure I’m not really teasing him.”
He was terrible. Lucy gave him the stink eye and let her voice go low. “We’ll see how you feel when some crazy doctor lady erases your memory.”
Jax had an interesting history and one Ty shouldn’t make fun of.
“Well, my life would be easier if she erased yours. Then we could start all over again,” Ty said under his breath. “The first thing I would do is train you not to leave your phone at home.”
Yep. Terrible. “I’ve got to mop and check the back rooms. If you want to talk, you can do it while I work.”
“I’ll mop the front,” Van offered. “You handle the back rooms.”
He was a nice guy. Cleaning wasn’t his job. He was supposed to close up the bar and then he was done for the night. “Are you sure? I can get it.”
He shook his head and started for the kitchen. “I can help. The cook had to run because of a family emergency, so I know you already finished his close-out duties. Besides, if I can get in good with the new head of hospitality, I’ll do it.”
He winked her way and she wished she could get Michael out of her head long enough to think seriously about Van Dean. He was a cutie, and he came with a hot best friend who could fix her sink and liked to share. He seemed like he might be interested in her.
Of course she’d thought Michael might want to date her, too. It proved she had terrible instincts about men. She needed to go on a sabbatical from desire. Or simply embrace the idea that she could have an amazing relationship with a vibrator.
She started to make her way toward the back rooms, rounding around the bar. “And I don’t need a ride. My car worked fine today.”
“You mean it started up earlier.” Ty was right behind her. “I know that rattrap. It has a mind of its own, and it’s lazy as the day is long. Did you get the battery changed?”
“No. I don’t have the cash right now.” She needed to head this off at the pass. “And before you grill me about where it all went, the girls needed winter coats, and you know my dad isn’t going to pay for that. He told them to suck it up for another year or wear the old ones. I do not have Dolly Parton’s momma’s skills, so I can’t make them a coat of many colors. I had to make due with Walmart, but Walmart wanted money so I dipped into my savings.”
Ty groaned. “You don’t have savings because you send it all to your sisters.”
She turned. “What am I supposed to do, Ty? I’m the oldest. My brothers send back everything they can to me and I buy things for the girls. If I send it to my dad…”
“He’ll buy whatever will get him the highest,” Ty finished.
“The girls have two years of high school left,” she explained. She’d thought a lot about this. Her sisters were fraternal twins and the last of her siblings. Her dad wasn’t known for being responsible, but at least his girlfriend the last several years hadn’t gotten pregnant and didn’t hurt the girls. Mandy wasn’t the nicest of women, but she made sure the girls had dinner at night and got to school on time.
“And then you’ll worry about how to pay for college.” Ty’s jaw clenched. “You didn’t get to go to college, Luce.”
She wasn’t sure what his point was. “So they shouldn’t go either?” She stopped because she wasn’t sure why they were having this fight. “Look, hopefully this job at the resort works out. It’s a supervisor role and a lot more money.”
“And you can live on property,” Ty pointed out.
She wasn’t sure about that. Ty lived on property. He had one of the single units that housed part of the resort’s staff. Though calling it a single unit didn’t mean only Ty was there. She’d heard he had lots of visitors. Women. Women he slept with. Yeah, she wasn’t sure she was ready to see that. It was screwed up because she’d given up on Ty romantically long ago, but she worried it would still hurt to see him with all those women. “We’ll see.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I worry about you.” Ty unzipped his jacket and set it on the counter next to the deep freeze. “I don’t want to fight. I hate fighting with you. Please let me know if your sisters need anything. I want to help. And you know my mom stops by out there. She dropped off a casserole the other day.”
Because his mom was one of the wonderful people in the world. “I’ll thank her when I see her next. So you want to surprise River and Jax with a welcome home party? I think that might be fun. But I’m not letting you order the cake or you’ll spell his name J-e-x or J-u-x.”
“Or S-u-x.” Ty’s grin lit up the room. “I’m joking. I like him. He’s a good guy. I’m happy he’s coming back and we can get Mountain Adventures up and running again. I missed having a third job. But I was kind of hoping the idea was my main contribution. You know I really would screw up ordering the cake. This is one of those things I was hoping you would run with. I am very good at following your instructions.”
She’d been joking about the cake. Ty had many skills. Party planning wasn’t one of them. “I can do that. You deal with making a great playlist and helping me make sure the cabin’s ready for them when they finally get home.”
She’d been staying in River’s cabin the whole time River had been gone, making sure everything was maintained properly. It had been a godsend since it happened around the time her old roommate had upped her rent and her sisters had wanted to join the marching band. She’d saved a lot of money by staying at River’s. Ty had come over to help with maintenance more than once. He’d helped her make sure the place was ready for winter and often brought by one of his mom’s casseroles since he couldn’t eat it all by himself. He had no idea how those shared meals often were the only dinner or lunch she had.
Had she sat with him and pretended they were in their own cabin? That would be ridiculous.
Only once or twice.
Ty nodded. “Will do.” He glanced back toward the dining room. “Are you sure you should be alone with that guy? What do we know about him?”
He was so careful when it came to her. Sometimes she wondered if he thought she couldn’t take care of herself. Of course she’d been the one to go out with the crazy cult leader, so he might have a point. “Van is cool. You haven’t worked with him? He’s got a job at the lodge, too.”
“I don’t hang out in the bar much,” he admitted. “He’s only been around for six weeks. I was surprised Zane hired him. He’s usually more careful.”
“I think he’s got ties to Henry’s old friends, and that means he’s been thoroughly vetted.” Henry’s old friends had turned out to be ex-CIA, so they ranked high on the paranoid scale. They also had resources by which to vet people that didn’t involve beets, so she thought she could trust them.
“Ah, that makes sense.”
Lucy opened the storeroom and took out the checklist. It wouldn’t take long for her to close since Van was mopping down the dining room. She had to make sure everything was ready for lunch tomorrow and then she could be on her way.
God, she hoped her car worked.
“So he can give me a ride if I need one.” It looked like the cook had already done all tomorrow’s prep work. She checked off the list and signed it. “If he chooses to murder me, you’ll know who to look for.”
“Don’t fucking joke about that.”
The hoarse quality of his voice made her stop and step out of the pantry. “Joke about murders in Bliss? I thought we were supposed to do that to throw the tourists off.”
His shoulders were straight, a serious look in his eyes. “Stop it. I still think about it.”
She put down the clipboard and walked up to him, putting her hands on those tight shoulders. “I’m sorry. I’m okay. He’s dead, and the saddest part was that he was really after Hope. I mean if I’m going to get murdered, I want it to be about me. I don’t want to be the side character who dies so the heroine finds the will to fight.”
“You’re still joking about it.”
“Well, it’s been two years and I’ve had some therapy. Maybe we should get you some.” She turned again, getting back to work. “You don’t have to stop by to make sure I can get home. I’m a big girl now. If something happens to my car, I can always call someone.”
“Me. You can call me.” His voice had softened. “Unless you only want to call Michael now.”
Sometimes he sounded like a jealous little boy. It was left over from their childhood, and she simply rolled her eyes at this point. “I didn’t call Michael in the first place. He showed up. I think Nate talked to him after Henry got back and everyone was still worried someone would rush into town guns ablazing and looking for revenge.”
“I don’t think so. I think Michael knows exactly what he’s doing. That’s why I want to talk to you.” He took a long breath as though he was steeling himself for something. “Are you interested in him?”
The last thing she needed was a lecture on how bad some other man would be for her. “I don’t see how that’s your business, Ty. You know I don’t ask about your girlfriends.”
“I don’t have girlfriends and you know it.”
She huffed. “Okay, I’ll be clearer. I don’t talk to you about your one-night stands.”
“Yes, you do. Do you know the amount of times you’ve lectured me on venereal diseases? Because I do. It’s fifty-nine. Fifty-nine times since I got back from Virginia six years ago. That’s once every thirty-seven days, Luce. And that doesn’t include all the jokes about it. These are verifiable lectures.”
He’d done the math? “What makes it verifiable?”
“I count it as a lecture if it lasts more than four minutes. Otherwise it’s just a dig.”
Damn. She hadn’t realized how often she’d talked to him about his sex life. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, Ty. I was joking.”
“Maybe the first couple of times, but after the thousandth or so a man has to think. I know I’m the joke of this town.”
He was missing the point. He was considered a stud. “You’re not. I don’t think you being able to get sex whenever you like is exactly something people feel pity for you about.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” he said with an unamused laugh. “We live in a place filled with happy relationships. I assure you they think my life is sad.”
She didn’t understand what he was complaining about. She was the one with the pitiable reputation. She was the one who couldn’t find a date. “Because you can get any woman you want?”
His head shook. “Because I can’t get the only one I do want. Because the only one I want thinks I’m some kind of manwhore who she wouldn’t even consider looking at in a different light. Because the woman I want doesn’t think I’m pure enough.”
She felt her eyes widen because she’d never heard Ty so passionate. How stupid was this woman? Was she up at the lodge? “Holy shit. Who is she? What is she thinking? You’re not good enough? I would like to punch her in the face.”
He stared at her for a moment, a tension in his body she couldn’t quite describe. She only knew it was like the air around him had changed, been charged with some unnamed emotion.
“Luce, it’s you. I’m talking about you.”
It was her turn to stop. She couldn’t have heard that right. “What?”
A stubborn gleam hit his eyes. “I love you. I’ve always loved you. It’s time for us to stop fucking around and get down to business.”
He moved in and then his arms were drawing her in, head swooping down.
Yeah, not how she’d thought she would end her day.
* * * *
He knew it was a mistake, but he couldn’t stop himself. He’d come here to talk to her, to gently start opening the subject of why they should consider moving their friendship into a more romantic place.
Romance. He hated that word. He didn’t understand the word. His parents hadn’t been overly demonstrative people. They were practical. His dad once bought his mom a vacuum cleaner for their anniversary, and she’d cried tears of joy because she’d wanted it so badly. Of course, she’d bought him a new tool kit, so no romance there either.
Sometimes he wished it had been River he’d fallen for all those years ago. River was the kind of woman who told it like it was and appreciated practicality. Lucy needed a softer hand.
Soft. She was so fucking soft. He kissed her, half expecting her to shove him away and laugh in his face. Instead, her hands went to his waist and she sighed, a sexy sound that made his dick jump.
How long had he waited for this? He hadn’t been ready in high school, hadn’t been willing to take the chance that they wouldn’t work out in a long-distance relationship, hadn’t been willing to potentially lose her. He’d been so dumb, and if he could go back he would kick his high school ass and they would have had all these years together and he wouldn’t have this aching regret inside him.
He shoved the thoughts away. All that mattered was the fact that she was in his arms now. She was responding to him, and that was the important thing. The past didn’t matter. The future was bright as long as he had Lucy.
He dragged her closer, feeling the way her breasts crushed against his chest. She fit perfectly in his arms, the way he’d always known she would. He locked her against him with one hand and found her hair with the other. She always kept it up when she was working, tying it back with a scrunchy which he pushed away, freeing all that soft, glorious hair. He dreamed about it at night, about getting caught in it and waking up with it tickling his skin, reminding him he wasn’t alone.
Lucy. Luce. His friend. His love. His everything.
She pulled away. Well, as much as he would let her, she pulled away. “Ty.”
He shook his head. “No. Don’t talk. That was my mistake. We don’t need to talk.”
He kissed her again, and this time her mouth opened, allowing his tongue to slide against hers. Pure desire raced through his veins. All he had to do was push her back against the wall and he’d press himself against her and find the relief he’d needed for years. It didn’t matter who he slept with. He found no real comfort in the act because his lovers hadn’t been Lucy.
He forced himself to slow down.
He wasn’t taking Lucy in the back room of the bar she worked at. Damn it. She wasn’t some quick hookup where both parties were only interested in a moment of pleasure. He’d been grateful to them all, but none of those women had been the right one. None of them had been her.
She was Lucy. He wanted so much more from her. She was the one.
He pulled back. This was precisely why he’d decided to go the slow route. He hadn’t meant to push her so hard and fast. “I’m sorry, baby. I meant to make sure you got home okay and maybe come in for a drink. I didn’t mean to go this fast. I skipped about five steps.”
She was breathless when she stepped away from him, a high flush to her cheeks. “Steps?”
He hadn’t meant to mention that either, though maybe she would take him more seriously if she knew how carefully he’d planned things. “Steps to make you see me in a different light, to make you see we’re meant to be together.”
She smoothed back her hair. “We are together, Ty. We’re together all the time.”
He needed to make himself plain. He couldn’t let her think for a second that he’d gotten horny and she was handy. “Not like that. Together together.”
He was slightly offended by the look of horror that washed over her pretty face.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ty.” She laughed but it was her nervous laugh, not the full-throated one that he loved to hear. “You don’t get together with anyone for more than a night or two.”
Yes, at least she understood that much. “No, I don’t date. I don’t date because I’m in love with you. I’ve loved you since we were kids. I think I loved you since that day in the fourth grade when you shared your lunch with me because I forgot mine and you made sure I got a little more of the sandwich because you were worried I would be hungry with only half.”
It had been a boy’s love, but it had been there. That feeling had been something he couldn’t stand the thought of losing.
One brow cocked over her eyes. “You loved me then? You should have mentioned it. I mean you’ve had roughly twenty years to say something. Also, what about everyone else you loved between then and now? It’s a lot of people, Ty.”
He wanted to tell her the truth, but he couldn’t quite make himself tell her what his life had been like before he’d come back home. He might never tell her. “I haven’t loved anyone but you. No one else.”
“No, you just slept with them.”
He felt his fists ball up in pure frustration. Would she even believe him? “We weren’t together. When I got back from college, you had a boyfriend. You seemed very serious about him, and so I tried to move on.”
“And then I didn’t,” she replied, her lips a flat line. “I haven’t dated in a couple of years. I didn’t see you asking me out.”
“I asked you out all the time.” Was she forgetting how often they were each other’s plus one?
“That was two friends hanging out,” Lucy countered. “I assure you, I didn’t feel like a girlfriend. What is this about, Ty?”
“This is about not wasting more time.” This was why he’d had a plan—to avoid a misunderstanding. He needed to calm down because he understood why she might be confused. “Luce, you have to know we belong together. I meant to do this when I got home but you had a boyfriend. Then when you broke up, I wanted to give you a little time. Then my dad got sick and my mom needed me and all the stuff with River went down. I’ve been stupid. I’ve let a lot of things get in the way.”
“You let a lot of women get in the way,” she accused. “Don’t use your dad as an excuse. I was there with you all the way. I went to the hospital and helped your mom at home. You didn’t look at me because you were having too much fun playing around with any woman who would let you.”
“That’s not true.” At least he hoped it wasn’t. He’d had a time in there when sex had been his drug of choice, something that let him forget that he’d made a hash of his life. “I will admit that I was depressed when I got home, and I thought I’d missed my chance with you. I let myself run wild for a while. I got a reputation, but I haven’t slept with a single woman since I realized I needed to try again with you. Not one.”
Her eyes rolled. “Sure you haven’t. And when did you decide this?”
“A year ago.”
She snorted. “You haven’t slept with a woman in a year? That’s not what I heard.”
Yes, this was why he wasn’t going to tell her that he’d come home from college a virgin. She wouldn’t believe him. “I don’t care what you’ve heard. I wouldn’t lie to you. You’re too important to me.”
Her mouth came open slightly, and it was like a lightbulb went off over her head. “A year ago was when Michael came down the mountain and started hanging out here at Trio. A year ago was when the rumors about me and Michael started.”
He didn’t like the accusation in her tone. He also didn’t like that she was right about the timing. “Sometimes a man needs a little kick in the pants.”
Her eyes narrowed in pure suspicion. “So you didn’t decide you wanted me until he wanted me.”
“That isn’t true. I always wanted you.” A little panic started to thrum through his system because this wasn’t going the way he’d hoped it would.
“Not enough to come after me. Not until someone else did. You’re a dog with two bones, Ty.”
“But I only want one bone. I never really wanted the other one.”
She growled, a deeply frustrated sound. “Go away. I’m not doing this with you tonight. The truth of the matter is you have nothing to worry about. Michael Novack doesn’t want me. Not that way. He’s just a nice guy who looks out for the women around him. He doesn’t want me any more than you truly do. I won’t be dating him so you can happily go back to your ski bunnies.”
“I don’t want to go back to ski bunnies.” He obviously wasn’t any good at talking. He’d been right the first time. Well, the first time he’d planned to talk to her, so he’d been right the second time. He moved into her space, looming over her. She’d responded to him when he’d kissed her. “I want you.”
Her eyes had widened, head tilting up. “You want to sleep with me?”
“I want to sleep with you but only after I fuck you so long and so hard you can’t think of any other man except me.” Going at her soft hadn’t worked. Maybe it was time to show her what he’d learned over the years. He might have gotten a terrible reputation, but he’d also learned how to be excellent in bed.
“Don’t be silly, Ty.” The words were said with a breathless awe even as she frowned up at him.
“It’s not silly. Nothing about this is, and I’m going to show you,” he vowed. “I’m going to make sure you don’t even remember Michael Novack’s name.”
“If your kiss can wipe out her memory, we should probably talk to someone about that.”
Lucy gasped and pushed against Ty’s chest at the sound of that deep voice. “Michael.”
Sure enough there was the cranky asshole who’d waltzed in and screwed up his whole life. He wouldn’t have fumbled this had it not been for Michael Novack. He would have been able to play it cool and avoided this fiasco.
He wore his normal uniform of a black T-shirt, jeans, and boots that had seen far better days. His dark hair was in need of a cut, but it was easy to see why some women might be attracted to him. He had that broody, fix-me-up vibe women tended to go for.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Michael said in a tone that let him know he wasn’t sorry at all. “The new guy let me in. I stopped by to see if you needed a ride or a walk to your car. Now I can see that I’m not needed here at all.”
“No, you’re not.” It was time to start staking his real claim. Michael needed to understand that Lucy wasn’t without options. He’d been protecting her for a long time, and he didn’t need some fly-by-night guy around. Except he knew that wasn’t the proper way to describe Michael. He was more like a cautious wolf stalking his prey, and if he ever got his hands on Lucy, Ty was worried he wouldn’t let her go. “Luce and I are fine on our own.”
“Are you? Because I haven’t seen you here every night making sure she’s safe.” Michael’s body straightened, puffing up to show his full height.
“I’ve called her every day,” he countered. “Unlike some people I have to work for a living. I’ve been on call saving lives.”
“Yeah, I heard you had an emergency call with Mel. Was it about aliens?” Michael asked in that deeply sarcastic tone of his.
“Hey, he fell out of a tree and twisted his ankle.” Though that wasn’t what Mel had said happened. Mel claimed he’d fallen out of an alien light that was trying to pull him up into the spaceship. It had been odd since there hadn’t been a ladder around, so he wasn’t sure how the old guy had managed to get up in that tree, but that wasn’t the point. It had been an actual emergency.
“Both of you stop it.” Lucy moved to get in between them.
She was small compared to them. She would be swallowed up if she got in between them.
“I’ll stop if that little shit does,” Michael vowed.
“Hey, I’m not exactly little.” He wasn’t taking crap from this guy. “Just because you’re a giant doesn’t mean I can’t take you.”
Michael snorted, an inelegant sound. “Sure you can, buddy.”
“I mean it. Stop.” Lucy put a hand on each of their chests. “Stop right now. You are both acting like children.”
Michael’s face went a stony blank, and he stepped back. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. I can see plainly that you don’t need any help.”
“I didn’t…” Lucy stopped, a frown coming over her face. She backed off, going as cold as Michael had. “No, I don’t.”
Michael merely tipped his head, turned, and walked out.
Well, at least that was one problem solved. If Michael wanted to be an asshole, he was fine with that. He turned back to Lucy. “I’m sorry about that. Why don’t we head to your place and I’ll make us something to eat and we can talk about this. I’ve got a bottle of wine in my truck.”
Lucy turned away from him, walking the few steps to where a broom was hanging neatly on the wall. She picked it up and when she faced him again, he knew he was in trouble.
“No, Luce,” he began.
“Out. Get out. I can’t talk to you right now.” She swung the broom his way.
He barely managed to get out of the way. He backed up, finding himself stumbling into the bar again. “Luce, this is ridiculous.”
She waved the broom his way again, getting way too close to his head for comfort. “No, what’s ridiculous is expecting me to think this play of yours is anything but the actions of a jealous little boy.”
“You didn’t kiss me like I was a little boy.” He had to duck to avoid that one. He moved into the dining room.
“I didn’t kiss you at all. You kissed me and you did it so he couldn’t have me.” She waved the broom toward the door.
That was when he realized Van was standing there, holding the damn thing open, and he had Ty’s coat in one big hand.
“And Michael doesn’t want me, so the joke’s on you.” Lucy pressed the broom to his chest, forcing him out the door. “Go away, Ty. I can take care of myself. I’m a grown-ass woman.”
She turned and walked away.
Van gave him a shake of his head and handed him his coat. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure she gets home okay.”
He slammed the door in his face, the lock clicking into place.
And he was left on the outside looking in.
He should have stuck with the plan. He stared at that locked door and heard a deep chuckle coming from the shadows to his left.
“Guess Lucy knows how to take out the trash,” Michael said.
“Why the hell are you still here?” He forced his arms into his coat and zipped up.
He watched as Michael’s shadowy figure shrugged. “Her car doesn’t work half the time, and I don’t know that kid in there enough to trust him to take care of her.”
Asshole. Still, it was exactly what a man who cared about a woman would say. He knew he’d been right.
And Lucy was interested in Michael. She didn’t take Ty seriously, but he couldn’t deny that she’d responded to him sexually.
“I don’t think I would like what’s going on in that head of yours, would I?” Michael asked.
Lucy wanted Michael. Ty wanted Lucy. But Lucy was only a moth to Michael’s cranky, crabby flame, and if she could see how much better Ty could take care of her, she would come around.
What to do about that?
If he was back in Virginia, it would be a quandary.
But he was in Bliss.
“No. I don’t think you’ll like it at all.” It was a plan. A bad plan. A Bliss plan.
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