“You never lost her,” he states, surprising the hell out of me. He sidesteps and lands three fast jabs before continuing, “You just need to get back on the same track as her. I’ll let you know when she’s coming back in town.”
“I’m going to change her last name.”
Lane’s next punch comes in a fraction off, causing him to slip and miss the bag. Slowly, he leans his forehead against the leather and says, “I’m not ready for that. I’m not ready for her to be taken away from me.”
“I want you to move to Texas. Come work for me. Audrey told me about your past in law enforcement. Join my security group.”
“I just got a degree in accounting...” he trails off.
“Do you actually give a shit about accounting? Because I think it’s some kind of distraction from whatever happened before you met Audrey.”
“Audrey is my family. I’ll go to Texas for her,” he responds, avoiding my question.
We bump knuckles and I say, “I feel like I should ask your permission to marry her.”
“You should,” he smirks, starting to bounce around again before he resumes hitting the bag. Bastard. I shouldn’t have mentioned anything.
“You know I’d never let anything happen to her, right?”
“That’s not asking me,” he replies in an annoying sing-song voice.
“It would mean a lot to me if I had your blessing,” I reply seriously.
He stops his routine and solemnly states, “Jace, I’ve known you were the one for her before I met you. I couldn’t be happier that this is going to actually work out. I know you’ll take care of her. I also know you’re too afraid of me not to,” he finishes with a cocky grin.
“Aughhh,” I let out a yell, partly in relief and partly out of frustration. “I’m going to go crazy waiting for her to come back.”
“Well, I guess you’ve got plenty of time to get some muscle back on those bones. You’re looking scrawny, dude.”
“I wasn’t going to mention it, but you’re actually looking a little chunky. Guess you’ll be doing a lot of cardio this week,” I return. I take the bag next to him and start my first round. His body stills at my words. I have to bite my lip from laughing when I see him raise his arms so he can check out his own body. I knew that one would hit him hard.
“You know what, now I’m really going to kick your sorry ass in the ring. Because this,” he gestures to his body, “is all your fault. Miss-I’m-going-to-bake-twelve-batches-of-muffins-a-day because she doesn’t know how to deal with emotions fattened me up this week. And did she eat any of those cookies or muffins? No! She didn’t sleep either. She ran on adrenaline all week, baking, finishing up every last paper we’ve been assigned, and working double shifts.”
I hang my head for a moment and take a deep breath, reminding myself once again that I still can’t fly to New York right now. I know I haven’t given Audrey everything she deserves. I haven’t shouted from the rooftops that she’s my girl. I haven’t walked her to class with my arm around her shoulders. Max was right. I haven’t treated her the way she should be treated. But somehow I’ll make this right because failure is not an option.
“For that, I’ll let you get a few free hits in,” I finally respond.
The second I step through the revolving doors that lead to baggage claim, I see a crew of unexpected familiar faces. Em and Quinn smile brightly and wave enthusiastically. I’m shocked to see Jaxon sitting in a wheelchair with Cole holding the handles. Cole tries to wheel him forward but Jax elbows him away and slowly pushes the wheels himself. Lanes stands above all of them and darts toward me. I steady my rolling carry-on bag and brace for the impact. He scoops me up into a well-known hug that I will always associate with family.
“Missed you, doll,” he says in his gruff voice.
“I missed all of you guys,” I say to them over his shoulder. Curious, I look around for another face, one that I couldn’t get out of my mind even if I tried.
“Don’t worry, if he knew you were coming in today, he would have been here before any of us. He’s been pacing circles around the living room since the second you left,” Jax calls out.
“I thought you told him you would let him know when I was arriving?” I ask Lane, recalling the brief conversation he told me he had with Jace at the gym. “Not having a phone really sucks. Did you know that there aren’t pay phones anymore? Like anywhere?” I complain.
“Don’t worry, I plan to tell him,” he says, smiling deviously.
“Uh-oh...” I groan and look to the others for elaboration.
“We don’t know what the gorgeous hunk is up to,” Em smiles at Lane.
“I’m still right here, babe,” Jax grumbles.
“WE don’t call him a gorgeous hunk, by the way,” Cole chimes in.
Cole looks to Lane and deadpans, “We can’t be friends with you anymore, dude.”
Jax wheels over to nudge him in the shin with his foot, “Yeah, sorry but you’re out.”
Lane laughs out loud and wraps his arm around my shoulder. “Come on, ladies.”
When we pull up in front of my job, I groan and look at Lane questioningly. “Don’t worry, you’re not working. It’s just a fun night with friends.”
I smile and begin to relax from my long day of traveling and an emotional few weeks. Being stuck on a confined plane for hours on end is not how I like to spend my time, although being able to see my cousin again was totally worth the grueling flights. Kennedy has been the one family member to always make an effort to maintain a relationship with me. I know I have more blood relatives out there, but since they all hate my parents, I was unlucky enough to be grouped in with them.
Kennedy and I stayed with her best friend, Brynn, whose father owns a Fortune 500 company in Manhattan. Brynn doesn’t have a limit to the amount of money she can spend, and she doesn’t hesitate to spend it on her friends. Or her friend’s cousin, as the case may be. I spent my time there in private, chauffeured cars, fancy restaurants that usually require a reservation months in advance, and swanky rooftop bars. It was fun for a week, but that whole lifestyle just seems exhausting to me. I don’t know how Kennedy can keep up with her friends all year round.
After Em and I wave our hellos to some of the employees, we wind our way through the packed bar. Finally, we find a pool table in the back, and as we pull up some bar stools, I hear Lane on his phone speaking in hushed tones.
“Just come up here...
You can do all that girly shopping shit later...
You seriously need to have your man card revoked...
See you in ten.”
“Audrey, play a round with me,” Em interrupts my eavesdropping, pointing to the table and handing me a house stick.
I sink the eight ball before Em can even get her third shot in, and she tosses her cue to the table. Cole and Quinn look at me with wide, shocked eyes. Lane doesn’t even bat an eye, since he’s seen me play this game countless times before.
Jax laughs and says, “Yeah, I was wondering if you still had it.”
“You knew she could do that?” Em cries.
“Oh yeah, she hustled me the first time we met,” he replies.
“I want a try. I’ve never been beat by a chick,” Cole declares and grabs for Em’s discarded cue. He swirls blue chalk on the tip and begins to rack the balls.
“Don’t say we didn’t warn you. I’ve never seen her lose,” Lane laughs. He sits back on a bar stool with his arms folded tight. I keep quiet during the entire game, not wanting to break my concentration. It’s a tight game, tighter than I feel comfortable with, but after all that talk, I can’t let Cole beat me. We’re both down to one ball each, not to mention the eight ball that sits there, daring me to knock it in before Cole does.
I lie across the table comfortably to get a hard-to-reach angle, aiming to put my last solid ball in the corner pocket. Just as I pull back, ready to tap the ball, big hands skim across my waist and a warm body lies across my back. “You’re back. God, I’ve missed you,” Jace’s warm voice whispers in my ear. My hand slips and I knock the solid too hard, sinking the eight ball instead and losing the game.
Cole tosses his cue down and throws his knuckle out to fist-bump Jace. “That’s what I call teamwork!” he shouts. When I turn in Jace’s arms to see his handsome face, I forget the game, Cole, and even where we are and who we’re with.
He gives me his signature cocky smile and says, “Sorry about that.” I smile without saying a word and then flush when I think about the last time I saw him. I don’t regret what I did on the side of the frat house, but I don’t think I would have done that sober. I also threw up in front of him for the rest of the night, which I know I’ll never be able to live down.
“I can’t stop thinking about it either,” he whispers in my ear, before trailing a kiss down my neck.
“I heard about that,” Em laughs. “So hot.” I gasp and cover my face in embarrassment. Please don’t tell me that my entire group of friends knows about my drunken escapades.
“Shit, Emerson, there’s a time for your mouth and there’s a time for it to be closed. I thought you were trying to help me get her back?” Jace bites out.
“They know?” I whisper, with my hands still covering my flaming cheeks.
“Don’t blame Jace,” Jaxon interrupts. “These two,” he gestures toward Em and Quinn, “are like a really small gang. Poor Jace didn’t even see it coming when they pried it out of him.”
“Okay, now there’s another thing I need to apologize for. I just...shit, Lane, you threw me off with this surprise,” Jace stumbles over his words nervously. “I had this whole apology planned out. Now I’m thrown.”
“I think it was a damn good plan,” Lane smiles wide. Brat.
Jace stares at me and I’m trying to see all the words in his head that he can’t manage to get out. “Jace, you’re flustered. What’s wrong? This isn’t like you,” I say, loud enough for him to hear.
Out of nowhere, he drops to one knee and pulls out a small, red leather box with gold detailing around the edges. I watch as he clicks the gold latch and opens the box to face me. Without looking at the contents inside, I slam my eyes closed and reach out to snap the box shut between my fingers, lingering on the soft leather a moment longer.
I wasn’t thinking and now the gasps around us tell me that was the snap-heard-round-the-bar.
“Worse than being kicked in the balls...” Lane mutters.
“Jace, I don’t know where we are. I was willing to give you time because that’s what you needed. But you really hurt me when we were at the hospital. You didn’t talk to me and then you rushed me out of there like some kind of dirty secret. I understand why you were upset, but...” He sticks the box back into his pocket and my stomach drops at the idea of what I may have just ruined. His hands slide up my sides until they reach my face.
“I was wrong. It doesn’t matter the reasons I had at the time, I was wrong. I’m so sorry. I can’t seem to get my head on straight around you. From the very beginning, I should have stepped up and put you first. If you give me another chance, you’ll always be first to me…I swear. Please forgive me,” he adds, looking directly into my eyes.
“Apologize with your heart man, sing it out,” Cole adds mockingly.
“Shit, can y’all keep to yourselves for one minute?” Jace asks, annoyed.
“Karaoke?” I ask, intrigued by the idea.
“Yep. You see, this week I convinced Ed he needed to add a karaoke night to the bar. Attract more customers and all that. Welcome to the first night!” Lane exclaims animatedly.
“Babe, can we go somewhere else?” Jace begs with both his words and his eyes.
“Are you scared?” Lane taunts, clamping a hand on his shoulder. I don’t bother trying to respond. I’ve learned that when I’m hanging around these four large, loud guys, my voice gets lost in the crowd. They’re a fun group, but it’s hard to get a word in once they get started.
“He’ll never do it,” Jax eggs on.
“This was your plan all along, Lane?” I finally question.
Lane nods his head with a huge grin and Jace throws his hands up in defeat. He looks at me and I try to hide the grin on my face.
“You actually like this idea, babe?” he asks with surprise in his voice.
“I just can’t imagine you doing it,” I reply softly. He swivels on his toe and immediately starts toward the brand new screens Ed apparently installed while I was gone. My mouth drops open in shock.
Everyone around me begins to whistle and Cole shouts, “Can I pick the song?” Jace throws a middle finger in reply. Cassie, our newest bartender, mans the karaoke machine while Jace flips through the song title book. She gets on the microphone and welcomes everyone to ‘Karaoke Night,’ before announcing that it’s time for the first victim.
“This hot thing right here is Jace,” Cassie calls out, and there is a round of catcalls and whistles directed toward the small stage. Jace shakes his head and lets out a coy smile. This is totally not his thing. Despite the ribbing he was getting from the guys, I can tell he would never be up there if I hadn’t expressed interest.