Zeke laughed behind his hand, trying to look everywhere but at me.
He cleared his throat, sitting up a bit taller. “Nothin’. You’re just an odd trio. Is he with her? She’s stayin’ with you?” He scratched his five o’clock shadow, waiting for me to answer.
“She’s my sister. Do you guys ever work?” I asked. “All I see is you partying, fucking, and driving around the company car.”
Tyler ordered another round for the table. “It’s a company truck. And yes, we work our asses off. It’s just been slow. We work for the city in off-season.”
Sugar raised his glass to Tyler. “Indeed we do. Saved this town more than once.”
I laughed once. “Oh, please. You chose the job. It’s not like everyone is obligated to worship you for it.”
“Wow, okay,” Tyler said, standing. He gripped the back of his chair, the muscles in his forearm tensing below the hem of his Henley sleeve. He adjusted the worn, braided leather bracelets on his right wrist, his nails uneven and his knuckles thick from him cracking them like he’d done twice since Paige had led us to their table. I wanted those fingers inside me, his forearm tensing while he gripped my hips. I wanted something that hadn’t occurred to me before—a repeat.
I winked at Zeke. “What are you doing after this?”
Zeke looked around and then pointed to his chest. “Me?”
“Yes. The flannel shirt is doing it for me. I’m loving the lumbersexual thing you’ve got going on.”
Zeke chuckled, and then held his fist up to his mouth, choking on his own spit when he realized I was serious.
Tyler’s chair fell forward, propped against the table when he shoved it away from him before walking to the bar. He leaned on the bar with his elbow, chatting with the bartender, Annie. She cackled and shook her head, batting her eyes like Tyler needed.
“I don’t know what’s going on between you two,” Zeke said. “But don’t put me in the middle of it.”
“Wise man,” Sugar said, slapping Zeke on the shoulder.
“Fine,” I said, turning to Paige. “What are you doing later?”
“You?” she said with a wicked smile. She didn’t mind being plan B, or even plan C.
Zeke’s chin lifted, staring at someone tall behind me.
“Hey, Todd. I thought you weren’t allowed in here anymore?” Zeke asked.
Todd shifted his weight from one foot to the other, sporting a yellowing splotch on his cheekbone. “Maddox has been kicked out of here more times than I have. Yet you’re here with him.”
Zeke nodded. “You’re right. I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself.”
Sugar patted his friend on the back. “We should go.”
Todd leaned down, touching his temple to mine. I was more curious than offended, so I waited, unmoving.
Sugar leaned forward, waiting to pounce. His navy-blue button-down hid the monster beneath. He was a brick wall, maybe even more than Tyler, and just as tall. They both had a buzz cut, but Sugar was less unleashed bull dog, and more trained soldier.
“Maybe we’ll join you,” Todd said, turning to look at me. He smiled, far too close to my face, but I didn’t recoil. He was reckless, and I needed to be in the front row to witness whatever happened next.
“So have I,” Todd said, smiling at me. “What’s your name, beautiful?”
“That’s it,” I said, mirroring his expression. “That’s my name.”
“Mercer,” Tyler said, his voice booming over the music. He stood close behind Todd, taunting him with the lack of personal space he offered.
One side of Tyler’s mouth turned up, but he didn’t take his eyes away from Todd’s. “Not with all these pretty girls just getting here.”
Paige touched my hand and I squeezed, not because I was afraid, but because the spike in testosterone was making my lady parts cry out in the best kind of pain.
Zeke stood up, too, and the bartenders took notice.
Todd and Tyler stared each other down for a solid twenty seconds until Todd finally spoke. “I’m curious.”
“I’m sure I can answer,” Tyler said.
Tyler’s eyes sparked with excitement. “Don’t just get my hopes up, Mercer. Swing or shut the fuck up.”
Without thinking, I stood between them, looking up. “Why do guys do that? Why do they call each other by their last names? Is saying the first name a pussy thing to do? Is it too intimate?”
Sugar reached out for me. “C’mere, Ellie.”
My face twisted. “They’re not going to do anything.”
“We’re not?” Todd asked, unsure if he should be insulted or relieved.
I touched his shoulders, reaching up on the balls of my feet to softly kiss his cheek. “You’ll thank me later.” I lifted my knee, sinking it deep into his groin. He doubled over, and then fell forward in the fetal position while everyone stood around in shock.
Tyler grabbed my hand and rushed out, pushing through the door and running down the alley, and then down the street. Our shoes crunched through the snow as we cut through a light flurry. Tyler didn’t stop until we reached his white crew cab Dodge truck, his friends close behind.
He pressed his key fob and looked down at me with a surprised grin, his breath visible in the cold night air. He nodded toward the truck as two doors on the passenger side opened and then slammed shut. “Get in. I’m going to take them home, and then—”
He shrugged. “I’ll take you home.”
I shoved my hands in my coat pocket and shook my head. “Nah. I have to go back and wait for Fin.”
“Why did you do that?” Tyler asked. “I’ve never seen a girl do that—ever. Well, maybe once in middle school, but never with so much enjoyment.”
“The bruise on his face. Is that from you?”
He nodded. “Two weeks ago. Bar brawl. It was brutal.”
He shrugged. “I don’t like getting hit, so I don’t.”
“How is that? Are you trained or something?”
“Sort of. I have four brothers.”
“I thought you said you didn’t fight?”
“Are they all like you? Your brothers?”
He took a step toward me with the same look in his eyes he’d had at the bottom of my stairs. “You didn’t have to do that. I had it handled.”