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Luke Shuller walked into Grey’s craving violence and whiskey, not necessarily in that order.
His knuckles still throbbed from where he’d landed a solid punch to his ex-best friend Beckett Larson’s face, and his cheek still throbbed from where his friend had returned the favor. But neither burned worse than the rage that was still roaring through his veins.
Beckett was just lucky that Luke hadn’t killed him on the spot. Seeing as the other man was about to be a father. Because he had knocked up Luke’s little sister. Luke had spent his entire life protecting Kaitlin. And in the end it had been a guy who was only around because of Luke who had ruined everything.
Yeah, he really needed that drink. He had gone straight from their fight to pack a bag so that he could head down to Marietta to keep an eye on his sister, to make sure Beckett didn’t do any further damage. He didn’t know what he was going to do, only that he needed to be here.
It was Saturday night so most of the town was hanging out, and most of them had already had a few drinks. Luke could only be envious.
Luke walked up to the bar and slammed his hand down on the wooden surface. “I need some Jack.”
The bartender nodded once and set about pouring the drink, sliding it toward Luke, who in return pushed a few bills in the other man’s direction. He lifted the glass, turning away from the bar, leaning up against it, surveying the room.
He needed something to take the edge off of his rage. Hopefully, the alcohol would dull some of it. Getting laid might help fix the rest. But he was in Marietta, and he didn’t hook up in Marietta. There were too many people here that he knew far too well. Too many people he’d grown up with, or were related to people he’d grown up with, or related to him in some obscure way. It was one reason he liked living in a slightly larger city. Anonymity, he found, was necessary for anonymous hookups.
And here in Marietta, there just wasn’t much in the way of anonymity. Beckett usually preferred anonymous hookups himself. Except in this instance. The bastard. Luke had to wonder if this was retribution for accusing Beckett of theft. But Luke would never have accused Beckett of theft if he weren’t certain that’s what had happened. Beckett was the only one with access to all that stuff in Shuller Automotive. Luke had given him access. Luke had trusted him. More fool him.
He lifted his glass to his lips, relishing the burn of the alcohol as it slid down his throat. He welcomed the pain.
For the same reasons he couldn’t get laid here, he couldn’t really pick a fight either.
Maybe coming home hadn’t been the best idea after all.
Luke looked across the crowded bar, his eyes drawn to a woman sitting in the corner. He couldn’t see her face, just her long blonde hair and hints of an excellent figure, expertly displayed by the tight black dress she was wearing. A dress that was riding up high on very shapely thighs. Unfortunately, the woman was already talking to a man. A cowboy, already drunk, his hat tipped back on his head, his face red as he leaned in close to whisper what Luke doubted were sweet nothings. More like very sexual somethings.
Of course, the fact that she was with someone didn’t really matter. This was still Marietta. And every woman in this bar was still off limits. Unlike Beckett, Luke had some scruples.
The woman shifted in her chair slightly, brushing some of her hair away from her face. And just like that interest turned to recognition.
Basically the only friend he had left in all the world, now that Beckett was dead to him. And she had no call to be out here, in a bar, sitting across from some random dude who was clearly drunk off his ass. The guy grabbed hold of Melanie’s hand, lifted it to his lips. Luke saw Mel’s frame stiffen, her entire body going rigid from her head on down. Too bad her buddy didn’t seem to notice. He tugged her forward, pulling her halfway out of her chair and planting a kiss on her lips.
Before he could stop himself, Luke was across the room. He’d gotten his drink. He supposed now it might be time for the violence.
He reached down, grabbing the guy’s shirt collar and wrenching him away from his friend’s lips. “I think you’re done here.”
The guy stood up, his expression furious. The fury dampened a bit when he realized that Luke was a good head taller than he was. Good. “We’re on a date,” the other man slurred.
“Not anymore you’re not.”
Melanie scrambled out of her chair, almost knocking it over in her haste. “Luke, what are you doing? What are you doing here?”
“I’m being chivalrous.”
“Why are you being chivalrous here? And at me?”
“You needed chivalry, obviously. Aren’t I allowed to come visit?” He crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his eyes on Melanie’s “date”.
“You’re allowed, but it’s weird. And also, I don’t need your help.”
He whirled around, looking at her fully for the first time. His heart slammed hard against his rib cage, his mouth going dry. He would love to blame the alcohol but it took a lot more than half a drink to make him feel like the floor was tilting beneath his feet. Still, the fact remained the floor had definitely tilted beneath his feet.
He’d just seen Melanie last month at his younger sister, Sierra’s wedding, and then again a couple weeks ago when she’d come in to Bozeman to visit her grandmother and stopped by to see him. Both times she had looked very much like…well, like Melanie. Blonde hair in a braid or ponytail, maybe a little bit of lip gloss, and some sensible outfit that could most definitely be worn in church.
The dress Melanie was currently wearing would get her sent to confession, along with half the men in the room.
Bless me, Father, for impure thoughts abound.
The insubstantial garment clung to her curves like a second skin, molding itself to curves that were a bit more generous than he’d realized. She was wearing mascara too, and some kind of gold eyeshadow that made her eyes look impossibly large and blue. Then he found himself staring at her mouth. It was temptation red if he’d ever seen it. Like a piece of forbidden fruit that obsessed a man with the need to taste it the moment he set eyes on it.
If he didn’t know better he would think she was trying to attract attention. But Mel didn’t do that. So it was impossible.
“You obviously do need my help. Hey, buddy,” he said to drunk-ass cowboy, “get out of here.”
“You her husband?”
“Yeah.” Luke crossed his arms over his chest and gave the guy his meanest stare. Which, he had a feeling was pretty damn mean tonight.
“No, he’s not,” Melanie said.
But the other guy had already put his hands up, and was backing away. “Hey, I don’t want to get in the middle of anything.” He mumbled his parting words, then turned and stumbled the other direction.
“What a hero,” Luke muttered. Feeling pretty annoyed that he hadn’t even been able to throw a punch.
Mel stared after the would-be Romeo for a moment, before whirling around to face Luke, her expression thunderous. “What. The. Hell.”
“I think the words you’re looking for are thank you.”
“I am not thankful that you got rid of him. I’ve been looking for a guy to take home with me all night. Joel was looking really promising. And you chased him off!”
Now the floor didn’t feel like it was tilting, it was just gone. Like the bar had split open, revealing a cavern beneath, ready to swallow Luke whole. “Excuse me?”
“Well, why did you think I was here? It wasn’t to learn how to line dance.”
“I don’t even know what to say to you right now.”
Melanie was… Not this woman. Melanie was fragile. Damaged by a past with her abusive father. Cautious. Melanie was someone he lived to protect. From the moment he’d first seen her at her grandmother’s house, a skinny twelve-year-old with too serious eyes and bruises on her arms, he’d wanted to shield her from the entire world. Which was why he’d gone straight to her aid when that drunk jackass had grabbed hold of her.
“Why do you sound angry? I didn’t screw up your chances of getting some tonight.”
Molten heat pooled in his gut. “Outside. Now.”
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, pushing the already accentuated body parts into greater prominence. “No.”
Later, much later, Luke would realize that tonight would be talked about as the night Luke Shuller threw Melanie Richards over his shoulder and carried her out of Grey’s like she was a ten pound sack of potatoes. But in the moment he wasn’t thinking of notoriety. He wasn’t thinking much at all. So, when he bent down and grabbed ahold of her bare thighs, hefting her over his shoulder, then straightening and heading for the door while she struggled, he didn’t much think about the people around them, or how his actions would spread through the town gossip chain like fire on dry brush.
Even if he had realized, he wasn’t sure he would have given a damn.
“What the hell are you doing?” she shouted.
He ignored her. She kept shouting, and he kept ignoring, all the way out onto the street.
When they were outside the bar, he lowered Mel back onto her feet, backing her up against the brick wall of the building, planting his hand beside her head. “Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
She froze for a second, then lifted her hands, resting her palms flat on his chest. A sharp pop of heat and electricity assaulted him, immobilizing him for a moment. Then she shoved him backward, and he went, shocked by the action. “I think I’m the one that should be asking that question. What are you doing here, Luke?”
He thought back to the fight with Beckett, to the revelations about Kaitlin. He gritted his teeth and swallowed hard. “Just here. Visiting.”
“You look like you got punched in the face.”
“Because I did get punched in the face.”
“Are you on a bar fight tour? Punching your way through Marietta’s nightlife.”
“No. Stop changing the subject. What were you thinking, picking up some guy in a bar? You’re smarter than that.”
Her expression turned fierce. “You’ve never picked up a woman in a bar?”
He sputtered. “That’s different. The odds of a woman taking advantage of me are a lot lower than some guy taking advantage of you.”
“I’m in the market to be taken advantage of, Shuller.” She pushed away from the wall, the motion drawing his attention to just how impossibly long her legs looked in that dress and high heel combination. He hadn’t even known Melanie owned clothes like that. “Sorry if that bothers you.” She paused for a moment, a crease appearing between her brows. “Actually, not sorry.”
“You don’t do things like this,” he said again, hearing the helpless frustration in his own voice.
“I know. That’s the point. I’ve never done anything like this, and I want to. I am tired of hiding. I’m not going to do it anymore.” She took a deep breath. “Everyone else does this stuff. Everyone else acts normal. Not me. I am twenty-eight years old and I’m still paralyzed by things that happened to me more than a decade ago. I’m done. This is me, moving on.”
“This is not how you move on.”
“You don’t get to make that decision for me, Luke.”
“Yes, you’re right. This is bullshit!” And then she whirled around on her stilettos and started to sashay away from him. He imagined she was aiming for a stomp, but the heels on her shoes prevented it.
Without thinking whether or not he should, he reached out and grabbed her arm.
End of Excerpt