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Jemima Jane Ericson, known as JJ to all and sundry, was one drunken pass away from jumping Ethan Weston’s bones. He just didn’t know it. The last thing she needed was him sitting his sorry butt down on one of her bar stools looking all haggard and destroyed.
Looking like he needed a little sexual healing.
“A bottle of your best Jack, JJ.”
JJ stopped drying glasses and turned to face his grim countenance. His stubbly jaw was all square and set, with only the faintest hint of his chin dimple beneath the heavy growth. His cheekbones were harsh and angular beneath the fluorescent lighting. His deep brown eyes roiled and churned with a mix of emotion stronger than the sludge-black coffee he favoured.
JJ’s stupid heart did its usual little leap, oblivious to the ebb and flow of the Saturday night crowd. Damn it. The man wore sexy better than any male she’d ever known.
Sexy and hurting was just too bloody lethal.
“Don’t you think,” she asked, trying to derail the inevitable intoxication and subsequent night on her couch, “the chief of police should be setting some kind of an example in a bar?”
JJ suppressed a snort. Ethan Weston was never off-duty. Every inch of his six-foot-four frame was cop. From the tips of his dark shaggy hair, right down to his size-twelve boots.
“The Jack?” he prompted, laying a fifty on the beer-sodden bar mat. His economy with words was well known.
They regarded each other steadily. Every weary line etched into his handsome face told JJ that Ethan was planning a big one. “Do you think this is a good idea?”
He didn’t hesitate, the bleak slash of his mouth barely moving as he said, “Nope.”
“Why don’t I call Jarrod?” JJ suggested. Ethan’s brother would haul his sorry ass home for sure.
His gaze, searing in its intensity, didn’t waver. “Why don’t I just arrest you?”
She blinked. “For what?”
“For pissing me off.”
JJ laughed. “Well now, you’d have to arrest half of Jumbuck Springs if that was a justifiable cause.” She was relieved when a ghost of a smile flitted across his mouth briefly, deepening the please-lick-me dimple in his chin.
But it was gone as quickly as it had arrived.
JJ chose her next words carefully. She’d never said a single bad word about Delia to Ethan but she was sick of how the perky blonde had been dragging Ethan’s heart around this town for just about forever and even more weary of being good old JJ who picked up the pieces.
As of this afternoon Delia was officially married to Edward Smythe and, as far as JJ was concerned, she was that poor bastard’s problem now.
Time for this shit to end.
“Ethan … don’t do this,” she said, placing her hand on his forearm. The warm muscles bunched beneath her palm, but she refused to withdraw. “She’s not worth the whisky.”
He drew a coarse breath into his lungs. “Damn it JJ, just get me the bottle,” he said, his voice full of gravel.
She met his gaze for another moment and saw the rawness, the misery in his brown eyes. Usually they made her feel as if she was drowning in a vat of golden syrup, but there was nothing sweet in Ethan’s gaze tonight.
Fine. She’d tried.
She turned to grab the requested bottle from the shelf behind her. “No. Nuh-uh. I want the good stuff. The overproof.” He pointed to the doorway behind her. “You keep it out the back.”
JJ regarded him seriously. She knew damn well where she kept the good stuff. Ethan returned her gaze unflinchingly.
“I can always go to Joe’s,” he shrugged.
Right. As if Joe gave a toss about Jumbuck’s chief of police steadily wiping himself out. At least here, she could keep him safe from every yahoo with an axe to grind. He was among friends here. She left him standing at the bar while she went out back and retrieved the requested bottle.
She passed it to him but held firm as his hand curled around it. “Corner booth, Ethan,” she said, refusing to relinquish it. She could keep an eye on him there.
He nodded and she offered him a glass with her other hand, which he ignored. She sighed as he turned away, tracking his path. His gait was dominated by the broadness of his shoulders, the length of his stride and, like his speech, an economy of movement that spoke volumes about his personality.
Sexiest damn thing she’d ever seen in her life. All loose and liquid.
And despite the blow he’d been dealt this weekend, his spine was straight, as if it was made from titanium, and his head was held high. Even the way he slid into the booth, cracked the lid on the Jack with slow deliberation and took his first swig, showed a man fully in control.
But JJ knew it was about to get messy.
And that she’d be the one picking up the pieces. Again.
An hour and a half later Ethan had worked his way through almost half of the Jack. She suspected it would all be gone now had it not been for the mysterious piece of paper he kept pulling out of his jeans pocket and brooding over for long periods before stuffing back in his pocket again.
The handful of occasions Ethan had entered The Stockman to wipe himself out over the last dozen years had taught her well—the Weston men could hold their liquor. If he stopped now, he’d be relatively sober in a few hours. If she let him get closer to the bottom, Ethan was going to know—intimately—what it felt like to have a twelve-man crew drilling for oil in his grey matter.
And if he didn’t, she was going to fill her place up with so much light at six in the morning he was going to want to dig his own eyeballs out.
She headed towards him. Time for the pity party to end.
She grabbed the bottle from the table and put the cap back on. “You’re done,” she said.
Ethan’s gaze fanned over her like liquid. “Says who?” he asked belligerently.
“Says the publican.”
He gave her a goofy smile that practically stole the breath from her lungs. “You’re cute when you’re bossy. You know that, right?”
JJ rolled her eyes. Here come the lines. She took a moment to remind herself that this was Ethan’s MO. Getting drunk and flirty. Probably the only time he forgot that Delia had him by the balls. But she had no intention of being a Delia stand-in. “As a button,” she quipped. “Now on your feet, officer.”
“You taking me to bed?” he smiled.
Hope and lust and sex swirled like Satan through her belly and JJ clenched everything tight to fight against the pull. “Yep. Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm. “Up and at ’em.”
“This-is-my-lucky-night,” he murmured, his words running together, just short of slurring.
Well, it was if he meant Delia remarrying would finally put the kibosh on his unresolved feelings for a selfish little princess who’d never loved him.
If he meant getting laid, not so much.
He stood and slung his arm around her neck, a massive tanned forearm dangling over her shoulder and JJ staggered a little from the weight of him. But it was the smell of him that had her truly reeling—whisky and the peppery-sweet aroma of his liquorice cologne—filling her up with a hundred different memories, pulling at her gut, making her want things she’d resigned herself to not getting a long time ago.
They made it across the bar without Ethan’s usual economy of movement. People greeted him with silent nods and understanding words and JJ was thankful he was inebriated enough not to recognise them for what they were—pity.
That would have really pissed him off.
But the truth was that there were very few people who’d lived in Jumbuck Springs for any length of time that weren’t aware of the continuing saga of Delia.
“Up the stairs,” she said as they pushed through the doors that led out of the barroom.
Ethan automatically swung left, saying, “I can walk by myself,” as he shook himself loose and grabbed for the bannister.
JJ didn’t argue, just followed him closely all the way to her room. The Stockman had four rooms, with an occupancy rate that was never going to keep the wolf from the door. An occasional long-haul trucker, an irregular trickle of government employees with their expense accounts, the odd backpacker looking for cheap lodgings on their way to somewhere-more-exciting.
It was hardly keeping her in diamond rings, but offering accommodation to travellers was a Stockman tradition and not one JJ was about to buck.
She inserted the key into the door that boasted a crooked number four and pushed it open, flicking on the light switch on the inside wall. Ethan shuffled past her and she watched as he headed straight for her couch, throwing himself down on it like it wasn’t the most uncomfortable piece of furniture ever to be afforded the name.
The length of it couldn’t properly accommodate his frame, so the denim-clad leg closest to the cushions stuck out over the end propped on the arm, the other hung off the edge, knee bent, foot flat against the seen-better-days carpet, spreading a lanky thigh. Her gaze followed the rigid line of that thigh, zeroing in on the slight bulge of his crotch cupped perfectly in denim, trying to ignore the pull of the blatantly male pose.
No woman would sleep like that, legs open in such a come-here-and-get-it way.
But Ethan Weston could sure as hell pull it off.
A burst of laughter from downstairs drifted up the stairwell and JJ shook herself. Ogling a sleeping man. A sleeping man who was in love with another woman.
A new low.
She crossed to the kitchenette, pouring two huge glasses of water and reaching in an overhead cupboard for two aspirin. As much as Ethan probably deserved the headache-from-hell in the morning for being such a blind fool, the part of her that had always been on Team Ethan couldn’t quite bring herself to be that cruel.
She strode over to where he lay and nudged his thigh. “Ethan,” she murmured.
He didn’t budge and her resolve to be businesslike faltered as her hungry gaze fell on the planes and angles of his face. He’d thrown an arm up above his head, his face turned toward it, his sleeve ridden up. His nose pushed against the round bulge of an exposed bicep. His lips, slack and sexy in the throes of sleep, almost touched the firm flesh.
She’d kissed that mouth a handful of times. And remembered and relived each one in vivid detail during many a long night alone in her bed. Sometimes even when she had company. But Ethan never remembered them.
No, Ethan had to be practically legless to even contemplate kissing his good old buddy JJ. She doubted he even knew she was a girl until he donned his beer goggles.
“Ethan!” she hissed and gave his leg a good hard shove.
“Wha—?” He woke with a start, half raising himself up on his elbows as he peered at her like he was trying to ascertain what language she was speaking. When he realised it was English he smiled at her and fell back against the couch.
“JJ,” he muttered. “Has anybody ever told you, you’re a goddess?”
She rolled her eyes, ignoring the drunken compliment. “Drink,” she said holding the glass in front of his face. “Two glasses. And,” she held out her hand, “two tablets.”
His eyes fluttered closed. “I’m fine,” he murmured.
JJ gave him another sharp dig with her kneecap. “Drink.”
Ethan grumbled as he hauled himself into a semi-upright position, supporting his weight on his elbow, but he took the proffered glass and drank it down, swallowing the tablets also.
“I’m good,” he said as she pushed the second glass towards him.
JJ didn’t blink as she stubbornly held the glass where it was. “How many times have I heard you lecturing the kids at the high school before they go off for schoolies week about hydrating properly after a big night on the booze? How ’bout practising what you preach?”
It was Ethan’s turn to roll his eyes. “I should have known that was going to come back to bite me on the ass,” he said as he reached for the glass and downed it in five long swallows. “Satisfied?” he griped as he pushed the empty glass against her belly.
JJ’s stomach muscles contracted at the brief contact and she suppressed the urge to say hell no, a little lower please.
“Thank you,” she said as she took it from his fingers. Ethan fell back against the couch, shutting his eyes. “I have to get back to the pub. You going to be alright here?”
His eyes fluttered open and JJ found herself falling into the dark abyss, wishing she could be the oil on his troubled waters. Their gazes locked and for a moment she fancied that some of the angst in his eyes dissipated.
He reached for her hand lying loosely by her side and she let him take it. Let him toy with her fingers for a bit, run his thumb back and forth over her ring finger, bare now of the wedding band that had only sat there for one lousy year a full decade ago.
“Why didn’t I fall for someone like you?” he asked, his gaze shifting from her hand to her face and the seriousness there trapped her breath in her lungs.
JJ shrugged with as much nonchalance as she could muster. “Not blonde enough?”
He laughed and it reached out and wrapped around her in a cloud of pheromones and possibility. She sucked in a breath, feeling momentarily disorientated, only to have Ethan compound it more by tugging on her hand, bringing her sprawling on top of him.
The softness of her chest hit the hardness of his and she let out a guttural oomph as the trapped air escaped. Their noses bumped together. Her hands landed on the arm of the couch bracketing his head, her knee jammed up close and personal to his crotch. Her crotch balanced on the hard ridge of his thigh like she was riding the slippery log at a carnival.
“Ethan,” she protested, trying to push herself up and away from the temptation of whisky and liquorice that was dazzling her senses.
But his hands clamped down on her ass causing a delicious friction, as the seam of her jeans taunted the aching flesh between her legs. She closed her eyes, fighting the urge to rub herself against him shamelessly.
“Sorry,” he muttered, not looking one iota contrite. “I just love how you make me laugh,” he said and while she was wrapping her head around the L word he lifted his, smacking his mouth onto hers.
JJ felt the pull deep and low in a flash as her senses filled with overproof alcohol and oversexed Ethan. Even three sheets to the wind, Ethan kissed like no man she had ever known. Hard and hungry and sure and, for the briefest of moments, JJ allowed herself to lean into it, to savour his taste and the feel of his mouth and the rush of desire that tingled on her tongue.
And for two ticks she wished she were the kind of woman who could just throw caution to the wind. Who could conveniently forget that Ethan was under the influence—and his heart belonged to Delia—and just kiss him back.
Rock her parted thighs against his full hard one.
Reach down for his zipper.
Finally know what it felt like to have him sliding into her, hard and hot and ready.
But she wasn’t.
And she’d survived several of his drunken come-ons in the past—she would survive this one too.
“No … stop,” she muttered, dragging her mouth off his, pushing against him, scrambling to her feet, pulling in oxygen at a frantic pace, while her lungs screamed for more.
“Hey,” he protested with another of his goofy grins. “I was enjoying that.”
JJ felt the casual remark hit her like a barb to the chest. He was enjoying himself. She was declaring herself.
The difference was striking.
“I’m sure you’ll live,” she said dryly, her pulse still skipping madly inside her ribcage. “I have to get back to the patrons.”
And she turned away instantly before her libido—getting antsier by the day during what was shaping up as the longest dry spell of her life—could talk her pride off the high ground.
Despite being determined to not look back she turned for one last look as she opened the door. He was already fast asleep.
Ethan wasn’t sure what the time was when he woke with his bladder feeling like it was about to pop, a throat as dry as the red centre and a mouth that tasted as furred and disgusting as the paper on the bottom of a birdcage. It took a moment or two to realise where he was as his eyes slowly adjusted to his surroundings.
He groaned as he sat up in the dark. It was fair to say he didn’t feel great. But he’d felt worse.
He blinked, thinking back through the haze of the day’s events. He remembered saying goodbye to Connie in the afternoon as Delia and her brand new husband had whisked her away to Paris with them on their two-week honeymoon. He remembered opening the letter that he found on his desk when he went to check on something a couple of hours later. He remembered going to the pub. He remembered the overproof.
And he didn’t remember anything after that.
He stood, staggering a little before he righted himself. He cracked his neck from side to side and stretched out his back. They both bitched at him about the stupidity of spending any length of time horizontal on JJ’s torture-chamber couch.
He picked his way in the dark to JJ’s bedroom doorway to use her ensuite. The bed was empty and he squinted at the red luminous face on her bedside clock. Eleven something the fuzzy numbers proclaimed, which probably explained why JJ wasn’t around—the pub didn’t shut until two on Friday and Saturday nights.
He used the toilet then searched through her vanity drawers for a toothbrush, finding a bulk packet within seconds. He scrubbed his teeth, and dipped his head to rinse, forming a cup with his hand close to the tap. When that was done he guzzled water, slaking his raging thirst as if the cool liquid was the elixir of life.
After he’d drunk most of Jumbuck Springs’ town water supply dry Ethan stood, finally sated. If only all his problems could be so easily fixed. He stared at his reflection in the mirror as he wiped at the water that had spilled down his chin. His whiskers rasped like sandpaper in the still of the night.
He looked like hell. Which was pretty fitting, considering Delia had just unlocked the gate to the ninth circle and was gloating all the way to Paris. God, when had he gotten so damn haggard? He looked like he hadn’t slept in a decade and he felt it. He was so damn tired. Tired of Delia and her shit. Tired of always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He turned away in disgust, striding out to the bedroom past the bed, heading back to a couch even less comfortable than the cot in the cell at the jail. It would certainly be perfectly at home in the reception area of Hell’s ninth circle. But then he pulled himself up short and spun around to face the bed.
It looked like a marshmallow cloud compared to the monstrosity awaiting him, its plain, non-fussy coverlet positively luxurious, two big fat pillows beckoning like cherubs from the heavens.
Ethan dithered for a moment, cracking his neck from side to side again until the muscles of his traps protested reminding him of the cramped conditions awaiting him outside.
JJ wouldn’t be back for hours and he’d just vacate when she got in. Finder’s keepers.
He shucked off his shoes, stripped off his socks and pulled his shirt over his head all in record time. He even undid the button at the top of his fly before stopping. Being in JJ’s bed was one thing. Being almost naked in it another thing entirely.
Best keep his jeans on.
And that was the last coherent thought he could muster as he sank into the mattress. The bed squeaked under his weight, but Ethan didn’t hear it as the mattress enveloped him in cloud-like comfort and he fell headlong into sleep.
End of Excerpt