Man of the mountain, p.11

MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN, page 11

 

MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN
 


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  Eden suggested, "Look, fellas, if we could just—"

  Jared waved a hand at her for silence. "You'll what, Lew?"

  Lew threw back his big shoulders and stuck out his already imposing chest. "I'll be forced to adjust your attitude for you."

  "Jared, let it go, I—"

  Jared didn't even acknowledge that Eden had spoken. He asked Lew, "Oh? And how will you do that, exactly?"

  "You want me to show you?"

  "Showing's better than telling any day of the week."

  Lew grinned, displaying an alarming expanse of big white teeth. "All right, barkeep. You asked for it."

  "No. Stop this, I mean it…" Eden insisted. Neither of the men listened. Lew drew back his huge fist and sent it rocketing toward Jared's jaw.

  Unfortunately for Lew, Jared didn't wait around for the blow to connect. Instead, moving so fast that what he actually did seemed invisible, he managed simultaneously to block the punch and kick Lew's legs out from under him.

  Eden heard her own voice demanding once more, "No, Jared, don't!" as the big man went down.

  Jared gave her his frozen gunmetal glare. "Go inside," he instructed in that hissing whisper of his. "Now."

  "No, I will not. I want this to stop, and I—"

  "Damn it, Eden…"

  Jared's curse trailed off as he glanced down at his opponent. Lew had pulled himself to his knees. He was rubbing his scraped hands together and shaking his head.

  "Go, Eden. I mean it," Jared said.

  But Eden remained firm. "Forget it. I'm not moving."

  "What the hell?" Lew seemed unable to fathom how he'd ended up on the ground. He looked up at Jared and asked, "What are you, crazy?"

  Jared said, "Around here we don't like it when a man forces himself on a woman."

  "You kicked me," Lew complained.

  "Jared—" Eden began, but got no farther.

  "Damn straight I kicked you," Jared said to Lew. "Your manners suck." He shot Eden a grim look. "And since the lady won't go inside like I told her to, I want you to apologize to her. Now."

  "Huh?"

  "I said, say you're sorry. Now."

  Lew looked from Eden to Jared and back again. He let out a kind of low, bellowing noise. It seemed he had decided that he was the one who had been wronged. Then he snarled at Jared, "Why you…" and he sprang upward, straight for Jared, aiming his head at Jared's midsection. Jared feinted back and kicked sideways, nicking the side of Lew's head with his boot. Lew grunted, but didn't go down this time. He reassessed his target and charged at Jared like a bull at a red cape. Jared moved aside.

  Lew didn't notice that his target had shifted. He ended up ramming his head into the front grill of Owen Beardsly's Ford Explorer.

  That stopped him for a moment.

  But only for a moment. He shook his head to clear it, turned and charged again, snorting like the bull he resembled.

  Eden watched, hopping from one foot to the other, trying to decide which one of them she should grab to stop this insanity.

  Just then, the woman inside the rest room pushed the door open. She took one look at Jared, crouched and waiting, and Lew barreling toward him headfirst, and let out a piercing scream, pulling the door closed on herself again.

  Eden tried once more to inject a plea for reason. "Jared! Stop it. I mean it, stop this right now!"

  The only answer Eden got was a sickening thud and an agonized "Oof!" as Jared jumped back and kicked Lew a good one right in the breadbasket. Lew crumpled, holding his stomach. Jared stepped in, hit him on top of the head and then kicked him in the chin with a knee.

  The woman hiding in the ladies' room peeked out and screamed again as Lew fell over backward and Jared jumped on top of him. There was a tangle of legs and arms and fists and a lot of awful grunting and groaning.

  And then, somehow, Brendan and Patrick and Sam were there, pulling Jared off the other man. And then Lew's friends were there, too, hauling Lew to his feet. A small group of spectators had appeared out of nowhere as well.

  Jared cursed his brothers and demanded they let him go. But the Jones boys held on.

  Then Sam said to the strangers, "Get him out. And don't let him come back. Understand?"

  The other two were not nearly as aggressive as their friend. They nodded and dragged Lew away.

  Lew struggled and protested, but Eden thought it was more for pride's sake than anything else. He was staggering, his nose was bleeding and his lip was cut, whereas the worst thing about Jared's face was the scowl on it—and the last fading remnant of the black eye Eden had inflicted on him over two weeks before.

  After Lew and his buddies had disappeared around the side of the building, the woman in the bathroom slid out and made a quick getaway of her own.

  Then Sam asked, "Is it going to be safe to let go of you now, Jared?"

  Jared made a low, growling sound.

  Patrick and Brendan and Sam exchanged looks. Brendan suggested, "You just tell us when."

  For a few moments they all stood there, Eden glaring at Jared, while Brendan, Sam and Patrick held him still. The small crowd that had gathered muttered quietly to each other. And then Jared grunted.

  "All right. Let me go."

  Slowly, warily, the other three released him. They stood back from him.

  "Goon inside, folks," Sam said to the spectators. "The show's over."

  The onlookers began filing back into the bar. Meanwhile, Jared brushed the dust from his sleeves, tucked in his shirt and rubbed his chin, which, Eden saw now, had been cut. It was bleeding. She took a handkerchief from her purse and stepped up to him.

  He gave her his narrow-eyed scowl.

  "Oh, for heaven's sake. Take this and wipe it up," she said. She was thoroughly disgusted with him—and very glad that he hadn't been badly hurt.

  He took the handkerchief from her hand and blotted his chin with it, while she glared at him and he glowered back. "What the hell's going on out there?" Oggie called from inside.

  "We'd better go on in," Sam said, "Or he'll be wheeling himself out here, even if he has to batter down the walls in the hallway to do it."

  Brendan and Patrick made sounds of agreement. Jared and Eden, each glaring at the other, paid no mind to Sam's advice. "Don't be long," Sam warned, as he led the other men back in. "You've still got a full house in there."

  "We'll be right in," Eden promised, though she kept her eyes locked with Jared's.

  When the door had closed behind the brothers, Eden opened her mouth to tell Jared Jones exactly what she thought of his behavior. But then she realized that if she once started telling him off, she might never be able to stop.

  She glanced at her watch: a few minutes shy of one. Just a little over an hour to go and they could close the doors on the most successful night they'd seen since Eden became half owner of The Hole in the Wall.

  Okay, so she hadn't managed to prevent a fight. But it could have been worse. Much worse. If they went right inside now and picked up where they'd left off, everything would work out just fine from a business point of view, anyway.

  She could give Jared Jones the dressing-down he deserved after hours.

  Jared, who was watching her expression, chose that moment to let out a rare chuckle. "Are those dollar signs I see shining in your eyes?"

  She stuck out her chin at him. "Don't push me, Jared. You're just lucky I'm a businesswoman first."

  He was smiling. She didn't like it. He never smiled. He held out her handkerchief, which was now stained a vivid crimson in more than one spot. "I think I ruined it."

  She didn't care about that. She took the cloth from him without looking at it. "You could have been hurt."

  "I'll be hurting all right. Tomorrow. I'm too old to be getting in fights."

  She wanted to demand, Then why did you? But she held her tongue. She'd demand a lot of things. Later.

  She went and pulled back the door. "We've got work to do."

  Docile as a lamb, he preceded her insi
de.

  * * *

  He didn't stay docile for long. Within a half an hour, he was scowling again and glaring at anybody who got too pushy about wanting a drink.

  Part of his ill humor was probably caused by the unpleasant incident that occurred shortly after he and Eden went back inside.

  They'd gone straight to work, filling drink orders and trying to get back on top of things. In her rush, Eden still managed to spare a glance for the back table. The three women who'd been sitting with Lew and his friends were gone.

  Eden had barely had time to notice their absence, when one of them, the petite brunette who'd been after Lew all night, was back.

  She came storming through the front door like a mini-hurricane, stomped right up to the bar and pointed a red-nailed finger at Jared.

  "You." She poked the finger at the bar. "Right here. Now."

  Hesitantly Jared approached.

  The little brunette jabbed the bar once more.

  Jared moved into place.

  The brunette stuck her pert nose right into his scowling face. "You are an animal," she told him. "And you leave Lew alone from now on, or you will answer to me. Understood?"

  Jared went on scowling.

  "Understood?"

  Grimly he nodded.

  "Good," the brunette announced. And then she whirled on her pointy-toed high heels and got out of there.

  Over at his table, Oggie let out a loud guffaw. "And they try to tell us that men run the world!" Then he added, "A round on the house!"

  After that, Jared's mood grew progressively darker. To Eden, it seemed as if there had been pressure building in him all night. The fight with Lew had worked like a safety valve, releasing enough steam that Jared had actually relaxed for a minute or two out there in the parking lot, when he'd teased her about the dollar signs in her eyes. But the reprieve had been short. The brunette came in and gave him a hard time and the pressure started building all over again. By the time Sam finally wheeled Oggie out the door and everyone else went home, Jared was spoiling for a fight all over again.

  By then, the only one left to fight with was Eden. And that was just fine with her. She was fed up with him anyway. And now that the big night was over, she had every intention of telling him so.

  At first, in the silence after everyone was gone, they ignored each other. Eden cleared all the tables and wiped them down, while Jared cleaned the bar and washed the glassware. Then Eden took the register drawer into the card room and counted what they'd earned that night. It was a stunning amount. She should have been thrilled.

  But she was so preoccupied with what she was going to say to Jared that she couldn't even appreciate what a triumph the night had been. She blamed Jared for that, too, for stealing her pleasure in their success.

  She set up the drawer for the next day and went back to the main room to return the drawer to the register where it belonged. Jared, she noticed, was already mopping up by then. She pointedly didn't speak to him, but instead took the rest of the money next door to the deserted Mercantile building, where she locked it in the safe that was hidden behind a false cabinet there.

  She came back to find him sitting at the counter with a drink in front of him.

  He must have taken note of the way her eyes widened when she saw the tall glass, and realized she was thinking that the night had driven him to drink. He toasted her with the sweating glass and then took a long swallow.

  After that, he admitted, "Relax, it's only tonic water," before polishing off the rest. Then he stood up. "About time to call it a night, wouldn't you say?"

  To Eden, his words amounted to an outright taunt. "No," she said, pushing the single syllable out through her clenched teeth. "I wouldn't say that at all."

  The flap was up at the end of the bar. He went through there and tossed his ice cubes into the steel sink. They clattered loudly. "Well, then. What would you say?" He set the glass in the sink to be washed tomorrow.

  She hardly knew where to begin. But she managed. "You were way out of line, out there in the parking lot tonight." Idly, as if he were wandering aimlessly rather than moving with absolute purpose, he came back around to her side of the bar. "Oh, was I?"

  "Yes. You were."

  He flipped over the stool he'd been sitting on and placed it on the bar with the rest of the stools. "That's not how I saw it."

  Eden reminded herself to stay calm. She wanted to explain to him very reasonably just what an overbearing oaf he'd been. She took in a long breath. "I have worked very hard, Jared, to make this bar the kind of place where everyone can come and have a good time without worrying that they'll get their heads bashed in. Anyone who starts a fight here is sabotaging all the progress that's been made. I believe that you understand that."

  He looked away, then looked back at her. Then he said, very patiently, "I didn't start that fight. And you know it."

  "Right. Because he threw the first punch, you're not to blame."

  "That's about the size of it. And anyway, nothing happened in your precious bar. We took it outside, so it didn't hurt your business one damn bit."

  "It was totally unnecessary."

  "Wrong."

  She gaped at him. "What do you mean, wrong?"

  "I mean it was necessary. Both you and I bent over backward giving that bastard a chance to get lost. But he wouldn't take a hint. He needed a lesson in how to behave."

  Eden couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You have all the reasoning abilities of a Neanderthal, Jared Jones."

  "Call me names if you want. But that's one fool who won't be bothering you again."

  "You aren't listening. I said it was completely uncalled-for. Picking a fight with that guy was like … putting out a trash fire with a nuclear warhead."

  He folded his arms over his chest. "It was necessary."

  "It was not. I did not need your help. I had everything under control. All it required was for me to stall him until someone came out."

  "Someone did come out. Me."

  This was not going as Eden had planned at all. The man actually refused to admit that he was the one in the wrong. She put her hands on her hips and moved closer to him. "I was doing fine handling that guy, admit it."

  He just looked at her, his eyes like flint, his thin lip slightly curled.

  She took another step, until she stood nose to nose with him. "It's my job to deal with people. I've been doing it since I was sixteen years old. And I've been handling creeps in bars since I was old enough to serve alcoholic beverages. I was in no danger from that jerk, and you know it. You're just jealous, that's all…"

  The minute she said the word, jealous, Eden wished she could bite her tongue. It was a taunt, pure and simple. And taunting was beneath her, since she considered herself to be the righteous one here.

  But what was done could not be undone. Jared dropped his crossed arms to his sides.

  Eden backed up a step. "Um, Jared, I—"

  Now he was the one moving in. He closed the distance she'd created. His eyes had changed, gone from flint to curling smoke. "Jealous, am I?"

  "Never mind. Really. I shouldn't have said that." She backed up again and started to turn away.

  But something had happened to Jared. Something had finally snapped.

  "But you did say it." He reached out and wrapped his hand around the back of her neck. Her skin tingled. His touch was electric.

  "I—"

  "And why the hell shouldn't you say it? It's only the damn truth."

  She licked her lips. It was so hard to think, when his hand was there, warm and rough, cupping the back of her neck. "Jared, I…"

  He pulled her toward him, so there was no more than a hairbreadth between their bodies. Then he lowered his mouth until it almost touched hers.

  "You can bet those sweet, long legs of yours that I'm jealous." His rough whisper slid along her nerves like a physical caress. "As jealous as they come. And that's why it was necessary, what I did to that fool. Because I don't want anyon
e to touch you. Not anyone but me."

  Eden gave a small, sharp gasp. Though what she'd just heard was only what she'd been waiting, longing to hear, it still stunned her to have him actually say the words at last.

  She stared into his eyes like a woman mesmerized. How long had she waited for him to admit that he wanted her? It seemed like forever.

  At last, the waiting was over. He had confessed his desire. And in the space of an instant, the whole world had changed. The fight with Lew, the threat to her business, none of that mattered.

  What mattered—all that mattered—was that, at last, he was going to kiss her again. She knew it with every fiber of her being. He'd confessed his desire. And the kiss would come next.

  She longed for that kiss.

  And yet she feared it, too. Now that it was really here, the exact moment when…

  With a low groan, Jared put his mouth on hers.

  Eden stood stock-still at the shock. And the wonder. And then she sighed.

  He pulled her toward him, into his hard, muscled length. He murmured something against her lips, some sort of denial, a low, harsh, "This is wrong…

  "Don't stop," she begged, and wrapped her arms around his neck.

  He groaned again, a hushed, hungry sort of sound. His tongue traced her lips.

  She opened, sighing once more. And then his tongue was inside her mouth, roving, until it found hers and twined with it, in a secret, sparring dance as old as time. Eden gloried in it. This kiss was something she'd waited for her whole life.

  His hands moved down her back, stroking, learning every curve as his mouth kissed her with a hunger and a need that stole her breath and left her gasping, overwhelmed, wanting more.

  Before, on that aeons-ago morning, when he kissed her at the door of the cabin, he had been careful with her. His hands had been mannerly.

  But his hands were not mannerly now.

  I want more. More. Her blood seemed to beat the word through her veins. She groaned, as he cupped her buttocks and pulled her up even tighter against him, so she felt him, and knew exactly what he wanted of her. He muttered her name, chanting it, into her mouth, as he went on kissing her and pressing her against him.

 
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