Man Candy: A Real Love Novel, page 14
Dax, chewing, raises his eyebrows and remains quiet.
“What my husband means to say,” Lara interjects, “is that he hasn’t been able to work any less than sixty hours a week since he opened Grand Lark and would love to take a family vacation.”
“Dax, would you like more lasagna?” my mom offers.
“No, thanks, Mrs. Stone. I’ve nearly eaten what could’ve been your leftovers as it is.” He winks at her and I swear to you she blushes. Then he loses that boyish chagrin and speaks directly to my brother.
“It’s within your ability to take a vacation. Ownership doesn’t require your living there.”
Tad’s eye tics and his smile is anything but polite. “You don’t run thirteen rental cabins. You run two bars. There’s a difference.”
“A big one,” Dax agrees. “But you don’t have to sacrifice all your time if you don’t want to.” As Tad turns an interesting shade of red, Dax continues explaining. “The trick to being able to walk away is actually walking away. Trust the people in your employ to do the job while you’re gone. Trust that they know what they’re doing. That they can handle the tasks you assign them. After all, it was you who trained them. If you don’t trust them to do the job you hired them for, why did you bother?”
Lara and I exchange glances as Tad and Dax regard each other like gladiators in a ring. Well, Tad looks like a gladiator. Dax is as laid-back as a sleepy lion on a sunny African plain. He doesn’t appear the least bit riled.
“Who wants dessert?” my mom interrupts.
“I’ll help with the ice cream,” Lara says, pulling Tasha out of her chair and into her arms.
“Me too!” Kiera shouts, following them out of the dining room.
My dad goes next, swiping our plates out from under our noses and vanishing as well.
“Dax makes a good point,” I tell my brother, folding my arms on the tablecloth. Next to me, Dax doesn’t move a muscle. He’s still leaning back in his chair, regarding Tad.
“Listen, Bec—” he starts, but Dax interrupts.
“Why’d you hire her?”
Tad’s eyebrows slam down. “Excuse me?”
“You’re excused. Now answer my question. Why’d you hire her if you don’t let her do anything. Do you not trust her?”
“You don’t know her like I do,” Tad says.
“Excuse me,” I mutter. “I’m right here.”
“I know she can cook like a five-star restaurant’s chef,” Dax says.
“You know that because you scammed her out of a recipe you didn’t pay for.”
Dax sits up, his energy harnessed, but the words that follow are low and humming with warning. “Careful, Tad. She’s too smart to get scammed.”
“He offered to pay for them. I was the one who said no,” I interject. Dax and Tad both glare at me like I spoke out of turn.
“Them?” Tad asks. “You gave him more than one recipe? Are you crazy?”
“Once more,” Dax says, his tone lethal. “Watch the way you speak to her.”
“What are you going to do? Beat me up?” Tad asks, waving his hands in front of his face.
“No. But I will take her hand and walk her out of here. Maybe offer her a better job where she won’t be treated like shit on a daily basis.”
“Yeah!” I agree, then snap my head around to Dax. “Wait. What?”
“A place,” Dax tells Tad, ignoring me, “where she’s appreciated. Where she can experiment with all the recipes she wants. Where she can run the place as she sees fit without the boss over her shoulder rerouting calls to his phone because he can’t let go of the smallest of details.”
“Is that a fact?” Tad asks, standing from the table.
“Your call.” Dax stands too and I feel my jaw drop.
“She’s not going to move to Ohio to be with a guy she just met.” Tad sneers at me. “You’re not that stupid.”
“Hey!” I stand up as Dax’s arm strikes like a snake. He grabs a handful of Tad’s shirt and tugs. “Dax!”
“Happy birrrr . . . ” My mom’s singing trails off as she steps into the dining room, where she finds an interesting still life. Dax’s fist is wrapped in Tad’s shirt, Tad’s hands wrapped around Dax’s fist. I have a hand on each Dax’s and Tad’s arms in a futile effort to disconnect them.
“Let go,” Tad says.
“Tell Becca you’re sorry for calling her stupid.” Dax says, unfazed by the arrival of half my family.
“Tad!” That’s Mom, holding Dad’s blazing birthday cake.
“Tad, seriously.” Lara gestures with the ice cream scooper in her hand.
“Really?” Tad swipes away Dax’s hands and mine and throws his arms in the air. “You’re all siding with him? This is bull . . . bull,” he concludes when my nieces appear on either side of Lara’s legs.
“Did you forget whose big day it is?” My dad asks. He holds up the festive paper plates and napkins I picked up when I bought the cake. “We’re celebrating, not fighting.” He levels a glare at Tad and then at me. “Now, what do you say to each other?”
Tad and I exchange glances and at the same time mumble, “Sorry,” to each other. My dad has never stood for us arguing or bickering, and he’s not about to start.
My dad walks into the room and slaps down the plates and napkins. “Dax? Tad?”
Dax frowns in misunderstanding.
“Do you also have something to say to each other?”
Dax looks at me like my family has lost their minds. I’m not sure what to say, because I think they might have.
“No,” Dax answers. “I don’t.”
“Neither do I,” Tad snaps.
Ha! Oh, this is too rich.
Before another standoff can occur, I burst into song, a rendition of “Happy Birthday” that might be my best ever.
Everyone joins in, except for Dax.
Then it’s cake and ice cream and awkwardness for everyone except my nieces. They’re too plied by sugar and youthfulness to be aware of how damn hard it is to be an adult.
In the passenger seat, Becca rests her head back and eyes me. She’s turning something over, but I don’t know what it is yet. I’m not great at reading her mind—or her expression.
“For a while,” I start, because I’m not sure if she’s going to do a nosedive into this conversation, “I thought maybe you didn’t feel valued because your parents ran you down. After tonight I know it’s not them. It’s Tad.”
“He’s his own creation,” she grumbles.
“But they don’t take up for you either.”
She sits up in the seat and turns to address. We’re on our way up the mountain. Soon she’ll be able to leap out of my Jeep and run away from this conversation if she chooses.
“I don’t need taking up for. And what’s with you trying to strangle Tad?” she asks, her voice escalating.
“I bet you’ve wanted to do that for years. You never had the support.”
“It wasn’t your place, Dax.” Her voice is hard. Unyielding.
In silence, we complete the climb up the mountain road. The rain has almost stopped, and the wipers on the windshield swipe intermittently. I reach cabin 13’s driveway and kill the engine. We sit in silence as raindrops fall from the trees, randomly tapping the roof.
I unhook my seatbelt and wait for Becca to say more.
Guess it’s on me to let it go or keep going.
“I know you’re not used to having a man in your corner, Princess, but that man is me.” For now, anyway. “You brought me to your family’s home and—”
“And you disrespected them!”
Her mouth is frozen open while she tries to come up with the reasoning behind her BS statement.
“Because. Because you were . . . you were manhandling my brother.”
“He insulted you.”
“He always insults me!”
I touch her arm a
Her shoulders slump. Not because she’s backing down. She understands why I did what I did. Not to show off. Not to usurp control at her father’s birthday dinner. In the days I’ve known her I’ve witnessed Tad undermining and overlooking her. And it pisses me off.
“You’re too valuable to be disrespected.”
She sighs before she asks the last question I expect her to. “What was all that about you offering me a position at one of your bars?”
Yeah, I didn’t really think that part through, but I was on a roll. Although honestly, what is there to overthink? If she wants a place to work out from under her brother’s thumb, I can provide that for her without issue.
“It was what it was, babe. An offer for you to work at one of my bars.”
“You’d just . . . hire me?”
“And I’d . . . move to Ohio?”
“You say that like you haven’t moved in and out of several states several times. Like you can’t leave. Like you’re tied down. You’re none of those things.”
Her eyes go to the side in thought. “But I’d be working for you. It’s a commitment. What if I changed my mind in three months? In three weeks? What if I wanted to leave?”
Her comment stings more than I expect.
“I’m not sure a move to Ohio is the right move to make. I’m near my family now. It’d be hard to leave my nieces. I like reading them bedtime stories and hanging out with Lara. I like Grand Lark,” she continues justifying. “I like Tennessee—the mountains, the scenery. The vacation spot you picked to take a break is where I’m privileged to work every day. It’s a lot to give up, Dax.”
“A simple ‘No, thank you’ would’ve sufficed.” Gritting my teeth, I let my stare soften out the windshield and realize my mistake. I was going for ten more yards, not realizing Becca had already quit playing the game.
Our one-night stand may have shifted into a week, going on two, but for her the rules never changed. I wasn’t trying to change the rules. I was going with my gut.
I like Becca. I like her a whole hell of a lot. I like hanging out with her, and I like having sex with her. I’ve scratched the surface of who she is and what she desires, and I’d like to keep digging.
She doesn’t want me to.
“You want me to stop coming for you, gorgeous?” I’m done doing this in my head. Fun as it is to argue with myself and not come up with any answers, it’s time to behave like a grown-up.
“What’s that mean?” she asks quietly.
“I’m persistent. Pursuing you. I can shut that down if you like. I check out next week. I can lob this ball into your court and see you when you want to be seen. In other words, I can stop coming for you.”
“See me when I want to be seen?” Her eyes flash like I’ve hit a hot button and, hell, I probably have.
“I know you don’t like absolutes. That you avoid firm ‘yeses’ and ‘nos.’ That you prefer to show up when you want to and make decisions minus the committee.” I point to myself, because lately I’ve been telling her my vote.
“I’m giving you the chance to do that.” I put my hand on her leg to let her know I’m serious. “No strings. It’s how we started at the beginning, when I brought on the rain. You want to go back to that, babe, just say the word.”
1. What words? “Fuck you”? I might say those words.
2. An out! Take it, take it, take it!
3. Is that dart of pain . . . fear? Loss? Do I miss him already, even though we’re sitting side by side?
I’m not sure which response to grab onto. Especially since they’re blowing around inside my head like lottery balls.
The truth of the matter is, I was both flattered and frustrated when he stood up for me with Tad. On the one hand, it was embarrassing—which I’m not accustomed to feeling. He put me in a situation I couldn’t control.
Plus, I don’t like the way Dax accurately pegged my family dynamics. When you can’t hide behind your own facade, where can you go?
Not to Ohio. That’s for damn sure.
I’ve never had an offer as tempting as it was terrifying.
I blew a lot of smoke just now and Dax called my bluff. If I don’t want any part of his offer, then he’ll retract it, no questions asked.
Now he’s looking at me with a patient expression, waiting for me to make the call. Me and no one else.
“Sounds great,” I force out. I also force a smile, hoping he buys that I’m as nonchalant as I hope I look. “I don’t want to invade your personal space, but I don’t want to avoid you either. If you’re okay with us continuing what we have until you leave, I’m game.”
If I was hoping to elicit an argument from him, I failed. He gives me a nod that feels really, really final.
“Sounds good to me, Princess. If you’re staying tonight, might want to hustle inside before this rain picks up again.”
“Yeah. Good call.” Still smiling, I climb out of the Jeep and meet Dax on the porch. He unlocks the door and opens it for me. A second later the sky opens again.
“So . . . ,’ I say once we’re inside. “Now what do we do?”
“Whatever you want.”
But the vibe in the room isn’t the usual sexual tension. There’s something else lingering—something forced. Like both of us got what neither of us wanted.
“Maybe I should head back to Tad’s house and try to smooth things over,” I say, testing the idea of leaving.
Dax doesn’t comment.
“I can’t help feeling I should reassure Lara that I’m not angry. She’s married to my brother—but she’s also my friend.”
More silence from Grand Lark’s sexiest guest. Dax moves to the fridge, opens a beer, and he takes a few long guzzles.
“Do you have an opinion?” I ask.
“Yeah.” He rests the beer on the counter between us.
“Do you want to share it?” We might be on the brink of an argument, which would be better than . . . whatever this is.
“Not my place. You drew a boundary line in the Jeep. I respect it.”
It’s not fair, but he’s not wrong. I did draw a line. He told me to speak up if I wanted to resume our one-night-stand status. I did, and now here we are. I can’t expect to entwine him in my family drama or my personal life if I’m walking away in a few days.
“Well. If it’s all the same to you, I think I will head back to the house, just so they know everything’s fine. I don’t want there to be any ill will or anything. . . .” I trail off.
“Makes sense.” Dax takes another slug of his beer.
“Do I . . . leave my things here? I’m planning on coming back.”
That word loosens some of the tension in my chest. I round the counter and kiss him goodbye—a brief peck, but walking out still feels like the wrong call.
Behind me the TV comes on. I hesitate at the door, turning to find Dax standing at the couch, beer in hand, eyes on me.
Without a word, I softly shut the front door.
He puts down the remote and the beer.
I cross the room and I’m in his arms before my next breath.
“Change your mind?” he murmurs, his arms tightening around me.
“I’m delaying my decision to leave.”
“It’s your decision to make.”
The power is in my hands. The power of a choice that’s heavier than I’d like, but in this case, I’ll take it. It’s safer than discussing where to go next.
“Whatcha watchin’?” I ask with a grin, forcing the mood to lighten by about two tons. “Do I get to choose?”
“Sorry, Princess. You get the say-so in everything but the TV. That’s my domain.”
I give in with an “I can live with that.”
Then we go to the couch and settle in.
Well, after I get myself a beer.
The coffeepot sputters the end of the brew cycle and I hold my breath to listen. From the bedroom comes a sound between a snore and a purr. I let Becca sleep in. I woke up about fifteen minutes ago, slid out of bed, and fired up the coffeepot. Somehow she didn’t stir when I climbed out of bed, and she still doesn’t now, when the scent of freshly brewed joe saturates the air.
Understandable. It was a long night.
We watched back-to-back movies on HBO. Becca fell asleep on the couch after I made it through both, conking out halfway through the second. I guess Hitman wasn’t her bag.
She didn’t go back to Tad and Lara’s house, and I didn’t put that option in front of her again. I don’t think she wanted to leave. I didn’t want her to leave. Even with our new rules, I want her here.
My phone vibrates on the counter. This early, it can only be one person. I check the screen. Yep. Just as I thought.
I slip out the front door, mug in hand, and answer with a hushed “Hey, Mom.”
“My, but don’t you sound spent. Rough night?”
“You know better than ask me that. You won’t want the answer.” I walk to a wooden rocker and lower myself into it. The sun is out, drying up yesterday’s rain.
“It’s the girl, isn’t it?” my mom asks. “I told you after she got to know you, she wouldn’t be able to resist you.”
“Yes, you did,” I agree, though Becca’s resisting me just fine. “This’ll wrap up this week.”
A squirrel skitters down the post closest to me and jerks, surprised to see me there. He leaps off the railing and dashes through the pine needles before climbing a tall fir.
Reminds me of Becca’s reaction last night. Except she turned and came back in. I pinch the bridge of my nose, tired. I don’t know what to make of any of it.
“Why do you say that?” Mom asks.
“Oh, you know. We had a discussion. The ‘will it last past next week’ discussion,” I reiterate. “She decided now was enough for her.”
My mother lets out a grunt in my defense.
“Don’t worry.” I drink the rest of my lukewarm coffee. Gonna need a few more of these today to keep my eyes open. Especially if I want to hike like I planned yesterday. Rain or shine, I’m going.
“I tell you not to worry about me all the time, and do you listen?”
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