Man Candy: A Real Love Novel, page 2
“I know it’s not ideal,” he tells me. “We should be able to open up the road in the next day, maybe two.”
I dip my chin in a nod. It’ll have to do. I’m not willing to start my six-hour-plus drive back to Ohio now, nor am I going to look for another cabin rental this late at night. Getting this one was a bitch considering the recent Gatlinburg forest fires. I was lucky to find an opening.
He asks if he can get me anything else before he clocks off for the night. I say no, and he tells me Dominic can get me anything else I need. I’m assuming Dominic is the besotted Italian-looking guy mesmerized by Becca.
He likes her. Probably hasn’t dated her yet, because that look in his eyes is more pining than reminiscent.
She’s either cruel or doesn’t recognize his suffering, because next she squeezes his biceps and walks away. I watch the way he inspects his arm after she goes, pulling his shoulders back like his day has just been made.
He’s young. Probably closer to her age than I am. I’m thirty-three; she can’t be older than midtwenties.
I glance up from my phone again to watch her. At first blush, she’s what you might call “cute.” Tall, her chin-length light-blond hair cut at choppy angles. But if you watch her for longer than five seconds the cuteness morphs into more.
Becca moves with grace, like a dancer or an athlete. She’s lithe, not skinny, and it only takes one glance down those long legs to notice the muscles in her calves, even beneath her jeans.
She’s a beauty.
Though the “cute” assessment reemerges the moment she opens her mouth. From the small amount of conversing I’ve overheard, I know she has a sharp wit and a sharper tongue. She’s funny.
And in the face of being fired by her weak-chinned boss, she hasn’t abandoned the premises yet. Which also means she has balls.
Figuratively speaking, I like a woman with balls.
I don’t like them meek. I don’t like when they play dumb. And thanks to my last relationship, I really don’t like when they treat me like I’m a big, oafish former jock who doesn’t understand how relationships work.
I understand, all right.
It’s an understanding that keeps me from wanting to enter another one. They’re good and fine for a great many people, but I’m not one of them.
The only relationships I’m interested in are the ones I have with my bartenders and other staff and maybe, on occasion, if the mood is right, the one I have with a woman on a temporary, no-strings basis.
A flash of blond catches my eye. I turn my head to find Becca, glossed lips hitched, approaching me with a confident, easy walk.
I straighten, ignoring the text that just buzzed my phone.
Looks like the mood could be right for a little no-strings fun tonight.
The high-heeled sandals on Becca’s feet give her a few added inches of height, making her legs a mile long. She doesn’t quite strut, but she doesn’t hesitate either.
Boss Man doesn’t seem to care that she’s lingering, since he’s on his way out the door, his scowl a permanent fixture.
She’s a few feet from my seat, so I straighten up, pull back my shoulders, and lock my gaze with hers. It’s dark in here, so I can’t tell if her eyes are hazel or golden-brown. I’ll know soon enough.
She comes to a scuffling stop in front of me, her smile somewhere between shy and confident. Interesting mix.
“Hi yourself,” I rumble after a brief pause.
She grins and I feel a smile pulling my lips. It’s not like random gorgeous women approach me on the regular. I can’t remember the last time any woman approached me. I’ve been in my head a lot lately—stomping around frowning isn’t the most open body language for attracting the opposite sex.
Becca doesn’t twirl her hair or inspect her shoes. She simply pulls out the seat next to me and sits down.
“I saw you and Tad swap keys.”
My eyebrows lift.
Her mouth drops open before a laugh echoes from her throat. When she covers her lips with her fingers, she looks adorably chagrined.
“I didn’t mean that to sound strangely sexual.” Another laugh. “I’m assuming the cabin you booked isn’t available?”
I fish the red key fob out of my pocket and show her the proof that I’ve been relocated. “I’m now in thirteen. Tell me there’s no weird lore I should know about.”
“Besides the guy in a hockey mask who murders teenagers and throws them in the lake? None at all.”
I let loose a smile of my own. “I’m safe, then. I haven’t been a teenager for a while.”
She taps her lips with one finger, and I admire the full plushness of them and try to remember the last time I kissed someone because I wanted to. It’s been way longer than I like to admit.
“So you were in cabin . . .”
“I’m trying to remember the name on the reservation.” She narrows her eyes—hazel, I notice before they disappear under mascaraed lashes. “Dex?”
“Dax,” I correct. “You were close.”
“Dang! I really was. I thought you were ‘Dex,’ short for ‘Dexter.’”
“It’s ‘Dax,’ short for nothing,” I reply. “Is ‘Becca’ short for ‘Rebecca’?”
“It’s ‘Becca,’ short for nothing.”
We smile at each other, the air sizzling between us with a special brand of fire: want. I’d use the two-ships-in-a-storm metaphor but that’d be lame. Instead I point out the obvious.
“Your boss is a prick.”
This earns me a loud “Ha!” followed by “He’s been like that since he was five years old. I’m his younger sister, so I would know.”
“I take it back. He’s not a prick. He’s an asshole. I’ve fired people before and my form is much better. Who fires his younger sister?”
“What if I deserved it?” She leans on an elbow, and despite her shirt having an enticing V-neck, I keep my head up.
“Did you?” I ask.
Her confident expression falters, her eyes glancing away before landing on me again. Damn. Does she think she deserved that little respect? An odd urge flows through me—the urge to protect her, if not avenge her. Again, not the norm where I’m concerned.
“Maybe,” she finally answers.
I glue my gaze to hers. “Even if you deserved it, he should respect you more than to bark at you in front of a bar full of patrons.”
“That sounds like a line.”
“Don’t do lines, babe.” I drink my beer and shrug. I don’t have time for bullshit these days. Maybe that’s me getting older, or maybe it’s that losing my dad has narrowed the list of what’s important to a lean top five.
“Cabin thirteen doesn’t have any creepy lore, but it’s nothing like cabin seven.” She crosses her legs and wiggles her foot. I wait for her to continue. “Cabin seven is remote and woodsy. Nestled in a sea of pines next to a clearing of wildflowers, with a view of the mountains.”
Exactly what I wanted. Exactly why I came here. Peace, quiet, and pine trees.
“Cabin thirteen,” she says, her face pinching, “is a short drive from this building. Its features include a sprawling downstairs area, two bedrooms and two bathrooms on opposite sides of the cabin, a balcony with hot tub, an elliptical machine, and an arcade room off the back.”
I don’t need a mirror to know I’m frowning.
“The balcony overlooks the parking lot for the casino at the bottom of the mountain,” Becca continues like a commercial from Grand Lark, “and is convenient to both the Grand Lark office and bar and cabins ten and eleven, which are multifamily and perfect for reunions or weddings.”
She finishes with a grin. She enjoys teasing me.
“How’s that sound?” she asks.
“And he’s funny.” She presses a finger onto my forearm. The least sexual touch ever, and yet my skin is warm even after she pulls away.
Outside the rain falls harder and faster, splattering the windows and likely flooding another road to another cabin. Becca’s shoulders shudder as she watches out the window.
“Don’t like storms?”
“I love them,” she corrects, all of her brightening. “You never know what’s going to happen. When they’ll end. How strong they’ll be. It’s exciting, the not knowing.” Her eyes go to the windows again. “Hope your Jeep top is on tight.”
“Fancy yourself a stalker, don’t you?”
“Hey, I didn’t get your name right.” She takes my joke in stride. I like her. That’s a big statement to make, since I met her about five minutes ago, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
“You don’t sound like you’re from Tennessee,” I tell Becca. Her accent is neutral, at least it is to my midwestern ears.
“I’m from Tennessee. But I’ve lived in a few different states. Must’ve become muddled.”
She’s just opened her mouth to answer when the other guy who works here looms over us, closer to Becca than to me.
“Hey, Dom,” she says with a smile he doesn’t return.
“Are you cashing out?” he asks me.
Becca’s eyes widen in amusement before sweeping to me.
“No,” I answer.
Dominic works his jaw, clearly displeased that Becca and I are talking.
“Becca needs a drink,” I tell him.
“Aren’t you on the clock?” he asks her.
“She’s fired,” I say to Becca’s pleased-as-punch smile.
“Officially done for the day,” she tells Dominic. “Rosé, please.”
Dominic arrows a sharp glare at me before he pours her a glass of pink wine and delivers it without looking in my direction again.
The last of the bar guests fritter off over the next hour or so. Becca and I stay where we are, talking about favorite drinks and movies and what kind of music we listen to.
Me: anything. Her: mostly dance music.
It suits her.
Over the course of our neutral conversation, she orders a basket of popcorn, which we bottom out. Her glass of wine is still half full and I have an inch or two of beer left in my glass. The storm’s worsening outside. We both know it but neither of us wants to break stride. Neither of us wants to leave.
Dominic returns, offering a refill on the popcorn.
“I’m good,” I tell him.
He snaps his attention to Becca. “You okay?”
By the look on his face, I’m guessing he’s hoping she answers, “No, I’m not having any fun at all. Will you marry me?”
Instead she says, “Doing great, thanks,” to his visible disappointment. He shoots a few more daggers at me before busying himself cleaning the bar.
“He doesn’t like you very much,” Becca points out, pressing her lips into a flat line of apology.
I can’t help chuckling, and it’s been so long—months? years?—since I’ve done something as jovial as chuckling, the sound startles me. This vacation thing has its merits.
“It’s because he likes you, Princess.” I’ve been watching him out of the corner of my eye since Becca sat down. Dominic is as territorial as a rabid dog.
“‘Babe’? ‘Princess’? Don’t you know this is the era of feminism? I could have you arrested.”
She leans close, right into my personal space, and the pull in my gut is like a cable strapped to my balls.
I lean an inch closer. The air between us heats. Lowering my voice, I give her a gravelly “I’m not exposed.”
“You could be.” She plucks the fabric of my T-shirt and raises an eyebrow. “If you took this off.”
My gut tightens. I know that feeling, but it’s been eons since I’ve felt it.
It’s been simmering on the back burner this entire time, but she cranked the heat to high.
She breaks the cord strung between us, sitting back in her chair and crossing one long leg over the other. The scrape of the denim of her jeans is enough to send me on an imaginary adventure involving those legs wrapped around my waist.
Becca raises her wineglass and sips, and I ease back into my chair, not wanting her to know where my head’s at. Not yet.
“Dax what?” she asks, as if no time has passed since her guessing my first name and right now.
“Vaughn. Becca what?” I ask in kind.
“What did you do before you were fired from Grand Lark, Becca Stone?”
“Oh, you know. This and that.” Another sip of her wine. Her confidence flags. I wonder if something bad happened between the this and the that.
“Where did you do this and that?”
“New York for a while. Virginia. Ohio. Michigan.”
Coy as she’s been, I’m surprised she answered me.
“What do you do, Dax Vaughn?”
“Where’s your bar?”
Her eyes spark with interest. “I lived in Columbus for six months.”
Her grin gets bigger. “No shit.”
We’re teetering. I know it—she knows it. The question is, who is going to topple first? I’m not sad to say it might be me, but I’m going to wait this one out a bit.
I settle into my barstool like I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. “So where in Columbus—”
I cut my words off when the bar goes black. For the count of a breath, the electricity snaps off. Then on. Then off.
Off is where it stays.
I turn on my phone screen, and in that faint bit of light, I can make out Becca’s wide eyes on me at the same time I feel the warmth of her palm, striking like flint, on my arm.
Dominic announces that he’s going to power up the generator. He doesn’t ask Becca if she’s okay again, but I sense that he’d like to. Her eyes don’t leave mine. I can feel them on me even when my phone light winks out.
“Scared, Becca Stone?” My voice is barely above a whisper, but it sounds loud without the humming backdrop of electrically powered appliances.
“No.” She squeezes my arm. “Are you scared?”
“No. I love the dark.”
“Me too,” she says. Breathlessly.
A beat passes and her hand runs the length of my arm, tucks under my shirtsleeve, and grips high on my biceps. I flex for her. Another beat passes where nothing but our truncated breaths saturate the air. And then we’re bathed in light.
“It’s back on,” she says needlessly. She’s still touching me, her cheeks pink with heat. Our bodies lean in and we just keep leaning.
“Dax?” she whispers, her voice the slightest bit unsteady.
She responds by coming my way. Slowly. Until her lips touch mine in the barest, faintest brush. Every inch of me ignites, as if Dominic plugged my body into that generator. My eyes close and I lose the softness of her lips. Her hand strokes down my arm and she takes my fingers in hers and squeezes.
“Sorry about that,” she mumbles.
I open my eyes. “Don’t be.”
“I didn’t plan on doing that. I was going with my instincts.”
“Do you . . .” She licks her lips and her eyes flit to the door and then back to me. “Do you want to—”
“Check,” I bark at Dominic the moment he steps behind the bar again. I don’t break eye contact with Becca. Her resilient smile returns as Dominic reluctantly prints my bill and slaps it on the bar. I don’t pay him any attention as I pull cash from my wallet and throw it down.
“I should ask you if you’re sure. I was
“You don’t know me.” We both stand.
“I know you’re a bar owner from Ohio. I know your first and last name.” She’s taller than I would’ve thought. She’s far from dwarfed by me.
“I know you’re Becca Stone and your brother has questionable manners. I know you’re determined and ballsy and, babe, you are wearing that pair of jeans.”
Challenge sparkles in her eyes. “I know your body feels like smooth steel and your mouth tastes like beer and clean, cool mint.”
I duck my head, so close to kissing her again it’s not even funny. “But do you know the way to cabin thirteen?”
She purses her lips and whispers, “By heart.”
Dax unlocks the door to cabin 13 and gestures for me to go ahead of him. Thanks to the covered porch, we’re at least out of the elements, but even during the short jog from our cars to the porch, we were soaked in an instant.
I know this cabin, so I reach to my left and flip the light switches. After a few impotent clicks it’s clear that the power’s out.
Anticipation wriggles in my tummy. Outside of Grand Lark, bag in hand, I hesitated ever so briefly at the door. Not because I was having doubts about Dax but because I wanted to give my body one more chance to take back that ping of premonition.
I counted to five, and then Dax pulled up to the overhang and rolled down his window. “Say the word, Becca. I can go in and grab the map. Find it myself.”
In other words, did I want to continue this date or let it go? At the thought of letting it go—of going back to my brother’s house to sleep in the same room with my niece—the ping returned with a vengeance.
I couldn’t pass up the chance to explore what Dax and I started, so I lead the way in my car.
Dax leans out the front door and retrieves a dripping-wet duffel bag, a large cooler, and another sizable bag.
“Wow. Is that everything?” I tease, sweeping my phone’s flashlight beam toward the mountain of supplies.
“Camping gear and fishing rods are in the Jeep,” he answers drily. “Won’t be using that until the rain lets up.”
I like his truncated speech about as much as I like everything else about him. Especially the way he’s looking at me right now. I sweep the light from his luggage to inspect him. His hair is plastered to his head, water dripping off the hard planes of his handsome face, T-shirt molded to his pecs, abs, and shoulders as if he dove into a lake rather than dashed in from a thunderstorm.
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