Starving, Alexandra crept down the side stairs to the pub instead of using the main staircase that would have placed her directly behind the bar. She’d wanted to scan the room first, prepare herself in the event Conor or Jonathon was there. She didn’t think they would be, not for a morning crowd. Morning crowds were light. A cacophony of voices filled the air, and she closed her eyes, trying to think, trying to put an order of the days… Sunday-morning brunch crowd.
“Fuck!” She tried to back up, but her way was obstructed by another tower of boxes, as if they’d moved to block her path back up the stairs in a conspiracy against her. She inched behind and around, but there were more precarious stacks of packages, and when she finally stumbled less than gracefully out from behind them and into the dining room, she drew exactly the attention she hadn’t wanted to draw. Several dozen heads looked up from their meals.
She waved. “Good morning!”
A chorus of “good mornings” welcomed her, and she saw Jonathon laughing in the midst of the well-wishers. Jonathon.
Blushing, she hurriedly circled the outer perimeter of the pub, hoping he wouldn’t see her. She ducked behind the bar, bumping squarely into Conor as he returned from the kitchen. Fuck!
He seemed both taller and broader than she remembered as her palms flattened over his chest. The two did a circle step around each other. She didn’t meet his gaze. She could not, would not meet his gaze. So much safer to look at her hands…hands on his chest. Adrenaline sped through her veins as her brain jumped from the feel of his cotton shirt beneath her fingertips to what it had felt like to stroke his bare skin. She closed her eyes, remembering the expanse of his muscles uncovered. The scars she wanted to kiss. The tattoo on his right bicep, the four queens and four kings of a card deck whose noir design formed a strangely macabre armband—
Flee, flee. Oh God, too late.
Feeling the firmness of his pecs, knowing the strength of his arms—the raw, unrestrained power of his thrusts taunted her—she tried to focus on how normal he looked with his shirt on.
She opened her eyes, staring at the bright yellow of his shirt.
With clothing on, he was quite ordinary, not threatening, not even that big, really… I did not just look down
Oh God, oh God, oh God!
Her mouth dropped open, and she quickly bit her bottom lip to seal her mouth closed. She suddenly seemed unable to breathe normally, and she had to remind herself to pull in air through her nostrils. She tried desperately and failed not to see him in her mind’s eye as she’d last seen him—all his clothes dropping away, leaving him nude, sculpted, powerful
. She met his dark eyes. “Sorry, Conor, sorry, so sorry.”
“Good morning, Xandra.” He smiled, then reached slowly to turn her chin left and right. “I was glad to hear you’re all right.”
She sucked in her breath as he inspected her face for damage, and she searched his for any flaw, a single imperfection, but there was nothing to detract from its perfection—strong jaw, slight cleft in his chin, high cheekbones, and the darkest brown eyes she’d ever seen, which were surrounded by long lashes any woman would be envious of.
He ran his thumb gently over the black crescent under her eye and tsked.
The memory of him holding her pressed to a wall jolted to the forefront of her mind and sent a low ache deep in her groin. His fingers were like a brand, searing her, as she remembered his hands closing around her neck, choking off her air.
He’d claimed her mouth in a deep, demanding kiss, controlling her completely with one hand pressed under her chin, the other holding her by her hair. With pure strength and momentum, he’d shoved her against the wall and held her there. He’d explored her skin with gentle fingertips while she’d dangled in his grasp, trying then to remember how to breathe around him as well…and then he’d filled her, and she’d gone completely mindless and felt true freedom from thought for the first time in her life.
She should have been afraid. A rational, normal person would have been terrified.
I’m not normal. I’ve never been normal.
God help her, she wanted to feel herself going limp in his arms. She wanted to feel him lifting her, carrying her across the room…
Do it! Do it! Do it!
“Gabe neglected to mention just how rough a go the last week was for you, but you can obviously take a severe beating and come back swinging. I’ll remember that in the future.”
Alexandra tried to focus on what he was saying. “Future? What?”
He chuckled, winking.
She knew she’d just missed something, something important, but remembering proved impossible as she stood so close to him, near enough to feel the heat rising from his body. She would never forget how perfectly made he was, and exactly how rough he liked his sex. “You hate me.” God, why did I say that?
“I hate you a little less now than before, and if I remember, you said you disliked me as well. So, tell me about the other guy. Is his face as sorry as yours?”
She looked away, admitting in a whisper, “He’s dead, but there are more…coming for me.”
“Gabe mentioned something like, but don’t worry; you will be safe here.” He tucked her bangs behind her ear, his hand lingering a moment too long near her face. Her heart raced as she forced herself not to rub her face against his hand, and it was the hardest thing she’d done all week. “No one will ever get close enough to hurt you again.”
She wondered just how much Gabe had told him. Did Gabe tell you I killed a man?
“Perhaps we’ll share war stories someday?” he suggested, pulling her chin toward him to make her meet his gaze. The look on his face was fierce. Had he read her mind? She wondered if he’d killed before.
“War stories?” She chuckled, but it was pained. “I’m glad to be back in Cincy.”
Will I tell you I’m responsible for the eleven dead? That if only I’d made different choices…their faces wouldn’t be haunting me now?
“Definitely.” He leaned down to kiss her on each cheek in greeting and whispered in her ear after the second kiss, “This doesn’t have to be awkward. We’re all family here.”
“Awkward.” She exhaled, trying to remember to breathe, the closeness of his scent arousing. She shrugged, forcing a wide smile. “No, no, I agree; we’re adults. Family.”
Conor smiled back, and it was a brilliant smile.
She’d never noticed how ruggedly handsome he was before the ménage a quatre
His brogue was thicker when he suddenly said, “Let me see the ring, woman.”
She held up her left hand. Awkward. Definitely awkward. Chin up, shoulders back, smile!
“You’re going to be a beautiful bride.”
“Oh, bride,” she said breathily, blushing, shaking her head. “Hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”
Conor kissed her hand, holding her gaze when she would have looked away. “I sincerely hope I’m the first to offer you congratulations. You’ve always belonged to Gabe. The two of you were just too daft to admit it.”
“Thanks,” Alexandra said softly, her eyes tearing up when she found herself being spun around.
“You! You’re here!” Jonathon took her hands in his and met her gaze. His dazzling blue eyes were just as mesmerizing as she remembered. He was smiling broadly and bubbling with the energy that was him. “Look at that hair. I’d heard you chopped it all off, but God, look at you now. Stunning, absolutely stunning. Who knew you could be even more beautiful?”
This isn’t awkward, not awkward at all.
She battled back her tears as he spun her full circle, looking at her hair. He rubbed his hand up the shaved parts at the base of her head. “Very chic, edgy.”
She licked her lips, remembering just how hot and bothered he’d had her by the time he’d finally peeled off his shirt. He was much smaller, both shorter and thinner than either Conor or Gabe, but damn, she could stare at the chiseled, smooth lines of his body all night. She hadn’t been able to keep her hands off his chest…nor her mouth, or teeth, or tongue. She’d wanted to consume him, every inch of him. She’d bitten him, marked him, again and again, knowing she was biting deep enough to bruise. She wondered if he still wore her bruises. She wondered what he thought about when he saw them. Jesus! Stop thinking!
“I love it. How is it possible you are even more fucking beautiful? Gabe is a blessed man. Magnificence and fiery passion in one hypnotizing package.” He kissed her left and right cheek and then lifted her left hand to inspect the ring. He sighed. “Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. It seems your hand was formed solely for the purpose of wearing this antique ring. You know it was Gabe’s mother’s, right? And her mother’s before?”
Alexandra frowned, knowing it was his mother’s but lacking any history prior to her.
Gabe stepped out of the kitchen, and she turned to face him, smiling. “There she is, my Sleeping Beauty.”
She was glad when he opened his arms, and she walked into his embrace, thankful he couldn’t read her mind or know she’d been remembering details of the ménage a quatre. Alexandra felt the heat of a rosy blush go up her face. Perfect.
The room erupted in applause and rowdy cheers as he kissed her, deeply and passionately. Obviously the proposal and acceptance thereof had been announced.
Gabe handed her a pint and lifted his own, proclaiming, “A round for the house, to toast my future bride, Alexandra MacKenna.”
Apparently he had prearranged the toast, because servers filed into the room, bearing trays laden with pints. Alexandra wondered why he’d only used her first and middle names, whispering her curiosity to him during the deluge of toasts and cheers.
“I’m not sure how much danger you’re actually in, and until I figure that out, the fewer people who know your name, the safer I can keep you.”
Jonathon and Conor stood too close to her and lifted pints as well.
Once everyone was standing, pints in hand, Conor declared loudly, “A toast to the future bride and groom!”
The four of them, herself, Gabe, Conor, and Jonathon, clinked glassware. “Sláinte.
Alexandra nervously met each of the men’s gazes as she toasted, wondering if they were remembering as well. Wouldn’t it be impossible for them not to be remembering? She couldn’t understand why she had an insane desire to talk to Jonathon and Conor about the ménage a quatre, but knew she’d never rest easy until they did talk. God, what would I ask them? And what do I possibly have to say to either of them?
She chugged her pint while the men sipped theirs and chatted, as if nothing unusual had occurred, which angered her, perhaps an unreasonable reaction, but damn.
Her mind was spinning, her heart pounding, and her pussy dripping, and they seemed completely unaffected. How are you talking to one another like it’s just another day?
She hadn’t noticed Conor had taken her glass and refilled it until he was handing her the full pint. She met his gaze, and he winked. She took the pint, realizing belatedly Gabe had asked her a question. “Hmmm?”
“Join me at a table, or would you rather sit at the bar?” Gabe repeated.
“The bar is great. Slightly separated from the mob, but close enough to ride their energy.”
“That’s my girl.” He set a basket with a selection of brown rolls, soda breads, and sweet pastries between them. “Hope you don’t care if we sit for a bit while the main crowd goes through the line.”
Conor and Jonathon had both walked away, and she was alone with Gabe once more, which didn’t actually slow the pounding of her heart at all. She glanced toward the buffet and saw diners easily twenty deep. She nervously reached for a piece of the soda bread. “I really don’t mind.” I’ve got this. I’m calm, cool, collected.
I’m marrying Gabe, for fuck’s sake.
She looked at the ring, still resting on her finger. It’s not a dream.
Gabe pulled a stool around from the end of the bar to sit across from her. Only when she took the stool on the opposite side across from him did she realize a moment too late she was seated exactly where the trouble had begun—just like this, sharing a pint and some food with Gabe. The moment had escalated to shots of the finest whiskey he’d had on hand, and then…the ménage a quatre and sex tape. She’d never been with any man other than TJ, her now ex, and then suddenly, three men shared her. She looked away from Gabe, trying to regain the composure she wasn’t sure how she’d lost.
“Has it been uncomfortable for you this morning?” Gabe asked, drawing her focus back.
“U-uncomfortable?” she stuttered, taking a bite of soda bread and then quickly returning the piece to her plate to hide the fact her hand was shaking.
“You know what I’m asking. Is it too awkward being here with Conor and Jonathon?”
“No, not at all,” she lied with breathy nervousness, folding and unfolding the cloth napkin in her lap. Not unless by “uncomfortable,” you mean being in the same room with all three of you at once again makes me want to rip off my clothes.
“It just seems hard to believe it was only a week ago I was here”—she looked down where she was sitting, then glanced back to him—“and you were there.”
“And then suddenly the four of us?”
She nodded. “It seems like more time has passed, is all.”
“And it’s not troubling your mind? Because it felt slightly off, just now, the four of us toasting. We are all pretending nothing happened, but something did happen.”
She licked her lips. “Yes. That’s quite the understatement, isn’t it?”
Gabe chuckled and lifted his pint. “We’re all family. It’s going to be fine.”
, yes.” She swallowed, blushing, answering an octave higher, and although she tried to laugh and shrug it off, her nervousness was the elephant in the room. “You know my mind. It’s been an intense week. Montana was—”
Gabe reached across the bar top and squeezed her hand. “Relax.”
“I’m not sure how. I am overwhelmed with all I need to do now that I’ve returned.”
“What is there to possibly do on a Sunday morning?”
“Typically, I’d be at the lab working. I do have daily tasks to attend. So I will probably head there after breakfast and then maybe to my house to pick up a few things on my way to the parents.”
He changed the subject. “A week ago this morning, you were snuggled asleep in my bed. I should have never left for mass.”
“You had a lot to atone for, if I remember correctly. Probably best you did. I hope you prayed enough for both our souls.”
“Perhaps we could go to mass together today?” he said.
“Oh.” She looked down at the bar top, wiped a ring of water away with her hand, and then fumbled with her napkin, trying to separate the silverware from the linen. She shook her head. “No…that doesn’t seem a good idea at all.”
Gabe covered her hand with his, stilling it. “When was the last time you were in the church?”
“My wedding day. I haven’t been since.”
He searched her face, and she quickly looked away, only to have her gaze land on Conor, who stood behind the bar, where he was mixing Bloody Marys and mimosas, making him
suddenly too close.
She focused on the large mirror behind the bar and for a moment tracked Jonathon’s reflection as he walked around the room, doing what he did best, mixing social conversation with keeping the customers happy to secure their loyalty, before she realized what she was doing. And she was smiling. Jesus Christ.
Reaching across the bar to push her bangs from her face, Gabe drew her attention back. “If I’d stayed in bed, you wouldn’t have left. You wouldn’t still be black and blue from your adventures in Montana, and you wouldn’t have been shot.”
“Or I might have gone home, and the man who ransacked my house might have done far worse damage to my face and body, trying to get information from me,” she countered, meeting his gaze once more.
“True, so very true. Everything happens for a reason, and now you’re my fiancée.”