“Pretty girls shouldn’t be police officers?” Her tone was a little snide, so I pushed off the bar and inclined my head to where Asa was still talking to Dixie.
“Asa has a long history of being on the wrong side of anyone with a badge. It isn’t her so much as what she does. He isn’t the kind of guy that likes it when a hot girl is off-limits and to him what she does for a living makes her most definitely off-limits.”
She lifted a raven-tinted eyebrow and cast a speculative look between Asa and the striking redhead that had tossed her head back and was laughing loudly as something Saint had said.
“It’s a shame he feels that way. They would make a really beautiful couple.”
Well, that made me feel less like strangling Asa for not only getting an eyeful when Salem had been bent over the bar, but for smiling at her and being so easy around her when she made me feel like I was back to being an unwanted and out-of-place little kid.
“So you just dropped everything—left your entire life—to come help Nash and Rule with the new shop because Phil wanted you here? You didn’t leave anyone or anything behind?”
There was resentment there. I could hear it in my own voice, and I couldn’t seem to help it. My mom had died in a random act of violence when I was a really little kid. I didn’t have too many memories of her. But I could recall that she was nice, pretty, and was always smiling or laughing. I remembered her being happy.
I had gone into the system when I was only six years old. I had no other family or at least no one with my blood willing to claim me, so I bounced from foster home to foster home until I landed with the Ortegas when I was ten. I knew logically my mom hadn’t left me alone in the world on purpose, that fate was a tricky thing and could be really f**king nasty when she wanted to be, but there was no denying that whenever someone I cared deeply about walked away from me it brought back all those feelings I had long since held on to of being abandoned.
Instead of answering my sarcastically asked question, she propped her hip on a bar stool and leaned a little to the side while she considered me solemnly. I always thought she had great eyes. When I was younger I thought they looked like velvet and something soft. Now, while she watched me unflinchingly, I thought they looked dark and enigmatic. I didn’t like that she came across like she knew every secret the universe had and that she was just waiting for me to catch up to her so she could whisper them in my ear.
“Why haven’t you asked me anything at all about Poppy? Not how she is? Not where she’s at? Not what she’s doing? You wouldn’t even let me say her name yesterday and I’m wondering why. I know the two of you had a pretty bad falling-out, but there is something more there. You two were attached like Siamese twins when I left Loveless. So enlighten me, Rowdy. What really happened between you and my sister?”
I couldn’t stop the way her sister’s name made me take an involuntary step back. I didn’t ask because I really didn’t want to f**king know any of that information. This was exactly why I had been avoiding Salem like a coward for the last month. I just wanted to go back to a point where I was happy pretending like the Cruz sisters were nothing but a distant memory I only dusted off when I had too much to drink or sentimentality snuck up on me and gave me a sucker punch.
I was saved from having to choke out a lame response when Ayden popped up at my side and grabbed my elbow. Her eyes were the identical shade of rich whiskey as Asa’s and they were shiny and bright with both tequila and mischief.
“Come dance with me. Jet is being difficult.”
I looked over my shoulder and saw that my friend was glaring at me in warning. Since ruffling Jet’s feathers was at the top of my favorite-things-to-do list, there was no way I was going to tell her no. I wasn’t really a country-and-western kind of guy, but I did have on cowboy boots and I was never going to complain about getting my hands on a girl that was as pretty as Ayden.
I looked back at Salem and could practically see the wheels in her head turning behind her dark gaze, but before I could say anything to her she reached for her drink and pushed off the bar.
“We’re gonna have a reckoning eventually, Rowland. You were always really quick on the field, but off of it you kind of stumble.”
She swished her way around me, her hair slinking across my bare forearm and making my guts clench. I watched her as she wound her way to where Nash and Saint were still talking to Royal and saw her embrace the auburn-haired stunner in a one-armed hug like they were long-lost friends.
I looked back at Ayden and told her before she could even start, “Don’t. Just don’t.”
I let her tug me toward the tiny dance floor and easily fell into a quick two-step with her as David Allan Coe crooned “Mama Tried” on the digital jukebox.
“Rowland?” She giggled a little and I scowled down at her.
“I haven’t been that guy in a long time.”
“Where did ‘Rowdy’ come from, then?”
I grunted but flashed a very toothy grin at Jet over the top of Ayden’s head as he raised both middle fingers up at me and mouthed every dirty word he knew. I pulled his lady closer and smiled cheekily down at her just to rile him up even more.
“I was an unruly child. I had a lot of energy that no one seemed to know what to do with. I was always in time-out, always in trouble at school, and no one really seemed to want to get a handle on it. I was put with a family when I was ten that already had a bunch of other kids, their own and other fosters. The mom—Maria—didn’t speak the greatest English and used to mutter at me in Spanish. She was trying to tell me to settle down, to act right, but I was just rowdy. My teachers, the other parents at church, some of the other kids started calling me that and it was easier for her to say, so it stuck and it fit.”
Her eyes had widened huge in her face and her mouth had sort of dropped open in a little gasp. I gave her a squeeze to let her know it was a long time ago and that it was all right now, but inadvertently my gaze once again sought out that dark head of hair and those ridiculous curves encased in a skintight skirt. At least it had been all right until she showed up.
Ayden wrinkled her nose at me and gave me a squeeze back. “Did Jet tell you about Austin?”
Her voice was quiet. I almost didn’t hear it over the clatter of the heels of our boots on the wooden floor.
“He mentioned something about it.”
“What do you think?” She sounded hesitant and I saw her gulp a little after she asked it.
“I think we’re all adults and know how planes work. Austin isn’t Antarctica, and just because you’ll be in a new zip code physically doesn’t mean you won’t be here in heart and spirit still. You guys are family no matter how many miles might be between you and us.”
I saw her nod a little and her eyes got glassy and hot.
I sighed a little and pulled her into a hug that had her squealing in surprise and her long legs kicking up behind her. I kissed her soundly on the temple and told her matter-of-factly, “That’s how you know you’re doing it right, honey.”
I put her back down and she lightly smacked me on the center of my chest with a laugh.
“Yeah, but I’m still freaked out. I’m worried about Asa. Who’s going to keep him in line and keep an eye on him when I’m gone? He’s a trouble magnet.”
“I would think it’s past time your big brother keeps himself in line and there is an army of us here to remind him what he has to lose if he slips up. Worry about you. Worry about your man. Just go and be happy and enjoy being in love and being married. It’ll be fine, Ayd, and if it’s not there isn’t anything you can do about it anyway.”
She made a noise in her throat and lifted her eyebrow at me. “So what’s the story with you and Salem? There seems to be more going on there than you originally let anyone in on.”
Over the top of her head I saw that Jet had climbed to his feet and was stalking toward us. I winked at him and was treated to another nasty look.
“It ain’t a fairy tale, if that’s what you’re hoping for.”
“She’s fun and kind of eccentric. I like her.”
“Salem’s easy to like.” She was warm. She was smart. She was caring and compassionate. She was the only person in my young life that had made me feel at peace, and when she took that away, when she had abandoned me to my own devices, that was when I really had latched on to Poppy with a ferocity that bordered on obsession. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of being taken in by Salem’s welcoming personality again. It left too big of a void when it was gone.
“So why are you acting like she kicked your puppy? It isn’t like you, and frankly I’m not a fan. She’s a great addition to the shop and you guys are lucky to have her.”
Jet had finally reached us and put his arm around Ayden’s middle. He pulled her backward to his chest and I let her go without a fight.
“You suck.” His tone was surly as he looked at me hard.
I laughed and shrugged. “Then get off your ass and dance with your wife. She comes and listens to that ear murder you call music, the least you can do is twirl her around a dance floor once in a while.”
He grunted and begrudgingly let Ayden pull him into a slow dance as I stepped away from the darkly beautiful couple. I headed to the bar for another beer and thought about what Ayden had said.
The truth of the matter was that the shop and even Rule and Nash were indeed lucky to have Salem here . . . but me—well, I kind of always had the idea that if it wasn’t for bad luck, then I would have no luck in my life at all. I lost my mom. I lost Salem. I lost my first love and that was all before I was old enough to drink legally. Bad luck was something I was intimately acquainted with.
I figured all the good fortune I had since meeting Phil and coming to Denver was fate’s way of repaying me for a childhood of being lost and loveless.
HEY, WILL YOU PLEASE call me back? This is the fourth message I’ve left you in two weeks, Poppy. I’m starting to get a little bit worried.”
I scowled at the phone and shoved it back in my purse as I jumped around a puddle the afternoon rain was leaving on the sidewalk. Denver got hot in the summer, not desert hot or Texas hot, but it was still nice and warm, so I was surprised that when the sky opened up like it seemed prone to do midafternoons, the raindrops that fell were freezing cold and the size of quarters. The weather in this state had a serious identity crisis but I guess that was okay because if you hated what was happening weatherwise it would change five minutes later.
I shivered since I was wearing cute black shorts with big silver sailor buttons and a flouncy off-the-shoulder shirt this morning, and now I was freezing as I walked to the coffee shop at the end of the block to grab something to warm me up before I headed back to the shop from my lunch break. I didn’t even want to think about what the rain had done to my hair and the heavy eye makeup I usually wore, so instead I focused on how irritated I was at my baby sister.
Poppy and I had always been very different. Where I was resigned to the fact that Loveless and my parents’ home were not places I was ever going to thrive in and find happiness, she was still there and still the apple of my stern father’s eye. I had prayed that after she went away to college and saw more to the world, she would branch out, live a little, and realize there was more to life than being a perfect daughter. Much to my annoyance she had returned home right after graduation and had fallen quickly into all her old patterns even when I pleaded with her to come and stay with me. A marriage to a man that was far too similar to my father for my liking had quickly followed and so had Poppy’s distancing herself from me. A choice I was sure wasn’t entirely her own.
Even though my parents and her husband didn’t love that Poppy still stayed in touch with me, it was her one act of defiance and we talked whenever she could get away with it. I had questions—a lot of them. I wanted answers and it was impossible to get them from Rowdy, considering he was about as welcoming as a concrete wall. There was more to their falling-out than the simple “he wanted different things than I did and it meant we couldn’t even be friends anymore” that Poppy had initially given to me when everything broke loose all those years ago. Something major must have occurred for Rowdy to be so adamant that he didn’t even want the slightest info on my sister. She was supposedly his first love and Poppy normally told me everything there was to tell, so all the subterfuge between the two of them had me extra curious.