Authors: Nicole Williams
book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance
to actual events of persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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TRYING TO IGNORE her was like trying
to ignore a bull charging me. Especially when that was her fifth fake laugh in
fifteen minutes. How did I know that laugh, along with the smile and the whole
damn act she’s trying so hard to put on, is fake?
I’ve known Josie Gibson since before I figured out girls
like her were disastrous to guys like me. Girls who could give a boy one look
and make him feel it all the way into his boots were ones for me to avoid at
all costs. Girls who could give a boy a look and make him feel equal parts
irritation and infatuation were ones I didn’t only need to avoid but have
permanently erased from my mind.
Girls like Josie Gibson spelled one thing for me: doom. The
only thing I was more sure of was that I spelled even more doom for her. Doom
was too soft a word, actually.
I would infect Josie like a virus, spreading until I’d done
so much damage it went way past the point of repair. That was more like it. I
was a virus to Josie Gibson. A toxic one.
I tried to ignore that for too many years. After the past
couple years, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Josie and I should stay on opposite
corners of the planet. Unfortunately for her, we lived in the same state. In
the same region. So we’d just have to figure out how to live in opposite
corners of Missoula County.
Sitting across the bar from one another wasn’t exactly
staying in opposite corners.
I’d had too many drinks, and she’d thrown too many glances
my way, for me to stay quiet any longer. “You might want to step it up a few
hundred notches, Mason, because you’re exciting Josie about as much as cow shit
on the bottom of my boots.”
When Josie’s eyes flickered to mine, they narrowed into a
glare. “Control yourself, Black.”
“I might if I could, but since I can’t, it’s kind of a moot
point.” Lifting my once-again full shot glass, I downed it in one easy drink. I
could hold my liquor—kind of a side effect of drinking like a fish since age
thirteen—but when whiskey tasted like water, I knew I probably had enough
alcohol sloshing through my bloodstream to kill me.
The Jack had started tasting like water three shots ago.
When Colt Mason finally noticed who was propped into the bar
stool across from them, he bristled. “Come on. Let’s just go, Josie.”
Hell, I would have bristled too if I’d seen me sitting
across from myself. I had something of a reputation for getting into bar
fights, and the only reason Brandy still let me in her joint was because I was
her best customer. Plus I gave her a little after-hours action when she was
feeling lonely and I was feeling drunk.
“No.” Josie shook her head emphatically. When it came to me,
she did everything emphatically. It was my curse. “If I left every time Garth
Black started running his mouth, I’d never have a chance to get comfortable. He
If I’d had a dozen shots less, the look on her face would
have made me squirm. “No can do, sweetheart. You see those bottles?” I waved my
finger in the general bar area. “They’re still full, and I’m not leaving until
a good bunch are empty.”
“Your liver must be jumping for joy right now,” she snapped
before grabbing Colt’s shot. She downed it in one drink, but to Josie’s
light-weight credit, her whole face puckered up.
“Come on. We’re leaving.” Colt nudged Josie and slid out of
She shook her head and lifted her finger at Brandy. Like the
bar-tending elite she was, Brandy had another shot in front of Josie in under
ten seconds. Josie downed it, her face grimacing less that time. I didn’t miss
the lingering look Colt gave her chest while she was mid-whiskey wince.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
I might have felt my anger flaring when he’d run his eyes
all over her, but when his hands moved to her, that anger exploded. I was out
of my seat and moving toward them before Colt noticed me coming. Josie knew
enough to expect my next move. The rule was simple: whatever normal, sane
people did, I went with the opposite.
Anyone else would ignore the couple across from them and let
them get on with their Friday night. Me, on the other hand? I was less than a
foot away and ready to break the guy’s jaw if he didn’t stop tugging on her
arm. Anger management candidates had nothing on me. “I don’t normally give
warnings, Mason, but you’re with my friend whose judgment in people, up until
recently, I’ve never doubted. So I’m going to give you the benefit and issue
one.” I tried to ignore the look of horror on Josie’s face. “Take your hands
off of Josie, or you’re going to be slurping your steak through a straw from
That horrified look on Josie’s face? Just went up a few
notches instead of down.
“Get lost, Black. Josie isn’t your daughter, your sister, or
your girlfriend, so you have no place to order me about what I can and can’t
He was right. And he was wrong. I wasn’t a blood relation,
and I sure as shit wasn’t her boyfriend. The man applying for that position was
the one who couldn’t look me in the eyes. Since her dad wasn’t there to see
Colt Mason all but manhandling her out of her stool and her only brother was on
the opposite side of the country, I was temporarily filling both positions.
Moving in front of him, I butted my chest into his. “Josie’s
been my friend since before you and your Hollywood family moved out to Montana
and insulted us all with your flashy trucks and poser-itis. That gives me the
right to put you in your place when I see you put a
Josie whipped in front of me, butting her chest into mine.
If I hadn’t been so shocked, I would have been turned on. “Leave me alone and
go ruin someone else’s life.”
“Spoken like a woman who doesn’t want a man like you putting
anyone in their place for her.” Lifting his eyebrows, Colt steered Josie and
himself away from me.
They made it a few steps before I slid in front of them
again. I wasn’t letting them leave with Colt’s hand still wrapped around
Josie’s forearm and with her a few drinks in and wearing that dress Colt had
been eyeballing all night. I knew what had happened the last time Josie got
drunk when a snake was around, and I wouldn’t let it happen again when I could
“Fuck off, Black.” Colt’s ever-cool facade was finally
crumbling. I was getting under his skin, and when a normal person would have
backed off, I kept going.
“You want to hit me?” I said, lifting my arms. I almost
wavered in place—probably because I was swimming in whiskey. When Colt shook
his head, I cut him off. “Of course you do. You’ve wanted to hit me since the
first day of high school when all the girls were more interested in me than you
and all your money.”
“I don’t want to hit you.” Colt had managed to collect his
cool again, although Josie was picking up where he’d left off. If she could
level me with one punch, I didn’t have any doubt that I’d already be horizontal
and blacked out.
“You might not
to—which I don’t believe for one
goddamned second—but before we part ways tonight, you’re
From over Colt’s shoulder, I noticed Brandy mouth
We weren’t going to make it another step if he didn’t take his
hands off of Josie, let alone outside.
For the second time that night, Josie got in my face.
Instead of a punch, she almost leveled me with her expression. “Why don’t you
stop pretending to be the hero and own what you really are? The villain. Go
villainize someone else’s life. You couldn’t possibly do anymore to mine.”
Josie Gibson had just gotten under my skin. I should back
up, raise my hands, and surrender, but I couldn’t. Something about having her
under my skin, even though it wasn’t the way I might have liked, was a drug for
me. One I couldn’t say no to. “How about this? I’ll stop pretending to be the
hero when you stop pretending you’re actually interested in this eunuch in a
“Ever heard the phrase ‘it takes one to know one,’ Black?”
Josie crossed her arms and managed to narrow her eyes farther.
“I have, but I don’t see how it applies. You ought to know,
with our history and all, how much of a eunuch I’m not. I might be wrong, but
I’m pretty sure a eunuch couldn’t make a girl come the way I made you a while
back.” That was when the slap came. I was braced for it—it didn’t surprise
me—but it stung just the same.
“Go to hell.”
“I’ve been standing in it for twenty-one years, Josie.”
Colt moved to her side, and when he grabbed her forearm, he
gave it a good tug. “Come on. We’re out.”
“Ouch,” she snapped, trying to pull her arm from his grip.
“Ease up a bit, Hulk.”
What I did next I didn’t think about. It was all instinct.
When Colt Mason tugged on Josie’s arm, my fist driving into his jaw was my
reflex. It wasn’t enough to land him on his ass, but that had less to do with
Colt’s ability to take a hit like a man and more to do with the amount of
whiskey in my bloodstream. Josie’s hands covered her mouth as she gaped at me
like I was a monster. That was exactly what I was, but at least Colt’s hands
were off of her.
“What the hell, Black?” Colt spat, rubbing his jaw.
I lifted my finger in his face and fought the urge to deck
him again. “That was because you put your hands on Josie.”
“I’ve put my hands on her plenty of times before and never
got clocked across the face.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Before I knew it, my other
fist was driving into the other side of his jaw. That was my reflex to Colt
Mason insinuating his hands had been on Josie in
way. The way that
made me almost as furious as imagining them on her in a harsh way. “There!
That’s for all the times you put your hands on her before.”
Colt gave his head a swift shake and moved Josie aside as he
moved closer to me. “I’m going to—”
That time, my punch was planned. I knew what I was doing
before my knuckles crushed into Colt’s jaw. “And that was because you irritate
the shit out of me.” Spitting on Colt’s pristine boots, I shoved his chest. “Go
back to California and leave Montana to the real men. Pansy-ass poser.”
Judging from the look on Colt’s face, I couldn’t have paid
him a greater insult. I moved Josie aside—who was in front of him fretting over
him like he was dying—right before Colt charged me. It was about time I got a
reaction out of him.
Colt’s first punch landed square on my nose—a true cheap
shot—and gauging from the crack, my nose had broken for the third time. Colt’s
next punch sank into my stomach, and when I curled, he drove his knee into my
jaw. I went down. I didn’t try to move or lift my hands to shield my face when
Colt’s fists came at me one right after the other. I didn’t fight back. I
didn’t protect myself. Not because I incapable of doing it, but because taking
a good beating every now and again did me good. Some people prayed, some did a
cleansing, some took a vacation. I did a solid beating. It reminded me I wasn’t
invincible and somehow that reminder made me stronger.
Josie tried to pull Colt off of me when I felt my left eye
swell shut, and by the time my right was following suit, Colt’s punches had
slowed. I could tell they were still a long way from being done though. The
unexpected bonus of getting the shit beat out of me was that somewhere along
the way, my whole face had gone numb. The hits didn’t sting anymore.
“What the hell are you doing, Colt?” Josie grabbed one of
his arms and tugged on it. “What the hell are you doing, Garth?”
Josie had seen me in plenty of fights, but that was the
first one she’d seen where I hadn’t come out the winner. She hadn’t seen when
my dad used to lay me out with one strong backhand to the cheek starting when I
was four. She hadn’t seen his backhands turn into fists as I’d gotten older.
She hadn’t seen the guy I’d picked a fight with the night after she and I slept
together. That was the first fight she’d seen where I just laid there and took
it. I liked keeping those fights private, and Josie having a front seat to my
twisted form of therapy was something I couldn’t decide how I felt about.
“Stop it, Colt! You’re going to kill him!” Josie kept trying
to drag Colt off of me, but he had her by a good seventy pounds and seven times
that in the rage factor.
I was close to blacking out when I heard the unmistakable
sound of a shotgun being racked. Colt’s fists stopped instantly.
“You better get off that boy now unless you want to see how
we Montana folk use a shotgun,” Brandy ordered, inching the barrel toward
Colt’s face. “And it isn’t to decorate our walls like some kind of fancy
trophy. Around here, we shoot coyotes, wolves, and assholes. And it’s been a
while since I’ve got to shoot an asshole. I’m going through withdrawals.”
Colt lifted his hands and slowly lifted himself off of me.
It was a smart move; I wasn’t afraid of most anything, but Brandy Hansen
holding a loaded shotgun in my face was one of them. And yes, it had happened
to me once before.