Authors: Mimi Strong
Aubrey is on the run from her past, pretending her little sister is her daughter. Sawyer senses that his life would be better with Aubrey in it, and tries to convince her in his own way.
Full-length novel of 77,000 words.
New Adult Contemporary Romance: Due to sexual content, this book is not intended for readers under the age of 18.
WARNING: Contains violence, graphic sex, drug use, and criminal activity.
Bell is growing like a sunflower. I bought her some new shoes, a size and a half larger than the last pair, but she insists on wearing the old ones with her toes sticking out of the holes. She told me to return the new ones and put the money into our Disneyland fund, but what she doesn't know is there is no fund.
I made up the Disneyland thing so she wouldn't know the real reason we don't order pizza delivery like other people do.
Before we found our current place, we spent a month couch-surfing, and two nights sleeping in the car when there was nowhere else to go. The second morning was really cold, and Bell drew faces in the fog on the glass.
I looked up your brother, and he helped us find an apartment that's too good to be real. Bell has her own bedroom, and it's called Princess Land.
The funny thing is, your brother didn't believe I was real. He'd never even heard my name before the day I knocked on his door.
I hope you're still alive.
The guy with the messed-up tattoos kept staring at the gold ring on my finger, like he knew it was a lie. Every time I came by to check on him at his corner table, he'd look up at me expectantly.
, his beautiful moss-green eyes said.
“Another beer?” I rested the round tray against my hip like a professional. I'd barely been inside a bar before, and now I was waiting tables like an expert.
“Why are you so familiar?” He set down his pen, closed his sketch book, and shook out his right hand. The sinews of his forearm flexed beneath his strange tattoo. It was a seascape, with an octopus and other creatures. The black lines were clean and straight, but the blue and green made no sense, crossing over the lines randomly.
Was the new tattoo a cover-up of something else, and not yet finished? There was a more logical answer, though, and it was on the edge of my mind.
“Cat got your tongue? Who are you?” he asked.
Without taking my eyes off the blue-smudged octopus, I muttered, “I'm nobody. I'm new here.”
“But you look like someone I know. Why is that?”
I swallowed hard and jerked my eyes to meet his. Dark, wavy hair framed a handsome face with high cheekbones. And those eyes. They were like the bottom of the sea, like my worst nightmares and darkest dreams.
He continued, “Maybe if you smiled for once, I could figure out who you remind me of. Do you ever smile? Are you a happy girl with a sad face, or are you sad through and through?”
“Why are your tattoos so messed up?”
He rolled his one sleeve up over his bicep, revealing a pair of seahorses, scribbled over in orange and pink.
“The male seahorse gives birth to the young,” he said.
“Everybody knows that.”
He chuckled. “Every hot girl I meet is a marine biologist.”
As he pushed his dark hair away from his eyes, the inside of one arm flashed its secret—a name, scrawled in marker: Toby.
“I get it,” I said. “You fell asleep, and some little kid colored in your tattoos with markers.”
“You're half right. I wasn't asleep.”
“Is the kid your son?”
He laughed, loud, then pretended to wipe a tear from his eye. “C'mon, do I look like I have a kid?” He stretched his arms out for us both to admire. “The colors are from my nephew.”
“Toby,” I said. He seemed confused, so I pointed to the signature, accidentally touching him with my fingertip. “He signed his masterpiece.”
The stranger smiled, revealing perfect, straight teeth. Good breeding. Or money. I wondered what his parents thought about the tattoos. They probably had an opinion.
I twisted my lie of a ring and tried not to think about how hot his skin had felt, and how stupid and giggly his eyes made me feel.
“I'm Sawyer Jones,” he said, offering me his hand to shake. He had a scar above his knuckles that stretched up to his thumb. I'd seen scars like that on guys who fought a lot—they got the scar from hitting someone in the mouth and having the guy's teeth slice the skin right open.
His palm waited before me. I didn't want to touch him, but the other servers had been lecturing me about being friendlier. I couldn't understand why running back and forth with the right drinks and change wasn't enough for people.
“Aubrey with a b, like auburn.”
“Like your hair.”
“My hair's just brown.”
“And how old are you, Aubrey with a b?”
“Too young to be married.” He had a mischievous grin as he looked pointedly at my left hand.
I shrugged. “Them's the breaks. Another beer?”
He leaned forward, like he was about to get out of his chair, but didn't. “You going to be here a while?”
I glanced at the imaginary watch that wasn't on my wrist. “Few more hours.”
We were interrupted by some people yelling a few tables over. They were two guys from up north, down in the Lower Mainland for a court case, for “bullshit charges,” as one of them had told me. Every other word was profanity, and getting louder.
Sawyer got up and slipped past me, heading in a straight line for their table. What the hell was wrong with him? You don't mess with guys who have nothing to lose. Those two were the human equivalent of a piece of shit car that you let go ahead of you on the road.
I was scared for the guy, but then the strangest thing happened. As he got closer to their table, the two guys seemed to get smaller, shrinking into their chairs. Sawyer was tall, but not enormous, so it had to be his swagger alone that made him seem so intimidating.
He was speaking low and quiet, so I couldn't make out what he was saying, but the two guys had wide eyes and kept nodding. He offered them his hand—the same hot hand I'd just held—and they each shook it respectfully.
Dumbfounded, I just stood there, my jaw dropped.
Sawyer came back to his table, a hint of a sexy smirk on his face. He looked eager for me to ask him what he'd said, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction, even though I was dying to know.
His face switched from sexy smirk to smug grin. “Just call me the Redneck Whisperer.”
“That sounds like a fine idea. One more, and I don't want to get out of control, so I promise I'll nurse it so I can keep you company the rest of your shift.” He looked pointedly at the two guys in their court-date finery, ties unfastened and shirts unbuttoned. They were both red-faced, but no longer belligerent. “I'll keep an eye on Rednecks One and Two over there for you.”
He winked at me. “Yes, really.”
I turned around to go pour the beer, a lightness in my face. Possibly the beginning of a genuine smile. It was kind of sweet to have someone looking out for me.
The beer was only half-poured when the two rednecks got up and crossed over to the pool table. One of them could barely walk in a straight line, which meant it was time to cut him off, but the taller, skinny one glared at me with malevolence in his eyes.
Great. My trouble was just beginning.
Unfortunately for me, it was still early in the day. I was the only floor server on shift, so they were definitely my problem for the next hour.
I looked over at my uncle with pleading eyes, but he was busy sweating and grunting over a leaking line under the counter.
“Hey, Uncle Bruce?”
He didn't look up from where he was crouched. “Just call me Bruce. That other word makes me feel old. Makes my knees hurt.”
“Which drink did you say was the best one for servers?”
He put the wrench down and turned to look up at me. Unlike my mother and me, he didn't have blue eyes, but got the same amber-brown eyes as my Grandpa Jack. Bruce had the same dark, wavy hair and narrow nose that I inherited. My little sister Bell got lucky with blond hair and a button nose, but I got the Braun family traits. My uncle wasn't even forty, but he wore a thick, full beard that made him look older and tougher.
Bruce scratched his neck, his lower lip jutting out. “Gin. Pace yourself. No more than one an hour.”
“It's just that those guys are such assholes.”
“A doctor doesn't hold back the medicine, kid. If those guys put you on edge, have a drink so you're on their level. It's what we do in the hospitality business.”
“But you don't drink at work.”
“Not where anyone can see me.”
I poured myself a shot glass of gin, ducked down behind the bar, pretending to be retrieving something from the floor, and downed the gin shot in one swallow.
“Like a champ,” Bruce said, and he offered me his fist to bump.
The gin burned all the way down to my stomach, where it pooled as fire. Good fire.
Twenty minutes later, I walked over to the rednecks with a bounce in my step. At my gentle suggestion, the shorter guy switched to beer, though the freaky guy with the buzz cut hair ordered a double rye and coke and told me he was “just getting started.”
He paid for the round and gave me a generous tip.
Muttering my thanks, I turned to get away quickly, but he called after me.
“Hey, how much for a smile?”
This was during the quiet part of the song playing over the stereo, and his voice carried through the bar. I stopped in place, my back to the guys.
Over at his table, at the other end of the L-shaped pub, Sawyer looked up at me from his sketch book. I glared at him. If he hadn't told these guys to behave, they could have just had their rowdy time, but they'd had their pride injured. Their proud manhood challenged.
How much for a smile?
I treated the question as rhetorical and continued my way back to the bar. I felt safer behind the counter, able to breathe better thanks to the division of wood and stone.
What was it with guys trying to make you smile? First they get you to smile, then they know they have power over you—the power to make you obey. Soon you do things you don't want to.
Bruce looked up at me from under the counter. “Need me to bust some heads out there, or do you have it under control?”
“I can handle a couple drunk rednecks.”
He grinned, the upper part of his beard splitting along the knobby scar on his upper lip. My uncle had been born a premature baby, with a cleft palate. After Bruce was out of intensive care, they'd given him surgery to correct the split on his lip and the roof of his mouth. Now he wore a partial denture with false teeth bridging the gap, but his lips didn't quite match up. He probably thought the beard gave him camouflage, but it only made people more curious. So it always goes with secrets—the cover story becomes the clue.
“Not rednecks. We call them customers,” he said, gently correcting me.
“Maybe I'll marry one of them.”