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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 34


A Good Old-­Fashioned Ass Kicking

Lucian

Life’s fuckin’ funny sometimes,” Knox mused.

We were occupying the corner of Honky Tonk’s bar on an unseasonably warm March night. I’d been summoned to Knockemout by Nash and Knox, who seemed unnecessarily concerned that I was in the midst of some midlife crisis. Stef and Jeremiah had tagged along for the Shiraz.

Lina’s firing had been reversed—­as soon as I realized I couldn’t actually handle the workload alone—­and I’d been reasonably polite to everyone at work today. They had nothing to worry about.

“In what way?” I asked, not particularly caring.

Spring was in the air. It made me want to drink until I couldn’t see straight. It was my first time back in town since my last time with Sloane, and every damn thing in this fucking place reminded me of her.

“The three of us growin’ up, raisin’ hell. Gettin’ in trouble. Now look at us.”

“Three grown men still raising hell?” Stef guessed.

“You should have seen them in high school,” Jeremiah teased. “It’s a miracle this town is still standing.”

Nash’s mouth quirked. “Now we’re almost respectable.”

“And we’ve got women too good for us.” Knox shot me a pointed look. “Well, two outta three.”

“Way too damn good for us,” Nash agreed.

Knox raised his glass. “May they never come to their senses.”

I ignored the toast. But I couldn’t ignore the train of thoughts it ignited.

My life was now divided cleanly. Before Sloane and After Sloane. I should have felt better by now. I was keeping her safe by keeping my distance. Something I should have done from the beginning. Something I always seemed to be incapable of. But I’d done the right damn thing. So why the fuck did I feel so damn knotted up inside?

Even now, I was watching the door, willing her to appear. And then what? Would she continue to freeze me out? Or would she direct her fiery temper at me?

“Where are these way too good for you women tonight?” I asked.

“If you’re trying to get information on Sloane’s whereabouts, it’s not coming from us,” Nash said.

The bearded Morgan brother shrugged. “You fucked it up, you fix it. And since you didn’t come to us before you fucked it up, we sure as shit aren’t helping you fix it.”

“There’s nothing to fix,” I insisted. “We had a good time. We’re done having a good time.”

Stef snorted into his wineglass and exchanged what-­an-­idiot looks with Jeremiah.

Nash set his bottle down on the bar. “I’m just gonna throw this out there before one of us does or says something stupider. Do not talk about Sloane like she’s one of the model scientist one-­night stands you’ve been burning up the sheets with lately.”

“Things just got interesting,” Stef sang and nodded toward the door.

There she was. In a short black turtleneck dress that showed off the curves I’d so thoroughly explored. Her hair hung in a straight, sleek curtain down her back. Every muscle in my body tensed. My cock went rock-­hard. It was too soon. I shouldn’t have come here. I wasn’t ready to see her and not feel things.

“Looks like someone isn’t waiting around for you to call,” Nash observed.

It was then that I realized she wasn’t alone. She was on a date with Kurt Michaels, the kid-­loving teacher. He looked exactly like the kind of guy who would have kids. He’d buy a minivan and coach baseball, and every Christmas Eve, he’d stay up late, putting together toys.

Fuck.

“Man, that’s gotta sting,” Knox said smugly.

“Gotta admire our guy Luce here,” Nash said. “If Angelina had shown up on a date, I would have gone in swinging and not stopped until I carried her out over my shoulder. Not Rollins though.”

“Luce could give a shit that the girl he pushed away because he was too chickenshit to have feelings just showed up on a date,” Knox said, picking up the thread.

“Fuck you both,” I said into my bourbon.

“You could at least stop staring at them like you want to rip his arms off prior to carrying her off like a caveman,” Stef suggested.

“Fuck you too,” I shot back.

Jeremiah held up his hands and grinned. “Don’t look at me, man. You live your life the way you want.”

What I wanted was to turn away, to at least look in another direction. But I was riveted. The silver tips in her hair were gone. In their place was a single lavender streak.

“Now, I’m a straight man,” Knox mused at my elbow. “As such, I’m not the greatest judge of male attractiveness. But that guy is hot.”

“Agreed,” Stef, Jeremiah, and Silver the bartender said in unison.

“I hate all of you,” I announced.

Knox grinned. Silver smirked and slid me another bourbon.

The conversation shifted to weddings, family, and small-­town gossip, none of which I could contribute to. Not that I was listening anyway, since Sloane had leaned in and put her hand on the teacher’s arm as they shared a laugh about something.

My insides coiled into an icy knot as a torrent of delusional thoughts raced through my mind.

Her hand should be on my arm. I should be the one sitting across the table from her. I should be the one taking her home, waking up next to her. Reading what she was reading. Yelling at the evil cat. It should be me in her life.

Sloane released the teacher’s arm and got up from the table. Without even glancing in my direction, she made a beeline for the restroom. I poured the bourbon down my throat, set the glass on the bar, and followed her.

“Oh, no. Not today, Satan,” Sloane announced, shaking her head when she exited the restroom three minutes later and found me lurking like a felon.

“I just want to talk,” I assured her.

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

She’d frozen me out for nearly two weeks and now tossed casual disdain in my face like I was some petty annoyance.

“How’s your date going?” I asked acidly.

“Great. Thanks for asking,” she snarled.

“You’re welcome. I’m so fucking happy for you,” I shot back.

“I’m surprised you didn’t bring your parade of women out with you tonight.”

“Jealous?” I asked, hoping.

“You’re the one who cornered me outside the bathroom while I’m on a date with a sweet, smart, hot guy who is excited about starting a family, Lucifer.”

“Come over tonight,” I said, hating myself even as I said the words.

“Gee, I can’t. I’m busy having the case of whiplash you caused,” she snapped.

“Now you’re being dramatic.”

If fire could explode from a woman’s eyeballs and incinerate a man, I would have been nothing more than a pile of ashes.

“Do you really not get it? We had sex. You decided to stop having sex with me. The end.”

There was never going to be an end to us. “It was more than sex, Sloane. We’ve always been more.”

“Yeah? Well, even if we were more at one point, you not only walked away, you pushed me away, burnt the bridge, and ran like hell. But that doesn’t matter.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Ugh. Still annoying as hell, I see. Get this through your mercurial head, Lucifer. I want a husband, a family, a man I can count on to be there, especially when things get tough. I’m not ever going to settle for someone who runs just when things are getting good.”

“You admit they were good.” I held on to that with both hands like it was a lifeline.

“You’re an idiot.”

“You drive me insane. I don’t want to be with you, but all you have to do is walk into a room and I can’t help myself. I didn’t want to talk to you. I didn’t want to hunt you down and force you to look at me just so I can get close enough to see the green smudge in your left eye. I sure as hell didn’t want to beg you to leave your date so you could come home with me tonight.”

There was fire blazing in Sloane’s eyes now. I just wanted to touch her, to let that fire burn me. “You arrogant pain in my ass,” she hissed. “He’s a nice guy. I’m sure your incredibly good-­looking astronaut is nice too. You wanted our sexcapades to be over, so you ended them. You don’t get to whine to me about your choices.”

I couldn’t help myself. My hands found her hips and I buried my face in her hair, breathing in the familiar smell of her shampoo. She let out a breathy moan that drove me mad and relaxed infinitesimally against me. I could feel her resolve melting. The physical attraction was too much for either one of us to deny, and I wasn’t above using it to my advantage.

I’d been hard since the second she walked in, but now my cock turned to stone. Pressing my luck, I thrust against her, letting her feel my erection. “It wasn’t a mistake. We’re no good for each other.”

Her breath was coming faster now, and the hard outlines of her nipples under her dress made my mouth water.

“Agreed,” she breathed.

“I missed touching you,” I said, pressing my mouth to her neck. If she did go back to her date, I wanted my mark on her. It was an asinine, caveman-­like desire. I let one hand trail over her shoulder to her breast. She gasped when I cupped it, kneading the flesh until I could feel the hard point of her nipple against my palm.

“Lucian.”

My name from those red lips had me losing my fucking mind. This was another mistake in a long line of them where Sloane Walton was concerned. I shouldn’t have gotten so close. I couldn’t control myself when I was this close to her.

“Let me touch you. Let me taste you,” I whispered, thrusting against her again.

“Ugh! No.” She growled the word even as her hand shot out to cup my erection.

I was so close to release I didn’t dare draw a breath.

“Goddammit, Lucian,” she muttered. “I can’t believe I almost let you do this again. Do you have industrial-­strength pheromones or something? God. I really hate you. You suck.”

“I hate to point this out given the situation, but your hand is on my dick, Pixie. And if you move a muscle or take a deep breath or even make eye contact with me, I’m going to come.”

I realized the mistake a second too late.

Because she didn’t take her hand off my cock. No, the woman deliberately licked her bottom lip, shoved my hand into the top of her dress, and then gave my dick one hard jerk.

“Fuck,” I rasped as she held my aching hard-­on in a death grip.

“Did you get what you wanted?” she whispered in my ear as her nipple taunted my palm. “Then go the hell home and forget I ever existed.”

As if that were physically possible.

“This isn’t what I wanted,” I said through clenched teeth.

She raised an eyebrow and gave my shaft another squeeze. She was so fucking beautiful when she was being diabolical. “Bullshit.”

“Shit. Fine. Okay. Of course this is what I wanted. You know how good it was between us,” I reminded her.

“I’m fully aware of how good the sex was. It was everything else that was subpar. I’m not settling for being someone’s weekend fuck buddy anymore. And I’m sure as hell not allowing some overgrown man-­child to cast me aside like I’m nothing because he can’t deal with feelings. I’m out of your league, Lucifer. This was your last freebie.”

I wanted to kiss her. And judging from the look in those heavily lidded green eyes, Sloane was having similar thoughts. I wasn’t above taking advantage of that.

“There a problem?” I didn’t need to look up to know the Morgans had entered the hallway.

“I love you two like brothers, but if you don’t leave now, I’m going to rearrange your faces,” I threatened.

Sloane rolled her eyes and removed her hand from my throbbing dick. “Man-­child.”

“Sloaney, which of us do you want to leave? Me and Knox or Rollins?” Nash asked.

She locked eyes with me, and I found that dark smudge in all that green. “I want Lucian to go,” she said firmly.

“Pix,” I whispered.

But she shook her head. “No more, Lucian. It’s time for you to go.”

My heart, if I actually had one, fell out of my chest onto the floor and was crushed under her boot as she turned and walked away from me.

“Let’s go outside, Luce,” Nash said in his cop voice. “You look like you could use a smoke break.”

Each brother grabbed an arm and hauled me through the kitchen and out the side door into the parking lot. For once, they were united, and perhaps for the first time ever, it was against me.

“You don’t get to treat her like that, Luce,” Nash announced when the door slammed shut behind us.

“I really wanna introduce my fist to his face,” Knox said through clenched teeth as his boots scuffed at the gravel.

“I get it, believe me. But we can’t,” Nash insisted.

“I hate not getting to punch people.”

“There’s nothing stopping you,” I said, deliberately taunting him. A fist to my face would feel better than the raw, jagged hole in my chest.

Knox’s fist relaxed, and then he was pushing a finger in my shoulder. “You’re lucky your dad was an abusive asshole. Otherwise, I’d be mopping the floor with your dumbass face.”

We’d scuffled as young boys always did. Thrown rocks at each other. Wrestled in the creek. But somewhere along the line, Knox and Nash had continued their pummeling of each other and I’d been left behind. They’d fought over toys, then bikes, then women.

“What does my father have to do with this?”

Knox looked to his brother for help.

Nash looked at his feet. “Why don’t we go get ourselves another round? Save ourselves the trouble,” he suggested.

“Not until you tell me why you make each other bleed on a weekly basis but you’re acting like I’m some delicate flower.” Using Sloane’s exact words made me miss the taste of her even more.

“Gettin’ hit doesn’t mean the same thing to us as it does you,” Knox said finally. “If I punch my pain-­in-­the-­ass brother in the mouth, it’s because I love him and he pissed me off.”

“Expound,” I demanded.

“Fuck,” Nash muttered.

“Finish it,” I ordered, growing impatient.

“We don’t hit you because you got hit at home. Your dad wailing on you was all kinds of fucked up. Maybe we didn’t know exactly what was going on, but we weren’t stupid. Least not that stupid,” Knox amended.

“You two don’t fight with me because you think I don’t know the difference? That I can’t handle it?”

They glanced at each other, then shrugged. “Basically.” Nash said.

“Yup,” Knox agreed. “Besides, you’re more likely to throw some fancy lawyer than a punch.”

I took off my jacket and draped it over the tailgate of the nearest pickup.

Knox hooted. The side door of the bar opened, and Stef and Jeremiah stepped outside, holding their drinks.

“Told you we didn’t want to miss this,” Jeremiah said.

“Can’t we just have one night that doesn’t end in someone getting punched in the face?” Nash grumbled.

“Not tonight,” I decided.

“You sure about this?” Stef called to me. “There’s two of them and one of you.”

“You’re here,” I pointed out as I rolled up one sleeve.

“I am. But in this case, I’m Team Sloane. You dicked over a great girl—­for reasons that probably made sense to you at the time but in reality are total shit. I gotta cast my vote with the Morgans here.”

His morals annoyed me.

“Same here,” Jeremiah agreed.

I turned my attention to my other sleeve, unbuttoning the cuff and beginning to roll it up. “I hate all of you. What the hell are you doing?”

Knox was pacing back and forth, rolling his neck and taking turns stretching each arm across his chest.

“Clearly this guy hasn’t been in a fight over the age of thirty,” Knox said conversationally to his brother.

“You gotta warm up,” Nash instructed, dropping into a squat.

Knox rolled his neck again and started performing shoulder circles.

“What happened to the days of sucker punching some unsuspecting asshole in a bar?” I asked.

“Throw a punch and pull a muscle in your back so bad you can’t wipe your own ass, then we’ll talk,” Nash advised, circling his arms backward, then forward.

“This is more anticlimactic than I thought,” I complained.

A fist shot out and rammed into my jaw, snapping my head back.

That’s what happened to sucker punching, unsuspecting asshole,” Knox said cheerily as my head rang like the inside of a church bell. “Do better. Don’t treat women like shit. Especially not Sloane.”

“Christ.” I bent at the waist, rubbing my jaw and biding my time. “I didn’t treat her like shit. We agreed it was nothing, and then we ended the nothing.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. Besides, you can’t be done already. Nash didn’t even get a shot yet,” Knox insisted, slapping me on the shoulder.

“Let’s go back in and drink,” Nash suggested, sounding disappointed.

“You didn’t get to hit him yet. It’s pretty fuckin’ satisfying,” Knox said.

“Guess I’ll just insult him and call him names for being a coward who’s afraid of a little blond librarian,” Nash said.

That little blond librarian was more terrifying than any of us, and we all knew it.

Knox was half turned to look at his brother and didn’t see me coming. My fist plowed into the side of his face with satisfying force. He stumbled sideways before recovering with a grin. “Now that’s more like it.”

“My turn,” Nash said, moving into position. “You don’t get to treat Sloane like she’s some one-­night fuck. Doesn’t matter what went down between you two or how things end, you treat her with respect.”

“What are you two? Her big brothers?”

I feigned a punch and Nash ducked. He caught me with an uppercut to the solar plexus that knocked the breath right out of me. I swung again, glancing a shot off his jaw.

My friend, the goddamn chief of police, grinned wickedly and drew back his arm. I blocked, but not well enough. His blue-­collar, law-­abiding fist caught me on the bridge of the nose.

“Didn’t hear a crunch,” Knox said.

“I’m holding back, okay?” Nash muttered. He grunted as my left fist connected with his bad shoulder. “Oh, somebody’s here to play dirty,” he teased.

“I’m here to beat some sense into you two. Sloane means nothing to me.”

“Bull. Shit.” Nash punctuated each word with a fast jab. “I saw you climbing out of her bedroom window in high school. I see the way you look at her like she’s the goddamn sun and you’re not supposed to stare directly at her but you can’t help yourself.”

“None of us can, fucking idiot,” Knox added, shoving his brother out of the way and landing a punch to my eye.

“I’m not you. I’m not cut out for a relationship. Especially not one that neither of us wanted in the first fucking place,” I argued.

“Just ’cause you say you don’t want it don’t mean you don’t want it,” Knox said, ducking my fist.

Nash took a swig from a water bottle. “He’s the idiot who fake dated Naomi and then tried to real dump her.”

“Where the hell did you get a bottle of water?” I panted and slapped Knox across the face to change things up.

He was unfazed.

“I’m not in love with her, assholes.” The words tasted strange in my mouth. I chalked it up to blood.

“He’s a delusional idiot,” Stef assessed.

“Agreed,” Nash said, tagging back in.

“I feel sorry for him,” Jeremiah said.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” I asked Stef as he pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.

“Immensely.”

Nash and I continued trading blows in a dignified, well-­paced fistfight. It was so dignified that even the patrons just arriving in the parking lot didn’t bother hanging around to watch.

“Evenin’, folks,” Harvey Lithgow, a bear of a man in leather chaps, said as he wandered toward the front.

“Evenin’, Harvey,” we said in unison.

“You’re still holding back,” I complained when Knox jumped in to land a shot to my gut. My entire upper body already felt like I’d been backed over by a truck.

“Yep,” he said easily.

“You keep holding back, I’m gonna take advantage,” I warned, throwing an elbow that caught him squarely on the chin, followed by a shot to the gut.

He spat blood into the gravel and grinned. “Fuck around and find out.”

Melee wasn’t the right word for what proceeded. Without any real hatred driving us, we mostly just used our lifetime of history to sneak past each other’s defenses to land cheap shots.

“You give up yet?” Nash grunted.

We were all on the ground. I had Nash on his knees in a headlock. But he was making an admirable effort to dislocate my pinkie finger. Knox had my left arm pulled behind my back, and I had my foot in his groin.

“Everyone smile and say ‘dumbass,’” Stef said, stepping in front of us. Jeremiah stepped in front of us and flashed a cheesy smile and thumbs-­up as his boyfriend snapped another photo.

“Don’t make us beat your ass,” I warned him.

I released Nash, who mercifully let go of my pinkie, and gave Knox a half-­assed kick to the thigh. The three of us flopped over in the gravel, bruised and bleeding.

“Sloane is gonna kick your asses for kicking my ass,” I said, snapping my fingers for Stef to throw me my jacket. He hit me in the face with it.

“No fuckin’ way,” Knox said, swiping Nash’s water. “Girl hates your guts. She’ll probably give us trophies.”

I shook my head and produced my cigarette and lighter. “She’ll be pissed you didn’t let her have any of the fun.”

“Why can’t you just take a shot with her?” Nash asked.

I savored the first sweet sting of tobacco, then exhaled toward the night sky. “Because she’s too good for me.”

The brothers guffawed.

“What?” I demanded.

“You think I was good enough for Angelina?” Nash asked with a smirk.

Knox grinned. “I know none of you think I was anywhere near Daisy’s league.”

“This is true,” Stef agreed. “They’re both a thousand times too good for you.”

“Aren’t relationships supposed to make you feel worthy?” I asked. It sounded like something my therapist would have said.

“Pretty sure the only dumbass who can make you feel worthy is you,” Nash said.

“The second you think you’re as good as or better than your woman is the second it all starts goin’ to hell,” Knox said.

I swiped my bleeding mouth across my sleeve and took another drag. “So you’re just supposed to what? Drag them down to your level?”

Knox threw a pea-­sized piece of gravel at me. “No, you fucking moron. You’re supposed to spend the rest of your lucky-­ass life trying to live up to them.”

“That sounds exhausting.”

“It sure ain’t for the faint of heart,” Jeremiah said.

I rubbed my jaw. My face and fists hurt like a bitch. But that tightness in my chest seemed just a little looser.

“You comin’ back in?” Knox asked, gesturing toward Honky Tonk.

I shook my head. I needed to be alone.

Stef and Jeremiah hauled the Morgan brothers to their feet.

Nash reached down and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “You’re not a bad guy, Luce. You’re just an idiot.”

“Thanks,” I said dryly and watched the brothers limp back to the bar together. Jeremiah followed with a wink at Stef.

Stef held out a hand to me, and I took it.

“You know, I’ve spent the last few weeks second-­, third-­, and fourth-­guessing myself,” he said.

“About what?” My left eye was swelling, making it hard to see him.

“About everything. Moving here. Making things official with Jeremiah. Committing.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being wary of commitment,” I pointed out, testing my aching jaw.

“There’s wary and there’s chickenshit.”

“Bite me,” I muttered.

“Listen, I’m the last guy to give relationship advice,” Stef admitted. “But the way you look at her, it wasn’t just a good time.”

“Everyone in this fucking town thinks there’s a goddamn happily ever after for everyone. You know nothing about our situation,” I reminded him.

“No, but you’re making me wonder if it’s not better to at least take a chance. Maybe getting my heart ripped out and stomped on is better than being too afraid to try in the first place.”

“Love makes men stupid,” I quipped.

“Yes, it does. But does denying it make us stupider?”


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