If he had to listen to “The Little Drummer Boy” one more time, he was going to ba-rum-bum-bum-bum somebody right in the gut.
Dylan Caine huddled over a whiskey at the crowded bar of The Speckled Lizard, about two seconds and one more damn Christmas carol away from yanking the juke plug out of the wall. Some idiot had just played three versions of the same song. If another one flipped, he was going to knock a few heads and then take off.
His brother was now — he checked his watch — ten minutes late. The way Dylan figured, it would serve Jamie right if he bailed. He hadn’t wanted to meet at the bar in the first place, and he certainly wasn’t in any mood to sit here by himself listening to a bad version of a song he’d never liked much in the first place.
On this, the evening of Black Friday, the Liz was hopping. A popular local band was supposed to be playing, but from the buzz he’d heard around the bar, apparently the bass player and the lead singer–married to each other–had shared a bad Thanksgiving tofurkey the day before and were too busy yakking it up to entertain the masses.
Those masses were now growing restless. He no longer liked crowds under the best of circumstances, and a bar filled with holiday-edgy, disappointed music fans with liberal access to alcohol struck him as an unpleasant combination.
Somebody jostled him from behind and he could tell without turning around it was a woman. The curves pressing into his shoulder were a good giveaway, along with a delectable scent of cinnamon and vanilla that made him think of crisp, rich cookies.
His mouth watered. He’d been a hell of a long time without…cookies.
“Pat, where’s my mojito? Come on. I’ve been waiting forever.”
The woman with the husky voice squeezed past him to lean against the bar and from the side, he caught only an equally sexy sleek fall of blond hair. She was wearing a cream sweater that was about half an inch too short and when she leaned over, just a strip of pale skin showed above the waistline of a pair of jeans that highlighted a shapely ass.
The longtime Lizard bartender frowned, his wind-chapped face wrinkling around the mouth. “It’s coming. I’m shorthanded. Stupid me, I figured when the band canceled, nobody would show up. Give me a sec. Have some pretzels or something.”
“I don’t want pretzels. I want another mojito.”
She had obviously already had a mojito or three, judging by the careful precision of her words. The peremptory tone struck a chord. He looked closer and suddenly recognized the alluring handful: Genevieve Beaumont, spoiled and precious daughter of the Hope’s Crossing mayor.
She was quite a bit younger than he was, maybe six years or so. He didn’t know her well, only by reputation, which wasn’t great. He had always figured her for a prissy little society belle–the kind of vapid, boring woman who wasted her life on a solemn quest for the perfect manicure.
She didn’t look it now. Instead, she looked a little tousled, slightly buzzed and oddly delicious.
“If somebody plays another damn Christmas carol, I swear, I am going to scream. This is a freaking bar, not Sunday school.”
“Hear, hear,” he murmured, unable to hold back his wholehearted agreement.
She finally deigned to pay attention to anything but herself. She shifted her gaze and in her heavily lashed blue eyes he saw a quick, familiar reaction–a mangle of pity and something akin to fascinated repugnance.
Yeah, he hated crowds.
To her credit, she quickly hid her response and instead offered a stiff smile. “Dylan Caine. I didn’t see you there.”
He gave her a polite smile in return. Completely out of unwarranted malevolence, he lifted what remained of his left arm in a caricature of a wave. “Most of me, anyway.”
She swallowed and blinked but didn’t lose that stiff smile. If anything, it seemed to beam unnaturally, like a blinking string of Christmas lights. “Er, nice to see you again,” she said.
He couldn’t remember ever having a conversation with the woman in his life. If he had, he certainly would have recalled that husky voice that thrummed through him, as rich and heady as his Johnnie Walker.
“Same,” he said, which wasn’t completely a lie. He did enjoy that little strip of bare skin and a pair of tight jeans.
“Are you visiting your family for the holidays?” she asked, polite conversation apparently drilled into her along with proper posture and perfect accessory coordination, even when she was slightly drunk.
“Nope.” He took a sip of his whiskey. “I moved back in the spring. I’ve got a place up Snowflake Canyon.”
“Oh. I hadn’t heard.” She focused on a point somewhere just above his right ear, though he noticed her gaze flicking briefly, almost against her will, to the eye patch that concealed a web of scar tissue before she jerked it away.
He fought the urge to check his watch again–or, to hell with Jamie, toss a bill on the bar for his tab and take off.
Though they certainly weren’t society-conscious people like the Beaumonts, Dermot and Margaret Caine had drilled proper manners in him, too. Every once in a while he even used them. “Don’t think I’ve seen you around town since I’ve been back. Where are you living these days?”
Her mouth tightened, and he noticed her lipstick had smeared ever so slightly on her lower lip. “Until three days ago, I was living in a beautiful fifth-floor flat in Le Marais in Paris.”
Ooh là là. Le Marais. Like that was supposed to mean anything to him.
“Somebody should really do something about that music,” she complained to Pat before Dylan could answer. “Why would you put so many freaking versions of the same song on the jukebox?”
The bartender looked frazzled as he pulled another beer from the tap. “I had to spring for that stupid digital jukebox. Worst business decision of my life. It’s completely ruined the place. It’s like karaoke every night. Here’s a little secret you might not know. We have a crapload of people in Hope’s Crossing with lousy taste in music.”
“You could always take it out,” Dylan suggested.
“Believe me, I’m tempted every night. But I paid a fortune for the thing. Usually I just end up forking over some of my tips and picking my own damn songs.”
He finally set a pink mojito in front of Genevieve. She picked it up and took a healthy sip.
“Thank you,” she said, her sexy voice incongruously prim, then gave Dylan that polite, empty smile. “Excuse me.”
He watched her head in the direction of the gleaming jukebox, wondering what sort of music she would pick. Probably something artsy and annoying. It better not be anything with an accordion[U1] .
He checked his watch, which he really hated wearing on his right arm after a lifetime of it on the left. Jamie was now fifteen minutes late. That was about his limit. Just as he was reaching into his pocket for his wallet, his phone buzzed with an incoming text.
As he expected, it was from Jamie, crisp and succinct: “Sorry. Got held up. On my way. Stay there!”
His just-older brother knew him well. Jamie must have guessed that after all these months of solitude, the jostling crowd and discordant voices at The Speckled Lizard would be driving him crazy.
He typed a quick response with one thumb–a pain in the ass but not as bad as finger-pecking an email.
You’ve got five.
He meant it. If Jamie wasn’t here by then, his brother could drive up to Snowflake Canyon to share a beer for his last night in town before returning to his base.
The digital jukebox Pat hated switched to “Jingle Bell Rock,” a song he disliked even more than “The Little Drummer Boy.”
“Sorry,” the bartender said as he passed by on his way to hand a couple of fruity-looking drinks to a tourist pair a few stools down.
Dylan glanced over at the flashing lights of the jukebox just in time to see Genevieve Beaumont head in that direction, mojito in hand.
More intrigued by a woman than he had been in a long time, he watched as she said something impassioned to the professionally dressed couple who seemed to be hogging all the music choices.
He couldn’t hear what she said over the loud conversation and clinking glasses wrapping around him, but he almost laughed at her dramatic, agitated gestures. So much for the prissy, buttoned-up debutante. Her arms flung wide as she pointed at the jukebox and then back at the couple. From a little impromptu lip-reading, he caught the words bar, idiot and Christmas carols.
The female half of the couple–a pretty redhead wearing a steel-gray power suit and double strand of olive-sized pearls–didn’t seem as amused as Dylan by Genevieve’s freely given opinion. She said something in response that seemed as sharp as her shoes, judging by Genevieve’s quick intake of breath.
The woman brandished a credit card like it was an AK-47 and hurried toward the digital piece of crap, probably to put in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Away in a Manger” or something else equally inappropriate for the setting.
Dylan chuckled when, after a quick, startled second, the mayor’s genteel daughter rushed forward like a Broncos tackle, her drink spilling a little as she darted ahead, her body blocking the woman from accessing the jukebox.
“Move your bony ass,” he heard the woman say, quite unfairly, in the personal opinion of a man who had just had ample evidence that particular piece of Ms. Beaumont wasn’t anything of the sort.
“Make me,” Gen snarled.
At that line-in-the-sand declaration, Dylan did a quick ninety-degree swivel on his bar stool to watch the unfolding action and he realized he wasn’t the only one. The little altercation was beginning to draw the interest of other patrons in the bar.
Nothing like a good girl fight to get the guys’ attention.
“I have the right to listen to whatever I want,” Madame Power Suit declared.
“Nobody else wants to listen to Christmas music. Am I right?”
A few nearby patrons offered vocal agreement and the color rose in the redhead’s cheeks. “I do,” she declared defiantly.
“Next time, bring your iPod and earbuds,” Genevieve snapped.
“Next time be the first one to the jukebox and you can pick the music,” the woman retorted, trying to sneak past Genevieve.
She shoved at Genevieve but couldn’t budge her, again to Dylan’s amusement–until the man who had been sitting with the carol-lover approached. He wore a dress shirt and loosened tie but no jacket and was a few years older than his companion. While he carried an air of authority, he also struck Dylan as similar to the bullies in the military who had no trouble pushing their weight around to get their way.
“Come on. That’s enough, girls. What’s the harm in a few Christmas carols? It’s the day after Thanksgiving, after all.”
“I believe this is between me and your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my associate.”
“I don’t care if she’s Mrs. Santa Claus. She has lousy taste in music and everybody in the place has had enough.”
The other woman tried again to charge past Genevieve with her credit card but Genevieve blocked access with her own body.
“Do you have any idea who you’re messing with?” He advanced on her, his very bulk making him threatening.
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
He loomed over her, but Genevieve didn’t back down. She was just full of surprises. On face value, he wouldn’t have taken her for anybody with an ounce of pluck.
“She happens to be an assistant district attorney. We both are.”
Genevieve apparently meant it when she said she didn’t care. “I hate attorneys. My ex-fiancé was an attorney,” she snapped.
The guy smirked. “What’s his name? I’d like to call the man and buy him a drink for being smart enough to drop-kick a psycho like you.”
Genevieve seemed to deflate a little, looking for a moment lost and uncertain, before she bristled. “I drop-kicked him, for your information, and I haven’t missed him for a minute. In my experience, most attorneys will do anything necessary to get their way.”
“Damn straight,” the woman said. She planted her spiked heel on Genevieve’s foot hard and when the effort achieved its desired result–Genevieve shrieked in surprise and started to stumble–the woman tried to dart around her. But the former head cheerleader of Hope’s Crossing High School still apparently had a few moves. She jostled with the woman and managed to slap away her hand still gripping the credit card before she could swipe it.
“That’s assault!” the woman declared. “You saw that, didn’t you, Larry? The stupid bitch just hit me.”
“That wasn’t a hit. That was a slap. Anyway, you started it.”
“True story,” a helpful bystander backed her up.
The woman turned even more red in the face.
“Okay, this is ridiculous. Let her pass. Now.” Larry the Jerk reached for Genevieve’s arm to yank her away from the jukebox. At the sight of that big hand on her white sweater, Dylan rose, his bar stool squeaking as he shoved it back.
“Sit down, Caine,” Pat urged, a pleading note in his voice. Dylan ignored him, adrenaline pumping through him like pure scotch whiskey. He didn’t necessarily like Genevieve Beaumont, but he hated bullies more.
And she did have a nice ass.
“You’re going to want to back down now,” he said, in his hardest ex-Army Ranger voice.
The guy didn’t release Genevieve’s arm as he looked Dylan up and down, black eye patch and all. “Aye, matey. Or what? You’ll sic your parrot on me?”
Dylan was vaguely aware of an audible hiss around him from locals who knew him.
“Something like that,” he answered calmly.
He reached out and even with only one hand he was able to deftly extricate Genevieve’s arm from the man’s hold and twist his fingers back.
“Thank you,” she answered in surprise, straightening her sweater.
“You’re welcome.” He released the man’s hand. “I suggest we all go back to our drinks now.”
“I’m calling the police,” the woman blustered. “You’re crazy. Both of you.”
“Oh shut up,” Genevieve snapped.
“You shut up. You’re both going to face assault charges.”
“I might not be a lawyer but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t assault,” Genevieve responded sharply. “This is.”
Dylan hissed in a breath when Genevieve drew back a fist and smacked the woman dead center in her face.
Blood immediately spurted from the woman’s nose, and she jerked her hands up, shrieking. “I think you just broke my nose!”
The contact of flesh on flesh seemed to shock Genevieve back to some semblance of sobriety. She blinked at the pair of them. “Wow. I had no idea I could do that. I guess all those years of Pilates weren’t completely wasted.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when the woman dropped her hands from her nose and lunged at her, and suddenly the two of them were seriously going at it, kicking, punching, pulling hair.
Why did they always have to pull hair?