The Kissing Game--Chapters One and Two

The Kissing Game by Marie Harte

Chapter 1

On the first cold Friday of the new year, Axel Heller stood in Heller’s Paint and Auto Body and glared from his newest employee to the unfinished Escalade sitting all by itself in Bay 2.

The Seattle weather made the concrete in the floors radiate cold. Icy winds and sleet beat against the reinforced walls offering them protection from a harsh winter, but Axel wouldn’t call it warm inside. It didn’t bother him any though. Braced against the cold in a thick cable-knit sweater, jeans, and his comfortable leather boots, he felt nothing but toasty as his rage grew.

I so do not need this right now.

Mateo and the always-reliable Smitty waited with the new guy, no doubt ready to intervene should Axel’s infamous temper flare out of control.

Lately, it didn’t take much to set him off. His mother’s death still hurt, a fresh wound even after six months. And his family…

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, saying nothing, just studying the idiot unable to follow. Simple. Instructions.

It didn’t help that Axel had just ended a call from his father. As usual, it had been filled with nothing but arguments and swearing in guttural German. He could only be happy his father still lived in Germany and rarely made the occasional trip stateside to visit. Otherwise Axel would probably be in jail for patricide.

At the thought, he smiled.

Mateo took a step back and shoved the new guy—Rylan—forward. “Take him. I’m too pretty to die young.”

“Asshole,” Rylan muttered before confronting Axel. “What the hell, man? You wanted us to buff out the Corolla and set the quarter panel for the Kia, so we did. What’s the problem?”

Behind him, Smitty shook his head and stood with his arms crossed over his chest. Axel didn’t have many friends, but he considered Smitty one of them. And he knew Smitty had problems with the new guy, but they’d been hoping to work them out.

Axel took a step closer and looked down at Rylan, who finally had the sense to shut up. Count to five. No, ten. Breathe. Remember, Rylan needs his face in one piece. Probably. “The problem is I told you hours ago we had a change of plans.”

“But I thought the Corolla and Kia would be faster. I mean, we did get them both done today.”

Axel curled his fingers so he wouldn’t be tempted to wrap them around Rylan’s neck. He’d spent the afternoon away, working on taxes with an overpriced accountant, content at least that the shop work would get done. “I trusted you to pass the message to finish the Escalade first because the client paid extra to have it done early. But seeing as Smitty and Mateo helped you with the lower-priority work, I’m guessing you didn’t tell them.”

“Hell no, he didn’t,” Mateo muttered.

“Now we’re going to be behind next week unless your sorry ass is in here tomorrow, on a Saturday, fixing your mistake.”

Rylan flushed. “Oh, ah well, I can do that.”

But I don’t trust you to do anything on your own. Axel mumbled under his breath about shoving a rock-hard head through a cement wall, idly wondering if his father had secretly sent Rylan to screw with him.

“When he talks in German, the shit’s ready to blow,” Mateo helpfully pointed out.

“Shut up, Mateo,” Rylan snapped. “Look, Heller, I’m fine to work tomorrow. You don’t even have to pay me overtime.” He swallowed at the look Axel shot him. “Or at all. I’ll make up for my mistake.”

But Axel had already made up his mind. “Get out. Everyone go home. I’ll see you Monday.” He knew Rylan had been trying to help, but the guy kept messing up and putting them behind. If Rylan wasn’t so skilled at sanding and refining, as well as having an incredible eye for detail, Axel would have fired him by now. But with Kelly out for another month dealing with some family issues, he had to admit they needed all the help they could get.

Instead of relaxing tomorrow, Axel would have to come in on his day off and fix the mess. He knew what the Escalade needed, and sadly, it wasn’t as if he had anything better to do with his time.

The crew departed, Rylan still trying to apologize as Mateo tugged him out the door. Smitty paused by the exit, his red Mohawk like a stream of fire. Full of muscle and tattoos, he looked like a bruiser but was one of the calmest, nicest guys Axel knew. “I’ll swing by to help you with the SUV.” Because Smitty knew Axel would fix the issue himself.

Axel grunted.

Smitty grinned and left without another word.

Axel leaned against a workbench and stared at his pride and joy, a paint and auto body shop he’d put together without help from anyone.

He scrubbed his hands over his face, wondering if the whiskers should stay or go. He’d been too busy to care about keeping his cheeks smooth, and with his constant visits to Stuttgart, Germany, helping his aunt and cousins as best he could, he’d been slacking off with the business.

The grief always sitting under the surface welled up, threatening to drown him in it. Taking deep breaths, he forced himself not to think about the past. Instead, he dwelled on the living, and on one particular individual he found fascinating.

The cement floor blended with the whitewashed walls as thoughts of fine-as-hell Rena Jackson intruded. He heard himself sigh and flushed, glad the guys weren’t around to see him acting like a lovesick moron.

He’d fallen hard for the stubborn woman from the first. But smart chick that she was, she wanted nothing to do with him. He thought they’d become kind of friends. After all, he considered her nice cousin a friend. And her other one, the she-wolf with attitude, well, if not a friend, then a colleague of sorts. They shared the same paint specialist, though the she-wolf did tend to hog him at her repair shop more than she should.

Something he’d once again take up with her as soon as he got a minute to more than breathe.

Hell. He needed a break. One beer couldn’t hurt. And it had been a while since he’d been at Ray’s. He ignored the secret hope that lingered—that he might see Rena there.

***

Three fallen dickheads later, Axel had worked off a decent head of steam in the bar’s parking lot, much to the entertainment of the crowd who’d gathered to watch. He’d also won fifty bucks and beers on the house. Ray, the owner of Ray’s Bar, shook his head as he stared down at a bunch of racist pricks who’d already been kicked out once…for being racist pricks.

“I catch you here again,” Ray said to Fletcher and his asshole buddies moaning on the ground, “there won’t be enough of you left for anyone to identify. Now fuck off before I let Earl and Big J do what they’ve been wanting to all night. Axel was just a warm-up.” It wasn’t as if Ray didn’t still have some fight left in him. A retired boxer, he had the fists, and face, of someone who’d fought too many rounds. The fists looked like he’d won most of them, but his face suggested he’d lost more than a time or two.

Behind Axel, the bar’s bouncers waited with shit-eating grins. Trouble, those two, but they liked Axel taking care of their business. They had enough to handle with all the—what had Rena lovingly called the clientele?—riffraff in the place.

Fletcher stood with help from his seedy friends and shot Axel the finger. “Your ass is mine. I won’t forget this, dickhead.”

Axel just stared, not saying a word, and waited for the idiots to limp away. Funny that Fletcher couldn’t seem to recall he’d been the one to start the fight. Axel hadn’t even stepped a foot out of his truck before Fletcher had been in his face. The dumbass was apparently trying to make up for getting walloped a few months ago.

Axel turned, praying his favorite person in the world really had stayed home tonight. God forbid she see him do yet another thing involving brutality.

To his chagrin, she stood by the entrance behind the enthusiastic crowd cheering him on and collecting bets.

Rena shook her head at him before turning to go back inside.

Fuck.

He sighed, feeling down, and forced his feet to take him into the bar to apologize. He didn’t want to tell her Fletcher and his cronies had had it coming. The crap they’d said about her and J.T., her nice cousin, just because they had darker skin… Rage threatened to consume Axel. He hated bigotry of any kind, and that kind of intolerance aimed at Rena?

He forced himself to calm down, needing for once to make a good impression. He wanted Rena to see him as more than a giant mauler. She claimed he fought too much, and maybe he did. But the things they’d been saying about her had bothered him. A lot.

Everything about her captivated him. Her laugh was real and full. Contagious. She had full lips, the cutest dimple, and a lovely face he’d more than once fantasized caressing. Her skin was a warm chestnut brown, and the golden-brown curls framing her angel’s face made her amber eyes almost glow.

God, he would give anything to hold her close.

When around her, his troubles faded, and joy took their place. He couldn’t explain it except to tell himself love at first sight must exist. At least for him.

He’d told his mother about Rena a month before she’d passed, and she’d agreed. He had it bad for the bartender-slash-waitress-slash-hairstylist. His mother had also agreed that he needed to make a move.

But fear kept him back, that he might do the wrong thing and scare Rena away. The idea that Rena would someday be his felt more unattainable every time he screwed up in front of her. And then the drama with his mother and father, his mother’s death, it all conspired to keep him distant, apart. Cold. Because numbness made the hurt bearable.

Pushing through the crowd, he tried to fight his fragile hope she might smile his way. He would have felt better about beating the losers outside if she hadn’t seen him. Now his therapeutic workout in the parking lot was all for nothing, and the balled-up tension inside him threatened to freeze solid under an icy wall of self-preservation.

But Rena could melt him with a smile. If only she’d give him one.

He found an open spot at the bar and looked around, but she didn’t appear. Instead, crowds of his kind of people, hardworking men and women who liked keeping a low profile—especially around law-enforcement types—mulled around tables and danced by a new jukebox playing some funky metal-dance mix. Piercings and tattoos decorated visible skin, and denim and work boots seemed the dress of choice.

The booths and tables in Ray’s were mostly clean. Axel’s feet didn’t stick to the floor too badly, and the smell of stale beer didn’t offend as much as the few smokers puffing away in Ray’s nonsmoking bar. Most of the occupants adhered to Ray’s rules: no fights inside, no cops, no drugs, and, most importantly, no fucking with the staff.

For all that Axel didn’t like Rena working in the place, he knew she had so many friends and family around that no one messed with her without major consequences.

He cracked his knuckles, once again gratified they’d met Fletcher’s big mouth and drawn blood.

“Yo, Heller. What can I get ya?” Sue asked, cracking gum as she waited for him. She wore a black T-shirt that said Bartender in big, white letters. Her many tattoos, piercings, and braids made her an obvious fit for the place.

“A dunkel—a dark ale—or whatever’s closest to that on tap.”

She nodded.

“Is Rena here?”

Sue gave him a sad look as she handed him a glass. “Sorry, slugger. She was just leaving when you showed up to pound Fletcher into hamburger. Nice work, by the way.”

Ja.” He sighed and drank the beer down in one go.

Sue watched him with wide eyes.

“One more, then I leave.” He had no reason to stay, not now that Rena had gone.

“Sure.” She poured him another. As he drank this one more slowly, she said, “You know tomorrow night’s Rena’s last, right? We’re having a party. You’re coming, aren’t you?”

Had the time come already? “When does it start?” Panicked at the thought of Rena leaving, though he’d known she would at some point, he did his best to appear unconcerned. How the hell would he see her now? To get up the nerve to talk to her? At least at the bar he had an excuse to hang around and watch her. With her working at her new salon, he couldn’t come in every day for a haircut. Could he?

“Seven. We’re gonna do a cake, food, and drinks, of course.” Sue smiled. “Lara’s baking her famous chocolate chip cookies.”

He’d had them before, and he looked forward to having them again. “Yes. Gut. I’ll be back.”

“Sure thing, Arnold.” She chuckled. She must have seen his confusion because she explained, “You know, like Arnold Schwarzenegger? ‘I’ll be back,’” she said, sounding not at all like Axel. At his lack of expression, she shrugged. “Ah. Whatever. See you, Heller.”

He left, not satisfied or relaxed in the slightest. Now he just felt tired.

Axel drove home, washed up, and slid into bed. He stared at the picture on his nightstand the way he did every night, now that she was gone. In a plain brown frame sat a photograph of him and his mother when he’d been a boy, both of them smiling at each other. A festival filled the background, the bright-red balloon clutched in his hand a reminder of a precious gift—that there had once been better times, that at least one person in his life had truly loved him.

The picture framed the clear affection between a mother and son.

Axel forced himself to close his eyes and fall asleep before he did the unthinkable and cried. Again.

***

“Happy birthday, dear Jane, happy birthday to you!” Rena blew on the festive red noisemaker until it straightened its curl, glad she’d made it in time after her shift at the bar. Everyone waited for the delighted girl of the hour to blow out her candle, then her mom cut the large sheet cake into squares while her father twirled his little princess around.

Along with the other revelers, Rena cheered, awash in the joy of family. Having been introduced to the boisterous, loving McCauley clan through her cousin Del’s marriage, Rena had been to more birthday parties and picnics in the past year and a half than she’d been to in her life. Del had married Mike and Colin—Mike’s son—giving Rena an honorary nephew to spoil.

She looked around but didn’t see Mike, her personal hero, so she nudged her cousin, who stood wolfing down a plate of mini corn dogs and chicken wings. “Hey, where’s Mike?”

Del smiled, and the overhead light shone on her brow ring. “Colin and Mike are coming as soon as Colin’s basketball game is done.”

“I thought he was into soccer.” Colin was the absolute cutest kid and fanatical about the sport.

“Oh, trust me. He is. But Mike insisted he try something else just to see if he liked it. And he does. Kid is a natural athlete.” Del grinned then groaned and rested her hand on the visible bulge of her tummy, where Del Junior—as Mike called his unborn child—rested. “Just like his baby sister. I swear, this kid bounces on my bladder like it’s a trampoline, and I’m having to pee every three seconds.” Del made a face, handed Rena her plate, and sighed. “Yep. Like clockwork. I’ll be right back.”

Rena watched her go, so happy for her cousin.

And so envious.

She looked around at the many smiling faces of those she’d come to care for, seeing the love that gathered them all together.

So much love brought tears to her eyes. Most were from happiness, but a few came from the knowledge she’d arrived solo. Again. Never with a plus one. For the past year, she’d been too busy getting her new business together to have time for a man. And she wanted one. No question.

Too bad the one she wanted moved at the speed of a glacier.

Axel Heller had no trouble making time for those fists of fury, but God forbid he ask her out or anything. She might have asked him, but the rare moments they had any time together at Ray’s lately, Axel turned mute, disappeared behind a menu, or got sucked into conversation with J.T. and friends, the guys who worked at Del’s garage.

So not romantic.

She sighed again, wondering how she’d be described as a character in one of her much-loved romance books. Desperate? Pathetic? Cute but lonely? A future CLA—Cat Lady of America? Hmm. Maybe I should get a cat.

J.T. saw her and smiled. He left his fiancée to join Rena by the food and glanced down at the plate she was holding. “That’s a lot of corn dogs.”

She forced herself to stop moping and laughed. “They’re Del’s. I’m just holding them while she hits the bathroom again.” Past the birthday parents, Rena spotted her uncle arriving with his own fiancée in tow. Geez. Was anyone left who hadn’t coupled up…besides Rena and the one-year-old?

For a woman who lived with a romance book under her pillow, another on her nightstand, and hundreds more filling several bookcases, to say Rena was a romantic was like saying Picasso had toyed with painting. Rena read romances. She watched them on TV. She saw them play out with friends and family and always offered helpful advice. She ate, drank, and slept with the idea of happily ever after in her blood.

“J.T., why am I still single?”

His expression softened, and he wrapped a huge arm around her shoulders. The big lug stood a good head taller and took after his father in size if not looks. Unlike Uncle Liam, J.T. had the same medium-brown skin Rena did. His sister, Del, on the other hand, had ash-blond hair in funky braids, sleeves of tattoos covering white-girl-with-a-tan arms (J.T.’s description, not hers), and gray eyes. They didn’t look much like family, but the Websters were thick as thieves. That Rena was included in their dynamic somewhat soothed the part of her always wishing for a forever love of her own.

“Well, it’s not for lack of looks.” J.T. smiled. “You look prettier than Aunt Caroline every day. But don’t tell her I said that.”

Rena’s and J.T.’s mothers had been sisters, both always trying to one-up the other. J.T. thought it amusing to continue the tradition of teasing Rena’s mom. Rena chuckled. “I won’t let you get her started. You know Mom’s vain.”

“But still beautiful. Looks just like Bridget.” His own mother. J.T. looked over at his father. “He’s been talking more about her. It’s been nice.”

“Good.” Rena knew her uncle had loved deeply, and when Aunt Bridget had passed away, he’d grieved for her for years. Until he’d met a special McCauley. Like daughter, like father. “So he and Sophie are seriously getting married on Valentine’s Day?”

Uncle Liam would be getting married on Rena’s favorite holiday, enjoying his honeymoon on the most romantic day of the year. Rena would be nursing a hot cup of tea, eating chocolates she’d buy for herself, and binging on Hallmark movies while she wallowed in self-pity.

“Yep. I can’t believe it.” J.T.’s large grin showed his pleasure at the thought. “You going to bring a date to the wedding?” He paused, still looking at his dad. “Heller’s back in town to stay.”

“Don’t talk to me about that man,” she fumed. “Heck. The reason I’m single is probably because he’s been keeping everyone away from me.” He wouldn’t ask her out, but he didn’t like anyone else paying attention to her. The big, sexy Viking. No, the big, unsexy jerk.

J.T. turned to regard her with caution. “Now, Rena, Heller’s not like that.”

Blaming her loneliness on Axel felt better than thinking her inability to attract a man might be her own fault. Heck, she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had flirted with her. “Oh? He comes into the bar and smiles at me, then glares at everyone else.”

J.T. grunted. “Good. I don’t want you dating the guys who hang out at Ray’s anyway.”

“You hang out there.”

He nodded. “Exactly.”

She shook her head. “You make no sense.”

“Oh please. How many times have you talked about quitting the bar? And not just because you’re opening your own salon. Ray’s is a great place to chill…if you have a rap sheet.”

“Stop.”

“Or you’re hiding from the law.”

She bit back a laugh.

“Or your P.O. demanded you get a job and Ray’s the only guy who’d take you.”

“He took me.”

“And Big J and Earl and Wiley—who we all know has issues with petty theft. The crap in Ray’s kitchen can’t possibly be store-bought. You said you saw a brand new stove in the back last week. And that jukebox is shiny and sounds terrific. Definitely not the one that was in there last month.”

“Well, okay. So maybe Wiley knows a few guys. He’s sweet.”

“He’s a crook,” J.T. growled. “Hey, I like him too. I like everyone there, except the few guys Ray kicked out.” A few white power creeps who’d made Rena feel more than uncomfortable. Guys like Fletcher, whom Axel had just pulverized last night. She didn’t know how to feel about that. Glad the guys were gone but wishing Axel would stop fighting before he got hurt.

“And you know,” J.T. was saying, “Ray has a habit of looking the other way from what goes on in the parking lot, especially if it involves cigarette cartons and brand spankin’ new electronics.”

“Chump change.”

Illegal chump change,” J.T. said, sounding just like his father. “Since the guys and I aren’t around as much, I feel better that you’re quitting sooner than later.” The guys meaning J.T.’s mechanic buddies who worked for Del at her garage. And Axel. The source of Rena’s current confusion.

She didn’t want to talk about Axel Heller though, so she fell back on the old “You’re not the boss of me.”

Del had returned to overhear. “Oh, this sounds like a mature argument.” She took the plate from Rena and started eating again. “What did you do?” she asked her brother.

J.T. frowned. “Me? I told her she needed to quit Ray’s, which she’s already doing. It’s not a secret she’s handed in her notice. Ray announced her last day is tomorrow. We’re having a big party.”

“No one told me that.” Del frowned back at him.

“You’re pregnant.”

“No shit?” Del gave him a fake look of shock. “How did that happen, I wonder?”

J.T. glared, but before Rena could step aside and let the siblings argue, he latched onto her arm. “To answer your question, Cuz, you’re single because you want to be. And you know it.”

Great. Now Del looked concerned. “You ready to start dating again? Want me to set you up? I know a bunch of guys who’d be lucky to have you.” She looked thoughtful as she stared at her plate. “Well, maybe not him. Or him. And Nick is definitely out. But Jay’s not bad for a—”

“Don’t say ex-con,” J.T. muttered. “God knows the types who hang out with your employees.”

“Who happen to be your friends, jack-hole.”

“I know.” He chuckled.

“Shut it.” Del turned back to Rena. “I was going to say Jay’s not bad for a doctor. He’s not snooty or anything. We just fixed his ’67 Charger. Foley did a helluva job. Jay’s kind of cute.” She paused. “You could do worse. Hell, you have done worse. So much worse it’s scary.”

Rena loved her cousin, but she could see why Del and J.T. argued so much.

“Then again, I thought you and Heller had a… J.T., why are you shaking your head at me?”

Rena growled. “Don’t mention Axel Heller again. I have nothing to say to that man.”

“Why? Did he do something to piss you off?” Del’s eyes narrowed. “Because I don’t care how big he is. He can still bleed.”

“Oh my God, killer. Calm down.” J.T. put his hand against his sister’s forehead as if to hold her back while she tried to slap him off. “He’s been out of town for a while, so Rena’s upset he hasn’t asked her out.” He dropped his hand, ignoring the dirty look she shot him.

Del relaxed and ate a chicken wing. “Oh. Well, Rena, his mom just died. You should give the guy a break.”

“A break?” Rena wanted to smack both her cousins. They’d found love with awesome people. Of course they could be nonchalant while giving terrible advice. “First of all, I’ve known Axel for close to a year. He’s nice, sure. But he’s never once asked me out. And I know his mom just died. Six months ago. He’s sad. I get it. But if he hasn’t asked me out before now, he’s not interested. I’m going to find my own Mr. Right. And before you even think about asking, no, I do not need your help. Now, if you’ll excuse me?”

She left them looking after her, no doubt with concern she could do without. So she made her way to the only person with a Y chromosome worth talking to and stopped in front of Mike McCauley, who’d recently arrived. She turned to his son and said, “Hey, Colin. About time you got here.” To Mike she said, “Your wife is on my nerves.”

Mike sighed.

Eight-year-old Colin grinned, showing off a new missing tooth. The spitting image of Mike, with black hair, blue eyes, and a killer grin, he’d be a real heartbreaker someday. “Hey, Aunt Rena!” He gave her a huge hug, which she’d really needed. “Is there cake?”

“Yes. Let’s get some.” She hurried him away before his father could caution her about feeding his son too much sugar. As if there could ever be such a thing. “So. Tell me. I need to know. You still hate girls?”

“Yep. Except for Jane.” He glanced over at his baby cousin. “And Del Junior. I’ll like her. But everyone else is gross.”

“I’m with you. Boys are gross.” They high-fived and ate cake.

And though Rena tried to put him out of her mind, she couldn’t help wondering what the big, silent Axel was up to this new year, and whether he’d even bother showing up tomorrow night to say goodbye.

Chapter 2

Saturday evening, Axel did his best to stop looking at Rena. She stood in front of the bar wearing a Bartender tee but wasn’t working so much as laughing and talking to everyone.

The bar was packed, the music was loud, and the beer and cookies flowed. An odd combination, but Lara—one of Ray’s ex-bartenders—had a reputation for making the best chocolate chip cookies in Seattle. Too bad she’d opted to become a nurse instead of opening up her own bakeshop. She could have made a fortune in chocolate chips alone.

He saw her move in to hug Rena, who squealed and hugged her back. Nearby, Lara’s boyfriend and the other mechanics from Webster’s Garage stood drinking and talking with each other. Axel knew he could have joined them. Lou, who did double duty working for both Del and Axel, had waved to him. But Axel was in no mood to hear how much Rena would be missed, what the hell was he waiting for by not asking her out, and, man, what a bunch of lame-asses his guys were for losing the last darts match two weeks ago.

In his current mood, Axel would end up slugging the big one, Sam, who would hit back. Foley, his friend, would join in, while Johnny and Lou placed bets. Then Rena would accuse him of ruining her party. He frowned, wondering if she’d ever make her way away from her many admirers.

And he hated that she had so many.

“Why so glum, chum?” J.T. asked as he sipped from a bottle and kept a watchful eye on the gorgeous blond he’d arrived with, who stood chatting with Rena, Lara, and a bunch of the bar’s riffraff.

“You’re very annoying.” And in love.

The blond turned to wink at J.T., and he smiled back at her. “So says the guy not getting any. Aw, damn. Hope is so fine. I am the luckiest man alive.” He patted Axel on the back. “Can you believe she and I are engaged?”

“No.”

“I mean, she’s beautiful and built and so smart.”

“Yet she is with you?”

That too went right over J.T.’s head. “And she’s a Donnigan. I thought for sure I could distance myself from all those clingy McCauleys despite Del being married to one. Then I had to fall for Hope.” J.T. sighed, but Axel knew he loved the McCauleys and Donnigans like his own family. “Guess I’m gonna be stuck for life.”

“Braggart.”

J.T. gave him a smug smile. “Yeah, I know. I’m trying to make a point.”

“That I should shove my fist in your face to shut you up?” Axel drank more, his mood simultaneously dark and uplifted, because watching Rena smile made him warm all over.

“That you can have what I have—not with Hope but with your own woman. If you’d grow some stones and make a move.”

“You have a death wish?”

J.T. shook his head. “Heller, you need to do something. Tonight is her last night here. She’s ready to start dating again… And you’re not on the list.”

Axel tensed. “What?”

“She was telling me last night she’s done being single. Del’s going to set her up with—” He grabbed Axel by the arm. “Wait a minute. Hold on.”

Axel let J.T. hold him back, though his instinct was to go over to Rena and glare her many admirers into submission. As archaic, moronic, and chauvinistic as he knew the action to be, he couldn’t help feeling like others crowded his woman. His.

“Man, you have to be smart. I think she’s got a thing for you, but she’s pissed you haven’t made a move.”

Axel hated that his cheeks heated.

“It’s been a year.” J.T. wouldn’t shut up. “What are you waiting for?”

Axel blurted, “I just don’t want to mess it up.” Didn’t want to mess her up, the way his father had hurt his mother. “She’s too good for me.”

“Yeah, she is,” J.T. agreed. “But don’t you think she deserves someone who’d fight to protect her? Who’d put Fletcher and guys like him in their place?”

“Yes.”

“Who’d always put her first?” J.T. gentled his tone. “That’s you, isn’t it?”

Ja.

“But if you don’t let her know you want a future with her, she’ll end up finding some douchebag who’ll treat her wrong. Or worse, she’ll find some city rich boy who’ll make her into a trophy wife. And Rena would eat that shit up because he’d act all nice, but inside she’d be dying because he’d never see her, only who he’d want her to be.”

“What the hell is coming out of your mouth?” Del asked before Axel could. He’d been with J.T. about the douchebag part but lost the rest of the thread.

Delilah McCauley, Axel’s business rival, had joined her brother. She was glowing, pregnancy agreeing with her. Behind her stood her behemoth of a husband. Axel had thought that marriage would settle Del down. If anything, the she-wolf bared her teeth more, though her bite felt less sharp.

He snorted in her direction, knowing if he told her how lovely she looked or how much he admired her work at the garage he’d probably give her a heart attack. That or she’d go for his throat.

She snorted back then ignored him in favor of her brother. “Rena deserves to find a man who’ll give her that romantic happily-ever-after bullshit—no offense, Mike—that she deserves.”

Her husband strangled on a laugh. “Oh, uh, sure, Del. None taken. I’m gonna grab a beer. I’ll get you a seltzer water.” He took a step away then paused. “And if you need anything at all, you’ll let me know?” Mike met J.T.’s eyes for a moment then Axel’s, as if to say watch over my mean-ass wife.

Axel gave him a subtle nod.

J.T. rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, Mike. Go on. I’ll protect fragile Del from danger while you’re away.”

Mike growled but left.

“Don’t mess with him, J.T.,” Del scolded. “He’s going to worry until the baby comes. Let him.”

Axel had no idea why Mike might think Del so fragile. For one thing, he’d never met a tougher woman. And secondly, women seemed to be strongest when defending their kids. At least, his mother had been when shielding him and his brother from his dickhead father. But protecting herself, now, that was another story.

Perhaps Mike worried for another reason. “Are you sick?” he asked Del.

“Huh? Sick? No. Do I look sick?” A lot of challenge in that question. “I’m going to have a baby, not the plague.”

“Then why does he think you need so much help? Pregnancy is a natural part of life.”

“Exactly.” Del gave him a huge smile, one that made him wary. “For once, Heller, you make a lot of sense.”

“I always make sense.” He frowned.

Del’s smile grew. “Whatever you say. But let’s not get sidetracked. What my idiot brother—”

J.T. glared. “Hey.”

“—is trying to tell you is that my cousin is done waiting on your ass. Either ask Rena out or I’ll set her up with a guy. I’m a McCauley now. My new family knows all the nice, respectable people in this city. I can find her a date in seconds.” She snapped her fingers.

“Who’ll bore her to tears,” J.T. added under his breath.

“Hey, boring is better than hurting. Any guy would be lucky to date Rena. She’s sweet and funny. And she deserves hearts and flowers and her stupid HEA.” To J.T. she said, “That stands for happily ever after. Abby told me.”

“Who’s Abby?” Axel asked absently, watching Rena hold court with all the degenerates like a queen. Hell, Del was right.

“Abby’s my sister-in-law, who happens to be a romance writer. Rena thinks she walks on water.” Del snorted. “Rena, the woman you can’t stop staring at, is addicted to those love books.”

Axel glanced at J.T., who nodded. “Sorry, man. It’s true. My cousin wants romance.”

Axel cringed. “Romance?”

Del sighed. “Romance. And if you’re not quick about it, you’re going to miss out on one amazing person. For some reason, she seems to like you. Even if she doesn’t like you much right now. So try not to fuck it up. Go ask her out already.” She rubbed her belly just as Mike returned.

His eyes widened. “Are you okay? Should we go?” Then he turned a surprisingly mean glare Axel’s way. “What did you say to her?”

Axel just stared in surprise. Mike sounded halfway tough. Shocking that the family man had a rough side. Though maybe not so shocking, since the poor bastard had married Del, after all.

Del swore. “Mike, stop. I’m fine. The baby kicked is all.” She shot Axel a sly glance. “I think she likes Axel’s voice. It’s deep and sexy.”

Axel watched Del with caution. “Maybe you are sick. In the head.”

Mike seemed to relax. Del laughed and dragged him with her to Rena and a bunch of other McCauleys who’d just arrived.

J.T. chuckled. “My sister’s a pain, but she’s right. I know you don’t want to mess up your chances with my cousin, but by doing nothing, you’re already screwing up. Make a move or leave. But quit hanging in limbo, my man. Now, I’ve got a hot blond to seduce. You’re on your own.”

It wasn’t as if Axel had asked either Del or J.T. for help, though he secretly appreciated the advice.

Great. Rena wanted to find a man. He was the perfect man for her. He just had to get her away from everyone and let her know they should date, marry, and have a bunch of kinder.

He took two steps and bumped into a guy he’d never seen at Ray’s before.

“What the fuck you lookin’ at?” the man asked, unfortunately sounding sober. He had beady eyes and large hands and came to Axel’s chest. Behind him stood two men who’d fastened their gazes on Axel as well. His friends, maybe.

“Not you.” Axel glanced toward Rena and of course saw her staring at him and trouble. “Later, little guy.”

The man’s eyes bulged. “Little guy? I’m gonna bury my fist in—” the guy started, but Axel hurried past the jerk and his buddies, intent on behaving himself if it killed him.

***

Rena sighed. It was as if Axel had trouble written on his forehead. She watched as three men tried to pick a fight with the giant headed her way. But he ignored them. When one of them reached for Axel’s shoulder to stop him, he grabbed the hand on his shoulder and turned, then somehow had his assailant’s hand behind his back as he shoved the man’s face against a nearby tabletop.

She winced.

Next to her, her friends watched with oohs and aahs. Axel, to his credit, moved quickly. He said something to the man, waited for him to respond, then stood and, ignoring the small crowd watching him, made a beeline in her direction.

“Oh,” Lara sighed. “The handsome Viking is coming to plunder.”

Hope, her cousin’s fiancée, sighed as well. “He’s so hot, in a tough, scary kind of way. I mean, his muscles are almost bigger than J.T.’s.”

To that, Rena, Lara, and even Del scoffed. “Seriously?” Del said. “Hope, take off the blinders. My brother is big. Hell, so is Mike. But next to Axel, they look like, well, like Johnny.”

Lara snickered. Behind her, Johnny—her boyfriend—glared. “I heard that, Del.”

“I know.”

“Truth, bro,” Rena heard one of his friends tell him. She smiled at the group.

Her eyes teared, and she sniffed. She was going to miss this place and everyone in it. Yes, the many patron of Ray’s Bar had rough edges, but heck, so did she. She locked gazes with Axel. He stopped at the edge of the small crowd around her, looked at her over their heads, and gave her a soft smile.

That made her tear up even more because she hated that she was going to miss the big lug who made it a habit of staring and not talking to her. What kind of nutcase missed that?

“Speech!” J.T. yelled.

“Speech, speech,” others repeated, until Ray sounded an air horn and shut everyone up.

“Okay, assholes, simmer down.” Ray glared everyone into submission. “Not you, honey,” he said to her. “Now, I’m gonna say my piece. Rena Jackson is one of my favorite people. She always showed up on time”—he glared at Sue and Wiley in particular—“made everyone smile, and never mixed up an order. Sweet as honey is our Rena. And we’re sure as shit gonna miss her.”

The crowd cheered and clapped until Ray yelled at them to be quiet again. “But this is a celebration, not a funeral. So we’re gonna laugh and drink and make sure we take some of our girl’s business cards. Rena’s finally opened up that damn salon, and she needs customers.”

More cheering.

Ray pretended to scowl at her before smiling. “I hope I get a discount when I come in.”

“Ain’t like you got a lot to work with, baldy!” yelled a smartass from the back.

“I know that’s you, Earl!” Ray barked back then patted Rena on the shoulder. “Well, girl, give us your speech.”

Rena wiped her eyes. “I’m going to miss you degenerates.” Everyone laughed. “I mean it. You’ve all been like family, and I’ll miss you. But I do plan on coming in to grab a cold one now and then. And this time I’ll be nagging Sue from the other side of the counter.”

Everyone toasted that.

“So eat and drink up. I doubt Ray will ever open the bar again for free drafts.”

“The free drafts are done in ten minutes,” he said loudly. “You people are drinking me dry!”

More laughter.

Rena finished by saying, “I’m keeping this brief because Del and J.T. told me I had to.” She smiled at those booing her cousins, who shot her dark looks. “I love you all, and thanks for the party. I hope I’ll see you at Rena’s Salon off Rainier! Make sure you take a card before you leave. Ray’s customers get a discount. Now drink up!”

The air grew festive again. Someone plugged the jukebox back in, and the music started. Big J and Earl broke up a fight in the back, and two other bouncers Ray had brought in for the night seemed to be occupied near the corner with someone else.

A large hand wrapped around her arm, and heat filled her from head to toe. She didn’t know how she knew, but she could always tell when Axel was close.

In a deep voice, he asked, “Ah, can I talk to you?”

“Sure.”

He nodded to the left. “Away from the noise, bitte?”

She shrugged, doubting his goodbye would take more than a minute at most. Sadly, she’d given up on Axel as boyfriend material. He had looks, a body she’d had many, many naughty dreams about, and a great smile. But she needed a man who could communicate. And that was not him.

“Sure.” To the gang now watching her, she said, “I’ll be right back.” This won’t take long.

Lara and Hope winked at her. The guys gave Axel the evil eye, though she saw her cousins nodding at him. Oh boy. They’d better not have said anything to encourage him.

She shot them death glares as she let Axel lead her back behind the bar. But he didn’t stop there. He continued with her down the hallway into the back supply closet. He turned on the overhead light and closed the door behind them.

“Axel?” Rena might be nervous with another guy in a dark closet, but not Axel. From the first he’d gone out of his way to protect her and all the girls in the bar.

He let go of her arm but didn’t back up. “Sorry. I wanted to talk to you without interruption.”

“Go ahead.”

She swore his cheeks turned pink, which intrigued her. Axel Heller did look like a big old Viking. But like the warriors of old, he had a tan from time spent under the sun. How, she had no idea. Seattle didn’t like to let the sun out until closer to April. Axel wasn’t pale but a warm, buttery beige. His dirty-blond hair looked like a cascade of tarnished gold, and the beard and mustache he’d grown in the past months made her weak at the knees. She normally liked her men clean-shaven, but he was rocking that facial hair.

Her fingers itched to cut his mane back, to better frame the hard planes of his face.

She swallowed loudly, aware her heart thundered. With any luck, he’d mistake her silence as patience and not mesmerized awe.

Axel gave a nervous cough, which made him absolutely adorable. “I am happy for you but sorry to see you go.”

“Thanks, Axel.” She smiled.

His eyes narrowed on her face, and she felt his intensity like prickles of electricity all up and down her spine. “You have the prettiest smile,” he said, his voice deep, quiet.

“Th-thanks.” She backed up a step, fighting the absurd impulse to throw herself into his arms and just kiss him already. “Well, I’d better—”

“Do I make you nervous?” He closed the distance between them.

“Nervous?” She gave a nervous laugh and wanted to smack herself. “Nah. I’m just… I’d better get back to the party.”

“I hear you are going to start dating again.”

Stupid J.T. and Del. “So what?”

“So… Maybe you and I could… We could… Well, ah, go out for coffee sometime.”

Coffee? Lame. But hey, he was trying. Too little too late. She imagined a year of saying hello over lattes while he tried to find a way to ask to hold her hand. “Axel, I’m just going to be honest with you. I want a real relationship. And I don’t think that’s with you.”

After a pause, he asked, “Why not?”

“Because it’s taken you almost a year to ask me out. For coffee.”

Ja. I know.” His cheeks definitely looked pink. “But I wanted to be good with you. For you to like me and trust me.”

“I do like and trust you. But I want a real relationship now. Not in another year or two years when you’ve decided we’re good enough friends to try a kiss.” She blushed, embarrassed to have to put it out there like that. Then she felt bad for being so blunt. Rena grabbed his hand, all too aware of how much larger he was than her. “Axel, sweetie, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just think you and I have two different speeds.”

***

Axel had royally fucked up. Frozen with indecision on how to handle her, he’d avoided the problem instead of confronting it head-on. Unlike the way he dealt with the rest of life, delving into his issues headfirst, with Rena, he’d held back.

Time to flip that idea on its head.

She might call him a thinker, but Axel thrived on the long game, on strategy. Rena, for all her sweetness, couldn’t back down from a challenge. His backup plan, had she said no to a date, would have to be put into play.

Hell, everyone at the bar placed wagers on everything from how much Big J could guzzle in one sitting to how poorly Foley threw darts. For ten months, Axel had watched his pretty Rena bet with the best of them. Time to go big or go home.

She didn’t look scared of him, but he wanted to make doubly sure before he made a move he couldn’t take back. “Are you sure I don’t frighten you?”

Her eyes narrowed. Perfect. Now she looked angry. “Why? Because you’re huge? So what? I can defend myself, and I have friends.”

He couldn’t help a small smile. “I would never hurt you.”

“You’re damn right.” She crossed her arms over her chest, too peeved to be worried now. Falling right into his clutches.

“I think we should date.”

Rena sighed. “I just told you—”

“I bet you a kiss you can’t resist me.”

She opened her mouth and closed it. “Excuse me?”

“One kiss.” His heart threatened to thunder out of his chest. “When it’s done, if you’re not impressed, I do not bother you again.”

She blinked. “You want to kiss me?”

“I want to prove to you that you can’t resist me.” Then, to stoke the fire, he added, “I’m too much for most women to handle. I’ve seen you looking at me. And I know you say you aren’t, but really, you’re afraid of how you feel.”

“I’m feeling annoyed. But go ahead and pucker up.” Her eyes blazed. “Because I’m resisting you just fine—forever.” She stuck her face out and pursed her lips.

And he still found her unforgettably beautiful, even looking like a fish starved for oxygen.

Axel let himself smile and threw his all into the kiss, knowing he had everything on the line.

 

THE KISSING GAME