Amazon Best Romance for February—The Kissing Game,
“I bet you a kiss you can’t resist me.”
Rena Jackson is ready. She’s worked her tail off to open up her own hair salon, and she’s almost ready to quit her job at the dive bar. Rena’s also a diehard romantic, and she’s had her eye on bar regular Axel Heller for a while. He’s got that tall-brooding-and-handsome thing going big time. Problem is, he’s got that buttoned-up Germanic ice man thing going as well. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, Rena’s about ready to give up on Axel and find her own Mr. Right…
Rena finished her good-bye speech 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?”
He nodded to the left. “Away from the noise, ?”
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, 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.”
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.”
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 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 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.”
“ 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 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.