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His brother was a dumbass. It was as simple and as complicated as that.
Jackson Savage tugged on the suspenders holding up the too-big red velvet pants he had on over his jeans. He'd stripped out of the red jacket some time ago, leaving him frustrated at being the one who got stuck wearing the Santa suit for the bar's Christmas party. The hat and shiny black boots remained intact even though he'd prefer to ditch them, as well. But he was scheduled to play Santa later so he thought he'd better keep them on.
Thank God this was his last night working at the bar. Even if his brother wouldn't be happy about it.
Oh, he knew there were valid reasons his older sibling felt protective of him. Losing their parents at a young age was the biggest of them. Thinking he needed to be a father figure as a result was another. But as far as Jackson was concerned, he'd grown beyond the nose-blowing stage long ago. It was past time Jason took a good look at him and realized he wasn't a kid anymore.
If his brother didn't. .well, he was afraid he was going to have to kick his ass just to prove his point. And that would be one fight neither of them would walk away from unscathed, he was sure.
Well, that was adult of him, wasn't it? Jackson grimaced at the asinine thought and swiped the white puff of the Santa hat back from his brow.
Still, nearly four months had passed since he'd proven himself up for the job, not only as a responsible adult and decorated Marine, but solid Lazarus Security material. If taking a bullet for the cause wasn't enough, what was?
Jackson shoved the glass of draught beer he'd just filled from a tap a little too forcefully, spilling a good inch of it as he served his countless drink at The Barracks that night. He muttered an apology and then wiped the spot, topping off the glass before presenting it to one of the regulars again.
"Hey, Jax, that's the third time tonight. What's the matter?" Winston asked. "Trouble with Mrs. Claus?"
Pete, the guy standing next to him, laughed. "There'd have to be a Mrs. Claus in order for there to be trouble with her. No, Jax here's trouble is that he needs a little something from a Mrs. Claus candidate."
Jackson gave a perfunctory laugh. "What I need is a nice, long vacation. Preferably somewhere warm. Where someone else serves me."
Genie, one of the three waitresses, stepped up to the bar in her Santa hat, too-tight white tank and red velvet shorts trimmed in white fur, The Barracks' holiday uniform even if it was December and ten below outside. "I'll wait on you," she offered with her trademark purr.
Pete gave a low whistle. "Son, if I were you, I'd be all over that."
"Against bar policy," Jackson said absently.
Even if it wasn't, it was against his personal policy. He made it a point not to sleep with coworkers. He'd seen his fair share of bad episodes when things went southas they inevitably did. South? On one unforgettable occasion, he'd ended up with a psycho bitch from hell stalking him because he'd given in to temptation and slept with her one night. It was all he'd been in the market for at the time. Apparently, she'd had other ideas. And when sweet persuasion hadn't worked, she'd resorted to other more disturbing measures to prove her love for him.
No way was he going that route again.
No matter how difficult his hot coworkers sometimes made it for him. He looked over Genie's generous curves and then up at her suggestive smile. She made his four-month-old wound itch.
But that's not why he was there. His tending bar was really only a way to keep himself occupied until his brother came around. Yeah, it helped pay the bills, but considering the large, structured settlement and trust fund he and Jason had received upon their parents' deaths, he didn't need the money.
Still, he'd barely touched his bank account, gaining a certain satisfaction in supporting himself and his day-to-day expenses with his income. Right now, his life resembled some sort of airplane holding pattern. He only hoped he'd be cleared for landing soon, because he didn't know how much fuel he had left before he crashed.
He checked his cell phone, knowing as he did who he was hoping he'd find a call or text from. And, strangely enough, it wasn't his brother. He'd smiled when Max McGuire's missed call had popped up in this display. She hadn't left a message, but that was no surprise; she never did.
His movements slowed as he realized he missed her.
It had been a while since they'd spoken. The last time he'd talked to her, she'd been somewhere out in the Pacific Northwest working for some sort of highend security firm. Their longtime friendship had always gone through ebbs and flows, with stretches where an occasional phone call was the name of the game.
Then there were the times when they'd been
"thick as thieves," as Gram liked to say, nearly inseparable.
Of course, the physical distance between them currently prevented that.
Still, over the years they made sure to carve out some together time, meeting for at least a few days to catch up, usually on some sort of physical adventure, like mountain climbing or wild water kayaking.
He thought he should call her back, maybe see about scheduling just such a trip soon. Or perhaps he'd go visit her, see what she was up to and how life was treating her.
Jackson told his boss, Chuck, that he was taking his break. He grabbed his leather jacket and let himself out from behind the bar. He returned a few greetings as he walked to the back and then through the door leading to the alley behind the row of buildings. He leaned against the cold brick and shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. It was at times like these he wished he still smoked.
"Hey," a female said next to him.
He hadn't realized anyone else was out here. "Hey," he said without opening his eyes.
"Cold out, huh?"
If he hadn't been able to tell by her deep inhale, the acrid scent of cigarette smoke would have revealed what she was doing.
"That it is," he said.
"You work here?" "Yeah."
"This is my first time at this bar." He heard her shoes shuffle in the salt they put down as a deicer. "My friends suggested it. I haven't been inside yet."
Her voice sounded familiar. He cracked his eyelids open and openly regarded the pretty redhead. Holy shit.
"Max? Is that you?"
For a moment Maxine McGuire was afraid Jackson wouldn't recognize her. And that was beyond stupid, really. He was her best friend. They'd pretty well grown up together on the farm as kids, and had been together again for a brief stint when they'd been stationed overseas in the Marines. But it had been a good two years since their physical paths last crossed, despite their sometimes lengthy telephone conversations. And while she wasn't about to tell him, a big part of the reason she'd chosen The Barracks as the place to meet her old high school friends, instead of the countless other bars in the military hub of Colorado Springs, Colorado, was because Jackson tended there.
For reasons she couldn't fathom, she always experienced a spark of fear he wouldn't recognize her. That too much time had passed, or maybe he was otherwise occupied.
She knew why she felt that way. Or she had an idea anyway.
While they'd always been close friends, she realized she'd always been more than a little bit in love with him. And the worst thing that could ever happen would be that he wouldn't recognize her. Or that she'd look at him and see indifference in his eyes.
Not that she ever had.
Still, she was pathetic. And it was that very self-esteem issue she hoped to finally nip totally in the bud.
Her relationship with Jax was the only area in her life she experienced such vulnerable emotions. Otherwise she was confident, strong and knew exactly where she was at any given moment and where she was going.
"Hey, Jax," she said, hoping the smile that warmed her to her toes wasn't too obvious.
He stared at her for a full minute and then pushed from the building. She stiffened as he gave her a hug. It was silly, really, because he'd always given her the same, brotherly greeting.
The problem was that her reaction had never been quite the sisterly one he was going for.
Not that he ever appeared to have a clue.
Of course, she knew she was the primary reason for that. She'd never let him in on her true feelings.
"I was just thinking about you," he said. "You called the other day but didn't leave a message."
"I never leave a message."
His chuckle tickled her ear. "Yeah, I know."
He stepped back and looked her over, as if seeing her for the first time. It was all she could do to maintain his gaze, and not to pat down her too curly hair.
"You look good," he said.
"Thanks. So do you."
She took another hit off the cigaretteher first in almost two yearsand then flicked it to the ground farther down the alley.
How old had she been when they first met? Five? Six? She and her mom had just moved in with her aunt after her parents' breakup and she'd run away. It was the first of many doomed attempts, complete with a stick to ward off unwanted critters, the end tied with a handkerchief that held a sandwich, her favorite paperback novel and a pack of matches.
It had probably taken her a whole half hour to reach the Savage barn on the neighboring property, but everything was relative and she could have sworn it had been five hours and that she'd reached the border of New Mexico, at least.
She'd just spread out her handkerchief on the fresh straw, sat on it and opened her sandwich when a shadow fell across the open doorway. There stood Jackson Savage, no older than her, arms crossed over his chest. He'd told her in no uncertain terms she was on private property and that meant she was trespassing.
So she'd gathered up her things and began to stalk from the barn. He'd caught her by the arms and told her he was just kidding, then introduced himself.
She'd wasted no time tackling him to the ground and punching him. Then she'd grabbed her stick and continued on her way.
And so began their lifelong friendship, as he liked to say whenever he told the story, usually adding a bloody nose to the equation. Namely, his.
For her, well she'd fallen in love on the spot. And she'd always found some sort of asinine way to cover up the unwanted emotion until now.
Now she was determined to let him know exactly what she had in mind and exactly how she felt. But she'd take it slow, hoping it would guarantee something enduring and not send him running flat out in the opposite direction.
The reason for her change of mind? She'd come to realize there was no going forward in any of her relationships until she went back.
"I'd better get inside," she said, giving him her best smile.
She slowly slid a piece of gum into her mouth and then offered him a piece. He appeared so distracted by her movements, he didn't even see the gum.
"What? Oh. Yeah. Me, too."
She was self-conscious as she led the way back inside, forcing herself not to fight him over control of the door. She slipped out of her coat as she walked with slow, measured steps, satisfied at the sound of his breath hissing through his teeth. Yeah, she looked good in the tight jeans and low-cut shirt she had on. She knew that. And she was pleased that he did, too.
"Here, I'll stash your coat behind the bar with mine," he said.
"Thanks." She handed her jacket over, put on her Santa hat and then applied lip-gloss. She slid the tube into a tiny inside pocket of her jeans. "I haven't seen some of these friends for years. How do I look?" she asked.
"Huh?" It seemed to take him a moment to register her question. "Oh. Great. Fine. You look good."
Great to fine to good. Definitely the wrong direction.
But that was Jax for you. Getting a compliment from him had always been like pulling teeth.
Good thing she'd recently decided he needed to make an appointment with the dentist.