Touch of Love (Trials of Fear Book 3)




The bar was festively decorated for the season. Christmas lights were strung around the perimeter of the room, wrapped around pillars, and dangling from the ceiling. Each table held a centerpiece with fake candles and garland. A Christmas tree sat decorated in the corner, bursting with neatly wrapped boxes. Even the two bartenders were wearing headbands with sprigs of mistletoe dangling off springs which made them bounce around over their heads every time they moved.

The stage was set, and my band members were mingling, enjoying a few drinks before our first set at nine o’clock.

“When’s he gonna be here?” G asked, sipping his beer and scanning the slow-growing crowd. We’d found ourselves seats at the bar, facing the front doors so I could watch for Ireland.

“He doesn’t get off work until eight. He has to run home, shower, and get ready. He hoped to make it before our first set.”

“Are you nervous?”

“What do you think?”

G snorted and nudged my elbow. “You’re the Stoneman, I’ve never known you to be nervous. Where did you hide your guitar?”

“Gave it to the bartender to hold for me in the back. I’ll cue him one song beforehand, and he’ll get it for me.”

“Good stuff.” G drained his beer and shuffled to stand, waving at the man I knew as Krew. “Another. Just leave it with him, I’ll be back for it.” To me, he said, “Just gonna run out for a quick smoke. Time’s ticking.”

I checked the time on my phone. It was twenty to nine. Despite G’s claims that I never got nervous, my heart responded when I saw how close we were to going onstage.

Krew brought over a fresh beer for G, and leaned on the counter, resting his chin on a hand, bringing his face close to mine.

“How about you, sweetheart. You need a refill?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“Sugar, you are more than fine. In fact, you are positively delicious.”

He bobbed his head from side to side, sending his mistletoe-headband to sway. It was a not-so-subtle hint, but I ignored it. This guy had been nothing more than a flirt ever since Stone Angel performed at Bottoms Up the first time.

“I’m flattered.”

When I went to sit up, he hooked a finger in the collar of my shirt and tilted his head down so his decoration would bop me.

“Where you going, sweet stuff? You’re under a mistletoe. Don’t you understand mistletoe rules?”

Unlatching him from my shirt, I put distance between us, chuckling at his quickly forming pout. “I guess I’m going to have to be a rule breaker today, sweet stuff. There is only one man getting these lips under the mistletoe, and I’m sorry, but it’s not you.”

“But they’re too beautiful not to share. Are you certain he won’t share? Sharing makes everyone happy.”

“He doesn’t share,” came a gruff, no-nonsense voice behind me.

A hand landed at the small of my back, another gripped my chin and turned my face. Then, I was engulfed by lips and tongue. Owned and claimed right there in the middle of Bottoms Up.

When Ireland broke our kiss, he turned to Krew, growled, and nipped at the air. “Mine, pretty boy, back off.”

Krew whined dramatically and pulled what I could only call a temper tantrum with a full pout, foot stomp, and crossed arms. “You always ruin my fun, Ireland.”

“If you’d stop trying to steal my man, I wouldn’t have to ruin your fun.”

Ireland slid on the stool beside me and shooed Krew with a hand. “Now be a good little girl and go find me a Diet Coke.”

Krew narrowed his eyes at my boyfriend and leaned in, threatening his personal space and knowing it as he curled his lip and crinkled his nose. Ireland growled again and held his gaze.

Stone Angel had performed a number of times at Bottoms Up in the past few months, and Krew and Ireland lived to torment each other. It was all in fun. Krew flirted with me excessively to get under Ireland’s skin, and Ireland did everything but piss on my leg to claim me.

Their staredown only lasted until Ireland snapped Krew’s headband off his head and set it on his own. Krew’s mouth hung open for a beat, then they both laughed.

“Drink, sugar. Go. I’ll be here waiting, kissing my boyfriend under the mistletoe. I’ll tell you all about it when you get back.”

“Bastard.” Krew stuck his tongue out and whirled around, darting off to get Ireland’s drink.

“No alcohol tonight?”

“My sugars were a little high when I got home. Gonna play it safe.”

“You okay?”

“Perfect, except that you’re ignoring mistletoe rules, bad boy. Quit breaking the rules.”

I chuckled and leaned in, taking Ireland into a deep kiss. His hand looped around my neck and drew me closer. Over the past few months, we’d found our way back to the place we’d left behind the day Ireland lost his mother.

There had been a small setback again in early November caused by an incident at the hospital, but Ireland battled through much better than before, knowing I wouldn’t give up.

“All right, all right. Enough you two. You’re making my dick hard, and these pants are way too tight for that shit. Unless…” Krew quirked a brow and motioned a finger between the three of us.

“No!” Ireland and I both spat in unison.

Krew threw his hands up like a shield. “Woah, calm down, it was just a suggestion.”

Ireland turned to the bar and sipped his drink, keeping a menacing gaze on Krew. “Are you always like this?” he asked.

“Pff.” Krew flinched and waved a hand like he was asking the most ridiculous question. “Sugar, I am way worse. I tame myself around you. You couldn’t handle all my awesomeness. I mean look at this.”

He proceeded to twirl and gesture to the entire package of Krew-awesomeness we clearly weren’t fully noting, except, at the tail-end of his pirouette, he froze and yelped. Unsure what had caused the reaction, Ireland and I followed his wide-eyed gaze to the front door. Entering was a tall, older man with silver and black hair, wind-swept and gelled off his face. His short beard was the same color and groomed. He had tattoos up both arms, and his button-up was open enough to show a fit, muscular chest and more tattoos. He was in his fifties if I had to wager a guess, but incredibly stunning. Stunning enough he’d somehow cast a statue-spell on the young bartender.

The man scanned the bar, eyes trailing, clearly searching for someone. Krew yelped again, spun, and ducked so only his head poked up over the top of the bar.

“Oh, daddy, oh, daddy, oh daddy. I’m fuuuuucked. You two,” he pointed a sharp finger in our direction. “I’m not here. You didn’t see me, and I swear to God if you give me away I’ll… I’ll… well, I’ll lick your face, beautiful, and I know you’ll hate that,” he said to Ireland, “Then I’ll kiss your boyfriend for real, no more joking around.” He peered over his shoulder and shrunk lower. “Ohmygod, ohmygod.” Then, he was gone. A blur of black clothes flew around the bar and dashed out of sight into the back room.

Ireland looked at me then back to where Krew had disappeared. “What the hell was that all about?”

I shook my head, shrugging as I stared at the door to the back room. “No idea.”

I turned to face the bar and searched for the man in the crowd who’d sent Krew running. He too was looking at the door where Krew had made his grand escape. The man wasn’t fooled, and the quirk in his lips told me Krew’s rather dramatic exit wasn’t unexpected either.

Whatever was going on, I hoped Krew got over himself quickly. I needed him during our first set, and he’d promised to help me out.

Ireland removed the crazy headpiece and scanned the stage. “You guys all set?”

“Yup. Once G finishes his smoke, I’ll gather everyone and get us started.”

“I’m gonna slide over to that vacant table near the wall. I have a feeling it’s going to get busy in here soon.”

It was already starting to fill up, so I didn’t blame him. Ireland was becoming more comfortable out in public and in crowded atmospheres than he’d been a few months ago, but it kept him on high alert, and having a wall at his back helped.

We wandered to the vacant table just as G reappeared. I waved and silently told him to round up the boys.

“Okay. I’m up. Watch my drink, and no kissing the bartenders, no matter what lies they tell you.”

Ireland shook his head and pulled me down for a kiss. “It’s not me who has them crawling up their legs. Go be all sexy and sing me a song.”

“I will.” Just wait and see.

With a final peck, I left Ireland and took my place on stage. Scanning the bar, I saw no signs of Krew anywhere. That little shit. On a second scan, I also saw no more signs of the sexy silver stud either.

“Where’s the kid?” G whispered into my ear once his guitar was slung over his shoulder.

“No clue. Rigger is the only bartender on the floor.”

“And he looks pissed.”

Just as we spoke, Krew emerged from the back room, Mr. Silver Fox hot on his tail. The man leaned down and spoke into Krew’s ear before slapping his ass and securing a handful of booty. Krew jumped, and he gave the man a solid sneer as the man slipped around him and found a seat at the bar. However, Krew’s sneer was only surface deep. The minute the guy’s back was turned, Krew rolled his eyes and smiled to himself.

“Okay. We’re good.” I caught Krew’s eye and got a subtle nod, telling me he was still with me.

Zack clicked on the amps and the stage buzzed to life. I made eye contact with my band, and Reece counted us into our first song, cracking his drumsticks together over his head.

Like every time I took the stage, I let the music wash over me as I sang. Holding my microphone between two hands, I spied Ireland and moved to the music of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash.

He always teased me about my shitty dancing, but I couldn’t help moving to the music, swaying my hips and rocking it out. My hair fell in my eyes more times than not, and I pushed the sweaty locks off my forehead between songs.

Halfway through our first set, I locked eyes with Krew and gave him the subtle nod he was waiting for. One more song, and then I prayed I didn’t lose my nerve for what came next. We burst into “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles, earning us a handful of dancers up front on the non-existent stage. Drunk people didn’t care. They just wanted to have fun, and this song was always a big hit.

As it wrapped up, my heart thudded more than usual, and my palms grew slick. Krew appeared, nudging people out of the way as he placed a single chair by the stage and passed me my acoustic guitar.

“Good luck.”

G squeezed my shoulder before unstrapping his guitar and sinking into the background with the rest of the guys. Already, Ireland’s forehead was creased in confusion as he watched what was happening. I clipped my mic on the stand and accepted a headset mic from Reece, slipping it on instead.

I hated the headset mics and generally didn’t prefer to use them, but I needed my hands, and I needed to move, so it was required.

“Good evening, everyone,” I spoke into the mic. G adjusted my level as the bar crowd hushed, and people turned from their conversations to face me. “I’m always happy to see a good crowd, especially around the holidays. I hope everyone is having a good time.” There were a few random cheers and raised glasses. “Tonight is kinda a special night for me, and if you guys don’t mind, I’m going to take a time out and do things a little different.

“Ireland, would you come up here please?”

I met his gaze, and his shock showed clear on his face. He surveyed the crowd and slowly slipped from his seat, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. I noted those tiny signs of his discomfort, which was why I’d tried to make sure I gave him a safe spot to be up front.

I held out my hand, and he took it, then I directed him onto the waiting chair Krew had set out.

“Get comfy.” I winked, and he cocked his head in question.

Once he was settled, I adjusted my acoustic guitar and spoke. “This man right here has become the center of my world. Every day, I wake up blessed to have him by my side. If no one here minds, I wanted to sing him a little song.”

The patrons erupted into cheers, encouraging me on. Once they died down, I met Ireland’s gaze again. “This is for you, baby. Nothing original because I’m simply not that talented, but I think you may find it familiar.”

With a deep breath, I closed my eyes and started to play. Later, he’d probably tease me for my selection, telling me I was no Rob Thomas, but deep down, I knew he’d love it. I played him “Overjoyed” by Matchbox Twenty, featuring his high school crush Rob. Everything about the song was fitting for the man who sat before me. Some couples designated songs to their relationships, and maybe he’d allow me to dedicate this one to ours.

At one point, I opened my eyes and our gazes locked. The smile on his face could have lit any dark room. He was beautiful, and he was mine. When the song came to an end, I was deaf to the applause. The only thing that mattered was Ireland, the twinkle in his eye, and the love that spilled from his heart.

Once the roaring hoots and hollers died off, I held my hand out to the man who’d stolen my heart.

“Ireland,” I said into the mic, giving the room another second to hush. “When I first met you, I remember thinking, man that guy is kinda a dick.”

He laughed and kicked me in the shin. “Be nice.”

A chuckle rolled over the crowd as I dodged a second attack, laughing. “I’m kidding. When I met you, I actually was nearly knocked off my feet by how stunningly gorgeous you are, and then, I got to know you and realized your beauty is even richer on the inside. You have the heart of a fighter, and I’m so honored to be a part of your life. When we’re together, I feel like we can conquer the world, no matter what obstacles stand in our way. I’ve loved you for many months already, but if you’ll let me, I’ll love you for a lifetime more.”

Ireland’s lips parted, and eyes grew wide as I passed my guitar to Krew who stood off to the side. Then, I dropped to one knee and opened the box that had been burning a hole in my pocket all evening.

“Ireland Hayes, will you share your life with me and marry me?”

He bent forward, elbows braced on his knees and covered his face. A second later, he wiped away evidence of tears, leaving his cheeks damp. Sliding off the chair, he joined me, kneeling on the ground and clutched my face.

“You know I will.”

The room exploded in cheers, but the only thing that mattered were Ireland’s lips on mine, his hands holding my face, and his warmth wrapped all around me. We connected perfectly, mind, body, and soul. Maybe we had a unique relationship, but it was ours. This was our normal, and I wouldn’t change a thing, because nothing is impossible.