Cold Hearted Bastard

14

Jackson

This is the third worst day of my life.

I was a son of a bitch before, but that was nothing compared to now. I’m trying to drown myself in the busyness of work, so I don’t have to think about Gwen back in her motel, waiting.

Thank god there’s a game on tonight. The bar is packed, keeping my hands from being idle. But it’s not mentally taxing enough to distract myself from thinking.

Lurking in the back of my mind, like a persistent thorn, is the thought that I can still go get Gwen. She’s not gone yet. I could convince her not to go. Because she wants to stay.

The notion eats at me, making me crazy.

I grit my teeth, so hard my temples ache, and curse the day she walked into this place. Before cursing my goddamn arrogance that I could control the situation. I’d known she was trouble, only I’d foolishly not realized what kind of trouble she was.

I should have shut her down and never looked back. I’d be numb, and sane, which is exactly the way I like it.

After today, I have a new sympathy for addicts because every single second I stay away from her is a fucking struggle.

When I’d left her, I’d gone home to shower. I needed to rid myself of her scent that seems to have seeped into my skin. I’d torn through the house, leaving a path of destruction in my dust. I was an unbearable bastard to everyone, making my brother and sister glance at each other with worried eyes. I hate that look. Hate that they wear it all too often around me. To think, I used to be a person people envied. I was a renowned chef. I traveled the world, ate at the best restaurants and was entertained by the best people.

And now… I’m a bartender who’s fucked because of a woman.

I can’t believe this has happened to me. I’m so careful.

A pretty woman with dark hair and cunning eyes puts her hand on my forearm, jerking me from my mental tirade. She smiles up at me, licking her lips. Two weeks ago, I’d have been all over her, and now…nothing.

Not a goddamn thing.

She purrs, standing on the rail to lean over the bar and give me a healthy dose of cleavage. “You’re unattached tonight.”

There’s not a person in a fifty-mile radius that hadn’t known I’d been hooking up with Gwen. Not that it stopped women from hitting on me left and right. Nor had it stopped the men from trying to cop a feel off Gwen.

I’d set them straight.

I think about the last time a guy had touched her. How I’d leaned over the bar, and kissed her while I grasped her tank top in my fist. How I’d marked her. Claimed her over and over again, despite Beau’s annoyance, so that everyone would know she was mine.

That they couldn’t have her.

I shake my head to clear it from the image, and turn my attention back on the woman. “What can I get you?”

I’m all business, no honey, no smooth voice, no nothing.

Her gaze flickers. “You look like you need to blow off some steam, maybe I can help you with that?”

“No, you can’t.” The words are flat.

Again the thought whispers in my mind. Go get her. Tell her the truth and she’ll stay.

Fuck. I want to roar in frustration. I want out of here. I want to escape.

But, no matter what, I cannot leave. If I leave now, I’ll go to her. So I have to stay until long after she’s flown away.

Because I will cave.

I’m that weak.

I hate her for making me that weak.

There’s only one person I’m weak for, who can break me without even trying, and that’s enough.

“You sure about that?” The woman trails a nail down my skin, and I think of Gwen clawing at my back.

“Yeah.” I turn away and leave the bar, going into the office and sitting on the new couch Beau bought after Gwen and I broke the last one.

I’d fucked her on this one too.

She’d gotten down on her knees between my legs and sucked my cock.

I lean back and close my eyes, thinking of the last time.

Her mouth a tight suction around my shaft.

My fist clenched in her hair.

I can still recall how the deep red strands looked against my skin, weaving around the veins in my hands.

I grow hard at the memory.

My desire to go to her, grows exponentially.

The door opens and I jerk to an upright position to see Beau standing in the doorway.

Jesus Christ, not him. I growl. “What?”

He gets that set to his jaw and closes the door behind him.

“I’m not in the mood, Beau.” I do not need this shit right now. Everyone just needs to leave me the hell alone until I know Gwen’s on a fucking plane and I can go about the business of collecting myself.

Once she’s gone, it will get easier.

He ignores me, per usual, walking over and propping himself against the desk. He crosses his arms over his chest.

“What? What the fuck do you want?” I pinch the bridge of my nose. “If this is about being nice to all those cloying women out there, you’re shit out of luck tonight, got it?”

“Got it.” He nods once in affirmation.

I give him a wary glance. “Then what?”

“I just wanted to know if you needed anything.” His tone has taken on that paternal quality that both annoys the hell out of me and gives me comfort.

I want to yell at him that he should have forced Gwen to stay, to insist he needed her to work, but that’s irrational, and even I’m not that crazy. “All I want is to be alone for five minutes.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not all you want.”

“Fuck you, Beau.”

“Let me ask you something.”

“No.”

He’s not deterred. That’s the problem with him. He’s never deterred. It’s why he’s been a constant in our lives all these years. He never waivers. It’s both his greatest strength and worst weakness.

He shifts and stretches out his legs. “Did you tell her?”

I shake my head.

“Why not?”

I grit my teeth. “She needed to go, you know that.”

He shrugs one shoulder. “I was right.”

I raise a brow. “About what?”

“About her.” He juts his chin. “She broke you.”

I look away. “She’s leaving tonight, and then this will all be over.”

God, it seems like a lifetime since she’d blown into this town. I’d been keeping her busy, out of trouble. When she wasn’t at the bar, she’d been in her motel getting fucked six ways ’til Sunday by me. She hadn’t integrated into this place, but she’d sure as hell been integrated into me.

“It’s not too late.” Of course he knows when her flight is.

I shake my head and when I speak, I’m mortified my voice cracks. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” He says it like it’s so easy. When he knows it’s not.

My throat hurts when I swallow. “You know it doesn’t change a damn thing. Her life is in Chicago, and my life is here. End of story. There’s no point in prolonging the inevitable.”

“You’re probably right.” He’s silent for a long moment before he tilts his head. “You need anything, boy?”

Because he’s like a father to me, Beau is the only person on this earth I can say this too. I hate what I’m about to admit, but I know when I’m licked. He’s always watched out for me, and with him keeping an eye on things, I can make it through the night. My gaze flicks to him and then away. “Don’t let me leave here until after.”

He gives me a nod. “Will do.”

That’s it, no judgment, no ribbing, nothing but acceptance that I need his help right now. And he’s never been able to deny me when I’m in need.

Beau’s close to my brother and sister. He loves them just as much as he loves me. But like my mother, I’m his soft spot.

Maybe because I look so much like her, I don’t really know, but he won’t fail me.

Like he didn’t fail her, even though she never appreciated it. I appreciate it enough for both of us.

“Thanks.” And with that, I get up and go back to work.

All I need to do is make it a few more hours.

Then she’ll be gone for good.

And we’ll be done.

Gwen


I’m packed.

I’m sitting on the bed in the motel room I’d spent countless hours with Jackson, waiting until it’s time to go. I’ve thought about going to the airport early but I can’t make myself get up and leave.

Part of me still hopes he’ll come back. That there will be a knock at the door and it will be him and I’ll stay, for at least a little longer. I know it’s smart to leave. That I’m making the right decision, but my treacherous heart doesn’t care about my logical brain.

My heart is stubborn and it doesn’t feel done.

My heart is apparently a glutton for punishment.

I think about going back, wandering the Chicago streets, spending countless hours working. Resuming my regular life is what I need to do, but somehow after my time here, that life seems like a distant memory. I can’t quite picture it.

Can’t quite get in touch with the feel of my condo, the softness of my bed, or the pavement under my feet. It’s home, so it will come, and the memory of Jackson will become the dream.

Or at least, that’s my hope.

I blow out a deep breath, glancing at my suitcase.

He’s not going to come back.

He’s gone.

We’re over.

Although, did we really ever begin?

What do I actually know about him? About his life? All I really know about him, is how he poured a drink, made the best bar food in the entire world, and how he felt buried inside me.

That’s it.

So why does it feel like I’m losing something important? That once I get on that plane my life back in Chicago will never be the same.

There’s a knock at the door.

It’s like an electric shock.

For a second I think I’ve conjured the sound with sheer mental determination, but then I hear it again.

The strike of a heavy fist against the wood.

My heart leaps into my throat.

I bolt up, running for the door and throwing it open.

Thank god he’s come.

I stall, freezing in my spot. Overcome by crushing defeat.

It’s not Jackson.

It’s another man.

A stranger.

The man looks at me with steel-gray eyes. He’s tall, broad and good looking with a strong jaw and chiseled features. I swallow hard. He has the same dirty blond hair as Jackson.

They look alike. The man standing in the threshold has to be Jackson’s brother. There’s too much similarity for it to be a coincidence.

Or is that wishful thinking? I tilt my head. “Can I help you?”

He gives me a charming, crooked grin that I’m sure wins him plenty of points with women. “So you’re the one?”

“The one?” The words stumble from my lips. My heart is still pounding against my rib cage in a hard, frantic beat.

He nods. “The one giving my little brother fits.”

He’s got that same, slow drawl, more pronounced than Jackson’s, but it’s like molasses. My lashes flutter, and for once I’m at a loss for words.

It’s not Jackson, but he still feels like hope.

I focus on the obvious question. “Can I help you?”

He gestures to the room in back of me. “Can I come in?”

“I’m leaving soon to catch a flight home.” I stay rooted in my spot.

“Yeah, I know.” He juts his chin just like Jackson. “Can I come in?”

My hand still on the door, I stand back and let him enter, watching him as he walks into the small motel room.

There are a lot of similarities between the brothers, but there are also differences.

His face is harder than Jackson’s.

His features not as refined.

And then there are his eyes, like molten steel.

He turns to look at me, tilting his head to the side. “How long do you have until your plane takes off?”

I clear my throat, not able to discern why he’s here. “A few hours.” Three hours and fifteen minutes to be exact.

He smiles. “I bet you’re wondering what I might be doing here.”

“I am.” How could I not be?

Without asking he takes a seat in the chair—Jackson’s chair as I think of it—and stretches out his long legs, hooking them at the ankles.

Well, he certainly knows how to make himself at home, now doesn’t he?

He peers at me with narrowed eyes and laces his fingers over his flat stomach. He’s wearing worn jeans and a knit black shirt that looks custom made for him. Like the clothes molded to his body instead of him simply putting them on. “I wanted to get a good look at you.”

I frown, holding my hands out. “Well, here I am.”

He nods, his eyes flickering down the length of me. “My brother always did have good taste in women.”

This is something I’ve noticed about Southern men, they just seem to think it’s their right to comment on you. I shrug. “Thanks.”

He smiles. “You know, not a lot rattles Jackson.”

“Yeah, I know.” I want to be the exception, but he’s not here. He’s resisting the pull between us. He’s stronger than I am.

“You’re rattling him.”

My pulse picks up. “Okay.”

“And I figure that means something, so here I am.”

“I’m not sure what difference it makes, I’m leaving to go home and you’ll never see me again.”

He shifts, making himself even more comfortable. Like he’s seeping into the furniture. “He’d kill me for coming here.”

“I’m sure he would, he’s made it very clear he doesn’t want me tangled up in his life.”

“I’m sure he did, he’s a bastard that way.”

“Yeah, he is.”

He flashes me another smile. “But you still managed to tangle yourself up, now didn’t ya?”

I tilt my chin. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Somehow I doubt that, red.”

I shake my head. “Have you been talking to Beau?”

“Almost every day.” He winks at me. “He stops by to chat so he’s hard to avoid.”

Surprise flutters inside me, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I can’t imagine them all sitting around a table discussing me. It seems so inclusive, when Jackson’s been so intent on keeping me an outsider. “I didn’t know.”

“We’re family.”

I’m not sure where this is going, so I ask, “Your name is Wyatt, right?”

He nods. “And you’re Gwen. The redhead from the city that is shaking up Jackson and turning him into an unbearable asshole.”

“Should I apologize?”

“Nope.” He shifts, straightening to lean forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “How much does Jackson mean to you?”

With the question my throat grows impossibly tight. “I can’t see why that matters?”

“It matters, because what I’m about to do is going to bring me a lot of shit, so I want to make sure it’s worth it.”

My heart rate speeds back up. If I let him, he’s going to reveal something about Jackson. Something he feels I should know. The missing piece to this strange puzzle.

All it will cost me is admission of my deepest feelings.

Foreboding races hot across my skin, and I wonder if I should kick him out. Just send him on his way and leave this place and never look back.

As soon as I have the thought, I know I’m not going to do that. I must learn the truth. If only to help me understand what is going on here. This is my one and only chance, and maybe it’s not smart, but I have to know.

When I speak, my voice is hoarse with emotion and tears well in my eyes. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I came to try and talk him into a job.”

Wyatt nods. “Go on.”

I blow out a breath. “You won’t tell him, will you?”

He shakes his head. “He’s my brother, and my loyalty is to him, not you, but whatever you tell me won’t leave this room.”

I believe him, or maybe I just want to admit it, I don’t know. I brush the tears from my cheeks. “I’m afraid I might be in love with him. Although I have no idea why, he’s such a bastard.”

At that Wyatt laughs. “Yeah, he really is. Comes from being a genius, I guess.”

Through my tears, I laugh too. “Guess so.”

He meets my eyes, and they are intent but unreadable. He laces his fingers. “I’d like to show you something, if you’d let me.”

“What?” I try not to show too much eagerness for fear he’ll snatch the chance away from me.

“Something that might make a difference.” He tilts his head toward the door. “Will you come with me?”

“Where?”

“Up to the house.”

Wild horses couldn’t keep me away. I bite my lip. “Jackson isn’t going to be happy about this.”

“Red, that is the understatement of the century. There’s going to be hell to pay. Only real question is if it will be worth the cost.” He stands and shimmies keys out of his front pocket. “I assume you’re coming.”

I’m not even going to pretend to think about it. “Yeah, I am.”

I leave the motel room and climb into an old, flatbed truck. Wyatt puts it into gear and grabs his cell phone, pressing a button and holding it to his ear. Fifteen seconds pass before he speaks, “Yeah, we’re on our way.”

Then he hangs up.

I fold my hands in my lap to keep from fidgeting and I can’t help the question. “Was that Jackson?”

“Nope, our sister, Cat.” He doesn’t elaborate further.

Obviously he doesn’t intend on filling me in before we get to the house, but I can still ask questions.

I look at him. “Why are you doing this?”

His forearms flex on the steering wheel and he gives me a sidelong glance. “Because you’re the only thing that’s made my brother happy in as long as I can remember. Even way back when, traveling all over the world he wasn’t ever really happy. Although he doesn’t believe that.”

A million more questions race through my mind but I don’t ask because I don’t think I’ll get the answers. I look out the window, staring at the trees as we fly down the interstate he’s turned on. I press my fingers to the glass. “You know this doesn’t have a happy ending, right?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Life is funny and you never know how it’s gonna turn out. But even if you only make him happy for another week I figure he deserves that much.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I fall silent. Long minutes pass, and he doesn’t appear inclined to offer any more information.

We exit the highway and travel down a frontage road, until we make a turn. We drive a bit before turning onto a deserted tree-lined two-lane road so pretty it could be in a movie.

“It’s pretty.”

“Thank you,” Wyatt says.

I don’t know why, but nerves kick up in my stomach.

Two miles in, we turn onto a dirt road and pull up to a gate that says, McKay Distilleries.

I look at Wyatt. “Jackson said you owned a distillery.”

He takes a remote out of the glove compartment and presses the button. When the gates open, he starts driving.

“Yeah, rum mostly.” He points at the rows of crops in the distance. “From the sugar cane fields.”

How is this even possible? I have no idea what I envisioned the few times Jackson mentioned home, but it wasn’t this.

“Do you make anything I’ve heard of?” None of the articles I’d read mentioned a family business.

“We do mainly local stuff right now, but I’ve started some distribution in other states.” He grins at me. “Growing up we were flat broke, this land was the only thing we had to our name. My dad ran it into the ground before he ran off, and my momma just didn’t have the energy to go it alone. All she was able to manage was keeping up with the taxes. About ten years ago, I thought we’d have to sell. Jackson was off, Cat was in school and I was aimless. But I didn’t have the heart to part with it because it’s the only thing in our family that was ever worth anything. I looked into what I could do with it and before I knew it I was starting a business. Cat joined the operations when she graduated, and here we are.”

“Jackson mentioned it in passing, but I had no idea it was so…” I take it all in. Shocked. “Vast.”

He points to a barn off in the distance. “We have some horses now, Cat’s love. You ever been riding?”

I shake my head. “I grew up in Evanston.”

He laughs. “Not sure I know what that means.”

“I’m from the city, we don’t have horses in Chicago.”

We wind down a road and through some trees before pulling out into a clearing where a big, ambling white house sits. I sputter, “It’s a plantation.”

That’s what he’d said before, but I hadn’t pictured this. My mind is reeling.

“Yeah, it is.” Wyatt gazes at it, fondly. “Almost had to tear the place down, but the last couple years have been good so we’ve been able to put some money into it.”

“I don’t know why I thought Jackson grew up poor.” Maybe because he’s so desolate now.

He laughs again. “We grew up in what’s fondly called genteel poverty. We had land, but we sure as shit didn’t have money. I’ll show you pictures of where we started. It’s only in the last five years, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears that this place has come back to life.”

Around the same time that Jackson left the culinary world. I figure it can’t be a coincidence. It has to be related, but I’ll learn the answers to all my questions soon enough if I can just be patient a little longer.

We pull up and get out of the truck, walking up the steps to a wraparound porch. Wyatt pushes open the door and we walk into an airy, expansive foyer with a library on one side and sitting room on the other. The wood planks on the floor are wide and my shoes seem to echo as we walk down a hall.

Wyatt glances back at me. “You ready?”

My heart once again starts to pound in my chest and my palms dampen. I have no idea what to expect, but it’s clear I’m supposed to expect something.

The length of the hallway seems to grow the farther we walk down it, and I take it all in the best I can. The house is huge, and it makes sense how Jackson could live with his family now. There’s plenty of space. It’s like a house out of a movie set, a picture of the old South. I can’t believe Jackson grew up here. That I’m walking through rooms he walks in every day.

It’s a revelation, but it doesn’t explain any of the mystery Jackson presents.

Wyatt cranes his neck to look at me over his shoulder. “Ready?”

“Yes.” I lick my dry lips as nerves dance along my skin. I have no idea what to expect or what I’m walking into.

Wyatt pushes through wide, white double doors into a large kitchen.

I step over the threshold.

My gaze swings wildly around the modern kitchen. Taking in brief flashes of white cabinets. Expansive counters. And industrial appliances.

When I reach the large farm table, I stall and all the breath whooshes from my lungs.

And suddenly, just like that, everything falls into place.

My most pressing questions, answered.

It all makes perfect sense.

Wyatt is right it changes everything.

He turns to me, his expression curious as he smiles before waving at the table. “Gwen, I’d like you to meet Jackson’s daughter, Natalie.”