Hooked On You
She needed a drink.
And while Violet Vasquez wasn’t big on boozing before five, she figured that now might be as good a time as any to start. Neither was she big on signs, but the one that had caught her attention had to be the universe telling her something.
The bar, called the Empty Net, had two hockey sticks crossed like cutlasses over the door.
Yeah, someone was screwing with her, she thought as she exited the cab on the main drag in Riverbrook, thirty miles north of downtown Chicago—and she had an idea who. But she wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. Day drinking would commence in three, two, one . . .
Pulling the heavy oak door open, Violet walked out of the sun and into a bar fight.
On closer inspection, this was pretty tame as bar fights went. It had the makings of a doozy, though, because at the center of it was a hulk. A long-haired, bearded, fuck-with-me-if-you-don’t-want-to-live
behemoth. Three guys with a death wish and/or shit for brains surrounded him, all but begging to be crushed.
One of them was right up in his face, his spittle-flecked lips working soundlessly, his fists clenched at his sides. Another had the hulk boxed in on the shorter end of the L-shaped bar with a pool cue in his hand. And number three? This joker was clearly the spokesman, and right now he was getting something off his chest.
“You’re a lowlife, St. James,” the leader spat out. “You haven’t had a good season in years. You got some nerve showing your face around here.”
St. James—which was sort of ironic, because this guy looked like he rode with the devil instead of the angels—didn’t defend himself. Just held himself taut, ready.
“Better not be any trouble,” a female voice called out. The bartender. Violet, familiar with the undercurrents of drunk drama from her nights tending bar at Rusty’s Biker Emporium in Reno, recognized the thread of concern in her voice. She was staffing the place alone in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe they had security at night, but right now this woman was helpless to break up a fight with anything but diplomacy.
“There’ll be no trouble,” the hulk said, and though he was responding to the bartender, the message was for the Three Stooges in front of him. There was also something odd about his voice: deep, resonant, and . . . Irish?
As the guy with the pool cue moved closer, the
bartender caught Violet’s eye, her expression one of mild panic. Violet shook her head slightly. She trusted that the hulk had this under control, that he could defuse the situation.
“You don’t want to do that,” he said to Pool Cue.
“I’m calling the police,” the bartender said.
Nope. Not helping.
“No police” was the hulk’s response, but he said it like pole-is. Now Violet heard it more clearly—she’d watched enough Outlander episodes to recognize a Scottish accent.
No sooner had he affirmed that the law was not needed than the idiots surrounding him burst into action. Clenched Fists raised his right hand, only to have the Scot react with lightning speed and cover it with one king-sized paw. At the same time, he grabbed the cue from the other guy’s hand, smashed it against the bar, and held the splinter-topped weapon to Pool Cue’s throat. Crushing a fist with one hand, threatening a jugular with another, he stared directly at the guy who had been mouthing off.
And raised a very expressive eyebrow.
Violet’s entire body tingled and her heart thrashed about. Oh, the Scot was something else.
The lynch mob spokesman backed up, hands raised. “Got it. We’re just talking.”
“Go talk over there.” A chin jerk from the Scot indicated another part of the bar. Rather charitably, to Violet’s mind, he released the raised fist, then placed the shattered cue on the bar. The bar fight that had never
quite started expired with a whimper as the men slunk away to lick their wounds.
Violet took a look at her surroundings. For early afternoon, the bar was surprisingly busy, with a few people playing darts and a couple of guys at a pool table. The TV screens blasted a hockey game, though it was mid-September and out of season—she knew that much. But the entertainment shouldn’t have been all that surprising, given the bar’s proximity to the arena of the local NHL franchise, the Chicago Rebels.
The team she now owned.
Violet stepped forward and picked up the other half of the cue. Carefully, she placed it with its soul mate on the bar.
The Scot didn’t acknowledge that, as if he hadn’t even noticed her, which was generally impossible because on a noticeability scale of one to ten, Violet usually landed at nine. But not today, because for this visit to Chicagoland, she’d gone conservative and changed her hair from magenta streaks to its original dark and dull brown. Damn her conforming hair color!
Mr. Surly took a seat and caught the eye of the bartender, who walked over, looking like she was this close to having a coronary.
The Scot turned slightly, and Violet realized that the bartender was speaking to her.
“Oh, fine. Chivas rocks, please.” She climbed onto a bar stool beside the Scot, who was frowning in a most attractive manner.
“Plenty of seats elsewhere,” he muttered.
Oh, you old romantic you!
The barfly gods were shining on her, because at that moment, Violet’s Chivas appeared. Extra tip for you, barkeep.
“Yeah, but my drink is right here.”
Evidently unable to fault that logic, he spoke to the bartender. “My usual, Tina.”
“Are you sure—?”
He cut off her question with a glare. “It’s your funeral,” she finished.
“Nicely handled,” Violet said when Tina was out of earshot. “What’s their problem, anyway?”
“I got that.” She imagined this guy would be a whole lot of problems, at least 75 percent of them sexy. “Why specifically did they want to rearrange your pretty face?”
He turned, eyes narrowing on her. “You don’t recognize this pretty face?”
She looked more closely—not a chore in the slightest. She supposed he did look a little familiar, kind of like if Jason Momoa and Gerard Butler had gotten down and dirty and sweated out a big-shouldered beast-child.
While her body’s tingles moved south, she reassessed the situation. Sports bar with hockey on TV, proximity to the Rebels arena, expectation of being recognized.
He must be one of the players.
She played dumb. “You owe them money?”
“Owe them something. Or they think I do.”
Tina placed a shot of Johnnie Walker before the Scot and, with a hmph, moved off. Interesting.
Violet took a sip of her Chivas. The Scot had yet to lift his whisky. They sat in semicomfortable silence for a few moments while Violet thought this through.
The past eighteen months had been the road trip to hell, but Violet had made the return journey and now she tended to look at things from a different angle. “The Year of the V,” she’d been calling her adjusted outlook. She was determined to try new things, step up and be counted, find out who Violet Vasquez was, for want of a less vomit-inducing phrase. Fear had a way of closing a person off, making the world a small and lonely place.
Fear could go fuck itself.
The next time she had sex would be the first time since the surgery, since she’d woken up bound like The Mummy, with new breasts to replace the diseased ones. A quickie in a bar restroom with a hot stranger would be the perfect way to jump back on the horse. Clothes would stay on, scars would stay hidden . . . the Scot would be strong enough to lift her against a wall and slide right in.
Then she’d be on a plane back to Reno, her pleasurable memories the best souvenir.
Before she could turn on her rusty wiles, the stranger spoke. “You disagreed with Tina. About calling the cops.”
She liked it better when he called them the pole-is.
But the notion that he had been aware of her silent objection even while he had other things going on was a pleasant surprise.
“I’ve worked in bars, most of them not as nice as this one. The threat of cops, in my experience, usually escalates an already bad situation.”
He studied her now, as if she had suddenly said something worth listening to. Those tingles started again, her body reflooding with sexual awareness. She was unable to look away, and it seemed he was in the same boat. Something charged, hot, and melty zinged between them. Her nerves were no longer tingling. Now they were shrieking.
“Whatever you’re thinking,” he murmured, “it’s a bad idea.”
Blood heated her cheeks. Was she so obvious? She picked up her drink and took a gulp. When she looked up again, he appeared closer. More dangerous.
“Season’s about to begin so you thought you’d come in here and bag yourself a player?”
Now wait a second, who the fuck did this guy think he was? So maybe the idea of gracing him with the pleasure of giving her an orgasm had crossed her mind for a foolish moment, but what kind of asshole said that? As if she were some sex-crazed hockey groupie.
“Yep, that’s exactly what I thought.” And then she winked.
He laughed, and the sound gave her heart a hug. Still got it, Vasquez. The bartender shot them a glance, then peered curiously at Violet, Laugh Maker.
The Scot turned serious again, his blue-eyed gaze flicking to the untouched shot of whisky. “Go on home, lass, before you get hurt.”
“By you?” She snorted. “I don’t think you could hurt anyone.” She’d seen how he handled those idiots. He could have done some real damage, but he chose to restrain himself. It would be fascinating to see him lose control.
He inhaled a weary breath. “That’s where you’re wrong. I have a tendency to destroy everything I touch.” He raised his gaze to her, and what she saw there shocked her. A pain she recognized.
“I’m tougher than I look,” she said, not quite willing to let this go, though common sense told her she should probably run back to Nevada as fast as her combat boots could carry her.
He stood. Loomed was more accurate, all six feet two inches of him, yet there was something both aggressive and tentative in his stance. Color flagged his cheekbones. Fire rimmed his eyes. Her own greedy gaze was drawn to his thick forearms, then continued on a trail down to his two clenched fists.
Was he angry? No. Or at least, not with her . . . oh, God.
He was using every ounce of his self-control trying not to touch her.
She had never wanted someone to lose a battle with his demons so much.
“You driving?” he managed in a harsh whisper.
“I came in a cab.”
“Good. Make sure you go home in one.” With his strong accent, it came out sounding like guut. He threw down a twenty and left without a backward glance, his shot of whisky still untouched on the bar.
The bartender—Tina—came over, her expression one of disapproval mixed with pity that Violet had been rejected. Not that Violet really saw it that way. What had happened between her and the Scot was far more thought provoking.
“Want that?” Tina asked, nodding at the shot glass.
“Nah. I don’t drink swill.”
Tina laughed appreciatively, picked up the glass, and poured the shot into the sink.
“So, who’s been warming this bar stool beside me for the past ten minutes?”
“You really don’t know him?”
Violet shook her head. “I’m new in town.”
“That was Bren St. James, current captain of the Chicago Rebels, the local hockey team. Though whether he’ll be captain for much longer is open to speculation.”
No need to ask for details, because Tina was in full flight now.
“He showed up to one of the last games of the regular season drunk, and the way he’d been playing all year, it was clearly not the first time. Most people think he should’ve been cut long before that, and some people”—she jerked her chin in the direction of the troublemakers from earlier, who were now back to playing pool like nothing had happened—“think he needs to be taught a lesson. Folks are pretty crazy about hockey around
here, and when your team is suffering through its longest-ever championship drought, it makes the fans loco. The players, too.”
Sports people. Fucking nutjobs, the lot of them. Before Violet could inquire further, the bar’s phone rang and Tina went to answer it while Violet was left to ponder Bren St. James, the grumpy Scot shrouded in mystery. A man with demons that needed soothing and sating. O captain! My captain!
The Year of the V had just become a lot more interesting.