Playing With Fire
Tightly wound Ryleigh Lawson has it all. The job, the fancy Chicago high-rise apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, and a promising future. Jude Thomas, the sexy backwoodsman, lives in a loft above his bar in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He doesn’t have much and doesn’t need much. The paths of these two people from very different worlds should never have crossed.
With help from a particularly nasty snowstorm, a lemon-yellow AMC Gremlin, and a dog with mismatched eyes, their worlds collide. Snowed in, they are forced to shack up together for a long week. Though they grate on each other, they still spark like flint on steel. A friendship blossoms, and chemistry and passion rage, but when the snow begins to thaw and they are thrust out of their winter wonderland cocoon and back to their previous lives, are they capable of returning to who they were before the snowstorm?
After playing with fire, can they come away anything other than burned?
Ryleigh eyeballed him. His blond hair was much longer than she preferred on men. He’d pulled it back into a ponytail, but it didn’t look as though he’d run a comb through it in a while. He had nicely trimmed sideburns, a barely-there blond soul patch, and just a brush of stubble along his strong jawline. His sleeves were pushed up to his elbows, revealing large forearms. The right one had some kind of tattoo disappearing under the fabric of his rolled-up sleeve.
Ryleigh wasn’t certain, but it looked tribal, and the lines sort of mimicked the dance of a flame. He wore a silver band around his thumb and sported a wickedly stern brow. If Ryleigh had a type, he wouldn’t have come anywhere close to falling into it.
“Want a drink?” he asked her as he reached under the bar and pulled out the phone book, then slapped it down on the counter. “To warm you up?”
“Sure, coffee if you got it.” She took her beanie off, slid it into her pocket, zipped it up so she wouldn’t lose it, and did the same to her mittens with the other pocket. Ryleigh hopped up onto a barstool and started attempting to look up a tow truck company in the Yellow Pages app on her phone. It wasn’t loading.
“Uh.” He sucked in a deep breath and let it vent out slowly. “I can make some, but what I meant was like a drink, some brandy, whisky, tequila—whatever you want. Pick your poison.” He paused as she looked up at him with a blank stare.
She finally answered him. “No, thanks.” Her smile was supposed to be pleasant but probably at best just came out curt.
“It’s on the house.”
She shook her head. “Do you have Wi-Fi?”
Ryleigh stared at him expectantly.
The bartender stared back.
“It says I need a passcode.”
The big blond lumberjack of a man held his hand out for the phone. “Let me see it. I’ll punch it in.” Reluctantly she handed it over.
“You don’t have free Wi-Fi here? In a bar? Why?”
He shrugged one of his broad shoulders. “Then people loiter.”
Ryleigh went wide-eyed. “Isn’t that what you want? It’s a bar. You want people to hang out awhile.”
“They hang out long enough.”
“Isn’t that what people do in bars? Loiter?”
“No. They drink. They shoot pool. They dance. They don’t play around on these.” He wiggled her phone. “And sip on one rum and Coke for hours on end. Nope. Not here. Not in this bar. You come here for a good time with the people you’re with, while you’re with them.”
Ryleigh made a thoughtful noise when he returned her phone, and she began her search for a number.
“What kind of bars do you frequent?”
Without looking up at him, Ryleigh responded first with a deep sigh. “I try not to.”
The big ornery bartender before her quirked his eyebrow at her in surprise as if he hadn’t seen that one coming. “You don’t drink?”
“No, I don’t drink.”
His eyes narrowed in on her. “You don’t look like the type who doesn’t drink.”
“There’s a type?” Ryleigh couldn’t help herself.
“Oh, definitely.” He nodded and set a tumbler and some bourbon on the counter.
Ryleigh waited for him to elaborate and was marginally frustrated when he never did. “I guess you must have misjudged me then.”
His lips quirked, but his eyes didn’t smile along with his mouth. “I don’t think so.”
“Are you going to enlighten me?”
He braced his arms against the bar top. His biceps pulled, visibly elongating the muscles and tendons. “You look like a vodka girl. You look like you drink something clean and mean. Skinny Bitches—”
Ryleigh balked. “Excuse me?”
He laughed and humorlessly shook his head. “Diet Coke and vodka. Maybe a martini? Possibly gin even, with a twist of lime?”
“It’s fine. I don’t need a drink.” She went back to her phone.
“I’ll make you some coffee.” He was ornery. Maybe he figured he had a right to be? It was the middle of the night and here was some broad sitting on his barstool demanding coffee and access to his Wi-Fi, which he was stingy with, apparently. Maybe he had other plans? Maybe there was a woman around. Ryleigh craned her head, searching for one but to no avail. The bar was very dimly lit, even for a bar.
When he shot a look her way from where he stood making coffee, she went back to her task at hand: looking for a wrecker. She took another peek at him when the pot began spitting and sputtering, mixing up some hot brew. He stood there resolutely, arms folded across his broad chest, staring at something on the floor behind her.
Oh, right, that mangy mutt. The dog that had run her off the road was curled up in a tight ball on the floor, shivering. The poor thing.
“Does she need something?” he asked just as Ryleigh had begun to dial a number.
She looked over her shoulder at the dog with mismatched eyes and shrugged. How was she to know? “I told you she’s not mine,” she answered while the phone rang against her ear.
He acted as though he was fighting it, but eventually he sank down in a crouch beside the dog. The dog’s eyelids were heavy, and it barely paid this unkempt man any mind at all. The only recognition he got from the mutt was a lifted paw and a quirk of the ear. Grumpy Ponytail sighed and felt around its neck for a collar. There wasn’t one.
He looked from the dog over to her. Starting from her boots on up. He took his time until his gaze landed on her eyes. She shivered and tried desperately to ignore how incredibly uncomfortable he made her. Especially because there was something very alluring about this man who was so not her type. He oozed testosterone. It was biology; hard to fight centuries of ingrained animalistic tendencies.
“Hello?” A voice came through the line.
Oh thank God! She couldn’t wait to get out of here. She was already losing her mind.
“Hello?” She jumped from her barstool, plugging one ear in an attempt to hear better. “Hi, I need a tow truck. My car is stuck right outside the—” She looked around, trying to come up with the name of the place. Her eyes landed on the sign over the bar. “Calypso’s Tavern, in a snowbank, so if you could…” Ryleigh was so relieved to be speaking to someone. She was going to get a tow into the nearest town, where she would stay for the night at a nice cozy hotel. She would drive the Gremlin home first thing in the morning and be back by midafternoon, just in time for their Lucky Girls’ Lunch.
“Do you have shelter?” the woman asked her.
“Well, yeah, I—”
“Is this an emergency?”
Ryleigh had to pause. She was stuck in the middle of nowhere, in a bar, with a scrawny dog and some kind of hard-core biker backwoods-nowhere dude—in a blizzard.
“Oh?” The woman already sounded as if she didn’t believe her. “Is there blood? Fire? A casualty?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Is someone actively dying?”
“Then it’s not really an emergency, and you’re going to have to wait. We’re only taking real emergencies right now.”
Ryleigh sighed and watched him fix the dog a plate of scraps and give her a bowl of warm water. He did seem pretty harmless. Grumpy…but harmless.
“How long are you estimating?” Ryleigh’s eyes found the Budweiser clock that hung above the door.
“By this list we have here…I’d say, oh, about seventy-two hours or better.” Ryleigh’s jaw dropped, and part of her thought maybe she should laugh.
“What? Three days?” She watched as even the blond-haired man’s back straightened at the sound of that. “You’re joking,” Ryleigh said through a smile. She watched him go to the sink and wash his hands before pouring her coffee into a Mason jar.
“No, no joke,” the woman said from the other line. “Unless the snow lets up right this minute, but I’m thinking that’s highly unlikely.” Ryleigh’s heart broke. What was she going to do now?
“I’m afraid I’ll just have to call another tow service.” She watched the man shake his head at her.
“They’re the only one,” he told her and set the jar down on the counter for her while
he turned around and fixed himself something to drink.
The woman, in a tone that suggested she was attempting to cover her exasperation, said, “Go ahead and try, honey. We’re the only one around for miles and miles.”
Ryleigh started to mentally tally up how much money she had on her and if she could afford a bribe. “You don’t understand. I really need to be on my way. I can—”
“Save your sob story because, truthfully, you’re just wasting my time. There’s absolutely nothing I can do.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do to make this a priority for you?” Ryleigh paced with one hand on her hip. She watched the dog slurp down the scraps greedily.
“About the only thing you can do is call nine-one-one, but they’re just going to tell you the same thing. You’re not an emergency, and that makes you low priority, honey. So just sit tight and tell Jude to fix you up a drink for me.” She laughed.
“Who’s Jude?” Ryleigh asked into the phone.
“That’s me.” The biker-bartender raised a glass, and the woman just kept laughing. Ryleigh hung up on her. “What’s your name? Might as well get acquainted. Sounds like we’re going to be stuck with each other for a while.”
Ryleigh sighed and slouched against the bar on her stool. This couldn’t be happening to her. “Ryleigh.” She held her hand out for him to shake. She could not take one more blow. She needed to get back home. “And not if I have anything to say about it.”
He shook her hand, and with a smirk that felt like sandpaper against chapped, wind-burned skin, he said, “Well, it doesn’t sound much like you do.”
Ryleigh gave him a tongue-in-cheek grin, picked her phone up again, and began punching in numbers. She only needed three.
“What are you doing?”
She didn’t answer him. He walked around the bar toward her and snatched the phone from her hand.
“What? Hey!” she shrieked as he slid her BlackBerry closed. “How dare you? That was a personal call.”
Jude opened the phone and accessed the recent call list. “A personal call to…” He paused, seemingly only to add drama to the moment. “Nine-one-one?” The phone started to ring, and he answered it for her.
“Stop!” she yelled indignantly. “I can’t believe this!” She climbed onto the barstool. Her knees pressed against the red vinyl seat cushion. Ryleigh tried desperately to reach for her phone.
“Is everything all right? We just received a phone call from this number.” The operator’s concerned voice broke through the airwaves loud enough that Ryleigh could make the conversation out.
“Yes, I’m sorry, it was a mistake. Everything’s fine,” he responded.
Ryleigh frowned and slouched back down onto the stool with her arms crossed over her chest. Jude hung up on the phone call and handed her device back to her.
“I can’t believe you! You have some nerve…” She huffed until he leaned down with one large flexed arm on either side of her, his hands braced against the bar.
“You can’t believe me?”
Ryleigh almost cowered at the bark in his voice. Since she’d gotten here she thought his voice to be almost comically low, with a forced gruffness that couldn’t possibly be real. In this moment, as his voice sank deeper, harsher, and more unforgiving, she
believed the timbre of his voice to be authentic.
She didn’t back away like she wanted to. She forced her spine to stiffen, and she sat up straighter. Ryleigh pushed her shoulders back and poised her chin up with tenacity. “Yes, that’s right. I have never met another person so…” She couldn’t find the right word. “So…so…so…” Only then, in the quiet breaths each of them took, did she hear the faint noise of the television in the background airing the cheer of a crowd in Times Square. “Disagreeable,” she decided finally on a whisper.
“Says the lady who storms into my quiet bar making ridiculous demands on me. Not once saying thank you to me for allowing her inside, for the coffee, or for the Wi-Fi. Instead of being grateful for my hospitality, she sits here all hoity-toity and insults me!”
A quiet chant began on the television.
“Hoity-toity?” She guffawed at his insult.
“Yes, and that’s the nicest word I have for it.”
“Well, I never…” She didn’t care anymore. Ryleigh was no longer bothered by his close proximity. She completely ignored the biting fragrance of his cologne, along with his heady, rugged, and earthy male scent.
“There are people out doing what they can, tending to the children and the elderly, sick, and the wounded first. Here you are acting entitled and whiny like some kind of spoiled brat. Ungrateful for the fact that you happen to be healthy and alive, warm and dry for the night!”
She’d never met a man so passionate before in her life. She’d never seen that kind of temper flare up before her eyes. Yet, she didn’t feel threatened or insulted. Instead, she felt surprisingly turned on. She rolled her eyes at herself. She watched his face, knowing he thought that eye roll had been in response to what he’d just said.
Fire flamed in his brown eyes. His nostrils flared. Her heart raced. In spite of herself, warm, delicious heat pooled deep between her legs.
His chest heaved with excited, labored breaths. She could feel and taste his breath blowing against her face. Her gaze lingered on those deep dark-brown eyes and fell down to those parted lips of his. He stood so close. She was trapped against this counter by his strong, tattooed arms.
Ryleigh leaned forward as if to dare herself, to test the heat. Like a person might do, dancing their fingers through a small flickering flame, that was Ryleigh now leaning into Jude. Before she even really registered what she was doing, she pressed her lips to his. The kiss was a surprise. It should have been a short, sweet, chaste New Year’s Eve kiss. There wasn’t a moment of the kiss that was sweet. The second her lips touched his, it flamed into something volatile, dangerous…magnetic.