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I eyed the rickety shack known as The Tavern. The warped wood siding and deck made it look like an old western run down saloon. Giving it its modern day charisma was the rage vocals of Garth Brooks that poured from the building, the other being the red neon beer signs hanging in the windows.

Gage flicked his gaze at me as I sat in the passenger seat. All I could do was stare at the place. I wondered if I looked every bit as distant as I was feeling. I heard the heavy sigh from the back seat. It was Spencer. Knox and him decided to ride with Gage and I in my Mercedes. If I had to guess, the two of them were on edge to see if I would exit the car. They made it very clear that if I decided to head home they’d bounce without second thought. Even if they hadn’t received their acquired dose of amusement.

Spencer sat forward. “How you holdin’ up?”

“I’m alright.” My flat tone in my voice indicated otherwise.

Spencer tapped Gage on the arm. “Let’s just take her back…”

Without a word I climbed out of the car. I was surprised just how quick the three of them exited along with me. Lily and Brock were standing on the porch near the door waiting to see what I was going to do.

Gage waved them on. “Go ahead. We’ll be there in a minute.”

I tried to ignore the worrisome looks on their faces as they headed inside.

Knox rubbed his hand across his shaved scalp. “Come here for a minute.”

I followed Knox so that we were about twenty feet from the car. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “You ah, sure you want to do this? Because if not, you know…” he left the rest hanging.

“Yes. I am. I think I should. It might be kind of good for me actually.” I replied.

“It’s just that I’m worried about you. You know you just received that anonymous video,”

“Knox, I’m fine.” I interrupted.

“Just hear me out alright. And now this thing that’s going on with Gage. I just don’t want to see you jump into anything.”

“Knox, what do you expect me to do? Pine away over a guy who’s been nailing the very girl who has it out for me. Kierra hate’s me, everybody and their dog knows that. I have to say, she strategically planned that one out well.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about but that’s not what I was getting at. I’m talking about I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump into anything with Gage, and nor do I think that it’s a good idea to come here. I think it’s too soon.”

“I have to start moving on sometime Knox.”

“And I agree with you. But you’re taking on too much at one time.”

“You’re probably right. But I’m willing to give it a try.”

“Sometimes Jayden you are the most stubborn woman…”

“I got my stubbornness from you.”

“Alright, Jayden.” he sighed. “If you start getting overwhelmed, you fucking let me know okay?”

“Knox, I’m fine.”

He shook his head in full frustration. We walked back towards the car. I watched Gage skirt the front of the Mercedes and I closed the gap between us. He took my hand firmly in his.

“You ready?” He asked.

I was glad he didn’t question me further. Straightening my shoulders, I led the way. As we neared the porch Gage stepped past me. When his hand slid from the handle to the edge of the door, the vivid picture of a gloved hand flashed before me. I gripped Gage’s hand bringing him to a halt. My hand broke out in a sweat. Immediately Gage turned to me, his head bent down to mine. “Want me to take you home?” His question was full of concern.

“No.” I swallowed hard.

A few seconds passed before Gage ushered me inside. Spencer and Knox entered behind us. They stood there for a moment to make sure I didn’t tuck my tail and run. But I refused to do that. I wasn’t about to cower. When I didn’t, they headed to the table in the far corner of the room.

Gage leaned down, his lips brushing my ear, telling me, “Ignore them.” before he placed a kiss to the tip of my ear.

Though he was right, I couldn’t help but notice the paralyzed faces casting my way. Their questionable leers weren’t misplaced. They were wondering as to what the hell I was doing here. Everyone took note that I was here in one way or another. Some threw leers over their mugs and some elbowed their fellow comrade beside them. The gossip was kept low, no matter how hard they tried to hide it.

I saw Felicity Anderson. She and Knox had been hooking up for some time and I was rather relieved when she tossed a wink at me. She was trying to make me feel better and make light of the situation. I was glad for it.

“Do you want to leave?”

“No.” I confirmed. My heart hammered against my chest and I forced myself to breathe. “I’d like to see my uncle. He’s the Santa Clause looking bartender.”

“Then let’s go.” Gage gave a light tug and pulled me forward. Keeping my one hand in his I reached out and gripped his bicep with the other as we made our way to the bar.

Tucking his dirty white towel in the back pocket of his worn overalls, my uncle came around from behind the bar and wrapped his arms around me making me drop my hold of Gage. “How you doin’ darlin’?” My uncle felt me tense. Saddened, he tightened his lips and pulled back.

“How are you Uncle Thad?” my smile, slight. Gage placed his hand on the low of my spine and rubbed my back with his thumb.

“Glad to see you here, that’s how I’m doin’.” he geared, dimples forming on his chubby cheeks. As a child, I always convinced him to play the role of Santa Clause. With the white hair and beard, short and stout build, and the round glasses that rested on the bridge of his small nose, he looked just like him. “Nearly blew me over, you walked in here the way you did…It’s been a long time, Jay.”

I nodded, licked my lips and leaned back into Gage. I looked around the bar. He’d changed the place. Knew wooden swivel chairs clustered around the bar. Tall shiny square tables replaced the small old round ones as music sprang from speakers embedded in the ceiling. The juke box was moved out. The crack of pool balls were drowned out from the music. The old cork dart board was replaced with the latest digital technology.

There was no way that Thad could have ever afforded this. He was always so tight with money.

“You changed the place.” I said. “Uncle Thad…”

“Now don’t you start Uncle Thaddin’ me, darlin’. There were a few others that pitched in and that’s all you need to know. Now come on and have a seat. You can try my new recipe that I brewed up. Have to say it has quite a kicker to it.” He turned away. “Jack, Wally, you too Freddie move so my niece here can have a seat.”

All three looked at me, only Freddie spoke up. “By the looks of it, she don’t need three seats.”

“Doesn’t.” Thad corrected. “Give her some space you fiddlin’ whore hound.”

I winced as the men slid from their seats. “Thanks guys.”

Freddie lifted his mug. “Don’t mention it.” His smile revealed his missing two front teeth. “It’s nice to see you here again, Jayden.”

Gage took his seat beside me and draped his arm across the back of my chair.

Uncle Thad grabbed a glass from below the counter, filling it to the brim. He looked to Gage towering beside me. “Haven’t seen you here before. Who are you?”

“I’m Gage.” he offered his hand.

I frowned when my uncle ignored it.

“Why don’t you go sit at a table?”

Gage dropped his hand. “Because, she’s over here.”

“Uncle Thad.” I chided. “Behave yourself, he’s a friend of mine.”

“Quite a friendly friend you got there, Jayden.” Thad turned back to Gage after he set my beer on the counter. “Whatever ideas you have ramblin’ through your brain, you can just forget them. She’s got a boyfriend.”

“They broke up.” Jamie chimed in as he approached. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard. It’s all the town has been talking about these last few days.”

Thad eyed me.

“Did you or he break it off darlin’?”

“I did. But I guess that all depends on how you look at it.”

“He wrong you?” he pressed.

I hadn’t known Spencer approached until I heard him say, “You could say that,” before he reached over the bar and filled his glass with Thad’s new brew.

Thad shook his head. “Never did like the little son of a bitch anyway.” Thad looked at Jamie. “Sorry if it offends you.”

Jamie looked too drunk to care. “Don’t be. He never deserved her anyway.” Jamie brought the bottle to his lips and took a heavy gulp. “I’m sorry for my mothers behavior earlier, Jay.”

“Don’t worry about it. She has her days, we all know that.” I said.

“That’s an understatement. And to be honest, she’s pretty upset about the way things went. My dad isn’t all that happy either. In fact he’s been calling Brock every morning to ream his ass about it.”

“I can picture your dad doing just that.”

“So where did you pick this one up? Vegas?”

“I did meet him in Vegas, but no, I didn’t pick him up. Apparently he’s a friend of Knox and Spencer’s. He just came up here to train.”

“Uh Uh!!” he murmured over the edge of his glass and took a swig.

* * *

I watched Gage thump his queue stick on the floor a few times as he eyed the pool table, contemplating his next move. Bending over the table, his fingers rested on the green felt and lined up his shot.

The sound of the queue ball smashing into the stripes filled our surroundings before the number fifteen sank into the pocket. There was no cocky grin coming from Gage but I saw the twinkle in his eye. He moved to the next ball but not before he stole a glance at me. He didn’t try to hide it. He’d been stealing glances my way the last half hour; really ever since he left my side to play pool— Not that five to ten feet was all that far. The concern in his gaze never faltered. He’d toss me winks between shots and when it wasn’t his turn he’d parch himself beside me. I’m not sure if he was aware of how much my nerves were comforted as he frequently touched me here and there. Tossing me a wink, he lined up his next shot.

I took another sip of my beer.

“I hope he makes this one.”

I looked at Lily who sat across the table from me.

“He’s really hot.” Lily raised her brows. “His shirt rides up every time he lines up his shot and hmmm...Honestly, I’ve never seen a v like that. Made me always wonder if they really existed or if they were always photoshopped.”

Lily and I eyed each other and burst into laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Jamie asked upon approach.

Lily tilted her beer towards Jamie before she said, “You don’t want to know.”

Jamie looked at me before he looked back at Lily. “Oh, I think I do. Try me.”

Lily gave a shrug. “We were talking about how incredibly sexy Gage is.”

Jamie furrowed his brows. “You’re right...I didn’t need to know that.”

“I did warn you.”

“You did.” Jamie agreed. He tossed his thumb over shoulder. “I’m going to grab another. Do you two want anything?”

“No.” Lily and I said in unison.

“Then I’ll leave you girls to your discussion because, honestly, I don’t want to talk about how sexy some men are.”

I smiled and Lily laughed.

My smile was short lived though when Jamie touched my arm. “See you girls around.”

I placed my fingers where his hand had been briefly as he left. The walls began to close in and my skin began to crawl. Before I knew it, Gage approached.

“Hey beautiful.” He leaned down and placed a chaste kiss below my jawline. His hand gently rubbed where Jamie had touched me. Tiny prickles spread through me and I found myself leaning into him to absorb his comfort. His hand nearly burned my skin as it rested on my mid back. How could someone be so physically warm all the time?

“How’s training coming, Gage?” Lily asked with her lips hovering over the rim of her beer.

“Great.” His cocky grin was back in play.

“Are you nervous?”

“Fuck no.” Gage scoffed. His chuckle rumbled deep in his chest.

I took another swig of my beer. As I set it back on the small round table the music flipped to the next song. My heart sank. My hands became sweaty. The walls around me began to close in.

Van Halen filled my ears.

I got off the stool. “I need to use the bathroom.” Trying to keep a low profile I tried to measure my steps even and measured. I kept my eyes low, purposely trying to avoid all eye contact. I didn’t want anyone to see the tears gathering. I reached up and wiped my bangs from my view— A nervous habit I’ve picked up.

I pushed through the door, surprised to find that Gage entered right behind me. He quickly shut the door and locked it. “Talk to me.”

I reached up to wipe the bangs that weren’t even in my prereferral only to see that my hand was shaking like a leaf. Gage took a step forward just as my stomach turned. I whipped around and lifted the toilet lid. Gage held my hair back as I puked up all the beer, ships and salsa that I had consumed.

His hand rubbed my back.

The song was muffled but I could still hear it’s haunting melody. I lurched again. Now he was squatting beside me. I heard his sigh full of distress. A flash of that night consumed my mind. All I could see was that black mask. The eyes hidden behind black shades. His leather covered hands reached out for me.

My head spun and darkness enclosed around me.

I concentrated on my breathing.

I refused to pass out.

Knowing that I always had a few Xanax pills with me I tried to dig in my pocket. My panic seemed to double when I wasn’t able to find them.

Gage pushed my hand away before he shoved his fingers in my pocket. “There’s nothing in here, babe. What are you looking for?” He checked my other pockets.


I felt his hand pause.

Did he sigh?

“What triggered you to freak out, Jayden? Was it Jamie touching you?”

I spit into the toilet and flushed puke down.

“The song” The cold tile beneath me felt good as I sat down. I rested my elbow on the toilet lid. “This song was playing—” I burst into tears.

I wasn’t sure what was happening when Gage suddenly dropped my hair and stood. Was he leaving? Had he finally gotten tired of my emotional roller coaster? I closed my eyes and covered my face. I couldn’t quit shaking. I couldn’t stop the tears pouring down my face or the fact that my chest felt like it had an anvil pressing down on it.

“Here.” Was all Gage said before he was squatting in front of me shoving air pods into my ears. The music was loud but not deafening. I recognized the song instantly.

It was Pride and Prejudice’s theme song.

After a few notes I took a deep breath. It was shaky but at least I was beginning to be able to breathe again.

The weight on my chest lessened.

My heart still hammered to the point of pain.

Gage scooped me in his arms and set me on his lap as he sat leaning against the wall. He kissed my hair and held me tight.

The walls around me started to retreat. I wanted to cry because of it. I hadn’t been held like this since my attack. If I was really being honest with myself, I had never been held with such love, such comfort. Or with such security and strength in my entire life.

Frankly, I was afraid of losing it.

Feeling Gage maneuver beneath me, I tried to sit up only to have him press me back into him as he reached up and unlocked the door.

It quickly opened and Knox stood in the door frame with a face full of concern.

I felt Gages chest rumble and though I couldn’t hear him, I felt the vibrations of him demanding Knox, “Change the fucking song.”

The door quickly closed and Knox was gone.

Gage cupped my cheek. He gave a heavy sigh. It wasn’t until now that I realized that his heart was racing.

I wanted to know what was going through his mind right now.

A minute later, Gage pulled an air pod out of my ear. I was relieved when Kelsea Ballerini “Yeah, boy” was now playing beyond the bathroom door. “Let’s get you home.” He tapped me on the hip, queueing me to stand.

My body was beginning to tire. It was what often happened after a major panic attack. Tomorrow I’ll be exhausted. It drained me to on end.

Gage studied my face. He rubbed his five o’clock shadow with a furrow between his brows. “Can you walk ok you think?”

I nodded. Clearly, my exhaustion was beginning to show. A hard knock came at the door and it made me jump.

Gage was quick to open it.

“You alright?” Knox asked.

I nodded.

“Let’s get you out of here.”

When I stepped forward I was a little wobbly and Gage was quick to steady me. “Just lean on me as we head for the door.”

“I’ll carry her.” Knox took a step forward.

“No.” It wasn’t often people said that word to my brother. “She needs to walk on her own. People already looked at her like she was crazy for coming here tonight. The last thing she needs is to be seen being carried out of here.”

I couldn’t deny that Gage alone had helped me in a way that no one else had.

He hadn’t retreated when I unraveled. He had stayed with me.

Brock never did that. In the beginning Brock had tried to stay and help me through it. When I recoiled to his touches he became angry and stormed off. Sometimes, he never showed up until the following day with a nasty hangover.

The ride home was quiet. No one spoke. A defined heaviness hung in the air.

“I’ll come by after work tomorrow.” Spencer shouted just before he climbed into his death trap.

Knox didn’t reply but acknowledged with a wave as he unlocked the front door.

Gage’s hand pressed on my lower back and followed me inside. “I’m going to eat a snack before I go to bed.”

“Ok.” Knox locked the front door. “Are you doing alright though?”

I gave a nod.

“Ok. I’m going up then. See you in the morning.” He glanced at Gage. “Night.”

“Night man.”

I entered the kitchen and pulled a quart of almond milk from the refrigerator. Next, I grabbed a roll of ritz crackers before snatching a cup from the cupboard. I crumbled the ritz into large chunks in the cup before pouring a hefty amount of almond milk over it.

“What in the hell are you eating?”

His grotesque expression made me smile. “Don’t knock it until you try it.”

“Easier said than done.” He pointed to my glass. “And that’s just plain disgusting.”

Shrugging my shoulder, I took a bite. “Thank you for helping me earlier.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Tonight was the first time that I had gone back there since...Well, you know.” I took another bite. “I used to work there. Between photo shoots and shows to help my uncle out. He did so much for us after our parents died. Plus, it kept me grounded. It’s easy to get lost in the hype of everything you know.”

“Yeah.” Gage scoffed. “I know exactly what you mean.”

I polished off my snack and rinsed off the cup and spoon before placing them into the dishwasher. I turned to him. Leaning back into the counter, I rested my hands on the edge. “I don’t know what it is about you, Gage, but from the moment I met you. I feel comfortable around you. I like to be with you. You make me feel safe.” I swallowed hard and stole a glance at the floor. “Brock— My ex— After I was attacked I never let him touch me. The last time we had sex was before the attack. I felt nauseous, it made my skin crawl at the thought of him touching me. Or anyone else. But you I— I almost yearn for you to touch me. And I’m so sorry that I feel this way. I know you came up to train. You don’t need,” I waved my hand in the air, “all this to distract you.”

Gage just looked at me. And I became nervous. I wasn’t sure what was rambling in his head and I was dying to know. I’d understand if he was freaked out by what I said. Honestly, I was a little. Because the thought of him high-tailing and running made my stomach churn. I wanted him near. Needed him near. I couldn’t explain it. And I was tired of trying to wrap my head around as to why.

Removing his hands from his pockets, Gage approached. His hands engulfed my cheeks as he cupped them. “I came here to train because you’re here.” 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to hear. But it wasn’t this. My heart leaped at his words.

“I’m an arrogant asshole who’s been with a shit load of women. Most of them I never even asked their name. I was upfront, told them what I wanted and I got it. Afterwards, I made them leave. I have held a longer conversation in the first two hours of meeting you, than all of them put together. I was in no way interested in what they had to say because to be frank I didn’t give a fuck. What happened to you is...horrid, but it doesn’t change how I see you or stray me from wanting to get to know you better. In fact, if I ever get my hands on that son-of-bitch I’m going to do more than rip him a new ass-hole.” Gage rubbed his thumb beneath my eye. “And I don’t know what it is about you, Jayden de Luca, but I can’t keep myself from you even if I tried. I don’t know what you’re doing to me, but, what I do know is all I want is you.”

I wrapped my hand around his wrist. “You’re arrogant, yes...but asshole? I have to disagree. I think forthright sounds better, and the women are kind of expected. But then again maybe I think the way I do because I’m always surrounded by men who are extremely candid.”

“If you had ever seen me with one of them you would agree with me.”

“You didn’t treat me like that when we first met.” I stated.

“No. You were unexpected.” He whispered. Leaning in, he placed a kiss on my forehead.

I closed my eyes.

My body tingled.

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