“You know, Jackson, I could have taken the skates off for this. Hell, I could have even done it myself.” Maisy Flynn, jammer for Galloway Bay’s local roller derby team, Beautifully Brutal, props herself up on her elbows from where she lays across the check-in counter. Her bored, raised eyebrow expression roams over me as she radiates cool judgment from over the curve of her bent knee.
I glance up at her and shake off a lock of my hair crossing my vision. “The kids love you, Maze. They’re bouncing on their skates, waiting for you to start the dancing on the rink.”
I cruise my gaze over the fresh ink healing along the outside of her thigh. I can’t help it. It’s a great thigh. And like I said, fresh ink.
My two favorite things.
When was the last time I had the energy, or time to get a new tat?
God, two years now.
Fuck, I need a life.
Later.
Always later.
Right now, I had a friend to get rolling again before the cluster of kids waiting for her go all Lord of the Flies on her sweet ass. “The minute your cheeks hit the chair to change your wheels or even so much as lace back up,” I say, “they’ll swarm you. Suffocation is a shitty way to go. I saved your life. You’re welcome.”
I wink and smile, laying on the charm. She rolls her eyes, but her lips twitch with amusement.
She and her teammates rented Rockabilly’s for the afternoon to host a birthday party for one of the young boys from the Crossroads Youth Center. This is just one of the many times they’ve done so over the past two years they’ve been working with the children there. There aren’t many opportunities for the kids to watch the team on the track. So, the sexy misfits making up the team make sure their kids see them in action here.
Maisy, Eve, Marty, Rory, Sean, and Zara even get about half of the little devils out on the rink to skate. As usual, they have some serious holdouts. A few of the boys who act too cool for skating and a cluster of girls who lace up, but stay on the carpet.
They know, the minute their skates touch that buffed rink, they’ll be rolling, ready or not.
When Noah told the derby crew how he heard his mom crying because she couldn’t afford to throw him a party, they stepped in with their own money and shook me down for a hefty discount.
Not that I mind that much. At least they look good doing it.
Judging by the smiles on his parents’ faces, the flashing lights, the loud music, and free rein on the new laser tag side of the place temporarily banishes any of their worries. The unsteady employment and illness they’ve been battling the past couple of years can wait a day.
The irony, our birthday boy is one of the holdouts when it comes to skates. Instead of braving the wheels, he takes full advantage of the laser tag wing, minus the sizeable crowds or waiting in long lines.
Happy birthday, you little heathen. We’ll get your stubborn ass on skates yet. Mark my words.
Maisy breaks into my thoughts before Noah’s lack of interest in the single most exhilarating sport—yes, sport—in existence can insult me.
“This has nothing to do with saving my ass and everything to do with having a derby chick laid out on your counter for everyone to see. Makes you feel like you’re big pimpin’.”
“That too,” I say with a chuckle. “But don’t tell anybody.”
She throws her head back with a throaty laugh and lies back on the counter as I pop off another wheel.
Smokin’ hot, tenderhearted, yet strong all at once… and not one hint of spark between us.
Because fuck my life right up the ass with a wire brush. Why the fuck couldn’t my dick get on board with burying myself in any of the women on the derby team? Single, every one of them now that Maisy and Eve called it quits. Not one of them looking for forever… just a good itch scratchin’ time.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there is something really fucking intriguing about hitting up a chick into both chicks and dudes, knowing that if faced with a stiff cock or a wet pussy, she’d know what to do with it.
And all of them… powerhouses on skates. There is nothing sexier than that.
But again… dead dick when it comes to the Beautifully Brutal crew. They are more beer buddies than anything else. Brazen and loud friends to drink a couple rounds with at Banked Track before going headfirst into a busy weekend of screaming kids and moody teens.
A sliver of light slices into my vision, blinding me as the front door opens. I have to do something about the piercing rays before one of these days I burn out my corneas. That or stop propping these ladies on my counter. But where is the fun in that?
Inch by inch as the door closes, the light fades, and glossy black hair catches my eye. Familiar strands I hostilely remember smelling of almonds, slipping through my fingertips, drifting over my skin like the most delicate strands of spun silk.
It’s a goddamned beautiful nightmare I’ve relived a thousand fucking times. Each one slicing me open one more time and leaving toughened-up scar tissue in its wake.
My heart rages in my chest; the knocking against my ribs threatens to break me apart once again.
She does that to me.
Still.
Always.
My very own living, breathing prison for the past sixteen years.
Savannah Bryant, the goddamned other half of my soul.
The girl I let go of over and over because deep in my heart, I know I’m not good enough for her.
The girl who runs because deep down she knows it too.
“Well, now… that’s a look I’ve never seen in your eyes.” Maisy rises on her elbows and glances over her shoulder in the same direction of my gaze.
Savannah’s smile slips and wary distrust settles over her porcelain features. The familiar look haunts me every time I close my eyes.
“You’ve never seen me with instantaneous diarrhea.” I mutter the disgusting words, hoping they’ll distract Maisy from the connection pulsing with life beating between me and Savannah.
Maisy jerks at my comment; a snort scrapes in the back of her throat, and her skate breaks free from my hand, the hard rubber stopper catching me in the chin. My skin splits open, followed by a warm trail of blood trickling under my jaw.
“Shit.” I reach for the nearest towel, but Maisy beats me to it.
“Dammit! I’m sorry.” She takes the towel and cups the back of my head. “So, it’s like that, huh?” Maisy says quietly as she presses the towel to my burning cut.
“It’s nothing.”
She tilts her head, her voice softening. “Seems to me, it might just be everything.”
“I’m notorious for wanting what I can’t have.” I resume tightening the wheel of her skate while she tries to stop the bleeding. The sooner I get Maisy out of here, the better. Preferably before Savannah makes her way over and Maisy “Mayhem” Flynn morphs into Maisy the Matchmaker right before my eyes.
Absolutely not.
“Why can’t you have her?”
“My history.” I grunt out the words, the sound rough and gritty… like my past.
History is just that, Jackson… history.
Savannah’s inherent goodness, vibrant spirit, charming curiosity. If any of the three breaks, it won’t be under the weight of my sins.
I stare down the ghosts of my past in the mirror every morning and I flip the motherfuckers off in the same mirror before I turn my back and get going with the day. No matter the venom I aim at them, they always come back.
The cut on my chin likely needs stitches but will get nothing more than a butterfly Band-Aid. And eventually, it will blend in with the history in the mirror, adding another detail to the canvas of a guy who fucked off for so long, he etched his sins into the long memories of Galloway Bay.
Defiant mistakes made right out in the open, fueled with warped youthful pride. Each one becoming as much a part of the community as the bluffs off the coast of town tumbling straight into the frigid and unforgiving turbulent water of the Atlantic.
Maisy’s words, a sentiment she so easily tosses out, echoes through my head and I don’t know if I resent her for saying them, or if I’m just pissed at myself that I can’t figure out how to accept them. I jerk up with a hard glare, a lock of hair falling in front of my eyes again as I grasp for anything to deflect. “Is that so… What about your history, Maze? Is it just history?”
She wrinkles her nose and shrugs as though my barb hasn’t landed, but the carefree look slipping from her gaze as she glances away tells me it hooks deep, making me regret turning the tables on her.
Sadness always seeps through the cracks in her past… even today.
She confessed her fears, her disappointments, and cried an ugly torrent of tears when she admitted she still harbored anger in her heart toward her mother for moving Maisy all over the map without a care for what it did to her to be uprooted on a whim. Never having a solid friendship that carried her through childhood.
A hole in her past she didn’t even see she had successfully made up for now in the bonds she continued to forge here in Galloway Bay. Ours being one of them. And now, I carelessly used it against her.
A pang slices through my chest as I strive to be a good man, and again, I fuck it up.
“My history book is different. It’s more of a pamphlet really. A cautionary tale.” She forces a casual shrug and I know what she’s doing. She’s using humor to give me an out of the shitty corner I’d trapped myself in. An out I don’t deserve—but I gladly clutch on to.
I catch the slide of Savannah’s hair over her white cashmere-covered shoulder from the corner of my eye. “We’re too different.”
“You could balance each other out.”
“She has a kid.” There’s no balancing that out.
She drops the towel and cups my jaw, pushing my chin and glancing at the cut. “Unless you eat them, I fail to see the problem there. And considering you’re around kids almost every day and we haven’t had an Amber alert in forever, I’d say you don’t.”
“I—”
She presses the tip of her index finger to my lips. “And before you say it, you and I both know you’re not the quick lay kind of guy.”
And that’s part of the fucking problem. What if I get a taste of her—a real taste… of all of her—and she vanishes again?
I’ve managed to survive this long after tasting her lips, but God fucking help me if I get more than that and she walks away, I’m done. Everything good I’ve accomplished will vanish on the wave of rage I’ll unleash on my own best intentions.
“She’s got brains and she’s from a good family. I’m just this.” I come from a hardworking blue-collar family. The kind who didn’t go to college. Hell, most of them had probably never even applied. Some were lucky they had high school diplomas. As for brains, well, I spent most of my teen years and my early twenties stoned, so who the fuck knew.
Cupping my cheeks in her hands, Maisy forces me to look up. Her kind smile smooths away the roughest edges of yearning, regret. The sweep of her thumbs over my cheekbones tempers the anger bubbling in my chest. “This is pretty great. Maybe you’re just afraid you feel a whole lot more for her than she does for you. I say we find out.”
“Cute, Maze, but—”
Velvety warm lips brush over mine and my blood spikes, shooting through my veins on a surge of adrenaline.
Of fear.
A deep-seated dread of what Savannah will think seeing this settles in the pit of my stomach.
“So, no offense,” Maze mutters against my mouth, “but I’m thinking this is what it would feel like to kiss your own brother.”
“Yeah. And if you stick your tongue in my mouth, I might bite it off.”
“No tongue. It’ll give me nightmares. But let’s see if it worked.”
We both glance over at Savannah at the same time. Her tight, narrowed eyes are on us. The pinched set of her mouth and the way she digs into her daughter’s shoulder with the tips of her fingers send some serious mama bear, stop-making-out-in-front-of-my-impressionable-daughter vibes.
“Can’t tell,” I mutter.
“Oh, it worked.” Maisy’s voice hummed with satisfaction.
I shake my head. “She looks one step away from throwing her hands over her daughter’s eyes and hauling her out of here.”
“Maybe… if she were looking at us, but she’s looking at me and I am for sure on her turf where you’re concerned. Interesting.”
“It’s not interesting.”
“Oh, it so is. Savannah and Jackson up in a tree. F-U—”
I clutch the skate tool in my hands and aim it right at her. “Do not fucking finish that.”
“Aw, is Jackson a little butt hurt he didn’t get a chance to F—”
“Maisy, dammit.”
“But for sure you guys K-I-S-S-I—”
I glance at Savannah where she speaks low to Frannie’s mother. Her eyes dart to mine, but shoot away just as fast.
“How old are you anyway, Maze? I’m pegging you at about ten right now and that’s being generous.”
“Ooooh, avoidance. So, you did kiss her.”
“We’re not talking about this.”
“It’s cool. You’ll spill one of these days. You want me to put a butterfly bandage on that cut for you?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Maisy pats my cheek and hops off the counter. “Gonna go over and romance the raven-haired mama bear over there with your rugged prowess, huh? Even better. Just don’t bleed on her. It’s a turnoff.”
“You know, one of these days you’re going to find someone who takes you down a notch.”
“Maybe. Or I might take them down a notch instead.” Her hair tumbles over her shoulder and she waves before taking off across the carpet to the group of girls waiting to hit the rink. “Thanks for the wheels, Jackson.”