Authors: Michelle Mankin
Tags: #The Brutal Strength Shakespeare Inspired Series
JR gently pulled Sam to her feet at the end of the song and gestured to the side stage, where Sara appeared, Gram’s hand curled around her arm. Sam ran to them both and hugged them.
“I don’t think your man’s finished,” Sara told Sam. “Turn around.”
“I love you, Samantha Daniels.” JR took a ring out of his jean pocket and went down on one knee. “I want to take care of you for the rest of your life. Will you marry me?”
“Yes, John.” She nodded through her tears. He stood and slipped the ring on her finger, pulling her in and kissing her deeply.
Avery blinked through her own bittersweet tears. She was happy for them both, but she was also sad remembering another time and another proposal. Seemingly of their own volition her wet emerald eyes sought for and found Marcus’ blue. They stared at each other for several heartbeats. She knew without words being spoken that he was reliving the same moment.
With a pained gasp, she spun around and moved quickly offstage.
With that long stride of his, Marcus quickly caught up to her. He grabbed her by the upper arms and pulled her off to the side. “I’ll have you back, Avery,” he said, gaze intense. “I meant what I said before.”
“Red,” a familiar voice interrupted. “Everything ok here?”
“Yes. It is now.” She gave Bryan a tight smile tugging her arms free from Marcus. “Excuse me, I have to go,” she said, turning away.
“This isn’t over,” Marcus told her.
“Yes it is,” she insisted. Taking the hand Bryan offered her, she let him lead her away.
“He been bothering you?” Bryan’s eyes were troubled.
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“What do you think of my Texas ensemble?”
“It’s cute,” he replied after a cursory look. “But I’m kinda partial to the leather one you were wearing the other night.”
“About the other night.” Her forehead creased. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”
“Have you?” He took a step closer, so close that she could feel the warmth of his lean body and inhale the compelling musky scent of him.
“Yeah.” She pulled nervously on the sheer black sleeves of her Rock & Roll Cowgirl top. “I want to apologize for what I did. I shouldn’t have used you like that. That’s not who I am. I’ve been doing a lot of things lately that are out of character for me.”
“Apology accepted,” he said softly and then ran a fingertip softly around the shell of her ear. “This mean you’re gonna take me up on my offer?”
She took a deep breath. It
a delicious dilemma. Things weren’t really settled with Marcus, despite what she’d just told him. But didn’t she need to see what this was between her and Bryan? Staring at his lips, she wet her own. “Yes, I think I will,” she told him.
“Let’s go to my room then.” His voice was low and rumbled deep in his chest. He took her hand and started for the door.
“Wait.” She pulled her hand back.
“What?” His brows drew together and a guarded expression returned to his eyes.
“It’ll have to be after the meet and greet,” she explained. “The rest of us have to be there since Sam and JR are going to be out with her family celebrating.” She let out a shaky breath. “And I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding between us. I want you to know upfront, I’m not looking for anything serious.”
“Neither am I, Red.” His eyes narrowed. “I think you know I’m not a white picket fence, one point five kids and two car garage kinda guy. But if we’re being completely honest with each other, I have to tell you I’m keeping those options open with you.”
“I’M GONNA KILL him,” Marcus growled, ice cubes clinking in his glass as he gestured at Avery and Bryan across the crowded party room at the Omni hotel. “He puts his lips on her one more time and…”
“I’m glad you’ve decided to get her back,” Dwight cut in. “But I don’t think maiming Bullet will win her over,” he warned.
“Maybe not,” he grumbled, running his hands through his hair. “But it’ll sure as hell make me feel better. It’s driving me crazy standing here and watching him touch her.”
“Have you told her how you feel?”
“Yeah,” Marcus snarled, shifting his attention back to his brother. “I took responsibility for everything. Told her I fucked up and how badly I wanted her back.”
“What’d she say to that?”
“Basically she told me to piss off.” He let out a long breath. “But not before she let me kiss her.”
“Well, she’s sure cozy with Bryan now,” Dwight observed sardonically as Marcus turned back just in time to see Bryan feeding her a stuffed mushroom. “I guess it must not have made much of an impression on her.”
“You can go away now,” Marcus said only half mockingly.
“Don’t be like that.” Dwight bumped his shoulder. “Looks like it’s not gonna be easy is all I’m saying. But I don’t believe you really thought it would be…Uh-oh.”
“Shit.” They were leaving together. He started to follow, but Dwight blocked him.
“I suggest you come up with something a little more subtle than man handling them apart.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“I don’t know. Let me think a minute.” Dwight scratched the top of his shaggy reddish blond head. “I know.” He pulled out his cell, slid his fingers on the display, and put it up to his ear. “Hey, Avery…Yeah, it’s Dwight…Why do you sound out of breath?”
Marcus’ jaw tensed.
“The elevators are still broken? Yeah, it’s easier going down ten flights than up. Listen, I was wondering if you’d give me a hand picking out some stuff for the baby tonight…No, I guess it can wait until tomorrow. Sure…Ok, I’ll see you at breakfast.” He slid his cell back in his pocket. “Sorry, little brother.”
“Thanks for trying,” he mumbled, deep in thought. “Wait a minute. I have an idea.” He leaned in closer to tell Dwight.
“LET ME CATCH my breath a minute,” Avery begged Bryan, hands on her knees.
“Oh come on now.” Bryan put a hand on her lower back. “It was just ten flights.”
“You’re not even winded, are you?” She straightened, appraising him.
“I keep in good shape.”
“Yeah apparently, you do.” She ran her gaze over his taut upper body and long sinewy legs. “But I’d have thought the smoking would slow you down.”
“I’m more of a casual smoker.” He grinned. “It’s more of an image thing for me.”
“If you say so.” Her eyebrow rose skeptically.
“I could stop anytime I wanted,” he said in a teasing tone, lifting his chin. “Come on. You’ve obviously recovered enough to bust my balls about my bad habits.”
Outside his door, he inserted the key card and pushed it open with one hand, taking her hand with the other. The room was dark and cold. Only in Texas would the air conditioner be blowing in the middle of the winter.
“Aren’t you gonna flip on the lights?” she asked softly.
He turned and pulled her into him, adjusting his stance so there was no remaining space between them. His body was hard against hers. There was no misinterpreting how much he wanted her. Her mouth went dry and her palms got sweaty.
“You still want me to put on the lights, Red?” he prompted, voice low and husky.
“No.” She slid her hands up into the hair at his nape, finding it soft and silky to the touch. Her stomach flipped.
“Don’t be nervous,” he whispered.
“Why do you think I’m nervous?” she wondered out loud.
“I can feel you heart beating a mile a minute.” He removed his hands from her waist and threaded them into her hair, framing her face in his hands. “Relax, Red. Just follow my lead.” His warm breath ghosted across her lips right before his lips did. They were warm and firm and surprisingly gentle as he moved them against hers.
Well, almost nothing. He was a handsome, sexy guy after all. She did get tingly in certain places, but she didn’t feel at all consumed like she did whenever Marcus kissed her. Maybe she just wasn’t trying hard enough. She pressed tighter to Bryan.
“Mmm,” he murmured, picking up on her cue to deepen the kiss. His lips no longer gentle but insistent, he forced his tongue into her mouth.
She wanted to want it there. She wanted to want him. She wanted to erase Marcus from her mind, but…
Waaaah! Waaaah! Waaaah!
“What the fuck?” Bryan lifted his head.
“It’s the fire alarm,” Avery realized, the white flashing blinding her eyes when she looked up into it.
“Please proceed immediately to the nearest fire exit.” A voice came over the speaker out in the hall. “Do not use the elevators. This is not a drill.”
“Shitty timing,” Bryan muttered, taking her hand.
“Yeah,” she agreed, not quite truthfully, letting him lead her out of the room and down the stairs.
Avery scanned the crowded lobby, watching as people made their way out of the building. She noticed a few familiar faces milling around the indoor fountains and spotted the rest of the Tempest guys near the front desk.
“There’s War.” Bryan squeezed her hand. “I’m gonna see if he knows what’s going on.”
“Ok.” She watched him leave, grateful for a few moments alone to sort through her feelings. Suddenly, warm, strong arms enveloped her from behind. Familiar evergreen aftershave filled her nostrils. “Marcus.” She tried to pull away.
“Stay,” he breathed against her neck. “You’re cold.” He ran familiar hands against the chilled flesh of her arms.
She shivered, but not from the cold. And that made her mad. How could she let him affect her this way after all that he had done? She moved out of his embrace and spun around to face him. Her green eyes flashed. “I told you not to touch me anymore.”
He put his hands up in the air. “Just trying to help while your boy is occupied.” His lips curved up wickedly.
Avery’s eyes narrowed. “You!” She wagged an accusing finger. “You did this.”
“You bastard. Stay. Out. Of. My. Life.” She punctuated each word with a push to his rock hard chest.
He glanced down at her hands where they rested on his pecs. She registered the warmth and the strength of him beneath her palms before he trapped her fingers with his own. His blue eyes locked on hers.
“No,” he refused without remorse. “I won’t.”
“Yes, Marcus,” she pleaded. “Let me go.”
“No, Ace. Not until the last breath leaves my body.” Holding her to him with only one hand, he pressed his thumb against her bottom lip, tugging her mouth open and brought his mouth down on hers. His tongue immediately slid between her parted lips. It was a hard kiss, a possessive kiss. His hot wet tongue repeatedly stroked hers, setting her on fire. Bryan’s kiss had been all smoke in comparison. Her hands fisted into his shirt, and she clutched him for balance as her knees weakened.
Marcus growled deep in this throat and lifted his head. “You taste like a fucking ashtray.” His eyes were dark and wild.
“Red? What’s going on?”
Avery took a guilty step back from Marcus and turned.
“What the fuck?” Bryan’s accusatory gaze skewered her.
She started toward him.
Bryan stopped her with a dismissive wave. “This alarm thing was your doing, wasn’t it?” He glared at Marcus.
“Now that would be against the law, wouldn’t it?” Marcus responded evasively.
“I’m taking that as a yes,” Bryan said, his quick shift of weight the only warning before his fist flashed, connecting with a loud crack against Marcus’ jaw.
When Marcus’ head came back around, he rubbed his jaw and gave Bryan a steely stare. “My turn, Pup.” The right cross that followed impacted with a sickening crunch.
Bryan staggered back, hand to his bleeding nose. Only momentarily stunned, then he flew back toward Marcus.
“Whoa, Bullet. Cool it man!” War came and grabbed Bryan by the shoulders, pulling him back.
Dwight appeared at the same time to restrain his brother. “Stand down, Marcus,” he ordered as Marcus struggled against his hold. “You ok, Avery?” he asked with concern.
“Stop it!” she demanded angrily. Her gaze ping ponged back and forth between the two rivals. “I’ve had enough. I want both of you to just leave me alone.”