All was right in Peyton Tanner’s world until trouble walked into her bar, the Grog Monster, and his name was Tate Briggs.
For the past ten years Peyton’s managed to live her life scandal-free. A feat considering her father’s the mayor, in a very small town. Staying under the radar is a priority when her every action is reported like the hottest news. And Peyton knows how fast that grapevine can turn on her. So no matter how delicious and forbidden Tate can be, she’s not willing to turn her world into gossip central, again, for lust.
Tate Briggs learned a long time ago to want what you want and not apologize for it, and he wants Peyton. He can understand her trepidation. Small towns are only kind to their local sweethearts when she’s agreeable and perfect, but at some point Peyton’s got to live for herself. But his patience is tested when she insists their affair must remain a secret. It goes against everything he believes in.
When their relationship becomes more than a sexual affair, Peyton will have to decide between her beloved small town or the man she loves.
Copyright © 2014 Sofia Harper
The Grog Monster’s saloon doors slapped open, just as Peyton Tanner yelled “last call,” over the loud music to a group of late-night stragglers. She grinned for two reasons. The first had everything to do with the fact that she had saloon doors. She owned a bar named the Grog Monster—quirkiness was required. The second reason had everything to do with recognizing the stupid hat peeking over the doors.
The wooden slats swung closed behind her brother, Reid. He only wore the ugly fedora when off duty. It hid his sandy-brown hair and shielded his sharp blue eyes. The plain shirt and jeans hung on his thick frame. To anyone who didn’t know him, he looked relaxed, but she noted the line of tension along his wide shoulders.
Peyton notched her head to Stacy, her new hire. “You got it?”
Just shy of twenty-one, the girl’s blonde locks were tied back from her face. She’d been on her feet for five hours straight and there wasn’t an ounce of strain around her brown eyes. Oh, to be that young again.
“Yeah,” the girl answered with a shake of her head. “I got it. Go screw with your brother.”
Peyton wove her way from behind the bar and through the tables, nodding to one familiar face after another until she stood beside her brother. Since his attention was focused on the occupants, Peyton did what she always did when he “dropped by” before closing on his day off, while wearing that dumb hat. She rose on her tiptoes, flicked the back brim, and caught it with her other hand before it tumbled to the hardwood floors.
Her brother barely twitched; his gaze had narrowed on someone in the far corner of the bar. The subdued light didn’t reach that far back. Despite the lighting, the mixture of booths and tables should have left a clear line of sight, but as always, people stood around mingling with their friends and neighbors from their small town.
Finally, her brother paid her some attention. “Peyton, you could do something else constructive with your time instead of annoying the shit out of me.”
“It’s my favorite pastime.” She put on his hat and followed his gaze. “Trouble?”
“None that I can see, Mayor Peyton.”
She scoffed at the subtle insult. She wasn’t and would never be mayor, something she was reminded of during every exchange with their father. Since it was payment for stealing his hat, she let it go.
“Seems like you’re looking for trouble,” she said. Her brother only grunted in answer at her accusation. He dropped by on his nights off to make sure she was okay, which he didn’t need to do, but nothing she ever said persuaded him. Still… “I can bounce a drunk.”
She’d done it while in college as a bartender, while making side money. There were definite perks to being a Tanner. Her parents paid for school, and scholarships covered most of the rest. If that bar experience hadn’t been enough, she’d bounced more drunks for the last two years while running the Grog. They lived in a small town, but it was big enough to get regulars, lost tourists, or folks just traveling down California’s Route 99. And that included the kind of drunks she’d sometimes have to hose down before touching.
Didn’t matter to Reid though. He was her big brother and a cop. His protective streak couldn’t do anything else but overreact. The tension suddenly slid from his shoulders. Reid let out a whoop, his laugh lines creasing around his full lips as he smiled down at her. His baby blues sparkled.
“What?” She rose onto her toes again, trying to get a good view over the noisy crowd.
None of the patrons bothered to stare at their odd ritual. Peyton and Reid did this so often, the townsfolk probably assumed it was a Tanners of Tanner Creek thing. Too short to see over the people right in front of them, she almost gave up.
“It’s Tate.” Surprise filled her brother’s announcement.
Apparently she was supposed to know him. Just as she settled back on her heels, a man stood, towering over everyone as he stretched to his full height. His solid build kept him from being lithe. Tate’s face lit up with a wide grin when he saw Reid. The smile knocked the breath from her lungs.
He had scruff, not yet a beard, covering the lower half of his face. And he had the face of a man, the kind of man that poured out testosterone by the truckload simply by breathing. His jaw was made up of sharp lines. He had a long, tapered nose and lips that weren’t full but just perfect for kissing. She wouldn’t call his shoulder-length hair locks too feminine, but the strands were dark, like his eyes; they were the only thing that seemed soft about him. His eyes were amber, like whiskey. Okay. So even his eyes weren’t soft.
Her brother’s concentration centered on Tate. If not, he’d have witnessed her momentary drool. If Reid knew him, that made Tate off-limits. She didn’t date the men in town, much less anyone her brother considered a friend. She’d been cut by that kind of association before, and every now and again that wound resurfaced.
With that reminder, she clamped her mouth shut, pulled the hat lower, and waited for the man to stroll over. She wouldn’t make moves on him, but that didn’t bar nosiness. She could definitely admire the way he moved: steady and understated through the throng of people. No wonder he’d somehow slipped into the Grog without notice. If Stacy had seen him, she would have definitely mentioned a tall, sexy-as-fuck man who wasn’t somehow related to either of them.
“Son of a bitch,” her brother said when Tate approached. They did a difficult form of handshaking that indicated he must have known the man in college. “What are you doing here?”
Tate laughed. His deep baritone sent a shiver down her spine. “Moved into town. Opened up my business.”
“Business?” Her brother shifted, subtly blocking her from the conversation.
Her existence was forgotten during the male-bonding ritual. She cleared her throat. “Excuse him,” she interjected and immediately regretted it. Something way more than interest flashed in Tate’s eyes when he focused on her. She added, “My mother would rap him on the back of the head for being this rude.”
Reid jerked a shoulder. “No, she wouldn’t. She loves me. Anyway, this is the annoying baby sis I used to tell you about.”
“Your baby sis, huh?” There was a note of regret in his tone, but he put out his hand.
Her nose had long since gone numb to the smell of yeast, peanuts, and the cologne her brother wore, but Tate’s scent was new. He smelled like…testosterone, if they could put it in a bottle of aftershave. Dating men in Tanner Creek was out, but that didn’t mean she didn’t go out to get her itch scratched every now and again. At the moment, she wanted his nails lightly scraping over her back.
If she took his hand, there might be a spark—one she’d have to ignore. “It’s Peyton, not Pain In The Ass, as I’m sure that’s what he called me.”
Since he hadn’t lowered his arm, she took his offered hand. Her palm tingled when skin touched skin. The sensation worked its way up her arm, just as she’d known it would.
“Tate Briggs.” His thumb moved over hers in a caress. “I should be offended he never mentioned me.”
“I did,” Reid said. “She was…”
She shot her brother a glare, so he wouldn’t mention that at the time, she might have been too wrapped up in her heartache over Declan. Maybe part of her hard stare included a silent threat: if he talked about Declan, she’d bring up Madison. In a town this small, everyone had exes they couldn’t escape. Reid cleared his throat and shut his mouth.
“It was nice meeting you,” she said, “but I have a bar to run.”
He hadn’t released her yet. Touching him made her chest tight. She sucked in enough shallow breaths to make herself dizzy. Still she couldn’t work up the nerve to let go of his hand, either. What made it so much worse was that he hadn’t once chanced a glance at Reid since meeting her gaze.
“This is your place?” he asked.
“Yup,” she answered with no intention of elaborating.
The Grog Monster had come into existence because the only good thing about heartache was that it made her focused, sharpened her stubbornness, and made it easier to come up with a new dream that didn’t involve her high school sweetheart. No man, no matter how much he made her heart flutter, could make her change her mind on the life she planned to live—understated and without scandal.
She dropped his hand. “I’ll let you boys catch up.”
“Send Stacy over to bring us drinks.” Reid’s words were drowned out by his phone blaring out a siren. He cursed. “So much for a day off. Tate, I’ll have to catch up with you later.”
“Sure.” His attention had already swiveled back to her as Reid tore out of the bar.
She knew that hungry expression and had probably worn a similar one when she first laid eyes on him. Peyton ignored the obvious attraction and walked back to the counter. She wouldn’t let her hormones talk her into doing something she’d regret. Because she would regret it the second the gossip mill got ahold of her screwing the new guy.
They might, just might, let go of the ten-year-old torch they carried for her and Declan to get back together. If things turned to shit or they just got that itch scratched for a time, it wouldn’t matter. The town wouldn’t let it go. They’d start to wonder if there was something wrong with that Peyton girl. Why couldn’t she hold on to a man? There would be pity, nosiness, and another few years of folks believing her business was theirs.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Been there. Done that. Refused to live through the experience again.
So she told herself not to look back to see if he was checking out her ass. Or following her like he’d caught her scent. Or anything that would encourage her to forget about the long-held vows she’d made at twenty-one, once living back home after graduating from college.
Her back was tight with tension from fighting the instinct to check. Just peek. She reached the bar. With nowhere else to look but behind her, she glanced at Tate. Her stomach jumped at the intense expression on his face. He’d been watching her ass and following her toward the bar as though those two actions were interconnected.
She wouldn’t flirt with him. That would be the line. She’d get him a beer or whatever he wanted and let him stew until Reid came back…if her brother strolled back into the Grog before she closed down for the night.
It wouldn’t hurt to look at Tate, would it?
Just don’t touch.