"Damon is an idiot, Damon is an idiot," sang my five year-old niece, Amelia, as she brushed her doll's hair with a tiny plastic brush.
I tried to stifle my giggle but wasn't very successful. It came out as a snort.
My sister, Cleo, gave me one of the Mommy-glares she usually reserved for her two daughters when they were naughty. "Make yourself useful and give this back to Charlotte, Becky." She handed me the washed and dried Play-Doh shape cutter. I sat on the floor with three year-old Charlotte and helped her roll out bright pink Play-Doh into a flat pancake.
"Where's Dino?" Amelia trotted out of the play room to search for her stuffed dinosaur.
"Why's she calling her uncle an i-d-i-o-t, anyway?" I asked once she was out of earshot. Amelia could probably spell, but Charlotte definitely couldn't.
"She overheard Reece this morning." Cleo joined Charlotte and me on the floor and popped the lid off the blue Play-Doh tub. "He was ranting about Damon not coming to their parents' wedding anniversary dinner."
"He's not going?" I pressed the heart shaped cutter into the dough then passed the shape to Charlotte. She scrunched it up into a ball. "He's really not going? That's just…sad."
Ever since the youngest Kavanagh had come out of jail six months earlier, the family had hoped he would slot back into the Kavanagh way of life. But he'd hardly spoken to his brothers and parents, refused offers of money, jobs and even an apartment. Apparently he'd moved into a hovel and was trying to set up his own business repairing motorbikes. I hadn't seen him since he'd been arrested for assault a couple of years ago. We hadn't been close beforehand, but we'd been friends, in a way. He was the closest Kavanagh brother in age to me so I'd naturally gravitated to him at family events. But while he'd always been the one who trod along his own path, he'd spiraled out of control in the weeks leading up to his arrest.
"Very sad," Cleo agreed on a sigh. "Reece and the others have tried calling, but no one can get through to him. I'm worried he's lost, Becky."
"To the family."
"You're righting him off?"
She lifted one shoulder. "What else can be done? Reece is pretty furious with him for putting their parents through hell these last few years. He didn't just call him an idiot." She glanced at Charlotte and leaned closer to me. "There was another word before it."
Right on cue, Amelia twirled into the play room with Dino in one hand and her doll in the other, singing, "Damon is a fu--"
"AMELIA!" Cleo's bark stopped her daughter in her tracks. Her big blue eyes filled with tears and her lower lip wobbled. Cleo's face softened. "That's not a nice word, Honey."
"But Daddy said it."
"Daddy was very naughty to do so. He shouldn't say things like that about your Uncle Damon. About anyone."
"Who's Uncle Damon?"
"You don't remember him, Honey?"
Amelia shook her head.
Cleo and I both sighed. It was definitely sad when his own niece didn't remember him. Cleo explained who Damon was to Amelia and the little girl seemed satisfied with the answer. She settled down on the floor and began spreading out her tea set. I punched another shape out of the Play-Doh and handed it to Charlotte to scrunch up.
"And to think, I used to like him," I said with a shake of my head.
Cleo stopped rolling the blue Play-Doh and gawped at me. "What? Do you mean like him, like him?"
"No!" I laughed, careful not to make it too long, too loud or too hysterical. I wasn't sure I succeeded. Cleo was good at seeing into people and knowing what they really thought. Especially me. "Not like that. Just as friends. Have you forgotten that we used to hang out sometimes?"
"Yes, actually, I had."
"Understandable. You were pretty hung up on Reece at the time. Still are." I winked at her.
She scowled back. "I was not hung up on Reece." Her blush betrayed her. My sister was totally in love with her husband, and that was just as it should be. He loved her back, fiercer than ever. The Kavanaghs never did anything in half-measures. It was all or nothing. With Reece, it was all. With Damon, it was nothing.
"I'm worried about him," Cleo said quietly.
"Reece. He's taking Damon's bad attitude to heart. All the brothers are. I know Ellen can be prickly, but she doesn't deserve the silent treatment from her youngest son. Harry definitely doesn't. They'd do anything for their sons."
I hated seeing my sister so down. It wasn't like her. She was an optimist. She saw the positive in everything and the good in everyone. Reece must be pretty tense about the Damon thing or she wouldn't be sighing so much. It seemed to me that Damon needed an attitude adjustment. He needed to be told how much his actions hurt everyone.
"He needs a wakeup call," I said. There was only one person I trusted to tell it to him straight. One person he might listen to, who wasn't a Kavanagh but had their best interests at heart.
Butterflies fought inside my stomach. I wasn't expecting to be this nervous. It wasn't like I was fighting with Damon.
My anxiety probably had more to do with Damon being an ex-con just out of prison. It had been a couple years since I'd seen him. Prison would have changed him. Hell, he'd already changed before he went to jail. Nice guys don't beat up other people for no reason. And Damon had been a nice guy. Wild, yes, but not an asshole. I owed it to my sister to find that nice guy again and bring him home.
Cleo had always been there for me. After our parents had died, she'd practically raised me. When I got cancer, she put her life on hold and worked her ass off to pay medical bills and nurse me through the worst of the chemo. The least I could do for her and Reece was suck up my nerves and talk to Damon.
As I opened the door of his bike repair workshop, I hoped there was still some of that nice guy left.
The little bell above the door tinkled. It sounded way too fairylike for such a masculine place. The workshop wasn't dark, thanks to the sunlight streaming through the overhead skylights, but it was grungy. Motorbike chassis were propped against walls or on stands like the picked over remains of animal carcasses. Tires hung from one section of the ceiling, suspended by chains, and parts and tools littered the workbenches and floor. A small desk strewn with paperwork and more parts was pushed into the darkest corner, as if it were an unwelcome but necessary addition to the business. A closed laptop perched dangerously close to the edge.
"Be with you in a minute!" Damon's voice boomed from the depths of the workshop.
I squinted but couldn't see him. The clang of metal on metal came from the very back behind a large black motorbike. A booted foot and the lower part of an oil stained jeans-clad leg were just visible. I hiked my bag higher on my shoulder and checked my watch. Twenty minutes of my lunch break was all I could spare to speak to him.
"Damon, it's me," I called out. "Becky. Becky Denny," I added.
The clanging stopped. The boot and leg retracted out of my line of sight. A long moment later, he stood. The bearded face wasn't what I expected.
"Damon?" I tucked my bag tighter under my arm and clutched the straps at my shoulders with both hands. I edged around the bikes and squinted at the guy staring back at me. Or should I say, scowling.
As I drew closer, I could see the Damon I remembered beneath all that black hair. The piercing blue eyes were definitely his. The tall, strong physique was all Kavanagh, although his biceps had bulked up. The tattoo on his right shoulder was one I recognized, but the one on his left was new. He wore a stained gray tank with a sporting brand logo across the front. It dipped low beneath the arm holes, showing off all those new muscles around his ribs to perfection.
The sight of those powerful arms and shoulders set my pulse racing. Odd. I'd seen him dressed like this a dozen times years ago and never turned into a schoolgirl faced with her latest crush. It must have something to do with him being a bona fide bad boy now. Like most of the straight women in America—the world—I was a feminist to my core, but a sexy alpha man with a dangerous past could set my heart skipping along to a crazy tune.
"Hey," I said. When he simply stared back, I gave him a flat-lipped smile. "Remember me? Cleo's sister." When he still didn't answer, I added, "Your sister-in-law, Cleo. Reece's wife."
"I know who you are." His voice was deeper than it used to be. It came from the depths of that big chest and rumbled out like quiet thunder.
"Oh. It's just that you're staring at me like I'm a stranger."
"You look different. Your hair's longer and darker. Your face…" He looked down at the wrench in his hand and set it on the workbench beside him.
"Is different." I got the feeling it wasn't what he'd been originally going to say. "What do you want, Becky?"
Wow. No "nice to see you again" or "how've you been". Straight to business. "I came to see how you are. It's been ages since I saw you." I tried to sound cheerful, but it came out forced, fake. When his eyes darkened, I could have kicked myself for not putting more effort into it.
The muscles in his cheeks bunched. "I'm fine. You?"
"Fine." I clutched my bag tighter. "You have a nice workshop here. Lots of bikes. Are you busy?"
"Is it just you or do you have staff?"
I nodded and looked around the workshop, although I didn't really notice anything. I was searching for something else to say to break the ice. Unfortunately, I found no inspiration.
"Which one of them sent you?" He crossed his arms and arched a brow. "Reece?"
"No. No one sent me. No one knows I'm here."
His brow arched higher. "Is that so? Was that wise?"
I swallowed. It sounded loud in the strained silence. "How do you mean?"
"I'm a convicted criminal." He took a slow step forward. I stood my ground. He frowned and stepped forward again until he was only a few feet from me. "I did time for assault." Another step and another brought him close. I could smell the grease on his hands and feel the heat from his body.
Blood pounded through my veins and rushed to my face. Despite my blush, I refused to let him think me a coward. I wasn't afraid of him. On the contrary, I was inexplicably drawn. The words moth and flame came to mind.
His lips twisted to one side in a nasty smirk that was almost hidden by his beard. "Maybe you should have brought a bodyguard."
I rolled my eyes. "You won't hurt me, Damon, so stop acting all tough and scary."
To my surprise, he laughed. It even held some humor, although it was more of a quiet chuckle than a proper laugh. "You always were a straight talker. That's why I—" He cut himself off with a short cough then nodded at me. "What's with the boring business suit?"
I looked down at my black trousers, white shirt and sensible court shoes. "It's what I wear to work."
"Artists dress in suits now?"
"I'm not an artist. That's my hobby. You know that."
"Do I? Last time I saw you, you were working for Reece part-time in his building company and painting the rest of the time. You planned on making a living from your art. What happened?"
"I grew up. There's no money in painting. I need to make money to eat, you know. We don't all have Kavanagh trust funds to support us."
It was like I'd flicked a switched. His eyes turned ferociously dark and the muscles in his face hardened. I wouldn't be surprised to see steam coming out of his nostrils. "Some of us don't want or use our Kavanagh trust funds," he snarled.
I held up one hand, keeping the other on my bag's strap at my shoulder. "Sorry. I didn't realize you'd take offence at that." Since when had he shunned the Kavanagh money?
Since going to jail maybe. And maybe I'd hit on a reason why he didn't want to associate with his family any more.
"What do you want, Becky?"
Man, he wasn't going to make this easy for me. I don't why I thought I could talk him round when his brothers couldn't. "I want you to pick up the phone and call your mother. Or father," I added. Harry was a softer touch than Ellen. "Their wedding anniversary is coming up and there'll be a dinner to celebrate. It would be nice if all of their children were there."
A beat passed, two, before he said, "Is that it?"
"Good. You've said your piece, now go."
"Actually, I haven't finished."
He sighed. "When did you become such a ball breaker?"
"When did you become such an asshole?"
"A couple years ago. Ask any of my brothers, they'll tell you."
"Don't speak about them like they hate you. They don't."
He snorted and looked away.
"They don't, Damon. They're worried about you."
"You think so, do you?" He shook his head. The gash of his mouth flattened into a hard, uncompromising line. "Then why did Reece accuse me of dragging the Kavanagh name through the mud? Why did Blake storm out of the visitor's room the last time he came to see me in jail? Ash couldn't stop telling me how stressed Mom and Dad were, and Zac went and married the woman who put me behind bars. Yeah, real caring family I've got." He turned his back to me. His shoulders heaved with his drawn-in breath.
I blinked, not sure how to take his tirade. Had Reece really said that to his brother's face? He and the others had always seemed supportive to me, although frustrated because Damon wouldn't tell anyone why he'd hit that guy and never tried to defend his own actions. "Zac told us you were okay with him and Amy."
He let his breath out slowly. "I am. I'm not mad at him, or her. She was just doing her job. Zac's…okay."
"Okay? Just okay? Jesus, Damon, don't go overboard in the brotherly love department."
He rounded on me. "I don't have to listen to this. I'm a free man now and this is my workshop. I can throw you out."
I thrust one hand on my hip. "I dare you."
His eyes turned from fierce to wicked in a heartbeat. Oh crap. I knew what was coming the moment the words were out of my mouth. Damon Kavanagh never backed down from a challenge.
He scooped me up and flung me over his shoulder like a sack. He clamped a hand over my legs to keep me in place, and no matter how hard I struggled, I couldn't get free. To make it worse, my ass was right near his face.
"Put me down!"
"Not on your life. I've wanted to do this ever since you walked in here clutching that bag like a weapon. Scared of me after all, little Becky Denny?"
"Don't be ridiculous," I lied. "Why would I be scared of a pussycat like you?"
"The whole assault and jail thing, remember?"
"You had a reason."
"Did I?" he drawled. "Funny, I don't remember that part in court. I must have dozed off."
"Stop being an asshole and put me down!" I beat his back with my fist while holding onto my bag with the other hand. He sucked in a breath when I got him in the kidney. "I hope that leaves a bruise."
He opened the front door and placed a hand on my ass.
"Don't grope me!"
He hefted me off his shoulder and deposited me on the sidewalk. Thank god there was no one around to see. The small street where his workshop was located was empty of traffic.
"That wasn't a sexual grope." He caught my shoulders, either to steady me or prove how much bigger than me he was. He leaned down and our gazes locked. His eyes still gleamed with mischief. Mischief, not violence or hatred or anger. I was right. The old Damon was still in there. He was just buried beneath a weight so heavy he was having trouble shrugging it off. "If I wanted to touch you sexually, Becky, you wouldn't be demanding I stop. You'd be begging me for more." He let me go only to brush the underside of my jaw with his knuckles.
Then he pulled back, turned and strode inside. The door slammed in my face. I gawped at it and wondered what the hell had just happened. Being with Damon had never been so frustrating before. Not on any level.
But now, every piece of me was a frazzled, fried mess. He'd refused to listen or see reason. He'd pushed me away, both emotionally and physically. And yet he'd made my blood throb and my heart race. I wanted to feel his hands on me again, roaming beneath my bland shirt, pulling off my sensible shoes and trousers. I wanted to get my hands on him too. All those muscles, that body…
Goddamn, I was attracted to my sister's brother-in-law. A Kavanagh. An ex-con. An arrogant, stubborn SOB. This wasn't going to end well.
Yet I couldn't walk away. Not yet. Not like this. If I walked away now, he would think he'd won and that the discussion was over. It wasn't over. Not by a long shot. Not until he agreed to speak to his parents and brothers.