Owen felt his mouth curve into a grin as he heard the familiar clop, clop, clop behind him.
Those were high heels on the wooden dock of the Boys of the Bayou swamp boat tour company. One of his favorite sounds.
He was in one of the boats tightening the screws on one of the benches and he took his time turning. He started at the shoes.
He didn’t know why exactly, but he loved when city girls wore their heels down to the bayou. It was so fucking impractical and yet those fish out of water got him going.
The shoes were black and they showed off bright red toenails. They had straps that wrapped sexily around trim ankles and led the eye right up to smooth, toned, tan calves. The heels matched the black polka dots on the white skirt that thankfully didn’t start until mid-thigh, showing off more tanned skin.
He straightened from his kneeling position as his eyes kept moving up past the skirt to the bright red belt that accentuated a narrow waist and then to the silky black tank that molded to a pair of perfect breasts.
He was fully anticipating her lips being bright red to go with that belt and her toenail polish. God he loved red lipstick. And high heels. In any color.
But before he could get to those lips, she used them, to say, “Oh, it’s you. Dammit.”
Owen’s gaze bypassed her mouth to fly to her eyes. Because he’d know that voice anywhere.
Madeline Allain was home.
A day early.
Not that an extra day would have helped him prepare. He’d been thinking about her visit for a week and was still as wound tight about it as he’d been when Sawyer, his cousin and business partner, had told him that she was coming home. For a month.
Owen stood just watching her, fighting back all of the first things that he was tempted say.
Like, “Damn, you’re even more gorgeous than the last time I saw you.”
Or, “I haven’t put anyone in the hospital lately.”
Or, “I’ve missed you so fucking much.”
Just for instance.
She blew out a breath and now he did focus on her lips.
Yep, red. Terrific. That wasn’t going to make ignoring them any easier.
“I was hoping you were Sawyer,” she said, propping a hand on her hip
Owen tossed the wrench he held into the toolbox at his feet. “Nope. Sorry.” So she wasn’t happy to see him. Big shocker. He hadn’t always been the perfect southern gentleman around Maddie, that was for sure.
He wiped his hands on his jeans. Okay, he was supposed to be nice to her. That meant treating her like she was one of the tourists who frequented this dock. Polite. Friendly, but not I’ve-known-you-my-whole-life-and-kissed-you-a-whole-bunch friendly. Just mildly hey-how’s-it-goin’ friendly. So she didn’t sell off her portion of the business that not only fed him and his other two partners, but that was their pride and joy. And the only thing he was really good at.
Nice. Polite. A little friendly—but not too much. He could do that. Though it probably meant not saying things like I still remember how your nipples taste. Also not breaking bones on any men who might look at her like they might like to know how her nipples tasted.
Annoyed that within thirty seconds of seeing her again he was already thinking about her nipples, he kicked the toolbox, trying to slide it into the nook under the bow of the boat. Of course, he kicked it too hard and it tipped, spilling tools over the floor of the boat with loud clangs of metal against metal.
He shoved a hand through his hair. That was typical. Everything was an overreaction when it came to how he acted around Maddie. Even the little stuff. Certainly the big stuff. Always had been.
“Sawyer’s over at Ellie’s.” Owen pulled himself up out of the boat and onto the dock.
That took him about two feet closer to her and he instantly became aware that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Very aware. Maddie’s eyes tracked over his shoulders, chest and abs like a fat kid at a buffet.
The heat that arrowed through him was unwelcome. Though not unexpected. There had always been this crazy chemistry between them. Key word: crazy.
“You’re early,” he said shortly.
Her eyes bounced back up to his. “Um… yeah. I was able to get away sooner than I’d expected.”
“You could have warned us. Quick text or something.”
She frowned. “I didn’t realize you all needed warning.”
You all. Not y’all. Seemed that Maddie had lost her drawl living in California for the past twelve years.
Hell yeah he needed a warning. The same way he needed warnings about hurricanes and anything else that was going to blow into his life and potentially turn everything upside down. He needed a chance to batten things down. Like his emotions.
“Would have been nice, that’s all I’m saying.” He realized he was being kind of a dick. He took a deep breath. She was here because her brother, Tommy, had owned thirty-five percent of the Boys of the Bayou. He’d left that to Maddie when he’d died eight months ago. And now she wanted to sell.
He and Sawyer and Josh, the remaining three partners, had to convince her not to do that.
They didn’t want some stranger coming into the business they’d inherited from their grandfather and that had been a part of their lives for as long as they could remember. But they also couldn’t afford to buy her out. Maddie being the fourth partner, the silent partner that lived two thousand miles away and simply got her share of the money via check once a month, was perfect. They just had to convince her to keep the status quo.
And him being an ass to her within her first ten minutes in town was probably not the way to do that.
She was already afraid of him. Understandably. The last time she’d spent more than a few hours in Autre, Owen had put her brother in the hospital. Sure, he’d been in the bed next to Tommy, and really, Tommy had started it, but that didn’t change the fact that Owen’s actions frightened Maddie. Hell, Tommy’s probably had too, but where Owen got hot and bothered around Maddie, Tommy was cool with her. Too cool. Cold even.
In that particular instance of Owen losing his mind over her, Tommy had just found out that Owen was on his way to see Maddie and Tommy’s dad. He’d been in jail for going after the drunk driver that had killed their mother only a few days before, but Owen intended to ask him to grant permission for Owen and Maddie to get married. She was sixteen, he was seventeen and in Louisiana they only needed parental consent to get hitched.
Tommy had said Owen could marry Maddie over his dead body and that had sent Owen over the edge.
And him and Tommy through a plate-glass window.
That wasn’t the only time he’d been an idiot over her, but yeah, seeing him and Tommy in matching hospital beds had freaked her out.
Probably rightly so.
When it came to Maddie Allain, he was emotionally bananas.
He needed to get a grip. And he needed to keep that grip for the next thirty days. According to the Boys of the Bayou partnership agreement, she had to give them thirty days notice before changing any part of the agreement. That included selling. Sawyer was determined to use that thirty days to convince her she wanted to keep her share.
One month wasn’t very long. Just four weeks.
Owen could keep his shit together for that long.
“I’ll take you over to Sawyer,” he said, giving her a smile. He bent to grab his shirt from the dock where he’d stripped it off earlier.
It was June in Louisiana. Anyone working outside did so in as little clothing as possible. But as he pulled the soft green Boys of the Bayou tee over his head, he couldn’t help but grin a little. He didn’t mind making this first impression on Maddie.
Yeah, he scared her, but he made her crazy too. Maybe even crazier. The things that had happened in Autre from the time his lips first touched hers to the time she got in the car and drove out of town for the last time were pretty legendary.
So he should be scared of her too. When this woman touched him, he became a bit of a dumbass. Okay, a great big dumbass. But she set shit on fire for him. Literally.
He’d taught her to use a nail gun rebuilding the shed she’d torched. He’d also warned her ex-boyfriend—and the reason for the blaze—to steer clear of the backyard while she had that nail gun in hand. Wade Hillson had fucked up big time at that Valentine’s Day party. It had led to Owen and Maddie’s first kiss, so Owen hadn’t been totally pissed, but he’d definitely threatened to throw Wade off the Manchac Swamp Bridge. A bigger threat, however, was definitely Maddie putting a nail gun to Wade’s junk.
That history and chemistry between them was going to make Owen’s life hell for the next thirty days, but he didn’t mind thinking that she might feel a little of the torture too.
“Is there any chance I could just wait here until Sawyer comes back?” Maddie asked as he stepped forward.
“You don’t want to go to Ellie’s?” Ellie’s was Owen’s grandma’s bar. It was where Cora, Maddie’s grandma and Ellie’s best friend since they were kids, worked too. Cora ran the kitchen and Ellie tended the bar and kept the patrons—mostly old fishermen and tourists—in line. It was also where everyone in their big, boisterous family gathered. For just about any and every occasion. Or just to shoot the shit and catch up. They were over there planning Maddie’s return actually.
Maddie sighed. “I don’t know if I’m ready to see them all at once.”
Yeah, their families were a lot, especially when all together. And excited about something. They were definitely excited about Maddie being home.
“I don’t suppose that bottom drawer of the file cabinet in the office still functions as a mini-bar?” she asked.
Owen chuckled, surprised that she remembered that. But her grandpa and his had been best friends and had started the company to take people out hunting and fishing on the bayou. It had evolved over the years into the tourist attraction it was now. All of the kids had spent plenty of time down on these docks and in the buildings. That office had a drawer full of candy and one full of liquor. That was just the way it always had been.
“It does, as a matter of fact,” he told her. And taking the edge off of…everything that was to come…wasn’t a bad idea.
They were twelve years older. They’d been kids, newly in love, newly having sex, and then her mom had died and her dad had gone to jail trying to avenge her mom’s death.
That had been a lot. A lot.
But it had been a long time ago. Maddie was a sophisticated city girl now and he was a laid-back bayou boy. They both knew that you couldn’t go around setting shit on fire just because someone pissed you off. You also couldn’t dangle them off a bridge, take their car apart piece by piece, or throw them through plate-glass windows.
They were past all of that. They knew better now. And they didn’t feel that way about each other anymore.
It took a lot of heat, hormones, and more than a little bit of stupidity to act the way they had back then. His hormones were under control, thank you. He was a lot smarter. Okay, a little smarter at least. And heat? Yeah, he hadn’t felt heat like that in years. That had been first love stuff. No matter what his grandfather said.
The Landrys were well known for falling hard and fast and having big, crazy love stories. But Owen was…skeptical. That was the best way to say it. He was skeptical about the level of in-love crazy that really ran through the family tree. He always had been. The idea of destiny and soul mates ran strong through his family to hear his grandparents tell the stories. But his own parents had had a fairly normal meeting and courtship. His cousin Josh was another good example. He’d met Tori, been quickly fascinated sure, and yeah, they’d realized they were in love really quickly. But no one had almost died. No one had ended up in the hospital or in jail. Josh had been on his way to Iowa to win her back. With a pair of peacocks. But that was another story and really not that grand of a gesture in the overall scheme of Landry-family-crazy.
Owen had been with a lot of women over the years. And he’d never felt the desire to throw anyone through a window for any of them. His one fleeting tangle with being crazy—literally—over someone was Maddie and had been when he was seventeen. And had lasted about a month.
He was over it. For sure.
“I think I need a shot or two before I walk into the bar across the street,” Maddie said with a small sardonic smile.
Owen looked at her closely. Past the red lips and the silky blond hair and the California tan and into her eyes. She was nervous. Well, hell.
Okay so he felt a niggle of protectiveness at that. But she looked vulnerable, and she was here because her brother had died, and Owen was a good guy. He felt bad for her. She’d come to Autre for Tommy’s funeral, but she’d shown up at the last minute and had high-tailed it back out of town before he’d spoken even a word to her. She’d talked briefly with Sawyer and she’d hugged Cora. Then she’d gotten in an Uber—that she’d paid to wait for her—and headed back to the west coast. So if he felt a little like hugging her and a tiny bit like putting his fist through a wall because he couldn’t fix this for her, well, that was just because he was nice. He gave a shit about other people. That was all.
There was nothing special about Madison Allain.
He couldn’t fix that her brother was dead and that she owned thirty-five percent of a business she didn’t want, but he could so something. He could get her tipsy.
“Come on.” He felt himself start to reach for her hand, but he balled his hand into a fist and stepped back, gesturing toward the office.
She started in that direction and he noted that she had a big red purse handing from one hand. She looked every bit the sophisticated city girl and it poked at him. She was gorgeous this way, of course. She looked a lot like tourists they got down here on a regular basis. He always got a kick out of the girls who had clearly never been on a boat and were wearing their expensive dresses and impractical shoes down here. Those were the girls who were most likely to get splashed with swamp water at some point. He put them right up front.
But on Maddie it made him itchy. It wasn’t right. She wasn’t a city girl.
Except she was. She’d lived in San Francisco for the past twelve years. Through her teens and early twenties. She’d been dressing herself for a long time. Just because she’d been a bayou girl, dressed in cut off blue jeans and running barefoot, as a kid didn’t mean that’s who she was now.
Though he remembered a particular pair of cut off blue jeans when she’d been sixteen that had ended up on the floor of his truck…
He cleared his throat as he pushed the door to the office open to let her in. He even resisted putting a hand on her lower back. He couldn’t, however, escape the scent of her filling his lungs as she brushed past him.
She even smelled sophisticated. Her perfume was probably expensive and couldn’t be found within forty miles of Autre.
He remembered when she’d smelled like sunshine and peaches.
She’d tasted like peaches too.
Maddie paused just inside the door and looked around. She let out a soft sigh.
“You okay?” he asked, crossing to the file cabinet near the windows.
“This place is exactly the same.” She went to the chair behind one of the two big wooden desks. It had been her grandfather’s chair.
It was nothing fancy. Never had been. But it was as much a part of the office as the windows and exposed wooden beams overhead.
The desks were piled high with stacks of papers and boxes of everything from fishing lures to engine parts sat all over the floor. The guys didn’t really use the office for, well, office work. It was more of a storage area. All of the guys, Tommy included, had always preferred to spend their time on the docks and the bayou itself. They only did what paperwork was absolutely required and even most of that fell to Sawyer and Josh’s little sister Kennedy. She bitched about them all on a daily basis, but she also didn’t trust any of them to do the book work or scheduling.
Owen glanced over to find Maddie sitting in her grandpa’s chair, looking around the office with a slightly dazed look. Yeah, he imagined it was a little like going back in time. The invoices and lures might be new, but the desks and chairs and files cabinets were original. Even some of the dust had probably been there since the first days.
Oh, who was he kidding? Owen thought, as he pulled a glass milk bottle from the bottom drawer. Some of those lures and the invoices on the bottoms of the piles had probably been there since their grandfathers had owned the place and the dust was definitely original. Kennedy drew the line at cleaning. Anything.
He held the bottle up. “This okay?”
“Is it at least 90 proof?”
He laughed. “Doesn’t make it through that door if it’s not.” He set the bottle on the nearest desk. The one his grandfather had used. The bottle hadn’t held milk in years, but it had, however, been refilled with the moonshine Mitch made with Kenny Allain’s recipe. Owen reached for a coffee cup sitting on the desk, looked inside, saw it was empty and dry—not necessarily clean, but the moonshine would kill any germs—blew into it to dislodge any possible dust, and poured two fingers worth. He handed it over to her.
“Whiskey?” she asked. She didn’t seem worried about the possibility, just curious.
He fought his grin. She might drink martinis or something now, but she’d first gotten drunk on good old “bayou whiskey” as Kenny had called it. She wasn’t intimidated by a little you-can-drink-it-or-remove-paint-with-it liquor. “Kenny’s moonshine.”
Maddie gave a little smile that seemed slightly wistful before lifting her cup. She took that first swallow without so much as a wince.
Right. Kenny’s moonshine. Maddie’s grandpa’s moonshine.
Owen poured more into an empty, clean-ish plastic cup from the Stop It Right Now, the convenience store at the end of the road that led to the Boys of the Bayou.
He was going to need this as much as she did.
They both needed to take the edge off of…everything.
He toasted her and she touched her cup to his. Then they both drank. Their eyes locked.
Owen swallowed the set-your-gut-on-fire liquor. Neither of them said anything for a long moment.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to you at Tommy’s funeral,” he finally managed. Okay, not really small-talk, but he had to say something and that was the first thing on his mind.
She nodded and held her cup out. “There wasn’t much to say.”
Yeah, maybe. But he’d still felt empty after she’d left. Much like the bottle of tequila he’d woken up with the next morning.
He poured another inch.
If he thought about everything she’d been through too hard, it twisted his heart like someone wringing out a sponge. There was something about Madeline Allain that had always made him want to fight dragons for her. When he was seventeen, he’d assumed it was the deeply ingrained heroic, romantic streak that ran strong in the male side of the Landry clan.
But he’d only felt it for Maddie. Which had made him wonder if it was actually the voodoo curse Savannah Cutter had put on him he’d left her on Valentine’s Day to go pick Maddie up from a date-gone-bad.
That was actually more believable than some genetic penchant for finding his soul-mate and falling in love hard. You didn’t grow up on the bayou without respecting voodoo. If you didn’t believe in it fully, you sure as hell knew not to mess with it.
And now the woman who made him bonkers was sitting a foot away from him. With her legs crossed, a whole lot of tanned smooth skin showing.
Nah, this wasn’t genetics or a curse. This was just good old-fashioned attraction. He wanted to run his hand up her leg and under her skirt. He didn’t want to elope with her.
He cleared his throat and shifted on the edge of the desk. “How’s California?” he asked, lifting his cup.
She shrugged. “Good. Fine.”
“How’s the museum?”
“Art gallery,” she corrected.
He’d known that. She’d always been a big fan of museums of all kinds so he just automatically put her there when thinking of her in a big building with lots of beautiful and interesting displays. “Right. How’s the art gallery?”
He took another swallow of moonshine. He talked to total strangers all day every day. He could surely make small talk with a woman he’d known since birth. Even if he had been in love with her at one time. And couldn’t quite manage to get his attention off her legs. “How was your trip today?”
She nodded. “Good.”
“And fine?” he asked dryly.
One corner of her mouth curled. “Yeah. Fine.”
He reached for the bottle again. He was going to end up smashed simply because his options here were polite conversation, grabbing her and kissing her, or drinking. The chit chat was annoying him and kissing her was out of the question. So drinking it was.
“I had a great salad at the airport.” She swirled the liquor around in the coffee mug.
“Oh.” He honestly didn’t care about her salad. He wanted to ask about a boyfriend. That was stupid. “Glad to hear it.”
“And the woman next to me on the plane was very nice. She’s visiting her daughter and her new grandbaby.”
Uh, huh. He also didn’t care about the woman next to her on the plane at all. How long had she and the California douchebag been dating? Was it serious? “How nice.”
Maddie nodded. “They didn’t have any hazelnut coffee creamer though, so I had to drink it with plain cream.”
“Huh.” Yeah, he really hated small talk. At least with the tourists he could tell them something weird about gators. Maddie knew all about gators. Which actually made him smile when he thought about it. “I got a new thermos.”
She lifted a brow. He lifted one back at her.
“So how long are we going to do this?” she asked.
“Talk about stupid crap that doesn’t matter.”
He huffed out a laugh. “Just makin’ conversation.”
Both of her brows went up now. “And this is what comes up when you try to talk to me?”
“When I’m tryin’ to be… cordial,” he told her.
“You wouldn’t be cordial without trying?”
“Well…” Should he just be honest with her? She’d known him all his life too. “To be honest, I’d probably be inappropriate. At some point. Not very far in.”
She looked startled for a moment. Then she grinned. “Oh yeah?”
He laughed again. “That surprises you?”
Maddie shook her head. “No, not really.”
He appreciated that. He took another swallow of liquor.
“So what kind of inappropriate thing would you have said?”
He swallowed with a little difficulty, his eyes drawn to her heels and her legs before he could stop them.
She noticed and stretched her legs out, crossing her ankles, her shoes on full display.
She knew he loved heels.
Had she worn these just for him? Because she knew better than to wear those things on a boat dock. Or a dirt road. Or an uneven sidewalk and front porch steps. They had a lot of all of those things down here and a distinct lack of smooth stone paths and meticulously manicured green spaces. It was wild and natural down here. Maybe even more so than it had been twelve years ago.
He looked up, meeting her gaze. “I would have said somethin’ like damn girl, if you’re here, that means California just got a lot less hot.”
She gave a soft snort. “Wow.”
“I think you’re mistaking cheesey for inappropriate.”
“Okay, how about, thank you?”
“Thank you?” she repeated. “For what?”
“For bringing those heels and that sassy skirt down here. You’re risking sacrificing a lot of sweet skin to the bugs in that and I appreciate it.”
That tugged a little smile from her. “Flirtatious maybe but not really inappropriate.”
Okay, challenge accepted. He looked down at her feet. “Those heels are gonna feel damned good digging into my ass later.”
Her eyes widened and she stared at him for a long moment. Then she nodded, “Yeah, okay, that would have been an inappropriate greeting after twelve years of not seeing each other.”
“I saw you just a few months ago.” At the funeral. Yeah, maybe he was still a little annoyed that he hadn’t had a chance to talk to her.
She held his gaze as she chewed her bottom lip. Then she tipped back another swallow of moonshine before saying, “Talking would have made it worse.”
“Worse? How could talking make Tommy dying any worse?”
She frowned and held out her cup.
He didn’t move to fill it. “Tell me.”
She gave an irritated sigh and reached out to grab the bottle from him. That gave him a quick glance down her shirt to the matching black bra and the gorgeous tits the black silk held. He let the bottle go. She splashed more in her cup, drank, then set it down with a thunk next to his thigh. “What would you have said?” she asked him.
“That I was sorry.”
“I knew that. Of course you were sorry. Everyone was sorry.”
He frowned. “That I was here for you.”
“And what would that have meant? That we could sit and reminisce about Tommy? My memories are twelve years old and the last ones here with him weren’t that pleasant. Or would that mean that you’d hold me while I cried? How would that have helped? Either you would have realized there was no way to actually make me feel better and you would have put a fist through a wall and I would have gotten in a huge fight with a TSA agent over the alligator skull I was trying to bring on the plane in my carry-on because I would have been wound up and looking for an outlet.” She took a deep breath. “Or I would have decided to distract myself from the pain and would have kissed you and we would have slept together and I would have driven out of town the next morning and then you would have put your fist through the wall and I would have gotten into a huge fight with a TSA agent over the alligator skull I was trying to bring on the plane in my carry-on. Either way, you would have ended up with a sore hand and I would have ended up in TSA jail for hours. What would have been the point?”
Owen stared at her as she finished her rant.
That was all…not completely impossible to imagine. They got each other wound up. That was just a fact.
“We’re not past those kinds of reactions?” he asked. He’d like to think that the fist-through-the-wall thing had been a product of being a stupid kid who didn’t know how to handle the protectiveness and possessiveness Maddie stirred up in him.
She slumped back in her chair and crossed her arms. “I was in that room in the airport forever. Missed two flights back to California.”
Owen felt the grin slowly curve his mouth as what she said sunk in. “You did get into a fight with a TSA agent over an alligator skull?”
She nodded. “He was an asshole. I mean, it wasn’t like I was trying to bring a live alligator on board.”
“We could have shipped it to you.” He knew exactly which skull she was talking about. It had belonged to Tommy.
“I wasn’t thinking,” she said. “I just grabbed it and then when he started giving me a hard time, I lost my mind.” She looked up at Owen and took a breath. “But it wasn’t about the skull.”
He frowned. “What was it about?”
“What do you mean?”
“This place makes me crazy. It’s…chaos. It’s loud and crazy and hot.” She plucked the front of her blouse away from her chest. “Good, Lord, it is so hot down here.”
“It’s hot in California.”
“No. It’s warm. It’s sunny. It’s pleasant. It’s not holy-crap-I’m-melting-hot. And we have wine.”
“We have wine.”
She snorted. “You don’t have wine.”
He fucking hated wine. “Well, I like the heat. You know that I’m always in favor of anything that encourages the removal of clothes.”
She gave him an unimpressed look. “And you’re not really the type to…let your alcohol breathe before shooting it back.”
He eyes the cup she held. “If that stuff breathes too much, it might get up and walk outta here on its own.”
She tipped the rest back.
“So you’re pissed about being here because it’s hot and there’s no wine?” he asked.
“That’s part of it.”
“What’s the rest?”
She sighed. “Everything.”
“That’s nice, Mad,” he said, annoyed. He poured more liquor.
“It’s just…agitating and uncomfortable in every way. I just wanted to get the hell home. Back to where it was peaceful and quiet and…” She swallowed.
“And?” His tone was tight. Just like his chest. She didn’t like it here. She didn’t want to be here. Not for Tommy’s funeral and not now.
“Where I’m in control.” She blew out a breath. “Here, I never know what’s going to happen, or how I’m going to react. Though I do know it’s not going to be level-headed and calm and cool.”
Owen had never met her grandparents from California but Tommy had told them that his mom’s parents were wealthy. Sophisticated. Cultured. The type of people who would hang out in an art gallery rather than a broken down shack/bar by the bayou. Level-headed people. Calm and cool people. People who probably couldn’t even handle a little cayenne.
Nobody down here was calm and cool. Yeah, they could handle the heat.
So could Maddie, dammit. Of all kinds. Maybe she was used to air conditioning and ocean breezes keeping her cool. Maybe she hadn’t burned anything down in San Francisco. But she was a bayou girl deep down and that meant spice was in her blood.
Suddenly, he had an intense—possibly even crazy—need to make sure she wasn’t calm and cool.
That was bad. Dangerous. He knew that. But hell, she was already expecting to be agitated and…hot. And Sawyer wanted them to remind her what it was like to be here. Well, here it was hot. In many ways.
“You’re not your father, Madison,” Owen said, low and firm. That had been what had driven her away. She’d gotten on that airplane to California happily. She’d seen her father lose his mind and land in jail, likely for the rest of his life, and her family fall apart and, after the month she’d spent with Owen just prior to that—sneaking out at night, having sex for the first time, burning people’s sheds down— she’d been convinced she was going to end up out-of-control and in trouble. The permanent, life-altering kind of trouble.
She’d gone to California to escape all of that.
She hadn’t been back since.
She was shaking her head now. “You don’t know that I’m not just like him.” She sat up straighter. “I ended up in jail after only a couple of hours in this town.”
“Airport jail,” he said. “Come on.”
“I have flown literally a hundred times and never ended up in airport jail, Owen.”
Maybe she had a point. “So you’ve been staying away from Autre because—”
“It makes me crazy,” she filled in. “And now I’m stuck here for thirty days because of a partnership agreement our grandfathers wrote up, in ink on notebook paper, while drinking—” She held up her cup. “—this. This agreement should not be legally binding.”
Suddenly, for a reason he couldn’t name exactly, Owen felt a rush of satisfaction go through him. As if things were working out quite nicely. Even though there was actually not a bit of proof of that. “George Maillard says it is. Signed and dated. Even had witnesses.”
When Sawyer had told him and Josh about the partnership agreement Leo had given him, Owen had thought for sure it was going to be a huge pain in the ass.
He’d been right. But it was also going to be fun.
“See? Crazy. Everything about this place is crazy.”
Owen could see that she was getting a little worked up. She was breathing faster and her cheeks were pink and…she looked gorgeous.
She looked like the Maddie he’d always known. And loved.
“It’s been twelve years. Surely you’ve gained a little self-control,” he said. He sincerely hoped not suddenly.
She frowned at him. “I don’t need self-control in California. I have crazy urges that need to be controlled when I’m there. Hence why I love it.”
“So not just the wine then,” he said.
Maddie took another sip of her grandfather’s recipe. “Not just the wine, no.”
He’d bet his last twenty bucks that she didn’t even really like wine.
Maddie was a moonshine kind of girl. Bold and down-home with deep roots and a long history in the area. As a kid, she’d thrown herself into everything they all did. Running, climbing, swimming. When she’d gotten older, she’d insisted that her father teach her to ride a motorcycle when he was teaching Tommy. She swore. She drank cheap beer. She’d gotten a fake ID so she could get a tattoo. She could shoot a gun. She could take apart a transmission. She loved to dance and laugh and play pranks and sneak cookies from the kitchen and cigarettes from Leo’s truck all just for the thrill of maybe getting caught. Just as Cora would have happily given her cookies if she’d asked, Leo would have probably given her the hand-rolled cigarettes that he smoked. Hell, he would have just handed over the tobacco and paper and let her roll her own. She knew how. They’d all watched Leo do it enough times.
Maddie had always been right there, having fun, living large, taking risks, pushing boundaries. And he’d known by the time he was twelve that he was going to date her someday. Then she’d started wearing a bra and shaving her legs and he’d figured he was going to marry her someday. Marrying a girl who could help him rebuild an engine, clean a catfish, and smelled as good as she did seemed like a very good idea.
“Have you gained some self-control?” she asked.
He’d really like to think so. Truth be told, his control wasn’t tested very often. He had a laid-back lifestyle, a laid-back job, a laid-back attitude about pretty much everything.
“I haven’t broken a nose or any china for…about twelve years.”
He let that sink in. He watched her as it did. She took a little breath but didn’t say anything about the fact that he hadn’t lost his cool since she’d left town. Then her eyes drifted to the scar that came out of the bottom of his right shirt sleeve and traveled to his elbow.
That scar was because of her. And looking at her now he knew he would still do anything for her. Even if it meant twenty-nine stitches and risking not being able to throw a football that fall, a police record, almost losing a life-long friendship, and threatening the future of the business that meant the world to his entire family.
“We should probably go to Ellie’s,” she finally said.
He nodded. He was feeling lighter than he had when he’d first seen her and had felt that familiar, scary mix of affection and adrenaline. “Okay.” He pivoted to put the bottle of booze back in the bottom file cabinet drawer.
She glanced at the cups they’d been using. “Don’t we need to wash those?”
He looked down at the cups. He didn’t even know how long they’d been in here. “Most people who need a shot of bayou whiskey aren’t picky about what they drink it from.”
She held out a hand. “I’m going to not think about just drinking out of cups that you don’t feel strongly about washing.”
“Probably for the best.” He handed the cups over.
She grabbed her big red purse and tucked them inside, then headed for the door. He followed, keeping his eyes off her legs. But not off her ass. Even in that flared skirt, it was a fine view.
They rounded the building and crossed the narrow dirt road that dead-ended at the Boys of the Bayou main dock. Ellie’s sat baking in the June sun across the road. The bar was a main-stay in the tiny town. It had long served hard liquor, beer, and fried seafood to the fishermen, roughnecks from the oil rigs, and any number of other blue collar guys in the area. It also served as a down home taste of real Louisiana cuisine for tourists that came for the tours or even the hunting and fishing packages Boys of the Bayou offered. Ellie’s Hurricanes were ten times better than those served in the Quarter in New Orleans and she often gave visitors their first taste of alligator. Usually it was fried, but she sometimes talked people into trying it in her gator and shrimp jambalaya and, every once in a while, someone would try her blackened alligator filets.
Ellie’s food and drinks were famous locally and she did very well in online reviews.
Which was good, because the decor of the place was very…backyard-shed-converted-into-a-bar, with some crap-collected-over-the-years hung on the walls. Because that was pretty much what it was. The structure had stood, exactly as it was, inside and out, for over fifty years and those years showed.
People didn’t come to Ellie’s for the ambiance. They came to get full and tipsy. Sometimes more than tipsy. So Ellie and Cora focused on giving people those things and didn’t worry so much about the fact that their light fixtures didn’t match—they just replaced them as needed and got whatever was cheapest— and that people had to shove a wooden wedge against the bathroom door to “lock” it. But hey, they’d written “wedge this under the door” on it in black sharpie so it worked. Kind of. Good enough anyway.
Owen reached around Maddie and grabbed the door handle, but just as he started to pull, she slapped her palm against it.
“Hang on,” she said.
He looked at her. They were standing really close now. His chest was millimeters from her shoulder. Her expensive perfume didn’t smell like peaches, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to lean in and put his nose against her neck and sniff.
“You okay?” he asked her.
“They’re all in there, huh?”
“Very likely. At least a lot of ‘em.” He didn’t know where else they’d be since they weren’t down on the docks or out on the airboats.
They’d done a few tours that morning, but had closed up early so Sawyer and Josh could help move furniture in and out of the room where Maddie would be staying at Cora’s. If they hadn’t, Leo would have tried to do it and would have thrown his back out. Or pretended to, anyway. He would have been bitching and moaning and hoping that Cora would feel bad and make him cornbread and beans. It was amazing the things Leo would do for Cora’s cornbread.
Owen had chosen to stay out of that, volunteering to do some extra repairs and clean-up on the boats instead. He didn’t need to be anywhere near Maddie’s bed, whether she was near it and whether it was temporary and in her grandmother’s guest room, or not.
Maddie took a deep breath. “This is going to be a big deal, isn’t it?”
“You being home?” he asked.
She shot him a glance. “Me being in Autre.”
So she wasn’t going to refer to Autre as “home”? He frowned. “That’s what I said.”
“No, you said home.”
“This is your home.”
She turned to face him more squarely. “I haven’t lived here in twelve years.”
“So? Home is home. Your roots are here.” His heart was thundering now and he felt tension tightening his neck.
She stepped back, putting more space between them. Which was probably for the best.
“My past is here,” she said. “But I only lived here for sixteen years.”
“Your family is from here.”
“Not my whole family.”
Owen shoved his hand through his hair. “You lived here longer than you’ve lived in California.”
She lifted a shoulder as if this topic were no big deal. “For now. But if you consider that I probably don’t remember much of my life here before age three or four, it’s almost even.”
“It’s not almost even,” he said, aware he was gritting his teeth.
She frowned, clearly noting his teeth. “Are you really going to make me say this?”
“That you don’t feel like you’re from here?” he asked.
“That I don’t want to be here. That if Tommy hadn’t died and left his share to me, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Owen took a deep breath and worked on being laid-back. He never had to work at that. Apparently Madison could still wind him up. Of course, in the past, he’d had the outlet of hot sex. Whether he was feeling possessive or they were making up after an argument, the sex had been the perfect release. Now they were on opposite sides—she didn’t want to be here and wanted to get rid of Boys of the Bayou. He needed her to not only keep Boys of the Bayou, but within twenty minutes of her being in town, he had a gut-deep need to make her want to be here. Yeah, he wanted her to like being here. To miss them. To find things here that were better than California. He didn’t just want her to agree to keep the business going. He wanted her to want to be a real part of it.
This business and his family were the center of his life. They were everything that mattered to him. And if Maddie didn’t love them and want them, that was going to eat at him.
Damn. This was getting complicated. Already.
And if he didn’t have hot sex as the way to blow off steam, he was afraid of how this might all end.
He took a breath. “Yeah, okay, yes they’re very excited to see you. They’ve been moving furniture in and out of the extra bedroom at Cora’s, cooking up a storm, and generally worrying and planning for your visit,” he finally said.
Maddie dropped her chin to her chest and blew out a breath. “Okay, then.”
He couldn’t resist. He reached out and put a hand on her arm. He squeezed. Her head came up quickly and she met his gaze. “It’s going to be okay.”
“A month is a long time.”
“Depends on how you look at it.”
“I look at it as thirty days surrounded by people who I haven’t known in a decade, who are slightly off their rockers, and who are now going to be doing everything they can to convince me not to sell my portion of the company they all love.”
So she’d realized this visit was intended to talk her out of selling. He should have known she’d figure that out quickly.
“Okay, that could be a long thirty days,” he agreed.
She wet her lips, seeming to hesitate for a moment. Then she said, “I’m going to need a friend. Someone on my side.”
That kicked him in the gut. Just as she’d intended. He dropped his hand from her arm. “What do you mean? Everyone here loves you.”
She lifted a shoulder at that, as if she wasn’t completely convinced. Owen tucked his hands into his front pockets to keep from reaching for her.
“I need someone to help them understand that I need to sell,” she said.
He wasn’t sure how much Sawyer had told her, but they had to be honest here. “We can’t afford to buy you out.”
“I know. I have a buyer.”
“Yeah. I heard.”
She chewed on her bottom lip, studying Owen’s face. “He’s a great fit. He wants this. He’s excited about the company. And he’s got money. A lot of it. Enough to invest and really do some big things. Expand. Advertise. Whatever Boys of the Bayou needs.”
“And you want me to convince my family that we should let a stranger come in here and be a partner?” he asked. “You have to know that’s not going to happen.”
“Please,” she said, her eyes pleading. “It’s a good idea. For everyone. I don’t want the company, he does. And you guys could use a partner that’s truly involved. And has cash.”
“We should go in.” He couldn’t handle this on his own. Because he was torn between wanting her to keep it, wanting her to feel connected here, and wanting her to be happy and get what she wanted.
This was definitely going to be a long thirty days.
Owen felt his temper spiking and he reached past her to grab the door again. “Let’s talk in thirty days. If you don’t love it here, and understand that this is about family more than it’s about money, and you don’t want to have a piece of everything here, then yeah, I’ll convince Sawyer to let you sell. I won’t want you owning even a sliver.”
She again flattened her palm against the door. “I don’t want you to be upset.”
“Then don’t sell the business.” And go back to California, because I can’t even breathe normally when you’re here.
“That’s not fair,” she said, looking sad.
“Why are you so set on getting rid of it?” he asked crossly. He meant everything he’d said to her. If she didn’t feel her roots here, connected to this business and all the people, then he didn’t want her to have it. But the idea that she might not feel those things tore him up.
She wet her lips and then seemed to make a decision, because she lifted her chin. “ “I don’t like getting those monthly checks from here. It’s a monthly reminder of this whole…life. I have no idea why he left it to me and not to you guys, but not only do I not feel a connection to the business, I’m happy in California and really just want to be left alone.”
See, this was going to be hell. He’d thought the torture would be keeping his hands to himself. He hadn’t anticipated this. She didn’t want to be here. She was unhappy about being forced to come back. That made Owen want to help her get the hell away from here. Maddie being unhappy was unacceptable. Especially if it had anything to do with him. Which it did. Boys of the Bayou was his business. The only thing he was good at. The thing he was most proud of. He loved his life here. He didn’t want it to change. Someone else owning thirty-five percent of Boys of the Bayou would definitely mean change.
Thank God he wasn’t dealing with this alone. Left alone with this decision, he’d probably look into her eyes for one second too long and totally cave, letting her do whatever she wanted with the company he’d help build and loved.
“We need to talk to Sawyer.” Without letting her respond, he jerked the door open. She was just going to have to get over her trepidation about facing the family. The sooner, the better.
Inside it was, well, normal. Which meant it was a full of people all talking at once, arguing, laughing, giving each other shit, and eating and drinking. It also meant it was kind of loud.
Maddie hung back, so Owen stepped through the door and called, “Hey, y’all.”
Ellie glanced over. “Get in here and hang up that banner,” she said, pointing at the WELCOME HOME banner that was drooping to the floor on one end. “Swear to God these men can’t even use scotch tape right.”
She didn’t, however, react to seeing Maddie. Surprised, Owen looked over his shoulder to find that Maddie had stepped to the side, out of sight. She better not run. He would definitely chase her down. Throwing her over his shoulder was far too tempting.
“That’s because real men use duct tape,” Mitch, another cousin, told her.
“You can’t hang a welcome home banner up with duct tape,” Cora told him.
“Why? Guarantee it wouldn’t by lyin’ on the floor right now,” Mitch said.
“Because it doesn’t look nice then,” Cora said.
“Well, if you’re tryin’ to make this place look nice, you’re gonna need a lot more banners to cover stuff up. Big ones,” Mitch said.
The other guys, including Owen’s grandpa, two uncles, and a few stray guys who were just always around, all laughed.
Ellie slapped Mitch on the back of the head.
Owen sighed and lifted his fingers to his mouth to blow out a sharp whistle.
Blessedly, everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to face him.
He turned around, reached around the corner, grabbed the front of Maddie’s belt and pulled her through the door. “Look what I found.”
Everyone stared. Not saying a word. Which was truly a miracle.
Then Cora cried, “Oh. My. God!”
And then the whole place went wild.