Somehow, Janie found her voice. “You have got to be kidding me.”
The man’s mouth curved in a lazy smile. “Do I? And why is that?”
Janie just stared. He was like a character in a movie—a really, really bad one. Like if a young Matthew McConaughey suddenly decided to dye his hair dark and pursue a career as a cheesy B-movie star. And yet…
He was really, really good-looking. And if he weren’t so obviously juvenile, she’d feel a whole lot better about the immediate dip and thud her heart took as her eyes settled on that lazy, cocky grin and the dimple that went with it.
He was tall, his build both muscled and wiry but nowhere near slight. He wore a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, with as much casual grace as some men wore suits and cufflinks.
His muscular thighs were encased in old, work-worn jeans, his feet in scuffed leather work boots. Janie’s eyes traveled back up the length of him to rest on those crooked lips that framed strong, white teeth in a face that could only be described as rugged. Arrogant.
Unwillingly, she lifted her eyes to his and nearly lost herself in those blue depths. With a gaze like that, the guy probably had a girlfriend for every day of the week. Or year.
“Not much of a talker, are you?” His grin widened. “That’s all right. I like the quiet ones just as well as the talkers. Still waters, and all that. So. You gonna lose the jacket, stay awhile? Your drink’s full. You should sip it slow. Goes down easier that way.”
His expression—part wolf, Janie thought, as she lost herself again for a moment in that white-toothed grin—made it seem like he wasn’t just talking about her toddy. Her mind worked quickly on the possible double entendres.
His grin grew a degree more sinful as he watched her. “You should make that hot tea a straight shot of bourbon and come shoot some pool with my friend Arturo and me. Have a little fun.”
With his head cocked and his eyes still leveled on her, he rapped his knuckles on the bar. “Jimmy, two fingers of bourbon, straight up. One for me, one for the lady.”
The bartender put only one glass on the bar, eyeing the man critically as he poured the drink. “Listen, sweetheart,” he said to Janie, “don’t let this one bother you. He can be a hothead, ’specially when he’s working off a mad, like he is right now. But he’s harmless.”
Janie wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but found herself both surprised and relieved when the man next to her paused for a long moment, staring back at the bartender, and then let loose a deep belly laugh.
The two had clearly known one another a long time, she decided, and had probably traded barbs the entire time. She controlled her own, surprising urge to laugh—she should be tossing her drink in this arrogant idiot’s face—and turned back to face the bar.
“Don’t worry,” she informed the bartender calmly. “I’ve been around enough to know a cocky little boy when I see one.” She took a sip of her tea, recognized Lipton’s and the underlying fire of well liquor. Then she stared ahead at the bottles lined along the wall behind the bar, struggling to regulate her suddenly shallow breathing as she did her best to appear calm and unaffected.
The bartender guffawed heartily and pushed the glass half-full of amber liquid across the bar toward the other man, who took it and downed it in one gulp.
Still eyeing Janie, the man grinned lazily. “Soon as you want to stop messing around with those little boys you’re used to,” he said, and reached out to tangle his fingers into the ends of her hair, twirling one curl idly around his knuckle. He gave it a gentle tug. “You just let me know.”
Finally, her good sense overrode her hormones, and irritation at the pompous ass flared. “You know what?” She turned to face him full-on. “You wouldn’t know what to do with me if you had me.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt shocked at her own brazenness. She wasn’t used to speaking so bluntly. She wasn’t used to any of this.
“Oh, now, I don’t know about that, little girl.” His tone was mild, his eyes laughing. “I can tell what you’re about, just looking at you. You’ve got your plain hair, your spiffy little quilted jacket you bought for the winter. Your new, fresh jeans. You think you’re showing the world what a nice girl you are.”
He leaned closer and took her chin between thumb and forefinger, and something flashed through his eyes that simultaneously aroused her and put her on the alert. When he spoke next, his voice was lowered just for her.
“But one look into those big hazel eyes, and I can see you’re ready to be let loose.”
To be let loose, he’d said—as if someone were holding her captive. As if he might be the one to unlock the chains.
That was too much.
Janie met his gaze steadily, if only to prove to herself that she could. “Well, isn’t that interesting.” She lifted her chin, extricating herself from his touch, and smiled blandly. “Now it’s my turn. You probably come in here every night of the week in your tight jeans, showing off your nice little butt, those badass boots.”
He hooted at the mention of his rear end, but she went on. “You play a few games of pool, chat up the ladies. You like to act like you don’t care what people think of you, but you do. You want the world to look at you and see a rebel.”
She ignored the man’s snort and looked at the bartender. “What’s your name?”
“Jimmy.” The bartender nodded at her, his smile friendly.
Janie smiled back. “Nice to meet you, Jimmy. I’m Janie.” She sipped her tea and then pointed a thumb at the man next to her. “He got one thing right, anyway. I am here for the festival.”
“That right?” Jimmy gave the bar a quick wipe with a rag. “You gettin’ married?”
“No.” She laughed at the thought. “I’m here on business.” She looked again at the man standing next to her, who was watching her with interest and something else, something sharper, in his blue eyes. “You know what I do for a living? I watch people. I observe them, see what makes them tick. I find out their stories before they’re even aware they’ve got one to tell.”
Taking the bait, the bartender leaned his elbows on the counter. “So what do you pick up about this character, here?”
Janie eyed the man as if considering, though she’d already made her judgment. “I can see he’s ticked off about something. Approaching women in bars, saying things that are completely and totally out of line. Acting like a boy half his age might, if he’d had too many shots of whiskey and hadn’t been raised right.”
She could hardly believe herself. She’d just insulted him, plainly and directly. She watched as those blue eyes of his narrowed and deepened in hue. Did she have the nerve to keep going?
“For all I know, this guy might have every woman in town twisted around his little finger.” Janie held his gaze as she continued to the punch line. “But inside, where it counts, he’s troubled.” She glanced back at the bartender. “And that’s not going to be fixed by picking up women in bars or drinking an entire fifth of bourbon, or anything else.”
Apparently she did have the nerve. Bubbles of some strange excitement popped in her belly. She’d never talked to anyone that way before, ever.
The bartender let out a low, admiring whistle. “Sounds like she’s got you pegged, Mace.”
The man’s stare had cooled a fraction, but his voice was determinedly light when he spoke. “Hey, at least she likes my butt.” He flicked his eyes over her once again, then turned away. “Put that shot on my tab, will you, Jimmy? And whatever the lady’s having, too.” With that, he strolled back toward the pool tables.
“God.” Janie’s exclamation burst forth as the heat in her cheeks flashed, then ebbed away. “Is he always such a jerk?”