“Like you.” His gaze finds mine.
“I’m not your dad, Red. You have to give people a chance. We’re not the same.”
“Of course not.”
“But I’m a douchebag because of him?”
“No,” I say softly. “Never in a million years.”
He leans in closer to me and I feel the heat of his body. He touches my cheek. “Good. Then that’s progress.”
My heart skips a beat at the intensity of his gaze, at the electric current that stretches from him to me. The string between us is tight, an undercurrent of fire and ice mixed together. I wonder what it would look like if he were mine. If he loved me…
Someone walks past us to get to the jukebox, and the moment is broken.
He takes in a big breath, looks down at the pool table, and continues. “Er, I guess we need to finish this.”
He looks back at the table. “Whatever ball you get in a pocket, that’s what you are, solids or stripes. If you make one of each variation, you get to choose. If you shoot the eight ball in a pocket, and it’s not the last ball, you lose. I’ll show you.” He steps around me and leans over with his cue stick, his shoulders taut with athletic grace. The muscles in his forearms ripple as he aims and strikes a red ball hard, sending a solid into a pocket on the right.
“You look good doing that,” I murmur.
He takes a swig of the beer he ordered when we walked in and sets it down on the table next to us. “Just point and shoot. We can work on technique—enough to get you through a few shots with Connor.”
His jaw seems to grind at the thought.
“Ryker.” I’m tired of this. Of him helping me get Connor.
But his profile is hard. Implacable. “Come on, Red. Let’s do this thing.” He tilts his head toward the table.
“Maybe we should just forget it.” I toy with the weight of the stick.
“No. I want to show you how to impress him,” he says.
“I don’t want to impress him anymore.”
There, I said it. I mean it, but Ryker isn’t having it.
He scowls. “That was the objective since the kiss at the bookstore. For you to go out with him. You need to do it. So you know.” He studies my face.
I don’t ask. I’m scared of the answer. Because once I say it aloud—I want you, Ryker—then it’s real, and I have to deal with it.
I take a step closer to the balls and chew on my lip as I concentrate. Since I’m right-handed, I hold the base of the stick with my right hand and attempt to line it up for a shot that will put a striped ball into a left pocket.
“You look like you’re going spearfishing.” He sets his beer down. “Let me show you.”
He walks back to where I am and stands behind me as I’m bending over the table, his hands covering mine. My body tenses and my knees go weak at the feel of him, and my ass may have twitched a little to get closer to him. I’ll never own up to it if he asks though.
“Everything okay?” I ask as he just stands there.
“Yeah.” He clears his throat, and in a slow movement, he demonstrates the correct way to line up the shot with the stick. “A good basic technique is to put your index finger on the top of the stick and curve it.” His hand strokes my pointer finger, arranging it in the correct form. “Like this,” he says. “Hold it tight. You have total control of the stick.”
But my body is out of control. The heat from Ryker sears my skin, and he smells like a tree I want to climb. “Okay.” My voice is mangled.
He eases back and his hand lingers on my left side. “This arm will never move. Use your back and shoulders.”
“Back and shoulders,” I repeat, but my mind is hardly on pool. It’s on the way his hand glides to my waist and rests there. “Spread your legs as wide as your hips and keep your feet at a 45-degree angle. You need a good stance if you want to get in a good shot.”
“Good shot…got it,” I manage to say as he leans into me. I can’t see his face and I’m dying. I want to see what he looks like when he looks down at me.
My hand trembles.
“You okay?” he asks.
“Mmhmm. Just getting stiff from being bent over.”
“I assure you…being stiff is totally worth it when you get the stroke right.”
I blink. Stiff…stroke…oh God.
He continues talking in that very deliberate way of his, seemingly unaware that his words are like sex on a stick. Shit—sex on a stick…pool stick. I’m losing it.
“All right. Next, line up the tip with the cue ball, aim for one of your balls, and shoot.” He takes a step back to give me room, but I pause. “Just hit it, Red. Aim for that blue stripe and get it in the pocket.”
I close my eyes and put everything I have into the shot, shoving the pool stick straight at the cue ball.
In retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have closed my eyes.
When my eyes open, it’s as if everything slows down—you know, the kind of moment that happens in a flash yet it seems to take tiny steps to get there? I see Connor coming from the arcade part of Cadillac’s with a group of guys, mostly chess club types. He’s laughing at something as he tosses back his beer.
He never sees the ball coming for him.
I want to yell for him to duck, and I guess I could have, but it wouldn’t have mattered because it happened so fast.
Please don’t hit him in the head is my mantra as the scene plays out.
First, it hits a retro Lucille Ball sign functioning as a fancy-looking light above the pool table next to us, and for half a second, I think it’s going to miss Connor—but then it ricochets off the light and slams into his crotch.
He goes down like a sack of bricks, and his beer flies through the air before shattering on the concrete floor. Shards of glass shoot everywhere, and beer splatters on the wall behind Connor.
My stick falls out of my hand. “He’ll never have babies.” Ryker is next to me in an instant, and I look up at him. My mouth opens and closes. “Holy shit. You think he’s okay?”
“I don’t know. Let’s go see,” he says, a grim look on his face.
We walk over to them and dread fills me.
Connor’s friends are bending down, and there’s a flurry of activity from the staff as they walk over to where he’s still on the floor. A girl in a 50s-style pink dress and apron is carrying a broom and a dustpan and focuses on getting the glass swept up while a managerial-looking lady is bent over Connor.
It’s not until we’re right in front of the scene of the crime that I realize I’ve grabbed Ryker’s hand at some point. He glances down and then looks at me, his eyes questioning. He lets my hand go.
Connor is pulled up by one of his buddies and the manager. His hat is cocked sideways and there’s a red spot on his cheek, and I wonder if he landed on it.
He maneuvers to stand, his face pale as he winces.
“You okay, man?” someone calls out from a neighboring table.
“Hit me in the upper leg,” he mutters, looking around at the circle of people who’ve gathered. “Damn. Hurts like hell.” He cranes his neck toward the pool tables. “Who shot it?”
My eyes flare and I barely keep myself from squeaking.
“Not sure,” his buddy says.
The manager pulls up a chair for him and says something about getting some ice and an accident report.