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Author:
Series: Laid Bear #3
Genre(s): ,
Released: September 5, 2014

Book Description

Nothing can stand in the way of a werebear and his woman…not even crazed valley girls!

Take a trip in the wayback machine to 1986, when the hair was big and the shoulder pads were even bigger. Yuppie bear shifter Chet Pearce is used to living the high life in L.A. His days (and nights) are filled with hot fashion, hot parties and hot chicks — and not necessarily in that order. So when he’s sent to a podunk British Columbia island to be initiated into his ancestral clan, he bristles under their restrictive rules and lack of awesome parties.

Punk isn’t just a type of music to curvy Crystal Witherspoon, it’s an attitude — and she’s got plenty to spare. Shuttled off to her grandparents after getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, Crystal does her best to fit in with all the ‘normal’ people in Port Numas but her rebellious nature can’t be contained by neon headbands and acid-washed mini-skirts.

Sparks fly when Chet and Crystal first meet, and it doesn’t take long before they realize they’re meant for each other. But their families have other ideas. Will old prejudices force them apart or will their bond be strong enough for them to survive on their own?

Bearly Hanging On is the prequel to the Laid Bear series from New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author Marina Maddix. It can be read on its own, but fans of the series will love learning about Uncle Chet's early life.

A review from...

... SpanishLady

At long last we read Chet and Crystal's story. I love the ’80s, the good old days. What memories: Miami Vice and Disco and the clothes. It was the perfect time for Chet! It was also time for him to realize that life isn't what it's made out to be and that it's time to man up. And Crystal was the perfect girl to show him this and get her act together, too. The story of the two that started it all. It was inspiring and fantastic, just like all Ms. Maddix’s books.


Also in this series:

Read the First Three Chapters

CHAPTER 1

British Columbia, 1986

“Ticket, please.” The rotund brown-skinned woman at the bottom of the ferry’s gangplank smiled, revealing a couple gaping holes where teeth should have been. A ripple of disgust wormed its way down Chet’s spine as he handed over his ticket and slid his Ray-Ban Wayfarers on top of his slicked-back sandy hair.

“First time to Port Numas?” she asked pleasantly as she tore off a stub, her cadence clipped in a distinctly Indian way.

“Totally. I’m from L.A.” He didn’t mean to sound like an asshole but even he could hear the snobbery as the words came out of his mouth.

“You don’t say,” she replied wryly, eying him up and down, a smirk tweaking her lips. She handed back his ticket and motioned him aboard.

What was she looking at? He swiped a hand across his carefully groomed two-day stubble but didn’t find any food crumbs. After what seemed like a month of travel but wasn’t even twelve hours yet, his custom-tailored Italian white linen pants and matching sport coat were still pristine. The massive shoulder pads hadn’t even wilted. His lavender t-shirt was still clean as were his white slip-on loafers — no socks, of course. He was totally stylin’.

Besides, who was she to judge? She was no fashion plate, with her dark blue, high-waisted jeans, Reeboks and strange t-shirt with a skull and crossbones made of salmon — Jolly Roger-style — that read ‘Spawn Till You Die’.

Dismissing the woman out of hand, Chet made his way down the main aisle of the small ferry and picked an empty row of three seats. Taking the window seat so he could check out the intensely green scenery, he stretched his long legs diagonally, taking up all the legroom in the row. He plunked his overnight bag on the seat next to him and left his Louis Vuitton suitcase next to the outside seat, effectively blocking the row so no one else could sit next to him.

Slipping his shades back in place, he took a look around the cabin. Locals filed aboard and his bear’s nose told him they were all human. A handful of hippie backpackers — were they still a thing? — passed by, their patchouli and B.O. stinking up the enclosed cabin worse than the fish smell coming from some of the locals.

Chet was astonished at the blatant rejection of style and fashion everyone displayed. Some were even wearing overalls and brown rubber boots, like they were living in some bygone era. It was 1986, for chrissakes! Get with the times, people!

He couldn’t help notice that many of the same people he was surveying from behind the safety of his sunglasses were doing the same to him. Some of them were even giggling. They’d probably never seen such a handsome specimen on their backwoods British Columbia island before. The girls he knew in L.A. — technically, Malibu — totally had the hots for him, gushing over his sandy hair, olive complexion, ripped abs and the pièce de résistance: his gold-flecked cinnamon-colored eyes.

If he had to pick a favorite feature, which would be difficult, his eyes would win. They could hypnotize a girl — werebear or human — in three seconds flat, if he tried. Even when he wasn’t trying, they worked some kind of magic that he would be eternally grateful for. Without putting too fine a point on it, Chet was never lonely on a Saturday night.

That was something his old human high school buddies could never figure out. Of course, none of them knew he was a werebear — his family totally flew under the radar unless they were at their club — and he wasn’t about to let them in on the secret. Los Angeles was a helluva town to get a foothold in and one small misstep could send you plummeting to your social death. If his family’s secret was discovered, the fall-out would suck.

Naturally, his parents didn’t approve of his dating human girls. They’d drilled into him from birth that he’d have to find a nice werebear girl to mate with, but they were too busy hobnobbing at their private werebear country club to pay much attention to Chet’s galavanting. Besides, he was nineteen and having a little fun. Big whoop. It wasn’t like he was going to marry any of these girls. As if!

Chet slouched into his seat, slipped a pair of headphones over his ears and pressed ‘play’ on his Walkman. The tape inside squealed for a split second before clunking to a stop. “Shit,” he mumbled, popping open the lid to pull out the jammed tape.

“Don’t yank on it, dufus!”

A girl about his age wearing a ripped Sex Pistols t-shirt scrabbled over his suitcase, heedless of the fact that her worn Doc Martens were scuffing his expensive luggage, and plopped her round butt into the aisle seat. The skin tight black and red plaid leggings she was poured into left little to the imagination, highlighting every curve and nook, but they weren't the only eye-catching part of her. The electric-blue spikes that poked out of her head every which way commanded the ultimate attention.

As she plucked the Walkman from Chet’s hands, his inner bear — which had been slumbering away during the seemingly interminable trip from California — was suddenly alert and very interested in her. Take a chill pill, big guy, he chided his bear. She’s cute but we’re out of her league. His bear let out a deep rumble of disapproval that left Chet squirming in his seat, but he wouldn’t let the damn brute bully him. He was in control here, not the bear.

And he didn’t need any help handling this crazy punk girl either. She was just a human, after all, and he’d had enough practice charming — and brushing off — gushing groupies that this plump yet admittedly delicious little thing wouldn’t be a problem. Chet ignored his bear’s grumbling and tried to think of decidedly unsexy things while he looked at the scrumptious morsel next to him.

“Um, hi? What’re you doing?” he said, reaching for his tape player, but she held it just out of arm’s reach.

“I’m fixing your Walkman. Doy.”

Pulling a gnawed stub of a pencil from the hidden depths of one blue spike, she delicately poked at the innards of the machine, freeing the unraveled tape and winding it back into the cassette using the pencil. Tossing the Walkman back in his lap, she inspected the label on the tape.

“Huey Lewis? Seriously?”

Chet blushed and snatched the tape back. “What? They’re rad!”

Why was he so embarrassed? If anyone back home had dared to criticize his music selection, he would have laughed the guy off and stolen his girlfriend to teach him a lesson. And girls…they never criticized him. But this girl had him unnerved from her very first words to him and, frankly, he didn’t like it.

She wasn’t the type of girl he normally hung out with, of course, so that had to be the answer. Punk rockers didn’t roam the streets of Malibu like they did elsewhere in L.A. Even if they did, he wouldn’t be caught dead with one. Nothing could ruin your social standing like being seen with the wrong person.

Whatever. The silly blue-haired freakazoid could take a flying leap, for all he cared, and he hoped his well-practiced sniff of disdain would encourage her to do said leaping, despite how drawn he felt toward her physically.

Instead, she scrunched herself down in the hard orange plastic seat and slammed the soles of her heavy boots against the back of the seat in front of her. That earned him a glare from the seat’s occupant. Uncool! Here she was, causing trouble and he was getting shit for it.

The girl picked at the flaking black polish on her nails, chewing here and there and spitting the remnants into the aisle. People around them kept looking at him like it was somehow his fault that she sat down next to him, like they were together or something.

Fuck that noise. He’d just listen to his music for the rest of the trip and try to pretend she didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be easy because her scent was driving him crazy, but he had a feeling that talking to this girl would be dangerous. Of course, as he pressed play, she said something to him.

“Huh?” he asked, slipping a headphone from one ear.

“Which one are you?” she said again, a gleam in her kohl-rimmed, ice-blue eyes.

“Which what am I?”

“Crockett or Tubbs? Which one? I can never get ‘em straight.”

“I’ll have you know that Armani designed this suit long before Miami Vice was ever aired!” Now she had him defending his style, in addition to his music choices. How did she know just which buttons to push, and why did he care what she thought anyway? It was his bear’s fault. The beast was crushing on this girl and it was totally messing with his mojo.

She snickered. “It’s Tubbs, isn’t it?”

Crossing his arms, he turned with a huff to stare out the window.

“Aw, c’mon, Tubbs,” she wheedled. “I was only yankin’ your chain. Let’s start over. I’m Crystal.”

She shoved her hand in front of him but he ignored it and turned up the tape player while Huey sang about the power of love and other such nonsense. Maybe she had a point about his taste in music after all. After a long moment, her hand disappeared from his field of vision and he was left to watch the scenery pass by.

He’d never seen so much green. Green everywhere. Green water, green trees, green moss. Green, green, green. It was almost overwhelming. He was used to the blues and browns of Southern California — blue sky, brown hills, blue sea, brown smog — and this world where plant life not only thrived, but threatened to overrun anything in its path, was completely foreign to him.

The next few weeks were going to be a bummer. Summer in L.A. was bad to the bone, with a different party almost every night of the week. Gorgeous models and actresses — they all claimed to be models and actresses, even if they worked in a diner across town — prowled around half-naked, just looking for a sugar-daddy to give them their big break. Booze flowed freely and sometimes the nose candy made an appearance. He’d tried it once, but it sent his bear into a frenzy so he didn’t bother with it anymore. But he never felt more alive than when he was at a rockin’ party.

Yup, L.A. was righteous.

He suspected the same couldn’t be said for tiny little Port Numas, B.C. His brother had come up a few years earlier and reported that it was a very quiet, boring place — unless you liked to fish or hunt, which he didn’t. He didn’t hold out much hope for the nightlife, either, but surely there had to be kids his age who liked to party hearty. One way or the other, he’d find out soon enough.

The ferry finally bumped and jostled itself into its holding pen at Port Numas. Out of the corner of his eye, he tracked the punk girl clambering back over his suitcase and breathed a sigh of relief as her hips swayed down the aisled. His bear wasn’t as happy to see her go, and that disconnect between his feelings and his bear’s had him jumbled up inside.

“Later, Tubbs!” the girl called out as she shoved her way through the crowd gathering in the aisle.

Once again, every eye turned on him, as if he was somehow responsible for her. There was something about her, though. His cheeks burned as he gathered his bags and mumbled, “Bogus.”

CHAPTER 2

Chet adjusted the rabbit ear antenna on the portable TV in his room for the umpteenth time, trying to tune in anything besides a local public access station. All he found was more snow, as usual. Mashing the power button off, he paced his room, bored out of his skull. It’d been two whole weeks since he’d watched anything decent. Back home, he always had MTV playing in the background but apparently Port Numas hadn’t caught on to this newfangled invention called ‘cable’.

Regardless, his uncle Max’s house wasn’t actually in Port Numas, so they couldn’t even get basic network channels. They were stuck ten miles into the forest, isolated from town and its human inhabitants. The only people he was allowed to hang out with were other werebears, and not even ones his own age.

“The initiants can’t mingle until after the ceremony, Chet,” Uncle Max reminded him when he complained about his impending death from sheer boredom. “Go play with your cousin.”

His cousin Sandy was fourteen going on eighteen. No self-respecting adult male, such as himself, would be caught dead hanging out with her. Besides, all she wanted to do was talk about The Coreys and tacky teenage trends. Armani and teenagers didn’t go well together.

The bear community on this small Canadian island was different from L.A. back home, they had a private club where they could socialize, but there were no restrictions on fraternizing with humans. That would be impossible, especially considering that so many of his kind were in the film industry. Of course, they kept their true nature secret.

But here it was completely opposite. The human community was aware of the werebears’ existence, but each group was kept completely separate. Aunt Clea admitted that they mixed at the grocery store and the ‘package store’ — it took him a while to riddle out that she meant a liquor store — but other than that, they pretty much stayed away from each other.

“They don’t want to socialize with us any more than we want to with them,” Aunt Clea explained on the ride to their place, smoothing her already perfectly smooth blond bob. “After all, who wants to go to dinner at their employer’s house? It would be uncomfortable for everyone.”

All of the humans in town are your employees?”

She sniffed a delicate laugh. “Of course not, dear. But we — the Skookum Clan — are the biggest employers on this end of the island. Most of the local loggers and fishermen are paid by one of us. They’re blue collar, we’re…not.”

He understood that hierarchy because it was much the same in California. Unfortunately, it didn’t help his boredom. The Skookum Clan was very small and the handful of weres his age were being kept away from each other until their initiation rite in a couple of weeks. Of course Uncle Max wouldn’t tell him when it was going to be — something about keeping him on his toes — so he was left trying to figure out what to do with his time.

“But I’m so bored,” he whined, dragging out the last word as long as possible. “Can’t I just go sightsee in town for a bit? I saw this little pizza place that looked pretty fresh—“

Uncle Max cut him off. “I’m afraid not, Chet. That’s a hangout for local kids. It’s not the place for our kind.”

Chet rolled his eyes and skulked back to his room, slamming the door behind him. It wasn’t fair! He was stuck out here in the boonies with no friends, no decent radio stations and no MTV.

“This sucks!”

A soft knock sounded as his door squeaked open a few inches. Sandy’s bright green eyes peeked around it. “You okay, Chet?”

“This all is just too lame,” he huffed, motioning her in. She might be an annoying kid, but at least she was on his side.

Sandy was petite for a female werebear, standing only five feet or so. Her style was an amusing mix of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, and was no doubt the pinnacle of fashion up here, though in L.A. she would have been laughed off the street. Two baggy neon t-shirts were layered so when the sleeves were rolled up, the color underneath contrasted with the one on top. Even the tiny rubber bands on her braces were neon. A scrap of black lace tied her hair back enough to show off her gaudy dangling neon earrings. Her legs were clad in bright turquoise fishnet stockings and matching shorts, with little black ankle boots to finish off the look. At least she wasn’t wearing those stupid half-gloves.

“I don’t have any friends here and I can’t make any because everyone my age is being hidden away like we’re lepers or something. On top of that, I’m not allowed to meet any humans. How retarded is that? Back home, all my friends are human!”

“I don’t understand why you couldn’t, like, have your initiation down there.”

He shrugged as only a disaffected young man could. “Dad said I had to do it here. It’s a family tradition or some shit. I guess because Skookum is our ‘ancestral clan’, whatever that is. Totally bogus, if you ask me.”

“Yeah. Totally.” Sandy plopped down on the bed and watched him pace. “Your brother was bored, too, when he came up a couple years ago. Sorry it’s, like, a barf-o-rama here. I can’t wait to get out.”

Chet nodded sagely. Two weeks had been excruciating, he couldn’t imagine a lifetime.

“How is he anyway? Brad, I mean.”

Chet shrugged again. Perfect Brad was always the family favorite, the golden boy. Chet never held it against him, though. They’d been really close growing up, but after Brad went through his rite of passage, he’d been too busy acting like a grown-up to chill with his little bro. They’d drifted apart over the last couple of years, that much was true, but Brad would always be his big brother.

“He and Janey just had a kid, a little boy. Geez, I thought you would have heard about it. They named him Max, you know.”

“No way! Gag me.” Sandy screwed her face up and stuck out her tongue. Like every teenage girl through the history of time — werebear or otherwise — she was thoroughly embarrassed by anything having to do with her parents.

“So you wanna break out of this prison?” she finally asked. The devious glint in her eye gave Chet hope he might see more than the inside of this big house out in the middle of the forest.

“Uh, duh!”

Sandy nodded and sat up on the bed. “Okay, listen up. Mom and Dad have a thing at the meeting hall tonight. I heard her telling him they needed to get there early to help set up. Even though I’m, like, totally too old for a babysitter, they always hire this lame-o from the clan to watch me. But with you here…my guess is that they’ll ask you to keep an eye on me. That’s what they did when Brad stayed here.”

“Clutch. So after they leave, I sneak out—”

“Correction,” she interrupted, holding up a finger. “We sneak out.”

No way was he going to sneak out with his kid cousin tagging along. If anything happened, her parents would shit bricks. “Nuh uh, forget it. I’ll just read a book or something.”

“Fine,” she sniffed, scooting off the bed and heading for the door. But before it closed, she popped her frizzy head back into the room. “But loads of bimbettes will be there.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “Where?”

“Paulie’s Pizza. That’s where you wanted to go, right?”

He studied his wily little cousin for a minute. He had to give it to her, there was more to her than he originally thought. “And I suppose you’ll rat me out if I sneak out on my own, won’t you?”

She grinned. “No duh.”

He gnawed on his lower lip, trying to choose the lesser of two evils: Getting in trouble for going into town with Sandy or spending one more agonizing night cooped up in this gloomy house with nothing to do.

“Fine,” he sighed, pretending he was doing her a big favor when he was more excited than he’d been in weeks. Even his bear was agitated. “As soon as they’re gone, we’ll bounce.”

CHAPTER 3

Chet shouldn’t have worried about Sandy being a third wheel. As soon as they walked into Paulie’s Pizza, she was mobbed by about a thousand other teenage girls, oohing over her earrings and shoes. They glanced over at him a few times and giggled so hard he thought they might hurt themselves, then ran off to a far corner of the restaurant. Clearly she had no problem disobeying her parents’ mandate to not be friends with humans.

The place was packed. Decorated with movie posters, most of them pretty new, and brightly colored lights, it had a youthful vibe. The carpet had once been a deep red but had been worn to a reddish-brown over the years, and he wasn’t sure if the walls had ever been re-painted. The air was filled with the smell of pepperoni and garlic, a thin layer of cigarette smoke piercing it every now and again from those sitting in the ‘smoking section’, a half-wall partition that did nothing to keep the smoke contained. Several video games lined the wall, beeping and booping and twinkling loudly, and the latest pop hits played on a jukebox. It was utter chaos. In other words, a perfect teenage hang-out.

Only a handful of adults dared to eat in, and probably only because they’d driven their kids to the place. Of course, said kids wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near their parents. Dozens of tables were jammed with kids of all ages, from pre-teen to his age. It wasn’t an L.A. party but the energy was infectious. He felt alive for the first time since stepping off that grungy old ferry.

A table of five girls near the front couldn’t take their eyes off him as he sauntered across the room in a sky blue, oversized, unconstructed blazer. He knew it draped beautifully on him because his mother had paid their tailor a pretty penny for the effect. His cream linen pants swished around his caramel-colored calf-skin loafers — again, no socks — and a single lock of hair strategically fell across his forehead. He looked choice and he knew it.

Some guys were watching him, too, but warily, for the most part. He knew from experience, though, that if he looked hard enough, he’d find at least one dude checking him out — even in a podunk, Footloose-esque town like Port Numas. He always took it as a compliment, even though he was all about the ladies.

Chet sidled up to the counter to order a personal pizza and a Coke when someone at the table of girls called out to him. “You can eat with us, if you want!”

Just what he’d been hoping for. Not that he couldn’t afford his own pizza — he could buy the place, if he wanted — but an invite like that was basically a request for a night of boinking. And they all looked ripe for the picking. It’d been far too long and his bear was starting to get antsy. His bear. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

“Thanks, ladies. I’m Chet Pearce. New in town.” The girls scooted around to make room for him at their table. As he slouched expertly in his chair, he made a point of looking each girl in the eye when she introduced herself. It was almost comical the way each one practically melted into his dazzling gaze as they went around the table.

“Becky.” Sigh.

“Tiffany.” Sigh, gasp!

Um, um…Michelle!” Moan.

“H-H-Heather.” Gulp, long sigh.

The last girl in the group simply smirked at him, one eyebrow raised a la Spock. He smiled back, gazing hard into her pale blue eyes, willing her to introduce herself and swoon as the others had. But she seemed impervious to his natural charm. He rarely had this much trouble bewitching females. It was a challenge he was more than up to.

His bear strained inside him, agitated and excited, and Chet was right there with him. Obviously, she was pretty, with her chin-length blonde hair poofed out in soft waves. It wasn’t as big as the other girls’ hair, and not nearly as coated with AquaNet, but it still looked good. She had a light hand with her make-up, but somehow it worked for her. Not everyone could pull off that natural look.

And then there was her bod. Her body was bangin’. She was kind of short, compared to the girls he usually dated, but she had curves in all the right places. Her slouchy off-the-shoulder sweatshirt couldn’t hide her bodacious rack and her acid-washed mini-skirt, accented with two belts worn low on her luscious hips, showed off a round rump he wanted to sink his teeth into.

His bear agreed.

He swallowed hard and gave her his most seductive smile. It never failed him. “And you, pretty lady? What’s your name?”

Her smirk widened into a delighted smile. “Crystal?” Why was she asking him? Being from L.A., he should have been used to Valley Girl talk by now, but it never failed to annoy him when they made answers sound like questions. Whatever, she was his target for the night, so he ignored it.

But she still wasn’t swooning. He was going to have to double-down on the charm. Plucking her hand from the table, he lifted it to her lips, brushing them lightly across her knuckles and holding her gaze the entire time. “Enchanté, Mademoiselle Crystal,” he murmured huskily. Every girl at the table nearly fainted.

Almost every girl.

The one that mattered the most was laughing. Not giggling in that dopey way girls do, but outright guffawing. At one point she laughed so hard she snorted. The other girls tried shushing her but she just waved a hand at them as she doubled over in hysterics.

Humiliated, Chet dropped her hand and scowled at her. “Hey, what’s your damage?” he hissed, hoping no one else in the joint was paying attention. He wasn’t accustomed to being shot down, much less laughed at, and he didn’t like it one tiny bit. His bear, on the other hand, was straining harder than ever. Down boy! She’s not into us.

It took her a good minute to catch her breath and calm down. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

What was she going on about? Remember her from where? He’d been in this Godforsaken place for two weeks and hadn’t been allowed to meet a single human. Where did she imagine they’d met?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about but you’re starting to piss me off. I’m gonna bolt.” His chair screeched as he stood and scanned the crowd for a friendlier face. He didn’t have to put up with this shit. There were plenty of cute girls here that would kill to do the nasty with him.

“Aw, don’t leave, Tubbs,” she said, tugging at his sleeve and sniffing back tears of glee. “I was only yankin’ your chain.”

Recognition crashed down on him and left him gaping at the girl. It couldn’t be her, could it? She was all punked out on the ferry and this girl looked suspiciously like a Valley Girl-wannabe. Regardless, his bear certainly knew who she was; it didn’t matter that her hair wasn’t blue anymore. So that’s why it had been practically frothing at the mouth the moment he laid eyes on her.

“Sit down, Tubbs.” She slipped her foot between his legs, tucked the tip of her pink flat under the bottom rung of his chair and pulled it forward until it butted into his calves. It was a strangely sensual act that aroused him to an almost-embarrassing point. To hide the evidence, he dropped into his chair and casually arranged his jacket over his lap. The fact that he couldn’t take his eyes off her teasing smile didn’t help matters any.

“Tubbs?” asked one of the other girls — Tiffany, if he remembered correctly — reaching out to touch his arm. “He looks more like Crockett to me.”

Crystal flashed a dark look at the girl, baring her teeth slightly. “Hands off, skank.”

All the girls at the table gasped. “Listen, freak,” said the one on the other side of Chet. Becky, was it? “We only invited you to come with us because we felt sorry for you. The least you could do is not be a total bitch.”

Crystal glared at Becky. “Bullshit.”

“No, it’s true,” added Michelle. “You were such a spazzed-out ho-bag loser when you got here that we decided to do a good deed and take you on as a project. Honestly, I think we deserve a merit badge or something. I mean, look at you. You look, like…normal.

Chet was amused at the death glare Crystal fired at Michelle…all the girls, really. A vein in her forehead started pulsing in an alarming fashion, threatening to burst. She carefully placed her palms flat on the table and leaned forward, as if she was about to lunge across it and devour every one of them. “Bite me, bitch!”

It wasn’t unusual for girls to fight over Chet. Normally, he’d sit back and enjoy the show but the moment Tiffany buried her fingers in Crystal’s hair and started pulling, he reacted on instinct.

Wrapping his big fingers tightly around her wrist, he growled, “Let go…now!”

Tiffany squealed in mock-pain and released Crystal, falling back into her seat clutching her arm to her chest. “You hurt me! Look what you did!”

She thrust her arm out so everyone could inspect the damage but it was barely even pink. Still, the other girls gasped in dismay, fawning over Tiffany like her arm had been pulled out of the socket. Quite honestly, she was lucky as hell that didn’t happen because Chet’s bear was pissed off that she attacked Crystal, and it was hard to control when it was feeling protective.

“What’s going on over here?” asked a portly older man wearing a sauce-stained apron. Paulie, no doubt.

The four girls started talking at once, claiming all sorts of ridiculous things, their voices rising to such a pitch that only dogs could hear them. Paulie looked at Chet for help translating. “What are they saying?”

Chet adopted his most nonchalant, cool dude manner and shrugged. “My girlfriend here got lippy with them and they attacked her. I separated them and now they’re crying wolf. Girls!” He rolled his eyes for emphasis.

No doubt having seen hundreds of such fights over the years, Paulie nodded soberly. “Well, we don’t go for none o’ that shit here. You can’t behave like nice girls, take it outside or I’ll call the cops.”

“No, man. My girl and I were just leaving. We’ll let the ladies stay and enjoy their pizza. In fact, why don’t you bring them a round of dipping sticks, courtesy of Ulysses S. Grant?” He thrust a fifty at Paulie, who looked shocked for a moment, then grinned from ear to ear.

“You bet, Mr. Grant!” Without another word or a second glance back, he scurried off to the kitchen, leaving the kids to work out their troubles on their own.

“Now, if you’ll excuse us, ladies,” Chet said, pulling a still-fuming Crystal up by the elbow, “I think I’ll have my date show me around town.”

“Eat shit and die, poser,” one of them muttered as he ushered Crystal outside.

Strangely, it didn’t bother him. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t care less about what anyone else thought of him. Being alone with Crystal was all he cared about at the moment, the only thing that mattered. He wasn’t sure when, but at some point during the last ten minutes, he’d become completely infatuated with this little spitfire, and nothing was going to stop him from having her.

As soon as they stepped outside, she pulled free from his grip and rounded on him. “You should have let me kick their asses!”

“Um, there were four of them, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“So? I know how to take care of myself, ya know!”

“Hey, I believe you. I also believe that Paulie, or whoever that dude was, would have called the cops and you’d have spent the night in jail…instead of spending it with me.”

~ * ~ * ~

Crystal couldn’t believe her ears. This yuppie scum was actually propositioning her, right in front of the pizza joint! Sure, he was cute. And, yeah, she’d totally been flirting with him, but damn! He was ballsy. Besides, she was really hacked off at those bitches inside.

“Listen, Tubbs—“

“Chet. My name’s Chet.”

She waved away his correction. “Whatever. Listen—“

“And she was right, you know. Tiffany? I was really going for Crockett’s look.”

Was he grinning at her? He should be mortified to admit that!

“Would you just listen to me for a minute?”

He twisted at his lips and threw away the key. Then crossed his heart. And then held up the Boy Scout pledge sign. And grinned. Damn that grin! It did funny things to her insides. Things no self-respecting punk would ever allow.

As much as she wanted to stay irritated, her lips twitched in response. No! You’re mad, remember? But he was so cute, standing there like the Boy Scout she knew damn well he wasn’t.

When he cupped his hands to his ears and waggled them like an elephant, she lost control. The next thing she knew, she was pulling him by the lapels down to her level. The heat of his gaze warmed her skin, sending tingles to places she hadn’t paid attention to for far too long.

“You have no idea how sexy it is when a guy impersonates a pachyderm,” she whispered, her eyes never leaving his.

“You like animals, huh? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” His voice was husky with desire. Then he claimed her lips.

Their movements were clumsy at first, almost frantic in their need. All hands and mouths, trying to consume the other right now rather than a slow, sumptuous banquet. But sometimes you were simply starving and had to have it all as fast as possible.

And she wanted it all.

Her fingers fisted in the baggy fabric of his jacket, tugging at it, pulling him closer, though they were about as close as they could get with their clothes on. His big hands roamed her form, skimming her hips around to the back to claim her ass and pull her tight against his hard bulge.

Taking her face in his hands, he pulled just far enough away from her so his breath tickled her lips, stilling her frantic movements. Slowly, interminably, he slicked the very tip of his tongue across her upper lip, ending with the lightest of kisses at the corner. He repeated the process on her lower lip, drawing a sigh of delight from her.

Her fingers unclenched and rested lightly on his shoulders as his lips grazed across one cheek before nuzzling into her hair. The hot breath puffing into her ear made all the sensitive parts of her tighten up and scream for more.

Always more.

She couldn’t help moaning just a little. Her ear and neck had always been very receptive to a guy’s touch, and this wasn’t just any guy. He knew exactly how to send electric shots throughout her body, and she wanted him to never stop.

Twining her arms around his neck, she buried her fingers in his hair and held him where he was, much like what he’d done moments before. That put him at the perfect angle for her to explore his ear with her tongue, lightly flicking at his lobe and letting her breath trickle across his ear. The boy needed to learn that she could give as good as she got.

His response was immediate and rather loud. Was that a growl? she wondered, pleased that she’d brought out the animal in him. She’d never made a guy make growly noises before, but she wanted to do it again. And again.

Unlocking her arms, she let her hands slide down his chest, reveling in the hard definition beneath the thin t-shirt he wore. Skin. She wanted skin, not cotton.

Her fingers had just reached his waistband to pull his shirt out when the sound of a crowd of kids bursting out of Paulie’s brought them back to reality. It took all of her strength to pull away from him, now that she’d had a taste of him, but it wouldn’t do to be caught sucking face in front of the pizza place. Her grandparents would have a cow, first of all.

Second of all, for some reason, she really liked this guy. He wasn’t her type at all — the preppy poser guy — but he had a quality. No, that quality wasn’t that he was hot — or wasn’t just because of that. It was something deeper. She sensed it the moment she saw him boarding the ferry. There was more to him than he let on, and she was going to find out what it was.

“Wanna get out of here?” she panted, leaning her forehead into his.

A shudder rippled through him. It didn’t take much imagination to see that he was barely holding himself back from tearing her clothes off. That would really freak out her grandparents!

“Fuckin-A!”

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