Book 3 in the Whiskey and Lies Series
Ainsley Harris knows two things for sure:
She’ll do whatever it takes to keep her friends and family safe.
And she’s been in love with her best friend for years.
Loch Collins has no idea that she loves him. He refuses to look past the comfort of friendship because he has a business to run, a past to keep hidden, and a daughter to raise alone. He can’t risk losing Ainsley by giving into the temptation that has burned in his veins for years.
But one night changes everything and the next night breaks the rules.
Only something is coming for the small, fractured family they’ve created. And if Loch isn’t careful, he’ll lose everything he fought to protect—even if it means breaking his best friend’s heart to keep her safe.
Loch Collins knew the night wasn’t going to end anytime soon, but the pounding in his head wished it would. He’d been up most of the night dealing with paperwork and his daughter. Misty’s nightmares had forced him to wake up earlier than usual to open his gym since his morning rotation crew had called in sick.
To say he was exhausted, irritated, and not in the mood to deal with people was an understatement. But even though he wanted to walk out of the bar and head to his bed for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, he knew he would never be able to, not with his mother giving him looks over her shoulder as he casually crept to the other end of the bar nearest the door.
The woman seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, and ever since he was little, she had been able to figure out what he was doing before he even had a chance to attempt it. Today was the engagement and new baby celebration for his brother Fox and his fiancée Melody at Loch’s other brother Dare’s whiskey bar and restaurant. He knew there was another name for the event, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of it. They’d closed down this part of the bar for an hour just for family, and it would open up soon for the rest of the town and the tourists. Each of the family members had homes large enough for a party, but Dare’s bar was a great place for them all to congregate and not have to drive after a few glasses of whiskey.
“Why are you sulking over in the corner while the rest of the family is smiling and drinking?”
Loch looked down at his best friend and raised a brow.
Ainsley just rolled her eyes and elbowed him in the gut. He didn’t move, but he did have to hold back a wince. He’d taught her enough self-defense lessons over the years that those bony elbows of hers did real damage—not that he wanted her to know that he’d felt the impact.
“I’m not sulking.” He folded his arms over his chest but didn’t turn to her since he didn’t want his family to notice that he wasn’t really paying attention. He was usually better at family gatherings, but today just wasn’t his day. Apparently, both his mother and Ainsley had noticed.
“You’re sulking. And don’t give me another eyebrow raise. You might have perfected that for everyone else, but I can always see through it. You don’t intimidate me.” Ainsley folded her arms right under her breasts and glared at him, though he saw the humor in those hazel eyes.
She’d let her hair down tonight, and the long, brown waves with honey-colored highlights flowed over her shoulders. Loch always liked it when she wore her hair down, but she didn’t do it as often as he might like. Whether she had it up in a high ponytail or down like it was now, her hair always brought out the sharp features of her face. His mother had once said that Ainsley’s cheekbones could cut glass, and he supposed he agreed with her. He glanced down at his best friend’s lips and noticed she wore gloss today with no color, something she often did since she’d once told him that she didn’t like how thin her lips were. When he’d said that he liked them just fine, she’d just rolled her eyes and huffed something about being a man and not knowing what good lips looked like. He hadn’t responded, but he figured since he was the one looking at her, he should know what he liked in lips.
Not that he’d ever say that to Ainsley since talking about his best friend’s lips or any other part of her body was definitely off-limits.
As it should be.
“You’re staring at me. And still sulking. Perhaps even scowling. What is up with you tonight?”
“Nothing is up with me. Go bother Dare or Fox and leave me be.” He hadn’t meant to snap at her, but he was in a shitty mood, and thinking about Ainsley’s lips hadn’t helped matters.
“You’re an idiot,” she whispered under her breath. “And an asshole. So, get your head out of your ass and go hug your brother. Because he’s engaged and happy and he’s allowed to be.”
This time, Loch turned to her, frowning. “I’m not an asshole.” Yes, he was. “And I never said Fox shouldn’t be happy.”
“You’re sure acting like you think that. You’re over here in the corner while your brother and his woman are celebrating a new baby and the fact that Melody will soon be family. Dare and Kenzie are celebrating too since they’re also engaged. Everyone is happy and starting a new life. And you’re glaring.”
Loch didn’t like the fact that she was calling him out but, frankly, he didn’t know why he had to be here the whole night. This wasn’t the real engagement party, that would come later. This was just a drink or two with the family while they talked about planning and other things that had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t usually this anti-social, but hell, he’d had a long day, a longer week, and an even longer year, and all he wanted to do was sleep. It didn’t help that he knew his daughter was at the babysitter’s at the moment and would be spending the night with his parents for grandparent time. Therefore, the house would be empty for him to just rest in peace.
All he wanted was sleep, damn it.
“I’m only glaring at you right now, Ainsley. Get off my back and go join the family.” He had no idea why the cutting words were slipping from his mouth like they were, but as soon as he said them, he knew he couldn’t take them back.
For a moment, he thought he saw hurt in her eyes, but she quickly blinked it away as if it had never been there at all.
“Like I said. Asshole. What I don’t get is why tonight, Loch? Why do you have to be an asshole tonight? I just don’t understand you sometimes, and for being your so-called best friend, that’s saying something.” Ainsley stormed off for a moment before slowing her steps and brushing her hair over her shoulders so it fell down her back. He couldn’t see her face, but he figured she’d put on a smile for Kenzie, Dare’s fiancée, and Melody.
Both women gave Loch a look over the top of Ainsley’s head, and he figured his best friend’s smile hadn’t been good enough to mask her true feelings.
Well, fuck. Turned out he was an asshole. But it wasn’t like he’d denied it before. At least to himself.
While his parents talked to Kenzie, Melody, and Ainsley, his brothers walked over to him, whiskeys in hand, and a spare one in Dare’s grip for Loch. Loch gladly took the glass from his brother and saluted them both before taking a sip. The whiskey his brother had chosen wasn’t the one to knock back in one gulp but rather take in slowly. No matter how much Loch needed the jolt to his system, he took his time.
The three brothers looked alike, and even their little sister, Tabby, who lived out in Denver with her husband looked like them. They all had dark hair and blue eyes, features which had come from their father. There were subtle differences in each of their faces, and most of that came from their mother’s side of the family. While Tabby was of average height and slender of build, the rest of the siblings were all a bit taller than average. Loch was not only the tallest and biggest of the bunch thanks to his career owning a gym and his other job he didn’t much talk about, but he was also the eldest of the four.
And the only one who wasn’t married, engaged, or thinking of having more children—not that he was complaining.
He already had his one perfect daughter. He didn’t need any more. Nor did he need a serious relationship, or anything headed down that road. He’d thought he had that once with Misty’s mother, but once the baby was born, Marnie, his ex, had signed over legal rights to Misty and hightailed it out of town, never once looking back.
Loch had found himself alone in his hometown of Whiskey, Pennsylvania, trying to figure out how to raise a little baby girl on his own. He hadn’t exactly been alone, of course. His parents had stepped up, as did Fox and Dare when Dare moved back to Whiskey after leaving the police force. Tabby had already been living in Denver at that point, but she had made him countless lists and charts so he could find his way while figuring out how to be a parent.
And, of course, there was Ainsley.
She’d been his everything.
His babysitter. His friend. His protector from his darkest thoughts. His savior.
She’d been the person up late at night, pacing with him when Misty’s cholic had kept her up for hours in pain and crying. She’d been the one helping him cook meals so he could work the hours he needed to. Though neither of them was the best of cooks, they’d made do. She’d stepped in when Loch hadn’t been able to ask for help, and she hadn’t requested a thing in return.
Honestly, she was more of a mother to Misty than Marnie ever was, and he’d never be able to find the words to tell her how truly thankful he was—even if he hated himself a bit more each day for relying on her as much as he did.
She was his everything, and yet…his nothing. Nothing more than she should be anyway.
Snapping back to the present, Loch saw his brothers giving him curious looks, and realized he’d been staring at Ainsley rather than talking to them. Who knew how long he’d been standing there looking like an idiot. And his headache certainly hadn’t gotten any better in the time being.
“You going to keep glaring, or are you going to act like you’re a Collins and get your ass in gear and celebrate?” Dare stared at him, and Loch flipped his brother off.
“Aw, family love right there,” Fox drawled.
“I hate you both sometimes,” Loch said quietly.
“We know,” they said in unison.
“What’s up with you, really?” Dare asked, leaning forward and lowering his voice.
Loch shook his head. “Nothing. Just didn’t get enough sleep and, according to Ainsley, I’m an asshole.”
“Well…she’s not wrong,” Fox added.
Loch flipped his other brother off before taking another sip of his whiskey. He let the smoky taste settle on his tongue before swallowing. Dare’s bar had a variety of whiskeys like most bars around the world, but Loch preferred Dare’s. The bar had been renovated a few times over the years from back when it was part of a small and illegal distillery during the era of Prohibition, but Loch figured Dare’s twist on the historic bar and restaurant with its wide array of delicious spirits was by far the best.
Not that his judgement was biased or anything when it came to his family.
“You don’t have to stay,” Dare said quickly. “I mean, you showed up, we ate, and now you’ve had a drink. You can walk home and just be by yourself. No one is going to care.”
“Mom and Ainsley will.”
“If Mom knew you were tired and had a headache, she wouldn’t.” At Loch’s look, Fox added quickly, “I know you have one because you keep touching your temple. Maybe drinking isn’t the best thing for you right now. Whiskey doesn’t always lead to the best decisions.”
“Considering you’re marrying the woman you had too much to drink with and are having a baby with her thanks to said whiskey, I don’t know if you’re the best person to comment on that. Seems to have worked out for you,” Loch said dryly.
“True enough.” Fox looked over his shoulder and smiled at Melody, who grinned right back. Loch was only just getting to know his future sister-in-law, but he liked her. Loch knew she’d been through hell and back—a few times—but she had come out stronger for it. Fox loved the woman, and anything or anyone that made his brother smile like that was perfect in his book.
He shook himself from his thoughts and focused on his brothers again. “I can’t leave now without annoying Ainsley, and since I’ve been pissing her off more often than not recently, I don’t plan to do it again.”
“Good man.” Dare snorted. “Now, come over here and finish off the cake with us then head home. You’re tired, we get it. Don’t overwork yourself trying to do it all.”
“I don’t.” Another lie.
“Yeah, you do. We’re all like that, but I’m pretty sure you do it the most.” Fox sipped from his glass, meeting Loch’s gaze.
“True enough. Let me get some cake, and then I’ll head out. Sounds like a plan.”
Dare gripped Loch’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze before the three of them made their way over to the others. His mother did indeed give Loch a look, but he sidled up next to Ainsley and sipped his drink—just one since he already had a headache—and ate the cake Ainsley handed to him. Eventually, he had more fun than he thought he would and was glad his brothers had pulled him over. He loved his family, liked spending time with them, but he sometimes forgot not to live in his head, constantly dealing with his own problems.
By the time they parted ways, each of the siblings and their women going to their own houses, and Loch’s parents off to pick up Dare’s son and Misty for a slumber party, Loch was ready for bed.
“Mind if I go with you to your house?” Ainsley asked. “I know you’re tired, but I left my laptop there earlier like an idiot, and I need it for tomorrow morning.”
Loch took his best friend’s hand and gave it a squeeze. He’d been a jerk all night and hated that he’d acted like he had. Ainsley froze and gave him a weird look but didn’t react otherwise.
“Of course. You need me to drive you home after? Your car is at your house, right?” They waved at everyone as they left, but Loch kept his hand on hers, wanting to make sure she knew he was sorry for being an asshole.
“I can walk easily enough. It’s not that late, and it’s a decent night for a walk.” Ainsley didn’t move her hand from his, and he took it as a sign that she forgave him. Or she’d forgotten that she was holding his hand. Or was possibly chilled, since it was the end of winter in Pennsylvania.
“Then let’s get out of the cold,” Loch said quickly as they walked down the sidewalk, passing tourists and townsfolk, who were on their way to other places along the main road of Whiskey. A lot of the town’s income came from tourism, and while the weather might not be too cold at the moment, it was still their downtime.
There was snow coming, Loch could feel it. Once it stopped and stayed on the trees surrounding the old buildings and landmarks, people would come in droves again to take photos and buy trinkets. Some would stay longer for a meal at his brother’s place, maybe rent a room at the family inn Kenzie ran. Others would join a dance class at Melody’s studio or stop by Loch’s gym for a workout. They would read the paper with Fox’s stories, and talk about what was going on in the world as they strolled Whiskey’s streets. Those that lived locally would send their children to Ainsley’s school. All of them were connected to the town in some way. Even if they tried to get away, Whiskey was a part of them.
“How goes school?” He pulled Ainsley close as someone bumped into her, and she leaned into him as they made their way to his house.
“Tiring, but worth it. I love my kids this year, even though I swear the grading is worse than ever. I’m looking forward to spring break, and we’re only halfway there from winter break as it is.”
He smiled down at her. “I did the same when I was a student. Never really thought of how the teachers felt.”
She rolled her eyes and grinned up at him. He swallowed hard, wondering why he couldn’t get his mind off her lips tonight.
“No one ever does. And, here we are. It’s chillier than I thought it was.”
He tugged her close as they made their way to the front of his house. “I should have given you my coat.”
She shrugged as she pulled away, letting him open the front door. “I have my own on. I’m not that cold, Loch. Winter isn’t over yet, but it’s not that bad at the moment.”
“Bite your tongue, woman. Don’t encourage Mother Nature. Now, where is your laptop?”
“I’ve got it. Thanks for this, Loch. I need to get a few things done if I want to make my date tomorrow.”
Loch froze. Surely, he’d heard her wrong.
Ainsley turned and gave him a look that could have peeled paint off the wall. “Yes. A date. I haven’t accepted as of yet, but a friend asked me out, and I said I’d let him know tonight if I was free. Got a problem with that, Loch?”
He stuffed his hands into his pockets, wondering how he’d fucked everything up so badly again. “Didn’t know you were dating.”
“You never asked. I date, Loch.”
“Not often.” He winced as she punched his shoulder. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You’re an idiot. I’ve already told you that tonight, but I figured I’d say it again. I don’t date often because I don’t have time, not because I’m not desirable.”
His brows shot up. “Whoa, I didn’t say that. I didn’t even mention anything like that. Now, who is this guy? And why am I just now hearing about him?”
“You’re fucking kidding me right now. Seriously? Does it matter? I don’t tell you everything, Loch. And don’t act so surprised someone actually asked me out. Maybe if you actually saw me, you wouldn’t be so surprised.”
“I see you.” He whispered the words, but he wasn’t sure she’d heard him.
“Maybe if you saw me as someone other than your friend, someone who isn’t just the one who’s always here, you’d actually see that I’m dateable. I’ve seen the way you look at me when I’m near other men. Like that one night when you thought I was with Fox. And yet you do nothing about it. You stand there and act surprised that I’m going on a date, yet you won’t even look at me. You don’t see me.”
Loch growled low before taking a step closer to her. “I see you, Ainsley. That’s the fucking problem.”
Then, he took her mouth with his and knew he’d made a mistake at the first touch.
But she didn’t back away.
And neither did he.