Series: Lightning Strikes #4
Author: Jodie Larson
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: July 26, 2018
Downbeat |n|: The first beat in a measure, often the strongest. Fame, fortune, traveling to different cities across the country…I’m living the dream. As the drummer for the Lightning Strikes, it’s my job to hook you in and keep you coming back for more. It’s my craft, my calling, what I’m a master at.
Even with all that, I’m still just a normal guy who wants to eat at food trucks and lounge on the couch, playing video games until I can’t see straight. Everything was perfect.
At least I thought it was, until a blonde bombshell walked into my life and made me question everything I thought I knew. I want her. I need her. Only, she’s afraid of the spotlight, afraid of what it’ll do to her and the ones she loves. The wall around her heart is keeping me out, but I know before long I will break down her barriers. She needs to know that there is more to us than what she sees, that this chemistry between us is our downbeat to forever. All the guys in the band have their happily ever after. Maybe it’s time for mine.
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The hostess looks up, smiling brightly at the three of us; more toward Pax than anyone else. “Welcome to Smash. Just the three of you tonight?”
Pax nods. “Yep. A booth if you have it.”
I almost gag as little miss thing turns on the sweetness while grabbing three menus from the stack. “Anything you want.” To add to the mess, she bats her eyelashes like she has dust in her eye.
Without warning, Pax grabs my hand with his left and Jayce’s with his right, sending a clear signal to Miss Bubbles as we make our way through the restaurant, finding a quiet booth near the back.
“Your server will be right with you.” A huge change in demeanor as she slinks back to her post. Pax smirks while taking the seat across from me and Jayce. Much to his displeasure, I take the outside of the booth, which means Jayce won’t be able to run out and play like he thinks he can.
“What does everyone like on their pizza?” Pax doesn’t even look at the menu. Something tells me he comes here often. Though it doesn’t surprise me. This will be our second date at an arcade. He did warn me he likes to play video games.
“Cheese,” Jayce loudly proclaims.
Pax looks to me for verification. “It might be better to order him a personal size if they have it. Otherwise you’ll be stuck with something simple and plain.”
He smiles as if he understands my double meaning. “Nothing wrong with simple. But if you’d like something different, I’ve got just the thing for you.”
“I’m up for something new.”
Jayce looks between Pax and me, his little brows drawing together. “Am I still getting a cheese pizza?”
I kiss the top of his head. “Yes, buddy. You’re getting cheese.”
A tall younger guy walks up, clearly in his early twenties. “Hey, guys. Have you had a chance to look everything over?” His unruly blond hair and tanned skin tells me he doesn’t spend as much time here as I would think he does.
“Yeah, I think we’re ready to order.” Pax looks over and I wordlessly nod, letting him choose. I’m not picky with my pizza toppings. Everything tastes good when it’s baked in cheese. “We’ll get a kid’s cheese pizza and a large drunken barbecue chicken.”
Interesting choice. But I trust Pax’s judgment so I’ll go along with it.
“Anything to drink?”
Jayce chews his lip. I know what he’s gonna ask for before he opens his mouth. “Can I get a soda?”
I shake my head. “Milk would be better.”
Pax pipes up. “A chocolate milk and two Diet Cokes.”
Todd, according to his lopsided nametag, nods his head while writing our order down. “You got it. Should take about a half hour, so feel free to enjoy the arcade. Everything’s included in the price.”
Really? A free arcade? I guess I should have looked at those pizza prices closer. We’re probably going to shell out fifty bucks a pizza to make up for the games.
Jayce starts fidgeting with his shirt. “Mama, can we play?”
“Sure, bud. Let’s go.” Pax slides out of his side while Jayce crawls under the table to escape. Normally I’d be upset if someone undermines my decision, but I can’t be mad at Pax for wanting to do things with my son. Jayce even grabs his hand and drags him to the bright lights and sounds across the room.
I follow behind, not wanting to miss the show. They walk by all the machines first, most of them too tall for Jayce. Then they see it, sitting near the wall. A table-top Pac-Man machine. I haven’t seen one of those in years. And it’s the perfect height.
Jayce grabs one controller while Pax takes the other. You’d think he just won the lottery.
“You ready?” I ask, hovering my finger over the start button.
Okay, then. The music starts and the two of them play against each other, running from the ghosts and gobbling up as many yellow pellets as possible. At first, they agreed to share the power-ups. As time passed, it was every man – or boy – for themselves.
I practically have to drag them away from the game as I look over at the table and see our pizzas arrive. “Guys, food’s here.”
“One more game, Mom,” Pax says, fully invested in trying to beat Jayce’s score. Yeah, he’s getting his ass kicked by a five-year-old.
I bite my lip to hide my grin. “Come on, guys. Our food is gonna get cold.”
“We’re almost done, Mama.” Jayce’s tongue hangs out the side of his mouth, deep in concentration.
I think I’m back to throttling Pax.
Jayce claims victory, jumping out of his chair with his arms in the air. “I won!”
Pax leans over and offers a fist bump. “Nice job, bud.” Jayce returns the gesture and runs over to give him a hug.
“After we eat, can we play something else?” He looks between me and Pax with expectant eyes.
“If you eat most of your food, we can stay and play for a bit.”
Apparently, it’s a race back to the table because he’s sitting down and dishing himself up before Pax and I get to the restaurant section.
“He’s a good kid,” Pax says, resting his hand on the small of my back. “And for the record, I let him win.”
I look up and smirk. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
Okay, I’m back to kissing him.
Pax leans down and kisses the shell of my ear. “You’re beautiful, in case I failed to say it earlier.”
I look down at my beachwear and cringe. After sitting in the wind, I can only imagine what my hair looks like. “I think you’ve been playing too many video games. It’s obviously warped your brain.”
He pulls us to a stop at the edge of the table. “Don’t do that. Don’t play off my compliment like I must be crazy. You’re beautiful and amazing and every day I look forward to learning something new about you.”
Heat creeps up my cheeks as I stare into his beautiful hazel eyes. So deep and sincere; more green than brown with little flecks of gold around the pupils.
I almost forget where we are until a small voice pulls me back to reality. “Mama, you gonna eat?”
Pax and I shake our heads and smile, laughing to ourselves.
“Yeah, buddy. We’re gonna eat.”
He slides his hand into mine as we chase after Jayce through the arcade, watching him bounce from game to game. It doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t know how to play or whether he’s heard of it. If it’s available, he wants it.
“Anything you want to do?” Pax looks over, still holding my hand with no intention of letting go. A million little butterflies take off in my stomach. Being with Pax is so natural, it doesn’t even phase me anymore when he does things like this, acting like two people who have known each other for years rather than weeks.
Looking over, I see a race car game that opened up. Way back when, I used to be good at these.
“Race you,” I say, dropping his hand and taking off like I’m one of the kids. Pax laughs behind me, as does Jayce, though neither are moving fast.
“I’ll help you,” Jayce says, acting like my own cheering section.
With Pax in the seat next to me, it’s hard to focus on the screen. I turn the wheel to choose my car, finally selecting one that had a good ratio of speed and acceleration.
“Ready?” the computer voice says. A digital, scantily-clad woman appears on the screen between our two cars with a flag in hand and the beach behind her.
I stomp on the gas pedal and weave around pedestrians and other cars, trying to catch up to Pax who flew off the starting line like a pro. Damn, I may be rusty at this.
Jayce’s directions aren’t helping as I hit the wall for the third time, dropping all the way to last place. Why can’t this be like Mario Cart? I could really use a blue tortoiseshell right about now.
Needless to say, I didn’t win. Pax leans over, cracking his knuckles as he stretches his arms out in front of him. “I thought this was going to be a challenge.”
That’s it. There’s gotta be something I can beat him at.
I look around, desperate to find something that will give me hope.
Nothing. I suck at video games, always have, always will. Instead, I opt for one of the non-video games in the entire place.
“There,” I say, pointing to the basketball hoops.
“Really?” He looks me up and down. “You don’t seem like you have the height.”
I shove at his shoulder. “It’s not like I’m going against Shaq.” He’s a basketball player, right?
Pax laughs and leads the three of us to the hoops.
“Can I try?” Jayce asks.
I hand him one of the balls. “I don’t think you’re tall enough but go ahead and try.”
To my surprise, Pax lifts him off the floor, holding him high enough to take a shot. “Now he is.”
The ball goes in with ease, leaving the two of them whooping and hollering, slapping each other’s hands, finally ending in a fist bump. He’s turning my own son against me.
“Okay, Mama, your turn.”
I dribble the ball against the carpet – which is useless because it doesn’t bounce – and raise my arms to take a shot. The ball flies over the safety net, hits the front of the rim and straight down.
Pax holds up Jayce again, repeating the same motions as before. With each shot, mine fall short while theirs sinks in.
I give up.
When the buzzer sounds, I acknowledge my defeat. “That’s not fair. There’s two of you.”
Jayce hugs my waist. “It’s okay, Mama. We’ll teach you how to play.”
Pax snorts and turns away. I smile down at my son and ruffle his hair.
“Thanks, buddy.” Pulling out my phone, I glance at the time. “It’s getting late and you need to take a bath.”
A collective whine from the two of them brings a smile to my face. “Do we have to?”
I nod. “Yes. Time to go home.”
We walk to my car, letting Jayce crawl in first so I can secure his seat belt. Pax holds out his arm, wrapping it around my waist to stop my progress around the car.
“You know, I’m kinda dirty too. Wanna take a bath with me?”
Everything clenches south of my navel at the thought of being naked with him. I’m not sure if we’re ready to take that leap yet.
“We’ve had enough firsts for today. How about we save that one for later?”
He smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling in the corners. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.” Leaning down, Pax kisses my lips, softly, tenderly, not taking it further than necessary in public and in case prying little eyes spot us.
“Did you drive to the beach? I suppose you need your bike.”
Pax shakes his head. “Nah, I walked. I can call an Uber.”
“Get in the car,” I say with authority. It’s not often I use my mom-voice, but it’s ridiculous that he even suggested getting a ride from someone else.
Once we’re all situated, I head down the road, following Pax’s directions to his place. Since I was passed out the first time I went there, and then too focused on the man between my legs the second time, I didn’t remember where it was. It doesn’t shock me that he’s down the street from Grounded. No wonder why he’s always there.
Pax opens Jayce’s door and gives him a high five. “See you later, bud.”
“Bye, Pax. Come play with me soon, okay?”
With a final fist bump, he blows it up as they both laugh. “You got it.”
I step out of the car and stand by the door. Pax traps me with his arms, caging me in while leaning into me.
“When can I see you again?”
I chew on my bottom lip. He frees it with his thumb, only to find it trapped again because I can’t stop fidgeting with him this close.
“My next day off is on Saturday. Weekends are better for me.”
He pushes a lock of hair away from my face, running the finger down my cheek until he’s cupping my jaw, tilting my head up to stare directly into his bright, hazel eyes.
“Then weekends it is. I want them all. Yours and Jayce’s. I had a lot of fun today. More fun than I’ve had in a while.” He kisses the tip of my nose. “But don’t think you’re off the hook during the week. I expect excellent customer service when I stop in for my coffee.”
I laugh, clinging to his shirt while resting my forehead against his shoulder. Every muscle in my body relaxes as he holds me in his arms. This feels more natural than anything else I’ve ever experienced. It pains me to walk away and leave him here.
“No fake smiles. Only the real ones for you.”
ALSO AVAILABLE IN THE LIGHTNING STRIKES SERIES
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Jodie Larson is a wife and mother to four beautiful girls, making their home in northern Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior. When she isn’t running around to various activities or working her regular job, you can find her sitting in her favorite spot reading her new favorite book or camped out somewhere quiet trying to write her next manuscript. She’s addicted to reading (just ask her kids or husband) and loves talking books even more so with her friends. She’s also a lover of all things romance and happily ever after’s, whether in movies or in books, as shown in her extensive collection of both.
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