For some reason, that made Jack smile.
“So as long as you’re hidin’ over here, I wanna take the opportunity to tell you if you harm a single hair on Keely’s head, I will gut you.”
His smile dried up and he looked sideways at Colt McKay.
“We clear on that?”
Jack knew his attempts to reassure the assorted male McKays that he’d never cause precious Keely distress would backfire when the “engagement” went to hell. He kept his lie simple. “Understood.”
Colt nodded and meandered away.
Another two hours remained of the party. If Jack stuck to the crowds, maybe he could avoid the oh-so-fun, one-on-one threat time with Keely’s remaining brothers.
As if she sensed him gawking at her, Keely cocked her head and looked straight at him. Her tight-lipped smile was better than flipping him off, he supposed, but not by much.
“Funny how my little sis ain’t wearing the googly-eyed look of a woman wildly in love. She looks like she wants to punch you in the face,” Cam McKay commented behind Jack.
Fan-fucking-tastic. “You know Keely. She gets mad first, listens to reason second. She’ll be fine once we’re alone to hash it out.”
“That being said… I’m speaking off the record, not as a deputy, but as Keely’s brother.”
“If you cause her a second’s pain, I will gut you. Understand?”
“Loud and clear.”
Cam grunted and shuffled off.
Imagining his bloody guts dragging in the dirt was getting old. Maybe no one would notice if he snuck out, since most of the attendees were Keely’s family and friends.
What did that say about him?
A hand landed hard in the middle of his back and Carter McKay sidled up beside him. “So you and Keely, huh? Gotta admit, I didn’t see that one coming.”
“I did,” he grumbled. “I’ve had it bad for her since the first time I met her at your house when she was jailbait.”
Carter laughed. Not pleasantly. “Good thing you never told me that before you put a ring on her finger.”
“She’s my baby sis. I gotta look out for her and make sure she isn’t hooking up with some scumbag.”
Jack bristled. “You suggesting I’m not good enough for her?”
“Yep. If I ever get the barest whisper you’ve hurt her in any way, well, fair warning, I’m gonna gut you, Donohue, old friend or not. Dig?”
“Good.” Carter clapped him on the shoulder again. “Smart man. I see the boys are back to sneaking cookies. Gotta bust them.” And Carter was gone.
Could this day get any more bizarre?
Another set of footsteps stopped behind him. Jack braced himself for a new “friendly” warning from another male member of the knife-happy, psycho McKay clan. But his mother’s sweet voice rang out. “It’s a lovely party, isn’t it?”
“Thanks to you, I’ve heard.” Jack hugged her tightly, feeling ridiculous at the boyish need for his mother. He was immediately comforted by her presence, her softness and the familiar scent of her always-present Jean Nate perfume. “Sorry I was gone this week when you were here.”
“No worries, son. For all intents and purposes, I’m retired. I know you’re a busy man. I enjoyed spending time with Keely. Such a ball of fire, that girl. And her family is wonderful.”
Yeah, they’re a swell bunch when they’re not threatening to gut you.
His mother picked a piece of lint from his lapel. “I’m thrilled you’re marrying such a perfect woman for you.”
Jack’s gaze zeroed in on tantalizing Keely, gesturing wildly as she talked to cluster of white-haired women. Young. Old. Male. Female. Didn’t matter. She was always surrounded by people. Keely drew them to her like bees to flowers. Man, she was sweet. And hot. And pissed as hell at him.
Keely caught him looking again, and not so subtly scratched her cheek with her middle finger.
His dick stirred and he grinned at her.
Yeah, he had it bad that it turned him on when she flipped him off.
“I see you watching her all the time.”
Guiltily, he returned attention to his mother. “She’s my intended. Naturally I’m looking at her. Do you find that odd?”
“No. I find it sweet. You don’t show that side of yourself often these days and I’m glad you’re sharing it with her.”
Before Jack formulated a response, his mother added, “But I am surprised you are insistent about starting a family right away.” Her gaze drifted to the band of McKay offspring running amok through the crowd.
His eyes zoomed to hers. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Keely told me.”
“When did Keely share that tidbit?”
“Earlier today. She said you weren’t getting any younger and she didn’t want people mistaking you for your kid’s grandfather at school events.”
What a troublemaker. That little snot-nosed cowgirl had earned serious payback.
“I recognize that mind your own business scowl, Jack.”
Ah hell, now he’d hurt her feelings. He was batting a thousand today. “Mom—”
“I didn’t mean to speak out of turn. And I understand how much you value your privacy. But to be honest, I can’t wait for grandchildren to spoil. The sooner the better.”
“I’m planning on getting a lot of baby-making practice in. Soon.” Jack grinned when his mother gasped and whapped him on the arm.
His brother inserted himself into the conversation. “Well, ain’t this just great? Us all together celebrating how my big brother stole my girl away for himself?”
“Justin David Donohue. What a horrible thing to say to your brother.”
“It’s true. Jack wanted, no, he encouraged me to break up with Keely so he could have her. Tricky, huh?”
“Get over it. That was years ago. Whatever happened between you two—” he warned Justin not to put Keely in a bad light in front of their mother, “—is over and done with. Keely and I crossed paths long before you entered the picture, so technically, she was mine first.”
Justin belligerently folded his arms over his chest. “You must’ve worked some serious magic on her because Keely hated you, Jack. She called you—”
“Every name in the book, I know. We laugh about it now, actually. Sometimes Keely even uses it as a term of endearment.” He smiled and gave his mother a one-armed hug. “Speaking of…I need to have a word with my soon-to-be blushing bride.”
Jack felt Justin’s glare singeing his hair as he wandered toward Keely surrounded by her friends. Too bad, bro. You fucked up. She’s mine now. He hovered on the outskirts of the circle, waiting for his beloved to acknowledge him.
So Jack set his chin on her shoulder and palmed her hips, trying not to be distracted by that damned lilac scent. “Hey, baby.”
Keely immediately stiffened up.
Everyone in the group noticed. He half-chided, “Relax. I won’t tickle you in front of your friends.” He dropped his voice. “All my favorite ticklish spots are strictly between us.”
“Anyway, can you all excuse us? I need to steal her away for a minute.”
Murmured assent followed. And miracle of miracles, Keely didn’t argue.
Jack clasped her hand and towed her behind him.
Halfway down the empty hallway, Keely jerked out of his hold. She put her hands on her hips.
“What’s so all-fired important you had to drag me away?”
“Where in the hell do you get off telling my mother, for Christsake, that we’re going to start a family—a big family—right after the wedding bells stop pealing?”
Her mouth curled in an impish smile. “I was cementing our cover, Jack. I thought you’d be happy.”
He got right in her face. “Nothing about this situation is making me happy, Keely. Especially not every goddamn one of your brothers threatening to gut me— gut me! —like some redneck code of vengeance if I do anything to hurt poor little ol’ you.”
“Then you’d better make me happy, huh?” she said sweetly.
Jack crowded her against the wall, bracing his hands on either side of her head. “Try again.”
“What do you expect me to say? I have no control over my brothers.” Keely drilled him in the chest with her index finger. “And speaking of… Since when does your brother get to act all, ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, baby’, when that stupid asshole dumped me?”
“Fuck if I know. I have no control over my brother either.”
They glared at each other.
“If you have nothing else to chew my ass about, let me go.”
“Not a chance, buttercup.” He searched her eyes. No teasing warmth. Just cool appraisal. “Why are you being like this?”
“Like what? Business-like? Isn’t that how you wanted it between us in private? You turn the charm on and off with me whenever it suits you. Why can’t I do the same to you?”
“Because even though this engagement is fake, you’re not, Keely. I don’t want you to become like me.”
Her eyes shot daggers at him. “God, you piss me off.”
“Why? What did I say?” Hell, he thought what he’d said made sense. He’d been honest with her for a change.
“Just when I want to punch you in the kidney for bein’ a total jackass, you show me a part of you that ain’t half-bad.”
Jack’s heart sped up. “Which part?”
“That part. The real, sweet, sincere side of you. You didn’t toss off a sexual comment like ‘I’ll show you the best part of me, baby’. You act as if this is more than us cementing our cover. You act like you care about me.”
“I do care about you, Keely. More than I should.” Jack brushed a damp tendril of her glossy hair behind her ear, letting his finger trace her perfect, beautifully shaped jawline.