1 You know, you really are a little shit, Lucas Strong." "Little"? How would you know? The rebuttal was on the tip of his tongue, but instead of saying anything, Lucas scoffed to himself and ignored the insult that was hurled his way. He knew she was angry. She expected him to respond. To perhaps be thankful for her come-ons. But still it got tiring. The week had been crap, and now here was Michelle going on. Practically ready to tie him up with the new twisted wool blend the shop just got delivered. Lucas inwardly shivered. He needed to stay cool. Not take the bait. And that's all this woman was doing with her "little" comment. Baiting him. Hell, there was nothing little about him. Never had been. Not even when he was a kid and actually was little and faking it on falsified guts thanks to the fact that at times it was all he and Noah had keeping them together in the group home after their mom died and before Mama Joy came and rescued them. And definitely not since he'd become a man. No, nothing little about him since then, that was for sure. So, when Michelle gave a loud "humph" and added a petulant foot stomp, Lucas thought only briefly about looking her way. But no. He wasn't playing into that game. Not tonight. He'd had more than enough. The day had already been plenty full of women throwing unnecessary fits at his expense. Right now, all he wanted to do and give any attention to was diving full force into his much-needed plan of rest and all-about-himself self-care. Sure, it might sound a little selfish, but after the hellish week he'd had, if he didn't deserve it, he sure as hell needed it. But for now, here he was, stuck. Doing a shop closing and being insulted on top of it by this woman, with her long linger in the worsted section and suggestive pawing of the Peruvian highland wool. Lucas squelched down a sigh. Tonight he'd only planned on barely passing through Strong Knits, the shop that he and his three brothers, Jesse, Noah and Damian, now owned since the sudden passing of Mama Joy, coming up on a year ago. They were now running the shop, though that term was used in only the most tenuous of ways, thanks to the help of Kerry-their longtime shop helper and now Jesse's full-time girlfriend. Lucas threw up a silent but earnest prayer, one that he knew his other brothers probably said too, that Jesse stayed on the straight and narrow and never fucked things up with Kerry. She was way too perfect for him, the shop-hell, all of them. She had been running the shop since their mother passed away last year. But today Jesse had pounced on Lucas before he'd gotten fully inside. Nowhere near letting him make it to the back of the shop and the steps that led to their living quarters and the glorious rest Lucas had been longing for. No, his younger brother was quick. Always had been when there was a potential payoff involved, and tonight, he guessed the potential payoff was high. Probably for all of them, so he shouldn't complain. Much. Jesse wanted to take Kerry to the Bronx for a date at a new drive-in that had recently opened. Lucas was all set to tell Jesse where he could go with his teen dream Friday date night, but when he took one look at Kerry, with her sweet face and her big brown eyes shining, giving him that "You know you want to do it for me" look, Lucas knew he was sunk. Though Kerry had become Jesse's girlfriend-fiancZe, if Jesse finally had his way-the truth was, she'd actually somehow made her way into all the Strong brothers' hearts and wedged herself in so tightly that she was now the sister from another mister who had them all wrapped around her little finger. And what thanks did Lucas get for this finger-wrapping? Not a quiet few hours of watching the world go by outside the window of their Harlem yarn shop while he knit away the time until closing, like Jesse and Kerry had hyped up his night to be. No, he was stuck with Michelle, Ms. "I can't decide between the sock or the bulky weight yarn or the red or the green, but I know for sure I want to get tangled up with you, Lucas Strong." As Michelle continued to babble on, Lucas continued to pretend to not hear her, instead keeping his focus on what he was doing. Knitting and people watching and trying his best to stay cool. It was what he needed to do. What he had to do. Keep his cool and keep his attention on something calm. Something more meditative than passes and insults and what had gotten him into the position where his life had become a constant loop of dodging both. With that thought, though, Lucas afforded himself a single silent groan of frustration, then wrapped the delicate yarn he was fingering around the wooden needles in his hands, gave a twist and- "Did you hear me, Lucas Strong?!" Michelle's voice went up an octave to shrill, and his yarn broke, along with what may have been his eardrums. Dammit! He looked down at the broken threads. Shit. That's what he got for pulling from the shop's most expensive stash. Still, he shouldn't be surprised over breaking the yarn, given how tightly his nerves had been wound lately. He gazed at the ripped fawn-colored cashmere threads and forcibly pushed to the back corner of his mind all ridiculous comparisons to his psyche and the way his life had been going. He felt his shoulders tense as his stomach tightened. Even the thought of going that deep made him cringe. Not to mention how his brothers would react to such melodrama. He shook his head. Just nope. His family had been through enough with the death of Mama Joy and then having to get the shop finally off cash-flow life support. And that was just barely. His brothers couldn't deal with their supposed "got it all together" brother falling apart. Lucas stood and placed his needles on the wooden stool he'd been leaning against. He suspected the old stool was probably even older than he was. A heavyweight piece in a gorgeous pecan color, it was glossy from many years of wear and loving care, being in the same spot where Mama Joy used to perch herself behind the counter, where she could look out at the shop and through the plate glass window, with its ever-changing seasonal yarn displays, onto the busy avenue beyond. It was still so hard to believe he was sitting in this spot and that she never would again. Almost a year now and Lucas still expected to hear her booming laugh, see her ever-welcoming smile when he walked in the door. That unshakable disbelief was probably the real reason he'd gotten caught out there tonight and had been wrangled into closing the shop. Out of habit, he and his brothers rarely used the outside entrance to their residence above Strong Knits-not during the hours that the shop was open anyway. From the moment they'd each been taken out of foster care and into Mama Joy's care, she'd trained them to always check in when they made it home, telling them that's what family did. They checked in before they checked out, reminding them that they were no longer alone and had people waiting on them. People watching for them. Lucas continued to look out the window while losing himself in memories. Though things were winding down in the shop and the hour was growing late, you wouldn't know it by looking out on the busy Harlem street. So many people were rushing here and there, most with that happy, just-got-paid, Friday-night look of anticipation. Summer was still on, but the end-of-season wind-down was in effect, and the air was thick with the energy of folks wanting to get in last licks before they had to bundle up again and go back under cover of layers of clothes to ward off the winter chill. Once again, Lucas took notice of Michelle out of his peripheral vision. Shit, when was she going to either make up her mind or leave? He knew he needed to be better. That it wasn't her fault, being a new knitter-and if it was as he suspected, she didn't really care about knitting at all. But that was neither here nor there. She was a customer and he needed to get himself in check no matter how hellish his week and no matter that he was dog-tired and wanted more than anything to be deep into REM sleep. Lucas ran a hand across his neck and gave it a rub, twisting against the tight knots of exhaustion that had now fused into lumps. Sleep had been hard to come by on his thin mattress at the ladder house, and he hoped that being back home and in his own bed for the first time in five days would do the trick. Now he just had to get to his bed. Lucas did a mental countdown to the official closing time while trying to figure out how to get rid of Michelle and still keep up a good enough customer service facade. They needed all the customers they could get, whether slightly irritating, stalky or whatever. He knew he shouldn't complain; it was his own fault again for not asserting himself, for playing fast and loose with his Mr. Nice Guy act. Well, that and Kerry having him wrapped around her finger-both of which got him thrown into this coming year's "FDNY's Bravest: Turning Up the Heat" calendar. He'd been tapped for it when a news piece came out about him and his brothers taking over the shop, and Kerry latched on hard, going on about how it would be great publicity for the shop and could bring in more customers. Though it was against his usual "last Boy Scout," all-around-good-guy type of image, once Kerry got behind the pitch it didn't take but a minute for the rest of the crew to go in with the hard sell. Jesse was all for anything that Kerry was for, and Noah couldn't get enough of the idea of Lucas squirming shirtless in front of the camera. And as for Damian, anything that brought in more revenue was a win to him. Since the calendar had gone on sale, customers like Michelle, who maybe wouldn't have given him a glance a month ago, were now suddenly indecisive lingerers who couldn't seem to make up their minds when it came to yarn and had endless pins on Pinterest. No matter if they had never thought of picking up a needle, let alone knitting a scarf, before in their lives. As he was thinking over his current predicament, Lucas continued to scan the block. The familiar night streetlights lulled him deeper into exhaustion, and as a response, his anxiety kicked up right along with it. Though he desperately wanted to sleep, he worried whether he actually could. His gaze started at the bodega on one corner and moved over the beauty and nail salon and past the brownstones and tenement entrances to the bright fluorescent wash of light that was the pink and turquoise neon sign that always pulled his attention. Scrubs. The family-run laundromat was another neighborhood establishment, much like their knitting shop, and from what he'd heard from Mama Joy, it had been around even before her place. Not that that mattered to him all that much. What did matter was that it-no, she-had been drawing both his mind and his heart to that half-broke-down laundry for almost as long as he could remember. That was, until she'd left the neighborhood for the first and last time, leaving him with nothing but longing while she picked up a degree, then quickly went on to a fancy new house, a new man and even a new name. Lucas closed his eyes against the pink lights and his admittedly useless thoughts. "See, a real jerk. Call him cute, he doesn't respond. Call him a little shit, and he doesn't even respond to that." Snap. Snap. There were her fingers. Right up close to his face. Lucas felt his jaw tighten. He was trying. Trying really hard to be patient with Michelle. When she'd first come in, he'd pulled out hank after hank and bundle after bundle of yarn until he had the worktable practically covered, only to realize she wasn't paying any of his yarn suggestions a bit of attention, but just stalling while waiting for the other customers in the shop to leave. He was a fool. What he needed to do was once and for all learn from the past instead of making stupid mistakes when it came to dumb things like patience and the benefit of the doubt. If the distracting lights of Scrubs and even his screwup at work this week had taught him anything, it should have been that. How often would he have to get hit over the head to know that patient nice guys don't end up anywhere but where he was-tired and alone? 2 Wash. Rinse. Spin. Repeat. If only her life could be so simple. A little detergent. An hour of time. And voil^-squeaky clean. Add a nice dry and fluff, and the stink of the night before is all gone. Nothing left but the faint odor of a faded memory. Sydney snorted to herself as she took a moment to imagine what it would be like to be able to perform that sort of magic on her life. Or the past third of her life at least? Quarter maybe? Her snort morphed into a sigh. Why the hell was she negotiating with the Universe over something completely unobtainable? Earth to Syd, how's about you join us down here back on Earth with the rest of the thirty-year-old, tail-between-their-legs, suddenly-back-at-home-with-a-kid-but-no-husband-in-sight masses? She blinked, letting the voice of reason bring her back from her momentary musings to the present and the hypnotic swirling of the extra-large washer. It currently held the dirty linens from Sweet Ginger, the new Southern-meets-Asian-fusion place that had opened in their little part of Harlem. It was an odd culinary choice, since Gerrard, Sweet Ginger's owner, seemed neither Asian nor Southern-according to his Midwestern accent, anyway. She would give his new restaurant six months, maybe a year tops, since he'd chosen to open it only two doors down from Great Wall Express, the long-established Chinese takeout place. Though it held only two well-worn Formica booths that were bolted to the floor, it had been standing strong for as long as Sydney could remember and had seen more than its fair share of restaurants come and go. Excerpted from Knot Again by Kwana Jackson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. 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