I heft a case of Michelob from the floor to the top of the back bar in one fell swoop. I might be on the small side, but I’m strong.
I’m also stubborn and prideful and don’t know how to ask for help even though there’s at least one burly man in the shop next door I could ask to do this for me.
But why should I? This is my pub and I’m responsible for everything that goes into running it. So if my opening bartender is running late this morning, I’m not above moving some cases of beer from the stockroom.
After that, there’s not a lot that goes in to opening this place. We don’t open until eleven a.m. so I set up the register, filling the till with enough ones, fives, tens, twenties, and rolls of coins to make change until the evening switchover. I note the amounts on my balance form and the day bartender will update it before shift change.
After that, I pull all the stools off the main bar where they’re put each night when the floors are mopped, walk around to turn on the neon signs hanging along the walls and then I’m ready for business.
Terry will be here any minute and I’ll leave it up to her to unlock the front doors to let in the trickle of early patrons. I don’t serve a lot in the way of food. It’s basically frozen pizzas I can cook in a toaster oven, chips, beef jerky, and pickled eggs my dad makes every week. I sell those for seventy-five cents apiece and they’re not worth the time or effort, but it’s tradition. My grandfather started it back in 1979 when he opened this place and while my dad never had any ownership interest, he was and still is involved in its success, so he makes the pickled eggs.
Most of the people who come into Jerry’s Lounge—named after my grandpap—come in for the beer and liquor. My day patrons are a mix of old retirees from back in Grandpap’s day and bikers who ride with my dad. At night, the old guys wobble out and more bikers come in, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love my customers just the way they are.
With nothing left to do until we open, I head next door to my dad’s tattoo shop. While he grew up in this place under his father’s eye, he had no desire to sling beer for a living. He instead went into the army, wanting to travel the world. As happens, plans didn’t work out for him because I came along and being in the military is a hard thing to handle as a single dad.
Instead, he developed a new passion enabled by insane natural artistic talent and opened his tattoo shop—Hard Ink—right next door to Jerry’s Lounge. The landlord even let us connect the two spaces via a doorway so we could freely move back and forth to help each other out. If Jerry’s is slow and my bartender has things covered, I might pop over to my dad’s and help check customers in or clean up. My dad does the same for me.
The adjoining door from my stockroom leads right into his break room. During business hours we keep the door unlocked and since it’s my first pass through of the day, I pull my keys out to open the dead bolt.
I find my dad sitting at the table, one large hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee. He’s chatting with two of his artists.
Roy is a linebacker of a dude who rides with my dad’s motorcycle club and has been doing ink with him for the last four years. Sienna, who started working here a few weeks ago, is quite the talented artist, but she’s also a vapid skank. It’s evident in the way she dresses—today, it’s a bustier that’s barely holding in her breasts and fake-leather skinny pants that sit so low on her hips I can see the top of her ass crack as she pours a cup of coffee. She moves to the table, sitting next to my dad, and angles his way. Crossing one leg over the other, she leans toward him—boobs just about to pop free—trying to catch his eye.
Eww… gross. While my dad is by no means old—he’s forty-eight and looks far younger—Sienna is only twenty-five, same as me, and it skeeves me out the way she flirts with him in a hypersexualized way.
Although, in fairness to my dad, he’s not interested. I know this from his demeanor as he ignores Sienna and listens to Roy talking.
Not to say John “Bear” Kisner’s bed is empty, but he prefers his women a little more mature. Not to say he hasn’t dated younger women, but he likes them confident and with the ability to carry on meaningful, deep conversations. My dad might be a Harley-riding, tattooed, gun-wielding beast of a man, but he’s got a lot going on upstairs.
His eyes light up when I walk through the door. “There’s my Carrots.”
“Good morning, Peas,” I say affectionately as I bend to kiss his bearded cheek. When I was thirteen, he introduced me to the movie Forrest Gump. As I sobbed on his shoulder at the end I asked him, in between hiccups, if we could be called Peas and Carrots the way Forrest and Jenny were to each other.
He said, of course.
I share the same grayish-blue eyes and dark—almost raven-black—hair as my father, but his is turning silver on his face and at his temples. While his beard is kept somewhat trimmed, his hair is long and loose, hanging just past his shoulders. My dad’s still in excellent shape, his bulging muscles covered in ink, and I know I shouldn’t blame Sienna for being attracted to him, but just… gross.
“Hey, Stevie,” Roy says to me with a chin lift. His eyes are somewhat yearning—he’s wanted to go out on a date with me forever—but I’m just not into him. He’s hot—all muscled and tatted the way I like them—as that’s pretty much what I was raised around. He’s such a good guy, but there’s not a spark and I can’t explain it.
I keep it affectionate but friendly by lifting my fist to his to tap. “What’s up?”
My eyes cut to Sienna and because she knows my dad’s watching, she attempts to be nice by bestowing a bright smile my way. “Hi, Stevie.”
“You have spinach in your teeth,” I deadpan, and thank someone upstairs for providing me that little green piece of embarrassment to point out.
Sienna claps her hand over her mouth while gasping, “Shit.” She pushes out of her chair and clacks away on her spiky heels toward the bathroom down the hall.
Roy snickers as he stands. “I’m going to get my station ready.”
“See ya,” I say as I move to the coffee pot and pour myself a cup. I notice my dad’s is almost empty, so I refresh it.
When I sit opposite him, he gives me a chastising dip of his head. “Be nice.”
“I was being nice. I pointed out she had something in her teeth and saved her hours of potential embarrassment down the road.”
My dad chuckles, lifts his cup for a sip. When he lowers it, he asks, “What’s on your agenda today?”
“The usual. Harlow’s coming by soon to go over final plans for the toy drive. I’ve got the plumber coming to look at that leaky faucet in the men’s bathroom, and—”
“I can handle the faucet,” my dad says.
I ignore him because it’s my responsibility. “I’m going to meet Mom for lunch and then make a grocery store stop after, so let me know if you want me to pick up anything for you.”
“Your mom, huh?” His voice is deep, gruff and disapproving. I had hoped I’d glossed over that piece of information enough that it was lost, but not much gets by Bear Kisner.
“Yeah.” I keep my tone light, as if it’s not a big deal. “She texted last night.”
“No doubt because she needs something from you,” my dad mutters.
Sounds like harsh judgment, but he’s got legitimate reason. My mom sits at the very bottom of my dad’s list of people he respects and it’s a position rightly earned. He’s never forgiven her for abandoning me when I was only two years old. He doesn’t give a fuck that she left him, only that she left me and didn’t look back for the longest time. I’d probably go so far as to say he hates her for it because he had a very heartbroken kid who didn’t understand why her mom didn’t love or want her.
My father is amazing, and I wouldn’t change a thing about how he raised me all alone, luckily with the help of his parents. He did a far better job than my mom ever could have and it’s why we’re so close.
Peas and Carrots.
But I’ve reconnected with her somewhat and while we don’t have a parent-child relationship, I do spend time with her.
I don’t say anything more about her and Dad doesn’t give me any further warnings. Since my mom has reappeared in my life over the last few months he’s let me know to be careful with my heart around her, but otherwise he pretty much stays out of it. He’s one of those dads who isn’t afraid to let his kid fail, so I make sure to learn the lesson well.
I glance at my watch. “Got to go. Stop by if you want to see Harlow.”
He rises from the table to tower over me. “I’ve got a customer coming in, so just give her a hug for me.”
I start to turn away, but his hand comes to my jaw and he bends down to lock eyes with mine. “You have whatever relationship you want with your mother, Stevie… but mark my words… if she hurts you, I’ll ruin her without hesitation.”
“I know,” I murmur, bringing my hand up to cover his and lean into his touch. My dad is a good man, but he would kill for me and that’s no joke. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
When I return to the bar, Terry’s behind it rearranging beer in the cooler and Harlow is sitting with a bottle of water in front of her, surfing on her phone.
She’s as stunning as ever, her vivid red hair spilling down her back. Her head turns my way, those green eyes brightening. “Over visiting your pops?” she asks.
“Yeah. He said to give you a hug, so I better do it before I forget.”
I take the stool next to hers and lean over for a quick embrace. Harlow Alston and I have been friends since our freshman year when some redistricting landed me in a new school where I didn’t know anyone. It was smack in the middle of a wealthy Pittsburgh suburb and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Harlow took me under her wing on my very first day and we’ve been close ever since. While our paths diverged slightly after school—I started working in my grandpap’s bar because the thought of college made me break out in hives and she went on to law school—our bond has remained tight.
My dad adores her and she’s spent many a night at our modest house for sleepovers, and her parents have always welcomed me with open arms into their affluent life. In a way, we’re like peas and carrots too.
“Good Thanksgiving?” she asks. While we usually talk at least once a week and text more frequently, we haven’t spoken since before the holiday three days ago.
“Just me and Dad, but it was good. You?”
“Stone and I ate at my parents’. It’s nice having a boyfriend for the holidays, so I think I’ll keep him.” Harlow reaches into her tote and pulls out a folder, handing it to me. “I can’t stay long as I have a hearing downtown, but here are the flyers and an outline of the basic game plan.”
I flip through the documents, my lips curving into a grateful smile. “This is amazing. Thank you. You really didn’t have to do all this, but—”
She punches me in the arm, hard enough that I yelp. “Are you kidding? This is a really good cause, and we’re all excited to do it.”
By all, she means some members of the Pittsburgh Titans hockey team. She and her boyfriend, Stone Dumelin, who’s a first-line left-winger, are doing a charity toy drive the day after tomorrow to distribute throughout Allegheny County’s homeless shelters. My grandpap did a small toy drive every year and it’s become an important Christmas tradition for me and my dad. We manage to collect a decent box of goodies each year, but Harlow suggested combining the Titans’ star power to help increase donations.
This idea came about a few weeks ago when she and Stone stopped by to hang for a bit with me. Of course, I think the real reason Harlow suggested it was because they could see that business wasn’t all that great. There were more empty tables and stools than filled, and she thought having the Titans come in for a celebrity appearance to get donations would bring in a lot of new customers and help drive business.
It was a sweet offer and one I wasn’t going to refuse. But I’m well aware she’s doing this as much for me as she is for the needy kids in our area.
She nods to the folder. “I’ve got two players committed including Stone, but I’ll probably have a few more. Cover charge is one unwrapped toy and we’ll set up a photo station and charge for pictures with the players. The money collected will go to a charity of your choice.”
“And they really don’t mind doing this?” I ask in awe.
Harlow laughs. “They not only don’t mind, they love getting involved in the community. I think it’s their way of giving back to a city that’s shown so much love and support since the crash.”
Leaning over, I nudge her shoulder with mine, leveling her with a devilish grin. “I still can’t believe you’re dating a famous hockey player.”
Her eyes glitter as she nudges me right back. “Say the word. I could name five single guys right now who would kill to go out with you.”
I scoff at the notion. “Yeah, right. As if they’d ever want to go out with a bartender.”
“Don’t,” Harlow says, and it’s the same tone she used on me back in high school if I ever got down on myself. “Don’t ever define yourself by what you do for a living. And for the record, you’re not a bartender. You’re a businesswoman who owns a retail establishment.”
I try to mollify her without letting go of my realistic expectations when it comes to my love life. “I’m just saying… I’m so busy here most of my time is tied to this business. It doesn’t make dating or relationships easy.”
“Well, if you want to be with someone, you make the time. But mark my words… when we come in for the charity event, I bet every one of the single guys hits on you and tries to get your number.”
“It’s good that I’m not afraid of the word no, then, right?”
Harlow rolls her eyes and swivels off the stool. “You’re hopeless, but I love you anyway.”
“Ditto,” I say as I hop off and we hug goodbye.
I’m bored. When can we leave?
They don’t serve wine here. How lame is that?
The women here are all trashy. Have you seen what that bartender is wearing?
And the most recent, the one that causes me to lose my shit: “I don’t like the way the women put their arms around you when taking pictures.” Tracy pouts with her own arms crossed over her chest. “You need to tell them to stop, and you shouldn’t touch them. Hold your hands out the way Keanu Reeves does when he takes photos with fans.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I snarl, and I don’t lower my voice the way I often do when I’m arguing with Tracy. “You have done nothing but complain since we got here. Hell, you do nothing but complain whenever I’m with you. I’m fucking sick of it.”
I’m well aware that my buddies have gone still and are shamelessly listening. None of my teammates likes Tracy, not a single damn one of them, and that says something. They’re also vocal in their feelings that I should part ways with her, but I make my own decisions.
Their willingness to tell me how they see it only goes to show how close we are. I appreciate that they feel comfortable telling me their exact feelings because I know it’s coming from a place of care.
And I have listened to them.
Hell… I’ve agreed with most of what they’ve said. But I’m working at this relationship because I’ve always been taught it takes hard work. It’s what my parents have told me when imparting wisdom. It’s what my Aunt Rory has said as well.
I’m an athlete, which makes me a competitor and that means winning is my favorite thing. However, I also know that sometimes you can try your best and still not succeed. I’m reaching the realization that no amount of effort will fix what’s broken here.
I’m particularly perturbed that she’s ruining what is an important team event this evening. We’re at Jerry’s Lounge, collecting toys for needy children and raising money for homeless shelters. How in the world Tracy could be upset about me putting my attention to such a worthy cause is beyond me. Maybe I need to focus on that flaw.
It’s not specifically about her being bored, or that this bar doesn’t serve wine, or even that she’s upset when I take pictures with female fans. It’s that she refuses to understand that I’m doing something good tonight with my team, that it’s part of my job. Sure, I’m having fun—although not with her—but it’s still a team event and she can’t expect me to cater to her at those times. We’ve had dozens of conversations about this but she either doesn’t get it or she doesn’t want to.
I glance over to my left and find both Kace and Coen watching me. I don’t want to embarrass Tracy in front of them, so I take her by the arm and lead her over to a small, private corner.
“What are you doing?” she demands, pulling her arm free. “How dare you manhandle me like I’m some piece of property for you to push around?”
I suck in a deep breath, biting my tongue to keep from spilling what I’d really like to say. My voice is low and calm. “I’m merely bringing you to a private place so that we can discuss this.”
“Discuss what? You’re acting like a fool.”
I take another deep breath, closing my eyes, and I let it out on a measured count of four. When I open my eyes again, Tracy is glaring at me.
Trying to find something redeemable at this moment, I don’t reply right away. I search for anything about her that might remind me what I was attracted to in the first place.
When we first met, she was not like this. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of substance between us. Tracy was a hot hookup and I kept going back for more. But we were having fun and I thought I might be at the stage where I could settle down with the right person.
It seemed the minute I committed to her she became possessive, needy, and difficult to please.
As I study her, I can’t latch on to a single thing to give me the will to try anymore. There’s nothing there.
“This isn’t going to work,” I say with a heavy sigh.
Tracy’s eyes narrow, and her hands go to her hips. “What’s not going to work?”
I motion between the two of us. “This relationship. It’s not working.”
She waves a hand in exasperation. “Of course it’s not. Because you drag me to dive bars, let women fall all over you, and you would prefer to talk to your buddies rather than me.”
Because you’re a raging bitch, my inner voice says, but I don’t let it out. My mother taught me better.
I decide to take the high road and shoulder complete blame. “I’m not good enough for you, Tracy. You deserve far better than what I’m able to give.”
Her eyes narrow until they’re tiny slits and I can see she’s trying to reason out whether I’m being serious. I wait with hope that she comes to the same conclusion so we can make this a nice parting.
Unfortunately, she backpedals. “I’m sorry,” she says, stepping into me. She wraps her arms around my waist and presses in close. Tracy bats her eyelashes as she tips her head back to look at me. “I’m tired and testy, and I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
Goddamn it. If she would’ve stayed in bitch mode, it would’ve made the breakup much easier.
I fortify myself with one more deep breath and then spell it out as clear as can be. “I want to break up, Tracy.” I gently unwrap her arms from my waist and create space between us. “I don’t believe that you and I have enough in common for the long haul. All we do is fight. You don’t seem happy and I can tell you I’m not happy.”
“You asshole!” she shrieks, and I wince. “How dare you just use me and toss me to the curb?”
So many things I could say to that, but I’m trying to keep my bearings because of the emotional whiplash she’s doling out.
I take her elbow again and start walking her toward the door. “Call an Uber to take you home. I’ll wait outside with you until it arrives.”
Tracy jerks her arm away and hisses, “I’m not going anywhere. And you will take me home since you brought me here.”
I shake my head. “You’re more than welcome to stay. It’s a free country. But I’m not taking you home. We’re done.”
The one thing I’m grateful for is that Tracy has never used tears to manipulate me, although she has tried to manipulate me plenty through anger.
She stares at me icily. “You can go to hell, Hendrix. I’m out of here and don’t you dare follow me. I don’t need your pity.”
Oh, thank God.
Spinning on her foot, she melts into the crowd. I stare in the direction she went, considering if I should follow to make sure she’s safe, but that would only send mixed signals.
A hand claps down on my shoulder, and a shot glass filled with amber liquid is thrust into my grip. I twist to see Coen grinning at me. “Congrats, man. You are free and single again.”
I toss the liquor back and it tastes like pure celebration. I feel like a thousand pounds of weight has evaporated from my body.
Coen loops his arm over my shoulder and grins wickedly. “I guarantee you everyone in our group tonight will be fighting to buy you the next one. Prepare to get drunk.”
Laughing, I follow Coen through the crowd to where the rest of my peeps are congregated.
There are six Titans players here tonight.
Stone, Coen, Foster, Kirill, Kace, and me, which means a total of five shots to celebrate my breakup with Tracy. We’re all enjoying this little bar Harlow set up for our charity drive and given that we only have a light skate tomorrow, I know I’ll have zero regrets over the hangover I’ll surely be suffering. There may have been a moment between the second and third shots where I considered if this was a wise course of action, but I realized I wouldn’t be alone in my suffering because for every shot I drink, my mates toss their own back in brotherly solidarity.
The fifth, and I say final, shot of the evening (because I don’t want to feel like absolute shit tomorrow) arrives via the same bartender Tracy was trashing a few hours ago when we arrived.
I noticed her when we walked in, running back and forth behind a busy bar. Harlow seems to know her as I’ve seen them talking here and there when the woman had a few seconds to spare, but she’s been so busy with the masses we drew in tonight, I’m surprised to see her headed this way.
She’s totally hot and not trashy the way Tracy said. While Tracy is all sunny California looks—golden hair, tanned skin, and a lush figure—the bartender is quite the opposite, and I’m guessing that’s why Tracy hated her on sight.
She’s utterly unique with almost raven-black hair cut in shaggy layers around her face and coming down no longer than her shoulders. Her eyes are an unusual mixture of blue and gray, like forming storm clouds. They’re fringed with dark lashes, and she has a nose piercing in addition to several in both ears. I’m guessing Tracy thought she was trashy because she’s wearing a tight Harley Davidson tank top cut low, but not so low you can see much cleavage, along with faded jeans and biker boots. Her arms are a collage of tattoos, her eye makeup is dramatic and smoky, and her nails are painted black. Totally beautiful in a rocker-chick way, and sexy as fuck with that confident strut.
The tray hoisted on her palm above her shoulder sports six shots of bourbon and a bottle of water. She winks at Harlow who’s balancing on Stone’s knee as he sits at the table we’ve commandeered at the back of the building.
She goes to Harlow first, who takes the bottle of water since she doesn’t drink. “Thanks, Stevie.”
Stevie. I love it. That name totally fits.
“Bottom’s up,” she says as she twirls the tray and lowers it before us men without spilling a drop. Her voice is husky, like she’s been singing at a concert all night.
The guys reach in for their drinks until only mine is left. Stevie tips her head and nods down at it. “I heard these shots are in celebration of you cutting toxicity from your life. Congrats.”
Kirill snorts and since he’s the closest to me, I steal his glass right from his hand and offer it to Stevie. “You should celebrate with me.”
Those tempestuous eyes drop to the liquor and then back up to me. Her lips—full, soft looking, and without a trace of lipstick—curve upward. “Not interested.”
She puts the tray under her arm and starts to turn away. I slide quickly to get in front of her, bringing her up short. “I’m Hendrix, by the way.”
I hold out my hand, and I’m surprised she takes it. “Stevie.”
She tries to pull free, but I hold tight. “That’s an interesting name.”
“My dad’s an interesting guy,” she says, our hands still connected. “He named me.”
She nods, then turns toward the bar. “See that big dude sitting at the end?”
“The one glaring at us?” He’s massive, and his eyes are narrowed on me.
“He’s glaring at you, not us.”
Hmm… I could probably take him, but I’m far too chill to throw fists in a bar. Also, that’s her dad, and if I want to impress her, I can’t be knocking the guy out.
So I drop her hand. “I’m assuming he’s a Stevie Nicks fan.”
“I’m impressed you even know who that is.” She tucks a hand in the back pocket of her jeans and appraises me. “You look like Justin Timberlake’s more your speed.”
My hand covers my heart and I wince. “That hurts. My Aunt Rory is a huge Stevie Nicks fan, so I can assure you I know all about her music.”
She cocks an already perfectly arched eyebrow. “You’re not just saying that, are you?”
I take my forefinger and draw a diagonal line over my heart and then cross it in the opposite direction. “Like, a serious fan. She always points to Stevie Nicks’s decision not to have kids and just be a crazy aunt who spoils her own niece as validation of her same life choice.”
“That sounds plausible,” Stevie admits, although her expression seems dubious.
“Sure you won’t have a drink with me and talk about it more?” I press.
Her eyes lift up to the ceiling as if she’s considering it, but then slam back into mine with a coldness that dashes all hopes. “Still not interested.”
When she starts to turn away, I scramble. “Just ten minutes of your time. That’s all I want.”
“What could you possibly need ten minutes of my time for?”
“To convince you to go on a date with me.” I offer a very charming smile, but it doesn’t soften the set to her jaw.
“You’d need far more than ten minutes and probably a gallon of booze to convince me.”
“Just ten minutes,” I assure her. “Alone.”
Something sparkles in her eyes and if I had to take a guess, it’s interest. But she shuts me down again. “Sorry. My time’s too valuable.”
“Then let’s wager something for those ten minutes.”
“How about a game of pool or darts? I’ll let you choose. If I win, I get quality alone time with you to plead my case.”
“And if I win?” she asks, taking a step toward me.
“What do you want?”
She glances around the bar, which is starting to clear out a bit. We’ve done all the pictures and meet and greets with fans. “You have to do the cleanup at the end of my shift.”
“Deal,” I say without hesitation. I’m not afraid of cleaning and if I lose, that still gives me time around her to try to win her over.
“Be right back,” she says.
I turn to my friends, hand Kirill back his shot, and hoist my glass. “Cheers.”
They follow suit, knocking back the whiskey like champs.
I step over to where Stone and Harlow sit, throwing my thumb over my shoulder. “What’s the deal with that waitress, Stevie?”
Harlow laughs. “She owns the bar. We went to high school together.”
Well, that makes her even more interesting. “Put in a good word for me, okay?”
“A good word for what?” Harlow asks.
“I’m trying to score a date with her.”
“Dude,” Stone drawls with an amused shake of his head. “You just broke up with someone.”
“Your point?” I ask, reaching for my draft beer on the table. “Every one of you has been bitching at me for weeks to dump Tracy.”
“Rebound much?” Stone teases.
“It’s not a rebound. To rebound, you have to have a broken heart and I don’t have that.”
“He’s got a point,” Harlow says, wrapping an arm around Stone’s shoulder, but then her green eyes come to mine. “But Stevie is most definitely not your type, so you’re wasting time.”
“How do you know she’s not my type?” The minute the question is out of my mouth, I answer it myself. “Okay, granted… you’re personal friends with her, so you might know something, but I think I’ll make that final determination myself.”
“Hey,” Harlow says, hands out in surrender. “Knock yourself out, buddy.”
“I bet her a game of pool and if I win, she has to give me ten minutes of her time which I will magically use to get her to agree to a date.”
Harlow bends over laughing, and Stone chuckles.
“What?” I demand.
Laughing too hard to answer, Stone says, “Dude… she owns a bar. Not only that, she inherited it from her grandfather. She was raised in this place. There’s no way you’re going to beat her at pool.”
Hmm… that could be problematic, but I’ve been playing pool since I was a kid too. Thanks to Aunt Rory, lover of all things Stevie Nicks, I also hung out in some bars along the way.
“What’s with pretty boy?” my dad asks as I walk back behind the bar and deposit the tray beside one of the beer coolers. He looks over his shoulder to where Harlow, Stone, and his teammates sip on draft beers to chase the whiskey shots.
“Trying to get a date,” I say nonchalantly as I reach for my pool cue case. “I declined, and he said if I gave him ten minutes he could talk me into it.”
“So, you’re going to give him ten minutes over a game of pool?” he asks, returning his attention to me.
“No, he bet me a game of pool with the prize being ten minutes of my time.”
My dad chuckles as he lifts his beer mug to his mouth. When he settles it down before him, he says, “Does he know you’re a shark?”
I grin impishly. “Didn’t ask.”
After opening the case, I screw my stick together and glance down the bar. It’s nowhere near as busy as it was when the event started, but there’re still more patrons than we normally have. I’ve got two working the bar and one circulating, but I hesitate. I never take time for something personal on evenings that I work.
“I’ll help cover if necessary,” my dad says, reading the worry on my face. “Besides, you should hang out a little with Harlow. You’ve been working all night and haven’t been able to enjoy the success of the evening.”
My heart lurches in boundless love for my father. He reads me so well and is always the first to make sure I’m taking care of myself, even if it means insisting I take a few minutes to have some fun.
And it will be fun to beat the gorgeous hockey player who thinks he’s far too charming for me to say no to him.
“Holler if it gets too hectic,” I instruct my father as I come around from behind the bar and bump my shoulder against his.
“Got you covered,” he replies in that gravelly voice I’ve heard described on more than one occasion as a dead ringer for Sam Elliott. “Also, tell that boy if he holds on to your hand like he did before, I’ll cut it off.”
I snort and shake my head. Not that my dad wouldn’t do exactly that, but he’d have to beat me to it. If I hadn’t wanted Hendrix to touch me, I’d have made him let go. You can’t be a female bar owner with a rougher clientele and not know a thing or two about putting handsy men in their place.
Carrying my cue toward one of the empty pool tables, I catch Hendrix’s eye and jerk my head, indicating for him to follow me.
To get his ass kicked.
He meets me at the table, followed by Harlow, Stone, and the other players I haven’t had a chance to meet formally yet. We were swamped tonight, so Harlow handled running the toy collection and photographs which allowed me to keep the bar running efficiently. The Titans’ celebrity brought in more customers than I’ve had in the last thirty days combined, and I wasn’t prepared for it.
Harlow introduces me, although I recognize each of them since I’m a huge fan.
“Choose your game,” I tell Hendrix as I pick up a square of blue chalk.
“Nine ball,” he says, moving to the wall rack to choose a cue.
I shoot a wink at Harlow, who grins back at me. She knows how good I am and I wonder if she gave him a heads-up. I fully intend to win, exact my prize by having Hendrix clean up the bar tonight, and then I’ll laugh about it with my friend next time we talk.
My jaw drops as I watch the nine ball slowly roll into the side pocket off Hendrix’s impressive bank shot. He leans against his cue, grinning at me across the pool table. From the corner of my eye, I see his friends exchanging money, and it’s obvious some of them knew he was pretty damn good to have bet on him.
Not that I didn’t think he might be skilled at pool, but it’s just that I’m really, really good. Sadly, I didn’t play up to my potential tonight.
Harlow moves to my side, leans her head in, and whispers, “It’s almost as if you wanted to lose.”
“I didn’t want to lose,” I growl under my breath. “I hate losing.”
“If you say so,” she murmurs playfully, her eyes cutting across the pool table where Hendrix’s buddies slap his back. But he’s not paying them any attention, instead staring at me intently. “If I had to guess, you’re going to enjoy the ten minutes he just won.”
I wheel on Harlow, taking her wrist in my hand and pulling her a few feet away. “What is he expecting in that ten minutes?”
Harlow laughs. “Nothing more than what you’re willing to let him have, so relax. Hendrix is a nice guy, I promise you.”
“But he just dumped his girlfriend.” That doesn’t sound so nice.
“Trust me,” Harlow says with an incline of her head. “She needed to be dumped. She was one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever known.”
“Then why was he with her?” I ask curiously.
Harlow shrugs. “You have ten minutes with him. Maybe you should ask.” I scoff, because I don’t care about his personal life. “Although I suggest you continue the flirting you two had going on. It was fun to watch.”
This time, I roll my eyes, because the last thing I could ever be called is a flirt. I mean, sure, I’ll turn on the charm with my customers when I’m behind the bar, but that’s part of my job—and it increases tips.
Still, I did find myself engaging with Hendrix as we moved around the pool table, analyzing angles and calling shots. I know the booze in him probably buoyed his natural charisma, but damn, he’s fun to be around. Playful, witty, and actually quite the gentleman, despite his obvious interest in me as a woman.
“I want my ten minutes now.” I turn around to find Hendrix behind me, his eyes cutting briefly to Harlow. “And I want them to be quality, which means we’re not talking while you’re working behind the bar so we need someplace quiet.”
I twirl around, noting the still thirty or so patrons, and then nod toward the jukebox. “I can’t make it quiet in here.”
He grins devilishly as he hands his pool cue to Harlow and takes my hand. “Luckily, I’m an observant guy.”
To my shock, Hendrix leads me through the bar to the small hallway that branches off to the bathrooms on one side and the stockroom on the other.
It’s the stockroom door handle he grabs, pulling me in behind him. I glance back once into the bar area and note my father watchful but unmoving. He knows I can handle myself, but I can tell you Hendrix just landed a point against himself for pulling me into a private place. Not my problem though, especially since after he gets his ten minutes, I’ll never see him again.
The door closes and Hendrix looks around, taking in the rough wooden built-in shelves around the perimeter filled with supplies, as well as beer cases stacked in the center. Using his hold on my hand, he tugs me over to a lonely stool in the corner. It has a slight tear in the seat, which is why it’s in here.
He releases me and admittedly, I’m charmed when he presses down on the stool top, testing for stability. It holds strong because the rip is the only defect, and then he’s got me by the shoulders, spinning and pushing me down gently onto it.
Hendrix reaches a hand up to one of the wooden shelves, casually tucks his other hand in his jeans pocket, and crosses one ankle over the other. “Okay… since I only have ten minutes—”
“Starting now,” I say, glancing at my watch.
He powers on without missing a beat. “You should know my ultimate goal is in securing a date with you. It would help if you could tell me what hesitations you have in agreeing to such a thing. Like… for example, if you’re not attracted to me, there’s not much I can do about that, and I won’t waste our time.”
“It’s really that I’m too busy to—”
“Aha,” he says in triumph. “So you are attracted to me.”
“I didn’t say that,” I exclaim as I stand from the stool, trying to hold back the twitch of a threatened smile.
“You didn’t not say it either.” He smirks, moving very quickly out of his casual lean. He backs me up into the shelves, putting his hands on the wood at my shoulders, caging me in. “Looked like you were going to escape.”
“Just don’t like having to look up at you,” I counter, still needing to tip my head to look him directly in the eye because he’s so tall. “And back to your original question, the main reason I don’t want to go on a date is that I’m too busy.”
“I’m busy, too, but we can find time.”
“Well, you did just dump a girl today, so you probably have more time than I do.”
“I didn’t dump her on a whim, you know.”
“And you’re already on the prowl,” I point out.
“Not prowling.” He moves in a bit, dips his head a little closer. “And my relationship with Tracy was severely broken. I should’ve ended things a long time ago.”
I hear a bit of disappointment in his tone, and that makes me curious. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because it takes effort to make a relationship work and I tried my damnedest. I’m not one who gives up easily and I don’t ever want to have regrets. Now, I definitely might have hung on too long trying to change things, but I won’t wake up tomorrow with any remorse for finally calling it quits.”
God, I can never let him know that right there would convince me to give him a try. One of my pet peeves is quitters. People who run when things get too hard, and that stems directly from my mom abandoning me because “having a kid was just a little too hard.”
Still, I’m stubborn and unwilling to let him know that meant anything to me. “We wouldn’t be well suited. You’re all preppy polos, and I’m a biker babe.”
Hendrix laughs, truly amused by my description. “Going to have to do better than the way we dress as an excuse.”
“It’s not just the way we dress,” I snap in defense. “You’re just… too… vanilla.”
If he found me funny before, he thinks I’m fucking hilarious as his bark of laughter is loud and deep. His humor wells up from his belly, and he laughs so hard, tears form in his eyes.
Shaking his head, still chuckling, he reaches a hand to tug on a lock of my hair just above my shoulder. “It’s cute you think I’m vanilla.” His eyes lift to meet mine, and his voice drops an octave. “If that’s a true concern, I’m willing to disprove that theory right now. I could have you screaming out my name in far less than ten minutes if you gave me the go-ahead.”
“Less than ten minutes, huh? Not a lot of lasting power, buddy.”
“I didn’t say I’d be screaming in that time frame. Only you would be. Trust me, I’ve got a lot of ways to get you there.”
God help me, but that hit me right between the legs and my throat is so parched my words come out in a rasp. “So, you’re all about a hot hookup then, huh?”
“Did I say I wanted a hookup?” His eyes twinkle with humor, but there’s still a low simmer of heat deep within. “I believe I asked for a date, but we can make it what you want.” Hendrix’s voice drops even lower with a sexy rumble. “I’m very willing to please.”
And I have no doubt he’d deliver if I let him.
I think about the opportunity before me. It’s absolutely true that I work very hard and don’t have a lot of free time, but it doesn’t mean I don’t date. Granted, it’s been a long damn time since I’ve been on one and I might have gotten into a bit of a rut. But the question is, should I give Hendrix a try?
He’s gorgeous, and Harlow wouldn’t have let me take this bet so far if he wasn’t a decent guy. It’s true I think he might be a little vanilla, but the way he confidently challenged me makes me think I might be misjudging him.
All things in his favor, but most of all, I can’t let go of the fact that working hard on relationships is important to him. Not that I’m thinking we’d have anything past a first date, but I respect anyone who isn’t going to run scared when things get tough.
“Okay,” I say before I can talk myself out of it.
“Okay?” Hendrix says, eyebrows lifting in surprise.
“Okay,” I affirm.
“What’s your phone number?” he asks, pulling his phone from his pocket. I watch as he types in my number. My phone rings, and I move to pull it free, but his hand wraps around my wrist and stills me. Hendrix places his phone against his ear and waits a moment, then speaks to my voicemail. “Hi, Stevie. It’s Hendrix. Leaving this voicemail for you to listen to later in case you start having doubts and try to weasel out of our date.” His eyes are locked onto mine, his mouth curved into a boyish smile. “Just listen to this message as a reminder that something happened in the stockroom tonight that made you change your mind about me. Something that made you decide you could slice time out of your hectic schedule for a date. Remember what that was.”
He hangs up and winks.
I try not to be enchanted, turning sideways to slide past him. “Shoot me a text and let me know your availability.”
“I already know my availability,” he says as he follows me to the door. “I have tomorrow night off, then the night after that I have a home game. We can go out tomorrow, or I’ll get you a ticket to the game on Thursday, and we can go out after.”
“I have to work,” I reply automatically, reaching for the doorknob. Because I’m here almost every night.
“But do you really?” he asks, nabbing my hand before I can open the door. “You’re the owner. I’m sure you can find someone to cover for you.”
I’m not about to get into it with him that I pour so much of myself into this business, so I don’t have to put myself in the dating world. My mom abandoning me might have left an indelible mark, making me wary with more than a few trust issues. Instead, I merely say, “Let me look at the schedule, and I’ll let you know.”
I turn for the door again, but Hendrix pulls me back until my attention is on him. “Is it too forward if I kiss you?”
Cocking an eyebrow at him, I say, “That’s pretty vanilla to ask permission, especially when not but two minutes ago, you were promising you could make me scream.”
Hendrix laughs, pulls my hand to his mouth, and brushes his lips over my knuckles. “I know. I like keeping you off-balance.”
He releases my hand, reaches past me to the door, and opens it. Hendrix motions me through and I precede him out. Once the door is closed, he bends down to put his mouth near my ear. “It has been a real pleasure getting to know you tonight, Stevie.”
I shiver over the way he rolls out the word pleasure like it’s a promise.
Then he walks away without a backward glance.
Shaking my head in equal parts amusement and consternation since that didn’t go at all how I’d planned, I move back behind the bar.
My dad stares at me with one eyebrow lifted. “I don’t like him.”
“Why not?” I ask, grabbing his empty mug and moving to the tap to pour another.
When I return it to him, he says, “He’s too pretty.”
My gaze moves past my dad’s shoulder back to Hendrix, now talking to Stone and Harlow. I wonder if he’s telling them what went down in the storeroom.
Turning my regard back to my dad, I say, “He’s not too pretty.”
He’s actually remarkably handsome with his dark shaggy hair that looks windswept, expressive brown eyes, and lips that are too full to be disregarded. I wonder what they’d feel like, and the bad girl inside me thinks I might learn the answer to that question.
My dad twists his neck to look over his shoulder, stares at the players for a moment, and then looks back to me. “Did he make a move on you in the storage room? Because I could rearrange some parts of his face.”
Leaning over the bar, I pat my dad’s arm. “You’re cute. And no, he was a perfect gentleman.”
Although if he knew the promises Hendrix made that involved screaming, my dad would kill him right now.
“Are you going out with him?”
“I agreed to a date.”
“You let him know that I have lots of guns and I have broken men’s bones before.”
“I’ll let him know,” I promise with a smile.