Getting caught in the back room of Cure, kissing my best friend’s wife-to-be at their wedding rehearsal after party… let’s just say it was not a part of my plan.
The night starts off with the pop of champagne corks flying around behind the bar. The lights are turned way down, and a playlist of Purity Ring remixes is playing loudly over the sound system. The doors to the outside are thrown open, letting in the salty air and the sound of the ocean waves of Redemption Beach crashing in the distance.
People are toasting the happy couple. It’s a little premature if you ask me, but no one did. So I just keep my trap shut and work the bar. Behind the bar, I’m still the bartender, the master of my little domain.
On the floor of the restaurant, I would have to rub elbows with hedge fund managers and CEOs and Instagram models. The kind of people who went to expensive private colleges and talk about where they’re summering. Not my crowd.
They’re all here for Asher and his well-to-do fiancee Jenna. And I’m here too, me and the other Hart brothers. We’re standing in for Asher’s family, because they don’t care about him and because we do.
Tonight is all for Asher. I just have to keep that in mind.
Really, it’s okay to be around the Youtube starlets and tennis pros, because most of them think I’m just the help. They probably don’t know that Asher and I even own this bar together.
Which is more than fine by me.
Not for the first time tonight, I wish I was at the beach, running out toward the water with a surf board under one arm. Actually, I am longing to be anywhere but here right now.
But I’m not. I’m here. I need to be useful, taking orders and making drinks. Otherwise, I turn into a pouty, angry man-child. Nobody wants that, especially not tonight.
I’m standing behind the bar, a bar towel slung over my shoulder, staring down the crowd of wedding guests with a not-quite-scowl. I consider whether I should put up glasses of water on the bar for the crowd or not. The party is definitely a success, meaning that almost everybody is a little drunk by now.
I have even been dipping into the expensive bourbons, a practice I frown upon for the other bartenders. But tonight is a party, a celebration of sorts. Even if I don’t like what people are celebrating, I still have to be here.
Maia, a cute Asian girl who makes a hell of a Sazerac, drops her tray on the bar. She pulls her skintight black cocktail dress down a little.
“Jameson! Pop one of the bottles of rosé bubbly, will you?” she says, her upperclass British accent making bubbly sound refined.
I raise a questioning brow at her. “Why?”
“The bride to be wants ‘something pink with bubbles’,” she says with a shrug. “I’m a server. She gives me an order, I come and ask for it. You pour the drinks. That’s usually how it works, anyway.”
She gives me a look, like she knows exactly what I’ve been thinking, and she doesn’t approve.
“Mmmph,” I respond grumpily. Sparkling rosé isn’t on the menu tonight, but I do as requested. It is for Asher, after all.
“Do you mind getting some champagne flutes down for me while you’re at it, boss?” she asks, giving me a saccharine smile. “You’re a million miles taller than me.”
“I’m six foot three,” I correct her. “You’re just really short.”
She sticks her tongue out at me, and I chuckle. I fetch a case of the glasses she wants off the back wall, setting it down on the bar.
I turn around to the towering neon-lit wall of different kinds of liquor. They’re all grouped by type: whiskeys and bourbons together, vodkas and gins and aquavits, rums and tequilas and mezcals, piscos and brandies, and a few dozen bottles of wine.
We’re at Cure, the bar that I co-own with my best friend Asher and my two brothers, Gunnar and Forest. At the moment, Cure is closed to the public for Asher’s wedding party. Forty or so tipsy wedding guests, all gathered here on the night before the wedding.
It makes sense, as far as gathering places go.
After all, Cure was Asher’s idea in the first place. He’ll be the first one of the four of us to get married. I should be happy for him, but I’m not. I fucking hate his fiancee Jenna, and I think he can do way better than her.
But I swallow my words. The time come and gone to get all my thoughts and opinions about Jenna and the wedding out. I said my piece. Asher called me a prick.
And I am, without a doubt. A fuck up, a misanthrope, an anti-social brooder for whom opening this bar was a total shot in the dark. This bar, raising my little brothers, and keeping my friendship with Asher are really the only good things I’ve ever done.
God knows, if there was a cosmic accounting of my whole life, there are plenty of bad things in my past that tip the scale in favor of my being a total piece of shit. Like dropping out of school young, dating an endless stream of surfer chicks and pretty bar patrons, constantly partying, and wrecking not one but two motorcycles in my twenties.
I know that my past and my tendency toward gloom don’t exactly make me lovable. I’m working on redemption, slowly.
I dip below the bar, to the low-boy coolers where the bottles of white and sparkling are kept. I search for a second, then find the right bottle. The rest is all muscle memory, peeling the foil off and unwinding the metal cage. I pop the bottle with as little fuss as possible, eyeing my brother Gunnar as I pour the bubbly into champagne flutes that I have set up on the bar.
Gunnar is next to me at the bar, pouring vodka and a little bit of cinnamon shrub together into a cocktail shaker. There are a whole line of pretty girls waiting for the shots that he’s making. I clear my throat and send him a look.
Don’t keep feeding the girls vodka, the look says. Seriously.
He grins and winks at me, then yells at the girls to bend backward over the marble-topped bar in order to receive their shots. Of course they do, giggling.
I can’t roll my eyes hard enough. I put the champagne flutes onto the tray that Maia dropped. She scoops it up with a fake smile, carrying it off to the bride.
She doesn’t like Jenna, either. Asher is the only one of the staff that Jenna is nice to. The rest of us are considered less than human.
I look across the bar to the booth where Jenna is ensconced with her whole rich, snobby clique. I watch Maia deliver the sparkling wine to Jenna’s table, where beautiful ice queen Jenna is telling a story.
I see Jenna push her empty glass toward Maia without a thought. The music in here is too loud to know what Jenna is saying, but one look at her ruddy cheeks and her exultant expression as she talks to the people clustered around her…
Yeah, she is drunk. Not just drunk, but demanding. She downs the sparkling wine in two swallows, then holds the glass out to Maia to refill.
Again, she’s not making eye contact. Jenna’s too busy loudly telling her story. Everyone at her table laughs at once, and she looks right at home, basking in their adulation.
Maia takes the champagne flute, and heads towards another table to check that they don’t need anything.
I grit my teeth. You would think that Maia really was just an unknown face, a server at some restaurant… but really, Asher and Jenna have been together since this place opened. Maia was our second employee.
Simply put, they know each other.
We should’ve hired catering staff to work this party, I think. That way everyone could mingle. And the staff could avoid Jenna’s table…
I turn away and bite my tongue. When Maia comes back, I’ll tell her she doesn’t have to wait on Jenna anymore. I’ll do it.
Things have been more than a little uneasy between Asher and me for the last few weeks, ever since I told him how I feel. Even though we’ve been best friends for almost twenty years, shit got awkward as fuck the second the words were out of my mouth.
Now we’re here. Asher is schmoozing Jenna’s parents over by the door to the patio, looking as golden as I am dark. In his checked shirt and khakis, he is exactly the guy you would want your princess-daughter to marry.
I swear to god, I can see his teeth sparkle from across the fucking room every time he laughs. Asher’s almost a goddamned Disney prince, my diametric opposite.
I remember that I’m supposed to be throwing this party for him, and keep my thoughts about Jenna to myself.
“Hey,” a voice says. I turn away from Asher to find his little sister Emma sliding into a seat at the bar.
Emma is twenty four, with her raven-colored hair done in a fancy updo, and she’s wearing a pale pink body con dress like it’s her job.
I’m not stupid enough to act like I know, though. I’ve been careful not to notice her for the last six years. She’s the rich princess that wants for nothing. I may be a lot of things, but I’m definitely not her speed, and she’s not mine. There are plenty of reasons why a guy like me shouldn’t even look at someone like her.
For one thing, Emma’s way younger than me. For another, she’s what you could describe as perky. As the loner who stands behind the bar and broods, I’m definitely not into her animated attitude.
Then there’s the fact that she’s going to law school, whereas I dropped out of high school. We are worlds apart in that respect.
Plus, if Asher ever found out that I’d had so much as an impure thought about his little sister, he would have a fucking stroke. And then he’d murder me.
That would be a sad way to go.
I glower at Emma. “Aren’t you supposed to be socializing? You know, representing your snooty-ass family, seeing as they can’t be bothered to show their faces?”
Emma grins at me, her green eyes twinkling with delight. That’s what I mean about perky. I refuse to let my eyes dip lower to check out her tits… but I’m sure they’re perky too.
“My parents are absolutely horrified that Asher has found himself a girlfriend that isn’t a social outcast. They’re positively fuming that he did well for himself without any help from them. So I’m not representing them, no.” She leans closer to me, biting her lower lip suggestively. “What have you got back there that’s not wine?”
Don’t look down at her tits. Don’t look down at her tits, I tell myself. Then I look down at her tits anyway, small but perfect, pushed up by her dress.
I jerk my eyes away as soon as I realize that I’m doing it. Fucking hell. The last thing I need is for Emma to think that I’m a fucking pervert.
I make eye contact with her, and hesitate. There are plenty of pickup lines that float to the surface, but I ignore them.
“What kind of liquor do you want?” I ask, turning and picking up a metal cocktail shaker.
“Mmm…” she says, twisting a loop of her dark hair around a finger. “Vodka? I want something that doesn’t taste like alcohol.”
I make a noise of displeasure. Emma cocks her head at me.
“You asked what I wanted!” she says. “I want something sweet.”
I shake my head and grab the vodka, pouring it in the cocktail shaker. “You like lemonade?”
“Who doesn’t?” she asks.
I mix freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little homemade simple syrup into the tin, add a handful of ice cubes, then shake it. I pour it all into a highball glass, then top it off with a drizzle of fresh raspberry puree. I stick a straw in it, pulling a little of the concoction into the straw, and then pull the straw out for a taste.
Lemon and sugar hit my palate long before the vodka does. I wrinkle my nose at the sweetness. Perfect for her, though. When I serve it to her with a new straw, her eyes light up.
“Ooooh,” she says. “It’s pretty.”
“Yup,” I say, setting about washing my shaker out.
Emma sips the cocktail, her elbows on the bar. “This is amazing! What do you call it?”
I eye her. “The schoolgirl special,” I reply dryly.
She blushes, her cheeks turning a shade darker than her pink dress. “You’re the actual worst.”
That makes me grin. “You’d do best to remember that.”
I wink at her, and she rolls her eyes. “Thanks for the drink.”
She picks up her cocktail and walks away, hips swaying. I watch her walk away for a few seconds, my mouth a little dry.
“Seriously?” my brother Forest says, coming up beside me behind the bar. Forest is the middle brother. He’s as dressed up as I am dressed down, wearing dark slacks and a white button up. His dark hair is clipped close to his scalp, not almost-too-long and messy like mine is.
I yank my gaze away from her, glancing down at my black t-shirt and black jeans instead. Forest isn’t done, though. “There are so many hot girls here, and you’re staring at Emma? What is wrong with you?”
He’s not wrong. At thirty three, I should definitely not be looking at someone almost a decade younger than me. I clear my throat and shake my head.
“Because I’m a dirty old man. Speaking of people who are too young for us, where’s Addison tonight?” I ask, changing the subject.
He frowns and turns a little, pointing out his fiancee to me. A very thin redhead in a red silk dress, she’s in a little group of women standing by the front door.
“Right there. And she’s not too young for me. She’s very mature for her age.” He reaches into the lowboy coolers under the bar and gets a beer, popping the cap off.
“Uh huh,” I say. I lean back against the bar. “I seem to remember being invited to her twenty first birthday party last month.”
“Fuck off,” Forest says, pulling a face. He takes a sip of his beer. “You’re just jealous.”
“Of Addison? She’s so controlling, dude. That’s your thing, not mine.”
Now he really glares at me. “Again, fuck off. Also, Asher asked me to remind you to keep everybody hydrated. Nobody wants to see Jenna toss her cookies during the wedding procession tomorrow.”
I glance over at Jenna, and see her pantomiming something that looks an awful lot like sucking a huge dick. Everyone around her laughs, and she knocks back another glass of pink bubbles.
A sense of loathing rises in me. Really, Asher? I think. That’s who you’re going to tie yourself to for the rest of your life?
Forest laughs at my expression and claps me on the shoulder. “You have got to learn to mask your expressions better, J.”
“I just don’t see what Asher sees in her,” I lament.
“And yet, here you are, working their rehearsal dinner reception,” Forest says. I see Addison turn her head, looking for Forest. He sees it too, and sighs. “Alright. I’ve gotta get back to the conversation. Don’t forget the water, though.”
“Yeah,” I say to his back as he heads over to his fiancee’s side. “Right.”
I think about the cases of bottled water that we have. I’d have to go upstairs to get them, up the creaky ass stairs and into the dusty little stock room, but then people would be able to take them to go. I head into the private back room that doubles as an office, and then up the stairs.
Grabbing two cases of water, I head back down. Except this time when I get back into the office, I am not alone.
Jenna is there, dressed in a white silk gown, and she is drunk off her ass. “Heyyyyy, there you are,” she purrs.
I raise my brows. “You’re looking for me?”
“Yeah,” she says, coming closer. I can actually smell the wine on her breath, which is saying something, since wine usually isn’t that strong. She staggers a little. “I want you to help me with my dress.”
“Okay, hold on,” I say, setting the waters on the desk. “Don’t you want Asher to help you?”
“No!” she yells, turning around. Jesus, she’s really drunk. She pulls her blonde hair over her shoulder. I look at her back, and I can see that her dress has split in a couple of places along the back zipper. “He can’t see me like this!”
“Okay…” I say, frowning. “I don’t know that I can fix it, though.”
She starts unzipping the dress, stumbling over her own feet. “Get it off!”
“Just wait a second—” I start. She trips and starts to fall.
“Wha—” she begins to wail.
Hatred or no, I step forward and try to catch her. It’s just ingrained in me, like muscle memory. I grab her, whipping her around.
Jenna, drunk as she is, starts laughing, blowing her wine breath in my face. Her lipstick is bright red, and smeared a little on her bottom lip. “You caught me!”
“Yeah, all right—” I say, trying to get her to stand up. “Seriously, Jenna…”
I see her brown eyes flick down to my mouth. I realize half a second before she kisses me what she’s about to do. Her face zooms toward mine, her eyes half-closed.
“Jenna, what the fuck are you doing?” I ask, genuinely perplexed.
I manage to grab her by the shoulders and hold her back, but that just makes her laugh deliriously.
“You think I haven’t seen you looking?” she says. “I know you’ve been watching me. You all have.”
She grabs my dick through my jeans, which makes me reflexively crumple inward. “Get the fuck off of me!”
Then she goes in for the kill while I’m completely off balance. She kisses me, groaning obscenely.
Which is the perfect moment for Asher to walk in.
“What the fuck?” he says, aghast. “Jenna? Jameson? What the fuck!”
I manage to push Jenna off, wiping at my mouth. I turn to Asher. “She jumped me.”
Wham! I almost don’t see his punch coming. He put his whole body into it, though. Asher’s almost my height, and bulkier than I am. His punch lands on my lower lip, which is more surprising than anything.
It knocks me back a few steps. I’m stunned. I feel a trickle of blood seep out of my mouth. “What the fuck?” I ask, touching my lip.
“You fucking prick!” he screams.
“I’m not the one you should be yelling at, dude!” I point to Jenna, who has started laughing uncontrollably.
“You’re both such pieces of shit!” she declares. “Fuck you both.”
Asher flushes a deep red. He wasn’t expecting that, I guess. He turns and storms out of the back room.
I’m right on his heels. He lets out a bellow as he reaches the bar, and he sweeps a tray of champagne flutes off the bar top to the floor. The whole party comes to a halt, though the music continues.
“This wedding is off!” Asher yells, making a beeline for the front door.
“Asher—” I try, but he pushes open the door and disappears.
I take a breath, and realize that every single person in the bar is staring right at me. Not to be outdone, Jenna stumbles out of the back room and promptly throws up everywhere. Her dress is split down the back and barely covering the essentials, which only makes her seem more pathetic.
She’s noisy, too. I look back at her, feeling absolutely nothing. No hatred, no anger really… just an emotional vacuum.
Well, at least the would-be wedding guests aren’t staring at me anymore.
Several people rush toward Jenna, and I’m more than happy to get out of the way. Forest comes over to me, looking pissed.
“What the fuck?” he says. “Jesus, you’re bleeding.”
“Jenna came into the back room and came on to me,” I say, loudly enough that a couple of the people helping Jenna turn their heads and glare at me. “Asher just happened to come in at the wrong moment.”
“Come on,” Forest says, tugging me out from behind the bar. “Let’s get your face cleaned up, man.”
He hauls me to the bathroom, intent on getting the blood off of my face. When we come out, the bar has emptied out. That’s a relief of sorts.
I sit at the bar, while Forest heads off to find his fiancee. Gunnar and Maia are stacking champagne flutes on the bar, looking gloomy. I put my head down on the bar, feeling the coolness of the slate countertop.
I didn’t actually do anything, but I feel like I fucked up Asher’s wedding somehow. I bet Asher feels that way, for sure.
I hear a clink, and lift my head to find Emma on the other side of the bar, setting a bottle of Bulleit bourbon next to my head. She has two oversized brandy snifter glasses held in one hand as she walks around the bar and takes a seat beside me.
I try not to notice her curves, but there is absolutely no denying that they’re there in that sexy as hell dress of hers. And her eyes look amazing right now, like two perfect emeralds.
Stop, I tell myself. You’re being a creepy old man.
“I feel like you need this,” she says, tilting her head to the side. She sets down the brandy snifters and uncaps the bourbon, pouring a little for her and a lot for me.
I grimace. “Yeah, I probably do.”
I take the glass that she holds out, then clink my glass to hers.
“Cheers,” Emma says. We both take a sip at the same time. I sigh as the liquid fire burns its way down my throat. Emma swallows and makes a face.
“Gross,” she says, shuddering. “How do you drink this stuff?”
I make eye contact with her as I tip my glass back, emptying it in a few swallows. She smirks and shakes her head.
“I assume you’re going to tell me what happened with Jenna?” she asks.
I look at her. I can feel her eyes on me, giving me an appraising once-over. What does she see? A thirty something man that does nothing but bartend and surf? The oldest son of two addicts, who abandoned their kids and left me in charge at fourteen?
There’s nothing good for her to see, that’s for sure.
Much as I’d like to know just what she’s thinking, I resist. Instead, I reach for the bottle of bourbon.
“I’m gonna need way more of this. Then maybe I’ll tell you.” I can’t help the glance that I shoot her, the flirty one. “If you’re good.”
Emma’s cheeks darken prettily. I pour myself some more whiskey, ignoring the voice in the back of my head that’s saying that this is a bad idea.
I hold my glass aloft. “Bottoms up.”