It’s real. What I mentally repeated for the millionth time. What I’d been trying to convince my doubting self for days. Because awesome things—good and pure and decent things—didn’t happen to people like me. Only—it had.
Finally. I’d done it.
No more scraping and clawing and wanting.
No more lying, cheating, conning…stealing.
Even so, I flicked another glance at the nightclub’s front door, waiting for the inevitable to happen, expecting someone to turn my world upside down. Again. Distrust had become habit.
No. I rejected the gnawing doubt. I had to believe. You earned this. You worked so hard for this chance.
“It’s real.” The slow whisper fell from my lips, finally spoken aloud. “I’ve made it.” From my coveted position behind the bar, I coasted trembling fingertips over the cool metal of a brushed stainless steel bar top. Clean. Sanitized clean.
The only rust in sight came not from decay and neglect; it had been placed with great care and intention. Ancient brick lined the walls behind worn leather booths at the far end of the room, but the aged patina and rough edges lent the joint a vibe all the customers drinking and laughing and dancing within it wanted.
Loading Zone? A world away from a dingy back alley.
Yet…not so far at all.
We’d both come a long way: I’d seen the decrepit old warehouse in her former state for years. Had drifted by almost every night, loitering as I stared up at her ghostly form, wondering if someday she’d shine again. For her to no longer have broken windows, rotting wood, dirty brick…derelict—forgotten.
And then to be a part of what breathed new life into her?
For her to be an essential part of me in the same way?
The industrial vibe continued into other areas too, like in the employee “lounge”, where roughed concrete spanned the floors, reclaimed wood beams served as changing benches, and lockers bore the perfect amount of dented and slightly rusted. Six galvanized metal stools perched under a hammered zinc worktable that served as our own bar. Cold drinks came from a vintage Coca-Cola cooler. The two generous private shower stalls had repurposed tiles and roughhewn gliding doors that had been salvaged from a barn.
Then there was the boss’s office. Yeah, the “off-limits” one. As if that’d ever stopped me. I’d been told the revered-by-one-and-all Benjamin Bishop was away on emergency. I’d found the door that guarded the forbidden space to be locked. All the more tempting. And perfect to get to know the absent mystery man in control of my fate—my way, on my terms. Covertly.
What had I discovered?
Blown-up pictures of challenging golf course holes hung at eye level. All had breathtaking scenery. Two captured ocean waves as they’d crashed against black rocks behind vibrant manicured greens in the foreground. Most had the same handsome dark-haired guy with a golf club in hand and a wide grin on his face. Some featured him alone. One had been posed with a few other guys, arms slung around each other’s shoulders.
A massive polished ebony desk spanned the larger sidewall. On it, a square paperclip holder had been positioned exactly two inches from each side of its back-left corner. Two exposed vintage Edison bulbs stuck straight up from a funky galvanized steel light which stood perfectly centered along its back edge.
One wide-barreled pen, made of wood that had light-and-dark stripes running lengthwise, rested off to the side, parallel to the desk edge. But it laid within reach of a man who would sit in the sage-green ergonomic work chair parked under the desk, dead-center in the middle.
So damn perfect, my fingers had itched to knock its owner off-balance.
I’d left my mark before leaving: nudged the pen a little to the left, rotated the lamp a few degrees off-center. Had done both with the side of my thumb, not a fingerprint left behind—not my first time breaking and entering.
I smiled, remembering how, as a final parting, I’d bumped the chair’s arm with my hip, swiveling it from its neatly tucked position.
“Racked, Shay?” A solid smack echoed out. Five frosty pink manicured nails drummed once, pinky to thumb, on the shiny stainless steel of the servers’ station to my right.
I blinked back into the here-and-now, then moved, my hands blurring as glasses clinked, liquids poured, and drinks loaded onto her tray beside the order screen: dirty martini, beer, scotch, three screaming-orgasm shots.
After a quick once-over, I gave a firm nod. “Locked and loaded.” Staring at the mash-up of drinks, I flung my bar towel over my shoulder, then met Jillian’s impressed gaze to hazard my usual expected guess. “First date?” Yep. Smartass, through and through.
“Nope.” She half-rolled her eyes, then kept her gaze stuck at the ceiling for a prayerful beat. “Bachelorette party.”
“Ah. My condolences.” Our nightly joking came as easy ritualistic banter for me. What I’d learned from observing the privileged for years. How I’d gotten skilled at fitting in, climbing up, staking my claim in a world that didn’t hand out anything to anyone who didn’t fight hard for it.
She winked long black lashes at me. “Piece o’ cake.” A veteran server. No doubt she had the challenging group in the palm of her hands.
I knew the feeling–had learned my craft well. How to read people, play their weakness, manipulate a situation just enough to get what you want without their realizing they’d been played. How I’d survived. How I’d made it.
To get here…
Unexpected tears sprung to my eyes. Ugh. Annoying. Doing my damnedest to be normal, to blend in, I blinked the irritating moisture back and sucked in a strengthening breath. Then I soaked in the fleeting moment; I knew how rare and precious the good ones were.
What we’re lucky to get in our sucky world. Scraps of joy between all the suffering. Words echoed from ages ago on a bitter cold night, stomach clenched in ravenous hunger.
But all that suffering and despair had changed, little by little. And the pinnacle to my arduous climb? Only a few short days ago, when I’d stepped foot on the hallowed ground beneath my feet...when I’d vowed to go legit.
I’d used the last few dollars I’d squirreled away for myself to buy vintage jeans that hugged my hips under the tight T-shirt provided by Loading Zone, their bartenders’ uniform. My shoes had been worn only once on a one-night con job: black distressed-leather mules with a three-inch heel, comfortable and stylish.
The new getup? All for a standard paycheck. The kind with acronyms like FICA, where the government apparently dipped invisible hands into what I’d toiled for. Long hours in exchange for far less pay than what I’d pinched with little sweat in the past. But working aboveboard was safe, one step closer to real…normal. And the renowned bar that I stood in wrapped itself around me like the pseudo-family it had long been rumored to be.
“You workin’ or daydreamin’?” The loud crack of a bar-towel corner snapped a scant inch from my chin.
Dropping my gaze with steady focus, I busied myself behind the bar, filling orders from customers packed two rows deep at the barstools. But I shot a quick glance at my towel-snapper and fellow bartender for the night.
Cade. Good guy. Wicked smart. Master fighter and manipulator, but with a different moral code. He wouldn’t break the law. I would.
“Stop,” I growled to myself under my breath, pissed at my runaway thoughts. Ingrained, my brain had randomly locked on to Cade, analyzed, filtered, and spat out gut instincts. Like I’d done with every mark. Only Cade wasn’t a mark. None of the new family surrounding me were.
I berated myself with another needed self-correction. I had broken the law. Had. Past tense. Often. But that was before. “You’re done now.” I sharpened the harsh whisper with finality.
My thoughts zeroed back in on the here-and-now. Family. Such a strange concept. Mine—the ragtag few who truly cared about me—protected me, had been pieced together from chance encounters, earned through selfless actions, trusted only to a point: all I’d ever allowed, with anyone.
“Bomber,” Cade called out from the other end of our shared territory, his voice clear to me over the pumping music and shouted conversations.
“Trick question.” They always were, the nightly pop quizzes he’d been drilling me with since day one. Not because Cade doubted my abilities, but because, as he’d explained on my first shift, he wanted to see me succeed, thrive. I wanted that too. “If you mean, the B-52 Bomber...”
I glanced his way for clarification.
He folded his arms, expression blanked.
No clues. Because custom drink orders might not have any either. We had to decipher them. No server wanted to hump back to a customer through a dense and thirsty crowd for clarification.
Yep. The B-52. But I didn’t need to take the easy way with my answer. Anyone could rattle off three ingredients. And he’d stumped me on at least one drink puzzle every night since I’d been tending. So, he wanted to test my abilities? Fine.
“I know you don’t mean a Cherry Bomb, which is cachaça, Brazil’s premium liquor distilled from sugarcane.” Yep. He asked? I provided the mountain of information I’d been studying. “Plus an ounce of kirsch also known as kirschwasser, a German cherry brandy, a splash of fresh lime juice, and topped with club soda.”
I paused for effect, then raised my brows as I continued on with my explanation while still filling drink orders. “You might’ve tried to con me into thinking an Irish Car Bomb, also known as an Irish Bomb, but I doubt it. We don’t have it on our menu; it’s insulting to the Irish.” And some bars got into trouble with it. Got nothing to do with the Irish. It’s an American-invented drink, with the only thing Irish about it its ingredients. “But if a customer wanted one, I’d layer the shot glass with Jameson Irish Whiskey poured over Baileys Irish Cream, all to be ‘bombed’ in front of the customer into a glass of Guinness Stout.” The resulting eruption of foam? Guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
I tilted my head. “Incidentally, if we had ice cream—”
His brows hiked a fraction. “We don’t have ice cream.”
“If we did...I make a mean Irish Bomb Float. A long pour of Jameson into a pint glass, add two scoops of Ben & Jerry’s Dublin Mudslide, topped off with twelve ounces of Guinness Stout.” Deadly calories. Maximum yum.
“But you said ‘bomber’, so I’m thinkin’ you want the B-52 Bomber, which, according to my education” —and he had no idea said education was my own brand of bartending self-training— “is a layered shooter supposedly invented by a bartender-fan of The B-52’s band.”
Cade’s eyes sparked with amusement.
Knew it. “Kahlúa.” For the dark coffee liqueur support at the bottom. “Baileys.” The creamy pillow in the middle. “And Grand Marnier.” The decadent aged orange liqueur capped on top. “In that order.”
He gave me a brief nod. All the praise I’d get. But I caught a glimpse of pride in his eyes.
Not that I needed a gold star. Hadn’t gotten approval from anyone in a long time. Years.
Yet a little bit of unsolicited recognition at a job well done? Felt...nice.
Cade’s challenges and praise made me want to stick with it because each night proved an opportunity to grow, to better myself. The company itself did that too, which was rare. It’s what made the place family. We didn’t only belong to the bar. The bar was ours too: To work at Loading Zone meant we got a piece of the action, a percentage of the profits. If we loved what we did, and took care of the customers so they had an amazing experience, the company coffers didn’t just get fatter, our own wallets did too.
And I liked that.
People taking care of their own.
What I’d done most of my life.
Without another word or glance, Cade turned and disappeared to his section of the bar, before rackin’ and packin’ ’em.
“School’s out for the night,” I murmured, okay with my relative independence. Probably wouldn’t talk to one another for hours, if Friday nights were like I’d heard.
Back to the grind. Drink orders flew over the bar’s electronic system. Music blared. Bodies danced. Our third bartender came on shift with a chin-up greeting to Cade and me before he took responsibility for the far end.
And in between nonstop mixing drinks for servers or fielding orders from the anxious throng at the bar, I still flicked the occasional glance at the door.
Then doubt trickled in. Because I’d been there before, that warm fuzzy place where good things happened. Calm comfort sank into my chest to the point where happiness lulled me into feeling safe, complacent.
That fairy-tale illusion had put me at risk long ago.
And so, distrust had become second nature.
I’d probably go decades into a decent and good life, and I’d still be watching the door, waiting for something bad to happen—expecting someone to snatch it all away.
Recognizing the deep-rooted fear, miniscule but real all the same, helped me cope. But with a solid grip on my survival instincts, I tucked the steady awareness into the back of my mind and dove into the present.
By muscle memory, I served up drinks, one after another. Margaritas. Manhattans. Whiskey neat. Bourbon sour.
At some point over the course of the busy next hour, my restless mind drifted from drinks back out into the place around me, then toward Cade at my left. The rundown of his good makeup flashed again, that damned analysis-mode kicking in, no matter how I tried to mute it.
But instead of fighting the impulse, I rolled with it, reprogramming the data streaming in. “Cade: not a mark. No one here is. No one anywhere.” I exhaled in relief at my small mental progress. Old habits die hard? A phrase coined by the weak-minded. Make new habits.
The next time I glanced toward the door, I imagined the boss coming through it, Cade’s ex-partner. The one I hadn’t met yet but knew by everyone’s reverence for him. The one who apparently surpassed Cade in his goodness. And according to Cade, the guy was razor-sharp, genius in both reading people and running his business.
But rumors painted the now-sole owner of Loading Zone as darker, edgier. Especially in the last month. Before he’d taken the most recent couple of weeks off—unheard of in the almost two years since they’d been open, according to Jillian.
“Ben!” Some overly excited female across the room shouted the name at the exact moment it settled into my mind.
An instant wave of energy crackled through the nightclub, hotter and more alive than anything the music or dance floor pulsed out. Slight movement rippled through the vast space of the reclaimed warehouse—toward the same metal roll-up entrance door that had been haunting me all night—as heads craned to see, breasts pushed out a little farther, and bodies pressed closer, like a powerful magnet pulled them uncontrollably forward.
Even I couldn’t look away.
After the initial crowd crush, I could see his occasional nod, a brief smile. He angled deeper into the club and scanned an assessing look across the bar, starting at Cade’s section. Seconds later, his sights landed on me—and stayed there, fierce gaze locked on to mine.
My breath caught at the intensity radiating from halfway across the room.
Ben. His simple name echoed larger than life in my head.
The crowd parted as he strode through the room. He stood a good head taller than other men he passed. Broad shoulders strained his black T-shirt with every slight rolling turn as he moved. Dark hair, cut closer on the sides, curled down over one side of his forehead. Shadowy stubble covered a defined jawline as it clenched. Thick brows drew together over eyes that narrowed as he stared hard at me. He stepped through the now three-deep crush at the bar, then planted flat palms on the edge of the metal bar top in front of me.
“What are you doing back there?” he snarled, tone low, heavy with accusation.
Cade braced his arms on the bar beside me, mirroring him. “She’s a new hire.”
Ben never looked away from me. “I asked her.”
Holding his unwavering gaze, I straightened my shoulders, undaunted. “Her name is Shay. And she’s behind your bar...working. Hard.”
Dark eyes narrowed a fraction more, boring into mine. “How old are you?”
Here we go.
“Old enough.” All he needed to know.
A muscle in that clenched jaw tightened. “Not what I asked.”
“You sure about that?” Because yeah, I looked young, no matter how old I really was. But his heat-seeking-missile aggression? Totally unwarranted.
“ID.” He kept at the groundless demand.
“I’m not some underage club-bunny at the door. I’m an employee. I’ve already been hired.”
“I don’t give a shit. I’m the boss. And I want to see your ID.”
“No.” Not gonna happen. I couldn’t risk it.
He gave a slight nod, smug satisfaction in his eyes. “So, you’re not eighteen.”
“I didn’t say that.” Yet somehow, I sensed our verbal tug-of-war had dragged me across lost ground.
“Are you or aren’t you?”
“I am,” I gritted out, angry that I’d been foolish enough to want something so bad.
“Then no big deal.” He rose back to his impressive height, crossing his arms, confidence plastered on his face. “Prove it.”
Damn. My first weekend night, not even a full one, and already the life I’d earned, had fought and bled for, had begun to slip through my fingers.
Disappointment seeped heavy into my chest. What naïve people got for having hope.
The inborn fight in me remained. Pride too. With every tightening breath, fury burned my lungs, for being judged without cause.
“No. You either believe me…or you don’t. I filled out my application. Gave my ID then. Got interviewed. Got hired. And I’ve proved myself over the last few days, tonight. Ask anyone here.”
But it did. My actions mattered to me. They were all my life had been based on. Everything I’d ever accomplished had been from what I had done—not who I was, what anyone thought, or what society believed.
I crossed my arms too, refusing to bend, by principle, if not more.
His expression hardened.
Commotion grew around us, two immovable blocks of granite, as thirsty patrons called out for drinks. Cade steadfastly remained beside me. While the poor lone fresh-shift guy hustled ass to fill orders.
The atmosphere grew charged between Ben and me. The sounds of the club faded to background noise as my heart thumped harder against my ribs, my pulse drummed louder in my ears.
Ben planted his hands on the bar again, staring me down as he leaned forward inch by inch. His eyes bored deep into mine, penetrating. Any other girl might’ve thought intimidating.
I didn’t twitch a muscle.
He towered over the bar, head lowered, a ferocious wolf who’d cornered an unknown threat. That shaggy dark hair spiked over darker piercing eyes. Unshorn scruff peppered an unforgiving jaw. An unhidden snarl curled his lip, baring white teeth.
No resemblance to the wholesome happy guy I’d spied on in the pictures hanging on his office wall.
Oddly, more attractive.
Most women would’ve gone weak in the knees. Some would’ve put on a layer of flirt, feigning vulnerability or exposing true fear, hoping to snag the obvious alpha in spite of the glaring warning signs. Maybe because of them.
I’d never been a bleating sheep in my life, wasn’t about to pretend with fluffy false clothing.
Wolf, too, buddy. I leaned forward, matching him inch for inch. My trim nails clicked on the bar top as I dug in, holding my ground.
Alpha all the way.
But then my breaths quickened, some ancient response forged from tens of thousands of years of saber-toothed tiger versus spear-wielding hunter. I knew it was coming. Had been on the powerless side enough to know when the ground was about to spin under my feet. I skimmed my hands back and gripped the edge of the bar, bracing for the inevitable as I swallowed hard past a thickening throat.
Honed survival instincts kept me on my toes as I widened my stance, pulled in a deep breath, and tightened my thigh muscles. Ready or not, I’d fought too hard for solid ground to flinch now.
Not that it made a difference. The rug was about to be yanked out from under me anyway. And the asinine quick-to-judge man staring hard at me, but not seeing a thing, held the carefully knotted corners in his tightened fists.
The soft-spoken words punched through me with punishing force.
Moisture stung my eyes and my chest burned, but I drew in a slow, deep breath and held his unwavering gaze. I refused to give him the satisfaction of knowing that I had ever cared one bit about his stupid job. “Fine by me.”
What didn’t escape me was the steady way he breathed in and out. Like he worked to control his breaths too.
Good. Let the jerk suffer for the mistake he’d just made. Because I was done with the place. Done with him. Done with hope and that naïve vow.
Only little girls believed in fairy tales.
I tossed the bar towel between us.
“Obviously, you’re not the man I’d heard you were.”