The low, barely audible rolling of an approaching storm reached me first. Then the thunder came as the horses rounded the bend, their hooves churning up the track, chunks of dirt and grass flying in their wake.
I stood frozen, mesmerised. Their bodies were sleek with sweat. The flash of the jockeys’ silks, the crack of their whips, the shouts of the surrounding crowd—it all added to the roar. That noise alone, so like the booming of thunder when a storm is right upon you, sent shivers through my body. Goosebumps rose on my arms, and my adrenaline kicked in as my heart raced.
My smile morphed into a grin as I waited for it. That magical moment. The pack of thoroughbreds thundered into the final straight and it happened, just like I knew it would. The sound became muffled. The crowd disappeared. Everything around me ceased to exist and it was me and the horses in my happy place. That one place where my problems and what I’d done didn’t matter.
They flashed by the winner’s post in a blur of colours, and the spell broke as quickly as it had begun. I had no idea who’d won. It made no difference. I didn’t have money on the race. Unlike the rest of the crowd, that wasn’t the appeal for me. My connection went bone-deep and dragged me back to a different time, one before everything had gone to shit.
Hand hovering over the phone in my pocket, heart still thumping from the rush of the race, an idea pounded through my head. It had started small but grown in intensity with every passing moment until it was as loud as a siren. I pulled the phone out before I could overthink it and brought up the call function. With trembling fingers, I typed the number my parents had made me memorise when I was five years old.
Hang up. Hang up right now. This will only end in tears.
My brain knew it, but being here, in this spot, so like our spot hundreds of kilometres away, I wanted to hear his voice.
My stomach swirled as the ringtone sounded in my ear. My breath came in gasps, but something stopped me from hanging up.
Even if it’s like the last time? Even if he yells every obscenity he knows at you again? My brain wouldn’t stop, but I stubbornly refused to listen.
I froze. My breath stuck in my throat, turning into a huge lump.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The crowd around me had settled in the aftermath of the race, but they were still loud enough to be distracting. I pressed the phone closer to my ear, savouring every word.
He paused on the other end of the line and tears pricked at my eyes. I wanted him to say something else. I wanted his familiar voice to soothe my pain.
“Reese? Is that you?”
My fingers loosened in surprise and the phone tumbled to the ground. I crouched, grabbing the phone and pressed the red cancel button over and over until I was sure the call had ended.
A hand touched my shoulder, and I yelped as I spun around.
I tried to calm my breathing as I straightened and took in the owner of the hand and voice. My mouth dried. Holy hotness batman. He looked a little older than me, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. He was tall, but not too tall. Around six feet, I guessed. His dark hair was just long enough to look messy. Images of messing it up further when I ran my hands through it taunted me.
He stood with his hands in mock surrender, as if I were a wild animal he might need to back away from, and for the first time I noticed he was wearing a Lavender Fields Racecourse uniform.
“Are you Reese Lawson?”
I nodded, still trying to get my bearings. Between the race, the phone call, and now him, orienting myself was proving difficult. He dropped his hands, apparently satisfied I wasn’t about to attack him.
“Thought you might be. I’m Low. I’m the bar manager here.”
Shit. Of course he was. His blue eyes sparkled and the corners of his mouth turned up, revealing straight, white teeth, set off by the layer of dark stubble that covered his jaw. His gaze dropped and travelled over my body for a moment, before returning to my face. My blood heated under his amused scrutiny.
“Your uniform gave you away.”
Right. My uniform. I was supposed to be starting work here today.
“Listen, I’m on a break, and you don’t start work for another seven minutes, so you can finish your call to your boyfriend or whoever—”
“It wasn’t my boyfriend,” I cut in.
He raised an eyebrow as he leant on the fence. “Good to know.”
I laughed. Oh boy. He was smooth. But I respected confidence. Taking a deep breath, I let the cool spring air fill my lungs and calm me. I just needed a moment to recollect myself and I’d be better equipped to deal with him.
Letting my eyes roam over his body, as he’d done a moment earlier, I allowed my expression to convey I liked what I saw. His lavender shirt was hideous on a man that beautiful, but the way it pulled across his shoulders left no question as to the muscled chest that lay underneath. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, exposing tanned forearms. My gaze wandered up his chest to his face and I noted the smirk there. He knew I was checking him out, but I didn’t care. It was obvious he was no stranger to admiration. His eyes and the hint of mischief there held my interest longer than they should have. He was hot. And he knew it.
A flicker of excitement lit within me. This was what I needed. A new job. A new beginning. A new guy to lose myself in. The past year had been one mess after another. I’d barely kept my head above water, but it was time for a turning point.
“Well, Low,” I rolled the name around on my tongue. What kind of name was Low anyway? I guessed I wasn’t the only one who went by a nickname. “Since I don’t start for another seven minutes, I’m going to leave you to your break. I’ll see you at the bar. My orientation starts at noon, right?”
I didn’t wait for his reply. With my heart still thumping, I swivelled on my heel and walked away, knowing his eyes followed me.
* * *
By the time Low sauntered up to the bar ten minutes later, I’d composed myself and pushed the phone call to the back of my mind. It had been a stupid idea to call. To call from such a public place, minutes before I started a new job was taking stupid to new heights. I was done thinking about it. I was ready to focus on the job. And maybe my new boss.
The bar was the longest I’d ever seen, stretching almost the full width of the large indoor area of the racetrack. I knew from times I’d come here as a spectator, there were several other bars on the racetrack, but this was the main one. Low held the little swinging door open and motioned me inside. I caught a whiff of his aftershave as I passed; my nose filling with the unfamiliar scent. Something spicy and dark. I liked it.
“So, new girl, do you know how to pull a beer?”
I almost rolled my eyes, but instead I nodded. He might have been hot and flirty, but he was still my boss. “I worked at a pub back at home.”
“Erraville. It’s about twelve hours from Sydney.”
He nodded, studying me. “Well, this isn’t some dinky little country pub. We have races here every weekend and almost every day of the week during the spring racing season. The Lavender Bar is the busiest on the course. Pretty sure you can handle that, though. Right?”
“Bring it on.”
“You’ll need to hand your paperwork in at the office, but I’ll show you where that is later. I’m also obliged to tell you there’s a non-fraternization policy…” He paused so long, I felt like I needed to fill the silence.
“I sense a but coming.”
“But it’s not enforced.” He gave me a little smile and jerked his head in the direction of one of the guys, milling at the other end of the bar. “You know, just in case you find Riley over there so incredibly attractive you can’t keep your hands off him.”
The corners of my mouth twitched. “Got it.”
He chuckled. “All right then.”
He motioned for me to follow him and I trailed him to where the two men and a woman worked in their identical Lavender Fields shirts. “Guys, this is Reese. Reese, that’s Riley, Bianca and Jamison.” He pointed to each person as he said their names before he turned back to me. “The five of us together are the main crew that man this bar. We rotate through positions as we feel like it, but for now, you’re up front with Jamison and me, while Riley and B take care of the tables and clean up.”
Jamison waved. He was taller than Low, with neat, short blondish hair and a boy next door look about him. The other guy, Riley, was shorter, dark-haired with a ring piercing his bottom lip. He wiped his palms on a dish towel and came over to shake hands. Bianca looked up from un-loading a dishwasher, her fair hair escaping her bun and sticking to her face with the steam. She gave me a huge grin which I returned enthusiastically.
“Try not to sleep with this one, please, Low. She looks nice, and it’d be good if we had another woman stick around longer than Abi did.”
I coughed and wondered what had happened between Low and Abi, the ex-bartender, to make her want to leave. Did he ghost her? Probably. He looked the type.
“That won't be a problem,” I said at the same time Low said, “Can’t make any promises.”
Low quirked an eyebrow at me, and I mirrored his facial gesture. I wanted to laugh. Did he assume that by ‘not a problem’ I meant I wouldn’t be sleeping with him? On the contrary, I was already interested. All I meant was I wouldn’t care when he didn’t call me the next day. I stared him down, delight filling me when he was the first to look away.
Bianca laughed. “I like you already.”
Low brushed behind me on his way to the till and I stilled. There was plenty of room, but he was all in my personal space. He brought his lips close to my ear. “So do I. Welcome to the team, Reese.” His breath, warm on my neck, spread goosebumps across my shoulder. His mouth just centimetres from my skin, I fought the urge to close my eyes and lean my head to the side to give him better access.
Yep, this was what I needed. This was how I could forget for a little while. But there was a time and place, and it wasn’t right here with an audience of hundreds.
I focused on the line of customers. All bars were much the same. We could do the orientation later. Right now, I needed to forget Low’s grin and those sparkling blue eyes and be professional.
“What can I get you?” I asked the closest person. Then I picked up a glass and got busy. I stuck close to Low, though not so close that his presence became distracting again. He took my customer’s money, and I watched over his shoulder as he entered it into the till. By the time we had a lull, I had it pretty much sussed out. It wasn’t rocket science.
Grabbing my bag, I riffled through it until I found my stack of rainbow Post-it notes and a pen. I scribbled words across one, sticking them to the bar near the cash register when I was done with each one.
“What are you doing?” Low arrived at my side as I made a neat little row of coloured paper.
I gave him an apologetic smile. “You don’t mind, do you? I watched you at the till and wanted to write notes, just so I don’t forget anything.”
Low shook his head and picked up my note stack. “Do you always carry the world’s largest stack of Post-it notes in your bag, or is it because you started a new job today?”
I snatched them back from his hand with a good-natured grin. Our fingers touched, and I enjoyed the spark. “You act like carrying around sticky notes isn’t a normal thing to do.”
Low raised an eyebrow at me and called to Riley and Bianca, who were working behind us. “Riley, B, do either of you carry a mini mountain of Post-it notes with you?”
“I don’t even carry my phone or wallet half the time, so no,” Riley replied.
Bianca shook her head with an apologetic shrug of her shoulders. “I don’t either. Sorry, Reese.”
Low regarded me with a knowing look on his face.
I sighed. “Shut up. I like stationery, okay?”
Low laughed and held his hands up in surrender. He went back to his customers as I finished up my note taking. I grabbed a cloth and wiped down the bar top, watching him while I waited for the next rush.
I’d begun to notice a pattern throughout the afternoon. Low’s line of customers was always the longest. Even I was able to get through twice the number of customers in the same time Low took. And it was easy to see why. Every eligible woman in the room wanted the chance to talk to him. Men too. And Low seemed happy to oblige them all. Young or old, attractive or not, he flirted up a storm. Making jokes, laughing, letting his hands brush theirs as he passed them their drinks. And his tip jar reflected it.
A cute blond guy reached the head of Low’s line, and they chatted as Low poured drinks. The blond’s order was large and included cocktails that were time-consuming to make. I wondered if that had been on purpose, so he’d have more time to talk to Low. It seemed to be working out well for him. There was an obvious attraction between them as Low leant over the bar, pushing across the tray of drinks. The blond dropped a twenty-dollar note and his business card into Low’s tip jar. Low grinned at him. A tiny flicker of jealousy lit up within me.
“He’s something else, huh?” Bianca leant on the bar next to me.
“Low. I wish I could pick up guys as easy as that.” Bianca flicked her head to where Low was now laughing with a pretty redhead in a low-cut green dress. His eyes flicked to the retreating form of the blond guy as the man left with his tray of cocktails and beer.
“He’s smart. He’ll make twice the amount of tips the rest of us will.”
Bianca shook her head. “He doesn’t do it for the money. He always splits his tips between us at the end of the shift, anyway. He’s just a flirt by nature.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” I played with the edge of the cloth. “So, he doesn’t have a girlfriend then? Boyfriend?” I tried to keep my voice even, not wanting to sound too interested. I’d assumed he was straight after the discussion about Abi the ex-bartender, but now after watching him with the blond I wasn’t so sure. He wasn’t going to be the distraction I wanted if he was taken or gay.
Bianca frowned as she adjusted the silver bracelets covering her wrists. “He’s bi, but there’s no boyfriend or girlfriend. He’s more the love ’em and leave ’em type.”
That worked for me. I hadn’t wanted anyone for longer than a night in a long time now either. “Do they know that?” I nodded my head towards the woman Low was chatting with.
She laughed. “Probably. He has quite the reputation. But if they don’t know it beforehand, he’ll tell them. He’s good like that. He’s always upfront and honest. They know it’s just a one-time thing, and he’ll be on to someone new next shift.”
“I bet that doesn’t always go down well.”
“It doesn’t. There’s always someone trying to tame him. But I’ve known him awhile now, and I’ve yet to see him date anyone.” She paused. “He doesn’t show much of what’s beneath the man-whore exterior, but he’s worth knowing if he’ll let you in.”
I went back to serving customers, Bianca’s words ringing in my ears. I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between Low and myself. The random partners and aversion to commitment. I didn’t let people in either. I wondered if it was a something or a someone that had broken Low, the same way I was.