"Why couldn't that bouncer have given me the good handstamp? Nothing says baby like a handstamp that says Underage." Karly glared down at the red ink on her hand like it was poisonous.
"You are underage. He's just doing his job."
"That's beyond the point." She slouched down in her seat and pouted. Drama queen Karly liked to be the center of attention and wasn’t particularly choosy on how she got the attention. Positive or negative—it was all attention to her. Probably a result of being the youngest child. “I’ll be twenty-one soon anyways. He could have fudged it a couple weeks.”
“Months,” I fake-coughed and got a glare from my sister.
“I hate you, Talia.” Karly said. “I won’t come back here if I have to get another baby stamp.”
“Wah.” I twirled my hand so that the blue stamp on my hand was clear to Karly and flipped her off. I liked to annoy my sister. Only thirteen months apart, she and I had been practically inseparable most of our early years. These days, I felt a good decade older though. “Poor Karly got the ugly red stamp and can’t sweet talk the bartender into giving her a beer tonight. The horror!”
Karly stuck her tongue out at me. “I mean it. I am not coming back here.”
“You know you will, because there aren’t many cool places to hang out in Garden Falls. I can’t believe you guys hadn’t been here before. But the next time we come here, you will be twenty-one and can get the pretty blue stamp like Talia, Anna, and I have. And bonus for us, we won’t have to hear your whining.” Claire rolled her eyes at my sister and I couldn’t help but laugh at the two of them. They bickered like old ladies, but they were a lot of fun, and they had planned this evening to try to cheer Anna and I up after our ‘boy trouble’.
Anna’s husband had crashed into a construction site a few months back and still lay unconscious in the hospital. It didn’t look like he’d ever wake up. She’d spent practically every waking moment at his side. I was surprised they convinced her to come out tonight even.
My boy troubles were far less heartbreaking. I’d merely finally gotten the guts to break up with my jerk boyfriend, Caleb.
“I look like a dork.” Karly crossed her arms over her chest. “This place is stupid.”
"You are a dork, Karly." Anna shook her head. She pointed at the bar. "Maybe if you’d quit complaining for five seconds you’d have seen the eye candy behind you."
Karly and Claire spun in their seats.
I leaned over and whispered in Anna’s ear, “You are just trying to distract them, aren’t you?”
Anna smiled at me, though the happiness didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Maybe I am, but if it stops some of the bickering it’s worth it.”
I wrapped her in a hug. “I’m glad you came out tonight. I’ve missed you.” My dad and Anna’s were not only best friends, but business partners. We’d grown up together, and Anna was practically my big sister. I hated that she was going through hell and I’d been so self-focused that I hadn’t been there for her. “I’m going to be a better friend to you from now on.”
“You’re gonna make me cry. Stop it.” She nudged me and stabbed a finger in the direction of the bar again. “And you didn’t look. Behind the bar, both totally daydream-worthy.”
My gaze followed her gesture. Two guys stood pouring drinks, both well-built and hot enough to attract plenty of attention. Two girls draped themselves over the bar trying to get close to the taller man. Their skimpy dresses and spiked heels were drawing male gazes from all parts of the club. One of them reached over and laid a hand on his tattooed forearm, her intentions clear even from this distance. He shook his head, smiling as he pulled away from the flirt's grasp. He sat a couple beers in front of them before turning to another customer.
“He’s certainly giving off quite the bad boy vibe.” I sighed. “Not sure I’m interested, even if he is hot. Besides, look at all the attention he’s getting. You know I just got out of a really bad relationship. Caleb is still calling and texting me so many times a day that I may have to change my number.”
“Talia, no one said anything about dating him. But you can certainly admire the scenery. I see you picked a favorite though. Tall, dark, and handsome is most certainly an excellent choice.”
I watched as he joked with the other bartender. The broad smile on his face drew me in. Something about him tugged at me like gravity. “I’m going to get us some drinks.”
Anna laughed. “Sure, go get us some drinks. We’ll just ignore the waitress when she comes by then.”
Ignoring her, I made my way around the edge of the club. I’d never been here before so I absorbed every glorious detail. Lush green plants in rough-hewn planters gave the illusion of privacy to the booths along the edges of the room, the natural element adding depth to the ambiance. Beautiful stained glass windows depicted garden scenes and looked almost biblical in content, yet somehow didn’t feel out of place in a crowded nightclub. A long wooden bar, lighter in color than the walls, stretched along the right-hand side. Spying an empty stool at the back, I made my way around and slid onto the leather seat.
The taller bartender I’d been eyeing came my way. My eyes went straight to his massive chest and I had to crane my neck up to see his face. Way up. Towering well over six feet, his shirt stretched taut across his muscular frame. Tattoos peeked out from beneath the rolled sleeves of his plaid shirt, but his broad shoulders threw shadows across his arms and kept me from making out their design.
Holy scorching hotness.
“What can I get you tonight?” His deep voice carried well over the peppy din of the music. That low rumble shimmied down my spine, pebbling my skin with each delicious syllable. One look into those eyes and I lost all ability to form words.
I didn’t find my voice until he winked at me and repeated his question. His look of utter self-confidence made me want to slide right under the bar and die.
Embarrassment burned in my cheeks and a choked little sound escaped my throat. “Oh, um… just a beer, please, I guess. Whatever you recommend.” He opened his mouth to speak but shook his head and seemed to talk himself out of it before he turned to get my drink.
The dark hair and five o’clock shadow intrigued me. My eyes followed his motions as he grabbed a glass from behind the bar and held it under the tap. His movements were controlled, precise. The other man behind the bar knocked a few napkins to the ground. My bartender bent to get them and my mouth dried completely out. The rear view was just as appetizing as the front. Oh my… I grabbed a napkin and fanned myself.
A shocked squeak escaped me when a lanky hand grasped my wrist and yanked me off the barstool. I’d been so absorbed in staring at the perfection in front of me that I hadn’t seen Caleb coming. I gasped at the murderous expression on my ex-boyfriend’s face. I was in for it now.
“Come on, you ignorant bitch.” Caleb jerked me behind him. “I’m tired of you ignoring my calls. We are going to talk whether you like it or not.”
Now, I had no shame admitting that I read romance novels, but I mean, what girl doesn’t? And when the heroine was being drug around by some caveman-like jerk was when the as-of-yet-unmet hero always showed up and rescued her. Sadly, I’m not the heroine of any story and when I twisted my ankle, stumbling and losing my balance, no sexy prince on a white steed galloped up to save me. I was on my own tonight.
Instinct called for fight or flight, but I’d learned the hard way not to fight Caleb. After living with him for almost a year, I recognized all warning signs. As pissed as he was, by leaving with him I’d be signing my own death warrant, especially since he’d clearly been drinking.
But how could I get away? Caleb wasn’t a big guy, but still stronger than me.
A new book lay on my bed, untouched, waiting for me to bury my nose in it, to lose myself within its pages. I’d planned to spend the night lost in my own little literary world, escaping my reality and submerging my soul into a world where men protected women and guys like Caleb never got the girl. Claire and Karly had talked me into coming tonight to see Anna and look how that was turning out, but I should have stayed home.
I wished I’d stayed home now.
Caleb twisted my arm until tears welled up in my eyes. His bony fingers dug into my flesh. “Stupid whore. I saw you trying to flirt with that bartender. I’ll teach you to look at someone else. Just you wait.”