“Gimme another one.”
The bald, tattooed man slams his glass down on the scarred wooden bar in front of him, his watery blue eyes fixing on my face. It almost seems like a challenge, but if he’s expecting me to be intimidated by him, he’ll be waiting a while.
I don’t scare easy. That’s why I’ve got this job.
“Sure thing, Chainsaw,” I say easily, grabbing the bottle of Jack Daniel’s from behind the bar and pouring him another inch into his glass. Chainsaw — I don’t know his real name and I’ve never asked — has two armfuls of ugly prison tattoos and a leather vest with his motorcycle gang’s insignia arching over one side.
The Iron Diablos.
They’re ruthless outlaws, men as ugly on the inside as they are on the outside, who take what they want and don’t give a damn who they hurt to get it. They’ve also paid off most of the local law enforcement around here, so they’re virtually unstoppable.
They’re also the reason I’m probably the best-paid bartender in the state. The Black Forest roadhouse is an Iron Diablos hangout, and there aren’t a lot of men who’d last more than a week, tops, in a place like this.
Me? I’ve been here for a couple of years now. Ever since I got out of the Corps and my buddy Elias, who owns the place, needed a favor.
Chainsaw tosses the glass back again, quickly swallowing the amber liquid in one gulp, before putting it down again on the bar with a heavy thunk.
“Another one,” he says, and I give it to him. This time he doesn’t drink it instantly, but turns away from the bar and walks into the crowd of men dressed just like him. I flick my eyes down the bar, seeing if there’s anyone else wanting more liquor, but for right now no one seems to.
Just as I’m replacing the corked top on the bottle, the cowbell attached to the front door rings again, a quick blast of cold air rushing into the bar. I’m about to shout to close the damn thing already, when I look up and see who it is.
She stops just inside the door like she does every time she comes here, pausing for a few moments while she seems to get her bearings. My mouth suddenly goes dry, and I stare at her, the bottle in my hand completely forgotten.
Ruby’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life, with long dark hair, bright sapphire eyes, and a lithe, girlish frame that makes her seem more fragile than she actually is. She stands in front of the door for another moment while she takes her gloves off and pushes the hood of her bright red coat back from her head.
When her eyes find mine, she smiles. I tighten my grip on the bottle of Jack I’m still holding and smile back, my whole body tingling at the mere sight of her.
Since it’s winter she’s got a long red wool coat on, and it obscures my view of her body as she walks over to the bar, totally ignoring the group of Iron Diablos who make up most of the road house’s patrons. It doesn’t matter, though — over the year or so Ruby’s been stopping in, I’ve memorized every single curve of her body, from her perfectly plump lips to her perfect, perky ass. When Ruby’s in the room it’s like there’s a spotlight on her, and everything else fades to darkness.
I put the bottle of Jack down and quell the growl rising in my throat at the mere sight of her, wondering for the millionth time what she’d look like without that coat on, thinking of her taking it off slowly to reveal nothing underneath, walking across the room slowly toward me as I’m on my knees, waiting to take her —
One of the Diablos stumbles backwards, bumping into Ruby.
“Hey!” he shouts, the single word filled with menace.
She holds her hands up innocently, but just the way he looks at her pours black ichor pumping into my veins instantly. I clench my fists and lean over the bar, ready to leap over it in the next second if I need to.
But instead, the Diablos looks at Ruby for another second, then shrugs and turns back to his comrades.
Good. He doesn’t know how close he came to learning a lesson the hard way.
“You’re working tonight,” Ruby says as she sits at the bar, hopping lightly onto a stool.
“I’m always working,” I tell her, my heart pounding, blood roaring in my ears. “I figure if I work every night, I’ll always be here when you stop in.”
Ruby laughs, and I let her think it was a joke, just the same harmless flirting we always do, but it isn’t. I work every night that the road house is open, and every single night is spent just waiting for her to come in.
“Then I guess I should stop in more often,” she teases. “Knowing that you’re out here doing nothing but waiting for me.”
She laughs again, her voice like soft bells, her eyes dancing, and I wink at her like all this is just harmless flirtation, because I don’t want to scare her away with the heaviness of the truth.
I want Ruby. Desperately. Every time she comes in, I spend the next week in agony, wondering when I’ll see her again. But I don’t deserve her, which is why I’ve never even asked for her number.
I’ve seen too much. People — lots of people, bad people — have died at my hands, and Ruby deserves better than that. She deserves better than me, a scarred and broken bartender in a backwater road house.
“Cheeseburger and fries, no pickles, extra ketchup, cherry coke?” I ask.
“You know it,” she says, leaning forward on one elbow, her long, thick eyelashes blinking slowly at me.
For a moment I can’t breathe, stunned by her beauty.
“Coming right up,” I say when I recover.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, the cheeseburger is gone and Ruby’s finishing her fries, dragging the last remaining few through a pool of ketchup, coating each one before eating it. There’s a knot in my stomach as I watch her while we chat, knowing that when it’s gone, she’ll be leaving again.
“Is your grandma still at war with Mrs. Barnes over the garden gnomes?” I ask. “Last time you were here, I think your grandma had just found all of hers in the dumpster.”
Ruby rolls her eyes, laughing.
“Oh, God,” she says. “The HOA had to ban everyone from having garden gnomes at all. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen two women in their eighties shouting at each other over ceramic decorations on their condo balconies. Now they’re fighting over a plastic flamingo.”
“Who do you think is gonna win that fight?”
Ruby takes a sip of her cherry coke, eyes sparkling.
“Smart money’s on my grandma,” she says, a smile in her voice. “Grandma Flo is pretty wily.”
“I bet she is,” I say.
Just then, someone waves at me from the other end of the bar. I tell Ruby I’ll be right back and head down there.
The guy wants five different drinks, and two of them are complicated cocktails that must be for his old lady or something, because ninety-five percent of what I pour for these guys is beer or whiskey.
Finally, I turn around again, hoping that Ruby hasn’t left already.
She hasn’t, but now there’s someone next to her. I can’t see his face, but according to the cut on the back of his leather jacket, his name is Viper, and he’s talking to Ruby.
Ruby doesn’t look happy, and my stomach clenches.
Her eyes flick up to mine as I come over with long strides, already checking behind the bar for something I can use as a weapon if I have to.
“—maybe a quick fuck in the bathroom is more your style, then,” he’s saying. “Come on, baby, you look like you could use some —”
“No,” Ruby says, already leaning away from him, but he’s leaning toward her.
“I know your type,” he says, lowering his voice. “You’re always —”
I slam my hands down on the bar top and lean over it, getting right into Viper’s face. He doesn’t back down, but I know I’ve got five, maybe six inches on him and a good fifty pounds of muscle.
“Did you not hear her?” I growl.
He sizes me up, slowly standing.
“The fuck did you just say?” he asks. One of his hands is slowly moving around behind him, like he’s reaching for something. I close my hand around a bottle behind the bar and tighten my grip.
“I said leave,” I tell him, not raising my voice. “The lady’s made her choice, and you aren’t it.”
Viper’s voice gets lower, quieter, his hand still behind his back. Ruby’s gotten off her stool and she’s taken a few steps away, glancing around the road house like she’s nervous.
“Do you have any idea who the fuck you’re dealing with?” Viper asks quietly. “You seem like a good guy, but if you fuck with me, I swear to God I’ll—”
A thick, meaty hand slaps him on the shoulder, closing around it and holding Viper in a half-embrace.
“Viper,” says Lucky, the MC president, in an overly reasonable tone. “We like it here.”
Viper doesn’t say anything, just keeps glaring at me.
“Don’t fuck it up for us. We’d like to keep coming back,” Lucky goes on. He gives Viper’s shoulder a shake, and it’s clear that he’s making a threat to the other man.
There’s a long, dangerous pause, but Viper looks away first.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, it’s cool, we were just talking.”
With that, he walks away. Lucky nods at me, then follows him.
I turn to Ruby. Her face is flushed, and her eyes are wide as she worries her lip between her teeth.
“You all right?” I ask, fighting the urge to reach out to her. I want to run my thumb over her cheek, draw her in for an embrace. I want to tell her that I’d never let one of these assholes hurt her, that I’d make every single one of them fight me before they got to her.
She swallows, nodding.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” she says, looking up at me.
The fear in her eyes is like a knife to the heart.
“Listen, I should get going,” she says, her voice soft now as she reaches for her wallet.
I put out a hand to stop her.
“On the house,” I say.
“I insist, and I’m very stubborn, so don’t bother fighting me about it,” I tell her. “It’s the least I can do.”
Ruby smiles, one hand tapping against the wooden bar. She pauses a moment, just looking at me.
“Thanks,” she finally says. “See you around, Jax.”
“See you,” I echo, and then I watch her walk out the door, her long red coat swishing into the night.
For a few minutes, I clear away her dishes, pour more drinks, and try not to think about Ruby, about the way her lips look so soft and suckable, the way her body moved lithely beneath her bright red winter coat.
It doesn’t work. I can’t think about anything else.
A few minutes after she leaves, I realize that Viper is standing alone against the back wall of the road house, looking at his phone. He keeps glancing around, smirking, like he’s up to something that no one else knows about.
I don’t know why, but I don’t like it.
After another few moments, he pulls on his leather jacket. He nods at someone else in the crowd, one of his asshole buddies.
And without making a fuss, he slips through the door.
An invisible fist squeezes my heart so hard I nearly drop the bottle I’m holding.
He’s going after her, I think. I don’t know why, but I’m certain I’m right.
I put the bottle down and ignore the shouts of the Iron Diablo I was pouring shots for, grabbing my own coat off the rack.
“I’m taking the rest of the night off,” I tell Billy, the lone cook, as he stands over the deep fryer, monitoring it.
“What?” he says, protesting. “You can’t —”
I don’t hear the rest of what he says because I’m already out the door, across the parking lot, and in my car.