Three months ago
Leaning against the back wall of the Shining Light Bar and Brasserie, I breathe it all in. A warm summer night in Davis, CA. The students are out, the non-students are out, and everyone is co-mingling without incident. That’s not to say things won’t get rowdy later on, but that doesn’t usually happen until closer to last call when too much liquor has been consumed and too many people have missed out on finding themselves a willing bedmate for the night.
Boys and their drunken bruised egos equal flying fists, a litany of fucks, and—more often than not—Bruno, my trusty bouncer, throwing them out on their asses. Worst-case scenario, I just call the cops.
But I love my job. It’s the people—the new faces, the old ones, the shared experiences, the life stories, the words of wisdom and even the words of warning. Then there’s the drama some of them can bring, and I love that too.
Some people—mainly my mother—think I’m wasting my life away in my hometown, seeing the same people day in, day out. Then again, I haven’t cared for her opinion since I was fifteen years old and found out she’d been having an affair with our neighbor, Harris Mason, for five years.
The sound of a glass smashing against the bar’s wooden floor snaps me out of my thoughts. I lift my head and meet the gaze of my assistant manager—and best friend—Gaby. With rolled eyes and a mock salute, she grabs the dustpan and broom and rounds the end of the bar in search of the mess.
As if compelled by some higher power—or by the sheer overwhelming pull of his pheromones—I look through the crowd to the open entryway. Bruno and my boss Jeff are carding everyone coming in and then I see him.
The man who’s captured my attention is like a high-pressure weather system moving in, impossible to ignore. He’s magnetic. The air around me becomes electric, as if every ion has been jolted to action.
Trying hard not to be obvious, I discreetly glance in his direction every so often while wiping glasses.
The tailored black shirt he wears succeeds in showcasing every delicious angle of his obviously athletic body, one he no doubt puts a lot of time into. Dark denim jeans—again a perfect fit—hug his hips and thighs in a way that all pants should on a man.
Whisky-colored hair cut short on the sides and back is styled in bed-head tousle that few men could pull off and still look hot, but he’s definitely at the top of the class for that achievement.
There’s no way he’s a student and definitely not blue collar either. He’s a man everyone wants to know, a man everyone needs something from, a man that men want to be and women need to be with.
All this from a quick-study bar manager half a room away.
Everything about him screams at me like a big red neon fucking sign, but I shut it down.
Long ago, I made a rule not to sleep with patrons. As a brunette, curvy, not-too-bad-on-the-eyes woman working in a bar where there are copious amounts of alcohol and cocky male college students with a point to prove, there are always offers. Especially after last call on Friday and Saturday nights.
There hasn’t been anyone who’s piqued my interest quite like this before. I’ve never been intrigued or impressed enough to take it further. But now I’m thinking about it. Oh boy, am I thinking about it.
I tug at my collar and busy myself, doing a sweep of the bar, pouring shots and topping up drinks from the few regular old-timers. When I’m done, I quickly scan the room, compelled to give myself just one more chance to appreciate him.
Then I spot him—well, his back anyway—standing with a group of guys in a far corner. I lean forward on the bar, not really giving two shits whether anyone realizes exactly what I’m doing or not.
“Well this is interesting,” Gaby says, sliding in beside me, her arm on the bar, her chin in her hand, her eyes pinned to the same ass as mine.
I turn toward her. “That ass—I mean, guy—over there…” I tilt my head to the side in his general direction. Gaby’s eyes don’t move as she continues checking him out. “Nice. Pert, round, definitely grab-worthy. But why are you looking at it?”
“I don’t know,” I reply distractedly, sliding my gaze his way, allowing myself just one. last. look.
Then the real fun begins. A party bus of fraternity boys turns up for their first stop of the night, and I very quickly forget about the intriguing guy and his hair, his hips, his thighs…
Some time later with my back to the bar as I put some money away, I feel the air change again.
Glancing in the mirror above the register, he stands behind me on the other side of the bar, one arm braced on the wooden bar-top, his eyes focused on my legs and slowly—but ever-so-surely—moving up my body. It’s as if time stands still as I slide the till closed and turn around, coming face to face with him for the first time.
His slate grey eyes burn into mine and despite seeing his lips moving, I hear nothing. I’m too busy taking everything that is him in to realize he’s talking to me.
The corners of his mouth curve up, and I come back down to earth. My eyes widen, my cheeks burn—I’m completely caught and uncharacteristically lost for words.
This is not acceptable behavior for a thirty-two-year-old woman working in a position of responsibility. I blindly reach out onto the counter in front of me, finding purchase on a damp bar rag. I wipe indiscriminately, wanting to look as if I’m actually doing something.
His smile deepens, and a double dimple pops out on one side. My belly flips. What is it about this guy—this stranger—that has me acting like a giddy teenage girl who’s never seen a hot guy before? Next I’ll be giggling and texting my friends about the cute boy I met.
I shake my head and plaster a smile on my face. “Hey, what’s your poison tonight?”
“Oh, don’t mind me. I can wait, sweetheart. I’ll just sit here and watch you polish the bar until we can see our faces in it. Although, it would still pale in comparison to the reality of you standing in front of me.”
Well, that clears my head of any pre-pubescent thoughts. Tilting my chin, I smirk and stop my fake cleaning efforts. “Smooth talker, twelve o’clock,” I mutter.
He chuckles, and damn, if that doesn’t do things to me too. “It’s not smooth when it’s the truth, is it?” he asks, quirking a brow.
“Believe me, I’ve heard almost every possible pick-up line known to man and the best ones are always from sweet talkers like yourself with their sexy, butter-wouldn’t-melt smile backing them up.”
“You sound a bit cynical there. I thought the customer was always right?”
My lips twitch. He’s funny and cute. My goddamn kryptonite. “That’s just a lie we tell ourselves to get the job done.”
Both his brows go up before he laughs again, this time curling his finger at me, beckoning me closer. I rest my weight on my hands, leaning forward and fighting back a moan when I catch his cologne. Whatever it is, I want to bathe in it. When I’m closer he moves in so his mouth is just by my ear. Whoa. This guy puts the S in smooth. First he dazzles me with his grin and witty comebacks, and then he reels me in.
“Knew I could make you come with one finger,” he says, low and rough, and dammit, I feel it everywhere. I try to move back, to recover at least some balance in this exchange, but his fingers press into my arm, stopping me in my tracks. It’s then I feel an electric shock when he touches me. Literally.
Jumping apart, my wide eyes meet his. “Let me guess—you’re going to say you’re currently happy to see me?”
“Actually, I had no power over that,” he says. I snicker, the pun actually pretty funny, and he soon joins me with that deep chuckle of his. “But I wish I had. It would be a great story to tell our grandchildren one day. How I made their grandma fall for me with the mere touch of my hand.”
I place my hand over my heart, gasping in mock offense. “I’ll have you know, Mr. Smooth, that our future pretend grandchildren probably wouldn’t believe you. They’d think you were making it up.”
“Any future pretend grandchildren of ours would know never to doubt the words coming from their pop’s mouth.”
“Pop, huh?” I’m smiling way too much. How am I standing here talking about fake never-gonna-happen grandchildren with a complete stranger I’ve just met? Comfortable silence falls between us, and it’s like the rest of the world—and the full bar we’re in—don’t exist.
Unfortunately the growing line of people behind him means this entertaining exchange must now come to an end.
“So, a drink?”
“Damn, she shuts me down. And here I was thinking I was winning the game,” he says. He shakes his head and shoots me the most pathetic attempt at sad puppy-dog eyes I’ve ever seen—and I get them a lot in this place. “A whiskey—”
“Let me guess. Three fingers, because—”
“Whiskey sour, actually.” I nod, impressed with his drink of choice.
I grab a tumbler from the glass rack and use it to scoop ice from the bucket beside me, doing the same to a metal shaker. I know he’s watching me—I can virtually feel the intense attention he’s giving me. It’s heady but distracting so I block it out, concentrating on the task—or drink—at hand.
“With egg white or without?” I lift my eyes to his for my answer. He scrunches his face up, telling me all I need to know. “Scotch or bourbon?”
“You need to ask?” he says with a raised brow.
I turn and grab a half-full bottle of bourbon from the back of the bar, then pour it into the ice-filled shaker, adding the other ingredients before putting the lid on and giving it a hard and fast shake, glancing up to see Mr. Smooth’s eyes focusing exactly where I thought they’d be given all the jigging and moving from side to side.
Straining his drink into the glass, I add a lemon wedge and pause with the cherry on the tip of my fingers over the glass. “Cherry or no cherry?”
“Cherry, please. I’m a sucker for the details. I’m very thorough like that.” Smart-ass, smooth talker, sexy smile, gorgeous eyes, and he’s thorough. Stick a fork in me. I’m done.
“So, are you really going to continue on with your night and ignore this spark between us?” he says, rubbing his palm on his shirt and reaching over to touch my bare arm, giving me another static shock.
I pat the top of his hand. “You’re a big boy. I’m sure you’ll get over it.” I can’t help but grin.
His brows narrow and his teeth sink into his bottom lip as he shakes his head at me. “You’ve won this round, Beautiful, but I’m a persistent man. I will be back to try again,” he warns.
“And I’ll be right here, ready and waiting for another verbal sparring win.”
“I always rise to the challenge, so expect to see me a lot tonight.”
“When you need more drinks?”
“For that too.” And with a sexy, knowing grin that hits me right down in that spot, he turns and disappears back into the crowd.
The rest of the night passes relatively quickly. Surprisingly, Mr. Smooth doesn’t come back for round two and I catch myself seeking him out whenever I get a break in patrons. Soon enough, it’s last call and the crowd has thinned out a bit from its peak.
I’m cleaning up the bar when he returns—alone—his friends nowhere to be seen.
“You’re back.” I meet his eyes while continuing to close down the bar.
“I couldn’t walk out the door without saying goodbye.”
I take in all six feet of him. His hair is still perfectly tousled, like he runs his hand through it out of habit. His eyes are gentle, yet still full of something unknown that calls to me.
It’s not just a physical attraction at play here, and it’s a bit unnerving given that I’ve never had a man affect me this much before.
I decide an offense is the best defense when it comes to Mr. Smooth. “Does that usually work for you?”
“What?” he says, his on-point panty-melting smile hitting all the important and hard-to-ignore parts of my body.
“The charm, the grin—all of…” I wave my hand up and down, “. . . that.”
“Is it working on you?” His voice drops down to that low, deep rumble and I all but melt onto the floor. I lean forward and rest my elbows on the bar.
“Do you think it is?” I challenge, raising a brow.
His eyes scan my face before slowly—calculatedly—moving down my throat and my chest, pausing at the open V of my black shirt just as a wave of heat rolls over me. Never have I been more thankful for a padded bra than I am right now.
He looks back up to my face and if ever there was a cockier, more knowing look, I wouldn’t believe it. “I think so.”
I try hard to hold back a grin, knowing it’ll only encourage him, but the longer his eyes stay locked to mine, the more I feel my resistance waning.
A woman down the bar grabs my attention and the moment is broken. His eyes follow mine before looking back.
“I need to go,” I say, walking backwards but not turning away from him.
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, Beautiful. I’ll still be here when you get back. “
I tilt my head. “Beautiful?”
“Yep. Since you haven’t given me your name, I’m going with that.”
“You haven’t given me your name either.”
“So what name are you calling me then?”
“Who’s to say I’m calling you anything?”
“Because you’ve been checking me out all night just as much as I’ve been watching you. So fair’s fair. What’s your name?”
“I’ll give you mine if you give me yours,” I say with a wink, fully jumping that line from undecided to ‘hell yes, I’m in, take me now.’ There’s no way I can ignore this thing between us. It’s weird and strange and I can’t explain it, but there’s this invisible string pulling me to him.
After the woman leaves, I quickly scan the room and see only a few stragglers are left and Gaby busy wiping down tables. I make a decision on the fly and drop my apron onto the counter, watching as I round the bar and take a seat on the stool next to him.
He offers his hand and I reach out, sliding my palm against his. “Millen Ross.”
He flexes his fingers but does not let go of my hand. “Hmm, Kenzie. It suits you.”
“Glad you approve, Millen,” I reply, easing my hand free.
“You still didn’t say what you were calling me.”
I tilt my head, my lips curling into a smirk. “Didn’t you say you were leaving?”
His eyes narrow and drop to my mouth, and the need I see in them reaches deep inside me. “The only way I’m leaving is with you after closing.”
“You’re cocky,” I reply, surprised at the steady tone in my voice. I actually sound unaffected when I’m anything but right now. All I can think about are all the things Millen could do to me, and wonder about what his definition of ‘thorough’ might include.
“You think?” I reply, my lips twitching as I fight back a grin.
“Right,” I say, sliding forward on the barstool until my legs are inside his next to me. Placing my hands on his thighs, I flex my fingers against his jeans and I see that tell-tale flash in his eyes letting me know that I definitely have all of his attention now.
I take a deep breath and steady myself, telling myself that if it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen.
“What will be, will be,” my dad always says.
“You said you’re always up for a challenge?” I ask and he nods, his hands moving to my hips, distracting me to no end, but I will myself to keep going. “If you really believe that there’s this thing going on between us, whatever it is, then prove it.”
He cocks his head to the side and furrows his brow. “Prove it?”
“Yep,” I say, leaning deep into his space. He does the same and now we’re closer than ever to each other. “If you really want to get to know me, and not just horizontally…”
He smirks and damn, if it doesn’t make me rethink my life choices. “There are many ways I could learn more about you, Kenzie, and only one of them involves a bed. There’s the floor, the shower, the kitchen—”
Without thinking, I slap my hand over his mouth, bringing us even closer together. Stick to your guns, Kenz. “If you’re here for a worthwhile time, not just a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am time, then you’ll be here, on that stool tomorrow night.”
His eyes widen but then soften, the heat still simmering but what’s shining back at me is understanding and respect.
I drop my hand from his mouth, his perfectly kissable lips begging to be claimed come into view.
“Alright. I’ll do it. You better be ready to get to know me, Kenzie Sharp,” he says, sliding his stool back a bit and standing in front of me. I arch my neck to look up at him, trying not to focus on the fact that his crotch is a lot closer to me than his face is.
“Be prepared for more verbal sparring.” He gently grabs my biceps and dips his face down to mine until he’s everything I can see. “But Kenzie,” he rasps, lowering his chin so his lips brush against my cheek ever-so-softly. “Also be prepared to leave with me tomorrow night, because I like what I see and I know that any time spent with you will always be worthwhile.” He touches his forehead to mine and I swear a whimper escapes my throat before he stands up straight, grins at me, and walks out the front door.
Something tells me I might be in a little bit of trouble here. Whether it’s good or bad, I guess I’m about to find out.