It’s a quiet night at The Gin Mill for a Thursday, but the ski resorts are mostly done for the season, and the beer tourists won’t start picking up the slack for another month or so.
I’m working with Connor tonight, as well as Becky, and the three of us are almost bored. By ten I’ll be letting those two draw straws to see who wants to leave early.
But first, the door to the bar opens, and the best girl in the whole world walks in. “Hey, handsome!” May takes a bar stool right in front of me and sits down on it. “I brought you dinner, as promised.”
“You’re the best. What do I get? And where’s my kiss?”
Grinning, May leans forward until my kiss brushes against her lips.
“You horny buggers! Get a room!” Connor yells. But he always does that.
“Mom made pot roast.” She pulls a covered dish out of her tote bag. “Should I run upstairs and warm it?”
“Not a chance.” I pull the dish towards me and then hunt around for a packet of plastic silverware. Most nights I don’t eat behind the bar, because it looks unprofessional. But I’m not strong enough to resist Ruth Shipley’s pot roast, and I couldn’t make it to Thursday Dinner tonight. Even though Connor works most nights for me these days, I’m still in need of one more employee.
There’s always something when you run a business. I’m getting used to the push and pull. Every little crisis doesn’t make me feel like a failure anymore. Not most of them, anyway.
“Hey Connor!” May calls while I attack the pot roast and mashed potatoes. “How about a mocktail?”
“Hey—use this,” I say, grabbing a little bottle of non-alcoholic bitters off the shelf. I’ve been saving it for exactly this occasion.
Connor squints at the label. “Oh, yes! I can have some fun with this. How do you feel about grapefruit and ginger?”, he asks the love of my life.
“I feel really good about it,” she says. Then she puts her chin in her hand and looks up at me. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’m flattered,” Connor teases.
“I’ve missed you, too,” I admit, ignoring him. “What a long week this has been. How’s the baby?”
“Cute and cranky. She’s still not sleeping much. Audrey and Griff look exhausted. My brother is a barrel of laughs right now.”
I make a mental note not to ask Griffin unless it’s strictly necessary. He and I have about ten projects together right now, though, so I have to call him pretty much every day.
But at least May and I can work on our non-alcoholic beer project without him. We do a lot of tastings, writing somewhat pretentious notes about each beer. Like, “tart and hoppy with a citrus finish.” And “herbal notes on the back of the palate.”
It’s super fun. I can’t wait to have a finished product.
Connor delivers a mocktail to my girl. “Let me know if it needs more lime,” he says.
May takes a sip. “No, it’s amazing. Thank you!”
A new wave of customers come through and I have to make a bunch of drinks. When I’m done, May is still sitting there, nursing her drink.
“I could try to cut out early,” I offer. “I feel bad you're lounging in the bar just to see my face.” We both worked like dogs last week, and my late nights don’t make it easy. I used to think she was oversensitive when she objected to my line of work, but now I know better.
“Hey, I'm here because I choose to be,” she says. “If I'm struggling, I'll just tell you.”
“All right.” I don’t mind being schooled by my best girl. “You didn’t let me taste your drink.”
With a smile she raises herself up and I lean in so we can kiss one more time.
“Tasty,” I whisper. “Can’t wait to get you alone later.” But a glance at the clock reveals that it’s only eight.
“I think I’ll stay here for a while,” May says. “If that’s okay with you.”
“Always. Want to play Mastermind?” She mentioned liking that game, so I bought a copy on a lark. We keep it on the coffee table upstairs.
Her eyes brighten. “Sure. That’s fun. I’ll go get the board. Save my seat?”
May disappears out the front door, and I put a little reserved sign in her spot. She’ll be back in five minutes, probably. I’m thrilled to have her living with me. Even if we don’t have many quiet evenings at home, we wake up every morning curled up together. We have coffee and breakfast together, like any other couple.
It’s the best thing ever.
I watch the door to my bar opens again, even though it’s too soon to be May. Another woman is standing there instead, looking around like she’s inspecting the place.
If I’m honest, she’s one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen. Late twenties. She has a lithe, leggy body and a beautiful, fairy-like face framed by shimmering blond hair. She’s also overdressed for Vermont. Nobody wears suede high-heel boots in April. That’s just asking for muddy trouble.
It’s not just her clothes that look out of place, either. It’s her body language. She stands there, a few feet inside the door, her gaze wandering the room as if she’s looking for someone.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Connor breathes. “She is a vision.”
“Hi.” I set down a cocktail napkin in front of her. Yes, she is beautiful. But she’s also familiar. “Don’t I know you?”
“No,” she says curtly. “Is that a problem?”
“You look really familiar,” I say slowly. I just can’t put my finger on where I’ve seen her before.
“I promise you we haven’t met.” She says something under her breath, though. It sounds like, “unless you watch a lot of YouTube.”
“A good bartender never forgets a face,” I insist.
“That’s nice.” She sighs. “But can you help me locate Benito Rossi?”
“Oh, shit!” Now I know where I’ve seen her before. “I do recognize you. From Benito’s yearbook.” This is the girl he fell in love with at eighteen, while I was away in the service. She disappeared before I even came back.
“Is he here?”
“Probably. We’ll know soon enough.” I slip my phone out of my pocket and snap a picture of her.
“What’s that for?” she yelps.
“I’m summoning Benito for you. This will work like a charm.” I text the photo to Benny and then slip my phone back into my pocket. “Okay. Give it sixty seconds or so. What can I pour you?”
“What’s good?” she asks. But when I start to tell her about our most famous beers, I can tell she doesn’t really care about beer. Her eyes dart to the door of the bar. She’s nervous.
She orders a Shipley Cider eventually, which I pour for her. She takes a sip, and thanks me. She pays for her drink, and seems to settle down. But a minute later I see her eyes widen.
I glance over my shoulder and see my brother, and there’s a look on Ben's face that I've never seen there. Pure awe, with a side of shock and a whiff of devastation.
And here I thought it was a slow night.
Benito moves behind me, and her eyes widen. They just stare at each other for a long beat. I look at my brother again and see that he’s schooled his features into a calm mask of indifference.
But I’m not fooled.
“Skylar,” he says in a low voice. “How’ve you been for a decade?”
She swallows hard, her hand frozen on the cider glass. She doesn’t say a word.
“Come on then,” he says, his voice gentling. “Let’s talk.” He ducks under the bar and leads her over to a booth on the other end of the room.
And now I can’t hear anything, damn it. She sits down, and he sits beside her. I’m getting eye strain from staring at the two of them.
“Wow, who is that?” May asks, appearing in front of me again. “Wait, I know that girl. She was a year ahead of me in high school. I always got a little stupid when she was nearby. She was already that pretty at sixteen.”
“Huh.” My brother can relate. He got so stupid that he never loved anyone again. “I was in the navy that year,” I say, removing the reserved sign so May can put the game on the table. “Never met her, but Benito has been carrying a picture of her around in his wallet since then.”
“Holy cow,” May says, lifting the top off the box.
“Do you want to give or receive?”
“Oh, baby. You know I like to be on top.”
She gives me an eye roll. “Just for that, you have to guess first.” She begins arranging pins in the hidden part of the board. “Close your eyes.”
I lean my forearms on the bar and close them. Usually I don’t purposefully blind myself during work hours, so it’s odd to hear the sounds of my bar all around me. The music in the background, and the chatting voices. May hums to herself as she sets up the game.
This is my spot in the world, and I’m happy here. Especially because of the woman in front of me.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“I love you, too,” she replies. “And you are so flipping cute I want to take you upstairs right now.”
My eyes fly open. “Soon.”
“Soon,” she agrees with a smile. “After we play a game or two I’ll go upstairs and turn up the hot tub temperature. You can tell me about your day while we soak.”
“I like the way you think, babydoll.”
“Now make your first guess,” she says, pointing at the board. “Before someone needs you. Someone besides me.”
“I need you too, you know.”
May winks at me. “I know that, hot stuff. Now guess already.”
A fun song comes onto the sound system. May raises her hands over her head and does a dance move. Not to be outdone, I swing my hips around while I choose little colored pins for my first guess.
I’m living the dream.