First Chapter: Bountiful

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July, 2015

Zara

 

The Friday night that changed my life started out like any other.

It was a summer evening, and the bar was doing a brisk business in local beer and conversation. I had a good playlist cranking over the stereo, which always helped to make the time fly. Vance Joy’s “Riptide” had a nice, fast rhythm that made tending bar feel more like a dance than a job.

Even better, there was a hot guy with hair the color of a darkened copper penny watching me from a barstool. I’d seen him around a few times. He and his friends liked the booth in the back corner. Mr. Hot liked Vermont ales, and when his friends were around, they sometimes drank tequila. The top-shelf stuff. And they were good tippers.

Tonight he was alone, though. And I felt a zing of interest every time he came into my line of sight. If I were a believer of that kind of thing, I might say that I felt a ruffle of awareness. Even a premonition.

But I wasn’t a believer, and I’ve never been good at predicting who would matter in my life and who was just passing through. So it was probably more fair to say that those tingles I felt from the hottie were plain old sexual attraction.

It wasn’t just me, either. I could feel his eyes on me as I made drinks and counted out change for other customers. His were nice eyes, too. Green, if I wasn’t mistaken. I didn’t mind the attention. His admiring gaze made me feel more like a pretty girl at a bar and less like an overworked single woman who’d recently been rejected.

I poured drinks. I smiled. I sent orders to the kitchen for my cook. Rinse and repeat. By eight o’clock, the biggest problem I’d faced was a group of drunk college boys who were a little too loud at the corner table.

“Guys? Can I ask you to use your indoor voices? Throwing coasters isn’t cool, all right? We have a dartboard in back if you really need to throw things.”

“Sorry,” the soberest of them said.

On my way back to the bar, I noticed that my redheaded friend had watched the whole encounter with interest. “Everything okay?”

“They are not a problem. See that?” I pointed at the shotgun on the wall behind me.

Green Eyes smiled. And, wow. His smile was something else. It softened up his rugged face and brought out his bone structure. On one side, there was even a hint of a dimple. As if this man were too tough for dimples, so it didn’t dare show itself. And his laugh was like a well-aged whiskey—deep and smooth. “I assumed the shotgun was just for show.”

I shook my head. “I don’t keep it loaded, because that’s just asking for trouble. But I could load, aim, and fire in a very short timeframe. So, no. Bessie is not just for show.”

“Bessie, huh? That’s my sister’s name. And she’s about as subtle as a shotgun. I didn’t know people named guns.”

I picked up the rag again and wiped down the bar. “Well, I have four brothers. They like to borrow stuff without asking. I gave my shotgun a girl’s name, hoping to discourage them from walking off with it.”

“Did it work?”

“No. But eventually I figured out that if my stuff was a girly color like pink or purple, they’d leave it alone. That’s how I came to own a pink bike and a pink phone. And I’m not even a fan of pink.”

And there was that laugh again—rich and heavy. But it was interrupted by one of the drunker college boys, who approached the bar for three shots of Jack Daniel’s.

Business first. I turned my back on Mr. Hot to grab three shot glasses. “Who’s driving?” I had to ask as I grabbed the whiskey bottle. I hovered the bottle over the rim of the first glass and studied the kid’s flushed face.

“My brother’s picking us up in forty minutes,” he said as his ears turned red.

“You promise?”

“Oh yeah.”

“All right, then.” I poured.

“Can I buy you a drink?” the college boy asked suddenly. “That shirt is really pretty.”

“Aw, thank you. And that’s sweet of you,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “I can’t accept a drink. Company policy. But the offer is lovely.”

“You’re welcome,” the kid mumbled. Then he grabbed his three shots and disappeared as fast as you can say rejected.

When I chanced a glance at the copper-haired hottie, he shot me a knowing grin.

And once again that smile did funny things to my insides. Something told me the girls never turned this guy down. Not only was he a looker, he was slick in a way I couldn’t really put my finger on. Maybe it was the shiny watch on his wrist—the truly expensive kind the locals never wore. Or maybe it was just the confident glint in his eye.

He was about my age or a couple years older. Thirty, maybe. And I couldn’t help but notice that he was in fantastic shape. He had broad, muscular shoulders that strained his cotton polo shirt. And the swell of his biceps made me want to run my hand over his smooth skin to test the strength of the muscle beneath.

I wasn’t about to do that. Not that he’d offered. If he did offer, though…

Pushing that thought away, I went to the back to grab another keg of Long Trail. I had a bar to run, and no time for fantasies.

The next person to walk into the bar interrupted my lustful thoughts, anyway. He took the middle barstool and ordered a Corona with lime. Actually, he didn’t order it. He just said, “Beer me, sis.”

Ladies and gentlemen, my twin brother, Benito.

The familiarity of his demand annoyed me just as a reflex. There was nobody on earth I knew as well as Benito. He liked his coffee with the barest splash of milk, which made no sense because you couldn’t even taste the difference. He had a scar over his left eyebrow from the time he jumped off the swings at school and landed on his bicycle. And he had another doozy of a scar on the side of his rib cage from the time he was knifed during his first and only tour of duty in Iraq.

Benito was a daredevil. Even though I was only twenty-eight, I already had four gray hairs. And I’m sure at least three were because of him.

“How’s your Friday going?” my twin asked me.

“Can’t complain. Well—hang on—I guess I can. Uncle Otto is on my case to switch beer distributors, because he’s got it in his head that North Corp is ripping him off. But we’ve been through this before, and they’re still the best deal in town.”

My brother rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll set them straight. You always do.”

“Yeah, but it’ll take two hours of my life.”

“You could always quit. That would show him.”

“I think about it all. The. Time.”

But we both knew I wouldn’t go through with it. In spite of family aggravation, I had a pretty sweet deal right now. Not only did I run this bar with only occasional interference from its owner, but my uncle let me live in the tiny apartment upstairs for free. The place wasn’t worth much, but free was a pretty hard price to beat. If I didn’t work here, I wouldn’t be able to afford my own place and still add to my nest egg. Unless I moved in with either my mom or—wait for it—my overbearing uncles.

No and no.

And anyway, thinking about my crappy prospects wasn’t good Friday-night conversation. “What’s happening in your life? You don’t usually stop here on weekends.”

“I have news.” He grinned, and I braced myself. News could be good or bad, but you could never tell with Ben. “I finally talked my way into a job at the DEA, Zara. Got the offer this afternoon. I head down for some training in two months’ time.”

“Oh, Benny.” It came out sounding more distraught than I meant it to. But here we go again. My brothers had bad luck with dangerous jobs. While Benito had only sustained the one knife wound, our older brother Damien nearly got himself killed in Afghanistan.

My brother’s face fell. “I think you mean, ‘Congratulations Ben. Nice work nailing down the job that you’re under-qualified for, but you worked your ass off to get anyway.’”

As it usually did, my temper flared. Being half of a set of twins meant always wanting to hug him and punch him simultaneously. “I am happy about your job offer,” I said, my tone making a liar out of me. “But there are careers where nobody shoots at you! Now I’m gonna worry that you’ve run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel. I don’t want to wake up to a telegram informing Mom and me that you’re dead.”

“They don’t have telegrams anymore, Z.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” I grumbled.

“If I’m an asshole, why do you care if I’m dead?” Benito asked.

From two barstools away, my redheaded observer chuckled. He didn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t listening in.

Benito and I just stared at each other for a moment, years of history passing between us. Looking into his dark eyes was like looking in a mirror. I saw struggle there. Small victories and just as many defeats. Our family usually landed on its feet, but nothing ever came easy.

The worst part was knowing that some of Benito’s earlier troubles had been my fault. I’d once robbed my brother of happiness. At least once. So I probably owed it to him not to be a dick about the new job. “Just stay safe, okay?” I whispered.

A smile flickered across his lips. “I’m always safe.”

That was categorically untrue. He drove his motorcycle like a crazy man, and that was only the most convenient example. But for once in my life I didn’t argue the point. “You owe me six bucks for the beer,” I said instead.

“Nah,” he said, laughing. “You just treated me to a congratulatory beer, that’s all.”

Because old habits die hard, I gave him a look of burning irritation, and he pulled out his wallet.

When I returned to his spot at the bar ten minutes later, I found a ten-dollar bill, an empty bottle, and no Benito.

And, damn it, I missed that asshole. I missed the heck out of him already.

I should have been nicer.

The ginger hottie smiled at me when I went to check on him. “What’s so funny?”

“You are.”

“Eavesdrop much?”

He didn’t even look ashamed. “I have a sister. We fight like crazy, too.”

“We don’t always fight,” I said reflexively. Only about ninety percent of the time. “But I was right, anyway.”

He snickered.

“Seriously. Do you have a job where people shoot at you?” I asked, clearing away his empty glass.

“Well…” He looked thoughtful. “Depends what you mean.”

“Never mind,” I said curtly. “I don’t want to know. Another Long Trail? Or do you want to sample something else?”

“Another one.” He rested his chin in his hand, and his gaze turned hot. “Thank you.”

The way he said it—his words polite, his gaze anything but—sent a lick of heat through my belly. I got him his beer and made a lap around the bar, grabbing empties and taking orders.

The night went downhill from there.

Fifteen minutes after my brother left, his barstool was taken over by my least favorite customer—Jimmy Gage. He was an ex-cop in his late forties, and one of the few people I could say I was afraid of.

He ordered a Bud Light and a burger. I ran the order straight into the kitchen and asked my cook to rush it.

“Why?” Titus asked. “Did I miss an order slip?”

“Nope. Just don’t want to tangle with Jimmy Gage.”

Titus nodded and threw a patty on the griddle.

To make matters worse, Rita—my waitress—chose that moment to take her third cigarette break of the night. She didn’t like Jimmy Gage any more than I did. But that left me shorthanded on a Friday. I found myself watching the door too often, wondering where the heck she’d gone.

And even then, I would have considered the evening salvageable if not for the next customer who walked in. Since I was waiting on Rita to show up again, I’d leveled a searing glare at the door as it finally opened. But, damn it! The open door revealed the last person I wanted to see walk into my bar—my former hookup, Griffin Shipley.

Unfortunately, Griff got the grumpy stare I’d been aiming at Rita. So not only did I lock eyes with the man who’d most recently battered my ego, but I gave him a death glare, too. And when he caught a look at the fury rolling off me, his face softened at once into something resembling sympathy.

“Oh, fuck me sideways,” I whispered under my breath. I dropped my gaze to the bar top. But it was kind of like shutting the barn door after the horse was out. Too little, too late. My little emotional fireworks show was already over. Nothing to see here. Move along.

After that I made myself very busy behind the bar. And it was Griff’s cousin who came up to order a pitcher, which meant that we were officially avoiding each other tonight.

Lovely.

Damn you, Griffin Shipley. I wanted to be over him already, but I just wasn’t. “It’s not you, Zara,” he’d said the night he called it off. Because they always say that. “I’m not in a place in my life where I can make time for a relationship.”

“But we’re not in a relationship,” I’d pointed out, hating myself for arguing. Our fling had been more of a friends-with-benefits arrangement.

He’d cleared his throat. “I know that. But you’re not happy with the way things are. And I don’t want to be the kind of guy who strings you along.”

That’s when I’d stopped arguing. Because he wasn’t wrong. I wanted more than a quickie after work. Griff was one of the few single men around here who was going places. And I wanted to be a part of it.

He didn’t see it that way.

So here I was on a Friday night, still single and tending bar. Same story. Same town. All I had going for me was a rapidly filling tip jar and the green stare of Mr. Hot over there on the bar stool, watching me work. I felt his gaze like the warmth from a campfire.

I should have stayed away. Instead I got burned.


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