Authors: Anne Calhoun
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For Mark, who has believed from the beginning.
I'm grateful for input and guidance from a number of people in the romance community. Special thanks go to Julie Miller and Kristin Gabriel, longtime members of the small but mighty Prairieland Romance Writers chapter, who both said (almost in unison), “Start when he walks into the bar.” Thanks also to Jen, for smoothing out a rough section. Laura Bradford has loved this book almost as long as I have; thanks for your patience and persistent efforts on my behalf. Finally, my most heartfelt gratitude to Eileen Rothschild, the kind of insightful editor every writer dreams of. You read a manuscript I thought was the best it could be, and showed me how to make it even better. Thank you.
Sex on a stick, Lord, that's all I needÂ â¦ walking, talking sex on a stick. If he can mix a decent drink, so much the better.
Eve Webber shifted two boxes of limes to the far end of the bar and considered apologizing to the Almighty for making the risquÃ© request. Not a single lesson in eighteen years of Sunday school covered petitioning the Lord for a good-looking man. But with a location on the edge of Lancaster's struggling East Side and nine people depending on her for their paychecks, Eye Candy's success depended heavily on gorgeous male bartenders who lived up to the bar's provocative name. She'd take all the help she could get.
“Drop-dead sexy, knowledgeable, with just a smidgen of honor. That's all I need,” she muttered.
She picked up her iPhone and scanned for chatter on Facebook and Twitter. A couple of posts from women in her target market, young professionals, about meeting up at Eye Candy after work, which was very welcome news. She replied, tweeted her drink specials, then set the phone in the portable speaker unit for background music while she finished prepping the bar for the evening rush.
The heavy steel door swung open. She looked up from the limes and saw a lean figure silhouetted in a rectangle of thick August sunlight that cloaked his head and shoulders, shrouding his face.
“Chad Henderson?” she said, and if her voice was a little breathier than usual, well, he'd caught her off guard.
The two words ran together, automatic yet without a hint of deference, not a drawled opening to flirtation. “Come on in,” she called, consciously steadying her voice.
She moved out from behind the bar to meet him. He didn't offer any of the small talk applicants often used to connect with her, so she leaned against the end of the bar and watched him scrutinize Eye Candy's interior as he wove his way through the tables toward her. The walls were black-painted cinderblock, and tables and stools surrounded the oak parquet dance floor on three sides; her DJ's booth comprised the fourth side and backed one short wall of the rectangular room. The solid oak, custom-crafted bar she'd purchased for a pittance at a bankruptcy auction ran along the other short end of the room. The place was empty and echoing now, but in three hours couples would pack the dance floor and every table would be occupied.
Chad stopped in front of her and slid the earpiece of his Revo sunglasses into the V of his shirt, exposing surprisingly hard ridges of pectoral muscle, given his lean frame.
“Eve Webber. I own Eye Candy.” She offered her hand and got a firm grip in return as she took inventory. Maybe six feet tall, because her heels brought her to five ten and their eyes were just level. He wore running shoes, faded jeans too loose to draw attention to anything underneath, and a dark green button-down with the top two buttons undone. Reddish-brown hair long enough to show finger-combing ridges curled at his ears and shirt collar, and hazel eyes met Eve's assessing look without a hint of expression.
“Thanks for the interview.”
Definitely not anxious, or eager, or any of the other adjectives normally used to describe a job applicant in a tough economy. She liked the cool confidence. It made him very watchable. Some women liked to flirt openly with a sexy-yet-safe bad boy. Others wanted to watch, and wonder. He wasn't exactly sex on a stick, but if he had any skill behind a bar at all, Chad would round out the eye candy quite nicely.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said as she leaned against the bar and gestured to one of the bar stools.
He braced himself against the stool and crossed his legs at the ankle, effectively trapping her between his body and the bar. After another glance at her, one that seemed to take in every detail of her face and body, he folded his arms across his chest and scanned the room again. “Nice setup.”
“Thanks. I've only been open a couple of months, but business is good so far.” She'd made a high-stakes bet on a building on the edge of the proposed Riverside Business Park, an urban renewal project due for a vote in the city council in the next few weeks. If it passed, Eve's lifelong neighborhood on Lancaster's East Side would get a much-needed influx of money, jobs, and attention.
She wasn't going to think about what it would mean to her and the East Side if the vote failed. She'd poured her life savings and a hefty small business loan into the interior. Any hint of insolvency and her family would pounce on the excuse to send her back to a desk job.
The way Chad blocked her in left no other option than to use the heel of her boot to hitch herself onto the stool next to his. She crossed her legs, and his gaze flickered over their length, displayed to their best advantage in the short skirt slit to the top of her thigh. His gaze slowly returned to her face, and when that green-brown gaze met hers, she felt a heady charge flicker across her skin.
“Tell me about your experience,” she said, trying to focus, because each second of silence amped up the current crackling between them.
“I'm at Gino's.”
Not good. A neighborhood bar south of downtown, Gino's was a cop hangout, a laid-back, low-energy, peanut-shells-on-the-floor, ESPN-on-the-TV kind of place, where local law enforcement went to unwind, not raise hell. As bars went, it was about as far from Eye Candy's high-energy dance club vibe as possible.
“Why leave? Getting beers for cops is much easier than mixing hundreds of cocktails a night.”
“I need full-time hours.” He looked around again. “And better tips.”
“This isn't Gino's. Not by a long shot,” she said. “You'll work for your tips here.”
She didn't mean to infuse a sexual overtone into that comment, but somehow the insinuation hung between them. His eyes darkened from hazel to mossy green, and a hint of color stained his cheekbones. Okay, they had chemistry, that heart-pounding, shallow-breathing feeling that meant the pheromones were surging.
Chemistry with me means chemistry with customers,
she thought firmly. Watching him work would tell her all she needed to know. “Feel up to making me something?” she asked lightly.
“Mojito? Cosmo? Cum in a Hot Tub?”
He got points for naming her three most popular cocktails, in order no less, and major points for including the last one without a hint of innuendo in his face or voice. “Let's try a cosmo,” she said.
He moved past her, close enough that she felt the soft denim of his jeans brush against her bare thigh, then strolled behind the bar, found the Absolut, the triple sec, and the juices, and measured all the ingredients over ice scooped into a metal shaker, his movements precise. A couple of deft twists of his wrist, then he poured the drink into a chilled glass snagged from the fridge under the bar.
“I haven't sliced the oranges yet,” she said when he scanned the half-filled tubs of garnishes.
He set the drink on a napkin in front of her, offering it to her with the stem between his index and middle fingers to avoid leaving prints on the glass. She sipped as he splashed the shaker through the wash, rinse, and sanitize sinks, then set it on a towel to dry. His ease in his body boded well for someone who'd spend eight-plus hours a night on his feet, handling glass and premium liquor.
He nodded his thanks and reached for a bar towel.
“You'll have to pick up the pace, though. We've got a line out the door nearly every night.”
“No problem,” he said as he dried his hands, then looked at his abraded knuckles. Not a wince, or a comment.
“You don't talk much.”
In the silence that followed, the door between her office and her apartment slammed closed. Chad looked up at the noise, then back at her, clearly expecting an explanation, but she held his gaze and waited. Finally he said, “Bartenders should be good listeners.”
Based on that comment, she'd better set the tone now. “Eye Candy isn't just a bar. It's an experience. Women come for hot bartenders, dance music, great drinks, and a chance to unwind with girlfriends. The hookup quotient is high because the men come for what they call âprime pussy.'” A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth and formed crinkles around his eyes, the flash of personality an appealing insight into an otherwise blank front. So she added, “My office is over the men's room and unfortunately voices carry up the ductwork.
“The ground rules are that you've got a smile for everyone, no matter if she's the prettiest girl in the room or her chunky, self-conscious best friend. No outrageous flirting, no requests for phone numbers or email addresses. No calling numbers if they come across the bar on a napkin or a twenty or a thong, which happened on Tuesday and led to one of my bartenders hooking up with a customer in the back of a pickup in my parking lot. I fired him before he had his jeans up. She went home alone, unsatisfied, and pissed off. That's not good for business and therefore pisses me off. Are we clear?”
A moment of silence, then, “Your bar, your rules.”
Not many men could make that sound sexy, yet coming in Chad's whiskey rough voice, it sounded like temptation poured from a bottle. Eve thought for a moment, unable to put her finger on how he struck her, but the weekend was coming, he was clearly competent behind a bar, and her gut told her he wouldn't get caught bare-assed in the bed of a Dodge Ram.