It became a regular, normal occurrence to see Owen either at the end of a work shift or standing at my front door. A six-pack in hand only sometimes, but always that excited glow in his eyes and huge grin on his face. As much as I hated to admit, it always gave me a little bit of a thrill to see him there waiting for me, wondering what were going to get up to. So far he hadn't disappointed. Since the parasailing, things had only gotten more extraordinary.
There'd been a waterfall, and Owen convincing me I was brave enough to jump from the cliff and drop the good forty feet into the clear, pool of water below (he was convinced my fear of heights could be vanquished completely with enough practice). Owen showing me where they kept the baby dinosaurs when they weren't out at the petting zoo and letting me play with them. Owen taking one of the park's employee jeeps and speeding along side a pack of ornithomimosaurs. He even convinced me one day that I was confident enough to learn how to drive his motorcycle, which had been a miserable fail but fun while it lasted. He decided it was better for me to give that up, either tired of watching me fall worried about his poor motorcycle.
For the first time since I could remember, I woke up happy and excited every day. I was having the most fun I'd ever had since I was a kid. Even work was fun sometimes. It was more than that, though, and it didn't hit me what the feeling was until I was sitting on Owen's porch having a beer with him and Violet one day. That the island was finally my home. That had been the happiest thought of all.
I suppressed a yawn as I leaned on the bar, doodling on a white beverage napkin. For a weekday afternoon, it was slower than usual.
"This is boring." Emma groaned. She was sitting on one of the bar stools, her back to the bar as she faced the empty patio. The dining room adjacent to the bar was mostly empty as well, only five out of the dozens of tables filled. The other afternoon server, Abby, emerged from the kitchen with a plate of french fries in her hand. She slid the steaming plate onto the bar.
"Figure we could eat since there's nothing else to do." She shrugged. Her dark hair was pulled up into a messy bun on the top of her head, a few escaped pieces framing her face.
"Good plan." I agreed, grabbing a fry and popping it into my mouth.
We'd only been digging into our afternoon snack for about a minute when loud, raucous laughter came from the patio. I glanced up and automatically let out a groan as a group of five guys, who couldn't have been much older than twenty-two, meandered into the restaurant.
Please sit at a table, please sit at a table.
Abby grabbed the plate and gave me an apologetic look before disappearing back into the kitchen.
"Good luck." Emma whispered as she too slid off her stool and abandoned me.
The entire group dropped down onto the recently vacated seats at the bar, still talking loudly and yelling even though they were all right next to one another in the same room. I forced a smile. I knew a group of bad tippers when I saw one.
"Can I get you guys some drinks?" I asked, using my extra perky, false waitress voice.
The guy closest to me, reddish blonde hair gelled into little spikes, appraised me. His eyes flickered from my face to my chest shamelessly. I cringed and fought the urge to roll my eyes. I was wearing a teeshirt, for christ's sake. There wasn't even anything to see.
"Yeah, five shots of Crown." He gave me a charming grin and I smiled back, pretending to be flattered.
"I.D.'s?" I asked sweetly, secretly hoping they were all underage so I could send them away. I groaned internally, though, when five legit looking I.D. cards were pushed me away. I gave them all the once over before turning to the liquor shelves.
The second my back was turned, I made a disgusted face. My customer intuition was never wrong. A group of bad tipping douchebags for sure. I grabbed the bottle of Crown and turned back around, lining up five shot glasses on the bar. I filled each one carefully before passing them out.
"Thanks." The spiky haired guy said. The rest of his friends clinked glasses, but he continued to sit there and smile at me. "What's your name?"
I hesitated before finally realizing it was pointless to lie about it. It was a part of my job to give my name to customers. Even the ones that gave me bad vibes. "Rylan."
"Rylan." He repeated, like he was trying it out. "Cute name for a cute girl."
I smiled. "Thank you."
He tilted his head back, taking the shot and I tried to make myself busy polishing glasses that I'd already done early that day. The phone attached to the wall near the computer abruptly let out a shrill ring. I jumped a little before whirling around to grab it.
"It's a great day for a margarita down at Margaritaville! This is Rylan, how can I help you?" I answered with mock cheerfulness.
"Do you seriously have to answer the phone like that every single time?" A familiar, voice chuckled from the other end.
I leaned up against the counter, dropping the act immediately. "Did you actually need something or did you just call to make fun of me, Owen? And why are you calling me on the restaurant phone anyways?"
"You wouldn't answer your cell." He said simply. There was a loud clanking sound coming from the background, which made me guess he was walking the metal catwalk over the raptor cage.
"Because I'm at work." I reminded him.
"Which is why I called this phone. Glad we figured that out. Anyways, are we still on for tonight?" He asked. We had made plans the day before to go fishing off the pier. Owen thought it was a travesty that I'd never been fishing in my life and aimed to change that.
"Yeah, for sure. I'm done here around 3." I glanced over my shoulder at my bar of customers and one of the guys gestured to his empty shot glass. I stretched the phone cord and grabbed the Crown bottle again, refilling each of the empty glasses. Spiky haired guy smirked at me again. I placed the bottle back on the shelf and turned to face the wall so I could talk without any of them hanging on my every word.
"Rylan, are you even listening?" Owen was saying.
"Huh?" I realized he had been in the middle of saying something and I had missed every word. "No, sorry. There's this creep at the bar. Won't stop smiling at me and it's giving me really bad vibes." I dropped my voice.
"You want me to come up there and kick his ass?" He asked, not even missing a beat.
"No!" I said quickly. "Jesus, Owen, that's the last thing I need. You beating up my customers. Even the weird ones. Just make sure you're here on time so this guy doesn't come back and try to corner me somewhere and manipulate me into going with him to buy more hair gel or something."
"Hair gel? What the hell does that mean?" Owen asked, sounding completely bewildered.
"It means he has bad hair. Just be here at 3." I said with a frustrated sigh.
Owen was laughing, sounding amused. "Yeah, no problem. Call me if you change your mind about the ass kicking."
There was a click and the line went dead. I hung the phone up in its cradle and busied myself printing off the receipt for the Crown shots. I slid it across the bar towards the group. One of them picked it up and called out the total amount. I went back to polishing glasses again as they each took out their wallets and handed dollar bills to their friend holding the bill. He carefully counted it out before pushing the pile of cash towards me.
"Keep the change." He said overconfidently.
I smiled. "Thanks. Have a nice day, guys."
Most of them were already turning away, jumping off their stools and joking loudly with each other as they headed back out. Of course, spiky haired guy was the one who lingered. He stood up and leaned across the bar towards me.
"Will you be here all night, Rylan?" He asked. I hated the way he said my name. It was annoying and cringeworthy all at once.
"Till closing time!" I lied easily. Hopefully by the time he came back, if he even did, I'd be long gone.
"Maybe I'll see you later then." He said with another smile. Then, much to my utter horror, he winked at me before trailing after his friends.
I was still standing there, frowning, when Emma appeared from around the corner with a drink tray tucked under her arm. "That was fast. Thank god." She said when she saw the empty bar. "Was it bad?"
"One of them winked at me." I shuddered.
"I think I just threw up in my mouth." She said quickly, before pretending to make a gagging noise. I let out a laugh, grabbing the money from the bar and counting. "What's the damage?"
I held up a single dollar bill and waved it at her. "Ten shots of Crown Royal and one big, whopping dollar tip."
"Woooowww." She drew the word out, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Don't spend it all at once!"
I snorted. "On what? A gumball?"
She shrugged her shoulders, flashing me a smile before turning and heading back into the dining room. I glanced at the time displayed on the computer behind me and groaned. The last two hours of a shift always seemed to drag on and on. I found this especially true when I had something to look forward to. These days, that was almost always Owen. I smiled, thinking about his reaction when I'd mentioned my creepy customer to him over the phone. I hadn't realized it then, but it sent a swell of happiness through me that he had offered to do that. Whether he actually meant it or not, I had no idea.
Our growing friendship was based on teasing and jokes and his flirting, which I attributed as part of his self-assured personality. Even though it'd gone from understated to blatant and almost shameless in the short amount of time we'd known one another. I'd already told Claire we were purely platonic friends, but it was hard to deny the annoying swarm of butterflies that magically appeared in my stomach whenever I saw him standing in the doorway of the patio, gesturing for me to hurry it up. It would be a bad, bad idea to fall for a guy like Owen Grady. The things he could make me feel with a single smile weren't healthy. It would be easy to lose myself in his easygoing personality, the way his entire body lit up when he laughed. It would be so easy to...I shook the thought from my mind and tried to ignore the tiny voice in the back of my head. The one that was warning me it was already too late.
It was barely five minutes after three and I was already gathering up my jacket and my purse, rushing out the front door without so much as a goodbye to anyone. I maneuvered my way through the patio, letting myself out of the gate and onto the busy midway. I stood off to the side, out of the heavy pedestrian traffic as I looked for Owen. He was late, which was unusual for him. While there were plenty of the people in the world that were chronically late, or even early, Owen always seemed to be right on time. Something, he claimed, that was pure, god-given talent. I thought it was luck and his lateness today proved me right.
A sigh escaped me as I pulled the band from my hair, using my fingers to comb out the tangles. I was absentmindedly watching as a toddler had a fit in the middle of the street, her father red-faced and clearly embarrassed as he crouched in front of her and spoke in a low, stern voice.
"You're off early!"
My stomach curled unpleasantly at the familiar voice and I glanced over to see my spiky haired admirer from early sauntering towards me. He had only two of his friends from the original group with him, but they hung back. I quickly retied my ponytail and shot him what I hoped was a cool smile. I had to be nice to him when I was on the clock. Off the clock, that was a different story.
"Had my schedule mixed up." I explained, shifting myself away from him. He either didn't get the memo or didn't care because he followed my movements, still wearing that sickly charming smile.
"So I guess that means I can ask for your number now then, right?" He asked smoothly. I wondered how many times he'd fed this same line to some other girl. Maybe even that same day.
"I'm actually waiting for someone right now." I said in an uninterested tone, avoiding eye contact with him or either of his friends. There was an awkward silence. For me, that would've been the point where I walked away and tried my luck elsewhere. This guy, though, was clearly not used to taking no for an answer.
"Come on, you haven't even given me a chance yet." He leaned one shoulder against the wall, making himself comfortable as if to point out he wasn't leaving until he got what he wanted.
"I don't need to." I said tensely. The hair on my body was bristling from the way his dark eyes continued to stare at me. I cross my arms over my chest, trying to hide how uncomfortable he was making me. "I told you I'm waiting for someone. Jesus, I think I've made it pretty damn clear I'm not interested."
His eyes widened a little. He pushed himself off the wall. The smile was gone, lips forming a thin, hard line. "You're a tease, you know that?"
I swiveled my head, staring at him in awe. "I'm a tease?" I repeated incredulously. "Why? Because you want my number and I don't want to give it to you?"
His expression grew stormy, but I held my ground, fists clenched at my side. All of the sudden there was an arm slung protectively around my shoulder and the familiar smell of peppermint and earth. Owen. I breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing into him.
"Hey baby. Sorry I'm late." He said, smiling at me. He glanced towards the creep, giving him a disinterested once over. "Who's this?"
The creep sneered, looking between the two of us. "Seriously? What, did you get your brother to come down here and pretend to be your boyfriend?"
"You're an ass." I snapped at him before I could stop myself.
Owen seemed unfazed, an amused smile playing about his lips. I felt his hand gliding down to the small of my back and I gave him a questioning look. "Her brother probably wouldn't do this."
In one swift movement, he pulled me into his chest. I stared at him wordlessly, wondering what the hell was happening. Then, his mouth was suddenly on mine. I let out a soft gasp of surprise. My eyes fluttered shut on instinct, my arms sliding around his neck. His lips were softer than I expected, but had a taste to them that was somehow sweet and salty at the same time. His hands were warm and solid on my hips, and just the simplicity of his touch sent shivers coursing down my spine. It couldn't have lasted more than a second, but it felt like a lifetime inside my head.
When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me with a curious intensity, like I was something unexpected. I noticed then that my heart was sprinting in my chest. I cleared my throat and stepped away from him, cheeks burning. Owen kept one arm wrapped around my waist, looking back at the creep who I'd completely forgotten about for that one second. "Get the hell out of here, kid."
His neck was flushed red, his eyes glaring daggers at the pair of us. He looked like he wanted to spew more hate but thought better of it, turning and disappearing into the crowd with his confused friends jogging to catch up.
"Well, that was..." I began uncertainly, searching my brain for the appropriate adjective because there seemed to be dozens of options cycling through my head. "Unexpected."
"Got rid of him, didn't it?" Owen said smugly. He detached himself from me, nodding for me to follow him down Main Street. The look I'd seen on his face when we first pulled away had vanished, and made me begin to wonder if it had even been there at all. "You still wanna go fishing, or are you too busy swooning over how great a kisser I am?"
"Great? I mean, that seems like a pretty strong word..." I teased, hoping sarcasm would mask the fact that I was still recovering from said kiss. My heart refused to slow down. Even my head felt a little woozy.
He playfully nudged me with his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, newbie. I know I got you all weak in the knees."
You have no idea.
I rolled my eyes. "You wish."
He let out laugh, eyes dancing mischievously before suddenly grabbing my arm and tugging me down a concrete path that branched off from the midway, one I had never noticed before. "This way."
I could once again smell the ocean, hinting that we were getting close to the shoreline."Where are we going?" I asked.
"To my top secret make out spot." Owen answered, without missing a beat.
"Wait, what?" I asked, eyes snapping in his direction. "Your top secret make out spot? Is that even a thing?" This was a whole new level of flirting. While Owen had quit with the subtleness a while ago, this was much more than what what I was used to. I wondered if the brashness of that kiss had thrown our entire relationship off kilter. Maybe I wasn't the only one suffering from the aftershocks. Or maybe I was just reading into things way too much. For christ's sake, the guy had kissed me though! Kiss me. With his mouth. His perfect, delicious mouth...
"Why wouldn't it be? I can tell by the look in your eyes that your pretty excited about it." He teased and I shot him a disbelieving look as he pulled me back to earth. Thank god mind reading wasn't a real thing.
He darted out of the way as I tried to bump him off the pathway. "Keep it up, Grady." I warned. "You'll be hanging out by yourself."
He scoffed, falling back into step with me. "I don't believe that for a second. You can't resist me." He taunted.
Not when you smile at me like that. Or just randomly kiss me for that matter.
"Keep telling yourself that." I replied in a sing song voice, shaking my head.
His eyes seemed alight with amusement, the way he was watching me making me feel incredibly self conscious. He had absolutely no idea what he was doing to me. At this rate, I'd be a goner in no time. Maybe I already was.
The path suddenly opened up onto the beach, the pier and dock both visible in the distance. A few guests idled by the shoreline, jumping and laughing as the waves washed up on shore.
"Here's the thing about fishing." Owen said suddenly, the topic of conversation taking in abrupt turn. I let out an inward sigh of relief. I needed a distraction fast. "It's actually sort of boring, but I feel like it's a rite of passage in life."
I arched an eyebrow at him. "Says who? You?"
He grinned, giving me my answer. "Maybe you'll love it. Besides, who cares. I have some awesome planned for later this week to make up for it."
I knew better by now than to badger him about what it might be. "It better be..."
Owen suddenly wrapped an arm around my shoulder, drawing me close to him as we traipsed across the sand. "Nothing but the best for my girl."
Yup. I was definitely in trouble.