Despite the justifiably pissy mood I was in, I still managed a snicker when I read the message written in permanent marker on the industrial gray mounted gas meter just outside the restaurant’s back entrance. I worked there as the bartender three nights a week. The words were in block letters and read, “No smoking you dumbass. This is a gas meter.”
The ominous threat didn’t stop the pile of cigarette butts from piling up near the doorway. Either my co-workers didn’t care or more likely, the words meant nothing to them since they couldn’t read a lick of English.
“You’re late,” Troy said as soon as I entered the bar area through the kitchen where the chefs and cook staff looked me up and down, said a few words in Chinese amongst themselves, and then gave me friendly waves as I maneuvered the stations. When needed, Troy and his hostess, Patricia, would translate. I learned over time that I didn’t want to know what they were saying. They could be just as crude as their English-speaking American counterparts.
I skirted around Troy, hand-tossing my thick toffee-colored hair past my shoulders to rest on my back. I said a silent prayer that he wouldn’t fire me but only because I would break a world-record for the most firings in one day. Being a bartender was not my life’s ambition, but the tips were good, usually anyway. If he fired me, wouldn’t that force me to reevaluate my choices and perhaps follow my heart instead of the nagging voice which told me to grow up already. Stupid voice.
I strode to the long granite bar and snatched my black canvas half apron from a hook Troy had strategically placed so I would stop tossing it across the end of the bar. I noticed a few crusty stains, scraped at them with fingernails in dire need of a manicure, and rationalized the apron could make it through the weekend before a washing. It was not an expected part of my uniform, rather one I implemented to safely tuck my tips. At the diner where I worked in the mornings and was fired from earlier that day, we had one waitress who thought if she said hi to one of my patrons, she was deserving of my tips. She was constantly stealing my money. When I reported it to the boss, he shrugged. What could he do? The waitress was his wife who had caught him staring at my ass one too many times. I should have quit before they fired me. Apparently screaming at the boss’ wife for being a quote-unquote C-U-Next-Tuesday, was grounds for dismissal. Why was she punishing me? It was her husband who was being a jerk, not me. And I told her that he had a wandering eye for a lot of asses, not just mine. Why didn’t she pick on the others as well?
Good riddance. The pay sucked. Even the high rollers were often dipping into their coins to cover tips. Besides, I was a night person. I hated the early mornings and on more than one occasion I was late to work. Sufficient reason to fire me, but nooo...it had to be about my ass.
Troy followed me behind the bar, his stride lengthening to stay in step with mine.
“Did you hear me?” He said in his precise tone. English wasn’t his first language, but he spoke it better than most and wasn’t shy about asking me how to pronounce words he wasn’t familiar with. He embraced the American Dream with both arms in a starched pale blue button-up shirt, neatly tucked into his sharply creased black slacks. For a split-second I wondered if his wife was that good in the laundry room or if he used a drycleaner.
“I heard you, Troy. Did you read your text?”
On cue, he paused his gait and popped his phone out of the case clipped to his belt. He gazed at the glowing screen while I continued to the middle of the bar where I was delighted to see Ginny and Matt, likely waiting for my famous Meaghan Margaritas. Dare I say, they were even better than Lila’s? But I wouldn’t broach the subject. It had only been a couple of months since Ginny’s grandmother died. She didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t push her on the topic.
Even if I tried not to smile, it was no use. Seeing Ginny Rose and Matt Stryker waiting for me made me happy. Plus, if we didn’t get too busy, Ginny would do an impromptu tea leaf reading for me. And Lord knows, I needed one.
“How are you guys?” I couldn’t mask my enthusiasm at seeing them. They always came on a Thursday, but I never knew which Thursday of the month they would show. Invariably it was always when I needed a dose of Ginny. I had considered calling her for an appointment earlier in the day but was sidelined by my second firing.
Nothing quite like catching your current lover and your direct boss, cheating on you to get your temper flared more than it already was. Not that we had declared ourselves in a monogamous relationship, he was married after all, but seriously? On top of my desk? So not cool. And with one of his other T.A.s? Supposedly he and the missus hadn’t slept in the same bed for years. Somehow I thought that made screwing a married man okay. Shame on me, but I honestly thought I was his only affair. Stupid me. I mentally cringed at my lack of quality insight when it came to relationships.
Ginny stole a glance at Matt, moved her hand to squeeze his, and answered, “we’re great. How about you?”
“Eh. Aside from being fired from my other two jobs today and my car not starting to get here, I’m fabulous.” I might not have a problem sharing my situations, but my true feelings? Nope. Nadda. No way. Been there, done that. I could wait until I had some private time with Ginny to dish out my multiple layers of confusion, frustration, and annoyance.
“Well, that’s shitty,” Matt said, his lips drawing into a frown, making him adorable and sexy, not just sexy. Damn, he was a fine specimen.
Troy stepped close to me. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”
I knotted my brows and just as quickly stopped, concerned that I was prematurely creating wrinkles in my forehead. “Why? You don’t answer your calls and apparently you don’t look at your text.”
“I was at the bar.”
“Which is why I walked. Better me being ten minutes late than our customers having no bartenders.” I turned back to my favorite couple, ending the conversation with Troy. He was a nice guy, a really nice guy actually. I enjoyed working for him, but after the day I had, I wanted to lose myself in other people’s stories, not mine.
There were two tall glasses of iced water in front of Ginny and Matt, but nothing more decadent. “Meaghan Margita night?” I asked with eagerness.
“Hell, yes,” they loudly responded in unison.
I glanced at the end of the bar where a lone man sat at the curve, nonchalantly listening to our chatter in between stealing glances at the news on the large screen TV. His beer was almost empty.
“Let me help him, and I’ll be right back.” I jutted my chin to the patron.
Ginny followed my direction, and I heard her whisper to Matt, “That’s Mitch Wyatt.”
I didn’t know who Mitch Wyatt was, but the sound of his name coming from Ginny’s mouth caused me to stop in my tracks. I was hit with deja vu, only it felt like I was having a memory from my future, not some obscure sensation from another lifetime. The hairs on my arms stood erect from the electricity coursing through my limbs.
The man looked vaguely familiar. He was ruggedly handsome with a firm, set jaw line, a day’s worth of stubble, and features which spoke of refined heritage, or so I thought. I had no clue what refined heritage looked like, but the phrase had been used several times in the most recent romance novel I was reading. It worked for the guy at the bar. He had to be somebody famous. Nobody looked that sexy on a Thursday. Okay, well maybe Matt did, but he was taken and obviously smitten with Ginny.
He pulled his attention from the TV and looked at me. Hopefully he hadn't noticed that I was gawking or that I had abruptly stopped my approach. He shifted, or more like twitched, so he sat up straight, almost as if he too had been jolted with a flash of lightning.
In the passing seconds of silence as we stared at one another, Ginny's words broke the trance when she said in our direction, "Oh boy. This is going to get interesting."