“Come on, Anna. Have just one shot with me,” he whined and earned a chuckle from her.
“Maybe next time, sweetie,” she purred with a fake, flirty smile directed at the frat boy perched on the barstool before her as she used a towel to clean up the counter.
He seemed disappointed for a split second but then a red-haired, twenty-something beauty sauntered by and his eyes roamed over her. Anna just slightly shook her head and could practically see the drool form at the corner of the frat boy’s mouth. She wasn’t the least bit surprised when he slid away from the barstool to follow his new target across the crowded bar.
“Good luck, Charlie,” she mumbled to herself with another shake of her head and a small laugh.
She tossed the towel under the bar before leaning back against the opposite side, crossing her arms over her chest and just observed the bar crowd. It was a busy Saturday night at Swan’s and she’d barely had a chance to breathe through the first four hours of her shift. Turning around, she checked her reflection in the mirror that ran the length of the bar. Her makeup was still holding up well, considering the heat in the bar. The smoky eye and black eyeliner were doing their job accentuating her sapphire blue eyes. The only adjustment that needed to be made was a tightening of her long, blonde pigtails that were perched high atop her head. Noting the color, she made a mental note to brighten up the pink and blue streaks that had started to fade. She pulled a tube of cherry chapstick from the pocket of her painted on, frayed blue jean shorts and applied a thin layer of the balm to her full lips.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been jealous of chapstick before,” spoke a deep voice from behind her that caused her spine to straighten and ice to run through her veins.
“Get out before I call for the bouncers to throw you out,” she spoke harshly without turning around. The condescending tone of his laugh caused her to spin around quickly and glare daggers at him. “I’m serious, Chase,” she warned and only grew angrier when she saw how his eyes moved over her, devouring her like she still belonged to him.
“Come on, baby. I’m sorry, but you won’t answer any of my calls or messages. What was I supposed to do,” he asked in the pouty tone that used to work so well on her. It wasn’t going work this time.
“You’re supposed to take that as a hint that I don’t want to see or talk to you. Not show up at my job,” she fumed as she placed her hands against the bar and lowered her voice so as not to draw the attention of the crowd. Her eyes flashed around but thankfully, no one had noticed their conversation yet. “Leave,” she spoke through gritted, perfectly straight, white teeth and pushed herself back from the bar.
Just as she was raising her right arm to call the closest bouncer over, Chase reached across the bar and clutched her wrist in an iron grip. She tried to pull her wrist back from him but he just jerked her back to him hard, slamming her hip bone into the bar. Her eyes watered from the impact and a small yelp escaped her lips.
“Don’t make this difficult Anna. I just want to talk to you. I don’t want to hurt you.” His tone had dropped dangerously low and that possessive glint was back in his eyes.
“Chase, please. Y-you’re hurting me right now. Please...p-please let go,” she practically begged and her fear only grew when she saw the corner of his lips turn up in that lopsided grin that screamed victory.
“You’re making me do this, baby, by ignoring me and making me track you down. I’ve already apologized. What more do you want from me,” he all but whispered as he used his hold on her wrist to keep her close to the bar and reached his other hand around the back of her head to pull her face closer to his.
“Well, that was a bust. How ’bout that shot now, Anna,” Charlie murmured as he moped back to his barstool, clearly having been rejected by the redhead. Seeing his place occupied by another man, the frat boy didn’t fully register what was going on at first. Turning his eyes to his favorite bartender, he saw the distress in her gorgeous eyes and stepped closer. “What the fuck, man? Get your hands off her,” he said loudly and pushed the other man away with a hand to his chest before standing between him and the bar. “Mason! Get your ass over here,” he cupped his hand around his mouth to project his voice to the bouncer.
Mason was an enormous mass of a man and rippling muscle. At 6′5, he towered over most in the bar and the crowd parted for him like the sea. His bronzed skin stretched tight over his biceps and the black polo shirt he wore seemed to be screaming at the seams. His military background translated blatantly in the way he walked through the bar.
“This isn’t over,” Chase spit at the pair of them, pointing his finger at Anna to emphasize his point, before turning on his heel and all but running to the exit.
Anna exhaled the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding and let herself slip down to sit on the floor, leaning her back against the bar. Her breaths started to come more rapidly and before she could think, she was in a full-blown panic attack.
Charlie shook his head as he watched the man retreat to the exit and just caught sight of Anna’s pigtails as she disappeared behind the bar. “Whoa, whoa, Anna,” he shouted as he leapt over the bar and knelt down in front of her. He cupped her face in his hands gently and lifted her chin so her eyes were forced to his. “Breathe, Anna. You gotta calm down and breathe,” he spoke softly, trying to ease her nerves. He took a deep breath himself and then exhaled slowly, hoping she would follow his rhythm. He wiped the tears that had started to stream down her cheeks with the pads of his thumbs and continued to speak softly. “Shhh. It’s okay. He’s gone. Just breathe for me,” he all but whispered to her and was relieved to find that her breathing was starting to become more steady.
“Anna, you okay,” Mason called over the top of the bar. “The guy split before I could catch up to him,” he informed the pair and then turned to leave, returning to his post by the entrance.
Charlie nodded his head to Mason before he walked away and saw the fear return to Anna’s eyes. “I got you. You’re safe, baby. Just keep breathing, Anna,” he continued to whisper to her gently, pushing away strands of her hair that had begun sticking to the tear tracks marking her face. Her face was paler than normal, typically a beautiful ivory, but the flush was returning to her cheeks. Moving more on instinct than any real thought, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead, breathing in the scent of her. He could smell the stale stench of cigarette smoke that lingered in the air on her first. Next, the strong odor of the spirits she’d poured for half a night. Beneath those and far more subtle was the sweet scent of lavender, her scent, buried deep beneath the scents of the world around her.
And he just loved the scent of her.
“I’m taking you home,” she heard him say and felt the words against her forehead. She shook her head as he pulled away from her, reaching up to wipe what remained of her tears away.
“My shift isn’t over Charlie. I still have a few hours left,” she explained and caught a glimpse of the wrist Chase had been holding. Deep red marks were apparent on her pale skin and she knew the bruises would eventually come. She could still feel an ache in her hip where she’d hit the bar, as well. “Great,” she muttered to herself and saw the way Charlie tilted his head at her. “What,” she asked, a little too defensively even to her own ears.
Charlie narrowed his eyes a little at her tone but didn’t want to push her. By her reaction, he knew this wasn’t the first time she’d physically been hurt by a man, the one from tonight in particular. It was then that he swore to himself and his ancestors that if he ever saw that man near her again, he would rip his throat out.
Straightening himself to standing, he extended a hand down to her and waited.
Anna looked at his hand a moment before accepting it and allowed herself to be pulled from the floor. “C’mon,” she heard him say and felt him start to pull her away from the bar but she resisted.
“Charlie, I can’t. I’ll get fired if I leave,” she tried to explain again but could see she wasn’t really convincing him. The smile that came to his features reminded her of an old cartoon, in which a cat ate a canary. He pulled his phone from his back pocket and found the contact he was looking for. Moving the phone to his ear, he waited for an answer.
“Hey...Yeah, it’s me. Sorry I’m calling so late but something happened at the bar tonight and Anna needs to leave early...Yeah, it was handled but I’d feel better if she could spend the rest of the night at home where she’s safe...Yeah, I think so...Right...Yeah, I appreciate it. Thanks...Yeah, I’ll stop by in the next couple of days. Thanks.”
Anna listened to the side of the conversation she could hear and was more than a little confused. Once Charlie had ended the call, he looked over at her with an impish grin.
“I may know the owner. You’re good to leave and you’ll be paid for the rest of the shift you’re missing,” he told her and started to pull her along gently by her hand again, with far less resistance. “Oh, and that asshole...is gonna be banned for eternity if I have anything to say about it,” he informed her as they moved from behind the bar after she’d collected her belongings and they left, into the warm summer night air of the city.
From the dark recesses of a nearby alley, he watched them walk from the bar. His hand was in hers and she didn’t appear to be resisting. He felt the impact before he knew what he’d done and felt the warm trickle of blood drip down his fingertips. The bricks in the wall beside him now missing a large chunk. “Unfaithful bitch. You’ve forgotten your manners,” he grumbled into the night as he stepped from the alley and followed the pair from a two block distance.