Summertime… and the parking lot’s crowded.
As she drove by Inn Too Deep, Gigi Dean sang along with Janis Joplin and looked out her car window at its main parking lot. The sight of cars and trucks jammed shoulder to shoulder in the gravel space made her grin. Months of so-so spring business had blossomed into a bustling summer at the beachfront bar she owned, and with the Sunset Sounds concert series starting tonight, happy hour would be very happy indeed. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel in time with her radio.
She turned left from Low Tide Drive onto Liberty Lane, and then into the back parking lot her bar shared with the beauty salon behind it. Still more cars packed the smaller lot, crammed haphazardly into whatever vacancies their drivers had found. She took note of three motorcycles tucked into the hollow between the kitchen door and the Dumpster. Gigi squeezed her sensible sedan into her usual spot in the opposite corner of the lot. A pink “Management Only” sign marked the space she shared with Petra, the salon’s owner, who would have left minutes before Gigi was scheduled to arrive. The bar’s day shift would soon give way to the night shift, too, but summer happy hours demanded the efforts of all her employees, especially with Sunset Sounds just a short walk away.
Aerosmith was blaring through the back door as she pulled it open. She bobbed her head to the music. This was going to be a good day.
She headed down the narrow hallway, past the steps leading down to storage and up to the roof, past the bathrooms and her office. The loud music and sounds of cheerful people drinking pulled her the way the moon pulled the tides. She entered the bar pumped up and ready for a long night’s work.
A booth of her regulars lifted their glasses to greet her. She waved at them and headed behind the bar, where her day manager poured vodka and Apple Pucker into her cocktail shaker. Three martini glasses, filled with ice and water to chill them for cold cocktails, waited on the rubber bar mat.
“What’s up, Heather?” Gigi tried not to take up much space. With bartenders and Heather working the wells, it would be easy for her to get in the way.
“Just another Wednesday,” Heather said, popping the top onto the shaker. Today, her strawberry blonde hair was pulled back in a braid that slid back and forth between her shoulder blades as she worked.
As Heather started liquor and ice rattling away, Gigi scanned the bar, taking in the spirited crowd. A good mix tonight. Tourists from the hotel farther up Low Tide Drive and from the highway, all looking around with curiosity at the spot where the locals drank. Students down from the college, looking for a bite to eat before the band started. The contractors fresh from a long day working on the addition to the salon next door.
And one man, a little older than the rest of the bunch, alone at the end of the bar. Dressed in sober colors, he sat next to a half-full pint glass and gazed down behind the bar into space.
Heather slung the mix of ice and water out of the martini glasses before filling them with the appletinis she’d just mixed. Gigi sidled up to her.
“That guy on the end okay?” she asked, just loudly enough for her manager to hear. Everything was going so well. She hated to cut someone off so early.
“He’s fine,” Heather said, not looking up. “Just real quiet.”
Good. They’d had trouble a few weeks ago, once with some bikers who’d strayed too far from the interstate in search of a fight, and once with some douchebag who’d followed his ex-girlfriend to the bar. Gigi didn’t need any more excitement for a while. She nodded to herself and went back to surveying her customers.
Three overdressed and barely legal girls stared over Gigi’s shoulder. At first, she thought they were watching Heather pour—these were the sort of girl who ordered appletinis. Gigi turned to see if her day manager was watching her newest bartender struggle with the bounce pour, caught up in the tricky balance of pushing the bottle into its own flowing stream of liquor before hopping from one mixing glass to the next.
Then Gigi spotted the object of the party girls’ attention: Noah Monroe.
Her night-shift barback was manhandling three plastic racks, full of clean pint glasses, up to the back bar. An Army Ranger’s big, powerful body, stretching a black T-shirt to its absolute limits. Huge arms steering his unwieldy cargo to its destination. That broad back tapering down to his waist… and then on down to a tight ass.
Oh, yeah. That was a lot more interesting to look at than appletinis and bounce pours.
Gigi made room for Heather, who delivered the three bright green drinks. Like her boss, Heather turned to follow the girls’ gaze and found Noah. He hefted a bus tub full of dirty dishes and headed off to the kitchen.
“See something you like?” Heather asked.
The trio giggled, but the one on the middle stool inclined her head toward the door through which Noah had gone. “Is he… new?”
“Monroe? No, he’s been here since first of the month.” Gigi shared a conspiratorial grin with the girls. “Part of our summer talent program.”
All of them were watching when he came out of the kitchen, and he regarded them with dark blue eyes and an amused half-smile. One of the bartenders, too far away to hear over the noise, pointed at a half-empty ice well, and he returned to the kitchen.
“Why don’t I put the bus tub over here, close to you ladies?” Heather winked. “You know. Cut down on prep time.”
They nodded furiously and Gigi smiled. “Be careful. You might get wet on this ride.”
She was on the way back to the center well to grab an empty bus tub when Heather touched her elbow.
“Word with you?” Heather asked.
Gigi made good on Heather’s promise and set the empty tub in front of the trio of girls. Then she followed Heather out of the bar into the hallway leading to the bathrooms. The manager opened the narrow door into the girls’ room and gestured to Gigi, who went in first.
Gigi squinted. When had it gotten so bright in here? She looked up at the fluorescent bulbs.
“Yeah, I thought that, too,” said Heather. “It’s the same bulbs.” Gigi looked over at her. “Keep looking.”
She did, giving the surfaces her full attention. The two sinks caught her eye first. They gleamed white, and the light made the stainless-steel fixtures shine. But it wasn’t just the sinks. The red tile floors glowed bright and free of grime. She went to the mirror, walking as if afraid to leave footprints. The surface of the mirror was spotless, too. No smudges or fingerprints. The corners of the metal frame looked like new.
She took a few steps in front of Heather, cautiously edging open the door to one of the stalls. Years’ worth of etched writing still marked the metal walls, but the partitions were scrubbed clean, right over to the brackets that held them in place. To say nothing of the toilet, which glistened as white as the sinks.
Gigi backed out of the stall and looked at Heather with disbelief. The bathrooms hadn’t been filthy before, but this… her own bathroom at home wasn’t this clean.
This was Noah’s work. The barback’s job description included cleaning the bathroom, but most barbacks did the absolute minimum with unseemly haste. She’d had Noah long enough to know that his absolute minimum exceeded her most exacting expectations.
“Yeah,” said Heather. “He just cleaned the almighty fuck out of this bathroom.” She chuckled. “You should see the men’s room.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Checked it this morning. Touched the urinal. With my bare hand.”
Gigi put her hands on her hips and looked around again, turning slowly about in a circle.
“So,” Heather said.
Here it comes.
“You know; my birthday is coming up.”
Gigi slid her hands from her hips into her back pockets. The annual to-do list for Heather’s annual birthday party was waiting for Gigi in her office. They shut the place down at the same time every year for a private pig picking. Just fifty of Heather’s closest friends.
Of course she knew.
“So maybe for my birthday… can we keep Noah?”
Gigi shook her head and laughed. Not just because she was talking about the barback as if he were an adorable puppy who had followed her to work. Heather knew she’d had this conversation with Noah before, and she knew Noah had said no.
“I know you said no,” Heather said, anticipating her objection.
“I did say no. I said no because we can’t afford him and because he said he isn’t staying.”
“Yeah. But… maybe you can ask him again.”
Gigi patted her friend’s shoulder. “I’m not asking him again. He said no. You’re just going to have to enjoy this while it lasts.”
Heather pouted, and Gigi stifled more laughter, not sure whether her friend’s disappointment was exaggerated. They had been through more than their share of lazy, stupid and just plain incompetent barbacks, to be sure. It was a hazard of being a seasonal bar, she told herself. No one stayed long enough to be good at what they did, especially not the barbacks, who were the bottom of any bar’s corporate ladder. A barback could work his way up from filling ice chests and into management; she and Heather had both done it. But most were just passing through, looking for a little money and a good time on the way to something that looked more appropriate on a resume.
Noah was just an exceptional case. He wasn’t sticking around, either, but he was the first barback they’d wanted to keep on in far too long.
Gigi didn’t dare admit to Heather that she wanted Noah year-round at least as much as Heather did. He was that damn good. She complained about the expense and his availability—the standard gripes of a business owner struggling with staffing problems—and Heather bought it.
She wasn’t lying, really. Those were two real reasons she couldn’t keep Noah. But as close as she was to her day manager, who had kept many a secret over the years, Gigi couldn’t let Heather know what the real deal breaker was.
There just wasn’t any way Gigi could stay in the same room with Noah all year long.
That body of his. The way the muscles in his arms stood out when he did all the heavy lifting barbacks had to do. And those eyes. The sight of those deep blue eyes looking down into hers as she told him to do something made her skin prickle in a most unprofessional way.
The longer he stayed, the more she indulged in daydreams about him. Standing in her office, waiting for her orders.
On his knees, tugging at her panties with his teeth.
On his back, between her thighs, his teeth clenched in the effort to postpone the inevitable climax.
She couldn’t say any of that to Heather. Thoughts like that would only lead to problems, even if they took a detour to some pleasant destinations first. Lots of responsibilities came with the keys to this place, and her father made sure she knew it before he left her in charge and started his retirement. Some thoughts would have to stay thoughts.
She’d have to make do with just the summer, too.
She went back out to the bar with Heather, intending to make a quick walk-through to check on her customers before heading to her office to keep up with paperwork and the planning for Heather’s party. The appletini girls were huddled over a menu. A waitress brought a pitcher of beer to the booth of regulars and scooped up the empty pitcher as she chatted with them.
Noah leaned against the back bar, just outside the swinging kitchen door. He seemed oblivious to the commotion around him, which was nothing new. She’d seen him focus on filling the ice bins as if the fate of the world depended on it. Now his attention was directed at the end of the bar, and the old man she’d observed there earlier.
The last time he’d stared at a customer like that was a few weeks ago, just before the douchebag had started raising hell with his ex-girlfriend. Throwing people out was Gigi’s least favorite part of the job, right up there with cutting people off. Still, she’d stepped in to handle the problem, the way she’d handled it too many times before. When the asshole wouldn’t leave under his own power, Noah had picked him up by the scruff of the neck and one belt loop, and carried him, cursing and struggling, out the front door.
There hadn’t been any trouble after that, unless he saw something now that she didn’t.
Gigi had been filling a pint glass with ice when Noah appeared next to her.
God. Hearing that word in his low voice, meant for her attention only, made desire creep through her like molasses, thick and sticky-sweet.
Easy . “Yeah, Monroe?”
“You see that guy over there?”
She didn’t have to look up to know who he meant. “I see him. I don’t think he’s going to—”
“Would you buy him the next beer?”
She glanced up at Noah to see if he was serious, not that this seemed like his kind of humor. “You know him?”
He shook his head.
“He just looks like another beer would do him good?”
He nodded. “That’s right, boss.”
She looked up at the old man, still gazing at nothing as his nearly empty glass grew warm beside him. She would probably have refused anyone else; she often had to rein in summer employees fascinated with the idea that the bar’s budget allowed them to buy someone the occasional drink. But Noah wasn’t given to bullshit like that. Besides, after the bathrooms, she was inclined to be generous. Someone ought to have a free beer after all that work.
“Tell you what, Monroe. How about you buy him the beer? I’ll take it out of your pour tab.”
“Thanks, boss.” He peered over into the ice well behind her and turned to head back to the freezer. “I owe you one.”
Gigi tapped the screen on the point of sale system until she found the older guy’s tab. Once she figured out what he was drinking, she pulled a second beer and took it to him. He finally looked up when she swapped out his glass for the fresh one.
“Oh,” he said. His features softened into an expression that seemed careworn and lost, as if he were embarrassed to be caught staring into space. “But I didn’t—”
“Don’t worry, brother,” she said. “It’s taken care of.”
He blinked at the beer before speaking. “Oh. Um, thank you.”
“Yeah, you bet.”
She watched the old man from the corner of her eye as she poured herself a glass of water from the soda gun. He pinched the bridge of his nose as he regarded his new drink, but his smile was wilted and broken. He certainly didn’t seem much happier, but she’d only given away one beer. Maybe he’d stay for dinner now.
Time would tell. She took her glass of water back to the office.
* * *
She hadn’t gone downstairs to the cool storage room to complete a full inventory. She liked to save that chore for Sunday nights. She’d just come to check on the bubblegum vodka. Two of the summer bartenders had suggested picking it up for younger customers. The incredibly sweet liquor was great for what they called girly drinks.
She’d gone into the storage to see how many of the three bottles were still on the shelf.
She’d gone in to count to three. Actually, the highest number she would have had to count was three.
And she couldn’t do that. Because of him.
She had been half-listening to him out there, talking to the old man as he hauled the last of the clean glasses to the back bar and wiped down the sinks. She couldn’t make out the words, but his voice had taken on a warmth that evoked a similar softness from his new friend. At one point, they shared a joke. They both sounded like men who didn’t laugh often enough.
Somehow, Monroe had gotten this guy to open up enough to order dinner, and he’d lingered at the bar all evening, until now the two of them were closing the place.
Much as Noah’s kindness intrigued her, though, Gigi was distracted by his other attributes.
She imagined his body moving, so graceful despite his size. In her mind, she could see his big hands around the pint glasses, his powerful legs taking him easily from one end of the bar to the other. He’d be out there now, mopping the floor with long, sweeping movements like a dance.
Time went slow. The storage room’s familiar perfume, cardboard mixed with the sweet spicy smell of spirits, wrapped itself around her.
She knew he’d come in eventually. He’d ask if she needed anything else. That was his question for her every night.
You need anything else, boss?
This time, she’d put the iPad down and turn to face him. She’d crook her finger silently, beckoning him. Not smiling, not coy. A summons, a command.
And he’d come to her, slowly filling the room with each step until he was right in front of her, as close as these bottles of vodka she couldn’t count because of him.
Then she’d point down at the floor, and his long legs would fold in silent reverence as he knelt before her.
He would know what came next. He would know how to unfasten the button and zipper of her jeans, how to slide them down and down. He would know that he must kiss each thigh before he proceeded. He must present the warm pressure of his mouth, the fine sandpaper of his chin, for her approval.
He would know that when she nodded, he must pull down her panties. Moving them aside would not be enough. She must feel his face, his breath, against her bare skin. Tonight, however, the fabric might give in those strong hands. These panties were worn and flimsy things anyway, defenseless against the lust he must try to control, and she would forgive the destructive impulse because it aroused her so immensely.
She would widen her stance to make room for him. Those big hands would cup her naked ass. His breath would be hot and urgent on her swollen mound.
And then his tongue would slide between her pussy lips, with the slow confidence that was part of him. His mouth would settle on her aching flesh, and he’d devour her, his firm lips coaxing hot nectar from her, his tongue plunging deep into her. She would rock her hips against his face, and his fingers would dig in, partly to hold her still and partly as a response to his tremendous hunger for her.
She would stroke his hair first. Yes, he was so good. Yes, it was just as she wished. Then she would pull it, bringing him up and into her, and he would know she wanted more of this.
He was so strong and tireless, made for her, and he would prove it with his service. The wet sound of him feasting on her, the slow sway of her hips toward his face and then back into his hands. The subtle rasp of his chin on her slick folds would be loud in the storage room’s stillness. He would go on like this as long as she wanted, as long as she could bear it.
And when she tapped the crown of his head, he would divert his attention to her clit, flicking it with his tongue, pressing it between his lips until she flew apart under his ministrations. He would hold her as she shuddered, her back against the shelves, making the bottles ring against each other.
He would hold her steady until she came back to earth.
He would lick her juices from his mouth.
Then he’d ask her favorite question. “You need anything else?”
She snapped back to reality with a sigh. Dammit. This was twice in one day. She’d come down here to count three bottles. If she wasn’t careful, she’d be here all night.
* * *
Gigi was not doing inventory. She’d told Noah that was what she was doing, and she was standing in the storage room with her iPad in her hand. She looked the part all right.
But Gigi hadn’t moved for at least sixty seconds. Noah knew that because he’d been standing about six feet behind her, staring at her ass, for that long.
He blessed the day he’d found this place and come in to ask Heather about the barback job. He hadn’t even known what a barback was. He just knew he needed a way to make some cash before he went to Florida to meet up with Lamont, and lots of people had told him that working at a bar meant good money, a good time, and no commitment. Perfect. He wouldn’t be here long. No need to get involved with other people’s lives.
Then he’d met the woman who would be his boss.
Built like a goddess. Almost as tall as he was and strong, too, but gifted with curves that were just right for his hands.
He wanted to lick that perfect brown skin. He wanted to plunge his hands into that dense mass of curls, too abundant to be imprisoned in a ponytail, and he wanted to tug and tease them, to watch them glow a deep red-brown in the light. He wanted just once to see her in a bikini. Something bright. Something that exposed those long legs.
The other day, he’d caught her checking him out. At least, he thought he had. She hadn’t dropped her gaze when he faced her. In fact, she’d given him something else to do. But for that instant, she had been looking at him.
That would have been enough if he didn’t work for her. If he wasn’t the employee, he’d have found out by now whether she’d been inspecting his technique or sizing him up for something else.
But he liked this job too much to risk it. It did pay well, and he went home exhausted. He hadn’t slept so peacefully in forever.
When Gigi had interviewed him so long ago, she’d been so worried that the job would be beneath him. With his experience, she had asked, wouldn’t he want something that used his skills? But he’d had a good look at the place, and what he saw made him smile. She needed a lot done in there. He reassured her that he’d be using his skills.
Not that the place was filthy. He’d been in his share of filthy bars, staffed by lots of lazy-ass people standing around drinking like they were customers. Gigi’s handful of bartenders and wait staff stayed busy all shift long. Keeping up with business would be hard enough without slowing down to figure out why the lights on the patio upstairs didn’t work.
He was needed here. He’d joined a tight-knit, fun-loving, hard-working bunch, and they needed him. He hadn’t wanted to be involved, but the Inn Too Deep had other plans. He couldn’t fuck that up.
So he settled for perfect moments like this, when he could stare at his boss’s ass with impunity while she pretended she was doing inventory.
What was distracting her?
Was she thinking about him?
Her spine straightened an instant before she glanced over her shoulder. She jumped just a little when she saw him. She pressed her palm to her chest and exhaled through perfect, rounded lips. “Jesus, Monroe.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right.” She chuckled and rubbed her eyes. “It’s so late I can’t count to three down here.”
For a moment, he dared to imagine that she’d been thinking of him. Maybe thinking of digging those short nails into his shoulders. He tried to keep the thirst off his face. “I finished everything up front. I just came to see if you needed anything else.”
“You let that guy out?”
He smiled, remembering the old man’s firm handshake and the tiny tremor in his features that said he wanted a hug instead.
“Yeah, I sent him home.”
She was quiet for a second, and a tiny furrow appeared between her brows, but she didn’t ask whatever question was on her mind. Instead, she set the iPad on a box of Stoli and looked up at him. “You know, Heather and I were talking about you today.”
Oh, really? “You were?”
“Yeah. She’s really impressed with your work here.” She put her hands in her back pockets, right where Noah wanted his own.
“That’s great,” he said. “Thanks.”
“I’m impressed, too.” Her rosy lips curved into a smile.
His skin grew warm, and he hoped the light was too dim for her to see him blushing. “Even better.”
“She wanted me… she asked me to ask you to stay on. After Labor Day.” She lifted one hand to ward off his response. “I told her you and I had already talked about this.”
He’d been upfront at the interview when he said he could only stay for the summer. His stated reason at the time was that Lamont was expecting him to join the crew of his fishing boat in Florida. He’d also secretly wondered how long he could stay interested in the job.
Now he just had to deal with Lamont.
“Yeah, I’m flattered.” He nodded. “I mean, I really would stay if it weren’t for this other job.”
“I know.” She shrugged. “I told her. But I also told her I would ask you. Again.”
Now she was blushing. Her face went the color of sunset, a warm rose color unlike anything else God created, and he could all but hear her body seeking his touch.
His skin tingled as the fine hairs on his bare arms slowly rose. The air thickened between them, its weight so heavy he could barely expand his chest. Something like electricity slowly wrapped around his spine, down to his balls.
A feeling he knew all too well—the sense that something was about to happen. The tingling hyper-awareness, the first icy slivers of sweat, the short, shallow breath. He’d felt it dozens, maybe hundreds of times in the roaring heat of the desert half a world away. He’d felt it as a teenager on summer vacations, just before an explosion of a different kind.
He’d never experienced it in this way, connected to something he needed like he needed the rush of blood in his veins.
He could kiss her. He could close the scant distance between them and slide his tongue along the seam of her plump lips.
But she rocked back on her heels and touched her tongue to her upper lip. Cool air swept into the space between them, enough for him to regain himself by breathing deeply of the storage room’s booze-fragrant air.
“Okay,” she sighed. “I’ll tell her tomorrow. That you said no. Again.”
“Okay.” He rubbed the back of his neck, the friction restoring him to reality. “I mean, nothing personal. I just have to be in Florida.”
She swept one hand over the other. “That’s what I told her. She’s just not big on taking no for an answer.”
“I get it.” He eased away from her and toward the door, moving like a magnet being pulled off steel. “You sure you don’t need anything else?”
She took the iPad off the box of Stoli. “I’m good. See you tomorrow?”
He was almost to the stairs when she spoke again. “Noah.”
She rarely used his first name. Hearing it in that low, musical voice almost undid him.
“What was up with that guy tonight?”
He turned to face her. “Fellow vet. Vietnam.” He shrugged. “He just needed to talk.”
A quizzical expression pursed her lips. “How could you tell?”
Noah regarded her with a smile. “Just a feeling, boss.”
She didn’t need to hear the truth, didn’t need to know how he recognized the distant, unfocused expression on his new friend’s face. Noah’s landlady stared off into nothingness like that sometimes, sitting on her porch and thinking of the son who had never come home. Many long summers ago, his favorite uncle had gazed into the carpet between his chair and the television, the center of a bubble that threatened to pop with deafening force.
The silence between them began to build again. If he didn’t go now, they’d eventually turn a corner to things that couldn’t be undone.
“So you don’t need anything else, boss?”
She shook her head. “I just came to count one thing. I’m going out right behind you.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”