I’m desperately trying to hang onto my shitty mood, but the bartender’s making it tough.
“Goddamn,” the man next to me mutters, his gaze fixed on her ass.
I agree, but I don’t say so. For one thing, that guy’s being gross enough for both of us. And for another thing, I’m not going to be in town long enough to form an opinion about the bartender one way or another.
“Wonder when she gets off?” My disgusting neighbor rubs his palms over his khaki-clad thighs, and I don’t need to be an expert in male-male communication to know what’s going to cross his fleshy lips next. “’Cause we’ll both be getting off about ten minutes after that.”
Even though the bar’s noisy and she’s a few feet away slicing limes with breathtaking speed and precision, the bartender swivels just enough to catch my gaze. She must’ve heard his comment because she flashes me a look of such amused horror that I have to bite my lips to keep from chuckling. Why she’s made me her silent conspirator, I don’t know, but she’s been doing it all night, sending me these sly little glances full of mirth and intelligence. We’ve only exchanged a few sentences, but it’s almost like I have a direct pipeline to the thoughts tumbling through her brain: Can you believe this guy? her gorgeously funny face seems to say. Lucky for him I’m in a good mood even though my feet are killing me.
The last of my irritation drains away as I absorb the silent monologue she’s sending me, and I tilt my head to give my silent response: This isn’t worth your time. I got this. Then I take a sip of my beer and divert this guy as hard as my flight was diverted from Logan International a few hours earlier.
“What’s the deal with the decor?” I gesture at the carved ostrich head mounted over the far end of the bar. Its wooden feathers are painted purple, green, and orange, and impressively long lashes frame its blue gemstone eyes. A hot pink feather boa’s draped around its neck, and earrings dangle from its head where the ears would be.
The change of subject does the trick. My neighbor's glassy gaze swims past me to land on the drag queen ostrich, and his ruddy face splits into a smile. “Oh, that’s Miss Gouda. She’s the patron saint of the bar. Pretty cunning, huh?”
“Never seen anything like her,” I agree as the bartender moves through the periphery of my vision. As gaudily fantastic as Miss Gouda is, she doesn’t hold a candle to the woman slinging drinks. The bartender’s got blue eyes that rival the ostrich’s sapphires, and she’s dressed like a Christmas gift in a tight red dress with a green bow headband nestled in her blonde curls. The bow should look juvenile on someone who I’d guess is in her late 20s, but instead she’s festive and adorable. And, yes, fuckable. My neighbor isn’t wrong about that.
When I landed my plane in Burlington, Vermont, and not Boston as scheduled, I grudgingly acknowledged that I’d be stuck there overnight. So I accepted my fate and hopped into a Lyft from the airport, asking the driver to take me someplace where I could knock back a drink while I sulked in peace.
Well, mission not accomplished, Lyft-driver Travis. This well-cared-for little bar was supposed to be a place for me to kill an hour or two before I find my hotel, collapse, and hopefully make my way to Chicago tomorrow. Instead, four hours have passed, and I’m still here.
The drinks are strong, and they’re not too expensive. The barstool is comfortable. The music’s the perfect mix of classic rock and Christmas tunes. It’s just crowded enough that the space is warm and buzzy despite the New England cold that leaks in every time the bell jingles to let in another patron. But none of those things are the reason that I still have an elbow propped against the bar.
It’s her. This holiday angel slinging drinks a foot away makes it impossible for me to spend the night feeling sorry for myself. She focused only on me when I gave her my order, and she danced as she mixed it. Not in a showy way, not like she was aware that every eye in the place was on her. All night long, the smooth motion of her hips is uninhibited and solely for herself, as if she can’t help but move to music only she can hear.
She’s just so… alive. She’s the only person working the bar, and somehow she’s keeping us all in drinks and good cheer without a single ripple of stress in her entire body. She’s a magnet and we’re the metal shavings, trembling and surging toward her when she sweeps down the center of the horseshoe-shaped bar, where eyes fix on her from both sides of the mellow wood. Even me, who planned to spend tonight sulking because I’m currently stranded hundreds of miles away from my family days before Christmas thanks to a series of blizzards disrupting every flight east of the Mississippi.
As the night wears on and Bing and Elvis disagree about what color Christmas we can expect, I watch a handful of other patrons shoot their shot. They ask for her digits or slide her an inviting smile. Flex their biceps or curl a lock of hair around a finger. And the bartender just lights up with a sparkling grin before spinning away to mix another drink with an ease that speaks to hours behind the bar. The confidence I have at the controls of a Boeing 767, that’s what she’s got with bottles and bitters.
She doesn’t lift her head from where she’s pouring vodka into a shaker, but her eyes flick up to mine, bright and playful under velvety lashes.
The jolt of electricity I feel forces the corner of my mouth to curl upward.
“Sure.” Why even pretend? I’ve been putty in her hands all night long, along with at least half of the patrons here. I slap a twenty on the bar. “It looks like Miss Gouda could use a tiara. Buy her something nice.”
“Only if I can buy myself a matching one.” Her bright red lips tilt upward as she pockets the cash and gets back to mixing the martinis.
“And replace the Christmas bow? No deal.” I wiggle my fingers at her. “Give it back.”
She straightens the green headband with a wink and deposits the drinks in front of a group of women a few stools over. “Too late. Gouda and I are getting tiaras.”
Before I can respond, she’s poured me a fresh beer with the perfect head of foam and whirled away in a cloud of blonde hair to serve the college kids who just came in. She sets out a row of shot glasses and with a showy flick of her wrist is pouring tequila down the line without even looking as the boys rowdily cheer her on. When the last one overflows and spills onto the wood, she bursts into laughter as she pulls the bottle away, ending up with a splash of tequila running down her fingers.
“Want me to lick that off for you?” asks one of the older guys who’s been drinking steadily all night. He stretches over the bar with a leer and catches her wrist. I straighten immediately, prepared to remove his grubby, overly eager hands from her body, but she stops me with one quick head shake. Every relaxed line of her body tells me she’s got this. And she does.
“Your mother taught you better manners than that,” she says, lightly smacking his hand away.
“Ah, c’mon, Birdy. Don’t be like that.” He flops back onto his chair and pushes a hank of hair out of his eyes. “We could have some fun after you close up, yeah?”
Her laughing eyes slide over to mine, and this time, it’s like she can hear my thoughts: That guy has no idea how to handle a woman like you. Neither do the frat boys snickering nearby.
But I do. I know exactly how to handle a woman like her.
Playful, bold, talkative, joyful… sweet baby Jesus, sex with her would be magnificent. What a shame she lives in Vermont and I live in Michigan. She’s exactly the kind of woman I’ve spent the last year trying to find.
She’s also the kind of woman who knows how to handle a handsy drunk.
“I think it’s time to cut you off, Jimbo.” For the first time all night, there’s steel at the edge of her smile as she whisks away his half-finished beer and sets a glass of water in front of him. “That goes for you too.”
It takes a bit for me to realize she’s looking my way.
“Me?” My brows lift in surprise as she plunks a club soda in front of me, dropping in a lemon slice and a straw. Then she disappears to the opposite end of the bar, and I push away that rogue fantasy of unwrapping her like an early Christmas gift. No idea why she cut me off, but she’s not wrong that I’ll probably sleep better without extra alcohol sloshing around my system.
Half an hour later, I’m glad to have a clear head because the frat boys have goaded each other into playing the same Taylor Swift song on repeat, and the bartender and I trade mock-horrified expressions.
“Twice was great,” she murmurs, topping off my drink as the jangly intro kicks up again.
I lift it in a toast to the jukebox. “Seven times is too damn much.”
But just as quickly as we lock eyes, she’s moving down the bar to serve another thirsty patron, leaving me with my club soda and a nice view of her legs in that short red dress.
Before I know it, it’s 2 a.m., and the bar’s almost emptied out. I should’ve been back at my hotel ages ago. The last time I was at a bar this late, I was being charming as fuck to a group of women at a bachelorette party, and it paid off handsomely. Tonight, though, I’m content just to exist and contemplate Miss Gouda. There’s wisdom in those fake sapphire eyes.
Red flashes at the edge of my vision, breaking into my comfortable cocoon of warmth and low lights and vintage Christmas tunes. The bartender leans her elbows on the bar in front of me and props her chin in her hands, shooting me one of those megawatt smiles.
“Want to give me fifteen minutes to close up and then we can get out of here?”
I blink. “Sorry, what?” I have to be misunderstanding her.
Her glossy red lips twist into a crooked smile. “I mean, you don’t have to. But there’s a reason I switched you to water a while back.”
Surprise hits me first, followed closely by an excited buzz that has nothing to do with alcohol. “Oh yeah?”
“I want you on your game.” She lifts one shoulder and lets it fall as my hungry eyes track the graceful movement. “Whaddya say?”
I’m so surprised by the unexpected offer that I don’t respond immediately, and she twists her lips into a playful pout.
“Wow, are you really gonna make me beg?”
Fuck it. There’s a chance I’m not going to make it home for Christmas, so this is the gift I’m giving myself.
“I’ll help clear the tables.”