I clock her the instant she walks through the door.
Headed to the four-top in my section. Tall boots, sleek ponytail, tight ass.
Once she and her friend are seated, she sweeps her coolly assessing gaze around the dining room in a slow pass, skimming over the tables packed with execs cramming in a fifty-minute lunch and the riot of offbeat murals decorating the walls.
She’s picked a seat directly under one of the upcycled light fixtures, and it acts like a spotlight for her reddish-brown ponytail, bright-green sweater, and lush pink lips. Forget the murals. She’s the only artwork this restaurant needs.
“Is that for us?”
The annoyed voice of the banker-lawyer-accountant from table six makes me realize I’ve been staring at the woman who’s glowing like an angel in my section instead of dropping off the extra butter the trio of suits had requested. I swing into action, handing the dish off to one of the titans of industry with an apology and an aw-shucks smile—dudes like that always love a waiter scrambling to beg their pardon—before moving to her table.
“I’m still furious,” her cardigan-wearing friend announces as I approach.
My ponytail angel unwinds a scarf from around her neck, her mouth as tight as the folds she’s making in the red material. “Don’t be. It’s fine.” She tucks the folded scarf into her purse, her ponytail sliding over her shoulder as she does.
“It’s not fine! It’s inexcusable,” Cardigan says. “I vote murder. We can dissolve him in quicklime. They’ll never find the body.”
Ponytail just shakes her head, and I take the opportunity to clear my throat.
“Hi, ladies. Welcome to Verdant. I’m Jonesy, and I’ll be the third party to your criminal conspiracy today.”
Ponytail’s flat expression doesn’t change, but her cardigan-wearing friend bleats out a laugh.
“Trust me. We’d be doing the world a favor.” Cardigan’s interested eyes take in my face and travel down to my arms, and I oblige her by flexing just a little under my white button-down. Hey, I work hard for the tips those arms bring me.
“Can I start you with some drinks?” I lean a little closer to ask. “Something to help you plot?”
Cardigan glances at me through her lashes as she points to the menu in front of her.
“A Gingerbread White Russian, please.” She’s in leggings and running shoes, and she’s clearly not worried about Kahlúa over lunch on a Wednesday in the middle of November.
“Excellent choice,” I tell her, then turn to Ponytail, who’s finally noticed the mural on the wall to her left, the one the waitstaff privately refer to as The Lion Fucks Tonight. I wouldn’t have chosen to decorate a brunch/lunch restaurant with a pair of lions who look like they’re doing something a little more intimate than fighting, but it’s a great way to tell which customers are going to be cool and which are going to be uptight pains in my ass.
Let’s find out which one Ponytail is.
“And for you?” I ask her. “Naughty or nice?”
That pulls her attention away from the questionable art, and she blinks as if she’s truly noticing me for the first time. “Sorry, what?”
“Your drink order.” I clasp my hands behind my back and curve my lips into my most winning smile, the one that reliably turns ones into tens. “Are you feeling naughty or nice?”
She flushes and drops her gaze to the menu, where the seasonal drinks are divided into two lists, alcoholic Naughty and non-alcoholic Nice.
“Oh, um, a c-cranberry bourbon sour?”
Well, well. I do believe I just made this uptight lady stammer. I like that feeling so much that I wink at her as I say, “Naughty it is.” As I hoped, she pinks up again and tucks a nonexistent strand of hair behind her ear.
I’m burning with impatience as I wait at the bar for their drinks. Sure, I’m curious about whose murder the two of them are planning, but I’m more interested in what else might make Ponytail blush. My rule is to never hit on people while I’m on the clock here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy teasing my tightly wound guest just a little.
On my return to the table, I learn a lot more.
“—the fucking nerve!” Cardigan’s practically hollering as I set the White Russian in front of her. “I cannot believe the audacity of that man.”
Ponytail lifts her shoulders and lets them drop. “For all the good it did him.” Her fingers brush mine as she accepts the bourbon, her skin warm next to the cool glass.
“I can’t believe you’re so calm about this.” Cardigan turns to me. “What would you do if you packed up your whole life and moved to Canada for a great job, then three weeks later your boss framed you for embezzlement and got you deported?”
All I can do is blink. “For real?” Not even in my wildest speculations would I have pictured Ponytail as an international fugitive.
“For real,” Ponytail says. Although her voice is level, anger burns in her eyes. It’s the first real emotion I’ve seen from her, and it’s spectacular. “To be clear,” she adds, “I didn’t do it.”
“But Canada kicked her out anyway!” her friend says.
“That is totally fuc—” I rock back on my heels, struggling to bite back a word that isn’t on the approved list for the waitstaff. “Uh, messed up. Totally messed up.”
“On the bright side, I’m now extremely familiar with the Canadian legal system,” Ponytail says, tapping her nails against the side of the glass in a tic, tic, tic of agitation. “The investigators figured out pretty quickly that it was my boss and not me, but not before he made sure I got perp-walked out of the building in front of the whole office.”
Her jaw tenses in a way that makes me want to find that Tim Hortons-loving motherfucker and moose-stomp him.
My expression must show my bloody thoughts because Cardigan gestures to me. “See? Jonesy gets it. Murder.”
“Got a truck out back you can borrow if you need to move a body,” I offer cheerfully, jerking my thumb over my shoulder to the staff parking lot. “She’ll get you over the border and back.”
Ponytail shakes her head as she lifts the glass. “That might be tough since my former boss is locked up pending trial.” She lets her brown eyes drift shut as the bourbon hits her lips and she savors and swallows. “It’s tempting though,” she murmurs with her eyes still closed.
I steal the opportunity to study her. Christ, she’s elegant. Great body, strict posture. Not a strand of hair out of place and not a speck on her expensive-looking sweater. In my experience, getting a woman like her into bed could go one of two ways, full starfish or full porn star. My body tightens with the sudden need to find out which one she’d be.
The scrape of silverware against plates at a nearby table pulls me away from my racing thoughts, and I give myself a mental shake. It’s been forever since anybody got under my skin this quickly at either of my jobs, and naturally, she’s at the one where I’d never act on it. Ain’t that a fucking shame?
I clear my throat, purge any thoughts that aren’t about providing good service, and ask, “Are you two ready to order?”
“Yes, but only if you forget this conversation.” Ponytail’s back to the cool control from earlier, and she turns it on her friend next. “That means you too. This is the last time I talk about it with anybody. I’m putting it behind me.”
Cardigan raises her hands in mock surrender, and I take the hint and go about my business as if they were any other table. I keep their glasses full, deliver their tacos, and check in on them with my usual just-this-side-of-flirty banter that guarantees a thirty percent tip at the end of the meal. As much as I’d like to see what she’s like outside of these four walls, the holiday hopes and dreams of five little kids depend on me socking away as much cash as I can, as fast as I can, and I’m not willing to risk that for a shot with this gingerbread-haired angel.
I’m congratulating myself on only wondering three or four times about the color of Ponytail’s nipples—brown, right? I bet they’re lightish brown like her hair—as I swing by with their bill. The two are speaking more quietly now, their conversation barely audible over the Christmas music that’s been pumping through the dining room since the beginning of the month.
“Did you want to hit that boutique tomorrow?” Cardigan asks.
“Sure,” Ponytail replies as I pick up one of their empty dishes.
“Just a heads-up,” Cardigan says as she reaches for her purse, “it’s in a tiny town an hour from here that doesn’t have zoning per se, so it’s next to a strip club.”
The unexpected reference to the Crimson Lounge surprises me so much that I drop the plate back onto the table with a thunk. Thankfully, they’re both too busy reaching for their bill folders to notice.
“I wonder if they ever do a ladies’ night.” Cardigan slips her credit card into the folder and holds it out for me to take.
“Would you believe I didn’t study up on central Illinois’ male stripper population before I fled the Great White North?” Ponytail says dryly.
I can’t help it. The tiniest smirk crosses my face. It’s there and gone, but she notices. I can see it in the slight narrowing of her eyes, the flash of curiosity prompted by my amusement.
Our gazes lock, and the crowded dining room falls away as her lips part. She’s about to form a question, and everything in me whispers, Yes, ask. Let me tell you what you want to know. The things I’d fill her ears with would put a blush on way more than her cheeks.
But after a beat, she blinks and breaks the spell, the spark in her eyes cooling to politeness yet again. She holds her folder out for me to take, then turns to continue the conversation with her friend, putting me out of her mind.
And that’s for the best. I keep my familiarity with the schedule at the Crimson Lounge as far from this family-friendly place as possible. I’ve learned my lesson about mixing my night job and my day job. Hell, I’m constantly exhausted just from doing my night job and my day job. I already know something has to give, and adding sex to the mix would only make it worse.
Still, I’m disappointed that Ponytail paid with cash. Unlike Cardigan—Charlotte West, according to her Visa—the gorgeous non-embezzler is destined to remain nameless.
Too bad. Before she stuffed it back down, I saw that anger simmering hot and wild under her skin, and I felt her sharp interest in the secrets I was keeping. I bet I could pull those big, messy emotions to the surface and set them loose. I bet she’d like it. I know I would.
Well, the other me could. And both he and I think that’s a great idea.
The thought of it fires my reckless side, and I scrawl a note on my order pad that I tuck into the folder with her receipt. Fuck it. What have I got to lose, right? Other than my dignity and my job, that is.
When I breeze back to her table, Ponytail’s looking at those lions again. This time, though, her expression’s different. Harder. Her lip curls with disgust, and it vibrates through the taut lines of her neck, the stiff set of her shoulders.
I pull up short at the judgment pouring off of her. It upends what I thought I’d seen beneath that calm facade. I’ve read people wrong in the past, and even with as few shits as I give about what people think about someone who takes their clothes off for money, it still fucking stings to watch them jump from surprise to disapproval to good old-fashioned slut-shaming in front of my eyes.
Their loss, of course. But I don’t need to set myself up for that today just because a strange woman looked good under the restaurant lights.
Cursing my own stupidly soft underbelly, I flip open her bill folder, grab my note, and stuff it into my pocket. I might be curious about whether I could undo the woman who jokes about strip clubs after getting booted from our very polite neighbor to the north, but I’m not interested in exploring that with someone who gets all pinch-mouthed about two hot-pink lions rocking combat-boners in front of a sickly green sky.
I set their bill folders on the table and remind myself that it’s ridiculous to be disappointed by a woman I don’t even know. Still, I hover nearby as Ponytail takes her time sliding into her coat and winding the scarf back around her neck.
“Thanks again.” Her eyes flick to my chest, and my blood heats at the thought that she’s ogling me just as blatantly as her friend did earlier. That she saw something in me too, and that it might be worth breaking my rules after all.
I’m sliding my hand into my pocket to pull out that damn note again when she straightens and offers me a bland smile. “Have a nice rest of your day, Jonesy.” Then she turns and walks out, leaving me staring down at the name tag on my shirt.
Of course that’s what she was looking at. She didn’t even remember my name.
I yank the note out of my pocket, disgusted with myself, and toss it into the watery remains of her drink. The thin paper immediately dissolves into pulp.
Except for some reason, this one feels like my loss too.