I clock her the moment she walks through the door.
Headed to the four-top in my section. Prissy shirt, sleek ponytail, tight ass—and that last one’s in both senses of the words.
Once she and her friend are seated, she sweeps her gaze around the dining room in a slow pass that misses nothing, from the tables packed with rushed execs cramming in a fifty-minute lunch to the colorful murals covering the walls. Her head tilts when she notices the painted scene to her left, and her eyes widen. Apparently Little Miss Tight Ass is a fan of the artwork that the waitstaff privately refer to as The Lion Fucks Tonight. If this were my restaurant, would I have chosen to feature a pair of lions who look like they’re doing something a little more intimate than fighting? God no. But it’s a great way to tell which customers are going to be cool and which are going to be uptight nightmares.
Ponytail’s enthralled expression tells me she’s going to be the cool type, thank god.
“Is that for us?”
The impatient voice from table six makes me realize I’ve been staring at the prettiest woman in the room instead of dropping off the extra butter that the quartet 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 dim-bulb waiter who begs their pardon—before moving to her table.
“I’m still furious for you,” the other woman is saying as I approach.
Her friend’s smile is as sharp as her ponytail. “Don’t be. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine! It’s inexcusable,” says her friend. “I vote murder. We can use my burn pit. They’ll never find the body.”
Ponytail just shakes her head as she sets her purse on the floor next to her pointy-toed high-heeled boots. Everything about her looks capable of puncturing something.
I 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 expression doesn’t change, but her cardigan-wearing friend bleats out a laugh. “Trust me. We’d be doing the world a favor.” Her interested eyes take in my arms, and I oblige her by flexing just a little under my blue polo. I work hard for the tips those traps and triceps bring me.
“Can I start you with some drinks?” I ask. “Something to help you plot?”
Cardigan glances at me through her lashes as she points to the seasonal drinks menu in front of her.
“A Gingerbread White Russian, please.” She’s in leggings and running shoes, and she’s clearly not worried about drinking over lunch on the last Wednesday in November.
“Excellent choice,” I tell her, then turn to ponytail, who’s staring up at the mural again. “And for you? Liquid courage helps you face down lions.”
That pulls her attention away from the questionable art, and she turns to find me with my hands clasped behind my back, waiting for her to give me an order. She blinks as if she’s noticing me for the first time, and I purse my lips in a flirty smile that reliably turns ones into ten spots.
Ponytail flushes and drops her eyes to the menu. “Oh, um, b-bourbon sour?” she asks, flicking her eyes back up to me.
Well well well. I do believe I just made this uptight lady stammer, and I like that feeling so much that I wink at her as I say, “One bourbon sour coming right up.” As I intended, she pinks up again and tries to tuck a nonexistent strand of hair behind her ear.
I’m way too pleased with myself as I head to the bar and wait impatiently for Kelsey to make the drinks. I’m as curious about whose murder they’re planning as I am about what else might might make ponytail blush again. I never hit on the guests when I’m at work, but today I’m allowing myself to appreciate this gorgeous art-appreciator.
On my return to the table, I learn a little more about the murder plot.
“How did he have the damn nerve?” Cardigan’s practically hollering as I set the White Russian in front of her. “The goddamn 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 against mine as I hand over 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 job, then three weeks later your boss framed you for embezzlement and got you deported?”
“For real?” I ask in disbelief. Not even my wildest speculations would’ve come up with anything approaching that.
“For real,” ponytail says. Although her voice is level, when her eyes flash up to mine, I see anger burning there. “To be clear, I didn’t do it.”
“But Canada kicked her out anyway!” her friend says.
“That’s 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.”
“I wasn’t expecting to get quite so familiar with the Canadian legal system.” She taps her nails against the side of the glass in tiny a tic tic tic of agitation. “Thankfully, the police figured out pretty quickly that it was my boss and not me, but not before 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 the direction of my 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 toward Baby’s alley parking spot. “She’ll get you over the border and back.”
Ponytail just shakes her head as she lifts the glass. “He’s locked up waiting for trial.” She lets her gray eyes drift shut as the bourbon hits her lips, tilting her chin as she savors and swallows. “It’s tempting though,” she murmurs with her eyes still closed.
Christ, she’s elegant. Great body, rigid posture, full pink lips. There’s not a strand of reddish-brown hair out of place and not a wrinkle on her white button-down shirt. In my experience, getting a woman like her into bed could go one of two ways: full starfish, or full porn star. And 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 suddenly graphic imagination, and with a small shake of my head, I’m a restaurant professional again. It’s been forever since anybody got under my skin like that at either of my jobs, and unfortunately, she’s at the job where I’d never act on it. And isn’t that a fucking shame.
I clear my throat, tame my thoughts, and ask the pair, “Are you ready to order?” and then force myself to go about my business as if they were any other table. I keep their glasses full, deliver their entrees, 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.
It’s all working fine until I swing by with their bill. They’re speaking more quietly now, their conversation barely audible over the Christmas music that’s already pumping through the dining room even though today is Thanksgiving Eve.
“Did you want to hit that boutique you told me about?” ponytail asks.
“I would love that,” cardigan says. “But just a heads up: it’s a little ways out of town, and it shares a parking lot with a strip club.”
The unexpected reference to the Crimson Lounge surprises me so much that I drop the bill folders on the table with a thunk.
Thankfully, they’re both too busy reaching for their purses to notice my shock.
“I wonder if they ever do a ladies night there.” Cardigan slips her card into the folder and holds it out to me to take.
“Would you believe I didn’t study up on Beaucoeur’s male dancer population before I fled the great white north?” ponytail says drily, and I can’t help it. The tiniest of smirks crosses my face. It’s there and gone, but she notices. I can see it in the tiny widening of her eyes, her flash of curiosity prompted by my flash of amusement.
Speculation lights up her face as our gazes lock and the crowded dining room seems to fall away. Her lips part as if she’s about to form a question, and everything in me whispers, Yes, ask. Let me tell you what you want to know. Because what I have to say would put a blush travel way farther than her cheeks.
But after a beat, she blinks and breaks the spell, and the spark in her eyes fades to polite friendliness 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 breakfast, brunch, and lunch joint as possible. I learned my lesson ages ago about the dangers of mixing my night job with my day job. 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.
Still there’s something lurking underneath her calm surface. Before she stuffed it back down, I saw that anger simmering hot and wild in her eyes, and her sharp interest in the secrets I might be keeping. I bet I could pull all of those big, messy emotions to the surface and set them loose to play.
Well the other me could. And both he and I think that’s a great idea.
Without pausing to talk myself out of it, I grab my order pad and scrawl a note that I tuck into the folder with her receipt. Then I breeze back to her table.
Charlotte’s pulling on her coat as I approach, but ponytail’s looking at those lions again. This time her expression’s different though. Harder. Her lip curls with disgust, and it vibrates through the taut lines of her neck, the stiff set of her shoulders.
The disapproval pouring off of her upends what I thought I’d seen beneath that calm facade. I’ve misjudged women in the past, and as bulletproof as I seem, it fucking stings to watch them jump from surprise to horror to good old-fashioned slut-shaming over what I do. Their loss of course, but I don’t need to set myself up for that today over an infatuation with a strange woman. So I flip open her bill folder, grab my note, and slip it into my pocket. I might be curious about whether I could undo those buttons and ruffle the woman who jokes about strip clubs after getting booted from a whole other country country, but I’m not interested in exploring that with someone who gets all pinch-mouthed about two hot pink lions sporting combat-boners.
I set their bill folders on the table and remind myself that it’s ridiculous to be disappointed in a woman I don’t even know. Still, I hover nearby as ponytail takes her time sliding into her coat and gathering her purse.
“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 the way I saw something in her. That she’s worth breaking my rules for after all, optimist that I am.
I’m sliding my hand into my pocket to pull out that damn note again when she straightens into that upright posture and offers me a cool smile. “Have a nice rest of your day, Jonesy.” Then she turns and walks out, leaving me staring down at my shirt.
Of course that’s what she was looking at. Not me, but my fucking name tag. She didn’t even remember my name. So much for that spark I felt between us.
I crumple the note and toss it into the watery remains of her drink, where the thin paper immediately dissolves. Her loss.
Except for some reason, this one feels like my loss too.