Wildcat: Chapter 2

SCARLETT

DELAYED JET LAG

SCARLETT

The tray of shots in my hands tips to the side and clatters to the floor between customers. I squeeze my eyes shut. Fuckity fuck. It’s safe to say that bartending is not my calling.

Mike’s heavy sigh breaks through the noise of the bar as he comes around to help me.

“I’m sorry,” I say for at least the tenth time tonight as I squat down to clean up another mess.

“It’s okay.” He picks up the tray, and together we retrieve the tiny plastic cups (thank goodness they weren’t glass) and mop up the sticky liquid. “I got it. Why don’t you go ahead and close out? I think we can handle it from here.”

The look on his face right now—the downturned, tight-lipped smile and apologetic eyes— I’ve seen it before. Just last week, my boss at the coffee shop gave me the same one when I confused the vanilla and hazelnut syrups for an entire shift. Oops. I was politely “let go” from that job, but I wasn’t too sad about it. I am not a morning person, and mixing me with other fellow caffeine addicts before the sun rises is a recipe for disaster.

“I guess I’m not any better on the other side of the bar,” I joke.

“You’ll get the hang of it,” he reassures me. “And, hey, thanks for your help getting the word out. I haven’t seen this place so busy in years.”

“Welcome.” I untie the little black apron and set it on the tray with the empty cups. “You’ll let me know if you have any nights you need covered next week?”

I like the energy of this place, so I’m hoping that despite my less than stellar bartending skills, he might call me to work again.

“I might have some liquor promotions this week. They’re…” He bobs his head side to side. “More casual. I think you might do well with that. I’ll be in touch once I check the schedule.” Mike reaches over the tray to give my shoulder a squeeze and then gets back behind his bar. As bosses go, he seems like a good one.

My best friend appears by my side. “What’s going on? Did he cut you for the night? Please say no. We’re still packed in here. Where are the shots for table Smart and Handsome?”

I snort a laugh at her nickname for the table of trivia winners. “I dropped the tray.”

She winces and gives me one of those maybe this isn’t your thing smiles that have become routine in my hot mess of a life.

“Sorry,” I say. “I appreciate your putting in a good word for me, but I don’t think Mike will be calling me up to cover another night shift.”

“Don’t even worry about it.” Jade sets her tray on the bar and expertly pours three shots. She’s been working here for two years and makes it look so easy. She blows out a breath that sends her bright red bangs out of her eyes. “This is really a problem of your own making. Your photos on the bar’s social media page brought all of these people here.”

“It was nothing,” I say. Last week I came to the bar to hang out while Jade was working. I had my camera on me and took a few photos of her working trivia night. Mostly, I was just messing around, but Mike loved them, and when they posted all the images, I guess other people did too. It’s a cool bar, so I’m glad people are coming in. A total dive, but cool.

“Whatever. It’s a crazy night to have your first shift. Besides, you were fine out on the floor.”

“Yeah, as long as I didn’t have to carry anything but empties.” The number of beers and mixed drinks I spilled tonight or messed up somehow and had to re-pour is too many to count.

“Are you staying and hanging out at least? I should be off in thirty. Usually, at midnight, it clears out a little.”

“That depends.” I glance up at the TV at the exact moment my ex-boyfriend’s face pops on the screen. Ugh. As if it weren’t stressful enough starting a new job, I’ve had to work all night with excited chatter on the TV for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix and all the highlights from the qualifying sessions. Rhyse is the favorite, which is nothing new. He’s almost always the favorite. “Can we change the channel in here?”

“Sorry. Mike has an ESPN-only rule. Sit at the far end and do not look at him.” Her gaze flicks to the screen. “He does not deserve it. Prick.”

“I’m not sure I should even be in the same vicinity as anything glass or spillable. Every mistake is making me more jittery and klutzy. I might be sending off bad juju just by hanging around.”

“You are stunning and majestic and not klutzy. Well, not usually. Maybe it’s delayed jet lag?”

“More like a crushing blow to my self-esteem,” I mutter, and because I’m obviously a glutton for punishment, I steal another glance at the TV where Rhyse is smiling through an interview in his red racing suit.

“Forget him.” Jade tries to hand me the tray.

“Uh-uh.” I try to back up, but I’m already against the bar.

“Yes,” she insists and edges it forward until the rounded edge hits my chest. “I’m not letting you leave here without going out on a high note. Take these shots to the trivia winners and end the night with your chin up. Rhyse is an idiot. There are a lot of great guys out there. His loss. He’s going to have a ‘come to Scarlett’ moment and run back to you. And when he does, you’re going to have moved on, realized you deserve so much more, and be living your best life.”

“That is a lot of growth.” I laugh lightly, but I cling to her words with hope.

“Yep, and it starts tonight. Take these to the table and then grab a seat at the bar and wait for me.”

“Come to Scarlett moment?”

“Like come to Jesus, but with memories of how freaking awesome you are.”

God, I love her. “Okay, fine, but if I drop it—”

“You won’t.” She nudges me forward. “And maybe while you’re over there, get hottie trivia guy’s number or better yet ask him to take you out back and talk nerdy to you while he fucks you back on your feet.”

“Oh my god,” I mouth at her ridiculousness as she winks and hurries off.

I take baby steps across the bar, holding my breath any time someone walks in front of me or gets too close, which is often, considering how packed this place is. I’m staring down at the tray, which Jade tells me actually makes it more likely I’ll spill than if I don’t, but I can’t seem to stop. I am stunning and majestic.

I make it to the table and am mentally giving myself a high-five when one of the guys calls out, “Victory shots,” and reaches for the tray. I panic and move it closer, which throws off his aim.

I brace myself for a collision that doesn’t happen. The guy closest to me stands and steadies me and the tray with reflexes and a grip that temporarily stun me. I don’t make any move to untangle myself from him or stand firm on my feet. Nah, I’m perfectly content to lean into him and inhale his masculine and woodsy scent.

“Are you okay?” His voice is quiet confidence wrapped in a deep baritone.

He meets my gaze from under the bill of an old, worn hat. I was able to sneak some glances at him earlier. He’s hard to miss. My heart might be a little broken, but I’m not so distraught that I don’t notice hot guys. And he is hot. Really hot. Straight nose, square jaw, hazel eyes, full lips, and also super smart. He carried his buddies to victory on the trivia front. He knew so much obscure sports trivia; my dad would be over here shaking his hand.

I realize I’m still staring and haven’t answered him. “Perfect.”

One of us sets the tray down. I’m pretty sure it’s him. The other two take their shots, including his, and place them on the table. I’m still in some sort of weird stare-off. I can’t seem to look away, and he’s still standing next to me.

“Can we get another round of beers?” One of the other guys drops a twenty-dollar bill on my tray.

“Oh, uh, you’ll have to get it from the bar because this is my last table.”

“For the night?” That deep voice beside me asks.

“Forever, probably. I think I just got fired.” Omg, shut up, Scarlett. How mortifying. I turn on my heel and scamper to the safety of the bar, where I grab my wallet and phone. Okay, so not stunning and majestic. I’m a work-in-progress.

I say goodbye to Mike and am rounding the bar when I come up short. Mr. Smart and Handsome Trivia Nerd stands waiting for me with the shot I just dropped off at his table still clutched in his fingertips.

“Is something wrong with the shot? Because I didn’t pour it. You’re safe.”

His eyes twinkle with humor, and his lips turn up into a smirk. “Thought you might need it more than me.”

“Oh.”

He holds it out, and I reach forward, fingers brushing his as he hands it to me.

“You didn’t spit in it or anything, right?”

“Would I tell you if I had?” Laughter makes his lips pull into a smirk that somehow makes him even hotter. “Nah. Spit-free.”

“Thank you.” I hesitate, but eventually toss it back, ignoring the burn coating my throat. “What is that?”

“Shouldn’t you know?”

“Did you miss the part where I was fired for failing spectacularly on my first night as a bartender?”

His laughter warms my insides. “It’s Fireball.”

“Thanks. I needed that.” I set the empty on the bar.

“I’m Leo.” He reaches a big hand out to me.

I place my palm in his, and my breath hitches. “Scarlett.”

Neither of us lets go right away, and I am very much enjoying the feel of his rough hand against mine and the warmth spreading through my insides.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks, still holding my hand hostage in his.

“Are you taking pity on me because I got fired?”

“Pity?” He withdraws his hand and shakes his head. “I saw you toss a drink in a guy’s face earlier. I don’t think you need my pity.”

“You saw that, huh?” I cringe, even though that guy totally had it coming. I motion to the table he left. “What about your friends?”

“They’re heading out soon anyway.”

He drags a stool out for me at the bar and then takes the one next to it.

“Oh,” I say as I perch myself on the other side of the bar I worked tonight. “I see. I’m the last resort so that you don’t have to drink alone.”

As soon as I say the words, I realize how silly they are. I bet he could get any girl in here to have a drink with him. He laughs it off, and when Mike comes over to take his order and places a couple of coasters in front of us, I lift a hand in an awkward wave.

“I think I like you better when you’re on the paying end of things.” He winks and tries to play it off like he’s kidding, but I don’t doubt the sincerity of that statement. “What can I get you?”

“Can I get a vodka soda?”

Mike nods, and we both look to Leo for his order.

“Just water. Thanks.” He places a twenty on the bar.

“You’re not having a drink?” I angle my body toward his, which is also, thankfully, away from the TV, as Mike places the glass in front of me.

“Wish I could. I’ve got to be up early in the morning for—” He stops himself, and then a half-smile tugs at one side of his mouth. “I have to be up early.”

“You signed up for an eight o’clock class, didn’t you? What kind of monster are you?”

He chuckles and takes a drink of his water. “What about you? Do you go to college here?”

“No. Well, it depends on who you ask.” I shake my head. How many embarrassing things can spill out of my mouth in front of this guy? “It’s a long story.”

One dark brow lifts. “Well, now I’m intrigued.”

He leans a big bicep against the bar and gives me his undivided attention, so I give him the basic rundown of my messy life. At this point, he’s either a glutton for punishment or enjoying my disaster of a night/life.

Footnotes: I did a study abroad program in London for a year, then met a boy and decided to stay an extra year, and now I’m back in Minnesota and supposed to be starting my sophomore year of college, but instead dropped all my classes after the first week.

My parents don’t know that last part yet, and yes, I know I need to tell them, but they are traditional and sometimes a little overprotective. I wanted to have a steady job lined up before I told them, so it would look like I have some inkling on what I’m doing with my life.

“Sorry you bought me that drink about now, aren’t you?” I cringe at the honesty with which I just dumped my messy life on his lap. It felt good to tell someone besides Jade, even if it’s just a stranger.

“Not at all. College isn’t the right track for everyone, and no one says you have to do it in the four years right after high school. If you decide later you want to get a degree, you still can. I think it’s cool. You’ll be far better equipped for the real world and probably happier, too.”

“Wow. Can I get you to come over and repeat that when I tell my parents that instead of going to classes all day, I’m hanging out on my friend’s couch watching Friends reruns?”

He flashes me another big smile. He has a small dimple on the left side of his cheek. His hat comes down so low, I wish he’d take it off so I could get a better look at his hair. The ends poking out on the side are a light brown.

Jade slumps in front of me, forearms resting on the bar. “One more table, and then we can go.” Her gaze slides to Leo, and a slow smile splits her lips. “Or not.”

“Jade, this is Leo,” I interject before she says something to embarrass me.

“The trivia nerd,” she says.

He tips his head. “Nice to meet you.”

“You know an incredible amount of boy band facts and sports history. Weird mix.”

“What can I say?” He grins. “It’s a gift.”

“Impressive. Truly.” She looks at me with wide eyes. “Are we still on for the karaoke bar?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“You should come with us,” she says to Leo. “I bet they even have some Backstreet Boys songs for you.” Jade stands tall and smooths a hand over her braid. “Back in five.”

“You could come if you wanted,” I say. “Jade is a lot of fun. Her boyfriend works for the karaoke company, so we get to sing as many songs as we want.”

He checks the time on a flashy watch adorning his left wrist. “I really wish I could.”

“Damn those early classes.” Seriously, damn those classes. I’d forgotten what it feels like to sit and talk with someone new. I haven’t dated since I’ve been back. It’s only been a couple of months, so it isn’t like I’ve been hiding away. Not much, anyway. Still, this is nice.

“What’s your major?” I ask. “Wait, let me guess.”

He sips on his water and leans an elbow on the bar. He’s confident and smart, personable. I wrack my brain for possibilities.

“Pre-law?”

He shakes his head and grins, that dimple twinkling.

Before I come up with another guess, his buddies step up next to us.

Leo stands. “Are you guys heading out?”

“Yeah,” the taller of the two guys steps forward, and they do the bro hand slap hug thing. “We have international finance in the morning, and without you to cheat off, we have to actually pay attention.”

The other guy offers a fist bump. “Thanks for coming out. Good luck next week.”

“Thanks.” Leo flicks his gaze at me uncomfortably, and I stare down at my glass to give him the illusion of privacy.

They say their goodbyes, and Leo drops back to his seat. “Sorry about that.”

“No worries.” I finish my drink. “So, a finance major?”

“Business with a finance emphasis.”

“I’m impressed. Math and numbers always intimidated me.”

“It’s simple, really. It’s all rules and order.”

I swear I get a little involuntary body shiver the way he says rules and order. This guy looks the opposite of both those things, and somehow the combination makes him sexier. Or maybe I just needed a reminder that hot, smart guys still exist in the world. Jade’s right. Forget Rhyse. There are good guys out there, and I think Leo might be one of them.

When my best friend is done, the three of us head out. Leo insists on walking us the two blocks to the other bar. Jade rushes in to see her boyfriend Sam, and I hang back to say goodbye to Leo.

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to come in for a little while?”

“Another time.”

We exchange numbers, and I have that giddy feeling of hope and excitement that he might call. Neither of us is drunk, so I don’t think I’m imagining the chemistry between us. He takes my hand and smooths his thumb over the top of my knuckles. The light touch sends a shiver up my arm.

“Night, Scarlett.” He keeps holding my hand until his backward steps pull our fingertips apart. Then he jolts forward and recaptures my hand. “Fuck it. I’ll nap tomorrow afternoon.”


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset