Zach caught the three lemons Ernie tossed to him, one at a time, juggling them in an easy pattern before tossing them on a wooden board, ready for slicing. “Gotta try harder than that to throw me off my game,” he ribbed the older man, who looked annoyed, yet still had to fight not to grin.
Ernie shrugged. “A man’s gotta try. Besides, making sure you’re on your toes.” He nearly had to shout to be heard over the crowd packing the bar, college students and yuppies and hardworking, blue-collar men and girlfriends out for a night on the town. Ernie’s welcomed everyone as long as they had the price of a drink or five on them.
Most of them came for Zach and what he could give them.
“Filling orders as fast as I can, and it’d be a hell of a lot faster if you didn’t try and keep me sharp, pal.” Zach sliced the lemons thinly, efficiently, and flicked a wedge back at Ernie. He clapped his hands. “The mixologist is in! Who wants what, ladies and gentlemen? Step right up and don’t be shy. I’m not a crystal ball, but damn, I’m close, and I’m good.”
“And humble.” Ernie scoffed. “Dude in the back of the line looks like he’s got cash. Bump him up the line,” he ordered as he left.
Zach could barely see him, whoever he was, and no way he’d tangle with the men and women crushing each other for a mixed drink they treated like a tarot reading.
They weren’t too far off the mark. For a woman who asked for a Push it to the Limit, he’d take in her tired eyes and her strained smile and mix her a Take it Easy. An older woman, her tie-dyed T-shirt bright and her long gray hair braided, asked for a Peace Out and got a Rock On. A pretty young thing who thought she needed a Blush got a Siren.
They loved it, ate it up -- drank it down, rather -- and most walked away with something new to think about. The way Zach figured it, some were born to heal, some were born to build, and he was born to mix a drink.
And he wouldn’t trade his life for the world on a silver platter.
The man Ernie had pointed out as worthy of special attention waited his turn, fading from Zach’s mind three or four orders down the line. He’d picked up a cloth moistened in lemon water to wipe his hands with when he caught the scent of a fine cologne, subtly rich, that made him shiver with an unexpected taste of arousal.
“What can I get you?” he asked, turning in fascinated curiosity.
Blue eyes, as blue as the ocean, regarded him with an utter calmness and stillness that stunned Zach into silence. “You choose,” he said, “if you like. But I already see what I want.”
The cloth fell from Zach’s hands. “Not my usual style,” he said, swallowing roughly. His cock filled in a rush, stiffening to distort his jeans. He burned on the inside. “But I think I do too.”
Ten minutes later, customers be damned, Zach’s cheek was pressed to the abrading surface of the ancient bricks outside and the blue-eyed man’s hands were tingling on his bare skin, the stranger’s cock buried in Zach’s ass, and his voice filling Zach’s head with soft, dirty promises and praise. The first time, but he already knew it wouldn’t be the last. If he’d had his way, it would have lasted forever.
Who knew? Maybe it could…
One Year Later
I Heart That City Bar & Grill
“Got a drink order for you.” The brunette waitress wedged her way between a nervous kid waiting on a pitcher of draft beer and a hard-core drinker glued to a saddle-shaped bar stool to get to Zach. She dropped her empty cork tray with a thunk
. “Is the mixologist in or what?”
Zach sized her up. Hallie, he thought her name was. Comparatively new to I Heart That City, but she’d been around the block a time or two, rode hard and put up wet. A pretty face with a damaged heart. “Sure thing, beautiful. Two seconds.”
She drummed her fingers on the bar, their nails bitten down to the quick, as he topped off a pitcher for an order in progress. “You made a good choice,” he complimented the kid waiting for his beer. “One of my favorite ales. Enjoy.”
“Thanks.” The kid held back from taking the pitcher. “Look, I don’t mean to be forward or anything, but I was wondering.” He fidgeted. “Probably all you want to do after work is get out of here, but would you maybe be into getting a cup of coffee with me?”
Ah. Zach grimaced, hoping his apology came across as good-natured. “Maybe another time.”
“Yeah.” The kid wasn’t fooled. He might be green, but not dumb. “See you around.”
Hallie cleared her throat.
“You’re next,” he reassured her, already scanning the bar to figure out who’d ordered what from the mixologist. It’d been a slow night for practicing his art and he’d been antsy even before being hit on. “Give me what you’ve got.”
“See the blushing Barbie over at table nine?” Hallie nodded in that direction without bothering to look. “Blonde ponytail, white dress with daisies? Now, see the Hugo Boss runway model sleaze she’s with who’s gonna eat her alive?”
“Only she doesn’t know it yet,” Zach said with a frown. “Damn. Poor kid.”
“Whatever. She wants an Innocent Passion. Subtle, huh?”
“Could be worse.” Zach shrugged and turned to his treasure trove of bottles and flasks, each one gleaming with the richness of whiskey or creamy with the sweetness of liqueur. “Besides, everyone’s gotta learn sooner or later.”
“I guess. Wish they didn’t.”
“So do I, but that’s life. Huh.” Zach scratched the label on the Baileys he’d taken down. “Give me a minute. I’ve got an idea.”
Hallie raised one eyebrow but did as he’d asked, waiting for him and watching as he brought down gin, rum, tequila, Blue Curacao, and triple sec. “So the idea is to get her blitzed out of her sweet, naive little mind so she won’t care about his being a dick?”
“No,” Zach said, offended. “Give me some credit. Did the ‘gentleman’ ask for anything?”
“Martini. Shaken, not stirred, if you can believe it.” Hallie wrinkled her nose. “Poseur.”
Zach snorted in cynical agreement while mixing and stirring, floating sharply burning liquor over the back of a silver spoon. “Now the pineapple juice.”
Hallie watched him with increasing dubiousness. “Seriously, Zach. Barbie looks like a stiff breeze would knock her down, and you’re serving her something two hundred proof? I’m getting a contact buzz just breathing the fumes.”
“Nah. This one is for him. Two minutes and I’ll fix one for her. Not what she ordered, but what she needs.”
“Aren’t you a Yoda?” Hallie propped her elbows on the bar and watched him work.
Zach winked at her and unscrewed the rounded cap on a bottle of his priciest white mocha liqueur. He poured a pony glass a quarter full, added another quarter’s worth of vanilla schnapps, and topped it off with whole cream. Shavings from a block of marzipan and a sprig of mint for freshness topped it all off. Side by side, they were menace and innocence.
It wasn’t lost on Hallie, who snorted. “Subtle.”
“I do my best, princess.”
“So everybody’s friend does have a temper. The way your hangers-on talk about you, a girl would think you’re the second coming.”
Zach scoffed at that, his face growing uncomfortably warm.
“They also say you’re a wicked flirt who never follows through.”
“So who’s right?” She persisted, refusing to leave without an answer. “Or are none of them?”
Before Zach could ask why she cared, all of a sudden, a half-tipsy brunette shouldered her way between Hallie and the saddle-riding barfly. “Hi! Am I interrupting anything?”
Hallie held out her hands, palms up.
The brunette seemed confused by that and turned to Zach with a look of hope he’d seen way too many times. “I don’t do this. Honest, I don’t. And I wasn’t sure. I mean, how can anyone be sure these days?” She giggled nervously. “But since you turned down that guy, and I don’t see a ring or anything, I wondered --”
“He’s as queer as a three-dollar bill,” Hallie said flatly. “Go flirt with the guy who brought you here.”
“Hallie, you’ve got drinks to deliver. Ma’am, I apologize for her behavior.” Though she did as little for his libido as any other member of the fairer sex, it wasn’t hard to see the loneliness and confusion behind her clumsy siren act. Who could blame anyone for needing to be loved? “She was right, though. I’m not one for the ladies.”
The brunette crumpled, red spots of embarrassment blooming on her cheeks. “I’m sorry to have bothered you --”
“Hey, hey, none of that.” Zach took one of her hands in both of his and squeezed, lowering his voice. “If you’re not happy with the guy who brought you, then I’ll call you a cab. You can go home, change the locks, or maybe just burn his jockstraps. Whatever helps. Tomorrow, you move on.”
The woman left with a mug of coffee to warm her cold fingers. In the absence of her presence, Hallie continued to ignore the drinks beading with condensation and studied Zach narrowly instead.
He’d figured this would be coming and was ready. Long ago, he’d trained himself out of the urge to flinch away whenever anyone did that, and kept those memories tamped down as tightly as a pipe stuffed full of redolent tobacco. Only problem with that was he knew he was just waiting for someone to light a match.
Hell. He’d deal with that when the day came, and until then he had a job he loved to keep him busy. “Something you’d like to say to me?” he asked, keeping it light and friendly, as if he didn’t see what was going on.
She seemed to come to some kind of decision about him, though whether it was good or bad, Zach couldn’t tell. “Answer me one question, would you?”
Zach shrugged and wiped his hands on a bar towel, willing enough to move on. “If I can, I will.”
She surprised him with what she asked. “What are these drinks called? You owe it to her to let her know what’s going on if it bugs you enough to screw up an order on purpose.”
Fair enough. Though he was more interested by what she hadn’t
asked, and wary of the same. Strangers were one thing. Trusting someone you knew further than you could throw them, something else altogether. Still, what harm in laying out the mixology, since she’d asked so nicely?
“That one, for the gentleman” -- Zach pointed -- “is an Illusion. For her, that’s a Bear Hug.”
“Jesus God, I’m gonna throw up. You should write greeting cards.” Hallie collected the drinks. She seemed to be trying not to grin. “Gotta say, you surprised me. I like your style. Not too sure if I like you
, but you can’t win ’em all.”
“Thanks. I think.”
She waved him off and turned smoothly on her heel, her grace belying her mood, and stopped. “Okay. Creepy.”
“You already decided I was creepy?” Zach scoffed, but despite that, he was already scoping out the bar for troublemakers. Waitresses with any kind of experience had honed instincts about customers who’d be more hassle than they were worth. If anyone made someone as jaded as Hallie uneasy, odds were good they’d need an escort outside. Soon.
“No. You’re just weird.” She nodded toward the end of the bar. “It’s that guy at the very end. I caught sight of him in the mirror. He’s staring at your reflection, but it’s freaky, like he’s tracking you.”
Zach carefully, deliberately casually, folded his bar towel and laid it aside before checking the reflections of the long line of barhopping patrons crowded around them.
He knew the man sitting at the far end, watching him in silence. Knew him all too well. A chill raised goose bumps on his arms and a low heat kindled in his belly. “Take the lady and her date their drinks,” he said, the pair of them and Hallie fast fading away from his focus.
“Do I need to call the bouncer?”
“No.” Zach met the man’s -- Josef’s -- blue eyes in the mirror without flinching. He had a hell of a nerve showing up here. “I’ve got this one.”