The work on the lower level of MacNab's had been going on for two months. No matter where Kate Doucette was in the bar, whether it be setting up her tables or sitting in Mike MacNab's office trying to solve his latest computer dilemma for him, when the hammering or sawing stopped, she would whip out her cell phone, check the time, and then she would bask in the quiet.
Today it was three minutes. Just three beautiful, blessed minutes of silence were all she got. When it started up again, she left the plastic basin she was filling with dirty dishes on the table, threw her hands in the air and marched to the bar.
“I can't take any more. Weren't they supposed to be done three weeks ago?” She ran her hand through her red curls.
“Four, but you know Mike. He's fickle,” replied the bartender.
Kate scowled at Chris, her usual reaction at the mention of their boss since these renovations had begun. When the drilling was joined by a series of bangs, she calmly slid onto the nearest stool, lowered her head onto the polished surface of the bar, and whimpered. After a moment she sucked in a deep breath. “Mmmm, lemony.”
“I just cleaned it, and if your forehead left a stain, I'll make you lick it clean.”
She lifted her head and propped her chin up on the heel of her hand. “How can he stand it?”
“If it makes you feel better, he's been sucking Tylenol down like they were Skittles.”
“Good. I hope his eyes cross and he can't get them back to normal again,” she said and watched him as he patted himself down and produced his car keys. “Crap, are you leaving already?”
“I gotta pick the kidlets up at three. Why are you still here? Aren't you working until close?”
“I told our fearless leader I would try and figure out the new payroll software so he doesn't accidentally pay us fifty cents an hour. I just finished at two o'clock. I figured I might as well stay instead of going home only to turn around and come back. Besides, I could use the money, and Mike says it's okay.”
“It's a good thing Mike is so needy.”
“I'll try to remember that it's a good thing after his frozen corpse is found wedged between the hamburgers and the chicken fingers, and I'm looking at life in prison.”
She followed Chris's gaze as the double doors leading to the work space downstairs swung open and two carpenters breezed through, leaving a cloud of dust billowing in their wake. They took a table in the farthest corner of the bar.
Kate narrowed her eyes as she watched them. “I thought Mike told them not to come up here.”
“Multiple times, and in some very strong language. That's why they're here now. They're going to order some coffee and sit there for fifteen minutes brushing themselves off until the place is filthy, and then dare him to say a word as long as they're paying customers.”
“Oh yeah? We'll see about that.”
Kate walked Chris to the exit and glared at the men as they craned their necks to make sure they had her attention. “See you on Monday, huh?”
She sauntered back behind the bar and pulled out a full MacNab's menu and a beverage list. She wore her biggest smile as she approached.
“Gosh, you guys must be starved after working so hard all day. Can I tell you about our specials? Today we have a Montreal smoked meat on rye with homemade mustard, served with your choice of--”
“Actually, love, we're on a fifteen. Just coffee, thanks.”
“Are you sure? You're missing out on Nova Scotia's finest pub food. The haddock is fresh off the boat.”
The older of the two shook his head. “Just coffee.”
“Would you like to see our specialty coffee menu?”
“Just black, thanks.”
“Sure. Two black coffees to go.”
“Not to go, dear. We'll drink it here.”
“No, you'll take it back downstairs.” She dropped her cheery-waitress routine and placed her hands on her hips. “You've been told countless times that you're not to come into the bar while you're on the job. That smart-assed look you're wearing might work on the newbies, but I've been here for five years, and you're not taking up one of my tables on coffee and leaving me a mess to clean up. You get your coffee for free from now on, and you take it to go. Got it?”
The one who had placed the order raised his overgrown brows and opened his mouth.
She held up her hand. “Don't even start. I've got a mean fucking headache, and I know for a fact that you were supposed to finish working on the bar almost a month ago but have been trying to bullshit my boss. The way I see it, I've got you to thank for my migraine, so I'd think twice before I came smirking through those doors if I were you.”
Mike waited for her at the bar, wearing his widest grin. It had been an elusive sight over the past few weeks. When the work had begun on the bottom floor of the old building, Mike had been like a little kid with a new toy, but with each passing day, his jolly persona soured a little more. He'd been on the verge of losing his temper once or twice, but anyone who knew Mike as well as Kate did knew that it had less to do with the constant noise than the pace with which the crew he had contracted worked. He'd told Kate on a couple of occasions that he thought he was being taken for a ride, but with the construction halfway finished, he was determined to stick it out, even if it did leave him with an ulcer.
“How long have you been there?”
“I was right behind you when you grabbed the menus.”
“Good, now watch me make my point by brewing a fresh pot so they only get a few scalding sips before they have to go back.”
She disappeared long enough to dump the half pot and rinse it. When she came back, Mike was hunched over his BlackBerry with his thumbs flying over the keys.
In her experience, trying to break through the wireless voodoo spell that came over him whenever he touched the glossy red face of his phone required an electric prod designed for poking circus lions into submission. She waited until he put his phone aside before speaking.
“You're not going to make me pay for the coffee I'm giving them, are you?”
His green eyes shone as his lopsided smirk reappeared. He leaned forward on one tanned and toned forearm. It pissed her off a little to know he hadn't gotten it the artificial way but from the two weeks in Mexico he'd just returned from. Of course, it was his first vacation in two years, and he did deserve it, but she was still entitled to her jealousy. It made her week at a local ski lodge look like a shitty vacation, which it kind of had been, even without the comparison to Mexico.
“How much does that coffee cost, a few cents a cup?” he asked, his voice cricking with that Cape Breton lilt: a drawl that centuries after the settlers had first arrived in the province still maintained a bit of a Scottish burr. Even his years of globe-trotting hadn't watered it down. It rolled off Mike's tongue like a tickle. “I'll call it a good investment if it keeps them out of the bar, although I will miss your angry little wiggle when you're wiping down the tables and chairs after they've left.”
“Keep it up, Mike. All the more fodder for my lawsuit.”
His was the best and most infectious raspy and rumbling laugh she had ever heard, and his entire body showed it. She bit down on her bottom lip to keep back the giggle as his laughter rolled over her.
“Listen, you bullshitter,” he said. “You've been talking about this lawsuit since the week I hired you, and nothing has ever come of it. In fact, you seem to be digging yourself in deeper and deeper every month. I'm going to have one hell of a countersuit, honey.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
Mike's brows gave a “bitch, please” tilt, and his grin widened.
She didn't know whether it was because on Boss Appreciation Day she had set his screen saver to a video of the entire staff mooning the camera, or because on his fortieth birthday he had opened his office door to find forty jelly dildos in perfectly erect formation around his desk.
It had all started during her job interview. What an abysmal episode that had been. Mike had been less than impressed with her lack of experience in anything that didn't involve changing diapers or mowing lawns. He'd kept one eye on his computer screen while she rambled on through her merits as the best would-be waitress ever to come into MacNab's. While she had suspected that the impression she was leaving on him was less than stellar, she had caught him discreetly taking a peek at her chest once or twice, and so giving up the attempt to wow him, she just went for it.
“Look, if you hire me, I'll wear one of those shirts you've got in a size too small, and I won't sue you for staring at my tits when they jiggle
It was the first time she'd heard someone actually snort when they laughed, and he had hired her on the spot. In the first month he would stare at her breasts with his eyes narrowed, “because I want to see if I can make them bounce with a Jedi mind trick
,” and she'd shimmy around until he went into hysterics.
She loved working for him. It was only because she liked him that she was putting in so much extra these past few months while he was preoccupied with getting his latest project off the ground: the soon-to-be Wit Cracker, a pub with live music and dancing.
She shrugged. “When I'm driving your nice car around town, you'll see what a great bullshitter I am. I'll be sure to wave to you while you're waiting for the bus.”
He scrunched up his face. “Do you make happy sounds while you're gnawing on a man's balls?”
“I would never gnaw on your balls, Mike. I prefer to squish them like cherry tomatoes.”
“Yeesh.” He winced and then winced again as the buzz saw started up. “Ah Christ! I was hoping they'd give it a rest so I could have an hour to myself before the supper crowd comes in and I have to get behind the bar. It's bad enough this place is dead all afternoon.”
Kate rubbed her temples. “When all this is over, you owe your entire staff a big bonus for having to listen to this all day. I personally deserve something special for sitting down there for four hours with my finger jammed in my ear.”
“It'll be worth it. The place is going to look great, and you're going to get rich on tips.”
“Uh-huh.” She placed a polished fingernail at the corner of her eye. “This is the eyeball that has been twitching for three weeks. Behind this eyeball is a tumour that gets a little bigger every day. When it finally pushes my eyeball out of my head, I hope you're there and you get my brain juice all over you.”
“That hurts, Katie.”
She poured fresh coffee into a tall MacNab's mug and added a splash of cream before filling two paper cups for the workmen. She slid the mug towards Mike. “Trust me. When I finally snap, I'm taking you with me.”
She left him chuckling and marched over to the workmen. She stood with a cup in each hand and stared them down until they stood up. “Remember what I said. The coffee is free if you stay out of the bar.”
“Fair enough, love.”
“And don't call me love
, you old fart.”
“Fair enough, Miss.”
She eyed the twin butt-prints of dust left behind. “I hate those guys.”
Mike appeared at her side and held out a wet rag. “On days like this, I feel sorry for Joe. It must keep him up all hours of the night knowing that at any moment you could wake up and snap his neck.”
She gritted her teeth at the mention of her boyfriend and slapped the rag down on the tabletop. “I'm starting to talk to myself, Mike. All day I'm cleaning up after men, and this voice starts in my head. That voice sounds just like my mother right after my father started to go deaf in one ear and she would walk around muttering to herself. I'm twenty-five years old, and I'm turning into my mother.”
She leaned down and began wiping the chairs. A prickle started at the back of her neck and zipped between her toes. She peeked over her shoulder and found him ogling her backside.
She gave a little wiggle.
He grinned, tucked his phone into its holster, grabbed his coffee, and headed for the double doors leading to the basement. “Thanks. That'll get me through the next hour without killing myself.”
“It's a shame you can't see my ass-floss in these shorts.”
“No offense, Katie, but when you call it ass-floss
, it becomes the last thing I want to see.”
She turned just in time to see his backside disappear and bit down on her smile before it could turn into a leer. Mike wasn't the only one who had been taking a peek here and there over the past few years. He was tall and broad with the build of someone who didn't work at keeping fit but who simply played hard. He was a fiendish outdoorsman who preferred the uncultivated outskirts to the manicured parks and city streets, and he bore the scars of countless scrapes over rocks and slippery forest floors. After he'd returned from Mexico, he'd gone to Newfoundland to climb the mountain at Gros Morne Park but his pack-a-day habit had made the challenge too much. So he'd quit smoking just so he could go back next year and try again. Every adventure he conjured up in his head became a reality, no matter what it cost him.
MacNab's had been no different. Halifax had been a drinking town since its founding. Mike would have been a flash in the pan without something to make his bar stand out: that something was Mike MacNab himself. He'd used his bartending background to host a segment on the evening news magazine, and from the bar at MacNab's, he would show folks how to mix drinks; he'd sponsored a cable-access show about Halifax's nightlife. People poured into MacNab's, and he took to the bar himself, telling raunchy jokes and performing stupid magic tricks, sharing whoppers with the men and flirting with the women. Kate and the rest of the staff reaped the rewards of the mood he set. Her tips on a busy night made her regular pay seem like a tiny amount.
She stood on her toes and stretched and then took a long look around the bar. There was one old man sitting at a table just beneath the big-screen, perfectly content with his bottle of beer and the curling match on the television, seemingly oblivious to the racket coming from downstairs.
She swung around the bar and collected the remote for the smaller television closest to her, then settled on the preschool channel. She couldn't hear the dialogue but found a tiny bit of comfort in watching a sixty-year-old man dressed like a train conductor instruct two puppets on how to make a paper airplane.
When the next break in the noise came, she whipped out her phone and set it next to her, but didn't have an opportunity to enjoy the silence before Mike flew through the double doors with a wild look.
“They cut through the Internet cable.”
“So? Get a new one.”
“The Internet cable connected to the wall, which is connected to the pole outside, which is connected via a series of--”
“Mike, I'll call the cable company.”
“Thank you.” He slouched and hung his head back, blinking at the ceiling as he heaved a sigh. “Can I look at your ass-floss now?”
“Oh, so now
that you want something from me it's okay to call it ass-floss
.” She picked up the phone and dialed the number she knew by heart, pressed a few buttons until she reached business services, and then leaned on the counter and waited her turn in the queue. “Have you eaten today?”
“I had a coffee and a bagel this morning.” He moved away from the wall and looked around. “I'd murder my own mother for a cigarette, though.”
“You need to eat. And sleep. And you know, blink occasionally.”
“I don't have time to do any of those things.”
“You'll make time. As a matter of fact, as soon as John and Donald come in, you're taking me out for Chinese.”
He shook his head as he slid onto a stool. “Why do I have to buy?”
“You make more money than I do, and you owe me for Monday. I could have slept in, but instead I was here interviewing for waitstaff--Oh, hello? Hello?” She held the phone in front of her and rolled her eyes. “You know, I don't mind being put on hold, but honestly, do they have to keep breaking into the music to tell me what a great deal I'd get on wireless?”
“Yes, that's tragic. Now, you were saying how I owed you?”
She sighed and tucked the phone back against her ear. “Even Dr. Frankenstein bought Igor a nice meal every once in a while.”
“All right, fine.” He threw his hands up and bobbed his head in agreement. “Chinese it is. Maybe my fortune cookie will tell me I'll get lucky.”
Kate raised her brows in mock horror. “Michael Allan MacNab, are you suggesting that you're having some difficulties in that department?”
“Let's just say blinking isn't the only thing I don't have time to do lately,” he said and pouted at her. “I almost bought a Studglove last week.”
Kate frowned. “What's a Studglove?”
“It's a--” His gaze slid sideways and he cleared his throat. “It's a sleeve that goes over your dick. You turn it on. It vibrates.”
“Oh my God,” she managed to say before dissolving into a fit of giggles that doubled her over. “Please, tell me that was a joke.”
“I wish it were. I wake up and I go to work and when I'm done working I go to sleep. The next day I do it all over again. I haven't had any kind of fun lately.”
She shifted the phone from one ear to the other. “Then take a night off. Stay as far away from this place as possible. Go somewhere and do something to take your mind off of things, preferably with a date that's not battery operated. My mother gave me that advice, you know.” She snapped to attention as a voice garbled at the other end of the line. “Hello? Yes, this is Kate Doucette calling from MacNab's. We need an emergency service call. Someone sawed through our Internet cable. Yes, I'll hold.”
Mike pulled out his phone and tapped one of the buttons. Immediately Kate grabbed it from him and tucked it behind her back. “Absolutely not. Relaxing doesn't involve e-mail unless there are pictures of bunnies and kittens involved.”
“Is that what you look at when you're alone in my office?”
“Don't be silly. I look at bunnies at the library. I look at naked men in your office.”
Mike stretched his bare arms in front of him and laced his fingers together. Kate couldn't take her eyes off him. Her mouth watered as she watched muscle shudder and flex beneath his skin.
Her perverted little moment came to an end when he cracked his knuckles, sending a horrible shiver up and down Kate's spine. He slouched over the bar and sighed. “I want mashed potatoes. Let's go to the hotel restaurant across the street.”
“You can have mashed potatoes here.”
“I want mashed potatoes somewhere else. If you're going to give me crap, you might as well give me back my cell and let me work on my ulcer.” He held his hand out and narrowed his eyes at her.
Kate shook her head and once again moved the cordless phone from one side of her head to the other. “Fine. I'll buy dessert if you promise to lick the plate when you're done.”
“I'll get it.”
“No, I will. Sometimes Igor wants to do something nice for Dr. Frankenstein.”
“Aww.” Mike smiled as he placed both hands over his heart. “You do have a soul!”
Kate tried to stifle her giggle, but it came out as a snort just as the technician came back on the line. “Yes, I'm still here. One hour? Good.” She replaced the phone in its cradle and blew out a puff of air. “Crisis averted.”
They both winced as the saw started up again.