“Sheesh. It’s like a ghost town in here. I’m bored outta my mind,” Shay commented, coming to stand beside me at the counter where I was leaned over, propped on my elbow and doodling hearts on a nap- kin.
I didn’t need to look up and survey the room to know she was right. It was like a ghost town in Whitecaps, the hip, ocean-front restaurant where I worked. Not a lot of people were venturing out today in the freezing rain-snow mixture going on outside.
When Nate had hired me a month ago, he said things slowed down in the winter. That made sense. Who hung at the beach in De- cember?
I preferred being busy, as did Shay apparently, but I didn’t mind the slow pace today. It gave me time to doodle. I liked to doodle. When I was happy, I doodled a lot.
And holy crap, was I happy.
Shay’s shoulder nudged against mine. “Who’s Wes?” she asked, pressing close. “He your boyfriend?”
I traced his whimsically scripted name with the dark blue pen and nodded.
“How long have you been together?”
“Few weeks,” I answered, looking over at her. “I met him at the market right after I moved here. He was behind me in the checkout line.”
“Aw, I love tha—”
A loud banging noise coming from behind swung my head around and jolted Shay.
Sean, the cook Nate hired two weeks ago, stalked out of the kitchen holding a rag to his hand, snarling and spitting profanities through gritted teeth while his profile held hard and sharp with irri- tation.
He was tall and cut out of muscle and bone, no fat or softness to him from what I could tell, covered in tattoos, and either didn’t have the ability to smile behind his thick beard or never felt the need.
Intimidating? Absolutely. Scary? A little.
But he seemed cool, stayed quiet and kept to himself, and wasn’t bailing on a job that had him surrounded by women seven days a week who never kept to themselves and hardly stayed quiet.
I thought that was saying something.
He crossed the room, lifted his big biker boot, and kicked the men’s restroom door open, disappearing behind it.
“I think he cut himself again,” Shay guessed, communicating my own speculation. “That’s seven times now, right?”
I did a mental count from what I’d either witnessed myself or heard about after the fact. Maybe someone else should be chopping vegetables for him.
“He should change his name to Stitch,” I suggested, looking to her. “Fits him.”
Shay’s mouth twitched. Her dark brown eyes flickered wider.
“I’ll call him that if you do,” she said a little quieter, as if she was afraid he could hear.
“Deal,” I chuckled. I leaned over and began doodling again, dark- ening in some hearts and heavily outlining the others, my mind on Wes and the date we’d be having this upcoming weekend.
I was really looking forward to it.
He was always working long and late hours during the week. I hardly saw him. Hardly spoke to him either, unless he was calling me back after getting a free minute.
Thank God for texts.
“I’m gonna go see if my one lonely table needs anything, again, even though I just asked them, and until Stitch stops bleeding and gets back to cooking their food, the only thing I have to give is refills and my wit.” Shay slapped the counter, twisted away, then stopped frozen on a gasp. “Sweet. He’s here,” she whispered.
“Who?” I asked, head down and eyes focused on my Wes doodle. When Shay didn’t answer, I lifted my head out of curiosity, fol- lowed her gaze across the restaurant, and met the eyes of the man she
had to have been referring to.
I blinked and stood a little taller but stayed angled forward, keep- ing my weight on my elbows.
He blinked back. And somehow, that blink…was . . . sexy.
I had no idea what qualified a blink as being sexy, but whatever it was, this man was hitting all those qualifiers and could easily take home the trophy for sexiest blink.
I am not one to exaggerate either. This was an honest observation. I realized quickly after moving to Dogwood Beach that there wasn’t a shortage of good-looking men here. In fact, I was convinced the sand and salty air did miraculous things to the male race, boost- ing cellular regeneration and gene quality, making even hard-
looking men like Stitch beautiful in their own unique way.
I waited on attractive men frequently at work. I saw them around town. Hell, I was currently dating one. This was nothing new. Looks were a dime a dozen in Dogwood.
That being said, I was unprepared for a sexy blink, not to mention the degree of attractiveness belonging to the man responsible for that blink.
The man I was currently staring at, who just so happened to be staring back, directly at me.
Tall, with broad shoulders and long, muscled limbs covered in layered Henley thermals and dark faded jeans, dirty blond hair that looked hand-raked messy and a little damp from the rain, caus- ing it to curl at the ends around his ears and where it lay on his neck. Bright eyes. Thick eyebrows. A perfectly straight nose. He looked model perfect and camera ready, except for the five o’clock shadow speckling his jaw. That roughed him up a bit. And if he wasn’t already scoring points in the looks department, boom, dim- ples. He… had… dimples.
And he was giving them to me as he smiled, big and broad, like he was happy to see me.
Like we already knew each other. Or like he wished we did…
And I had a feeling this man wasn’t interested in knowing me the way I knew Shay or Stitch, or even Nate, my boss, who I was friendly with on an employee-employer level.
That wasn’t the level Tall, Blond, and Stupidly Gorgeous wanted to be on with me. No, sir. Absolutely not.
“Who is that?” I asked Shay, watching her customer from the two- top stand and cross the room to greet Sexy Blink, though I couldn’t make out the words from this distance and over the 311 song playing overhead.
“Jamie McCade,” Shay answered. “He’s a pretty BFD around here.” “A what?” I asked.
“Big fucking deal.” Shay turned her head, met my eyes, and shrugged. “Or so they say. I’m not a huge surfing fan. Tried it once and ended up swallowing my weight in ocean water. He’s the best, though. Has been for years. Ask any local.”
I studied Jamie’s hair and decided it looked more wave-tussled than hand-raked messy.
A surfer . . . Yeah, that fit. That absolutely fit this guy.
Lowering my gaze, I saw he was back to staring at me and back to smiling. I cleared my throat, cut my eyes away, and looked down at my doodle.
Wes. I had a boyfriend. I had a boyfriend who made me happy. I was simply noticing another man’s good looks. That’s all. I’d have to be blind not to notice.
So why did I feel guilty noticing in the first place? “I’m gonna go get him seated. Be back.”
“’Kay,” I muttered, keeping my head down and my hand busy as I darkened Wes’s name even further, the blue ink saturating the paper so much that now it appeared nearly black.
Black, like my noticing, treacherous heart.
“You’re up, T.”
I snapped my head up and gaped at Shay, not because of the new nickname she’d just thrown on me—I liked it and hoped it would stick—but because of the two words she’d just used preceding my new, cute nickname.
Shay giggled, then reached out and took the pen out of my hand while her other slid the napkin away from me.
“He requested your section. Lucky girl. You’re in for a treat. He tips like he invented money or something.”
Shay began doodling on my napkin.
I looked across the room again and saw that Jamie was indeed sit- ting in my section, arm draped over the back of the booth, smiling and waiting to be served.
Well, this was just terrific. Now I had no choice but to look at him.
I had a job to do. I couldn’t just stand around and doodle. “Right.” Straightening up and snapping into professional mode, I
smoothed my apron, pulled out my ticket book, and leaning across the counter, snatched my pen away from Shay.
She smirked. “It’s cool. I’m gonna make sure Stitch didn’t hack off a finger.”
Shay moved around the bar to get to the kitchen window, hopped up on the edge of the counter, and sat there, swinging her feet and waiting for Stitch.
I took a deep breath and headed across the room, wetting my cherry-painted lips and stretching them into a friendly smile when I reached my destination.
He liked to tip? Awesome. I liked getting tips. Time to put on the charm.
“Good afternoon. My name is—”
“Fuck me, babe,” Jamie muttered through a thick, sex-soaked voice, cutting me off as his eyes skimmed up and down the length of me. “You make that ugly-ass uniform look fuckin’ good. No shit.”
My head jerked back. “Excuse me?” I asked, losing my smile. I glanced down at my uniform, which consisted of a white polo top, khaki pants, and a black apron tied around my waist. “These uni- forms aren’t ugly,” I argued, lifting my head. “They’re cute and super comfy. Honestly, I’ve worn worse.”
“Legs, trust me, they’re nothin’ to look at,” he argued back, tip- ping his head. “But on you, yeah, different story. I’ll look all fuckin’ day.”
I blinked. “Legs? Did you just call me Legs?” What in the . . . hell? Who calls someone that?
Half of Jamie’s mouth lifted, revealing one killer dimple.
“Fuck yeah, I did,” he answered, dropping his eyes to my limbs and lingering there. “Seen a lot of good ones. Had a lot of good ones wrapped around me, but yours? Babe, seriously.” He looked to me again. “Yours take the fuckin’ cake. I’d give my left nut for a feel. Straight up.”
I stared at him.
I was never a woman of few words. Never. Not even when I needed to be. In situations that didn’t warrant talking, I was still a talker. I got shushed at movie theaters because I felt the need to com- ment or ask questions regarding the plot line. I was that girl. Words never failed me.
Yet here I was, stripped of my vocabulary for the first time in my twenty-four years of life, all because a man wanted to chop off his left testicle to cop a feel.
Jamie laughed, low and rumbly in his throat, and hearing that, I broke out of my speechless haze.
“Do you offer up appendages to all the women you meet?” I asked. “Why? Curious if anyone’s ever taken me up on it?” He gestured
at his lap. “Go ahead and check. I’m down for a strip search if you wanna give it, Legs. Just know…” He bent his elbow on the table, leaned forward to get closer, held my eyes, and with a lowered voice, promised, “You touch me, and I am definitely putting my hands all over you.”
Breath caught in my throat as I quickly sucked in air.
I felt my cheeks warm, knew Jamie could see my reaction to what he’d just said, and further knew I needed to get far away from the topic of him putting his hands anywhere near my personal space.
I shouldn’t even be reacting at all. What was wrong with me? Forcing focus, I clicked my pen open, poised it on my ticket book,
and asked nonchalantly, “What can I get you started with?” as if Jamie hadn’t just painted a very descriptive picture in my head.
His smile was slow and satisfied as it moved across his face.
“I don’t know. You offerin’ yourself up?” Jamie smirked through his question as he sat tall in the booth, his one arm still stretched behind him and his other relaxed on the table next to the menu. “’Cause if that’s the case, I’ll take my order to go. Your legs would look unfuckingreal spread wide in my backseat.”
I sighed. Okay. This was getting ridiculous.
“I am not offering myself up. I have a boyfriend,” I told him with a little attitude, watching his face and waiting for the expected sur- render and disappointment to shadow his arrogance.
It didn’t. I looked harder.
And still, nothing. Not one bit of change.
Jamie didn’t flinch. Didn’t lose the smirk he was wearing. Hell, it didn’t even falter.
I opened my mouth to repeat myself but he shut me up fast when he finally spoke.
“Not sure what that has to do with us,” he said, keeping the arro- gance, keeping the smirk, and keeping at me like what I’d just shared meant nothing. He shrugged, then continued. “Affects him more than anything. Handle it now or wait, whatever. Just know, once we get started, you need to drop him, babe. I don’t share.”
My mouth fell open. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Once we get started?” I echoed, lowering my arms to my sides.
“What makes you think—” He cut me off quick.
“Guessin’ you don’t know who I am, considering I’ve never seen you around here, and trust me, I would’ve seen you, so let me fill you in.” Jamie’s face grew serious. “I want something? I get it, and I don’t fuckin’ lose. Ever. No shit. I’m not just blowin’ smoke up my own ass, babe. When I say I don’t fuckin’ lose, I mean, I do not fuckin’ lose. That applies to a lot of shit, Legs, and it sure as fuck applies to you. I won’t back down, boyfriend or not. You gotta know that.”
Something sick twisted deep in my stomach as I studied Jamie, at his eyes wild with promise, because I knew then exactly what kind of man he was and it had nothing to do with his surfing record or good looks or the money lining his wallet.
He was a loser. A player. A jerk. He didn’t respect me or the rela- tionship I was in.
He didn’t respect love. And that disgusted me.
“I am not interested in being gotten,” I snapped, nostrils flaring. “Like I said, I’m with someone. I’m happy. I’m taken. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but it sure as hell means everything to me. In terms of losing, you’ve already lost. I’m not available. So if that’s all you’re here for, you can go ahead and take your conceited ass right on back out into the storm. If it’s not, you’ve got five sec- onds to give me your order before I walk away for good. I like tips, but I don’t need yours. It won’t be any loss to me.”
“You ain’t taken, babe. And I did not fuckin’ lose,” he repeated, a little firmer this time.
Apparently those were the only parts of my speech he’d heard.
I brought my hand clutching the pen up to my hip and fisted it there, knowing if I didn’t, I’d probably end up throwing a punch, and if I did that, I’d be out of a job. For sure.
And I really liked this job. “Three seconds,” I hissed.
He smiled, looked at my hand fisted at my hip, studied it for two out of the three seconds he had left, and then met my gaze when he quickly ordered, “BBQ chicken biscuit. Extra sauce.”
“You want something to drink with that?” “Cherry Coke.”
“We don’t have Cherry Coke.”
“You got Coke and grenadine syrup?”
I did a quick mental scan of the bottles we had lined up under- neath the counter.
“Yes,” I murmured, having remembered spotting the grenadine bottle.
“Then you got Cherry Coke.” Jamie slapped his hand down on the menu sitting in front of him and slid it to the edge of the table.
I reached to retrieve it, tugged on the corner with the two fingers not clutching my pen, and met resistance when he refused to lift his hand.
He stared at me, at my eyes, my lips, the line of my neck revealed from my hair being gathered over one shoulder, and lower, my breasts down to my toes and back up again.
I glared at him, watching his eyes do this appraising wander, and the longer it went on, the more irritated I became.
“You finished?” I grated.
“With you?” He met my gaze. His eyes were burning now. “No fuckin’ way,” he growled.
“I’m taken,” I repeated.
“You ain’t taken, Legs. Not unless you’re with me.”
This jerk was mental. “That will never happen,” I promised. “And my name is Tori. Not Legs.” Jamie grinned. “We’ll see about that,” he said, lifting his hand and allowing me to take the menu.
I didn’t know if he was referring to the taken argument or the nickname and I didn’t want to ask. Truth be told, I just wanted to get away from him.
If he grinned at me one more time, I might actually throw that punch.
I spun around, walked to the hostess podium to drop off the menu, ignored the eyes burning into my profile coming from the loser’s booth, and marched toward the kitchen, weaving between ta- bles all while jotting down the order on my ticket book.
Shay saw me coming and slid off the counter. “Great news!” she squealed when I reached her. “Stitch doesn’t care if we call him Stitch. He’s cool with it.” She turned her head and asked through the window, “Right, Stitch?”
Stitch was facing the stove so I couldn’t see his face, but I didn’t miss the slight jerk of his head as he acknowledged Shay.
“That’s about all he’s been giving me,” she whispered. “I took it as a good sign.”
Shay stepped away.
I watched her walk over to her two-top, then risked a glance in Jamie’s direction and caught him smiling at me.
Squaring off, I reached into my apron pocket like I was searching for something, lifted my hand back out, keeping all but one finger curled under, and flipped him off.
Anytime, Jamie mouthed.
Grunting, I spun around, ripped the ticket off my book, and slid the thin paper across the metal lip of the window.
I opened my mouth to alert Stitch of the order when a piece of food flipped off the grill and onto the floor. It went sliding across the tile when he kicked it out of the way with his boot.
Hello, fantastic little lightbulb flashing above my head.
Rolling up onto my toes, I leaned closer to the window and in- quired, “Is there any chance you’d be interested in letting a piece of BBQ chicken hang out on the floor for five seconds before sliding it onto a biscuit? I got a loser who needs a lesson in manners.”
Stitch turned his head and peered at me behind the pieces of long blond hair hanging in his eyes.
I rocked back onto my heels.
“He deserves it,” I quickly added, worried I was pissing off the hard-looking man by requesting this and blowing my shot at pay- back. “Really. I wouldn’t ask if he didn’t.”
Stitch didn’t say anything for several stress-filled seconds, then shook his head and muttered a rough “what-the-fuck-ever” under his breath, turning away and going back to the food he was cooking that hadn’t been dropped yet. “You take the fall if this comes back to me,” he ordered.
Yes! Eat shit, Loser!
I spun around, nearly doing a twirl I was so happy, looked across the room directly at Jamie, and watched that jerk’s smile turn into a full-blown grin that no longer bothered me.
The tile floor back in the kitchen had to be disgusting. He’d get sick from the food. Sick enough he’d never want to eat here again. There was no doubt in my mind.
This would be the last time Jamie McCade ever stepped foot in- side Whitecaps.
And knowing that, I couldn’t help myself. I grinned right on back.