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“I love those shoes, but isn’t it hard to walk in them? What are they, six inches?” Anna pursed her lips as she gauged Janette’s silver and blue, strappy stilettos.
“There’s like an inch on the sole, so the heel is only five inches.” Janette grimaced. “And I’m still shorter than you.”
“You’re lucky I’m not wearing heels, then.” Anna lifted her foot to show off her new paisley Docs. She shrugged when Janette barely glanced at them. “So how fast can you go in them thar shoes?”
“Pretty fast.” Janette sounded defensive.
“Oh yeah? Can you beat me walking backwards?”
Janette rolled her eyes. “No prob.”
“Okay. Last person inside the pub has to buy the first round.” She scanned the street. There weren’t many people on the street, still fairly light out, and no sandwich boards for her to trip over. She spun around. “Aaaand, go.”
“Hey, stop! No running. You said walking.”
Anna halted so her friend could catch up. “I’ll even give you a head start.” With a half a block to the pub entrance she still should be able to win.
Janette narrowed her eyes at Anna. “And you won’t run?”
She crossed her arms and waited. “Yup. Go ahead.” Stifling a giggle at Janette’s odd stride—kind of like a panicking emu with her legs moving quickly and her body leaning back to counter balance—Anna counted eight Mississippis and started walking quickly. She stumbled but caught herself. Damn, now she’d have to really power to catch up, because she definitely wasn’t going to pay.
She drew even with Janette as they neared the empty outdoor patio but Janette had the inside lane. She could topple her, but that would be mean—and cheating, but since they hadn’t laid out any rules… Nah, the cement looked a little painful even with their quick healing abilities.
With a backward lunge she pushed ahead at the door and they both tumbled into the bar, giggling.
“I won!” Anna shouted as she turned around. Oops, fifteen pairs of eyes from various tables stared at them with varying degrees of disapproval, lust and, in the case of the two ancient geezers at the end of the bar, both.
Janette blushed then whispered, “Where do you want to sit?”
Anna assessed their options with interest. The Wolf’s Lair. The new owner had renamed the bar but hadn’t done any renovations, as far as she could see. The same dark wood bar, tables and wainscoting, yellowing paint and leather chairs. Not to mention the faint glows from the tacky wall sconces and the tea lights on every table. Being so close to her family’s office building, she’d made this her after work meeting place as soon as she was legal, so when the place had sold and shut down for several weeks she’d been a little nervous about what it would be like when it reopened. The only discernible difference was the bartender: a long lean guy with shaggy blond hair, smirking behind the bar. He was cute, but a little too smug looking for her taste.
“Let’s sit at the bar.” Might as well check him out up close. She led Janette to the bar and slid onto the high stool. Janette hopped up beside her and they watched the bartender glide toward them. Nice eyes and cheekbones, too.
“I’ll have a Smirnoff, no ice.” Anna nodded at Janette. “And she’s paying.”
“A Singapore Sling for me.”
His smile was friendly, but his eyes wary. “Sure. Can I see your ID, please?”
Anna shook her head in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve been coming here for ages and you’re carding me?”
“Jeeez, way to drum up business for your re-opening.” Anna dug through her purse. All the other customers were probably staring at them, but hell if she was going to pay them any attention.
Janette handed him her driver’s license and then smiled as he scanned the dates then her. “It’s a shitty picture, but what can ya do?”
“Looks good.” He handed it back with a wink then turned to Anna with an expectant look.
Crap! Where was her license? She started piling the contents from her purse onto the bar. Glasses—not that she needed them but they made her look smarter. Phone, comb and a bunch of hair bands and clips. She considered putting her emergency tampon on the bar just to embarrass the guy, but decided not to. It would probably embarrass her more. Okay, the other zipped pocket. Money, gum, receipts, reward cards. God no! She must’ve left her license in her other purse.
She glanced up at him. Could she talk him into letting her stay? His guarded expression was difficult to read.
“I seem to have left it at home. Can you—?”
He shook his head. “Sorry. No ID, no service.”
“I always come here. You could ask… Anna scanned the other tables looking for one of the old regulars who could vouch for her.
“Doesn’t matter if the Queen of England said you were old enough. I need to see your license, passport, whatever.”
Damn she didn’t want everyone to see her being kicked out. “Can I talk to the manager?”
“He’s busy.”
Janette nudged her elbow. “Let’s go. We can hit the Olive Garden instead.”
“But…” She looked at both of their closed expressions, heaved a frustrated sigh and then scooped her belongings off the counter and back into her purse. “Fine.” Her face burned as she strode out of the pub not even checking to see if Janette followed.
“What an asshat.” she grumbled as Janette joined her on the sidewalk.
“He’s just doing his job. Want to try somewhere else?”
“Nah. I think I’m going to call it a night. Sorry.” Anna turned toward her apartment. “Hey, are you coming out for this month’s run? Some new kids are being initiated. I love seeing the teenagers do their first transition.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there. Lucas has been really sweet about trying to get me back in the pack. Besides, it’s not like I have anything better to do since I dumped Gian.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “You’re better off without him. You know eventually he’ll wind up in jail.”
“I know.” Janette shrugged her shoulders. “But aside from the drugs and stuff, Gian was pretty good to me.”
“There are nice boys out there who aren’t in outlaw gangs, you know?”
“Like your non-existent boyfriend, you mean?”
Anna growled. “Look, we’re both between relationships at the moment. Nothing more. Which means all the old ladies in the pack will be trying to set us up with their sons and grandsons.”
“Not me.” Janette glanced behind to ensure there was no one nearby to overhear them before whispering, “Sure everyone wants labradoodles and schnoodles as pets, but no self-respecting werewolf wants their son dating a werewoodle. Somehow the non-shedding, hypoallergenic thing isn’t such a selling point in a daughter-in-law.”
“They’re adjusting. It just takes time. At least they should be happy your mom ran off with a poodle. What if she’d fallen in love with a Chihuahua or a dachshund?” Anna laughed. “Oh my god, you could be a Werewiener.”
“Ha ha. You’re just jealous because poodles are smarter than wolves.”
“Probably,” Anna conceded. “You hardly ever studied for school and you still got straight A’s.” She rolled her eyes. “And you’re smart enough not to forget your ID. Am I gonna be too embarrassed to go back to that pub now? I don’t want to find a new place.”
Janette shrugged. “We could go back to our old dive.”
“No. I’m not going to let a jerky bartender chase me off my favorite pub. Then he’d be the winner.” Too bad the guy was cute. She especially hated losing to guys who looked that sexy. But maybe he regretted kicking her out. She hoped so.
“So the reason I asked you guys—“ Anna frowned at her sisters-in -law Rosie and Ella as they chose their seats at one of the Wolf Lair’s tables. “Why the looks?”
“What?” Rosie gave her a wide eyed innocent look before giggling. “Okay. I told Ella earlier that if you offered to buy us drinks, it meant you wanted something. She didn’t believe me.”
“Oh. I guess that’s true.” Anna shrugged then continued, “Anyway, I’d like to give you both the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of my new business.”
“What new business?” Ella scanned the dim lit bar. “And if I’m being bribed with booze, I’d like to see my drink before I commit. Are there even waiters here?” Her expression darkened with doubt as she took in the other seedier looking patrons.
Anna unclenched her jaw. Jeez! She shouldn’t have admitted she wanted something and eased into it better. And yup, Ella was right. There weren’t any servers in sight even on a Friday night. But that same asshat bartender from Tuesday was again parked behind the bar. His sexy, laidback smile wasn’t going to fool her this time.
Anna sighed as she stood. “Okay, I’ll get our drinks. What do ya want?”
“Mojito.” Rosie’s order burst out as if she worried Anna would rescind her offer.
“Me too… No.” Ella grabbed Anna’s arm before she could head for the bar. “Um, make that a double SoHo Martini, instead.” She grinned at Rosie. “Might as well get something more expensive since this obviously is a rare occurrence.”
“You’re right, make mine—”
“Too late,” Anna tossed over her shoulder on route to the bar. Rosie and Ella were great individually, but when her sisters-in-law teamed up against her, it annoyed the hell outta her. She just needed to get that team working for her.
“A Smirnoff, no ice, Mojito, and a SoHo Martini, please.” Screw the double. She smiled up at the bartender. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her from Tuesday night.
His slow, sardonic grin killed that hope.
She pulled out her driver’s license and slapped it on the bar. “Happy?”
After way too long reading it and then studying her face, he nodded. “See how easy that was?”
Anna rolled her eyes. She hadn’t noticed his slight British accent the other day, probably because she was so mad at him for carding her. But today it made him sound condescending. Well luckily the jerk wasn’t her type as that would’ve been really annoying. She liked more muscles on her men. The burly biker with tatts sitting at the bar was more her style. She lowered her eyes and dug back into her purse when he caught her checking him out.
By the time she’d found her credit card, two of the drinks were on a tray on the bar and the bartender was measuring the martini.
“Hey, baby.” The biker’s voice wasn’t as deep as she’d hoped.
She glanced at the colorful snakes, faces and fancy script accentuating his impressive biceps. “Hi. I love your sleeves.” Man, she wished she could get tattoos.
“Come a little closer and I’ll show you my other ink.”
Anna laughed. “Somehow I think I’d better pass on that.”
The bartender slid her the bill. “Be careful.”
Jeez. Is everyone on Mother’s payroll? “I can take care of myself.” She tapped the credit machine and then shot one last smile at the biker before reaching for the drinks.
The bartender caught her eye, still seeming in protective mode. Or was he one of those Neanderthals that didn’t like women to feel safe without a man hovering over them? “I’ll bring them to your table.”
Great, patronizing as well as an asshat. “Phhht. I can carry a tray.” Of course now she had to be extra careful not to trip or drop the whole damn thing. That would be embarrassing. And expensive.
She reached her destination without incident, passed out the drinks and tossed the tray on a neighboring table.
“I need marketing help with my jewelry business.” Anna clinked glasses as she reclaimed her seat.
“What? Oh, the dog tag jewelry.” Rosie leaned toward Ella. “Anna’s been making fancy dog collars for people to wear before transitions. Then if you get caught while you’re,” she lowered her voice, “…out, the SPCA will assume you’re a pet and call your significant other or whomever you put on your tag, to pick you up.”
Anna added, “I thought of it after Rob’s unfortunate run-in with the doc.”
“I guess I’m lucky your brother got accidently neutered that day or he’d never have married me.” Ella sipped her martini. “Mm, that’s good.”
“Yeah, when he was alpha, he couldn’t have hooked up with a cat like you. Even now, there are pack members who want to kill you.” Anna shrugged. “Sorry.”
“I know.” Ella studied her martini glass.
Crap, had she said the wrong thing? Again?
Rosie filled the awkward silence. “Isn’t jewelry for our kind rather a niche market? It’s not as though you can market it as such to any outsiders.”
“Exactly!” Anna shook her head at their bewildered expressions. “My cousin, Louis, wore his collar to university one day and apparently a couple of his regular classmates wanted to know where he got it. And if I can make a nice, more feminine version, this could be the next big thing. People could buy themselves and their dogs matching collars with name tags.”
Ella perked up. “What about cat collars?”
“Cats don’t wear collars, and even so, no one would believe a cougar was a house cat.” Anna shivered at the thought. After the number Ella’s ex-fiancé had done on Rob, she still felt nervous around Ella when she was in cougar form.
“Some cats wear collars, but you’re right.” Ella swirled her drink before taking another sip. “What do you need us for? This isn’t a pyramid sales scheme, is it?”
“I’m just glad you didn’t ask us here to help you pick up a new fellow.” Rosie shook her head. “You and Janette have the worst taste in men, ever.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Says she, married to my loser brother.”
Rosie laughed. “Lucas is way better than anyone you’d pick. Like, who do you find attractive in here?”
They glanced around the bar.
Ella jumped in first. “The bartender’s cute.”
Anna checked him out again. He did have a great smile when he wasn’t being an overprotective jerk. “Yeah, not bad, but I prefer the man by the video poker machine.”
“The greasy biker?” At Anna’s nod, Ella turned to Rosie. “You’re right.”
Rosie frowned. “What do you like about Mr. Grease?”
“He’s big enough that he could even beat up Rob.”
Ella recoiled in surprise. “Why do you want someone to beat up my husband?”
“I don’t want him to. Just that he’d be strong enough to.” Anna smiled. “And I like his tattoos.”
Rosie pursed her lips in thought. “Nope, I’m with Ella. The bartender is cuter and look, he has a tattoo on his neck. But the biker would piss off your mother more.”
“I don’t date guys just to bug Mother.” Anna chugged the rest of her drink. Gah, Rosie sounds more like Lucas every day. “Anyway, back to business, I need your help with marketing. Rosie, you know cute models from your work and Ella, you’d be great at writing my campaigns.”
“We get paid?” Ella narrowed her eyes at Anna.
“I’ll make you partners. How’s that?”
“With titles? Cool.” Rosie grinned. “I want CEO Babe on my business card.”
Ella’s jaw dropped. “Wait, I want CEO. No one really knows what a CEO does, unlike the CFO, and besides, I don’t do finances. Hey, can I be president?”
Anna let out a huff of frustration. “Titles don’t matter—”
“They do to me,” Rosie protested.
Anna stood. “I’m going to go pee while you two natter. When I return, can we discuss this seriously?”
“I guess so.” Ella stared pointedly at her half-empty glass. “But you might have to spring for more booze.”
Anna relaxed her shoulders as she wove her way to the back of the bar. They’re just teasing. Still she wished someone in her family would take her seriously. She’d been working fulltime at Colbert Enterprises for three years now, goddamnit! If that didn’t mean she was an adult, then what the hell else could? And she sure didn’t want to stay in accounting for the rest of her life. She consciously loosened her shoulder muscles again before pushing the door to the ladies’ room.
“Wow.” Anna glanced around the newly redecorated bathroom in surprise. Highlighted by mini chandeliers, the walls glowed an inviting shade of warm sandalwood. Hope the drink prices don’t go up to pay for all this.
Stepping up to the new gold-framed mirror, she reapplied her dark purple lipstick and swiped a finger under her eye to remove any straying eyeliner. There. A black tank and dark skinny jeans completed her semi-Goth look. She didn’t dare go more extreme in appearance at work, and, truth be told, she probably didn’t want to anyway. Dressing full Morticia Addams would take too much effort, and for what?
It wouldn’t annoy her mom any more than she already was.
Even fancy gold curlicue taps. She washed her hands to kill time before she went out to face Ella and Rosie again. They’d expect her to spend enough time in there to have peed. She’d just needed to get away before she got defensive and said something rude. After inhaling and exhaling a few exaggerated breaths to center herself, she squared her shoulders and exited. The murky hallway back to the bar now seemed dingy in comparison to the warmth of the bathroom. The new owner must be redecorating in stages. She shifted to the left to go around the large silhouette coming toward her.
“Where you going, baby?” The biker from the bar blocked her way.
“Sorry.” Anna sidestepped to the right hoping he wasn’t going to be a jerk.
He countered her movement. “What’re you sorry about? This seems like a perfect time to show you my ink.”
Damn. “My friends are expecting me.” She ducked to go by him but his hands shot out, confining her against the wall. She tried to budge his solid arms. Triple damn. Should she scream? That would be embarrassing.
“They can wait.” He pressed his body against hers, grinding his jean clad erection against her pelvis. The odor of onions and beer breath preceded his mouth bearing down on hers.
“No.” Scream you idiot.
“You know you want it.” His hand snaked out to grab her chin, making her face him. She shifted her legs so she could knee his jewels but, aside from her lack of opportunity, the struggle only seemed to turn him on more. Even shoving his chest with both hands, she couldn’t move him an inch.
Suddenly the man lurched backward.
“What the fu—?” he roared, his voice switching to a howl when the bartender, now standing beside him, yanked his ear downward.
“I believe the lady said, ‘No.’” Still holding the guy’s head down, his gaze cut to her. “You all right?”
Her face flamed with embarrassment. “Yeah.” Her voice squeaked. She cleared her throat to try again. “Thanks.”
“You fucking asshole! I’ll—” A sharp tug on his ear stopped the rest of his comment. Now bent in half with his head level to his waist, the man’s burly arms flailed as his face darkened purple with rage.
The bartender’s voice was low and menacing. “I could walk you out like this in front of all the other patrons. Or I could release you and you could leave on your own. The choice is yours.”
“Get off me!”
Anna jumped away. “Shit, don’t let him up. He’ll kill you.”
Other than the bartender’s lips tightening, he gave no indication he’d heard her warning. “Will you leave peacefully?”
The biker paused, the only sound his ragged breathing. Then he snarled, “Yea.”
Moving between Anna and the oaf, the bartender released the man’s ear and wiped his fingers on his apron. Biker Boy straightened, rubbing his ear with one hand and swung his other beefy fist at the bartender’s face.
Anna squeaked in shock as her rescuer grabbed his attacker’s fist, pulled through on the swing and spun the man so his face slapped against the wall and his hand strained halfway up his back. Cool.
“Okay. We’ll go out this way.”
With her back flat against the wall in the small hallway, Anna watched awestruck as her assailant was pushed past her into the bar and marched through the front door. She shook off her temporary paralysis and ran to the window. Ella and Rosie rushed to join her as the two men walked past the patio and squared off on the sidewalk.
“What happened?” Rosie’s voice trembled with concern.
“Nothing.” Anna replied. “But I think the bartender’s going to have the crap beaten out of him.” He’d surprised the guy in the hallway but in the open, the oaf looked way bigger and stronger. Plus he was so mad he could probably kill half a dozen people, no problem. She whispered, “I’m going to transition and help him.”
Rosie grabbed her arm. “No! You might accidently bite someone.”
“Damn, I have to do something. It’s all my fault.”
The two men began circling each other. Oddly enough the bartender seemed cool and in control. Maybe he won’t die? Anna snatched an umbrella sitting by the door and rushed outside. She’d only hit the jerk if it looked like he was gonna kill the bartender. She frowned at her pink frilly weapon. Or maybe she could jab him with it?
The biker threw a vicious punch. Anna closed her eyes waiting for the connecting crunch. She only heard the sound of shuffling footsteps. She opened one eye to see the bartender deftly sidestepping another wailing fist. Then, with a loud bellow, Biker Boy charged the bartender, lowering his head at the last minute like a battering ram. Anna’s scream died in her throat as the bartender twisted, grabbed the man’s upper arm and flipped him flat out on his back. “Are we done?”
Gasping for breath, the biker scrambled to his feet. “Hell, no.” He circled again, looking for an opportunity.
Anna relaxed her grip on the umbrella and settled in to watch.
After dodging a few more killer swings, the bartender decked the guy with a precise punch to the nose. It felt like a cartoon “POW!” should accompany the blow as blood spurted and the oaf flew backward onto his burly butt.
“Don’t come back.” The bartender shook out his hand then walked past Anna to the doorway. He stopped and looked back at her. “What? You think it’s going to rain?” After a glance skyward, he shook his head.
“No, I was going to—” Anna gritted her teeth as she realized he was mocking her.
He held the door open, his expression softening. “Come on in. I’ll get you a brandy.”
She considered refusing just to piss him off for making fun of her when a groan came from the pavement behind her. Nope. I’m not staying out here. She sashayed past him and plunked the umbrella back in the stand before saying, “Make it a double and you’ve got a deal.”
She smiled at his deep chuckle.
“What the hell was that about?” Ella intercepted her as she claimed a stool at the bar. Rosie moved to her other side.
Damn. She’d hoped to have a little time alone with her knight in shining armor, or prissy apron as it were. “That biker made a pass at me and—” She turned to the bartender now pouring her a brandy. “I didn’t get your name.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “First or last?”
He slid the drink toward her. “First.”
“Oh.” Anna took a swig and then choked as the damn thing burned its way down her throat. “Jeez!”
“You’re supposed to sip it.”
She cleared her throat then glared at him. “Thanks for the warning.”
His eyes widened with innocence. “You don’t seem to like being told what to do.”
Rosie let out a laugh and then shot her an apologetic look. “He’s right, you know.”
Annoyance tightened her already taut shoulders. They were all against her. “I was gonna hit that guy, I just didn’t get enough room to wind up.”
“I’d rather people didn’t fight in here, it messes up my décor.” He shook his head and then used his fingers to tame his disheveled hair.
Anna wondered briefly what it felt like. God, my brain is scattered tonight.
He leaned over the bar toward her with a playful smile. “You going to tell me your name or do I have to card you again to refresh my memory?”
“Anna. And you can’t card someone twice in a night, buddy.”
“I’ll try to remember that rule.” His laugh was warm and intimate. “Pleased to meet you, Anna.”
“You too.” Up close his eyes were the coolest shade of green. Almost forest green. They seemed to darken under her gaze and a warm surge of sexual awareness bubbled up inside her. Jeez. She jerked back and took the last sip of her brandy to break the spell. Her face felt hot, but hopefully if she was blushing he’d think it was from the drink.
When he busied himself arranging a stack of cardboard coasters and shot glasses, it occurred to her that he might’ve felt that same heat. Hmm, interesting.
Anna stood and handed her empty glass to Ericson. “Well, thanks for the brandy and for taking that guy out, but my friends and I have a business meeting to finish.”
“You’re welcome, Anna.” He chuckled. “And thank you for the umbrella protection.”
“Yeah, right.” She turned before he could see the blush heating up her face again. Okay, so now how do I make him ask me out?
Ericson eyed the three women as they strutted away. Well, Anna strutted. Her friends had flatter strides with less hip action. His eyes lingered on Anna’s long legs and tight ass before fixing his attention on his apron. Shit. Why do the beefy guys always have to bleed so much? Luckily his jeans and apron were black so they didn’t show the mess.
He emptied the apron pocket onto the lower bar: corkscrew; pocket knife; back-up corkscrew; rag—just a little bloodied, but it’d have to be washed; and then the change and a strip of condoms in the other pocket. Not that he had much use for condoms these days, but if customers were getting drunk and frisky at his bar, he wanted to make sure they didn’t have bigger regrets when they sobered up the next day. His eyes flicked to Anna, now focused on her friends. She was attractive as hell but he sure didn’t need that kind of trouble in his life.
Throwing his apron and the rag into the hollow beside the garbage can, he grabbed a clean one from the shelf and methodically replaced the items into their respective homes. Laundry day would come a little earlier this week.
“Hey! What does a bloke have to do to get a drink around here?” Bill, at the end of the bar, held up his glass.
“Maybe if you tipped better, you’d get better service.” Ericson hollered back as he drew him a Coors Light.
“If you hired some cute young servers, I’d tip.”
“You calling me old?” Ericson gave Bill his pint and collected the empty glass. “I’m hurt.”
“Sorry, Eric. You just don’t fill out a mini skirt like you used too.”
“Oh man, you been trolling my old photos on Facebook, again?” Ericson laughed as he grabbed a tray to do some table service. He only made the rounds when his server called in sick. He preferred his sanctuary behind the massive cherry wood bar. But maybe the fight had spiked his adrenaline, or else he just wanted to check out Anna again.
Damn I’m not getting caught up in that girl’s drama, besides which, she’s too young for me.
First two tables placed their orders and then he approached Anna and her friends. “Can I get you ladies anything from the bar?
The blonde looked up guiltily as if worried he might’ve overheard their conversation. Wonder what their “business meeting” is about? Anna with her black clothes and dark lipstick hardly seemed the office type. And the red-head’s outfit didn’t scream big business type, either.
Anna addressed her friends. “Okay, I owe you gals one more drink. You want another SoHo, Ella?”
“No. I think I’ll have an Orange Crantini this time.” The short blonde glanced at both women and then blurted out. “And this round’s on me. I sold a short story today.”
“Congratulations! That’s fabulous.” The red-head winked at Anna. “And if Ella’s buying, I’ll go for something more expensive.” Her gaze met Ericson’s. “What’s an interesting mixed drink, with no Grenadine or milk?”
“How about a Bartender’s Masala?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “What’s that? It doesn’t have curry, does it?”
“No. I just throw a bunch of things into a glass, shake it up, and voila.”
“What sort of things?”
“Well, I won’t know until I start pouring.”
Anna sat up straighter. “I’d like to try that.”
“Okay, me too.”
“Aw hell, scratch the Crantini and I’ll go for it too.”
“Three Masalas on their way.” Ericson winked at the women before returning to his bar. He poured the other drinks while mulling over what to mix for Anna and her friends. Something sweet with an unexpected twist, sort of like her.
Damn, his plan to avoid young drama queens seemed to have hit a snag. Despite knowing the danger, he now wanted Anna more than ever.