The desire to punch one of my bartenders into tomorrow isn’t a feeling I’m familiar with, but as Sam gloats in the form of a grin, the good mood I walked into work with flies out the window and my fist aches with the need to hit something.
“You gave my Claire your phone number?”
Horror quickly replaces the smug look on Sam’s face. “Your Claire?”
“My Claire,” I repeat, feeling less like a civilized human and more like a caveman.
Even from across the room, I know the brunette with the caramel-streaked updo is Claire Chase. She’s wearing her standard work suit: grey slacks and a white, no-frills blouse – standard attire for the most sensible woman I know. For years now, she’s been dressing the part of someone who’s looking for stability, steering clear of anyone looking for a fun time. Thank goodness, I might add. My knuckles would be pulverized by now if I’d had to run interference with all the unworthy guys sniffing around her.
Her heart-shaped face is arguably her greatest asset; her eyes are neither blue nor green, but somewhere in between. Her nose is as modest as the rest of her, but cute as hell, and those lips…She has the most luscious lips I’ve ever seen, full and sensual. She rarely wears lipstick, but she likes her lip gloss, that’s for sure. Once, I pissed her off by upending her handbag and reading the names off some of the lip gloss tubes that rolled out. Like Cocoa and Cherry, Raspberry and Ice, Strawberries and Cream. All perfectly edible. Over the years, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about her lips – imagining the way they would feel pressed against my neck, my chest, my stomach, my-
“She flirted with me,” Sam says, breaking the runaway daydream.
I shake my head, trying to dislodge the image of Claire’s lips since it’s clearly messing with my brain function.
“Claire doesn’t flirt with us mere bartenders, Sam. She dates those Wall Street types.”
Which is for the best. Sure, the suits she dates lack personality and presence, but Claire is safe with them. One day she’ll find one she really likes and marry him. Even if the thought gives me a twinge of discomfort in the heart area, a Wall-Street type is what she’s always wanted. Aside from the time she briefly lost her mind and decided she wanted to date me, of course. That phase didn’t last long, which is just as well. Her brother and I both know she would never be happy with me.
“But you’re dating her?” Sam asks.
“Nope. She’s like a little sister to me.”
The words mock every naughty thought I’ve ever had about my ‘sister’. I’ve told myself Claire is ‘family’ enough times that it should have sunk in by now. The mental beatings I regularly give myself stop me from making a fool of myself and lunging at her. They don’t, however, stop the errant thoughts that assault me every time I’m within a five-mile radius of her.
Sam frowns. “I thought you were an only child.”
“We’re not related by blood, but she is family. And I kind of inherited her when Austin went to Queensland.”
“Wait, she’s Austin’s little sister?”
Everyone at Brody’s knows Austin because he’s frequented the bar whenever I’ve been on shift. He’s the toughest son of a gun I know. Not to mention the best friend any guy could ask for. Currently, Claire’s brother is working security detail for an actress filming a movie in Queensland, but in a few months, when the assignment is over, Austin will be moving back to Melbourne. And then anyone who doesn’t fit Austin’s “stay and love Claire forever” criteria – which is pretty much everyone I work with – will be forced to face Austin or forget ever seeing Claire again.
“Unless you intend to marry her and spend the rest of your life making her happy, I will tear your balls from your body and force-feed them to you if you go near my sister. Understand me?“
That’s what Austin said to me the day I ever so casually mentioned I wanted to take Claire out on a date. Since the last thing I wanted to do at eighteen was settle down – hell, my life plan included travelling and never settling down – I didn’t ask Claire out. And nine years ago, when she hinted that she wanted me to take her to her prom, I made a joke of how I saw her like a little sister. My rejection hurt her more than I intended, and she’s never forgiven me for it, but I will never be the man she needs.
Claire deserves her dream guy – someone who will stand by her side for the rest of her life and never let her down. She deserves someone who will take care of her and love her always. That isn’t me. Just last week, I booked my plane ticket out of here. For years, I’ve been planning a round-the-world-trip, and when I was accepted as a replacement instructor for an extreme sports camp for teens in New Zealand, I knew it was time to stop putting off the inevitable and leave. Travelling and seeing the world is the only long-term plan I’ve ever made.
Briefly, I contemplated leaving in a few weeks’ time instead of in a few months’ time, but I don’t feel right about leaving Claire before Austin returns from Queensland. As much as Claire would disagree, it’s my job to play temporary big brother until Austin comes home. So, I went ahead and booked my ticket for October, thirteen weeks from now. By then, Austin will be back in Melbourne and I can leave without feeling guilty about abandoning Claire. After I finish my stint as instructor, I’ll be flying off to Europe and then maybe to Asia. The world will be my oyster.
There is so much I want to see and do. Which is why I don’t have any intention of putting down roots. I don’t want to slave away at some nine-to-five job, running myself into an early grave, when none of it really matters. I can’t take my money with me when I die. My father died far too early in life because he forgot that simple fact. There’s no way I’m going to make the same mistake.
But Claire? She’s the exact opposite. Like my father, she values stability and security. She hates winging it, and she’s desperate to settle down and live a life of…well, everything that sounds boring to me. On the most basic level, we are so incompatible it isn’t funny.
In conclusion, I’m not her dream guy. I knew that years ago, even if she didn’t. I should probably have made more of an effort to build a friendship with Claire instead of teasing her so much and giving her a hard time, especially after the way my rejection had hurt her. But her constant animosity towards me made it so much easier to remember that I wasn’t supposed to lean in and take a taste of that sweet, sweet lip gloss. Maybe I stirred her a bit too much, but I honestly didn’t know how to be around her when she wasn’t pissed at me.
Even now, she’s glaring at me. I smile back at her and wave, a familiar surge of affection coming over me.
“I could have sworn she was flirting with me,” Sam says, though he’s sounding less convinced now.
“Not Claire,” I tell him firmly.
Aside from the fact that I can’t imagine Claire flirting with anyone who earns less than eighty thousand dollars a year, she has a boyfriend. At least she did the last time I spoke to Claire’s mum, Diana. But her latest Mr Wall Street isn’t sitting with her, and generally Claire doesn’t use her nights for anything other than…well, work or dating. Hmm.
“Her friend was flirting with me, too.”
For the first time since looking in Claire’s direction, I notice the redhead Claire is sitting with.
“That’s Kara,” I tell Sam. “I’d consider her off-limits, too.”
“Why? Is she Austin’s sister, too?”
“No, but Austin’s been in love with her since forever.”
Austin just refuses to admit it to himself. No one wants to be standing in the way when he finally figures it out.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Sam looks so disappointed that I pat his shoulder before pushing through the short wooden gate that’s supposed to keep the pub’s patrons out of the bar area.
“Hey, where are you going?” Sam calls out.
“There’s someone who’s desperate to say hello to me.”
As I approach Claire’s table, she pretends to be engrossed in a conversation with her friends. But I’m not fooled. She knows I’m here. She folds her arms across her chest as she sits up straight, her back rigid.
I pull an unused chair away from the table next to theirs and spin it around, so it’s next to Claire’s. Then I straddle it and lean on the backrest.
“Dylan,” she returns through clenched teeth.
“Would you believe my idiot bartender over there actually thought you were flirting with him?”
“That’s because she was flirting with him,” Kara says smugly.
Clearly, they are having me on. Since the joke isn’t funny, I ignore it.
“Kara,” I acknowledge Claire’s friend. “I’m sure Austin would want me to send you his regards.”
She rolls her eyes. “And I’m sure I’m the last person he’s thinking about since he’s spending his days and nights with Annabelle Rogers.”
“Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”
She makes an unattractive snorting noise. “You remember Tori?” She gestures to the third woman sitting at the table.
I recognize the well put together pretty blonde. “Claire’s friend from Uni, right?”
She nods and smiled. “Hi, Dylan.”
“And you know Danni,” Kara says, introducing the fourth female at the table.
I don’t immediately recognize the woman with shoulder-length black hair until I think back through my file of Claire’s friends and remember a pretty brunette with long brown hair. Danni must have dyed her hair and cut it. The look suits her.
“I like the new hairstyle, Danni.”
Danni smiles and blushes a little.
“We thought you had the night off tonight,” Kara says.
I grin. “Thought or hoped?”
“Does it matter?” Kara asks dryly.
“Well, sorry to disappoint, but I have a couple of girls I’m interviewing later this evening.”
“What about Brody’s reputation for sexy bartenders?”
“Trust me, these girls are sexy as hell.”
Seeing the look on Kara’s face, I chuckle. “Brody’s doesn’t discriminate based on gender, Kara.”
We certainly won’t be hearing any complaints from our male patrons if I hire the girls. And considering that several staff members have given their notice lately, I can’t afford to be picky. Providing these applicants can work the bar, I’ll hire them. And the best way to see what they can do is to put them straight to work and see how they handle a crowd.
“That’s a shame. I’m kinda liking the line-up back there at the moment,” she says, her gaze fixed on the bar.
Deciding I’m not going to touch that one, I make a show of looking around the table before zeroing in on Claire.
“Where’s Wall Street?”
“His name was Evan.”
“Still is, but Evan himself is history,” Kara tells me. “Get with the program.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“We broke up,” Claire says, her voice as flat as a bottle of lemonade that has been opened and left standing for a week.
It takes all the teasing responses I have lined up right out of me.
“Sorry to hear that,” I murmur.
For the first time since I sat down, Claire looks at me properly. This close to her, I can see dark smudges beneath her eyes, and her eyes look cloudy instead of bright. Something is wrong. The realization punches me in the gut. Damn.
“Don’t be sorry,” Kara says. “The guy was terribly dull and boring.”
“What are you talking about? He was perfect for Claire.”
Claire stares at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Clearly, she wasn’t expecting me to defend her, but when it comes to her choice in men, she has two thumbs up from me.
“Thank you, Dylan.”
Her gratitude sounds stiff and formal, but it’s been a long time since I gave her any reason to be happy with me. She probably doesn’t remember how to interact with me without wanting to clobber me.
Since I don’t know how to act around her when she’s not annoyed with me, I can relate. Even as she uncrosses her arms and lets her posture relax a little, I can’t take my eyes off the gentle swell of her breasts and the long, elegant line of her neck. The skin there looks smooth and far too kissable. And when I lean in a little closer, I can smell the sweet and spicy scent of her perfume.
“He was boring,” Kara says.
“He was predictable,” I correct her, grateful for the argument to take my mind off how good Claire looks and smells.
“It’s the same thing.”
“There are worse things to be in life than predictable,” I say firmly. “Especially for Claire.”
“We happen to vehemently disagree with you,” Kara says, gesturing to Tori and Danni as if they were some kind of jury passing judgement.
Is this why Claire is so sad? Because her friends are giving her a hard time about her latest Wall Street guy?
“What is this? Some kind of intervention?”
I ask the question jokingly, but none of them smile in response.
“That’s exactly what this is,” Kara says.
“Well, that’s just stupid. Her Wall Street types are perfect for her.”
“Are you saying Claire is boring?” Danni asks.
“Then you’re saying that Claire is staid and unexciting?” Kara asks.
“I don’t think that’s what he’s saying,” Claire says.
Claire is sticking up for me. That’s a first.
“Then why would you want her to date someone who she doesn’t have fun with?” Tori asks.
“I’m not suggesting she dates someone who she doesn’t have fun with.”
“Could have fooled us,” Danni says.
I shake my head, perturbed by the direction the conversation is taking. “You guys are crazy.”
Kara leans on the table and asks, “Are you telling me you’d have absolutely no problem with Claire dating Sam? If Sam is someone Claire could have fun with?”
There is a small, rather wicked half-smile on the redhead’s face that makes me feel as if I’ve just been played. Worse than played – Kara has declared war on Claire’s taste in men and she’s just used me to further her attack.
Claire tilts her head to the side and stares at me, waiting curiously for my answer.
“Austin wouldn’t approve of her dating him.”
Okay, so it’s the cowardly answer, but it’s still part of the truth.
“Austin’s not here right now,” Claire says. “And even if he was, he wouldn’t get a say in who I date.”
“That’s what you think.”
The retort is out of my mouth before I’ve had time to think about it. Claire has no idea that her brother has warned off guys in the past because of their likelihood of bolting and breaking her heart.
Kara raises an eyebrow. “Do you really expect us to believe that Austin would try and stop her from dating someone she really liked?”
“Yes. If he wasn’t right for her.”
“Right for her?” Kara persists.
I ignore Kara and turn to Claire, so she knows I’m speaking to her and only her.
“I’m just going to say what I’m fairly confident Austin would say if he was here: don’t listen to these guys. Stick with the Wall Street types. They’re more up your alley.”
I realize I’ve said the wrong thing when Claire’s eyes widen and she re-crosses her arms.
“More up my alley?”
God, I’m taking her side, trying to support her when her friends are intent on intervening in her life, and she’s taking it the wrong way.
“Please clarify, Dylan.” Kara seems to be enjoying my predicament immensely.
“I mean… sensible and staid might not be qualities you like in the men Claire dates, but those traits suit Claire.”
“So, you do think I’m staid and boring?” Claire asks.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying.”
“You just mean that Claire should date guys who she doesn’t have fun with,” Kara says.
“Claire doesn’t care about having fun. Having fun is at the very bottom of her priority list.” The look on Claire’s face…it’s as if I’ve just hit her. Why did I come over to talk to her? This is a complete disaster.
A/N: Thanks for reading! 🙂 Please like, share or leave a comment if you enjoyed the chapter, or just keep reading.