Seven Years Ago, Part 2
James & Gwen
Gwen emerged from the back room of the bar to find James there, again.
She shook her head in nothing but curious amusement. That guy showed up twice or thrice a week at the most awkward time. (Was it too much to ask to have no customers while Gwen cleaned up and prepped for the rush sure to come in the next two hours?) Usually, he kept to himself, but occasionally he made light conversation with her. That didn’t count the amount of times she glanced over her shoulder while she did some dishes or took inventory and caught him staring at her ass.
Typical. Men always stared at her ass. They often hit on her, too. It wasn’t a Saturday night unless Gwen made a pile of tips because she charmed the men that came into the bar into thinking they had even the slightest bit of a chance with her.
Okay, so sometimes they did. Gwen didn’t make a habit of it, but for the right guy, she was willing to go home and have a good time. Bonus points if he came into the bar again and continued to give her tips. As long as they didn’t think she was their girlfriend, all was good.
James was trouble.
Cute, charming trouble.
Their conversations over the past few weeks had revealed that he was in training to take over his family’s business, whatever it was. Once guys started talking about business, Gwen tuned them out. Blah, blah, blah. Stocks, bonds, buyouts, and mergers. Whatever. Sounded like a goofy ‘80s movie.
And James was a goofy kind of guy. He may have looked like he stepped out of a men’s watch catalog – that wasn’t knocking his appearance, by the way – and was affable enough to joke around with, but every time James started saying something serious, he pulled back and turned it into a jest instead.
At least he was genuinely funny, and he didn’t rely on crass, offensive humor to get his points across. While most of those jokes weren’t fit for a kid’s ear, Gwen didn’t have to hear curse word after slur, and that was always a pleasant night at the bar.
That night, when she emerged to find her favorite customer waiting for her at the far end of the bar, she spared him a smile and approached with a slight wave of her hand. “Hey, stranger,” she said. “Get you the usual?”
“If the usual will make me forget that horrible meeting I had earlier.”
Gwen had a feeling it would, especially if she pumped it with a little extra liquor. “Bad day at the office again?”
“The worst. My dad is a tyrant. News at eleven.”
Chuckling, Gwen swiftly made his favorite drink using the same top shelf stuff he singlehandedly made them reorder more than once since he started coming around. “Your life is so hard. Mr. Trust Fund.”
“Hey, I work for that trust fund.” James winked at her when the glass appeared before him. “I work to keep my father happy. A happy father means a happy trust fund for many years to come.”
“Is that how they work? I wouldn’t know. I’m from scholarship country.” Gwen braced herself against the bar. She knew her breasts were pushed toward James’s face, but she had long since decided she didn’t care if he respectfully ogled her. The man paid her enough tips to make her think she was in one of those clubs, anyway. Might as well give him a little extra for his time.
“Of course it’s not how they work. But if I pretend it is, I can feel like I have more control over my fate.”
“Ah, yes, fate. Is that what keeps bringing you into my bar?”
“Why, Ms. Mitchell,” James said with a waggle of his eyebrows, “are you finally flirting back with me in earnest?”
She snorted. “You’d like that, I bet.”
“I mean, your lovely face and ability to banter with me is the second reason I keep coming back here.”
“Only the second?”
“The drinks are top notch, Gwen. I’m telling you, it’s amazing this place doesn’t have more customers.”
She laughed. “Wanna hear a secret? I don’t water your drinks down.”
She left him with that nugget as she walked away. She would have been disappointed if he weren’t staring at her ass.
James was the kind of customer Gwen appreciated while always keeping a careful eye on him. Guys like that? The ones with the big wallets and not afraid to drop in during the slow times to make light conversation and crack jokes? They usually wanted something. Namely, her.
Gwen had been dealing with guys like James for years, long before she started bartending full time. Apparently, she had a cool je ne sais quoi that made her popular with men of all types and backgrounds. Most of them weren’t worth her time. Occasionally, she picked up a temporary boyfriend or a one-night stand that was adequate enough for her to keep doing it. But there were some men that made her uneasy, and she wasn’t sure why.
Sure, creeps were creeps, and Gwen smelled them from a mile away. Those were the obvious ones. Sometimes guys were so good at hiding their creep levels that Gwen went out on dates and soon regretted it. After a few years of dealing with one creep after another, she was content to live the single life and ignore any guy who followed established patterns of behavior.
She couldn’t make out what kind of guy James Merange was.
Lovable buffoon that had a crush on her? Or a sinister playboy playing the long con? Some unholy mix of the two?
Gwen returned to the counter to find James glancing at her from his phone. Did he think she was fooling her with the old, I’m just on my phone trick? The screen was black.
She was curious enough to ask him what his deal was, but knew better than to risk whatever professional bartender-client relationship they maintained. No matter how cute James was, Gwen was better off…
“Do you have a boyfriend, Gwen?”
Ah. There it was. His next move would be to hit on her.
A part of Gwen wanted to see where it went. It had nothing to do with his supposed money, either. (Gwen didn’t bother Googling him or his family until they started going out. What an eye opener that was…) James was intriguing, wasn’t he? Boyish charms encased in a mature, masculine air. A youthful quality that clashed against his expensive clothes and a smart head for business. James wasn’t childlike or immature. He was in careful control of his humor. For all Gwen knew, these trips to the bar were one of his only chances to let his real nature shine. That almost makes me feel special. He chose to be around her when letting off steam. Alone, but was he really alone when Gwen was only a shout away? They had casual conversations for weeks before taking it further.
Casual enough for him to ask if she had a boyfriend? Maybe.
“I’m single,” Gwen said, standing a few feet more than usual away from him. Survival instinct. James would either take the news graciously, or he would up the sleaze. As much as Gwen wanted to believe that James was different… she wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t. Life had jaded her.
James narrowed his eyes, sat back in his seat, and asked, “How?”
Crossing his arms was a nice touch, but Gwen wasn’t buying it. “What do you mean how? How what? Do I not have a boyfriend?”
“Yes. Unless you just broke up with someone five hours ago, I’m not sure how you could possibly be single.”
“Like I haven’t heard this pickup line before.”
“Who says I’m trying to pick you up? I’m just trying to understand how someone as nice and amiable as you is single.”
She snorted. “Not all of us want to be attached to the old ball and chain.”
“Who said anything about marriage? I’m talking about having a man who treats you right and puts that extra skip in your step.”
“And is easy on the eyes, I’m sure.”
James grinned. Damnit. That’s the kind of grin that gets girls in trouble. Not Gwen, though. She had sworn off getting in trouble. “Let me know if you do find a guy like that. Maybe I’d like to date him.”
Gwen paled. Oh, no. She had never considered that after all this time…
James might be gay!
“What?” He pocketed his phone and pointed to the exasperated look on Gwen’s face. “Got a problem with a guy who’s comfortable with who he is?”
“Not at all.” Woo, boy. Gwen’s best friend from high school, now going by the drag queen name of Lady Priss-zilla, would love to hear that she had offended a gay guy. “Just didn’t think you were… never mind. You want me to top that drink off for you?”
James didn’t directly answer the question. Not that one, anyway. Instead, he tugged on his growing facial hair and with a wag of the eyebrows said, “I’ll have you know that I have much more experience with the ladies.”
“Just… what happens in Texas, stays in Texas.”
“Long story. There was this conference, some guy from Montreal with a hot French accent… bah. Loose lips sink ships.”
“Maybe I should be asking if you have a boyfriend, James.”
“Why?” Her perked up. “You interested? Because I could tell Ronaldo to pack his stuff and be out of my condo by midnight.”
“A French Canadian named Ronaldo? Send him to my house instead.”
“At least we’ve established that you like guys.”
“And we’ve established the same thing about you!” Gwen leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “Are you hitting on me or not? I can’t tell anymore.”
“How could you misconstrue this as anything but intense flirting to get you more intimately into my life, Gwen?”
“You started talking about some guy named Ronaldo.”
“You’re confused. He doesn’t exist.” James continued to grin. “Unlike you.”
“You’re right. I do exist. As I’m sure you’ve established over these past few weeks you’ve come in here to make eyes at me.”
Chuckling, James leaned forward again and said, “So you’ve noticed?”
“A guy going out of his way to come in here during my off-hours? Getting to know me through trite conversation?” Gwen met him halfway across the counter, her grin grand enough to suck him into a deadly vortex of her making. Think I’ll let him live, though. Why not? Could be fun. James wasn’t pinging any warning bells. The worst he’d do was get over Gwen the moment she gave in to him. She’d miss the tips, but…
Maybe it was worth it for the thrill?
“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Gwen continued. “Kinda hard to miss in a boring place like this.”
“So you’re saying I’m not boring?”
She laughed. “Are you always this self-deprecating? Because it’s kinda cute.”
“I can be the most self-critical prick you’ve ever met if it means making you smile.”
Didn’t she give him the reaction he wanted? Gwen could hardly contain the giddiness surfacing in her chest, and when she laughed again, it was with a hearty guffaw that almost made James join her in such madness.
“Damn,” he said, “does this mean if I don’t ask you out right now, I’ll lose my chance forever?”
He cocked his head. “I might not have the guts to try again.”
“Oh, now I don’t believe that.” Yet Gwen swelled with the knowledge that she had the power to fell this man’s ego with a simple “no.” She wasn’t a whim. She wasn’t someone he thought he might have a chance with, so why not ask? Almost like he fancied her so much that he subjected himself to this thrice-weekly charade of being a simple customer in a lonely, mid-tier bar. More customers would show up later and dominate Gwen’s time. James needed to take his chance now if he were going to tonight. “You mean guys don’t do those endless pursuits like I see in the movies?”
“I’m told that’s creepy, so I’ve cut back on it.”
“You don’t wanna be creepy?”
“Can’t say it’s in my nature. Catch more flies with honey, right?”
He finished his drink, smacking his lips when the glass touched the counter. His large breaths made his chest contract against his fitted dress shirt. Gwen had to refrain from biting her bottom lip as she openly checked out James in his work clothes. He smells like a million dollars. Can you even buy his cologne in department stores? Probably not. His cologne was purchased in an ivory New York tower, where one required a membership to enter, and memberships were only handed out to princely sons and their spoiled sisters.
Gwen glanced at the clock. She could have this place closed now and reopened later without anyone – least of all her boss – finding out.