Seven Years Ago
James & Gwen
James Merange dragged himself to the closest bar that was half-empty and still looked like it had a decent selection of bourbon. Never thought of myself as a bourbon man, but today is totally a bourbon day. Five hours. That’s how long his meeting with his father’s business associates had taken. Now that James was out of business school, he was expected to start carrying his weight in his family. That’s what happened when he was born the only son to the traditional Meranges, let alone was the only child.
James was not a traditional kind of guy, however. But what else was he supposed to do with his life when he had no driving need to do something great? Guy in my frat wanted to be an artist… so he became a pretty good artist. Fuck you, Feldman. Why couldn’t James have some talent? He had all this money to throw at it!
The bar was sophisticated, but none of the “top shelf” products on display screamed they were worth their weight in gold. Good. That meant James could spare himself more networking and hobnobbing with the kind of knobs his father preferred. When he left the meeting twenty minutes ago, Albert was still going on about taking his business associates to a lounge. No, no, no. The only time James went to lounges was if his friends were going along. It was the only way to assure a half-decent time.
At least there wasn’t a damn soul in the room, aside from the female bartender standing on the other side of the circular bar, cleaning glasses and facing the beer bottles on the shelf. James was so relieved to have an empty bar to himself that he courted serious fantasies of drinking his glass of bourbon and scrolling mindlessly on his iPhone. He had just downloaded a new game that promised hours of mindless entertainment. Candy Crush. Yes, that was its name.
Yes, give me the booze, give me the NO BLASTED MUSIC ON SPEAKERS and give me bright colors and cartoon characters. It worked in Japan. About time America got with the program.
He had barely sat down when the female bartender rounded the corner and approached him with a smile.
The most gorgeous smile he had ever seen.
James knew he had been working too hard and too long when he swore he saw an angel descend from heaven and grace him with her presence. Booze. Give me the booze now. With any luck, James would soon be too drunk to give a shit that his brain, heart, and cock were telling him to marry the woman before him.
Years later, he would struggle to put into words what attracted him first about Gwenyth Mitchell, the only woman to knock him off his feet and step on him before he could get back up again. James had encountered his fair share of gorgeous women over the years. His undergrad years were nothing but a steady stream of pussy, most of those girls never standing a chance at dating him. Marriage? Yeah, right.
Yet why did he feel like he looked into the eyes of his future wife that night?
“What can I get you?” She spread her arms before him, fingers gripping her side of the mahogany-topped bar. “You look like you could use something strong. Long day at work?”
She asked the usual questions any good bartender looking for a tip relied on. But there was a tone to her voice that made her spunkier, more genuine than the common bartender fishing for tips. Had she felt it too? This instant connection that would end with her agreeing to go out with James? If he built up the guts to do it…
“Got any bourbon?” Amazing. His voice hadn’t squeaked like he was a pubescent idiot.
“Bourbon? Oh, we got tons.” She tossed errant strands of blond hair behind her ears. That loose bun wasn’t going to get her far that night. Or was that the plan? Part of her flirtatious game? James was already losing this game, and he wasn’t used to losing.
To anyone but the perfect opportunity, anyway.
“What brand’s your poison?”
James asked for something dark and velvety. The bartender turned around to grab it, showing off her toned ass in the black jeans she wore like they were a second skin. James gawked at both cheeks as they flexed in denim. As long as he checked himself before she turned around again…
“What’s your name?” he asked, before realizing that might have been the wrong thing to say. A woman like this? She was used to being flirted with every day.
“What’s your name, stranger?” That smile was still the size of her golden aura when she turned around with a blessed bottle of booze. A glass popped onto the counter. “Haven’t seen you around here before.”
“James,” was all he said. He didn’t want to risk her recognizing his unique last name. Not in those parts.
“Better than Dylan or Ryder or whatever guys our age are named these days.”
“It’s a family name.” James snorted to think of his great-grandfather, a man he had never met. “Ryder? Where the hell did you get that?”
“There were two of them in my bartending school alone. I think they were doing it on purpose.”
James had his bourbon. He held it up and with a waggle of his eyebrows, offered his cheers to a friendly bartender.
“You still haven’t told me your name,” he said after taking a sip.
James almost blushed. He hadn’t realized he said that out loud. “Haven’t heard that name in a while. Is it so old it’s new again?”
Gwen leaned against the bar with one hand, the other cocked on her hip. If she poses like that any more, I’m going to pop. Maybe he should have more alcohol and go for the ol’ whisky dick to prevent any embarrassing events in his pants.
“Go on,” she said. “Guess what it’s short for. I know you want to.”
“Close.” Gwen almost seemed impressed. “She spells it differently. I haven’t met many girls who spell my name the way I do.”
“Your choice or your parents’?”
She grinned. “Why can’t I agree with them on something for once?”
A tap on the bar meant she had other things to take care of. James pulled out his phone, but couldn’t bring himself to open the apps he wanted to play. He’d rather gaze longingly at Gwen, a vivacious woman who moved like she owned this bar. Maybe she did. Hell, James knew nothing about this joint. For all he knew, Gwen was a hospitality whizz who would one day own half the bars in town.
Almost made him feel like a pig to instantly wonder how she’d be in bed.
When he woke up that morning, he hadn’t planned on trying to get laid. His brain was swarmed with business, family, and bullshit. That long-ass meeting more than guaranteed that he would go to bed early as soon as he got something to eat and took a shower. Now? He may be willing to make other plans, if the mood called for it.
Women like Gwen, though? They weren’t easy. Usually. Not that James would want her to be. Couldn’t half the fun be the seduction?
“How long have you been working here?” he called after her.
Gwen glanced at him over her shoulder. A mini-fridge door closed. Lemon slices were put away. “Long enough to know that you’re not a regular here, and have no reason to be asking me that other than to flirt.”
“Am I that transparent?”
She stood in the circular groove of the bar. “Kind of. But you’re cute, so I’ll let it slide.”
“Knew it. You ladies already let us cute ones get away with everything.”
“Just don’t let it go to your head. I don’t want to have to call the bouncer to deal with you.”
“Who’s the bouncer?”
Gwen cocked her head, a mischievous grin that only someone like James could appreciate catching his attention once more. “Me.”
“Care to find out?”
Laughing, Gwen asked him how his drink was and insisted that she had other things to do.
That’s how it went for the next few weeks, when James came up with any excuse to swing by that bar and see his favorite bartender. He never asked Gwen out, because he was afraid of ruining what they tentatively had: friendly banter and friendlier conversation. The fact she always wore tight pants and tight shirts made the visits extra special. James already appreciated some fodder to take home to his imagination.
He often wondered if she looked forward to his visits – and if she wanted him as much as he wanted her.