Hotshot and Hospitality by Nora Everly
Tonight had been a big mistake. The hugest ever. I should have never swiped right. Swept right? Sweeped right? Fricking tequila! Sticking to my man moratorium would have been the better decision because MEN! UGH!
“Your sister is on my list,” I slurred before sucking the juice out of a wedge of lime with a pinch-faced scowl. Tequila flowed through my system, fueling my bad mood as I sat in everyone’s favorite corner booth in Genie’s Country Western Bar. With clumsy hands, I slammed the shot glass to the table and slid it across.
Green Valley, Tennessee, had been my home since birth. Located smack-dab in the middle of Small Town, USA, where everybody knew everybody and gossip was its own currency. The fact that I was drunk off my ass and all alone at Genie’s would not go unnoticed. Plus, the Tinder-date thing was a tasty nugget of information that would probably be passed all around town by morning since eyes and ears were everywhere and a few of them had managed to put two and two together when they spotted my pathetic party of one. My eyes dropped to the table and I tried to disappear into my booth. I was all dressed up with nowhere to go but back home. Instead of chatting with a date over Genie’s famous fried chicken and a beer, I had skipped dinner and gone straight to shooting tequila. I couldn’t drive home like this.
How sad was I?
“Uh-oh, the shit list?” my smirky blond waitress asked as she set a glass of water in front of me. One eyebrow rose as she fished my hearing aid out of one of the empty shot glasses lining the side of the table.
“Yep. Thank you, Willa. And don’t ask.” I swiped it from her hand and shoved it in the front pocket of my jeans. It was toast; tequila did not mix as well with tiny battery-powered devices as it did with salt and lime.
Most people in town knew about my hearing and graciously made accommodations, like making sure to keep their head up and not mumble or sitting on my right side so I could better hear them speak. But there were always a few jerks who dismissed me if I said “What?” one too many times. Or got annoyed if I couldn’t differentiate between their voice calling out to me versus the ambient sounds in a room. Occasionally I would run into a real asshole who would mock sign language at me or point at my hearing aid and tell me to “turn it up.” But it didn’t happen often anymore, at least not here in Green Valley, because my three older brothers had spent the latter part of my childhood “educating” the town jerks who now knew better. I was in a car accident when I was eight and the concussion damaged the hair cells in my cochlea and the ossicles in my middle ear. The end result was profound hearing loss on my left side, and moderate loss on the right. I could still hear some in my right ear, but without my hearing aid I had a hard time understanding what was said to me without reading lips.
Willa shrugged. “I won’t ask. But I’m here all night if you want to talk. Are you okay?”
I nodded as my eyes darted around the bar for one last search for my date. Since he was now over an hour late, it was, of course, fruitless. I had previously given up on dating but stupidly let my friends push me into one more try. Being alone was hunky-freaking-dory, and who needed men anyway? I could have just as much fun in bed all by myself as I could with any man. And bonus, I didn’t complain when I fell asleep right after.
“Yeeaaah.” I let out a huge sigh before continuing, “She said I needed to go out with someone random to get me out of my Chris phase.” I added air quotes around Chris phase—date one too many guys named Chris and it became a talking point among your friends. I waved a hand in front of my face before letting it flop to the table. “I wasted perfectly good makeup for this, and I’m not happy about it. MAC is expensive, dammit.” I pointed a finger at a trying-not-to-laugh Willa. “Your sister is lucky she lives in Knoxville or I’d be texting her to pick me up. She put me on Tinder against my will. No more dates. No more men. No more drama. I’m done for good this time,” I huffed. My drunken mood swung from a slightly disgruntled melancholy to a burst of righteous fury spiked with a healthy dose of humiliated indignation. I was pissed off and embarrassed and I wanted to go home, dang it.
“She forced you to swipe right, huh? Some kind of BFF,” Willa gently teased.
“Force is a bit strong,” I conceded as the wind flew out of my rage sails. “And I guess it’s not her fault the dumbass stood me up…”
“Don’t let her off the hook, Molly. She deserves to haul her butt out of bed and come get you. Clara is bossy. You should teach her a lesson.” My head tipped back with a thump against the wooden booth as I contemplated my crappy night. Letting my eyes drift across the crowded bar full of people dancing, laughing, throwing darts, and singing along to the live music, I wished I could be as carefree as they seemed to be.
I spied my first school friend, Jackie, who was now an ex-friend and also one of the current town gossip queens, across the dance floor and let my head crash forward to land on my arm on the table. The weight of my future embarrassment made it too heavy to hold up. She’d had it out for me since we were fourteen and took every opportunity to rub whatever was going wrong in my life right in my face. Now that she’d spotted me here alone, everyone in town would absolutely know about my lack of a date along with whatever other stuff she was likely to make up to make me look even more pathetic. Damn. “Nah, it’s okay, I already texted Becky Lee to come get me,” I mumbled into my arm. Becky Lee Monroe used to babysit me when I was a kid. My older brothers and I used to spend every day at her house from toddlerhood until junior high. She used to be friends with my mother, but now she was my friend and sort of like the mother I’d always wished I had. Becky Lee was also Willa’s mother-in-law.
Willa nudged me and pointed. I lifted my eyes and squinted down the length of her finger. Just like Jack popping out of the box, my head shot off my arm as I noticed it was Becky Lee’s youngest son, Garrett, she was pointing to. “Coop!” I saw him shout to me from across the dance floor with that same slightly crooked smile he’d always had lighting up his face.
Willa grinned knowingly at me. “Looks like Becky Lee recruited Garrett to come get you. Holler if you need anything else.” She waved to him before heading back to the bar with my empty shot glasses on her tray.
“Hey, Garrett,” I returned with haphazard enthusiasm after he made it to the circle booth and nudged me over with his hip. Garrett and I used to be close. We were the same age and had been the best of friends until hormones, other friends, and teenage angst—mostly mine—caused us to drift apart somewhere around age fifteen. We’d remained cordial to each other during our high school years, often running with the same crowd and sometimes even hanging out, but we’d no longer been best friends. I hadn’t spent a lot of time alone with Garrett over the last decade and a half; he’d blown out of Green Valley after graduation to go to college, then enlisted in the Marines right after. He’d been back for about four years and the laws of small-town living dictated that I saw him all the time. Small talk was our thing now—chitchat, a gathering of mutual friends here at Genie’s, the occasional family barbeque, that kind of stuff. “I got stood up, there are too many assholes named Chris in Green Valley, and now I’m totally freaking drunk and alone.” I felt like I could admit it to him. Garrett had always kept my secrets, and he’d know everything soon enough anyway.
His gaze warmed on me as his easy smile slid to the side. “Well, whoever he is, he’s a fool. And, weirdly, I’ve only met one Chris who was worth a damn. The rest? All pricks. So, it seems like you’re better off.” He was decisive as he stole my water and took a sip with his eyes twinkling at me over the rim of the glass. I watched him set the glass down and my own eyes narrowed as his grin broadened and his dimples deepened within the dark whiskers that covered his square jaw. He was close to having a full beard. He was also pretty dang close to being the finest man in the whole stinking bar too. He leaned in, right into my space. “You should have stayed married to me,” he murmured into my ear, then his eyes met and held mine as he pulled away.
My eyebrows hit my hairline and I barely managed to prevent my jaw from dropping before I shot back a response that I hoped conveyed the proper amount of flippant wit and not the fact that he had completely flabbergasted me. He hadn’t flirted with me like this when I saw him at the Piggly Wiggly last Saturday. No, he surely did not. “We were six years old, Garrett. I don’t think it was legally binding, since your dog performed the ceremony. Plus, you never even gave me a ring. Ring Pops don’t count.” I mean, two could play at whatever strange game this was clearly becoming.
Instead of answering me right away, he winked and studied my face with a grin. That wink hit me right between my eyes like a Nerf dart from our days of yore—I didn’t just see it, I felt it. Bam! Tingles shot from my head to my toes. My brain scrambled inside my head and my mouth opened to say something smart, but nothing came out. Freaking tequila! I shook my metaphorical fist at the liquor that had stunted my normal standard of witty banter.
“But we pinky swore it, Coop.” His comically exaggerated pout was adorable. I felt my cheeks heat as I found myself staring avidly at his mouth in lusty contemplation, rather than just merely reading his lips. Why had I never noticed how full and bitable his lower lip was? I bet it was tasty too. “Remember how we spit into our palms to seal the deal?” he asked. I shook my head while my eyes roamed all over every inch of him I could see above the table.
“How soon they forget.” His chest rose and fell as he let out a huge sigh, and to my shame, my eyes bugged out at the sight. All my thoughts fluttered around in my brain like drunk, demented butterflies. Why was winky-flirt Garrett messing me up? I decided to place the blame on the tequila instead of the fact that he was looking ten different kinds of hot tonight. I finally managed to haul my gaze from his broad chest, which was currently testing the strength of his black T-shirt, and back up to his whiskey brown eyes that were still freaking twinkling at me.
Ugh! There was nowhere to look on him that wasn’t sexy, damn it.
And was he flirting with me?
We’d known each other since babyhood, for crap’s sake. We used to take baths together—me, him, and Mr. Bubble. We’d never flirted before. Ever.
I tried to recall our last talk at the Piggly Wiggly, but all I could remember was that I’d been almost out of toilet paper and Dr. Pepper.
I silently took a vow to never drink again. This was not good. It felt like he was flirting with me, but I was just too damn drunk to be sure. I had been accused of being blind to flirting in the past. Was I blind to the opposite now? Was he not flirting with me? Was something in his eye? Or had he winked at me? Was any of this making any sense? NO! Being drunk is hard.
But before I could figure out what was up with Garrett, Jackie planted herself at the edge of my booth, full of false sympathy and smiles. “I heard you got stood up.” And there it was—the passive-aggressive biotch. She’d had it out for me ever since Duane Winston asked me to the eighth-grade dance and not her. I hadn’t even said yes; I’d been positive he’d only asked me to make Jessica James jealous, and duh—they’re married now. But she had hated me ever since.
“You’re mistaken. Obviously.” Garrett gestured to himself with a bemused expression as he scooted closer to me to wrap an arm around my shoulders. “No one in their right mind would stand this vision up. Her date is right here.” I listed into his side and gazed up at him with big eyes. Just what in the name of Jose Cuervo was going on here? I said a quick prayer to St. Patron—the patron saint of tequila, of course—but no divine intervention intervened on my behalf and my brain remained a liquor-soaked mess of confusion.
He winked at me again and then he kissed me. Right on the mouth. He flipping kissed me. Which turned me at least fifty percent sober—which wasn’t saying all that much—and also one hundred percent confused. I tried to ignore the zing tingles that went through my body at the feel of his lips on mine and the delicious tickle of his almost-full beard against my cheek as he pulled away.
What is he playing at?
I snatched up the water and took a huge gulp, choking and sputtering on an ice cube in the process.
Her face scrunched up in feigned confusion. “Y’all two are dating now? How cute! I can’t wait to tell everybody.” She snickered.
“Watch it, Jackie,” Garrett warned. My head bounced between the two of them as I tried to concentrate on what they were saying. I sat forward in the booth to pay closer attention to their lips. I huffed out a frustrated sigh and flopped back in the booth. Drunk lipreading was impossible, dammit.
“Just go away,” I sighed, not in the mood for more of her drama. I’d been over her crap since we were kids and I wished she would just get a new hobby. Unfortunately, torturing me seemed to be her reason for living. I was more than sick of it.
“Sure, I’ll let you get back to your date. Bye, y’all.”
I sighed. “Later…”
“I never liked her,” Garrett declared. “She always was a shitty friend to you. Especially after—”
Not wanting to get into it, I cut him off. “Yeah, well—are you playing games with me, Garrett?” My eyes narrowed on his mouth. I wanted to be sure I understood his answer. But I didn’t need to. Garrett already knew how to talk to me, and he had always made sure I could hear him without making it awkward. He leaned in and spoke directly in my ear.
“I wouldn’t play with you, Molly. You know me better than that. Plus, you know my mother would kill me if I messed with you.” He pulled back and his ever-present grin shifted sideways as he placed his arm across the back of the booth. My skin prickled with awareness; he wasn’t touching me, but I was alarmed to find myself wanting him to let his big sexy arm fall to my shoulders and pull me close again. I was even more alarmed at my sudden urge to take off my shirt and climb into his lap. Tinder date, who?
I laughed to cover the naughty directions my thoughts had drifted into. I couldn’t figure out how to talk to him. We had ventured into uncharted waters tonight. “I love it that you’re scared of your mother,” I teased, forcing myself to ignore the effect he was having on my body and attempting to shift back to our old friendly dynamic.
He chuckled. “Don’t try to tell me you’re not scared of her too.” His fingertip rounded the rim of the glass of water as he talked. Why was that so sexy? I found myself wanting him to do other, more interesting stuff with that finger. With an awkward lurch, I raised my head, wrenching my eyes from his hand on my glass and back up to his face.
“Okay, I admit it. I wouldn’t cross her. She looks sweet and she is sweet. But she’s a tough one, like a Steel Magnolia or something,” I finally managed to answer.
He bit his lip to hold back laughter. “That would be her ultimate life goal. Are you ready to go home? Or do you require more tequila?” I shook my head side to side as I studied that full lower lip pouting over his darkly shadowed chin. Visions of yanking him to me by his T-shirt and tasting that luscious mouth popped into my head. Knock that shit off.
I forced out a laugh. “God no. I’m headed for hangover city as it is. I’ll be useless at work tomorrow.”
You’re drunk. That’s all this is. Drunk Molly is always a horndog.
He slid out of the booth and held out a hand. I took it and hauled myself up to stand at his side. Again, with the dang zing tingles. My hand in his seemed to be a conductor of sorts, causing horny sparks to shoot throughout my body. I blushed at the way it felt grasped in his warm palm. It was getting harder and harder not to stare at him or flirt back. Flirting was one of my top ten favorite things to do; not flirting was hard for me. And holy moly, had his hands always been this much bigger than mine?
He leaned over to grab my purse from the booth. “Don’t forget this.”
“Oh, jeez. Thanks, Garrett.” I stumbled into his side as I hooked the strap over my shoulder.
He smiled as he held my arms to steady me. “You okay there, Princess Tipsy McPeesHerPants?”
I swayed as I pointed a finger up in his grinning face—way, way up, because Garrett was well over six feet, and I was a shrimpy five foot one. “Hey, man! That was one time, okay? Senior skip day was hard for me, and you know it. There are no bathrooms up at Sky Lake. And you’re a fine one to talk. I know all about you and your ladies, Man-ho Monroe, Mr. Slick, Flirty McHotStuff.”
His lips quirked into a wry grin as he bent low to speak into my ear. “My reputation is seventy-five percent undeserved, and you know it.”
“I know no such thing. Okay, fine. Shut up. Whatever. I know it. I really am sorry. I say stupid shit when I’m drunk.” I pursed my lips and tried to roll my eyes as I backed away from him. But it made me dizzy and I stepped on his foot, stumbled, and almost went down. How many tequila shots had I drunk tonight?
“Then I twenty-five percent forgive you. Hey now, steady, Molly. Let me help you.” Bending low to wrap an arm around my waist, he guided me through the crowd toward the exit.
I stopped near the edge of the dance floor to pull his face closer to mine. “People are going to think we were really on a date if you keep your arm around me like this,” I warned in his ear.
With a shrug and a half grin, he answered, “Let them.” Then he resumed leading me through the crowded bar and out to his truck.