This was a new low. Lacey French sat in the restaurant area of the Red Wolf brewpub, being angry at the napkin for being linen and not paper. She wanted to rip something to shreds right now. It wasn’t fair. She was Lacey French. She didn’t need people to set her up on blind dates! She didn’t need to hope that someone might be into her. She was in demand!
Only, she hadn’t been lately. She hadn’t felt like going out and getting blackout drunk and waking up with some – admittedly hot – stranger. She was just… tired.
What she needed was a week in the Caribbean spent lying out on the beach and getting suntan lotion spread over her by a hunky cabana boy. She didn’t need a ‘relationship.’ Sometimes she hated her friends.
Secretly, she thought her friends hated her. Which explained a lot, in retrospect, about them pushing her to go on a date with this ‘perfect’ guy, who proceeded to stand her up.
Lacey French did not get stood up!
She was going to kill her ‘so-called’ friends.
Just then a hand came into her line of vision, a hand holding a tall pint class of richly colored dark beer with a thick foamy head, and condensation forming on the exterior. Lacey looked up.
“Thought you might want that,” said the waitress who had shown her to her table.
Lacey looked from the beer to the waitress. She glanced down at herself – perfect cocktail dress, understated jewelry, hair done up professionally. She was supposed to be going on a date with some Princeton-educated I-banking rich kid. This was not her normal clubbing get up. It was also not the outfit one paired with dark beer. This was cosmo or go home territory. It was almost like the waitress knew her.
“You did?” Lacey drawled, giving the waitress a careful once over. She didn’t look familiar. She was tall. Legs that went all the way down. Generous mouth with a bit of goofiness to it. She looked good enough in the black uniform waitrons had to wear, and had her hair up in a knot. Her hair had red streaks in it, Lacey realized, but they were mostly hidden in the updo. And she wore wolf-head stud earrings with little glinting red stones for the eyes. Kind of cute. Lacey smiled and took a sip. Perfect, dark, but not too bitter. Was it a Belgian sour? Not a porter or a black-and-tan. “Mmm. What is this?”
The waitress flashed a grin, putting her wide mouth to admirable use. “Something I thought you’d like. We were making porter, and something unexpected happened. Got this. They’re calling it Night Shadow. We’ve only got a few barrels of the stuff.”
“It’s excellent.” Lacey cocked her head and eyed the waitress. “I’d ask why you knew I needed a beer, but I’m pretty sure it was written all over my face. The real question is, how did you know exactly what kind of beer I like?”
The waitress gave a slight shrug. “It’s my job.”
The waitress laughed. “Then fine. I’ve seen you around. Mainly at that club around the corner. My mates and I go there when we get off shift sometimes. You stand out. And you complain loudly when people bring you shitty beer.”
“Oh great,” Lacey cupped her face to hide it from view, but she couldn’t stop grinning. “Famous all over town.”
The waitress smiled and shook her head. “I notice things having to do with beer. And… well, you aren’t usually looking to avoid attention. You here for a business meeting?”
Lacey considered her for a moment. She wasn’t about to spill all her problems to a complete stranger, but the stranger had given her a beer. She checked her phone, no messages. “Something like that. But he’s fifteen minutes late.”
“Give him ‘till you finish the beer?” the waitress suggested. “I’ll bring some tapas around. You’re here anyway, might as well eat.”
“You’re just looking for a tip,” Lacey retorted, narrowing her eyes.
The waitress’ smile went sly. “Maybe.”
Lacey sipped her beer and went through her work emails until the girl came around again, this time with a plate of some sort of tortilla de patatas and a dipping sauce. “You allowed to be handing out food like this?” Lacey inquired.
“If it’s all in the name of making sure you don’t storm out in a huff after taking up one of our best tables for most of the night,” the waitress sassed back.
“How mercenary,” Lacey replied with a grin.
“It’s also partly my place, so I can get away with being generous on occasion.”
Lacey stared at her. “Your place?”
“My mates and I went in on it together a couple of years back,” she gave a little kick of her head towards the bar where a tall scruffy looking guy was wiping down a glass. “We haven’t gone bankrupt yet.”
Lacey hmmed. “And you’re waiting tables?”
“We’re not rolling in it!” the girl… woman, she supposed, grinned.
‘What’s your name?” Lacey asked. “I can’t think of you as the stalker waitress anymore, and the stalker small-business owner takes too long to think.”
The woman laughed. “Ruby,” she said, “you can think of me as Ruby.”
“Lacey,” Lacey stuck out her hand and they shook. ‘Ruby’’s hand was smooth and long fingered, her nails short and well manicured. That didn’t mean anything, really, but she really had been very nice. Maybe a little too nice for someone without an ulterior motive. If the ulterior motive was getting in her pants…
“So, now that you’ve rumbled me, can I ask what you do?” Ruby inquired.
Lacey should really cut this off before it formed a head. “I don’t small talk with service personnel,” she said, and took another sip of her beer.
“Fine, fine. I can tell when I’m not wanted.” Ruby kept her tone light, but there was a little twinge of hurt in it. Lacey didn’t look at her.
She felt guilty. Her date was now twenty minutes late and there was no reason for Lacey not to leave. But she didn’t. It wasn’t like she couldn’t read query letters here as well as elsewhere.
nope, no, no way, NEVER, no, no, hmm, no, blech, no
Ruby hadn’t come back yet. It had been four whole minutes. Lacey scowled at her half empty beer glass. The tapas had been good. She finished her water and shoved it noticeably to the side of her table. Then she read another query.
There was the tinkle of ice cubes in her glass. She looked up. Ruby was looking down at her. She had dark eyes, soft ones. Lacey swallowed.
“You thinking about ordering something?” Ruby asked, not quite entirely ‘back to business.’
“I’m a literary agent,” Lacey blurted.
A warm, easy smile spread across Ruby’s face. “Are you now? A successful one?”
Lacey glared and flicked to the default screen of her phone. “I only agented this deal, didn’t I?” She flashed her the book cover. It had debuted at #10 on the NYT bestseller list.
Ruby made a mildly impressed sound. “Can’t say I read crime novels much.”
“Not a reader?” Lacey inquired. That would be a deal breaker, and she was kind of hoping for one.
“I like natural history, some fantasy. I read mysteries in college, all of Sayers, a couple Christies, but the new stuff is kind of flat in comparison.”
“Not all of it!” This was Lacey’s area of expertise. “I mean, no one’s competing with Sayers, but there are some really strong, interesting character-driven mysteries being written right now. I could give you a list.”
Ruby laughed. “And how many are you selling?”
“God, I wish I was selling some of these!” Lacey flicked the screen of her phone to find her email. “Come on. I’ll just—”
“Um, hi. Are you Lacey?”
The intruding male voice made both Lacey and Ruby jump. A young man with sandy hair and a face heading towards classically handsome was standing there in a perfectly tailored suit, holding a rose.
Lacey, unexpectedly, felt her stomach sink. She heard what sounded like a very quiet under-the-breath ‘shit’ come from Ruby’s direction. Then, “I’ll give you a minute or so to get settled, all right,” in the perfect waitress voice, and she was gone.
“Yeah, I’m Lacey,” Lacey said.
The man smiled. “I’m Steven.” He handed her the rose, and slid into the chair opposite. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long.” He looked at the empty tapas plate and the half-finished pint of beer and frowned. “It was seven-thirty, right?”
Lacey blinked and leather fingers slide surreptitiously down her email. Seven-thirty. Yep. She’d been a half an hour early. “Yes, of course,” she forced a smile. “I just thought I’d have a drink and get some work done beforehand.” She slipped her phone into her purse.
“Work? What do you do?” Steven asked.
“I’m a literary agent,” Lacey said, a little slower than she might otherwise have, if she hadn’t just had this conversation a moment ago.
“Really? Sold any movie rights lately?”
Lacey tried not to frown. “One got optioned a few months ago. I don’t know if it’s going to get made or not, though.”
“Still, nice commission, yeah?”
Lacey gave a very slight shrug. “A little windfall like that is always nice.” Money and movies. This was already going badly.
“Can I interest you in anything to drink?”
Ruby was back and the relief was almost palpable. Lacey turned to smile at her, but she was just looking at Steven.
“What’s your wine list like? I thought we could order a bottle.” He offered Lacey a smile.
Lacey gave him a weak grin. “Um, this is a brewpub. I thought I’d stick with beer.” She looked at Ruby. “This one’s lovely. If you have anything else this kind of special, I trust your judgment.”
Ruby met her eyes and smiled back, it felt warm and electric, like she was really being seen.
“All right, beer,” said Steven, sounding a little put off, as if he had planned the evening out and it wasn’t quite working. “You have an IPA on tap?”
“Of course,” Ruby said. She collected the empty tapas plate. “I’ll be right back.”
Lacey caught her eye for just a moment, but wasn’t sure why she had. Ruby gave her a little nod, as if she got it, even though Lacey had no idea what it had been supposed to mean.
“Good with waitstaff,” Steven said with an idiotic grin. “That’s a plus.”
I wasn’t aware this was a job interview, Lacey wanted to spit back at him, but restrained herself. “So, um, you’re an investment banker?”
“Yep, at Gold and Blanchard. Been out of school three years and already made my first million.”
Three years. No wonder this guy sounded like a kid. “Wonderful.”
“I’m planning on moving to the Hamptons when I’m settled. Getting a yacht.”
“You like sailing?”
Steven looked suddenly worried. “Actually, I get kind of seasick.”
Lacey tried not to roll her eyes “I like sailing,” she said. “I mean, real sailing. Yachts are fine, but give me a couple of lines, a boom to dodge, and a case of beer, and I’m set.”
“I grew up on the shore in Maine. Nearly got hypothermia twice, but I got to show off when my roommates took me to the Caribbean for spring break.”
Steven gave a weak laugh as if he wasn’t sure if it was a joke.
“Show off? How?” came a voice, and Ruby was there, setting down a fresh beer in front of Lacey from her small tray, and then putting Steven’s IPA down.
“The guy who was supposed to be showing us what to do got knocked over the side by the boom, so I brought the boat around and picked him up.”
Ruby grinned. “A hero, who would have thought?”
“He never forgave me for that.”
Steven coughed slightly. Lacey gave him a glance and then looked back at Ruby. “What’d you bring me this time?”
“It’s an Irish Red. Ruad Fael. It’s one of our more experimental ones, so I’d love to hear what you think.”
Lacey took a sip. She closed her eyes. “Oh man. You’ve got this one.”
Ruby grinned at her. “You guys ready to order?”
“You have fancy burgers,” Lacey said. She’d spent a good part of the first ten minutes staring blankly and annoyed at the menu. She could probably recite it by heart. “But are they any good?”
Ruby cocked her head. “To tell you the truth, I grew up in a diner, so I take my burgers very seriously.”
“Give me your best one.”
Steven looked anxious. “I didn’t really get a chance…”
Ruby leaned over his shoulder. “It’s mainly fancy pub food, so we’ve got mini pizzas, burgers, salads. The barbecue chicken pizza is really good.”
“How about the strip steak?”
Lacey sighed. Ruby left their table. Maybe she wouldn’t have been so attractive if Steven hadn’t been such a dud. But watching her walk away was totally worth it. She glanced back over and saw Steven also watching. Well, that was the first thing they had in common.
“Do you… know her?” Steven asked.
Lacey shrugged. “We had a nice chat before you got here.”
“Oh.” He smiled. “One of the cooks at my eating club was a great guy. His name was Manuel, and he always got me the best, um, weed.”
Lacey raised an eyebrow. Was he trying to compete in the ‘nice to service personnel’ stakes. Because Lacey didn’t care and she was still coming out ahead. “Pothead back in college, eh? And you went to Princeton.”
Steven flushed. “I was a Philosophy major. I needed to be calm.”
This was going beautifully. And it wasn’t like he was awful. She wasn’t going to criticize someone for smoking up, or even for having more money than personality, but she’d talked to Ruby for less than a minute and she already seemed more interesting than Steven.
She should give him a chance.
“So, what do you do for fun?” she asked.
Steven seemed to light up. “I’ve just gotten really into hunting!” he said.
Lacey stared at him. This brat?
“My buddies and I, we go up to the cabin and head out into the great outdoors. I have a rifle. It was really expensive.”
“Have you ever shot anything?” Lacey asked.
“Well,” he looked awkward. “No. I’m not that great of a shot. And anyway, it’s mainly about drinking beer and hanging with the guys.”
That was no surprise. Lacey sighed and tried to think of another topic of conversation. She let her eyes drift to where Ruby was leaning over the bar and giving orders to the scruffy guy. Her ass looked great in that skirt. It would probably look even better in a bikini.
The burger was amazing. The conversation was desultory. Ruby got busy with another table, and Lacey tried not to pout into her beer. She ate as slowly as she could manage, and let herself enjoy the hell out of the burger, because at least while chewing she didn’t have to try to converse.
Finally Steven finished the last of his strip steak, which he pronounced ‘pretty good, but would have been better without the weird spices.’ It had been cut thin and not overcooked, and Lacey was sure the spice rub was awesome and just despised him a little more. Steven set down his fork and knife and took a swig of his IPA. He leaned back in his chair and gave her an intent look. “So,” he tossed his head and smiled. “You want to come back to my place?”
Lacey stared at him. He thought they were going to hook up? “You really just asked me that?”
Steven looked blank. “You don’t want to?”
“Did you think I would?”
“But… Kate said…”
Kate. She should have known. “She said I was easy?” Lacey shoved out her chair and rose to her feet. Maybe she was making a scene, but Ruby had been right, Lacey had no qualms about being the center of attention.
“She said you’d put out on a first date!” Steven stood up as well. He looked wide-eyed and hurt, like this was unexpected.
“A good first date! Not this… shit show!”
“What? What was wrong? You were like moaning over that beer and that hamburger. We were talking.”
“You’re boring! And clearly you think the world of yourself. You thought I’d go home with you?”
“Um,” Ruby had come over and was looking a little worried. She probably wanted them to stop scaring the other customers. “Can I interest you in dessert?”
“God, just go away!” yelped Steven. “Can you not hang all over us? There’s a difference between good service and annoying service!”
“Sorry.” Ruby started to back away.
“Shut up, Steven!” Lacey grabbed Ruby’s shirtsleeve before she got away. “Wait, please.”
“I don’t want to screw up your date,” Ruby said. She looked worried, dark eyes half hurt, and Lacey felt bad for evading the question of whether she was there for a business meeting or not.
“Stop making eyes at the waitress! We’re not interested in dessert!”
Lacey turned and looked at him, and then turned back to Ruby. Enough was enough. “You can interest me in dessert,” she said, and she stepped in close and kissed her.
Ruby’s mouth went slack with surprise under hers, and Lacey took the opportunity to sneak her hand into her apron and snag her pen. Ruby started to kiss back, and Lacey pulled away, giving a nip to her lower lip. Then she caught Ruby’s chin in one hand and uncapped the felt-tip pen with her teeth. She wrote her phone number right across Ruby’s cheek in dramatic curly black digits. “Call me, okay? As soon as you get off, if you want.”
Then she kissed her again. This time she was met with warm, sweet, eager lips, and just a touch of tongue.
“Go for it, Ruby my girl!” shouted the scruffy man from the bar.
Steven was gaping and whimpering. “What? What?”
Ruby’s hands closed around her waist and Lacey sank into her. Maybe the idea of a ‘relationship’ wasn’t such a terrible one after all.
Lacey finally let her go and turned back to grab her purse. She dropped a fifty on the table, then caught Ruby’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Call me. You’d better. I know where you work.”
“Of course I will,” Ruby said, looking a bit astonished, but a bright grin spreading over her face. “You owe me those book recs.”
A warm feeling spread up through Lacey’s chest and tingled down her arms. “I do. You up for a weekend in the Caribbean? I was thinking I needed a vacation, and some company would be stellar. They’re good beach reads.”
Ruby looked surprised. “Sure.”
“Brilliant!” Lacey stole one more kiss and then darted away. She looked back as she left the building, and spotted Ruby watching her, a half smile on her face. She gave a little wave, and Lacey waved back.
This was going to be good.
* * *
She called Kate on the way back to her apartment. “I hate you,” she said.
“Bad date?” Kate sneered. Lacey had the worst friends.
“You told him I’d put out?”
“It’s eight forty-five. Of course I didn’t.”
“’S okay. I’ve still got a line on a bedmate for tonight.”
“What? Oh my god, Lacey. Did you really pull while you were on a date with someone else?”
“Maybe I did. Smoking hot waitress.”
“Waitress? I didn’t know you swung that way.”
“Think I might.” Lacey chewed her lower lip. “Think I might swing that way for serious.”
“No kidding,” Kate said slowly. “If you marry her, you’ve got to thank me for setting you up with Steven.”
Lacey rolled her eyes, but grinned. “Spiteful bitch.”
* * *
Ruby called at 9:01. She showed up at Lacey’s apartment at 9:15, with a small white cardboard box in tow.
“What’s that?” Lacey asked.
Ruby ducked her head. “You said something about dessert?”
Lacey laughed, grabbed Ruby’s arm and dragged her inside. “I kind of meant you, gorgeous. But if there’s chocolate in that box, I’m never letting you go.”