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608 Alpha Avenue
Author: Adriana Locke


One

 

 

Haley

 

 

“I don't get it,” I mutter.

My hand stills against the countertop, a white bar rag clutched firmly in my grasp.

Natalia Barlow leans across the end of the bar, putting her ass and the top of her thong on full display for the table of bikers behind her. An unlit cigarette is perched between her cherry-red lips, threatening to topple to the floor as she catches me looking and smirks.

I roll my eyes and turn my back to her.

“I don’t get it,” I say again, louder this time.

My gaze fixes on the man—the only man—occupying a barstool on this side of the restaurant. Grayson Blake. Black hair, scruffy beard, tall, and oh-so muscular with tattoos etched into his tanned skin. Word has it that he has flames inked on his right hip, and when he moves, they dance as if they’re alive.

I’ve mentally filed that away because it’s something I’ll (sadly) never know for myself. Guys like Grayson Blake? They go for women like Natalia. Vixens. Women who give as good as they get. Women who understand them or, at the very least, the games they play.

I’m not one of those women. It will be both my personal and professional downfall.

Grayson lifts his beer bottle, and as if it pains him to do it, he slides his gaze to mine.

I swallow. Hard.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve worked at Fireside Bar and Grill for two years or that I’ve spent countless hours behind this very bar while Grayson sits on the other side, I can’t think straight when he looks at me. I also can’t look away. It’s quite the predicament.

“It just perplexes me,” I say, sinking my gaze into the steely depths of Grayson’s eyes. My voice isn’t quite as confident as it was a few seconds ago. It’ll come back around, though. It just takes a moment to get my bearings.

Grayson’s features are void of humor. Or emotion. Or curiosity. He watches me as if I’m a toddler and he’s in charge of making sure I don’t choke on a peanut or small coin.

I bite my lip. “I just … Natalia …” I shrug, my voice fading into the rock music playing overhead.

Grayson’s thick, engine grease-stained fingers grip the bottle. “Am I supposed to ask?”

The grit of his tone washes against my skin, leaving a flurry of goose bumps in its wake. It’s this way every time he talks to me. And whenever he talks to Corbin, the bartender who’s training me in the art of bartending so I don’t have to just waitress anymore. Come to think of it, I also have the same physical reaction to him when I’m in the Cherry Street Market Grocery Store buying bagels and I hear him talking from an aisle over.

Who am I kidding? I react this way every time I’m in Grayson’s proximity. Hell, I shivered in my flip-flops when I caught wind of his cologne outside of Pearl’s Pawnshop and Liquor Store last week.

“Are you supposed to ask what?” I ask him.

“About whatever you keep jawing about other there—about Natalia, I reckon.”

“Well, since you asked—”

“I didn’t.” He smiles a lopsided, amused smile that makes me wonder if he’s smiling with me or at me. “I asked if I was supposed to ask. I didn’t ask.”

I narrow my gaze. “You know what, Grayson Blake? You’re an asshole.”

He brings the beer bottle to his lips, hiding a satisfied grin, and pulls his gaze back to the hockey game on the television in the corner.

I pick up the rag and start polishing the bar again, but I can’t let it go.

“It wasn’t Natalia,” I say, the words thrust into the air as though they’re self-explanatory.

Grayson’s brows rise but he doesn’t say anything. Not that I expect him to. Men refuse conversations. They fight tooth and nail when encouraged to share some insight into what they’re thinking. That whole thing—because it’s a thing—is what got me in this predicament.

I sigh. “I understand what Natalia is doing down there—letting her ass hang out for half the town,” I say, the rag squeaking against the laminated countertop. “She wants attention, and by golly, she’s getting it. And you know what? Good for her. Good for freaking her. Work it, girl. If I had that body, I’d flaunt it just the same.”

I plop the rag down with a flourish. I’m sure my face matches the color of the embroidery on my Fireside shirt. That’s just wonderful. But I’m on a roll. I’ve already opened the door, so I’m going to go with it. Because what do I care at this point? Grayson can’t dump me. He can’t make me feel like a prude or cheat on me behind my back or use me for a blowjob and then never call me again.

Not that those things have happened to me.

More than once.

“What I don’t get,” I say, moving toward Grayson, “is why men only react—overtly react—to thongs and red lips and … and … and long, dark hair that has more body than my actual body? I mean, my lips are kind of thin, but they’re good. And I don’t wear a thong, mostly because the three times I’ve tried it, the little slip of fabric gets wedged in the crack of my ass, and then I walk around the bar like I have a wedgie—because I do. And I don’t have great hair,” I say, pausing for a micro-second to get a half-breath of air, “but I have my grandma’s hair, and I like it. But men … don’t.”

Grayson sits back in his chair and has the audacity to look smug.

“Why am I asking you this?” I say, irritated—mostly at myself. “I need to learn to shut up.”

“Why are you asking me?” he asks, a thick brow arched to the ceiling.

“Because you’re sitting there.”

His smirk eases just enough for me to notice. I wonder why—what made the corner of his lips slip, but my curiosity feels like just one more thing to think about.

“I’m just … frustrated,” I say, leaning against the ice dispenser. The cool metal bites into my back.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

I give him a look but stay focused. “I’ve been working on this chapter in the book I’m writing—chapter one, actually, but it sounds like a hobby when I put it like that, and I’m determined to make it my career someday. Anyway, I can’t capture the hero the way I want him because all the language I use is …”

“Unrealistic?”

I narrow my eyes. “I want him to use language like an Ed Sheeran song—romantic and beautiful and altogether lovely.”

Grayson grins. “So, I was right. Unrealistic.”

“I’m sure that somewhere out there”—I motion toward the door and beyond it—“there’s a man who wants more and is capable of more than a Sisqó song, dammit.”

Either he misses the seriousness in my tone or he doesn’t care.

Probably the latter.

His grin deepens as he crosses his arms over his chest.

I blow out a breath and go back to my bar wiping. “How am I supposed to find a real man and create a fictional one when I don’t know anything about men? And how do I not know anything about men, anyway? I’ve been surrounded by them all of my life.”

Grayson leans forward. His thick, heavily roped forearms rest against the counter. The movement causes his cologne to float my way, and I brace myself. This time of day, the spiciness of the scent is mixed with the sharpness of gasoline and the allure of testosterone, and it makes my knees weak. Every. Single. Day.

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