Leading the Witness
One Year Later
“WHO ARE YOU PUTTING on red lipstick for?” The question comes from behind me, making me jump. I turn from the small mirror hanging in our staff bathroom and scowl at Preston, pressing my lips together.
“What are you talking about?” My brow furrows. “I wear lipstick all the time.”
He leans against the wall and studies me with his dark eyes, amusement written all over his smug face. “No, you don’t.”
I cross my arms over my chest, facing him. “What do you care if I’m wearing lipstick? I pay you to make drinks, not scrutinize my every move.”
Preston may have started out as my pain-in-the-ass bartender—or mixologist, as he likes to correct me—but over the last year he’s grown on me, like a fucking fungus. I don’t
have many friends, yet he somehow wormed his way into my heart. Don’t ask me how, because he’s completely inappropriate, can never take anything seriously, and is nosy as hell. But ever since I started going through my divorce, he’s been there for me, and I really appreciate that.
“I don’t care.” He chuckles, running his finger over the gauge in his left ear. He has one on each side, and I think they suit him. “Just pointing out a fact.” He glances down at his watch. “I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Hunter comes in around this time.”
“Hunter who?” I sniff, lifting my chin. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Instead of calling me out on my blatant lie, he just laughs.
I roll my eyes and head back to the bar, leaving his laughter behind me. Fiddling with the red bandanna I’ve tied around my neck, I ponder his words. So what if I want to look decent when Hunter comes in? Not that I’d ever admit it out loud to anyone, including myself, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best. Hunter looks good every time he comes in for lunch, dressed in one of his expensive suits. So I can make sure I’m put together when he comes in. It’s just good customer service.
With an audible sigh, I move behind the bar and stand next to Callie, my newest bartender. She’s never worked in a bar before, but when she told me her story, I couldn’t not hire her. She’s having a life crisis and decided to take a break from her law career to find herself. When I asked her if she knew how to make cocktails, she told me she makes them at home all the time. For herself. I don’t know if that counts as experience, but I hired her anyway, and she’s been here about six months now. She’s a cool chick, a fast learner, and makes a nice addition to the team. One of my regulars, Kat, also happens to be Callie’s best friend. It’s
like a reunion every time Kat comes in, the two of them carrying on like they haven’t seen each other in years.
“Is it just me, or does that guy keep staring at me?” she asks under her breath. I have no idea who she’s talking about, so I scan the crowd, but none of the three male occupants are looking in our direction.
“Just you,” I say, lip twitching in amusement.
She lifts her head, closing her eyes and wrinkling her nose, inhaling deeply. “You smell good.” She then tilts her head and studies me. “And you look good too. What’s the occasion?”
“There’s no occasion. Do you want me to handle those tables, or are you good?” I ask, hopefully changing the subject.
She glances down at her watch and nods, then casually adds, “Oh, it’s almost time for Hunter to come in. You worry about him. I’ll make sure the rest of the customers are sorted.”
I grit my teeth and throw my hands in the air. “What is wrong with all of you? One, I look nice every day.” The threatening look I give her dares her to say otherwise. “And two, he doesn’t even come in every day.”
“Who doesn’t come in every day?” Hunter asks, making my head snap toward him so fast I’m surprised I don’t get whiplash. As always when I look into those blue eyes, it’s hard for me to look away. I manage to give him a quick once-over though, taking in his gray suit, with, just my luck . . . a white shirt. Maybe I should turn up the heat in here so his jacket will come off. I love when he wears white shirts; I don’t know why. Especially when he has the sleeves rolled up so I can sneak a peek of his tattoos. Is there anything sexier than a smart, successful man in a suit? Yes, there is. One who has tattoos hidden underneath, hinting at a bad side I’d like to explore but will never let myself.
Of course he had to walk in during this very conversation.
How much of it did he hear? I’m hoping just the last line, but I know I’m not that lucky.
“No one,” I say, forcing a smile. I glance around but don’t see any of the other people from the firm with him today. “Here without the squad?”
“They’ll be here soon,” he says as he sits down at the bar, bracing his hands on the wood and leaning toward me. I tighten my hands so I don’t reach out and touch his beard, something I’ve always wanted to do. “I couldn’t wait for them. I’m hungry.”
Hunter manages to make normal things sound dirty. It’s a talent of his. Or maybe it’s just me with the dirty mind.
“No food loyalty today?”
“I guess not. When I’m hungry for something, nothing can stop me.”
His eyes flash with something I pretend not to notice, instead focusing on his straight white teeth he shows off with his grin.
“Why, what big teeth you have,” I joke, trying to lighten the tension between us.
“You calling me the big, bad wolf?” he asks, running his teeth over his lower lip. “Because I really would like to eat you.”
I roll my eyes. Hunter likes to say inappropriate things, but he never crosses the line with me. He never tries to touch me, and he never gets in my space. He knows I’m unavailable. I personally think he just likes to get a reaction out of me, so I try my best not to give him one.
“Well, that’s a sexual harassment suit looking to happen,” Kat says in a dry tone as she walks up toward the bar, shaking her head at Hunter, her long dark hair bouncing with the motion. She then pins me with her brown eyes. “I’ll be your lawyer if you choose to go ahead with it.” How is it that I’m surrounded by lawyers every day? It’d annoy me if I didn’t actually like them
all. I know it’s wrong to judge someone by their career, but lawyers have a stigma about them. They’re right up there with real estate agents and car salesmen—and the butt of many jokes. One of my favorites is:
How does a lawyer sleep?
First he lies on one side, and then he lies on the other.
They are also compared to leeches and mosquitoes, or any bloodsucking kind of creature a fair bit, but all of these guys prove the stereotype wrong.
We all seem to get along great, even though we are on different levels in education and income. I guess alcohol brings together everyone. “I second that offer,” Jaxon Bentley says, pulling out a barstool and taking a seat. His gray eyes are gentle as they look at me. “How are you doing, Riley?”
“Not bad, Jaxon, and yourself?” I ask, smiling at him. He’s a nice man, a gentleman, and has always been kind to me. He is a renowned criminal lawyer, and in the year that I’ve known him, I’ve learned he’s kind of a big deal. He always looks the part, dressed today in a navy suit.
He removes his reading glasses. “I’m good. Busy, but good. Looks like we managed to get here before the rush.”
I hand him and Kat a menu, even though by now they probably already know it like the backs of their hands. Ever since Hunter and Jaxon wandered in here from their firm down the street when we’d just opened, they’ve been coming here a few times a week, bringing the rest of their colleagues with them.
It’s been over a year since I opened the pub, and we’ve all gotten to know one another pretty well in that time. Customers can become friends pretty fast, and that’s what happened here. Small talk turned into deep conversations; my being polite and professional turned into us laughing and joking. Although I don’t think I was ever polite or professional with Hunter, which
was my bad. The rest of them though. I love it when any of them decide to drop in for lunch, a drink, or just a chat.
Riley’s is my baby, a business that is all mine, and one I’m desperate to keep, regardless of what else I have to give up in the divorce.
“Where’s mine?” Hunter asks, bringing me out of my thoughts. His hair’s different, shorter than before, no longer falling onto his forehead in a soft curl. He orders the same thing every time he comes here, so I know he’s just asking for a menu to irritate me. Or maybe he just doesn’t like being left out. You never know with him.
I slide a menu across the bar without looking at him, then start making the coffee I know he’s about to order.
“I’ll have a coffee, please,” I hear him say. I place the coffee in front of him and arch my brow with a smug look on my face. Feeling my gaze, he looks up at me before glancing at the mug next to him, eyes narrowing.
“You’re predictable.” I shrug. “It’s either a beer or a coffee.”
“And how did you know it was a coffee and not a beer this time?” he asks, bringing the mug to his perfectly shaped lips. “And I’m not predictable. I’m just a man who knows what he wants. If it ain’t broke . . .”
I roll my eyes and move down to Kat and Jaxon, ignoring their amused faces.
“Because you’re wearing your fancy suit, which means you’re going to court,” I tell him. “If you came in looking more casual, I know that you don’t have court, which is when you usually order a beer.”
I need to stop letting him know how much I study him. I feel agitated every time I’m around him. I try to hide it, and I hope I do it well enough, because I don’t want him to know the effect he has on me. Maybe it’s just the fact that I haven’t
been touched by a man in over a year, and he’s good-looking. No, that’s probably too tame for what he is. He’s sexy. Smoking. Intense.
Until he opens that mouth of his.
He may be a lawyer—and good at what he does, from what I’ve heard—but some of the things he says . . . Is there such a thing as playful arrogance? Because that’s the only way I can think to describe him.
I clearly have terrible taste in men.
Although no one can be as bad as my soon-to-be-ex-husband, Jeremy. I shudder at the mere thought of him, then turn my attention back to Jaxon and Kat. “Ready to order?”
I write down their orders, feeling Hunter’s eyes on me, but I pretend he’s not there. This is what we do. It’s our dance, and I guess from the outside it’s an amusing show we put on. And part of me wishes it was an act. But each time he comes in, I seem to get more attracted to him, if that’s even possible. So I mask those feelings with irritation and attitude. I don’t know if it’s working, but it helps me stay centered.
He’s just too good-looking.
And, yes, that’s a thing.
He knows it, and I don’t like men with big egos.
My soon-to-be ex developed one during our relationship as he became more successful professionally, and it didn’t look good on him. I think I’m more suited to a down-to-earth, easygoing, simple man.
“So, steak, chips, and a salad,” I repeat the order to Jaxon. “And the creamy chicken breast for you, Kat.”
They both nod, and Kat flashes me a smile, which I return. I quickly get them their drinks, also nonalcoholic, and then turn to him, unable to ignore him anymore. “Would you like to order something to eat? Or are you on a liquid diet?”
“I’ll have the burger and fries,” he tells me, rubbing his flat stomach. “I’m starving. Actually, maybe add some onion rings too.”
I pretend to write down his predictable order with a tight nod and then disappear into the back.
Preston and Callie suddenly appear with knowing looks on their faces. Apparently no one does any work around here. I should fire them all. I hand Callie the order to give to Cheffy and then cross my arms and have a stare down with Preston.
“I don’t like Hunt—”
“You like him.” He cuts me off.
“No, I don’t.”
“Preston, I don’t,” I say, daring him to argue once more.
“Okay,” he says, surrendering, hands in the air in front of him. “But for the record, it’s okay if you do.”
“But—” I instantly object.
“But you don’t; I know,” he says in a dry tone, shaking his head. “You are one stubborn woman, you know that?”
That’s probably why I’m getting divorced before the age of thirty. Not something to brag about, but being divorced isn’t nearly as bad as being in a loveless marriage I never should have been in in the first place.
I take a deep breath, lift my chin, and return to my customers.
“HOW WAS EVERYTHING?” I ask, happy that they devoured the meal. I know they’re regulars, but I take pride in my work. I want my food to be the best, my service to be the greatest, and, more than anything, I want my pub to be successful.
Over the last year, I’ve managed to get Riley’s to a good place, finally getting out of the red and doing a little better than breaking even, but profits could always improve. I’ve put my blood, sweat, and tears into this place, using my inheritance from when my grandmother passed away to finance it. I didn’t use a cent of my ex-husband’s money, and I’m damn proud of that fact. And thank God I didn’t, otherwise I’d be in danger of losing my baby.
“Amazing as always,” Kat says with a smile. She glances at her watch, her face dropping. “Unfortunately for me, I need to get back to work. Thanks, Riley.”
“No problem,” I say, handing them their bill.
“I’m paying this time,” Kat tells the two men, who simply ignore her.
“I’ve got it,” Hunter says, taking out his wallet and placing a wad of cash on the bar. “Thank you, Riley. Food was delicious.”
“You’re welcome,” I say, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks. Jaxon also thanks me, and then the three of them leave. I take the money to put in the cash register, my eyes widening at the size of the tip Hunter left me. He always leaves big tips, so do Jaxon and Tristan, another lawyer at their firm, but this time Hunter left me over a hundred dollars extra. I don’t know whether to chase him down and tell him he’s being ridiculous, or be thankful because this money will really help the rest of the staff. We put all tips in a jar and divide them equally at the end of each day.
I still have the money in my hand when Preston walks up and eyes it. “What’s that for?”
“Hunter left it as a tip,” I tell him, tucking it into the jar below the cash register on the bottom shelf.
“That’s generous of him,” he muses, grabbing a martini glass and inspecting it. Preston has an issue with glassware, they all
have to be perfectly clean and clear; he doesn’t like it if there’s any dust or smudges on there. Another reason why he’s an asset to Riley’s—he’s precise and particular, in a good way.
The “Despacito” remix by Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee plays on our radio, filling the pub, and Preston starts to sing along, getting all the Spanish words completely wrong.
“What am I going to do with you?” I mutter under my breath, shaking my head as he busts out some salsa-like dance movements.
He offers me his hand, and I smile and take it. He spins me around, my laughter spilling out of me. Callie comes out to the front, probably to see what all the commotion is about, smiling as she watches the two of us dancing for anyone who walks in to see. Callie helps me with the business side of Riley’s—the food orders, scheduling, and the bills and receipts—in addition to my training her behind the bar. She’s such an intelligent woman, and to be honest, she is way too qualified to be working here.
“See? This shit wouldn’t happen in a law firm,” she announces, tucking her notepad for orders into her jeans pocket and joining in with her own sexy little moves. The pub is empty—the lunch rush gone after finishing their meals—but I know it won’t last long, with the after-work crowd about to be upon us.
I’m trying to teach Callie how to twerk when Hunter walks back in, stopping in his tracks, a big-ass grin on his face.
“So this is what goes on here when no one is around. Can you do that move again, Riley? I didn’t take you for the twerking type,” he says, sounding pleasantly surprised. Of course he is; the man is such a pervert.
I straighten, cringing, wishing I could disappear, but when I turn around to face him, I look him right in the eye, my chin up.
Men can sense weakness like predators. And Hunter? Well, let’s just say he lives up to his name.
“I forgot my wallet,” he says, smiling widely, looking thrilled that he just saw what he did.
I hear Callie murmur, “I’ll grab it.” And a few moments later, she hands me the beat-up old wallet that is so very Hunter, and I pass it to him. As he takes it from my hand, I move mine away quickly as my fingers brush his. His fingers are rough, like I’d expect from someone who works with his hands, not from someone who works in an office. I don’t know why that appeals to me, but it does.
I purposely ignore the spark I feel at our touch and the attraction between us. There’s no use for it.
“Thanks,” he murmurs, hesitating for a moment, before turning and leaving once more.
I watch him walk away.
And for a fleeting moment, I wish that things were different.