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Copyright 2016 by Wendi Sotis
“Will you be having dessert?” Gritting her teeth, Livy Channing tapped her pencil on her order pad and pasted an approximation of a smile on her face.
When taking an order from most of the diner’s customers, she had no trouble keeping up the appearance of the friendly service promised on the huge, red neon sign raised high above the Bistro & Brew, affectionately known to the residents of the medium-sized town of Middlesboro, New York, as B&B. But with Justin Hearren and Seth Straus, the effort it took to pry the corners of her lips upward even a fraction of an inch directly related to how much she detested the pair.
Her loathing rose a level when Justin’s gaze didn’t budge from her chest. Livy resisted the urge to tug up the low-cut blouse that was part of her new uniform.
The poodle-skirt costume might fit right in with B&B’s décor, which hadn’t changed one bit since her grandmother had worked there in 1956, but Livy highly doubted any respectable girl of twenty-three would’ve worn anything with such a clear lack of buttons at the neckline during the 50s.
Raising her order pad so it blocked Justin’s view of her cleavage, she added a touch of disgust to her tone when she asked again, “Dessert?”
Justin drawled, “Only if you’re offering yourself, Sweet Thing.” He snorted and rubbed vigorously at his nose.
This time, she allowed her scowl to show.
Seth chuckled and grabbed his napkin off the table. Something clattered to the black-and-white checkered floor. Since Seth still had a few bites left of his steak, Livy pulled a napkin-roll from the pocket of her skirt. Placing it on the table, she bent to retrieve the utensils off the floor in a way that avoided offering either of them a clear look down her shirt.
While her attention was diverted, Justin palmed her rear end. Fortunately, he grabbed more crinoline petticoat than derriere.
Straightening quickly, Livy reached around, took hold of his thumb, and bent it backward.
Justin yelped and pulled his hand away, shaking it. “Dang it, Livy!” He turned bright red and wiped at his nose again.
“I take it you’ll have nothing, then.” She snapped, glaring at Justin. “Be right back with your bill.”
As she left the table, Seth’s barking laughter echoed through the dining room.
She huffed out a frustrated breath. Seth was a lousy cop if all he did was laugh when he witnessed a man grab a woman like that. Four years after high school and he was still Justin’s side-kick, assisting with his offensive pranks. He’d never outgrow his need for Justin’s approval.
As she passed booth four, she paused and smiled for real this time. A few moments spent with B&B’s gorgeous, mysterious new regular would be all the compensation she’d need to make up for those two barbarians.
“Those guys giving you a hard time?” The muscles in Paul’s square jaw flexed. As he motioned toward Justin and Seth, a lock of hair the color of dark chocolate fell across his forehead.
She licked her lips. She loved dark chocolate.
Her heart fluttered against her ribs. Even though she wished Paul hadn’t seen Justin grab her, his protective reaction made her insides turn to mush. Maybe Sabrina was right… maybe Paul was attracted to her. Even Mrs. Mason noticed he never came in on Livy’s days off anymore.
Not that it mattered. Between working the diner and the bar, her classes at the university, and studying, she didn’t have time for anything else.
“It happens more often than most people realize.” Livy shrugged one shoulder. “I’ve learned to deal with it.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
Dazzled when Paul’s full lips curved into a crooked smile, it took a few beats before Livy grasped what he’d just said.
Good. Never again would she tolerate appearing weak and defenseless. To anyone. “Need anything? More coffee? Dessert?”
The intensity of the expression in his gorgeous blue eyes made her cheeks heat, but she refused to look away. Guess he’d heard what Justin said, too. She might not object if Paul ordered her for dessert.
Paul shook his head. “Just the check.”
“You got it.”
She flashed another smile his way, and then dashed toward the register.
“Was that Seth’s howl I heard?” Sabrina Mason was Livy’s roommate and best friend, destined to inherit B&B along with her brother.
Livy nodded. “He’s with Justin.” She held out her order slips. “Ring these up for me, Bri?”
“Sure.” Sabrina flipped her long, auburn curls away from her face and grimaced. “Eck. There’s ketchup on them.”
Startled, Livy checked her hands. She tsked her tongue. “It’s all over me, too.”
Sabrina reached under the register, grabbed a moist wipe, and offered it to her.
As Livy cleaned her hands, she glanced down the row of booths across from the long counter at the front of the diner. A customer sat in the booth against the far wall. Even from twenty feet away, she could make out the deep creases around his mouth and between his eyes. A troubled soul.
“Did you take care of the guy in booth one?” Livy asked quietly.
Sabrina glanced to her right and whispered, “It was weird. He sat across the street in his car for at least twenty minutes. Just came in a minute ago.”
Livy peered out the window. “Which car?”
“It’s not there now. Looked like he pulled around to the back lot before he came in.”
Livy headed over to his table. “What can I get you, sir?”
Her first impression did nothing to prepare her for when he raised his head. His steel-gray eyes were vacant. Lifeless, like he had no soul. A shiver passed down her spine.
She hoped he was passing through on his way to somewhere far, far away.
“Coffee.” His voice was deeper than she’d expected for a man she guessed was in his early thirties. Gravelly. “Leaded.”
She nodded and moved around the counter to grab a mug and the coffee decanter.
“You okay, Livy?” Sabrina asked too loudly.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Knowing voices carried when the diner was this empty, Livy felt it better not to mention her gut feelings about the man at table one. He hadn’t done anything—just gave her the creeps. She brought him his coffee and returned to safer territory. While her nerves settled, she glanced past Sabrina hoping to get a glimpse of Paul.
As she approached the register, Sabrina lifted a beat-up notebook. “What is ‘zero-based budgeting’?”
Livy rattled off the definition.
Sabrina smiled. “You’re going to ace your test later.”
“Hope so.” Livy held out her hand and wiggled her fingers. “Since I got it right, can I have the checks?”
“I promised my parents I wouldn’t let you near Justin and Seth anymore. I would’ve taken their order myself earlier, but they slipped past me.” Sabrina blushed. “Why don’t you stay here for a minute and I’ll bring their check out to them. I promise I’ll save your tip for you.”
“If Justin and Seth leave a tip, it would be a miracle.” She rolled her eyes. “I’d like to deliver the bill to booth four myself first.” She bit the corner of her bottom lip.
Sabrina passed off one of the checks she’d printed. “Did Paul ask you out yet?”
Livy glanced over her right shoulder. Paul’s broad shoulders were relaxed as he scanned his newspaper. He didn’t show any sign of hearing, but he had his baseball cap on. Ready to leave.
“No, and I’m sure he won’t.” She leaned closer to her friend. “It’s always all business with him. I don’t even know his last name.” Livy swiped her bangs out of her eyes. “No matter what you think, I’m sure he just enjoys the great food here.”
“And I’m sure he comes in hoping for some of your friendly service.” Sabrina made air quotes with her fingers. “You said he’s an excellent tipper.”
Yes, and she felt kind of guilty taking it. Just being able to soak up his presence was enough of a perk.
Sabrina giggled. “I think he’s trying to impress you.”
Livy shook her head and turned away. She’d only taken a couple of steps when Sabrina grabbed her arm.
“Livy, wait!” Sabrina tugged her behind the counter, swiped the key out of the register as they passed, and pulled her into the kitchen. “Justin grabbed your butt again, didn’t he?”
“How’d you know?”
“You have a hand-shaped ketchup stain on your left cheek!”
Sabrina stepped back and took a better look.
Carrying the large plastic tub used to haul dirty dishes, Jim, the gangly busboy, stopped to examine her backside. He laughed loudly. Cook looked up from cleaning his grill, shook his head, and returned to work.
“Justin had to do this on purpose.” Livy grabbed a fistful of napkins and tried to wipe off the bright red stain. It only smeared. “I’m gonna kill him!”
The volume of the busboy’s laughter rose a level.
Sabrina planted her hands on her hips and scathed Jim with a glare that could rival one of her mother’s best. He scurried away.
“I can’t go back out there like this, Bri.” She didn’t want to leave Sabrina alone out front, either, especially with that spooky guy at table one. Even though Seth was a cop, she couldn’t count on his assisting Sabrina.
“It’s almost noon. Karen will be here any second. I’ll bring the checks out to four and seven. You run home and change.” Sabrina took a sweater off a hook by the side door and handed it to her. “Tie this around your waist.”
At least Paul was still there. She didn’t know him very well, but she felt she could trust him.
“Thanks.” She hugged Sabrina. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Once Sabrina disappeared through the swinging doors that led out into the seating area, Livy slipped out the back door.
Too bad she wouldn’t get a chance to see Paul again until tomorrow.
Paul Fischer’s pulse pounded in his ears.
The guy down the other end of this row of booths couldn’t be him, not so far away from the Bronx. He listened closely while the man ordered coffee.
There was no way of mistaking that voice. It was Theodore Skelt, though most called him Thor, aka The Skelton.
What the hell is he doing here in the middle of nowhere?
Damn, Paul was usually hyper-aware of everything around him. How’d he miss Thor’s entrance?
Livy—he’d allowed the hot waitress to distract him. And what a distraction she was.
Maybe he shouldn’t come in here anymore. Then again, if Thor frequented the place, he’d better.
If I’m still alive after this.
Adrenaline tightened his gut. He deepened his breathing and consciously relaxed each muscle in turn.
Hoping the thug hadn’t recognized him yet, Paul lifted the baseball cap off the seat cushion and set it on his head, tugging the brim down low. To make the gun in his boot-holster easily accessible, he scooted down a bit and crossed one leg over the other. He adjusted his newspaper a little higher so he could keep watch on Thor and the front of the diner through peripheral vision.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the two girls who worked here disappeared into the kitchen. Probably figuring out how to remove the stain off Livy’s skirt. Good.
To think only a minute ago, he felt it was important to plan out what to say to the two idiots sitting across the dining room so they’d leave Livy alone from now on. It’s possible they’d done the ladies a favor by putting that handprint on Livy’s rear end since it got the girls out of the way.
If Thor came after him, this could get bloody. Quick. But there was no way he was losing this time, at least not without taking Thor with him.
The scars on his back and stomach burned, along with the path the bullet took through his gut.
Thor would pay.
Not that he wanted a shootout at his favorite eatery, but part of him hoped Thor would make a move on the register while the girls were in the kitchen. One of the guys at the other table wasn’t wearing a uniform, but Paul recognized him was a cop… the police chief’s son. Jerk or not, Paul would be happy to hand over the collar to the guy if it meant putting that maniac behind bars.
Slow down, Fischer. Not without Gak. Be smart. Watch. Listen. Then take it outside.
And maybe, just maybe, Thor would give Gak up… or before Thor got out, Paul could find the evidence he’d been looking for to put both Thor and his boss away forever.
The owner’s daughter came out of the kitchen, alone. Well, at least Livy was out of danger. He kept his eyes on the newspaper as Sabrina walked past him.
She laid a bill on the other table. “Behave from now on, Justin, or you won’t be welcome in here or the bar anymore.”
The one she’d called Justin laughed.
Sabrina shook her finger at the other one. “You, too, Seth. I couldn’t care less who your parents are, or what your job is.” She crossed her arms. “You’d better leave a nice tip for Livy. Her skirt is ruined.”
Feisty little thing.
Sabrina stopped by his table. “Livy, um… she had to go on break. She asked me to say goodbye for her.” She slipped his check onto his table. “Did you want some more coffee?”
Still unsure whether Thor had recognized him, Paul was reluctant to speak. If he could hear Thor, the opposite was probably true. He shook his head.
“Take your time reading the paper. We won’t need the table for another half-hour yet.” Sabrina returned to the register.
Justin and Seth didn’t budge from their table. He couldn’t make out anything they said, but by their tone, the two were engaged in an argument.
Even though he wasn’t reading, Paul made it look like he was. After he’d turned the page a few times, Paul noticed Seth rise from the booth.
“I’m out!” Seth pulled a few bills from his wallet and threw them on the table. “This is it. No more.”
“Whatever,” Justin said.
As Seth sprinted toward the front of the diner, Thor pulled up his hood and leaned over his coffee.
Justin hit the table with his fist and grabbed the money. He caught up to Seth, practically throwing the cash at Sabrina on the way. With a jingle of the bell above the door, Justin and Seth were out on the sidewalk.
Thor took a sip from his coffee mug. A few seconds later, he rose and chugged the rest. Heading toward the door, he held out some cash to Sabrina. “This cover it?”
She looked up at him with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. “Yeah, sure.” She pressed a key on the register. “Let me get your change.”
Thor put on a pair of sunglasses. “You and the other girl split it.”
Sabrina smiled slightly. “Thanks. Have a good day.”
Thor disappeared out the front door.
It took a couple of minutes before Paul could process what’d just happened. Had Thor not even noticed him? Was he just passing through? Or would he be waiting in the parking lot when Paul got to his truck?
Going over the layout of the back lot in his mind, he prepared himself for a few possibilities.
~ ~ ~ ~ Copyright 2016 Wendi Sotis ~ ~ ~ ~
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Expected publication date – 2020