He gasped in affronted shock. “There’s got to be over two hundred in there!”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe it’s all singles and mine are all fivers. Let’s announce last call—it’s later than I’d originally planned.”
“Bet I got some tens,” he muttered, grabbing glasses and refilling drafts. She watched as the perfect amount of head foamed up, and nodded with approval as he pushed them toward the customers. Not bad. “Maybe even a twenty!”
Why did he have to be so damn adorable?
They fell into perfect rhythm, as if they’d worked together before. She hated bumping into another bartender. Despised clumsiness and sloppiness. Not only did he clean up as he worked, he moved with the grace of a dancer, even with his staggering height. The crowds began to thin. His brothers popped over to say good-bye and rib him, which he took with his usual grin, and finally the bar was empty.
Amanda and Sheila came out of the kitchen groaning. “That was hard-core!” Sheila announced.
“But worth the tips,” Amanda chirped. The two women slid onto bar stools, and Raven filled two cups of seltzer with lemon, sliding them over. She never served them alcoholic drinks in her bar, and they’d never bitched about the rules.
Dalton joined them in their familiar circle and groaned. “My feet hurt.”
Sheila snorted. “Ever do catering? Come back to me after that and tell me your feet don’t feel like you danced the ballet at Lincoln Center.”
Raven smiled. “Beer?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “Seltzer sounds good to me.”
Her respect for him went up another notch. He knew how to follow and how to lead. A solid combination of skills.
“So Raven and I are having a contest of who got the most tips. Who do you think won?” he asked.
The girls glanced at each other. “Raven,” they said in unison.
He clutched his hands over his heart in mock hurt. “What? I had it going on! You’re going to regret those words.”
Amanda giggled. “Raven is a badass. Besides her drinks, she’s just kinda hot. Girls and guys love her.”
Raven tugged on the waitress’s blond locks. “Thanks, babe.”
Sheila snorted. “Dump the jars and let’s find out.”
Al trudged out of the kitchen, slid onto a stool, and grabbed his seltzer. “Bettin’ on Raven,” he rumbled.
“Don’t dudes stick together?” Dalton challenged.
Al shrugged. “She always kills the tips.”
Amanda squinted and took a long sniff. “I smell smoke, Al. Seriously?”
He gave Dalton a suffering look. “Told ya to stick to my team,” Dalton said.
Raven sighed. “I’m disappointed, Al, but we’re not ruining tonight by sharing details of lung cancer. Did you see the commercial where the guy loses his voice and has to talk through a machine?”
Al turned a bit green. “Cut it out.”
“Sorry. Count ’em up.”
The fun of the night was always totaling the tips, and with her team, distribution was a breeze. There was no fighting or egotism, just a sense of hard work and getting a fair share. “Two hundred and twenty-five dollars,” she announced.
Al whistled. “Nice.”
Amanda clapped her hands. “Hard to beat,” she said merrily.
Dalton gave an annoyed frown that seemed mostly for show. “Thanks to all of you for your belief and support of my bartending abilities. Now stand back and watch me win.”
When he counted past two hundred dollars, Raven was concerned. Even when she’d served at other bars, she’d always raked in double the tips her coworkers did. Many times she’d had to quit because the staff got pissy and thought she was stealing from them. Now she was able to give all her tips to her own crew, but she had a reputation to protect. Crap, two hundred ten? No. Way.
“He’s going to win!” Sheila announced. “History may be made tonight.”
“Not gonna happen,” Al said.
Finally he reached the last dollar.
Two hundred twenty-one dollars and seventy-five cents.
“Nice try, Slick. No one has ever gotten close. You’re a good bartender.”
The others agreed, giving him high fives and complimenting him on the restaurant updates. When Dalton gave away all the money, they tried to protest, but he insisted. He also made sure her offered twenty-dollars-per-hour base pay went into the tip jar for them. With bulging pockets and light spirits, they drank seltzer and bullshitted to come down from the energy of the night. Then Sheila, Amanda, and Al took off, leaving her alone with Dalton.
She took a casual step away from him. “So. Thanks for helping out tonight.”
“What are friends for?”
He took a casual step forward. Oh, no way was she playing this game. She was no cringing virgin, and she wasn’t going to allow him to play his stalking predator game. Pulling herself up to full height, she tilted her chin and claimed her space. “I hope you get a lot of work. I left your business cards at the front for everyone tonight.”
“It’s the friendly thing to do.”
His lips tipped up. Her palms began to sweat. Her nipples tightened into hard nubs against the black lace of her bra. A burning ache rested between her thighs, an ache she hadn’t experienced in way too long. Sex had become routine and rarely exciting. She’d felt as if there was nothing left to explore.
She bet Dalton would prove her wrong.
“You amaze me.” She lifted a brow at his comment and he laughed. “No, seriously. I love watching you here. The way you handle the customers and the staff. The way you look when you’re making someone a special cocktail, like you get just as much pleasure when they enjoy it. You’ve found your place. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
The way he expressed himself contained a hint of poetry. Maybe Cal was right. Dalton might be more of a closet romantic than she’d ever believed. Thing was, a bullshit artist was easy to dismiss, but his words rang with truth. And that was impossible to fight.
She shifted her weight. Her voice came out ragged. “Thanks.”
“How do you decide to create a new drink? Is there a process?”
Leaning her hip against the bar, she thought about his question. “I always had a great palate, but I was at this dingy pub and the guy behind the bar was like the mixologist god. He was putting all these new spins on classic drinks, and they were taken to a new level. I was intrigued, so I began studying mixology. It’s basically the science of combining different flavors to create a unique cocktail. I studied a ton of books, worked the bar with some interesting people, and practiced consistently. I figured out what tastes good together, and loved the art of surprising someone. I love the look on someone’s face when they notice an unusual flavor that works perfectly.”
“I’ve never heard you call yourself a mixologist. You always use the term bartender.”
She shrugged. “I don’t need a fancy word to impress people. Bartender; mixologist; you still serve drinks to the public and hope they like them.”
“Yet you take it to the next level.” He cocked his head, studying her thoughtfully. Once again, his gaze delved deep, patiently searching for something. “You take everything to the next level.”
The surge of energy strengthened, rose up, and threatened to suck them both under. Her fingers clenched. “Not everything.” She struggled with her next words. “I’m sorry I never thanked you for the flowers.”
“Didn’t need thanks. That’s why I decided not to leave a card.”
She tilted her head. “Why? Didn’t you want the credit? Another of your seduction attempts?”
“Let me ask you a question, then. How did you know I sent them?”
She shivered. Because already she felt as if she knew a part of him. A part that spoke to her on a scale where words weren’t needed. “I just sensed it.”
“Exactly. You can hang up on me, refuse to talk at the bar, and avoid every single one of my advances, but there’s something between us, Raven. Something bigger than us. I can’t stop thinking about you. Fantasizing. You’re like a fever in my damn blood.”