And the bar.
He just needed a bit of patience.
“I got a proposition for you, baby. Me. You. And a night you’ll never forget. Whatcha say?”
Raven leaned over the bar and pushed out her bottom lip in a sexy pout. Her gaze swept over his figure. Then she smiled real slow. “I got a better proposition. How about you, your hand, and a bottle of lube instead? Baby.”
A hoot of male laughter rose to her ears. One of her regular patrons, Dave, reached over to clap his friend on the back, shaking his head. “Dude, I told you, she doesn’t play.”
The guy who’d taken the hit gave her a grin. “Ruthless, too. Remind me why we came here again?”
Raven winked and pulled back from the bar. With a deft spin on her heel, she grabbed a shot glass and poured two fingers neat of whiskey. “’Cause I serve the best liquor and food in town. Here, try this. It’ll take away the sting.” She slid the glass down the bar until it rested in front of him.
Dave threw up his hands. “Hey, what about me?”
“You know the rules. One pickup line. One rejection. One shot. Then you pay.”
Dave’s friend—was it Mark?—snapped the shot back and gave an appreciative nod. “You’re right. That was worth bombing out.”
She tossed him a smile and moved down the bar. They were good guys. A little rowdy and immature, but their bar bill was always high, and they were harmless. Each weekend the group recruited another male to pick her up, and failed. The good news was each of them came back the next weekend because My Place was the best damn bar in Harrington.
Sweeping a glance over the crowded pub, she headed back to the kitchen, clicking down her mental list of to-do items. She really needed a full-time assistant, but Raven liked to work alone, and she’d always been known for her temper. No need to start yelling at strangers when she could be happily neurotic all by her lonesome. She dealt well with employees but not partners. Still, she’d managed to grow her profits in the past year and had actual money in the bank. The lesson was simple and proved correct every single time.
Don’t count on anyone but yourself.
Leaning on other people was not only dangerous. It was also stupid.
She quickly made her rounds to check on her chef, Al, who was one of the nicest guys she knew. He’d graduated from the Culinary Institute of America near Poughkeepsie, snagged a fancy chef job, and moved in with his girlfriend.
Unfortunately, soon after, his girlfriend left him and hooked up with a guy who liked to slap her around. When she called Al in a panic, he made it his job to show the guy what it felt like to be beaten up.
His second unfortunate circumstance was discovering the asshole was the son of a top prosecutor, and Al soon found himself plea-bargaining and serving three years in prison for assault and battery. His girlfriend lied and swore Al had stalked her in a jealous rage.
When Al turned up on Raven’s doorstep asking for a job, sharing his past in clear, emotionless detail, she immediately knew he was a gift. A real CIA chef, and one who wanted to protect the woman he loved. It was a win-win, and she hired him on the spot.
Besides being a talented chef and a hard worker, he always looked after her servers, who were young, single girls who made too many mistakes.
God knows, she’d been one of those. Too bad he hadn’t been around back then to save her ass.
Choking heat poured from the stove, and the fryer snapped and sizzled. Her servers hurried back and forth, barking out orders, shuffling trays, and not taking any shit from customers. Raven had learned early to hire experienced waitstaff, pay them well, and back them up when there was a customer problem. They wore a standard uniform of comfortable jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. Who the hell could work in heels and short, tight skirts? They were loyal, worked their asses off, and were a key ingredient in My Place’s success. Turnover of staff was a deadly threat to restaurants, and Raven had no time to deal with such drama.
Even though she frickin’ loved watching Vanderpump Rules on Bravo.
Al turned, his white uniform already splattered with grease. His shaven head gleamed with sweat. “We’re busier than usual tonight,” he commented. Meaty biceps flexed with each turn of the spatula. Raven loved to watch him command the kitchen. He reminded her of a dancer with every motion coordinated, multiple burners pumping, a row of tickets in front of him, and a calm, focused energy that was rarely rattled.
He waved a hand in the air, showing off a panel of tats scrolled on his arm. “Course. But I need a cig break soon.”
She put her hands on her hips and glared. “You told me you were getting the patch.”
“Next week. I promise.”
She blew out a breath. “Al, I don’t want to lose my best cook to lung cancer. You can quit smoking. Don’t be a pussy.”
Black brows lowered in a fierce frown. He looked like the Rock ready to punch someone, but Raven knew he was a marshmallow underneath. “Who you callin’ a pussy? Just because you take some boxing classes, don’t think you’re some badass who can threaten me. It’s my life. If I wanna die, it’s my choice.”
“What are you—running for Congress? Screw that. I will kick your ass if I don’t see the patch on your arm. You’re too old for this crap.”
Amanda, one of her servers, bounced over and clipped another ticket to the row. With her blond hair and blue eyes, she was consistently hit on and regularly got high tips. Raven loved her because she always dumped half of her tips in the jar for Al, even though she was paying her way through college. “Yeah, Al, we need you around here. Why don’t you try to vape? At least it’ll get you off the tobacco.”
“I’m not old! Leave me the hell alone so I can cook.” He jabbed his finger at Amanda. “Did you study for your damn astronomy test? If you flunk, your GPA will be in the toilet.”
Amanda sighed. “Yeah, but I still get the stupid stars mixed up. Raven tried to help, but she knows too much. I just want to pass the test, but she gets all excited, and an hour later, she’s still lecturing on Orion and Cantis Min something. I think she’s a closet scientist.”
“Canis Minor,” Raven said patiently. “Just trying to help you appreciate the world above, sweets.”
Al rolled his eyes. “She just needs to pass the test. Amanda, meet me outside on break and I’ll quiz you.”
Her smile lit up the room. “Thanks, Al.”
He grumbled something foul, then turned back to the grill.
“See? We all love you. Try the vape,” Raven said.
“Get out of my kitchen, Raven.”
“Leaving.” She held back a laugh, enjoying her work family in all its disjointed chaos. Satisfied the kitchen had things under control, she headed back to the bar, where she felt most at home. Music and laughter and chatter soothed her nerves while her mind began to play with new cocktail recipes. Something with mint. Cool and clean, but it needed texture and a bit of a snap. A surprise on the tongue. Cilantro? No, too much. Thyme? She’d never done that before, but maybe it was worth an hour of her time to play. Mixing cocktails was more than her job—it was a creative passion that was a bit of an obsession. She wondered how she’d gotten her strange mix of genes where concocting drinks was her big talent. Aunt Penny had been huge on Broadway, but Raven couldn’t carry a tune. Or speak well in public. Her father had painted, of course, until—
Before the pain hit, she tore off the thought like a limb that needed to be quickly amputated. She’d learned to avoid any thoughts of how much her father had meant, and how he’d betrayed her. Much simpler to wipe away her past like a clean, blank slate she could now fill with new memories. Like her bar. And . . .
Well, that was it for now. Still, she’d managed to turn her life around from her disastrous path and become a respected business owner. The pub was all she needed for the moment. Definitely the best relationship she’d ever been in, and the longest. The worst part? She wasn’t sorry. And she didn’t even miss men. Much.
As if mocking her statement, she heard his voice. Rich like earth and wood. Smooth and hot like whiskey. Tempting like a Red Delicious apple ready to be bitten.