Beth Cantrell hadn't thought about him in almost six months.
Well, that wasn't exactly true.
Beth cleared her throat and shifted, glancing around as if everyone in the brewery could feel the lie she was telling herself.
The truth was that she'd thought about Jamie Donovan plenty of times. She'd remembered the hour or two they'd shared, she'd fantasized about what might've happened if she'd stayed the whole night in that hotel room.
But in the past six months, she'd never once let herself think about seeing him again. She hadn't considered calling him or making contact in any way. That had been their agreement, after all. One night. One time. no strings attached and no expectations. She'd had to abide by that, because she would never have let herself meet him in that hotel room otherwise.
He wasn't her type. He wasn't part of her social circle. And she definitely wasn't part of his. Beth Cantrell managed the White Orchid, the premiere erotic boutique in Boulder. Her friends were her employees: women she loved like sisters. They were bold and powerful and sexually progressive. And they dated people like themselves: tattooed, pierced, educated and cool.
Absolutely cool, even when they'd only reached the pinnacle of cool by being so incredibly nerdy that they actually circled around to cool again.
Beth, on the other hand, wasn't cool. She was just
Beth. But that was okay, because she was their manager and they loved her, and they did their best to pull her into their sphere. They fixed her up with guys. Friends of theirs. Men they knew and liked. Men who were cool and hip and progressive. And not one of those guys had ever pushed her buttons the way Jamie had.
She still flushed when she thought about him in his tidy polo shirt and khaki pants. His wide white smile and broad shoulders. He'd looked even better in a business suit. The perfect vision of middle-class preppy beauty. And Beth had wanted him so much it hurt.
They'd been strangers, despite this small town. But in that hotel room, with the promise that it would happen only once
the isolation of the act had made it safe. Yet she couldn't stop thinking about him.
And right in the middle of the first good date she'd had in years.
"Hey," her date said as he waved a hand in front of her face. "You okay?" He smiled, taking any sting from the words.
"Sorry." Before she'd started thinking about Jamie, her date had been talking about
something. She racked her brain. Something artsy and important about Robert Mapplethorpe's early career.
"I'm really sorry," she finally said. "I didn't realize how tired I was until the glass of beer hit me. I'm not usually so rude."
He smiled in a way that told her he hadn't taken offense. "I'm glad you didn't mind coming to the party with me. Faron and I have been friends for years. I didn't want to miss it. And I figured you knew her, too."
"Yes, we have mutual friends." The party wasn't the problem. Or the guest of honor. The problem was that Beth had had no idea the party would be at Donovan Brothers Brewery. Not until her date had pulled into the parking lot, and Beth's heart had sunk to her toes.
It wasn't his fault that the party he'd decided to take her to just happened to be at Donovan Brothers.
She'd spent the forty-five minutes since scanning the line of customers and servers at the bar, but Jamie wasn't there. It was pure luck on her part. Jamie Donovan was an owner of the brewery, but he was also a notoriously friendly bartender. Or so she'd heard. When she'd spent time with him, he'd struck her as serious and intense.
She didn't want to see him again like this. Didn't want him to think she'd bring another man to his brewery. She kept expecting Jamie to walk by at any moment, and she couldn't think past the torture of that.
"I'm going to run to the restroom," she blurted out. She watched as her date took a beer from the waitress, giving her a warm, open smile as he said thank-you.
"Do you want me to order you another beer while you're gone?" he asked Beth.
"No, thank you
" Her mouth hung open for a moment. Oh, God, she'd forgotten his name. Yes, it was their first date, but he'd been so nice. "No, thank you," she repeated, grabbing her clutch purse and sliding out of her chair so quickly that she nearly stumbled. "I'll be right back."
Unfortunately, she had to walk past the bar to get to the restroom, and her knees felt as if they wanted to buckle under her weight. She scanned the bar, noting that the guy behind the tap was the same slender young man she'd spotted before. Then her eyes raced over the whole room again, her heart drumming a terrified beat.
He wasn't here, thank God. When she reached the short hallway that led to the bathrooms, she nearly broke into a run. She pushed open the door, said a quick prayer of thanks that the bathroom was empty and pressed her hand over her eyes.
"He's not even here," she told herself.
Once her heart had stopped its mad gallop, she set her purse on the counter and washed her hands in cold water. The icy shock made her feel better. "It's going to be fine," she whispered, trying to convince herself that she was ready to go back out. But when Beth met her own wide eyes in the mirror and saw just how pale her face was, she knew she'd need a few more minutes.
She put her hands on the sink and leaned closer. "It's going to be fine," she repeated.
Two minutes, and then she'd walk out with her head high and her heart back in the right place. And she wouldn't think about Jamie Donovan again tonight.
God save him from the sexually liberated.
Eric Donovan crossed his arms and frowned at his shoes, trying to process what he'd just heard from his brewmaster. "Wallace, I don't understand. Faron is here with her husband. Her husband. How can you be upset about that? She's married to the man."
"He's a philandering scoundrel!" Wallace yelled, shaking his fist toward the front room of the brewery as his face flooded red with rage.
A scoundrel? Eric ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. I don't understand. They have an open marriage. As a matter of fact, you're dating Faron, so how can her husband be cheating on her?"
Wallace Hood, a bearded giant of a man who looked like he went home to a log cabin every night, gave Eric a look of prim horror. "I'm not dating her, man. I'm in love with her. And of course her husband can cheat on her. Don't be an idiot."
Eric probably should've felt irritated at being called an idiot, but he was too confused by the conversation. He glanced around the tank room of the brewery as if someone else could help. But they were alone amongst the brewing tanks and mash tuns. Eric shrugged and shook his head. "I'm sorry. I don't get it."
The brewmaster sighed and ran an impatient hand over his thick beard. "There are ground rules in open marriages, and her bastard of a husband has stopped even pretending to follow them. He cheats on her. He lies about it. And then he vetoes all the men she wants to see, claiming that he doesn't like them. That's what he did to me, despite that I've known them both for years. And then tonight he brought her here on purpose"
"Why?" Eric asked carefully.
"He's taunting me, because he knows I see him for what he is. I tried to tell her a few months ago. Faron is a queen, and he's not worthy to even kiss her feet. But she's loyal and sees the best in people. She wants to give him a chance."
"She seems really sweet." And she had, the one time that Eric had met her. In fact, he'd been startled by her quiet voice and shy smile. The tiny girl with gentle brown eyes hadn't fit Eric's assumptions about that lifestyle at all.
"She is sweet." Wallace sighed. "And she was falling for me. And now that bastard is taking her away to California, and he purposefully arranged this farewell party for her friends at my brewery."
Technically, it was Eric's brewery, but Wallace was as possessive and passionate as any owner, so Eric just rolled his eyes. "You can't leave right now, Wallace. I need"
"Well, I can't stay here, can I?"
What was Eric supposed to say to that? He gazed into the kitchen through the glass wall of the tank room. Despite the late hour, there were still workmen out there, laboring overtime to cut a ventilation hole in his wall. Eric grimaced.
"She's right there, man," Wallace grumbled. "I know it's a bad time, but
she's right there."
It was a bad time. The bottling line was acting up for the third time this month, they were behind on branding for the winter brews, and the kitchen had been invaded by outsiders. Granted, the outsiders had been brought in by Eric's brother and sister, but still
These changes to the brewery weren't Eric's idea, even if he'd approved them, and he wanted nothing to do with them. "I really need you here tonight. You promised to stay late and transfer that small batch of amber to the new oak barrels."
Wallace looked so heartbroken at Eric's words that he wished he could take them back. "But
" Eric finally conceded. "I guess it's just a few hours."
"I'll be in early tomorrow. I swear."
Eric sighed. "Maybe it's a good thing she's moving to California."
"She's a good woman," Wallace said, his voice suspiciously raspy. "She wants to trust the man, and she won't walk away until she feels it's really over. But he's going to break her heart."
Eric still couldn't understand what marriage meant to someone who dated at the same time, but he'd never really understood Wallace's lifestyle. Despite the man's intimidating mountain-man looks, Wallace dated men, women and some people who seemed to skate between genders. But this was the first time Eric had seen Wallace in anything other than complete control. Love had hit him hard, it seemed.
Eric stole another look around the tank room, trying not to feel a sense of greedy anticipation. "All right. I'll take care of the barrels. You"
"Oh, I don't know if I want you to"
"Wallace," Eric snapped. "We're already off schedule."
Wallace narrowed his eyes. The man was protective of his beer. Almost obsessively so. But it was Eric's beer, too, and he'd lost enough control over his life this year. He wasn't going to let Wallace think he could snatch a little more.
"Fine," the brewmaster finally said. "Just don't screw it up." Wallace tossed his work gloves on the table and stalked out, slamming the door behind him. He paused for a moment, his eyes locked like lasers on the double doors that led to the front room and Faron, but then he shook his head and stalked out the back door.
"Jesus," Eric muttered. Everyone around him seemed to be controlled by love and sex these days. His brother and sister were both in serious relationships, and now Wallace, a man who treated dating like a professional sport, was miserably in love with a married woman. Eric felt like the only person untouched by the craziness.
Not that he didn't have any experience with it. He'd had his brush with it a few months ago, and even that brief encounter had left him shaken. He couldn't imagine being faced with that kind of emotional intensity every day. Maybe he could forgive the fact that his siblings seemed to have lost their minds.
Eric rolled his shoulders, trying to dislodge the weariness that had settled in. He was always tense at work. But the stress usually didn't bother him, if only because he couldn't imagine life without it. He ran a business; of course he was stressed. What he didn't like was the gnawing uncertainty that had taken him over in the last couple of months.
It had been one nightmare situation after another. Lost deals, theft and fraud, and now this mess in the kitchen. His brother, Jamie, was turning the family brewery into a pizza-serving brewpub, and Eric felt as though he'd lost complete control.
Grimacing, he watched masonry dust puff from the kitchen wall like a tiny cloud. Eric would much rather stay hidden in the peace of the tank room, but unfortunately, the casks would have to wait a couple of hours.
When Eric stepped into the kitchen his scowl faded away despite the roar of the masonry saw. The place might be chaotic and dusty, but Jamie stood watching it all with a grin on his face. This wasn't Eric's dream, but it was Jamie's, and Eric would do everything he could to make sure it happened.
Jamie glanced over with a quick smile. Things had been easier between them for the past few months. Thank God. It still felt tenuous, but Eric was relieved as all hell that their years of fighting seemed to be behind them.
He walked over and slapped Jamie on the shoulder. "How's it going?"
"Great!" Jamie shouted.
Eric turned to watch the progress with his brother for a few seconds, but he knew nothing about ovens or restaurant equipment, so he eventually slapped Jamie's back again. "I'll go check on the front, make sure everything is running smoothly."
Laughter roared from the front room as he drew close. Eric glanced toward the crowd as he pushed through the doors, keeping a close eye out for Faron and her scoundrel of a husband. Before the doors had swung closed behind him, someone crashed into Eric's shoulder. He grabbed for the woman, trying to steady her before she stumbled. She reached out, too, and her hand slid along his side just as she looked up.
Her face was so close to his that, for a moment, Eric thought he was imagining things. He smiled even as the nerves of his fingertips seemed to activate one by one. The wash of stark feeling progressed slowly up his fingers, his hands, his arms. By the time she pushed away with a gasp, his whole body felt as if an electrical shock was running through it.
Beth. His hands were on Beth Cantrell. His brain flickered through panicked thoughts.
Holy shit. His hands were on Beth Cantrell in his brewery.