Read an Excerpt
1 oz white crème de cacao
1 oz Amaretto almond liqueur
1 oz triple sec
1 oz vodka 2 oz light cream
Natalie Fanshaw did something that night she'd never done in her twenty-nine years on earth. She walked into a bar alone.
She hovered in the doorway of the Driftwood Bar and Grill in Orca Bay, California, not sure whether to move forward or turn around and head back to her hotel room. It wasn't that she was desperate for a drink, it was more that she couldn't sit at the too-small desk in her hotel room and look at those spreadsheets for one more minute without going crazy.
The Driftwood was a popular cocktails and dinner destination. They specialized in fresh seafood, like mussels served in buckets more ways than Natalie could have imagined, and seared mahimahi with a Thai curry glaze.
The hostess approached her with a menu, her eyebrows raised. Shaking her head at both the hostess and her own timidity, Nat pulled her shoulders back and walked with purpose. Up to the gray granite bar. There were a dozen or so stools in brushed metal with black leather seats. A young couple had their stools pushed so close together they touched from knee to thigh.
Natalie chose a seat at the other end and hiked herself up onto it.
She placed her purse on the empty stool beside her in a clear Keep Away signal, then glanced around. She'd never been here before, but she knew the place by reputation. She was surprised how busy it was for a Wednesday night. Almost every table was taken, mostly by couples. These looked like romantic rather than business transactionsunlike most of her dinners out. The decor of the room was upscale casual, with a beach theme that would have looked a lot better without all the pink-and-red stuff hanging from the ceiling. And what was with the corny, oversize papier-mâché hearts wafting around like a cardiologist's nightmare?
Even as the low voice spoke to her, a terrible thought struck her. "Oh, no," she said, her gaze still transfixed by those swinging hearts. "Please tell me it's not Valentine's Day?"
She glanced up at the bartender who'd spoken, and looked into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. And they were twinkling at her as though the gorgeous guy with the disheveled hair and the deeply tanned face was laughing at her without involving his mouth. "Okay," he said, "I won't tell you."
Grabbing her purse, she pulled out her BlackBerry. How had she not noticed the significance of the date? February 14. "My secretary should have reminded me," she complained bitterly.
"Somebody you forgot to send flowers to?"
She shook her head. "No. But I would have been more careful." She glanced around once more, now seeing the obvious. The twosomes holding hands, the low-voiced conversations that were all versions of "I love you," "No, I love you." Of all the nights in all the cities she'd traveled to, she had to pick this one to brave a bar alone. "I am the only singleton trapped in the Love Shack."
The bartender laughed. Low and sexy. His shirt was open at the collar. If it was hers she'd have ironed it into crisp perfection, but she had to admit the rumpled cotton looked good on him, maybe because it went with his mussed hair and aura of relaxed untidiness, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. "You're not the only one."
She glanced up, inquiring.
"I'm stuck here, too."
Was he telling her he was single, also? She was so out of touch with the whole male-female thing that she wasn't sure that's what he meant. Maybe he was simply complaining that he had to work when there was some hot chick still in his bed.
She wasn't about to ask.
"Well, since we're both here, what can I get you?"
"Oh." She looked at the rows of bottles lined up against the mirrored wall behind him. As exotic as a jewelry store, the wall winked at her. Bottles glowed with blue, pink and red. An entire row was devoted to Scotch whisky, some of which she knew was much older than she.
Then she ordered what she always ordered. "A glass of white wine, please."
She had her second shock of the night.
The bartender shook his head.
"You don't carry white wine?"
"Sure we do. But white wine is not for you. Not tonight."
Both intrigued and mildly annoyedsince Natalie was a woman who always knew her own mind, was famous in fact for her decision makingshe said, "And what do you have in mind for me? Tonight?"
The moment the words left her lips she wished she could suck them back as fast as the couple down the other end of the bar were tossing back their martinis. Her words sounded low, sexy, like a come-on. The last thing she'd intended. She shifted uncomfortably on her seat. One quick drink and she was out of hearts-and-chocolates land.
The man behind the bar seemed not to notice her discomfort. He regarded her from those eyes that reminded her of the ocean and said, "Have you ever had a Blue Crush?"
Lord, she was having one now, looking into those blue, blue eyes and feeling her pulse speed up a little bit. She knew she was overtired, but still, it was quite a reaction she was having to a man she could not have less in common with.
"I've had Orange Crush," she said, "when I was a kid."
He grinned at her, even white teeth that could eat her all up. "Trust me, this one's a lot more fun."
And she thought, What the hell? Here I am on Valentine's Day, with no Valentine, I might at least try a new drink.
"Okay," she said. "I'll trust you."
"You won't be sorry."
Why did she find that so hard to believe?
"Right now," a twangy female voice suddenly said, coming from Natalie's left, "I need two Screaming Orgasms, one Sex on the Beach and a Roll Between the Sheets."
"You and me both," Natalie said. She didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until the woman gave a bray of laughter that was altogether bigger than her small frame could hold.
"It's Valentine's Day," the tiny waitress explained in a confidential tone. "They think if they order the raunchy drinks, they'll get laid."
"Does it work?"
The woman flipped her red-gold ponytail over her shoulder when she jerked her head toward the restaurant. "See for yourself."
Natalie looked around, and felt suddenly as though she were behind a velvet rope on the outside of one of those exclusive A-list parties one read about. And the biggest bouncer in the world was keeping her on the wrong side of the barrier.
On the other side were couples. She was no expert on mating rituals, but she could sense from the way they leaned toward each other, shared food and sipped each other's drinks that these men and women weren't going home to calculators and spreadsheets for company.
Sex was in the air as decidedly as the aroma of fresh seafood and garlic butter.
One young man had his shoe off and was tracing the inner thigh of his date with his stockinged foot, not at all shy about the fact that anyone glancing his way would see what he was up to. Of course, most of the dinner guests were too interested in their own dates to glance anywhere else. One woman gave the man across the tiny table from her a bite of her chocolate fondue, and when a sensuously rich dribble of chocolate hit his chin, they both ignored his napkin. She gave a tiny smile, leaned close, breasts thrusting forward from a skimpy top, the tip of her pink tongue showing, and licked the chocolate off.
"Oh, my," Natalie said, her hand going to her chest. Not that she was a prude, but there was a lot of raw sexual energy in the room. It got to a person.
"Don't worry," the bartender said, "we've got plenty of fire extinguishers. If the heat gets out of hand, we blast them."
"Oh, Johnny," the cocktail waitress said, with the lazy affection perfected by Southern women. She rolled her eyes, collecting her drinks on a round tray and departed.
"Johnny?" Natalie stared at the man in front of her. Of course he had no name badge. It wasn't that sort of place. But in the short time she'd been in town she'd discovered he was locally famous. With women. "You're Hot Johnny?"
1 oz blue curaçao 1 oz Cointreau
1 oz vodka
1 oz Malibu rum
Orange twist for garnish
Johnny laughed. He couldn't help it. He'd never seen anyone give away her inner thoughts so easily as the blushing woman sitting staring at him did.
How could anyone so uptight, business suited and restrained be so much fun?
"People usually don't call me that to my face."
Of course he'd heard his nickname; he'd lived in Orca Bay for fifteen years. The nickname wasn't something he'd asked for. But Johnny had learned a long time ago that when things were good you shouldn't fight them. Women liked him. He figured it was an accident of Fate. And he'd love to meet Fate someday and shake him by the hand and buy him a drink to say thanks.
Truth was, Johnny liked women, too. Genuinely liked their different styles and shapes and colors. Some men might write off the single woman who climbed onto a bar stool carrying a briefcase on Valentine's Day, but Johnny didn't. He liked her contrasts. Her conservative suit and the comments that escaped her mouth seemingly by accident. Her neat hairstyle and the kinky waves that suggested wildness. Her first choice, white wine, so predictable but look how quickly she'd been willing to try something new.
Definitely, there were interesting depths beneath the surface of this woman.
"I'm sorry," she said, flustered. "I didn't mean to be rude, but I heard some women talking about you." Suddenly, she blushed scarlet and he had to wonder what she'd overheard.
Hell, tonight would be a long one. Everybody seemed to be part of a couple except for him and this woman who hadn't even realized it was Valentine's Day. So he asked her. "What did you hear?"
"I can't remember."
"Shouldn't lie on Valentine's Day. It's bad luck."
She glanced at her BlackBerry as though hoping it would ring, or beep or something. But it remained as silent as he did, waiting for her answer.
"It might have been something about kissing."
Now he truly was intrigued. Who gossiped about kissing? "What about it?"
"It was just idle chitchat, you know the way women go on. I overheard these two talking. Accidentally, you know. I was in a restaurant, having a quick breakfast and reading the paper. The woman mentioned Hot Johnny and she got to kissing one time and she almost" the blush deepened "you know " Now she waved in the general direction of the main dining room, "Like the drink."
He was wondering why this woman spent so much time in restaurants alone, and could picture her and her newspaper and the way her eyes must have widened when she got sex talk along with her morning coffee. "What drink?"
"The Screaming Orgasm." She whispered the words.
"Are you saying she almost came from kissing me?" How cool was that?
"No. She said that. This woman. Who called you Hot Johnny, and then the other woman said well, anyway. That's how I heard of you."
"What did she look like? The woman who almost, you know "
"I don't know, I didn't really see her. Blond, I think."
"Huh." In California, that really narrowed it down. Not that the woman's identity mattered. Didn't sound like they'd ever gone beyond mouth action. Whatever.
His new customer was certainly making his night more interesting, he thought, as he mixed the Blue Crush. He barely thought about his actions as he poured blue curaçao, rum, vodka and the other ingredients into a shaker, gave the whole a thorough blending and strained the blue concoction into a martini glass.
He reached for a twist of orange peel, knowing she was watching his every move, and added an extra twist, giving the shape a sensual sinuousness as it looped around the edge of the glass the way a stripper might twine herself around a pole.
"Thank you." She eyed it for a moment, as though regretting her rash departure from white wine, then sipped slowly.
He watched her, enjoying the way her eyes widened slightly at the taste, the way she licked her lips consciously, a tiny frown pulling her brows together.
She stayed like that for a moment, almost Zen-like in her perfect stillness, as though every part of her were involved in tasting and evaluating her drink.
"Well?" he finally asked.
"It's good," she said, delivering the verdict, then taking another tiny sip. "I thought it might be too sweet since it's named after a soft drink."
"It's not. The drink's named after a surfing wave. The kind that knocks you on your ass."
"Oh." She glanced with trepidation at the drink. "You mean?"
"One won't do it. Don't worry."
"Oh, good, because I still have work to do tonight."
He was about to ask, but Suzanne, the head waitress, marched up to the bar with a list of orders.
She was on her way again immediately. Efficiency on legs.
While he worked, he said, "So, tell me how come you're here alone on Valentine's Day?"
She regarded him with great seriousness. "Isn't that sort of personal?"
Deftly adding a couple of drops of vermouth to a dry martini, he set it on the bar and poured enough house red into a beaker for the waitress to pour a single glass. "I'm a bartender. People are supposed to tell me things."
"And do they? Like in the movies? I thought that was a cliché."