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At Your Service
By Amy Cousins
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Trust me, buddy. You want me. You need me. I know it, and you know it. Just give in to the inevitable."
Grace crossed the fingers of one hand behind her back and stuck her other hand across the bar to shake on it. The man behind the recently varnished oak counter, with the hooded, skeptical eyes and the sculpted mouth pressed closed, just stared at her. She hoped he didn't notice that her hand was shaking.
The man - Tyler, she assumed, since the banners outside read Tyler's Bar & Grill, Grand Opening Tonight - kept his unreadable, unnerving eyes on her. She was certain that a less welcoming face had never frowned on a more desperate, out-of-work woman in the world. She tugged on her newly blond hair and considered walking back out the front door before she made a complete fool of herself.
Then she remembered her original reason for walking in the bar. She'd needed change for the bus, because the only thing filling out her wallet was a single twenty-dollar bill. A job started to sound pretty good when a girl was down to her last twenty.
She kept her hand hanging out there over the bar and prepared to outwait this Tyler. After two weeks in hiding, she was out of options. When she heard her grandmother's voice echoing in her head, Grace wasn't surprised. She blinked back the reflexive tears and stretched her smile a little wider.
You're a Haley, girl, and do not forget that. You have a genetic history of ancestors who defined the word tenacious.
Grace knew that in all likelihood she still wouldn't have had the nerve to face off against the ridiculously handsome man behind the bar, except for one thing. As she'd entered the bar, she'd had to squeeze past what looked like an entire Mexican family, all ripping off long white aprons and shouting in gleeful excitement. If her Spanish was good enough, she thought they were calling out apologies to Señor Tyler because they were leaving for Acapulco immediately, their cousin having won the state lottery.
Tough break for this Tyler on his opening night.
She'd feel sympathetic after she talked herself into a job, thank you very much. The muscles in her shoulder were starting to tremble from the effort of keeping her hand hanging in midair, but she'd be damned if she'd let Mr. "I'm So Sexy" behind the bar see that.
Not even 10:00 a.m., Tyler thought to himself, and his day had already been flushed down the toilet. He was happy for the Garcias - it wasn't often that good people got such a lucky break - but having no staff did put a bit of a crimp in his Grand Opening plans.
He'd work it out, make some phone calls, call in some favors. But all that would take time, something he was rapidly running out of. Meanwhile, he had enough to do without dealing with the runaway teen staring determinedly across the bar at him.
She practically had desperate tattooed across her forehead. The shadows under her lake-blue eyes gave her an almost painful look of fragility. And although her hair was gloriously, deeply blond, with just enough of a hint of wave to make it slide around her cheekbones and chin and shoulders like a caress, he'd seen her tug on the ends sharply after making her ridiculous proposition. This girl was nervous enough for three ex-cons on the lam.
He felt bad about it, and took that as some consolation that he wasn't an irredeemable jerk on the sliding scale of morality, but he just didn't have time for that much trouble today. He'd been working toward this day for almost ten years, and if he wanted it to go smoothly, he didn't have time to baby-sit.
"Sorry, darlin'," he said gently, and waited to see her face fall into tears from the bold front she was putting on now. Maybe he could make it seem less personal. "You have to be over twenty-one to serve drinks in Chicago."
To his complete surprise, she laughed. Out loud and with real humor, the laughs rolling up from her belly and out past her lips in a ringing music that made him wonder what it would take to see her laugh again.
"Thank you, darlin'," she said, still smiling. And damned if he could stop himself from smiling back. "But if you're trying to make my day better, I'd rather have the job than the compliment."
"The compliment?" he asked.
"Tyler - you are Tyler, aren't you?" At his nod, she continued, still grinning sassily. "Well, Tyler, I could hit thirty with a short stick. So if you were trying to be tender with my feminine sensibilities, don't bother. I can't afford 'em."
It was as if she'd flipped a switch. Tyler wasn't sure what had happened, but suddenly his runaway teenager had transformed herself into the image of the smart-aleck, funny, tough woman that was his favorite kind of waitress. When she'd walked in the door of the tavern as the Garcias walked out and told him that he was going to hire her because he needed her, she was rolling on bravado alone. He'd read it in bold print across her face.
But now the confidence was real, the humor was genuine.
This blond angel was still just as easy to read, only now her face said, I've been there, done that, and you can't even imagine what you'll be missing if you let me get away from you now.
Still, maybe confidence that appeared so quickly would disappear just as fast. So he watched her, again, as he spoke.
"I was trying to find a nice way to tell you to get lost. I don't have a job for you."
"Nice try, buddy." She retracted the arm she'd held out over the bar, waiting for a handshake, and shook out her muscles. Her eyes pierced him like a pin through a bug on a collector's mat. "Since you're being stubborn ... you just let me know when you're ready to shake on it."
She pulled out one of the narrow-backed bar stools, turned it around and stepped up to straddle it in a move that had him choking on his tongue, so suddenly did the image flow into his head of her naked and swinging a leg over him in the same arrogant way.
Get a grip, Tyler, she's looking for a job, not a bedmate, he thought. Then he watched her brace her elbows on the seatback, lace her fingers together and rest her chin on them. She licked her lips slowly, slowly enough that he could imagine what it would feel like to have her tongue gently tracing his own mouth before opening to him. The gleam in her eyes should have warned him.
"I want two bucks over minimum wage."
"What?" The outrage was genuine enough to take his mind off of her mouth. "Waitstaff get two bucks less than minimum, with tips to make up the difference, and you're crazy if you think you're getting any different."
"Yeah, well it looks to me like you got a problem here, Tyler. You got no staff, period. And since I'm the only one banging down your door looking for a job ..."
She stared across the bar at him. He stared back. Somehow he'd gone from shooing her out the door to negotiating her hourly wage, and he hadn't even said he'd hire her yet.
Damn, she was good.
"Look, it's really a bargain, if you think about it. I'll be playing host, waiter, busboy and most likely dishwasher, too. At least at first. You're getting four employees for the price of one."
"Sounds like I'm getting four employees for two bucks over minimum. That's a lot higher than one measly server."
"Like I said, darlin' -" She shook back her hair and sat up straight. "You need me. You want me. You know it and I know it."
The trouble was, she was right. He did need her, and he did want her. And if he needed and wanted for two different reasons, then that was his problem. The boss sleeping with the help was the fastest way to lose good workers. And he'd already learned how quickly a woman tired of a man who spent more time with his business than he did with her. He wouldn't be walking down that road again.
He listened to his own thoughts and gave up the battle. He'd already decided to hire her, assuming her references panned out. He didn't really have much of a choice.
"Just give in to the inevitable, hmm?"
"You got it," she said, and winked at him. And Tyler was sold. She was perfect.
"Where have you worked before here?"
The question was a casual one, meant more to be social than as a background check. Anyone who'd waited tables for a month or two would be able to handle his straightforward menu and small seating area. So he was a little curious when she paused before answering him.
"At a diner." He watched her tug nervously on her hair again before shrugging at him from across the bar. "We were open twenty-four-seven. Heavy late-night and breakfast crowds. But you could do your nails and the New York Times's crossword between noon and midnight."
Something indefinable, something suddenly not quite right, kept him asking questions.
"What was the name of the place?"
Excerpted from At Your Service by Amy Cousins Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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