Colleen goes to the same bar every night and orders the same drink: a whiskey, neat. She doesn’t drink it, though. Jesse the bartender notices the beautiful, sad woman who keeps to herself. Until one night when she lets go and lets him in. And after that, Jesse has only one mission—to show her one night is only the beginning…
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“The usual?” The Thursday night bartender grinned at Colleen. He’d already filled her glass three-quarters with amber liquid and pushed it across the polished wooden bar toward her. He added a separate glass of seltzer water with a twist of lime, just the way she liked it.
Jesse, she thought as she brushed the dampness from her shoulders where the snow had melted. That was his name. “Thanks, Jesse.”
Jesse’s eyes narrowed for a moment. He looked her over and, coming to some sort of conclusion, said, “How about an order of onion rings?”
“I… Yes. Sure.” Colleen bit back her initial protest, imagining how good something greasy and fattening would taste. It was exactly what she needed right now, but wouldn’t have thought of ordering until he suggested it. “That would be great.”
“You got it.” Jesse rapped the top of the bar with his knuckles in a staccato pattern, then turned to take another order.
He’d leave her alone. And alone was what Colleen wanted to be. So a few minutes later when a man in a business suit slid onto the stool beside her, she just stared at him when he delivered his pickup line.
The man stared back, rakish grin fading. “I said—”
“I heard you,” she interrupted. “But I already have a drink.”
The businessman tugged at his tie. “So it’s like that, huh?”
“It’s not like anything,” Colleen said quietly.
“Hey, I’m just trying to be nice.”
Colleen half turned away. “So then be nice.”
When he put his hand on her elbow, his fingers pinching just a little too hard, she shoved it away. The businessman looked surprised. Then pissed. He put both hands up and backed off, but not before muttering something that sounded suspiciously like “Crazy bitch.”
“Is there a problem?” Jesse balanced a platter of onion rings on his palm before setting it in front of her. “Hey, buddy. You got a problem?”
“No. Not at all.” The businessman took his drink and slid down to the other end of the bar where an attractive brunette and her prettier friend were laughing as they took a cell phone selfie.
Colleen pushed her whiskey glass to the side to make room for the food. The liquor sloshed, splashing her a little. She used a napkin to wipe her fingers and looked up to see Jesse staring at her.
She nodded. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Jesse didn’t leave, though there were people waiting to be served. He studied her in silence for a few seconds longer than seemed necessary. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Nope.” Colleen gave him a small smile as she lifted an onion ring toward him. “This should do it.”
“Did he bother you?”
Surprised, she lowered the onion ring without biting it. “I can handle myself. It’s okay.”
At the sound of raucous laughter, Jesse looked down the bar. The businessman was now taking a picture with the two girls. Jesse looked back at Colleen with a frown. “I know you can. I’ve seen you. I just wanted to be sure.”
“You’ve seen me, huh?” She sipped some seltzer and dipped a ring into the horseradish sauce, but didn’t bite.
“You come in here every Thursday night,” Jesse pointed out. “I’m not saying we get a bunch of jackasses in here or anything, but there are some nights it feels like I’m Pinocchio on Pleasure Island.”
Colleen laughed. The giggle slipped out of her, unbidden and certainly unexpected. It turned the head of the businessman at the end of the bar, who glared at both of them before turning back to his new friends. Colleen didn’t let it get under her skin. She’d dealt with much worse.
“Bonus points for that reference,” she said to Jesse.
“Been watching a lot of Disney movies, what can I say?” Jesse shrugged, leaned on the bar and grinned. Over his shoulder, he said to John, the other bartender, “Can you take care of that guy over there? Yeah, the one giving me the death stare.”
John nodded and moved to handle the other customer. Colleen bit into her onion ring and gave Jesse the side-eye. It didn’t seem to bother him, and his widening grin didn’t seem to bother her.
“You’re too old for Disney movies,” Colleen said.
“Never too old for Disney.”
“Too young for Pinocchio, then. You’re more the Hercules and Aladdin era, aren’t you?”
“I have all the classics,” Jesse said. “My kid loves them.”
She couldn’t conceal her surprise. Jesse had been working on Thursdays for at least six months, but this was the first time she’d heard him mention a child. Of course, there’d never been reason for her to ask him if he had kids. Or anything else about him, really. They’d never had more than the most casual conversations, which had never seemed rude until just now.
Jesse laughed at her expression. She blushed, the flush creeping up her throat and all over her face, impossible to hide. Rosy cheeks always gave away her emotions.
“I…I didn’t know. I mean, I…I didn’t think,” she stammered.
Jesse pushed upward with his hands, straightened and knocked on the bar again, rat-a-tat tat like a drumbeat. “Her name’s Laila, and she’s eleven. She claims she’s getting a little too old for Disney movies, but I’ve convinced her that her old man needs an excuse to keep watching them.”
“You don’t look old enough to have an eleven-year-old,” Colleen said. He couldn’t be more than what, twenty-three? Maybe twenty-four, tops. A decade younger than her, at least.
Jesse stepped out of the way so John could get to some of the bottles on the top shelf behind him. He gave John a nod to acknowledge that it was time for him to get back to work. Still, Jesse took the time to give Colleen another slow smile that she supposed melted the panties off lots of ladies. She countered with another dip of onion ring.
“I’ll be forty,” he told her.
“What? Wait. No way!” she called after him. Patrons’ heads turned for the second time that night.
“Eventually, if I’m lucky!” Jesse said over his shoulder and started taking orders at the bar’s far end.
Colleen shook her head and caught John’s eye. “Guess he showed me.”
John, who’d been working at The Fallen Angel for as long as Colleen had been coming there, and probably for almost as long as the bar had been open, rolled his eyes. “He’s a smart-ass and he’s twenty-eight. You need something, hon? Another drink?”
“Another seltzer when you get a chance.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin and emptied her glass to wash away the burn of horseradish.
John took the glass and filled it, then nodded at the untouched whiskey. “Freshen that for you?”
“Just let me know if you need something, hon.” With that, John moved off to attend to another customer.
There was a reason why Colleen came to this place every week instead of visiting different bars. Or simply staying home, which was really where she wanted to be. She came to The Fallen Angel because they knew her here. Nobody ever made her feel as though she had to “pay rent” by buying more than her single drink. And they left her alone, mostly.
Except for Jesse.