Have you met Grayson Blake yet? If not, let me introduce you via Chapter One of 608 Alpa Ave. 😉
“I don’t get it,” I mutter.
My hand stills against the countertop, a white bar rag clutched firmly in my grasp.
Natalia Barlow leans across the end of the bar, putting her ass and the top of her thong on full display for the table of bikers behind her. An unlit cigarette is perched between her cherry-red lips, threatening to topple to the floor as she catches me looking and smirks.
I roll my eyes and turn my back to her.
“I don’t get it,” I say again, louder this time.
My gaze fixes on the man—the only man—occupying a barstool on this side of the restaurant. Grayson Blake. Black hair, scruffy beard, tall, and oh-so muscular with tattoos etched into his tanned skin. Word has it that he has flames inked on his right hip, and when he moves, they dance as if they’re alive.
I’ve mentally filed that away because it’s something I’ll (sadly) never know for myself. Guys like Grayson Blake? They go for women like Natalia. Vixens. Women who give as good as they get. Women who understand them or, at the very least, the games they play.
I’m not one of those women. It will be both my personal and professional downfall.
Grayson lifts his beer bottle, and as if it pains him to do it, he slides his gaze to mine.
I swallow. Hard.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve worked at Fireside Bar and Grill for two years or that I’ve spent countless hours behind this very bar while Grayson sits on the other side, I can’t think straight when he looks at me. I also can’t look away. It’s quite the predicament.
“It just perplexes me,” I say, sinking my gaze into the steely depths of Grayson’s eyes. My voice isn’t quite as confident as it was a few seconds ago. It’ll come back around, though. It just takes a moment to get my bearings.
Grayson’s features are void of humor. Or emotion. Or curiosity. He watches me as if I’m a toddler and he’s in charge of making sure I don’t choke on a peanut or small coin.
I bite my lip. “I just … Natalia …” I shrug, my voice fading into the rock music playing overhead.
Grayson’s thick, engine grease-stained fingers grip the bottle. “Am I supposed to ask?”
The grit of his tone washes against my skin, leaving a flurry of goose bumps in its wake. It’s this way every time he talks to me. And whenever he talks to Corbin, the bartender who’s training me in the art of bartending so I don’t have to just waitress anymore. Come to think of it, I also have the same physical reaction to him when I’m in the Cherry Street Market Grocery Store buying bagels and I hear him talking from an aisle over.
Who am I kidding? I react this way every time I’m in Grayson’s proximity. Hell, I shivered in my flip-flops when I caught wind of his cologne outside of Pearl’s Pawnshop and Liquor Store last week.
“Are you supposed to ask what?” I ask him.
“About whatever you keep jawing about other there—about Natalia, I reckon.”
“Well, since you asked—”
“I didn’t.” He smiles a lopsided, amused smile that makes me wonder if he’s smiling with me or at me. “I asked if I was supposed to ask. I didn’t ask.”
I narrow my gaze. “You know what, Grayson Blake? You’re an asshole.”
He brings the beer bottle to his lips, hiding a satisfied grin, and pulls his gaze back to the hockey game on the television in the corner.
I pick up the rag and start polishing the bar again, but I can’t let it go.
“It wasn’t Natalia,” I say, the words thrust into the air as though they’re self-explanatory.
Grayson’s brows rise but he doesn’t say anything. Not that I expect him to. Men refuse conversations. They fight tooth and nail when encouraged to share some insight into what they’re thinking. That whole thing—because it’s a thing—is what got me in this predicament.
I sigh. “I understand what Natalia is doing down there—letting her ass hang out for half the town,” I say, the rag squeaking against the laminated countertop. “She wants attention, and by golly, she’s getting it. And you know what? Good for her. Good for freaking her. Work it, girl. If I had that body, I’d flaunt it just the same.”
I plop the rag down with a flourish. I’m sure my face matches the color of the embroidery on my Fireside shirt. That’s just wonderful. But I’m on a roll. I’ve already opened the door, so I’m going to go with it. Because what do I care at this point? Grayson can’t dump me. He can’t make me feel like a prude or cheat on me behind my back or use me for a blowjob and then never call me again.
Not that those things have happened to me.
More than once.
“What I don’t get,” I say, moving toward Grayson, “is why men only react—overtly react—to thongs and red lips and … and … and long, dark hair that has more body than my actual body? I mean, my lips are kind of thin, but they’re good. And I don’t wear a thong, mostly because the three times I’ve tried it, the little slip of fabric gets wedged in the crack of my ass, and then I walk around the bar like I have a wedgie—because I do. And I don’t have great hair,” I say, pausing for a micro-second to get a half-breath of air, “but I have my grandma’s hair, and I like it. But men … don’t.”
Grayson sits back in his chair and has the audacity to look smug.
“Why am I asking you this?” I say, irritated—mostly at myself. “I need to learn to shut up.”
“Why are you asking me?” he asks, a thick brow arched to the ceiling.
“Because you’re sitting there.”
His smirk eases just enough for me to notice. I wonder why—what made the corner of his lips slip, but my curiosity feels like just one more thing to think about.
“I’m just … frustrated,” I say, leaning against the ice dispenser. The cool metal bites into my back.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
I give him a look but stay focused. “I’ve been working on this chapter in the book I’m writing—chapter one, actually, but it sounds like a hobby when I put it like that, and I’m determined to make it my career someday. Anyway, I can’t capture the hero the way I want him because all the language I use is …”
I narrow my eyes. “I want him to use language like an Ed Sheeran song—romantic and beautiful and altogether lovely.”
Grayson grins. “So, I was right. Unrealistic.”
“I’m sure that somewhere out there”—I motion toward the door and beyond it—“there’s a man who wants more and is capable of more than a Sisqó song, dammit.”
Either he misses the seriousness in my tone or he doesn’t care.
Probably the latter.
His grin deepens as he crosses his arms over his chest.
I blow out a breath and go back to my bar wiping. “How am I supposed to find a real man and create a fictional one when I don’t know anything about men? And how do I not know anything about men, anyway? I’ve been surrounded by them all of my life.”
Grayson leans forward. His thick, heavily roped forearms rest against the counter. The movement causes his cologne to float my way, and I brace myself. This time of day, the spiciness of the scent is mixed with the sharpness of gasoline and the allure of testosterone, and it makes my knees weak. Every. Single. Day.
“Your problem,” he says, “is that you’re overcomplicating men.”
I flinch wildly as though I’ve been hit upside the head with a skillet.
“You okay?” Garret Blake, one of Grayson’s two brothers, slides onto a stool beside him. “Looks like you were having a seizure.”
Grayson almost smiles. Almost.
“I’m fine,” I say with a sigh. “Just—”
“She’s driving me up the fuckin’ wall, is what she’s doin’,” Grayson says, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. There’s a near-smirk on his lips that tells me he’s kidding.
I grab a beer out of the cooler. “I am not. We were having a conversation, and you were even taking part. Slightly, I’ll admit, but a touch of back and forth was happening, and that constitutes a conversation.”
Garret takes the bottle. “I’m glad you’re up for a convo because you darted outta the shop before we could talk.”
“By design.” Grayson takes a long swig of his beer, his attention back to the television. “Look, I don’t know how to branch out into Syn City. I know their shop is closing next week, but I don’t know how to bring them over here to Cherry Falls. I got nothin’.”
I lean against the bar and listen to the two men discuss their auto repair shop.
The three Blake brothers—Grant being the youngest—are the epitome of opposites. While Grayson is broody and mostly a jackass, Grant is as gentle-hearted as they come. Garret is the brains of the bunch and repairs more spreadsheets and sales figures than he does cars. Together, they run a respected enterprise in Cherry Falls that seems to need a shot of new blood.
I shift my weight as I watch them talk.
Garret is worried they’re becoming stagnant. He thinks if they don’t expand now, they’ll miss their opportunity. I feel that deep in my bones.
If I don’t figure out how to understand men, I’m going to end up single with a house full of cats and a barely started novel. I have hopes and dreams too—of a family of my own. A job that doesn’t require a name tag. The affection of a man who can kiss me sweetly and then scoop me up and take me to bed to ravage me.
That is just out of reach, and it’s all because I don’t know how to get it. Any of it. How do I craft the voice of the hero I’m searching for while capturing the hero I want for me?
I glance over my shoulder. Natalia looks demure—shy, even—as she bats her lashes at Corbin. He, naturally, is eating out of her perfectly moisturized palm.
“I asked Daisy at the Cherry Falls Gazette if she could create some marketing materials for us, but she’s booked solid for two months,” Garret says, drawing my attention back to the bar.
“What kind of marketing materials are you looking for?” I ask.
My heart begins to thump as I ignore the curiosity in Garret’s eyes. I’m not sure what I’m doing—or, why, rather—because it’s a ridiculous idea. Completely foolish, really. He’ll never go for it, and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t give me anything useful, anyway.
“There’s a festival happening in Syn City next month,” Garret says carefully. “I was thinking we could pass out some fliers over there and try to let the townspeople know that Blake Brother Auto Repair is here. Maybe run a promo of some kind.” He brings the beer bottle in front of him and holds it with both hands. “I wanted to freshen up the language on our website. That kind of thing. Nothing too heavy.”
I wipe my hands on my jeans. “Can’t you do that?”
“I do. Every day. I feel like we need an objective voice—something fresh and fun.”
A chill runs down my spine as I part my lips. “I’m fresh and fun.”
My voice is three octaves higher than my normal speaking voice. That must be what causes Grayson to whip his attention to me. He doesn’t speak, though. Just watches me to see if I’m kidding.
Although I laugh, I’m not kidding. I don’t think.
“What are you saying, Haley?” Garret asks.
“I’m saying,” I say, sucking in a deep breath, “that I can write. I’m writing a novel, after all. I’ve taken a few creative writing classes, and I know my way around a website thanks to my mother’s online store selling homemade grape wreaths.”
“That’s a thing?” Garret asks.
“Surprising, I know. Anyway”—I gulp—“I could help you out.”
I cast a sideways glance at Grayson. He’s looking at me. The heat of his gaze kissing my cheek is enough to make me shiver.
“That would be amazing, actually,” Garret says, oblivious to what I’m about to propose. Grayson, though? I think he’s onto me.
“It would be my pleasure,” I say, fighting a grin.
“What would you charge?” he asks.
I bite my lip and take a step away from the bar. “Oh, not much. It would be more of a favor than anything.”
“We would pay you,” Garret insists. “You name the price.”
I hem and haw around as I think this through.
It really is an asinine idea. It’s also brilliant.
If I can get Garret to exchange my marketing help with a day of interrogating—interviewing—Grayson, it would be an excellent use of my time and energy. It could really benefit them too.
Grayson’s gaze gets hotter. And testier. And hotter.
I force a swallow down my throat.
“Well, since you put it that way …” I grin as innocently as I can. “What if I don’t charge you anything except maybe a Q and A session with Grayson.”
“Dammit, Haley,” Grayson groans.
“What?” My hands fly to my hips. “I need your help just like you need mine—”
“Garret needs your help. Not me.”
“It sounds like a family business problem to me, bud.”
Grayson turns his stare on his brother.
“This seems like a very fair exchange, Gray,” Garret says, chuckling.
Grayson looks at me, the corner of his lip twitching. “Careful, little girl.”
My blood runs hot at the warning. Something about the way he issues it, the way it feels like a promise instead of a cautionary tale, makes me pant.
“Just let her ask you some questions,” Garret says. “What’s it for, anyway? A college paper or something?”
“Not exactly,” I say warily. “It’s so I can understand men, actually.”
Garret laughs. “Well, hell—if Grayson is going to act like a dipshit about this, I’ll answer your questions for free marketing assistance.”
Grayson grins and faces me again. “Yeah, Haley. Ask Garret your questions.”
His eyes sparkle because he knows. He knows the questions I need answered are for him.
Garret is a great guy. He’s polite and kind and has a great work ethic. He’s also super attractive. But he’s not Grayson.
Grayson is rough and grumpy. He’s raw. He’s roguish and irritable, and that makes him … perfect.
It doesn’t help that he’s the walking advertisement for the word man with his beard and muscles and—gah!
“Look, Garret,” I say, choosing my words carefully, “you are so sweet to offer. But I don’t think—”
“What?” Grayson smirks. “You don’t think what, Haley?”
I level my gaze at Grayson. “I don’t think your brother is rude enough to answer my questions honestly. But you are.”
Grayson’s chest rumbles as he holds back a chuckle. “Fair enough.”
“I’m offended. I think.” Garret looks confused. “I can answer questions about men. I am one.”
“That you are. You’re a nice one, Garret. But your brother over here can give me insight that you can’t.”
Garret nods knowingly. “Oh, so you need asshole insight?”
Grayson rolls his eyes. “She needs a real man’s input. She wants to know how we think. Why we fuck the shit outta women like Natalia.”
At the sound of her name, Garret’s eyes avert to the red-lipped queen at the other end of the bar. “Oh.”
“Wanna explain that?” Grayson asks.
Garret looks back at me. He almost looks … sullen. Definitely nervous. “You’re right. Grayson is perfect for the job.”
I laugh at his expression.
Grayson gets to his feet and takes his wallet out of his back pocket. It’s brown leather and looks like it’s been through the wringer. He takes out a few bills and slaps them against the counter.
“There ya go,” he says. “I got yours too, Garret.”
“Thanks,” Garret says, tipping his bottle back again.
I bite the pad of my thumb. “So, we have a deal?”
Grayson grins. “Nope.”
And out the door he goes.