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I’m not a stalker but I sure as hell feel like one.
Zack Bannister sat in Laurel Lewis’s section of Jalisco’s Mexican restaurant in Whiskey River. He’d come in every Saturday night for the last six weeks and still hadn’t managed to make any headway with Laurel. Since Zack was one of Laurel’s brother’s best friends, he and Laurel had known each other since they were kids.
What Laurel didn’t know was that Zack had been in love with her for years. And she wouldn’t believe it if he told her. To her, he was simply Travis’s friend. She didn’t mind flirting with him but it never occurred to her that Zack wanted more.
And whose fault is that?
Damn it, he was trying. Which was why he’d been in Jalisco’s every Saturday for the past few weeks, feeling like a stalker. But he still hadn’t managed to ask Laurel out. He knew why. He was afraid she’d reject him and then where would he be? At least now he could fantasize about her. Which he did. Regularly. And then he was back to feeling like a stalker.
Zack didn’t have trouble with women. They liked him and he liked them back. He never had trouble asking a woman out, never had trouble falling in—and out of—relationships. The women were nice, they were smart, they were attractive, some were even beautiful. He’d come close to marrying his last girlfriend, Sabrina York, but when push came to shove, he couldn’t go through with it. He liked her. Enjoyed her. But he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his life with her.
That had been over for months and he’d barely dated since, much less gotten serious about anyone. He’d finally accepted that he was never going to get over Laurel Sullivan Lewis. And that’s why he’d been haunting Jalisco’s on the night she worked.
The object of his fantasies walked by his table and stopped. She held a tray full of drinks, which he assumed were for the large table in her section of very wasted men.
“How were the enchiladas, Zack?”
“Good, as always.”
“You need some more chips and salsa?”
“Yes, that would be great.” He didn’t want them but he wasn’t ready to leave yet and he’d mostly finished his dinner. He’d never been the type to get nervous about asking a woman out. So why was he this time? But the why didn’t matter. This time, by God, he was just going to do it.
“How about another beer?”
“No, I’m good on that. I’ll tell you what I do want, though.”
“No, not dessert.” He opened his mouth to ask her for a date but before he could get the words out he was interrupted by an asshole at the large table.
“Waitress! Hey, waitress!” the man called out impatiently, snapping his fingers. “How about a little service?”
Laurel rolled her eyes and smiled at Zack. “Let me take care of these guys and I’ll be back with your chips. Then you can ask me for whatever it was you wanted.”
You, he thought, watching her go to the big table. His lips twitched as he realized she was going to serve Mr. Impatient last. His amusement didn’t last long. Just long enough to see the jerk reach out and grab her ass with a large, beefy hand. Zack was halfway out of his chair when Laurel turned around and said something. Probably, “keep your hands off my ass.” The guy answered her back, saying something with a smug smile and Laurel dumped an entire pitcher of water over his head.
The man jumped up and began yelling at her. Laurel stood her ground not looking a bit sorry and Zack made it over there in time to grab the man’s arm before he slugged her.
“I wouldn’t,” Zack said.
“That bitch poured a pitcher of water on me. On purpose!”
“You grabbed her ass. On purpose. Seems like you got what was coming to you.”
“I can handle this, Zack,” Laurel said.
“I’m sure you can. But you shouldn’t have to.”
The restaurant had gone quiet once the guy started yelling. His buddies were all looking a little shame-faced. One of them said, “Come on, Dean. Just let it go.”
“The hell I will. I want to see the manager.”
“I’ll go get him,” Laurel said and left.
“You realize she could charge you with assault, don’t you?” Zack asked.
“Let her try. I didn’t touch her. Did I?” he asked his friends.
None of them wanted to answer him, every one of them looking anywhere but at the man. So Zack repeated, “You grabbed her ass. I saw the whole thing.”
“Your word against mine. Where’s the damn manager? And who the hell are you? This isn’t your business.”
Zack wished he still carried his card with him, but since inheriting Devil’s Rock airport, he had cut his practice way back, so he no longer bothered. “I’m her lawyer.” He wasn’t, but this jerk didn’t know that.
The guy looked a little disconcerted but not for long. The manager, Todd Flemming, showed up with Laurel behind him with a stony expression on her face. Zack saw why when the man fell all over himself trying to placate the customer. Jalisco’s had been sold not too long ago, and now they were under new and unimproved management.
“Of course we’ll take care of your bill, Mr. Oliver,” Flemming said.
“You’d better. What about her?” He gestured to Laurel.
“She will apologize and appropriate steps will be taken.” The manager looked at Laurel who hadn’t said a word and still looked grim. “Laurel, don’t you have something to say?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.” She turned to face the groper. “I hope the next woman whose butt you grab does worse than dump a pitcher of water on you.”
Zack burst out laughing. The guy turned red and began cursing. The manager yelled at Laurel and tried to calm down the jerk. By this time the entire restaurant was staring and a few people shouted encouragement. To Laurel, Zack noticed. Which didn’t surprise him since she’d lived in Whiskey River almost her entire life and probably knew at least three-fourths of the customers. Not to mention, he probably wasn’t the only one who’d seen what went down.
“Go wait in my office,” the manager snapped at Laurel.
She turned on her heel and left. Zack tried to talk to the manager, but it was hopeless. He decided he’d do well to leave it alone for now.
Besides, it wouldn’t be a good idea for Laurel’s supposed legal counsel to punch her harasser in the face.
She’d done it this time. Laurel had no illusions about what would happen once Todd caught up with her. Why had she lost it now when similar things had happened to her before? Because she was exhausted? Because it had been the final straw? She’d debated about taking this job in the first place, but even the small amount of extra cash had been welcome. She’d been saving up to move to a different apartment complex and her salary from her full-time job wasn’t enough to cover her monthly expenses plus a more expensive apartment.
The door to the office opened and she looked up, expecting to see the manager. Instead, Zack walked in. “What are you doing here?”
“Giving you some support.” He closed the door behind him and walked over to her. “Are you okay?”
She laughed without humor. “Oh, I’m great. Just waiting to be fired.”
“You really think he’s going to fire you?”
“I know he is. He’s been looking for an excuse to get rid of me since the restaurant changed hands. He wants to put a family member in my place.”
“Why didn’t he fire you before this, then?”
“I’m not sure. I think the new owner made a deal with the previous owner to keep the employees on. So he’d need a good reason to fire me. And I just gave him the perfect excuse.”
“Your reaction was a bit drastic, but totally understandable.”
“Todd won’t see it that way. I told him the guy had tried twice tonight to grab me. You know what he said?”
“No. What did he say?”
“Deal with it. He’s part of a large group and we need the business.”
“Well, you dealt with it.”
“I don’t think that was what Todd had in mind.”
“I’d be happy to talk to your manager if you want.”
“Why? There’s nothing you can do.”
“You forget I’m a lawyer.”
She stared at him. Back in high school she’d had a crush on him but he’d never noticed her, other than as his best friend’s little sister. But he had been eating at Jalisco’s every Saturday night for the past several weeks. She had started to wonder what that was about. The longer she thought about it the more she sensed a difference in how Zack treated her. Like a woman he was interested in? Or was that her imagination?
Zack looked good, like he always did. He wore jeans, boots and a baby-blue button-down shirt. He hadn’t shaved in a day or two and the stubbled face gave him a little bit of a dangerous air. Dark, dangerous, sexy.
But he didn’t look like her conception of a lawyer.
“I had kind of forgotten that since you’re so involved with running the airport now. But I don’t see what you could do. Unfortunately, I gave Todd the absolutely perfect reason to fire me.”
“You could get the police involved.”
“Oh, sure. Because the jerk groped me? Thanks, but it’s not worth the trouble.”
“Your manager might feel differently if you threatened to go to the cops.”
It was a tempting thought. “No.” She shook her head. “No, I don’t want to do that. It won’t make a difference.”
“If you change your mind—”
“I won’t. But thanks.” She glanced at the door. She needed to get her shit together before Todd came in. She still had her pride and she wholeheartedly believed in the adage never let them see you cry. Right. No crying. She sucked in a deep breath, steeling herself against the overwhelming desire to lay her troubles at someone else’s feet.
“You’d better go,” she told Zack.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. It’s only a part-time job. And not one that paid very well, either.” A part-time job that had made her life more difficult even as it gave her extra money. “It’s not like I was fired or laid off from my main job.” Thank God. If she lost her accounting job at Kelly Boots she didn’t know what she’d do. “Besides, I don’t want an audience when I get fired.”
“Well, if you won’t let me help as your lawyer, how about I go punch the jerk in the face?”
That made her laugh. “I appreciate the thought, but no.”
Zack took her hand and said, “I want you to know that I’m here for you if you need me.”
He sounded so sincere, so earnest. She didn’t doubt that he was. After all, she was Travis’s little sister. Of course he’d want to help her. “I, um—Thank you.”
“I mean it, Laurel. Anytime.” He squeezed her hand gently and left.
A couple of minutes later Todd opened the door and came into the room, closing the door behind him. He was smiling when he told her, “You’re fired.”
End of Excerpt