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Rule #1: Don’t sleep with the patrons. Smiling and flirting is encouraged to enhance the customer experience. But check your libido at the door. Offenders will be terminated immediately. No exceptions.
Frustration coursed through me as I read down the list of fifteen rules pinned to the inside of my employee locker. The word “Non-Negotiable” glared at me in bold type and I shook my head. Seriously? How dare the owner dictate who I could screw? Or not screw, as the case might be. I rarely slept with my customers, but that was beside the point. It should be my choice. One-night stands were one of the perks of being a bartender. Especially at a premiere, downtown Chicago nightclub like Midnight Blue, where the men were wealthy, good-looking, and only after one night of passionate fun. No names. No strings. No mess. Just the way I liked it.
I leaned my head against the locker with closed eyes, blocking out the offensive list. There was nothing I detested more than rules. They forced people to conform to someone else’s views of right and wrong. Rules were a form of control. Simple as that. Believe me, I knew. I’d spent the first twenty-three years of my life following my father’s rules until I walked out of his house a year ago, determined to live without Daddy’s assistance.
The booming roar of his laughter still twisted in my gut. He expected me to fail and come running back to him so he could control every aspect of my life again. I’d be back in one month, he had predicted. A year of struggling later, success was finally within my grasp, and I refused to give up my dream of being self-sufficient.
So, I would swallow my frustration. Midnight Blue was a gig worth bragging about; one capable of paying the bills and then some. I blew out a steadying breath and straightened my shoulders. Fifteen rules? I could handle that.
An arm encircled my waist from behind, and I spun to find myself trapped in a warm embrace. Eric grinned with his sensuous lips hovering tantalizingly over mine. He was my favorite coworker. I was stunned at how well we’d bonded in a single week. Not only did his bartending skills match mine, but he was smooth. The men wanted to be him and the ladies loved him.
I was no exception. What wasn’t there to love? An easy-going personality. Thick, wavy blond hair that fell artfully to his shoulders. Piercing blue eyes. And a panty-melting smile. I longed to brush my lips against his sensual mouth just once to experience his exotic taste. My breath hitched in my throat when his hungry gaze sent a flash of heat through my body. But I knew myself well enough to know that once I hopped on the train, there would be no getting off until it arrived in the station. Besides, the one rule I was completely on board with was Rule #2: No dating or intercourse with coworkers. Relationships between coworkers invite drama. We don’t do drama here.
“How have you managed to survive here so long?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. “Might I remind you of rule number two?”
A roguish smile curved up his lips. “You could quit, Samantha. I’ll make it worth your while. Promise.” He bit playfully at my ear with a low growl.
“Bastard.” I teased and slapped his arm away from my waist before heading over to the closet full of uniforms. The owner didn’t trust his employees to properly launder and press the black garbs. Can we say control freak with a capital ‘CF’? But in this case I wouldn’t complain; it was one less hassle for me to deal with during my free time. Skimming through the garments, I settled on a knee-high pencil skirt and black silk blouse.
Although the wall was lined with cubicles for changing, I remained out in the open. What was a little skin and underwear between coworkers when I flaunted my body on a beach in a string bikini? I glanced over my shoulder at Eric as I shimmied into my skirt. “I waited six months to score an interview here. You know only one in ten meet muster. So, even if you were the best piece of ass in town—not that I’m saying you are—I wouldn’t risk losing this job for a quick tumble in bed.”
“Always worth a try,” he said, peeling off his T-shirt to reveal a toned chest and rock hard abs.
His bronzed body was gorgeous and the look in his eyes said he knew it. Confidence in a man was an aphrodisiac I succumbed to often. What a sick twist of fate that confident and powerful men aroused my sexual appetite to a fevered pitch. I couldn’t resist them in the bedroom, yet I never trusted them with my heart. My heart had been broken too many times by powerful men.
“I’m bound to catch you on a weak night,” Eric said with a wink. He pushed one arm through the sleeve of his black cotton shirt. “You working with me on the main floor tonight?”
A giggle bubbled out of my chest as I sauntered to the mirror. He played a secret game while we were tending the bar together, rubbing and bumping innocently as we worked seamlessly side by side. Eric was definitely my kind of guy. All about the foreplay.
“Sorry, babe.” I caught his gaze in the mirror and applied a generous layer of shimmering pink gloss to my lips. The subtle color complimented my pale skin. I was a girlie-girl and the gloss made me feel ultrafeminine. After arranging thick tendrils of my black hair over my shoulder, I turned to face Eric. “It’s the red light district for me tonight.”
Eric rolled his eyes. “Better not let Damon Baxter hear your pet name for The Lounge. You can joke about his rules. But he doesn’t.” He fastened the last button on his shirt and pierced me with a level stare, a slight scowl marring the beauty of his face. “I’ve been here a long time, Samantha. He’ll fire your ass in an instant if he catches you dallying with the customers. Don’t do it.”
Damon Baxter. Though I’d heard a lot about him, I hadn’t met the notorious billionaire owner yet, and didn’t really care one way or the other if I ever did. At least not for his money. Word on the street pegged him as handsome—runway model perfect. Now, that I want to see. In person. So I didn’t ruin the effect by Googling him.
Nibbling on my lower lip, I nodded and then air-kissed Eric. “See you later.” After shoving my jeans and T-shirt into my locker, I slammed the door and headed toward the stairwell that would lead me to the second floor.
Eric was probably right, but the smart-ass in me couldn’t resist the nickname I’d assigned to the ‘by invitation only’ bar on the second floor of Midnight Blue. On my first night working the second floor, I’d have bet my first paycheck the customers weren’t the only ones hooking up in The Lounge. Because the universal truth about sexy female bartenders was this—rich men couldn’t resist the chase. They’d line the bar, lay on the charm, and take bets on who would win the prize. Me.
Every establishment I’d tended bar in since I was twenty-one had been the same. There was no reason to believe this place would be any different. Except I’d been working here a full week, and I hadn’t hooked-up with a single customer on either floor. Not a single offer. Curious, that. Either I’d lost my touch at the tender age of twenty-four, or the owner of the joint was one mean sonofabitch that even the wealthiest of men weren’t willing to disrespect.
Or perhaps it was the fact that Damon Baxter was a billionaire. That kind of wealth intimidated. My coworkers spoke about the man in hushed tones and insisted I’d understand after meeting him. Would I react the same way? Not likely. Being raised in a life of luxury and excess had taught me no matter how much money Damon Baxter made, he was every bit as human and flawed as the rest of us. Maybe even more so.
My breathing quickened as I neared the second floor landing. I pulled the door open and entered paradise. If nothing else, the owner had a fabulous eye for design. Crystal chandeliers enclosed by cylinders swathed in sheer fabric of midnight blue bathed the room in soft light that reflected off the black marble floors.
Nestled into each corner of the room were crescent shaped bars with enough seating for ten. Intimate booths lined with plush velvet cushions formed the perimeter of the space. Tables for two or four were dispersed around the room atop shag rugs, their white and black cougar design giving the room a retro-chic vibe.
But my favorite feature, without a doubt, was the Eve Menz chandelier that hung in the center of the room. Hundreds of crystals hovered over a circular bar which housed a magnificent display of bottles in all shapes, colors, and sizes, giving the appearance that the bottles had ruptured and liquor had exploded in celebration. The effect was truly fabulous.
My Christian Louboutin slingback pumps clicked along the marble floor as I strode toward the far right corner of The Lounge, and I drank in the subtle accents that breathed life into the room. White silk pillows with large black polka-dots strewn in the booths. Mirrored sconces illuminating the walls. A tall, thin silver vase at the center of each table donning a single white rose. When combined with the eclectic playlist, the nightclub was near perfection.
Anticipation tingled in my belly with each step that brought me closer to my destination. Tonight was my first Saturday night tending bar and I was stoked. The room was already buzzing with excitement as the staff straightened chairs, signed into the kiosks, and ensured the bars were fully stocked.
Lifting a section of the bar, I passed through and settled in for the evening. A glance at my watch told me I had about an hour to get my shit together before our guests would spill through the elevator doors. With razor sharp focus, I mentally checked through my list of necessities. Mixing glasses, jigger, muddler, strainers, shakers, stir spoon, juicer, bottle opener, and a lot of ice. It was all there along with lemons, limes, oranges, olives, and cherries in the fridge. Everything in its proper place. Organization was the key to a successful evening. Okay, so maybe I was a bit of a control freak, too, when it came to my bar.
Before I knew it, I had sliced through the fruit for garnish and my first guests slipped onto their stools. The race was on. Mix. Pour. Flirt. Wipe. Mix. Pour. Straighten. Joke. The maddening pace continued for hours on end, and the tips piled up in my jar.
Bartending was the one useful skill my father taught me. He was proud of our family business, and encouraged me to learn all aspects of the business from washing dishes, to bartending, to scheduling staff and balancing the books. I did it all without complaint on weekends and during summers while I attended college to earn a degree in hotel / restaurant management. But when I accepted an entry level position with another company to get out from under my father’s control for a while, the job offer was “regrettably” rescinded two days later. I chalked it up to bad luck. Until it happened a second, and then a third time. By then it became painfully obvious my father exerted his considerable influence in the business community in an effort to force me to work for the family business. Maybe he feared I would abandon him entirely for a career when all I really wanted was to spread my wings for a while. In the end, I left home anyway to escape his control, using the skills he had taught me to support myself. Life was strange that way.
Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that entry level positions in hotel / restaurant management didn’t pay the bills, and so I turned to bartending. Being behind the bar and exercising creative freedom to concoct new tastes and textures fulfilled a need in me I couldn’t explain. My mixed drinks could draw a sigh of pleasure from even the manliest of men. And when I served my delicious creations along with a brilliant smile, the tips added up nicely.
Around one o’clock in the morning, I finally caught a break when one of the couples lounging at my bar cashed out. My feet were beginning to ache because of Rule #3: Dress to impress. High heels for ladies and dress shoes for men. I used the pause to slice lemon garnishes and take stock of my surroundings.
As my gaze roamed from group to group, I was struck by the broad range of patrons. There were a few celebrities in the mix—professional athletes, local newsmen, and the sort. A lot of businessmen and the women who chase them. Both young and old. But they all had one thing in common besides the fact that they’d been invited to experience The Lounge; they all wore extravagant clothing and jewelry.
Gucci. Armani. Louis Vuitton. Fendi. Valentino. Dior. Versace. I clicked through the names as I scanned the crowd, and that was when I saw him…staring at me with an intensity that stole my breath away. One second gazing into his eyes told me he had already raked his mouth down my neck and suckled the sensitive skin between my breasts with his luscious lips. I could almost feel his mouth enclose around my hardened nipples and the sharp flick of his tongue.
The color of his eyes eluded me, neither dark brown nor light blue. His stance was bold. His custom-tailored suit had clean lines, and a stark white shirt hinted that he spent hours in an office. But the day-old stubble on his face proved he didn’t mind getting dirty when he felt like it.
Was he staking a claim with his direct stare? Because I already felt like he owned me. My heart fluttered in response to the raw masculinity he exuded. Confident. Brazen. Unapologetic. Everything I adored in a man rolled into one sweet package.
My tongue swept across my bottom lip, causing the corner of his mouth to curve up. Sweet Jesus. He could feel me mentally undressing him as well. Stopping was not an option. Not when I wanted to run my fingers through his thick hair, cut stylishly long on top and tapering down until the short hair hugged the back of his head, stopping right where it met the collar of his shirt. He was older than my usual type. But he was spectacular. And I knew right then and there that I’d break the rules for him.
With a tilt of my head, I smiled and then lowered my eyes to resume slicing the lemon that lay untouched in my hands, dismissing him. And then I waited for him to come to me.
Like I knew he would.
End of Excerpt