Top Shelf

by

Shelli Stevens

Burned in the past, Navy chief Brett Craven has sworn off serious relationships. But when he meets Kenzie McLaughlin, a gorgeous redhead with a fiery personality, his well-reasoned strategy is blown out of the water.

Years ago, a terrifying attack changed Kenzie’s life, making her trust only a few men, including her brothers and her father. After a sexy Navy guy waltzes into the family pub and doesn’t hesitate to make his interest known, there’s no denying the attraction between them. Can Kenzie let her guard down long enough to fall for Brett?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

Other Tule AuthorsYou'll Also Love:

More Tule TitlesYou Might Enjoy:

Start reading this book:

“Hate this fucking rain, Chief.”

Brett Craven had been so determined to get the hell out of the crowded hangar he hadn’t realized Petty Officer Simmons had been quick on his heels. He arched a brow at the younger man.

The sailor ducked his head and flushed slightly. “Err, sorry about the language.”

“Don’t worry about it. And yes, the weather can be a little moody this time of year up here.”

There was something to be said about being back in the cool drizzle of the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it was usually the locals who bragged about their love for this kind of gray weather, but even though he was a born-and-bred Southern boy, Brett realized it had grown on him. Then again, six months on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf Coast could make a person miss the small things. Like the stinging caress of a raindrop on your bare arm or the frigid breeze chilling your nose. The feel of a woman.

“You’ve only been at NAS Whidbey, what, a year, Simmons? Not to mention you’ve been at sea for half that. Give it some time.”

“I’ll never get used to it, Chief,” the sailor, probably no older than twenty-two, grumbled.

It was easy to say that now what with winter in full swing. Everyone onboard the ship had recently rung in the New Year together. To Brett, it was just another holiday. One of many since summer that they’d celebrated without family. Loved ones.

It wasn’t a new experience for him and, truthfully, it barely fazed him anymore. He wasn’t one of the sailors missing a spouse and kids at home. Wherever home happened to be that year.

His chest tightened a bit and he drew in another lungful of cold, damp air. Once he’d had a wife he’d looked forward to returning to, but that had only lasted a couple years. Now it seemed like a blip on the radar of the almost two decades he’d served in the Navy.

“I’m going to put in for Hawaii next orders,” Simmons muttered.

“Good luck. Remind me, you’re from Arizona?”

“Yeah, and I sure do miss the heat. You can understand that—you’re from Louisiana, right?”

“Sure am. New Orleans.”

“You miss it?”

“Not as much as I miss Whidbey each time I get relocated, honestly.”

Three of his orders he’d been fortunate enough to get stationed here on the island. With him coming up on retirement, he hoped these would be his last orders. He planned to stick around.

Brett cast another glance at the petty officer. “Why are you leaving the homecoming early?”

“No reason to hang around. I don’t have a girl.” Simmons shrugged and gave a lopsided smile. “But I intend to find one before the weekend is over. Bunch of the guys are going out to celebrate tonight.”

Celebrate meaning pick up chicks. Try to get laid. Pretty common for the single guys returning home. Brett glanced back into the hangar, still crowded with people. Wives. Girlfriends. Husbands. Boyfriends. Children. Family. People who cared. It was the usual welcome-home gathering that tugged at the public’s tear glands and brought the news media out to capture the event.

As much as he loved coming back from a deployment, this part was bittersweet for him. There was no wife to greet him. No children. Not even a girlfriend. That last one he had himself to blame for. Not that he wanted a girlfriend or even needed one. Well, maybe he needed one for certain reasons, but there were ways around that. Without the commitment and the risks.

“You should come out with us, Chief.”

Though it wouldn’t be the first time he’d gone out with his sailors, it was on the tip of his tongue to refuse. Nothing sounded better right now than heading home and pouring himself a glass of brandy, putting on some blues music, and appreciating the fact that he was back on solid land for a while.

“We’re going to McLaughlin’s Pub.”

Just the mention of the Scottish pub on the island had the memory of her zinging through his mind. Kenzie. The pretty strawberry blonde with gorgeous green eyes who was a waitress at the pub. The night before he’d shipped out, he’d flirted with her, and while tentative, she’d seemed to flirt back.

Hmm. Six months on a boat and the possibility of seeing her again?

“What time are y’all heading over there? I’ll try and drop by.”

Kenzie grunted and adjusted the massive box in her arms. She took a few more stumbling steps before depositing it—or dropping it—to the hardwood floors. She winced at the crunching of glass. Might need to buy new picture frames.

“Another box, another day closer to moving in,” the excited female voice quipped from behind her. “You need some help, roomie?”

Hands on her hips, Kenzie turned to grin at Delonna. “I think we’re good. Aleck’s right behind me bringing in another couple of boxes from his car.”

“Nice. And you’ve brought me manual labor eye candy.”

Kenzie gave a snort of laughter and again looked around the small rambler that Delonna had rented in Oak Harbor. It was cute, had two big bedrooms, a decent kitchen, and was close to her job at the pub. It was quite perfect for her really, but beyond the physicality of the house, she looked forward to the chance to finally make it out on her own. To step out from her family’s shadow.

Not that she didn’t love them to bits, but at a year shy of thirty, it was time she lived with someone besides a family member. She’d lived with her parents until they’d returned to Edinburgh several years ago, and then had rented a room from her oldest brother Aleck.

When Delonna’s offer had come in she’d already been surfing roommate ads because she couldn’t afford a place on her own while going to school and working as a waitress at the pub.

“Seriously, Kenz, you’re saving my ass here by moving in. I was in major need of someone to pick up half the rent now that Jeanine bailed to live with her boyfriend.”

“I still maintain you’re doing me the favor. And that was totally shitty of her, by the way.”

“Sorry, what was totally shitty?” a male voice asked from the doorway. “The fact that I’ll now grow old, decrepit and alone in my house? Aye. Couldn’t agree more.”

Kenzie glanced back at her brother and rolled her eyes. “Oh please. At least bring balloons if you’re going to throw yourself a pity party.”

“Suck it up, buttercup.” Delonna tossed her hair and took one of the boxes from him. “Think of it this way, now it’s easier to put in that revolving door for all those women, right?”

“Oh, ouch, she has you there, my dear brother.” Kenzie laughed and winked at Aleck.

He failed to look amused though and glowered at the two of them. “Hmm. I live the life of a humble monk—”

“Monk my arse.” Kenzie snorted.

“—while the two of you as flatmates—”

“Roommates,” Delonna corrected. “Try to remember you’re an American now.”

“—will get into all sorts of trouble and debauchery,” he finished without acknowledging either of their remarks.

“Any debauchery I’m doing is with my boyfriend,” Delonna murmured. “So I’m kind of harmless.”

“Hmmm.” If anything his expression darkened further.

“And that just leaves me.” Kenzie had meant her reply to continue in the upbeat repartee, but it had a more deflated quality, like a balloon with a pinprick in it.

Debauchery and trouble weren’t really her path. Not anymore, at least. Back in her late teen years, yes, maybe she’d been a bit more wild and flirty. After the incident everything had changed.

She’d gotten pretty good at pushing aside the dark memory, the fear, and she did so again now. Aleck seemed to dwell on it a bit more. The irritation in his gaze vanished, and it softened into sympathy.

Still, he played along. “And I’m sure I’ll have to bail you out of jail more than once, aye?”

“Oh, aye,” she agreed with a sardonic smile because they both knew it was complete shite. “At least once a month.”

There was silence for a moment before Aleck scratched the back of his head and sighed.

“I think that’s the last of it.” He glanced over the boxes on the floor and dismay flickered in his eyes. “I still can’t quite believe you’ve up and left the house.”

“Your house,” she replied softly. “I need a chance to go it on my own. Well, maybe not alone yet, but with someone who doesn’t share my blood.”

Aleck grunted, but didn’t reply.

“Don’t sweat it, boss boy. I’ll keep her in line.” Delonna’s endearment came from the fact that she also worked at McLaughlin’s Pub, which Aleck owned, as a bartender.

“I’ll hold you to that.” He met Delonna’s gaze briefly before crossing the room and pulling Kenzie into a quick hug. “I’ll miss you for certain, Sis.”

Kenzie leaned in to the comforting embrace of her oldest brother and sighed. Aye, she adored this man.

“I know.” She closed her eyes. “I’ll miss you too, but for fuck’s sake, we’ll still work together, ya big baby.”

“Exactly. She’ll be fine,” Delonna drawled. “You McLaughlins are super good at this overprotective shit, by the way.”

Kenzie snorted. She didn’t even know the half of it.

“All right. I’m off to work now.” He patted her back and then pulled away. “Get yourself settled and let me know if you need anything.”

“Will do. Love you, Aleck.”

“Love you too, kid.” Pausing at the door, he winked and turned to point a finger at Delonna. “You. Don’t be late for work tomorrow.”

Delonna’s eyes widened with mock innocence. “Come on, really? I’m never late.”

He arched a brow and stared at her until she cringed.

“Okay, maybe a few times. But I’ve gotten better.”

With just a grunt as a reply, he disappeared from the house.

“I swear if your brother wasn’t so hot, I’d wanna smack him upside the head some days.”

Kenzie grimaced and shook her head. “You realize you both need to just fuck and be done with it.”

Delonna gave a choked laugh. “Kenz!”

“Just saying.”

“Well stop it and go find something cute to wear in one of those boxes.”

“Um, any reason why?”

“Because tonight we celebrate a certain little birdie finally leaving the nest.”

Seriously? She wanted to go out and party? Now? Kenzie glanced around at all the boxes. “But I need to unpack. This place is a mess.”

“The mess can wait. Go change.”

Despite being bullied into it, Kenzie turned to walk down to her bedroom where an unopened suitcase sat. She hesitated and asked, “So where are we going?”

“Baxter’s.”

“Uh. That dive of a karaoke place?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then you’re absolutely buying my first drink.” With a brief smile, Kenzie continued to her room.

She wasn’t working.

It was the first thing Brett had realized when he’d stepped foot inside the pub.

His gaze had immediately sought out a curvy strawberry blonde working the floor but hadn’t found her. He’d found a cute African-American girl and a petite brunette, but no Kenzie.

Cradling his glass of brandy in his hand, he slid his gaze around the table and to the group of sailors he’d agreed to hang out with.

Maybe part of his reason for coming out tonight had been in hopes of finding Kenzie, but it wasn’t easy to drop the leadership role, even on his day off. He was out to keep an eye on his sailors. Last time he’d been here one of his guys had been lucky not to get arrested after being a little too aggressive with a girl. Brett had ripped him a new one later. One thing outside of the military that he tried to pass on to these younger guys was that you treated women with respect.

His glance landed on Simmons, who was seated at the end of the table. A pretty blonde was perched on his knee, giggling and whispering something in his ear.

Simmons was drinking it in. His ears went pink at whatever she said and his arm tightened around her waist.

All the guys at this table tonight were looking for a girl. Some for just a night or two, others for something more serious.

“Let me buy you a shot, Chief.”

Swinging his gaze to another of his sailors, he gave a short shake of his head.

“Thanks, Johnson, but I’m good with this.”

“Ah come on, are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

His lips twitched as the sailor worked his way past the group and made his way to the bar. The few times he came out with his sailors it wasn’t uncommon for them to try to get him drunk. It was a challenge. One they had yet to achieve.

No, he wasn’t here to drink tonight. He’d been hoping for a different source of entertainment. Irritation and disappointment mingled. It was just his luck, really. He wasn’t much into the bar scene, and the one night he did go out, hoping to find the one woman who’d sparked his interest in a while, she wasn’t working.

When he’d seen her the night before he’d left it had been a Saturday night. She’d been working, so he’d assumed she’d be on again tonight. Maybe she didn’t even work here anymore?

Biting back a sigh, Brett glanced at the bartenders behind the counter. One of the guys looked familiar. Maybe he could ask him?

Scooting back his chair, Brett made his way to the counter and waited for a break in the crowd of people ordering. Finally the guy he wanted to speak to turned his attention to Brett.

“What can I get you?” the tall, friendly looking man asked with what sounded like a Scottish accent. “Care for another brandy?”

“No, thanks, I’m good.” He stepped closer to the counter. “I just wanted to ask if Kenzie still works here? When she works again?”

And just like that any friendliness vanished from the man’s gaze.

“Kenzie, you say? Are you a friend of hers?”

Now how was he supposed to answer that? He couldn’t really qualify them as friends.

“No, sir, not exactly.”

“Then you’ll understand if I don’t exactly hand out that kind of information.”

What the hell? That was a little extreme. Just what kind of relationship did this guy have with her? Were they a couple? The idea disappointed.

“Just what is your business with her?” the man asked, his gaze narrowed.

“Forget about it. Doesn’t matter anyway.” He tossed back the rest of his brandy and set the empty glass on the counter. “Thanks for your time.”

Ignoring the answering grunt, Brett turned away and headed toward the door. It swung open a moment later. He barely noticed the first woman who strode in, but the flash behind her of hair that was more red than blonde had him pausing.

The first woman moved inside, straight to the counter, leaving the other woman exposed and standing alone in the doorway. His pulse slowed and then staggered into a slow gallop. Well, maybe his luck was about to change for the evening.

The other times he’d seen her she’d had her hair in a ponytail but tonight it fell in a long, loose curtain down her shoulders and back.

Her outfit, which could’ve easily been spotted on any guy in the room, was a U2 T-shirt and pair of skinny jeans, yet the combination was anything but masculine. The T-shirt was tight, clinging to large breasts and a narrowed waist. Her hips and ass were all rounded goodness and screamed blatant femininity in her dark jeans.

Brett blinked and had to unglue his tongue from the roof of his mouth.

Jesus, he hadn’t remembered just how sexy she was. He’d known she was pretty, but this… Kenzie was a bombshell.

And he wasn’t the only one noticing. One of his sailors appeared at her side, a stupid smile on his face as he said something to her. She gave a slight smile and shook her head before striding into the bar and walking behind the counter.

The man who Brett had just spoken to spotted her and grinned hugely, striding down to pull her into his arms and lift her off the ground. She laughed and kissed his cheek, slapping at his shoulders until he lowered her back to her feet.

Disappointment flared wide in his belly, and a brief flicker of jealousy that he hated to acknowledge. Well shit. Maybe they were a couple and that was why the guy had overreacted.

Kenzie pulled away from the man and poured herself a dark beer from the tap. Clearly she must still work here to take such liberties. With a wink at the men working behind the bar, all who watched her, she moved back out and onto the floor.

Brett hadn’t meant to stick around like some skeevy gawker, but realized he hadn’t moved when Kenzie nearly ran straight into him.

“Oof.” She placed her hand out against his chest to stop the collision and offered him an apologetic smile. “Sorry about that, I didn’t quite see you there.”

Her gaze, just as vivid a green as he remembered, connected with his. The surprising wariness in her eyes slipped away to reveal confusion. With narrowed eyes, she tilted her head and studied him. Something about the way she did that was familiar.

“I know you,” she said softly. “Don’t I? Or do you just come here a lot?”

Amusement had a slow smile tugging at his lips. “Is that a line? Because if it is, it’s not very original.”

“A line? What?” Her confusion visibly increased and her scowl deepened. “No. It’s not a line—I’m a waitress here.”

“Hmm. Gotta say I’m a little disappointed it’s not a line,” he drawled slowly.

She folded her arms across her chest and stared at him, clearly trying to place exactly who he was. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to. It had been six months and they really hadn’t known each other. Just some brief flirting when he’d gotten her to promise to have dinner with him when he returned from deployment. Or, the deal was, so long as she didn’t have a boyfriend.

He thought of the overly protective, grumpy asshole behind the counter who she’d just embraced. Clearly that dinner wasn’t going to happen.

“You’re right. I just come in here a lot, Kenzie.”

He shouldn’t have used her name, because unease flickered in her eyes and she took a step back.

“The hell you do. I’d remember you better. I know you from somewhere, but…ah shit.” Realization dawned and her eyes went round. “You’re that bloody sailor I promised to have dinner with.”

With that last muttered statement, he heard the hint of an accent. The same accent as the bartender. Which just might mean he’d read the situation wrong.

“Is he related to you? The giant behind the bar?”

Kenzie followed his gaze. “Aleck? He’s my brother.”

Triumph seared through him and he arched a brow. “Is that so? Well, then. Yes. I am that sailor who you promised to have dinner with.” He took a step toward her, not missing the slight hitch in her breathing. “And I thought I’d collect on that promise.”

End of Excerpt