Ryan Blake held a bottle of Maker’s 46 in his right hand, a tumbler in his left. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the bottle. It flipped once before landing back in his grip, top down, ready to pour. He filled the tumbler, set a napkin on the bar, and placed it in front of the brunette on the other side. “Bourbon, neat.”
“You’re good.” She picked up the glass and tipped it in his direction. “Not what I was expecting in this little bar in the middle of nowhere.”
“I try,” he said with the friendly, semi-flirtatious smile he always used on single ladies seated at his bar. She wasn’t wrong. The usual clientele at The Drunken Bear had little use for fancy liquor or bartending tricks, but the trio in front of him were tourists looking for a good time, and he’d see that they had one.
“You were just about to tell me about this tattoo.” She placed her hand on his biceps, fingering the eagle he’d had inked there after he flew this coop ten years ago.
“That’s right.” He shifted backward so that her hand slipped to the countertop. He encouraged flirting—it led to better tips and made the night more interesting—but this chick was getting a bit too friendly, considering the diamond band on her left ring finger. “This one was for spreading my wings. Thought I’d fly far away, and yet, here I am back in Haven.”
“You’re from here then?” one of the other women asked, shamelessly ogling the tattoos on his arms while giving him an eyeful of cleavage.
“Born and raised. Moved around a lot, but I can’t seem to shake this place. It’s in my blood.” Once upon a time, he’d been hell bent on getting as far away from this sleepy North Carolina mountain town as possible. Spent the better part of a decade drifting from place to place, taking with him only what he could carry on his bike. Funny how things came full circle. He picked up an empty pilsner glass another patron had left behind.
He turned at the familiar voice to find Emma Rush standing there, one hip propped against the bar, and he damn near dropped the glass. Emma’s trademark ponytail and jogging pants were nowhere in sight. Tonight, her blond hair cascaded over her shoulders in shiny waves, her blue eyes sparkled at him from behind a tasteful—yet sexy—amount of makeup, and her red top was tucked into a pair of jeans that fit her like a glove. He swallowed past the sudden dryness in his throat. “Hey, Em. What brings you out tonight?”
“Girls’ night,” she said with a smile, gesturing to her friend Mandy, who stood by the door talking on her cell phone. Emma slid onto an empty barstool. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
“I’m still here a few nights a week.” His new business venture—Off-the-Grid Adventures, an extreme outdoor sporting facility he’d opened with his good buddies Ethan Hunter and Mark Dalton six months ago—was finally bringing in enough income that he soon wouldn’t need to bartend to pay his rent. “What can I get you?”
“Untapped amber ale, please.” She watched while he filled a frosted mug. “Thanks.”
She lifted the mug to her lips and took a long drink. “Damn, that’s good,” she said with a happy sigh, setting it on the bar.
“Always been more of a pilsner guy myself.” He tried not to stare as she licked froth from her upper lip.
“Hi, Ryan.” Mandy stepped up to the bar beside Emma.
He leaned back, tearing his gaze from Emma’s lips. “Hi.”
Emma turned to her friend with a smile. “Ready to get a table?”
“Yep,” Mandy said.
“Have fun, ladies.”
“We will.” With a wave, Emma walked off after her friend, and damn, those jeans cupped her ass like perfection. No doubt about it, Emma looked hot tonight. And his thoughts were way out of line. He’d promised Derek he’d look out for his little sister, not drool all over her.
“Your girlfriend?” the brunette at the bar asked, eyebrows raised as she sipped her bourbon.
Ryan cleared his throat and dragged his eyes away from Emma. “Just a friend.”
“Mm-hmm.” The brunette gave him a look that said she didn’t believe him.
He turned to check on his patrons at the other end of the bar, but his attention was once again diverted by Emma—or rather, the preppy-looking businessman she was talking to now. Ryan couldn’t make out their conversation, but the guy wore an irritatingly smug smile, and Emma didn’t look at all happy to have bumped into him.
Ryan moved down the bar, chatting and pouring drinks as he went, all the while keeping an eye on Emma. She was deep in conversation with the businessman, although the guy seemed to be doing most of the talking. Emma smiled and nodded. She glanced up and met Ryan’s gaze, rolling her eyes at him with a smile while her companion kept on talking.
Next thing Ryan knew, the guy had slung an arm around her shoulders, gesturing wildly with his free hand while Emma subtly edged away from him.
Ryan was around the bar and across the room before he’d even realized what he was doing. “Everything okay over here?”
Emma shrugged out from under the guy’s arm, but her smile wasn’t nearly as warm or genuine as the one she’d given Ryan a few moments ago. “Yep.”
“We’re fine,” Obnoxious Dude answered. “Who are you?”
“Ryan Blake. And you are?”
“Tristan and I are…old friends,” Emma said.
By old friends, Ryan assumed she meant former flames. And since she clearly wasn’t enjoying his company, it was time for Tristan to leave. Ryan crossed his arms over his chest and stared him down, waiting for the loser to get the message. It didn’t take long.
Tristan backed up, his eyes darting toward the front door. “Well, it was great seeing you, Emma. Take care.”
“You, too.” She watched as Tristan left the bar then turned to Ryan. “Forgot how much I dislike that guy.”
“He hassling you?”
Her eyes rounded. “No! Just talking my ear off, really. Sorry to distract you from your duties at the bar.”
“No problem.” Keeping an eye on his patrons was part of the job, although he was probably feeling more protective of Emma right now than the situation called for.
“Right, well…looks like my table is ready.” She waved over her shoulder as she walked away.
Ryan headed back behind the bar, turning his attention to the trio of tourists and their mostly empty cocktails. “Any of you ladies ready for a fresh drink?”
As it turned out, they all were. While he mixed their cocktails, he allowed his gaze to roam over to Emma’s table. She was deep in conversation with her friends Gabby, Carly, and Mandy, all of whom he knew, none of whom made his gut tighten the way it did every time he looked at Emma tonight.
He had no idea where this had come from, but he had to get over it, pronto. Emma wasn’t interested in a player like him, and even if she were, she was off limits. He’d made a promise to her brother when he went off to war, and he had no intention of breaking it.
Emma Rush polished off her beer and set it on the table with a thunk. Was that her third, or her fourth? Didn’t matter. She was on the fun side of tipsy and loving it. They didn’t usually come to The Drunken Bear for girls’ night, but with plenty of local beer on tap, rock music playing, and one of her favorite people tending bar, she was totally in favor of coming here again.
“Hottie at ten o’clock,” Mandy said, tipping her beer in the direction of the bar, where an African American man sat on the first barstool, sipping from a frosty mug of beer. Yeah, he was hot, but Emma’s gaze shifted past him to the bartender. Ryan was by far the sexiest man in the room, as far as she was concerned.
“He’s hot,” Gabby agreed, “but he’s no Ethan.”
“Or Sam,” Carly added with a smile.
“Hush, you two,” Emma said. “You don’t have to rub it in that you both have sexy men warming your beds at night.”
“You should go over and talk to him.” Mandy nudged her shoulder. “He’s delicious, and he looks very clean-cut.”
Emma frowned. “Who says I like my men clean-cut?”
Mandy pressed a finger to her lips then laughed. “I’m thinking back on the last few guys you’ve dated—Daniel the high school teacher, Tristan the accountant…”
Emma scrunched her nose. “Please don’t remind me.”
Gabby’s lips curved in amusement. “There are worse things than dating clean-cut guys, Emma.”
“I bumped into Tristan here earlier,” Emma told them. “I seriously can’t believe I ever dated that guy.” He’d done nothing but brag about a promotion he’d gotten at work, hadn’t even asked how she was doing.
Carly leaned forward. “Why? What did he do?”
“Nothing really. He’s just so self-absorbed and ridiculous.” She took a fortifying gulp of her beer. “But here’s the thing that really bugs me. I had kind of forgotten about it until I saw him again tonight. Remember back when I was dating him, I told you guys that I had decided to break up with him because he was so boring?”
They all nodded.
Emma felt a flush creep into her cheeks. “Well, the truth is, he dumped me before I had the chance to dump him. And he basically told me I was boring. He said I was too predictable and never wanted to do anything fun.”
“Well, obviously he doesn’t know you very well,” Gabby said with scorn in her voice, “because you’re lots of fun. I mean, you got me to sign up for an obstacle course race when I was deathly afraid of heights. That was pretty much the opposite of boring.”
Emma smiled wanly. “Well, the world’s most boring guy thinks I’m a dud, which means—”
“You need to start dating more exciting guys,” Mandy finished for her. “You should shake things up, go outside your comfort zone.”
“You did tell me last summer you were ready to try something new,” Gabby said.
“Yeah, I wanted to quit being such a goody-two-shoes. Obviously, I haven’t put in enough effort.” Emma took another sip of her beer. “But you know what? I think it’s time to step up my game.”
“So, what naughty things did you have in mind?” Mandy asked.
An image flashed through her head of kissing Ryan on the back of his motorcycle. “I want a hot fling with someone un-boring. I want the opposite of clean-cut. I’ve never dated a bad boy. Maybe it’s time to find out what the fuss is all about.”
Mandy clapped her on the back. “Now we’re talking. What else?”
“Well, since I probably have no shot at bagging a guy like that, I’ve also been thinking about getting a tattoo.”
“Tattoos are cool,” Carly said. “And speaking from experience, I think you should get the tattoo and the bad boy.”
“I agree,” Gabby said.
“Definitely both. We’ll help,” Mandy said. “And if you’re serious about this, let’s talk about sexing you up a bit, too.”
“Sexing me up?” Emma giggled.
“You look really cute tonight. I know you can dress casually for work, but this is the look you should be going for. We should go shopping!” Mandy’s expression brightened at the idea.
“Ooh, I want to come,” Carly said. “Let’s plan a shopping day. We could go to the outlet mall in Blowing Rock.”
Emma sipped from her beer, feeling excitement stir inside her. “Yeah, that sounds fun. Okay, so we’ll freshen up my wardrobe. Then how do I get the hot guy?”
Mandy gave her a wicked smile. “That part will be easy. Leave it to me.”
“Um…okay, I think.” Emma laughed.
“We can start right now, in fact.” Mandy was eyeing a group of men at the bar. Dressed in flannel shirts, worn jeans, and boots, they were obviously locals enjoying a few beers after work, some kind of outdoorsy work by the look of them. They were a boisterous group, with lots of laughter and back slaps being exchanged. “I dare you to go ask one of those guys out.”
“Are you kidding?” Emma shook her head. “No way.”
“They’re not exactly bad boys, but this is a good way to get your feet wet.” Mandy reached for the bottle of ketchup on their table, dabbed some on her finger, and smeared it on Emma’s cheek. “Here’s the plan: You’re going to walk over to the bar and take that empty seat next to the group of lumbersexuals. Order a drink. Look sexy. First guy to wipe the ketchup off your cheek is the one you’re going to flirt with. Your mission is to get him to ask for your number. Deal?”
On the other side of the table, Carly and Gabby were practically bouncing with excitement.
“No way,” Emma repeated, even as a little thrill of excitement raced through her.
Mandy gave her a friendly nudge. “We’ll be right here for moral support.”
“What if the guy who wipes the ketchup off my cheek is a loser? Or ugly?”
“Then give him a fake number. But you have to flirt with him until he asks for it. That’s the dare. Go on. Be unpredictable. It’ll be fun.”
Emma drained her beer and stood from the table. “If this goes south, it’s all your fault.”
Mandy gave her a friendly shove in the direction of the bar. “Good luck, my friend. Go charm their socks off.”
Emma walked toward the group of guys. They were good-looking, for the most part. Definitely rowdy. She slid onto the empty barstool and glanced around for Ryan because she was definitely going to need another beer to pull this off.
He caught her eye, and her pulse jumped like a startled deer. Yeah, she’d had a crush on Ryan for as long as she could remember. He was three years older and had been her brother Derek’s best friend in high school. Ryan was the one always getting into trouble, the one her mom hadn’t wanted Derek to hang out with and certainly would never have let Emma date.
Not that Ryan would have considered dating her, not back then anyway. In high school, she’d fancied herself in love with him, but looking back now, she realized it had just been an unrequited teenage crush. And then her whole life imploded. By the time the smoke cleared, Ryan had left town.
Now he was back, and as it turned out, her crush on him was still alive and well. Which was really inconvenient right now because he was seriously distracting her from the task at hand. Tearing her eyes from his gaze, she turned her attention to the group beside her.
“Hey there, sweet thing. What are you drinking?” one of the lumberjacks asked, his brown eyes bright, words slightly slurred.
Ugh. What was she doing?
“Want a shot of tequila?” another guy asked, waving a shot glass in her direction.
“No, thanks.” She’d agreed to flirt with whoever wiped the ketchup off her cheek, not get shitfaced on tequila.
“Yo, you’ve got a little something…”
She turned, and Ryan’s thumb swiped across her cheek, his rich, cocoa eyes locked on hers, and oh shit…
“Got it.” He grinned while warmth spread through her skin in the wake of his touch and sparks pinged through her belly. “You need another beer?”
“She was about to do a shot,” the drunk guy beside her said.
Ryan’s eyes narrowed in Drunk Guy’s direction.
“Actually, I need to get back to my table.” Emma lurched to her feet and practically ran back to her friends. “Oh my God, you guys. It was Ryan.”
Mandy’s eyes were wide. “I saw. That was actually kind of hot.”
“Deal’s off.” Emma dropped into her chair, heart pounding like she’d just run laps around the bar.
“Not so fast,” Mandy said. “I saw a little zing when he touched your cheek. You said you wanted a hot fling. Ryan could be just the guy to show you a good time.”
“No. Nope. Not happening.” Emma waved her hands in front of her face. Ryan had never seen her as anything but Derek’s tomboyish little sister. No way was she setting herself up for that kind of humiliation.
Carly looked up from her phone, a sheepish expression on her face. “I can’t believe I’m going to miss seeing how this plays out, but guess who’s waiting outside?”
“Sam?” Gabby asked.
“He got in a day early.” Carly was dating Sam Weiss—who also happened to be a super-hot rock star—and he’d been in LA for the past month or so. By the look on Carly’s face, she couldn’t wait another minute to see him. Mandy waggled her eyebrows. “Have fun.”
“Good luck, Emma. Call me tomorrow.” With a wave, Carly headed for the door.
“So where were we?” Gabby asked, leaning forward conspiratorially.
“We were changing the subject,” Emma said.
“No, we were just modifying the dare,” Mandy said, her eyes gleaming with mischief.
“I’m with Mandy,” Gabby said. “The more I think about it, I love the idea of you flirting with Ryan. I saw the zing when he touched you, too. He could be exactly what you need to break out of the boring-guy rut. He’s got that whole bad-boy vibe going for him, but underneath the tattoos, he’s a really solid guy.”
“New dare,” Mandy said. “You’re going back up to the bar, and you’re going to convince Ryan to give you a ride home on his motorcycle.”
A thrill ran through Emma at the thought. “He can’t. He’s working.”
“Then obviously you’ll have to hang out and keep him company until he’s finished.”
Emma shook her head. “This is crazy. I’m not going to flirt with Ryan.”
Gabby looked thoughtful. “Well, maybe you can work your way into it. You want to shake things up in your life, right? What if you ask Ryan for his help? He teaches rock-climbing lessons at Off-the-Grid. That sounds exciting.”
Emma blew out a breath. That sounded okay—maybe even fun. Ryan could definitely help her break out of her rut, even if things stayed platonic between them. “I could do that.”
Mandy nodded enthusiastically. “And you’re going to start by asking him to give you a ride home tonight.”
“But why wouldn’t I ride home with one of you guys?” Emma asked.
Mandy grinned. “Because we’re going to ditch you.”
“Ethan will be here soon to pick me up, but what about you, Mandy?” Gabby asked.
“I’m going to go meet that hottie at the bar,” Mandy said, gesturing toward the man she’d been checking out earlier. “Good luck, Emma, and have fun on that motorcycle. Can’t wait to hear all about it.” With a wink, she sashayed off toward the bar.
“Are you okay with this?” Gabby asked.
Emma shrugged. “Riding on Ryan’s bike sounds fun and taking rock-climbing lessons does, too. It’s a start. I’m making no promises otherwise. I mean, Ryan and I have known each other since we were teenagers. It’s crazy to even think about flirting with him.”
“I hear you. It could definitely make things awkward between you two if it didn’t work out.”
“Exactly. Anyway, I’ll hang out with you until Ethan gets here.”
Gabby smiled. “Sounds like a plan. You know, we talked about new clothes and a hot guy, but that’s all superficial stuff. When you and I talked last summer, you wanted to shake things up with your job, too. Have you put your application in yet?”
Emma blew out a breath, shaking her head. No, she hadn’t submitted her application for the landscape architecture program at the University of Georgia. “But you’re right. Since high school, I’ve been saying this was my dream so why haven’t I gone after it yet?”
Gabby placed a hand on Emma’s. “I can’t answer that for you.”
“Tomorrow,” Emma said. “I’ll do it tomorrow. No more excuses.”
“I think this is the most important decision you’ve made tonight,” Gabby said.
The jittery feeling in the pit of Emma’s stomach said she was right. “And leaving Haven would definitely be the biggest change in my life.” “Well, you wouldn’t be leaving forever, just while you get your degree.”
Emma shook her head. “Let’s be real. If I move to Georgia to get my degree in landscape architecture, there’s no reason to come back. I don’t have family here, and job prospects are better there. So if I get in, I’m not coming back.”
“Oh.” Gabby looked thoughtful. “Well, I would definitely be sad to see you go, but sometimes you have to leave home to find yourself.”
Emma knew Gabby was speaking from experience. Last year, she had done just that, leaving her life in Charlotte behind to come here to Haven—looking for a haven of her own. She’d found it, and she’d managed to snag the town’s most eligible bachelor, Ethan Hunter, while she was at it.
“The program’s pretty hard to get into,” Emma said. “So if I get in, I’ll make a new life for myself in Georgia. If I don’t, it wasn’t meant to be.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Gabby said. “I’m proud of you, you know. This is a big deal. I hope you get in.”
The front door opened, and Ethan stepped inside, his eyes darting straight to Gabby. He looked at her like there was no one else in the room, like the sun rose and set around her. Emma wanted that kind of pure, unconditional love. Someday. In the meantime, she’d settle for a really hot fling. She wanted sparks like the kind she’d felt just now when Ryan touched her cheek and all the toe-curling things that came next.
“Looks like my ride is here,” Gabby said. “Are you really doing this?”
Emma glanced over her shoulder at the bar. “Yeah, I should keep an eye on Mandy anyway in case that guy is a creep. If I chicken out on the dare, I’ll just take a cab home.”
“Okay. Well, good luck. Call me tomorrow.” Gabby gathered her coat and stood up from the table.
“Bye.” Gabby walked over to kiss her fiancé, and they left hand-in-hand.
Emma lifted her jacket and purse from the back of her chair and walked to the bar. She found an empty stool and slipped onto it. Ryan looked over and met her eyes. The heat of his gaze started a slow burn deep in her belly. He was sexy, no doubt about it. Six-foot-plus of strong, muscular man. Tattoos peeked from beneath the sleeves of his black T-shirt, covering his arms with their stories.
He made his way over, his eyes never wavering from hers. “Yo, where’d Carly and Gabby go?”
“Home with their hotties.” She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and leaned her elbows on the bar to give herself a bit of cleavage. “And I need another beer.”
His gaze remained annoyingly on her face. “Sure thing. You still drinking Untapped amber ale?”
She nodded. This was so not her style, sitting alone at the bar trying to pick up a guy, let alone Ryan. The only thing she’d committed to was asking for a ride home, but maybe she’d flirt just a little, just enough to see if she could get a reaction out of him.
Think sexy, Emma. You can do this…
“Coming right up,” he said, still completely professional.
“Thanks.” Emma leaned back to check on Mandy, who was currently making out with the man she’d just met. Well, that was fast. Emma had never hooked up with a random guy like that, wasn’t sure she wanted to. But then again, wasn’t her new motto to shake things up? Be unpredictable… “His name’s Carl, and he’s in town for business. He sells vacation rentals,” Ryan said as he set a fresh beer in front of her.
“Thanks, and how did you…”
His lips curved in amusement. “That’s my job. You didn’t think I’d let Mandy make out with a total stranger, did you?”
She shook her head. Of course not. Ryan made it his business to know everyone he served at the bar.
“Be right back.” He walked over to three women sitting at the far end of the bar. They were dressed up and drinking fancy drinks, too fancy for a place like this. One of them leaned in, touching his arm as she spoke. Ryan laughed, then rolled up his shirtsleeve to give her a better look at his tattoos.
Emma frowned into her beer. That woman made flirting look easy. She was effortlessly sexy and probably much more appealing to a man like Ryan. A sinking feeling grew in the pit of her stomach as she watched him banter with them. He pointed at the blonde and winked, flashing that irresistible smile. He was flirting. Definitely flirting.
Someone tapped Emma on the shoulder, and she turned to find Mandy standing there, a sheepish smile on her face. “So, um, Carl and I are going to take off. You okay?”
“Yep. Have fun, be smart, and text me later, okay?” Because it made her nervous to see her friend leave the bar with a stranger, whether Ryan had chatted him up earlier or not.
“I’m always smart, and I will.” Mandy leaned in to whisper in Emma’s ear. “Bonus points if you kiss him. You’ll be sitting behind him on the bike. Just stand up a bit, lean over his shoulder, and kiss him. You’ll blow his mind.” With a wink, Mandy walked to the door, hooked her arm through Carl’s, and headed out into the chilly March night.
“Does girls’ night always end with everyone leaving with a guy?” Ryan asked from behind her, humor in his voice.
“Not usually.” Only when they’re setting me up. She lifted her beer and took a drink.
He looked at the mug, his eyes serious. “How are you getting home?”
“Not sure. I rode here with Mandy.” Gah. She was such a chicken.
“I’ll call you a cab.”
Wait a minute. No, she was still doing this, dammit. She lifted her eyes to his. “Who said I was ready to leave?”
Ryan watched her for a moment, his expression unreadable, then he cracked another easy smile. “Stay as long as you like.”