Waitress at the Shadow Ridge Inn
“Thanks for covering again,” Shannon said when she finally showed up around ten. “I had to wait until Mike Jr. fell sleep. He has another ear infection and he’s been miserable. He won’t settle down for anyone but me.”
“It’s no problem,” I assured her. I didn’t have any personal experience with kids, but I remembered how cranky and clingy I’d been when I was sick at that age. My mother would drop everything and make me feel like I was the most important thing in the world. I was happy to help while I could.
“Looks like we’re having another banner evening,” Shannon observed, struggling to tie her apron around her bulging middle. Most of the dining room had cleared out by then, but the lounge was still packed, people were stacked three deep at the bar, and there was no sign of things slowing down.
“It’s been busy,” I agreed.
“I heard Ziegler’s had to triple the number of haunted hayrides this year to meet demand.”
I wouldn’t be surprised. The closer we got to Halloween, the bigger the crowds became. Ziegler’s Farm was wildly popular, especially during autumn, and the exemplary weather of late was bringing people to the area in droves.
Also wildly popular—the Ziegler boys themselves, though they could hardly be called boys. There were at least four of them, and they were each ridiculously handsome. They came into the inn occasionally, were always polite and well-mannered, and left fabulous tips. And that guy I’d seen that day when I’d stopped for lunch? He was one of them. We hadn’t spoken outside of the normal server/customer dialogue, but I felt him watching me sometimes. I may have poked a few surreptitious peeks at him, too.
Don’t judge me. He was nice to look at.
“And they all end up here,” I said to Shannon, wrangling my thoughts back to work.
“Good for us though, right? My kids are going to have a good Christmas this year.”
“Good for us,” I agreed. “But exhausting.”
Shannon smiled sympathetically. “You’ve put in a hell of a long day. Why don’t you go on home? I can take it from here.”
Home. The word sounded foreign to me. I didn’t think of the caretaker’s cottage where I was staying these days as home. Granted, it was so much better than the budget lodge, but it was still just a temporary place to be when I wasn’t at the inn. The old couple who owned the estate were friends of John and Rose and liked to travel, and the rent was crazy cheap. I suspected Rose had something to do with that. Maybe it was her way of getting me to stick around longer.
It had worked. Obviously.
“I think I will,” was what I said to Shannon. The inn had been nonstop all day, and Rose wanted me in early tomorrow. The new Sunday brunch buffets were proving to be almost as popular as the weekend hayrides. “I’ll just deliver these drinks, then I’m outta here.”
CJ put the last of the drinks on the bar tray. I slid my hand beneath it and lifted it smoothly like the seasoned server I was, then wove my way toward my waiting customers. I passed a rowdy table of new arrivals and was secretly glad Shannon would be dealing with them. Most people were pretty cool, but there were always a few assholes.
“Hey, beautiful,” one of them called out as I passed by. “What’s your hurry?”
I pretended I didn’t hear him. Given the noise level in the lounge, it was entirely plausible that I hadn’t. Unfortunately, my destination table was right behind theirs, so I couldn’t keep going.
“Hey. I’m talking to you,” the beefy man said, raising his voice.
I summoned my patience, turned, and offered what I hoped was a pleasant smile. “Please bear with us tonight. As you can see, we’re very busy. Your server will be around in just a moment.”
“Maybe we want you.”
“Sorry, this is it for me. Shannon will take good care of you.”
I continued to hand out drinks to my table, answering their sympathetic smiles with one of my own. I had three drinks left on my tray, and thankfully, they were for a group on the far end of the room.
I straightened, anxious to move away. The skin at the back of my neck was prickling, and not in a good way. I took a step and stopped. The loudmouth shoved his seat back and into the narrow space between tables. Without leaving his chair, he lunged for me, grabbing the wrist that wasn’t holding the tray and narrowing his eyes.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” he said, his voice rough and menacing. “Aren’t we good enough for you?”
“Cool it, Jim,” said one of his buddies, shifting uncomfortably. “We don’t want any more trouble. Just relax and have a good time, yeah?”
Curling his lip, the one called Jim made a rude sound and shoved me away—hard— right into a guy making his way towards the men’s room. The action upended my tray, dousing me with beer and liquor before hitting the floor and shattering glasses and bottles.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to guy I’d just unintentionally body slammed. I’d taken the brunt of it, but he’d gotten some splash back. Under my breath, I cursed the arrogant jerk who’d pushed me and bent down to gather the broken pieces of glass before someone got hurt.
Before I knew it, CJ was right there, crouching before me and offering me a wad of bar rags. “You okay, Case?”
“I’m fine,” I muttered, which was only partially true. I wasn’t physically hurt, but I hated being the focus of so much attention. The noise level had reduced significantly, and I could feel the eyes of everyone in the bar and lounge looking over to see what had happened. I kept my head down and concentrated on what I was doing.
I felt CJ’s big hand patting my shoulder, a surprisingly gentle touch for someone as large and scary as he was. Six and a half feet of solid, tattooed muscle, he managed to make even Lou look small. He rose to standing and addressed the troublemakers.
“Apologize,” he commanded in a deep, rumbling voice that sounded a lot like the Harley he rode. “Then take your business elsewhere.”
“I like it fine right here,” the loudmouth said.
A hush fell over the lounge, and even I’d paused, wondering what would happen next. I’d never seen anyone openly defy CJ before. By the tense silence, I guessed not many other people had either.
“Jesus, Jim. Shut the fuck up, will you?” hissed one of his friends. Then, presumably to CJ, said, “Sorry, man. We don’t want any trouble. We’ll go.”
“Fine,” Jim spat. “The service here sucks anyway.”
Their chairs slid back. CJ placed himself in their path. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Apologize.”
“Sorry, man,” the same guy repeated.
“Not you. Him. And not to me. To her.”
“Sorry,” the jerk mumbled.
CJ made sure they found it to the exit without further issue. Conversations resumed almost immediately, and I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to cleaning up the mess.
“Here, let me help.”
His voice reached me first. Low and smooth, it slid over my skin like dark silk. Then his scent. Fresh crisp air, sweet hay, and a hint of something masculine and spicy. Sandalwood or cedar, maybe.
I didn’t look up right away. I already knew who it was. Steve Ziegler. The man with silky, chestnut hair and incredible hazel eyes. Broad shoulders for days and forearms that gave me a serious case of the tinglies when he rolled his shirt sleeves back. Talk about arm porn! All of the Ziegler brothers were sinfully handsome, but Steve was the only one who made my heart beat faster upon sight.
Which was exactly why I stayed far, far away from him whenever possible. Except he came into the inn nearly every day for lunch, and smiled that smile that made my knees weak. He’d say something like “hi” or “what’s the special today” or something equally innocuous and I’d get weak in the knees.
I wasn’t surprised that he knew my name. People couldn’t suddenly show up in Shadow Ridge, decide to stick around for a couple of weeks, and expect to remain under the local radar.
I nodded mutely.
“I was afraid something like this would happen. I’m sorry. That’s guy’s a jerk.”
I did look at him then. And promptly forget to breathe. This close, I could see that I’d been wrong about his eyes. They weren’t just hazel. They were liquid waves of green and brown with gold flecks. Flecks that flashed in the lights of the bar, hypnotic and beckoning. For long moments, I couldn’t look away.
My only thought: If I had a type, he was it. The perfect combination of rugged and rakish.
Then he smiled, and my eyes dropped to his lips. There were some fine lips. Full. Soft-looking. Supremely masculine. One side lifted slightly higher than the other, I noticed. His breath smelled of cinnamon, and suddenly, I had a powerful urge to taste those lips. Maybe nibble on them a little. Dip my tongue inside and experience that sweet spiciness.
I needed to get a grip.
I dropped my gaze again and vigorously wiped the floor instead, intent on capturing every last shard of glass in my rag.
“Why do you say that? Are they your friends or something?” I asked.
“Hardly,” he said with the hint of a grunt. “They were on the hayride. I didn’t realize how obnoxious they were until we were on our way. Now I’m thinking I should’ve just left them in the woods to find their way back.”
Despite myself, I felt my lips curl in the hint of a smile.
Now that I wasn’t looking at him, my brain had started functioning again. The Ziegler boys never came in until after the last ride, but here he was.
“I thought the hayrides ran until midnight.”
“They do,” he admitted.
“So, what are you doing here?” I winced inwardly, realizing how rude that sounded.
“My brothers have it covered,” he said, not really answering my question. And then his words penetrated my brain fog. “I was afraid something like this would happen.”
Before I could fully process that, Shannon appeared with a rolling bucket and a mop. “Thought this might help.”
It was the distraction I needed. “Thanks.”
I grabbed the tray of broken glass and rags and got to my feet.
“Looks like he got you good,” Shannon said, nodding at my torso. I glanced down, mortified to see that my white button down was soaked and nearly transparent. The lightweight cotton clung to my skin and put my lacy bra with the pink bow on display.
“Oh, shit,” I mumbled.
“Go on, I’ve got this,” Shannon said.
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I repeated the order I’d been attempting to serve, then hoofed it into the kitchen. After dumping the broken glass into the track, I went out the employee entrance and kept going.
Copyright © 2023 Abbie Zanders.
Written by Abbie Zanders.
All rights reserved.