© 2020 Kylie Gilmore
Satan walks into my bar and crooks his finger at me.
I pretend not to see. Wyatt Winters can flag down someone else to serve him. I don’t care if tonight is make-or-break time for the historic restaurant and bar I own, and this New Year’s Eve fundraiser party is my last hope. I will not consort with the devil.
He’s handsome, all right, with his thick wavy dark brown hair, sensual lips, trimmed beard, and a body that looks like he spends too much time at the gym. But that is all cancelled out by his smug attitude. Wyatt moved to town a month ago, buying the abandoned house on the top of the hill with a landlocked lighthouse. It was originally owned by an eccentric recluse, who died before I was born. People say it’s haunted. I hope the ghosts keep him up at night.
Seriously, why does Wyatt keep showing up at my beloved Horseman Inn? Over the last month, he’s ordered every beer I have on tap and criticized the quality at length, as well as complained about the chill in the room and, of all things, the name of the place. It’s historic! The inn dates back to 1788 when it used to be a stagecoach stop.
I slip behind the bar and fill another round of drink orders for the table of middle-aged women excitedly anticipating our guest of honor, my famous actress friend, Harper Ellis. She’s the only reason we have a crowd tonight. My younger brother provides chill background music on his acoustic guitar. The bar is packed, the back room is half full, and people are helping themselves to appetizers in the front dining room and bidding on the silent auction items. It’s early yet, so I’m thrilled with the crowd. Thank you, Harper.
Harper and I grew up together here in Summerdale, New York, a lakeside community about an hour and a half outside New York City. It’s a unique place, originally founded by hippies as a kind of utopia. Crime is low and quality of life is high—our unofficial motto. Actual motto: Peace for all sheltered within. Anyway, it’s an awesome community for those of us not about to go bankrupt. Harper offered to help me out, but I’m not going there for several reasons. Most importantly, I don’t want money to come between us.
I hope she gets here soon. I scan the back room quickly and catch the eye of the one man who sets me on edge like no other. No beer for you. I take the tray of wine and two dirty martinis to the women sitting at a long rectangular table across from the man I refuse to acknowledge. I serve the women their drinks, keeping my back to Satan.
“When does Harper get here?” Tammy, a brunette in her fifties, asks.
Her four friends look to me eagerly.
“Any minute, I’m sure. She’s probably caught in city traffic.”
“I’m the current high bid on the lunch with her,” Tammy says. “Fingers crossed!”
I smile. It was nice of Harper to throw that lunch in there, considering she’s such a private, shy person in real life.
Tammy’s friends chime in with their hopes for winning an autographed picture of Harper or some of the other items she donated from her old TV show. She was so generous with her contributions, but I need her here in person.
“I’ll let you know as soon as she arrives,” I say.
I wave to my two best friends, Jenna and Audrey, mingling in the front room. They’re opposites physically—Jenna is tall and lean with blond hair that barely touches her shoulders; Audrey is short and curvy with long black hair. The four of us—me, Harper, Jenna, and Audrey—used to spend all our time together as kids. Then Harper left for Hollywood, and life happened for the rest of us. Jenna and I recently moved back to town. Audrey never left.
I send them a questioning look. They’re looking out for Harper.
Jenna shakes her head. I suppress a sigh and turn to head back to the bar.
“Cindy, over here,” a deep baritone voice calls out.
I stiffen and slowly turn to Wyatt. “It’s Sydney,” I say through my teeth.
He cups a hand by his ear. “What?”
I exhale sharply and cross to his corner table tucked in the back. He’s around my age (I’m twenty-eight), wearing a black and white checked button-down shirt with a tan sport coat and jeans. His long legs are stretched out under the table, crossed at the ankles. Dark brown leather shoes instead of sneakers. It occurs to me he dressed nice for the party, only to sit alone on New Year’s Eve. I summon patience and all the goodwill I can muster. He’s new in town, and I should try to make him feel welcome.
“Hi, Wyatt.” I flash a quick smile. “It’s Sydney, not Cindy.” As I’ve told you before. “I know you’re new in town. I could introduce you to my brothers. That’s Eli on guitar. He’s a cop.” I point him out, and Eli jerks his chin at us. “Over at the bar, the guy in the white T-shirt with the scowl is my oldest brother, Drew. There’s also Adam and Caleb, but they’re not here yet.”
Wyatt cocks his head. “No sisters?”
“Only girl, huh? Interesting.”
I hear an insult lurking in his tone. “Why is that interesting?” I’m not a girly girl, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feminine. I’m wearing lipstick, and I even put on a skirt tonight. It’s black leather to match my knee-high black leather boots. My black T-shirt says The Horseman Inn, our staff uniform.
“Just interesting,” he says blithely. “I’ve met Adam. He’s going to do some work at my place.”
“Oh.” Adam is a master carpenter. I didn’t know he took a job for Satan.
He taps the dark wood table. “What I really want to know is what a guy has to do to get a decent beer around here.”
Patience. Goodwill. I can’t be alienating customers in my line of work. I paste on a smile and rattle off every beer we offer, both on tap and in bottles.
He rubs his dark beard. “Do you have one that doesn’t taste like it’s been watered down to disguise the fact it’s gone skunk?”
“All of our beers are fresh, I assure you. Now what can I get you?” I am Miss Hospitality.
He leans forward, resting his chin on his hand, and smiles wolfishly. My pulse shoots up. “Surprise me.”
Cheap lite beer with a shot of spit in it, coming right up! Ooh, I am so tempted. No, I can be professional. Why is my pulse still racing? “You got it. Our best IPA coming up.” I turn to go.
“I’ve had your best IPA,” he says. “An ale would be an improvement. I hope.”
I turn back. “No problem.”
“Also, my table is wobbly.” He gives it a shake.
I let out a breath. “Then don’t shake it.”
He peers under the table. “Actually, I’m not sure if it’s the table or the wavy hardwood floor.”
“Part of our charm, original eighteenth-century flooring.”
He arches a brow.
“One ale coming up.” I make a beeline to the bar, my patience running out. No one could keep up pleasant conversation with a man like that for long. Always looking for flaws. This place has all the historic charm with all the modern headaches—sloping floors, low ceilings, draftiness. I’m proud to say we still have the original post and beam ceilings and large stone hearth in the front dining room. If he doesn’t like it, he can go someplace else. Although we are the only bar around for miles. He’d have to cross the state line into Clover Park, Connecticut, about a half-hour drive from here, to find another bar. Maybe I’ll suggest it. No, I can’t do that. He’s a newcomer. Must be welcoming.
My brother Drew grabs my upper arm as I swing by him at the bar, halting me. “That guy bothering you?” he asks in a low voice, his gaze narrowing on Wyatt. Drew is five years older than me and a certified badass—former Army Ranger with a black belt. He runs his own dojo in town. He’ll kick ass on my behalf, but I’m no damsel in distress. Besides, I grew up with brothers—two older, two younger—I know how to handle men.
“He’s just annoying,” I say. “No problem.”
He releases my arm. “Say the word.”
I give him an exaggerated smacking kiss on his cheek, which always throws him.
He rubs the spot. “Syd! Come on. Is there pink on my cheek?”
I sail behind the bar. “So much pink,” I lie. “Better head to the men’s room to get properly manly again.” It’s actually coral, a darker shade of pink to go with my auburn hair, but try explaining lipstick shade to a grumpy alpha male.
He checks himself with his phone’s camera and huffs, tucking the phone back in his jeans’ pocket. “Smart-ass.”
I pour Wyatt’s ale and then check on a few customers at the bar, filling their drinks too. Mostly as a stalling tactic so I don’t have to deal with Mr. Big City Snark yet. I heard Wyatt moved here from Manhattan. Why? Why couldn’t he have stayed in the city?
I flag down one of our servers and pass Wyatt’s drink to her. It’s self-preservation. The less I interact with him, the better the chance I don’t dump a drink on his head. That wouldn’t be very hospitable of me.
After I check on things in the kitchen for the upcoming buffet dinner, I take another tour through the restaurant, making sure everyone’s enjoying drinks and appetizers, and reminding them of the fab silent auction items. I work hard to sound upbeat about the auction instead of desperate. My father left this place in such debt before his passing, no bank will give me a loan. Nasty surprise, that debt. He hid his financial troubles from me and my brothers out of some misguided need to protect us. He was a great dad, though, and stepped up after my mom passed when I was twelve.
Wyatt catches my eye. “Appetizers are good.”
Pleased that he finally said something positive about my place, I close the distance, stopping at his table. “Glad you’re enjoying them.”
He leans back in his chair. “Have you ever thought of upgrading the dinner menu?”
My temper flares, but I manage to keep a civil tone. “No. Locals love it.”
“Not saying it’s bad, just unoriginal. I mean, every meal comes with either French fries or baked potato. A new chef might bring some life to the place. Isn’t that what tonight’s fundraiser’s all about? Keeping this place open?” He taps the table. “With the right management, a better chef, this place has potential.”
I manage this place, and the chef is a family friend. I bare my teeth. “Seems you know a lot about the restaurant business.”
“Not at all. I just appreciate a good one.”
I jam my hands on my hips and glare at him. Obviously he thinks we’re a bad one! I’m so furious I can’t even speak.
He cocks his head. “Cindy, are you cross with me?”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” I snap. “Coming in here and insulting my place left and right! If you don’t like it, don’t come back.”
He arches a brow. “Since you own the place, maybe we could talk about some serious improvements. You don’t know what you don’t know, am I right?”
I bristle. “This place was my great-grandfather’s, passed down the generations, and now it’s mine.” I leave out that Drew is the one who actually inherited it and declared it a lost cause because of the debt dragging it down. I took it over rather than let him sell it. “It’s an institution in this town, and we’re doing just fine without your city snark. How dare you walk in here and spew your judgment over all of us!”
He smirks. “I don’t recall spewing.”
My heartbeat roars in my ears, anger clouding all good reason. I desperately want to smack that smirk off his face.
He gestures to his ale, which he barely touched. “I didn’t like this one. Could I get one of those local Connecticut ales you mentioned?”
I stare at his glass of ale. I want to throw it in his face and watch his shock as it drips down his beard, fancy sport coat, and dress shirt.
He chuckles. “That’s an evil look in your eye, Cindy. You’re thinking about dumping this drink on my head, aren’t you?”
How did he know? “Not at all,” I lie.
He leans close and smirks. “I dare you.”
Oh, no, he didn’t. He’s deliberately baiting me. I work for a cool collected tone. “It’s too bad you didn’t like your ale because that is the last drink you’re ever getting here.”
“Just because I said with a better chef this place has potential?”
It was that and a pile of other insults. I’m so done with this guy. I don’t care if he’s a newcomer and alone on New Year’s Eve. I turn on my heel and nearly run into Harper and her fiancé, Garrett, who probably heard everything.
“Syd, are you okay?” Harper asks, her brows furrowing over concerned hazel eyes. She wore her dark brown curls down and her skin glows with good health.
I give her a hug. “So happy to see you!” I pull back. “You too, Garrett. I’ve got a table reserved just for you.” I gesture for them to follow me and head over to it, relieved to get away from that arrogant, critical, evil man. I will forever after refer to him as Wart. Satan is too good for him.
I take the small reserved sign off the table and realize they haven’t followed me. They’re sitting with Wyatt, talking to him. Harper holds up a finger for me to wait. Does he know them, or did he just invite them to join him? Harper is a very popular actress. Everyone wants to talk to her.
Wart winks at me, saying in a loud voice, “Right, Sydney.” I don’t catch the rest of what he says. I bet Harper corrected him calling me Cindy. Grr…
I bend over and slap my ass at him. Screw you, Wart!
Harper gasps and hurries over to me. “What are you doing? Don’t you know who that is?”
“Yeah, Wyatt.” The smug asshole who insulted my father’s legacy.
She leans close and whispers, “Didn’t you get my email?”
I stare at her, confused. We emailed quite a bit about tonight’s fundraiser. “Which one?”
She puts a hand on my arm, her voice taking on an urgent tone that has the hair on the back of my neck rising. “About who he is and what he can do for you.”
“No, I didn’t get any email about him.” My voice is barely above a whisper. I clear my throat. “It must’ve went to junk or got lost in cyberspace. Who is he?”
“He’s a retired billionaire with experience turning around failing businesses. I met him at a fundraiser and told him about Summerdale. He wanted somewhere to lie low and chill. Anyway, I might’ve mentioned that The Horseman Inn needs help.” At my stunned silence, she goes on in a rush. “Don’t be mad, okay? You refused to accept a loan from me, which I get because we’re friends, but I couldn’t just do nothing. He could help you.” She shakes her head. “I can’t believe you slapped your ass at him.”
I stare at her. “But he’s so young to be a retired billionaire.”
“I know. He’s one of those tech whiz guys. Made his first million at nineteen. He’s thirty now.”
I slowly turn to meet the knowing, smirky eyes of retired billionaire Wyatt “the Wart” Winters. He grins and gives me a jaunty two-finger salute, probably because he knows Harper just explained who he is. Mr. Big Shot.
I scowl. I will never work with that man. I don’t care how many zeroes are in his bank account or what kind of business guru he is. He wants a piece of The Horseman Inn? Hell no!
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