“Hey! Watch it! These are my best fucking pants!”
The scruffy guy’s half-lidded eyes struggled to focus on me. He scowled and wiped clumsily at the beer stain on his crotch.
I bit my lip, twisting my face into a contrite expression as I balanced the tray of drinks on my palm. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, sir! That was my mistake. I didn’t see you there.”
“Damn right, it was your mistake,” he slurred, still rubbing furiously at his pants. Then he leaned over the blonde he’d had boxed in by the corner of the bar for the past five minutes. “Don’t go anywhere, baby. I’ll be right back.”
He groped her ass one more time before staggering off toward the bathroom.
The blonde turned to me, cracking a grateful smile as she shook her head ruefully. “Thanks for that.”
“No problem.” I grinned. “It looked like he wasn’t getting the hint.”
She sighed. “This’ll teach me to go to a bar in Brooklyn without my girls as backup. I just got through a bad breakup and thought a drink would take the edge off. Should’ve known better.”
Her words, and the look in her eyes, struck a little too close to home. I was months away from my own bad breakup, but the feelings were still raw.
“I’ve been there, hon. It gets better,” I said, hoping that wasn’t a lie. Then I plucked a shot of whiskey off the tray I was carrying. “Here. On the house. To make up for Mr. Creepola.”
She accepted the drink gratefully, downed it in one gulp like a pro, and gave my arm a gentle squeeze before slipping away through the crowd toward the door.
I headed back to the bar to grab a replacement for the shot I’d given away before delivering the drinks to a table full of trust-fund dude-bros. They all talked too loudly and were so generically handsome I wondered if they could even tell each other apart.
As I made my way back through the packed room, skirting the dance floor, a heavy hand fell on my shoulder.
“Hey! Where’d my date go? Did you fucking scare her off?”
I glanced over my shoulder at the drunk guy with shaggy brown hair. He’d dried his pants—mostly—but had somehow gotten a huge water stain on his shirt in the process. He looked like a sloppy mess.
Resisting the urge to point out that she hadn’t been his date, and that he’d been the one to scare her off, I bit my lip. “I’m not sure where she went, sir. I had to deliver drinks. Sorry.”
I turned away, but he caught my shoulder again, spinning me around. He invaded my personal space, pressing up against me. “Well, since it’s your fault I struck out, the least you can do is make it up to me. I don’t usually go for brunettes, but what the hell. I’ll make an exception for you.”
His hands latched onto my hips as his beer breath wafted into my face. I grimaced, wriggling out of his grasp and holding the empty tray in front of me like a shield.
“Sorry. I’m working. And we’re not allowed to fraternize with customers.”
With that weak excuse, I darted away into the crowd, heading back toward the bar. The bartenders on duty tonight were both burly guys, which I hoped would dissuade Mr. Creepola from following me.
My friend Grace, another cocktail waitress at Osiris, would’ve handed that guy his ass for talking to her like that. I wasn’t quite bold enough to do more than give a firm “no,” but for a girl from Ohio who’d only been in New York for eight months, I thought I was doing okay.
Unfortunately, this particular creep was persistent as hell. He didn’t follow me to the bar, but every time I ventured out to deliver drinks, he tagged along after me, leering at my breasts and making really bad sex puns. His name was John or Tom or something, and he smelled like sour milk and disappointment. I wanted to whack him upside the head with my tray, but I really couldn’t afford to lose this job. So I tried to ignore him. Just another Saturday night in New York, right?
By the time last call rolled around, John or Tom was beyond drunk. He lingered by the door, licking his lips and staring at me until the lights went on and the last few patrons stumbled out.
I was happy to have rescued the hapless blonde girl, but I should’ve seen this coming. Jerks seemed drawn to me like magpies to pieces of tinfoil.
Wanting to give Mr. Creepola plenty of time to stagger home, I offered to finish cleaning up. The bartenders happily took me up on it, slipping out to meet up with friends or resume drinking somewhere else.
Shaking my head in bemusement, I started stacking the mats so I could mop behind the bar. Their partying stamina made me feel old, and I was way too young to feel that way.
It was after 5 a.m. when I finally left work. I took a deep breath as I stepped out of the bar, glancing down the street to make sure Tom—I’d made an executive decision that was his name—was gone. Sadly, jerks like him weren’t hard to come by in the city. It’d taken me months to adjust to the gauntlet of walking New York’s streets. At least once a day, I was catcalled by some guy who thought the way to a woman’s heart was yelling about her ass as she got on the subway.
That was one thing I missed about Ohio. People weren’t quite so openly disgusting. They kept their gross thoughts to themselves most of the time.
I checked my phone. Five fifteen.
Ugh. Damn you, Tom! By the time I get home it’ll be almost time to get up again.
Giving a sharp tug on the handle, I made sure the bar was firmly locked behind me. The neighborhood was quiet now, the streets mostly empty. Even the big city slowed down a little at this hour.
I decided against taking a cab back to my place—that was thirty bucks or more that could be put toward something better. I was pinching every penny right now, trying to not just make ends meet but to save up for my future.
Besides, I’d walked home by myself plenty of times now. I’d probably get home faster on foot than I would if I had to wait around for a cab.
As the cool breeze ruffled my hair, I tried to let the crappy night roll off me.
It doesn’t matter. Don’t let it get to you.
My job at the bar was just something to tide me over and help pay the rent. My real passion wasn’t serving drinks to drunk patrons and smiling sweetly as lecherous men stared at my chest. I loved to bake more than anything else.
Working at Carly’s Confections, an adorable little family-owned shop in Flatbush, fed my soul in a way cocktail waitressing never could. And one day—maybe not one day soon, but one day—I’d own my own bakery.
That was a dream I’d only recently started to speak out loud. For years, I’d felt silly even thinking it.
But it could happen, if I wanted it bad enough and worked my ass off for it. I’d already proved to myself that I was brave enough to make drastic changes in my life—leaving Kyle and moving to New York had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it had absolutely been the right choice.
My steps lightened at the thought. I wasn’t “Willow Pearson, sad housewife” anymore. I was “Willow Tate, badass rescuer of blondes in bars.” And I was only twenty-seven. There was still plenty of time for me to build an amazing life.
A gust of chilly wind pushed at me from behind, raising goose bumps along my exposed skin. I wrapped my arms around myself and picked up the pace, wishing I’d remembered to bring a jacket. Spring was on its way, but the nights were still cool.
Some of the other cocktail waitresses wore skin-tight dresses that shoved their boobs practically up to their chins and showed off so much leg they couldn’t bend over without flashing the room. They definitely made better tips than me, but I couldn’t quite work up the guts to mirror their fashion choices. My silky purple tank top and dark skinny jeans were as sexy as my work outfit usually got, and I still somehow ended up with creeps like Tom hitting on me aggressively.
Grace had been trying to get me to expand my work wardrobe for a while. Her philosophy on dating was that you had to date some frogs to find the prince, so you might as well get through the frogs as quickly as possible. I’d been lying when I told Tom we couldn’t fraternize with customers—no such rule existed.
And Grace fraternized the hell out of them.
She regaled me often with stories of her hot or disappointing one-night stands with bar patrons. When I told her I hadn’t had sex with anyone since my divorce went through eight months ago, her jaw had practically hit the floor. She was dead set on getting me “back on the horse,” as she put it, and couldn’t seem to comprehend how I’d managed to live without sex for eight months.
I didn’t tell her it’d actually been more like twelve months since my last sexual encounter.
Or that it’d been nine years of quick, bland sex before that.
I don’t think I could handle seeing the pity in her eyes.
Another gust of wind hit me, colder than the first, and I gasped, my teeth chattering. I’d gotten so lost in my thoughts, I’d stopped paying attention to my surroundings, but the biting wind made me wish I were home already.
Suddenly, the dog barking in the distance stopped, and a new sound filtered into my ears. Footsteps. Light and quick. Nearby.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Oh shit. That can’t be Tom the Creep, can it? Maybe he was more patient than I thought.
I picked up my pace. I’d walked this route dozens of times at night, enjoying the quiet neighborhood streets illuminated by intermittent pools of light. It was the only time this huge city, usually so full of hustle and bustle, felt peaceful.
But it didn’t feel peaceful right now.
The footsteps came faster, matching my pace. They came from behind me, along with a low sound that could’ve been clothes rustling, or maybe someone breathing.
My heartbeat sped up, blood rushing in my ears.
Maybe walking home alone hadn’t been a great idea after all. I’d gotten too comfortable with the empty streets and the illusion of safety. But there were bad people everywhere. I should never have forgotten that.
Calm down, Willow. Maybe it’s nothing. Just some jogger out for an early morning run or something.
Breathing fast, I darted a glance behind me.
There was nothing there.
I stopped, sweeping the entire street with my gaze.
My body tingled as unspent adrenaline coursed through my system. I let out a shaky laugh, pressing a hand to my chest. I hadn’t freaked myself out this bad since my first couple of days in New York, when I’d been convinced danger lurked around every corner.
“Jesus, Willow. Get a grip.”
I resumed walking, but I’d only made it a few steps when a new sound came from behind me.
A low, breathy hiss.
I whipped around so fast the ends of my ponytail stung my skin. “Who’s there? I’m not—”
The words died on my lips.
A chill ran through my veins.
What emerged on the street behind me wasn’t Tom or John or whatever his name was from the bar. Fuck, I wished it had been.
Because this was so much worse.