Megan rolled over and groaned, keeping her eyes firmly closed as the pounding in her head echoed loud enough for her to hear it. Her mouth was parched and she tried to swallow. She groaned again as the bitter taste of tequila lingered.
“Oh, God,” she murmured. She had a vague recollection of holding a bottle of Patron hostage most of the night.
Then her eyes popped open when she realized she wasn’t alone in her bed. She turned her head slowly, seeing a mass of light brown hair spilled across the pillow.
Oh. Dear. God.
Who the hell was in her bed? Julie? Oh, surely not. She couldn’t have been that drunk. Melissa? No, Melissa had dark hair, thank God. Her eyes widened again. Oh, crap. Was it Sarah? Oh, please say it’s not Sarah!
She closed her eyes tightly. Who else had hair this color? Her eyes popped open again. Mary Beth? Oh, just shoot me if it’s Mary Beth!
“Good morning, angel,” came a raspy, sleepy voice beside her.
She turned her head slowly, unable to contain her gasp as she locked eyes with Mary Beth Sturgeon. Several seconds passed before she could find her voice.
“What the hell are you doing in my bed?”
Mary Beth smiled at her. “Your bed?”
Megan sat up as fast as her pounding head would allow. She groaned as she looked around.
“Oh, God, this isn’t my bedroom.” Then she groaned again. “Christ, I’m naked,” she mumbled as she clutched the sheet to her chest. She looked over at Mary Beth and saw her bare shoulders. Oh. Dear. God.
She spotted her clothes on the floor beside the bed and she motioned to Mary Beth. “Turn around.”
Mary Beth’s smile was smug. Too smug, Megan thought.
“Too late for that,” Mary Beth said. “I’ve already seen every inch of your beautiful body. More than once.”
“Oh, crap,” she murmured. She bit her lip, then flung the covers off. She quickly reached for her sweater and pulled it on, covering herself as much as possible. She snatched up her undershirt but couldn’t find her bra or underwear in the two seconds she allowed herself to look for them. She yanked on her jeans, nearly falling as her left foot got stuck in the leg. She danced around, managing to pull them on. She finally zipped the jeans, then grabbed the bridge of her nose, trying to ease the pounding in her head. She looked at Mary Beth and gave her what she hoped was a threatening glare.
“Not…a…word of this to anyone,” she said as she bent down to pick up her shoes.
Mary Beth laughed. “Seriously? Half the women in Eureka Springs want to sleep with you,” she said. “You think that I’m not going to tell everyone that you shared my bed last night?”
Megan stared at her in disbelief. If she was ever going to sleep with someone in this town—and certainly Mary Beth Sturgeon wouldn’t have even made her top twenty—she would at least hope she’d remember it. Instead of arguing, she held up her hand.
“I’m leaving.” She turned and stormed from the room.
“I have an extra toothbrush,” Mary Beth called. “And ibuprofen.”
Megan stumbled out onto the front porch, immediately shielding her eyes from the sun. What in the hell happened last night?
Well, it was her birthday. She remembered that much. And yeah, Nancy—her sister—had thrown her a party. She nodded. Yeah…at Mary Beth’s house. It was supposed to be a surprise. She hadn’t had the heart to tell Nancy that she’d known about the party for the last three weeks.
“Tequila? Who the hell brought Patron?”
She looked around for her car, not seeing the black SUV anywhere on the street, which meant Nancy drove it home.
“And she freakin’ left me here with Mary Beth Sturgeon? I’ll kill her.”
She paused on the street, squinting. Mary Beth lived above town, a couple of blocks from the business district. She looked uphill. The house she shared with her sister was four or five blocks away. She sighed and looked down the hill. She wanted coffee. She could walk to the grill for that. But she really wanted a shower and a change of clothes too. She glanced up the hill and sighed again. Two blocks downhill for coffee or five blocks uphill for a shower?
Downhill and coffee won.
As she headed down the street, she reached in her jean’s pocket for her phone. A moment of panic set in when she couldn’t find it. She couldn’t live without her phone. Was it at Mary Beth’s house?
“Oh, hell. I don’t need my phone that badly,” she murmured as she continued down the street.
“Hey, Megan. Great party last night.”
She looked across the street, seeing Paul waving at her. Or was he laughing at her? She forced a smile to her face and returned the wave. She had no recollection of Paul even being at the party. Of course, she didn’t have much recollection of the party at all. Which, at the moment, was the least of her worries. It was obvious that she was coming from Mary Beth’s house. Paul would tell Michael. Michael would tell Steve. Steve would be on the phone to Carla in a matter of seconds. Carla would tell Susie. And Susie? Susie owned the corner grocery store on Main Street. The store that all the locals used. And Susie was the town’s biggest gossip. If you wanted to know anything that was happening in Eureka Springs, you called Susie.
“Just freakin’ shoot me already,” she mumbled.
As the Phenix Grill came into sight, she picked up her pace. She had no idea what time it was but judging by the number of cars, they were already opened and the lunch crowd was starting to trickle in. She walked inside, heading straight for the coffee. When Eileen would have spoken, Megan held up her hand and shook her head slowly.
“Oh, that’s right,” Eileen said. “Tequila is not your friend.”
Megan glared at her, but it had no effect on the waitress, who only laughed, grabbed the decaf decanter and sauntered off. Eileen had been with them since they’d opened the grill. That was the only reason she didn’t fire her. Well, that, and the fact that she managed the wait staff and they would be completely lost without her.
She skirted the kitchen and went directly to the office she shared with her sister. She plopped down in the chair, glaring at Nancy.
“Well, well. So you are still alive. Good.”
“Why in the hell did you leave me there? With Mary Beth, of all people.” She shook her head. “Really? What were you thinking?”
“You were asleep on the sofa, mumbling some nonsense about a circus clown. You told me to leave you there,” Nancy said.
“The sofa? I woke up in her bed, for God’s sake!”
“Well, yeah. We didn’t want to leave you on the sofa. The party was still going on,” Nancy said. “Paul helped us get you to her bed. I suggested the spare room, but Mary Beth thought you’d be more comfortable in her king bed.”
“Oh, God, so Paul was laughing at me,” she murmured as she closed her eyes. “I woke up naked. In Mary Beth Sturgeon’s bed. And she was also naked.” She groaned. “And I couldn’t find my bra and underwear. My favorite bra…that cute little red one.” She covered her face with her hands. “Oh, God. Now Mary Beth has it.”
Nancy laughed. “Oh, Megan, Mary Beth was just having some fun. Trust me. There was no way you had sex last night.”
“Fun? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are naked photos of me posted on her Facebook page already,” she said. She grabbed her head. “Oh, God. Mary Beth Sturgeon, of all people.” She again glared at Nancy. “What were you thinking?”
Nancy waved her hand at her. “You’re being way too dramatic. Mary Beth likes to pretend she’s slept with everyone in town.”
“That’s because she has slept with everyone in town,” she snapped. “And now they’re going to think I’ve been added to the list.”
“Everyone knows how you are, Megan. I’m sure they’ll know better. But Susie was at the party…no telling what gossip is going around town already.”
“Are you trying to make me feel better or worse? And where’s my phone?”
Nancy reached for her purse and dug inside, coming out with Megan’s phone. “You can thank me later,” she said as she handed it to her. “Do you remember anything that happened last night?”
Megan frowned. “Well, it was my birthday.”
Nancy nodded. “Thus the reason for the party.”
“You do remember that I hate surprise parties, right? And if you’re going to throw me one, why do it this year? I’ll be forty next year. That should be the dreaded surprise party birthday.”
“Because you would be expecting it at forty. Thirty-nine was a surprise.” She raised her eyebrows. “Right? You were surprised, weren’t you?”
Megan smiled. “Yes, I was surprised,” she lied. “And paybacks are hell. You’ll be fifty in a couple of years.”
“Three. And don’t remind me.”
“So why did you take my phone?”
“To save you the humiliation you were about to incur.” Nancy pointed at the phone in question. “You do remember the call, right?”
Megan frowned again. What call? She turned her phone on, going to her recent calls. Her eyes widened.
“Oh, my God. The Wicked Witch called? What the hell?” She looked at Nancy. “Did I talk to her?”
“No. I at least stopped you from answering. You did, however, listen to her message.”
Megan nearly slammed her coffee cup down. “She breaks up with me on my birthday last year—in front of her new lover, no less—and she has the nerve to call me this year and wish me a happy birthday?” She narrowed her eyes at Nancy. “She did call to wish me a happy birthday, right?”
“In a roundabout way, yes. She was going on and on about how great this last year has been for the both of them and that she hopes you’re finally over her and blah, blah, blah,” Nancy said with another wave of her hand. “Your night went downhill from there. I don’t know why you’re not over her already.”
“I am so over her,” Megan insisted.
“Oh, yeah? Then why did you try to drink an entire bottle of tequila by yourself?”
Megan groaned. “I don’t even like tequila. I don’t ever want to see tequila again.”
Nancy rolled her eyes. “You love margaritas, Megan. I’m sure this will pass.”
“You took my phone. I was going to call her, wasn’t I?”
“Yes, you were.”
She sighed. She hadn’t spoken to Erin even once since she’d walked out of her life. Erin had wanted to remain friends. Erin’s new girlfriend wanted to be friends too. Megan wanted to shoot them both. Thankfully, they’d left town shortly after the breakup and Megan was saved from a murder conviction.
“Thank you. God only knows what I would have said to her.”
“You’re welcome.” Nancy leaned her elbows on the desk. “Now, what do you think about the bookstore finally selling?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I swear, do you remember anything from last night? It was all the talk.”
“The bookstore? Next door? It’s been vacant for a few years now,” she said. “Who would buy that dump?”
“Susie only knows it’s some woman from California. Rumor has it that she’s going to convert the upstairs into an apartment and live there.”
Megan shook her head. “A plain old bookstore is not going to go over. Nobody reads paper books anymore. When Mr. Carlton owned it, even adding the little coffee bar didn’t help.”
“No, I doubt it’ll be a bookstore,” Nancy said.
“Well, I imagine we’ll meet the new owner soon enough,” she said. “And if you don’t need me, I’m going home to take a shower and change clothes.”
“It’s your turn to close tonight,” Nancy reminded her.
“Yeah, yeah,” she murmured. “I’ll be back at two.”
Leah led the contractor back downstairs, pleased that he thought he could salvage the plumbing. Many, many years ago, the upstairs had housed two small apartments. The previous owner had gutted it and enlarged his bookstore, making the top floor a reading room. Crazy concept, she thought. No wonder the bookstore had failed. If you could spend a couple of hours sitting up there reading, why bother to buy the book?
“I want all of the shelves down here taken out too,” she continued. “And as I mentioned on the phone, there’s got to be more windows. It’s as dark as a dungeon in here.”
Mr. Hammond walked over to the front wall and pounded against it with his fist. “I’d almost guess that there used to be windows here and they were closed up,” he said. “Probably needed more shelf space.”
“Unbelievable,” she muttered.
He shrugged. “Everybody’s got different ideas. Had an old house up above town. All original woodwork inside. Beautiful stuff. The new owner wanted something more modern though. Had me tear it all out and start over. Nearly made me cry.”
“Well, I hope you salvaged it, Mr. Holland.”
He winked. “I sure did, Ms. Rollins. And you can call me Tony. You got me looking around for my dad with all that Mr. Holland stuff.”
She smiled and nodded. “Thank you. And please call me Leah.”
“Yes, ma’am. And like I said, we can get started on this next week. Got a remodel job over on Mill Hollow Road that we’re finishing up. We can be out here bright and early Monday morning.”
“That’s wonderful, Tony. And you really think you can have the upstairs ready to go in only a few weeks?”
“As long as we don’t hit any snags, yeah. Bedroom walls shouldn’t take long. Bathroom and kitchen will be the most time-consuming, obviously, but if we don’t have much wiring to redo, then, yes, a few weeks. Four at the most, I’d think. Then we’ll be ready to start down here.”
“Thank you. I’ll plan accordingly. Appliances are already ordered.”
He took his cap off and scratched his head. “I understand you’re staying at the Howells’ B & B over on Cliff Street.”
She nodded, wondering how he knew that. Of course, she’d been warned by the real estate agent that it was a small, cliquish town. Since there were only two thousand residents, she imagined not much escaped notice.
“Not any of my business, of course, but staying there for three or four weeks, that’ll run you a nice tab,” he said.
“That’s true,” she said with a smile. “What? Do you have an alternative?”
“Well, my partner owns a couple of cottages that he rents out by the week. Tourist season won’t pick up for another month—the Diversity Weekend, first week in April. I’d say he would cut you a deal. Certainly cheaper than the Howells’,” he said.
“I chose it because it’s only a couple of blocks from here,” she said. “I like to ride my bike.”
“I understand. His cottages are up above town. Got a great view from them though.”
“Well, thank you for the offer, but I guess I’ll stay put.”
“Okay, sure. Well, I’ll see you Monday morning then.”
“Thank you, Tony,” she said as she followed him to the front door. “Oh, by the way. I noticed there is a ‘reserved’ parking sign out front here. I had assumed it was from the previous owner, but there’s been this black SUV parked there.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s Megan,” he said.
She frowned. “Megan?”
“She and her sister own the grill next door. Best burgers in town. You should try them. And they make a mean chicken-fried steak too.”
She stood at the door long after he left, trying to decide what to do. She should just go next door, introduce herself, and ask this Megan person not to park there anymore. Yes, that’s what she should do.
She looked around, seeing all the countless things that needed to get done before the remodel could take place. She couldn’t believe how much junk had been left in the store. She should have hired someone to clean it out, but she reasoned she had the time to do it herself. Well, to box it up, at least. She would have to hire someone to haul it off.
She glanced back outside. Deciding that she didn’t want to take the time to go next door, she went into the back room, found some paper and quickly jotted down a note. Then she went outside and pulled off the tacky, hand-made “reserved” sign that was fastened to a light pole. She then quickly stuck the note on the windshield of the SUV.
“There,” she said. “That was easy.”
She left the door open when she went back inside. It was a warm day, hinting of spring, and she hoped the breeze would chase out some of the musty odors. She’d been in town for eight days already, and this was the first warm day they’d had. The place had been closed up for over two years and as she started pulling old magazines off of a shelf, she wondered—for at least the hundredth time—whether she was making a mistake or not. Oh, she didn’t regret quitting her job. She’d been feeling stagnant for the last couple of years anyway. But why not retire and travel? Why not find a beach somewhere to sit on?
Because fifty is too damn young to retire, she told herself.
But not too young to quit a job she’d long grown tired of. She’d been in the tech industry her whole life, following both of her parents into the business. She’d written more damn code than she cared to remember. But it paid well and she never had the itch to quit, no matter how small her cubical got.
Not until Aunt Ruby died, that is. Aunt Ruby was her father’s aunt. The old maid of the family…a spinster woman. She grimaced as she remembered her grandmother’s description of Ruby. She was far from a spinster, she thought with a smile.
When she was younger, she saw Aunt Ruby a few times a year, mostly during the holidays when her parents loaded them up for a week’s stay in Los Angeles. As everyone got older, the visits got fewer and fewer, yet she and Aunt Ruby had formed a bond. It wasn’t until she was in college—and out herself— that Aunt Ruby found the courage to confess to Leah that she was a lesbian. Leah had always suspected but had never mentioned it to her parents. Ruby had asked that she keep her secret and she had. As far as she knew, Ruby took that secret to her grave at the age of ninety-one.
But there was also another secret she’d kept from everyone, including Leah. She bought old houses, fixed them up, rented them out for a while, then sold them for a nice profit. Who would have ever guessed that Aunt Ruby flipped houses? And who would have ever guessed that Aunt Ruby was loaded?
Leah laughed quietly. And who would have guessed that Aunt Ruby would name Leah as her sole beneficiary? Certainly not her brothers or her parents—they’d been shocked to learn that she and Ruby had remained close. And certainly not her cousins. They couldn’t even be bothered to go to the funeral, yet they were pissed as hell when they found out about the money. So pissed, in fact, that they had threatened a lawsuit.
That went nowhere, of course. But she wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with them now. Not that they’d ever been close, she reasoned. She was lucky if she saw them once a year as it was. Oh, but money did crazy things to people.
She smiled and shook her head. Yeah…old Aunt Ruby was loaded, all right. Who knew she had a knack for California real estate?
“Steve says she’s staying at the Howells. Tony confirmed it.”
Megan bit into her sandwich as her sister continued.
“And she rides a bicycle all over town. Susie says she even rode it up to Pivot Rock one day.”
“So maybe she likes to exercise,” Megan said. “I heard she was old though.”
“Old? How old?”
“Totally gray-headed. Too old to start a new business, don’t you think?”
“Who told you that? Tony met with her this morning. He’s going to do her remodel. Steve didn’t indicate that she was old.”
Megan shrugged. “Just telling you what I heard.” She couldn’t understand what all the curiosity was about. So a new shop owner was in town? That happened all the time. Apparently, not with as much secrecy as this one though. Even Susie didn’t know all the details yet.
“Maybe she’s like Anderson Cooper.”
Megan stared at her blankly. “What are you talking about?”
“Her gray hair. Maybe she turned gray early. Susie says she’s really cute. Like really cute.”
“Susie thinks everyone is cute. And what’s with all the speculation about her? She’s all people are talking about.”
“New blood in town,” Nancy said with a grin.
“Oh, my God. You don’t even know how old she is or whether she’s single or not. You don’t even know if she’s gay.”
“Of course she’s gay. Susie said she was.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “Susie thinks everyone is gay.”
“Do I have to remind you that nearly half of the people who live in this town are gay?”
“No, you don’t. With all of the big old gay drama that goes on, no one should need reminding.”
Nancy laughed. “Are you referring to Mary Beth?”
“Of course I’m referring to Mary Beth,” she snapped. “It’s been three weeks. She still has my picture on her Facebook page.”
“At least the sheet was covering you. You can’t even tell it’s you.”
“Really? Then why are people asking me if we’re dating?”
Nancy laughed again. “It’ll blow over. It always does.”
“Yes, but no matter how much I deny it, they all think we slept together. And Mary Beth smiles in that smug way of hers just to keep everyone guessing. It drives me crazy.”
“Which is why she keeps doing it. If you’d talk to her about it, have a laugh with her, it would all be over with already.”
“Seriously? A laugh? She stripped me naked against my will!” she said loudly. “She took pictures!”
“Oh, God, Megan. Get over it already. That’s old news.”
“I wonder if you’d think it was old news if it was your picture on her Facebook page,” Megan said pointedly.
“Then quit going out there and looking at it.”
“I kept going out there to see if she ever took it down.”
“And to leave comments. You forced her to block you and unfriend you. You were getting out of control.”
Megan stood up and pointed her finger at Nancy. “I can’t believe you are taking her side.”
“Whatever. Get over it.”
Megan shook her head. “I was over it. You had to bring it up again.” She picked up her purse. “I’m going home.”
“It’s Friday,” Nancy reminded her.
“I know. I’ll be back by four.”
They took turns opening and closing during the week, but on Fridays and Saturdays, they shared the duties. The tourists were only starting to trickle in, but the locals kept them plenty busy on the weekends.
She walked out into the sunshine, pausing to look up into the clear, blue sky. It had been cloudy and rainy for the last week so the sun was a welcome sight. She walked down the street to where she parked her SUV and got in. As she started it up, she noticed a note stuck under the wiper. She tilted her head, trying to read it.
“What the hell?”
She got out and yanked the note off, her eyebrows drawing together as she read it again.
I believe this parking space is designated for my shop, not the Phenix Grill. Please kindly park somewhere else.
“What the hell?”
Turning, she found the door to the bookstore standing open. Without thinking, she marched inside, holding the note up in the air.
“Who do you think you are?” she demanded.
The woman turned, surprise showing on her face. Then a smile appeared and she held her hand out in greeting.
“I think I’m Leah Rollins,” she said.
Megan stared at her hand, then ignored both it and the easy smile the woman sported. “And this?” she asked, waving the note at her.
“Oh. Well, that’s a note. I thought it was obvious.”
Her tone indicated that it was a stupid question, and Megan found herself scowling.
“Yeah,” the woman continued. “I left it for the person who’s been parking in front of my store in that gas-guzzling SUV. There was even a ‘reserved’ sign there too.” She scratched the back of her neck. “Was that you?”
“I’m Megan Phenix,” she said through clenched teeth. “I own the grill next door.”
“Oh…Phenix Grill. Huh.” The woman smiled again. “I thought you’d just misspelled Phoenix.”
“Ha ha,” Megan said humorlessly. “And what do you mean, gas-guzzling? My SUV is mid-sized. It’s quite conservative.”
“Conservative? No. A hybrid would be conservative.”
“Oh, my God. Are you one of those?” She shook her head. “Of course you are. You’re from California.”
Leah’s eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”
“What do you drive? A Prius? Or a Tesla or something?”
Leah smiled. “Why, yes. I do own a Tesla. Electric cars are the future.”
“Give me a break,” Megan muttered. She held the note up once again. “Back to this,” she said. “What is this all about?”
Leah gave her a puzzled look. “I thought the note was very clear.”
Megan sighed. “Look, we’ve got the most popular eating place in town. In fact, you may have noticed that we’re…we’re just packed every night. And lunch. Even lunch too.”
Megan ignored her patronizing tone. “You know, parking is really limited in town.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that. I hear the lots down below town make a killing on parking.”
Megan narrowed her eyes. “You’re missing my point.”
“You have a point?”
Megan blew out her breath. “My point is, shops that aren’t busy expect other shops’ customers to park there.”
“Expect? It’s my understanding that every shop has designated parking spots. Kinda like guaranteed spots,” Leah said.
“Well, technically, that’s true. But there’s an unwritten rule about that. For example, say…your place here. You’re not busy. But us? We’re booming over there,” she said, pointing out the door. “So you’ve got five parking spaces here not being used. It just stands to reason—common courtesy, if you will—that our customers would be allowed to park here.”
Leah nodded. “Yes, that makes sense. But what if I have a customer come to my store and all of my parking spaces are full with your people? I’m going to lose business.”
Megan looked at her incredulously. “You’re not even open yet!”
“Well, I will be by summer.”
“Yes. Now’s a good time to get used to not having these parking spots.”
“Seriously? You won’t be open until summer and you want to hoard these spaces now?”
Leah smiled at her. Megan perceived it as a condescending smile. That caused her to wad up the note and toss it—yes—childishly at the woman. She turned on her heel and strode purposefully out the door.
“Nice to meet you,” Leah called after her.
“Insufferable woman,” Megan muttered as she climbed into her car. “Cute, my ass.”
“The nerve! Can you believe it?”
“Well, it was kinda ballsy of you to put the reserved sign up in the first place,” Nancy said.
“Mr. Carlton didn’t have a problem with me parking there,” Megan reminded her.
“That’s because you brought him lunch most days. And you flirted with him.”
“I did not flirt with him. He was old enough to be our grandfather.”
Eileen stuck her head in the office. “Just a head’s up…Brent called in sick.”
Megan groaned. “It’s my turn, isn’t it?”
Nancy smiled sweetly at her. “Yep.”
“I hate waiting tables. Everyone knows we own the place. I swear, I get no tips.”
Nancy waved her complaints away. “So…back to the woman. Was she cute?”
“I was too angry to notice if she was cute or not,” Megan said, which was mostly the truth. She did, of course, recall the woman’s easy smile. At the time, though, all she wanted to do was to smack that smile off of her face.
“How old was she?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“God, you’re so difficult,” Nancy muttered. “Can you at least take a guess?”
Megan gave her an evil smile. “Seventy-five.”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “Seventy-five? Are you kidding me?”
Megan shrugged. “You said to guess.” She got up. “I’ll switch with you. I’ll take bar duty, you wait tables,” she offered.
“As much as I hate bartending…no,” Nancy said.
“If Brent shows up tomorrow, he’s so fired,” Megan said to Eileen as she maneuvered her serving tray between two crowded tables.
“He’s got the flu,” Eileen said. “Give him a break.”
Megan balanced the tray on one arm and forced a cheerful smile to her face. “Now…who had the buffalo burger?”
“Rare. I want it very rare,” the man reminded her for the third time.
What? Is he a vampire or something? she thought. But the smile remained as she placed the plate in front of him, and she was pleased to notice a pool of blood next to the bun. Rare. Very rare. Very disgusting.
“Just as you ordered it, sir,” she said cheerfully. She turned to the woman sitting next to him. “And for you, the spicy chicken burger with chipotle mayo on the side, as requested.” Between them, she put a large platter of onion rings, then stepped back. “Anything else for you? Can I bring you another beer?”
They both nodded and she turned, nearly bumping into Trish as she passed by with a tray of draft beer and margaritas.
“Sorry,” she whispered as the beer spilled over.
She hurried to the bar where Nancy was helping with the Friday night crowd. She waved her hand. “Need two Bud Lights here, lady,” she called.
“Wait your turn,” Nancy shot back.
Megan took a moment to exhale and look around. They were crowded, as they usually were on Friday nights, but there was a different buzz in the air. Perhaps it was the warm spring day they’d had. Or perhaps it was the anticipation of the fast-approaching tourist season. She saw strangers in the crowd—tourists—but mostly familiar faces, the local crowd who hung out there. Most of them, like she and Nancy did, made their living off of the tourists who flocked to the Ozarks—spring, summer and fall and even up until the holidays. January and February were the dead months—except for the annual Mardi Gras celebration in February. Things slowed down then and it was a time for the locals to reflect on the past season, plan for the next one and take a few weeks to relax. During those months they closed the grill on Mondays and Tuesdays, their only true days off during the year. Things started picking up in March, starting with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. April, though, was the real beginning of the new season, when the trees began showing off their new green and the days warmed. More and more tourists would begin filling the streets then. And April, she reminded herself, was right around the corner.
“Here you go,” Nancy said, sliding two frosty mugs her way.
“Any tips yet?”
Megan nodded. “Yeah, Paul and Michael came in. They tipped me a whole buck.”
Nancy laughed. “That’s my boys.”
Megan smiled back at her, then headed off to deliver her beer. It was a lively crowd this evening, conversations and laughter loud enough to drown out the music playing. She placed the beer next to the man and woman and stuck around only long enough to ask if they were enjoying their meal.
“The burger is perfect,” the man said. “Excellent, in fact.”
“Thank you. I’ll be sure to pass on your compliment.”
She turned to another table—a woman sitting alone still glancing through the menu. She was about to walk over when she stopped. Oh, crap, was it her? The woman had her back to Megan, but still, the gray hair looked too familiar. She glanced around, waving at Eileen. She then pointed at the table, silently asking her to take it. Eileen smiled and promptly ignored her, going to another table instead.
“I swear, she thinks she owns the place,” Megan muttered.
She took a deep breath, plastered a smile on her face and went over to the table. If it was her, she would simply pretend she didn’t recognize her and go on about her business.
“Welcome to the Phenix Grill,” she said as she placed a drink napkin in front of her. “Can I get you something to drink or are you waiting for someone to join you?” she asked in her most pleasant voice. Her smile faltered, however, when the woman—Leah Rollins—looked up and met her gaze. Her eyes were a smoky gray, almost the same color as her hair. When she’d first seen her in the bookstore, she would have sworn her eyes were blue.
“Hello, Megan,” Leah said, her glance traveling slowly over her, top to bottom. “Owner and waitress…that’s admirable.”
Megan didn’t know why she felt the need to explain, but she did. “We’re busy and short-handed,” she said, her words a bit clipped.
But Leah’s smile was genuine. “I meant no disrespect, Megan. When I open my store up, I only hope I can afford employees,” she said easily. “I may be doing everything myself.”
Despite her smile, Megan refused to warm up to her. “So? A drink? Appetizer? Order to go?” she asked pointedly.
Leah laughed. “Wow…subtle. I see you’re still pissed about the parking.” Leah made a show of looking over her shoulder, as if assessing the parking situation outside. “As I walked over, I couldn’t help but notice that all of my spots were filled.”
“You’re not even open yet!” Megan said through clenched teeth.
“I thought we’d covered that already.”
Megan stared at her. God, why does she keep smiling at me? I just want to smack her!
But no. She could do no such thing to a customer. She squared her shoulders and tried to force a smile to her face. It just wouldn’t happen for her though. Screw it, she thought.
“So…kinda busy here. Are you ready to order or not?”
“Well, I’ve been told by three people so far that you have the best burgers in town. I thought I should try one.” She glanced at the menu. “You have so many choices though. What do you recommend?”
Really? Really? Megan sighed. “Without knowing your preferences, it would be hard for me to recommend one.”
“My preferences, huh?” Leah asked, arching an eyebrow. “What would you like to know? Like if I like spicy or not?”
Megan stared at her. Is she actually flirting with me? Seriously? She shook her head. No, surely not.
“If you like spicy, I recommend the fiesta burger,” she said evenly. “It has guacamole, pico de gallo, pepper jack cheese,” she said. Then she smiled and added, “And healthy stuff like lettuce and spinach.”
“Well, I was leaning toward the pesto burger because I love grilled zucchini and peppers and the garlic pesto sounds intriguing,” Leah said.
“Also a good choice,” she said.
Leah met her gaze. “But I like spicy. I’ll go with the fiesta burger.”
Megan nodded. “Rare, medium or well done?”
“Medium well, please,” Leah said. “And I was also told your onion rings should not be missed.”
“Yes, they are a local favorite,” she said. “Regular or spicy?”
Leah laughed. “If we’re going spicy all the way, I think I’ll need a beer. Anything light. I’m not choosy.”
“Coming right up,” she said, turning to make a hasty exit to drop off the order. God, how could the woman be annoying one minute and pleasant the next? That, in itself, was infuriating. And flirting with her? Really?
“Why the frown?” Nancy asked as Megan leaned against the bar.
“That woman is here,” she said. “And she’s…she’s annoying.”
Nancy’s eyes lit up. “Really? She’s here?” Nancy scanned the crowd. “Where?”
“What is your obsession with her?”
“I just want to meet her, that’s all.”
Megan smiled. “Great! Then I’ll let you bring out her dinner. In fact, she wants a light beer. You can take that to her,” she said. “It’s time for my break.”
“Wait…you don’t get a break,” Nancy said. “It’s Friday night.”
“So fire me. She’s at table twelve.”