Tonight at work there would be no designer armour and no Malcolm.
I despised the flurry of butterflies that awoke in my stomach at the thought of working with Cam and all the things he might say to damage my already fragile ego.
It seemed I still needed to grow a thicker skin.
There was a kaleidoscope of butterflies in my belly by the time I got to the bar and when I stepped into the main room and saw Cam and Joss laughing about something as they cleaned glasses, the butterflies swarmed upward to my chest and I couldn’t breathe for a moment.
What was that all about?
I took the stairs down to the bar and ducked under the counter, throwing a smile of hello their way before hurrying into the staff room. Two seconds later, Joss was at my back and the music on the stereo system blasted on. I heard Brian yelling at someone to turn it down and the noise muted to a bearable level.
‘What’s up? You looked like you had swallowed a very sour lemon when you came in just now,’ Joss observed.
I shrugged out of my jacket, smirking. ‘Did I? I can’t imagine why.’
‘You’re afraid I’m going to try and set you up with Cam.’
‘Am I? I can’t imagine why.’
Joss made a face. ‘Okay, enough with the sarcasm. Look. I’m not going to.’
I turned towards her, shoving my phone in my back pocket. ‘What? The matchmaking is over before it’s even really started?’
She clenched her jaw for a second before replying, ‘Yes. And that’s a promise.’
‘What brought on this change of heart? Not that I’m complaining,’ I hurried to assure her.
Completely deadpan and traumatized, Joss held my curious gaze. ‘Ellie made me watch an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma so she could show me the dos and don’ts of matchmaking. This was followed by a redundant showing of the teen movie Clueless, which happens to be based on Jane Austen’s Emma.’ She let that sit with me, clearly urging me to find it as horrifying as she had.
I tried to stifle my laughter. I really did.
Just not hard enough.
I threw my head back, falling against my locker in a fit of giggles. I couldn’t get the image out of my head and I could just imagine how seriously Ellie had taken the whole thing. ‘Oh, my God,’ I gasped through my laughter. ‘That must have been so painful for you.’
Renewed excruciation flickered across her face as though she was having a flashback. ‘Painful does not even cover it. You know what’s worse than watching a romantic drama?’
Well, that set me off again.
‘Stop laughing. It’s not funny.’
‘Oh, it’s so funny. And just what you deserved.’
Joss groaned. ‘Yeah, probably.’
After I’d stemmed my laughter, I shook my head, wiping the tears from my eyes. ‘I still can’t understand why someone who rolls her eyes at romance films is writing a romance novel.’
She glowered at me. ‘It’s not a romance. It’s my parents’ story.’
‘Yeah, your parents who had a flaming, passionate romance.’
Joss’s eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘Do you want me to go back to matchmaking?’
I shuddered at the thought. ‘Definitely not.’
‘Be quiet, then.’
At her belligerent expression, I snorted. Clearly she was mad that her attempts to lead me from my ‘path of misery’ had failed so soon. ‘You know, if it makes you feel any better, I really do care about Malcolm. And I’m not actually miserable.’
Her eyes dimmed a little, any air of teasing between us dying out immediately. ‘My worry, Jo, is that you’re not happy either.’
For a moment, I felt breathless again. I stared over her shoulder at the wall where our shift schedule for the week was pinned to a notice board surrounded by staff memos, cocktail recipes and contact numbers. When I could breathe again, I dragged my gaze back to hers. ‘I know that Malcolm will make me happy.’
She threw me a look that clearly screamed, Are you serious? ‘How lukewarm of you. You’ve been together for over three months. I think you’d know by now whether or not you’re in love with him.’
I slammed my locker shut, preparing to go into the bar for opening. I thought about today in the changing room at Harvey Nichols and found myself getting defensive. ‘Look, not all relationships are like you and Braden, or Ellie and Adam. They aren’t all passionate sex and absolute adoration. Sometimes it’s slow and secure and warm. That doesn’t make it any less meaningful.’
Joss passed me, her nose wrinkled with irritation. ‘Slow, secure and warm? We’re not talking about an old guy in a Zimmer with a lap blanket. We’re talking about sex and love.’
‘Who’s talking about sex and love?’ Cam’s deep, raspy voice tugged at my lower belly.
As I stepped behind the bar, I couldn’t look at him.
I had hoped those last few times in his company were a complete anomaly, but it was clear they weren’t – my body seemed to vibrate and come to life around him, and I was beginning to feel guilty about my attraction towards him.
‘Jo and I were,’ Joss answered, her voice still gruff with frustration. She leaned back against the bar and stared at me, her expression unreadable in the dim light.
Cam raised an eyebrow, shooting me an equally unfathomable look. ‘Trouble in paradise?’
Since he hadn’t asked me with a sneer in his voice this time, I shook my head and deigned to answer him. ‘No, we’re fine. Joss is just having “a moment”.’
She grumbled under her breath, but customers started trickling in, and then pouring in, and soon we were too busy to have much of a conversation.
For the first two hours, I somehow miraculously managed to avoid Cam’s end of the bar. I worked at the opposite end and Joss worked in the middle. I chatted sporadically with her about nonsense anytime we were close enough to hear each other over the music. Braden, Ellie and Adam came in and took their usual table directly across from us so that Braden and Joss could screw each other with their eyes. I, on the other hand, did a good job of pretending that my entire body wasn’t aware of every single move Cam made, of every wicked smile he flashed at an attractive customer, at the way his jeans cupped his bite-worthy ass every time he bent over for something, or that when he reached up for a new bottle of Jack Daniel’s his T-shirt rode up to show a slab of taut abs.
It was just pure muscle under there.
I wondered what it would be like to have him stretched out nak*d on a bed, his hard body and golden skin laid out for me to savour. I would start with the sexy V cut of his hips, licking along the definition, pressing wet kisses up his sculpted torso, then flick his n**ples and feel him harden against me –
I jolted out of my daydream, spilling the fresh orange juice I’d just taken out of the fridge. I gaped at Joss, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
She was gazing at me with a quizzical smile. ‘You were gone for a minute there. Where did you go?’
The red in my cheeks deepened and I cast a quick look at Cam, who was busy serving a customer. I was thankful for the low lighting that hid my cherry red cheeks, but unfortunately Joss must have caught the embarrassment in my eyes and the quick, not so surreptitious look I’d shot Cam. She glanced down the bar at him and then back at me. ‘Oh, okay.’ She grinned.
I groaned inwardly and turned back to serve my customer her Alabama Slammer.
Two minutes later the crowd around the bar started to wane. I was readying myself to be teased mercilessly by Joss when I heard her swear under her breath.
Snapping my eyes over at her, I saw the clench to her jaw and followed her narrow-eyed gaze across the bar. A curvy brunette had taken a seat next to Braden and engaged him in conversation. Braden didn’t look like he was being anything but polite, but the brunette was sitting awfully close to him. My eyes met Ellie’s and she threw me an ‘uh-oh’ look.
Joss was too classy to get into a bitch fight, especially with someone who was just sitting a little too close to her boyfriend. The girl would have to –
Oh, no. The brunette’s hand had landed on Braden’s thigh.
‘Be back in a second,’ Joss muttered furiously as she passed me.
She was too busy leaving the bar area with cool eyes and a burning rage to notice that Braden had already removed the woman’s hand from his thigh. I leaned against the bar with my elbows, settling in for the show. It was a shame I was too far away to hear Joss. She could flay someone alive with her words and do it with a great deal of self-possession. I was eternally envious of her ability to confront an aggressor without turning into a chalk-faced gibbering idiot.
A customer approached the bar, and I reluctantly drew my gaze away from the scene. As I was pouring the guy his whisky, Cam’s familiar and sexy scent infiltrated my olfactory senses and I could swear I swayed a little.
At the feel of his warm breath on my ear, my fingers trembled and I froze as I pulled the bottle away from the glass. I could feel the heat of his body all the way down my left side, as though he was actually pressed tight against me.
‘I’m sorry for being a dick,’ he murmured, his voice deep with sincerity.
The vibration of his words against my skin caused a shimmer of delicious shivers down my spine. It completely turned me on. I only just managed to stifle my surprised gasp.
Feeling off balance, I glanced at him over my shoulder, only to find he was very definitely almost pressed up against me. It took a minute for his apology to register with me.
Cam sighed, his chin dipping so that our noses were close to touching. My eyes tangled with his and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move even if I wanted to. ‘I don’t know you,’ he continued, his eyes searching my face. ‘And I shouldn’t have presumed to.’ That searching look of his finally came to rest on my lips, and as his eyes turned molten with sexual awareness another rush of unexpected tingles awoke between my legs. I licked my lips, wondering what his mouth would taste like, and his breath hitched.
He leaned away from me, his eyes wary as they met mine. I saw the consternation in them and my whole body tensed.
Cam was just as attracted to me as I was to him, but he didn’t want to be.
Why? Was I ‘beneath’ him?
A sharp pain sliced across my chest and I pulled my gaze away and back to the drink I was making. And because I had just spent the previous evening preaching to my wee brother about being gracious, I nodded. ‘Apology accepted.’
‘So why do you have to look after your brother? Where are your parents?’
I turned away, brushing past Cam to slide the drink over to my customer. I took the money for it, hit the till, and then handed back the customer’s change. Just as I glanced around to answer Cam, another customer appeared.
The bar got busy again, and Joss skipped down the stairs and under the counter to help us out. I watched, while I served a customer, as Ellie, Adam and Braden left. I gave Joss a teasing smile. ‘You kicked him out?’
She shrugged. ‘If he’s going to be attracting hot women who don’t care if he has a girlfriend or not, then, yeah, I’m kicking him out.’