“No. Hell no. It’s not gonna happen. You just need to quit asking.” I glared at my supposed friend and resisted the urge to snap his neck.
“Come on, Hud. You know this is the best option. You can’t pick up women at your own bar. And you’re not gonna talk to them outside here because you never leave,” James argued. James Rucker was one of my oldest friends, and should have been on my side. Instead, he was leading the damn charge.
“I already told you I’m not interested in online dating. That shit is weird.”
“That shit got me Trinity.”
“She hated you.”
“Exactly. She never would have given me the time of day if she’d known she was talking to me. Karissa is a genius. She created something that allows us to meet people and get to know them without it being all weird.”
“What if I meet some freak?” I asked. I heard the stories. It wasn’t just men that were freaks. There were some women that went nuts and did crazy shit, too. I didn’t want some wacko following me home and stalking me.
“You might, but take it slow. You don’t have to meet someone in person after talking to them once. Just sign up for the account, and if you can’t figure out how to talk to someone, I’ll help you.”
I snorted and shook my head. “I can talk to women.”
“Yeah? How about that one? Go flirt with her.”
I looked in the direction James pointed and found a gorgeous woman at the end of the bar. She wore a plain white tee and jeans. I’d noticed her when she walked in. Ordered a whiskey neat. She was definitely my kind of woman, but a decade or so too young for me.
“She’s half my age.”
“So? You can’t talk to a woman who isn’t the same age as you? You know there aren’t a ton of single women your age.”
I glanced at the woman again. “I don’t need to prove anything to you. Why am I even thinking about this?”
James lifted his drink off the bar and shrugged. “Fine. Don’t talk to her. But don’t blame me when you have a date that goes sideways because you haven’t talked to a woman in #a decade about more than her choice of drink.”
I growled as he walked away. He wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t mean I needed to like it.
I glanced at the woman again. She was twirling her straw in her drink and looking around. She had a distinct not-interested vibe about her. Which was fine since I wasn’t interested either. She was an experiment.
No. A woman wasn’t an experiment. She was a person. Someone my asshole friend thought I couldn’t have a conversation with.
I walked over, checking on the few customers at the bar before her.
She looked up at me as I approached and pasted on a tolerant smile.
“Need another drink?” I asked her. I groaned internally. I was proving James’s point.
“Are you waiting for someone?”
She casually assessed me. Her gaze slid down my body, dismissing me entirely before she returned her cool gaze to my face. “I am. A friend.”
“Maybe it’s someone I know. I know a lot of people. Pretty much everyone. Except you, of course.”
She nodded and eased off her stool. “I think maybe I’ll wait at a table.”
I opened my mouth to argue that I wasn’t trying to be a creep, but it was useless. She was gone, and I was definitely being a creep.
I hated when Rucker was right. He’d never let me live it down. Of course, that was assuming he knew.
I went back to work, ignoring the churning in my gut. I didn’t like the woman thinking she might not be safe in my bar. She was just enjoying her drink and I had to go and make it weird. Because of James. If he’d just left well enough alone, I wouldn’t have talked to that woman. I didn’t need to practice talking to women. It would be fine when I met someone.
Growling at my own stupidity, I poured another whiskey and added a scoop of ice. The woman was sitting at a table by herself. She watched the door, her back to me.
I told Jonathan, the other bartender working with me for the night, that I’d be back in a minute and carried the drink to the woman’s table. I set it down next to the one she already had.
“I thought you could use a refill.” I clasped my hands together and smiled at her.
“I’m good. Thanks.” She avoided my gaze, hers locked on the door.
“I just wanted to apologize. I wasn’t trying to make you uncomfortable.”
“And your apology is to get my drunk so you can take advantage of me? Or did you put something in this drink so you can be the hero and offer to take me home? What is wrong with you?” She glared at me, drawing back like she thought I was going to strike her.
“What? No. I didn’t do any of that. I was just trying to be nice.”
“Nice guys don’t make women feel like they’re about to be assaulted!” She jumped to her feet and grabbed the drink. She tossed it in my face before I had a chance to react. “Leave me alone!”
She raced toward the door, grabbing the arm of another woman the second she walked in the door. She pointed to me, and the two of them left.
I stood there watching them, whiskey dripping off my face and soaking into my shirt.
“What was that all about?” #server asked, offering me a towel.
“I was just trying to be nice.”
“How nice were you trying to be?”
I growled at her and snatched the towel from her hand. I stalked past the bar and straight to my office. I wiped my face and patted at my shirt, knowing nothing would erase the shame I felt.
What the hell did I do?
I yanked my shirt off and slammed my way into my bathroom. I shoved a paper towel under the faucet, wiping at the sticky liquor on my chest. Dammit.
When I was clean, or at least not sticky, I grabbed a new shirt and pulled in on. Jonathan could handle things for a little while. I needed a break.
Five minutes later, a knock on the door said my time was up.
“You ready for that app yet?” James asked as he opened the door.
“Fuck you, asshole.”
“Is that what you said to that poor woman before she threw a drink in your face?”
“Why is it my middle finger gets a hard-on whenever I see you?” I showed him.
James snickered. “Man, you’re just asking for it tonight. What did you say to that woman?”
“Nothing! I didn’t say anything. I asked how her drink was and if she was waiting for someone. I thought I could tell her if the person she was waiting for had been there or something. She thought I was hitting on her. I brought the drink over to apologize and she asked if I roofied it.”
James doubled over, holding his gut.
He was going to need to hold his gut if he didn’t pull his ass off the damn floor real soon.
“This is even better than I thought. Dude, you need help. How in the hell did you snag Hillary?”
I shrugged. Hillary was my world. We met in college and fell in love. Everything was easy with her. We sat next to each other in class one day and started talking and clicked. She was supposed to be my forever, but an icy road ended that dream.
“You’re even worse off than I thought. I need to call in reinforcements.” James had his phone out before he finished talking.
“No, please don’t,” I said as my phone buzzed in my pocket. Then buzzed again. And again.
Group text. Kill me now.
“Most of the guys are busy,” James said a minute and dozens of texts later. “Ian’s on his way.”
What did I do to deserve this? Oh, yeah, I let these assholes be my friends.
James left me alone so sulk and stew while he went back out to the bar. His #girlfriend, Trinity, was with him, so I hoped she’d drag him back home, but when they both walked into my office a few minutes later, I knew I was in trouble.
“I hear we’re signing you up for online dating,” Trinity said, rubbing her hands together. “I can’t believe he finally talked you into it.”
“I never said that,” I argued.
Trinity turned to James with narrowed eyes. “You said he was on board.”
“I said he needs to be on board. He could have lost O’Kelley’s. That woman accused him of trying to date rape her. I’m an officer of the law. I could arrest him.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Trinity said, getting up in James’ face. “You know Hudson would never do that.”
“Sure I do, but clearly the woman he was failing to flirt with didn’t.”
“You were trying to flirt with her?” Trinity asked in a voice most people reserved for puppies and babies. One I was not okay with having directed at me.
“Oh, God, no. Do not. I can’t handle this,” I told them, standing from behind my desk with every intention of throwing them out of my office.
“Can’t handle what?” Ian asked, letting himself in as I was trying to escort the others out. “Whoa, what’s going on?”
“Hudson tried to flirt with a customer and she thought he roofied her, so we’re going to get him signed up for Karissa’s app and teach him how to talk to women, since he’s finally ready to date again,” James explained.
“I changed my mind. I’m not ready to date. No more dating. I’m done. I’m good by myself,” I said.
“Dude, chill. It’s fine. We’ll set it all up and you can practice flirting with Blake. Trinity?” Ian looked at Trinity, and she nodded. “All the women will let you flirt with them.”
“I’m going to kill myself,” I muttered.
“It’s not that bad, Hudson,” Trinity said. “Dating isn’t easy, but you’re a gorgeous man who’s kind and sweet and you have half the women out there lusting after you.”
“Hey!” James shouted.
Trinity shrugged while I smirked.
“It’s true, babe. But you’re the one I go home with. You can’t be jealous.” Trinity blew him a kiss.
“Sure I can. You shouldn’t be calling my friend gorgeous,” James pouted.
Trinity rolled her eyes. She tossed her brown ringlets behind her shoulder and focused on me.
“You never have trouble talking to me. Dating isn’t so different from any other conversation. Why did you talk to the woman?”
I pointed at her rat of a #boyfriend. “James made me.”
Trinity turned back to him with a scolding look on her face. “Why did you make him flirt with someone? And why did you tell him to be all weird and creepy?”
“I’m not taking the blame for that! I told him to talk to a woman about something other than what she wants to drink. He was weird and creepy all on his own.”
I rolled my eyes. “I think it’s time for you guys to go. All of you. I will figure out what I want to do. Right now, I need to work.”
They protested, but I shooed them out of my office anyway. To keep up the pretense, I followed them out and settled behind the bar.
“You good, boss?” Jonathan asked.
I nodded and moved to the other end of the bar to take orders. At least I knew I could handle that.
* * *
O’Kelley’s was closed. The lights were off and the place was empty. I should have gone home, but for some reason, I was in my office looking up Karissa’s app.
I’d downloaded it before, but I never created an account. I never wanted to. I wasn’t ready to date. Still wasn’t sure I was, but seeing my friends fall in love made me more than a little jealous. I wanted that again. Someone to come home to. Someone who was watching for me. Someone who would walk in and smile just because I was there.
Before I could talk myself out of signing up, I tapped to create an account. The first thing it asked for was a screen name.
Screen name. What the hell? How was I supposed to know what to pick. I didn’t want to sign up for online dating. I wanted to meet a woman the way I met Hillary. In a casual, comfortable, normal way. I was being forced to do things this way.
I tapped the side of my phone for a minute, then rolled my eyes at myself and typed HereByForce.
Holy shit. Page one of seven. It was going to take all damn night to fill out the stupid survey.
I groaned and dove in. It was better than not doing it at all. And then when online dating didn’t work out, I could tell them all I tried. That the only people who met online were freaks and that it wasn’t for me.
An hour later, I was finally done. My eyes felt like sandpaper and my throat felt full of cotton. I needed water and a bed.
Home wasn’t far. The bungalow I bought a few years ago was sufficient for me. Three bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths with a small eat-in kitchen and a living room. It was good enough for me.
* * *
I overslept the next morning. I never overslept. I was always up at the crack of damn dawn, but I overslept. And worse, I had another dream about Anna.
I was not happy.
I showered and pulled on clean clothes, then raced the three blocks to O’Kelley’s. Everything was locked and closed up because I was the only one working the lunch shift. It was only ten minutes later than I was supposed to open, but that meant I was going to be playing catch-up for the rest of the day because I should have been there an hour ago.
No one was waiting outside, so I flipped the OPEN sign on and went straight to the back. I started up the grill and the oven and did a quick inventory of what we had on hand and what we were running low on. #Cook would get me a list by the end of the week, but since I was in the kitchen, I wanted to know what I had.
I’d barely finished getting things started when I heard the door open. I checked my watch and saw it was already almost noon, which meant the small lunch rush would be starting soon.
I tied an apron around my waist and slid my ball cap on my head and pushed through the kitchen door to see who was in the bar.
“Do you have our lunch ready?” she asked. No hello, no how are you, no anything. Just barking like a rabid dog.
“What lunch?” I had no idea what she was talking about.
Anna crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. I noticed the second one much later than the first because crossing her arms meant plumping up those breasts that were featured in my dreams.
I adjusted my hardening cock and leaned closer to the counter so there was no chance she could see the morning wood I was sporting. Yeah, that was my excuse.
“Finley said she texted you earlier with a lunch order. She told me to come get it because you always have it ready. Her words, not mine. Clearly, she was wrong.”
My brain took a few seconds to register what she was saying with those full, round breasts on display for me. Jesus, did the woman have to wear a shirt that showed off that much cleavage? I swear to God, I could see half her boobs. Not that I was complaining, but shit.
“I don’t have my phone with me,” I finally blurted. “What was the order for?”
“How do you run a business?”
“I do quite well for myself, thanks,” I barked.
She pursed her lips and rolled her eyes again. “Yeah, I can see that.” She gestured around my vacant bar.
“Whatever. Do you want lunch or not?”
“Yeah, but I’m wasting my entire lunch break talking to you. I can’t wait for you to make something. I’ll figure something else out. And I’ll make sure Finley knows we can’t trust you to have food ready.”
Anna stomped out with a huff and a sway of her tempting hips.
The door slammed shut behind her, and I finally took a breath. Anna Charlotte was as far off limits as a woman could get. I really needed to get my dick on the same page as me on that one because it was never going to happen. Ever.
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