“I don’t know why I let you talk me into this,” I muttered as Gemma dragged me to the bar.
“You can’t sit home forever,” she stated. “It’s time that you got back in the saddle!”
“I was quite content sitting home wallowing in my misery, I’ll have you know,” Nonetheless, it did feel good to be dressed up and going out. It had been two weeks since Chad had dumped me. Maybe it was time to dust off my heart and get back in the game again.
“You can bet that Chad’s not sitting home!” Gemma scoffed.
“Please,” I groaned. “Do we have to bring that up?” My cheating ex-boyfriend was the last thing that I wanted to dwell on tonight.
“There’re other fish in the sea,” Gemma rambled on. “And as pretty as you look tonight, well honey, you can’t help but land one!”
“I couldn’t care less if I hooked up,” I firmly stated. “I’m just out to have fun!”
“Well, it appears to be a full house.” Gemma pulled into the packed parking lot. “Let’s go have some fun!”
I tugged down the vanity mirror and applied more lip-gloss. Finger-fluffing my wavy shoulder-length dark hair, I took a deep breath. Now or never. I followed Gemma as she sashayed into the Willow Bend Bar.
“Hey, sugar,” she purred to the bouncer. “We too late for the band?”
“They just started their first set.” He smiled back, not bothering to charge us the cover. His muscular arm snaked out, blocking the guy behind us. “That’ll be five dollars,” he said to them.
“Come on, Heather.” To say that Gemma was a livewire would be an understatement. Her short blond hair was spiky, and her style was as outgoing as her personality. I paled by comparison. She bounced up to the bar with me trailing in her wake.
“Two cold ones!” A notorious flirt, she batted her eyes at the bartender, knowing full well that it would be the last time she laid out money for drinks tonight. Already, men were checking her out—and she them.
Settling awkwardly on the barstool, I surveyed the joint. Couples filled the dance floor as the country band rocked. Single men lined the bar and gathered in small groups. “Looks like paycheck Friday. All these cowboys have money to spend.”
“Then we’ve come to the right place,” Gemma remarked. “You’ll never meet anyone working with those old hens in your office.”
I had to nod my head at that one. Sullivan Printing was a nice place to work, but the excitement factor was nil. I’ve been there for five years, and not one good-looking man has passed through my tiny cubicle. Still, I didn’t want Gemma to think my prospects were dismal. “Betty wants to set me up with her nephew.”
“If his auntie has to fix him up,” Gemma snorted, “he must be a real winner.”
Nursing my beer, I refused to comment, knowing Gemma was right. He’s hot! I checked out a hunk down the bar. A black T-shirt stretched over taut muscles. Sandy blond hair tumbled over his forehead. He’s looking this way! I smiled at him. Maybe I hadn’t lost it after all.
He tipped back his bottle, draining it, and set it on the bar. He’s coming this way! Nervously tapping my freshly polished nail on my bottle, I held my breath. My balloon promptly burst when he laid a hand on Gemma’s shoulder and asked her to dance. She grinned up at him and was on the dance floor in an instant.
Slipping back into my wallflower mode, I cast my eyes downward and finished off my drink. Straight away, the bartender set another bottle in front of me. “On the house.”
“Thanks,” I smiled weakly.
He leaned over, grabbing the empties and swiping the bar with a rag. “Haven’t seen you in here in a while.”
“It’s been a while.” Two years, in fact. . .before I started dating Chad. I was surprised that anyone would remember me from those days.
“Don’t be a stranger.” He flashed me a grin and moved to the next customer. He’s cute! Why can’t I remember him?
Suddenly reflective, I began to think of Chad. Being with Chad was like riding a roller coaster. Fun, scary, unsettling, and at the end. . .nauseating. Boy was I glad to be off that ride.
I had thought Chad was the one. As handsome as he was, I felt thrilled that he had chosen to be with me. After dating a few months, we moved in together, much to the chagrin of my parents. Even though we hadn’t talked much about marriage, I had expected Chad to pop the question any time. Months turned into a year, and then it was almost two years, and still no proposal.
At the end, all the signs were there; I was just too blinded by love to see them. Chad seemed to be working late more often. He would get calls on his cell late at night and have to leave. “Trouble at the job site.”
He did dry walling. What problems couldn’t wait till the next morning? Sitting home alone, I would stew. I was furious with his boss for putting these demands on my boyfriend. Looking back, what a fool I was!
Then the inevitable happened. Chad insisted that we talk. “I think that we should see other people.”
I was stunned and turned to my best friend for advice. “What is he saying?” I had begged Gemma in tears as she tried to console me.
Gemma doesn’t beat around the bush. “It means he’s already seeing other people.”
When I confronted Chad, he denied my allegations. “I don’t know where you’re coming up with these cockamamie ideas. You’ve been talking with Gemma, haven’t you?” Nonetheless, he didn’t waste any time packing his stuff and hightailing out of our apartment.
That was two weeks ago. He’s not coming back! After crying myself to sleep every night, I finally resolved to get on with my life. This would be the first step.
Glancing up, I saw that Gemma was still dancing. She motioned me to come onto the dance floor, but I waved her off. I was happy on the sidelines for now. I sighed and concentrated on my beer.
I couldn’t help but notice the cute bartender as he passed by with a case of beer. His body, long and lanky, easily handled the load. His dark hair was buzzed-cut, and his ebony brown eyes seemed too big for his face. He smiled as he caught me staring. “I’m taking my break in a few minutes. Want to join me?”
“Sure.” What did I have to lose? No one was beating a path to me.
In less than a minute, he was by my side with a plate of nachos and two more beers. “I think I saw an empty table back here.” He placed his hand on the small of my back and guided me to a dark corner.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” He pulled his chair close so we didn’t have to shout over the noise from the band.
Studying his face, I searched my memory. “No, I guess not.”
“A couple of years ago, I was on this side of the bar,” he hinted.
“You played softball, didn’t you?” I recalled the summer that I joined a league. “Sure, it’s coming back to me now. This was the after-game watering hole. As I recall, your team annihilated the Sullivan Sluggers—both times!”
“So, you do remember.” He grinned ear-to-ear.
“You were the pitcher.” I gave him a punch to the arm. “You had that crazy wind-up, and then you would try to stare the batter down. And you struck me out—three times!”
His voice got serious. “I always wanted to ask you out, but I never got up the nerve. Then the season ended and you didn’t come around here anymore. I hung around here so much, waiting, that they finally put me to work. I bartend here on the weekends.”
How sweet! My heart melted.The only way I knew to respond was to reach out and hold his hand. Yes, I had noticed him, but by the end of the season, I was with Chad. “Do you still play?”
“I really enjoyed playing that summer.” Maybe it wasn’t too late to sign up on a team for this summer. I made a mental note to check.
“I’ve got to get back to work.” He gave my hand a squeeze. “Why don’t you have some fun and we can get together after I finish my shift?”
“I’d like that,” I smiled. “Wait. What’s your name?”
“Nick. I told you I get nervous around beautiful women.”
My self-esteem soared. “Pleased to meet you, Nick. I’m Heather. And I will see you later.”
Gemma plopped down the instant that Nick left. “Okay. Who is he?”
“A man from my past,” I smiled mysteriously.
“You have a past?” Gemma mocked.
“Yes, and soon I’ll have a life again.” My good mood was smashed in a split second. “Look who just walked in.”
Gemma’s mouth fell open as Chad and a woman strolled toward the pool table, their arms wrapped around each other. “What does he see in that bleached-blonde bimbo?”
It was pretty obvious to me. Her low-rise jeans were skintight, showing the top of a black thong, and her glittery, snug top showed plenty of cleavage. The way she clung to Chad made my skin crawl. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We’re not giving them the satisfaction! Besides, Waynesboro’s not that big. You’ll be bumping into Chad every now and then. Now, let’s dance!” She didn’t give me a choice as she dragged me to the dance floor. “I’ll show you how to line dance.”
The band was playing one of my favorites. Watching Gemma’s feet and following her moves, I became too focused to even care about Chad. From time to time, I glanced over to the bar. Nick was watching. He grinned and gave me a thumb’s up. I grinned right back and kept dancing.
“Whose bed have your boots been under. . .” The lyrics of the next song struck too close to the heart, and reality came thundering back. Chad was just a few feet away. His boots had been under someone else’s bed, and now he was teaching her how to shoot pool.
“I have to go to the ladies’ room,” I choked back a sob.
Thankful for the solitude, I dabbed at my eyes. Get over it! I chided myself. Two years were wasted on Chad, and now it was time to move on. She can have him! I took a deep breath, fighting for composure. My nose twitched from an oddly familiar odor. That perfume!
The stall opened and Chad’s date stepped up to the mirror. It was like watching a train wreck; I couldn’t tear my eyes away. She layered red lipstick on her full pouty lips and fluffed her bleached hair even higher. She caught my stare in the mirror, turned, and snarled almost catlike. “Do I know you?”
If I’d had better sense, I would have said no and made my escape. There was something in her tone that set my blood to boiling. “Chad never introduced us. I’m his ex-girlfriend.” I fought to control my voice. “My advice to you, sweetheart, is keep that dog on a short leash!”
“Don’t you worry about Chad. I give him what he wants.” Her lips curved condescendingly.
“I bet you do, and to anyone else who’s willing to pay,” I shot back, striking a nerve.
“You little witch!” A blur of red acrylic nails coming at my face forced me backwards.
What do I do? My mind went blank as I thought about a self-defense class that I had taken years ago. Kick? Punch? Bite? I really didn’t want to fight, but running was not an option as I had backed myself into a corner. Her arms were swinging wildly in my direction.
Immobilize her arms! I raised my hands and she instinctively ducked. Grabbing the back of her shirt, I pulled it over the top of her head. Her vision was momentarily cut off and her arms were trapped.
“Gotcha!” I held firm, not knowing what my next move would be, while she screamed bloody murder. She squirmed and jerked backwards while I clutched her top for dear life.
Suddenly, she was free. Her top had come off in my hand. She wasn’t even wearing a bra! Trying to cover herself with one arm, she went for my throat with the other.
“Give it back!” she howled as I leaped back.
“Not a chance, sweetheart!” I had the upper hand now. Seeing the path to the door clear, I made my escape.
“Quick, Jen, we have to get out of here!”
“Huh?” The panic in my voice kicked her into action. She set her unfinished drink down. “Now?”
“Now!” I headed for the exit with Gemma hot on my heels.
Gemma had the engine running as soon as I slid into the seat “What gives?”
“I did something crazy!” I dangled the tiny black top with “Hot Stuff” spelled out in glitter.
“That’s not. . .you didn’t!” Her eyes went wide with surprise as she recognized the shirt.
“Heather, you’ve stepped off the straight and narrow.” She grinned proudly as she put the car in gear.
“There’s one more thing I want to do before I get back on the straight and narrow.” Before I lose my nerve. “You still keep that Louisville Slugger under your seat?”
“Yep,” she nodded. “My Daddy insists on it.”
“Find Chad’s truck!”
Gemma drove around the parking lot. “There it is.” There was no mistaking Chad’s pride and joy with the bars and stars painted boldly on the tailgate.
“This will only take a second.” Grabbing the bat, I jumped out of the car. Taking aim, I thought of all of Chad’s lies. I swung at the headlight. The sound of breaking glass filled the air.
“You go girl!” Gemma urged me on. One more swing and the other light was shattered, just like he had shattered my heart.
“Let’s get out of here!” I jumped back into the car. Already people were rushing in our direction.
“That might not be a bad idea,” Gemma agreed, spraying gravel as she sped out of the lot. “We’ll go to the Village Pub.”
The Village Pub, only a few miles away, was much quieter—only a few regulars lined the bar. We were greeted with a chorus of “Hey, Gemma” as we walked in. I let my nerves settle as Gemma’s friend, Bob, brought us a round.
Last call had just been announced when a deputy sauntered in. “Who owns that red Nissan?”
Panic formed a cold knot in my stomach as I exchanged worried a glance with Gemma. She was as cool as a cucumber. “It’s mine.”
The towering deputy stepped closer. “Had a report of a crazy ex-girlfriend busting up a pick-up truck tonight.” He glared accusingly. “Know anything about it?”
“You must be mistaken, officer,” Bob calmly spoke up. “These ladies have been here all night.”
Surveying the room, the deputy asked, “Is that right?”
“Yep. All night.” The patrons echoed. The woman behind the bar silently nodded.
He didn’t have a leg to stand on, and he knew it. Red-faced and about to explode, he shook his finger. “I’m warning you, Thelma and Louise, stay out of trouble!” And then he stormed out.
Gemma dissolved in giggles as she related the story to the whole bar. They cheered me as if I were a hero. “Serves him right!”
Certainly not proud of my bad behavior, I was relieved that I wasn’t going to jail. Never again! I planned on keeping on the straight and narrow from here on out.
The lights came up and we helped stack chairs and pick up glasses. Many of the regulars wished me luck as they filed out the door.
“We’ve all been there,” one woman whispered to me. “Don’t worry. The right guy will come along.”
“Who’s up for cheeseburgers?” Bob asked.
“I’m starving!” Gemma affirmed. “The truck stop is still open.”
“I just want to go home,” I groaned.
“Nah, you’re coming.” Gemma wasn’t ready to call it a night. Did she ever slow down? Emotionally drained, I was exhausted. I should have stayed home tonight and saved myself all this grief.
With Bob in tow, we headed for the twenty-four-hour truck stop by the interstate. Only a few cars and several big rigs were in the lot.
“Seat yourself,” the waitress called as we walked in. “Specials are on the board.”
“Bring that coffee with you,” Gemma said, watching the waitress pouring for a slim figure hunched over the counter.
“What’ll it be?” The middle-aged woman looked as tired as I felt.
“Cheeseburgers?” Bob waited for our nods. “Cheeseburgers and fries.”
“And keep the coffee coming,” Gemma piped up.
“Really,” I protested. “I need to get some rest.”
“You can sleep all day tomorrow.” Gemma dismissed my pleas. “Besides, you should feel liberated.”
At the sound of my voice, the figure at the counter slowly turned around. “Heather?”
“Nick.” I had forgotten all about him. Tongue-tied, I was jolted into action by Gemma’s elbow to my ribs. “Would you like to join us?”
“You disappeared and I figured that I’d struck out again,” Nick said, sliding next to me. “Then all hell broke out at the bar. First there was a girl fight in the bathroom, and then the cops were called for an incident in the parking lot.”
“Cheaters need to be taught a lesson!” Gemma broke in. “Ouch!” She yelped as I landed a kick to her shin.
Nick quickly picked up on the guilt written all over our faces. He clapped his hand to his forehead. “No, don’t tell me.”
“Let’s just say that I was wrapping up some unfinished business,” I blushed.
“Well—” His eyes softened. “If this business is finished, would you like to go out with me?”
“I would love to.” I smiled back. “How about a trip to the batting cages?”