He’s making a list…and breaking every rule on it
Real estate mogul Jack Winter has rules. Lots of rules. After all, a man doesn’t build an empire without a little discipline. And on page one of the rulebook? Don’t sleep with your employees. Especially when there’s a multimillion dollar real estate deal at stake…
Luckily for Jack, Cassie James isn’t really his employee. She’s a hot bartender who just happens to be the math genius he needs, and if they share a wicked chemistry? Well, that’s just a sexy little perk. So they strike a deal: Cassie helps Jack with the merger. And until the deal goes through at Christmas, they can indulge every impulse they desire.
But the more rules Jack makes, the more he seems to break…
“Ebenezer is here!”
Cassie’s head shot up from the bar, where she’d been methodically slicing lemons. “No way! It’s only Tuesday!”
Ebenezer ate dinner at Edward’s every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Not on Tuesdays. Never on Tuesdays.
“I know!” squealed Sara, one of the servers, the one who was nicest to Cassie. The wait staff knew Cassie hadn’t earned her job as the weeknight bartender—she was a friend of the owner—and some of them resented it. Unlike the rest of them, she did not engage in the bleaching and dieting and grooming required to earn tips at a high-end place like Edward’s, but the servers had to tip her out just the same. Cassie got it. In their shoes, she’d probably resent it too.
“And his table isn’t free!” Sara whispered, “Because it’s Tuesday!”
Cassie didn’t bother stifling a dreamy sigh as she watched Edward’s most reliable customer in discussion with Camille, the hostess—the one who was meanest to her. There was no need to hide her admiration because they all loved Ebenezer a little bit. Probably not least because he was the World’s Best Tipper. Fifty percent, every single time. Even Cassie, who as bartender was tipped out only a small percentage of what the servers took in, saw the difference on an Ebenezer night.
So, a good tipper, yes, but the girls also loved Ebenezer because he was beautiful. A beautiful enigma. A man of habit, obviously, given his regular Wednesday through Friday appearances stretching back almost two years. But beyond that, no one knew anything about him, not really, other than that he was some sort of real estate tycoon. The servers reported that he was perfectly polite. But despite his impeccable manners, or perhaps because of them, he came across as cold. Never said anything more than was strictly required. He’d answer small-talkish sorts of questions, but in a way that made the asker feel she’d stepped out of line, never offering a real glimpse into his life. Sara had been conducting experiments on him, to see if anything she did—or didn’t do—would affect the seemingly inviolable fifty percent tip. So far, no. Whether they spoke only about his order—which, unlike most regulars, was never the same—or whether she shamelessly pried and he doggedly but politely shut her down, the end result was the same. A sky-high bill, thanks in no small part to the glass of ridiculously marked-up single malt scotch he started with, and a fifty percent tip.
“He’s entertaining enough on a normal night,” Cassie whispered with a grin. “On a Tuesday night when his table is taken?” She looked to the sky and made a silly “jazz hands” motion that earned her an answering grin from Sara.
But the truth was that Ebenezer wasn’t inherently that entertaining. Any given night produced a customer who provided more drama—a steak sent back three times, a bottle of 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon three-quarters drunk and then sent back for being corked.
Ebenezer never generated that kind of drama. They all just made it up to fill in the blanks in his mysterious persona. His name wasn’t even Ebenezer. Of course it wasn’t Ebenezer! He had a perfectly normal name they’d gleaned from his credit card—Cassie just couldn’t remember it.
Whatever it was, it was not as exciting as the story they’d made up that earned him his nickname. He always worked through dinner, spreading out papers, tapping through documents on his iPad. That, combined with his expensive, exquisitely tailored suits, and the fact that he was always alone, inspired Cassie to name him. Last December he’d strolled in alone, with his spreadsheets and his devices, and she thought, “He’s accumulating his chains.” But she didn’t say that. She’d just burst out the moniker Ebenezer Scrooge, and the rest of them, who had probably never read the book, embraced the alias. It stuck, even though Cassie protested that the actual Scrooge would never have left a fifty percent tip.
So here they were almost a year later, everything the same—nothing ever really changed at Edward’s—except Mr. Scrooge had appeared on a Tuesday, sending them all into a tailspin.
“Oh my God! He’s coming over here!” said Sara, grabbing a cloth and wiping a nonexistent spill on the bar. Cassie had to restrain herself from snatching the towel out of the server’s perfectly manicured hands—she didn’t like people messing with her bar.
Sara was right, though. Ebenezer was indeed on his way over, leaving an annoyed-looking Camille in his wake. God, he was beautiful, in the way a frozen waterfall was beautiful. He was all angles—choppy, dirty-blond hair slightly longer than one would have expected from a…scrooge. His face was all cheekbones and chin. Pale blue eyes (not that she’d noticed). Six-four at least. He had a rotation of suits—more than most men, she assumed, in that there were a good dozen different ones (not that she’d noticed). Today’s was navy pinstriped. He was always perfectly turned out, bordering on conservative, but there was always one detail that threw off that interpretation. Today it was a lime green tie.
Without a word, without making eye contact with her or with Sara, he sat at the bar—at the far corner, tucked against a large wooden pillar. Just as he always did at his table, he spread out his papers.
“Well, damn,” whispered Sara.
Cassie tried not to panic. “He’s going to want to hear the specials, isn’t he?” Crap. The sorts of people who sat at her bar weren’t usually the type to care about the specials. They were either killing time waiting for a table or they were regulars, solo diners who ordered a salad with chicken and wanted to shoot the breeze.
“Yes!” said Sara. “We have a pan-fried pickerel with capers and preserved lemon served with maple mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. Roasted pork loin with cranberries, goat cheese, and fresh dill, served with wild rice pilaf, and the same asparagus. Pizza of the day is fig, arugula, and house-cured salumi with a drizzle of buckwheat honey.”
Though she had absorbed a negligible amount of that little speech, Cassie nodded determinedly. Fake it till you make it. That was pretty much her entire philosophy of life, whether she was facing multivariable calculus or a night among the model-waitresses at Edward’s. And hey, so far, so good.
He didn’t look up from his work until she was practically under his nose. “Single malt to start tonight, sir? We have a new bottle from—”
“Does Edward still have that 1955 Glenfarclas?” he asked, naming a rare bottle she couldn’t remember ever having touched, except maybe to dust it. She wasn’t even sure it was on the menu, so she’d have to ask Edward what to charge him. She remembered Edward bragging that there were only 109 other bottles of it in the world.
“Right away.” Ack. Surreptitiously fanning herself, she pulled a stool over to boost herself up to reach the bottle, wishing she could loosen the regulation men’s tie she wore as part of her uniform, or at least roll up the sleeves of her heavy cotton button-down shirt.
Her feet hadn’t hit the ground for a nanosecond before he spoke. “What are the specials?” Though he was looking at her, those ice blue eyes seemed almost to look through her, the way ghosts can walk through people in the movies.
“We have, ah, pork chops. No, pork loin. Pork loin with preserved lemons, and…something. Pickerel with cranberries and, um, asparagus.”
“Pork loin with preserved lemons?” He set down his pencil—he always used an old-school, non-mechanical pencil, and it was always perfectly sharp—and raised an eyebrow.
“Um…” Had she got it wrong? That must be wrong.
“I’ll have that. Pork with preserved lemon.” He picked up his pencil. “There’s a first time for everything.”
Get a grip. You’re coming off like a total ditz. Carefully setting a tumbler on the bar for his scotch, she asked, “Neat?” though she already knew the answer.
“Water,” he said.
“Good man.” It was out before she could think better of it. Just that most people ruined their scotch with a whack of too-cold ice, or tried to testosterone their way through by demanding it neat, which was a shame, because the best way to really taste scotch was to dilute it with just the right amount of water.
Ebenezer’s eyes rose from his work again, but this time, instead of looking through her, they looked right at her. For a very long time. They began at her hair, which she suspected was doing its usual poor job staying slicked back into the requisite bun, slid down her face which, yes, thank you, heated under his scrutiny. From there he raked his gaze to her chest, which…well, she had curves that even Edward’s gender-neutral generic wait staff uniform could not constrain. She cursed them every evening, in fact, when she struggled to button the work shirt even while its sleeves and shoulders dwarfed her. Sara and Camille and the rest of them, with their lithe frames and graceful lines, looked like an army of Kate Mosses in their always-crisp shirts. The mannish ties made them look hot, whereas the same tie just made short-waisted Cassie look…strangled.
This was all Cassie’s internal monologue, though. Ebenezer didn’t betray a single thought. His eyes lingered, yes, but once they fell to her waist, which was the end of the line because the bar blocked the rest of her, they came back up to her eyes with no hint of anything. No approval, no disgust. Just emptiness.
“You’re a connoisseur then?” A hint of a raised eyebrow made its way onto his otherwise inscrutable face. She might have been imagining it.
She shrugged to hide her nervousness. Surely none of the others had ever had even this much of a conversation with Mr. Scrooge. “I am.” She tipped the bottle to fill his glass, pausing when she’d poured the standard amount, and then poured a little more—keep the customer satisfied. After all, this one glass was probably going to cost him more than a hundred bucks, and since he was eating at the bar, she didn’t have to share her fifty percent tip with anyone. “But I haven’t tried this.” She set the bottle down a little more vehemently than she’d intended, but he didn’t flinch. “This is a little too rich for my blood.” She winked—fake it till you make it. “Wait!” She suddenly remembered. “I stock distilled water for you.” She squatted down to grab the jug she kept under the bar.
It was true. She did keep it here with him in mind, once she’d realized they had a regular customer who knew how to take his scotch. She shot him a grin as she stood and twisted the cap off the plastic gallon container. “Mind you, normally you’re not sitting here, so you don’t see me pour it from this ugly-ass jug into this”—she reached above her head for a small crystal pitcher—“fancy deal.”
His hand shot out to stop her, coming to rest on her arm. Sweet Lord above, was he a shaman, conducting electricity through his fingers? Forcing herself not to jerk away as if from a hot stove, she cleared her throat. “Something wrong?”
“What is this?”
She twisted the jug toward him. “Target brand distilled water. Only the best for you.”
“You keep this in stock for me?”
“Well, you can’t drink 1955 Glenfarclas with tap water.” She shuddered—the impulse was real, but she exaggerated the effect. “Toronto water is terrible. It comes from the lake, for heaven’s sake.”
He nodded, still no discernable expression on his face.
She hesitated. “Do you want it in the pitcher?”
“That’s not necessary. You can just pour it for me.”
Great. Now she’d set herself up to pour the perfect amount of water from a gallon jug directly into a glass of scotch that cost as much as one of her textbooks—all under his signature brand of unsettling and intense scrutiny. Probably all the other staff members were watching, too. Her hands shook just thinking about it. Once more, with feeling. Fake it till you make it, girl.
“There you go.” She poured—pretty well, if she did say so herself—and without making eye contact with him, recapped the bottle and pivoted away. “Your dinner is coming right up.”
Well, hot damn. A person went to the same restaurant three nights a week for two years, and a person thought he knew everything there was to know about that restaurant. Jack knew all the Camilles and Kellies and Kristins, even if he couldn’t tell them apart, with their blonde ponytails, their thin, glossy lips, and their studied casualness. Knew the cocktail list by heart. Could even guess at the specials—the chef liked to do poultry on Wednesdays and some kind of affected house-cured bullshit on Fridays that was never as good as it promised.
But then one day a person would do something so radical as come in on a Tuesday—what the hell else was a person supposed to do when one’s usual Tuesday night dinner companion was royally fucking one over?—and suddenly here was something new.
Yes, if a person wasn’t careful, before he knew it, a brunette with killer curves would be practically writhing on a stool in front of a person, reaching for a bottle of scotch that she would then proceed to mix with water from a plastic bottle from Target—and it would make complete sense for her to do so.
And if a person wasn’t careful, the same scorching brunette would plunk a plate in front of a person and lift her chin just slightly before announcing, “Pork loin with cranberries, goat cheese, and fresh dill. I took the liberty of having the preserved lemon served on the side.”
No “I’m sorry, sir, I misspoke—we would never serve pork with lemons at a fine establishment such as this. I must have betrayed my working class ignorance there for a moment.” No, she just brought it on the side. Fuck. Had to admire the balls of a girl like that.
Well, metaphorical balls. Because this one, she was all girl.
Too bad, because if Carl really was screwing him the way Jack suspected, losing himself in a little female company tonight might be just what the doctor ordered.
But he had rules. And Jack hadn’t gotten as far as he had without following his self-imposed rules. The relevant one here was that he was never the pursuer. Well, at least not until a woman got him into her bed. Then all bets were off. But, in general, he thought it fairer to let women come to him, given that he was never going to see any of them more than once. Pursuing a specific woman risked raising her expectations.
As he ate his pork loin—preserved lemon on the side—he gave up on the rows and rows of numbers, which were forever eluding him anyway, and contemplated the hot bartender. Why had he never noticed her before? The world was always throwing women at him—hence no need to be the pursuer. Daughters of vendors—Jesus, wives of vendors. Flight attendants. Women hitting on him in bars. At Edward’s, and at most downtown Toronto high-end spots, they were almost all of a type, looking like they were on hiatus from the National Ballet to do their MBAs. They were all slippery shiny surface, nothing a man could hold on to, figuratively, or…well, this bartender, damn. He could just imagine pinning down those gorgeous full hips and—
“Will there be anything else tonight, sir?”
“Pardon me?” The object of his absurd little fantasy stepped into his line of vision, which put his eyeballs right in line with the second button of her white shirt—it had looked like it was about to pop off all evening.
“I’m cashing out—got to be up early tomorrow. So if you need anything else, more preserved lemon, maybe,”—one corner of her plump pink mouth turned up—“Edward will help you, okay?” She gestured to the older man at the other corner of the bar, whom he knew to be the owner.
He was not the pursuer. And, God, a bartender? Not exactly his type. “Thank you,” he said flatly, keeping his face neutral.
With a dip of her head, she disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later the door swung back open, and she stepped through transformed. A pink pea coat had been thrown over her shirt and her hair had come down. Freed from its prim bun, it fell well past her shoulders. When it was up, he’d thought of it as merely dark brown. But he saw now that it was a shiny mahogany subtly streaked with auburn and copper.
And she’d lost the tie. He shifted in his seat. The top two buttons of her shirt were undone; that heroic button had been taken off active duty, no longer straining to cover her up. He could see just the barest bit of cleavage, a mere hint of what he suspected lay beneath.
He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the rest.
Well, if fucking Carl was going to take down Winter Enterprises, at least Miss Lemon on the Side had given him something else to think about tonight.