Authors: Tracey Alvarez
But the evening’s dinner service had been a breeze. With the front of the house a quarter full the servers were on cruise mode, and nobody complained about the boring crap they served. Nothing even potentially interesting happened that could be used in his audition. Not even a dropped plate.
After plating the last meal and closing the kitchen for the night, Del sat at one end of a stainless steel counter, hunched over Bill’s ancient laptop, viewing an out-dated spread sheet program.
A glass jar half filled with gold coins rattled beside his face, and he glanced up.
“First service is a freebie,” Shaye said. “Tomorrow, shit, fuck, and any of the other dozen or so foul words I heard you use will cost a buck each. Proceeds go to charity.”
Del put down his pen. “You’re shitting me.”
“’Fraid she’s not.” Fraser, their dish-hand, hoisted his crate of dirty plates onto the counter beside the dishwasher.
“Shaye never kids about the swear jar.” Vince had already stripped off his cap and apron and now slipped on his battered sheepskin jacket. “And I’m off. See you in the morning.”
After saying goodbye to Vince, Shaye raised an eyebrow and rattled the jar. “I’m asking you to adhere to my little rule.”
“In God’s name, why?” This was Stewart Island, not the Queen’s frickin’ throne room.
She paused, tucking a wispy strand of hair behind her ear, which had slipped out from under her cap.
The sudden glimpse of vulnerability dampened his initial indignation. “This is important to you?”
Angling her chin, she said, “A pleasant workplace is good for morale. Nobody likes being shouted and sworn at. It’s disrespectful.”
Flickers in the back of his mind. A memory of hanging out at the Harlands’ as a kid. Of Michael, Ben’s father, dressing down Ben after an accidental “fucking bastard” slip in front of his mother and younger sisters. A firm reminder that part of respecting women meant watching your damn mouth.
Del suspected there was an element of Bill allowing Shaye a sense of control in a male-dominated workspace. Wisdom suggested he keep his opinions to himself.
Shaye nodded and replaced the jar on the shelf directly below his camera. He’d have to watch his language if he didn’t want her pulling the jar down every five minutes.
“You don’t mind me cussing around you out of the kitchen?” he asked.
She yanked off her checked chef’s cap. “I doubt we’ll spend any time together outside of work hours.”
For some reason, his male ego smarted. Yeah, she’d made it clear he’d been lumped into the asshole category, but a sneaky part of him wanted to observe her beyond Due South. To peel back her prickly layers and see if the little zap of awareness between them was hostility or attraction.
Though maybe she was right. With working his ass off here for at least the next two weeks, he wouldn’t have time for socializing—with her or anyone else. Better that way. Better to avoid interactions with his old crowd and just do his job.
Fraser disappeared through the swinging doors with his plastic crate ready for the final batch of dishes.
Shaye swiped a dishcloth over the already spotless countertop where he worked. “But there’s the wedding, I guess.”
“I’ll show up on the day, don’t worry.”
“You can’t just do that!” She gaped at him, her hand stilling on the countertop. “You’re meant to organize suit fittings and the toasts—I assume you’ve gotten your speech prepared?”
“Ben can do a speech—he’s West’s best buddy.”
“But West is
“Ben’s known him longer. Besides—” Del shrugged, opening a second spread sheet on the screen. He wasn’t prepared to discuss his complicated feelings for his older brother with her. “I’ve got plenty of time to write it.”
“Typical guy. Leave everything to the last moment then improvise.”
Shaye pursed her lips in a scowl and threw the dishcloth at the plastic-lined hamper by the far end of the counter—goddamn, she nailed it, too!
“Yeah, yeah.” He tried to concentrate, but the numbers kept dancing across the page. The woman had thrown him off his game.
Huffing out a sigh, he slapped the laptop screen shut. If she wanted to talk about the wedding, they’d talk about the damn wedding.
“So Ms. Harland. Got a date for the big day?”
“Yes.” She rolled down the sleeves of her chef’s jacket and avoided his gaze.
Liar. Either that or her choice of date embarrassed her.
“Anyone I know?”
And no, he wasn’t checking out the competition—just mildly curious. How many single men could this town have? Granted, any straight, single male would have to be a moron not to try to score an evening with Shaye in a pretty party dress with bountiful free booze on offer.
“No.” She flicked him a glance from under her lashes. “Have
got a date?”
The prospect of finding a date for West’s wedding made his gut curdle. “Nope. I’ll be going solo.”
She snorted softly—a buckshot-loaded sound. Which meant what? Where to find a female translation manual when you needed it?
Fraser returned, his crate loaded with dishes, and set to rinsing and stacking. The silence following Shaye’s little snort grated along his nerves.
“You know, we used to hang out. As kids,” he said.
“No. You hung out with my brother and sister. I was a boring bookworm who sometimes tagged along.”
Ah. So she remembered the flippant comment he’d made back when he’d thought snapping a girl’s training bra was the ultimate form of flirtation. Before he could figure out whether he should apologize for being a little snot, West strode into the kitchen.
“Poker game starts in an hour,” he said by way of greeting. “Shaye’s boyfriend is closing up tonight.”
Del’s fingers clamped around the pen and it flexed dangerously. Holy shit—she
lied? “Her boyfriend?”
“Our bartender,” replied West. “The reason why so many local women come for Happy Hour. Drooling over Kip makes them very happy. Right, Shaye?”
Shaye whipped off her apron and hung it on the row of hooks. “Absolutely. The man is a stone-cold fox.”
“You’re dating the bartender?”
Her lips tightened into a wafer-thin line.
“She won a dinner with him at the charity bachelor auction earlier in the year,” said West. “It didn’t work out—no chemistry.”
Shaye sent West a look that should’ve set his eyebrows on fire.
“What? Are you like my dating adviser now? We had a nice time.” She addressed the statement to them both, baring her cute little teeth.
Big brother—completely oblivious to the undercurrents circling the room.
“You said it was like having dinner with Ben. Or me,” West said. “Though I’m a lot more interesting than Kip or your verbally stunted brother.”
“Chemistry isn’t everything, and Kip’s very sweet.” Shaye stuck her nose in the air.
directed at him. Sweet was something he’d never be. Not unless it was part of tempting a woman into his bed, and he seemed to do well enough without resorting to
Del dropped the pen and leaned forward on the counter. “The guy’s doomed to the friend zone forever.”
“Poor bastard. So, you in tonight, Shaye-Shaye?” said West. “My bro here is easy pickings.”
Del didn’t miss the quick glance she shot at him before her gaze skipped to his brother. “Not tonight, sorry.”
“Hot date with your Kindle?” Once again, oblivious to Shaye’s murderous glare, West rambled on. “Aw, come on. You can’t let Piper be the only woman there; it just encourages her to be mean. Real mean.”
“Oh boo-hoo, Westy,” she said.
“You know she’ll come and drag you to the game—unless you’re on your deathbed.”
For some reason, Del wanted her at the game tonight. To see if there was an alternate Shaye—one who wasn’t so uptight outside of work hours. But he wouldn’t admit that outright.
He cleared his throat. “I think she wants to avoid spending any more time in my company.”
West frowned at Shaye. “You’re not holding a grudge about the whole head chef thing, are you? We talked that out this morning.”
Another eyebrow-scorching glance from Shaye. The woman was a knockout when her temper kicked in.
“Of course not.” She tossed her ponytail. “I’m not holding anything against him.”
Del grinned. Couldn’t damn help it. He’d started to hope she would hold something against him—preferably herself.
“So you’ll come?” he said. “I’ll play nice.”
She sniffed and swept around the counter, giving him a wide berth. “Maybe for a little while. I hope you picked up some New Zealand currency, because I don’t take US dollars. Or credit cards.”
Shaye blew through the swinging doors and disappeared.
“Quite an accomplishment.”
Del glanced over at West, who studied Del with a thoughtful expression.
“Having her make you public enemy number one.” West’s nose crinkled. “She has a soft spot for strays, but she sure has taken a dislike to you.”
“I’m no stray.”
“Own it, bro.”
“Screw you.” Del stood and gathered up the laptop. “And it doesn’t matter one way or the other if she hates my guts, so long as we get the job done.”
“Just don’t get into a scuffle with her for the bouquet toss at my wedding.”
Del shook his head and grinned. “How about we aim for coolly ignoring each other?”
“Won’t work. She ignores you, you’ll take it as a challenge. Trust me—it’s a battle you’ll lose.”
“That’s how you ended up pussy-whipped.”
West laughed. “There’re worse things than being pussy-whipped.” He sobered. “You’re not sniffing around her, are you?”
“Jesus, West. I’ve been here less than forty-eight hours, and you’re already imagining me and your sister-in-law in the sack? First man-rule—don’t shit where you sleep.”
He’d screwed that rule up once or twice with cringe-worthy results, and had taken it to the level of epic disaster with Jessica. Not going there again.
“Yeah, okay. My bad.” West wandered over and slapped Del’s back. “Sorry. Just wondered if this animosity between you was a front for something else—Pipe and I fought like demons to start with.”
“No front. I’m here to work, period.”
“Well, good. See you at the house.” West walked to the kitchen doors, paused and turned with a crooked grin. “Strays make the most loyal pets, you know. If they’re given a bit of love and a chance.”
“I’m not a dog, West. So fuck off with your lame analogies.” Del softened the comment with a smile of his own.
Fortunately, his older brother didn’t know what a royal screw-up he was.
Fortunately, West didn’t have a clue that Del was not only a stray but a stray who’d bite the hands that fed him.
“How bad was it? On a scale of one to five?” Piper lowered her voice as she ripped open a bag of potato chips and dumped them into a bowl. “One being ‘I can house train him in less than a week,’ and five being, ‘I need an extra set of hands to dig a shallow grave.’”
Shaye refused to look over her shoulder at Del, who was making small talk with Noah Daniels, Oban’s police force of one. Both men sized up the other across West and Piper’s circular card table, in the middle of the family room.
“Two-point-five,” Shaye said.
Piper had enough pre-wedding stress without Shaye bitching about West’s brother.
“Really, it was fine. He’s not my favorite person, but we worked well together.” By worked well, she meant they hadn’t burned anything or each other.
Piper pulled a six-pack from the fridge. “West was worried. He didn’t mean to step on your toes by hiring Del.”
“I know. It’s only short term.” Shaye pasted on a smile. “And Del’s talented. I’ll learn a lot from him.” Good grief, she sounded like a game show host reading off a tele-prompter.
Piper placed the beer on the kitchen counter and squeezed her arm. “I’m so glad you’re being cool about it all.”
“Who’s cool? Other than me?” Ben tweaked her ponytail.
“Here—” Piper picked up the cans and shoved them into Ben’s arms. “Make yourself useful and take these out.”
Ben tucked the six-pack against his broad chest and made a gimme gesture at the bowl of chips. “Load me up, ladies.”
Shaye grinned up at her brother and balanced the bowl on top of the cans. “Don’t eat them all between here and the table.”
“Now, how would I do that with no free hands?” He raised the chips closer to his face. “‘Course, I could chow down this way.”
“Doofus,” she said.
Ford appeared and stole a chip over Ben’s shoulder. “Five bucks says he couldn’t eat every chip in the bowl without using his hands.”