Duty. Honor. Country.
Love. Romance. Passion.
Look, I don’t need a psychologist to tell me why I am the way I am. I grew up with a mom who was forever chasing her happily-ever-after, never considering the cost to herself–or to me. That’s why I’m not interested in fairy tales or in finding some elusive prince charming to solve all of my problems.
Until I meet him in the bar where I work. One night of fun somehow begins to mean more, and it scares the crap out of me.
I joined the Army when I was just a kid, mostly because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I never dreamed I’d love it enough to make it my career, but now here I am, an officer, stationed at West Point, leading a company of soldiers. What started as an escape has become my passion–and it’s one that doesn’t have space for anything–or anyone–else.
Until I meet her at my buddy’s bachelor party. I think I’m indulging in one meaningless night, but I can’t stop thinking about her. Remembering her. Wanting her.
Read the first chapter here!
“Hey, baby, let me buy you a drink.”
The guy sitting at the end of the bar leaned forward to catch my eye, and I bit back a smile. This was a regular routine, something we went through at least once a week.
“Dale, honey, I told you before. You’re too much man for me.” I patted his hand and slid him the beer I’d just poured. “Also, take my advice. You want a woman who hasn’t known you since you peed your pants in kindergarten on the first day.”
He winced. “Awwww, Lark, why’d you have to bring that up again?”
I chuckled. “Sorry, dude. It’s what happens when you live in a small town and then try to hit on someone who’s known you too long.” Lowering my voice, I added, “But we just hired a new waitress who moved here from West Cornwall. She’s super cute, too. You should talk to her. I think you two might hit it off.”
His face brightened. “Is she hot?”
“Sure.” I wasn’t really comfortable commenting on the hotness or lack thereof in other women, but Dale definitely wasn’t a man who understood enlightenment when it came to the female of the species. Any rant I might go on would be lost on him.
“Can you introduce us?”
“Dale, get your own sorry ass over to one of her tables and introduce yourself.” Rhonda came lumbering around the bar and glared at the man in front of us. “Lark has better things to do than to play matchmaker.”
I shrugged and mouthed sorry toward Dale as he groaned and rose from his barstool, carrying his beer with him. He lumbered across the seating area, searching, I assumed, for a likely empty table.
“So what do I have to do that’s more important than Dale’s love life?” I winked at Rhonda. “Because obviously, that’s my purpose in life, to help him find his one true love.”
“That would take a stronger woman than you or me.” Rhonda slid her tray under the bar. “Listen, honey, do me a favor. Take that table over on the other side of the dining room. They’re going to be here for a while, I’m pretty sure, and I need to get off this knee.”
She hiked the hem of her gray dress up just enough that I could get a glimpse of her leg. I winced, wrinkling my nose when I saw how swollen and discolored her knee was.
“You need to get to the doctor,” I scolded. “I think that needs medical attention.”
Rhonda rolled her eyes. “Then it needs to get in line behind my back and this cough I can’t shake.”
There wasn’t a good answer to that, because I knew, as most of us working here did, that seeing a doctor wasn’t a viable option unless there wasn’t any other choice. Chronic and worrisome didn’t fall into the emergency category for those of us without any health insurance.
“Well, go on home and rest.” I gave her a gentle push. “I’ll take your tables.”
“It’s just the one.” Rhonda untied her apron and dropped it into the basket beneath the bar. “I was only here for another half hour, anyway.”
“I got it,” I repeated. “I’ll see you tomorrow—if you’re feeling better. If you’re not, you keep your sick and hurting butt at home. You hear?”
“Yes, Mom.” She patted my cheek, her smile weary. “The way you talk. Like I don’t have more than twenty years on you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Stop grousing and get moving.” I reached for her order pad and flipped it open as I watched Rhonda limp toward the door. Once she was gone, I headed to her table of guys, my gaze roaming over the occupants as I approached.
I was used to seeing soldiers and soldiers-to-be in this job. First, second and third classmen often wandered over to our bar from the confines of the post, looking for some relief from the nearly constant rigor of training that made up the four years of education at West Point. Fourth classmen, also called plebes, were not given the same liberty to leave post, so we didn’t get as many of them as patrons.
Even more than cadets, we tended to serve the soldiers who worked at West Point, both the officers and enlisted who served as instructors at the Academy or performed other duties on post. The men and women who were stationed there tended to be polite, good customers for the most part. Still, I had an innate distrust and wariness when it came to soldiers, borne of years of watching them walk all over our town as though they owned the place, as though being stationed at West Point entitled them to both mock and abuse Highland Falls. They laughed at the people I’d grown up with, they made fun of our small-town life . . . and the men saw the women in our town the same way they did candy in a vending machine.
But over the years, I’d learned to hide my feelings and put on a good show. Pasting a smile on my face, I paused at my new table, arriving just in time to catch a little bit of their conversation.
“ . . . none of your damn business.” The guy sitting in the middle seat glared at his friends. “What happens on Flirty stays on Flirty.”
I smirked. This was just the sort of opening a girl like me was made to sashay through.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I paused for a moment, as the attention of six hot guys swiveled around to focus on me. Their eyes widened, taking me in, and I added, “If I had a dollar for every time a cadet sweet-talked me into just taking a walk on Flirty . . . well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be your waitress tonight. But here I am.” I shifted my weight onto my left foot and hooked a thumb at my chest. “I’m Lark, and I’m taking over for Rhonda. She passed on your drink orders to me, so I think I’m all set. Are y’all ready for another round? Or are you planning to order some food first?”
The man sitting at the corner of the table was the first to speak. I’d seen him earlier doing some kind of bizarre dance, swaying back and forth while his friends made fun of him. I was curious about that, but right now, my job was to get these guys drinks and food.
“How about another round for everyone, and maybe some wings for the table?” The dancer guy glanced at his buddies. “How does that sound?”
“Let’s do it.” The one sitting closest to me lifted what appeared to be an empty beer bottle. “But I’d like to switch to ice water, please. I still need to drive this group back to post once we’re finished.”
“You got it.” I flashed him a smile. “Anyone else wanting a change in drink order?”
“Yeah.” A third man spoke up and tapped the neck of his empty Corona. “I’d like to switch to a Hudson Valley Lightbringer.”
I cocked my head, allowing my eyes to show some surprise as I checked out the dude. “Coming up.” I began to turn around and then paused. “Are you a local, then? Not many people know about the craft brews around here unless they live in the area.”
“I’m stationed at West Point.” He jerked his head in the direction of the man who’d asked for ice water. “My buddy here is getting married on post this weekend, and all of his friends came up for the wedding. So this is kind of like a sad version of a bachelor party. Minus the lap dances.”
I laughed. “Yeah, Benny’s is known for a lot of things, but lap dances aren’t one of them.” I winked at the groom-to-be. “Congratulations, by the way.”
“Thanks.” He beamed at me, and his obvious happiness gave me an odd, almost envious feeling, as though I was jealous of the girl he was marrying . . . which was ridiculous, since I didn’t even know her and this dude was not my type at all.
Giving myself a little shake, I pivoted and headed for the kitchen to deliver their wings order before I returned to the bar for the drinks. As I went, I was aware that one pair of eyes, in particular, was watching me go.
Four more people had taken seats at the bar when I stopped back to fill my table’s drink order, and all of them looked at me expectantly as I hesitated. We tried to staff a dedicated bartender every night, but sometimes, that wasn’t possible, which meant one of the wait staff had to juggle both tables and bar—which wasn’t usually a big deal. Weeknights could be slow. Apparently, though, I was going to have to balance customers in both areas tonight.
“Miss! We’re waiting to order.” A thin-lipped woman with carefully coiffed gray hair raised her voice.
“Sorry for your wait. I’ll be right with you.” I flashed the lady a smile, hoping to charm her into patience. “I just have to drop these drinks—”
“We’ve been sitting here for ten minutes, and no one has even offered us a water.” At the other end of the bar, another woman put in her two cents. This one was a younger bleach-blonde with enormous boobs that threatened to spill out of her low-cut shirt.
“I apologize. I’m on it now.” Grabbing two glasses from under the bar, I scooped ice into them and reached for the still water hose.
“The service here is usually so good,” the first woman’s companion remarked, and I gritted my teeth against a growl.
“Hey.” A deep voice floated down to me, and I glanced away from my task briefly to see the guy who’d ordered the local beer peering at me over the bar. “Can I help?”
I released the hose and straightened, sliding the water glasses to the younger women who were now openly eyeing up the Army officer as though he were the special of the day. Rolling my eyes, I turned my attention back to the object of their lust.
“I’ll be right over with your drink refills.”
“I didn’t come to harass you. I came to help.” He pointed to the empty space next to me. “Can I come back there? I’m happy to lend a hand—and I promise, I won’t demand a share of the tips.” He winked, and something deep within me went melty.
“Okay.” It wasn’t exactly standard operating procedure to invite a patron back behind the bar to help out, but on the other hand, he’d offered . . . and it would only be for a moment. “Tell you what. Here’s your table’s drink order.” I whipped the pad out of my apron pocket. “You take care of that, and I’ll serve these lovely folks.”
He rounded the bar swiftly, took the pad from me and began moving. “On it.”
With only the slightest niggle of worry, I focused my attention on the customers sitting at the bar, beaming at the older couple first.
“Now, what can I get you this evening?”
* * *
The bachelor party table kept me busy for the next couple of hours, but it was the kind of busy I appreciated: the men were funny and friendly, but none of them crossed the line into creepiness. No one was inappropriate toward me, although their jokes with one another weren’t exactly PG. That was okay; I wasn’t a prude, and it was clear that they all had the kind of friendship that thrived on slightly dirty humor.
In between checking on them, keeping their drinks filled and removing dirty plates and glasses, I made sure everyone at the bar was happy, too. Once I’d caught up, thanks to the help of the sexy soldier who’d stepped up, it wasn’t hard to get into a rhythm and keep all of my patrons smiling.
After the group from West Point had paid their check, each of the men made a point of thanking me for taking care of them—and even better, when I began clearing some of the glasses away ahead of our busboy, I found that they’d left a tip that was more than generous. Of course, I’d share that with Rhonda, but it was enough for both of us to feel very appreciated.
Neal, our busboy, appeared at my elbow as I reached for another mug. “Sorry, Lark. I was working on clearing out the booths and wiping them down. I figured we can close down that section if you want. Anyone who comes in from this point on will want to sit at the bar, I bet.”
I nodded. “Yep, that sounds good. Thanks, Neal.” I lifted the tray I’d filled already. “I’ll drop these off in the back.”
“Thanks for the help.”
After I’d deposited the first wave of dirty dishes with the dishwashers, I slipped back behind the bar. Usually, things began to slow down at this point in the evening. I’d be able to coast until last call, just filling drink orders and closing out tabs. Glancing down the length of the bar, I counted three couples, two women who’d come in about an hour ago and were probably about to call it a night . . . and the same guy from the bachelor party group who’d lent me a hand.
Frowning, I narrowed my eyes, trying to ignore the way my heart had begun to thud against my ribs. I’d thought all the officers had left at the same time, but apparently, I was wrong. What was interesting was that this man, in addition to his help earlier, also happened to be the one who’d proudly proclaimed himself as the only unattached dude at the table as well as the one who’d ordered the local brew and told me that he was stationed at West Point.
He was watching me, his gaze unapologetic and admiring. There wasn’t a lot of room for doubt about why he’d stayed or what he was looking for. Whether I picked up on what he was laying down or chose to ignore it was up to me. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for one of my customers to hope that I might be interested in a little harmless one-night fling after I’d closed, but I was the one with the power to say yes or no. I made certain of that.
I took my time deciding tonight, checking in on my other customers first. I refilled a couple of wine glasses, took an order for fries and delivered the check to the two women who were finishing up. Once I’d made sure everyone else was covered for the moment, I paused in front of him.
“Are you lost, or did your buddies ditch you?” Resting my folded arms on the edge of the bar, I leaned forward under the guise of resting both my back and my feet. If this position also offered someone a tempting view of my boobs where my neckline dipped, that was just a happy accident.
The dude did not disappoint. His gaze wandered down to check me out before returning to my eyes—just as I’d hoped it would. The smile he gave me was full of lazy promise.
“Neither.” He answered my question with a single word. “Just wasn’t in the mood to go home yet. I thought I’d hang around and sample some of your stuff.” Before I could call him on that cheesy line, he quickly added, “The local beer, I mean.” Then he winked at me.
I had to give him props—this guy was good. He was playing with me, testing me out to see if I was game for . . . what? A little fun flirtation to round out the evening? Or was he hoping for more?
And if it were the latter, was I down for that? Maybe. Some nights, I was down to burn off a little sexual energy with someone who was a good bet—someone who understood the drill. No expectations, no sappy romance, no repeats.
The men from the Academy who hung out here on occasion were good for that, usually. Most weren’t looking for love or anything even resembling commitment, so that meant we were on the same page. I had standards, of course; I didn’t sleep with married men (and yes, it was easy to tell who they were) or anyone who gave me a wiggins vibe. I always made sure someone else knew who was coming home with me, for my own safety as well as for the guy’s peace of mind. In this day and age, I was well aware that there were women just looking to cash in, and soldiers were especially vulnerable. An accusation of non-consensual sex could ruin a career in the Army.
The man currently watching me with one raised eyebrow seemed to check all the necessary boxes. I knew he was single—his buddies had verified that for me through their conversation—and he didn’t seem to be looking for a love connection. He’d been decent enough to jump in and help me without making a big deal of it. Plus, he was the hottest opportunity to walk into this bar in many a month. His body filled out the jeans and Henley nicely, his clean-shaven face was angular and interesting, his lips were full and intriguingly sensuous . . . and the eyes tracking me held just enough promise to tempt my active libido.
I made my decision swiftly, letting one side of my mouth tip upward in a smile that answered him. “What can I get for you? I mean, while you’re waiting to sample the really good stuff?”
He smirked and tapped the card in front of him, the one that listed our local brew offerings. “I think I’ll start with this one—it’s called A Monument to All Your Sins. Have you tried it?”
“Are you kidding? Of course, I have. The name alone was enough to pull me in.” I turned to find his beer in the cooler. “Two Villains is actually an awesome brewery if you haven’t been to it yet. It’s totally worth the trip to Nyack.” Popping the top, I slid the bottle across the bar.
“I’ll have to get down there and check it out.” He wrapped one hand around the beer and extended the other toward me. “I’m Nolan, by the way. Nolan Shaughnessy.”
I hesitated only half a beat before I took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You already know I’m Lark.”
“Do you have a last name, Lark, or is that it? Like Cher or Madonna?”
I rolled my eyes. “Pirillo. Lark Pirillo. I don’t claim any similarities with Cher or Madonna, thanks.”
Nolan still held my fingers captive in his. “Nice to meet you, Lark.” He didn’t drop his eyes from mine for a solid moment, and between our locked gaze and his touch on my hand, I could feel my body beginning to sizzle like a live wire.
Finally, I cleared my throat and tugged away from his grip. “Better enjoy that beer while it’s still cold.”
He took a long gulp, even as he continued to watch me. “What time do you finish tonight?”
“I’m closing, and last call is midnight. With any luck, I’ll be out of here by twelve-thirty.”
Nolan used the back of his hand to wipe his mouth. “Do you have any objections to me waiting around to see you out after you’re done?”
I wanted to laugh. “Oh, you’re such a gentleman, huh? Just want to see me to my car? How chivalrous of you.” Irony filled my voice. “And then what? You’ll kiss my hand, hold the door and watch me drive me away before you go back to your lonely barracks?”
He leaned up and lowered his voice. “There isn’t a damn thing wrong with being gentlemanly, Lark. But if you want me to lay it out plain—okay. I’d like to wait for you to finish work so I can go home with you, and when we get to wherever you live, I’m not looking for tea and cookies.” He eased back slightly, and some of the intensity left his tone. “As far as chivalry . . . my definition of the word is making sure the woman I’m with comes before I do.” Nolan paused to let that sink in before adding, “Twice.”
My mouth went dry, making it hard to swallow. “Okay. Wow. Laying it out plain is now my favorite thing ever.”
He grinned at me. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
I needed to get back to work—the fries one couple had ordered were ready to be delivered, and another pair of customers were looking at me pointedly, probably wanting to settle their tab.
“You’re sure you don’t mind waiting for me to be done?” I had another solid hour before closing, though if everyone cleared out soon and no one else came in, I might be able to leave right at midnight.
“Nope.” Nolan lifted his beer. “I’ll just enjoy this. Take your time.”
I gave him a brief nod and went back to work, but even as I smiled and chatted and made nice with the last few customers, my body was buzzing and my mind was still on him.
Midnight couldn’t come fast enough.
You can read the rest of The Mustang here: