July 16, 2013
en Doll is back.”
Ryan Kaminski didn’t have to look to see who Lindsey was talking about.
Ken Doll had been Lindsey’s obsession for the last three nights.
“Yeah? What’s he doing?” Talking on his phone? Texting? Ignoring the rest of the world? She did not understand why people came to a bar to stare at their phones and ignore people. If they didn’t want to talk to people, they should just hide out in their apartments like she did. Ryan scooped ice into the martini shaker and then poured in vermouth, followed by high-end vodka that cost about a week’s worth of tips, and slid on the top before giving it all a good shake.
“Ken Doll looks sad,” Lindsey added.
That made Ryan look over her shoulder at the handsome blond man at the far corner of the bar. For three nights he’d been coming in, working on two different phones. Making calls. Sending texts—never looking up. Never acknowledging that he was actually in a room full of people.
He ordered beer—Corona in a bottle. Tipped double the bill and usually left every night without saying anything more than “Corona” and “thank you.”
Ken Doll would be totally unremarkable—there were plenty of men at The Cobalt Bar spending more time on their phones than actually talking to people, and wearing beautiful tailor-made suits that clung just right to their bodies while they did it.
But they were not nearly as interesting as Ken Doll.
Because Ken Doll was just so damn pretty.
His blond hair had a slight curl to it, just enough that you knew it probably made him crazy. Piercing blue eyes. Like they’d been computer enhanced, that’s how blue they were. In the soft, smooth plane of one cheek there was a dimple—she’d only seen it by accident when he smiled at a woman who asked to take the bar stool to his left the other day. But the real kicker—the show-stopper—was how he moved, efficient and graceful, like there was simply no time to waste, because he was A Man Who Got Things Done.
Watching him unbutton his jacket before sitting down was like watching a mission statement. A planted flag.
That’s what Ken Doll had that every other man in this bar was lacking.
But tonight he didn’t have his phones out. He sat there, hands pressed flat against the mahogany bar, as the raindrops caught in his blond hair gleamed red and blue under the moody lights. He was wearing a University of Georgia Bulldogs tee shirt under which his shoulders . . . oh, that slump, it told a very sad story indeed.
Ryan poured the martini into the chilled glass, took a twist off the fresh lemon behind the bar, and put the glass on a napkin before sliding the drink over to the woman who’d ordered it and collecting the twenty the woman had left on the bar.
These meaningless transactions made up her life. Over and over again.
“I want to ease Ken Doll’s pain.” Lindsey didn’t even pretend not to watch Ken Doll while pulling a draft for one of the guys working the couches. “Like. Really.”
Lindsey was well suited to that task. The bar’s uniform—the short leather shorts, the fishnets and tall boots—took on a whole new level of sexy with her. She was a twenty-one-year-old party girl from the Bronx who could take care of herself and anyone else who wanted to have a good time.
Next to her Ryan felt old, way older than thirty-two. She felt old and crotchety and like she was only days away from yelling at kids to get off her lawn. Not that she had a lawn.
Ryan should just get out of the way and let Lindsey take care of Ken Doll.
But she didn’t.
Once upon another lifetime she modeled, and she still did when she could get the work. When she couldn’t, she worked at an overpriced bar inside the very swanky Cobalt Hotel in midtown Manhattan.
She knew all kinds of pretty.
But there was something about pretty and sad that got her antenna up.
“Switch sides with me,” Lindsey said, referring to the neat-down-the-middle split between her side of the bar and Lindsey’s.
“Come on,” Lindsey pouted. “You hate the guys that come in here. He’s wasted on you.”
“This is true.” Ryan had a fervent dislike for the posing and the posturing, the manicured and manscaped version of masculinity that walked into this bar. She hated the ego and the way the men watched her body—admittedly on display—but when she caught their eyes, no one was home. Or they were constantly looking past her for someone else.
For something better.
“But he’s not like the other guys that come in here,” Ryan said.
This was so true; other people in the bar watched him out of the corner of their eyes, as if they knew he was different from the rest of them. Or he was familiar and they just couldn’t remember why.
She didn’t want to ease Ken Doll’s pain, at least not in the way that Lindsey did. But she’d been serving him for three nights and she was dying to know his story. “And he’s on my side. Sorry, Linds.”
She tossed a black bar towel toward a scowling Lindsey and sauntered over to Ken Doll’s corner. There was a weird energy rolling off him tonight, and the air in this small part of the bar was electric and still. Humid, from the water burning up from the heat of his body.
“The usual?” she asked, waiting for him to look up at her so she could smile.
He ran a hand through his blond hair, sending water droplets into the air.
“I’ll have scotch. Neat.”
Finally, he looked up at her, and the distracted but polite distance she was used to seeing in his sky-blue eyes was replaced by a sizzling, terrible grief. Or anger. She couldn’t be sure. Not that it mattered, really.
Because tonight, Ken Doll burned.
“Whatever,” he said, his voice low and broken. “Just bring me whatever.”
She poured him Lagavulin, and she barely had the tumbler on the bar in front of him before he grabbed it and shot it back. “Another,” he said.
Two more shots later, she brought him a glass of water and a menu.
“Thank you,” he said, glancing at her through impossibly long eyelashes. But he pushed the menu away.
“My name is Ryan,” she said. “Apparently I’ll be the woman getting you drunk tonight.”
His laughter was dry, like wind through November trees, but he didn’t say anything.
“And your name?” she asked. “That’s usually how it works, in case you’re unfamiliar. I tell you my name, you tell me yours.”
“Harri- . . . Harry. You can call me Harry.” His voice was laced with traces of the South, pecans and sweet tea.
She held out her hand, and after a moment he shook it. “Nice to meet you, Harry,” she said.
There were no calluses on that hand, which wasn’t all that surprising in the land of his-and-hers manicures. But every time she shook a man’s hand she thought of her dad’s big palms, the blisters and cuts, the thick calluses—a working man’s hands.
Harry’s palms were smooth and supple, but his grip was sure and strong and he didn’t do anything skeevy—so points for him.
“You too, Ryan.”
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He blew out a long breath, laughing a little at the end, as if he just couldn’t believe how everything around him had turned to shit. “Have you ever done everything in your power and not have it be good enough? And not just a little bit, but have everything you are capable of be not even close to enough?”
“No idea,” she joked, deadpan. “Ever since I was a girl I dreamt of making overpriced martinis for men who only stare at my chest.”
It took him a second, the weighty stare of his checking to see if she was being serious or not, but finally he laughed. A weary humph that made her feel just a little victorious.
“Well, it’s a first for me.”
“It’s no fun, is it?”
He shook his head, the muscles of his shoulders flexing under his shirt like he was about to twitch out of his skin. Empathy, something she very rarely felt at work, swarmed her.
“I’m . . .” he trailed off, his hands on the bar curled into fists.
“Angry?” she supplied, watching his knuckles grow white.
He nodded slowly. “And sad. Mostly . . . sad.”
Inside, deep inside, a penny dropped and the complicated mechanism of her desire—of her elusive and rarely seen want—was engaged.
Well, shit, she thought. Maybe I will be easing his pain after all.
Later, she brought him the chicken and waffles, because while he’d slowed down on the Lagavulin, he hadn’t stopped.
“I didn’t order this,” he said, looking down at their signature dish, guaranteed to soak up the alcohol in his stomach while making him thirsty enough for more.
“Comes with the scotch.”
“Speaking of which.” He held up his tumbler. At least he’d switched to scotch and water.
“Can I trust that your fancy New York City chef knows what he’s doing with chicken and waffles?” Harry asked, not quite smiling, but not quite looking like the world was going to crush him.
“Well, our chef is from Mobile, so she might know her way around.” She set the refilled tumbler back down in front of him. “It’s raining out?”
“Yeah . . . I stepped out to get some air and it’s cats and dogs out there.”
Cats and dogs? she thought, swallowing her smile. That’s just adorable.
Rain could go either way for business, and Lord knew she needed the money of a good night, but she was content at this quiet end of her bar.
“This is kind of you,” he said, contemplating the food.
“Well, you seem like a nice guy.”
“I’ve barely said two words to you.”
“Well, I have a sixth sense about these things, and those two words were serious and well-meaning.”
“Serious and well-meaning is exactly me.” He cocked his head, watching her from beneath long lashes. “Or a pet dog; I can’t be sure.”
She laughed, happy to see that he was getting into the spirit of the banter. “I have never had a well-meaning dog in my life. Thieves and layabouts, all of them.”
“I had one. As a kid. Daisey. She meant well.”
Oh God, he was walking down old-dead-dog memory lane.
“You are just all kinds of sad tonight, aren’t you?”
He spun his glass in a slow circle. “I guess so.”
“You know,” she said, “where I grew up there was this bar called The Sunset right down the street. A real dive bar. Guys went in after their shifts on Friday and didn’t come out until Sunday afternoon. Well, they got this new daytime bartender. A real soft touch. She fell for every hard-luck story that sat down in the corner. And then word got out that Ben Polecka came in there crying after his wife left and the bartender gave him free beers all afternoon. Soon, everyone was going in there pretending to cry to get free beer. And my sister, always a bit of an entrepreneur, decides she and I should go stand outside the bar and charge guys five dollars to kick them in the balls. You know, as a kind of guarantee of real tears.”
He laughed, which of course had been the idea, but it still came as a bit of a surprise.
“How much money did you make?”
“Five bucks,” she shrugged. “We were out there for like three hours, and finally Bruce Dinkle took pity on us.”
“That was his real name?”
“And Bruce Dinkle paid you to kick him in the balls?”
“He did. We bought some ice cream, and it felt like we were on top of the world.”
His laughter faded and then the smile vanished, and then the weight of the world was rolled back up on his shoulders.
She leaned against the bar and crossed her arms over her chest, well aware that her breasts nearly spilled from the vest she wore, but Harry’s eye didn’t wander. They stayed glued to hers as if he didn’t even see the body beneath her chin. “Okay, you sad sack. Tell me. Who is your best not good enough for? A wife?”
He shook his head, and she would be lying if she didn’t say she was relieved.
“I’ve never had a boss.”
No boss? What planet is this guy from?
“Then who, my friend, is making you feel this way?”
“Why?” He smiled at her, looser than he’d been, but not yet totally unwound. The guy could hold his booze; she’d give him that. “You going to give them a talking-to?”
“I just might.”
“What would you say?”
“I would probably say, listen . . .” She paused, waiting for him to fill in the blank.
He shook his head, that blond hair gleaming red and then blue under the lights. “I’m afraid it’s . . . complicated.”
Gary, her manager, glanced over from across the room, and Ryan reached for some unprepped garnishes under the bar and made a good show of stripping mint leaves off the stem for mojitos. “Give me the gist. You don’t have to spill state secrets, but you might feel better getting some of this off your chest.”
“You an expert on that too?”
“I’m a bartender, Harry. I am an expert on lots of things.” She chucked the mint stem into the trash under the bar. “Lay your burdens down, my friend.”
“It’s my sister. She’s in trouble.”
“Ah, oddly enough, this is a subject in which I have plenty of experience.”
“You have a sister who gets in trouble?”
“I am the sister who gets in trouble.” Something buzzed up the back of her neck. A warning to shut her mouth and walk on, perhaps send Lindsey over. But she ignored it, despite having gotten so much better at heeding those internal warnings. She grabbed more mint just so she’d have something to do with her hands.
“So, is she in big trouble or little trouble? Like if one is dating a jerk and ten is living on the streets, where does she fall?”
“She isn’t even on that spectrum.” Something in his voice made her realize the jokes were soon to become offensive. That there was no part of this he was going to find funny. And funny was a huge part of her armor. And without her armor she was just vulnerable and sympathetic—two things that had gotten her in more than her fair share of trouble.
Leave, she thought. Switch sides with Lindsey. Forget about Sad Ken Doll.
But that was impossible. His anger and grief were magnetic.
She put down the mint.
“I’m so sorry, Harry,” she told him sincerely.
“It’s fine.” His smile revealed the dimple, and for a moment she was distracted enough not to realize he was lying. But she had been a bartender for over a decade and she could smell a lie a mile away. And whatever the situation was with his sister, it was far from fine.
“That’s what you’ve been working on for the last few days. With the phones? Trying to help your sister?”
“I couldn’t stare at the walls of my room anymore. All day, every day, trying . . .”
He sighed, pushing away the plate with the half-eaten chicken on it. For a moment Ryan thought he was going to walk out; he was coiled, poised to just vanish.
And that would be for the best, she thought. For her. Maybe for him. Because the last thing he probably needed was a sister in trouble and a hangover in the morning. And the last thing she needed was this compassion—this empathy and curiosity, the rusted guts of her desire—making her decisions for her.
But then he relaxed back into his chair. Back into the moment with her.
She exhaled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Not that it’s done much good. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to help her.”
There was an invisible barrier down the middle of the bar. This one and every other upscale bar in the five boroughs. The barrier was well documented not only in The Cobalt Bar employee handbook, but also in her own rule book: no fraternizing with the drinkers. A lesson she’d learned twice the hard way.
But she shoved her fist right through that barrier and put her hand over his. To her surprise, he grabbed her fingers and held them tight in his, like a lifeline he was terribly in need of.
“She’s . . . she’s my baby sister. And she hasn’t needed anything from me in so long and now . . . now that she does, now that she really needs me, I might not be able to help her. It’s killing me.”
Everything, the empathy and the desire and the shock of his touch, twisted and turned inside her, making her ache. Making her wish there wasn’t a bar between them, that she could wrap her arms around him properly.
She squeezed his hand instead. “Do you have any other family?” she asked. “Someone else who can help you?”
“I am heading home tomorrow morning to talk to them.” His tone indicated that this was a bad, bad thing.
“They won’t be able to help?”
“Help or hurt—it could go either way. Smart money is on hurt.”
She stood there, silently bearing witness to his grief. Letting him grip her hand so hard their knuckles rubbed up against each other’s.
“It’s so crazy, and my mother . . . Mother is not going to handle this well. She’s never approved of my sister, and this is going to put her right over the edge.” He shot her a wry look and then sighed. “The one bright spot is, I think I know a guy who can help.”
“That’s good,” she said.
“Well, there is a decent chance that he will laugh in my face and tell me to go fuck myself. And then . . .” He hung his head, wiping his hand across his face. “Oh God, then I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
Screw the barrier. Screw the rule book. Screw the rest of the bar. She lifted her hand from his grip and touched his cheek, the perfect bone structure of his jaw. The fine scruff of his beard felt good against her palm.
The man needed some sympathy. Some human connection. He’d been wrestling with what seemed like a nightmare for the last three days. And she . . . maybe she, who lived behind a solid glass wall of rules created by shitty past experience, could use a little human connection, too.
Excerpted from Indecent Proposal by Molly O'Keefe. Copyright © 2014 by Molly O'Keefe. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.