“Need anything else from me before I take off, boss?”
I turn to look at Ozzy where she leans against the edge of the doorway to my office then return my attention to the liquor order I need to get sent out today.
“You should be letting Jon know you’re leaving, not me. He’s in charge of the front tonight.”
There’s a pause before she responds.
When another ten or so seconds go by and she’s still standing there, I look at her again, struggling to hide the irritation in my voice.
She clears her throat, takes a deep breath, and shakes her head.
Then she disappears, heading off down the hallway toward the front, likely to tell Jon she’s heading home for the evening. I can’t help but let out a little sigh of relief.
Ozzy is my newest employee, having only been here about a month, and I’ve been questioning Jon’s decision to hire her since the day she started.
She has no bartending experience, no waitressing experience, no restaurant experience…it’s like the guy thought it would be a good idea to hire the least qualified person from the stack of applicants I handed to him.
She’s friendly enough and seems to do okay with customers, but just…seems to always be in the way.
I also can’t help but notice the way she watches me, her hazel eyes following my movements from across the room—though in all fairness, I only started picking up on it when one of my other waitresses, Tessa, told me Ozzy has a ‘crush’ on me.
Fuck, what are we, teenagers?
Part of me was flattered, of course, when Tessa shared the conversation the two of them had on Ozzy’s first day. I mean, who wouldn’t want the attention of a knockout like Ozzy? But she’s still struggling to keep up, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe she would have fewer issues if she watched me less and listened to directions more.
Besides, I might enjoy the charcuterie board of beautiful women who come through my bar, but I promised myself when I bought the place that crossing the lines with my employees was a nonstarter. Ozzy is…well, I don’t know exactly what she is, but she feels like a massive headache and a lot of temptation wrapped into one.
Eventually, I submit my online order to our distributor then head up to the front to relieve Jon so he can take a break.
“Hey there, Solo.”
My lips tilt up at the sound of the nickname bar patrons know me by, and I flick my eyes to the blonde sitting halfway down the bar, a smirk hanging on the edge of her lips.
Tossing a hand towel over my shoulder, I head in her direction then brace myself against the bar top and give her a charming smile.
“Back so soon?”
She shrugs a shoulder but eyes me with a coy look that makes it clear she’s interested.
“You make a mean vodka cranberry.”
I nod my head.
“That what you’re hoping for tonight?”
She props her chin on one of her hands then lets her eyes rove up and down my body.
“Among other things.”
Biting my lip, I nod again.
“One vodka cran, coming up.”
I get started making her drink, tugging out a tall glass and filling it with ice then grabbing the vodka and pouring in two shots. The cranberry is next, and I fill the rest of the glass before garnishing it with a lime.
“Here you go,” I say, popping in a straw then setting it on a napkin in front of her. “Anything else?”
She takes a sip then gives me another smile.
“This is all for now.”
I bob my head. “I’m gonna make a few more drinks, but I’ll be back,” I tell her, and I see the way her eyes brighten.
As I stroll to the other end of the bar to fulfill drink orders for a table in the corner, I try to remember her name. McKenna? McKayla? Something like that. She told me yesterday when she came in with a big group of friends who are in town for some sort of trip.
Those friends are nowhere to be seen today, though. She’s returned alone, and the way her eyes are devouring me gives off the vibe that she wants to have a little fun with the tattooed bartender while she’s on vacation.
I pop the tops off a few Coronas and shove limes into each of the necks, then I place them on a round serving tray at the end of the bar. I flag Tessa to pick up the tray that’s heading to table six then turn to head back to where the blonde is still eyeing me.
“So what does a guy like you get up to when he’s not working behind the bar?” she asks as her hand absentmindedly stirs her drink.
I shrug and lean back against the counter along the back wall.
I know I’ve said the right thing when she bites her lip. That action says she wants me to tease her and take her to bed, then tease her some more.
“Oh yeah? What kind of trouble?”
I step forward then reach out to brace myself against the bar and lean closer to her, close enough that I can smell the faint scent of her fading sunscreen.
“If you wanna find that out, you gotta give me your number first.”
At that, McKenna leans to her right and snags the black billfold from where another customer paid for their tab. Dragging the pen out, she jots her digits on the little white napkin I gave her with her drink then slides it toward me.
I glance at it on the bar.
McKenzie. That’s her name.
“I’m here for two more nights,” she tells me. “My guess is they’d be a lot more fun spent with you than my sisters.”
My eyebrows rise, remembering the group of ten or so women she came in with yesterday.
“You have a big family,” I joke.
She giggles again. “Sorority sisters,” she clarifies, lifting her hands in what looks remarkably like a gang sign. “Kappa Kappa Gamma! We’re on spring break, visiting from Phoenix.”
I bob my head, my plans for the evening deflating at the realization that this chick is probably barely old enough to be ordering that drink she has in front of her. It’s been a long time since I’ve forgotten to card someone.
My mind scrambles as I try to come up with an excuse, something that doesn’t hurt the girl’s feelings but frees me from using the number on that napkin.
Before anything comes to mind, the entry door flies open, the fading sunlight from outside streaming in as a tiny blur races across the room and around the bar with a brilliant smile on her face.
“I found it! I found it! I found it!” her voice repeats over and over until she’s just a foot away from me, her eyes bright, the excitement clear in just about every part of her face.
I return her smile, unable to help myself.
“And just what, exactly, did you find?” I ask.
She thrusts a photo in my direction, and as excited as Millie is, I can’t help the way my smile dims just slightly at the sight of it.
“The picture of you and mommy,” she says, bouncing on her toes and clapping her hands as I appraise her findings.
The aged picture I’m holding is of me and Toni, back when we first met here in the bar, almost ten years ago.
Before I bought the place.
Before she got pregnant with Millie.
Before she left us for the dreams she decided were more important than being a family.
It feels like a time capsule, looking at this thing, allowing myself a moment to remember the way we were together as my fingers touch the faded edges softly.
I clear my throat and try to keep a smile on my face as my daughter rambles on about needing the picture for some sort of family book they’re creating at school after they return from spring break.
“…thought I was going to have to draw a picture of mom, but now I have this picture and it’s going to be so much better!” she shrieks, her words tumbling one over the other in that way overly excited seven-year-olds do when they have something important to talk about.
“It’s going to be so much better,” I reassure her, handing the photo back and watching as she examines it again, her small fingers holding it like a delicate treasure.
“Can I get a baggie from the kitchen to make sure it stays safe?” she asks, and I nod, watching after her for a long moment as she barrels through the swinging door and through the kitchen, her little voice shouting, “Hi, Marco!” to one of my kitchen staff before she disappears into the pantry on the right where we keep supplies like foil and napkins and, apparently, plastic baggies.
Though, how my kid knows that is beyond me.
I shake my head and turn around, preparing to let McKenzie know I won’t be calling her since I will most likely have a project to help my daughter with—a lie, but one that probably won’t hurt her feelings—only to freeze when I see she’s gone.
Glancing around, I wonder if maybe she went to use the bathroom or something, but then I spot two things that confirm she’s not coming back.
One is the damp ten-dollar bill under her half-empty drink, and two is the fact that the napkin with her name and number is nowhere to be seen.
I chuckle to myself then collect the cash and dump the drink before wiping down where the condensation left a pool of water. I guess that was a bullet dodged, even if there is a tiny wound to my ego at the fact she bounced without a word.
I’m not sure if it was the revelation that I’m a father that scared her off or Millie shouting about a picture of me and her mother that drove her away, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
There will be other nights and other women, hopefully ones who are much older than McKenzie and her gaggle of sisters from Kappa Mocha Frappa or whatever it was called.
“I just didn’t think it would be a big deal.”
I cross my arms, then think better of it and drop them to my sides, not wanting to be too intimidating when I speak to my daughter’s babysitter.
“I understand that, Kasey, but I’m clarifying with you now why it is a big deal. Millie is only seven. I don’t have a problem with you bringing her to see me at the bar when I’m working, but she shouldn’t be walking all the way down the street by herself.”
And, though I don’t add this part out loud, the fact that Kasey isn’t worried about it makes me concerned about how much attention she’s giving Millie during the time the two of them are together.
Sandalwood is a safe little beach town, without question, but she’s still a child.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lock. It won’t happen again.”
I stare at Kasey for a long minute before I nod, deciding to accept her apology and take her at her word. I mean, I hate to admit it, but I don’t have a lot of options when it comes to making sure Millie is taken care of while I’m working. Sure, I’m the owner and I could set her up in the back—or hell, even in the front—if I wanted to while I’m working, but I promised myself before I even bought the place that a life of being raised in a bar wasn’t going to be what I exposed Millie to.
“Also, just a reminder, I’m taking this whole week off for Millie’s spring break, so I won’t need you to babysit next weekend.”
Kasey bobs her head. “Yeah, I remember.” Then she gives me kind of a sheepish look. “And I know it’s last minute, but I actually can’t babysit tomorrow night. I have a paper due Monday and I’m way behind.”
Inwardly, I bristle in irritation. She couldn’t have mentioned this earlier?
But I’ve dealt with babysitters cancelling late before, so I take it in stride. Because, really, it’s the only thing I can do.
So instead, I just give her a thin smile.
“Okay, I’ll figure it out. Good luck with your paper.”
“Thanks. Have a good night, Mr. Lock,” she tells me, giving a friendly wave before grabbing her backpack and heading out the front door.
I take a deep breath then let out a long sigh as her feet thud softly down the stairs from our second-floor apartment, thankful for a few moments of silence. Crossing the small living room to the kitchen, I snag a bottle of beer from the fridge.
I’m proud of the way I handled that, knowing how angry I was earlier when I realized Millie had come to the bar without Kasey, meaning she walked all the way there from our apartment alone. She could have been snatched off the street. Or hit by a car. Or wandered off to the ocean a block from the bar and drowned.
Thank God she’s a levelheaded kid. More levelheaded than Kasey, apparently.
I shake my head and sink down into the leather chair that used to belong to my grandfather, the familiar feel of the cool material and the comforting way it fits my body shape as I settle and lean my head back giving me a moment of reprieve.
Clearly, I need to make some changes when it comes to Millie’s daycare situation.
Thankfully, my mom helps by watching her on weekdays after school until I get home just before Millie’s bedtime, but I’m still struggling to find someone for the weekend nights, like tonight, when I work until after midnight. Kasey has been okay since she started babysitting a few months ago, but if she’s letting Millie wander off, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when Sandalwood is a little more chaotic, I’m not sure whether she’s the right person for the job.
I sigh and take a swig of my beer. It’s definitely something I’ll need to think about this week, but thankfully not for a few days at least.
Millie’s mom is coming to town for the week our daughter is out of school. Even though Toni is almost entirely focused on her tour, she’s not doing a completely horrible job at making time here and there for Millie. This will be the third spring break in a row that she has cleared away completely, so I need to at least give her that much credit.
Almost as if my thoughts conjured her into being, my phone pings with a message from Toni, reminding me she’ll be here on Sunday afternoon.
It’s unlike her to be so…specific.
I don’t doubt that she’s coming to town. She’s not that negligent that she just no-shows her own kid, but she’s never been punctual, preferring to be vague so as not to disappoint anyone when she’s inevitably late or delayed because of something super important.
I flick a message back, letting her know we’ll be at the house all day Sunday and to just let me know once she’s an hour out.
It’s easier that way. If I try to get a specific time from her and then I tell Millie, she’ll be waiting by the window, her forehead creased with a worry wrinkle that shouldn’t already be on the face of a seven-year-old.
Looking forward to seeing you, Toni responds.
I chew on the inside of my cheek and stare at those words for a long moment before taking another sip from my beer.
She always sends me stuff like that. ‘Can’t wait to see you’ or ‘Looking forward to being together again’…and then she gets here and shows me just how much she means it.
It’s unspoken that she’ll be staying here, at my apartment with Millie. It always is. She’ll offer to take the couch, but we both know the blankets and pillow I pull out for her are just a formality. I can’t be within a hundred yards of Antonina Crawford and not be sucked in, like a gravitational pull.
I mean, it makes sense considering the history we have between us. The connection we have. The daughter we share.
Which is why her visits are always complicated.
I spend months and months putting Toni out of my mind, enjoying life as a bachelor. Well, a bachelor-father. I don’t really date per se because I’m certain my life with Millie is easier just the two of us than if I tried to introduce any other complications besides her own mother.
I don’t ask what she’s been up to while she was gone and she doesn’t tell me. Neither of us share the things we do while we’re apart—another unspoken rule, another way we tiptoe around things instead of addressing them head on.
But then she comes back to town and, like I said…gravity. That familiar pull of how good we are together. The heat between us. The way she feels in my arms.
We both know it’s only while she’s here, because after a few days or a few weeks, she’s gone again, off on her next tour or booking gigs with her band somewhere on the other side of the country as she chases her dream.
A dream that takes her away from us.
From her daughter.
Keeping her on the road almost 50 weeks out of the year.
It’s when she leaves that I see the same familiar heartbreaking expression of disappointment on Millie’s face that I see on my own when I look in the mirror.
Each time Toni comes to town, I can’t help but let my mind wonder if this is it. The sticking point. The time she’ll tell me she’s done and ready to come back to be with us. To be a mom. A partner. A family.
I wonder if this will be the time when she realizes all the happiness she’s looking for has been here, in Sandalwood, all along.
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