Excerpt

Infatuated – Chapter 1

 

The skin on the back of my neck crawled.

He was back. He always came back.

My eyes locked with his from across the room, through the crowd and smoke, and I fought a shudder.

“Can I get a beer, baby?”

I looked up to a blond guy standing in front of me, smiling broadly. I forced my own smile, trying to at least appear friendlier than I felt. “Sure, that’ll be five bucks.”

Blondie, a weekend regular, slapped a five on the beat up counter as I slid a glass of beer in front of him. His brown eyes were nearly bloodshot. “Thanks, sugar,” he said. “I’ll buy you one, too.”

“Sorry—no drinking allowed on the job, you know that.” Too bad about that rule, too, cause I’d seriously consider it. “Thanks for the offer, though.”

He muttered something under his breath—something that sounded eerily like ‘stuck up bitch’. I just nodded and kept my smile in place as he yanked the glass away, sloshing beer over his hands and the counter. Instinctively, I grabbed a washcloth from behind the bar and wiped up the mess, all the while trying not to look at him.

Earl Gallen.

The guy came in every night I worked, sat in the same booth at the far corner of the room, and just stared at me. He never said a word to me, and in fact, he’d get someone else to serve him, just to avoid speaking to me. I’d never even heard his voice—not directly, anyway. He had no problem staring at me with that creepy gaze—like now—but he couldn’t be bothered saying a thing? Creep.

The light above his table was out. Between that and my own dislike, it made him seem even more menacing. Like in a horror movie where they kept the killer in shadows so you didn’t see his face clearly. I fought another shudder. And I don’t want to see his.

“Your boyfriend watching you again?” a southern voice drawled.

I jumped and spun around to find Laura Wilkes, my co-worker, watching me. Everyone thought we were sisters, because our faces were similar. We both had hazel eyes, though hers were darker. Where I had long, straight blond hair, hers was cut short and curly. She was pixie-sized and I was more curvy.

And if I didn’t love her like a sister, I would have hit her.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I snapped. Laura raised her eyebrows and I rolled my shoulders. “Sorry.” I kept wiping the counter down to keep my hands occupied. “But you know I hate it when you say that crap.”

Leaning against the bar, she smiled at me. “Come on, Ally. He’s at least twice your age. You probably remind him of his daughter or something.” She paused. “I think it’s actually kind of sweet.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at Earl quickly. Yup. He was staring at me still. “You say it’s sweet because it’s not you he spends an hour a night staring at—and that’s if I’m lucky.” On most nights, he got to the bar a few minutes before or after me, and then spent the rest of the night nursing a few beers while he watched me.

Laura shrugged. “He’s been coming around for about a year.”

“And how often did he come in before I started working here?”

“Ah, you know.” She looked away. “Occasionally. He comes in more sometimes, less others.”

“How often, Laura?”

She twisted back. “Once a week, on the weekends. Sometimes twice.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “And when did he start coming in more often?”

“That’s a coincidence, that’s all.”

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Okay, so it’s a big coincidence.”

I’d noticed him on my first night here. He worked up to coming in more, night by night, until he was here almost every shift I worked. One of the waitresses had quit a few weeks before I’d gotten the job, and silently, I wondered if he was the cause. From what Laura said, the other girl had quit without notice and left town. If she’d had to put up with Earl’s stares like I did, I couldn’t say I blamed her.

“At least he doesn’t know my name,” I muttered.

Laura’s face went red.

“Laura! Tell me you didn’t tell him my name!”

“I didn’t mean to! He made a comment a few weeks back about the new girl not sounding like she was from around here, and I just said something like, ‘Oh, Ally Sawyer? Yeah, she’s from Ohio’ without even thinking.”

“Son of a…” I shook my head. “Laura, I might strangle you.”

“I’m from the South. We’re chatty!” She turned away from me. “He’s just a regular,” she repeated, her accent getting thicker with her frustration. “We all get ‘em. I know you’ve known Dave since you were a kid and all, but you’ve only been working at Hanson’s for a few months. You’ll get some regulars who come in—”

“And stare at you, yet refuse to speak to you?”

“—who are particular,” she continued on, “about what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. That’s Earl. He’s particular…and maybe a little peculiar.”

He’s a creep, that’s what he is. I thought the words but didn’t say them aloud. Bad-mouthing paying customers when they hadn’t done anything wrong was frowned upon—especially when they were old friends of your bosses. And honestly, nothing I’d said about him had changed Laura’s mind so far, so I doubted anything I said now would. She’d been defending him since I first commented about the staring last month.

Instead, I forced another smile, even as my stomach clenched. “You’re probably right.”

Laura eyed the small crowd inside the bar. “Your shift’s over in a few minutes, so why don’t you head out early? It’s only twenty minutes before Derek comes in to help me close. I don’t mind taking the helm for that long.”

“You want to get out early next weekend, don’t you?” I asked after a minute, abandoning the rag on the counter. Laura’s idea of not minding ‘taking the helm’ usually meant she wanted a favor in return. But tonight, I didn’t mind. Tonight, I’d been stared at one hour too many.

Her smile was quick. “I’m not averse to you repaying the favor someday in the near future. Say, this Saturday when I have a date with Ted.”

“Thanks, Laura. I think I’ll take you up on the offer, even if it is misguided.”

She gave me a quick hug and released me as Blondie came back to the counter for another round. I ducked into the back room as she took his order, grabbed my bag, and then headed for the door. I felt Earl’s eyes on me and resisted the urge to turn around. Part of me wanted to see if I was right—to see if he was still staring—but the other part of me already knew. He was. Don’t worry about him. Keep moving. It was like being unable to not look at something when someone told you not to. You were sure you wouldn’t like what you saw, but curiosity got the best of you.

It got the best of me as I pulled the door open.

Son of a bitch. I’m an idiot!

I hurried out the door, and when it shut behind me, took a deep breath, filling my lungs with fresh air. Air that didn’t smell like smoke, beer, or over-used cologne or perfume. Air that I didn’t have to share with Earl.

The door opened again, so I moved to the side to give the exiting trio room to pass. A guy and a girl supported another guy between them. Middle guy twisted around in their arms and looked over his shoulder. He waved, nearly whacking the poor girl in the head. “Thanks for the drinks!” he shouted.

“Hey, you paid for them,” I said, smiling, “but you’re welcome anyway.”

“Oh yeah.” A sheepish expression crossed his face. “Next time I’ll buy you one!”

The girl shot me an apologetic what-can-you-do? smile as she and the other friend dragged him away. All of them were walking awkwardly, but I knew the girl at least was sober. The middle guy…he was another story. Beer after beer, shot after shot, he drank until he was nearly green. When he’d come in earlier, he’d said it was his twenty-first birthday and he wanted to celebrate it right by getting hammered. Considering the amount of shots he’d had, I had to say he’d succeeded.

The door opened again. I turned out of instinct and spotted Earl rushing out. He skidded to a stop when he saw me. The door missed hitting him by half an inch. If he noticed, he didn’t care. He stared at me again.

This time, I stared back, hoping he’d say something—anything. He didn’t. He turned away, walked the ten feet to his beat-up blue Toyota truck, got in and…sat there. I waited for him to start his engine and drive away—far, far away. He didn’t do that either. The Open sign flashed red above him, giving me a clear-but-colorful view of the inside of his truck. It gave his eyes an eerie glow that made him look evil.

I wanted to go home, to get out of these smelly clothes, to soak in my tub. Did I dare leave? I lived right across the street—literally. What if he saw where I lived? All he’d have to do was look in his rear view mirror and he’d know. The idea of him knowing where I lived freaked me out, so I waited, hoping he’d leave.

He had to leave sometime, didn’t he? He couldn’t sit out there forever. Neither could I. Sighing, because my bath would have to wait even longer, I went back inside.

Just grab a drink. By the time I’m done, he’ll be gone.

Laura grinned at me as I took a seat at the end of the counter. “Miss me already?”

I almost told her the truth, but then decided against it. She’d call him sweet again, or she’d tell me what I already knew, that I was probably being paranoid. “Of course. It’s been, what, five minutes? That’s a lifetime, isn’t it?”

She slid a glass of water in front of me. “Want something stronger, just say the word.” And then she walked away.

I didn’t drink a lot. I’d been twenty-one for about six months, but after working here a few weeks, I decided most drunks weren’t that fun to be around—especially the college-aged ones—and drinking alone wasn’t as fun.

Though tonight might be the exception.

I sipped my water slowly to give Earl time to leave and tried using the sounds around me as a distraction from my thoughts. Pool balls crashing together, laughter. My gaze traveled to the end of the bar where a guy—Blondie again—tried hitting on a girl. He almost had a chance, I mused, until he dumped his beer all over her. She rolled her eyes and stormed away. Even drunk—and somewhat rude—Blondie didn’t chase after her or stare. He turned away, shot a grin to his friends, and shrugged.

He was another regular. Annoying, yes, but not a creep. Well, he was a creep, but not in the make-your-skin-crawl kind of way. Just in the hit-on-anything-with-legs-and-breasts kind of way.

I watched as he tried and failed to hit on every possible available girl in the bar and wondered if he’d move on to the unavailable ones next.

Within ten minutes, I had three guys—Blondie included, again—offer me drinks, pool, dancing, and/or a ‘quiet place to talk’.

All I could think was, Has Earl left yet? I hoped so, because there was no way I could sit in here much longer, watching Blondie strike out and getting hit on by every other drunk in the place. But there was no way I was going home until Earl was gone.

Before I decided, a guy in a leather jacket cut into my vision as he slid onto the stool beside mine, nearly making me jump. He had dark, short and curly hair. The lighting in the bar was horrible, but I guessed his eyes were either blue or green. “Hey.”

I blinked at him as I waited for my heart rate to slow. It finally did when I realized I’d seen him before. “Hi.”

He flashed a smile. “Can I buy you a drink?”

I held up my glass and shook my head. “Got one, but thanks anyway.”

The smile didn’t falter. “How about a conversation instead?”

I tried focusing on the fact that Leather Jacket guy was cute and I’d thought so since the first time I’d seen him, but my mind kept wandering to Earl. Was he still out there? Was he waiting for me to leave? The only way to find out for sure would be to check for myself, even though I didn’t want to do that. I almost asked Leather Jacket to go check for me, but what did I say? Some old guy keeps staring at me and I’m freaked out? Earl hadn’t done anything—hell, he’d never said anything. I’d sound crazy.

I felt crazy.

“Actually, I’m about to go.” I downed the rest of my water—regretting that I hadn’t gotten anything stronger—and said bye to Laura again. I turned back to the guy. “Thanks for the offers, though. Have a nice night.”

Please be gone, please be gone, I chanted in my head. I couldn’t tell what was worse: getting watched by one creepy guy all night, or getting hit on by almost every other guy in the place. Leather Jacket made number four.

I raced outside. My stomach dropped when I found Earl’s truck still there and him sitting in the driver’s seat. His gaze went to mine automatically and I shuddered, despite not being the least bit cold.

“Hey.”

My heart knocked against my ribs and I slapped a hand to my chest as I spun. I swore under my breath when I found Leather Jacket standing there. “Look,” I said, sighing impatiently, “you’re cute and all, but I don’t—”

“You left your keys on the counter.” One eyebrow rose. “Thought you might need them sometime.”

“Oh.” I winced and gave myself a mental head-slap. “Sorry. Thanks.”

He rocked back on his heels and gave me a cocky grin. “But I’m glad you think I’m cute. It’ll help the next time I come in and ask you for a drink or a conversation. Maybe you won’t turn me down so fast. Maybe you’ll even give me five seconds of hope.”

The smile and laugh crept up unexpectedly. “We’ll see about that.”

A car engine rumbled to life. I looked. It was Earl’s.

“Thanks for my keys,” I told him. “Have a good one.” I started away before he could say anything else. If Earl was leaving, now was my chance to do the same. My bathtub was calling to me.

I made my way to the street a minute after Earl hit the exit. There was no traffic coming, but Earl didn’t move. He had his window down, so I could see his eyes on me. Again. Still.

To hell with this.

I walked back to the bar and was surprised—and even thankful—to see Leather Jacket still standing outside. He smiled as I approached. “Change your mind?”

“Actually…” I glanced over my shoulder and found Earl’s truck still at the exit. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.” A conversation with a cute guy had to be better than going home.

I jumped and twisted around when I heard the squeal of tires on pavement. I watched Earl’s taillights disappear down the road.

“Boyfriend?”

I nearly jumped again. “What?”

Leather Jacket nodded toward the exit. “The guy in the truck.”

“No. He’s a customer.”

“Refuse him a drink?”

“No.” It was hard to refuse something to someone when they didn’t ask you for anything. The scent of burning rubber drifted to my nose and had me frowning even more. “I know I said we could talk, but I should go—”

“Are you always like this?”

“Like what?”

“Jumpy.”

I frowned. “I’m not jumpy.”

“I say hi to you in the bar, you jump. You hear squealing tires, you jump. I talk again, you jump again. That’s a pattern.”

“I’m not jumpy, I’m…” Jumpy. Afraid to go home.

Before I could think of a good excuse, he frowned and touched my arm. “You okay? Did that guy say something to you?”

I didn’t jump this time, though it was close. “No. Nothing like that.”

“Are you sure you’re okay? You’re shaking.” He had his jacket off and around my shoulders in seconds. It was still warm from his skin. He pulled the lapels together. The move was intimate, yet completely platonic at the same time.

I looked into his eyes and noted the color. Blue, with just a flash of green. Pretty eyes. The cocky smile disappeared and concern shone in his eyes. “I guess I am a little jumpy.” And definitely in need of something a lot stronger than water.

“At the risk of getting shot down again, why don’t you come in and sit down for a few minutes? You can tell me your name, and I’ll tell you mine is Kale Wilder. I’m twenty-three, single, and I’m a mechanic. See? We’re not even strangers now.” He smiled at me softly. “Hell, you can sit there, nameless, and stare into the distance if it’ll make you feel better. But I’m not sure you should be driving upset.” He backed away and held up his hands. “I’ll even stand far away and give you space. I won’t even talk.”

I almost argued that I wasn’t driving, but decided against it because I didn’t want someone else to know I lived close. And then I almost argued that I wanted to be alone. But at the moment, that’s exactly what I didn’t want.

I didn’t want to be alone.

break

Infatuated © 2013 Elle Jordan, Coming October 20th!

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