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Stout, Page 2

Georgia Cates

  It’s been twenty-three years since our bellies growled from hunger. Real hunger. Painful hunger. Not the kind people mistakenly refer to as starving when it’s only been a half day since their last meal.

  “I see Porter’s truck but no Porter.”

  “He’s waiting in my truck.”

  “Instead of being front and center to meet your new attractive neighbor?”

  I can’t be wrong if Lawry thinks it’s odd too. “I know. Weird.”

  “He must not have gotten a good look at her.”

  “But he did. He’s actually the one who pointed her out to me.”

  Fucker is sitting in my truck staring off into space. Smiling. “He denies it but I think the bastard is in some kind of secret relationship.”

  “That’s fantastic. But why would he keep it secret? And especially from you?”

  “I don’t know but things have been off with him for a while.”

  “Things being off automatically makes you think he’s in a relationship?”

  “No, but his sudden ability to perfect the disappearing act does. Reminds me of the days when you and Tap were doing the sneaky behind my back.”

  “Ah, the disappearing act. A good indication something is going on and he doesn’t want you to know what it is.”

  “I know, right?”

  “Cut the guy some slack. He’ll come around and tell you when he’s ready.”

  “Unless I figure it out first.”

  I look over at my truck and see Porter holding his arm out the window tapping on his watch. Laughing. Bastard.

  A missing Benjamin from my wallet makes no difference to me. Those few extra moments with my new neighbor were worth every penny for laying the foundation for my next welcome-to-the-neighborhood happy from Adelyn Maxwell.

  Yes. I believe I’m going to like this neighborhood a lot.

  Adelyn Maxwell

  Lawrence Broussard isn’t alone. He’s here too. Her brother. My good-looking neighbor. Oliver Thorn.

  I am not disappointed.

  Oliver and I spoke the day he moved in next door but there hasn’t been another word since. Not even a wave in passing. It’s unfortunate our paths haven’t crossed.

  I’ve been mildly naughty this week where Oliver is concerned. Peeking out my upstairs window to see what’s going on over at his place. Watching him work on his motorcycle. Shirtless. Studying the tattoos on his chest and arms. Spending a little more time in my backyard around the pool. Wearing a new, skimpier-than-usual bikini I bought to entice him into looking my way.

  I wonder if he peeked out his window to steal a glimpse of me.

  I wonder if he worked outside shirtless to catch my attention.

  I wonder if he came here today so he could see me.

  There’s been no mention of a wife or girlfriend. Lawrence is the only woman I’ve seen hanging around Oliver’s house but that doesn’t mean he’s single. Or looking. Wow. That thought makes me sound as though I’m looking.

  I follow the host toward the table and stumble when the toe of my heel catches on the rubber trim between the tile and carpet. “Shit.”

  The host catches my arm and saves me from face-planting. Damn, that would have been humiliating. “Are you all right?”

  I quickly straighten and look to see if Lawrence and Oliver saw my clumsy folly. Thank God they’ve not yet noticed my arrival. “Yes. Appreciate the quick save.”

  Oliver stands when he sees me. Very gentlemanly. Not something all men do these days. That smile. It’s almost cheeky, but definitely endearing, and something I have seen over and over in my mind since the day we met. Not gentlemanly at all.

  “I apologize for keeping you waiting. I won’t go into why but please know I’m not typically tardy.” I despise being late. It’s rude. Implies you believe your client’s time is less valuable than your own.

  Oliver takes his seat. “It’s fine. We just arrived.” Kind statement. But untrue.

  Bread on the table. Beads of condensation atop the pats of butter. Two half-gone drinks with heavy water rings around the bases. The evidence speaks for itself.

  I have an eye for detail. Can’t help myself. It’s what I do.

  “If you say so.” Never argue with a client. Especially when they’re being gracious enough to overlook your shortcoming.

  I’m seated across the table from Oliver. I was grateful when the host chose this chair for me instead of the one next to him. I was under the impression the greater distance would be less distracting, less intimidating, less personal. Wrong. It’s a direct line for full-on eye contact with those ice-blue lures coaxing me to look their way.

  Stop looking. Stop looking. Stop looking, dammit.

  You’re here to discuss business. So be professional and get on with it.

  “I’m dying to hear about the event you’re planning.” I take my iPad and stylus from my bag. “Tell me about it.”

  “It’s a grand opening for our business.” Our business. That means it’s Oliver’s too. That’s why he came. His surprise attendance has nothing to do with a desire to see me.

  Silly woman.

  “So you’re siblings and business partners? That must be interesting.”

  “Well, sort of but not exactly.” I’m not sure what that means but I’m interested in learning. “Oliver and their friend Porter are my husband’s business partners. The three of them own Lovibond Brewery.”

  “Oh yeah. I’m familiar with Lovibond.”

  “My husband and I started Bohemian Cider Company. It’s a new business, yet an extension of Lovibond, which is already successful. This event won’t be your typical startup company grand opening. We already have tons of clients. Clients we need to schmooze.” Right. Schmooze. With alcohol.

  This meeting has suddenly taken a turn for the worst.

  Taking a job like this feels . . . wrong. Like a betrayal to Tommy.

  I’m not sure I can do it.

  “Do you have a day in mind?” Maybe their date will coincide with something else scheduled and I’ll be off the hook.

  “The third Saturday in June.”

  I open my calendar app and pretend to study the dates; I already know I have an opening. Mrs. Thompson canceled her divorce party. Her husband and his millions talked her into coming back despite the fact he has not one, but two, girlfriends.

  How can I take this job?

  I’m a professional so how can I not?

  I can’t make this decision right now. I need time to think about this.

  “My schedule is filled, but one of the clients for that day hasn’t paid her deposit. I’ll need to confirm her one way or the other before I can commit to your event.”

  “Of course. Totally understandable. Should we hold off on talking plans until we know for sure?”

  I’m not completely sure I’ll decline the job. “I don’t think so. I’d love to hear what you have in mind. Venue, food, decor, etcetera.”

  “I was thinking about B & A Warehouse because of the amount of space we’ll need.”

  “A little rustic but a good choice for this type of event. You can dress it up or down according to your clientele.”

  “I think the rustic aspect is the reason I like the venue so much. Our clientele is mostly informal. It would be silly to plan a black-tie affair.”

  “I’ve held events at B & A Warehouse several times. The staff is impeccable.”

  “I read on their website they offer catering. Is that something you’d recommend?”

  “I don’t usually recommend onsite catering from the venue but they’re actually really good. And reasonably priced.”

  “Ladies, excuse me for a moment.” That’s all Oliver says as he pushes away from the table, not waiting for a reply or permission from either of us.

  His sudden departure is a little odd. And bordering on rude.

  And then I figure out why when I watch him walk to the bar where a pretty blonde sits alone. Gee. That was a little assholish to abruptly leave the t
able during a business meeting to go hit on a woman. No. It wasn’t a little assholish. It was a lot assholish.


  Lawrence turns to look at her brother before leaning toward me. “I’m glad he stepped away. I was wanting to talk to you about planning a surprise birthday bash for him.”

  “Surprise birthday parties are the best. So much fun.” Even for assholes. “When?”

  “He turns thirty on July sixteenth so we’d finish BCC’s event and then we’d have to immediately jump into it.”

  “It’s not a problem. Same questions. Venue? Theme?”

  “I’m thinking Iron City. It has everything I want. A bar, stage for performers, dance floor.”

  “I think that would be the perfect venue for a big party.”

  “Ollie has a ton of friends and family from back home I’d want to invite. And college friends. Fraternity brothers. Business associates. The list would probably grow pretty quickly.”

  “Big guest lists aren’t a problem. But we’ll need to discuss it later because he’s on his way back to the table.”

  Oliver was either shot down quickly or arranged a hookup in record time. My money’s on the hookup.

  “Sorry about that.”

  Lawrence looks confused. “About what?”

  He points toward the bar. “That.”

  Lawrence twists in her seat. “Oh, hell.”

  I clearly don’t know what’s going on but it’s likely I misread the situation. I don’t think Oliver abandoned our business meeting to hit on a pretty woman at the bar after all.

  Brownie points earned. Maybe.

  “What did I miss?”

  Lawrence’s eyes widen. “I was telling Adelyn about our need for a car service on event night since Lovibond advocates responsible drinking.”

  Those last two words catch my attention. “I’ve never heard of a brewery that promotes responsible drinking other than making a general statement about it.”

  “Our product inhibits motor function. Our attitude is that it would be irresponsible to provide our beer and ciders for the public without setting an example of how to enjoy them responsibly.”

  “That’s such a good point. I wish more people were onboard with that mindset.”

  Lovibond Brewery is different. Reservations I had about working with them are vanishing.

  “I’m going to give my PA a call and see if that client came through with her deposit.” Little fib.

  I locate Maurice’s contact in my favorite’s list and touch his name. “Yes, darling?”

  “Maury, I need you to check the books for June eighteenth.”

  “Gur, you were here when that crazy-ass-beotch with the spikey pink-and-blonde hair came in to cancel her divorce party.” I don’t need to see Maurice to know his head is impersonating a bobblehead doll as he talks about Mrs. Thompson. That woman sets his flamer ass on fire. I think it’s because they rival one another in the flamboyance department.

  I nod at Lawrence. “I know but I needed to confirm before I booked something in its place.”

  “Pu-lease book something in her place before the divorce is back on. ’Cause you will have to put my ass up in the nuthouse if I have to deal with her again. And I ain’t sure our health insurance covers a diagnosis of run crazy after dealing with crazy.”

  “Oh, Maury, you know you love Mrs. Thompson.”

  “Oh hell to the naw.” I can just see him swishing his index finger back and forth like a windshield wiper.

  “Consider yourself in the clear. I’m confirming an event for that date right now so put it on the books.” I wink at Lawrence.

  “Thank you, sweet baby Jesus. Who’s my rescuer?”

  “Lawrence Broussard. Bohemian Cider Company.”

  I end my call with Maury and slip my phone back into my bag. “Spot is reserved.”

  “Fantastic. Do I go by the office to make the deposit or do that here with you?”

  Now is as good a time as any to warn Lawrence and Oliver about Maury. “The office. You’ll deal with my PA, Maurice, on all the financials. It would be a lie to say you’ll be dealing with a young, professional African-American gentleman. He’s loud. Highly inappropriate. Often offensive. He will, without doubt, be wearing something outlandish every time you see him. Probably something with feathers. And possibly makeup with false lashes. But he’s the best personal assistant I’ve ever had. I couldn’t do this without him.”

  Lawrence laughs. “You had me at outlandish.”

  I’ve lost clients in the past because they couldn’t handle Maurice or deal with his exaggerated femininity. Good riddance.

  But Lawrence strikes me as nonjudgmental. Oliver, on the other hand, seems like a man’s man. I’m not sure he’d find Maury’s behavior entertaining. Straight men typically don’t.

  Oliver’s eyes lock on mine. And damn. His stare is raw. Makes me feel like I’m standing before him naked. And I have a feeling he knows this. I suspect it’s a well-practiced device. “This is Lawrence’s company. Her celebration. She’ll be the one dealing with Maurice. But no worries. I’m sure they’ll be fast friends. She’s drawn to those who are . . . unconventional.”

  Lawrence’s company. Her celebration. Those four words catch my attention.

  So what enticed Oliver Thorn to attend our lunch date?

  Lawrence pushes away from the table. “I think I’ll make a quick bathroom run before they bring our lunch. Where are the restrooms?”

  “By the entrance to the left.”

  It’s just Oliver and me at the table. Unless I count our companion, uncomfortable silence.

  I don’t typically go blank but this man does something to me. To my brain. To my insides. Everything sort of turns to mush.

  “My welcome-to-the-neighborhood happy was delicious.” Dear, God. The way the word delicious rolls off his tongue should be illegal.

  “I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it. What was your favorite?”

  “The bread, no doubt. I’ve never tasted bread that good.”

  “Old family recipe passed down for generations.”

  “It’s amazing. And you can bet your ass I’ll be on your doorstep if I catch a whiff of it baking.” Promise?

  “I always make several loaves at a time. I’ll bring you some next time the baking bug bites.”

  “Please do. And tell me how to persuade the baking bug to bite.”

  “I mostly bake when I’m . . .” I stop mid-sentence when the pretty blonde from the bar approaches our table and stands next to Oliver.

  Shit. Shit. Shit. Go away, blondie.

  We were talking. He was telling me how much he liked my bread. He was practically begging for more. And I was about to invite him over to . . . I don’t know. Break bread or something.

  “Can we talk, Oliver?”

  “It’s not a good time. I’m in the middle of a business meeting.” Oliver’s expression morphs. There’s no mistaking the change. Pleasant to irritated.


  Oliver’s jaw is clenched when his chair screeches across the floor. “Two minutes, Lacey. That’s it.”

  Alone, I stare out the window while I wait for Lawrence or Oliver to return. Lunch beats them both to the table. “Everyone leave you?”

  “I hope not. I can’t eat all this food.”

  Lawrence returns as our server comes by to offer fresh ground pepper. “Where’s Oliver?”

  “The girl from the bar came over. She asked if they could talk.”

  “Shit. I was hoping she’d leave.”

  My curiosity is piqued. I can’t not ask. “An ex?”

  “Yeah. Sweet girl but she has lots of problems. Ollie tried to help her, but you can’t help someone who isn’t ready to be helped.”

  That could mean a lot of different things. I’d ask more but I don’t want to come off looking nosy. “How’s the quinoa and kale salad?”

  “Really good.”

  “I’ve considered trying it but I’m loyal to the Waldorf. It’s
never let me down.”

  I look at Oliver’s plate. It has a seriously short shelf life. No one likes a soggy bun or cold burger and fries. “Think we should ask the server to put that under the heat lamp?” I don’t know if an upscale restaurant like this would have something like that.

  “Maybe, but let’s give it a few more minutes first. I can’t really imagine him giving Lacey much more of his time.”

  As Lawrence predicts, Oliver returns a couple minutes later. “Sorry about that. Again.”

  “What’s going on with her?” I’m probably happier than I should be when Lawrence asks about the situation.

  “Nothing new. Just drunk like always.”

  “Geez. She’s tanked? It’s barely noon?”

  “Alcoholics and addicts have no sense of time when it comes to getting their fix. You know that.”

  “All too aware.” They both sound like they know.

  “Did she drive?”

  “Of course. Because that’s what she does. But I took her keys and called a cab. Put her in the back myself and watched it drive away.”

  I have no mercy for people who drive under the influence. It’s just so stupid and irresponsible. And completely avoidable. But repeat offenders are a different kind of animal. A potential killer every time they’re behind the wheel intoxicated. Anyone in their path could become a victim. “Someone wants to get drunk? Fine. That’s their prerogative. But they have no right to make a two-ton piece of metal their killing machine.” I regret my outburst the moment killing machine leaves my mouth. This is a business meeting. I don’t get to have an opinion about such things when it comes to clients. It’s bad for business. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

  “You have a passionate opinion. That’s your right, so never be sorry for it.” I suspect Lawrence Broussard has a lot of passionate opinions. I like that. I like her. And I like what Oliver did for his ex.

  Oliver Thorn. I am not disappointed he came.

  Oliver Thorn

  “The baking bug bit.” Adelyn is standing at my front door with another basket of goodies. The aroma brings my taste buds and saliva glands together to do the tango.