"I should warn you, this place is populated by skanks and losers."
Bella Swan looked up at the voice that had startled her out of her intense reverie. She had been thinking about tacos. She hadn't had a decent taco since she moved here. Not to mention the complete dearth of carne asada. People in the Pacific Northwest had no concept of good Mexican food.
The girl who had addressed her was wiping down the bar at Jake's. It was unclear whether she was bending over like that for the sole purpose of scrubbing up beer rings or in order to display her rather extravagant cleavage. Bella suspected that the girl was aware, but that she didn't really care. She had that look. The look of, "I don't give a shit who looks, but if you touch you lose a gonad."
Not having the aforementioned appendages, Bella was able to look away from the Grand Canyon looming before her in a relatively short amount of time. "Do you think so?" she murmured. She really wasn't sure if the girl's gambit was intended to be a conversation starter, or if she was just pissed at the world and wanted to share.
"I know so. I've been working here for three years, and I have yet to see an exception to the rule. Except Jake, I guess. He may be losing but he's not a loser, if you get what I mean."
Bella didn't. She stared at the girl, silently willing her to continue.
She shot a look at Bella, who got her first good look at the girl's face, and nearly swallowed her tonsils. She was hot. Smoking hot. Honey blonde hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Electric blue eyes lined with angry black kohl set in a Victoria's Secret model's face. With a Victoria's Secret model's body to go with it.
"I'm Rosalie," Blondie went on. "I'm the manager. You waiting for Jake?"
"Yeah," Bella said uncertainly. "He's going to bring my W-2s and all that stuff."
"About time. I've been bugging him to hire someone for the past fucking month. You start tonight?"
"There are some shirts in the back. You can go look through them and find one that fits while you're waiting."
Bella took this to be an order, not an invitation. She slid from the barstool she had been perched on and headed in the general direction that Rosalie had indicated.
"What's your name, chica?" Rosalie called after her.
"Oh…" Bella turned around, awkwardly. "I'm Bella. Bella Swan."
Rosalie nodded. "Good to meet you, Bella Swan." It sounded more like she was saying, "rot in hell, bitch," but Bella tried to take the words at face value.
She was rummaging through a box of camisoles and tank tops, looking for something she could actually wear, when she heard her new boss' booming voice out in the bar. "Where you at, Shorts?" he shouted.
"I'm back here," she yelled back, rolling her eyes at the ridiculous nickname he had slapped on her as soon as he hired her. What the hell? Everyone was short to that guy.
"Getting a head start? Stay out of the Patron, newbie, or I'll kick you to the curb." Jake appeared at the door of the store room, smiling his characteristic blinding grin.
"You'd have to catch me first, Sasquatch," she flung back at him.
He threw his head back and laughed. "It's not my fault that you have midget blood in you," he snickered.
"And it's not my fault your mother was second cousin to the Jolly Green Giant."
"Hey, no messing with my mother. I'll send your paychecks to Anchorage 'by mistake.'" He knelt down next to her, watching her sift through the box furiously. "Not finding anything?"
She shot a look at him. "I can't wear tank tops," she mumbled.
"Still healing up from your last boob job?"
"Yeah. 'Cause if I wanted an upgrade I would go with a B cup." She sat back, scowling. "Don't you have any grownup's shirts?"
"Not unless you want one of mine, and I would pay money to see this, by the way. I can order you something, though."
"You'll get better tips if you wear one of these, though," he said with a wink.
Bella snorted. "Watch it with the caveman comments. I have ways of making you pay."
He laughed again and bounded to his feet, hauling her with him. "Come on, Shorts. Let's get you set up."
Jake's Bar was a seedy dive in the University District in downtown Seattle. Settled in a small farmhouse style building on a dead-end street with peeling paint and a sagging front porch, it was mostly patronized by students looking to rub up against each other and pretend they were slumming. All in all, it was an amicable arrangement on all sides.
Bella loved it.
Having been basically a good girl for each of her twenty-five years, she had been immediately attracted to the slightly disreputable atmosphere at Jake's. She felt like someone was going to start a fight or a serenade at any moment.
This being her first night, she was relegated to bussing tables and cleaning up spilled beer all night long. Jake let her wear the shirt that she came in with, but insisted that she put on a little black apron so that she looked like a working drone.
The other "drones," if one were foolish enough to refer to them as such, included three Sorority Girl Barbie clones named Tanya, Kate and Irina. "Dumb as rocks, but basically okay," was how Rosalie classified them. "They live together, go to school together, and work together. It's like an E! Network reality show."
The bartender was a big burly guy, not much shorter than Jake, named Garrett. He was extremely friendly, peppering Bella with questions every chance he got.
"Where you from?" he asked her casually while wiping down glasses as she refilled the ice box.
"What brought you up here?"
"Where you staying?"
"Got any roommates?"
"Got a personality?"
"Got a boyfriend?"
She grinned at him and went off to clear more tables.
The two bouncers, Quil and Embry, were Quileutes like Jake. They reminded Bella of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on PCP. They were passionately interested in the three barmaids, and quizzed them incessantly about their showering habits.
All in all, it was a good crew.
"Bella!" Rosalie yelled to her over the noise and the music. "Clear table five."
Bella looked up and saw that the group of rowdy frat boys who had occupied the corner booth had left. "You forgot to say the magic word," she muttered and grabbed a tub. It wasn't like she wouldn't have gotten to it.
She was gathering cocktail napkins and wadding them into a ball when someone slid into the booth.
She looked up. "I'll be done here in just a second," she said…and then the English language deserted her.
The guy who had slid into the booth could not be for real.
"Whatever," he grunted. "I'll have a Sam Adams."
She just stood, her mouth open. He may as well have asked her for directions to Betelgeuse for all the sense his words made.
He eyed her malevolently. "You do serve beer here, don't you?"
"Uh…yeah. One second." She fumbled for the rest of the debris on the table, nearly spilling a half-empty glass.
She heard him inhale sharply and scoot away from her, clearly wishing to avoid being baptized by beer.
Her cheeks burning in humiliation, Bella wiped down the table, trying not to stare at him. She was sure – she was positive, rather – that she'd never seen a better looking guy in her entire life. McSteamy, McDreamy, and MacGuyver were all skinny fry guys at McDonalds compared to him. His jaw was so sharp it looked like it would cut her skin should he choose to nuzzle her shoulder. His tousled bronze hair, like a crazy mash-up of blond and red, was clearly put on this earth specifically for a woman to run her fingers through. His thick eyebrows gave him a kind of wild caveman look that contrasted weirdly with the stark perfection of his face. She could see that his eyes were light, but she couldn't catch the color in the dim light of the bar. He was dressed all in black.
Roll over, Johnny Cash. You have met your doom.
He continued to eye her as if she was showing signs of becoming dangerous. Her blush deepened and she hauled the tub off the table, spinning around and nearly falling on her face as she stumbled back to the bar.
"Garrett," she hissed, sidling up to the bartender. "Who the fuck is that?"
Garrett looked up. "Who?"
"The guy in the corner booth. The one who looks like sin with a side of mayo."
"That guy?" Garrett pointed, and Bella grabbed his finger and shoved it down.
"Yes, that guy. Don't point. Were you born in a barn?"
"Jeez, what crawled up your ass? I have no idea who that guy is. Don't think I've seen him in here before."
"Well, he wants a Sam Adams." Suddenly mortified by her extreme reaction to the guy's Adonis face and David body, Bella started unloading glasses. She darted a glance at the corner booth. The guy was currently having a staring match with the tabletop. And she thought he was winning.
"Sure." They worked in silence for a minute before Garrett cleared his throat. "Um, am I going to have to turn the hose on you, young lady?"
"Bite me," she hissed, dropping her eyes.
"Don't tempt me, shuga." He slid the glass of beer he had just pulled towards her. "Well? Are you going to take it over to him?"
"What? No!" She jumped back. "I'm supposed to be bussing tonight."
Garrett rolled his eyes. "Just take him the drink, girl. Unless you want me to get Kate or Tanya to do it." He nodded over to the two plastic blow-up dolls currently flirting with a table of businessmen.
Bella glared at him. "You are a low excuse for a human being." She snatched up the glass and stalked over to the corner booth.
"Here you go," she said, slamming it down on the table with more force than strictly necessary. "Anything else right now?"
"No, it's fine," he grumbled, and lifted the glass.
Bella stood, her mouth slightly open, and watched in fascination as he drained about a third of the glass. His Adam's apple bobbed. Tingles erupted on her arms and she wondered what those fingers would feel like wrapped around something besides a sweating glass of beer.
"Can I do anything else for you?" he asked her.
She jumped. "Ah…" she coughed. "Do you want to open a tab?"
"Oh." He reached for his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. "Sure."
He handed her his credit card and of course their fingers had to brush when she took it. Electric shocks skittered up her arm.
As she retreated back to the bar, she read the name on the card. Edward Masen.
After that, Jake's got too busy for her to spend more time embarrassing herself with Edward Masen. She was beginning to wonder if there was any beer left in the state of Washington by the time two o'clock rolled around. Her feet ached. Her back ached. Her head ached.
At some point, Edward Masen ambled up to the bar and talked to Jake for a while, who was helping Garrett pull drinks. Bella paused in counting change to a young couple. When he'd been sitting in the booth, he'd slouched horribly, his shoulders hunched and his head down. She suspected it was all an elaborate ruse to hide the fact that he was tall. Tall and muscular. Tall and muscular and sinuously graceful like a freaking jungle cat. She wondered if he worked out. Swordfighting, taekwondo, all those sexy nerdy things that hot guys did. He paid his tab, threw some bills on the table and slouched out without looking up at her.
Which was kind of a good thing, because she had been caught staring at him only eight or ten times that night.
At two forty-five, Jake glanced over at Bella mopping the floor. "Why don't you head home, Shorts? You look like you're going to keel over."
"I'm okay," she mumbled, not wanting to be the lightweight new girl.
"You're several area codes away from okay," Rosalie said, and shoved a wad of bills at her. "Here's your cut. Go home, sleep, see you tomorrow night."
Too tired to argue, and elated by the unexpected jackpot, Bella nodded and went to take off her apron and grab her stuff from the back.
"You did good tonight," Garrett said over his shoulder as he moved boxes around on the shelves. "I think we'll keep you."
"I'm ecstatic," she said. "See you tomorrow."
She got lost once on her way to her new apartment, tripped over a stack of boxes near the door, and nearly hogtied herself getting out of her jeans. Still, as she fell into bed, there was a smile on her face.
For the first time in two years, she was at peace. With life, the universe, and everything.