The Stranger - Unexpected Love: Keri's Story #1 (Short Story), страница 1
Unexpected Love: Keri's Story
The Stranger (#1)
Copyright © 2013 Jade Ryan
All rights reserved.
Keri's life revolved around romance and liquor. Not because she was a dating fiend, or because she was an alcoholic, but because she was the full-time bartender for Love's Lore, a new twist on a dating agency. It was founded by her cousin Marilyn, who was ten years older than twenty-seven year old Keri. Keri had always admired Marilyn, who was tall and willowy, her blonde hair straight and always in place, her bright blue eyes a shade that Keri had never seen replicated. Compared to Keri's thicker frame and mass of carmine waves, she felt like Marilyn was a supermodel, and wondered how they could be related.
Despite her beauty, Marilyn had been through the wringer when it came to dating, and had tried out everything from Internet dating, to matchmakers. After having some very harrowing experiences with less than honest men, and even some moments of danger, she decided to start her own version of a dating agency.
A man or woman who was interested in finding a solid committed relationship could join the agency and have access to several hundred local singles who were not just interested in having fun - but wanted something long term. Marilyn carefully screened each candidate, and also put each person through a deep background check. Instead of going out on awkward first dates however, members could send invites to other members, or just show up to mingle, at a local bar the agency owned, called Love's Lore.
The bar was closed to non-members of the agency and gave the people who joined an opportunity to meet and mingle with other members, without the pressure of a blind date. It was a first step and required before anyone could exchange contact information. Marilyn believed that offering a controlled environment ensured the safety of those who signed up with the agency, and offered the members a sense of security and camaraderie.
Keri and Marilyn were more like sisters than cousins, as Marilyn had practically raised her while they were growing up. So when Keri's latest relationship dissolved right in front of her, leaving her with no place to live, no car, and very little cash on hand, she offered her the bartender job. The last bartender had been let go because he was too much of a flirt with the ladies. As Marilyn told him, “You're being paid to be here, not paying to be here, so hands off the ladies.” Unfortunately he had not taken direction well and in the end Marilyn let him go.
Keri had never tended bar before but she figured she could handle mixing a few drinks, and she also had Leo to help her out. Leo had been friends with Marilyn and Keri for as long as either could remember. They had grown up in the same urban neighborhood together, spending their afternoons playing kickball on the streets and hiking the two miles to the nearest playground.
He had it a little rougher than Keri and Marilyn as his father was a drinker and had very little patience for his mouthy son. Leo was more than mouthy, he was an instigator, and often found himself in the middle of seedy situations that Marilyn would have to bail him out of. As they got older, their friendship only strengthened. If anyone ever threatened Marilyn or Keri, Leo was there to defend them, even when it wasn't necessary.
He focused on building his strength from the time he was twelve years old and into his adult life. As a result he was a very muscular man, which gave him an intimidating presence despite barely reaching six feet tall. He wore his brown hair loose around his shoulders, and always had a spark of fire in his light brown eyes.
Naturally, Leo was the first person Marilyn thought of when she wanted extra security for the bar. He was employed as the bouncer, but he was general help as well, as there was not usually any trouble in the bar. He offered advice to Keri on how to mix drinks and would step in for her when she needed a break. Love's Lore had become a family business of sorts, and it was very successful among an elite crowd of singles that wanted the security that Marilyn worked so hard to offer.
As grateful as Keri was to have the opportunity to work in the bar, she was not terribly thrilled about it. She had hoped that by this time her life would be in a different place. Keri was going to finally finish her business degree after working in retail for several years and taking the occasional class at the local community college. Then she met Daryl.
Daryl with his deep brown bedroom eyes, and his full sweet lips that knew exactly what to say. He had charmed her into believing that he would marry her, that he would take care of her for the rest of her life. So when she became overwhelmed with working a full time job, as well as going to school, Daryl had insisted she move in with him to save on rent. So she did. But she did not save a dime.
Daryl conveniently lost his job as soon as she moved in. So Keri continued to work full time and go to school full time. Then Daryl complained about never getting to spend any time with her, pointing out how tired she always was. He talked her into believing that the business he was starting was going to skyrocket, and money would never be a concern, if only she would help him out with it. So Keri decided to give up on school, which she could no longer afford the tuition for, and did her best to help him with his business.
Keri was the type of girl that could accomplish anything that she put her mind to. She put her mind to Daryl being successful, she put every dime into his business, and the business took off! Soon money was not an issue- but it was all flowing into Daryl's bank account. He was spending it as fast as he made it, and Keri couldn't cover her car payment.
One day Keri showed up when she was supposed to be working, and found Daryl curled around another woman in their bed. Keri's hazel eyes had jeweled with tears at the sight, but she had not let a single tear fall- not in front of them.
She walked away, only to find herself with nothing. She had given up everything, believing that Daryl was the love of her life, that they would be married and spend the rest of their lives together, that one day she would be able to go back to school. She had broken every rule Marilyn had ever taught her, and it had left her in a sobbing mess on her cousin's couch.
“Just say it,” she mumbled through the tears that were streaming down her cheeks. “You told me so.”
Marilyn gathered Keri's wavy red hair back away from her cheeks and her shoulders, she waited until her tear-filled eyes were turned in her direction, and shook her head slowly.
“Love is not about smarts Keri, love takes you over, and makes the silliest ideas seem brilliant. You've learned your lesson now, and it's time to move on.”
Keri drew her knees up to her chest, pushing the soles of her feet against the plush cushion of the couch. “Never,” she muttered as she rested her chin against the tops of her knees. “I will never put myself through this again.”
“Never say never,” Marilyn warned as she tucked her pin-straight blonde hair back behind her ears. At thirty-seven she had been through a dozen serious relationships, and each one had its own set of thorns. “You know what they always say, love has a way of finding you when you least expect it.”
"Keri, you awake?" Leo barked from in front of the bar. He narrowed his eyes when Keri still did not answer him. She had been staring off into the distance for a few minutes while there were three women waiting at the bar for their drinks.
"Keri!" Leo said more sharply, in a tone that Keri was all too familiar with. Being the kid in their strange friendship meant she was the one that was always getting bossed around.
"Oh, sorry," she mumbled and turned toward the three women that were leaning against the bar. As she took their order she tried not to scowl at the hopeful gleam in their eyes, or the annoying giggling over what their potential dates might look or act like. It was really hard to swallow the romantic aspect of her job each day while she was still smarting from such a devastating break up. Once she had delivered their drinks she returned to her thoughts while wiping down the bar.
"Leo, what's this about?" Marilyn asked as she walked out from the small office behind the bar. She had a piece of paper in her hand that she was studying very closely. Leo left his post at the door to look over the paper she held.
"We needed some extra cases of wine," he shrugged and glanced away.
"So you forged my signature?" Marilyn asked crossly as she tried to meet his eyes.
"And?" he asked with a mild shrug. "You don't trust me?"
Marilyn sighed as she rolled her eyes. "It isn't about trust Leo, this is a business, and I expect you to respect the fact that I am the owner-"
"Oh, I have all kind of respect for you," he purred, his light brown eyes flashing with mischief. "But you don't own me," he reminded her as his lips curled into a slow smirk.
While Leo was occupied with his increasingly flirtatious conversation with Marilyn, the door to the bar swung open. Normally no one was let in without being evaluated by Leo, and their membership confirmed, but Leo was caught up in the sharp response that Marilyn was delivering.
"I am not joking around," she insisted as she poked a fingertip against the solid surface of his chest which his black t-shirt struggled to stretch across. "If you can't be professional about things then-"
"Oh right," Leo nodded dismissively as he turned away from her. "We must keep everything professional."
Keri glanced over at Marilyn and Leo as she caught a wisp of their conversation. She had noticed that they were not on the best of terms lately, which wasn't unusual for them. Even though Marilyn and Leo were so close, they were always at each others throats because they shared such similar personalities. Where Leo was always a little brash, Marilyn was more subtle about her attitude, but they were both into being in control, and their fiery tempers had clashed more than once.
"Mom, Dad, stop fighting," Keri chided as she shook her head and glanced up at the man who was walking up to the bar. She had never seen him before, and she was certain that if she had, she would remember. He was dressed more casually than most of the people that came into the bar, with loose blue jeans and a baggy t-shirt. His jet black hair was tousled and tumbled around his forehead, drawing her attention to the brilliant green eyes that his long dark lashes struggled to hide.
"Can I get a beer?" he asked as he sat down on one of the bar stools. Keri could only stare for a moment. The men that usually came into the bar were older, maybe in their forties, and though plenty were attractive enough, few were as gorgeous as this mysterious fellow.
"A beer?" he asked again, arching an eyebrow at Keri's awkward stare.
"Uh sure," Keri said and grabbed a bottle from the cooler. She handed it over to him and watched as he took a long swallow. It looked like he had not had the most pleasant day.
Just as Leo was muttering an apology under his breath to Marilyn he realized that the man had walked into the bar, while he was not paying attention.
"Excuse me sir," he said as he walked up to the man. "Are you a member?"
The man sat back slightly and took in the sight of Leo's large size.
"A member of what?" he asked with a touch of annoyance.
"This is a closed bar," Leo said sternly, already aggravated by the argument he had with Marilyn.
"Look buddy, I just want to have a drink, alright? One beer, and I'm out of here," he insisted and started to turn back toward the bar.
Keri watched Leo closely, she could tell from the heat in the curve of his cheeks that his temper was already short.
"You should go," she said quickly to the man and reached for his bottle of beer. "Don't worry, no charge," she said when she closed her hand around the neck of the bottle.
The man looked up at her, and closed his hand swiftly over hers, stopping her from being able to take the beer. "Thanks, I'll finish it," he said with an easy smile that made Keri's heart flutter. His touch was more than just warm, it seemed to seep through her skin to tickle at her bones. It was a strange sensation that she had never experienced before. It made her awkward stare, turn into an embarrassing blush.
"You need to leave," Leo growled as he curled a hand around the man's shoulder. He did not like the fact that the man had dared to touch Keri, and had yet to release her hand.
"When I'm finished," the man argued in return as if it was not an issue.
"You're finished," Keri warned him, her heart beginning to race. She knew that if Leo's face got any redder, blood might be spilled.
"Alright fine, I'm a member," he shrugged. "Trevor Marrero, sign me up," he grinned and winked at Keri. "Anything to look at these beautiful eyes just a little longer."
Keri's mouth dropped open. She knew that this was not enticing in any way, but she could not help it. None of the men she had ever encountered had attempted to be as charming as Trevor was.
"It doesn't work that way," Leo growled again, but before things could spin out of control, Marilyn was there to intervene.
"Trevor," she smiled as she offered him her hand. "I'm Marilyn Leava, I own this bar, and I apologize if Leo has been rude."
Leo shot a glare in her direction. Marilyn ignored him. Trevor reluctantly withdrew his hand from around Keri's and turned to face Marilyn. He took her hand in a polite shake.
"Great, so how do I join?" he asked, his lips curling into a playful smile.
"I'm not sure if you are really interested in our services," Marilyn said in a political tone. "I don't imagine you have any trouble in the romance department."
Trevor's brows raised in surprise. "Oh is this some kind of speed dating place?" he asked. "I've heard of those."
"Not exactly," Marilyn replied tersely. "It is designed for people who want to meet someone special, and start a relationship. It's closed to non-members so we can ensure the safety of our patrons."
Trevor turned back toward Keri and easily took the bottle from her hands. "Well as long as you're a member," he said sweetly to Keri, meeting her eyes. "Sign me up."
"She's not," Leo barked.
"I could be," Keri said before she could stop herself.
Trevor laughed, his green eyes sparkling with his amusement. "Well you guys figure it out, but I'm finishing my beer, and I'm hoping that when I'm done, you might join me for dinner?" his grin faded into a subtle smile which made it hard for Keri to think he was joking.
Marilyn peered over his shoulder at Keri and winced when she saw the twitching of a smile at the corners of her cousin's lips.
“Boss?” Leo asked Marilyn, his voice thick with sarcasm. He was waiting for her approval to toss Trevor out the front door.
“Just let him finish,” Marilyn sighed. “After all, who was supposed to be watching the door?” she inquired, casting Leo a withering glare.
Leo rolled his eyes and returned to his post by the door.
By the time Trevor finished his beer, Keri had talked herself into agreeing to the dinner. She would behave, it would just be dinner. She barely had two pennies to rub together, and if a man wanted to take her out for a meal, what could be so bad? She just had to keep her distance and enjoy the free food. She still expected that Trevor was only teasing her though, he was not exactly the type of man she was used to dating.
“So, Chinese or French?” Trevor asked as he laid a few dollars down on the bar to pay for the beer and lifted those intoxicating eyes back to Keri's. Keri instantly blushe
“You're not serious,” she accused and took away the empty beer bottle.
“You're not interested?” he asked with a flicker of hurt in his eyes. Keri found herself locked into his imploring gaze.
“Maybe,” she said slowly, her heart quickening again. She felt like a schoolgirl, and she knew she was embarrassing herself. It had been a while since she had been flirted with. That reminded her of Daryl's arrogant smirk when he glanced up at her from the tiny little brunette he was sharing their bed with. Suddenly she didn't care if Trevor was too charming to be true, or if she would risk getting hurt, she needed to prove to herself that there were more men in the sea than Daryl.
“How can I convince you?” he asked as he stood from the bar stool and offered her his hand.
“Chinese,” she said decisively and stepped out from behind the bar to take his hand.
“Keri, your shift is not over,” Leo warned from the doorway, but Keri only wiggled her fingers lightly in his direction.
Trevor escorted her to his car, which was a late model sedan, surprisingly spotless. Keri had never known a man to keep his car so clean. Keri could feel Leo's eyes from the doorway as he watched her climb into the car. He ducked his head back in the bar.
“Marilyn are you aware that Keri is getting in this guy's car? Doesn't she know how dangerous that is?” he demanded.
“I'm on it,” Marilyn said as she walked out with her tablet in her hand, typing away on the touch screen. “Trevor Marrero, I am initiating a background check as we speak.”
Leo's jaw clenched as he watched the car speed away. “Hope it's not too late.”
“So do you usually sweep girls off their feet, or is there something special about today?” Keri asked after ordering her meal.
“Something special about you,” he replied with his charming smile.