“Hey, Ruby, how’s it going?”
She glanced up at Lance just long enough to give him a dark look before she threw her purse behind the bar and shoved onto a barstool.
“That bad, huh?”
“You have no idea.” It had been the kind of day that made her want to go back home and crawl under the covers, and instead she was here in Purgatory preparing for a long night.
“You see the schedule for tonight yet?”
“Yeah, I saw it a few days ago on my last shift.”
Lance shook his head and slid a sheet of paper in her direction down the smooth wood top of the bar. “There’s been a few changes in the entertainment since then.”
“Whatever. I still have a busy night ahead of me and I’m not here for the entertainment. As long as the tips are good I’ll be happy.”
“You might want to take a look.”
She stilled at the warning tone of his voice. “Why do I have a sudden feeling you’re trying to tell me something I’m not going to like?”
Lance shrugged and walked away from the bar. “Let me know when you’ve cooled off and I’ll come back.”
Ruby rolled her eyes and plucked the paper from the bar. How bad could it be? She’d been working here for over a year now and this wasn’t exactly her first charity event. These nights always included everything but the kitchen sink. Gabe had explained more than once that by offering so many options he’d draw twice the number of people than a regular night, and so far he’d not disappointed her.
His predictions were always spot on.
She skimmed the schedule, not seeing anything out of the ordinary until she got to the bottom. There, in bold red pencil, someone had scribbled the name Zane.
She felt the blood drain from her face and her head spun. She couldn’t tear herself from the word and her brain repeated his name over and over. Unbidden images of dark hair and knowing eyes filled her head. Lips made for pleasuring and a too confident smile every time he looked at her, as if he saw deep inside her. Of all the damn people in this town, why him? No, there had to be a mistake. Gabe had told her personally Zane would not be attending tonight’s event when she’d agreed to take the head bartending position.
“What kind of bullshit is this?” She spun on the stool and found an empty room. The cowards had dropped a bomb on her and ran. Neither Lance nor Gabe were anywhere in sight.
“I’m leaving, you hear me? You promised and I trusted you,” she shouted to the empty room.
“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?” Gabe’s voice boomed over the sound system. “He’s just a man, after all, and since you refuse to tell me what happened to cause this hatred, what am I supposed to do? We had two acts cancel at the last minute and his group was the only replacement I could find that was worth a damn.”
“He’s the most arrogant bastard in this town. God’s gift to Domhood, my ass.”
“Careful, Ruby, I’m beginning to think getting the two of you together might not be such a bad idea,” Gabe mocked.
She clenched her jaw and ground her teeth. The sudden urge to break something flooded through her. Why did the mere mention of his name set her off? Because his cocksure attitude grated on her nerves, but the voice and body got her panties wet every damn time he was near.
She sighed. “It would serve you right if I left now.”
“You won’t leave me in the lurch. It’s not in your nature.”
Ruby propped her elbows on the bar and dropped her head into her hands. She didn’t know whether to tug her hair in frustration or run from the building. She’d have to find a way to avoid him, that’s all. As long as he kept his distance she’d be fine. She’d get through the night with her self-respect still intact and her skirt firmly in place.
She could do this. She stood and turned to face the DJ booth above the stage. “You keep him away from me, you hear? If you don’t then I won’t be responsible for what happens.”
“Sure thing, Ruby, whatever you want. Consider it done.” Gabe laughed.
Instead of reassuring, the sound seemed sinister, even foreboding. She scooted around the end of the bar and began rummaging through supplies. She needed to have everything in place before the night started. If Gabe’s predictions were correct, they’d have a record-breaking crowd tonight. Maybe keeping busy would keep her mind off the man she’d hoped to never lay eyes on again.
Her boss had asked her more than once what her issue with Zane was all about, but how could she explain something she didn’t understand herself? Every time she felt his voice stroke her skin her insides melted. The hard lines of his face coupled with the aura surrounding him scared the shit out of her. No, the fact she wanted to obey when he spoke frightened her more.
He thought he was a gift to submissives everywhere, and on some level he wasn’t wrong. Women flocked to him, eager to be his next conquest. His reputation preceded him, and no one questioned anything he did. Self-confidence was one thing, but what Zane possessed spoke volumes. To her it flashed like a neon sign warning her to stay the hell away.
She didn’t consider herself submissive, nor did domination appeal to her. Most of the activities here in Purgatory did little to excite her…except one. From as far back as she could remember she’d been hyper focused on heat and fire. She’d even volunteered as a fireman way back when, but her propensity to want to play and explore kind of conflicted with the primary goals of a firefighter. She sat back on her haunches and let the memories take her away.
The blistering heat and flames taller than herself should have sent her scurrying from the building, or at the very least served as a warning that the fire was out of control. Instead she stood her ground and watched it burned. Wanted to reach out and touch it, understand it. The danger meant nothing, only the desire to be close and feel its heat penetrating her suit.
When her partner and boyfriend at the time had drug her from the burning building she’d discovered the eroticism of it all. He’d fucked her that night while memories of searing heat and bright orange and yellow flames flitted through her mind. She’d fractured into a release that both frightened and entranced her. The boyfriend had dumped her and insisted she needed therapy, and she’d agreed. How could this fascination be normal?
She’d sought a counselor with an open mind who directed her onto a path that turned into a remarkable transformation. First she’d urged Ruby to consider fire investigation instead of trying to fight a fire. Definitely not her forte. Second, she’d recommended a fetish club where she could meet other fire fetishists and learn to use the attraction in positive and safe sexual ways instead of feeling guilty for an attraction—that while outside the “norm” as defined by some, it wasn’t all that unusual.
Now in her second year as a fire investigator, she loved her day job immensely. She had a knack for science as well as an intuition for understanding the aftermath of a fire scene. She’d only taken the gig as a part-time bartender at Purgatory so she could hang out here without feeling like an outsider. She’d never had an interest in BDSM despite her mother’s role as a full-time slave to her father. Quite the opposite.
The shelf where empty and ready glasses should sit caught her eye. She’d have to go to the kitchen and retrieve them herself. Whoever had closed last night had done a piss poor job of setup. Ruby pushed to her feet and swiveled to face the room, her gaze traveling to her favorite booth. She’d requested to work the second floor bar so she could keep an eye on the fetish stations. For a charity event Doc would pull out all the stops, and on her break she’d hit him up for some fire play.
Despite her lack of interest in BDSM as a whole, they’d welcomed her into the Purgatory family and embraced her fire fetish. Doc had taught her some of the basics and frequently offered to teach her more, but she’d shrugged him off. She understood fire and, while she could probably wield it well, it wasn’t where the desire lay. Gabe had tried to explain that she continued to display submissive tendencies but he couldn’t be more wrong.
She wasn’t her mother. She desired an equal partnership that gave her the freedom to explore the unusual. Was that too much to ask? Ruby shrugged and pushed her way into the kitchen and loaded three trays of freshly washed glasses for her bar.
The door swung open and John sauntered in. “Hey, Ruby, I didn’t know you’d be here tonight.”
She flashed him a quick smile and stacked the trays on top of each other. “Yep, Gabe asked me to head up the second floor so here I am.”
“I’m surprised, I thought with Zane—” He clamped his mouth shut and turned beet red.
“Yes, I’ve heard that Zane will be here. Jeez, did everyone know but me?” And does everyone know I have an issue with him?
“Would you have agreed to work tonight if you did?”
They both knew the answer to that, and she wasn’t about to satisfy it with an answer. “As long as he stays away from my bar we’ll all be just fine.”
“Uh huh…like last time?”
“I admit I might have acted a little out of character then, but that doesn’t mean anything. The man just knows how to set me off.”
“More like push your buttons, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t, so let’s not talk about him anymore.”
She hefted the trays into her arms.
“Hey, let me help you with those.”
“Nope I’ve got it. Ex-firefighter, remember. You’re in charge.”
“Yeah, yeah, you never want any help, I’ve got it.” He pushed and held the door open for her. “Good luck tonight. I have a feeling you’re going to need it.”
Ruby swept through the door, ignoring John’s last comment. What the hell did he know anyway? She started for the stairs and detoured for the elevator at the last minute. No need to push her luck.
A quick glance at her watch showed it was already after eight. She’d have to hurry before the rest of the staff and some of the early birds started trickling in.