HOT HONEY KISSES Extended Excerpt – Addison Moore

HOT HONEY KISSES Extended Excerpt

Hot Honey Kisses (3:AM Kisses 17) *STANDALONE within a series*

Romantic Comedy/Mystery

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Once Upon a Body

Serena

The place to be in Hollow Brook on a hot Friday night—and I mean hot in the most literal sense—is the Black Bear Saloon. Since the weather in Hollow Brook itself has devolved into Satan’s armpit, the Black Bear is about the only place to get decent air conditioning along with your fair share of hard bodies. It’s June. School is out and summer has descended upon us like fire-breathing cats and dogs raining down like a punishment. Everyone under the sweltering sun has arrived at the restaurant-slash-bar for a night of boozy festivities and all of the sleazy events that will ensue thereafter.

Of course, I’m here with my shortest skirt, my tightest tank top, in a quasi-manipulative effort to pull in the big tips. God knows I need them. The bigger, the better. I might have scored a scholarship to Whitney Briggs University, but that free ride sure doesn’t help with the incidentals of life, such as that cute cherry red bikini I’ve had my eye on and the perfect matching shade of fiery red MAC lipstick—all specifically chosen to highlight my auburn hair.

My sister, Lex, and I both have our deadbeat of a mother’s deep red locks. Although, Lex has an ebony undertone and I’m more Little Mermaid. Not that I mind the cartoonish nature of my beastly mane. I’ve come to embrace it. Hell, I’ve come to embrace just about every quirk and jerk about me—and I kind of mean the jerk part literally. In no way do I set out to come across as a jackass. It’s just that the constant stream of sarcasm that spouts from my mouth is often misconstrued as surly and inconsiderate—as detailed to me by my sweet cousin, Sunday.

Sunday has always been as puritanical as her moniker suggests—with the exception of that whole getting knocked up after a one-night stand gone wrong last winter, but I digress. It’s merely the beginning of summer, and the humidity is already creating a sticky situation. The place is pumping, and I’m hopeful that all of these moderately drunk bodies will equal more than enough to buy a string bikini or two once the night is over. Heck, I might even make enough to fill my gas tank and venture down to the beach to show off my new stitches. There is nothing like a North Carolina white sandy beach in the summer.

I’ve just crested the entry of this fine establishment, passing the overstuffed black bear that greets the guests just outside the doors. It’s usually mobbed by freshmen waiting their turn to sneak in the obligatory selfie, and tonight is no different with three prepubescent looking girls trying to dry-hump the poor thing in the process.

I glance to the floor as my fingers work in haste to tie on my apron, only to have a brick wall of a body slam right into me.

Crap. My nose just pushed in like an accordion, and my strawberry lip-gloss just smacked its way onto someone’s salty flesh.

The brick wall moves back a step, only to reveal himself as a tall heap of muscles—my lip print neatly pressed against his neck—greasy blond hair, and a dangerous smile on his equally greasy lips. Yes, he’s handsome, but he’s got a cocky air about him that says I’ve got a power drill in my pants and I’m not afraid to wield my tool belt. But that squirrely look in his wicked eyes spells out insanity more than it ever does the stable committed type, so I attempt to sashay to his left, but he sidesteps right along with me. His brows bounce in amusement, and I can’t help but note he has that perennial bad boy appeal—and not in a good way—I’m talking fresh out of the slammer tattoo factory, body is a coloring book right up to that lip print I gifted his neck, eyes red with rage and quite possibly the aftereffect of a quasi-illegal substance. He’s older than me by a decade at least. My guess is he’s no frat brat, just a roving troublemaker looking to get drunk and sunk between some poor unsuspecting barfly’s thighs. And as long as he’s got at least a ten-dollar bill with my name on it in that dingy pocket of his, I couldn’t care less what illegal substances or raging sluts this greaseball does to fill his downtime.

“Watch where you’re going, kid,” he barks it out like a reprimand while trying once again to charge right through me. Instinctively, I slap my hands over his chest, sending him sailing backward as his phone slips from his pocket along with a tiny white receipt.

His cell makes an awful slapping sound that penetrates the music blasting through the speakers, taking the decibels in this place to jet engine levels. Oh crap. That can’t be good.

“Did you just push me?” he barks once again, his upper lip set in a snarl as if he were a rabid dog—an insult to rabid dogs everywhere.

“You bet your greasy dollars I did.” My voice is a bit snippier than usual, but I can’t help it. This block of less than hygienic flesh has my blood boiling. “I suggest you watch where you’re going and think twice before referring to me in a derogatory manner—likening me to some kid. I’m all woman, moron, and don’t you forget it,” I shout up over the 12 Deadly Sins, the house band happily blaring away while Dirty Boy—and yes, I don’t mind one bit reducing him to the childish moniker—bends over to pick up his cell phone with an alarming lightning-shaped crack running the length of the screen.

Dear God, how I pray it was damaged well before our scuffle because I sure as heck don’t have two nickels to buy him a new one. I’m pretty sure a week’s worth of my measly tips wouldn’t be able to fix a cracked screen either. And a douchebag like Dirty Boy will certainly want to pin the blame on me.

His eyes narrow in on mine, dark and beady. “Honey, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Stay out of my way. And if you’re still around by the end of the night, I’ll gladly take you out back and teach you a lesson or two on how to be a real woman.” He winks while brushing his finger over my cheek, and I gag on a thousand different expletives. Dirty Boy dives to my left and thankfully disappears in a flurry of bodies.

“So help me God, I will kill or maim that jackass before the night is through,” I mutter. And just as I’m about to rush over to clock in, the receipt that fell from his pocket catches my eye and I pick it up myself. “On top of being a sexist idiot, he’s a damn litterbug, too.” I glance at it a moment. It’s just a string of numbers written across the front. I plunge it into my pocket without thinking. It’s probably last night’s bed-hopper’s number. I bet after a few beers he’ll be willing to fork out the big bucks to get this valuable promise of STDs back in his possession.

Cole, the bartender, nods my way as I make my way over to clock in. Holt, one of the owners, is usually working alongside him, but he and his wife, Izzy, just had a sweet baby girl named Paige.

Baby fever seems to have swept through Hollow Brook this last year as evidenced by my sweet and yet not-so-innocent cousin Sunday getting knocked up after a one-night stand that she happened to have with the love of her life, Seth. They’re officially together now—engaged to be exact.

Sunday wants a simple courthouse wedding, but there’s no way in hell I’m letting that legal nightmare ensue—the courthouse, not the wedding. Lex and I are gunning to surprise her with something nice at the overlook come Fourth of July. Seth says he’s fine with it, but if the moment arrives, and Sunday decides it’s not what she wants, we’ve agreed to pull out of the endeavor. Pulling out isn’t something in which Seth is an expert, thus the fact their baby is due in September. But, overall, Seth is a great guy, and I just know they’re a perfect fit.

Seth’s sister, Misty, is married to Sunday’s brother, Nolan, so it’s kind of cozy that they’re keeping things in the family quite literally. Nolan, Sunday, and their brother, Rush, are my first cousins on my aforementioned deadbeat of a mother’s side. Since they lost their own mother more than a decade ago through a tragic accident and I lost mine due to negligence on her part—rumor has it, an old boyfriend and a casino had a starring role in the tragedy—my older sister, Lex, stepped in and played the part of mama bird to us all. It’s ironic, of course, since Lex was the least likely of the bunch with a maternal instinct. She’s sort of an anti-nurturer, but she did her best and we’ve all grown up in appreciation of her efforts.

As much as I love my sister, I’ve tried to keep my distance ever since I set foot at Whitney Briggs. Suddenly, she’s a tad too maternal now that my virginity has a glaring spotlight over it—no thanks to the fact Sunday had a fire sale on her own. Nevertheless, I plan on bumping into more than my fair share of bad boys while I’m at WB—sans Dirty Boy and that greasy grin of his. I’d like to teach him a lesson out back—with the working end of my stiletto.

I clock in before heading straight to my area and cringe at the matrimonial sight before me.

A bride.

A bride seated at a table set for twenty. A very bedraggled looking, sour-faced, pissed off bride with a dress that looks as if she just yanked it out of the bottom of a trash can, wrinkled, grimy—and is that a tire track across the front? I’m guessing the nuptials didn’t go the way God intended.

“Welcome to the Black Bear Saloon,” I say, hopping next to her while whipping out my notepad. “Can I get something started for you while you await the rest of your party?” Like a good divorce attorney perhaps, I want to add but shockingly don’t. Tonight seems to be taking on a life of its own. It sure doesn’t need me running off my mouth, even though Lex’s husband, Axel, is a perfectly good attorney turned restaurateur—and this poor bedraggled bride looks as if she needs the brightest and the best in the legal department. Axel and a couple of his buddies opened up a similar bar-slash-eatery over on the ritzier, far less studious, side of town called The Sloppy Pelican. Axel’s brother, Shep, is an attorney as well. I make a face without meaning to. It’s sort of my go-to response when that public defending nuisance comes to mind, and I do my best to swat him away like the mental gnat he is.

“She’s younger than me. She’s got big boobs, too.” The bullish and yet somewhat blushing bride smirks up at me.

Whoa. I take a step back in hopes to duck out of the toxic current she’s just emitted. It looks as if she’s coming in hot with a full tank of ethanol judging by that slight slur in her speech coupled with the vodka breeze.

She slaps her left hand on the table, and I can’t help but note there’s nary a sign of any ring or bling. “Hell, he probably calls them tits because men are pigs that way.”

“Uh…right.” No matter how much I agree with her I’m about to steer this conversation in a culinary direction when a mob of women in alarmingly matching, slightly dingy, bedraggled wedding dresses storm in. And sadly, I’m not in the least surprised.

At the moment, I’m talking to who I guess to be the head bitter bride, an older woman with severe bags under her eyes. Her face looks blotchy and bloated, as worn out as that gray dress she’s donned. A ratted veil is staked into her thick blonde hair, and it looks as if she just plucked it off a corpse bride—not that she doesn’t qualify as one herself.  I clear my throat. “You know what?” I muse as the bitter bride brigade falls into their seats like a coven of angry witches whose spells have all just backfired. “Why don’t you ladies take your time with the menu? I’ll be back in just a bit to take your order.”

The head bride lets out a mean whoop while waving in another whole legion of runaway brides in this direction. “Oh, honey, this is going to be one hell of a breakup bash. I came within inches of that unholy altar before I saw the light, and believe you me I’m damn thankful. You just keep the margaritas coming. Hell, we can cut out the middleman. Just send the damn bartender this way. We’ll figure out what to do with him.” The entire table breaks out into cackles over that salacious remark.

“Gladly,” I mutter as I jump out of the way and signal Cole over to take a stab at the howling matrimonial masses. Cole is handsome, classically so, dark hair, permanent naughty grin, but he’s very much taken. His plus one, Roxy, is a slit-your-throat type Goth girl who happens to bake the best darn cupcakes in town. Roxy runs her own baking business out of her apartment, and word on the street is she’s looking for a place downtown to open up a real shop in the very near future.

“Breakup bash,” I hiss as he glides by with an ear-to-ear grin. “I’m guessing she’s the one that called it off.”

“I’ve seen it all, Serena,” Cole assures me. “Don’t worry about the crowds. Roxy is coming in to help man the tables.”

Not only has Holt taken time off to tend to his wife and sweet baby, but two waitresses left for the Bahamas this morning so we’re down to a skeleton crew.

“Good thing.” I sigh as I make my way to where Sunday and Seth are seated having a seemingly romantic dinner in a darkened corner. Her belly is bloated like a beach ball, and she can hardly lean over to place her hands on the table. I can’t help but smile at how adorable she is.

No sooner do I arrive in their presence than they flick down a couple of twenties over their bill.

No,” I whine without meaning to. “You guys can’t leave. You’re the only thing holding my sanity together.” I dip my knees while doing my best to plead with Sunday.

Sunday and I are like sisters. We just finished our freshman year at Briggs, and here she is, knocked up and engaged to the boy who did the dirty deed, her longtime secret crush, Seth. Seth’s a good guy. We’ve known him forever, too. Sure, it was pure evil of him to keep it from Sunday that he was indeed the one-night stand she had way back in December, but the truth is, they were both pretty toasted and Seth was scared spitless. But he’s admitted now, and that entire boozy nightmare is in the past. They’re both happy as can be, and that baby on the way is more than lucky to have the two of them for parents—and me as an aunt.

“We haven’t even talked about your wedding.” I try to appeal to her matrimonial side. “I’m thinking something huge at The Sloppy Pelican,” I tease, knowing full well the idea will be met with the utmost protest.

Sunday averts her eyes on cue. She is a natural beauty, even though she chooses to wield makeup as if it were a weapon. She has a popular beauty vlog on YouTube and has a bazillion subscribers who have helped land her to a semi-famous status. Plus, it keeps her bank account in the black.

I’m not that lucky or talented, and the only thing I’ve got to keep me in a pittance of green is the tips I earn on crazy nights like this.

Sunday glowers at me. “Definitely not at The Sloppy Pelican.” Seth helps Sunday out of her seat, and I’d swear on all of my unearned tips that her belly grew twice its size since I saw her a few hours earlier.

Sunday wrinkles her nose. “We were thinking something small and private at the overlook.” Ha! Lex and I called it. “You know, about ten people or so? It’s where Seth proposed, so it has meaning to us. Plus, that way, I won’t be such a public spectacle. Nothing calls out the rubberneckers like a knocked-up child bride.”

“If people are craning their necks to get a better look at you, it’s because you’re a stunner. Newsflash: you’re nineteen. You’re no longer considered a child by any public entity.”

“Yes, but I can’t legally drink at my own wedding either.” She pulls me in and lands a sweet kiss to my cheek. “Sorry I’m going to miss your date, but I’m beyond zonked. I’m half-asleep already. Growing another human really does take a lot out of you.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.” I suck in a sharp breath as her words finally register. “My date? Oh my God, I totally forgot all about that brewing disaster.”

I give a nervous glance to the door for said “date” who is supposed to show up in a yellow denim jacket. That fashion faux pas was the first red flag in this entire debacle. I can forgive a lot of fashion-based errors, but can I really forgive a yellow denim jacket—on a first date, no less?

My God, did Dirty Boy show up sporting a canary on his person? I glance to the bar and spot him—thankfully sans the yellow jacket—going at it again. This time with some dark-haired dude who looks just as slimy as he does.

I give the rest of the place a quick once-over and come up empty of that slightly obnoxious hue.

This is all my roommate Harley’s fault. She’s the one who convinced me to swipe right. I spot her near the back laughing it up with a couple of our friends, Colby and Teagan. She’s been plotting all week on how to best corner her new crush, Tyson Swanson, basketball player extraordinaire—but really, he’s just a player. I have no idea what she sees in that perverted oaf. I spot him a few feet to her left, and I’m positive that boy is on her radar while I’m on the warpath of some yellow-loving psychotic.

“A date.” I look to Sunday and shake my head at the lunacy. “I can’t believe I’m staring down the barrel of the unknown, save for the fact he’s assured me he’s totally sane and I’ll love him to pieces. What I’m really afraid of is him hacking me to pieces. How about you stay and I toss in a free dessert? Or twelve,” I say in an effort to sweeten the deal.

Seth laughs as he pats me on the back. “You’ll be fine. This place is loaded with disillusioned brides ready and willing to do a testosterone takedown on whomever you point the finger at. Whatever you do, don’t let the guy take you to a second location.” He gives a cheesy wink while pulling Sunday in close. “But seriously, evaluate the dude. Make sure his check engine light isn’t going off.” He taps the side of his head. “And if it is, take preemptive action. Call Marlin. Tell him to bring backup.”

“Not a bad idea.” Marlin is my older brother who happens to be armed to the hilt as a decorated member of the Jepson Police Department.

I watch, forlorn, as both Sunday and Seth hit the exit, and just as they leave, an ornery jackass enters the establishment.

“Great,” I grunt just as Roxy passes me by.

“Take the left wing, would you?” She pauses on her way to the kitchen and steals a moment to glare at the bitter brides. “Sorry you have to deal with that mess. Personally, I think they’re pulling this stunt to achieve minimal fame.” She takes off again. “By the way, I called Baya. Hopefully, she’ll be here soon. But until then, we’re skating on thin ice.”

Roxy is Cole’s aforementioned better half. She’s a bit jarring to look at with her kohl-inked eyes, her Cherry Coke-inspired hair, and sardonic view of life. I, for one, happen to appreciate her nonstop sarcasm and dry humor. We redheads are known for our spicy way with words. I always seem to get along with fellow redheads, although I’m of the natural variety and my mane is anything but Cherry Coke-inspired. I’m more of a crimson hair and hormones on fire kind of a redhead with the luck-of-the-Irish green eyes to match. Although I’ve never been lucky—my Irish genes failed me long ago in that respect.

I watch as Shepherd Collins, the jackass that just made his way in, finds a seat in my newly minted wing and I groan.

“No, no, no,” I whisper as my feet lead me in that direction without my permission. I’ve known Shep for as far back as I can remember. My sister, Lex, and his brother, Axel, married last December after a rather lengthy hiatus in their relationship, so that makes us quasi-family. And speaking of family, it turns out Shep tragically lost his sister, Emilia, not too long ago while she was hiking with her boyfriend. She had a freak fall, and that was that. My heart breaks for the family, and for Shep in that regard, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s still an ass of the highest order.

Lucky for my sister, Axel is emphatically not an ass. In addition to being a successful lawyer turned restaurateur, he’s invested in my sister’s restaurant critique start-up, The Epicurean Elite. Leave it to my perennially cranky big sis to start a business that specializes in nitpicking. Okay, so maybe that’s not the point. The point is to lead the masses to quality good food—like right here at the Black Bear—where good food leads to long nights that try my sanity with the promise of great tips for yours truly.

I scowl over at the hunchbacked oaf. Okay, so I’m totally lying. Shep Collins is as far from the Hunchback of Notre Dame as one can get. He’s tall, olive complexion, dark hair, bright blue eyes that siren out like the hottest kind of flame, and, at the moment, he seems to be smoldering in my direction with a come-hither look that sets my thighs on fire. He’s ridiculously, unfairly, good-looking. And, when you get down to it, he’s really just ridiculous.

I march over and fold my arms across my chest, legs set in a defiant stance—I can’t help it. Something about the asshole in him brings out the angry self-righteous thirteen-year-old in me.

“Would you mind picking your stubborn self up and sitting in the rear of the establishment? And if you just so happen to find the back entrance, feel free to stroll right out into the wild. There’s a dumpster there somewhere, loaded with leftovers. I’m sure a wild boar like you can make a meal of it.”

His left brow arches into his forehead, and his obnoxious ocean-colored eyes light up as if someone just flipped a switch. Then slowly, ever so determined, he flashes that annoying grin across his demented face just for me.

“I see you’re in top form, Serena. You really are a brat, you know that?”

“What did you just have the blue balls to call me?” I pluck the pen from behind my ear and brandish it like a weapon.

“You called me a pig.” That obnoxious grin of his does a disappearing act, and I’m mildly proud of myself for inducing such a quick turnabout of emotion in him. I like him good and pissed, because that’s exactly what he does to me the instant I lay eyes on him—pisses me off without even trying. “You do realize a wild boar is a feral pig, don’t you?” He gives a slight nod. That condescending tone makes me want to smother him with a pillow or that banana cream pie Roxy is carrying across the room one-handed.

“Of course, I realize it. I know one when I see one, and I’m feasting my eyes on the most feral of them all. Now oink yourself to the other side of the room lest you risk your food be seasoned with saliva! And you won’t have the pleasure of it being mine. There are at least twenty frat boys in the poolroom willing to oblige me.” I smear a greedy grin of my own.

“I bet they are.” He pulls a menu forward and attempts to open it, but I slam it shut with the palm of my hand.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” A rush of fury explodes through every vein in my body. I’m so blind with rage, I could lift this building on its side with just a single acrid glance. I’ll make sure Shep is lying in wait while I tip it over. An image of him flat as a pancake flits through my twisted mind, and I can’t help but smile.

He glances up, his brows furrowed as if I had the ability to wear him thin. “It means you’re beautiful. And I’m sure an entire herd of frat boys would be glad to gift you whatever bodily fluids you request.” He winces at his own decidedly disgusting analogy.

I suck in a sharp breath. “Wow, you give pigs everywhere a bad name,” I seethe. “In fact, the more time I spend with you, the more I’m convinced your mother had a rectal delivery.”

I turn abruptly and take off for dingy, gray, wedding pastures where I see Cole has liquored up our bitter bridal party of matrimonial doom to maximum tipping capacity. It’s a fine line between happily tipping over the twenty percent line and being too drunk to define the word tip—let alone walk a straight line to your Uber.

Tip or no tip, they look just like the bitter, jaded, She-Man-Testosterone-Haters that I’m more than willing to break bread with. I’m so sick of guys like Shep and Dirty Boy ruining my night—my life.

Hey! I might soon add yet another nuisance to my list if Bee Boy shows up sporting his yellow jacket. For a second there, I totally forgot about the horny hornet looking to regale me with his stinger this evening.

I cast a quick glance over my shoulder and jolt to attention by way of Shep Collins’ devilishly handsome face, emphasis on the devilish, peering at me from less than an inch away.

Geez!” I jump back, clutching my chest as my heart does its best to kickbox its way out of my chest. “You gave me a freaking heart attack. The restrooms are that way.” I toss a finger past him. “And so is the exit. I won’t tell you which is which. I kind of like the fifty-fifty odds that you’ll be leaving us.” I manufacture a deranged smile.

“Whoa.” He holds his hands out as if attempting to steady me. “Relax. I just wanted to—”

“Apologize, I know.” I shoot a brief glance to the ceiling. Shep and I have played this game far too many times for me to care anymore. “And please for the love of all things holy, take your ornery self and find another establishment to haunt. I have a big, bad date due to arrive in just a few minutes, and he’s tall, dark, and—” A bright yellow jacket snags my attention from the entry, and I choke on my next words.

Tall, dark-haired, ratted, tatted, roided out to the point he looks like he belongs in a Marvel comic and not in any good way—and, my God, he’s got the Mr. T starter kit hanging around his neck! His muscles are bulging, creating large, meaty humps as they stretch his jacket taut over his biceps. That T-shirt he’s got on underneath is stretched to capacity itself, and there are mounds and mounds of dark curly hair sprouting from his neckline. He’s a plague of a person, huffing and puffing as he scans the crowd as if he’s got a bone to pick from an unlucky body. And not a shocker, I just so happen to be the unlucky one.

I snatch Shep by the shoulders and scream as I do my best to use him as a human shield. That hulk at the door has a serious case of toxic masculinity, and I want no part of it.

What?” He turns abruptly and shoots a glance at the entrance. “What’s going on?” He looks back, his body relaxing beneath the death grip I have over it. “Wait a minute… Is Donald Duck—is that your big, bad date for the evening?”

“Very funny. My God, he looks downright dangerous!”

“Dangerous is right,” Shep muses. “He definitely looks like he knows where the bodies are buried.”

“He knows where the bodies are buried because he put them there!”

“Come on, Serena. You’re not giving him a fair shake. I bet he’s made totally respectable career choices, like grave digging.”

“Please, I happen to know he plays video games for a living. This is probably the first time he’s seen natural light in months.”

I shimmy us to the left until we’re partially hidden by some well-placed foliage. It seems like every time the owner’s wife, Baya, comes in, she’s hauling in another silk ficus with her, and right about now, I appreciate that most about her. “Yes, that’s him. But he can’t know this is me.”

“Why not?”

“Because it just so happens to be a blind date, and now that I have twenty-twenty vision, I’ve changed my mind!” I howl into Shep’s vexingly handsome face and hit pause on my emotional meltdown for one unholy moment just to soak in those dreamy blue eyes of his. My hand glides over his rock-hard chest without meaning to, and the thick scent of his minty cologne transports me.

Gah! I shake myself back to reality. Those are not dreamy eyes. God, what a stupid word to begin with. There is not one dreamy thing about Shep Collins. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. If anything, he’s a schemer.

Wasn’t it Shepherd Collins who initiated a takedown of my better judgment when he suggested I hide everyone’s shoes during Lex’s beach birthday bash all those eons ago? Once everyone hit the water, I took Shep up on his silly advice and nearly walked home because of it. Nobody thought it was cute when they found out I hid their four-hundred dollar preppy loafers in a trash can just a few yards away from our motley jumble of towels. It was fancy footwear carnage, I tell you. And Shep had conveniently slipped away before the commotion, citing the fact he had to study for the LSAT or some bogus crap like that. Okay, so he studied and passed the LSAT. Color me not impressed.

Everything about Shep spells out trouble. If anything, I feel sorry for the poor fools he’s entertaining in a court of law or in his bed. A brief vision of Shep pulling loose that silver tie of his as he hovers over me in a compromising position bounces through my mind.

“Come on.” He does his best to pry me off while ticking his head toward the entry. “You got to get back on that horse.” He grimaces. “You’re not really going to ride that horse, are you?”

“Are you kidding? That would be crazy stupid.”

He glares hard at the seething yellow blob at the door. “And that seems to be what you specialize in these days.”

I clear a slap over that perfectly sculpted, slightly stubbled cheek and feel the burn over my palm long after I’m through.

Geez.” He taps his hand over the same spot I just gifted my affection. “What’d you do that for?” He sheds a quick glance to the door before doing a double take. “Oh no, no. This night is not allowed to get any worse.” He quickly grabs me by the shoulders and spins me around until we’ve switched positions. He ducks down a bit until he’s looking through my wild hair as if it were a hunting blind.

I turn back and spot a rather clueless peroxide strawberry blonde with big pouty lips and a funky white frilly dress with a wine stain over the left nipple. The night is young. That right nipple just might get lucky, too.

“Who is she, and why are you cowering? Is that your pimp?” I can’t help but laugh in his face, albeit short-lived. God forbid I attract the attention of the angry giraffe. I swear on all that is holy, I’m going to kill Harley for even mentioning the words digital dating to me. My God, for an hour straight I thought she was talking about a Sims game!

“I’m not cowering.” Shep straightens, shoulders back, that hardened I’m a wannabe bad boy look suddenly stuck on his face. The muscles in his jaw flinch, and I can’t help but think he looks decidedly handsome. It’s only then I note he’s still neatly tucked in a crisp Italian suit. That silver tie is snug against his neck like a noose. Too bad he’s still Shep. But Lex is totally lucky. Axel and Shep are virtually twins. It’s funny, though. Each time I look at Shep, I never feel like I’m staring at a hijacked version of my brother-in-law. I still see Shep for who he is, an original asshole. I’m sure on a deep, cosmic level he appreciates that.

Shit.” He flinches with disappointment as if he just lost money at the track. “She brought the new guy. I pretty much hate the new guy. Look at him. He’s uptight—like he just got caught smuggling gold in his rectum.”

A laugh gets caught in my throat as I turn to find that the lady in white and wine now has a plus one attached to her arm—a decent looking dude in a rather pedestrian suit.

“Huh, the dapper dude that lays the golden egg doesn’t look so bad. So she’s an ex, huh? I’m not sure what should have been my first clue. The fact you’re cowering, or her bad sense of style.” I frown as I steal a moment to debate this.

Baya pops in and waves over at me from behind the blonde bimbo, and along with her is Cassidy, the sweetest country girl you’d ever want to meet who helps out on occasion. They’re both cute perky blondes themselves, and they both have the bubbling personalities to match.

“I’d better get back to work before I get fired. I’ve got two-dozen brides who are pleasantly blitzed out of their mind, and I’m damn well going to use it to my financial advantage. Hey? Maybe I can convince Bee Boy that his date is currently outfitted with a tattered wedding dress?”

“If that doesn’t scare him off, you can always do that thing with your eyes.” His lips twitch, but he’s too stubborn to give a smile.

I know exactly what thing he’s talking about because I used to do that very thing to scare him off. It’s a forced lazy-eye trick I learned in biology as part of an experiment that tested our ocular muscles. One eye stays put while the other eye drifts to the side. It’s not that hard. It certainly does not take a talent as Shep used to enjoy pointing out.

“I was pretty good at it, wasn’t I?” I can’t help but smirk with pride.

“Are you kidding?” He inches forward as if he’s about to kiss me, and my stomach free-falls into oblivion. Stupid, stupid stomach. I’m hungry, that’s all. Hangry in fact. “You were gunning for Olympic gold. If this waitressing gig doesn’t work out, you can always go pro.”

“If it pays any better, I might consider it.” I ditch Shep for the brides gone wild section of the restaurant and am shocked to find half the table missing as a handful of women in white flit about the four corners of the Black Bear.

“What in the fresh carnation hell is going on?” I bleat to the head bride still staunchly glued to her seat. Her hair looks as if it’s been through the blender, and that tiny veil still sits crooked on her head. Dear Lord, her mascara is halfway down her face, and her lipstick has trekked over to her cheek. There are some nights when you just need to surrender and throw the towel in, hit the sheets, and hope for a better tomorrow, and I’m afraid that’s exactly where she is.

“Treasure hunt,” she growls the words out. “I found the prize.” She manufactures a hot pink rubber sex toy that has the power to make me scream at just one glance and not in a good way.

“Oh my goodness!” I hiss as I throw a wad of napkins over the deviant device. “This is a family restaurant. Tuck that pinky winky away in your bouquet or something.” Okay, the Black Bear is far off from a family establishment, but still. Who wants to ogle a dildo while you’re trying to bite into a hot dog?

“And who in their right mind gave you permission to hide all kinds of kink in the bar?” I’m betting the answer is no one.

She shakes her head as she guzzles down the rest of her Long Island Iced Tea. “I found it out back.” Her upper lip quivers when she says it. “Along with a human dildo.”

I bet she did.

I can’t help but glance to my sunny-side roid rage of a date still scanning the vicinity, hell-bent on making his scrambled dreams come true. There is truly no way I’m letting him take me to a second location. My gaze cuts to Shep, then to the bar where I fully expect to find Dirty Boy but don’t.

“Yes, well, the bar is full of wankers tonight. I suppose a run-in is inevitable. You girls ready to order?”

“Nachos,” huffs a boisterous brunette with her lips painted a caustic shade of hot pink. Her bridal gown has a dark brown stain running down the front as if her own Long Island Iced Tea didn’t quite make it to her fuchsia-stained pie hole.

“You bet.”

Bride Number One waves her pink little member in the air as if it were a flag. “Need hot honey.” Her eyes invert a moment as she shakes her head belligerently. “I can’t believe it, Belinny,” she bleats to Fuchsia Lips.

“Belinda!” The brunette next to her looks up at me, laughing so hard it comes out in a hiss. My God, they’re all blitzed out of their minds—which, of course, is fine by me as long as they’re ready to part with all of the green in their wallet. “I’m her sister,” she practically mouths the words before letting out a braying laugh—so loud, so sharp, so very annoying I’m sure I’ll be hearing this in my sleep. Hell, if she goes up another octave, I’ll be hearing it well after I’m dead. Her octave rises, and there goes any hope of a peaceful eternity. Looks as if I’m damned after all.

Bride Number One lifts a finger, her eyes all but sealed shut. “Get me some hot honey. Hot honey’s gonna make it all better.” She sobs before face-planting onto the table, and the brunette wastes no time in pulling her right back up. Soon, every bride in the establishment is seated back at the table, and they’re singing the battle cry of jilted brides everywhere, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Sure, it’s heavily out of key—but hell, even I’m tempted to sing along. The band joins in, and it’s one great party.

I head over to Cole. “A round of hot honey for our friends in white.”

He shakes his head. “Don’t serve it. Never heard of it. Besides, even if we did, I wouldn’t dare give them another drink. They’re about five minutes from getting the boot.”

“No way. They want nachos—lots and lots of nachos. I’m sure all that artery clogging ooey, gooey goodness will sober them up quick—at least long enough for them to leave a big fat tip.”

I make another quick loop between my tables and run smack-dab into Big Bird, aka the Incredibly Angry Hulk who looks as if someone just set his hair on fire, and I’m not talking the hair on his head.

Hey,” he roars over at me, and I blink back in horror. My body freezes, and I can’t seem to duck and cover to save my life. “Are you Shirley Filer?”

My mouth opens and closes. Yes, it was a brilliant, brilliant move to use a pseudonym when setting up my own homicide. Shirley was a close second to Serena. And Filer—well, I may have been filing my nails at the time I was talked into meeting up with the homicidal maniac before me. The only enclave of hope I have is to propagate the lies I’ve ruthlessly, yet wisely, set in motion.

“Why no, I’m not.” I offer a pleasant smile along with the truth. “Can I help you get a seat and maybe a burger to start with?” And maybe a Taser and a pickax through the forehead? That gives me plenty of time to call Marlin and the rest of the boys in blue that this great nation of ours has to offer. Marlin technically works in Jepson, not Hollow Brook, but I’m sure he’d break a few rules and kneecaps for his sweet baby sis.

“The hell you’re not. I got your picture right here.” He flashes his screen my way and, sure enough, there I am smiling like an idiot about to meet her maker by way of a psychotic blind date. I’ve always suspected my life would turn into a cautionary tale. I just never realized that I would so willingly walk into the danger zone. I blame my mother for my lack of dating knowledge and zero fear of strangers. If she would have hung around long enough to teach me a few basic survival skills, I might have actually lived to see the rest of my twenties.

Shep shows up like a knight in shining Armani armor with his chest expanding like a baboon and, at the moment, I happen to be very damn appreciative of those testosterone-laced mammals.

“Is there a problem?”

“Ha!” I’m quick to wrap my arms around Shep and plant a big, fat kiss to his cheek. “No problem! It seems my twin sister, Shirley, is at it again—breaking hearts while swiping right. She’s gone to Mexico for the weekend—I mean, year.” I have a feeling the only panacea to keep this beast away from me is a geographical cure. “It’s just Shep and me, my big, bad attorney-at-law boy toy who knows how to whip up a restraining order with the best of them. Maybe try The Sloppy Pelican? I hear they have an abundance of cougars looking for dates with questionable fashion sense. Rumor has it, if you pop your collar, you’re bound to get lucky within the hour.”

“No kidding? But then, who wouldn’t want to get laid by me?” The Hulk wastes no time in popping said collar while simultaneously displaying his ideological shortcomings.

“I’m outta here.” He leans in close, his eyes crossing ever so slightly as he narrows in on me. “If I get lucky, I’ll have you to thank for it,” he says it like a threat, and I let out a little yelp.

“And if you don’t?”

“And if I don’t, I’m coming back for Shirley,” he openly growls before weaving through the crowd and speeding for the exit.

My eyes close with relief as I exhale the breath I’ve been holding all night. “I’m going to kill Harley.”

“Never confess to a homicide before it actually occurs.” Shep is quick to lecture me. “You do realize I’d be obligated to turn you in.”

“Oh, there will be a murder tonight. Just you wait and see.”

I’m about to exit stage left when Shep slips his arm around my waist once again, this time drawing me in close, and before I can punish him properly, his own lady in white—the ex with the nipple stain—comes up with a toothy grin. She’s pleasant on the eyes, a little shorter than me, a smile that sparkles as if she’s got a secret.

“Who is this little ditty?” She winks my way while razzing Shep.

Ditty? I smacked Dirty Boy for less than that about an hour ago. This chick and her wine-stained boob has severely underestimated what I’m capable of.

“I’m Serena.” I hold out a hand like a civilized human and she shakes it, cold fish, limp as can be. So very unimpressive. It’s no wonder Shep dumped her. He did do the dumping, right?

Her fair hair softens her features, cut just below the jawline in a cute summery style I’ve wanted to try out myself, but I’m too afraid.

“Carmella.” Her eyes flash wide as if her name doubled as a warning. “How long have the two of you been…” She seems uncertain how to frame it. “How long has Shep been making you ditch homeroom?” She offers him a wink at the scholastic dig.

Shep clears his throat. “It’s new. But Serena and I have known one another all of our lives. This is Lex’s little sister.”

“Oh!” Gone is the knowing smile, the I gotcha glee percolating in her eyes, replaced with a holy shit, this is real look on her face and, I must admit, it’s rather priceless. “So, that’s it, huh?” There’s a thin veil of hurt hiding beneath her features, and a part of me feels sorry for her.

“That’s it.” Shep needles her with a look that says we are over and I’ve moved on. The moment feels intimate, intense, and like one that I want no part in.

“Yes, well, I’ve got an entire gaggle of hangry brides on my hands, so if you’ll excuse me…”

Shep cinches his grip over my body. “What are you doing here tonight?” he inquires of Carmella as if I had suddenly become invisible.

“I—” She glances toward the bar. “Rich is meeting up with a friend. I was just tagging along.”

“Third wheel, huh?” I couldn’t help it. This is getting old, and so are my customers. “Sort of like you are now. If you’ll excuse us, Shep was just about to help me out in the back. It’s where we shared our first kiss, and we like to recreate the memory each time I’m on a shift break.” I haul him with me toward the kitchen, linking my arm through his as if I had my own unwanted groom on my hands as we waltz down the beer-laden aisle.

“What did you do that for?”

“It was your get out of carrying on an awkward conversation with your ex free card, buddy, and you’re welcome,” I say, slapping my orders over the kitchen counter. I can’t help but note two huge bags of trash sitting in the hall that leads to the alley. I’m not surprised. We’re so swamped there aren’t enough hands to do what’s needed.

“Here.” I grab a bag and toss it to Shep. “Make yourself useful,” I say before snapping up the second one and kicking the back door open with my foot. I step out into the humid night and take in a lungful of sour dumpster air as I try to open the wooden gate that leads to the receptacle, but it’s stuck. “Crap. I swear, if another thing goes wrong tonight, I’m blaming the entire fiasco on you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you,” I say, pulling and tugging at the gate until it gives, and I take a stumbling step back. “You always seem to be around when—” Just as I’m about to pin Shep for the fact the world is burning, the words get lodged in my throat and I gag.

“Go ahead and say it. I’m great, and you’re obsessed with me.” He pitches his bag over the gate and lands it neatly into the dumpster. “He shoots, he scores!”

“Shep?” My insides bounce and quiver, my muscles freeze solid as if threatening never to move again. Lying on his side, just shy of my feet, is an all too familiar greasy blond male with his face set in a scowl, his eyes staring up at me blankly, that lip print of mine still firmly planted just below his neck. “It’s him. It’s Dirty Boy.”

Shep leans in and freezes. “Holy shit. Hey, buddy. You all right?” He reaches down and gives Dirty Boy’s shoulder a quick jostle, rolling him onto his back, and we gasp in unison. The entire front of the poor man’s shirt is drenched in blood. Shep wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me back a good foot as if yanking me out of the danger zone. “He’s dead, Serena. He’s dead.”

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Hot Honey Kisses (3:AM Kisses 17)

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