eBook, Lucky Me Publisher, January 2015
Daisy L’Amore scowled as yet another woman walked through the front door of With a Twist, the trendy martini bar and bistro she owned along with her best friends, Jasmine and Rose. The three of them had been united in elementary school when relentless teasing from the boys about their flowery names had brought them together against a common foe. Mutual respect, friendship and—most recently—commerce had kept them close ever since.
“Quit frowning at the female customers,” Rose said.
“I’m not frowning. I’m scowling,” Daisy shot back. “And what else should I be doing? It’s February first—as in only two weeks until Valentine’s Day. Two weeks to find my Mr. Wonderful and make him fall in love with me.”
Rose sighed, glancing out the windows that lined the western wall. Neither one of them said it, but Daisy knew they were both counting the hours until the sun dipped behind the San Diego city skyline, marking the end of another day’s opportunity. Sunshine, it seemed, was necessary for the crystal heart perched on the shelf behind the bar to light up and do its thing—identify each of the girls’ one true love. So far Daisy hadn’t seen even a twinkle out of it.
“The heart picked someone for Jasmine before breakfast and for you after lunch,” Daisy complained. “I’ve only got a couple hours before the sun sets, and the only people walking through that door are women. That crazy gypsy had a twisted sense of humor, but I refuse to believe my one true love would be wearing cuter shoes than me.”
Rose grinned. “That would be tragic. But seriously, the odds that a crystal heart is right about Max being my one true love are about a million to one. He doesn’t even like me and I have no intention of falling in love with him, no matter what some gypsy says. I’m just telling you what happened.”
“The heart started to glow and you saw its reflection on him,” Daisy muttered. “I heard.”
In truth, Rose looked none too happy about it and knowing what she knew about Max, Daisy couldn’t blame her. Shaking her head, Daisy lifted a towel from the sink and gave the bar’s spotless surface a swipe. A year ago this martini bar and Italian fusion restaurant had been little more than a dream. Jasmine had approached them with the concept—she had the funds and the idea; Daisy and Rose had the enthusiasm and willingness to work like slaves. Well, Rose had more than that. Between Jasmine’s business acumen and Rose’s culinary expertise, they could have pulled it off on their own. But they let Daisy be a part of the dream and never made her feel like her contributions were less than their own.
But that fateful night a year ago, before their dream had all come together, they’d just been friends dressed up and out on the town, pretending that not having a date on Valentine’s Day was their choice.
Cocktails and oysters at the Harbor House had turned into more cocktails and then the girls had made their drunken, giggling way along the boardwalk of Seaport Village, looking for the next place to stop. They’d come across the gypsy with her folding table and silken scarves just as they reached the West Plaza. Like kittens lured by a twitching tail, they’d seen the crystal heart and been diverted. It caught the glow of Seaport Village’s bright lights and seemed to burst with radiance—ruby red, rich burgundy, delicate cerise and glamour-gown scarlet swirled like liquid fire within it. The girls’ steps had slowed, then stopped completely in front of the strange, entrancing crystal. As one they’d reached for it.
Daisy didn’t think any of them had even noticed the gypsy until that point. As their three hands met on the cool surface of the crystal, the gypsy cackled—cackled, like in the movies.
“Never seen it choose three before,” the gypsy said with a little too much glee.
That should have been their first clue that life as they knew it was about to change.
The gypsy had insisted on telling their fortunes, stopping any protests they might have made with an arched brow and a pointed look at the crystal heart. “It chose you. All of you. Don’t you even want to know why?”
And then she’d proceeded to tell them.
She prophesized about With a Twist, putting their dream into words and framing it with predictions of success and wealth. She’d given them the address of the property they would later lease and the date their doors would open for customers. Then she’d pulled each one of them aside. When Daisy’s turn had come, the gypsy had looked at her with solemn eyes and said, “She left you a letter. It’s in her room. Check the nightstand.”
Daisy didn’t ask who she meant. She knew. Her mother had died six months earlier after a brief, bitter battle with cancer. Since her father had ditched them both before Daisy was born, the loss of her mother—her only family—had been doubly tragic. In fact, that night out with Jasmine and Rose had been the first in a long, long time.
“I’ve gone through everything,” Daisy said sadly. “She didn’t leave a letter.”
“Her nightstand had a small slide out table in it,” the gypsy said softly.
Having delivered her messages, the gypsy faced the three of them once more and dropped the biggest of her bombshells. “Great things will come to you in the next twelve months. You will have success beyond your wildest dreams. But this heart is not a good luck charm. It’s a symbol of love and you three girls have been called by it.”
“What does that mean?” Daisy had asked.
“It will recognize your one true love and it will light the way for you. But you must do the rest.”
“And what would that be?”
“Make him return your love before midnight on February fourteenth of next year, or everything you’ve gained will be lost.”
She’d gone on to describe lost down to the grim, poverty filled details, then watched with shrewd eyes as they’d each dropped money in her jar and turned away, trying to recapture their good humor and laughter. But the gypsy’s voice had trailed after them. “One year. If the heart isn’t full when it returns to me, you will lose everything you value.”
The melodramatic forecast seemed to chase them all the way home.
The next day, Daisy pulled out the sliding wooden tray in her mother’s old nightstand and gave a shaky laugh when she didn’t find a letter. But as she tried to push the thin extension back in, it caught on something. Only after she’d wiggled the piece of wood completely free of the nightstand, did she see the letter, scrunched like an accordion at the back.
Even after she’d read the words from her mother and wept over them, even after With a Twist opened to crowds lined up and waiting, she wanted to doubt. But a few days after their grand opening, she’d walked into Jasmine’s office to ask her a question and there it was, the crystal heart perched on the safe like a guardian angel.
“How did you get that?” she’d asked, stunned.
Jasmine had been pale and shaken. “I don’t know. It was just there when I opened up this morning.”
The gypsy had been clear. All three must open their hearts, find love and have it returned by Valentine’s Day. If even one of them failed to do it, they would all lose. But they hadn’t known how to use the heart. They hadn’t known what she’d meant by it lighting the way—marking the one they were meant for—until Jasmine had brought it into the bar this morning and the sunshine had hit it, turning all those shades of red into an ethereal fire.
And now both Jasmine and Rose had both seen the sun hit the heart just right and light it up so it cast its glow on a man. But Daisy . . . .
All Daisy saw was more women walking through the door.
The bar filled steadily for happy hour and Daisy tried to keep busy mixing the usual—Cosmopolitans, Appletinis, Blue martinis, even Sakatinis—and the not so usual—Watermelon (a personal favorite), Key Lime and Breakfast martinis (definitely not a favorite—marmalade and vodka had no business sharing a glass, but hey, to each their own).
Fortunately most of the clientele trended toward the exotic, but not extraordinary. Some liked theirs shaken, others preferred stirred, and a few wanted their martinis dirty. Daisy could mix with the best of them, but she wasn’t a mixologist by any stretch. She could duplicate any recipe and occasionally improve upon it, and she spent hours searching the Internet, looking for new ways to make a martini. But when it came to conceiving the concoction herself . . . well, her few attempts had bombed atrociously. She always became so fascinated with the colors in the drink, that she lost sight of the taste until it was too late.
Yet another of her weaknesses. Lately she’d been feeling like they far outweighed her strengths.
A scattering of early diners filled the tables in the recessed dining room. The population had evened out—males and females balanced nicely—but Daisy hadn’t seen even a glimmering sparkle in the scarlet heart sandwiched on the Top Shelf between the 42 Below and Bombay Sapphire. The sun slipped another inch toward the horizon and Daisy’s spirits followed.
What if the prediction came true? No matter that it was crazy, everything the gypsy had told them had come to pass. So if they failed to open themselves up to love—whatever the hell that meant—could they really lose everything? And if Jas and Rose found their love but Daisy didn’t . . . would that mean they’d all lose out because of her?
Stress dampened her palms. She’d felt like the weak link in their power chain of three for a long time. What if she was the one to break it?
“Could I get a beer?” a deep voice asked, spinning her around.
Number one, people didn’t come to With a Twist to drink beer. She did serve beer, of course, but ordering one was tantamount to going to France and eating McDonald’s.
The man who’d made the request sat at the bar, wearing a weathered jean jacket over a flannel button down with a faded t-shirt beneath. She couldn’t see below the waist, but she didn’t have to see to guess there’d be shabby jeans on his long legs. From the fine layer of dust covering him, she’d guess construction worker. Not her usual clientele—well, pre-shower anyway.
Even though he was sitting down, she could tell he’d be tall. And big. Broad shoulders and a muscled chest looked powerful beneath those layers. A sexy smile and a five o’clock shadow went with his green eyes and dark hair. He had a devil-may-care look to him that set off every alarm bell Daisy’s self defense system had. Trouble. This man was Trouble, with a capital T.
Exactly the kind she’d spent her whole adult life tangling with. Exactly the kind that left her single, heartbroken and bitter at twenty-seven. She cast the crystal heart an accusing glance, but it didn’t spark or shoot any reflections at the man.
Equal parts relieved and disappointed, she said, “What kind of beer?”
“Bud,” the man answered.
Was he With a Twist and ordered Budweiser?
“We don’t stock Budweiser,” she informed him in her best, we have class voice.
He grinned, obviously hearing loud and clear what she didn’t say. “What do you stock?”
The question hung with an air of innuendo, though she could see no obvious suggestion in it. Ignoring the heat that curled in her stomach, she indicated the row of beer bottles lined with precision on the shelves behind her, setting a bar napkin in front of him as she did.
At that moment, three things happened.
The front door opened, letting in a gust of air and an errant ray of the setting sun.
A man walked through it, his face in shadow from the bright glow behind him.
And the crystal heart began to hum.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the napkin she’d set in front of Mr. Tall, Dark and Troublesome flutter off the edge of the bar, but then her attention became totally fixated on the heart. The reds within began to glow like coals in a banked fire. The swirling shades darkened and throbbed and then a scarlet beam shot from the center straight at the Bud drinker.
Daisy bit back her groan, turning quickly to see her fate spelled out across his dusty jacket. But at that moment, he dipped below the bar to catch the falling napkin and instead of branding him with that laser of red, the heart’s beam skittered across open air and landed on the chest of the man who’d just walked through the door. It flickered against the bright white of his shirt, flared bright with a reflection of the heart, and then blinked out. An instant later, Trouble sat back in his seat with a dazed expression.
“Was that a tremor?” he asked.
Daisy’s mouth was so dry, she couldn’t answer. It had felt like an earthquake to her, too, but no one else in the bar seemed to have noticed. Conversation went on. Laugher surged around them.
Her gaze shifted from Trouble’s beautiful green eyes to the newcomer who moved hesitantly toward the bar.
The man who’d been tagged by the heart had on a tailored brown suit and an ugly tie. Average height, average build, he wore thick Clark Kent glasses and had a smooth shaven, baby-faced look to him, though she guessed he was probably in his thirties. He perched on the bar stool two over from Trouble and gave her a shy smile.
He looked far too sweet and respectable to be her type, but maybe that’s why the heart had picked him. Her type had a habit of making her cry. Daisy realized her mouth had dropped open and she shut it with a snap.
“What can I get you?” she asked him, her voice husky.
“I’m not quite certain,” he said, looking around the gleaming bar with wide eyes. “This place is incredible.”
Clark Kent had a British accent that made her knees go a bit rubbery, and his eyes behind those glasses looked a warm, chocolate brown.
“I’ve not seen an establishment like it before. You specialize in martinis, isn’t it?”
Thus the name, With a Twist, but she didn’t say that. Instead she smiled and nodded. At least he hadn’t ordered a Budweiser, she thought, belatedly remembering her other customer. She shot Trouble an apologetic look and let him know she’d be right with him.
To Clark Kent, she said, “Here’s our martini menu. See if anything sounds good and I’ll be right with you.”
Turning back to Trouble, she said, “I’m sorry. What kind of beer did you want?”
“I’ll take a Fat Tire,” he told her, casting a curious look between her and Clark Kent. When his green gaze returned to her face, it held a sardonic glimmer that made her want to squirm. “Please,” he tacked on.
Did she imagine that he’d added a mocking, British inflection to that please?
She served his beer with a cold glass—that he ignored—and went back to ogling the man the crystal heart had marked. He looked up and gave her a bewildered smile.
“I’d no idea there were so many choices in martinis,” he said in that wonderful accent. “What would you recommend?”
“Do you like your drinks sweet or strong?”
“Oh, I don’t think strong would be the ticket,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d rather avoid becoming fuddle-headed and embarrassing myself.”
Really, he was too cute for words.
“How about a Basil Martini? It’s one of my specialties.”
Trouble made a noise in his throat and Daisy shot him a suspicious glance, but he wasn’t looking at her. Maybe she imagined it. She wanted to ignore him completely, but not only was he a customer, he was damned hard to ignore. The man practically oozed sexy and all her love me some bad boy hormones had perked up at the sight of him and wouldn’t settle down.
Irritated with herself, she reached for the vodka and the basil infusion she’d put to chill earlier and grabbed her shaker. Several times as she worked, she felt a heated tingle and shivery awareness dance down her spine—like someone was watching her—but when she looked up, both Trouble and Clark Kent seemed to be engaged in a very engrossing conversation and neither paid her the least bit of attention. No one else was looking her way either. Miffed, she strained the infusion into her shaker, added vermouth and ice and gave it a good shake before pouring it into an iced martini glass.
Clark Kent took a sip, grimaced, and said, “Brilliant,” in a polite voice.
“Are you sure? If you don’t like it—”
“But it’s simply wonderful. I’d have no taste at all if I didn’t love it.”
His smile warmed her down to her toes, even though she suspected him of lying. Bravely, he took another sip.
“It’s not for everyone,” she said.
“Well, now I feel rather special,” he countered. “It’s just for me.”
He was flirting with her. Pleased, she beamed at him.
Trouble watched with narrowed eyes. When she glanced over, he waggled his bottle at her.
“If you’re not too busy,” he added with a dry smile.
After that, the evening became a blur. Two other bartenders joined her behind the horseshoe shaped bar, each taking a station and the duties that went with it. Happy Hour folded into the dinner rush, keeping Daisy too busy to do more than serve one drink after another. Despite his protests about strong spirits, Clark Kent—whose name she’d learned was William Fairfield—ordered three more and drank every drop. Trouble nursed his second beer, ordered Rose’s dinner special, and ate quietly at the bar. When she cleared his plate, she asked, “Another beer?”
“Nah. Thanks.” He tossed his credit card on the counter. “Just close me out when you can.”
She glanced at his card as she rang him up. Romeo Corazón.
Romeo Corazón? Seriously?
“Is that really your name,” she asked, handing him the black folder with his receipt and card.
“No,” he answered calmly. “I’m really a larcenous felon with fraudulent credit cards and a penchant for Latin aliases.”
Daisy’s surprised laugh burst out with a snort. “Thanks for the warning. I didn’t see that coming.”
He grinned back. “Most people just call me Rome.”
She wondered how many most people were women. How many whispered it in his ear? She was willing to bet, a lot of them.
She liked his sense of humor. She liked his voice. It was deep, soft. She liked his eyes, too. They made her think of lazy mornings and breakfast sex. Not that she’d had either in about a hundred years.
“Daisy,” William called a bit too loud.
Daisy startled, realizing she’d been staring at Rome. Hopefully, she hadn’t been drooling, too. Pinning a smile in place, she faced William.
Four martinis had put a lopsided smile on his face. “You’re beautiful,” he said softly.
“Vodka tends to enhance my appearance,” she answered. “It’s the damnedest thing.”
“Oh, splendid,” William said, satisfied for a moment before a frown pulled his brows. It would take him awhile to work out what she’d meant. Finally he tipped his head. “I probably shouldn’t have had that last martini.”
“I tried to talk you out of it,” she reminded him. She’d even mixed the last two on the weak side.
“Next time I will heed your wise warning,” he answered solemnly.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Rome stand up. She’d been right. Tall and muscular and too damned sexy for his own good. For her own good.
“Would you . . . I know this is terribly forward of me, but . . . .” William paused and a blush crept up his throat. “Never mind. I’ve drank too much and now I’m going to blunder into fool’s territory.”
“Why don’t you let me call you a cab instead?” Daisy asked in a gentle tone.
William grinned again. “You are beautiful,” he said. “I thought so the moment I first saw you. The earth moved.”
Daisy’s face felt hot. The earth had moved for her, too. And yet . . .
Rome leaned against the bar, blatantly eavesdropping. She glanced at him again and raised his brows at her.
“I’m blathering, aren’t I?” William said, pushing to his feet. Two flags of color stood on his cheeks. “No need to hire transport for me, love. It’s but a short way to my hotel. The walk will do me good.”
“Are you sure? San Diego drivers aren’t known for following a speed limit and the roads are—”
He held up a hand, trying valiantly not to sway. “I will endeavor not to fall down in oncoming traffic.”
Daisy thought about arguing but he was a grown man and he wasn’t driving. On his feet, he seemed to regain his balance and senses. A few seats down, a dazzling blonde drinking a “filthy” martini wagged her fingers at Daisy. Daisy gave her a be right there nod, noting that Rome was still watching her with interest.
“It was nice to meet you, Daisy,” William said. “I hope I have the pleasure again.”
“It was nice meeting you, too, William. Please be careful going back to you hotel.”
William gave her a salute and made his way to the door. With a wry smile, Rome pushed away from the bar and followed the other man out. She watched him go with a sigh.
Way to go, Daisy. If William had been Mr. Right, she’d gotten him so drunk he could hardly find his way home and probably wouldn’t remember her in the morning.
Shooting the crystal heart a baleful look, she went to help her other customers.
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