Isla Bennett didn’t feel the icy chill seeping through her clothes as she walked down the unfamiliar street in Nashville, Tennessee; she was numb all the way through.
And it had nothing to do with the late December weather. Raindrops pinged against the ground and her body, like thick, heavy tears from the night sky.
She didn’t know how long she’d been walking when she stopped outside a pub with an overhanging portico. She looked up and read the sign. Salvation.
If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. It was only when she pulled open the heavy, intricately carved door and felt a blast of warmth that she recognized how cold she was.
Unsurprisingly, a soulful, country twang sounded through the speakers, and her eyes traveled to the band onstage before surveying the rest of the room. The mass of
people filling the fairly small establishment surprised her. It was a Tuesday night, not particularly nice out, and right after the holidays. Clearly, none of this dissuaded the crowd.
Releasing the heavy wooden door so it shut behind her, she wove her way through the round tables. Men smiled at her. Women smiled, too, but Isla didn’t return any of their gestures. A gentle shiver racked her body as she made her way to the bar.
Get warm. Drink something strong. Then maybe she could think. Or act. Or something.
A long, rectangular bar, shaped like a U, took up one wall. Isla chose a stool in the corner, slid on, and set her purse on the bar. Her hands shook as she pulled at her gray leather gloves. They stuck, like her icy fingers had formed a bond with the
inside material. She tugged and pulled, knowing the upset tumbling around in her chest wasn’t from her stupid gloves.
“Can I help you with that?” The bartender’s voice was warmer than hot chocolate and thicker than honey. By the time her eyes traveled up over the plain black T-shirt
covering a wide, sculpted chest and muscular arms, her insides had lost some of their chill. When her gaze landed on the speaker’s strong, square jaw and moved up to the
hint of a smile on his full lips, her stomach warmed, and when their eyes met, heat all but flooded her veins. From six words.
Isla got lost for a moment in the kindness of his dark brown eyes. The man staring at her gestured toward her hands with his chin. She realized then that she was staring
and still in the middle of removing the freezing articles of clothing.
“You good?” His eyes danced with humor, and for some reason, it was like a hug that she desperately needed. Or maybe just some perspective on an untenable situation.
“Usually, yes. Right now? Not so much.” She gave the gloves another yank, and the left one came off. It was easier to take the second one off with her bare hand. She set them on the bar top and rubbed her hands together. He continued to stare at her, and the sizzle of attraction surprised her out of the fog she’d been stuck in for the last few hours. The bartender did something under the counter, his wide shoulders curling as he looked down, where she couldn’t see. A minute later, he put a mug of steaming water in front of her.
“Oh,” she said, staring at it. She wasn’t in the habit of frequenting bars, or even drinking for that matter, but she sure as heck needed more than hot water tonight.
He grinned, and Isla’s pulse stumbled. From a smile.
“For your hands, Red.”
Isla wrapped her hands around the mug and nearly moaned out loud at the relief the warmth brought to her palms. Before she could thank him, a curvy blonde
leaned over the bar, pressing her breasts together. Entirely unnecessary, seeing as her shirt doesn’t cover much. Isla squelched the negative thought. It was no one else’s fault she was in such a hideous mood, and who was she to judge someone she didn’t even know? Still, when the blonde spoke, irritation prickled Isla’s skin.
“Can I get another rum and coke, Lee?” she asked in a sugary voice.
The bartender shot a glance toward Isla, but she lowered her gaze and focused on tightening her grip around the mug. If she held it hard enough, maybe the heat would invade her body. Somehow, she figured it would take a lot more than liquid or a hot guy to rid her of the chill that had taken over the minute she landed in Nashville. Alone.
As the blonde flirted with Lee, Isla thought about how ill-prepared she’d been to take off at a moment’s notice. Her best friend, who also happened to be her assistant, had
packed a carry-on for her, booked her flight, arranged a car, and even tied up loose ends while Isla had tried to get a hold of her brother and her father. Neither of them was available.
In hindsight, she realized she’d completely taken advantage of Addie’s innate kindness and need to care for people. I’ll bring her home something special. Nashville was on her friend’s list of must-visit places.
“Come dance with me?” The blonde’s sultry, seductive voice bit into Isla’s musings. Saying it over the music lessened the power of her advances. In your opinion. For all
you know, Lee here thinks her advances are plenty powerful
enough. Sometimes she hated her own brain. It was a nonstop freight train of random emotions and thoughts.
“No thanks,” Lee said.
Through lowered lashes, Isla saw the woman actually pouted. The bartender had poured the drink and crossed his arms over his chest, accentuating the sharp groove of muscle along his biceps. Were those triceps? Does it matter? She should know, though, since she spent her day in the vicinity of very well-sculpted people.
None of them affected her nerve endings like the man tending bar. She could almost understand the blonde’s reluctance to give up. A curved line of ink peeked beneath
the cuff of Lee’s T-shirt. Yeah. Another time? She might pout, too.
“Pretty please?” Blondie asked.
“I’m working,” he replied.
“Not like you need to be behind the bar,” she pushed.
Isla tried not to roll her eyes and caught the woman’s glare when the bartender glanced back at her again. “No one is going to mind if you steal a dance.”
Bartender Lee pushed her drink toward her and leaned in. “Sorry, not interested. This one is on the house, but it’s the last one of the night.”
Without waiting for a response, he straightened and came back to Isla. He looked down at her hands and then covered them with his around the mug. Isla’s eyes widened, and her tongue felt thick in her mouth. The warm water had done wonders, but his touch shot fireworks over her skin, and she forgot that she was not only cold but damp from the rain. Nodding like he’d confirmed something, the bartender
removed the mug of water. “That’s better. Your fingers aren’t icicles anymore. Now, what can I get you, Red?”
“Red?” she muttered.
He grinned. “Your hair?”
She touched a warmed hand to it. Right. Red, as in her hair. Which was probably a frizzy mess. Though she’d call it more of an auburn, but she stopped herself from pointing that out. Grief had shut down her ability to think. At least, that’s what she thought was wrong with her. She’d never lost anyone before. Her mom didn’t count, since she’d just left, not died. Did she even have a right to feel sad? Didn’t seem
to matter—she felt it anyway. Guilt filtered in between the grief at the memory of
arriving too late to say goodbye to the grandfather she hadn’t known.
“Are you okay?” The bartender leaned on the bar, folding his arms on the top and gazing directly into her eyes.
Good question. “I, uh...not really. But yes. Thank you for asking. Can I get a gin and tonic? With some lime, please?” Not warm, but it was strong.
He held her gaze a moment longer, like he was looking for something, and then turned and got her drink. Isla dug her phone out of her purse and checked it. No calls. No texts. When she’d received the phone call from her grandfather’s wife—his fourth, whom Isla had never met—it hadn’t occurred to her not to try to get to Nashville in time to see him. He hoped you’d come, but he asked so late, I’m
not sure you’ll make it. Can you get away? Cordelia—what an old-school name—had asked with a wealth of emotion. Isla had said yes before she gave it any thought. She didn’t regret coming, but she wished her father or brother would return a damn call. Surely Cordelia had phoned them as well.
A gin and tonic appeared in front of her. “Here you go. You want something to eat?”
Isla blinked up at him. “No. Thanks, though. Lee?”
His brows scrunched together. Once again leaning in, she saw he had thick, dark, enviable lashes. His confusion didn’t make sense to her.
She picked up her drink, fiddling with the straw. “The blonde. She called you Lee.”
Until that moment, Isla didn’t know men rolled their eyes. When the bartender did, it made her laugh, and that loosened the knots tangling her heart into a mess.
“My name is Liam. She thinks if she shortens it, she has a better chance of ending up in my bed,” he said. There was no arrogance in his statement or his tone.
Isla sipped her drink, cringing a little. Alcohol wasn’t her thing, but she thought it was supposed to provide inner heat. Maybe that was just whiskey?
“Hmm. That’s a weird assumption on her part. And somewhat clichéd that she thinks you’ll want to take her home with you just because you’re serving her drinks.”
One dark brow rose in what Isla could only hope was amusement. Usually she kept her ramblings in her head, but she didn’t seem to have a filter at the moment. All the more reason to find a place to stay for the night. Cordelia hadn’t even offered a room in the penthouse apartment where her grandfather had passed. Which was fine, because it would have been strange to try to sleep there. But she would have
liked to have stayed. She tried to offer help, a shoulder, anything, but the
woman made it clear her grandfather had wanted her there, but Cordelia did not. Her own family didn’t extend simple courtesies, so she wasn’t sure why it bothered her so much that Cordelia had asked her to come and then been as inhospitable as possible. She lost her husband. Cut her some slack.
“What’s your name?” Liam asked. Other bartenders worked the length of the bar, pouring drinks for waitresses and customers in a steady tandem.
“Isla,” she said, sipping her drink again before setting
He looked at the glass. “You want something else?”
She shrugged. “Not really. I’m not much of a drinker. I just needed to get in out of the rain.”
“How about some hot chocolate?” He grinned around the question. Isla was reminded of both the Cheshire cat and the dark-haired bad-boy brother on Vampire Diaries. A strange, yet oddly compelling combination. Your brain is fried. You need some sleep and a meal. She wasn’t sure what would follow that. Most likely booking
a flight back home to Colorado.
“I would love a hot chocolate,” she said, her words rushing out of her like she’d made an important decision. Liam’s rich, bold laughter surprised her and pulled
her out of her own head for a moment. Get it together. He probably thinks you’re a lunatic. Not that she was overly concerned with what he thought of her but, as a successful businesswoman, she took pride in presentation. Of her work. Her abilities. Herself. Usually.
“Coming right up, Isla. Pretty name. Unique.” He shook his head as he walked down the length of the bar and chatted with the other bartenders.
Unique. She’d been linked to that adjective since she was a child. Isla picked up her phone and texted her mom, knowing there was no point. Her mom was a smart, vibrant woman, but she was as inept at texting as Isla was at forming coherent conversation when she was as tired as she was right this minute. She’d already texted Addie with an update but sent another, letting her know she was going to find a place to stay. And she responded immediately. Two simple words that helped even more than the good-looking man and the drink: Love you.
She wasn’t completely alone.
When Liam came back a few minutes later, he had hot chocolate with whipped cream swirled on top, and Isla had no clue why that brought tears to her eyes. The sweetness of the gesture. The reminder of being young and thinking whipped cream was the best thing ever. Her throat felt thick when she brought the mug to her lips, licking some of the whipped cream before letting the hot liquid wash over her
tongue. It was warm but didn’t burn, and she was almost positive that was intentional. Again, the thoughtfulness was touching.
When she set the drink down, Liam smiled at her and passed her a napkin. “You have whipped cream on your lips, Red.”
Her cheeks flushed as she took the napkin and wiped her lips. “That’s delicious. Thank you.”
Tears wanted to fall. They were pushing to the surface and emotion clogged her throat. It’s hot chocolate for goodness sake. What is wrong with you? But she knew
the answer. What was wrong was, a man she’d never been allowed to know—hadn’t even been aware of—had asked for her on his deathbed, and she hadn’t shown up in time. More than that, his own son hadn’t shown up at all. Isla had, long ago, resigned herself to never understanding her father, but this was too much, too cold, even for him. Questions assaulted her already tired mind.
Why would someone she’d never known want her in his final moments? More importantly, why hadn’t she and her brother, Ian, been allowed to know him?
A falling-out. That simple statement had been her only answer over the years. That, and a hard reminder that if she wanted to succeed, she’d be better off looking at how she could improve her future rather than thinking about a past that didn’t concern her. Blinking out of her own thoughts, she saw Liam watching her sip her drink. It didn’t seem to bother the other bartenders that he wasn’t helping out or doing his job. When women—and men—called his name, he gave a polite nod, then turned back to her.
“What brings you to Nashville?”
She tried to smile as she set her drink down. “Family.”
The word made her chest ache.
“Yeah?” Liam leaned in.
With a drink and a look, he’d already offered more comfort than anyone in her actual family. Maybe that was why the truth tumbled from her lips. “Yes. My grandfather
The words were foreign and strained. And though she didn’t think she deserved to hurt inside, it didn’t stop the tears from pushing hard and fast to the surface.
“Damn. I’m so sorry.” Liam reached out and covered both of her hands with his like it was the most natural thing in the world. The unexpected gesture, the innate compassion in his eyes, absorbed Isla’s pain and made it recede. Without it fogging her vision, she was reminded of who she was. A practical, smart, successful woman who made sensible, smart choices. One who did not drink hot chocolate and
whipped cream in some unknown bar far from home while holding hands with a hotter-than-hot man she’d barely met. And still, Isla made no effort to unlink their hands. For the moment, she liked this version of herself better.