This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.
Judi rolled onto her back in bed and stretched, wishing she didn’t have to crawl out from under the covers today. She closed her eyes against the sunlight, a familiar empty feeling settling in the center of her chest. She didn’t have much of a life without alcohol and bars. The friends she used to hang out with had faded into the background once she started declining their offers to go out.
If she wasn’t at work, her nights were either spent helping her dad in the barn — something she swore she’d never do again when she moved to the city — or watching a show on one of the streaming services she’d subscribed to. She often fell asleep wondering how she had ended up here and if being sober was supposed to be so boring.
Most mornings she woke up with a gasp, never sure what the day would bring, but glad to have left the night behind where nightmares often clawed at her in her sleep.
She glanced at her phone. There were three voicemails, but she refused to listen to them. The caller ID said one was Seline, the other Ellie and the third a number in New York City she didn’t recognize. Answering any of them meant being responsible and she didn’t feel like being responsible today anymore than she had yesterday.
She’d already answered a call from Rachel last night, letting her know she wouldn’t be drowning her sorrows in a cocktail over Jerry’s comments. She’d agreed to let Rachel pray with her and they hung up after making plans to meet at the downtown diner for lunch the day after tomorrow.
Now she had a full shift at Lonny’s which she wasn’t looking forward to. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with people, especially with some of the regulars. Granted, the bar and grill wasn’t a gritty bar with the main focus being on alcohol. It was more upscale than a regular bar, serving professionally cooked food and hosting high profile community or corporate events. It was after nine and on weekends when some of the customers became a little looser with their tongues and hands.
While their actions bothered Judi, she also knew she’d been them not even a year ago. When she’d drank, she let go of anything holding her back and enjoyed the feeling of not having to think of anything other than the buzz in her head and the urge to giggle over everything, even men touching her bottom when she didn’t want them to. She wasn’t drinking anymore, though, so now she was more uncomfortable with men who thought that by delivering their order they were entitled to a tip of their own.
Two hours later, though, that’s exactly what one of the customers was doing and it wasn’t even the night shift.
Judi pushed the man’s hand off her shoulder. “I’m here for your order, sir, not your unwanted attention.”
“Come on, sweetie.” The man grinned, revealing teeth brown from years of smoking. “I’m just being polite. Letting you know how pretty you look today.”
Judi guessed his age to be anywhere from 50 to 70 with the way wrinkles had cut into his skin and the tuft of graying hair on his head. All she knew was that he was old. She took a step back as the smell of stale cigarettes wafted toward her. “You’re welcome to let me know with your words, not your actions. Now, what can I get you to drink today?”
“Sounds like someone isn’t appreciative of compliments,” the man said, his smile slipping into a sneer. He tossed the menu onto the table while the man across from him smirked. “Bring me a whiskey sour.”
Judi took a deep breath and turned back toward the bar area, hoping when she returned to get the orders for their food the man had calmed down. Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Ben walking slowly behind his father and three other men toward a table in Hannah’s area.
Better her than me, she thought picking up an order for another table. She’d had her fill of Ben Oliver in the last couple of weeks.
She delivered the meals to the table to her right and a drink to a man sitting alone in the corner. When she returned to the kitchen, Hannah cornered her with a mischievous smile.
“There’s a group of lawyers in my section babbling about lawyer stuff. Pretty boring. All of them are old except that one guy.” She winked. “He’s pretty cute. He isn’t your lawyer, is he?”
Judi rolled her eyes. “I don’t have a lawyer, Hannah, but, yes, one of them is the guy who swerved to miss my car, if that’s what you mean.”
Hannah’s eyes widened. “Really? I was joking. Which one?” She peered through the door as it swung open. “Oh! Of course! The one with the cast on his ankle and the bruise on his cheek? No way. Judi. You should have told me how good looking he is.”
Judi accepted the loaded tray she was handed. “What I did tell you was what a jerk he can be. He cheated on a friend of our family’s years ago when they were in high school, and he yelled at me at the accident scene.”
Hannah scoffed. “That’s high school. People mature. Plus, you did total his BMW. I would have yelled too.”
Judi rolled her eyes. “All I know is that I’m not interested in him in that way or any way.” She nodded toward the chef standing behind Hannah. “Enough talking. James is waving at you. I think your orders are ready.”
After another food delivery she retrieved a whiskey sour and a Black Russian for the table with the elderly flirt, ready to take his order. He gave it without the flirting he’d offered with his whiskey order, and her shoulders relaxed. Maybe her day was looking up after all. Once she reached the kitchen, she rubbed the muscle between her shoulder and neck and felt a twinge there, realizing how tense she’d been all afternoon, waiting for something bad to happen.
She refilled a drink, took two more orders, and delivered to two more tables before she returned to the man’s table to ask if he needed a refill.
“I’d take a refill of you, sweet thing,” the man responded sliding a hand against her lower back. She shifted away from him. “Oh, come on, young lady. Let an old man feel some soft skin for once.”
The muscle tension returned, but this time spreading from her shoulder, down her back and across her chest. Her heart rate increased, and her legs weakened.
“Don’t touch me.” Her sharp voice shattered the noise of the dining room, silencing it for a few seconds as heads turned and eyebrows raised.
“Whoa. Whoa.” The man laughed and held his hands up in front of him. “Calm down, hon’. There’s no reason to get all riled up.”
Judi kept her eyes on the floor and took a step back. “I’ll get your bill, sir and then you can leave.”
The man’s laughing stopped. “I’ll leave when I want to, and I don’t want to leave. I’m not done with my drink.”
“Yes, you are.”
The voice behind Judi brought her gaze up to see Ben standing next to the man’s chair.
“Who are you? The police?” the man asked as the other man with him started to laugh.
“No, I’m her attorney,” Ben responded.
“But I’m the police,” another male voice said. “And the young woman asked you to stop talking to her.”
Judi didn’t recognize the man behind Ben and wasn’t sure if he was actually a police officer or not, but his presence was certainly intimidating. With dark hair and eyes and broad shoulders, he towered above her and Ben and the men sitting at the table.
“Fine.” The man tossed a handful of dollar bills on the table as he stood. “The food here sucks anyhow.”
Judi’s legs were at a full tremble now and that infuriated her. What was wrong with her? She’d handled these types of guys before. Why was this one setting her off so badly? The chatter in the restaurant continued again, signaling the show was over.
Her gaze met Ben’s and she saw the concern there, but she didn’t want it. She was fine. This was something she dealt with all the time, and she didn’t need someone to protect her. Still, Ben had been kind enough to stand up for her when others hadn’t, including her boss and co-workers, though, in fairness, she didn’t think any of them had heard what was happening until the voices grew louder.
“Yeah,” she mumbled. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
She wished she could be kinder in her response, truly express how grateful she was but instead her stomach twisted inside her and her legs threatened to give way. She needed to get out of there and fast, find somewhere to sit down and maybe even throw up.
Ben placed his hand under Judi’s elbow. She looked like she needed steadying. “Why don’t I walk you out for some fresh air?”
Judi shook her head briefly. “No, really.” She pulled her gaze from his, rifling in the pocket of her apron. “I’m okay. This isn’t anything new.” She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. “Thank you both for your help. I really do appreciate it.”
Ben watched her walk toward the kitchen where the owner, Lonny, was now standing outside the door. He said something to her, brow furrowed, and then she walked away from him toward the restrooms.
Ben followed Scott Leonard back to their table. Scott was a probation officer that worked in the courthouse with his dad and he was glad he’d been there. Ben was sure he wouldn’t have been able to convince that guy to back off Judi without Scott standing behind him.
“Maybe lunch here was a bad idea,” Lance Morrison, one of his dad’s assistant district attorneys said.
“I’ve never seen anything like that happen here before,” Maxwell said rubbing his chin and glancing toward the table where the man had been sitting. “I know we’ve had to prosecute a couple of cases from fist fights from here over the years, but they usually happened at night.”
Carl Roberts, Maxwell’s other assistant, sitting across from Ben, sipped from his water. “If I had known this place attracted customers like that, I wouldn’t have picked it for lunch.”
“Sadly, those type of customers can be anywhere these days,” Ben said. “Especially if alcohol is involved.”
Maxwell had asked Ben if he’d be comfortable at a bar and grill when he had invited him for lunch.
“I let the guys rotate choosing a place for lunch on Wednesdays,” Maxwell had said that morning. “Carl chose Lonny’s, but I didn’t know that when I invited you. Is it going to be hard to be at —
“Dad, I can be at a bar,” Ben had said. “I’m good. Really. I’m past the withdrawal struggles. It’s not like it was in the beginning.”
He had to admit, though, seeing that man inebriated had triggered some uncomfortable memories for him.
“It was nice what you did for Judi,” Maxwell said, patting his son on the shoulder and bringing him back to the present. He looked at Scott. “Thanks to you too, Scott. Glad you guys were here.”
“I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t been here,” Scott said. “Do you think anyone else would have stepped up?”
Ben shrugged. “Probably. Eventually. I’ve heard Lonny’s a pretty good guy, actually.”
Maxwell turned in his chair toward Ben. “Still, it’s too bad Judi has to work here. It might be better for her to be someone else while she gets back on her feet. Somewhere like a quiet law office in Burkett.”
Maxwell held his hand up. “I’m just saying. It’s a thought.”
Scott chuckled and patted Ben on the back. “Ah, Dads. Aren’t they great?”
“Yeah,” Ben said. “They can be. At times.”
His dad was right, though. It would be nice to give Judi somewhere other than Lonny’s to work at, even if he was only able to get her off a few shifts during the week. Here he’d been worrying about trying to train her and he didn’t even know if she’d be interested. A small, boring law office really wasn’t her speed compared to the life he heard she’d been living in the city. Then again, she was back home and attending AA meetings for a reason. Maybe slower was what she wanted, or at least what she needed, right now.
When they finished their lunch, he asked his dad to wait for him in the parking lot and then looked for Judi, hoping to at have a chance to mention the job to her. Maybe if she knew she had a chance to work somewhere else it would make the rest of her shift seem less like a prison sentence.
“In the back,” the girl behind the register told him, jerking her head toward the back door. “She’s on a break.”
Ben walked through the restaurant to the back door and found Judi leaning against a tree on the other side of the employee parking lot, her arms hugged around her. The waitress who had waited on his table was standing next to her, smoking a cigarette. He tried to remember the other waitresses name, but drew a blank.
Judi looked up as he approached and straightened her shoulders. Her usual confident manner had faded into the background and she was definitely more subdued than normal. He waited for a witty comment or a snarky verbal jab, but none came.
“Hey,” she said. “You need something?”
“Just wanted to double check you were okay,” he answered, knowing he was only giving her half an answer.
She shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. I’m pretty used to that stuff. They usually back off when I tell them to. I guess this guy just didn’t want to take no for an answer.”
Ben glanced at the other waitress. He wasn’t sure he wanted to ask Judi about working for him with her standing there, but he also didn’t know how to tactfully ask her to leave.
Maybe he could hint. “I actually had something I wanted to discuss with you. Maybe I can give you a call later.”
The eyes of the other waitress widened, and he could only imagine what she was thinking after he’d said he had a question for Judi. Now he seemed to be asking for her number.
The rumors would be flying within the hour.
“Now is okay.” Judi gestured to her co-worker. “This is Hannah. She’s a friend.”
Hannah winked at him. “Yeah. I’m a friend.” She placed a hand on her hip, the other one still holding the cigarette. “Don’t worry. I’m really good at being discreet.” She took a puff of the cigarette, blew a long plume of smoke out the side of her mouth, and looked at him through heavy eyelids. “Oh, yes. I can be very discreet. About whatever you need me to be discreet about.”
Ben pulled his gaze from Hannah’s and cleared his throat. “Ah, thanks for letting me know. I’ll keep that in mind.”
He noticed Judi shoot Hannah a glare. “Didn’t you come out here before me, Hannah? I think your break is over.”
Hannah sighed and dropped the cigarette on the ground, grinding it in with the tip of her sneaker. “Fine. You get to have all the fun, Judi.” She smiled and winked again. “At least this one isn’t old and a pervert.” Her gaze traveled down Ben and back up to his face. “Or at least he isn’t old. I don’t know about the other part . . . yet.”
“Hannah!” Judi pointed toward the restaurant’s back door while trying to swallow a laugh. “Go back to work.”
She rolled her eyes as Hannah walked back toward the restaurant. “Sorry about her. She’s a little crazy.” She flipped a strand of pale blond hair over shoulder. “And a hopeless flirt.”
Ben laughed softly. “Yeah, I can tell.” He slid his hands in the front pockets of his khakis. “So anyhow, I have this temporary position at my office. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in it. It would only part time and until my secretary gets back but maybe you could take a few less shifts here in the meantime.”
Judi’s expression was difficult to read, but he thought he recognized a hint of amusement. “Wait a minute. You want me, the woman who you say totaled your BMW to come work for you?”
A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Yes. On a temporary basis. If you can promise me that you won’t total my BMW again when I get it back.”
Judi folded her arms across her chest and studied him for a few minutes. “You know I don’t know anything about attorney stuff, right?”
Oh, this was such a bad idea. Curse his father for passing on a desire to help others to him.
“Yes, I guessed that, but the job is fairly simple. It’s some filing and answering phones and if you are able, there might also be some note taking and letter writing involved.”
Judi quirked an eyebrow. “You should probably know that I flunked out of college. I’ve only ever worked in retail.”
Ben laughed softly. “One thing you do seem to be good at is sabotaging opportunities in your life.”
Judi pushed a hand back through her hair and let the strands fall down her back. “Actually, yes, I am an expert at that.”
Ben pulled his wallet out and slid a business card from a inside pocket, handing it to her. “My secretary’s husband is undergoing cancer treatments and she needed some time off. I’m a one-man show right now and I could use some help. Give me a call at that number if you’re interested in the job. Like I said, it won’t be permanent or full time, but it could give you a little breather from this place.”
Judi took the card and slid it in the back pocket of her jeans. “Okay. I’ll think about it. Thanks.” They both started toward the restaurant, falling in step with each other. “Your bruises are fading. How’s the brain damage?”
Ben scowled at her out of the corner of his eye. “Brain damage? It was a concussion and it’s getting better but I’m still having a lot of issues. Thanks for asking.”
Judi bit her lower lip as they reached the back door. “Listen, I know I’ve never really apologized, but I really didn’t see you when I pulled out.”
He opened the door for her. “Apology accepted but if you want to make it up to me, you can come help me out at the office and do your best not to make my job even harder.”
Judi smirked as she walked back into the restaurant. “Wow, with an offer like that how could I refuse?”
“So you’ll take it?”
She looked over her shoulder. “I’ll think about it, Mr. Oliver.” When he got to the car, Ben filled Maxwell in then leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. He could only hope that if Judi came to work for him, it would help ease the headaches not make them worse.