Keeping Her SEALBy: Kat Cantrell
To Zoe. Because twenty-seven is your hard limit too.
In hindsight, arguing with a woman about whether taking her to a housewarming party counted as a date probably hadn’t been the brightest plan. Not when Jace had been slaving for weeks to get Stella to take him seriously. He leaned on the gleaming mahogany bar and watched Stella stock longnecks in the beer refrigerator under the liquor counter, her dark red hair swept up in a sleek ponytail that begged to be undone by a man’s hands. They’d left the party and come straight to the Crow Bar, the watering hole Stella owned in Freeport, where Jace tended bar while trying to figure out how to get her to see he wasn’t the player she thought he was.
Jace had walked away from the US Navy alongside the remnants of his former SEAL team in search of a place to call home. He hadn’t found it as a co-owner of Aqueous Adventures, the excursion company the six of them had started in the Bahamas. Everything about the Crow Bar, however, fit the bill. Including Stella. With her, he felt like a part of something bigger than himself, and she held the keys to his future. Or rather, she would just as soon as he presented the idea that his bartending position wasn’t as temporary as they’d both thought.
In his defense, just being in the same room with Stella put his brain through the blender, and at the same time, she energized him, lighting a fire in his belly to seek new ways to get drinks into the hands of customers. She was a force to be reckoned with, canny about her bottom line, and hands down the sexiest woman he’d ever met.
Yeah, he had a huge crush on her. And her business acumen.
The bad case of Stella-itis he’d developed wasn’t getting any better, and his intense awareness of her complicated everything. They worked together. She was his boss. And if he had his way, she’d see him as more than just a bartender soon. Which meant he shouldn’t cross any lines with her, especially not the one that would have turned a housewarming party into a date.
Shouldn’t. Which didn’t necessarily mean the same as couldn’t.
Stella glanced up as she shut the refrigerator door. “You gonna keep standing there looking pretty or what?”
He grinned because he couldn’t help himself when he was around her. She made him smile just by virtue of being in the room even though she hadn’t meant her comment to be flirty. He’d learned that the hard way. “It’s a gift. You’re welcome.”
She rolled her eyes, fighting a smile of her own. “You can save that for the ladies.”
“I always have plenty left over for you.” He winked. This was the game they played. The pseudo flirting was all about the bottom line for Stella, but then what wasn’t? “Whenever you decide you’re ready to find out what all the fuss is about, I’m ready, willing, and eager to indoctrinate you to the cult of Jace.”
Except it wasn’t a game to him. He was serious. Mostly. The paradox killed him on an hour-by-hour basis that he had to pretend it was all meaningless flirting.
“I’ll keep that in mind, sweetie.” She patted his cheek absently, the way she would a cute kid who’d shown up begging for candy, and then she turned to go do something else superhuman and amazing to get her bar ready to rumble on a Saturday night during the height of tourist season.
God, she was like your favorite song come to life. He watched her move for another long moment, painfully aware she scarcely noticed his ogling because, well… she was pretty good at tuning him out. It was as fascinating as it was ego crushing.
“It was too a date,” he called out. What was wrong with him? His Flirty McFlirt routine wasn’t going to get him closer to a permanent spot in the Crow Bar. Only bringing his A game would do that.
She didn’t even pause as she sailed into full speed, sliding stemware into the overhead hanger with one hand and replenishing the supply of kitschy umbrellas by the well with the other. “It was a housewarming party, Jace. Only. A date starts with flowers and ends with something other than a backbreaking shift tossing alcohol at oversexed college kids who come to the Caribbean on Daddy’s money.”
Jace filed that away for some nebulous point in the future when he might actually need info about what counted as a date in Stella’s world. There was a florist right around the corner from the Crow Bar that he’d passed a hundred times on his way from the marina. He could easily duck inside as he came to pick up Stella for this fictional date.