Lowlander Silverback(7)

By: T. S. Joyce

This was where she thrived. Good under pressure, she began pouring and serving and talking. Collecting money, opening tabs, giving change, next order. This was where she could let her mind go amid the clink of glasses and the tink, tink of ice, the pour of the beer spout and the murmur of the bar. When Denison’s first note rang out loud and clear, Sammy’s erupted in cheering and whistling. The Becks always drew a big crowd.

Kong and his crew were still at the table in the corner, and every once in a while, the couple at the end of the bar stopped making out long enough for her to see him. And sometimes, he was looking back, always with a troubled look to his dark eyes.

He’d hugged her. Okay, it had been borderline painful and he’d been too rough with her hair, but he was a big, muscular man who had seemed taken with the moment. Because of his aloofness, she’d thought he hated her all these years, but he’d gone and crushed her to his chest and apologized for what she was going through with Mac. And even if it had been startling and hurt a little, it had made her feel better just to have someone care for that one minute. She went through everything alone so she wouldn’t burden others with the problems she faced, but for that instant, it had been such a relief to share her vulnerability with someone else. And not just with anyone, but with Kong.

She heaved a breath as she began to pour another beer from the tap. Kong felt even more important now, but he’d told her it was dangerous to approach him. What did that mean? Maybe whatever kind of shifter he was couldn’t be with humans. Or maybe his animal was out of control. Some of the bears were like that, too. The Gray Backs had all been wild before they had settled down with mates. One of them, Easton, still looked feral. Maybe Kong was afraid of his animal hurting her, which made the most sense. That hug he’d given her had jostled her mushy human frame pretty good. It had been comforting, but rough.

When she looked at him again, he was watching her, eyes slightly lightened from a soft chocolate brown to an eerie green color as he talked to Rhett the Chauvinistic Poop Flake.

She was surprised when Denison looked at her and announced it would be the second to last song. The night was coming to a close, and it had flown by. Probably because she was lost in Kong-land. She put in Denison and Brighton’s burger basket orders to the kitchen, and when they ended their last song, she began closing out the tabs of customers who’d just come in to watch the live music. There was an hour yet until last call, but half the bar cleared out in a matter of minutes after the Becks thanked the crowd for coming out and turned off the amps.

After the rush died down, drink orders came in slower, and Jake didn’t have to help behind the bar anymore. She turned up the television again for Barney and cleaned the bar between closing out the rest of the tabs of the concert-goers saying goodnight to friends and trickling out of the bar. Kong and his crew were still here. She knew because she couldn’t keep her attention away from him for long.

“Last call,” she yelled over the sound of Kong’s crew laughing over a game of pool in the corner. Her crush was sitting at the table near them, looking somber as he studied the label of his beer. Usually, he was happy and animated with the people around him. He seemed like one of those genuine nice guys who talked respectfully to the women in the shifter crews and was apparently good friends with some of the men. Or males? She wasn’t really up on shifter lingo, though she supposed she should be. This was the biggest gathering of registered shifters in the world, right here, at the bar she worked, and she suddenly felt as if she knew almost nothing.

“Jake said to give this to you,” Denison murmured, slapping three ten dollar bills onto the counter next to his half eaten burger basket. He shoved the rest of the money in his hand deep into his pocket. Jake paid the Becks better than the last boss.

“Thanks,” she murmured, tucking the money into her pocket. “Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot,” Denison said around a bite of extra rare burger.

Brighton ate silently beside him.

“Do you call shifter girls women or females? And do you call them mates? And if you find your mate, do you marry them, too? Or is that just some human custom you find silly?”

“Whoa, woman, slow down. Why the sudden interest in shifters?”

Unable to help herself, she ghosted a glance to Kong, then made herself very busy wiping down the sink behind the bar to hide the heat in her cheeks. Thank God for dim lighting.

When she looked back up at Denison, he was chewing slowly, staring at Kong with a slight frown. “Layla, I consider you a friend.”