“You should stick around,” she said warmly after he’d taken over with the ice. “We have live music on Saturdays.”
She placed another filled glass in front of him and Lyle took it, nodding his thanks and looking away, freeing the bartender to wait on her other customers. He took his time with this drink, the tentacles of the first two already reaching out through his body with warm intent. He hadn’t noticed much about his surroundings since arriving, but he took stock of them now as he drank.
The lighting was dim, which was good because if someone in the room knew him, Lyle didn’t want to have to deal with that. The pitying eyes of the bartender were one thing; the probing stares of people who were expecting to see him with a ring on his finger and a bride on his arm would be enough to make him want to go somewhere and splatter his brains across the wall. The bar was long, wrapping in a serpentine pattern around half of the room. At least three other bartenders worked the gathered patrons, who sipped beer and munched on peanuts while waiting for the music to start. Conversation filled the room in a dull buzz.
The other half of the room was filled with round, cloth-covered tables and wooden chairs. Waitresses bustled in and out of the crowd in short skirts and white tops, pens in their hair and comfortable shoes on their feet. Lyle’s stomach rolled and clenched with nausea at the smell of nachos and greasy hamburgers. He took another sip of scotch and sighed in relief at the feel of fire burning the nausea away. Just then, he didn’t care if he ever had another bite of food again in his life. If he could just crawl into the bottom of the liquor bottle and curl up in the fetal position, he could die somewhat happy . . . or, at least, numb.
Jutting out from the back wall was a stage hosting a microphone stand and a couple of speakers. A red velvet curtain separated the stage from whatever was going on backstage. Lyle tipped his glass back and stood, deciding that listening to some bartender’s sister’s band sing the blues was the last thing he wanted right now. Another drink, preferably in a quieter location, was just what he needed.
“Closing out the tab?” the bartender asked as he stood and dropped a few dollars in the tip glass. He nodded.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, holding up the makeshift ice pack. “Have a nice—”
Lyle’s sentence was cut off by a man’s voice. A burly bouncer in a tight black T-shirt was on stage, announcing the act for the night. He could barely hear him because of the catcalls and whistles coming from the audience. Every man in the room seemed to lean forward in anticipation as the curtains parted to reveal the figure of a woman holding a guitar. She walked forward with a bright smile, her skin bathed in the glow of the spotlight as she took a seat on the stool.
Lyle felt frozen in place as she strummed on her guitar and opened her mouth to sing. Her voice was like velvet, a purr that wrapped itself around him tightly and squeezed, flooding his insides with warmth and . . . something else—he wasn’t quite sure what. He felt himself moving, and somewhere in the back of his mind realized that he’d backed toward the stool he’d left seconds ago and was sitting down again. The bartender giggled as she slid another scotch across the bar toward him.
“I told you,” she said. “Katrina draws the biggest crowds we see all week. I’ll just keep that tab open for you.”
He nodded absently but had long lost his grip on what the bartender was saying to him. His gaze zeroed in on the woman behind the microphone. Her skin was the shade of smooth caramel, her eyes dark and fathomless and rimmed by a fan of dark, spiky lashes. Glitter sparkled on her eyelids and hair, which was a wild, curly, deep mahogany curtain spilling over her bare shoulders and back. It seemed like a breathing, living thing, that head full of hair, just begging for fingers to be run through it. It flowed from her scalp in wild spirals that cradled a heart-shaped face. Even from this distance, she was stunning. If Lyle had to sum her up using only one word, it would have been “luscious.” Everything about this woman was abundant and full, from her pouting lips to the thick cascade of her hair to the curves blossoming beneath her flowing, strapless, colorfully patterned dress. Gold jewelry winked in her ears and around her throat, as well as a matching thumb ring. A red heart was tattooed on the back of her hand, the black scrawl in the center illegible at this distance.
Everything about her soothed and calmed, from the sound of her alto voice, heavy and thick like maple syrup, to the serenity painted across her face as she sang, eyes closed, even, white teeth gleaming in the light from the stage as she smiled. Every man in the room was in her grasp, leaning forward, silent and still as death, enraptured by the siren and her song. Lyle was right there with them, ensnared, unable to move for the peace that flooded him at the sound of her voice.
When the first haunting melody had ended, she launched into the next and Lyle ordered another drink. When the friendly bartender served it, she slid a white business card across the bar to him and held out her hand, eyebrow raised. Lyle gratefully took the card for a taxi company and handed over his keys. He had come here to numb his pain, and the scotch was working along with the music to achieve that effect. Why ruin it by stopping his drinking binge to drive home? Lyle slipped the card into his pocket and leaned back against the bar, a good buzz working through his blood as the alcohol worked its anesthetic effects on his mind and heart.