Summers, the Cock'n'Bull was standing-room-only at Happy Hour. Sunbathers would wander in off the beach for a cooling pint, mingling with workers overjoyed to have finished a shift at the resort without murdering any snotty tourists. Summers, the pub was loud and hot and the tips as plentiful as the sand lodged between the slats of the wood floor.
But this, the week after New Year's, the Cock'n'Bull was just a shabby shack, with wind whistling through the cracks around the windows and a view of bleak grey winter sky.
James opened the pub every evening on the orders of Mr. Sloane, the resort owner, on the chance an extra buck could be made. After James was paid, there was rarely more than a twenty directed to the resort's coffers.
Mr. Sloane called ahead to say he'd be bringing potential investors to the pub for a friendly game of -- presumably -- high-stakes poker. James aired out the back room and scrubbed the big oak table till it gleamed.
More money for the resort would mean improvements to the pub: new windows, better lighting, a sleek, fresh coat of paint inside and out. If it were cleaned up and better insulated, people would venture to the Cock'n'Bull in the off-season, securing James's position and helping fatten his savings account.
He flipped on the radio and dusted all the glasses. After cleaning the mirror on the back wall, he ran his fingers through his straight blond hair and did up the top button on his collarless white shirt.
His eyes were the colour of a sky threatening rain, his face pretty enough to almost be feminine, shaved smooth as the underside of a woman's breast. His lips hinted at a smirk and hid slightly crooked teeth, an experiment in orthodontics that never quite got off the ground.
He poured himself sparking water from the spritzer beside the sink and leaned back against the wall, surveying his mini-kingdom and waiting.
When Mr. Sloane showed up - fifteen minutes later than he'd said - it was with a retinue of three suited, balding fat men, and a leggy brunette.
"And this is the Cock'n'Bull!" Mr. Sloane announced to his followers, his cheeks flush with excitement or drink. "She doesn't look like much right now, but come summer, this is where the gold is made. That there" - he waggled a fat finger at James - "is Jimmy, the best goddamn bartender who'll ever serve you. Jimmy, I've got a bottle of Crown Royal down under the counter. Why don't you bring that back for us with a pitcher of the finest."
Mr. Sloane paused long enough to glance at the woman and wink at James. "I've got a sudden taste for blonde, Jimmy."
James forced a smile as he pulled a pitcher of pale ale. He was arranging glasses on a tray when Mr. Sloane broke out laughing, halfway to the back door. He had just patted the brunette on the ass and was waving her away.
"Poker's a man's game, sweet thing," he said. "You just sit yourself down and Jimmy'll take care of you."
She started to protest, but Mr. Sloane held up his hand. His smile never wavered, but his meanness was palpable. "You're the one asked to come along, baby cakes. Now you're here, you sit your pretty bum down and wait till the men are finished their business."
James looked away, back down at his tray. He took a breath and filled a canister with ice, balancing it all on the short walk to the back room.
She was sitting at the bar when he came out, her black heels tucked onto the top rung of the barstool and her chin in her hands, her elbows on the bar. She smiled, maybe a little sadly.
"Can I buy you a drink, Jimmy?"
"It's James," he correctly quietly. "And thanks, but I don't drink."
"Are you married, James?"
She smiled again. "Then you don't need to drink. I'll have a Manhattan, on ice."
James took his time, measuring more carefully for her than he would have for the summer crowd. "This one's on the house... Mrs. Sloane?"
"Kate," she said. "Just plain Kate."
There wasn't much plain about her at all. She had a model's sculpted face and olive skin, dark hair that fell in a sheet to the bottom of her shoulders. Her breasts were full and high, her waist small and her hips wide. She wore a wool skirt that reached to just below her knees and under her matching blazer she had on a red blouse that was probably pure silk.
She held the glass with her Manhattan up to the light, inspecting its colour before drawing it toward her lips and dipping the tip of her tongue into it. She closed her eyes and took a small sip before rewarding him with the full force of her smile. "You mix a good drink, James."
She dipped her head again and her hair dropped over her face, obscuring her chocolate eyes. From his vantagepoint, she was nothing but silky hair and a kiss of a mouth under red lipstick.
"I've had time to get it right."
She sipped at the drink and pushed an ice cube to the side with her tongue. "So why are you here? You know your way around a bottle; you could work in the city."
James shrugged. "I have my reasons."
She nodded and let it go. She watched him wipe down his clean bar and reorganize his dishes, keeping busy while she sipped pleasurably at the Manhattan. When there was nothing but ice left, he took the glass and wiped away the damp ring it left behind.
"Would you like another, Kate?"
She nodded. "Will you show me how you make it?"
"Share my secrets?" He grinned. "Only if you promise you're not after my job."
She laughed and peeled off her blazer, leaving it hanging over the barstool. She joined him behind the counter, a mischievous grin planted firmly under her flushed cheeks. She put her hands on the bar and looked out at the empty pub. "It feels different back here. I feel more in control."
"You are," he told her. "Out there, there's just drink and talk, both of which are overrated. Back here's where the magic happens."
She ran her fingers along the smooth wood, her painted nails making a faint scratching sound. "Show me your tricks."
"Go ahead and get a feel for it. Touch things."
She spared him a glance, sly and just a little unsure. Her hand left the bar and ran along the rows of hanging wineglasses, leaving a discordant tune in their wake.
Her hair had fallen over her eyes again; she tossed it over her shoulder before turning her attention to the bottles behind her. She caressed each one, wrapping her fingers around their necks to judge their heft. In the mirror, she caught James watching her and she quirked one corner of her mouth upward.
"I'm ready," she said in a voice just loud enough to be heard over the radio.
"Ice," he told her, handing her the shaker. She took it, following his directions for filling it partway with crushed ice. "The bourbon," he said, and waited for her to locate the bottle. "One and a half ounces, but you can eyeball it."
She seemed distrustful, so he covered her hand over the bottle and poured for her, pleased when he was rewarded with another of her smiles. "Now, the vermouth. Half as much."
Kate had the confidence now, lifting the bottle by the neck and splashing it over the ice.
"More gently next time," James admonished. "Add a dash of bitters. And I do mean a dash; don't overdo it." He waited for her to complete his instructions before showing her how to shake it up. He handed her a fresh glass and nodded to the ice chest. "Not too much ice or it'll water it down near the end. Just enough to keep it cool."
She dropped three cubes into the glass, but he saw her pause, as if she wanted to hold onto the ice and watch it melt through her fingers. "Strain it off, into the glass. Go slowly, Kate. It's delicate business. More slowly."
She looked up at him and grinned, and in her distraction poured it too quickly into the glass. He frowned slightly and she looked crestfallen. "Did I ruin it?"
James's voice was low, but strong. "Taste it."
She raised the glass, holding it below her nose while she inhaled. Mixed with the smell of alcohol was his aftershave, a smooth, windy scent. She touched the tip of her tongue to the liquid, a look of supreme seriousness in her dark eyes.