Beautiful Sacrifice (Maddox Brothers #3)(3)

Phaedra’s salt-and-pepper long hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into a wiry bun, and her wrinkled olive skin weighed down her eyes. She was a wisp of a woman, but it wouldn’t take long to learn she could be a bear if you crossed her. She preached peace and butterflies, but she’d put up with exactly zero shit.

Phaedra looked down as she said, “We won’t be busy for long if we piss people off.” She rushed off to the front door, apologizing to the waiting family and assuring a table soon.

Table twenty had just signed their check. Phaedra rushed over to thank them and bussed their table, quickly scrubbing it. Then she motioned for Kirby to seat the family.

I loaded up the drinks on a tray and then carried them across the room. The crew was still looking at the menu. I inwardly grumbled. That meant they hadn’t decided.

“Do you need a minute?” I asked, giving each man his drink.

“I said a water,” Dalton said, holding up his Cherry Coke with a frown.

“Just try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll bring you a water.”

He took a sip and then another. His eyes popped open. “She wasn’t kidding, Taylor. It’s better than the real stuff.”

Taylor looked up at me. “I’ll have one, too, then.”

“You got it. Lunch?”

“We’re all having the spicy turkey panini,” Taylor said.

“All of you?” I asked, dubious.

“All of us,” Taylor said, handing me the laminated long sheet.

“Okay then. I’ll be back with your Cherry Coke,” I said before leaving them to check on my other tables.

The dozens of voices in the packed café bounced off the windows and came straight back to the bar where I was mixing another Cherry Coke. Kirby rounded the counter, her shoes squeaking against the orange-and-white tiled floor. Phaedra was fond of random—fun portraits, trinkets, and off-color signs. They were all eclectic, like Phaedra.

“You’re welcome,” Kirby said, tucking her shirt into her skirt.

“For the tray stand? I already said thank you.”

“I’m referring to the gaggle of hot firemen I seated in your section.”

Kirby was barely nineteen, baby fat still plumping her cheeks. She’d been dating Gunnar Mott since her sophomore year of high school, so she took extreme pleasure in trying to fix me up with every halfway decent-looking man with a job who walked through the door.

“No,” I said simply. “I’m not interested in any of them, so don’t even try your matchmaking crap. And they’re hotshots, not firemen.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Yes, a big one. For starters, they fight wildfires. They hike for miles with huge packs and equipment; they’re on the job seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day; they travel to wherever the fire is; and they saw through fallen timber and dig fire lines.”

Kirby stared at me, unimpressed.

“Do not say anything to them. I mean it,” I warned.

“Why not? All four of them are cute. That makes your odds fairly fantastic.”

“Because you suck at it. You don’t even care if they’re my type. You just set me up with guys, so you can date them vicariously. Remember the last time you tried to set me up with someone? I was stuck with that slimy tourist for an entire evening.”

“He was so sexy,” she said, fantasizing in front of God and everyone.

“He was boring. All he talked about was himself and the gym … and himself.”

Kirby ignored my resistance. “You’re twenty-four. There is nothing wrong with putting up with an hour of boring conversation to experience three hours of amazing sex.”

“Ew. Ew, no. Stop.” I wrinkled my nose and shook my head, involuntarily imagining dirty talk that included the words repetitions and protein. I put Taylor’s cup on a tray.

“Falyn, you’re up!” Chuck called from the kitchen.

I swung by the food window, tray in hand, seeing that table thirteen’s order was sitting on the shelf cut out of the wall separating the bar from the kitchen. The heat lamps above warmed my hands as I grabbed each plate and placed them on the tray, and then I rushed the food to the table. The author and her assistant barely noticed as I placed the beef and feta cheese salad and chicken club on the table.

“Does everything look all right?” I asked.

The author nodded her head, barely taking a breath while she chatted away. I carried the final Cherry Coke to the hotshot crew, but as I walked away, one of them grabbed my wrist. I looked over my shoulder, glaring at the man with the offending hand.

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