Going back to working behind the bar hadn’t been Lizzie’s ideal path in life, but affording an apartment alone after a messy divorce made certain actions necessary. Jumping in and out of love so quickly had left her bank account desperate for a quick infusion of cash. Besides, lending a hand on the crippling nights of the weekend meant that she didn’t have to field so many questions from her friends about why she hadn’t met another man, why she wasn’t going to go clubbing with them, why she hadn’t moved on from that idiot who had been stupid enough to cheat on her so many years ago. She could just roll her eyes and remind them that she had work, she had bills to pay, and she liked her independence. She almost had herself convinced that her excuses were founded.
The End of the Road really wasn’t so bad as far as bars went. It was in a decent enough part of town, and the Christmas lights extended like vines along the edge of the ceiling to give it a warm, comforting feel. The regulars were mostly cozy older couples who liked to have a night out and younger men who liked a lot of beer with a few chicken wings but still remembered to offer a tip after spending a few hours asking her why there wasn’t already a rock on her ring finger. It was the least they could do after drudging up the painful memories.
The Olympics were around the corner, and the expensive flat screen televisions were constantly going on about all of the preparations that were being made in London. Her heart ached as she thought of the big city and what she could have made of herself if only she’d had the guts to just start her life across the ocean, when there had been fewer obligations and prying eyes. She could have danced, learned a craft of some kind, become a baker, opened her own shop, become a different woman entirely. It was a fancy that she knew she would never have the opportunity to indulge. Living away from her parents was more than most of her school friends could brag about, and she knew she ought to be grateful.
She scowled when she felt her phone vibrating in her pocket. Most of the time she didn’t bother to answer calls when she was working the bar, but Sundays tended to just bring out a moderate drinking crowd. She recognized the journalist’s number and considered ignoring his call. The man from the magazine had turned up at the bar some weeks before, already fully aware of who she was and what role she had accidentally played in pop history. She’d tried to deny the story, especially since she hadn’t reverted back to her maiden name yet. Stuart pushed on undeterred and revealed that his source was none other than Keith, her incidental nemesis who apparently still harbored no small bit of ill will towards her. To him, it had seemed like fitting revenge to employ a bit of Google detective work to figure out where she was and what she was doing with her life after Gordon.
“You’ve already gone to print. What else could you possibly want?” she snapped at her phone. A hello was far too civilized for a man like that, especially when she was back to her Rust Belt roots.
There was a crackle on the other end of the line, and she imagined that it was the man clearing his throat because he hadn’t expected to be greeted so aggressively. “Well, I’m actually calling on a friend’s behalf,” he explained.
“And what would any friend of yours possibly want to do with me?”
“Well. Say that there’s someone who wanted to know how you were doing. Someone who wanted to catch up with you after years of being apart. Say this person asked me to have your phone number. What do you think I ought to say to that person?”
There was a stool by the corner of the bar that Lizzie sat on when things were slow or when she had to give her feet a break from the high heels she treasured. One of her palms found the seat, and she turned her back to the few patrons in the bar. She didn’t want to be asked if she was okay.
But she had to be strong. She’d gotten along on her own for so long and didn’t need to fall down that sensitive path again just because he became interested. She’d bent to his will too long until she suddenly hadn’t. She hadn’t discovered her spine just to offer it back up to him again for his happiness. “I’d tell that person that he’s had years to try to look me up and that I’m really not all that difficult to find since you obviously managed it, so he can just do it for himself.”
“I thought you might say something like that.”
She gasped and nearly dropped her phone. The voice hadn’t come from the device. It was behind her, at the bar, where she wasn’t looking because she’d been too busy trying to appear calm. She didn’t know what to expect when she turned around, except it had been too difficult for her to avoid his face over the years. Age had treated him well, giving his features a certain ruggedness that suited him. Laugh lines creased his face when he smiled as brightly as ever, and his dark hair had lightened to grey around his temples. His skin was a bit tanner than she remembered, but he was still the boy in hopelessly garish t-shirts and jeans, with his endless series of hoodies just baggy enough to emphasize how thin he was.
She hung up on the journalist without a second thought and turned around to see him looking just as he did in his photos, with his curly hair askew and dark blue eyes wide, searching for any reaction flickering across her face. She wasn’t sure what her body was telling him, but she didn’t want to seem too desperate—or not gracious enough. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked, trying not to be rocked back by the familiarity of seeing him across the bar like this.
He smiled shyly, wrinkles appearing around his eyes, and she thought it was a shame that she hadn’t been there in the time it had taken those grooves to form. “I’ve made it before final call then? Excellent. How’s your pour of Guinness?”
“Absolutely terrible. You want Guinness, go to a themed pub. I’ll just overflow the pint and then let it settle. It’s a bit early for drinking, but I suppose it’s worth it to have a local microbrew.” She checked the taps and found a stout that would be acceptable to his tastes, if they hadn’t changed.
“Does it come for free if it’s bad?”
“It’ll come free anyway. I hear that musicians gets their drinks comped.”
“I didn’t realize the policy extended to this establishment. Cheers.” He shifted around a bit in his seat, one of his telltale signs that he wasn’t saying what he was thinking. She could still see through him after years, a fact that she found reassuring and frustrating at once. “I can’t get over how gorgeous you look,” he said quietly.
She would have smacked him on the shoulder and yelled at him to stop if he hadn’t been her client, but under the circumstances, it probably would have been weird. In bartending mode, she was all flirtation and tolerance. “Did you expect me to wilt up and die in five years’ time then?”
She could see that his tongue was immediately twisted because she’d reduced his compliment to dust. Good. Let the songwriter have a bit of difficulty finding the words. It gave her time to think about a drink herself. She probably wouldn’t have bothered, but she hadn’t had time to prepare herself for this moment. She set out two glasses, filling them with Jameson. She knew he wouldn’t turn that down. “This is the last free drink you’ll get here,” she warned as she downed the whiskey. Proper nostalgia would have called for tequila, but she didn’t want to wallow that much.
“Cheers again then,” he said as he tapped his shot glass against hers, even though she’d already emptied it. His shot disappeared, though he seemed more interested in holding his pint than actually drinking it. “I always thought it would have been harder to find you after all these years. That things would have changed more.”
“Well, I tried to get married and move on, but the universe had other plans for me,” she said quietly. “Maybe I was always meant to be stuck helping other people drink away their cares. Escaped fate for a while, but then I ended up back here all the same.”
“I don’t believe in fate.” His tone was surprisingly firm, but she wasn’t surprised. This was a man who had worked his way up from the worst possible shows to topping the charts around the world. Some of it had been blind luck, but effort had been the driving force behind his band’s success. “So when you say you tried to get married, you mean…”
“I mean I managed to get married. It’s the staying married part that I wasn’t so good at.” Her memory went back briefly to the man she’d thought she could settle for. He’d been a bit of a gym rat, toned and tanned and a masculine man about town. He was the banking sort, the complete opposite of Gordon, and not the sort of man who would ever talk about his emotions or ever make her feel so mixed up again. “He liked his drink and his poker nights with his friends. I waited up for him once. I guess you could say that I grew into a jealous streak and didn’t necessarily believe that cards were keeping him out every Friday night. He gave me a black eye for that concern, and I gave him papers.”
Guilt had flickered across his features briefly, no doubt blaming himself for her paranoia, but then there was nothing but alarm for her well-being. “I really don’t know what to say about that,” he admitted.
“You don’t have to say anything about it. He’s in the past. And you were too, until you stuck your big nose in my business. Now, get stuck in to your pint. I’m going to get ready to get out of here, and I’ll be insulted if you don’t drink that down.”
“You know my favorite drink has always been a free one.”
“Some people never change.”
“Everyone changes,” he protested. It was just like him to do that.
She brushed him off as she grabbed her purse and headed for the bathroom. Briefly she wondered if this really would be a repeat of their first meeting, if he would follow her inside and make it impossible for her to ignore him. The young, idealistic part of her was hoping for it; the realistic divorcee within her made her lock the door securely behind her. This was the time to check makeup and send panicked texts to her friends, not to indulge in residual fantasies involving the man who had just walked into her life. The man who had been just the first of many to cheat on her, she reminded herself bitterly. No amount of mascara was going to change that fact.
She didn’t know if she’d spent too much time in the bathroom when she returned to find him at the bottom of his pint glass, but she didn’t mind. It just meant that they would have less time to kill in public like this, awkward and anxious. “Right then, Andy’ll handle the rest of the night, so I’m free. Do you want to go somewhere we can talk?”